A random selection of excerpts from
Darcy and Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship, prequel duo book #1
* ~ * ~ *
“I have a radical idea that women should be educated as men are. Should I scandalize William and tell him?” Laughing, Lizzy pulled her legs up and rested her chin atop her knees. “If not for seeing animals mate, none of us would have the vaguest idea what married people do. Frankly, I presumed the act was similar, in the sense of being a deed to be done not greatly different than breathing or eating.”
“That may be a slight exaggeration, Lizzy.”
“Yes, of course it is. But not by too much, you have to admit, Jane. If not for the random whisper or offhand comment or rare affectionate couple, like our uncle and aunt Gardiner, there would be no evidence to point to human intimacy being particularly enjoyable.”
“Unless one is male,” Jane whispered.
Lizzy nodded, knowing what she meant. Females boldly discussing matters of sensuality and intimacy were expressly forbidden. This mandate was ignored, of course, but circumspectly, with hesitant whispers and the barest knowledge gleaned from questionable sources. At the same time, it was an accepted fact, loudly proclaimed, that men were highly sexual beings. Females were constantly warned against the male species with their “uncontainable lusts” and similar cautionary phrases. So much so that even if clueless what an “uncontainable lust” entailed, you were on the lookout for it.
“In retrospect,” Lizzy said slowly, the idea newly forming in her mind, “it is not that the knowledge is unspoken, rather that it is mixed with innuendo and false facts.”
“And guilt or shame for daring to let your thoughts drift in that direction.”
Lizzy nodded in agreement with her sister’s assertion. “Quite so. Are you…afraid, Jane?”
The sharp rap at Jane’s bedroom door, followed by it swinging open abruptly, jolted a squeak from each of them.
“Oh! Girls! I heard your voices and decided it was time. Indeed, past time!”
Mrs. Bennet rushed inside, ruffled nightdress and robe fluttering, her tone on the edge of berserk and movements jittery. Even for her it was extreme. Jane and Lizzy exchanged a worried glance and half expected a calamity to hit the house any second.
“Past time for what, Mama?”
“Why, to discuss your wedding nights, of course! So much to say. Yes. Well, we cannot voice such matters where your sisters may overhear. They will need to know in due course, but I am sure my nerves are unable to withstand all four of you staring at me and asking questions! Lydia found out on her own, I daresay, and appeared none the worse for it, so I thought to do the same until Mr. Bennet told me to—”
“Papa told you to talk to us?” Lizzy wanted to drop into a hole and shot a horrified look toward Jane. Surprisingly, aside from high color to her cheeks, Jane calmly watched Mrs. Bennet pace and wore an expression of curiosity, not the embarrassment Lizzy expected and was feeling. Wondering why she was mortified, instead of relieved at the prospect of finally getting answers from someone experienced on the topic, occupied her mind long enough that Lizzy missed part of her mother’s speech.
“…be prepared for your husband’s demands and expectations. It is safe to presume that all men are not the same in…their urges or how they…pursue relations, but be assured that for most, as I understand it, the need to be with a woman is strong. Animalistic in that respect. Now, what you two can expect on your wedding nights, and as often as your husbands can manage it thereafter, is…”
Neither Lizzy nor Jane said much, only breaking in a handful of times with pointed questions or clarification. By the time Mrs. Bennet exhausted herself—an hour later—Lizzy’s head was spinning. Then, as quickly as she had arrived, she was out the door with her good-nights tossed over a shoulder.
For easily fifteen minutes, Jane and Lizzy sat in silence staring at their hands, the carpet, the wall—anything but each other. Finally Lizzy murmured, “I cannot decide between ‘amorous congress’ or ‘convivial society’ as my favored euphemism. Either is better than hearing Mama use a clinical word like ‘coitus’ or ‘copulation.’”
Jane stared at Lizzy for all of two seconds. Then they fell back on the bed, giggling hysterically. Breathless and wiping tears, Jane gasped, “This is all your fault, you know.”
“You brought up the subject, remember?”
“Oh my! I suppose I did! I had actually quite forgotten.”
“You asked if I was afraid and I was about to answer that I was, a little anyway. Now, thanks to Mama, it all seems too amusing to be fearful of.”
“Yes, I suppose it is to a degree.” Lizzy turned her head to look at her sister, but Jane was staring up at the ceiling. “What were you afraid of?”
Still staring upward and smiling with the recent attack of laughter visible on her countenance, Jane explained, “Nothing for myself. Mainly my fears arose from the desire to please Mr. Bingley as a wife aught while unsure how I could do that when knowing so little. Yet even before Mama’s information, I was realizing I had no need to fret over that either. It is God’s design, Lizzy, and every woman since Eve has been exactly where we are now. Every man too, for that matter. Whether the first time or the hundredth, sensual intercourse—another intriguing euphemism—is a part of the marriage relationship as God intended.”
“So, logically it cannot be a frightening, unwanted activity,” Lizzy added when Jane said no more.
“Even though Mama gravely declared otherwise?” Jane turned her head and looked at Lizzy—just looked at her, no words passing her lips and her expression bland, yet Lizzy knew the message being conveyed. “Right. How silly of me.”
“I trust Mr. Bingley and how I feel when with him. I cannot share specifically, Lizzy. It would be too uncomfortable. I can say that I feel wonderful with him, enough so that I am convinced the…rest will be equally as wonderful.”
“Of course you are right. Like you, I want to ensure William’s happiness and…satisfaction, I suppose is the most apt term.” Suddenly hit with embarrassment from she knew not where, Lizzy sensed the heat washing across her cheeks and giggles tickling her throat. “Speaking of William’s happiness, you must help me, Jane. I learned from Miss Darcy that his birthday is in November. I would like to plan something special.”
Jane was thrilled with the idea, and soon the two were plotting various ways to surprise Mr. Darcy, the diversion perfect to relinquish apprehensions surrounding amorous congress.
* ~ * ~ *
Their trot became a sedate walk, Darcy leading Parsifal directly toward Elizabeth. Without preamble, he leaned in, cradled her face with his right hand, and kissed her—just a tender press of closed lips, yet enough to ignite a fire inside his veins.
“Miss Elizabeth, what a delightful surprise. Come here often, do you?”
Caressing her cheek with gloved fingertips, Darcy bestowed a second kiss before she could answer. The feel of her hand pressing his tighter against her cheek and the slight parting of her lips nearly sent him over the edge. Literally. Maybe Parsifal sensed his master about to topple out of the saddle, or maybe he was bored of standing still. Whatever the instigation, his sudden shift and loud snort broke the spell.
Elizabeth jerked backward, and Darcy grabbed her arm before she tumbled off the fence. “Hold up there!” he shouted, the exclamation for Elizabeth and Parsifal. Yanking on the reins, Darcy squeezed his legs around the horse and leaned back while steadying Elizabeth at the same time, causing an odd dance to ensue. Both laughed at the absurdity, which only served to increase the shakiness.
Once assured of her stability, Darcy let go and walked his restless horse in a series of prancing circles. He was still laughing, but stopped when he saw her face.
“My apologies, Elizabeth. Did Parsifal frighten you?”
“A little, yes. All my attention was focused on you”—she flushed and glanced down for a second—“and I almost forgot you were on a horse. His commentary on the situation took me by surprise.”
“He is quite opinionated, I fear. Especially when his purpose has been interrupted.” Darcy pointed to the wandering cattle when Elizabeth cocked her head in question. “I do believe he was anticipating scattering the herd when I changed our course. In that case, his pique is directed at me, not you.”
“Well, I do apologize to Parsifal for spoiling his fun, although I imagine yonder cows would thank me. I pray my interruption did not spoil your fun, Mr. Darcy?”
“Indeed not, Miss Elizabeth,” he teased. “While stampeding cattle is tremendously satisfying, the pleasure of meeting you transcends. I cannot fathom a better way to end my ride than with you.”
“What a pity, then, that you are on that side of the fence. We are doomed to be parted unless I climb over the fence. I have done it before—”
“Yes, I imagine you have,” Darcy interjected, laughing.
“If you imagine it, then I suspect you know what I mean when I say it is not the most ladylike of ventures.”
“Probably not, by some standards. I tend to think I would enjoy the spectacle, not the least because of the possibility of seeing a bit of your legs.” He grinned at the rosiness that infused her face, and loved it even more when she tossed her head and made as if to climb higher, her expression arch. Gods but she is a minx! “Save your dignity, Elizabeth. My solution to the dilemma is expeditious and does not involve either of us resorting to improper behavior.”
Wheeling Parsifal about, Darcy left her with mouth agape and eyes wide. Galloping full tilt a good clip, he whirled around, and with a shout and added jab with his heels, launched into a barreling rush straight at the fence. A glimpse at Elizabeth’s pale face, as he and Parsifal leapt cleanly over the top rung, did send a sharp stab of regret into his heart. By the time they slowed and came about, exhilaration from their acrobatic feat and the sheer delight of seeing her standing feet away under the trees usurped any regret.
Until, that is, he dismounted.
“How could you do that without warning me? My heart stopped, I swear it did! You could have hit the rail or fallen off when he landed! Or what if he decided the fence was too tall and stopped? Off you would go, flying through the air and—You think this is funny?”
“Yes—that is, no, of course not, but, well, you are overreacting, Elizabeth. None of those things were likely to happen.”
“How can you be so sure?”
He dropped Parsifal’s reins, the stallion immediately wandering off to graze without a backward glance, and crossed to where Elizabeth stood. She was pale and trembling, but she had also fisted her hands at her hips and glared at him furiously. Her anxiety for his safety was rather touching, a warm glow spreading through his chest, and he tried not to grin. Obviously he was not showing an adequate amount of contrition because her scowl deepened.
Grasping her fists and pulling them up to his lips, he answered, “I am sure because Parsifal and I have jumped all sorts of obstacles, including fences, and many were taller than this one. In fact, we have jumped this fence before, a bit further south. My mistake for not giving due warning or elucidating my expertise as a horseman. Your concern warms my heart, but there is no need to fret over my safety on a horse, trust me.”
“Anyone can have an accident, Mr. Darcy, and I would prefer it not be my fiancé weeks before our wedding,” she scolded. “I shan’t argue your skill as a horseman. That is evident even to my untrained eye. Just try to show a bit of restraint, please? For me?”
“I promise to be cautious. Or at the least not to frighten with my exploits while you are watching.”
“That is not the same thing, sir!”
“No, I suppose not,” Darcy agreed, grinning.
* ~ * ~ *
“Ah! Here is your copy of Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach.” He drew the slim volume off the shelf, silently thanking the fates for drawing his eyes in a providential direction. “I named my stallion after this poem and confess to being quite startled when Miss Elizabeth instantly recognized where it came from. I greatly appreciate that your daughter is an extensive reader, Mr. Bennet, and clearly have you to thank for instilling that passion within her.”
Mr. Bennet turned toward his desk, circling and relaxing into the chair as he replied. “Lizzy was always precocious in that way. No offense intended toward my dear Jane, Mr. Bingley, but none of my daughters have shown the intense interest in reading as Lizzy has.”
“Not to worry, sir,” Bingley assured, smiling dreamily. “I am not the rabid absorber of literature as Darcy is, so it matters little to me that Miss Bennet does not read to the extent of Miss Elizabeth. Darcy, on the other hand, would have a difficult way of it with a wife who was not the bookworm he is!”
Thanks for feeding into my plan, Charles. Darcy smothered his smile and nodded. “Indeed, Bingley is correct. It might surprise you, Mr. Bennet, but as lovely as Miss Elizabeth is, it honestly was not physical attraction that first drew me to her.”
“I am not surprised, Mr. Darcy. After all, the people of Hertfordshire are aware that Lizzy was deemed ‘not handsome enough’ to tempt you into even a simple dance. I can only imagine the amazed speculation that will flitter throughout the countryside when your betrothal is announced.”
Darcy stiffened and almost dropped the book from suddenly nerveless fingers. The citizens of Meryton thinking negatively about him was not a mystery, but he had no idea his rude dismissal of Elizabeth during that first Assembly over a year ago was common knowledge. Before the full impact of just how steep the hill he had to climb in order to improve popular opinion toward him—and clearly that of his future father-in-law as well—Bingley jumped in.
“Please do not judge Darcy harshly, Mr. Bennet! He is renowned for his gentlemanly behavior, most especially to the ladies of Society!” Darcy winced, not sure how that statement would be interpreted by Elizabeth’s father. Bingley was not done, unfortunately. “His manners are normally of the highest caliber, I promise you that. So much so that he is sought by all as the perfect companion for dancing and the like.”
Darcy fervently prayed the ground would open and swallow him.
“It is entirely my fault,” Bingley rushed on. “I bullied him into coming to Hertfordshire last autumn. His heart’s desire was to return to Pemberley and Miss Darcy. Then, I compounded the matter by insisting he attend the Assembly. His foul mood on that occasion was an anomaly, and his words were directed at me, not meant as a personal insult to Miss Elizabeth.”
“Charles.” Darcy halted his friend with a raised hand. “Your gracious rise to my defense is appreciated but unnecessary.” He turned to Mr. Bennet, whose expression was unreadable. “There is some truth to Bingley’s claims, insofar as my desire to be at Pemberley rather than here. Nevertheless, only I am responsible for my actions and words.”
He paused to inhale, keeping his gaze level with Mr. Bennet’s. “I am the master of my choices and my moods. Indeed, I was in a temper that night and confess with shame that I did scant to hide it. I also confess that my former prejudices blinded me—in many ways. I hope I can prove to you, sir, that my attitudes have severely changed since then, in large part due to your fine daughter. Yet, at that time and on that night, foul mood or not, when I said that I did not warrant Miss Elizabeth as a temptation to me, or as particularly handsome, I meant it.”
“I see.” Mr. Bennet nodded once. Then his serious expression faltered, a small smile playing about his lips. “Your honesty is refreshing, Mr. Darcy. And you need not worry at my displeasure in your confession. As I said, we already know the truth of your initial thoughts toward Lizzy. Others were appalled, such as Mrs. Bennet. Mothers tend to consider physical appearance and the ability to flirt with skill as the two most important attributes to ensnare a husband. Many fathers do as well, I suppose, so if one of those abilities fail it is a devastating blow!”
Darcy remained standing with Parzival and the glass of brandy clutched forgotten in his hands. Unsure whether he had salvaged matters or muddled them worse, he kept silent.
“In the case of Jane,” Mr. Bennet resumed with a smile toward Bingley, “she was blessed with beauty outwardly and of the soul. Her fault, as seen from the standpoint of attracting a suitor easily, is her reserve.”
Bingley diverted his eyes from Mr. Bennet. How true those words were! As admirable as Bingley considered Jane’s modesty and gentleness, and as fully as he blamed himself for allowing others to persuade him rather than following his heart, if Jane had shown her favor toward him from the beginning, they might well be married long since.
“Lizzy is quite another matter.” Mr. Bennet went on, studying Darcy’s face as he talked, “She is clever, witty, and intelligent. She is also well aware of this. Some would and have argued that she is too aware and prideful of her cleverness.” He shrugged, the gesture apparent to Darcy as a disagreement with this assessment of his favored daughter. “Her gaiety, humor, and frequent laughter is genuine, yet not as a means to entice or mask a dull mind.” He chuckled. “You are not the first man, Mr. Darcy, to be mistaken about and surprised by Lizzy.”
Abrupt, blinding jealousy surged through Darcy’s body. Not the first man? What in blazes did that mean? Luckily, Mr. Bennet answered the questions Darcy was in no condition to voice without growling.
“Lizzy’s handsomeness is often overlooked when compared to Jane, and because she rarely primps to feed her vanity, as most girls do. I have no problem with this, so long as my daughter’s numerous internal attributes are recognized and appreciated. This appears to be the case with you, Mr. Darcy, as it certainly was not with Collins, thus I am pleased—”
“Collins?” Darcy blurted. “My aunt’s rector, Mr. Collins?”
Mr. Bennet’s brows lifted as he nodded. “The same, yes.” Then he laughed. “I see Lizzy has not shared that information with you. Interesting. I suspect you may discover that rejected proposal rivals yours.”
A multitude of emotions swirled through Darcy’s head. Collins? Elizabeth married to that imbecile was a vision he could not begin to fathom. Of course, a woman as confident and wise as Elizabeth Bennet would never agree to marry a man like that! Still, the fact was Collins had asked, and she could have said yes.
Darcy shuddered. How many other proposals has she received? What a fool to presume I am the first to be bewitched by her myriad charms!
* ~ * ~ *
Huffing loudly, Caroline flipped her arms in the air and flounced away from the table. “I have never hated Jane Bennet, Charles. She is…pretty and sweet, if not too bright, and her manners are…acceptable. I suppose you do love her, as you assert, and with time and proper guidance, she may improve in her elegance and—”
“Is this supposed to be an endorsement? Do compliments choke your throat, Caroline? Never mind,” he bellowed when she sputtered an interjection. “All I want are your congratulations, even if false, and then your silence on the subject forever. I am under no illusions that Louisa’s pompousness is less than yours, but at least she possessed enough civility, respect, and affection to write with her congratulations. Do you think you can manage that much?”
Hands balled on his hips, Bingley fought the urge to berate further. Willing his vexation to abate, he waited for her to reply, and as the time ticked by, curiosity dampened his frustration. Caroline stood near the dartboard some six feet away, staring vaguely toward one of the far windows. As typical, her chin was lifted haughtily and lips puckered as if a sour taste lay on her tongue. Unusual were the rapidly blinking eyes, the twitching leg fluttering her skirt, and the nervous twisting of the ring on her left hand. Bingley was frequently flummoxed by his younger sister’s attitude and opinions, but he was eminently familiar with her mannerisms and expressions. Everything Caroline did was practiced, controlled, and purposeful. A restless, distressed Caroline was an anomaly.
“Congratulations!” Her shrill exclamation; abrupt, jerky pivot; and scowl were wholly at odds with the sentiment. Strangely, rather than Bingley’s irritation increasing, ridiculousness struck him.
Snickering, he patted his chest. “Ah, Caroline! How you warm my heart with your well wishes. I pray the effort has not caused you harm?”
After a collected pause and cleansing breath, she repeated, “Congratulations,” in a honeyed, sincere tone. “I wish you and Miss Bennet a lifetime of happiness. I mean it,” she insisted when Bingley’s brows arched, “truly. Jane is…” She sighed and brushed at something on her cheek. “…a lovely woman. Provincial and not what I wished for you, Charles, but…I cannot argue that you two are suited. She makes you happy,” she concluded with a shrug.
“Indeed she does. Immensely so. Thank you.”
Nodding once, Caroline turned away and resumed her dreamlike stare out the window. Bingley frowned, more confused than relieved. She spoke sincerely—he felt certain of that—and it was nice to hear the admission. Suddenly parched, Bingley walked to the sidebar and poured a glass of water and then another, drinking each in one long gulp. Caroline remained slump shouldered and immobile other than intermittent swipes at her face and a quivering tic along her jaw.
Bingley’s eyes flew wide. Good God! Is she crying? The idea was preposterous! He searched his memories and honestly could not remember his sister ever crying—not even when lashed by their nanny while in the nursery. If he had ever given the topic any thought, he might have speculated her tear glands were dysfunctional. It was so inconceivable he experienced none of the standard male guilt or discomfiture at a woman crying. Rather, his inclination was to exploit her rare emotional state.
“Accepting my future with Jane is an important step, Caroline, and I sincerely appreciate your congratulations. Now you must accept Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth.”
“That I cannot do.”
Leaving the glass on the sidebar, Bingley circled the billiard table at a moderate pace and stopped in front of the window she dazedly faced. Indeed, her eyes were red rimmed and moist, and an unattractive blotchiness covered her cheeks.
Damn it all! Now I feel sorry for her.
“I did not realize your feelings for Mr. Darcy were this strong. Having lost Jane for a time, I can empathize with your heartache over losing the man you love, and I am sorry—”
“Love? What are you driveling now? Really, Charles! Just because you are ruled by maudlin emotions does not mean I am.”
“Then…what?” Truly baffled, a coherent sentence would not form. Gesturing at his eyes and then toward her face worked to get his message across.
“You become lachrymose at romantic poetry, tragic opera, and fluffy kittens frolicking. I weep when a drab inferior with an impertinent tongue destroys my future. I cry at injustice, Charles.”
During her rant, the pooling tears disappeared and she wiped the residual wetness off her cheeks. Her motley complexion and reddened eyes tipped the scale toward anger rather then sadness. Bingley believed her claims were how she honestly felt. That did not make it sensible or right, however.
“I shan’t belittle the intensity of your emotions, Sister. I disagree with your perceptions of Miss Elizabeth but doubt my ability to convince you otherwise. Where you are seriously wrong is blaming her for destroying your future because you never had a future with Darcy.”
Unfazed, she smiled coolly and shook her head. “You are the one who is wrong. Mr. Darcy and I are alike. I am his equal, not Eliza Bennet. They are a drastic mistake.”
“This line of thinking is dangerous. You must see reason!” Bingley rapidly strode until directly in front of her. “Darcy and Miss Elizabeth are perfectly suited, and their love is real. Surely you can see that!”
Staring straight into his eyes, face emotionless, she countered, “I see a man who has been enchanted. Mr. Darcy is not the same, and I would think, as his friend, you would fear for him.”
A shiver raced up his spine. “I fear for you, Caroline. Give up these delusions of Mr. Darcy before you cause irreparable damage. Fighting the inevitable serves no one, least of all you.”
“I refuse to see that union as inevitable. Until the vows are recited before God, they are not married.”
“Listen to yourself!” Cinching her wrist penetrated her maddeningly aloof demeanor and placid tone—not much though. Caroline merely turned her head to peer at him through hard-set eyes. Fighting against the panic choking his airway, Bingley chastened, “Stubborn you are but not stupid. A betrothal is as binding as marriage, or near to. Honor is everything to a man like Darcy. If you know him an iota, then you know that. A gentleman never disgraces a lady or compromises her reputation.” Gripping her chin hard between thumb and fingers, he glared sternly into her eyes, his words clipped and hard. “Breaking his vow to Elizabeth is never going to happen, Caroline. Accept that and accept it now, or God help me, there will be consequences.”
Bingley ripped the leather straps off his knuckles, spun on his heels, and stormed out of the room. He burned to pound the sand bag, but Caroline was too close for him to trust his resistance—especially with her frighteningly calculating, smug expression.
* ~ * ~ *
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