Without Reserve

What would have happened if Fitzwilliam Darcy faced a true rival for Elizabeth Bennet’s affections? In a return to the world of Jane Austen, the plot of Pride & Prejudice takes a different turn when Elizabeth accepts the proposal of a childhood friend before she meets Darcy again. When their paths finally cross, Darcy must decide what he is willing to do to win the woman he loves. A heartwarming conclusion to this lively tale brings satisfaction to all of Austen’s beloved characters.

THE PEMBERLEY VARIATIONS by Abigail Reynolds is a series of novels exploring the roads not taken in Pride & Prejudice.

 

 

 

Chapter One

By the time the ladies of the Bennet family reached the Assembly Rooms in Meryton, Elizabeth was already beginning to regret her decision to attend that evening. Her interest had been slender to begin with; she had no desire to be in the company of the officers, particularly Mr. Wickham, and she was not yet recovered from the emotional blows she had received during her recent visit to Kent. Between the persistent complaints of her younger sisters regarding the unfairness of their father’s decision not to remove the family to Brighton and her mother’s unending reminiscences of the Assembly where Jane had met Mr. Bingley, she was quite ready to be left to her own company. Only the sight of Jane’s pallor as Mrs. Bennet continued to hold forth on her loss of Mr. Bingley gave her any sense of purpose. She squeezed her sister’s hand reassuringly.

When they entered the Assembly, several of their friends came up to greet them and to welcome Jane and Elizabeth back to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth was sorry to see that Mr. Wickham was indeed among the crowd; she had seen him twice already since her return. In addition to her other grievances, she had a fresh source of displeasure, for he had made clear his inclination toward renewing those attentions which had marked the early part of their acquaintance. This could only serve to provoke her, and she lost all concern for him in finding herself thus selected as the object of such idle and frivolous gallantry. While she steadily repressed it, she could not but feel the reproof contained in his believing that however long and for whatever cause his attentions had been withdrawn, her vanity would be gratified and her preference secured at any time by their renewal.

As she saw Mr. Wickham approaching her with a charming smile, no doubt planning to ask her for the honour of the first two dances, Elizabeth turned a brilliant smile on the gentleman to her right, an acquaintance of many years’ standing by the name of Mr. Covington, who was in possession of a small estate some 10 miles from Meryton. She did not know him particularly well, but his native good humour and enjoyment of company rendered him welcome wherever he went, and Elizabeth was not displeased to have his company as an alternative to Mr. Wickham’s.

“Mr. Covington,” she exclaimed. “It has been quite some time since I have seen you – I dare say it was before Christmas at least.”

“You would be quite right, Miss Bennet,” he replied. “Owing to my mother’s recent illness, I did not have to opportunity to attend events such as these this winter, and by the time I returned, you were off on your travels, and very much missed.”

“I am sure,” said Elizabeth with an arch look. “With the introduction of all the officers, ladies are now always scarce, so I would imagine that the absence of any lady would be noted.”

“The others may speak for themselves, Miss Bennet,” he said with an appreciative smile, “but for myself you were missed only for the lack of the pleasure of your company. To make up for my loss, would you do me the honour of dancing the first two dances?”

Elizabeth accepted with a smile; after the stressful nature of her recent interactions with Mr. Darcy and then the discomfort of Mr. Wickham’s company, it was pleasant to spend a few minutes in the company of an agreeable and undemanding young man like Mr. Covington. The reassurance that she was still sought out as a partner by men other than the officers did not go amiss either.

She talked happily with him through the first set and afterwards joined him for some refreshments, hearing all the news of his mother’s illness and recovery, the effects of the winter on Ashworth House and his tenants; and telling him amusing stories of her journey to Kent and London. She left him without particular regret when one of the officers asked her to dance.

It would have been difficult not to enjoy herself, given the plethora of available partners, and she was successful for the most part at avoiding Mr. Wickham; the one time he managed to catch her and request her hand for a set of dances, she could fortunately plead that she had already promised the dances to another gentleman. Reflecting on the native injustice of the fact that a lady could not refuse to dance with one gentleman without refusing all other partners as well, she made a point of avoiding him after the set of dances were over. Fortunately, Mr. Covington again materialized by her side, offering her refreshments and a hope she would join him for another dance, to which Elizabeth was happy to give a positive response, as it meant one more set where she could evade Wickham.

She was pleasantly exhausted by the end of the evening, and was able to ignore her mother’s constant revisiting of the event on the way home and recitals of every officer with whom Lydia had danced.

* * *

The first week of their return was soon gone. The second began. It was the last of the regiment’s stay in Meryton, and all the young ladies in the neighbourhood were drooping apace. The dejection was almost universal. The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of the family.

“Good Heaven! What is to become of us! What are we to do!” would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. “How can you be smiling so, Lizzy?”

Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five and twenty years ago.

“I am sure,” said she, “I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar’s regiment went away. I thought I should have broke my heart.”

“I am sure I shall break mine,” said Lydia.

“If one could but go to Brighton!” observed Mrs. Bennet.

“Oh, yes!-if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable.”

“A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever.”

“And my aunt Philips is sure it would do me a great deal of good,” added Kitty.

Such were the kind of lamentations resounding perpetually through Longbourn-house. Elizabeth tried to be diverted by them; but all sense of pleasure was lost in shame. She felt anew the justice of Mr. Darcy’s objections; and never had she before been so much disposed to pardon his interference in the views of his friend.

But the gloom of Lydia’s prospect was shortly cleared away; for she received an invitation from Mrs. Forster, the wife of the Colonel of the regiment, to accompany her to Brighton. This invaluable friend was a very young woman, and very lately married. A resemblance in good humour and good spirits had recommended her and Lydia to each other, and out of their three months’ acquaintance they had been intimate two.

The rapture of Lydia on this occasion, her adoration of Mrs. Forster, the delight of Mrs. Bennet, and the mortification of Kitty, are scarcely to be described. Wholly inattentive to her sister’s feelings, Lydia flew about the house in restless ecstasy, calling for everyone’s congratulations, and laughing and talking with more violence than ever; whilst the luckless Kitty continued in the parlour repining at her fate in terms as unreasonable as her accent was peevish.

“I cannot see why Mrs. Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia,” said she, “though I am not her particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as she has, and more too, for I am two years older.”

In vain did Elizabeth attempt to reasonable, and Jane to make her resigned. As for Elizabeth herself, this invitation was so far from exciting in her the same feelings as in her mother and Lydia, that she considered it as the death-warrant of all possibility of common sense for the latter; and detestable as such a step must make her were it known, she could not help secretly advising her father not to let her go. She represented to him all the improprieties of Lydia’s general behaviour, the little advantage she could derive from the friendship of such a woman as Mrs. Forster, and the probability of her being yet more imprudent with such a companion at Brighton, where the temptations must be greater than at home.

Although he heard her attentively, her father, concerned more with his own domestic peace, was not disposed to agree with her reasoning, nor with her concern for the very great disadvantage to them all arising from the public notice of Lydia’s imprudent manner. Elizabeth was forced to be content with his answer, but her own opinion remained the same, and she left him disappointed and sorry. It was not in her nature, however, to increase her vexations by dwelling on them. She was confident of having performed her duty, and to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of her disposition.

She was happy to be distracted from both Kitty’s lamentations and Lydia’s raptures when Mr. Covington and his mother came to call. Mrs. Covington was a contemporary of Mrs. Bennet’s, but her nature was quite different, being both eminently practical and tactful; a combination which had served her well during her years of managing the Ashworth estate by herself following her husband’s untimely death and before the majority of her son. Elizabeth was not surprised to find that, after greeting Mrs. Bennet cordially, Mrs. Covington chose to locate herself between the two eldest Miss Bennets; she had always had a suspicion that Mrs. Covington found Mrs. Bennet’s company to be rather trying, though her manners would never have indicated as much.

Elizabeth expressed her pleasure at Mrs. Covington’s return to health. On this subject Mrs. Bennet waxed lyrical, including referring to every illness she herself had ever suffered as well as those of most of the neighbours. Elizabeth and Jane were finally able to interrupt this flow with a discussion of their recent visit to Town. Mrs. Bennet, with little to say for herself on this topic, spent a rare moment of observation, and caught sight of an unguarded look on Mr. Covington’s face as he gazed at her second daughter. Never backward to credit what was for the advantage of her family, or that came in the shape of a lover to any of her daughters, she was immediately delighted. She began to offer him attention, and mark her deference for his opinions sufficiently to catch the embarrassed attention of her daughters.

At this point, Lydia, who had just returned from Meryton where she had paid a visit to Mrs. Forster, burst into the room with her usual energy, barely stopping to greet their guests before launching into a lively rendition of her adventures in the town and the plans she and her friend had made for her stay in Brighton. She took off a mournful Kitty to see her latest purchases, leaving behind a room that seemed much quieter for her absence.

Mrs. Covington, with the slightest of frowns, asked Mrs. Bennet, “Is your family travelling to Brighton this summer, then?”

Mrs. Bennet explained the circumstances, bewailing a little her husband’s cruelty in not permitting the entire family to go.

“I can well understand why you would be reluctant to allow Lydia to go without being there to supervise her in person,” said Mrs. Covington decisively, misunderstanding Mrs. Bennet’s intended purpose in wishing to bring her family to Brighton. “It is not a place for a young girl on her own; the officers of the militia here seem to be gentlemen, but there are many others who are wild and unmanageable. A girl like Lydia could easily become a target for an unscrupulous man. No, Mrs. Bennet, I fully agree with you that she should not be allowed to go without you.”

“That is what I have told Mr. Bennet time and again!” cried Mrs. Bennet. She was not prepared to spoil the mood of a prospective suitor for one of her girls by correcting the misapprehension that she did not approve of Lydia’s journey.

“I should agree as well,” interjected Mr. Covington, who had been watching Elizabeth’s face, and had gathered a good idea of her opinion of the matter. “I would not allow her to go by herself—though I certainly hope for myself that your family will not be travelling to Brighton any time soon. Why, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth have only just returned!” He smiled warmly in Elizabeth’s direction.

Mrs. Bennet was delighted by this additional hint as to his intentions. “Well, you need not worry, Mr. Covington. Mr. Bennet has made it clear he will not allow it,” she said, with just a hint of testiness. “But Lydia has her heart set on visiting Mrs. Forster there this summer; they are such dear friends, you know.”

Elizabeth found it quite astonishing that her mother was being so deferential to the opinions of their guests; and while she could not begin to comprehend why this should be so, she was perfectly willing to take advantage of it. “Could not Lydia visit Mrs. Forster in the autumn instead, at the regiment’s winter headquarters, when she would only be with the shire regiment whom we know and of whom she is such a favorite?” she asked.

“An excellent thought,” said Mrs. Covington firmly.

Mrs. Bennet began to look decidedly vexed; she did not wish to dash the hopes of her favourite merely for Lizzy’s sake, but Mr. Covington was quite eligible, and it certainly seemed that Mr. Bingley was never to return. “Well, I am sure Mr. Bennet will give it due consideration,” she said querulously.

The visit lasted for over an hour, and concluded with an invitation to dine at Ashworth the following week. Their guests had no sooner departed than Mrs. Bennet’s raptures began. “Oh, my dearest Lizzy!” she cried. “Mr. Covington! Oh, why did you say nothing of it to me! He will do very well for you, indeed. You shall be mistress of Ashworth! Oh, lord! Of course, it is nothing to what Mr. Bingley would have been, but we must learn to live with our disappointments. He will do quite well for you, though I cannot imagine why he did not choose Jane or Lydia instead – but there is no accounting for men’s thinking!”

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes. “I must remind you that Mr. Covington has not expressed any intentions at all towards me, nor has he suggested he is calling on me. I suspect he was doing no more than paying a neighbourly call.”

“Nonsense, Lizzy!” Mrs. Bennet cried. “Come ten miles just to visit? I think not! No, mark my words, Lizzy, you will be the next mistress of Ashworth!”

Elizabeth could see there was to be no reasoning with her, though she remained unconvinced that Mr. Covington’s interest in her was anything more than a passing fancy.

She was forced to reconsider this question, though, after their dinner engagement at Ashworth. It could not be denied that Mr. Covington was particularly attentive to her that evening, soliciting her opinion on a variety of matters, and going so far as to offer the party in general, but Elizabeth in particular, a tour of the house and grounds.

Elizabeth felt the compliment of his attentions, but was cautious. She did not wish her liveliness to mislead him, as it apparently had both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy in their different ways. Mr. Covington, though, she had known since the days when she wore her hair down, although never particularly well. This was, to her recollection, one of only a half dozen or so times she had been to Ashworth House. It was a well-kept house, slightly smaller than Longbourn, and not particularly well suited to hosting large parties; and since old Mr. Covington’s death until his son reached his majority, his mother was less active in the neighbourhood circles than she might have been otherwise.

She felt a little discomfort at the idea of her old acquaintance becoming her suitor. She had never thought of him in that way, though, as she thought back upon it, he had been more attentive to her than usual for some time now, which she had attributed to his natural affability. She could certainly find no reason to object to his interest in her; he was well respected, amiable, responsible, and she had never heard ill report of him, nor could she recall any instance in which she had been personally displeased with him. If she had not thought of him in the way a woman thinks of her lover, she reasoned, it was likely the result of her unfortunate experiences in the last months, which did not render her likely to look upon any man in such a manner. In some ways it was more surprising that she had not considered him as a candidate for her affections—he was certainly more suitable for her than either of the two men who had been her favourites, Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam, and he could be very agreeable. Perhaps, she thought, choosing a suitor based purely on immediate liking and attraction was dangerous, since it allowed a scoundrel such as Wickham to take advantage of her; it might be that a sensible match with a man she knew and respected was a better option. Perhaps it was nothing more than his very familiarity that had led her to overlook him.

She refused, however, to allow herself to dwell too much on the matter until such a time as Mr. Covington declared himself. While she was certain of his interest, the truth was that he could do better than her in terms of a match with a woman of greater fortune; hers would be the advantage in a marriage between them. And while his estate certainly was not struggling, it was a small holding, and would benefit by the master choosing a wife whose dowry could enrich the family. Time would tell if his interest was serious, and she would not worry about it overmuch until then.

Her attention, in fact, was elsewhere in any case. Since the loss of the regiment, there had been constant repinings from her mother, Lydia, and Kitty at the dullness of everything around them which threw a real gloom over their domestic circle. Lydia was particularly loud in her complaints, for she was still angry and disappointed that her visit to Mrs. Forster had been delayed until autumn, and that she would never enjoy the delights of Brighton. Her mother, according to her, had, by taking the advice of Mrs. Covington, betrayed her entire future. Mrs. Bennet wavered between mourning with her favourite daughter as to the opportunity lost and a practical consideration for not offending the only promising candidate for a son-in-law. Once Lydia had determined the true source of her woe, she blamed it fully upon Elizabeth, and did not hesitate to point this out to her sister at every available occasion.

Elizabeth was thus quite in need of pleasant distraction. Her upcoming tour to the Lakes was the object of her happiest thoughts; it was her best consolation for all the uncomfortable hours which the discontentedness of Lydia, Kitty, and her mother made inevitable. The time fixed for the beginning of the Northern tour was now fast approaching. Only a few days remained when Mr. Covington came to call at Longbourn once more.

His primary object in the visit was Elizabeth, and even if he had intended otherwise, Mrs. Bennet, never one to lose an opportunity, would have forced him into a position where it would have been impossible for him to avoid spending time with her daughter. Between the two, there was nothing easier than for him to sit beside Elizabeth and speak with her at length. Elizabeth was honestly glad to see him, as she would have been any caller who did not come solely to mourn the departure of the regiment, and she was quite lively in her description of her hopes for her tour and her interest in the Lakes. Mrs. Bennet was pleased to observe that Mr. Covington seemed to find Elizabeth’s enthusiasm quite charming.

“Lizzy,” Mrs. Bennet interrupted after a time. “It is such a pleasant day, and the flower gardens are in full bloom. Perhaps Mr. Covington would like it if you showed him the different walks.”

Elizabeth was not at all fooled by her mother’s stratagem, but obediently made the offer, which was accepted with alacrity. She ran into her own room for her parasol, and then attended her guest downstairs. Outside they proceeded along the gravel path that led to the flower garden; she pointed out several of her favorites to him along the way.

“Do you enjoy gardens, then, Miss Bennet?” asked Mr. Covington.

“Yes, I confess to a love of the outdoors in general, and Jane and I often will spend our time here among the flowers,” she responded.

“My mother has always loved gardens, and it has been a disappointment to her that her health has not allowed her to oversee our gardens as closely as she would have liked in the last few years. They have not suffered overmuch from the neglect, though I think that the gardeners lack my mother’s sense for designing plantings.”

“It can be hard to match something which is a matter of personal taste, and I can understand your mother’s frustration,” she agreed somewhat absently.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, his voice rather serious, but then he went no further.

She looked up at him. “Yes?”

He took a deep breath, then said, “There is something that I have been…. hoping to ask you about.”

Elizabeth had a sudden realization of what he was implying, and her pulses fluttered a bit. She had not been expecting this so soon, and had not in truth given the matter enough thought to be sure of her decision, though the arguments in favor certainly seemed to outweigh any against. Nevertheless, she was sufficiently anxious to try to delay matters. “There is?” she asked.

He flushed. “Yes, umm, I have been thinking, umm, of how much pleasure I have had in your company of late, and I know that you are going away very soon, and it will be some time before I see you again…”

She was both amused and a bit vexed by his obvious anxiety. Whatever else might be said against the other two men who had proposed to her, neither of them had any trouble speaking their piece. On the other hand, she thought, there was something to be said for a man who was not so blindly certain of being accepted as to have no worries in the matter. An ardent declaration of love, too, could be a somewhat more embarrassing proposition when faced with someone whom one would continue to encounter regularly even if rejected. She took a little pity on him, and, seeing an opportunity to gain herself some time as well, said gently, “Is there something you would like me to consider while I am away?”

He seemed relieved by her comprehension of the question, though he clearly had hoped for a more immediate answer. “Yes, that is to say, I would very much like it if you would consider whether you would do me the honour of being my wife,” he said, the last words rushing out.

Elizabeth, feeling somewhat sorry for his uncertainty, said gravely, “I thank you for the compliment, sir. I confess you have caught me quite by surprise, and while I find I am…favourably inclined, I would appreciate the opportunity to examine my thoughts on the subject more closely, with hopes of giving you an answer to your satisfaction.” She smiled at him with a warmth that she hoped would convey her regard for him, despite the delay she was requesting.

“Then I may approach you on this matter on your return?” he asked. To her relief, he did not seem overly disturbed about the deferment of her response.

Her smile was a bit more free now. “I will look forward to it, Mr. Covington,” she said, with just a trace of archness.

He caught her hand and brought it to his lips. “As will I, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth, feeling suddenly shy, blushed and looked away. Once her hand was free again, though, she looked up at him and saw again the amiable man she had known for years, and was able to exchange a smile with him.

* * *

Mrs. Bennet had been quite displeased when she discovered that Elizabeth was not yet engaged despite her efforts, but her vexation was somewhat mitigated when her daughter told her that Mr. Covington had particularly asked if he might call on her on her return. Her mother’s frequent lectures over the next few days as to the importance of securing his affections provided yet another reason for her to look forward to her tour.

The trip in every way lived up to her expectations. The company of her aunt and uncle was delightful, and the excitement of seeing places she had only read of in the past occupied her days. The beauty of the Lakes surpassed all her imaginations; she found it to be a landscape that spoke deeply to her. Though accustomed to more level and peaceful terrain, she felt she could happily spend her life among the crags and fells. Her only vexation was when the question of Mr. Covington would come to her mind. She did not find the thought of him vexing, but her own inability to come to a coherent decision about his proposal was a nagging irritant. She was not used to considering herself a dithering Miss, yet her usual decisiveness seemed to have deserted her on this issue.

One morning, when they were staying in the town of Glenridding, Elizabeth set off by herself to explore. She was feeling a need to be alone with her thoughts, and even the pleasant presence of her aunt and uncle felt as if it were more than she could tolerate. She struck off onto a path which led above Ullswater, skirting the small woods that clung to the side of the river, and walked rapidly until she felt well winded. Finding herself in a clearing overlooking the water, she settled herself in the grass to admire the dramatic scenery.

For some time she was content just to feel the cool breeze moving over her skin, but soon her thoughts returned to the question she had been avoiding through the entire journey. She could no longer circumvent it; she needed to come to a decision about her future with Mr. Covington. She was not even certain why she was struggling with it; certainly he had a great many of the characteristics she would value in a partner—he was amiable, well-liked and respected, and had a reputation for kindness and generosity. She knew he would never deliberately hurt or neglect her, nor maltreat any children they might have—she found she shied away from thinking of ‘their children’—and his position in life was one in which she could be comfortable.

It galled her to be forced to consider that very position in life, but the truth was she could no longer afford to ignore it. Her mother in many ways had the right of it—if none of the Bennet girls married well, their position as well as her own would be very precarious after Mr. Bennet’s death. Elizabeth had always put this consideration to the side, certain that Jane, with her beauty and gentle disposition, would find an appropriate husband, thus taking the burden from her. Now, though, having seen how little Jane had recovered her spirits after Mr. Bingley’s departure, she was forced to reconsider that conclusion. No man would want a wife who was pining for another, and, while Jane was strong enough to continue to put a good face on her sadness, that spark she had owned in the past was no longer present. Her younger sisters gave her even less cause for hope; she doubted that Mary would ever marry, and if Lydia and Kitty found husbands, those men would no doubt be as foolish and impractical as their lady-loves. No, she could not depend on any of her sisters to be able to provide a home and sustenance for their mother or the others after her father’s death. Under the circumstances, how could she justify refusing a pleasant, well-to-do gentleman of whom she could make no major complaint?

He certainly was an improvement over her previous suitors, she thought with an ironic smile. Mr. Covington might not constantly challenge her intelligence as Mr. Darcy had, but he was far from the obsequious fool Mr. Collins was; and his manners and conduct were certainly an improvement over the proud and judgmental Mr. Darcy. If he had not the fine countenance and figure of Mr. Wickham, he more than compensated by owning a far greater moral sense than the other ever would. All in all, she had very little to complain of Mr. Covington as a husband—nothing at all, in fact, except that she found herself with no particular urge for his company. She did not miss him when they were apart; she did not look forward with eagerness to their next encounter; she did not remember with delight what he had said at the last. She had hoped to marry for love, but she could go no further than to say she liked him. Still, could not that affection develop into more, given time? Was a failure to make her cheeks blush and her pulses run fast a reason to refuse a man who would make a good husband? It was a sensibility she could not afford. There were few enough men who would look at a penniless woman from a family known for ill-bred behaviour.

She sighed. There really was no choice; perhaps that, as much as anything, was what grated on her. She wanted a marriage that went beyond the everyday as much as the spectacular scenery before her outshone the calmer landscape of Hertfordshire, but it was not to be. But it was not realistic to wait in hopes of finding a man who could instantly command her whole heart and devotion. There would not be a husband to open new worlds to her, to continually challenge and stimulate her—that was beyond her reach. But she would not allow herself to be made unhappy by fanciful wishes. She would accept Mr. Covington’s offer when he made it, and she would be grateful for it. She resolved that she would think no further on any attributes Mr. Covington might lack, and only to consider the advantages he offered.

The sun went behind a cloud, and she shivered. She should have brought a shawl with her, she thought, rather than rushing out heedlessly without thinking that the weather might change. She took a last look at the peerless view before her before determinedly heading back towards the town.

* * *

Darcy had quite enough of his guests for the day. Nothing could please him, neither Bingley’s good humour, nor Miss Bingley’s condescending witticisms, nor even Georgiana’s quiet company. He was restless, and decided to take himself off for a solitary ride before his mood deteriorated any further. He cantered across the familiar and well loved hills of Pemberley until his horse was lathered, then, restive still, slowed him to a walk on his way back to the house. Unwilling to return to company quite so soon, he paused and turned along a favourite path by the side of the water, where every step brought forward a noble fall of ground or a fine reach of woods. In such attractive surroundings, relaxation slowly began to steal over him.

Elizabeth would like it here, he thought involuntarily, and a familiar pain rushed into him. An image of her rose before his eyes, the sweetness of her smile contrasting with an arch look in her lovely eyes. How am I to tolerate this? he demanded of himself, not for the first time. He had thought this pain would fade with time, but it had not; and coming to Pemberley had brought no relief – if anything, it had worsened his distress and longing for her. This was where she was supposed to be by his side, this should be her home, and it seemed he could not forget her, not even for a minute.

Then there were those moments when he would see a shadow of sorrow crossing Bingley’s face, and know that he was responsible for causing his friend the same sort of agony he now found himself in, and he despised himself for it. But Bingley’s loss was the greater; if Elizabeth was to be believed, her sister had truly loved him, whereas Darcy had never been so fortunate as to have Elizabeth’s love to lose. It was almost as great a punishment to think of this as it was to recall the bitterness and acrimony of Elizabeth’s refusal, and sometimes he wondered that he could still look Bingley in the eye and call him friend. If only Elizabeth were here, he thought despairingly.

He gazed unseeingly at the vista opening before him, and the question crept into his mind once more that had been haunting him since the day he had arrived at Pemberley, having ridden ahead of the party so as to have some time in his home alone. Was it possible that his letter had improved Elizabeth’s opinion of him? Might it be that, if he were to try to make his suit again, she might be more receptive? Was his pride, his damnable pride, causing him to refuse the opportunity to see if she might yet be won, now that her misconceptions had been laid to rest? If she ever read the letter, he thought bitterly, and if she believed a word you said in it!

His pride was certainly standing between Bingley and his happiness, he knew. He could hardly blame Elizabeth for refusing him when he looked at his own behaviour—giving up on the woman he claimed to love, and allowing his friend to suffer the tortures of the damned on his account. But to confess his insufferable interference to Bingley—what if Miss Bennet had since forgotten him? Would another disappointment not be worse?

Enough was enough, he decided suddenly. He could no longer bear not knowing. He would talk to Bingley, convince him that it was his responsibility to return to Netherfield to collect the quarter-day rents and to enjoy the shooting, and then they would see—see if Miss Bennet still cared for Bingley, and see if he himself had any hope of ever winning Elizabeth’s affection. If the answer was no, he would have to accept it, and somehow learn to live with it, but he was damned if he would give up before he knew.

* * *

Elizabeth kept to her resolution of having no regrets. It was somewhat easier after Mr. Covington finally asked her to be his wife, and she was able to see the joy in his face when she accepted him, and to see the pleasure that their engagement brought to her family. Her mother was delighted that she would be mistress of Ashworth, her father pleased that his favourite daughter would be so near, and Jane, to whom Elizabeth had never confessed her reservations, was as happy for her sister as her spirits would allow her to be.

She felt reassured on another front as well. Mrs. Covington was a woman she respected, and despite her pleasant interactions with her before leaving on her tour, Elizabeth had a very real concern that her future mother would be disappointed in her son’s choice. It would have been better for the future of Ashworth, she knew, for him to marry a woman with some fortune of her own, and Mrs. Covington could not fail to be aware of it. Elizabeth disliked the idea of entering the family with any conflict between her and the woman who had managed the household ever since she could remember. It was an agreeable surprise, then, on her first visit to Ashworth after her engagement, to find Mrs. Covington congratulating her with a kindliness which could not be missed.

Touched, Elizabeth thanked her warmly. She was surprised to find herself confessing to Mrs. Covington those very concerns she had worried over, and was for a moment embarrassed to have acknowledged so openly her own consideration that she might not be the best match for her son.

She was immediately reassured, however, by Mrs. Covington’s response. “My dear Miss Bennet,” the older woman said, “while I cannot deny that I could wish you had some fortune of your own to bring to this marriage, it is not as important a matter to me as some other characteristics you possess in abundance. I am not one to deny harsh facts; I know I almost did not survive my illness this winter, and that my next episode will in all probability be my last. For my own peace of mind, I want to see my son settled, and with a woman who will be capable of managing Ashworth. You are practical, energetic, clever, and unafraid to speak your mind; this is more important to me at this moment than fortune.”

“I hope your concerns prove to be quite unfounded,” exclaimed Elizabeth, startled by this degree of frankness, “but I will certainly do my best, and I thank you for your kind words.”

Mrs. Covington looked at her penetratingly for a moment, then smiled warmly. “I have always been a frank woman, my dear, and now I find myself at a time in my life when I have no patience for arguing the niceties. My son has left this matter of choosing a bride longer than I would have liked, and as a result, I have a great deal which I want to have the opportunity to tell you, and not as much time as I would have wished to do so.”

Elizabeth looked at her with a new respect. “I will be grateful for any insights and help you can give me.”

“My son is a good man, and will make you a fine husband,” she said. “I have much to be proud of in him, but I am not such a doting mother as to think he is without flaw. If you do not know it already, you will discover soon that he is generous to a fault, and dislikes causing unpleasantness. The wrong sort of woman could take merciless advantage of his good nature. You, I think, are too honest to do so, but you will need strength and tact to watch that no one else takes advantage of him either, be it the tenants or the servants or the tradesmen.” She watched Elizabeth closely to observe her reaction.

Elizabeth had not truly begun to consider until this moment the changes that were to come to her as mistress of her own home. “I see that I will have a great deal to learn,” she said slowly, striving to match Mrs. Covington’s directness.

Mrs. Covington looked at her, well pleased with the young woman her son had chosen. She patted her hand, and said, “We shall talk more soon, I hope, but I see a young man coming who is hoping, I doubt not, to take you away from me.”

Elizabeth looked up to see Mr. Covington approaching, a pleased smile on his face at the sight of her. “Miss Bennet!” he said. “I was wondering if you would enjoy an opportunity to see the grounds. I would be happy to give you a tour.”

“Thank you,” she said sedately, with a glance at his mother. “I would like that.” She allowed him to lead her outside.

“I hope you were having a pleasant discussion with my mother, Lizzy,” he said as they entered the flower gardens.

Elizabeth, not yet accustomed to the familiarity of being called by her name, looked away and reached out to lightly touch a rose. “Very much so,” she said. “I like her very well indeed.”

He was visibly relieved. “I am glad to hear it. I want you to be happy here, you know.”

“Thank you,” she said. She was finding this conversation somewhat stilted. “I am sure I will be, Mr. Covington.”

“Lizzy…”

She glanced up at him enquiringly. “Yes?”

“Will you not call me James?” he asked. “You used to do it quite prettily, many years ago.”

She coloured. “Yes, of course, if you would like,” she replied, a trifle uncomfortable with the idea, but feeling his request to be quite reasonable. “James,” she added. He looked so pleased by her gesture that she could not help softening a bit towards him, much as she would to a puppy eager for affection. “The gardens are very lovely—you have many of my favorite flowers. I think I will like it here very much.”

To her surprise, he took her gloved hand and pressed it between his. Startled, she looked at him, and found that his gaze held a warmth that she had never seen in him before. His eyes travelled downwards to her lips. She felt a rush of anxiety, but did not move; she understood her obligations to him. Still, she could not help turning her face to the side as he leaned toward her, encouraging his lips to land on her cheek instead of her mouth. The feeling was not unpleasing, and she smiled up at him apologetically. Fortunately, he appeared to be perfectly satisfied with what had occurred, and with another squeeze, released her hand.

She breathed a silent sigh of relief as they continued on, grateful to have that first moment of intimacy past. It would become easier with time, she was sure, and she could see that it would likely even become pleasant as she grew more accustomed to this sort of physical affection. There is nothing to worry about, she reassured herself. Nothing at all.