The tree-lined lane leading to Longbourn looked just as it had last year when Darcy and Bingley had first ridden down it, the leaves turning russet and autumn gold. It had been a year since Darcy had first met the bewitching Elizabeth Bennet. Six months since the last time he had seen her. Six months of aching for her, six months of breathing air that had lost its savor, six months of gnawing doubt about whether she had believed the letter he had written her or whether she still despised him as the last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry.
The two gentlemen had tried to call on the Bennets when they first returned to Netherfield a week ago, only to be told the family was away. The days had crawled by for Darcy, haunted by thoughts of Elizabeth. Now he would finally see her again. Would her smile still make the room sparkle with life? Would there be forgiveness in her fine eyes, or would she look at him with hatred? His palms grew damp at the memory of that terrible evening last spring when she had bitterly rejected his proposal of marriage.
So much depended on this new beginning. In his dreams he imagined starting a new courtship, free of the misunderstandings that had doomed his miserable excuse of a proposal, but he had steeled himself to settle for much less. Even if she could never love him, he might be able to be in the same room with her. That might be enough to give him a reprieve from the gnawing emptiness he had felt ever since that night in Hunsford. Returning to London had not given him any relief, nor had going to Pemberley with Georgiana and the Bingleys. This return to Netherfield was his last hope.
Bingley knocked at the door and offered his card to the portly butler, saying something Darcy could not hear over the sudden pounding of his heart. Elizabeth was somewhere behind that door.
The butler shook his head. “I regret to say the family is away.”
Bingley’s bright smile faded. “Again? Mrs. Goulding said they were back.”
The butler’s cheeks darkened. “The family is not at home,” he repeated hollowly.
Disappointment pressed on Darcy’s chest. “Come, Bingley. We will try another time.”
He remounted and grasped his reins before pausing to glance back at the house as if he could somehow conjure up Elizabeth’s presence. Instead, he caught a glimpse of her mother’s face glaring at them through the drawing room window.
He stiffened. The butler must have had standing orders to tell them no one was at home.
But why? Mrs. Bennet had always been embarrassingly pleased to receive Bingley last year, practically groveling over him and pushing her eldest daughter at him. But then Bingley had returned to London, leaving a lovelorn Jane Bennet behind, and apparently he had not been forgiven for that. Elizabeth’s pained expression at Hunsford as she told him how her sister had suffered when Bingley left her was still seared in Darcy’s brain.
“Come, Bingley,” Darcy said sharply. “Let us go.”
“It is odd that no one is at home,” Bingley remarked as they started down the narrow lane. “Mrs. Goulding said she had seen Miss Mary and Miss Kitty Bennet at the circulating library yesterday.”
Darcy sighed. He had to find a way to speak to Elizabeth. “They are at home, but refusing to see us. I saw Mrs. Bennet at the window as we left.”
Bingley reined in his horse, his face stormy. “It is true, then. It was not coincidence that so many people here were not at home when we called on them. Nor that our only invitation was to dine at the Gouldings, and that was because they could not avoid asking us after we met in town. Nor that no one has called on me except Sir William Lucas, and even he was not as affable as usual. But why? Why has everyone in Meryton suddenly taken such a dislike to me? They were happy enough to attend my ball last year.”
Darcy chose his words carefully. “Do you suppose they might believe you toyed with Miss Bennet’s affections?”
“I never made her any promises! Besides, even if they think I abandoned her, why would anyone but the Bennets shun me?”
“People in these country neighborhoods can be very loyal to one of their own.” Still, it was surprising, especially given how popular Bingley had been before. Jane Bennet must have suffered badly. Perhaps she had even tried to harm herself. If she had, the locals might blame Bingley for that, although not as much as Darcy would blame himself. And Elizabeth would never, ever forgive him if she had almost lost her sister because of him. Bile rose in his throat.
“I cannot believe it. They were always so welcoming to me!” Poor Bingley. He was so accustomed to being well-liked by everyone.
Bingley seemed disinclined to believe Darcy, but he might listen to someone else. “Perhaps you should try calling on Sir William. I imagine he will receive you, and you could ask him about it.”
“Will you come with me?”
Darcy shook his head. “Your chances will be better if you go on your own. They never liked me here, although they were always polite about it.” And if he had to hear much more of Bingley’s chattering, he might go mad.
Bingley tugged at his cuffs. “I suppose it is worth a try.”
Still, thoughts of Elizabeth would not leave Darcy even after Bingley turned off onto the lane to Lucas Lodge. How could he arrange to speak to her if he had no invitations to social events and her family would not receive him? He needed a way to find her alone, without either Bingley or her family, but he could not simply haunt the lane to Longbourn in the hope of spotting her. She loved long walks, and there were only a limited number of footpaths near her home. That was it; he could ride every pathway until he came across her. If that failed, he would have to demean himself by bribing a Longbourn servant to tell him her whereabouts. His new valet had not yet proved trustworthy enough for delicate tasks of that nature.
He had to know. Even if her answer was that she still despised him, it would be better than not knowing.
Two hours later, Bingley strode into the billiard room at Netherfield and slammed the door behind him, his eyes flashing with anger. “How could you?” he demanded.
Darcy stared at him. This was unlike the friend he had known for years. “How could I do what?” he asked cautiously.
“You know perfectly well! Sir William would tell me nothing, but then I spotted Jane Bennet walking to town and stopped to talk to her. She tried to avoid me, even begged me to leave her for her reputation’s sake, but I insisted she tell me what was the matter. Now do you know what I am talking about?”
“I have not the least idea.” His breath caught in his throat. Jane Bennet always thought the best of everyone. What could she hold against him?
Bingley clenched his fists. “Do you deny that you saw Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Kent, or that you met with her alone on several occasions?”
Darcy stiffened. Why would that be a problem? “I told you I had seen her. We met several times while walking in the park, but otherwise we were always in company.”
“What about the night when Mr. and Mrs. Collins were dining with Lady Catherine and you knew Miss Elizabeth was home alone? Do you deny leaving the dinner and going to see her?”
Darcy’s chest tightened. If Elizabeth had told her family about that, then they must also know what had passed between them, and he could not imagine why they would hold that against him. “I admit it freely.”
“And that no one saw you leave, and the next morning, before the household was awake, you were seen with her and you gave her a letter?”
Oh, no. Someone had been making mischief. “I gave her a letter, but I was only at the parsonage for a brief time, whether or not anyone saw me leave.”
“Unfortunately, Miss Elizabeth can offer no proof of that, as she went to bed before Mr. and Mrs. Collins returned, and gave strict orders not to be disturbed. But that does not matter. You went late at night for an assignation with a young lady whom we all know you admired. Surely you do not expect me to believe your purpose was innocent!” Perspiration beaded Bingley’s brow.
“I went there to talk to her, nothing more,” said Darcy grimly. “And that is all I did.”
“Why would you leave your aunt’s dinner party solely to talk to her? Was there a reason you could not wait to speak to her the next day?”
“I wanted to speak to her privately,” Darcy said through gritted teeth.
“So you did deliberately call on her when you knew she was alone! How can you justify that?” Bingley demanded.
He had to say it. “I asked her to marry me.” It was the last thing he wanted to admit, but how else could he explain his behavior? It looked so damning the way Bingley described it. “She refused me, and I left. She accused me of something that was not true, and I wanted her to know the truth. I wrote a letter of explanation, and the next morning I gave it to her. It contained nothing beyond a defense of my character.”
With a harsh bark of laughter, Bingley said, “You wanted to marry her? Why should I believe that after all the effort you went to in order to keep me from proposing to Jane Bennet? All the arguments about how far beneath me she was? Miss Elizabeth was even farther beneath you. You would never have considered marrying her.”
This was a disaster. “Everything you say is true, and I should not have proposed to her, but I did.”
“How do you account, then, for the fact that Miss Elizabeth accepted ruination without any mention of your proposal or asking you to redeem her reputation? How do you explain that?” Bingley’s nostrils flared.
Because Elizabeth despised him and would rather be ruined than to marry him. “I cannot explain her actions beyond that she did not wish to marry me.”
“I do not believe you. And you used me, convinced me to return here in the hope of resuming your liaison with her, and, fool that I am, I agreed! If anyone had needed more proof something was going on, your presence here provides it.”
His chest ached. “I suggested you come here because Miss Elizabeth had told me I was wrong about her sister not caring for you. I wanted you to have another chance. And yes, I hoped to see if my letter had improved Miss Elizabeth’s opinion of me, but that was all.”
Bingley slapped his palm against the top rail of the billiard table. “You admit, then, that you hid your motives for coming here, and still you claim that you did nothing improper?”
“Bingley, on my honor as a gentleman, I have told you the truth.” But he could not deny he had hidden his motivation.
Bingley stared at him with angry, bewildered eyes. “You ruined her, and with her, you ruined the woman I love. Because of you, Miss Elizabeth has had to leave Longbourn forever. The Bennets are in deep disgrace. No one here will receive them. No one will speak to them on the street. None of the daughters will be able to find decent husbands because of you.”
Elizabeth had left her family because of his attentions? “I had no intention of harming anyone, least of all Miss Elizabeth. I never touched her.” The words sounded hollow. Even if he had done nothing improper, Elizabeth and her family were suffering because of him.
Bingley’s mouth twisted. “How can I believe nothing happened when Miss Elizabeth quietly accepted her fate, knowing it would disgrace her sisters as well? I have seen the results here with my own eyes. Now get out of my house. I never wish to lay eyes on you again.”
“Bingley…” But there was no point. “I will leave, but this is not over.”
“A room at the inn?” his valet repeated.
Darcy was too shaken by Bingley’s news to feel annoyed at this further evidence of Smithers’ lack of respect. “Yes, I want a room at the inn in Ware for tonight. Bring only what I will need for two days. Pack everything else and send it to Darcy House.”
“Of course in London. That is where Darcy House is. I will meet you later at the inn.” Devil take it, this was a terrible time to have a half-trained valet. If his old valet had still been with him, Darcy could have had him ask about Elizabeth among the Netherfield servants. He would have to do without that knowledge now.
He strode out of the room and down the stairs, averting his eyes as he passed the ballroom where he had danced with Elizabeth. It must be a painful memory for her now. His interest in her had ruined her reputation and her life.
At the front door he took his hat and gloves from the butler. “Kindly inform Mr. Bingley I have left. My valet is packing my trunks and will send them later.” He pulled his gloves on so forcefully that a seam gave way.
“Very good, sir.” The butler held the door open with an air of utter indifference.
Bingley stood in the doorway to the dining room watching him with no sign of softening on his face.
Darcy did not acknowledge him. Instead he strode towards the stable without looking back. Never before had a friend challenged his word of honor. That Bingley, perhaps the closest of his friends, should do so left him with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he could deal with Bingley after the matter of Elizabeth was settled.
He mounted and rode towards Longbourn, this time noticing as he passed through Meryton how many acquaintances averted their eyes from him. It had no doubt been happening since his arrival, but he had not paid attention since he had no desire to speak to them. Now it was clear he was being cut. How dare they sit in judgment over him when he was blameless, or close enough to make no difference?
Elizabeth had done this. By remaining silent and choosing to leave rather than to contest the gossip, she destroyed his good name. Not that the local gentry had ever liked him, but this was worse. Would word of his alleged crimes eventually reach the ton in London? It probably did not matter. Trying to seduce young ladies was expected behavior for gentlemen of the ton, but the people of Meryton were loyal to Elizabeth.
A doddering servant answered the door at Longbourn. Darcy thrust his card into the man’s hand. “I wish to see Mr. Bennet.”
The manservant held the card by his fingertips as if it were covered with some distasteful substance. “I will see if he is at home.” Instead of inviting Darcy to sit in the hall, he closed the door in Darcy’s face, leaving him to cool his heels on the doorstep. More proof that he was not welcome at Longbourn.
The old servant opened the door again. “Mr. Bennet is not at home.”
Darcy placed his booted foot in the door before the servant could close it. “Be so kind as to inquire when Mr. Bennet will be at home,” he said evenly.
The servant came back more quickly this time. “I have been told to inform you that no one in this house will ever be at home for you.” His voice quavered as he spoke through the opening above Darcy’s foot.
Enough was enough. He was trying to help them, dammit. “Stand out of my way, old man. I have no desire to hurt you.” To hurt Elizabeth’s father, yes, but not an innocent servant who was only following orders.
Fortunately, the man obeyed, scurrying backwards until Darcy could push past him. He paused in the entrance hall, trying to remember the arrangement of the house. The drawing room was to the right. He remembered that much. Mr. Bennet’s library had been straight ahead, had it not? He would find it somehow. His feet must have remembered the way, since the first door he chose was the correct one.
Mr. Bennet looked up at him, his face twisted with distaste. “Get out of my house,” he spat.
Darcy reminded himself to be patient. The man had reason to distrust him, after all. “I apologize for forcing my way in, but we cannot find a resolution to this matter if I am unable to speak to you.”
“There is no possible resolution,” Mr. Bennet said coldly. “Good day, Mr. Darcy.”
Patience. “I will leave after we have discussed the matter. I assume you would prefer to do so privately rather than having me shout my business so the entire house can hear. I have only just learned about what happened to Miss Elizabeth, and I am here to make matters right by offering to marry her.”
His eyes narrowed. “No.”
No? “What do you mean by that?” Darcy demanded.
“The answer is no. You have offered, and I have declined. Good day.”
What was wrong with the man? “This is ridiculous. As I imagine your daughter has told you, I never touched her, nor did I do anything improper beyond giving her a letter, and even that can be explained. The rest is nothing but conjecture and gossip. Miss Elizabeth has had to leave her family and friends, and your other daughters are in disgrace and will be unlikely to find husbands, but all of this can be repaired by Miss Elizabeth marrying me.”
The cords stood out in Mr. Bennet’s neck. “Lizzy does not wish to marry you, and she will do so only over my dead body, and I mean that literally. Is that clear enough for you?”
“I do not believe you. I will grant you that she dislikes me, but she is neither cruel nor unreasonable, and I refuse to believe she would choose for her sisters to suffer rather than even attempt to resolve the issue.”
Mr. Bennet curled his upper lip. “Lizzy has made her sentiments on this matter clear to me. She does not wish to marry you under any circumstances.”
Darcy’s temper was slipping. “Since you will not see reason, I will address myself directly to Miss Elizabeth. Where is she?”
Mr. Bennet smiled in cold triumph. “She is out of your reach. I am the only person who knows where she is, and I will not tell you. Not today, not ever.”
“Then I will make it my business to find her myself,” Darcy snapped.
“You will fail. She does not want you to find her, and I have made certain you cannot hurt her again.”
The man was irrational. There was no other way to explain it. “You are the one who is hurting Miss Elizabeth and your entire family with that attitude,” Darcy said icily. “I can only hope you will come to your senses. Pray send me word when you do.” Darcy stalked out of the library before he said anything worse. Half blind with rage, he nearly ran into Jane Bennet, who must have been drawn there by the raised voices. Mrs. Bennet stood a few feet behind her, fanning herself frantically.
He bowed. This could be an opportunity. “Miss Bennet, I have just been speaking to your father. He has categorically refused my offer to marry Miss Elizabeth and will not even permit me to speak to her. Perhaps you might have better fortune at making him see reason.”
Mrs. Bennet wailed, “Oh, Mr. Bennet! How could you?”
At least she seemed to understand the obvious, that Darcy marrying Elizabeth would solve all their problems. Darcy hoped she would make her husband’s life a misery. Heaven help him, if he had to rely on Mrs. Bennet’s assistance! He added more gently, “Miss Bennet, should he change his mind, I hope I may rely on you to send word to me. I can be reached at Darcy House on Brook Street in London.”
Jane Bennet nodded dumbly, her mouth hanging open with shock.
“I thank you.” As the old servant was still cowering by the door, Darcy let himself out.
Seething, he rode to the end of the lane where it met the main road. The last thing he wanted was to go to an uncomfortable inn for the night. When he had made the plan, he had assumed Mr. Bennet would accept his proposal and they would need to meet further to discuss the settlement. Now there was no reason to stay. He would go back to London tonight, where he could nurse his wounds in privacy and decide what to do next.