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Chapter One

It was nearing noon on a hot June day when Colonel Fitzwilliam stepped out of the stuffy coach into the raucous noise of London. Since it was only a short distance to Darcy’s house, he decided to take the opportunity to stretch his legs after the long ride rather than hire a carriage. Paying a boy to cart his luggage for him, he set off at a quick pace.

He sincerely hoped that his cousin would prove to be in town; he could not be certain, since Darcy had been such a poor—in fact non-existent—correspondent since their trip to Rosings. Georgiana’s last letter had not indicated any planned travels, however, so presumably she at least would be there. He would prefer to see Darcy, though, so that he could at least try to resolve whatever it was he had said or done that had apparently offended his cousin.

Darcy had clearly been angry and upset when they left Rosings, but had been unwilling to discuss his concerns. At the time, knowing that Lady Catherine had called Darcy in for a private conference just before their departure, Colonel Fitzwilliam had assumed that his mood was related to that event, and that she must have finally overstepped the boundaries regarding Darcy’s supposed engagement to her daughter, but now, after nearly two months of uncharacteristic silence from Darcy despite several letters sent to him, he could only conclude that Darcy’s anger must have been directed toward him. Try as he might, though, he could not recollect anything more offensive in his behavior than the usual teasing he engaged in with his cousin. Well, he would just have to jolly Darcy out of his sulk and find out what was on his mind.

He knocked sharply on the front door, and was admitted by one of the servants who knew him well enough not to comment on his unexpected arrival. He was informed that while Darcy was out for the day, Miss Georgiana was at home and would receive him in her sitting room. Disregarding the offer to show him in, he strode down the hall and walked in with a smile.

“Cousin Richard!” Georgiana said delightedly. “This is a surprise—I thought you were still in Newcastle!”

He kissed her cheek in greeting. “Sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart—his Lordship decided that Major General Bradford needed to discuss certain matters with me immediately, so there I was, sent off post-haste to London with nary a chance to even tell you I was coming. Can you put up your poor wandering cousin for a few nights while I suffer the slings and arrows of the Major General?”

Georgiana smiled. “Oh, Richard, of course. Why else would we keep your room available?”

“Well, let me excuse myself then to make myself presentable for the company of a lady, which, after roasting for two days in the most uncomfortable coach in England, I assure you that I am not.”

“Of course. I will be here when you are ready. And, Richard,” she added, her voice becoming serious, “I am glad you are here. I need to talk to you about William.”

“Ah,” he replied. “So something is up in that quarter; I suspected as much. I shall be interested to hear about all about it.”

In his room he was grateful to shrug out of his sweaty uniform as one of the menservants vainly tried to unwrinkle the garments he had packed hurriedly before his departure. “Well, they will just have to do for today,” Colonel Fitzwilliam told him. “Perhaps you could spruce up the rest a bit for tomorrow.”

A knock came at the door as he was buttoning his waistcoat. Finding it to be Philips, Darcy’s long-time butler, he waved him in.

“Welcome to London, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” Philips said, looking unwontedly nervous. “I know you have just arrived, but I wondered if I might be so bold as to beg a moment of your time.”

“Of course,” he said amiably. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, sir, I hope you will not think this excessively forward of me, but when I heard you were here, I thought perhaps…. I should take the opportunity to speak with you about a concern that I have, that is to say that the staff in general have, but we have been at a loss as to whom to approach about it.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam, puzzled, responded, “Well, I’ll be happy to hear you out, but surely if this is a staff concern, would Darcy not be the one to address?”

“Yes, sir, of course, but you see, the concern is, well, about Mr. Darcy, sir. He just hasn’t been himself of late.”

The colonel held his chin up as the valet began tying his cravat. He was quite surprised that the loyal and reticent Philips would approach him about Darcy at all, much less with a concern. “Not himself? What do you mean?”

“Well, sir, he seems very, well, withdrawn, I would say, for lack of a better word. He spends most of his time alone in his study, and we, the staff that is, have noticed that he often seems to be, well, in some distress. He goes out most evenings, although he doesn’t seem to look forward to it, but then when his friends come calling, he isn’t at home to them, not even Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy has never been what I would call a man of many words, sir, but now, well, we don’t hear much of anything out of him beyond requests and thank yous, even his valet. And, well, there are other things, but I’m sure you see the problem.”

“What other things, Philips?” he asked, his concern rising.

“Well, sir, he’s been short with Miss Georgiana a few times. And he has taken to staying up half the night, sometimes reading, but sometimes pacing or just staring off into space. And, well, begging your pardon, sir, but as you know Mr. Darcy has never been one for excessive imbibing, as it were, but there have been several instances when he has, well, gone through more than a bottle on his own, but Cook says it is a challenge to tempt him to eat much of anything. I don’t mean to complain, sir, he has been no trouble to us, but, well, we are worried. And I don’t know what he would say if he knew I was talking to you about him like this, sir.”

“You were quite right to bring this to me, Philips, and you may be certain that I will keep this conversation to myself,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said thoughtfully.

“Thank you, sir. If there is anything I can do to help, anything at all, please just say the word.” He bowed and exited.

The colonel turned to the valet. “What do you have to say about all this? Do you agree with Philips?”

The young man snorted. “He’s not telling you the half of it, sir, and that’s all I’ll say about that. I value my work here.”

A few minutes later Georgiana was warming to the same theme. “He just hasn’t been the same since the two of you came back from Kent. I hardly know, he’s abstracted a lot, and sometimes I find that he is paying no attention to what I say. But the worst is when I come upon him when he is not expecting to see me, and he looks so bleak. I’ve tried talking to him, asking him if something is wrong, but he just says that everything is fine, and, Richard, it is so obviously not fine that I have no idea what to say, and all I can think is that it must be something to do with me. Honestly, it’s been rather frightening. I really haven’t known who to turn to.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam shook his head. “Do you have any idea what this may be about?”

She hesitated. “I know of nothing that can have caused such a change. I cannot think of anything that I would expect to bother him this much, anything new, that is, only the old things. He seems to be getting along with all his friends; in fact, he’s been being rather unusually sociable, though he hardly seems to enjoy it. And I assume that there is not any financial trouble, because you would know about that, would you not? The kitchen talk is that there’s a woman involved, but I cannot see what would upset him so much about that either.” She paused, then added in a softer voice, “I have wondered if it has anything to do with last summer.”

“I am quite sure it has nothing to do with that,” he said reassuringly. “Well, not to worry, sweetheart; I will worm it out of him somehow. We shall get to the bottom of this.”

* * *

After dinner the men retired to the study. Darcy poured out two glasses of port, and handed one to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who sipped it appreciatively. “Now I remember why I come here,” he said. “Your wine cellar.”

“Well, I would hate to think that it was for the company,” Darcy replied.

“Unlikely. I have been told by a number of people that you have been rather poor company of late.”

Darcy shot him a suspicious glance. “I’m honored to know that I am so popular.” …your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others… Swallowing a sizeable amount of port, he eyed his cousin warily.

“Something is obviously on your mind, Darcy. What is it?”

“Don’t tell me Georgiana has you started on this, too. She has somehow decided that I’m upset about something, and she has been like a bulldog about it. Pay no attention to her.”

“You have always been a terrible liar. Now, tell Cousin Richard what the problem is.”

“There is no problem, Fitzwilliam!” snapped Darcy.

“I am not an idiot, Darcy,” he said amiably. “People are worried about you. I’m worried about you. For G-d’s sake, even you admit that it has affected Georgiana!”

Darcy, seeing the inquisitorial light in his cousin’s eye, started to feel sympathy for cornered animals. He sighed. “Richard, leave it. There are some things that need to be private.”

“There are some times when you need to turn to your family and friends. And stop guzzling that port as if it were water; it deserves better treatment than that.” Silence was his only response. “Do not let your damned pride get in the way, Darcy. Pride goeth before a fall, and all that.”

Darcy gave a harsh laugh. “Believe me, that is one lesson I have down very well, thank you.”

“You cannot distract me that easily. Now, as your cousin, and your friend, and Georgiana’s guardian, I am asking you to tell me what is wrong.”

“For God’s sake, stop it! If I need to talk, I promise, I will come to you first.”

Colonel Fitzwillliam sighed and stood up. For a moment Darcy thought that he had won the point, but then he saw that he was only going as far as the sidetable. Bringing the decanter of port and an unopened bottle of wine back to the desk, he refilled Darcy’s glass. “If you want to do this the hard way, we will do it the hard way,” he said in a voice the officers under his command would recognize instantly.

“And what exactly does that mean?”

“It means I plan to drink you under the table, cousin, and sooner or later you will be drunk enough to talk. Waste of good port, though.”

“What makes you think you can outdrink me?”

“I’m a soldier. It’s one of the few useful skills we learn. Drink up, now.”

Darcy, exhausted, rested his head in his hands. “Look, Richard, if I tell you what it is, will you leave me alone?”

In a somewhat gentler voice, Colonel Fitzwilliam replied, “Probably not.”

They were silent for some minutes. Finally Darcy said, “It is the oldest story known to man. I fell in love with a woman, and she refused me. Are you satisfied?”

“She refused you? Darcy, I can’t think of one woman in the world who would refuse you. Well, maybe the Duchess of….—she has enough money and lands of her own, and no use for handsome young men, or so I hear. Of course, she is old enough to be your mother, so I suppose it isn’t she.”

“Very amusing, Fitzwilliam. Yes, there is a woman out there who would and did refuse me, for the very simple reason that she could not like or respect me.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam sat back and pondered this information. Recalling his cousin’s unusual behavior at Rosings, an idea began to form in his mind. “Darcy, is it possible that we are speaking of the lovely Miss Bennet?”

Darcy drained his glass. “Touché, my friend. I applaud your deductive reasoning,” he said with some bitterness.

“Well, I applaud your taste. If she only had money, I might have wanted to marry her myself. I confess to surprise that she refused you, though; I would have thought her more practical than that.”

You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. “You cannot be aware of how grave my sins are in her eyes, then.”

“I know she found you high-handed. Are there other sins besides that?”

I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. “There are so many to choose from, it is hard to know where to begin. You could start with the fact that she received her information about my character from none other than our dear friend George Wickham. Then there is the small matter that I broke her sister’s heart by discouraging Bingley from marrying her, and that I was unforgivably condescending and rude to her in my proposal … I think that covers the main points,” Darcy said bitterly. “Let us not forget that I am arrogant and conceited as well.”

“It was her sister that Bingley was in love with?”

“I thought she was indifferent to him, and apparently I was wrong.” Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?

“What did she say when you explained it to her?”

Darcy sighed. “I was too angry to explain at the time. I wrote her a letter afterwards, telling her the truth about Wickham, and my reasons for separating Bingley from her sister. If she believed it, if she did not tear it up without reading it, then perhaps she no longer thinks quite so ill of me, though that does me little good now.”

“What – do you mean to tell me that you are giving up on her so easily?” asked Colonel Fitzwilliam in surprise.

“What other choice do I have? I have told her what I can say in my own defense, and as for the rest, I can try to change my behavior, but she will never see the results; I hardly think it likely that our paths will cross again.”

“You could go to her—let her see you as you really are. Perhaps your letter did change her opinion, but you will never know unless you make the effort; it is not as if she can write to you, nor can she call on you or attempt to move into your social circles. You cannot expect her to just appear on your doorstep one day.”

“You do not understand. I am quite resigned to never seeing her again,” Darcy said wearily, his words causing a wrenching pain inside him. “She has made it quite clear that she dislikes me, and frankly, I think she is right to do so. I do not deserve her love.”

“Good God, if your father had thought the way you do, you would never have been born! How many times did he propose to your mother before she accepted him?”

“That is hardly the same. When she refused him, she told him it was because she was already promised to another, not that he was the last man on earth that she could ever be prevailed upon to marry!”

“I still say your father would have told you to keep trying, if you love her that much.”

Darcy ran his fingers through his hair. “I cannot,” he said grimly. “She holds too much against me.”

“You have defended yourself against whatever Wickham charged you with, and presumably Bingley and her sister have their chance to work things out now. Do you think she will not be able to see what you have done?” he challenged, increasingly frustrated with Darcy’s self-pity.

“Bingley knows nothing of this.”

“You haven’t told him that you were mistaken? Why ever not?”

“Fitzwilliam, he would be justifiably furious with me.”

“So you leave him suffering?” he said with some incredulity. “My apologies; you were right all along, and you should give up now. You certainly do not deserve her.” He set his glass down carefully, and stood to leave. “And be careful with the port; you haven’t the head for it. Good night, cousin.”

Darcy reflected bleakly that he had not even told him his most dishonorable reason for not talking to Bingley—that if Bingley married Jane Bennet, Darcy would perforce have at least occasional contact with her family, and would someday be subjected to the agony of seeing Elizabeth married to another man. He cradled his head in his hands, wondering if it were indeed possible to feel any worse than he did now.

* * *

Georgiana anxiously awaited the arrival of Colonel Fitzwilliam in the breakfast room the next morning. Knowing he had been up late talking with her brother, she was hopeful he would have some kind of information for her. When he finally arrived, she barely let him sit down before beginning her questioning. “Did he tell you anything?”

“Good morning to you, too, Georgiana,” he responded. “Please, I will need some sustenance before tackling difficult discussions. And I would advise against trying to talk to your brother this morning; he should have the dickens of a headache when he finally wakes up.”

“Actually, he has been awake for some time and has already gone out.”

He looked at her in surprise. “Where would he go at this hour of the morning?”

Georgiana shrugged. “To see Bingley, apparently. I told him I thought it was a little early for social calls, and he said he thought it was actually rather late, whatever that may mean at seven in the morning.”

“To see Bingley, eh? Good for him; maybe there’s some hope for the boy after all,” he said thoughtfully.

Georgiana sighed dramatically. “Are you going to be mysterious as well?”

He laughed. “Afraid so, sweetheart. I did get him to talk, but I believe that what I heard is confidential. You are just going to have to trust your old Cousin Richard to take care of it this time, at least insofar as he allows me to help.”

“I hate it when you treat me as if I were still only eleven,” she said with a scowl. “You can be even worse than William as far as that goes.”

“Worse than William in what way?” asked Darcy from the doorway.

Startled, she said, “Back already? Was he not at home?”

“Oh, he was there, all right. What I had to tell him did not take long,” Darcy said somewhat grimly with a sidelong glance at his cousin.

“I imagine that even Bingley has little to say this early in the morning,” the colonel observed neutrally.

“If you say so,” responded Darcy with heavy sarcasm. “Don’t you have some business in town today, Fitzwilliam? Or even better, some that will take you very far away?”

“William!” Georgiana cried.

The colonel patted her hand. “No need to worry yourself, sweetheart. This is how your brother and I stay friends, now that we are too old for fistfights.”

“Speak for yourself, cousin,” retorted Darcy. “Given how I feel this morning, you should feel fortunate that it isn’t pistols at dawn.”

“I told you he would be grumpy, did I not?” the colonel asked Georgiana rhetorically. “Never mind, I know when to retreat. It is one of the other things they teach us in the army.”

“Will you be back for dinner?” she asked.

“I expect I will have to dine with the Major General, though the very idea is enough to make me lose my appetite. I should be back in the evening, though.”

“If you live that long,” grumbled Darcy.

Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled beatifically. “Glad to know you are feeling better, Darcy.”

As he left, Georgiana turned to Darcy. “What was that about?”

He gave her an oblique look. The last thing he needed was a disagreement with his sister, given that she seemed to be the only person he cared about who still thought he had any redeeming features, now that Bingley had joined Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth in the ranks of those who were disgusted with him. “Ask me again when you are older—say, after your first grandchild is born.”

“William, I worry about you,” she said softly.

Her gentleness was more than he could handle. “I appreciate your concern, but you needn’t worry. If you will excuse me, I have some business I need to tend to.”

She watched his retreating back, wondering if he would ever think her old enough to trust.

* * *

Contrary to his expectations, Colonel Fitzwilliam was able to return to the Darcy home by early afternoon, although he could hardly claim that it was in the best interest of his regiment for him to do so. However, his words to Georgiana notwithstanding, he was in fact rather worried about Darcy’s state of mind, and felt it behooved him to be available in case things deteriorated due to the apparent quarrel with Bingley. Thus he found himself penning a long overdue letter to his parents while surreptitiously eyeing his cousin, who was so deeply engrossed in a book as to have completely ceased turning its pages, when the arrival of Mr. Bingley was announced.

Without looking up, Darcy said, “Tell him if he wants pistols at dawn, he shall have to wait his turn behind you, Fitzwilliam.”

“Why pistols? You have choice of weapons if he is challenging, and you could take either of us apart with a rapier,” he responded.

“Who says I want to win?” said Darcy grimly.

“Please stop it, both of you,” said Georgiana in a trembling voice. “It isn’t funny.”

Both men looked over at her in concern to see tears in her eyes. The colonel was immediately kneeling by her side. “Georgiana, sweetheart, this is just playing! Dueling is illegal, remember?”

“I hate it when you fight,” she said faintly.

Darcy put his book down. “I apologize, Georgiana; my mood is beastly, and I fear that I am taking it out on Richard, but no, we are not fighting. There really is no need for you to worry. Look, we can be friends,” he said, holding out a hand to his cousin.

“There is no need to patronize me, William!” she responded with a degree of defiance that startled both gentlemen.

“Mr. Bingley,” Philips said from the doorway as Bingley entered with his usual eagerness, oblivious to the tension in the room

“Colonel Fitzwilliam!” he said with pleasure, advancing to greet him. “I had not known you were in town! And Miss Darcy, how nice to see you again!” He turned to Darcy, whose demeanor suggested that he was expecting at the very least some form of violence from Bingley, and rocked up on his toes. “Well?” he asked enthusiastically.

“Well what?” Darcy’s voice was carefully neutral.

Bingley smiled broadly as if this were a foolish question. “Are you coming to Netherfield with me, or not?”

There was a minute of silence as Darcy carefully regarded Bingley, oblivious to his cousin’s sudden attention. “Is it your wish that I come with you?” he asked stiffly.

“Of course!” Bingley said earnestly. “You really must come, you know.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam whispered something to Georgiana that caused her to look at him in some surprise, but Darcy and Bingley were oblivious to the exchange.

“I suppose I could come for a short while,” Darcy said slowly, as if the words had to be pulled out of him.

“Excellent, excellent!” Bingley was clearly delighted.

“May I come as well?” Georgiana’s voice came timidly.

Darcy looked at her in surprise. It was rare enough for her to say anything in company, and making such a request in public was completely novel. “I am not sure that would be such a good idea,” he began, thinking of one particular member of the militia billeted at Meryton.

“Nonsense,” said the colonel energetically. “It will do her a world of good to get out of London during the summer. I could hardly believe you planned to stay here through the hot weather, anyway. That is, if Mr. Bingley has no objections?”

“Of course not!” Bingley said hurriedly. “It would be delightful if you would join us, and certainly my sisters will be very pleased to have you there, since they plan to join me there later.”

“Good, umm… I mean thank you,” she said in a near-whisper, clearly having exhausted her store of courage. Darcy opened his mouth to speak, but then limited himself to a significant stare at Colonel Fitzwilliam.

“Wonderful!” Bingley said. “Shall we consider our plans?”

* * *

A fortnight after the removal of the regiment from Meryton, the normal good humour and cheerfulness that had disappeared from Longbourn with the simultaneous departure of the officers and of Lydia began to reappear. The discontentedness of Kitty and Mrs. Bennet had waned, and the families who had been in town for the winter came back again and summer finery and summer engagements arose. Elizabeth was anticipating with pleasure her tour to the Lakes with the Gardiners, and could she have included Jane in the scheme, every part of it would have been perfect.

Mrs. Bennet was distracted as her querulous spirits were opened again to the agitation of hope, by an article of news, which then began to be in circulation. The housekeeper at Netherfield had received orders to prepare for the arrival of her master, who was coming down in a day or two. Mrs. Bennet was quite in the fidgets. She looked at Jane, and smiled, and shook her head by turns.

Elizabeth did not know what to make of the news, but found her mind traveling to the events in Kent and wondering what role Mr. Darcy might have played in the return of his friend to Hertfordshire. Had her information regarding the state of Jane’s affections caused him to reconsider his interference, and perhaps even to take action to reverse it? She had studied every sentence of his letter, and her feelings towards its writer were at times widely different. When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself; and his disappointed feelings became the object of compassion. His attachment excited gratitude, his general character respect; but she could not approve him; nor could she for a moment repent her refusal, or feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again. Yet should he, in fact, be the instrument which reunited Bingley and Jane, such an effort could not but be rewarded by a certain warming of her regard; but when she recalled that such an effort would not have been required had he not interfered in the first place, her thoughts toward him bent further toward resentment.

She did not consider it likely that she would encounter him again, except perhaps in passing should Jane and Bingley someday be so fortunate as to mend their relationship and marry. She could not but imagine that he would avoid her in any way possible after her behavior in Hunsford, and so did not consider the possibility that he might again accompany his friend to Netherfield. It was with the greatest of surprise and agitation, then, that she heard Kitty’s intelligence that Bingley was coming to Longbourn to pay his respects accompanied by none other than Mr. Darcy.

On hearing this news, Jane looked at Elizabeth with surprise and concern, feeling the awkwardness which must attend her sister, in seeing him for the first time after receiving his explanatory letter. Both sisters were uncomfortable enough. Each felt for the other, and of course for themselves. Elizabeth sat intently at her work, striving to be composed, and casting about for an idea as to how to handle the forthcoming meeting. She did not dare lift up her eyes, till anxious curiosity carried them to the face of her sister, as the servant was approaching the door. Jane looked a little paler than usual, but more sedate than Elizabeth had expected. On the gentlemen’s appearing, her colour increased; yet she received them with tolerable ease, and with a propriety of behaviour equally free from any symptom of resentment, or any unnecessary complaisance.

Elizabeth said as little to either as civility would allow, and sat down again to her work, with an eagerness which it did not often command. She had ventured only one glance at Darcy, and was more than surprised to see him entering into conversation with her mother, inquiring very civilly as to her health and recent events at Longbourn. Her mother, looking both pleased and startled by this unexpected attention, was clearly most flattered by it and received him with a degree of warmth which embarrassed her daughter. Although Elizabeth barely dared to look up again, she followed with great anxiety his progress through the room to the point of neglecting to notice Bingley’s approach of Jane, and she was further surprised to see him engaging her sister Mary on the subject of music, noting that his sister had recently begun learning a piece by Mozart that he remembered Mary performing when he had been in Hertfordshire last, and drawing a pleasing comparison between the devotion to practice of the two young women. Mary, sufficiently taken aback by this approach so as to be unable to so much as afford a moral platitude appropriate to the situation, was driven to the extremity of actually responding to the subject at hand, and managed to make at least one intelligent comment regarding the music of Mozart.

Elizabeth’s astonishment was extreme; and continually was she repeating, ‘Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this.’ Her heart was racing with apprehension that he would approach her, and she knew not how to look or to behave when he, as she had feared, seated himself by her and addressed her directly.

“Miss Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again,” he said, in a voice that was perhaps not quite so calm as it might have been, yet with a civility that could not be denied.

She hardly knew how to respond, but managed to say, “You are most welcome back to Hertfordshire, sir. I hope you find it pleasing at this time of year.” Bringing all of her courage to the fore, she forced herself to look up at him, and felt a slight shock from his nearness as her eyes met his. Underneath the amiable look on his face, she could see that he was as nervous as she at this meeting, and she resolved that she would at least show that she could match civility for civility.

“Yes, it is a most refreshing change from the airs of London. I must confess that I tend to prefer the countryside to the city, but never more than during the warmth of the summer,” he replied, inwardly cursing his inability to make intelligent conversation under these circumstances. He had done quite well, he thought, with her family, but those were comments he had carefully prepared in advance and utilized as if following a script.

“I cannot say that I have spent any significant time in town during the summer, but certainly it is a time that I enjoy taking walks and admiring the scenery,” she said, then wished she could retract her words as she realized that her reference to walks might be considered a reminder of their time at Rosings. She cast about desperately for a more neutral topic of conversation, and was amused when she realized that they were already discussing that safest of topics, the weather.

Relieved to see her smile, he continued, “Yes, I recall that you are a great walker, Miss Bennet. I would imagine that there would be many pleasant summertime rambles to be found, although certainly each season presents its own unique charms.”

The ludicrous aspects of their strained conversation began to outweigh her anxiety, and she said slyly, “Yes, I would have to say, on reflection, sir, that summer is indeed one of my four favorite seasons.”

He let out a startled laugh which he quickly covered with steepled fingers. “It is always refreshing to talk to a young lady of such decided preferences.”

This time when she met his eyes it was with a distinct feeling of relief, that they had negotiated a difficult passage and established that they could indeed hold a conversation without hurling acrimonious insults and accusations at one another. She was glad of it, for certainly Bingley and Jane would have no chance at all if she and Darcy were in continual conflict. They sat briefly in a silence that was at first harmonious but became increasingly uncomfortable as the minutes passed, until Elizabeth took it on herself to break it by asking whether Mr. Bingley’s sisters had accompanied them to Netherfield.

“Not at present, although I believe that they have plans to join us in some days,” he responded. “There is one member of our present party though whom you have not met, and who particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during our stay at Netherfield?”

The surprise of such an application was great, but, while it was gratifying to know that his resentment had not made him think really ill of her, it added a degree of intimacy to their meeting that Elizabeth did not yet feel ready to accommodate. It seemed to move the conversation from establishing an ability to remain sufficiently civil as to allow necessary social intercourse to an attempt at furthering their connection, and she was far from certain about how she felt about such a plan, or what he might mean by it. However, she could see no grounds for objecting to the introduction, and thinking that more contact between Longbourn and Netherfield could not but improve Jane’s chances with Bingley, she responded, “I would be glad to make her acquaintance, if she wishes. I hope Miss Darcy is enjoying her visit to Hertfordshire.”

“I believe that she is, although she has not had much time to form an opinion. I confess that she has not gone far beyond Netherfield, but now that I am informed that the militia is decamped from Meryton, I will feel more free to take her out.” Darcy had noted her brief hesitation before agreeing to the introduction and, although disappointed by it, reminded himself forcefully that this new beginning would have to be taken very slowly and with great care if it were to have any chance of success, and God knew he wanted it to be successful. He had managed to keep some degree of reservation regarding this attempt right up until the moment when he walked into the room and saw her, with her fine eyes downcast and her cheeks covered with rosy blushes, and almost immediately he was more lost than ever, and prepared to do whatever it took to earn her affection.

“Yes, the departure of the militia was a relief to me as well,” she noted, wondering if he would hear the underlying message that she had believed his words about Wickham, “although I cannot say that everyone in my family is in agreement with that sentiment.”

Elizabeth took a moment to observe her sister deep in conversation with Bingley, whose face displayed such delight and pleasure that it was clear that his heart was as much hers as ever. She wondered how the gentleman beside her was feeling about the developments in that regard, and whether he would support Bingley’s desires this time, or again seek to undermine the match.

“How long do you plan to stay at Netherfield?” she asked, then realized that such a question could easily be misinterpreted.

“As long as necessary.” Darcy reflexively responded with his true thoughts before realizing the extent to which his answer exposed him and might antagonize her. Again cursing his loss of coherent thought when confronted with Elizabeth Bennet, he watched in agony for her reaction, and stumbled to undo the damage. “That is to say, Bingley is hoping to stay, umm, probably through the summer, but there are a number of factors he has to take into consideration, and my plans are not completely fixed.”

The effect of his words on Elizabeth was confusing; she felt a combination of an odd excitement and a certain distrust, wondering if he could possibly mean what she thought, of whether she might be misinterpreting his words. It was impossible to forget his words at their last conversation: You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. She was far from insensible of the compliment of such a man’s affection, and the consideration that his regard for her could be sufficiently great as to overcome the natural resentment he must feel for her behavior at Hunsford as to allow a renewal of his addresses could not but inspire a certain degree of gratitude on her part, no matter how unequal she might feel in her response to him. She wondered if she was reading too much into a few simple words, and hardly knowing how to reply, eventually concluded that it was wisest to avoid any acknowledgement of his possible meanings. Fortunately, an appropriate distraction came to mind.

“I have had the good fortune to be invited to accompany my aunt and uncle from London on a tour of the Lakes this summer.”

“That sounds to be a very pleasant prospect. The Lakes are very beautiful; I imagine that you will enjoy them greatly.”

“You have visited them yourself, then, Mr. Darcy?”

“Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to have made that journey twice; once when I was young, and again some ten years ago in the company of my late father. It is, of course, a much shorter journey from Derbyshire than from here, so it was less of an undertaking. The scenery is quite as sublime as everyone says. I recall from my first trip that my mother was especially taken by the views; she was a passionate lover of nature in all of its wilder manifestations. I was still a bit young to appreciate it then, myself.”

“And when you were older — what did you think of it then?”

“By the time of my second journey, I was far more able to appreciate the beauties for myself, but perhaps less predisposed to enjoy them, as the trip was a difficult one for my father in that it brought back memories of my mother’s delight in the area.”

“He must have been quite devoted to her,” she said, touched by the personal nature of his recollections.

It was a moment before Darcy spoke. “Yes, their affection for one another was exemplary.”

How had she allowed their discussion to touch on such private matters? Elizabeth’s anxiety returned in full force. She fiercely renewed her attention to her needlework, with the unsurprising result that her needle promptly found its way into her finger. With a muffled exclamation of pain and embarrassment, she raised the injured finger to her lips, completely unaware of the arousing effect that this simple everyday gesture would have on Darcy.

“When is your journey due to begin?” he asked, desperately trying to distract his attention from her lips.

“We leave at the end of June,” she replied, relieved to return to safer ground.

Almost three weeks, then, he thought. Enough time to make a start, if all goes well.

The gentlemen soon rose to go away, and Mrs. Bennet, mindful of her intended civility, invited them to dine at Longbourn in a few days time.

“You are quite a visit in my debt, Mr. Bingley,” she added, “for when you went to town last winter, you promised to take a family dinner with us, as soon as you returned. I have not forgot, you see; and I assure you, I was very much disappointed that you did not come back and keep your engagement.”

Bingley looked a little silly at this reflection, and said something of his concern, at having been prevented by business. They then went away, leaving Mrs. Bennet free to dissect every word of Bingley’s during the course of the afternoon. She was very pleased with how things had gone off, and made many happy predictions for his future with Jane. Elizabeth, too caught up in her own thoughts to come to Jane’s rescue, hardly attended until she heard Darcy’s name.

“What I want to know,” said Kitty, tossing her head with a laugh, “is who that pleasant, polite man who looked just like Mr. Darcy was. What could have come over him?”

“Perhaps he has studied the errors of his past behavior, and sought to improve himself,” responded Mary, who had clearly been quite won over by his recollection of her musical skills. “We should all admire such attempts when they are guided by reason, and could look to him as an example that we all could bear to follow.”