When Mr. Bennet made the announcement of the betrothal of William and Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet's demeanor was the opposite of what had been expected. Clasping her hands in front of her, Mrs. Bennet stood and drew herself up to her full height--which was not truly impressive as her stature was not much more than Elizabeth's height. Taking on a haughty expression, she asked that Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia leave the room, instructing her girls quite adamantly not to repeat their father's announcement to anyone at this time.
While completely ignoring the presence of William as she had done before, after the others had departed, Mrs. Bennet first took in the confused countenance of Elizabeth. She then turned to face her husband, who stared at her in obvious astonishment. Mrs. Bennet began to speak in a quiet voice, but as she continued, anger and resentment seeped into her tone, "You might think it impertinent and disrespectful of your authority that I should question your decision, Mr. Bennet, but I have been witness to the consequences resulting from Mr. Darcy's transgressions against my family, and I will notpermit it to happen again when it is in my power to prevent it. Before I accept this man into my family, I would like to be told just what explanation he has given for all that he has done to injure you and, more especially, our Lizzy. I am concerned that tender remembrances of what once had been, may have influenced your decision to accept Mr. Darcy's excuses when the correct course would be to send him away from this house and inform him that he is never to return. Perhaps you have been taken in by him once again! If this is so, I will not allow it!"
William was not very surprised at her reaction as it was much in keeping with the way she had been behaving toward him since he came into Hertfordshire. He watched as Elizabeth's bewildered expression morphed into one of warm affection for her mother. His gaze shifted to Mr. Bennet, who gaped at his wife in amazement.
After several moments of silence while he gathered his wits, Mr. Bennet cleared his throat and answered, "Mrs. Bennet, I am certainly enjoying the improvements in your character of late! I shall be happy to share with you all that William has told us. Have a seat, my dear, and make yourself comfortable. It is a lengthy tale that I must tell."
Mr. Bennet proceeded to summarize what he had learned from William and Colonel Fitzwilliam earlier in the day while Elizabeth and William sat quietly. Elizabeth, assuming William would need support while hearing the entire history once again, took his hand and did not release it throughout the communication, even after being on the receiving end of a stern look from her mother as a result of doing so. Throughout her husband's speech, Mrs. Bennet's expression slowly changed from one of cold dissent to one that Elizabeth had rarely seen upon her mother's face during her entire lifetime--contemplation.
At the end of her husband's tale, Mrs. Bennet stared at William for a few moments before her expression softened and she said, "Mr. Darcy, please forgive my false assumptions and my ill-mannered behavior toward you since we have been in company again."
Relieved, William answered, "Mrs. Bennet, I believe everyone in this room is guilty of drawing false conclusions of the others' intent. I understand and appreciate your sense of loyalty to your family. I am especially grateful that you would protect Elizabeth from a man you thought might harm her. Please be assured that Elizabeth's happiness and protection is of the highest priority to me as well. I hold no ill will against you, and I hope that you feel the same. I believe it would be best if we begin again."
Mrs. Bennet held out her hand to William. William rose and bowed over her hand as she said, "I agree to begin again, Mr. Darcy. But I do have one further question."
"I will answer if I can, Mrs. Bennet."
Mrs. Bennet's mien transformed into one closer to her old self as she asked, "Do you really have ten thousand a year?"
"Actually, Mrs. Bennet, my income is slightly higher than rumored."
Eyes widening, she reacted in the manner she had been expected to when first told of the engagement. "More than ten thousand a year! My dear Lizzy, such a good match you have made! An estate and a house in town! The gowns, the jewels, the carriages--OH! The pin money you will receive! Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long will turn green with envy!" Mrs. Bennet fairly waved the handkerchief in her hand.
Happy that the tension in the room had been broken, William, Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet attempted to disguise their amusement at her antics. Mr. Bennet suggested that the other girls be allowed to return to the room and Mrs. Bennet was only too pleased to invite them in again and tell them the news, forgetting that they had been told once before.
William was asked to stay for dinner so that Mrs. Bennet would have some time to plan the wedding with the happy couple. Though at first the mother of the bride had complained about the short period of time she would have to plan the wedding festivities, even she was able to recognize that after three years of waiting, the couple had little patience of opposition to their being wed immediately after the banns had been published. It was trouble enough to have Elizabeth and William agree to compromise and hold the ceremony on the Wednesday instead of the Monday morning immediately following the last reading of the banns, and her instincts told her that they would deprive her of planning a wedding and celebration at all and elope if she attempted to push the date any later!
Mrs. Bennet had thought of insisting that William apply for a special license, but that idea was quickly discarded, for she suspected if William could manage it, she would have even less time to arrange the wedding festivities, and that certainly would not do!
Instead, she decided to look upon it all as a challenge, one at which her success would prove her superior hostess skills to the entire neighborhood and her future son-in-law. The couple was of little assistance as neither of them wished for anything nearly as elaborate as she envisioned and attempted to convince her to have a more modest affair. The words "modest" and "simple" were not in Mrs. Bennet's vocabulary when it came to a subject so highly anticipated as a daughter's wedding, and so, happy it was for Elizabeth and William that she discontinued asking them for their preferences only to immediately dismiss them. Her manner changed to one reminiscent of Napoleon himself, reminding William a little of his Aunt Catherine, though she was certainly more pleasant than that lady could have managed.
After dinner, Mr. Bennet guessed that William would appreciate a respite from the talk of menus, flowers, lace, and silk, and asked the young man to join him in his study for a glass of port. The moment his future father-in-law seemed comfortably settled into his chair behind the desk, William could not wait one minute longer--he placed some papers before him.
Mr. Bennet could not help but laugh. "William! Marriage contracts? You certainly came to Longbourn prepared today!" Noticing the date that the contract had been drafted, Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows and said, "This was written and signed by you more than three years ago!"
"Yes, sir. In the months leading up to Elizabeth's seventeenth birthday, I had my solicitor make out this marriage contract with every intention of bringing it to Longbourn to present to you, Mr. Bennet, but my injuries resulting from the fire prevented this from being possible. It has been a comfort to me knowing that the document was always nearby, and so the contract had remained in the valise in which I keep important papers when I am travelling. I made certain these papers were with me when I journeyed into Hertfordshire. I have reviewed the terms and find nothing that I wish to change--pending your approval, of course. Now that we have your consent, after this is signed by you, if anything should happen to me, even before we are married, Elizabeth would be protected."
"And it would protect you as well. It would cause a great scandal if I changed my mind after signing the contract." The older gentleman smiled at William's blush.
"Sir, I cannot help but fear that something else might go wrong before…"
Mr. Bennet interrupted, "I understand, son--truly I do." Mr. Bennet began to read again. "This is more than generous, William. I cannot possibly imagine disapproving of your terms, though I would like some time to review the contract in more detail before signing it. Will you meet with me again tomorrow?"
"Yes, Mr. Bennet, I would be happy to. With your permission, I would like Elizabeth to be fully aware of and agree to the terms of the contract as well, sir."
"Would you like to be present when she reads it? I must say I would like to see the look on her face when she sees this!" Mr. Bennet laughed.
William became flustered. "Do you think she will not approve? I will increase her pin money if you think she needs more, sir. I…"
"No, no, William, you misunderstand me!" Mr. Bennet interrupted again, "But you should be prepared for an argument from Lizzy. She rarely spends the entire amount of the pin money she is allowed as it is, and she receives far less than this from me--she will protest the need for such a copious amount as you have spelled out in here," He gestured to the contract. "You will get no argument from me, and certainly none from my wife if she was ever to find out--and I do not suggest that you ever tell her the amount. I just thought I should to warn you of what to expect during your discussion tomorrow."
"Thank you, Mr. Bennet. I shall formulate my argument so I will be prepared for Elizabeth's objections. You may not be aware that I rarely lost an argument on the debate team at Cambridge."
"Did you know that Lizzy has won several arguments against Henry Bickersteth*?" Mr. Bennet understood William's shocked expression, Mr. Bickersteth being a well-known and highly accomplished debater. "Yes, that Henry Bickersteth."
"Ah… then I see I am in good company." William cleared his throat as Mr. Bennet stifled a laugh. "But in this case I will prevail since mine is the better position. I can think of many reasons that Elizabeth's pin money and settlement should be so high. My arguments shall be logical while hers can be based only on preference."
"Perhaps I was mistaken earlier in my advice--if Lizzy will not be convinced to accept the contract, you could always inform my wife of the amounts, and I am certain that she will influence her to alter her opinion. I have often witnessed how my Fanny's nagging wins out over many a logical argument. I would save it as a last resort, however."
The gentlemen both chuckled as they rose from their chairs. Mr. Bennet held out his hand and William shook it. They soon rejoined the ladies.
The following morning, Elizabeth walked out before sunrise as was her usual habit when the weather allowed. As she walked along the path to Oakham Mount just beyond the sight of Longbourn, the rustling of brush along the path caught her attention, and she hesitated. As she turned toward the noise, she felt hands upon her waist, pulling her back until she was fully enveloped by the arms attached to them. A spicy, male scent surrounded her and warm, sweet breath tickled her ear with a whispered, "Good morning, my love," followed by a number of light kisses along her neck trailing downward as far as the collar of her coat would allow.
Elizabeth smiled and closed her eyes, leaning her head to the side to allow him better access to her skin. "Promise me something, William?"
A return path of kisses, with his pausing to taste her exquisite skin along the way, delayed his answer. Once his lips reached the location that prompted his beloved to moan softly, he breathed, "Anything."
She hesitated a few moments, delighting in all the sensations of her William's ministrations and the wonder of being held in his arms--exactly where she belonged. "After we are wed, I wish to begin every day with waking in your arms."
William took a deep breath, indulging in the aroma belonging only to Elizabeth. "Your wishes match mine exactly, Elizabeth. Though many couples do, I have often hoped that you would not prefer to sleep in separate bedchambers."
Elizabeth shivered with pleasure and angled her head to catch his eyes with hers. Turning in his arms, she caressed his cheek, her eyes darting to his lips time and time again. When she moistened her lips with her tongue, William could no longer resist her silent request for him to taste her lips. Her fingers lacing through his hair was encouragement enough to deepen the kiss. William's arms wrapped more tightly around her, pulling her as close to him as possible.
After a few minutes engaged in similar undertakings, William loosened his hold on Elizabeth, pulling away to see her face. His breath caught at the expression of love that he found in her eyes. Burying his face in her silky curls to avoid the temptation that she offered, he said huskily, "We should begin our walk, my heart, for I do not believe I will be able to behave myself if we continue in this manner."
She moved away slightly, giving him a look that communicated all the gratification that she felt in being able to induce the same passion within him that he always seemed to be able to achieve in her. He took her hand and together they began the trek to Oakham Mount.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth spoke, "Not that I mind seeing you, but in your meeting me this morning, my intuition tells me that you do not think I should walk alone. Why is that?"
William's expression hardened as he considered how to answer without frightening her. Knowing that only the truth would satisfy her, he stated, "I apologize that I did not explain it yesterday. Before I ever set out for Longbourn, I had every intention of discussing it upon my arrival, but once Richard appeared and his news had been revealed, it slipped my mind. By the time I thought of it again it was late at night.
"I fear for your safety from Wickham, Elizabeth. After Ramsgate, I had thought to write to your father with a warning, but never did I truly believe that Wickham could have been able to find you." William sighed, shaking his head. "Not that Mr. Bennet would have received a letter had I written one!
"I knew not that Wickham was in the neighborhood until that night in the Netherfield library when you told me that you had spoken to him recently. I have not been able to speak to you or your father about him since then."
"I would see you safely to Longbourn after our walk, and wish to speak to you and your father on this subject. But at present I would much rather enjoy our walk together."
And that they did.
When Elizabeth entered the house with William, noticing the raised eyebrows on her father's face she announced to the family gathered at the table, "Mr. Darcy and I met while taking our morning exercise and since he was returning to Netherfield only to break his fast before meeting with Papa directly afterward, I invited him to share our meal with us."
After their appetites were satisfied, Mr. Bennet requested the company of William and Elizabeth in his study.
"Mr. Bennet," William began, "before we begin to speak of the contract, there is another matter that I wish to discuss. Elizabeth knows something of my dealings with Lieutenant George Wickham, whom I have been made to understand is in Meryton with the militia, but I wish to tell you of it in more detail--and to warn you about this man."
Knowing he could trust Mr. Bennet, William explained the particulars about Wickham's relationship with the Darcy family and Wickham's crimes against them and others. He went on to say, "Wickham is a jealous and vengeful man when he perceives he has been wronged--but what you must understand is that his definition of right and wrong are completely different than that of the remainder of society. To Wickham, what is 'right' consists of his receiving exactly what he wants whether he deserves it or not… I should say whether it is even legal or not. His being 'wronged' is defined by his not having all that he wants simply handed to him the moment he wants it. For example, in my refusing his request for more money after he quickly had wasted the four thousand pounds that he had earlier agreed was sufficient compensation for the living mentioned in my father's will, his opinion changed to my having committed a great wrong toward him.
"Previously, I mentioned to Elizabeth that Georgiana had only escaped from Wickham's … attentions due to Elizabeth's teaching my sister how to defend herself from men like him. Unfortunately, during the time leading up to Wickham's advances--when she still thought him a friend--Georgiana spoke of Elizabeth. According to Georgiana, it seems that his father, our late steward, had written to his son of Elizabeth during her visit to Pemberley three years ago, stating that he expected we would marry soon after, and so Wickham inquired about Elizabeth and encouraged Georgiana to speak of her. After Georgiana's employing some of aforementioned defensive maneuvers during her escape from him, in my sister's anger she revealed to Wickham that 'Elizabeth had taught her well.'
"Sir, I fear it would be within Wickham's nature to conclude that Elizabeth owes him the thirty thousand pound dowry that, had his plan been successful, he most certainly would have gained by being forced to marry Georgiana.
"In addition, I cannot help but worry that he has a compulsion to revenge himself upon me by harming those whom I love. In a round-about way, Wickham did admit that this was one of his motives for his advances upon Georgiana.
"Respectfully, I must insist that Elizabeth does not walk alone while Wickham is in the area and that you do not welcome this man into your home. This is the reason I made certain to escort her to Longbourn this morning, sir. I feel that all your daughters are at risk, Mr. Bennet."
For a moment Elizabeth felt her ire rising. She thought that William had understood how important her independence was to her, and she could not believe he would limit her in such a way. But then she thought back to earlier that morning. How easy it had been for William to creep up on her from behind and take her in his arms before she had time to react! What had been a pleasant memory was now weighed down by the thought of what could have happened had it not been William. If she had screamed, would anyone have heard her? She was certain that had she been further from the house, her distress would have gone undetected. Though she knew the area to be safe to walk out alone in general, with a man like Wickham nearby, she had to agree to restrict her rambles for a time.
William's attention was drawn by Elizabeth's sharp intake of breath, and he saw all the color drain from her face. He suddenly felt guilty for having spoken of this with her in the room as he did not want to frighten her, but at the same time he knew that she would want to understand the reason her walks would be curtailed--and he had promised to be honest with her in all matters. Wishing to be reassured that he had done right and that she was well, William willed her to look at him.
When Elizabeth finally did meet his eyes, she immediately comprehended his concerned expression and gave a small nod.
Mr. Bennet was unaware of this exchange, as he had been staring out the window, distracted by his thoughts. "What can be done to rid us of this man?"
"Soon after I became aware of Wickham's location, I contacted Colonel Fitzwilliam about this very subject. I have been assured that Wickham will be transferred to a different regiment. The commanding officer at his newly assigned regiment is a friend of my cousin's. The gentleman is already aware of Wickham's character through his younger brother who had attended Cambridge in the same year as Wickham and I." With a glance at Elizabeth all but stating that he could not give details with a lady in the room, William continued, "Let us just say that Wickham led this gentleman's brother into some less-than-proper circumstances that required his family to call in favors in order to save their name from ruin as a result of these incidents. Wickham will be well watched once he arrives at his new assignment, and I pray it will do him some good. Yesterday Colonel Fitzwilliam informed me that the transfer will take a few days more. In the meantime, we must proceed carefully."
Mr. Bennet felt that the answers to the questions that he wished to ask would not be fit for his daughter's ears. "Lizzy, would you mind going to the kitchen to ask Hill for tea to be sent in?"
Elizabeth shot her father an accusing look. "Certainly, Papa… and just what length of time should this trip to the kitchen keep me away from this room?"
Mr. Bennet smiled slightly, but his brow was furrowed with worry. "Five minutes should do nicely, my dear."
After Elizabeth closed the door behind her, Mr. Bennet asked, "How could Wickham expect to extract thirty thousand pounds from Elizabeth? Even if all the girls' dowries were to be added together, I would not have it to give."
"If he truly expected money, I would think he would assume that I would pay, perhaps not all but at least part of the amount, to keep him quiet. Being paid Darcy money would mean a great deal more to him than money from the Bennet coffers. But… Mr. Bennet, I do not think he is beyond finding another way to satisfy what he feels is an obligation due him while at the same time taking his revenge upon me. Though to my knowledge, before Ramsgate it has always been with the lady's consent, he has tampered with many tradesmen's daughters and servant girls. After what he tried to do to Georgiana, I would not put it past him to arrange to be found in a compromising position with Elizabeth. Even if it were with one of her sisters, it would hurt Elizabeth, and by extension, me. Whether she was willing or not would not matter--your family would be ruined in the eyes of society, and Wickham would expect that I would not marry Elizabeth."
"Are you insinuating that you would marry her if that came to pass?"
"Sir, after all that occurred yesterday it was not until late in the evening that I realized I had not discussed this with you as I had originally planned. I spent the night awake, and I admit to thoroughly torturing myself with all the possible consequences of this oversight! Now that she has declared her wish to marry me, I find there is nothing that could prevent me from marrying Elizabeth. I cannot live without her, Mr. Bennet." William's tone was of passionate conviction. "Of course, we would have to stay away from the ton for a number of years, but to give up the society of people like my aunt and uncle would be no hardship on me. By the time Georgiana would be ready to come out, the worst of the gossip would have passed. Either way, I would not wish my sister to marry a man who would shun us without taking into account the truth behind a piece of gossip."
Mr. Bennet stared at William, thinking of how impressed he was with his friend's son, and how ashamed he was for the opinion he had held of him since Elizabeth's seventeenth birthday.
"I would like to visit Colonel Forster to warn him about Wickham's character and request notification of when the transfer orders are received. I believe the meeting would have better results if you were present, sir, being one of the principal land owners in the area. If it is convenient for you, I would like to go into Meryton as soon as we are finished here."
Mr. Bennet nodded. "I must complete some business, but I shall be available after luncheon."
A knock interrupted the silence left in the last comment's wake. "That will be Lizzy," Mr. Bennet stated, and then called out, "Enter!"
William rose from his seat as Elizabeth peeked into the room, asking, "Shall I find something else to keep me occupied, or may I come in now?"
Mr. Bennet looked to William to inquire whether he had anything further to say on the subject that had required her absence, but the young man's eyes were firmly set upon his betrothed. At seeing William's expression, Mr. Bennet knew their previous discussion was at an end whether there was anything remaining to say or not. Mr. Bennet chuckled. "You may have a seat, Lizzy. I am certain you have surmised you will not be permitted your solitary walks until Wickham leaves the area. I think it would be safe enough for you to walk with William and one of your sisters." Mr. Bennet, who suspected the newly engaged couple had spent the entirety of Elizabeth's walk earlier this morning together and unchaperoned, gave them both a knowing look. "You may walk out with Mr. Bingley and Jane as well, of course. If your sisters are inclined to go visiting, you may only go out in groups of three or more. Meryton is off limits for now, my dear. Do I make myself clear?"
Elizabeth nodded. "Perfectly clear, Papa. How will you explain this to Mama and my sisters?"
"I am the master of the estate and the head of this family. I should not have to explain the reasons behind any restrictions I lay down." At Elizabeth's doubtful look he continued, "But, I will warn them discreetly against Lieutenant Wickham's character nonetheless."
"Papa, I have spent the past few minutes delaying Kitty and Lydia's departure. They were planning to walk into Meryton this morning…"
"In that case, I will return shortly." Mr. Bennet made a show of leaving the door open as he left the room.
"Perhaps I should begin to read the contract?" Elizabeth asked.
"Please wait, Elizabeth. Your father would never forgive me if I allowed you to begin reading it before his return. He has been looking forward to… being with you when you do."
Elizabeth seemed quite confused. "He has read it, I assume?" William nodded and she continued, "Then may I ask why he wishes to be present when I read it?"
William squirmed a little. "I beg that you simply wait for his return without any further questions."
An air of surprise mixed with chagrin fell across Elizabeth's features, a look identical to the one that she had displayed in William's dream the previous night. In the dream, this expression had come after she had begun to read the contract, and William had responded by explaining all his reasons for wishing to give her such a high amount in the settlement--while he distracted her with gentle kisses, caresses, and other such attentions. He had had no trouble at all convincing her that he was indeed correct. If only the door was closed and her father was not expected to return so soon, he could employ this method of persuasion in reality this time!
Elizabeth began to laugh. "Why are you grinning at me in that manner, William?"
William leaned forward in his chair and whispered huskily, "I promise I shall explain my grin quite thoroughly the next time we are alone."
Her eyes sparkled in response. "I believe your expression has inspired my anticipation for your fulfilling that promise, Mr. Darcy."
After several minutes, Mr. Bennet cleared his throat loudly before entering the room. His daughter and her fiancé noticed he was looking quite a bit more frazzled than when he left to speak to his wife and other daughters. "Lizzy, once you leave Longbourn, I doubt I will ever hear two words of sense spoken together again." Mr. Bennet shook his head as if to clear it, and then continued, "I am glad to see you waited to begin reading the contract. I find myself in need of some entertainment. Would you like to peruse it now, my dear?"
William closed his eyes for a moment and held back a sigh. Elizabeth arched a brow and responded, "Entertainment?" her eyes darted back and forth between William's slightly annoyed look and Mr. Bennet's amused one before she continued, "I shall attempt to live up to your expectations, Papa."
Elizabeth was more than a little curious to read the contract after her father's comments, but as she perused the document she soon realized that he was waiting to see her reaction when she saw the numbers. Though she was careful to maintain her features in a schooled expression of nonchalance, a feeling of shock spread through her. About to object to William's giving her too much money, Elizabeth discerned the better course of action would be to examine the reasons that William would have settled such large amounts on her.
As she feigned reading and began reviewing in her mind what she remembered of Pemberley and Darcy House, Elizabeth became aware that all she had known while growing up at Longbourn could not compare to the elegance and grandeur of William's homes. The standards of behavior she would have to accept would be set much higher than they had ever been in the past or else she would risk embarrassing William.
She imagined that her pin money had been set so high due to the anticipated requirements of dressing appropriately for her new station. Analyzing the apparel she had seen on the ladies of William's class in London's theaters, while shopping, or during visits to a tea shop, Elizabeth related it to her own attire. It quickly became apparent how inadequate her usual style of dress was for the wife of Mr. Darcy. As if to prove that point, several conversations that she had reluctantly overheard between Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst came to mind. When the ladies had remarked upon Hertfordshire's inadequacies, they always included the style, cut, and quality of material of those they criticized. In general, whenever a new person was introduced into their conversation, whether they considered the person to be fashionable or not, the two ladies would comment on the quality of their attire. From what William had written in his journal it seemed that most ladies of the higher circles of the ton judged others similarly. Elizabeth would have to work hard to impress others so that William would not be ridiculed for his choice of a wife.
When she came to the amount of her settlement, she knew that William had been preparing for all possible futures. No matter how she despised thinking of it, he was determined to provide for her if he passed on before she did. Elizabeth had spent the past few years helping her mother with the housekeeping books for Longbourn and knew that the day-to-day expenses of William's homes must be much higher. If he passed on, William would wish for her to continue to live in the same style she had enjoyed while he was alive. If she met her demise before him, he would expect to provide for their younger children through her settlement. Keeping this in mind, she read the remainder of the document.
"I do not know what Father expected, but I fear my reaction will be a disappointment to him." Elizabeth thought, then said aloud, "I have one question, William. Am I permitted to do what I wish with pin money that I may not have spent at the end of the month? I would like to donate to charity if I may."
William hesitated. This was not a question he had prepared for. "Elizabeth, you need only to inform me of any worthwhile causes, and I would be happy to make donations from the both of us."
"Then may I invest anything I have not spent in order to provide for our younger children's futures?"
"Yes, of course. But Elizabeth, I do not wish for you to spend less on yourself so that you can save for our children. Do you not trust that I would provide for them in my will?" At Elizabeth's nod, he continued with part of what he had prepared, "I will not be convinced to lower the amounts set in the contract. Once we are married, you will have to embrace a new type of lifestyle." Stopping short, William glanced at Mr. Bennet. He had thought that Mr. Bennet would have left them alone for a few minutes to discuss the matter in private, but the older gentleman did not offer to do so. Thinking about what he had planned to say next he suddenly became aware that he might insult his future father-in-law's financial situation if he continued.
Elizabeth placed the contract on her father's desk and folded her hands in her lap. "I understand completely, William."
Not taking her eyes from her lap, Elizabeth said, "Do not worry, I will do whatever is expected of me. I do not wish to be an embarrassment or a disappointment to you, as I am certain your relatives have predicted I will be."
Surprised at the way she misunderstood his intentions, William moved forward in his seat, took her hands in his, and waited for her to look at him. Seeing Elizabeth's eyes shine with unshed tears, William was no longer concerned about what he said in front of her father. All that mattered to him was Elizabeth! The arguments he had prepared were forgotten as he tried to reassure her, "The only way that you could ever disappoint me is if you pretended to be something you are not in order to please others. I want you, Elizabeth, as you are. You could never embarrass me. There is not a woman in the ton who could match your intelligence, your wit, your vivacity, or the beauty that radiates from within you. I will always be proud to call you my wife.
"I only ask that you indulge me--as long as it is in my power, it would make me very happy if you would allow me to spoil you a little. What good does all my money do me if I am not permitted to spend some of it on you?"
Seeing Elizabeth's smile, Mr. Bennet felt there was no reason to delay any longer. He signed the contracts below William's signature, which had been placed there more than three years prior, and coughed to gain the young couple's attention. Passing the documents to William, he said with feeling, "I will be proud to call you 'son,' William."
Elizabeth watched as the two most important men in her life shook hands--the younger was almost giddy with joy, the elder displayed only a small smile.
William unfolded the contracts and looked at Mr. Bennet's signature in such a way that upon seeing his expression, Elizabeth felt he could not believe that this milestone had truly been reached unless he had actually seen her father's signature below his own. As William was busy making out an express to his solicitor to forward his copy of the document, father and daughter's eyes met for a moment. His eyes immediately darted away as if he were hiding something from her sharp gaze, but she had been too quick for him. Elizabeth could see that the smile reached his eyes only partially and that there was a touch of sorrow present as well. She sighed silently.
Elizabeth had expected that her father would regret losing her company. She also knew that she would miss her father very much and felt a little bit guilty about leaving him.
But she could not allow these feelings to outweigh her happiness at spending the rest of her life at William's side. This was the way of the world--daughters left the protection of their fathers and took their place with their husbands. "No," she decided, "I know Papa wishes me to be happy at last. I will feel guilt no longer!"
Once the papers were safely stored away in his pocket, William's smile widened and Elizabeth could not help but match it with a brilliant one of her own.
Elizabeth said, "Shall we join the others?"
"Bingley was planning on meeting me here. He should have arrived by now."
"Well then, you should rescue him from the gaggle of ladies in the parlor. Perhaps you all could go for a walk?" Mr. Bennet suggested, obviously looking forward to some time alone after such an emotional morning.
Bingley offered Elizabeth his congratulations on the news. When Elizabeth asked after his sisters and Mr. Hurst, Bingley replied, "They are well. I was just about to explain to your mother and sisters that I saw them off before coming to Longbourn."
"Oh? Have they returned to London, then?" Elizabeth inquired. "They spoke of looking forward to the season during our stay at Netherfield while Jane was ill."
Bingley looked a bit uncomfortable as he responded, "Caroline is headed for London, Miss Elizabeth. The Hursts will deliver her to a friend in London--a Miss Walters--perhaps you met her during the ball? Louisa and Hurst are off on an extended visit to Hurst's family seat in Cornwall. I do not think they will return to London for quite some time." He and William exchanged a knowing look which piqued Elizabeth's curiosity.
"I do hope they have a pleasant journey, Mr. Bingley," Mrs. Bennet replied. "Since it is only the two of you gentlemen in such a large house, perhaps you would both dine with us this evening?"
There was nothing the two gentlemen would rather do than spend the day with their ladies, and so they quickly agreed to the scheme. Elizabeth caught another significant look pass between William and his friend after he suggested a walk.
Mary and Mrs. Bennet stayed behind, and the others naturally paired up, with Kitty and Lydia in the lead, and Jane and Bingley falling behind.
William adjusted their pace to stay out of hearing range of the younger girls, but kept them in view. "I saw the looks you exchanged with Mr. Bingley. What happened to make his sisters leave so suddenly?" Elizabeth asked.
"Miss Bingley has been… unhappy since the ball and wished to return to London."
Elizabeth's eyes danced with mischievousness. "Yes, I can imagine she would have been unhappy with the attention you paid me. She certainly did not do well upon seeing us dance the waltz!"
"Ah, I was hoping for Bingley's sake that nobody saw her behavior."
"I doubt anyone else noticed. I certainly have not heard gossip about Miss Bingley's behavior, and we both know that my mother would have repeated it if there had been any! Did the news of our engagement have anything to do with Miss Bingley's sudden removal?"
William seemed very uncomfortable, as he answered, "I believe it did." He began fidgeting with his cravat, refusing to meet Elizabeth's eyes.
Elizabeth tightened her grip on the arm she was holding. "I can see something is terribly wrong. Tell me, William!"
"Very well, my love, but before I begin, first I must say that she was not successful." He dared a glance at her and noted he had never seen Elizabeth look so surprised. "I told you I could not sleep last night. As it turned out, it was a good thing I did not. She must have overheard me tell her brother that our marriage contract had not yet been signed and thought it was her last chance."
Elizabeth gasped. "What happened?"
"After everyone in the house had retired, I heard the knob on my chamber door being turned. Though my door was locked, I had my suspicions, and so I awoke my valet, Hughes, and had him come into the room so that he could be witness to what occurred. Miss Bingley returned a few minutes later with a key. Hughes hid behind the door with a sheet and threw it over her head as she came into the room. Having a good hold on her, he took her out into the hallway--all the while hollering that he had caught a robber breaking into my bedchamber. Hurst and Bingley came rushing out of their rooms just in time for Hughes to 'realize' that the screeches emanating from the robber sounded rather feminine. He pulled off the sheet to reveal a haggard-looking Miss Bingley."
Elizabeth could not help but laugh, startling William for several moments until he joined her. When she had quieted enough to speak, Elizabeth asked, "How perfect! What was Miss Bingley's reaction to all this?"
"Oh, she was livid! She screamed for quite a while at Hughes, 'How dare you, a servant, touch a lady in such a manner!' and other such nonsense--as if the entire thing were his fault. I finally tired of it and suggested that since she had been handled in such a way perhaps her brother should make Hughes marry her."
"You did not!"
"Yes, I certainly did! I felt rather guilty after I saw Hughes' reaction to the suggestion--I was afraid he would faint! You should have no worries for Hughes' sake, Elizabeth; Miss Bingley did not take kindly to that suggestion. She calmed herself only after she had extracted a promise from Bingley that she would not be made to marry a servant. Her brother asked just what she was doing trying to enter my bedchamber in the first place. After a while she said she must have been sleepwalking."
"I certainly hope Mr. Bingley did not believe her!"
"No, he did not. I will not go into details, but Miss Bingley then had the audacity to insult not only you but Miss Bennet as well. I have known Bingley for years and never have I seen him so angry. He threatened to send her to some relatives in the north of York, but Mrs. Hurst had by then joined us, and she suggested that she and her husband take Miss Bingley to London to visit with her friend so that she could attend the season. Bingley encouraged Miss Bingley to accept any offer of marriage made to her this season for he would support her only until the season is over. After that she would have to live off her own inheritance."
"Oh dear. What of the Hursts?"
"I think they have had enough of Miss Bingley's antics. After this scene, they refused to take her in as well. I am certain that now that she has been put in her place, she can at last find a respectable gentleman of some status who would marry her for her twenty thousand pounds. It does not sound like the ideal life to you and me, but it is all she really wants--though she set her sights on the wrong man up till now. For some reason she felt that since I was her brother's friend, she was destined to be Pemberley's next mistress. She could never accept that I would not pay her any such attentions." He hesitated and then said, "The events of last night made me aware of what lengths desperate people will go in order get what they feel they are owed."
"Wickham . . ." Elizabeth breathed.
"Yes." They walked on in silence for a minute before William noticed Kitty and Lydia were almost out of sight. "We must catch up with your sisters for I fear Bingley will be too distracted today to keep watch on them." Elizabeth noticed William glancing back at Jane and Bingley.
As she arched an eyebrow, Elizabeth asked, "Does Mr. Bingley's distraction have to do with his sister or does it stem from another quarter?"
William attempted unsuccessfully to hide his smile. "There is another reason. You will find out soon enough, my love."
Posted on: 2011-05-05
Elizabeth could barely contain her excitement as she stood examining Jane's dreamy expression in the reflection of the dressing table mirror. She took the brush from her elder sister's hand and began the nightly ritual of each smoothing the other's hair before retiring.
Earlier in the day, when Jane and Bingley had rejoined the group as they returned to Longbourn from their walk, their expressions had been radiating with joy. William had hinted that his friend and her sister would have some good news to announce after their ramble, but Jane had told her nothing about it, and Bingley had remained with the family instead of requesting an audience with Mr. Bennet as Elizabeth had expected. The gentlemen had remained at Longbourn to dine, and Jane and Bingley had been even more lost in each other's presence than was usual. Elizabeth was certain they had become engaged.
Since this had been the first opportunity for the sisters to be alone, Elizabeth had expected the news to come bursting from her elder sister's lips the moment they had closed the door behind them, but instead Jane remained silent. Elizabeth reminded herself that she should be patient. If Jane wished to keep her news to herself for the moment, then she should not press her, but Elizabeth herself was so happy for the obvious bliss emanating from her sister that she was having trouble containing her own emotions.
After Jane's hair had been plaited, they switched places. Forced to clear her throat several times to bring Jane's attention back to the task at hand from wherever it had wandered--Netherfield she imagined--Elizabeth found that she could wait no longer. "Jane, please!"
Jane's confusion was evident in her expression. "Lizzy?"
"Why do you believe there is anything to tell?"
Elizabeth giggled, "Jane! If you continue on in this distracted manner, we shall not get to bed until it is almost dawn! You have been positively glowing with happiness all evening, as was Mr. Bingley. You must tell me your news!"
Jane's troubled expression in response to her speech surprised her sister. "Oh, Lizzy, I am sorry. I did not mean to… we had decided to wait for…"
Understanding dawned upon Elizabeth, and she turned toward Jane. Taking the brush from her sister's hand and laying it on the table, she took Jane's hands in her own. "You thought to keep it a secret until after our wedding, afraid that your news would take attention away from William and me? Oh, Jane! My behavior must be faulty indeed if you believe me to be as selfish as Lydia!" The teasing sparkle in Elizabeth's eyes coupled with her amused smile took the sting from her words. Pulling Jane toward the bed, Elizabeth sat cross-legged upon the coverlet and, wearing a wide smile, she exclaimed, "Come now! You must tell me everything or I shall never forgive you!"
After many minutes of whispered conversation and delighted exclamations, it was decided between them that Bingley would ask for consent to marry Mr. Bennet's eldest daughter the following day; however, Jane emphatically would not allow the engagement to be announced before the wedding. "Charles agrees with me, Lizzy, and we will hold firm to this decision. You and I both know what Mama's reaction will be, and I will not have the news of my engagement distract her, or anyone else, from your wedding."
"I will respect your wishes, Jane, but you must respect mine as well. I will not be satisfied unless Papa announces your engagement at the wedding breakfast. I can think of no better wedding gift than to share my own happiness with you and Mr. Bingley!"
Though William loathed the thought of spending any more time than absolutely necessary away from Elizabeth, the letters from his solicitor and steward had been piling up, and his attention was now absolutely necessary. William woke before dawn, abstained from his morning exercise, and took breakfast and luncheon on a tray at the desk in Bingley's study while he worked.
At the earliest possible moment, William emerged from the study. Bingley blushed at being caught pacing the hall outside the door, anxious for the excuse of accompanying him for a visit at Longbourn. His old friend smiled widely and clapped his shoulder. "I understand completely, Charles! Allow me a few minutes to refresh myself, and we shall be off."
When the gentlemen arrived at Longbourn, they were shown into a room they had never seen before. Jane was busy with sewing from the poor basket and Elizabeth was writing at a large desk. After the usual greetings, Jane motioned for Bingley to follow her to a sitting area near the window, eager to discuss what she and Lizzy had spoken of the previous night. The couple instantly became absorbed in conversation.
Elizabeth turned to her betrothed and asked about his morning.
"I have completed the most urgent of my business, but there are other concerns that shall require my attention within the next few days. I apologize, Elizabeth, but it seems I will need to spend the next few mornings in a similar manner."
"William, if any woman can understand, I can. In spending so much time in my father's study over the years and assisting him with business concerns on numerous occasions, I have been familiar with how much work is involved in managing a small estate. Any time that Papa was required to leave Longbourn for more than a day or two, it was left to me to do as much of his work as I could. Yet, I can probably only imagine a portion of the work involved with an estate the size of Pemberley, let alone any other business you might have. There is no need to apologize to me, of all people! I am thankful that you have had so much time to spend with me. But tell me, have you written to anyone of our impeding nuptials? Family or friends, perhaps?"
William smiled before saying, "Other than informing both Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Martin that they should ready the mistress' chambers at both Pemberley and Darcy House, the letters I have written were all business. I have not yet notified any of my family or friends. There are several Darcy relatives that I should inform. They will be very glad to hear that such a worthy woman will soon be mistress of their ancestral seat, especially when I inform them that my father himself had known and approved of you." William's eyes twinkled. "I should also write to a few friends--especially those you met at Netherfield at the ball. I must say they all adored you and will be very happy for us both. You made such a favorable impression on them that they teased me mercilessly with the fact that I am more than likely not good enough for you."
His smile faded as he voiced his next thought, "I cannot think of many within my mother's family whom I feel the need to inform personally at this time--or correspond with in any way. If they care to look, the announcement will be in all the usual papers within the next few days. I would like to write to Lord Reginald and Lady Clara, Richard's brother and sister, but since at last report they were both due to be visiting the earl's house in London, I will not do so at this time."
Elizabeth took William's hand and squeezed it gently. "When you came in, I had just begun to pen my missives. Are you too tired to write your letters now? If you have had enough letter-writing for one day, I shall put it off."
"This task is one that is not unwelcome, Elizabeth, and since I must write these letters at some time or another, I would much rather do so now, with you, than while sitting alone at Netherfield." William looked to the desk at which Elizabeth had been writing. "I had been wondering at the placement of this desk within the room since I had not noticed the second chair, but now I see it is a partner's desk. May we sit across from each other?"
"Yes, of course. When we were younger, we used this room as sort of a school room. It was while sitting here that Jane and I first learned our letters and numbers as well as many other subjects."
William held her chair as she sat and then walked around to the other side of the desk and sat opposite her. It was not an overly wide partner's desk so when Elizabeth moved her supplies toward the middle of the desk, everything was within reach of them both. "It seems that I have only one inkwell at this desk at present. Would you like to share it or shall I fetch another?"
It seemed silly but the thought of sharing an inkwell with Elizabeth seemed to make the act of letter writing a more intimate experience than if they each had their own, and judging by her question, William guessed that she felt the same way. There was a sudden shift in the expression of her eyes that told him that she was thinking about something mischievous, but since he could not imagine what it could be, he began the first of his letters.
After William had busied himself with his letter, Elizabeth glanced at Jane and Bingley, happily concluding that they could not see under the desk from where they sat engrossed in quiet conversation.
She and Jane had spent many an hour here at this desk as children. No matter what level of interest the subject held for her, it had always been a trial for Elizabeth to sit still for any length of time. Whenever they had been long at their studies, Elizabeth would slip off her shoes and move her legs about. The girls would inevitably find the need to suppress bouts of giggles whenever Elizabeth had mistakenly nudged Jane with her toes as she fidgeted, and Jane would turn the situation into a game and begin to nudge her in return.
Today, as soon as William had sat in Jane's place at the desk, Elizabeth had decided on repeating this game with him. Little did Elizabeth realize that engaging in this behavior with William would not elicit the feelings of amusement as it had with Jane, but ones of a very different nature!
William had just begun his letter to the eldest member of the Darcy clan when he felt a weight upon his boot. Assuming his long legs were taking up too much space under the desk, he excused himself and moved his leg to the side. Twice more did the same occur before he began to suspect that Elizabeth was up to something--not only due to the lack of response from her when he moved his foot away, but also the expression of exaggerated innocence that her glance held after the third time it happened. The fourth time, he left his foot in place to see what she would do next.
Before long he found himself thanking the heavens for placing the sharp stone in his way--the stone that had very recently pierced the sole of his high-topped Hessian boots, requiring him to wear the only other boots he had brought with him, a pair that were cut so low that they could only be worn under trousers. As Elizabeth's foot had moved upward from his boot, he realized that she must have removed her slipper. William closed his eyes, savoring the sensation of her stocking-clad foot slowly travelling up his calf muscle. He thought that it was probably a very good thing that there was a desk between them preventing him from taking her in his arms just now!
When her foot stopped moving upwards, his eyes snapped open and met Elizabeth's smoldering gaze, causing a pleasant shiver to run down his spine. William could not help but notice that her rate of breathing had quickened, which brought to mind that his own had increased as well, and he endeavored to regulate it lest they be found out.
Bingley's hearty laugh emanating from across the room caused them both to startle, bringing to the forefront of both of their minds the fact that they were not alone, but a quick look in that direction confirmed that they had not been discovered. William had expected Elizabeth to remove her foot at the reminder, but instead she began to write while repeating the same movement until his lower leg was being continually caressed by her nearly-bare foot. He noticed that his trousers suddenly seemed too tight.
Glancing at Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth pushed a piece of paper across the desk. There in her elegant hand, were the words:
Does this bother you?
William almost laughed out loud, and then wrote his reply:
That depends upon what definition you are using for the word bother, my heart.
After he returned the page, Elizabeth's back straightened, and her ministrations ended immediately. In a panic, he grabbed the nearest sheet of paper and wrote:
Do not misunderstand me, Elizabeth! I did not mean that you should stop!
Elizabeth bit her lip as she read the note and then looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with love and mirth. She began again, but this time giving his other leg its share of attention.
Eventually, Bingley announced that he was going to speak to Mr. Bennet, startling the pair and bringing them back to reality once more. Elizabeth wrote:
I believe we must attend our letters now that my sister will no longer be distracted.
Only in his thoughts did he reply, "It is for the best, for if you do not cease, I will not be fit to be seen in company!" He gathered the notes they had passed to each other and reluctantly threw them into the fire and then spent some time observing Elizabeth as she wrote a letter, admiring her many charms.
Bingley returned a short time later with a huge grin on his face. Elizabeth could see that Jane was overwhelmed with emotions that she did not wish to express within the house and suggested the foursome take a walk.
As soon as they were out of sight of the house there were congratulations made to the now officially engaged couple. Bingley told them that Mr. Bennet had agreed to delay the announcement of their engagement. Though William enumerated all of the reasons that the engagement should be announced now, Jane and Bingley would not capitulate. It would be announced at the wedding breakfast and not before.
After several minutes in conversation, they began to walk again with Jane and Bingley lagging back behind. Before the couples had separated very far apart, Bingley called out, "Darcy, what happened to the legs of your trousers?"
The others' attention shifted to William's legs and saw that the bottom portion of his trousers was rather severely wrinkled.
Jane gasped, remembering the stray thought that had crossed her mind when she saw William about sit at the desk earlier in the day and realizing what must have occurred to spoil his trousers. Before she knew what she was about, Jane had already exclaimed in a disapproving tone, "Lizzy!"
Elizabeth's eyes widened, and both she and William blushed deeply.
Though he did not understand what was happening, Bingley was very sorry he had brought attention to whatever it was that caused his companions to react so strongly.
Surprising everyone, Jane began to giggle, and then to laugh outright and before long her laughter proved to be contagious.
They all began to walk once again with Jane and Bingley in the lead. When the other couple was well ahead of them, William turned his gaze to his betrothed. It seemed that Elizabeth was mortified, and could not look at him. William placed a finger under her chin and lifted it so that she could not help but look into his eyes. "Elizabeth… you will remind me to acquire a similar desk for the studies in each of our houses, will you not?"
An expression of obvious relief was replaced by a slow smile spreading across her face, "I see I shall look forward to writing my letters as a married lady."
He laughed, "I am afraid that today I did not accomplish the writing of any of the letters that I had set out to complete. Do you think we should write them separately after all… or should we try again tomorrow?"
Elizabeth made a show of thinking the matter over before replying, "I, for one, would like to try again tomorrow. If we again get nothing accomplished, then we will have to reconsider the matter."
William smiled, glad that she had agreed to repeat today's antics for he had every intention of travelling to Longbourn in his carriage on the morrow so that he could wear his evening shoes--ones that would easily slip off his feet when necessary.
2 December 1810
The next few days continued in a manner which had quickly become a routine at Longbourn. William and Bingley took care of their business in the mornings while the ladies paid special attention to the details of the upcoming nuptials, and in the very early afternoons the gentlemen would join the Bennets, usually to engage the eldest two ladies in a walk when the weather was good enough, which would follow with their staying until after dinner.
Three days had passed and on this day, the walking party's return to Longbourn was marked with the arrival of a carriage. Noticing William's smile, Elizabeth asked if he recognized it.
"Yes, it is one of mine. It must be Georgiana and Richard!"
As Richard assisted Georgiana from the carriage, Georgiana's attention was caught by the group's approach. William was only a little surprised that Georgiana set out in a run toward them crying out "Lizzy!" and rushing into Elizabeth's embrace, meeting with such force that, if not for William's quick thinking to support them, the two would have ended on the ground in a heap. The younger woman's words were strained with emotion, "Oh, Lizzy! How we have missed you! We are to be sisters at last!" Elizabeth voiced similar sentiments. She met William's gaze, and they exchanged a smile filled with all the joy of this reunion.
Richard clapped his cousin's shoulder in an attempt to distract William from the tears Richard could see were being choked back after witnessing the emotional greeting between the women who owned his heart. "Well, old boy! You seem to have been forgotten for the moment!" He chuckled. "When we arrived at Netherfield and found you missing, even the fatigue of travelling could not stop Georgie from seeking out Miss Elizabeth, knowing you would more than likely be here. I was barely able to convince her to allow us time to change out of our travel clothes before setting off!"
"I assume there is no need to ask if you received my letter, Richard! I apologize for not being present to greet you, but I had no way of knowing when you would arrive and had no intention of remaining alone at Netherfield all day every day waiting for you."
"You mean you had absolutely no intention of staying away from Miss Elizabeth and, since there were no ladies in residence at Netherfield, she could not visit you there! Do not worry; both Georgie and I understood completely. As to my failure to notify you of our coming, it seemed silly to send one of your servants galloping all the way from Pemberley with a message only to arrive a few hours ahead of us--especially since you stated in your letter that Bingley would be ready for us at any time. Your letter followed me by only a few hours. Georgie was so excited after learning that it was all a misunderstanding that with the news of your engagement, she began to pack immediately, insisting on beginning the journey the following morning. I hope you intend to stay put for a few days as I am very tired of all this travelling!"
As Richard had spoken, William motioned for Richard to walk, stopping outside of hearing of the rest of the party. "What news of the postal worker from Lambton?"
"As suspected, Mr. Booth was a naïve young man. Generally speaking, he has been another victim who made a terrible mistake and saw no way out of the situation in which he found himself without risking the welfare of his younger siblings, whom he supports. He was quite remorseful and rather grateful for the opportunity to purge his conscience of his misdeeds. As a matter of fact, I have never heard a more willing confessor! I have taken the liberty of using your money to send him and his siblings to their relatives in Ireland where my father should never find them--if he should even care to look."
William nodded and then asked, "Have you heard anything from your father or Aunt Catherine?"
"No, I have not, but the staff at Darcy House and Pemberley have strict orders not to admit either of them or inform them where any of us have gone, though I do not think it would be difficult for them to find us since my father has your and Georgiana's letters in his possession by now. I brought extra footmen with us in the event there was a need for them along the road."
"We will not go into hiding, Richard. With the addition of my staff to Bingley's, I am certain that all will be well."
Noticing that their conversation seemed to be at an end, Elizabeth steered Georgiana toward the gentlemen to continue the greetings and receive congratulations from "Colonel Richards."
The next day, when Georgiana and the gentlemen came to visit in the afternoon, Georgiana was shown into the drawing room to visit with the ladies, but the gentlemen were informed that Mr. Bennet had asked Mrs. Hill to show them into his study.
"Gentlemen, I had a visitor early this morning--Colonel Forster. It seems that Wickham's transfer orders were finally received yesterday afternoon. However…" he looked directly at each of the gentlemen to insure that he had their full attention before continuing, "I must stress that what I am about to say should not leave this room. There seems to be a bit of a problem."
Richard responded first, "What has Wickham done this time? No, wait… let me guess. He has run up credit with all the shopkeepers and, of course, at the tavern. Once his gaming debts are considered as well, the total of what he owes is not covered by his salary."
"Very good, Colonel Fitzwilliam; you are correct on all counts, but the picture is not yet complete. His debts are not the problem as Wickham has recently acquired the ability to pay them. You see, there is the small matter of a lady…" Mr. Bennet's expectations were not disappointed. All three gentlemen sat up straighter and their color rose considerably, "…a Miss King, who has recently arrived in Meryton to visit relatives. It seems that Wickham was none too pleased when he heard of the transfer--to be more precise, of whom his new commanding officer would soon be. He slipped away from his duties at camp and went directly to the tavern. Wickham was well in his cups by the time he was seen climbing into Miss King's bedchamber window. Unfortunately, the window is close to the street and the escapade was witnessed by a few of the townspeople. By the time her uncle had been notified and rushed home from his shop, Miss King and Wickham had been alone in her bedchamber for some time. From what Colonel Forster said, the lady was only too happy to accept the charming Lieutenant Wickham's offer of marriage, and her uncle had no choice but to give his immediate consent."
William made no attempt to hide the anger and disgust in his voice. "Wickham is usually not so indiscreet! Unless… what is Miss King's dowry?"
Mr. Bennet nodded, "Miss King has recently inherited ten thousand pounds."
Richard growled, "And with so many witnesses, there is nothing to be done! I am sure of one thing--the scoundrel made certain he was seen climbing into that window! Knowing him, he probably made a great deal of noise to attract attention to himself! Bah! 'Happy to accept Wickham'? That poor girl knows not what kind of life has been thrust upon her."
"Perhaps…" Bingley began, "though I cannot help but wonder… now that he will be married and have ample funds, might he settle down and behave?"
William opened his mouth to speak but Richard interrupted, "Bingley, you do not know the man like we do. There is little chance of that! He went through Darcy's four thousand in less than two years! With two of them to support I estimate it will it take him four years to go through ten thousand--less if there are children. Where will that leave Mrs. Wickham and the children when he has gone through all of her money? Abandoned in a one-room flat somewhere, penniless? I truly pity Miss King!"
Mr. Bennet decided to regain control of the discussion. "But, as you said, Colonel, there is nothing to be done. They must marry. There is one more piece of news--Wickham's transfer to your friend's regiment is void as he has resigned from His Majesty's service and sold his commission."
Richard suddenly stood and walked toward the door.
"Richard! Do not do anything rash!" William called out.
"Though I would like to beat the blackguard to a pulp, worry not, cousin! If Wickham does not marry Miss King, she is completely ruined, and I will not be the cause of the ruination of a young lady. I only wish you had not dissuaded me from calling him out after Ramsgate!"
Mr. Bennet spoke up, "William did right, Colonel. You would do no one any good dangling on the end of a rope."
"Excuse me, gentlemen. I find I am very angry and unfit to be in company, especially that of ladies. I will see you at some point later in the day when I can behave in a more genteel manner. Please make my excuses to Mrs. Bennet." Richard bowed and strode out the door.
The three remaining gentlemen startled when, before Richard closed the door behind him, they could hear Mrs. Bennet screaming for Mrs. Hill and her smelling salts.
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat. "It seems that Mrs. Bennet has just heard the news. I am certain we shall soon hear what exaggerated version of the truth is being spread about the neighborhood." He hesitated a few moments before continuing, "One of the reasons that Colonel Forster had come to see me was to inquire whether I knew of anyone who would buy Wickham's commission. I have purchased the commission with the condition that Wickham and Miss King leave the area immediately to prevent Miss King's being subjected to any more gossip than absolutely necessary. I would like to know if either of you, or if not perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam, knows of a young man that could benefit from this situation. It would be a gift."
"Mr. Bennet, I cannot allow you to take this upon yourself. It was through my father's misguided generosity--thinking that he was assisting Wickham in preparing to succeed his father as steward of Pemberley by sending him to school--which gave him the idea that he was owed a life of leisure. Purchasing the commission is a small price to pay to get him far away from my family--before my wedding!"
"As you recently had mentioned, William, there is nothing that would please the miscreant more than to receive more money from the Darcy family. Even if he never knows where the money came from, I will not permit one more penny of Darcy money to be spent on that man! I would not have the money to do this if it were not for your father's urging me to invest my income instead of having it sit idle. I am ashamed to say that it is more likely I would have handed it all to my wife to spend recklessly if it had not been for George's influence. Allow me to remedy this situation and pass on a small piece of your father's generosity by gifting the commission to a worthy young man this time--one who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Do you know of anyone who has proven himself? A tenant's son, perhaps? I can think of no one in this area."
William's eyes lit up. "Actually, I have the perfect person in mind. My footman, James, has a grandson who fits this description--quite a respectable and able young man. James is here at Longbourn today, sir, if you would like to speak to him. Though he has never mentioned it, Elizabeth recently told me that years ago James had done her a great service. This would be a fitting reward."
Nodding, Mr. Bennet replied, "Send James in to see me, William."
With so little time before the wedding, the days passed quickly. Georgiana often spent the entire day at Longbourn assisting with the wedding preparations. She and Elizabeth were as close as they had been in the past, and she also found something of common interest with Elizabeth's sisters--fashion with Lydia, drawing with Kitty, music with Mary, and conversations with Jane as their characters were very similar. Though she found the youngest two livelier than the company to which she was accustomed, all in all, Georgiana was very pleased with the prospect of having five sisters.
Several days after Wickham and Miss King had left the area, Georgiana was to stay with Elizabeth at Longbourn while William travelled to London to retrieve the wedding ring and personally see how the arrangements to welcome Elizabeth to Darcy House were proceeding.
The general atmosphere at Darcy House could not be called anything but festive. A few of the servants remembered Elizabeth from her previous visits with Mr. Bennet years earlier and, after passing on their good information to the others, all at Darcy House were looking forward to having her as their mistress.
More than three and one half years ago, wishing to be prepared for the time when he would bring Elizabeth home with him, William had ordered the mistress's chambers at both Darcy House and Pemberley completely renovated, replacing everything other than a few furnishings that were heirlooms. He had painstakingly chosen paper for the walls and patterns for the coverings for the furnishings and upholstery that he thought Elizabeth would like, though he had had every intention of offering to change them if she did not. His belongings had been moved into the master's chambers in London, and the staff in Derbyshire had been scheduled to do the same when he was on his planned trip to Hertfordshire--but that journey did not occur.
Since the work had been completed, only once had he allowed himself to enter what he had thought of as Elizabeth's chambers at Pemberley, that visit being made to approve the alterations before the fire, but never after. Since the fire, William had absolutely refused to put himself through the torture of entering the mistress's chambers at either house--until today.
Upon William's arrival in London, it was all he could do not to dash up the stairs to Elizabeth's rooms. As he walked through the door that joined the two bedchambers he could see that he had chosen well; Elizabeth belonged in this room. He dared not spare more than a glance for the bed, and then only to check that the pattern of the coverings were appropriate, but he did allow himself to imagine her all around him elsewhere--brushing her hair at the dressing table, standing in front of the full-length mirror dressed for the theater, reading in the window seat, or sitting in one of the comfortable chairs by the fire.
Approaching the dressing table, he carefully unwrapped a package and laid the box upon the table. William traced his finger over the letters "ED" so beautifully engraved upon the silver brush set that he had purchased in Lambton as a wedding present for his Elizabeth… so long ago. Since then it had been tucked away in the safe in his study, along with all the other gifts he had purchased for her through the years, some for special occasions and others for no purpose at all other than that he had seen them by chance and knew that she would like them.
How many hours had he devoted towards selecting these gifts? How much time had he spent imagining Elizabeth's reaction when she would receive each of them? William shook his head to clear it.
"Elizabeth will be my wife in nine days! I have dreamt of this for so long… will it truly become reality? If something else goes wrong…" William's breath caught as a moment of panic seized him. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and purposely remembered the look of pure love that he had seen in Elizabeth's eyes as they ended the kiss they had shared just before he had left her a few hours ago. A feeling of contentment filled him. "Yes, it will happen. The dark time has ended… she loves me still!"
When his eyes opened again, he realized he had unconsciously turned toward the bed. "Only nine more nights!" William smiled, and turned to leave through the door that led to his own chambers, knowing the next time he passed through this door, it would be to join Elizabeth there.
Georgiana awakened with the distinct feeling that something was not right. It took a moment for her to remember that she was in Elizabeth's room at Longbourn… but where was Elizabeth? A noise off to the side of the room caused her to turn her head in that direction, but she could see nothing in the low light from the dying fire. Slipping from the bed, she moved toward the source of the noise. "There it is again! It sounds like…"
Georgiana moved the curtains aside and saw Elizabeth sitting in the window seat, her knees bent, and her hands covering her face, sobbing quietly. Georgiana whispered, "Lizzy?"
Elizabeth quickly looked up, embarrassed, and wiped her face with her hands. After a few moments spent in an attempt to swallow past the emotion tightening her throat, she forced out in a hoarse voice, "Oh, I am so very sorry I woke you, Georgie!"
Georgiana placed her arm around Elizabeth's shoulders and pulled her into an embrace. "What is wrong, Lizzy?"
Several minutes passed while tears silently streamed down Elizabeth's face, soaking into the shoulder of the younger girl's night shift. "It is so silly, really! I – I cannot stop myself from feeling afraid that something unexpected will happen, and William will not come back again."
Georgiana felt her shudder and smoothed Elizabeth's hair while saying, "Lizzy, you did not see him when he had lost all hope--when he thought he would not see you again, or feared that you would marry someone else while he recovered--but I did. William loves you, and there is nothing that could keep him from you again, not even his own pride, for that is what it was, Lizzy. He did not want you to see him in such a vulnerable state because he did not wish for you to think him weak."
Elizabeth pulled away and looked her future sister in the eye. "I know… William gave me his journal to read." She smiled a little at Georgiana's expression. "You are surprised that he did?"
"No, not that he would share his thoughts with you. My surprise is that my brother realized this himself!"
Elizabeth laughed. "It was a recent discovery. I told you my fear was silly. Thank you, Georgie, I am certain that I am only tired and a bit spoiled by being able to see him every day. I missed your brother terribly today! I will feel better once I get some sleep. Come, let us try."
~ ~ ~ Angst Alert! ~ ~ ~
The following afternoon, Elizabeth and Georgiana were in the drawing room embroidering when a terrified Mrs. Hill appeared and announced, "The Earl of Matlock and Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
As the two young ladies stood, Georgiana, wide-eyed with fright, whispered, "Heaven help us, Lizzy!"
Elizabeth took Georgiana's hand and gave it a squeeze as they curtsied, inwardly wishing that she and Georgiana were not the only two at home just now.
"You are Elizabeth Bennet?" Lady Catherine asked in a haughty manner, completely ignoring her niece.
Elizabeth summoned courage from deep within. "I am," she answered in a strong voice, determined not to show any sign of weakness to the two people who had caused them all so much strife and heartache.
"Oh! Get on with it, Catherine! There is no reason for pleasantries with this charlatan; come right to the point, and let us get out of this… place. I do not wish for anyone to recognize my carriage sitting outside; it would be degrading," the Earl sneered while looking around the room displaying a clear expression of disgust.
Lady Catherine spoke again, "Elizabeth Bennet, you will accept our offer of ten thousand pounds to break off the engagement with Fitzwilliam Darcy. Our nephew will marry my daughter."
At first, Elizabeth's mouth dropped open momentarily in shock, but this emotion was quickly replaced. Attempting to stifle her outrage at the offense that this offer represented, Elizabeth responded, "I will not accept any such offer."
"Foolish girl! You rely upon your negotiation skills? Do not waste our time--you will not receive a higher amount no matter what you say or do."
"For the final time, my answer is 'no,' Lady Catherine. I should like to know why anyone would attempt to force two people who do not wish to marry to do just that?"
"That is none of your business."
"It is my business when you are speaking of my fiancé, your ladyship."
The Earl turned to his sister and spat out, "You waste your breath and my time speaking to her in this manner, Catherine. If the chit will not be persuaded, take Georgiana as we had discussed. Fitzwilliam will do what we say and marry Anne if we have his sister."
Eyes flashing, Elizabeth quickly stepped between the noble pair and Georgiana, clasping her hands in front of her. "You will not."
Lord Matlock stepped forward and boomed out, "How dare you tell us what we can and cannot do! You, a pretender of the highest order, the daughter of a tradesman's daughter and a man who is practiced in the art of deceit, who has drawn in the entire Darcy family and convinced them to trust you both--you have no right! Georgiana's father was gullible and weak, but we could do nothing for the girl at that time. We will not permit Georgiana's obviously incompetent brother to be of any further influence over the poor, simpleminded girl. Fitzwilliam has taken after his father and has allowed himself to be completely deluded by your machinations. Somehow you have even turned my own son against me! You and your father have taken advantage of them all, and we--Georgiana's family--will now take charge of her care."
Elizabeth heard a quiet whimper from behind her as Elizabeth stood in undisguised shock at the ridiculous statements she had just heard. Taking a steadying breath, she answered, "Lord Matlock, Lady Catherine… you will fool no one with these fabrications. Not only have you insulted my family, my home and myself, but you have also emphatically abused my fiancé, his father, and my invited guest, all in the space of less than one quarter of an hour. I shall have to ask you both to leave my home."
The distinct sound of a slap echoed throughout the room.
Unprepared for the attack, Elizabeth had been thrown off balance slightly. Recovering quickly, she stood up to her full height, eyes blazing with anger, and said in her most authoritative Dreaded Pirate Lizzy voice, "Lady Catherine, I care not what your relationship is with Georgiana, you will not touch her! Nor will you, Lord Matlock! Georgiana has been left in my care by her legal guardians, and I will not allow you to take her from here.
"I must ask you once more to leave my house. I am quite certain you do not wish to be removed!" Knowing the only other person in the house was Mrs. Hill, Elizabeth could only hope that her bluff was convincing enough to have them leave without causing any further problems.
The Earl laughed. "If there were anyone else in this house, they would have come in by now--you are alone. Exactly what do you think you can do to stop us, girl? My sister's slap was nothing compared to what you will face if you force my hand. I will take care of you myself, and my niece will leave here with us. Besides, you may be an insolent, headstrong girl, but no one else would dare stand against the Earl of Matlock!"
Elizabeth stood her ground with both her foes towering above her. "You would have to get through me first. I have no other cheek to turn to you, sir; I have only two. If either of you strikes me again--I warn you now--I will not be held responsible for any of your injuries! I will protect my sister."
"I would see to it that you hang if you dare to strike an earl!"
"And I would take my chances with the law rather than allow Georgiana to be taken from here by either of you."
Elizabeth steeled herself as she saw the Earl begin to move toward her.
James rushed through the servants' entrance at Netherfield and began to search the rooms, finding Bingley and Richard in the billiards room at last. "Colonel Fitzwilliam! I've just returned from Meryton. While there, I saw a coach bearing the crest of the Earl of Matlock pass through the village. Since he has not come here, sir…"
"Longbourn!" Richard barked as he threw on his coat, looking at Bingley. "They must have gone to speak to Georgiana and Miss Elizabeth! We must go at once!"
They determined crossing the fields as the quickest way to Longbourn. Along the way the three men saw the Darcy carriage on the road to Longbourn through the trees. James was sent to overtake the carriage, hand over his horse to his master, and follow with the carriage.
Elizabeth looked down at the floor where the Earl of Matlock lay writhing in pain and the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh crouched over him, ranting about the nerve of one so low doing such a thing to an earl.
It was probably one of the oldest tricks that a lady might use to protect herself, and Elizabeth was shocked to find that the Earl had never taken the time to learn to expect, let alone protect himself from, a lady's knee. He had seemed so certain of himself when he moved to overpower her that she had thought he was experienced in the matter of using force on a woman. She expected to need to use several of the protective tactics in her arsenal before having the hope of being successful.
The look of shock on the man's face when she carried through with this simple maneuver had been priceless. Elizabeth had to assume that no one had ever had the nerve to employ such a primitive technique upon one so high in rank before… or at least not this Earl.
"Georgiana, since his Lordship is in no condition to do so, I do believe it is time for us to leave," Elizabeth said with her head held high, as she nearly pulled the gaping young lady from the room. They left the house as quickly as they could though the kitchen, avoiding the Earl's carriage out front. Elizabeth had no idea what orders the Earl's men had, and she had no intention of finding out!
Elizabeth knew these woods better than anyone else, and her highest priority was to keep Georgiana safe, but adding to their dilemma was the temperature. Having stowed their coats upstairs in her bedchamber closet, they had left the house in their haste without any protection from the elements. It had been unseasonably warm of late, but the weather had turned very cold today. Setting a brisk pace to warm them a little, she decided to lead the way through the woods toward the tenant farm closest to Longbourn, where she knew her father had planned to visit this afternoon to discuss the plans for renovations that would be taking place there.
When they came to a large meadow, Elizabeth knew they had no choice but to venture out into the open. "Georgie, we must run across the meadow. I do not know if the Earl's men are looking for us, so if anyone comes, we must lay down in the long grass to hide ourselves as best we can."
Georgiana's teeth were clamped together to keep them from chattering, so she just nodded.
At about half-way across the field, the ladies heard horses, and Elizabeth pulled Georgiana to the ground. Both ladies peeked through the grass, and suddenly Georgiana began to squeal, "Will! Richard!" The ladies stood and began to run in the direction of the horses.
William was the first to reach them, and he began to dismount before his horse had fully stopped. "Elizabeth! Georgiana! Are you well? We were told that the Earl…"
Breathless, Elizabeth nodded and, not caring who witnessed it, she threw herself into the safety of his arms, inhaling his scent as deeply as she could. William had come! She felt Georgiana join her and wrapped one arm around her as well. William enveloped the ladies as best he could within his coat to warm them.
A few moments later, recovered a little, Elizabeth said, "We are well and glad to see you!"
"Where is Jane?" Bingley asked.
Elizabeth turned towards him, but would not release her hold of William. "Georgiana and I were home alone. Jane is with my mother and sisters in Meryton, and my father is at a tenant's farm. I was taking Georgiana there just now to seek help."
"We left Aunt Catherine and Uncle Robert at Longbourn, and I imagine they are still there. Oh William, Lizzy was wonderful, and so very brave!" Georgiana exclaimed while stepping away from her brother. Richard placed his coat around her. "You should have been there to see Uncle Robert's face! And Aunt Catherine's!"
"Will one of you tell us what happened? I need to be better prepared before stepping into the lion's den!" Richard insisted.
"To put it simply, when I would not accept their money to end the engagement, they demanded to take Georgiana with them so that they could use her to force William to marry Anne de Bourgh," Elizabeth explained. "Of course I could not allow them to take her…"
"They what?" William roared.
"They both said such horrible things to Lizzy!" Georgiana nodded. "When Aunt Catherine slapped her for asking them to leave, it made such a frightening sound. I did not know what to do! And then your father, Richard--I had never seen anyone so angry! I thought he would do Lizzy a great harm when he took hold of her, and then she… well… do you remember what I told you I had to do to escape from Wickham?"
Richard's face lit up, though he tried to hold back a smile. "You used your knee on the Earl!"
Elizabeth nodded. "I had warned them that I would protect Georgiana, and that I would respond if either of them struck me again! He had taken hold of my arms so forcefully; I had little choice but to defend myself." Her brow furrowed. "Someone had best go to Longbourn. I fear my mother and sisters will return… or my father! I do not understand why the Earl hates him so." As Georgiana and she had spoken, Elizabeth could feel the tension in William increase.
"Jealousy, Miss Elizabeth. My father had always wanted a true alliance with George Darcy, for his own selfish reasons, of course. My uncle was too intelligent to trust him. For some reason, my father always blamed yours for this--never himself.
"William, while I am certain you would like to confront them, judging by the look in your eyes, I do not trust you anywhere near my father or our aunt right now. I know very well that what they say would only make you angrier, and we do not want anyone calling the magistrate as a result of your behavior! I will go to Longbourn and deal with them. Your men will be there with the carriage by now, William, and they probably are wondering what to do next. We shall escort them away from Longbourn." Richard bowed to the ladies and mounted his horse.
Bingley bid them goodbye as well and followed.
They watched for several moments as the two gentlemen rode away, and then Georgiana glanced between her brother and Elizabeth, exclaiming, "Oh! There is an interesting… bush just over there! I must have a look at those… green leaves." And she walked off a few feet in the direction she had been pointing, remaining in sight of the couple but facing away from them.
Elizabeth looked up at her betrothed and saw that he did look quite angry. Trying to distract him, she said with a laugh, "Though I do not mind, I fear your sister has never been the best chaperone." It had not worked. "William, we are fine--truly. I made certain they never got near enough to Georgiana to touch her."
"But at what cost?" William gently took her face between his hands; his thumb tenderly caressed the red mark on her face, obviously where Lady Catherine had slapped her, and searched her eyes. Satisfied with what he saw there, he continued, "Thank you, Elizabeth."
"For protecting our sister? There is no need to thank me. I would have done the same for any of my sisters."
William looked at her tenderly. "I know you would have… it is who you are. I love you, Elizabeth Bennet, and I will be so proud to have you as my wife."
"I love you, as well, William. I missed you terribly!" Her eyes began to fill with tears. "I – I have never been so afraid."
The muscles in William's jaw tensed, and his expression grew angry as he looked toward Longbourn. Elizabeth realized he had misunderstood her, and she shook her head. "I was not afraid today, William! You know that I had worried about your family's disapproval and the disapproval of the ton. This may be difficult to understand, but today's events belied those worries. Protecting Georgie and staving off their degrading assumptions and horrid accusations only proved to me that I have a strength within that I never knew existed before. Believe me, the ton cannot say much worse than what was said of all of us today, and I can honestly say that to have people like that say these things did not really matter--nor would anyone who was truly important to us ever believe any of it." Elizabeth placed her hand on the side of his face. "It was last night that I was afraid! Once the occupation of the day was no longer distracting me, and Georgie had fallen asleep, I was filled with an overwhelming fear that something would happen, and again, you would not come back to me."
"I am sorry--very sorry--that my relatives have abused you so, but even more so that my past misjudgments have instilled this fear within you, Elizabeth. Had I known then what I know now, how many things I would have done differently! I would hope that once we are married, I will always be able to take you with me, but the truth is that I know at one time or another during what I expect to be a very long life together, we will be parted. I promise you now that if ever I am injured or ill, I will somehow get word to you of where I am and send for you as soon as may be. I promise that if ever again we must spend time apart, I will always return to you, my Elizabeth."
Elizabeth reached up on her toes and kissed William gently, then whispered huskily, "If Georgiana were not here, I would welcome you properly."
The look in his eyes communicated much more than could words, and he once again pulled her into his embrace.
After listening to his heart beat for a few moments, Elizabeth judged a change of subject to be in order. "What shall we do? Georgie and I cannot walk far with men's coats on; they are too long for us."
"One horse cannot carry the three of us, and I will not let either of you out of my sight while my aunt and uncle are still in Hertfordshire. Where is the closest house?"
"Longbourn is the closest. Could you and I switch? I will wear your coat and you wear your greatcoat? Georgiana is taller, and I can help her hold Colonel Fitzwilliam's greatcoat so she can walk more easily… or…" she walked over to Georgiana and said, "Georgie, untie the belt." William helped her fold up the length that was too long and tied the belt around Georgiana's waist, with the length of the coat holding it up so she would not trip. "There!"
Georgiana laughed, "I wish I could see it. I doubt it will begin a new fashion, but it is more serviceable this way!"
"I am certain that Richard's valet will not agree when he must work out all the creases. We will walk towards Longbourn. If Aunt Catherine and Uncle Robert are still there, I will drive us to Netherfield in our carriage," William said as he shrugged out of his coat and held it for Elizabeth, and then donned his greatcoat. "I will not allow them to approach either of you again."
Posted on: 2011-05-14
As Elizabeth, Georgiana, and William approached Longbourn, all was quiet, but they were disappointed to find that there were still two carriages and a number of horses in the drive in front of the house. William asked the ladies to wait where they were and indicated his intention to bring their carriage closer. Then they would all travel to Netherfield.
"Lord Matlock and Lady Catherine must be leaving soon, William. I have been thinking … I will avoid them to prevent any further unpleasant scenes, but I refuse to hide from them. Georgiana is safe, as am I." Elizabeth's determination was reflected by the set of her jaw. "I will remain here for now, but when you return with the carriage, I will be going inside. For eight more days this is my home, and I will not be chased away from it again--not by the two of them, of all people!"
William closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm his temper before speaking. "Elizabeth, you must see that I will not allow you to enter the house while two people who have assaulted you are within--and definitely not without me by your side. Please do not ask this of me. I cannot. It is unsafe."
"But I am not afraid. I promise to go upstairs to my room to pack Georgiana's things immediately upon entering the house. I shall have her bag sent to Netherfield as soon as they have departed and enclose a note so that you will know they have gone and all is well. Have faith that all will be well, especially since there are so many gentlemen about. Remember that Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bingley are also within, as is James and any other of your men who were on the carriage."
"No. Not without me, and I will not expose Georgiana to people who would kidnap her if they had the chance! Please be sensible about this, Elizabeth. My uncle's men must be within as well for there is nobody with the carriages other than your stable boy. I have no idea what the situation is inside the house. You will come with us."
"I will not be forced to scurry away from my own home as if I were afraid of them! They wished to frighten me, and if I do leave, it would be as if I were admitting that they had been successful. Do you not see that they will think they can continue to intimidate me and will come to me once again before the wedding? I will not go to Netherfield, William, and that is final."
He could see that Elizabeth was quite determined, and if he forced her to go, he would be no better than they had been. "I have often said that I love your stubborn nature, but at this moment, I wish that it was not being expressed against my own wishes. I understand your argument, and your point is well taken, but you must admit that I am right as well. If you will not come with us, then Georgiana and I have no choice but to stay here with you until they have gone."
"I did say I would stay here, but I only meant while you were gone to fetch the carriage, William."
"You said you would stay here until I bring the carriage, Elizabeth? I choose not to bring the carriage at this time."
Georgiana began to laugh. "You have lost this debate, Lizzy. He is as stubborn as you are! Besides, if William does not stop you from going into the house, I will! By staying outside with us, it is as you said you wished; you are not hiding, only avoiding an unpleasant scene…" Georgiana looked up at a movement near the house, and she sighed. "Though it seems that we will not be able to avoid an unpleasant scene after all."
Both of her companions turned to follow Georgiana's gaze. Lady Catherine and Lord Matlock had been leaving, but apparently had noticed them standing nearby and so now were arguing with Richard, pointing and gesturing wildly in their direction. The lady was speaking so loudly that several derogatory phrases had already carried over the space between the two groups. William would avoid confronting them no longer.
As he rounded the front of the house, William could see James standing near the doorway. Hearing the ladies following closely behind him, he said, "Go into the house with James." Georgiana did as she was told, but Elizabeth caught up to him, threaded her arm through William's as he came to a stop, and stood proudly beside her fiancée. Richard moved to stand beside Elizabeth.
Mr. Bennet rode up at that moment, quietly dismounted and joined them, glowering at Lord Matlock.
While maintaining his glare directed at his uncle, William covered Elizabeth's hand with his own, thinking, "We face adversity together, as one."
"Send your Jezebel and her puppet-master away, Fitzwilliam," Lord Matlock spit out.
William's eyes blazed with anger. "Elizabeth's place is by my side, always! You will cease speaking of my fiancée and her father in a disrespectful manner! As long as I can remember, your behavior has continually shamed the memory of every Fitzwilliam who has ever lived. Among your despicable acts, you have striven to keep Elizabeth and me apart by using blackmail and deception, only to be unsuccessful in the end. Today, you both have sunk to new lows! Not only have you made insulting offers to my fiancée, physically and verbally abusing probably the most honorable and respectable woman in all of England, but also you have threatened to remove a young girl from her home so that you can force others to bend to your will--I am ashamed to admit I am related to either of you!"
Lord Matlock was incensed. "I will speak of them any way I wish! She is vulgar, crude, impertinent and mercenary!" He gestured towards his sister. "Catherine and I are both certain that girl has used her arts and allurements quite expertly and effectually to have gained such power over you--and today she has physically attacked a member of the peerage! All of which has been directed by him!" he barked the last word, pointing at Mr. Bennet. "Before now, I could not believe that you would truly cast off duty and honor for this trollop, but now I see very clearly!"
The Earl nodded, displaying an attitude of disgust. "Do you not recognize what she and her father have done to you, nephew? What they had done to your father? Your sister, being a simpleton, we can excuse for being taken in by these opportunists. George Darcy proved that he was a weak-minded fool… but we had hoped that you would become a better man than he! Now you show your true mettle; your inability to see the power that this grasping woman holds over you is proved by the disrespectful way you speak to us today--your own flesh and blood!"
William moved a step closer to Lord Matlock. "I will say this once, and not again, so listen closely. I hereby denounce all connection to you both, familial or otherwise! If you say so much as one word more against my family or my future family, I will demand satisfaction. Up until now, your advanced age has been the only consideration that has kept me from calling you out, Lord Matlock, but know this--it will protect you no longer!"
Lady Catherine gasped, "You would not dare to make a public break with us! It would cause a scandal of unmatched proportions within the ton."
"Your concerns are very telling, madam." William glanced at Lord Matlock, wondering if he had realized that his sister was not concerned that her brother's life might be lost in a duel, and then returned his eyes to meet those of Lady Catherine. "Elizabeth, Georgiana, and I might be affected by gossip at first, but the ton is nothing if not curious.… They will seek out the new Mrs. Darcy eventually, and when they do, I am quite confident that they will learn that Elizabeth is a more than valuable and worthy addition to their acquaintance. She will be highly sought after--and not only for her position as my wife, but on her own merits.
"It might actually work in our favor that you are no longer associated with us, since both of your reputations are well known." William glared meaningfully at both of them for a moment before continuing, "You also have made no secret of your wish to have me marry my cousin, and I have never hidden the fact that I refuse to do so. I am certain that the people who matter will immediately recognize any slander you may toss about for exactly what it is--a tantrum filled with jealousy and resentment--and those who do not come to that immediate conclusion will see it in time. Until their curiosity is piqued, I have no doubt that I shall enjoy every minute that I do not have to share Elizabeth's time with the ton!
"Neither of you are welcome into the presence of any of my family from this moment forward." William began to lead Elizabeth away toward the house.
Mr. Bennet stepped forward and stated forcefully, "Robert, you and your sister will leave my property--now--as you are not welcome here either."
Lord Matlock stood still for a few moments longer, then turned and limped to his carriage, screaming out abuses and orders to his men.
Lady Catherine ranted at her nephew until the carriage door closed on her reddened face, "You will be exceedingly sorry for what you have done today! You will see! There will come a day--and soon--that you will regret not marrying my Anne! I am seriously displeased, Fitzwilliam!"
Mr. Bennet caught up to Elizabeth and William, and clapped William's shoulder. "Your father would have been very proud of your actions today, son. If I remember correctly, some of what you said was very much like a speech of his own which I had the privilege of witnessing… directed towards the same parties."
"Thank you, sir." They stopped and watched the Earl's carriage leave the grounds.
Mr. Bennet turned to Richard and said, "Colonel, I am very glad that you are nothing like your father! Come to my study--you owe me a game of chess. Mr. Bingley can continue to entertain the ladies." The two gentlemen went inside, both knowing very well that they would not be playing chess today.
Once they were alone, Elizabeth glanced at the drawing room windows and saw Georgiana, her mother, sisters--and even Bingley--all dash away from the glass. "I do believe we had an audience!" Elizabeth pulled on William's arm, "Let us seek a more private place."
"Are you not cold, Elizabeth? I do not wish you to become ill."
"Actually, my love, what I have in mind is more than talking, and I do believe it will warm us both."
William smiled, which brightened when he realized that she was leading him to the bench that they had sat upon together when he had first been at Longbourn years ago--where he had drawn her likeness while she read Plato aloud to him.
His smile faded as more recent events intruded upon his thoughts, and he stopped walking. She turned to look at him and he said, "Elizabeth, I must apologize for not insisting upon your removal to the house earlier. When you took my arm, I selfishly wished to have you by my side, but I should have realized… for you to have heard such insulting remarks…"
"William, truly--it was nothing I had not already heard from them earlier in the day." She blushed slightly before saying, "Well, perhaps it was a little more than what they had said to me before, but it was not wholly unexpected. And, it did my vanity some good to know just how highly you think of me," Elizabeth quipped in an attempt to put him at ease, but then her expression turned serious. "You know there is no place I would rather be than by your side, no matter what the task at hand, through pleasant encounters or otherwise, I shall always stand with you."
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned into the warmth and strength of William's embrace. As he pulled her even closer to him, he bowed his head and breathed in the only scent that could relax and comfort, and at the same time, stimulate him in such a way… the very essence of all that was Elizabeth. His entire body tensed once more as he thought, "How could anyone wish to harm this incredible woman?"
Elizabeth pulled away and reached up to caress William's cheek. "Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, but I believe that I must use my arts and allurements to effectually change the direction of your thoughts." Her hand laced through his hair, and she pulled him down for a kiss.
After several minutes, he pulled away slightly and pressed his forehead against hers. "Eight more days."
"Actually," she glanced at the sun which was just beginning to set, "closer to seven."
He opened his eyes and gave her a look that left little doubt as to what he meant by the words he said next, "But there are eight more nights, my love."
Elizabeth watched in the mirror as the maid put the finishing touches on her hair, and nodded in approval. Glancing to her left, she smiled widely at Jane. "Do you think William will like it?"
Jane laughed. "William would be satisfied if it were in a simple bun tied with string, and you were wearing a sack, Lizzy, as long as you arrived on time! He made me promise to make certain you were not late and suggested the sack as an alternative if you have trouble with the dress that would cause a delay."
"At the very least that proves that he has not changed his mind about marrying me!"
"Of course, he has not!"
"Perhaps I shall be five minutes late on purpose!" Elizabeth declared, stifling a smile.
Elizabeth laughed so hard at Jane's shocked expression that she had to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She caught her elder sister's hands in her own. "Oh, Jane, how I will miss you!"
"You are still planning to return for Christmas, are you not?
"Yes, we will spend a few days in London and then rejoin Georgiana and Richard at Netherfield the day before Christmas Eve. After the new year, we will travel to Pemberley when the weather will allow our journey, and we will return in April for your wedding. This is the first Christmas that William and Georgiana will not be spending at Pemberley, though. I do hope they do not wish we had delayed the wedding until January."
"They will be happier at Netherfield with you than they would have been at Pemberley without you, Lizzy; you know it is true. And it is good that Charles will not be alone in the house for Christmas since his are sisters away."
"You do know what happened with Caroline, do you not, Jane?"
Jane nodded, her eyes focused on the floor.
"William and I have decided that next Christmas the entire family will be invited to Pemberley. I hope you and Charles will be able to join us."
"I am certain that we will not miss it!" Jane exclaimed. "But if you do not begin to dress this instant, you will miss your wedding. Please, Lizzy--I promised! I will help you."
After she stepped into the gown, Elizabeth looked at herself in the full-length mirror while Jane buttoned up the back. It had been made of the finest cream colored silk with gold threads throughout that made it shimmer when she moved, and the color set off her complexion perfectly. Roses of gold, which matched the flecks of color in her eyes, were embroidered along the empire neckline and at the ends of the long sleeves that were puffed at the shoulders. Elizabeth thought that her mother had made the perfect choice after all as cream and gold scalloped lace trimmed all the edges, matching that which marked the high waistline. It was the most beautiful gown that she had ever owned; so elegant that while wearing it, she could easily fit in at the opera or at a ball at Almack's. But this was her wedding gown!
A sharp intake of air denoted the moment that Jane had finished buttoning the dress and looked up. She pressed her cheek against her younger sister's. "Oh, Lizzy; you are so beautiful! You are glowing with joy!"
"I am very happy, Jane! I do hope I will make William a good wife."
"You could not disappoint him, dear. He loves you so."
"To prove that I am determined to be the very best of wives, my first accomplishment shall be to arrive at the wedding early so that the groom's anxieties may lessen sooner and you may keep your promise. Let us go, Jane."
Elizabeth took one last look around the bedchamber in which she had grown up and sighed as a wave of melancholy swept over her. Nothing would ever be the same again… nothing. When she next came to Longbourn, even later today for the wedding breakfast, she would have the title of "guest." The feeling passed as quickly as it had come when familiar sounds floated in through the door as Jane opened it. She smiled when she heard her mother's admonishments, rushing the other girls into the Bennet carriage. Lydia was questioning why she did not get to ride in the more elegant Darcy carriage that William had been so thoughtful to send to convey Elizabeth to the church. Kitty echoed Lydia's expression of discontent while Mary lectured both of the younger girls about the sin of coveting. The house quieted as the ladies left the house. Jane preceded her sister down the stairs.
Mr. Bennet took Elizabeth's hand to help her down the last few steps. "There has never been a more beautiful bride, my Lizzy," he said with much feeling, his eyes suspiciously moist. "I will miss you very much, my dear, but I know you shall be happy with William."
"Thank you, Papa. I am quite certain I shall." They took a few steps, and then she hesitated just inside the door, looking around once more.
Smiling up at her father, she said, "I am ready!" and then stepped through the entryway of Longbourn for the last time as Elizabeth Bennet.
Georgiana made a valiant attempt to stifle the laughter that threatened to escape her lips every time she exchanged glances with Bingley. They were both finding amusement by the prospect of William's frequent habit of anxiously peeking out the door of the small room off to the side of the church, looking for the boy who would tell him that it was time to take his place before the altar. William had practically begged the pastor to be allowed to wait here until the bride arrived at the church so that his nerves would not be on display to the neighborhood, giving the wrong impression. After seeing the groom's countenance, the pastor agreed wholeheartedly.
She knew her brother was not nervous about the marriage itself--not at all. He was unable to prevent sharing his concerns with her this morning as he paced the breakfast room at Netherfield. His first worry had been that his aunt and uncle might return to Longbourn this morning and make another attempt at dissuading Elizabeth from marrying him. The second was that they would interrupt the wedding ceremony itself.
It was expected that William would calm a bit once Elizabeth arrived at the church but would continue to be highly uneasy until the ceremony was complete and the register was signed--especially at the moment when the pastor would ask "if any man can shew any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak." He admittedly knew they would marry even if someone did cause a ruckus, for though his relatives believed to the contrary, there truly were no just causes that William and Elizabeth should not be married. Just the thought that they might cause a disruption of the holy ceremony that would join Elizabeth and him for life was his undoing.
Richard, too, was fearful that something would go awry this day. Though it was not obvious to anyone who did not know him well, he startled ever so slightly at sudden noises. Early this morning, Georgiana had also overheard part of the speech that Richard had given to the footmen and drivers for their carriage and the one which was sent to Longbourn soon after. She had guessed that the latter group had not as great a need for the instructions since she noticed they were the same men who had witnessed much of what had occurred there recently. The younger Darcy knew the staff that had been assigned to protect Elizabeth had not been randomly chosen.
Though Georgiana understood their concerns were based on real possibilities, she was not alarmed. Deep within her, she felt that all would be well, and so she had made it her task to do whatever she could to calm the gentlemen. Bingley, as best man, had done his best to distract the groom, but both he and Georgiana found that William was not at all receptive to their endeavors. Before long they had discovered that remaining silent was actually more helpful and concluded that containing their amusement at his behavior was paramount to the success of their cause.
Georgiana imagined that she and Bingley had already done all they could to calm her brother on the day of the incident with her mother's siblings, and the day following it when she explained to William what she and Bingley had done to contain the risk of Mrs. Bennet and the younger daughters gossiping about their aunt and uncle's visit. Worried about what she had overheard the youngest two Bennets discussing just after her uncle's carriage had departed, Georgiana had requested the company of Bingley and Jane to accompany her to the study so she could speak to Mr. Bennet.
She giggled a little as she thought of the result of that meeting. Mr. Bennet had taken the situation under control by declaring the subject off-limits to speak of anywhere, especially outside the house or within the hearing of the servants--threatening his wife's and youngest two daughters' pin money for an entire six months if even the slightest mention of the event was spread abroad.
Georgiana came to think that perhaps she had been too confident in thinking that this day would turn out well when she noticed a Darcy footman--who was supposed to be at Netherfield--had signaled Richard from the doors at the rear of the church. Richard quickly excused himself, stating a need to stretch his legs outside for a few moments, and then slipped out the side door of the church. She could only be glad that William had not noticed the reason for Richard's removal, but it was not long before he became suspicious of Richard's absence.
Elizabeth was quite proud of herself when, as the coach pulled up in front of the church, she asked her father the time and learned that she was ten minutes early! She turned to look out the window and saw a very grand-looking coach was standing in the courtyard. Her heart began to pound frantically when she noticed the coat of arms…
"The Earl of Matlock!" Elizabeth closed her eyes and whispered, "Please, not today?"
Mr. Bennet reached across and gave Elizabeth's hand a squeeze. "They will not disrupt the service, I promise you, my Lizzy!" Turning to Jane, he said, "Do not leave her side, Jane. Stay in the coach." He disembarked, closing the door firmly behind him, and went to speak to James who was standing nearby.
"What is happening, James? Have you seen the Earl?"
"No, sir, I have not. They had arrived only just before we did. One of Mr. Darcy's staff was on the coach and went to the door of the church. He then returned to the coach to speak to someone inside. I should tell you that we have strict orders to take Miss Elizabeth away from here if there is any disruption, Mr. Bennet. We will not allow her to alight from the carriage if the Earl is on the church grounds."
Mr. Bennet nodded and just then they saw Richard emerge from the side door of the church and walk towards the coach. Mr. Bennet waited a minute and then approached to offer support, but when he came within view, he saw Richard displaying a wide smile while looking at a gentleman who looked very much like the Earl from behind. For the briefest of moments, Mr. Bennet thought that they had been fooled as to where Richard's allegiances lay--but then decided not to jump to conclusions.
"What exactly is going on here?" Mr. Bennet barked, prepared to do battle.
Richard looked toward Mr. Bennet and exclaimed with a pointed look, "A pleasant surprise for William, Mr. Bennet! May I introduce the Viscount Bainbridge, Lord Reginald Fitzwilliam, and Lady Clara Fitzwilliam. This is the father of the bride, Mr. Thomas Bennet, of Longbourn. My brother and sister have come to attend the wedding, Mr. Bennet, and to show their support for the happy couple."
Mr. Bennet's eyebrows shot up almost to his hairline. Bowing, he said, "Ah, yes. A pleasure to meet you, I am sure. Will you be staying for the wedding breakfast?"
"Thank you, Mr. Bennet, but since we were not expected, we could not think to impose," responded Lady Clara.
"It would be no trouble, I assure you. My wife would never forgive me if I did not convince you to attend, and I am certain that Elizabeth would like to meet you."
At a nod from Lord Reginald, his sister accepted the invitation.
"Reginald and Clara; you had best be seated as soon as possible. Mr. Bennet, please do not delay very long. Our cousin is inside in a state of nerves such as I have never witnessed before! Every moment increases his worry that our father or Aunt Catherine will arrive and make a mockery of the wedding ceremony. I fear that if Miss Elizabeth does not enter the church soon, he will run mad!"
Lady Clara smiled widely, "Well, then, you may remove William's worries, brother! Aunt Catherine was staying in town with us. Anne wished to come as well, but she knew she could not get away from her mother and she promised to keep her mother occupied today."
"Clara and I took separate carriages so that Father would not have one left for his own use and my carriage is in the process of having the wheels replaced." Lord Reginald stated. "I made certain that Aunt Catherine's coach was undergoing some conveniently urgent maintenance and was in such a condition as it would take hours to reassemble. You know that that neither of them would ever travel in an inferior hired coach or by horseback. William's wedding is safe!"
Richard and Mr. Bennet laughed at their scheme. The latter felt a degree relief, though he would not express it aloud, that Elizabeth and William would have the support of two members of the peerage at the very least.
"We shall enter the church directly after I have relieved the bride's curiosity and concern about who belongs to this carriage. Prepare the groom, Colonel!"
"With pleasure, sir!"
"Just one moment--Lord Reginald… are you married?"
Lord Reginald was quite surprised at the question, but replied, "No, I am not, sir."
Mr. Bennet shot a look at Richard. "Well then, Colonel, you should warn your brother about my wife!" Turning back to the Viscount, he continued, "After today, I will still have four unmarried daughters, and a wife who has just had a taste of arranging a wedding." Mr. Bennet wiggled his eyebrows and walked away towards the carriage in which he arrived.
"Do not fret, Reginald, Mrs. Bennet has no hidden agendas; she is quite obvious in her machinations. I must say it is refreshing. A hint, though--I have reason to believe that the heart of the eldest Bennet daughter is already spoken for, whether her mother knows of it or not." Richard guffawed at the look of shock on his elder brother's face. As he walked around the side of the church to enter through the same door he had left, his siblings entered through the front with just enough time to find a seat before William stepped up to his place before the altar.
Richard entered the room that housed his cousins and Bingley still smiling. He found their state exactly as he supposed they would be; all three now had worried looks upon their faces. Richard chuckled. "All is very well indeed! My brother and sister have sent word to you that there will be no disruptions today."
A smile spread slowly across William's face and he sighed in relief. "Thank you, Richard, and thank Reginald and Clara for me."
"You may thank them yourself. They arrived a few moments ago to show their support of your marriage. It seems the current generation of Fitzwilliams is much more sensible than the previous, with the exception of your mother of course." Richard walked over to William and shook his hand. "For any other couple, at this time I would wish the groom luck, but I know in this case there is no need for luck. I expect you to be very happy." He clapped William's shoulder. "It is time, cousin! Your bride has arrived." Turning he said, "Georgie, we must take our seats."
Now that the time had come, Georgiana was so choked up with emotion she could not speak. Her smile was wide, and her eyes were filled with tears as she kissed her brother's cheek before taking Richard's arm.
Bingley said, "Are you ready, Darcy?"
"I have been more than ready for this moment for years, Bingley!" William walked into the church and stood in the place the pastor had shown him earlier in the day. His gaze was fixed on the doors at the back of the church with joyful anticipation.
Squeezing her father's hand, Elizabeth sighed. "It makes me happy to know that not all of William's family is against us, Papa! Their coming relieves my mind a great deal."
"I knew it would, my dear. Come, let us not keep William waiting. Colonel Fitzwilliam tells me he has been quite nervous."
Elizabeth's smile widened, and her eyes sparkled mischievously. "Nervous? About marrying me?"
Mr. Bennet's heart jumped. "No, no, Lizzy!" About to explain, he stopped as he realized she was teasing.
"Do not worry, Papa, I have every faith in William's love for me." She patted her father's arm, and then turned to her sister. "Jane, lead the way."
Mr. Bennet nodded to James and another Darcy footman, and they opened the doors. As Jane began to walk through, Elizabeth turned to James--the man who had saved both William's life and her own--and said, "Thank you, James… for everything. If you had not…" Emotion welled up within her, and she could not continue.
James broke his usual stoic demeanor and smiled down at her. "It is always my pleasure, Mistress."
Looking down the aisle towards the altar, her eyes met his… and all was right in the world. Elizabeth walked towards her beloved William.
The wedding breakfast was all that it should have been, and Mrs. Bennet was highly praised by all, though it was plain to see that she was most impressed with the compliments paid her by the Viscount and his sister. Elizabeth and William spent their time mingling among the guests who had come to wish them well, Elizabeth conversing smoothly with all, and William following along behind her, adding a sentence or two when necessary--as always in awe of her skills in social settings. The newlyweds were always touching in some way whether it was his hand placed gently on the small of her back or her hand wrapped about his arm.
The couple spent a longer time speaking to William's cousins than with anyone else thus far; after all they had defied the older members of the family by coming to show their approval of their marriage, and they had been the only guests that Elizabeth did not know. During a break in their conversation when Richard came to tease his siblings about the stealth of their escape from their parents and aunt, Elizabeth saw a chance to have a few minutes alone with her husband--her husband!--and pulled William into the hall. The look in her eyes betrayed her thoughts, and William eagerly followed her up the stairs and through a doorway, which she immediately locked behind them.
Turning to William, she reached up to caress his cheek and stepped closer as she said, "Though it seems that my mother had planned the remainder well, the open carriage was badly done indeed! I have been wishing for a few moments alone…"
Her speech was silenced by William's gentle kiss before taking her face between his hands. Smoothing her silky skin, he swallowed hard past the tightness in his throat and whispered, "Elizabeth! My wife!"
Elizabeth's eyes sparkled with all the love she felt for him. "After so long… I can hardly believe it is true that we are finally married."
William leaned down and kissed her gently once again. Cognizant of the need to return to the party, he had every intention of moving away until she responded by winding her hands around his neck and pulling him down to her lips, pressing herself as close to him as she possibly could. After several minutes, both breathless, they parted, and William placed his forehead gently against hers for a few moments, saying huskily, "Must we stay much longer? I would like to leave for London very soon, Mrs. Darcy."
Elizabeth smiled widely at hearing him use her new appellation. "I will call for Hannah to assist me in changing immediately." William's disappointed expression confused her. "Would you like to stay longer?"
"No, no." His panicked look at her misunderstanding his intentions changed to one of desire. "I - I was hoping… could you not wear this gown?" His hand brushed up and down the row of buttons down her back. His fingers played with the top button, and his gaze moved to her neckline. Perhaps in a few days he could tell her exactly what he had been imagining since he had first seen her in this gown, but at the moment he was afraid his ardor would frighten her. "You have always been the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, but I have never seen you in a more becoming gown than this, my love."
Elizabeth blushed and replied, "Normally, I would not wish to wear such a fine gown to travel, but in this case, I do believe I will make an exception. There are a few things I need to put away before we leave…" she kissed him lightly and moved away towards the dressing table.
For the first time since entering, William looked around the room. His eyes widened as he found he could not remove his gaze from the bed. "What is this room?"
"This is – was my bedchamber." Elizabeth began to place a few items into the case she would bring along in the carriage with her. "Since Georgiana will stay here while we are in London, I am leaving most of my things behind so that she will not be in a bare room. When we return at Christmas, I will pack the remainder." Hearing a noise behind her, she turned and saw her husband lying upon the bed. "William? Are you unwell? Would you like to rest before we leave?"
"No, I do not wish to rest." He blushed furiously and sat upon the edge of the bed. "I apologize. I should not have presumed… Upon hearing this was your room, I found I could not resist lying in the place that you have slept your whole life."
Elizabeth moved toward William, ran her fingers through his hair, and kissed him gently. "I will spend the remainder of my life sleeping in your arms, my husband."
Though he knew it was not the wisest thing to do in his current state of mind, William pulled his tempting wife into his lap. "I shall thank G-d daily for the privilege of being your husband." William forced his mind away from the way she felt in his arms, redirecting his thoughts to being in her parents' house which was currently full of people. "I think, dearest wife, that we should be on our way home…" He gave her one more peck on the lips.
Elizabeth rose and returned to the dressing table. Glancing at the mirror, she noticed its state of disarray. "You certainly know how to reverse Hannah's excellent work!"
As William watched her attempt to repair her hair, his fingers itched to reverse the improvements she was making. Trying to think of something else, he said, "Are you certain that you do not wish to go somewhere special for a wedding trip, Elizabeth?"
Looking at her husband through the mirror, Elizabeth answered, "I know that years ago we had spoken of Italy, William, but I am a rational lady, after all! I understand perfectly well that with the war and the resulting problems at sea, it would not be safe to travel at this time. I intend to live a very long and happy life with you, sir, and do not wish for it to be cut short because I am impatient to see all you have spoken of. We will take our tour of Italy eventually. You have promised me a tour of the Lake District when the weather is warmer as well. I have not been to Pemberley in years and am impatient to see it again. I am certain it can only look beautiful--and special--at any time of year, especially in the winter. There is nowhere else I would rather be right now than at our home."
William moved closer and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Thank you for being the most understanding wife that has ever lived, Elizabeth."
She turned and smiled up at him. "Believe me, my love; as long as we are together I will be very happy--no matter where we are!" He could not resist pulling her up from her seat and kissing her quite thoroughly once again.
Once they had regained their breath, Elizabeth asked, "Shall we bid everyone goodbye?"
William laughed. "Not until after you repair the damage I have done to your hair--again!"
Catching her reflection in the mirror she did her best to hold back her mirth and feign annoyance. "I think, sir, we would do better with you waiting in the hall. If this continues, we shall never leave my bedchamber!"
Pulling her into his embrace once more, he looked at her seriously, his eyes shining with love and desire. "I hope you are prepared to spend the majority of our time once we reach London in our bedchambers--together--my Elizabeth."
Elizabeth blushed, but said, "I look forward to it with pleasure, William."
Elizabeth smiled as she stroked the neck of her horse, a recent gift from her husband. "She is beautiful, William, thank you."
"Have you finally settled on a name for her?" William asked as he untied the saddle bags attached to Poseidon.
William's laughter echoed in the small glade he had chosen for their picnic. "You have named her to dispel any lingering doubts you harbour about riding?"
"Of course! How could I be fearful of riding one who, in Greek mythology, is the personification of good faith, trust and reliability?" Elizabeth answered while detaching the blankets from her saddle.
"A wise choice, my love." He leaned down to kiss her gently and then removed her saddlebags as well. "Are you hungry?"
"Ravenous!" she exclaimed. "Riding certainly increases my appetite. I do believe you have shown me half of Pemberley today!"
William allowed Elizabeth to move off ahead of him to select a location to spread the blankets and was very happy with her choice as it fit perfectly with his own wishes. He chuckled at himself--of course she would remember. William took one side and helped her lay it near the circle of stones that, years ago, Elizabeth had gathered to make the fire to warm him after he had been injured and fallen ill. He was pleased the stones were still there, marking the place that they had fallen in love, a memorial of all they had endured.
He began to unpack the food from the saddlebags. "Once we have ridden more of the estate, you will realize we have not toured even a quarter of the grounds as of yet." He waited until the food was laid out and they were both settled comfortably before speaking again. "The day after tomorrow, we will ride south to visit one of the estates along the boarder of Pemberley's grounds. It has been unused for four years, though the manor house and outbuildings have been kept in very good repair. The owner fell ill and moved to live with his daughter's family at their estate so that she might care for him. The old gentleman recently died, and the family has decided to offer his estate for purchase. I have been inside several times through the years and have been welcome to ride the grounds at will throughout my lifetime. I do believe it may be perfect for the Bingleys."
Elizabeth's bright smile was reward enough for passing on this intelligence. "I knew that their purchasing an estate in Derbyshire was discussed while we were staying at Netherfield in April, but, oh, William! I never dreamed of having Jane and Charles so close by. It would be wonderful indeed!"
"I agree completely. But if they do not approve of it, we will make a purchase offer and hold it as an inheritance for one of our younger children."
"From the information I have seen in your accounts, we would need to have at least ten children to divide up all the 'inheritances' you have amassed, William." Elizabeth bit her lip, and her eyes sparkled in a way that enticed her husband's imagination to run wild.
William leaned over and captured his wife's lips in an ardent kiss. "I believe we can find a way to meet that need, my love." He would have continued had Elizabeth's stomach not chosen that moment to make a rumbling noise reminding him of how hungry she was. They both chuckled as he removed to his side of the blanket, and they began to eat. "Have you heard from Jane recently?"
"Yes, I received a letter from Jane only this morning while you were in your study. They have settled in after their wedding trip, but even Jane is not quite happy with living so close to Mama. I do believe Jane and Charles will enjoy a trip to the north to see the estate. Mama is constantly visiting and pestering my sister to take Kitty and Lydia to London and 'throw them in the way of other rich men' now that she and I have caught our own rich men. She says the same to me, but it is easy to fold a letter and put it back into the envelope. It is not as simple for Jane." Elizabeth smiled. "Mary, of course, is not included in these plans since she has caught the eye of my Uncle Philip's new law partner. With the way they were looking at each other in April when we were there for Jane's wedding, I think you would agree that Mama will be planning another wedding very soon. Of all my sisters, I never thought I would feel the need to chaperone Mary so diligently!"
William nodded and smiled, more at the amused look on his wife's face than the news she was imparting. "Is all well between Mr. Archer and Mr. Phillips?"
"Yes, apparently they get along splendidly, and his presence has increased my uncle's business. Mr. Phillips is finally comfortable enough to take some time away from his office, making my aunt very happy."
"Very good. While we are on the subject of the residents of Meryton, I heard news from an unlikely source--my cousin Reginald--of Miss King, or should I say, Mrs. Wickham. Since I know you have worried about the lady, I thought it might make you easier to know her fate. She and her inheritance are now safe from Wickham. He was killed during a card game after he was caught cheating, but not before Wickham dealt the other man a fatal blow as well. The man he fought with was my uncle's footman, of all people--the same man who helped to blackmail the post worker in Lambton, which is how Reginald came to know of this."
"That is so very…" Elizabeth searched for the proper word, only to find none, and settled for, "odd. Though I am not happy to hear of anyone's death, I am glad to hear that Mrs. Wickham is not tied to that scoundrel for the rest of her life. How do you feel about hearing of his demise, though, William? You did grow up with Wickham…"
"The boy I knew years ago has been long dead, Elizabeth. I cannot feel sorry for the way he died. He could have lived a comfortable, satisfying life if he had been a different sort of man--the sort that both his father and mine had hoped he would be. George Wickham reaped the type of death that he sowed on the path he chose."
They were both quiet for several minutes, but Elizabeth was intent on their picnic not being ruined, and so she searched for another subject on which to speak. "Oh, I almost forgot! Jane had other news--about Caroline Bingley! She has accepted an offer of marriage from a Mr. Benson Scott who owns a large estate in Wales. Do you know him?"
"Yes… yes, I do." William nodded thoughtfully. "They are perfect for one another! He himself is a respectable older gentleman whose wife passed on several years ago. His son was something of a troublemaker, as I recall, gambling away much of the family fortune, but then, through his debaucheries, he become very ill and died, leaving Mr. Scott childless. I believe he began to search for a wife soon after his son's death, to provide his estate with an heir--and with funds. I am certain the reputation of the son had prevented Mr. Scott from easily finding a wife… and since I know for certain that Caroline's disposition would have caused many gentlemen to think twice before considering marriage to her, the match would provide them both with what they need most."
Elizabeth nodded, not very impressed with the match, but then Caroline Bingley had never been someone she cared for, and she could not find it within her to feel too much sympathy. "You have mentioned that in the past, but I cannot help but think they could not be truly happy." She sighed, but was intent on not spoiling this beautiful day with thoughts of this sort either. Changing the subject once again, Elizabeth said, "Lord Hamilton's younger brother seemed quite taken with Georgiana when we met him in London."
William groaned. "Yes, I noticed."
"I was sure that you did. You do know that you frightened the poor boy half to death with your glares. He seemed as shy as you say you were at his age. He is only a year younger than you were when we met at Longbourn as you prepared to attend Cambridge. Think of how you were then--how would you have felt if my father had glared at you in that intimidating manner you have? You would not have been thinking of me in a romantic fashion at that age, and I do not think poor Edwin Hamilton had anything more in mind than you had at Longbourn. Georgiana is older than I was, but still, I believe he wanted only to be friends with her--for now anyway. That does not mean that when they are a little older…"
"Please, Elizabeth; let us speak no more of this subject. I promise to be nicer to him the next time we meet." She gave him an expectant look. "And I will attempt not to glare."
She nodded with a satisfied smile, for that was exactly the outcome she desired from the conversation. "Good, as I was thinking of inviting the Hamiltons for Christmas," William opened his mouth to speak, but Elizabeth interrupted while trying to hide her smile, "along with the Leisenheimers. What do you think of including Lord Reginald and Lady Clara on the guest list; I like them immensely." At her husband's nod, she continued, "I also heard from Papa this morning. It seems that the heir to Longbourn, Mr. Collins, has extended an olive branch and requested a visit so that he can choose a wife from among my father's five daughters. I suppose he will be disappointed when he hears that there are only two available to choose from! The letter Papa has described makes me think the gentleman is quite pompous--even ridiculous. He hopes that inviting Mr. Collins will provide an experience resulting in hours of diversion, though he doubts that either Kitty or Lydia would be interested in such a man."
"Knowing your mother's matchmaking tendencies, it should be an interesting visit to say the least!" he laughed.
Elizabeth laughed along with him. "I quite agree!" Both finished with their meal, she began to repack the saddlebags, with William's assistance.
"Mr. Collins is a clergyman, is he not?"
"Yes, he is. From what my father says in his letter, he had almost obtained a living at Rosings, of all places, but when Lady Catherine heard the name of the estate he would someday inherit, she had a few choice words for the man, and then ordered her footmen to escort him off her property immediately! He is now a curate in a wealthy parish in Essex."
William sobered quickly. "Speaking of which… I received a letter from Aunt Catherine today…"
She arched an eyebrow. "I can only imagine that it included similar sentiments to the one I received yesterday."
His expression changed to one of concern, then conviction, and he said with a smile, "Elizabeth, I believe I will direct our staff to burn any letters from my aunt or uncle without delay should either of us, or for that matter Georgiana, receive one in the future! I have no intention of ever reconciling with either of them and feel no remorse at the thought of never reading a word that either of them would care to send to any of us."
Elizabeth smiled, "I agree wholeheartedly, my love!"
William's expression changed to one so full of feeling for his wife, it spilt forth and enveloped her. "They never will accept that their plans were doomed to failure… nothing can ever divide us again."
Looking deeply into his eyes, she reached up and caressed his cheek. "Nothing. But really, we have never been divided in the true sense of the word. We may have been separated physically, but our love has been constant." Her eyes sparkled with adoration. "Thank you for bringing me here, my husband."
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply her scent, reveling in her touch, both of which would never cease to cause the now familiar stirrings within him. Opening his eyes, he found her equally affected, and he proceeded to introduce her once again to the man within him, untamed by the gentleman.
Conceived under the tree his mother had climbed, near the hedge his father had come through, in the beautiful glade where their love had first bloomed… nine months later, the first of seven children, the heir to the Darcy legacy, Bennet Darcy, was born.