Alone with Mr. Darcy
He remembered that old oak, the one with the split trunk. It had been in full leaf, a giant filling the sky, when he first rode to Meryton with Bingley. Now its bare branches reached out over the hedgerow as if to snare an unwary traveler. But Darcy was anything but unwary.
He knew the dangers of the road he followed. It led to Miss Elizabeth Bennet of the fine eyes, the woman who had almost made him forget who he was and what he needed to do. No longer. He had conquered that weakness and put it behind him. This journey to Meryton was for one purpose and one purpose only, and it did not involve seeing her.
Most of his acquaintances in Meryton had already faded in his mind. He could barely recall their faces, but that tiny wisp of hair which escaped Elizabeth’s hairpins and danced over the nape of her neck – that he remembered in excruciating detail. He could practically smell her lavender scent and see the reflected candlelight on the engraved silver pendant she had worn to the Netherfield ball, drawing his eyes downwards and into temptation. And the music of her laugh, the flash in her fine eyes when she was amused, that pale blue dress she wore when Caroline Bingley invited her to take a turn around the room. The sunlight had shown through it when she passed in front of the window, and that image was seared on his soul. But now he was past all that. Should she happen to cross his path today, he would feel nothing. He was once more in control of himself, the master of Pemberley and of his fate.
The icy wind whistled past his ears and down his neck as a few lazy snowflakes danced in the air. With his free hand, he tightened his muffler and turned up the collar of his many-caped greatcoat. His thick leather gloves were fur-lined, but even so, his fingers were beginning to lose feeling as he held the reins. It would have been wiser to take a carriage in this weather, where he could have a warm brick at his feet and another for his hands, but he had wanted the freedom to come and go quickly when he reached Meryton. It was only a few miles now. His numb fingers did not matter. The sooner this was done, the happier he would be.
He squinted up at the grey sky. It had been clear when he left London, but now clouds covered every inch of it, not that he minded. The clouds matched his mood better than sunny skies. But now the snow was coming faster and the wind was picking up.
A serious snowstorm could trap him in Meryton overnight, and that was unacceptable. People would recognize him and ask questions. Perhaps he should turn back and find an inn on the turnpike. But he had not brought his valet or clothes for another day, and if he waited out the snow in an inn, he would have to go to Longbourn looking disheveled. Bad enough he could not hide the traces of his long, cold ride. Not that he had any need to impress anyone at Longbourn – far from it. He had no intention of giving anyone any expectations. None at all.
Most likely it was just a flurry and would improve soon.
A gust of wind sent snowflakes driving into his face. Mercury tossed his head and whinnied, most likely unhappy about the snow blowing in his eyes. He had probably never seen snow before. Darcy leaned forward and patted the side of his head, but the horse’s ears remained flattened. Perhaps it had been a mistake to take the young stallion rather than one of his better trained horses.
But now the snow was coming down harder, making it difficult to see any distance down the road. Devil take it, he would have to go back. But when he pulled on Mercury’s reins, instead of turning, the horse reared up wildly. Suddenly there was nothing but air beneath Darcy.
Elizabeth Bennet pushed her icy fingers deeper into her woolen gloves, wishing Lydia had not once again claimed the fur muff. Of course Lydia would just laugh and say it was her own fault for walking the long way home from the church. Lydia would never understand the need to get away from everyone, and today she would have run mad without some time to herself.
Why, oh why had she agreed to visit Charlotte in Kent? The last thing she wished to do was to travel all that distance for the supposed pleasure of sharing a house with Mr. Collins and all of his ridiculous platitudes and flatteries. How could Charlotte have agreed to marry that foolish man? What had happened to her good sense? Elizabeth would rather be a poor spinster than marry a man she could not respect.
It had been impossible to refuse the invitation, though. If only Charlotte had not asked her at the church door with everyone around them! She might have been able to find an excuse to avoid the visit then. But now she was committed, because everyone knew she was going to Kent in March. Oh, joy – she would no doubt have the great pleasure of meeting the famous Lady Catherine de Bourgh as well. It was not going to be a happy journey.
The snow was coming down in earnest now, swirling around her and painting the world in shades of white. How could she resist sticking out her tongue to catch a flake on it, even if she was half-frozen? She had always been the best of her sisters at this game, and chasing snowflakes was far more pleasant than thinking of the visit to Charlotte and her horrible husband. Her cold fingers were forgotten as she danced on the path, pausing here and there to examine the intricate shapes of the snowflakes as they landed on her gloves. Each was so different from the next! If only she had a way to preserve those fanciful forms. But they melted into nothing in a matter of seconds.
A burning knife was digging a hole in Darcy’s skull. Why? All he wanted was to sleep. The cold had finally gone away. If only the knife would do the same!
“Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy!” A female voice called his name urgently.
He wanted to ignore it, but it stirred some memory. He forced his eyes open to discover the visage of Elizabeth Bennet only inches from his face. “You,” he said distinctly, “are not supposed to be here.”
“I am not supposed to be here?” Her voice rose sharply on the words. “You are the one who… oh, never mind. Are you well enough to walk?”
“Walk? Why would I want to walk?”
She closed her eyes as if hunting inside herself for patience. “Because it is snowing and you are injured.”
“I am not injured. I am merely resting.”
This time her lips twitched. “I see. You have chosen to rest by the side of the road in the middle of a snowstorm with a gash in your head. An interesting choice, Mr. Darcy. Personally, I would recommend a warm bed next time.”
How tempting those lips were! “A warm bed sounds very good to me, although hardly for resting.”
Elizabeth turned her face away, but he thought she was laughing. “Come, sir. I must take you to shelter. I fear you are confused from your injury.”
He frowned. Had her normal intelligence deserted her? “I already told you I am not injured.”
With a sigh, she pulled off her glove and touched her fingers the burning knife, sending it ever deeper into his skull. He winced as she held up a bloody handkerchief in front of him. “Sir, you are bleeding. That is generally a characteristic of injuries.”
Was she laughing at him? He tried to raise himself to a sitting position, since it was not polite to lie down in front of a lady, but the knife twisted painfully and he had to bite down on his lip to keep from crying out. So he was injured after all. That explained a great deal. “Ah, yes, I suppose it is.”
An icy gust of wind blew past. Elizabeth grabbed her bonnet, holding it to her head. “Mr. Darcy, the storm is worsening. We cannot remain here.”
“Where are we?”
“On the Hatfield Road. Were you travelling alone?”
“I believe…” He shook his head slightly, sending red-hot pain shot through his skull. He could not recollect how he had come to be there. He certainly was not about to admit that to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
“Never mind. Do you think you can stand?”
The snow was coming down now at a slant, tiny ice crystals stinging his cheeks. Gritting his teeth against the inevitable discomfort, he lurched to his feet, his muscles stiff. He dusted off the covering of snow which had collected on his greatcoat. “I must have been unconscious for a few minutes.”
“More than a few, I fear, from the amount of snow on you. You must be half-frozen. You might wish to press my handkerchief over your wound so it does not start bleeding again.” She stood with her hand half extended as if prepared to catch him.
He did not need her help, even if the ground beneath him was moving noticeably. “I am well enough. Is there shelter nearby?”
“Meryton is almost three miles from here, though there is a tavern perhaps half that distance where you can warm yourself at the fire.”
Two miles. He tried taking one step, then another. His vision blurred in and out of focus. Through the haze of pain he said, “I fear that may be beyond my strength. Might I request you to seek aid for me while I remain here?” Having to ask for assistance was always bitter. Having to beg it from Elizabeth Bennet was even worse.
Elizabeth glanced at the sky, though she could not have seen anything through the heavy snowfall, then to the spot where he had lain, already half filled in. “I dare not leave you alone for so long in this weather. There is a laborer’s cottage nearby. I will take you there, then seek assistance.” She bit her lip. “The accommodations will not be what you are accustomed to, but it will be warm and dry.”
“I have been in poor cottages before. I can ask no more than warm and dry.” Warm and dry sounded like heaven at the moment.
Had she passed by the cottage already? It could have been hidden by the driving snow, and she might not have seen anything even a mere thirty paces away. This was taking far longer than she remembered. It had seemed only a few minutes from the time she had passed the cottage on her ramble until she discovered Mr. Darcy lying by the side of the road, but now it seemed they had been trudging through the snow for far longer than that. Mr. Darcy claimed it was no trouble at all to keep walking, which would have been more credible if he did not sway whenever the wind gusted.
They must have missed it somehow. What should she do now? Should she suggest turning back? This direction would just lead them deeper into the countryside. Their chances of being found were better on the road… if they could find the road. They might end up walking in circles. If only she could stop shivering and think!
Her boot struck a hidden impediment, and pain shot through her foot. Apparently her toes were not as numb from cold as she had believed. Crouching down, she dusted off the spot her boot had hit. Her fingers found the shape before her eyes could. A paving stone – the cottage must be nearby! She laid her hand on Mr. Darcy’s arm and peered around them carefully. Then she saw it, just off to their left, its shape a faint shadow in the snowy world. Had she not hit her foot, they would have walked straight past it.
“There it is!” She hurried toward the door and rapped loudly. No response. She knocked again. There was no light coming from the windows. Surely the owners could not be away in weather like this. What if it were uninhabited? She had no means to build a fire.
This was no time for niceties. She was freezing and Mr. Darcy was injured. Lifting the latch, she pushed the door open.
The room inside was dark apart from weak light filtering in through a small window, but it was blessedly free from the wind which had torn at her outside. At least it was free of the force of the wind; the sound of it rattled the walls. It boasted only a few pieces of rude furniture on a dirt floor strewn with straw. Elizabeth crossed straight to the hearth and used the small broom beside it to brush away the ashes banking the fire. Thank heaven – there were live coals underneath! The tenants must only be away for the day. She blew on the coals as she had seen the maids do, but was rewarded only with a rising cloud of soot and ash. She coughed, waving her hand in front of her to scatter the ash.
Mr. Darcy knelt beside her, his long-fingered hands setting one piece of kindling after another over the coals, then leaned forward and blew gently. This time small flames appeared, and with excruciating slowness the kindling took fire.
Elizabeth rocked back on her heels and watched as he set two pieces of wood across the kindling. Stripping off her gloves, she held her hands out toward the struggling fire. Even that slight heat felt like heaven. She would stay only long enough to warm her fingers fully. If she allowed herself to become too comfortable, she would not be able to force herself back out into the cold. She wanted to cry at the thought of putting her wet gloves back on.
Fortunately Mr. Darcy seemed improved, or at least less confused. As he scrutinized the growing flames as if his attention would cause them to burn higher, she attempted to catch a glimpse of his wound. Apparently it was no longer bleeding freely, and she could not make it out under his dark hair, slick from the melting snow. She suspected hers would look no better, but even if her bonnet had failed to keep it dry, at least it was covered. But it was hardly worth worrying about. Even Mr. Darcy, usually so careful of his appearance, looked disheveled.
Fatigue weighed down her limbs, but she would not give into it, nor show him her weakness. “I must go now, but I will send assistance to you as soon as may be.”
He turned his face toward her, one side in shadow, the other catching the firelight. He looked exhausted. “Miss Elizabeth, I commend your bravery, but you cannot go out into the storm. How would you find your way to the road when you can only see a few feet away? No, we must stay here until the worst of the storm lets up.”
“I cannot stay here! It will be dark soon.” And if they were trapped there after dark, her reputation would never recover, even though everyone knew she was not handsome enough to tempt Mr. Darcy.
“It is unfortunate, but there is no other choice. I cannot have you risk your life in that storm.”
He could not have it! Elizabeth tried to count slowly to ten before she replied. “It is my decision, sir, and I intend to go.” Although heaven knew he was probably right, but heaven was more forgiving than Meryton society.
He shook his head. “I am weary, Miss Elizabeth. Pray do not force me to stand in the doorway and block your exit. I am no better pleased by the situation than you are, but I will not have your death on my conscience. If my current condition is not sufficient to guarantee your safety, I give you my word you will be safe with me.” His mouth took on a bitter twist.
It was not the danger he posed that concerned her, but the danger of gossip.
Darcy rested back on his heels, his head throbbing as he inspected the flickering flames. It had been many years since he and Richard built fires in the cavern near Matlock, but apparently he still retained some knowledge from their fumbling attempts. This tiny fire would do little to chase away the chill in the air, but the pile of coal and firewood beside the hearth would not last long if he built it any higher. The cold had sunk so deep into his bones he could hardly imagine ever being warm again.
He stripped off his sodden greatcoat and hung it over a stool near the fire. He doubted it would make much difference, but it would not help him if his clothes became wet as well. Wetter than they were, that is. His trousers were soaked through at the knees and caked with ice over his boots. As he knocked away what ice he could, he looked up to see Elizabeth wringing out the hem of her dress. She seemed to have fared somewhat better than he in that regard; but then again, she had not lain unconscious in the snow, just walked through it. Her pelisse seemed to have protected her well, though her stockings must be cold and wet. No. He should not think about Elizabeth’s stockings or how they must cling to her shapely legs. Not that he had ever seen her legs except as a shadow through that pale blue dress, but he had imagined them often enough, usually wrapped around him. Devil take it! He needed to get control of himself.
He glared at the fire. This was not a good sign. Here he was, half frozen, stiff from bruises, his head pounding, and in an old cottage little better than a shepherd’s hut. He ought to be immune to lust, not thinking about Elizabeth’s legs – especially when those legs happened to be trapped in a small room with him. Perhaps the injury to his head had impaired his mental faculties more than he thought.
In a quest for distraction, he noticed two buckets sitting by the door. They would need water, and he might as well take care of that while he was still cold and wet. If only he were not so dizzy! Somehow he managed to put one foot in front of the other for the few steps needed to reach the door.
Elizabeth said sharply, “Where are you going? Did you not just say it was unsafe to travel in this weather?”
“I have no desire to travel, only to bring in some snow to melt. We will want water later.”
“Oh.” She sounded taken aback. “Thank you for thinking of that.”
A deafening blast of icy wind burned his face and bit through his clothes as soon as he stepped over the threshold. This was worse than it had been just a few minutes earlier. He filled the buckets as quickly as he could and hurried back to the relative safety of the cottage.
It seemed oddly still inside again, even if he had only been out in the storm a short time. He set the buckets beside the hearth where Elizabeth stood warming her hands. “The wind has picked up. We were fortunate to find shelter when we did.”
“I thought it seemed louder.”
There was something odd about the fire. It seemed to be growing, fading in and out…
Elizabeth’s hand clutching his elbow brought him back to his senses. “Mr. Darcy, I pray you, sit before you fall down. One head injury is enough for the day.”
“I am perfectly well,” he said automatically.
She huffed. “In that case, even though you are perfectly well, would you be so kind as to sit down purely to relieve my anxiety? You would not wish me to suffer for your stubbornness, I am sure.”
How neatly she had trapped him. And how fortunate she had done so quickly, since the floor was showing a disturbing tendency to tilt under his feet. “Very well.” Keeping a steadying hand on the wall, he lowered himself to sit on the hearth.
“Thank you.” Elizabeth hesitated, then hurried away from the fireplace – not that there was far for her to go – and rummaged through a small wardrobe.
“May I assist you with anything?” It seemed polite to ask, though he doubted he could even stand up at the moment.
“No, thank you. I am simply looking for… oh, here they are. If you would not mind keeping your back turned for a moment, I would appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Darcy bit his lip so hard it hurt. Surely she was not changing her dress!
Fortunately for his sanity, she quickly rejoined him at the fire, still wearing the same dress. “Thank you. Now, if you do not object, I believe it would be wise for me to examine your injury while there is still light.”
As if he did not feel enough like an invalid already, having been rescued by the woman he was trying to forget! “I think it is unnecessary. The bleeding appears to have stopped.”
Her lips twitched. “I knew you to be a man of many talents, but your ability to see the back of your head is quite remarkable. Perhaps I misspoke when I said I should examine it if you do not object. If you do object, I still prefer to examine it.”
Trust Elizabeth Bennet to make him laugh in the most unpropitious circumstances. “Since you insist, Miss Elizabeth, I will do my best to comply with good grace, but I still think it unnecessary.”
“You may think whatever you like, so long as you allow me to check your wound. If you could turn away from the window so it is in the light – yes, just like that.”
He could feel her fingers in his hair, carefully parting it around the wound. The movement stung, but all he could think of was her touch. How often he had wished for her fingers to run through his hair! This was not the way he had hoped for, but still, she was standing so close to him, he could practically feel the warmth radiating from her.
“I fear the eyes in the back of your head have deceived you, Mr. Darcy. It is indeed still oozing blood. Do you perchance have a handkerchief I could use to clean it?”
Darcy reached into his pocket and handed it to her without a word.
“Thank you. I am sorry to put your fine linen to such a messy task. I will try to avoid hurting you any more than necessary.”
He was tempted to tell her it was too late for that. His inability to possess her had been a constant ache for over two months. In comparison, the gentle touch of her fingers in an open wound was nothing, and her concern was more soothing than he cared to admit.
It would be easy to allow himself to enjoy being cared for by Elizabeth more than he ought. He fixed his gaze on his drying greatcoat to distract himself. It had been joined by two long white stockings. Good God, she must have taken them off while he was gathering the snow! His imagination presented him with a tantalizing image of walking in while she was peeling those stockings off, one leg at a time. Wounded or not, he would have been delighted to offer his assistance, and then to…
“My apologies, that must have hurt. I will try to be gentler.”
It was a good thing she could not guess the true reason he had stiffened. No more thinking of her legs, which must be bare and cold under her petticoats. It would only be kindness to warm them for her.
He was almost grateful for the blinding pain that suddenly stabbed through his head.
“There, I can see it now. Fortunately, the cut is not large, although you have an impressive goose egg around it. I would guess the bleeding will stop with a little pressure. I have folded your handkerchief, and perhaps you could press on it here.” Her hand took his and guided it to the appropriate spot. “Very good. I will check it again in a few minutes.”
What would she say if he told her the touch of her hand on his was the best healing he could have?
“How did this happen? Were you set upon by footpads?”
He winced. “No. I was….” Devil take it, what had happened? Why could he not remember? The road to Meryton was a safe one, and it would have been broad daylight. Surreptitiously he felt for his watch. It was still there, gold fob and all. Not footpads, then. They would not have left that behind. “I am not certain.”
Her eyebrows shot up, but instead of saying anything, she crossed to the wardrobe and returned with a threadbare quilt. As she draped it around his shoulders, she said, “It is hardly fashionable, but it should warm you a little.”
He should have declined, but the sensation of having Elizabeth worry over him was disquietingly pleasant.