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Chapter Twenty-One

Dearest C—

You cannot know how it pains me to see that you still reprimand yourself for not only your experiences but your lingering feelings. You have asked me what I thought of Armide and while I did not see Herr Gluck’s version, I know the story. Of course, I believe women have as much capacity as men to hate. That you seem incapable of hating your seducer does not define you as weak and neither is Armide for loving her enemy.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Darcy returned to his Mayfair home with elation and trepidation warring in his breast. Elizabeth accepting his courtship filled him with triumph and pride. Being welcomed at the Gardiner house rather than turned out on his ear should have removed all fears. However, Darcy could not shake the feeling that his battle had just begun. The groves of Rosings had allowed them a reprieve from the demands of the world.

Upon entry, he was informed Georgiana was already in her chamber. Determining to allow her to sleep, Darcy made plans for the morrow. During breakfast, he hoped to gain a clearer understanding of the situation with Richard and Bingley. While he trusted both to consider his sister’s best interests, neither had done so at the expense of their own enjoyment before. Richard had every reason to focus his attention on stopping Wickham, and Bingley had never heard a thing about Georgiana’s intended elopement. He would have no reason to believe her in need of more chaperonage than a paid companion would provide.

Once he had spoken with Georgiana, he would write letters to both men. Richard was in Sussex, but Darcy hoped to see Bingley before the day was through. Next, he would call upon his aunt, Lady Darcy. Lastly, he would dine with Elizabeth. Once Lydia arrived, all should be well, and he could begin truly courting Elizabeth.

Despite his structured plans, nightmares tormented him while he slumbered. Titans captured Elizabeth and would not release her. Mocking that he could not slay them, they beat him then bound him in chains. He could do nothing to secure her release. His name, wealth, and strength were no help to his circumstances. In the distance, he could hear Elizabeth weeping. In the dream, years elapsed and he was no closer to securing his release or rescuing Elizabeth. He awoke with a pained head and a sick feeling that, regardless of the obstacles they overcame, he would never be united with Elizabeth.

“Fitzwilliam!” Georgiana exclaimed when she and Mrs. Annesley entered the breakfast room.

She dashed to his side and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. For a moment, Darcy was reminded of the always cheerful and cherubic child she had been, rather than the nearly grown young lady she now was. He greeted her companion before turning his attention to his sister.

“Fitzwilliam, why have you returned? I thought you did not intend to leave Rosings for several weeks.” Before he could answer, she gasped and slapped her hands to her face. “Has something happened? Our aunt? Anne? Elizabeth?

“Calm yourself,” he said. “Everyone is well. I cannot divulge the reasons for my early departure, but you will be pleased to know that Miss Bennet is also in London. I have an invitation to dine at her aunt and uncle’s this evening. Perhaps tomorrow you may come with me when I call.”

“Does this mean you are courting her?” Georgiana clapped joyfully. “Oh, I am so happy! So will the Baroness be!”

“How does our aunt fare?” Darcy latched onto his aunt’s health rather than speak on his fledgeling courtship.

“I hardly know.”

The suddenly light tone, as well as his sister’s busy movements at the sideboard, told him that she was more anxious than she had let on now, or in her letters. Darcy’s eyes met Mrs. Annesley. Her frown helped illuminate matters as well. Georgiana claimed a seat.

“I have not been able to call on Lady Darcy very often. Others never leave me alone. The few times I manage to exit the house to make calls, she has not been in. She writes that she is in good health, however.”

For now, Darcy would keep his suspicions to himself. Georgiana did not cope well with deaths. Their mother had died at her birth. Their father had died five years ago. Lady Anne had only been two and forty when she passed. Mr. Darcy had not seen sixty. The Baroness was nearly eighty. However, what worried Georgiana more than the old lady dying was her own mortality. Of their Darcy cousins, the males had all entered the military and perished. All but one female cousin had died in childbirth or from illness. Such misfortune did not fall on the other branches of the family, but it had made its impression upon the girl and influenced her recklessness in her ill-fated tryst with George Wickham. For a time, Georgiana was convinced she would not live past thirty and, therefore, should marry as early as possible to experience as much of life as she could.

“I understand Richard has frequently been visiting,” Darcy said before lifting his coffee to his mouth.

“Yes,” Georgiana huffed. “I do not know why. I am no longer a child! And yet he does not tease me like he did before.”

“What does he do?” Darcy watched Mrs. Annesley as Georgiana answered. He trusted the lady. However, experience had taught him to not take a companion’s loyalty for granted. Additionally, what Georgiana might conceal, the older woman would reveal. Richard was a relation, but he was a man nonetheless.

“Mostly, he listens to me play. He says it soothes him. Why did he return early from Rosings? Richard will tell me nothing.”

“Not all things are for you to know,” he said as he tossed aside his newspaper. “I have letters to write but I think, as your brother, I have just as much a right to hear what Richard has heard.”

Georgiana laughed and followed her brother’s lead to the drawing room. As she began to play, he spoke with Mrs. Annesley.

“You were very wise to write of Mr. Bingley,” she said. “He has visited almost every day. It is evident his sister prefers a match between them.”

“And Georgiana?”

“I think she sees the value in not being too keen to see an attachment. I have counselled her that admiration need not lead to love, and love need not lead to matrimony.”

“Good,” Darcy said, too aware that he had uttered those same words months ago regarding ladies’ attitudes.

“However,” the companion said as Darcy was rising from his seat. “Mr. Bingley seems rather persistent in his attention, and the Colonel scarcely less so.”

“Richard?” Georgiana glanced at them when she heard the name.

“May I speak frankly, sir?”

“Please do.” Darcy could not conceive why Bingley and Richard would pay such attentions to Georgiana.

“Miss Darcy is a beautiful girl.”

That he knew. She was very much like their mother.

“And it is no secret she will have quite a fortune. You have already seen her fall prey to one man.”

“Yes, but I would trust Richard and Bingley with my life.”

Mrs. Annesley sighed. “Want of money and security has a way of changing people. You will soon inherit a barony, a desirable connection in it’s own right; moreover, the title could pass to her if you have no heir. Marriage to your sister means more now than it would otherwise, and it may be more temptation than they can withstand.”

Darcy nodded and armed with such knowledge composed letters to his cousin and friend requesting their presence as soon as possible. As Georgiana played, Darcy considered the possibility that Bingley no longer wished to pursue Jane Bennet. Was Elizabeth’s sister as heartbroken as Elizabeth had believed? Was he to blame for what might be a permanent separation? Would this extinguish Elizabeth’s new-found regard for him?

However, Bingley never appeared and the time came for him to call on Lady Darcy. He was shown into her chambers. However, she looked well. She was dressed and sitting in a chair near the window perusing old letters.

“Fitzwilliam! You have returned from Rosings early.” She frowned. I

“You summoned me, my lady.”

“Oh! I did not mean you to come early only that, once you were in London, to see me right away.” Darcy furrowed his brow in confusion as she continued. “I hope that I have not inconvenienced you.”

“No. I had important business in London.” Darcy scrutinised his aunt’s face.

“And how is the lovely Elizabeth Bennet? Will she become my niece?”

“Aunt!” Darcy gaped at her. “How did you—that is, what have you heard?”

“Oh, I have heard nothing. When you met Miss Bennet at the theatre, your feelings were plain for all to see. Georgiana and I have been sure for many weeks now that you meant to offer for her.”

“Perhaps,” he answered neutrally. “So you are not very ill?”

“No!” She exclaimed. “What made you think so, my dear boy?”

“Georgiana reported you were ill and then your letter…”

“Just a cold. Just a cold,” she reassured and dabbed at her nose with a handkerchief. “Come, I need your young eyes,” she said and passed a letter to him. “Can you read the signature?”

Darcy focused on the script. It seemed very familiar to him, but the letter was decades old. The only lady he corresponded with who could have penned it would have been Lady Darcy and yet it did not match her hand. “Your niece, Clara.”

“Oh, good. I did find the right ones!” She hastily stuffed them into a box. “These were your mother’s. I thought you might like them.”

“Thank you,” he murmured.

“They are mostly filled with nothings. Certainly, nothing that would interest a young man.”

“I will treasure them all the same,” he said.

Lady Darcy gave him a sad smile then gazed out the window for a long moment. “Fitzwilliam, will you promise me something?”

“Of course,” he answered.

“Should you choose to not marry Miss Bennet, you must not wed your cousin Anne under any circumstances.”

“I believe I may safely promise that,” he smirked. “But why do you care so deeply? Is this just due to your dislike of Lady Catherine?”

“No, you misunderstand. I do not dislike Lady Catherine. I have a very keen interest in her life which she has never appreciated.”

Darcy rolled his eyes. Did Lady Catherine learn her meddlesome ways from his great aunt? “If you will excuse me, I have a dinner invitation.”

“Certainly,” she said. “Perhaps you can call again tomorrow, and bring Miss Bennet with you?”

“My pleasure, Aunt.” He kissed her cheek and departed for Gracechurch Street.

 

*****

 

Breakfast in the Gardiner House was slightly unnerving. Everyone had questions, but there was an agreement to wait until Darcy and Mr. Gardiner were present to speak on the matter. Jane knew nothing of Wickham’s plot to hurt the family, but Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth found it difficult to conceal their anxiousness until the very moment Lydia walked in the door. She was insensible of any danger she was being saved from. She only knew of the amusement London offered and felt the compliment of being invited over Kitty. However, Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of her, feeling she had protected her family from Wickham’s treachery.

Lydia chose to rest after her journey until it was time to change for dinner. Darcy arrived shortly after Mr. Gardiner. Elizabeth could see he was nervous about his reception and likely dreading the conversation to follow but she was pleased with his civility, especially when Lydia decided she could not keep quiet once left alone with Elizabeth and Darcy before the meal .

“How long am I supposed to be here? Mrs. Forster was going to invite me to go with her to Brighton. I just know it!”

“It does not follow that, had you been invited, you would be allowed to go. I hope our father would have more sense than that,” Elizabeth said as Lydia rolled her eyes.

“What would be the harm in me going to Brighton. You are just jealous because you had to visit Charlotte and her stuffy husband instead of getting to go anywhere fun.” Lydia stuck her tongue out at Elizabeth and then looked past her to Mr. Darcy. “Lizzy, how can you be so nice to Mr. Darcy when you know how terribly he has treated Mr. Wickham?”

Beside Elizabeth, Darcy stiffened. She hastened to silence her sister. “Lydia, you know nothing of what you speak. Mr. Darcy is a very honourable and generous gentleman.”

Lydia leant towards Elizabeth and attempted to whisper. “You mean to make Wickham jealous since he turned his affections from you to Miss King. Well, it shan’t happen because Wickham is attached to me!”

She smiled triumphantly, undoubtedly revelling in having gained the attention of the young man who she considered had been her elder sister’s favourite. Elizabeth could not think quickly enough to stop Lydia’s effusions.

“Bingley has abandoned Jane, and you can hardly be serious about liking Mr. Darcy. I daresay I will be the first to marry of us all!” Lydia giggled and clapped her hands.

“Lydia!” Elizabeth’s heart constricted. Aside from hearing the confirmation that Wickham had already begun his conquest, she hated for Darcy to hear such blatant insults and, more so, stemming from her own behaviour.

Fortunately, they were then called to dinner, and Darcy was seated near her uncle while Lydia was at the other end. They were too small of a party for much private conversation so Darcy could hear anything Lydia might say, but her attention was excitedly focused on the promise of London amusements. While giddy, Lydia said no more offensive things.

They did not separate after dinner, and all withdrew to the drawing room.  Elizabeth sat stiffly, and while more uncomfortable than she ever had been in her life, she had lost her pride. Lydia reclined irreverently and looked around the room. Jane nervously squeezed her hands while anxiously watching Lydia. Mr. And Mrs. Gardiner glanced between Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth found him difficult to read. He had avoided her eyes for most of the evening. She had not had a moment to ask him how his aunt was.

“Elizabeth, would you care to begin?” Mr. Gardiner asked.

Elizabeth cleared her throat and explained what she had heard Wickham say. She had only finished the first part when Jane and Mrs. Gardiner gasped followed by Lydia shouting in disbelief.

Mr. Gardiner had the sense to interrupt. “Mr. Darcy’s express alluded to some concern for the family, but I do not understand if this happened before you left Longbourn why it is only now being dealt with?”

“I was a fool, a wretched, proud fool,” Elizabeth sighed. “I was certain all I heard was idle boasting. When I learned from Mr. Darcy that Wickham does have a cruel and manipulative side, I wrote a letter to my father expressing some distress over the behaviour of officers in the area. Mr. Darcy and I had planned to explain more when we arrived in London, having left at the initially agreed upon date. However, recently I received a letter from Mary detailing Lydia’s increased intimacy with Mrs. Forster and the seeming transfer of Wickham’s attentions from Miss King to Lydia.”

All eyes darted to Lydia, and she held her head high. “He loves me. He does not need to convince me of a thing to wish to elope with him. He said Papa would not approve of our marriage when he has so little money, because of Mr. Darcy, and would not permit that I marry before my sisters.”

Darcy spoke up then. “Miss Elizabeth tells me that Wickham spread lies about my denying him a living. I can show you the documents he signed giving up the living and receiving three thousand pounds in lieu. He claimed he was to study the law, but chose gambling and dissipation instead.”

Jane unexpectedly jumped from her seat. “But he has entered the militia now and is trying to do right. He must feel sorry for what he has done and be anxious to re-establish his character!”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, and she shook her head. Jane was desperately trying to make Wickham a good man and likely, in some way, to redeem Bingley’s faults as well. Elizabeth found she could not condemn her sister, it was only a bit more than the feeling she had once had towards the man. She had excused what she saw to be inconstant and improper in Wickham’s tales, and never once did she question his story against Darcy. Lydia seemed bored with the whole affair.

“You must excuse my niece, Mr. Darcy. They are all such gentle souls that they find it difficult to think such evil exists,” Mr. Gardiner explained.

“It does you credit to be so forgiving Miss Bennet, but I fear I cannot think so optimistically of the man. He returned when the living meant for him fell vacant, and when I would not give it to him, he abused me abominably. Worse than this, last summer he attempted to elope with my fifteen-year-old sister, left in my care these last five years. She is to inherit thirty thousand pounds.” Lydia gasped, but he continued. “I believe he desired revenge as well. It would have been quite complete.”

Elizabeth swallowed hard and fixed her eyes on Lydia’s now pale face. “Which explains Wickham’s motivations for the second part of his plan. He believed it possible for Mr. Darcy to marry me.”

She paused and squeezed her hands for strength, but her eyes did not leave Lydia. Wickham had already insinuated himself in Lydia’s heart. Elizabeth would not allow her pride to cost them anything more. “He…he told his friend that I hold him in such high regard I would take him as a lover and either fund him, or use my influence over Mr. Darcy to gain him the living after all.”

“No!” Lydia cried. “No! He loves me! Not you! He would never care for you!”

Jane tried to hush her and Elizabeth met the astonished faces of her aunt and uncle. “You can see why I was not inclined to worry about it. He sounded like a madman, but recent events and information have made me consider it as a possibility. He would elope with Lydia with no intention of marriage unless Darcy ransomed her. Then, what happiness could she have?”

Lydia was sobbing which was not the reaction Elizabeth had expected. “No. No, you must be wrong. We were to be married. We must be married!”

She could not have said any words more likely to horrify Elizabeth. She stood in alarm.”Lyddie, what have you done?” she cried.

“He said we were to be married,” Lydia sobbed over and over again. “Marriage is my only choice!”

Jane let out a horrified gasp and covered her mouth. Mrs. Gardiner approached her distraught youngest niece. “We must be clear on what you are saying. Do you mean that a marriage is necessary? You are certain?”

“As certain as I can be,” Lydia said between sobs. “I had considered us engaged since February.”

“The scoundrel dallied with her before Lizzy even heard a thing!” Mr. Gardiner growled from his seat.

“Does he know?” Mrs. Gardiner rubbed Lydia’s back and supplied her with a handkerchief.

Incapable of speech, Lydia shook her head. As if it would have made a difference. Wickham would have been more likely to disappear from the neighbourhood than to marry Lydia for the sake of a child.

Elizabeth slumped in her seat and was senseless of her surroundings. In time, she would recognise that Mrs. Gardiner and Jane must have seen Lydia upstairs and Mr. Gardiner must have taken Darcy to his study to discuss matters. Elizabeth did not doubt Darcy would continue to help settle the situation with Wickham. Indeed, his cousin was already attempting to transfer Wickham to another regiment. As much as she now believed Darcy to be the most generous of his sex, she had no hope he would desire her now with the proof of such a family weakness and when, under the best circumstances, he would be brother-in-law to Wickham! It was exactly calculated to make her feel all she had determinedly resisted the last fortnight. She truly loved Mr. Darcy, and from this day forward she would only have her memories.


Dearest C—

I enclose two novels for your consideration. I think you will enjoy Evelina. You will be as happy as I am that Fanny has published, at last. However, it is to be a secret for now. The other is from a Miss Reeve and was edited by Mr. Johnson’s daughter although previously published. As you know I do not care for the Gothic, you may wonder at my including it. Miss Reeve takes Mr. Walpole’s story and makes it far more constrained and realistic. Next, I will read The Sylph, which is written by a woman and I hear has great understanding of the vices of the aristocratic class.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Darcy paced Mr. Gardiner’s study. His mind raced through options. Lydia could marry Wickham immediately, but the lady no longer seemed interested in having such a man as a husband. If he donated money to her dowry, perhaps they could find another gentleman for her. However, Elizabeth seemed entirely heartbroken. Would she ever forgive him for allowing Wickham into her life?

“Mr. Darcy, thank you for assisting our family. Do I understand you have a connection to us?” Mr. Gardiner interrupted Darcy’s thoughts.

Darcy cleared his throat. “It is the least I could do. I knew Wickham’s propensity for this kind of evil. I had never thought—”

“Do not trouble yourself. No one could expect a madman to act this way. I know Elizabeth will be blaming herself as well, but in the end, the damage was done before she knew a thing. No, if anyone could have prevented this it would have been Lydia’s parents, and only if they would have raised her better.”

“Do not blame them too harshly, sir. My own sister nearly eloped with Wickham last year. And my cousin also suffered from knowing the man.”

Mr. Gardiner looked at Darcy as though he had three heads. “I confess I am surprised to hear you defend my sister and her husband. However, do not think it passed my notice that you avoided my question.”

Darcy said nothing as he considered what to say to Elizabeth’s uncle. She had been hesitant enough to allow any attachment between them. She could hardly want him to air her feelings to others.

“I demand to know your intentions toward my niece,” Mr. Gardiner said in low, even tones which sounded like a threat, the like of which he had not expected the genteel man capable of issuing. “One niece has been seduced, and another heartbroken after a gentleman toyed with her affections. You can understand why I ask.”

Mr. Gardiner did not say it, but Elizabeth’s accusations rang in his ear. Yes, both men were connected to him. What were they supposed to think? “May I speak frankly, sir?”

“Please do.”

“At the risk of offending Miss Elizabeth, I will tell you that I ardently love your niece and have asked for her hand. She refused me, and I have fought hard for her esteem and respect. My honour would demand that I attempt to alleviate the concerns you now face whatever may befall, but I admit to having a lively concern for Miss Elizabeth’s peace of mind.”

“And if you are successful, to mitigate any reproach to your own family name,” Mr. Gardiner said as he withdrew accounting books from his desk.

“No, I do not worry about my family. What is Society’s opinion compared to the genuine fear you now have for your youngest niece? We have money and prestige enough.”

“You would have Elizabeth even if it tarnished your family? What of your sister?”

“Although I would once have thought otherwise, I now believe that any man to be worthy of Georgiana’s hand would love her if she came from no family, and had not a farthing to her name.”

“Very well. Then let us discuss how much you think Wickham will ask to marry Lydia. He would be a fool to ask for less than ten thousand, likely more if her delicate state is true.”

“He may very well ask for thirty thousand since that is what he would have gained if he had married my sister.” Mr. Gardiner blanched. “However, he has debts in Lambton and London. Surely he has them in Meryton as well. I will buy them. Additionally, my cousin can arrange a commission for him in the Regulars. He will have an income. It is possible we can bring him to a more moderate demand.”

“We cannot allow you to take on all the expense,” Mr. Gardiner insisted.

“It is my fault. His feud is with me, and he targeted your family because of it.” Mr. Gardiner seemed disinclined to accept the terms but also realised the fruitlessness of arguing his point. Darcy brought his fist to his mouth in indecision before deciding to wage forward. “Forgive my impertinence, but I must speak my mind. In the interest of Miss Lydia’s happiness, another route should be considered.”

“How? Will not the world know?”

At this moment, the door burst open and Lydia stormed in. “I will not marry him! I will not!”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Gardiner attempted to pull her niece outside. “Allow the men to discuss this.”

“No!” Lydia clutched at the door and violently shook her head. “Allow me to stay.”

“Lydia,” Mr. Gardiner began sternly. “You have caused enough trouble for us.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner,” Darcy interrupted the scene. “I believe she should stay. It is her future of which we speak.” Three sets of eyes looked at him in disbelief. Darcy stood and offered his seat to Lydia. “Here.”

Lydia sniffed and darted to the open chair. Darcy passed a handkerchief to her. “Thank you,” she murmured.

“Will you not join us, Mrs. Gardiner?” Darcy asked. “I believe a lady who has had experience in the world would give us much-needed insight.”

Gardiner nodded, and his wife sat next to Lydia. Darcy stood by the window as Mr. Gardiner remained seated behind his desk.

“We were discussing the probability of how much we will have to pay Wickham to marry you when interrupted.” Mr. Gardiner glared at his youngest niece.

“No! Mr. Darcy had suggested that I should not marry him. No one had even asked me what I want!”

“So you would  be willing to give him up?” Mr. Darcy asked. It had taken considerably more effort to convince Georgiana of Wickham’s profligate ways.

“He never loved me. If he can do all this and out of nothing more than spite…no, I would not have him. Whatever befalls—” She visibly gulped and clutched her belly— “us, we will bear.”

“Would you have another?” Mr. Gardiner asked. “Perhaps we could find some man willing to overlook your indiscretion.”

He looked at Darcy, who nodded. Yes, it was conceivable they could find a man for her to marry with the right amount of coin.

“I—I—I do not know,” Lydia sobbed into Darcy’s handkerchief. “I had not considered anyone but him.”

The Gardiners both looked at Darcy for acceptance. At the moment, they could table the concern. While she might be willing to give up on marrying Wickham, it seemed she was not as ready to make room for another in her heart or her life.

“I apologise if this is indelicate,” Darcy said. “However, we must consider the future, and a child complicates matters. Miss Lydia, how certain are you?”

Mrs. Gardiner cleared her throat. “She would have another two months, at least, before it would quicken. Nothing can be sure until then. Many of the symptoms in the early stages of pregnancy are consistent with a woman’s cycle.”

“But I have never had them before!” Lydia cried and noisily blew into the handkerchief again as tears streamed anew. “I’ve had to let out my stays!”

“Hush, child,” Mrs. Gardiner soothed.

“If I do not find a husband, what will become of us?” Lydia exclaimed. “Perhaps you and uncle—”

“That is not possible,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “The timing would be impossible to conceal as our own arrival is expected in October.” She blushed a little at the announcement before a stranger such as Darcy.

Lydia, insensible to anyone but herself, burst into tears anew. “Meg, will you take Lydia to rest, please?” Mr. Gardiner asked his wife, “We can decide nothing at present.”

Lydia clutched the arms of her chair and swung her eyes to Darcy who assured her. “I promise that we will discuss matters with you before any decisions are made. Allow yourself to rest after your shock.”

Lydia nodded and left on her aunt’s arm. After the door had closed, Gardiner turned his attention to Darcy. “Despite her wishes, I think we had better have a contingency for speaking to Wickham. And if I am not mistaken, that hinges on your asking Elizabeth to be your wife.”

“Sir!” Darcy exclaimed. He would not have her like this. “I will not extort her agreement to our marriage. She will accept me simply for the sake of her family.”

“Marriages have been made on worse stuff than admiration and gratitude.”

“I will lose her respect. She will come to loathe me. Indeed, she should for I could have prevented this entire disaster.”

“If she hates you as much as you suppose, then why is she sitting alone in my drawing room crying? Why is she not consoling her sister?”

Darcy had no answer and despised the hope that now burned in his heart.

“She is likely thinking of reasons she will no longer do for you. Go. Say your words. Tell her what is in your heart. Do not take no for an answer.”

Darcy frowned. “Do you honestly care about her happiness, or is this just to ensure your family’s reputation should Lydia’s marriage to Wickham be the only possibility?”

Gardiner pulled out paper and an ink blotter. “The way I see it, young man, protecting my family’s reputation is down to me, not you, but my niece’s happiness is for you to ensure. Now, I will write my brother Bennet about these matters. I will need his statement allowing me to act in his stead for all things. Do you understand me? You will not need to delay things by journeying to Longbourn.”

Darcy left the study, unsure he agreed with Mr. Gardiner’s assessment. For a lady to marry against her inclination must surely be the best recipe for an unhappy marriage, no matter the love the gentleman had for her. Indeed, he had no intention of uttering such words until he saw the sight of Elizabeth weeping into her hands.

As he opened the door further to enter, Elizabeth’s head lifted. “Oh, Mr. Darcy. Forgive me, I did not know you were still here.” She fumbled for a handkerchief and attempted to dry her eyes.

Darcy sat beside her on the settee. An hour ago, they had been in this position, and all seemed well between them. Now, his honour, and his heart, demanded he propose to help her family while his head told him it was the worst idea he had ever had.

“Do not worry about your sister,” he said. “She is not the first nor the last to make such a mistake. If you and your family can have patience and fortitude in the face of cruelty, which your uncle endeavours to mitigate, then there is much to be thankful for.” That she would not fill a bawdy hall was cause to be thankful indeed.

“She will have to marry him,” Elizabeth said. Her eyes pleaded for him to contradict her.

“Perhaps not. Wisely, she no longer wishes for it. Another choice may be found.”

“Another man, you mean. And at what cost? How can we be sure of his character? And Wickham might still spread rumours. We will be beholden to him forever, always susceptible to his blackmail. Oh, that I had told my father what I first heard!”

“The damage was done well before you suspected him, Elizabeth,” Darcy said and pushed a tendril from her face. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered without hesitation.

“I will protect Lydia as if she were my own sister. No one should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

“Your sister did not succumb to him,” Elizabeth said. “Why would you take this upon yourself?”

“Surely you must know,” Darcy said, his heart pounding in his chest.

Elizabeth slowly nodded. “I know you to be the most honourable gentleman of my acquaintance, but promise me you will not entangle yourself in this so much that your name becomes tarnished.” She sighed and tore her eyes from his, focusing on her hands. “I could not live with myself — that is you owe us nothing. We could never repay you, but accept my gratitude.”

“Elizabeth.” Darcy stroked her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered at his touch. “I think only of your happiness. Thank me if you wish, but your family owes me nothing. I can only think of you.” He caught a stray tear with his thumb and wiped it away.

“I know you are too honest to accept me from gratitude nor would you trifle with my feelings. My feelings for you are unchanged, but perhaps I have never expressed them clearly.”

He kissed one cheek and then the other. “Do you not know? Have you not seen how precious you are to me?” He kissed her eyelids and tasted the salt of her tears.

She shook her head. “Look at me, Elizabeth. I need to see your eyes.”

Shyly, Elizabeth met his eyes. He gathered her face in his hands. “I love you,” he kissed her forehead. “I love you more than the life within me. There is nothing I would not do for you. Society be damned. I wanted you before this mess with Wickham, and I want you still. Nothing changes that. Be my wife and let me keep you safe always.”

Darcy pressed his forehead against hers, his chest heaving. His whole body tensed as he awaited her answer.

“I cannot,” Elizabeth whispered so quietly he barely caught the words. A sob racked her body, and she flung herself into his arms.

“Do you mean to tell me you feel nothing for me? After all we have shared?”

“No! No, I do care for you. I love you!” Darcy clutched her closer at her confession. “But we can never be together. Not now. Not after Lydia. I could never ask—”

Darcy silenced her with a long kiss. “We love each other, that is all we need.”

“No,” Elizabeth shook her head and tears streamed down her face. “No, it is not as simple as that.”

It is,” he said emphatically. “What is there to stand between us? Your sister’s folly? I say Wickham is the guilty one and I will not hesitate to say it near and far. With my family—”

“That is just it! Your family would never approve. It could hurt Georgiana, and I could never bear with the disapproval of the Baroness.”

“Lady Darcy already wishes for our union. She will not think less of you for the misfortune of your sister.”

“You cannot know that.”

“Come with me. We will visit her together tomorrow and listen to her counsel.”

Elizabeth shook her head again, but Darcy squeezed her hands. “I will not give you up, Elizabeth. Not now, not ever!”

“Elizabeth Belinda Bennet!” Jane exclaimed from the doorway. “You accept him, or I will never speak to you again!”

Darcy and Elizabeth turned in unison.

“If only I had heard a fraction of such love from Mr. Bingley, I would have accepted him in a second. Who cares for the disapproval of others when their opinion will fade. Do not allow true love to pass you by!”

“How can I be sure the trials we will face will not starve it away?” Elizabeth asked Darcy. “I could not bear for you to regret me.”

“I regretted leaving you in Hertfordshire. I hated that I only saw you for a day in London. Encountering you daily at Rosings brought me more joy than I had ever felt before.” Darcy squeezed her hands again. “Trials are halved when shared with the one you love.”

Jane sat on Elizabeth’s other side. “Refusing him only brings you both pain and does nothing to ensure our family’s respectability. There is no sense in your rejection if you love him as you claim.”

“I do,” Elizabeth met Darcy’s eyes, a new, resolved look filled hers. “Thank you. I accept your hand and your love.”

Darcy pulled Elizabeth back into his arms and kissed her as a starving man sought food. She would be his as soon as possible. Nothing could steal his joy now. When Mr. Gardiner’s loud throat clearing made them tear apart, he only smiled and made arrangements with a blushing Elizabeth to call on his aunt on the morrow.

 

*****

 

The following day, Darcy arrived at Gracechurch Street to convey Elizabeth to his aunt’s home. Georgiana, whom he had explained the whole of the situation to, joined them. Additionally, Darcy had brought the box of his mother’s letters. He and Georgiana had leafed through them the night before and agreed they needed some answers from their aunt. Elizabeth and Georgiana made small talk about music, but the necessity of their visit was never far from their minds.

Upon arrival at the house, a very different scene greeted them than Darcy had witnessed the day before. They were shown to Lady Darcy’s chamber by a very sombre maid. If Darcy had to guess, the house had already entered mourning. The physician and housekeeper sat at the Baroness’ bedside. She lay very still and looked so pale. Darcy focused his eyes watching for a sign of breath. Beside him, Georgiana immediately stiffened.

“Doctor, her niece and nephew have arrived,” the housekeeper informed a middle-aged man with a concerned expression marring his face. He looked up from his patient.

“Not a moment too late, I believe.” The doctor motioned them over. “She had a heart seizure and is very weak. Do nothing to upset her. I have done all I can.” The housekeeper offered her Ladyship a sip of broth, but the lady meekly refused. “If she keeps refusing nourishment she has but days.”

The doctor and housekeeper allowed them privacy and left the room. Darcy allowed the ladies to be seated and knelt on the floor himself.

“Aunt,” Darcy said as he grasped her hand. “We are here. Why did you not send for us?”

“I knew you would come,” she rasped. “You always keep your promises.”

“Why do you not eat?”

Her Ladyship shook her head. “No, I cannot bear it.”

“Fitzwilliam, we ought to use our time wisely,” Georgiana said.

“I have brought Miss Bennet,” Darcy said, and the Baroness opened her eyes. “I ask for your blessing.”

“You do not need it. I trust you to do what is best,” she said. This was proof, more than anything else, to Darcy as to how weak she truly felt. The woman was born with an opinion on her lips.

“My lady,” Elizabeth leant forward. “There are complications to resolve, and I have told Mr. Darcy I do not wish to sully his good name.”

“What does she speak of?” Lady Darcy’s head lolled in Darcy’s direction. He recalled the doctor’s orders and dearly hoped his words would not disturb, if not infuriate, her.

“I will tell her,” Elizabeth said and put a hand on Darcy’s arm. “Ma’am, I regret to inform you that my youngest sister has succumbed to a seduction. As of this moment, we do not know if they will marry. For not only does she vow she will not have him, but he has no honour to call upon his conscience to do the right thing. In seven months’ time, all the world will know of the Bennet shame.”

Elizabeth hung her head, and this time it was Darcy who lent her support.

Her Ladyship coughed, remarkably close to a stifled snort,  but still refused water. “Scandal is nothing new to the Darcy or Fitzwilliam names,” she said. “You have read the letters?”

“Yes,” Darcy wondered at the deviation in their conversation. “Georgiana could not understand the context. My mother speaks of a great scandal she has caused. For a time, depression consumed her, but eventually, she regained her spirits. Her final letters concluded with a renewed vigour for life. That must be when she became a bluestocking.”

“I do not know what Mother did, but her letters were an echo of my own heart,” Georgiana said. “After she returned from France, she was determined to put self-loathing behind her.”

Elizabeth gasped. “The letters,” she whispered. “The letters in my book.”

“What book?” Darcy asked.

Letters for the Improvement of the Mind,” she murmured. “Do you recall? We were uncertain who C and A.F. could be?”

“Miss Bennet has discovered the truth,” Lady Darcy said with a wan smile. “Can you guess it, Fitzwilliam? I do not believe you can. You are blinded by devotion.”

“What is it?” Georgiana asked, anxiety climbing in her voice.

Darcy stared at his aunt for a long moment. Suddenly, her eagerness to warn him away from Anne at their last meeting made sense. “Georgiana, while visiting Rosings, Miss Bennet learned, and I was reminded, that for much of her life our mother went by the name Clara. She had been named after an aunt named Anne who never married and to differentiate the two, our mother went by her second name. Similarly, Mother became close to our uncle’s wife, a bluestocking. Her married name was Anne Fitzwilliam.”

Georgiana blinked in confusion. “So Elizabeth found letters which match ours?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “The letters in the book I found at Rosings were from Anne Fitzwilliam, wife to the second Earl; before your grandfather inherited the title.”

“But what is the scandal?” Georgiana asked.

“Why do you think Lady Darcy insists I do not marry Anne?” Darcy asked his sister.

“Because you love Elizabeth,” Georgiana said as though that would explain everything. Darcy continued to stare at her. “Because Anne is unwell?”

“Marriage to Anne would defy God’s laws,” Darcy answered. “Not only because I love another but because of our relationship.”

“But cousins marry all the time,” Georgiana said.

Lady Darcy squeezed Darcy’s hand, and he interpreted it as her desiring to tell Georgiana the truth. “Anne is his niece. Catherine de Bourgh is your sister.”

Georgiana gasped. “No! No, that is impossible. How could it be? Mother would have only been—”

“Fifteen,” Lady Darcy answered. “The same age as you when you nearly eloped.”

“But — but why were we never told? How could Aunt Catherine keep it a secret from us?”

“She does not know herself,” her Ladyship answered with laboured breaths and pointed to a small box on a table near her bed. “All is explained in these letters.”

“Pardon me,” Elizabeth said. “I am confused as to how you are privy to all this information. Are you not the aunt of Lady Anne’s husband?”

“I was Clara’s cousin before she ever married George Darcy. It is one reason why he was selected for her.”

“They did not love each other?” Darcy asked, feeling betrayed by everything he had held dear.

“In time, my dear, in time,” her Ladyship answered. “She did not marry until she wished it, but arrangements were made when it was found she was with child. She refused to marry against her heart, or to do your father such a disservice as raising the child of his wife’s lover. In the meantime, she was welcomed into her aunt’s Bluestocking group.”

“But why did no one else tell us?” Georgiana persisted. “Does our uncle not know?”

“No, I am the last living soul, save yourselves now.”

“Who is the father?” Darcy growled out.

“It is no matter,” Lady Darcy said.

“Who?” He pressed.

“Clara had ambitions to be an artist. Hopes not supported by most of the family. When her father commissioned portraits to be done of the family, she fell in love with the artist. A son of George Dance.”

Elizabeth gasped. “The Younger? Or was it Nathaniel?”

Her Ladyship nodded at the latter. “I tire,” she said, and her eyes fluttered slowly. “There is more.” She paused, and tears glittered in her eyes. “It is of no importance other than it might alleviate Miss Bennet’s concerns. Here, child.”

Darcy stood to make way for Elizabeth to sit on the edge of the bed. She gathered his aunt’s hand in hers. “I am here, my lady.”

“I am proof that a girl might make mistakes, but the world does not end. My child was placed with a family but did not live long. Your sister will be well.” She wagged a finger at Darcy. “And you! Do not delay in wedding her. Do not wait for my sake.”

“Aunt, do not talk like that,” Georgiana sniffed.

“No, it is my time.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “I will see my darling child again soon. I have waited for so long.” Touching Georgiana’s hand, she slightly turned her head. “You see, not all of us die young. Be sure you leave a legacy. Now, go. Read your letters and write Amelia. I need to rest.”

Lady Darcy closed her eyes, but her breathing remained steady. They did not immediately leave, but soon the housekeeper and doctor returned, shooing them from the room. They returned to Gracechurch Street after visiting the Baroness, each sober with melancholy reflections.

Darcy spoke with Mr. Gardiner for several minutes, making plans for the theatre. They should continue as if nothing was distressing the family. Additionally, if he wished to marry Elizabeth in the dark days before his aunt’s imminent death, then they should act as though her death were unexpected. Upon leaving, he would go to Doctor’s Commons and begin proceedings for a special license. On the morrow, Elizabeth would visit with Georgiana, and in the evening, they would all attend the theatre.

After boarding the carriage to return to their home, Georgiana sighed. “Do you think they will call for us when it is her time?”

Darcy looked at his sister, surprised and proud of how she had borne the stress of seeing their aunt so ill in addition to the news of their mother. “I believe her Ladyship has said her goodbyes to us.”

Georgiana shook her head. “It just seems wrong for her to die alone. As if she does not have a family that loves her.”

Darcy reached across the carriage and squeezed her hand. “She must be allowed her own choice.”

His sister mutely nodded and stared out the window for most of the drive through London’s crowded streets. Darcy did not remove his hand, sensing she needed his touch. Finally, as they drew closer to their home, she turned her head toward him. Squeezing his hand, she asked, “Will you sit with me when you read your letter? Our family may be small, but we should be together, do you not think?”

“Of course,” he said and squeezed her hand in return.

They arrived at the house, and after their outerwear had been divested and tea ordered, Darcy sent word to Mrs. Annesley that the siblings needed privacy. In his study, they sat next to each other on the settee and opened their letters from their long dead mother. A part of Darcy railed against his aunt keeping them secret for so long.

If he had hoped for profound or new insights from his mother, he was disappointed. She was as he had ever remembered: loving, graceful, and honest. She encouraged him to marry for love and act honourably toward women. She confessed her youthful mishap. She had imagined herself in love with the painter Nathaniel Dance. However, they would have had nothing to live on, and such a marriage would have ruined his career opportunities. Within months of their daughter’s birth, his father, the famed London architect and artist, died and Dance became a founding member of the Royal Academy. Additionally, his heart had belonged to another.

To consider a man, who he had seen yearly at his visits to Rosings, not acknowledge his daughter — the only child he ever had as his marriage was late in life and had produced no issue — and to know the man had treated his mother so callously, enraged Darcy. However, a more logical part of him recognised that in the spirit of the letter he now held, his mother had no bitterness or regret. Her daughter had been raised well and married a baronet. Darcy’s mother had found love and satisfaction in her marriage to George Darcy.

Anne Clara Darcy’s letter to her youngest daughter was more to the point. There were tear streaks on the parchment as she wrote that if this letter had not been burned, then it must mean she had already perished. She wondered what her daughter would be like and counselled her that youthful folly was not the end of her life, but a new beginning. She encouraged her daughter to look for true love in unexpected places but to trust her guardians and never celebrate her joy in secret. Darcy smiled as Georgiana pressed the letter to her chest and tears streamed down her face. Having never known their mother, reading such timely words written specifically for her had touched her heart more than anything he or Mrs. Annesley might say.

“What do we do now, Fitzwilliam?” Georgiana asked after he had hugged her to his side for a brotherly embrace.

“We live on,” he said in a determined voice.

Having understood his past, he now felt he was cleareto make plans for the future. As he readied for bed for the evening, he thought of Elizabeth, and all that was now in his heart. Soon, there would be no more separation, and she would be with him always. There might still be foes to defeat before their happiness was assured, but he now felt confident that they could forge a new path from their love and with the support of their families.


Dearest C

Words cannot convey how anxious I was to read your last letter. How awful that you were caught in London when the riots began. I will ever be thankful for your survival and good health. God bless G for coming to your aid! When you visit us next you should bring A. My girls would dote on her. Dottie quite misses her friend.

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

The following day at Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth sat with her aunt and sisters. Mr. Gardiner had returned to his warehouse, and even Mr. Darcy had business to see to earlier in the day. It did not escape Elizabeth’s notice that the ladies had nothing to do but fret and worry while the men had other matters to occupy their time.

“Do you really love Mr. Darcy?” Lydia asked from where they had gathered in her guest chamber.

Elizabeth blushed. “I would never marry without love.”

“But he is so…so boring. I thought you liked Wickham. It is one reason why I took such triumph in gaining his notice.” Lydia said, and fresh tears sprang from her swollen eyes. She had spent most of the last two days wretchedly crying.

“I was wrong to be charmed by his demeanour,” Elizabeth said. Pain pierced her heart. Blame rested on her for encouraging their friendship with a man they knew so little about.

“Yes, the charming ones are a problem,” Jane said and jabbed a needle through her embroidery.

Elizabeth glanced at her aunt, and they shared a troubled look. Neither had ever seen Jane cross for more than a moment. “You are certain you are pleased for me?” After all, Jane had been the one who encouraged her to accept Darcy’s hand.

“Of course,” Jane lifted her eyes from the fabric. In the face of familial concern, she instantly returned to her usual self. “I am disappointed, but it will soon be over. From what you say of Darcy’s aunt, a lady may be a spinster and spend her days happily.”

Left unsaid is that great wealth and a title afforded her such luxury. Although, Jane did not have the independent streak that Lady Darcy had, perhaps living on the charity of others would not trouble her the way it would some. On the other hand, Darcy’s mother did not wed until she was thirty. Surely Jane had plenty of time to love again and marry.

“Let us think of other things,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Lydia you have always wanted to visit the theatre.”

“Yes! It is the one thing keeping me from despair,” she sighed dramatically.

Thinking of the letters Darcy’s mother received from her aunt, Elizabeth fixed an eye on Lydia. “You may wallow in self-pity if you wish, but the time will come when no more will be tolerated. Others care very deeply for you.”

Jane gaped at Elizabeth’s words. “Should she not mourn the loss of her future? She had hoped to marry him!”

“For how long?” Elizabeth directed her words at her elder sister. “How long had she fixed such thoughts on him?”

“True love will last a lifetime,” Jane whispered. Lydia remained mute, understanding that the current conversation was not about her.

“Yes, but it does not mean one must be miserable for the rest of one’s life.” Elizabeth shook her head. “No, I refuse to let my sisters live as though they have no control of their own happiness. How much of our thought and talk is consumed with marriage and men?”

“That is very easy for you to say, Lizzy,” Lydia said. “You have a husband.”

“No,” she insisted. “Lydia you have been thinking of officers since your come out.” She did not need to say that it had been at too early of an age. “Jane, Mama selected Bingley for you upon first sight. I do not mean to say either of your feelings are not genuine, but it sprang from a fanciful imagination.”

Seeing Jane and Lydia simultaneously open their mouths to refute her statements, Elizabeth hastily added, “So it was with Wickham and me as well. I was eager to believe him in love with me and just as convinced Darcy could never care for me. It compounded our misunderstandings.”

A knock on the door alerted them to the time. “Tonight we begin again. Promise me, you will try to find happiness.”

Neither Jane nor Lydia had a chance before the servant announced that the Darcy carriage was ready for her. Elizabeth bid them farewell until the evening. She would spend the remainder of the day with Georgiana and dine at their house. Once outside, she laughed to see Darcy standing beside Anne’s phaeton. “I had wondered what the servant meant when they said your carriage had arrived. I had thought perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam had returned.”

Darcy shook his head. “No, although I need to speak with him as soon as possible.”

From the wrinkle in his brow, Elizabeth perceived matters were not well between the two. “What is wrong?” she asked when he sat beside her and flicked his wrist for the horses to trot forward.

“Can I not court my betrothed before we worry about our family trials?”

“Do you have poetry to recite me, Ben?” She looked around the small carriage. “I see no bouquet.”

“Peace, I will stop your mouth!” Darcy said.

Elizabeth raised a brow and smirked at the Shakespearian quote. “You can hardly be serious, and thus I am perfectly safe to tease you away.”

He leant toward her ear. “I will collect later.”

His breath fanning her skin caused her pulse to race, and she blushed. Still, she would not retreat. “Is that supposed to frighten me? I will hold you to your words.”

Darcy took one hand from her lap and raised it to his lips. “See that you do, madam.”

Catching the amorous look in his eye, Elizabeth’s breath caught. If Darcy’s attention was not required for their safe journey to his house, they might be in danger indeed. He turned his attention back to the road and cleared his throat. “Georgiana is finishing her lesson with her new pianoforte master. I had thought we could ride through Hyde Park, although it is not the fashionable hour.”

“I would love that,” Elizabeth said and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.

After they had turned into the park, she felt Darcy tense beneath her hand. While not the most popular time for a ride in the park, many people were strolling and he attracted curious looks. Now and then he stopped and introduced her to an acquaintance. Elizabeth recognised that he felt ill at ease under the observation of so many. A part of her wanted to point out that she had not asked for this, but another part was touched by his thoughtfulness. He did this for her. He wanted his world to begin to know her. If only he understood that all she needed in the world was him.

“Is there a less crowded path?” Elizabeth asked. “I have never ridden in the park before. I would hate to spend all of it on well-travelled avenues.”

“Certainly,” Darcy said and directed the horses away from the more populated area of the park.

Elizabeth felt Darcy’s arm relax. She steeled herself for his reserve to emerge at the theatre as well. “I think we had better discuss matters now.”

Darcy sighed and slowed the horses to a stop out of earshot of others. “If you wish.”

“Yes, and I will tell you that I never wanted to be one of those other prim couples. I would much rather be here, exploring the wilds with you.”

“Wilds, eh?” Darcy chuckled. “And does that describe this part of the Park or your companion?”

“Ben, I would never dare call you wild.”

“When we arrive at Pemberley, you will likely hear tale after tale of my reckless antics in childhood. I believe the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, might very well have called me wild as a youth.”

Elizabeth smiled fondly at Darcy as a rare and mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. She could imagine him as a lad traipsing about the grounds of his home. Part boy and part master in the making. One day, if she were fortunate, she would see it for herself in the image of their son. What a father he would make! Elizabeth gently placed a gloved hand on his cheek. “Ben,” she sighed.

“What is it?” He looked warily at her, apparently expecting bad news.

“I love you.” She said with a smile.

The words escaped her. The day she confessed her love and accepted his proposal was full of tears and despair. Yesterday, they had spent the whole of their time together with Lady Darcy and Georgiana. Darcy closed his eyes and relief flooded his features. He clasped his hand over hers before bringing it to his lips. “I will never tire of hearing it. Words cannot describe my love for you.”

“They are not required,” she shushed him. “I do not need words when I can hear your heart.”

He kissed her hand again. “Soon, I will be able to show you. When we are husband and wife…”

The passionate look that filled his eyes before appeared again. She delighted in seeing it. How had she once thought he only admired her mind? “Speaking of that,” she said as he lowered her hand. “Have you arrived at a date?”

“Yes, with your uncle’s permission, we can wed in three days. The archbishop was sympathetic to our situation with desiring to marry before my aunt passed.”

Elizabeth nodded. She had known it would be soon, but somehow it seemed impossibly near. She was not worried about who she married, but rather the foreignness of it all. She had not yet seen his London house. She had never seen Pemberley. How could she manage all of it? And his bluestocking club? What of Georgiana? Elizabeth had not had time to return to Longbourn, to pack her belongings or say goodbye to her friends. “Will we go to Longbourn after?”

“I had thought you might wish it,” he said. “I only wish I could tell you Bingley would return as well. Netherfield would afford us more comfortable apartments. However…”

“Yes, it seems matters between Jane and Bingley are entirely closed. It would be better for them to see as little as possible of one another.”

Darcy nodded. “I apologise again.”

“Shush. They have made their own decisions. Did you hear something of the Colonel? From the look on your face when I mentioned him earlier I had thought you had.”

“No, I have not heard from him since before we left Rosings,” Darcy frowned. “He and Bingley both have to account for themselves. It seems they both have been posturing as a suitor for Georgiana.”

“She is too young!” Elizabeth gasped.

“I entirely agree. Richard knows of her near elopement with Wickham. Bingley, of course, does not. I admit, there was a time when I had thought that, in the distant future, they would be well-matched but I never encouraged it.”

Elizabeth cast her eyes over the park. Darcy may not have, but Bingley’s sister had made it perfectly clear. The fact that Darcy tolerated it at all proved how good natured he really was, all the while she had believed him to be otherwise.

“Additionally, I cannot understand why Bingley would propose to Jane one day and then pay court to my sister the next.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Can you not? My cousin did not take my refusal well and immediately soothed his ego with not just any lady, but my friend Charlotte.”

“You would compare Bingley with Collins?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “Pride infects us all.”

Darcy made no reply and squinted at the sun. He directed the horses back the way they came, and soon they were on cobbled streets again. The Mayfair district contained a variety of homes. Although on a larger grid than seen in the commercial district, they contained a similar footprint as all terrace houses. A few stood detached and large enough to take up one side of a square. Thankfully, Darcy’s house was not so grand.

Elizabeth was greeted cordially by the servants and Darcy proudly introduced her to all that came in their path. Leading her to the drawing room, they could hear Georgiana playing. When the door opened, Georgiana excitedly leapt from the bench at the instrument. “Elizabeth!”

“Good morning, Georgiana,” Elizabeth chuckled.

“You must see the music Fil—Signor Clementi has brought for me to practice.” She dragged Elizabeth to the pianoforte.

Darcy chuckled from the door. “I will allow you ladies to begin your visit. Mrs. Annesley, Clementi,” he nodded at the others.

“Look! Is not the legato sublime?”

Elizabeth looked over the sheet. The slurs between the notes would create a beautiful mixing of harmony. “Indeed.”

Before Georgiana retook the paper, Elizabeth thought she read at the top per Clara il mio amore. For Clara, my love?

The instructor had been watching their interaction. “Play for Miss Bennet,” he said in a slight Italian accent proving he had spent many years in England.

Elizabeth recognised the name. Signor Clementi had the reputation of one of the brightest new composers and a talented teacher. He watched Georgiana with fondness, but it could just be pride in her skill.

“Lovely,” Elizabeth said while her future sister played. “Is it yours?” she asked Clementi.

“Si,” he replied. “A new piece.”

Perhaps he was overly fond of his work? However, the events of the last few days had taught Elizabeth that ladies of Georgiana’s age and situation in life were very susceptible to the advances of talented men their superiors in years. She did not have any sort of proof of anything inappropriate. Even now, Georgiana’s companion sat with them. Still, she would warn Darcy of her suspicions.

“Bellissimo,” Clementi sighed next to Elizabeth. “A muse, no? She makes the music come to life.”

Elizabeth smiled in reply and applauded when Georgiana finished. The master said his farewell and the ladies began their visit. Elizabeth attempted to steer the conversation away from music, which Georgiana would naturally wish to talk about at all times, but was met with short answers. If her own sisters suffered from a lack of interest in anything beyond fripperies, Georgiana had the opposite problem. She needed to broaden her interests,  for the sake of conversation if nothing else.

Their silence was interrupted when callers arrived. Caroline Bingley and Lady Charlotte Leveson-Gower, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, sat stiffly in their chairs across from Elizabeth and Georgiana. For the first half of their visit, they had not paid Elizabeth any attention at all. Lady Charlotte seemed to follow her cues from Caroline. At last, Caroline seemed ready for attack. “How interesting to find you here, Miss Bennet.”

“How so?” Elizabeth calmly replied while stirring her tea.

“I had not thought you were very acquainted with the Darcys. In fact, I had believed you were not inclined to desire their friendship at all.” Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw Georgiana wrinkle her brow. Caroline smirked and added for good measure, “When we last spoke you had made your preference for Mr. Wickham very plain.”

Georgiana nearly dropped her tea cup which had been halfway to her mouth. “Oh, my dear!” Elizabeth attended to her. “You must be fatigued from your lesson.” Looking back at Caroline, she said, “Miss Darcy was kind enough to show me her latest music and allow me the treat of listening.”

“You mean to say that she was helping your skills,” Caroline nodded knowingly.

“Oh, no. No, I could never dream to achieve her skill. Attempting that work would be the height of folly. No, I have had the pleasure of a private concert.”

Caroline frowned. “Miss Darcy does not play for anyone.”

Georgiana met Elizabeth’s eye and raised her chin. “I play only for my closest friends and family. Forgive me, but my nerves were not made for performing for others.”

“That is just the sort of thing the proper example would help you with. When your brother marries, your sister will see to your education which has lacked in some areas,” Caroline said.

“Yes, a lady must perform for guests,” Lady Charlotte added.

“I am surprised Miss Bingley,” Darcy spoke from the doorway, startling the other ladies, “to hear that you find my sister’s education incomplete after all the praise you have given her and me.”

“Well…I…” Caroline stammered.

Darcy came behind Elizabeth’s chair and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I do not believe you have heard as I have yet to tell your brother. It gives me great delight, however, in being the one to inform you. Miss Bennet has accepted my hand in marriage and we will very soon wed.”

Caroline and Lady Charlotte’s mouths dropped open in unison, identical looks of disgust mingled with fury swept over their faces. Lady Charlotte recovered first. “My congratulations,” she said through a tight jaw.

“Yes, I am all astonishment, Eliza. I am surprised you—or your family—were able to keep it such a secret,” Caroline sneered.

Inwardly, Elizabeth laughed at this lady who was not wise enough to befriend the future Mistress of Pemberley and Baroness Darcy. “Our engagement is not of long standing,” she smiled.

“No?” Caroline asked.

“I was sure you had heard from your brother,” Darcy said. “Miss Bennet and I met again in Kent.”

Georgiana beamed beside her. “You see, she was the cause all along for his being out of spirits after returning from Hertfordshire. When he met her again, he could no longer resist telling her his heart.” She sighed. “It is so romantic, is it not?”

Caroline looked as though she would be sick on the marble floor. “Indeed. Very.”

“Yes. Very.” Her faithful assistant echoed.

“We had better be leaving,” Caroline suddenly stood. Lady Charlotte followed and nearly tripped over her gown.

Darcy pulled out his pocket watch. “Indeed, it is time that we dress for dinner. After our family meal, we will be meeting Miss Bennet’s family at the theatre. I am sure you recall the Bennets. I believe you were quite friendly with her eldest sister at one time.”

“I—I—oh, yes. Dearest, Jane! How is she? I had thought she returned to Hertfordshire when she did not call on me again. You must tell her I am very cross at her for not returning my visit.”

“Oh, I doubt not that she has written, but perhaps her letters have been misdirected. It seems she had trouble getting earlier ones to you, and perhaps that is why it took you so long to arrive at Gracechurch Street?”

At the mention of the street name, Lady Charlotte gasped and covered it with a cough. “Yes, that must be the reason.” Caroline’s eyes darted around the room.

“I did so enjoy your visit,” Georgiana smiled. “Next time, it will be Lizzy who shall receive you as hostess!”

“Yes, do call after the wedding when I am properly settled as mistress. It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Charlotte.”

Once it was certain they had left the house, they all erupted in laughter, including Mrs. Annesley.

“My goodness,” Elizabeth said as she caught her breath. “I daresay that if Miss Bingley knew she would turn such a sickly shade of green this afternoon she never would have worn that shade of orange for her gown!”

“Does she wear any other?” Darcy laughed.

“Oh! You are awful,” Georgiana giggled with them.

“Now, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said in mock seriousness. “I believe you have confessions to make. Why did they both seem to think you were on the edge of making them an offer of marriage?”

Georgiana paled. “No, Elizabeth. Fitzwilliam would never—”

“I only tease, dearest,” Elizabeth said and patted her friend’s hand.

“Oh, I am not accustomed,” Georgiana looked at her feet and blushed.

“It is I who should be embarrassed,” Elizabeth soothed. “But a betrothed may take liberties where a sister cannot.”

“And I hope you always do,” Darcy said and kissed Elizabeth’s hand. The feel of his lips on her skin sent flutters to her belly and a shiver up her arm.

“Miss Darcy,” Mrs. Annesley called from her seat in the back of the room. “Do you need to see to dinner?”

“Oh! Please excuse me,” Georgiana said to her brother and Elizabeth before executing a hasty curtsy and leaving. Mrs. Annesley followed at a more sedate pace.

“Now, that we are alone,” Darcy said as he gathered Elizabeth in his arms. “I will collect my kiss and punish your teases.”

“I am all atremble,” Elizabeth replied saucily before his lips landed on hers.

For several bliss-filled minutes, the world faded away. When Darcy pulled away and touched their foreheads together, while their bodies calmed and their breath returned to normal, Elizabeth considered this was why she loved him. It had happened so gradually and then she realised it so suddenly, she had not given time to consider why or how. That he could steal her breath, consume her focus, make everything else fade away and then share her burdens was why she loved him.

“I have something I wish you would wear tonight,” Darcy said and withdrew an ornate jewellery casefrom his pocket.

Elizabeth gasped when she opened it and saw a dazzling diamond necklace and matching earbobs and bracelet. “Oh, Ben. It is too much.”

“These are some of the Darcy diamonds,” he said as he undid the clasp and placed the necklace around her throat. “My grandfather bought them for a woman he loved enough to give up his name for. It is only fitting that you now wear them.”

He turned Elizabeth to face him. “You are so beautiful,” he said then kissed her hands. “You shine brighter than these diamonds.”

“I love you,” Elizabeth said and stepped on tiptoe to kiss him. “I wish I could demonstrate my feelings with similar gifts.”

“You loving me, accepting me with my flaws and not for my wealth or title, are the greatest gifts.”

Once more Elizabeth felt drawn to Darcy’s lips but the clock chimed the top of the hour, and they resisted. “I should dress for dinner. I would not want to anger my host.”

“Indeed. I hear the host can be a bear when angered, but for the sight of such beauty he might be soothed.”

Elizabeth chuckled and shook her head as he gathered her hand in his to escort her to the hall, where a servant would show her the chamber she would use. As Elizabeth left Darcy’s side, she was aware that he fought to remain rooted and not walk her upstairs himself. She understood that perhaps it would be too much temptation for him and she vowed to check herself. New as her passionate and loving feelings were, she would never wish to cast more cause for shame on her family or scandalise Georgiana.

After leisurely dressing, she was summoned to the drawing room at the appropriate hour. Darcy looked as handsome as ever, and Georgiana looked surprisingly confident as she played hostess. When Elizabeth asked her about it, she replied, “I believe I cannot behave any worse than Caroline Bingley, so why should I make myself feel uneasy?”

Elizabeth smiled at the sentiment. Their meal passed pleasantly, and before long they boarded a rented hack to journey to Drury Lane. At first, they remained in obscurity as the carriage did not bear the Darcy crest. Soon, however, the gentleman was sighted by an eager acquaintance. With Elizabeth on one arm and Georgiana on the other, he proudly made introductions. Still, Elizabeth could feel the tension beneath his jacket. His smile did not reach his eyes, and his laughter was not genuine. This was all a part for him to play. They had gathered to watch the stage, but the real acting took place on their side of the curtain.

While some openly dismissed Elizabeth, since they did not recognise her name and she came with no lofty title or heraldry such as “heiress of…”, most treated her with interest and deference. Considering how many focused on the diamonds about her, Elizabeth believed they were instrumental to her success without Darcy having to say a word of their connection. When her family entered the lobby, they mingled for a few moments longer before going to Darcy’s box.

Darcy smiled as he seated Elizabeth next to himself. He whispered in her ear, “The last time we were here was when we met again. What fortune brought us together!”

“Are you to be a patron of the stage now?” Elizabeth teased. “In truth, I do not recall the performance, I was too concerned about…” Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice more, “about W.”

“I do not recall the performance either. Lady Darcy had begun her plan for her Bluestocking Club and threatened to make me court every single lady in London. I was too busy lamenting that I had never been more miserable in my life.”

Elizabeth laughed at the image. She wished she had more time with the lady. “Shall we ask Georgiana what performance we saw?”

They did not have a chance because a servant entered the box and whispered in Darcy’s ear. “Show His Grace in,” Darcy nodded.

The Duke of Dorset entered, missing his usual entourage, and Darcy performed the introductions. His eyes fixed on Jane between his conversation with others. Elizabeth held her breath. She recalled a similar scene with Bingley, and the Duke was not near as good-natured. Elizabeth did not mean to cast aspersions on her family, but that a Duke could be persuaded to marry an undistinguished squire’s daughter seemed unlikely.

“Ah, the lovely Miss Bennet — or I should call you Miss Elizabeth, now, as I see it is all settled.,” he pointed at her necklace. “I will take the credit for it, you know.”

“Dorset,” Darcy said in a low tone.

“Now, Darcy, I recall that tone. If ever a man might kill me, I thought for sure it would have been Darcy when I nearly knocked his ladylove to kingdom come.” The young Duke chuckled. “Then again, it could be that the blow addled her senses and that is why she accepted you.” He clapped Darcy on the back, an unappreciated gesture.

“What happened, Lizzy?” Jane asked, and Elizabeth gave an abbreviated account of the cricket game.

The play started, and Dorset took the seat next to Jane, not seeming to care that it removed Lydia to the next row. “You do not mind if I stay in here, do you, Darcy?” he asked. “Mine gets crowded with…”

He did not bother to finish and instead feigned laughter at the stage. Surely his words were only an excuse to continue talking with Jane. Indeed, they spoke for most of the play. Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Heaven help her. Was she destined to spend every play she witnessed worried about a sister? However, when the Duke not only asked to call on Jane but introduced them all to his mother and other noble relations, Elizabeth could hardly guess who was more speechless: Jane, herself, or the many witnesses.

Georgiana invited Lydia to ride with them in the hack, and the two girls talked about the play. Lydia vowing to become an accomplished playwright when she was discouraged from taking to the stage directly. Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. At least she was not fixated on the handsomeness of the actors and seemed genuinely interested in the skill displayed. She and Georgiana were exchanging ideas for a new comedy they would write for home entertainment, if not for the world at large, when they exited the carriage. The Darcys had been invited into the Gardiner home for a light supper.

Unexpectedly, they were greeted by a pale and rumpled looking Mr. Bennet.

“Thomas, what is the matter?” Mr. Gardiner asked, and glanced at Lydia who hid behind Jane. “There was no reason for you to come at all let alone in such a state!”

“Kitty…” he said wearily. “Kitty is missing. Gone.”

After the general cry from the others had calmed, Mr. Gardiner attempted to gather more information. “What do you mean she is gone?”

Mr. Bennet held up a crumpled sheet of paper. “She has eloped with Wickham.”


Dear C—

I have told myself to only write of the children and mutually enjoyed topics. I could tell you that Lucy has a suitor but I insist she wait until at least one and twenty to marry. I might also mention Angelika’s newest portrait called “The Allegory of Poetry and Music.” Normally, I would be ecstatic to relay news that Empress Catherine of Russia has named Princess Yekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova as the Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the first woman to head a scientific academy!

Instead, I must ask if everything between you and George is settled at last. You have been so very sly! Pray, write back immediately and tell me how this came to be after you refused to have him for so many years. I never doubted his devotion to you. I am sure you, like me, wish you could become a true family but soon you will have your heir and spares. I cannot congratulate you enough and wish you every happiness!

Yours,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

As Elizabeth shopped with Jane, Lydia, and Georgiana, she tried to not worry about Kitty and what circumstances she might be found in. After Darcy had left the night before, she and Mrs. Gardiner had made a list of items they had not already sent for which she would need immediately upon her marriage. Many of the garments she would require in her new station in life could wait until she had time for an appointment with the premier modiste in London.

As she and the others rounded a corner at a milliner’s on Bond Street, they met Miss Bingley and Lady Charlotte.

“Miss Bingley!” Georgiana greeted. “Lady Charlotte, how nice to see you.”

The ladies had immediately turned when they saw Elizabeth, but upon Georgiana calling after them they stiffened and turned to speak with them. They returned the barest civility. Georgiana proceeded to introduce Jane and Lydia to Lady Charlotte.

“Did you say you were all three sisters?” Lady Charlotte asked.

“Oh, there are two more,” Caroline tittered. “You may wonder at them all being out, but so it is in the Bennet family. I suppose, with Eliza marrying Darcy, their mother sent the next two who are most likely to find suitors to be — how had she put it at my brother’s ball? Ah yes, “Put in the path of other rich men.” Caroline glared at Elizabeth, and Jane sucked in a breath. Lady Charlotte tittered behind her fan. However, while Georgiana stared at her feet, Lydia put her hands on her hips.

“Georgie, what kind friends you have that they warn us how difficult it is to find a suitable husband, even with such connections and wealth. Yes, I will write to Mama directly and tell her she must not hope for such a happy event for her other daughters for many, many years; not if Miss Bingley and Lady Charlotte are the standards.”

Caroline and her friend turned a violent shade of red. “Oh, Miss Lydia,” said Caroline. “I am confident that your mother will not need such reassurances. After all, speedy marriages must be the norm in your family. Why is it you are marrying so hastily, Eliza?”

“Miss Bingley,” Jane said in a pleading voice, as though Caroline’s conscience would be pricked by their former closeness.

“Miss Bennet!” the happy voice of the Duke of Dorset interrupted whatever Jane was going to say next.

“Your Grace,” the ladies immediately greeted and curtsied.

“I almost called on Gracechurch Street this morning, but my mother wished to go shopping instead. I am pleased I did not risk it lest I be greeted by an empty house.”

“You call on Gracechurch Street?” Lady Charlotte sneered.

“Indeed. I spent a delightful morning there yesterday. I have never been more enchanted than when I met Miss Bennet at the theatre.” He bowed over Jane’s hand. “Although, seeing her sister Elizabeth go head to head with me at cricket in Kent came in a close second. However, Darcy would have torn me from limb to limb had I revealed my regard.”

“You know Eliza?” Caroline’s voice climbed abnormally high.

“She visited my estate at Knole while she was Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s guest over Easter. We were all very impressed with her knowledge of the game as well as the house.”

Caroline laughed. “My dear Duke, Eliza was not the guest of Lady Catherine. I hate to contradict you, but I believe you were misinformed,” she glared at Elizabeth. “Eliza is a cousin to Lady Catherine’s parson, and that is all. How kind of you to welcome such imposters into your home.”

The Duke shrugged his shoulders. “She and her relations were invited to Knole as the guest of Lady Catherine. At any rate, she will soon have a very close kinship to her Ladyship, will she not? On her next visit, she will certainly be at Rosings.”

“Dorset, what is this?” The elegant voice of the duke’s mother interrupted their circle. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet I know. Will you introduce me to your friends?”

“A pleasure your Grace,” she said before performing the civilities.

“How splendid to meet two of your sisters,” she said. “My mother had four sisters as well. I believe they were described by others as an “endless hoard  of daughters.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I am sure my father would agree, ma’am!”

“Miss Bennet,” the Duchess directed her attention to Jane. “I find it is you who has captivated my son.” Jane blushed prettily. “Is your aunt or mother not with you?”

“You will find, your Grace,” Caroline cut in, “that the Bennet ladies run positively wild.”

“Come, Miss Darcy. You and the Misses Bennet must walk with us. We are on our way to ices at Gunter’s, and I simply must have your conversation.”

Caroline and Lady Charlotte looked on eagerly, the former going so far as to clear her throat lest the Duchess forget to invite her. When nothing further was said by the woman, pointedly, Caroline curtsied. “We regret we cannot join you. We must continue our shopping. Good day to you, Madam. Pray, send our greetings to your mother , the Countess.”

Others had gathered around to see who the Dowager Duchess of Dorset was speaking with. She refused to reply to Caroline and turned on her heel. Murmurs rippled through the crowd as Elizabeth and the others shuffl ed behind the Duchess with Jane on the Duke’s arm. Caroline and her friend were left stuttering in angry chagrin.

As they ventured further away from the crowd, the Duchess glanced backwards at her son. “Dorset, call the carriage round and tell Smith to hire a hack for our packages. We shall be snug, but we will fit. Ladies, did you bring your own coach? No, I had supposed not.”

The Duke left to do his mother’s bidding, and in a moment they were boarded in the large box. Elizabeth could hardly fathom driving in such a large vehicle just for shopping in town. Her Grace must have planned on a great many purchases indeed.

“Forgive me,” she said in a more relaxed tone. “I had thought we better converse in private.” She rapped on the ceiling with her parasol, and they lurched forward. “I had heard those ladies speaking of you earlier, and indeed, the whole of London is ripe with gossip regarding Darcy’s bride.”

Elizabeth paled, but the Duchess held up her hands before she could speak. “I have said to all I know that they are words of a bitter and disappointed gold-digging spinster. That I had personally known Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, the very same lady betrothed to Fitzwilliam Darcy. I have sworn that I saw their mutual attachment and Miss Elizabeth’s acceptance by Darcy’s family.”

Elizabeth stared at the woman in confusion. In Kent, she had seemed even prouder than Lady Catherine.

“You  wonder at my defending you, Miss Elizabeth,” her Grace asked, and Elizabeth nodded. “Amelia and I are so close in age we grew up like sisters. Our families were friends, we went to the same school. When I married the Duke, she was my closest friend. I am convinced it is one reason why she married Sir Lewis when she had no affection for him.”

Her son chuckled. “In short, Miss Elizabeth, they may bicker like family — for they are — but neither is anyone else allowed to insult them.”

“I was sorry you left Kent before accepting Julia’s invitation to tea at Knole. Now, it is time for a frank conversation, my dears,” she said as they stopped before an enormous home in Mayfair.

Tea was ordered and all seated. Elizabeth was pleased to see Lydia managed to remain respectful and quiet. It was almost eerie from a girl who had always been so lively. Once the servants had been sent away, her Grace began again.

“Is there any truth at all to the rumours? You understand that the Fitzwilliam name has been sullied before.”

Georgiana said looking abashed, “So you know of my mother.”

“It was before I was born, but I recall hearing whispers of her ruin before she married your father,” the Duchess said. “I hope you understand I am not prejudiced against such. It happens more than some may believe and I hate the blaming of the women.”

She paused, and Elizabeth fancied she was considering the rumours about her husband, a womaniser in his youth who had caused the ostracising of a lover whose husband had refused to divorce her. Then, there was the statue of his former mistress in the nude in the main hall of her home.

“Your Grace,” Lydia began, “there is no blame on my sister’s side. She and Darcy marry quickly because his aunt is not expected to live much longer.”

“I am sorry to hear it,” the Duchess said.

Lydia took a deep breath, “And because of me.”

“Lyddie,” Elizabeth interrupted. “You do not have to say anything.” She hardly knew the woman and could not vouch for her ability to keep a secret.

“No, Lizzy.” Lydia shook her head. “If anything will be said against our family let it be about me, not you and certainly not Darcy.”

Lydia then explained her seduction at Wickham’s hands and possible pregnancy followed by Georgiana confessing her own near elopement.

“Oh, my poor dears,” the Duchess said when they had finished. “So it is true. This Wickham targets ladies close to Darcy.” The way she said it made Elizabeth believe Lady Catherine had told her about Anne. “Well, Dorset will see to that.”

Four pairs of feminine eyes looked at the Duke, who  they had forgotten about, in question. “I have recently been made a lieutenant-colonel of the militia for Sevenoaks and Bromley. He can be under my attention directly and will not have the spare time to seduce anymore ladies.”

“Pray, sir, you cannot,” Elizabeth said before explaining about Kitty.

The Duke frowned at the information. “If I can be of service to your family, in any way, please inform me.”

“Perhaps you can assist in effecting his reassignment quickly? I understand Colonel Fitzwilliam met with nothing but hardship when he wished to transfer Wickham.”

At this, Dorset grinned. “Do you forget that my uncle is the Secretary of War? Yes, I believe we may have this cad suited and sworn by the end of the day if we desire.”

“And I can do more for you, Miss Lydia,” the Duchess said. “Stay with me at Knole Park. My eldest daughter is now married, and my younger one lacks a young companion.”

“I…I will consider it,” Lydia said.

“Lizzy, we should be going,” Georgiana said.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Lizzy said and stood.

“Think nothing of it,” the Duchess replied. “We should chat again soon. I believe you may need some help navigating the echelons of Society,” she said to Elizabeth. “And Miss Bennet, I would be pleased if you and your aunt called on me next week. Dorset will see you home.”

The ladies curtsied to the agreeable Dowager Duchess, who responded in kind before removing to board their carriage once more. Elizabeth smiled at the thought that good souls were willing to help them. She could only hope Darcy’s family could be counted among them.

 

*****

 

Darcy’s hired hack pulled up to a run-down innas close to the Seven Dials district as he would dare approach without an armed guard. A gentleman would lose his pocketbook if he were lucky and too often, his life. That Wickham housed a gentleman’s daughter in a hotel that looked as though it was a part-time bawdy house sickened Darcy. All for what? Some imagined feud with him?

“Oh God,” Mr. Bennet said as he looked out the window and saw the filthy streets lined with beggars, and prostitutes selling their wares. “This would kill her mother. Be sure you tell her that.”

Mrs. Gardiner nodded in agreement.

“Darcy, I know you do not want their marriage but if she will not give him up you will not be miserly, will you?” Mr. Bennet asked with real concern. “I could never repay you but this…” He waved his hand at the abject poverty around them.

“I will offer them enough for a genteel life with provision to protect any money settled on Kitty.”

Mr. Bennet mumbled his thanks but his eyes glistened as he considered how close to devastation his family now was.

Mrs. Gardiner covered her nose with a handkerchief to mask the stench of their surroundings. Darcy followed her suit as he descended the carriage and handed down his companion. He prayed, likely fruitlessly, that the building might have fresher air. Some coin loosened the man at the desk’s tongue, and he gave up Wickham’s room number. By the time Darcy reached the door, he was too angered to knock politely.

“Wickham, you scoundrel open up for me!” Darcy yelled hammering on the door.

There was a light crashing of glass followed by a groan and shuffling of feet. Wickham pulled open the door looking disheveled, hungover from too much drink, and unbathed. He produced a charming smile, nonetheless. “Darcy, come in.” Seeing Mrs. Gardiner gave him pause. “Kitty, dearest, a visitor for you I believe.”

The girl stood from where she had been scooping up the broken glass and smiled at her aunt. She wore a dressing gown and looked paler and timider than Darcy remembered. “Are you well?” Darcy jerked his head in her direction. “He has treated you well?”

Kitty remained mute but nodded. Darcy scanned the room, hoping to find signs of food but only saw signs of cheap spirits. The shades were drawn. Undoubtedly, Wickham had wanted to hide from his creditors until he had heard of Darcy’s marriage and would approach him. He wondered if their financial state necessitated such an establishment or if Wickham planned it to increase the urgency to listen to his demands. Mrs. Gardiner murmured with her niece.

“I wonder how you heard of our little adventure, and so quickly, but I believe I can guess,” Wickham said with a grin.

Darcy balled up his fist and punched him square in the nose. Still tipsy from his drink, Wickham fell to the ground, collapsing bonelessly. Kitty shrieked.

“Good God, Darcy!” Wickham cried. “You broke my nose!” he said, or so Darcy guessed from the muffled syllables.

Darcy adjusted his coat sleeves as Wickham cleaned himself. “You have ten minutes before I leave and any chance of money does as well,” he said as Wickham seemed to move slower than necessary. As suspected, the threat quickened his movements.

“I am surprised you had that in you,” Wickham said. “I suppose you really do love her then?” He laughed.

Darcy growled in frustration and approached Mrs. Gardiner and Kitty. “Miss Kitty, are you well?” She nodded, and he looked at her aunt for confirmation. “I come as an emissary for your father.”

“He is here?”

“He waits for you in the carriage. You must know how this has grieved your family.”

“I know,” she burst into tears. “I wish there were another way, but Wicky said we had no other options. You did not have to beat him! Will the others?”

“Others?”

Kitty looked nervously at the door. “He says there are men after him who want to cheat him out of money. He promised me a wedding as soon as he could arrange everything.” She stared at her feet. “He said you would help.”

“Did he?” Darcy paused a minute. It had not been discussed what he should say to Kitty. Some would say it would be kinder for her to believe Wickham loved her, but he thought she should hear the truth. “I am here to help you come to your senses. He had absolutely no intention of marrying you unless I pay for it and his entire existence.”

“Is that not the least you owe him?” She asked with her bottom lip trembling.

“Kitty,” Mrs. Gardiner said, “Mr. Wickham is a terrible liar who has imposed on all of us. Darcy is blameless in matters between them.”

“No, I do not believe it,” she shook her head. “He would not lie to me, he loves me!”

“Do you know,” Darcy said coldly, “that is precisely what your sister Lydia claimed but three days ago?”

“No, he never loved Lydia,” and Darcy saw evidence that the girl before him was just as caught between adulthood and childhood as much as Georgiana and Lydia.

“I would agree,” Darcy said. “The trouble is that he made her think it was so, just as he did with you. As he has with many others, and then abandoned them.”

“What are you saying to her?” Wickham said from the settee where he poured more wine. “Kitty, where are the cigars?” He demanded sharply, causing her to jump.

“You can leave with us and never see him again, or live a life of squalid poverty at his beck and call until he tires of you. Is this what you desire for life?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “He is anxious due to our problems, and we have no servants. If we had money, he would treat me better.”

“Kitty!” Mrs. Gardiner hissed sharply. “Think of your mother. She would die seeing you in this place. You are a gentleman’s daughter, you deserve much more than this.”

“And what? Marry without love?” Kitty shook her head. “Did Mama ever ask if Jane loved Bingley? If Lizzy loved Collins? She certainly can’t love you,” she motioned at Darcy.

“The cigars!” Wickham yelled, and Kitty dashed away to find them. She picked up laundry and papers strewn about the cramped apartment, searching. Finally finding the case on the floor. She meekly brought them to her lover. Darcy shook his head. It was hopeless.

“It’s pointless,” Wickham said as he pulled her onto his lap and she yelped before he gave her a passionate kiss. “You cannot tear us apart. We are devoted to one another.”

Darcy looked at Mrs. Gardiner, who exhaled and nodded.  .”

Kitty looked as though she was going to argue against the separation, but she clearly did not have the stomach to stay any longer in such conditions. She showed Mrs. Gardiner into the other room, which housed the bed. A minute or two later, she was dressed simply and clutching a bag as she followed her aunt downstairs.

“Congratulate me, Darcy. I daresay I got the most biddable of the lovely Bennet sisters.” He sipped his wine. “Ah! We are to be brothers after all!”

“Wickham,” Darcy growled. “I have your debts.”

Finally, Wickham sobered, and fear filled his eyes. “Would you put me in debtor’s prison?”

“I am willing to assist the marriage, should her father agree, since the girl is too stupid for her own good.”

“We will need something to live on. Wouldn’t want Mrs. Darcy’s sister to starve.” He ran his finger around the rim of his glass affecting a casual tone. “Do you still have the estate in Cheshire?”

“An ensign in the Regulars,” Darcy replied.

“The army?” The fear redoubled. “Allow me to stay in the Militia then. A captain’s post and a few hundred pounds a year from Kitty.”

“One hundred pounds a year.”

Wickham stared at Darcy for some time before grinning and sitting back on the settee, looping his hands behind his head. “You cannot refuse me,” he laughed.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“If I do not marry Kitty, the Bennet reputation is ruined.”

“I think not,” Darcy said. “She left from her home.”

“Mayhap I will find another sister. I was Eliza’s favourite.”

Darcy resisted the bait. Any conversation regarding his relationship with Elizabeth would only serve Wickham’s purposes. He pulled out his watch. “Not if you are in Marshalsea, or transported for desertion. You have two minutes left.”

“I wonder what the world would say of a lady with two ruined sisters.”

Darcy remained mute, watching seconds tick away.

“Do you hear me? I have already seduced Lydia. I assume her going to London was your doing. Kitty was even easier to convince to elope than Lydia had been. It was no difference to me.”

After another thirty seconds of silence from Darcy, Wickham attempted again. “Eliza, now, she was well worth the risk. But I do not mind that you will have her more than me. I had her first.”

Darcy commanded his muscles to not tense. He knew it was a lie intended to enrage him.

“I like having things before you, Darcy. Did your cousin ever tell you her deep, dark secret?”

“Thirty seconds,” Darcy said.

“Five hundred pounds,” Wickham countered.

“Two hundred.”

“Three hundred,” Wickham’s voice sounded nearly panicked.

“Two hundred fifty and you have five seconds left.”

Wickham said nothing at first as precious time slipped away. At the top of the minute, Darcy closed his watch and returned it to his pocket. Turning on his heel, he had almost reached the door when Wickham called out. “Yes! Yes! We have a deal.”

Darcy repressed a shudder at the way he talked about the matter as though marriage, the love and protection of a woman, were nothing more than a business transaction. Darcy stalked back to Wickham and held out his hand, gripping it tight enough to make the man blanch when they shook. Pulling out the contract in his pocket, he went over the terms. Wickham would remove to a lodging paid for by Darcy. After his residency was established, he and Kitty would marry. Wickham was expected to court Kitty daily at Gracechurch Street. He was no longer permitted to gamble or drink to excess. Darcy would have informants watching. Kitty’s income was her own and Wickham could not touch it without her permission. If she wished to separate at any time, she could, and Wickham would bring no suit.

“What is this?” Wickham asked angrily at the final point.

“Reparations,” Darcy said.

“Reparations? For whom?”

“One week’s volunteering at the Lock Hospital and Foundling Hospital before you marry to remind you of the ladies you have used so callously.”

“I have not spread venereal disease or got anyone with child!” He cried, but the tone gave away the fact that he was not entirely certain.

“You never worried about the fate of the women you took for your pleasure, and ran before the consequences could become apparent.”

“Darcy, please.”

“There is always debtor’s prison,” he reminded. “Or there’s deserting your unit…” Darcy said.

Wickham gulped and signed his name.

“My man of affairs is arranging rooms for you. He will settle your bill here and convey you there.” Darcy picked up the signed contract. “You are excused from calling tomorrow, by the way.”

“Why is that?” Wickham asked as he kicked something across the room.

Darcy made no reply but merely left with a smile on his face.


To my dearest niece on her wedding day,

We have always been friends and as close as an aunt and niece could be. Knowing that today, after such a history, you will marry, at last, to an upstanding gentleman who is entirely deserving of you, provides me with more joy than I can contain. May your marriage be as happy as mine and five times longer! I will miss being second in your affections (as I know A always came before me) but I will bear it since I know you truly love him.

We became friends when I married your uncle, and you were already eight or nine years old, and so we are still friends even as the earldom has passed to your father and then your brother. A married lady may expect many changes, but we will always remain friends.

Your aunt, always,

A.F.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Darcy returned the Gardiners and Bennets to Gracechurch Street before continuing to his house. His aunt — as he still thought of Lady Catherine — enjoyed arriving early and commanding all his attention. He had sent a letter to the Baroness’ house so they would not permit her ladyship’s entry. The last thing Lady Darcy needed was an irate Catherine de Bourgh. As he locked Wickham’s contracts away and heard a ruckus at the front door, he had assumed it was her arrival. Instead, an angry Charles Bingley was shown into his library.

“Bingley, how are you?” He asked his old friend. Only so much had changed since they last met.

“Ruined, thanks to you!”

“I do not take your meaning.”

“And that is not even pointing out that what in the hell are you doing marrying Elizabeth Bennet after telling me I should not wed Jane?”

Darcy held up his hands. “I apologise for that. I have been trying to contact you.” He may have misjudged Jane all those months ago, but neither was he to blame for Bingley’s actions since. “Do you want to explain why you are trying to court my sister?”

Bingley poured himself a glass of scotch. “Come off it! Like you have not been grooming me to wed her for years.”

“I will not deny that I used to believe you would be the ideal match for her. However, she is too young, and I have it on good authority that mere weeks ago you first gave Jane Bennet the cut direct and then proposed to her. I would not wish my sister to be courted by a man who cannot decide what he wants.”

“Why don’t you tell me what I want then,” Bingley sneered. “You are always so good at that. Besides, I had little time with your cousin sniffing around her.”

“Refrain from talking about my sister as though she were a dog,” Darcy growled.

“I apologise. That was uncalled for.” Bingley rubbed his temples. “I have never seen Caroline in such a rage.”

“Yes, you claimed I had ruined you.”

“She ran into your Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy speaking with the Dowager Duchess of Dorset. I dare not trust her version of facts, but the result was Her Grace cut Caroline in front of a crowd.”

Darcy raised his brows. He had underestimated the Duchess.

“She has been irate since her visit here when she learned of your engagement.”

“We have discussed this,” Darcy said. “I never considered her.”

“But did she not fit your new requirements? I have seen you dance and talk with her. Do not tell me you feel nothing.”

Darcy stared at the man he had thought was his best friend. How had he missed this failing in Bingley’s character? “When did you begin to think that, Bingley? You did not believe that in Hertfordshire or when we first arrived in London. Was it after learning I was to inherit a barony?”

Bingley flushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “What kind of brother would I be? You are the best man I know. Should I not wish for that for my sister?”

“Ah, and a title and wealth were just too much to resist?”

“All I did was inform her you were looking for a bluestocking. I did not tell her what to say or make you ask her to dance.”

“Neither of which gives rise to an expectation of marriage!” Bingley stared at him unapologetically. “What happened with Jane Bennet?”

Bingley shrugged his shoulders. “I panicked in the shop. I had no idea she was in London. By the time I had squeezed the information out of Caroline where she was, it seems Jane had made up her mind about me. She turned me on my heel without letting me explain a thing.”

“Did you propose to her without so much as speaking to her in months?”

Bingley slumped in his seat. “I thought it was the best way to demonstrate my love.”

“Charles,” Darcy said firmly, and the man gave him a sheepish look. “You did that to ease your guilt. You did not consider her feelings at all. That was not love.”

“Was not love?” Bingley parroted without comprehension as though Darcy had just spoken Turkish. “And you suddenly know so much about it?”

“I am learning,” Darcy could not help the small smile from forming. “Elizabeth is teaching me.”

“Have her talk to Jane for me,” Bingley pleaded. “Caroline told me that Dorset was paying court.”

“A moment ago, you were upset because Richard might have been courting Georgiana!”

“Well…” Bingley rubbed the back of his neck again. “Miss Darcy is a lovely, talented lady. She would make a very appropriate wife. If I cannot have my first choice.”

“Do you think this helps your case? What brother would I be if I gave my blessing to a man who did not desperately love her? Either my sister by blood or marriage?”

“If Elizabeth had refused you then you would have gone to the most convenient thing, your cousin.”

“No, I never would have married Anne. I courted Elizabeth. I worked hard to earn her trust and esteem. I will never take that for granted or think it is due me simply for having the sense to pay attention to her.”

Bingley seemed sufficiently cowed into silence, and the clock struck the half hour. “I have guests arriving shortly. I will call on you soon,” Darcy said as he escorted Bingley to the door, knowing all the while that their friendship had forever altered and likely had been given an irreversible blow.

Darcy retired to his chambers to dress for dinner then waited in his study for the arrival of his guests. The Earl and Countess had been civil but surprised at his letter relaying his invitation and the news of his betrothal. He restlessly paced the library, hoping Lady Catherine would arrive before the others and hopefully get most of her anger over. As if conjured by thought, a loud knock sounded at the front door.

“Darcy!” she screeched then shouted directions at his servants on how to care for Anne and the requirements for their rooms.

Darcy was halfway down the hall, but she boomed again. “Darcy! Explain this!” She held up his letter and waved it in his face.

“Madam,” he said uncertain how to address her. “Let us speak in the library.” He ushered her down the hall.

As soon as the door shut, she began again and shook a now crumpled piece of paper in her fist. “What cruel joke do you play?”

“I play no joke,” he said softly, hoping if he lowered his voice she might match it. “I am as shocked as you.”

“It is impossible!” She exclaimed. “She would have been—”

“Fifteen. The same age as Anne. The same age as Georgiana. And the same age as Elizabeth Bennet’s sister.”

“Georgiana? What — what do you mean? What happened with Georgiana?”

“Last summer she nearly eloped with George Wickham,” Lady Catherine sneered at the name. “I see you recall who he is. I foiled the plan by chance. I arrived to pay her a surprise visit a day before their intended departure. She could not grieve me and soon related the whole.”

“And Miss Bennet’s sister?”

Darcy sighed and related the tale. “So, you see, fifteen is quite the age to consider yourself in love and ready to make such a decision.”

“But did he ruin Georgiana?”

“No, she was saved that. Thank, God.”

Lady Catherine sighed in relief.

Darcy sighed as well, then added, “He did significant emotional damage, though, and she is only now recovering.”

“Yes…that man can harm a woman’s soul,” she said darkly, and no doubt recalled Anne’s depression. “So, is it really true?”

“It makes a certain amount of sense,” Darcy said. “Mother married late even for a bluestocking. You and I look very similar, more than most aunts and nephews.” Darcy shrugged. “Besides this, you know her hand. Lady Darcy would not copy it and does not benefit from hiring a forgery. Consider the interest my mother took in you when most siblings separated by years and distance are not as close.”

Tears pricked Lady Catherine’s eyes and then smiled. “She charged me so strongly to look after you and Georgiana. I had often felt as though I failed her, but I had wondered why she had said it was my right by birth.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “All this time, you were my brother.”

Darcy smiled a little in return. “You arrive shortly before the Earl, Countess, Elizabeth, and her family.”

“So, what am I to do?” Lady Catherine asked.

“It is your news to share if you like,” he said. “Elizabeth was with us when the Baroness explained matters, but the others do not know. Would you rather be known as my aunt or my sister?” He quirked a smile at her, wondering if she would give up her superior title as the daughter of an earl.

Lady Catherine smoothed out the battered paper. “My letter did not divulge who her seducer was.”

Darcy found it telling that she did not call the man her father.

“Do you know?”

“You actually knew him,” Darcy said gently. “Nathaniel Dance, the artist.”

“Harriet Bisshop’s husband?” Lady Catherine gaped at him. “The Dowager Countess of Liverpool’s brother-in-law? All those years at Knole…”

“I know,” Darcy nodded. “I wonder if the Baroness would have taken the information to her grave if he were still alive.”

Shockingly, Lady Catherine erupted in laughter. “Egads,” she said between gasps. “I’m the bastard daughter of a painter. What irony!”

“Indeed,” Darcy grinned. “How fortunate you are. You might have been in Mrs. Jenkinson’s position.”

Lady Catherine sobered at the thought and asked to refresh in her usual chambers. Darcy agreed and resumed his post waiting for his other guests, who arrived promptly. Elizabeth whispered that she wished to speak with him privately before the meal. Finding a quiet corner of the drawing room, she relayed the encounter with the Duchess of Dorset. Darcy’s anger simmered at Caroline Bingley and by extension to her brother but he was impressed with the fortitude the Duke and Duchess had shown.

“Do you think she will consider going?” Darcy asked Elizabeth about the Duchess’ offer for Lydia.

“I do not know,” she said. “She has had a vicious row with Kitty, who will not believe Lydia’s words at all. I never knew she could be so stubborn — No, do not give me that look.”

“I only think it is good to be forewarned that stubbornness affects all Bennets,” Darcy said.

Elizabeth sighed. “I will punish you for your thoughts later. For now, do you think it is too near my cousin Collins?”

“I think it unlikely that he would ever be invited there again and certainly avoidable for several months. Lady Catherine and Anne would be close enough to provide her with additional company, and we may visit with impunity as well.”

“I confess, I would like that. I am only beginning to value my sisters again.”

Dinner was announced, and further discussion was delayed. As the Earl and Countess quizzed Elizabeth and her family, Darcy watched as Lady Catherine’s frown deepened. He had been surprised earlier when she did not scold him for his attachment to Elizabeth. Judging by the looks of disdain on his aunt and uncle’s faces, gossip about Darcy and Elizabeth had evidently reached the Fitzwilliam household.

“I believe I have an announcement which concerns us all,” Lady Catherine said, and the table paused their conversation to listen to her pronouncement. Using years of experience, she spoke with frankness. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I apologise for deriding your ancestry. It turns out that you are of better blood than I.”

“How’s that?” the Earl asked from his end of the table.

“Before I begin, I would ask that each person consider their actions and sense at fifteen. Were you the picture of morality or intelligence?” She waited for everyone to accept her words and glared at the Earl until he complied. Even with such preparation, her revelation was met with shock and denial from the Earl and Countess.

Rather than offending his other guests, the Bennets and Gardiners seemed amused by the scene. Darcy inwardly laughed at himself. Pride went before the fall. Mere weeks ago, he had presumed his family came from better breeding than the Bennets and behaved better as well. The shouts from the Earl and his leaving the dinner early proved that incorrect.

“Well,” Georgiana said after he and his wife and left. “Now that the children have left, ladies shall we adjourn to the drawing room?”

The tension diffused and the ladies followed her lead.

“What do you know of this Duke of Dorset?” Mr. Bennet asked his soon to be son-in-law.

Darcy frowned. “I do not know him well, although men I thought I knew well are increasingly turning out to be far different than I had expected.”

“Think nothing of that,” Bennet said. “You are still a young man; friends must show their true colours. For what it is worth, I believe Elizabeth experienced the same when her friend married Mr. Collins.”

“Indeed,” Darcy agreed.

“I will count on you when dealing with these other gentlemen,” Bennet said. “And you will make her happy, will you not?”

“It will be my greatest honour every day,” he swore.

The men discussed the arrangements Darcy had with Wickham, including his unrepentant attitude. “I look forward to receiving Dorset’s letter of confirmation tomorrow,” he said. He would consider it his greatest wedding gift.

When they had finished, they joined the ladies in the drawing room. They took turns on the pianoforte while Jane, Mrs. Gardiner, and Anne hovered over a book of floral sketches. When the evening ended, he rejoiced as he raised Elizabeth’s hand to his lips. It would be his last night parted from her side.

 

******

 

Elizabeth rose the morning of her wedding day with a smile on her face. The arrangements had been so rushed she hardly had time for a new dress made, and certainly not the sort of bridal gown of which most ladies dreamed. Mrs. Gardiner had donated her veil worn a dozen years ago, and fresh flowers circled her hair. The weeks away from her family had taught her that while she would always love them, she yearned to stretch her wings and experience a life away from the nest in which she had been raised.

As the parson went through the service in the drawing room of the Gardiner residence, Elizabeth hoped it did not make her ungrateful that she did not miss her mother at this moment. Soon, they would journey to Longbourn, and Elizabeth prayed for patience as she anticipated her mother ferrying her about with fanfare.

In a reversal of expectations, Elizabeth smiled at the arrival of Lady Catherine and Anne, and did not miss the absence of the Earl and Countess. Upon hearing the truth of Lady Catherine’s parentage and her intention of exposing it should rumours spread regarding the Bennets, they had sworn they would break ties with the family. Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. She could not see how that would be a loss to her.

Elizabeth and Darcy, however, did keenly feel the absence of Lady Darcy. Their feelings sprang not only from gratitude for her information regarding Lady Anne, which might mitigate any rumours attached to their marriage, but also by affection. Elizabeth, especially wished she had known the lady longer. In a happy coincidence, Darcy and Elizabeth had both written to the Baroness, vowing to name their first daughter after her. In typical fashion, the lady replied, in addition to wishing them joy, that she did not care what they named their child but instead suggested a school be ladies be erected in her name. Elizabeth rather hoped they could do both.

Soon, too soon, she was pronounced Mrs. Fitzwilliam Benjamin Conyers Darcy. They enjoyed a brief wedding breakfast in which Kitty pouted that Wickham had not come. Among her other prayers, Elizabeth added that Kitty might come to her senses regarding Wickham. However, for the remainder of the day, Elizabeth vowed to put him and all family scandals from her mind. A little past noon, Darcy and Elizabeth boarded Anne’s phaeton for their London house. Georgiana had removed to Lady Catherine’s house, which she usually did not open as she instead stayed with Darcy or the Earl.

Darcy and Elizabeth, despite their love, were full of nerves, neither knowing how to be a bride or bridegroom. Instead, they teased and talked, making up for lost time of spending too much worry over their sisters. They ordered an early dinner, and before Elizabeth knew it, she had retired to the mistress’ chambers. Her maid had arranged a bath for her and laid out a nightgown which must have been a gift from her aunt, as Elizabeth had been too embarrassed to purchase such things with her sisters in tow. She looked in the mirror and brushed her hair as she waited for Darcy to arrive. She still looked every inch the same Lizzy Bennet who had left Longbourn angry and confused. Now, she was Elizabeth Darcy, blissfully happy and stronger than she had ever known.

“Come in,” she called when she heard Darcy’s knock. She met him halfway across the room.

“You are beautiful,” he breathed as he pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

Feeling her desire rise, Elizabeth pulled away. “I have been thinking of what I can give you to show my love and devotion as you are fond of giving gifts to express yours.” Since the first necklace, Elizabeth had received five other pieces with promises for more.

“You are my gift,” he said and attempted to kiss her again.

“I know,” she said breathlessly and held his eyes as she untied her dressing gown and allowed it to flutter to the ground. Darcy’s sharp intake of breath and instant widening of his pupils told her he enjoyed what he saw.

“I love you,” she said and lifted his hands to her lips. “I can think of no greater gift I can give you than my heart and my trust. Tonight, you will claim my body,” she said as her pulse quickened at the thought.

“But this union is an expression of my love for you. Each touch,” she trailed a finger down his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her palm. “Each kiss,” she said and pecked his lips before dragging her mouth down his throat, “is a marriage of passion and love; of trust and sense.”

Darcy moaned appreciatively, and Elizabeth smiled against his flesh.

“I love you,” he said and swooped her into his arms then walked her to their bed.

 

*****

 

Three days after the wedding, Darcy called on the Duke of Dorset at his enormous house in Mayfair. Darcy was shown to the Duke’s library, full of artifacts ranging from natural history to vases from antiquity. The Duke also had several shelves devoted to dried plants and various drawings of their dissected parts pinned to the walls. Also on a wall was a map of Europe with pins in it. Given the state of things with Napoleon for nearly the last decade, Darcy assumed they were locations the Duke desired to visit when peace was restored. Darcy had the impression that if the man had not inherited a dukedom, he would have become an explorer or scholar.

“Darcy!” The duke said the minute the door flung open. He bounded over to his sideboard. “A drink?”

“No, thank you,” Darcy declined and then sat when it was offered.

“I did not think to see you so soon after your marriage.” His Grace winked. “I was on my way out to call on Jane, actually. I hope you can make it quick.”

“I believe you mean Miss Bennet,” Darcy narrowed his eyes.

“Feeling territorial, are you?” Dorset laughed. “She has only been your sister for a few days! I suppose you have come to talk to me about my intentions?”

Darcy scowled. “Not today, although soon, I think.”

“Oh? If you are asking about Wickham it is all arranged.”

“I think we understand one another,” Darcy said and scrutinised his companion’s face.

“You want Wickham…shall we say, out of your life?”

“To say the least.”

“He hurt your sister, I understand,” Dorset said, his lip curling like an angry animal.

“Not as much as he has hurt others like Elizabeth’s.”

“Yes…Jane’s pain is palpable.” Dorset stared at his drink for a moment. “My uncle can do many things. If it were me, he would not even survive a journey across the channel.”

Darcy held up his hands. “I do not want him murdered. But the regiment he is in will soon deploy?”

“Within weeks. And what of Miss Kitty?”

“She will be taken care of and perhaps heart-broken. Elizabeth and I have discussed it and if Kitty blames us then we will simply have to bear her anger.”

“You are likely saving her from a life of misery. Although, there is always a chance that he will survive.”

“We will not beg trouble and worry about that until we must.” The clock chimed the quarter hour and Darcy stood, stretching out his hand. “It occurs to me I may seem less than grateful for your assistance in affairs but truly, allow me to thank you.”

Dorset heartily shook Darcy’s hand with a firm grip. “Think nothing of it, brother.”

“Brother!”

“If she accepts me, that is. I intend to ask for Jane’s hand this morning.”

“So soon?” Darcy said before thinking. Seeing the Duke’s reaction, Darcy hastily added an apology. “Forgive me. Best wishes, then. I will see myself out.”

Far from being offended, Dorset smiled at Darcy and walked with him to the door. “Do you know what this means, Darcy?”

“What, Your Grace?”

“You shall have to change cricket teams next year.” Dorset laughed and clapped Darcy on the shoulder.

Darcy shook his head at his soon to be brother-in-law’s levity. While driving Anne’s phaeton back to his house, he considered that, while Wickham had still attached himself to the Bennet family and gained his money, it was not as dreadful as Darcy feared when Elizabeth first approached him. He was not ruining the Bennets. Darcy had seen Elizabeth’s concern for Kitty, and previously for Lydia, but she had no need to despair for her beloved sisters. If Wickham survived the war, they would deal with matters then. In the unlikely event that either Kitty or Lydia’s situation became known, Society would not shun a family married into a barony and a duchy.

Bolstered by such positive thoughts, he did not expect a sobbing Elizabeth to launch herself into his arms the minute he stepped into the house. “Elizabeth, love, what is wrong?”

“The baroness,” Elizabeth managed between sobs. “We just got word…”

Elizabeth did not continue but Darcy’s throat tightened. “She is gone?”

“Yes, I am so sorry.” Elizabeth squeezed him tightly. “I hate that she went alone.”

“She went the way she lived — on her own terms.”

Darcy managed to lead Elizabeth upstairs to their chambers and held her in his arms as she cried herself to sleep. When she awoke some hours later, he rang for a supper tray. Elizabeth withdrew a note from her pocket.

“This came with the letter conveying the news.”

Darcy ripped open the missive and saw his aunt’s script.

My Dearest Nephew Lord Darcy,

You have always lived up to your noble names. Now embrace your Bluestocking heritage. Renew the club with Elizabeth as hostess.

Your aunt always,

M.D.

Continued in Lady Darcy’s Bluestocking Club, coming 2018!


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