The anxiety doesn’t wane much with this chapter!
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Will awoke when someone called his name, and there was a pounding on the carriage door.
“Mr. Darcy! Mr. Darcy! Do you live, sir?”
Will grunted at the noise, the effort and the sound making his head ache. Touching his fingers to his temple, he felt the stickiness of blood oozing from his head. Forcing his eyes opened, he looked around at his surroundings. His carriage was on its side, and he had fallen with it.
What had happened? All was going according to plan. They were some miles from Meryton when he had heard it—a gunshot rang out. The horses startled and the driver lost control. The carriage toppled and threw Will hard against its side. He quickly tested his bones—nothing was broken. He ached, but nothing fatal occurred.
Will did not recognise the voice. It must be one of the hired hands who were to wait at the posts. What was the fate of his driver? Outside the carriage, he heard the shouts of several men.
“I am here,” Will called out. “I live!”
“Over here!” The man outside cried, and Will heard several men approach. “Mr. Darcy, can you move to the door? We are going to try opening it again and hoisting you out.”
“Yes,” Will answered slowly. “Yes, I think I can do that.”
His legs buckled under the exertion at first, but he forced himself up. The door finally opened, allowing much-needed sunshine and fresh air into the cabin. A large man hovered over the opening and spoke through the door. His voice was not the one who spoke a moment before.
“Just grab my hand then, sir.” The man shifted to extend his arm into the cabin.
Will heard the walls of the carriage creak over his head. His eyes scanned for a place to put his feet or pull on for it would be much better to climb out than be lifted like some dainty woman. The entrance stood a foot or two above his head making it an awkward angle to pull himself out of. Spying the handle meant for assisting passengers in and out of the carriage, Will informed the men that he would not need their help. There was a jostling as the stout man clambered back down to the ground.
Grabbing the on the side, Will pulled on it as one hand gripped the outside of the carriage door. He gave a little hop and then lifted himself out. A simple enough procedure that took untold amounts of effort as his body still shook from the experience. Once outside, the gathered men cheered.
The big fellow from earlier laughed. “We thought you was tiny like all them lords are!”
“Mind your mouth, Jem,” the man from earlier said and approached. “Sir, we caught the man.” He motioned for two other burly men to bring a trembling man forward. “He is called Bradley.”
“I had to do it! I swear! He said he’d kill me children iffin’ I didn’t!”
“Who?” Will asked.
“He never told me no name.”
“You saw his face? You would know him again?”
“What do you want us to do with him?” The man who seemed to be their leader asked.
“Keep him for now. We will have to call the magistrate. However,” he hastened to add when the man protested, “we will inform him of the circumstances.”
The primary hand jerked his head, and the perpetrator was lead away. Now recovered from the shock of the accident, Will’s heart sank to realize Wickham had sent another to do his bidding. He ought to have expected that.
“Thank you for your assistance, Mr. ?” Will asked with a raised brow.
“Name’s Samuels, sir. No mister.”
Will’s lips twitched. It was as though Sam had watched over him. “Well, Samuels, have you seen Mr. Bingley?”
“The minute we knew you were alive, he jumped on his horse and ran off. Said something about telling your missus. He is also sending a doctor for the coachman’s leg. ‘Tis a miracle he lives.”
Will nodded. Charles had gone to tell Elizabeth that he lived. Bless his friend!
“You’ll be needing a horse to get back home, and we got an extra for you here.”
“Thank you.” Will acknowledged his thanks with a tip of his head. There was much left to clean up the scene and deal with the would-be assassin, but all of that could wait. “I trust you to see to this. Mr. Bingley will return shortly.”
Will mounted the proffered horse and raced to Longbourn. Arriving at Longbourn, he dismounted and opened the door without knocking. He nearly tore it from the hinges. He got no more than a few steps into the hall before Elizabeth ran and threw her arms around him.
“Will!” Elizabeth whispered before pressing kisses on his face as she sobbed.
Will tightened his arms around her. “There is no need to cry, my love. I live!”
“You do! I am so pleased it is all over!”
Her words ended the spell. “We must speak, dearest.”
“May I suggest my library?” Mr. Bennet said from down the hall.
“Of course, sir,” Will said and lead Elizabeth to the library.
Once in the room, Will explained the situation to his betrothed and her father. “I came here before approaching Wickham.”
“You do not think he has fled?” Bennet asked.
“No, we had men watching their camp.”
“Will this man testify against Wickham?” Elizabeth asked.
“I believe so,” Will answered. “First, he will have to identify Wickham before the magistrate. I will leave now to see to it.”
Mr. Bennet allowed the lovers a private farewell. When Will, at last, tore his lips from his beloved, he rode to Meryton confident of his victory.
As he approached the house used Colonel Forster’s headquarters, Will’s shoulders felt lighter than they had in years. The hired men had arrived with Bradley in tow. The magistrate had also preceded him. Bradley saw Will enter and begged for mercy.
“Just tell the truth, and you shall be rewarded,” Will responded.
Colonel Forster was announced and scowled as he looked at Will. “Mr. Darcy, I understand you have a severe accusation against one of my officers.”
“The same that you visited me about before?”
Forster harrumphed. “Get on with it then.”
Will told the story of his carriage accident and the apprehension of the man who fired the shot.
“And you swear that you were paid to cause this accident?” Forster asked Bradley.
“Yes, sir,” Bradley answered.
“And you, Mr. Darcy,” Forster nodded at Will, “acknowledge that Wickham could not have done this crime.”
“I understand that he was on duty for the day. However, he must have arranged matters with this man.”
“So, then all we need is to bring Wickham forward, and he should easily be identified.”
Will nodded his agreement. Still, doubt tingled in the pit of his stomach. Could Wickham have had another man meet with Bradley?
Wickham was brought in and looked surprised to see so many people.
“Lieutenant Wickham,” the magistrate began after introductions, “did you meet with this man and give payment for the intention of killing Mr. Darcy.”
“Certainly not, sir!” Wickham recoiled in offense.
“Mr. Bradley, is this the gentleman with whom you met?”
Bradley frowned. “No, sir. You must believe me though—there was a man! I dunno Mr. Darcy and would have no cause to hurt him otherwise.”
Wickham sighed in visible relief. Will had expected a smirk or a maniacal grin.
“Describe the man you did meet, then!” Will demanded.
“Mr. Darcy, I will ask the questions,” the magistrate reprimanded. Will nodded his apology. “Could you describe the man you met?”
“He did not much look like this gentleman, sir. He seemed slight…elegant. It was strange as he was dressed roughly.”
The magistrate and Will exchanged looks.
“Do you recall anything else?” the magistrate pressed.
“He had sandy blonde hair and his eyes…they seemed lifeless.”
The magistrate jotted down some notes. “Where did this meeting take place?”
Will whispered in the magistrate’s ear. The man nodded and turned to Bradley once more.
“You described the man as elegant. What did you witness which struck you as elegant?”
Will observed the man. If it had been something obvious about his mannerisms, then others might have noted it as well.
“I cannot say,” Bradley shrugged. “He was small, crafty looking. He thought well of himself, though.”
“He carried himself with arrogance then?”
“Confidence or arrogance—I would not know. He wore as much authority as any master I have had.”
“So, he did not seem to be a worker?”
“No,” Bradley shook his head. “His hands were not rough.”
“Can you remember anything else? Anything at all?”
“That’s all, sir.”
The magistrate frowned.
“You must believe me!” Bradley cried as the magistrate signaled for him to be carried away. “I have told the truth—I swear on the lives me children!” He continued to shout as he was carted off.
Forster looked at Will with raised brows. “It seems as though your business here is over, Mr. Darcy.”
“Might I have a word alone with Mr. Wickham?” Will asked.
“Only this last time,” Forster said, and the others left the room, leaving Will alone with his old enemy.
“Why?” Will asked.
“Why what?” Wickham returned.
“Why would you do this to me? Why do you hate me so much? What do you gain by my death?”
Wickham said nothing.
“You cannot think of marrying Georgiana. The parameters in my father’s will are very clear. She cannot marry without the consent of Richard or me. She has many years before she comes of age. Do you think you can control her for so long? And when her brother has died with suspicion of it being at your hands? I do not care how you have manipulated her—she is too intelligent and loving to wish me dead.”
Wickham only smiled.
“Say something!” Will demanded and beat his fists on the table.
The door flung open, and Forster came in. “That’s enough bullying my soldier, Darcy.”
Will grunted at the Colonel then threw a disgusted look at Wickham and left.
He left word with the magistrate that he would not press charges against Bradley before returning to Netherfield. The ride took far longer than usual. All the while, Will wondered how to explain this development to Elizabeth. Anxiety for her disappeared, however, when he was greeted with the tear-streaked face of Mrs. Annesley.
Full of restless energy after Will left, Elizabeth could not resist an invitation to walk to Meryton from Jane and Mary—even as they said Charlotte Lucas would be with them. Elizabeth had not made peace with her old friend yet. She was not entirely sure she could. It was forgivable that Charlotte had erred. She was very hurt by Sam and probably very embarrassed since Will had proved faithful. What Elizabeth wanted to know, however, was if Charlotte regretted her words. Did she think differently now? There could be no going forward if they did not.
“Will you not shake hands with me, Eliza?” Charlotte said, drawing close to Elizabeth. “I would wish we could be friends like we once were.”
Elizabeth sighed. “We cannot change the past. We cannot erase what has happened.”
“What of your philosophy to think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure?”
“I do have many great memories with you, Charlotte. However, it is less certain if our friendship can continue.”
“Can you not forgive me?”
“Do you wish for it?”
Charlotte hung her head. “More than I can say. I greatly wronged you. Pray, forgive me, although I know I do not deserve it.”
Elizabeth smiled a little. “Forgiveness is never deserved, nor is it earned. I know you meant well. Can you wish me joy?”
“Indeed, I do!” Charlotte said with what seemed like genuine feeling. “Mr. Darcy seems a very worthy young man. I am happy to see that he is untouched by the behavior that afflicted S—” Charlotte gulped. “Your brother.”
“He is the very best of men,” Elizabeth sighed. “I pray one day you may meet such a man!”
Charlotte shook her head. “Nay, such girlish dreams of true love are over for me. I delight in seeing my friends happy. And are we soon to wish Jane joy as well?”
Elizabeth grinned. “Mr. Bingley has asked for an official courtship. I believe they are a fair way to being in love with one another. They met years ago when Will and I did, you know.”
“I know,” Charlotte nodded.
“Did you ever meet Will or Charles in the old days? Or Will’s cousin Richard?”
“No,” Charlotte blushed. “The other day was my first meeting with Colonel Fitzwilliam. I know your brother enjoyed the company of all of them. I suppose it was only Sam that turned out so bad…and well, maybe Mr. Wickham.”
Elizabeth started. “Whatever Sam’s faults were they were nothing like Wickham’s.”
“No? Are you certain—” Charlotte paused when Elizabeth raised her chin, and her eyes flashed a warning. “I suppose you must know more than I do.”
“Indeed.” Elizabeth now extended her hand as Charlotte had done earlier. “Now, we may shake hands, my friend.” The ladies smiled and clasped hands before quickly embracing.
“Now, you all go into the shop,” Elizabeth said as they reached the outskirts of the town and Jane and Mary had turned to discover her intentions. “I will walk up and down the promenade.” She had hoped she could catch sight of Will as he left the encampment.
“You will be well on your own?” Jane asked.
“Of course,” Elizabeth nodded. “There can be no danger in it,” she said meaningfully to Jane who subtly nodded her understanding.
Charlotte and Mary looked confused but did not question the other ladies. Elizabeth wished them happy shopping and walked along the streets of the town she had known all her life with more cheerfulness in her heart than she had felt in years. She was free to love! Their battles were now over, and soon she would be married to the man who had captured her heart so many years ago. She could hardly imagine a more blessed woman than she!
Her happiness bubbled up and shone through her face. She greeted acquaintances and strangers with a radiant smile few would ever forget. She had approached as near the encampment as she could go without risking her reputation. Intent on watching the road for some sign of Will, she was startled to hear a low voice from behind.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet you are as fetching as ever. The passing years have done you a great deal of good.”
Immediately, Elizabeth trembled at the voice that had terrified her years ago. Whirling around, she came face to face with the dull, lifeless eyes and the predatory gaze of Lord Harcourt. Panic welled in her, but she caught herself before crying out.
“Ah, good girl,” he smirked. “I always thought you were clever. You must understand that you would not wish to draw attention to us. After all, we are having a rather intimate conversation, and you are betrothed.”
Elizabeth’s eyes darted around. The situation did not look compromising, did it? Will would surely know she felt no pleasure with this conversation. Courage rising, she attempted nonchalance. “What brings you to Meryton?”
“The collection of a debt long owed to me.”
His eyes raked down Elizabeth’s body, and she shivered in disgust. “Who—” her voice cracked. “Who could owe you money here?”
“It is not just a debt that makes Meryton appealing.”
“As a dear friend of the bride’s brother, I thought I would be allowed certain…liberties.”
Elizabeth bit back her breakfast that threatened to re-emerge. “You were no friend to my brother.”
“Why such vehemence? Are you not curious about the arrangement we came to before his death?”
Elizabeth gasped. Sam would never do what Harcourt intimated. “You lie!” She raised her hand to slap him, and he caught it.
“Let me go,” she spoke through clenched teeth as she attempted to pull free. Why had she wanted to walk so far away from the rest of the town?
“Your brother learned the consequences of not listening to my demands.”
“You show your true character, at last, my lord,” Elizabeth said. “I knew you would have some foul demand to make. I shall never capitulate.”
She did not know Lord Harcourt well, but she doubted he would force himself on her on a public street. Indeed, he was too slight to pull her away. His ego would not want that either. He would gain the greatest pleasure from her submitting to him. After she left his side, she would tell her father and Will, and they would provide protection while they searched him out. He was disgusting, but there was no reason to fear him.
“You are a feisty one,” he said as he stepped closer. “I would be most willing if what you assume was the case. No, my request is only that you do not marry Mr. Darcy. May you keep your precious virtue—unless you would rather—”
“I will never offer that to you, and I will never agree to your demand.”
“But of course,” Harcourt laughed. “Why would you? After all, I have not explained why you should.” He turned her to face the direction of the encampment. “You see, even now, your Will has learned that Mr. Wickham did not hire someone to spook his carriage horses. Indeed, the description his would-be assassin can give would match one given by townspeople of a certain village in Scotland. It would seem that George Wickham was not the man who killed your brother or Mr. Darcy’s father.”
Elizabeth’s legs almost gave out as she understood Harcourt’s meaning. She turned to look at her brother’s murderer in the eye. She recalled the night at the theatre so many years ago. The noble before her had fooled everyone he met. Even now, he looked nothing like a madman. “You would kill him?”
Harcourt’s eyes flashed, and his lips curled up, baring his teeth. “It would give me the greatest pleasure.”
“Then why strike a bargain with me?”
Harcourt laughed and tapped Elizabeth’s nose. “Yes, minx, you are uncommonly intelligent! I cannot hurt Mr. Darcy through his own death. It will only hurt others. However, separating him from his true love—well, that will wound him every day of his life. It is a pain that will only grow as the years go on—I should know.”
“You were once in love?” Elizabeth tried to sound sympathetic. Perhaps if she could get him to speak more, she could find an alternative way to thwart his plans.
“No more,” Harcourt shoved her away. “I will not tell you about my pain or more of my plan. Only know that I keep my promises. The choice is yours—protect the man you love or send him to his death.”
Without another word, Lord Harcourt stalked off. Elizabeth could not chase after him, she could not call out. She did not want to draw a spectacle, and it would be useless. A feminine crying spell would not work on his heart and change his intentions.
For weeks, Elizabeth had wondered at Will’s feelings of responsibility and reticence to share his burdens with her. In the past few days, she had resented his single-minded determination to risk his life to rid himself of Wickham. Now, Elizabeth understood her beloved’s choices. No tears came as her heart steeled with a decision. She could not—would not—marry Will.