A shiver ran up Elizabeth arm as well bent over her gloved hand and raised it to his lips. A moment later, anger wracked her body and she snatched her hand away. Did he think he could show up five years after not a word and just resume where they had last met? She would not be his plaything again. However, it would not do to draw the notice of the whole assembly. Composing self, Elizabeth allowed will to place her hand on his arm as he escorted her back father.
“How wonderful you two look together,” Mr. Bennet observed with a sly glance with.
“Thank you, sir,” Will said.
Elizabeth clenched her teeth before she could say anything rude. She had seen Will and her father talking together earlier. Then she carefully watched as Will barely uttered more than a monosyllable to anybody else. His eyes peered across the room, and he frowned at everyone. Five years as the master of Pemberley had certainly inflated his ego. Why did he come at all? If the Bennets and Meryton society were no longer good enough for Fitzwilliam Will, then why would he come?
“Lizzy!” Mrs. Bennet called from across the room.
In any other scenario, Elizabeth would be mortified at her mother’s behavior. Now, she could never thank her enough for saving her from such an awkward situation.
“Come here my child,” Mrs. Bennet said at a more moderate tone and motioned at Elizabeth.
“Pardon me,” Elizabeth dropped a curtsy. She could feel Will’s eyes follow her.
“Mr. Graham has asked your hand for a set,” Mrs. Bennet said as Elizabeth approached. “Have you not, Mr. Graham?”
Mrs. Bennet’s eyes bounced between Elizabeth, and Mr. Graham with a smile fixed on her face. “Well, go.” She pushed the two on the dance floor.
Belatedly, Mr. Graham reached for Elizabeth’s hand and clumsily led her through the motions of the dance. The conversation was as dull as it had ever been. He was a few years older than Sam, so they had never been close, but Elizabeth had known him all of her life. Tonight’s conversation, just like all of her life, the man had bored her to tears. One of Meryton’s so-called finest gentlemen was not enough for Elizabeth’s mother. For three more dances, Mrs. Bennet continued to thrust gentlemen that Elizabeth had long refused to consider as suitors upon her.
The real insult of the evening, however, happened when her last partner stomped on her foot. After the dance ended, Elizabeth excused herself and went out to the balcony. Sliding off her dancing slipper, she massaged her poor toes as she leaned on the railing.
Elizabeth’s sighed as weariness slammed into her. She had thought she put all of her feelings for Will behind her. For five years, she had mourned this day as the death of her brother. Through the years, it had come to symbolize the end of her youth and naïveté as well. She could not say precisely when, but somewhere in the hopeless weeks and months after Sam’s death as she waited for Will to arrive at Longbourn or write to console her, her heart froze over.
The time has long passed, however, to be sad over her heartbreak. Instead, she embraced her anger at Will’s dismissal of her and his actions of the night. His imitation that he had written letters she had never answered was just another way he tried to manipulate her. Furthermore, her father knew who would be arriving nothing to warn her. While Will had not approached Mr. Bennet about Elizabeth’s hand before the fire, she found it hard to believe her father who had always been a shrewd observer did not notice their growing attachment. Nor could it have escaped him, due to Mrs. Bennet’s constant nagging on the subject, that Elizabeth never encouraged a suitor. Several gentlemen had made no secret of their desire to wed her. Whenever Elizabeth heard such a rumor, she found a way to signal to the man that she was not to be had. In the course of such, she had come close to entirely ruining her reputation in Meryton.
Elizabeth did feel sorry for her sisters though. Jane also was still unwed. Elizabeth’s next sister, Mary, had just turned seventeen. Mrs. Bennet desired to have Mary out in Society, but she would rather stay home and read. Tonight was one of the few occasions she could be forced out of the house. It was just as well in Elizabeth’s mind for her younger sisters were too young to want to marry. Would that she had not had it on her mind at the same age.
She heard the door to her side open and close and turned to look at whoever interactive her solitude. She held back a gasp at the presence of Will towering over her.
“I thought I could find you out here. You always would steal away for a few quiet moments.”
Elizabeth gulped at his nearness. So had he. Well, he had always wanted more than only a few moments of solitude. Still, it had been one of the things that united them. Elizabeth shook her head to dispel thoughts of the past and hated her traitorous heart for recalling it. Elizabeth turned back to face the visage of Meryton. Will came up beside her.
“I was surprised to hear you had not married since we last met.”
He spoke quietly, but Elizabeth nervously glanced around.
“Fear not, we are alone.”
Oh, she should fear that very, very much.
“As we often were,” he added as a whisper.
Enough of this foolishness, Elizabeth thought to herself. “From what I understand, you have no shortage of ladies you encounter unchaperoned.”
Will said nothing for a moment and then turned to face her. He leaned one arm on the balcony railing.
“Of what?” Elizabeth asked in an accusatory tone, giving away, she feared far too much emotion.
“Well, you have been without suitors since our…interlude. I suppose that would make any handsome young lady jealous.”
How dare he call her handsome? How dare he presume she had no suitors or that she was jealous of his lovers. The Elizabeth he had known five years ago would have slapped him for that, just as she had tried on the dance floor. Now, that she had gotten over the shock of seeing him, she could control her emotions better. She had learned to entirely conceal them after Sam’s death and Will’s abandonment, and she would not appear weak to him now.
Elizabeth turned to face him with raised brows. “I had forgotten you understood a lady’s mind so well.” She pointedly rolled her eyes to wordlessly illustrate her sarcasm. “However, I will tell you a few secrets you may not have gleaned. A woman does not need to be handsome to be jealous of the good fortune of another. In fact, most are only jealous of other women. So, you see I would have no cause for jealousy. For not only do I know I am pleasing to look at, but you are a man, and I cannot hate you for having a superior ribbon.”
Will stared at her. It was too dark for her to see the nuances of his expression. His eyes had always told her everything.
Abandoning his leaning position, he stood up straight. “Ah, then it must be the supposed other ladies I know that make you jealous.”
Elizabeth let out a hollow, mocking laugh. “I think not. What would I have to be jealous of? That they have tried to entrap the great Master of Pemberley? That they were used and discarded?”
Will took a step closer, and Elizabeth fought to keep her breath calm. His nearness had always wrecked havoc on her before. He still smelled of soap and sandalwood. His shoulders were broader, and he appeared more muscular than when she had last seen him. True, he was of age when they had met, but now he was a fully grown man. Every inch of him exuded confidence he had lacked at two and twenty. A part of Elizabeth that would never die screamed she belonged in his arms.
“Perhaps you are jealous of all the stories that claim I am in love with another.”
Elizabeth’s breath caught, and panic welled in her. Heart hammering, she fought to remain in control. She turned away from him once more. She could not be jealous of what he could not give. Elizabeth had no doubt that he loved any of those ladies any more than he had ever loved him. If the women were foolish enough to believe that after every rumour and year after year of his behaviour then she also had no pity for their broken hearts.
“I still have not heard anything that would give me a reason for jealousy. However, allow me to correct you on a few false presumptions. I have had many suitors.”
“You have not loved any of them?”
Did he sound closer to her? She refused to turn and look once more. She would not give him the satisfaction of knowing how he still affected her.
“Love is not necessary for matrimony. None of them have appealed to me on the most basic level. I must respect and esteem my partner. I must trust him and have faith in his good character. Men doing nothing more than waving their income in front of me and expecting me to swoon into their arms will be quite disappointed.”
“Oh, I know what it is to be disappointed by Elizabeth Bennet. I pity the foolish swains.”
“I have been out here long enough and feel quite refreshed now. Good evening, Mr. Darcy.”
Elizabeth turned to walk away. Will caught her wrist.
“Do not believe everything you read in the papers, Elizabeth. They did not know when I loved you.”
Before Elizabeth could do something stupid such as throw herself at him, he let her go and walked off. Elizabeth stood frozen in place, gaping after him. Did he mean to throw her whole world in tumult once more? Was this more of the game he played with country misses? Or was there truth and he really had loved her?
One thing she knew for sure, however. Whatever feelings he had for her five years ago were gone. He had said so himself and used the past tense regarding his alleged affection for her. Elizabeth could only hate herself that her love for him had not waned one iota in the nearly two thousand days since she had last seen him.
Will awoke after a night of fitful sleep. After leaving Elizabeth, seemingly stunned at his words, on the balcony, he danced every remaining set. Even as he distracted himself with other ladies, he was acutely aware of Elizabeth’s return to the ballroom. Despite the exhaustion of dancing too much, he found little rest that night. Once more, Elizabeth Bennet stole his peace and slipped into his dreams.
Sighing, Will sat up in the bed and swung his legs over the edge. His feet touched the plush carpet and memories washed over him. Years ago, he had heard about Netherfield. He had suggested that he might rent a house when he proposed to Elizabeth, although she invited him to stay at Longbourn. In the weeks of their time apart during his summer holiday, Netherfield came to Will’s notice. Even if he could stay at Longbourn while he was courting Elizabeth, they would need their own house once they married. She had a far larger family than he did and Meryton was convenient to London so Will might still visit with his sister and his father. He had envisioned residing in Netherfield as the master with Elizabeth as his wife.
Disturbed by the direction of his thoughts, Will rang for his valet and readied for a morning ride. Sam had told Will all about the Hertfordshire countryside, and he was eager to see it. Pushing aside disappointed hopes and frustrating encounters, Will let the calm of being in nature and breezing over the ground envelop him.
After galloping over meadows and meandering along trails, Will chose to climb the only hill in the area. Sam had always marvelled at the mountainous peaks of Derbyshire when he visited. All Meryton could claim was Oakham Mount, and as a man raised in the peak district, it was nothing special. Still, Will could understand for the locals, it would be a pleasing enough vista.
His horse tired and needing more exertion, Will tied Apollo off and went up on foot. As he crested the hill, he discovered another already there. From behind, most would not readily identify her. Still petite, Elizabeth’s frame could be mistaken for many ladies. A part of Will wondered if he had taken to seeing her everywhere but mere miles from her house, it only made too much sense. Just as he had discovered five years ago, there was not another lady like her. She alone would be the Meryton miss who chose to watch the sunrise from a hill, heedless of the way the wet grass stained her petticoats.
She had not changed…and yet she had. She was such a vulnerable mix of confidence and regret last night. Will turned their conversations in his head over and over as he attempted to sleep. She appeared shocked when he mentioned having sent letters. Had she never received them? Instead of jealous other ladies had tried to court him, she seemed hurt that he would bring it up.
Had he been wrong all those years ago? Had Elizabeth not rejected him? He could stand the uncertainty no longer. He had vowed to himself he would make her love him during this visit. With confidence that only the Master of Pemberley could hold, he strode to her side.
“Good morning, Elizabeth.”
She started, and he chuckled.
“Good day, Mr. Darcy,” she said after recovering, then turned her head forward once more.
“You look lovely. I always liked you in green. I am pleased to see you have not given up your love of nature.”
Elizabeth whirled to face him, red-faced. “Stop this! I insist you cease all familiarities. You have no right to call me by my Christian name. Nor do you need to incessantly bring up the foolishness of my youth.”
Mesmerized by the fire in Elizabeth’s eyes, Will remained mute. He had experience dealing with an angry Elizabeth. Additionally, her ire gave him hope. It could be her behavior indicated a false assumption. Did she believe he had abandoned her?
“I believe I have every right,” he said and stepped forward. “Do you forget the promises we made to each other?”
“Did I forget them?” Elizabeth nearly screeched.
Will welcomed her vehemence, but she took a deep breath and swallowed her emotions. In the blink of an eye, she was the proper miss again and had her mask fixed in place.
“I waited to hear from you. I had expected letters or perhaps some clue via Sam. Then, after he…” she trailed off. “You never came. You never wrote, not even to my father.”
“I gave my condolences in person.”
“And was that all we should have expected from Sam’s best friend?”
“Is that all you wanted from me? Acknowledgment of my friend?”
“No,” Elizabeth shook her head. “You must know what I wanted. What I longed for.” A tear escaped one eye, and she brushed it away. “Are you so cruel, after all these years, to make me say it?”
A part of Will needed to hear her profess that she had loved him and had desired his comfort. “I imagine realizing you lost a wealthy suitor so soon after the death of your brother must have been a hard blow.”
Elizabeth paled, and for a moment, Will thought she might be sick. He opened his mouth to apologise and offer assistance. She held up a hand, silencing him.
Hurt flashed in her eyes. “I never sought your attention. I set no trap. No matter what poison your relatives and friends may have told you, I was guileless.”
Will could bear the facade no longer. He did not wish to wound her. “I should have believed that.”
“Yes, you should have.” She raised her chin in defiance. Then, she shook her head, and her shoulders slumped. “It is no matter. We were reckless youths who had not even known one another a week. I will not hold you to what we pledged then.”
Elizabeth turned to look at the vista once more. “We were so young and naive. We did not know how our whole world could change in an instant. We did not understand the expectations we faced.”
This was the Elizabeth he had fallen in love with. The one who shocked him with empathy and wisdom, even if as she said, their romance had been reckless. “I was not so young or naive as you,” he said. “I knew my promises, and I meant every word.”
Beside him, Elizabeth’s breath hitched. Will turned to look at her, although her bonnet hid most of her profile. A gentle breeze played at the locks of curls which framed her face. Stretching forward a hand, he caught one shiny lock between his fingers. As he stroked the silky fibers between his gloved digits, he inched closer to her, drawn by a magnetic force he had never fully understood. “I did write to you, Elizabeth. I wrote every day for weeks. I received no replies. I could hardly ask Sam directly as he still did not approve of our attachment. I knew from his reports you were well.”
Letting go of her hair, Will sighed and looked to his feet. “By the time of the fire, I confess, I had thought you did not care for me at all.”
Elizabeth gasped, drawing his head up. She wrenched her neck in his direction. Tears shimmered in her eyes. “How could you think that of me? Did you have so little faith in my constancy?”
Shaking his head, Will withdrew a handkerchief and offered it to Elizabeth. “No. I had begun to believe you never loved me at all.”
“You supposed I set out to entrap you!” Elizabeth burst into tears.
“Pray, forgive me,” Will said and attempted to soothe her.
Elizabeth violently shook her head and wiped her eyes. Turning his handkerchief over in her hand, a look of disgust and derision crossed her face before she threw it at him. “You had so little respect for me that you believed I would act like all those other debutantes. Nay! You believed me worse. Did you think I acted as a strumpet for you?”
Guilt spread through him, causing nausea to rise in his belly. He had thought that. He had supposed she had found someone better as well. “Whatever disservice I gave you in my thoughts were nothing to how I abused myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I were a better man, you would not have forsaken me. You would have really loved me and not ran off to find richer pastures.”
“Will you are as stupid as ever!” Elizabeth cried, and her chest heaved. “Find a richer man? How? When did I ever care for such things?”
She stepped forward wagging a finger at him with her other hand propped on her hip. “I did love you!” She poked him in the chest. Dropping her chin, she whispered, “I still do.”
The breeze quit blowing, and birds stopped singing. The whole world stood still, Will was sure of it. “What did you say?” The distance between them now was thinner than paper. He had heard her words but needed her to consciously speak them.
Elizabeth remained silent. Will tilted her chin up, hoping to read her gaze. A blush had spread over Elizabeth’s cheeks, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
“I thought your courage always rose,” he said to bait her.
Her eyes flew open, meeting his. “I never stopped loving you.”
Will thought he heard a cracking sound deep in the forest, but it must have only been the walls around his heart collapsing before he pulled Elizabeth into his arms and covered her mouth with his.