Yes! The new book has a title, thanks to the amazing Joy King, whom you may know as the Austenesque author writing as J. Dawn King and Christie Capps. It was a tough choice, let me tell you, with all those fantastic ideas from readers! I had to form a little focus group to help me winnow them down. I’m saving the rest, and some will show up in the blurb and elsewhere. In thanks, I have a little something for everyone who helped, so check at the end of the post if you made a suggestion!
Meantime, the story continues. If you haven’t read them, do check out the opening scene and the first chapter first. Here’s what happens next, with more about Drew, Elizabeth’s worries about Darcy, and some hints of how things go wrong from here. Do let me know what you think!
Mrs. Gardiner insisted on returning to the Kympton parsonage three days later to meet with Mr. Andrew Darcy and his new housekeeper. Elizabeth, given the choice between accompanying her or watching Mr. Gardiner fish, announced she would go to Kympton, but spend her time walking the path she had noticed on their last visit that wound up the hillside behind the parsonage. Andrew Darcy tried to convince her to stay with them at the parsonage and offered to escort her after their business was done, but she was resolute in her desire for an immediate long walk.
Though her feet were tired by the time she returned from her excursion, her spirits were high from the delight of exploring this unknown part of the world and discovering new sights at every turn of the path. Her calf muscles, unaccustomed to the steep hills of Derbyshire, ached, but the views had been well worth the exertion.
As she paused just outside the gate to the parsonage garden to scrape the worst of the mud from her half-boots, she heard a male voice say, “Are you enjoying living at the parsonage? It was to have been mine, you know.” The voice was familiar, one she had once longed to hear. But it could not be him; he was in Brighton with the militia.
She peeked around the hedge. Good heavens, it truly was George Wickham, talking to Andrew Darcy! She pressed herself back against the hedge, having no desire to meet him.
“I am told you refused it,” Andrew Darcy said coldly.
“I always knew Darcy wanted you to have it.” Wickham was all geniality, just as he had been in Meryton when he had convinced her to believe his lies.
“Somehow I doubt you had my best interests in mind.”
“I have always felt for your position, Drew. It was so close to my own. Living at Pemberley, but always told that you did not belong, that you were not good enough. You always seemed able to ignore the rumors about your father, much more than I could about my own. We have both been treated unfairly because of the sins of our parents.”
“I have no interest in the sins of my parents. All I can do is to live my life as free of sin as God will permit. What is it you want from me, Wickham?” Clearly the young clergyman trusted Wickham no more than she did.
“Just a little loan to tide me over until I take my new position.” Had he left the militia, then?
“Money for you to spend on women and drink? Wickham, you speak of your father’s sins, yet you follow in his footsteps. Why not choose a different path?”
“Spare me your sermons! I know how much this living brings in; surely you can spare a few pounds? You would not wish me to repeat what old Mr. Darcy said about you to your new parishioners, would you?”
Andrew Darcy’s laugh was like the crack of a pistol shot. “Be my guest. No doubt it is old news to them.”
They were coming towards Elizabeth, and soon they would discover her. She took a step backwards, but her foot landed on a twig which broke with a loud snap.
“Who is there?” Andrew Darcy demanded.
There was nothing for it but to brazen it out. Elizabeth lifted the latch and pushed the gate open. “Forgive me for startling you,” she said brightly. “Why, if it is not Mr. Wickham! I had thought you were in Brighton, sir.”
The young clergyman recoiled. “You know one another?”
“Mr. Wickham was a militia officer in my town in Hertfordshire,” Elizabeth explained. She certainly did not wish to claim him as a friend.
Wickham bowed. “Indeed, I had the privilege of meeting Miss Elizabeth there. But what brings you to the wilds of Derbyshire?” Then a knowing look came over his face. “Or perhaps I can guess.”
She had no idea what he was attempting to insinuate. “I am traveling with my aunt and uncle.”
“Very interesting!” A calculating look came over his face. “So, Andrew, are you certain you cannot help me?”
“I will pray for you, Wickham.”
Wickham’s eyes narrowed, and he snarled, “You and your high and mighty brother may rot in hell.” Then, with an abrupt change in attitude, he bowed to Elizabeth with an ingratiating smile. “My apologies, Miss Elizabeth, and my congratulations on a brilliant match. I do hope you will always count me among your friends. I wish you good day.” He turned and sauntered back towards the road.
Elizabeth pressed her fingers to her throat. “Good heavens! What was that about?” Despite knowing of Wickham’s past, she had never seen him be anything short of charming before. And what had he meant by a brilliant match?
The young clergyman straightened his cuffs, using it as an excuse not to meet her eyes. “My apologies for his language. Wickham can be intemperate on occasion, although usually not in front of ladies, but he is not a man to be trusted.”
“I am aware of that,” she said dryly. “I am sorry if my presence made matters more difficult for you.”
He looked up, a slight quirk to his lips. “Things are always difficult when Wickham is nearby. Think nothing of it. I hope he has not caused you distress in the past.”
“No. He was always perfectly charming to me. I have only heard of his misdeeds, not suffered directly from them.” She certainly did not want to explain to Mr. Darcy’s cousin precisely where she had heard of Wickham’s misdeeds. Far better to change the subject. “Is my aunt within?”
“Yes, she is going over the accounts with the new housekeeper. I told her it was unnecessary, but she insisted that a housewife’s eye would see errors a man would miss. I daresay she is right, but I do not know how I will ever repay her for her assistance. The parsonage is a much happier place now.”
“She has enjoyed it immensely,” Elizabeth assured him. “There is little that gives her more pleasure than to use her skills to solve problems. She will look back on this with pleasure.”
“I hope it has not been a disappointment to you,” he said. “After all, you might have wished to spend your holiday in a quite different manner.”
“Not at all,” she said, not completely truthfully. “I would never have discovered this charming village if my aunt had not offered her assistance, and I must say I have grown quite fond of it.”
A shy smile grew on his face. “It was a fortunate day that you appeared at Mr. Morris’s rectory. I have benefited greatly from your aunt’s assistance, but beyond that, it has been a delight to make your acquaintance.”
Was he trying, in a timid, clumsy way, to flirt with her? He seemed to have little experience at it. Poor fellow; if his name had not been Darcy, she would have been happy to enjoy a nice flirtation with him. “It has been a great pleasure to make new friends in my travels. Now, where might I find my aunt?”
“Not in the least,” Elizabeth said stoutly. “I do not want my little accident to disrupt your day. I would feel exceedingly guilty if you were to miss seeing Peveril Castle simply because I was foolish enough to slip in the mud.” Especially when her aunt had warned her against trying to climb those very rocks where she had slipped!
“But I hate to leave you all by yourself,” her aunt said worriedly.
“There is no need. One of the chambermaids will be happy to help me change into a clean dress, and I can use the time to catch up on my correspondence.”
Mr. Gardiner said, “Perhaps I should walk you to your room, just to be safe.”
Elizabeth repressed a desire to give a sharp response, knowing that if she let her aunt out of the carriage, it would be three times as hard to get her back into it. “Nonsense. This is a perfectly respectable inn where we are well known. I want you to go to Peveril so I can hear all about it later!”
“Very well, if you are certain,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
With a warm, reassuring smile, Elizabeth clambered out of the carriage. “It is only twenty feet to the door of the inn. What could happen to me, surrounded by all these fine citizens? Now, off with you!” She stepped back inside the stable doorway to allow the carriage room to turn around, and waved as her uncle and aunt drove through the archway back to the street.
With a sigh of relief, she straightened her skirts to hide the muddy patches as much as she could before crossing the courtyard. Then she saw Mr. Wickham’s familiar figure emerging through the inn door accompanied by a red-haired chambermaid. She certainly did not want to run into him, especially when she was alone, so, at the sound of his cajoling tones, she ducked back into the shadows of the stable.
Half an hour and many painful blushes later, Elizabeth decided Wickham was finally distracted enough that she could escape unseen and seized her chance to hurry across the stable yard and into the back door of the inn. All she wanted was to reach the privacy of her room and scrub the memory of what she had overheard out of her mind, but ought she to warn the inn proprietor first? No, first she should change her dress. She did not want to speak to anyone in her current state of muddy, embarrassed dishevelment. If only she could be certain this matter could wait until her uncle’s return! It would be so much easier if he simply managed it in her stead.
The obstacle of the public room stood between her and the stairway. She took a deep breath and tried to creep quietly along the wall, hoping to avoid notice.
“Miss Bennet!” Mr. Andrew Darcy stepped forward and bowed over Elizabeth’s hand.
She had thought she was out of blushes. “Pray forgive my appearance, sir. A slight accident while climbing Mam Tor.”
“I am sorry to hear it. I hope you are uninjured.”
“I am perfectly well, I thank you.” Apart from a few bruises and a severely sprained dignity, and now a new, distressing problem to solve.
“Is Mrs. Gardiner with you? I called in the hope of seeing her.”
“No, she and my uncle dropped me off here and continued on to Peveril Castle. I do not expect them for some hours.”
He studied her. “Are you certain you are well? You look distressed.”
“I…” She blinked hard, wishing she could run away. “Nothing is truly wrong; I simply had an experience a few moments ago which has discomposed me a little.” The echo of Wickham’s attempted seduction played in her ears.
“Is there any way I could assist you? A glass of wine; shall I get you one?” His concern was evident.
“No, I thank you;” she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by something I overheard, and I do not know what to do about it.” But perhaps this meeting was a blessing in disguise; Andrew Darcy might be the only person in Derbyshire whom she could count on to understand Wickham’s ways. “Now that I think on it, if it would not be an imposition, sir, it is a matter in which I would appreciate your advice.”
He looked genuinely pleased at her words. “I would be happy to be of service, if I may. Perhaps we might speak in the private parlor? It is empty, and if we leave the door open and remain in full sight of the public room, I do not think anyone could object.”
For once she was grateful to have someone else organizing things for her, so she accepted his direction. “Very well, but I must remain standing, lest I spread mud all over a nice, clean chair.”
“Of course.” He accompanied her inside the parlor, and then added, “Naturally, anything you tell me will be held in confidence.”
“I thank you.” How was she to begin? She had no desire to explain that she had been an unwilling witness to a seduction scene. “This whole matter is perhaps none of my affair, but I am uncertain what to do about it. It concerns Mr. Wickham, which is why I thought your advice might be helpful.”
His look of concern deepened. “I am sorry to hear he has been troubling you.”
“Not directly. Yesterday he called when we were out and left a message for me saying that he wished to apologize for his intemperance. I am unsure how he learned where I was staying, but I decided it would be easiest to avoid him. Just now, after my uncle and aunt left me in the stable yard, I heard him talking to a girl who works at the inn. Since I did not wish to encounter him, I hid behind a door to wait for him to pass by.” Her cheeks grew hot at the remembrance of what she had heard.
“Did he discover you?”
“No, but he came into the stable, and I could not help overhearing what took place.” And there was no need to go into the details on that! “He was promising the girl he would take her to Gretna Green and marry her, but he needed money to get them there. He told her to empty the innkeeper’s till and give him the money, and it seemed as if he had managed to persuade her.” She wiped the back of her hand against her mouth, as if she could scrub the words away. “I do not know what to do, whether I should tell the innkeeper or not. Perhaps the girl will do nothing, and if I say something, she might lose her position.”
Andrew Darcy sucked in a breath through his teeth. “You need do nothing. I will take care of this, and without involving the innkeeper. Is he still out there?”
“I believe so.” She expected Wickham would be taking his time making sure the poor girl was thoroughly in his thrall. And to think she had once admired him! “I do not wish to cause any trouble for you.”
“You have caused no trouble. Wickham is on the verge of destroying a girl’s life, and you are quite right to seek help for her. Leave this to me. Perhaps you might wish to go upstairs and change your dress.”
Elizabeth had all but forgotten the reason she had returned to the inn. “I will do so, and I thank you for helping that poor girl.”
Once upstairs, she could not put the situation out of her head. She ought to do as he said and let him handle it, but she could not forget how quickly Wickham’s temper had shifted at the parsonage. What if he became angry here? Perhaps she should keep an eye out from a distance, just in case. Her window overlooked the stable yard, so she wrestled with the sticky latch. She had kept it closed until now because of the noise of coaches arriving at all hours. But now Andrew was down there confronting Wickham.
She could not see him, so either Andrew was already in the stable block or had not yet gone into the yard. With a sigh, she turned away from the window and began to unfasten her dress, thankful it was one that did not require assistance to remove. Fortunately, the mud had not reached her shift, so she was able to put her blue muslin on over it. As she was struggling to reach the last of the buttons in the back, she heard a commotion from outside.
She hurried to the window in time to see Andrew Darcy pick himself up from the ground as George Wickham stood over him. A few stable hands stood around them, apparently urging them to fight, but Andrew shook his head and said something she could not hear. Wickham’s fist shot out and connected with the young clergyman’s nose. He staggered, blood streaming down his face, but made no effort to defend himself as Wickham hit him again, this time in the stomach. Andrew doubled over.
Elizabeth could not bear it. Throwing a shawl over her shoulders, she raced out of her room and down the steps, pushing past several men in the taproom, and finally out to the stable yard.
“Coward!” Wickham taunted Andrew, who held a handkerchief to his nose. “You may call yourself a pacifist, but I call it cowardice.”
“Resist not evil, but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Andrew quoted nasally, and slowly turned his head to the side, exposing his cheek to Wickham.
“Fool,” spat Wickham, and struck his chin with a closed fist.
This time the young clergyman fell to the ground again. Wickham kicked him in the ribs, and he curled up, clutching his side. As Wickham drew his foot back again, Elizabeth ran to stand between them.
“Stop this,” she cried.
Wickham’s lips twisted. “Only for your sake, Miss Elizabeth.” He wiped his hand across his mouth and blew on his reddened knuckles.
She could not bear to look at him, so she knelt beside Andrew Darcy, still wrapped in a ball, with blood staining his cravat and spattered across his coat. “How may I assist you, sir? May I help you inside?”
He pulled himself to a sitting position, wincing as he reached for his handkerchief and wiping the blood from his face. “I regret you had to see this. You should go back inside. This is not serious.”
She had sent him out here, and he had suffered for it. That made it serious in her mind. “When someone is tending to your injuries, I will do so.”
He rose to his feet stiffly. “It is just a few bruises.” But he staggered a little.
Of course he would not admit to injuries, not when Wickham had just accused him of cowardice. She thought quickly. “You cannot walk down the street covered in blood. You must clean up first. Come in and I will have someone bring you a basin of water.”
Wickham moved beside her. “There is nothing to worry about. I did not hit him hard.”
She turned a reproachful glare on him. “Indeed,” she said icily.
He leaned closer and whispered, “There is more to this than you know. I hope you will never discover how interfering and meddlesome young Drew can be.”
“Miss Bennet, will you come in with me? I would not leave you alone here.” Andrew’s dignified words were muffled by the handkerchief pressed to his face.
Wickham said smoothly, “Miss Bennet knows she is perfectly safe with me.”
She gave Wickham a withering look and took the arm Andrew Darcy offered her. “I have nothing to say to you, Mr. Wickham,” she said coldly, her voice shaking with rage, and turned her back on him.
I think we’ll all agree with Elizabeth on that one! Drat that Wickham – always messing things up! I imagine some of you may have some new ideas of how Elizabeth ends up engaged to Drew.
Were you one of the readers who suggested a title for me before October 19? If so, I’ve got an audiobook code with your name on it to thank you for your help and amazing ideas! Please comment below or email me at abigail (at) abigail-reynolds.com with your name, where you made your suggestions (my blog, Austen Variations, or Facebook), and a first and second choice for which book you’d like – first come, first served – excluding Mr. Darcy’s Enchantment (I don’t have codes for that). Be sure if you’re commenting to use an email where I can reach you. Thanks again for your help!
What do you think Wickham deserves at this point? Do you think he’ll make more trouble?
More to come next week! Read Chapter 3 now!