How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Seven

how darcy saved christmas 1Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six

Chapter Seven

Over the days since Darcy had last seen Elizabeth, he considered her words over and over again. What did she understand about these things? What did she know of the tricks George used to play on him or the empty promises?

Still, he could not forget her voice and expression when she spoke of love. For a moment, a glorious moment, he had thought it was directed at him. That she had a great capacity to love was clear to him from their earliest acquaintance. It must have only been his vanity which supposed she cared for him.

The evening of the intended Twelfth Night ball, Darcy gave his staff leave to attend. He said he would retire early. Instead of going to his chamber, he turned to his sister’s. It was left just as had been during Georgiana’s life. In one corner there was a trunk full of the baby items she had begun accruing.

She always promised that he would see the difference in Wickham. She vowed that once their child was born, I would see the gentleness she had always known. He admitted only to himself that for the sake of his niece or nephew, he would have tried. Had Georgiana lived, he would have tried to look for the best in Wickham. Now? Now, it was all too late.

Worse than earning Georgiana’s love, Wickham now had Elizabeth’s. Darcy had fought it. He had not wanted to admit it for every person he had ever loved had been taken from him. However, Darcy had to do Wickham the credit of saying he loved the very best. His father had been one of the best men. He was still talked of as the best landlord and master. Georgiana was the sweetest and tenderest person. He was not prejudiced; many people said so of her. Elizabeth had accepted all but the very worst in him and had pushed for him to be more. She was the sort of woman with whom a man could grow old.

Do you doubt love’s ability to change a person—or rather to reveal their truth?

What did who George loved say about him? Darcy had always thought that George had merely taken advantage of Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. However, Elizabeth had no long-standing relationship with him. The best people Darcy had every known respected and loved George. If nothing else, he must give George credit for loving the most deserving.

He always loved the very people Darcy loved. What was it that made them different? George seemed most willing to do anything to gain the love of those he sought. He had always assumed it was Georgiana who was unwilling to have George ask about the dowry. However, if that were the case then why did he still not ask for it after all these years? They were legally wed. He had a claim to the money.

A thought pricked his heart, but he tossed it aside. No. There were many reasons to not request Georgiana’s dowry, the likely fact that Darcy would refuse would be high among them. That could not be proof that George had loved his sister.

Love cannot be proven with words, Elizabeth’s voice echoed in his mind, mocking him. George’s actions might just prove that he had loved Georgiana.

Love cannot be proven. His mind fixated on that portion of Elizabeth’s argument. He had asked his sister again and again how she was certain that she really loved Wickham. Darcy had demanded proof that Wickham loved her in return. What proof was there that he had loved Georgiana? During her final weeks, he had argued with her over her marriage. What proof had he given Elizabeth that he loved her?

Next, he recalled his father’s words that forgiveness could never be earned. There was nothing in the world Wickham could do which would make Darcy forgive him for all he had done. There was nothing that would compel him to trust the man once more. However, he could freely grant the forgiveness.

Determined, Darcy set off to find his housekeeper. Pemberley would be a place of Christmas celebration once more. Georgiana was gone, Elizabeth would never be his, and Wickham might never change.

A sound in the hall startled him from his thoughts. “Mr. Darcy?” the familiar voice of Mr. Fisher called out.

Darcy left his sister’s chamber and found the aging magistrate climbing the stairs. “Pray, do not trouble yourself any further. I apologise that you had to seek me out. I gave the staff time to attend the ball.” The ball that used to be held at Pemberley, he added.

“Yes, I came to see you about that.” Mr. Fisher took Darcy’s offered arm as they returned down the stairs and to a nearby drawing room. Darcy waited for the older man to catch his breath in a chair before continuing. “Stevens came up with some ridiculous scheme of charging an admittance. He nearly caused a riot and wanted me to enforce the crowd to disperse. It is a good thing Lizzy suggested they celebrate outside or who knows what might have happened. The people have been denied their Christmas celebrations for too long.”

“Miss Bennet suggested they hold the ball outside?”

“There was no other place of suitable size,” Fisher said.

Except for Pemberley, Darcy added. It would be impossible to host them all now, but if he had thought ahead, it would have gone as splendidly as it always had. “I am pleased it all worked out well. I am surprised to hear they are holding it out of doors. What has been done regarding heating and refreshments?”

“We convinced a few shopkeepers to empty their front rooms to serve as warming places. Refreshments consist of day-old bread and leftover soups and like. Few people made a meal for they had counted on the ball. However, we all worked together, and I think we have near enough. What is food and drink or a chill in the air compared to the comfort of friends?”

Darcy mulled over Mr. Fisher’s words. He ought to be disgruntled that people were so determined to make merry at a time which brought inexpressible pain to him. He had spent the last few years hating the holiday and any memory of his loss. Not just the loss of Georgiana but of anything good and beautiful in his life, of having any reason for happiness. He had hated that others had cause to celebrate or could despite their losses when he had felt entirely unequipped to continue living most days. Instead, it occurred to him that their reasons to celebrate might have nothing to do with the seeming perfection or simplicity of their lives. They rejoiced despite the difficulties. They had learned the value of contentment.

A new understanding filled him. It seemed clouds parted, and the sun shone around him, warmth filled his heart. He nearly felt Georgiana with him once more. It was for all those reasons she celebrated Christmas and gave to their community. Immediately, he knew what he must do.

“I have no staff present to assist us,” he said to Mr. Fisher, “but if you are up for it, we can see what the kitchens have and pack warm blankets as well. By the time we arrive, it will be late, but it may benefit some.”

Fisher agreed and they proceeded down the stairs. As they walked, Darcy talked. “Miss Bennet must be enjoying the dancing.”

He had heard her often say she enjoyed the activity. He had never liked it much, but he would have treasured dancing with Elizabeth. He would add that to the series of regrets he had about what no one else would have called a courtship. Instead of himself leading Elizabeth on the dance floor—or the streets, as it happened—it must be Wickham. Throughout everything that had passed over the last several days, that was the thought which hurt the most. He had proved unworthy compared to Wickham.

Fisher shook his head. “When I left, she was crying in a corner.”

Surely Wickham did not mistreat her. Darcy had doubted his old enemy much, but he had proved himself worthy of Elizabeth’s love, and he did not doubt the man would treat her well. It was the one balm he had. “Why?”

“I am sure I cannot say why a beautiful young lady would be crying at a ball practically given in her honour and with the praise of the host and every attendee; indeed all the area residents save one.”

Did Elizabeth cry because he was not present? Did her heart mourn their separation as his did? If there was even a chance she might love him…

The possibilities now swirling in Darcy’s mind made him work faster than ever. Just as his father had him train in stables, he had done menial tasks in the kitchen. He could not cook, but he could slice bread and slather it with butter and jam. The thought of Elizabeth cold, hungry, and needing comfort propelled him. He had cared for the well-being of others but to give ease to her situation motivated him further. After loading up the wagon, Fisher had wisely borrowed, Darcy impatiently drove the team to Lambton.

Pulling into the main street, they were greeted with cheers. The townspeople came to assist with the unloading and people low and high genuinely seemed happy to see him. However, Darcy had eyes for only one. He could not see her but was aware of murmurings in the crowd telling of his arrival. Hushed whispers now and then reached his ears. It had been his first time partaking of Christmas revelry since Georgiana died. For the first time, he did not resent their talk about the matter.

Suddenly, a movement caught his eye. Elizabeth cautiously emerged from a shop. She seemed uncertain it was he at first, and he moved in her direction. His heart hammered in his chest—everyone watched. They would all see his love for her. They would know if she rejected him. He no longer cared. Love was not love if it was hidden and concealed. The only opinion that mattered now was hers. Could she forgive him?

He could never say who began running first, but they met in the middle of the square. Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck, and he held her tight against him.

“I dared not hope you would come,” Elizabeth said even as her face was buried in his lapel. “I thought I would never see you again.”

“I wanted to come,” he murmured into her hair. “Every day, every moment away from you shredded my heart. And yet, I could not bring myself. There was too much pain, and I was so afraid.” He could hardly believe she was in his arms. She was not sending him away. She did not try to escape his embrace. With so many witnesses she must surely know only one thing could be possible and yet he wanted her to know she was his choice. She would always be his choice.

“Do not be afraid for my sake,” she said.

Darcy could be silent no longer. “I love you, Elizabeth. Our acquaintance has been very brief and fraught with struggle, but I know my heart shall ever beat for you. You taught me what it was to live again, how to love again. There is nothing I do not owe you. If you can ever forgive me, I would be most humbled if you would be my wife.”

Elizabeth’s hands tightened around his neck, and he felt her nod. Moving his hands up her back, he gently pulled her back by the shoulders. She looked to the ground, and he tilted her chin up with his thumb. “Is that a yes? You will marry me?”

“Yes,” she murmured as tears filled her eyes. “I love you so much—your pain has been my own. If you let me, I will always be your comfort.”

“Elizabeth,” Darcy breathed just before brushing his lips against hers.

“Ahem,” Darcy heard from behind his shoulder, and he knew it was Mr. Gardiner interrupting them.

“She has just consented to be my wife,” Darcy said without breaking his gaze with Elizabeth. “You cannot force me to do what I want most in the world.”

Gardiner chuckled. “Very well, sir, but keep your liberties private. Her mother would have a fainting fit if she heard of this. A very loud fit.”

Elizabeth giggled. “Oh, dear you have not met my mother!”

“Is that so dreadful?”

“I think it was infinitely clever of me to ensnare you here far away from my family,” Elizabeth teased.

“Did she say yes?” someone called from the crowd.

Darcy and Elizabeth blushed then laughed. Finally turning to face the townspeople, even as he kept an arm around Elizabeth, Darcy smiled. “Good people and neighbours,” he began. “It has been my privilege to know you all my life. My fondest memories are of the gatherings my family would host at Christmastide. Let me now say that next year we will do so again with a new mistress. Will you wish me joy?”

If Darcy lived to be a hundred, he would not forget the noise of a town full of people cheering him. For years, he had felt alone and forgotten. He never was—they only did not know how to care for him. He supposed he had been waiting for Elizabeth. Only she could thaw his heart.

He smiled down at her. “You do not mind, do you, love? The housekeeper and everyone else shall help. You see how easily pleased the people are. You need not plan anything elaborate.”

Elizabeth beamed in return. “I anticipate it more than anything.”

“Anything?” He raised a brow.

“Almost anything,” Elizabeth blushed.

The musicians had struck up once more. “May I have the honour of a set?” Darcy asked.

After their two sets, which had been interrupted many times for words of congratulations and well wishes, Darcy and Elizabeth entered a shop for refreshment. He thanked the milliner for his hospitality. The man, in turn, informed them of a large shipment he expected in the spring. Darcy and Elizabeth shared a look. The new Mrs. Darcy would be placing a large order, of course, Darcy promised. He supposed the milliner glowed in pride, but Darcy could not look away from his betrothed.

The door of the shop opened, and it seemed conversation ceased, but Darcy did not look up until he heard Wickham’s voice.

“May I speak with you, Mr. Darcy?”

Elizabeth squeezed Darcy’s arm where her hand lay. He took it to be a sign of encouragement. “Certainly.”

Wickham invited him to his home. He supposed if he were angry about not gaining Elizabeth’s affections he would have expressed so before her or would be unable to contain his anger. He could not fathom what the man intended to say. Once alone, besides old Mr. Wickham, the two sat.

“My congratulations,” Wickham said sincerely.

“I am surprised to hear you mean it so easily. I had thought you enamored with Elizabeth.” Pride welled in his heart at the right he had to call her by her Christian name.

“Oh, I admire her greatly. If she were to stay local, I would have wanted to become great friends, but only friends. I think you must understand now. A heart that has loved as strongly as ours cannot move on so easily. It was so for our fathers as well.”

“You really loved her?” Darcy asked.

This time, he determined to listen without preconceptions. Wickham attested that he had loved Georgiana, that she had brought out a side of him he had long forgotten. The angry young man who felt slighted by the world had ceased to rage. Finally, Darcy could see the sense of it all.

When asked, Wickham explained his reason for not requesting Georgiana’s dowry. He expressed a sincere desire for earning Darcy’s trust and sincere remorse for his actions of years ago. Darcy, in turn, had to ask forgiveness for his prejudice.

“I had assumed you resumed your reckless living. I knew how you favored Stevens’ tavern maids.”

“Barring my guests from entry is hardly how you reward a loyal client, I would think.” Darcy nodded in agreement. “I have not thought of another woman since seeing Georgiana on the beach at Ramsgate. However, I think I loved her even before. She always occupied a tender spot in my heart.”

Darcy listened in rapt attention as Wickham described some of his fondest memories of Georgiana. Why had he denied himself the comfort of reliving happy memories with the one person living who could share in them?

“If I had only taken the living, this entire feud might have been avoided,” Wickham said. “I was too angry with you after my father’s employment had been terminated, however, to do you any kind of justice.”

“Pardon me? I certainly never fired your father. I greatly depended upon him, even more than my father before me did. I was sincerely grieved upon his resignation, and it took several attempts before finding a trustworthy replacement.”

“I do not understand,” Wickham said while glancing at his father. “He told me in no uncertain terms that he was asked not to return and given a pension.”

“Of course, I gave him a pension after he left but it was not by my request,” Darcy said. “Please believe me.”

“Why would he lie?”

“I hesitate to call a man I respect so much a liar, and I am very sorry if there was some misunderstanding which led him to believe he was fired. I will gladly speak to you both about it later.”

Wickham shook his head. “This should end tonight. It has gone on long enough.” He gently woke his father.

“Father,” Wickham began after he had settled the aging man and retrieved tea and biscuits for him. “Darcy tells me he never fired you. Why did you tell me differently?”

Jacob Wickham flushed. “I never intended for you to know. I did not think it would be grounds for such a disagreement between you two.” He sighed. “The master spoiled you, George. You had never had to earn anything on your own. That living might have given you ease and wealth but what would it mean for your character to have had so much in life given to you out of connections?”

“Is that not how most high society works?” Darcy asked.

“I do not care about high society,” the older gentleman replied. “My departed wife spent too freely. She expected the very best and without thought of what it cost. George had already much of her ways in him. I only wanted to nudge him the direction of an independent path.” He hung his head. “Have you been unhappy in the office? Have I disappointed you greatly?”

“I am shocked,” Wickham answered. “However, you could never disappoint me. I am humbled to hear that you had found my character needing of improvement and thankful for the effort. I have not become some great man worth thousands or gaining the note of many, but I know I became the sort of man that would make you proud.”

“Always, my son,” Mr. Wickham said.

It was a tender scene that Darcy would have wished occurred with more frequency between him and his father before he died.

“Forgive me for lying to George,” Jacob directed at Darcy. “I did not mean to malign you.”

“Of course, sir,” Darcy nodded. “If you will excuse me, though, it grows late. I shall need to return to Pemberley soon.”

“I hope now that we have cleared this misunderstanding you will visit,” Jacob said.

“I would enjoy that,” Darcy agreed and entirely meant it.

“I will see you out.” George stood and walked with Darcy. “We once were as close as brothers and for a brief time truly were. Can we not mend our friendship? I do not deserve it—”

“Elizabeth has taught me that forgiveness cannot be earned. I am not blameless either. Let us put the past to rest.”

That night, Darcy fell asleep with peace and love in his heart. He had lost much but what did he lose that he had not gained? His sister was gone, but he had a brother should he let George be one. His father and mother had perished years ago, but through Elizabeth, he would gain parents. Would he not go through worse—even walk through hell itself—for Elizabeth? Perhaps it was life’s way of shaping his character as Mr. Wickham had attempted to do for George. He determined to awake the next day and to live life with real happiness. It did not mean there would be no bad days. However, just as surely as the sun always rose in the morning, bad days or seasons of life would end. Joy came in the morning.

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Six

how darcy saved christmas 1

Just a final note here. You should know by now that I don’t write perfect people. Darcy’s made some mistakes, Wickham’s made some mistakes, Elizabeth has made some mistakes. As I said in my previous post, if you can’t handle a less than evil Wickham, don’t read this story. I have plenty of others that do offer that. I am saying this bluntly. I share on my blog and free forums to give back to the JAFF community, not to get editors. If you notice a typo or word usage error etc., I’ll gladly hear about it but the truth is that will be fixed by my final editor and proof reader. My stories have already been through the plot development stage. Your opinion is as valid as ever and feel free to vent it. I just wanted to be sure others understood that I don’t write for someone’s good opinion and won’t change my stories for them. If a comment is intended to make me change my story or my mind, it’s not going to happen. If that displeases you and can lead to frustration then maybe skip commenting.

Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five

Chapter Six

Elizabeth wiped at her eyes all the way back to Lambton but was determined to regret Mr. Darcy no more. She could never love a man who had such a cold heart. She had thought there was more to him. She knew it was due to pain more than hatred. While she pitied him and her heart yearned to comfort him, there could be nothing else.

The time of her visit to the area was drawing to a rapid close. They would leave the morning after Twelfth Night, making the ball Mr. Wickham planned her last day in the area. They now saw him every day at either the inn, the office, or Mr. Fisher’s. At each encounter, Mr. Wickham fixated conversation on the ball. It was evident to Elizabeth that all of his hopes and dreams were centered on the plan. His enthusiasm caught to others, and soon there was not a resident in Lambton that did not look forward to the ball. Elizabeth heard of it everywhere she went.

“There is not a man on this earth as good as young Wickham,” the milliner said to a customer one day.

“How splendid it will be to enjoy Christmas in the old way once more,” the customer replied. “I suppose he inherited more of the Christmas spirit than the new master of Pemberley did.”

“His father would be ashamed,” the milliner agreed.

It hurt Elizabeth’s heart to hear Mr. Darcy spoken of that way. Elizabeth could see all too easily how it might appear to him. George Wickham was once again the favoured man. Elizabeth asked him about it one day.

“Do you not see how it might appear to Mr. Darcy?” she asked.

“Why should you care what Mr. Darcy feels about my ball?”

Elizabeth had no ready answer.

“If you were to ask me, you care rather too much about all things Mr. Darcy. You have not been alone on all those walks have you?”

Elizabeth blushed. “I suppose you will tell to beware.”

George shook his head. “Darcy would never dally with a lady’s feelings. If he has given you encouragement, then I wish you joy. He has earned the admiration of the worthiest lady, and you will have the love and devotion of an honourable man. I congratulate you most sincerely.”

“There will be no need for congratulations,” she said and avoided George’s eyes. She would not let him see her cry. “I have offended him too many times and spoken too openly. And he…he cannot forgive you.”

George touched Elizabeth’s arm so she would look at him. “Have you refused him due to our friendship? I would never wish you to deny your heart.”

Elizabeth’s lip quivered. “He did not ask, and I did not refuse. We value different things.” She attempted a shrug, but it seemed more like a shudder. “You do not wish him ill?”

“I have never wished him ill,” George said. “I can understand too well his reasons. I was not entirely truthful in our first conversation about him. Forgive me, I wished to impress a pretty new acquaintance. However, I will give my dear wife’s brother the benefit of acknowledging he has many reasons to distrust me. I can never deserve his forgiveness.”

As Lambton came to life with Christmas decorations, a somberness settled in Elizabeth’s heart. The very thing she most looked forward to, she now dreaded. The name of Mr. Darcy fell from everyone’s lips and continually in the disappointed way the milliner had spoken. She longed to tell them the truth—to illuminate the reasons why Christmas was too difficult for him to celebrate with the sort of joy he once had. Explaining it to others would be a violation of his privacy, but also would make her acknowledge that he was unlikely to ever change.

At last, Twelfth Night arrived. Elizabeth had spent the day packing and rearranging her clothes so she might avoid the incessant conversation of all things ball and Wickham related. Her aunt had imagined an attachment between them and did much to promote it.

When Elizabeth arrived in Derbyshire, she was eager for Christmas festivities to erase the heartache she had endured since Lydia’s death. Now, seeing each decoration was merely a reminder of the pain Mr. Darcy must be feeling. How she wished she had not left things as they were between them.

At the appointed hour, Elizabeth dressed in her finest gown. It was nothing like a real ball gown, of course. She had never thought to bring one. Since Mr. Darcy would not be in attendance, she hardly felt it mattered. There was no one she desired to impress.

“Do you not look forward to this last evening with our friends?” Mrs. Gardiner asked. “I think Mr. Wickham planned the entire thing out of preference for you.”

Elizabeth kept a sigh to herself and only shrugged her shoulders as she glanced out the upper window. “The sooner we leave Derbyshire the better.”

She heard the steps of her uncle behind her. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Chin up, Lizzy. He is not worth all that. I always thought great men were very fickle in their manners.”

His words crushed Elizabeth’s heart even more. It was not Mr. Darcy’s manners that were the problem. He had loved so deeply and been hurt too many times to try again. She was not enough to replace all that he had lost.

“I say, Maggie, come and look,” Mr. Gardiner said. “What do you think is the matter out there?”

Although Elizabeth had directed her eyes out the window, she had not really been paying attention to what was outside. Now, she saw a crowd of people being barred from the inn. They called back names in anger.

“I will ask Sally what is going on,” Mrs. Gardiner said and left to inquire with the maid stationed to the floor. She returned a few minutes later, frowning. “They are not admitting the lower classes. Now, the proprietor says he will not allow anyone not paying for a room since his dining rooms will be used. He is demanding a ticket price to cover the empty rooms.”

“I thought Mr. Wickham had arranged everything with him.”

“So had I,” Mr. Gardiner said. “He seemed most scrupulous.”

“There must be some mistake,” Elizabeth said.

The others agreed, and they made their way below. A few burly men stood with folded arms at the entrance of the inn. The proprietor spoke with Mr. Fisher, dressed for the ball, who looked nervously around the area already filled with several merchants in Christmas finery before leaving to talk to Mr. Wickham. When they had finished, Wickham made his way to their assembled group.

“This is an awful mess,” Wickham hung his head. “I had not thought Stevens would demand a ticket price. If he were going to do that, he might have said it when I spoke with him. I do not know that I would have agreed, but it is too late to change plans now.”

Mr. Gardiner frowned. “It was likely a deliberate move. I suppose you do not have a contract.”

“For a ball?” Wickham sadly shook his head. “I may be a solicitor by trade, but I do not agree with contracting everyone and everything. I have paid for the use of the tavern area and the staff. He can hardly be less any rooming business for it. What can he be thinking?”

“It is no use in worrying about what has made him do this,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “The better use of our time is to consider on what to do. There is a large crowd of people who were expecting Christmas festivities. They grow angrier by the moment, and I think many were half in their cups before arriving.”

“Outside,” Elizabeth said. “We shall hold the ball outside.”

“Is it not too cold?” Mrs. Gardiner frowned.

“Not if you are dancing,” Elizabeth grinned. “Some of the shopkeepers could open their front room. Clear out their stock and open the area for those who are cold.”

“It might work,” Wickham nodded. “However, there is the matter of refreshment. I do not think Stevens will give us the use of his staff or kitchens.”

“Whatever people have ready, they can bring to share. We shall feast and make merry, and it does not need to be grand or elaborate.” Elizabeth felt as though the Christmas spirit was finally catching in her again.

Wickham and her aunt and uncle agreed with her suggestions. Mrs. Gardiner left to tell her father and friends of the change in plans as did Mr. Wickham. In a matter of minutes, Elizabeth and Mr. Gardiner were corralled in helping shops clear their front room or bring out refreshments from their kitchens. The whole of Lambton, save Mr. Stevens who now pleaded for Wickham to return to the inn and there would be no ticket sale, had turned out to help. The site brought tears to Elizabeth’s eyes. To see so many people working together toward a common goal was nothing short of beautiful.

Knowing the ball would be an abbreviated affair, the attendants packed as much amusement as they could into a short time. Elizabeth had never seen a more energetic group of dancers, heard livelier music, tasted sweeter wine or better food. There was not a single face without a smile except hers. She was glad it all worked out well. That she knew, but she could not be light-hearted when her heart rested five miles away with a man who would never again now the thrill of joy. While everyone else was consumed in the entertainment, she slipped away to a secluded corner to hide her tears of pain and regret.

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Epilogue

how darcy saved christmas 1Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven

 

Epilogue

Elizabeth Darcy beamed at her new husband from across Longbourn’s drawing room. Gone were the signs of his melancholy when they had first met. It was not only their wedding day which had brought joy to his heart. Although engaged, Elizabeth had to leave Derbyshire the day after the Twelfth Night Ball. Darcy soon found a house to lease near her father’s estate. He brought several friends with him which, of course, earned him Mrs. Bennet’s undying devotion. For any man who would bring several promising bachelors within walking distance of her three unattached daughters would be a son-in-law worth having. Elizabeth laughed to herself that it was not Darcy’s wealth which made him excel in Mrs. Bennet’s eyes.

Her father, too, seemed to enjoy his company. Elizabeth was most anxious that he should. While life at Longbourn had been strained since Lydia’s elopement, she had always been her father’s favourite child, and she feared he would resent her becoming engaged without his knowledge of the man. As it turned out, the two were of similar temperament although Mr. Bennet was far more sarcastic and willing to tease. Darcy was learning, though.

Elizabeth’s sisters all seemed to respect and admire Darcy, although not as much as they appeared to admire his friends. Elizabeth watched with growing interest as Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley talked with Jane. She had seen many men instantly smitten by her elder sister, who despite being five and twenty still had the bloom of youth now combined with greater sense and assuredness. Despite dozens of suitors, no one had ever made Jane’s eyes light up the way Charles Bingley did. If they would not take too long to come to the point, Elizabeth thought they might visit Pemberley by mid-summer as newlyweds.

Among Darcy’s other friends were his cousins, the sons of an earl. Mrs. Bennet had nearly fainted when she heard the news. The elder one was a viscount and in Parliament and would be quite the catch, in the matron’s opinion. The younger was a colonel in the Regulars. Elizabeth thought he was the better natured of the two and looked forward to regular visits in Derbyshire or London. However, he would need a wife of fortune, and the Bennet sisters had little to offer in the way of monetary wealth.

George Wickham also came, pleasing Elizabeth greatly. Fortunately for him, as a mere solicitor in a country town, he had not become the target of Mrs. Bennet’s machinations. Elizabeth could not find it in her heart to scold her mother. She had spent months missing all of her nerves and anxieties.

Due to bringing so many friends, Darcy had assured privacy with Elizabeth even in drawing room conversation. If he had arrived with a smaller party, he would be a more interesting character to Mrs. Bennet and her other daughters. As it was, Darcy and Elizabeth managed to have many illuminating conversations in the weeks of courtship. They would sponsor Mary and Jane in the spring. Kitty complained of being the only sister at home, but Mrs. Bennet said she could not do without her and that pleased the girl. Yet, Elizabeth was cognizant of the need to distinguish Kitty in some way. She did not want another sister feeling neglected by her. Kitty would come to Pemberley in the summer.

With all the upcoming plans to be surrounded by family, Elizabeth looked forward to her wedding holiday all the more. Darcy caught her eye. The time had come to leave.

A dozen embraces and handshakes later, and the happy couple was alone in a carriage headed toward a cottage a few hours away. During their travel, they teased and read between kisses and caresses, all allowing them to learn more about one another body and soul.

“I have a surprise for you, love,” Darcy said when they exited the carriage.

He produced a blindfold. After testing its effectiveness, he scooped Elizabeth into his arms, causing her to yelp in astonishment before laughing. After they entered the cottage, Darcy put Elizabeth down. Before he even lifted the blindfold, the familiar scent of holly and pine needles tickled her nose. Finally, he freed her eyes, and she saw a room decorated with red bows, holly and evergreen boughs adorned the windows and doors. A yule log burned in the fireplace. Christmas sweets were with the tea things.

“You did this?” Elizabeth asked.

“You did not get to have the Christmas you wished for,” Darcy acknowledged. “I have promised to give you everything your heart desires that is within my power. I thought it fitting to start with this.”

Elizabeth embraced and kissed her husband. His generous heart was on full display, even if she were the only one to enjoy it. Pulling back, she looked into his eyes. As she stroked his cheek, she said, “From now on, all I need at each Christmas is you. The greatest gift I have ever received is your love.”

Darcy grinned and shook his head. “It is not very charitable of you to copy my own thoughts, love.” He pulled her close for a deep kiss. “You are all I will ever need. I will forever thank Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner for bringing you to Lambton.”

“Yes, we do owe them much!” Elizabeth laughed. “How did you find fresh holly?”

“They are painted glass beads,” Darcy said. “George suggested the shop in Lambton.”

“I like thinking that one of them helped make something for our wedding,” Elizabeth smiled. She looked up, and her eye caught on a hanging ball of greenery. “Is that mistletoe?”

“Indeed, Mrs. Darcy,” he said before kissing her then scooping her into his arms once more.

“Where are you taking me, husband?” Elizabeth asked as they ascended the stairs.

“There is more of the house to see,” he murmured in her ear, sending shivers down her spine. “Let us start with the master chamber.”

In the coming days of their Christmas honeymoon cottage, Darcy and Elizabeth determined to always keep a Christmas room at Pemberley. It would serve as a reminder of their love for each other and to always keep their hearts open.

The morning they left the cottage, Elizabeth sighed into Darcy’s shoulder in the carriage. “I will always be grateful for the way you saved Christmas. I could scarce believe my eyes when I saw you on the street. I thought my heart would burst. Even if you did not love me, I was so pleased you had conquered your pain.”

“My heart was galloping harder than any thoroughbred at a track,” Darcy laughed. “I was certain you did not care for me and that I did not deserve you. What great feat is it to save Christmas when you saved my life?”

The End

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Five

how darcy saved christmas 1

I’m going to be honest. I’m tempted to stop reading the comments. I’ve had trolls before and I don’t think anyone here is trolling me but I believe many of you are not reading closely. Some of that is just a careless mistake, others are mired in continued prejudice. I’m going to give a spoiler. Wickham isn’t so bad in this. If you can’t handle it, stop reading.

I’ll answer a few questions, and again, I might not continue reading reviews so I can’t promise I’ll be able to continue to clarify. If you remain confused, try rereading.

Wickham is not the man Lydia eloped with. This Wickham has never been in the military. He was in Lambton. Georgiana died 3 years ago, just after she turned 16. Lydia died only one year ago. Darcy would have noticed if Wickham weren’t around and had entered the miliita. This Wickham has also not wasted Darcy’s money. He spent it on school. The real question is why do the Wickhams say the father was fired and Darcy say the father quit? THAT should be something that continues to scratch at you until we find the answer.

Regarding Lydia being too young and dying in childbirth and correlating it to Georgiana dying of a miscarriage. I went with the medical explanation at the time. Lydia needed a c-section. Women of all ages need c-sections. In the past, they would blame it on the woman’s age if she were young because some have narrower hips still at that age. However, we know from Canon that Lydia looks fully-grown. I wrote it that way to give Elizabeth a greater sense of guilt. However, I think it’s clear as day that she shouldn’t blame herself.

To the person who said Wickham eloping with Georgiana was statutory rape: Not during this era. Georgiana was considered an adult. So was Lydia. And Eliza Williams. And Marianne Dashwood. And Catherine Morland. Oh, and my Elizabeth in Pledged. All found their love interests under the age 18. Statutory rape is a thing, this I firmly believe. But I also believe that teenagers have sex drives. That they’re not going to discriminate on age. And in this era, it did not make men creepy or gross to love a woman much younger than them. They were not encouraged to have serious attachments until they were older. Jane Austen continually criticizes men who fall in love under 25. By that age, most women were married. There was also a considerable prejudice (although maybe not as much as we would imagine) against ladies who have remained unmarried to that age.

As for the elopement: yep, Wickham AND GEORGIANA chose wrong there. However, never in an Austen work is the elopement the problem. The Wickham of Canon was a fortune hunter. That was a strike against him. However, Elizabeth didn’t think he was very evil until he eloped with Lydia with no potential benefit other than sex. Jane was so desperate to say they were in love because then it would make sense. However, Wickham didn’t intend on marrying Lydia. He was never in love with her, had never even thought that in a moment of passion. He simply wanted a “companion.” Oh, and she had some money to ease his situation for a day or two. However, you will find nowhere in the book does Elizabeth say Georgiana, Mary King, or Lydia were innocent dupes of Wickham. Nor does she think he is doing anything evil for grasping at a fortune. It makes him dishonorable and obviously the inferior to Darcy, but she’s not feeling the need to go tell the world. For that matter, neither does Darcy. I firmly believe no one considered Wickham would target anyone without money. Even then, he would be sure to actually MARRY them and the lady would have at least the comfort of that.

So essentially, we have a Wickham who was a jerk as a boy. His father lives and continued to direct his son. He did not run off with Darcy’s money and gamble it all away or live raucously. He made a mistake in eloping with Georgiana, he also believed Darcy would refuse his application. He then chose to allow Georgiana to go back to Pemberley where Darcy would try to convince her to give him up. He wanted a church wedding for her. He wanted to work hard to provide for her and prove himself to Darcy. He is learning and trying. He’s not perfect. No one here is.

Darcy SHOULD have given Wickham the money. Wickham had every legal right to it. Darcy withholding it is far worse than even the allegation that he didn’t give Wickham the living, for in the original, Wickham acknowledges he didn’t have a legal argument. He does here. Rather than having Darcy flawed for looking down on the Bennets and having a horrid proposal we have this flaw.

As for Elizabeth, yes she shouldn’t have said what she did. Her argument is not without merit but is poorly articulated. Just like Canon. In essence, the last chapter was the Hunsford Proposal. Next, comes the letter, or in structure terms, the big twist. Are you ready for it?

Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three / Four


Chapter Five

Elizabeth returned to the inn and plead a headache when her aunt and uncle asked why Mr. Darcy did not join her. She did not lie. This time, however, her tears and the subsequent pain in her head was not because of him as much as what she had said and felt.

She had badgered Mr. Darcy and forced him to confess everything to her, but she barely gave him a moment to breathe. Did she not feel anger at the man who seduced her sister and brought about her death? She might have blamed herself for setting Lydia off, but in her heart of hearts, Elizabeth knew that Lydia had always been flighty. She had remained unchecked by her parents. Eloping while on holiday was perhaps a natural consequence.

She had never voiced her concern to anyone save Darcy, and no one had ever laid it at her feet. He had understood in a way that only someone who also blamed themselves could. How could she say something so cruel and thoughtless to him? He had offered the one thing she had searched for her whole life—someone to understand her. And she used that against him.

It did not sound as though Georgiana or Mr. Wickham had asked for her dowry. If they had married in a church, he would have been bound by law to give the money. As a solicitor, Mr. Wickham would know that more than herself. Why would they not request her income? She fell asleep determined to find out more from Wickham on the morrow.

The following day, she coerced her relatives to walk with her and visit the Wickhams. Once they were duly engrossed in conversation with the older man, she turned her attention to George.

“I am sorry Mr. Darcy arrived during your call. You seemed most uncomfortable to have present. I suppose it must be many years since you have last seen him despite your close proximity.”

George sighed. “Yes.” He took a sip of his tea then shook his head. “No. With you, I must always be truthful.” He searched her eyes. “Something about you compels me to explain my woes, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth steeled herself to be as attentive as she ever could be. She hoped he would reveal the information she desired without requiring her to ask leading questions. “I can hardly credit that,” she said.

“It is quite true. It is though you have bewitched me and I can deny you nothing.”

Elizabeth thought he was being charming, but then he dropped his eyes.

“I had not thought to feel that again. I had not expected to fall under the spell of another woman.”

“I am sorry to hear you have suffered at the hands of another. Do you now mean to tell me a story of a woman’s inconstancy?”

“No,” George whispered. “No, my wife was loyal and devoted. I never wondered about her fidelity or love for me.”

“You must have been fortunate indeed.” She glanced around the room. “Pardon me for saying, I mean no offense, but perhaps she would have felt differently had she met with richer men.”

“I can see how you might think that. To be sure, I have very little to offer any lady. However, my wife came from one of the wealthiest families of the land. She was willing to forsake them all for me.”

“Did she not have a significant dowry?”

“I could not petition for it. I would not put Darcy through that from me again. I desired him to respect me as a brother. I had mistreated him in our youth, I had been vain and callous.” George shook his head. “He could not trust me.”

Elizabeth tried to look astonished. “Mr. Darcy!” she whispered.

George glanced at the others before returning his gaze to Elizabeth. “I made it clear to Georgiana we may never have her income to live on. I wanted to prove my worth to Darcy on my own merit.”

Elizabeth sucked in a breath. Could these two men had been so blind to one another? “That was very brave of both of you. She did not mind living here?”

George looked a bit ashamed of himself but shook his head. “We had eloped, but by the time we returned to Pemberley we had decided we wished for a church ceremony instead. I thought it would grieve my father too much—he had been so devoted to Mr. Darcy. There was no concealing it from her brother, however. She died before we could arrange matters.

“I am very sorry to hear it,” Elizabeth said. “I have only lost a sister. I cannot imagine the grief of losing a spouse.” Although, she acknowledged, she might have lost her chance with Mr. Darcy.

George gave her a sad smile. “I loved her so much—my whole life it seems. Although hardly in that way the entire time. However, she would not have wished me to be melancholy.”

“Have you spoken with Mr. Darcy about it? You must both miss her terribly.”

“He never believed that I loved her.” An anguished sob tore from his throat which he quickly covered with a cough. “Pardon me, the winter weather, I fear.”

“Yes, let us think of other things,” Elizabeth said with forced cheerfulness. “Have you drawn up a guest list for the ball?”

“I began last night,” George grinned then stood to find the paper.

For the remainder of the visit, they talked about plans for the ball. Elizabeth was pleased she did not need to think too much. Her mind was occupied with the confessions of each gentleman. If Darcy could learn to see past the errors of George’s youth and if George could see past Darcy’s anger, they could find common ground and friendship.

In her room at the inn, Elizabeth asked herself why it should matter. They could both live perfectly fine lives without speaking to one another ever again. They mourned a girl whom Elizabeth had never met. It all should be nothing to her, and yet she could not deny the kinship she felt to them. She had felt something more for Mr. Darcy…if she had not ruined it.

The next day was Sunday, and she knew she would not see Darcy. On Monday, Elizabeth’s feet carried her to a familiar path near Pemberley’s grounds. The estate was so massive, and Darcy surely had so many responsibilities that she dared not hope to see him again. However, she persisted in walking there over the next three days. At last, she saw him again.

“Miss Bennet,” he said while flushing and quickly bowed.

Elizabeth coloured as well. “Good morrow, Mr. Darcy.” Neither one spoke for several minutes. Elizabeth moved, determined to return to the inn.

“I regret that I have not seen you in several days. How have you been?”

Elizabeth looked at him over her shoulder. “Evading the questions of my aunt and uncle.”

“Forgive me,” he whispered. “I have been much occupied with estate business and could not manage time to call.”

Elizabeth whirled to face him. “Do you still wish to?”

“Certainly,” he said. “I am delighted in my acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.”

“I meant,” the words rushed out of Elizabeth’s mouth and she forced herself to calm. “I meant did you still wish to call upon me?”

“More than ever,” Darcy said as he approached. “I regret our last parting. I always seem to do or say the wrong thing. However, I think we ought to be honest with one another. It is one of the things I most admire about you.”

“Indeed, I have always been honest with you and appreciate that about you. I understand from your perspective that your sister’s marriage to Mr. Wickham appeared as yet another instance of his abuse against you. However, might there not be another way to look at things?”

“I do not know that I wish to discuss this with you again. I would not like to disagree every time we meet.”

“Would you prefer honesty or for me to agree with everything you say? I am no sycophant, sir.” She raised her chin.

“I would not wish you to be. If I wanted a woman to agree with everything I said, I would marry one of the ladies I have met in Town. That is not one of the reasons I wish to know you better.”

“Why do you wish to know me better?”

Darcy reached for Elizabeth’s hands and squeezed them. “I cannot put it into words. I am drawn to you.”

“I think most others would say I have drawn you in.”

“Why would they say that?”

“I am nothing compared to your status. My relations are in trade, as you know. I have no superior acquaintances and am only worth fifty pounds.”

“Never say that,” Darcy approached closer. “A woman’s worth is not weighed in pounds and pence. It is only a mathematical equation, not a testament of a woman’s value or the love in a man’s heart.”

Elizabeth let out the breath she had been holding and squeezed his hands in return. “Nor does a gentleman’s income define the love in a woman’s heart.”

Darcy’s eyes lit up as an immediate smile came to his face.

“I am not interested in your income or your estate. I only wish to know that you are a kind gentleman and master. Do your servants and tenants respect you or fear you? If I had not a penny in the world or the command of all its riches, I would only wish for the same. I would wish only to be loved by the one so dear to me as well.”

“Elizabeth,” Darcy whispered as he pulled her to him.

A piece of Elizabeth’s heart melted at his ardent display, but she had not meant the words as he took them. Or, she had not thought she had. Did she love him? It was far too early to know was it not? “I am sure your sister felt the same.”

“What?” Darcy asked in disbelief as he peered down at her.

“Your sister must have loved Mr. Wickham very much,” she said. He let go of her and Elizabeth immediately mourned the loss.

“What are you saying?”

“He claims to have loved her greatly and still mourns her.”

Pain and anguish crossed over Darcy’s face. “Has this all been a guise on his part? How much does he want from me this time? What has he paid you?”

Elizabeth drew back at the insult. “How dare you!”

“Tell me what I am supposed to think, Elizabeth! You claim my moods fluctuate but what of your own? One moment you accept my advances and the next you say I broke my sister’s heart by not handing over thirty thousand pounds to a known fortune hunter. You speak words of love and then say they were only about Wickham and my sister. If you have any care for me—”

“I do!” she cried. “I do care for you. I want you to find peace. It was terribly wrong of me to say what I did. I am sure you did not break your sister’s heart.”

Darcy searched her eyes. “But am I breaking yours?”

Elizabeth looked at the ground.

“Why does it matter if I make amends with George Wickham? Why should you care about him?”

Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “If you do not see the reason to end injustice and heal the breach with an innocent party then you are not the man I thought you were.”

“You say he truly loved Georgiana, but I have experienced his cruelty and craftiness many times through the years. Why should you accept his word over mine? What proof do you have that could not have convinced me while Georgiana lived?”

Elizabeth felt tears stinging her eyes. “I only know what I have seen, sir. There was no guile in his voice or look when he expressed his love for your sister and explained why he never asked for her money. Do you doubt love’s ability to change a person—or rather to reveal their truth?”

Darcy turned away from her. Disgust flashed on his face. “You would see love where there is none.”

“Love cannot be proven with words, only actions. It is Christmas. If you cannot find love and forgiveness at this time of year then when can you?”

He would not look at her but said in a voice so cold it chilled her heart. “I can never forgive him.”

Tears streamed down her face. She could not bear another interlude like this. Did he mean that she had imagined the love in his voice and looks as well? Without another word, she returned to the inn. It would be the last she saw of Fitzwilliam Darcy, she vowed.

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Four

how darcy saved christmas 1Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three

Chapter Four

For the first time in three years, Darcy awoke feeling something other than the weight of his sister’s demise on his heart. At first, it had been a crushing and searing pain which made it hard to breathe or focus. Over time, it morphed into a stony coldness.

Yesterday, he had handed out the Boxing Day boxes to his servants and tenants. In the final year or two of Georgiana’s life, she had performed the task. Darcy could still recall the pride he felt seeing his sister fill their mother’s shoes and doing the duties of a mistress of an estate. He had never understood why she would give that up for George Wickham. Still, his anger with George had reduced to a simmer. He acknowledged the memories of Georgiana but no longer felt despair. However, he also could not feel any happiness as the families welcomed him inside and thanked him for his generosity. In each home joy and love was nearly tangible and yet he could not reach out and grasp it. It was like a puff of smoke which vanished at the slightest movement.

Meeting Elizabeth yesterday changed all that. He felt more with her than he had in years and it had been that way at each encounter. It could not only be her beauty—for he had seen lovelier ladies in London. She was not coy or flirtatious. She did not set out to garner his notice. No, she was refreshingly honest and genuine. More than this, she too had known the loss of a sister. Elizabeth could not understand the similarities in their stories, but soon he would tell her. He had never shared the information with another soul—even his family. However, unburdening himself to Elizabeth seemed exactly right.

Planning to call on her at the inn, he ordered a bouquet of flowers to be prepared from the greenhouse. At the edge of his property, he halted the carriage and plucked a few holly stems to add to the bouquet. If he were feeling bolder, he would have looked for mistletoe. With any luck, he would dine again with Mr. Fisher during the holiday season, and that gentleman might have some hanging. Or, better yet, they could continue to meet privately in addition to public courting.

Darcy shook his head to dispel his wayward thoughts. Private encounters and the luxuries experienced must be reserved for another time. Suddenly, he realised he had been so intent on seeing Elizabeth that he had not considered what to say. She had led all their previous conversations—one nothing but angry retorts, and the other two full of mourning their losses.

He knew the taste of her lips, the feel of her in his arms, the compassion and sympathy of her heart, and the loyalty of her soul—but he did not know if she preferred dancing or reading. If she played pianoforte or would rather indulge in cards in the evening. Darcy smiled as he thought of getting to know all of Elizabeth and for once he did not dread conversation with another.

Arriving at the inn, the maid showed him up the stairs to the suite of rooms the Gardiners rented. The first thing Darcy saw when the door opened was Elizabeth wearing a radiant smile. The next thing was the Christmas decorations, which were so sparse elsewhere in the town. He chuckled to himself as he now knew the reason for her thievery. His eyes were so consumed with her beauty and his mind so pleasantly engaged, he did not register anyone else in the room. A voice he had hoped to never hear again killed his joy.

“Darcy! What are you doing here?” George Wickham asked.

Darcy looked at the man he blamed for his sister’s death. No, that was not the reason rage now built in his heart. It was that George sat next to Elizabeth and, as his eyes now roved the area—had also brought a bouquet. Was George trying to court Elizabeth? How did they even meet? Why did she say nothing during their conversation yesterday? If she enjoyed Wickham’s company then why did she welcome his kisses so much? Was this all a plot against him?

Darcy realised all the occupants of the room stared at him, expecting a response. The colour had drained from his face, but he needed to say something. Elizabeth looked at him, a hopeful expression on her face. “I have requested permission to call on Miss Bennet. What are you doing here, George?”

George started, and even Elizabeth looked taken aback.

“Mr. Wickham is merely returning our call,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Allow me to take these, are they for Lizzy?” She asked as she took the bouquet from Darcy’s hands.

“Yes, ma’am.” He looked at Elizabeth and then Mr. Gardiner. “I hope you will not think it too forward of me.”

Elizabeth beamed. “I do not know of any lady who turns away flowers—and such a beautiful bouquet.”

“You seem to know about Lizzy’s love for holly,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Oh, please be seated.” She motioned to a chair as she belatedly realised she had missed that piece of civility.

Darcy boldly took her now empty position next to Elizabeth. With Wickham in the room, he would not Elizabeth out of his earshot. For a moment, nothing was said. Darcy and Wickham stared at each other with Elizabeth in the middle. How had Wickham known? How did he always try to take what was most precious from Darcy? First his father, then his sister, now Elizabeth.

The direction of his thoughts propelled Darcy to say something. How could he count Elizabeth as so crucial to his life already? Nor did he relish the idea of being in love. He never wanted to experience the anguish of losing a loved one again. “It was delightful to see you at your father’s, Mrs. Gardiner. I am sure your parents are pleased about your visit.”

“Indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “My father has relished telling everyone old stories of all my childhood mishaps and pranks. I would blush, but it is a parent’s prerogative to embarrass their child—apparently regardless of age.”

“I would agree with you,” Wickham said. “My father enjoys endless tales of my exploits. Even more than that, he relives the days of his friend and companion Mr. Darcy. Does Mr. Fisher ever speak of the old master?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Gardiner nodded. “He highly revered him.” She paused and caught Darcy’s eye. “However, he also greatly respects the current master of Pemberley. I hope I do not embarrass you too much by saying so to your face, Mr. Darcy.”

Wickham had been inexplicably rude to speak like that and Darcy nodded as he accepted Mrs. Gardiner’s form of an apology. “Few men could hear themselves praised by a gentleman as upstanding as Mr. Fisher and not be humbled. I am pleased to have earned his respect, and he certainly has mine.”

“No greater claim than this can any man have,” Mr. Gardiner said as he raised up his teacup as though in a toast. “To have the respect of his honourable peers is all he could want in life.”

“I would add that a gentleman might want a wife to be a blessing to him. The gift of a loving woman is surely a balm to many a man who has not garnered the respect of their fellows,” Wickham said.

Darcy’s hands tensed. To avoid being noticed, he occupied them with the tea Mrs. Gardiner served them. He remained silent until the others discussed some matter of Lambton life with George. He turned a bit to Elizabeth, who seemed to notice his movement immediately.

“How has your day passed?” he inquired.

“We were surprised to have a visit from Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth whispered. “I had expected someone else when I heard the knock.” She gave him a meaningful look. “I fear I quite insulted him with the disappointment on my face. I have been attempting to make it up by being as civil as possible.”

Darcy glanced at the man who had been a thorn in his side all of his life. Although he listened to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Darcy thought he could tell that Wickham attempted to watch the interaction between Darcy and Elizabeth. “Your aunt said that he was returning your call?”

“Before Christmas, I was admiring the window displays at his office. He invited us in for tea. We sat with him and his father for many minutes.”

“How was Mr. Wickham?” Darcy asked in genuine concern. The man had supposedly retired for his health sake but then opened his old law practice and became a recluse as soon as George finished his studies.

“Aging and I suppose he does not do much of the work at the practice. However, his pride in his son was unmistakable.”

Darcy knew it to be true. “Have you seen the younger Wickham since then?”

“No. We were busy over Christmas. However, his visit did put us in good cheer for he hopes to host a Twelfth Night Ball at the inn and has asked for our particular assistance in planning the festivities.”

“A Twelfth Night Ball,” Darcy said in a voice which could freeze water.

Elizabeth met Darcy’s eyes. “Yes. Many people enjoy such frivolity, especially at the Christmas holiday. I hear your parents used to host them so you ought not to look as though you have never heard of such a thing.”

Oh, he had heard of them. He only wondered how Wickham was funding it. “What do you imagine my objection is?”

“Me?” Elizabeth feigned innocence. “I did not say you objected to the ball.”

“No, but your reaction to my words was clear. You believe I disapprove. You may as well tell me what you think is the cause of my dislike.”

“I suppose you do not condone anything but pious worship through the holidays.”

“Nonsense,” Darcy said. “I will say, however, if the ball does proceed, I hope to obtain your hand for a set or two.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I do not know that I should grant them to you. I think you will be rather a trial to dance with.”

“I am an excellent dancer.”

“Then I ought to refuse for certain. There is little use in a lady having a superior partner. You will only make me look inept in contrast.” Elizabeth held her lips together as though she were hiding a laugh.

“Do not tempt me to do something drastic before your relations,” he warned.

Elizabeth sobered, but a curious look entered her eyes. “I shall inquire more later. For now, I forfeit. I do not know why you seemed unhappy to hear about the ball if you do not hate dancing or the holiday.”

“I am no friend of dancing,” said he, “however, I cannot like you with another man. Even more, I cannot bear to see you with the man who murdered my sister.”

Beside him, Elizabeth gasped. “Are we not safe?”

“You are perfectly safe,” and he would do his best to ensure she always was. “I will explain more later.”

There was a lull in conversation between the others, and Wickham withdrew his watch. “I must be going. However, I hope this was the first of many delightful visits during your holiday in the area. Well, the second visit I should say.” He glanced at Darcy. “I will bid you adieu and look forward to our next encounter.” He then bowed to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and, turning to Elizabeth, took her hand in his and brought it nearly to his lips. “It has been most enchanting, Miss Bennet.”

Darcy glared at his back as he realised he had never hated the man more. Elizabeth visibly relaxed at his exit.

“Are you well, Lizzy?” Mrs. Gardiner asked. “You seem flushed.”

“Perhaps some fresh air,” Darcy suggested. “I would be pleased to escort you.”

Mr. Gardiner gave his assent, and Darcy beamed with pride to have Elizabeth at his side as he walked the streets of Lambton. He had expected for her to take his arm, however. All thought of what he might say to her had vanished when he saw Wickham in the room. Now, everything he wished to speak could not be said so openly. They reached the edges of the town and Elizabeth ceased her movement. Tilting her head, she stared up at him with a defiant look.

“Explain yourself, sir!”

“What do you mean?”

“I tire of the fluctuations in your character and demeanor,” she said as she rubbed her temples. “You are kind, warm, and generous in one moment and in the next, you are cold and spiteful. You accuse a man of killing your sister and yet I must surmise there is no evidence for he walks free.”

“Do you not see the common reasons for my coldness? My sister is dead, and it is because of him,” he spat the final words. He thought Elizabeth understood.

“No, I do not see any reason. I do not know the circumstances of her death,” she added in a more subdued tone. “However, I think I know enough of your character that if she had truly died at Mr. Wickham’s hands, then you would not rest until justice was served.”

Darcy gently took Elizabeth by the elbow and lead her further down the path. If it were warmer, he would find a hidden tree for them to sit under. He would hold her in his arms as he spoke the painful truth. However, he did not wish for her to catch a chill. Walking would have to suffice.

“You already know that George Wickham has been connected to my family since his birth. I explained that my father sent him to school. He was very fond of George. At the time, it seemed, to me, he took greater joy in the steward’s son than in me. I now realise my father was harsher on me because he was my parent and I would one day bear great responsibility. However, what it meant was that neither one of us were much at ease with the other.”

Elizabeth nodded but remained silent. Darcy was sure this was not the information she wished to know. “My sister had a sensitive and tender heart. Although I soon broke contact with George after my father’s death, she retained only happy memories of him. Too grieved to explain the matter to her—as indelicate as it would be for a lady’s ears—I did not wish to make her think poorly of our father. She never knew of Wickham’s perfidy. After she finished her schooling, she requested to go to Ramsgate with her governess. She was to meet two or three other friends there. I was busy with estate business and could not chaperone her the entire time. However, her friends did not come or did not stay as long as she had thought, I gather because soon the only acquaintance she had in the area was Mr. Wickham. He appeared by design. I discovered later that he had previous knowledge of the governess. He convinced Georgiana that they were in love and to consent to an elopement.”

Elizabeth gasped.

“You did not think your sister was the only one to think herself run away with love, did you?” He took her small hands in his and squeeze them. “When they returned from Scotland, they visited Pemberley. George did not have sufficient income to keep his wife. There was not adequate space in the house in Lambton, and they had both thought better of their elopement. He thought it would be better to have my sister remain at Pemberley while he worked to secure better arrangements. They would then marry in the church as an elopement would upset Mr. Wickham.”

Darcy sighed as the old pain emerged. He welcomed it compared to the months of nothingness he had felt. “I agreed to the suggestion. I hoped I could convince Georgiana to not continue with the marriage plans. A Gretna Green marriage could be argued as invalid or illegal. She was underage, and in England, it never would have happened. I never would have consented. However, even a Gretna Green marriage is not so easily undone when the couple lives as man and wife.”

Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. She could guess what came next.

“My sister was soon with child. She felt no remorse at their secret marriage. She was filled only with the joy which I imagine most new mothers feel. She loved that baby, and she loved her Wickham. I chose not to argue, I did not want to risk her health. Plans for a church wedding were halted. They would simply present the marriage as a fait accompli.”

“But she continued living at Pemberley?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yes. We thought it best until George could procure better lodgings.”

“Was there nothing you could do for them? What about the living he had been intended for?”

“It was given to another shortly after he rescinded all claim to the post. As a solicitor there was only so much in my sphere of influence I could do.”

“But you said he killed your sister! He did nothing more than any other husband. You could find yourself in such a position one day.”

As Elizabeth said the words, it felt as though she punched him the gut. Would he one day see her as lifeless as his sister? The thought tore at his heart. Would he give up whatever claim it was she had on him to prevent such an occurrence? Only celibacy and spinsterhood could entirely prevent such a possibility. He could hardly fathom her leaving to return to Hertfordshire let alone never marrying—or far worse, marrying anyone but him.

“Who can I blame, Elizabeth? Who is to blame but George?”

“I do not know,” Elizabeth said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “It is a circumstance of life—an accident. No one is to blame.”

“Then why do you grieve for your sister so?”

“If I had given her more attention. If I had not teased her. Perhaps she would not have desired to marry so young. Perhaps she would not have desired to prove herself. She would not have eloped. She would not have died. I can only blame myself.”

Darcy could not stand the sight of Elizabeth sobbing and shivering. He pulled her into his embrace. He held her close and rested his head atop of hers. Soon, both their tears mingled on his jacket.

“I cannot blame her,” Darcy said. “She was too young. Of course, she thought she was in love.” He gripped her tighter. “I can only blame myself. It is my fault. She wished to leave me. I withheld her dowry. If I had given them her money, they would have had different living situations.”

Elizabeth drew back then. “You denied them her portion?”

“I was convinced it was all George wanted. Thirty thousand pounds is a substantial sum.”

“Why, that would be nearly as much as my father’s income! They could have leased a large house. Far better than living above a solicitor’s shop.”

“It would have still been nothing to Pemberley. It is not as though I made her live in some shack exposed to the elements.”

“You ought to have given them the money,” Elizabeth insisted. “You broke her heart.” She dropped her head and whispered something.

Elizabeth turned to walk away, and Darcy did not follow after her. Her final words echoed in his mind, but instead of seeing that he had broken Georgiana’s heart, all he could think about was those final whispering words. He had broken her heart.

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Three

how darcy saved christmas 1Previous Chapters: One / Two

Chapter Three

On Christmas Day, Elizabeth awoke to silence. She had accepted her aunt and uncle’s offer for this journey so she could be rid of the memories in Hertfordshire which haunted her. Her mother had never recovered from Lydia’s death. She blamed her husband in a variety of ways. As such, there was even less peace than usual in the household. Mary droned on and on about the importance of virtue and hopes that Lydia sought divine forgiveness before her demise. Jane forced cheerfulness while Kitty alternated between wailing almost as hard as Mrs. Bennet and wishing she had gone to Brighton and got a husband. Whatever comforts Longbourn once posed for Elizabeth were long gone.

She stupidly had thought they could have an enjoyable Christmas holiday away from cares of the past. Yet, here they were in an area with an embargo on Christmas cheer and a man suffered much like she did. She looked for him at church, but soon understood he attended a parish closer to his home. Before returning to the inn, they walked past the Lambton graveyard and paused at the Fisher mausoleum to remember Mrs. Gardiner’s sister who died too young. Elizabeth keenly felt her inability to do such a thing for Lydia. Not only was she not at Longbourn, but her sister was also buried at some church in Newcastle—which her mother often bemoaned. At least Mr. Darcy could visit his sister’s graveside.

Despite her best efforts, Elizabeth spent the rest of the day in a morose frame of mind. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner allowed her as much privacy as they could although they dined with the Fishers once more. That evening, not even the puppies could lift her spirits.

Boxing Day dawned with sunny skies, and Elizabeth felt the call to walk in the crisp air. She had spent too much time indoors yesterday, that was the cause of her melancholy. Once more, she walked in the direction of Pemberley. She had not meant to walk so far but soon saw a tenant cottage. Mr. Darcy stood outside with his arms full of a basket and blankets. A family gathered at the door before inviting him into their home.

Curiosity compelled Elizabeth forward. Something about Mr. Darcy had drawn her notice since she first heard of him. Mr. Fisher and Aunt Gardiner greatly revered him while Mr. Wickham and others made him seem unbearable. The paradox intrigued her.

As she considered seeing him again, she could not forget their last encounter. He had been so kind and comforting and then so cold and aloof. Did he think she meant to entrap him? Was he embarrassed by her behaviour? Quelling her courage, she determined to speak with Mr. Darcy when he emerged.

As she passed the house to continue on the path, where undoubtedly he would need to walk and therefore their meeting could appear accidental, Elizabeth could hear the squealing delights of children at new toys. What kind of master was he? Her own father did not deliver the Boxing Day bundles, nor did her mother. Such tasks had long fallen to Elizabeth and her eldest sister. Perhaps Miss Darcy had handed out the baskets, and Mr. Darcy now went in her stead?

A moment or two later, she heard the cottage door open and close, the family calling out thanks and best wishes to their landlord. A few more feet down the path and Darcy must have observed her for he called her name.

Elizabeth turned and gave him a smile, encouraged when he returned it. When he approached, she curtsied. “I hope you will forgive me for walking on your property again. You can see that I have no shears with me this time.”

“I ought not to have accosted you that way. I apologise.” He motioned forward, and they proceeded to walk.

Elizabeth raised a brow. “Have you suddenly partaken of the Christmas spirit or are you apologizing only because I am kin to Mr. Fisher?”

Darcy paused. “If I thought I should have apologised only because your acquaintances are known to me, then I should have on Christmas Eve.”

At the mention of that evening, Elizabeth could not help the blush which spread upon her cheeks.

“I was in a foul mood. You see, my sister perished on Christmas Eve.”

“I am very sorry,” Elizabeth said and felt a stronger tug on her heart than she had felt even before. “I had hoped Christmas would not be so trying for you.”

“That is very kind of you,” Darcy acknowledged. “Kinder than perhaps most others when they first meet a new acquaintance and far kinder than I deserve after I treated you so horribly.”

“It is no more than I would do for anyone in such a situation,” Elizabeth said and met his eyes. She wanted him to know that she did not set her cap at him. “It is not as though I do not know the pain of losing a sister,” she added.

“And how was Christmas for you, then? Do your parents live? Do you have any other siblings whom you are not with on this holiday?”

Elizabeth nodded. “My parents do live, and I have three other living sisters. One is older than me, and the other two are younger. Lydia was the youngest.”

“You must be close to each other. There were more than ten years between Georgiana and me. I fear she found me old and boring. She would have much preferred a sister.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Do not presume you know a woman’s mind, sir. I would have much rather had a brother. Sisters are fare too prone to steal your best and favorite things.”

A ghost of a smile played on Mr. Darcy’s lips. “I suppose she was not in much danger of me stealing her things. However, perhaps everyone always wants what they have not experienced.”

Elizabeth cocked her head. “Does that mean you had wished for a younger brother?”

“For many years, yes,” Darcy laughed. “I desired a playmate.”

“Were there no other boys near your age? I did not think it would be so unusual to play with the children of servants, even.” Elizabeth watched his reaction to her words. She had begun to wonder about George Wickham’s report. Mr. Darcy seemed contradictory but could he be so cruel as to fire Mr. Wickham for no reason and not give George the living?

“There was one boy with whom I was friendly,” Darcy acknowledged. “He was the son of my father’s steward, and for a time we were the best of friends.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing exceptional,” Darcy shrugged. “Children of different circumstances often cannot remain friends forever. I was the heir, and he was the steward’s son.”

Elizabeth frowned at his words. Mr. Darcy had been too proud to play with George!

“I did not expect to offend you,” Darcy said. “What has upset you?”

“I am neither offended nor upset,” Elizabeth hastened to say. It would not do for him to think that she had some personal feelings about the matter, although she was certainly disappointed in him. “I was only surprised to hear that your father would make it a point to end your friendship given what you said last night about having to learn every part of running an estate.”

“It was not Father that ended our friendship,” Darcy said. “Nothing would have made my father happier as he greatly depended upon Mr. Wickham. No, the younger Wickham showed a vicious propensity but concealed it from our fathers. I could not in good conscience continue the friendship.”

“How could that be? How could it be so concealed?”

“My father sent him to Eton with me. It was there that these traits came forward, but Wickham was always charming enough, so nothing was ever sent home.”

Elizabeth nodded. She did not doubt that George might have chosen the wrong path as a boy—after all, many do. However, the man she had met was very gentlemanly. She remained silent for a moment as she decided if she would rather know more about the younger or older Wickham. She knew if she pushed too hard, he would tell her nothing.

“I believe Mr. Fisher has spoken of the older Mr. Wickham with great respect,” she observed.

“Indeed. He was a faithful steward to my father and a talented solicitor before they met. I regret that he chose to resign upon my father’s death. I could have greatly benefited from his skill.”

Elizabeth fought to retain a neutral expression upon her face. George had told Elizabeth that his father was fired. Who was it was lying? Or perhaps there had been some misunderstanding? If George had not been there, then he would only hear it from his father’s mouth, but why would Mr. Wickham lie to his son?

“Mr. Wickham must have been very frugal to send his son to University. The younger Mr. Wickham must know how fortunate he was.”

“I am afraid not,” Darcy said. “His wife was a spendthrift, and their son has inherited her ways. I do not say this to boast, but my father paid for George’s schooling.”

“I suppose he had wanted the younger Mr. Wickham to follow in his father’s stead? First a solicitor and then his steward?”

Darcy shook his head. “No, George was intended for the church. Upon my father’s death, he resigned any such claim. I had long believed him ill-suited to the office.”

“Then how came he to be a solicitor?” Elizabeth turned her face to see Darcy’s, but he studiously avoided looking at her.

“He inherited some funds…and an interested patron assisted his quest to enter law.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Mr. Darcy was obviously the interested patron. “I am surprised he settled only for becoming a solicitor. If he had such a benevolent patron, he might have become a barrister. His fortune as a London lawyer would be far greater than a country attorney.”

“Indeed. I believe he had a greater interest in remaining near Lambton.”

“His father’s failing health?” Darcy visibly tensed. “I believe it is now my turn to apologise. I have been inquiring too deeply. You may even think me a gossip.”

Darcy cased walking and turned to her. “I do not think you are a gossip.”

“Indeed? I am happy to hear it, but you seemed quite unhappy with me last night.”

“You make me nervous,” he explained. “You unsettle me. You are too perceptive, too clever. I am nothing but an open book bleeding my heart and soul as ink to your beautiful eyes.”

Elizabeth’s breath caught after his impassioned speech. “You sent me away. I did not mean—I would never intend—for such things to happen,” Elizabeth blushed. “The emotion clouded my judgment.”

Darcy tilted his head. “Do you believe that I disapproved of you last evening? I was honoured to bring you comfort in your distress—I believe you do not generally give into it.”

Elizabeth licked her lips. Was she brave enough to address their near-kiss? He had felt something too, had he not? Was it all just because of his pain? That he had shared it with her? Or was there something more? She had never felt this with any other gentleman.

“I was angry with myself,” he explained, as he stepped closer.

“Why?”

“I do not believe in taking advantage of maidens. I had accidentally intruded upon your privacy and had hoped to provide a balm during your grief. My reaction to such was disgusting.” He stepped even closer, and his eyes searched hers.

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “I intruded upon your privacy this morning, and I am not grieving at the moment.” She hoped he understood although she could hardly explain it herself. She welcomed his attentions and trusted him.

“Elizabeth,” he said in a ragged breath and reached forward to stroke her cheek.

Elizabeth shivered and leaned into the contact. He pulled his hand back, and she mourned the loss of his touch. Unexpectedly, he tore his gloves off and shoved them in his coat pocket before returning his hands to her face.

“You are like ice!” he murmured as he stroked her rosy flesh.

Elizabeth mutely nodded as she watched the cloudy puffs of breath he created with each word. “I do not mind.”

She licked her lips to say more, but he groaned at her action. Before her brain could form another thought, he had pressed his lips to hers. She sighed at the contact, then he wrapped his arms around her. Her own wrapped around his waist. Fire replaced the cold she felt.

Suddenly, he jerked back. “Forgive me,” he whispered between deep exhales.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Elizabeth said shyly. She would not repent his kiss.

“Even still, I had meant to ask first.”

She smiled. “Doing first and asking forgiveness later has always been my preferred method.” Darcy chuckled, and Elizabeth rejoiced that she could bring him happiness, if even for a moment.

“May I kiss you again?”

Elizabeth nodded and smiled her consent. Then, Mr. Darcy’s soft lips met hers again and again. She had never kissed a man before. A stolen kiss from a neighbor boy when twelve hardly counted. Darcy’s kiss was warm and assured—not sloppy like that long ago experience.

He angled his head and continued to drink of her lips, experimenting with pressure and duration. Soon, he touched his tongue to her mouth. The tickling sensation made her laugh, and the tip of her tongue touched his. It sent a ripple of excitement through her body, and she gripped his waist harder, aware that his arms had tightened around her as well.

Curious and insatiable, she allowed him to tangle his tongue with hers, gliding and stroking until she thought she would melt or explode. Each touch was more pleasurable than the last, and still, she felt as though she were on a quest for some higher sensation. Their meeting became frantic, and Darcy walked her backward. Her back thumped gently against a tree, and he lifted her up, strong arms under her legs. The kisses were even more incredible from this position—he did not have to bend his head as much, and she was not on tiptoe. She wrapped her arms around his neck for balance.

Finally, Darcy slowed their kisses and brought her feet to the ground. The stood facing another one with grins on their faces as they caught their breath.

“Well, I’m not cold any longer,” Elizabeth laughed.

Darcy joined her, but the desire in his eyes had not lessened. It was as heady as the best wine.

“I am glad I could be of service.” He touched his forehead to hers. “I do not understand what you do to me, Elizabeth.”

She nodded for she did not understand it either, only she never wanted it to stop. For her, it was not merely an attraction or his intoxicating kisses. Since hearing about his sister, she could not help feeling that there was a connection between them. They understood something deep about one another. This time, it was Elizabeth who acknowledged she should return to her family.

“May I call on you at the inn?” Darcy asked.

“I would be distraught if you did not.”

“Truly?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “You did say you felt it your duty to ease my feelings in times of distress. I hope you will not add to it.”

“Never,” he vowed before sealing it with a kiss.

As Elizabeth returned to Lambton, she realised that she believed him. Aware that she was letting go of her usual cautiousness, she consciously chose to not look for reasons to doubt his honour and not to question the future they could have.

How Darcy Saved Christmas– Chapter Two

how darcy saved christmas 1Previous Chapters: One

Chapter Two

Fitzwilliam Darcy stomped through his woods toward the great house on the hill. It sat empty now; more like a tomb than a home. He should not have allowed the beautiful termagant to get under his skin, but he was in a foul mood this day. He could not forget that on this day three years ago, his sister died bringing a Wickham child into the world. However, the man that defiled her and brought about her death likely even now did not mourn her. He was probably too busy slaking his lust with the tavern maids to remember his departed wife.

Darcy clenched and unclenched his fists. He had been invited to Mr. Fisher’s for the evening, and he needed to calm himself. The year of Georgiana’s death, most of the area mourned with him. The following year, most people continued to remember her and did not invite him to festivities out of deference. Last year, invitations began again. This year, it was clear the rest of the world had moved on.

He knew the area depended upon him to lead in the Christmas spirit. His parents had hosted lavish balls for the gentry and gatherings for the townspeople, even the tenants. His sister had inherited their mother’s compassionate and lively character. For years she would plan each activity, insisted upon finding the yule log themselves, and showed the housemaids the best way to tie bows.

Perhaps if Darcy did not blame himself, he could more readily join the others. However, it was all his fault. He had failed her at some point, or she would not have eloped with the steward’s son. She returned to Pemberley a few weeks later, her new husband said he did not have the means to support her. Would she not allow them to live there?

Darcy had doubted the legality of the marriage. He journeyed to Gretna Green to find proof that they had actually reached the town and wed. It was a stupid custom, in his opinion, to allow anyone to marry over an anvil. However, his most significant concern was that they had never reached Scotland and George only used her for his pleasure.

He should have known better. Why would George miss an opportunity to attach himself to Darcy money, and thirty thousand pounds at that? The fact that George never asked for her money confused Darcy even more. Before anything was decided legally, she perished from pregnancy complications.

Pushing aside the memories, Darcy approached his dressing room. His valet awaited him with a bath and shaving supplies. These simple things had kept him going during the darkest days of his grief. Wearing the luxurious fabrics his wealth afforded him, the deferential murmurs and gazes of servants, having everything designed precisely to his liking all soothed him and reminded him that Pemberley, at least, he could control.

As it was, he both hated any mention of Georgiana and resented it when she was not brought up. What made him accept Mr. Fisher’s invitation, he was not sure. He had rejected offers from all the local gentry. Perhaps it was because Mr. Fisher knew his grief. His oldest daughter died at Georgiana’s age and the other married about ten years ago. As such, Mr. Fisher always knew exactly what to say—never too much and never too little.

At the appropriate time, Darcy arrived at Mr. Fisher’s house. He was shown into the drawing room and was surprised to see several faces he did not know. Mr. Fisher soon performed introductions and Darcy met his younger daughter, who had married a gentleman named Gardiner. With them was Mr. Gardiner’s niece, Elizabeth Bennet. The young lady was facing away from Darcy when he entered, but something about the way she held herself seemed familiar to him. When she finished her conversation with another guest, and Mr. Fisher went to introduce Elizabeth to Darcy, she turned to look at him.

They each visibly started, and Darcy was aware of the curious gazes of others. Why Miss Bennet was confused to see was him, Darcy did not know. Did she not believe him when he had introduced himself in the woods? For that matter, why should he be surprised to see her? She did say she was a relation to Mr. Fisher. Elizabeth’s lips turned up into an enchanting smile, and Darcy felt his pulse quicken. He had thought her exceedingly pretty in the forest with her rosy cheeks and eyes brightened by exercise and their conversation. However, he was even more annoyed by her trespassing, especially to collect holly berries.

“It is a pleasure to meet to, you Mr. Darcy,” she said and curtsied. “I have heard much about you.”

“Indeed?” What had been said about him? By now, he should know that all visitors to the area had heard of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Pemberley. Due to the situation of his birth, Darcy would never have the privacy other gentlemen experienced. This was nothing new, and yet he felt jealous that anyone else had spoken of him to Miss Bennet. Then again, he probably did not leave her with a very good impression of himself given their encounter in the woods.

“My Aunt and Mrs. Fisher have told me many stories of Pemberley and its Christmas celebrations. I confess I am sorry to miss them.”

What a clever minx she was! She did not tell him she had heard anything bad of him. She only acknowledged that she heard of Pemberley’s festivities and now they were gone. That she disapproved of the change was left unsaid. Darcy hardly cared whether she condoned his choices or not. What could she know of his trials?

Before he could reply, dinner was called. Mrs. Fisher had ordered a delicious meal and Darcy noted there were not too many decorations. There was one, however, the that struck him. Mrs. Fisher saw him looking at it.

“Miss Darcy embroidered that screen,” she pointed to where he was staring. “She gave it to me mere days before we heard the sad news of her demise. She had said she knew I would appreciate always having dear Harriet with us.” Mrs. Fisher wiped a tear from her eye. “She was such a sweet, loving child. I greatly miss her.”

“I am sure you do, ma’am,” was all Darcy could say lest he be given to tears as well.

“I do not cry for Harriet,” she said. “I do still miss her and always will, but a distance of twenty years eases the pain. No, I meant Miss Darcy. It seems as though she had just come back to us after her years at school only for them to be cut short. I like to think that Harriet is watching over Georgiana and teaching her the ways of Heaven.”

When she had done every eye at the table was misty and looked at Darcy with pity. Every eye, except for Elizabeth Bennet’s. Oh, he saw sympathy in them. However, he also saw curiosity. Darcy internally groaned. He had thought when they first met she would be too uncivil to mind her own business. She said she had heard of him, which he took to mean she had asked after him. Yet she did not seem to know about Georgiana’s existence let alone of her death. What was it the others had said about him? To him, Georgiana’s death made his entire world. It was his duty to protect his baby sister, and he had failed. There could be no going back from that.

Mr. Fisher quickly turned the conversation to other things and Darcy mentally think him. After the meal, the ladies went to the drawing room, but Darcy excused himself from remaining with the men under the guise of needing to check on his horse. He needed a moment to collect himself. As he slowly approached the stable, he heard the voices of young children and laughter. He was in no mood for such mirth, and thought to leave, but stepped on a twig which made a loud snapping sound. There was sudden silence then a flurry of whispering from inside the stable.

“Who goes there?” A young boy called out.

“I am Mr. Darcy,” Darcy said.

“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth’s voice said.

“You may enter,” the voice of the first child said. “But keep your hands where I can see them. Or else we will make you walk the plank.”

Intrigued and enjoying the idea of the distraction the children would give, Darcy chuckled and entered the stable with his hands high in the air. “I come unarmed. I mean you no harm.”

“That is for us to decide,” another boy said. “Lizzy you pat him down and see if he has weapons.”

Immediately, Darcy and Elizabeth both blushed red. She would not dare obey, would she? If she did, it would only prove what he had expected of her. She was mercenary and hoping to entrap him. Darcy had met many greedy ladies in his life. However, for some reason his heart sank at the idea of the young lady who would argue with him and had sat across from him at dinner all night without simpering and seeking his good opinion would be as shallow as nearly every other woman he had ever met.

“That will be quite unnecessary, Joshua,” Elizabeth said as she blushed and averted her eyes.

“That’s Captain!” the boy cried.

“Yes, of course.”

“Ye can stay if ye swab the deck,” Captain Joshua said and pointed to a shovel and a stable needing cleaning.

Elizabeth watched Darcy as he obediently took the shovel in hand and expertly began scooping out the stable. He could nearly feel Elizabeth’s eyes grow wide in wonder. The boys voiced their amazement.

“Who knew a stuffed shirt could shovel so well!”

“Caleb!” Elizabeth scolded.

“What?” the boy asked in a confused voice.

“It is disrespectful to call Mr. Darcy—or anyone—a stuffed shirt.”

“But he is.”

Elizabeth sighed. “If you want a position in the house when you get older like your father, then you will have to mind your manners.”

Darcy set aside the shovel for a moment and turned to watch the scene. Elizabeth stood before the boys with hands on her hips and a severe expression. The younger boy had his arms folded on his chest, and his face displayed an impressive stubbornness.

“Now, you should apologise to Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said.

“I ain’t,” Caleb said and raised his chin in defiance.

“Then, I shall tell your father.”

“Come on,” Joshua said and placed a hand on his brother. “Let’s just finish our work. Get on with it, so Papa isn’t told.”

“Fine,” Caleb stomped his foot and turned to Darcy. “I’m sorry for calling you a stuffed shirt since it looks like you’re not.”

Darcy would have chuckled, but Elizabeth continued to look displeased.

“Caleb.”

“I’m sorry for calling you a stuffed shirt.” Caleb bowed.

“You are forgiven,” Darcy said. “A lot of gentlemen do stuff their shirts after all.”

Elizabeth gasped and covered her mouth to muffle a giggle while the boys outright laughed.

“No wonder Papa likes you,” Joshua said.

Strangely, Darcy wondered if he had ever heard higher praise. He knew his own servants respected him, but to be liked by another’s staff was more remarkable. After all, he did not pay them. “Tell your father that I appreciate his good opinion. Jessop is one of the best butlers I have encountered.”

Again, Elizabeth gasped, and Darcy wondered why she seemed so astonished to hear him praise a servant.

“How did you get so good at shoveling manure?” Caleb asked and came closer. All his earlier defiance and anger was long gone.

“My father gave me such tasks when I was about your age,” he answered. “He thought I needed to know every facet of running an estate.”

Caleb scooted even closer. “Didn’t you hate it? It smells something awful.”

Darcy chuckled. “One becomes accustomed to it, as they do with everything.” Well, nearly everything. He had not entirely become accustomed to losing Georgiana. “Come, show me. I would wager a pence you cannot clean all this area in five minutes.”

“I sure can!” Caleb said.

In his haste to take the shovel from Darcy, the boy knocked over a pail. The noise startled a litter of puppies.

“Oh, the pups! They are why I came to the stables in the first place,” Elizabeth said. “Will you show me them now, boys?”

Joshua looked between Darcy and Elizabeth. “If I scoop out the other stall will I also get a pence?”

“Let me see,” Darcy said. “It is only fair if yours is fuller.” Darcy looked at the stall in question and nodded to the boy. “Very well.”

Joshua turned to Elizabeth. “Maybe Mr. Darcy can show you the pups. We’ve got work to do!”

Darcy had not considered staying any longer but was not averse to the suggestion. He glanced at Elizabeth whose eyes danced in joy as she watched the boys. She turned her gaze to him, and wariness flickered across her face.

“I should return to the house. It will be dark soon, and I would not wish to trouble you.” She turned to leave.

Panic welled in Darcy. She should not leave so soon. He had been wrong in his first impression and now desired to know more of the contradictory lady before him with her smart retorts but cautious looks. “It is no trouble,” he said. “I know the way quite well, and I think I might need to clean off my boots.”

Elizabeth angled her head to glance at his boots. “Very well, sir.”

Darcy gave her a small smile, and the lines between her brows returned. He grabbed a bucket and brush before they walked out and to the other edge of the stable. The dog pen opened to the outside and the furry lumps fell over each other to reach Elizabeth. Darcy sat on a stool and got to work on his boots, watching Elizabeth snuggle each pup as though they were meant for lap dogs and not hunting. Georgiana had been the same. She had such a tender heart for any living creature.

“Would you care to hold one?” Elizabeth asked.

He should not. He was scraping manure off his boots like some common man, and now he would get puppy fur on his fine blue coat. A refusal was on the tip of his tongue but one look into Elizabeth’s eyes and his resolve melted. He wordlessly held out his hands, mourning the fact that their fingers would have touched if not for the leather of their gloves.

The small bundle had no care for Darcy’s masculine dignity and proceeded to lick his face while yapping happily. Despite himself, Darcy felt his lips turn up in a smile. Soon, he was laughing at the tickling sensation.

“I knew it,” Elizabeth smiled.

“What?”

“It is impossible to be unhappy near a puppy.”

Her words made Darcy lower his handful, the puppy whined in protest. “You believed I was unhappy?”

Elizabeth gave him a shaky smile and tears shimmered in her eyes. “Anyone who has lost a sister would be.”

“Your aunt does not seem unhappy.”

“No, but as Mrs. Fisher said, it was many years ago. We lost Lydia just last year and…”

She trailed off and could not continue. Her shoulders shook. Darcy deposited his dog back in the pen and took Elizabeth’s from her hands. Leading her to the stool, she sat, and he crouched to wipe the tears from her face.

“Lydia was your sister?” Darcy asked.

Elizabeth somberly nodded. “The last time I ever saw her I called her silly and stupid. How the words haunt me!”

Darcy’s heart squeezed for the young lady before him. His last words to Georgiana were not unkind, but they had spent months arguing about George. “What happened?”

He had expected to hear of some awful accident. Instead, Elizabeth told him her sister eloped with an officer from the Militia that was encamped near her estate.

“She was too young,” Elizabeth sighed. “She had just turned sixteen, and the baby was too big, we were told.”

Elizabeth’s tears turned to sobs, and at the similarities in their pain, he was helpless against drawing her to his chest and wrapping his arms around her. She soon settled and pulled back, the perplexed look upon her face again. Darcy watched as a lone tear glittered in an eye filled with remorse and pain. She blinked, and the tear escaped, streaking down her cheek. Darcy caught it with his thumb as it brushed her lips. Lips which now captivated him. He angled his head down, not thinking or caring for anything but this moment with a beautiful woman in his arms who could share his pain. Elizabeth did not protest or move a muscle. Just before their mouths met, Darcy heard the pounding sound of running feet.

He jerked back, desire making it hard to breathe or focus. Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide with terror.

“Mr. Darcy, it’s been longer than five minutes, but we finished, sir!” Joshua called.

“I finished first!” Caleb yelled.

“Just a moment.” Darcy looked over his shoulder at the boys. “Go on back, I will be right there.”

From the angle Darcy sat at, Elizabeth was shielded from their view unless they came any closer. They obeyed, and Elizabeth let out a sigh. Darcy released Elizabeth from his hold, and she practically jumped from him.

“I—I—” she stammered then shook her head. “You are not what I first thought,” she said with wrinkled brow but growing more comfortable. “Thank you.” She approached and moved to place a hand on his arm.

“Return to the house, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said coldly.

What had just happened—nay, almost happened—could never be. He knew nothing about her but that her uncle was a merchant, her aunt the daughter of a shopkeeper and the magistrate, and she had a sister who eloped. Once, he would have scoffed at the sister’s morals and maybe questioned the entire Bennet family, but he could not cast the first stone. Whether of a good family or not, Darcy was not the sort of man who would steal a kiss from an innocent maiden. He would not be inconsiderate to her expectations and feelings. He would not be like his brother-in-law! Angry at himself and the bewitching spell she had cast over him, he infused all his frustration into his tone. Even still, Elizabeth hesitated.

“Now!” He said furiously as he turned to find the boys.