Darcy rubbed his knuckles against his forehead as he sank into the chair behind his desk. This was not the homecoming he had dreamed of. He had imagined it so often, arriving here at Pemberley with Elizabeth beside him as his bride. Elizabeth, whose fine eyes and sparkling wit made his soul take wings and fly. Elizabeth, who would never be his.
If only she had accepted his offer of marriage! He had thought that was the first step to a brighter future. The four months since then had not been enough to begin to erase the traces of her from his heart. Instead, losing her had only deepened his feelings for her, the woman he loved so passionately but could never have.
Now, instead of laying Pemberley at her feet, proudly showing her those parts of his home that he loved the most, he was alone in his study, having ridden ahead of his party so he could face this pain without witnesses. Elizabeth would never lighten the darkness here with her smiles or bring laughter back to Pemberley, the sort of laughter he remembered from his early childhood. That joy had ebbed away as he grew up and the constant arguments over Drew had poisoned the atmosphere. His mother’s death and his father’s long illness had completed the process.
He had thought Elizabeth’s presence could banish the emptiness, that her wit and warmth could rekindle love and happiness here. And then she had refused him. Bitterly, angrily, and leaving him no room for hope.
The butler appeared at the study door. “Mr. Andrew Darcy is here to see you,” said Hobbes.
Darcy straightened. Drew was actually here, at Pemberley, and seeking him out? Wonders never ceased. Perhaps something good had come of this debacle after all, and at least he would have regained one person he had lost. “Show him in.”
Hobbes hesitated. In that slight, almost imperceptible shift of tone the old butler used for matters he deemed significant, he said, “Mr. Andrew is in the drawing room.”
Darcy glanced around the study. Why did Hobbes want Darcy to see Drew in the more formal setting of the drawing room rather than here? Was something wrong? But Hobbes had known Drew through the years when Darcy had been off at school and university, so perhaps he was aware of something.
Darcy rose to his feet. “Very well; I will see him there.”
Was that a flicker of relief in the butler’s faded eyes? “Very good, sir.”
As Darcy passed between the heavy carved doors of his study, the answer suddenly struck him. This had been his father’s study, of course, and the place that gentleman had always delivered tongue lashings and occasional canings to the children of the house. Darcy recalled all too well a few unpleasant visits there, but Drew, who had always been in trouble for one thing or another, must have many bad memories of it. No doubt he had been disowned in this very room. Yes, much better to meet elsewhere.
And Hobbes had realized it, when Darcy had not. Elizabeth had been right when she accused him of a selfish disdain for the feelings of others.
But he was determined to change, to become a better man, one who could be worthy of a woman like Elizabeth. Drew’s presence here was proof of it. Elizabeth’s refusal had led to his decision to reach out to Drew once more, to offer him the living in Kympton, and to wait patiently – or at least with the external appearance of patience – as Drew warily examined his generous offer for potential traps. Elizabeth had taught him that much; he could not assume anyone would trust his motives simply because he wished them to do so. His patience had paid off; Drew had, in the end, accepted the living, and now he was back at Pemberley where he belonged.
And there was Drew, standing on the far side of the drawing room, studying a small watercolor on the wall.
“Georgiana painted that last year,” Darcy said. “I thought she caught the autumn colors particularly well.”
Drew started and spun around to face him. “Yes. She appears to have a good eye for the picturesque,” he said stiffly. Always stiffly. Would Drew never trust him? But that would take time, and more patience.
“She does, although she only sees the faults in her paintings.” No. He needed to be warm and approachable. “Welcome. I am glad to see you. Some wine, perhaps?”
Drew’s lips tightened. What had Darcy done wrong now? “No, I thank you, and I will not take up much of your time. I am sorry to trouble you when you have only just arrived.”
“Not at all. I am very pleased to see you. How have you found the parsonage at Kympton? Is it in satisfactory condition?” Darcy studied him, noticing a bruise darkening his cheek. An accident, or had he been fighting?
His brother plucked at his cuffs, looking uncomfortable. “Yes, very satisfactory, and I thank you again for granting me the living there.”
“You have done me a favor in taking it. I am relieved to have it in reliable hands.”
Drew plunged on, as if nervous. “But I would not have troubled you on your first night at home, had I not something in particular to tell you, and I wanted you to hear this news from me rather than from someone else.”
Oh, no. That sounded ominous. What sort of trouble had Drew got himself into now? Whatever it was, Darcy had to remain calm. “News?”
Drew took a deep breath. “I am engaged to be married.”
“Engaged? My congratulations! That is excellent news.” At least he knew how to respond properly to this, even if the thought of Drew being married came as shock. Or perhaps it merely brought home his own failure to become engaged. Elizabeth should be sitting beside him as his wife, and instead he was alone, while Drew was engaged. “May I ask who the fortunate lady is?” Not that he had any particular worries in that regard. When he had made inquiries about Drew’s recent behavior before offering him the living, there had been nothing about petticoat chasing.
“Actually,” he drew out the word, “I believe you are acquainted with her. Her name is Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
The world froze as the words echoed inside his head. No. It could not be. This was some horrible joke. Or perhaps he had heard wrong. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn?” Astonishingly, his voice still worked.
“The very one.” Drew watched him steadily.
It could not be. Drew, engaged to Elizabeth? How was such a thing possible. How had his brother even met Elizabeth? Why had she never mentioned him? But all the questions in the world could do nothing to calm the agonizing pain ripping through him.
He had known that someday she would marry another man, but not so soon. But not Drew! God help him, not Drew. Darcy would have to witness them together again and again, to know she was in Drew’s arms, that she was bearing Drew’s children, not his… He drew in a harsh breath, fighting the urge to clutch at his stomach, to scream at Drew that it was impossible.
But if he raised his voice to Drew, or even criticized him, he would never see his brother again. It had taken all these years to reach the point where Drew would converse with him, much less step over the threshold of Pemberley. He could not lose him now.
And how could he blame Drew for loving Elizabeth, when he himself found her so utterly irresistible? But Elizabeth did not want him. She wanted Drew. Blood pounded in his ears.
Finally Darcy managed to say, “I was unaware she was acquainted with you.”
Drew shrugged. “She never mentioned you to me, either, until after I proposed to her.”
“Have you known her long?” He did not know whether he hoped the answer was yes or no. That Elizabeth could refuse him and then enter into an engagement with his brother. It was intolerable.
Drew’s eyes narrowed. “Long enough.”
Elizabeth had accepted Drew. Agreed to marry him, after telling Darcy he was the last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry. But she had chosen to become Drew’s wife. His chest grew painfully tight. Would he ever be able to draw a full breath again?
He had to say something, all the proper things, even if his world was breaking into tiny pieces. “You are a fortunate man. I wish you both happiness. When is the wedding?”
“We have yet to set a date. This was only just settled. You are among the first to know.” Drew raised an eyebrow and said deliberately, “Miss Bennet feared you might object to the connection, but I told her I did not need your permission to marry.”
Darcy swallowed hard. Of course he objected. Objecting did not begin to describe his feelings about it. But he said, “I cannot think why. She is a gentleman’s daughter, and thus perfectly suitable.” How could laughing, teasing, witty Elizabeth possibly marry stern, angry Drew? Oh, yes, he objected, and with every bone of his body. But he could never, ever say so.
Drew actually smiled. “Good. I am glad of that.”
Darcy could not imagine ever feeling glad again.
But there was one thing he had to know, one more bit of salt to pour on the jagged open wound in his heart. “I seem to recall hearing her portion was small. Is this a love match, then?”
The lines on Drew’s forehead smoothed. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I love her.”
Lambton, two weeks earlier
The small mirror in Elizabeth’s room at the White Hart Inn reflected her fatigue as she plaited her hair for the night. It had been a long, trying day. The journey from Bakewell had been pleasant enough, and their tour of Pemberley had lacked neither beauty or interest. But seeing Darcy’s home, even in his absence, and hearing the housekeeper’s praise of the Master of Pemberley had raised painful memories, not to mention regrets. Fortunately, he was not there himself, and was not due for a fortnight. By then she would be on her way back to Longbourn, so at least she was spared the embarrassment of meeting him again.
A tapping came at the door. “Lizzy? Are you still awake?” It was her aunt’s voice.
“Yes. Do come in.” What could Mrs. Gardiner want now? They had spent the entire day together. As her aunt slipped inside, Elizabeth said, “Is something the matter?”
“That is what I came to ask you,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “You were very quiet today, not at all yourself, and I wondered if perhaps our tour is not to your liking, or if you are displeased with Derbyshire.”
“Oh, no! I am enjoying it greatly! You know how I have always longed to travel to new places. The countryside here far exceeds my expectations. I love the steep hillsides and the starkness of the terrain. I believe I could happily remain in Derbyshire for a very long time.” It was all true, and perhaps it would distract her aunt.
But Mrs. Gardiner was not easily fooled. “Is something else troubling you, then? I do not wish to pry, but even your uncle noticed you seemed out of spirits at dinner.”
It would probably be simplest to tell her the truth, or at least some of it. She had no desire to tell her aunt that seeing Mr. Darcy’s home had left her melancholy. “I have been thinking about my future,” Elizabeth said quietly. “Jane and I had a talk before I left Longbourn, and it made me see how difficult our position is. Neither of us will find husbands in Meryton. The few marriageable gentlemen there have their sights set elsewhere. Even when the town was overrun by single militia officers, none of them showed serious interest in us, and why should they? Who would be willing to marry one of us, when it would mean someday caring for our sisters and mother as well? Even Jane’s beauty and sweetness are not enough to overcome that disadvantage.”
“You are afraid of ending up a spinster?” her aunt asked gently.
Elizabeth shook her head. “I do not mind that idea; I have thought it rather likely for some time. But I always assumed Jane would marry, and that after my father’s death I could live with her family. But Jane has not had even a hint of an offer, and she is now speaking of finding a tradesman to marry simply to avoid being a burden on our relatives. How selfish I have been to rely on her to secure my future!”
“I do not think the situation is that bleak,” her aunt said. “After all, you are but twenty. But there may be something to what you say about being at a disadvantage in Meryton where your family is well known. Perhaps we should make more of an effort to introduce you to eligible gentlemen in London.”
“Jane just spent five months with you in London.” And came home without an admirer.
Her aunt sighed. “True, but she was pining for Mr. Bingley, and we made little effort to put her forward. I know men who might be interested in you or Jane. Perhaps not the marriages your parents would have dreamed of for you, but good men with reliable work and prospects for the future.”
London might be a delightful place to visit, but Elizabeth had no desire to live there. After a time in the city, she always craved the freedom of the countryside. “I am not desperate yet, my dearest Aunt!” She tried to sound amused, even if she did not feel it. “If I cannot marry a man I respect, I would rather find a position as a lady’s companion. Perhaps that would allow me to see more of the world.” But most lady’s companions saw nothing of the world and had to tolerate every whim of the lady they served.
“I hope you know your uncle and I will always do what we can to provide for you.”
From the assurance with which Mrs. Gardiner spoke, Elizabeth suspected this discussion had already taken place between her aunt and uncle. The Gardiners were well aware of her situation. More aware than she had been.
She hugged Mrs. Gardiner. “You are all that is good and generous.” But the Gardiners had four children of their own. Having to support five Bennet sisters would be an enormous strain on them.
Her aunt smiled. “You are very dear to us.”
Elizabeth forced herself to rally her spirits. “But enough of this gloom! What plans have you for tomorrow?”
“I thought we would call on Mr. Morris at the rectory. He was very kind to me after he took over the living when my father died, and I confess I would like to see the house I grew up in once more.”
“I should like that, too,” said Elizabeth.
“My dear Mrs. Gardiner!” The elderly gentleman with a fringe of white hair brought his hands together in delight. “Why, you do not look a day older than when you were keeping house for your father all those years ago.”
“What a flatterer you are, Mr. Morris!” exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner warmly. “Why, I have four children now. Pray permit me to present my husband and my niece, Miss Bennet.”
The rector shook Mr. Gardiner’s hand heartily. “It is a great pleasure, sir. Miss Bennet, are you enjoying your visit to Derbyshire?”
Elizabeth curtsied. “Very much so.” There was something about the old man’s warm smile that made her trust him instinctively.
Mr. Morris gestured to a tall young man standing in the opposite doorway. “Drew, come meet my new guests! Are you already acquainted with Mrs. Gardiner from the days when she lived in Lambton? She would have been Miss Carlisle then, the daughter of old Mr. Carlisle, who had this living before me. She left Lambton not long after I became rector here.”
“That would have been before my time,” said the younger man with a friendly smile. “But I am honored to meet you.”
“In that case, Mrs. Gardiner, may I present Mr. Andrew Darcy, my former student and – if dare I say it – my current protégé?” asked Mr. Morris. “He has recently been given the living at Kympton.”
Elizabeth started. Darcy? Not the Mr. Darcy she knew, thank heavens! Apart from his height, this gentleman bore him no resemblance. His straight, light hair, angled jaw and cleft chin were unlike Mr. Darcy’s dark curls and chiseled face, and he lacked the other man’s habitual haughty expression. Instead, his open countenance seemed to be all affability. But given his name, and living not five miles from Pemberley, he must be related, perhaps a cousin of some sort. A distant one, most likely, as she had never heard mention of cousins on the Darcy side. His clothing seemed to suggest a poor relation – tidy, but not particularly fashionable, with his coat sleeves showing wear at the elbows. No, obviously not a close relative to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, thank heavens.
Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed, “Kympton – why, that is a lovely village! I remember visiting the parsonage there when I was a child. A charming house.”
A shadow seemed to cross the young man’s face. “I am still becoming acquainted with Kympton.”
“It takes time to settle into a living,” said Mr. Morris. “May I invite you to sit down?” He ordered a tea tray and began gently encouraging Mrs. Gardiner to tell him about her travels and her life since leaving Lambton. Almost by default, the two young people were left to sit together on a small settee. Elizabeth felt a certain trepidation that this new Mr. Darcy might yet prove as haughty as the one she could not forget, but, as the conversation between Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. Morris turned to people she had never heard of, she said, “Lambton seems a charming town. Do you know it well?”
He smiled, setting aside his tea and cake untasted. “I lived here for two years when I was a boy, studying with Mr. Morris, but I have been away since then. I am glad to be on familiar ground again, but becoming a rector is quite a change for me. Mr. Morris has been very helpful to me in learning what is expected of me.”
“I imagine he would be a good mentor.” Elizabeth took a sip of tea. It was so bitter she had difficulty keeping from making a face. No wonder this young clergyman was not drinking it!
“Terrible, is it not?” he said in a cheerful undertone. “My advice is not to try the cake, especially if you are fond of your teeth.”
Elizabeth could not help smiling. “I thank you for your advice, but I would not wish to offend our host.”
The young man took the teacup from her hand and placed it beside his own. “He will not be offended. He is too gentle-hearted to dismiss his cook when she has nowhere else to go, but he is well aware that her food is nigh inedible.”
“A generous gentleman, then,” she said.
“The best I have ever known,” he said simply. “But I have learned never to pay a call here when I am hungry.”
No, this Mr. Darcy was generous in spirit, quite unlike the one she had met in Meryton and whose memory still haunted her, especially after visiting his home the previous day. Why could she not simply forget him?
Mr. Morris leaned towards Mrs. Gardiner, saying something softly. At her nod, he said, “Drew, I believe Mrs. Gardiner might enjoy seeing the upstairs rooms, but my old knees are too tired to give her the tour. Would you be good enough to do the honors?”
“Of course, sir.” The young man rose to his feet.
“How very kind of you!” exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner.
“He knows the house almost as well as I do,” said Mr. Morris. “Mrs. Gardiner might be interested in hearing about your parsonage, too, Andrew.”
“Indeed, sir,” he said politely. “This way, Mrs. Gardiner.”
After the two had left the room, Mr. Morris rubbed his hands together with a twinkle in his eyes, encompassing both Mr. Gardiner and Elizabeth in his gaze. “Forgive me for failing to offer you the tour as well, but I have my reasons. I believe Mrs. Gardiner may be in a position to offer young Drew some much needed advice. When the Lord is good enough to send a lady who was raised to run a parsonage just at the moment when Drew was begging me for advice on that very subject, the least I can do is to offer them time to speak alone.”
“He is unmarried, then?” asked Mr. Gardiner.
“Yes,” said Mr. Morris. “He was a curate before coming here, so he is familiar with his pastoral duties, but that position did not include a parsonage. The one that comes with his living was not well-maintained by the last incumbent, and the servants are a slovenly lot. Servants are always a challenging issue for clergymen since they are both our employees and our parishioners, and poor Drew has no experience at running a household.”
Mr. Gardiner chuckled. “Whenever I compliment my wife on her household management, she always says it is much easier than running a parsonage. I assumed that was because she was still a girl when she took over the household after her mother died, but she says her duties were different, with parishioners coming by and the responsibility to them.”
“You have a very capable wife. She made it look simple. I did not realize how difficult it was until I watched my late wife struggle to learn the duties of a clergyman’s wife.”
Elizabeth’s brows drew together. Her friend Charlotte never complained of finding her duties onerous, but perhaps that was because her servants lived in terror of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s frequent inspections of the parsonage. Charlotte would never have to worry about discharging a bad servant, because Lady Catherine would have long since done so on her behalf.
Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. Andrew Darcy did not reappear for over a quarter of an hour. When they did, Mrs. Gardiner’s face was alight with interest as she told the young man, “We shall find a way, never fear!”
“Ah, my dear, I recognize that expression!” said Mr. Gardiner. “You have a new project.”
Delicate color rose in Mrs. Gardiner’s cheeks. “Only a very small one. It will not take away from our holiday, I promise you. I am simply going to visit this young man’s parsonage and perhaps offer some advice on how to manage it; that is all.”
Mr. Gardiner smiled broadly. “And help him find a new housekeeper and staff, and suggest how he might redecorate it, and half a dozen things that I cannot even dream of.”
Mr. Andrew Darcy drew himself to his full height. “Mr. Gardiner, I have no intention of imposing myself on your wife in any way.”
Her uncle guffawed. “Lad, my wife is never happier than when she has a new project! It will undoubtedly be a high point of our trip for her. And now I will not need an excuse to sneak off to find a fishing stream, as Mr. Morris has kindly offered to loan me his tackle.”
The younger man visibly thawed. “There is a fine trout stream that runs not far from my parsonage. Perhaps you would care to try your luck there.”
Mr. Gardiner beamed. “That sounds delightful.”
Elizabeth smiled dutifully, though she had no interest in fishing, refurbishing a parsonage, or calling on even a distant relative of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, no matter how amiable he might be. But her aunt and uncle had been generous enough to invite her on this journey, and it was her job to be pleased by whatever activities they selected.