"Good afternoon, Lizzie."
Lizzie didn't even try to contain her smile as Darcy entered and sat down next to her. He wore black with red today. She liked him in black and red, despite the memories those colors brought. Who am I kidding? she thought as his shoulder bumped hers. He'd look hot in any color.
Darcy straightened his tie and glanced at her camera, and her whole body tensed as it always did when he caught her filming. It was only a matter of time until he found out about her videos. Caroline's jealousy would get the better of her, or Fitz would get curious and look them up, or Darcy would finally notice the tweets her viewers had been sending him for months. He turned back to her with no sign of suspicion, and she relaxed, feeling once again that she'd dodged a bullet.
He asked how she was, then stammered a couple nervous sentences before finally asking her to the theater. She thought he meant with him and Gigi, and gave him a glowing smile, but then he clarified.
"Well, actually, Gigi has an engagement, so it would just be, uh, you and me."
Oh. Oh. Lizzie froze, her eyes wide. The butterflies that had been bouncing playfully in her stomach since he walked in the door were now performing complex gymnastics. This was no casual invitation. He still wanted to date her. He had to, or he wouldn't have this mixture of anxiety and resolve in his eyes. His words confirmed every hope she'd tried to suppress since coming to Pemberley Digital...and every fear.
He had asked her two months ago why she was filming. If he'd asked the first time he saw her camera, when she was livid and wanted nothing more than to wound him, she would have taken an unholy pleasure in giving him the ultimate proof of her hatred. Instead, he'd asked the second time, when he looked exhausted and subdued. Pity, and fear that he would retaliate if he saw her videos, had made her stammer that she sometimes filmed herself for her thesis. She was a poor liar, and she'd expected him to notice and demand the truth, but he'd just nodded and handed her a letter. A letter that had turned her thinking about him inside out.
Lizzie looked away, her hands coming up to rub her forehead. "I was afraid of this," she breathed. She wanted to accept his invitation, to accept him. She hadn't known just how much she wanted him until this moment, when he once again laid himself open for her. But she couldn't begin a relationship with him while her videos hung over them like the sword of Damocles, threatening at every moment to drop and show him exactly how unethical and hateful she had been.
She had to give him an answer. She looked up, and her breath hitched at what she saw. He'd heard her whispered words. He looked away from her now, his face pale, immobile but for the rapid blinking of his eyes. She'd come to think of that as "the hurt Darcy expression." She had to be the worst person in the world to have caused that expression so many times.
"I am sorry to have troubled you, Lizzie," he said quietly, then rose to leave.
He'd unknowingly given her an out. She could let him leave and hope he never found her videos. The outcome would be the same as if she told him everything--he would be hurt, and her remaining weeks at Pemberley Digital would be excruciatingly awkward and painful for both of them. It would only hurt him more to learn of her videos now.
It was tempting, but she couldn't do it. She'd deceived him too much already. He deserved to know she rejected him because of her, not because of him.
"Darcy," she said, not realizing the turmoil and longing that filled her voice. He stopped and bent his head, listening. "You...you don't want to date me."
That brought him around to face her, his gaze defiant. "I know my own heart, Lizzie."
"But you don't know..." her voice trailed off.
"...yours?" he finished, his voice low. "Clearly."
"No," she said forcefully, rising to her feet in frustration. "That's not what I--". She tentatively stepped toward him, then halted and knotted her fingers nervously before her. "I have a vlog. Since last April. And I, um, talked about you on it. A lot."
Darcy's eyes narrowed for a long moment as he processed this, but he looked at her evenly as he replied. "I am aware that you once...loathed me. You needn't distress yourself about whatever you said."
Carte blanche, just like that? From the man who had once claimed he never forgave? Lizzie gaped at him, then shook her head and made herself confess the worst. "It's more than that, Darcy. You came in a few times while I was filming, and I--I posted it."
He flinched. "Including the time I...?"
She nodded miserably. There it was again, the hurt Darcy expression. He stood for long seconds, his face averted, then shoved his fists into his pockets and walked over to the window. She could only imagine what must be going through his mind. To know that his declaration of love and her harsh rejection were on the internet! His friends, his sister, his investors or competitors, his worst enemy--she had exposed him for any of them to see. Even the most casual man would be furious at what she had done, much less an intensely private man like Darcy.
The tension in the room grew unbearable as she waited for him to decide how to respond. Finally, he twitched his shoulders and turned back to her, his face carefully composed.
"Why, Lizzie?" She looked down, ashamed of the weak explanation she had to give him. "Were you attempting to prove how awful I was? Or did you hope I would find it someday and be hurt all over again?"
"No! I didn't even think of how it might hurt you, really," she exclaimed. "I use the videos to work things out, and...I didn't know what to do with what you'd said. My viewers had, uh, been begging to see you for a long time, too."
He tilted his head, considering her words. Then, suddenly, he asked, "Did you say anything about Gigi?"
"No, nothing. I mean, in my last few videos I've mentioned meeting her and how sweet she is, but I haven't shown her or said anything about what you wrote about her."
His stance relaxed as she spoke, and his voice became curious. "Your viewers wanted to see me?"
"Yeah. They liked you from the start. I could never figure out why, considering the things I said about you. They kept saying I was biased and had misjudged you." I should have listened to them, or at least to Jane and Charlotte and Fitz, she wanted to add, but she had exhausted her courage and couldn't make herself risk asking for his forgiveness.
He shook his head. "You had reason to think poorly of me."
They lapsed into silence again. She was still trying to wrap her head around his response. He had to be more angry and hurt than he let on, didn't he? She hadn't exactly expected screaming from him--that would be as out of character as "Lizzie, do you want to get your groove thing on?"--but this quiet scrutiny was unnerving.
At last, he spoke, and it wasn't to stiffly excuse himself, as she'd expected. "Is there anything else?"
"You were telling me why I don't want to date you. Do you have any more reasons?"
"Um, just the ones you already know of," she said uncertainly, thinking of her family and her debts, of Wickham and her harsh words last fall.
"Then there are none."
Lizzie's chin quivered as his words lodged in her heart and tripped through her veins. He loved her. He loved her still. She could see it now, in his warm, unwavering gaze that somehow looked beyond the ugliness she'd just revealed and saw something in her worthy of his devotion and respect. How had she ever inspired a love like that?
Even so, she couldn't believe the sword of Damocles had truly turned out to be a feather. Darcy seemed intent on making this easy for her, and she was grateful to him but still worried. "You--you can't just say that, Darcy. You don't know what I said about you. I called you grotesque and nauseating and...an infuriating ------bag." She could barely force out the awful words. "And that was just in the first video I posted after meeting you."
His eyes flickered at her words, but he looked as determined as ever. "Lizzie, I don't--." He paused for a few seconds, then cleared his throat. "May I watch your videos?"
The irony of his question was irresistible, and despite her agitation she snorted softly. "You're asking my permission to watch me insult you?"
"I want to be with you, Lizzie. If...if that's not something you want, for whatever reason, then I will trouble you no further. If, however, your concern over your videos is the only obstacle, then I would like to watch them. With you, if you prefer."
Watching her videos together. The very thought was intimidating, yet it was the perfect response, something she would never have dreamed to ask of him. She stared at him in wonder for a few seconds, wishing she knew how to express what his offer meant to her. In the end, she could only say unfluently, "They're over five hours long."
Improbable as it seemed, those words earned her first full smile from him.
Lizzie dropped a tea bag into each mug and handed one to Darcy, who stood leaning against the counter and watching her. He'd been chatty, for him, during the drive there, answering her questions about the new Domino app with all the enthusiasm and vision that made him a successful CEO. Silence had fallen after she unlocked the apartment door, broken only by her thanks when he helped with her coat and his thanks when she offered tea.
He followed her now to the living room, settling on the loveseat while she hooked up her laptop. She plugged her charger into the wall, then looked over at him. This time he stared not at her but at her laptop, and his chest rose and fell once before he raised his chin determinedly. The little movements told plainly how nervous he was about this, how he would fight to conceal the effect of her words on him. She connected the last cord, then moved to sit close by him.
"I wish we didn't have to spend the evening this way." It was the closest she could come to an apology--asking him to grant forgiveness before they even started wouldn't be fair.
He turned to her, his face growing calm. "It is an evening spent with you, learning about you. I am certain I can survive that."
Survive. He spoke wryly to set her at ease, she knew. Still, the word troubled her. In truth, their survival of the next 5+ hours depended on him, not her. That was why she had refused when he offered his home for this evening. If her videos were too much for him, if his love turned to disappointment and disgust before her eyes, she didn't want him to feel obligated to drive her home afterward.
She navigated to the first video, and he inhaled sharply before she could press play. "Over 500,000 views?"
"Yes. I don't understand it either." She hesitated, then clicked to show a graph of the number of views over time, a steady rise with two prominent bumps. "It's partly because of you. This bump," she pointed to July," was from VidCon, and the other one was from, uh, showing you for the first time."* She looked up at him and quietly answered his unspoken question. "I swear that's not why I did it. I had no idea that would happen."
Darcy nodded his acceptance, and they began. He clearly liked her first few videos--his mouth twitched as she held up her t-shirt and recited, "It is a truth universally acknowledged...", and when he saw that she'd titled the fourth video "Bing Lee and His 500 Teenage Prostitutes," he remarked dryly that Bing might actually frown at her if he ever saw it. Her insults at the beginning of "Snobby Mr. D-----y" stung, she could tell, but he was prepared for them and even smirked when she speculated about his $5000 boxers.
Then she appeared on screen in a newsie hat and bowtie, scowling and speaking in a hard monotone. He stared at her, hardly noticing Lydia's absurd imitation of Bing. By the end of the next video, in which she described their first dance, his hands lay fisted on his knees.
"Darcy?" she said nervously, pausing the video. "Do...do you want to stop?"
"No," he said quickly. He saw her look at his hands and immediately unclenched them.
She waited, but he didn't seem to have anything more to say. Something was obviously bothering him, though, and she bit her lip and spoke quietly. "Darcy, I wasn't just intentionally misunderstanding you all those months. I'm really that bad at reading you. If we're going to do this, you need to level with me about...whatever you're thinking. Please."
He exhaled, looking slightly past her. "After...last fall,"--apparently that was his euphemism for her rejection--"I tried but could not remember ever saying you were 'decent enough.' Even now, knowing when I said it, I cannot remember doing so. It disturbs me that you were hurt by words that meant so little to me."
"They don't hurt any more," she said reassuringly. He frowned, unconvinced. "How could they, now? And anyway, you saw my first few videos. I went to that wedding looking for reasons to dislike you and Bing and Caroline. Yeah, you were rude and gave me a reason, but you could have easily overheard me saying something just as rude about you. I didn't just think up all those insults while I was filming, you know."
"Still, I was a fool. Nothing about you is merely 'decent enough.'"
"So I gathered," she said cheekily before pressing the play button.
Amusement: she once proposed to Ricky Collins. Pain: "When the nicest thing Jane Bennet has to say about you is 'tall,' you have personality problems." Amusement: her impression of a buzzed Bing. The next few videos had Darcy swinging from one to the other like a pendulum. He quirked an eyebrow at her when Charlotte and Jane hijacked the camera to announce she was in denial about his interest, and Jane's attempt to imitate his smoldering look drew a funny choking sound from him.
His response made her bold. "Were they right? Did you actually like me then already?"
He didn't answer for a moment, long enough for her to want to kick herself for asking about his feelings when she could say nothing in return. Then he raised his head to look directly at her.
"It was a Wednesday. I had just returned from spending a week with Gigi. She was still...grieving. You looked so alive and happy and fearless that night. Caroline suggested Carter's again that weekend, but I was determined not to seek you out. I, um, could not stop thinking about you, however, and the following Wednesday I suggested that Bing and I go, on the chance that it was your weekly routine."
"Oh. Wow." Lizzie glanced at her laptop to see the date of the video. He had been interested in her since May. Eight months that felt like an eternity to her, and she hadn't been the one in turmoil all that time. It was almost too much to take in. She looked back to see him watching her uncertainly, his chin tucking toward his chest. "You really had been fighting against this for months."
"As I said, I was a fool."
She shook her head, feeling equally foolish. Even after reading his letter, it had not occurred to her that his sister's heartbreak must have been weighing on him when they first met. No wonder he'd looked severe so often.
Swim week came next. Her cheeks warmed a little when Lydia brought her a striped bikini top. Darcy didn't react, at least not that she could see out of the corner of her eye, and she would not lose all her dignity by turning her head to see him better. He did react to her next video, though.
"Wickham," he ground out. "He was there all summer?"
Lizzie stared at him. She had just appeared on camera with swim goggles, showing how Wickham had spread his jacket over a beer puddle. His name hadn't even been mentioned yet. "Just for swim week. He came back for a few weeks in the fall, when you saw him. How did you know it was him?"
"I know him. If he wants to meet a girl, he uses that line or a few other standbys. If he likes her, he calls her 'Peach.' He was always very...unoriginal."
Well, that explains "Batman," she thought. "I keep forgetting that you were actually friends once."
"We were best friends until my freshman year of college."
He stated the facts concisely, as he had in his letter last fall, but now the tightness in his voice gave his pain away. "I'm trying to imagine Charlotte turning on me and my family like that. It's...unthinkable. I'm so sorry."
He turned toward her in surprise, then shifted a little closer. "Thank you," he said simply.
As the video continued, she saw herself gush over Wickham's charm and suggest that Darcy should be more like him. To her relief, Darcy listened without any outward sign of anger or revulsion. Instead, as the video ended, he quietly said, "He made a great first impression." Unlike me was unspoken but clearly in his thoughts.
"And an awful last impression." Also unlike you.
The next thing she knew, Darcy's hand was on her upper arm, his voice tight with concern. "Did he...hurt you, Lizzie?"
"Oh! No," she said quickly. "I didn't mean to make you think that. He just made me feel stupid, that's all." His eyes closed briefly at her words, and then he removed his hand and sat back.
Her next video effectively distracted his thoughts from Wickham. He watched her bleary-eyed account of early-morning grocery shopping with growing delight, stealing glances at her frequently. When she presented the green beans and cranberry jello to the camera, his chest started shaking, and he laughed outright as she resolutely choked it down to foil her mother's plan. Darcy had a rich, warm laugh that eased his normally formal expression and made him more deeply attractive than ever. Lizzie stared longingly at his profile as the video continued, hoping that sound would be part of her future.
Her future. She hadn't planned for her next few videos to focus on her uncertainties, but somehow that's what had happened. Watching herself and Charlotte discuss jobs and plans for VidCon, it was easy to see why she was still pretty aimless career-wise while Charlotte was thriving as a partner at Collins & Collins. Lizzie glanced at Darcy a few times, but she couldn't tell what he thought of her idealism. She did not glance at him when her video self freaked out about losing Jane to Bing or when she speculated that she would end up a spinster.
VidCon brought a new setting as well as Ricky Collins. She had called him narcissistic for interrupting her video to talk about himself, but watching now, she wondered whether he'd even realized she was filming. He had never made eye contact with the camera, as he had in later videos. Afterward, Charlotte had called her on her rudeness. "We can't insult people. Please be nice."
"I AM nice!" she had snapped in response. That did it. Lizzie's hand came up to smack her forehead. She had been rude and impatient with Ricky. Furthermore, if she had been nice in her videos...
She looked up to find an amused look on Darcy's face. "Gigi introduced me to the word 'facepalm' some time ago, but until now I had never seen someone do so."
"Fine. Go ahead and laugh at me. I'll just be sitting here contemplating how my 'niceness' kept me from seeing--what play was it?"
"It was actually a series of plays based on, um, Tolstoy's short stories."**
His voice had become quiet, as if he was uncertain whether she would have enjoyed the evening he'd planned. Lizzie stared at him, suddenly serious. "You remembered." His mouth tipped upward a little, and she folded her arms. "Yep, definitely contemplating right now."
Netherfield. Lizzie tightened her arms protectively over her chest at the first sight of the purple walls. If anything was going to make Darcy wash his hands of her, it would be this. Her videos there had been orgies of insults and hatred toward him.
"That bad?" he finally asked. He had been watching her and tried to make it a jest.
At that moment, her video self sniped, "Ugh, I feel so sorry for the poor woman that ends up stuck with that ------bag for life!"
Lizzie cringed. "That bad."
Darcy nodded and straightened his already-perfect posture. "If it is any comfort, I expect this will be mortifying for me as well. I, um, thought at the time that you were interested in me."
"What?" She immediately regretted the disbelief in her voice. He had just been trying to do as she'd asked and help her understand him, and now he looked like he wished he hadn't said anything. "Sorry, I'm just...on edge or something. Why did you think that?"
"I felt I had been incautious in showing my interest in you, and I was vain enough to assume you would reciprocate."
"And I'm sure Mom's convoluted plan made our coming look suspicious. But you still thought that even when I was...antagonistic towards you?"
"You mean, when you engaged in intelligent, playful banter?"
Lizzie started to snicker before she registered the look on his face. Oh. That was not a flirtatious expression.
"Wait, you seriously thought that?" He inclined his head, and she stared at him as she digested that fact. "Wow. A lot of things are starting to make sense."
"I could say the same."
He was distracted then by Caroline entering the video. He glanced at Lizzie questioningly, then turned back to stare at Caroline as she announced her forgiveness of the videos and volunteered to help keep them from him and Bing. "I would have expected her to tell me, in an attempt to discredit you," he said thoughtfully.
"Maybe she thought you couldn't fix what you didn't know was wrong?"
He raised his eyebrows at that but said nothing until the next video began. The title, "Meeting Bing Lee," surprised him. "Bing knew about your videos all this time?"
She shook her head. "You'll see."
They were silent as the video played. It was hard to watch Bing and Jane together, happy and googly-eyed. Lizzie felt herself getting mad at him all over again. How could he have so easily dumped Jane, no matter what his sister and friend said? She looked at Darcy, willingly sitting beside her to watch these videos, still caring despite having every reason to give up on her. Why couldn't Jane have been loved like that too?
Then again, she could be persuaded to do what she knew was wrong as easily as Bing. In her next video, she listed on camera all the reasons she shouldn't have posted the footage of him--it was unethical, he thought the videos were for Charlotte and had no idea they were being seen by thousands of strangers, and those strangers might send him nosy and disturbing messages--yet a few words from Caroline made her ignore her conscience. She glanced over to see how Darcy was taking this, only to find him...biting back a smile?
"You think this is funny?"
"You are conversing with a stuffed elephant and suggesting that Bing would threaten you with his scalpels. Certainly I think it is funny."
She rolled her eyes, somehow both relieved and frustrated that he was willing to ignore the same logic that had caused her to post footage of him. Then she said, "I know some of my viewers contacted you as well as Bing. I hope they didn't get too personal?"
"Most were polite. I assumed their comments were industry-related, though I did wonder why they alluded to bowties so often. I, uh, take it you also called me a lobster at some point?"
"Lobsters were...mentioned. But...you said 'most' were polite?"
"Lizzie, it's fine. To be blunt, I have been propositioned before. It is an unfortunate part of being a public figure."
"Oh. But...I still made you even more public," she said apologetically.
"Well, I fortunately lack Bing's scalpels, so you have nothing to fear."
His words were teasing, but the seriousness behind them left Lizzie staring at him.
Then the onslaught began, as she and Caroline played "Darceny" to mock his description of an accomplished woman. He ducked his head when he realized what they were doing, and she had to ask. "Did you forget this one, too?"
"No, I recognized my words when you alluded to them last fall." He glanced at her, then looked away again. "I was...miserable with you at Netherfield. Every time we talked, I felt as if my interest was tattooed on my forehead. I was determined to convince myself you were wrong for me and didn't consider how insulting I was."
He grew more and more uncomfortable as her video self recited every item in his list. "It's like he's purposely dooming himself to be alone for life," she mocked as the game ended, and he reacted with a shuddering breath and briefly closed eyes.
Alone for life. She had seen the Anne F. and William S. Darcy Memorial Hall during her tour of Pemberley Digital and heard from Gigi of the car crash that had orphaned them. Then he had lost his childhood best friend, and nearly his sister as well. Her rejection last fall was only the latest loss he'd suffered. No wonder the words hurt him.
"How do you put up with him?" her video self asked Caroline. "You get used to it? Like it's some stuck-up ------bag threshold you've achieved?" Then, "Darcy is still unpleasant, disagreeable, and full of himself...the man finds a way to criticize everything and everyone." Lizzie did not miss the irony that she had always found a way to criticize him.
"This is not a man with a lot of friends, is it?" Her next costume theater scene had focused on his rudeness, but she could see now that he had been trying to discourage Caroline's interest in him and that he had been annoyed at Bing's insistence that he socialize when he needed to work.
"Talk about pompous!" had been her reaction when he attempted to flirt with her--a laughable attempt, yes, as she and Caroline had walked around the room, but not worthy of her anger.
On and on it went. "Of course he has a short temper. It goes along with his stuck-upness and unforgiving personality ... Having no capacity for forgiveness means hating everyone." Ironic indeed.
"I hate him! I hate his stupid, judgy little...blegh! Huh, who would have thought that getting angry at Darcy would make me feel better? ... I can safely say I've never hated anyone as much as I hate Darcy!"
And then he couldn't take it any more. He lurched forward to pause the video, then moved quickly to the window. Lizzie stared at his rigid back and tried to imagine what she would feel if the tables were turned, if she had just watched him work himself into a frenzy and publicly announce his hatred of her. She shuddered and earnestly wished that she had been more reasonable, expressed herself more moderately.
At length, she stood, took a few steps toward him, then halted. "Darcy?"
"'It's like he's purposely dooming himself to be alone for life.'"
The devastation in his voice tore at her. "It was cruel of me to say that. More cruel than I knew."
"It was true," he countered, turning toward her. "I was rude to Bing when he'd done nothing to deserve it, as you said."
"He wasn't offended. Even I noticed that."
"He is almost never offended, but that does not excuse my taking advantage of his good nature." Lizzie was completely unprepared for his self-criticism and couldn't form a reply.
"Not to mention that checklist," he continued, his voice tightening. "Any woman with a modicum of self-respect would have been disgusted by the implication that her worth could be measured in that way. I--I drove you away with my arrogance, not to mention that I insulted Jane and Caroline too."
"Okay, but you've realized you were wrong. That was months ago."
"What is to say I--?" A shiver of pain crossed his face, and he turned slightly away from her. "I hope I have corrected that, but your videos show how often I give offense to others, sometimes without realizing it."
Lizzie's insides churned in dismay at what her videos, her words, were doing to him. "Darcy, I decided what I thought of you the first day we met, and--."
"Yes, because I did the same thing then. I thought nothing of being rude to you, just because I was uncomfortable and annoyed at being forced to dance."
She frowned and tried again. "After that, I saw what I wanted to see. All those months, I obsessed over your faults, including a few imaginary ones, and ignored everything else. This," she gestured to her laptop, "is not an accurate picture of who you are."
He shook his head dismissively. "Lizzie, I understand and appreciate your attempt to make this easier for me, but that you feel guilty does not mean that you were wrong."
"Fine. Leave me out of it, then." Darcy frowned at that, but at least he was really listening now.
Lizzie gathered every ounce of boldness she possessed and moved to stand directly in front of him, hands on her hips. "Bing values your friendship because he trusts you to want what's best for him. He told me that himself. Fitz told me last fall that you were 'a loyal and loving dude' who would do anything for your friends. Reynolds and your other employees have nothing but good to say about you. And Gigi adores you." Darcy's mouth had opened slightly as she spoke, and now there was such indescribable longing in his eyes that she felt tears threatening her own. "We had lunch the other day, and she told me...a lot of things. She wants so much to be as strong as you and not disappoint you. Baby sisters don't do that, Darcy." She stepped closer still, grasping his tie to emphasize her seriousness. "The people who actually know you respect and...and care for you. You can't doubt that just because I refused to see it. Or you."
Darcy stood staring at her for long seconds, his face alive with so many subtle emotions that she couldn't catch or interpret them all. She stared right back, refusing to move away until she was sure he believed her. He looked down when her hands went from clutching to playing with his tie, then closed his eyes and rested his chin against her forehead, his hands coming up to curl lightly around her shoulders. His "thank you, Lizzie" was breathed against her hair.
"I was correct about one thing at least during your stay at Netherfield," he said a few minutes later as they returned to the loveseat.
"You think I was intentionally misunderstanding you after all? Because I can see now why you thought that."
"Oh! No," he said, then smirked. "No one watching these videos could think you anything but sincere in your misunderstanding." Lizzie rolled her eyes at that, and he went on. "I meant that you did enjoy our debates at some level. You said so yourself."
"Yeah, I think I focused on the, uh, disagreeable parts so I wouldn't have to admit how much I enjoyed having frequent, lively debates."
They exchanged amused looks when, in the next video, she insisted he didn't like her and would have said "Lizzie, do you want to get your groove thing on?" if he'd really wanted to dance. Darcy muttered to himself when his attempt to flirt with her about "audio-visual stuff" was quoted--"I was even reading Dr. Gardiner's newest paper at the time but didn't know she was your mentor"--and he seemed both amused at Jane's imitation and troubled by her defense of him.
Lizzie, meanwhile, was finally connecting the dots. "So not liking popular music was on your list, Caroline told you I liked popular music, and next thing I know you're asking me to dance to a popular song. That must have killed her." Darcy quirked an eyebrow but said nothing.
They were quiet during "Lizzie Come Home," and Lizzie found herself looking at Darcy when his attention was on her laptop. The wonder of it filled her, that they had made it through the Netherfield videos and were even starting to understand each other better. There were still rough times ahead--Wickham and episode 60, in particular--but for the first time, she could hope, could confidently hope, that she and Darcy would have a future.
The words "I forget nothing" were never leaving her mouth again.
Lizzie had rewatched a number of her videos since starting her vlog. After Bing left, she'd played her Netherfield videos several times, looking for any sign of what the heck he was thinking. After she and Charlotte fought, she'd rewatched "Happiness in the Pursuit of Life" and "The Semester is Over", realizing that Charlotte's cynical nature and willingness to compromise her standards had been always right there under her nose. (Fairness to Charlotte hadn't come until later.) After reading Darcy's letter, she'd watched herself with Wickham and shuddered. And of course she knew Darcy's appearances by heart. It was a good thing she had digital footage of him, for a physical picture would have quickly been covered with fingerprints, its edges curled and worn from handling.
She had rewatched a number of her videos, but there were also some she'd posted and never watched again. "Mr. Collins Returns" and the others leading up to her fight with Charlotte, for example. Why relive conversations that had annoyed her so much?
Ricky was still annoying, even months later, but she'd forgotten her flippant declaration that "I'm not worried at all about people discovering my videos" and the sarcastic way she'd dismissed Charlotte's pleas that she not insult people on her vlog.
"I wasn't very subtle, was I?" she said as she watched herself mock him in a way that only someone as oblivious as Ricky could have missed.
"You forget I spent several weeks reviewing Collins & Collins for my aunt. I was unsubtle myself when he cornered me and Fitz and attempted to deliver the same speech he gave you on new media."
Lizzie snickered at his disgusted tone. Fitz must have enjoyed observing that conversation. In truth, though, it was no wonder Ricky annoyed Darcy. As CEOs of media companies, they were technically equals, but the contrast between their abilities, vision, and management styles could not be greater.
They'd skipped Lydia's earlier haul video, and Lizzie almost offered to skip "Lydia vs. Mr. Collins" too. No reason to make Darcy watch two people he disliked. He leaned forward a little in anticipation when he saw them alone on camera, however, so she let the video play after all.
She had forgotten how perceptive Lydia could be at times. "Rule #1 about Lizzie's diaries: they're Lizzie's diaries. She sees what she wants to see," Lydia had said when Ricky questioned whether Mrs. Bennet was really as manipulative as Lizzie portrayed her. Lydia was right. Their mom was obsessed with marrying off her daughters, but she did love and want the best for them.
Then Lydia and a very confused Ricky had done costume theater of Lizzie and Darcy. Darcy's attempts to be nice to her, her furious response to any comment he made, his bewildered response to her rudeness--she'd thought it absurd at the time, but it was crazily accurate. Lizzie leaned forward and replayed the clip, then glanced at Darcy to find him once again fighting a smile.
"Your sister is...".
"...sometimes more observant than her stubborn older sister?"
Darcy was apparently not about to touch that comment. "...clever."
The light-hearted mood lasted only until the next video. Darcy lost his amused look but sat stoically enough through her flirtatious texting with Wickham--that is, until she praised his "passion for swimming and nurturing young athletes." She had forgotten that was in this video. Darcy's reaction was immediate, his entire body going rigid. His face...he had been angry when she defended Wickham to him last fall, and he was furious now. She couldn't blame him, of course--who wouldn't be, hearing such words?--but she hoped he didn't blame her.
"I just repeated what he told me," she said hesitantly. "I wish--."
"Don't apologize, Lizzie," he said roughly. He looked away, fighting to calm himself. "You couldn't have known that he...".
"That he tried to destroy Gigi's life and then bragged about it?"
Darcy's head whipped toward her, and it took her a few seconds to realize what had struck him. She was glad then that she'd used that familiar wording, even if she hadn't meant to. He stared at her for a time before nodding, his expression gradually becoming less fierce. "I should be beyond feeling surprised at anything he does." He turned back to her laptop then, and she felt another surge of compassion for him. What an awful thing to have to think about a one-time friend.
They were silent after that, through Ricky's insistent proposal. It was almost funny now, his earnest conceit and her completely ineffective attempts to politely refuse his offer. She glanced at Darcy during "Your Pitch Needs Work" and was not surprised to see him look amused when Charlotte offered Ricky practical business advice even as she angled for the partnership Lizzie had turned down.
Then came her fight with Charlotte. She had forgotten that she'd tried to use the supposed "hatred" of her viewers to manipulate her friend into staying. Between that and her decision to post footage of Bing and Darcy without their knowledge, it seemed she used her viewers to justify doing a lot of things she shouldn't. She did not regret questioning Charlotte's decision to take the job--her hard work and brilliance had made her successful at Collins & Collins, but that same brilliance could have made her successful in practically any position--but she did regret letting her selfish desire to keep her friend close drive a wedge between them. She could feel Darcy's gaze on her during much of the video, but she kept her eyes steady on her laptop. Watching this was difficult enough without having to know whether he looked at her with judgment or pity.
Suddenly, his stomach growled.
"Oh right, dinner," she said, pausing the video as the end music played. She really needed a break from this. "Um, I have some fruit, but...maybe takeout?" He'd come early that afternoon to ask her out, so she doubted he'd eaten much of a lunch.
A few minutes later she stood at the kitchen sink plucking grapes while he ordered takeout for them. He hung up, then went to the counter where she'd set out a knife and cutting board and began slicing the two apples. Lizzie washed the grapes, then looked over at him and smirked. Unsurprisingly, his apple slices were uniform, down to the angle at which he'd removed the core. She stole a slice, then leaned against the counter watching him, her thoughts skipping from amazement that she was sharing kitchen chores with William Darcy to more serious reflection on her videos.
"There, done," he announced, then looked at her face and stopped. "Is something wrong?"
"I put people in neat little boxes and don't let them out." She replied without thinking and then cringed at her choice of words. That was a sarcastic reply waiting to happen. It didn't.
"How so?" he asked as he put the apple cores in the compost bin.
Lizzie hesitated. She didn't want to explain. The very thought of opening herself and her faults to him was frightening. He was a smart guy, anyway, and could certainly draw his own conclusions from observing her and her videos. But...Darcy had spoken honest, vulnerable words to her again and again, even after being rejected, had taken the risk and uncertainty on himself and never asked her for an equal sacrifice. Surely he had shown himself worthy of her trust by now.
"Well, um...," she stammered, then paused to gather her wits. "For one thing, I put Ricky in a box that said 'annoying, not worth my time,' but...do you know he actually spent an hour and a half on the phone with me on a Saturday night, answering last-minute questions so I could turn in my report on Collins & Collins on time? And Charlotte was my best friend, so of course she had to have the same goals and dreams as me."
"You've realized you were wrong, though," he said, moving to the sink to wash the knife. "You told me as much last fall when I asked you about Charlotte's new position."
"Yeah, but they aren't the only ones. I put you in a box, too, and my Mom, and God knows how many others."
"I put myself in that box, Lizzie."
She sighed. "That's not the point. I'm a grad student, for pete's sake. I should be communicating and analyzing people rationally, and I thought I was, but the more I watch these and think about the last year, the more I realize...". Her voice trailed off.
Darcy's voice was deep and warm as he replied. "It sounds to me as if you are already changing that."
"I guess. It's just...". She looked away from him, feeling terribly exposed. "I'm not the person I thought I was."
He was silent for long seconds. Then, "I can relate."
He can relate? What does that mean? Lizzie looked up to find that intense gaze of his on her again, full of understanding and heat and so much more that she didn't dare name. It was too much.
"So...we're halfway through now," she said, needing to change the subject.
"Are we?" He matched her lighter tone and picked up a handful of grapes. When she didn't answer, he tilted his head. "Is this another of those times when you want to know what I'm thinking?"
"Um...maybe?" Asking him about a specific incident in her videos was one thing, but she didn't feel ready to hear his candid opinion of everything he'd seen. "How about a favorite and least favorite part? Well...nevermind, I can guess your least favorite part."
"Watching me gush over George Wickham?"
He looked away in acknowledgment, and there was a pause before he responded. "That chart you made comparing him and Ricky Collins. Did you, uh, make a similar chart for me?" He rushed on before she could reply. "I understand if you did, of course. I would just like to...as they say, forewarned is forearmed."
"No, there's no chart."
He nodded, and then his face brightened. "As for my favorite part, that would be costume theater."
She gaped at him. "You can't be serious!"
"Certainly I am. It is a unique and creative way to introduce your viewers to the people in your life, giving them more life and character than a mere description ever could."
"I also creatively used it to make you look horrible."
"I disagree. You used it, in most cases, to quote me. If I dislike what you said, I have only myself to blame."
She looked at him in disbelief, then archly said, "And when I had you say things like, 'I dislike smiling. It contorts the face'?" She delivered the line just as she had months ago, as emotionless and snooty as she could. Her reward was seeing the corner of his mouth twitch before he assumed a poker face.
"You obviously think that an accurate representation."
"I shouldn't judge my own performance."
Darcy's raised eyebrow told her exactly what he thought of her sudden burst of modesty. She smiled sweetly and continued, "If you think that was an 'inaccurate representation,' all you have to do is prove me wrong."
"So, Lizzie Bennet," he said promptly, with an exaggerated grimace of a smile, "how did you develop the creative idea of costume theater?"
She laughed at his silliness--now there was a word she'd never expected to associate with Darcy--but answered his question anyway. That started a lively discussion of media theory that lasted through dinner.
Lizzie had a huge grin on her face as she put their dishes and silverware in the dishwasher. That had, quite simply, been one of the most enjoyable conversations she'd ever had. Darcy hadn't just listened as she described how a class project, combined with memories of putting on plays with her sisters and Charlotte while growing up, had led her to the idea of costume theater for her videos--he'd actively participated, quietly demonstrating a thorough understanding of Dr. Gardiner's work and asking questions she hadn't yet considered about how costume theater shaped her storytelling style and mediated her own experience as well as her viewers'. That topic was definitely getting addressed in her thesis.
"Do you want to keep going tonight?" she asked, straightening. They'd left Pemberley Digital early, the anticipation of watching her videos making them both unproductive at work. Even so, pausing the videos to talk and lingering over dinner meant it was approaching nine o'clock.
"Yes. That is, unless you are tired." He spoke decisively, clearly wanting the evening to continue as much as she did. Lizzie thrilled to his words and sent him another smile before preparing more tea.
Not that the next part of the evening would be easy or fun, she thought as they returned to the living room. Darcy was going to have a hard time watching her swallow Wickham's lies, and she dreaded watching Jane's heartbreak again.
"This was the night you were talking about last fall, right?" she asked as her video self teased Jane for being a "hussy" because she'd spoken to some of the admiring guys at Carter's.
Darcy nodded. "If I had been less eager to find fault with your sister and impress you with my reading of Tolstoy, perhaps I would have noticed your grief for Charlotte."
Lizzie thought that rather harsh--he hadn't stayed at Carter's very long, and she had been trying to hide her sadness. She considered telling him as much, but she suspected she was as likely to convince him to go easy on himself as to dye his hair blue. "Actually, a good Shakespeare/Tolstoy debate probably would have distracted me better than Jane's tea and Lydia's resume. Though it was sweet of them to try."
Instead, she had distracted herself by gleefully reenacting his abrupt departure after seeing Wickham. Darcy watched the video intently, not even rolling his eyes as she thought he might when she speculated that Wickham might have video of him in a boy band. She couldn't tell if he was annoyed by her tactless curiosity or dreaded hearing more about Wickham or...
"He knew about the videos." His voice was quiet, as if he was talking to himself.
Lizzie stared at him. This was uncanny. "Yeah, he found them somehow. He's, uh, actually in the next few."
"Thank you for warning me," he said, fingers flexing a little in his lap. Then "Wickham Story Time" began.
"Red flag #1--flirting about Fifty Shades of Grey when we hadn't even been on a date," she announced. Maybe listing them would help her feel less stupid. Darcy turned quickly to look at her, then back to her laptop.
"Red flag #2--not-so-subtly bringing you up in the conversation after less than a minute on camera."
"Red flag #3--saying he didn't 'want to sully any names' and then spilling his sob story one second later on the internet."
"Using assumed names as well, so that I cannot sue him," he added quietly.
"Uh, yeah, that can be #4," she said, more subdued. Motivation aside, at least Wickham had been smart enough to not insult him by name on the internet. She watched as her video self eagerly helped Wickham tell his twisted version of the truth, then looked to see how Darcy was taking it. She found him watching her rather than her laptop.
"Lizzie, George Wickham has manipulated and deceived people who knew him far better and longer than you. You could perhaps have noticed his lack of discretion, but you had no reason to suspect him of lying."
"Right, but who needs discretion when there are abs to stare at and juicy stories to make me hate you even more?"
He frowned and seemed ready to say more when suddenly raised voices drew his attention back to her video. "He took off his shirt for your sister," he said flatly a few seconds later.
She sighed. "I know, red flag #5." He did not reply and carefully showed no emotion when she giggled and slapped Lydia's hand away from Wickham's abs. Or when she asked him to be her date for Bing's party. Or when he claimed Darcy couldn't stop him from attending it. Or even when he kissed her cheek and left, saying he had "people to do and things to see." She supposed she could call that Freudian slip red flag #6, but she didn't feel like keeping count any more.
Her next video recapped Bing's party. Its opening finally drew Darcy from his silence to make an odd choking sound. "A newsie, Lizzie? I think I lack the required accent and dancing ability."
"You've seen that movie?" she asked in disbelief.
He shrugged. "Gigi went through a Christian Bale phase."
She snickered at his long-suffering tone. Then her video self whined that he had "ruined her life by forcing an amazing guy to stand her up," causing him to send her a skeptical look.
"I know, right? Sometimes I'm as unreasonable as my mom." Darcy's eyebrows shot up at that, and Lizzie wanted to bite her tongue. Of all the things to say to her hopefully-soon-to-be-boyfriend, she had to point out her similarity to her mother.
Next, she and Lydia reenacted her dance with Darcy. Listening to the words she put in his mouth made him seem once again divided between amusement--in reality, he was unlikely to ever speak of Wickham's "strikingly handsome face"--and pain, when she imposed her own thoughts on him, having him state that "no one can stand to be in my company, because I am rude and selfish and ruin the lives of all people I come in contact with." This was decidedly not one of the times she used costume theater to quote him.
Lydia left then, and Jane entered. Lizzie clenched her hands, steeling herself for what was coming. Jane spoke of missing Bing, having spent little time with him after they stopped carpooling and again at his party. Then his tweet came.
Lizzie tensed even more as "Snickerdoodles" began. She hadn't been able to watch this video since posting it last September. They watched silently as Jane forced cheerfulness and attempted to catch up with Lizzie's life, only to finally break down and reveal her anger and heartbreak. Darcy leaned forward and paused the video when he saw Jane's tears, then ran his hand roughly over his face.
"I saw her kissing another man," he said quietly.
"What?!" That's a lie, she wanted to add, but he wouldn't make up something like this.
"I came upon them in the guest wing. His hands were all over her."
She stared at him in disbelief, then shook her head, her voice rising. "She must have been trying to get away from him."
"It did not appear so to me, but I did not...linger."
"I know my sister, Darcy," she contended, her eyes beginning to flash dangerously. "She wouldn't do that to Bing."
"I believe you," he said quickly. "It is clear from your videos that her feelings were...deeper than I thought. It is also clear that she...". He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "Do you remember portraying an intoxicated swimmer in an earlier video, and she allowed you to ogle her and even offered to fetch another drink?"
She looked away, recalling how she'd accused Jane of being way too nice. She could see where he was going with this.
"Her kindness makes it difficult for her to reject unwelcome advances. You know that, of course, but it did not occur to me at the time because I, uh, have no such difficulties myself."
Lizzie sighed heavily. She'd said herself that Jane was the kindest soul on the planet. That her kindness had led to her heartache...it was hard to swallow.
"How is she now?" he asked tentatively.
"She's good, mostly. She loves her job in L.A., but I think she still misses Bing."
He compressed his lips then and looked away, his gaze taking in her laptop and its frozen image of Jane's pain. "Darcy?" she said after a few moments. He slowly turned back to her. "If I had seen Bing kissing another woman, I wouldn't have stopped to ask questions either. I would have assumed he was a millionaire playboy and tried to protect Jane from further pain."
He studied her for a moment and then nodded, visibly relaxing. They restarted the videos then, watching as Jane decided and prepared to move to L.A.
Wickham appeared as well, announcing that he too was leaving town and casually breaking their planned date. Darcy became very still, his eyes intent on her face on the laptop screen, as Wickham left and then as Lydia showed her his tweets about partying with other girls. Lizzie saw his mouth open slightly when she responded by pointing out Wickham's misuse of a present participle. His smile began when she announced that Wickham didn't know the meaning of the word "serious" and grew wider still when she playfully wailed about his departure.
"He truly didn't hurt you," Darcy said, relief softening his voice as he turned toward her. "I know you told me as much earlier, but...I am glad to know you felt so at the time as well."
Lizzie smiled a little in return, then asked the question that had been bothering her. "How did you know that he knew about my videos?"
His expression became more serious then. "He arrived mere days after you and Charlotte quarreled."
She frowned. "You think he was trying to be...supportive or something?" That was absurd--he had never mentioned Charlotte, nor had he been very considerate when he found her upset over Jane's heartbreak and move.
"No," Darcy said, more gently than she'd ever heard him speak before. "I think he knew you were vulnerable."
Gentle tone or not, she was annoyed at the implication that Wickham was only interested in her because she was an easy target. "So what? He watched my videos, so he already knew I liked him. Why would he care--".
Then her eyes widened, the pieces clicking slowly into place in her mind. "He watched my videos, and he knows you. He saw that you were interested in me. That's why he started texting me again and why he wanted to...". She had only seen a charming guy who hated Darcy, and she had been estranged from Charlotte, who might have called him on the inconsistencies in his story. He had come when she was vulnerable. Why?
Lizzie turned to stare at her laptop. She had long known that he'd used her preference for him, embarrassingly clear in her earlier videos, to stroke his ego for a few weeks. She realized now with a surge of clarity that it had been much more than that. His college fund story had been intended to feed her hatred of Darcy, also embarrassingly obvious in her videos, for his own malicious reasons. And he'd left town abruptly just days after Darcy, once he had no more use for her. She suddenly felt queasy and moved her hand to rest on her stomach.
"Lizzie? Are you all right?" She felt Darcy's fingers on her arm and heard the fear in his voice, but she could only think how stupid and partial and blind she had been. He began to apologize for telling her unnecessarily, but she interrupted him, her other hand coming up to rub her face.
"I did exactly what he wanted."
His intake of breath was somehow louder than the background noise from her video, and for a time they were both frozen in place. Then his hand moved, his palm gently caressing her shoulders. She looked up and saw the hurt Darcy expression briefly before compassion and caring won out. It was her turn to gasp then. He clearly thought she had just admitted to...that, yet he would put aside his own feelings to comfort her.
"Not like that, Darcy," she said firmly. "I mean...he tried to use me to hurt you. And I did."
Darcy's hand stilled on her shoulder, his mouth falling open at her words. "Lizzie, no! That is not what I--."
"I did even more than he wanted. He couldn't have known that you would follow me to Collins & Collins and that I would throw his lies at you when you...".
"Lizzie, please don't think that," he said earnestly. "You would have rejected me regardless, and that you mentioned him...that does not hurt any longer."
She sighed. "Yeah, that's going to satisfy me about as much as it satisfied you earlier."
His mouth tightened in acknowledgement, and he brought his hand back to rest on his leg. There was a long silence before he spoke again. "It did hurt and anger me then, but more than that...it frightened me." She stared in confusion as he continued. "I knew from our dance at Bing's party that he had lied to you. Bing and Caroline did not know what he was, but I did, and I left without giving you more than a vague hint."
"I wouldn't have believed you anyway," she insisted. He was not going to take all the blame.
"But you would have been on your guard at least. When you defended him again last fall, I thought...if you cared for him, and I had said nothing to warn you...".
"I could have been hurt just like Gigi," she said with quiet understanding.
He nodded and took a deep, steadying breath. "You weren't, though?"
Lizzie wasn't surprised that he needed reassurance after the last few minutes. She opened her mouth to answer a simple "no," then stopped. He deserved more than that. "When he told me that story...you saw the video. I felt so clever for disliking you from the start. Knowing he manipulated me like that...it hurts my vanity, that's all." She smiled a little at the irony, but her next words were spoken softly and meaningfully. "If you're not hurt, then I'm not hurt."
Her words left him speechless.
Forgiven. Was there any sweeter feeling? Charlotte had forgiven all her selfishness and failure to listen, and Lizzie relived the joy and relief of it as she and Darcy watched their reunion. She had worked hard then and afterward to show that she respected Charlotte's wishes and ideas, and their friendship was stronger now than ever. Lizzie knew she made mistakes--a lot of mistakes, as she'd admitted in one of her videos--but she tried hard to recognize and learn from them.
Listening to Charlotte also had its benefits, as she admitted to Darcy just minutes later.
"What do you think now of your decision?" he asked as she followed Charlotte's advice to set up independent studies rather than taking classes.
Lizzie looked at him archly. "Does that mean 'Do you regret not taking classes?' or 'Have you learned as much as you hoped from shadowing Pemberley Digital and other companies?' or 'What do you think of the people you spent time with while--?'" She broke off as Darcy looked down, his chin tucking in toward his neck. Why hadn't she thought before speaking? She had only meant to tease him for inviting a compliment--which obviously hadn't been his intention--but his gesture reminded her that if she'd gone home when originally planned, she wouldn't have seen him at Collins & Collins or at Pemberley.
She tried again. "Grad school wouldn't have been the same without Charlotte, and...I've learned a lot, professionally and, um, personally, while shadowing. I'm glad I did it."
Her answer brought his head back up, a warm, pleased look taking the place of his discomfort.
Ricky, on the other hand, unashamedly asked her to praise his offices in the next video, gushing over his personal office's view of the carpark. Darcy choked on his tea and sputtered for a moment. "Breathtaking?" he repeated.
Lizzie chuckled at his skeptical tone. Ricky's boasting of his "glorious sanctuary" would be pitiful if he wasn't so sincere. She had been in Darcy's own office earlier that week, arriving a few minutes early to sit in on a brainstorming session with his creative development team, and had spent those minutes gawking at his literally breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay. He had joined her at the window, pointing out landmarks until the rest of the team arrived.
"Ricky didn't show you during your tour?" She could imagine Fitz thinking up alliterative descriptions to amuse himself and keep Darcy from losing all patience with their host. The carpark would be convenient, or...no, definitely conspicuous.
"Actually, Charlotte conducted our tour."
Lizzie admired her friend's foresight. "You know, I never figured out how he convinced Catherine de Bourgh to invest in Collins & Collins in the first place."
Darcy shrugged. "She is quite susceptible to flattery, sincere or otherwise."
"Oh." She wasn't sure how to respond without insulting his aunt. "I didn't know that."
"Naturally. You are too forthright to consider flattery."
Forthright? Well, that's one way to put it, she thought.
"Clearly, Darcy will not get out of my life!" she complained in the next video when he appeared unexpectedly at dinner. It was amazing how little, and how much, things had changed in that respect. Darcy watched with obvious enjoyment as she did costume theater of Catherine and Anniekins for her viewers. There was a brief expression of revulsion and a glance toward her when her video self snarked that his arrogance made him a perfect match for the ugly, wheezy dog, but she could see he wasn't truly offended.
"Will you repeat your impersonation for Gigi?" he asked as the scene ended. "She often struggles with Aunt Catherine's attempts to intrude into her life, and I think she will find it delightful."
"Um...sure." They would have to talk at some point about how to tell Gigi about the videos.
The next video began, and Lizzie immediately slapped her hand to her forehead. "Oh no. I forgot this part." She could see him tense out of the corner of her eye. Then the music started.
Darcy's eyes grew wide as she danced and leaped around the office and made silly noises at the camera. He glanced at her mischievously as the clip ended, then leaned over to play it again...and again and again, his smile growing broader and her face redder with every viewing. Finally, she punched him lightly on the arm and told him to stop.
He did, reluctantly. "You realize I will haunt the hallway outside your office this weekend, hoping for a repeat performance?"
"Well, prepare yourself for disappointment, because I can guarantee I'll be working quietly."
Her saucy reply only made his smile deepen. "I might have joined you, though. It could have been the, uh, second most awkward dance ever."
"What?" she gasped, then shook her finger at him. "You are so not serious."
He shrugged eloquently. "It seems you will never know."
Lizzie was grinning still as she restarted the video. A teasing Darcy would take some getting used to, but if this was any indication, she was going to find him appealing. Extremely appealing.
Those moments of laughter and flirtation made the rest of the video hard to watch. Darcy lost his smile just as her video self did when she learned he would be evaluating Collins & Collins. He looked pained as she resisted Charlotte's attempts to persuade her to come talk to him "pleasantly."
"I see now how it looked to you. You asked after me, Charlotte left, and a couple minutes later I'm there, smiling and talking to you. You must have thought I wanted to see you."
"Yes," he said absently. She was puzzled--he usually seemed comforted when she showed a better understanding of his perspective. Instead, he stared at her laptop as she mimicked his "Darcybot malfunctions," his expression unreadable and, for the moment, very much like the robot she had mocked. Lizzie paused the video near the end and moved so she faced him, her back against the arm of the loveseat.
"What is it?" she asked, concerned.
He looked down at his hands. "You came because you thought I would give my aunt a negative report otherwise."
"You might have anyway," she said, shifting to sit cross-legged. "You hate reality TV--that was one of your requirements for an accomplished woman, remember?--and that and instructional videos about lightbulbs were pretty much all Collins & Collins was doing when Charlotte started."
"It was more than that," he insisted, finally turning to look at her. "You were apprehensive enough that you...forced yourself to smile and talk to me."
She raised her eyebrows. "I was rude to you for months, and you're bothered by the one day I tried to be nice?"
The corner of his mouth lifted in acknowledgement of her point, but he would not be distracted. "You did so because Charlotte said they 'couldn't afford to alienate' me."
"Oh." She drew back a little. "I was just trying to help her, Darcy. I owed her that. I know it sounds like I was, um, manipulating you, but I--."
"That is not what I meant," he interrupted. Frustrated, he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You thought I might cut off Charlotte's livelihood if you didn't come when I expected. I can only imagine how you must have expected me to retaliate for...other disappointments."
Those words cost him. Lizzie saw it and inhaled shakily. She knew she could reassure him, and he would be satisfied, but the time had come to say more. "I--I worried at first about what you would do, especially if you, uh, found my videos."
"You have nothing to fear from me, Lizzie," he repeated urgently, his hand moving forward as if to touch her but retreating at the last moment.
"I know. I knew, after I read your letter." His expression soured when she mentioned it, but she pressed on. "You wouldn't have written a letter like that if you were the kind of person to get revenge. When you gave a positive report on Collins & Collins, I was relieved, but not surprised."
He searched her face for any sign of lingering uncertainty, then nodded and started to reach for her laptop to continue. Her words stopped him.
"But still...I slandered you."
"It's fine. I don't care about that."
"I care about that." Darcy stared at her, his lips parting slightly. "I said a lot of things that were not kind, or fair, or true. I'm sorry I said them in my videos, and I'm even more sorry that I said them at all."
"I--thank you for your apology, Lizzie, but...". He hesitated, and she leaned toward him, replying before he could argue for his share of the blame.
"You're not the person I thought you were. If you were, you wouldn't have welcomed me to your company, and...we wouldn't be here."
Lizzie held his gaze squarely and hopefully, and the resistance in his eyes gradually faded, leaving only tender, unshaken, irresistible love. He spoke then, saying words she had needed to hear for so very long.
Forgiven. There was no sweeter feeling.
"Is every single person in my life in your videos?" Darcy asked, disbelieving, as Fitz entered Lizzie's office.
"Maaaybe," she teased.
He leaned forward a little to watch their interaction, nodding once in comprehension when Fitz promised not to watch or tell him about her videos. She had to admire the way Fitz had kept his word--in his place, she would have found a way to justify watching the videos within days. She had never been particularly good at containing her curiosity.
"Fitz called me a lobster, not you," Darcy said a moment later, mouth twitching. "I might have known."
"He favors animal metaphors. He used to call--." Whatever he would have said was lost in his chuckle as Fitz leaned in toward the camera for his closeup.
Then the costume theater scene began. Lizzie watched Fitz's portrayal of Darcy more carefully than before and grinned as she realized what he had done. Darcy, on the other hand, watched curiously, his forehead becoming furrowed in thought.
"I thought you'd like this one," she said. He looked at her questioningly. "I mean, at least Fitz actually knows you."
"Yes, and he portrayed me as the, uh, Darcybot without having even seen your videos."
"No, he didn't," she said soothingly.
Darcy was not soothed. "He gave me no facial expressions or vocal inflections. That I can understand, for I am seldom animated when speaking with my aunt, but he also made my head swivel like a robot's."
She laughed. "He was trying to show that you liked me!"
"Using head swivels?"
"No, I'm serious--I just noticed it myself. I sat across from Catherine, remember? When Fitz sat next to Catherine, he leaned forward to talk to me. When he played you sitting next to Catherine, he had you look across at me a lot. See?"
He watched as she replayed the scene. "Unfortunately, he was too subtle to convey his point."
She pursed her lips and waited for it...
"On second thought, perhaps subtlety is preferable," he amended as Fitz assured her that the woman Darcy danced with at the Gibson wedding would daydream about him.
Lizzie smiled a little. At that point, neon lights would probably have been too subtle to convince her of his interest.
Darcy was quieter during the next video as she described his weekend visit to Collins & Collins.
"You knew I was there alone and came on purpose to see me." It wasn't really a question.
His chin tucked toward his neck again, and she wondered absently if that was a nervous habit. "I came to...ask you."
"Oh." She watched herself and Charlotte reenact their conversation. "No wonder you were nervous."
His mouth flattened. "I lost my nerve, obviously. When you asked why Bing, Caroline, and I left so suddenly, I thought you...asked for yourself."
Lizzie studied his profile, imagining his frustration when his usual decisiveness failed him. That didn't excuse the brusque way he approached her later, of course, but it did help her understand it. She understood too how he could have interpreted her actions at Collins & Collins as encouragement and, thus, why he'd been so surprised by her rejection. Her hand started to stretch toward him, yearning to touch and comfort him, but she was not brave enough.
Fitz returned in the next video, helping her prepare a care package for Jane. His assertion that his friend was "all about the love" caused Darcy to look at the ceiling longsufferingly, but the example he offered made Darcy wince.
"He told you I separated Bing and Jane." His voice was quiet as he stated the obvious.
"You told him."
"He is one of the few people I confide in, and I can normally trust his discretion." He watched with growing unease as her video self absorbed Fitz's unintentional insults to her sister.
"Staff Spirit." Darcy sucked in a breath as it began, and Lizzie realized that, whether because of the timing or because he recognized her dress, he thought this was the video.
"Not yet," she said. A flick of his eyes in her direction was the only indication he'd heard her.
"My name is Lizzie Bennet, and I can't hold it in any more." She still remembered that terrible, caged feeling, believing Darcy responsible for her sister's pain, utterly helpless to do anything about it, unable to confide in Charlotte or Jane. So she had vented to the internet instead.
"Part of me wants to yell in his face and tell him he's a jack---, but I'm afraid that if I did I'd end up trying to wring his neck." Lizzie squeezed her eyes shut. She'd wanted to hurt him, and she had, more deeply than she had imagined possible at the time. Now he was going to be hurt all over again, and the knowledge made her feel sick.
They sat silently as Charlotte and Ricky tried to convince her to attend the Halloween party. Then she was left with her ire.
"I am really tired. Tired of having my life overshadowed by a cloud of misery named William Darcy. Who is he to have such influence over my life and the lives of the people I love?" Lizzie saw his eyes grow more and more shadowed as she read the notes revealing Jane's unhappiness.
"He doesn't care who he hurts or what damage he causes. If he doesn't like you, if he thinks you are somehow less than him, he will toss you aside ... If I never see that slimy, unfeeling, sociopathic robot again, it'll be too soon." Darcy withdrew even further into himself as he listened to her burgeoning anger. Then his video self appeared in her doorway.
"The worst possible time." He repeated her words from memory, rubbing his fingers over his eyes in agitation as she appeared on screen to introduce the next video.
"Yeah, I couldn't have been more mad if I'd tried." She hesitated, then offered, "We can skip this one."
"No," he said quietly. "I need to see this."
Lizzie stared at him, seeing the pale, set look on his face and the deep breath he took to prepare himself. This was the man Gigi had told her about, who reacted to his parents' deaths by shouldering the responsibility of a company and taking custody of his baby sister. This was the man who took her own bitter rejection and responded with a revealing letter and a gracious welcome to his company, who volunteered to watch these videos to ease her mind. This was a man who did not take the easy path.
She did not understand his need to relive this scene. He must have relived it in his mind even more frequently than she had. She knew, though, that if he was going to face this, he was not going to face it alone.
Her cheerful theme music played. At that moment, her hand darted forward, not to touch his clothed forearm or shoulder as she had before, but to grasp his hand that lay clenched on his thigh. Darcy started at her touch, his head snapping toward her. He seemed almost disoriented, so caught up was he in what was to come. Then his hand unfisted. Lizzie slipped her hand in further so their palms were pressed together, nodded once, and turned back to her laptop.
Reliving this scene while alone in her room was one thing, but it was an entirely different experience when Darcy sat beside her, near enough for her to feel his warmth, his every reaction as he watched himself. She could feel through their clasped hands his tension as he insisted on speaking with her and his rising dismay as he listed the reasons she was beneath him. Then he became very still, and...wow. She had seriously underestimated the impact of hearing his fervid "Lizzie Bennet, I'm in love with you" again.
It was a helpless feeling to watch herself lash out at him for his role in separating Bing and Jane. She wanted to reach through the laptop screen and force herself to speak logically instead of in accusation. If she had, she might have been able to correct the misunderstanding then, and who knew what might have resulted?
Darcy's arm tightened almost fiercely as he criticized her mother and sisters, though he was careful not to crush her hand. It was jarring now to hear him speak so sharply and roughly to her. Nothing could have formed a greater contrast to the way he had approached her just a few hours earlier in her office. Considerate, respectful, loving, restrained--it was a remarkable change, and she marveled that he had altered so for her.
It was awful to see herself goad him about Wickham, now that she knew all that man had done to hurt him. Darcy had been beyond gracious when she admitted her wrong earlier, but he hadn't denied that it had hurt him at the time. Lizzie's hand tightened unconsciously around his.
Their video selves were both furious now, and they clung to each other as they weathered the last cruel words. "So this is what you think of me! Thank you for explaining it all to me so eloquently."
"And thank you for proving time and time again that your arrogance, pride, and selfishness make you the last man in the world I could ever fall in love with!" Her eyes slid shut as she felt him flinch yet again.
"I'm sorry to have caused you so much pain. I would have acted differently had I been aware of your feelings. Excuse me for taking up your time." He stood then and left, and her theme music played again. It was over.
Lizzie hit pause before the next video could start, then looked over at Darcy for the first time since the video had begun. He had taken it hard--he looked away from her now, his jaw clenched tight. She waited uncertainly for long moments, then ran her thumb tentatively, reassuringly along his index finger. When even that failed to gain a response, she finally spoke.
"Darcy? Are you all right?"
He hesitated, then turned to her at last. "I am so sorry, Lizzie."
"I forgive you." She responded immediately, earnestly, but knowing that her words would not settle the matter for him.
"I can't forgive myself that easily. The memory of the way I spoke to you and utterly disregarded your well-being has tormented me ever since. Watching it now, having seen your earlier videos, I see that...in dwelling on your family and financial situation, I could hardly have spoken in a way more calculated to hurt and insult you. What kind of declaration is that?" His voice had grown deep and rough as he spoke of hurting her, and he released her hand to run his fingers through his hair.
"Hey, I said awful things to you that night too." Not to mention that she'd put the whole thing on the internet.
"Nothing that I didn't deserve. When you were wrong, it was because you were mistaken. I have no such excuse. You were right to accuse me of 'arrogance, pride, and selfishness,' although"--he looked away from her again--"it was some time before I was reasonable enough to admit it."
"I never thought you would take my words to heart like that."
"You didn't think I had a heart, more likely."
She could hardly deny that, considering she'd called him an "unfeeling, sociopathic robot." She looked down, wishing she knew how to lessen his self-reproach.
"Can you believe that I initially thought you rejected me in a fit of pique because I was honest about the reservations I had overcome, about the class differences between us? When you said you had a long list of reasons for rejecting me, I thought...I was calling your bluff, in a way, when I demanded to hear them. It didn't occur to me that all my pretentions could never please you, that you would demand and deserve more than that."
She blushed a little. "I think...we've both changed since then."
"True, and I have you to thank for that," he replied, his shoulders losing some of their tension. "You forced me to examine myself, to consider whether I was the man I thought I was, the man I wanted to be. It has been difficult, but I believe I am the better for it."
"You are!" she blurted, then blushed again when his eyes widened. "Let's, um, keep moving."
Lizzie paid close attention as Charlotte teased her with the reasons she should have noticed Darcy's interest. Darcy was not watching the video, however. She'd endured his stares enough to feel them even when not looking at him, and she knew he only finally looked at her laptop when her video self worried that he would sue her if he ever found her videos. No sooner had she said that than he appeared with his letter.
"You're filming again," he said after sitting down, and she nodded, her gaze darting nervously between him and her camera. "I apologize--I hope I have not interrupted anything important?"
And then she lied.
Lizzie ducked her head. How despicably she had acted, making public what had to be the most humiliating experience of his life and then lying to him to avoid the potential consequences! She had regretted it after reading his letter, but by then the video had already been viewed and downloaded and GIFed a mind-boggling number of times. So she had left it and hoped he would never find it. She had attempted to ignore what she'd done and had mostly succeeded...until seeing him again had renewed and intensified every guilty feeling.
Darcy paused the video, then leaned forward, trying to see her expression. "You're still troubled by this."
She stood abruptly, her hands flying out in frustration. "Yes, because at some point it's going to dawn on you that you walked in there and laid yourself open and got rejected in front of hundreds of thousands of people!"
"How are you not freaking out about this?"
"I did 'freak out,' as you put it, when you first told me, but--."
"Staring out a window and saying nothing for ten or fifteen minutes is your way of freaking out?"
"I rarely lose my temper as I did last fall," he said quietly, then began again. "You did not post that video maliciously, and you clearly regret it now. That being the case, resentment on my part would only cause both of us more pain."
"So you thought it through logically, decided to forgive me, and that's that?" Was that even possible?
His mouth tightened. "No, that only told me why I should forgive you. I am not actually a robot, however I may appear."
"I know. I just...". She looked at him pleadingly, unable to put words to what she felt.
Darcy stood and paced to the wall and back before stopping a short distance from her, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. "I admit that my...decision is made easier because I have experienced no repercussions from the video as yet. Nevertheless, I...". He looked down for a moment, weighing his words. "You did not introduce your first video with, 'My name is Lizzie Bennet, and this is my vlog' or 'and this is my thesis project.' You said, 'My name is Lizzie Bennet, and this is my life.' I thought then that it was a dramatic device, but now I have seen how much of yourself you invest in your videos. I understand your concern about the ethics of showing me without my consent, but...what's done is done. You have my consent, now. I could never resent being part of what you're doing. I only regret that I behaved in such a way that my involvement was...painful for you."
Lizzie stared at him open-mouthed. He was not just saying that to make her feel better or to appear magnanimous. His sincerity was almost tangible in the air between them. She swallowed...and threw herself at him.
Darcy stiffened momentarily from their collision, then moved his hands to her back, holding her close. Lizzie's hands fisted in the back of his dress shirt. She had believed for so long that what she'd done was unforgivable. Now he offered her not just forgiveness but something even more precious. She whispered her thanks and clung to him, her cheek pressed against his chest. With the weight of her guilt and dread receding, she felt awash with new feelings--relief, gratitude, and something more. Her heart was opening to this man with a rapidity that could have been frightening but wasn't. His steadiness, the tenderness he had shown her at every turn since her arrival, made the fall exhilarating, freeing.
"Feeling better now?" he finally asked, his voice light.
"Yes." She made no motion to move away from him. A moment later, she felt his hand slide to the back of her neck, resting against her hair. They remained thus for a couple more minutes, and then she drew back a little. "I guess we should keep going."
"We can stop if you wish."
"No." She stepped back from him and smiled. "You sat through the bad stuff. It's only fair that you see the good stuff now. Well...the better stuff, anyway."
And with that, they moved back to the loveseat.
"Well, forget about it," she said, slapping the letter down on her desk. "Nothing that he can say can change anything. Nothing! Out of sight, out of mind!"
Lizzie couldn't help laughing at her oh-so-confident words. Darcy looked at her knowingly. "How long before your--?"...and before he could finish, her video self had snatched up the letter again.
"Not long," she answered unnecessarily. His mouth curved at that, but only briefly. Her troubled expression as she began to read effectively sobered him.
Next came "Letter Analysis." He looked to her appreciatively when her video self resisted Charlotte's urging to tell her viewers what was in his letter, then listened as she reacted to his words about Bing, her family, and Wickham. Charlotte re-entered the frame after that, informing her that he and Fitz had filed their report and left town.
Darcy paused the video at the end. "I didn't think the letter would affect you so strongly."
"What, did you expect me to refuse to believe you?" Her eyes dared him to respond in kind.
"I couldn't expect anything, then. I just needed to warn you and...make you understand."
His seriousness made her draw back a little. "You did," she assured him. Surely he'd seen that much in her video, even though she had still been angry during part of it.
"I thought myself calm and cool as I wrote, but clearly I was still bitter. Lizzie, you said I 'messed with your worldview.'"
He was beginning to look uncomfortable again, and she wouldn't have it. "I thought you were a jerk and Wickham was tragically misunderstood, just because he flirted with me and you didn't. My worldview needed to be messed with. I--I think I'm the better for it."
His eyes lit as he registered her words, but the smile she'd hoped for didn't appear. "You also seemed uneasy when I returned here without seeing you again?"
"I felt guilty but told myself you would, um, get over it quickly. When you avoided me...".
Then Darcy's clear blue eyes were searching hers, questioning, hoping, as he reached over to take her hand. Her heart twisted as she realized he still felt the need to be cautious with her even though she'd been squeezing the life out of him a few minutes earlier. Lizzie leaned toward him in a clear sign of welcome, and he had his answer. He promptly laced their fingers together, his expression suffusing with the same wonder and emotion that now sang through her. She might never understand how his love had withstood her rejection and all that followed, but she was glad, glad, that his constancy had proved her wrong.
"And now," she announced a minute later, "I have a job for you. It's a hard one, maybe too hard for you." Darcy straightened and looked at her expectantly, and she fought to keep a straight face. It was rather fun to tweak his competitive streak. "I need you to watch the next two videos and tell me what Caroline was thinking."
His reaction was priceless. He blinked, wilted a little, and started a couple sentences at once. "I don't think I am--that is...she came to Collins & Collins?"
"Yep," she said and played the video. He dutifully watched as Caroline entered, tried to regain their old friendly footing, and dodged Lizzie's questions about their abrupt departure for L.A.
"She was lying," he finally said.
"Yeah, she had been watching my videos after all and wanted to know what was in your letter."
"That too, but that is not what I meant. She was there when I saw Jane with that man."
Lizzie stared at him, eyes narrowing. "So she lied when she said we hadn't done anything to make you leave in such a hurry. It wasn't that she didn't know."
He nodded. "We told Bing about it together."
She looked back to her laptop, her mind racing forward as each new connection was formed. The next video had begun, and Caroline was back, urging her as always to talk about Darcy. "This is bound to be a difficult time in your life. Being so far away from your family, a sudden declaration of love from a man whom you feel no affection towards...". Lizzie had not taken the bait that time, a fact that did not escape him. She looked up when she felt him shift closer to her.
"She must have disliked us all along. She pretended to be my friend so she could encourage me to go ballistic about you. Not that I needed much encouragement," she added under her breath. Darcy squeezed her hand, and she smiled at him before continuing. "Jane's 'indiscretion' was the perfect opportunity to take Bing away from her, and you away from me."
"It couldn't have been more ideal if she--." His eyes widened as hers did, suspicion striking them in unison.
"Could she have planned it?"
His gaze grew unfocused as he thought. "She was already there when I came upon them, and she knew...". He paused, disgust washing over his face. "Yes, I think it is reasonable to conclude that she orchestrated it somehow."
"D--- her! She must have got one of Bing's old acquaintances drunk and shoved him at Jane just in time for you to see. Talk about a convoluted plan!"
They watched, simmering in their respective anger as Caroline claimed she had kept her knowledge of Jane's true feelings from her brother because she wanted his happiness. When she lost her temper and harangued Lizzie about her family and about Jane's attempts to "seduce" Bing, Lizzie saw Darcy's jaw tighten even more.
"Bing needs to know what she did," he said finally. Lizzie had to agree but was surprised he was the one to suggest it, given their conversation last week. "I do not know what will come of telling him of your sister's innocence--I hope it does not bring her more pain--but as it is, there is nothing to prevent Caroline doing this again."
"Actually, he might know some of it already." Darcy drew back, confused, and she decided it would be easier to just show him. "We're gonna skip ahead for a minute," she announced, navigating to last week's video.
Lizzie glanced at her laptop a few times but mostly watched Darcy for his reaction. It was an awkward conversation, with herself and Bing speaking at cross purposes about discerning whether others had your best interest at heart. "It's not that I've never had anyone try to take advantage of me," he said, "but I can afford to be generous most of the time. And Darcy and Caroline, they look out for me ... when I'm not the smartest person in the room, I like to believe I'm smart enough to figure out who is and listen to him. Or her." Darcy was staring at the screen with a kind of fascination, and she wondered suddenly whether he'd ever heard Bing describe their friendship before.
"And what if they're wrong?" Her pointed words unsettled Bing, and he began to leave before seeming to come to a decision.
"What I really wanted to ask is...how's Jane?" She relented at that, admitting her sister wasn't dating anyone and urging him to call her if he had anything to say. Then he asked about the "letters to Charlotte."
Lizzie stopped the video at the end, then resumed her study of the man beside her. His expression had shifted in the last few minutes, and try as she might, she could only tell that he was now more disturbed than angry.
"He hasn't said anything to you?" she asked, more for the sake of getting him to talk than anything.
He shook his head. "He will have watched the videos by now, though."
"So he'll see that Caroline lied to him, though he probably won't suspect that she manipulated the whole thing."
Darcy winced, and she stared at his profile, stricken. He was hurting in some indefinable way, and she had somehow caused his pain. Again. Her free hand came over to run along his forearm, up and down slowly until he turned toward her. Then she asked quietly, "What did I say?"
His face softened, and he leaned in to brush his chin against her temple in a sort of half-hug. "Merely the truth," he said when he could see her eyes again. "Caroline manipulated me."
Oh. Lizzie felt silly for not guessing it herself. He was a CEO, and a clever and successful one at that. Of course he would balk at being manipulated.
"I thought I was helping him, protecting him, but I hurt him instead."
"You didn't hurt him," she said with conviction. "You gave him the best advice you could. Caroline hurt him by arranging everything, and he hurt himself by deciding not to ask Jane what happened."
"Would he have asked her, though, if I had not encouraged him to distrust his own judgment in favor of mine? I have so often deprecated his generous candor and urged him to be less trusting of others...more like myself." He shook his head, staring at the screen once more. "In this instance at least, he would have been better to ignore my advice."
What could she say to that? She wanted, ironically, to make excuses for him--he could not have suspected Caroline's plot; with Wickham's manipulation of Gigi fresh in his mind, he had naturally been wary of others who might have mercenary motives; Bing, like Jane, did tend to be too nice and trusting--but she knew instinctively that he would not accept them. "What are you going to do?" she asked finally.
He sighed and visibly shook off his introspection. "I will talk to him about it, listen if he wants to talk about your sister. Refrain from giving advice, if possible."
His lips tugged upward a little as he finished, and Lizzie huffed a laugh even as she drew a little closer to him. Having observed him these last hours, she wasn't surprised that he would choose to face and correct his wrongs. His decision was an uncommon one, though, and she respected him all the more for it. She was starting to wonder if he wasn't the strongest man she'd ever known.
They were silent for a couple minutes before she spoke again. "I wonder if she still watches my videos." He shrugged indifferently, but she went on anyway. "I used to worry that she would tell you about them, especially after I came here and saw you again. But now...if she's been watching lately, she's probably as worried as I was." She didn't pity her, exactly, not after all she had done, but neither could she enjoy the thought of Caroline getting what she deserved.
"Bing is not one to hold a grudge. That will be to my benefit as well as Caroline's, I suppose."
She nodded, and then he twitched his shoulders. "Well? Have I completed my 'job' to your satisfaction?" It took her a second to remember her earlier, playful challenge. "If not, then I fear it is hopeless. I cannot tell you why she is so concerned with your viewers' opinion of her; nor can I relay to you the hairstyling advice she gave to Empress Michiko. Not that I--that is not to suggest that you, uh, need such advice. Your hair is quite...soft, actually."
Lizzie kept from smiling for a few moments longer. It was way too fun to watch him backpedal. She eventually took pity, though, informing him he was off the hook and shyly thanking him for the compliment.
He exhaled, relieved. "Very well, then. Shall we continue?" And they did.
Fittingly enough, the next video began with Lizzie joking that her life had become as complicated as a soap opera. And it had been dramatic and exhausting, to be sure, but reliving it all in condensed form, with Darcy beside her trying to absorb everything, had brought unique stresses of its own. He had to be feeling it even more strongly than she, yet he appeared as alert and engaged as ever despite the fact it was now approaching midnight. She shrugged mentally, remembering the late hours he'd kept at Netherfield.
"I have never personally recorded something and put it online either," he admitted.
"It's not that hard, actually. Editing is the most time-consuming part." She hesitated, then offered, "I could show you sometime." His expression told her how much he looked forward to it even before he spoke the words.
Her Thanksgiving video came next, and Lizzie sat trying to guess what he would think of it. Twenty minutes ago, she would have assumed he would like it--it was heady, really, how often his face would brighten at something her video self said or did--but now, her manipulation of Ricky might echo his own manipulation by Caroline. She needn't have worried. Darcy looked grave and disapproving at first, when his aunt and Ricky conspired to keep Charlotte at work over the holiday, but he glanced at her, curiousity piqued, when she announced she was going to prevent it. He was rather mystified when she then called Lydia, but comprehension came quickly when she asked for the video of her second grade play.
"Nope." She bit her lip, not wanting her laughter to drown out the next part of the video.
"By the time you're seeing this," her video self said gleefully, "Charlotte and I will either be home for the holidays, or you'll have a very special extra treat at the end of this video. Which will it be? Well, that's up to Mr. Collins. He is, after all, the boss."
That did it. Darcy's face began to contort, and her triumphant smile when her scheme worked brought on all-out laughter. "That was ruthless, Lizzie! Remind me to never cross you."
She grinned and was about to make some teasing reply, but then reality came barging in. She stiffened but tried to pass it off as a joke. "Yeah, or I might put an embarrassing video of you on the internet. Wouldn't want that."
Of course Darcy saw through her flippant tone. He looked suddenly horrified, his breath rasping in. "I--I apologize," he stammered. "That was utterly thoughtless of me."
And now she'd made him feel guilty. She looked away for a moment, frustrated. It wasn't his fault that she couldn't yet forgive herself. "No, it's...it's fine."
"Please don't think I intended to cast that up to you." His free hand came over, curling around her wrist. "I would never do that, Lizzie."
He was leaning toward her, worried and so very earnest. Lizzie breathed out slowly, taking it all in, her face growing soft and full of feeling. "I know," she whispered finally, holding his gaze as she leaned her head to rest against his shoulder. Her words quieted his alarm, and his hand began to move, his thumb tracing slowly over the delicate bones of her hand and wrist.
She smiled at length, determined to lighten the moment. "Ruthless, huh?"
"Indeed. Effective as well, it seems," he replied, inclining his head toward her laptop, where the next video showed her and Charlotte filming in her bedroom once more.
"Well, Ricky's big line as the Wizard of Floss was 'Ding, dong, the plaque is gone, the icky plaque is gone!' and he insisted on delivering it sing-song."
Darcy shivered. "That would be quite effective as blackmail, I imagine. Was it that performance that, uh, incited you to propose to him?"
"Oh, please! That was at least a couple months earlier."
She tried to sound insulted, but his smirk was proof enough of her failure. He evidently decided this was safe ground for teasing and began to warm to his subject, asking what her role in the play had been, but a few words from Lydia brought it all to a halt.
Lizzie looked at his now-serious expression and squeezed his hand. "George didn't try to call or text me this time. I only ran into him once while he was in town." She purposely didn't mention the details of that encounter. That would be a pleasant surprise for him a few videos from now.
Darcy nodded and reached for his tea. "Leftovers" began, and Charlotte expertly coaxed her into telling his side of the college fund story. He smiled faintly when she did so in her bright storytelling voice. Then she delicately alluded to Wickham's "not very spelunky" activities in college, and he did the unexpected--he laughed about George Wickham. It was only a quiet chuckle, but she felt sure it was the first in a long time.
Then Charlotte asked what she thought of his explanation. She shrugged. "Their stories are so similar, and it's not like he knew what George accused him of. He gave me a lot of details about what happened, too, not just vague accusations. I...I have to believe him." Her voice made it clear she didn't do so willingly, but he looked pleased nevertheless.
Lydia filled in for the next video and was more than usually energetic as it began. Lizzie cringed at her immature jokes about the episode number and was grateful when Darcy gallantly ignored them. His brow furrowed when Lydia ridiculed her nerdiness yet again, but Jane's appearance, mimicking Lydia's trademark abbreviations and playing to the camera, clearly amused him.
"She is adept at imitation," he commented. Lizzie didn't reply, just smiled as she thought of Jane's frankly adorable portrayals of him.
The video continued more seriously, as Lydia vented about the "drama and annoyance" Darcy, Bing, and Caroline had brought into their lives and urged Jane to have nothing more to do with them. Lizzie sighed, realizing that if she'd paid attention to this video she would have known how much Darcy and Caroline's words still rankled with her sister. Perhaps their fight--but then Darcy interrupted her thoughts.
"Lydia kept closely to your format--introduction, costume theater, and so forth. I suppose Charlotte saw to that?"
"Actually, Charlotte was back at Collins & Collins by then. She just edited what Lydia sent."
"Does she use the same format in her own videos?"
Lizzie's heart constricted as she saw what he was doing. "No. She moves around with her camera and usually includes Jane or our cousin Mary."
"Hmm. She made an effort to imitate you for this video, then."
She looked down, struck as she had been several times lately by the fact that she missed Lydia. Not the Lydia who was forever partying and apparently maintained a list of the reasons she was "perpetually single," but the Lydia who had tried to comfort her after Wickham left, who...well, who could be sweet at times. When she wasn't making malicious "Dear Lizzie" videos, that is.
"Lizzie?" Darcy ventured when her silence lengthened. "Have I, uh, presumed in speaking of your sister?"
"No, of course not. It's just...we fought before I came here. I haven't spoken to her since Christmas."
"Oh. I am sorry to hear that."
The words were commonplace, but it was the warmth, the empathy in his voice that gave her the courage. She needed the compassion he offered, and more than that she just plain wanted to be held by this man who was working so hard to make things right between them. She quickly lifted their joined hands and passed them over her head, bringing them to rest against her opposite arm. Darcy looked rather stunned by how neatly she'd maneuvered his arm around her, but he recovered quickly, delight spreading over his features as he shifted her more securely against him. Delight, she decided as his nearness banished all thought of Lydia, looked very good on him.
Tempted as she was to turn the tables and stare at him the rest of the night, Lizzie registered that Jane was on camera again and knew what was coming. "You should watch this."
Darcy's gaze lingered on her a moment longer before turning toward her laptop, just in time to hear Bing's name. "I can't help but think," her video self was saying, "that if Darcy hadn't interfered, you two would be happy now." He tensed again--oh, how she hoped it was for the last time!--and his lips tightened regretfully as he awaited Jane's reply.
"Let's place blame where it's supposed to go. Yes, Darcy interfered, but Bing didn't have to listen to him." Lizzie saw him straighten gradually as if Jane's gentle, sure words were releasing some constraint hidden within him. It was as she'd suspected--he needed to hear this. "Yes, I'm sad it didn't work out. Yes, I miss him. But being in L.A. has taught me a lot of things. I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was...I have a job that I love with people that are really cool and interested in cool things. I don't need one failed relationship to define me."
"Thank you for calling this to my attention. She is...remarkable," he said quietly. Lizzie wasn't about to argue with that.
Though glad the video's first half had brought him some measure of peace, she hesitated over the second half, in which Jane had urged that she face her fear of leaving home. Lizzie cast about for some excuse to skip this too-revealing segment...but no, it wouldn't be fair to have told the internet and not him. She sighed resignedly, then freed her hand from his--having her arm draped across her chest was getting uncomfortable anyway--and clasped her hands in her lap. Darcy took in her weak smile and cupped his hand protectively around her arm.
It was as embarrassing as she remembered. Lizzie fixed her eyes on Jane's face and tried not to blush. She felt him look at her frequently, especially when her video self claimed she stayed at home because "Mom needs someone to unleash her crazy on, and Lydia needs the occasional reality check, and Dad needs help setting up his model trains."
Darcy stopped the video at the end, and there was an uncomfortable silence. Then, cautiously, he asked, "This is your first time away from home, alone?"
"Yeah." She felt silly even admitting it. At her age, he had been guardian to Gigi and had probably already made his first $1 million. Or, who knew, $10 million.
"And you came to Pemberley." That was too obvious to require a response, so she didn't attempt one. "That took courage."
"I had no choice. If I hadn't done this independent study, I wouldn't have graduated on time."
"That makes you no less brave to have, uh, bearded the lion in his den, so to speak."
She let out a choked giggle. "Now who 'favors animal metaphors?'" Darcy looked pleased with himself for having provoked that giggle, and his gaze began to wander over her face, caressing each feature as if seeing it for the first time. Then he spoke again, quietly and purposefully.
"My father's favorite advice was to find what I love to do and do that excellently."
Lizzie smiled a little. She'd joked once about wanting to "save the world" and "change the culture," but she was serious--and doubtful--about finding work she was passionate about. That, she knew, contributed to her reluctance to leave home, but she couldn't tell him, or he might think she expected him to pull strings for her.
"You appear to have found that already in these videos."
She blinked. Sure, he liked costume theater--their dinnertime conversation proved he was as fascinated by theory in action as she was--but his words implied much more. "My videos? They're just me telling stories about my mundane life."
"But you've created something larger than yourself. You're a natural storyteller." She looked away, unconvinced. "All right, I'll show you that what you do is special. What is your primary audience demographic?"
I'll show you that what you do is special. Had he really just said that? "Um...women in their teens and twenties. Why?"
"Many of them are in your position, then? Earning their education or seeking employment?"
She tilted her head for a moment, then laughed. "Considering the number of comments I get from people marathoning my videos when they should be studying, I guess so."
"And how many are also attempting to find what they love to do, to forge a life for themselves, with all the uncertainty that implies?"
Many of them, she realized. Of course, a section of her viewers only wanted to see him again, but she had received a lot of thoughtful responses after posting videos focusing on her, Jane, or Charlotte's careers. Darcy was watching the play of thoughts on her face and concluded, "Your videos clearly resonate with people, Lizzie. Hundreds of thousands of people."
She was quiet and contemplative for a few moments more, then leaned her head back against his arm. "So you're saying I shouldn't stay at home and deal with my Mom's crazy?"
"I...not if you don't...". It took him that long to register the impish gleam in her eyes. His expression shifted then, and he tugged her closer, his cheek resting against her hair for a long moment before drawing back.
"What was that for?" Lizzie asked, smiling up at him.
"I didn't think it behooved me to answer your question."
That set her off laughing. Darcy tried to keep a straight face, but she proved too hard to resist.
Her next video began with a bang. Or a whistle, as it were. Darcy started a bit when her dad tried out his new train whistle, loud even through her laptop's mediocre speakers.
"Oops! Guess I could have warned you."
"And miss the pleasure of seeing me jump? Doubtful."
Lizzie grinned, unrepentant. She was feeling downright giddy at the moment. Darcy saw the value in her work and had even implied that he thought it excellent, and for now not even the fact that her fight with Lydia was coming soon could dampen her playfulness.
Lydia's birthday party wasn't so annoying in her current frame of mind. Darcy's eyebrows rose a little at the damage--stains, a fire in the backyard, the sound of breaking glass in the background--but then she described her plan to manage her parents' reactions. "Having them rush home from Uncle Phil's will only result in a lot of yelling, and chances are, Lydia would be passed out for it. Better to wait 'til tomorrow so they can witness the carnage, and Lydia will be sober...and hung over."
Darcy's mouth quirked upward. "Have I mentioned that you're ruthless?"
"Yep. And forthright. If you're not into that, it's not too late to switch to Jane. Mom would be thrilled to see her with someone again."
"It is far too late, in truth," he said, the sweep of his fingers raising goosebumps up and down her arm. "In any case, I doubt Jane would have me. And though I have learned to admire her and am grateful to her for treating me more kindly than I deserve, she is too...agreeable for me."
He was making this too easy. "So you prefer me because I'm disagreeable? Gosh, all these compliments are going to make me swoon."
Though she wouldn't have admitted it, she secretly hoped her sally would provoke some response from him. Darcy did not disappoint but bent his head toward her. "You are also intelligent, affectionate, and...wholly captivating."
"Oh." Swooning seemed like a real possibility when he looked at her like that, his gaze intent and full of heat. The moment stretched out between them, and his thumb came up to brush along her jaw. Then he restrained himself and smiled a little before turning back to her laptop.
They had missed Mary's entrance, and Lizzie gathered her wits enough to explain who she was. The cousins were discussing the "would-be party crasher" Lizzie had taken care of, and Mary's innocent "Was it that Darcy guy you're always talking about?" had them exchanging amused glances. A more unlikely party crasher than Darcy was hard to imagine.
The actual spurned party crasher was, of course, Wickham. Lizzie sat back and noted the flickers of expression on Darcy's face as he watched the reenactment of their encounter. He scowled upon learning Wickham had "grope-hugged" her, but the mention of his own name, and her assertion that he had "some virtues", made his eyes widen. By the end, when Mary hollered "No! You're not invited! You can't come tonight!," he was suppressing a smile.
"I assume that was not an accurate representation of your manner?"
She snorted. "I wish!"
He did not turn back to her laptop, however, but rather gazed at her with some unreadable emotion. She raised her eyebrows in question, and he spoke, his voice halting. "My parents loved George and--and were deceived by him until the end. Gigi...I would give anything to prevent her having learned the truth as she did. I cannot tell you what it means to know that you...".
"That I believe you?"
"That you defended me to him."
Tears welled up in her eyes, and tenderness in her heart, as she pondered what that admission meant for him. Lizzie twisted toward him and rested her head on his shoulder. "I'll do one better next time." When he made a questioning murmur, she added, "I'll actually tell him some of your virtues." His response was a low chuckle that she could feel as well as hear.
It was, of course, inevitable that their interlude would come to an end. The next video brought her fight with Lydia. Darcy must have felt her tense up, for he glanced at her and tightened his arm around her shoulders. Lydia's manner at the beginning was jarring now--happy, squealing with excitement at the prospect of a present. Lizzie watched her video self as Lydia opened the package, knowing her face reflected her thoughts. Somehow, she'd expected Lydia to appreciate that book.
"There's plenty of upsides to being a mature, responsible adult," she was saying, trying futilely to cover for her mistake. "Maybe it would be good for you not to be so...energetic all the time."
"Oh no," Darcy breathed, realizing immediately what she had done. Lydia recognized it as well and quoted Caroline's long-ago words exactly. Lizzie tried to smooth things over, but nothing got through to Lydia. She rose, leaving Lizzie to defend her motives to an empty room and a camera.
The train wreck continued in her next video. She watched Lydia's video listing the ways she could "stop being so incredibly lame," then confronted her sister. Darcy saw her hurt expression and shifted closer still, offering physical as well as emotional support. His body stiffened as Lydia spat out her intention to go to Vegas. "And don't even bother watching my videos while I'm gone! You think I'm too much to handle now, you just wait!"
"What makes you think I would even want to?"
It had been the most hurtful thing she could think to say, but Lydia hadn't even blinked. "So this makes what, Lizzie? Best friend, boyfriend, older sister, younger sister, all gone in what, four months? My video was wrong. You are good at something."
Darcy stopped the video at the end, then angled his body to see her face. "Lizzie, you know that what she said isn't true, don't you?"
She did know it, intellectually--she and Charlotte had reconciled, she was well rid of Wickham, and Jane's move had nothing to do with her. "Yeah, but...".
"But that she said it still hurts. As she intended." She nodded, looking unseeingly at her hands. A minute passed before he spoke again, his voice pained. "I apologize for my part in this."
"You're not actually responsible for everything, you know. I can see from the videos that this had been coming for a long time."
"But it was my arrogant words about your family that angered her and, by extension, hurt you again. If you think it would help, I will apologize for speaking of her with such disrespect."
She shook her head. That conversation would be a disaster. "Thanks, but...you can't fix this."
He accepted her decision with a nod. "Is she in Las Vegas still?"
"I don't know. I--I tried to watch her first video after she left, but...she said straight to the camera that it was my last warning to stop watching. So I did."
It was quiet then. Too quiet. Lizzie's mind was churning wearily, replaying the scene as she had so often, trying to imagine different reactions for herself. The result was always the same. "I hate this!" she exclaimed finally. "I hate that she won't listen, that she's probably off doing something stupid that will hurt her a lot more than it'll hurt me! But what can I do? If I apologize, she'll just think that...".
Darcy looked ready to say something but then drew her to him instead. She went willingly, pressing her face into his chest. He felt rather tense but tried to comfort her as she gave voice to her frustration, one of his hands anchored in her hair while the other rubbed her back in a soothing little circle.
At length, she sighed, gusty and cross. "I don't know how you do it with Gigi. She says you practically raised her, but she can't say enough good things about you."
"She didn't always." That tone in his voice made her pull back enough to see his face. "After...after I paid Wickham off, she said...". He looked away, swallowing hard. "She has since informed me that she did not mean what she said."
"Oh. I didn't know. I--I'm sorry." So that's why he was so bothered by her fight with Lydia. "How did you, um, repair things with her?"
"I don't believe I have, yet. Not completely, at any rate. I haven't known what to do. I've just tried to be patient and--and love her."
She looked down then, her hand fiddling absently with his sleeve. Finally, she made a concerted attempt to shrug off her seriousness. "We should keep going, I guess."
"Are you certain you wish to, Lizzie? You must be drained after all this."
"And it's been a cakewalk for you?"
Darcy didn't respond immediately, waiting instead for her to meet his gaze. "It is not my life we have been scrutinizing, primarily."
That soft, caring tone buoyed her, and she straightened a little and smiled at him. "I'll be fine. We're almost done, anyway."
Her Christmas video was next. It was disjointed, by turns funny, nostalgic, and immature as she and Lydia sniped at each other through the closed door of Lydia's room. Darcy was watching her more than the video again, probably trying to gauge how upset she still was. She bit her lip, not wanting their marathon to end this way. Fortunately, the close of the video gave her an idea.
"What did you and Gigi do for Christmas?" she asked, pausing the video.
"We skiied. It is a tradition with us."
"What, no formal dinner with Catherine and Anniekins?" The expression that crossed his face just then made her laugh. It felt good to laugh again. "Where did you go?"
They had a cabin in the Sierras. Darcy seemed to sense what she was trying to do, for he described the area in detail, even sharing a few memories from past holidays spent there. Then he asked a question of his own. "Earlier in this video, you said something about Q&As. Are there more videos even than we've watched?"
"Only a few. I post them about once a month."
"What sort of questions do your viewers ask?"
"Well," Lizzie tilted her head and drew out the word teasingly, "There's 'What does Darcy really do?' and 'Aren't you being a little dramatic about Darcy?' and 'Will we ever get to see Darcy?' and...well, you get the picture."
"You exaggerate, surely."
"Nope. Those were actual questions."
"I do not think I am so intriguing as to merit that." He became adorably flustered then. "I...um, please do not think I spoke in expectation of being contradicted. I merely--." His voice cut off suddenly as she leaned in to press her lips to his shoulder. His mouth fell open comically, and his eyes lit with confused pleasure. "You...kissed me."
She was blushing already for having acted so impulsively, but she couldn't regret putting that look on his face. "Only your shoulder, and only because you said something ridiculous like 'in expectation of being contradicted.'"
He stared at her hard, the Darcybot in full computing mode. "Will that," he finally asked, inclining his head toward his shoulder, "always be the consequence of using such language?"
"Maaaybe." He smiled then, a little twitch of the lips that became a full-blown, foolish grin. She grinned back at him. "I'm never getting a one-syllable word out of you again, am I?"
"Not if you provide such incentive for using sesquipedalian words."
"Sesquip...what?" How did he make a word that clunky sound so hot?
"Sesquipedalian words are those with many syllables. Literally, it means they are a foot and a half long."
"Sesquipedalian," she repeated carefully, and he nodded. "I guess that deserves something too," she said, planting a tiny kiss in the same spot as before. "Happy now?"
Lizzie smiled at the utter contentment in his voice and rested her head against his shoulder. She was fairly certain he knew a sesquipedalian word for "very happy"--she could contribute a few herself, for that matter--and while her insides fluttered at the thought of him someday provoking more kisses in that way, she was grateful for his restraint now. It was all, still, so new.
"Maybe I'll find where I'm supposed to be. That's actually my big New Year's resolution: find where I'm supposed to be. So this is the first step."
Darcy had been watching with deep, quiet happiness as she told her viewers she was headed for San Francisco. When she spoke those words, though, everything about him stilled, from his chest that had been rising and falling slowly beneath her cheek to his fingers that had been tracing idly along her arm. Lizzie sat very still as well, wondering how prophetic her words would prove to be. Much about her future path was uncertain yet, but she knew now beyond all doubt that an important, thrilling part of that future was currently holding her close and pressing a kiss into her hair.
Her next video was shot in an unoccupied corner at Pemberley Digital. Darcy stirred as he recognized it. She described her attempts to get out of shadowing his company but expressed relief that he was currently away because--and here Lizzie shifted away a bit, knowing that watching his reaction to the rest of this video would be all kinds of fun--"it would be really hard to admit in front of him that this place is incredible!" She made expansive gestures as she gushed about the facilities, the amenities, and the happiness of his employees. Darcy looked more gratified by the moment, but he was in for a surprise.
"Reynolds was your tour guide?"
"Yeah. She said the regular guide had to go home sick."
Ms. Reynolds looked curiously at the camera as she sat down but accepted Lizzie's explanation that she was filming for her thesis and her thanks for the tour. "I hope I haven't kept you from your work?"
"Thanks for asking, but no. Darcy is in intensive meetings in L.A., so I can spare a few hours."
"You--you work for Darcy? Directly, I mean?"
"I am his personal assistant, yes." She noticed Lizzie's disconcerted look and tilted her head. "You've heard of him beyond what you've been told today, I take it?"
"I know him...a little." That was dangerous territory, so she changed the subject quickly. "He has a lot of out of town meetings, I guess?" It had occurred to her that, given how long he had telecommuted from Netherfield that summer, he might be absent for the duration of her visit.
"Yes, unfortunately. Travel is necessary, of course, but there is an extra energy in the building when he is here. It was the same way with his father."
"You worked for his father too?" Lizzie asked tentatively.
That was all it took. Ms. Reynolds spent several minutes describing all Darcy had done since filling his father's position as CEO--how he had convinced the board and the investors of his competency, how he had honed the company's vision to fit his own passion for digital media, how his leadership and his generosity in providing the best possible work environment had won the respect and loyalty of his employees. Lizzie's video self listened wide-eyed and wondering to this extraordinary praise; Lizzie herself watched with affectionate glee as Darcy fidgeted, his face becoming redder and redder.
"Was it truly necessary to post all of this?" His mouth curved upward, removing any rebuke from the words.
"Believe me, my viewers ate it up."
"I am aware." She looked at him questioningly, and he explained. "Our website traffic increased just after Christmas and spiked a couple weeks ago. The marketing department has been unable to explain it, but clearly your viewers were...curious."
Her eyes widened. She hadn't realized she had that much influence. Then her video self was speaking again. "Like I said, I'm filming for my thesis, and I appreciate your personal account of, um, Pemberley Digital's leadership. Would you mind if I used this to, uh...?"
Ms. Reynolds didn't bat an eye. "You do whatever you like with this footage, Lizzie. And don't hesitate to ask if you need further help." She left then, and the video ended with Lizzie's thoughtful expression as she turned off her camera.
Her next video showed that the loneliness of a new city had hit her. She spoke of needing to make new friends, then introduced Gigi through a costume theater reenactment of their first meeting that had Darcy smiling. "She is super sweet and nice, but I'm a little wary. I do, after all, have dozens of videos in which I say not-so-great things about her brother. And show her brother. If she finds out--." There was a knock on her office door then, followed by a jump cut.
After the cut, she was alone once more, rambling about how oddly Gigi had behaved--talking to her persistently before leaving abruptly for the restroom--and then came another knock. When she opened the door, it was Darcy's frame that filled the doorway. Long moments passed before they recovered enough for some jumbled pleasantries, and they never moved fully into the camera's frame, but their voices and body language told a tale of awkwardness, of a million thoughts and feelings rushing just beneath the surface.
"You told Gigi about me, didn't you?" Lizzie asked, looking up at him. "That's why she was so eager for you to see me right away and why she volunteered you two as city tour guides?"
"I told her a little at Christmas. She had seen that I was...out of spirits and was worried."
She placed her hand over his on her arm before replying. "I tried not to let it show in the videos, but I felt so...brazen, walking into that building. Were you upset, even at first, that I came?"
"Not at all. I was merely surprised."
"I was surprised when you were so much nicer to me than I deserved. I had planned to stay out of your way as much as possible--I figured that was the least I could do."
"I planned the same, not wanting to make you uncomfortable, but...I couldn't keep away, not when you were so near and no longer seemed opposed to me."
"I'm so glad you didn't," she said, smiling, before leaning forward to skip the video of Bing that they'd already watched.
Indeed, her next video showed him seeking her out. She was talking through her confusion about whether she'd been right to tell Bing that Jane wasn't seeing anyone when Darcy came by to ask if she was getting the information she needed for her independent study. She assured him she was, then invited him to sit, and he did, glancing at the camera but saying nothing. Then she asked him, nervously but point-blank, why he hadn't told Bing that there was a chance he'd been wrong about Jane.
Darcy watched their encounter curiously, and Lizzie nudged him and asked what he was thinking. "Merely that you were right, that it was not my place to decide the strength of Bing's attachment. And that Fitz was right--my head does swivel like a robot's at times."
He spoke so dryly that she had to laugh. "Um, no. You do not get to become self-conscious from watching these. If anyone does that, it'll be me. Do you have any idea how weird it is to stare at yourself for 80+ videos? And I'll be doing that 24/7 once I start writing my thesis. I'm going to be sick of my face by the time I'm done!"
"I cannot imagine why. Every time I'm in a room with you, I stare at you constantly--your words, as you'll recall--and I have yet to grow weary of your face. How could I, when you are more beautiful every time I look?"
Lizzie's mouth fell open as the pleasure of his words shivered through her. Stunned as she was, she was unable to care that the admiration in his face was mixed with what should have been insufferable smugness. Long seconds passed before she finally snapped her mouth shut. "I walked right into that, didn't I?"
"You merely gave me an opportunity to correct my inexcusable statement on the night we met."
"Well, consider it corrected." But don't let that stop you from correcting it again, she mentally added. Darcy smiled in response and ran a finger down her flushed cheek.
They were now approaching the present. They and Gigi had toured San Francisco two days after she'd posted their conversation about Bing, and her next video showed them on markedly different footing. Lizzie bit her lip as it began. It wasn't that she expected him to react angrily to this one--she knew better by now--but she felt guilty nevertheless.
Darcy's video self sat down beside her. "Yes, I have the time," he said when she asked to interview him for her independent study. "Or I'll...make it."
Lizzie beamed and rose to close the door, touching his shoulder as she went. When she returned, he was looking curiously at her camera. "Do you film everything in your life?"
"Not--not everything," she stammered. "Do you mind if I record this, though? I don't write very fast, and otherwise I'll be asking you to repeat yourself a lot." Which was true--she had taken only pen and paper to her interview with Ricky Collins, and although she hadn't attempted to take complete notes of his wordy replies, her hand had cramped badly by the end.
"Not at all," he replied easily, and they began.
Darcy watched the video quietly, his mouth curving a little when she called him a "young CEO" and when he saw the other flirtatious exchanges she'd left in. And they had flirted a lot during that interview, enough to give him the courage to ask her to the theater two days later.
Her theme music played for the last time, and she leaned forward to press stop. She bent her head for a moment, then turned to face him. "I'm sorry I lied about why I was filming, again. Not that what I said was actually a lie, but...it was deceptive, anyway."
He looked at her assessingly before replying. "Why did you do it? Why film at Pemberley at all when there was the risk I would discover your videos?"
"I thought about filming here instead, but it seemed so...pitiful to be in a strange city, come here at night, and film all alone. And then, once I had you on camera...". She looked away for a moment before continuing. "I spent months painting a picture of you that was inaccurate and unkind, in many ways. I wanted to...to let you speak for yourself this time. That's a poor excuse, but...well, you asked why I did it."
"Thank you for that," he said, reaching for her hands. "But please don't feel you need to keep atoning for any of this. I forgive you, Lizzie. Now and always."
Darcy spoke the words like a vow. She drew a shaky breath and smiled. "You're making this too easy for me."
He laughed outright at that. "I don't think 'too easy' accurately describes any facet of our association."
Another time, she would have kissed his shoulder for using more sesquipedalian words, but for now she just wanted to be near him again. Darcy opened his arms for her as she leaned back against him, and she snuggled close.
"Thank you for watching these with me." The words were hopelessly inadequate, but she hoped he could read in them her gratitude for forgiving her, for being harder on himself than on her, for seeing her in awful moments and loving her still, for...for delighting in her through it all in a way she had never dreamed possible.
"It was my pleasure," he said firmly. He paused then and cleared his throat. "I survived, then?"
"Yeah. We both survived."
He did not smile or look relieved. Instead, his eyes were steady, entreating, declaring himself as his lips already had twice. Lizzie knew that look, knew what he was about to say, and her heart thudded in response. "I've been thinking while we were watching," she said quickly. "I was wrong about you."
Those eyes shadowed as he shook his head. "Lizzie, please, don't. You have already apolo--." She pressed two fingers to his mouth, a soft touch that lasted only a moment before she drew her hand back, but it was enough to stop him mid-word.
"I said once that you were the last man in the world I could ever fall in love with, and I was wrong." Darcy was looking at her now with an intensity that melted every coherent thought, with such pure hope that she wanted desperately to add the words he longed to hear. She swallowed, then said, "I--I can't say more, not yet, not after...this has been so much."
"I understand." He banked his emotion quickly, ready as always to relieve her uncertainty. "There has been much for me to take in as well. We can move as slowly as you like, until you're sure this is what you want."
He had mistaken her--small wonder, considering how difficult it was to find the right words. She shook her head, saw his face begin to fall, and just blurted it out. "I know this is what I want. I want to be with you, too, and I want you to know that...I'm moving in that direction."
Darcy's lips parted as he exhaled her name, and his hand trembled slightly as he brought it to rest along her neck and jaw. "I love you so much," he breathed. He kissed her then, tender and sweet and much too brief. She looked at him, eyes alight, and smiled a few seconds later when his own eyes finally opened. He took in that smile, threaded his fingers into her hair, and kissed her again, this time with frank but restrained passion. It was a kiss that touched off every nerve in her body, a kiss she returned eagerly...a kiss that did not need length to leave them both short of breath.
And then they were silent.
Lizzie would have thought that officially beginning their relationship would make her want to talk about a dozen different things, to flirt or tease him or make plans together or just revel in the freedom to speak as they wished. As it was, though, she simply rested her head against him, felt his warm breath against her forehead, and allowed contentment to seep in until it permeated her being. They had spoken so much that night, awkwardly and painfully at times, and had worked through months of misunderstandings and wrongs against each other. They were exhausted, but they were, finally, at peace.
Her eyelids were growing heavy when Darcy spoke again. "So...was this our first date?"
She leaned back to see his face. "Do you want it to be? I mean, I know 'all's well that ends well,' but you spent half of it listening to me insult you."
"I also spent it watching you in your element and learning things about you that would have taken me weeks or months to discover on my own. I saw you change your mind about me and heard you say...you want to be with me." His voice grew rough with awe as he spoke the words for the first time. "I would not exchange that for anything."
She melted at that and smiled. "Okay, it's a date." Her hand came up then and began to trace slowly along his tie. Darcy had a way of making her feel like the most cherished woman on the face of the earth.
"Do you have plans for tomorrow evening?" he asked suddenly. When she replied negatively, he said, "There is another performance of Tolstoy's short stories then. Would that do for an official first date?"
Her breath caught, and then she beamed in appreciation for him and his perceptiveness. It took only one firm tug on his tie to bring him down to her, perfectly situated and available for kissing. And kiss him she did.
Lizzie woke with her mind already active. "Oh no!"
Darcy blinked and lifted his head from its resting place against hers. "What's wrong?" he asked, slowly working toward complete wakefulness.
"I have to upload a video this morning! What time is it?"
He began to shift away from her, then stopped, his eyes warm and loving as he took in her sleep-flushed face. They had fallen asleep as they sat together on the loveseat, and sometime during the night she had roused enough to pull a nearby afghan over them. "First things first. Good morning, Lizzie Bennet," he said, and kissed her. This led of course to her returning that greeting, and a couple minutes elapsed before he finally reached for his pocketwatch.
"It is just before seven. Do you upload at a set time?"
"9:00 a.m. Not 9:02, though. By then I would have fifteen tweets asking what happened to me."
"You have built quite a rapport with your viewers."
Lizzie just smiled at that and left him for a quick shower and change of clothes.
"You're very quiet," Darcy said as he drove.
"I'm trying to think what I could do for today's video."
"You hadn't filmed anything yesterday before I came in?"
"Not much. Sometimes I just start talking and hope I end up with something interesting. That takes forever to edit, though." She fiddled with the strap of her purse. "I could do costume theater of something from the tour last weekend, or of lunch with Gigi the other day. My viewers would love that. Or...or I could post what I filmed after you came in."
He glanced at her, surprised. "Is that footage useable? I was probably out of frame most of the time, and you may have been as well."
"It's not ideal, but costume theater wouldn't really work for something that serious." She hesitated, then added, "It's fine if you don't want me to post it, I promise. I can just tell them later that we're together, or whatever you want."
"I appreciate that," he said, squeezing her hand, "but you have my permission to post it if you like."
She tightened her grip on him and grinned in excitement. "My viewers are going to go nuts!"
Once at Pemberley, Darcy disappeared into his office, where he kept a change of clothes. Lizzie filmed a brief introduction and then set to work, keeping her edits minimal, though she did cut her allusion to what his letter had said about Gigi. She uploaded the video when she was done, relieved that she'd made her deadline. No sooner had she done so than Darcy entered, bringing breakfast with him. They ate quickly, for he had a meeting soon.
"May I take you to lunch later?"
"Absolutely." She hugged him tightly, and he left wearing a smile that matched her own. Lunch couldn't come soon enough.
In the meantime, she had calls to make. Charlotte was going to demand all the details and crow once again that she "totally knew it." Jane would be thrilled for her, but Lizzie also needed to decide how much to tell her--was warning her that Bing might contact her worth the possibility that she would be hurt again if he didn't? And Lydia...Lydia already thought she'd sided with Darcy over her. She had been in a dangerous mood before, and Lizzie's news would only make it worse.
Lizzie scrubbed her hand over her forehead and picked up her phone.
In my version of ep. 78, Gigi has connected the Lizzie Bennet she met at Pemberley with the woman Darcy told her about. As in LBD, Darcy is returning from L.A. and plans to take her to dinner. She comes to Lizzie's office to chat and prevent her from leaving. When Darcy texts to let her know he's almost there, she texts back telling him to meet her in room #---. She then makes a bathroom run. Darcy arrives before she returns, and he and Lizzie have an awkward conversation while standing in her doorway. Gigi may or may not be eavesdropping on them. The actual video doesn't contain any Gigi footage.
Only one chapter left, and unfortunately it isn't finished yet. Hopefully it will be by next Saturday, but no promises...
Lydia was walking to the cafeteria when her phone rang. She stared at the screen for long seconds before answering.
"Hey, Lydia. It's Lizzie."
"Duh, caller ID."
"Oh, right. Um...can we talk?"
"Not interested." It was a lie.
"Please? We haven't talked in weeks." Lizzie took her silence as a yes. "How have you been?"
"Fine. Attending class. Responsible."
"Great! Have...um...have you been watching my videos?"
She snorted. "Have you been watching mine? Oh, that's right, you never do."
There was a pause. Lydia imagined her counting to ten. Then, "I've been watching my videos, and...I forgot your birthday, didn't give you a gift until days later, and then gave you that book. I was worried about you, but that was a stupid way to show it. I...I can see why you were mad."
"I shouldn't have kept bugging you to go to Carter's." It wasn't really an apology from either of them, but it was probably as close as they'd get without Jane there to mediate.
"Anyway, the reason I called is, um, Darcy owns the company I'm shadowing. He knows about my videos now, and--."
"OMG!" she yelped, stopping dead in the middle of the sidewalk. She couldn't believe Lizzie was calling her about this, especially when Charlotte lived so much closer, but whatever. "Are you okay? What's he going to do to you? Do I need to come up there and kick his !#$%&?"
"What? No!" Lizzie spluttered. "I mean, it's nice of you to offer, but...I'm fine. Darcy was actually amazingly nice about it. He forgave me before he watched the videos, and again after he watched them. After we watched them, I mean."
Lydia's eyes narrowed at that tone in Lizzie's voice. She was hiding something. "You like him now, don't you?" The silence told her everything. "OMG, you do! He acted like a total !#$%& last fall, but all he has to do is say a few non-!#$%& things, and you decide he's amazing! He's only doing this to get inside your pants!"
"Lydia, stop it! He apologized for the way he treated me last year and for what he said about you and Jane and Mom. He wanted to apologize to you as well, but I, um...".
Darcy wanted to apologize? That threw her. Maybe..."Is he going to apologize to George too?"
"For what?" Lizzie said sharply.
"You know, for deciding he was worthless and not giving him a second chance?"
"He blew his college fund in less than a year! Why would Darcy give him even more money?"
"He just made one mistake, and he's more responsible now!"
"One mistake?" She snorted. "He's done much worse things than wasting money."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
"I can't--it's not my story to tell, but...why are we talking about him anyway? The point is, I'm sorry we--."
"I'm dating him." There it was. She still felt a little guilty for dating Lizzie's ex, but George was so good to her and stood up for her when no one else did. He was amazing.
"What?!" Lizzie sounded horrified. "You can't date him, Lydia! You can't!"
Lydia shoved her bangs aside angrily as she recognized the fear in Lizzie's voice. She hadn't sounded this scared since that time a hawk dive-bombed them at the lake, and it was pretty obvious why she was afraid. "Why do you have to be so freaking selfish? I'm not going to break up with my boyfriend just because you're afraid Darcy will change his mind and decide not to date you because of me."
"Don't be ridiculous! He saw me flirt with him in my videos. He's not going to break up with me because you're dating him. I'm afraid for you. You don't know what George is really like!"
Lydia snapped back at her, but she was struck at the same time by Lizzie's tone. She'd been watching her sister all her life, and Lizzie was a horrible liar. She could barely fool their mom, and she never fooled anyone else. And right now, she was telling the truth. She truly was afraid for Lydia's sake, not her own.
Lizzie was in freak-out mode now, babbling on, and Lydia sighed loudly into the phone, but she was thinking too. Lizzie was being a judgmental know-it-all about George again, or maybe she was just listening to Darcy too much, but it was...nice to know she actually cared about this. Cared about her.
Lizzie said something about calling her back and then hung up. Lydia put her phone in her pocket and decided she would answer that call.
Darcy exited the conference room and took to the stairs, his steps creating a fast tempo that suited his ebullience. He had maintained a professional focus during his meetings, but he was free now, and Lizzie was expecting him.
Only twenty-four hours ago, he had hoped beyond hope that he wasn't about to make the mistake of his life for the second time. He had prepared for rejection, craved any response offering the slightest hope, and, bewilderingly, received both. He had begun watching her videos resolved to, as his grandfather would have said, "Maintain a stiff upper lip." No matter what Lizzie said about him in those videos, that was in the past, and she wouldn't be sitting next to him, eyeing him so cautiously, if she felt that way now. He would control his own response, but he had feared for hers. What if he hadn't changed enough? What if watching herself recount all her reasons for hating him restored her to that hatred before his eyes?
Then Lizzie, dearest, boldest Lizzie, had challenged him to more than mere endurance. She wanted to understand his perspective, even as watching the videos was revealing hers to him. Verbalizing his reactions had been daunting, but she had persisted, and as they watched they had forged an understanding and an intimacy that astounded him.
Darcy entered her office eager to bask in that intimacy over lunch, but that shifted abruptly when he saw her agitated manner. "What's wrong?" he asked, closing the door behind him.
Lizzie scrubbed her hands over her face. "Lydia is dating George Wickham."
That name again. He leaned against the door and watched her pace, her hands cutting the air in frustrated slashes as she recounted her conversation with her sister. Could he take care of this for her? The easiest course would be to pay Wickham off again, but...Darcy compressed his lips, deciding that would be his last resort. The terrible pain in his sister's face when her lover chose a check over herself was forever seared in his mind. No woman should feel so devalued.
No, the answer lay with Lydia, but how was she to be worked on? He had not even been able to persuade his own sister against Wickham, and Lizzie also appeared at a loss. Although...he narrowed his eyes, recalling how much he'd learned about her last night through watching her videos.
"Would she have included him in her videos?" he asked when she paused. "Knowing more might inform you how best to approach her."
Wickham was indeed in the thumbnails of Lydia's latest videos. Lizzie looked doubtful but was willing to try, and Darcy settled beside her with a feeling of déjà vu. They started with Lydia's arrival in Las Vegas. The first two videos showed her as he had initially perceived her--loud, heedless, and obnoxious. If she had begun dating Wickham in this mood, Darcy wondered if she might break up with him of her own accord when she saw that Lizzie was not hurt by it.
Her next video, however, was aptly titled "Surprise!", for it began to show a more serious Lydia that he did not recognize. She prudently did not publicize whatever she had done in Las Vegas, and she seemed to need to justify to herself her decision to spend time with, and then to date, Wickham. That man appeared and immediately took over the impetus of her videos. He had clearly picked up on some insecurity in her that Darcy had not, and he exploited that insecurity relentlessly. Darcy watched with growing revulsion as he insinuated himself into Lydia's life. Over and over, when she expressed reluctance about what they were doing, he adroitly made her feel that she owed him something. And then she paid her debt. Darcy's jaw clenched so hard it began to ache, for he knew he was likely witnessing exactly what that monster had done to Gigi.
Livid as he was, though, his immediate concern was not Gigi or Lydia but Lizzie herself. He refrained from touching her at first, not wanting her to think he was being amorous at a highly inappropriate time. Instead, he watched her reactions as attentively as she had watched his the night before. She appeared puzzled when Lydia's initial spiteful rage disappeared, but she flinched when Lydia, with a hitch in her voice, assured Wickham that her sister was not watching her videos.
"She asked me to watch, over and over," she said, guilt shading her voice. It was more than Darcy could do to sit apart from her and watch her pain. He cautiously stretched his arm around her and was relieved to feel her lean against him slightly, taut though she was.
It was the video titled "Dreams" that made her crack. The dreams were Lydia's, guilty ones about herself and Lizzie. Wickham tried to soothe her, saying that Lizzie only looked out for her own interests and that if she really cared she would call her. They kissed, and Lizzie looked away from the screen. "I've never seen her like this, so pale and quiet," she said, her voice quivering. "It's more than just a bad night's sleep. It--it's like I don't even know her."
Darcy nodded, his other arm coming up to embrace her. "He is draining her. He...Gigi...". He couldn't continue.
Then Wickham addressed Lizzie through the camera, accusing her of kicking him to the curb and thanking her for "the chance to reconnect with your little sister here" because "I couldn't have done it without you." And then Darcy felt the hairs on his neck stand upright, for Lizzie balled her hands into fists and snapped back at him.
"Of course you couldn't have, you !#$%& creep! She obviously started dating you against her better judgment, all because I--." Her voice cut off, her face pinching wretchedly.
"He is trying to fix the blame on you, Lizzie. Please don't...". But she was not listening to him. Darcy closed his eyes briefly and held her as tightly as he dared.
There was one last video. He loosened his hold just enough to press stop when it was done, then angled himself to see her face. She looked away, her eyes dull. "I could have prevented this."
"Lizzie, this is not your fault."
"Well then whose fault is it?" she cried. "I could have told her exactly what kind of person George Wickham was, but instead I've just been petty. I've been too wrapped up in my own life to even care what was happening to her, and he stepped right in."
Darcy's eyes burned as her self-reproach found echo in his own nightmare of the previous year. He raised one hand to her jaw, gently forcing her focus to him. "This is not your fault." He spoke distinctly and deliberately, willing her to believe him. "Wickham knows he cannot hurt you directly and is going after someone you love instead. You must see that!"
Their eyes held for just a moment. Then hers flicked away, and she began to disentangle herself from him. "I need to go home. I have to warn her."
"Very well. I'll get us tickets on the first flight out."
"Us?" She frowned blankly as she stood, as if her mind, if not her body, was already distant from him.
"I apologize. I did not intend to presume, but you can offer her only hearsay. I have evidence of what he has done, even if she chooses to reject it. I promise I will not distract you from her; I can stay at Netherfield or a hotel so that I intrude as little as possible, but...please let me help you."
"I can't ask you to do that," she said as she began to stuff things in her bag. "You got all tense last night every time you heard his name, and this is too much like what happened with Gigi."
Which is precisely why I must help. He stood and caught up one of her hands between his. "I am the one asking you, Lizzie. Please don't go through this alone."
Tears puddled in her eyes as his words finally got through to her. She swallowed, then stretched up to kiss him, her fingers curling around his neck. It was not a passionate kiss, and her lips were trembling a little against his, but it was more moving in a way than the kisses they'd shared the night before. She was leaning into him, and he kissed and held her firmly, mutely pledging his support.
At last, she drew back. "Two tickets, then."
George Wickham was starting to think Lydia Bennet was more trouble than she was worth. She was worth a lot, or rather a tape of her would be, but playing the supportive, attentive boyfriend was wearing on him. Not that he didn't like her. He liked women with a sense of humor, who weren't shy about what they wanted. No puppies and rainbows for Lydia, either--she'd never once asked him to watch a chick flick. It was more than that, too. He didn't have to pretend to share her anger at being misjudged by the people in her life.
No, he liked her well enough, but he liked her as she had been. The first two times he'd seen her had been at Carter's, and though he'd been focused on Lizzie at the time, Lydia had impressed him as bold, fun, and wild. Add that to the fact she admitted stealing Xanax in her videos and planned to show herself partying in Vegas, and he'd naturally figured it wouldn't take much to convince her to exhibit herself. She was, in other words, perfect for his plan.
He knew better now. It had taken him a couple weeks just to get past making out with her. Lately, she had become so quiet, so...needy. Every time he was with her, he had to distract her from moping about her sisters. Insulting really, considering how much effort he put into making her feel good. If it came to it, he wasn't sure she would choose him over them at this point, and she'd been fretting lately about needing to call Jane. George grimaced. He had to get to her, soon. He'd pull out all the stops if he had to.
It was late afternoon, and he'd finished his workout and showered. He would meet Lydia in twenty minutes to hang out. Her parents were at some family thing, so they'd have the place to themselves. They'd end up at his place, though. They always did. She was more relaxed here.
To pass the time, he pulled out his phone to find Lizzie's new video. Her videos lately were both sickening and hilarious to him. Sickening because she mooned over Darcy now like he'd always mooned over her. In her last video, sparks had flown while they discussed international communications rights, for pete's sake. Still, the more hopeful Darcy became, the more hilarious it was, because he was still clueless about her videos.
George fantasized sometimes about being the one to tell him.
"I need to speak with you," he'd say after somehow cornering him. "The last few months have been crazy. I've been hiding something from you that I shouldn't have and that I can't any more. I need to admit something to you." It wouldn't take Darcy long to realize what he was quoting. Once he had him reeling, he could take his time revealing how Lizzie had exploited his rejection to make herself famous. And that would be the end of anything between Darcy and Lizzie. He could never forgive her--as he'd pompously informed George more than once, he "abhorred disguise of any sort." Shock, humiliation, betrayal, grief--he would see it all in Darcy's face.
Well, he would if he could figure out how to make money from it. Unfortunately, he couldn't, so it remained a fantasy while he focused on Lydia.
George watched that morning's video and swore when it ended. He'd obviously underestimated Lizzie. She knew what she was doing, flirting and casting "come-hither" looks until even Darcy got the hint. Then, when he finally stammered out an invitation, she made it clear that his reaction to her videos was the only thing standing in his way. Darcy probably saw watching her videos as a heroic deed to win his fair lady. He would see himself as some kind of knight. Either that, or he was just desperate to get laid.
Anyway, it worked. Lizzie wore different clothes and was all giggles in the video's intro. Darcy had gone against everything he knew of him, forgiven her, and got what he wanted.
George ran his hands through his damp hair, fighting the urge to hit and break something. He couldn't let himself get in a funk about this. Impatient eagerness might work with Lydia, but all-out anger would only set him back with her. He couldn't afford that.
Eventually, he simmered down enough to go to her. He pulled up next to the curb five minutes later and scowled. A car he didn't recognize sat in the Bennet's driveway, and a man too slender to be Mr. Bennet was searching for something in its trunk. Had Lydia invited someone over without telling him? Great. That would screw up his plans for the evening. He got out, ready to get rid of this guy. Then the man straightened.
"Darcy," he said in disbelief, his voice the only sound in the quiet evening air.
Darcy turned to him, practically oozing contempt. There was no surprise in his eyes, only determination, and George suddenly knew exactly why he had come. He decided to cut to the chase. "You're going to try to turn Lydia against me, aren't you?"
"I could not rest without informing her what you are."
What, not who, of course. "You're seriously going to follow me around and tell every woman I meet what a totally selfish !#$%& you've decided I am?"
"I didn't decide that, George. You did. If you weren't selfish, you would have ripped up that check and told me Gigi was beyond all price. I wish you were the kind of man who would have."
If only George was more like him, in other words. Typical Darcy. "Well, at least I'm not the kind of man who insults Lydia's 'odd family' and 'financial troubles' and tells her I'm in a different world from her."
It was the perfect comeback. It should have given him the upper hand, the high ground, for once. But Darcy barely even blinked. If anything, he seemed calmer than before. "Neither am I, now. Unfortunately, you are as selfish as ever."
He bent then to pick up his briefcase. Right. He'd taken his checkbook from that briefcase that day in Gigi's condo. "What, you think I'm dating Lydia out of selfishness? That doesn't even make sense. She's not rich, but that doesn't matter to me. I only care about her."
Darcy closed the trunk before turning back to him. "I have watched their videos, George. So did you. You saw their quarrel, knew she would be in Las Vegas for New Year's, and sought her there. You saw that Lizzie was coming to Pemberley, and you came when Lydia was vulnerable and used what you learned from her videos to make her believe you were the only person who valued her. That is demented and manipulative, not caring. What I do not know is how you thought to benefit from all this."
George ground his teeth, his control slipping. Of course he couldn't fool Darcy. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he bit off. "Well, I don't have time for this !#$%&. Are you going to convince me to leave?"
"Give you more money, you mean?" He raised his eyebrows and looked at Darcy's briefcase, eager but too proud to beg. "No. I will not allow you to profit from another's pain again."
"Fine. I'll just be off to see my girlfriend." He smirked in the way he knew Darcy hated. "Who knows, maybe we will--."
"George?" came a quiet voice.
He rushed past Darcy to see around the corner of the garage, then swore. Lydia stood in the doorway, her eyes huge and confused and disbelieving.
No. This couldn't be happening. She was the only leverage he had. "Lydia, I don't know what you overheard, but I--I'm sorry."
"You said...". Her words trailed off.
"I can't be reasonable when I'm talking to someone who despises me and has taken so much from me. I get mad and say things I don't mean." His voice cracked a little as he slowly approached her. "He brings out the worst in me, I guess."
"I c-can't believe you would...". Her voice was so quiet he could barely hear her, but he didn't like what he saw in her eyes.
"Lydia, everything I've done since we've been together has been for you. I've been here for you all along, and you...you can't throw all that away just because I said something stupid in the heat of the moment. I love you, Lydia, and if you ask me to leave...losing you will kill me."
But she was shaking her head, not even caring that he'd spoken those words for the first time. "You asked him for money to--no, I can't...no...".
Her face and body crumpled, and Lizzie stepped from behind her to grab her in a fierce hug. "Get away from my sister!"
Rage was building, clawing to get out, but he controlled it and made a peaceful gesture. "Look, I don't know what Darcy has been telling you both, but he has always--."
"He's been showing me who he really is--one of the best men I've ever known. I was an idiot for ever believing you and the world's worst sister for not warning Lydia about you. Now get out!" Lizzie turned and began guiding Lydia back inside.
It was over, and he knew it. Even if he got her to take him back, she would never trust him to film them together. All the time he'd spent on her had been wasted--no tape, no money, nothing. His view of them was blocked a second later by six-plus menacing feet of Darcy. George wanted more than anything to punch that disgusted, self-righteous expression off his face, to beat him senseless as payment for everything he'd done to him. His fists clenched...but it wasn't worth getting arrested for assault. His face contorted hideously, and then he stalked away.
Darcy had, once again, ruined everything.
"Would you like some more chicken or cornbread?"
"Thank you, ma'am, but I can eat no more. This was, however, a delicious meal."
"Why thank you, Darcy!" Mrs. Bennet said brightly. "Just you wait until we have dessert later. I made my chess pie, and nobody turns down seconds of that! Now then, how long have you been runnin' Pemberley Digest?"
"I became the CEO of Pemberley Digital in 2004." He stated the correct name but was too polite to emphasize it.
"And such a smart, successful CEO, Lizzie tells me! What have you--?" Then she abruptly broke into giggles and facepalmed.
"That is not in the script," he said seriously.
"Neither is smoldering at me while I'm impersonating my mother!" Lizzie retorted.
His lips twitched. "I apologize for breaking character...though I did exercise significant restraint in not kissing you, either in front of your mother or just now, costume be hanged."
Her hand was at his bowtie at once, tugging insistently. She frowned. "This isn't as handy as a necktie."
"Duly noted. Um, Lizzie?"
"Hmm?" Their lips were only a breath apart, but he leaned back just a little.
"On second thought, please take off that hat."
The hat came off, and they kissed. Thoroughly. This one would definitely require a jump cut.
They finished the scene eventually, and Lizzie turned the camera off. "Thanks for helping with this. It felt good to let go of everything and just...laugh for a while."
Darcy merely smiled and held out his hand. She took it, and they moved to the nearby couch. There she curled into his embrace, relishing his warmth and strength and unwinding from the turmoil of the last week.
They had arrived last Thursday to find Lydia alone. She had not stormed out on them, but otherwise the conversation had been unpromising. She had been defensive from the start, and Lizzie had been glad she'd asked Darcy to leave his documentation about Wickham in the car. Lydia would never listen if she thought he was trying to intimidate her. As it was, she had watched him suspiciously as he apologized for his words last fall and had fought hard against any suggestion of Wickham's wrongdoing. The man had a strong hold on her, and she was not about to be talked out of dating him. Darcy, to his credit, had not responded to her barbs, but had told his story with quiet feeling. "May I show you proof of what he has done?" he had asked at the end, and at her defiant shrug he had exchanged a hopeless look with Lizzie before leaving to fetch his briefcase. Voices from outside had drawn them to the door a minute later, and then Wickham had accomplished in a few seconds what a whole explanation from Darcy had failed to do.
Lizzie had filmed her Monday video on Saturday afternoon, more to have something to do than anything. In it, she had shakily admitted the ways she'd failed and wronged her sister and stated simply that Wickham was now out of their lives. Filming it had been all the more difficult because of Lydia's grief. Lydia had been numb with shock at first, but the hurtful words they'd exchanged before Christmas paled in comparison to the pain and anger she had loosed on her sister during those first two days, as reality sank in. Lizzie had absorbed it all as calmly as she could, saving her tears for her empty room...and for Darcy's shoulder.
Ironically, it was that video that changed things for them. Lydia had come into the den, seen her editing, and demanded to know what she was saying about her. Lizzie had shown her the footage, and though she'd watched in silence then, she had knocked on Lizzie's door that evening. After tiptoeing around each other for a time, they had finally begun to talk--had talked and cried together into the night, in fact.
Darcy rubbed his cheek slowly against Lizzie's hair and tightened his hold. "Do you need to return home soon?"
"Nope. Mary's taking Lydia for froyo after class, so you're stuck with me all afternoon."
"Mmm." He sounded as content as she felt.
Since that night in her room, Lydia had amazed Lizzie again and again. Jane had Skyped with her a couple times and suggested what Lizzie hadn't dared--counseling. Lydia had agreed and would start the following week. She had also hesitantly asked to spend more time with her sister. Since then, Lizzie had made a point of being home any time Lydia was, available to listen to her or run interference with their mom or hold her as she cried. Then, last night, without prompting from Jane or Lizzie or anyone, Lydia had announced she was going to return to her classes. She needed something to do, she said, and in any case she did not want to drop out. The last few days had not magically healed Lydia's pain or transformed their relationship, of course--that would take time, love, and work from both of them--but they had now a taste of something new and strong that could come.
Minutes slipped by, and then Lizzie tilted her head back to see Darcy's face. She smiled to see him still wearing a familiar brown hat and a less familiar red bowtie. He had looked quietly horrified when she handed him her limp button-on bowtie for their costume theater scene and had fetched one of his own instead. She reached up now to touch it, not to haul him closer as she had earlier, but exploring instead, her fingers brushing against his neck.
"I thought I would make you hate these."
"Hmm...I am not very attached to pageboy hats, but it would be difficult indeed to make me hate bowties."
She smiled a little to feel the rumble of his voice through her fingertips, then met his gaze. "Thank you."
"For helping with your video?"
"Well, yes. A week ago, I wouldn't have believed you would ever wear these for me. But I meant thank you for...everything." Her hand slipped up to caress his jaw. "I don't even want to imagine what it would be like to go through all this without you. And I, um...I know you understand because you've been through something like this, and you would never complain about me spending time with Lydia right now, but I'm sure this isn't how you dreamed our relationship would start."
As she spoke, Darcy's lips quivered almost imperceptibly, which she had learned meant he was deeply moved. His response was quiet and simple. "I dreamed of being with you. And I am."
There could be no reply to that. Lizzie felt her eyes grow soft and moist, and she moved her arm to drape across his chest, her cheek resting over his heart. Darcy pressed a lingering kiss into her hair before leaning his head back against the couch, one large hand running slowly up and down her back.
"So...," she began after some minutes of peaceful cuddling, "what have you been up to this past week? Other than letting me cry all over you and encouraging me and being monopolized by my mother over dinner last night, that is."
Her tone was teasing, and as she leaned back she could see his smile. "I have been very productive, actually. I have conferenced in for two meetings; otherwise, my time has been my own, to think and plan."
"Plan what? The Domino roll-out?"
He shook his head. "Domino has absorbed much of our time and creativity of late, and while you know about several of our other ongoing projects, our long-term strategy has needed clearer direction. Before you came today, I was refining a proposal for board and the development team regarding two major potential avenues."
"That's great! I'm sorry I ruined your concentration, though."
"Your interruption was most welcome," he said firmly. Then his eyebrow quirked. "It has been strange to telecommute from Netherfield without being distracted by the gorgeous 'traffic accident' lurking in the living room...and the den...and the library...not to mention the lounge."
Gorgeous? Lizzie couldn't keep the pleased glow from her face. His eyes told her regularly how desirable he found her, but it was always thrilling to hear the words. "I so did not lurk. You lurked."
"That is a matter of perspective."
Darcy was looking pleased with himself now--adorable but in need of a challenge. She decided to take the upper hand. "Changing the subject...aren't you forgetting something?"
"You would hardly ask if the answer was no, so...yes?"
"It's our one-week anniversary, and you haven't said anything!"
His forehead furrowed thoughtfully. "It is true that I asked you to the theater"--he checked his pocket watch--"almost exactly seven days ago, but you did not agree to date me until after midnight. Therefore, our one-week anniversary is not until tomorrow."
"Psh! We were hugging and holding hands already before midnight. It was a foregone conclusion." His eyebrows shot up at that, but she pressed on. "And anyway, we hadn't gone to sleep yet when I gave my answer, so it still counts as part of that day."
"That is an imprecise method of determining what constitutes a day."
She rolled her eyes. "It's been a week."
Darcy sighed. "Fine. It has been a week." Then he propelled himself up and out of the room. When he returned a minute later, it was with a gorgeous mass of red and white roses. "Happy anniversary, my love," he said, smiling as he handed the bouquet to her.
"Oh! These are so beautiful. Thank you!" she exclaimed, holding them up to touch and smell. Then, "I thought you said it wasn't until tomorrow."
His answering look was somehow both innocent and smug.
Lizzie admired her flowers for another minute, then set them on the coffee table and patted the cushion beside her in invitation. "I have a surprise for you, too," she said as he re-seated himself. "Jane called last night to say she's coming home this weekend."
"I thought you said she was overwhelmed with preparations for fashion week?"
"She convinced her boss to let her work double shifts instead of just overtime for the next week to make up for it. I told her she'd run herself ragged, but she said this was more important. She's going to take Lydia to the community theater on Saturday. They're screening The Wizard of Oz and then performing Wicked."
"I am glad to hear it. You did say Lydia had been missing her."
Lizzie smiled. He still hadn't caught on. "Which means I'm free on Saturday evening," she said meaningfully.
"Won't you wish to be with your sisters? You haven't seen Jane in some time."
"That's what the rest of Saturday and Sunday are for. I think Jane would like some one-on-one time with Lydia, and...I think it's important to make time for us, too."
His smile at her use of that pronoun was sudden and tender, and his voice gained a current of excitement. "Official first date then? Unfortunate lack of Tolstoy notwithstanding?"
Lizzie nodded, grasping one of his hands between hers. "Official first date. Just us, no secret videos to watch or crises to try to fix. I will personally clobber anyone who tries to interrupt us."
Darcy opened his mouth, probably to say something impossibly sweet and loving about being understanding if something did come up. Then he apparently decided to put his lips to better use. His hand came up to caress the side of her neck, and their kiss ignited.
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