There was a time when a gathering of neighbors at a local assembly hall was cause for every young person to anticipate an evening of good company, of innocent flirtations, and of dancing until their feet ached. New acquaintances were made, a couple of hearts were broken, and a select few found themselves objects of great interest by one or more of the opposite sex.
Such said objects were the eldest Miss Bennets of Longbourn estate in Hertfordshire. Miss Jane Bennet the oldest, being exceptionally beautiful, fair and exceedingly sweet, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet, being next in beauty, quick-witted and exceedingly cynical.
Each was immediately singled out by two different and very wealthy young gentlemen who were new to the neighborhood: Mr. Bingley who just took a house in Hertfordshire and his friend, Mr. Darcy who came to stay with him. The former, without delay, asked Miss Jane Bennet to dance, and enjoyed her shy smiles and clear blue eyes all evening. The latter brooded in a corner and watched Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her extraordinary sea green eyes covertly all evening, but not before he called her only “tolerable” and “not handsome enough to dance with” within her hearing.
As the four were thrown together at different occasions in various settings the next few weeks, Bingley and Jane became friendly and close, while Darcy and Elizabeth barely spoke a civil word to each other. Elizabeth did not know what she did to bring on such a strong dislike, and she tried to not spend too much energy worrying about it. Mr. Darcy did not know why Elizabeth had such a strange hold on him. She did not simper and smile at him as did other ladies, when they found out how much he was worth. She did not seem to notice when he stood nearby. She did not seem to care at all if he came into the small circle that country society offered. Yet he could not keep his eyes off of her.
Everything she did and said surprised and fascinated him. Her friend induced her into playing and singing at the pianoforte, and though she was very aware that the previous lady who exhibited was her superior by far in skill on the instrument, she rose to the occasion and somehow garnered the same amount of admiration and praise by simply enjoying herself more. Although significantly beneath him in elevation and connections, Elizabeth was unlike anyone he had ever encountered.
Two more gentlemen came into Hertfordshire, and once again the eldest Miss Bennets, once seen, were their targets. Mr. Collins, a rector and distant cousin to Mr. Bennet, came to stay with the Bennet family at Longbourn—the estate he was to inherit. He came with the express purpose of finding a wife, and thought it would be very magnanimous of him if he chose from among his five fair cousins, who were supposed local beauties. And any one of them, he assumed, would be prodigiously grateful to accept his hand. He set his hopes on Jane, until he was informed by a sympathetic Mrs. Bennet of Jane’s attachment and soon engagement to another. Mr. Collins was not too put out as he turned to look at Elizabeth, and found with very little convincing that she would do just as well.
Having no idea of her cousin’s designs on her, Elizabeth received attentions from another newcomer, a very charming Mr. Wickham who had just joined the local regiment at the neighboring town of Meryton. He quickly assessed her dislike of the proud Mr. Darcy and informed her of how ill he was treated by him and his young sister. Properly poisoned, Elizabeth believed whole-heartedly his sad sordid story of jealousy, abandonment, and injustice. Why should she not? There was truth in all of his looks. And now Mr. Darcy's looks toward her made every bit of sense. He was proud, disagreeable and apparently quite cruel.
Mr. Bingley, already a Herfordshire favorite, decided to throw a ball at his great estate, Netherfield, and once again gave every young person the hope of an evening full of dancing, good food and elegant surroundings. The anticipated affair came, as did the almost all the occupants of the small country shire.
Elizabeth arrived with the rest of her family. She looked forward to nothing but the promise of a dance with Mr. Wickham, although she did promise Mr. Collins, who was trailing her very closely all evening, the first dance. Her heart sank when she learned that Mr. Wickham was not in attendance. She was bitterly disappointed and did not know what to look forward to now, for all her thoughts and hopes were of him.
Without fully recovering from her disappointment, Elizabeth was approached by Mr. Darcy, who asked her for a dance. She was fully aware what a compliment it was, for Mr. Darcy rarely danced, but his invitation seemed forced and almost under duress. It crossed her mind that maybe Mr. Bingley put him up to it, to please Jane. Although Elizabeth wanted to refuse him, she found that she could not. There was something far away in his eyes that confused her, and set her slightly off balance. She accepted him straight away.
Their dance was a disaster. Not the dance itself or his skill, for Elizabeth had not had such a lithe partner in quite some time. What was disastrous, was her efforts at conversation with the gentleman. As usual it dissolved into a war of words. It started off innocently enough, but he seemed an unwilling participant in small talk, and would have stayed completely silent if Elizabeth had not brought up the size of the room or the skill of the musicians. Tired of his indifferent attitude, Elizabeth stopped being civil and decided to confront him on his ill treatment of Mr. Wickham. He reddened and accused her of taking an eager interest in a man she barely knew. She tried to give him a chance to defend himself, but he did not take the opportunity. The dance ended and they parted, Elizabeth, fuming and exasperated; and Darcy, strangely charmed and beguiled--but with a much bigger problem on his mind as he watched Bingley and Jane walk past him arm in arm, and everyone in their wake smiling and whispering.
For Elizabeth, the rest of the evening kept pace with the dance with Mr. Darcy. Each one of her sisters, save Jane, managed to make a spectacle of themselves, her mother would not stop talking about the impending marriage of Jane and Bingley—although there had never been a declaration. Even Mr. Bennet opened up the family to ridicule when he almost bodily removed Mary from the pianoforte in the middle of her long and painful exhibition. Mr. Collins could not be long outdone, when without a proper introduction, he walked right up to Mr. Darcy and spoke as if they had been great friends for years.
Thus was Elizabeth Bennet’s experience at the most important ball of the season. There was no escape. The evening that promised to be exciting and diverting turned into one of great humiliation and censure. And as Elizabeth watched everything unfold with utter mortification, someone in addition to Mr. Darcy watched her, and planned his next move. His immediate proposal.
No quicker did Elizabeth open the door, then did Mrs. Bennet step forward with an exaggerated expression of great felicitation. Elizabeth, having spent all her humor trying to convince Mr. Collins that her refusal to his marriage proposal was indeed sincere, had none left for her mother. She simply stepped around the lady and strode as calmly as she could manage through the vestibule, and out the front door.
Not far behind, Mr. Collins appeared at the breakfast room door with a look of self importance mixed with the after effects of straight vinegar. He caught a glimpse of Elizabeth’s white frock disappearing around the corner. Mrs. Bennet turned toward him hoping for clarification.
“Mr. Collins?” Mrs. Bennet asked as she tried to decipher his odd expression.
Elizabeth had not even stopped to pick up her bonnet. Her legs would not let her tarry. They moved swiftly without being instructed. They carried her further and further away from Longbourn, and that horrible ridiculous man. “Almost as soon as he entered this house…” How arrogant! How insulting! How self-serving can one man be? And how could he accuse her of being bashful? Had he not observed her for more than one second? Or did he see only what flattered his shallow mind?
Without any thought beyond driving the memory of Mr. Collins’ nearness and his breath from her mind, Elizabeth picked up her skirt and hastened into the trees. She had no destination, and no will to return anytime soon. Her mother and her ever-present nerves would be in similar spirit no matter what time she returned. Charlotte Lucas was due to come by and relive the Netherfield ball minute by minute, but Elizabeth would not regret missing the reveling. Too much had happened. This morning. Last night. Oh, last night! Elizabeth’s head was full of it, and did not get one wink of sleep. Mr. Collins’ superior timing had only added to her misery, and she was exultant to be free of everyone. Of everything--even if only for a while. She would take all day, she determined as she gauged the sky, before its vastness got lost behind the towering firs, and gave no thought whatsoever to her thin muslin or delicate slippers.
The trees provided desperately wanted shelter. Her face was flushed, and the coolness of the shaded wood was the answering remedy. Elizabeth had felt exposed out in the open; exposed to Mr. Collins’ insincere overtures, her mother’s unbridled tongue, her sisters’ wild behavior, the poorly concealed contempt emanating from Caroline’s and Louisa’s smug faces, and his inescapable eyes. Those eyes. Why she could not get Mr. Darcy’s stare out of her head even now, was beyond her comprehension.
Though she ran to escape, uncontrollable thoughts kept stride, and swirled around her head. The unexpected and very intense dance with Mr. Darcy would not leave her alone. Though they sparred, he very gently held her hand. Though his face severe, there was something altogether different in his eyes, almost soft. Though she accused, the way he looked at her seemed to be communicating to her something far beyond their spoken conversation. This would not do! If ever she could disappear, she wished it would happen at that very moment.
She picked up her pace along with her gown and even dared to clear small boulders and fallen branches without any fear. This might not be acceptable behavior for a woman of almost one and twenty, but the surge of release Elizabeth felt with each stride and bound kept her from caring one straw what the trees and woodland creatures would think. She filled her lungs with the scents of moss, earthy lichen, and sharp resinous sap. The damp coolness of the ground spread quickly through her house shoes and chilled her feet, and it gave her a certain measure of boldness. If the tiny beasts were to have a forest ball this evening, she was happy to give them all the scandalous conversation they would need.
“ACCORDING TO THE PRACTICE OF ELEGANT FEMALES!” she let escape from her lips with great volume.
Several black birds were disturbed and flew directly in front of her. Elizabeth drew a sudden breath and stopped where she was. Startled. Waiting. After several seconds, when the furious winging faded, and no one hushed or chastened her, she hesitantly smiled, relieved, and continued forward.
Once again, her mind assaulted her. Why did not Wickham come and claim his dance? Why did Mr. Collins forego decorum and speak to Mr. Darcy without introduction? And why, why does her family insist on constantly humiliating her? Mr. Collins was unadulterated proof that idiocy runs on both sides of the family. Elizabeth wondered if she and Jane might have sudden convulsions and surrender to it one day. Maybe then she would be free of constant mortification, and would be quite happy to marry a seriously stupid man. “Ah, maybe there was some merit to ignorance,” she mused.
Having cut through the wood, Elizabeth found herself on a familiar path more than two miles from Longbourn. She slowed considerably and allowed herself to catch her breath, as she realized just how far she had gone, and how exerted she was. But she was far from keeping her mind in check, so she kept walking forward, diverting herself with a Latin verse, still no destination in mind.
“Festina lente,” she recited aloud. “Make haste slowly.”
Abruptly, a horse, completely saddled, yet without a rider and obviously spooked, galloped past Elizabeth. She made way for it, and watched in shock as it continued west at a great speed. Elizabeth looked scrupulously around for the rider, yet there was no one in her view. Maybe the horse escaped before it was even mounted, she thought as she started walking again.
Curious, but not expecting her curiosity to be quenched, she kept on the path looking to each side. Coming to a crest, Elizabeth could see dark ominous clouds coming her way. She hesitated, wondering if her constitution could outdo Jane’s and possibly not succumb to a nasty cold. Of course, Jane was much more delicate than she was. She would risk it. Even if she became so afflicted, she would take a red nose and a day or two in bed in exchange for a few more hours away from her mother’s rants, and that odious man.
Down the crest Elizabeth descended, a new power swelling inside. Her fear of living a lie outweighed her fear of poverty. Not that she gave Mr. Collins’ offer one thought, but a lesser woman could. If one was allowed to admire oneself, Elizabeth did that moment. Although Jane would never have to choose between love and money, Elizabeth did, and love won out. Or was it poverty?
Her thoughts were thus occupied when she noticed what looked like a twisted log by the side of the path about a hundred yards away--except this log moved slightly. Elizabeth took in a sudden breath. The rider! In just a few moments she found herself kneeling at his side. He was face down.
“Sir, please let me be of some assistance to you.”
No reply was made. The rider did not stir. Elizabeth quickly took a hold of his shoulder with one hand, and slid her other hand under his ear and cheek. She gently rolled him to face her, holding his head in her hand. Crimson trickled from a gash in his forehead, and leaves stuck to his face obscuring part of his features, but Elizabeth knew exactly whose coat she was gripping and whose head she was cradling.
She took in his unconscious face and twisted frame, her mind running in every different direction, not knowing what to do next. To her great relief, he groaned, and after a few moments, his eyes blinked open. He stared at her for several seconds, and his mouth opened as if to speak, but no voice joined the movement.
“Mr. Darcy, I am here to assist you, for you are quite injured.”
Mr. Darcy continued to stare, and Elizabeth, being so close, wanted to retreat, but she knew he was in danger of losing too much blood. She carefully slid her hand from under his head and placed his head gently down on the leaves below. She reached into her pocket for her handkerchief, and after gently removing the leaves, started to dab the blood from the injury to assess the severity. The blood would not clear, and she tried to keep her countenance for his sake.
“You have taken quite a fall, sir.” The handkerchief was soaked in no time. This could not be good, she kept telling herself, all the while looking into his eyes that seemed to be searching and questioning hers. Was it was possible he hit his head hard enough not to recognize her?
Suddenly his hand was on her arm stopping her from her work.
“Miss Bennet, have you seen my horse?” he managed to ask in a weak voice.
She looked at him with astonishment. Here he lies, bleeding before her, yet he inquires about his horse. “Your horse is in Meryton by now, Mr. Darcy. Although I am no physician, I would say that you should not continue your ride this morning.” She smiled at him, to calm him, and he looked back puzzled.
He moved to sit up, but Elizabeth stopped him. “Please, Mr. Darcy. Your head is bleeding. It is not safe for you to sit up at this time.” She put her soaked handkerchief down on the ground. “I am afraid my handkerchief was not sufficient, do you have your own?” she requested, trying to see if he could comprehend her.
Mr. Darcy hesitated for a moment, then produced one from his coat pocket. Elizabeth continued with her mission, this time holding it firmly against his head. “This might be unpleasant, but you have already lost enough blood.”
“Miss Bennet, I am very sorry to cause you this trouble.” He put his hand over hers to hold the handkerchief himself. “I am able to take over from here.”
She quickly slid her hand away and moved further from him as he tried to sit upright. He moved, but stiffened and made an oath under his breath. Elizabeth saw his pain and moved toward him again.
“What is it, sir?”
“Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but I think my left ankle is broken.” He laid back down still holding his head, and this time noticed the menacing sky.
“What are you doing out of doors when it is obvious the weather will turn?” he demanded.
Elizabeth looked at him incredulously. “Mr. Darcy, you lay here ruining good handkerchiefs with excessive blood, and with an ankle that in your estimation is useless for the time being, and yet you chastise me for being outdoors with threatening clouds? If I was not a gentleman’s daughter, and a Christian, I might just leave you here with no one but yourself to berate.”
Finally smiling, Mr. Darcy looked up at her. “Miss Bennet, forgive me again. I was only thinking that you might catch cold like your sister those few weeks ago.”
Elizabeth smiled back. “I weighed the options when I saw the clouds, Mr. Darcy, and found it worth the risk. And now look at what good has come from my reckless behavior. This morning has been a grim one for both of us, but now I can redeem mine by helping you.”
An awkward silence enveloped them as they stared at each other. Elizabeth tried to recall her Latin to distract herself, but she could only think of the word for eyes. Oculus. What was it about his eyes? She tried her best not to look at him, but he was beseeching her, and she felt that he was most likely not himself at all. He must have hit his head with quite some force!
Sprinkles of rain started to spatter around them, giving her something else to think on. “Sir, we need to find you some shelter until I can get some help.”
“I do not need shelter, Miss Bennet, though you do. I will not send you out in the rain to secure help for me.”
“You truly are ridiculous! I will help you to that large oak and then I will hurry to Netherfield since it is closest.”
“Miss Bennet--” He was not going to give up easily, but he was no match for Elizabeth. Not today.
“Mr. Darcy, you can make this as difficult and unpleasant as you would like, but I am going to get assistance for you. You may try to stop me, but I wager I am swifter than you at the moment. Catch me if you are able, but I am determined.”
A sudden downpour came down, assaulting them. They stared at each other, neither wanting to give in, but the rain was soaking them through. Elizabeth’s pins gave way, and her thick hair came tumbling down around her face and back, snapping Darcy out of his stare.
“I will take your assistance to get under the oak, Miss Bennet,” he conceded.
Mr. Darcy sat up, and with Elizabeth’s help, hopped on one foot to stand. He stifled a groan of pain. With a quick concerned glance at him, Elizabeth ducked under his left arm to support his weight. There was a distinct difference in their heights, and the side of Elizabeth’s face was placed against his chest. She could hear his heart pounding wildly. He must have been in more pain then he was letting on. She tried not to think about how she had never been this close to any man besides her own father, and how he smelled of earth and cloves, and failed.
“Adversus solem ne loquitor,” Elizabeth said under her breath.
“And do you consider yourself the sun, Miss Bennet?” Darcy asked with amusement mixed with his obvious pain. “You just said to speak not against the sun... in Latin.”
Not turning her head, and still supporting his weight, Elizabeth smiled and answered. “Forgive me. That came out a little louder than I intended.”
“Indeed. No one should argue with the sun, Miss Bennet. And I should know by now, that arguing with you is also a lost cause.”
“It is a lost cause when it is over a non-issue, as to whether or not I am going to help a fellow human being in trouble, Mr. Darcy.”
The great tree was fifty yards away, and the two had made it safely. Mr. Darcy was carefully lowered under its shelter, and Elizabeth was about to turn to seek Netherfield when he touched her arm once again. This time, an unexpected thrill traveled through Elizabeth, sending her heart racing. She looked down at him surprised, but tried to maintain the rest of her countenance, or her sense of balance at the least.
“Miss Elizabeth, I am certain that rain will let up in a few minutes. Please let me entreat you to stay here until the worst has passed,” he pleaded softly. His face was in earnest, and Elizabeth could see that the rain had opened up the wound on his head again.
“I will stay if you let me stop your head from pouring forth anymore blood.” He was all relief as she sat down next to him, and he produced the handkerchief. She took it from him and pressed it against the wound once more trying not to look in his dark eyes.
“So, Mr. Darcy, how did you get thrown? Or is that improper to ask a gentleman, since true gentlemen never get thrown from their horses,” she teased uneasily as a curl came forward and covered part of her eye. She peered at him around the stray lock.
Darcy looked cautiously at her. “Gentlemen do get thrown from their horses, Miss Elizabeth, but a true gentleman leaves no evidence of it occurring. I think that I will have to buy your silence.”
At that moment, a smile broke across his face like she had never observed before. It was lighthearted, teasing, but penetrating at the same time. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. She was almost dumbfounded, and quickly looked away. She had acknowledged that he was handsome the first time she set eyes on him at the assembly, but she had never thought of it again. His pride, superior airs, and his insult directed at her, spread over him like an infection, and she had actually started to believe that he was very ill favored. That was until now, for she was forcibly struck by him. He was more than a puzzle to her, and she could not help but be completely fascinated and offended by him all at the same time. She managed to look back at him and gathered her thoughts.
“I found out just this morning that I am impervious to money, Mr. Darcy.” She pulled the handkerchief away to see if the bleeding has stopped. “But do not worry, I will not tell our general acquaintance of your spill, sir, if you try forget how wild I must look now, all muddy and soaked through.” At that very moment, she involuntarily shivered, and realized for the first time how her attire was appropriate for breakfast indoors, but not wise for foul weather in mixed company.
Immediately, Darcy shrugged his coat off. “How inconsiderate of me, Miss Elizabeth. Please take my coat. You must be chilled to the bone.” He threw it over her slender frame and it enveloped her, making her look like a small child.
“Thank you, sir… of what were we speaking?” she asked trying to call the attention away from herself.
“You were inquiring whether true gentlemen get thrown from their horses,” her reminded her with a knowing smile.
She nodded. “That is right. Please proceed.”
“A small flock of birds came out of the woods, and startled my horse.”
Elizabeth went pale, as she remembered the birds that she startled just minutes before. She dropped her hand from his forehead. Darcy noticed her change in color. “Are you quite well, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth’s thoughts were everywhere. Was her unguarded behavior responsible for his injuries? Surely, there were lots of birds in the area… but… This was dreadful! She was mortified by her sisters’ behavior at the ball, but no one lay bruised and bleeding from Kitty and Lydia’s ill manners.
“Miss Elizabeth?” Darcy was beyond concern. “Are you chilled? What can I do for you?”
Elizabeth laughed nervously at his kind exclamation. “No, sir, I am quite well.” She looked around trying to regain herself. “I just noticed that the rain has slowed. I should go on my errand now. You should be seen by Mr. Jones within the hour. I must set off.”
She stood before he could reach her again. “I will inform the coachman and tell him to send for Mr. Jones while you are fetched here.” She lingered, her face almost pained, while he stared at her absolutely confused.
“I am so sorry that you were injured, Mr. Darcy. So deeply sorry. Good day.” She curtsied, but Darcy would have none of it.
“Miss Bennet! You will stay at Netherfield and get dry clothes before you are taken home to Longbourn.” It was not a question.
“No, sir. I could not let Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst see me like this.” She looked down at herself, wet, muddy and wearing his coat. “Please excuse my frankness, but they do not need much reason to skip from dislike to despise, and my appearance will be the catalyst. I do not think I could bear it. I will talk to Mr. Bingley’s coachman and then make my way home.”
“That is utterly unacceptable, Miss Bennet! You will not walk home from Netherfield in this weather. I do not care if your vanity is injured. I do not care if your clothes are six feet deep in mud, but I will not have you shivering and soaked through, catching God knows what on my behalf!”
Elizabeth smiled at his concern, and decided to appease him if she was ever going to leave. “Certainly. You are right. I am sorry to distress you, Mr. Darcy. Of course I will dry off and take the carriage home. Thank you for your concern.”
Darcy eyed her, not certain if he believed her. “One more thing… I should warn you, Miss Bennet. We were planning on leaving for London this morning. You will definitely hear of it, although I think the trip will be delayed on my account.”
She stared at him not comprehending fully. “The entire party?”
Darcy dropped his eyes. “Yes. Mr. Bingley has pressing business and we decided to accompany him. His business might keep us there—all winter, I mean.” He looked back up at her.
She maintained her countenance and let the exchange sink in for several seconds. “Does he mean to quit the house altogether?”
“Nothing is settled, Miss Bennet. I am sorry that you had to find out like this. Caroline was writing your sister Jane when I left for my ride.”
Elizabeth had never felt more chilled or numb. “I see. I thank you for relating that information, Mr. Darcy. I will leave you now.” She curtsied again and then hurried away.
His job was done, but it had not been easy. He no doubt had deep feelings for Jane, but convincing Bingley that Jane’s feelings for him were not equal to his, was a great chore. With the help of Caroline and Louisa, Darcy chipped away at Bingley’s resolve.
They were able to convince the poor man that although Miss Bennet was sweet and attentive, her heart was not invested. Darcy had to admit that he felt badly for his friend, but something drastic had to be done. Everyone at the ball last night had their eyes fixed on them, and in turn, all were expecting a declaration from Bingley toward the lady soon. There was no time to spare, and Bingley’s sisters were most eager to assist. Together, they had broken him, and now they needed to get him to London before he changed his mind. And he was very capable of doing that.
Darcy had already packed, and could not stand to watch his friend as he stumbled around in a broken hearted daze, trying to get his affairs in order to leave. He would take one last ride.
It was a crisp morning, and Darcy had to admit that Hertfordshire was a beautiful place. No great rocks and mountains, but the rolling green hills, and the woods pleased. He toured the park around Netherfield, mildly feeling the sting of the loss he tried not to think about. He tried not to think about how her small hand felt in his, how her plump lips tightened into a thin line when she was cross, and he tried not to think about how her eyes changed color with what she wore. Last night they were light green. They matched her gown perfectly. And when he took her hand to dance, those green eyes pierced right through him like she knew every thought he has ever had. He was in awe, he was ashamed, and he was relieved. For if she could read his thoughts, a great slap would have come hard upon his cheek. Oh, but what a pleasure it was to see the fire in those amazing eyes of hers. Darcy smiled slightly, and he could not help but think of how very worth a slap from Miss Elizabeth Bennet might be, if he was a lesser man.
London was for more than just Bingley’s sake. This was for his sake too. He was in danger now, and he felt it acutely. What he felt now, was more than the sharp edged flirtation he experienced during her stay at Netherfield. Darcy was physically aware of her, no matter where she moved in a room. He could pick her laughter out of dozens. Her face and her form were behind his lids when he lay down. No. This must end as well.
Darcy was less than a mile from Netherfield on his way back. He encountered a muddy stretch of road, and not wanting to change his trousers before they departed, he took his horse off the road and close to the wood. There were branches and rocks to navigate around, and Darcy switched the reigns from one hand to the other, as he had to duck and keep a low branch from sweeping him off of the saddle.
At the very moment of exchange, a small flock of black birds came suddenly from out of the wood. They flew low and exited directly in front of the horse. Darcy’s horse reared up, and Darcy held on to what little of the reigns he had. The birds kept coming, and the horse came down and bolted in the opposite direction. Darcy lost his grip on the reigns and grasped for its mane, only to have it slip out from under his glove. He tumbled down, but his left foot caught in the stirrup while his body continued toward the ground.
The horse continued at full gallop dragging Darcy along until his head hit a rock. His ankle came loose and he was freed. He stopped with a dull thud to the damp ground below. His body was twisted unnaturally. And then there was nothing.
And more nothing.
And then… a soft voice echoed in his ear. It seemed very far away, as if it was resounding across a lake. And even though it was sweet and dreamlike, it caused him pain. Great pain. A gentle hand cradled his head. He heard the melodic voice again, but it was closer. Very close this time.
He knew that voice, but he was dreaming. It was only a dream. Warmth washed over his face and soft fingers caressed his hair. Yes, he was dreaming… but the pain? There was a great deal of pain. He could hear shallow breathing. Not his. He could feel the small hand cradling his head lightly tremble. Oh! His head! He suddenly became very aware of his head. It was pounding and his ears were ringing. His name rang in his head and bounced back and forth off of his skull.
Darcy opened his eyes, but saw nothing. Was this still a dream? Blackness? Flashes of light and color paused but a second, and then stole away just as quickly. He blinked and the light and the colors started to assemble. They slowly came together and formed a picture. A curious but comely picture.
Lovely grey eyes looked down on him. They were so close and so beautiful, but they were also frightened. Darcy wanted to tell the eyes not to worry, that it was just a dream, but no sound came from his lips. The eyes looked around for help, but saw none and came to rest on him again.
The picture became clearer for Darcy as his wits began to return. The lovely eyes belonged to Elizabeth Bennet! She was cradling his head and leaning over him. Where was he? What was she doing?
She spoke again, and told him that he was injured. Her cheeks were flushed and even though her body was still, he could see in her eyes that something indeed was very wrong. Her words sank in, and he finally understood. He felt her slip her hand from underneath his head and gently lay it down on the leaves below. Pressure was put on his forehead and Darcy winced. He looked up at Elizabeth who was gently wiping scarlet red from his brow.
“You have taken quite a fall, sir.” Elizabeth, more like a gauzy vision, than flesh and bone, gently dabbed his head, and smiled with concern.
It took a few seconds, but Darcy heard and comprehended every word she said. And even though he knew he was laid out on the ground bleeding, he did not know how or why, when a sudden flash of a branch and black birds streaked by.
His reflexes kicked in, and his strong hand was on her arm in an instant. She was surprised at his movement, but her eyes softened when she heard him inquire after his runaway horse. She laughed at him and told him just where he could find it.
Meryton, he thought as he tried to get up… but she stopped him. She would not have him get up while he was bleeding so. She gently pulled his arm away from hers and then leaned in toward him. Her beautiful grey eyes met his. He had never seen eyes quite that shade before. Grey, but with small flecks of green and blue. So calming, so serene.
“I am afraid my handkerchief was not sufficient, do you have your own?”
He could feel the warmth from her breath, and thought that maybe he did not fall from a horse at all, but Elizabeth Bennet herself stunned him, bewitched him, and he would never be able to act or speak on his own again. Darcy’s head was spinning, and he was certain that he was under her spell, and would do or say anything she wished. He would have given her Pemberly entirely, and he would have gone and lived in the woodpile, if she had asked. All she had to do was ask…
Elizabeth stared at him with patience and concern as he registered her actual request. She asked for a handkerchief, you fool!
Darcy found his pocket and produced the kerchief. He watched almost helplessly as she focused on his brow, and this time put direct pressure on the wound. He might have flinched, but he felt nothing. His mind was trying to make sense of the vision before him. The very woman he was trying to escape this very day, kneeling like an angel next to him with nothing but concern on her lovely face. He needed to get his bearings and quit this place immediately!
“Miss Bennet, I am very sorry to cause you this trouble.” He put his hand over hers to hold the handkerchief himself. “I am able to take over from here.” He felt her slender hand slip out from under his, and watched her back away from him slightly. Darcy moved, but his ankle screamed. Every nerve in his body reacted to the excruciating pain, and he thought that he might lose consciousness once more.
Damn it! His ankle was broken. There was no possibility he could walk at all. He was stuck there. With her. And soon he would own nothing but a woodpile.
After he apologized for his outburst, he laid back and saw the thick clouds that matched her eyes. How did she do that?
As his head quit spinning, he started to feel like himself once more. Now he could put an end to his ridiculous thoughts, and figure a way out from here, and faraway from her. He did his best to converse with Elizabeth without emotion, but her wit and teasing manner softened him, and he could not help but admire her, as he had from their very first meeting—as he had every time their paths crossed. He was quite an idiot to think that he would feel anything less.
The heavens opened and the heavy drops started. Try as he may to dissuade her from seeking help in the downpour, she would not back down. The unrelenting rain streamed down her set face, and dripped from her chin. Her pinned hair came loose, and spilled in thick dark tresses down her back and around her face. He was stunned. Darcy thought that she had never looked lovelier than she did at that moment. She was an absolute vision. An angelic being, with heaven itself baptizing her in front of his very eyes.
He conceded. He could at least get her out of the rain for a while. He accepted her help to get him sheltered under the great oak.
If ever Elizabeth Bennet were to slap someone, Darcy was certain now would be the proper time. Elizabeth was tucked under his coat with her arm around his waist, and his arm over her narrow shoulders. Her head was against his heart and her right side matched up against his left. He could smell her hair and the dampness made it that much more potent. It was a mixture of lavender and roses, and he was certain his head spun from that, and not the blow he had received. Her slender body was surprisingly strong and it was only the sensation of Elizabeth clasping him, and her heady scent that kept him from screaming out in pain at every step. Every nerve in his body was on edge, and he knew it was not from his injuries. Elizabeth Bennet was holding him tightly, and he was very aware of it.
Having no idea that he deserved a great slap, Elizabeth smiled and talked of Latin and obstinacy with him while they made their way to the oak. Once Darcy was at the base of the tree, Elizabeth turned to fetch help. Without thinking, Darcy reached for her arm. He had taken his gloves off before they journeyed to the tree, and the feel of her soft skin sent a jolt through him. He might have to slap himself. “What kind of a gentleman am I?” he thought to himself, as she looked back at him completely surprised.
“Miss Elizabeth, I am certain that the rain will let up in a few minutes. Please let me entreat you to stay here until the worst has passed,” he pleaded softly, while warring with himself to finally put distance between them. How could he be so kind to his friend, and yet not do the same for himself?
The rain had opened up his wound again, so Elizabeth agreed to stay, and she took up the handkerchief again to stop the bleeding. Part of Mr. Darcy wished that he had enough blood to pour out for the next several hours just to keep her close by, but he shook off the thought.
The conversation turned to just how Mr. Darcy fell from his horse, and the lady teased him, and smiled at him, while she tenderly cared for his wound.
And that was it. The struggle was over.
There was something in the way she delivered her speech, something in her eyes, in her lifted brow, and the way she looked at him through an errant curl, that completely undid Mr. Darcy. He should be as offensive as he possibly could, and end this right now, yet he wanted nothing more than to observe her flawless skin, and see those chameleon eyes turn toward him from under her dark lashes. He was her prisoner now, and he did not care to be anywhere else.
Darcy held on for as long as he could. He cautiously teased her back, and then, as if he jumped right off of a cliff, he let all pretenses go and smiled genuinely at Elizabeth. He had smiled at her dozens of times by now, but this time it was without pretense, without reserve and without fear. All the admiration, adoration, attraction--everything that he felt for her was let loose within his smile. He thought he noticed Elizabeth react differently to him, for she stared back for a few seconds, but then she broke the gaze.
She checked the progress of his head, and then made a pert promise not to tell of his fall, if he would forget her “wild” appearance. As if he would ever be able to forget the way she looked right now. Her dark hair down reaching over halfway down her back, her wet cheeks still pink from her walk. And then… she shivered.
What a rake I am! He chastised himself as he had been admiring his captivating companion, whose thin dress was soaked through and clung to her, not thinking once about giving her his riding coat. Immediately, Darcy shrugged his coat off.
“How inconsiderate of me, Miss Elizabeth. Please take my coat. You must be chilled to the bone.”
At that very moment, Darcy became her protector, even if from himself. He would not see this woman hurt, compromised, or gossiped about, and he swore to himself that he would do everything in his power to see to it that Elizabeth was safe, happy and loved.
He swung his coat over her shoulders, and sighed with relief when he saw her climb into it gratefully. He smiled when she peeked at him from under the huge wool lapels, and right before him, her eyes transformed from grey to deep mossy green, exactly like his riding coat.
What kind of a creature was she? She was mythical, appearing out if nowhere, windswept, in gossamer white. She was only missing her translucent wings, or the churning wave she rode in on. He was either, completely and utterly in love with this woman, or he had hit his head so hard, that he would drool for the rest of his life and never wake up from this fantasy. Either option sufficed.
Darcy somehow was able to collect himself, and continued to relate to Elizabeth how black birds spooked his horse, when she suddenly went white. Although she had his coat on, he was convinced that a chill had taken hold of her. Elizabeth assured him that she was well and noticed that the rain had lessened, and stated that she should leave for help immediately.
Uneasy for her health, Darcy made her promise to stay at Netherfield to dry off. He took comfort in knowing that he would be brought back by that time, and then he would make sure that she was safely taken home in a carriage.
But before she could take off, he had to confess something to her. They were to leave Netherfield. The change in her countenance and voice when she realized what they had planned pierced Darcy. He had just sworn to himself that he would never hurt her, and he already broke his own pact. Darcy did not have the time or the inclination to explain anything to her. He wanted her to be safe and warm. There would be other chances to make this up to her. He let Elizabeth go and watched her intently until she disappeared around a bend.
When she was completely out of his sight, Darcy threw back his head against the tree. What had just happened? He was not the same person who mounted a horse only an hour ago.
Mrs. Bennet’s distant cries of family honor and duty were muffled when Jane closed the door, her arms full of linens. She walked over to Elizabeth, who shivered in her bed.
“Here Lizzy, these were by the fire.” She piled warm blankets on her sister and then grabbed a free hand to warm it. “Charlotte Lucas came by with Maria one half hour after you left. She could see how distressed our cousin was, as Mama would not stop telling him that she would make you marry him, so Charlotte invited him to dinner at Lucas Lodge. He seemed quite relieved to quit this house, as were those he left behind.”
Both sisters smiled and could not hold back a few giggles. “Poor, dear Charlotte,” Elizabeth exclaimed.
Jane moved in to help towel dry Elizabeth’s hair. “I cannot even imagine such a day. Refusing a marriage proposal and then happening upon poor Mr. Darcy like that!”
Although Jane was concerned for Elizabeth, she was relieved to learn from Lizzy that the occupants of Netherfield would not be leaving like Caroline’s letter had stated.
“I do not know if your refusal to dry yourself, and take their carriage home, will shock them more than if you did go the door, dripping wet and wearing Mr. Darcy’s riding coat,” Jane mused.
Elizabeth smiled. “It was the lesser of two evils, not having to feel the dreaded sisters glares. But Mr. Darcy will not be pleased when he finds out that I left his riding coat with the groomsman… not that I should care to please him.”
Jane looked at her sister with interest. “Tell me Lizzy, was he kind to you?”
Elizabeth met her beloved sister’s searching eyes. “Yes. As kind as that gentleman is capable of. I have never encountered such immense pride, though. He would have rather crawled back to Netherfield than have me assist him!”
“Lizzy, might you think that it was his deep concern for your well being, and not his immense pride, that prevented him from seeing you out in the mud and rain?” Jane questioned knowingly.
“Jane, Mr. Darcy does puzzle me. He is capable of perfect civility, and at moments, great ease and charm. I see flashes of it, yet in the next moment, he looks at me as though I have offended him to his core. It is quite disconcerting.” She looked at Jane with a sly smile. “I honestly think that any kindness he showed today, was a direct result of the blow to his head.”
Jane sat next to Elizabeth. “I may not be as quick and clever as you, Lizzy, but maybe just this one time, I have observed what you have missed.” Elizabeth looked at her expectantly. Jane smiled. “Have you not seen how preoccupied he is by you?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No Jane. I know he looks at me, but it is only to find fault.”
Jane laughed. “Lizzy, he is not finding fault in you. That is why he is looking. Why would he stare at something unpleasant? It is against nature. He cannot keep his eyes off of you, and I do not doubt this most recent encounter will have even further effect on where he rests his eyes, sister.” Jane jostled her damp hair playfully.
Elizabeth looked at her in humor and unbelief. “Jane! I wish you would give up your observances immediately, for they do you no credit.”
That night, Elizabeth lay in bed wondering what the day meant. Mr. Collins’ proposal was completely driven out of her head, which was now full of Mr. Darcy. She had not even had one stray thought for Wickham. It was only the enigmatic man who may or may not be finding fault with her, that occupied almost every thought. Was he very angry with her for not doing what she promised and stay at Netherfield? How could she properly inquire about his health? Should she tell him that it was all her fault that he was injured in the first place? Was Jane right? Could he possibly be admiring her instead of disapproving? And lastly, why did his touch cause her such an unexpected thrill? It was all too much, and even though it was apparent her jaunt through the rain had no ill effects on her health, Elizabeth felt dizzy and sick to her stomach. She tried to give in to the exhaustion of the day, but she could not stop wondering what was to come.
And there was plenty to come.
Mr. Collins had in the course of two days, most willingly transferred his enraptured heart to Charlotte Lucas, and was to marry her in one month’s time. As distasteful as that was for Elizabeth to see her good friend give herself over to such a man, Elizabeth bit her tongue, and wished Charlotte and her intended great joy. Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, great favorites of Elizabeth, had come from London with their four little children for Christmas. And Mr. Wickham was seen less frequently at Longbourn, since he had been charmed by a certain Miss King, and her ten thousand pounds. But most importantly, Netherfield Park still held all its occupants. No one fled to London.
It took two stable boys and a groomsman to carry Darcy upstairs to his room. Bingley went before him and made sure that his sisters were in another part of the house. Darcy was wet and muddy with dried blood caked on his forehead and down one side of his face. The boot on his injured ankle was taken off in the carriage in hopes that that rain and cold had not let it swell too much. His ankle was reddish purple, and turned unnaturally inward.
Once in Darcy’s room, Bingley hovered over Darcy throwing some pillows under his head, and continually asked for Mr. Jones to be brought up directly when he arrived.
Darcy concentrated on not crying out every time his ankle was jostled, but also wondered about a certain person who was keeping dry, and waiting for the carriage. Only when he was set upon a couch in his room, and the friends were left alone, did Darcy ask Bingley about Elizabeth.
“She left quickly for Longbourn, as soon as she informed Mr. Fuller where you could be found,” Bingley answered.
Darcy roared. “How could you let her leave like that? She was soaked and will catch her death!”
“Darcy, calm yourself, man! As I said, I did not see her! She did not come to the house. She went directly to the stables. Fuller tried to get her to dry herself, but she would have none of it. She left your coat with him.”
“She left my bloody coat?” Darcy forgot his injuries and swung his leg off of the couch and regretted it immediately. He let out another howl, while Bingley tried not to laugh.
Bingley helped Darcy to get his leg back up on the couch. Darcy was out of breath, and knew that he was making a spectacle of himself. He saw the smile that Bingley was stifling.
“I am so glad that I can amuse you in this way, Charles.” His tone was acidic, and he lay back frustrated, and in a great deal of pain.
“I am just as concerned about Miss Elizabeth as you are, Darcy, but I am sure she will be fine. Even though she is slight, she does not seem as delicate as Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth seems a hearty little thing, do you not think?”
Darcy could see instantly that his friend was already thinking about Jane. He knew his face well, and he recognized that particular look. He tried to keep the subject to another sister.
“Miss Elizabeth was shivering, Bingley. She was soaked through, and I let her go out in the rain and the mud,” Darcy moaned.
“How did she find you in the first place? You were no where near Longbourn.”
“I do not doubt she was on a walk. But the rain had not started when she found me. I caused her to stay out in it. I caused her to not to be able to make it back to Longbourn before the rain started. ”
“I will call on her tomorrow at Longbourn to inquire about her health, Darcy. Will that make you feel better?”
Darcy looked over at Bingley who was still thinking of more than just Elizabeth. “Bingley, you, Caroline and the Hursts should go to London. I will catch up…”
“You are preposterous! I will not leave you behind, Darcy. Besides, I can get what little business I have done in a day. Alone. The rest can be done through couriers.”
Darcy knew that all the work he had done this morning was unraveling, as he could see hope once again on his friend’s face. He was exhausted, injured, and had too much on his mind to do anything about it.
Bingley was already pleased with the way things were working out, and could not but help to be secretly thankful that Darcy lost control of his horse, for the day was looking up.
“I will tell you what. I will ride up to London tomorrow, and Caroline can call at Longbourn and explain our change in plans. She can bring news of Miss Elizabeth back.”
He paced the room as his plans expanded. “Also, how rude would it be for us to take off in this manner without taking leave of all of our good friends? I have promised to have dinner with half a dozen families. No, that will not do. I am going down to talk with Caroline straight away. London is not a good idea. Not at all.”
“Bingley?” Darcy asked calmly. His friend looked over at him. “Promise me you will be careful. Take your time, and make sure that Miss Bennet returns your affections. There is no rush.”
Bingley’s face beamed as he took two long strides over to where Darcy lay. “I promise, friend.” Bingley turned to walk toward the door when he stopped and turned back around. There was a puzzled look on his face. “Darcy? May I ask you something?”
Darcy looked at him. “You can ask, I cannot promise if I will answer.”
“I told you that I was just as concerned about Miss Elizabeth as you were.” Bingley lifted one eyebrow. “Is that a falsehood?”
Caroline called on Jane, the day after the accident, bringing news of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth made excuses, and kept upstairs, but she was very anxious to hear how Mr. Darcy got on.
She waited until Caroline rolled away in the very carriage she was supposed to have waited for, when she ran downstairs to Jane. Jane relayed that Mr. Darcy was indisposed for six weeks, and his young sister, Georgiana, was coming down to help him pass his time. Caroline made it clear that she would be very much involved in entertaining Miss Darcy, and little of the residents of Netherfield Park would be seen by anyone in Hertfordshire, if at all.
That was perfectly fine with Elizabeth, especially where the sisters were concerned, and she told Jane so, and was slightly reprimanded for her unkindness, but forgiven just as quickly.
Surprisingly, and most likely against Caroline’s wishes and knowledge, Mr. Bingley came calling at Longbourn two days later. Elizabeth wondered if he had to lower himself from an upper story, while his sister was distracted cooking plump children. She also noted that it was fortuitous that her young visiting cousins were mostly lean, and thus safe. Mrs. Bennet could barely contain her raptures, and Bingley was immediately invited to dinner the following night, which he graciously accepted, though they were merely having fish.
Mr. Bingley was able to get his business done in London alone and conveyed that he had no intention of wintering there. Though most of his attention was showered rightly on Jane, Elizabeth thought—no—she was certain that Mr. Bingley smiled at her too much. Not in the way that he smiled at Jane, but in a way that made it seem that he was in on a private joke with her. She decided not to dwell on it, and instead, was content to be happy for Jane, who was outwardly pleased.
For the next few weeks, Elizabeth occupied herself with her aunt and the young Gardiners, visiting their Aunt Phillips and the shops in Meryton, when the weather permitted. Bingley was a fixture by now at Longbourn, always kind, and always smiling at Elizabeth in a particular manner, never failing to make her wonder if she would ever see Mr. Darcy again. She longed to see him, to try to read his face, to see if the man she left under the oak truly existed, and to have any one of the hundred of questions that she had finally answered.
“Darcy is very ill tempered these days, even with the addition of his sister,” Mr. Bingley declared as they had tea one day. Bingley glanced over at Elizabeth, and back at his cup before he continued. “He is an active man, and only being able to get as far as the garden is taking its toll on the poor fellow. He must have been a bear when you happened upon him, Miss Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth looked up from her tea. All eyes were on her. Not much had been said to her family on the subject of Elizabeth’s assistance, except to Jane. Elizabeth felt that a detailed description of her involvement would only bring unneeded speculation and gossip. If Mr. Darcy had not been so injured, it could have been a very compromising situation. So, she only spoke of her finding him and running for help.
“If you say ‘bear’ meaning unconscious and bleeding profusely—then by all means, Mr. Bingley, he was a great bear.” She smiled innocently and took another sip.
“Good heavens, Lizzy! He was bleeding profusely? How shocking! You did not relate that to us,” complained Mrs. Bennet, as she considered that the two who preceded the Good Samaritan, most likely had excellent and sound reasons to pass on the opposite side of the road.
“You did not ask me anything about it, Mama,” Elizabeth commented calmly.
Lydia snorted. “No, Mama was too busy with our cousin, Mr. Collins, who was violently in love at the time.” Kitty and Lydia both held back laughter, while Aunt Gardiner shot them looks to behave.
“I do have it in my power to tell you how upset I was when I found out you had left on foot in the rain to return to Longbourn, instead of taking shelter in my home, Miss Elizabeth,” Bingley said with sincerity, and Elizabeth felt it fully.
“Please forgive me, Mr. Bingley. You needed only to worry about Mr. Darcy, and I did not mind the walk one bit. I did not catch cold, I assure you.” She hesitated. Should she say it? “Please also convey that to Mr. Darcy for me, as I know I broke a promise to him.”
“Well, you will have to convey that information yourself, Miss Elizabeth.”
She looked at him in surprise, as did the rest of the room, as if he would produce the gentleman from his trouser pocket at that very moment.
“I am to extend an invitation to the two eldest Miss Bennets to lunch at Netherfield tomorrow. Miss Darcy is staying with us and longs for more diverse company. May I tell her that you will attend?”
Jane and Elizabeth looked at each other, the former happy, and the latter not certain at all how she felt. “Certainly,” Jane answered for the both of them. “It will be our pleasure and honor to meet Miss Darcy.”
The carriage ride seemed unbearably long. Elizabeth had thought too much about what she should wear, and now could not even recall what she spent hours choosing, as she looked out the window. It frightened her to think what it would be like to see him again, after one month. The questions that she troubled over the night of the accident, had tripled since, and she had absolutely no answers, only fears that they would always go unexplained and unexplored. Fears that his dark eyes would be severe, and worse of all, fears that by seeing him again, she would think of him even more, and that was not to be borne.
Jane squeezed her hand as they pulled in front of the great house.
Caroline and Louisa stood reluctantly without a hint of a smile, when the Miss Bennets were shown into the drawing room. Mr. Bingley practically bounded over to greet the two ladies. Elizabeth could see the sisters’ exchange disapproving glances. As Bingley invited them to sit, Elizabeth quickly scanned the room, and was able to find Mr. Darcy standing up very straight, near a window. He had a cane in his left hand, and his brow appeared healed. He bowed immediately when their eyes met, and she smiled and curtsied in return. She moved toward her seat, her pulse beating loudly in her ears.
“Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, I would like you to introduce my sister, Georgiana, to you.”
A slight girl of sixteen got up from the pianoforte and walked to stand next to Mr. Darcy. They had the same coloring and shape of eyes. Georgiana seemed awkward and did not look up for more than a second at a time. The Miss Bennets curtsied, as did Miss Darcy.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth said with great sincerity. Jane added, “Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst have nothing but kind things to say about you.”
Georgiana blushed and looked up at her brother who nodded encouragingly. “It is a great pleasure to meet both of you. I have been looking forward to it, especially since I heard of the great service Miss Elizabeth rendered my brother.”
Elizabeth immediately glanced at Mr. Darcy, while Caroline coughed to hide an obvious laugh.
“I am not certain if it was a ‘great’ service, Miss Darcy. I was simply taking a walk and was able to extend the walk to Netherfield Park to fetch help,” she modestly replied.
Mr. Darcy halfway smiled, and the ladies took their seats. He wanted to beg to differ. He wanted to let Elizabeth know just how much he appreciated everything she had done for him, but he could not take that liberty in this company.
For weeks, Darcy was forced to hear Caroline’s running commentary on Elizabeth’s fine eyes, now paired with her shocking lack of propriety in walking by herself again, and then having the nerve to run across Darcy in his injured state. She thought it “unrefined and coarse” that Elizabeth would take it upon herself to do the work of a surgeon, and tend to his wound. Bingley asked his sister if she rather Darcy was left exposed to the elements and bled to death, but Caroline only laughed, and claimed that someone more appropriate would have found him, and they would not have run off wearing his riding coat.
So Darcy remained quiet, but he watched her. He could not help himself. He owed her so much, but he knew not how to repay her. It was almost physically painful for him to see her, and not to be forthright with her.
“How do you like Hertfordshire, Miss Darcy?” Elizabeth politely questioned.
Once again, Georgiana glanced over at her brother before she answered. “I have not seen any of it but Netherfield, Miss Elizabeth. I am quite happy to stay here with my brother.”
“I am afraid that I have not let my sister out of my sight, Miss Elizabeth. She is not one for villages and shops, and I really do enjoy listening to her play,” Mr. Darcy explained.
Her heart jumped when he spoke to her, but she kept calm on the outside. “Oh, I certainly hope that we can hear you play before we leave today,” Elizabeth enthused. She tried not to look at Mr. Darcy, who was definitely looking at her.
“If you wish, Miss Elizabeth, but you must play and sing,” Georgiana bravely answered. “For I understand that you can do both, and quite well.”
Once again, a cough came from the couch where the contemptuous sisters lounged.
Little Georgiana’s fingers expertly flew across the keys as the rest of the party kept busy. Mr. Hurst played with his cufflinks, while Louisa and Caroline whispered, and shot furtive glances at their brother and Jane, who were sitting close together in each other’s confidence.
Elizabeth now found herself sitting across from Mr. Darcy. Lunch had been torturous, not because of the offending sisters, since that was expected. Nor was it because of the questionable fatty meat they were served, since young Bertram Gardiner did indeed go missing after breakfast. No, lunch was miserable because she was seated nowhere near Mr. Darcy. They could not have been placed further apart. Caroline was an efficient hostess. Elizabeth longed to talk with him, even if it was only on the subject of the weather. Was the man she saw briefly under the oak just a temporary result of the knock to his scull, or was Mr. Darcy capable of charm and compassion? Elizabeth did not know, and was even more afraid she would get no answers today. She did take solace in the fact that she sat next to Georgiana, and found her to be sweet, and eager to be friends.
She now had her opportunity, but Darcy looked grave as he watched his sister, and did not incline his head in her direction at all. Elizabeth thought this was proof that he was angry with her for her breach of contract. She could only think of how much more his anger would have been compounded when he found that his coat was left behind. Elizabeth tried several times while Georgiana played to find something to say to him, but the subjects that came to mind seemed either too trivial now, or too personal, and she was pained for it. Inside she chastised herself. “Say something! Anything! He will think you are dull and stupid, in addition to horribly stubborn and a liar!”
Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Darcy struggled much in the same manner, but with much more favorable notions. He had wrestled the past few weeks to keep thoughts of her in check, since he did not have as many distractions, with his activities severely restricted. He honestly thought he would go insane if he were not able to set eyes on her and to hear her voice once again, but having her here now, so close, and looking even more beautiful then he had let his mind recall, had him completely off balance.
He wanted to speak with her, and even though he was not afraid that “merciful angel,” or “rain soaked goddess” would escape his lips, he did not know how to say anything to her that would not sound distant or inane. Making things even worse, lavender and rose reached his senses, bringing back that day in the rain even more vividly. He had no such excuse as a massive head wound to blame on any unintentional utterances anymore, so he sat staring at his sister, his mouth closed tight, but his head and lungs filled with Elizabeth, who was close enough to touch.
“Miss Elizabeth,” Bingley called from across the room, “If I remember correctly, you had something particular to convey to Mr. Darcy.” Bingley smiled widely, as his sisters looked from their brother over to Elizabeth. They clamped their steely gazes on her.
Elizabeth was startled, but this was the exact opportunity she needed. For the first time, she thought Bingley a very clever man.
“Oh, yes.” She turned to face Mr. Darcy who looked at her with a somber face, but with something very different behind his eyes. She hesitated, fearing those eyes, but continued as the whole room now waited for her.
“Mr. Darcy, I feel the need to apologize for breaking my promise to warm myself at Netherfield, sir, and to assure you that I did not succumb to a cold from the weather.”
Mr. Darcy could see that her eyes were cornflower blue today, like the delicate ribbon around her tiny waist. He took a breath, and his countenance melted into an easy, yet sly smile.
“I have to admit, Miss Elizabeth, that I doubted your sincerity when you so easily changed your mind.” How he loved to say her name. How it lingered on his lips.
Surprised, but relieved, Elizabeth returned the smile. “You could have kept me out in the cold rain for a half hour more arguing your point, so I decided I could be home and warm at Longbourn far quicker, if I agreed with you.”
“Adversus solem ne loquitor,” he said with the same smile. “Speak not against the sun?”
Elizabeth looked up at him and caught a small glimmer from his deep eyes. “Exactly, sir.”
“Yes, but who is the sun this time?” the gentleman posed.
Finally! Elizabeth was thrilled that the ice was broken. Darcy’s eyebrow was lifted, waiting for her response, and she was just about to, when Caroline interrupted.
“That was very ungenerous of you, Miss Eliza, to lie to Mr. Darcy’s face like that. Quite distasteful. I have to say that I will think twice before I believe anything else you say,” Caroline jabbed. She and Louisa shared a glance of victory before the former fixed her triumphant gaze back on Elizabeth.
“You look very lovely today, Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth simply replied with a sweet smile, and then smoothed her dress beneath her.
Almost every occupant in the room, including Georgiana stifled a smile. And the cufflink absorbed Mr. Hurst, actually looked up at Elizabeth in surprise, and laughed out loud.
Louisa shot him a look that could have taken down an elephant, but Bingley’s good port made her husband immune to any weapon she formed against him.
Darcy, who was just about ready to defend Elizabeth, smiled the widest. He was besotted. Not only was Elizabeth mythical in his eyes, she was strong, intelligent, lovely, and was most likely, not aware of any of it.
He wished more than anything that he could close the gap between them, and promise never to leave her side again. The weeks he spent convalescing without being able to see her, had altered him. How could such a short acquaintance make such a tremendous chasm in his heart? He now nurtured a new hope, that he could see much more of her, and that she would soon end his suffering.
Louisa started to complain about how late it was getting, and both Jane and Elizabeth knew that they were in danger of overstaying their welcome--at least where the superior sisters were concerned. Bingley could not bear any talk of them leaving, but Jane encouraged him to come by Longbourn the next day, for the long walk they had talked about.
Elizabeth was crestfallen. Even though they had that one little moment in the proverbial sun, Darcy seemed distant and distracted, although she did find him looking at her frequently. How would she ever be able to truly talk with this man again without several pairs of eyes and ears fixed on them? She simply would have to lie in wait on some lonely patch of road, and suddenly push him off his horse when he was not looking. She had already scampered about the landscape, quite alone and soaked through, wearing Mr. Darcy’s riding coat. This seemed like a logical follow up. Elizabeth managed a smile at the very thought.
Caroline broke Elizabeth’s reverie and wished her a good day, although her face said something completely different. Caroline turned her back and quickly walked away, while Elizabeth and Jane were helped into their carriage by Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy was unable to manage the stairs without help, so he and Georgiana said their farewells inside. Elizabeth had glanced at him once more before she quit the room, and was not sure if he looked toward her or not. And now they were leaving. And that would have to be good enough.
Jane did not require any conversation on the carriage ride home, so Elizabeth was left to ponder how to quell her great disappointment, and wonder if she would ever sleep again.
Anticipating their arrival back at Longbourn, was their Aunt Gardiner, only six years Jane’s senior. Mr. Gardiner was Mrs. Bennet’s younger brother by eleven years. He was a very successful young businessman in London, owning a lucrative import business, and Mrs. Gardiner was his very beautiful and stylish bride. They married when she was but seventeen. All the Bennet girls considered Mrs. Gardiner as more of an older sister than an aunt, and save Mary, looked forward to their aunt’s fashion reports and catalogs from London. Apparently long sleeves were coming back in style for daywear.
Not being able to help having favorite nieces, since the other three were universally regarded as silly, Mrs. Gardiner grew very close to Jane and Elizabeth. She was particularly anxious to hear about the luncheon, since she had sharp eyes, and a notion that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were attached in some manner beyond anyone else’s suspicion. She did her best to find out any bit of information, but found Lizzy uncharacteristically dull, and Jane only able to discuss Mr. Bingley and the food. She would have to wait and observe herself, which was not possible, with the fact that the Gardiners would be leaving in just three days.
Elizabeth did make a promise to call on Georgiana, and fulfilled it two days later. Fortunately, Louisa and Caroline made excuses and retired to another part of the house, but unfortunately, the gentlemen had taken the carriage to Meryton. As they found themselves alone, Elizabeth ignored her disappointment at not being able to see Mr. Darcy, and suggested a walk. Georgiana was happy to oblige since she had been no further than the garden. They donned their bonnets, and Elizabeth took her down one of her favorite paths.
Although the weather was cool and crisp, the sun was high and bright, and it felt exhilarating to stir out of doors while the weather held. Every few minutes Elizabeth would take Georgiana’s hand, and they would run together for a small stretch, and then laugh heartily, as though they were getting away with something quite appalling. Elizabeth assured her that the exertion was more important than decorum, and besides, there was no injury to decorum, if no one was around to witness them breaking it.
The two were all over the countryside, on and off of paths, talking all the while. Georgiana turned out to be an intelligent, curious girl, and Elizabeth was making great progress in getting her to express her feelings on various topics. One of Georgiana’s favorite topics was her brother, which Elizabeth did not mind spending time on. It was natural to idealize a brother who was ten years her senior, but sometimes Elizabeth felt that Georgiana held him in unrealistic god-like esteem. She painted him as too good, as too kind, and too generous for believability. Such a person could not exist, and could not be the same gentleman who may or may not be looking for faults in Elizabeth, and certainly could not be the same man that Wickham claimed he was.
Elizabeth pondered this, as they found themselves very near to where she had found Mr. Darcy just a few weeks prior. She had not been there since. She could almost smell the rain, the wet earth and leaves, and his heavy wool coat. How she wished she could revisit it all without the injury.
At that moment, a carriage crested at the top of the hill, and came down their way. The pair moved to the grass to let it pass, but Elizabeth recognized it as belonging to Mr. Bingley. Her heart quickened in anticipation. They both smiled as the carriage slowed to a stop.
The door swung open, and a very red faced Mr. Darcy appeared in the doorway. Elizabeth had never seen an expression like that on his face in their entire acquaintance. It was more than Annoyance and displeasure; it was almost outrage. Both Elizabeth and Georgiana stared at him, shocked.
“Georgiana! What are you doing out here? I told you never to stir away from Netherfield,” he thundered.
Poor Georgiana stood, unable to move or speak for a few seconds. Elizabeth’s eyes moved between the siblings trying to make sense of the moment. Finally, with tears rolling down her face, Georgiana answered. “I am sorry brother, I thought that it would be safe to be with Miss Elizabeth.”
Mr. Darcy’s eyes softened slightly, as he saw the distress he was causing his sister. He tried to lighten the tenor of his voice, although once it came out, he could hear that it was still very stern.
“It certainly is not safe. Please step into the carriage, and I will take you back.”
Georgiana immediately jumped into the carriage without even looking back at Elizabeth, and disappeared behind her brother’s much larger frame.
Frozen, Elizabeth continued to stare wide-eyed at Darcy, as he tried to change his countenance. He was the devil himself, she thought, controlling and frightening that poor creature, who did nothing but love and worship him. Wickham was right! All of Hertfordshire was right. Mr. Darcy was not only proud and unpleasant; he was cruel and unforgiving. Elizabeth was now sure that Georgiana praised him so highly, only because she was afraid of him. Hateful man! She wanted nothing more than to be out of his presence.
Darcy could see the horror in Elizabeth’s face, and realized how he must have come across. He did everything in his power to calm himself and to look kindly at her. What must she think of me? He would not be able to explain his behavior, especially in front of Georgiana, but he needed to made amends quickly.
“Miss Elizabeth, we can take to you back to Longbourn if you would like,” he offered in a different, calmer voice.
Elizabeth’s face thawed, but she glared back at him. “No thank you, sir. I prefer to walk.”
Darcy’s heart sank. Her beautiful eyes were not fire; they were ice. Cold and steely. How could he rectify this?
“It would be my great pleasure to see you home safely,” he managed a smile this time. Please Elizabeth. Please, my love… you have no idea what I am about.
And then she noticed him look past her to the oak tree where they both sought shelter from the rain. He looked back at her with almost pleading eyes, but something new burned in Elizabeth’s chest. And though she could not put a name to it, it was not anything resembling what burned in the breast of the cold, shivering Elizabeth, dressed in a gentleman’s riding coat.
“As I said, Mr. Darcy, I prefer to walk. I thank you for your kindness.” Elizabeth curtsied and turned on her heel, wanting to be free of his gaze. Needing to be as far away from him as she could manage.
Elizabeth almost burst into the parlor at Longbourn, where her aunt, mother, Mary, Jane, and her young cousin Sara were having tea.
“Lizzy!” her dear aunt exclaimed. “Is everything all right?”
Elizabeth took stock, and managed to check herself. She made herself breath, and tried not to look desperate.
“I am sorry.” She looked around the room and stopped at her aunt. “It is just that I had the most happy thought, Aunt. I know that you originally had asked Jane to accompany you home tomorrow, but most thought it best for her to stay, to…” She glanced over at Jane who looked a bit surprised, “to see how things might turn out here.”
“Yes, we know what you mean, Miss Lizzy, get on with it,” her mother added impatiently.
“Well, I was hoping that I could take Jane’s place and accompany you to London. I long to have a change in scenery, Aunt, and I will be a big help with all my young cousins.”
Sara’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Mama, could Lizzy please come with us?”
Mrs. Gardiner looked puzzled, but was not about to keep her favorite from accompanying her home. This would be the perfect opportunity to find out just what was going on in that sweet, stubborn girl’s head.
“Certainly, Lizzy. We would love you to come, that is, if your mama could spare you.”
“Oh, Lizzy is of no consequence to me,” complained the lady. “She thinks nothing of throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals, which is the same as throwing us all out in the cold upon her father’s death. It is a good thing that Jane takes her duties more seriously.” Mrs. Bennet scowled at Elizabeth. “Mr. Bingley visits almost every day,” and then she turned to Jane, who had ducked her head in embarrassment. “I knew you could not be so beautiful for nothing, my dear!”
Elizabeth finished packing, and sat down to write a note to Georgiana.
I am celebrating, because I have been invited to accompany my aunt and uncle back to London, and help out with my four young cousins—that is, if all can be found.
There are assurances of balls, new bonnets, and my favorite thing of all, an extensive library to lose myself in during my stay. My only regret is that I will not be able to continue our acquaintance while you stay at Netherfield Park.
I find you a very intelligent, amiable and talented young woman. This is the highest compliment, as I have been told by some very esteemed people, that I am quite severe upon our sex.
It has been a pleasure to call you my friend. If you find that you need a friend, at any time, anywhere, please know you can rely on me.
God bless you, dear Georgiana.
Jane entered the room as Elizabeth was folding the letter.
“Lizzy, what will I do without you?”
Elizabeth looked over at her. “You sound like Father. But I know I will hardly be missed by you, at least.” She put the letter down and grabbed Jane’s hands.
“Dearest Jane, I know he will propose while I am gone, and I am very sorry to miss it, but I must get away from here.”
“Will not you tell me what happened?” Jane asked sweetly.
“Nothing happened, and nothing will ever happen, Jane.” Jane looked like she wanted to say something, but Elizabeth continued. “Whether or not he was admiring me or finding fault, Jane, I do not think I like the man at all.”
Lydia burst into the room, without so much as a knock. “Wickham and Denny are here! They wanted to make sure to see you before you left, Lizzie! What luck to be singled out like that! Hurry, for they only have a quarter of an hour.” Lydia was gone as fast as she entered.
Elizabeth and Wickham walked together in the garden, while Lydia and Kitty entertained Denny.
“I am sorry I have not been visiting as much of late,” he offered.
“I understand that there is a good reason,” she quipped, and Wickham was not sure if she was teasing or accusing.
“Colonel Forster relies on me for many things these days,” was his excuse.
She looked over at him, wondering if any of the rumors were true about him. For there were more whispers than just fortune hunting. There were supposed unpaid debts and gambling, but Elizabeth knew how much the good people of Meryton loved a good story. She remembered thinking that his looks added to his believability at one time, not long ago, but was not sure if she trusted herself at all where handsome young men were concerned anymore.
“I understand that you have met Miss Darcy,” he added cautiously.
“Yes, she is staying at Netherfield Park, and I have had the great pleasure of getting to know her.”
The gentleman looked uncomfortable. “Did you find her proud?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Not at all. In fact, I found her quite shy, but perfectly amiable.”
“Oh.” Wickham ducked his head. “She must have improved in the past few years.”
Wickham quickly changed the subject, and they talked of London and other matters that did not have to do with the name Darcy. Elizabeth felt relieved as he took his leave. Yes, he was handsome. Yes, he was charming, but there was something amiss. It was certainly time to get away from Hertfordshire, and all handsome young men she associated with it.
He did not care that he could not stir from the carriage, Darcy only wanted a change in scenery. Any change. If two bushes near the terrace, would have switched places in the middle of the night, he would have spent the day gawking. Netherfield was becoming insufferable to him--his own personal prison. Only the promise of Elizabeth calling on Georgiana, gave that great house any measure of appeal to him at this point. Yet, she did not come yesterday, and it seemed she might not come today. It was getting late for calls, and Darcy was getting anxious.
“Darcy, my new rifle has arrived,” Bingley exclaimed, as he read the note from the gunsmith. He looked up at his friend. “I am to head off to Meryton, directly, to get it. Are you up for a bumpy carriage ride?”
It surprised Darcy how much a strange tree, and unfamiliar hill could lift his spirits. It reminded him of his tour on horseback, before his fall. Though he had to smile at his appreciation now. His hunger for any scenery was so voracious, that he was near to saying it was the most beautiful terrain he has ever beheld. But he held his tongue, and continued to appreciate the view. They were in Meryton in no time.
Bingley and Mr. Hurst jumped out to visit the gunsmith, and Darcy sat back in the carriage, to take in the sounds and smells of the little shire. How wonderful it was to stir out of doors.
Voices, carriages and horses came and went. It was pleasant to hear the bustle of a little town, after such dead quiet the past month. He took in the sounds he had always taken for granted: laughter, wagon wheels, and shop bells. Even an infant’s distant cry, which would have annoyed him previously, sounded surprisingly pleasant, as he pictured its mother calming him, and cooing in his ear.
Minutes ticked by, and Darcy settled in. He did not pay much attention to any one voice in particular, that was until a very familiar voice caught his ear.
“I do not care what the Colonel says.”
“You will care, when he uses you to set an example for the rest of us, Wickham.”
“Hang the Colonel! I am sick of this damn place, and I am sick of cards for the moment. And there are not pretty enough ladies out here, who will entreat me to stay. Let us go find some. The countryside is full of pretty little maidens. Maybe we will happen upon a milkmaid with her cans overflowing.”
Coarse laughter was heard from at least two others.
“Of course, we could call on the Miss Bennets. There are always two or three that are eager to welcome us,” enthused Wickham.
“Miss Lydia is the most obliging,” added another, his voice thick with implication.
“Yes, God bless the young ones, who know no better,” said the villain.
“Aye, I will drink to that.”
The conversation made Darcy’s pulse quicken, and his face grew hot. “God bless the young ones, indeed!” He thought about showing his face at that moment, and possibly making use of his cane, but the voices suddenly moved on. The door to the carriage opened, producing Bingley, Mr. Hurst, and a shiny new hunting rifle.
Wickham managed to spoil the entire ride back for Darcy. He could not enjoy the landscape. The hills, the trees, and the clouds went by, but his thoughts were of Georgiana, and how only Providence kept her from eloping with that venomous snake. Yet he was still out there, coiled and ready to strike.
Once back at Netherfield Park, the gentlemen were informed that Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet went on a walk.
Without hesitation, Darcy jumped back into the carriage to find them. And everything went wrong from there. Very wrong.
And now, Elizabeth was miles away, and all he could see was her horrified face.
London was diverting, just as Elizabeth had hoped. The Gardiner’s had a lovely and stylish home on Gracechurch Street, outfitted expensively, but tastefully. Even though her uncle was in trade, the fortune he had amassed put him in the good graces of many among the ton. In turn, he and the beautiful Mrs. Gardiner were welcomed into some very exclusive circles.
Mrs. Gardiner encouraged Elizabeth to accompany her on her many calls, to introduce Elizabeth to those who mattered. Her aunt was wise, and knew this was the only way Elizabeth would be invited to the foremost balls. Elizabeth was, after all, a gentleman’s daughter. Her aunt also insisted on having new clothes made for her during her stay. And Elizabeth would have the very best, Mrs. Gardiner avowed.
At the dressmakers, Elizabeth had choices of many sumptuous fabrics. Her aunt would not let her stray from the silks and satins for the ball and evening gowns. Three new dresses were to be made for her in the very latest fashion.
Mademoiselle Adele, with her thick French accent, grabbed some deep emerald green silk that Elizabeth was admiring, and wrapped it around her, and pushed her toward a mirror.
“Zees is you,” she declared. “Zee gown I make from zees, will be mageecal.”
The tremendously large and buxom lady, with unnaturally bright ginger hair, piled very high on her head, leaned over and looked directly into Elizabeth’s eyes. Besides her vast cleavage, which was eye level with Elizabeth, the lady’s face was powdered, her lips rouged, and she had three beauty spots placed strategically on her face. The largest one was barely clinging by a long hair above her lip, and it bounced with every word Mademoiselle Adele uttered. Elizabeth could not but help glance over at her aunt, who suppressed a smile. Eight-year-old Sara was allowed to join them, having begged Elizabeth in private that morning. She stood next to her mama, with her eyes wide open, gaping at Mademoiselle--not helping Lizzy maintain control one bit.
The lady continued. “You will call your beloved to you, when you wear zees.” She brought the silk up to Elizabeth’s eyes.
“For he will be drawn to you, and will find you, no matter where you go,” she stated reverently and resolutely, as if it were written in stone. As if she read it from the Old Testament, closed the holy book, and a boys’ choir sang “amen” to seal it.
Elizabeth did not know what to say to this, so she simply nodded, and thought about the letter that she must write to her father.
“I am nev-air wrong about zees,” Mademoiselle added with a wink.
Mademoiselle Adele then grinned, and all her yellowing teeth gleamed. Her bosoms heaved. The beauty spot nodded in turn, and Elizabeth knew not where to rest her eyes. She could see her aunt from the corner of her eye, turn and cover her mouth, while Sara still gaped. And Elizabeth wished for the first time, that her inclination bent toward drawing, because words alone would not do Mademoiselle justice.
The days went by, and Elizabeth did her duties. She let her aunt dress her with graciousness, and made conversation with perfectly coiffed and overly jeweled strangers. But she was never quite content, until she was alone with a book, or a letter from Jane in her room. And she tried not to think of him, and poor Georgiana’s tears, and how unsettled her own heart was. She tried. Oh, how she tried.
Elizabeth looked at herself in the mirror, as Trina finished with her hair. It was as if she was facing a stranger, who resembled herself, but was much more refined.
“Do you like it, Miss Bennet?” Trina asked confidently, reading her face. “You look very beautiful.”
“Yes, Trina. But I hardly recognize myself,” she admitted.
“I can make a sketch, Miss, if you would like, to show your maid at home how to sweep your hair over like this,” Trina offered.
Elizabeth smiled at the thought of Betsy trying to recreate the intricate curls, and could only think of how much hair she would actually lose in the process—either pulled out with a comb, or burned off with the curling iron. “Oh, that will not be necessary, Trina. Thank you, though.”
Trina smiled. “I will be right back with your gown.” She curtsied, and left Elizabeth alone with the exquisite creature looking back at her. Elizabeth was not one to fuss about her looks, but for once, she could see how the skilled hands of a good maid could make such a difference.
In a matter of a minute, Trina was back with Elizabeth’s new ball gown. It was deep burgundy silk, cut lower than she was comfortable with—all Mademoiselle Adele’s gowns were cut too low for Elizabeth’s liking—but was promised ample lace.
Elizabeth stepped into it, while Trina pulled it up and tucked, pinned and sewed her in. The color of the gown complimented Elizabeth’s fair complexion and deep chestnut hair, and Elizabeth could not help but to be pleased with such an elegant dress, and as always, wondered how Jane would look in it.
“The gentlemen will be looking at only you tonight, Miss,” Trina said as she pulled tight. Elizabeth’s lungs emptied, but other parts of her almost spilled out.
“Trina! This is too much!” Elizabeth was almost panicked.
“Do not worry, Miss, that is what the lace is for,” she explained. But Elizabeth could only see her overexposure, and blushed.
Trina finished with all the ties and fastens, and then brought the lace over, which calmed Elizabeth down, once it was in place. She wished that Jane could see her, for Jane would laugh with her, and put her at ease. She would know no one at the ball, besides a few married women whom she met calling with her aunt, yet she was determined to be diverted.
Introductions were made, and Elizabeth was immediately asked to dance by the grandson of a Mrs. Boyle, whom Elizabeth had met two days prior. Mrs. Boyle had taken her hand and declared her a dear, pretty thing, and then lamented, more than once, that Elizabeth was worth only one thousand pounds after her mother’s death, and then seemed disappointed that Mrs. Bennet would most likely live a very long time.
Mrs. Boyle recovered from her disappointment, and promised Mrs. Gardiner that she would procure Elizabeth dancing partners, and she was true to her word. Elizabeth had a suspicion that Mrs. Boyle, while busy finding partners for her, was also liberal with the unfortunate news of her measly inheritance, and the healthy state of both her parents.
Her first partner was a good dancer, though not very handsome. He was kind, clearly admiring, and offered her punch after their set, and talked of London, and what she had seen and done during her visit. Elizabeth’s second partner was quite tall, and tolerably handsome she thought. He was not as talkative, which was fine with Elizabeth, since it gave her the opportunity to look at the other couples while they were dancing, but he did look at her lace more than she was comfortable with. There were many pretty and elegant young women there, but thanks to Trina, and Mademoiselle Adele, Elizabeth did not feel that she did not belong.
Elizabeth sat next to her aunt before the third set was to start. Mrs. Boyle bustled over with a handsome gentleman, with sparkling dark eyes and a ready smile.
“Miss Bennet, this is Colonel Fitzwilliam,” the lady pronounced.
The gentleman’s smile widened, and he bowed. “It would do me a great honor if you would dance with me, Miss Bennet. If you are not otherwise engaged.”
Happy with the partner presented before her, Elizabeth smiled. “No sir, I am not engaged.” She thought that his eyes reminded her of someone, but she could not place it.
Colonel Fitzwilliam put out his gloved hand and Elizabeth took it. They made their way to the dance floor and found a place among the couples. The Colonel’s smile did not falter, and the music started.
“Is it impertinent of me to say how relieved I was to see you, after I promised Mrs. Boyle blindly that I would dance with her pretty little friend?” Elizabeth looked over at him as they danced. “For I am afraid she is far too lenient with the word ‘pretty,’ and I was preparing for the worse,” he continued.
Elizabeth only smiled as she circled behind him, and then took his hand once more before he spoke again. “As much as I am relieved, I have to say that I was also surprised, for I saw you earlier, and did not think that the prettiest lady at this ball would have a free dance.”
Elizabeth did not meet his eyes, but smiled slightly, and continued with the dance.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, do you jot these things down ahead of time, or do they come upon you at will?”
The Colonel laughed out loud. “You accuse me of being insincere, Miss Bennet?”
“I accuse you of nothing. I only ask if your sincerity is studied or spontaneous,” the lady said teasingly. “I’ve recently become a student of compliments aimed at young ladies.”
“Indeed? Well, let me assure you that no other ladies have been the object of my sincerity this evening… studied or spontaneous.” This time, he circled behind her.
“And may I add, from our brief conversation, I can assure you that my sincerity will stay with you for the duration of the night.” He then found her face. “You may study that, Miss Bennet.”
Touché! He took her hand once again, and she smiled fully. This was exactly what she was looking for, but had not dared to hope—a handsome and agreeable partner who could keep up with her. They continued to dance, and since it was the dinner set, the dashing young Colonel was her escort to dinner. And just as Elizabeth had wished, she was excessively diverted.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam paid you a great compliment by asking you to dance twice, Lizzy,” her aunt commented on the carriage ride home. “And you two talked quite a deal at dinner. I understand he comes from a great family, although he is not the eldest.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Colonel Fitzwilliam, eldest or not, was very kind to ask me for a second set, Aunt, but I am certain it was only to prove a point.”
“I do not understand, Lizzy.”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam told me that I was the prettiest lady at the ball, and I challenged his sincerity.”
Her aunt smiled knowingly. “Lizzy, you are far too clever for your own good. You should not be daring young men to prove themselves to you. The way you looked tonight, there could have been duels breaking out all over.”
Elizabeth laughed without reserve. The thought of anyone dueling over her was most absurd. “Aunt! You know me better than that. Please do not accuse me of such things.”
“Ah, but it was nice to see you smiling and enjoying yourself, my dear. I have been more than concerned for you. You have not been yourself for weeks now, and it has pained me to see it,” her aunt noted.
“I thank you for taking me to London with you, Aunt. I think I shall be myself soon.”
More time passed, as Elizabeth settled into a pleasant routine with the Gardiners. She was allowed to read more, and spent less time going on calls with her aunt, now that she was generally known. She even found her way to their pianoforte in the drawing room, and was surprised how she enjoyed playing—much more than at Longbourn. At least here, she could not get on her mother’s last nerve, or have Mary constantly hovering, and telling her how very wrong most of it was. She was left to choose music that suited her, and could take as much time as she needed to work through a passage, without fear of any sort of interruption—including visiting red coats.
And then, the letter that she was expecting—with news that everyone was anticipating—finally came. Jane was engaged to Mr. Bingley!
Elizabeth pictured the happy event in full. How Jane would have blushed, making her look even more radiant, and how joyful tears must have flowed. How handsome and noble Mr. Bingley must have looked, with his two sisters clinging, each to one leg. And how he must have dragged them several feet across the floor, to take Jane’s hand, and place a gentle kiss upon it.
Her aunt, and young Sara joined her in her joy, and all three scrupulously planned out their honeymoon, where they should settle permanently, and just how many children they should have--although Sara was adamant they should have kittens instead.
Elizabeth was able to write a very loving and felicitous letter to her dearest sister. She was sorry that she was not there, but not wholeheartedly. A very small part of her ached for some unknown reason, but she tucked the ache away, and let her other feelings overflow into the replying letter.
Yet another ball was upon Elizabeth, and she gave herself over to Trina, freely this time, who squeezed, pinned and tucked her into another new gown. Elizabeth had written to Jane in detail about this gown, for she knew Jane, who had a finer figure, would look like an angel sent straight from heaven in it. She had never seen a prettier pale blue, and there were seed pearls sewn onto the hem of her sleeves, and embroidered on her bodice in groups of five, to resemble tiny white flowers. Around the pearls, gold thread was used to fashion delicate leaves that trailed and connected the pearl flowers.
“I think that I like this one the best, Miss. So elegant, so delicate—just like you. And look at your eyes! I did not know they were so blue,” Trina enthused, as Elizabeth looked at herself in a full-length mirror.
“My sister Jane would look far better in this,” Elizabeth observed, but secretly liked what she saw. Trina ignored her, while she helped her into her slippers.
“You are not being fair to the other ladies tonight, for they will despise you as soon as you walk in, Miss Bennet. I would accept no punch from anyone but a gentleman. A lady might spit in it.” Elizabeth looked down surprised and amused at Trina. “Trust me,” Trina added as she stood up.
Elizabeth smiled as she thought of the amusing letter that she would be able to write Jane, even without the ball. London was turning out to be exactly what she had hoped. Elizabeth smiled, because she had barely thought about him today. Trina fussed with a loose curl on Elizabeth’s head, until she found its proper home.
“I do not say this to every woman I dress, Miss. One cannot put a gown on a camel, and expect it not to be a camel any more.” Elizabeth laughed as Trina smoothed out her gown and looked her over to see if anything else should be done.
Mrs. Gardiner came in at that moment and stopped to admire her lovely young niece.
“Oh, Lizzy! You are simply a vision! I cannot even imagine how many hearts will be broken tonight over you.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Please do not say such things, Aunt.”
“And why should I not?” her aunt challenged.
Elizabeth looked from her aunt to Trina who was in full agreement, and then back at her aunt. “With Mrs. Boyle making my inheritance everyone’s business, there will certainly be no hearts set on me, and thus none to be broken.”
“My dear, your lack of fortune will only scare off the not very rich. A very rich man does not have to worry about such a thing. Believe me, you will break hearts tonight, and that can be done by just glancing at you, my sweet girl.”
“I told Miss Bennet so. She is no camel,” Trina added with fervor.
Colonel Fitzwilliam lost no time in finding Elizabeth the moment he entered the ballroom. Elizabeth had despaired when she had to accept the hand of a Mr. Turner, with more teeth than she thought could fit into one mouth, for the first set. But her hope was restored when she spied the Colonel heading toward her. He had such open and happy manners. She was almost certain that there was not a thought in his head that did not pass on his face, and she liked him very much because of it.
When he reached her, he could not hide how stirred he was by her appearance. He smiled, but not the knowing and teasing smile she became used to at the previous ball. This smile was reverent, almost cautious. She looked up at him curiously, and he bowed.
“Miss Bennet, I have been in your presence for only a few seconds, yet you have claimed all my sincerity once more. You look positively stunning… Please, may I claim the next two dances?”
“Certainly, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but I do not desire your sincerity this evening.”
The Colonel looked quizzically at her.
“I desire entertainment. Please fill my head with tales of your travels, for I have decided that I am quite dull and ignorant, after spending time in my uncle’s expansive library. If I cannot see the rest of the world, I must at least hear of it from someone who has.”
The Colonel smiled graciously. “Miss Bennet, first of all, you do yourself a great disservice, by claiming yourself dull and ignorant—I find you quite the opposite. Quite. And secondly, I am very much capable of entertaining you with stories of my travels, with my sincerity still intact.”
Elizabeth smiled. “I am happy to hear that.”
The Colonel’s teasing smile reappeared. “My mission tonight, will be to sincerely entertain you, Milady.”
Mr. Turner, and his fifty-seven teeth, were quite forgot, and the Colonel was forgiven for being late. Elizabeth smiled at the attractive man beaming before her, and she secretly hoped that he would, once again, ask her for more than one set.
“Good evening, Miss Bennet,” said a low, baritone voice.
A shock wave went through Elizabeth. She knew that voice, but it was out of place. It belonged miles and miles away. That voice belonged under an oak tree, off of a path. It made her heart pound and her face flush.
What was he doing here? She was finally distracted enough in London not to be thinking about him every hour, and now he appears out of nowhere, to continue his slow, cruel torture.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, and forced herself to turn slightly to face Mr. Darcy, who came to stand next to Colonel Fitzwilliam. She met his eyes. They were pained, and it sent her a little off balance. She knew she hated the man, but she did not feel it as fully as she thought.
“Mr. Darcy. I did not expect to see you, sir.” She kept her countenance, and then looked down at his leg. “You are recovered?”
“Yes. I am recovered.” He tried desperately not to look awkward. “And because I am recovered, Georgiana and I decided to come to London. We have a home here.” Darcy looked over at Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was smiling widely at Elizabeth.
“I see that you have already made my cousin’s acquaintance, Miss Bennet,” Darcy remarked.
Surprised, Elizabeth looked back and forth at both of them. She then remembered whose eyes the Colonel’s resembled. They were cousins! But beyond the eyes, there was nothing remotely similar about them. The Colonel was fair and good-natured, and Darcy was dark and brooding. Well, he was usually brooding. Right now he seemed many things, but definitely not brooding. He smiled at her. Elizabeth thought she could see merriment, but his eyes suggested sadness.
“I had no idea,” Elizabeth confessed. She was off centered by Darcy’s arrival, and now even more so, because of the intimate connection between Darcy and the handsome Colonel, whose attentions she had very much enjoyed. She was hoping to spend as much time as would be considered appropriate, dancing and conversing with him. It had been a very long time since she had met someone with that much wit and liveliness, and now it was all ruined. For how could she be comfortable getting to know Colonel Fitzwilliam, if his severe cousin was nearby, watching, judging and disapproving?
“Nor was I aware that you were acquainted with Darcy, Miss Bennet, or we should have talked about him behind his back,” Colonel Fitzwilliam joked. “It was only this afternoon when I mentioned that I would be seeking you out as my first dance partner, did the connection come to our attention.”
She looked back at Darcy. He smiled, and took a step closer to her.
“Miss Bennet, if I may be so forward--may I claim the set after?” he asked in all sincerity.
Elizabeth was astounded. It was like the Netherfield ball all over again, except this was worse! Weeks of hard work, books, shopping, new acquaintances, all designed to keep her from thinking about him and his cruelty, were unraveling rapidly as she stood before him. He looked down into her eyes, and tried to pull things out of them—she was sure of it! And she tried desperately to hold on to them, and keep them from him.
She wanted to refuse him. She wanted to run from the room and never look back. But she said yes. In an instant. She could not help herself. Stupid girl! Would she turn into a pillar of salt because of her weakness? Would she slowly be washed away into nothingness, because her strength failed her?
The next set started, and Elizabeth found herself standing up with the Colonel.
“So, Miss Bennet, in keeping with my word on the subject of talking about Darcy behind his back--how did my cousin behave in Hertfordshire?” He looked at her with teasing eyes, and even though she wanted to tease back, she knew that anything said, would be related to his cousin, so she answered cautiously.
“Mr. Darcy was a perfect gentleman in Hertfordshire, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” she answered calmly.
“I do not doubt that he was a gentleman, Miss Bennet. But how did he act among people? Did he even speak a word?” Elizabeth looked up at him puzzled at his question, and the Colonel saw that he needed to elaborate.
“Darcy is rather quiet in places where he is not familiar. He has been like that since he was a boy, but he is lively enough in other places—among people that he knows. I was simply curious to see how he would act among country gentry.”
Elizabeth could not help but wonder. It had never occurred to her that Mr. Darcy’s aloof behavior could simply be shyness. How very odd. Could a rich, handsome, and powerful man, such as Mr. Darcy, be unconfident? Wanting to hear more, Elizabeth joined the game.
“Mr. Darcy was rather quiet, and did keep to himself. The very first time I saw your cousin, was at an assembly, where he only danced only two sets, and then with only the women in his party. Many other young ladies were in need of a partner, but I overheard him saying that it would be insupportable to stand up with any of them.”
Fitzwilliam laughed, and then feigned shock. “And were you in need of a partner that evening, Miss Bennet?”
The lady smiled slightly, before she looked down.
“It seems very clear, that it is not insupportable for him to stand up with you tonight,” he teased.
“I fear it is strictly out of duty, Colonel. I am not certain if it is a written law, but if a lady runs across a gentleman broken and bleeding by the side of the road, and offers assistance, the gentleman might feel he owes the lady one dance, if he happens upon her at a ball… even if the thought was previously insupportable.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked shocked. “You ran across Darcy after his riding accident? He said nothing of it, that coxcomb!”
Elizabeth immediately wished she could take back her previous statement. Her face got hot, and her mind raced to see how she could rectify her words.
“I am very sorry for relating that, Colonel Fitzwilliam. It was common knowledge among our acquaintances, but I did not mean to say anything that would make your cousin uncomfortable among his friends here.”
Fitzwilliam smiled knowingly. “Miss Bennet, do not distress yourself. I only had a brief letter from Darcy, stating that he was thrown from his horse, and broke his ankle. He was not hiding any information, and he and Miss Georgiana have only just arrived this morning in London.”
He looked at her flushed face. “Really, Miss Bennet, there is no shame in having an angel rescue you. I can only say, that I wish it was I who lay broken and bleeding. I would have shouted it from the rooftop… if I was able to get myself up there.” He winked at Elizabeth. “Darcy has all the luck.”
The Colonel was successful at lightening the mood, although he wondered why Elizabeth blushed, and just why Darcy had failed to mention that this bewitching little creature had helped him in his hour of need. For the Colonel himself had spent quite a few minutes that very afternoon talking about the “beautiful and witty Miss Bennet” that he was fortunate enough to dance with at the last ball he attended. Darcy inquired if it was the same Miss Bennet of his acquaintance, but said nothing further. He did, however, decide that he would attend the very ball that sounded so tedious to him, just a half hour earlier.
The third set was upon them, and Darcy silently escorted Elizabeth to the floor. This was the closest she had been to him since the day of his accident, and she tried to put that out of her head. He looked at her the entire time they walked across the room, though she looked straight ahead. Heads were turned, and Elizabeth could only imagine it was to see the tall and handsome man, with the penetrating dark eyes. She also knew that he was probably a curiosity, and a target for many single young ladies and their mothers, who were finally able to put the name “Darcy” with his form.
Still nothing was said, and the dance started. Darcy was a good dancer, and that did not free Elizabeth’s mind to think of conversation. Even though he was bent on silence, she was not going to spend the next fifteen minutes warring with her thoughts, and trying to decipher his.
“Mr. Darcy, I must apologize, and tell you that Colonel Fitzwilliam now knows that I assisted you the day of your fall.”
Darcy smiled down at her. “I see that Fitzwilliam was true to his word about talking behind my back,” he quipped lightly.
Elizabeth was a little stunned by his cheerful manner. “I did not mean to tell him something that you had no intention”—
Darcy interrupted her. “Please Miss Bennet, I do not mind his knowing. I was quite joking when I told you I would buy your silence on the issue. Colonel Fitzwilliam has had his share of falls, I assure you, but even the charming Colonel cannot claim to have had such a lovely savior. I, you see, have the upper hand.”
Elizabeth could not help but stare at him in amazement, and Darcy was well aware of it.
“Miss Bennet, are you shocked at hearing a compliment coming from me?”
He was all light and easy, and Elizabeth was wondering if she was indeed dancing with Colonel Fitzwilliam, in a Darcy mask. She gathered herself.
“In all honesty, Mr. Darcy, I do not think I have ever heard you compliment anyone, except your own dear sister.”
He continued to smile, and now had her hand, as it was part of the dance. He could stand it no longer. He had waited weeks for this very moment. Her eyes were light blue tonight, and he wondered how many other shades he had missed being apart from her.
“Forgive me, for not saying what is on my mind more often.” He looked her full in the face, “May I also say, Miss Bennet, that you simply took my breath away the moment I walked into the room? And I am still waiting for the moment when I shall regain it.”
Elizabeth continued to stare, not being able to figure out what he was about. “Do you tease me, Mr. Darcy?” she asked incredulously.
Still holding her hand, still dancing, and still smiling, Darcy answered. “Do you think me so cruel as to give a compliment to a lady, and then take it back?”
“I am not certain, Mr. Darcy,” she admitted.
“Are you still trying to sketch my character, Miss Bennet?”
“Very much so.”
“Then as before, I will not suspend any pleasure of yours,” he teased this time. Elizabeth remembered the last time she heard those words from him. How very different it was coming out of a smiling, charming man. But he was right. She was nowhere near finished sketching his character. This man she was dancing with was the most confusing, frustrating, maddening and fascinating man she had ever met.
The set ended, and while he escorted Elizabeth back to where her aunt was waiting, he slowed and hesitated. “Miss Bennet, may Georgiana and I call on you tomorrow?”
Elizabeth smiled at Georgiana’s name. “Certainly, Mr. Darcy. I would love to see Miss Darcy again. Is she well?”
For the first time since they started dancing, Darcy’s smile slipped. “She is well, Miss Bennet, but I feel the need to explain something to you about my behavior the last time you saw me.” Pain washed over his face, and he looked pleadingly in her eyes, as he did when she refused his carriage that day.
The look caught her by surprise, and made her feel like comforting him. She was thinking of something to say to him, when Colonel Fitzwilliam walked up to them.
“Darcy, it is unkind to keep the lady standing after all this time. Miss Bennet must be exhausted.” He handed her a small glass of punch. Elizabeth let go of Darcy’s arm and took the cup.
Part of her was relieved to be free of him, but another part, a much larger part wished everyone else would melt away and they could speak openly without reserve. Once again, those questions that kept her from sleep, found their way back to the forefront of her mind. She was sure she would never have a restful night again, and it was all his fault.
With a book from her uncle’s vast library open on her lap, Elizabeth was more than distracted, and could not recite the title, nor its content if her life depended on it. For he would show at any moment, and she was right—she did not sleep a wink. Even the overly complimentary Trina noticed her tired face this morning, before she made her splash it with rose water.
How could Elizabeth sketch his character, when he yells at his sweet sister for taking a walk in the country, and then comes to London and declares, out of the blue, that she has taken his breath away? What was this man all about? How could he be so cruel to Mr. Wickham, yet have such a devoted friend as Bingley? She was certain that Bingley was not impressed by Darcy’s fortune, but what could possess him to keep Darcy so close, if he was such an unpleasant fellow?
She also pondered Colonel Fitzwilliam’s claims that Darcy was shy and uncomfortable around strangers. Does that explain away his severity? Does it pardon his rudeness? Nothing made sense. Elizabeth’s own feelings did not make sense. She was afraid of him. She was unwillingly drawn to him. He offended her, yet he mesmerized her. She was completely and utterly confused by him.
Elizabeth glanced around the elegant and sunny parlor where her aunt, uncle and Sara, were busying themselves while they waited for their illustrious callers. It was unusual for Mr. Gardiner to wait for a caller, but her aunt must have talked with him privately, for he kissed Lizzy on her hand, and told her she looked lovely before he sat with his paper. Elizabeth blushed and shot a look over to her aunt, who smiled and pretended that nothing was out of the ordinary.
A carriage was heard, and Sara ran to peek out the window. She giggled a little, while the rest of the room went on as if nothing was heard. Elizabeth tried to turn her attention to the fact that Georgiana would be there, and how happy she would be to see her, after so many weeks. This exercise seemed to work, since Elizabeth was perfectly collected when the three callers entered. Colonel Fitzwilliam had decided to join them.
Introductions were made. Georgiana was so visibly pleased to see Elizabeth, that Elizabeth felt it not improper to take her hand in earnest, and pull her to sit next to her on the couch with Sara. Mrs. Gardiner did a lovely job welcoming everyone warmly, and making sure they were comfortable. Elizabeth was struck by the fact that even though her aunt was so young, most likely very close to Mr. Darcy’s age, she handled her domestic duties with grace, elegance and ease. Elizabeth was secretly pleased to have family that she was actually proud of, and her nerves eased, as her heart swelled.
Tea was ordered, and general pleasantries were exchanged about the Gardiner’s lovely home, the weather, and last night’s ball. Soon, the gentlemen fell into easy conversation with Mr. Gardiner about his business, the war, and trout fishing. Elizabeth helped Georgiana into conversation with her aunt and young Sara. Sara, being but eight, and freshly aware of everything that she would some day step into, asked Georgiana if she was “out.” Even though Georgiana initially blushed, an entire conversation on the merits of coming out, dancing lessons, and what she should wear to her first ball filled the next half hour.
The separate conversations soon melded, and then broke off in different directions. Mrs. Gardiner spoke of her growing up not five miles from the Darcy estate in Derbyshire, and Mr. Darcy happily conversed with her on favorite haunts and old families in the area. Elizabeth soon found herself talking with a very enthusiastic Colonel Fitzwilliam on the subject of poetry versus prose. Even though Mr. Darcy was speaking to her aunt, she was certain that she saw him turn his head slightly, when she spoke her opinion on this and that.
Finally, Darcy spoke to Elizabeth. He warmly congratulated her on the recent engagement of her sister, and they were able to talk about the couple, the upcoming wedding, and where they would travel for their honeymoon. When Elizabeth cordially asked after the health of Bingley’s sisters, she noticed a faint smile on Mr. Darcy’s face, as he answered that they were both indeed in good health, as well as Mr. Hurst.
“You will soon have two more sisters, Miss Elizabeth. How very fortunate for you,” he teased.
Elizabeth could not help but to smile and shake her head.
“No, Mr. Darcy, Jane will have two new sisters. I already have more than I could possibly handle,” she joked, and he smiled.
“Will you be sorry to have lost such a friend to matrimony?” she asked in all sincerity.
Darcy sobered. “No, not at all. How could I be sorry to have a friend so happy in his choice of a wife?”
He glanced over at Fitzwilliam, and then back at Elizabeth with a glint in his eye. “The man is so happy, that it is rather difficult to be around him. I willed my leg to heal quickly, just so I could escape his raptures.”
He then mimicked Bingley. “The sun has never shone brighter, the stars never twinkled as much, an angel has never looked as heavenly…” Darcy shook his head, and the room filled with laughter.
“Ah, yes,” Mr. Gardiner added. “The sun shines in this very parlor, because of my lovely Margaret.”
Mrs. Gardiner reddened, but smiled at her handsome husband, who blew her a kiss.
Colonel Fitzwilliam called out, “Bravo!” and started to clap, and was joined by Mr. Darcy who was smiling genuinely, much to Elizabeth’s surprise.
Elizabeth thought that she could not remember when she had so enjoyed callers that she did not consider her intimates, before. Everyone was at ease, conversations flowing without awkwardness, and Mr. Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Georgiana seemed to truly enjoy the company of her family. How could that be?
She knew Darcy was very aware that, even though he was in a beautiful home, with its elegant owners, it was all begot from trade. But Elizabeth did not see one trace of distaste come from that gentleman. He was laughing, smiling and talking more than she had ever observed. He was an enigma, and she knew not what to think.
All too soon the callers had to leave. Elizabeth was sorry to see them go, but promised to call on Georgiana, and an invitation to a dinner party at the Gardiner’s was extended for Friday night, and accepted.
Later that evening, as Elizabeth came down from her room, she passed her uncle’s study and overheard her aunt speaking through the closed door.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam is clearly admiring, but he cannot be serious. He will have to marry rich, for he has nothing but the Fitzwilliam name. His brother gets the estate, the title—everything. Now Darcy is a different story altogether. He can marry anyone he chooses, and he has no immediate family to please, besides his sister, who clearly adores Lizzy. He might have been reserved here this morning, concerning her, but you should have seen the way he looked at her last night, dearest. He looked at no one but Elizabeth all night. And his only dance was with her. He used the excuse that he was recovering from an injured ankle, but he looked quite sprightly when he was out on the floor with Lizzy. I am certain he offended the whole of London society, but I do not think he cares, husband. Can you imagine? Pemberly!”
“Now, Margaret, do not get ahead of yourself. Let us just watch and see. I am Elizabeth’s protector while she is with us, and I will not stand for anyone who toys with her affections, just because she is a pretty diversion. We will have plenty of opportunities to observe these gentlemen, my dear. Be patient, and put all your energy toward our dinner party on Friday.”
Elizabeth quickly hurried to the library to avoid being discovered. She closed the heavy door, and leaned against it. She could not believe what she was hearing. They had no idea what was in Mr. Darcy’s head. They were so very mistaken, that it was laughable! Why must everyone whisper “marriage” when a gentleman pays attention to a lady? Elizabeth wished she could laugh, but she could not. Why could she not laugh?
The mere speculation greatly annoyed Elizabeth. She was not upset with her aunt and uncle. She knew they were doing their duty to look out for her, and for that, she was grateful. It was just the idea of other people’s looks, and whispers. She had been looking forward to the dinner on Friday, and now she only felt that she would be starring in a spectacle the entire evening. Would everyone be watching her every step? Would she be pitied if she talked with Colonel Fitzwilliam, because he could never choose her? Would she be called a fortune hunter if she spoke with Mr. Darcy?
Simply thinking about it made her feel ill. She made her way up to her room, and lay upon her bed.
She loathed money, and at this moment, she loathed people for what they let money do to them. She wanted Jane. She wanted the new Mrs. Collins. She might, at this moment, even be able to appreciate one of Mary’s sermons.
And although Elizabeth’s mind was weary, her legs wanted to take her and run away. She longed for the shelter of the familiar towering trees, and missed the coolness of the damp earth, and the soft rustling the leaves made, as they were disturbed. She wanted to plant her feet far apart, and yell as loud as she pleased. And she would not care how many gentlemen fell and hit their heads because of it. They could bleed all they wanted, and drag themselves for miles for help. But she would just keep on running in her white gown, and thin slippers. And would never have to make her way back. She would never come back. Never.
And then an exhausted Elizabeth, drifted off to sleep.
Friday night came too quickly. Elizabeth considered having a great headache, but she knew how disappointed her aunt would be, if not suspicious. Georgiana would not be coming as Elizabeth had wished. Elizabeth had called on her, and promised her that she would not leave her alone for one moment, but Georgiana would have none of it. She begged Elizabeth to forgive her, and claimed she was too young and too awkward for a formal dinner party. Of course Elizabeth forgave her, and the two played duets on Georgiana’s pianoforte until just before the gentlemen were expected home, and Elizabeth felt the need to leave.
Elizabeth stood with Mrs. and Mr. Gardiner, welcoming their guests. Mrs. Boyle arrived with her ancient husband, and was happy to tell Elizabeth that her grandson was very pleased by her looks and manners, and would not be sorry to dance with her again if the occasion arose. But she also kindly warned Elizabeth not to set her cap on him, since he was still young, and very susceptible to pretty faces, and had yet to learn the true value of an appropriate and suitable match. All of this had to be repeated loudly so old Mr. Boyle and the servants downstairs, could hear that Elizabeth should not set her cap on their precious, scrawny, heir apparent.
Elizabeth began to think that the name suited the lady perfectly, and wished for her permanent removal.
Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam entered, and Elizabeth did her best not to color when they both stood before her and bowed. They looked more alike than Elizabeth had allowed. Both were tall, with similar builds and the same eyes--only one or two shades apart. Elizabeth was now almost embarrassed that she was attracted to Colonel Fitzwilliam, for it seemed that she simply found a lighter version, both in looks and manners, of the man she ran away from in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth had once fancied herself as sensible, but she questioned that, as she was beginning to question many things.
Mrs. Gardiner set an elegant table, and after drinks, Elizabeth found herself sitting next to none other than Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth knew it was by design, and tried to keep her countenance when she realized where she would be spending the next hour and a half. She could see her aunt at the foot of the table, and within earshot, smile quite innocently at her as Elizabeth’s chair was pulled out for her to sit.
She rose to the occasion and graciously smiled and talked to everyone around her, and even managed to speak of a few light and trivial things to Mr. Darcy, who looked gallant in his evening attire. Elizabeth was in the middle of listening to a Mrs. Munson speak of her recent visit to court, where the Prince Regent had fallen asleep during the knighting of the Duke of Somethingshire, when Mrs. Boyle’s shrill voice came up significantly in volume from the opposite end of the table.
“No, dearest! She only has one thousand after her mother’s death, not one thousand per annum! That would be at least something!”
Elizabeth froze for a moment, and she could see that a few faces had turned to her. Quickly and graciously, her dear uncle remarked on something humorous that happened outside of the House of Commons, and everyone’s attention was diverted. Almost everyone’s.
A low voice spoke next to her.
“Perhaps we should have cards printed out for you, so no one is confused on the subject, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth looked over at Mr. Darcy who was smiling. His eyes danced as he continued.
“I know of a capital print shop in town, that might also be able to estimate the life spans of both your parents, which could be printed on the back, along with your coat of arms.”
She stared at him, not quite believing what she was hearing. After her shock wore off, she not could help but feel grateful that he was not repulsed by her situation, and he was making an effort to lessen her embarrassment by making her laugh.
She smiled cautiously back at him. “As brilliant as that idea is, I do not think that will be necessary while Mrs. Boyle still breathes, Mr. Darcy,” the lady whispered.
Darcy lowered his voice further, and leaned in a little bit closer to her ear. “Well, we can always hope for a well placed pheasant bone to block her air passage,” he mused.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. Mr. Darcy told a joke, and it was a good one! She had to use her napkin to hide a sudden burst of laughter, which she successfully squelched much to Darcy’s delight. His napkin was not needed, but he smiled widely, and enjoyed Elizabeth’s pleasure more than he thought was possible.
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked over from across the table, noticing their camaraderie.
Elizabeth recovered and whispered back, but while facing her own plate. “You shock me, Mr. Darcy. I did not think that you were capable of such indecorous thoughts. I was under the opinion that I alone was guilty of such things.”
“Not at all, Miss Bennet. Great minds think alike.”
And with that, he took a drink of his wine.
Elizabeth did the same, and looked up to notice Colonel Fitzwilliam smiling at her in a particular manner, though she could not read it. She quickly returned the smile.
“Miss Bennet, I understand that you called on Georgiana twice this week,” added Darcy. “I think it odd that I missed seeing you both times. Either your timing is very ill, or rather, very precise.” He continued to work on his plate before him.
Elizabeth understood that he was accusing her of avoiding him, and had to think quickly.
“My timing had mostly to do when Miss Darcy was available, and when my uncle’s carriage could be spared, Mr. Darcy. There was no precision involved,” she lied skillfully.
Elizabeth’s attention was drawn back to Mrs. Munson, to finish her story. And even though she was watching Mrs. Munson, in Elizabeth’s mind, her eyes were fixed on Mr. Darcy: his face, his smile, and his eyes. How he looked at her sideways while he leaned in toward her. How she could feel his breath on her neck. And how it seemed impossible that he could make light of something that seemed to occupy and concern most everyone else at the table.
It was not until a beautifully arranged silver platter was brought out, with a huge pheasant featured in the middle, did Elizabeth glance back at Darcy with a suppressed but knowing smile. He lifted his wine glass and nodded his head toward the bird, and then toward Mrs. Boyle.
Elizabeth did everything in her power not to laugh out loud again. And she was struck for the first time by how easy it was to be with him, and how much she was enjoying his company. He was not the combative man she sparred with every time they met in Hertfordshire. She wondered and now marveled at the man next to her. Who was he? Elizabeth could see the depth of his eyes and could feel herself starting to lose herself in them. But still, something was keeping her from fully surrendering herself to those eyes.
Darcy and Elizabeth were being observed carefully by Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mrs. Gardiner. The former, wondering if his cousin had actually come to London for a different reason then he claimed, and the latter, congratulating herself on her brilliant seating chart.
Although no one choked on a pheasant bone, the evening was still considered a success. Besides the few heads that turned at dinner, Elizabeth did not feel prying eyes watching her every move as she had feared. After dinner, she was able to spend time with many different people so as not call attention to herself. She played a few hands of whist with Colonel Fitzwilliam, who continued to pay her plenty of attention and compliments, but there was something different about his manner. He did not seem as open, she thought.
Elizabeth was prevailed upon to play and sing at the pianoforte, but because she was forewarned by her aunt, she was able to practice and thus performed well, even in her own eyes. She could not help but notice his thoughtful stare as she moved toward her seat after the performance. When her eyes met his, a tremor leapt through her. Fearing that she would walk straight into the wall, she averted her eyes, but the warmth--his warmth stayed with her, and she did her utmost to keep her composure as she welcomed the compliments of others around her.
There was much to think about when she went to bed that night, and Elizabeth knew full well that, once again, she would toss and turn—but this time a smile was thrown into the mix.
Colonel Fitzwilliam waited until breakfast. Darcy came down with a half smile and sat down. Trying to look disinterested, the Colonel stayed behind his paper.
“Did you sleep well, Darcy?”
“I did, Richard. It was a late night, though.”
Richard continued his act, folding the paper over. “Yes, it was a late evening, but quite eventful, was it not?”
Darcy looked at him, not comprehending his line of questioning.
“How was it eventful, Richard? We had polite conversation and played cards. I hardly call that eventful.”
Richard calmly put his paper down and took a sip of his coffee. “Sometimes the most important things happen quite covertly. Without one word.”
Darcy only glanced at him while he helped himself to the generous breakfast foods before him. The Colonel was not pleased that his bait was not taken. He knitted his brow together.
“Darcy, you can hardly think that I do not know. I have eyes. How long has this been going on?”
Darcy knew that he could not say anything but the truth. He waited a few seconds, put down his plate, and took a deep breath.
“For some time,” he admitted as he breathed out. Relieved, actually.
Clearly disappointed to hear what he knew was to be true, Richard leaned in. “Since you broke your ankle and she rendered you aid?”
“That was a turning point, Cousin. But it started weeks before. From the very first time I saw her in September, if I am quite honest with myself.”
“Why did you not tell me straight away, Darcy? I mean, I could tell you admired her, for what man with a pulse could not? But I did not suspect fully until last night that you are absolutely in love with the lady!” He threw up his arms. “How could you keep that from me? For you knew how I looked forward to seeing her, how I wanted to dance with and shamelessly flirt with her!”
Darcy shifted uncomfortably. “I am sorry, but it is not as if I have a claim on her. She has every reason to think ill of me… Besides, I have seen you besotted before, and I knew she was just a diversion for you. You know very well that she has no fortune.”
“What a picture you paint of me, Darcy,” the Colonel said with sad smile.
“It is no reflection on your character, Richard. You could have pursued Caroline Bingley and her fortune, but you did not, not to mention Anne.”
The Colonel shook his head. “As handsome and as rich as Caroline Bingley is, I would rather court a dragon. That lady has talons, Darcy. I am sure of it.”
Darcy laughed. “I have noticed.”
“And our poor cousin, Anne, has the personality of a stump, and about the same pallor.” the Colonel added. “Really Darcy, me not thinking of either of them does not necessarily put me in the line for sainthood.”
“It simply shows that you will not attach yourself to just any lady because she has money. You have a heart, Richard, and it does you credit. It shows that you will take care when you fall in love.” Darcy smiled with his cousin, but then sat up with concern. “Richard, tell me you did not have serious designs upon Miss Bennet.”
Richard measured Darcy’s face. “It does not matter now, for I saw the way she looked at you last night, Darcy… I thought she should have put a knife through my heart. I was not expecting it.”
Darcy reflected on what Richard said for a few moments. He did not know what to believe. Could he let himself think for one moment that Elizabeth could return his affections?
“Are you sure of what you saw, Richard? She was kind and lovely to everyone last night—including you.”
“Miss Elizabeth was kind and more than lovely last night, but I am not a fool, Darcy. But apparently you are. I am surprised the tablecloth did not smolder and suddenly burst into flames betwixt you two. The sparks and the heat that you two put out could have singed my eyebrows if I was any closer.”
Darcy smiled at the joke. “Did you really think that she showed me preference, Richard?”
“Please just get your sword and run me through, Darcy!” the Colonel halfway joked. He then took a breath and continued. “She was very careful not to be noticed, and made sure she paid attention to everyone in the room. But I saw a look that men would kill for—and it was meant only for you.”
Darcy could only ponder, while his cousin looked at him incredulously.
“What are you waiting for, Darcy?”
Darcy looked up. “I need to explain something to her, Richard. We had a great misunderstanding in Hertfordshire. She cannot be sure of me. I tried to broach the subject at the ball, but you interrupted us.”
“Hurrah for me. At least I am good for something,” the Colonel added dryly.
The footman opened the door and bowed. “Miss Bingley is here to call on Miss Darcy.”
Darcy and the Colonel looked at each other with knowing smirks.
“Tell her that Miss Darcy has not come down for breakfast yet,” Darcy replied.
“I did, Sir, but she says that she would like to deliver a message.”
Darcy put out his hand to receive it, and the footman hesitated and cringed. “She wants to deliver it in person.”
“Fine, Taylor, show her in,” he sighed.
The footman bowed again and left.
“Speak of the dragon, and the dragon shall appear,” joked Colonel Fitzwilliam quietly.
“Does she know what the time is?” Darcy marveled.
“Dragons keep very early hours, or possibly very late ones. Maybe she is close to retiring after a long night of terrorizing small villages and innocent maidens. I wager breathing fire is quite tiresome.”
The footman reappeared and announced Caroline before disappearing with a very disapproving look upon his face.
Once Caroline flippantly apologized for coming early, she took a seat very near Darcy and put her full attention on him.
“I told you we would not be long in following you to town, Mr. Darcy. We couldn’t get Charles to come with us—he cannot bear to be parted from his ‘dearest Jane.’ I have come to think that she has him under some sort of spell. Charles has never been as dull and as stupid as he has been the past few months. I am quite sure I do not know him at all. He seems a complete stranger to me, and does not seem to care that he no longer spends anytime with either Louisa or myself.”
“Such is the life of an engaged man,” the Colonel added.
Caroline did not even acknowledge that he had spoken, much to the Colonel’s delight.
The Colonel sniffed the air. “I smell smoke. Is it just me?” he bated.
“What is your message for Georgiana, Caroline?” Darcy asked with a repressed smile, trying to get rid of his visitor.
“It is a dinner invitation. It will be just a small affair, but we shall all be cozy together on a winter’s night.”
“What night, Caroline?”
“Wednesday. Shall you and Georgiana attend? I miss your sister more than I can say,” she enthused with more alacrity than she felt.
“Of course you mean to include my cousin, Caroline,” added Darcy as he shot the Colonel a satisfied smirk.
Caroline looked over at Colonel Fitzwilliam as if she had forgotten that he was even in the room. “Oh, certainly. Colonel Fitzwilliam is always welcome,” she added quickly as she turned her full attention back to Darcy and his fortune.
Elizabeth had a letter from Jane that morning. She would be coming to London with Mrs. Bennet in two days time to buy wedding clothes, and Mr. Bingley was to bring them. Jane asked Elizabeth to return with her to Longbourn, so they could be together these few weeks before her wedding. Elizabeth was torn, but would feel the loss of Jane greatly. Of course she would go back to Longbourn, but something deep inside her wished to stay, only she refused to give words to it.
The party arrived on Monday. Bingley said his temporary good-byes as he was off to stay with his sisters. Mrs. Gardiner welcomed them graciously, and was very patient with Mrs. Bennet’s ecstasies and nerves--each taking turns at will, and showing themselves at the most inopportune times.
The first order of business, the day after their arrival, was to go to Mademoiselle Adele’s. The outré lady remembered Elizabeth and winked at her, while she was introduced to Jane and Mrs. Bennet. Of course, she was in raptures about being able to dress Jane, spinning her around, and admiring her “magnifique” figure, and her “angelique” face.
Jane was almost prepared ahead of time by her sister’s detailed account of her visit, but it did not stop her from throwing Elizabeth amazed glances, when Mademoiselle’s breasts were not blocking her from view.
Mrs. Bennet, however, was not prepared for Mademoiselle Adele whatsoever.
“No, no, no, Jane, those will not do! They will not fall the way you want them to. There is such a thing as too delicate. Put that down. Here! Look at this one! It has a better weight to it.” She started to go on about her experience with this and that, and how so-and-so looked absolutely hideous when she wore that type of lace, when Mademoiselle barreled up and interrupted her.
“Shoo, shoo shoo! Zees is all wrong! Please, Madame, back away, and let zee silk pick Miss Bennet!”
“I am certain, I do not know what you mean,” Mrs. Bennet retorted, while she took everything there was to take in about the strange lady.
“But of course you do not know what I mean. Small woo-man.”
Mrs. Bennet, being the same height as Elizabeth, was at eye level with her chest. Mademoiselle knew meddling mothers, and would not be putting up with this one. Mademoiselle Adele placed herself between Jane and Mrs. Bennet, facing the mother.
“You wait over there. Sit!” she commanded with great authority, and pointed to a pink tufted chair near the entrance.
Mrs. Bennet looked up at the lady in unbelief. Mademoiselle was dressed in bright canary yellow, resembling the sun--if it had fallen to earth, or more specifically, France, and then had its hair done. Mrs. Bennet looked over at Mrs. Gardiner who slowly nodded, and prayed for her own sake that her sister-in-law would not make a scene. Elizabeth held her breath.
Mrs. Bennet stood perfectly still, eyeing the sizable lady before her. She pursed her lips. And then, without a word, she went to sit on the little seat.
Elizabeth could not believe her eyes, and glanced between Jane and her aunt who were just as mystified and impressed. Elizabeth had sudden respect for the bright yellow orb with the flaming hair.
“Now, ma cherie, you take your time. You touch zee fabreeks. See wheech ones make your heart smile, and zen we weel talk.”
Jane smiled and started to examine and feel the silks and lace before her.
Mademoiselle then turned her full attention on Elizabeth.
“Ah, my petit fugitif…”
Elizabeth looked up at her, surprised at the pet name.
“You have not worn it yet, have you?”
Elizabeth suddenly felt as if she was in the presence of something more than an eccentric dressmaker. A little chill went through her.
“Do not despair, for it weel tell you when it is time. It weel have its day in the sun.”
Once again, Mademoiselle smiled. There was no bouncing beauty spot to distract this time, and Elizabeth was left standing in wonder, while Adele turned her attention back to Jane.
The intimate dinner that Caroline was looking so forward to had expanded now that Bingley and Jane were in town. And since Jane would attend, Elizabeth had to be invited as well as her mother and the Gardiners. Ever wise and protective, Mrs. Gardiner graciously declined and kept Mrs. Bennet with her, saying that the young people should enjoy one last evening together.
Standing at her closet the day of the dinner, Elizabeth looked intently at her breathtaking green dress, but after much consideration, chose not to wear it. It certainly would exceed any expectations that Caroline or Louisa would have for her simple country tastes, but she did not care to impress them. She was able to talk Jane into wearing her pale blue dress with the seed pearls, but Mrs. Gardiner, when she realized that her dear Lizzy was going to wear a Hertfordshire frock, insisted she wear one of her own evening gowns. She provided her with an ivory gown trimmed over in gauzy sheer gold. It shimmered and was the very definition of elegance. Elizabeth refused the jewels that went with it and opted for her familiar and simple cross.
The Hurst’s London home, although nothing compared to Mr. Darcy’s, was grand and stylish. Louisa welcomed them with all graciousness, surprising Elizabeth. Maybe Louisa was trying now that they were to be family. Bingley could not tear his gaze from Jane, and rightly so. Trina had spent time one both the sisters, and they did her credit indeed.
At dinner, just as at Netherfield, Elizabeth sat nowhere near Darcy. He was seated next to Caroline and Louisa. And this time Georgiana was not next to Elizabeth—she was opposite her brother. Elizabeth, at the other end of the table--where the apathetic Mr. Hurst reigned, was seated next to Colonel Fitzwilliam as well as Mr. Hurst’s younger and single brother, John. He was a handsome and fashionable man of six and twenty, and better yet, he was very aware of it. Elizabeth enjoyed his conversation, only on account of his unconcealed conceit. She and Colonel Fitzwilliam with their combined skills were able to get him to speak on proper hair lengths for gentlemen for fifteen full minutes. Why he and Caroline did not join forces and become the most dreadful and fashionable couple imaginable, Elizabeth knew not. But then again, Elizabeth did know why. Caroline was holding out for the title of Mistress of Pemberley—Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire. She could hear Caroline’s pretentious laugh tinkle above the cutlery and could only imagine that she was finding something that Mr. Darcy said extremely and falsely amusing.
Colonel Fitzwilliam engaged Elizabeth when John was not talking about himself or about the many very important people that he knew. He smiled at her sweetly, and seemed interested in everything that she said, but to Elizabeth he did not seem quite happy.
“Forgive me for saying so Colonel, but you do not seem yourself this evening. Are you feeling quite well?” she asked with all innocence.
He looked at her for a few seconds, a smile played across his face, as he once again was looking upon the lovely features that he could not get out of his head for a few weeks now.
“I thank you for asking, Miss Bennet.” He smiled even bigger. “I do think that I am battling with something, but think I have the upper hand.”
Elizabeth looked at him with concern. “I hope that it will be of very short duration. I should be very worried if you suffered, Colonel.”
“Thank you, Miss Bennet. That is most kind. I shall make short work of it for your sake, I promise,” he reassured her.
The evening continued, as did the conversation of their dinner mate. Although John looked at Elizabeth a lot, and not in a way that would in ingratiate himself to her, he paid particular attention to Georgiana, who only blushed and gave no answers to his questions beyond simple, “Yes, Sirs.” Darcy was visibly not pleased with the attentions to his young sister.
After the gentlemen returned from cigars and after dinner drinks, John looked a little pale and said not one more word to Georgiana the rest of the evening. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, looked refreshed and more amused and satisfied than he did at dinner. Elizabeth sighed a little relieved, seeing that he was already feeling better.
Darcy, also looking happier than he was at dinner, crossed the room and joined Elizabeth and Georgiana. After smiling warmly at Georgiana, he turned to Elizabeth.
“Miss Bennet, I have already been able to tell Georgiana how beautiful she looks tonight, but I have not been able to tell you the same. You look lovely, although I am afraid the word does not do you justice.” He smiled sincerely while he spoke and Elizabeth glanced over at Georgiana who was acting as if this was a perfectly normal thing for him to be saying, while she held his arm affectionately.
“I thank you for your compliment, Sir. And you are certainly right about your dear sister.” Elizabeth complimented Georgiana on the color of her gown and how it brought out the blush in her cheeks, but all the while she was wondering about Mr. Darcy. It was obvious that he adored his sister, and Georgiana did not seem afraid of him one bit. She could not make what she saw on the country road match this sweet scene. And she was more confused than ever.
They were interrupted at that moment by Caroline, who took a seat at the pianoforte. She began to play a very busy and complicated piece that was hard to talk over, so they turned their attention to her, and she was granted her wish, for the time being.
The London trip was a success, the wedding clothes were ordered, and many more things bought for Jane’s new life. Elizabeth was surprised how much Jane’s presence affected her, and what a comfort she was. She truly felt what a loss it would be for her when she would no longer be at Longbourn, and they could no longer steal into each other’s room, and share their hearts, and dreams. For now Mr. Bingley had her heart, and her dreams would now be built on his.
Mrs. Gardiner kept Mrs. Bennet busy on their last morning, and Elizabeth was able to take Jane to call on Georgiana. Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam were also there. They only stayed a quarter of an hour, since the carriage was needed back, but it gave Elizabeth a chance to say her goodbyes, as Georgiana would soon be leaving for the north to continue her studies.
Elizabeth and Georgiana shed a few tears, and promised many letters between them and a possible summer visit. Colonel Fitzwilliam was positive that their paths would cross again soon, and Mr. Darcy bowed deeply, and said that he would be coming to Hertfordshire one week before the wedding. He also wished her a safe, and most pleasant journey. Elizabeth was certain that he wanted to say more, and he even opened his mouth, but quickly shut it again, before looking back at his cousin. He smiled graciously at her, but said nothing else.
She was not completely torn, because she knew she would see him soon enough, and this might actually give her a chance to figure out her range of emotions. For she was beginning to feel something. Just the mention of his name in casual conversation, would put her heart at full gallop. And if she happened to glance over at him, and found him already looking at her, she could feel herself melt like wax. Yet the thoughts of his outburst in the carriage and his coldness when they first met, bled into the scene, staining what had been lovely and spotless. She could not dismiss them. So, she looked at him one more time, before he helped her into the carriage, and tried to read his deep eyes and impart something of her own in his. Prove yourself, sir.
And then they left London.
Longbourn seemed a curious place to Elizabeth since her return. Although she had missed Jane and her father, it did not feel like a home to her anymore. It felt more like a stop for her until her journey continued. And it was, actually. She had settled it with Charlotte before Christmas, that she would come up to Kent with Sir William and her sister Maria, in March. She would be home less than a month before she left again.
The wedding approached, and her mother’s nerves took over the house with a vengeance. Elizabeth regularly found solace in her long walks, although Mr. Bennet was now concerned for the first time about her country rambling. She kissed him on the cheek and told him that she would be a measly meal for any great cat, which may have escaped from traveling performers, and then she was off.
On this particular walk, Elizabeth gathered winter lavender. She had a basket full of it, and was making her way up to the road when she recognized Mr. Wickham on foot. He saw her and stopped.
Elizabeth was not happy to see him, as he had been coming around Longbourn again, and too frequently. Apparently, Miss King’s uncle got wind of rumored gambling debts, and took his young niece and her ten thousand pounds away to Ireland. Wickham seemed to have picked up where he had left off with Elizabeth, just as if it was the day after the Netherfield ball. He actually brought up the very ball, and made excuses saying that he had unexpected business to tend to in town, and he very much regretted not being able to stand up with her. He had also heard that she did stand up with Mr. Darcy, and wondered out loud how unpleasant it was for her.
Elizabeth had felt very uncomfortable about his sudden interest in her again. Too much time had passed, and she was certain she was not even the same person she was back in November. She was short with him, and told him that Mr. Darcy was an excellent partner, he was surprisingly light on his feet, and improved greatly upon acquaintance. Wickham seemed surprised, and did not press the issue. He then turned his attention to her youngest sister, much to Elizabeth’s relief.
But here he was again, and she was quite annoyed.
“Miss Bennet! It is a lovely day, is it not?”
She forced herself to smile at his warm greeting. He came closer to her and offered his arm, since she was navigating a small ridge before she reached the road, and she was obviously fatigued.
“It is a lovely day, Mr. Wickham. I thank you.”
She took his arm, and he helped her up and over the ridge and to the good side of the road. Once safe, she let go of his arm and took a few steps away, and caught her breath.
“I am just enjoying a long walk. It is not often that Colonel Forster does not have us jumping at his every whim,” he said as he looked at her basket.
“I see that you have been busy. What fragrant lavender you have found today.” He took a step closer to her, and reached to take one from her basket. He put it under his nose.
“And what a picturesque place Hertfordshire is, Miss Elizabeth. I am certain that I have found myself in one of the most pleasant places in England. Do you not agree with me?” He looked at her teasingly, and she felt more annoyed, and now uncomfortable.
“Certainly. Hertfordshire is quite picturesque,” she answered, while regaining their former distance. “I am just returning to Longbourn now. I’ve been out a long time,” she declared.
“Please let me escort you, Miss Elizabeth. It would be my honor.”
Elizabeth’s ears grew hot. The nerve of him, thinking she would be seen alone on his arm!
“No thank you, Mr. Wickham. I am managing quite well, and I am not yet done with my task,” she explained while she nodded toward her basket.
“But you just said that you are returning to Longbourn.”
“I am. I just am planning on finding more along the way. I would not want to deter you.”
Wickham smiled at her lie. “Miss Elizabeth, I would be more than happy to pick lavender with you, for there is no where else I am supposed to be.”
Elizabeth could feel that she was losing this battle and knew she must change tactics.
“Mr. Wickham, as much as I appreciate the offer, I would rather you go on without me. We live in a small hamlet, and there is nothing more tempting to get the people to talk, than the sight of you and I walking alone together.”
Wickham laughed out loud at this, much to Elizabeth’s surprise.
“I do not care what the good people of Hertfordshire think, Miss Elizabeth. And I am quite surprised that you care, either.”
He took another step toward her and used the flower to touch under her chin. “You are quite independent, and thus impervious to speculations.”
Elizabeth could smell liquor on his breath, and took two steps back from him. She spoke to him very firmly.
“Mr. Wickham, you have no idea who I am, and I beg you to please leave me immediately.”
At that very moment, as Elizabeth’s words sank in, Wickham’s face turned dark. He did not move, but glared at her.
“You mistake me, Elizabeth. I know exactly what you are about.”
She started at hearing her Christian name, and perceived the turn of his countenance.
He continued. “You received my attentions happily before Miss King came along, and now you mean to punish me for letting myself be diverted? You are ten times prettier than Miss King, Elizabeth, but you cannot fault me for looking for a more suitable match. A match made from money. Much like your sister, Jane, made.”
Elizabeth was in high alarm by this time, but was not certain what to do.
“Mr. Wickham, you are far from the truth, believe me--”
Wickham started to walk slowly toward her, interrupting her, and talked with her in a most familiar and inappropriate manner.
“Do not play with me, Elizabeth. I can take many a lady’s game, but I do not think I can bear yours.”
At this, Elizabeth turned and hurried away, a new wave of energy coming over her. But in just a matter of seconds, Wickham was at her side and grabbed her free wrist, pulling her to a stop.
She looked up at him in horror, and tried to free herself. “Mr. Wickham, let go of me this moment!” she cried loudly.
Without waiting for an answer, she swung the basket, which had a hard bottom, and hurled it against his head with her free arm. He released her arm, as she let the basket fall and gained a bit of distance from him. She knew at this point it was useless to run, so she decided that words were her only ally.
Still at full voice, Elizabeth continued. “I do not know what has come over you, Mr. Wickham, but you best be on your way at this moment!” Her breathing was deep, and she tried to hide the fear in her eyes.
Brushing the few leaves and stems that had landed on his shoulder, Wickham smiled once again, but it was sly, calculated smile.
“Do you not see that it is fate? I think of none other than you, Elizabeth. And here you are, like a woodland nymph, gathering flora with the sunlight in your hair. This was meant to be.”
Elizabeth was stunned by his words, and even more so, when he took slow steps toward her.
“Sir, if that is how you feel, then you are going about this in all the wrong ways… Call at Longbourn. You may see me properly then,” she begged.
“You are right.” He looked around. “This is all wrong, but how can I rectify it now? You will never receive me at Longbourn after this. And how could I bear that?”
And with that, he suddenly closed the gap between them and forced his lips hard upon hers, grabbing her waist and pulling her close to him. He then clamped his arms around her back, trapping her arms in his grip.
Wickham got angrier the more Elizabeth resisted. He held her tighter, and tried to force her to respond. Elizabeth fought with all of her strength, and finally broke away, but he held fast to her left wrist. She glared intensely at the smirking man in front of her. She took a deep breath, and managed a substantial slap across his cheek that caused both of them pain.
Wickham reeled with the slap, and let go of her. He leaned over and held his left cheek, while Elizabeth spun around and ran.
Coming around the corner, at that very moment, were two gentlemen on horseback. Elizabeth ran toward them with hot tears in her eyes, holding her right hand within her left. She recognized them immediately, and stopped only when she stood right in front of them, her mind careening.
Bingley and Darcy were coming from calling at Longbourn. Darcy, having arrived just the day before, was keenly disappointed that Elizabeth was out, and was quelling his displeasure when the very person who occupied his mind came running toward them in obvious distress.
Darcy looked at her in astonishment. Beyond her was Mr. Wickham in his red coat, still holding his stinging cheek. And further down, in the middle of the road, was an upset basket of lavender. Darcy dismounted, and was at her side in a moment.
“Miss Bennet, are you alright?” He was all concern and protectiveness.
Elizabeth could not speak, and had a difficult time looking him in the eye. She brushed away a tear, and tried to replace a curl that had come loose. Oh, not him! Please not him! She wanted to disappear. She wanted to wish herself far away.
He lightly held her arm to steady her, and looked her over. He saw that even though her hair was mussed, that her frock was still pressed and in place, and surmised that they had arrived in time. He looked up at Bingley, who was still trying to make sense of the situation.
“Bingley! Stay here with Miss Bennet.” He then trained his eye on Wickham, and strode straight toward him.
Bingley hopped down from his horse and took Elizabeth’s trembling hand. “Miss Elizabeth, have you been harmed? What happened?”
Elizabeth looked over at Darcy, who had already reached Mr. Wickham. Mr. Wickham had straightened up and was readying himself. She looked back at Bingley. She did not know what to say, or how to say it.
“Did Mr. Wickham harm you? Pray, please tell me your troubles, Miss Elizabeth, for we are almost brother and sister!”
Bingley was so sincere in his words, and Elizabeth had always longed for a brother, that she let a sob escape. Bingley awkwardly patted his pockets, and then produced a handkerchief. He then gently put his arm about her protectively, steering her away from viewing the two gentlemen.
“Miss Elizabeth, you must tell me what happened, before Darcy horsewhips Mr. Wickham.” He looked earnestly into her eyes.
Elizabeth wiped her eyes. “Mr. Wickham, would not let me leave. I begged him in earnest, but he…” Elizabeth could not go on, and cried some more. Mr. Bingley, feeling that he heard enough, turned to look toward Darcy and Wickham, but continued to shield Elizabeth.
Darcy stood very close to Mr. Wickham, towering over him. Their voices were low and neither of them moved. Bingley hoped that Darcy would horsewhip the blackguard, or worse! He then turned his attention back to Elizabeth.
“What can I do for you? Please let me know what I can do, Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth could not help but smile a little at his awkward concern. “Mr. Bingley, you have already done enough by just being present. Thank you for your concern. I am very grateful. And I soon shall be myself.” Although she knew better.
At that moment, Darcy joined them. He looked grave, but tried to rally when he saw that Elizabeth was struggling with tears, and that she was now trembling.
His coat was off in a second and wrapped securely around Elizabeth. Darcy supported her weight while she tried to stop her tears and the thoughts that were assaulting her. He exchanged glances with Bingley before he addressed Elizabeth.
“Miss Bennet, Mr. Wickham is gone. He will not be bothering you again, I assure you.”
Elizabeth managed to glance his way. “Thank you, sir.”
Darcy and Bingley exchanged glances again, while Elizabeth made use of the handkerchief.
“Miss Elizabeth, we must get you back to Longbourn directly,” Bingley stated with authority. “For you are not well.”
Elizabeth looked up startled. She sobered and took a step away from Darcy.
“Please, sirs, you must not speak of what happened today. I simply could not bear it,” she begged.
“Miss Bennet, your parents at least, need to know what happened to you,” Mr. Bingley exclaimed.
“Sir, you do not understand. My father might be prevailed upon to keep a cool head, but my mother will not! She will demand that Wickham make restitutions. She will hound my father, and speak of it freely to anyone who has ears. She will have me married off to him in a fortnight! Please, let us just forget all of this. It will be much better for me if it all can be forgotten!”
Elizabeth looked between Bingley and Darcy, and she trembled even more. Bingley looked at her incredulously, but Darcy seemed to have more understanding.
“Miss Bennet, I do understand your fears, believe me, but this man needs to be exposed in some manner,” explained Mr. Darcy gently.
“Please, just do not let it be at my expense. Please sir, do not condemn me to a life with a man who…” She could not find the words. She simply buried her face in her hands.
The gentlemen looked helplessly at each other, and waited for Elizabeth to calm.
“Miss Elizabeth, can you really expect us to do nothing?” Bingley asked.
“I am asking you to do something, Mr. Bingley. Something of great importance to me. Please let me go on with my life. Making this deed known will only mean my ruin. A celibate life would be better than a marriage to a man like that. I beg of you to simply escort me home. Say that you found me almost faint by the road, and leave it at that. Please, Mr. Bingley. Please, Mr. Darcy.”
The gentlemen did not want to distress Elizabeth further, so they gathered her basket and took her home. Darcy placed her gently on his horse, and walked quietly along side. All the while wracking his brain, and playing out scenarios in his head. But mostly, hating himself to the core. He swore to himself. He swore at himself! Elizabeth’s despondent face, her tears, and her trembling body were tearing at his very soul. What had he done? How could he make restitutions? Oh, how Wickham would pay!
There was not much conversation on the way to Longbourn, but Elizabeth’s trembling turned into uncontrollable shivers, alarming both gentlemen. They wanted to pick up the pace to get her home sooner, but were afraid that Elizabeth would not be able to hold on to the reins.
While Elizabeth weakly protested their plan, Darcy gently pulled her off of his horse. Bingley was waiting next to him, and took her from Darcy, supporting her weight. Darcy mounted his horse, and Bingley lifted a still protesting Elizabeth up to him. Darcy wrapped her as tightly as he could in his coat while Bingley mounted his own horse.
Elizabeth continued to tell Mr. Darcy that this was “most unnecessary,” between chatters. That was, until he quoted her own verse to her, and told her that he was the sun today, and that she should not speak against him for it would do no good. She sighed between her shivers and let herself fall into his chest, and resigned herself to it all.
How torn Darcy was. How he wanted to explain everything to her right there. She was tucked up against him, and he was holding her securely, but she was most obviously going into shock. She continued to shiver almost to the point of convulsions, and Darcy held her even tighter, and kept assuring her in the most sympathetic terms that she would soon be home, and would be able to rest comfortably.
And slowly, Elizabeth did stop shivering. His steady breathing calmed hers, and his left arm, which was wrapped tightly around her, warmed her, and drove out the unexplained chill that had overtaken her. She endeavored to not think on what happened to her on the path, but she purposely took note of each sound, every scent, and every movement she experienced. She wanted to remember the way it felt to be held closely by him, to commit to memory his strong arms, his intake of breath against her side, and to burn into her heart the beats she felt and heard against her ear, as they matched her own. For all too soon, they would part. It would be over. It had to be.
Once at Longbourn, although the rest of her was pleading to stay in his arms, Elizabeth’s head knew what had to be done. She asked to be let down to walk under her own power, assuring Darcy that she was quite recovered. Reluctantly, Darcy gently lowered Elizabeth down, set her carefully on the gravel, and without letting her arm go, jumped down after her. She immediately felt the loss of his presence, of his safety, and everything that happened back on the path came back in a rush and overwhelmed her. He studied her, to make sure that she was steady, but her eyes started to fall back into her head, and she started to sway. He immediately swept her up, before she fell backward.
“Darcy! Is she alright?” Bingley cried out.
“She has fainted. Get the door.”
As Bingley rushed off, Darcy leaned in to Elizabeth’s face, as her head bobbed with each step he took.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered, “Forgive me, my love. Forgive me for hurting you over and over again.”
He carried her to the front door where Bingley and a very alarmed, but steady, Jane, awaited.
Darcy brought Elizabeth inside, and followed Jane into the parlor where he placed her gently on a couch, while Mrs. Bennet turned cried out loud at the sight of her lifeless daughter.
Darcy did exactly as Elizabeth wished, and explained calmly that they found her tired and faint by the side of the road, and she had only just lost consciousness. Jane kneeled beside Elizabeth, and touched her forehead. She untied the bonnet that hung down her back, and tried to awaken her sister.
Mrs. Bennet did not disappoint, and made the expected scene, already having the entire household in uproar. She had servants rush around getting cold compresses, hot tealeaves, and smelling salts. Kitty was crying into her father’s chest, Mary was praying in the corner, and Lydia made a mental note of yet another way she could gain attention. Mrs. Bennet apologized profusely to the gentlemen, and explained that Elizabeth had been a very troublesome creature as of late, and prayed that she did not ruin their day.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth’s eyes opened, and not long after that, she sat up. She was mortified that she had actually fainted, and even more so because Darcy and Bingley were still there. But she was put more at ease when the story that she had asked to be related, was repeated to others, who now joined them in the room. Elizabeth did not dare look at Darcy. She could not bear it.
She had what she set out to get. And from this point on, she would pull from her private remembrances of the horse ride home.
After making sure Elizabeth was well enough, the gentlemen took their leave. Elizabeth could hear the hooves against the gravel, and listened intently until she could hear no more. And the subsequent ache that pierced her, that cut her to her very core, did not cease.
With the Gardiner’s back at Longbourn for the wedding, Elizabeth and Jane shared a room. And since the wedding was only four days away, Elizabeth did not want to distress her sister with the intelligence of what had truly transpired. She had developed a real headache from her tears and mortification, and therefore, successfully hid the truth.
As she lay next to her sleeping sister, Elizabeth could see Wickham’s sudden turn of countenance. She could hear his alarming words echoing in her head, and could feel his tense body and angry lips on hers. She was ruined. She was ruined. Her mind could reconcile nothing else. Her head continued to pound, and she fell into a troubled sleep.
The wedding was everything that Jane had hoped for, save her mother, who could not stop speaking of Jane’s new income, and how she would have such fine clothes, carriages, and hundreds in pin money. Elizabeth was happy for Jane, yet so miserable at the same time.
Mr. Darcy was everywhere. He stood up with his friend, as Elizabeth stood up with Jane. They were thrown together with all of the pre-wedding and wedding festivities. She wanted nothing more than to be away from his knowing looks. Even though he was nothing but kind and gentleman-like, he knew. He knew what had happened. And she knew that she could never be anything in his eyes now. And she was angry with herself, for even thinking she could have been anything in the first place.
The moment Jane and Bingley pulled away in their carriage, Elizabeth found her way up to her room. No more Jane. No more sanity. It was almost unbearable. Elizabeth clung to the fact that she would be leaving in two days time. She would be going to visit Charlotte, now Mrs. Collins, at her new home in Kent. She did not care that she would be exposed to Mr. Collins. His silliness seemed nothing, compared to what she had experienced since the day he proposed. That was a lifetime ago. All she cared about was putting miles and miles between her, and anything that reminded her of the meeting with Mr. Wickham.