I was editing this scene yesterday and suddenly realized I should post it as a holiday gift for my readers. It’s from my next book, and takes place right after Christmas dinner. I won’t try to explain the background to the scene because I want to leave some mystery here. But do read to the end of the scene. You’ll be glad you did.
When the gentleman rejoined the ladies, Elizabeth was nowhere to be found. Darcy, wondering if it was because of him, stayed by Jasper’s side, but her absence sucked away any enjoyment he might feel. It was another painful reminder of her dislike for him. He should have remembered Mrs. Ramsay’s advice and not shown so much interest in her.
A few minutes later Elizabeth walked in carrying a large reticule. For a happy moment he thought she was approaching him, but instead she stopped at Jasper’s side.
“I have made a special Christmas gift for Mr. Fitzpatrick,” she announced loudly enough to garner the attention of several nearby guests. “Some might say it is a rather selfish gift, since I will benefit from it as much as he does.”
Mr. Sampson asked, “Well, what is it?”
Elizabeth made a show of digging into her reticule and pulled out an embroidered strip of fabric. “Here we are.” Instead of giving it to Jasper, she displayed it to the guests. “It is not just an extra-large bookmark. It has pins at the top and the bottom so Mr. Fitzpatrick can attach it to his script without it falling out.” She reversed the bookmark to show the back. “Of course, we all know Mr. Fitzpatrick will immediately lose the pins, so I made a special pocket on the back to hold extra pins. Now he will have no excuse to lose his place in the script.”
The guests laughed heartily. Sampson said, “She has you there, Fitzpatrick! As the bard would say, But men are men; the best sometime forget.”
Smiling, Elizabeth held the bookmark out to Jasper.
“I thank you! It is just what I need. Now I will not drive you to the verge of madness when we run lines.” Jasper examined the bookmark with apparent pleasure.
Darcy choked back bile. It could not be. Elizabeth and Jasper living in the same house, and with enough of an understanding that she could give him a present publicly? He could not bear it. Somehow he would have to stop it, or he would lose his mind.
“Look, Darcy, is this not clever?” Jasper asked. “She even put my initials on it in case I lose it. Beautiful work, Miss Bennet.”
“Very clever.” Somehow Darcy managed force out the words.
Elizabeth leaned towards Jasper. In a loud whisper, she said, “Mr. Fitzpatrick, might I ask a very great favor of you?”
Jasper, damn him, clasped his hands over his heart. “Anything for you, my sweet Miss Bennet!”
“Could you inform your dyspeptic friend that among theatricals it is perfectly acceptable for a young woman to give a gift to a young man, and that it carries no greater meaning?”
Jasper gave his distinctive shout of laughter. “Did you hear that, Darcy? It is true. Although it breaks my heart to say it, the lovely Miss Bennet would not give me the time of day if she thought I had any intentions towards her.”
“Indeed, I would not!” exclaimed Elizabeth. “I would instead send you directly to bed under the assumption you must be feverish.”
“I stand corrected.” Slowly the tension seeped out of Darcy’s shoulders. If Elizabeth were interested in Jasper, she would own it freely. He knew enough of her frankness for that. But he still did not like to see her banter with Jasper when he himself got nothing but serious looks from her.
“I am glad to see you are educable,” said Elizabeth with mock severity. “And now, may I have the honor of a private word with you, Mr. Darcy? Adding, of course, that such a thing is also perfectly acceptable among theatricals.”
He did not care if it was acceptable or not. “I am happy to be at your disposal.” He followed her into the entry hall.
With serious expression, she drew a folded paper out of her reticule and held it out to him. “This is for Mr. Bingley. It says you acted the part of a gentleman and did nothing inappropriate to me, and that this is a matter of the appearance of compromise rather than actual compromising behavior. I hope it will make him acquit you of any misbehavior towards me.”
The letter itself was meaningless, but the knowledge that she had been thinking of him was a gift. “That is kind of you, but I must decline. Bingley refused to accept my word as a gentleman. That is not something which can be forgiven with a mere explanation. If he changes his mind, it must be because he decides to believe me rather than because I have offered him proof. It is a matter of honor.”
Her brows drew together in a bewitching puzzled expression. “As you wish, but should you change your mind, you need only ask.” A sudden smile brought light into the room. “Having only sisters has given me little understanding of how gentlemen resolve their disagreements.” She tucked the letter back in her reticule.
“I appreciate your concern.” Darcy hesitated. “May I ask you a question?”
“You may ask, but I do not promise to answer.” Her arch smile took any sting from her words.
“Did you read the letter I wrote you? A simple yes or no will suffice.” He held his breath.
Her smile became rueful. “I read most of it.”
Most of it? He had stayed up all night, laying bare the pain of his past, and she had not bothered to finish reading it? “I see.”
“I doubt you do,” she said tartly. “You were observed giving me the letter. My cousin Mr. Collins hunted me down as I was reading it and demanded that I give it to him.”
Darcy’s blood turned to ice. Georgiana’s secrets had been in that letter. His hands tightened into fists. “He has the letter?”
With an impish smile, Elizabeth said, “No. I tore to shreds and threw them in the stream. I thought you would not want anyone else to see it. Unfortunately, it also meant I could not finish reading it.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “You did the right thing. I should never have committed those words to paper.” Even the idea of that fool Collins reading the letter infuriated him. But what had Elizabeth missed? He had discussed Bingley first, he was sure of that, so the end of the letter would have been about Wickham and Georgiana. “If you still believe Mr. Wickham’s stories, I would like the opportunity to finish what I said in the letter. Of you could ask Jasper what he thinks of Wickham. Their paths have crossed often enough for him to know the sort of man Wickham is.”
She shook her head. “That will not be necessary. I no longer believe you treated him unfairly, and I apologize for my misjudgment.” Her voice was flat. “I am glad you permitted Mr. Bingley to return to Netherfield.”
“He did not need my permission.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Am I to believe he decided to return on his own?”
Darcy flushed. “I suggested the possibility, but the decision was his. Whether anything may come of it is another question. You will no doubt know sooner than I.”
“That is less likely than you think. My father is the only one who knows where to reach me, and he is a poor correspondent at the best of times.”
“I cannot tell you how sorry I am that my behavior had such consequences for you.”
Elizabeth seemed preoccupied by tying the ribbon of her reticule. “I confess I was angry with you at first, but I realized quickly you had been careless at worst, and I was at least as guilty of that. You did not cause my exile. That honor goes to my cousin, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. For their own reasons, each of them wanted me out of the way, and they deliberately turned our carelessness into a scandal. But today is Christmas, so let us dwell on the past only as it brings us pleasure. Shall we return to the others?”
“As you wish.” His words were polite, but his thoughts rushed in a different direction. Could Elizabeth be correct about Lady Catherine playing a role? It would make sense. His aunt’s great dream was for Darcy to marry her daughter. If she had become aware of his attentions to Elizabeth, she would stop at nothing to keep them apart. But it was a long step from pressing Darcy to marry Anne to ruining Elizabeth’s life and the prospects of all her sisters. With Lady Catherine go so far?
Of course she would. Darcy had disguised his interest in Elizabeth from Lady Catherine because he knew it would make her furious. Lady Catherine would care nothing for the sufferings of a young woman she saw as inferior to her.
How dare she?
A man’s slurred voice said gleefully, “Caught you!” The drunken actor who had sat on Elizabeth’s other side at dinner pointed at them.
Darcy stiffened. “We have been talking, and the door has been open the entire time.”
Elizabeth glanced upwards and blushed furiously. “That is not what he means.” She sounded half-strangled.
“There.” The man’s wavering fingertip pointed to the chandelier over their heads.
A sprig of green leaves and white berries hung from it. Mistletoe.
A thousand thoughts raced through Darcy’s head. How could he make Elizabeth feel comfortable and safe with him if he kissed her? But if he had the opportunity to kiss her, how could he resist the temptation?
An attractive young woman appeared behind the actor. “What is the matter?”
“Missel…mistletoe,” the man said.
Hesitating would only make matters worse.
Elizabeth tipped her chin up. She had not offered him her cheek!
Darcy’s heart raced. As he lowered his face towards hers, the room began to blur around him, with only Elizabeth remaining in focus. The scent of lavender and sweet soap washed over him, penetrating the familiar Christmas aromas of roast goose, plum pudding, and evergreen boughs. He closed his eyes just as his lips brushed hers; warm, silky soft, tender. Elizabeth. A jolt of desire pulsed from his lips, tempting him into extending the kiss, caressing her seductive heat longer than he ought to, but nowhere near long enough. And she had not pulled back, as she easily could have, and his senses exulted.
“Oh, my.” It was a woman’s voice, filled with sultry humor.
The sound of it shocked Darcy back to reality, and he straightened, surrendering that vital link. But he did not feel bereft, not while the tension of the shared touch still burned in the air between them, and her sparkling eyes seduced him wordlessly.
Good God, when had he taken her hands? And how was he to ever let them go?
The woman said, “Now I know who I should try to catch under the mistletoe.” Her words were met by muffled giggles.
Elizabeth said softly, “Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas to you, Miss Elizabeth.” His voice was rough.
She dropped his hands and swept a deep curtsey to their observers. “What, no applause?” she asked archly.
The room came back into focus. Now two smiling ladies stood by the drunken actor, and each lightly clapped their hands.
Elizabeth turned her fine eyes back on Darcy. “Theatricals are never completely off stage, you know.”
He could somehow tell she was not making light of their kiss, but rather trying to lighten the atmosphere around them. His mouth curved into a slow smile. “I am starting to learn that.”
She gestured to the drawing room door. “Shall we return to safety?”
He wished he could say what he felt, but instead he simply bowed. “Your wish is my command, Miss Elizabeth.”
The moment was ended, but it could never be over. Surely she must feel that, too.
May all your holidays be joyous and bright, even if you don’t find Darcy under the mistletoe!