Below is a portion of the first chapter in the novel, which is preceded by a shorter prologue. Enjoy!
October 27, 1816
Darcy House in London
Fitzwilliam Darcy dipped the tip of his sharpened quill into the silver ink jar, tapped it onto the edge to remove the excess fluid, and etched a precise X inside the square for the twenty-sixth of October.
Smoothing one hand over the calendar page while returning the quill to its stand, he gazed at the rows of squares, each with a bold X indicating the date had passed. It was tempting to mark today as complete, but doing so would be premature, considering his breakfast tray sat on the table, and the pot of coffee remained half full.
Best not to violate the rules, no matter the satisfaction in seeing precisely one month remaining until the day scheduled for his marriage to Elizabeth Bennet.
In one respect Darcy did not wish to rush the time. Each day within this season of courtship brought new delights and increased the hope of their future happiness together. The remaining month promised to be especially splendid. Managing to keep a tight grip on his passions, he determined, was the only obstacle to a blissful engagement period!
Coffee cup in hand, Darcy relaxed into the chair and lifted his eyes to the window where sunlight glistened on the drops of dew coating the panes. The small patio outside his bedchamber had transformed from the lush, green-shrouded privacy of summer with bright colors of wisteria, lilac, and potted flowers, to an open terrace of faded blooms and semi-bare branches with clinging leaves of oranges and yellows.
While perhaps not as gloriously beautiful, Darcy tended to prefer the rustic, earthy colors of autumn. For some, this season too vividly illustrated decay and death. To Darcy, autumn marked a gradual easing of life’s busyness and ushered in a period of restful, solitude. For as long as memory served, he had embraced the tranquility of winter at Pemberley. This upcoming winter, with Elizabeth in his life, anticipation for the season was multiplied tenfold.
Nay, after yesterday’s miraculous revelations, make that a hundredfold.
Before arriving in London two days ago, the rapport forged with Elizabeth in the month since their engagement had exceeded Darcy’s wildest imaginings. He had lost count of the times when their easy conversation, similar humor, and reciprocated insights had amazed him. Gradually his guilt over past missteps had faded, as Darcy accepted that by some miracle Elizabeth loved him—almost as deeply as he loved her.
On this fine autumn morning, Darcy freely admitted to his error on two points.
One, Elizabeth already loved him as deeply as he loved her, this being the first miracle revelation from yesterday’s fiery encounter in his mother’s bedchamber.
The second miracle revelation was how thoroughly Elizabeth understood his heart and mind. Clearer than he did, as it turned out.
Oh, my Elizabeth! How remarkable you are. With that thought, Darcy set the empty coffee cup down, slid his journal atop the calendar, and opened at the marked page for last night’s entry.
Once again, she defied my direct order, proving, as she undoubtedly did when confronting Lady Catherine, that she is fearless. Brave and bold, perhaps more so than I. She refused to leave the bedchamber as I commanded, charging toward me until nearly nose to nose for a scathing rebuke I shall never forget.
“Tell me truthfully Fitzwilliam Darcy. Am I to conclude that our mutual love and desire are emotions to be disdained and ashamed of? Is this contempt and repugnance to continue after we wed? Or is it that you honestly reckon you are such an uncontainable beast that you would hurt the woman you love? Or do you have so little faith in my self-control that you assume I would willingly allow you to ravage me like a bought woman?”
Hurt Elizabeth? God no! The very thought brings me to my knees. Had my actions unwittingly given her the impression that I distrusted her virtue and strength of character? Had I shunned her affections to the point of damaging our future marital relations? Suddenly my fear of losing her respect and love was far greater than my ridiculous physical struggles. Then, with her next words, I abruptly comprehended that fear was the true root indeed, just not the fear I had surmised.
“William, listen to me carefully. I do not believe any of the questions I asked are true of you. What I do believe is that you are afraid to express your emotions freely. You are wrapped in an inflexible cocoon of discipline and righteousness, terrified that if you loosen one single cord, you will unravel completely. You love me and desire me, yet resist showing me how much because you fear I will be disgusted or disappointed if I discover you are not this towering paragon of virtue and excellence you deem yourself.”
Ah, such truth. Indeed, I, Fitzwilliam Darcy, a man forever prideful of his intelligence and clarity, have been stupid and blind. Elizabeth pierced through every facade. She saw the truth of my fears and laid them bare. Elizabeth, who faces me boldly as few can, knows of my weaknesses yet loves me for them and still trusts me with her entire being. How can I not trust her with the same? There is an amusing irony to the charade when viewed in light of our past. Fearing to release my “inflexible cocoon of discipline and righteousness” and fearing the free expression of my emotions at this point in our relationship is nonsensical when it is exactly those negative traits that caused Elizabeth to refuse my first proposal of marriage.
“Do you not yet comprehend how deeply I love you?” This singular question, uttered with raw emotion, was alone adequate proof of how wrong I was to judge her feelings as being of a lesser intensity than mine. If I needed additional validation, her subsequent words—her endearment, her touch—were amply sufficient to lift the yoke from my shoulders. My dearest Elizabeth shall forever be my sufficiency.
This was the extent of his entry. Volumes more could have been added, but chronicling every impression was unnecessary. Darcy would eternally remember the whole of last evening’s conversation as vividly as he would their argument after his horrendous first proposal. Thankfully, the aftermath of this most recent confrontation was encouraging, rather than the heartbreaking outcome from last April.
Minutes later Darcy entered his dressing room whistling a jaunty tune. His valet, Samuel Oliver, greeted him politely and commenced the routine morning toilette as if Mr. Darcy whistling was normal.
Nearly laughing aloud, Darcy suddenly realized that whistling had become a normal activity—whistling, along with humming and involuntary smiles. Extraordinary!
Samuel’s natural reticence and impassive expressions gave no hint as to his opinion regarding Darcy’s unusual mannerisms of late. Based on Samuel’s reaction to his master’s engagement news, Darcy doubted his severely proper valet dwelt upon the matter beyond the professional regard for which waistcoat, cravat knot, or cologne selection was best for the planned activity of the day.
A month prior, on the afternoon of his engagement to Elizabeth, Darcy had informed his valet, as calmly as possible, “We shall be staying in Netherfield for an indefinite period.”
Samuel had nodded once and replied with a simple, “Very well, sir.”
When no further questions were asked, Darcy pressed on, “As it happens, I have asked for the honor of Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s hand in marriage, and she has accepted my proposal.”
Expression unchanged, the valet had given a second nod identical to the first and continued brushing Darcy’s coat without the slightest falter in rhythm. “Congratulations, Mr. Darcy,” he had offered in his typical bland tone. “Will you need particular wardrobe requirements for the weeks ahead? I can send a footman to Pemberley or London for additional supplies and garments.”
In the weeks since, wardrobe and grooming concerns were still the main topics of their conversations. Clothing selection and a detailed awareness of Mr. Darcy’s daily schedule was the closest Samuel came to touching upon the subject of his master’s upcoming marriage. For twelve years Samuel Oliver had been in Darcy’s employ, inarguably familiar with his physical person above anyone in the world. Regardless, as two men with similarly introverted personalities and strict adherence to protocols, conversations beyond the business at hand were rare and always had been. Darcy preferred it this way and was unfazed by Samuel’s indifference to his engagement.
Exiting his suite, Darcy went in search of his sister. Too often over the past several years he and Georgiana had not resided in the same house at the same time. Usually, this was the result of her remaining at Pemberley while he was away in London or elsewhere. Rarely were they at Darcy House together, and he suddenly saw the error in eating from a tray at his desk rather than meeting her in the breakfast room to share in the morning repast.
Old habits die hard, he thought. Then, smiling, he realized that with his marriage there would undoubtedly be a long list of “old habits” needing to die, like it or not.
Georgiana was in the parlor, as he expected, but not playing the pianoforte, as was typical. Instead, Darcy heard the murmur of voices rather than music and, before reaching the half-open door, distinguished his sister’s dulcet tones from Mrs. Smyth’s gruff accent. It only took a minute to ascertain they were discussing the luncheon scheduled for the following day.
Much to Darcy’s amazement, at some point during the evening dinner with the Bennets two nights ago, his shy sister had invited Jane and Elizabeth Bennet to Darcy House for an afternoon of female gossip and food. Based on her terrified expression when she told him of it, Darcy deduced her invitation wasn’t the result of extended forethought. With his own emotions in turmoil after his passionate exchange with Elizabeth on the terrace, he hadn’t been in the proper state of mind to ease Georgiana’s concerns. Fortunately, yesterday had changed everything, enabling him to soothe Georgiana’s fears over hosting a party solo for the first time in her life.
Still, aware of Georgiana’s timidity, and equally aware of Mrs. Smyth’s bossiness, he listened from behind the door for a few more minutes, feeling not at all guilty to be eavesdropping. Once assured Georgiana was holding her own well enough, Darcy decided to leave them be. Later he would talk to the housekeeper privately, adding a handful of his own requests for the party, but primarily to clarify that Miss Darcy had his unwavering support and was ultimately in charge. From time to time Mrs. Smyth needed to be reminded that he was the master of Darcy House, not her.
Another reason to postpone what could be a lengthy conversation with Georgiana or Mrs. Smyth was his eagerness to embark upon his quest for the day. He was determined to unearth the perfect wedding gift for Elizabeth.
Attacking the job with his thus-far-reliable logic and superb organizational skills, Darcy climbed into his waiting carriage at nine o’clock sharp. With most of the elite still abed or barely sitting down to breakfast, the street traffic was thin as the hordes had yet to descend upon the shops, which were just opening their doors. Additionally, Darcy wanted to make sure he completed his mission before Mrs. Gardiner and the Bennet brides-to-be commenced their planned shopping day. Running into his betrothed with her gift in his hands would not be ideal.
All in all, his ideas were solid—the execution of them was not.
The first indication of poor preparedness was deciding upon Conduit, Bond, and Savile Streets for his shopping destination—force of habit, as this is where Darcy’s tailors were located and where he acquired the bulk of his personal items. After more than a decade, how had he never noticed there literally was not a single store selling products for the female gender?
On the heels of that failure, Darcy directed the driver to Oxford Street. Multiple stops later and long before reaching the last business—presuming there was an end to the row of merchants—Darcy was grasping his second error. By the time the carriage traversed a third of Piccadilly and Pall Mall, his predicament was glaringly obvious. In contrast to the precinct dedicated to men’s requirements, these shopping zones were primarily dedicated to women. While this might sound like a boon, where does one begin when the possibilities are endless and, quite frankly, every retailer looks identical?
For most gentlemen, buying a gift for a lady was a straightforward task. Jewelry is always a safe bet, so Darcy had been told, as was perfume or anything made of fur. Unfortunately, this was the extent of what Darcy had learned from those scarce occasions when he had paid attention to what his friends said about their ladies. Only in recent weeks had the folly of his indifference occurred to him.
Nevertheless, surely it could not be that difficult to find a necklace or broach worthy of his future wife. It sounded simple enough until faced with a half dozen jewelers on one block alone, each with hundreds of gorgeous pieces to choose from. And who knew there were scads of perfumers and furriers? If that had been the end of his options, maybe he would have muddled through and settled on something. To his dismay, there were milliners, haberdashers, hosiers, hatters, cobblers, and innumerable other specialty stores.
Three hours later, with not a single object purchased, Darcy was beginning to fear he had discovered the one challenge destined to be his defeat. The breadth of his ignorance was boundless. He painfully admitted this to himself, but the embarrassment of confessing his inexperience publicly and ask for help was a blow his ego couldn’t take.
Then, amid his self-pity, Darcy remembered a conversation several months past. One night, while dining at the Matlock residence, he overheard a conversation between his aunt and another guest. This was during the period of Darcy’s despair over losing Elizabeth Bennet, so while he recalled the guest was a woman, he drew a blank on her name or face. At any rate, the pertinent point for his current dilemma was that the topic involved shopping.
“Harding and Howell is by far the best London shopping mall,” Lady Matlock had gushed. “It has everything one needs all in one central location, and as a mall, it is much nicer than the Pantheon Bazaar. Unless you are shopping for an exotic product or specialty children’s item, of course. Then the Pantheon is preferred. Otherwise, I save my efforts and patronize Harding and Howell.”
It was worth a shot.
A short time later, Darcy paused on a walkway across the busy street from the massive building with windows spanning the entire front facade. An enormous sign nearly the width of the building declared in bold lettering: Harding, Howell & Co. Below the sign and between the expanse of clear glass panes stood a gaping portal where a veritable sea of people poured in and out.
Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, he thought, although not by much.
The bustling throngs were reminiscent of the Royal Exchange. However, at the Exchange men were the predominant sex and the seriousness of financial business yielded an air of hushed solemnity, no matter how large the crowd. At Harding and Howell, the swarm of shoppers were principally female, although there were enough males mingled in to prevent him attracting undue attention. The chief difference was the audible gay chatter and laughter, and kaleidoscopic colors from the variety of garments worn to the brightly decorated boxes and bags carried by trailing servants.
So much for missing the hordes of shoppers. Flipping open his pocket watch, Darcy noted the hour hand closer to the one than the twelve. Time was ticking away. Get on with it already. How bad can it possibly be?
Inhaling deeply, he squared his shoulders, stepped off the curb, and marched across the street toward the doors.
Once over the threshold and into the entrance foyer, he halted in stunned awe as waves of sensation deluged his senses. First was the steady rumble of hundreds of voices from every direction, at times ringing and then dropping into a constant hum. Wafts of smells pricked his nostril, the majority pleasant, such as the aromas of perfumes and clean fabrics, though interspersed with the intermittent stench of perspiration, dust, and other scents best left unnamed.
The greatest assault to his faculties, however, was the profuse array of merchandise lining every inch of available space. Wall to ceiling, case upon case, stretching on with no end in sight. With a one-hundred-fifty square feet interior, the mall was gigantic by any standards. The mathematical computation of how many items it was possible to fit into a building that size was beyond his capacity.
How will I ever find the perfect wedding gift for Elizabeth?
Scanning the quantity of furs and fans proudly displayed in the partitioned section closest to the main entrance—a mere drop in the bucket—Darcy felt the edges of panic creeping in.
It will take me weeks to search the entire store. Why have I paid scant attention to the unique requirements for a woman?
As if by chance, his gaze was captured by an exquisite ermine muff and stole paired together on a wooden mannequin. A sudden epiphany restored clarity to his jumbled mind.
Why limit himself to purchasing only one gift for his beloved Elizabeth?
Until now, he had resisted showering her with presents, aware that outward displays of his wealth made her uncomfortable. He had vowed to wait until after they married and she had adjusted to a higher standard of living before letting loose his innate desire to express his love and appreciation through gift giving. After all, he had it on good authority—his sister—that all women adored jewels, dresses, and other pretty accessories. Anything he purchased now could be sent off to Pemberley to await his new wife, thus not breaking his self-imposed vow.
In a flash, his mindset shifted. He no longer wondered why inclusive shopping malls existed. In one afternoon, he could acquire an abundance of women’s accouterments certain to please Elizabeth, and surely one would speak to him as the ideal wedding present. Also in his favor were the dozens of knowledgeable salesmen and milling women, any of whom could remedy his pathetic lack of education, provided he bravely risked embarrassment or being branded a fool for asking imbecilic questions. For Elizabeth, he would gamble his reputation.
Based on a fair amount of experience buying furs for himself, he started with the ermine ensemble. No sooner had his hands touched the muff before the clerk swooped in, as expected. Bartering with salesmen was familiar territory, his success in obtaining the pair at a fair price establishing the firm footing necessary to bolster his confidence. Breathing easier, he was about to move on when a musical voice stayed his steps.
“Excellent choice on the muff and stole. I can guarantee she will adore both of them.”
Darcy swung his gaze toward the beautiful, elegantly dressed woman in her early forties standing by a rack draped with assorted fur tippets. “I beg your pardon?”
“Mr. Halleck”—she bobbed her head toward the merchant who had taken the muff to be boxed—“is aggressive and annoying, but he is the finest furrier in Harding and Howell. His prices reflect this, of course, and in his case are acceptable. Now, if you are in the market for gloves for your wife—”
“Ah, I see. Congratulations are in order then. Your impeccable taste in fur bodes well for marital felicity, trust me. For gloves, you want those sewn by Mrs. Viceroy. Some will direct you to Mr. Dicey, and his work is stellar to be sure. The prices, however, are outrageous compared to Mrs. Viceroy’s. Clearly this is not an issue for you, as it is not for me either, but I despise being overcharged if it is merely a blatant gouging. Do you not agree? Mrs. Viceroy’s gloves are extraordinary and a third the price.”
“Thank you, madam. The information is tremendously appreciated.” From the moment he had laid eyes upon her, Darcy felt a jolt of recognition yet doubted his good fortune. Attempting to verify what he hopefully suspected, he bowed gallantly and inquired, “May I have the honor of your name, to express my gratefulness specifically?”
She inclined her head, smiling as she extended her gloved hand. “Mrs. Kemble. Maria Theresa Kemble.”
“Mrs. Kemble.” Darcy respectfully bestowed a glancing kiss to her hand. “Mr. Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire, at your service. Indeed, this is a singular honor. I’ve had the privilege of watching you perform several times at Covent Garden. In fact, the first play I attended in London was Tom Thumb at Drury Lane. You were phenomenal.”
“It is a pleasure to meet anyone who attributes ‘phenomenal’ to one of my performances, Mr. Darcy. I appreciate the praise, as all egocentric artists do no matter how humble they profess to be. However, I was not searching for a complimentary theater habitué. I must confess I have a soft spot for rescuing lost gentlemen in shopping malls.”
“Was I that obvious?”
“Gaping while blocking the doorway was the first clue. What truly gave it away, Mr. Darcy, was not knowing what a tippet is.”
“And here I was congratulating myself on bluffing convincingly when Mr. Halleck mentioned them.”
“Take my advice—do not play cards for serious money.”
Despite his embarrassment, he had to chuckle at that. “I have heard the warning before. Numerous times.”
“While we cannot improve upon acting skills when none exist,” she jested, “we can impart our vast knowledge of what women desire.”
Mrs. Kemble’s shift into the plural was a mystery for mere seconds. Circling from behind him were two women as lushly beautiful as Mrs. Kemble. They walked with a graceful poise wholly unique and captivating to behold. Darcy recognized them instantly, awestruck as he bowed reverentially to each in turn as Mrs. Kemble formally introduced her companions.
Maria Theresa de Camp had made a name for herself as a dancer and actress years before her marriage to acclaimed actor Charles Kemble. As Darcy had said, she was the first starring actress he had seen perform, and while he would never confess it, his impressionable sixteen-year-old heart had fallen madly in love with the glamorous starlet. Long over those youthful passions, he still admired her talent, seen most recently the past December in Smiles and Tears, or the Widow’s Stratagem, a comedy play she wrote.
To Mrs. Kemble’s right stood Maria Davison, celebrated for creating the role of Julianna in The Honeymoon at the beginning of her career. Currently a principal actress at Drury Lane, Darcy had delighted in several of her fine portrayals over the past ten years.
Standing beside Mrs. Davison was none other than Sarah Siddons, preeminent tragedienne of the eighteen-century stage. Born into the Kemble acting family—Charles Kemble was her brother—Mrs. Siddons had acting in her blood and entered the profession during the 1770s when female actresses were on the cusp of attaining respectability. Her brilliance on the stage escalated her to a celebrity status of mythical proportions and had elevated the prestige of actors and actresses as a whole.
Born during Sarah Siddon’s reign as queen of Drury Lane, Darcy had missed the acclaimed performances at the height of her career. Fortunately, he had attended every Covent Garden appearance of Mrs. Siddons in her later years, before retiring, including her extraordinary farewell performance as Lady Macbeth in 1812. On that night the applause had been thunderous, Darcy vigorously contributing, and she delivered the most incredible farewell speech in theatre history.
Meeting dignitaries was not unusual for a man of Darcy’s station in society, but being introduced to luminaries of the London stage in the middle of a shopping mall was an entirely new experience. He was quite overwhelmed!
“Mrs. Siddons,” he greeted the eldest of the three before turning to the youngest of the renowned actress trio. “Mrs. Davison. Indeed, my great fortune has multiplied exponentially. I am overwhelmed.”
“We view it as a service to humanity, Mr. Darcy,” Sarah Siddons assured in her famed voice. “Teach a gentleman the critical importance of costly trinkets to spoil his lovers, sisters, aunts, etcetera—of which he shall profit in unmentionable ways—and he will pass the information to his male friends. Rumors spread and our sex reaps the bounty for generations.”
Mrs. Davison bobbed her head in agreement, and verily before Darcy blinked his eyes the three prima donnas of the London stage had “taken him under their wings” as they put it. For the better part of an hour they personally escorted him to the best merchandise in Harding and Howell and, with such illustrious women at his side, attention was inevitable.
Darcy intensely despised being stared at and fawned over, yet there was no denying the benefits in this instance. The news rippled through the mall with male and female customers flocking to meet the famed actresses. This didn’t surprise Darcy. What did surprise him was the plethora of ladies who joined the noble cause of educating him. Universally, they delighted in imparting their perspectives on the products for sale and gushed endlessly about ways to “make his beloved happy.”
The assistance continued long after Mrs. Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, and Mrs. Davison reluctantly departed. At the milliner and draper department every woman present—customer and sales assistant, young and old—held up gowns and donned hats to model for him. Never in his life had Darcy been surrounded by a surfeit of females parading and posing as they invited him to ogle brazenly. Only the humor in the situation inhibited his utter humiliation.
After three exhausting hours and more purchases than he had ever made in a single day, Darcy was desperate for freedom. The crowds had thinned, and fewer helpers were dogging his steps, so when an extradition route presented itself, he grabbed onto a minute of distraction among his followers.
Ducking into a partitioned area selling perfumery and toilette articles, he hid behind a series of display cases taller than he. While used as an escape stratagem, Darcy’s cloaking tactic was providential. Absently scanning the products on the shelves, his eyes slid past a box, only to jerk back. There it was! The perfect gift for Elizabeth that had stubbornly eluded him despite the massive pile of boxes and bags collecting at the porter’s desk.
Lying on a cushion of dark-blue velvet inside a lacquered cherrywood box was an exquisite vanity set consisting of a brush, comb, and mirror. Stupendously crafted of silver with inlaid mother-of-pearl bordered by a raised ridge of emerald-green enamel, he had never seen another as superlative. Unfamiliar he may have been with the components of a lady’s toilette, but Darcy knew silver artistry and masterful construction when he saw it, no matter the object.
Envisioning Elizabeth opening this priceless gift once they were alone on their wedding night was a superb vision. Picturing himself standing or sitting behind her while brushing her lush, long, wavy hair as the aroma of lavender rose into the air sent tingles of extreme pleasure flittering through his body. The reality was sure to surpass his imagination.
Shoving thoughts of Elizabeth and intimacy aside—a wise move if he wanted to keep his dignity intact—he motioned to the shop owner.
“I wish to have each of these pieces engraved in the finest script.” Darcy paused, deliberating. Formally, his wife would be addressed as “Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy.” These items, however, were personal, an intimate gift for their eyes only and mutual enjoyment. Coming to a decision, he smiled at the patiently waiting merchant. “Along each handle engrave Elizabeth Darcy.”
His mission having been accomplished and exceeded his wildest expectations, Darcy was more than ready to call it a day. After checking with the porter’s desk to ensure his purchases were accounted for and prepared for delivery to Darcy House—they were—a famished and weary Darcy hastened toward the exit with the securely wrapped vanity set inside the lone bag he carried.
The prospect of a restorative brandy had never sounded more appealing. So much so that he barely stifled a curse when his name was shouted from some distance away.
“Mr. Darcy, is that you?”
He instantly sifted through a dozen excuses to avoid conversation, not even caring if his abruptness came across as rude. A rapid assessment of the distance to the door revealed that he could make a run for it. Between preoccupation and overall irritation, no attempt was made to identify the voice. Then, in the split second before settling on a plausible evasion, the woman—that fact had unconsciously registered—answered her own question.
“Oh! It is Mr. Darcy! See, Lizzy, I told you I glimpsed him from afar while we were in the haberdashery.”
For several seconds, Darcy froze in place. Shaking off his astonishingly bad luck, he forced a pleasant smile and turned around. Mrs. Gardiner, wearing a beaming grin, was bearing down on him fast. Flanking her, a step or two behind, were Elizabeth and Jane.
As instant as his annoyance over being waylaid it disappeared, to be replaced by happiness flooding his soul. Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled with delight as she focused on him to the exclusion of everything surrounding, a radiant smile curving her luscious mouth. The crystalline image of her visage never faded from his mind, yet when he saw her in the flesh, especially after nearly a full day apart, he was struck anew by her breathtaking beauty and the effect her very presence had upon him.
“What a delightful surprise, is it not?” Mrs. Gardiner’s question was a vague hum. Darcy could not tear his eyes away from Elizabeth. “In a city the size of London, the odds of encountering a friend or acquaintance are remote. Yet here we are! And not merely anyone, but your betrothed. Quite fortuitous and extraordinary, would you not agree, Lizzy?”
“Indeed, I do agree. It is immeasurably fortuitous and supremely extraordinary. How are you, Mr. Darcy?”
“I am improving by the moment, Miss Elizabeth.” Pausing to clear his bone-dry throat, and belatedly remembering his manners, he shifted his gaze to Jane and Mrs. Gardiner. “I pray the three of you are equally as well and enjoying your afternoon?”
Mrs. Gardiner and Jane responded in the affirmative, as did Lizzy, after which she inquired, “What brings you to Harding, Howell, and Company on this fine day, sir? I never conceived of this being an establishment you frequent.”
The tease was not lost on Darcy, nor was the hint of acrimony. Honestly perplexed by what would cause the latter, and therefore concluding he must be mistaken, he shrugged nonchalantly and replied in a lighthearted tone, “I endeavor to retain a bit of mystery, Miss Bennet, but shall enlighten since you have caught me in the act. I have discovered the supreme benefit in enlisting the aid of other women when acquiring objects explicitly created for the fairer sex. Far more efficient and wise, as it turns out, than trying to judge for myself what is best for a lady. The women at Harding and Howell are surprisingly willing to assist.”
“I see,” she stressed, the teasing tone disappearing in favor of the acrimonious. “The error is in my assumptions, obviously. Are you intimately familiar with the mall then? Perhaps your superior knowledge of where to obtain feminine products will benefit us as well, Mr. Darcy, if it isn’t too much trouble to share your accumulated wealth of information?”
Elizabeth’s smile remained but with a stiffness to her lips that corresponded with the sharp undertone of her outwardly cordial words. Her eyes, Darcy noted with increasing mystification, had taken on a hard glint. Confused, he looked to Jane and Mrs. Gardiner for a clue. Each woman wore an expression of suppressed amusement. Mrs. Gardiner shook her head slightly and swiveled her eyes pointedly toward a cluster of attractive young women standing not too far away who were quite blatantly admiring his figure. Darcy frowned, then looked back at a pursed-lipped Elizabeth. Abruptly the pieces fell into place.
She is jealous—positively green with it!
The possessive fire within her lovely eyes loudly proclaimed the degree of her sentiments toward him, and perhaps it was an unattractive reaction, but his spirit soared. As pleasing as her jealousy, in one respect, decency demanded to disabuse her of the notion that he was a seasoned expert who frequently bought trinkets for women.
Then again, what harm was there in a brief bit of fun?
Darcy stepped closer and spoke softly. “My knowledge is not overly vast, but one does overhear conversations that often prove valuable. Harding and Howell has a well-earned reputation. However, you are correct, Miss Elizabeth, in believing I avoid such places unless forced by necessity to enter them.”
“Is that so? And what necessity was it that forced you this time, Mr. Darcy?”
Mrs. Gardiner and Jane were still struggling not to laugh and had taken several steps backward to stay out of Lizzy’s vision. The latter was too intent on boring a hole of shame through her fiancé to notice. Darcy bent until inches away from her irritated face and whispered, “This is my first time at Harding and Howell, my dearest love, and the purpose was a wedding present.”
“For me?” she gasped, her eyes popped open wider and body relaxing. A flush spread across her cheeks, and Darcy had to exert all his control not to kiss her.
Instead, he arched one brow and grinned. “I believe it is customary. Besides, I did warn you that gifts from me would be a common occurrence once we were married, and I intend to begin as soon as possible. But for now”—he captured her hand and pressed a fleeting kiss onto her knuckles—“you are forced by necessity to wait in anticipation for another month.”
* ~ * ~ *
To find out what happens next, buy the novel! Links to all bookseller marketplaces are on the Darcy & Elizabeth: Hope of the Future page found HERE
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