Had she dreamed it?
Elizabeth raised herself on one arm and rubbed her eyes. She must have dreamed it. It was impossible that Mr. Darcy, of all people, would have offered her his hand in marriage! Had proud, unpleasant Mr. Darcy, undeniably the most eligible gentleman of her acquaintance, made a declaration of ardent love to her – and made it sound like an unforgivable insult? It must have been a dream, or in truth, a nightmare.
But she knew it had not been a dream. Scenes from the previous night flashed before her. Mr. Darcy, coming to the parsonage ostensibly to ask after her health, but actually to declare himself. His offensive comments about her low connections and how marriage to her would be a degradation and how society would look down on him for it. On and on he had gone, until she had finally lost all sense of decorum to anger, and told him he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry.
She sat up and covered her face with her hands. Oh, yes, she had lost her temper abominably. So had he, of course, but that did not excuse it. He might be a horrid man, but even horrid men deserved a tiny touch of compassion when being disappointed in love. She shook her head again. Mr. Darcy, in love with her?
Unable to bear her thoughts, she arose and drew the curtains open. The bright, sunny day seemed to mock her mood. Oh, heavens, she did not know whether to feel more humiliated or complimented. What would her mother say if she ever discovered that wealthy Mr. Darcy had proposed to her daughter — and she had refused? Elizabeth shuddered.
She did her best to adopt a cheery demeanour for breakfast, which was not difficult since her cousin Mr. Collins maintained a conversation without the least input from anyone else. A few nods and murmurs of agreement were all that was necessary. His wife, Charlotte, seemed not to notice anything was amiss, but Elizabeth was relieved when breakfast ended.
She was totally indisposed for employment, so she resolved to indulge herself in air and exercise. She was proceeding to her favourite walk when the recollection of Mr. Darcy’s sometimes coming there stopped her, and she paused just inside the gate to the park to make certain she was alone. Mr. Darcy was the last person she wanted to see right now.
Darcy impatiently peered down the last path in the grove. If he did not find Elizabeth here, then it was hopeless. Either she had come early for her morning walk and left already, or, more likely, she had never come to her favourite place at all for fear of meeting him. Perhaps he disgusted her so much that she could not bear the thought of laying eyes upon him.
Her accusations from the previous night still echoed in his ears. He had expected joy in response to his proposal. What a fool he had been, not to realize that Elizabeth Bennet hated him! He must have looked like a village idiot, offering his heart and hand to a woman who detested him, who thought him devoid of every proper feeling. He would never forget her countenance as she told him that he was the last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry. How could she think him selfish, immoral, and ungentlemanly? Any other woman would be honoured to marry him.
Her behaviour was as unforgivable as it was unforgettable. If he had not been so completely bewitched, he would have realized that Elizabeth was every bit as foolish as her annoying mother. Did she not realize the advantages he could offer her? She would never have an offer from anyone remotely as eligible as him. She would live forever in that miserable excuse for a country town when she might have been Mistress of Pemberley. It had been a narrow escape for him. He had to remember that. Elizabeth could not have made it clearer that she could never manage the duties expected of his wife. So why did he not feel relieved? Why did he still feel as if he had lost something infinitely precious?
A glimmer of white by the wall caught his eye. Suddenly heavy with foreboding, he recognized Elizabeth’s light figure, her back to him as she closed the garden gate behind her. Her face was shaded, and all he could see was the bobbing of her bonnet, but he would have recognized her anywhere. No other woman moved with that mesmerizing grace, like a hummingbird dipping its beak in the nectar of a ripe blossom, like a spirit come to earth to torment men’s souls. Despite everything, his body still ached for her.
He knew the instant that she saw him, for she became still, as if rooted to the ground. She began to retreat, as if hoping her presence had not been noticed, but he could not allow her to escape, not now. “Miss Bennet!” he called.
She stopped at the sound of his voice, but did not look up. She could have been a doe, poised on the brink of flight, held in check only by the gossamer bonds of good manners. Now was his moment. He forced his feet to move, first one step, then another, till he stood so close to her that her lavender scent wafted over him. She stood, her gaze averted.
She could still take his breath away. Even knowing she hated him, he longed to taste her soft lips under his – or perhaps to shake her until she saw sense. Instead, he held out the letter he had spent the entire night writing. Striving to keep his voice even, he said, “I have been walking the grove for some time in hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?”
Elizabeth reached out to take it, but froze with her fingers only inches away from it. Her hand slowly closed onto itself and withdrew. “I cannot accept it.” Her voice sounded strangled.
“I do not ask this of you lightly. There are matters in it of utmost importance,” he said icily.
She folded her hands behind her back. “Mr. Darcy, you know as well as I that a single lady cannot receive correspondence from a gentleman. Your opinion of my family’s manners may be low, but I assure you that I understand that much of proper behaviour.”
He flushed. “This is not the time for foolishness. No one will know of it, and I must insist that you read it.”
Her eyes widened and she took a step back. “You presume too much, Mr. Darcy. I wish you good day.” She turned and hurried away, almost at a run.
Fuming, Darcy called after her, but she did not acknowledge him. He could hardly go chasing after her. He stuffed the letter in his pocket. He would have to think of another way to get it to her.
Elizabeth did not stop until she had reached the public road where she leaned against a painted fencepost, out of breath. Her resentment of the previous evening returned in full force at Mr. Darcy’s imperious behavior. What could he been thinking? For a young lady, receiving a letter from a gentleman was tantamount to acknowledging an engagement. She could be trapped by propriety into an unwanted marriage.
Unwanted by her, at least. Her eyes widened as she comprehended his strategy. If she took his letter and it came to light, she would have to marry him, whether she willed it or not. She had refused him; now he was preparing to take matters into his own hands and disregard her wishes, just as he had disregarded the wishes of Jane and Bingley in favour of his own. Detestable man!
She would be safe here. Even Mr. Darcy would not risk assaulting her on a well-travelled road, since that could damage his reputation as well as hers. She glanced back over her shoulder, half-fearing to see him following her, but there was no one there. She rested her hand over her racing heart and shivered. Suppose she had taken that letter – for all she knew, he could have had someone watching them already to catch her in the act! Or, even worse, perhaps his plan had not been to trap her into marriage, but instead to ruin her reputation in revenge for her refusal. Even she had not thought so ill of Mr. Darcy. It had been a narrow escape.
She must avoid him. He was due to leave for London later that day, so if she stayed away for a few hours, she should be safe. The village was probably her best option. She could call on the old widow there. Mrs. Dunning would think Charlotte had sent her, and the proud Mr. Darcy would never think to look for her in a ramshackle cottage in Hunsford. He would never deign to enter such an abode. She could not imagine he ever had a charitable impulse in his life.
Her indignation did not lessen as she walked along the footpath. She longed for her sister Jane’s calm presence to soothe her agitation. She needed to talk to someone about what had happened, but she could hardly confide in Charlotte, given her friend’s dependence on Mr. Darcy’s aunt. Elizabeth’s anger gave way to amusement as she realized who she most wished she could tell of this misadventure. Mr. Wickham detested Mr. Darcy as much as she did, and had even greater reason to resent him. If only she could tell him how she had accused Mr. Darcy of mistreating him! But Mr. Wickham was engaged to Miss King now, and it would be inappropriate for her to confide in him. Still, the mere thought of doing so made her smile wickedly.
After avoiding the parsonage for over two hours, fatigue made her return home; and she entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation.
She was immediately told that the two gentlemen from Rosings had called during her absence; Mr. Darcy, only for a few minutes to take leave, but that Colonel Fitzwilliam had been sitting with them at least an hour, hoping for her return. Elizabeth could only affect concern in missing him. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an amiable friend whom she would miss, but a painful reminder of the most proud and selfish man of her acquaintance.
From Charlotte’s odd glances at her during dinner, Elizabeth suspected her attempt to pretend nothing had happened was lacking in success. When Mr. Collins finally returned to his garden after the interminable meal, Charlotte requested Elizabeth’s company in the parlour. Elizabeth, wondering at this odd solicitation, was even more puzzled when her friend firmly closed the door behind them. “Why, Charlotte, have you secrets with which to regale me?” she said gaily, hoping to disguise any disturbance in her features.
Charlotte did not smile in response, but instead wrung her hands together. Elizabeth, now concerned that her friend might truly be ill, encouraged her to sit down, but Charlotte refused. “I must speak with you, Lizzy, and I do not know what is right and wrong in this matter.”
“This sounds quite serious!”
“It concerns Mr. Darcy. When he called earlier, he drew me aside to speak to me privately, telling me that it was of the utmost importance that you read a letter he had written. He had no way to deliver it discreetly. He begged my assistance in giving it to you privately. I did not know what to say – he is not the sort of man to whom it is easy to deny anything once he has his mind set on it, so I took the letter. It is improper, certainly, but his aspect was so grave that I did not doubt the importance of it. I cannot imagine what he would have to tell you that is of such great consequence, or rather I prefer not to imagine what it might be. He certainly could not depart quickly enough once he had given me it.”
“How dare he involve you in his business!” Elizabeth’s cheeks grew hot. Mr. Darcy’s impudence was beyond measure, to involve her friend in his snare! Charlotte’s reputation too could have been ruined by his thoughtless behaviour. He was a despicable man who cared nothing for who might be injured as long as he had his own way.
Charlotte did not meet her eyes, but drew the familiar letter from her pocket and laid it on the spindly table beside Elizabeth. “There, now it is yours to decide, and I will leave you alone and never mention it again. I have no desire to pry into your affairs.”
Elizabeth eyed the letter as if it might be drenched in poison. It bore her name on the outside, written in a firm and close hand on the finest paper. Somehow the very elegance of it only increased her indignation. With sudden resolution she said, “You need not leave, Charlotte. I have nothing to hide from you or anyone else.” She took the letter gingerly between her fingers and carried it to the hearth, where she bent down and slowly fed the envelope to the flames, watching as it folded and curled, a wisp of dark smoke rising to disappear up the flue. She held it until she could feel the heat of the flame on her fingers, then dropped the last fragments into the grate where they was consumed until even the shape was lost. She only wished she could burn her memories of Mr. Darcy as easily as she had destroyed his correspondence.
Briskly she rubbed her hands together. “Now there is nothing to concern anyone, Charlotte. Whatever he wished to communicate to me is lost forever, and I shall never see him again.”
Charlotte bit her lip. “I hope he has not imposed himself upon you in any way. I could never forgive myself if you came to harm while under my roof. I had guessed him to be partial to you, but I trusted he would act the part of the gentleman.”
“Nothing of the sort occurred, I assure you.” Sensing that her friend would not rest until she knew more, Elizabeth added, “Mr. Darcy and I exchanged words – heated words, I admit – but that is all. I do not know what inspired him to take the ridiculous risk of writing to me, and I do not care.”
“Take care, Lizzy. He is a powerful man, and accustomed to having his way. I cannot advise crossing him.”
Elizabeth forced a laugh. “Especially as he no doubt has patronage to offer in the church! Never fear; I am sure he will not blame Mr. Collins in any way for the woeful manners of his Bennet relations. He was never in any doubt of my low connections, or of the poorly bred behaviour typical of my family.” She could not keep the bitterness from her voice.
“Oh, Lizzy, I am so sorry. I did not think him that sort of man.”
“I have no idea what sort of man he is, apart from the fact that he is a man of whom I wish to know no more. But I do wish to hear of everything that happened last night when you dined at Rosings Park. Was Lady Catherine in fine form?”
Charlotte looked unhappy, but accepted the redirection. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was relieved when she could finally retire for the night. She was afraid Charlotte’s sharp eyes had seen too much.
Darcy leaned on the windowsill of his room at Rosings as he had so often in these last weeks, just able to make out the roof of the parsonage over the stately oaks in the park. Until today, he had spent hours at this window, thinking of Elizabeth, wondering what she was doing at that moment, picturing her alone in her bed, dreaming of holding her soft form in his arms. Now those passionate desires were replaced by frustration. It had been over an hour since he had left his cousin at the parsonage. Was that the cause of this delay? Was Richard even now enjoying Elizabeth’s smiles? Or was it possible that Elizabeth was asking him about the truth contained in the letter? He supposed it was unlikely, unless Mrs. Collins had somehow intercepted her to give it to her.
He tore his gaze away from the parsonage and paced the floor. His belongings had been packed and were already on a coach to London with his valet, and there was nothing left to distract him. He could go down to his aunt’s sparse library in search of a book, but that would risk meeting Lady Catherine and he did not trust his temper that far. His lips tightened. What in God’s name was delaying Richard?
Finally he heard the clicking of boots echoing down the passageway. Richard at last, thank God! Darcy opened the door without waiting for his knock. “Are you ready?” he demanded.
Richard sauntered in and threw himself in an armchair. “What’s the rush? We’re only three hours from London – more like two hours with your horses.”
“I have had enough of Rosings.”
“What’s this? First you delay our departure time after time, and now you want to leave this very second.”
“Obviously! Why did you run off from the parsonage so quickly? I would have thought you would want to wait to bid farewell to the lovely Miss Bennet, or at least to stare at her silently as you usually do. Oh, do stop pacing and sit down, Darcy. You’re making me dizzy.”
Darcy glared at him. “Did you see her?”
“No, she still hadn’t returned.”
“Damn,” Darcy muttered.
“Ah hah! Were you planning to steal off to see her alone?”
“Hardly.” Since Richard showed no signs of leaving, Darcy poured himself a glass of port and swallowed half of it, disregarding the burning sensation in his throat. “I thought she might have spoken to you, that’s all.”
Richard raised an eyebrow. “About anything in particular? And slow down on that bottle, or you won’t be able to manage your greys.”
“I told her about Georgiana and Wickham, and said that if she did not believe me, you could confirm it for her.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam rose half-way, slapping his hands on the armrest of the chair. “Good God, man, what were you thinking? We agreed to tell no one, no one, about Georgiana and Wickham. One word in the wrong place could ruin her!”
Darcy’s lips were in a tight line. “Miss Bennet’s discretion can be trusted, and she needs to know that Wickham cannot be trusted.”
“So tell her he isn’t to be trusted. You didn’t have to mention Georgiana. What could possibly be so important that she would need to know?”
“It was the only way she would believe me about him.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth.
“Then she is a fool, and so are you, for entrusting that secret to anyone. Miss Bennet is a pretty young thing, and it’s damned obvious that you have a tendre for her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she has no reason to keep secrets for us, and every reason to gossip.”
“She will not gossip.”
“Darcy, you are the last man I would expect to be taken in by a charming manner and a pretty face!”
Darcy clenched his fists by his side. “If there is anything in the world I do not doubt, it is that Elizabeth is honest and honourable.”
“She does not even like you!”
Darcy paled even further. “I know that.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam threw his hands up in the air. “I know better than to try to reason with you in this frame of mind. Do what you will, then.”
“I have already done it. She is likely reading a letter from me as we speak.”
“You put it in writing?” His cousin’s tone was scathing.
“I am sorry you disapprove,” Darcy said icily. “I intend to leave now. You can come now and ride with me, or make your own way back to Town. It makes no difference to me.” He stalked out of the room, down the wide marble staircase, and out the front door, avoiding even the requisite farewell to his aunt and cousin.
He was relieved to find his curricle ready for him beyond the oversized portico of Rosings, a groom holding the horses’ bridles as they stamped and whinnied. They had lacked for exercise these last few days, and it showed. Darcy was almost grateful that the greys were so restive. Keeping them under control would require all his attention.
At the last moment, Colonel Fitzwilliam scrambled in beside him. Without looking at him, Darcy gathered the ribbons in his hand. The greys took little encouragement to set a brisk pace away from the house. Once they reached the London road, Darcy sprang the horses, sending them charging along at a breakneck pace as if speed would allow him to outrun his bleak thoughts. He did not rein them in until beads of sweat coated their backs.
As they slowed to a walk, the colonel heaved a dramatic sigh and crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you still sulking?”
Darcy did not bother to look at him. “No.”
“Then what’s the matter? I haven’t seen you in a mood like this since…well, since Ramsgate. What happened?”
“Nothing.” A vision of Elizabeth, her eyes sparkling with laughter, rose before him. He would never be in her company again, never enjoy her smile, never watch her tilt her head with that grace peculiar to her, never catch her feminine scent of lavender, never see her light up the room with her presence. Never.
“Darcy, you are the worst liar I know. Last night you were almost glowing with excitement, then today you are nothing but thunderclouds. What happened?”
Darcy scowled. He knew from experience that Richard would not leave him alone until he answered. “Elizabeth Bennet happened.” The only woman he had ever wanted to call his own.
Richard’s mouth pursed in a silent whistle. “You really are infatuated with her, aren’t you?”
“No, I am not infatuated.” Infatuation would not cause him to lose sleep for months, nor create an ache deep within himself that would never be filled. “I offered her my hand. She refused.”
“You did what?” Richard shook his head in disbelief. “And she refused? I don’t believe it. She has more sense than that.”
“She finds me arrogant, conceited, and selfish.” Darcy could not keep the bitterness from his voice, but it was a relief to say the words.
“Hmm. I’m sorry.”
“You could at least disagree!”
“Darcy, you don’t need me to tell you your virtues. But I can see how, to the eye of a stranger, you might appear arrogant and conceited. Miss Bennet in particular – I know you were merely tongue-tied in her presence, but it must have seemed as if you wouldn’t deign to talk to her.”
Darcy turned wounded eyes on his cousin, then stared silently at the road ahead. “I suppose you think I should have pestered her with pointless compliments and bad poems.” One of the greys tossed his head angrily.
“No, you aren’t suited to play the role of the swain,” Richard agreed, his tone more sympathetic. “You behaved exactly as I would have expected you to. I know it speaks to the depth of your feelings, but Miss Bennet does not know you as I do. Oh, for God’s sake, Darcy, loosen your grip before those poor horses bolt. Or better yet, give me the ribbons.”
Darcy looked down at his hands in surprise. Richard was right; the ribbons were taut, and his hand ached where he held them. Numbly he let his fingers fall away and passed the ribbons to his cousin.
Richard gave a soft whistle as he shook the ribbons lightly. “This must be serious. You’re actually allowing me to drive your precious greys.”
Darcy slumped back against the high seat. “Be quiet, Richard.”
His cousin raised an eyebrow but turned his attention to the driving, unabashedly taking advantage of the opportunity to put the horses through their paces.
After a few minutes, Darcy said abruptly, “She is half in love with Wickham, you know.”
“I should have run him through when I had the chance,” Richard muttered under his breath.
“That is why I had to tell her about Georgiana.”
“I hope she believes you, then. I’d hate to think of a lovely girl like Miss Bennet falling into Wickham’s clutches.”
Darcy squeezed his eyes shut, but nothing could hide the wrenching picture of Elizabeth in George Wickham’s arms. “I could not let that happen to her.”
“No, of course not,” Richard said with unusual gentleness. “She’ll be safe from him, I’m sure of it. She is an intelligent and spirited young lady, and you have warned her.”
“I’ll kill him myself if he touches her,” Darcy grumbled.
“Why don’t you come out with me tonight?” Richard tacitly ignored his threat. “I am meeting friends at Lady Rendall’s soiree, and the entertainment there is always good.”
“Thank you for the effort, but I am not a suitable frame of mind.”
“I know that, but it’ll do you no good to sit at home and brood. You need to meet other women.”
Darcy rubbed his gloved hands over his face. “True enough, but not yet.” There wasn’t a woman alive who could take his mind off Elizabeth Bennet.
“Soon, though,” said Richard. “And in the meantime, you know where to find me.”