At the last second, Lizzy grasped the handle and closed the door quietly behind her. Briefly she leaned against the wood to catch her breath and still the fluttering of her heart—only a moment’s respite, however, before she twisted about to look out the window.
There he was. His tall, sturdy frame was easily visible on the open pathway ascending the gradual slope. His coattails billowed with each stride, his long legs swallowing the yards. Lizzy leaned her forehead against the cool glass, eyes steady on the retreating figure of the man she loved. Suddenly he paused and glanced over his shoulder toward the house. Impulsively she jerked and pulled back from the window.
I am his betrothed and can stare at him as long as I want!
Chuckling at her folly, she stepped forward until pressed into the transparent surface. Unfortunately, he was too far away to see her through the glass, a fact she realized when unable to clearly decipher the expression on his face. She did not doubt his countenance was as sunny as hers, especially when he resumed walking. It took her a few moments to solve what it was that struck her as odd. After all, it was not as if she had been granted numerous opportunities to observe Mr. Darcy walking at a pace as brisk as the one he was currently setting. Yet somehow she knew that his normal gait was solid, each thickly booted foot planted confidently and with the hint of arrogant domination present in his bearing. Today, however, one would think he wore the lightest of house shoes or was seconds away from dancing on a slickly polished floor. She half expected his mincing feet to abruptly leave the ground in a balletic pirouette.
The vision was so ridiculous that she burst out laughing.
“Lizzy? Is that you? Jane, go see if that was Lizzy, and if so, bring her here. We have much to discuss!”
Lizzy’s laugh was replaced by a groan at her mother’s query. She wanted to bask in her happiness, not be subjected to an inquisition! She was already shaking her head and pleading with her eyes when Jane’s face popped around the corner.
“No, Mama,” Jane finally said, wincing at the untruth. “She must still be outside.”
Thank you, Lizzy mouthed. She pantomimed climbing the stairs, pointed in the general direction of her bedroom, and then pointed at her sister and back toward the ceiling. Jane nodded, her face calm, as always, but Lizzy detected the confusion and colliding questions within Jane’s blue eyes. Come up soon. I need to talk to you. Jane nodded once again before turning into the parlor to distract Mrs. Bennet so that Lizzy could dart past the doorway and escape to the stairs.
Once in the bedroom, Lizzy dashed straight to the window. It was ridiculous, of course. The angle from this corner of the house was inadequate to visualize the twisting pathway that led to Netherfield. Additionally, even if realities of geometric space and obstructing trees were not an issue, Mr. Darcy would have traveled beyond the reach of her eyesight by now. None of that kept her from trying anyway and then sighing forlornly when his figure was nowhere to be seen.
He still loves me! And we are to be married!
At her youngest and silliest age, Elizabeth Bennet had rarely been a girl known for flighty antics and addled brain. Vivacious and buoyant in spirit, indeed she was, but with a controlled demeanor differentiating her actions from those of foolish youths, such as Lydia and Kitty. Now here she was, at the mature age of twenty, giggling aloud and fighting an intense urge to twirl about the room or sprint down the trail until she had caught up to Mr. Darcy. In truth, she wanted to twirl and then run insanely after Mr. Darcy!
It was absurd in the extreme and should have embarrassed her into sobriety.
Instead, the ridiculous vision lead her to imagining catching her betrothed on the trail, which in turn lead her to imagining how pleased he would be and how he might express his pleasure, which in turn lead her to imagining—vividly—his kisses.
Lizzy pressed her palms against her flaming cheeks, closed her eyes, and inhaled several times. Finally, with a modicum of control restored, she moved away from the window. Inadvertently, her eyes opened to a reflection of her face in the vanity mirror.
The face staring back at her was a revelation.
Lightness and gaiety burst from within the chocolate depths of her eyes, startling her. It was a novel expression yet instantly recognizable as what she had detected within Mr. Darcy’s eyes while gazing at her in the garden. There were a number of alterations to her mien that, if she were more her typical self and not overtaken by emotion, would cause her to laugh mockingly. Had she not just yesterday teased Jane for lips suspiciously plumper and ruddier than usual after her solitary walk with Mr. Bingley to the stables? Lizzy’s lips were normally plump, but at the present, they were on the verge of swallowing her face!
Love, it has to be, and perhaps the residuals of physical desire.
This thought increased the warmth in her already burning cheeks, and hysterical giggling again threatened to burst forth. It did not help matters when she finally noted the condition of her hair. The pins and combs hastily placed earlier that day to restrain her heavy locks were loose and not at all where she had originally secured them. It was as if her hair had come alive, with whole clumps purposefully deciding to veer off into a different direction than nature, or her clips, intended. It was truly frightful, and even the echo of a resonant male voice declaring she was “incredibly beautiful” was insufficient to squelch the other voice that chided, “This is how the future Mistress of Pemberley presents herself?”
Before she could analyze why that second voice sounded more like Lady Catherine than her, the door opened. Relief flooded her body when only Jane entered and closed the door behind her.
“Oh, Jane! Your timing is perfect! I have much to tell you, but first you must help me with my hair. I am an utter fright!” She turned back to the mirror, pins and clips tossed haphazardly onto the vanity surface before attacking her snarled hair with a brush. “If Mr. Darcy were to return and see me like this, I am sure he would change his mind. You always were better skilled at arranging hair, and if only I had previously attended to your instructions, I would not now appear a bedraggled mess. I am mortified to recall how often I eschewed proper styling in my impatience. Somehow he saw past that, thanks be to heaven, but at the least I can henceforth attempt to look the part of a respectable woman worthy of being his wife and mistress to Pemberley.”
“You are in love with him.”
Lizzy paused mid-stroke and swiveled her head toward Jane. “Of course I am! Did you think I would consent to marry Mr. Darcy otherwise?”
“I never imagined you marrying Mr. Darcy under any circumstance, Lizzy! Consenting based on a mercenary inclination or a sense of obligation to help the family is unimaginable, and I have spent the past several hours arguing with Mama that this would not induce you to accept him. I assured her your opinion of Mr. Darcy improved after your stay in Derbyshire, citing this and perhaps greater appreciation for his character—and maybe a burgeoning affection—as plausible reasons for this stunning development. Never, however, did I entertain the notion that you might actually love him! How did this transpire, Lizzy?”
“Oh, Jane! I am indeed a wretched sister!” Lizzy crossed the room and clasped on to Jane’s hands. “You would be justified to chastise and then never forgive me for being so secretive with my feelings—”
“I cannot chastise for that, Lizzy. Was it not I who so recently affirmed that I was indifferent to Mr. Bingley and quite over him? I suppose it is just that while I knew full well you did not believe my self-delusions any more than I believed them, I detected nothing indicating you thought of Mr. Darcy at all, let alone were in love with him! I suspect I am annoyed at myself more than I am you.”
Laughing together, the sisters fell onto the bed.
“For sisters who care for each other as deeply as we do and have inhabited the same limited space for nigh on twenty years, we certainly can be ridiculous in keeping ourselves reserved. A lesson to be learned fortuitously before we are wed and carry the unhealthy attitude into our marital relationships, is it not?”
“I daresay it is, and”—Jane patted Lizzy’s hand firmly—“you can practice your avowed newfound openness by telling me how it is that you came to love a man you once swore to loathe forever.”
“It is a tedious story, Jane. Convoluted. Embarrassing in places. Dismaying in others. I hardly know how to make sense of it myself or how to comprehend that I came to love a man I once detested! I am not sure I can explain it.”
“You must try. I refuse to fix your hair until you do.”
Lizzy ran both hands through her snarled tresses. “I am a fright, yes?”
“Fairly so. But you are also radiant, flushed, and your eyes sparkle as I have never witnessed. So, no matter how convoluted the path you and Mr. Darcy have trod, I do not question that you love him. Does he love you as ardently in return, Lizzy?”
“Oh yes. I can confidently state that he loves me ardently.” And even as she blushed bright red at the remembrance of all the reasons why she knew, beyond any shadowy doubts, that Fitzwilliam Darcy loved her, Lizzy launched into her story.
* * *
Darcy covered the distance between Longbourn and Netherfield at a much faster pace than typical. Dimly he was aware of hunger pangs from having skipped breakfast, and the prospect of his quiet bedchamber where he could filter through his thoughts and emotions was appealing, yet neither was the reason for his rushed steps. It was as if his joyous heart and soaring soul lent buoyancy to his muscles, keeping his feet from touching the ground. Twice he burst into spontaneous laughter, four times caught himself whistling—and he never whistled—and he strongly suspected the only reason he did not stop to marvel at a flower or sun-kissed dewdrop was because he only saw Elizabeth’s face. Under any other circumstances, such nonsensical behavior would have frightened him into seeking help from a professional versed in mental illness! Today, while he would not necessarily want anyone to witness his bizarre giddiness, he knew precisely the cause and relished the unique experience.
Elizabeth loves me! And she agreed to be my wife!
This time, a sort of dancing skip accompanied the thought, not that Darcy even noticed.
He paid no heed to the passing terrain, or the ground in front of him for that matter, and was startled to realize he was at Netherfield’s north gate when he had just left Elizabeth’s arms a moment ago. He could still feel her warm palms on his neck and the exquisite pressure of her lips, the sensations so vivid and acute that he groaned and turned around, as if she might actually be there.
“Get control of yourself, Darcy,” he muttered, vigorously shaking his head in hopes of restoring clarity and control before entering the house. It helped to a degree, although he did stare at the gate’s latch for a full thirty seconds before remembering how it worked. Fortunately he was able to slip in the side door and dash up to his suite without encountering anyone.
His manservant, Samuel, was straightening the bed when Darcy barged in. As if such antics were routine, Samuel lifted a calm face to his master and inquired after his needs.
“Coffee, please, and a breakfast tray if it can be managed. I left before eating.”
For five minutes after the valet departed to carry out his orders, Darcy stood in the middle of the room. Always a person who craved solitude and the peace that comes from silence, Darcy breathed deeply and remained still for a purpose. He allowed the tranquility to infuse his body and clear his mind. As it did, he gazed around the chamber that had grown comfortable and familiar to him far more than any other temporary dwelling place ever had. It was not because this suite was particularly wonderful, but because it was while here, down the corridor from where Elizabeth Bennet had stayed when Jane Bennet was ill, that Darcy had fallen in love with her. Never mind that he had blindly denied his feelings. Netherfield, located in Hertfordshire, a mere three miles from Longbourn, would forever be associated with her. After today, and with the promise of happy moments inside these walls in the weeks to come, the connection would be strengthened.
So, while he yearned for the day when Pemberley and his bedchamber there would hold the premiere association with Elizabeth—and in a far more intimate way—Netherfield and this bedchamber were the current favorites. An odd sort of peace settled upon him in these rooms where his thoughts had been filled with Elizabeth nearly from day one.
Shrugging out of his coat, he tossed it onto the bed and sat on the chair near the low table, where his breakfast would soon be placed. He bent to remove his boots, the ordinary task occupying his hands while his mind sorted through everything that had happened. Attempts to gain perspective and latch on to a logical vein were difficult with his stomach growling like a caged tiger and Elizabeth permeating his being.
“Elizabeth.” He whispered her name, a broad smile splitting his face. Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, Darcy succumbed to the irresistible euphoria.
There was an aspect to his euphoria that was unreal, like a beautiful dream so tangible that it stays with you even after you wake. How long had he been in love with Elizabeth Bennet? How many hours had he imagined kissing her? Was it possible to count the number of dreams in which she was his? Was this just another dream that he would awaken from?
His heart pounded in terror at the thought. Reaching one hand to press trembling fingertips to his lips, he relaxed. None of his dreams, as distinct and realistic as many had been, ever felt like this. Her taste remained on his tongue, her lavender-scented hair filled his nostrils, her passionate sighs rang in his ears, her adoring face floated before his eyes, and the softness of her flesh tingled the nerve endings on his hands. Darcy groaned and shifted in his chair, the irrefutably genuine sensations affecting him physically.
No, there was no doubt whatsoever that today was not a dream. It was a God-gifted miracle that he could never thank the Almighty enough for. He certainly would try, once he was fully able to wrap his mind around the reality of the miracle and accept that his dreams had come true.
Elizabeth Bennet loves me.
Months ago, when he first proposed in his arrogance and selfish comprehension of love, he had not given much thought to the importance of Elizabeth loving him in return. It still shamed him to admit how little he understood his own heart or the mysteries of real, soul-bonding love. Deep in the throes of ardent love for her, and sure that she would not refuse him based on his numerous qualifications—Darcy winced anew at that remembrance—he had not considered the emptiness, even if she had said yes, of marrying her without first winning her heart. Every word she had said to him, each sentence as clear today as it had been then, convicted him of his sins. Her truthful condemnation had taught him many things, not the least of which was the importance of mutual love.
Until the summer day when she had miraculously appeared at Pemberley, Darcy thought the lessons learned would never benefit him personally. Still grieving, the concept of finding another woman to take Elizabeth’s place in his heart was impossible to fathom. He became convinced he had destroyed his one chance, and the logical, deserved outcome was a life alone. Forever a man of faith, though perhaps not as strongly as his grandfather, Darcy interpreted Elizabeth’s surprising appearance at Pemberley as a message from God. Not that Elizabeth was destined to be his or that he was being handed her on a silver platter. Indeed, he immediately perceived that it was a chance. Nothing more. A chance to prove to her—and most importantly to himself—that he had learned the truth and was worthy of being loved by a woman of her caliber. If it took months or years, so be it. If in the end he failed, somehow he would accept she was better with someone else. The thought nearly killed him, but all that truly mattered, he eventually realized, was her happiness.
Her happiness—and to a large degree Charles Bingley’s happiness—was what had prompted him to hunt down Lydia and Wickham. Guilt drove him as well, the sure knowledge that whatever might have prompted Wickham to seduce Lydia Bennet, whether a sensed awareness of her sister’s importance to Darcy or not, the fact remained that it never would have happened if not for his abominable pride allowing Wickham to roam freely. If a solution were within his power, Darcy would have done anything to accomplish it so the Bennet family, especially Jane and Elizabeth, would not be adversely affected by a scandal. Fortunately, crossing a line into an illegal zone had not been necessary, but Darcy had prepared for that as well.
When it was finished, even after confessing his error in judgment about Miss Bennet to Bingley and seeing the positive outcome there, Darcy refused to allow himself to hope.
A knock at the door postponed further musings and ignited fresh rumbles in his stomach. Samuel entered with a heavily laden tray, sat it onto the low table by Darcy’s chair, and proceeded to unerringly prepare his master’s coffee the way he liked it.
“Do you have any specific instructions for me today, sir?” Samuel handed the hot cup to Darcy. “Should I unpack the rest of your bags?”
“Yes.” Darcy winced at the scald to his tongue but took another gulp of the restoring beverage anyway. “We will be staying at Netherfield for a while longer after all. If I can have my bath drawn in an hour, that would be perfect. And I shall be dining at Longbourn tonight with Mr. Bingley. If my dark blue suit, and green and gold waistcoat are clean, I would like to wear them tonight.”
He was staring directly at Samuel, so Darcy noticed the slight lift of his valet’s brows. In a flash, the hint of surprise was gone, a smooth-faced Samuel assuring that all would be as he commanded. Once the door to his dressing room was shut, Darcy gave in to a smile and chuckle. He knew why Samuel was surprised. In his over ten years of service to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, there was probably less than ten times Darcy expressed a preference for which garment to wear. Darcy honestly could not care less most of the time, as long as he was clean, properly attired in the latest fashion, and presentable. Darcy wondered if Samuel was thinking of the handful of particular clothing requests he had made, realizing that the majority of them were in the last year, when his day involved being in the presence of Elizabeth Bennet.
“Probably not,” he muttered between bites of jam-smeared toast. Samuel was an excellent manservant, but his attention to Mr. Darcy’s personal life did not extend past knowing his schedule so he could plan for the correct cravat knot and pocket fob. If Darcy had mentioned his engagement, the response from Samuel would have been something like: “Very good, sir. Congratulations. Would you like more salt on your eggs?”
The first plate was cleaned and refilled before Darcy resumed his musings.
Elizabeth Bennet loves me.
The thought was no less gratifying than before. The ridiculous grin and palpitating heartbeat continued unabated, even as he chewed.
Darcy knew she spoke the truth, Elizabeth never one to mince words or speak falsehoods. It was simply so astounding that he struggled to grasp how it had happened!
If he was being honest, the reality was that after spending time with Elizabeth at Pemberley, Darcy had believed her opinion of him had changed. He had not entirely trusted his ability to decipher Elizabeth’s demeanor and actions after so hideously misinterpreting them before. Nevertheless, after nearly four months of constantly replaying every verbal and nonverbal exchange from the moment he saw her at the Meryton Assembly to that disastrous day when she vigorously refused his offensive proposal, he surmised his vision was clearer. While he had not thought for a second that Elizabeth had developed affection for him, her general disposition was not of a woman who actively hated him either.
So, yes, during their hours together at Pemberley, he had allowed glimmers of hope. If he was reading the sign from God correctly, and if he was finally interpreting Elizabeth’s manner without bias, then perhaps they could start afresh. Tragically, there had been no time to anticipate or plan beyond that initial step. The letter from Jane Bennet reporting Lydia’s affair with George Wickham violently destroyed everything, in Darcy’s dismayed opinion.
How could Elizabeth ever forgive him? He who had the power to stop Wickham yet remained silent. It was a dramatic reminder of his pride and failure. The only bright spots during that whole sordid mess were a handful of vague comments by Mrs. Gardiner alluding to Elizabeth’s favorable impression of Pemberley—and him. Darcy had tucked them away in his mind but prohibited his heart from dwelling upon them.
Upon the few, brief interactions when Darcy returned to Netherfield with Bingley, Elizabeth had not appeared angry or disgusted. His heart had lifted, but he clamped down on the tiny trickle. After all, her sister had just been proposed to! What woman would not be in a fine mood with smiles and cheery conversation?
Every day for the subsequent week—while Bingley danced with joy and gushed on and on about his great happiness—Darcy had remained torn. Not only had he felt the urge to throttle Bingley—purely out of his own heartache and not because he was unhappy for his dear friend and Miss Bennet—but he had also disliked the train of his thoughts.
He had never suspected that Elizabeth knew of his involvement with the Wickham fiasco but figured it obvious to her that he had played some part in bringing Bingley back to Hertfordshire—and to Jane. Add to that the natural romantic sentiments that revolve around an engagement and promised wedding, and it was not a leap in logic to imagine that, if he pressed Elizabeth, she may have been amenable.
While it made perfect sense on one level, and had been hugely tempting, Darcy refused to win Elizabeth’s hand under any sort of leverage or artifice. Frankly, woman or not, he doubted her gullible enough to succumb to such emotional sentiments. Nevertheless, he preferred not to take that chance. The lesson painfully learned in the spring assured him that winning Elizabeth Bennet’s heart, wholly and unreservedly, had to occur honestly. So he had decided that dwelling in London, rather than at Netherfield, at least for a while, was best.
A small voice inside had doggedly whispered Fool! and Coward! without ceasing. He had ignored it as best he could—aided by business endeavors and constant activity—and had remained determined to give her space to enjoy Jane’s happiness before he returned to the area. Then, so his nebulous plan had went, he would proceed slowly and see where fate led as they found themselves together due to mutual connections to Charles and Jane.
Then, Lady Catherine descended upon Darcy House like a black tornado resolved to obliterate whatever positive headway had been made.
Darcy drained the cup of coffee and popped a fig into his mouth. Replaying yesterday’s scene with his aunt actually made him smile. Envisioning what his cousin Richard’s response would be to the scene broadened his grin. Darcy tolerated his mother’s imperious older sister, ignored her attitude for the most part, and endured her rudeness for the sake of family stability. Richard, on the other hand, had a difficult time holding his tongue. He would thrill at the exchange, begging Darcy to describe her expressions in vivid detail.
Thinking of imparting his momentous news to Richard led Darcy to imagining the joy of telling of his great fortune to all those who were dear to him. The sudden vision of Georgiana’s ecstatic face and Mrs. Reynolds’ relieved pleasure supplanted any residual pique over Lady Catherine. Besides, it was her interference, as horrid and misplaced as it was, that prompted him to return to Hertfordshire immediately rather than waiting until closer to Bingley’s wedding.
He had determined to speak with Elizabeth as plainly as possible, as soon as possible. Nothing had been certain, not by a long chalk, but the one irrefutable fact he clung to was that Elizabeth Bennet, above all, was frank and unafraid to speak bluntly. If she had decided absolutely and irrevocably against him, she would have promised Lady Catherine instantly, probably adding gleefully to the list of reasons why she considered Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy the “last man in the world” she would ever marry!
Yes, hope had entered his heart.
Nevertheless, Darcy left the house on this fine morning without the remotest inclination that he would soon be engaged to Elizabeth Bennet. Even if an angelic whisper had hinted it was a possibility, never would he have presumed she loved him in return.
Elizabeth loves me.
Darcy closed his eyes and let the revelation sink deeper into his bones. The irrepressible joy bubbled under the surface of his skin, with every muscle and nerve alive as never before. Heated blood soared through his veins, and his mind raced with glimpses of their future.
Then, he sensed an influx of something profound steadying the euphoria. The reality of her love sobered him. He did not yet comprehend how Elizabeth had fallen in love with him, or when or even why, but that she had was an honor and precious gift he intended to treasure and respect for all eternity. After everything that had passed between them, Darcy fully appreciated how priceless her returned love was. He doubted there was enough time allotted him on this earth to ever express the entirety of his thankfulness and the breadth of his adoration. He refused to waste a single second.
The latter thought instilled a boost of energy. Darcy’s eyes popped open at the same moment he launched out of his chair. A swift glance at the clock revealed only two hours had passed since leaving her on the doorstep at Longbourn. It felt like a week or more.
“I miss her.” He spoke aloud, the words and sentiment a bit startling.
For close to a year, he had longed for Elizabeth Bennet whenever away from her. Nothing new about that. Yet after this morning, the sensation had altered. No longer was it a mystery whether he would see her again. No longer was it a one-sided desire that, if rewarded, would entail gazing upon her face from afar and nothing more. Suddenly he realized that while the pain of separation from her would grow as their relationship evolved into deeper intimacy, the joy of reuniting in mutual pleasure would be phenomenal.
He broke into a wide grin and strode briskly toward the door to his dressing room.
* * *
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