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Dear C—

Thank you ever so much for your miniature of my beloved B. I do miss him terribly at times. Have you recently heard from your friend, Lord Cathcart’s daughter? I have read of plague in Moscow and worry for the Hamiltons as well as the Queen. It would be devastating for Russia to lose their enlightened monarch. She should serve as an example to our own King and Queen of German blood.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

The Monday after Easter, Elizabeth awoke determined to walk. Fresh air would clear her mind of the excruciating evening spent at Rosings the night before. It was their first invitation to the house since the arrival of Lady Catherine’s nephews, and Mr. Collins was beside himself in both pleasure and anxiety. Elizabeth shook her head. It seemed more likely that her cousin was related to her mother rather than her father given they both thrived on feelings of anxiousness.

The night was only tolerably better than previous visits to Rosings. Lady Catherine invited Elizabeth to play the pianoforte and seemed to take pleasure whenever she erred. In the course of one sonata, she referenced Anne’s imaginary but undoubtedly superior abilities at least a dozen times. Occasionally, Darcy would glance in Elizabeth’s direction. His blue eyes burned with intensity, likely with his disapproval of her. She was saved conversation with him, however, for Lady Catherine frequently called his attention back to herself. Elizabeth was not sorry for it. She had often heard of Miss Darcy’s superior abilities, and while the girl was everything sweet, the brother must be in the habit of hearing only the best performers — his aunt said as much.

Just before leaving, the post arrived. It was too early for a reply from her aunt, but there was a letter from Jane. Mr. Collins was away on parsonage matters, and Mrs. Collins and Maria had gone shopping in the village, allowing Elizabeth the freedom to take the letter on her walk and read in privacy.

Wednesday, March 25, 1812,

Gracechurch Street, London

Dearest Lizzy,

Mr. Bingley called today.

I do not know what he planned to say, if anything, for his actions in the shop or the reason for his never returning to Netherfield or calling earlier. I refused to see him.

I have waited and hoped every day since November 27th for him to arrive on my doorstep again. I will no longer wait for his explanations. The time for that is long past.

Do not imagine me angry or sad, my dear sister. I am alarmingly at peace with the matter. Some blessing will come of this.

I hope all is well in Kent. Give Charlotte and Maria my love and greet our cousin for me.

Yours,

Jane

 

Elizabeth was incensed as she left the Parsonage for a fitful walk, heedless of the rain clouds quickly gathering. She walked along the path to Rosings. As soon as she was out of open view from the main road, she intended to run.

As she walked, she muttered to herself. “I am sick of them all! Charming men who prey on the silly and vain! Other charming and amiable men who prey on the sweet and innocent! Senseless goats that rattle on about nothing! Indolent fathers who sit in their libraries! Confusing, arrogant and wealthy young men who think they can order everything to their own choosing!

As she had weeks before, Elizabeth exclaimed, “What are young men to rocks and mountains?” She certainly wished she could kick a young man or two the way she kicked the rock the day she heard Wickham’s insane boast. And a mountain might be climbed and therefore vanquished. But young men would apparently always persist in deceiving and confusing her.

“Miss Bennet!” the last voice in the world she wanted to hear called out, much, much too cheerfully.

She turned as though she did not hear him, but it was for nought. His long legs had him meet with her in a moment.

“Miss Bennet, I am surprised to see you out walking. I was just about to call on the Parsonage.”

“The Collinses and Maria are out,” she replied testily. She thought she saw a hint of a smile and it angered her again. Whether he felt himself better than them or just did not want to practice his conversational abilities on them, it was nearly the same thing.

“Perhaps, I could join you on your walk before it rains?” He held out an arm.

She looked up at the sky thick with swollen clouds. She had not realised until that moment how soon it was likely to begin raining. Then why should he call now? “No, I had not realised the weather had turned so severely. It is why I turned back.” She took a step closer to the Parsonage, but he spoke again.

“Have you had an agreeable day?”

What a ridiculous thing to ask! No day was truly agreeable here. She enjoyed Charlotte’s companionship, but the presence of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine detracted from all enjoyment she could find indoors. And then her letter!

“Not especially, Mr. Darcy. I have just had the most distressing letter from Jane. Weeks ago, she saw your friend Mr. Bingley and his sister outside a shop. They did not see her, but she easily saw Mr. Bingley lavishing attention on a young lady she believes was your sister. It is evident Jane was considered not good enough, and Bingley was just toying with her feelings the entire time.”

Darcy paled at her words, but she pressed on. “This is not the first time she has been treated as such from your friends. In January, Jane called on Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. They claimed they never received her letters announcing her presence in town, and did not seem very pleased to see her. They waited over a month to return the call!”

“That is horrible…”

“But exactly what you wished, is it not? You need not fear; your friend is now entirely free from my sister. Not only were you able to separate them in Hertfordshire, but you were able to conceal her presence in town. Jane has the gentlest soul! She does not deserve such ungentlemanly treatment! Do not worry, sir, she refused to see Bingley and will never consider him a suitor again.”

“She visited with Miss Bingley?”

Elizabeth clenched her fists as he seemed to latch on to the least important piece of information she relayed. “Yes, nearly as soon as she arrived in town. Hardly the actions of an indifferent lady. Or do you think her forward and mercenary now?”

“It is not what I think that matters.” He took a step backwards, and she advanced toward him.

“Is it not? And then I think of another one of your good friends. George Wickham is a scoundrel, and you knew it! You grew up with him and saw his ways, yet never warned the people of Hertfordshire when he arrived.”

“Did you not explain only yesterday how little faith anyone in the area has in me? Gentlemen do not go about slandering other people without the most extreme cause of provocation.”

“You left us defenceless!” Tears pricked Elizabeth’s eyes. How did he not see it? As a man, and a wealthy one, he simply could not understand how little freedom ladies had.

Darcy scoffed. “Hardly! You said you would judge a man by his words and actions. What truly gentlemanly behaviour has Wickham displayed? He has entered the militia, and anyone who believes all men in a red coat are upstanding is the worst kind of ignorant and silly!”

Enraged as he dismissed her concerns, Elizabeth stepped forward again. “Since nearly the first moment of our acquaintance, your manners impressed me with an immoveable dislike. I was frequently a victim of your constant arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. It is not lost on me that the common element between the ungentlemanly men I mentioned is you.”

Darcy’s jaw tightened. “What do you mean?” He spoke with extreme coldness.

Elizabeth deflated. She had done it again. She aimed to cruelly wound him to mask her own pain. He had explained, and it made a certain amount of sense, that he found it difficult to converse with strangers. She had seen enough truth in Darcy’s looks the other day to know that he would never be complicit in any of Wickham’s actions. And did he not mention his concern over Bingley’s steadfastness? No quality could be further from Darcy’s character.

Elizabeth had always thought she behaved correctly, in light of the poor example from her mother and youngest sisters, but now she saw how her own actions may have made Bingley and Darcy feel her family too improper. She should have recommended herself more to Bingley’s friend, for her sister’s sake, rather than attempt to cleverly mock him and provoke him. Her manners were at fault as well, and her spirits lead her wrong.

In her silence, he assumed a meaning of his own. “I understand your meaning entirely.” He turned to leave her.

“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth pleaded and walked after him. “I am sorry I spoke in anger. I cannot claim to know you well, but I know you are nothing like Wickham and, whatever your faults are, they are certainly not the fickleness of Mr. Bingley.

“Pray, forgive me. I have only recently recognised my own behaviour, and my poor treatment of you must have contributed to your feelings of the inadequacy of my family. I am uncertain now if I would desire Mr. Bingley to return my sister’s affections if his heart is not to be trusted, but it grieves me to suspect that I cost my dearest sister, such great love.”

Darcy let out an exasperated sigh. “What mean you now?”

“That your justified dislike of me motivated you to separate my sister from your friend.” She hung her head low in shame.

“I will not be accused of such again! Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish to marry you!”

Immediately, Darcy paled as though he realised what he said and wished he could collect his words back. Crickets hummed, and birds chirped, proving the world went on existing, and yet Elizabeth could not fathom a sphere in which Mr. Darcy wished to marry her.

“What?” She asked, shaking her head to dispel the insanity which made her mishear him to such an extreme degree.

A look of warmth and gentleness took over Darcy’s face. “I realise you dislike me, and perhaps rightly so. I did endeavour to separate your most beloved sister from my friend, though not as you suppose. And for this, you may never forgive me.” He paused as though drawing strength. “I am acutely aware my sentiments are unwelcome to you, but I would be pleased if you accepted my hand in marriage.”

Elizabeth stared at him, quite disbelieving. “You cannot be serious.”

“I am quite convinced you are the perfect woman to be my companion in life.”

“How can you possibly think that?” She blurted out. All they did was argue! Elizabeth shook her head. It was still entirely unfathomable. “Why?”

“Why?” He started as though he never expected to be asked such a question. He raised his hands up and helplessly motioned at her. “Because of you. Because of the thousand and one unique things that make up who you are! You are kind, intelligent, witty, clever, playful, lively. I admire your stubbornness and loyalty —  even when it’s directed away from me. You are the perfect companion for me in every way.”

Elizabeth shook her head once more and held up her hands. “You are mistaken, sir. I tease, and you hate it. I am silly and outspoken, and you are silent and taciturn.”

“It does not follow that I enjoy those qualities about myself or must dislike that you are quite the opposite.”

“I have no fortune, my relatives are in trade and my family is improper.” Darcy’s initial silence spoke volumes to her.

“I will not lie and say these things did not hinder my regard. I did think marriage to you imprudent, at first, but I have conquered those objections.”

“Then why are you only now speaking of it?”

“Instead of when I knew you in Hertfordshire?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“Because of every reason I had against Bingley’s match with your sister. I needed to be sure of my regard. Six weeks is not a very long acquaintance. I could not trust my judgment in my affections.

“I knew I enjoyed your company more than any other lady’s, but what if it were mere infatuation? You deserved more than that from a spouse. And as I acknowledged with Bingley’s situation, there would be some — even in my own family — that would dislike the union. I would not put you through being slighted by spiteful members of the ton, and my aunt, if we did not have a strong foundation.

He began to pace and ran his hands through his hair. “In the last week, I attempted to ascertain your feelings. As I explained with regard to your sister, it was difficult to make out how you felt in Hertfordshire. Here I thought, I had hoped…but it must have only been my vain pretensions.”

Elizabeth trembled slightly as she considered the compliment of being his object of affection. “What is it you want from me, Mr. Darcy?” They had reached the Parsonage gate.

“I ask nothing of you. What I want most you cannot give. I hope it was not selfish of me to declare my sentiments, but I could not be accused of disliking you again. I could not allow you to think ill of yourself, or that I found you unworthy in any way.”

Thunder cracked, and the clouds unleashed their bowels at last. Darcy closed his eyes, Elizabeth believed against the pain even her face must cause him now. “Good day, Miss Bennet.” After a slight bow, he departed.

Elizabeth would have stood still in her bewilderment longer, as she stared at Darcy’s back, if not for the rain. Instead, she dashed into the house and grabbed two umbrellas stored at the entry.

“Mr. Darcy!” She yelled loudly over the rain.

He momentarily ceased walking before shaking his head, as though chiding himself, and continuing onward. She called again as she ran to him and this time he stopped. He had not walked far; he was walking rather slowly, Elizabeth thought. He turned around just as she reached him.

“Mr. Darcy, please will you wait in the Parsonage until the rain passes?”

“Your cousins are not home, it would not be appropriate. I believe the last thing you would want is gossip about a compromising situation.”

Elizabeth blanched but pressed to her secondary plan and produced the other umbrella. “I knew you would decline out of stubbornness, if nothing else. Here, take the umbrella.”

Darcy let out a frustrated sigh. “Yes, that part of my character you would have made out very well, of course!”

He took the umbrella and made a small bow, but they both turned as they heard a carriage followed by Mr. Collins calling. “Make haste, Mrs. Collins, Maria! Make haste!” Darcy began to walk again, but it was too late. “Mr. Darcy! You must come inside.”

“I thank you, Mr. Collins but I would not like to get your furniture damp. It is better I continue on to Rosings. Miss Bennet was kind enough to loan me an umbrella when she saw me outside.”

“Walk back to Rosings in your wet clothes? Certainly not! Why Lady Catherine would never forgive me!” Her cousin was truly panicked, but Darcy looked towards Elizabeth.

“My cousin is correct. We would not wish you to catch your death. Please come in, Mr. Darcy.” He gave her a sad smile, but acquiesced.

Darcy was quickly ushered upstairs to dry off, and a servant sent to retrieve fresh clothing for him from Rosings. By the time he returned, dinner was being served, and Mr. Collins insisted Darcy remain. He spoke little during the dinner, which Elizabeth fully understood, between the rain and their conversation, he must be desperate to leave her presence.

She was surprised when he cleared his throat and addressed the table. “My aunt sent a note with the servant. She invites the whole party to dine at Rosings the day after tomorrow.”

Mr. and Mrs. Collins and even Maria exclaimed in delight, for they had not been invited to Rosings with the same regularity now that Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived.

“Eliza, is this not grand news?” Charlotte asked her. Elizabeth readily saw Darcy slyly observing her.

“Oh, yes. It is always a pleasure to dine at Rosings.” She hardly knew what else to say.

It was a simple dinner of a single course and before the hour was through Darcy was returned to Rosings in Lady Catherine’s coach that was sent for him. Elizabeth wisely pleaded a headache and excused herself upstairs before her friend could question her.

 

*****

 

Darcy returned to Rosings and pleaded illness rather than join the ladies. He was surely the weak link in the Darcy line. Not only could he not even propose to a lady correctly but she had no idea that he had long admired her. His pride thanked the Lord he never confessed love to her.

He and Anne had developed a plan. Darcy would take the time at Rosings to court Elizabeth, and prove that he could treat her as an equal and listen to her concerns. He would persuade his aunt to secure an invitation for her to Knole Park. He would support her interest in architecture. All the while, Richard would work to separate Wickham from the Regiment in Meryton, thereby keeping the Bennet sisters safe from his dastardly schemes.

Darcy would confess his story to Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet. His pride did not like exposing himself and acknowledging he was not without fault, but he would further prove to Elizabeth he was not ashamed of her relations. While in Meryton, he could make amends to the shopkeepers of the area. Additionally, he would encourage Bingley to return to Netherfield and, if Miss Bennet wished it, resume their courtship. Once in Hertfordshire, Darcy could properly court Elizabeth. She could see his merits after he had secured the happiness and safety of so many in her life. Not that she would marry him out of gratitude: he did not think she would do such a thing. But that it might enliven her feelings toward him.

If all went as planned, he would be married by Michaelmas. They would honeymoon at Pemberley and go to London for the Season. She would be an instant success and fit in the Bluestocking Club perfectly. They would be the envy of the ton, disgustingly happy. Georgiana would become so fastidious in desiring a love match, and confident in the friendship of Elizabeth, she would not wed for many years.

Yes, Darcy had verily planned the next five years of his life. Of course, that was without even speaking to Elizabeth and discussing her desires, let alone understanding just how deep her dislike for him went.

She had been quick to apologise today but had firmly believed he disapproved of her. Overcoming her prejudice and the wound he served her pride would not be easily won. Matters were progressing nowhere with Wickham as Richard had yet to hear from his comrade about reassigning the rogue. Nor had Elizabeth received a reply from Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Gardiner yet.

And Bingley!

To hear that Bingley had cut Jane in a shop had been more than Darcy could believe. He had thought his friend too embarrassed to speak and pulled away by his sister. Darcy ought to have anticipated that Bingley might call on the Gardiners to make amends. He ought to have warned his friend or been with him. He should confess to Jane Bennet that it was he who suggested Bingley not return to Netherfield. That he alone was the cause of her heartbreak, not Bingley. From the sound of how she turned Bingley out on his ear, Darcy rather thought he also would not be welcome at the Gardiner house. How would he speak with Mr. Gardiner about Wickham?

Elizabeth could never love him now. Not when he had ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of her most beloved sister. At the very least, he could not expect Elizabeth to choose him, when she did not love him, over her sister whom she loved more than any other person on this earth.

A light tapping on his door broke his thoughts. “Leave it,” he cried to the maid who brought his supper tray.

The maid continued to knock. “I said leave it!” he called louder.

The rapping did not cease. Shooting from his chair, he began yelling before he pulled the door open. “Leave it before I tell your mistress you’re incapable of following simple commands!”

He wrenched the door open, and his cousin’s small frame stood before him. She held her chin high.

“Anne!”

“Am I supposed to be frightened of your bellowing?” she asked and bent her head, edging her way under his arm and into his chamber.

“Anne, what are you doing?” he hissed, scanned the hall and then quickly shut the door.

“And you should know our servants hear enough screaming from my mother that your antics will not scare them. They are far more terrified of her.”

“Anne,” Darcy pressed fingers to his temples. They had avoided each other for the better part of a decade. Since he cleared the air with her, they had slipped into the easy friendship of their youth. However, he now desired solitude.

“No, I won’t leave you alone with your mercurial thoughts,” she said and sauntered to a chair.

Darcy stared at her. He had not spoken his thoughts aloud.

“You did not have to say anything. Anyone would know you wish me gone.” She scrutinised his face. Her thin brows joining together. “What have you done?”

Darcy walked to his sideboard and poured himself a glass of port. He considered not answering her. “Do you care for anything?” He motioned to the contents.

Anne licked her lips. “I take a glass of sherry in the evening.”

Darcy filled a tumbler and brought it to her. “You, no doubt, know that I was caught in the rain and had to stay at the Collinses. I dare anyone to be in good spirits after that.”

Anne looked dubiously at him. “Rain never hurt anyone. And the lovely Elizabeth was there, was she not?”

“She was,” he answered neutrally and took a sip of wine.

“Usually, after a morning with her you can bear anything even my mother dishes out, and tonight you are out of spirits because of Mr. Collins? No,” Anne shook her head. “Do not forget that I am Mistress of Hearts. You quarrelled with Miss Bennet.”

“When have I not quarrelled with her?” Darcy bit out in disgust. It was as Bingley had tried to say. All the times Darcy thought they were merely debating and learning about each other’s character, she was arguing with his false pride. He had been too arrogant to see it. “I have ruined everything.”

“If you frequently argue then how can this one ruin everything?”

Darcy’s heart lurched at the hope Anne offered. “You do not understand. She has so many faults against me.”

“Are they true?”

“They are…complicated,” Darcy said through a clenched jaw.

“Are they true,” Anne repeated slower and raised her brows.

“Very well,” Darcy said and put his glass down on the nearby table. He blew out a deep breath and leant forward, earnestly meeting his cousin’s eyes. “A significant number of them are. There —  I am an arrogant ass!”

Anne shrugged her shoulders. “Better she knows it now.”

Darcy sagged against the chair. “Where’s your sense of familial pride. Should you not be outraged?”

“Think of who I live with,” Anne said and took a sip of her sherry. “We have arrogance in abundance.”

“Perhaps, but I am attempting to reform,” Darcy said.

“Bah,” Anne cried. “Do not reform. If she cannot bear your faults, she should not marry you.”

“I unjustly accused her sister of being a fortune hunter,” Darcy levelled. “I encouraged a friend who I knew depended upon my advice to leave the house he leased without a word to the neighbourhood and not return.”

“Ah, I see. And if he had decided to marry the lady instead, would he have needed you to tell him what to say?”

Darcy stared at his drink. “If he did then I would have ruined that too, no doubt.”

“Darcy! Do you mean to say…that is… no, it’s impossible!” Anne exclaimed.

Looking up from his glass, Darcy met her gaze. “That I proposed to Elizabeth Bennet today and she refused me? Naturally. I have the grace and tact of an elephant tiptoeing on ice.” He swallowed his remaining port in a large gulp.

Anne guffawed. “An elephant tiptoeing on ice! And people find you droll!” Darcy scowled further. “Come. The lady rejected her cousin and now stays under the man’s roof.”

“For the sake of visiting her friend,” Darcy said.

“Yes, and you are assisting her with Wickham. Once you return to London, you might ease the way between her sister and your friend.”

“I do not know that she can ever forgive me,” Darcy said.

“What has changed in the last day?” Darcy related the contents of Jane’s letter. “Excellent,” Anne nodded. “She should turn him out. He should work for her admiration! As should you!”

Anne stood and paced the room. “You men think everything is owed you on a silver platter! I read it time and time again in my article.” She paused upon seeing his raised brows. “Yes, gentlemen write to me. You accepted my help.”

Darcy did not bother telling her that it was hardly the same thing as accepting the advice of a stranger. “What would you tell another?”

“Time will prove that her sister will either recover from her heartbreak or that the gentleman was never worthy. You will not be the fair-weather sort of suitor. Between previously meeting her London relatives, and then your plan to speak with them and her father regarding Wickham, you will be in her sphere of acquaintance. Stay the course.”

“What if she wishes to never see me again,” Darcy said while shaking his head.

“See how she behaves for the rest of her time here. Do not force her but you must remain constant. She has had too many men prove they are unreliable. You can be the rudder in her ship. Help steer her safe even in troubled waters.”

Darcy did not immediately reply. Perhaps all was not as hopeless as he had first considered. She had seemed to forgive him before, and in general, forgiveness was not an overnight act. It often took quite some time. And time had persuaded her to visit Kent even when she detested her cousin. A slow smile spread across his face.

“You see I am correct,” Anne said and began walking toward the door.

“Really, Anne,” Darcy gave her a false frown and shook his head. “Navy references?”

“Nautical,” Anne corrected and winked. She inched open the door and upon determining the hall clear, promptly left.


Dear C—

You have asked for my advice regarding a proposal you found repugnant. You were right to seek my counsel. Despite your mother’s worries, do not wed where your heart is not attached. You have overcome too much to be the victim of alliances and convenience. I will write her directly and speak with her when I am next in town. I have enclosed volumes by the late George Edwards. With six hundred drawings to duplicate I believe it shall keep you busy for some time.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Elizabeth sat on the chair in her bedchamber at the Parsonage. Charlotte had taken care to be an excellent hostess, despite the tension in their friendship, and her favourite flowers were frequently in a vase on the table. Also on it were a small stack of books borrowed from her friend. They must be from the Rosings library because Mr. Collins did not keep such works. Elizabeth nearly snarled recalling the conduct books he thrust at her. She picked up the novel she had been reading, it held no interest to her tonight.

What would Darcy’s opinion on such a book be? Her memory flashed to their dance at the Netherfield Ball, he had asked her opinion of books then, but she was so determined to be displeased. Even during her stay at Netherfield, there was once a discussion on female accomplishments, and after Miss Bingley’s ridiculous list, Darcy added a woman should have an improved mind through extensive reading. Elizabeth had held a book in her hand at the time, although she was too preoccupied with the discussion of the room to pay any heed to the volume. She had thought then he was mocking her, but it now seemed he was genuinely interested in her opinions.

After Darcy’s insult to her, she was determined to never dance with him. At each refusal, she was quite aware she was likely the only woman in the world to do so. She thought the revenge rather complete when she was able to refuse him twice to his once.

When she could not refuse him at the Netherfield Ball, she made it quite an unpleasant dance for him. She knew the mention of Wickham would provoke him. She blindly trusted Wickham because his tales supported what she most wanted to believe about Darcy.

She had spitefully blamed him for her sister’s pain because she did not want to see anyone else’s responsibility in the matter. Bingley was fickle. Jane was too reserved and too naive to see his sisters’ machinations. Her family behaved improperly, and yet it was quite accepted among her community while they all blasted Darcy as the most disagreeable man in the world off his behaviour in less than one evening. To those outside their circle, however, her family behaved so badly it may have put off an agreeable suitor for her most deserving sister.

What a humiliation! Was nothing in the world as she thought it?

Mr. Darcy wished to marry her. He, who she had thought was proud and arrogant, who must have seen the greatest beauties of London for years, who could have fortune and rank, wanted her. It was humbling.

She knew Wickham was not to be trusted for several weeks now, but still, she did not discount all of his words against Darcy. Even in the last few days, she persisted in believing he would separate Bingley from Jane only due to desiring fortune and circumstance for his friend. Her opinion of Darcy was so wrong that the entire time she had been convinced he wished to keep Bingley from her sister, he was examining her character.

The times she had been certain he had looked at her in contempt, he admired her from afar. It seemed every time she took offence to something, he had only attempted to compliment her. Now, she could even see the times he had tried to court her good opinion. All the while she had courted prejudice and willful ignorance! How blind she had been!

Elizabeth’s eyes had been opened, however, and it was a new world to her. She could not repent her words on his behaviour in Meryton, but neither could she ignore the unjust accusations she made. To compare him to Wickham, to blame him for Bingley’s defection was terribly wrong of her. She also could not forget the look of pain when he acknowledged she must refuse him or the resigned air in which he tendered his aunt’s invitation.

She must prove that no matter her silly ignorance she could behave correctly. She could hardly determine if she wished to welcome his attentions, but she would prove she was worthy of the respect and esteem he held for her. She was through acting like a spoiled child over insults, imagined or real.

Elizabeth’s pride did shirk, momentarily, at having to apologise and confess to her vanity, but her honour demanded it. Darcy deserved it, and her duty required it to ensure his help to her family. For them, she would bear any degradation. Her only hesitance was should he not wish to converse on the subject, or worse, seek to blame himself. Additionally, she admitted to a minuscule amount of concern that he had only offered his help out of thinking he helped his future family. She told herself that was merely old prejudice and he could only act out of honour. Darcy would not revoke his assistance at disgust with her incivility or hurt pride at her rejection. However, he was a mortal and who could have the strength to frequently meet with the woman who so callously spurned him?

Choosing to not ask herself why it mattered if he had already overcome his preference for her, she decided to write a brief note of apology to give him in case conversation proved impossible. She could only hope he would overlook the impropriety. She had the greatest trust he would not betray her.

Sitting at the little table in her room she drew out a sheet of paper from her writing box and began to swallow her pride.

Dear Mr. Darcy,

I pray you will forgive me for the terrible breach in propriety I am making by writing this letter but, like a great many things, men do not hold a monopoly on honour and mine demands I apologise for my unforgivable words yesterday. I hope we can put our differences behind us as we work on our project.

Sincerely,

EB

 

*****

 

Despite Anne’s words of encouragement, Darcy believed he could not treat his last argument with Elizabeth as no different than the ones before. He had not understood at the earlier times that she had specific accusations against him. He rather thought she was testing to see if he felt similarly about the world. Now, every conversation they ever had seemed to take on a new light.

At Lucas Lodge, when she declined dancing with him it was revenge for his first insult. Indeed, even at Netherfield, it was. Had she doubted ladies could have good sense and accomplishment or merely that he would deign to know them? On that score, she had been nearly correct. Not for lack of trying, he had to wade through hoards of empty-headed ladies to find the diamonds he sought. Apparently, when they argued over pride and vanity, she meant to expose him as having both.

Darcy stretched his legs out. She was not faultless, but she had apologised. Some would wonder how he would think her worthy if she disliked him and desired to only debase him, but she was not flighty or conceited. She did have pride and for her to apologise must have cost her quite a bit.

He pushed aside any residual anger he felt at Elizabeth’s complaints and assumptions and instead focused on her feelings. When Georgiana had been hurt by Wickham, it was as though Darcy’s own heart bled with her. Elizabeth now felt that for Jane and it was through his methods. Having noble intentions did not excuse the misery he caused. An apology was in order.

The maid arrived with the supper tray, and as Darcy ate, he ordered his thoughts. He had always expressed himself better in writing than with words. Once finished with his light meal, he walked to his escritoire and pushed aside letters of business. His sister and aunt had written, but he would read those letters on the morrow. Tonight, Elizabeth deserved his entire attention.

Withdrawing the writing items and arranging himself as neatly as he could, Darcy paused before he began. It was surely a silly thing to entreat the Almighty for, but he wished to infuse his regret and love into this letter so he might start again with Elizabeth.

Dearest Elizabeth

Darcy crossed it out and blew out a sigh. That was far too informal. Balling up the paper, he tossed it aside.

Dear Madam.

No, too cold and formal. How did one begin a letter to a lady he wished to wed? To one he loved but did not offer his heart? A woman with whom he had a long acquaintance, and yet, she would say they were not friends. Annoyed, he settled for the same name all the world called her.

Dear Miss Bennet,

Words can scarcely convey the regret I feel at learning for the many months of our acquaintance you have been under the misapprehension that I disapproved of you. I understand there may have been mitigating factors, and I know in your generosity you would excuse some of my behaviour, but allow me to take the blame I must. My honour demands it. Had I behaved as I ought to have, none of this would now be an issue. As such, I apologise to you, and when I meet with your relations, I shall entreat their forgiveness as well. I understand, too, that I have harmed the citizens of Meryton and when an apology is in my power, I will make amends.

On the matter of making my sentiments known to you, I ask your pardon as well. A gentleman does not force his attentions on a person and had I not been so careless and presuming, I would have known better. I hope I have given no lasting distress.

I remain your humble servant and wish to aid you should you ever need it,

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Darcy’s eyes scanned over the words. He hoped to give it to her on the morrow, although letters between unwed ladies and gentlemen were not entirely proper. Nor was the letter exactly genuine. Amongst the things he apologised for there were many things, he was not the least sorry for. His mortified pride hated that he had proposed to a woman who had never seen his admiration or desired his notice, but he felt freer having spoken some of his heart. All the days he had met under the guise of discussing Wickham — and he did worry about the cad — Darcy had had nervously courted Elizabeth. Now, when he met her next, there would be no deceit between them. When he was attentive to her, she would know his honourable intentions.

Of course, it might be that she never wished to speak with him again.

Tossing his pen aside, Darcy peered at the clock in his room through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. If he arose at his regular time, he would have less than six hours of sleep. Before trudging to his bed, he reached for his mail, duty calling to him. As he undressed for the evening, he paused now and then to make out words.

Georgiana was in good health and enjoyed her newest pianoforte master. Mrs. Annesley was a balm to her wounded soul. Richard visited often, and Bingley and his sister called nearly daily. Darcy wished he knew if Georgiana was forming an attachment. He did not believe for a moment that Bingley had any interest in his sister if he was so in love with Jane Bennet as to call on her at the Gardiners’ and without an introduction. Nor did he think Bingley would encourage a lady while his affection lay elsewhere. However, Georgiana was quite young still. Darcy chuckled imagining her face upon such a claim.

Boots and stockings removed, Darcy moved on to the Baroness’ letter. He told himself he would alert her and Mrs. Annesley to the possible complication of Georgiana’s attachment to Bingley, who was rather spoken for. Lady Darcy reported that she had found a new candidate for the Bluestocking Club and asked after his progress. He had come under the guise of asking the Duchess of Dorset’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Julia Jenkinson, to join. Her father was a noted astronomer and had raised his child to appreciate the stars. Mrs. Jenkinson, in turn, relished in her father’s profession. As the wife to a very wealthy and influential politician, Mrs. Jenkinson could be a very powerful patron of science. Lady Darcy also bade him to hurry his “adventure at the Dragon’s” and choose his bride. Darcy frowned. She was not usually the aunt to wish him to the altar in a trice.

Pulling his shirt over his head, he accidentally knocked his still full glass of port and cursed. Dashing to the wash stand, he grabbed the towel to clean his mess. His aunt’s letter had fluttered to the floor, but by the time he had everything settled again, he decided to wait and finish reading his correspondence later. Sleepiness pulled all strength from his body, and he stumbled toward the bed as though he were drunk. Collapsing in it, he slept soundly until awoken with a start as his valet entered at the usual time.


Dearest Niece,

You are welcome with me always, and your cousins quite miss you. I am pleased to hear that you did not fall for this new suitor and his charming words and poetry. I have no doubt that he expressed himself well on the colour of your eyes and charm of your figure but do not give your heart to a man, not in love with your intellect or who is unwilling to support your interests.

Do you recall the anatomical lecture by Mrs. Manzolini we went to in London? I shall never forget her descriptions of dissection or the wax models we saw! I read of her death and wonder if the world knows what a woman it has lost.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Tuesday, March 31, 1812

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

Friday, March 27, 1812

Gracechurch Street, London

My dear niece,

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

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

Yours, etc.

  1. Gardiner

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

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

“No, it was from my aunt.”

“I hope all is well with the Gardiners,” Maria said. “They were ever so kind to me when we met them in London.”

Charlotte smiled kindly at her younger sister, and Elizabeth wondered what it must have been like to be reared in the Lucas household. Sir William was nearly as ridiculous as her mother, but with a knighthood bestowed by the King, one could hardly put them in the same category. Although he had once been in trade, he now firmly ranked in the gentry near Meryton. While the Lucases had a very large family and only a modest income between them, they evidently loved one another. When she married, would her father visit? Would her younger sisters miss her?

“The children are ill,” Elizabeth answered, at last. “I hope my aunt does not catch it.” It was not the most inventive deceit, but her cousins’ colds did serve as an explanation for her leaving when the time came. Mrs. Gardiner was expecting her fifth child in October and by then may wish for Elizabeth’s assistance.

“So you have not heard from Jane?” Charlotte looked anxious. “Mama writes she is still in London.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth nodded and rather wished she had some employment. Perhaps then she could discuss threads rather than the contents of her letters. “I received Jane’s letter yesterday. Its contents contained only the usual,” she shrugged her shoulders as she lied through her teeth. “Weather reports and details of shopping excursions. With my aunt and the company the Gardiners keep, she has not even missed me at all!” Elizabeth hoped the light laugh she added convinced her friend.

“Maria, could you fetch Betsy. I believe she was in the garden gathering herbs.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows as Maria happily skipped off. Charlotte glanced at the closed door. “Betsy is in town, so Maria is unlikely to return for some time. You are certain everyone is well?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth insisted.

“Good. I would not wish to distress you further with what I have to say.” Charlotte cast her embroidery aside and joined Elizabeth on the settee. “I know my husband’s anxieties, and moods, have been unfair to you, and Lady Catherine has been beyond impertinent.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded her head. It was a time when agreeing too much would be insulting.

“We will dine with Lady Catherine on the morrow. Colonel Fitzwilliam remains in London, and it has quite upset her ladyship.”

She searched Elizabeth’s face for a sign she knew of his departure or his reasons. Elizabeth steadfastly kept her face blank.

“My husband would be more upset with you being seen with Mr. Darcy yesterday if he were not confident that Darcy will marry Miss de Bourgh.”

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “I surely do not know who he will marry, but I wish the lady the best of luck.”

“Eliza,” Charlotte reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “You know I think Mr. Darcy admires you. Beware, my friend. Great men often have no honourable use for ladies of our station.”

Elizabeth wrenched her hand away. “You think he would treat me so? I am surprised you do not believe Lady Catherine’s nephew above such things!”

“He is a man. They have their freedoms,” Charlotte shrugged.

“And do you think I would succumb to such an offer?”

Charlotte stood and smoothed her hands over her skirts before answering. “You can be quite passionate,” she said as she picked up her embroidery and resumed her task. “And you are sensible enough to know what he could do for your family.”

Elizabeth clenched her fists. How could Charlotte think such a thing of her! “You, perhaps better than anyone, have always known my feelings toward him. You know what reasons I have to hate him.”

“And yet, do they matter?” Charlotte said without looking up. “Jane has been in London for months, and I gather she has not seen Mr. Bingley. You cannot blame Darcy for all of that, especially while he has been here.”

Elizabeth bit her tongue to keep from disabusing her of her assumption. However, Jane would not appreciate Elizabeth sharing her feelings with the world.

Charlotte continued, “And Mr. Wickham is not here. Nor is he enamoured with you, Maria tells me.”

“Pray, tell, what else do you know? I did not know you had spies in London and Hertfordshire. Perhaps we should put you to use against Napoleon,” Elizabeth attempted to add a teasing quality to her voice but could not hide the acerbic meaning.

“There is no need to be so defensive,” Charlotte said coldly. “You may have your flirtation. I am not oblivious to the reason for your walks and your avoidance of Rosings, but know when to end it,” she added firmly.

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open. “Charlotte — I — You misunderstand — ”

“Elizabeth Bennet at a loss for words? Oh no, I understand all too well.” She put aside her sewing again and stood. “If you will excuse me, I must discuss a matter with Cook.”

Charlotte curtsied and left. Elizabeth surged to her feet. Grabbing any bonnet and taking Maria’s gloves by accident, she quit the house. She knew her feet would carry her to the grove, but she would not avoid it out of fear of Charlotte’s false assumptions. Anyone could happen upon them, and while they might report she was a hoyden and argued with a man of such wealth and prestige, there was no evidence whatsoever that she was his doxy.

As if Darcy were even capable of such extreme passions! Elizabeth snorted at the thought. Mere days ago, Mr. Collins accused Elizabeth of entrancing Colonel Fitzwilliam. Now, his wife believed she had designs on Darcy! Charlotte may fancy herself cleverer than her husband, but she had been just as offensive — although she used none of the same reasoning or words.

Despite her cousins’ illness and Jane’s depression, Elizabeth rejoiced at her aunt’s letter. Soon, she would leave Kent and everyone in it behind.

 

*****

 

When Darcy’s feet touched the floor in the morning, his mind was consumed and focused on one thing only: giving Elizabeth his letter and hoping they could begin again. Noticing the sky, he cursed the infernal rain that typically did not plague Kent but, by a cruel twist of Providence, did so during this most important of visits to the area. He had heard France was far more liberal in…well, everything, but especially morals including courtship. He could hardly help wondering if it were because it was far more conducive to meet with ladies in the sunshine and balmy weather rather than rain and chilling breezes.

In the breakfast parlour, Lady Catherine intoned about the evils of going out of doors in such weather. She insisted that Anne remain by the fire all day and ordered the butler that her daughter was not permitted to use the phaeton or ponies. Darcy blushed for his cousin’s sake at her mother’s treatment. Poor Anne was treated like a child rather than an adult. Next, her ladyship turned her commands upon Darcy.

“You will see to Anne, Darcy,” she said and snapped her fingers for a servant to refill her tea. The footman raced over.

“I will surely do my duty to her,” he said, and Anne winked at him.

“Good, good,” Lady Catherine said and slathered butter on bread. “It is well past time for you to wed. You are hardly growing younger.”

“If I am not mistaken, Mama,” Anne said, “you were even older when you wed.”

Her ladyship narrowed her eyes and then sniffed. “It was the way in my family. All that bluestocking nonsense. You,” she wagged the knife in Darcy’s direction, “ought to know better. Your mother also listened to that crazed woman, and you see what she got?”

Darcy took a sip of coffee before replying. “Marriage to a man she loved and children? She is hardly the only one to die in the child-bed.”

Lady Catherine frowned, and for a moment a hint of genuine remorse flickered in her eyes. “George Darcy had never deserved her.”

“I think if a family truly loves any of the ladies in its care, no one will seem worthy of her,” Darcy said. “I firmly believe as much for Georgiana. Do you not feel similarly about Anne?”

Lady Catherine paused with bread half way between her mouth and plate. Darcy inwardly sniggered as he could nearly see the wheels of thought working furiously in her mind.

“An exceptional gentleman deserves her hand in marriage,” she said and nodded as though that neatly explained everything and also kept her from having to outright demand he marry Anne. Lady Catherine’s gaze flicked from Darcy to Anne. They shared an amused look and a roll of the eyes as soon as the dragon looked away.

Soon, Mr. Collins arrived and followed Lady Catherine from the room. Anne and Darcy retired to a small parlour.

“You will not spend all day with me,” Anne said as she settled herself.

Darcy rolled his eyes. She could not be more commanding than if she were his wife. “I had no intention,” he said.

“Good. The grove should be nearly dry. Now, about the visit to Knole Hall.”

“Yes?”

“Mother has just heard the Duke will be in residence and she is reconsidering inviting the Collinses and their guests.”

“If they are good enough for the Duchess would they not be good enough for her son?”

“Mother worries Miss Bennet might entrance His Grace.”

Jealousy tore through Darcy’s heart as he envisioned the young duke, having just turned three and twenty, blessed with good looks, charm, and wealth casting his attention on Elizabeth. Nor was Dorset a coxcomb. Would Elizabeth’s admiration for the home transfer to admiration for its master?

“Conor!” Anne called, jolting Darcy from his miserable reverie.

“You have not called me that in a very long time,” he said as thousands of childhood memories flashed through his mind.

“I did call you Darcy, but you did not hear,” Anne said with a smirk.

“Forgive me for wool-gathering.”

“I do not think Mother’s concern has any merit at all,” Anne said, and Darcy raised a brow in question. “After all, it is you Miss Bennet cannot cease thinking about.”

Darcy refused to take his cousin’s bait. “You were saying? About the visit to Knole?”

“If I can establish a friendship with Miss Bennet then Mother will not think twice. As it is right now, she does not understand why the lady does not fawn all over me.”

Chortling, Darcy shook his head. “No, Lady Catherine would never understand that.” Sobering, he added, “I will do my best to suggest she be friendlier to you, but Elizabeth is unfailingly frank and honest.”

Anne chuckled, “And that is why Mother does not like her more, they are too alike!”

“Egads!” Darcy cried. “How can you compare the two?” The image of his witty and intelligent Elizabeth behaving the same as his repulsive aunt twisted his gut.

“Only on that,” Anne said. Her eyes trailed to the clock. “Now, the Mistress of Hearts suggest you be on your way.”

“Shall I ring for Mrs. Jenkinson? Or is there anything you require, a glass of wine?”

Darcy looked at the sideboard. It housed many medicinal bottles but only a decanter with a small amount of sherry. He had never noticed before, but now that he thought about it, his aunt had few spirits in the house. When he looked back at Anne, she too gazed at the sideboard. A look of hollow hunger transfixed her and startled Darcy. Then, she shook her head and dispelled whatever thoughts had been within.

“Mrs. Jenkinson will be here momentarily, and I do not require anything, thank you.” She approached the writing desk and busied herself.

“Are you certain?” The way she gazed at the sideboard made Darcy wonder if she were ill or in pain. With Anne’s shake of her head, he said a perfunctory goodbye and walked to the door. Mrs. Jenkinson was just around the corner and greeted him with a smile but walked on to her charge.

Darcy retrieved his letter and then, much too soon, was on his way to the place he usually met Elizabeth. He attempted to fix his mind on his letter from Richard, which he had received yesterday before his disastrous encounter with Elizabeth. Richard had no more luck on reassigning Wickham. His contact was away on holiday, so even if he had been able to journey to the General’s estate, he would not have been any nearer success. The difference, however, was that then Richard could have resumed his holiday at Rosings. Instead, as his commanding officer perceived his presence in London as a return to duty, he would now be unable to leave. Richard joked, but Darcy could tell his cousin harboured frustration and a small amount of resentment.

At least I am at liberty with the sorts of “ladies” I enjoy, Richard had written. I wish you good luck in acquiring Miss Bennet’s hand, Anne reports there may be complications. Do not worry, I have not told her anything about what I am really doing and why I left Rosings.

Darcy had breathed a sigh of relief when Richard confirmed he had kept a tight lip on matters relating to Wickham. As Richard knew of his affection for Elizabeth, Darcy did not mind that Anne shared the status of his courtship. It was not his first intention to tell Richard that Elizabeth was less than eager for his hand, and he hoped Anne would have the delicacy to not report Elizabeth’s outright refusal in her next letter. However, Anne did not know about Georgiana’s near elopement with Wickham. While he was re-establishing his friendship with her and would listen to some of her advice regarding Elizabeth, he saw no need to inform her of an event which was not only in the past but might hurt her opinion of Georgiana. And if Lady Catherine ever knew…

Darcy shook his head. No, enough people knew of the incident. If Wickham or Georgiana’s former companion, Mrs. Younge, ever chose to smear her name, her reputation would be in tatters before her come out. As it was, he lived half in dread of blackmail. Richard, of course, was in favour of silencing him through other means, but Darcy could never encourage violence toward the man he once called a friend.

Richard now sought a letter of introduction to Wickham’s commander, Colonel Forster. However, most of his contacts were still out of town, and even if he would choose the impertinence of riding to Meryton and informing Forster of Wickham’s perfidy, Richard could not leave London. For his own peace of mind, Darcy needed Wickham far gone from anyone connected to him. Their meeting at Meryton, while he had no doubt was entirely coincidental, proved how small England was.

Perhaps Elizabeth would have a suggestion. His heart seized at the thought that she might not walk this morning. She might actively avoid his presence. What if she refused his letter of apology? He would call on the Parsonage but what if she claimed illness or refused to speak with him beyond civility? Was it conceivable that she could find a way to refuse to see him until his departure entirely? Would he never see her brilliant smile on such kissable lips again? He might never see those flecks of green dance with merriment in her brown eyes again. Why had he never told her these things? His stupid pride! He had felt so proud of his self-control yesterday. He did not lay his heart before her and have it trampled, but she deserved to know he felt far more than admiration. Did she not deserve to know that, flawed as he was, there was one man on this earth that loved her with his whole heart?


Dear C

My congratulations to your friend, Jane, on the healthy delivery of a baby. I am sorry to hear she regrets not having a son. I have seen her sister Marys portrait. It would not surprise me if Tom outshined Reynolds. On the whole, between the Duchess and Mrs. Graham, I would wager the latter is happier. You may have old wounds open at the sight of friends entering marriage and having families of their own, but you may have that as well if you are but patient and hope. Already, rumours have subsided considerably.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Just after the Parsonage was out of view, Elizabeth espied a familiar figure. Darcy did not hear her approach, and she took a minute to study him. He appeared no different than yesterday, and yet he did. Everything between them must be different now. She had believed he looked at her in disapproval, but he claimed he had admired her for quite some time. Had he ever truly disapproved of her? Were even his comments at the assembly on her looks his real opinion? All this time she thought she knew him, she thought she had understood him, but she had never really seen him at all.

He turned just then, his face quickly showing a variety of emotions which Elizabeth wisely chose not to presume to understand. He stood still and blinking. When he did not speak, she knew she must.

“Mr. Darcy,” she tentatively began. “I am pleased to see you this afternoon. I…I desired to discuss some things with you.” It seemed so similar to their encounter a few weeks ago and yet nothing was the same.

“I am at your leisure,” he said with perfect politeness, but all words escaped her.

They stared at each other, perhaps seeing one another in reality for the first time, and perhaps both forming a desperate resolution.

“I have brought you a letter.”

“Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?”

They spoke simultaneously, and their eyes were drawn to the forwarded envelopes. Elizabeth could only shake her head and laugh in amusement, and Darcy gave a small smile.

“How can we be so missish now? We have crossed words readily enough any other time, surely we can do so again.”

Darcy hesitantly agreed. Elizabeth motioned to the path, and they began walking. After ambling in silence for a few minutes, Darcy said smilingly, “I am afraid I must defer to you and allow you to begin as usual.”

“Why is that?” she blurted out. He looked startled. “I beg your pardon, forgive my impertinence.”

“No, no it is well. Have I not explained twice now how I feel when I must speak to others?”

“You explained it was so when you were only first getting to know a person, yet you believe you know me well enough to marry me but not converse with me?” She was only half teasing.

She expected him to be offended, but instead, he laughed. “How did I ever think you would accept me? You honestly do not know, do you?”

Elizabeth shook her head.

“Have you never been hesitant to speak to someone whose opinion you valued? Coveted, even?” Her blank expression must have been answer enough. “Of course not! You have never known such reluctance to speak your opinion in your life, have you?”

“Am I to take that as a compliment, Mr. Darcy? For you are very near to insulting me again,” she reprimanded.

“And yet when I do speak, I only make a muddle of it! I lose my wits around you, Elizabeth. That fear is part of my hesitancy!”

She blushed but felt it necessary to scold. “You must not take such liberties!”

He ceased walking and looked her directly in the eye. “I mean no offence, but I have called you such in my mind for a very long time now.” He paused and then seemed to make some kind of resolution. “I see now that my attempts at quelling my attraction to you from the beginning of our acquaintance have only served to make you believe I dislike you. I will no longer hide my admiration for you, I never want you to doubt it again.”

“You must not think so. Your foolish fancy will soon end, and you will learn to admire a more worthy young lady.”

“There is no one more worthy, and it is I that must learn to be worthy of you, Elizabeth.”

His eyes had turned a very dark shade of blue, and the earnestness in his expression made her breath hitch. She blushed again, but would not give way. “Still, you should not call me by my given name.”

Darcy took a step closer. “Why? Because it implies an understanding between us? An intimacy?”

Slowly, he reached for her hand. Her eyes fixed where they met. White kid leather rest against his black. It ought to have provided some protection against his searing touch, but it did not. Her pulse quickened as new sensations pricked up her arm.

“It signifies a close friendship at the very least. I want all this and more.”

Instantly, the spell was over, and she attempted to withdraw her digits. “It is not solely about your desires!”

He squeezed her hand to quell her anger. “No, but it displays them openly to you. I cannot give speeches or write poetry but perhaps with one word, simply your name, I may convey a portion of my regard to you. When I call you Elizabeth you will know what is in my heart: only you.”

It was fortunate he then placed her hand on his arm and resumed walking. She felt unaccountably light-headed.

“I am still open to your course of discussion, Elizabeth.”

Ignoring the speeding of her heart when he said her name, she boldly began her prepared speech. “I must apologise for my unjust accusations yesterday. My words were unforgivable, and I am heartily ashamed of myself.”

Darcy shook his head. “What did you say to me that I did not deserve? I have been selfish and thought only of my own comfort, of my own opinion. Even with matters between your sister and my friend, my interference was the worst kind of officiousness. I presumed to know what kind of marriage he desired and what would be best for him.”

“It rather seems you acted in Jane’s best interest.” The vehemence in her voice surprised Elizabeth.

“Bingley is not so bad, I cannot understand why he would act thusly, and I apologise profusely for his harming your sister. I can only think it must be due to me and my words, in deference to my opinion. Perhaps…”

“No, please do not make excuses for him. Unless you were decidedly forceful or cruelly kept him imprisoned in some way, then this only shows a weakness in his own character. He is so eager to please everyone he could not resolve to ask for her hand or even see her again and court her good opinion. There can be no love in this.”

“I wish I could disagree, but I have learned love must be selfless, Elizabeth.” He slowly said her name. It was almost a caress, confusing her. Yesterday, he had admitted to only admiring her and finding her a worthy marriage partner. Today… She shut off that train of thought. Some things had not changed in one night.

Clearing her throat to break the spell and signalling they should turn, she asked, “What did your letter contain?”

“An apology of sorts.”

“Of sorts?”

“An apology for my behaviour in Hertfordshire, even on the first night of our acquaintance. An apology for making you believe I disliked you. And an apology for stating my sentiments when you did not wish to hear them.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, “You did not seem so penitent a moment ago when you insisted on telling me your feelings once again, and in using my Christian name.”

“I never said all of my apology was sincere,” he smirked. “I thought I wrote in the clearest of minds, but I see now I was incorrect. I do not regret declaring my feelings and wishes. I understand now what it must take to please such a worthy woman, and I see what work must be done in my own character.”

“Please, you must not change for my sake. And who am I? Just a silly, foolish girl! My head was turned by Wickham’s flattery and attention; I was blinded by Jane’s pain.”

“Elizabeth, I do not evaluate my failings to win your regard, but because your reproofs were just. Do you not think you are as capable of sound judgment as others?”

Elizabeth scoffed. “I had. I had thought my opinion was superior to most, but I see now my father was correct in calling all of his daughters silly, ignorant things.”

Darcy’s face turned stony. “He has said that of you?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “He enjoys teasing us, but I have indeed displayed there is some sense to it. I believe I am as intelligent as any woman, and yet I have been entirely confounded by the actions of nearly every gentleman of my acquaintance. Perhaps there is some merit in concluding my sex is prone to sensibility and lacking intelligence.” As she said it emptiness filled her.

Darcy ceased their movement, and she looked at him expectantly. He seemed to need a moment to gather his thoughts. Instead of his usual well-thought dialogue, he nearly blurted, “You cannot possibly mean that!”

“And why not? Is it not what your professors have taught you? Women are weak-willed and silly?” There was no use in attempting to convince him of all people that she was something more. He had seen her at her worse.

“And you presume I would believe such horrible nonsense?”

She began walking to avoid seeing his triumphant look. “I have never met a man who does not.”

His long legs quickly caught her up to him. He stopped in front of her, halting her progress. “Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service.” He elegantly bowed.

Elizabeth shook her head and looked at him with incredulity. “Did you not agree with the most ridiculous list of accomplishments for a lady I have ever heard? Your standards were so fastidious that I could not imagine you knowing a single woman who met them!”

He held up his hands to stave off her angry retorts. “I only stated a woman should improve her mind by extensive reading. I firmly believe a lady can be educated the same as a man.”

“So are you to learn embroidery then?” Elizabeth huffed.

“As you already know how,” folding his arms across his chest, he smirked, “I shall leave it to you, but you may teach our sons if you wish. My cousin tells me sewing is indispensable in the military.”

“Sir!”

“Let us speak plainly. I believe any woman can learn as well as any man, but we see not every man chooses to learn, just as not every woman does.”

Uncomfortable with his words she turned them on him. “Everything is a matter of education, is it? I suppose you ought to take your aunt’s advice and practice conversation with strangers more!”

Apparently unfazed by her angry words after so many encounters, he remained stalwart without so much as a blinking. “You mean to anger or embarrass me, but it only proves my point. You are as capable of intelligently reprimanding my behaviour as any schoolmaster. And a great deal prettier as well!”

“’Tis a comfort to know that I could take the role of a governess,” Elizabeth frowned.

Darcy released his hands to his side and took a step toward her. “I can see you are uncomfortable with this.” Elizabeth hated that he knew her so well. “I will desist, but I believe I have more experience with debating gentlemen than you do, and you already know I do not falsely praise. Please trust me, you are a worthy foe in a battle of words.”

She allowed his last words to pass without comment. Looking past him, she could see the parsonage in the distance. “I received a letter from my aunt. She says I am welcome in two weeks. She thanks you for your offer to be of service.”

“Does that date suit you? I had thought you wished to conclude this matter earlier.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “We should make my father see reason and settle any problems in Meryton as soon as possible, but you refuse to call on the Gardiners without my presence.”

She did not hide her displeasure in her voice, and Darcy looked at her for a long moment.

“You understand why, do you not?”

“Yes, you fear they will be like my mother and Aunt Philips, but I promise you, you are mistaken. They are very genteel.” She could have added that they behaved better than even his own aunt, but did not.

Darcy shook his head. “You think I desire your presence because I would need assistance dealing with inappropriate relations? You have met my aunt.” He smiled, and Elizabeth repressed the urge to laugh. “I wish to call on your family when you are there so it may not be construed that I paid a visit to your sister.”

Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “Does it follow then that you would want it said that you paid a call only once I was in residence?” She did not welcome his attachment so why did her heart thrill at the thought that he still desired a future with her?

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “I do not mean to accuse your relatives of gossip. I mostly associate with people who would not gossip, and yet much of the ton believes they know my every movement. If they must talk, let it be on my terms. I have made my choice. Our acquaintance from Hertfordshire and meeting again in Kent cannot be kept secret as Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst know it. I will escort you to London and call on your relatives once you are within.”

Elizabeth paled as her mind rapidly drew the conclusion that all of London would be linking her name with his. A match would be expected between them, and she could not consent to such a plan as it would damage her reputation when nothing resulted. She was only beginning to appreciate the gentleman, she did not wish to have her freedom of choice taken from her. “Nay, you must arrive in London separately and when you visit bring your sister,” Elizabeth hoped to keep a tone of panic out of her voice. “Surely you must see I cannot agree to such a plan as yours.”

He looked at her, surprised and offended but remained silent. Finally resigned acceptance entered his eyes. “I do not mean to set your course or push your hand.”

“No, you just wish for all of London to talk about it!” Elizabeth dashed around him and surged forward again.

“Surely not.” Again he quickly matched her pace. “I only do not wish my name to be linked with another or to make them not accept you later, should I be fortunate enough to win your hand.” He reached for her hand, and she glared at him. “Please, allow me to still ride alongside you, but the following day I will call on the Gardiners with my sister.”

Elizabeth slid her hand from his while shaking her head. “It truly is not necessary to escort me to London.”

“It is most likely foolish of me, but I will worry if you go with only a maid and manservant. Please, Elizabeth.”

She had intended to move around him, but the tone of his voice brought her up short. Looking into his eyes, which pleaded for her to allow him this, and she found she had no wish to deny him. He was not trying to force her into an understanding, nor did he seek to take away her independence. He only desired to care for her, something, so few people asked to do. Would she let him?

He motioned to the path, and he placed her hand on his strong arm. They remained silent as they walked. She knew he would allow her to decide the matter, but the choice was made harder by his presence and masculine scent. She made her decision only steps from the parsonage gate. “It seems a fair compromise, sir.”

Immediately, she felt the tension release from his form and heard a soft exhale. He squeezed her hand still on his arm and then bowed over it, nearly kissing it. He spoke when he finished. “Thank you. Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”

Her brow furrowed as he left and she thought over the course of the afternoon. Not the least on her mind was why she cared to ease his discomfort so much.


Here’s a family tree index that might help with a particular conversation in here.

 fitzwilliam family tree final.jpg

Fitzwilliam Family Tree
1.    1st Earl, William Fitzwilliam (1675-1745) m. (1709) Anne Fairfax (1691-1716)
a.    2nd Earl, William Fitzwilliam (1710-1771) m. (1761) Anne Boscawen (1741-1800)
i.    Lucy (1762-)
ii.    Margaret (1764-)
iii.    Dorothy (1768-)
b.    Barbara (1711-1774) m. (1731) 9th Baron Darcy, Henry Darcy (1691-1753)
i.    10th Baroness, Magdalena (1732-)
ii.    Isabella (1733-1790) m. (1749) Arthur Conyers
(took Darcy surname)
1.    George Conyers Darcy (1750-1807) m. 1783 Lady Anne Clara
Fitzwilliam (1753-1795)
a.    Fitzwilliam Benjamin Conyers (1784-)
b.    Georgiana Clara Amelia (1795-)
c.    3rd Earl, John Fitzwilliam (1712-1774) m. (1751) Clara Capell (1726-1790)
i.    Anne Clara (1753-1795) m. (1783) George Darcy (1750-1807)
ii.    4th Earl, William Fitzwilliam (1754-) m. (1778) Sophia Bentinick
(1759-)
1.    William, Viscount Winchester (1779-) m. (1807) Edith
Beresford (1786-)
a.    William (1808-)
b.    John (1810-)
2.    Richard (1781-)
iii.    Catherine Amelia (1768-) m. (1790) 2nd Baronet, Sir Lewis de
Bourgh (1748-1808)
1.    Anne Catherine (1791-)
d.    Anne

 

Dearest Niece,

 

I was delighted with your description of Miss More and when it is convenient to you, I invite you both to Bath. Her writing sounds exemplary. I suppose London is leaving its period of mourning after the death of the King’s mother behind. I must wonder what she would think of this act regarding all royal marriages being determined by the King. That not only one brother but both married commoners and kept it a secret, I found shocking but refreshing. I should hope the King treats his sons and daughters better than he treated his brothers.

 

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth at their grove. Their grove. Darcy shook his head. She had made her feelings very clear numerous times. There was no them. However, he thought she might not be so indifferent to him as she once was.

As Darcy reconsidered their last few meetings, he began to consider that Elizabeth might feel lonely despite her companions at the Parsonage. He knew that she sought solitude away from the Collinses and had never accompanied her friend on her morning visits to Rosings. However, requiring isolation from unlikeable companions did not mean one did not feel alone and desire pleasant company. He knew that well from experience. During the dinners at Rosings, Elizabeth seldom spoke. Afterwards, she was often “invited” to perform on the pianoforte. Elizabeth was not the sort to be intimidated by his aunt’s commands or critique, but neither was she the kind that expected to be listened to in silence. At Lucas Lodge, she had laughed with her friend, now Mrs. Collins.

He sensed there was now a coolness in feeling between the two ladies. Mrs. Collins’ younger sister did not seem to provide Elizabeth with any company. What must it be like for Elizabeth, so used to the liveliness of Longbourn? He did not think he could understand fully what she felt, having lived in quiet for so long, but he could empathise. He would provide her company, if she allowed, and try not to irritate her. For once, he considered her needs while he waited for her arrival.

Casting his eyes down the path, he noted her silhouette against the rising sun. Each day, she came earlier and earlier. Was she so eager to leave the parsonage? Or was it a desire to see him that propelled her? His heart sped at the thought. Logic told him to cool his desires and expectations, but he could not. She approached with a smile on her face, and Darcy knew, no matter where he went in the world or what the future held, he would never feel at home again unless he was looking into her smiling face.

“Good day, Miss Elizabeth,” he said when he could make his mouth move.

“Good day,” she smiled back at him.

“May I walk with you?”

“Certainly.”

She took his extended arm, and a thrill shot up the limb. Some of her usual reserve seemed gone, adding to the heady sensation. Darcy forced his brain to focus on conversation and not the light pressure of her hand on his body.

“Did you bring your sketchbook?”

She held up her other hand and grinned. “You know me well, sir.”

“I am beginning to believe such a thing is impossible. However, I dearly enjoy learning about you and guessing what you might do next?”

Elizabeth laughed at the image he created, and Darcy realised he had never before known the joy in giving someone else happiness.

“Well, I am waiting. What do you think I will do next?”

She gave him an impish grin, and the desire to feel it against his lips consumed him. A raw hungering burned in him. Men in his clubs boasted of bedding the most beautiful courtesans in England. Poets claimed love would drive you mad. And yet nothing he had read or heard in his life prepared him for this feeling, this need to consume and allow himself to be consumed, not with carnal pleasures, but with enjoying—in needing—another’s presence and to be the source of their bliss.

“I am that much of a conundrum, am I?” she teased when he remained silent but her smile slipped.

“Forgive me,” he rasped. Desire still coursed through him. “I do not dare guess what you will do next. Your path is unmappable by any but you. However, I would like to show you something, if you will follow.”

Elizabeth tilted her head, insatiable curiosity lit her eyes. The image of her looking up at him thusly from where she lay on his bed jolted to the front of his mind. “This way,” he motioned to a narrow path off the main grove while cursing his dishonourable thoughts.

They walked in silence and Darcy mourned the loss of her hand on his arm as the lane was too narrow to allow them to walk side by side. After a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, the route curved sharply and then opened to a grassy area filled with newly blooming meadows, a pond, and the foundation and one ivy-covered wall of an old church. Coming up next to him, Elizabeth gasped.

“How did you find this place?” she asked when she recovered.

“I spent many visits of my youth escaping Rosings’ stuffy drawing rooms. I still do,” he admitted.

“It is stunning,” she said reverently and walked forward to gain a better view.

“You may have guessed, Rosings was built during my uncle’s lifetime. His father was the first baronet and tore down a crumbling structure from Henry VIII’s time. The church your cousin now uses was built then as well. Records state this church is from even earlier, Edward III’s reign.”

“How sad,” Elizabeth muttered and approached the wall. “Did you know the Perpendicular Gothic came to prominence during his reign — after the Black Death ravaged the country.” She ran a hand lovingly over the stone.

“I did not,” Darcy answered. “Is that what appeals to you about the style?”

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth said as she began to move around the structure to examine it from all sides. “It denotes a certain amount of strength in humanity to achieve such vaunted heights. After so much death, they still cared about culture and beauty.”

Darcy trailed behind her, and she continued speaking. “It is not the fashion at all now. Instead, we’re told to favour buildings with the straight lines of ancient Greece. Stone upon stone must be secured. Every piece doing its part, never out of place.” She shook her head. “The Gothic embraces nature, rather than trying to conquer it.”

Elizabeth pointed at the empty Tudor arch which would have housed a window or door. “Do you see the shape? Curved and graceful?”

As she talked, Darcy believed she may have well described herself. Eyes lingering on her form, he reverently said, “Beautiful.”

“It is, is it, not?” She stood still and appreciating the view she now saw with the sun shining through the empty frame illuminating overgrown vegetation. With no regard for her gown, she sat and opened her sketchpad.

Darcy allowed her the quiet he believed such concentration required. Her hands moved swiftly and gracefully. She drew without the sort of labour that comes from self-consciousness or a desire to impress. She simply unleashed a passion she felt, and finely-honed skill. As much as she might deride her skills on the pianoforte, she apparently had put her time to greater use.

As she drew, Darcy imagined the lives the place had seen. The ones who built a place of worship after so much devastation. The family who provided the funds but eventually sold the estate. Their family name did not appear in the roster of current peers. Likely, they had no sons left to inherit and had kept the property away from their daughters. The next owners fared no better. The family sold it after two or three generations to Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s father to cover a debt. Through the passage of time, this area stood largely neglected and ignored, unnoticed by those who inhabited the space just outside it. However, Darcy could not mourn its neglect. The sheltered alcove he now sat in remained unspoilt by following generations  attempting to conquer nature and shape it into formal gardens and hedges. Even more, it allowed him this morning of peace with Elizabeth.

When she finished, Elizabeth looked up and blushed. “Forgive me, I had not meant to ignore you,” she said and bit her lower lip.

“Think nothing of it. I enjoyed the companionable silence and watching you work. Your passion should never be hidden. May I see?”

Shyly, she handed the sketchbook to him. He could see from a distance Elizabeth had great skill. Upon closer viewing, it was clear that she saw through a true architect’s eye. There were no exaggerated and idealised views. She had imagined the church as it once might have looked, but it seemed far more real than any portrait he had seen. Acquainted as he was with blueprints for new structures, he saw her natural skill. She was not a gentlewoman dabbling in art or design. If she were a man, she would find sufficient income putting her talents to use.

“This is quite good,” he said in wonder, hating the insipidness of his words.

“Do you really think so?” Elizabeth asked with an insecurity he had never heard before. “I know it is nothing compared to what Mr. Dance could do, but I have so few opportunities—”

He silenced her with a finger to her lips, all the while hating his gloves. “You have great skill, Elizabeth.” He triumphed when she did not rebuke him. “Far greater than any person that I have seen.”

“Do not exaggerate,” she sounded offended and grabbed the notebook from his hands. “You must have studied architecture at school and University. You have seen far grander places than I ever have.”

“It is true,” he responded slowly, “that I had the occasion to view magnificent buildings. During the Peace of Amiens, Father and I journeyed to Vienna. At Cambridge, I sat and attempted to draw the Octagon Lantern in Ely Cathedral. But not one of my classmates had the sheer talent or passion you do.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“I am sorry my praise is inadequate to what you deserve. I do not know the correct terminology, despite my classes, but it is near brilliant.”

Elizabeth shook her head, unwilling to accept his compliments. She stood and shook out her skirt. “Can you tell me about Vienna?”

Darcy stood as well and smiled. “It is very different from England. There was a reverie, a joy for life. In London, the people only care about their appearance and politics. In Vienna, there was laughter. Art and music were everywhere.”

She sighed a little and hugged herself. “It sounds wonderful.”

“It was unforgettable. I would love to journey again. Georgiana would flourish there.”

He hummed the tune of a waltz he had heard long ago in a crowded ballroom. His father had teased him for not asking any of the ladies to dance, and at the time all he could think of was how uncomfortable he felt. What he did not know was that he was waiting to have the right partner; the one he would do far more than discomfort himself for.

“What do you hum? I do not recognise the rhythm.”

“It is called a waltz. It is very different from our English dances.”

“Show me,” Elizabeth said, curiosity once again lighting her features.

Darcy chuckled. “I am not sure I remember.”

“I will never know any better,” she laughed with him.

“Very well.” He held one arm to his side and the other at the height of her shoulder. “Now, you step forward. You place one hand in mine and the other on my shoulder.”

Elizabeth’s eyes went round. “Surely not!”

“Indeed,” he said with amusement. She remained still, and he could see the indecision warring in her eyes. “I had thought you unafraid of anything.”

With the raising of her chin, she stepped into his arms. Immediately, thought escaped him. This had been a bloody terrible idea! How had it escaped his notice that he would be practically embracing Elizabeth?

“Mr. Darcy?” She asked and lightly tapped his shoulder.

The pressure sent a thrill of pleasure coursing through his body, and he bit back a groan. “Yes?”

“The dance?”

The dance? The dance. As if blood still circulated to his feet! He cleared his throat and began to hum again, awkwardly leading Elizabeth in the steps of a waltz. And somehow, in this grass covered ballroom with the shadows of an ancient church heightening Elizabeth’s features, he fell even more in love with her.

His song ended, and their movements ceased. Elizabeth’s chest rose and fell rapidly, and Darcy believed, in every fibre of his being, she was as affected as he. With his hands still on her, he leant forward, needing to taste her lips. A bird called in the tree above them, tearing Elizabeth’s gaze away from his.

“We should return,” she said nonchalantly, although her face burned red.

Offering his arm to her, they left their hidden glen of discoveries. As they walked toward the parsonage and all the rules of Society, Darcy talked about Knole Park and “his” belief that if she befriended Anne, an invitation would follow.

When he reached the gate, he bowed low over Elizabeth’s hand and brought it to his lips. It would have to do as he had been deprived of her mouth, and he had never hated leather more in his life. “Until tonight, Elizabeth.”

 

*****


 

“Cousin Elizabeth where have you been? How can you dress properly for dinner with Lady Catherine in such a short time?”

Elizabeth was just about to explain she could be no later than some of Lady Catherine’s own party as she had been walking with Mr. Darcy when she thought better of it.

“My dear, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine prefers to have the distinction of rank preserved. Eliza will suit admirably.”

Elizabeth shot her friend a grateful glance and quickly saw to her toilette. The others were finished quite early and nervously fretted in the sitting room. She could hardly account for the Collinses’ behaviour as they had dined many times with her ladyship by now, but then she was not disposed to think well of the sense of either.

Gathering to leave, Charlotte looked over her friend. “Eliza, you look very well indeed. All these walks are giving you a very healthy bloom.”

Elizabeth nodded in acquiescence, but her friend continued. “I have heard her ladyship often say her nephews enjoy walking the park as well. Have you ever seen them?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips at her friend’s attempt at slyness. “I have seen Mr. Darcy a few times on the paths. You can imagine how awkward conversation is with such a man.” She hoped she did not give too much away in her countenance or tone.

Before Charlotte could say more Mr. Collins called her to his side and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief.

Dinner was the usual affair with Lady Catherine. She held court and extolled her opinions on all things no matter how little she could understand of them. By her account, the War Office should consult her even on how to handle Napoleon, and she briefly bemoaned her worries for Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth had to contain her delight when she was asked to perform.

She was hopeful her efforts at entertainment would exclude her from having to converse with the entire party. She could not dislike Mr. Darcy as before, but neither were her thoughts at all settled over his declarations. Yet, under the guise of querying her on some musical matter for his sister, he found his way to her and offered to turn her pages.

“You play very well this evening,” he said.

This did not seem quite his usual fashion so Elizabeth arched her brow, preparing for whatever he might muster. “You flatter me, sir.” Something flashed in his eyes, and it confused her. “Well, you see I am taking your aunt’s advice and practising, and you seem to believe I am improving.”

“You mean to suggest there is merit in her argument?”

“I believe I said there was merit in her argument several days ago.”

“Am I not practising? Have I not been taking the trouble to converse over these last few days, Miss Elizabeth?”

She blushed at his use of her name although he dropped his voice as it was not strictly proper to call her such without her elder sister present. “I shall make you a bargain. While I improve my skills, you must improve yours. Now, you cannot become a victim of country society. Certainly, we are a small party, but I believe we are quite varied. Your skills will improve all the more if you speak to the others as well.”

Darcy glanced to the adjoined room. “Who do you propose I speak with next?”

“I am shocked that you would consider allowing another to order anything about you.”

“You still believe I prefer my own way?”

“I speak as I find.”

“And how do you suppose I am able to order my life when others cannot?”

“You easily arrange things just as you please because you are so rich and others are poor.”

Growing serious he calmly replied, “I cannot order all things as I would like. There are many things my wealth cannot buy, Miss Elizabeth.”

She despised herself for it, but she shivered just the same.

“I have a firm opinion that the greatest things in life are not for sale and cannot be influenced by money,” he continued.

“You mean family name and prominence.”

“No, I mean affection and familial love. Your father’s estate is entailed, and supposing you had a brother your family might be in a better position. Now, what if you must trade one of your sisters for that unknown brother?”

Elizabeth’s eyes misted. “I could never choose. Some of them might be quite silly and ridiculous, but I dearly love them all.”

“You would rather face the unknown when your father dies, with Mr. Collins inheriting, than sacrifice the love of your family?”

“I have already chosen to face the unknown when Mr. Collins inherits.” She gasped as she realised her admission. She glanced at him and saw his smirk. “That was very cruel of you, sir, getting me to confess such a thing.”

“It was not my intention at all, I assure you, but I am pleased to know my suppositions were correct.”

“That I rejected my cousin and selfishly chose my happiness over ensuring my family’s survival? What a foolish thing you must think me!”

“No, I thought you valued more than money in marital harmony. You desire respect and affection.”

“What made you so confident he had offered for me?”

“It, amongst other things, was quite the gossip at Bingley’s ball. His attentions to you were very marked and yet you visit his home as a friend to his wife and are not its mistress.”

“Not every man who pays attention to a lady means to offer matrimony, sir.” She was thinking of his friend.

“Do you think so little of the male sex?”

“I have seen little constancy from them. Even the best of them might be mistaken and confuse companionship and love with infatuation and attraction.”

“These are home questions for you.” She blushed, and he changed the topic. “Earlier I meant that I might be able to order things as I like due to my wealth, but it is only because I am master of my own affairs. I assure you I would much rather have less freedom in my choices and less money at my disposal and be merely the heir than the master of all of England with all its’ burdens.”

He spoke passionately, and Elizabeth could feel the weight of his loss. For so young a man to be left with the responsibility of so much was a difficult thing for her to consider. More than that, she was pleased to see the emotion his words evoked in him. Her sketch of him may never be complete, but there was more than the stoniness she first believed in Hertfordshire.

Seeking to console him, she spoke. “I had not considered that, sir. How old were you when your father passed?”

For just a moment he looked vulnerable, as he recalled his misery, but soon he recovered. “Mother died first when I was thirteen. She had not recovered from Georgiana’s birth. Father died suddenly when I was two and twenty.”

She had not realised he was an orphan, or that he had been the master for so long. Caring for a sister at such an age!

“I am sorry for your pain.”

He gave her a tight smile. “I thank you, but I am certain you had little to do to cause the demise of either.”

“Of course not, sir.”

He seemed on the verge of speaking something inexpressibly painful but thought better of it. They passed a few moments in silence before she sought to cheer him.

“You must hold up your share of the bargain, sir. Why not speak with your cousin, Miss de Bourgh? She seems very lonely.”

Darcy started. “She likely is. I confess I do not pay her much attention on my visits, lest my aunt make too much of it.”

“What is it she can do? She cannot ask or demand you marry her daughter. She cannot put words in your own mouth. Your cousin might not even desire the match, should you ask.”

Elizabeth glanced away as jealousy gnawed in her belly. Why should she care if Miss de Bourgh did wish to marry Darcy? And why should it bother her if he might now think it a prudent choice? “Would it not be better to know of her hopes? You may fear for nought. Or if she does have them you might explain your feelings.”

She grew silent as she recalled her sister being left hoping for Bingley’s addresses. “Imagine being left hoping for a man’s addresses all these years.”

Darcy’s thoughts might have turned similarly for he nodded his head in understanding. “I believe you are correct.”

Darcy leaned his head closer to her, his breath tickling her ear. “Never fear. You shall not be rid of her to her clutches.”

Elizabeth fought the smile forming on her lips. “No?”

“We had a very frank conversation not too many days ago and it seems although I never would have asked, she will not have me either.” He let out a sigh of feigned despair. “It must be the sign of an intelligent woman.”

Elizabeth remained mute for she had not seen any signs that Miss de Bourgh had much of a brain.

“Did you have another suggestion for my conversation partner?”

Elizabeth welcomed the change in conversation. “Oh, you do trust me too far!” She said with false gaiety. “For what if I would select my cousin!”

Darcy chuckled, and she saw the hint of dimples. “Do your worst, madam, for I am not afraid of you.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I shall have mercy on you and propose that you do not practice on either your relations or mine, as there is an unequal number of them. Your task, therefore, is to practice on both Mrs. Jenkinson and Mrs. Collins.”

If she were not certain he truly felt distressed she would have laughed at his expression. “Come, sir. You have visited Rosings for many years now, you must know some matter to speak with Mrs. Jenkinson on, and you have met Mrs. Collins’ family. That is always an excellent place to begin. I wager she would happily talk about memories of Hertfordshire.”

Sighing deeply, Darcy agreed. “And now for your end of our bargain.”

“I do not recall making one.”

“Oh, but you called it one just now. I believe we were on the subject of improving one’s skill.”

Elizabeth knew not whether to feel trepidation at whatever scheme he had, or excitement at this informal, bantering side of him.

“You need no motivation to walk, although I very much hope you continue to improve yourself there.” He gave her a knowing look. “You must oblige my aunt and practice the pianoforte at Rosings, only I will ensure it not be in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Sir! Do you fathom how difficult that will be for me to bear? Lady Catherine will forever be standing over me and reprimanding, worse than any music master I have had.”

Darcy had a bit of a wicked gleam in his eye, so she did not entirely believe him when he assured her that would not be the case. Before she could argue more her piece was finished, and he stood to make good on his offer. Lady Catherine commanded Elizabeth continue to play for the rest of the evening, and Elizabeth could only shake her head at the mingled feelings of pride and frustration she felt as Darcy talked more animatedly with the others than she had ever seen before. He would occasionally cast a look at her, daring her to withdraw but she would not be intimidated. When Lady Catherine once again recommended she practice at Rosings, Elizabeth agreed with sweetness.


Continue Reading; Chapters Sixteen — Twenty

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