Good news – my new book A Matter of Honor is now available for pre-order! The release is scheduled for September 5. And I hope you like the cover! That’s Eilean Donan Castle in the Scottish Highlands in the background, with my daughter in the foreground. 😉
I’ll be posting a chapter a week until it’s released. If you missed Chapter 1, you can read it here. Thank you for all the wonderful comments about it! I loved reading your theories about what will happen next! Now, back to Mr. Darcy and his search for Elizabeth…
Here’s the blurb:
When Fitzwilliam Darcy, still smarting from Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection, discovers she was forced to flee her home in disgrace owing to his actions, his course is clear. He must marry her. It is a matter of honor. All he has to do is find her and propose. Surely that will be simple enough.
But Elizabeth does not want to be found, especially not by Darcy. From the moment he entered her life, he has caused disaster after disaster. Now he has followed her all the way to Scotland, foolishly certain it’s within his power to fix all her problems. But far more is at stake than Darcy knows.
Darcy’s quest takes him from backstage at Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, where mysterious Highlanders prove both friend and enemy. And now his search risks exposing long-hidden secrets that threaten his happiness and her future.
On the run and in danger, Elizabeth is forced to make impossible choices to protect those whom she loves – including Darcy. Her growing attraction to him is at war with her need for caution, and the stakes are impossibly high. Can she trust him to continue to fight for her protection when he knows the whole truth? And if he does, will it be for love… or will it be merely a matter of honor?
Returning to Darcy House brought Darcy no relief. His own bed was no doubt more comfortable than anything at an inn, but his thoughts were less agreeable. Why had Elizabeth not come to him for help? Was her dislike for him so strong as to make her sacrifice her home and her sisters for it? She must have decided that receiving a letter from him was too improper and not read it, so she would still believe Wickham’s lies and misunderstand his actions towards Bingley. She still hated him.
That possibility cut like a knife, but it was not as sharp as his fear of what might be happening to her now. Mr. Bennet was not sufficiently well off to provide an income for his daughter. At best she might be someone’s companion, a poor relative who was little more than an unpaid servant. Her father might have found her a position as a governess, subject to the whims of her employer, or she might be in service as a nursemaid or lady’s maid. His sparkling Elizabeth, subject to hard work and poor conditions, likely with no more than a half day a week for herself. His gut wrenched.
He jumped out of bed, fleeing the thoughts that tortured him, but he had no place to go. One glass of brandy became two, then three, as he stalked from room to room through the sleeping house seeking solutions to the problem of finding Elizabeth.
Jane Bennet and her mother were the most likely to discover the truth, but he could not simply wait and hope to hear from them. Surely someone at Longbourn must know more. Nothing could ever be kept secret from the servants. He would hire someone to make enquiries. Yes, that was the thing to do.
Was there nothing else he could do? Elizabeth had spoken with fondness of her aunt and uncle Gardiner in London. He even knew where they lived, courtesy of the snobbery of Bingley’s sisters, who loved to repeat their unfashionable address on Gracechurch Street in Cheapside. That would be enough to find them. It was unlikely Elizabeth would be there, or Mrs. Bennet would have told him so, but they might know something.
The brandy finally slowed his mind enough to go back to bed.
After a few fitful hours of sleep, he arose and headed to his solicitor’s office to inquire about a discreet investigator. The solicitor promised to send someone to Darcy that very afternoon.
He returned home, tired and in low spirits. For lack of anything more useful to do, he began to write a list of people in Meryton who might possibly know something about Elizabeth. It would give the investigator a place to start.
The knocker on the front door sounded. It had to be the investigator, since no one else knew he was back in London. But as soon as he saw his butler’s best inscrutable look, he realized he was mistaken. Of course. There was one person who always knew everything, who was no doubt aware of his arrival almost before he himself was. He and Richard had spent years trying to guess how she did it, with no success.
Hobbes announced, “The Countess of Matlock wishes to know if you are at home. She is waiting in the drawing room.”
Darcy groaned. This was not what he needed. He rubbed his temple where an incipient headache loomed and set off to face his formidable aunt.
Lady Matlock sat elegantly on the settee. “Darcy, I had not expected to see you back so soon. I hope you have not been ill. Have you had trouble sleeping?”
He was certain his omniscient aunt somehow knew exactly how late he had been awake. “I am perfectly well. Some unexpected business called me back, and it is keeping me busy.”
“I will try not to delay you, then. I wondered if you had heard anything from Jasper of late.”
Jasper again. Darcy barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “Not since the spring, when he told me he would be going away and asked me not to look for him.” He hoped she would take the hint.
Unfortunately, his aunt was perfectly capable of ignoring the most blatant of hints when she chose, and when it came to the subject of her youngest son, she could be as unyielding as marble. “Do you have any suspicion as to where he went?”
“No. He said that he needed to be away from all of us for a time. He is an adult now and can make his own decisions.”
She sighed delicately. “He is, of course, but Jasper can still be so impulsive at times. I have tried not to worry about him, but there is a new concern. He has stopped collecting his allowance. It was to be paid almost two months ago, and he has always collected it immediately in the past. Usually he is in debt by the time it is due.”
Darcy was well aware of his cousin’s tendency to overspend his allowance, since Jasper usually came to him when he needed money urgently. “That is surprising, to be sure, but perhaps he is abroad somewhere it would be difficult to collect the money. No doubt he has friends who are willing to loan him money until he returns.”
“I hope so. It is so uncharacteristic of him, though, and he has not been happy for some time.”
“Perhaps that is why he wanted to get away.” That was more than a guess. But if Jasper were in trouble, all he needed to do was to send word. Elizabeth had no such option, and she was no doubt suffering more than Jasper was. “If I hear anything, I will let you know.”
“I thank you. You have always been very good to Jasper, and I know you are the first one he turns to when he needs help. It has been a comfort to me.”
It was easy to be good to Jasper, since his young cousin was accustomed to his elder brothers telling him he was useless, an embarrassment, and a lazy half-wit. Being good to him consisted of little more than failing to call him names. “He has a good heart.”
“I agree. But I do not wish to keep you from your urgent business, my dear.”
Relieved that she did not plan to stay longer, he rose and bowed. “It is always an honor, madam.”
The investigator seemed competent enough. Darcy spent half an hour explaining the situation and cautioning him about particular individuals, especially Wickham. Not that there was any obvious reason why Wickham would be involved in Elizabeth’s disgrace and disappearance, but when something unfortunate happened and Wickham was in the vicinity, he usually had something to do with it. The investigator agreed to return with a preliminary report in three days.
But that was not enough, so it was time for some investigation of his own. It took only a few coins placed in the correct hand on Gracechurch Street to discover that Elizabeth’s uncle worked at the publishing house of Gardiner & Howe. At first he thought it must be a mistake. From the disdainful way the Bingley sisters had talked about Elizabeth’s uncle, he had assumed he was a merchant, not a well-known publisher.
He had also expected Mr. Gardiner to be as boorish as Elizabeth’s mother, but instead the man he faced was fashionably attired and poised, as tidy in his appearance as the book-lined office surrounding him. “Mr. Gardiner, I thank you for seeing me. My name is Darcy, and I imagine you are aware of my connection to your niece, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” He extended his hand, although he expected Mr. Gardiner would refuse to shake it.
“Thank you.” If only his interview with Elizabeth’s father had gone this smoothly! “I have only just learned of the malicious gossip concerning Miss Elizabeth and me. Naturally, I went straight to her father and told him I wish to marry her.”
“Very proper,” said Mr. Gardiner with a warm smile. “I am glad to hear it. Am I to assume congratulations are in order?”
“Unfortunately not. Mr. Bennet refused even to consider the possibility of marriage and told me to leave his house.”
Mr. Gardiner’s eyebrows rose. “That is rather surprising. Did he give a reason?”
Darcy laced his fingers together tightly. “He said Miss Elizabeth did not wish to marry me, which may well be true. I am aware she does not hold me in affection, although some of her dislike is based on a misunderstanding. I told Mr. Bennet I would like to speak to Elizabeth directly to see if we might come to an agreement. He refused to tell me where I could find her.”
Mr. Gardiner steepled his fingers. “That sounds unlike my brother-in-law. Are you certain you did not misunderstand? He sometimes expresses opinions not his own simply to see people’s reaction.”
Darcy gave a slight smile. “Miss Elizabeth does the same thing on occasion. I did not misunderstand. He said she was beyond my reach, he was the only one who knows where she is, and he would never tell me. I hoped you might be willing to inform me of her location. I would, of course, agree to have any meeting chaperoned by the person of your choice.”
Mr. Gardiner leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “I might be willing to do so if I knew where she was, but I am as ignorant as you are on that matter.”
Or perhaps he was feigning ignorance. “Surely you must have an address where you write to her. I recall she corresponded regularly with your wife.”
“She did, yes,” said Mr. Gardiner slowly. “She no longer corresponds with anyone in the family.”
Darcy caught his breath. “Not even her sisters?”
“Not even them. It seems unnecessarily strict to me. Some of us are unhappy about it.”
Darcy’s midnight fears roused themselves and grabbed him by the throat. He hesitated, but plunged on. “Mr. Gardiner, I will not be offended if you accuse me of wild imaginings, but the way he said it – that she was beyond my reach – together with his refusal to consider the marriage or to allow me to speak to her made me wonder if…if it is possible Miss Elizabeth accidentally came to some harm after she left Longbourn. Until now, I told myself that was nonsense. But if none of you have heard from her….” He could not say it.
Mr. Gardiner became still for a long minute. “That is a disquieting thought. I feel certain my brother-in-law would not do anything to hurt one of his children, especially Lizzy, who has always been his favorite. But an accident would account for a number of puzzling things.” He shook his head as if to chase the image away. “My instinct is that he would have told us if something had happened to her, but I rather wish you had not put that thought in my head.”
“My apologies. I have lost sleep over it myself, and nothing could make me happier than to be proved wrong.”
Mr. Gardiner cocked his head. “You are concerned for her.” Clearly that surprised him.
“Of course I am! I…” The truth struck him. Mr. Gardiner must think this was only a matter of honor for him. “She never told you, did she?”
“That evening I went to see her, I offered her my hand. She refused me and made certain accusations. My letter to her was a response to those accusations.” Why was he telling this complete stranger something he held so close he had not even told Richard, and only told Bingley under duress? It felt right, though, as if he could trust Mr. Gardiner because he also loved Elizabeth.
“No,” said Mr. Gardiner slowly. “She never mentioned that, at least not to me. Lizzy can be very private about certain things. I am glad your interest in the matter goes beyond the question of meeting your obligations with honor.”
“It does.” Why did his voice sound hoarse?
“May I have your leave to discuss this matter with my wife? I value her opinion, and she has a better understanding of both Lizzy and Mr. Bennet than I do. I would, of course, ask her not to repeat any of it.” Clearly this tradesman had a sense of honor, or he would not have bothered to ask Darcy’s permission.
“Of course. If either of you have any suggestions for me, I would be happy to hear them. I am somewhat at a loss at present.” Again, something he would not usually admit to, but he knew his doubts were safe with this man.
“My initial thought is that I will have a word with Lizzy’s father myself. Something about this is not right.”
That could not hurt. “Do you have any ideas where I might start to look for her, places where she has relatives or friends?”
Mr. Gardiner considered. “Not immediately. Apart from me, all of her mother’s family lives in Meryton, and the only relative I know of on the Bennet side is a distant cousin who is to inherit the estate. Bennet must have some friends from his university days, but he has not mentioned them to me. He is not one to keep up social connections.” He seemed to ponder this, and then his eyes twinkled. “I suppose he could not ask my help in hiding her, since I would suggest my wife’s family and friends, which would be a singularly poor choice if he wished to keep her from you. My wife is from Lambton. Her father held the living there.”
“Lambton? But that is no more than five miles from my home at Pemberley!” exclaimed Darcy. “Is she the late Mr. Carlisle’s daughter, then?”
Mr. Gardiner’s smile widened. “You have a good memory.”
Suddenly embarrassed, Darcy said, “I did not know him well. I remember him judging the tug-of-war at a village fete. He took it in remarkable good humor when he lost his footing and ended up as mud-covered as any of the participants.” It had struck him at the time because he had little experience of adults who could laugh at themselves.
“My wife has told me that tale, and how he permitted some of the little girls to clean the mud off by throwing buckets of well water at him.”
Darcy smiled at the memory. “He gave a shilling to the one who had the best aim, and told the others to practice their skills for the next year.”
“My wife will be delighted to hear that you remember that.” Mr. Gardiner tapped his finger on Darcy’s calling card. “Is this address the best way to reach you, should I discover anything of interest?”
The sheer relief of having an ally nearly took Darcy’s breath away. “Yes, I thank you. I thank you very much.”
The next morning Darcy set out for Hunsford to consult with Elizabeth’s friend Mrs. Collins. When he had last visited Rosings, the spring flowers had been blooming, and now the leaves were falling from the trees, leaving bare branches reaching towards the grey sky. The village was just north of his aunt’s estate of Rosings Park, so it took only a minor detour to reach the parsonage while avoiding riding past Rosings. Otherwise someone would undoubtedly report his presence to Lady Catherine.
He knew Mr. Collins would not take his side in this, so he waited out of sight of the parsonage until he saw Mr. Collins walking towards Rosings for his usual morning visit to Lady Catherine. A maid answered the door and showed him into the sitting room where Elizabeth had torn his heart to shreds. Now it held only Mrs. Collins, and none of the life Elizabeth had once brought to it.
Mrs. Collins said, “This is a surprise, Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine had not mentioned you would be visiting.”
“She knows nothing of my presence. I am here solely to speak to you.”
“I cannot imagine why,” she said coolly. That was not a good sign.
“I am attempting to locate Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I hoped you might know her whereabouts.”
Mrs. Collins pursed her lips. “I have heard nothing from Lizzy since she sent me a note of thanks after her visit last spring. You would do better to ask at Longbourn.” Definitely cold this time, but she had carefully avoided saying she did not know where Elizabeth was.
He had come this far; he might as well keep trying. “She is not at Longbourn, as I suspect you know. I have only just discovered her so-called disgrace. I say ‘so-called’ because she did nothing disgraceful. I wish to make matters right, but I cannot do that if I do not know where she is.” He bit out the last few words.
“An admirable sentiment, Mr. Darcy. Again, I encourage you to inquire at Longbourn.”
“I have done so and failed to get satisfaction. Mrs. Collins, you know me better than her family does. I have never been improper to Miss Elizabeth. Have I ever given you reason to believe I would seduce and abandon a young woman?”
She raised her chin. “It is not my place to judge my betters, sir, nor to consider what honorable reason a gentleman might have to give a single young lady a letter.”
Devil take it! “I agree giving her the letter was improper, but there was nothing improper in the letter itself. It contained a defense of my character, nothing more.”
“Mr. Darcy, this is none of my affair. You are the nephew of my husband’s patroness, and as I said, I cannot judge anything else. Would you care for some tea?” Was that meant as a reminder that she had to please Lady Catherine rather than him?
“I thank you, no,” he said through gritted teeth. “I ask you to reconsider. Your friend’s happiness and respectability are at stake, as is the reputation of her entire family.”
“I am sorry for their difficulties, but there is nothing I can do to help you.” Mrs. Collins rubbed her arms ostentatiously. “Are you warm enough, Mr. Darcy? I will stir the fire.” She crossed to the hearth and picked up the poker.
As if he were so badly bred as to allow a lady to do such a task! Darcy held out his hand for the poker. “Pray permit me the honor,” he said icily.
She held out the poker but did not release it to his hand. “Why, thank you, Mr. Darcy.” As she spoke, she cupped her hand behind her ear and then pointed towards the door.
Was someone listening to their conversation?
She knew something! How could he speak to her privately? Darcy nodded to indicate he had received her message. Taking the poker, he stirred the coals. “Is that better?”
“Much better, I thank you. It has been such a cold day. Are you certain you will not take tea? I would not wish for you to take a chill on your journey home, especially after I have been unable to assist you.”
“Perhaps a cup of tea would be welcome,” he said slowly.
Mrs. Collins went to the door and spoke to someone outside it. “A tea tray for two, Mary. And do not forget the sugar this time.” She continued to watch out the door as footsteps receded.
She darted to his side and spoke in a low voice. “Jane writes that she was sent to live with her aunt in Scotland.”
Finally, a place to start! “What is her aunt’s name? Where does she live?” he asked eagerly.
“I do not know. Lizzy told me once she thought she lived somewhere near Edinburgh because her letters to Mr. Bennet talked of the fine shopping there. She was never allowed to write to her aunt; there is something disreputable about her, although she is well-to-do. She is Mr. Bennet’s sister, but I believe she is married.”
“I have never heard mention of an aunt in Scotland.” Could Mrs. Collins be giving him a false lead?
“The Bennets claim she died some time ago. Lizzy used to wonder if she might have eloped. I only know she is still alive because Lizzy confided in me when her aunt asked Mr. Bennet to allow one of his daughters to come to live with her. Lizzy wanted to go, but her father refused. I wish I could tell you more, but that is all I know.” At the sound of footsteps in the hall, she raised her voice. “Mr. Darcy, you may ask me a hundred times if you please, but I will still be unable to tell you where Lizzy is!”
He had to say something. “Can you think of anyone who might know?” Why did she feel unable to tell him when the maid could hear? It must be that husband of hers. Lady Catherine would be furious if she knew Darcy was looking for Elizabeth, so Mr. Collins would disapprove of it, too. Mrs. Collins could not afford to anger her husband or Lady Catherine. He was fortunate she had told him as much as she had.
“Her family, as I have already said. But that is enough on that subject. How were the roads from London?”
“In good condition, I thank you.” But his mind was racing ahead, even as they conversed. At last he had discovered something! A less-than-reputable aunt who was well-to-do and liked to shop in Edinburgh. It was little enough to go on, but it was something. Edinburgh was not large; how many wealthy women with nieces recently arrived from England could there be?
He had to suppress the urge to jump on his horse and gallop off to Edinburgh. What should his next step be? He could stay in London and continue to press the Bennets and Mr. Gardiner for a name or address while sending someone to Edinburgh to look for her on his behalf, but if Elizabeth were going by a different name, it would be useless. There were too many women who matched the description of dark eyes, dark hair, and a light and pleasing figure. Or he could go to Scotland himself, knowing as little as he did.
Yes, that was it. Now that he knew where to find her, he would do it himself. But if he wished to travel to Edinburgh, he needed to do it soon or wait until spring. It was already the end of October, and travel would take much longer as the days grew shorter and the weather worsened. Ewan Ramsay had been inviting him to visit ever since their Cambridge days. That would provide an excuse if anyone happened to ask.
His mind was consumed with plans on the ride back to London. He had to write a letter to Ramsay warning him of his imminent arrival in Edinburgh. The letter would arrive only a few days before he did, but he could not simply appear on Ramsay’s doorstep after all these years. His valet would require delicate handling, too, since he would not be pleased by the change of plans. After Darcy returned to London, he would sack the man and find a valet who would make his life easier, not harder.
When he reached Darcy House, he was preoccupied enough that he barely nodded to his butler as he handed him his hat and gloves.
His butler cleared his throat. “You had a caller this afternoon, sir.”
Darcy did not care about whatever acquaintance had called. “Later, Hobbes.”
“He seemed to feel a certain urgency to speak to you, so I suggested he leave you a note.”
“Put it on my desk.” Darcy had no time for this.
Hobbes thrust a silver salver in front of him, blocking his path. Darcy bit back a curse. Why did Hobbes have to choose this of all days to be difficult?
The card on the salver read Mr. Edward Gardiner.
Darcy snatched the note under the card and broke the seal.
I have just returned from Longbourn, and, while I did not get the satisfaction I wished for from my brother Bennet, he did show me evidence which indicates our worst fears are baseless. Forgive my impertinence in leaving you this note, but I thought you might wish to know immediately. I will try to call tomorrow to give you a full report, but if you are impatient, you are welcome to come to my house. I will be there the remainder of the day, and you need not worry about coming outside of calling hours.
Darcy closed his eyes as relief swept through him. Elizabeth was alive! Bless Mr. Gardiner. “Hobbes, my hat and gloves. I am going out.”
“Yes, sir.” The butler held out the required items. Darcy clapped his hat to his head and tugged on his gloves. He ought to change his dusty clothes, but he did not care.
Hobbes opened the door for him. As Darcy stepped through, he looked back over his shoulder and said, “Excellent work, as always, Hobbes.”
Mr. Gardiner stood and shook his hand. “Mr. Darcy, I suspected you might make an appearance here.”
“I was grateful for your offer.” Darcy tried to quell his impatience.
“I suppose you are anxious to hear the news, so I will skip the preliminaries. Bennet showed me a letter he had received from Lizzy, or rather a small part of the letter. He folded it over so I could only see the first six lines. It was dated in August of this year, but she did not include her location with the date, although that is her usual habit.”
Breathe. He needed to keep breathing to stay calm. “What did it say?”
“Remarkably little. She hoped he and the rest of the family were well. The weather had been remarkably pleasant for the last four days, and she had taken advantage of it to go exploring. It ended midsentence saying she just returned from a walk in Queen – and it cut off at that point. Perhaps it was Queen Park, Queen Street, Queen Charlotte’s Garden, or any of the dozens of place names that begin with Queen.” Mr. Gardiner gestured to the large open book on his desk. “I was just looking for them in the gazetteer.”
“Was it her handwriting?”
Mr. Gardiner nodded. “It seemed to be. It must have been a short letter because the lines had not been crossed, and it sounded stilted. Lizzy usually writes long letters.”
Was she kept too busy with chores to have the time for a long letter? Darcy’s chest grew tight. “She should not have lacked for subject matter if he is her only correspondent.”
“I would have thought so as well, but it is difficult to guess anything from those few lines. Brandy?”
“That would be welcome.” Darcy accepted the snifter the older man handed him. Perhaps that would ease the coldness inside him. “Were you able to learn anything else?”
“Only that you have had a disruptive effect on the household. Mrs. Bennet was most displeased that your proposal was rejected, and she made this very clear. Mr. Bennet is distracting her by sending her and the girls to Bath. He refused to tell me anything more about Lizzy, but I spoke to Jane briefly. She said Elizabeth confided in her about your proposal, and cannot understand why she did not seek you out.”
Darcy bowed. “It is a pleasure, Mrs. Gardiner. I do not recall meeting you in Derbyshire, but I remember your father.”
“My husband mentioned that.” Mrs. Gardiner’s movements were quick and birdlike. “I still retain a particular fondness for that part of England. My husband and I visited Lambton this summer. We had planned to take Lizzy with us, but it was not to be.” A look of sadness crossed her face.
A pang of yearning filled him at the idea of Elizabeth so near to Pemberley. “I was about to tell Mr. Gardiner that I learned something today. I traveled into Kent to see Miss Elizabeth’s friend, Mrs. Collins. She claims the eldest Miss Bennet told her in a letter that Miss Elizabeth was with her aunt, Mr. Bennet’s sister, in Edinburgh.”
Mr. Gardiner exchanged a puzzled glance with his wife. “That cannot be. Bennet’s sister died many years ago.”
“Mrs. Collins said everyone was told she was dead because she is somehow not respectable. Miss Elizabeth was not allowed to be in contact with her, but her aunt had asked Mr. Bennet to have one of the girls come to live with her. There is no love lost between them, and he has always refused in the past.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s brow furled. “Edward, did he ever mention this to you?”
“No, but he would not have. If he meant everyone to believe his sister was dead, the last person he would have admitted the truth to was his wife. She cannot keep a secret. If she did not know, there would be no reason for him to tell me.”
Darcy asked, “Do you know anything about his sister from before her supposed death?”
Mrs. Gardiner said, “She had left long before I met Mr. Bennet, but Edward grew up in Meryton. He must remember something.”
Mr. Gardiner’s eyes seemed to fix on a point far away. “She was a year or two older than Fanny – than Mrs. Bennet – and I must have been ten or twelve when she ran off, too young to be noticing girls. She was very lively and popular, much more than her brother. She was someone you would notice in a crowd, very vibrant, rather like Lizzy. Actually, Lizzy bears a resemblance to her, if my memory serves. She ran off with her music master, which is why Bennet refused to allow the girls to have one.”
Ran off with her music master, but was now well-to-do? Odd. “Do you recall the music master’s name? She will not be calling herself Bennet now.”
Mr. Gardiner pondered, but shook his head. “I am sorry. It was an Italian name, but that is all I can recall.”
“Do you plan to try to find her, Mr. Darcy?” asked Mrs. Gardiner.
“Of course. I will leave for Scotland as soon as I can.”
Mr. Gardiner opened the gazetteer and paged through it. “Edinburgh. There is a Queen Street, and, better yet, Queen Street Gardens. That would work. She might take a walk in Queen Street Gardens.”
“It will be difficult to find her aunt, knowing so little of her,” Mrs. Gardiner pointed out.
He did not need reminding of that. “I may fail, but I must try.”
Mr. Gardiner nodded. “An admirable sentiment.”
“It is getting late,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Mr. Darcy, would you care to dine with us? It will be but an informal, simple family meal, but you are welcome to join us.”
There was a certain hardness in her voice that made him think this was a test of some sort, but he could not guess what it was. “I would not wish to impose, and I am still dressed for riding.”
“It is no matter. No one but us will see you.”
And he could keep talking about Elizabeth. He was so accustomed to keeping his own counsel that he had not realized how much he had longed for that. “If it is not an imposition, then I would be happy to join you.” He could write to Ramsay later.
She gave a pleased nod. “I am glad to hear it.” She tilted her head in the same way Elizabeth did when she was preparing to tease. “Your friend Mr. Bingley’s sisters could not shake the dust of Gracechurch Street off quickly enough. I am glad to see you do not share that opinion.”
Was he still the same man who thought Elizabeth’s low connections would degrade him? Now he understood better what truly mattered.
The investigator sat down on the opposite side of Darcy’s desk and shuffled his papers. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet returned to Longbourn in the second week of May, accompanied by her eldest sister and Miss Maria Lucas. No one reports anything unusual apart from one maid who felt Miss Elizabeth was out of spirits. She attended a variety of social engagements which I have listed here.” He handed Darcy a sheet of paper. “She had a disagreement with her father over her youngest sister’s plans to travel to Brighton. A footman recalls hearing her say something to indicate that her marital chances and those of her sisters had been damaged, but he could not recall the reason.”
Darcy read the list of engagements and pointed to one of them. “This. A group of officers dined at Longbourn. Did you learn anything about that?”
He flipped through his notes. “Six officers dined there, including Mr. Wickham, who was seen talking to Miss Elizabeth at one point. The maid who told me that said he seemed displeased afterwards, but as she herself admired and flirted with Mr. Wickham, I deemed it might be wishful thinking. After dinner, the ladies spoke about the regiment’s upcoming departure while the gentlemen discussed politics.”
Darcy ran his finger down the list. “And this, a week later. Mr. Collins called on Miss Elizabeth. What was that about?”
“No one seemed to know, but she was angry afterwards. Several days later, she announced she was going to visit her aunt and uncle in London, though she had stayed with them quite recently. She and her father left the next day. Mr. Bennet returned alone a fortnight later. The laundry maid said that all his clothes were dirty and dusty, as though he had been on the road for some time. He told the family Miss Elizabeth would not be coming back, but refused to give further details. Her oldest sister was distraught.”
Darcy frowned. “The gossip about her must have arisen very quickly, if the Bennets were entertaining only a week or so before she left.”
“That is a puzzling matter. The gossip did not start until a month or so after Miss Elizabeth’s departure. I checked this with servants at different houses to be certain of it. There was no scandal at the time she left.”
Then why would she have left? “Were you able to ascertain where the gossip began?”
“Lady Lucas’s name was mentioned several times when I asked people how they had learned of it.”
Lady Lucas, whose daughter was married to Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine’s parson. Mrs. Collins would not have passed that gossip along, but he suspected her husband would not have hesitated to inform his in-laws. Darcy would reserve the pleasure of choking the truth out of Collins for when he had more proof.
“Word of the scandal apparently reached the militia regiment which had relocated to Brighton. Miss Lydia, the youngest Bennet daughter, had gone there as a guest of the colonel’s wife, and was sent back in disgrace shortly afterwards.”
Darcy considered the list in his hand. “I would like to know more about Mr. Collins’s visit to Longbourn, including whom else he spoke to and whether he stayed at Lucas Lodge. Pray give further attention to the matter of Miss Lydia Bennet, especially whether Mr. Wickham was in Brighton and had any knowledge of her plans.”
The investigator made a note. “The Bennet ladies will be traveling to Bath soon. Do you wish to have someone check on their activities there? I think it unlikely that Miss Elizabeth is there, given Mr. Bennet’s insistence on secrecy, but it is possible.”
“I agree, but it is worth checking. Mrs. Bennet and Miss Lydia do not watch their tongues well and may say something of import.” If Scotland proved to be a wild goose chase, he would need every lead he could get.
Darcy sent a letter to Georgiana at Pemberley advising her of his plans, but not of the reason for his trip, and promising to see her on his return journey. She would likely be unhappy that he would pass so close to Pemberley without stopping, but that would cause him to lose several days at the very least.
The other trip arrangements went smoothly. His valet made fewer complaints about the upcoming journey than Darcy had expected. Was Smithers finally learning not to question his orders?
The night before they were due to leave for Edinburgh, Mr. Gardiner sent Darcy another note informing him that his wife had received a letter from Jane Bennet, confirming her belief that Elizabeth was in Scotland with her aunt. She did not know anything further about the aunt, but recalled that her surname sounded Scottish. That was unlikely to be helpful in a city full of people with Scottish surnames, but at least he could make the journey with less worry that Mrs. Collins might have sent him on a wild-goose chase.
He and Smithers would be traveling by private post-chaise, since the light vehicle would be faster than taking his own carriage. Even so, they would likely be on the road for six days, and perhaps more if the weather turned bad. But the prize at the end would be worth it. He would find Elizabeth, rescue her from whatever situation she was in, and marry her. A rush of pleasure filled him at the thought.
So Darcy is off to Scotland! What will he find there? Any guesses why Elizabeth’s aunt is less than respectable? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Join me next week in Edinburgh for Chapter 3, and don’t forget to pre-order your copy of the book!