The accommodations were more than Jane could expect. Her dear Charles would have nothing but the very best for his new bride. Their first two days of marriage were spent at the Hurst's beautiful home in London. After they had a chance to recover and rest in town, they were off to Bath where he spared no expense.
The weather had been wet, but they did not seem to mind. The apartment he had secured was exquisite, and the staff was attentive and ready to meet all of their needs. Jane did not care if they ever stepped outside, and they rarely did the first week.
Jane did not think that she would ever be able to get used to the servants coming in and out the bedroom that they shared to deliver breakfast each morning. Bingley would try not to laugh at her as she always buried herself a little deeper under the covers next to him when the servant would enter and leave the tray of food. Molly would always knock first, and the first few times, Jane instinctively jumped out of bed and did not know what to do with herself. Bingley would call for Molly to wait until he could coax his wife back into their bed, and assure her that it was not scandalous, and what would be talked about was if they were in separate rooms each morning. He reached for her hand and pulled her back next to him, covered her and whispered that she should relax, or at least close her eyes and pretend to be asleep until Molly left again.
“She is gone, my love,” he teased as he pulled her close that morning. “How I love to see you blush. Will you promise to blush twenty years from now, dearest Jane?”
She looked up at his whiskered face. “I suspect I will, if you will continue to tease me as you do, Charles.”
He pulled her even closer. “I cannot tell you how much I love to hear you say my name. It should be against the law.” He kissed her ear and she once again tried not to blush.
One week into their stay at Bath, Bingley sat at a desk reading letters. Jane was busy at her own desk writing her own to Elizabeth, who was now in Hunsford, when she noticed that her husband had a concerned look on his face.
“What is it, my dear?” she asked sweetly.
Bingley looked over at his bride. His face was torn, and Jane put down her pen and turned to face him fully.
“Charles, is everything alright?” She was full of concern.
Bingley melted under her gaze. “All is well, my love, it is just that something has come up, some business--rather unexpectedly and I fear I must attend to it.”
Jane looked relieved. “Take care of whatever you need to, Charles. We do not have to go out today, even though the sun is out. You know how I love being here.”
“No, Jane. This is something that cannot be done from Bath. I must leave you for two days. Mr. Pierce, my attorney has very important paperwork for me to look over and sign. He is staying in Bristol and I must go there since the third party involved is also there,” he explained.
“I have never seen Bristol,” Jane remarked with a smile.
Bingley looked almost pierced through at her innocent comment. He stood up and walked over toward her. He kneeled by her side.
“Dearest Jane, it will be a very quick trip. I will not be able to spend anytime with you if I took you with me.”
Jane looked down at him, trying to understand. Trying to be brave. “I will be fine here, Charles. I am sure that I could shop or read some books that Lizzy is always badgering me about.”
“Oh, my love, I will not have you here alone. I will send for Caroline and Louisa straight away. They know Bath better than London even, and you will not have one moment to miss me.”
She tried to take all of it in, and managed a very brave smile. “That would be very kind of you, Charles. When do you leave?”
“In three days.”
Jane reached down and ran her fingers through his fair curls. “I will miss you, but I understand.”
Bingley could have cried. How he loved her! He took her face in his hands and placed a very tender kiss upon her lips.
“I think I will go mad being parted from you,” he whispered.
*Sir William Lucas and Maria were good companions. Sir William liked to talk of London, his knighthood, and his daughter’s fortunate alliance; and Maria talked of ball gowns, bonnets, and how very frightened she was already of Lady Catherine, without ever setting eyes on her. Between them, they kept the conversation flowing, and Elizabeth did not have to think much about anything else. The weather held up nicely, and the trip was quite pleasant, all things considered.
As expected, they were met with great affability. Mr. Collins had a way of effusing his pleasure, and delighted in showing his guests every porcelain object, every piece of silver, and every improvement made to his humble abode. What was unexpected was the emotional greeting they received, from the normally reserved Charlotte. She actually had tears when she welcomed them, and grabbed her dear Lizzy so tight, that Elizabeth quite lost her breath for a moment.
After a good half hour of Mr. Collins’ exhaustive, and very verbose tour, Charlotte was finally able to get Elizabeth alone, and the two old friends were able to converse as they used to. Charlotte spoke of learning to run the her house, Lady Catherine’s over- attentiveness, and Mr. Collins’ love of being in his garden and study.
Elizabeth was pleased to learn that her friend was actually content in her situation. And the more Elizabeth observed during her visit, the more she could see that the match was a good one on both sides. Charlotte was not sentimental, and did not require what Elizabeth deemed most important. She noted the distinction, and finally absolved Charlotte, in her heart, for the offense of marrying a ridiculous man.
Only days after her arrival, Lady Catherine de Bourgh extended a dinner invitation at Rosings, and almost all at the rectory were in a state of nervousness about it. Mr. Collins told his young sister-in-law and cousin not to worry about their plain dresses, that Lady Catherine preferred having the distinction of rank preserved. Elizabeth smiled to herself as she pondered wearing one of her London gowns, but decided against it. She would wait until the distinction of rank was set first.
Rosings was quite imposing. Elizabeth had never seen such a huge estate. It was ancient, and drafty, filled with armor, gilded furniture and thick intricate tapestries. In keeping with the house, Lady Catherine was also formidable. Besides being large in width and stature, she did her best to find out all she could about Elizabeth, and had comments and disapprovals about most everything she heard. But Elizabeth would not be ruffled. She considered all this a necessary evil, so she put up with it, and tried her best to be patient, and gracious, even in the face of Lady Catherine’s ill behavior.
Lady Catherine had a daughter who was small, sickly, and did not say much. How she came forth from such an immense woman, Elizabeth knew not. They were polar opposites. She tried to engage Miss de Bourgh in conversation, but failed miserably each time. She thought Anne was a strange little creature, and wondered what her life must be like with such a mother. Elizabeth smiled, as she thought for the first time in her life, that she had been blessed in comparison. She could not wait to write to Jane, the new Mrs. Bingley, and tell her about the great lady.
Elizabeth soon settled into an agreeable routine at Hunsford cottage. Daily walks were a must. She was joined, at times, by Charlotte and Maria, and other times, she was able to get out by herself. Spring was in full bloom, and the flowers, the woods, and the hills held great attraction for Elizabeth, and there were no officers about to be wary of. She was healing. She was resigning herself. But she was not forgetting.
Darcy was fresh in her mind, no matter what she did to keep from thinking of him. She could see him standing in front of her, smiling at her with no reserve, with complete abandon. Warmth would wash all over her, and she could not believe that she could possibly be the object of such a gaze—of such adoring eyes. But then, she would see his face become distracted, almost disgusted by something behind her. Elizabeth would turn to look over her shoulder, only to behold Wickham, standing in his red coat, with a cunning smile, holding a single lavender stem in his hand. She would then look back toward Mr. Darcy, and he would be gone.
Five evenings had already been spent at Rosings, but the invitations abruptly stopped, when Lady Catherine had family come to stay for Easter. Elizabeth was pleased to be out from under the great lady’s scrutiny, if even for a few days, and Charlotte was relieved not to have interference in running her household for those same few days. For Charlotte was sure Lady Catherine had spies, and would show up out of nowhere, if she found out that the apples were stored in the opposite corner than she had advised.
Elizabeth set out by herself this fine morning. She had a letter from her father, and had not opened it yet. Although Mr. Bennet had much affection for his second daughter, he never wrote just for the sake of writing. He was not a man ruled by emotions, so he did not trifle with sentiments, or tedious descriptions of the budding leaves or green hills. He only penned a letter when there was something worth writing about, so Elizabeth was quite curious of its contents. She opened it while she walked at a leisurely pace.
He started by declaring that if Elizabeth should never return, he might be forced to find an occupation, only for the excuse to leave the house every day for long periods of time. He was currently considering becoming a highwayman, because the hours seemed flexible, the pay seemed handsome enough, and most importantly, he already had a great black cloak. He also asked his Lizzy if she preferred rubies or sapphires, but promised to do his best to get plenty of both.
Elizabeth smiled, and thought how she missed him. She then looked back at the letter, and got to the cream. He wrote of the scuttlebutt about town. Every villager was full of it. The very Wickham of their acquaintance, had been attacked outside of Meryton, on Monday night.
Elizabeth’s heart pounded, and stuck in her throat, at the name. His face was instantly in her mind, and she was not sure if she could continue, but her eyes read on.
Her father wrote that Wickham claimed to not be able to identify the attackers. But witnesses, who saw no faces, just dark figures, reported there were three. Whispers that a large unpaid debt was the catalyst, set the townsfolk to conclude that his creditors were responsible, and had given him a short amount of time to pay it back, and this was his warning.
Wickham claimed that all was well, although his face was quite misshapen, his ponytail snipped off, and from all reports, he now walked in a most peculiar manner.
Elizabeth stood still when she read the account, and was trying to figure out how she felt about it, when Maria came calling after her, in great haste.
Maria, who did not exert herself unless it was absolutely necessary, was winded, and had a hard time explaining herself. Although it was apparent that something she deemed important was happening, or was about to happen. Finally, she caught her breath, and was able to relate that Lady Catherine’s nephews, Mr. Darcy, and a Colonel Fitzwilliam were coming to call at the parsonage.
Going completely numb, Elizabeth stared at Maria. She could not feel her body, or the ground beneath her feet. Only Maria’s voice startled her back.
“Come Lizzy! For Mr. Collins bid you to come quickly. They will be here very soon. Make haste!”
This was not happening. She was not ready to face him. It did not make any sense for him to call at the parsonage, except possibly for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s sake.
Elizabeth knew she could not dismiss herself from the callers. She would have to get this over with, and then do her best to recover—to pick up her bloody body, and start all over again.
The gentlemen came as expected, and were greeted with more than enough enthusiasm from Mr. Collins. Elizabeth was able to maintain her expression when they walked into the parlor, and even smiled Darcy’s way, but without making direct eye contact.
Colonel Fitzwilliam could not hide his pleasure at seeing Elizabeth again. He complimented her on how well she looked, and Elizabeth noticed that he glanced over at Mr. Darcy at that moment.
Darcy sat down near a corner, letting Colonel Fitzwilliam have the closest seat. He then inquired about her health and the state of her family, to which she answered politely, only glancing at him once. But even with that one look, she saw pain in his eyes. She knew those eyes, and her very presence pained him. She did everything she could, to keep from excusing herself, and running upstairs to throw herself upon her bed. Why did he have to come?
Darcy was at his own loss. He had been scorned by Elizabeth time and time again, during the wedding festivities. He tried to get near her, to converse with her—anything, but she would always have an excuse to move to the opposite side of the room, or would suddenly be very occupied by one of her young cousins. He swore he saw tears in her eyes more than once, and he knew he was responsible for them. He was responsible for the pain and humiliation she felt. Her encounter with Wickham was his fault entirely, and it tortured him. He could not sleep for seeing Elizabeth running toward him, and seeing Wickham bent over, but smirking in the background.
And now, he came to somehow make amends to her, to explain everything, and throw himself on her mercy. But seeing her once again, and not knowing how to approach her, unnerved him. He brought Fitzwilliam with the hopes that he could somehow work on Elizabeth for him. He knew it was cowardly, but at least Elizabeth would talk to him, and not run away.
The gentlemen took their leave after about fifteen minutes, leaving Mr. Collins in raptures about what illustrious guests he had entertained, and how very honored he was to have such a patroness who would attract such persons. He was then very distracted and determined to have a very fitting sermon come Sunday, to suit the visitors in the congregation. Perhaps it should be on the parable of the lost coin, or possibly King Solomon, and his visit from the Queen of Sheba.
One day later, an invitation came from Rosings for a formal dinner for the following evening. Once again, Mr. Collins could not be contained. He pressed his young guests to understand just how fortunate they were, to be included in such company as this. Elizabeth shook her head, having been in company “like this” plenty of times. But she could not shake off her dread at having to spend an entire evening pretending that she did not spend a quarter of an hour pressed up against him. That his arms did not pull her into his very being, and that she had not felt safer in her entire life then she did those fleeting moments. She did not feel equal to it, but did not know how to get out of it either.
Elizabeth opened her eyes the next morning. The sun poured through her window and made her blink, and turn her face. She had to concentrate to remember where she was, for the sun temporarily blinded her, and she had a fleeting thought that she was back at the Gardiner’s. She smiled for a moment, remembering the dinner where Mr. Darcy teased and put her at ease, and how she tried not to laugh when the pheasant came into the room on the massive platter. She expected despair to come crashing over her musing, as it did when she indulged herself for even the briefest of moments. She braced herself, but nothing came. She sat up, a little surprised at her overall mood, and looked around. She saw her trunk in the corner. She could not miss it, for the beams through the window spilled across the room and onto it.
She put her feet on the floor and made her way over to the trunk. She opened it, and at that moment, something odd came over her. She had not thought about what she would wear to dinner at Rosings. Last night, she was still thinking up ways to get out of the obligation. Elizabeth had worn her nicest Hertfordshire gowns to Rosings, but for some reason, she did think it was necessary to pull out a new gown for tonight. The deep green silk. Her favorite. The one her younger sisters fought openly over when they saw it. She could hear Mademoiselle Adele’s French accent in her head, and see the beauty spot trying to jump off of her powdered face.
“You will call your beloved to you, when you wear zees.”
Yes, she would wear the dress. She looked at it as an elaborate costume now, and she could play the part of the beautiful, but persecuted heroine, who was to dine with the very people who wished her harm--who very well might want to poison her. Elizabeth thought that she could at least laugh inside, as she watched the very dress that was supposed to draw her beloved to her, repel instead. How Elizabeth loved irony.
Charlotte smiled knowingly when Elizabeth came down the stairs that evening. She was well aware how beautiful her friend was, but seeing her in the exquisite gown with her hair arranged so, made her see that Elizabeth was destined for something more, and she was pleased to know it.
“Lizzy, you look more than lovely,” Charlotte enthused.
Maria came down at that moment, and gasped when she saw her. “Oh my! Lizzy! Where did you ever get that gown? It is so beautiful!”
“My aunt had it made for me when I was in London. I never had a chance to wear this one.” Elizabeth looked down at her dress, smiling. “The dressmaker told me that my future husband would find me in this. I am wearing it as a joke, since… well, since not even a footman would dare look at me at Rosings.”
“You know better than that, Lizzy,” Charlotte answered. “I can imagine a couple pairs of eyes that will be drawn to you, and your dress this evening.”
“Hush, Charlotte,” was all Elizabeth could reply before Mr. Collins came down the stairs. He looked around, and then his eyes stopped on Elizabeth, and they widened.
“My dear cousin! How well you look this evening, and such an elegant gown you have. I certainly think that Lady Catherine will not mind seeing you in such finery since you are, in fact, a gentleman’s daughter. No, I think she will find it very appropriate considering the company we are to keep this evening. My, such a dress! It suits your eyes! Your attire does you service, cousin Elizabeth. A finer lady would definitely outshine you in many aspects, but you will be a sterling addition to our party this evening, if I do say so myself.”
Elizabeth wished at that moment, she could change into her breakfast robe and thick boots, but it was too late.
Darcy spent too much time deciding what to wear. He had his valet bring him five coats before he decided on one. He was upset at himself for being so nervous. Such a hold Elizabeth had on him, and she had no idea.
When Elizabeth left Hertfordshire, Darcy was not aware of her absence, until he came to call at Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet was more than surprised to see him, and had no idea that he came to see Elizabeth.
“Miss Elizabeth is off to Kent to visit the new Mrs. Collins. She has recently married our cousin, Mr. Collins. I think that you are acquainted with him.”
She offered him tea, but he contrived a reason not to stay, and left saying that he only came to bring news of the newly weds’ safe arrival in Bath.
The Colonel entered Darcy’s chambers, and laughed at his cousin, when he saw the pile of discarded coats.
“Darcy, you coxcomb, are you not done preening yet? Our guests will arrive soon, and Lady Catherine will break your ankle herself, if you are late. And then you will see if there are any angels here to come to your rescue.”
“You are not making things easier for me, as you should, Fitzwilliam,” Darcy answered.
“Yes, you want me to get the lovely Miss Elizabeth Bennet to talk to you.” Fitzwilliam walked behind Darcy as he worked on his cravat in the mirror. “The secret, Cousin, is to talk with her yourself, and not stay in a corner sighing, and looking stupid.”
“Ever since her encounter with Wickham, she has avoided me. She will barely even look my way. You have seen it.”
“Think of how mortified she must be, Darcy! Wickham could have done much worse, and she might be under the impression that you think more happened than what actually did. The poor thing must think that you think very ill of her. You must make her see that you are not affected at all by what transpired. Let her know that you are at ease around her. Let her see that she is highly thought of, and wait for her to look your way again.”
He turned to face Darcy. “I have seen her look at you in a most particular way before, and it almost killed me.”
“What if she will not forgive me, Fitzwilliam?”
“Miss Bennet seems a forgiving, merciful soul, but you have to wait for the right time and place for that. No confessions this evening. Tonight, you need to win her. You know my feelings. I would have you at swords end if I did not have to worry about fortune, Darcy. She is the loveliest woman I have ever met… I hate you for it, but I will hope for you all the same, as I cannot even enter the game.”
At dinner, Elizabeth sat in between Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Darcy. If it were not for the seriousness of what happened to Elizabeth, and his own feelings toward the lady, the Colonel would think this a great joke. Darcy was struggling with his overwhelming feelings for this beautiful woman sitting next to him. Her eyes, her hair, the scent of lavender and roses had him shifting in his seat. He could not decide which impulse was stronger: to tell her how much he loved her, or to run from the room—or both, in that order. Elizabeth wanted nothing more than to be placed at the opposite end of the table.
What was not a joke was how very stunning Elizabeth looked. Her large eyes picked up the very shade of her gown, and shown out like emeralds from under her thick lashes in the candlelight. Her deep brown hair was swept up with a few loose curls caressing her ivory neck and pink cheeks. And the cut of her dress showed off her pleasing form to great advantage. Once again, Colonel Fitzwilliam was well aware what he suffered for being the second born son. He was certain would have fought and won Elizabeth’s heart, if he had his father’s title. It would not have been a fair fight with Darcy’s natural shyness, and his own easy openness.
Even Lady Catherine had to remark on how handsome Elizabeth looked that evening, but also commented on how crudely her sleeves were made. They were not at all in proportion with the rest of her gown. She offered her own dressmaker to work on them, but Elizabeth graciously declined, mentioning that smaller sleeves were in fashion in London this season.
Fitzwilliam purposely stayed out of conversation with Elizabeth, in order to give Darcy a chance. He shot Darcy a look behind Elizabeth’s head, and would have kicked him under the table, if he could be sure he would not kick Elizabeth instead. Darcy got the hint. He took a quiet breath and turned toward Elizabeth.
“Miss Bennet, have you heard recently from your sister, the new Mrs. Bingley?” He did his best to look unaffected and easy, although his stomach was churning.
Without turning, Elizabeth answered. “Yes, I received a letter yesterday.”
“And did she and Mr. Bingley seem well?” He smiled, even though she did not look his way.
“Yes, they both seemed to be enjoying Bath, though there has been much rain.” Elizabeth nodded his way, but still did not turn her eyes from her plate.
At that moment, Lady Catherine spoke. “Miss Bennet, I understand that you are previously known to both my nephews.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Darcy in Hertfordshire last fall, and I met Colonel Fitzwilliam in town this winter.”
“You seem to be in many places, Miss Bennet. Such a young woman to be flitting off in every direction. I wonder if you might be leaving us soon for a grander location,” Lady Catherine poked.
“Not at all, your ladyship. I will return to Hertfordshire when the month is up,” she answered patiently.
“I find Hertfordshire a dull, and dirty county. And you have grown up there. I do not wonder at you leaving at any opportunity, Miss Bennet.”
Lady Catherine did not wait to hear Elizabeth’s reply, and was on to another subject with Charlotte, when Darcy leaned slightly toward her, and spoke in a low, but very familiar voice.
“Do you think my aunt might be serving pheasant tonight, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth could not help but color at the joke. She was more than surprised. She was thinking that Mr. Darcy was only doing his duty to make light conversation, because she sat so near him. But there was no reason to make a private joke if he was simply being courteous. She turned her head slightly to meet his gaze. He was smiling at her with a smile she had known, and secretly grown quite fond of, and it took her breath away.
She stared at him for several seconds, measuring the depths of his eyes. Trying to read what he was so desperately trying to put forward. She finally developed a small, cautious smile.
“Once again, Mr. Darcy, I was thinking that I was the only one in this room capable of such thoughts.”
“Never underestimate the virtues of a well cooked pheasant, Miss Bennet,” he teased.
Elizabeth’s spirits were immediately lifted. The dinner that she dreaded, being seated next to the second-to-last-person on earth she wanted to see, had taken a surprising turn. She came in costume, to play a part, to act the heroine, but she was being pulled into her own very genuine story.
Mr. Darcy was suddenly all at ease, as he had been in London. As he had been for a few short minutes under a tree, all too long ago. Did her unfortunate encounter with Wickham not have the negative effect she thought? Did she imagine that? Could he be actually thinking of her? It was all too much! She could not quite wrap her mind around it, yet he sat next to her waiting for a reply.
Elizabeth turned and looked at him from under her long lashes, and kept her voice low.
“I put my hopes in a cooked pheasant once, Mr. Darcy. I will not make the same mistake again. Besides, if the pheasant succeeded, then whom would be there to rectify the horror of my sleeves?”
Darcy smiled even bigger, knowing that he was succeeding, and also that he could once again see those amazing eyes sparkle at him. He thought of almost nothing, then when he held her so close, enveloping her small shivering body. She smelled like a field of lavender that day, and in that coat she still lingered. How he wanted to hold her again. How he wanted her to know just how much he ardently loved and admired her… so he quelled any imbecilic impulse he had, and focused on expressing his admiration properly.
“Miss Bennet, there is nothing wrong with your sleeves. Although, I would have not noticed them at all, if Lady Catherine’s comment had not pried my eyes from your lovely face. You are quite a vision this evening.” He smiled, but held a seriousness within his eyes, that he prayed Elizabeth would read and understand.
She looked at him curiously for a few seconds, then smiled and turned away. Heat rushed to her face. She was astonished. Not only was he teasing her, but he was complimenting her right in front of his relations. She glanced over and met Colonel Fitzwilliam’s smile. She was sure that he heard everything, and yet he did not blink.
She decided right then, that she was going to wear this dress everywhere.
Mr. Darcy stayed attentive during dinner. They were joined in conversation by Fitzwilliam, when he was certain that Darcy made enough progress to do so. Lady Catherine did her best to have a hand in each conversation, and would demand to know what was being said out of her earshot. Charlotte noticed Darcy’s attentions to her friend, but endeavored not to look too often, as she did not want to alert Lady Catherine to it.
After dinner, Elizabeth was applied to, or rather ordered to play at the pianoforte. Lady Catherine had heard her before, and did not hold back her criticism in front of the gentlemen. Elizabeth bore it like a saint and continued to play, and considered it fortunate that she was not asked to sing. Colonel Fitzwilliam offered to turn the pages for her, as Darcy was at the great lady’s service.
“Miss Bennet, you look remarkably well this evening, but I overheard Darcy phrase it much more eloquently,” he remarked watching her closely.
“I thank you for your compliment, Colonel Fitzwilliam. You and your cousin are all politeness,” she declared while she continued to play.
“Politeness has nothing to do with it, I assure you,” the gentleman noted.
Elizabeth did not know where this was leading, so she continued to read the music in front of her, and play to the best of her ability.
“My cousin is not one to give out compliments unless they are truly warranted.”
Elizabeth glanced over at the Colonel, not knowing what she was looking for. He smiled warmly, and she looked back at her music, all the while playing.
“I once talked with you about sincerity, Miss Bennet. May I sincerely say, that I do not think I have known anyone more sincere than my cousin? He does not trifle or flatter. Everything he does and says, is heartfelt, I assure you.”
Elizabeth stopped playing without even knowing it. She looked over at the Colonel with such a puzzled look. Lady Catherine heard the break in the music, and commented.
“You will never play well, Miss Bennet, if you do not practice. You may come here and use the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room. You will be in nobody’s way in that part of the house.” Lady Catherine continued to speak of her great knowledge and appreciation of music, that few could attain, and Mr. Collins agreed with her profusely.
At that, Darcy walked away from the lady, and toward the pianoforte. Elizabeth immediately began where she had left off, not knowing what to think, now that he approached. Not knowing how to act. Did Colonel Fitzwilliam just inform her that Mr. Darcy had designs on her? She did her best to get her fingering right, and not to make any further mistakes.
“Ah, Darcy… Do you think that we will be in no one’s way in that part of the house as well?” the Colonel asked with a smirk.
Elizabeth could not help but to smile at Colonel Fitzwilliam’s joke.
“You and I were always in the way at Rosings, Richard. I remember playing Hide-and-Go-Seek when we were very young, along with your brother, and you hid in Lady Catherine’s bed, only to have her come in for a nap, and almost lay on top of you,” Darcy mused.
“Yes, I must have laid as still as I could for a quarter of an hour, barely breathing, until the great lady turned over and almost crushed me. I could get no air, and had no recourse but to gasp and claw my way out from under her.”
Both gentlemen quelled their laughter for the sake of not catching Lady Catherine’s ear, and Elizabeth did the same. She played now for the sole purpose of cloaking the tête-à-tête.
“And that is when you became her favorite, Darcy. I still have half a mind to tell her that you were hiding underneath her bed.”
“You would not dare, Richard, for she would never believe you,” Darcy added with a sly smile.
“You are probably right, Darcy. I cannot win. It is a fact.” Fitzwilliam turned to Elizabeth, and waited a couple of seconds before he spoke again, looking at what he lost, and then finding himself again.
“After she got over the shock of her small bedmate, and we both quit screaming, she had me by my ear, and dragged me down three flights of stairs to my mother.” Fitzwilliam rubbed his ear. “I still think that this one is a good half inch higher because of it.”
“And what is your excuse for that side of your nose?” Darcy asked dryly, nodding to the left side of Fitzwilliam’s face.
This time Colonel Fitzwilliam could not help but to laugh out loud. They all cringed at the same time, waiting for her Ladyship to demand a part in the conversation, but somehow they escaped unheard.
“Come now, gentlemen,” Elizabeth chided while still playing. “Should you be separated into opposite corners? Or shall I have Lady Catherine come take you each by the ear, to make you behave? You will get all three of us in trouble if you keep this up.”
“You are right, Miss Bennet. We would not want to get you in trouble. I beg your forgiveness. We shall wait until you leave, before we spar in the great hall, and knock down an ancient and irreplaceable suit of armor.” Mr. Darcy finished, just as Elizabeth finished her piece.
“I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Darcy. For sparring with me, is a dangerous endeavor, indeed, if you recall. There would be more than ancient suits of armor to worry about.”
Elizabeth stood up, as did Fitzwilliam. “I think I will join the rest of the party, before I find Lady Catherine rolling on top of me.” She curtsied to the two beaming gentlemen, and crossed the room to Charlotte.
Elizabeth sat down; her ears hot and mind racing. Charlotte, noticed her friend’s faint smile and slight discomposure. She looked past Elizabeth and saw the two gentlemen with great smiles on their faces, refreshing their drinks.
It had been a remarkable evening, and Charlotte had missed it.
As Elizabeth was readying herself for bed, a knock came at her door. Charlotte slid in and closed the door behind her. She looked at Elizabeth with a knowing smile until Elizabeth could bear it no longer.
“Charlotte! What is it?” she exclaimed with a low voice.
“I am afraid that it is you who needs to disclose something to me, Lizzy.”
Charlotte grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and pulled her to sit upon the bed with her. She looked at her straight in the eyes.
“Lizzy. What is going on? You seemed to have a very eventful evening. Tell me that I am not right.”
Elizabeth looked down. She was not sure what had happened. She did not know what to say.
“Charlotte… I did have a pleasant evening, but I do not think there is anything to share.”
“La! I saw Mr. Darcy’s attentions to you. I saw you blush more than once. And I saw him laugh! Mr. Darcy laughed! A thing I did not think was possible. What is going on, Lizzy?”
“I have not made sense of it myself, Charlotte. Please, I am not keeping anything from you. I am just as astonished as you are, believe me. He can be so reserved and severe at one moment, and then charming and delightful the next.”
Charlotte thought for a moment. “His cousin is all light and easy. Perhaps having Colonel Fitzwilliam around helps Mr. Darcy to be himself.”
“Perhaps,” admitted Elizabeth.
“I have not forgot that Mr. Darcy’s eyes were always fixed on you in Hertfordshire, Lizzy. He singled you out to dance at the Netherfield ball, and his attentions were all on you this evening… Did you see any of him when you were in London?”
Elizabeth did not want to meet her gaze, but Charlotte stared once again, until Elizabeth could bear it no more.
“I saw Mr. Darcy, his cousin, and Miss Darcy frequently in London. I danced with him at a ball. He called at my uncle’s house with his sister, and I called frequently on Miss Darcy before I came back for Jane’s wedding,” she confessed.
“Did Mr. Darcy treat you in the same manner in London, as he did this evening?” Charlotte carefully questioned.
Elizabeth nodded quietly.
“Lizzy! He is obviously in love with you!”
“Hush, Charlotte! He is not. There are other factors at play here. As charming as he was this evening, that man has a temper that I cannot trust. And Charlotte, he would never think of me. He could not… not after—“ Elizabeth broke off and could not continue.
Charlotte saw that something was distressing Elizabeth. She sat closer to her friend and put her arm around her.
“What is it, Lizzy? Why would Mr. Darcy not think of you?”
Elizabeth had not told one soul. Only Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy were in on the secret, but she never had to utter a word to them. Now here was Charlotte, full of compassion and concern for her. How could Elizabeth not share what has been caught up in her chest for weeks now?
But she could not do it. She could not tell Charlotte her distress. Elizabeth had never given it words. Words would somehow give what happened a new life. She was afraid words would make Mr. Wickham reappear. And she did not want, once again, to feel his vindictive lips on hers. Not tonight. She looked up at Charlotte.
“Our spheres are very different ones, Charlotte. He does not want a country bride of little means. He means to make an advantageous alliance. My family and relations must be revolting to him. I must be revolting to him.”
Charlotte waited patiently for Elizabeth to finish. “Lizzy, I need you to listen to me. Carefully. If Mr. Darcy had no thoughts of you, if he felt you so far beneath him, there would have been no visit to our cottage so soon, and certainly no dinner invitation. Lady Catherine has never invited Mr. Collins over when family comes. It was obviously at her nephew’s request.” She looked at Elizabeth in earnest.
“If Mr. Darcy was only being polite, there was no reason to engage you so particularly, Lizzy. You know him better than that.”
Charlotte put her finger under Elizabeth’s chin to make her raise her face. “I heard him tell you that you were a vision tonight. There is no explanation for that, other than cruelty, if he did not mean it.”
Elizabeth looked down again.
“Lizzy, do you think that Mr. Darcy is being cruel to you?” Charlotte demanded.
Charlotte waited until Elizabeth was ready.
“No. I do not think Mr. Darcy means to be cruel to me.”
“Fine. You have your answer. Now let us just wait and see how this unfolds.” She kissed Elizabeth’s cold hands and looked at her once more in the eyes.
“If I was not already married, Lizzy, I would ask to borrow that green dress of yours!”