Reunited- Chapter Four

reunited 2Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three

Chapter Four

Salt from Elizabeth’s tears mingled with the taste of Will’s mouth. How she had craved this for five years and feared she would never experience it again. They had much they still needed to say, but Elizabeth gave herself up to their passions. Years ago, they had been young, and while passionate, timid. Now, time had heightened their feelings. Will groaned when their lips first met and then deepened the kiss. His tongue dueled with hers. With each stroke, Elizabeth believed she could never quench her desire for more. Muscular arms held her against him, first wrapped around her back, then settling on her hips. Of their own accord, Elizabeth’s arms settled around his neck and her body sagged against him. A whimper of relief bordering on pain escaped her mouth. Her hands knocked his hat off and her fingers tangled in his hair.

Suddenly, Will tore at her bonnet ribbons and wrenched his lips from hers so he could draw back and see his work. Wordlessly, Elizabeth pushed his hands aside and deftly untied the bow. Will chuckled as he all but tore it from her head and sent it sailing to the ground. Although her favorite bonnet, at the moment she could not care less. Will was here, kissing her. He might disappear again just as suddenly as he came. If she had only this moment with him, she would enjoy it without regret.

Will cupped her face before kissing every inch. His mouth trailed lower as he laved his hot tongue over her skin. Goose pimples erupted on her flesh and moans and gasps fell from her throat. Elizabeth arched her neck to allow him greater access. He bent her backward and supported her with one hand even as the other explored the space above her neckline and her arms. She squirmed against him and clutched his back, wishing they could be closer still. If only she could remove his cravat and return the exquisite sensation he now evoked in her. Will’s kisses returned up to her throat and he nibbled at her earlobe. Elizabeth’s legs buckled, and he pulled her in even closer.

“Mine,” he whispered.

A shiver ran up Elizabeth’s spine. “I am yours,” Elizabeth heard tumbling from her lips without conscious thought.

“Mine now and always,” he said fervently and brought her head to his chest.

Hearing his heart pound in her ear, Elizabeth felt Will rest his chin atop her head and rub her back.

“Perfect,” he pressed a kiss to her hair. “Just as I always knew it would be.”

Elizabeth pulled back, needing to see his eyes and judge his earnestness by their expression. No longer drunk on passion, she feared for her heart as much as ever. Instead of seeing an affectionate gaze, his blue eyes were wide in horror. Her heart pounded in her ears, but no—no, that was hoofbeats.

Will pushed Elizabeth on the ground and threw himself atop her as a horse trampled around them. She thought she heard Will shouting at it, but it was so hard to hear as its feet pounded around them and it screamed  in alarm. For a moment longer than eternity, Elizabeth lay still as Will protected her with his own body. She had no fear for herself but prayed as she never had before that the man she loved would be spared any pain or injury. Pulse racing and heart pounding, she did not recognise at first when the white terror had left them.

“Elizabeth!” Will called loudly from her side. “Speak, love. Tell me you are unharmed. If Apollo injured you, I will never—”

Elizabeth opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Blinking, she rose to a sitting position.

“Slowly, now,” Will soothed and rubbed her back. “Do you feel any pain?”

Words still stuck in her throat, she shook her head.

“Thank God!” He crushed her in a tight embrace, his head resting on her shoulder.

“That was your horse?” Elizabeth asked in a breathy voice.

“Yes—I cannot imagine what may have spooked him. He is usually quite docile.” He pulled back and held her by the shoulders. “You are certain you are uninjured?”

“I am,” she said in a stronger tone. Emotion, she perceived, had strangled her voice. Now safe, she recovered quickly. Her eyes scanned over Will. “But you are not!”

“No, I am well,” he said then perceiving where her eyes rested, pulled his arms away from her.

Will had a few bruises and a scrape on his cheek that might lend distinction to his face upon healing but otherwise appeared unscathed—except where his sleeve had torn and revealed to Elizabeth scarred, angry flesh on his forearms. She had not known he was injured in the fire as her father had been. Why was she never informed?

“Will,” she reached out a hand.

“If you are recovered,” he said coldly, “I will escort you home. I would like to speak with Mr. Bennet.”

“What of your horse?”

“I will send a servant to fetch him later. Apollo is a good horse and will not wander far. What I need to discuss with your father is far more important.”

Elizabeth blushed, believing he referenced their old engagement. After the events of this morning, she could little doubt his affection and wishes remained unchanged. Will stretched out a hand and assisted Elizabeth to her feet. Collecting her bonnet, she then restored her appearance as best she could for there was no hiding the dirt. Wrapping her hand around his “good” arm, she squeezed it a little as they set off on the path to Longbourn.

“Perhaps he knows—or maybe he is the guilty party—who intercepted my letters and how they never reached you.”

In all that had followed, Elizabeth nearly forgot to wonder what happened. “No, I do not think Papa knew anything about it. When he mentioned your coming here—he did not reveal your name but neither did he seem anxious to conceal it. I hate to think it, but might it have been Sam—or even your father?”

Will frowned. “Either might be true, but I cannot question dead men. In our last conversation on the topic, Father said he would yield to my wishes. Sam—” His brow furrowed.

“What is it?”

“I do not wish to speak ill of your brother or make his memory less sacred to you.”

“I always wish to know the truth,” Elizabeth encouraged.

“He was in debt to Lord Harcourt.”

Elizabeth could not repress her shudder at the memory of the young earl who made her skin crawl.

“There were other matters too. He did not approve of our affection, and feared for your future especially.” Will shook his head. “He had set off on a doomed path, but I believe if he had lived he would have seen to the correction of his failings. I mourn the loss of his potential even more than I mourn the loss of his friendship. I do not know that he would be so deceitful as to steal my letters.”

“Forgive me,” Elizabeth whispered. “I have not considered your feelings enough. Losing your father and your friend in one evening…”

“Yes,” he squeezed her hand. “However, it is in the past, and I have made it through. Charles became an invaluable support to me. If you recall my cousin, Richard, he was as well.”

They had just entered the Longbourn gate. “I do recall him. I trust he has been well. And your sister? I have thought of my little friend many times over the years.”

Elizabeth watched as Will’s expression changed. He appeared more mournful as she asked after his sister than he had even when speaking of his deceased father and friend.

“I would be most pleased if you corresponded with her. Perhaps soon she may visit Netherfield and renew your acquaintance in person.”

“I would like that,” Elizabeth said as a strange nervousness filled her. “Will.” She tugged on his arm to stay his movements.

“What is it?”

“I…I…there is no need to tell my father everything.”

He nodded. “Of course, I guard your reputation with my life—even from your father.”

“No…of…of…anything recent.”

“I do not understand what you mean.”

Elizabeth waved her hand between them. “Us—anything about us. We barely knew each other then and have only seen each other twice. There is much left unsaid.”

“I had thought we found the heart of the matter. I believed you did not love me because you never replied to my letters. A correspondence which you never received. Therefore, I would like to know how that came to be.”

“Yes, I agree that was the situation and if solving the mystery is important to you, then, by all means, question him. But we might say it was only intent at an imprudent correspondence. Or, at least, not hint at any continued feelings or expectations.”

Will’s jaw tightened, and his shoulder straightened. “You do not wish for me to inform him of our long-standing betrothal? Or you do not wish to continue it? Speak plainly, madam.”

Elizabeth blinked at his transformation. No longer her Will, suddenly, the master of Pemberley stood before her. “Do not order me about!” She said with more offense than she felt. “I do not know what I wish. You return after years away, dripping charm, and smothering me with kisses before death-defying acts of saving my life. I was never courted properly. I will not be whisked away as your bride before I even know who you now are.”

“Elizabeth Bennet, you may be the only woman in creation to make me feel so many contradictory emotions in such a short span! I am certain no one else has ever called me charming. Then you somehow insinuate making love to you and potentially sacrificing my life as a terrible thing all before demanding courtship. If it is courtship and understanding me that you desire, then come, at once. I will promise you both, and we will begin with speaking to your father.”

Will returned her hand to his arm and led them to Longbourn. There, he asked for an audience with Mr. Bennet, and they separated in the hall.

 

*****

 

Will entered Mr. Bennet’s study with determination. Elizabeth was his, and whoever had caused them the pain they had experienced for five years—and the source of her current timidity—would pay dearly for their meddling.

“Will, I did not expect to see you this morning,” Mr. Bennet greeted him and motioned for him to sit. “I trust you do not mind my calling you such. It is difficult to think of you as Mr. Darcy although I see how much you have grown to look like your father.”

Tensing, Will nodded in acceptance. In the past five years, he had felt the weight of his father’s burdens. While he once had believed he would easily slip into the old master’s shoes, he had far too soon learned the truth. George Darcy managed far more than Will had ever known. His father died before his instruction on how to run Pemberley had really begun. He had hoped to rely on his steward, but Mr. Wickham did not long outlive the master. At least his illness had allowed Will the appropriate time to find a replacement and Will’s uncle, the earl, had loaned his steward to assist the young man. For the residents of Pemberley and the nearby town of Lambton, George Darcy was a saint who could do no wrong and Will felt he had much to measure up to. What he had needed for all those years was the indefatigable support of his beloved.

“You did not tell Elizabeth very much about the fire, did you?” Will began.

Mr. Bennet coloured and shuffled some papers on his desk. “It was a subject which naturally upset her nor was it any more comfortable for me to explain.”

“I do not mean to reprimand, but I have only just now discovered that she had never been informed of the injuries I sustained during the event.”

Mr. Bennet’s eyes scanned Will, and he raised his brows when he noticed the torn sleeve.

“I came upon Elizabeth while out walking. I had tied my horse off while we talked but something spooked Apollo. We were nearly trampled.”

Mr. Bennet stiffened and clutched the arms of his chair. His body thrummed with energy as though he would shoot out of it at any moment. “Lizzy is well?”

“She is unharmed. I would never allow anything to hurt her.” Will spoke with sincere conviction, and his voice cracked as he considered what might have been. If Mr. Bennet had been the one to conceal their correspondence, he would have some reckoning.

The older gentleman relaxed and then cocked his head. “You speak of her both passionately and familiarly. Additionally, you seem to think your well-being would have been of interest to my Lizzy.”

Straightening his shoulders, Will met the man’s gaze. “We were betrothed—are betrothed.” Pride bloomed in his heart. It was the first time he had admitted such a thing to another. How had he concealed it so long? “I believe she would have desired to know. Did she ask after me?”

Will watched as Mr. Bennet paled, coloured, and blinked in confusion. “What did you just say?”

“Before our last parting,” Will answered, “I proposed marriage to Elizabeth, and she accepted.”

Now, Bennet shot out of his chair, pushing it aside. Slamming his hands on his desk, he leaned over it with a wild look in his eye.

Will gulped. “Elizabeth and I are in love and have been for the past five summers. We have been betrothed for years.”

“Young man!” Mr. Bennet boomed. “Take care of what you say next for I have a strong mind to request pistols at dawn since you are too old for me to paddle and too large for me to thrash. Take yourself to a corner and be silent.”

Hesitating, Will slowly stood and bowed. “I will abide by your wishes and agree some space is sensible.” Taking a post by the window with his back turned to the older man, he waited several minutes until he was summoned once more to sit.

“Pardon me,” Mr. Bennet said in something closer to his usual tone. “I am not often given to such displays of emotion, but you must admit your information was shocking.”

“I did not mean for it to be so,” Will answered. He had thought his forthright manner would be an asset. It seemed that was not appreciated on Elizabeth’s father. “Allow me to apologise for the upset. I suppose you probably have many questions for me.”

Bennet pinched the bridge of his nose. “As a father and close friend of yours, I have many conflicting feelings. What I know of you, or what you were half a decade ago, would have been everything I desired in a husband for Lizzy. However, I do not appreciate that it was not done openly or when she was so young. The more I consider it, she did ask about you when I returned after the fire. I did not think much of it as our thoughts were full of Sam and our loss. She slipped into a deep melancholy which has not entirely left her. Yesterday, I found her weeping at his grave. If even a shred of that emotion is related to your prolonged absence, I have half a mind to banish you from my house. I pray that you never live to see the day that your offspring are treated so horribly.”

“I, too, regret the pain Elizabeth experienced, and I intend to make up for lost time. Allow me to add, that the separation devastated me as well.”

“I suppose you might have an explanation?”

“Nothing that does me much credit,” Will frowned. “I had already heard arguments against the attachment. When she did not reply to my letters, I believed the worst. She had changed her mind—or perhaps never cared for me at all, as George Wickham had argued at the time.”

“I would not have thought you would have listened to him.” Bennet folded his hands and leaned back in his chair. “I recall you attempting to tell your father many times that the young man was no good.”

Will shook his head. “I can only claim the insecurity of youth. After my father died…” He trailed off. Lacking the proper words to explain his sentiments, Will waved his hands. “I was lost. My mind was too consumed with grief and the weight of my burdens to consider matters. I will never forgive myself, even still, I do not think it is most logical to conclude that someone must have tampered with our mail. I ought to have asked Elizabeth directly, but I could not bear to see her.”

“Do I understand you correctly? You believe she gave you up?”

“Yes,” Will answered and for a terrible moment relived the days of uncertainty and yearning as well as the nights of constant self-reproach.

“Did you believe her so mercenary?” Bennet asked sharply. “Your best friend’s sister!”

Will pushed a hand through his curls. “Again, I can only point to the foolishness of youth and the reckless pace of our romance. I allowed my insecurities and the prejudices of my father to plague me. However, Sam had recently gotten into considerable debt and was hiding from a creditor. I had known him for years. At the same time, my father refused to hear my concerns regarding Wickham. I felt there was no one I could trust and all the world mercenary.”

“As you claim you are still betrothed to her, and she loves you, I presume you have spoken with her on the subject.”

“Yes,” Will nodded. Well, actually…no. They had not discussed how to regard their betrothal. If he understood her words, Elizabeth wished for a courtship. Neither one had intended to form a breach and there had been no subsequent attachments—of that Will was sure. Elizabeth would not kiss him and confess to love him if she had ever hoped to marry another. “Ah, we could clarify matters more. After the incident with the horse, I desired to see her safely returned home.”

“I commend you for, finally, doing the proper thing and speaking to her father.”

Will coloured. He had never asked for Mr. Bennet’s blessing, and even now he told more than asked. Elizabeth was not of age. Surely her father would not make them wait longer than they already had. Pride for his station and security of Elizabeth’s feelings mingled with the knowledge that Mr. Bennet deserved his respect. Swallowing his conceit, Will met his potential father-in-law’s eyes. “I humbly submit a request for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

 

Reunited- Chapter Three

reunited 2

Chapter Three

 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.

“Jealous?”

“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.

Reunited- Chapter Two

reunited 2Well, lots of questions from the last time! This chapter will illuminate a few things. Hang on to your bonnets!


Previous chapters: Chapter One

Chapter Two

October 15, 1811

 

Elizabeth Bennet hugged her wrap closer to herself as she stood over the marker. It did not stand alone, but she always felt it impossible to mourn the mother and elder sister she never knew.

Her eyes drifted over the inscriptions and lingered on the most recent addition to the family cemetery. “Oh, Sam!” Elizabeth cried out and fell into a heap.

After Thomas Bennet’s first wife and eldest daughter died of an illness, he remarried. Instead of a gentlewoman, he chose the daughter of his solicitor. Although Fanny Bennet desperately wished to give her husband a spare heir, she brought only three more daughters into the world. All hope of breaking the entailment on Longbourn had rested on Sam.

Despite the occasional nervous flutters of Mrs. Bennet, Sam came of age without harm and broke the entail thus securing the fates of his five sisters. The same spring, he planned to tour Ireland and Scotland with several of his friends from university. The same spring he died in a fire at an inn which forever altered four families.

Five years had passed, and it sometimes felt to Elizabeth she was the only one to grieve the loss of her beloved brother. Even Sam’s betrothed, Charlotte Lucas, had found contentment with the situation. In fact, Elizabeth’s once-upon-a-time betrothed had apparently moved on as well.

Sam’s best friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had proposed to Elizabeth shortly after they first met. With little more than a promise to court her at Longbourn, he left for a holiday with Sam and others. For weeks, Elizabeth waited to receive a letter from Will. Sam had written several times but there was not even a line about Will passing his greetings to her.

Then, one morning a messenger came with news of the fire. News that her brother had died and her father gravely injured, Elizabeth desired the support of her betrothed. Will never arrived at Longbourn, and as their engagement had been a secret to all but Jane, Elizabeth had no choice but to conceal her emotions.

Elizabeth shook herself from memories of her foolish youth. Today would have been Sam’s six and twentieth birthday. He likely would have been a father to children of his own by now. Instead of mourning her brother, Elizabeth had been ordered to attend the local Assembly this evening. How could she enjoy dancing and gaiety when her brother was gone?

“Lizzy.”

Elizabeth felt the familiar touch of her father’s hand on her shoulder.

“Here child.” Mr. Bennet placed another wrap around her. “It is growing late. Your mother will be upset to learn you have been out here crying so long. She expects you to enjoy this evening.” His voice took on a mildly amused tone. “I believe you will enjoy meeting the new arrivals to the area.”

Elizabeth finally looked up at her father. “The gentleman that leased Netherfield?”

“Yes, he will be there, and he brings family and friends.”

Elizabeth smiled through her tears. “It will be amusing to observe them. Can you imagine what Sam would say?”

“Yes, yes my dear. Now, dry your eyes.” He handed her a handkerchief.

“I am sorry Papa. Only sometimes it feels as though no one else cares. He was so young. It is so unfair!”

“I know you wish you could find some cause or meaning for the fire but we cannot understand the Lord’s ways.” Mr. Bennet squeezed Elizabeth’s shoulder. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. We should remember with pleasure the time we had with Sam, as I must think the same of your departed sister and mother. It will not do to dwell on what might have been.” Mr. Bennet winced as he stood from his crouched position.

“Does it still hurt, Father?”

Mr. Bennet looked up at the sky. “I believe it might get worse as I continue to age, and you know how the weather affects it. However, time heals all wounds though some take longer than others. Come along, dear.”

He held out his hand to help his daughter, but she managed on her own. Casting a last look at her brother’s marker, Elizabeth sighed and walked home on her father’s arm.

 

*****

 

Inevitably, Charles was delayed in taking his house. His sisters could not miss a particular event in Town, and rather than arrive in Meryton on the proposed date, they were one day later. In fact, Charles’ sisters made such a fuss about going at all that they barely had time to refresh themselves before leaving for the local assembly to which Charles had promised to go.

The carriage ride from Netherfield to the Meryton Assembly hall was unusually tense. Will could not forget this day was his best friend’s birthday. Sam had been a God-send to him at Eton. Will was delayed a year in being sent to school by his mother’s death. He could have started in the second term of the usual year, but by then George Will had decided to send his godson, George Wickham, to school as well.

In addition to mourning the loss of his dear friend, with reminders of the loss of his father which occurred on the same day—losses he firmly believed he could have prevented—he was disturbed by the mixed feelings of fear, nervousness, and elation at seeing her again.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet had never seemed far from his thoughts in the last five years. In the time since they last met, Will became master of his ancestral home. He was too busy to make new friends or meet new ladies. Nor did he want to. In his heart, he still considered them betrothed, even if she never replied to any of his letters. Any time he considered courting another lady, it felt like a betrayal to the one he had vowed to love forever.

However, if Sam and his father had lived, Will believed he would not have become so unsocial and taciturn. He had little time to socialize until the last year or two, and no lady he met could compare to the interactions he had with Elizabeth Bennet.

Disgusted at himself for carrying a tendre for a slip of a girl he met a handful of times half a decade ago, Will shifted in his seat. His father and Sam had attempted to tell him. One week of acquaintance was too short for it to be love. Wickham had enlightened Will to the truth—even if he was a devious cad—and Elizabeth’s own actions proved her cold heart. However, Will’s heart beat wildly just the same, and he prayed his leg would allow him at least one set with her. He needed to prove, to both of them, that they could meet as indifferent acquaintances.

The Netherfield party arrived at the Assembly Hall, and Charles quickly introduced them to Sir William Lucas. That talkative gentleman happily brought them to his family and Charles secured the first dance with Miss Lucas, Sam’s former betrothed. Mr. Bennet soon reacquainted himself with the party and introduced them to his family. Will immediately noticed Elizabeth was not in attendance and again was frustrated at the ridiculous deflated feeling of his heart. Pull it together, man!

Will had chatted with Mr. Bennet for a few minutes before his wife, who glared at Will, pulled him away. As Will did not know anyone else in the room, he circled about. A few times, he was spoken to, and he answered in the barest civility. His mind refused to concentrate on anything but seeking the room for a pair of particularly fine eyes.

During the second dance, between sets, Charles approached Will. If he were in a better frame of mind, Will would have noticed Charles’ sincere concern for his friend as he left Miss Bennet’s side.

“Come, Will,” said Charles, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”

“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is only one other woman whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.” It was the closest Will had come to admitting his continued admiration of Elizabeth Bennet to his friend. By unspoken agreement, they had never again mentioned their attachment to the Bennet sisters since the day of the fire; until Charles sent a letter stating he leased a house not three miles from their estate, that is.

“But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

Fearing that the young lady had heard Charles, Will drew in closer. “I am in no humour at present to give consequence to any lady save her. She appears to not be in attendance. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles for you are wasting your time with me.”

Mr. Charles followed his advice. Will walked off, as did the lady Charles mentioned. Will watched her go, fearful she had overheard the whole thing and was upset. It really was bad form of Charles to act so. Will caught his breath when the line parted and allowed him to see who the lady was speaking with. Elizabeth!

She looked at him, and he could see her eyes turn the vibrant shade of green he recalled from five years before. No other lady had ever captivated him the way she had. Elizabeth returned her focus to the younger lady. A third woman, who Will recognized as Sam’s former betrothed, talked with them. The ladies passionately discussed something. Finally, Elizabeth straightened her back and met his eyes again. Then she walked toward him like a goddess on the warpath. Will did not care at all that he had earned her ire. He was old friends with it and could not say that he did not appreciate the view as her eyes snapped with fire and her anger added a flush to her cheeks. Once, he had, briefly, felt that loyalty directed toward him. What he would give to feel it again.

“Mr. Darcy,” she boldly said when she came near enough. Then she descended into a very proper curtsy.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he replied and bowed. “I regret I did not see you earlier.”

“And you might have minded your manners better?” she scoffed. “I see five years have not done you much good.”

Will smirked. “Thankfully, I cannot say the same to you.” He lowered his voice. “Five years have done you a great deal of good, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth recoiled, and derision flashed in her eyes. Her reaction drew the notice of others. She raised her hand, but Will caught it. Tugging her toward the dance floor, he said loud enough for others to hear. “I am delighted to dance with an old friend.”

For half a moment, Will felt Elizabeth plant her feet firmly on the floor. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck. He had pushed his luck, and while most ladies would demur to his intention to cover the situation, he had never known how to read Elizabeth. She might just as well call him a cad to the general public as she might follow him to the dance floor. As much as he had fondly recalled their encounters and, admittedly, idealized them, he remembered that much about her. His heart stood still for several beats until she took another step forward.

“Oh, so it is old friends you wish to dance with?”

“I never was good at making new acquaintances.”

“I suppose it is much harder on you now,” Elizabeth said as they found their positions in the set.

“I will not say I do not feel my losses acutely, but I am sure it is nothing to your pain.”

Elizabeth, who had avoided his eyes, snapped her attention to him. She gazed at him for a long minute, and Will wondered if she attempted to ascertain the truth of his words. It seemed as though she peered into his soul.

“Thank you,” she finally said and nodded.

“I have not forgotten what today is,” he said before the dance separated them.

Elizabeth’s hand had a slight tremor to it when they returned, and her voice wavered as she said, “And yet it seemed as though you did forget about him as well as the rest of us entirely for the last five years.”

“Why would I send yet another letter after a fortnight of writing daily and having no answer?”

Elizabeth paled and nearly tripped.

“Forgive me,” Will said and squeezed her hand tightly. He did not wish to wound her. He had told himself he wanted to understand why she chose to toy with his heart when he did not believe her naturally cruel. After seeing Elizabeth again, it no longer mattered. He would forgive her of anything and only wished to win her affection in truth this time.

Elizabeth had remained quiet for a few moments but finally recovered, she observed, “I suppose the distance from London to Longbourn is so inconvenient one can only make it every five years. We were foolish to ever expect you.”

“I did not judge as I ought to have.” Will lowered his voice, “I could think only of my own pain.” Abiding the physical pain from his injuries in the fire to attend Sam’s funeral would have been a torment he gladly would have borne if he had not also known Elizabeth did not care for him. Seeing her weeping at her brother’s death and having no right to comfort her—knowing she never welcomed his attention—was more than he could bear at the time.

Elizabeth’s expression softened. “I suppose it is understandable if you are not in the most cordial mood today.”

“Thank you,” he murmured before they parted again. When rejoined, he ventured, “Perhaps this evening has displayed us both to least advantage and we ought to begin again.”

Elizabeth raised a brow. “What have I done that might damage anyone’s perception of me?”

Will matched her raised brow. “You have, once again, jumped to the least flattering conclusion about me. One might think you have not learned from the lessons of the past. One might believe you lacked character growth and maturity since our last meeting.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, but they were once more separated by the dance. “One might believe these things, or you believe them?”

“I speak only in generalities,” Will rushed to say. However, he could see his words did not appease the lady.

She stood across from him silently for several moments before pursing her lips. “Very well. I might have leapt to conclusions. I give you leave to exonerate yourself. Why would you not dance with my sister, Mary?”

The final steps of the dance brought them close. Tilting his head down, Will murmured, “Because I wished only to dance with you, Elizabeth.”


Well, what did you think of that?

Loving Elizabeth #2 Reunited- Chapter One

reunited 2Chapter One

September 26, 1811

 

Sitting at the desk in his London townhouse, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s hand shook as he attempted to read Bingley’s note. Determined to not display his anxieties, Darcy paced around the room. Finally, he sat in a chair and browsed an agricultural report until his friend arrived.

Ten minutes past the correct time, the butler announced Bingley’s arrival. Darcy stood to greet him.

“Darcy, it has been an age. I was sorry to hear Georgiana felt poorly the whole summer and we could not meet. How does she fare now?”

Darcy managed a small smile as both men sat. “It is always good to see you. My sister is much recovered, thank you. Tell me about this estate you have leased. Hertfordshire, is it?”

Bingley gave Darcy a curious look. “If you know that much, then you have read my note and know it is called Netherfield. You also know it is quite close to Longbourn, which you should recall…”

“Yes, as the Bennet estate.” Darcy paused. Tumultuous emotions rioted in his body. As his heart pounded a blistering headache formed. “You cannot blame me for not being able to read through all these blots.”

Bingley smiled at the tease. “Will you come and visit? I know your feelings on the Bennets, but it has been five years.”

Darcy closed his eyes as painful memories threatened to intrude. Shaking his head to clear the thoughts, he opened his eyes and met Bingley’s. “Yes, of course. We must all move forward with our lives.”

Bingley gave an ebullient smile and waxed long on the house and its situation. “Louisa and Hurst will come, and Caroline will be my hostess. Will you bring Georgiana?”

Fear and rage temporarily clouded Darcy’s vision. Regaining control, he answered, “I…I will leave it to her to determine.”

Bingley openly gaped at his friend. “You will allow her to decide?”

Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Of course. She is growing older and must have some independence. I cannot order her life forever.”

Bingley nodded approvingly, then turned serious. “I have attempted to keep in contact with the Bennets over the years, did I ever tell you?”

Darcy shook his head. “No, you have not. You must have worried about bringing up such a painful subject.”

Bingley agreed.

Darcy picked at imaginary lint on his breeches. “What news have you heard?”

“Scarcely a thing. Mr. Bennet only replies around twice a year. In October and then usually in June…” Bingley trailed off for a moment. “They are all quite well.”

Darcy smiled a little. “I can imagine he enjoys telling tales of his grandchildren.”

Bingley’s brow furrowed. “Darcy…all the girls are still at home.”

Darcy’s head jerked up.

Bingley continued as though he noticed nothing. “I cannot imagine why. I have never met a more angelic creature than Miss Bennet, and Miss Elizabeth was quite pretty as well. The men in Hertfordshire must be blind or stupid.” Then he paused, and a solemn look crossed his face. “Or perhaps five years has been slow to heal their pains as well as ours.”

Darcy could only nod his head. The two men, now masters of their homes, sat in silence for several minutes.

Bingley stood and clapped a hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “I will be escorting Caroline and the others on the Fourteenth after the house is ready for visitors. Will you ride with us then?”

Darcy flinched and then agreed, “Certainly. Apollo could use a good stretch.”

The men said their farewells and Bingley departed. Darcy walked back to his desk and picked up Bingley’s note again, this time with determination. “It is time.”


Don’t kill me! The title should give the theme away. Darcy and Elizabeth are reunited after years of separation. What happened to them? Why has so much time passed? We’ll get answers next time but what are your guesses?

Pledged- Chapter Six

pledged 7Chapter Six

Will gulped and followed his friend to his chamber.

“You have precisely one minute to explain to me why I am should not pummel you for touching my sister, let alone in such a way.”

“You do not understand. It is not what it appears.”

“It looks like you were in the middle of seducing my sister right under my nose. I trusted you!”

“I love her!” Will’s widened as he realized what he had confessed. None of this was going according to his plan. He was supposed to ask Sam and Mr. Bennet for permission to court Elizabeth. Then he would ask hand. During his summer away, he would have time to consider his method of courtship. They were still so young and his father would probably not approve the match. Will had no reason to think they could marry quickly. He would have to tell her as much. A gem like Elizabeth would not wait forever. However, Will did have some independence now and if push came to shove, they could marry. He hoped both their sakes that their families would approve and not keep them waiting for too long.

“I am still waiting, Will. You say you love her. What you know of love?”

“I know I have not supported you as you would like. Given your situation and feelings for Lucy. However, now I understand. The heart what wants it wants, and no amount of logic can gainsay it.”

“Are you saying it is illogical to be in love with my sister?”

“I’m say nothing of the sort. I am not unaware of the arguments you or anyone else have against match. I told them to myself and, if you will recall, before we even met I was not predisposed to like her.”

“Oh yes, the Darcy pride. How could I forget that?” Sam said derisively.

“What does my pride have to do with this?”

“It has every with this! Did you think I did not approve of your admiration for my sister because I found your character wanting?.”

“There is a code amongst gentlemen that we will not touch one’s sister.”

“I would be more worried about that if you touched anybody.” Sam laughed.

“So, you worry that for Charles attentions toward Jane?” Will could not understand Sam’s position on the subject.

“The Darcys and Bingleys are two entirely different worlds. I do not worry for Charles because it is Charles. He might like Jane now, but next week he will move on. We are spending many months away, and Jane has a new suitor every week. She is too accustomed to men to let her heart grow attached so shortly.” Sam sighed and slumped in a chair, waving for Will to do likewise.

“And you believe that Elizabeth and I would feel too deeply?”

“I know that you would not leap into anything without thoroughly thinking it through.”

Will disagreed but kept it to himself. He did not have the self-control his friends seemed to think he did. “I imagine it is much like when you first met Lucy.”

“I thought only of my arousal when I met Lucy.” Sam glared at Will. “Would you like to try again and explain how this is not the same and how you can love Elizabeth so much within a matter of days?”

Will sighed and rested his elbows on his knees. “I recounted it to myself enough in the past day or so as I wandered how I got here so unaware. I can only think that I was in the middle before I knew I even began. Elizabeth is beautiful and I am attracted to her. However, there are one hundred other things that appeal to me and have greater weight. Every day I discover something new. I am unlimitedly fascinated by her.” Will shrugged. “For once, I do not feel like the heir of Pemberly. Elizabeth wants nothing from me. I am free to be myself with her and she makes me want to be better in ways I never thought of before.”

“That is all well and good, but you do not know what you are asking of her,” Sam placed a hand on Will shoulder. “She is only sixteen is unprepared for your world. Your father will not approve. Both of your aunts have their sights set on others for you. The very people Lizzy would need for support in your world would never approve of her.

“What are you saying?” Will thought madness within him.

“Forget about my sister. You have two very different destinies.”

Will staring at his friend in slack-jawed disbelief. He would fight for Elizabeth. He would not give her up. However, as he observed his friend, Sam’s shoulders slumped in dejection. Perhaps his words were far more about his own situation than about Will’s. “I Cannot agree with your opinion on these matters. I did want to speak to you and other subjects. Lord Harcourt seems to have Elizabeth in his sights.”

“Surely not,” Sam laughed. “I assure you, he prefers much more worldly ladies.”

“At the very least, his mode of conversation to her her is impertinent and makes her uncomfortable. I implore you, peak to him again.”

“If you wish, but I see nothing more than the jealous concern of the suitor.”

Will out a frustrated side. “Why is it you trust him at all? Confess it, you have more than a passing acquaintance with the man that all of London knows is a devious rake and a gambler.”

Sam opened and closed his mouth several times before any sound out. He held his hands and let out a dejected side. “I will tell you the truth. I needed money for Lucy’s sake. I went around banks and other creditors and Harcourt was the only one that would have mercy on me.”

“Dear God! Could you not have asked me?”

“I did not think you would approve. I was ashamed.”

“How much do you owe? You should not be in debt to such a man.”

Sam shook his head. “I cannot ask for you to pay. I would rather take my chances being debt to him than take advantage of our friendship.”

Will stared at his friend for a long time. “Is it very much?”

“It would not matter if it was a mere twenty pounds. I would not ask of you.”

“You spoke of the Darcy pride, but I perceive your pride at work here as well.”

“I made a mess of things, but it is my burden to clean it up.” Sam stood and walked to the door. “Now is time for us to join the others for dinner.”

“I will be speaking to your father soon.”

“You had better talk to your father first.” Sam shook his head. “Do not be in a hurry to seal your fate, Will. You may think you love her now, but only time will tell. Learn from my mistakes.”

As they were no longer in the privacy of Sam’s chambers, Will said no more on the subject and followed his friend downstairs. Sam said he would not accept money from him, but Will still intended to make a substantial withdraw on the morrow. Some would go to Sam if he would take it, and the rest to Wickham so he would find a life away from the Darcy family.

Throughout the meal, he could not keep his eyes from falling upon Elizabeth. She looked lovely, but more than that, she looked as though she belonged at a Darcy table. She sat near his father. Now and then, she said something to make the older gentleman laugh. George Darcy had a different temperament than his children, and the death of his wife sobered him, but he still enjoyed amusement. It was why George Wickham became his favourite. Elizabeth’s humor, however, was a different sort than Wickham. Around her, she involved others as well and remembered interests that they shared and could converse on. She had all the qualities a hostess should have.

On the previous nights, Will’s father had not encouraged the ladies to separate from the gentlemen. This evening, he maintained tradition. As it happened, Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam dined with them. Will’s aunt served as hostess and led the ladies to the drawing room. The first few minutes of the customary separation from the ladies passed in the ordinary way. Port and brandy were poured while cigars were smoked. Before too long, Mr. Darcy approach Will and asked to meet asked for them to speak privately. Will agreed, although uncertain of what would follow.

The older gentleman shut the door to his study and motioned to a chair. Will sat and father took the seat next to him rather than behind the imposing desk.

“Well, I had not thought that I had landed upon the truth so much when I mentioned that you would not enter a relationship with Sam’s sister. It appears I was mistaken.”

Will’s mind raced. Had they been seen? “There’s nothing to say on the matter because I have not asked anything of the lady. I am aware of Sam’s disapproval and attempting to overcome his arguments.”

“But you cannot doubt her answer. A girl like Elizabeth Bennet would jump at a chance to marry you. Beware, my son, for you are now of age and finished with University. Many ladies will try to capture you in their claws.”

Will shook his head. “I will not abide any criticism of her character. Miss Elizabeth is nothing of that sort. She could not care less about fortune or rank. She is not like the other young ladies I have encountered who simper and fawn. I sometimes think she has more strength of character than many a man I know, for she will not play Society’s games. She will not bend her moral compass to suit the whims of others.” As Will spoke, he clenched his fists. This man would malign his friend’s daughter without knowing her. Meanwhile, he condoned Wickham and refused to criticize him. Even Sam had bent his honor to suit his needs.

“Pardon me,” Mr. Darcy said with genuine remorse. “I did not mean to offend. You are correct. I do not know her well enough to make these assertions. Might I remind you that you also do not know her well enough?”

“I have done much more than merely dine with her in the last few days. She has awakened parts of my soul that never knew existed. There can be no doubt about her loyalty. With her beauty and charm, she would have no shortage of wealthy suitors in any circle in which she walked. At the theatre, many gentlemen peered at her with an approving eye. Lord Harcourt did not make his admiration secret at all.”

Mr. Darcy last. “Harcourt has always loved the ladies. His admiration of Miss Elizabeth does not mean an offer would be imminent.”

“That is true,” Will conceded. “But Miss Elizabeth is hardly aware of his true nature or his reputation. Many would hear his rank and see the quality of his fashionable attire and assume he would be a worthy suitor to try to entrap. I’ve seen dozens of ladies operate similarly including the Miss Bingleys.”

“Yes. Joseph’s daughters are quite cunning.”

“Indeed.” Will sighed. “I respect you, father. However, I will choose my own bride and in my own time. There are qualities I must consider for the sake of Pemberley’s future that go beyond its purse strings. We are on the cusp of a new world and a new way of running things. Merely finding a noble daughter with a hefty dowry is not the only way to keep funds afloat.”

Mr. Darcy raised his brows. “Do you mean to suggest I married your mother simply because she was a good match?”

“Whatever feelings came after the ceremony, I believe you have confessed enough for me to say with some assurance that it was an alliance and not a love match.”

“Precisely!” Mr. Darcy nodded emphatically. “Those feelings did come after the ceremony, so why do you think they would not come for you?”

“I have never argued with you about this in the past. I appreciate that you have supported me against Lady Catherine and her desire for me to marry Anne. I know now I can never marry a woman without loving her because my heart is already engaged.”

“The reasonable, Fitzwilliam. You have known her for less than a week.”

Will rose to his feet. “And yet men that I have known for many years, perhaps even all my life, I have to question their loyalty and their character. Why do you persist and annoying George Wickham’s faults? Why are you on such friendly terms with Harcourt?

Will’s father turned red. “I do not need to make any answers to you. I cannot tell you who to marry. You have some income from your mother, but even if it were in my power to completely cut you off, I would not. You have given me no reason to distrust you, but it hurts me to hear that you do not trust my judgment. Perhaps when you are older, you shall see things differently.” Mr. Darcy hung his head.

Will took a step toward his father. “Forgive me, father. I look forward to the additional responsibilities I will receive in the autumn. Your trust means the world to me, but I will not compromise my beliefs for you.”

Mr. Darcy stood and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “No, I would not wish for you to do so. I cannot say that I approve of your choice and I caution you to not be in any rush. However, I trust you, Fitzwilliam. I will support any decision you make in this matter.” Mr. Darcy’s eyes flitted to the clock in the study. “Now is time to rejoin the ladies.”

The two men separated and returned to the dining room before announcing their intention to go to the drawing room. Will looked around the chamber and noted both Miss Bennets absent.

“Sam, where are your sisters?” Will asked.

“I have been informed by your aunt that Lizzy claimed a headache and Jane went upstairs with her.”

Sam’s attention was drawn away, but Will believed the situation unusual. He scanned the room once more and noted Miss Caroline Bingley’s pleased expression as she sat next to Lady Fitzwilliam. Will came closer to hear their conversation.

“You are so charming, Miss Caroline. I regret I was not able to speak with you more at the theatre.”

“Perhaps we may be thankful after all that Miss Elizabeth became indisposed.”

“Yes,” Lady Fitzwilliam nodded. “She surely gave her opinions most decidedly, although she was charming enough during the meal.”

“Some women can only be agreeable when there are men around to impress.”

Louisa Bingley nodded. “Oh, yes. Quite true.”

Will had heard enough. One of them, or perhaps all of them, must have made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable or regret being in their company. He would need to speak with her before retiring for the evening. While listening to Lady Fitzwilliam continue her conversation with Louisa and Caroline, Will reluctantly agreed that Sam’s arguments had some merit. None in his family would be happy for Will to marry Elizabeth.

 

*****

 

Elizabeth and Jane sat on Elizabeth’s bed. Elizabeth looked around the room inside. Had Miss Graves been correct? Could she ever grow accustomed to a life like this? Lady Fitzwilliam had not been rude to Elizabeth, but she tolerated Caroline’s rudeness, which was enough to make Elizabeth desire to avoid the company. Pleading a headache came naturally to her. For as long she could remember, her stepmother had been complaining of headaches. If she ever truly needed to, Elizabeth thought she could even pretend to swoon or have an attack of nerves.

“Are you certain you feel well, Lizzy?” Jane asked Elizabeth in concern.

“I’m quite well. I merely detest Caroline Bingley.”

Jane’s blue eyes rounded. “She is Mr. Charles’s sister. She has seemed most friendly to me.”

“She is friendly to you, my dear, because you will tolerate her. She also knows no soul in creation could speak a bad word about you. To be the friend of Jane Bennet would mean something in the world.” Elizabeth shook her head. “She gains nothing by a false friendship with me.”

“Do you really think she’s only using me?”

“She would be far more foolish than I would give her credit for if she merely used you and did not enjoy your friendship. However, I do believe she’s cunning enough to see she gains nothing from me.” Elizabeth’s lips turned up and formed a wry smile as she reconsidered. “Now that I think about it. She should be grateful for my company. I surely show the world how truly ladylike and accomplished she is by comparison to my own wild behavior.”

Jane giggled. “You are not wild. You…well, you…”

“Go on. I am waiting to hear a compliment in there,” Elizabeth laughed.

“You are rusticated!” Jane cried in triumph. “Rustic beauty is all the rage. Now, that is precisely what you are. If others cannot appreciate you as you are, then it would be no different than calling a wildflower a weed merely because it looked out of sorts in a perfectly manicured garden.” Jane nodded her head as though she completely settled the idea.

“That will not work on me,” Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. “For people do call wildflower weeds.”

“Oh well, I never was the great debater.”

“It’s just as well. Mama says I am far too argumentative, and I will never catch the eye of man.”

“Oh, I think you have.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth fiddled with a tassel on her blanket.

“Mr. Fitzwilliam could not keep his eyes off you this evening. In fact, he seems to frequently desire to be in your company or you two go missing together entirely.”

“That was merely one time, and we wandered too far in the park. We were hardly alone.”

Jane nodded her head and bit back a smile. “And during the Sardines game?”

“I…I…I…” Elizabeth gulped. “I found a wonderful hiding place but fell asleep and awoke too late to return to the game.”

“And you did not see him at all?”

“What are you asking me, Jane?”

“I ask no questions. I merely make observations. I believe that Mr. Fitzwilliam is sweet on you.”

“That would seem quite the stretch for I have no fortune or rank, and hardly any beauty. The heir of Pemberley could certainly attract the notice of any lady.”

Jane raised a brow. “Does that mean he’s attracted yours?”

“That is not what I meant to say.”

“And yet it is exactly what you did say.” Jane chuckled and playfully nudged into Elizabeth’s shoulder.

“How should a lady act as a gentleman is sweet on her?” Elizabeth fiddled with the tassel on her blanket once more before looking up and searching Jane’s face for clues.

“I think most importantly you should not act any differently than you normally would.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, I would not want to appear to be trapping him.” Elizabeth sighed and covered her face with her hands. “Jane, I am in so far in over my head!”

“You need not be so mortified,” Jane said as she smoothed her fingers through Elizabeth’s hair. “Falling in love will happen to all of us.”

Elizabeth blushed, and her head immediately popped up to meet James gaze. “How did you know? That is to say…I…oh!”

“It must come as a shock to you because I think you would much rather have fallen in love with a poor farmer and not until your fifty than to find yourself helplessly desiring the good opinion of such a young and powerful man.”

“Indeed. I cannot fit into his world. This is madness.”

“I would not say that. You are both full young, and there is no need to rush into anything. In time, his family and friends will see how happy you make him and will support his choice. You will both learn and grow to fit into your new positions in the world. I do not doubt that my dear Lizzy could be anything she desired, including the next Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley.”

Elizabeth cocked her head to one side looked at her sister. “I had never complained about Will’s family and friends not supporting me. I think you speak from your own feelings. I have often seen you talking with Mr. Charles.” Elizabeth playfully nudged Jane.

“He is the most amiable gentleman I have ever met.”

“And that is saying something!”

“Do not tease me so. I have not known so very many gentlemen.”

“Not from lack of desire on their part, my dear. I’ve seen more than one fellow become incoherent or flee at the thought of conversing with you or merely being in the presence of your beauty.”

“I’m sure that is not true.” Jane smoothed her gown. “I would hope it’s not. I would not wish to frighten anybody.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “It would only prove how foolish and unworthy they are. So, tell me what Mr. Charles.”

Jane immediately blushed. “There’s nothing else to report. He is excessively friendly, but he is to everybody. However, I greatly enjoy his company. I will be sad when the gentlemen leave on the morrow.”

“I do not think the impending separation would affect you so much merely because he is a kind gentleman. Do you feel more for him than any other man you have known?”

Slowly, Jane nodded. “The sensations are so new. One minute I am exhilarated and can hardly catch my breath and the next I am terrified of being laughed at or being made a fool. What if the feelings are not mutual or welcome? I am not blind to his sisters’ desires for him. I know I am not rich or important enough for them. More than this, I do not know what Mr. Bingley feels.”

“I wish I had some advice for you but is entirely without my ability.”

“Yes, I should have advice for you as I am the older sister. I do not know what to say though. When I was your age, I had a gangly youth attempting to court me, but he could not speak in my presence. Instead, he would thrust ill designed posies at me when he called at our Aunt and Uncle Gardiner’s house. I also had a portly gentleman nearing our father’s age attempt to write me poetry. He talked only of news and weather. My heart was in little danger of either them.”

“Would they have been suitable matches? Do you ever regret not encouraging them so that you might have a house of your own and children? It would have been the safer choice.”

“I think you have been speaking to Charlotte bit too much. She is ever prudent and practical. But I do not know that it will lead to great happiness in her life. I’d much rather be alone and happy than with the company of others that I might find tiresome.”

“But people change so much. Who we find pleasant now we might one day find tiresome. Think of our own parents.”

“It is true that sometimes after years of knowing a person they might annoy or differences of opinions of her. However, I think Mama and Papa would do more for each other now than they would have fifteen years ago.”

“I like that,” Elizabeth nodded. “I have been missing the girls while we have been away. It has occurred to me that although they are excessively noisy and bothersome when we are all at Longbourn together, I do love them dearly.”

Jane stifled a yawn. “As you are not ill, I think I had better leave you. Do not forget to pack, my dear. We will be going to the Gardiners’ after the gentlemen leave in the morning.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes. I am well on my way to finished.” She hugged her sister and said good night.

The next hour or so passed in solitude. When Elizabeth’s mother first passed away, Mr. Bennet quickly remarried. When the new Mrs. Bennet expected her first child, she found it difficult to get the adequate rest she needed with so many other children underfoot. Sam went to a nearby school while Jane and Elizabeth stayed in London with Mrs. Bennet’s brother and new bride. The Miss Bingleys had, more than once, mocked them for their address. Although the son of a solicitor, Mr. Gardner chose to enter a trade and owned warehouses near Cheapside. His residence was on Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth dearly loved her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner and did not care where they lived.

Soon, Elizabeth heard the other occupants of the house returning to the chambers and settling in for the evening. Finally finished with her packing, but unable to sleep, Elizabeth chose a book from her luggage to read. Before too many pages, someone knocked on her door.

“Enter,” she called out. She expected to see Jane or perhaps a maid.

Without looking up, Elizabeth heard the door open and close. The shuffling of feet that did not sound like Jane, or any other lady, brought Elizabeth’s head up. She started at what she saw.

Will was in her bedchamber.

Elizabeth blushed and immediately stood.

“Pardon me, I did not mean to surprise you, or intrude.” Will stammered and had a hard time meeting her eyes.”

“What are you doing here?” Elizabeth glanced toward the bed where her dressing gown laid.

“They said you were ill and I worried about you.” Will took another step closer. Elizabeth

Elizabeth smiled. “As you see I am well. I preferred my own company to some of the other ladies.”

“I’m sorry to hear that they were unpleasant. Was anyone rude to you?”

“Not particularly. Or at least not more than usual.” Elizabeth shrugged. “Why do you ask? You must tell me what happened after Sam pulled you away.”

Will gathered Elizabeth’s hands and raised each of them to kiss. Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat, and her insides felt like jelly.

“I need to speak with you,” Will said. “But first, I need to kiss you.”

Before Elizabeth could reply, Will had gathered her in his strong arms. Thoughts of how scandalous this meeting was immediately left her mind as his lips met hers. She had never known the pleasure found in the arms of a gentleman. She also never would have thought lips could create such sheer joy or sensation. Nor had she ever expected that kissing could involve so much more than the lips.

Will’s mouth was everywhere at once, trailing down her neck to collarbone. His hands ran a frenzied path across her back and up and down her arms. The thin fabric of her night rail brushed against her skin creating goose pimples making the sensation all the more forceful. Elizabeth clung to Will, propping her arms around his neck and kneading her fingers through his hair. Will groaned and tore away from her lips. As their breathing evened, he pressed their foreheads together.

“I will never let you go. I do not care what they say. I belong with you.” To further enunciate his feelings, he squeezed her tightly.

“Will, you said that they. Has someone else spoken against us? Besides, my brother? My father?”

Will let out a low breath. He led Elizabeth to the bed and had her sit there. Then, he let go of her hand and took several steps away. “I cannot touch you and try to explain. I must think rationally. Touching you in your chamber and night rail is exceptionally dangerous to my honor right now.”

Elizabeth blushed, but secretly thrilled and knowing she could make Will come undone.

“Sam does disapprove of any match between us. However, that was not unexpected. I believe, in time, he will come around the idea. He did say he has no objection to my character. Nothing can be said for my inability to provide or to treat you well.” Will paused and frowned a moment. “My father also noted my interest in you.”

“Yes, Jane asked me about that as well.”

“Perhaps it would have been more prudent for me to conceal my affections, but I am glad others can see my obvious admiration for you. I want them to see that you are worthy of my hand.”

Elizabeth’s heart beat rapidly in her chest. She could hardly credit the words she was hearing. Will had not asked, yet, everything he said indicated he intended marriage.

“My father has expressed some concerns.” Will began to pace around the room. “Among them was the short nature of our acquaintance, but he says he will support my decision in the end.”

Elizabeth nodded. Yes, their short acquaintance was a matter of concern, but she could not deny her heart. She had not known Fitzwilliam Darcy for long, but she knew he would never give her any reason to distrust him or change her opinion of his honor. She had been wrong about him before, due to her insecurities, she would not question him again.

Will stopped in front of Elizabeth and the corners of his mouth tilted up in a light smile. “When I return from my holiday, I could visit Longbourn. There must be a house nearby I could rent, or I could stay at the inn.”

“We do have a guest room.” Elizabeth smiled at Will. “You are more than welcome to stay with us.”

“Oh, in that case,” Will grinned, “I thank you for the invitation. I will be sure to take the opportunity of convenience to be very near my intended. After a suitable amount of time, we could announce our engagement. If you do not mind a modest income of five hundred pounds a year, we might marry within the year.”

Elizabeth’s hand flew to her heart. “You are speaking of things that require questions, and you have had no answers. I believe you are getting ahead of yourself, sir.”

“Allow me to rectify that.” Will drop to one knee and took Elizabeth’s hands in his. “Marry me Elizabeth Bennet not because I am the heir to Pemberley or come from a wealthy family. Marry me because you love me as I love you. Marry me because you see the man I really am. Your support makes me a stronger and better man than I had ever dared to hope I could be. Marry me because I see who you really are and appreciate every nuance. I want to discover every new thing about you every day until I draw my last breath. Marry me because I could search my entire life and never find another lady as worthy as you.” Will raised Elizabeth’s hands to his mouth.

Elizabeth shook her head and Will immediately drew back.

“Pardon me, but I believed you would hear my proposal with enthusiasm. Do you object to something about me or the limited amount of time we have known each other? “

Elizabeth intended to hold back her laughter, but a giggle escaped. “No, not that.” She stood and threw her arms around Will. After peppering his face with kisses, she drew back. “I do love you! As terrified as I am, I will happily be your wife.” She paused as Will wrapped his arms around her waist. “I only found it amusing that not once in your well-articulated speech did you make a request. Instead, it was all demands: Marry me, marry me, marry me.”

At first, Will looked affronted, but then a smile came to his lips. “I think I will enjoy being teased by you for the rest of my life.”

“And even when admonished you still will not ask the question?”

“Oh, I have many questions. How are you so beautiful? How do you fit so perfectly in my arms?” Will nuzzled his head into Elizabeth’s hair. “How do you smell so fragrant? How soon can we marry?”

Will scooped Elizabeth into his arms and she giggled. “You are the one who told me we would have to wait for a year.”

Will laid Elizabeth down gently on the bed and sat one side. Leaning across her, he stroked her cheek before meeting her lips. “I already see how my future can be improved with a wife. You are far more intelligent on these matters than I am.”

“That is the burden I believe I can bear.”

Will wrapped his arms around Elizabeth and kissed her lips once more before bringing her head to rest on his chest. For several minutes, she listened to his heartbeat.

“I offer you my hand in marriage. If I had not one penny to my name, I would still offer it. Would that be enough for you? Will you have me? Will you marry me, sweet, sweet Lizzy?”

Elizabeth smiled against Will’s chest and pulled back to meet his eyes. “I would marry you, Fitzwilliam Darcy, if I had a thousand offers from all the richest men in the world. It is you and your heart that I love. I only tremble by being selected by so great a man.”

Gathering Elizabeth into his arms, Will pulled her to sit on his lap. Once there, she placed her arms around his neck and leaned into his kiss. Will’s hands traveled similar paths to before, up and down Elizabeth arms and back. Soon, however, his fingers caressed her shoulders and slipped underneath the fabric of her night rail, causing her to shiver and gasp. Will must have enjoyed the sensation for his kiss deepened. Soon, his lips left hers and descended her throat and across her collarbone. Will pushed the strap of her night rail to the side and he pressed a lingering kiss on the exposed skin.

Elizabeth’s heart hammered in her chest and desires she had never known before coursed through her. If Will asked for more intimacy, she would never be able to tell him no. Instead, Will ceased his movements and held Elizabeth to his chest once more.

“Soon, Lizzy. Soon.” Will press a kiss into Elizabeth’s hair. “I never thought I would find this. I never thought I could combine passion and such deep respect for one woman. I’m constantly in awe of you.”

“I feel the same way,” Elizabeth said. “However, I think you can articulate it better.”

The clock in the chamber chimed the hour, and they loosen their hold on one another. Standing, Elizabeth escorted Will to her door. “I think we will have to adjust some of your plans in the future. However, coming to Longbourn and publicly courting me there is a stroke of genius.”

“So, I cannot persuade you to smuggle yourself aboard one of our carriages and elope while we are in Scotland?” Will smirked.

Elizabeth quite loved Will’s joke. Still, she answered soberly. “We would only choose that route if we felt we had no other option because we were afraid of the consequences of facing certain people’s disapproval. I have already told your father and, now, I will tell you, I always rise to every attempt of intimidating me.”

“My avenging Goddess,” Will said and kissed her forehead. “I agree, we will give our family a chance to come to the idea of our marriage before resorting to such desperate tactics.” Will pressed lingering kiss to her lips. “But I vow, I will marry you one day Elizabeth Bennet. You are imprinted on my heart, and there is room for no other.”

Elizabeth sighed as she returned his kiss. “You have my whole heart, Will Darcy. I will never give it to another. I will wait for you. When you return to me, we will plan our future.”

Will embraced Elizabeth once more before whispering in her ear. “Fear not, my love. Fitzwilliam Darcy always gets his way, and I will find a way to marry you with the blessing of our families.”

Elizabeth nodded as she fervently believed his promise. Opening the door, she made sure the hall was empty before Will left her chamber. She fell asleep that night confident of Will’s love and knowing she needed nothing else in life.

To be continued…

Pledged- Chapter Five

Chapter Five

After Will left, Elizabeth remained in the cupboard alone for nearly an hour. Grateful for the solitude, Elizabeth attempted to push aside her intense attraction to Will in light of what she had seen last night.

Elizabeth had visited the nursery to say goodnight to Georgiana but found her asleep. The girl reminded Elizabeth of her younger siblings so very much, and she had not anticipated missing them. However, it was her first time away from home, and she had soon learned that while the girls could be bothersome, there was great comfort in their familiarity. Staying only for a few moments, Elizabeth had taken only a few steps from the nursery when she heard hushed voices on the steps. It did not take long for her to recognize the voices of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Graves.

Hiding around a corner so she would not be seen, Elizabeth could not make out their words. Instead, she saw Miss Graves crying and Will leading her to her chamber. Elizabeth knew enough that no gentleman should be near a lady’s door. At the theatre, it was clear Sam, and possibly Will too, had some private liaison with the raven-haired beauty. Next, Elizabeth sees Will with his sister’s governess.

While they had not started their friendship on the best foot, Elizabeth had thought Will began to have a tendre for her.  He declared as much. Now, it seemed he did nothing more than play with her while he paid his attentions on other women. Although sheltered in the ways of men, Elizabeth understood there were some ladies considered unmarriageable. She knew men often spent time with the ladies and received physical pleasure from them. The woman at the theatre indeed seemed like one, and the heir of Pemberley could never marry his sister’s governess.

Elizabeth’s heart sank as she reconsidered Will’s words from the theatre. She, too, was considered insufficient. Rather than avoid her, Will sought her out. Star-crossed lovers would be terrible enough, but the way he kissed her in the cupboard without a word regarding courtship must mean he had no respect for her.

Heat slapped Elizabeth’s cheeks, and blood rushed through her veins as her heart pounded. How foolish she had been! Why did she ever change her opinion of the young man? She had been charmed by his appearance and their common interests. Although she could find no fault with his behaviour as a brother, had she not witnessed proof of his father’s displeasure? Of Mr. Darcy, she had no reason to doubt. After all, her father trusted the man. As for general civility, Will immediately lacked the hospitality a host should offer his guests. If she needed further proof, she needed to look no further than he had earned the admiration of the Miss Bingleys.

For a moment, Elizabeth’s eyes welled with tears and shame threatened to strangle her heart. What a blow to her pride! She had not thought she would be so susceptible to such empty considerations with a suitor. His handsomeness and wealth had blinded her to the fact that he lacked the morality and character she needed for a husband.

“Husband!”

When had she turned into a ninny that believed every gentleman she met was a prospective husband. When had she turned her thoughts to matrimony? She was only sixteen. However, one day, she would have to walk down the church’s aisle and face a man at the altar. She would vow to honor and obey. To herself, Elizabeth promised it would only be to a man she loved. Still, while she could not say all her examples of matrimony were ideal, in general, she had more examples of married ladies than spinsters, and of the two categories, the spinsters had always seemed the least happy and most pitiable.

Her step-mother’s words on putting Elizabeth out at the age of sixteen rushed through her memory. Suddenly, it felt as though a noose were tightening around Elizabeth’s neck. Her breath came fast, but still it seemed there was not enough air in her lungs. She had to escape this cupboard. She needed space!

No longer caring for the game and if anyone discovered her, she fled her hiding spot. There was a narrow staircase next to Mr. Darcy’s study, and Elizabeth raced up it until she nearly collided with Miss Graves.

“Miss Elizabeth!” the older lady caught Elizabeth by the elbows lest she fall down the stairs. “Good heavens!”

“Forgive me,” Elizabeth panted and moved to push past the governess.

“Pray, forgive the intrusion, but you seem unwell. You have been so kind to me, allow me to assist you.”

“It is nothing,” Elizabeth dissembled.

“What could make you run with such abandon and a wild look in your eye? Please, you may tell me. You are not alone in your troubles.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked. Did she care to hear how this woman also loved Will Darcy? At the weight of her thoughts, Elizabeth flushed then paled, and her legs buckled.

Miss Graves caught Elizabeth and brought her down to sit on the stairs. “I must insist now! Mr. Darcy would never forgive himself if he injured you as well.”

Elizabeth’s brow furrowed and for the first time, she noticed the bruise on Miss Graves’ cheek. Curls which usually framed her face were pushed behind her ear. “I am uninjured, but it appears you are not. Did he…” Tears streamed down Elizabeth’s face to consider the possibility that Will could abuse anyone. “Did he assault you? Did he force you?”

Miss Graves shook her head but would not speak.

“Please, I must know,” Elizabeth said as she laid a calming hand on the woman’s arm. “You had said I was not alone and offered assistance. Why do you not allow me to extend the same courtesy to you?”

A sob wrenched from Miss Graves’ mouth as a shudder wracked her body. “I will confide in you,” she muttered with a shaky breath.

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around the lady and rubbed her back soothingly, the same as she would for one of her sisters. After several minutes, Miss Graves gathered herself enough to speak.

“He did not force me, but he did not take no for an answer. He thought I would submit if injured. I do not know what might have happened to me if he had not heard the noise of an occupant in the nursery.”

Elizabeth flushed as she considered she must have been the cause for the interruption. “You must tell Mr. Darcy. Come, let us go to him at once.”

Miss Graves held back. “No, in my experience it is best to keep my head down. Master Will informs me that the men are to leave in a few days. He promised nothing, but he hopes to keep Wickham,” she spat the name, “from returning to the house.”

Elizabeth started at the information. Mr. Wickham assaulted the lady? What about Will outside of the governess’ chamber last night?

“I must only bear with the fear for a few more days. I have never been more afraid in my life but also never more hopeful. You must understand I have had to leave several positions due to the unseemly desires of men. They have never been violent before, but there was always the fear of a reoccurrence at the next situation.”

Miss Graves raised her shoulders and strength infused her frame. “I will soon be free of this concern, and I will fight to keep this position. I love Miss Darcy too much and have the greatest esteem for Mr. Darcy.”

“And Master Will?” The words escaped Elizabeth before she could help it.

“Master Will?” Miss Graves voice rose in pitch as her brow furrowed. “Well, I barely have said more than a few words to him. I do thank him for assisting me last night. He says he will help me, but I do not want to cause trouble between him and his father.”

“You told him what happened?”

Miss Graves nodded. “I was overwrought. When I came to my senses, I begged him to say nothing, but I do not know that he will.”

“Will Darcy will do whatever he pleases and deems best regardless of the desires of others,” Elizabeth observed wryly.

“I cannot condemn the gentleman for having a superior sense of honour and duty.”

Elizabeth slowly nodded. The woman had correctly summarized Will. His obstinacy could be annoying but came from the best of intentions. How unfairly she had accused and condemned* him!

“Forgive me,” Miss Graves said. “I fear I have made this entirely about me and it was you who needed assistance.”

“Do not apologise. I am entirely well, now. I only needed physical exertion and wanted to be away from all the finery of the public rooms.”

“You come from the country, do you not?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I live near a market town in Hertfordshire. I am used to long daily walks in solitude. I fear I do not thrive in proper drawing rooms and under the scrutiny of the most fashionable or rich.”

“You are young yet,” Miss Graves smiled at her. “You may find as you age that more of London and the fine life appeals to you.”

The sound of the door opening at the top of the stairs reminded them of their location. They cordially parted but as Elizabeth returned to her chamber, Miss Graves words of fear mixed with hope resounded in her ears. Such conflicting emotions could create great anxiety, and Elizabeth’s heart pounded in her ears as she acknowledged it must be the cause for her mental abuse of Will. She loved him and it both terrified and excited her.

******

After Will had left Elizabeth’s hiding place, he set out to find Wickham. The others would be disappointed he did not play the game with them, but it had never been his intention to do so. If his father would not see reason regarding his favourite, then perhaps Will could convince Wickham to leave Darcy House.

Will found him in the kitchen, trying to charm the cook into a sample of the evening’s meal. “George, I would speak with you.”

Will noticed the nearly imperceptible change in his long-ago friend’s countenance. Pure hatred emitted from his eyes and Will wondered what he had ever done to deserve such malice from the man he had once loved as a brother. The others saw no change in his demeanour, however, and Wickham kept up his usual charm. “Certainly.”

Will noted that Wickham avoided the issue of having to address him by name. As they were no longer boys or even friends, calling him by an informal name would be inappropriate given the difference in their stations. However, Wickham could never bear to say “sir” or “Master Fitzwilliam” as the servants, and his father did. Will could almost pity Wickham for the awkward situation. Mr. Darcy had thought he had done a kindness to his steward’s son by raising him with his heir, but all it did was raise Wickham’s expectations and taste for the fine things in life.

Wickham approached. Once out of the hearing of others, he raised his brows and spoke in a derisive tone. “Well?”

Will came in close to the other man. Towering over him by several inches, Wickham had to tilt his head back to meet his eyes. “I know what you have done,” Will said through clenched teeth. “You will not get away with it this time.”

“What is it that you think I have done? Do you have any proof?”

“You have assaulted Miss Graves. You have, at last, met a lady who will not succumb to your charm and abandon her reputation.”

“Oh, I see. You suppose I have harmed her.” Wickham smirked. “I am sorry to hear she has been injured. She is a pretty lass. However, did she name me? Were there witnesses?”

“Those are charming words and I daresay would better suit a man intended for court than the cloth.”

Wickham stroked his jaw. “It would certainly be more profitable, but I would hate to disappoint your dear father. I notice you did not answer my questions.”

Sick of Wickham’s games, Will grabbed him by the lapel, rejoicing when Wickham flinched. “Leave this house. I will provide a handsome sum for you to find your amusements this summer elsewhere. When I return from holiday, I will contact you with arrangements so you never need step foot in a Darcy residence again.”

Wickham pulled back and smoothed out his coat, seemingly unaffected by Will’s display. “I see you are feeling powerful and with deep pockets. Coming of age has given you freedom of money, it appears. However, we both know your father will not support you in any attempt of ousting me while he lives.”

Incensed, Will glowered. “Mind your words, George. One day I will be master of Pemberley, and I will have no charity for you.”

“What a sad day, indeed, that will be. I notice you seem to rejoice at the idea of your father’s demise. I would expect nothing less from an arrogant and pampered but disloyal cur such as you.”

“How dare you put words in my mouth? How dare you—”

“No! How dare you! Will, perhaps you might need to force ladies, but I have never needed to resort to such.” Wickham raised a brow. “On second thought, they would easily open their legs for your pocketbook. No, perhaps you ought to consider one of your friends residing here. I have heard rumours of Young Bennet running with a rough crowd in recent months.”

Momentarily silenced by the shred of truth in Wickham’s words, Will had no ready retort. A servant rounded the corner and hovered behind Wickham.

“Pardon me, the master desires Mr. Wickham for a game of billiards,” the servant said.

“Very good,” Wickham said and nodded at the servant. Without another word, he left Will in the hall.

Controlling the impulse to stalk after them and pull Wickham into his father’s study by the collar, Will clenched and unclenched his fists. When his breathing had returned to normal, he returned to the drawing room intending to ask the gentlemen to join him for a ride in the park. Upon his arrival, he was told Elizabeth felt ill and had taken to her chamber. Was she avoiding him?

Convinced that Elizabeth was upset after their encounter, Will bided his time until the others left to dress for dinner. What could he say to her? Never in his life had he given into his base impulses before. He had never hinted at his growing attraction to her. She was only sixteen. Most likely, Will had terrified her. He never said anything of courtship or marriage, and she must presume that he had no honorable intentions. The thought that he could in any way be similar to George Wickham disgusted him.

As Will dress for the evening. He considered his choices for the future. When he had spoken to his father. Earlier about Wickham, Mr. Darcy had noted that he had seen Wills admiration for Elizabeth. While Mr. Darcy did not support his son marrying his cousin, the older gentleman did have expectations for Will’s eventual bride. The average age of a gentleman marrying was closer to thirty. However, Will did not have that luxury. He was the only son of an old family and a large estate. He was expected to marry young and begin producing the next generation of Darcys to look after Pemberly. There was no entail on the state and therefore Georgianna could always inherit. However, Will know his father hoped for his son to inherit and sire another line for succession. Although Mr. Darcy was friends with Mr. Bennet, it appeared he did not approve of Elizabeth as a match for his son.

Duty and expectation were not unknown to Will. He had always striven to live up to his father’s expectations. Most would call him an ever-dutiful son. In recent months, however, Will, and his father’s relationship became strained due to George Wickham. It was evident to Will, that his father did not trust him regarding Wickham. The fact that his employees might be injured or harmed to a gun frustrated Will to the core. For many years now. He had seen vicious propensities and Wickham. At school, Will had been entirely powerless to protect others from Wickham. As for ladies, they always seem to be willing. When the time came for their eventual disenchantment with the cad, Will instructed the housekeeper to provide for them. As far as Will new, Miss Graves was the only one who refused Wickham what he wanted. Will would not be able to convince his father without her confession.

Also on Will’s mind was Wickham’s charge against Sam. While Will struggled with the new dynamics of his relationship with his father, Sam had been growing increasingly distant and finding new friends of a different crowd. Sam’s association with Lord Harcourt proved to Will, that his friend was in over his head. As much as Will was powerless against Wickham, so he was against Sam’s choices. The most he could do was attempt to explain the Sam the dangerous path he was now on.

Although Sam would not welcome Will’s, desire for courtship with his sister it would perhaps put them on some level ground. Will could not condone the notion of Sam breaking his engagement to his betrothed. However, Will, at last, understood the pull of one’s heart. He had been defenseless against his own heart. He had been taught to resist the seduction of ladies who desired his money and name. Elizabeth seemed entirely unaffected by both. If she esteemed and respected him, it was for his character and because they had become friends. The fire that sparked between them resided squarely on Wills shoulders. While Elizabeth did not pull back, she did not instigate their intimacy. Now that he had a taste of passion and happiness and could see it within his grasp, he could not let it go. Sam would fight Will on desiring his sister, however, in the end, Will hoped Sam could understand why he must follow his heart. To that end, Will knew he needed to support Sam in following his.

Determined to seek out his friend and let him know his growing attachment to Elizabeth, Will felt control of the situation again. Leaving his chamber, he hoped he would see Elizabeth before dinner. As he walked down the guest waiting, he saw her light figure.

“Elizabeth,” Will whispered.

Elizabeth paused and turned to see who called her name. Will reached for her hand and pulled her around the corner so they might have privacy. “Have you been avoiding me?”

“Do you think I have a reason to avoid you?”

“I had wanted to apologize for my behavior,” Will said. “I believe I scared you.”

“What was it that you believe frightened me?”

“If you do not wish to speak on it further, I will abide by your wishes. However, I wish you to know that I have come to feel very strongly for you.”

“As your friend’s sister?”

Will shook his head. “You mean more, so much more to me than that.” Will searched Elizabeth’s eyes. “I told you already that I lose my wits around you. The truth is I never want that to stop. You enrapture me. With you, I see the world in ways I have never seen before. You bring a lightness to my heart.”

A flush had crept up Elizabeth’s face during Wills impassioned speech. He could not resist the urge to stroke her cheek and touch her soft flesh. “I am falling in love with you Elizabeth Bennet. And I ought to have considered that you deserved better for your first kiss. “

Elizabeth’s flush deepened making Will grin as his deposition seemed correct. He had been the first man to ever kiss her. He vowed to himself, he would be her last.

Despite her embarrassment, Elizabeth met Wills eyes smiled. “How would you kiss me then?”

Will grinned. He came in closer to Elizabeth. Her back was to the wall and he placed one hand to the side of her head and leaned against the wall. His other hand still held her cheek. Wills with chest rapidly rose and fell, and her eyelashes fluttered in anticipation. “Like this! “

Softly, Will kissed her cheek and turned her head and kissed the other. He kissed her eyelids and felt her luscious flutter beneath his lips. He kissed her for head. The lowered his arm that had been against the wall and trailed it down her arm until it circled her waist. Pulling Elizabeth closer, he peered down at her. The image of her waiting, ready, desiring his kissed would imprint on his mind forever. When Will judge her impatient enough, he softly placed his lips over hers. The quiet sigh and feel of her smile against him in response, answered every question he had.

Elizabeth pressed her lips against Will’s in return. Together, they explored each other’s mouths for many minutes until, with a groan, Will trailed kisses down Elizabeth’s neck. Elizabeth’s head rolled backward, giving him greater access. Again, he could feel her rapid pulse and hear her breaths. What began as sweet exploration turned passionate. He now wrapped both arms around Elizabeth as she clung to his neck. Their bodies lined up with between them. His hands rubbed up and down her back, measuring her term waist and lingering on her hips. By instinct, he pulled them to his. Elizabeth gasped and Will stifled it with a deep kiss, his tongue sweeping into her hot mouth.

He was losing control in a hallway near her bedroom. An instinct he would rather not admit he had reminded him of all the beds nearby. The greater and more honorable part of Will recalled she was his best friend’s sister. A step sounded on the hallway and Will spring apart from Elizabeth.

“Will!”

Will turn to see the angry visage of his friend.

Pledged- Chapter Four

pledged 7Chapter Four

As Will escorted Elizabeth back to the box, he was approached by several gentlemen. Some were fathers thrusting their daughters before him. Others were brothers attempting to unburden themselves the task of chaperoning a proper lady, no doubt in the interest of spending more time with the merry widows and the courtesans who frequented the theatre. All looked at Elizabeth with disdain, and very few asked for any introduction at all. The expressions of displeasure from the gentlemen were nothing compared to the scorn from the ladies.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth held her own. She returned jealousy with kindness, finding something to say to each lady who deigned to speak with her. Just before they reached the box, Will whispered to her.

“That is a very interesting and provocative smirk you are wearing Miss Bennet.”

“Is it?” Elizabeth’s smirk grew to a grin.

“Will you tell me what amuses you? Is it how you met with all those people with such equanimity?”

“Why should I worry for their approval or disapproval? I am the lady on the arm of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Their spiteful acts of jealousy did all the work of proving me the greater lady without my having to put forward any effort at all. Yes, I am quite pleased with the trouble they saved me.”

Will smiled as well until he saw Sam and a familiar, unwelcome figure from the corner of his eye. Reaching the box, he urged Elizabeth forward. “I will just be a moment.”

After she entered behind the curtain, Will moved to where Sam stood in the shadows arguing with who was supposed to be his former mistress.

“Sam, Miss Johnson, I hope I am not interrupting anything.”

“Lucy was just leaving,” Sam said with raised brows.

“Yes, pardon me,” Miss Lucinda Johnson nodded. “I tire too easily these days to enjoy a performance at the theatre. Good evening, Mr. Darcy, it was a pleasure to see you again. Sam…” She trailed off and then her eyes filled with tears. Miss Johnson cleared her throat then left without a backward glance.

“Sam—”

“I know, I know,” Sam cut off Will’s words. “It is not fair to Charlotte.”

“No, it is not. You entered a betrothal with Miss Lucas and swore to give up Lucy.”

“I did,” Sam agreed. “However, denying my heart is not fair either.”

“It is too late for that now. You ought to have thought better before you proposed. I know you would never sacrifice your honor in such a way.” Will frowned at his friend. What could Sam be thinking about entertaining his former mistress in the theatre for all to see? His sisters could easily make mention of the situation to his betrothed. The Sam Bennet he had always known would never tarnish his honour in such a way or wound a lady.

“You are correct.”

“You do care for her,” Will reminded him. For most of their friendship, Sam had seemed enamored with his neighbour. His letter upon her accepting his hand in matrimony contained more effusions than Will had thought possible for one man to write. Last summer, he met Lucinda Johnson, and suddenly everything changed.

“But I love Lucy,” Sam sighed.

“Do you?”

Sam rounded on his friend. “You question my affections? What do you know of love and romance?”

“I do not claim to know anything,” Will conceded. “However, you have known Miss Lucas your entire life. You did not rush into any arrangement with her.”

“It is a different thing entirely.”

“How so?”

“Lucy is carrying my child. I can never just be done with her.”

“A child?” Will’s voice carried louder than he had intended.

Sam’s eyes widened, but he looked over Will’s shoulder. “Lizzy?”

“Papa wants you,” Elizabeth said and turned away quickly.

“Blast,” Sam shook his head.

“What will you tell her?”

“Nothing,” Sam answered. “She is too young to know of these things.”

Will frowned. He would not do the same to Georgiana. “She is not as young as you would think.”

Sam assessed his friend. “You say this from your own thoughts about her?”

“She is more mature than I had envisioned, but she has also received attention from many of our Society.”

Sam dropped his new carefree facade and straightened to his full height. He looked Will square in the eye when few others could. “You disappeared with her for quite some time yesterday. Can I trust you with my sister?”

Will’s jaw tightened, and he measured his words. He had intended to speak with Sam about Harcourt’s attention to Elizabeth and inquire why he was so friendly with the man. Additionally, many others did take note of Elizabeth. The women and their matchmaking male relatives disliked her, but there was an appreciation in their gaze. Men across the lobby outright stared in approval. Sam may not have noticed, and Will may have been hesitant to admit it, but Elizabeth was full grown. Now was not the time for this conversation.

“Can I trust you with my sister?”

From the tone of Sam’s voice and his earnest gaze, Will assumed his longtime friend mistook the meaning of his silence. Affronted, Will returned the look and tone. “Of course.” As of this moment, Elizabeth was far safer with him than her brother. Even if Will could not forget the sparkle in her eyes, the feel of her hand on his arm, and wonder about the taste of her ruby lips.

“Do not forget it, then,” Sam said and pushed past Will to greet his father.

Will stood in silence for a moment. Years ago, he had lost a similarly gregarious friend. George Wickham had started displaying violent traits at Eton to fit in with the other boys. Sam seemed set for the same path. While his situation of gambling with Harcourt might be understandable in light of his impending fatherhood, Will believed Sam had begun a doomed course. Had Sam confided in his father? What would Will’s father do for a friend in such a scenario?

Laughter from the theatre galley* pulled Will’s mind to the present. Reluctantly, he returned to the box. Elizabeth turned her head upon hearing his entry and met his eyes then beamed. Feeling as though someone had punched him in the gut, Will attempted to breathe normally and shift his eyes from hers. She was such an unexpected mix of everything he had never known he wanted in life. Beside her, Sam whispered something in her ear. She immediately returned her attention to the stage, but Sam glared at Will. Pursuing Elizabeth would strain his friendship with Sam and countless others. He could hardly suppose his father would support the match. His noble relations, while they greeted the Bennets, always mentioned their high hopes for him. Lady Catherine would likely wage war on all of Meryton. Marrying anyone but her daughter would be an insult but marrying someone outside of the first tier of Society would send her prophesying doom for Pemberley and predicting his mother’s ardent disapproval had she lived.

Taking his seat, Will kept his eyes on the stage but hardly knew what passed upon it. The carriage ride home was no more comfortable as Bingley chatted happily and Sam moodily remained silent. Once home, the ladies went above stairs, and while the other men returned to the study for a nightcap, Will excused himself. Intending first to check on Georgiana, then to go to bed himself, he climbed the stairs to the appropriate floor and found Miss Graves weeping.

“Miss Graves, whatever is the matter?” he cried.

“Oh!” She turned her face from him but not before he saw a bruise forming on her cheek.

“Dear God! What has happened? Who struck you?”

“It is no matter. Forgive me for disturbing you.” She hastily stood but winced.

Will came to her side and offered his arm for her to lean on. “You have not disturbed me. Pray, allow me to call for Mrs. ___ or send for the physician. You are not well and should not be out of bed.”

“I ask that you do not fuss over me.”

“My father would—”

“And whatever you do please do not tell him a thing.”

“Madam, I could not count myself as a gentleman if I left a lady in your state.”

“I am only the governess. A servant. Forgettable and usually invisible.”

“You are a person and a Darcy employee. We do not allow mistreatment of our staff from ourselves let alone others. Tell me who has harmed you.”

Shaking her head, Miss Graves barely managed a whisper. “The master would never believe my word over his…”

Every muscle in Will’s body tensed. He immediately understood who she referenced. George Wickham was his father’s favorite and one so recently displayed before her.

“Fear not,” Will promised. “I will handle the entire thing. Allow me to assist you to your chamber.”

“You are too kind,” Miss Graves muttered but accepted his help.

“How was my sister today?” Will asked, hoping to fixate her thoughts on something pleasant.

“Miss Georgiana was in high spirits today, sir. She never gives me any trouble and is my most favourite charge that I have ever had.”

“Indeed? How many have you had?”

“Six. Each position has only lasted a few months. I had hoped this one would be a more suitable situation and came highly recommended to me from my last mistress.”

“I cannot imagine why a competent woman such as yourself is replaced so often.”

Miss Graves blushed. “It is not for me to say, sir.”

Will nearly missed a step on the stairs to understand she had been importuned so much. Were all men of his class so vile? “Do you wish for another position?”

“I do enjoy Miss Georgiana and have found Darcy House very comfortable until recently. If there were any way at all to remove certain recent additions to the household, then I would be most pleased to stay.”

“The gentlemen will be leaving for an extended holiday in a few days. During that time I hope to find a solution to your troubles. I trust the ladies have not been a source of anxiety.”

“No, indeed!” Miss Graves hastened to say. “The Miss Bennets always ask for permission before visiting Miss Darcy, and I can see their genuine affection for the girl.”

“The Miss Bennets visit my sister?”

“Yes, they have spent much of their mornings in the nursery. Miss Elizabeth, especially, is partial to Miss Darcy. I believe she misses her sisters.”

“Yes, she has several near Georgiana’s age.”

They arrived at the nursery chamber, and Will stopped outside. “I wish you would allow me to assist you further.”

“There is no need, but I am truly thankful,” Miss Graves answered. “Please accept my thanks and unending admiration.”

Will began to refuse her thanks when he thought he heard a noise on the steps. However, looking over his shoulder, he saw nothing. “Sleep well, madam and please alert my valet should you require anything during the night.”

Bowing to her, he left for his chambers. Georgiana would already be asleep, and Miss Graves needed privacy to tend to her injuries. Despite the melancholy event, Will smiled as he considered Elizabeth’s obvious affection for his sister. What higher quality could he look for? While she might not meet his father’s preference for fortune or rank, he could not overlook her care for his most favourite child. Meditating on such a possibility, Will steadfastly pushed worries about Sam and George Wickham aside for the night.

*****

The following morning, Will arose and met his father in his study. For as long as Will could remember, George Darcy began work before breaking his fast. He dedicated two or three hours to business before greeting friends or family. Although in his early fifties, he had the energy of men half his age.

Will knocked on the door and was bade to enter. His father did not look up. “Father, may I speak with you on a most disturbing subject?”

Mr. Darcy returned his pen to the ink pot and folded his hands on his desk, giving his son all of his attention. “There must be some urgency behind this topic.”

“Indeed, there is. Last night, I found Miss Graves sobbing on the stairs outside the nursery. A bruise was forming on her cheek, and I believe she had been accosted and assaulted by George.”

The older man clenched his jaw and gave his son a sharp look. “Do you have proof of this? Did she accuse him?”

“No. She did not want me meddling and did not wish to name her attacker.”

“Then perhaps you had better listen to her.”

“Sir! How can you say that when you have a daughter? At this very moment, you have a house full of ladies that might be his next target.”

“You have no proof Wickham was behind the incident. Think about it son. Do you think a young man who has been raised nearly as a brother to yourself, who comes from such good stock and reared with all the bounty Pemberley can offer is capable of such a thing? What would make him strike Miss Graves last night when he has never done such a thing before?” Mr. Darcy turned red and pounded his fists on his desk. “I have tolerated your dislike of him long enough.”

“You are mistaken, sir, if you believe there have been no similar incidents. Why else have you had so many governesses for Georgiana?”

Will’s father scoffed. “Mrs. ___ always claimed they had found another position they enjoyed better. More pay, time in London, holidays with the families. Not everyone is suited to our lifestyle. Additionally, they all left months after George had last been in their company and I never saw a sign of injury upon them.”

“I think it likely that Miss Graves is the first to refuse his attempts at seduction.”

“Come, Will, that is beneath you. George is a handsome lad with charm and money enough that he would not need to resort to seducing my staff for his sport. Besides, he has too much honour. Every gentleman knows never to touch a servant.” He picked up his quill and returned his attention to his letter once more. “Just as they know a friend’s sister is off limits. Therefore I have no reason to worry about either you or George.”

Will took a step back, feeling as though he had been punched in the gut. His father knew of his attraction to Elizabeth? Evidently, he also disapproved and hoped to remind him of the code of honour among gentlemen.

“Now, if you do not have proof or anything else to say, leave me to my work. This holiday is planned for you and your friends—even old ones you no longer find pleasing—and I must finish before we can leave.”

“Yes, sir,” Will said and bowed.

Throughout the morning, he went through the motions. He read for a short while in the library until he heard others on the steps and joined them for breakfast. Elizabeth refused to meet his eyes and Sam seemed less jovial than usual. By the time the young people adjourned to the drawing room, a headache burned behind Will’s eyes. 

“How terribly droll this morning is,” Caroline observed. “Louisa and I were just saying how bored we are.”

“Oh, yes,” Louisa agreed and nodded. “We were.”

Will internally rolled his eyes. How was it the elder sister did nothing but parrot the younger?

“A game of billiards would be enjoyable,” Bingley suggested.

Caroline threw a hand to her throat. “Billiards? Oh, we ladies could not possibly play!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw Elizabeth smirk.

“I am sure we could all do nearly anything gentlemen do, although not with the same degree of accomplishment. However, the same is true even amongst our own sex.”

Caroline narrowed her eyes. “Yes, you are correct, Eliza. Some ladies are far more accomplished than others.”

Not this again. “I propose a game of Sardines.”

Each head swung in Will’s direction.

“You want to play Sardines,” Richard slowly said.

Will was unsure why he suggested it except it would require the others to be quiet and if he were lucky, he could be the first to hide and therefore have solitude. He hated the powerless feeling he had as he had attempted to help Miss Graves. Additionally, Sam seemed to be in no mood to cheer him up, and Elizabeth seemed to have taken a sudden dislike of him. He needed privacy to sort out his thoughts. “I will hide first.”

“Now, wait a moment,” Bingley said. “You will know all the best places to hide. “That’s not fair.”

Sam nodded. “All of us men will know. Let one of the ladies go first.”

“I should like to try,” Elizabeth said with a twinkle in her eyes.

“You would,” Caroline muttered not nearly quiet enough.

Elizabeth continued as though she had not heard. “I am exceptionally good at hiding. It is one of my many accomplishments.”

Caroline glared at Elizabeth, but the others agreed to let her hide first. While Elizabeth wandered off, Will wondered how he could manage to look without being caught with the Miss Bingleys following his every move.

“I think we should say every person is to search without help.”

“That is not the traditional way to play,” Richard observed.

“We are no longer children,” Will shrugged.

“Some of us are,” Caroline chirped.

“Would you rather visit Georgiana in the Nursery?” Will asked.

Caroline’s grin vanished, and she paled.

Sam held out his watch. The others made small talk while they waited for the time to search for Elizabeth. Will considered unfairly breaking the rules. Yes, he did know the hiding areas in the house. Rather than search for Elizabeth, he would hide.

At the appointed time, the group dispersed and went in different directions. Will entered the library and shut the door behind himself. He walked directly to the wall between the library and his father’s dressing room. Near the entrance to the next chamber, there was a hidden latch which opened the end of the ornate bookcase. It would be just deep enough for one or two people…or had been when he was a child. Now, it would be considerably cramped, but he would bear it to have a few minutes away from Caroline and Louisa Bingley.

He opened it up and heard a feminine gasp. At the same time, there was a sound near the library door. Small hands gripped him by the lapel and pulled him inside the cupboard. The door clicked shut just as the other opened. As Will’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see Elizabeth’s shocked face. Not that he needed to see her to know it was her. One, she was supposed to be hiding. Two, her scent filled the place. Her lavender fragrance relaxed him and soothed his aching head.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

“Hiding,” he answered.

“Hiding?”

“I did not expect you to locate this place. It is hardly large enough for the game.” Each additional person who found Elizabeth would need to enter the cupboard. As it was, their backs were pressed against the walls, and only the merest distance stood between their bodies. Elizabeth must have been as uncomfortable as Will because she could not stop fidgeting.

“I did not expect to be found. However, you were supposed to be searching. Confess it. You were cheating at the game to avoid the others.”

Will arched a brow as perspiration began to roll down his back. The little cupboard trapped the summer heat and the heat of their bodies only added to it. “It is my home. I may go where I choose.”

“And slight your guests?”

Will avoided her question. “Why did you choose this place to hide? Why did you offer yourself as the first to play if you did not want to avoid the others?”

“You suggested the game first. You—”

“Quiet,” Will hissed. He heard footsteps approach. Elizabeth fidgeted and knocked her elbow into him. “Be still!”

“I can’t help it,” she sighed. “You’re so large! So tall and so broad!” Elizabeth’s breath quickened. “It’s so hot.”

Unable to raise his hand to cover her mouth, Will silenced her the only way he could. He leaned down and placed his lips on hers.

Instantly, arousal shot through his body. He had never known the primal urge now coursing in his body. Elizabeth melted against him, her mouth meeting his even as he began to demand hot kisses. Pressing his tongue against her lips, he slid into the cavern of her mouth. His eyes rolled in the back of his head at the sweet taste of her. Chocolate from her breakfast. It was good he could not move, he could not take her in his arms. He could not press her against the wall and have his hand run over her flesh or lift up her skirt.

Will’s lips left hers, desperate for the taste of her skin. Elizabeth moaned, bringing some of his mind back to the present. Still, he trailed down her neck, pressing kisses on the sensitive flesh until he found her pulse point and could feel her heart’s rapid beats for him. Elizabeth shuddered against him, and he dropped his head to her shoulder.

“Elizabeth,” Will rasped as both of their chests rose and fell in quick spurts. “You drive me out of my mind.”

Elizabeth stiffened. “Get out.”

Will brought his head up and tried to meet her eyes but she turned her head. He could see the scarlet red of one flushed cheek.

“Forgive me,” he whispered. “A terrible lapse of judgement…I should never have…”

“Get out,” she said, but her voice wavered.

Dear God, he had made her cry. His first real kiss with a woman reduced her to tears. Peeking out the cupboard door, he exited without a backward glance.