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Dearest C,

Do not give up on finding love but know that there is a season to all things. Your sad misadventure was caused by allowing your emotions to rule you. If you do not wish to wed yet and cannot abide the society of London, then come to Bath with us.

Your aunt,

A.F.

Chapter Six

 

Fitzwilliam Darcy tapped his fingers on his legs as the carriage rolled slowly closer to his aunt’s estate in Kent. Usually, he dreaded the yearly visit. His mother had been devoted to her younger sister, and so Darcy always did his duty and attended, but it was increasingly annoying. Lady Catherine’s hints of an expectation that he marry her daughter grew bolder with each visit. Anne seemed indifferent to the idea, but Darcy knew he would never offer for her. His parents married late in life, and he had never felt much rush to enter into such a permanent union. At seven and twenty, he was just beginning to think of the usefulness of matrimony before Lady Darcy started pushing for him to find a bride.

It began last summer as he sent his sister to Ramsgate with her newly hired companion. Georgiana was more a daughter to him than a sister and, if he had had a wife, perhaps everything would have been different. He had gone to enjoy a friend’s summer house party, whilst Georgiana longed for the seacoast. His instinct was to go with her, but his friends assured him a young lady of Georgiana’s age did not want a much older brother coddling her or playing nursemaid. Against his better judgment, he went to the country but was among the first to leave. In addition to wishing to visit Georgiana, he could no longer tolerate the none too subtle attempts at matchmaking at the party.

Upon arriving at Ramsgate, his sister soon confessed she hoped to soon wed. Her love had convinced her of an elopement, but she hoped Darcy would give his blessing and not make the secrecy necessary. To his horror, Darcy learned his sister had fallen in love with an accomplished rogue: his former childhood friend, George Wickham. Refusing his consent, he was unsurprised to then learn that Wickham had known of Darcy’s arrival and immediately fled the area. He did not fight for his hopes of marrying Georgiana, proving his attachment was purely for her vast fortune and as a means for revenge on Darcy by ruining the family name.

In the weeks that followed, Georgiana grew despondent. When Darcy’s closest friend, Charles Bingley, rented an estate in Hertfordshire, Georgiana insisted that Darcy go with him. Seeing Darcy every day heightened her feelings of guilt. Part of Darcy’s eager return to London at the end of November was to see to his sister’s welfare. At Christmas, Lady Darcy made a rare trip to London. Shocked by Georgiana’s obvious feelings of self-loathing, she took both Darcy siblings under her wing. Due to her attention and instruction, Georgiana vastly improved.

What brought unease to Darcy’s mind now, however, was knowing he would meet with Elizabeth Bennet again. He had last seen her, very unexpectedly, three weeks ago. She had asked him about Wickham, and he had been unable, again, to tell her the whole truth. More than that, he realised his error in leaving her and Meryton in ignorance of Wickham’s true character. It was a fault he was prone to make, to assume he knew the best. Yet, he saw the worry in her eyes when she asked for information on the scoundrel. He sensed her reluctance to trust him, and he knew the price that his silence and encouraging his sister’s innocence, nay ignorance, nearly cost them.

Pulling him from his thoughts, his travelling companion spoke. “Darcy, will you stop that infernal tapping?”

Darcy smiled at his cousin, Richard. “You certainly are grumpy this morning!”

“Have I not a right to be so when I know our destination?”

“You have faced worst foes on the battlefield, I am sure.”

“Spoken like a politician! You would have me go back and fight over the same piece of land again and again! Or would you order me to infiltrate and begin a coup from within?”

“The idea does have merit,” Darcy replied, thinking that if only their cousin Anne were encouraged to take a stand for herself, Rosings would be more bearable.

“That did not work well for me at Corunna,” Richard patted his knee. He had first been wounded in ‘09 and again mere weeks ago in the Battle of Ciudad Rodrigo. He was sent home to heal after a bayonet wound but otherwise was considered capable of following the flag still.

“I apologise. I did not mean to bring up painful memories. Is there talk of sending you back?”

“The Regiment is ever at the ready. Are you? Lady Catherine will be more desperate than ever for you to marry Anne.”

“She is not the only one I must worry about,” Darcy drawled. “Lady Darcy is also intent on my finding a wife.”

“Yes, if the papers are to be believed, you have danced every set at every one of the ton’s crushes for the last fortnight!” Richard leant forward and cast a worried gaze over his cousin. “Are you ill? Inheriting the barony has addled your mind?”

“I am as well as ever,” Darcy said in as even a tone as he could manage. The truth was, he did feel as though he might become a bit unhinged due to the stress.

“And what is with all your dancing with bluestockings? It gives you an aura of unattainability which drives the debutantes and their mama’s wild with jealousy.”

Darcy quirked a brow. “And you ask out of concern… or envy?”

“Well,” Richard said as he leant back and crossed an ankle over his knee, “you must leave some ladies for the rest of us.”

“The sorts of ladies you enjoy are not the kind I have ever associated with, and certainly could never be accused of being bluestockings.”

“True,” Richard said, then waggled his eyebrows, “but they do not need to know that. A harmless flirtation in a ballroom never harmed anyone.”

“You should be more sympathetic. After I marry, you will have an aunt and a mother honing all their scheming on you.”

“On second thoughts, a new deployment sounds far more bearable.” A shudder racked his body, and Darcy laughed at the theatrics. “They do say, however, that besides the bluestockings, one lady has captured your attention.”

“I could hardly care less what the papers report,” Darcy said and flicked his gaze through the window. Did the journey seem to take longer than usual this year?

“You should. She’s a schemer, and you could find yourself leg-shackled if you’re not careful.”

Darcy racked his mind to think of who Richard referenced. “I have never danced with any lady more than once.”

“True, but you have danced with Miss Caroline Bingley nearly every night.”

“She is Bingley’s sister,” Darcy said defensively.

“And so it is all the more natural for others to assume a match will be made.”

“Never,” Darcy said.

“It is also stated that you do not shun her company as you once did.”

“Jealous hellcats, the lot of them,” Darcy waved off Richard’s concern.

However, his accusations did ring true. Caroline did not irk as she usually did. She no longer was eager to demean others or boast of her accomplishments. She spoke of current affairs. When she called on Georgiana, she encouraged the younger girl to compose her own masterpieces. She could never be more to him than his friend’s sister, but the primary drawback to Georgiana marrying Bingley had been his sister. Now, it appeared Georgiana would gain an affectionate one. A smile crept across his face as he also considered Elizabeth. Yes, Georgiana would soon gain a loving sister.

“Egads, what is that ridiculous face for? You look like a green boy lusting after his first milkmaid!” Richard contorted his face, in what Darcy hoped was an utter exaggeration, and laughed.

“Keep your foul words to yourself,” Darcy warned, “or Lady Catherine will rack you with her cane.”

Richard sobered immediately. “You never answered my question about how to get out of marrying Anne this time.”

Darcy grinned. “I would never reveal my tactics.”

“And that moony look just now was not for Caroline Bingley?”

“Certainly not!” Darcy said and blew out a breath as they passed the parsonage.

“Look at that little man!” Richard exclaimed. “I did not think a man as round as he could bow so low!”

Darcy chuckled. “Mr. Collins, our aunt’s new rector. I met him in Hertfordshire when I stayed with Bingley.”

“Oh, that is right. I forgot you remained in the same house as the harpy. And yet there is nothing to the rumours?”

“Nothing at all. If you must know, I remain friendly with his sister because I am worried about the man. I had to separate him from a most imprudent match last year.” An imprudent match he now intended to enter into. Well, not entirely the same. Elizabeth could never conceal her affections or be as cold as Jane Bennet had been.

“Indeed!” Richard said as they pulled to a stop before Rosings.

The door swung open, and the gentlemen descended. “Sirs, Lady Catherine awaits you in the blue drawing room,” the butler said upon their entry.

“Certainly, as soon as we have changed,” Darcy said and stepped toward the massive staircase.

“She desires to see you as soon as you arrive. A matter of urgency, she said.”

The butler’s face remained impassive, and so Darcy could not determine if there was any truth to her claims. Ordinarily, she loathed their coming fresh from the carriage into her receiving rooms. Darcy glanced at Richard, who shrugged.

“Very well,” he said, and the butler led the way although Darcy could find the location blindfolded.

“Darcy!” Lady Catherine commanded and pounded her cane on the floor. Beside him, Richard audibly gulped. “I understand that you already know the residents of my parsonage.”

“Yes, my lady. I met Mr. Collins last autumn.”

“And so you have also met his wife.”

“Yes, ma’am.” His eyes flitted to Anne to see if she held any clues to the unexpected summons and questioning. She quickly averted her eyes.

“And in a cruel twist of fate, you even know the guests. This Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas.”

“I have had the honour,” Darcy said, feeling his mouth go dry. Did she perceive any hint of his regard? Had word somehow reached him of his behaviour in Hertfordshire? He had not considered how to court Elizabeth with his aunt knowing and, undoubtedly, disapproving.

“Well!” She said and stomped her cane again. “I am seriously displeased!”

“I do apologise, Aunt. If I had known they would now be here, I certainly would have taken care in making their acquaintance months ago.”

Lady Catherine’s eyes narrowed at Darcy. “And you do not think they follow you here by design? The impertinent one mentioned something about seeing you in London a few weeks ago.”

Darcy fought a smile at his aunt’s description of Elizabeth. “We did meet, by chance, in Town some weeks ago. There, Sir William Lucas explained he was soon to visit his daughter and brought Miss Elizabeth Bennet and his younger daughter with him. Miss Bennet is close friends with Mrs. Collins, I understand.”

“And they could not know you visited every Easter? You must be mindful of your position in life! Ladies will seek to trap you. If you only did your duty—”

“Mama,” Anne interrupted. “If Miss Bennet had known Darcy always visited here and hoped to ensnare him then surely she could have visited Mr. Collins when he asked. Or she could have supported him marrying a sister. Then she would be welcomed far more than by only a friend. Do not forget she sacrificed the security of her family in refusing her father’s heir.”

“Yes! Exactly! She might have thought she should wait and hope for a better offer.”

“Is it not more reasonable to consider that she does not care about such material advantages?” Anne said and sent an apologetic glance at Darcy.

Richard laughed from behind him. “I prefer Anne’s way of thinking, Aunt. Darcy might offer a grand estate and money, but he’s a sour, unpleasant fellow. Is he really such a catch?”

Lady Catherine began to sputter, but Darcy interrupted. “Besides all this, you insult my honour by saying I would fall prey to a woman’s arts. Nor can I condemn enough the accusations you lay at Miss Bennet’s door. A lady who, I believe, you have invited into your home. If you had thought she was of ill-repute, you never should have brought her near Anne.”

Lady Catherine’s eyes widened, and her mouth snapped shut. Yes, bringing up her affection for Anne was always sure to bring her to reason. “I cannot believe you are standing on my new carpet covered head to toe in dust! Both of you are dismissed!”

Darcy and Richard departed as quickly as possible without earning another admonishment from their aunt. Richard clapped a hand on Darcy’s shoulder as they took the stairs side by side. “This Miss Bennet sounds like just the sort of lady I enjoy, and for far more than a harmless flirtation.”

Red clouded Darcy’s vision and the next thing he knew, Richard was laying on the bottom of the floor cursing at having tripped over three or four steps. Darcy carried on to his room. He had never before wished Richard absent on these visits. Far too many times his cousin was abroad in battle at this time of year. Today, he suddenly hated Richard’s presence. Not that he had expected any different, but between Lady Catherine’s suspicions and Richard’s teasing, Darcy knew he would have to keep his courtship with Elizabeth secret.

 

*****

 

The day of Mr. Darcy’s arrival, Mr. Collins watched for their carriage from his room. At the earliest hour for calling the following morning, he walked to Rosings to pay tribute. Charlotte had gone to the dining-parlour under the guise of returning something of Mr. Collins, but rather an ill-disguised attempt of watching for his return. Maria blushed assuming her sister missed her husband, but Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Charlotte had adjusted to life here far too easily. She now lived for news on neighbours, and their visitors and plans on how to impress them were of utmost importance.

A few minutes later, Charlotte rushed into the drawing room white as a ghost. “Oh, make haste! Maria help me clear this work.” She scrambled from the door to the table where pieces of fabric and thread were strewn about.

“What has happened?” Elizabeth asked as she put aside her needlework.

“Mr. Darcy has followed Mr. Collins down here!”

“Mr. Darcy to call on the Parsonage?” Elizabeth dropped the sampler she held.

“Yes,” Charlotte said as she tucked a wisp of hair under her cap. “And I may thank you for this civility, Eliza. Mr. Darcy never would have called on us.”

Tossing a pile of loose thread to Maria, who shoved it in a basket and slid it under a table, Elizabeth huffed. “Of course, he would call eventually. A gentleman always does his duty.”

Did she just defend Mr. Darcy? Fortunately, the sound of the front door made all other conversation impossible. Colonel Fitzwilliam led the way. He was about thirty, not handsome, but tall and well-built. The smile on his face showed his gentlemanly breeding, and his open manners lent more force to the term. Darcy entered looking as uncomfortable as Elizabeth was used to him looking in Hertfordshire. He sat when asked and glanced around the room. At first, she supposed he would not say anything, but he gave Charlotte a compliment on her marriage and home. Elizabeth scrutinised all without speaking. Observing was a much better use of her time.

Colonel Fitzwilliam entered conversation easily. Against Elizabeth’s hopes that Mr. Collins would be rendered silent by the extreme compliment that both of her ladyship’s nephews paid his humble abode, the parson spoke at length. Contrary to Darcy’s general affronted demeanour, Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed to view the scene with amusement.

“How do you like Kent, Miss Bennet?” Colonel Fitzwilliam asked.

“I like it very much. Rosings has some of the most beautiful grounds I have ever seen.”

“Allow me to correct you, Cousin Elizabeth,” Mr. Collins interjected. “I flatter myself that I have seen far more country houses and estates than you have. Rosings is the picture of beauty. I would not change one blade of grass.”

“My aunt’s gardeners would send their thanks for your praise,” the Colonel said. “Do I take it that you have walked beyond the gardens, then?” He addressed Elizabeth again.

“Indeed. I much prefer a wooded grove for daily exercise.”

The colonel nodded. “My cousin entirely agrees with you. He takes a morning walk every time we are here, even if it threatens to rain.” The colonel gave Elizabeth a knowing look, and she quelled the urge to laugh. Yes, she could well understand the need to be away from Rosings. He went on to describe Darcy’s preferred path, one Elizabeth had enjoyed as well. “As an officer in His Majesty’s Army, I much prefer riding.”

“I think riding far nobler,” Mr. Collins said. “I had always wished to learn. There is something undignified about walking. Not that I would ever mean you are undignified, Mr. Darcy.” Collins bowed to the man who made no remark.

Insensible to Darcy’s insult, Collins again turned his attention to the Colonel.

“My aunt has said you can always judge a clergyman by how he cares for his land,” the Colonel said.

“Indeed?” Mr. Collins nearly panted in excitement. “I would be pleased to show you the garden and orchard. Her ladyship often compliments it. Although, I owe her suggestions have always proved the most useful. What a green thumb she has! So accomplished in gardening and not above knowing the botany of several species.”

Elizabeth little believed her ladyship did know botany. After all, in Elizabeth’s experience thus far, her ladyship claimed expertise on everything and yet did nothing. Her musings were interrupted by Mr. Darcy, and she was unable to hear the Colonel’s reply.

“I hope your family is in good health, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said to her.

“They are, thank you. And the Bingleys?”

“They were very well the last I saw them,” he answered with less surety than Elizabeth was accustomed to.

“Darcy has become the belle of the ball!” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed.

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I do not think I understand the Colonel’s joke.”

Mr. Collins nearly trembled with excitement. He pressed a hand to his mouth as though he needed it to keep words from flying out.

Darcy stiffened. “My cousin delights in tormenting me. I had supposed everyone had heard. Recently, the courts have determined I will inherit my aunt’s barony.”

“Ah,” Elizabeth said. Why was she disappointed?

Mr. Collins bounded to Darcy’s side. “Her ladyship told me some time ago and swore me to secrecy. I must admit I am surprised they allow your aunt, however honourable I am sure she is, to hold the title when there is a gentleman who is the heir.”

Elizabeth steeled her jaw from correcting her cousin’s misogynistic opinions, and even Charlotte blushed.

“As it is,” Darcy answered coldly, “I do not inherit until my aunt’s passing from this world and, as such, I am in no hurry.”

“Oh, I quite understand,” Collins continued without understanding the rebuff he was given. “As I will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate upon his death, and I have assured my dear cousin Elizabeth several times, I am in no hurry for such an unlikeable event.”

Mr. Collins then turned to Colonel Fitzwilliam, as he did not know the Bennets or Longbourn, to explain to him his relation to Elizabeth’s father and details of the estate. Mr. Darcy approached the table near Elizabeth and looked through the newspapers. Was he going to read rather than talk?

“I am sorry I could not answer your question better,” he said quietly enough that only she could hear. “I have not seen Bingley in nearly a week despite us going to the same functions. I have no reason to think he is unwell. Miss Bingley assuredly would have told me.”

“Miss Bingley? You have seen her but not her brother?” Elizabeth did not mean to ask so candidly. Rather than this offending the man who would one day be a peer, he smiled.

“When frequenting Society’s events, it is helpful to have a friend to ease the way. London has been full of gossip about my future, and plans I might have.”

As in marriage. So, they imagined he was hunting about the ballrooms for a wife. And Caroline Bingley just happened to be at each event to soothe poor Mr. Darcy’s ruffled feathers from having to mix with so many people eager to flatter and know him? Elizabeth would give Caroline credit for persistence and intelligence. Few would undertake such a task, especially when he would know combining his fortune and estate with Rosings would give him more power and influence in the world of politics.

“You sound as though you have been very busy. I am sure you have not seen my sister or other relatives then,” she said and was pleased when he looked a little ashamed.

“I do regret that I have not had the pleasure of their company since our time at my aunt’s. I have often thought of our conversation there.” He paused and scrutinised her face. Did she imagine the look of anxiety? “I assume since no one contacted my aunt there has been no need to worry?”

Elizabeth chewed her bottom lip. “I have heard no new developments, but I do find myself curious about the information you offered to share with my uncle. If you do not mind the impertinence of my asking.” She added a saucy smile.

Darcy stared at her a long time, his blue eyes seemingly transfixed. Her smile began to slip. He owed her no explanations.

“Darcy!” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, drawing the attention of both. “We have importuned on the Collinses, and their beautiful guests,” he winked, “long enough. Lady Catherine will desire us back.”

“Certainly,” Darcy said in his usual aloofness.

“It is no imposition at all,” Collins gushed. “To entertain my patroness’ nephews, and one to become a baron!”

Elizabeth sighed. Had she thought the addition of Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam would somehow make her stay more enjoyable?

“Good day,” Darcy said and bowed to Elizabeth before offering his compliments again to Charlotte. In a few moments, despite Collins’ protestations, the gentlemen departed.

Mr. Collins was in such a state afterwards that Charlotte suggested he see to the garden to expel energy. “Quite right, my dearest. The colonel may wish to view it on his next visit.” He then scurried away to be about his task.

Charlotte sat with Maria and Elizabeth with a satisfied smile on her face. “You say the compliment was not for you, Eliza,” Charlotte said as she pulled a needle through her sampler, “and yet do no think I did not see how Mr. Darcy spoke nearly exclusively to you.”

“We merely spoke of acquaintances,” Elizabeth shrugged. “Recall that I had met his aunt and sister.”

“The Baroness!” Maria exclaimed. “But she is nothing to Lady Catherine. I wonder at a woman of superior rank, like Lady Darcy, being so friendly with the lower classes.”

Elizabeth looked out the window, longing for solitude with her thoughts and sketch book. The Lucases had strange opinions on the matter of rank. Well, truthfully, most would say the Bennets had an irreverent attitude toward them while the Lucases merely upheld traditional values.

The day wore on as it usually did. Elizabeth supposed she would need to speak with Charlotte soon about visiting Rosings. Miss de Bourgh was correct. She had read all the books she cared to at the Parsonage. She could not be out of doors the entire day. And if facing Lady Catherine and her daughter’s scrutiny would afford her a break from the tedium of life and worry of her sisters, she would welcome it.

As day slipped to evening, Elizabeth considered her continued concern over Wickham’s words. It was unlike Elizabeth to not laugh matters away. Additionally, it was unlike her to not long for more information. As a general rule, she enjoyed learning, and she had already listened to Wickham on the matter. Why did she continually deter Darcy from sharing his version of events? Gathering her courage, she determined to face her fears and doubts head on. She would find a way to speak to Darcy privately as he walked in the morning.


Dear C,

I am pleased you benefitted from staying with us. You have experienced a rogue and have now met some intellectual gentlemen old enough to be your father. You are young yet, though, do not give up. The right man will come at last.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Elizabeth walked along a path at Rosings. She thought this was the one Colonel Fitzwilliam mentioned Mr. Darcy favoured. She could hardly account for her reasons. She knew Wickham was not to be trusted and resolved to consider Darcy’s character to be as she knew it before ever meeting Wickham. She could not say she liked him at all, but she did not hate him.

Aside from desiring to settle the matter of sketching his character, she realised it was wise to strike a friendship with him. She was inclined to think Wickham a madman or stupid but felt it prudent to confirm this in some way, and Wickham claimed to know Darcy well; knowledge should go both ways. Darcy had called on the Parsonage yesterday and, while apparently finding the place wanting, was entirely civil and went out of his way to express concern over their conversation weeks ago.

A movement down the lane caught her eye, but still, she was surprised to hear, “Miss Bennet!  What a beautiful morning for a walk. Do you often favour this grove?

“Good morning, Mr. Darcy. I do indeed enjoy this path the most.”

Now that she was not blinded by prejudice, she found it difficult to read Mr. Darcy’s face. She thought she saw a glimmer of happiness or pleasure, but it was likely just at being away from Rosings. In another instant, he wore the haughty expression she recalled so well from Hertfordshire.

Well, he is not so bad as Wickham would say, but that does not excuse his behaviour to the rest of Hertfordshire, nor does it change the fact that he dislikes me. But since there is no proof that he is dishonourable as Wickham has claimed, I have every hope that he shall help.

They had lapsed into silence, though Mr. Darcy seemed on the verge of speaking many times. Deciding that her family was worth this discomfort, Elizabeth decided to push forward with her request.

She could not meet his eyes and instead watched her feet. “Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature and have confessed to unjustly listening to tales defaming your character. I would very much like to hear what you have to say against Mr. Wickham so I might learn the truth.”

Darcy was silent for several minutes before he spoke in a gruff voice. “I do not know particularly what he has said of me, or under what manner of falsehood he has imposed upon you.”

His words immediately brought Elizabeth’s head up. It was as though he had thought she was in love with Wickham!  She wet her lips and replied with hesitation. “I do not know why Mr. Wickham chose to confide in me. I suppose I seemed willing to hear his lies.” She blushed and swallowed back the bitter taste that invaded her mouth. “I assure you, however, I did not seek such information, which was accepted only in the excitement of new friendship, nor was I vowed to secrecy; indeed he soon related his tale of woe to the whole of the area.”

Elizabeth watched Darcy’s face as it seemed he relaxed as she spoke before turning white in anger with her final words. She could see how tightly he clenched his jaw, and she despised herself for so tactlessly telling him an entire county hated him based on the lies of a cad. She winced at the impropriety of it all. As a Bennet, she seemed cursed to always say and do the wrong thing.

“Do not reproach yourself for my sake,” Darcy said gently. “Detection was not in your power and suspicion is not in your inclination. Allow me a moment to gather my thoughts.”

Elizabeth remained silent as they slowly walked through the grove. New life had begun to bud on the trees in the weeks since her arrival. Every day brought subtle changes. She envied how quickly nature could change. And yet, it remained constant as well. She knew that by now the maple near Longbourn would be putting forth leaves, and the roses would soon bloom.

“If you will allow us to sit here,” Darcy’s words interrupted Elizabeth’s thoughts, and he motioned to a fallen log near the path, “I will tell you everything of my dealings with that man.”

Darcy patted the trunk. “It is clean and dry here, Miss Bennet. Nor did I see any insects.” He stepped aside to allow her to sit.

Elizabeth smirked at his consideration. “I have sat in wet grass many times and am not afraid of the crawling inhabitants of the forest. It is much more their home than mine.”

Darcy slightly smiled, and Elizabeth released a breath she did not realise she had been holding. He must be used to well-bred ladies who seldom stirred out of doors. Next, he sat on the log and exhaled. He stared into the distance and related his tale.

In many respects, it was the mirror image of what Wickham had told her. When old Mr. Darcy died, it was recommended that his son help establish Wickham in the church. However, Darcy explained that Wickham soon gave up any such claim, and instead stated he chose the law. He had been bequeathed one thousand pounds already and then requested an additional three thousand pounds for his studies and living expenses in lieu of the living. Darcy had long before lost his good opinion of Wickham and considered him ill-suited for the church, so agreed and such seemed the end of their acquaintance. Darcy could not speak to the particulars of Wickham’s existence but believed the man lived a very dissipated life with no sincere intention of becoming a barrister.

Darcy had indeed given the living Wickham hoped for to another man when it fell vacant. However, Wickham had neglected to include in his tale the fact that he had been compensated at his own request. Some while later, when he had exhausted his funds, Wickham approached Darcy asking for the living to be reinstated and, when Darcy refused, abused Darcy in foul language which he did not hesitate to spread near and far.

“You asked me weeks ago if I believed Wickham capable of plotting and, unfortunately, I do. Although I had thought all acquaintance between us severed, he intruded most painfully in my life last summer. His motive was financial, but I do not doubt he intended some kind of revenge on me as well, regardless of any harm to others.”

Elizabeth watched Darcy clench his hands at his side, his frame taut. At the time Elizabeth could scarcely guess what Wickham had done and was troubled to have Wickham’s sanity defended. While Wickham had appeared at ease with his retelling of events, Darcy’s visceral reactions held far more weight than all of Wickham’s pleasant smiles ever could. She fell silent and was surprised when Darcy finally spoke again.

“I am pleased you broached this topic, Miss Bennet,” he turned his attention from the distance to her face. “Often times, in the last several months I had considered returning to the neighbourhood as I know what Wickham is.”

The earnestness in his features pressed Elizabeth to confess more of what she heard. It was far too embarrassing to admit it all. “I fear he has plans to elope with my sister, Lydia.”

Darcy stiffened, and his face took a grim look. “How do you come to such a conclusion?”

“I overheard him speaking with other men.” Elizabeth could not meet Darcy’s eyes as she blushed, recalling what else Wickham had said. Surely the part about Darcy admiring her was false. Nor would she ever plot to ensnare him.

“What has been done to stop the plans? I assume your father has taken measures.”

“I never told him,” she said and twisted her hands. “I heard it the day before leaving for Kent. I had not thought there much truth in his words or that Lydia would agree to such a scheme.”

Darcy jerkily nodded. “I regret to tell you, last summer he made plans to elope with a young lady far more sedate than your sister. It was interrupted by the merest chance.”

Elizabeth knew he had been kind in his description of Lydia but blushed all the same.

Darcy stood and began pacing, “I need to speak with my cousin, the Colonel. Do I have your leave to explain what you heard?  You may be assured of his secrecy.”

“Yes, of course. I am sorry to have to involve you, and now your cousin, especially considering Wickham’s history of abuse towards your family.”

“I am honoured to be of service. Now, I must quickly depart to speak with my cousin. Is it possible to meet with you again tomorrow, to acquaint you with any plans or news?”

“Yes, sir, I thank you. I am usually walking by eight. I will write my father as well.”

They walked back to the Parsonage gate in silence. Darcy bowed over Elizabeth’s hand and said, “Until tomorrow, Miss Bennet.”

“Thank you again, Mr. Darcy. Until tomorrow.”  Then with one long parting glance, he was gone.

When Elizabeth returned to the Parsonage, she was besieged by Charlotte. She twisted her hands as she met Elizabeth in the entry.

“My dear Charlotte, whatever is the matter?”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam called. He seemed to wish to see you and waited nearly an hour before leaving.”

Elizabeth furrowed her brows. “I cannot understand why he would wait so long. We have only just met.”

“Hence my disconcertion.” Charlotte looked over her shoulder. When she spoke again, she whispered. “Mr. Collins is very upset that the Colonel would ask after you so minutely after just making your acquaintance. He has determined something untoward on your part must be happening.”

“Untoward!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“Hush!” Charlotte said in a harsh whisper.

“You cannot seriously believe I have done something improper,” Elizabeth spoke through clenched teeth. “Additionally, why does your husband not blame the Colonel? He witnessed our single encounter.”

“Beware, Eliza. Ladies always catch the blame for such entanglements.” Charlotte wet her lips and lowered her eyes. “Normally, I would not hesitate to promote a match with either of her ladyship’s nephews, but everything must be done properly.”

Elizabeth huffed. “There is nothing to this imagined impropriety! I was not even present. If I had designs on him, would I not take care to stay at home for his possible visit?”

Charlotte nodded. “Very good. That may make some sense to my husband.”

“I am certain the Colonel is only bored at Rosings. Would it not be worse if he appeared overly friendly with a married lady or Maria?”

“True.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “Is what angers Mr. Collins that Colonel Fitzwilliam preferred waiting for my presence rather than enjoying his company?”

“Please,” Charlotte said and held her hands up to stave off Elizabeth’s verbal assault. “You do not understand how his duties weigh on him.”

“Such an abominable mixture of insecurity and conceit!” Elizabeth muttered. Were there any gentlemen who did not contain a combination of the two?

The door to Mr. Collins’ library swung open, and he spoke without looking up from the book he held. “Mrs. Collins!”

“Yes, dear?” Charlotte’s voice was sweeter than Elizabeth had ever heard, and she tried not to gag at the facade of this marriage.

Mr. Collins looked up, startled to hear his wife so near. His eyes narrowed on Elizabeth’s and, if she had ever been afraid of looks before, she might fear he meant her harm. “Ah, Miss Bennet.”

It seemed all the friendly “Cousin Elizabeths” were over. She did not mourn their loss. “Good morrow, Sir,” she said with a false smile.

The look of displeasure on his face heightened. “In my home, you will take care to quell your Jezebel arts.”

Elizabeth gasped at the insult. Heat slapped her face and her heart hammered in her chest. Anger surged through her veins. She opened her mouth to verbally slay him when Charlotte placed a hand on her arm. Elizabeth clamped her jaw so tightly she winced at the pain.

“Please, sir. You have witnessed her good manners and know her Christian heart.” Charlotte left Elizabeth’s side and came to her husband. She turned a smile on Elizabeth as though it would alleviate the torture of this scene. “Do you not believe education and prayer can reform? It was most inspiring in your latest sermon.”

Mr. Collins sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “Very true, my dear. As always you are a balm to my soul.” He looked at her with adoration and Elizabeth thought she would cast up her accounts on the polished wood floor.

He bowed his head in Elizabeth’s direction. “You will permit me the liberty of my ill-temper, I am sure.”

Was that his attempt at an apology?

“Mrs. Collins has reminded me that there are several works I would have you read while you are here.” Charlotte dutifully entered the study to retrieve the pile of books. Mr. Collins continued speaking. “You will find these most informative, I am sure. As you read them, I would charge you with reflecting on how you can mould your character as Mrs. Collins has done. You have every advantage before you with education, acquaintance, and age. I am determined you will do nothing to sully the Collins name.”

Elizabeth remained standing still with her jaw locked tight. Charlotte approached with an apologetic look but held several tomes out for Elizabeth to take. If they expected her to thank them or appear contrite, they could not be more mistaken. They stood before her, Mr. Collins seeming to think that a stern look would propel her to say something and Charlotte twisted her hands in non-verbal apology.

A sound on the road drew their notice. “Oh! It is Miss de Bourgh!” Mr. Collins exclaimed. As he walked to the door, he said, “I would charge you Miss Bennet with following Miss de Bourgh’s example in all things. You cannot meet with a more virtuous lady.”

Mr. Collins opened the door and immediately began his awkward bowing while quickly shuffling down the walk. Charlotte followed sedately behind. Maria entered the hallway. “Eliza, I did not hear you return. Are you well?”

Elizabeth made no response and Maria’s eyes were drawn to the road, and she also left to pay homage to the heiress of Rosings. Elizabeth’s fingers curled tightly around the conduct books. Finally releasing her locked jaw, she walked up the stairs to her room on wooden legs.

*****

Darcy smiled as he took the steps to Rosings two at a time. Despite the discussion about Wickham, he was pleased to see Elizabeth and that she had trusted him with the truth. He sensed that such disclosures did not come easily to her. He only regretted that she did not allow him to see to matters entirely. As a guardian, however, he recognised that it was only natural for a lady to defer to her father. Until such a time that she would place all her trust in her husband. Darcy’s smile grew.

“What has you grinning?” Richard asked. He stood leaning against the wall in the entry as though he awaited Darcy’s arrival. “The charming Miss Bennet?”

“I do not know what you mean,” Darcy said.

“Well, she was not at the Parsonage when I called.”

Darcy shrugged his shoulders. “The lady enjoys walking. Can you blame her?”

“No,” Richard shook his head. “But that Collins barely gave me a minute’s peace to talk with the ladies the hour I was there.”

“An hour!” Darcy’s eyebrows rose.

“You should thank me,” Richard shrugged.

Darcy tilted his head toward the stairs and began climbing them. Richard followed suit. Once safely in his chamber, he turned and scrutinised his cousin. “Why should I thank you for torturing yourself with Collins’ endless praise?”

“If you did not think there was merit to my claim, and would very much like your actions to remain private, why did you assure our privacy?” Richard stared back.

Darcy shook his head. It was useless attempting to ferret information out of his cousin, nor conceal it. The man had been trained in interrogation. “I thank you for staying at the Collinses for an hour because…” He waved his hand for Richard to continue.

“Because now no one will suspect your interest in Miss Bennet.”

Darcy’s spine stiffened, and his senses heightened. “What did you do?”

“Cool your porridge. I only asked after her whereabouts and a few other questions although she was not present. Enough to make it seem I was the one interested in her.”

“Richard!” Darcy clenched his hands but kept them at his sides.

“What?” His cousin said and walked to a chair. He settled himself in it and crossed his legs. “What have I done to offend the high and mighty Master of Pemberley, now?”

Darcy stalked over to the other chair. “It creates quite a conflict for her to appear to have engaged your affections while here.”

Richard blinked confusedly. “Engaged my affections?” He knit his brows. “Creates a conflict of interest how? Like the other mistresses of Richmond — I do recommend Richmond by the way — will have a care. My actions assured Lady Catherine would no reason to assume you meant to bed the chit.”

Darcy shot out of his chair, and it took all of his control to not pummel his cousin. His face burned as blood churned through his body and Richard’s shocked expression told Darcy he must have looked a terror.

“You are my cousin and one of my closest friends, but if you ever dare to insult the woman I intend to marry again, I will tear you apart from limb to limb,” Darcy growled.

“Marry!” Richard stood as well. “Marry! When you could have any lady. Daughters of dukes vie for you, vast fortunes. You could be master of this very estate!” He stretched an arm around as though Darcy had never before seen the expensive tapestries and furnishings.

“It means nothing,” Darcy said allowing some of his previous anger to dissipate.

“Nothing!” Richard echoed as though he did not understand the word. “Only a man who lived in luxury his whole life could think of giving it up so easily.”

“I won’t be giving anything up. I’ll not lose Pemberley simply because I wed a lady with no connections.”

“And her dowry?”

“She likely brings nothing to the marriage, but I have no worries,” Darcy said firmly.

“I am glad to hear you do so well,” Richard said. “You have thought of Georgiana?”

“Elizabeth will be a sterling model of behaviour for Georgie. She needs more confidence and liveliness, and an understanding sister.” A soft smile pulled at Darcy’s lips as he considered the two ladies together. “She has younger sisters and is very close to them.”

“Yes, about her family,” Richard resumed his seat and toyed with a cuff link, but Darcy was not put off by his cousin’s nonchalance. He was probing. Whether it was for their aunt or the Earl or merely his own prejudices, Darcy was unsure, but Richard had set himself up as a defender of Darcy’s name.

“I am not duped by her charms,” Darcy said, at last, frowning.

“Multiple as they may be,” Richard winked. “You hedge on her family which means they must be objectionable. Society will not be kind to her. At least she is not born on the wrong side of the blanket or had a history of employment.”

Darcy scowled again at the hint of Elizabeth and prostitution, as Richard’s reference to employment was a euphemism for. “The Bennet family want sense and connections. Her mother came from trade, but her father is a gentleman. Remember you speak of a lady!”

“I promise,” Richard held up his hands, and Darcy felt his pulse rate lower. “You may not like it, but my interrogation is far kinder than you will receive from any of our relatives and Society as a whole.”

“Who would reproach her? The biddies at Almacks. It’s well-known the Countess of Jersey’s mother was in trade. Indeed, the Countess owns the majority of Child’s Bank! Elizabeth will have Darcy wealth behind her, no one will dare breathe a word against us.” Unlike Richard, Darcy remained standing. He fought the urge to pace.

“They will not take kindly to a fortune hunter,” Richard said after several minutes of silence.

Darcy guffawed. “A fortune hunter! Everyone in the ton is fortune hunting! Have I not had every silly nitwit debutante flung upon me for nigh on a decade now, simply because I am wealthy? They could care less about my character or expect me to care about theirs.”

Now, Darcy did pace. “I am told that such and such lady can dance or speak French with ease. I am forced to feign admiration at lame attempts at art. And not for the family gallery mind you, or for general appreciation. Oh, no. They are merely for firescreens or embroidered samplers that, if lucky, will hang on a wall instead of being soiled by a December nose!”

Darcy flung himself in his chair, his pique over. His chest heaved, and he loosened his cravat to take deep breaths. His display was hardly gentlemanly, and nothing like the calm and collected man he was known to be, but Elizabeth had always stirred passions in him.

“Fortune hunter!” Darcy exclaimed again. “Let them see us. They will know we married for affection.”

Richard stared at Darcy in silence for several minutes. “Affection? Disdain for Society’s values? To hear you speak now, I would hardly know you.”

Darcy shook his head and leant forward, placing his elbows on his knees. Cradling his jaw in his palms, he stared unseeing at the ostentatious wallpaper across the room framing a portrait of some long ago distant relative. “I love her.”

The firmness of the words shocked even Darcy. For the first time he ever spoke them aloud, he had not expected to sound so assured or proud. He had expected to feel humiliated with being ruled by his emotions, but everything about Elizabeth utterly defied logic. She was not a servant or courtesan. Their marriage would be unlikely, but not unheard of.

“You. Love. Her.” Richard enunciated each word. “You love her? And you think, what? That love will erase all of Society’s arguments against you? That love is all you need?”

No, it was not the only tool they needed. Darcy was no fool. He would require support from Lady Darcy, and Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam if they would extend it. Beyond his family, Darcy was not without friends with money and influence. He could not be accused of having been the most friendly man in his eight and twenty years, but most overlooked his gruffness to stay in his good graces. “What would you have me do?”

“Bed her, do not wed her.”

“How poetic,” Darcy glared. “Something one of your opera light-skirts taught you?”

Richard laughed. “You asked what I would do, not what should be done. Well, despite my raking you over the coals just now, I will support you – whatever little help the second son of an earl will be.”

Darcy leant back, feeling as though a weight left his shoulders. He rested his head on the back of the chair. “Only tell me you will not insinuate anymore that you wish to debauch her.”

“Well, if you think she should have a proper education before coming to your bed…”

“Richard,” Darcy growled. Although he knew his cousin jested, he did not care for associating Elizabeth with such imagery.

“I do enjoy riling you,” Richard said. “If Pemberley does ever go under you have the gumption of many a serjeant I know.”

They shared a smile for a moment before Darcy’s fell. “I do need your assistance.”

Richard nodded, and Darcy told him of his conversation with Elizabeth.

“She is fortunate he did not know she was there!” Richard exclaimed when Darcy had finished. “Do you think Mr. Bennet will be of any use?”

Darcy stroke his jaw in thought. “I should think better of the man I hope to make my father-in-law, but I do not believe he will take Elizabeth’s letter seriously — if he reads it all, which even she admitted was a possibility. My own father had refused to see the truth of Wickham’s character.”

“Uncle Darcy also had known Wickham from an infant and had no daughters’ virtue to protect.”

“No, but I did,” Darcy said. The familiar self-hatred whipped at his heart lashing open old and new wounds. No more, he told himself. I met Elizabeth after the pain. The experience has a purpose now.

Richard did not offer absolution and Darcy did not seek it. They had argued years before about Darcy keeping Wickham’s behaviour a secret from Georgiana, and now both knew which man had been right. It was not a mistake Darcy would allow to happen again.

“Last autumn, you offered to use your connections to transfer Wickham. I would ask that you now do so,” Darcy said.

Richard nodded in agreement. “It will take a few weeks. Do you believe you have the time?”

“Elizabeth writing to her father is not the only idea I have, but we must tread carefully. You can hardly expect a family to thank you for interfering in their affairs.”

“Will they not soon be your family as well?” Richard asked.

“Elizabeth and I have no understanding, at present, and I think it unlikely that we can reach one while at Rosings. Our aunt…”

“Yes,” Richard frowned. “And with me away, she will desire you at the house even more than usual.”

“Indeed.” Darcy tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, wishing the days would speed by. A few stolen moments with Elizabeth each morning was not nearly enough while other lovers were able to enjoy entire days with their beloveds. However, Richard had spoken the truth earlier, and this would not be their last trial. He wisely kept complaints to himself, allowing that one word to represent all that surged in the sea of emotion residing in his heart.


Dear C—

When did you last indulge your love of art? Come with me to Bath again. There is a new drawing master I wish you to meet. There is talk that the King will finally agree to an establishment of Britain’s finest artists.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eight

After a night of little sleep, Elizabeth arose even earlier than usual for the day. She walked to the grove and had brought a book with her expecting to wait nearly an hour before Darcy, and hopefully not his cousin, appeared. Elizabeth believed she needed the solitude to steady her thoughts. Charlotte had come to Elizabeth’s chamber yesterday evening and attempted to apologise for the scene with her husband. Elizabeth tried to view things from her friend’s perspective. She had little control over her husband’s opinion or mouth. Even still, Elizabeth did not think she could ever remain silent while her spouse scolded her friend for imaginary sins.

She should not have been surprised to hear her name called out immediately, and yet she was. “Good day, Miss Bennet!”

Elizabeth plastered a false smile on her face. It turned genuine when she discovered Colonel Fitzwilliam did not join his cousin. The man had seemed gentlemanly at their first encounter, but she rather thought it rude of him to ask after her so minutely. Of course, he had no way of anticipating her cousin’s eccentricities. Elizabeth greeted Mr. Darcy and inquired after the Colonel.

“Was the Colonel was still abed when you left? It must be nearly nine now, surely he will happen our way soon then.”

Belatedly she realised Darcy had ceased walking. She turned to look at him with an eager face, and he finally moved forward again. “No, he left at dawn.” He paused for a moment. “I am sorry to have delayed in relaying the plans to you. You must be anxious to hear them.”

They resumed walking. “Actually, it was a welcome respite from my worries.”

Darcy gave her a slight smile. “I am glad to be of service. Richard seeks to have Wickham transferred to another regiment. We worry he would become vengeful if he were suddenly treated differently with his current regiment. As he is certain I am out to ruin his life, knows I frequently visit my aunt this time of year, and knows you are here, it would take little for him to assume I was behind his change in acceptance, and it was by your information I chose to act.”

Elizabeth saw the wisdom in the plan and nodded.

Darcy continued, “I also intend to journey to Longbourn to speak with your father. Wickham likely has debts he will not pay, so I will collect those. Does this meet with your approval?”

Elizabeth disliked his presumption. Her letter to her father had just gone out in the morning post, and they had not discussed this possibility yesterday. “When will you go to Longbourn?”

“I had thought to wait until Wickham was gone. It should only be a matter of days. It is not improbable he will find some other means of harming your family, so I thought it best to explain his history to your father.”

Chewing her bottom lip, Elizabeth considered the best way to voice her concerns. “Mr. Darcy, you will recall yesterday I apologised for believing Wickham’s lies against you. I explained he was telling the whole community of it. Perhaps you think I am silly enough to be charmed by a handsome face—”

“I would never believe that of you,” he said with surprising vehemence.

“It is near enough the truth,” she shook her head, unwilling to accept his kindness. “I am so ashamed, all due to my wounded vanity. Perhaps you think the rest of the neighbourhood silly and thriving on gossip. However, I hope you have seen my father has more intelligence about him.”

“I have,” Darcy gave a slight nod.

Elizabeth took perverse enjoyment in getting him to agree to her father’s intelligence for what followed was his just desserts. “He also believed Wickham’s accounts of you.”

Darcy whipped his head in her direction and flushed. “Your father had no difficulty believing this of me?”

His words ceased her movement. His rebuke toward her father was more than Elizabeth could stand. Anger simmered in her veins, and she grit her teeth until she could reply with tolerable civility. “How can we know a man but by his actions and words? You disapproved of all of Hertfordshire. You would not speak to nearly a soul! You showed yourself to be proud and disagreeable. It would be no hardship to believe you denied a servant’s son — whether out of pride or jealousy — a valuable living and dishonoured your father’s will. Had I not noticed Wickham’s lies and inconsistencies I could easily believe it of you still; even if I allowed Wickham to not be everything he wishes others to believe.”

Darcy was silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth perceived he was searching for composure. Taking a few deep breaths, he finally replied tersely. “Very well. I have offended the entire county, and your father will not listen to me. Should I send someone in my stead?”

Elizabeth noted he did not apologise or seem overly concerned by the opinions of those so far below him. “How many people know of your history with Wickham?” she asked.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam was one of the executor’s of my father’s will. He knows the details of it and of when Wickham gave up the claim to the living and was fairly compensated for it. Bingley knows as well.”

Elizabeth was surprised, for Bingley did not divulge information on Wickham when asked by Jane at the Netherfield ball. “That might be enough to discredit Wickham’s dislike of you but will it be enough to make my father see that Wickham is a threat to the community?”

“Your father cannot be so naive as to think most soldiers behave like true gentlemen.”

“Did not your own father know Wickham and fall for his lies for years?” How dare he rebuke her father when his own was guilty of so much more.

Darcy took a step toward Elizabeth. Passion and fire snapped in his blue eyes. His voice came out as a ragged and harsh whisper. “My father was very grateful to his steward. Father inherited an estate in need of repairs and revitalization. Mr. Wickham proved very capable. He guided my father and taught him to be the best landlord and master. People of the area still speak his name with devotion and reverence. He believed he owed his steward very much. You should not criticise what you do not know!”

Elizabeth took a step forward. She arched her head to meet his eyes. “That is very fine coming from you!” Suddenly, she could feel heat radiating off Mr. Darcy

“What can you mean?”

Anger emanated from his frame, but Elizabeth would not back down. She approached even closer. “Your dislike for anyone not of your rank and wealth!” Her neck tilted back more and she straightened her spine. She would not be made to feel small even if he were so tall. “You feel superior in every possible way without knowing the person at all.”

“We are not all blessed with making friends quickly. Did you not learn recently to not judge a character by that?”

Elizabeth persevered, unfazed by his intent to wound her pride. Lacing her words with as much hatred as possible, she continued. “And for those you do know there is not a friend you have that you do not interfere with, is there? You always know the best way for everyone!”

“What is this of my friends? Speak plainly, madam. I would understand your accusations.” His voice had a mocking quality.

Elizabeth held onto her anger so tightly she feared she might actually snap in half. Looking now at his smug face, so sure she had no weight behind her words, she held nothing back. “I have no doubt Mr. Bingley’s sister played a role as well, but I am confident you played the greater part in separating my most beloved sister from the man she loved! You decided my sister’s love would not be enough to make him happy.” Her chest heaved, but she rejoiced in seeing her verbal punch landed full force. Colour drained from Darcy’s face. “That fortune and rank — that your sister would be a better match!”

“Good God woman! What has happened to your intelligence? I had taken you to be the cleverest woman of my acquaintance!”

She gasped. “My intelligence is not in question—”

He interrupted and spoke over her. “Bingley violently in love with your sister! Would a man violently in love be able to give up so easily? Would he give up love for a greater match as you suggest?”

“And you did nothing to help him? You journeyed to London to keep him away!” Elizabeth clenched her hands. Growing up with four sisters with high spirits she was no stranger to fisticuffs and, at the moment, desired to scratch out Mr. Darcy’s brilliant blue eyes.

Darcy laughed hollowly. “He liked your sister very much, and I am sorry if he raised her expectations, but I did not perceive any particular regard from her. When I questioned Bingley about it, he was uncertain as well. In a match with no fortune or connection, which is sure to be spurned by society, there should at least be mutual regard to ensure marital tranquillity.”

Darcy’s words jolted Elizabeth. She had not thought he considered matters with such sound logic. “Do you deny your assistance in the matter?”

“I have no wish to deny it,” he said and shook his head. “However, you would lay it all at my door. You will not entertain the idea that it was impossible to know if your sister even liked Bingley with the way your mother declared a match between them? It never crossed your mind that to attach himself to a family with such disadvantages — such improper behaviour — Bingley needed to be assured of his attachment.”

“It matters not if you are innocent in such a charge!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “From the first moment of our acquaintance, your arrogance and conceit built a dislike that was firmly in place before a month was over.”

Pain flooded Darcy’s eyes. Moderating his voice, he said slowly, “You believed Wickham’s lies of me. You think I interfered with my dear friend’s happiness for my own desire — perhaps even my own good as you seem to believe I prefer him for Georgiana. You think that I am proud and disdainful to all around me. Can you truly say I have behaved as such? Why do you persist in disliking me so?”

“Because you dislike me! Without even a proper introduction you believed me unworthy of even a dance!” Her face had turned red long ago, but she felt a fresh wave of heat slap her cheeks. She turned her face from him.

Darcy dipped his head, and his breath tickled her ear. She could not see his face but was now so close she could feel his chest move with each exhalation. She felt the raw emotion in his voice. “Dislike! Unworthy? I seem to recall asking you to dance thrice before receiving a favourable answer. Certainly, you noticed I did not pay such attentions and persistence to any other lady.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “You asked to mock me.” She suppressed a sob. This was all far too much. She had been dreadfully wrong first about Wickham and now Darcy? She refused to believe his words. “I know I am not handsome enough to tempt you! You declared it so yourself!”

Darcy stepped back as though she struck him. He remained silent for several minutes, and Elizabeth felt his eyes compelling her to turn and face him. She would not.

“You are determined to judge me from the words of one evening,” he sounded weary and defeated. “Your feelings are perfectly clear to me. I can only apologise for taking up so much of your time.”

Darcy turned and left Elizabeth trembling in the grove. She immediately burst into tears.

******

Darcy walked away from Elizabeth, on legs that followed their own course. How the limbs moved when his heart had been meleèd by Elizabeth’s lashing, he knew not. Blood somehow still circulated through his body but all the while, he felt as though life had left him. How did one live if their heart did not beat? How did one exist when they could not breathe? He loosened his cravat.

How had he not seen it before? Recalling their previous conversations, it now appeared clear to him. Elizabeth Bennet believed he disliked her. She thought he had found her inferior and not worthy of his notice. And it had hurt her.

Darcy had long noted the lady’s bravery. However, the sharpness of tongue she just displayed only came out when she was hurt and embarrassed. What had it cost her pride to declare she had known of his supposed dislike? Darcy shook his head. He did not believe he could debase himself before anyone in such a way.

He could scarcely remember the words he had uttered to Bingley the night he had first seen Elizabeth. Had he found her less than beautiful? But that was only when he first knew her. He had yet to understand the teasing glint in her eye, the way they shined in amusement. He had not become fascinated with the arch of her brow or the graceful line of her neck. He had not clasped her hand in his as he led her to the dance floor and felt his blood surge in response as an animal instinct declared “She is mine!”

It was also before he had been separated from her for months before a chance meeting brought her back to him. It was before he knew the thrill of excitement as he counted the days until their next meeting — here, at a place that he had hated his whole life. Each night he spent in the company of titled and wealthy debutantes, he instead longed for Elizabeth’s conversation. Each outing with a bluestocking thrust at his side made him appreciate Elizabeth’s liveliness all the more.

She was not the most beautiful lady — at least not by the standards of the world. Nor was she the most intelligent, although he had no doubt she could learn anything she desired. She could add nothing to his material comforts.

For all the reasons he should not love her, nothing could cease his passion. Not just to know her intimately as only a husband should, but to savour each moment when she smiled, to hear each teasing retort. He wanted to consume her heart and soul the way she did his.

Darcy ceased his walking. The way she consumed him. A chill swept over his body. How arrogant he had been! Now, removed from her side he allowed himself to feel the full weight of her disapproval. She abhorred him!

This time, his heart shuddered to a stop, and he rubbed a hand over the ache in his chest. His presumptuous words even yesterday to Richard about her affection driving away the belief she was a fortune hunter echoed hollowly in his ears.

But why did she hate him so? Because of the first comment to Bingley? Had he not given her attention at every turn? Could she not understand how he cared for her? Perhaps she hated him because she perceived his regard but twice before he did not play the suitor.

Finally, the pain in his heart eased, and he stalked off the path to sit under a tree. His friends had always teased him for his fastidiousness. He was meticulous in his planning and methodological in his business. For this reason, many, like Richard, had assumed he did not hold emotions in high regard. They could not be more incorrect. To overcome his sentiment, Darcy relied on sense and logic. And despite all his planning, he had never thought he would fall in love and certainly not unintentionally. In recent days, he had been so surprised by the truth he had not spared thought to question if Elizabeth reciprocated his regard or how to court her and win her favour.

Darcy scrutinised several possibilities. He could be forthright. He could even avoid mention of love entirely. She could not be senseless to his situation in life. However, Anne had said that Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins. While Darcy flattered himself that she must prefer him — or anyone — to her cousin, it did not follow that she would marry for monetary gain.

What did she require in a spouse? Darcy considered all he knew of her. In his catalogue of memories of her, there were as many instances of her playfulness as there were occasions of her embarrassed by her family. Heat crept up Darcy’s face. Had that agony been because of him? She had presumed he found fault with them — and he did; never even caring to disguise the truth. He had thought they were of like minds about her family, but, in reality, his dislike had only served to hurt her and make her hate him in return.

What she deserved was respect. Someone should accept her with any flaws she might have, including her family. He had always treated her as an equal and allowed for her opinion even when they debated but was that the same as respect? Many men were his equals in rank, but he did not respect them. He did not care for their opinions or allow their words to hold any weight with him. Instead, Bingley, a man of lesser rank, meant far more to him. He respected Bingley, and as such he bore with his friend’s sister. Likewise, he respected Lady Catherine for her position in his family.

Darcy rested his elbows on his bent knees and dragged his hands over his face. He had respected aspects of Elizabeth, but as long as he could not accept her family and situation in life, he could not say he respected the whole of her. What a lesson! He now saw his treatment of her the first night, which must have built her dislike, stemmed from his disrespect for society as a whole. However, he would not dare voice it in a crowded London ballroom. How insulting that he did so in Meryton!

He was not a man used to seeking others’ good opinion in life. At some point, that transformed into treating everyone with disdain. As such, he did not have the first clue how to articulate his revelation to Elizabeth.

If he had thought before declaring his sentiments of love and devotion were nigh on impossible, Darcy was now hopelessly lost. Still, no one had ever accused him of cowardice. Uncertain how to dispel Elizabeth’s opinion of him or if she could ever alter it, he determined he must, at least, apologise. Validating her feelings when only moments ago he criticised them was surely the first step in demonstrating his new found respect.

Gathering his courage, he stood and dusted himself off. Glancing down the path, he saw Elizabeth still standing on the road. His heart constricted as he considered the pain he must have caused her. Why had she not moved? It was unlike her to not be moving. As he grew closer, he saw her hands on her face, and her shoulders shake.

Darcy’s heart shattered as he realised his arrogance and selfish disdain for the feelings of others caused the beautiful and strong woman before him to resort to tears. Quelling the urge to pull her into his embrace and kiss away each tear, he instead spoke her name.


Dear C—

I am delighted to hear of you have seen our cousin’s new baby girl. A pity she would rather wish for a son. I would suggest she spend more time with her aunt as I know my mother has always wished to be closer to her brother-in-law’s children. When you marry I hope you will not think sons are the only children worth having. Your uncle loves our girls.

Your Aunt,

A.F.

 

Chapter Nine

As much as she tried to tell herself otherwise, Elizabeth could not mistake the look of pain and hurt in Darcy’s eyes as he left. She had done so much more than wound his vanity. Is that what she wanted all along?

Elizabeth thought over the history of her acquaintance with Darcy. She barely spoke to him without wishing to cause him pain. When had she become such a spiteful creature?

Elizabeth knew not how long she stood in place, alone and crying until she felt someone leading her off the path again.

“Miss Bennet, are you well?” Mr. Darcy had returned!

She could not answer. What must he think of her? Never before in her life had she been so cruel to a person! Always, always he provoked her past the point of civility! She allowed herself to be tugged into a sitting position.

“Please, do not cry for my sake.”

When she still did not speak, she felt something entirely unexpected. Mr. Darcy pulled her into his arms and held her! Near a public path on his aunt’s estate! All men from Derbyshire must be mad!

She pulled back from his arms and looked up at his face. “Mr. Darcy…”

“Shhh…”

This was madness! Why did he still hold her? Why did she let him?

This time she pushed against him, intent on rebuking him but something in the way he watched her stilled her tongue. She had said enough for one day. How long would she hold a grudge for one statement eight months ago?

“I cannot bear to be the cause for your tears and distress,” he said with an unfathomable gentleness.

Who was this man? Not the Mr. Darcy she knew in Hertfordshire, or even thus far in Kent. He let go of her and Elizabeth was nearly positive she saw regret etched on his face. Yes, he must regret speaking to her if she could not even keep a civil tongue and then resort to tears!

She said nothing as he sat beside her looking straight ahead. She was certain she had the most dumbstruck look on her face.

“Do you truly believe I dislike you and think so little of everyone around me?” His voice was quiet and uncertain.

Still not trusting herself to look at him, she fixed her gaze on the distance. “I confess it has been my firmest opinion these many months.”

Darcy was silent for many moments and Elizabeth hazarded a glance in his direction. Now his eyes remained forward, but she saw his jaw clenched tight and a muscle twitching near his eye.

Darcy plucked a blade of grass and focused on shredding it into small pieces while he spoke. “I do not mean to offend. I become nervous meeting new people. They all look at me, are judging me, estimating my income, presenting their daughters to me, approaching me with a business proposition, wanting to meet my uncle.

“More than that, with all the unwanted attention I am under constant scrutiny. I have been careful to not besmirch my family name. It is one reason I do not attempt to slander Wickham and why I have given into his financial demands before. The one time I did not, it nearly cost me dearly.”

Elizabeth thought over his words before replying. “I never thought you may be feeling that way, but did you ever think what other people might be feeling when the most powerful and richest person they have ever met enters the room, and will not even make eye contact with them? Will not speak with them? And who are you? Only a gentleman. You are not a peer or prince! We have our pride in Meryton, as anywhere.” Belatedly, Elizabeth recalled that he would one day inherit a barony.

“And I wounded yours.” Elizabeth blushed. “I never should have said it. I was in a foul mood but should have danced anyway. Truthfully, I would have danced after Bingley pointed you out but you know how I feel about Bingley’s ability to be easily persuaded. I only grasped at something to say.”

Before she could speak in reply, such as noting that it was the poorest apology she had heard in some time and she grew up with three younger sisters, he pressed on to the more important topic of discussion. “We still must decide how to warn your father. It seems he would not listen to your testimony and he will not listen to mine. Is there someone he may respect?”

Excessively grateful for the turn in conversation, she took a moment to think. She considered suggesting Bingley return, but it did not seem like her father would be willing to take Bingley’s word for it either. “My father greatly esteems my aunt and uncle in London. You have met them and know they have good sense.”

However much Darcy accepted his eccentric and titled aunt inviting the Gardiners to her home, Elizabeth knew it would be a stretch for a man of such pride to visit a tradesman, and was astonished when he did not hesitate to answer.

“If I explain matters do you think he will keep the confidence?”

“Yes, he certainly would. He met Wickham at Christmas. My aunt, especially, enjoyed his tales of Derbyshire and Lambton as she is from there, but they would be very interested in knowing the truth of his character. As you saw, they had no prejudice against you.” Unlike me.

Darcy smiled a little, and she was pleased that he noted her non-stated apology. Then another thought struck her. “Well, they did hear of you,” she could not bear to explain it was from her own mouth, “but they are fair people and enjoyed meeting you in London. My aunt had wondered about Wickham’s sensibilities when he began to pay attentions to a young lady who recently inherited ten thousand pounds when, previously, his affections seemed to lie…elsewhere.” Realising she rambled, she suddenly ceased speaking. She attempted not to blush but could feel the heat on her face.

“I see.” He sounded angrier than she expected. He clenched his jaw again.

“My aunt is predisposed to think well of you as she knew how good your father was.” Unexpectedly, Darcy smiled a sincere smile at that. His expression changed, and Elizabeth recognised that was when he was feeling proud. It was rather becoming.

“When do you leave for London?”

“I am to stay nearly another month.”

“I cannot call on your aunt and uncle without cause.”

A sly smile crept across Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Bingley could call on my sister, and you could accompany him. I could send a letter with you.”

He began shaking his head before she had even finished her suggestion. “I would prefer you to be present.”

Elizabeth was annoyed he did not respond to her suggestion about Bingley. Of course, Darcy knew Jane as well and could call on her without his friend’s presence, but he seemed to have rejected that idea.

“Might you leave early?” he pressed.

Elizabeth huffed. “I do not have the freedom to order my own life. Mrs. Collins expects me here for another month, and my aunt and uncle are not prepared for me.”

“Perhaps you could write and ask if you may arrive in advance? You could argue the society here is discomforting, and I think that would be rather truthful. If they reply in the positive, you could find some excuse to Mrs. Collins.”

“I suppose you will tell me it is only fifty miles of good road and I might see my friend again frequently,” she said with something nearing sorrow. With all that Charlotte and Mr. Collins had put her through, leaving them would be no hardship but she had the distinct feeling her friendship with Charlotte would suffer forever.

Darcy cast a nervous look at her. “Might we worry about this trouble with Wickham before we borrow more from the future?”

“Very well. I can see, sir that your suggestions are prudent. I will sacrifice my leisure for the benefit of my family and the community. Oh, what I do for my beloved sisters!” She said dramatically, for greater effect.

He smiled at her theatrics. “Again, you cannot be certain what the future holds.”

Darcy pulled out his watch and noticed the time. “Allow me to escort you to the parsonage.” Once they began walking again, Darcy inquired, “When will you write your aunt?”

“I will write today. Things should be arranged in less than a week.”

Darcy frowned. “We had not considered how to convey you. Surely Miss Lucas would desire to stay with her sister longer. Additionally, your relatives might wish for you to remain in Town for a time rather than send you immediately to Hertfordshire, as Miss Lucas would likely prefer.”

Elizabeth chewed her lip. Was there a hint of anxiety in Darcy’s eyes? “I had not thought of that. We were to travel by stage, but my uncle was to send a manservant for us.” Darcy looked away, but Elizabeth saw him wince at her news. Undoubtedly, he would never dream of travelling by stage.

“If I could arrange for a maid to travel with us, might you ride in Lady Catherine’s carriage while I ride on my horse?”

Elizabeth disliked having to accept so much from Darcy, but it was the only feasible way. She could not travel with only a manservant and hated to have to beg for a maid from either the Collinses or the Gardiners. “Thank you.”

They arrived at the Parsonage gate, and Darcy bowed over Elizabeth’s hand. As he left, she sighed. Once again, she could not make him out at all. Fortunately, there were two such people just within who would rectify that feeling immediately.

*****

Darcy knocked on Anne’s sitting room door and looked up and down the hall, hoping no servant would see him.

“Yes?” she called out.

“It’s Darcy,” he said. A memory of them as young children flashed in his mind. They would play “hide from the dragon.” Richard and their other cousin would never let Darcy hide with them. Anne, as a resident of Rosings, always knew the best places to hide. How often had he knocked on a wardrobe or cover and said, “It is me,” and she knew his voice immediately? Now, because of her mother’s scheming, they had grown into mere strangers.

Anne opened the door and also scanned the hallway. “Well?” she asked.

“I need to speak with you privately. Might I come in?” Darcy watched as Anne’s nervousness increased tenfold.

“If you must,” she said and walked toward the seating area. She lowered herself slowly into a chair and motioned for Darcy to do the same. Sitting on the edge of her chair, as though prepared for flight at a moment’s notice, she stared at her hands rather than look at Darcy.

“I must ask for your assistance,” he began nervously.

Anne’s head shot up. She looked a mixture of relieved and sceptical. “You need my help? Whatever for?”

“Miss Bennet finds she must journey to London earlier than previously planned. Neither the Collinses nor her relatives in Town have a suitable conveyance. I have offered to escort her, but she will need a chaperone and use of one of your mother’s carriages.”

Anne’s eyes widened, and she placed a hand protectively over her neck. “I cannot journey so far! London? No, never!” She looked ghost white, and she clenched the arms of her chair in terror.

Darcy gently touched her arm, causing her to jump. “Forgive me,” he said and drew it back. “I did not mean to alarm you,” he said. While some might fear confined places, Anne never did. No, she feared large groups of people. The result of being nearly trampled as a child when taken to see Macbeth with her father and a riot broke out due to an increase in ticket prices.

“Wha — what did you want then?” she asked, her chest still heaving but the fear easing.

“I wondered if you could arrange for a maid to accompany us. Miss Lucas will not wish to leave so early.”

“Oh, is that all?” Anne sagged against the chair in relief and looked younger than he had seen her in ages.

“That shall be hard enough without arousing the suspicion of your mother.” Darcy stood to leave.

“And what of my suspicions?” She said, and if it were not for the fact that Anne seldom left the vicinity of Rosings, Darcy would despise the way she sounded like her mother. As it was, she could hardly help it.

Darcy raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “You will not dally with Mrs. Collins’ friend, will you?”

“I hardly need to explain myself to you,” Darcy turned to go but at the last moment thought better of it. He was striving to be a better man because of Elizabeth’s rebuke. “Forgive me,” he said and retook his seat.

Anne furrowed her brow, unaccustomed to him caring about her opinion.

“I assure you, I have nothing but honourable intentions toward Miss Bennet, but that is all there is worth saying at this moment.” He took a deep breath and pushed forward. “Anne, surely you know… That is, it can be no surprise…” Blast it. There was a reason he had never discussed the situation of her mother’s hopes before.

Anne squeezed her hands tightly and stared at her feet.

Respect. “No, I will not dictate to you as you have had done your whole life. I will not tell you how you must think or feel and will not presume to know better than you.”

Slowly, she lifted her eyes, tears misted them.

“It was wrong of me to avoid this conversation for so many years. Your mother has made her preferences quite known, and I suspect has even raised you to expect our union.”

Anne timidly nodded.

“I ask your forgiveness. I ought to have discussed my feelings long ago.”

“You love Miss Bennet,” she said with understanding.

“I do,” Darcy confirmed. “However, I had felt since my youth that I could not marry you.” She opened her mouth, but Darcy waved it off. “Please, do not disparage yourself. I do not find you wanting. Another man will be quite blessed to have you as a wife. You deserve a man who passionately adores you. I have always known I am not that man and believed I was doing you a service by not bowing to your mother’s wishes.”

Anne exhaled a long breath and tears streamed down her eyes. “Thank you,” she clapped her hands together. “Thank you! Thank you! I have lived in fear, in dread of your proposal for most of my life.”

Despite his relief that she did not resent his rejection, it stung to hear yet another lady wanted no part of his courtship. “Again, I apologise for not stating my feelings earlier.” He stood to depart.

“I can help you!” She called out as his hand reached for the doorknob. He turned back toward her. “I can assist you with Miss Bennet.”

“What makes you think I need your assistance?”

Anne laughed. “She has not the faintest clue you admire her. She would sooner expect Richard’s stallion to grow wings.”

“And you are an expert on matchmaking now?”

“Those who cannot wed, plan!” Anne exclaimed. “I will tell you a secret.”

Dutifully, Darcy returned to his seat and leaned forward as Anne motioned. “I write for a ladies’ magazine. I am Mrs. Mabel Fairweather, mistress of hearts.” She scurried off to her desk and brought correspondence for him to inspect.

Darcy turned them over, recognising her penmanship. “I do not know what to say. You are accomplished beyond my wildest thoughts.”

“Now, you have begun your courtship on the wrong foot,” Anne grinned and retrieved her letters. “However, Elizabeth is a reasonable woman. She can be convinced to let the past remain there. She is prejudiced against your rank and wealth, and it does not help that she knows my mother,” Anne groaned at the thought.

Darcy silently added that Elizabeth’s other accusations involved Wickham and Bingley. “I have already determined I must show her and her relations greater respect.”

Anne nodded. “An excellent start. And how will you demonstrate this? Just wait for them to appear? Or to be brought up in conversation?”

Indeed, that was exactly his plan. Conversation was not his strong suit. Now, if only Society allowed him to demonstrate his passion for the lady…

“Do not fret,” Anne said. “We can practice some conversation and” she waggled her eyebrows, “we can discuss the appropriate behaviour of suitors. You must not leave her in doubt of your regard.”

Darcy loosened his cravat. The ways in which he desired to show Elizabeth his affection were not suitable for a lady’s ears, or anyone really. He had long struggled with accepting that he could feel very carnal desire for Elizabeth and love her intellect and personality as well. He stood to leave.

“When do you see her again? I imagine in the morning. I have not seen her sketching as early as she used to.”

“She sketches?”

“Oh yes,” Anne nodded. “She favours the hill overlooking the village. In the distance, you can see the spires of Knole Park. It does not surprise me that she has an interest in architecture.”

Darcy grinned. A true bluestocking. Neglecting fashionable pursuits for “gentlemen’s art.” She could not be more perfect for him than if he had intended to find a wife upon his entering Hertfordshire. He might have searched for many years before finding her.

“We do often meet in the grove,” Darcy answered neutrally.

“Do not go tomorrow,” Anne said. “Leave her wishing she had seen you. Visit me, and we will discuss how to proceed.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said, uncertain he should encourage her meddling in his life.

“And where the devil did you send Richard?”

“He had business in London and is detained by an ill commander. He hopes to return soon.”

“Yes, well, Mother pesters me more about you when he is absent.” Anne waved a hand. “You may go.”

Darcy, at last, left her sitting room, marvelling how much she was like her mother, and yet, that was not an entirely bad thing.


Dearest C—

Do not fall prey to melancholy again. Let education be your comfort. I will quote Mr. Akenside, who we so lately lost.

Man loves knowledge, and the beams of truth
More welcome touch his understanding’s eye
Than all the blandishments of sound his ear,
Than all of taste his tongue.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Ten

 

The following morning, Elizabeth left the Parsonage earlier than before. Mr. Collins had said no more insulting words, but it would take far more than a day for her to forget his unjust reproofs. Instead, he glared at her as much as possible. Now and then he asked after her reading selections. Charlotte suggested Elizabeth peruse Lady Catherine’s library. It called to mind Miss de Bourgh’s words on the subject as well.

Elizabeth blew a wayward tendril from her face as she laboured up the hill behind Rosings at an unladylike speed. If life had been different and treated women as equal as men, Jane would inherit Longbourn. Elizabeth and her younger sisters would find professions to make their way in the world. Instead, as females, they were little better than property and expected to marry. As such, their mother viewed every male as a prize. With Elizabeth’s combination of vivaciousness and good sense, she made friends of both sexes the most easily out of the Bennet daughters. However, even she had to admit she viewed male specimens primarily from the consideration of marital partners. Mr. Darcy, who had dismissed her for the enjoyment of a mere dance let alone as a suitable spouse, earned her immediate loathing. While she had fumed at the injustice of his words, she had done the same to him.

Immediately, Bingley seemed a probable match for Jane. Collins’ unsuitability had been clear since his first letter. Wickham had seemed promising and worth her interest, but his income too insufficient. She had seen as much early enough in their acquaintance that it required no exertion to prevent her heart from falling in love with him. By the time her Aunt Gardiner had suggested the same at Christmas, Elizabeth was in no danger. Instead, he had become a gentleman Elizabeth believed she could call a friend when she had been disappointed by so many others in so few weeks.

Yet, now Elizabeth knew Wickham was a cad while Darcy had layers of complexity she had never considered. He had not been innocent in forming Bingley’s defection, but neither had he forced his friend’s hand. Elizabeth acknowledged, that if she saw the imprudence in greater affection for Mr. Wickham after a month’s acquaintance, surely Bingley had as much right to reconsider his attentions toward Jane after the same passage of time. She did not like that Jane had been found unworthy. It was not fair, but perhaps it was just.

Perhaps Bingley — and even Darcy — had disliked admitting the truth of the Bennets’ situation in life just as much as she had  Wickham’s. Of course, for Wickham, Elizabeth had fixated on Darcy as the cause for Wickham’s distress. The Bennet ladies had no conveniently-placed person to blame for their situation. Some nameless ancestor many generations ago first put an entail on Longbourn and each generation had continued the provision. Elizabeth had never wasted her anger on what was such a common practice. But now, she detested the men who could decide so entirely the fate of her family. She hated the master from those centuries ago who now wounded his own kin, and she hated the men walking among them who never passed laws considering the care of their mothers and daughters, their sisters and wives.

At this moment, she hated so many. She hated nameless creatures near and far. She hated Charlotte and her husband. She hated Bingley for hurting Jane. She detested Lady Catherine and her insipid daughter. She loathed that her father never reined in her younger sisters and mother. As such, not only were they now prey for Wickham, but had likely cost Jane the affection of Mr. Bingley. She abhorred Darcy — mostly for not being the arrogant man she had assumed. However, she reserved her greatest repugnance for herself.

Although raised in a large family, Elizabeth often needed solitude to gather her thoughts. Jane was the closest thing she had to a confidant among her sisters, and there was much they did not see eye to eye on — such as Charlotte’s marriage and, until recently, Miss Bingley’s friendship. Jane saw goodness everywhere. In contrast, Elizabeth harboured far less charitable thoughts about the world although, unlike her mother, she also had the good sense to not air them. Nor did she think like Mr. Darcy. He saw little good but equally disapproved. Elizabeth enjoyed the follies of others. Sir William could never be called intelligent, but he had always been jolly and friendly. Despite her affront, Elizabeth knew he meant no harm with his words the other week regarding her marriage prospects.

Elizabeth settled herself on the grass and laid out her drawing materials. Thankfully, no wind blew. She looked at the view and saw Westerham. In the distance, she could see the tallest spire of Knole House. She had read that it was considered a Calendar House. Very rare, they were built with references to the calendar. Some homes had three hundred and sixty-five windows and fifty-two rooms. As one of the largest homes in England, Knole House reported three hundred and sixty-five rooms, fifty-two staircases, twelve exterior doors, and seven courtyards.

Elizabeth was not impressed by the wealth of the structure and its furnishings or artwork. Nor did she care about the noble family who resided there. Once the property of an Archbishop of Canterbury, it had long been in possession of the Dukes of Dorset. Instead, she was intrigued by the architecture. How much engineering would it take to build such a massive home? What unique secrets did it hold?

Elizabeth loved the architecture of centuries past. She tired of the symmetrical lines of the current fashion. Recreating Greek and Roman spaces never seemed to fit in England. It seemed far too artificial to place those buildings here as though one would mistake Kent for Italy. Additionally, she enjoyed the unexpected and incongruities in life. She lamented that society stood rigidly, and their expectations of behaviour were no different than their tastes in buildings. Everyone must fit into certain moulds. Like a mason pouring clay into his cast, any undesirable excess can be scraped off and cast aside.

The Bennets were hopelessly a family of excesses. They nearly exceeded their income with their impulsive purchases. They exceeded acceptable manners by unreserved feelings and high spirits. Even Mary, although quiet, gave in to her feelings too much by choosing to ignore others and read or desired to sermonise at inappropriate times.

While Elizabeth reined in her emotions better, she felt them intensely. She had disliked Darcy immensely, and imprudently welcomed Wickham’s lies. The only one who acted with any sense was Jane, and yet, it seemed to only break her heart. Darcy had said that both he and Bingley could not determine if Jane had any feelings for Bingley beyond friendship. It appeared Charlotte had been correct and Jane should have been less reserved. Now, after so many months of separation, it seemed Bingley felt nothing for Jane.

An alarming though built in Elizabeth’s mind. In comparison to all other Bennets, Jane was very reserved. It would not take much to consider her reserve, in light of such a family propensity for liveliness, to be emotionless. Elizabeth had not acted as foolishly as Lydia, but she did mock Darcy and Miss Bingley often, and frequently to their faces. Indeed, she could not hoist the blame of her family’s behaviour on others. If Elizabeth had acted more carefully, then perhaps Darcy and Bingley would have taken more care to investigate Jane’s feelings. They would see that of the five daughters, two were different. Instead, Elizabeth’s poor behaviour could have directly affected her sister’s chance at happiness with Mr. Bingley.

Elizabeth ceased her sketching and pulled her knees to her chest, resting her head atop them. She had, at last, restored some of her opinion of Mr. Bingley. Darcy was now excused from nearly all complaints she had against him. If she could forgive Bingley and find him innocent, then Darcy was by extension as well. Her only complaint that had any merit was his behaviour the night of the first ball, and that he had not only explained but apologised for.

Now, Mr. Darcy attempted to help her regarding Wickham and his possible schemes against her family. She ought to forgive him for his first slight. He had more than made up for it with his attention to her since then. It was not as though he paid every lady in Hertfordshire or Kent the same attention.

The thought which should have soothed, gnawed at her. Was his kindness to her due to the guilt he felt? His absence today in the grove was a testament of such. He would have nothing to report yet and had no need to speak with her. In such a situation, she ought to be grateful, but she could not be. She would rather have merited his good opinion and respect. Instead, she was nothing more than a call on his honour. If she were less selfish, she would release him but not until after she learned the truth of Wickham and heard of Lydia being safe.

As the sun climbed high in the sky, Elizabeth gave up her intentions to draw. It now cast shadows over her view, and she rather thought it did over her life as well. Her family was whole and healthy. No calamity had struck them, and yet it did not mean they were happy or content. Nothing short of a crisis would jerk any of them out of their behaviour and, for that, shadows loomed over their sunlight. When Elizabeth had gathered the mental fortitude to return to the Parsonage, she stood and vowed she would be an exception to her family. Unlike her drawings of old buildings, which a rare contemporary man might find value in replicating, Society would level people off and force them into their rectangular moulds then paint them all with the same shade of stucco. She had better amend her ways now before she was too old to do so.

 

*****

 

Darcy paced in the grove awaiting Elizabeth. The day before he and Anne had gone over some possibilities of his conversation today. In the past, he had felt too nervous and had allowed Elizabeth to steer their conversations. He did not miss that such behaviour did little to recommend him to her. She frequently seemed annoyed at bearing the load of discussion. Beside her sparkling wit and lively teasing, he must have seemed dull and cold. If it were not for her request of assistance regarding Wickham, Darcy had little delusions that she would desire to spend any time in his presence. He had been inclined to think it ungentlemanly to press his advantage there, but Anne had insisted all was fair in love and war.

At last, he recognised her figure as it approached in the distance. He felt his lips turn up in a grin and, as she was too far away to see the effect she had on him, for one delicious moment he allowed himself to feel without rebuke. The moment passed too quickly, and as she came ever closer, he chided himself to calm his racing heart and arousal. Scaring the dickens out of a maiden with lust in his eyes and body would not help his suit. Memories of their one embrace, which she had been kind enough not to slap him for, were reserved for once he retired to his chambers for the evening.

Belatedly, he recalled Anne’s direction that he not stop and stare at her. He turned and began walking, quelling the urge to hail her.

“Good day, Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth called, and he heard the sound of her steps quicken.

Turning, he bowed. “Miss Bennet.” He began to turn and out of the corner of his eye saw her smile fall. “Would you care to walk with me?”

In the past, he had offered to escort her. The phrasing of his words was entirely proper and yet were such that she had little choice in the matter. Anne had recommended that he allow Elizabeth more power.

Elizabeth appeared surprised but smiled shyly as he extended his arm. “I would. I wish Charlotte or Maria walked more,” she said as her small hand wrapped around his arm.

Although their skin did not touch, he felt a spark just the same. Glancing to his right, he wondered if she did as well. She appeared more flushed than usual.

“I had thought you preferred solitary walks,” he said.

“I do,” she nodded. “However, that was in Hertfordshire with Longbourn being so full and noisy. Here…” she trailed off and bit her lip.

“What is it?” He asked gently, hoping she would confide in him again.

“My friend and her husband have a very strange marriage.” She shook her head. “No, that is not right. I suppose it is rather average, but it is not what I would wish to have, and I know not how she bears it!”

“Ah,” Darcy said. “And this makes you seek to be out of doors more often than usual?”

She cast her eyes to the trees. “I have found that I greatly prefer the Kent countryside. After all, I do not know when I shall view it again so I should take it in as often as I can.”

“And the effects of early spring are more…shall we say, interesting than a country Parsonage.”

“Precisely,” she nodded and grinned. “You must feel similarly. All of this,” she motioned to the woods beside the lane, still partially barren, “must appeal more than the splendour of Rosings.”

“Aye,” he said. “So few understand.”

Elizabeth’s step slowed, and he glanced down to her. She shook her head as though clearing thoughts but a look of wonder remained. Had she been surprised to hear they felt similarly about such things?

“I believe you have an added inducement which I do not,” he said and with his free hand motioned to the sketchbook she held. “Is there a particular view you prefer?”

“What makes you believe I sketch something other than manicured gardens and landscapes?”

“We are not walking in the direction of manicured gardens, and there is little view to draw yet.”

“And you do not find it unladylike?” Elizabeth asked with a challenging tone and arched eyebrow.

“Why should a lady have different interests than a gentleman? Or that there be less variety in the things that interest them. I ought not to have presumed it was a view at all. You may prefer some grand historical moment.”

“You have put much thought into this,” she said and eyed him suspiciously. “What would you draw?”

Darcy stroked his jaw before replying. “Methought I saw my late espoused saint Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave, Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave, Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint. Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint Purification in the old Law did save, And such as yet once more I trust to have Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint, Came vested all in white, pure as her mind; Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d So clear as in no face with more delight. But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d, I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.”

“How sad and yet beautiful,” Elizabeth said.

“Milton,” Darcy shrugged. “It was my father’s favourite after my mother died. They had seen Herr Gluck’s opera Alcestis the night I was born. Do you know the story?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Alcestis loved her husband so much she volunteered to die in his place.”

“Yes,” Darcy agreed solemnly. He had never thought of how backwards such a story was until he considered the woman beside him. He would lay down his life for her. It should never be the other way around. Of course, now was not the time to discuss such matters. “If I had the talent to draw, I think I would portray the scene of her reunion with her husband. Of course, the difficulty is not merely in creating figures and scenery. It is capturing the emotion. I had often seen my father mourn my mother and wish her to life. It is an image that is ingrained in my mind.”

“He must have loved her very much,” Elizabeth said. She sounded regretful, perhaps because her parents did not have the same relationship.

“Yes, he did. I believe it was losing her which made him enjoy Wickham’s company.”

They had reached the top of a hill. Darcy led Elizabeth to a bench. He had long ago left the safety of Anne’s suggestions of conversation. How ruinous to court a lady while regaling her with maudlin stories of your mother’s death and father’s bereavement!

“Speaking of Wickham,” Elizabeth said and smoothed her skirt before gripping her hands. “I do not know that my father will read my letter immediately. Have you heard from your cousin?”

“Yes, forgive me for not mentioning it earlier.” Elizabeth’s brow was furrowed, and Darcy wished he could kiss away the lines of worry from her forehead. “He has been detained. There has been an outbreak of illness, and he is taking duties for another colonel. Instead of being able to visit his contacts, he must write them and await replies.”

“Your suggestion to visit my uncle now has greater merit than I had first credited.”

“Do not worry over the carriage. I have spoken with Anne, and she will secure a maid to chaperone you in the carriage when we depart.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, but Darcy thought he sensed a grudging acknowledgement. She did not like to be indebted to him.

“Over there,” he pointed to a tall spire in the distance, “is Knole Park. My aunt is friends with the Dowager Duchess’ mother, the Dowager Countess of Liverpool, who frequently stays at Knole. The Duke is still at Oxford, and his mother maintains control. The Dowager Liverpool often enjoys battling with my aunt on the matter of her sons vs. Lady Catherine’s nephews.”

“Oh my,” Elizabeth said and covered her mouth to muffle her laughter.

“Of course, Liverpool inherited the earldom nearly a decade ago and has served as Home Secretary. Richard and I can hardly compare.”

“And the other son?”

“Jenkinson is also in politics. He also volunteered for the Austrian Army in ‘05. Richard quite reveres him. He married about two years ago, has one babe and another on the way.” Darcy smiled at the vision of marital harmony Charles Jenkinson and his wife made. “His father-in-law is an accomplished astronomer. Mrs. Jenkinson has interests there as well.”

“How fascinating,” Elizabeth said. “And is the other Mrs. Jenkinson, that is Miss de Bourgh’s companion, a relation?”

“Yes…she is the first earl’s natural daughter.”

“Ah,” Elizabeth blushed.

“Jenkinson and his wife are visiting. We have an invitation to dine there in a few days’ time. I believe my aunt could be convinced to invite the Collinses and their guests.”

Elizabeth’s eyes went round at his words. “Truly?”

“Lady Catherine delights in exposing her favourites to better society.”

“But a duchess?”

“She bows to her mother, who was born the daughter of a squire. The Dowager’s brother-in-law is George Dance, the architect. She invites her family to the estate every Easter.”

“George Dance is there?” Elizabeth said in a voice full of wonder and hopped off the bench. She slowly approached the edge of the hill and stretched forward a hand as though she could touch the spire.

Darcy followed her. This was why he loved her. Meeting a humble architect meant more to her than duchesses and countesses. Investigating an old house meant more to her than trinkets and baubles. And while the coveted Society in London taught their daughters to conceal their feelings and emotions, to suppress everything they enjoyed for the sake of conforming to a mould, Elizabeth Bennet now gazed at a distant hill with wonder and joy. Darcy had never wished more than that he could pull her into his arms and kiss her with abandon. For then, he might have that lightness touch his soul. He suppressed a groan with a cough, and Elizabeth turned her head.

“I must seem very ridiculous to you,” she said with mirth in her eyes.

“Indeed, you do not. Ridiculous is how I describe Lady Catherine. Or do you think you are of the same disposition?”

Elizabeth’s eyes rounded and then she laughed. “I did not believe you ever teased!” Her normally brown eyes turned green with her amusement, and a sparkle in them remained even after she ceased laughing.

“Perhaps, I am learning,” he said. “What a tutor you are!” Darcy watched in horror as her smile fell slightly.

She clasped her hands behind her back and walked toward the bench. “You should take your aunt’s advice and practice more.”

Rather than dwelling on her rebuke, he caught hold of Elizabeth’s hint that Lady Catherine had disapproved of her in some manner. “I apologise for my aunt. I cannot conceive she found you wanting in any way.”

Elizabeth took up her sketch book and ambled toward the path. “Oh, I am not offended. I daresay she controlled herself mightily. For I gave her much ammunition and she only found one thing, thus far, to suggest I improve.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “As you have had the displeasure of hearing me perform you could attest that I do indeed need to practice the pianoforte more.”

Darcy lengthened his stride so he might walk beside her. “Your performance was lovely. I scarcely recall a more enjoyable evening from my time in Hertfordshire.”

Elizabeth first raised her brows and then knit them together in confusion. “It is certainly nothing compared to your sister’s abilities,” she said.

“You have not heard Georgiana play and know it only by reputation.”

“This is true,” Elizabeth said. “Do not think that I have not learned from my experiences and mean to judge her without merit. However, I did meet her, and I have heard her speak of her love for music. It is my belief that no lady will spend such time on something if she has no talent.”

Darcy searched for the correct reply. For, she was mistaken. He could not name a dozen ladies who indulged their interests and yet everyone he ever met was cried up as accomplished. It was not that the term was wrongly applied and their endeavours inferior. Surely they could all paint china far better than he ever could. Elizabeth simply had no understanding of how rare she was in the world.

He watched as she hummed a tune and trailed a finger along a bush just beginning to bloom. She looked wholly unspoilt and pure. What did she know of the darkness of high society? He had found her family inferior, but it was really the men and women of the ton who forced their children to cast aside their preferences. Parents used their children as chess pieces, plotting the next familial alliance and ways to improve their standing or financial gain.

While Darcy had taken offence at Mrs. Bennet’s designs on his friend, she had not forced her daughter, as beautiful as any London lady, into a match at a younger age. Nor was Bingley mean or deficient in abilities. Elizabeth had explained Darcy was disliked in Meryton. The Bennets had not suggested Jane attempt to entice Darcy; they apparently cared something about their daughter’s happiness. Neither had they forced Elizabeth to wed Mr. Collins, if what Anne had said was true.

“You have grown reticent, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts. “And have quite the fearsome scowl on your face.”

“I am sorry,” he said. “You have the benefit of having met my sister and no longer cling to the prejudices you first had. Might you tell me something of your sister?”

Anne had suggested Darcy take an interest in Elizabeth’s family to display his respect for them. Elizabeth stumbled, and Darcy grasped her elbow to keep her from falling.

“My thanks,” she said hastily. “You wish to speak of my—my sisters?”

Darcy looked at the path before them. “I do not know that we will have time to discuss them all,” he said and winked.

Elizabeth grinned. Lord, he felt like he could move mountains when she looked at him like that.

“Very well,” she nodded. For the next few minutes, Darcy listened as his beloved explained the gentleness of her eldest sister. As Elizabeth talked, he could feel her love for Jane. He had known, since Elizabeth walked to Netherfield, that she worried over Jane but could now appreciate how Elizabeth depended on her sister. He conceded, from Elizabeth’s explanations, Jane deserved the devotion. His regret for interfering with Bingley doubled.

They reached the Parsonage gate. Elizabeth turned to him. “Will you come in, Mr. Darcy?”

Darcy pulled out his watch fob. “I regret I cannot at the moment, but I will call on the morrow.”

“Very well,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you for the pleasant walk,” she genuinely smiled, and Darcy felt his heart race.

Impulsively, he grabbed her hand and bowed over it. “The pleasure was mine, Miss Bennet.” As he lifted her dainty gloved hand nearly to his lips, he thought he heard her gasp. Feeling just bold enough to meet her eyes when he rose, he saw a flicker of confusion before he turned and left.


Continue Reading: Chapters Eleven — Fifteen

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