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Dearest C—

I suppose you have heard the terrible news of the banks. I declared years ago that I did not like this Dr. Fordyce with his opinion on women and now we see how unscrupulous is brother is! I fear for your cousin as I understand his father is caught up in all of this.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Elizabeth practised on the pianoforte for two hours in a “small” parlour at Rosings and was surprised she was left uninterrupted. It allowed her mind to wander as her walks had not been solitary lately, and it had rained again this morning. The shade of Darcy she now knew was surprisingly amiable, gentle even. It was a pleasant surprise, but this could not console her as she increasingly worried for her family. She told herself it was only because this was the longest she had been away from all of them, and dearest Jane seemed so shattered by Bingley’s treatment.

Elizabeth’s frustration was not limited to the most pressing matters, but it seemed all she could do in life was wait. She felt she had no choices of her own to exercise, except when she had refused Mr. Collins’s proposal. She had no means of protecting her family from danger, be it from scoundrels like Wickham, or from broken hearts. Then she recalled Darcy’s words on how he would gladly have his family instead of the ability to order his life. If Longbourn were not entailed, or more profitable and the people in it more sensible then, while they may all be entirely different, who was to say things would be better? She resolved to be more thankful for the life she did have.

Elizabeth had just decided to quit the room, and finally felt as though some portion of her thoughts were settled, when Miss de Bourgh entered the room.

“Miss Bennet, I hope I am not interrupting,” the other lady said after the requisite curtsies.

“Not at all, I just finished.”

Miss de Bourgh looked ill at ease but persevered. She took a step closer and grasped Elizabeth’s hand. “I must thank you for sending Conor to speak to me.”

“Conor?”

“Oh! Darcy. We called him that when he was young. Second names are favoured in our family.”

“Forgive me, I did not recall Mr. Darcy’s Christian name.”

“He is named after his mother’s family, Fitzwilliam, but so are several other cousins and the earl’s eldest son is named William — a family tradition — so you see we had no choice but to call him by his middle name.” She paused and made a face of displeasure. “Well, a form of it. Conyers is exceedingly difficult for a young child to say.”

“You sound quite close with your cousins.”

“Although my Aunt Anne was older than my mother by many years, we cousins are closer in age. Richard, Conor, and I were once very close friends, and now perhaps we will be again.”

Somehow Elizabeth expected greater formality between them, and began to experience an unaccountable fear over what the small woman before her was to say next.

“I was so pleased when Conor asked for my feelings on the matter of my mother’s wishes.”

Elizabeth did not know what to say and instead took in her companion’s countenance. Anne’s usual sickly-looking face looked positively radiant as if she felt great joy. Elizabeth found herself envying the lady and quickly determined it must be because the woman was so vibrant with life. She refused to believe the jealousy she felt came from the small suspicion that Darcy had actually changed his affections and proposed to Miss de Bourgh.

Stomaching her tumultuous emotions, Elizabeth helped the conversation along. “I see you come bearing very happy news indeed!”

“I have lived in fear for years that Conor would marry me — and clearly only for my dowry as he does not love me in that way. I know my opinion would not have swayed his own, so I never brought it up. I do so much appreciate him coming to me with his decision and asking about my opinion.”

“You are not displeased?” For some reason, Elizabeth’s willingness had been tied to Anne’s expectations to accept Darcy’s attentions. Perhaps because of Jane’s experiences.

“No! We never would have suited. He needs a wife who is spirited and witty, who will not back down from his debates. Please understand, I do admire him. He is among the best men I have ever known, but I am not sure if I could have stood up to both Mama and him. And how could we ever have been happy if he only wanted my money? I do genuinely appreciate his concern for my future, and his unexampled kindness in asking after my opinion and treating it with equal weight.”

Elizabeth attempted to understand all that Miss de Bourgh had declared. She believed the other lady painted a more complete picture of Darcy’s character than she ever got from the man himself. She was not left with her thoughts for long.

“Would you follow me to the library?”

Puzzled, Elizabeth agreed.

“I wanted to thank you properly for putting the notion in Conor’s head to clear the air between us, and he suggested allowing you to select a few volumes. You may take anything you like from in here. Mama and I have our favourites secluded elsewhere.”

The clock chimed. “Oh! I am to meet with Mrs. Jenkinson about something. Please inform a servant when you are ready to leave, and we will ensure your books are packaged correctly and send you in the carriage, so you do not have to carry them so far in this dreary and muddy weather.”

“It is no matter, truly.” Guilt gnawed at Elizabeth for her previous uncharitable thoughts about the woman before her.

“Please allow me this kindness. You can imagine I seldom get to meet new people. I would be very pleased if you visited me when you have a spare morning.”

Feeling as though she was the one rescuing a lady trapped in a tower, she agreed to accept Miss de Bourgh’s token of thanks and invitation to call.

“I also have the honour of extending an invitation to you and all of the Parsonage to an afternoon at Knole House tomorrow. The Duchess of Dorset is good friends with Mother.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said and grinned. “Mr. Darcy had mentioned it, but I did not dare to hope.”

“I think we have much more in common than you would believe. Admit it,” Miss de Bourgh smiled, “you were predisposed to dislike me.”

Elizabeth returned the smile with a sheepish, guilty one of her own. “I concede. I had a false impression of your cousin and had heard gossip in Meryton which did you and your mother no favours. If you can forgive me, I would like to begin again.” A weight lifted from Elizabeth’s heart, and some of her usual lightness returned.

Suddenly arms were thrown about her neck, and Miss de Bourgh gave her a meek kiss on the cheek. “God bless you, Miss Bennet!” Anne exclaimed, and then she scurried off leaving Elizabeth rather confounded.

She roamed about the library for some time and tried to limit herself to only three choices but failed. At last, she pulled the cord, and a servant arrived with a basket to convey her books in. He left to arrange her ride, and when the door opened again, she expected it to be a maid to accompany her to the Parsonage. Instead, Mr. Darcy entered.

“Did you find anything interesting?”

“Oh! Several things. Your cousin need not have been so gracious, but I am too selfish to pass this opportunity by.”

He chuckled. “I thought you would be pleased.” He looked through her stack. “You included Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. Are you trying to improve your manners?”

Elizabeth raised a brow. “Do you think they need improvement?”

“No, of course not but you seem quite interested in the book.”

“I am. It reminds me somewhat of the letters I would receive from my own aunt, but I did not know conduct-book writers approved of so much learning and independent thought.”

“You did not learn from one?”

“You do think I need improvement.” She riposted. If it were not so ridiculous that he should think she needed lessons in manners, she would be offended.

“You misunderstand. I am surprised, as well-mannered and intelligent as you are, that you did not have one.”

“My mother superintended our education, as we had no governess, but we were encouraged to read from my father’s library. Mama did not believe we needed a book to tell us how to behave, that she could teach us everything we needed, but Papa had an old copy of Fordyce’s Sermons. Although all but Mary found it ridiculous, we have a rudimentary knowledge of it.”

Darcy grimaced when she mentioned the title. “I would have to agree with your estimation and have directed my sister to read other material.”

“You assign your sister reading material?”

“Sometimes, it helps us to have a matter to debate and discuss. Georgiana will soon be out and in the presence of gentlemen; who better to test her discourse on than her brother? I also believe it wise to take an active role in her education.”

His words made sense. However, Elizabeth found it difficult to believe he read anything so feminine. “Have you read these books for females?”

“I have,” he stepped closer and smiled down at her. Leaning in to whisper, he said, “I know all your secrets now.”

“Oh, I doubt that, sir.” She chuckled until her eyes met his. Suddenly, it no longer felt like a laughing matter and indeed, that he was searching her soul to know every detail.

Finally, his eyes fell to her lips. “Do you?”

Forcing herself to step away, she cleared her throat. “Can you actually encourage independent thought if you are the one to assign your sister the books?”

“Let us test it. I will select material for you, and we can discuss it on our next walk.”

“Very well, I will meet your challenge.” Elizabeth handed Darcy her stack of books to look at again.

“Let’s see, Donne, Wordsworth and Madame d’Arblay, the former Miss Burney. An interesting selection.” He raised his brow at her.

“Father dislikes Donne’s Holy Sonnets and thinks Wordsworth too silly, comparing himself to a cloud. I enjoyed Evelina and thought I would try Belinda, no that is not right. Selina…or Camilla!”

“I fear it must not bode well if you recall not the title.”

“And I suppose she writes the type of book you do not allow Miss Darcy to read.”

“No, I have heard no harm of her, if anything I have a good opinion of her as she enjoyed the patronage of several very educated ladies. No, but I dislike Georgiana reading the Gothic novels by Mrs. Radcliffe and the like.”

“Oh, yes very different things entirely,” Elizabeth said with a shudder as she recalled attempting The Mysteries of Udolpho which was praised by so many of her friends.

“I believe I know just what to debate with you, Miss Bennet.” Darcy left her side and after a moment brought back a book. “We shall discuss The Tempest.”

Elizabeth’s face tightened in distaste. “I have, of course, read the complete works of Shakespeare and can already tell you my opinion on this matter.”

“You do not believe in giving things a second perusal?”

She was about agree when she remembered that she had been wrong in her first assessment of him. “I shall try, but I am certain I will test your opinions on the matter.”

“I would not have it any other way,” he said with a smile. “What is the nature of your dislike?”

“Miranda and Ferdinand’s love is too instant for my tastes.” She did not add that it was Jane’s favourite work.

“You would rather hate a gentleman first?”

Elizabeth looked up sharply and was uncertain of Darcy’s expression. It might be hopeful, or perhaps only teasing.

“I would rather know a gentleman’s character. No matter the love or attraction felt, there must be substance behind it.”

There were footsteps in the hall. Undoubtedly, this time it would be the maid for her escort. Darcy seemed frustrated at the interruption but hastily spoke before the steps reached the door.

“I will enjoy discussing this with you further. Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon.” He quickly raised her hand to his lips. “Until tomorrow, Elizabeth.”

The maid appeared, and after the requisite curtsy and bow, Elizabeth left in Lady Catherine’s carriage.

*****

Darcy handed his aunt and cousin into the carriage destined for Knole Park. Lady Catherine had sent another for the guests at the Parsonage. He did not know what the day would hold, and usually he would hate to be among so many strangers. Today, his concern was fixed on Elizabeth. He had only a passing acquaintance with Jenkinson and had never met his wife. His aunt would be disappointed if Mrs. Jenkinson did not join the Bluestocking Club, but Darcy was more interested in Elizabeth getting to tour the Hall and speaking with noted architect George Dance. He was not entirely sure how to introduce her to such a man when he needed a family tree diagram to understand his relationship with the Duke.

“Make haste, Darcy. We cannot keep His Grace waiting,” Lady Catherine commanded from within. The conveyance rocked to the side as she situated herself on it’s plush seats.

“Conor!” Anne called and Darcy at last folded his tall frame into his chaise. Sitting next to his cousin, as his aunt and Anne’s companion took the other row, he dwarfed her small figure.

“I have not heard anyone call you that in a very long time,” Lady Catherine said. She looked peculiarly at him as they lurched forward and drove down the lane.

“After Mother died, I think Anne was the last one to call me such.”

“And then you went to Eton and came back demanding to be called Darcy,” Anne pouted.

“Did I?” he chuckled when Anne emphatically nodded.

“She always did favour middle names,” his aunt whispered while looking out the window.

“I did?” Anne asked sounding confused.

“No, your aunt,” Lady Catherine answered. “She did not go by Lady Anne until her marriage to your father,” she nodded at Darcy. “Of course, we were not born the daughters of earls at any rate,” she added.

“I always forget that your uncle died childless so your father inherited,” Anne said. “So, it seems not everyone ‘did their duty to the Fitzwilliam line,’ after all.” Anne raised a brow at her mother.

“That was quite some time ago!” Her ladyship gave her daughter a stern look. Anne turned her face toward the window, no doubt to hide her rolling eyes.

Darcy said nothing but considered his aunt for a moment. She was still a handsome woman. She was born when his mother was fifteen and had Lady Anne not married so late in life, he would be even closer in age to her ladyship than their gap of sixteen years. He wondered, briefly, what she had been like when she was young. His memories of his mother were of a woman vastly different than her younger sister. And yet, he also knew the affection between the two was very real. It seemed they were always together whether at Pemberley or Rosings.

After some moments of silence, Anne sighed. “Without Richard, I wonder if they will have enough for a cricket team.”

“Never mind the cricket. We shall picnic outside at the very least,” Lady Catherine said. “But it would not do to arrive at the Duchess’ home in an open carriage.”

Anne sighed but said nothing, and Darcy also cast his eyes out the window. It was a beautiful day for their visit, but it seemed Anne would not be content to merely sit out of doors. An idea struck. “Perhaps, you might request Mr. Dance to give a drawing lesson. Surely it is something all the young ladies would enjoy.”

“Brilliant!” Anne grinned and clapped her hands, displaying more liveliness than he had seen in her in years.

The distance to Knole Hall was scarcely four miles, and soon they had arrived. The Hunsford party was just behind them. Darcy bounded from the carriage and impatiently handed down his relatives. He wanted to run to the other coach and watch Elizabeth’s reaction when she saw the house up close, but he knew he could not pay her too much attention.

Luck had it that Mr. Collins was so eager to praise Lady Catherine for securing his invitation that he dashed away before assisting the ladies in his care. Darcy happily took his position. Elizabeth was the last to emerge, and when she placed her hand in his, he could feel the tremble. A slight gasp escaped her lips, and she looked in wonder at the magnificent edifice.

“Marvellous,” she said.

The butler led them inside. Miss Lucas grasped her sister’s arm for support. A look of awe and triumph settled on Mrs. Collins’ face. Darcy did not wonder at the expression. For the spinster daughter of a tradesman turned knight and wife to a country clergyman, invitation to a duke’s house would be a conquest indeed. Her husband’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head, and Darcy could see him estimating the cost of tapestries and window glazing to report to others in all his usual superciliousness. Lastly, Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes took in the structuring of the hall, and the pillared arches leading to the grand staircase with the intricately carved wooden “Sackville leopards” holding shields mimicking the family’s coat of arms and forming the finials of the balusters. They were shown to an ornate saloon on the main floor. The walls were covered in crimson caffoy but Darcy noticed Elizabeth’s eyes first went to the coffered ceiling.

Standing before the seated Dowager Duchess of Dorset and her controlling mother, the Dowager Countess Liverpool, Lady Catherine performed introductions. Of course, his aunt had left out the family skeletons. The Duchess’ great-great-grandmother had been the mistress of James II and her step-brother, the current Earl of Liverpool, had a great-grandmother who was a Portuguese-Indian Creole. Darcy wondered, if the Earl had to own that relationship to the world, would he still be a supporter of slavery. Of course, that was his policy decades ago, before the slave trade was abolished. Now, the Earl served as the Secretary of War, and Darcy believed the chance to meet with him was the sole reason for Richard’s visits to Rosings the last several years.

Unease nibbled at Darcy as he considered why Richard was away on duty when he ought to have been on holiday. To Elizabeth and the people in Meryton, he was the most powerful man they might ever meet. All the more so once he inherited the barony. The truth was, despite his wealth, there were richer men — even tradesmen — and far more powerful and ambitious nobles. He understood his position in the world. If not for his cousin’s favours with colleagues in the War Department, he would have no hope of ridding Meryton of Wickham. Men like Lord Liverpool and even the young Duke had far greater concerns than familial disputes. Men such as Darcy could not hope to control their world unless they enjoyed the friendship of a prince and, given the behaviour of the current princes of the United Kingdom, Darcy had no intention of being on such terms with any of them.

“Darcy,” the ageing, hoarse voice of Lady Liverpool intoned after they had all sat and tea was served. “Your sister did not accompany you on this visit?”

“I am afraid not, your ladyship,” Darcy said in cold formality. “She was ill this last autumn. She preferred to stay in London and to spend more time with her studies.”

“Such a pity,” the lady remarked. “Dorset was hoping to see her again. She will be presented at Court this season?”

Darcy bit back a growl. Dorset seemed a decent young man, but he would not sell his sister to merely the highest bidder who had not engaged her heart, or without her input and at such a young age. Furthermore, he despised the grasping and matchmaking mamas, or in this case grandmamas. “She will not be of age for two years and might prefer to delay it even longer.”

The countess seemed baffled by such a thought, but Darcy knew his sister. Georgiana would hate being a duchess. She already loathed the idea of her court presentation and all the pomp. It was no wonder she had been attracted to the steward’s son.

“Ah, I had forgotten your mother was such a bluestocking. I rather suppose she got that from her aunt,” the Duchess weighed in and shook her head.

“The Baroness?” Elizabeth asked, and the ladies started at the unexpected voice. Darcy examined her face. Her colour was heightened, but he could not tell if it was from embarrassment or some other emotion. “Forgive me, I had the pleasure of meeting her recently but never knew Lady Anne. Lady Darcy seemed everything ladylike, to me, and I quite admired her intelligence.”

“Who did you say this one was and where was she from?” the Countess asked, looking at Lady Catherine.

“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet and father has an estate in Hertfordshire,” Lady Catherine replied.  “I have told her before she gives her opinions shockingly freely for one so young.”

Inwardly, Darcy cringed at the way they talked about Elizabeth as though she were not present or capable of speaking for herself. He opened his mouth to defend her, but the expression on her face showed she was more amused than offended. Their eyes met, and silently she communicated that he need say nothing.

“Miss Bennet,” the Countess gave Elizabeth a haughty look. “It is forgivable you do not know much of superior society. I do not mean Lady Darcy. I am speaking of Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl and Clara and Amelia’s aunt.”

“I am sorry, aunt to who?” Elizabeth asked.

The duchess set down her teacup. “There are far too many Catherine and Annes about. The ones you call Lady Anne and Lady Catherine, we as close friends of the family,” she nodded at Lady Catherine and then Darcy,” know as Clara and Amelia, their second names.”

“Forgive me, I had not realised,” Elizabeth said and looked nervously at her tea cup.

“I cannot speak for my aunt,” Darcy said, “but my mother was known to nearly all as Clara. Their father did not inherit the earldom until just after Lady Catherine’s birth, and there were several Annes in the family already. Mother might have been known as Lady Anne in formal situations, but she grew up as Clara Fitzwilliam, daughter to a barrister who never expected to inherit.”

“At any rate,” the Countess continued in a bored tone, “Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the Countess, was a leader in that Bluestocking Club. It was she who involved Lady Darcy and later Clara in it. We were all just scandalised when she married the Earl. His first wife had been the daughter of a marquis and died after their first child, a son and his heir, was born. He lived decades without remarrying. We all believed he loved his wife too much.”

“What happened?” Anne asked, appearing fascinated with the talk of long dead relatives she had never known.

“The young man died,” the Countess said.

“In a riding accident, if you can believe it,” the Duchess inserted. “I always tell my son to take care riding, but then with his superior breeding he has the most magnificent seat I have ever seen.”

She eyed Darcy, and he held back another scowl.

“So, the Earl remarried, and just how he settled on a bluestocking we have never quite ascertained,” the Countess added.

“I am surprised to hear you demean a relation of your own,” Lady Catherine said, glaring at the Countess. “My aunt was the granddaughter of Viscount Falmouth, as you well know. What a joy it is for us to share a great-grandmother and claim such close kinship to James the Second” The Countess sucked in a breath and paled, but Lady Catherine continued. “I know how the relationship pleases you since you named your daughter Arabella.”

When his aunt had finished, there was an awkward silence in the room, but he had eyes only for Elizabeth. Mirth swam in them, and he knew the same was reflected in his own. Finally, the door opened and several others bounded inside.

“Ah, Dorset,” the Duchess greeted her son and gave introductions.

“Enough formality,” the young Duke said when she had finished reminding Darcy of Bingley. “We have come to gather men for cricket. Darcy, I see your cousin is absent this year. I do not know that we will have enough unless any of you ladies play?”

Darcy did scowl when Dorset’s appreciative gaze landed on Elizabeth.

“Eliza is an excellent player,” Mrs. Collins said, and became the newest recipient of Darcy’s glare.

“Is that right, Miss Bennet?” the Duke, who was very near to being punched, grinned at the woman Darcy loved.

“Well, I do not know how I compare to others, and it has been a great many years since I played.” The slight squeezing on her hands signified her distress to Darcy, but none of her other friends appeared to notice.

“You shall be on my team, then,” the Duke laughed.

“I hate to contradict Your Grace,” Lady Catherine said, “but it really is unkind to make the poor dear play with strangers. It would be much better for her to play on Darcy’s team. Do not you agree, Arabella and Cathy?”

The female relations of Dorset emphatically agreed, and he relented. Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. However… “Forgive me, but we did not ascertain if Miss Bennet wished to play.” He looked at her. “Would you rather watch from the side-lines or do you prefer to take your chances on me? Full disclosure, the Sackville and Jenkinson men are known for their prowess.”

There was a slight twitch of Elizabeth’s lips, but she answered without laughter. “If what you say is true, then I should infinitely prefer to play for a team that makes it only a game and is willing to laugh at themselves. We shall have quite the better time of it, I am sure.”

“Oh, the lady challenges us not who wins, but as to merriment!” the Duke called out and his faithful companions laughed with him.

“Are you certain you wish to remain on Darcy’s team then, madam?” Liverpool asked. “I have never seen him without that scowl upon his face.”

Darcy’s scowl deepened, and he mentally thought to add his boot to the man’s backside in a more just world. Alas, one could not pummel Secretaries of War and brothers to their hostess.

“I shall take my chances,” Elizabeth answered smilingly.

Jenkinson tsked. “Just as well, if you are the sort that enjoys such a dangerous wager.” He ended in a grin which gave way to more laughter.

“Come along, then,” Dorset commanded, and all but the Countess filed out of doors. She would watch from a window, the stairs being too much for her arthritic knees.


Dearest Niece,

The latest gossip in Bath reports that the eldest Miss Linley is now officially Mrs. Sheridan. All of the papers are enamoured with their love story. How they had to elope so she would not be forced to wed a terrible man. Then Mr. Sheridan defended her honour in two duels. However, I do not think anyone has explained why it took them an entire year after eloping to actually marry. Dearest Fanny bemoans the marriage as it is rumoured Mr. Sheridan will not allow his wife to perform no matter their poverty. Understand, and rejoice, my love. Fame and riches make all things possible.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Elizabeth followed the others outside, feeling the disapproving glares of Lady Catherine, the Duchess, and the Countess — by whatever names they called themselves — it did not alter their dislike of her or the interest the Duke paid her. To her right, he chatted amiably of cricket, reminding her of Mr. Bingley. To her left, Mr. Darcy glowered. Did he think she unworthy of the Duke as well?

Despite Elizabeth’s dislike for Darcy’s present expression, she could barely spare him a thought. She was too consumed with her anger at Charlotte. How had Elizabeth not known her dearest friend was such a deceitful creature? She had practically fed Elizabeth to the wolves, whilst it was Darcy who attempted to mitigate problems. Her head wondered if it was due to pride — belief that she was of inferior consequence, or from his rejected proposal — but her heart began to whisper that he only wished to put her at ease.

They arrived at the large lawn on which they would play and broke into teams. The Duke captained his family’s team, consisting of titled relatives and, as special guests the sons of Lord George Cavendish, a younger son of the Duke of Devonshire. They had recently re-entered society after the death of the eldest son and heir. Darcy captained the other team made up of people who were clearly guests of less distinction and rank, although in some instances they were of closer relation. Among them, the three sons of George Dance the Younger.

“How is your father, Tom?” Darcy asked as they gathered around.

“Quite well for his age. He sits under the shade tree with Aunt Harriet,” the man nodded toward an elderly gentleman. “Although, he does feel down now and then since Uncle Nate’s death last autumn.”

“Indeed, I was sorry to hear of his passing. A loss to all of England but surely felt most acutely by your family.”

Elizabeth saw in Darcy’s expression genuine remorse, and Thomas Dance nodded in acceptance of Darcy’s words.

“Well, now,” Mr. Dance said and cast his eyes at the opposite end of the field. “We are down Richard but Liverpool is another year older, yet I think quite out of shape with his office work.”

Darcy chuckled. “You are scarcely a few years younger than he!”

“Yes, but I hardly look it,” he said and winked at Elizabeth.

“Nor do you act it!” Another gentleman came bounding over. His similar features proved he must be a Dance brother. A third young man tagged behind. The introduction that followed proved Elizabeth’s assumption correct. Their other teammates, including Mr. Collins, gathered near.

Elizabeth could feel Darcy’s stare on her as the Dance brothers trained identical brown eyes on her. “How skilled are you at cricket, Miss Bennet?” the eldest asked.

“That is a rather subjective question. I played better than most of the boys in my town. However, that was several years ago, and they were not grown men.” She did not wish to disclose that it was a mere three years ago and not the dozen they likely presumed.

“Do not worry about that,” one of the younger brothers said. “They will be too awed by a female playing at all. These fancy types aren’t used to ladies doing more than sitting. Their chivalry will demand they bowl easy.”

The last brother looked at Elizabeth’s long skirts. “Do you bat well? I dare say it must be impossible to run in that get-up.”

“Run!” Mr. Collins gasped. “Miss Elizabeth surely you do not mean to do something so unladylike as run! Why Lady Catherine would never—”

“Miss Bennet is a capable player,” Darcy cut in. “She is healthy and young, full of energy. Do not underestimate her. That is their job, as Tom pointed out.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. Tiring of others speaking for her, she stepped toward the equipment. “We ought to use this time to practice. As Mr. Darcy is our captain, I trust he is formulating a plan.”

“We shall play to our strengths.” Darcy counted the group off into nearly equal numbers and sent half to practice batting and half to work on sprints. When he had a moment, he spoke quietly to Elizabeth.

“I hope I do not upset you, but I feel that since you are burdened with less sporting attire, we would benefit the most from having you run with a partner most likely to hit far.”

“And who is that?” she asked, noting it did not seem like Darcy took into account her own ability at bat. Knowing the eyes of the entire house were on her, she did not show her true skill during practice. She would rather surprise their opponents.

Darcy rubbed the back of his neck and looked away sheepishly. “In the past, it has been me.”

Elizabeth’s eyes scanned his tall, broad build, for the first time noting how more masculine his physique was than other gentlemen. How was he so strong? Did not rich men spend all their time indoors?

“Then, we shall be partners,” Elizabeth said and smiled.

The smile Darcy gave her in return stole her breath. He looked more youthful and carefree, vigorous and virile among men of an academic bent. As much as she admired George Dance and the legacy of his relations, wheedling away hours at a drafting table did not lend itself to the sorts of powerful muscles which rippled under Darcy’s coat and breeches. Her mouth growing dry, she suddenly wished she had taken greater note of their waltz.

“Excuse me,” Elizabeth said shaking her head. “I would like a drink of water before we begin.”

She ran over to the refreshment table, where Charlotte and several other ladies were gathered. “Good luck, Eliza,” Charlotte whispered.

Shoving concerns over her friend’s behaviour aside, Elizabeth thanked her and scurried back to the team, just as the Duke announced the game ready to commence.

“So as to not fatigue Miss Bennet,” Elizabeth quelled the urge to roll her eyes at the Duke’s unnecessary condescension, “or our audience, we will play only one innings each. The limit is one over per bowler. Liverpool has the coin toss. I call heads.” The Earl flipped the coin in the air and Elizabeth waited in trepidation for the resulting answer. “Heads it is!”

Elizabeth and her teammates took to the field. Tom Dance took position as the first bowler. The Duke served as the on-strike batsman and the Earl at the bowling end. Tom bowled well, but the Duke struck the ball toward Mr. Collins who seemed too alarmed, whether by a hard object hurtling toward him or by the thought of catching the Duke out, that he jumped out of the way. The fielders near him scrambled to grab the ball, and the Duke and Earl managed four runs. Darcy rearranged the fielders and sent Collins to long-stop at the back after that, a decision Elizabeth wondered he did not start with.

The next several balls went better. Tom either bowled them out, or the fielders managed to limit the number of runs. However, Tom’s turn was over, and a new bowler was chosen. Elizabeth soon realised not all of her teammates desired to win against such illustrious personages. As a fielder, no one hit a ball toward her. Anything that came remotely near was snatched by a gentleman who might harm his health with how hard he ran, all to keep Elizabeth from exerting herself in any way. However, one time, a ball came directly toward her, and she caught it dismissing the batsman, to the surprise of nearly every participant.

“Miss Bennet,” Darcy called, “it is your turn to bowl.” He gave her a tight smile and Elizabeth could not make out if he disliked her playing or her treatment. As it was, he had saved her for next to last. She walked to the beginning of theapproach.

“You may come forward,” the Duke called from where the opposing team gathered.

Elizabeth gave him a false smile and complied. When she had last played she did not need the modification, but she would not allow her pride to get the best of her. She took a few paces forward.

“And you may bowl underhand,” Liverpool added.

Elizabeth took a deep breath but before she could begin her run-up, Darcy made a motion, and the umpire called a break. Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at yet another modification due to her sex. Her would-be champion approached.

“Never mind them,” Darcy said. “Are you certain you wish to bowl? Dorset sounds like he would make allowances for you, but do not be fooled. He might just as soon hit directly at you. You can claim you are fatigued by the sun.” Darcy looked in the direction of the trees providing shade for the other guests. Charlotte talked with a very pregnant Mrs. Julia Jenkinson.

“I will not perish from one game of Cricket, sir.” Elizabeth glanced backwards. “However, my cousin seems quite weary so let us talk no more. The sooner I do my part you may do yours, and then we might stand under the shade.”

“If you are certain,” Darcy looked at her consideringly.

“I am,” Elizabeth said with an annoyed edge to her voice.

Darcy merely nodded and returned to his position as wicket-keeper. Elizabeth took a deep breath then ran a few paces past the crease and threw underhand. The striking batsman was evidently surprised for he missed his chance to strike the ball and instead resorted to protecting the wicket with his arm. Declared out leg before wicket by the umpire, the batsman left the field. The Dance brothers cheered Elizabeth, while Dorset and Liverpool consulted one another.

“On second thought, Miss Bennet is welcome to bowl as the others,” the Duke’s younger uncle, Mr. Jenkinson, said while laughing.

Elizabeth smiled as well and complied. Remaining behind the crease line and throwing overhand certainly was more difficult, but achievable. Again, the batsman was surprised. His delay caused him to edge the ball and be caught out by a fielder. Having learned to not underestimate her, Elizabeth’s next three balls resulted in several runs. By her last ball, her shoulder did ache from the unusual movements. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, one batsman had reached his century and retired after his one-hundredth run. The Duke of Dorset became the striking batsman and Darcy’s words resonated in her ears. However, she had thought the Duke had been quite good-natured. And while she disliked being coddled, she knew he acted with honour. He would never aim directly at her.

Elizabeth ran toward the crease line and let the ball fly from her right hand, rejoicing when she saw it line up well with the wickets. The world seemed to slow, however, when she heard a loud cracking sound and saw the ball hurtling directly for her. She heard the gasps from the crowd and out of the corner of her eye saw the silly point and the short leg race from their positions near Dorset to her. Despite hearing the pounding of feet from the slips behind her, she had no choice. She would not duck or jump out of the way. Taking a step backwards, so the ball did not strike her face, she caught the hard sphere in her hands at chest height. It punched into her with such force that she fell and knocked her head.

“Miss Bennet!” her teammates called to her. She attempted to sit up and soon regretted it.

“Rest a moment,” Tom Dance insisted. “I believe you hit your head when you fell.”

Elizabeth peered beyond him, first to the ladies rushing to her side, and then to where she heard angry words being yelled from the receiving wicket. Darcy looked ready to resort to fisticuffs with the Duke.

“That was in poor spirit of the game!” Darcy yelled, and many others seemed in agreement.

The umpire shook his head. “The Duke is caught and bowled. If Miss Bennet is not injured, we must resume the game.”

“Can you stand?” Tom asked her.

“Of course. I am quite well,” Elizabeth insisted and took his hand when offered. Her head ached, but it would not stop her from playing.

Darcy approached. “Miss Bennet,” he said frowning. “I wish you would rest and allow someone else to take your place.”

“There is no one else,” she said and lifted her chin. “I wish to stay.”

“Surely—”

“Let her be, Darcy,” Tom said. “Take it out on Dorset when it is your turn to bat.”

Darcy glared at the Duke but seemed to accept the other man’s suggestion. He ordered Elizabeth to the farthest fielding position and therefore least likely to be needed. Although Elizabeth was some distance from him, she could see he bowled well. His over was completed quickly with the Duke’s team gaining only two runs. While the teams exchanged positions on the field, Darcy took Elizabeth by the elbow and led her to Charlotte and Mrs. Jenkinson.

“If you ladies cannot talk sense into Miss Bennet, perhaps you may insist she rest,” he said gruffly as though she had done something wrong.

He stalked off, and Elizabeth stared daggers at the back of his head. He had returned to his high and mighty Hertfordshire ways, and she despised it.

“Here is some lemonade,” Charlotte said and offered her fan. Elizabeth took both, but only to appear agreeable.

Mrs. Jenkinson shook her head. “I am surprised at Dorset. He never did such a thing to me.”

“Do you play?” Elizabeth asked. She was surprised the sister-in-law to an earl and aunt to a duke would participate in the sport.

“I think it might have been what Charles first noticed about me,” she laughed. “My father had been invited for some reason I can no longer remember and at fifteen, I was headstrong enough to volunteer for the task of completing a team, not realising how seriously the Liverpool men take the game.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “I admit I would not have expected such renowned men to play so passionately.”

“Indeed!” the lady agreed. “I was too young to court then, and Charles had just returned from Austria, but our families remained on good terms. We were always invited to the Easter gathering. I was around your age when Charles finally seemed to notice me for anything beyond cricket.” Her eyes took on a soft quality. “I sprained my wrist batting, and he was so tender. Oh, forgive me. I get so weepy when I am with child!” She pulled a handkerchief out from her reticule.

“You obviously love him very much,” Elizabeth said smilingly.

“Yes. His mother was not pleased when he wished to marry a penniless daughter of an Irish astronomer. I have undoubtedly polluted the family blood line.”

By the turn of her lips, Elizabeth could tell the lady found it more ridiculous than offensive. Inwardly, she smiled as well. Hearing that the Dowager Countess was related to Lady Catherine seemed fitting. It was exactly how she imagined her ladyship would react to Elizabeth marrying Darcy. Marrying Darcy! Where had such a thought come from?

“I think mothers often just wish for their children to do well. I do not know that my own ever went to sleep at night not worried about my future until I wed,” Charlotte said. Elizabeth glanced at her in surprise and saw her friend’s eyes glittering. “Surely the love between a mother and child is more than most will ever have.”

“Oh, now I have you crying too!” Mrs. Jenkinson pulled another handkerchief out and handed it to Charlotte. “Calm yourself, it is not good in your condition. You are entirely correct. Happiness in marriage does not always follow a love match. There are many things love cannot change. If Charles had nothing and we married, I do not think we could have ever felt content.”

Elizabeth did not entirely agree, but was saved the trouble of having to reply by being called for her turn. As she left, Charlotte daintily wiped at her eyes and Elizabeth belatedly put the lady’s words together. Was Charlotte with child? Was that the source of her odd moods? Mrs. Jenkinson seemed to imply as much, and Elizabeth recalled that when her aunt had been expecting she also had emotional outbursts.

Shaking her head to clear the family concerns of others, she focused on her position. With any luck, she would be caught out and not expected to stay on the pitch as a non-striking batsman. Her head did ache, but she also had little enthusiasm for the game. She much preferred to stroll the grounds.

When she was receiving, she was a victim of discrimination again; the bowler bowled the ball far too easily. She made contact with the ball and managed two runs, but the former non-striking batsman retired. Finally, it was Darcy’s turn, and soon the infernal game would be over. It was now the Duke’s turn to bowl, and Darcy eyed him with steely determination. After two balls that were wide, Darcy seemed all the more infuriated. Elizabeth recalled him claiming great skill with the bat, and if the Duke would not bowl correctly, then it would prevent Darcy from hitting over the boundary and scoring six runs. Looking over her shoulder, Elizabeth saw that the fielders had backed up closer to the boundary.

Elizabeth watched as Dorset bowled again. From her position, it looked as though the ball would hit Darcy in the shoulder. At the last possible moment, it veered to her left. Darcy swung hard, his form worthy of being sculpted by the great artists. The ball sailed through the air past the boundary. She could not help cheering with her teammates, although she was entirely unsure what the score was. The teams gathered around their captains and waited for the umpires to call the game.

“Team Darcy wins! One hundred twenty-two runs to the Duke’s one hundred twenty. Darcy’s team wins by two!”

The cry from her teammates filled Elizabeth with pride. She cared nothing for the game. It had been a pleasant enough past-time from her youth, but she enjoyed more their pride and teamwork as they beat their hosts, something Elizabeth thought seldom occurred, and not merely out of deference. To her surprise, she was specially thanked and praised.

“It was your two runs, Miss Bennet!” One of the younger Dance brothers proclaimed.

“Aye, it was!” Tom agreed.

“Three cheers for Miss Bennet!” more called out.

Elizabeth laughed at the gaiety and absurdity. She could only think they gave her such credit because it would wound the pride of the Dorset clan more to have been beaten by a woman. “And what of our captain? He scored the final runs!”

Darcy flushed with her praise and the resulting cheers but as his eyes met hers he gave her a genuine smile, which she returned. Whatever his foul mood was from earlier, she was pleased to see him return to informality and friendship.

The remainder of the day was spent eating a casual luncheon, polite conversation with the ladies including Miss de Bourgh, a tour of the grounds and the house. Despite Elizabeth enjoying the Tudor arches, Knole’s brown gallery, a collection of Raphael cartoons, and many paintings by Joshua Reynolds including Wang-y-tong the Sackville Chinese page boy, the height of her enjoyment was the original medieval walled garden inside a larger walled garden. The additional highlight of a group drawing lesson from George Dance was only eclipsed by then speaking with him about the need for more neo-Medieval architecture. His agreeing Elizabeth had many knowledgeable points nearly outshone the bizarre jealousy she felt when she observed Darcy talking for an extended period of time with Julia Jenkinson.

On the whole, Elizabeth was excessively pleased with her visit to Knole. Mr. Collins did not let her forget how much she owed Lady Catherine and, although she rather thought it was all due to another, she profusely thanked the lady before leaving. Fortunately for Elizabeth’s still slightly throbbing head, the distance to Hunsford was easy, and soon she was away from her cousin’s commands of gratitude and unheard compliments to his patroness.


Dear C

I have had the pleasure of seeing Angelikas portrait of the Earl of Spencers children. The eldest daughter is soon to marry her young Duke. I confess, I worry for Lady Georgiana. At not yet seventeen, she is still a child and I fear the Duke was not raised as I would have hoped a grandson of Lady Burlington would have been raised. Dearest, when you wed find something between an impoverished gentleman and a Duke, if you please. On a more pleasant subject, I have never enjoyed a piece of poetry so much as I loved Miss Scotts Female Advocate.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The following morning, Elizabeth slept later than usual. Mr. Collins was already in the garden while Charlotte and Maria were in the sitting room, having finished breakfast. Before entering, she heard some of their conversation.

“Like this?” Maria asked. Elizabeth presumed the young girl was being shown a particular embroidery stitch.

“Yes, that is excellent!” Charlotte praised her younger sister.

A sad smile came to Elizabeth’s lips. She recalled sitting with Jane in such a way. Her elder sister had much more patience than their mother did. But who sat with the younger ones? Jane sometimes would try, but Elizabeth had cast off Lydia and Kitty as far too simple-minded for her. Their parents did little better. In the end, it was little wonder the girls had felt no one was worth listening to.

“Shall we not ask Lizzy to join us?” Maria asked.

“I think we had better let her rest. She must be overtired from her performance yesterday.”

“Performance? You mean Cricket?”

Charlotte sighed. “Maria, dear, you must see by now that Eliza is the type of woman who must always have as much attention as possible. It is not to be wondered at since you know her mother. She was not raised to be retiring or modest. I suppose Jane tries, but with such beauty, she will never be overlooked.”

Elizabeth covered her mouth lest an offended gasp alert them to her presence. Must she always be hearing ungenerous things about herself?

“Do not look at me so,” Charlotte scolded. “Eliza is my dearest friend, but our months of separation have allowed me to see our differences. I had thought age would demure her, but I am convinced it is not so. She will never change. Thank heavens she had the sense to know how ill-matched she would be with my dear Collins.”

“I had not thought of it that way,” Maria said.

“Be thankful you have an older sister, for I had to learn for myself and you see it took me twenty-seven years. Forget notions of love or romance. Men of sense desire wives who are calm and level-headed. They want women who will run their household well and be a credit to their names. Look for a gentleman who matches your desires in life. For example, I would not be pleased with a man who wished to live in London.”

“Surely love exists for some no matter how ill-matched they are?” Elizabeth could hear the anxiety in Maria’s voice. “Mr. Darcy seems to love Lizzy. They have little in common, but it would be—”

Unwilling to allow them to gossip about her, Elizabeth called out as though she were some distance away. “Charlotte?”

There was a slight pause. “We are in the drawing room.”

Rolling her eyes as she stamped her feet on the ground to pretend walking down the hall, she counted the minutes until she could leave. She intended to visit Miss de Bourgh this morning. Finally, she entered the chamber.

“Eliza, you look unwell.” Genuine concern etched across Charlotte’s face, confusing Elizabeth.

“A lingering headache. I think a walk will cure me.”

“But you have not eaten. Stay and take some tea, at least,” Charlotte insisted.

Feeling as though she could not avoid the invitation, Elizabeth complied. While they drank, the mail came. Elizabeth had a missive from Mary and Charlotte opened a letter with eagerness.

“Ladies, Mrs. Julia Jenkinson invites us to call on her in two days’ time for an informal tea at Knole House.”

“La! Will we see the Duchess again?” Maria asked with her eyes rounding in mingled fear and excitement.

“I do not think we will. She would have much more important things to do than wait on us.”

As Charlotte said it, Elizabeth imagined the cogs in her head turning in thought. A friendship with Mrs. Jenkinson could very well lead to greater intimacy with the Duchess. The Sackvilles would have considerably more patronage in the church. Fortunately, Jane’s voice scolded her. Elizabeth needed to clear the air with her friend, but she should be careful to not presume her motives. Instead, Elizabeth expressed her happiness with the invitation. When their tea was finished, she excused herself to walk and read Mary’s letter.

Mary had little of interest to say. The Militia would soon decamp to Brighton, giving Elizabeth ease for if they could not remove Wickham earlier then he would be leaving anyway. However, a few lines later, Mary reported Lydia’s growing intimacy with the Colonel of the Regiment’s wife and that she was frequently in the company of several of the officers, including Wickham.

If only she could leave Kent earlier! She needed to speak with her Uncle or Father. They must be made to understand the danger Wickham posed. Increasingly, Elizabeth wondered if she should reveal to Darcy all that Wickham had said. Weeks ago it had seemed immaterial, but now with Darcy’s declarations and professions of admiration, it seemed possible that Wickham had considered Darcy might wish to marry her all along. How humbling to think that so many others were less astonished by Darcy’s interest than she was. Two things kept her from anxiety as she walked swiftly to Rosings. The first being that Darcy would be intelligent enough to think of some excuse for an earlier arrival in London, even if it meant she could not stay with the Gardiners. Secondly, that while Wickham may understand Darcy enough to see his attachment, he most assuredly did not know her. He had supposed she and Charlotte would concoct a plan to ensnare Darcy. In actuality, Charlotte did not approve of the match, and Elizabeth would rather live in disgrace the rest of her life than to bring a shred of it to the Darcy name.

That thought slowed her pace. She could no longer vow that she did not harbour the slightest desire to marry Darcy. It was far too early to know if she would welcome his renewed declarations but she also admitted there was an increasing possibility that she might when weeks ago he would have been the last man she would have considered. However, it was not just Darcy of whom she must think. Scandal attached to her could ruin Georgiana or Anne. And while she had only met the Baroness once, she felt they were kindred spirits. Lady Catherine would undoubtedly not approve of the match at any rate, but the thought of losing the good opinion of Darcy’s other aunt troubled her.

“Elizabeth!”

Darcy’s voice called out, startling her. She missed noticing a raised tree root and tripped. Feeling her ankle twist and not wanting to risk further injury, Elizabeth crumpled to the ground.

“Elizabeth!” Darcy exclaimed and ran to her side. “Are you injured? Is it your head?”

Elizabeth blinked up at him. Her head? She had landed on her bottom and remained upright. Why should he worry about her head?”

“No, my head is quite well, thank you. I twisted my ankle on this root.” She pointed at the source and experimented with flexing her foot. “I think I can walk but should probably rest the remainder of the day. I will regret missing my visit with Miss de Bourgh.”

“You are far closer to Rosings than you are to the Parsonage. I will assist you to the house, and then we will let the housekeeper fuss over you and you may keep your visit with Anne.”

Elizabeth smiled a little. Had she thought him arrogant and intruding before? Now, she admired the way he could manage a situation. “Very well. Could we rest a bit first? And perhaps out of the lane?”

“Certainly.” Darcy looped one arm under Elizabeth’s knees and clasped another around her waist, lifting her with ease as she shrieked and clutched his lapels.

“I can walk!”

“Ah, but then I could not play the hero,” he said with a smile he did not attempt to hide.

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. Would she ever know what to expect from this man? He gently placed her on the ground under a tree, several paces from the lane and joined her.

“Other than your ankle, are you well? You have had no lingering effects from yesterday?”

“Only a slight headache.”

Darcy cursed under his breath. “That dolt should be whipped. He was threatened by you and sought to harm you!”

Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure it is no more than he would do to any opponent.”

“That may be, but you are… you are…”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in expectation. “I am?” Darcy clamped his mouth shut. “A woman? Something delicate?”

Darcy shook his head. “No, that is not the source of my agitation.”

He seemed unwilling to say more, and it occurred to Elizabeth they had sat like this not too many days before and yet her feelings were entirely different. Now, she did not blame him for every misfortune in her life or feel the need to fill their moments of silence. She found them companionable. She fiddled with the grass and leaves around her, then brushed a fly from her cheek.

“You mean very much to me,” Darcy said. The words were the words of a lover, and yet the tone sounded angry. “I care for you and wish for you to be safe.”

“Is that why you kept asking me to quit the game?” Elizabeth asked. It was probably, the sweetest, most infuriating thing a person had ever done for her and she bit back a smile.

“You know I am not gifted with words. I apologise if I angered you. I know I am muddling this up.”

“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth thought he did quite well. He could be very articulate when he wished.

“There are nor words to explain my admiration. I will not renew address which disgusted you but neither can I remove those sentiments.”

For some reason, Elizabeth’s heart sank. His proposal had only mentioned that he found her a suitable candidate as a wife. There was nothing about tender feelings or passion. When had she begun to wish to have such things with him? Did he only see her as a bluestocking? An intelligent woman who could further his social circle and run his household?

Glancing at him, she saw his intense stare on her face. “What is it?”

He withdrew a handkerchief and tenderly passed it over one cheek while he held her chin in his other hand. She must have wiped dirt on her face. She lowered her eyes in shame while he remained holding her face.

“Elizabeth,” Darcy rasped. “If you do not wish for me to kiss you, wretch your face away this instant. I can bear it no more.”

Instead, Elizabeth tilted her chin up as her lashes fluttered. As his flesh met hers, pure bliss ripped through her body.

 

*****

 

He should not be doing this. He absolutely should not be doing this. Elizabeth’s sweet kiss held a grip on him, though, and all the logic in the world stood no chance. It mattered not that they were paces from the lane to Rosings where anyone might see them. Nor did it matter that the woman had soundly refused his marriage proposal and thus any sane man would say matrimony, not in their future. Alas, he was sick of logic and claims of duty.

When he had savoured her lips for as long as he dared, he touched his forehead to hers. Elizabeth’s breath came quickly, and he could feel the heat of her blush. The vestiges of control he had began to slip. Never before had he understood how men could mislay their honour and seduce maidens and yet he was very aware that life would be incomplete without joining with this particular one.

“Do you know,” Elizabeth said with humour in her voice when she had caught her breath, “that I believe you can read minds.”

The statement was ludicrous but flattering and caused him to chuckle. “A dangerous talent, then. Perhaps it is best that I have never used it before.” They shared a laugh before he asked with keen interest, “What makes you think so?”

“Moments ago I was wondering if you saw me as anything more than a bluestocking to be collected for your club.”

Darcy started. He had been careful to not mention the Club to avoid her coming to such a conclusion. Additionally, he was uncertain if his aunt would approve of her descent.

“The papers report many things,” she said with a knowing look. “I had not looked before, but after you had mentioned the likely gossip that would attend your arriving at the Gardiner residence, I took an interest. You are recreating the Bluestocking Club. It seems all of London is invested in the oddity of your celebrating your future inheritance with surrounding yourself with intellectual women.”

Darcy shook his head. “It is Lady Darcy’s request which I am bound to honour. If the papers imagine I would be the head of such a club, they could not be more wrong. While the ladies decades ago sometimes invited gentlemen to partake of their meetings, I am convinced a gentleman hosting so many ladies could be anything but proper.”

Elizabeth’s smile dipped a little. “So you would be looking for a proper hostess.”

“Not necessarily,” he hedged lest he scare her away. “Georgiana is nearly of age, and there is no reason to conclude a lady related to me must be their leader or that they would even need one. They might decide upon a more democratic approach.”

“Democracy in the social spheres of England? How scandalous!” Elizabeth exclaimed in mock outrage. “Why your other aunt would never approve!” They laughed before Elizabeth glanced toward the mansion. “Speaking of her ladyship, I would like to continue my journey now. I would not wish for Miss de Bourgh to think I would skip our meeting or to worry about me.”

“Very well,” Darcy offered his arm although he longed to scoop her up again. She leant heavier than usual on it but not near as heavily as he would have guessed from a twist. While they walked, Darcy explained his aunt’s vision for her club and the ladies he had already gathered. Julia Jenkinson being the most recent addition. He included a brief history of its predecessor as well.

“Angelica Kauffman…” Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I have seen that name before.” After a moment of silence, she exclaimed. “Oh! In the copy of The Tempest, you found for me, there was a sketch of Ferdinand and Miranda. It said it was copied from a portrait by Angelica Kauffman.”

“How interesting! When next we meet I would enjoy seeing it.”

“Certainly,” Elizabeth said. “Will you not now scold me for avoiding our conversation of the work?”

“I would if I thought it might do any good,” Darcy smiled.

Elizabeth laughed. “I promise we may talk about it soon. You must forgive me for not having read more than a few pages. Last night, I was overtired from the outing and the evening before I was over excited from anticipation.”

“Then perhaps tonight you may read it for the evening will be very dull indeed. At least it will be so for me. Lady Catherine’s dinner table is always tedious, made bearable the last several weeks by your presence. What are meals like at your cousin’s?”

Elizabeth groaned. “Dull would be my word of choice as well! Each passing day feels more and more like a rusted knife attempting to rip out my heart, in the process doing as much damage as it can. I never thought I would miss the high spirits of Lydia and Kitty or the anxieties of my mother.”

She peeked at him, and Darcy wondered if it were to see what he thought of her family now. “You must miss them greatly.”

Nodding in agreement, they reached the steps of Rosings. Where, without caring who might see, Darcy swept Elizabeth into his arms again. When the butler greeted them, he could not contain his shock but informed them in which drawing room they could find Anne. She gasped at Darcy and his precious cargo, immediately ordering a cold compress and refreshments as well as wraps and liniment. Soon, Elizabeth was coddled and relaxed in a chair with her foot elevated, and while she flushed with each kindness, Darcy did not know when he had ever felt more concerned, excepting when he saw Elizabeth fall backwards yesterday and knock her head.

The three young people took turns reading poetry and making a card table. Eventually, it was time for Elizabeth to return and as she refused to stay at Rosings, the carriage was ordered for her. As Darcy handed Elizabeth in, he was pleased to see her ankle mostly healed.

Returning to Anne’s sitting room, he met her smiling face. She clapped her hands. “That went splendidly! I believe Miss Bennet is seeing the honourable gentleman you have been hiding behind a facade of indifference and annoyance.”

“Usually, that would fluff my pride. Today, I know better. If she does think of me, I am sure it has only been with hate.” At least until recently, he held back a grin at the thought.

“No, it is me that she hated,” Anne shook her head.

“You! She hardly knows you!”

“And yet she has heard I am destined to be your wife. She found me insipid and arrogant.”

Darcy frowned. It was a wonder Elizabeth did not accuse him of either toying with her or of dishonourably abandoning Anne. “Considering she says I am also arrogant, she must think we deserve each other.”

“Perhaps,” Anne shrugged, “but she came to that conclusion before ever meeting me. Elizabeth confessed while she was in Hertfordshire, she had been told I was conceited and insolent. I wonder who she could have as common acquaintances, but I did not have a moment to ask her or Mrs. Collins.”

Biting back a curse, Darcy’s frown deepened. “Undoubtedly more of Wickham’s lies.”

“Mr. Wickham?” Anne turned whiter than linen, and her voice wavered. “Your old steward’s son?”

“Technically, he was never my steward. His father served mine,” and therefore I owe him nothing, Darcy thought to himself. He scrutinised his cousin. “Anne, you are unwell. I will call Mrs. Jenkinson. Allow me to fetch you some wine.”

He quickly poured her a glass. Upon returning to her side, he was pleased to see some of her colour had returned. Still, she eagerly took his offered drink and did not admonish him when he pulled the bell cord. After the servant had left to seek Mrs. Jenkinson, Darcy returned to her side.

“Thank you for looking after me,” she said with a wry twist of her lips.

“It is nothing,” he said.

“I am so ashamed,” Anne blushed red and then covered her face. “If he knew — if he only knew! Oh, how he would delight in finding me weak once again.”

“I do not understand what you mean. Are your senses addled?” Darcy sat beside her and felt her forehead.

Anne swatted his hand away. “I am not ill. Please, before Mrs. Jenkinson arrives, you must answer me.” She took a deep breath, and her pleading eyes held Darcy’s gaze. “Do you mean to say that Miss Bennet is acquainted with Mr. Wickham?”

“Yes, he had joined a Militia Regiment quartered in Hertfordshire. I understand he has not hesitated to speak against me and use the area’s prejudice to his advantage.”

“But specifically Miss Bennet?”

Darcy frowned. “Yes, and it contributed to some of her opinions of me.”

Now, I might be ill—” A knock at the door interrupted her words. Darcy opened it, and Mrs. Jenkinson strolled in.

“Oh, my dear girl!” She exclaimed and cast accusing eyes at Darcy. He had often observed that the woman was more motherly than the woman who birthed her. “What has happened?”

“I will soon recover, Nan.” Darcy began to retreat, feeling that he was unwelcome and intruding on a scene which required privacy. “No, stay, Conor.”

Darcy’s feet ceased their movement at that still unfamiliar but nostalgic endearment. “I am at your service. How can I assist you?”

“Quit being such a bloody knight in shining armour. This ordeal would be much easier if you were not so perfect,” she glowered darkly at him.

Darcy looked at Mrs. Jenkinson, a question on his lips. “What Anne means to say is to be seated,” she interpreted.

Darcy shifted his eyes between the two as an unspoken discussion passed between them. He sat feeling like a recalcitrant schoolboy called to the head master’s office. Only, as Anne had said, he had been too “perfect” to have experienced such a humiliation.

“I will wait in my chamber,” Mrs. Jenkinson said and glanced at a clock. “I will return in half an hour,” she said firmly.

Anne nodded and met her companion’s gaze. There was a steely set to Anne’s eyes which Darcy had never seen before. If he had to name it, he would call it the Fitzwilliam stubbornness.

Mrs. Jenkinson left, and the only sound in the room was the slow ticking of the clock. After several minutes, Darcy cleared his throat. “Anne?”

His cousin squeezed her eyes shut. “I have imagined this conversation dozens — hundreds — of times. I would practice it and imagine how you might storm and rage. I imagined you would rail at me and tell me of the shame I brought to our family and how you could not abide my failure. Never once had I imagined it would be in such a context.”

Darcy furrowed his brow. “I apologise for any offence, even if imaginary. You will have to enlighten me, however, on what context you reference and why you fear I would behave in such a fashion.”

“I am referencing the fact that I hold information which will aid your courtship with another lady and will, hopefully, preserve the happiness of her family and the innocence of her sister.”

Darcy’s pulse slowed, and ice filled his veins. When he was told his mother would not survive after Georgiana’s birth, the same terror had seized him. Although he could only guess at Anne’s meaning, he knew whatever next came out of her mouth would likely change his life forever.

“George Wickham seduced me.”


Dear C

I refuse to waste any more paper considering the mad Americans. It is all the chatter at my usual salons. If ever there was a need for a salon where politics was not discussed tis now. Instead, I will tell you that I saw Sheridans newest play and enjoyed it immensely. I have surely known far too many ladies like Mrs. Malaprop who think they are being clever and yet only display their lack of intelligence by continually misusing words.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Nineteen

A loud buzzing noise filled Darcy’s ears. He must have misheard Anne. “Pardon?” His voice sounded raw even to his faulty senses.

“George Wickham seduced me,” Anne squeezed her hands together tightly. “I was but sixteen.”

“The last time you visited Pemberley,” Darcy murmured as he considered the occasion. Anne had withdrawn from him and appeared ill. She pleaded with her parents to leave, but they refused. Upon her return to Kent, she was unwell for nearly a year. Terror seized him. “Your illness?”

“I was so ashamed…” She trailed off.

“Were there consequences?” He asked with raised eyebrows. Was there a babe hid away somewhere? Did her mother know?

A hollow and throaty laugh emerged from Anne. “Consequences?” She asked mockingly, but Darcy took no offence. “There was no child if that is what you are asking, but there were surely more consequences. Far more than I think men consider when they make light of women and their position in the world.”

Her eyes drifted to the sideboard and his followed. In most rooms of the gentry, it was filled with decanters of various spirits. Anne’s held tea and what he presumed were various medicinal items. There was one small decanter of sherry. He had not considered it before, but it was far smaller than any other he had seen before.

“I had feared I would lose my mind with love for him. How could I give up my family? And yet, I was prepared to do so. I knew there would be no other way. We were to elope,” a knife twisted in Darcy’s heart, “but he insisted I demonstrate my devotion first.” A shudder wracked Anne’s body.

“After…” she paused, and her breath grew laboured for several minutes. Darcy had little doubt she was reliving it all. “After it had become apparent he meant none of it, I hated myself.”

“You left Pemberley very ill,” Darcy said.

Anne snorted. “Yes, well, when you shun food for nearly a week and pilfer every liquor cabinet in a vast house, that will happen.”

Only years of good breeding kept Darcy’s jaw from dropping to the floor.

“Do you recall how good I was at finding hiding places when we were young?” The sudden change in conversation puzzled Darcy, but he nodded. “They could not hide the bottles from me. There was always some servant I could bribe and then…then I would find a way to fill my thirst.”

“Anne,  I do not know what to say…” He had spent years avoiding her and any mention of their alleged betrothal, yet all the while she went through a hell he could not imagine.

“Mother saved me, you know,” she whispered.

Darcy shook his head. “I did not.”

“She recognised some serious matter had thrown me into depression. She told me I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to make such a mistake.”

“She was right,” Darcy emphatically agreed.

“She told me if I wanted to kill myself to get on with it, but drawing it out accomplished nothing and she would not help me hurt myself any longer.”

Hardly able to fathom his aunt had said such a thing, he leant forward, enthralled with Anne’s story.

“I thought about it,” she shrugged. “Food was one thing I could control in my life and spirits the one thing that could dull the pain. After a particularly bad episode, I realised I did wish to live. I regret Father did not see me overcome my selfishness.”

“You were ill,” Darcy reassured and touched her hand. “He would have been very proud.”

Anne gave him a sad smile and then drew her shoulders back. “I vowed that you would never hear it from me, unless under the most extreme circumstances. I would torture myself with thoughts as to why I would divulge my shame. I thought perhaps it would be if Mother or Nan died. If loneliness in this huge house threatened to consume me and tempt me again, I would tell you the truth and throw myself on your mercy, or if anything happened to Georgiana. I had thought perhaps you would leave the begetting of heirs to her. Or mayhap, when you inherited your title.”

She shook her head. “Really, I came up with many far-fetched scenarios of you believing you had no choice but to marry me, and my explaining why I never could.”

“Do you think I would not have you because of a youthful transgression?” He hated that she thought it of him. He hated that his arrogance had been a source of self-torture.

“No, it is not that,” she said with heightened colour. “I did not imagine you happy over the information. But I know Wickham’s designs. He foolishly said as much to me.”

“What do you mean?” The fear returned and gripped his heart even tighter.

“He bedded me simply so he could enjoy having me before you. He had always intended it as a victory over you.” She twisted her hands and spoke with increasing rapidity. “Don’t you see? He targeted Miss Bennet for a reason. He must have seen your attraction to her.”

“But she is here,” Darcy shook his head. “It was her sister he boasted of being able to seduce. While Lydia Bennet is a shameless flirt, there is no reason to presume that to defile her would pain me.”

“Would you marry Elizabeth even if her family were ruined?” Anne raised a brow.

“Of course,” Darcy replied without hesitation. He had known for weeks that if Wickham truly did have such a scheme and attempted to put it in motion, he might succeed. It seemed doubtful, however, that Wickham would attempt such folly. The Bennets could offer him little. He had not considered that Wickham had made a connection between him and Elizabeth. Still, after Georgiana nearly eloped with the scoundrel, he could hardly object if Elizabeth’s sister did the same.

“And would you have her if Wickham were her brother?”

Darcy’s jaw clenched at the thought. He would try every other means rather than see anyone marry the man. Lydia Bennet, however, might be silly enough to believe herself in love with him. “He would never be welcome at Pemberley,” Darcy growled.

Anne raised her eyebrows, but there was no time to explain about Georgiana. Anne fiddled her thumbs. “Perhaps you are correct, and there is nothing to it. I hope I did not distress you for no reason.”

“Think nothing of my discomfort,” he said. “You are far braver and stronger than I ever gave you credit,” he said with genuine feeling.

“Thank you,” Anne said. “The damage is done, though. I grow yellower by the day. My frequent drives in the sun help the jaundice, but nothing can help the liver.”

“I am sorry I was not there for you,” he said.

“I did not wish you to be!” Anne’s eyes swam with unshed tears. “You were staid and dull. George was exciting and vivacious. I hated Mother’s insinuations that we should wed. I dreamt of romance and adventure.”

“Still I ought to have been a better friend to you since then,” Darcy hung his head.

“I will not listen to your self-pity. Do not allow it to break you like mine nearly did to me,” Anne insisted. “My mistakes are my own. One day you will learn and accept that, rather than taking on everyone else’s concerns for yourself.”

Footsteps sounded in the hall. “Now, be off with you. Nan will come and fuss over me.” Darcy paused at the door. “Before you ask, yes you may tell Miss Bennet.” Anne shooed him away with her hands and turned her attention to a book.

“Thank you,” Darcy said and awkwardly left.

He would have spoken with Elizabeth the following morning. On the way to his chambers, he was alerted by a servant that he had letters in his room. He had been neglecting his business and personal correspondence for the sake of his courtship with Elizabeth. After spending the afternoon answering letters from his steward, he turned his attention to letters from family.

Richard had been given leave to attend General Middleton’s house party in Sussex and would speak with him on transferring Wickham. However, it would take days to journey there and back. In the meantime, he now seemed annoyed at having to deal with it at all. He counselled Darcy that Wickham was no menace to Elizabeth’s family. That the man was prone to exaggeration and would gain nothing from seducing a squire’s daughter. He spent most of the letter ranting about Darcy needing to protect Georgiana from untrustworthy suitors, and that he thought Bingley visited too often.

Miffed at his cousin’s letter, Darcy put it aside and turned to Georgiana’s. She pleaded with him to leave Rosings. She went on and on about the near constant visits from Richard or Bingley, sometimes overlapping and yet their aunt had not visited or returned her letters. Able to read between the lines with his sister easier than Richard, Darcy could discern Georgiana grew anxious over Lady Darcy’s health and tired of visits from the gentlemen. If Darcy returned then he would be protection enough, and the others could go about their lives rather than chaperone her.

By the time he finished replying to the earlier correspondence, the clock had begun to chime the hour to dress for dinner, and Darcy laid his last letter aside. He would read Lady Darcy’s missive in the morning.

 

*****

 

Elizabeth tiptoed down the Parsonage stairs. The day and night of rest healed her ankle entirely. It sounded like only the servants were awake and Elizabeth desired to avoid her hosts. She had forgotten to speak with Darcy about leaving Kent earlier than planned. There was now ___ days remaining before she could join the Gardiners. It was not only the matter of her discomfort with the Collinses and worries for her sisters which drove her decision. Darcy had proved more than trustworthy. Her heart raced at the thought of telling him everything she had heard Wickham say, no matter how embarrassing. However, she trusted him. While she had resisted telling her father — or any other soul — what she heard, she believed she would never lose Darcy’s friendship.

Rehearsing her words, all thought escaped her when she rounded a turn in the grove and found Darcy waiting for her. He turned at the sound of her steps on the path.

“Elizabeth,” he hastened to her side.

“Good morning, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth smiled, feeling some of her nerves ease.

“I hope you slept well.”

“I did, thank you.” They shared a tense smile. They had never been very good at bland, polite conversation. “I must speak with you.”

“We must talk,” Darcy said at the same time. “Pardon me! Please, proceed.”

Elizabeth stuttered and attempted to give him the opportunity to speak first. However, he insisted she say her piece. At last, she nodded but did not know where to begin. Darcy ceased walking and caught her by the hand when she tried to continue. He pulled her closer to him.

“You can tell me anything, Elizabeth,” he said and raised her gloved hand to his lips.

“I know,” she said and squeezed his hand in return. Looking into his eyes, she found a courage she did not know she had. “I have kept something from you.”

“There are more faults in my character you see?”

“I have been wrong, so wrong!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“Please, I meant to jest.” Darcy placed her hand on his arm. He kept his hand on hers, imbuing her with strength.

“Do you recall when I told you Wickham planned to elope with Lydia?” Darcy’s arm tensed underneath her hand, and he nodded. “I told you I had overheard him speaking of it with other men. However…” she trailed off, and Darcy squeezed her hand. “I did not tell you everything I heard.”

“I assume it was not pressing,” he said. “How can I assist?”

“At the time, it seemed ridiculous. And…and embarrassing.” As Elizabeth spoke, her cheeks turned red. “Yesterday, I received a letter from Mary. She reported Lydia’s increasing intimacy with Colonel Forster’s wife. Lydia hopes she might be invited to go with them when the Regiment decamps to Brighton in a few weeks.”

“That would be the ideal time for him to elope with her.”

“Indeed. You also, evidently, recall, how I misunderstood your character. We have had many conversations about my false impressions and insecurities, have we not?”

“Yes,” Darcy said and squeezed her hand. “I would not trade those discussions for the world, no matter the pain and anger I felt at first.”

“We will not argue about who shares the greater blame.” Darcy again squeezed her hand and Elizabeth took a deep breath before the words rushed out. “Wickham he…he…he presumed an attachment between us…that is that you admired me and I would ensnare you. His goal was to elope with Lydia after a betrothal between us was announced.”

Elizabeth glanced up at Darcy, who had turned his head. She could see by his profile that his jaw was clenched, and a vein near his eyepulsed. “Is this all you heard?”

“No…” Elizabeth trailed off and began to remove her hand from Darcy’s arm, but he would not allow it. He raised her hand to his lips again. Elizabeth sighed and closed her eyes to escape seeing the anger or disappointment in them when she said the next part. “He thought that after our marriage, he could…s..s…”

Why was this so hard? She began again. “He thought he might seduce me. It seemed like that was his final triumph. Your money he would like, but there was something more…something vengeful.”

Elizabeth’s words ended on a whisper, and a shudder wracked her body. She had spent weeks telling herself a man who had dined in her home could not be so evil, but she could no longer deny it. Glancing at Darcy, his face had turned white.

“I will kill him,” Darcy vowed. His grip on her hand was almost painful. “If he ever laid a hand on you. I would kill him.”

Elizabeth attempted to pull her hand free, and Darcy finally released his hold. “Forgive me. Forgive me,” he muttered.

He took several steps away from Elizabeth. She could see anger evident on every feature. Now that she knew him so well, she no longer feared it was directed at her. She watched him pace for several minutes before it occurred to her that he should not bear alone whatever burden now tortured him. Elizabeth approached and grabbed his hand, bringing him to the present.

“What troubles you?” She asked before raising his hand to her lips. “You can tell me anything.” Darcy’s features softened with her words and gesture. Elizabeth’s heart fluttered at her effect on him.

Darcy took her by the hand, and led her to the fallen tree they had sat at days ago. Once he settled his coat on the tree and saw that she was sitting, he took her hands in his. “I have many things to explain, but I do not have much time. Please believe me that while I may have been foolish, blind, too reserved, and even arrogant, I was never malicious. I never would have wished for anyone to be hurt by Wickham, the least of all your family.”

“I know,” she squeezed his hands in return.

“When I had explained there was a young lady that Wickham attempted to elope with last summer, you did not press for details, and I did not divulge them. I had also said that Wickham was capable of plotting. The truth is…the lady he selected had a very close relationship with me. It was…” He paused, and Elizabeth saw his throat work. “It was my sister.”

“Georgiana!” Elizabeth could not contain her shock. In her few interactions with the girl, she was very shy and scarcely older than Lydia.

“Please do not think less of her—”

“No, I would never!”

“He preyed on her childhood friendship with him while she was on holiday at Ramsgate. However, I always believed he desired revenge even more than her thirty thousand pounds. Now, I know for certain.”

“How can you know that?”

“Yesterday, after you returned to the Parsonage, Anne said she believed you disliked her. I assured her that you must have only been prejudiced due to Wickham. Then…she made the most shocking confession.”

Elizabeth listened in silence. While Darcy spoke, she could feel his love and compassion for his relations. How many others would have cast off a foolish sister? Additionally,  that a sheltered young lady like Anne de Bourgh could have something to say even more shocking than nearly eloping with a steward’s son, stunned Elizabeth.

“I fear this may not be fit for a lady’s ears.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Spare me the chivalry. I heard worse from Wickham, I am sure.”

“You are correct,” Darcy nodded. “Wickham seduced Anne when she was sixteen.” He said matter of factly.

“No!” Elizabeth gasped.

“Yes, and there is far more about that situation which I could explain later, but she said that Wickham had told her he meant to have her before we wed.”

“Where?”

“Pardon?”

“Where did he seduce Anne? Georgiana’s involvement happened at Ramsgate. I assume you did not accompany her?”

“No, no. She went with her companion, who I later learnt had a connection to Wickham. However, he seduced Anne at Pemberley. He must be adept at avoiding chaperones.”

“Exactly! And so Lydia may be unsafe even at Longbourn.” Elizabeth glanced around. “Consider how often we have met unaccompanied. We must leave for London and send for Lydia as soon as possible.”

“I agree, and on that subject, my aunt has requested my presence.”

“Immediately?”

“Yes, I must depart this morning. She has been quite unwell.”

“I hope it is nothing serious,” Elizabeth said knowing that at her age illnesses often were.

Darcy dipped his head. “I fear it might be.” He squeezed her hands again. “Let us not worry about such things. Will you accompany me to London?”

“Thank you. I—”

“I know you have not been keen on the idea before, but we have very few choices now. A maid has not been arranged yet, and Richard has my carriage. Lady Catherine’s coach broke an axle slipping in mud after returning you to the Parsonage yesterday. Anne has offered her phaeton. The open carriage should lend propriety. If you refuse, however, you could go by post, and I will follow on horse.”

“No, that will not be necessary. Miss de Bourgh is very generous to offer the phaeton.”

“I will send an express ahead to my house in London. Should you like to write the Gardiners?”

Elizabeth agreed, and they then separated. While Darcy made arrangements at Rosings, Elizabeth explained to Charlotte that she had received an important letter from her relations. Mr. Collins disliked the idea of her driving with Darcy but neither could he gainsay Lady Catherine’s nephew. Charlotte frowned at her the entire time she assisted in packing her trunk.

“I am sorry you have to leave early, Eliza,” Charlotte said. “I hope you had an enjoyable visit. It has been a pleasure to have my own home and expose my old friends to superior company. You must return, perhaps at a different time when there are fewer guests at Rosings?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows.

Elizabeth replied neutrally and gave her friend a perfectly cordial adieu, but her heart was not in it. Perhaps it was Charlotte’s marrying Collins, but something between them had altered forever. Darcy arrived punctually and handed Elizabeth into the carriage despite Mr. And Mrs. Collins’ concerns over rain. Soon, they were bound for London.


Dearest Niece—

Have you read Mr. Gibbon’s volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? How interesting that he publishes it now.

I have heard many of our friends are featured in an engraving by an artist named Richard Samuel in which he names them the “Nine Living Muses of Great Britain.” We are all in an uproar for nobody sat for this drawing and many say they cannot recognise a soul.

Give dearest A kisses from my girls and me.

Yours,

A.F.

                                               

Chapter Twenty

For the first fifteen miles, Darcy and Elizabeth had easy conversation. Elizabeth praised Darcy for his fast thinking in sending an express to the Gardiners and requesting Lydia be brought to Town. Additionally, Elizabeth conceded she enjoyed The Tempest better on her more recent read-through. Naturally, she remained critical of Miranda’s lack of independence and complete submission to Prospero.

“Although,” her lips twisted in a wry smile, “perhaps if I had been more like Miranda, I would have told my father everything I heard Wickham say. Then Lydia might have been safe from him weeks ago.”

“She may yet be safe. Others have suggested that Wickham has no motive to wound me. Further, he would need proof that we — that is his…investment in Lydia’s feelings  was secured.” Darcy chanced a look at her face to see she understood his meaning. She twisted her hands in her lap and furrowed her brow. He attempted to soften the blow. “There is no reason to think that she would even be susceptible to his charms.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded, and melancholy descended between them. They stopped at a coaching inn for new horses and refreshments before continuing their journey. Darcy had remained silent, considering various strategies. If his aunt’s health was as poor as her letter made it seem, then he would not be journeying to Longbourn. Nor did he know how much time he could dedicate to assisting Bingley with making amends to Jane Bennet. A letter would have to suffice for both situations and yet did not seem adequate.

A raindrop landed on his nose, interrupting his reverie. He squinted up at the sky. The second half of their journey might be delayed by rain. He scowled at the clouds. Beside him, Elizabeth laughed.

“So serious,” Elizabeth teased. “The serious Mr. Darcy,” she said in a horrible impression of him. “Or should that be Lord Darcy?”

“Do you think you are the only one who can make light of another person?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do your worse, sir. I am not afraid of you.”

“I am Elizabeth Bennet,” he said in an obnoxiously high voice that sounded nothing like hers. “I am pert, sarcastic, and clever. Far cleverer than you.” Then he raised an eyebrow and smiled knowingly to copy her signature expression.

“Oh, I do not sound like that!” Elizabeth playfully slapped his arm, which was being increasingly pelted with rain.

“No, I am pleased to say you do not,” he chuckled. “Do I really sound so dour?”

“I used to think so,” Elizabeth confessed. She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Now, I know that you are merely quiet, reserved, and serious. There is no fault in that any more than there is a fault in my liveliness.” She laughed for a moment. “Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask. Lady Catherine would have nothing kind to say.”

“Let us speak of pleasanter things,” Darcy shouted over the pounding rain. “Do you agree with some of the critics that Shakespeare was examining Plato’s theory of the soul with Prospero?”

“Pardon me?” Elizabeth cried out.

Darcy looked over at her. Her ringlets were now plastered to the side of her face, and droplets trickled down her chin. The hat she wore had no brim. Her clothes were growing increasingly sodden. Even worse, the condition of the road was deteriorating, and the horses were slowing. Then the phaeton lurched to a stop.

“What is it?”

“The wheel must be stuck!”

Darcy tossed the reins to Elizabeth and jumped down, his boots splashing in the mud. He stomped around to the back of the carriage and found one of the wheels trapped in a rut. He pushed on it with his shoulder, hoping to free it. However, despite feeling the horse take a step forward, the wheel did not budge. Again, he shoved on the carriage, his boots slipping. As he fell to his knees, he heard a sloshing sound beside him.

“Allow me to help.”

“Who will guide the horse?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I didn’t need to guide it at all. It wants out of this storm as much as we do.” Elizabeth said and took a position.

“No! No, you could hurt yourself,” he said.

“And I suppose sitting in the rain for hours would have been better?” Elizabeth said.

Darcy laughed. He knew better than to attempt to change Elizabeth’s mind. “Ready?” he called, and they pushed against the carriage. It rocked forward, and they groaned with exertion. Then the phaeton rolled backwards with such momentum that they fell, landing on their rears. Mud splattered around them.

Elizabeth erupted in laughter. After a moment of shock, Darcy joined in. After several minutes spent in laughter, Elizabeth had tears streaming down her face. She wiped them away with her mud-soaked gloves.

“Can you imagine what Lady Catherine would say if she saw us now?” Elizabeth said between chuckles. “Falling in the mud is strictly for the lower classes,” she said while tilting her nose in the air.

“Cease that, woman,” Darcy growled and pulled her to him. Yesterday, he had hesitated and allowed her to turn away if she desired. Today, he had no restraint. As his lips touched Elizabeth’s, her arms wrapped around his neck and she clung to him. Releasing her mouth and trailing kisses down her throat, he spoke into her silky soft skin. “Come, we must get out of the road.”

Elizabeth blushed and allowed him to lead her off the road. He had no fear of being observed. No one else would drive in such a deluge. But he worried about her health, or at least her comfort. He led her to a thick copse of trees hoping the branches would provide some refuge. As they ran through the woods, a large structure became visible.

“There!” Darcy pointed. “We’ll ask for shelter there.”

As they darted through the path, hand in hand, Elizabeth’s laughter increased. “I think I know this place!”

“Do you?”

“How far are we from Bromley?”

“I think we may be about five miles. We should be near—”

“Eltham Palace! The Great Hall was built by Edward IV for Henry VIII. After the Civil War, a baronet leased it. As the previous tenant let it fall into disrepair, they built a new manor house. They use the Great Hall as a barn and prefer their estate in Yardling.”

They reached the building and opened the doors. “Oh!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Oh, the hammer beam roof is more beautiful than I could imagine!”

Darcy looked around and saw dust and clutter everywhere, but once again Elizabeth saw the architecture of their surroundings. She could see the potential in buildings…and people. It was why she saw the good in Wickham and why she gave himself a second chance. The wind whipped through the cracks in the windows and Elizabeth shivered beside him.

“Come here,” Darcy said and pulled her into his arms. Her head nestled right over his heart. A heart which beat only for her.

“Thank you,” she murmured into his coat.

As he rubbed his arms up and down her back to warm her, he wished they could avoid what would follow. Soon, this storm would end, and they would resume their journey to London. With it, they would learn the consequences of their secrets. And soon, far sooner than he would like, Darcy would have to take on the responsibilities of a barony. Even if all those matters were settled to the best possible arrangement, it would still mean an interruption of the peace he found at this moment. He could offer Elizabeth houses, carriages, fine clothing, and jewellery, but all she desired was a man of good character and sense who valued her for who she was. In the months since leaving Hertfordshire, he had recounted their conversations, the glances they shared, the feel of her hand in his during his long-fought-for dance. He could hardly say when he fell in love with this woman. Was it in Hertfordshire or was it after leaving her, after he understood how rare she was and the effect she had on his life?

It mattered not, for what he had also learned was that his love for her grew daily. First, merely because he embraced the love instead of fighting it. Then, because of the honesty they expressed when he had first arrived in Kent. Lastly, as their encounters brought them together daily, he was able to see more of her character. Each day revealed a new facet of Elizabeth and each day, Darcy found something more to love about her. Soon, when they had settled affairs with their families, he would be sure she knew how much he loved her.

“What were you asking me earlier?” She asked, her voice still muffled against the fabric of his coat. “Something about Prospero?”

Darcy welcomed the conversation. Holding her in his arms was a great temptation and some distraction was warranted. “Do you know of Plato’s theory regarding the human soul?”

“That it is three parts? A soul can only be at peace when it’s temperament embraces logic and shuns passions?”

“Yes. Did you find Prospero a manifestation of Plato’s theory? Once he gave up his magic and anger, he was welcomed back to Milan.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “I rather think I reject the philosophy in general. Natural urges should be under proper regulation, of course, but they need not be suppressed as evil.”

“Some believe it was only when Prospero accepted his baser instincts and abilities that his soul aligned and he could join his peers.”

“I believe that is more likely. We must accept all of ourselves. The sensible and logical as well as high spirits and…” She trailed off when their eyes met. Her breath grew shallow and raised her chin in a clear invitation.

“Carnal desires?” He finished her thoughts.

Gently, he pushed a wet tendril behind her ear and let his hand caress the soft skin of her cheek and throat.  Then, holding her beautiful face in his hands, he made love to her lips. Elizabeth certainly enthusiastically returned his kisses. She stroked her tongue over his, causing his eyes to roll in his head and a groan to emanate from his lips.

It took all of Darcy’s honour to pull away from her delicious mouth. He pulled away lest they yielded to those desires that would lead to their ruin. Elizabeth laid her head over his heart again, and he rested his chin atop her bonnet. This time as he wrapped his arms around her, he was pleased to note she was not as damp and nowhere near as chilled.

After several minutes of silence, Elizabeth spoke. “Do you hear? I believe the rain has ceased, Mr. Darcy.”

“Will you not call me by my given name?”

Elizabeth gave him a weak smile. “I confess I felt jealous when Miss de Bourgh called you Conor. Yes, I know all about that pet name and how you got it.”

He smiled in return. “When I went away to school, I came back refusing to answer to the name. I would not ask that you call me Conor.”

“I am afraid Fitzwilliam reminds me too much of your cousin and the image of stuffy old earls.”

Darcy shook his head. “I agree, I am not fond of it myself.”

Elizabeth sighed. “It is too bad parents must name their children. I feel as though all your names have been given to you to remind you of your position in life.”

“They were,” he murmured against her hair. “I have another one though. Legend tells it that he was invited to a salon but declined for he had no formal black, silk stockings. The hostess told him to come wearing his blue stockings.” His smile grew with the retelling. “They did not want me to forget my Bluestocking roots and named me _?_ after Benjamin Stillingfleet.”

“Really?” Elizabeth exclaimed  and drew back her face to look at him. “I do not think I have heard anyone else call you by that name before.”

“Perfect. Then it shall be for your use alone. What would you have me call you?”

“You already call me Elizabeth,” she said with a bit of a smirk.

“As do many others,” he answered. He could consider certain endearments such as “my love” but he did not believe she would welcome them.

Elizabeth cocked her head. “That means very much to you?”

“I know it is probably selfish of me but in moments when we are alone — like this — ” The look of surprise on her face ceased his words. She did not expect — or perhaps even want — them to have more moments like this.

“Belinda,” she whispered. “My second name is Belinda.”

“Perfect,” Darcy grinned. “Absolutely perfect. Beautiful Belinda,” Darcy cupped Elizabeth’s face for another kiss. “Lizzy Bel.”

They returned to the carriage, unsurprised to see a large puddle and much debris of twigs and leaves. Elizabeth suggested using nearby fallen branch as a lever to free the wheel, and soon they were on the road again. For the last few miles, until they reached Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth spoke of the books she had borrowed from Anne. Within Letters for the Improvement of the Mind were, shockingly, letters.

The authoress of the book, Hester Chapone, had first written it as letters regarding conduct to her niece. Likewise, the letters within the volume were between an aunt and niece. However, it was not entirely clear who was involved. The writer signed her name A.F. which made Elizabeth consider, at first, it must be Darcy’s mother, Anne Fitzwilliam. Yet, the niece had created some kind of scandal and had to go to France to recover. Lady Anne had died before Anne de Bourgh would have been of an age to cause such trouble, and journeys to France had been impossible for nearly twenty years. Darcy was uncertain to whom the letters belonged. There was a shocking number of Anne Fitzwilliams in his family.

Night had fallen when they finally reached the Gardiner residence. Darcy walked around to Elizabeth’s side with trepidation. Would this be the last time he saw her? Her family would have every right to be angry with him and demand that he leave them forever. Feeling like a man about to be hung, Darcy assisted Elizabeth from the carriage and walked toward his fate.

 

*****

 

Elizabeth took a deep breath as Darcy pulled the borrowed phaeton to a stop outside the Gardiner residence near Cheapside. He gave her a small smile and offered his hand for her to exit the carriage. It was getting dark and still raining, and her wet and muddied gown caught under her foot lurching her forward. Before she could even cry out Darcy’s hands were on her waist, catching her before any harm was done.

“Thank you.”

He only nodded, and they walked up the stairs one behind the other. Both felt too much and were conscious of the seriousness of the reasons for their journey. They were soon shown in the front hall, thankful they had dried just enough to not leave puddles on the floor.

“Lizzy!” Mrs. Gardiner quickly greeted them. “Mr. Darcy, thank you for bringing Elizabeth to us.”

“It was my honour. Forgive the impropriety of my visiting without an invitation.” Darcy spoke with perfect civility. Mrs. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth in surprise, but the latter was not astonished at his politeness at all. She had come to know him well over the last few weeks.

“We expected you hours ago, but I can see you must have been caught in a downpour. Please, come to the drawing room and enjoy the fire. The children are abed, and we can speak freely in there.”

“Forgive me,” Darcy said, “but as you mentioned it is quite late, and I am quite wet and muddy. I would hate to ruin anything. Would it be possible for me to call on the morrow?”

“Certainly.”

He caught Elizabeth’s eye and, perceiving what he was about, she shook her head negatively. He returned to looking at Mrs. Gardiner. “Miss Elizabeth expressed a desire to visit with my sister. Would it inconvenience you if she came?”

“Mr. Darcy…” Elizabeth began to interject, but her aunt stepped forward and squeezed her hand, muting Elizabeth.

“You are both very welcome, sir. Mr. Gardiner will be home for dinner. We eat at six o’clock.”

“Does this meet with your approval, Miss Elizabeth?”

“You need not bring Miss Darcy on the morrow, sir.” He gave her a look, and she let out an exasperated sigh. “It would not do if you are not able to speak with my uncle until after dinner, and would your sister feel comfortable with strangers for so many hours? Nor is it sensible to bring her in the morning, return her to your home and then come back for dinner.”

He stepped closer to her and a small smile played about his lips. Her aunt was entirely forgotten.

“Are you giving me leave to arrive at your uncle’s home without the pretence of my sister?”

Elizabeth beamed back at him. “Yes, I am giving you leave to call on me.”

His smile broadened, and Elizabeth could not keep the lightness in her heart escaping through laughter. Fortunately, Darcy recalled himself.

“Thank you for your kind offer, Mrs. Gardiner, but it seems unnecessary. I look forward to dining here tomorrow and speaking with your husband. Have a good evening.” He turned again to Elizabeth and bowed over her hand, stealing her breath. “Until tomorrow, Miss Elizabeth.”

She watched him leave and then turned to face her aunt who only smiled and shook her head at her. Further down the hallway she saw Jane and ran to her side, embracing her, laughing when she transferred some mud to Jane’s gown. “Oh, dearest! How are you? Truly, tell me all!”

Jane replied, “I am tolerable but how are you? My aunt only told me this afternoon that  Lydia is to come tomorrow and you were expected today, arriving with Mr. Darcy! You have been very sly, Lizzy! Never until this day would I have imagined seeing such an affinity between you two.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I dare say until today I could not imagine it possible myself.”

Elizabeth loved Jane dearly and did wish to make her acquainted with everything that had passed in the last fortnight, but desired to reflect on things first. She was grateful when her aunt intervened.

“Jane, Lizzy is very wet and must be exhausted. She needs her rest lest she catch cold. There will be time tomorrow to talk.”

Elizabeth recognised it for the warning that it was. After changing and drying her hair she and Jane obediently went straight to sleep, utterly grateful just to have each other’s company again.

The next morning dawned with sunshine and Elizabeth was happy to see it. Lydia would be travelling from Longbourn this day and should arrive at noon. Jane began to awaken beside her.

“Lizzy, how did you sleep?”

“Very soundly. I suppose I was exhausted from my journey. At one point, Mr. Darcy and I had to get out of the carriage and push when it got stuck in a rut.”

“I am surprised you rode with him — and in a phaeton no less! The storm was, no doubt, unexpected but the dust from the road would have been enough to deter me.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Where is your sense of adventure? Actually, Mr. Darcy had little choice if I was to arrive yesterday,. His cousin is using his own carriage, one of Lady Catherine’s was damaged the other day, and not repaired yet. She was disinclined to offer her large barouche box for the journey. Lady Catherine’s daughter suggested the use of her phaeton. Mr. Darcy could drive it instead of needing a coachman and then returning him to Rosings. Additionally, Darcy only keeps one carriage in town— the one his cousin is using— so he can use the phaeton until his Colonel Fitzwilliam returns.”

“And hiring a hack being inconvenient,” Jane suppled and raised her eyebrow. “Darcy, is it?”

Elizabeth blushed and stared at her hands. “If it were anyone but you they would be regaling me with “I told you so’s”, but you are far too kind.”

She squeezed her hands. Her feelings for Darcy were beyond her own comprehension, and she had not yet found adequate words for them. When she did speak of him, it was in halting and short sentences. “He is amiable. I like him very much. I was quite wrong about him.”

“Please, tell me all!” Jane grasped Elizabeth’s hands, and Elizabeth could have cried at the affection of her sister after experiencing the strangeness of her supposed friend the last few weeks.

“I will in time but for now I would like a bath, and we must get dressed and join our aunt and uncle for breakfast. Lydia arrives in a few hours, and it would be helpful to have some idea on how to handle her.”

Jane furrowed her brow. She brought a shaking hand to her chest. “Why has she been sent away from Longbourn?”

“Do not imagine anything too evil. She is not being brought here as punishment. We were hoping to separate her from some influences in the Meryton area. More will be explained after dinner.”

Jane’s nervous expression did not change, but she pressed for no more information. Elizabeth took a moment to scrutinise her sister. She seemed paler and thinner. Dark circles were under Jane’s eyes. When Elizabeth had last seen her in March, she had been unhappy, but she did not seem despondent. Elizabeth was more worried about her sister’s health now than she had been directly after Bingley left.

“Jane, will you tell me how you truly are? I can only imagine how grieved you are by Bingley’s actions. Darcy was quite upset when I told him.”

“You told him!” Jane blushed.

“He came upon me after I read your letter.” Elizabeth tried to hide her wistful smile for although the memory held sad ones, it also kept a happy one as well. “I was outraged and perceived him to be the source of it all.”

“What did Mr. Darcy say?” Jane asked very quietly, and Elizabeth’s heart broke for her sister’s pain. She still hoped to find some good in Bingley.

“Darcy did encourage his friend to stay away from Netherfield. He thought you indifferent. His other concerns were about our family’s behaviour. He learned you were in town as Miss Bingley informed him, but she did not mention you had visited; that could have only been a sign in your favour. He never encouraged Bingley toward Miss Darcy.” Her face darkened as she thought of how unjustly Bingley treated her dearest sister.

Elizabeth looked at her sister for a long moment. “Is that all that happened? Did you really not speak with Bingley at all?”

“I did,” Jane whispered very quietly.

“What?”

Tears streaked Jane’s beautiful face as she released her heart. “He was shown into the parlour while I was there so I could not refuse to see him. My aunt was called away by one of the children and then—” Jane covered her face and sobbed into her hands for a moment. Elizabeth rubbed her back.

When Jane had regained some composure, her face was mottled and red. She did not meet Elizabeth’s eyes. “He asked that I forgive him for his behaviour. He declared he loved me and wished to wed me. It was so dreadful!”

Elizabeth had never felt so much confusion in her life. “But my dear why would that distress you?”

“How can he claim to love me but treat me so badly?”

There was no doubt from Jane’s reaction that she very much loved him. What had Darcy said? Love must be selfless. “I do not know, dearest. So you refused him?”

“How could I do otherwise? He had offered no explanations, and although he apologised, he did not seek to make amends. It was as though he felt he had only one moment to trust his courage and ask for my hand rather than court me properly.”

Elizabeth could say nothing against her sister’s supposition. It was her opinion as well. “And are you absolutely decided against him? Could he not win your heart back?”

Jane, who had searched for a handkerchief, sniffed. “My heart is broken and will never love or trust again.”

Elizabeth had a growing suspicion her decision had less to do with Bingley’s treatment and more to do with Jane doubting her own sense. That was something she could keenly sympathise with.

“Perhaps.” She would keep her thoughts to herself on the matter, for now. But Darcy must be told of this development. She would never desire Jane to marry Bingley without proper amends being made, but perhaps Bingley’s dependence upon his friend for advice may be of some use.

After a pause, Elizabeth asked the question which had been weighing on her for some time. “Do you mind at all that I arrived with Darcy?”

“No! Why should I?” Jane dabbed at her eyes but could do nothing for the puffiness from her tears.

“I only worried that you would dislike the reminder of Mr. Bingley or the chance of seeing him again.”

Jane slowly brought down the handkerchief and searched Elizabeth’s face. “Lizzy, do you have an understanding with Mr. Darcy?”

Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “He has asked for several things, and nothing has been accepted or decided. I worry for the family’s acceptance of him and wish to slowly show my change in feeling first. I have told him I cannot promise to accept his suit but…”

“But?”

“It is very frustrating!” Elizabeth’s hands gripped the counterpane. “I do like him very much. I am flattered by his admiration, but you can certainly understand I worry for his constancy as well as my own. Not too many days ago I believed we equally despised each other.” Jane shot her a look, and Elizabeth knew that she was likely the only person with sense who thought Darcy disliked her. So blind had she been! “Time will sort it out, it always does.”


Continue Reading: Twenty-One — Twenty-Six

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