Mr. Darcy’s Compassion

I don’t have a blurb for this story yet. I’ll be working on it in between other projects and hope to publish it in January 2019. I think it will be novel length but I never really know until the story is done. I’ll try to post once a week.

Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth on his way to Pemberley. This takes place just before Easter.


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Chapter One

Darcy peered out his carriage window as the conveyance rolled to a stop before the usual coaching inn. To the east about twenty miles lay the town of Meryton, Hertfordshire. As often as he had traversed the roads between London and Pemberley he had never before considered what lay beyond them. His mind had only considered the path before him and the duties attached to the destination. Whether at his estate or his London home, his responsibilities to family and legacy did not cease. And so, despite knowing Meryton lay only a few hours away, and with it the woman he loved, he would cling to his usual route.

Inside the tavern portion of the inn, Darcy grimaced when told that the private dining areas were full and his usual suites unavailable. His decision to leave London for Pemberley was formed suddenly only hours ago. Easter in his ancestral home was a convenient excuse. He would journey first, and his sister, Georgiana, and her companion would follow on the next day. Waving off the proprietor’s concern for his offense, Darcy sat in the loud common room.

He glanced around the area, unsurprised to see he had no acquaintances in the crowded chamber. A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his notice. The maid moved with too much grace, her gown seemed too fine to be the usual sort. Some fancy piece trying to sell her wares? It was unlike Cuthbert to allow such but who was Darcy to interfere with a man’s business?  As the lady’s movements and figure continued to interest him—and invariably remind him of a lady mere miles away—he cursed under his breath for the fact that he now compared every woman born high or low to Elizabeth Bennet.

What would his family and friends say if they knew of his obsession? The Earl would glare, Lady Catherine would lecture and throw her daughter at him. Bingley would laugh and Richard, his cousin, would suggest he enjoy the bar maid’s enticements and be free of his physical longing and possibly mental torment as well. Darcy had too much honour for such, however, and so when he waved her over it was only with the intent to order refreshment. Never mind the fact that her laugh at the table next to him reminded him too much of Elizabeth’s and he had relished the warm sound when it washed over him.

“What would you like?” she asked.

Her voice was very like Elizabeth’s. Darcy kicked himself again for allowing her to make such a slave of him that his imagination could go so far as to hear her voice. Looking up from his hands, their eyes met, and Darcy’s breath caught.

Elizabeth gasped. “Mr. Darcy!”

“Eliza—Miss Bennet!”

“Par-pardon me!” Elizabeth laid her tray of ale down in a clatter and ran from the room.

Darcy stared after her. Why on earth was she serving in a tavern twenty miles from her home? The Bennets had not been as wealthy as he or Bingley, but their estate was prosperous enough. Only financial hardship or extreme love could drive her to such a situation. Darcy knew the owner and knew the Bennets had no relationship to him which left only the financial motive. Before he could think better of it, he was in front of Cuthbert and tossing several pounds at him.

“That maid—the one that just ran out of the room—”

“Lizzy? Pretty with big, brown eyes?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” Darcy nodded. “I’m paying her wages for the week. Find another maid.”

Several men around him broke into laughter and raised an obscene toast in his honour, but he cared not one whit. As he dodged puddles of ale and urine, he followed the door where Elizabeth exited. Hearing sobbing down the hall, he turned and then crept up the stairs. His heart beat in his throat with every step. There was another reason she could be here, one which lay heavily on his mind. Wickham might have ruined her. He ought to have openly declared to the world that man’s character. He ought to have told her the truth and warned her. Instead, his pride demanded he keep his failings private. If Wickham had not ruined Elizabeth, she might have been raped by any man down below. He did not think she would willingly sell herself, but many men took no heed of a negative answer.

Elizabeth sat on the top of the stairs, with her head buried in her hands as she was bent almost in half. The sounds of despair and agony split through him. Darcy bent at the knee and placed a hand on her shoulder, intent on offering her a handkerchief and escort her to the safety of a room.

Before he could speak, he was struck on the side of his head. The unexpected movement set him tumbling down several stairs, landing hard on one arm. Along the way, he reached for the railing and only managed to twist his arm in a painful contortion.

“How dare you!” Elizabeth cried out followed a moment later by, “Oh good Lord! What have I done? Mr. Darcy?”

“Aye,” Darcy moaned.

“I am so sorry,” she stammered. “I thought you were a stranger set on accosting me…”

The pain in Darcy’s heart upon hearing such words could be surpassed only by the pain he felt in his arm. He heard Elizabeth’s quick steps and sniffling as she wiped her tears away.

“Can you move?” she asked gently once at his side.

“I think so.” He made to roll over, and she assisted him. No longer laying on his injured arm, it throbbed even worse as blood rushed around it.

“We should get you to your room and call the surgeon,” Elizabeth held her hand out to assist him with his uninjured arm.

As his hand gripped around hers, he noted the rough nature of her palm and digits. Mere weeks ago they would have been as soft as any gentlewoman’s. What kind of life had she endured since he left Hertfordshire? She appeared to be blushing under the contact.

“We can get to the guest chambers through this way,” Elizabeth opened a door near the second-floor landing he had fallen near. “Your room must be this way.”

“I am on the third floor, actually.” Darcy winced as each step sent a jolt to his arm.

“Very well,” Elizabeth said in a confused sounding voice.

That she seemed unfamiliar with the layout brought him some comfort. “Here, room six, I believe they said.”

They knocked, and his valet opened the door. “Mr. Darcy,” Stevens eyes glanced from Darcy to Elizabeth’s rapidly before he, at last, seemed to realize that Darcy oddly held his arm. “Is all well?’

“It is not,” Darcy said as the servant stepped aside so he could enter. “I have badly sprained my arm. Please, see if the surgeon is available.”

“Of course, sir. The lady’s bag arrived a moment ago.” Stevens dashed away.

Darcy shuffled to the table and chair in the room, believing he could be treated there and staying away from his bed would likely help Elizabeth’s sensibilities.

“I am so sorry, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said while blushing. “I will leave you and your…guest,” she glanced around, and her eyes fell on her bag. Immediately, she stiffened. “Just why are my things in your chamber?”

“Cuthbert must have needed the room. I suppose he has already found your replacement.”

“My replacement!”

“Well, I paid him for your wages.”

“You bought me?”

Darcy could hear in Elizabeth’s tone her anger and surprise, emotions he thought would soon fade. However, he had not expected the look of utter anguish to haunt her eyes. “No, I paid the man the trouble of hiring a new maid and secured you safe lodgings until I deliver you to Longbourn.”

“I will never go back there. Never.”

Besides the anguish, determination lit her eyes. He did not doubt her. He only wished to know how best to help her and convince her he meant to be an ally. Before he could say anything, however, Stevens arrived with the surgeon in tow.

“It is a nasty sprain,” he pronounced upon the examination. “Your wife will have to be quite the minder to make certain you do not overdo. You should not attempt the carriage for at least three or four days.” He smiled and looked at Elizabeth who had folded her arms at her chest and glared at Darcy. “It seems she is up to the challenge, sir.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said in a cold voice to mask his fatigue and pain from the experience. “Will there be anything else?”

“Yes, take this tonic twice a day.”

He handed it to Darcy, and the stench made him wrench his face away. “Is there nothing else I can take?”

“This is the best for allowing you to maintain functionality while alleviating the pain. “Shall I show your valet or your wife how to mix it?”

“Allow me,” Elizabeth stepped forward.

“Certainly, Mrs. Darcy.”

Elizabeth blushed and sent Darcy an angry look, but he could only think how very well the title suited her and the feeling of rightness in his heart upon hearing it. Tavern maid…potentially ravaged…or not, he would not deny his heart or this serving of fate.

Elizabeth observed the surgeon and then escorted him from the room. Darcy noticed his valet had gone missing.

“Explain yourself,” Elizabeth said in an angry tone once alone.

However, instead of launching into an argument as he had expected, she nearly collapsed in the chair on the other side of the table. She looked bone weary, and all her capacity for anger had fled faster than a dashed light.

“I was breaking my journey to Pemberley when I saw a friend—” Elizabeth arched a brow at the word. “We are friends, are we not?”

“I hardly know who are my friends or who to trust anymore,” she murmured. “I had thought I had no one left.”

“Elizabeth, what has happened? How did you come to be in this place?” With his good hand, he reached forward to envelop one of hers. He sought to lend support and comfort. Instead, she burst into tears. “Come, you are overwrought. Come, rest, and we will speak later.”

Elizabeth mutely nodded when he pushed his handkerchief into her hands and allowed him to lead her to the bed without protest.

“I will sit and read while you take as long as you like.”

Indecision warred in her eyes.

“Please, Elizabeth,” Darcy said with the sort of gentleness he often used with Georgiana. “I hate to see you so distraught.”

Although more tears flowed at his words, she kicked off her worn slippers and slid beneath the counterpane. She rolled away from where he sat and while he heard the occasional sniffle she soon slept.

While Elizabeth rested, Darcy made inquiries with Cuthbert. Elizabeth had arrived here in early January with naught but a few coins to her name. She begged for lodging and was willing to work for it, although with her genteel rearing she was no natural barmaid.

 

*****

 

After a few hours’ rest, Elizabeth awoke with a start. She sat up straight in the bed, breathing hard. She was shaking, Darcy realized. He left his chair to come to her side and jumped at his movement then reached for a pillow to fling at him.

“Elizabeth, you are safe,” Darcy cried out while blocking the projectile with his good arm.

“Mr.D-Darcy?” she asked in a quiet voice. Her tone was fear and relief mingled while her face expressed bewilderment.

“Yes. Do you recall where you are?”

“I…I…” she trailed off for a moment. “I do.” She spoke in a stronger voice. “Oh, thank heavens. When I awoke and did not recognise the room, I thought the worst had happened.”

Suddenly she stilled and her brows arched. “I do recall everything now. You–you bought me, and you intend to take me back to Longbourn!” She scrambled off the bed, this time reaching for a candlestick.

“Good God, woman! If you will pummel me, may I ask you wait until my arm heals and we are both fully able-bodied.”

“You arm?” Elizabeth’s brows drew together in confusion as she lowered her weapon. “Oh! I had forgotten—but then the doctor thought…”

“My valet has set him straight and maintained your honour.”

“How is that possible?” Her shoulders slumped. “Not that it makes any difference. Elizabeth Bennet has ceased to exist for several months now. If anyone knew the truth, my reputation would be entirely shredded. As it is Lizzy Smith, the barmaid draws no attraction or notice and hardly needs a good reputation.”

Darcy gaped at her. For one, she would always draw attraction and notice. She was too beautiful to blend into any crowd. As barmaids went, she would be the only one he ever met who bore signs of genteel life and the only one who had not offered her body for sale. “Lizzy Smith?” He raised a brow and approached her side.

“My Aunt Gardiner’s maiden name. I thought Gardiner would be too memorable, especially so near Longbourn…”

Taking the candlestick from her hand, their fingers brushed. He returned it to the position next to the bed and then led her to the sofa. “I understand you must have been through very much for me to find you in such a position. Come, I will order refreshment, and you may tell me how I might assist you.”

Elizabeth stared at him for a long moment. “It seems you must have gone through many changes in the time since our last meeting as well.”

“Why do you think so?”

“The Mr. Darcy I met in Meryton would never be so solicitous to me, and he would never take orders from me.”

“And the Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn I knew seemed to love her home and family very much. Perhaps looks were deceiving on both of our ends?”

Elizabeth dipped her head in acknowledgment and took his offered seat. He rang for tea, and they sat in silence until it arrived. Simultaneously reaching to pour, their fingers brushed again. Elizabeth blushed while Darcy realised his body craved those fleeting touches.

“Pardon me,” Elizabeth laughed. “I am used to taking on the office of the hostess. Since this is your domain, perhaps you ought to serve.”

“All that I have is yours, Elizabeth.” The words tumbled from his lips before he could recall them. How he wished he could leave them as they were or fully explain his desires but the shocked look on Elizabeth’s face combined with her earlier words meant she was not ready to hear his proposition. “As you are my guest, of course.”

“Very well,” Elizabeth smiled and resumed the process of making tea. “Thank you, and to show that I am not as ungrateful as I am sure Miss Bingley has me marked down as, I believe I have recalled how you like your cup.”

She gave Darcy a cup with a pert smile. He was surprised to consider that she could recall how he took it. Although, he would have preferred to do it himself. He had yet to meet a lady who could get it quite right except for his housekeepers and sister. Still, he would drink it without complaint, for her, and there would be time later to reveal the truth. Pressing the cup to his lips, he sipped.

Elizabeth sat back with a satisfied smirk. As Darcy set the teacup down, he chuckled. “How did you know how I like it?”

“At Longbourn, you would drink it without sugar and wince. At Netherfield, Miss Bingley would give you three scoops but you never finished a cup. At Lucas Lodge, it was two, but again you had a hint of displeasure about your lips as you drank.”

Darcy listened in fascination. If she had recalled such details, she could not be as indifferent as she had seemed. “And will you enlighten me to your process?”

“I put the sugar in first,” Elizabeth smiled.

“Very good,” Darcy acknowledged. “How did you guess that would work?”

“A lady never tells,” she grinned and then took a sip of tea.

“Then I will take it for the compliment it must be to have Elizabeth Bennet know such an intimate detail about me that I have hidden from most others. I am afraid you have learned I am horribly picky about my tea.”

“Only about your tea?” she popped a treat into her mouth, her eyes closing with enjoyment.

“I do not think I am so scrupulous about other things. I never complained about Miss Bingley’s table, for example.” He raised a brow in silent charge at her.

“Oh! You remember that do you?” She laughed. “Well, I would not say I complained either. Mr. Hurst merely asked which dish I preferred, and it would hardly be right to lie.”

Darcy only smiled in response. He had missed this so much. Conversations with Elizabeth were like a breath of fresh air, a calming breeze on a hot day. One could live without it but only just barely survive. In London, he had almost suffocated from all the insipid debutantes thrust upon him.

When they had finished with their refreshments, Darcy cleared them away. “I believe we must have some conversation.”

“Must we? I would allow you to choose the topic but I can hazard a guess as to what you desire to know, and I am unsure if I want to discuss it.”

“Why is that?” he sat next to her.

“Why do I not wish to speak of it?”

“If you will not tell me how you came to be here and why you refuse to return to Longbourn, then it seems the next most reasonable thing to discuss.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “How like you! You want to be reasonable, and I wish only to laugh and avoid serious matters. Well, having acknowledged that there could be few other ways to induce me to willingly address it. Was it your design?”

“Certainly not. I can barely keep my wits around you. I could think of no design to make you speak when you are determined to be silent.”

Elizabeth looked sad for a moment. “You once accused me of only wishing to laugh my way through life. How I hated you for that charge! In my mind, I was perfectly rational. I could laugh at the follies of others–your pride, for example. But I was blind to the real evils of the world. To the evils even in my family. I was determined to ignore them and applaud myself for the effort.”

Darcy remained silent during Elizabeth’s words. He had not meant that Elizabeth was too flighty. He did dislike the conversation, but he had not intended to demean her. He would have to address that–especially as she said it made her hate him. He had not thought–he had never considered–that someone as rational and sensible as her could feel so very different about his words than he had meant them. At the moment, however, there were more pressing matters. Wordlessly, he squeezed her hand in a show of support. He did not relinquish it, and Elizabeth stared at their joined hands for a moment before continuing in a hushed voice.

“I have paid sorely for my arrogant stupidity. You will hate me forever when you hear it.”

 

Treasured–Chapter One

treasured finalChapter One

November 1, 1811

Three weeks after Reunited ends

Will arrived at Netherfield’s stables and tossed the reins of Apollo at the ready hands of a boy. Charles arrived just after him—he had lost another race. Both gentlemen had smiles on their faces from their visit at Longbourn, but Will had an extra bounce in his step that made him feel lighter than air as he walked to the house.

The last few weeks of his engagement to Elizabeth had never ceased to amaze him. He could not be bitter about the past and their separation if it created the sweetness they shared since their reunion. Elizabeth meant more to him now than she could have meant to him if he had never believed he lost her love and found her again. Now, after years of waiting, they were just over three weeks from their wedding day. Will’s heart could scarcely contain its joy.

“Ah, Mr. Darcy,” the butler said upon Will’s entry. “The mail has just arrived. These are for you.” He extended a handful of letters.

Will took them and thanked him and sequestered himself in the library. Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley would be arriving any day, escorted by Richard. Several of his Fitzwilliam relations hoped to come for the wedding as well. Lady Catherine had not been invited after Will learned she had schemed with her parson to end their engagement. Apparently, Will’s father had written to Lady Catherine about Will’s attachment to Elizabeth years ago. When Lady Catherine learned of her parson’s relationship to the Bennets of Longbourn and also learned of Will travelling to the area, she put two and two together. Mr. Collins needed a wife, all the better if it were one who would inherit Longbourn. However, once she perceived Elizabeth Bennet as a threat once more, she commanded Collins to marry her—compromise her if he must.

Will’s letter contained the usual news from his steward and housekeepers. Mrs. Annesley reported that Georgiana continued to be alternately withdrawn and angry. Richard confirmed he would escort the ladies. Lady Catherine spewed vitriol on the page. Her daughter wrote begging not to be painted with the same brush as her mother.

Weeks ago, when Elizabeth had first suggested that Will seek out proof from the post offices which might have been the source of the interference of his letters to her, he wrote to them all. He had heard from most of them by now, which all confirmed what the very first post office had indicated. Wickham paid an employee to hand over Will’s letters to Elizabeth. Why Wickham had wanted to disrupt those letters, Will had not yet determined.

He had also suspected Wickham of sabotaging his carriage. To find him, Will hired Bow Street Runners and had Richard ask around Wickham’s favourite haunts in London. Wickham had been in Lincolnshire during the time in question. It appeared the incident with the carriage was a genuine accident.

Now, Will held in his hand a letter from the last post office in Scotland. They had never journeyed further north than this office, as planned, for the fire put an end to all those plans. Even now, Will could smell the stench of burning fabric and flesh, the thick smoke which clogged his lungs and caused his eyes to burn. Merely reading the name of the town was enough to bring him back to that awful night.

Someone knocked on the door and, to distract himself, Will called for the person to enter. Charles invited himself in—after all, it was his library—and settled in a chair near Will.

“Another letter from a post office?”

“How did you know?”

“You have a certain look about you when they arrive. Is this the one, then?”

“And how did you know that?” Will was unused to Charles being so observant.

“For starters, I believe all the others are accounted for. Secondly, it’s the only one that you would avoid and put off, and I see that the seal is unopened. Lastly, your expression was the same as it always is when the fire is mentioned.” He paused and watched his friend. “Yes, that is the look exactly!”

Although Will did not have a looking glass to see what Charles referenced, he could feel the tightness of his muscles and the way his jaw clenched. It felt like turning to stone. “Very well,” Will admitted. “It is the last dreaded reply. I do not know why I bother reading them. They all say the same thing, and there is nothing I can much do about it.”

“You have always believed there was strength in knowledge. One day, you will meet Wickham again and will have your means to prove his deeds.” Charles hesitated. While looking out a window, rather than meeting Will’s eyes, he suggested, “Would you prefer me to read it?”

For a moment, Will was offended at the suggestion. Did Charles believe Will not strong enough to live with the reminder of the worst night of his life? Then, he considered how Elizabeth would react to the news. She was showing him what It meant to have unfailing support in his life. Charles had always attempted to be there, but Will would often push him out. He was working hard to overcome his flaw. It had caused enough heartache.

“I appreciate the offer,” Will answered, at last, “but I believe I can read it. Knowledge of its likely contents makes it easier.”

Swelling his courage, Will turned the paper over and tore open the seal.

Dear Mr. Darcy,

I could hardly contain my surprise at seeing a letter from you after all these years. You, undoubtedly, do not recall me, but I remember you and your traveling companions most vividly. However, I had expected a message from you many years ago.

You may ask how I can remember you so well. It is not often that our town loses its inn and its post office in one night.

Will furrowed his brows. He had forgotten in this particular town, the post office was a mere corner of the inn.

Even more so when it is a victim of arson.

Will’s grip on the paper tightened, and Charles glanced at him in concern at the crinkling noise. He could not answer his friend’s unspoken question. He had to read on.

As such, all letters would have been lost. During the investigation into the fire, we discovered an employee had been bribed into taking several letters of yours and giving them to a gentleman who he believed to be traveling with you. The employee has been cleared of starting the fire, and unfortunately, the culprit is still at large. Oil and tar were used in the fire and buckets of each were found in one of the stables. No other clues had been discovered. No motive was ever established.

The incident is still much talked about as the owner and a few others outside of your party perished. Eyewitness accounts have become a local legend and will soon fade into complete myth. It seems many believe the Greek god of fire is a lanky fellow with sandy blonde hair.

Years ago, I had expected you to be more curious about the nature of the fire or the fate of your letters, but I suppose the losses you sustained that evening and the subsequent burdens you faced were of primary concern.

I regret that I did not have pleasanter news.

All my respect,

C. Whitaker

Will’s mouth went dry as he read and reread the words. His father and Sam died in arson? Who would have cause to start the blaze? Although Will had not known any of the other guests, he supposed only one would have such a strong motive. George Darcy had just settled his will, and Wickham knew he would be amply rewarded in it. Although he had ultimately rejected the living at Kympton, he asked for a handsome sum in addition to the one thousand pound legacy left to him in Mr. Darcy’s will.

Wickham—a murderer? He had killed his own godfather, a man he counted as friend and mentor. He had murdered Sam, who once had been like a brother to him. He had been the means of separating Will from Elizabeth first by the letters and then from the effects of the fire. Dear God! Elizabeth!

The incident with the carriage—which so easily could have harmed or killed her—must have been his doing even if he were out of town.

“Will!” Charles said as he attempted to pull the paper from Will’s vice grip. “Let me see, man!”

Will let go of the paper and barely registered Charles’ tones of shock and violent anger. He too had considered it must have been Wickham.

“I never thought to ask about the source of the fire,” Charles said. “It was too painful to think about. I wanted only to leave it in the past and forget about it as best I could.”

Will silently nodded. “No investigators ever contacted me. No questions were ever asked.”

“Do you see this? A lanky fellow with sandy hair. Could it have been Wickham?”

Again, Will nodded. This time, he was walking to the door when it happened. He was just about to call for his horse when Charles pulled him back into the room.

“What are you doing? Where are you going?”

“To find him!”

“You cannot do that on your own! Think!” Charles pushed Will into a seat and thrust a drink into his hand. “If he really did this—if he was behind the carriage in some way—he is too dangerous to approach. It may even be what he wants. You have always had what he wants, and he has proved he will stop at nothing to try and attain it.”

Georgiana. Wickham’s intended elopement now meant something entirely different. He not only wanted her fortune but her claim on Pemberley.

“Contact your cousin and the Runners again. Tell them to shadow Wickham closely. Report his every movement. Tell them everything!”

“Yes,” Will said, his brain beginning to work properly again. “I shall hire guards as well. Until we have him in custody and are sure he does not have a proxy. A few here and some at Longbourn as well.”

“I had not even considered Longbourn!” Colour drained from Charles’ face.

Will noted with shock. Was his friend thinking of Miss Bennet the way Will thought of Elizabeth? Now was not the time to worry about that but it would bear further consideration later.

“Can I have my sister come? It may not be safe for her.”

“She would be safer with you than away. He could more easily have access to her then.”

“Indeed,” Will said before swallowing the rest of his drink. Charles’ words were far too true.

*****

Will attempted to distract himself with other matters for the remainder of the day. All the while, he longed to return to Longbourn and sweep Elizabeth into his arms. He knew it was not true, but when he held her, he felt as though he could protect her from anything and battle any foe. As it was, his enemy was nigh on invisible.

Even if the Runners could be retained again and locate Wickham once more, it may not help. They had no real proof he had caused the fire all those years ago, and they had nothing but Will’s gut pointing the destruction of his carriage axle to the man. Wickham had an alibi, and there was little use in trying to question him. He had someone else do his bidding, and while wondering how Wickham would have been able to afford to bribe someone, it was pointless to question how he came into the funds. He always did. He was worse than a cat with nine lives.

The possibility that everyone connected with Will would be a target ran through his mind without relent. If they could not find Wickham and make him confess, Elizabeth would never be safe. For that matter, if his end goal was Pemberley, neither was Georgiana. If the fiend had been willing to kill his godfather and friend, then there was nothing he would not do. Charles, Richard, the Bennets—none of them were safe and all because they knew Will.

He pushed his chair from the desk and began pacing around the room. If he put everyone in danger, then he should leave. He should call for his horse now and return to London. His valet could bring the trunks tomorrow. Only…

He had promised Elizabeth he would not leave again. Which was the greater risk? If he left, even with promises to return once all was resolved, it would break her heart. He had vowed to never be the source of her tears again. No catastrophe would draw him away otherwise. Should the worst happen at Pemberley he would direct his steward and demand a hasty marriage from Mr. Bennet or that she accompany him. He would not leave her behind again. However, if being near him put her at risk then it would be selfish to remain.

Mentally exhausted and worried he would wear a hole in Charles’ carpet, Will threw himself in a chair. Elizabeth’s visage came to his mind as he considered how he would tell her of the development. She would cry, and each tear would sting like a dagger to his heart. Would she rant and rave? No, he thought not. She would not demand he stay when she believed his honour and affection for her should do the work for her. No, she would accept his words and a piece of her love for him would die.

He had already known what it was to lose her trust and how difficult it was to earn back. Could he do that again? Could he intentionally put them through that pain once more to apprehend Wickham?

Could he risk losing her affection and love forever, any hope of a future—to keep her alive? It would be a hollow victory indeed for Elizabeth to live but never marry him.

Will had sent an express to Richard as soon as he finished speaking with Charles earlier in the day. Before he went to bed that night, Will received a reply from his cousin. Richard was leaving that very instant—as soon his missive finished—to journey to come early and escort Mrs. Annesley and Georgiana to London. He agreed that having Georgiana near Will presented a problem. However, so did leaving her unattended and Richard could not forsake his duties for long. Richard contacted the Runners once more and set about inquiries for footmen. He also asked if they should tell the Earl.

Will was of two minds on the matter. The Earl had been a very great friend to his father and had never been too intrusive in Will’s own affairs once he became master. Lord Fitzwilliam was aging, and most of his duties were now executed by his eldest son, the Viscount. Will had no quarrel with his older cousin. However, he desired to limit something so personal as his ongoing dispute with Wickham to as few people as possible. The rest of the Fitzwilliam family did not know about Georgiana’s attempted elopement with Wickham. Even Richard did not know about her continued affection for the scoundrel.

When uncertain on who to trust, Will had always kept to his own counsel. He had thought in the future Elizabeth would support him through such times. Now, there was every possibility that there was no future for them. He could not ask her to wait on him once more.

Thursday Three Hundred- Just to See Her Smile

Rose Letter

My Music Monday post was the song “Just to See You Smile” by Tim McGraw. I’ve always wanted to give him a happy ending in that song so it’s inspired this story. I actually think the song would go more naturally with Emma and Knightley but I got told with the Jane & Bingley story that readers just want Darcy and Elizabeth. 🙂 Maybe one day, I’ll explore minor characters and other Austen books more. I hope you enjoy my Regency-Happily-Ever-After-ified version of this song.

 

Just to See Her Smile

 

“Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy frowned as he saw the face of the most beautiful woman in the world crumple in tears at his entrance. “What has upset you so?”

They had met at a ball in London three months ago. He had called on her today with the intention to propose. Her uncle knew and so he had consented to this private encounter.

Elizabeth dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and her fist tightened around a letter. “A letter from my father. He is ill and requests I return to Longbourn immediately. I do not even have time to say farewell to my friends. If you had not arrived at just this moment…” Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears again.

“I am very sorry to hear of Mr. Bennet’s illness. Is it serious?”

“No,” her voice shook. “I do not believe so, but I cannot deny him the comfort of having his favourite daughter as a nurse. I seldom come to London more than once a year and with my aunt’s situation I do not think I would receive another invitation until the following Season.” She wiped her eyes. “I am such a selfish creature! I confess I do not want to leave London so soon. Please, tell your sister and Mr. Bingley how much I regret not getting to say goodbye. You cannot conceive how glad I am to have the opportunity to speak with you.”

Understanding that the life of Elizabeth’s father was not in imminent peril, Darcy allowed himself a moment of joy at seeing proof of her affection for him. “In that case, I have good news. Mr. Bingley has signed a lease at Netherfield. He has invited my sister and I to visit and we will be there within a fortnight.”

Elizabeth smiled so wide, Darcy felt as though the sun broke through the overcast sky. She was radiant and resplendent, and he would go anywhere for her, just to see that smile.

“Oh! That is the very best news!” Elizabeth stood and clapped. “Now, I may leave without any remorse. I do beg your pardon, but I must rush to pack now. My aunt has sent a notice to my uncle and I expect we will go on the one o’clock stage.”

“I am happy to give you such joy,” Darcy murmured. “Until we meet again.” He bowed over her hand, raising it to his lips and rejoicing in her blush.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bennet did not quickly recover from his illness. As the weeks in Hertfordshire progressed, Elizabeth withdrew more and more from Darcy’s company. As Mr. Bennet’s health continued to deteriorate, his heir presumptive arrived to visit and, allegedly, console his previously estranged relations. The only positive thing Darcy could see out of the experience was his friend Bingley seemed very much in love with Elizabeth’s eldest sister. When Elizabeth would see the two sitting together, a soft smile came to her face, making Darcy’s heart skip a beat.

One morning, as Mr. Bennet’s time to depart the earth drew nearer, Elizabeth met Darcy in the hall. Bingley and Georgiana had already entered the drawing room. Elizabeth twisted her hands and looked more tired than Darcy had ever seen her before.

“Mr. Darcy, I am relieved I have the opportunity to speak with you.”

“I always wish to give you a respite from any worry. Tell me how I may be of assistance,” he said, furrowing his brow. Dread knotted his stomach.

“My father does so poorly now. It will not be long until…” She trailed off and squeezed her eyes shut. “My mother has taken to her chambers and cannot abide visitors. Any reminder that we might soon have to relocate sends her into fits of anxiety and despair. I am exceedingly sorry to say this, but my sisters and I feel it is best to not entertain friends.”

“It is very understandable. When my father was ill, I was in no mood for entertaining, but I had thought we were on much better terms of friendship than that. If you wish, however, I will explain your feelings to Bingley and my sister.”

“I-I-I do not wish to send Mr. Bingley away,” Elizabeth stuttered. “Jane finds such solace in his company and my sisters can scarcely go a day without seeing Georgiana. They love her as a sister. However…”

Ice trailed down Darcy’s spine as he understood what she meant. It was only him that she wished away. “I apologise if my presence and visits were not welcome. I had thought…”

“Please do not misunderstand,” Elizabeth whispered while looking at her feet. “In the coming weeks, there will be many decisions to be made. I must have a clear head.”

The voice of the detested heir asking after Darcy’s absence rose from the drawing room door. He understood that Elizabeth might receive an offer from Mr. Collins and that she would consider taking it to keep her family at Longbourn. However, why did she not see that Darcy was willing, nay desiring, to offer marriage as well?

“Elizabeth,” he stepped forward. “I must tell you—”

She took several steps backward, tears streaming down her face. “Papa needs me. Good bye, Mr. Darcy. You have always been a dear friend and I hope we meet again under more pleasant circumstances.”

Those tears crushed Darcy’s heart. He could not understand her choice but he could not force an explanation. She had made her decision and it was not to spend her life with him. The greatest thing he could now do for her was to abide by her wishes.

“Yes, I believe I have urgent business in London. I will take my leave of the others.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth managed a shaky smile before fleeing down the hall.

Six months later, Darcy scanned the ballroom in which he found himself. Since leaving Hertfordshire, he only went through the motions of life. Once, he would have rejected the continual offers of dining and the pompous balls he detested. Now, he needed the busyness. Bingley had proposed to Jane just before Mr. Bennet died. They waited now only for her mourning period to end before they could marry. Georgiana wrote copious amounts to all the Bennet sisters but Darcy had made it clear he did not want to hear about it.

A familiar figure appeared in a doorway, and Darcy’s heart stopped. “Elizabeth,” he whispered.

She looked around nervously and then their eyes met. The corners of her mouth tipped up and she nodded at him. A minute later, she walked toward him with a gentleman in tow.

“Mr. Darcy,” she smiled as she curtseyed. “I admit I hoped we would see you here. Mr. Bingley seemed uncertain, although he says you have become quite sociable!”

Darcy bowed, basking in her presence once more. “I am pleased you have found me.” He looked at her lavender gown. “I wrote my condolences but allow me to give them in person.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth muttered.

“My dear, perhaps you would enjoy some punch while I speak with Mr. Darcy,” Mr. Collins said and placed a hand over Elizabeth’s, giving it a squeeze. “Lady Catherine has told me there is no one better to seek advice from on estate matters.”

The presence of Collins set Darcy’s teeth on edge. His voice and way of directing Elizabeth had his hand curling in a fist. When the man claimed the affection of a betrothed, Darcy saw black. Taking a calming breath to avoid fisticuffs in a ballroom, he turned his attention to the gentleman.

“Pardon me,” Elizabeth said and she approached Bingley who was in conversation with Jane and a few others at the moment.

“I do not think I am impertinent to ask for congratulations,” Mr. Collins said. “Such a bright jewel to be mine! However, it is not to be wondered at. I can offer her family very much and as Lady Catherine’s condescension proves, I am a gentleman worthy of much respect and distinction. I have always felt we were kindred in that way.”

Darcy had been prepared for such news, yet a vise gripped his heart at the news all the same. “Is it settled, then? You have asked Miss Elizabeth to be your wife?”

Mr. Collins waved a hand. “Such a formality. I have told her to name the day in which I will be the happiest of men. She mourns her father but I suspect after her sister weds, she will select a date. She would not wish to outshine Jane. Such impeccable manners! Lady Catherine quite approves of her judgement.”

Darcy listened in silence as Mr. Collins continued to praise Lady Catherine and asked inane details about estate management. During the time, Elizabeth danced. Her most recent partner, Bingley, was walking her back toward to Mr. Collins.

“Do you not mean to dance?” Darcy interrupted Collins as Elizabeth approached.

“I wish I could,” he sighed. “Riding for so long in the carriage this afternoon has cramped my leg. Poor Miss Elizabeth seemed quite dejected when she heard I could not display my lightness of foot. I think it will put a damper on her enjoyment of the evening.”

“If I may,” Darcy said. “I would offer myself as a partner for a few sets. You can be assured she will feel comfortable with an old friend moreso than a new acquaintance.”

“Indeed!” Collins bounced on his toes and then grimaced. “She should feel the compliment of your offer. Lady Catherine’s nephew! I do feel fatigued and have been wondering if we might sit but did not wish to insult such a high personage as yourself.”

Darcy managed to keep his eyes from rolling. “I would be pleased to do you the service. Please, do not inconvenience yourself for me. Seek refreshment and a seat.”

“Thank you!” Mr. Collins ambled off as fast as he could.

“What did you say to make him scamper off?” Elizabeth laughed as she and Bingley arrived a moment later.

“I have visited Longbourn every day for months and that is the first time I have seen him move so fast. Oh, he is going to the supper room,” Bingley observed. “Yes, that will motivate him every time.”

Darcy chuckled. “As it happens, he has entrusted me with your care for the evening, Miss Elizabeth.”

“Oh?” she chewed her bottom lip.

“Might I start with requesting the honour of a set?”

Elizabeth nodded and held out her wrist. Her next dance was free and Darcy wrote his name on her card, then claimed two others. Elizabeth’s eyes widened when she reviewed his work.

“Shall we?” He took her hand in his and led her to the floor. “Mr. Collins tells me congratulations are in order.”

Elizabeth raised a brow. “That is not the same as giving congratulations or best wishes. Ought you not to say how happy you are for me?”

Although he hated deceit, when Elizabeth did not denounce an engagement, Darcy lied. “I am exceedingly happy for you.” Instead of a gnawing pain in the pit of his stomach, happiness diffused him as Elizabeth smiled.

“That is much better,” she grinned.

The dance pulled them apart for a few moments and when they returned, he could not resist gripping her hand a little tighter than usual and pulling her a little closer. “I would say or do anything to make you smile, Elizabeth. Do you not know this by now?”

The dance pulled them apart again. When they returned, Elizabeth’s lip was caught between her teeth once more. “I had hoped that was the case but I think you must not understand the easiest way to make me smile.”

“What is that?”

Separated once more, Darcy looked over his shoulder. Collins was no where in sight. What a fool he was to let another claim time with his treasure. As much as Darcy wished to make this his last time seeing Elizabeth as separating all ties with her would be easiest on his heart, he could not. That bumbling idiot could never make Elizabeth happy. He saw the lines of fatigue and anxiety on her face. Shadows under her eyes that had appeared during her father’s illness had not disappeared. Darcy would have to return to Netherfield with Bingley with the sole purpose to give her a reason to smile every day. Her favourite flowers ought to be brought from the hot house. A new copy of her favourite book would be acquired. Courting her would be impossible but allowing her to find a shred of happiness in each day was required of him.

As Darcy considered other ways he might offer Elizabeth said happiness and how best to manage his affairs from Netherfield, the steps of the dance returned them to each other.

“You asked me the easiest way to make me smile,” Elizabeth reminded him.

“I did.”

“You,” she whispered as the dance ended and they faced one another. “It has always been you.”

“What are you saying?” Darcy asked as he stepped closer to escort her off the floor.

“We must speak plainly.”

Darcy agreed and carefully directed her toward the balcony overlooking the house’s garden. “I would give anything to make you happy, Elizabeth, but I will not break my principles. You cannot choose us both—”

“I choose you,” Elizabeth gathered Darcy’s hands in hers. “I needed time and distance to firm in my mind what my heart had always known. I cannot sacrifice my happiness for the sake of others. Mama will adjust to living elsewhere. I know you will be kind to us and take care of my family. She need not fear the hedgerows.”

“Elizabeth,” Darcy breathed and raised her hands to his mouth. “I love you and ask that you accept my hand in matrimony. Will you have me?”

“Yes!” Elizabeth nodded and smiled. “I love you. Will you forgive me for being stupid and trying to be noble?”

“You should already know the answer to that,” he murmured as he pulled her close to him and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I will never be parted from you again. Wherever you want to call home will be mine as well. Whatever will ease your mind regarding your family will be done. I wish only to make you happy.”

“You do, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth said, shyly. “You do.”

“Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth!” Darcy bent to kiss her and seal their love.

When they returned from the balcony, Elizabeth and Darcy could not conceal their smiles for the remainder of the evening. Upon announcing their betrothal to their friends and family, despite the protestations and screams of others, the smiles never left their faces. Years later, Darcy descendants would show each new generation the portrait of Darcy and Elizabeth, in which the artist perfectly captured their joyous grins, and tell of their ancestor who would do anything to make his beloved smile.

 

 

The Secrets of Pemberley- Epilogue

secrets of pemberley maskEpilogue

March 20, 1837

Twenty-five years later

 

“Mama, tell me you did not really wear that!” Beth Darcy giggled in the blue saloon of Pemberley.

“Yes, the rules had not been updated yet,” Elizabeth laughed. “And I had your grandmother and your great aunt Catherine attempting to help me.”

Darcy smiled from the doorway. He could not see his wife’s face, but he could imagine her expression.

“And you performed perfectly,” his mother-in-law called from across the room where she assisted another grandchild with embroidery.

“I still remember Anne’s curtsy,” Lady Catherine, present for her yearly visit, sniffed into a handkerchief. “It was just after she married—such a beautiful bride, you will recall Mrs. Bennet.”

“Indeed,” the other woman answered. “I have never seen love blossom a woman the way it did for Mrs. Marshall.”

“I am not wearing the feathers,” Beth said stubbornly.

“You have no choice,” Susanna, Jane’s daughter said. “Do you not remember from Nan?”

“As if I paid attention to Nan’s curtsy,” Beth laughed.

Darcy knocked on the doorframe. “I was told a dance partner was needed.”

“Papa,” Beth cried. “Here, save me from talk of lace and feathers.”

Darcy entered, laughing. “Am I to be your sacrifice then? Surely you know my presence does nothing to stop the chatter.”

“Behave, my love,” Elizabeth teased as she sat at the pianoforte.

Darcy opened his arms for his daughter to take as they went through the steps of a dance. “If you do not want the presentation, you do not have to have one,” he whispered to Beth.

She sighed. “I do want it. I do want to enjoy Society. I just find it ridiculous to dress that way. I would want a greater choice in my attire.”

“Ah,” Darcy nodded. “You do not like the false mask you must wear.”

“No,” she hastened to agree. “Nan never seemed to have that problem and the boys can act however they chose.”

“I hope you think I raised your brothers with more honour than to act merely however they please.”

“Oh, I did not mean it that way!” Beth cried and almost tread on Darcy’s foot.

“Darling, I would suggest you be yourself instead of snuffing your light. Your mother and I only wish you to be happy. You have the support of all your family.” Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine argued over a certain stitch. “Your very large and loud family,” Darcy added with a laugh.

“Will anyone see me with such a large and notorious family?”

Her question was not unwarranted. After Darcy regained control of Pemberley, Society turned him into something of rags to riches story, attracting more attention than ever. He and Elizabeth had six children and adopted a half a dozen more. At his school they were fondly known as Mama and Papa Darcy, and so it felt he had fathered a hundred. The Bingleys had ten children. Richard had married Lady Aurora and retired from military life. His elder brother never married and so Richard would one day inherit the earldom, then pass it to his own son. Georgiana married a local landowner who did not care about who her father was. She had three children and was now happier than Darcy ever imagined she could be. Anne had married Alexander Marshall, meeting at Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding. The marriage had made Anne robust, and she gave birth to four large and lusty sons. To say nothing of Elizabeth’s other sisters who married and had a brood of several children each. When they all gathered together for holidays, it was easy to be lost in the crowd.

“Beth, I spent most of my life before meeting your mother trying to be invisible. I cannot say I understand how you feel, desiring to be noticed, but I will say that the right people will notice you either way. Be the lively, caring, sweet-tempered girl I know you to be and you will do well in life.”

His daughter smiled up at him. “And do you have any words of wisdom on how to walk backwards in a train that’s ten feet long?”

Darcy laughed. “Ah, no. For that, you must ask your mother.”

“I knew you kept her around for some reason,” Beth rolled her eyes as she teased.

The music came to a stop, and Darcy gazed at his wife. “I will keep her forever because I am nothing without her.”

The End

 


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The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Five

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Five

 

“You see!” Stephen tapped the documents spread out on Darcy’s desk. Bingley and Gardiner had joined him, as well as his great-uncle Reginald, a judge.

“Uncle,” Darcy turned to the elderly man. “Father’s will is clear, as is the law. Even if there is a question of my paternity, the union between Lady Anne Fitzwilliam and George Darcy was legal and binding. Any children she bore would be considered his.”

Reginald Darcy took out a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket and perused the papers. Copies of the deed willing it to only heirs of the body of Arthur D’Arcy in the Twelfth Century, a signed affidavit from a footman named Nick Huggins declaring himself as the father of a bastard born to Lady Anne Darcy, and of Stephen’s official petition to the courts.

“Why would you do this?” Darcy asked his cousin. “What inspired you to look into these things?”

Stephen snickered. “There were plenty of rumours when you arrived at Pemberley at eight years old. Lady Anne had been sent away. Everyone knew.”

“Then why wait so long?” Darcy persevered. “There is no reason for secrecy now.”

“Father left a letter to me. He confessed to an affair with your mother. Georgiana is his. He did not want me to marry my sister.”

Darcy listened in awestruck silence as his chest hammered. His father’s brother passed away while Georgiana was at Ramsgate. Never very close to his Darcy relations, he left the area directly after the funeral. He had thought Stephen glared at him with more than the usual animosity at the time and now he understood why. While George Darcy’s will left his brother and that family the use of the dower house and an allowance, they should have been the heirs of Pemberley.

“My boy,” Uncle Reginald turned to Darcy, “I am sorry, but these look authentic. You will have to appear before a court and listen to their findings.”

“No!” Bingley shouted. “Darcy has been a fair master for years. George Darcy intended it, even named him as heir.”

Reginald shook his head. “The contract on the deed might preclude any legalities my nephew had for his wife’s children or his will. If they can prove before a jury that Fitzwilliam is not George’s son…”

“Why now?” Darcy asked softly. “Why now? You could have brought this for anytime since you filed.”

Stephen sneered. “Is it not obvious? I only wanted to press my rights before the jury ruled once you started wasting all of Pemberley’s coffers!” He pulled another paper from his other breast pocket and laid it on the table.

Darcy stared unblinkingly at the papers. A notice of eviction. He and Georgiana had to quit Pemberley until after the case came to court. He no longer had control of Pemberley funds. Nor did he have access to any of the monies he had invested. All he had rights to now was the thirty thousand pounds from Lady Anne Fitzwilliam which had been set aside for daughters and lesser sons.

Darcy fell back in his chair, the next many minutes a blur to him. The others offered words of comfort and condolences. They haggled with Stephen who would allow them only three days’ time to vacate the premises. Finally, they made him leave. Darcy said nothing as Bingley and Gardiner offered him their homes.

“Elizabeth,” he mumbled. He needed to see her. This changed everything.

Bingley and Gardiner exchanged looks and then left. A short while later, there was a quiet knock on his door. The first he had moved in nearly an hour was to open his library door to find Elizabeth looking worried. One glance at him and she launched herself into his arms. Darcy squeezed her to him tightly and shut the door.

“I cannot believe that awful man. Why would he say such things, so publicly, before your neighbours?”

Darcy said nothing, only pressed kisses in her hair. He had deserved this, for years of pretending. Now the world would know, and if he thought the loss of reputation would be the most significant repercussion of Society knowing the truth about him, it was nothing compared with losing the gift of Elizabeth in his arms.

“You are trembling,” she said and pulled him to the sofa. She pushed him down onto it and climbed into his lap. Pressing kisses to his face, she repeated words of love.

“Elizabeth,” Darcy grasped her hands and disentangled them from his neck. “You know what must happen, do you not?”

“No,” Elizabeth whispered and shook her head.

“I am losing Pemberley.”

Elizabeth shook her head again, “No.” The word was more forceful this time.

“My uncle looked over the documents. Everything is there. I never should have inherited.”

“No!” Elizabeth nearly shouted and burst into tears.

He was about to explain again, but he came up short. Elizabeth was intelligent, she understood what he had said. She was not overwrought at the prospect of him losing Pemberley—although he believed she had come to love it—she perceived what he intended to say next.

“No,” she said and broke her hands free to wrap around his neck again. “I will not let you push me aside. I will marry you with no money to your name.”

She tightened her hold on him and nuzzled his neck, pressing kisses to his jaw line. “You are mine, and I am yours, and that is enough.”

Whatever stupid, foolish, noble thoughts he had vanished. Elizabeth was his life and his home. Riches might come and go, but the love of this woman was worth far more than a king’s ransom.

“Shh,” he said as he stroked her back. “We will be together. Nothing will separate us now.”

“Promise me,” Elizabeth demanded.

“I promise to marry you, Elizabeth Bennet, if you will still have me with nought but a few hundred a year and no house.”

“I will have you for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health, to love and to cherish until death us do part.”

Darcy inhaled sharply to hear Elizabeth repeat part of their marriage vows already. “Did you forget obey?” He smiled down at her.

“Did I?” Elizabeth laughed.

Darcy joined her in laughter, the release of tension what he needed. When they had caught their breath, he lowered his forehead to lean against hers. “Lizzy. I do not deserve you.”

“Yes, you do. You deserve someone to love you no matter what life brings. Let me love you.”

For long moments, Darcy allowed Elizabeth to hold him in her embrace. His plans for the future had vanished. Even if he somehow regained Pemberley, nothing would be the same again. His reputation would never be the same. Georgiana would be all but ruined. Despite her hefty dowry, she would attract few suitors. Should he refuse to touch her funds? Darcy supposed he could take orders. Lady Catherine might have a living to grant him. He had the skills of a steward and might earn more but finding a rich enough gentleman to hire him could prove difficult. Darcy determined he need not find an answer tonight. The more significant concern would be to speak with his neighbours and hope they continued his charity plans even in his absence. He had borne much of the expense, but perhaps the others could divide the cost between them.

“What will you do next?” Elizabeth broke the silence, eventually.

“I am uncertain, and for once, I have determined that it is enough to survive.”

“We will do more than survive, William. We will live, and we will be happy.”

“We will,” Darcy promised and claimed her lips.

 

*****

 

The next three months passed in degrees of headaches for Darcy. Fortunately, the Gardiner home was ready the day following the ball, and so they all removed at once. After a few weeks, Mr. Gardiner had to return to London and took Jane and Elizabeth with him. Bingley and Darcy followed, escorting the ladies to Longbourn. News of Darcy’s birth had spread even to Meryton, but for the most part, no one treated him differently in Hertfordshire. Mrs. Bennet seemed unsure if she should give him precedence over Bingley. Mrs. Phillips crassly told him her husband claimed to have never heard of a case such of his cousin’s being upheld and therefore they believed he would soon regain control of his estate. The next words out of her mouth had been to ask if he needed a new solicitor. Darcy managed a civil reply before Elizabeth rescued him from her aunt.

A relief to Darcy was that Georgiana had found friends who did not care about her status. She and Mrs. Annesley elected to stay with the Gardiners for a time before coming to Netherfield. Additionally, the educational and relief society committee  Darcy had established for the poor and orphans of Derbyshire promised to continue their work. Many of the gentlemen went so far as to declare their anger at the injustice of effectively disinheriting Darcy and vowed to support him in any way in the future.

In London, Darcy found the news made little difference. The Foundlings, of course, never read the papers and did not care. At his club, most of the men continued to greet him. They no longer pandered to his interest or dropped hints of wishing him to marry their daughters, but he was approached by more than one man with sound investment opportunities.

About a month before the intended court date, his uncle, the Earl, summoned him to his London house. Darcy seldom had any contact with the man, preferring Richard’s company. When Darcy arrived, Lady Catherine was present as well.

“My boy, we have followed the gossip surrounding you,” the old earl said.

Darcy fought to roll his eyes. Yes, gossip is all his uncle would care about. “I hope it has not tarnished your name at all.”

“No,” the earl shook his head and tapped his cigar in a tray. “However, my sister has news which might be beneficial to you.”

Darcy turned his attention to his aunt.

“You could still marry Anne,” she opened with.

Darcy stood from his chair. “If this is all this meeting is about, then you will excuse me. I have made my choice. Neither Anne nor I have any desire to wed one another.”

“Catherine,” the earl glared at his sister. “Tell him. Sit, Fitzwilliam.”

Darcy waited for a nod from Lady Catherine that she indeed had something of importance to convey before retaking his seat.

“It should come as no surprise to you that I was your mother’s confidant.”

“I had supposed that is why Father did not allow me contact with her side of the family.”

“Yes,” her ladyship picked at lint on her gown. “And it happened at a house party at Rosings. Your father quite blamed me.”

“He did not go with her?”

The earl answered. “He was busy with the spring planting. Anne had missed the last Season with the birth of James. She was desperate to enjoy some of Town and accompanied my wife. She met him at our home, and they arranged to consummate their affair at Rosings over Easter.”

Darcy fought a wave of nausea and balled his fists. “Who?”

“The Earl of Stanhope,” Lady Catherine murmured.

“Your best friend,” Darcy asked the earl. Their friendship began at Eton. “Had she loved him all along? Why did she marry George Darcy?”

Lord Fitzwilliam looked to Lady Catherine. “No, they were never lovers before. There were as many years between them as there are between you and Georgiana. George courted her. One of many. But he charmed her, and she chose him. It was never love, but they were fond of each other. In the beginning,” she shrugged, “I think they thought it was enough to make them happy but soon their differences drove them apart.”

Darcy nodded. He had always suspected as much.

“That winter, she had been very depressed, and Stanhope offered her amusement. She had her heir…and well, I cannot think of a leading lady of the Ton who does not have a lover.”

“They must have been discreet,” Darcy said.

“Too discreet to prove for a divorce,” Lord Fitzwilliam agreed. “Not that George wanted one. I think…I think he always hoped they might work past their differences, find each other again. He would visit her and plead for her return. He thought when he took you in she might beg to return…but she disliked Pemberley too much. She was too stubborn for her own good.”

Darcy nodded. His mother had asked only one time to return and George Darcy must have wanted her to grovel. “And Georgiana’s father?”

Lady Catherine nodded. “Bernard and George looked enough alike that if any townspeople saw them, they would think she was with her husband. Although, she cared so little for anything after you left.”

“Did he seek her out? Seduce her?”

“He had gone at George’s urging to check the estate and visit with her. George could not bear to see her and be refused again.”

Lord Fitzwilliam leaned forward and looked Darcy earnestly in the eye. “Stanhope never married. He has no legal children. You could not have the earldom, without a special remainder, but you could have his estate and income. It rivals Pemberley.”

Darcy started. “Despite not having children, there must be some relative as the heir. I would not steal yet another man’s inheritance.”

“I told him you would say as much,” his lordship sighed. “He vowed to use his influence to help the case, then. He has offered his attorney.”

Darcy’s head pounded. A man who never took any interest in his life, who used his mother and disregarded any harm to her reputation, suddenly offered him a solution to his problems. He would try to be a father to him. Darcy stood so suddenly, his chair skidded backwards and fell over. “That will not be necessary. My apologies, I have another appointment.”

Fleeing his uncle’s house, Darcy rode hard back to Netherfield. George Darcy might never have been his father by blood. He might never have been terribly affectionate, but he had been there. He had taught Darcy how to manage Pemberley and how to balance books. He taught him how to ride a horse and helped him memorise the feel of every hill and dale of its estates. He modelled how to treat servants and tenants. George Darcy was not perfect, but Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be half the man he currently was without him, and now some other man wanted to mar his memory.

Arriving at Bingley’s house, the butler informed Darcy he had mail. Collecting his letters and retiring to his bedchamber to refresh himself, he flipped through the correspondence. His eyes landed on one he had not expected to see and held his breath.

 

September 25, 1812

Lincoln Inn, London

 

Darcy,

I am sure you never expected to see a letter from me. Before you ask, I promise I said nothing to your cousin. He did approach me, knowing some of your dislike for me, but I had nothing to offer him. I have a good position as a clerk and am diligently applying myself to the law, this time.

As a student of law, I wondered what burden of proof there could be verifying this former footman of Pemberley told the truth besides his own paper. It occurred to me that I still had my father’s papers from time as the steward. Nick Huggins was not employed at Pemberley until 1786, years after your birth. Before that, he was apprenticed at Mr. Chester Grant of Wolverhampton’s house. There was no previous acquaintance between the couples; your father found Huggins through an employment agency. I have enclosed the original documents of his hire and termination date as well as the letter from the employment agency.

I hope this might be enough to exonerate the accusations against your birth and restore you to Pemberley.

  1. Wickham

 

Darcy stared at the papers in his hand. Here it was and from Wickham of all people! Unable to contain his relief, Darcy sought out his family and friends. Elizabeth and Jane spent most days at Netherfield with Georgiana, and Darcy was lucky enough to find them in the drawing room with Bingley.

“You are back earlier than I expected,” Elizabeth said at his entrance with lines furrowing between her brows.

“I will explain it all to you later, but my arrival is quite timely.” He held out his papers and read the explanation.

“Is it true?” Georgiana asked. “Do you think it will be enough?”

“I do not know,” Darcy answered, “but it is enough to try.”

Bingley ordered a round of punch to celebrate the news. Elizabeth came to Darcy’s side and slipped her hand in his.

“I will love you no matter what,” she declared and leaned her head against his shoulder.

“I know,” Darcy squeezed her hand. “The same as I love you.”

The group played games and told stories to complete the festive atmosphere until Jane and Elizabeth had to return to Longbourn. Twenty years before, his mother had said he would never have love again but she had been entirely wrong. Once Darcy opened himself up to it, he could see all people who had come to mean something in his life, ranging from Mrs. Bennet with her prattle about lace and pin money to Bingley and his confidence in Darcy’s words of advice, to Elizabeth, the love of his life. There was no one way to love or be loved and protecting himself from the prospect of pain should that love ever be severed brought nothing but misery. Darcy went to bed that night, his future as uncertain as ever, and yet he rested easy with secure dreams knowing he could face anything with those he loved at his side.

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Four

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Four

 

As the days passed while the Gardiners stayed at Pemberley until their home was entirely put together, Darcy and Elizabeth continued their private morning walks. Mr. Gardiner had been so delighted with the news of their betrothal, he agreed to allow them as much privacy during daytime hours as they desired. Sometimes they walked to the meadow, at other times they explored various parts of the estate. Darcy could see Elizabeth’s enchantment with her future home growing. Contentment and pride filling him in ways it never had before. He also explained his endeavours for assisting the poor and orphans of his community.

“You really are the best man I have ever known,” Elizabeth said one day.

Darcy flushed. He had longed to hear such words from Elizabeth, and as much as a part of him thought to push the compliment away, he knew she would not give him idle praise. Not when she had been so honest in every moment of their acquaintance. He still felt unworthy to carry on the Darcy legacy, but the sting lessened. He could visibly see and tangibly feel the good he now did; something that mattered more than perfectly balanced books.

“You make me want to be a better man,” Darcy confessed. “Before that night at Hunsford, I had merely gone through the motions of what I had been taught. A good master would do this and would do that. I did not apply myself.”

“Could my words have meant so much?” Elizabeth shook her head. “I have understood since reading your letter that you have depths of sensitivities and vulnerabilities I never realised, but I had never thought you would esteem me so much.” She met his eyes even as her cheeks flamed. “Seeing in London, how you went out of your way to talk with my friends—to be friendly with me—it made me feel the weight of your compliment. I accused you of pride, but I was puffed up as well. Seeing your behaviour humbled me. Who was I to take you to task?”

Darcy lifted Elizabeth’s knuckles to his lips. “You were and are everything to me. I confess if it had been anyone else I might not have listened.”

Elizabeth pulled one hand from his grasp and placed her palm on his cheek. “I see that now. I see behind your mask. Will you tell me all now?” She licked her lips. “About your dream?”

Darcy inhaled sharply. Instinct screamed to keep the hurt to himself, to not open the wounds again. Elizabeth’s eyes looked pleadingly at him, and he began to drown in the love and concern her brown depths contained. Recalling how he felt after he confessed the truth of his birth to Elizabeth, Darcy slowly nodded. Yes, sharing it with her would rid him of the pain. She was to be his partner in life, not a child for him to protect. He led her to a bench and wrapped his arms around her. With Elizabeth’s head over his heart, he told her all the dreadful details.

Elizabeth listened without interruption, and when he had finished, she tilted her head up to kiss him. Tears had come as he recounted his grief and as her lips found his, the salt of her own tears mingled with his.

“I am here, William,” Elizabeth said as she clung to his cravat and pressed herself against him. “I am here. Alive. Yours.”

Each press of her mouth against his, each word, each stroke of her hand on his body broke a chain around his restraint. Their kisses became frenzied and passionate. He pulled Elizabeth to his lap, where they could be even closer, the heat of their bodies mingling together. He thrust his hand into her hair, dislodging pins. The other trailed down the softness of her neck, then her arm. Breaking his lips from hers, they followed the path of his hand. Elizabeth gasped, and her head lolled back, giving him greater access. He sucked on her pulse point, feeling its rapid beat for him.

“Look at me,” he commanded and pulled back. Elizabeth obeyed, and his nostrils flared in appreciation. Through the years, many ladies had approached him with lust and desire in their eyes. Whether for his body or his wealth, he was never sure. What he saw in Elizabeth’s gaze aroused him more than any seductive look he had seen before. In those glittering brown orbs, he saw love and trust.

Pulling her to him once more, Darcy captured her lips and parried with her tongue. His arms tightened around her, and his hands itched to wander. One day, he told himself. They had the rest of their life to explore each other, to enjoy their passion. Instead, he focused all of his energy on discovering the texture of her mouth, and memorizing every breathy moan with each flick of his tongue. Drowning in it, he slowed their kiss. Finally, his lips left hers and climbed to her forehead. Elizabeth let out a shaky but content sigh. She settled her head on his chest once more, and one hand drew lazy circles down her back while the other stroked her hand.

When Elizabeth had recovered her breath, she asked in a small voice, “Will you tell me about what it was like when you came to Pemberley?”

“I…I did not know the truth for many years,” he stroked her hair, keeping his mind anchored in the present even as he told her of the night he last saw his mother.

“When did you find out about your parents?”

“Just before Eton. Father had thought they covered it all well. My mother needed the sea air for her health. Ayr was not the typical choice but they claimed they wanted a house near one of the family estates and Mother did not like large towns.” Darcy shook his head. “The opposite was true; she craved people and the energy of constant activity. At any rate, he told me in case there were rumours about my birth. We never knew if my true father told stories.”

“Who was he?” Elizabeth squeezed his hand which still stroked hers.

“I never asked,” Darcy shrugged. “He had no legal rights over me. Mother never made it sound like he desired contact with me.”

“There were never any male visitors?” Elizabeth pressed. “Georgiana…”

“I found out when I was older that Father would visit Mother. I was never there when they met—kept home and occupied by the maid. They had to pretend to be a happy couple, but I do not think they ever…” Darcy was unsure how to say such things to maiden ears. “That is, he seemed certain Georgiana could not be his.”

“She does have a certain Darcy look about her.”

Darcy shrugged. “I had never thought about it, but I suppose you are correct.” Darcy furrowed his brow. “When I first met George Darcy, he seemed cold and imposing. He had just lost his heir, had to face his adulterous wife, and take on her bastard as his own. I was so shy, so uncertain—he had no idea what to do with me. But he was never cruel. Even with Mother, he did not divorce her. Our cottage was not lavish, but all our needs were met. I do not think he would treat Georgiana as he did if she were his.”

“When did she find out the truth?”

“What makes you think she knows?” Darcy tensed.

“When she thinks no one is watching, she has a hint of your uncertainty. It is not mere shyness, and it is more pronounced here than in Town.”

“I did not know,” Darcy planted a kiss on Elizabeth’s temple. “I knew you would be perfect for her.” He sighed. “I told her after Ramsgate and she had nearly eloped with Wickham.”

“That must have been a very hard conversation,” Elizabeth stroked his cheek.

“Not nearly as bad as you would imagine.” Sighing, Darcy explained, “She had long felt something strange about our family composition. The worst was, she seemed to think she was fated to make the same choices as our mother. That she agreed to elope with Wickham due to something bad in her blood.”

Darcy dropped his voice to a whisper. “I know that feeling intimately.”

“Do you still feel that way?”

Darcy could tell by her voice her tears had returned. A desire to protect her even from his own feelings rose up. He could lie and tell her he no longer felt inadequate or unworthy. He could put on his armour and try to be invincible. Or, he could let her in. All she had ever wanted was to see the real him. Such a simple request for any other man, but she had asked it of him. Elizabeth said nothing more. She did not push or pry. Her patience told Darcy that she understood how difficult it was for him. He loved her even more for that. “Sometimes, but I am learning to see the blessings of it. I think I am making Pemberley stronger for the future in ways another man with different experiences would never dream doing.”

Elizabeth squeezed her arms around his waist. “I think that is exactly right.” She sighed. “Did you ever find out what happened between your parents? What caused her to stray?”

“I…I do not think it was just one thing. Nothing so simple. Did Father have mistresses? Probably; I think so. Was he unfaithful first? Maybe. But did she love him enough to be jealous of that? I do not think so. I think their temperaments never suited. She loved the Ton and Father despised it.”

Nodding, Elizabeth said, “I think I understand what you mean. My father and mother are such extreme opposites with so little respect between them.”

Darcy agreed. “It made me over-anxious about my own mate.”

“You thought we would not suit?” Elizabeth asked.

“At first. Your liveliness attracted me, but I am aware that I am dour and stand-offish. In time, I saw your seriousness. I saw your sensitivities and insecurities.”

“You saw me so much easier than I saw you,” she confessed. “I do not think another person understands me in that way.”

“I love you,” he said and pressed another kiss to her temple.

“I love you, my William.”

A smile came to Darcy’s lips. “I have waited my whole life to have love.”

“Many others love you,” Elizabeth said. “Georgiana, Bingley, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Mrs. Reynolds adores you,” she added saucily. “Your mother must have loved you.”

“After I left her, I resented her. Even when Father was taking me away, she said nothing about doing whatever was necessary to come along. She seemed to have no desire to see him or return to Pemberley. If she loved me—if she really loved me—then why did she allow me to go? In all the years that followed, why did she not earn back my Father’s trust?”

Darcy squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that threatened to well up. He had learned to think about it logically. “In time, I learned to think about it differently. I know she loved me, but it does not mean she could show it so unselfishly. Whatever drove her to her affairs might have infected all her relationships. Lord knows her brother and sister have issues displaying their affection and love in their families.”

Elizabeth nodded as though she understood. Given her family, she likely had similar experiences: parents that loved her, but with conditions as they battled their own fears.

“I will always love you,” Elizabeth said, pulling his head down to hers and meeting his eyes. “And I will never leave you or allow us to be parted.”

As Darcy worshipped her lips once more, he acknowledged his heart feeling complete. Elizabeth would fight for him. She would never leave him. Everything he had ever wanted was now within his grasp.

 

*****

 

Finally, the day of Georgiana’s birthday ball had arrived. Darcy grinned to himself; they had actually managed to keep it a surprise. She had asked after the plans for the day at breakfast, and could not contain her astonishment when he explained the masquerade in the evening.

“Oh! But what will I wear?” she exclaimed after a few moments of profuse thanks to her brother.

“You may thank Mrs. Gardiner and the Miss Bennets,” Darcy laughed. “They have made all arrangements with your maid, and I think you will be most pleased.”

“May I go now to see it? Oh! And the ballroom. When was the last time it was used, do you think?”

Darcy chuckled at her excitement. “Some thirty years or more. I am not sure, none of our current staff was around then. However, yes, you may go now.”

“Come, Lizzy, Jane!” Georgiana jumped from her seat and tugged Elizabeth by the hand.

Darcy watched them go with a smile. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner excused themselves and followed at a more sedate pace. Left to their own devices, the gentlemen adjourned to the library. Servants rushed up and down the halls to make arrangements, and they were best kept out of the way.

“I will drop a suggestion to Jane to not extoll too much about the grandeur of Pemberley and its ballroom, for your sake, Darcy,” Bingley said with a cheeky grin.

“For my sake?”

“Yes, or Mrs. Bennet will forever be visiting!”

“Mrs. Bennet visit me? I cannot imagine why she would,” Darcy contained a smile.

“Come, I am not so blind that I do not see something between you and Lizzy. Is it all settled at last?” Bingley leaned forward in expectation.

Darcy’s lips twitched, and he could conceal his joy no longer. “I have finally been accepted, but have yet to write Mr. Bennet.”

Bingley whooped in happiness, and Mr. Gardiner laughed. “It is all Meg and I can do to keep it from the others.”

“You knew?” Bingley asked Gardiner, who nodded. “Well, I suppose that is only right.”

“We are delighted,” the understatement of his life, “however, we have not told Georgiana yet. I would appreciate you if keep it a secret, for now.”

Bingley solemnly agreed, but Darcy had planned to tell her the news that evening before the ball. At dinner, she had her head together with Elizabeth, and they giggled through much of the meal. After the meal, the ladies excused themselves to rest and prepare for the festivities.

About a half an hour before guests were expected to arrive, Darcy knocked on Georgiana’s door. She bade him enter but sounded more melancholy than he had expected. Opening the door, he could not believe his eyes.

“Look at you,” he murmured as he entered the doorway. “A grown woman before my eyes.” Georgiana turned to look at him and twisted her hands. “You look lovely, my dear.”

“Thank you,” she smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.

“What is it?”

Georgiana let out a shaky breath. “Last year when I…when I planned to elope with Mr. Wickham, I thought that I was making a very adult decision. Now, I understand how much I have left to learn about life. I do not think I am ready for tonight.”

“Come,” Darcy took her hand and led her to a set of chairs in the room. Seating her, he poured her a glass of water before taking the chair next to her. “Tonight is only a ball. All that is expected is for you to enjoy yourself. Dance, talk, laugh.”

“I suppose I was allowing my thoughts to get ahead of themselves.” She smiled, at last. “I do not need to find a husband tonight.”

“You need not ever find one if you do not like,” Darcy said.

“One day you will marry, and your wife might not like me forever living with you,” Georgiana said sheepishly.

“Is that what you worry about?”

“One of the things,” she admitted.

“Then allow me to ease your mind.” Darcy smiled and gathered her hands in his. “First, I would never marry a woman who would not accept my sister. Nor would she sway my feelings. Secondly, it is with great joy I tell you that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has accepted my hand in marriage.”

Instantly, Georgiana cried in delight. She leapt from her chair to embrace him tightly about the neck, earning laughter from him.

“Do you think you shall enjoy having your friend as a sister?”

“I shall love it!” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I never had any idea. You both have been so sly! She never even mentioned you to me!”

“We have both been private in our feelings, and I have not been the most adept at courtship.”

“William, this is the best present you could ever give me.”

“Even better than a masquerade?”

Georgiana cocked her head to one side as though thinking seriously. “Just slightly better than a masquerade,” she laughed.

Her maid entered, and Darcy withdrew his watch. “I should go. Guests will arrive soon. I will see you downstairs.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Oh, on your vanity you should find another piece of jewellery to go with your gown.”

Georgiana gasped and hastened to the stool in front of the mirrored table full of bottles of lotions. Her maid came behind her to arrange her hair. Darcy watched for a minute. He could do nothing about the years of distance between them but seeing her now hovering between girl and woman, filled his heart. With Elizabeth by his side, they would be a real family.

Guests began to arrive, and the ball started as most do. Georgiana was the guest of honour and so a hush fell over the crowd when she arrived at the top of the stairs. Darcy smiled and hastened to her side, escorting her down. A small flock of ladies her age from neighbouring estates came to admire her gown of white silk with a light blue overlay which made the blue of her eyes shining through her mask burn brighter. Too soon, gentlemen came to claim numbers on her card. Begrudgingly, Darcy allowed it. They were all neighbours or Darcy cousins and men he had known most of his life. He opened the first set with his sister, who talked about how much she was enjoying the evening.

After performing his duty, and while his great uncle, a retired judge, who had refused to wear a mask saying he was too old for one, danced with Georgiana, Darcy allowed his eyes to wander over the sea of guests. He had previously arranged his sets with Elizabeth, but it did not mean he could not look for her now.

“I know you,” Elizabeth’s voice said to his side.

Darcy smiled and spun to see her, his breath catching in his throat. She wore a white slip gown with red gauze overlay and a dark red corset-front bodice. Her puffed sleeves were slashed. Around the sleeves, neck, and hemline were small red roses, matching the ones on her pink dancing slippers. Her bright eyes sparkled from the cut-outs in her mask, with her curls artfully arranged around them.

“My goddess,” he raised her knuckles to his lips. “Your beauty is unsurpassed, Elizabeth.”

She blushed but shook her head. “Jane looks positively divine, and Georgiana is lovely. You are blind, my love.”

Darcy looked over his shoulder at a few gentlemen attempting to inch closer to her and nodded at her full dance card as well. “Blind I was when I did not see all your beauty and all your worth. Now, my eyes have been opened, and I see what I almost missed.”

“Pretty words,” Elizabeth laughed. “How are you this evening?”

Darcy understood the unsaid inquiry in her seemingly innocuous question. This was his first ball as host and a year ago, thoughts of how he was nothing but an imposter would have crippled him this evening. Now, he felt confident in his role. “Far better than I expected,” he acknowledged. “It helps to have you at my side.”

Elizabeth smiled and met his eyes, the expression of love unmistakable. Too soon, a partner came to claim a dance and Darcy had to return to his role as host. The night passed in joyful reverie until sometime after supper. Darcy recognised the figure of his cousin, Stephen, arrive. All the Darcys were tall, but his head rose above them. His black hair gleamed in the candlelight and his broad shoulders cut a path through the crowd.

“A masquerade,” he sneered at Darcy and then ripped off his mask. “How fitting.”

“What do you mean?” Darcy glanced around, looking to signal a footman. He and Stephen had never got along, but now it seemed he might have to physically remove him from his sister’s ball.

“I know the truth,” Stephen hissed. “I know the truth!” He continued and shouted.

All music stopped and dancing ceased. In unison, the entire room turned their heads to Stephen and Darcy. Stephen let out a hollow laugh.

“Always getting the best Pemberley has to offer, but no more.” He reached in his coat and pulled out a packet of papers. “This will see an end to it. This is a signed letter of contention over the inheritance of George Darcy. His legal heir was my father—you are nothing but an ill-gotten bastard from his filthy wife.”

Gasps rang through the room. One woman swooned at the crass language.

“Stephen,” Darcy’s great-uncle stepped forward, but one glare from the younger man held him in place.

“You knew, old man. You knew and allowed this imposter to sit and spend our legacy. Not one drop of Darcy blood in him and if this paper didn’t prove it, then his spending money on the product of whores would!”

“That is enough!” Darcy cried. “We shall speak about this in privacy. To my library, if you please.” Darcy stormed out of the ballroom but not before he saw the shattered looks on the faces of Georgiana and Elizabeth.

In the hallway, he signalled to the butler to end the ball. He would never forgive Stephen for doing this in front of others and at an event to celebrate Georgiana of all things. Was he drunk or simply mad? Or worst of all, emboldened by fact?

The Secrets of Pemberley- Chapter Twenty-Three

secrets of pemberley maskChapter Twenty-Three

 

The following morning, Darcy awaited Elizabeth in the rose garden, a bouquet in hand. This is how he should have courted her at Rosings. Months of agony could have been avoided if only he had been open about his feelings and intentions. He looked over the garden wondering if some Darcy ancestor created it for his wife. Walled gardens were a relic of centuries ago whereas the building of Pemberley was modern, rebuilt on the original foundation during his father’s childhood. Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to find Elizabeth approaching with a smile on her face.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” he bowed over her hand and kissed it before presenting the flowers. “You look lovely today.”

Elizabeth blushed. “Thank you. You look handsome as well.” Her cheeks turned redder with her words.

“Do you really think so?” He had never been vain, but hearing Elizabeth found him handsome gave him more pride than he knew he could have.

“You never knew you were handsome? Surely not all the ladies desire you for your wealth.”

“I would not know,” he squeezed her hand. “I did not pay attention to any of them. I never wanted them.” He had never really wanted a woman until Elizabeth. His parents’ marriage and mother’s affairs made him wary of attraction and entanglements.

Elizabeth turned to walk around the garden but did not relinquish his hand. Soon, he would have to know the feel of her skin. Now, they still observed the rules of propriety with gloves when out of doors.

“The rose garden is lovely, but I want to see more,” Elizabeth said. “I decided against walking with the other ladies. I would rather walk with you.”

Darcy grinned at her words and led her to some of the park. He knew the history of every field and glen. As they strolled, hand in hand, Darcy told Elizabeth about the estate. “My grandfather rebuilt the house, determined to make it a modern structure. Construction took five years, and during that time, the family stayed at the estate in Shropshire—when not in Town that is.”

“Modern and impressive!” Elizabeth glanced back at the house. “Everything is so well laid out with none of the awkwardness of adding wings or refurbishing a room’s purpose.”

“Thank you, but I can take no credit for any of it.”

“I never would have thought you could be so humble,” she said and avoided his eyes. “I was dreadfully wrong in my estimation of your character.”

“You are not to blame,” Darcy said and gently turned her face back to him. “I concealed my feelings and my nature from everyone, even myself. I thought I knew what was right but I followed it with little conviction. I quite needed your lesson and revelation.”

Elizabeth blushed at his words. “And I needed yours. Your letter…”

“I hope you do not hate me for writing it. I think you did not like reading its contents.”

She shook her head. “No, I did not happily learn how wrong I had been, but I was thankful to learn the truth. I was so blinded to believe Wickham the better man and to mock you at every turn. I do not know that I ever spoke to you without wishing to pain you.”

“I have always been a glutton for punishment,” he laughed. “I found it refreshing and irresistible.”

Elizabeth joined his laughter. “Dare not say such things, you will feed my vanity.”

“You deserve every kind word I could say,” Darcy smiled down at her. Then he noticed the sun climbing in the sky. “Come, we should return to the house.”

As they walked in companionable silence, Darcy drew his courage. “Would you join me tomorrow after breakfast for a substantial walk? There is a place I would like to show you. I think your uncle will allow it.”

Elizabeth smirked. “I have often walked alone with you.”

“At Rosings we met by accident and thus far here, we have not left the view of the house.”

“I see,” Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled. “I very much look forward to it.”

Arriving at the house, they parted in the hall. The morning mail had arrived, requiring Darcy to tend to it before breaking his fast. By the time he entered the room, his guests had left. Instead of being able to join them, the steward needed his time, followed by Mrs. Reynolds. After two hours of meetings, he found them on the lawn playing croquet. The Gardiner children had joined them, and Elizabeth held one on her lap as she cheered the others on. She was precisely the mistress Pemberley needed, and Darcy could wait no longer to secure her.

 

*****

 

Mr. Gardiner had no qualms about allowing Darcy to escort Elizabeth around all Pemberley had to offer. He sent them off with a wink, but Darcy understood the gravity of earning the man’s trust. With basket and blanket one arm and Elizabeth on the other, Darcy could not contain his grin.

Elizabeth chattered and pointed at various groupings of trees, flowers, and birds as they walked. If she had any inkling of the serious intent behind Darcy’s request, she hid it well. As they winded past the river and went over a simple bridge, they continued through a narrow path toward a glen, now and then with clearings of a stream. Elizabeth grew silent, allowing the sounds of nature to hum around them. Birds chirped in trees and called their mates and rabbits hopped through brush.  About a mile through the woods, Darcy turned them down a now mostly overgrown path.

“Watch your step here,” he said, and Elizabeth gripped his arm tighter. She did not shirk from the task, however, and had worn sturdy walking boots. With practised aplomb, she managed to step over mangled roots and twigs. “I have not come here in many years.”

After a sharp turn, a beautiful clearing opened to them. Woods surrounded it, and butterflies flitted through the meadow. The stream gurgled nearby and hundreds of memories flooded Darcy’s mind of his childhood refuge. He had never shared it with another.

“What a haven,” Elizabeth smiled up at him.

“Come, there is a flat rock perfect for a picnic.”

He led Elizabeth to the destination and then spread the blanket down. Once they both settled on it, he removed his gloves and brought out the refreshments packed by the cook. Elizabeth freed her hands from their leather confines, and Darcy eyed them greedily.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” she smiled as she sipped the packed cider and removed her bonnet. The sun shone down on her hair, glistening in its rays.

“I have never shared this with another,” he admitted.

A slow smile crept across Elizabeth’s face, and she took in all of the scene. “It is a secret, then?”

“Yes,” Darcy smiled and leaned back so he could see Elizabeth’s face as his hand lay less than an inch from hers.

“Would you tell me a secret, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth asked.

“What would you like to know?” Darcy focused on where their hands nearly touched. Did she have any idea what she did to him? The light breeze sent her lavender and rose fragrance drifting to him. What he would give to have that scent surround him always.

Elizabeth lightly chuckled. “If I direct you to it then I fear it hardly counts as a secret.”

Lifting his eyes, he sought to put all his earnestness into his gaze as he focused on her. “I will tell you anything you wish to know.”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. “Why do you always ask me to take care when I am out walking?”

Because I still love you, he wanted to answer. Because I know the pain of holding your dead body to my chest and wishing you back to life. Because I know I am nothing without you…

“Darcy?”

“Forgive me. I promised you the truth, but I fear it brings painful memories to me.”

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “Do I seem so fragile?”

“No. It is nothing so rational, and you will think I am mad when I tell you.”

A look of surprise crossed Elizabeth’s face followed by a small smile. “You will tell me then? You will not put me off?”

“I keep my promises, Elizabeth,” he said lowly and thought he saw her shiver. “Are you chilled?”

“No,” she blushed. “Please, continue.”

“Do you recall the last time we saw one another in Kent?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “You looked very unwell.”

“I have often suffered from vivid dreams…usually of things past. The night before that day, however, I had a dream which will forever haunt me.”

“I am sorry,” Elizabeth whispered. “I have long regretted my behaviour that evening—”

“I do not tell you this so you may chastise yourself. I share far greater blame for our misunderstandings, and we have long moved past them, have we not?”

“Yes…”

“Then let us forget the past.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Very well. About this dream?”

Darcy remained silent for a moment. As always, he struggled with expressing the facts without inserting his emotions. Losing the battle, he shook his head and closed his eyes, feeling the pain again.

“That night, I had an inexplicable dream in which, among many other things, you sought relief by walking after I had upset you. And you…died.”

Elizabeth gasped and paled, bringing her hand to her mouth.

“Words cannot convey the torment I felt and still feel when I recall it. Although a dream, it felt as though I lived it. My selfishness had brought your demise, and I will never forgive myself for it.”

“Well, that is ridiculous,” she laughed.

Darcy jolted at her reaction. He had not expected her to laugh at him.

“I do not find you ridiculous, but you cannot blame yourself for a dream. As you see, I am alive and well.”

Darcy shook his head. “You cannot understand. I can feel you in my arms, still. My throat can still ache from growing hoarse after spending the night in anguished sobs. The absolute desperation I had, knowing I drove the woman I loved to her death—”

Elizabeth’s hand on his cheek rendered him mute. He nuzzled into it, hardly believing she had touched him so affectionately.

“I am so sorry. I have tormented you.”

Darcy watched as her eyes welled with tears and she began to slip her hand away. He clasped his over it. “Stay.”

Elizabeth gave him a tremulous smile. “As you wish.” She dabbed at her eyes with the back of her free hand. “I suppose I owe you a secret now.”

Darcy stared into her eyes. If he moved now, even to nod his head, he would capture her in his arms, and he knew what calamity that impulse would bring.

“I call you William when I think of you,” Elizabeth did not look away.

“You think of me?”

She chewed the bottom of her lip before breaking into a mischievous grin. “That would be another secret, and it is your turn now, William.”

Her voice saying his name brought a shiver of pleasure up his spine and made him dizzy. “I have often dreamt of you in this clearing and everywhere else at Pemberley.”

Elizabeth sucked in a breath and blushed. “I have barely stopped thinking of you since the moment we met—although it has certainly taken many different turns. I blush to think of what I called you then but now…” Elizabeth shrugged.

“Perhaps hearing Georgiana say my name so often has affected you.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “It is your turn, again.”

Releasing her hand from his cheek and bringing it to his lips, he confessed, “I never want you to leave.” This was a dangerous game, and Darcy had never been much of a gambler. Now, he was laying all his cards on the proverbial table.

“I hoped you would say that,” Elizabeth said breathlessly.

Still holding her hand, Darcy rubbed his thumb over it and found himself leaning forward a little, struggling to keep his eyes on hers and not her tempting mouth. He only held one more secret, and he could keep it no more. He would rather face her rejection daily than to keep the words to himself. He knew that route only brought suffering. “I still love you.”

When she did not yank her hand away or rebuke him, he leant his forehead against hers, content to merely be so close to her. “My wishes and affections are unchanged but one word from you—”

“I love you,” Elizabeth said.

Darcy could hear the smile in her voice, and he lifted his head. Her brown eyes shone with passion and tenderness. The loving gaze he had seen a hundred times on so many others and now, finally, him. Remnants of ice broke from his heart as her love finally warmed him through.

“I never want to be parted from you again,” he said realising he had one more secret after all. “Will you marry me and be my wife?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth breathed. “My secret is I have wanted you to ask me for months. Shortly after I arrived in London.”

“For so long? I am stupid!”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No, it is hardly a secret if one does not hide it. I have four sisters. I am very adept at hiding my secrets.”

“I want to know them all,” Darcy grinned. He could wait no more. “I wish to kiss you,” he cupped her cheeks with both hands.

She dropped her gaze. “That is perhaps not such a secret.”

Elizabeth lifted her eyes and smiled. Darcy leaned forward to taste the beginning of her laugh on his lips. It tasted sweet and loving. Although he craved more, he pulled back lest he frighten her.

Elizabeth’s lashes fluttered, and she sighed happily. “If I tell you I wish for you to do that again, you will keep it a secret, won’t you?”

Darcy threw his head back and laughed, feeling lighter than he ever had before. She would bring such joy to his life.

“It is very safe with me,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and leaned in so close their chests touched.

This time, when their lips met, Darcy took his time. He started with one corner of her mouth and kissed across to the other. With each touch, the pressure increased and Elizabeth sighed against him. Bringing one hand up to cup her cheek, he held her face in place as he sealed their love with all the things he struggled to say. Pulling back, he saw the dazed look on Elizabeth’s face, the satisfied smile, and her dark lashes against her pale skin as she had her eyes closed in surrender.

“My Elizabeth,” he kissed her again. “Mine, at last.”

Elizabeth nodded and leaned forward, wanting and expecting more. Darcy smiled to himself before meeting her tantalising lips once more. Running his tongue along the seam, Elizabeth gasped. Darcy touched his tongue to Elizabeth’s for the briefest second. He wanted her to get used to the idea. She pulled back, and her eyes flew to his. Then, she threw her arms around Darcy, nearly tackling him to the ground. He could not resist her offer, and soon their tongues were tangling against each other as they held each other tight. The feeling of her in his arms stirred him more than any dream or fantasy. This was really, truly Elizabeth giving herself to him, loving him, and asking to be loved in return.

It was almost too much for his honour to bear. Feeling his excitement rise and Elizabeth leaving her inhibitions behind, his courage rose to the front. He slowed their frenzied kissing and loosened his hold on Elizabeth. She looked half-ravaged. Her hair in disarray and cheeks flushed.

“My Lizzy,” he said and stroked her cheek.

“Yes, I am yours,” she sighed against him. “Do not ever forget it.”

“I could never. You are imprinted on my heart.”

Darcy encouraged her to turn and sit between his legs with her back against his chest.  Wrapping his arms around her, he rested his chin on her shoulder as their hearts calmed and breathing returned to normal.

“Your sister said you were ill while at Longbourn,” Darcy observed. He would not press her for details, but he had wondered about that, combined with her appearance at her first arrival. Elizabeth’s hands idly ran over his, sending shivers down his spine.

“I had thought I starved your love away. I mourned your loss. I saw Lady Aurora and realised how extreme the compliment of your hand was. You could have had a lady like her—far above me in beauty, rank, and fortune. Who am I compared to all the world had to offer you? I spitefully and wrongly refused you.”

“Did you think so little of me that I would carelessly offer my heart and then hand it to another within weeks of your rejection? Or did you discredit the depth of my regard?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “When you proposed—it shocked me. I had not expected it or ever guessed. Charlotte did think you loved me, but I question her understanding of the notion. She saw near as much love from Colonel Fitzwilliam. I had not thought you capable of such deep, intense emotion. Before reading your letter, I attempted to explain it as merely an idle fancy from boredom in Lady Catherine’s home.”

“I do not know the hour or the spot that set my course. I had started to love you before I knew it had begun. Sometime in Hertfordshire sealed it for me, although I did not recognise it for a very long time.”

“That is as I had imagined it.”

Darcy could hear the smile in her voice. “And after you read my letter?”

“I instantly understood how you were capable of such deep feeling but also able to conceal it so well. I saw the truth of your account with Wickham, and in time, began to accept what you said of Jane and Bingley. By the time I returned to London and was told how you called on my aunt and uncle and clearly restored Bingley to Jane, I saw you in a new light. You had always fascinated me. Now, it seemed the harder I looked, the more I saw good in you.”

“I did not bring Bingley to Jane. I confessed to concealing her presence in Town, but he decided to call on her on his own. For a time, I thought it would ruin our friendship, but after seeing evidence of her continued affection, he heartily forgave me.”

“So do I,” Elizabeth said. “It is little different than I tried to do when Charlotte told me she was to marry Mr. Collins. I hope you can forgive my hypocrisy.”

“I cannot because I do not accept it was a double-standard. In each case, you had a lively interest, and the lady is always in the least advantage in these situations. You know Miss Bennet best, and she is blessed to have your loyalty. But what happened with Marshall after I left Town?”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said and paused. “After our dance, he hinted very strongly he had something of importance to say to me. I may be slow to catch on but the third time’s the charm with gentlemen, I suppose. I apprehended his meaning and feigned a hurt ankle so I could not dance.”

Darcy smiled at her cleverness and squeezed her waist for a moment. Elizabeth laughed, the sound going straight to his heart.

“Over the next few days, I made up excuses to miss his calls or did not give him my full attention. He took the hint and came around less and less. Eventually, it was time for me and Jane to return to Longbourn. Mama believed Bingley would propose at the prospect of losing Jane again. She was right. We went home, Bingley followed, but then my uncle needed assistance in the move. Where Bingley went, Jane was allowed to follow. It was I who had to beg and plead to come along.” Elizabeth paused for a moment. “My aunt and uncle intervened, but I had not thought they suspected anything. Can you imagine why?”

Darcy chuckled. “The first time I met your uncle he had figured out I fancied you. Rather than putting him off, I decided to confess that I loved you but knew I had no chance for you. He suggested to me multiple times—as did Bingley and Richard—that I attempt to win your hand, but I would not listen. It seems we were each blind regarding the other. They saw what we were too afraid to believe.”

“Never again, though,” Elizabeth vowed. “I hope I do not appear inconstant for having changed, so extremely, my opinions from only a few months ago. I was blinded by my judgment and misunderstood your character. Now, I know the truth, and nothing can ever break my heart from yours.”

Darcy said nothing and only squeezed her tighter. After years of loneliness and isolation, hearing that this woman loved him and would not give him up, filled his heart to bursting. He had never known such love and contentment could exist in the world. A feeling as though every trial he ever went through had led to this moment, making it all the sweeter, filled him.

“I do not doubt you, Lizzy, if you do not doubt me. I left you three times.”

“They hardly count as that,” she scoffed. “The first you did not understand the strength of your attachment if I understand what you said earlier. The second time I refused you! Lastly, another man courted me, and to many, it looked as though I encouraged him. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of you, with attempting to show you my changed opinion and to earn a second chance from you, that I did not realise I spent so much time in his company seeming to listen to his words. I thought only of you.”

Darcy grinned so broadly, he believed his face might crack. “Come, let us return to the house. I must speak with your uncle.”

As they walked back to Pemberley, hand in hand, they made their plans for the future. Darcy felt, at last, the cold grip of the past had left him.