"Good morning, ma'am," Mary said, pulling aside the drapes. Sunlight flooded the room, and Elizabeth-sometime an early riser-dug herself deeply into the covers. She felt indolent, languid. Yesterday, she had bested her husband in a game of pall-mall, annihilating and embarrassing him. He had laughed and bowed to her, admitting his defeat. She had felt foolishly victorious, though she knew it was a mere game-but now she was tired, as if she would sleep the rest of the day.
She forced herself upright in bed, stretching. It would not do to idle about for much longer. A day was unfolding before her-her duties of a Mistress, a planned visit to an ill tenant, spending time with Mr. Darcy, walking with Georgiana...and with her husband. Her days of late had been so full; she had hardly a moment to herself. But she wanted it this way, she almost liked it. The responsibility suited her nature fine, and the bustle prevented her from thinking too much. The only time left for reflection was her bedtime-and by then, she was normally so tired that sleep whisked her away in moments. The life of the Mistress of Pemberley.
"Found this by your door, ma'am." Mary laid a thin stack of paper upon Elizabeth's covers. Tied neatly with a pink silk ribbon, with a single stem of ivy stuck under the bow. Fingers awkward, Elizabeth frowned as she undid the ribbon. Haydn, Sonatas. The sheets feathered across her lap, a folded note fell out, in a man's precise, sharp, elegant hand. Learn these for me. Nothing else, no signature, trusting that the origin of the gift would be easy to hazard. Not even a please, an imperious order, knowing that she would obey. Suddenly, she felt moved and teary, and looked away in panic, lest the maid think her completely maudlin. Her hands caressed, instinctively, the sheets of music in her lap. She drew the silk of the ribbon between her fingers, twirled the stem of ivy like a little green fan.
Peeking over her shoulder, Mary said nonchalantly:
"Pardon?" Elizabeth looked up, quickly, folded her hand over the note.
"I daresay ivy means friendship, ma'am."
"How do you know?" In her startlement, Elizabeth forgot to be angry with the presumptuous girl. Imagine that, she thought, bemused and charmed, the language of flowers. She had not thought on it, thinking that the stem of ivy was there for decorative purposes only.
Mary shrugged demurely. "A lady's maid knows such things."
"I beg your pardon!" Elizabeth pointed out crossly. "A lady's maid answers her mistress' questions!" It seemed both shocking and obvious that he would tease her so, that he would imply meaning to his gift. But of course. His own words:come, let us be friends while this marriage lasts.
Upon being pressed a tad further, Mary did disclose that a year ago, she had discovered in the attic, amidst myriad old forgotten things, a stack of fashion quarterlies, ordered no doubt by the late Lady Anne, with fashions quaint and outmoded by a good twenty years... but with many a useful tidbit. Including, apparently, the language of flowers.
"I do know to read a little, ma'am," she added with an expression of insulted dignity.
For a moment, Elizabeth regretted that her education had included none of the more delicate female points. It seemed wicked and gallant, to read meaning into each flower-even if that meaning was merely friendship.
Thoughtfully, she twirled the green stem some more in her fingers. He was offering her his friendship. They had said as much, and yet they were as far from true friends as possible. Perhaps, to her, friends simply meant not enemies. She had to wonder about his version of it. Clearly, it was more than simple indifference. Lately, every time he made a move in her direction, she found herself stunned by his courtesy and kindness, little gestures of care and goodwill, such very gentle teasing. She had never expected it from him; indeed, she would have been content to be left alone. Indifference was what she craved. But it seemed that he was going out of his way to make himself agreeable to her. She touched the pink ribbon again. Did one devote such effort and energy to people who were simply not enemies?
Such ways of thinking unnerved her-mostly because she was deeply unsure whether she wanted to be in this place. Was it politic, was it sensible of her, to accept gifts from him? Even gifts of so small a value-that nonetheless evidenced so much attention. He could have simply given her the sheets, there was no need in all this intrigue-the stem of ivy, the pink ribbon. Leaving them by her door like a secret admirer. Even worse, she thought-was it wise to let his thoughtfulness touch and delight her? After all, what she should be is vexed. She would lose this when Mr. Darcy passed away. It was easy for him to declare friendship while they lived in the same house, as means of keeping peace with her. But would it he remembered it when they parted? Would he still be her friend?
Why set her heart over for an inevitable disappointment? It would do her no good to get attached
But then, Elizabeth thought: why? Why be vexed at him for giving her a gift? Why think on the future, why dwell on it? She had learned well enough she had no way of controlling it-whatever plans she made, someone-somewhere-would decide for her. She had berated Darcy before for behaving unlike a gentleman... but how could she fail to accept this with grace and remain a lady?
For this was all it was; a gift. A gift of music, a gift of friendship, the camaraderie of their shared unhappiness. He had nothing by which to profit from her... there was not, there could not be, an ulterior motive in this. Except this: the imperious little order, learn these for me. He wanted her to have the music she liked. It was so strange, to have something, from him, to know that he wanted her to enjoy something, that he wanted her to be happy, if only in something this small. A wave of gratification and surprise flooded her heart, then her eyes.
She approached him, just before breakfast, and thanked him with all sincerity. They were alone in the breakfast room, and he stared up from his seat at her, smiling just a little.
"Madam," he said. "I am glad to have pleased your fancy. Will you learn them for me?"
"Your forfeit," she said, looking down at him. He shook his head, slowly, still smiling his sly smile.
"No," he said. "I do not choose to use it. I think you would learn the sonatas if for yourself only."
"You know me too well. There is nothing for me like Haydn. I feel my hands are afire when I play his music."
She dropped the stem of ivy onto Darcy's plate; thereupon, her knees quaking, she turned and walked back to her seat. Darcy started, looking at the ivy.
"Mrs. Darcy!" he called after her. "Elizabeth! Does this mean that you accept?"
She was spared the necessity of an answer by the arrival of Georgiana and Miss Lucas; she fled the breakfast room immediately after breakfast, having barely set down her fork. Leaving Darcy to hazard whether her action was an acceptance of his friendship or a gauntlet thrown.
Busily, the household prepared for the annual Tenants' Ball, to be held the Saturday after Michaelmas. Elizabeth had reconciled herself to the thought that she would not be able to spend the duration of the ball in her room. Her position as the Mistress simply would not allow it; nor, she suspected, would her husband.
"But I shall not dance," she warned him. "You cannot make me dance with you."
He rolled his eyes at her. "Nor should I attempt that! What do you think me, Elizabeth? There will be pretty ladies a-plenty to stand up with!"
"Farmers' daughters, for you!" She was astonished at that, and a little-unexpectedly-hurt. She had expected him to argue with her, to insist upon them standing up together. It bothered her-more than she cared to admit-that he gave up so easily. Never mind that her dancing skills were but rudimentary.
"And what have you against farmers' daughters?" demanded Darcy with genuine surprise.
"Me? Nothing." She shrugged, suddenly deeply embarrassed by her girl's fancy. Whatever had possessed her to think he would want to stand up with her at all? Her surprise had made her sound too haughty by half, and she was hardly that. Uneasily, she tried for an explanation: "Only that I imagine it would be a great punishment to you to stand up with any of them."
"This only shows how little you know me." He grimaced, frowning. "I am not asking you to stand up with me, madam. Just be there. In the eyes of the people on this estate, I am married. Therefore, I must have my wife next to me."
Indeed, Elizabeth realized, they needs must appear before the entire population of the estate as a couple. Young as she was, she knew what she was to them: a guarantee of their future prosperity. The young Master was now married; sooner or later, there would be an heir, making it less likely that the estate could be entailed away to a distant relative, or-God forbid-sold. There would be stability and prosperity, for years to come.
And howbeit she resented the view of herself as a brood mare, Elizabeth had, nonetheless, a slight discomfort of guilt. For she would disappoint them all, and soon.
Mr. Darcy, though hardly recovered compleatly (as perhaps he never would), told them all that he felt well enough to appear at the Ball. His legs would not hold him, would not move; and so, upon Darcy's orders, a special chair on wheels was fashioned by a local man in Lambton. Elizabeth attempted to push Mr. Darcy in the chair and failed dismally, for it was too massive for her to move more than a few feet. But one way or another, her father-in-law would be present at the Tenants' Ball. The thought gladdened Elizabeth: for she could not be but pleased that he was better-and she liked the thought of being able to hide behind his great presence well enough. Perhaps, all eyes would not be on her, after all.
"Sixteenth of July 1807, Madras, India.
Dearest Bess. I have received your latest letter, telling me of the goings-on at Pemberley, but yesterday. I am writing to you forthwith. I do so wish you were not so far away from me, dear sis.
I am very glad that you like Pemberley so well. It would make it just so much more difficult to know that you are unhappy in my absence, wherever you are. Mrs. Reynolds sounds every bit as formidable as I remember her. And I have never doubted, for a moment, that a Longbourn cat would know how to catch mice with the best of them. Give my regards and my thanks to Mr. Darcy for keeping you so well."
Curled up in her window-seat, Elizabeth sighed. She knew who he had meant by Mr. Darcy. Indeed, in her letters to him, she had not mentioned Fitzwilliam Darcy's name-not until she had written that she had married him.
"I am doing very well, myself. Presently, we are stationed at Arcot. I am writing to you on the heels of a great confrontation, some miles away at Vellore. I trust that by the time my letter reaches you, you will have read of it in the papers. A fortnight ago, we were summoned to Vellore-which is some miles away-to aid the waylaid 69th of Foot. The Sepoys had mutinied and attacked the hospital, massacring the British sick at the local hospital and doing some damage to our barracks. It was by sheer miracle that they had not attacked the fort, from whence a soldier rode to Arcot, to appraise us of the great violence that had occurred."
She did know of it-had read it in the newssheets a mere week ago. At first, it had bound her in mute mindless terror-until she had forced herself to calm down and search for the names of all the fallen officers from the 19th Light-and was relieved, indescribably, to not find Jamie amongst them.
"One of our men, a lieutenant by the name of Gillespie, climbed the wall with the aid of a rope and a sergeant's sash which was lowered to him, and lead the men of the 69th in a bayonet-attack. The gates of the garrison were blown open, and the rest of us charged forth..."
Elizabeth knew all that was to follow; the newspapers had talked about it ad nauseam, some pointing fingers for the ensuing massacre, some doing their hardest to acquit the British soldiers who had slaughtered every Sepoy in their way. She banished such information, such thoughts: Jamie was at war, at war in a strange, dangerous land. It did her no good to wonder whether he was right to do what he did. He was, as Mr. Darcy had once said, an Army man.
"If you pardon me, ma'am."
She looked up, quickly folding the letter on her knee, Mary, wringing her hands in obvious distress.
"Ma'am, 'tis your cat. He is up a tree, the big horse chestnut on the back lawn, and he cannot get down!"
Elizabeth stood, staring glumly up and into the crown of a massive horse chestnut, just behind the house. It was the middle of September, and the leaves had already begun to turn orange... an unfortunate circumstance, when one is trying to locate an orange cat on the branch of the said tree.
"What see you in there, Madam?"
Elizabeth spun around to see her husband, come back after a morning ride. Oh, his habit of sneaking up on her... she liked it exceedingly ill.
"Are you trying to scout out a particularly excellent chestnut?" He was smiling at her, eyes merry.
"I am trying to scout out my cat," Elizabeth said grimly. "He has chased a squirrel up a tree... and is afraid to come down now." She thought for a moment, and added, for good measure. "I think."
"You think?" He cocked one eyebrow at her. "You mean to say you do not know if the animal is there?"
"No-I mean to say that I am uncertain-deeply uncertain-that Cat is really afraid, and not simply bent on ignoring and torturing me."
For a moment, he looked as if he would say something... caustic; but the instant passed, and he laughed and shook his head.
"Perhaps if you were to go away-and take all those people with you-" He nodded in the direction of three maids, two footmen and his own sister, all crowded around the tree in a futile enterprise to sweet-talk Cat into coming down the tree. "-It might just descend?" He smirked. "You might as well have them beat lead pipes at casserole dishes, so much noise they produce..."
"Well..." It seemed like a reasonable idea, and so she hesitated.
"Elizabeth, would you not rather walk out with Georgie and me?"
"Very well," she agreed. "But I shall leave one person here, by the tree... to watch."
Darcy shrugged. "If you wish so. If you think that people in this house have nothing better to do than to watch after your cat." But Elizabeth cast him a mutinous glance, letting him know that if he disallowed her that, she would stay the watch herself.
Thereupon, a footman volunteered... for it was not a bad pastime to spend an hour or so under a shady chestnut, waiting for a capricious feline to climb down the tree.
But an hour later, come back from their promenade, Elizabeth was sadly disappointed-the footman was there still. He reported that he could occasionally see the carrot-hued beast pass above him on the branch, clearly seeking the way to get down and not finding it.
Elizabeth, vexed and worried and frustrated, spun about on one spot, tried to call to the cat, tried to beckon it with a piece of fresh meat and a little saucer of cream. But to no avail; very soon, it became obvious to all that Cat wished to come down, but could not do so, suddenly awkward and fearful when looking down. Despaired of his safe descent, Elizabeth looked the tree up and down, sizing it up, wondering whether she could...
"Oh no," she heard and turned to see her husband staring at her indignantly. "Tell me you are not thinking what I think you are thinking-"
"What else am I to do?" Elizabeth demanded.
"Naturally!" Darcy said, glaring at her. He sounded exasperated. "You are to climb a tree! By far the most reasonable suggestion I have had of you, madam."
Elizabeth shrugged, unhappily. "I cannot leave him up there to starve."
He glared at her again. Because he did it so often, she had begun to tell the different types of glares-the glare inquisitive; the glare hurt; the glare that she could not always tell-and this one, this one, she was fairly certain-this one was the glare angry. Irate, even. As if she was a child with mush for brains. She did not like it one bit when he looked at her like that.
Thereupon, he did something that astonished her. He took off his coat.
"No!" Elizabeth protested. "I cannot have you climb a tree-"
"You are not having me do anything, madam." He went around a tree, seeking a better approach; Elizabeth followed, close on his heels. "I shall climb the demmed tree if only as a way to get you to take lunch already!"
"But-" She sought the right words, but she was too flustered-and instead she said: "But would you ever forgive such an insult to your dignity?"
He scoffed at her, openly, and sat down to remove his boots. Elizabeth closed her eyes in mortification.
"But why-why not send a footman?" she begged. He set his boots to the side, neatly, and rose to his feet.
"Because I am not accustomed to have my men take stupid risks for my lady's pleasure." He bowed to her, half-mockingly. "I find the burden is on me."
Thereupon, he jumped up, grasping a branch that was not quite low-hanging, then climbing up on it, eliciting a gasp from Elizabeth and Georgiana both. Elizabeth's position was made even worse by the fact that Georgiana chose that moment to point out in a tremulous voice that should her brother fall, he would surely come to great harm. Elizabeth had never before been so tempted to urge anyone into silence with extreme rudeness... but she found it was best to keep silent.
By that time, a sizeable group of people had gathered under the chestnut. It included Mrs. Reynolds, who, Elizabeth felt, eyed her with great disapproval. Indeed, not unlike a woman who would let her husband come to harm over a dumb beast. Elizabeth dug her nails into her palms. Indeed! The last thing she wanted was for him to hurt himself. Her maneuver around the tree had not been a hint for him to take over-she had truly intended to climb that tree herself (faith, she had climbed taller ones as a child, and that was but a few years ago!). She gritted her teeth. His recent determination to play at chivalry galled her terribly. Friendship, she thought, so much for that. Did friends behave like so?
Did they say strange maudlin things like for my lady's pleasure?
He was high above them, now, balancing on a branch so tall that all they saw of him, really, were his legs. Still, his every move was accompanied by a collective gasp! from the women. Elizabeth found it all most vexing. She had half a mind to walk away, but the essential notion of fairness forbade it. If he wanted to risk his life for her cat... the least she could do was stay and watch him do it.
They heard, rather saw, him reach Cat on the branch, telling by the scandalized wail emanating from the above, that the animal did not wish be reached, touched or picked up. Elizabeth had to credit that its nerves had been all but shredded by the last two hours-but she was terrified that so would be her husband's face. She felt a barrage of accusatory glances from all sides-as if it was her fault that Cat was so very ungrateful when the young Master had risked his life to save him.
They waited, all of them holding their collective breath. Elizabeth had to admit: however angry she was at her husband, she felt all the worry in the world at the thought of him negotiating the tree with the furious animal, however small, in his arms. She knew, from her own bitter experience, that even the smallest cat could be a formidable adversary when displeased. Georgiana, at her side, clasped her hands in fearful attention.
He appeared, soon enough, climbing down to a lower branch, to the accompaniment of Cat's fearsome wailing and caterwauling. His object seemed only to keep the animal secured long enough to bring it down to a manageable height... but even that was an impossible task. Cat howled and growled and spit and hissed and made it very evident that it would inflict some damage soon as it could. Finally, he had climbed low enough to attempt to release the animal. Crouching awkwardly on the branch, he held on to the trunk with one hand.
With the other, he reached around, meaning to set Cat-that had attached itself firmly to his shoulders-on the branch, so that it might climb down from a safer distance. A misguided attempt. Elizabeth could have told him it would not work.
In the very next moment, the spectators below were treated to the fantastic sight of the younger Master-brother, husband-being knocked off the branch by a furious cat. Perhaps seizing it by the scruff of his neck was a mistake; it was hard to tell. In an instant, Cat turned into one orange fireball of legs and claws; Darcy struggled to contain him but for a moment, at the same time trying desperately to protect his face from its claws. Thereupon, the branch low enough to allow him to lend on all fours, Cat twisted its way out of Darcy's hold and jumped. Like a little fiery-red lightning, it streaked through the grass and was gone. The man on the branch was not so fortunate: having let go of the trunk to shield his face, he had momentarily lost his balance on the branch and-even as Cat had landed comfortably on his four paws-fell, squarely and indecorously, on his back.
Georgiana shrieked and dashed forward, falling on her knees by his form, prostrate on the ground. Luckily, prostrate only for a moment. In the next instance, Darcy sat up with a groan; he sounded more angry than pained, Elizabeth thought. Very soon, the rest of the spectators around them cluttered around the young Master, obscuring her view of him. She stood, as if petrified, her cheeks flaming with humiliation. She heard Georgiana, weeping hysterically, and a disrespectful soubriquet dropped by one of the footmen with regards to Cat-as well as a suggestion for using the animal's hide for a muff to give his sweetheart. She could hardly be angrier with anyone than she was with herself.
Finally, she found it in herself to push her way through the circle of people around Darcy. He was sitting up now-but what a pitiful picture he presented! His face was badly scratched and bleeding, as was his neck. His waistcoat was torn on the shoulder, and the sleeve of his shirt was in bloody shreds. Every movement seemed to pain him, and he answered Mrs. Reynolds' inquiry of his well-being with an evil glare.
Elizabeth's appearance at his side caused all to stop talking. In the silence-punctured only by Georgiana's whimpers, now quieter-she knelt at his side.
"Oh Lord," she said. She knew she ought to feel grateful, but she could not bring herself to be. Faith, she would have managed it better herself! In his strange attempt at gallantry, he had well-nigh crippled himself. Lord knows what he had broken in his fall!
He was bleeding quite badly out of the cut on his face, and she took out her handkerchief. He took it from her without a word, putting it against the scratch.
"He almost took out your eye," Elizabeth said. The realization that he could have been crippled, indeed, blinded, sunk in, making her ill, choking her that she knew she would cry. How stupid it all was. How stupid, stupid, stupid. "Why do you insist on making such a fool out of yourself?" she demanded hotly. She caught herself in the next moment, but it was too late.
A kind of collective sigh rustled through the rows of people around them. Darcy winced, as if her words had been a public slap. As he scrambled up to his feet, he remained dark and miserable in the face. Leaning, he grabbed his boots from the side of the tree, but did not put them on.
"Come, Georgiana," he said, turning, and hobbled pitifully towards the house in stockinged feet, his sister scurrying after him, throwing a pitiful glance behind her. Elizabeth stood still, biting her lips as hard as she could bear. She knew her folly, and it was worse than ever before. She had insulted him. Worse, she had humiliated him, publicly-in front of his servants and his sister.
The throngs of servants trudged back to the house-the spectacle was over, it was now time to make themselves useful. Their mistress was left to stand in their wake, feeling the worst, most ungrateful, shrew in the land.
Elizabeth sulked in her room for hours, until, finally, she found she could bear it no longer. Could she simply go on, pretending that nothing had happened? She had wounded his pride, having shown him-her husband, her Master in the eyes of the estate-such utter disrespect. He would not simply forgive her.
Worst of all, she felt-she knew-he had not deserved that. She had been ungrateful-however stupidly he had risked his life, Cat was now alive and safe.
She had been in the wrong, she had to go to him, had to beg his forgiveness.
Having made her way to Darcy's apartments in a huff, she knocked on his door-quickly, before she could change her mind. His man, Mr. Cassidy, answered.
"The Master is resting," he informed her, his countenance as welcoming as a turret of an old castle. Elizabeth, though not expecting any goodwill from anybody in the house, did nonetheless take exception to being spoken in such a way by a valet. She affected her Mistress of Pemberley persona-one that was new and foreign to her, but, she found, occasionally rather useful.
"Well, I shall not disturb him for long," she said haughtily and brushed by the man. She knew he would not dare prevent her from entering.
To her surprise, Darcy was not in his bedroom, nor was he in the small ante-room that served as a study and a sitting-room at the same time. Having checked there, she turned around-only to see him walking into the bedroom from his dressing-room.
Still wet from his bath, and wearing, of all things, a large towel around his hips.
Mortified ever further-which had seemed to her an impossibility a mere moment ago-she twirled away from him, instinctively putting a hand over her eyes.
"Elizabeth?" he sounded surprised, concerned. She heard him circle her; he must be standing before her now. "What are you doing in my bedchamber? Would you stop playing a child and take your hand away? Elizabeth," he said sharply, "look at me!"
She opened her eyes, feeling her face, her neck, her collarbones on fire. There was no place for her to hide her eyes. She had no wish to see his nakedness, the span of his shoulders and the lean, long lines of his body, the roll of muscle, and the color of his skin, and all that hair-on his arms, his legs, his chest, and a dark downy line of hair down his stomach, disappearing beneath the towel. Luckily, there were plenty of other things for her to look at-for one, vicious red gouges on his neck and shoulders. And the scar that Jamie had left on him-an angry red cicatrix, a circle of puckered flesh at the top of his arm, the size of a gold sovereign. She surveyed the damage, feeling her sympathy for him overcome her embarrassment.
"Cat really did do a job on you," she said unhappily. "May I see your back?"
Darcy turned, slowly, leaving her to gasp at the large, mean, blue-and-black bruise near a shoulder-blade. The back of his shoulders sported the same deep bloody gouges as his front, marking the spots where Cat had held on for dear life.
"You should see the rest of me," he said wryly and tugged suggestively at the edge of his towel. Elizabeth gasped and he seemed to understand the line he had crossed. She had never seen him blush with embarrassment before. "Forgive me-this was tasteless just now."
"What must you think of me coming here!" The stubborn red heat in her face simply would not subside.
"Nothing," he murmured, and then, as if he could not help himself, "But even that is a better opinion than you have of me."
Elizabeth faltered. "No, I-" she started. This was so much worse than she could have imagined. She had fancied-had hoped-that he would forgive her easily, that he would be as laid-back and forthcoming as he had been so far. But no such luck. She could not begrudge him that: she did not deserve to be forgiven easily.
He walked over to the bed. His manner of walking, the strong lines of his body, the economy of his movement drew her eyes where she did not want to look. The mattress dipped under his weight as he sat down. "Elizabeth, would you be so kind-Reynolds left some salve-" He twisted across the bed, reaching over to take a small jar from the night stand, holding his towel in place with one hand. "Since you have displaced Cassidy-" He held the jar out to her. "Please."
A peculiar, disheartening tremor set in her knees, even as she walked unsteadily over to the bed. Their fingers touched as she took the jar of salve from him. He sat quietly, leaning back on his arms, eyes closed, shoulders squared. There was a linen napkin on the night stand, which she dipped carefully into the salve. Her hand was shaking and her touch-indelicate. He winced, scowling at her with his eyes closed.
"I am sorry," she whispered, trying to gentle her movements. He rolled his head, relaxing his neck. A quick frown crossed his features, then disappeared as he relaxed again. She drew the napkin carefully along a swollen red gouge that ran down his neck, drew a long sigh from his lips. "Lean forward," she murmured, turning her attention to his back, even as he slumped forward, elbows on his knees. The bruise near his shoulder-blade looked fearsome. She skirted the edge of it, hoping she did not make it worse.
Then, she was done.
"Thank you." He opened his eyes, watching her keenly as she replaced the jar of salve on the nightstand and stood back. His gaze was dark on her, intense as ever, but unusually cold. He had not looked at her like that... in weeks, not since before they were married. An awkward silence hung between them like a cobweb in the corner.
"Mr. Darcy," she said, steeling herself. "I have come to apologize. I should not have spoken to you that way."
"No," he agreed. "You should not have."
"I did not mean-"
"-to insult me before the entire household?" He manner of speaking was harsh, crisp, angry, biting off his words. "No, madam. You do not mean, you never mean, and yet, somehow, without meaning, you say the most outrageous things!"
Her face glowing with shame, she bowed her head and listened. "You have often accused me of unkindness towards you-but often you forget that you owe me an equal duty of respect. Perhaps," he added gravely, "an even greater one. I am your husband-and if you and I know that our relationship is but temporary, nobody else does! Every time you insult me in front of other people, they lose a modicum of respect. For me, and for you."
"You are not fair-minded, sir!" she said bitterly. "When you apologized, I forgave you!"
"You, forgave me?!" he cried, seemingly outraged. "You still hold on to your childhood grudge against me!"
Losing all composure, Elizabeth spun around and strode across the room.
"Are you angry with me for what I have said-or because I did not forgive you easily enough?"
He said, affecting a mien of superior coldness, one that, Elizabeth suspected, he had perfected over the years.
"You are quite mistaken on this account, ma'am. I am not angry with you. You want my forgiveness, you may have it."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the self-righteousness in his tone.
"If I have been angry with you, sir, it was not without a reason-you have once been unkind to me!"
He shrugged and said bitterly:
"I understand that in your world, Elizabeth, offense is a best defense. However," he added, voice rising, "you cannot very well play the victim anymore! If ever I was unkind to you, you have since repaid me with interest!"
The brittle, hurt edge in his voice astounded her. "I-I am sorry," she murmured, moved. "I do not deny it."
"You are very good not to!" He snarled at her, quickly rising to his feet, striding away from her. With his back to her, she saw him adjust the towel around his waist, pulling it in tighter to keep it from falling. She was, suddenly, mortifyingly, aware of the impropriety of their situation. Turning on her heel, she fled his bedchamber.
Trying-though not succeeding-to put this fine little fiasco out of her mind, Elizabeth stopped by the library, blindly plucked a book from the shelf. She saw it was Shakespeare's Sonnets. She was not in much mood for poetry, but she was inclined even less to spend a long time picking a book. She yearned for the seclusion of the gardens, where mayhap she would forget it all.
Some hours later, Elizabeth was sitting on a large garden swing, the Shakespeare in her lap. She had made little headway in the last hour, having stared at the same page dully, her thoughts returning, unwanted, to the scene under the chestnut and in Darcy's bedchamber. The more she thought of it, the uglier her own behavior seemed.
Somehow, without meaning, you say the most outrageous things.
Elizabeth sighed, and shivered uncomfortably, and turned the page-merely to turn it, for she could not focus on the next one any better. Was it true? Was she really so heedless of others' feelings, so insensitive with her careless, damaging words? Surely it had not been her intent to offend him-and yet she had, and she was at a loss now, not knowing how to make up for it.
"You will ruin both your eyes and your posture this way," a voice said next to her.
Startled, she jerked, looked up, dropped her book. Momentarily, Darcy went down on one knee to gather it from the grass.
Elizabeth blushed, furiously. "You really need not-" She took the book from his hands, their fingertips touching briefly. He was fully dressed, the damage Cat had done hidden under the elegant, handsome clothing, under the crisp white linen at his throat.
"Ah, well." He rose to his feet, and she moved aside unconsciously, allowing him to sit down next to her. "It seems I cannot let go of the oddest notion-that you are a lady and that I might behave a gentleman with you. Even though it makes me a fool in your eyes."
"I am sorry," she said, in unhappy honesty. "I am mortified, truly. I do not mean to be like so. I do not know why this happens!"
Darcy tipped his head back, closing his eyes, offering his face to the warm September sun. The long mark on his cheekbone looked better, she thought, but far from well. It was true: Cat had nearly blinded him. She shuddered at the thought.
"Elizabeth, I fancy myself a liberal-minded man." He spoke slowly, measuring each word. "I should like to know your opinion about my person. If you think me a fool, tell me so. I should welcome it-honestly." He opened his eyes and looked at her, pointedly. "Just not in the presence of my sister and all our domestics."
Elizabeth caught a wry note in his voice and sighed with relief. So he did forgive her. Perhaps he was fair-minded and forbearing, indeed. Perhaps more than she, herself, was.
"Lesson learned," she said, unable to contain a silly grin. "Next time I think you a fool, Mr. Darcy, I shall request a private audience. Will tomorrow morning do? Or should I apply to Mr. Cassidy for a better time?"
He laughed openly at her impudence. "Only if you grant me the right to tell you when I think you a stubborn little fool, Elizabeth."
"Let us shake hands on it, sir," she said gravely, half-turning to him, offering her hand. Darcy took it, but instead of shaking it, he brought it to his lips. Elizabeth's breath caught and she stared back, lost in his eyes as he held her gaze over her hand. His eyes-they had in them everything luxurious and forbidden, everything she did not know she desired. Then, her heart fell-why, why look at her like so? She gently pulled her hand away.
"I never thanked you for saving Cat," she said, awkwardly, changing the subject in a hurry to banish the memory of his stare. "So... thank you."
"Well, I know that you are fond of the nasty little beast. I could not quite let him-it is a he, is it not?-starve to death up there. Though, having made it down two branches with him in tow, I was very much of a mind to simply toss him down and be done with him. Miserable cur."
Elizabeth laughed giddily, for she knew he would have done no such thing. She did not know why, but she was certain of it. A thought occurred to her, startling: he was too kind.
Darcy rose from the swing and took the book out of her hands. Surprised, she allowed him to do that without protest. "Shall I rock you?" Without waiting for her answer, he leaned, setting the book in the grass, then rose and grasped a side of the swing. "Hold on fast, Elizabeth."
Tipping her head back, she watched the sky careen past her. Darcy pulled the swing back, as far as it could go, then released it. The sky rushed back in a dizzying sway. Elizabeth laughed and stretched out her feet, keeping them up and away from the ground. A jubilant feeling took hold of her, the angle of the brilliant blue and the gilt-edge woods growing deeper and deeper with every swing. She heard herself laugh giddily, heard him laugh as well.
When he stopped, she pushed her feet against the ground, keeping the swing up.
"More!" Her face, her heart burned, exhilarated.
Laughing openly, he swept her a graceful obeisance. "Madam," he said, "your word is my command."
Later, she had to beg for him to stop. Her head felt as if it would never cease spinning, and the world was tipping around her. They sat next to each other in easy comfort, and she told him, still laughing, that Jamie would rock her on the swing when she was a child at Trinity.
"I know," Darcy said. "I remember him doing just that."
The mention of her brother should have, by all rights, ruined the fragile harmony of the afternoon... but it seemed that nothing could. Elizabeth had reconciled herself with the knowledge that Darcy had loved Jamie, too, once; he had admitted to her, humbling himself, that he missed her brother, his dear friend-and that he regretted, more than words could say, all that had passed between them. She had learned, over the short time of their marriage, not to begrudge him that old friendship.
On an impulse, she showed him Jamie's letter. She watched his face carefully as he took the letter from her. He read it in silence. The moment, suspended in the lovely warm afternoon, seemed a thousand years away from any cares or heartache. Elizabeth leaned her head against the thick rope of the swing, closed her eyes, felt the sunlight on her face.
"Does he write to you often?"
Elizabeth opened her eyes. He was holding the letter out to her, folded neatly. Taking it from him, she slid it beneath her stays, next to her skin.
"Not as often as I should like him to write," she said honestly. "But I suppose it cannot be helped. The distance is-" she sighed. "Simply too much."
"How does he fare? It seems the Army life suits him." Darcy was sitting with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward, not looking at her.
"I do not know," Elizabeth said. "I do not know. He would never let on if it did not."
"I confess, I can hardly imagine him taking orders from anyone." Darcy gave a small surprised laugh. "Or giving them, for that matter."
"And yet, I am certain he does what he must."
In a pause that ensued, he leaned forward, plucking a blade of grass. He chewed upon it absent-mindedly, staring at his boots, their high polish marred slightly by grass stains, earth stains. Elizabeth watched him out of the corner of her eye.
"Does he think to sell out?"
"He could not," she replied, miserably. "Why, you have just read his letter yourself! And in the papers, you must have read, I trust-the 19th Light is our only hope there. Without them, the sepoys would overrun the British contingent in days. My brother is a lieutenant, an officer.. How could he simply abandon his post?"
He turned to her, looking surprised: "You speak like such an adult-I am most impressed, madam."
Elizabeth shrugged. Wouldst that she felt like an adult. "When I cried after Jamie, your father told me that he was an Army man. And so he is. I do better if I reconcile myself to the thought that he has a duty. He owes a debt to his King and country."
"Indubitably-but he owes a debt to you, as well. If I knew that I had a younger sister living with strangers-"
The accord between them shattered, instantly, at his words. Furiously, she jumped from her seat, striding away from him. How dare he, how dare he judge Jamie! Who did he think he was?
He caught up with her, caught her by the arm, turned her roughly around.
"Elizabeth, Elizabeth, I am sorry," he repeated earnestly, pulling her into a quick embrace, holding her tightly against himself. She railed at him, pushed and pummeled him with her fists, none of it to any avail. "Forgive me, I should not have said that."
Finally, he weakened his embrace, and she pushed away from him. "You do not know him," she said bitterly. "You do not know anything. Until two months ago, you were idle, useless-it took your father almost dying for you to notice that you had responsibilities!"
He stood there, dark in the face, but he did not attempt to deny it. She turned away from him, intending to return to the house forthwith-only to feel his hand upon her shoulder. Flabbergasted, she spun around, thinking to give him a piece of her mind-and stumbled over the longing in his gaze.
"Do not leave," he said quietly. "Do not go just yet."
She stopped rooted to the spot. "Pardon?" she demanded, still furious with him.
"I should not have said that about your brother. I am not an Army man, and I could never understand-" He shook his head like a dog out of the rain. "No matter. I apologize, that is all."
Her anger cooling, she nodded stiffly. "Yes."
"Come back to the swing with me. We should talk some more. We hardly ever talk."
It was true; such short moments of harmonious conversation were far and few between for them... usually, they either sparred or fought or exchanged polite nothings. Surprised at herself, Elizabeth bit her lip, drew the tip of her shoe across the grass.
"Only if you rock me some more."
He did, and after that, it was time to talk again.
"I did not know that Bennet served in 19th Light," Darcy said. He had migrated from the swing onto the grass, his head resting on his folded coat. He looked contented, relaxed. "Do you remember Mr. Bingley?"
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes." Did she remember Mr. Bingley! Faith! A fumbling young man, one of the seconds in the duel. He had come to call on her brother, just before Jamie left. It seemed that every minute, miniscule detail of those days, every visitor who had come to say good-bye, all of it, would remain, forever, imprinted upon her mind.
"Did you know he passed away last Christmas?"
She had not known, and all she felt was a vague sense of melancholy at the thought of someone so young dying.
"Oh. Was he a close friend of yours?"
"Close enough," he replied, leaving her to guess at the distress in his voice. Did he grieve his friend? Was his grief made worse by Jamie's absence? Did he have many friends to have lost two of them? "But the reason I mentioned this-is that his widow-Bingley married Colonel Forster's only daughter."
"Colonel Forster is my brother's superior!"
"Mrs. Bingley is now gone back to India," Darcy said, rolling his head against his jacket so that he could see her. "To her father." He was once again chewing on the blade of grass and looked entirely too comfortable.
"Perhaps Jamie will meet her," Elizabeth said.
"Perhaps." Darcy smiled at her, changing the subject. "Are you comfortable there, on that swing? Because you do not look comfortable to me."
It was true; she was not. Her back was now aching in earnest, and the rough board was digging into her bottom through her thin skirts and petticoats. But she would not admit to that-for she knew all too well what he would say.
As, in fact, he did, decisively:
"No, you cannot be comfortable on that board." He sat up, holding out one hand. "Come, lie next to me." He spoke forcefully, but there was mirth in his eyes. "Do not be skittish, Elizabeth," he said, smiling. "Trust me to behave a gentleman by you."
Still, she hesitated, and he gave her an imperious glance and a frown:
"Elizabeth," he said. "Forfeit. Do as I say."
Reluctantly, she rose and trudged across the grass to sit down next to him. Arranging herself with as much modesty as possible, she tucked her feet primly under her-which did nothing to solve the problem of her aching back. With a heavenward glance, Darcy rearranged his coat, spreading it wider on the grass. Elizabeth gave up and curled on one side, with her head upon her arm.
"Ah," he said, himself sprawling on his side a small distance from her. "Much better. So, tell me more. What do you write to your brother?"
"I told him we were married."
"Did you now?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "What exactly did you tell him?"
"Just that. Nothing else."
"Ah," he said, with visible relief. "Good."
Perhaps, Elizabeth thought, now was a good moment to mention that, which had eaten away at her for weeks now. She had willed herself to not think of it; but the thought of it came back, every now and then, setting her blood to ice.
"I must ask you something," she said, feeling her voice fall to whisper even as she spoke. "Your father-' she said and cut herself off. There was no easy, no delicate way to put it. He watched her, silent, waiting for her to speak, but she could see that he knew what she was going to say.
"Your father..." she repeated. "Please understand, I want him to live. I want him to mend."
"I know," he said evenly.
"But-what will happen to us when he does?"
He was silent for some time, staring up at the sky. Then, turning to look at her again, he said, simply:
"I do not know. I have not planned for this. It did not seem like it would come to this at the time."
Watching the play of sunlight and shadow on his face, Elizabeth knew him to be correct. At the time, it seemed as if all they had left was days. But it had come to pass differently. She knew-she knew!-that he was not to blame for this. And yet...
"Elizabeth-I have given you my word." His voice was urgent, his eyes restless on her as he rolled to face her again.
"I know, I know. And yet-"
"There is no "yet." I shall not keep you in this marriage against your will. I shall contrive a way to annul it, regardless of whether my father lives, if you so wish. But for now," he continued, "for now, Elizabeth, this is as safe a place for you to be as any."
"If I so wish," she repeated. "Do you not wish it?"
He shrugged, lightly. "Of course I do. I wish for this marriage to be dissolved, so that I could finally marry a woman of my own choosing."
"Ah. You see. Somebody who suits you better than I."
"Yes. An heiress. Perhaps a titled one. Once Pemberley is mine alone, there is no limit what-pardon, whom--I can buy." He grinned at her, but his smile was bitter.
Impulsively, she reached over and smoothed the hair out of his eyes. She did not know why she did it-it seemed so very forward a gesture between them-but it felt so good, she could hardly credit it. He lay very still, and with his eyes closed. Her hand tarried a little, caressing the planes of his face, the bridge of his nose, his cheekbones, his closed eyelids, carefully skirting the ugly scratches Cat had left on his cheek. His skin held warmth from the sun, and she could feel his breath, light, upon her hand. What an odd thing to do-but on this afternoon, it seemed, there was noting that could not be done.
His hand flew up, suddenly, covering hers, pressing it against his cheek. His eyes opened, and he smiled at her, a shy furtive half-smile.
"But my task would be to find a woman such as you."
"What manner of a woman is that?" she murmured lazily. She allowed him to hold her hand against her cheek, their fingers entwined.
"One that would touch me like this." He turned his face against her hand, pressing his lips in the middle of her palm. Elizabeth let out a shocked gasp at his caress. "One that would frolic with me in the middle of the day."
She knew that she ought to go-flee. But she did not move, for she could not bear to take her hand, nor her eyes, away.
"Mr. Darcy," she whispered. He cradled her hand against his cheek.
"I should like it very much," he said slowly, "that for the duration of this marriage you called me by my Christian name. Mr. Darcy, after all, is my father. It makes me feel odd to hear you call me that."
She smiled in amusement: odd, indeed! What an odd thing to say. But it seemed easy enough to humor him-and, the strangest thing of all, it answered the call of her own emotion.
"Fitzwilliam," she said, slowly trying his name on her tongue.
"Yes, just like that."
They walked back to the house in silence. The easy camaraderie of the afternoon had disappeared compleatly, sometime during those enchanted moments in the grass. After they had risen, she had taken small leaves and blades of grass off his back and shoulders, out of his unruly hair. He had stood idly, calmly letting her touch him. Thereupon, he had turned her around, unceremoniously, doing the same for her.
"Otherwise they will think-" he said, smirking at her, then caught himself. "Ah, never you mind that."
Elizabeth colored when she thought of his meaning. She knew precisely what the household would think, should they appear out of the woods, and in so unkempt a fashion. One that would frolic with me in the middle of the day.
Elizabeth did not wish to dwell on it. Those moments with him had been... not happy, no, not happy. But they had been so removed from all the cares, from all the worries, that she would cherish them now. They were hers. She would hardly feel guilty for them.
They had said their good-byes at the house. In her room, Elizabeth sat in front of the vanity, staring at herself. A thought occurred to her: what did Darcy see when he looked at her? On a whim, she freed a dark strand of hair, letting it coil softly along her cheek. She pushed her hands against her severe hairdo, upsetting it a little, forcing a curl, and then another, to tumble out. Why? If only she knew. Lately, there had been things-too many things-she found she no longer knew about herself.
A knock on the door, and she bid the visitor enter. Her surprise at espying her husband was monumental; she froze for a moment, before schooling her features into an appropriately welcoming expression. He stood there-dark, slightly awkward, at the door, not quite inside. Elizabeth wondered what his visit meant; dare she invite him in?
"Please come in," she said impulsively.
"Forgive me," he said. "I am intruding."
"No," she said. "No. I was just-" Yes, she thought, what were you doing? Sitting in front of your mirror, pulling on your hair like a madwoman, and why?
He stepped towards her, holding out a package. A box, tied with a ribbon. "I brought you something. I meant to give it to you before, but," he finished with a smile, "I am obviously growing forgetful in my dotage."
In his dotage! A joke-from him. It was lovely and sudden and unexpected, and she giggled like a girl.
"Please." He held the package out to her, and she took it, tentatively. Another gift.
"You should not-"
"Do not say it," he warned her. "Look first."
She tarried with the bow-it had been tied with exquisite care, pretty as a picture. She felt awkward even untying it, ruining someone's work. Finally, having opened the bow and the box, Elizabeth stared at the prettiest, daintiest, most elegant pair of slippers she had ever beheld.
"For me?" she whispered, with genuine breathless surprise. The shoes were exquisite, of a type that one might wear to a grand ball. She, herself, had never owned-had never even thought to possess-anything as beautiful. Indeed, she had never had the reason for it.
"No," he said, laughing, "for me. What do you think?"
"But I cannot accept-"
He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Why not? Do you not like them?"
"Not like them!" she shook her head, drawing her fingers over the fine leather, the tiny burgundy roses, touching the silk beaded laces. "They are ... splendid."
"Well, then," he said. "It is settled, they are yours."
She murmured, shaken: "But I have no use for them--"
He laughed, full-throated.
"You are a most extraordinary creature, Elizabeth! I have married the only woman in England who has no use for shoes!"
Despite herself, she laughed; but the luxurious present had left her flabbergasted. Surely there must be something wicked about accepting such awfully creaturely things from a man she intended to leave?
"Fitzwilliam," she said, "Mr. Darcy-"
He held a finger to his lips. "I already bought them," he said. "The shoemaker will not take them back, and, before you say that, they will not fit my sister. So if you reject this, all I shall be is out-well, the price of the shoes." Standing next to her, he smiled. "Come, Elizabeth, you cannot be so unreasonable as to make me spend my money in vain?"
Longingly, she ran her hands over the shoe. "Did you-did you choose them?"
"I did," he said. "And I daresay choosing shoes for a lady is hard work."
"Thank you," she said, earnestly.
They stood, then, for a moment, in silence, ill at ease. For a moment, an outrageous thought occurred to her-would he offer to put them on for her? She blushed at the very idea. Preposterous. But he looked as if he might say something, starting a little-and then, catching himself, cut her a sharp bow, turned and was gone.
Elizabeth returned, then, to her new shoes. Sitting down on the bed, she could not resist the temptation of trying them on. They fit her exquisitely, black laces wrapped beautifully around her calves. She wondered how he had guessed her shoe size-and then she wondered no more. Of course. Damnable interfering Mary. But she could not bring herself to be angry with either of them. She was gratified, to the bottom of her soul.
It must have been the last hot day of the year... and hot it was. Truly sweltering, though it was late September already; as if Summer had contrived to avenge its going away. Elizabeth was biding her time by Mr. Darcy's side. He was propped up in his bed, strategically, in the futile hope to catch a rare breeze. But the air stood as still outside as it did inside the room; no relief was to be had from the cruel heat. Mary had put Elizabeth's hair up, as high as possible, so that not a strand touched her neck; she wore the sheerest grey muslin dress she owned, which was still not sheer enough. She could feel perspiration seep into the fabric of her stays; she downed her disgust and focused on the cool bath she would take later. Her father-in-law, too, suffered, though his spirits were as high as ever; still, Elizabeth could do nothing for him beyond occasionally drawing a wet cloth down her his forehead, trying for some refreshment.
She had brought a copy of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel to his bedside, an excellent distraction, for it made him laugh. He had arched an eyebrow at her.
"How now, child, do you read such male books?"
"I am married, sir. Surely my freedom in books is considerably greater now?" It was a small lie; for she had read the book before her marriage, indeed, before she had ever come to Pemberley.
"And you husband does not mind?" He had laughed, then, webs of wrinkles radiating from the corners of his eyes.
"I have not asked his permission, Mr. Darcy. Faith-would you wish me to?"
He had acknowledged the truth of her bold answer with an indulging smile; for it was unthinkable that Darcy should sanction or forbid anything she read. Would she have obeyed, had he tried? The very thought seemed beyond ridiculous.
Now, she had gotten through two chapters, but not even the misadventures of Rabelais' portly hero, amusing as they were, could dispel the heavy drooping feeling, nor make her feel more awake. Quite plainly, she wanted to go to sleep. And she craved that cool bath.
There was a perfunctory knock at the door, and then it opened, admitting her husband. Elizabeth schooled her features into a semblance of a polite welcoming expression. How would a dutiful wife look upon her lord and master?
"Mrs. Darcy." Though he had wrestled from her the permission to call her by her Christian name, he never used it in his father's presence. Indeed, at Mr. Darcy's bedside, he was the very husband they had agreed upon-diffident, polite. Very nearly cold. Safe and understandable. Not the teasing, infuriating, gallant young gentleman she had so often glimpsed in him.
She bowed her head, politely. "Sir." He smiled at her-just barely, a tiny, secret smile in the corner of his mouth; then, he came nearer, bending awkwardly over his father, kissing the sick man's hand.
"How fare you today, sir?"
Mr. Darcy smiled at his son, lifted one hand, pushing Darcy's hair away from his face. "I know I have been better-I must have been. But I cannot recall when, now that I have the two of you here." He sighed. "Some infernal heat, what."
"Yes, sir. Most cruel."
"But I do not suffer from it, Mrs. Darcy's offices have spared me that."
"Mrs. Darcy is very good," her husband had seriously. She looked up at him, quickly, seeking a glimmer of amusement in his gaze, saw none, and looked away, chastened.
For some time, the men talked estate business, and Elizabeth flipped, sleepily, through the book in her lap. She understood most of it... there were parts which she knew she ought not understand, and so she left them for later, having reserved her understanding and opinion of them for when she knew better. Meanwhile, the men talked of a foaling two nights ago, and of the final preparations for the Harvest Ball- She tried her hardest to concentrate on what they were saying... but the heat had taken its toll on her. She drifted away, her head upon her arm.
"Mrs. Darcy!" She opened her eyes, groggily, to the image of her husband's somber face. She sat up, quickly, terribly embarrassed for falling asleep. He must think me most inelegant. Busily, she opened the Rabelais again.
"Forgive me," she said. "Shall we continue?"
"Before you do," her husband said quickly, "I have a spot of business with you, madam."
He was standing, leaning against the bedpost. He was fully dressed, his cravat tied impeccably around his throat... only the thinnest sheen of perspiration revealed his discomfort at the weather. Elizabeth felt acutely sorry for him, and all men in general; she could hardly imagine going about in five layers of clothing in this heat.
He came closer, stopping before her, so that she was looking up at his lank figure, bemused.
"May I see your wedding ring?"
Elizabeth held out her hand. Mary had tied a piece of thread around the back of her ring, keeping it in place. Still, it was shabby business.
"It is too large for your hand."
"It is ... fine."
He took her hand, plainly, in his father's view, knowing that she would not take it away.
"Trade me that one for this one?" he asked, lightly. From his pocket, he produced another ring-newer, shinier, in her size. Why, she thought, why bother with this? But she could say nothing and only watched helplessly as he quickly took the old ring off and replaced it with the new one.
Thereupon, having kissed his father good-bye, he left them alone again. Elizabeth stood up, dipping her cloth into the water, wringing it quickly, drawing it over Mr. Darcy's forehead and neck.
"Shall I read to you some more?" she inquired, settling back into her chair.
"No," the sick man said suddenly. "I find I am wearied of listening, Elizabeth." It was good; for she found she had wearied of reading.
"What would you like, then?"
"I would talk with you, child."
Everything within her squeezed with alarm. "As you wish, sir," she said placidly.
"Tell me about my son."
"Sir?" She stared, blankly, at the backs of her hands, laid idly over the heavy volume in her lap.
"You have now been married for more than two months. Does my son treat you well?"
She did not have to think long. "Yes." It was Lord's honest truth, she thought, he had treated her with great kindness these two months of their forced marriage. She had not thought on it, except to feel vexed. Indeed, she would much prefer that he remain reserved and cold; she had hoped he would. But the gentler side of him did captivate-once she got over her pique and saw it for what it was-a genuine desire to please her. If ever she dwelled on it, he had treated her well. With wry kindness, generosity, not a little patience. He laughed at her, but his humor was not unkind; and he seemed to laugh at himself just as often.
A thing occurred to her: had he been like that from the very beginning, she would have married him of her own accord.
"Does he court you?" Mr. Darcy insisted. "Woo you? Make love to you as a man should?" He smiled at her again, tiny lines spreading from the corners of his eyes. "Or must I speak with him?"
She caught her breath, thinking of him in the meadow, his fingers cool, trembling slightly at the base of her throat, on her ribbons; of his hand supporting hers, his cheek against her hair, sweetly, as they let the ladybug go; of him laughing at something she had said and rocking her on the swing. Of this ring, of the trouble he had gone to have it done. Of the black slippers in her dressing-room, burgundy roses and silk laces, sheets of music tied with a pink ribbon for her to learn-his gifts so lovely, so thoughtful, so impossible to reject. Of his eyes-dark, restless, stormy, his gaze that followed her wherever she went.
All of it, all of it, merely a charade. The thought stung, unexpectedly painful. Perchance they could-She bit her lip, squeezed her hands tightly in her lap. They could nothing. She had fought and clamored for it, herself.
"He has been... a most attentive husband," she said evenly. She hoped he would not ask her if she was happy. She, herself, could not tell the source of her unhappiness.
Mr. Darcy seemed satisfied with her answer.
"I should have nothing less from him," he said gravely. "You deserve nothing less."
Soon enough, he expressed a desire to sleep. Elizabeth, vastly relieved, hurried up to her own rooms.
In the days preceding the Harvest Ball, Elizabeth and Darcy often found themselves too busy to wonder about the details of their predicament. One of the things that left too little time in the day were the neighbors' calls. alerted by the approaching ball that mayhap Mrs. Darcy's mourning was no longer so severe as not to permit her any social interaction, the families found that it was all right to call upon the family. The news of Fitzwilliam Darcy's marriage had circled the county, and everyone thought it was very ill of him to keep his young bride all to himself. Everyone within ten miles of Pemberley was dying of curiosity.
On the day of the first visit, Elizabeth found herself sitting, white-faced and tight-lipped, in front of a richly feathered dowager and her cheerless young daughter. Georgiana sat to the side of her, fidgeting, Miss Lucas next to them.
"Mrs. Pierce," Darcy said politely. "How have you been? And how is Mr. Pierce?"
Having welcomed the guests to Pemberley, he had taken his station behind Elizabeth's chair, diffident, friendly, looking quite the young Master. Elizabeth was grateful for his presence, more than words could say. In truth, what would she have done without him?
The older lady informed him, unhappily, that Mr. Pierce was suffering very badly from gout, which would indeed prevent him from attending the Harvest Ball.
"I am very sorry to hear that," Darcy said gravely. Elizabeth was certain that he was not a bit sorry, not if Mrs. Pierce's husband was as interesting as the lady herself; but she felt obliged to him for upholding the civilities. At least one of them must look appropriately regretful for Mr. Pierce's inability to attend.
"And Mrs. Darcy is from-"
"Hertfordshire," Elizabeth said. They ate her up with their eyes, both of them. Oh how they wanted to know. She knew they would ask her things, if they could, would pry in a roundabout way, if it were not for his quiet presence behind her.
She threw a glance over her shoulder. He seemed quiet, placid, hands folded idly behind his back. She felt him like a wall behind her. She thought, with dull satisfaction, that these women will never have the answer to the question that indubitably plagued them most: how could the Heir to Pemberley marry a nobody? Not even a pretty nobody!
They did ask her questions, questions they knew they could get away with-about her father, about Jamie, about Longbourn. Had she been presented at the Court? Oh, no? She had never come out?
"Indeed," the daughter said pityingly, leaning forward to show glimpse of high bosom. "You are so young."
"Now-now, Mr. Darcy!" The older lady smiled coquettishly and wagged a finger at him. "It appears you have robbed the cradle!"
He shrugged and lifted his eyebrows, merely, a polite half-smile at his lips. Elizabeth, knowing him a little by now, knew this removed expression as the sign that he was, in fact, quite angry and would not encourage any further such liberties.
The ladies left soon enough, having found out nothing. Elizabeth saw them out, politely, on Darcy's arm. Coming back into the house, she did not release it, leaning lightly against him.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "They would eat me up alive if it were not for you."
He covered her hand with his, briefly, then let it go, fingers slipping away.
"The world must know I stand by you."
And he did, always, behind her in the shadow, or sitting next to her on the sofa, smiling genially at the callers, fending off the most difficult questions. Slowly, Elizabeth relaxed and observed the callers with curiosity and wry amusement. They had come to gawk at her; she thought, what could be funnier?
Within a few days, the news circled the local society: Mr. Darcy-fils had married a nobody. A little orphan, a sad child with no family and no connections, his old teacher's daughter. Nothing much could be said for her: she was not pretty, but had she money? Perhaps, some, though what was a small dowry to the Heir of Pemberley? Fitzwilliam Darcy could have married anybody, an heiress with tens of thousands in dowry, an aristocrat's daughter with a lofty title. An earl's daughter like his mother. Why, then, everybody wanted to know, why throw his life away?
The day before the Harvest Ball, Elizabeth took Georgiana to a shop in Lambton, for the girl declared she needed new gloves for the Ball (though Darcy had made it clear to her, she was not yet out, and would not really dance). In the shop, Elizabeth drifted away from Georgiana, looking at bonnets, thinking that perhaps she could get one-but later, when she felt like wearing such bright finery.
Suddenly, her attention was caught by the sound of her husband's name-her name. ...Darcy has always been a peculiar one. Elizabeth looked up quickly, to see that the speaker, a lady in a large bonnet obscuring her face, was standing by the counter, fingering the silks laid out there. Next to her, another woman, just as unknown to Elizabeth, appeared to be looking at hats. They had only just walked in, she had heard the bell ring when they did. They did not see her, nor did they notice Georgiana, who was, at the moment, at the other end of the shop.
Or maybe, they simply did not care, or were hoping, out of malice, that they be overheard.
"...It must be something else..." the second lady was saying. "She has no beauty, no manners, nothing of interest about her person..."
"Well, she must have money, then," her companion said, looking up. A young woman Elizabeth did not know, plain-looking but handsomely dressed. Standing to the side, Elizabeth picked up the first thing that came her way-a velvet reticule-and turned it around in her hands, all the while listening sharply. Beware of eavesdropping, she remembered her father's old maxim, you might wish to undo what you heard. She thought: I ought to make myself known to them, lest they slip into an indiscretion. What if they say something-something terrible? Then, she thought: why? Let them bury themselves all they wish.
But when they did, she wished she had not stopped to listen, or had warned them into silence. The first lady leaned in, and said in a whisper so loud, it was clearly meant for everyone in the shop to hear:
"Can you imagine how much money is needed to tempt the heir of Pemberley to marry such a girl? They say he does not even-ahem-visit with her!"
"No!" The other lady's eyes grew big and round, and she tittered behind her gloved hand. "Shocking!"
"Well, my dear, they say she is quite a ghastly young thing!"
"Yes, but how could you know for certain whether he-?"
"Servants," the lady said with a self-satisfied smile. "One of their maids is friends with one of ours." The lady smiled in self-satisfaction. "And I am tempted to believe it! He is just now come from London-do you imagine what manner of female companionship to which he is accustomed?"
"Ah, scandalous!" The other lady laughed and held a length of silk against her. "Does this color suit me, dear Emilia?"
Mortified, Elizabeth turned away lest they see her. Then, she knew that they did not know her, and regretted it, for she would have them humiliated. She wished, she hoped to have enough strength to march up to them and tell them all she thought of them, and of their malicious gossip. But she could not, could not find it in herself, her shame leaving her drained, weak. She skulked about the shop, finally making her way over to Georgiana.
"How do you like these?" the girl asked, holding up a pair of silk evening gloves.
"Come, we must away."
Georgiana froze with her mouth open. Elizabeth took the gloves from her hand, dropped them on the counter. "Please. We shall return tomorrow, if you wish."
"But the Ball is to-"
Without listening much to her protestations, Elizabeth grasped Georgiana's hand and dragged her through the shop and out the door. Before entering the carriage, she cried to the driver to head straight home to Pemberley.
Inside, she ignored Georgiana's furious pique. So she would send a footman for the gloves. Or perhaps wear old gloves to the Harvest Ball. Or none at all. Perhaps it was useful to learn disappointment early on.
Leaning her head against the side of the carriage, Elizabeth fixed her gaze upon a tack in the upholstery, focusing upon the play of light in the gilt covering. I shall not dwell on anything they said. She realized, then, that both or one of them must have noticed Darcy's carriage by the entrance, emblazoned with the family's coat-of-arms. They must have known she was there, and likely to hear them. Hags, she thought, vile witches.
I shall not dwell on it-but, oh the misery and the humiliation. For they were indeed correct. She knew, better than anyone could have told her, why he had married her. To keep Pemberley his own. Through her father's old ruse, he had to marry her-
Stop, she told herself. You know it isn't the truth. You know you had promised to release him of the obligation, and you would have done so without hesitation, and you know that he had believed you. Darcy had married her of his own accord...they had conspired to marry to ease what they thought would be his father's last days... Surely it was a nobler goal than many? They were friends, they were co-conspirators. And yet, he had said, then, something that had struck her as being so strange: that he did not mind marrying her. All business about his father and Pemberley aside, he had found her acceptable. Elizabeth had not liked the word, then, but now she knew-being acceptable to him was no small thing. Certainly all of Derbyshire seemed to think so.
But what did it signify? She wagged her head, trying to shake off this enchantment. What did it matter why he married her? Soon, they would be free of each other. What did it signify what all of Derbyshire thought, if soon enough, she would leave them all behind and never return?
Across from her, Georgiana pouted. Elizabeth reached out, touched the girl's wrist softly.
"Forgive me, dearest," she said. "We can go back there tomorrow morning. We can send someone for the gloves you liked."
The girl, sawing immediately, and at once concerned, asked:
"But Elizabeth, what happened?"
"Nothing. I simply felt ... unwell," Elizabeth lied...though it was not quite a lie, for she had felt as if she might die or murder someone on the spot. Faith, she still did.
The carriage stopped in front of the house at Pemberley; Elizabeth tore out of it before the footman had the time to hand her out. Sweeping up the stairs, she went in search of her husband.
"The young Master, ma'am, is in the old fencing room, exercising," she was advised by one of the help.
She flew, angrily, along the hallway, though she could not say why she was angry, or with whom, or why she was searching for him. Did she wish to complain or to chastise? She did not know. The truth remained, he was the only person to whom she could confide her humiliation. Nobody else knew.
She heard the ringing of steel before she had ever reached the exercise room. She wondered, curious who Darcy's partner was. He had complained, sometimes, of having had to substitute walking for fencing. Elizabeth understood it to have been his preferred amusement while in town.
She pushed the door open, ever-so-slightly, to see her husband engaged a fencing bout with a shorter, fairer young man. The man parried, successfully, then pushed forward himself, forcing Darcy to retreat. Both gentlemen were in their shirtsleeves and tall fencing gloves, both were perspiring profusely. For a moment, she let the intricate footwork and the gleaming steal capture her imagination, arrested by the memory of a similar bout four years ago. But that-that was different. That was a boxing match on an old roof in Trinity...
They did not see her, and she stood and waited, boiling quietly. Lovely for him to be exercising! He is not the subject of the county gossip! She could bet her soul they all felt sorry for him, and for themselves, for losing him to such a ghastly young thing. But the worst, the very worst was the pitying tone of voice when the lady had said, he does not even sleep with her. She remembered, shuddering inside. She did not know why it had affected her so much, why it had shamed her so, the way that woman had said it. It was one thing to have the household know and understand; but it was quite another to have the county gentry know and laugh. She bit her lip, then bit it harder, in a futile attempt to hurt herself. She stopped the moment she could taste blood.
Darcy saw her and stopped, abruptly. His adversary proved unable to stop in time, his foil colliding with Darcy's shoulder, almost pushing him off his feet.
"What the devil are you doing!" he cried. "You might as well have stood still from the very beginning!"
"A hit, Fitzwilliam, acknowledged," Darcy said, ignoring his displeasure. Still holding his foil in one hand, he walked straight towards Elizabeth.
"What are you doing here?" He stared down at her, clearly trying to discern her expression. Frowning, he put two fingers under her chin, raising it a little, looking her straight in the eye. "What is wrong?"
Elizabeth wrenched herself away from him. "Nothing!" she said, bitterly. "Nothing, nothing!" She turned and hastened away, hurt, deadly embarrassed, furious at herself for caring.
Through the roaring of her own grief, she heard the jangle of metal against he floor, and then Darcy's voice, cutting, sharp:
"By the way, Fitzwilliam, this was my wife just now." That she had been unable to control herself in front of a stranger added to her embarrassment and she quickened her step, longing to be away from them, soon as may be.
She heard him behind her, walking in measured easy step, and she knew she hadn't the hope of running away from him.
"Elizabeth. Elizabeth, wait." Darcy sounded restrained, though not exactly calm. She waited until she could breathe again, then stopped, turning about. He was there, looking her in the eye again, taking her arm. He was still in his shirtsleeves, a thin sheen of perspiration cooling rapidly on his forehead, the curls in the back of his neck still damp from his exertions. Elizabeth could still see the scratches that Cat had left on him in the opening of his shirt, on his neck, but they were barely there anymore.
"You should put your coat on again," she said unhappily. "You should dress, you will catch a cold."
"Never mind that," he said harshly, cutting her off. "Are you well?"
"Yes," she lied, then leaned heavily, turning her face into the wall.
"What is it?" He demanded, sharply, then repeated the question, gentling his voice. "What is it, madam? Elizabeth?"
"Noth- Oh Fitzwilliam," she said, using his name as she rarely did, "I was in the shop with Georgiana, and this woman-" The words gushed, and she thought, horrified, what am I doing, why am telling him this? But she could not stop, and he stood and listened, arms folded on his chest. His expression was unreadable and grave; she could not say whether he was angry with her or for her.
Then she was done, nothing left to say.
She stood, turned away from him, afraid to look him in the eye, afraid of what she might see there. He was so silent behind her, so still, as if he had never heard her. Finally she dared herself to turn around. The expression he wore puzzled her exceedingly; it was as if he did not know what to do with himself.
"Forgive me," she said quickly, burning with discomfiture. "Forgive me, I should not have told you-"
"Come with me," he said. Taking her elbow firmly, he propelled her towards one of the rooms. She obeyed, following him without a sound, too surprised to protest such a rude impulsion.
With the door closed behind him, Darcy pointed silently at the sofa, and she obeyed, somehow not minding his impoliteness.
Then, he began to pace. Elizabeth watched him stride about the room, long-legged and strangely torn, pushing one fist against his mouth. She knew him to be a private person, and as she saw him pace in anguish, then stop at the mantel, his head bowed, his face turned away from her, she regretted deeply having ever mentioned any of this to him. She should have just suffered her humiliation in silence, absorbed it in the solitude of her room, having cried her fill into the pillow. She would get over it. It would have been easier, that, than having to watch his mortification. She could not imagine how it must have galled him to know they were now a laughingstock of the county.
He turned around, a veritable storm of emotion written upon his countenance.
"Elizabeth," he said hoarsely, earnestly, "I am-so-sorry."
"What nonsense!" she cried. "For what are you to be sorry?"
"I have not shielded you as well as I should have."
She shrugged. "Short of firing half the household, what could you have done?" "Perhaps not the half of the household, but I can still fire the indiscreet girl who tells tales about us."
"Oh, no." Elizabeth rose from her seat in tumult. "Pray do not allow your anger to take over. You will not turn a servant out of doors for a wagging tongue."
"Forgive me, Elizabeth, this does not concern you alone!'
"She was stupid-whoever she was-but-no harm is done!"
"No harm is done," he repeated. He looked away, a small bitter laugh escaping his lips. "You should have seen your face just now."
"Well, perhaps it is just as well that I did not," Elizabeth replied, trying for wryness. "Perhaps I am fortunate to have not encountered a mirror on my way here. I should be petrified by my own countenance."
"I am very glad you've spirits enough to joke about this," he said. "But I find I cannot."
His voice affected her so; there was depth in it, and an entirely new manner of unhappiness.
"Mr. Darcy," she murmured, hoping against all sense that he would stop before he said something they would both regret. "I am a fool to get so distraught over this. They did not say anything that was untrue." He looked at her in that way she hated: as if she was too young, and too stupid, to reason with.
"I did not marry you for money," he said slowly. "And you are not ghastly."
She shrugged. "It would not have been wrong of you to do so, if you did," she said. "Marriages are contracted for that reason each and every day." She found she could, indeed, smile about it. "Handsome young men need money to live on, as well as the plain ones."
He grimaced in distaste. "Even so, I did not marry you for money."
"You married me for Pemberley."
"Do you truly believe it? When you had so generously offered to release me from my obligation? What prevented me from taking your offer?"
"Very well," she said evenly. "You married me to please your father."
"Indeed I did, but-"
"I accept it. I understand it. I respect it. It is unromantic-yet it is honest, and honesty is the best thing I can have of you." She looked up at him from her chair. " The lady in the shop-whoever she was-was malicious and unkind. But the truth of her words is deeper than the scars they might have left on my vanity."
"Indeed?" He arched one eyebrow at her, leaning more comfortably against the mantel.
"Yes." Elizabeth clasped both her hands tightly in her lap. "She did not say anything that was untrue."
Darcy was silent and still for seemingly a very long time, leaning against the mantelpiece. Even now he was only wearing his shirt, not even a waistcoat over it. His hair had grown long in the past weeks, down to his collar. It was now tied with a thin black ribbon in the back.
"Would you not put your coat on?" Elizabeth pled, but he ignored her. Turning to her, he spoke quietly, so quietly, she could barely hear him:
"Would you have it otherwise?"
"Otherwise!" she murmured. She could see the darkness gathering about his countenance. She cursed her own idiocy. Why goad him into an indiscretion, into saying something that would frighten her away forever, breaking the fragile balance that had developed between them? She was beginning to like being married to him, to enjoy his light, friendly courtship of her. Why ruin it all? "No," she said quickly, sickened to the heart. "No, do not answer."
"Oh no, I believe I shall," he said softly. "You are distraught that the countryside knows our marriage is in name only."
"I am not-"
With one severe frown, he stopped her from speaking. "Elizabeth, please. You are quite right, ma'am, whoever your offender was, she was correct. We do not have a real marriage."
He left the mantel and walked leisurely about the room, hands clasped behind his back. She could not take her eyes off him-she could not bear to look at him.
"But are you willing," he continued, slowly, "Are you willing to turn this marriage into a real one?"
"A real one," she echoed, deeply shocked.
"Yes. No more talk of annulment. A binding union until death do us part."
Elizabeth chewed on her lip in frustration. There, she thought, there, look what you've done.
"Mr. Darcy-" she began. "Fitzwilliam, I-"
"You said that you wanted honesty, Elizabeth, I want honesty as well," he said gruffly.
He stood, turned away, looking out the window. Feet planted wide, hands clasped behind his back. His shirt collar hung low in the back, and she saw that he had a birthmark there, at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. She looked away.
"No," she said hoarsely. "If it is honesty you want, I am not willing."
Then, rising, she came to stand next to him. "We are still friends, are we not?" she asked tremulously. Somehow, it seemed to her, a fragile balance between them had given a crack, barely visible, hair-thin.
He threw her a curious glance. "Of course," he said easily. "I would never have it otherwise. I merely thought-" he cut himself off and made vague movement with his hand, then was, once again, silent and still.
"I see," Elizabeth said. She wanted to ask him, whether he, on his part, was willing. She fought with herself and bit her tongue, willing herself to be silent. It did not signify what he wanted. Certainly his reasons for wanting her would be flawed, deficient, for he did not love her. The main reason to get married, she thought, a love so great that it knots your ribs together by bloody thread. So great that a day-long separation threatens to drive you mad with longing.
She wanted it so fiercely, she would have it. She would not live her life without it.
There was a knock on the door, and Elizabeth went to open. Darcy's handsome fencing partner stood there, holding her husband's clothes, his off-white silk waistcoat, his heavy jacket. He grinned at her, blinding her a little with his smile.
"I think it is unpardonable that the heir to Pemberley should be seen running around without his coat." Though smiling, his tone was grave. "It will give Reynolds a fit."
She could not help laughing as she took the clothes from him. She felt awkward, for she did not know who the gentleman was, and as he would not introduce himself first, it was up to her to do so.
"I am-" she said, and caught herself. I am what? It would not do to introduce herself as simply "Elizabeth." "I am Mrs. Darcy." She tried not to feel too self-conscious as she said it. She held out her hand, Darcy's clothes hanging over her other arm.
The gentleman bowed over her hand, politely. "Horatio Fitzwilliam, at your service, ma'am. Darcy should have introduced us, but he has been abominably rude."
"Indeed I have." Her husband said, coming up from behind. Turning about, not saying a word, Elizabeth held the waistcoat out to him, and he took it and shrugged into it, easily. Then, the coat, but he left both unbuttoned. "Elizabeth, this is my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"Colonel," Elizabeth repeated as she curtsied. He was young, perhaps a few years older than Darcy. She wondered how long he had been a colonel. "Welcome to Pemberley, sir."
"Why thank you, ma'am!" He grinned at her again.
Not much was said, for soon thereafter both gentlemen departed, eager for a bath after their exertions. Elizabeth watched them walk away with a strange feeling of discontent. Then, slowly, she made her way to her own apartments, to make herself presentable for lunch. On her way there, she could not help thinking of Darcy's strange proposal. But what a wrong word to use, proposal. He had not proposed anything, he had merely asked her an odd question.
Would you be willing?
Would he be willing? She could not imagine it, but he had been the greatest surprise of her life. Nothing about him made any sense, and she had long given up trying to make predictions about his behavior. Lord knows, perhaps, here, too, he would surprise her. She remembered, suddenly, the way he had looked at her when giving her the new ring, and earlier, by the swing, and his words, my task would be to find a woman such as you. A shiver ran through her as she walked, raising the hair at the back of her neck. Perhaps he would be willing. They were, indeed, friends, but even their friendship was tenuous, the fragile harmony between them eggshell-thin. Could a real marriage be built on such questionable amity?
But no. Elizabeth set herself back rudely. Even if he were willing, what of it? He might be willing all right, but she forbade herself to read more than apathy into his readiness. He did not hate her, that was all, but neither did he love her. Somehow, he had come to believe that it did not signify whom to marry, as long as the lady was "acceptable." He found her suitable, as good as any. Good enough to carry his name and produce his heir.
Elizabeth remembered his countenance when she had first mentioned marrying for love, three months ago. He had looked at her as if she was a babe without sense, talking such utter nonsense. Even if they did become good friends, real friends... the fissure between them would never close. She had been reared on novels, romantic fables of love and adventure. In her mind, marriage for money was a respectable yet tedious institution, inconsistent with life of excitement she had mapped out for herself as a child. It had been a dream, but she would not let go it. There would be love in her life, a great all-consuming burning passionate love. And he, he-in his world, was it even possible? Her parents had married for love, did his? Did he ever consider it for himself? Her head swam.
She rounded a corner and pushed the door of her bedchamber. Her gown for the Harvest Ball tomorrow had been neatly pressed and hung on the door of her wardrobe. It was lavender muslin, a cool color to preserve the modesty of her half-mourning; but by far the brightest and lightest one that she had dared wear this year. She had set the box with Darcy's shoes beneath the dress, and had long chosen a string of small white pearls-her mother's-and earrings to match to wear to the Ball. For the first time in months, she was inspired to make herself pretty.
Even if she would not dance. In her very secret heart, Elizabeth had come to regret her outright refusal to dance with her husband. One morning a few days ago, she had walked through the house, heading for Georgiana's study room, when she perceived a sound of music and laughter emanating therefrom. She had left Georgiana there, reading French with Miss Lucas, and had gone to look in upon Mr. Darcy. Now, it seemed, that all hell had broken loose in her absence, hilarity ensuing.
She pushed the door open an inch, and saw, to her surprise, her husband dancing a country dance with Miss Lucas. Georgiana's study desk pushed to one side, the room had been transformed into an impromptu ballroom. Georgiana, at her old piano-forte in the corner, kept turning around to gawk at the dancers, her hands slipping and hitting the wrong keys. No-one corrected her or told her to look to it; the couple in the middle of the study room seemed too engaged in each other's company. Elizabeth had never seen Miss Lucas look so fine, nor so happy.
And he-perhaps there were words enough to describe him...but Elizabeth was not in possession of them. So graceful and handsome a dancer she had never seen. Tall, and long-limbed and lithe, he looked like a prince from a childhood book, missing only a golden crown around his unruly dark curls. The handsomest gentleman in Derbyshire, she thought, seeing, for the first time, some truth in the lofty title. Yes, she thought. Mayhap when he laughed like that. When he was easy and happy, and not at all commanding, when there was laughter and tomfoolery, you could see it in him.
She stood, shyly, to the side, feasting her eyes at them. The dance, meant as a jest, was lovely still. Then, Miss Lucas turned and saw her, and slowly stepped aside, drawing her hand from Darcy's. He looked to her for a second, surprised, but the governess laughed and pointed with her eyes. Darcy cut her a bow and strode towards Elizabeth-who had no time to step away, or protest before he grasped her hand and pulled her towards the center of the room.
"Mr. Dar-" Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest. But then she thought, why not? Why not give in to this, such a delicious pleasure? Such an innocent diversion, dancing with her own husband to Georgiana's halting performance! It was sweet. She had danced with Jamie as a child, had danced with Georgiana during her lessons, and with Miss Lucas. But she had never danced with a man.
And what a man he was.
"You are such a dancer," she said longingly, losing, for a moment, her carefully-honed control, complimenting him without reserve. "Such a wonderful dancer. I could only hope-"
"Hush," he whispered, smiling at her, and she did. After all, what was there to be said?
He spun her under his arm and into a deep curtsey, as Georgiana hit the last notes of the dance.
"Bravo, bravo," Miss Lucas came forth, clapping her hands. Georgiana flew off the piano bench and threw her arms around her brother's neck. He spun her around, cautiously, careful of her feet and her flying skirts and the things around them, then put her down, carefully, making sure she was steady on her feet. Immediately, she attached herself to Elizabeth, looping her arm through her sister-in-law's, leaning her face against Elizabeth's shoulder.
"Perchance I could seduce Mrs. Darcy into a waltz?"
"Surely I could not!" Despite herself, she blushed and could not contain bemused laughter. "Scandalous!"
"It is scandalous!" Georgiana said excitedly. "Is it not, Miss Lucas? Did you not tell me so?"
Miss Lucas opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Darcy smiled wryly and touched Georgiana on the nose.
"Only scandalous for young unmarried ladies," he explained. "But certainly proper for Mrs. Darcy to waltz with her own husband."
"Oh, no," Elizabeth said. "You know I could not." But he arched one eyebrow at her and she laughed again, despite herself. The dream beckoned, if only for a moment. It would be wonderful, she thought. The waltz seemed to be as pretty a dance as ever there was... though surely shocking for the amount of contact it allowed between the gentleman and the lady.
"No," she repeated more seriously. "I have already told you... I am still mourning my father... Most improper, it would be most improper."
She gently extricated herself from Georgiana's arms, seeking and soon finding an excuse to escape. But even as she quitted the study room, leaving them all behind, his offer of a waltz remained, glittering and seductive.
Now, as she stood in her own rooms, Elizabeth leaned and picked up the shoebox. The black slippers with their burgundy roses, never yet worn, were the loveliest thing she had ever possessed. Such beauty, such perfection. Enchanted, she drew one finger along the seam, savoring the feel of the softest kidskin.
"Such a fool you are!" she said aloud. Indeed. Deep inside, she knew not to be so captivated. It was merely a gift. All of it, all his attention to her, was merely a gift. A thoughtful and lovely gift, but it had meant nothing. Surely it had meant nothing. Not that he would invite her to a dance. In particular not that he could ever love her, that his offer of a "real" marriage meant real marriage as she understood it.
"It is merely shoes," she said. Yet she was feasting her eyes on their loveliness. Finally, she put the slippers back into the box and closed the lid carefully.
Yet, she tossed and turned for most of the night, captivated by the glittering visions of dancing with her husband.
What a fool she was, indeed.
The next day, she stood behind Mr. Darcy's chair, next to her husband and Colonel Fitzwilliam, holding Georgiana by the hand.
Darcy was impeccably dressed, but seemed utterly preoccupied. Indeed, he had barely said a word to her after she had come down the stairs. Despite her best judgment, she was terribly disappointed. For the first time in months, she had surrendered her severe hairstyle, having allowed Mary near herself with scissors and hair curlers. Dark locks piled lightly, strategically, on top of her head, wild tresses escaping here and there, coiling softly about her face. The pins were making her head ache; but she had been pleased with Mary's work. Faith, did she look pretty! All of it: her mother's necklace on her; and she had even suffered the pain of putting on her earrings-she had to vouch, for the first time in months, they must have torn through flesh.
Having looked at herself in the mirror, she thought that she looked very well. So why didn't he-She cut herself off. Stupid, stupid girl. Why should he notice? Their marriage was in name only, they had long decided so. How dare she expect anything more?
Mr. Darcy had complimented her, called her a beauty. Though gaunt and exhausted by his illness, he had been made presentable as well in his chair. The Colonel, on his part, praised her excessively and seemed exceedingly gallant. He looked stunningly handsome in his vermillion regimentals, and she was very tempted to look upon him and catalogue his virtues. Darcy, on the other hand...She cast him an ill-concealed angry glance, trying to find some imperfection in his appearance-but even so was forced to admit that he looked handsome and commanding and impeccably dressed.
Standing next to her husband, smiling and nodding perfunctorily, Elizabeth greeted the guests. She tried her hardest not to look at him. Soon, she found herself smiling at the very lady who had so slighted her the day before at the milliner's. Her name was Miss Harding, it appeared, and by the way she looked at Darcy, Elizabeth knew, instantly, that she would have liked to marry him herself. And, casting a glance at her husband, she saw that behind polite words and a bow, he had barely noticed the lady. Wicked mirth rose in her chest. I do not want him, and you cannot have him.
"I believe we have met before," she said imperiously, thinking I am the Mistress of Pemberley."So did you buy aught at the milliner's, dear Emilia?"
Darcy seemed dumbfounded for a moment, then, a glimmer of understanding, and he frowned severely. The lady blanched and stammered, but the queue of guests had moved on, and they were soon greeting someone else. Ladies and gentlemen from the outlying estates and Pemberley's own thriving farmers, the vicar and his wife and three pretty daughters, everybody bustling, excited and ready for the revels. The tables gleamed, laden with china and silverware and myriad candles. The musicians were starting up, tuning their fiddles; Elizabeth felt a keen regret for having refused to dance-and a keener desire that he should ignore her refusal and ask her. Lord, that he should only look at her and tell her she looked pretty. Desperately, for the tenth time tonight, she ordered herself not to care.
He had ignored so many of her wishes before, had pressed and pushed for her company, her friendship, had complimented her and insisted on hearing her play the piano-forte. Why not now? Oh you are a fool. But a fool for refusing to dance with him, or for hoping he would ask her now? She did not know.
Supper itself was mortifying enough. She was sitting to the left of Mr. Darcy's, on the other of side of him-Georgiana, then Darcy. Colonel Fitzwilliam was on Elizabeth's left hand. Many eyes watched her, for she was now the Mistress of Pemberley. Her hands trembled and she dropped her napkin twice. A footman behind her picked it up once, and the Colonel the second time. She was deeply embarrassed, thanking him almost soundlessly, her lips barely moving. She was even more frightened of dropping her fork, or a portion of food into her lap, so she concentrated fiercely upon eating like a lady and not making a mistake. She imagined the glee of all the ladies who would be glad to see her do something outrageously stupid and awkward, something that would add to the ghastly picture they had created.
Sometime during the dinner, she became aware that Mr. Darcy was talking to her, asking her a question. She colored. This was little better than dropping her food or spilling her wine (of which she partook sparingly, nervous about the effect it would have on her).
"Pardon me, sir." She looked up at her father-in-law, hands shaking a little as she smoothed the napkin in her lap. "I did not-"
He smiled at reassuringly, then patted her hand in her lap. "Do not fear, Elizabeth, no-one will let them devour you alive."
She colored even more, the fierce red spreading up her neck and cheekbones.
"Is it truly so obvious?" she murmured, hiding her eyes.
"Look at me," he said softly. "Mrs. Darcy, look at me." She did, and he said, evenly and weightily, as if instructing a child in a lifetime maxim: "Mrs. Darcy, you"-putting all the weight of his meaning on the you-"are the Mistress of Pemberley. Do not be afraid." He smiled at her, kindly. "We are all behind you, my child. Your husband, and I. And even Fitzwilliam over here. And you know," he continued, his mood lightning, "our friend the Colonel is a genuine war hero. It is no small thing to have him on your side."
Hearing his name said, the Colonel tore himself away from the conversation with the lady to his left, and turned, smiling.
"I was just telling our Mrs. Darcy that you, my boy, are a true war hero."
"You flatter me, Uncle." But he cut her a short bow and grinned brilliantly, before turning away to charm his neighbor, a young lady in pink feathers.
"I was not joking, Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy continued. "You are one of us now. Everybody here knows that."
She nodded thankfully, relaxing just a bit. It was a good thing he did not know the kind of malevolence she had encountered the day before... she was not about to tell him. They might all be behind her, but none of them could shelter her from women's sharp, mean tongues, nor from the truth of their cruel words.
"My dear child, will you dance?" She hesitated for a moment, throwing a glance at her husband. I should dance, with him. If he asked me. Unfortunately, Darcy seemed preoccupied, caught up in a conversation with a lady at his side. He was smiling at the stranger, in a teasing courtly way, in the way that she sometimes caught him smiling at her, ever so rarely, ever so preciously. In a way, which frightened her, which drew her, that she cherished beyond understanding. The lady-a young woman whose fashionable gold turban looked particularly fetching as it set off her dark hair and startling green eyes- cooed and flirted. Do you imagine the manner of female companionship to which he is accustomed...
How could she admit to her desires, aloud, when he was oblivious to her? She clenched her teeth and said, loudly and flatly enough:
"No. I do not believe it would be proper, sir."
Mr. Darcy cast her a thoughtful glance, and she knew that he could read her. But he said nothing, merely shrugged. She turned back to her food, her mood and appetite thoroughly ruined.
At the beginning of the dinner, Darcy rose from his seat, instantly commanding everyone's attention. It was time for the young Master of Pemberley to speak to his guests. This was the first year that such privilege was his, and though he would never presume to usurp his father's place, he had come to take it naturally. Mr. Darcy did not seem to mind; remaining behind him in the massive arm-chair, the ailing Master had conceded the spot of authority to his son.
He spoke briefly and well, giving thanks for the abundant harvest and for his father's mending. Elizabeth did not know whether he would mention her. She was terrified that he would, thus calling all attention to her-though on some level, she wished for it as well. After all, there was something peculiar and appealing about being noticed by him. But to have all these people stare at her!
And yet, when he did call her name, it was so unexpected, she would have fallen had she not been sitting. "Also, I should like to give thanks for my wife," he said, his voice, his gaze softening as he turned to her. "For her kindness, her strength, her support during these very difficult months." He lifted his glass, toasting her. "Mrs. Darcy," only to have the room echo his thanks to her.
Elizabeth thought she might crash through the floor, and what a welcome respite it would have been. Somehow, she found it in herself the strength to look up at him and smile, raising his own glass. To her momentous relief, everyone stopped looking at her soon enough, for clearly her person, at closer inspection, did not merit such interest; her husband, on the other hand, remained at the center of attention. He was a particular favorite with the female guests, who fluttered around him like bright butterflies.
The dancing started soon, and Elizabeth tried her best to calm her agitated heart.
She had said, many a times, that she would not dance. All the world knew it, all the world knew that she was still in mourning for her father; and who would invite Mrs. Darcy when Mr. Darcy did not? She told herself she did not care; but the truth was, she did not wish to dance with anyone else, only with him. He had opened the dance with the lady who had sat to his right, the girl of the golden turban and green eyes. They were well-matched-handsome, graceful, fine dancers. Elizabeth caught herself watching them with jealous eyes.
Perhaps he would ask her for the next dance? Yes, she had said she would not dance. But he had ignored her many wishes before, had pressed and cajoled and used his forfeit to make her do as he wished. Surely if he wanted to dance with her, he would find a way?
Suddenly, it became so very important that he should want to dance with her.
But for the next dance, he had made good on his promise and stood up with a farmer's daughter. A farmer's daughter who was, Elizabeth noticed unhappily, rather elegant in her white gown, nigh-on diaphanous and open around her shoulders, with the autumn's last flowers in her hair. A farmer's daughter who had a pretty arched neck and gorgeous shoulders and the whitest milkiest skin Elizabeth had ever beheld. Indeed.
Her mood grew steadily more and more thunderous through the next three dances. He would not dance more than one dance with each lady, singling out no-one, but neither did he look to her. She told herself she hated him; surely, if he should ask her now, she would never agree. Surely. But it did her no good to worry about it, for it appeared he never would. She bit her lip, crumpling her handkerchief in her palm.
Were it not for Mr. Darcy and Georgiana, she would long have escaped. She doubted Darcy would notice.
"I have heard a rumor you are not to dance tonight," a voice said above her ear. She jerked her head at it, startled. Colonel Fitzwilliam was bowing to her, smiling, courteous and splendidly handsome.
"That is true." She could not help smiling back at him. His beauty left her cold-almost. It was nice to be courted by such a man, if only for a moment and not at all in earnest. More than nice, perhaps, a little breathtaking. And she delighted in looking at him, for he was nothing like Darcy, fair and glowing where her husband was dark and forbidding.
"I have come to play the devil incarnate," he announced. His eyes were warm. He turned to Mr. Darcy, deferentially. "Do you permit it, sir?"
Mr. Darcy craned an eyebrow at him. "I am not the man to answer this question for you, you know that, Horatio."
"I know nothing of the sort," the Colonel said. "And if you mean Darcy, he and I are good friends. He will not begrudge me playing the snake to his Eve."
Mr. Darcy shook his head. "I am very skeptical of that," he said, "but you make your own bed, nephew. In any case, I am not worried. Our wonderful Mrs. Darcy is no Eve."
"Indeed not." The Colonel turned his angelic gaze to her again. "A woman of valor and great kindness, from what I hear."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, uncomfortable, yet also pleased a little. 'I do not know where you hear something like that, sir. You know I am anything but."
"Be it as it may," the Colonel said. "Even women of valor need a diversion once in a while. Would you do me the honor, ma'am?"
She threw a quick glance at Mr. Darcy, but he seemed engrossed by a conversation with Georgiana. Elizabeth understood: the choice was hers. Suddenly, she felt reckless, heedless. With a swish of muslin, she rose.
"It would be my pleasure, Colonel."
He smiled at her again, encouragingly. She dropped her shawl onto a chair, set her shoulders back and put her hand in his.
Perhaps it had to do with one's partner; but she found herself a far better dancer than she had been with Miss Lucas or her sister-in-law. The Colonel was an expert dancer and a wonderful partner and leader, perhaps even better than Darcy. He made small talk with her as they danced, his voice soothing, his hands light on hers, his eyes full of happy mirth.
Slowly, she began to relax.
But the dance demanded that they move away from each other, and towards the person on the opposite end of the row. With that last person, one danced three figures, thereupon returning to his original partner. So they moved away from each other, down a partner, and then another, and another, and a few moments later, after a portly older gentleman and a very young boy her own age, she found herself standing in front of her husband. She gulped air and froze like a startled deer. For a moment, they said nothing, merely staring at each other, and then he said:
"Come, ma'am, you are holding up the dance. We are in everybody's way." He did not wait for her to give him her hands, but simply took them in his and led her around in a circle.
She hoped, desperately, that he would say nothing, allowing her to escape to her partner unscathed, but her hopes were dashed. He seemed to wrestle with himself before finally giving in. Then, he spoke brusquely.
"I am glad to see you are no longer disinclined to dance." He lowered his eyes determinedly, looking at his feet, their clasped hands, anywhere but her. "I should not like to see your mourning interfere with your diversions!" His voice rose and he spun her once under his arm, before letting her go, so quickly that she almost faltered.
Elizabeth could not think of a riposte fierce enough to set him in his place. With a titanic effort, she reined in her anger, her offense, caused by his scornful tone, by the derision in his eyes. The figure called for her to walk around him, and, absurd as it was, she did, for she would not break the harmony of the dance.
"The proof is in the pudding, Mr. Darcy," she said, coming to stop before him.
"How am I to understand that?" Once more he was compelled to take her hands in his. They went around in a circle, glaring at each other.
"That I am not disinclined to dance is the measure of the gentleman who invited me."
For a moment, he seemed flabbergasted and even tripped a bit in the middle of a figure. Elizabeth allowed herself a smile that verged on the malicious.
"Indeed," he said through his teeth, righting himself immediately. "Well, the one gentleman who desired to dance with you did indeed invite you, so everything is as it should be."
Ah! So the barb had hit its target, undoing him; but so had his, and Elizabeth said, too hotly, her control slipping:
"Yes! Clearly you had no such inclination."
"Indeed not," he replied gravely. "I am not in the habit of chasing the impossible."
But by then, they were standing still, their figure over, holding up the dance. The lady to Elizabeth's left looked over at them and smiled, curious, then whispered something to her partner. Now the entire room would know that they were fighting. Elizabeth shot Darcy a disdainful glance, and moved back up the line, to dance a short figure with the young boy. But she was trembling violently, no longer able to control her feelings. She hated him! Hated him! Between her next two partners, she tripped twice and turned the wrong way once, almost bumping into another lady. By the time she was standing again before the Colonel, her distress was evident to him-and to the whole room.
"Madam, are you unwell?" The Colonel inquired, gently putting one hand under her elbow.
"No," she murmured on a sob. "Yes! Let us finish the dance, I do not wish to make yet a greater spectacle of myself!"
"Are you certain-Shall I see you back-"
"Let us!" she snarled, grasping both his hands. Without another word, he obeyed.
Elizabeth's face flamed; oh if only she knew this would turn into such a scene! She would have insisted upon staying in her room! Never should she have agreed to dance! Oh! The mortification of it! The local society had thought her ghastly before-now they would also know she was a graceless cow, a joke. They had known her husband did not visit with her-now they would know that he would not even stand up with her!
The Colonel turned her around gracefully, once, and then again. They froze, facing each other. The dance ended. He was still smiling at her, the light of a hundred handles caught in his eyes, in the spun gold of his hair, in the gleaming buttons and epaulets on his regimentals-but his gaze at her was full of concern. Elizabeth put her hand in his and he led her back to her seat. She forced herself to not look, not see where Darcy was and whether he saw her.
"You were wonderful," the Colonel said warmly.
She shook her head, looked away, down, at the tips of her slippers. Inopportunely so, for they reminded her of the very thing she so wished to forget. Damned things! Wouldst she could take them off now! She bit her lip, forcing back sudden tears. She wished she could leave, but how could she, with all the guests and Mr. Darcy still there?
The latter must have seen her distress, as she was standing right near him. Softly, he put one hand upon her wrist, and she spun away, hiding her tears, thinking that he would query her. But he only turned, motioning to the footman behind him:
"Hoskins, I believe I shall retire now. Take me to my apartments, please."
Elizabeth jerked her head, looking up at him through her tears. "Are you not well?"
But he smiled at her with kindness and patted her hand.
"Merely fatigued, child."
She saw: this was one opportunity for her to leave, now, for nobody would question it if she took her father-in-law to his apartments. "I, too, am fatigued," she said, quickly, jumping at the chance. "I shall go with you."
He did not insist that she stay behind, but merely squeezed her hand. Squeezing her eyes, tight, she leaned to scoop her wrap from the chair. She was so grateful to him-that he had given her this opportunity to escape. That he did not choose to pressure her, did not ask her any questions. She gave the Colonel one last teary-eyed smile and walked out behind the footman, wrapping her shawl around her, Georgiana hurrying in their wake, confused and distressed.
Still, she could not resist one last desperate humiliated glance at the dancing couples. Darcy was standing there, no longer dancing, watching them leave. Elizabeth saw him looking at her, caught his eye.
She had never seen him so angry before.
Elizabeth said good-night to Mr. Darcy, leaving him to the care of his man. It seemed to her that as they parted, he was of a mind to tell her something. She tarried for a moment, but he only claimed her hand, pressing it gently.
"Good night, my child."
She bobbed a curtsey to him, then took herself down to her own bedchamber. The weight of all the world's misery rested upon her shoulders. What worried her most was that Darcy might come back, seeking her out; but she was drearily disappointed when she neared her own apartments and did not find his tall, dark figure looming near. With a heavy heart, she slipped in, instantly locking the door behind her, though she knew--nobody would presume to enter without her invitation.
Inside, Cat looked up from her bed, staring at her sleepily, as if asking himself who was this person so boldly intruding upon his repose. He stretched his paws and yawned, revealing a pink mouth and pin-sharp canines, but did not choose to acknowledge his mistress in any other way. Selfish, like all other men, Elizabeth thought resentfully. Elizabeth set her candle on a small table, then leaned tiredly against the door, bending to untie the silk ribbons around her calves. Heavy with beads, they trailed forlornly on the rug. She took off one slipper, then the other. She had little desire to see them again, much less wear them. Setting them in the box, she closed the lid with a heavy heart and sought for a place obscure enough, finally stowing the box in the farthest reach of her closet. Perhaps, if she never set her eyes on them again... perhaps then it would serve to make her forget the humiliation of this evening.
She did not ring for Mary, preferring her solitude to the maid's earnest, solicitous company. It would be like poison to her now. She could not bear the girl asking her how the Harvest Ball had gone, or whether she felt well, to be back in her rooms so early in the evening. Somehow, she managed to twist her way out of the half-opened lavender dress, succeeded in undoing her stays in the back, half-wrenching her arms and wrists. She tossed her things onto a settee with a carelessness that was uncommon to her, her dress, her stays, her petticoat, her stockings-the pretty sad finery, the witnesses of her first disastrous voyage into the Derbyshire society. What a fiasco.
Sighing, Elizabeth slipped into a long flannel nightdress that was as sensible and comfortable as it was unromantic. Sitting in front of her vanity, she pulled out the pins, one by one, letting her hair fall in curls upon her shoulders. She drew the brush through it wildly, almost violently, taking small, mean delight in the pain she suffered. There, fool, this should serve to teach you. Then, her hair in a prudent plait, she climbed into the bed-disturbing Cat, who immediately wandered from the top of her covers onto the pillow next to her-and tried to sleep.
She had little luck with it, her thoughts taking her back to this evening. With strange relish, she lingered upon every mortifying moment, making herself live through every single one of them once again. What was the sense in it? She did not know. She did know, though, that every one of her little mortifications tonight had to do with Darcy. Oh that god-awful man! She bit her lip against a rush of tears.
She felt he had done her a particular wrong. Had he simply ignored her from the beginning, she would never have expected, would never have desired his attentions. But he had encouraged her! She cast a malicious glance at the closet where she had stashed her dancing slippers. In the past three months, he had treated her like a friend... no, no, she told herself, had that been the case, she would never have expected... She might as well tell herself the truth: Darcy had treated her as a gentleman treats a lady of his acquaintance. Not just any lady, but one to which he is ... particular. She gulped her tears and gave a shuddering sob. He had courted her! She had taken to his wooing, to his sweetness and tenderness and kindness, and she was sorry to see it end. For surely it must end now, after what she had done?
The regret was piercing. Wake up, wake up, she told herself. It had ended, already-for how could she bear to look at him after the way he had behaved tonight? He had baited her with kind words and presents and compliments, and then abandoned her entirely, ignoring her and humiliating her in front of the entire Derbyshire society. How could he dance with every lady in the room but her? Pitying herself, she curled up in her bed, sobbing, hugging a pillow. Purring evenly next to her, Cat ignored her. Even he ignored her.
A bit later, when she had cried herself into a semblance of tranquility (interrupted by an occasional wrenching sob), a voice asked, sensibly, inside: and what of you? At first, Elizabeth silenced it furiously, focusing all her ire upon her husband's iniquity. But soon enough, she found she could no longer ignore the memory of his face as she had come to stand before him. It was shocking. The thought of his countenance, drained of all color, granted her a shot of nasty satisfaction. Clearly she had hit a nerve. But the memory also served her insides to trembling-for he was as impressive in his anger as he was in his kindness.
Ah, but he was furious. Furious and strangely undone. Elizabeth giggled meanly through her tears. There was something to it, something to having driven him so mad his voice shook. Not because she chose to dance with another man, having refused him, but because all his neighbors were witness to it. It was not about her, never had been; simply about the territory that had been invaded. She shivered uncomfortably. She hoped that the Colonel would suffer no repercussions.
Still, she pondered the change in him. From the man who was so generous and thoughtful and teasing, to...Darcy as she had known him first. So proud, so disdainful, she was left flabbergasted and deeply revolted and very certain that she did not want him to be like this. Not again. Of late, he had been free with his compliments, without being vulgar. He had called her severe hairdo "monstrous" and had hinted that he wanted it changed. More than hinted: she remembered him touching her hair, lightly, by an open window, freeing a tress here and there, as if he sought and sought and could not find her. His eyes at that moment had touched her in her most secret place. She had wanted then to please him so much that she would have done anything he deigned to ask her. What did he mean by charming her first and then ignoring her so compleatly?
Elizabeth groaned. These thoughts made her ill, making her head spin.
And his strange question, of which she had forbidden herself to think, but which came back to haunt her now, making the memories of tonight all the more unbearable. Would you be willing? She shivered: she would have to be mad to agree. She would live at his whim; he would be kind to her at his pleasure, would ignore and discount her at his pleasure. No, no. Elizabeth wagged her head, trying to shake off a dangerous enchantment. She must remember that none of this signified. She had never intended to stay in this marriage. She held fast to that belief.
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation. She would never understand him. And perhaps, she had to confess, sometimes she did not understand herself. She sat up in bed, hugging her drawn-up knees. If none of this signified, why, then, did she feel so damaged inside? Was it simply her vanity that made her care whether he looked at her, whether he found her beautiful and fetching? And when did she begin to care about it?
The last of the guests gone, Mr. Cassidy helped his master off with his boots and his coat and was thereupon dismissed. Darcy, in a dressing gown over his shirtsleeves, sat down by the fireplace, leaning towards the warmth. It was late, near one in the morning; and the nights had grown cooler in the past weeks. He shivered a little, spreading his hands palms first. His mind was unsettled, unable to find peace tonight. As if he knew that something was wrong, but knew not what.
But of course he did.
"Nonsense," he murmured under his breath. But the feeling persisted. He rested his head against the back of his chair, closing his eyes. Forcing himself to rehash the events of the night in his mind. It had all gone so wrong, tonight. He flinched at the memories. Miserable night, what.
Fitzwilliam had stopped him, just before his bedchamber door. They had both been about to retire; lost in his thoughts, Darcy had startled a little at the touch of his cousin's hand on his shoulder.
"If I made it more difficult for you tonight..." Fitzwilliam had said softly, his eyes glistening in the darkness of the hallway, his face half-illuminated by the tremulous light of Darcy's candle. "I apologize. It was not done intentionally."
Darcy, stunned, had said nothing.
"I did not know there was something-anything-more. From what you have told me..." He shrugged, trailing off. "But I believe you would have done the same."
"Mmmm?" Darcy could not believe he was having this conversation with his cousin.
"Yes. Seeing a young lady sitting all alone and, for all intents and purposes, abandoned...Yes, I believe you would have done the same."
Darcy had smiled then, had said, before he could stop himself:
"I doubt it. I rarely give consequence to young ladies slighted by other men."
He had regretted the phrase-which had made him sound callous, and a fool-before he even saw the expression on Fitzwilliam's face.
"More fool you," his cousin had said, then turned and started to walk away. Then, turning, he had marched back towards where Darcy still stood in his silent melancholy.
Fitzwilliam had said, then, bitterly: "I shall never understand, cousin, why you go through life determined to appear a worse person than you actually are! I know, on good intelligence, that you are a decent fellow. But if I had to learn it twice, I do not know whether I would think you worth the bother!"
Thereupon, he had indeed turned and stalked away. At first, Darcy was of a mind to follow him and demand explanation and an apology. But the more prudent man in him had prevailed: though quite hurt by his cousin's words and rather piqued at his presumption, he forced himself to reserve judgment. Nothing would be gained by having yet another row tonight.
Now, sitting in front of the slowly dying fire, he dwelt on all the things that had been said to him tonight. The pleasantries he had heard from the guests, the ladies' coquetry, his sister's delighted laughter... all of it dissipated, leaving behind only Fitzwilliam's harsh words and the memory of Elizabeth face. Her expression... hurt, lost. He groaned and drew both hands through his hair. Those eyes of her, too large for her face. What he would not give to forget them right now. As it was, her gaze, her voice, her words, would haunt him through the night.
What had happened tonight?
It had started... He closed his eyes. It had started tonight, when she came down the stairs, as if riding on a blue cloud, lovely like a fairy and just as enchanting... No, earlier: when she had told him they would not stand up together. He had been put out, though it took him weeks to admit to it, even to himself. At first, he had told himself he did not care; there were plenty of ladies to dance with, many of them prettier, many of them more accomplished than Elizabeth. Surely many of them liked him more. But as the Ball neared, it had galled him more and more, had made him feel... slighted. Why wouldn't she dance with him? What was wrong with him? She was, after all, his wife, she owed him something. He could have used the forfeit on her, easily, willing her into obedience. But somehow, he did not wish to do it. Forfeits were for trivial things, to make his life easier on everyday matters. But dancing! Dancing was ... more. How could he demand that she dance with him, when was not even certain why she had refused him-nor why he wanted to dance with her so badly?
He had felt uncertain and anxious. And-unexpectedly to himself-deeply hurt. This was something he had not admitted to himself, not at first. It had taken the sight of Fitzwilliam leading her in a country dance to make him feel the full impact of this unhappiness.
Darcy leaned forward, shuffling the coals to release more warmth. Elizabeth had come down the stairs, flabbergasting him. There was such conscious effort on her part to look pretty; and such unconscious sweetness and youth and grace. If he were forced to take her apart, surely he could have found some flaws; and on sober reflection, he still could not call her beautiful. But at that moment, he had drawn a sharp breath. For the first time, she had brimmed with color and blushes and smiles, looking like her barely-seventeen years of age, and yet looking a woman. She was wearing a lavender dress, decorated with pale lace, and as she walked down the stairs, he could see that she was also wearing the slippers he had given her. She had pretty trim ankles, and he had held his gaze there a moment longer than was proper. He had never seen her dressed in such colors, and he had drawn a sharp breath at the sight of her and thought that he would double her maid's wages. If only for the way Elizabeth's new hairstyle set off the planes of her face, adding a touch of gentle femininity to her striking features. If only for the way her eyes sparkled, full of life and pleasure.
The dress had even made her young figure look alluring and graceful, baring more of her to his stunned eyes that he had ever seen: her willowy arms fully naked, her exquisite lovely neck, bejeweled with simple pearls, and a deeper neckline that she had ever worn. The dress did wonderful things for her, putting lines and curves in place, making her look slender and female-not scrawny and boyish. The change in her had been so unexpected and startling, for the rest of the evening, she would draw his eyes more than any other woman in the room.
It was only later that he had remembered: he had never told her how ravishing she looked in that blue dress. It was a stupid gaffe on his part, for if he had told her, it would have been all true. She had ravished him with one resolute sweep of dusky eyelashes. But he had been so enchanted with her... by the time he had remembered to tell her, she had retreated from him.
That he had heard her telling his father she would not dance did not help matters at all. So certain she seemed that something in him had revolted at that, jolting him out of his charmed state. He had been dying to dance with her all evening! He guessed her half-mourning to be a pretext, and was furious at her for resorting to it, and for refusing him in this. Damnable stubborn woman, little coward!
Had this been a private gathering, he would have dared and tried his luck. He would have asked her. But under the watchful gaze of his neighbors, he could not do it. What if she saw fit to refuse him? He would be a fool to ask her-again!-in the face of her stubborn refusal. It would indeed be courting disaster and humiliation in the eyes of his peers. It was one thing to have his wife remain back because of her mourning... but a very different one to have her refuse him outright, within the earshot of half the county.
Now, he wished, desperately, that he had not been such a coward. She would have agreed, surely. She had wanted to dance, after all. Perhaps, he could have seen it, had he looked harder. He remembered her words, biting: that I am not disinclined to dance is the measure of the gentleman who invited me. He dropped his head back again and laughed mirthlessly. She was right, of course. He had not dared, but Fitzwilliam had, and was thus rewarded. Lud! When did he start thinking of dancing with Elizabeth as his reward?
But what a shrew she was, and a what a worthy opponent. So young-and so infuriating. He shuddered to think of her in three years, when all her strength matured, when she truly became a woman. He tried not to think of it, for surely he would not be next to her then. Somehow, it filled him with sadness. It would be marvelous to see her grow up.
The worst part about the evening (and Lord, there were many to choose from!) had been the sudden surge of fury that had shot through him at the sight of Elizabeth dancing with Fitzwilliam. Yes, that, he liked least of all, for he could find a rational explanation for his every other deed or thought. Darcy would not say the word, would not even think it: jealousy was certainly beneath him. And of the woman who had sworn not to be his-it would be asinine! But the scene of them dancing together had filled him with such potent, unhappy emotions, such monumental displeasure and anger, that he had hardly known what to do with himself. Now, thinking back to it, he hoped his partner at the time had noticed nothing-but at that moment, he had only had eyes for his wife. Fitzwilliam was smiling at Elizabeth, as was his manner, generally. Faith-he was always smiling at someone! Another such genial fellow you would be hard-pressed to find. But somehow, this time, it had seemed different, and it was unbearable. Perhaps because she was smiling back-in her lovely, unreserved, girlish way, and he could see how much she was enjoying his cousin's company, how truly happy she was to be on his arm.
Surely she would not mind being married to him, though he had no Pemberley. His cousin had said something about this: I had made it more difficult for you tonight. Darcy did not like the thought of it, but he had to admit the truth of his cousin's words. More difficult by far, damn him. The evening had been excruciating, all his hopes and disappointments centered on one person. The sight of Elizabeth dancing with Fitzwilliam had made it unbearable. Darcy shook his head. Why did she undo him so, this strange girl, his child-bride?
He did not care to answer that question. He knew he did not wish to think on it. But the truth remained: the circumstances had conspired to leave him looking boorish. Fitzwilliam had used words that galled him. Abandoned, neglected. Darcy knew them to be true. He had abandoned and neglected his wife, and he was filled with shame for that.
Rising from the fire, Darcy took a candle with him to a small writing desk. He had had it since he was a lad, and had long grown too large for it, but would hardly replace it. He sat down, pulling his dressing gown tighter around himself against the night chill. Lud. He hated explaining himself, and was particularly mortified by the prospect of explaining all that had transpired tonight. But he had no choice, he knew that. They had gone beyond their usual bickering, having humiliated each other thoroughly. He did not know whether anyone truly noticed the scene during the dance, or the fact that he had not danced with his wife, or that she had fled the room far too early. He did not care, and that, too, was strange to him. Far worse was the injured look in her eyes as she looked back at him-before turning and nigh-on running out behind her father's chair.
Darcy knew, with certainty: were they to reclaim the uncertain intimacy gained during the past weeks, he would have to make the first step. The memory of the way she had looked at him burned inside; and the thought that she might hate him strangely terrified. In the past weeks, he had enjoyed immensely every little liberty they had allowed themselves. The thought now of losing her companionship, of returning to the horrid silent détente of their first days together chilled him. He sighed and slowly sharpened his quill. He had not the faintest idea how he would start the letter, what he would say.
The truth, of course. Yes, it was as simple as that. The truth-that the events of the evening weighed heavily on his heart. That he would gladly take back all the cold words he had thrown at her. That he had wanted to dance with her and was a fool for not asking. He suspected that by the end of this exercise, he would have bared his most secret self to her. The thought frightened him exceedingly. This woman existed in his life to teach him how to humble himself.
But even the worst humbling must begin gradually.
Spreading a pristine sheet of writing paper in front of him, he dipped the quill and wrote: Madam, I find myself sleepless tonight.
There, he thought, what an excellent beginning. Now write something else. He felt his resolve collapsing and laughed at himself. Snorting with amusement, he forced his hand back to the paper.
The events of this evening weigh heavily on me.
It was true. He felt horribly uncomfortable, felt himself to be awkward and stupid, as if he had broken something precious and lovely. He was still exceedingly cross with Elizabeth for misleading him, for her foolish games. And yes, for dancing with Fitzwilliam and not him.
"The measure of the gentleman, my word!" he said aloud in his most self-assured voice. He found he sounded like a pompous fool to his own ears.
Perhaps it would be wise to never mention this again. But it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest that I am not the only one pained by this. Upon reflection, I have decided that unexplained, this evening will remain a heaviness between us. I do not wish it so. I cannot believe you want it so, either. We have only just promised each other honesty. Therefore, honest I shall be.
Grand, he thought. Truly grand. Now, honest you be. This was merely preliminaries, now the very import of this letter... How to say it, without saying too much? He abhorred the idea of baring all. Some things must, by necessity, remain private.
He had both apologies and grievances towards her, and he thought it would be wise to start with the former.
Madam, before I say anything else, allow me to tell you how lovely you looked tonight. I should have told you so before, when I first saw you. But you have quite literally robbed me of all my ability to speak. Perhaps I am not the most effusive speaker. Certainly at moments of great surprise and confusion I am often lost for words. Had I a writing desk then, I should have penned you a note. But I could not even whisper in your ear, for we were not alone. Perhaps, it is a curse of all males, that in the presence of others, we become tongue-tied and awkward. Forgive me that. Your girl Mary is vastly underestimated in this household; for she has truly uncovered you.
Carefully, he put his quill back in the inkwell and leaned back in his chair, savoring for a moment the memory of what she had been like. The fragile loveliness of a female figure descending a staircase, her skirt trailing a little behind her down the steps, her hand gliding gracefully down the banister. The brightness of the dress after months of black and gray had made her look ethereal. It had left him feeling light-headed.
He forced his mind back to the letter. This time, he would not re-read what he had written, for he did not want to hear himself speak like a besotted fool. What was he doing, declaring his admiration to her? Lord!
I find myself a fool tonight, Elizabeth. I have behaved stupidly, and I am heartily ashamed of myself. That you did not want to dance with me was your choice, and you had a right to it. But it made me feel slighted, and when slighted, males are known to behave not unlike wounded elephants.
He smiled at that characterization, but he knew it was not untrue. Perhaps it would make her smile as well. Thank God for small mercies.
I apologize for having ignored you all night, and for having said things unbecoming a gentleman to you; but a measure of guilt is yours as well. Therein lies my grievance for you, madam. You and I have promised each other friendship and honesty; let us abide by it. It is beneath you to play games with me, and it is beneath me to react to them as I did tonight. You had misled me from the very beginning by insisting you did not wish to dance; I most certainly would have asked you otherwise. I wanted to, I truly did. But you had insisted you would not dance. You had said so to my father. I could not risk the humiliation, should my wife refuse me in front of everyone. And knowing you, I knew you very easily could.
He hoped he did not sound too accusatory, but devil take it! She had hurt him, too. If he were going to humble himself before her, he would ask for something in return.
But it is all forgot. I like it exceedingly ill when we quarrel. I think that we are equal in intellect and heart. Squabbling ought to be beneath us. Dear Elizabeth, shall we say truce, then? Let us forgive each other: you pardon me for my cowardice, and I shall pardon you for deceiving me. We do so much better as friends, anyway. I have one more request to make of you. I beg that you do not resort to the dreary dresses and hairstyles you have so enjoyed before. I hope your excellent Mary will find a way to keep you looking as lovely as you did tonight. I shall double her wages if she does.
He wondered for a moment, whether this was sufficient, whether there were some other explanations, some additional penitence he could offer. But this exposition of himself had cost him dearly in pride. He found he simply could not stomach it anymore. Enough was enough. He was exhausted and could not wait to crawl under the sheets and sleep. He knew he should seek the comfort of his bed speedily, lest he change his mind and burn the damnable letter. Quickly, he signed the letter Fitzwilliam Darcy, folded it, the edges aligned perfectly, then sealed it.
Pushing himself out of the chair, he plodded, exhausted, down the hallway and towards her room. He had hoped, momentarily, that she, too, was awake; but it was utterly quiet and dark within. He downed his unbidden disappointment and slipped the letter under the door. Thereupon, he took himself back to bed. Not even thoughts of Elizabeth, of his mortification, of what it would be like to see her again tomorrow (for he could not, try as he might, predict her reaction to his letter) could keep him out of Morpheus' clutches any longer. He was asleep the moment his cheek touched the pillow.
She woke to Cat's scratching at the door, begging to be released. For a few moments, she was disoriented, and knew neither what time it was, nor where, nor who she was. Then, getting her bearings, she saw that it was night, completely dark behind her window save for the moon. Elizabeth slipped out of the bed and traipsed towards the door, to open the door and release the animal. Then, she stopped in her tracks. On the floor before the door-a white rectangle gleaming softly in the dusk of her room.
A letter. Momentarily, she was awake, her sleep gone. The letter, when she picked it up, was folded neatly and sealed with Darcy's own seal, a curious Athenian owl on a round shield. Her name, in his precise hand, written on the front. Mrs. Darcy. Oh, she thought. Mrs. Darcy. Perhaps this was bad? Surely this was bad, if he wouldn't even use her Christian name?
Cat mewled and scratched some more and she reached over, distracted, unlocking and opening the door. She barely noticed Cat slip out of the room, fleet and on silent paws. She closed the door slowly behind him.
Her hand shaking, she managed to light her candle from the embers dying in the fireplace. Setting it on the nightstand, she climbed back into bed and broke the seal. Whatever the letter said, she promised herself she would keep her equanimity. But what could it possibly say that may affect her? She scoffed at the very thought as she started to read; but she was still shivering and pulled her blankets tighter around her shoulders.
She read it, quickly, and when she finished, she was undone. He had confounded her, again, had disarmed her with his frankness. His open admiration for her person, for all of her person. He had asked for friendship, but his letter spoke of so much more: words of open praise for her, and the breathtaking admission of a conquest. Certainly at moments of great surprise and confusion I am often lost for words. She had surprised him? Confused him, merely by wearing a blue dress? He had had his pick of every partner in the room-and she had made him feel slighted by refusing to dance with him? All breath rushed out of her at the thought. Friends did not care for trifles like that. The thought that he had admired her as a man admires a woman made her weak in the knees.
She set herself back, quickly. It would not do to read too much into this. Nothing had changed. They had established the rules for this marriage, and neither would wish to break them. So perhaps he was simply paying her a belated compliment. Surely it was merely that. But the giddiness remained, leaving her restless. Before she knew what she was doing, Elizabeth swung her legs off the bed and reached for her gown.
It was dark outside, and she took her candle with her. It gave off a small circle of yellow light, turning her immediate surroundings macabre. Shadows teemed in each corner, chillingly alive. The corridors running each way seemed interminable. For a moment, she regretted quitting the comfort and safety of her own room. Something brushed against her leg, and she gasped and almost died. Cat! Damnable beast would be the death of her one day! Well, she reflected, as she recovered a bit, the death of someone for sure. Still, the presence of another living breathing creature made her feel a little less afraid.
Elizabeth reached Darcy's apartments without any further chagrin. Thereupon, her resolve faltered and she stood stupidly, looking at the thick oak door before her. What was she doing here? She had come to tell him something, of course, but could it not wait until the morning? She cursed her own impetuosity. Leaning her ear against the door, she listened for sound within, but heard only dead silence.
Would she leave, then? She cast a wary look behind her. The way back to her room-a dark tunnel that ended in more darkness. Her last coming here had ended in such a disaster; nor did she truly know the reasons for engaging in such outrageous behavior. But somehow, turning back seemed impossible. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door, hoping he had not locked it for the night.
He had not. The door opened without sound, hinges well-oiled. She closed it behind her.
Darcy had not drawn his curtains, and Elizabeth was able to orient herself around the room in the soft moonlight streaming through the window. The luxurious rug on the floor silenced her bare footsteps as she maneuvered her way around furniture and towards his bed. She stopped at the side of it, setting the candle at a nightstand. She had not the faintest idea what she was doing there, no plan or design or words mapped out in her head. Should he wake, he would catch her mute and dumb.
He slept on his stomach, hugging his pillow with both arms, his face turned away from the window, half-hidden by the covers. Elizabeth came closer, watching the white expanse of his shoulders, the outline of his body sketched faintly by the faint moonlight, by the small leaping light of her candle. She thought, once again, back to his letter, then thought of the horrid impropriety of what she was doing.
He flipped, suddenly, onto his back, flinging one arm wide, groaning quietly in his sleep. A restive sleeper. Elizabeth rubbed her arms, uncomfortable. She should return. If he woke, what would he think of her? That she had taken leave of her wits, surely.
Uncomfortable, she edged away from the bed, only to be arrested by the rustle of his sheets and a sleepy voice, inquiring in a shocked manner:
She whipped about, sickened. He had risen in his bed, leaning up on one elbow and was now looking at her blearily, frowning. Frowning! As if he found her presence in his bedchamber in such a late hour-lord, at any hour-a damned nuisance. Or, at the very least, compleatly improper. She took a step back, quickly, without looking where she was going. In her hurry to get away, she tripped over his boots, thrown carelessly at the foot of the bed. Flying backwards she went, in blind panic and utter mortification.
On his feet in a moment, Darcy pulled her up to hers. His hands on her shoulders, he looked at her closely.
"Lord, Elizabeth, watch where you step!" Then, with more consideration: "Did you hurt yourself?"
She shook her head, feeling an intense flush creep up her neck. Her pride was wounded, and her point of collision with the floor-namely, her backside-ached mercilessly. But there was simply no need for him to know that. She was embarrassed enough. There was no dignity in a bruised derriere.
"It is my fault," he said. Only just risen from his sleep, his hair mussed, he looked very young and unexpectedly handsome. "I should not throw my things around." "No bother," she said, bravely. His hands fell away from her. Both of them stood back, looking at each other. "I suppose you are wondering what it is I am doing here."
"I confess I am." The admission was punctuated by a sleepy smile. "I thought I was dreaming-to see you here, of all places."
"You are correct, it is rather improper, and I should not be here-really, I should go-"
But, before she could turn to run again, he clasped one hand tightly about her wrist.
"It is not improper." He drew her closer, so that she was suddenly aware he was wearing but his long nightshirt. Its collar was open, revealing his neck and a bit of hair on his chest. Elizabeth tried to step back, but in the next moment, found herself picked up unceremoniously under her arms and deposited upon the mattress at the foot of the bed. She made an indignant sound, but he only shushed her, putting one finger to his lips.
"Hush, madam, you are safe from injury up here." He paused. "Which is more than you can say for standing on your own two feet." Elizabeth watched him stalk around the room in search of his dressing gown. Locating it finally on the floor by his boots, he shrugged into it and tied the sash quickly.
"Mr. Darcy, it is most imp-"
He pivoted about, looking her straight in the eye. "Why did you do it, then?"
Elizabeth faltered. Had her life depended upon it, she would not have the answer to that question. What had moved her to cross from her room to his in the middle of the night? He pulled up a chair and sat down, across from her on his bed (it was a far more massive bed than her own, she had to confess).
"So why did you do it?"
"I read your letter." There. There it was. His earnest admissions had unsettled her, and she sought for comfort in the only place she knew to look.
"Ah." Darcy lifted his eyebrows, his expression slightly dubious. "And-"
"I wanted to tell you that I accept your apologies... and that I, too, beg your forgiveness."
"Making you apologize was never my intention." He shifted, uncomfortable, in his chair. "But having you come to my room in the middle of the night is an unexpected pleasure."
"I am sorry I woke you. I hope you do not think me too impertinent."
"Elizabeth, we have been married three months now. Surely you may take liberties with me from time to time."
"Albeit-" Albeit we are not meant to be, she meant to add; albeit they would end this soon as they could?
"Yes," he said, clearly reading her thoughts. "Albeit all those things. It is still good to see you here." Smiling, he added: "I am glad you did not wait 'till morning to tell me you forgive me."
They were silent for a while. Elizabeth soon became aware of his eyes on her, that deep disconcerting gaze that so bedeviled her. It was not precisely indecorous, but it was hardly proper. Nobody in polite society ever looked at each other like that. Once, she would have thought it a sign of his disapproval. But in light of his letter... and then, he had said it himself: her coming to his bedchamber at night had been an unexpected pleasure. It was still strange for her to imagine that he might be happy to see her, that he might not mind being woken in the middle of the night.
The vestiges of the fire in the fireplace had long died away, and she shivered with cold. Darcy saw it, at once, and insisted that she wrap herself in the blankets. While she fumbled about, trying to pull one of them from under the counterpane, he rose and came closer. Elizabeth had not seen him approach and started when he leaned in, enfolding her quickly into the blanket.
For a moment, he was so close, she felt the lawn of his shirt brush her cheek. She inhaled, suddenly drunk on his scent and happy she was sitting down. She would not vouch for the steadiness of her own two feet.
"There," he said, moving quickly away, having wrapped her securely and warmly. "This is better."
Elizabeth managed to find a modicum of amusement in the situation. "Mr. Darcy, you have me swathed like a babe!" She laughed, moved a little, upsetting his work, freeing her hands, and laughed again, and that made him laugh as well. But he interrupted their pleasant interlude by noticing that the candle was all but gutted.
He swept away from her and quickly walked about, gathering several more candles, and lighting them, one by one, from the candle she had brought. In their light, his countenance had changed. His eyed darker, his cheekbones sharper, his mouth a hard line. A satyr, Elizabeth thought suddenly. She could have sworn his dark hair had curled into a pair of horns.
A dismal comfort, that. For, having set the candles at several points in the room, Darcy chose to occupy a part of the same bed where she was sitting, still swathed in the blankets. He sat next to her on the bed, then pushed himself back against the headboard. Elizabeth could not help noticing that easily as he reclined, his robe and his shirt both fell open, baring a sizeable part of his chest. His feet, too, were bare. She looked away. It would not do to be caught staring.
Cat, who had thereto lurked in the shadows, decided, apparently, to make an appearance and jumped atop the bed as well. Darcy sputtered.
"What on earth is he doing here?" His demand was answered with a laugh and a purr, the former from his wife, who thought his dumbfounded expression rather amusing; the latter came from Cat, who had finally seemed to realize he owed this man a debt of substantial magnitude. To and fro he walked about the bed, rubbing himself against the young Master's legs.
"I can take him off."
Darcy only made a noncommittal grunt and a small wave, announcing that he cared not one way or another. Soon enough, Cat tired of parading up and down the bed and curled up against Darcy's side. Elizabeth laughed again as she caught the look her husband cast at him; but she was most surprised to see him extend a hand, softly petting the animal.
"I did not think you liked him. I remember you saying something about throwing him down the tree," she teased.
"I do not soon forget either insult or injury." He stopped petting Cat and locked his hands behind his head, his eyes lazy and warm on her.
Elizabeth pulled the blankets tighter about her shoulders, wanting to hide from his haze, wanting to glory in it.
"Yet your letter says you will forgive me my deception."
"Only if you will forgive me my being deceived."
She nodded. "A bargain, then."
"Indeed." He grinned at her. "And a truce." He gave a little amused chuckle. "Again!"
Elizabeth bit her lip, but the truth of his words was irrefutable.
Both laughed at themselves, she drowning in happy solidarity, in being able to laugh with him. When they quieted, he watched her for some time, before asking:
"How did you come here all alone in the night, anyway?"
She thought to tell him that she had walked these corridors enough over the past months, but instead, smiled at him and shrugged.
"By walking down the hallway on my own two feet. I suppose."
He rolled his eyes at her. "Are you not afraid of the ghosts?"
"Ghosts?" she repeated, pricking her ears. "What ghosts?"
"You know. Souls of the dead wandering these hallways. Ethereal white beings rattling chains-no?"
Elizabeth was indignant. "There are no ghosts at Pemberley!"
He scoffed at her. "Of course there are ghosts at Pemberley. You will not find a large old house like ours without a ghost in it."
Like ours. His words, his way of speaking enveloped her heart with sudden warmth. But aloud, she said:
"Oh, really? Tell me, then!"
Darcy laughed. "I had better not, madam."
Elizabeth lifted her chin, narrowed her eyes at him.
"Do not concern yourself with me, sir," she said. "I am not a craven female prone to swooning."
Darcy hemmed at that. "I have no doubt of that. But it is not you I am concerned about, but the ghosts. I am worried that should I tell you of them, you will hound the poor things in your curiosity 'till they quit the place altogether. They are some rather...fragile ghosts, you know."
Elizabeth gasped, and made to reach for the nearest pillow, hoping to bring it over his head. But she was still swathed in a blanket, and he was too quick by half, catching her wrist just as her hand had reached the pillow. A merry scuffle ensued, which sent Cat scuttling off the mattress with a displeased hiss. Some moments later, when hilarity had left them winded and gasping with laughter, Elizabeth found herself stretched out, precariously, atop her husband's prone body.
Nose to nose, chest-to-chest.
Before she could think to shrink away, his arms came around her, catching her in a warm embrace.
"Sir," she whispered, her merriment gone in a split second. All of a sudden, there was a cold pebble at the bottom of her stomach, and she could hear her own heart. Darcy pressed one finger to her lips.
"Hush," he said sternly. "Lie still, madam. No harm in this, and no shame."
Indeed, there was none, for they were married. In her mind, she knew their marriage to be an impermanent, false arrangement; but her heart and body both delighted in his embrace, soaking up his closeness. Somewhere far away, her outraged caution screamed at her to get out, but she did not heed it. Resting her chin on one hand, she studied his face as he had studied hers so many times.
"You are so very handsome." Much like weeks ago near her swing, she caressed his face, watching his eyes drift closed. She was generous with praise, giving it guilelessly. It mattered little, for she was not trying to secure a suitor. She could laugh and weep at the irony of it, but it also liberated her to tell him what she really thought. "I did not always think so. When I first met you, I had thought you quite ill-favored, for you always frowned."
"Why, thank you, madam." His eyes now open, she had expected him to smile, but he did not, bestowing upon her a long thoughtful look. His hand caught hers, a predator swooping down upon its small prey. His body beneath her was long and lean, and as he wrapped his arms more tightly about her, she gasped, for she now felt every inch of it through his nightclothes. "Am I hurting you?" His voice, near her ear, sounded muffled, his breast heaving beneath hers.
"No." Her whisper was timid like a mouse. Cradled safely in his arms, she put her nose against his nightshirt, drinking in his scent. It was unfamiliar-so very light and barely-there, but undeniably masculine. It set her head to spinning, and she could not get enough of it. His hands stroked her back tenderly through her nightdress and gown, and she found herself shivering with each caress.
She looked up, found him watching her again. Pushing herself up over him, she touched his face with the tips of her fingers, wanting to do more, wanting to do something, and not knowing what. She touched the ever-so-manly cleft in his chin, touched his eyelids as they closed in tenderness, and daring, touched his lips. Darcy caught at her fingers with his teeth, and she gasped again at the fleeting sensation of his tongue against her fingertips.
Now he held her chin in one hand, his fingers feathered softly against her cheek. His eyes-restless, stirring-on hers. His other hand-heavy and still between her shoulder blades; she felt the warmth of it with her whole back.
Then, releasing her chin, both arms around her again, he held her tightly and whispered, desperately into her hair:
"Oh, Elizabeth, Elizabeth." He palmed the back of her head, pulled gently, forcing her to look up. His voice was brimming with tenderness as he spoke. "So is it Lizzy? Or Bess?"
"Bess," she murmured. For her brother had rarely called her anything else, and to their father she had been mostly Elizabeth.
"I like Lizzy better," he whispered. He held her gaze for a long time, before finally opening his arms and letting go of her. Gently, slowly, he moved her off him, so that she was sitting up in bed. Her head was swimming.
"Come, Elizabeth." He sat up as well, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "I shall take you to your room. The ghosts will not dare approach."
But she remained frozen, orphaned, all of a sudden, in the aftermath of such great intimacy.
"Elizabeth," he repeated, twisting back towards her across the bed. "Please. I should have kissed you, had I not let go."
This admission seemed to come to him at some cost of his own; shamefacedly, he turned away, then spoke again:
"Please allow me to take you to your room, madam."
Elizabeth obeyed, gathering her robe about her. She felt terribly discomfited, more so than before, unsure whether she had done something wrong. Cat lay, curled up in a perfect orange circle, on a chair. The thought of what had displaced him from the bed made Elizabeth flush with embarrassment. She leaned to pick him up, but he slipped past her legs and out the door as Darcy opened it.
"Come." Each holding a candle, they walked in silence down the hallway. Halfway to her room, he reached for her hand. She gave it to him with a sigh of relief; for it seemed that his discomfiture stemmed from something other than her wanton behavior.
Near the door to her room, they stopped, even as Cat reappeared magically from the shadows. They stood, silently, facing each other, the wily feline weaving circles about their legs with a low purr.
"Good-night. May I have my hand back?"
He laughed, releasing her, her fingers slipping from his, then turned and strode away, holding his candle aloft. Elizabeth sighed, called to Cat, and went inside, closing the door behind her.
The day after the Harvest Ball, Darcy took a long time coming back from his ride with Mr. Hawthorne. There had been a matter of a small stone bridge across the river, one side of which was about to crumble. He had spent some time deciding, with Mr. Hawthorne and the tenant, how best to fix the bridge, when to start on it and how much it would cost. After which, there had been an unpardonably lengthy and exhausting dispute over some geese belonging to one of the tenants. The damnable birds had wandered and mixed with another tenant's geese and were now impossible to tell apart. The squabbling of the tenants amidst the infernal noise made by the geese had given him a terrible headache. He had finally wrenched himself out of it, having deferred to whatever decision the overseer thought fit to make, and rode back to the house.
On his approach, he espied two people walking companionably and was surprised to recognize his cousin and his wife.
Fitzwilliam grinned broadly and waved at him.
"Ah, Darcy! Quite a country squire you've become!"
Darcy ignored his cousin's quip and bowed politely from the saddle. "Ma'am. Fitzwilliam."
Elizabeth smiled at him coyly, lips curving, eyelashes fluttering. Her dress was dark again, but she now wore her hair in curls under her bonnet.
"Mr. Darcy." She bobbed a curtsey. "We had waited for you. Quite a long time."
"No matter." Darcy dismounted, taking Kublai's reins. "Are you leaving or returning?" He was determined to be civil, determined not to dwell upon how little he liked her walking out with Fitzwilliam.
"Returning." She looked up at him, squinting at the autumn sun. "Will you walk with us?"
"Of course. Where is my sister?"
"Miss Lucas has kept Georgiana behind. It appears she has been amiss in learning les verbes irreguliers." Her French accent was quite charming, he noticed. "But what kept you?"
Well, at least she was not glad he had been late. He told her about the geese, over-emphasizing the drama and his own suffering in it. To Fitzwilliam's laughter, she cooed and patted his arm lightly. "Oh my poor Mr. Darcy."
It was ridiculous how happy it made him, to hear her call him that. My Mr. Darcy. He endeavored not to show it, particularly not in front of Fitzwilliam.
Turning towards Kublai, Elizabeth dipped one hand into her pocket and produced several pieces of sugar wrapped neatly in a napkin. Without asking Darcy's permission, she fed them to Kublai as she stroked one finger down the white stripe on his nose. The mean looked on: Fitzwilliam in obvious amusement, and Darcy in secret pleasure.
The interlude concluded when Kublai sought more sugar, and Elizabeth raised both palms, empty, in the air, showing him that she had no more to give. The mount touched his soft nose against her palm, then turned away, disappointed. They all of them laughed.
"Madam, you will spoil my horse rotten if you ply him with sugar," Darcy spoke placidly.
"No indeed, a little sugar never spoiled anyone." She cast him a saucy glance. "Plus I shall make you a deal. If you permit me to spoil your horse, I shall permit you to spoil Cat any time you wish."
Darcy grinned. "Madam, I am afraid this is a bad bargain for me. Clearly in the case of your cat there isn't that much spoiling left to be done! I believe you have done an admirable job of it by now."
In excellent spirits, the trio walked back, he with Kublai in tow. It appeared that he had interrupted a spirited argument. They had been disputing the merits of the Spanish corrida. Fitzwilliam, who had traveled extensively and had seen men gored by other men on the battlefield just the previous year, looked at Elizabeth with amusement as she declared the whole tradition of bullfighting barbaric.
"How can such a cruel sport be made a national pastime?" She spoke passionately, and even turned a small circle in visible exasperation.
"Not any crueler than our own foxhunt," Fitzwilliam replied.
"Or a cockfight, or a dogfight," Darcy added. Or, he thought, a boxing match. He had eschewed such amusements lately, but he had seen at least one of each as a student at Trinity. He himself had boxed with Bennet. He grinned to himself. Not since Elizabeth's brother had he bloodied another man's nose. All of a sudden, he found he missed it.
"Oh you two!" In frustration, she wagged her head at them. "More so, more so! A hunt is different-the fox is in its own domain-it can escape-"
"It hardly ever does." Fitzwilliam's hair shone like a golden helmet in the morning sun. Darcy was in agreement; he found he liked teasing her.
"It is almost invariably torn by the hounds." He was surprised that she even took to such a conversation; any lady of his acquaintance would long have declared it unsavory. Elizabeth's enthusiasm, however, showed no sign of flagging:
"-but the bull is brought into a closed arena, and driven to exhaustion and stabbed with knives-"
"Daggers," Fitzwilliam corrected her.
"But it is a singularly colorful show, madam. And the ladies adore it. I believe if you were to see it, you might just find it curious."
"Ugh!" The sound she made was thoroughly unladylike, and Darcy could not help laughing. "Never!"
Darcy found such conviction in her endearing: "Is the suffering of another being so intolerable to you? Be it even a dumb beast?"
She did not answer, giving him a cross look, her eyes stormy. He hoped she understood that he was teasing her. His father had been right about her, of course: she had the biggest heart of anyone he knew. Hang Fitzwilliam, let him see. With the hand free of Kublai's reins, he reached for her hand, hoping to coax her out of her pique. She looked over her shoulder, suddenly bestowing upon him the very magical radiant beaming smile he had craved for so long. That smile. It astounded him, for he had not expected to see it, such a rare appearance it didst make when they were together.
Straight away, the events of the night before came before his mind's eye, sending intense waves of heat through him. Imagination and memory took him on a turbulent course, casting him into alarm and confusion. He felt the same overwhelming need to kiss her as he had last night. The same powerful, precarious intoxication that left him tottering unsteadily on his feet. Last night, he had told himself it was merely that--a night. An intimate, enveloping darkness, and too much wine, and all the stress and frustration of a long day. He had almost convinced himself of that. But now, in full sunlight, he knew that it had had nothing to do with day or night or situation-but with the way Elizabeth cocked her head to the side, looking at him. She must have read something in his face, for the radiant smile had faded off her face and was replaced by a grave, concerned expression.
Darcy squeezed her fingers in his. He had suddenly lost his voice. His overwhelming reticence now sent all three of them into silence and reflection (and perhaps it set Fitzwilliam to cunning observation). Hardly another word was said all the way back to the house.
Upon returning to the house, Darcy was quietly called aside and summoned to his father's bedside. At first, he was sickened with fear. He hastened to Mr. Darcy's chambers, thinking his father had taken a turn for the worse. But even as his heart sank in terror, he thought it strange that Mr. Darcy wished to see him alone; for clearly he had not sent for Elizabeth.
Entering his father's bedchamber, he saw, straight away, that if Mr. Darcy was not better, he was certainly not worse. With untold relief, he bowed and kissed his father's hand.
"Sir. How slept you last night."
"Better than could be expected." His father's voice was wry, his expression impossible to read. "Sit down, Will. I would speak with you."
Darcy obeyed, his thoughts turning to the evening before. He was clearly here to be chewed out, and however little he liked it, he would bear it with dignity and humility. His father was never one for handing out much punishment; but on those rare occasions h? had, absolute control and respect was required of the one chastised. Not to mention that in this case, he could find no justification for his asinine behavior.
Whatever his father had to say to him, he had deserved it fully.
But, turning a little to him, Mr. Darcy said, in a tone that was not at all displeased: "I wish for you to take your wife to town."
"Sir?" Darcy blinked. He had expected to have to proffer some explanation for the beastly embarrassment of the night before... and he had been hard at work at creating one. For surely he could not admit to his father all he had admitted to Elizabeth. Ugh. The very thought.
"I want you to take Elizabeth to London for a fortnight or so," Mr. Darcy repeated. Darcy frowned as the meaning of his father's words sank in.
"To leave you here-all alone...Pardon me, sir, it is not agreeable to me, and I daresay it would not be agreeable to Mrs. Darcy."
"You speak easily for her, Will. I am glad you know her mind so well." A sarcastic turn to his mouth and a raised eyebrow told Darcy that his father thought him presumptuous. Probably rightly so. But he only shrugged.
"I believe I do, sir, on this one matter."
"Nonsense, young man! Your Mrs. Darcy is about to go out of her wits here. She is far too young to have undertaken and suffered as much as she has this year."
"I know that, but-"
"I am quite implacable on the subject, Will." Mr. Darcy's countenance expressed displeasure. "I believe you both need a respite from Pemberley. Perhaps then you will stop snarling at each other like two rabid dogs."
"Sir!" Darcy was horrified. "We were not-"
Mr. Darcy waved his hand at him. "No, no, do not tell me. I do not wish to know what you two have wrought between you. Do not mistreat her-otherwise, it is between her and you."
Darcy bowed his head in shame. He had almost slipped into an indiscretion. He had never discussed his amours with anyone, such a conversation unbecoming-nay, unimaginable between two gentlemen. The notion that he now classified Elizabeth as an amour drove him to cold palms and a queasy stomach. Thereto, he had thought of her as something different altogether.
"Forgive me, father."
Mr. Darcy rolled his eyes. "Fitzwilliam, I feel mended enough to let you two go. I shall do well enough in your absence."
Darcy, however, stood his ground.
"I shall speak with the doctor first. I'll not go without it, and neither will Elizabeth. And yes, I do know her that well."
His father's gaze, now fixed at him, seemed to read his innermost thoughts. Mr. Darcy spoke sharply:
"Doctor, eh!" From the folds of his blanket, he produced a folded missive. "For you."
Dumbfounded, Darcy opened it. From the doctor, naturally telling him that his father was in no immediate danger and would suffer a two or three week separation with them easily.
He lowered the letter slowly, marveling. "You think of everything."
Mr. Darcy allowed himself a reserved, amused smile. "'Tis something you need to learn to do, Will, if ever you are to govern this place successfully."
Darcy rose and bowed again, folding the letter and tucking it inside his coat. He doubted not that Elizabeth would demand to see it.
"Take her to London at once, Will. Take her to the theatre. Take her to Almack's. Show her around the city, she has never been." He narrowed his eyes at his son, a devilish spark somewhere deep inside. "And if Catherine should say a word, tell her to mind her own business!"
Darcy smiled to himself. His aunt's reaction to his marriage would be unimaginable. It both alarmed and amused him to think of it.
He quitted his father's apartments and went in search of Elizabeth. London. He had not thought of it. He had been so far away from it these three months; the word now barely rang familiar. He forced his mind to it, remembering. Streets teeming with varied multitudes, throngs of carriages in front of the theater in Covent Garden, ladies in blinding diamond arrays smiling behind their fans. Drinking coffee at White's with Gregory and-ah-Bingley. Absolute freedom, his time all his, to do as he desired. What was it like again, to be the supreme master of his own time and person? Who could have thought that the life of the Master of Pemberley, with all its honor and distinctions, could never compare to his London existence in the sheer amount of spare time? It had seemed to him, in his urban vanity, that one could do little at Pemberley to occupy himself, except whittle away the time, going mad with boredom. Hah. Little did he know.
Yes, he thought, absolute freedom-hardly. Not this time. He would have a wife with him. Of necessity, some amusements must be curtailed. Surprisingly, the thought did not vex him. With Elizabeth at his side, there would be so many other diversions, of the more innocent kind. He smiled at the thought, at the mental picture of himself taking her for chocolates and to Hatchard's, to browse for books. She would adore Hatchard's. And perhaps to the menagerie at the Tower-though, on greater reflection, he was not so certain she would like it, what with her affinity for animals and her dislike for their suffering. And if the Serpentine froze early this year-but no, it would be too early-
"Fitzwilliam." She was walking towards him, wearing a midnight-blue dress. He bent over her hand, grazing it softly with his lips. "I have come in search of you."
"Truly?" He did not release her hand, tucking it neatly into the crook of his elbow. "To what do I owe such pleasure?"
"Would you humor me? Would you come with me to-oh, well, just come with me."
Intrigued, he acquiesced without a word. She led him to the music room (Georgiana was not within, sequestered above the stairs with her governess; Darcy suspected that she would be rather unhappy at the prospect of them leaving). Taking the seat before the pianoforte, she indicated she wanted him on the other side, turning pages for her. He looked; it was the selfsame Haydn sonatas he had bought for her at Lambton.
"You did learn them." He was more touched than he cared to admit.
"You asked me, did you not?" She straightened out on the bench, primly, putting her feet flat on the floor and taking the first tentative chord.
Thereupon, her attention was off him and assiduously on her music. On his part, Darcy had to force himself to concentrate on turning the pages. She played very well, but he might as well have been deaf, so little attention he was paying to the music. Instead, his eyes were on her, almost constantly; every moment of observation wonderful with discoveries. Wretchedly, he catalogued the changes in her, changes that had come on gradually, but which he had not seen altogether-until the night before. The flaws in her face and figure now seemed eclipsed by the loveliness of her amber eyes, light hazel speckled with gold. Her beautiful chiseled hands, a lighter shade of ivory than the keys on the piano-forte, strong and long-fingered, really perfect hands. And the tender peach blush that rose in her face as she cast him a lightning-quick glance, indubitably to see whether he was turning her pages.
"Fitzwilliam," she admonished him. She said his name tentatively, shyly. Because she hardly ever addressed him so in company, he had come to feel it was for him only. He relished the sound of it from her. "Fitzwilliam, do turn the pages."
Catching himself, he did as she bid him. She was finished after two sonatas, and he proffered his congratulations and admiration, telling her that she had played marvelously. He was certain she had, even if he had heard so little of it. She smiled shyly at his praise, dark eyelashes sweeping down against her cheek.
"I shall learn more in time." She rose, took her music off the piano-forte. She folded the sheets carefully one-to-one, as if they were precious to her. Putting them inside a folder, she hid the latter inside the piano bench, came around it and took his arm herself, without him offering. "Shall we return?"
But he urged her back to the piano bench. "Let us sit; I have something to tell you."
They sat close together on the bench, her knees, muslin-covered, an inch away from his. He relayed his father's idea to her, then, and found, to his pleasant surprise, that she immediately lit up with joy at the thought. Tempered, instantly, with concern for Mr. Darcy. He gave her the doctor's note to read. It assuaged her concern but little, so she sought confirmation from him.
"He will truly be all right?"
"You read the note yourself." Darcy shrugged. "It seems that, which killed your father has merely maimed mine."
"Indeed." Her eyes gazed upon him with light sadness, stark compassion. They both knew that Mr. Darcy was, indeed, damaged. He would never walk again. His mental faculties, though still sharp, had suffered to the extent where he would no longer be able to manage Pemberley.
"Do not distress yourself, Elizabeth." Thoughtlessly, he covered her hand with his. "I do not like to see you sad."
It was the first thing that had come to mind. He had said it without thinking. But it was the truth: now that he had seen her happy... the sight of her sad was excruciating to behold.
He pressed his hand to hers, twining their fingers, seeking to change the conversation before it led him to dwell on the things unpleasant to his heart. "Have you ever been to London?"
She shook her head, starry-eyed. "I have passed through it. But no more. I daresay you must have had more chances to form an acquaintance with it."
Darcy thought it prudent not to answer. Of his life in London, she would know nothing. Not because he did not want her to; indeed, he told himself that should not care. But nobody at Pemberley knew anything about London. It was understood without saying that in pursuing his amusements in town, he would not be immoderate, would not expose the Darcy name to ridicule. Beyond that, nobody wanted to know.
"There are so many things I could show you in town..."
Their preparations began immediately. They would depart within a s'ennight. Georgiana was, as he had imagined, quite distressed at being left behind. It was to Darcy's considerable pique that she had not become so until informed that Elizabeth was leaving as well.
"You will not miss me at all?" he teased her, touching her lightly on the nose.
"Of course I shall," the girl said somberly. "But you are always leaving... I am quite accustomed to it."
He was flabbergasted by her answer, and concealed his hurt behind careless laughter. "Georgie, I shall bring your precious Elizabeth back before you know her gone."
But as it was, Georgiana sulked. Elizabeth fretted and asked whether they could take her along with them. Darcy would not mind; for there were few things he would do with his wife that could not include his sister. But his father proved strangely implacable on the subject.
"I shall not have the child torn from her studies," he explained gravely. "She is too young to go. She has no interests in town."
Darcy frowned. "Perhaps Miss Lucas could come with her to keep up her lessons."
"And what of Mrs. Reynolds?" Mr. Darcy snapped. "And perhaps Cook? And why not take Mr. Hawthorne with you into the bargain?"
Darcy was taken aback. "You find it fit to mock me, sir."
"Indeed I do, Will, for you are behaving a fool. I should like you to have a holiday with your wife. Just the two of you. Georgiana's time to go to London will come."
Darcy knew precisely what his father was doing. He had no heart to tell him that he would welcome Georgiana's presence in London. However much he liked the idea of showing the town to Elizabeth, she was beginning to affect him in a way he had never anticipated. He would have liked his sister to be near them, if only as another person to focus upon.
But he would not argue with his father, would not prove the very thing he tried so desperately to deny.
"As you say, sir."
"And will you have new gowns, ma'am?" Mary's speech was garbled for the many pins she held snugly between her teeth; but Elizabeth could easily guess the subject of her maid's discourse. Upon learning that the young Master was taking her Mistress to London, and that-gasp-she was to accompany her, Mary waxed poetic about the upcoming journey. Indeed, she could talk of scarcely anything else.
"Why should I need new gowns?" Elizabeth caught Mary's eyes in the glass. "I have plenty."
"Yes, but ma'am! They are all-"
"They are all what?" One arched eyebrow and a pointed look in the mirror told the maid everything Elizabeth thought of her impudence. "I know that you are not suggesting my gowns are not good enough to wear in town." You better not be suggesting that.
Mary shrugged, setting Elizabeth's hair in a way that looked artistically ruffled, upswept tresses pinned with invisible pins, one escaping here and there. Elizabeth sighed and puffed air at one lock. Foolishly, on the night of the ball, she had allowed Mary's scissors near her head; thereupon, the crafty maid had effectively prevented her mistress from ever being able to tie her hair back in a severe bun. Ever-or at least until the short strands in the front had grown sufficiently. A long time, surely.
"Everyone knows that fashions in London are very different."
"Thank you, Mary, for your concern." She watched the maid slip a light-purple ribbon, to match her dress, through her curls.
"You always argue with me, ma'am, and then you always do as I suggest." Mary stepped aside, admiring her work. Elizabeth gasped, and the girl went on, unmindful: "But perhaps you are better off to wait until we are in London to order new gowns. Surely Lambton fashions cannot compare to London ones. "
Elizabeth sighed and rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You are free to go," she told the chit. She looked at herself in the mirror. They were having an evening of music tonight, to entertain Mr. Darcy. She was relieved that no neighbors had been invited: she would hardly have the heart to play before them, not after the fiasco of the Harvest Ball.
Elizabeth pulled the rich indigo shawl Jamie had brought her around her shoulders. The truth was, Mary's advice about gowns did not strike her as all that insensible. There was something to it, perhaps. She had never concerned herself with finery; but the look of herself in the mirror all of a sudden made her covet pretty things. Still, she could hardly imagine herself wantonly spending half a day at the modiste. It would simply not be ... useful.
This desire to adorn herself was recent and not a little annoying. She cocked her head, regarding herself in the mirror. She was looking very well, indeed. She had to grant it: this new hairstyle flattered her more than she could have imagined. Damned Mary, interfering girl!
There was a knock on the door, and she bid the person enter.
"You are looking very pretty tonight, madam."
She whipped about on her settee, to see her husband standing by the door, dressed for supper. Oh, how handsome he was. She could not deny it if she wished: in evening clothes, he looked splendid. The cut of his coat accentuated a figure that was neither too hulking nor too slender but altogether quite perfect. And his height! His expression as he gazed upon her was unreadable.
Self-consciously, she wondered whether he found fault with her. Raising one hand to her cheek, she tucked an errant curl behind one ear.
Darcy broke the silence, finally.
"Shall we descend? They have long rung for supper."
He stood there, holding his hand palm up, waiting for her. To descend to supper on her husband's arm, there was something to it. Placidly, she put her hand in his. "Sir."
At supper, the conversation revolved around their planned departure, three days hence. She would leave by carriage, with both Darcy and the Colonel accompanying her on horseback. She disliked the thought of spending a long time in a closed carriage and envied the men the freedom of the saddle. Wouldst that she could ride just as well; but her equine accomplishments did not provide for such a journey.
Mr. Darcy, in wonderful spirits, instructed them upon all the things Darcy would need to show Elizabeth in town. Theatre, dances, concerts, Almack's. More theatre. The many beautiful parks fit for walking and driving. His favorite coffee houses and confectionaries and booksellers.
And then, the people. Acquaintances of Darcy's who would indubitably desire to meet his wife. And her own relations, new to her as they were. Perhaps, on their way back-or there!-they could stop at Longbourn. Yes, indeed, she would like that very much.
London seemed to her a basket of wonders.
She turned to her husband, who was easy and smiling at her side.
"Have you family in London? In addition to Colonel, of course. I did not know."
"Indeed." It was the Colonel who answered. "My parents, my brother, my brother's family. Our aunt Catherine and her daughter."
Elizabeth saw Darcy scowl and stiffen visibly, then shoot his cousin a warning look. The Colonel smiled and shrugged and turned to ply Georgiana with sweets. The girl still pouted, less unhappy at being left behind than that her pique at being left behind was being so thoroughly ignored.
Elizabeth slowly set her fork down. Her mood was ruined. He had family in London, he did, and she had not known. In all their conversations, he had not seen fit to tell her. That, and the look of caution he had bestowed upon his cousin, meant that they did not know, either, that he had concealed his marriage from them.
"And what of your friends, you must have friends in London!"
"Some," he said curtly, looking away.
Elizabeth said nothing further, concentrating on finishing her meal. He looked so guilty. She wondered who else did not know that they were now married. She pecked a little more at the food on her plate; but she had little stomach for it. She left her dessert untouched and rose.
"Forgive me," she told Mr. Darcy. "I am not... I am not well. I am fatigued. May I retire?"
"Oh Elizabeth, what of our musical evening!" Georgiana cried, disappointed.
"Excuse me, Georgie, I am-It must be the wine. Forgive me."
"Of course." Mr. Darcy looked upon her in concern. "Shall I send for-"
"Oh no, please do not distress yourself." She quickly picked up his hand, held it against her cheek. "I am merely tired."
She was already at the doors to her bedchamber when Darcy caught up with her.
"You are behaving like a demmed child again," he said behind her back.
She pushed the door into her room and walked in, leaving him behind. To her outraged surprise, he stepped over the threshold, following her, closing the door behind him.
"I did not give you leave to follow me to my bedchamber," she said coldly, leveling a scornful glance at him over her shoulder.
He leaned back against the door, folding his arms on his chest, as if to show her that he would not leave.
"You came to mine the other night," he said quietly.
"Ungenerous of you to remind me of it." She sat down on a settee to remove her shoes.
"Dishonest of you to hide behind headaches."
Elizabeth looked up from unlacing her shoes. "You forget yourself. Not that you should speak of dishonesty."
She set the shoes (her old leather slippers) to the side and rose and padded, in her stockings, to light a candle, and then another, and another. She set two on the mantelpiece and one near her bed.
He laughed and bowed his head. "Touché. You are angry at me because-"
"Who told you I am angry with you?" She made herself comfortable on the settee, tucking her feet under her. He said, mocking her:
"A little bird told me. I know you think me a fool, but credit me with some understanding."
She was very angry with him, nay, she was livid with him. Why-she did not know. Indeed, her feelings at the moment defied understanding. At the time they had married, it had been her express condition that their marriage last only until his father's death. Faith, it still was. Why, then, was she so upset? Why did she care whether he hid her from his relations, from his friends? Whether he was ashamed of her?
"You are angry with me because I concealed our marriage from my relations." He spoke evenly, his gaze fixed on her in a way that sent her squirming.
"Yes, what of it?" She lifted her chin. "I wrote to my aunt, and to Jamie."
He bowed his head, thoughtful. "I have nothing to say to that," he replied after a pause. "I am at fault here, madam. You are right to be cross with me."
So earnest did he sound, and so penitent, that Elizabeth froze in surprise. Why was he so ready to apologize, when she knew herself to be a hypocrite? She had insisted that their marriage remain a charade-what gave her the right to be angry with him for concealing it? She had wanted him to argue with her, wanted him to point her to her own faults, so that she may defend herself and point him to his. Now she was lost for words.
An awkward pause ensued and lasted far too long. Elizabeth, unsure of how to end it, sat in revolted heap, pondering both her own fickle nature and his shocking readiness to capitulate. Finally, she murmured, haltingly:
"Do not distress yourself. It is ... uncharitable of me to blame you."
"No, not at all." He planted his feet on the floor again, sliding down a little, pushing his shoulders against the door. A boy's idling pose. "I should have written to them. But I have to admit to something."
Elizabeth waited, wary.
"I did not want a scandal." He frowned. "In fact, I have been quite... mortified of it."
Elizabeth could easily believe that, but, however speedy was their marriage, she did not see in it a source for the kind of scandal that would frighten her husband.
"Why would there be a scandal?"
Darcy winced. "You do not know my aunt."
Elizabeth could not suppress a smile. "Is she such a dragon?"
"Of the worst sort. In fact, I should warn you-upon our arrival to London, she will probably appear at my house and attempt to intimidate one or both of us."
"I shall know to be prepared. But why would she object?"
Sliding down an inch lower, he crossed his arms on his chest again. "Because-but it is a long story. Do you mind if I sit down?"
She shook her head, mutely. He walked across the room and took the opposite edge of her settee, even though there was a chair right across from her. Elizabeth tucked her feet tighter under her, pulled at the edge of her shawl. "So," she said. "Your aunt."
"Yes. My aunt. My mother's own older sister. Nothing, of course, like my mother was. Frightfully rich. A heavy-handed old lady unaccustomed to being gainsaid in anything. Those who are afraid of her dare not argue with her-and the rest of us know it to be a hopeless endeavour. It is impossible to convince Aunt Catherine of anything, and nothing gives her so much pleasure as getting an upper hand over the other person. People around her either grovel or they are not around her."
"Oh dear," Elizabeth said.
"Precisely." Darcy hooked a puff with the tip of his well-shined boot, pulled it closer and crossed his ankles over it. "So imagine. This aunt of mine has a daughter. She is convinced that said daughter and I are meant to marry one day. What evil genie has wrought his vile magic to put this deluded idea into Aunt Catherine's head I do not know, do not wish to know and hope not to cross my paths with him-ever. She claims that she and my mother have concocted this plan while we were in our respective cradles, but I hope my mother had more sense than that."
Elizabeth giggled. "Why, do you not like the daughter? Though, the way you describe your aunt, I would not wish her for my mother-in-law if she had an angel for a child."
"Well, I cannot say an ill word about Anne... my cousin," Darcy said seriously. "Nor a good one. We have never liked each other, have never really talked. Not like you and I talk. She is a creature without spirit or character to her person."
Suddenly shy, Elizabeth pulled the shawl tighter around her. "Will you marry her..." She paused. "I mean to say-will you marry her after..."
She could not read the look in his eyes as he shook his head. "No. I shall never marry Anne de Bourgh. She has no life in her. I should wane and die living with her."
"Is she pretty, at least?"
"Is she pretty! So what if she were? You know that is not what counts!"
"Is it not?" Elizabeth giggled again, fluttering her lashes. Liar, she thought. Of course it counts. Even to you.
"No," he said, gravely. "My cousin Anne is not pretty. But even if she were! We have not said more than twenty words between us over the years."
"So why does your Aunt want you married?"
"She wants our estates married. Her daughter is the heiress to Rosings Park, which is larger even than Pemberley."
"Indeed. Could there be such a thing."
"You are teasing me!" Darcy accused. "This is no laughing matter."
"But of course," she agreed. "I can see you feel positively hunted by this aunt of yours. Poor man."
But now he, too, was laughing. "Shrew! Perhaps I was unduly afraid of having you meet my aunt. Perhaps you can stand up to her."
"Well, I stood up to you."
Darcy quieted down at that, his gaze no longer on her, wandering. She realized: her words must have given him some distress.
Elizabeth watched his hand play with the fringe of her shawl. Leaning over the length of the settee, she put one hand on his arm.
"Please, don't," she implored. "I do not like to see you sad."
Darcy glanced at her, quickly, dark eyes troubled. His hand trapped hers against the fabric of his sleeve.
"Elizabeth," he said thickly. He grasped her wrist, then pulled her closer with one deliberate tug. With a gasp, she slid along the blue chintz and fell against him. Before she knew what was happening, she was in his arms, placed carefully and comfortably across his lap.
Oh I ought to be furious with him. She ought to get off his lap; she ought to ask him to leave. He was in her bedchamber! Well, she could not pretend indignation at that, having invaded his a few nights ago. But this! How dare he! To be holding her thus!
Only he was not, she realized with a shock. He was not holding her, his arms crossed behind his head. Nothing prevented her from hopping off his lap and asking him to leave. Nothing.
But all she did was scowl at him, to show him his liberties were not welcome.
"What?" He adopted an innocent expression, eyebrows raised in mock surprise.
"You know this is most improper."
Elizabeth found she had no answer to that. Propped up like she was, she felt terribly exposed.
"You know why," she said sullenly.
"Indeed I do not."
"What if someone were to come in?"
"Strangers march in here all the time?"
"You should teach Mary to knock. I should never allow my man to simply walk in on me."
"I have nothing to hide from her. Not normally."
He gave a short boyish laugh. "Well, imagine the rumors should she see you in my arms. Perhaps the entire Derbyshire will finally acquit me of not doing my husbandly duty."
Indignant, Elizabeth made to hop off his lap; but he grabbed her around her waist and held her tightly, preventing her escape.
"Mrs. Darcy," he said gravely. "Behave. 'Tis my forfeit for you to behave tonight."
She froze in place.
"I may just choose to disregard your forfeit," she said through her teeth, scowling at him.
His hands dropped from her.
"You may," he agreed, "if my company is so repugnant to you."
Elizabeth simply could not prove that by leaving his embrace. Propriety demanded that she quit his lap at once, but propriety was simply not a good enough reason for her right now. Repugnant! There was genuine hurt in his voice when he said it. Why lie to him, only to preserve propriety? They were husband and wife, after all-and if she were to be at all honest with herself, she had come to enjoy his company greatly. So she said or did nothing, sitting there ramrod-straight.
"A forfeit is a forfeit," she said slowly.
"Elizabeth." His eyes were on her, searching, smiling. Caressing her. When she spoke, her voice was a pathetic whisper:
"So... who else knows?"
"Well, Fitzwilliam, obviously. And my good friend Lord Gregory." "Ah."
"Nobody else. I had no more friends, and I did not think informing casual acquaintances was required. When we arrive in London," he added, looking intently at her face, "I shall not hide you. You will be introduced to them all 'till you are sick of them."
Elizabeth could not help smiling. So simple and direct seemed his explanation, she was feeling very foolish, indeed.
With one fingertip, he traced a line down her neck, from behind her ear to her clavicle.
Her heart beating high up in her throat, she felt him move the top edge of her shawl aside. His fingers rested there, warm and light against her skin. She felt his other hand, planted surely in the middle of her back, agonizingly.
"Elizabeth," he murmured, frowning. "You look as if you have swallowed one of my foils."
She giggled at that, amazed at her own ability to laugh. It seemed to persevere in the strangest situations... She sighed. When did she begin finding him amusing? Not in the wretched pathetic state of bitter irony, but genuinely funny. Her hands clasped and unclasped, grasping her skirts and wrinkling them.
Tenderly, he covered her hand with his, soothing her, calming the nervous movement of her fingers. She welcomed his touch, flipping her hand palm up, their fingers now twined together. His countenance expressed such surprise and pleasure as he returned her small caress that Elizabeth's breath caught a little. He squeezed her hand hard; it hurt a little where his signet was digging into her flesh. Fool, why are you doing this? Whatever intimacy came of this they would not be able to savor. But she clung so fiercely to each small moment, loving each instant of their closeness for itself. They may only be together for a time... but the tenderness in his gaze was a potent lure. The mysterious unknown he promised her silently, with a single press of her hand, was an even stronger one.
"Mr. Darcy," she said. "Fitzwilliam-" Stop, she wanted to tell him, please stop. But his hand stroked down her back, again and again, long luxurious strokes beneath her shawl. How did his hand come to be beneath her shawl? Why did she feel it with such intensity-through her gown, her stays, her chemise? Her words of warning and supplication died in her throat, and nothing remained but the desire to be where she was. To be nearer, even, to be in his arms. His form, his figure, the enchanted dreamy look in his soulful eyes all drew her with primal intensity, awakening within her the feelings she had never known before.
Closing her eyes, she absorbed his every touch, the gentle downward caresses of her back-then moving up to her shoulders and down her arms. His other hand left hers and stroked her tenderly under her chin, in the same way she gentled Cat into good humor. The radiance of the candles behind her closed eyelids, she felt him caress her neck with the backs of his fingers, touching her just barely, stroking her with exquisite, excruciating lightness. Then, a bolder caress as his palm closed, possessively, over the small leaping pulse at the base of her throat. My heart is there, you are holding my heart. But she dared not lean closer and he made no move to urge her into his embrace. Thus she sat, exposed, so very straight, shivering under his hands. Her shawl slipped off, falling soundlessly to the floor.
"You are so lovely." His voice so close to her ear, his lips almost tickling her earlobe. Elizabeth startled, pressed one hand over her heart, laughed at herself. Eyes still closed, she felt his lips graze the bare skin of her collar-bone, then fall away, quickly. Ah! Her breath coming in shallow gasps, she sat there, waiting for it to be repeated. Desiring it more fiercely than she could have imagined.
He did not. She willed herself to open her eyes, turning her head to face him. "Fitzwilliam," she said softly. As if in a dream, she saw her own hand as it flew up against his cheek, cradling it. He rubbed his face against it like a sweet child. Emotion welled up in her breast, and the desire to comfort him, to hold him close. It made her reckless, heedless. Leaning in, she slipped both arms around his neck.
As if giving in to some powerful unknown, his body moved beneath her. A wave of a shudder ran through him. His arms encircled her, bringing her closer. Their faces an inch from each other, she was surprised to feel his breath coming as fast as hers, his breast heaving against her and his arms like a steel vise around her. She remembered his words from that night: had I not stopped just now, I should have kissed you. Wouldst that he had not stopped! She had never been kissed before, not even in jest. To be kissed by him in earnest... The thought both thrilled and petrified her, and she pressed closer to him for strength and bravery.
But instead of kissing her, he gathered her closer to himself, holding her tenderly against his form. He dropped his beautiful head, and his lips grazed again the junction of her neck and shoulder, just barely, firing her entire being with untold longing; then slipped up her neck, lightly, then rested behind her ear. It seemed he would do anything, kiss her anywhere but on her mouth. Before she knew what she was about, a small whimpering sound flew off her lips and she arched her neck for more.
She came to her senses when she saw that he was no longer holding her close. Instead, he observed her curiously, cautiously, as if not quite certain what to do with her. Mortified he was by her wantonness, that much was certain. Deeply shamed, Elizabeth drew her hands from his form, drew herself from his embrace and scrambled off his lap.
"Elizabeth?" he asked behind her. He sounded confused. What must he think of her!
She skulked about the room, as if looking for a place to hide herself, curl up and die. She would beg him to leave, but she was too ashamed to speak... finally, she found some refuge by the dark window. Standing there, leaning her forehead against the cool glass, her eyes shut against the image of his shocked face, Elizabeth contemplated whether she could escape to London alone and unnoticed-to avoid facing him over breakfast tomorrow morning.
Tricky business, that, as he had risen from the settee and was now standing behind her. She could feel him-large, solid, bewildering.
"Elizabeth," he murmured. "Turn and look at me."
She shook her head, mutely.
"A forfeit, Elizabeth, obey."
She groaned. "How long will you milk that damnable forfeit!" There was a pause behind her; she could see him reflected vaguely in the window before her. And she thought: oh he must think me irreparably vile and vulgar, and then, let him. But he only chuckled, and put one hand on her shoulder and turned her around, quickly, before she could utter a word of protest.
Lifting her chin deftly with two fingers, he looked her straight in the eye. Defiantly, she straightened her back and jerked her chin, irritated by such disrespect on his part. As if she was a child! If he wanted to kiss her, let him kiss her, but dammit, this was intolerable!
She stood taut, tense, waiting. But he took her by surprise when he pulled her up in a quick embrace, straightening out his full height, lifting her with him. Her feet dangled an inch away from the floor as he held her to himself. A huge sigh flittered through him, stirring his entire being, and she could feel it in the every inch of her skin.
"My sweet girl," he said tenderly. "What shall we do, Elizabeth?"
She did not know the answer to that, nor did she know why he was asking. Nor why she was moved to think of it. He lowered her gently to the floor, then stood there, holding her, resting his cheek against her hair. Then, slowly, as if forcing himself to do so, Darcy let Elizabeth go.
Moved by an impulse, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him quickly on the cheek-and froze, mortified by so a wanton and forward a thing.
He seemed so white, so still, as if etched from the hardest marble. His countenance expressed all manner of emotion, and shockingly, he was holding up one hand to his cheek. As if to erase all memory of her kiss. Elizabeth fell back, breathing quickly like the quarry in a hunt. Say something. Please say something, she wanted to shout, please be not so silent and still...
Gasping, she turned on her heel and dashed for the door, believing he now thought her brazen and unseemly... She reached for the door handle and almost smashed into her husband as he cut off her retreat.
"Hush, hush," he murmured, catching her into a quick embrace. "Oh Elizabeth, hush."
Elizabeth did calm down a bit, falling against his chest, which heaved mightily under her cheek. Had she looked, she would have seen him undone; but she had no eyes for anything but her own distress. Blind to what an older woman might have seen easily, she misinterpreted every sign he gave.
Thereupon, firmly entrenched in her certainty that he thought her wanton and believing in his disapprobation, Elizabeth gently pushed against Darcy's chest, begging to be released from his embrace. He obeyed, letting her go. They stood by the door like two strangers, tottering on the brink of true intimacy.
"Forgive me for being so forward," she said unhappily. Darcy looked up at her, quickly, his eyes turbulent.
"Forgive you for kissing me?" His mouth curved into a bitter smile. "What a very great crime, indeed! I do not know how I ever could!"
Elizabeth said fiercely. "I only kissed you on the cheek-in-in jest. I-I did not mean it that way."
He watched her a moment, and then he said: "I am very sorry for that. I wish you had kissed me on the lips, and I wish you had meant it."
Thereupon, he turned and left her, all alone and compleatly despaired. However great was her temptation to follow him, she knew to think three steps ahead: when she caught up with him, what would she do?
Would she kiss him on the lips? Would she mean it?
Her courage faltered. Grumbling, she snatched up her shawl and went to her favorite window-seat. Hoping, desperately, that he would seek her out there-as he had done so many times in the past, when they had quarreled. She sat there for a long time, until her toes froze and curled, until the hallways became steeped in darkness again and her candle only had enough life left in it for another quarter hour. Then, she went back to her room. She was very much afraid, having remembered, inopportunely, his words about Pemberley ghosts. But even more was she distressed by the memory of his face when she told him she had only kissed him on the cheek, and only in jest.
That night, it took her a long time to fall asleep.
Elizabeth spent her last day at Pemberley packing away her things and visiting with Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. The former task did not take her long: Mary was right, she did not have many gowns. Until now, she had never stopped to dwell on it. She packed her slippers and her Haydn sonatas together with the rest of her things. Not because she planned on dancing or playing the piano-forte (faith, she did not even know whether the London town-house had a piano-forte), but because these things held for her a peculiar charm. Because he had given them to her.
She hardly saw Darcy at all during the day. He was out with his overseer, busy with the matters of the estate. He simply could not leave things unfinished. Herself, she took a quick trip to two tenant families that had someone ill, bringing bread and soup and medicine. She walked out with Georgiana, once, thinking that when she came back from London, the weather may no longer allow long walks. When she first had come to Pemberley, her future held only Jamie-she had planned things and put things off with an eye on his return. Then, horrible as it was, Mr. Darcy's decline was added to it-she could not think of the future without thinking of him dying, of how her life would change when it happened. Now, it was winter... merely winter. It appeared she no longer saw herself away and apart from Pemberley and its inhabitants.
After Georgiana had been whisked away by Miss Lucas-pouting unhappily because Elizabeth could not join her for this lesson, the last one they would have together for a while-it was Mr. Darcy again. She sat down by his chair, placed near the window, in the autumn's last bright glow, and read to him, like she had done when he was first ill. Donne and Shakespeare and Johnson. And a little Herbert to calm the heart.
As it was, her last day at Pemberley flew by with shocking speed, and then it was night and time for supper, and she was sitting in front of her husband, facing him for the first time since last night.
Yes, last night-the events of which had taken on an oddly phantasmagorical quality. Did they truly happen? Did she do what she thought she had done? Did he say what she remembered he had said? He was perfectly easy at supper, polite and friendly. Listening raptly to his father, laughing with his cousin, teasing Georgiana-then, when the girl was ready to fly off her seat, pulling her for a kiss on the cheek.
Elizabeth could not read him at all; and she could not get over the unsettling feeling she had hurt him the night before. She kept looking at him, trying to read something in those moving eyes. He did not single her out, nor did he ignore her-but treated her with polite indifference she had wished from him until recently. As they moved from the dining room to the music room, so as to finally have their musical evening, he did not stir from the sofa to turn her pages. It left her disappointed, though she dared not ask him. She was not at all pleased at the Colonel for rising quickly to take the place that should have been Darcy's. This man smiles too much, she thought crossly as she tried her hardest to focus on her music.
She played no Haydn that night.
In the morning, having slept very ill, she said her good-byes to Mr. Darcy. She was dressed in her traveling clothes, and her things were already atop the carriage. Mary had left a good two hours earlier, in a carriage with Darcy's valet Mr. Cassidy. With any luck, they would be in London before their masters; it was done for their comfort, but seemed to Elizabeth a ridiculous luxury-for she could have easily shared her carriage with her maid.
They had importuned her father-in-law to remain in his bedchamber: there was no need for him to exert himself (and the footmen) by coming down. The Colonel said his good-byes first, departing quickly. Then, it was Darcy's turn and he leaned to kiss his father's hand and his cheek, and to demand again that Mr. Darcy send for them immediately should anything happen.
"I shall follow you in a moment," Elizabeth said to her husband. He nodded and quitted his father's bedchamber without another word. Elizabeth was left alone with Mr. Darcy.
"Well, are you eager for London pleasures, my child?"
She was, but she was also afraid. So afraid. All of a sudden, she was overwhelmed by a feeling that she would not see him again.
"Promise me that you will send for us forthwith, should you feel ill," she said. Mr. Darcy frowned at her.
"Feel ill? Why should I feel ill?"
"Promise," she begged. "Promise me, or I shall not go."
"Now, that is some daft talk from one as clever as you are, Lizzy. I have already told Will this is what I should do. You do not doubt my words, do you?"
She shook her head, suddenly overcome. She did not doubt his words, but neither could she deny a sense of gloom that had gripped her, sudden and terrifying. His hand covered hers, squeezing it urgently.
"Child, child, what are these tears! I am not dead yet! Why are you so maudlin?"
Maudlin. She forced the tears back, wiping them quickly and gracelessly with the backs of her hands. "Lord, I am behaving a fool. Will you forgive me?" She pressed her cheek against their folded hands. "I am a foolish woman, indeed." She looked up, seeking a smile from him.
His gaze warmed, then, his eyes teasing.
"There, there, my girl. That is better. Enjoy yourself in town, my darling child. Think of us not at all."
She rose to her feet, eyelashes sticky with tears. Bending quickly, she kissed his hand.
"I shall write," she said, before turning and running out of the room.
In the main hall, Georgiana hung miserably about the foot of the stairs. Elizabeth grabbed the girl by the shoulders, pulling her into a warm embrace.
"Why did you cry?" Georgiana asked, looking up at her in alarm.
"No, no. 'Tis nothing at all." She placed a kiss on Georgiana's forehead. "Take care, Georgie. Take care of your father. Write to me straight away, if-if anything."
"Must you go?" the girl inquired unhappily. "Must you leave me here?"
"I am sorry, Georgie, it cannot be helped. Your father is quite implacable. But we shall be back before you know us gone."
"When I am older," Georgiana said vengefully, "I shall go off without the two of you, you will see."
Elizabeth laughed and kissed her young friend on the cheek and on the crown of her head. "Good-bye. Do you wish for a present from London?"
Georgiana shrugged. Like Elizabeth herself, the younger girl seemed more comfortable giving than receiving presents.
"No," she said thoughtfully. "But it is Will's birthday in ten days. Give him something from me, will you?"
Elizabeth thanked Georgiana, promising her solemnly that Darcy would not be left gift less on his birthday. Then, she then went in search of Cat. In his case, some very particular good-byes and instructions were in order. Directions to behave very well-to give Mrs. Reynolds no trouble-to catch many mice-followed forthwith, while the recipient of these orders sat placidly, engaged in washing his face. Which important activity Elizabeth disturbed momentarily by picking Cat up in her arms and nuzzling him thoroughly all over.
"Now you have human smell all over you," she said with some satisfaction as the orange beast spilled gracefully out of her arms. "You can go and wash again."
"Madam, do hurry up."
She turned to see Darcy, dressed in his traveling clothes. He had a surly, unhappy look about him; she refused to dwell on why. She petted Cat once more and turned to go.
Darcy and the Colonel would accompany her carriage on horseback; she envied them and wished she could ride well enough to brave the long journey between Derbyshire and London in a saddle. But her riding skills had never been more than middling; and so, into the carriage with her. Well, at least she will be able to think and read unobserved-and undisturbed. She was very proud of herself, having dug up an exceedingly serious volume, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women; she liked that she now had the opportunity to really read it.
Some three hours later, Elizabeth rested her head against the silk-upholstered wall, thinking she might throw herself out of the carriage. She had made an unfortunate choice. The Vindication had proved serious all right, but she also found it intensely boring. She had fancied herself old enough to read and understand it; but it contained no great ships, no daring rescues, no fantastic travels, and not a pirate to be had. It could hardly take her mind off the fact that they were out there... and she was in here, all alone, and for all intents and purposes-abandoned. However worthy a read Miss Wollstonecraft's book was, it was a poor companion for one young, bored and cooped up in a carriage on a lovely sunny October day. The rights of women, she thought disdainfully, what of her rights? Why did her father not teach her how to ride? She had had a few lessons from the Bennets' young groom back at Longbourn; but they had ended with her falling off, bruising her rear end and her dignity, and having Hill declare that such pursuits were as unladylike as they were dangerous. Her father placidly acquiesced to Hill's suggestion that Miss Elizabeth does not ride... much to Elizabeth's useless consternation.
If she peeked out of the carriage window, she could see that the countryside around them was glorious, awash in the last radiant autumn glow, the burnished red-and-gold symphony of colors brilliant against the azure sky. The carriage was amazingly comfortable, the ravages of the road barely felt; bored out of her wits with Miss Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth wished, dearly, that she could ride with the men. That she could not made her cross.
But looking out the window, she was able to observe both Darcy and the Colonel, cantering alongside. Whenever one or both caught her eye, she was gifted with a smile. For the life of her, she could not say, which one was more handsome; but seeing them next to each other, she was surprised to notice that her husband had a better seat than even a cavalry officer. The thought gave her unexpected pleasure, lifting her unhappiness at being cooped up inside, and she fell back against the carriage seat, smiling to herself. Her husband. She gloried in the knowledge that he was so handsome, and she would not feel badly for it. That he was her husband only for a time did not mean that she could not admire the beautiful figure he cut in the saddle.
Around midday, they stopped at a small inn-to tend to the horses and to rest themselves. Fitzwilliam went inside, to arrange for some sustenance for them all, even as a groom gave food and water to Darcy's Kublai and the Colonel's own bay gelding Achilles. Darcy made his way to the carriage, intending to hand Elizabeth out, but she sprung out right before his eyes, alighting from the carriage with an unladylike thud and a tiny cloud of dust.
"I thought I should run mad in there!" she declared with such passion, he had to bite down a smile. Sometimes she was such a child. At such moments, he thought he might be reprieved.
"Will you come eat?" he asked her, mildly. "Fitzwilliam is gone to arrange for it."
"A moment." She smiled at him, then lifted her face to the bright midday sun. She stood there, head dipped back, eyelashes, thick, dark and long, against her cheek. Eyes still closed peacefully, she explained. "You have left me cooped up in that carriage, I think I am entitled to a breath of fresh air."
"But of course." He could not take his eyes off her. Her hair... it was all about her hair, again. Mary, genius girl, had cut it in a way to make a strict traveling hairdo impossible. It now looked luxuriously, wildly disarrayed, and she had not even noticed. Lord! How he wanted-
She interrupted his reverie by turning and flouncing away in the direction of a large orchard behind the inn. Darcy followed her without a second thought.
Two nights ago, in her bedchamber, he had come precariously close to kissing her. He did not know why, but he felt it would be a disastrous thing to do. And disastrously stupid. To let himself grow smitten with her...in the face of her stubborn refusal to be a wife to him. He was a fool; he should never have promised her that annulment. But what choice had he then? Still, he had to find another way...there had to be other ways... Darcy sighed. At the time of their marriage, it had not seemed a great loss to annul it once his father passed on. Now... He did not like to think on it. Now he had to fight himself not to kiss her.
Why did it frighten him so? He had almost done it two nights ago. She had been so close... and so sweet...It would have been a mere kiss. How many girls had he kissed? Ah-not so many. And none like Elizabeth. With her... it would been special. It would have meant something great, something powerful. Perhaps, it would have meant more than he cared to admit to himself. He had not dared do it.
Darcy watched Elizabeth walk away from him now, thinking that sometimes, she was a child, and sometimes-baffling him-she was a woman. He had caught glimpses of the woman, more and more often, and they always left him breathless. Breathless. His eyes no longer registered the defects in her face and figure, only the appeal they held for him. Even now, all he could see was how straight her back was, how graceful her walk and willowy her limbs. How her curls bounced above a tender nape. He found that he desired her, and that it was more than primitive lust. That, too, of course-but also something more-something greater. He found that he wanted to hold her, to enclose her in his arms, and his heart. Two nights ago, he had been a hairbreadth away from kissing her-and telling her to forget all that nonsense about an annulment. Oh, he thought, why lie to himself? Not telling her: asking her... begging her. The realization had terrified him... it still did; for if this was the case, his father's idea of sending them to London was an exceedingly ill one. If this was the case...constantly being in Elizabeth's company would prove a singular torment. She disturbed the very heart of him.
Her laughter tore him out of his reverie. Coming upon a large pile of raked leaves, she plopped backwards into it. Child. He shook his head, shaking off the enchantment.
She must have misread his meaning, reading disapproval into his expression.
"Why must you always be such a bore, Mr. Darcy?" She patted the leaves next to her. "Come. Look how lovely it is."
Head cocked against one shoulder, she regarded him with languid, serene eyes, squinting a little at the sun. Resting her head back against the leaves, her neck bending, white and long, so that he could not take his eyes off it, wanting very badly to kiss it. Woman. Slowly, he walked forward, then sat down at her side, sinking into the leaves.
"Fitzwilliam will think us daft sitting here like this." He cast a long look upon her, wanting to remember her like so-with her hair wildly disheveled, and russet leaf stuck behind her ear. Remember her, he thought; remember her for you will lose her.
"The Colonel will not care."
Darcy had no desire to argue with her. After all, this was very much what he wanted. He let himself fall backwards, the leaves puffing up on both sides of him. Elizabeth's laughter pealed at his side. Eyes closed under the October sun, he sought in the leaves and found her hand, their fingers entwining instantly.
"I am so glad you are coming to London with me."
This was as much as he would say. His confusion was making him tight-lipped, afraid to disclose too much, to open himself too quickly. For it was the truth, but it was not all. There was also the memory of her coming down on the night of the Harvest Ball, such a lovely blue cloud of a girl. And the way his heart ached for a shadow of her smile. And the way he could not stop thinking of her; lately, it had been all Elizabeth, all the time, in his head, in his mind, his memory. He wanted to tell her all of it-but he dared not. In the end, he himself did not know. The only thing of which he was certain was that he had never been in such a confusion of thoughts and senses. Not because of any woman of his acquaintance. Fear, desire, longing, frustration-all of it mixed in the ready cylinder of his heart.
He closed his eyes, feeling the sunlight on his face. Her fingers were warm in his, placid. He wanted, badly, to ask her about ...two nights ago. He wondered whether she truly did not want to kiss him, or if she simply was as afraid as he. But he would not ruin the pleasant silence, when he could rest, inhaling the smell of autumn, fallen leaves and the faintest scent of Elizabeth's lemon verbena perfume. It was precious. Every small intimacy with her was infinitely precious.
"What are you about, the two of you?"
Darcy sat up with a jerk, blinded momentarily by the sun, staring owlishly at his cousin, who was in turn staring at him with a bemused expression.
Elizabeth rose languidly into a sitting position, smiling at Fitzwilliam. "We were simply enjoying the day, Colonel. Catching a bit of sun. Soon it will be gone and we'll not see it for four months."
Darcy was terrified, for a moment, that this was all it was to her-catching a bit of sun-and that she would invite Fitzwilliam to join them. But she smiled, leaning her head to rest against his shoulder.
"I have heard you were sent to procure sustenance."
"Indeed." He bowed to her, ever polite. "The food will get cold. Come eat." Turning, he stomped away.
Darcy, rising, offered Elizabeth his hand, deliriously happy that in this little scene, they were together, a couple, and his cousin-an outsider. Grasping his hand, Elizabeth came up to her feet in a flurry of laughter and golden leaves. Lovely. He leaned in, his heart clattering. Elizabeth's cheeks, the planes of her nose had gone pink from the sun. Darcy wanted to kiss the sunlight off her face, off her lips, but if he did, there would be no telling to what else he might want.
Whipping about, he claimed her hand and strode back towards the inn.
"Fitzwilliam, wait! Let me-let me see to myself."
Catching himself, he stopped and watched her twist about, inspecting her skirts for stray leaves.
"Come, Elizabeth," he said, in a tone more gruff than he had intended. "You heard my cousin. We must eat and be back on our way."
She tucked a stray lock behind one ear. "Do you suppose we shall make London by nighttime?"
"No." He offered her his arm. "Tomorrow."
He was correct, of course, his understanding of roads and distances better than hers. The falling darkness had forced them to stop at a small roadside inn-a less than reputable establishment that only had two rooms for them.
Elizabeth had long tired of her book. Vindication of anyone's rights was a very poor read for such a long road. She wished sorely that someone was riding with her, for she liked her solitude very ill. Lud, even the nosy Mary would have been welcome. She frowned, again, wondering why Mr. Darcy had kept Georgiana from coming to London.
Bored out of her wits, she soon drifted away; and was awoken by her husband's voice calling her name, telling her they had stopped.
"We are here? London?" she murmured sleepily. He had climbed into the carriage, his face shadowed, and one hand on her shoulder. She could not read his expression at all. Behind him, she could see some lights and heard voices, people scurrying to and fro.
"No, sweeting," he said, softly, his hand sliding up to cup her cheek. "We have stopped for the night. We shall continue tomorrow."
"Oh." She sat up, giddily, righting her wrinkled clothes. Sweeting, she thought. He had called her "sweeting." He alighted, reaching back inside to hand her out. She saw the Colonel standing outside, smiling at her.
"How far are we from London?"
"Some forty-five or fifty miles," Darcy said. "We shall be there tomorrow."
She followed him into the inn; it was small and dim, full of smoke and talk and people. Darcy frowned, looking about him. It was plainly obvious that the surroundings did not meet with his approval. His hand under her elbow, he steered her gently up the rickety stairs. It appeared that their rooms had already been arranged for.
" 'Tis not so late," Elizabeth protested.
" 'Tis eight o'clock at night," he said, pushing the door into what appeared to be her room. It was sparsely and poorly furnished, but looked, to Elizabeth's relief, clean enough. She hoped, fervently, that no bedbugs were in residence. "We have been on the road all day."
Immediately, she felt the truth of his words and plopped heavily at the edge of her bed.
"But you must eat first."
The three of them supped on cheeses and cold meats and rather good bread in the next room over, eschewing the communal dining-room (for clearly the establishment catered to anyone at all, without regard for the rank or cleanliness or manners). There was little conversation, for each of them longed for rest. Thereupon, Darcy walked Elizabeth back to her room.
"Thank you." She forced a smile; she really felt very tired. The wine she had drunk at supper made her giddy and unsteady on her feet.
He nodded shortly, then reached for the door-only to stop and turn around. He looked uneasy.
"Do you need help? I mean-" Stumbling, he hid his eyes and continued haltingly. "I mean with your things. Your-"
Elizabeth knew at once what he meant, embarrassment flooding her neck and face in a hot red wave.
"Well, I shall just have to make do!" she snapped. "I cannot ask you to unlace me, can I now?"
He gave her a look of such utter bewilderment, she knew she had said something wrong.
"Oh Lord," he said, her meaning finally clear to him. "I did not-Elizabeth, what do you think I am? I merely meant that I could ask the proprietress for a maid to assist you-"
Her face flooded with color, Elizabeth dropped her eyes to the floor and murmured apologies for her presumption. She was horribly embarrassed. Why did she imagine he would want a demeaning task like that?
"Would you like me to do that?"
She continued to stare at him, mortified, and he blinked twice and shook his head in obvious exasperation.
"Would you like me to call the maid?"
"No," she whispered. "I shall manage. Do not worry for me; I shall not tangle myself hopelessly in my stays."
Darcy's smile at that was unexpected-and wonderful to behold. He was not angry at her! "Good night, Elizabeth. You know where our room is, should you need anything."
He turned and was gone, carrying a branch of candles. Elizabeth managed, somehow, to twist herself out of her dress and stays, then looked in her trunk for a long white nightgown. Then, digging herself under the covers, she thought about what had just transpired. Mortification, that's what. She wondered at the reasons for it: why were they so apt to misunderstand each other? She was not stupid, surely, and Darcy had impressed her as being a man of superior intelligence. Why, then, did she misinterpret every word he said, thinking too much into his motives and objects? Why did he misread her so often? She had come off as a strumpet just now-and a bit of an idiot into the bargain. She sighed as she pulled the blankets tighter about herself. They would never know. It was, quite obviously, a mystery.
Sometime during the night, there was a disturbance in the inn. Elizabeth woke to the sound of furniture breaking and men shouting at each other, and a woman screaming shrilly. She sat up in bed, heart thumping violently in her breast. It felt about to leap out. Nothing, 'tis nothing. Merely a tavern brawl. But it would not end, going on for longer than any fight she had ever witnessed. It seemed to shake the very groundsels of the inn. It does not concern you. She tried to sleep, putting a flat pillow over one ear. But she could not, her mind agitated with fear and excitement. Once, someone ran stomping past her room, and she jerked, frantic, sitting up again amidst the ruffled pillows, pulling her knees up to her chest.
She was terrified.
There was a knock on the door, then, startling her out of her trance.
"Who's there?" Elizabeth asked, her voice an unnatural panicky high, her eyes already searching the room for any projectiles to throw or weapons to wield.
"Elizabeth." She had never before been so happy to hear Darcy's voice. Flying off the bed, she ran to open. She almost tore off her nails in her hurry to pry open the deadbolt.
Darcy stood there, holding a candle. He was informally attired, his shirt only half-tucked into his breeches, but he had tucked a pistol behind his belt. Instead of feeling safer because he was armed, she felt less so-because he had felt the need to arm himself.
He must have seen her eyes alight on the pistol and said, quickly:
" 'Tis only a fight. No danger for either of us."
"Then why-" She pointed at the pistol.
"I do not travel without one. The roads are never entirely safe." He stood there, ill at ease, looking away from her. "Well... no matter. I wanted to see how you were... with all this. Lock the door behind me."
Before she could stop herself, or think on what she was doing, Elizabeth said to his retreating back:
He turned about, looking at her seriously. His shadow was gigantic in the light from his candle.
"I do not wish to be alone-I am afraid," she admitted. "Do you think you could-" She looked down at her bare toes. "Do not leave me tonight. I feel as if the groundsels will not hold this house for much longer-"
As if to confirm her words, the sound of glass breaking together with the impact of a human body smashing against the wall made them both cringe. Without another word, Darcy ushered Elizabeth back inside the room, then locked the door behind them both.
"Thank you." She could barely hear her own voice. "The Colonel-"
"-did not wake. Fitzwilliam is used to sleeping through cannon blasts. Nothing can rouse him."
She cuddled more deeply into the indigo fringed shawl Jamie had given her and climbed atop the bed. Darcy looked about the room, then sat down in the only wing chair in the room. It was horrible-hard and with a high stiff back. One look at the chair was enough to tell you that one could not sleep in it. Frowning, he pulled the pistol from behind his belt and laid it onto the floor.
"Try to sleep."
But any attempt at rest was futile for her, at least until the disorder below had calmed. Elizabeth pulled her knees more tightly against her chest, watching him struggle in the uncomfortable wing chair.
"Perhaps you should take the bed," she suggested, half-certain. "I can sleep in the carriage tomorrow. You will be in the saddle most of the day."
Darcy put up a valiant fight, but his eyes kept closing by themselves, despite the noise still emanating from below. Elizabeth thought that he must be infinitely more tired than her, for he had spent almost the entire day on horseback.
"You should take the bed," she repeated. "I cannot sleep anyway, not with all this noise."
He gave an unhappy chuckle. "A great defender you will have of me."
"Your presence here is a comfort." She shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "I can wake you if need be."
He conceded that it was true, and rose, stifling a huge yawn. "And what will you do?" he inquired. "I do not like the thought of you in that chair."
"I shall be fine in that chair." She scrambled off the bed.
"There is space enough here for the both of us," he suggested. Elizabeth only shook her head stubbornly and took one of the blankets from the bed.
Darcy sat down on the edge of the bed to remove his boots. "Elizabeth, you know better than to do doubt me." The boots hit the floor with a dull thud.
"I do not doubt you," she said. "But I can sleep in the carriage tomorrow."
"Ah, well, suit yourself, then." Stretching out on the bed, he rolled towards the wall, nearly pressing himself against it, and closed his eyes. "You will wake me... if anything."
He was asleep instantly.
The disturbance below quieted down soon after. Elizabeth leaned her head back against her chair, thinking that she might attempt to sleep; but it was easier said than done. Soon enough, her entire body aching from the uncomfortable pose in the chair, she sat up taller, trying to find a way that did not hurt her back. Useless, that. She cast a regretful look upon the bed.
Darcy slept on his stomach, his face turned away to the wall. He was right, of course-there was enough space in the bed for both of them. But no, it was too wanton, too improper, to share a bed with him, even if they were only going to sleep. She had not lied-indeed, she did not doubt him-she trusted him absolutely, so much that she was surprised at herself. Why should she think him so honorable? Or perhaps so disinterested? She did not know why, but she did. It was safe to share a bed with him.
Still, it would be unseemly. She turned a couple more times in the chair, trying to ease the spasms in her side and legs. Her back, too, hurt, and she wondered that he would undertake to sleep in this horrid chair-merely to reassure her of her safety.
Oh dear, such torture. Elizabeth stood slowly, quietly, pulling her shawl and her blanket tighter about her form. A mosquito-the last autumn itinerant-whined quietly, but she could not see it, much less kill it. Tentatively, she stood by the bed, watching her husband sleep, the long lines of his body under an insufficient blanket, the way the stubborn furrow between his eyebrows had smoothed into youthful innocence. Once, she returned to the wing chair, but it looked a rack to her, and she dared not fit her weary body into its forbidding embrace. Finally, giving up, she curled up on very edge of the bed, wrapping her blanket tightly about her. She was agonizingly aware of Darcy's prone body next to her, feeling him with her every fiber. But luckily for her, he slept very quietly, allowing her to forget he was even there; soon enough, fatigue overtook her and she, too, drifted away.
In the night, they rolled towards each other, seeking more warmth in the drafty room. Seeking momentary comfort and safety from the uncertain. In his sleep, Darcy wrapped his arms about Elizabeth, pulling her tightly against himself. In her sleep, she did not know to fight him, and sunk gratefully into his embrace, slipping her arms over his, twining their fingers mindlessly. Begging a greater closeness, she pressed into his warmth, into the comforting enclosure of his arms, against the hardness of his chest and the stalk of his nascent erection.
His face against Elizabeth's shoulder, Darcy dreamt he was entangled by reeds and drowning, but somehow-unafraid. He tightened his embrace on her, knowing in his sleep that she was his only shelter, her arms-his only safe harbor. I shall never let her go. His body was roused by her closeness, adding a touch of uneasy excitement to his dreams, and he only held her more closely.
Thus, they slept until morning. The inn's bustle woke Darcy at dawn. Deeply shocked, he rose upon one elbow, watching his wife sleep. Elizabeth, and he-in her bed. How did he come to be here in the night? Ah-somebody was breaking something below the stairs. He had become afeared for her. He had come to reassure her-she had asked him to stay. But the last he remembered of Elizabeth was the image of her sitting in that terrible wing chair-how had she come to be near him... so near him? At the thought that she had placed herself in his protection, depending upon his honor, he was swamped with great tenderness-and even greater bewilderment. What was he to do? Elizabeth's long plait had unraveled almost entirely, dark hair thick and lustrous upon the pillow. Giving in to a momentary temptation, Darcy pressed his face against the silky mass, inhaling its scent. Lemon verbena, barely a hint of it, yet enough to make his head spin. With a sigh, her form pressed back against him, seeking warmth and refuge in the depths of sleep.
Darcy exhaled, his body instantly growing rigid with wanting. Wanting... wanting Elizabeth. How strange it was to desire her-having spent the last months convincing himself that she was not desirable...
He needed to extricate himself from this situation as quickly as possible, without waiting for it to become more difficult. He could feel that she was wearing absolutely nothing under her long white nightgown. Which, in the night, had come to twist somewhere above her knees, leaving her legs bare...long slender legs that were tangled with his at the moment. Her backside, too, pressed intimately against his loins...which had long seemed to recognize that. He bit his lip, stifling a small groan. She was asking too much of him! What was he to do?
But before he knew what he was doing, Darcy gave in to temptation. Cradling Elizabeth to his chest, he stroked the long stretch of naked skin, from the edge of her nightshift to her warm round knees. He touched her, feather-light, with his fingertips. His body kindled stronger, making him want to do things, intimate things, to her.
Pressed between the wall and his wife's body, Darcy could see that he had not a chance of extricating himself easily. He was sure to awaken her should he try to climb over her. Should she wake unexpectedly, it would only lead to greater embarrassment. Leaning in, he called her name, shook her shoulder lightly:
Surprisingly, she failed to wake, flipping instead onto her back. Darcy swallowed nervously. Lord. He was torn between amusement, consternation and something... something else. Elizabeth's nightdress had opened a bit on her chest, baring to his eager eyes a stretch of white skin, beginnings of a curve. A supple curve, with a tender blue vein under beautiful milky-white skin. It looked so soft, it begged to be touched. Darcy held his breath, caught himself craning his neck unconsciously. He was dying to see more, the urgent cadence of his heart painful against his ribs. Stop it. Through the linen, he could see the tight little buds of her nipples pressing against the fabric. For a brief moment, the temptation to pull her collar further apart was almost overwhelming. Fool, she does not want you.
Oh, but he wanted her. Unexpectedly to himself, he wanted her quite badly... like that, sweet and somnolent and half-nude in his bed... Shyly, he traced one finger along the side of one small high breast, her flesh tantalizingly soft under the linen of her nightshift. With a yearning different and stronger than he had ever experienced before, Darcy thought this small intimacy was the most he should ever have of her.
What are you doing?
He forced himself back, flat against the wall. Desperately, he tried to put a little distance between them, honour and shame and common sense prevailing. He was terribly embarrassed at himself, at his own asinine boyish behavior. How did he come so far so quickly? What if she woke to the sight of him trying to steal a peek under her gown-Lord, to the sight of him touching her? He could scarcely imagine that. She would never trust him again.
Enough was enough. These games would lead them nowhere good. Gripping her shoulder more firmly this time, he called her name again, and finally she woke, eyes opening slowly to the new day.
"Good morning," he said, more abruptly than he had intended. She blinked once, then again, clearly as unwitting of their closeness as he had been.
"What-" she murmured, staring at him. One hand drifted protectively against her open collar, gathering the nightdress in a tight grip. Darcy felt a surge of dull irritation with her-having wandered into bed with him in the night, she now had the gall to look violated!
A little awkward, he climbed over her and scrambled off the bed. It was a considerable relief not to have her so close, and in that state of undress. Gruffly, he apprised her of all that happened last night, reminding her that she had asked him to stay.
"Indeed," she murmured, gathering the blankets tightly about her. Her face flushed more and more as her memory seemed to return. Darcy finished pulling on his boots and leaned, quickly, to pick up his pistol from the floor. He stuck it behind his belt, knowing that she was watching him from the bed and self-conscious because of that. He stood gawkily, not looking at her, trying his best not to think how sweet she was to sleep with, how lovely to wake up with.
"I shall ask a maid here to assist you."
She nodded, her face and neck flushed, red. "Yes. Thank you. You are so kind."
He quitted the room, then, and stomped back to his own, where Fitzwilliam was already dressed and ready and about to go downstairs to inquire about breakfast. His cousin threw him a glance that Darcy pointedly chose to ignore, for both their sakes. But he still glared back at Fitzwilliam who was, indubitably, aware that he had not spent the night in their room. How he hated the indignity of this, the humiliation of appearing to steal favors from his own wife.
They breakfasted quickly. Elizabeth was pale and clearly mortified. Not looking at him, not joking with Fitzwilliam. The latter, too, appeared very uncomfortable. Though Darcy endeavored to behave with dignity, he found it difficult under the circumstances, where both of his companions had retreated into embarrassed silence. So he, too, sank into gloom, for Elizabeth was looking at him as if she blamed him-or rather, not looking at him, avoiding his eyes, as if he had done aught wrong. Much good it did him to behave a gentleman around her! He was swamped with irrational guilt, having to remind himself that she had invited him in, she had offered him the bed. Perhaps he should have refused it? Surely he should have refused it, now he was certain of it. Still, it would have come to nothing, had Elizabeth not wandered in the night to sleep at his side. As it was, she remained-he hoped-unwitting of his silent struggle this morning. Thank God. He was blameless, he told himself. He had done nothing wrong. Why, then, did he feel so guilty? What was so wrong, anyway, about wanting to share a bed with her? About wanting to look beneath her gown?
About wanting her?
Further on the road, he did his best to force his mind away from her. She was hiding behind the carriage window, having drawn the curtains tightly. Little coward. Yet, it was easier that way... Darcy tried to think of other things. Surely there were other things in the world besides Elizabeth? He had left Pemberley business behind, matters of great importance entrusted to others... He should be able to think of that. But his mind wandered, returning ceaselessly to the warmth of her in bed this morning. To the tender blue vein that pulsed, even now, in his mind, leaving him helpless with longing.
They had agreed, before they left Pemberley, that they would travel to Longbourn from London, just the two of them. They could not drag the Colonel along with them, nor would they have him complete the remainder of his journey alone. Elizabeth found it agreeable. She did not like being on the road, did not like the carriage. It afforded her too much time to think and remember...Oh, to be in London already, where she would have no such luxury of reflection...
She sank back against her seat, determined that she would not look at Darcy riding alongside the carriage. The carriage, with the curtains drawn, had turned into a hideaway. She wished she could have hidden this morning. She had wakened in his arms then, and for a moment, all she could think of, all she could feel, was the joy and pleasure of it. Then, as all her senses wakened as well, she had realized the impropriety, the awkwardness, the shame. And to think that she had come to him! Elizabeth sighed. In the night, it had seemed little trouble to curl up by his side, but the morning was a different business altogether. The harsh light changed things considerably; all of a sudden, they were no longer two strangers, merely sharing a horizontal surface for the sake of convenience. They were husband and wife, in bed together. Moving to quit the bed, he had brushed inadvertently against her, his body unfamiliar and thrilling in its size and hardness. Its heat had seared her.
She could not blame him-he had behaved a perfect gentleman.
She stared blankly at the pages of The Vindication. It happened rarely that she could not interest herself in a book, however dull; and she suspected that Miss Wollstonecraft was not at all to blame for her distraction... rather, the memory of waking to the sight of her husband's face, his soulful expressive eyes and a day's stubble on his chin (strangely, it did not make him unattractive, only older, wilder and more interesting). A memory that she simply could not seem to erase... She shut the book resolutely, dropped her head back against the seat. Of course, she could not blame him, she would not. The fault was all hers.
At danger of running mad from her thoughts, Elizabeth opened The Vindication again. For some time, she found consolation in a game of creating new words out of the long ones that Miss Wollstonecraft seemed to prefer.
Darcy stopped the carriage some time later, to rest the horses a bit. It was a good thing, Elizabeth surmised, alighting on his arm. She craved a walk. Her embarrassment had subsided somewhat over the past several hours, and she was glad to stretch her limbs a bit. She did not want the gentlemen to follow her, intent upon her solitude, upon her thoughts-which kept returning, appallingly, to this morning.
The Colonel seemed so very nonchalant, but Elizabeth knew that he knew. Sleeping through cannon blasts was all very well, but he could not miss it that his roommate had gone from the room in the night. She wondered whether Darcy had confided in his cousin the nature of their marriage... but of course not. Just like she had not told a soul, she was certain that Darcy had been discreet. So, as far as she was concerned, the Colonel might think them spouses and lovers-sneaking away in the night to steal a few moments together. To her own outraged surprise, she did not disfavor the thought entirely.
Deep in her thoughts, Elizabeth walked quite far. Darcy called after her, but she only waved her hand at him: she would be back, and soon. All she wanted was a moment's solitude out of the dreary carriage. But he did not seem becalmed-and called after her, again and again. In annoyance and a bit of spite, she pretended not to hear him and walked on.
Great was her surprise when, looking across her shoulder, she saw that he had taken off and was now following her. Damn him, she thought in exasperation, may I not have a moment's respite from him?
Then, she heard it. It was a light jingling sound, and another distant noise, which it took her a moment to recognize. Birds. She looked up to see two dark shapes circling around in the cloudless October blue.
She heard Darcy behind her, calling her name.
"Elizabeth, come back, now!"
Come back, she thought, what nonsense. She looked quickly across her shoulder, annoyed. He stood there, feet planted wide. Oh wouldst that he left her be! Sometimes he could be quite odious.
"Oh, wait a minute!" she said, turning back, waving a hand at him in annoyance. Quickly, she walked across the grass to a massive oak growing by the side of the road. It seemed to be the source of the peculiar clinking sound.
A quick, strong gust of wind moved the leaves on the tree, unsettling the crown of burnished red and cold. For a second, Elizabeth imagined she saw a bizarre shape through the leaves. Curious, she took a step forward and around the tree.
A grisly form swung her way. Heavy metal chains clinking musically on the wind, a man's dead body swayed at a substantial height. With a cry, Elizabeth fell back, stumbling, her eyes taking in too many ghastly details at once: the half-rotted wig, the black featureless face, hands that were no longer hands but bones sticking out from torn lace cuffs, also black with time. The man was wearing knee-britches and stockings, but his shoes were gone, his clothing torn and discolored by the sun and the rain. He must have hanged there for years; still, now that she was so close, the smell of decay fell on her in a way, making her ill.
She pivoted and ran back, screaming, and soon collided with Darcy who had been striding after her. He caught her just as her knees buckled, and she babbled something and silenced herself, one hand pressed against her mouth in her terror. Swinging her up in his arms, he turned about in panic, calling her name. She was not in a faint, but strangely distanced from him, hearing him call, but hardly able to move her lips to answer.
Darcy carried Elizabeth back to the carriage, and through her stupor, she thought she heard him curse, once, and very quietly; but she was aware of nothing but the strength of his shoulders under her hands. Her fingers curled, clutching spasmodically at the fabric of his coat, and she hid her face against his lapels. She shook and shook and could not stop.
Hardly any words passed between him and the Colonel, except that the other gentleman inquired after her, and Darcy answered in an agitated voice that she was in a faint. I am not in a faint, she wanted to say, but her lips and tongue felt leaden and unable to form a word.
They laid her on the grass, on someone's long coat, both men leaning over her solicitously.
"Elizabeth, Elizabeth. Please, madam, wake up." Darcy slapped her cheek lightly. "Dammit, I have no salts to give her!"
"I do not need any salts," she finally managed, her tongue heavy in her mouth. She tried to sit up, but Darcy's hands forced her back onto the coat (which belonged, upon closer inspection, to the Colonel, who was now standing without one).
"I am fine..." Elizabeth fought her way up to her feet-only to sway dangerously as the golden afternoon before her eyes spun revoltingly. At the memory of what she had seen, a wave of bile rose in her throat. She managed not to wretch, but her knees were weak, suddenly, and she leaned upon Darcy's arm. "Do not leave me," she whispered, not caring, suddenly, whether the Colonel heard. "Please--"
"Of course." He threw a glance at his cousin, who was in the process of collecting his coat from the grass. "I shall ride with Mrs. Darcy, Fitzwilliam. Would you like to join us?"
The Colonel declined with a polite smile. Momentarily, Elizabeth found herself ensconced in the carriage, Darcy's arms around her.
Her eyes closed, the nausea and vertigo let go, and she soon relaxed a little, able now to appreciate her own folly.
"You were calling me back," she whispered, lifting her eyes to him. His expression retained a shadow of worry, but the corners of his mouth lifted a little. "I did not listen. I should have listened."
"No matter," he said softly, dropping a kiss upon the top of her head. His lips tarried there, pressed against her hair. "I just did not want you to see it. I should have stopped you earlier."
"Why was his face like that?"
"Tar," Darcy said. "That poor fellow must have hanged there for ages. They put tar on them to avoid decomposition."
"Ugh." Elizabeth shivered against him, and he tightened his embrace around her. "Who was he, do you think?"
Darcy shrugged. "A highway robber, most likely. Mere thieves are rarely hoisted up in chains."
"Why did they put him up... like that? It is so ... unchristian..."
"That precisely is the idea... to impress others into better behavior."
"Does it help?"
"Oh, not particularly." She knew, rather than saw, him smile. "Men will take the wildest chances."
Highway robbers. Elizabeth remembered, suddenly, that he had that wicked-looking pistol tucked behind his belt. She wondered if he had ever used it. She had never thought of him as a violent man-not since he and Jamie had almost murdered each other over her, the fools. But even then, the violence had been planned, rationed, controlled. One shot each, upon an agreement. Still, she doubted not his ability to defend himself-to defend her-against any robber unfortunate and stupid enough to attack. She nestled closer to him, the fine silk of his waistcoat cool under her cheek. Sometimes, he seemed heaven-sent.
Darcy chuckled lightly, remembering something. "When my mother was very young," he said, "she went to visit a highwayman in prison."
"Really!" Looking up to see if he was joking, Elizabeth saw that he was, indeed, smiling-but in a wistful sort of way, as if the memory of his mother at once troubled and soothed him.
"True as the day is bright." Darcy grinned down at her. "She and her sister-whom you will soon meet-had escaped their companion's supervision and went to visit a condemned highway robber at Newgate."
Elizabeth frowned in incomprehension. "Why, did they know the man?"
"No," he explained, "but it was common for young ladies to do that. All the rage, actually."
"Lord. How old was she then?"
"Sixteen. Your age."
"I am nigh-on seventeen," Elizabeth said boldly.
"Ah, true. How could I forget." She felt him smile against her hair. "But be it as it may... She did go, and promptly fell in love with the handsome highwayman."
"No!" Elizabeth could not help laughing. "Shocking, telling such tales about your own mother!" She sat up straighter, staring at him in mock indignation.
Darcy, too, laughed, the sound of it a rich rumbling in his chest, his smile beautiful. He pulled her back into his embrace. Elizabeth obeyed, nestling against him.
"I am blameless, Elizabeth, for the story is well-known in my family." His fingers moved a strand of hair off her forehead. "It really is rather innocent."
"Well, tell me, then."
"My mother and Aunt Catherine came as a part of a throng of fashionable young ladies intent upon seeing London's most notorious highway."
"Whose name was-"
"Oh I do not know." Darcy shrugged, then proffered: "Something terribly romantic. Black Jack. Handsome Nick. Something like that. The girls paid two shillings each to see the brigand."
Elizabeth gasped. "So much! But why?"
"Well, it was the fashion of the day, and he was a very notorious highwayman. My aunt Catherine wanted to see whether she could scare him into repenting-and if she was unsuccessful it was not for the lack of trying... and as for my mother... My mother fell in love with him, as hard as only a sixteen-year-old can. As a Fitzwilliam, she knew all too well the proprieties required of her, so she suffered in silence. But oh-she suffered." He sighed. "Poor mama. My grandfather feared for her sanity when they finally hanged the fellow."
"So what happened when they did?"
"Oh, but they did not. This highwayman was far more fortunate than that highwayman" - he nodded towards the outside. "He escaped."
"Indeed! What a wily fellow!"
"Oh yes. He did. My mother was thrilled at his miraculous delivery-and instantly broken-hearted that she would never see him again. For even a child as in love as my mother understood the fundamental differences of rank and position."
"And then, she came out-amidst promises to never marry, for her heart was broken-met my father and married him."
"I see you cannot decry the outcome in this case, however detrimental to the course of true love."
Darcy grinned again. "My father was my mother's one true love, Elizabeth. Girlish infatuations notwithstanding."
Elizabeth quieted down, thinking of the man who would be her one true love. She felt miles away from him, wherever he was... whoever he was. But it was lovely to hear Darcy share his memories. The image of him as a child was sweet and it caught her by surprise to imagine him as a young boy listening raptly to his father's stories, his mother blushing prettily and waving her hand at her husband. She was suddenly assaulted with a vision of another child, resting his dark head against her knees as she told him a story, and Darcy in a chair facing them, smiling. She banished the image and scolded herself for even thinking of what was not to be.
She turned her thoughts-and the conversation-to a subject that was more pressing, though hardly any safer.
"Do you suppose your cousin ... did he know anything? That we... that we have ..."
Instantly, the sunny ease of their banter dissipated. Darcy shrugged, squaring his shoulders against the seat. His mien, when Elizabeth looked up at him, betrayed all the distaste of a man whose good nature and considerable patience were being sorely tried.
"Slept in the same bed?" he inquired, a little too much poison to his tone. "Come, Elizabeth, say it-after all, we have committed no crime."
"I never said we have..." she murmured, uncomfortable. But she could not say it. She could not put that, which had happened this morning, into words. "So... does he know?"
"I do not know. I suppose so. He isn't blind, you know."
"Did he-did he say anything-"
Darcy stared at her in horror. "I shall consider it a sign of your naïveté that you are even asking me this question. Fitzwilliam is a gentleman-he would never presume to barge in on anything so private." But in the face of her unhappy silence, he must have felt he had to defend himself. He closed his eyes and said defiantly: "Elizabeth, I do not account to Fitzwilliam for where I spend my nights."
Elizabeth fretted still. "I should not like him to think-"
"That we have a real marriage?" He gave a hollow, mirthless bark of a laugh. "God forbid!"
She pushed away from him, moved to the opposite seat. "You think it funny, sir!" she cried, furious.
Grimacing, he replied hotly:
"Indeed, you can see me laugh I am so amused! It is infinitely pleasant to watch you assert again and again that we are not really married! You would let the whole world know we do not-"
As if catching himself lest he say something he might regret, Darcy turned his face towards the window, rapped his fingers angrily against the glass. Elizabeth bit her lip so hard it almost bled. What was she doing? What did it matter what the Colonel thought? She had placed her life in Darcy's hands... her whole future. Surely she could trust him in this? Faith, she did not wish to ruin this-this intimacy. Little moments of pleasure and happiness his company granted her... She hated this in herself-this shrewishness, this ability to ruin things with one word, one mean turn of a phrase... Leaning forward, she placed one hand upon Darcy's arm.
Turning to each other, they said, at the same time: "I am sorry..." Elizabeth smiled in relief, pleased that he held no grudge. With a laugh-a real one this time-he took her hand and pulled her quickly, easily, across the space of the carriage and back into his arms.
"Elizabeth, you will need to accustom yourself to-" He shook his head. "I am not saying it right," he said. "But in Town... London will be different from Pemberley. Do you remember our neighbors? Well... if you want me to introduce you to my friends and family... though perhaps, my family you cannot escape...In any case, it will be a worse." He heaved a huge sigh. "I am not exactly waxing poetic, forgive me. But in any case... the assumption will be that we have a normal marriage."
She felt her face flush with embarrassment, all too witting of his meaning.
"We shall have ..." He hemmed quietly, clearing his throat, so obviously embarrassed. "Adjoining chambers. The mistress' chamber at London is adjoining the Master's...if you take another one, the servants will talk worse than they did at Pemberley. We shall go places together, shall be seen together." He smiled down at her, then. Such a young smile he had. "I truly... I do look forward to it. I cannot wait to show you the town."
So wonderful was he in his desire to please her, she almost kissed him.
"Thank you," she murmured, touched.
"But madam, you had better accustom yourself to the thought that this is what people will think. That we are husband and wife."
Of course. She would accustom herself to that. The servants at Pemberley, so well aware that their marriage was in name only, that she was too young for anything more serious, were one thing. Indubitably it was known at Pemberley that they had not lain together. She had come to accept the humiliating fact as a given. But he was right, of course, for the assumption would be different in London. They would be seen together. And it was a good thing that their chambers would be adjoining, and that the servants would have no interest in her sheets the morning after her arrival. To her surprise, Elizabeth found that she wanted the world to see her and Darcy as a regular married couple. She worried, for a moment, about what such public exposure would do to their annulment plans, but it was a fleeting concern. She should have thought of that earlier. They were on their way to London, where it would be impossible to hide-and frankly, she could ill imagine hiding, having come this far. She would not turn back. Not when he was so eager to please her.
Touched, she held his hand against her cheek. Something moved in his face, a hint of a vulnerable expression that dissipated instantly. Lightly, he stroked her cheek before taking his hand away; then, bringing her closer, he locked his arms about her once again.
Elizabeth was left flabbergasted by the volatility of their relationship, by the tensions and passions running high. By the idea that it pained him to hear her deny their marriage, and that he was so ready to forgive her and comfort her. Near-enemies one moment, near-lovers the next...but always near, never fully giving in, never fully succumbing. She closed her eyes and willed herself to think of London instead. Darcy's embrace tightened around her, and she rested her face against the silk of his waistcoat.
Not a word else was said for the remainder of their journey, but neither of them disliked the silence and the quietude.
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