Posted on 2016-11-03
1917. On the Western Front of WW1, Captain Fitzwilliam Darcy has won the heart of Elizabeth Bennet. Finally.
Then she disappears.
Still reeling from the loss, Darcy is struck by a battlefield tragedy that leaves him in a dark and silent world.
Sent to Donwell Abbey to recover, he's coaxed back to life by an extraordinary nurse. A woman whose uncanny similarities to Elizabeth invite his admiration and entice his affections.
His heart tells him to hold on to Elizabeth.
His head tells him to take a chance with his nurse.
But Donwell Abbey holds a secret that just might could change everything....
Escape to an era transformed by war but sustained by love in this enthralling sequel to Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashe s that includes appearances by John Thornton, Margaret Hale, Colonel Brandon, Marianne Dashwood, and descendants of George Knightley.
Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey may be read as a stand-alone novel, but readers may experience some minor confusions without the context of Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes.
Hello Dwiggie readers! Last year many of you joined me on a wild ride on the Western Front of WW1 as Darcy & Lizzy learned to work together amidst the ravages of war. This is the sequel! For those of you who didn't read Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes , I hope there is enough context here so that you can enjoy this as a stand-alone--and that is partly why I'm posting it here.
Few more things:
• The story contains some mild language (within Dwiggie guidelines) and some graphic war descriptions, but the romance is clean.
• I use British spellings.
• If you start reading this story and decide you want to read Darcy's Hope ~ Beauty from Ashes , it has just launched at all your favourite ebook retailers here.
• If a word or phrase seems 'off' ask yourself if it would make sense if it were italicized. If so, I probably missed it. (Italicized words in the manuscript have to be manually italicized here.) : )
October 1917—Boulogne, France
Captain Fitzwilliam Darcy narrowed his gaze as the steamer carrying Elizabeth faded into the twilight. Gone. Elizabeth Bennet was gone. Her parting words washed over him, Come home to me, Fitzwilliam, I love you. He closed his eyes, his soul aching for her.
Two months. Just two months and he would have military leave to join her at his beloved Pemberley. God, let me live to make her my wife.
He sighed and turned to leave.
He flinched as a corporal swerved a team of horses around him.
“Pardon me, Captain.” The young officer called out, nodding as he passed.
Darcy released a heavy breath and gazed around. The French wharf was suddenly alive—wagon harnesses jangling, handcarts rumbling over the cobbles, seagulls crying out overhead, and ambulances puttering down the wharf. Amidst the hubbub, khaki-clad soldiers bustled to and fro, and the ocean breeze carried the smell of briny water, fish, and roasting meat.
Straightening his British officer's cap, Darcy glanced from side to side, then stepped in the direction of the Boulogne's bluff. A long ride lay ahead of him tonight. His cousin Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam had given him three days to find Elizabeth. He chuckled to himself while stepping back to dodge a lorry trundling by. And a glorious three days it had been. After months of animosity and then fighting his affections for her, they'd finally come to an understanding.
He crossed the street and headed up the hill to his motorcycle. Thrusting his hand into his trouser pocket, he absently stroked the ribbon of the Croix de Guerre medal that Elizabeth had discarded.
Finding and wooing Elizabeth at the Belgian chateau-turned-field-hospital where they'd served together hadn't been the only reason for his return there two days before. He'd also managed to steal away for an hour to survey sites near the stately manor. Sites he'd suspected were tied to the escapes of German prisoners.
Richard had stationed him at the chateau hospital affectionately known as The Ritz for the better part of the past six months. He'd been there under the guise of assisting its inept commander, Colonel Weekes. But his chief purpose had been to find a mole with the hope of bringing down a whole network of agents aiding prisoner escapes—and he'd nearly succeeded. A few more clues would expose the traitor.
He'd been right that the area's windmill, canal, and the woman who laundered for the clearing station hospital had all been components of the conspiracy. And he'd kept his word to his cousin—he hadn't revealed any details about the undercover intelligence operation to Elizabeth. But now that he'd seen her off, it was back to army business.
And George Wickham.
The blackguard's words rang in Darcy's mind from their encounter at the hotel's bar the night before. I'm so sorry to hear of her misfortune. …. I couldn't have orchestrated your demise any better had I planned it myself. ...Never know what can happen at the Front.
Wickham. Darcy huffed, chafing the ribbed texture of the ribbon between his fingers. What did the miscreant's words mean? Which of Elizabeth's misfortunes was he referring to? The death of her mother? The death of her beloved employer? Lydia's betrayal? And how could any of them have anything to do with Darcy's demise? The snake was drunk last night when Darcy encountered him. Could Wickham's taunts hold any clues? Darcy and Richard suspected their nemesis was involved in the collusion but had no evidence to prove it. What were they missing?
Darcy gritted his teeth, thrusting one foot in front of the other up the bluff towards Boulogne. With a few more pieces of the puzzle, they could bring down the traitor, and he could prove to Richard once and for all that Elizabeth was innocent.
But until then.... Elizabeth. He winced at her perilous situation. Like an innocent lamb wandering into the slaughter pen, she'd managed to tangle herself in the agents' ploys while serving as nursemaid to the chateau's aged owner, Monsieur Dubois. And when the agents figured out she was still alive they would.... He fisted his hand with a grunt. He'd feel a lot better about her if Richard had allowed him to warn her, or even better, if he'd been at liberty to keep her with him a few more days until his security plans were fully in place. God, keep her safe!
Four days later—Pemberley, Derbyshire
Elizabeth rose to the surface from a deep sleep with slivers of light dancing on her eyelids. She shifted and snuggled into the soft sheets, sinking back into slumber.
A damp October breeze from the open window skimmed her cheeks, teasing her awake again.
Monsieur Dubois! She bolted upright and threw back the bedclothes, then froze. Where was she? Her eyes darted around the spacious bedchamber—gold silk curtains, green damask wallpaper, armoire, dressing table, and writing desk. Relaxing her shoulders, she smiled. She wasn't in Belgium nursing Monsieur Dubois, the owner of the chateau-turned-field-hospital. She was in England at the home of Fitzwilliam Darcy, her beloved. Her third morning at Pemberley, she was still unaccustomed to the change in surroundings. She grasped the finely carved post of the bed and smoothed the luxurious linens, then fell back onto the sheets, breathing in their scent— his scent. He would be home on leave in two months!
A bird trilled outside, beckoning her to the window. Elizabeth padded across the carpet, then parted the curtains and breathed in the cool, fresh Derbyshire air. Rays of sunlight streamed through clusters of dark clouds, and the majestic fountain in Pemberley's lake rocketed water into the air. Peaceful. Beautiful. No booms or thuds of shelling in the distance. No ambulances delivering broken men to be splinted and stitched. No dear little Frenchman to look after.
And no Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Elizabeth sighed. But he would be home before Christmas. Her gaze drifted to the woods on the far side of the lake, resplendent in the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn. She imagined herself walking beside Fitzwilliam, snuggling in the frosty December air. Would he kiss her again? Giddy exuberance rose in her as she dropped the curtain and turned towards the dressing table.
Until he arrived, she would make the best of her time here. And from all Fitzwilliam had said about his sister, it would be a delight to be in Georgiana's company when the girl returned from her nurse's assistant training in London. Perhaps Elizabeth would volunteer with her at the local hospital. Elizabeth was already a certified nurse's assistant, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses or VADs as they were known. She'd served at a hospital in Boulogne before taking a position as nursemaid for the ageing Monsieur Dubois near the Front. Her time at The Ritz had been wonderful medical training. She chuckled at her determination to spurn marriage and be an independent woman and doctor. Although she still dreamed of becoming a midwife, she no longer felt the need to shun marriage. In fact, she now welcomed it—with Fitzwilliam. But for now she would sleep, explore the books in Pemberley's massive library, and go for long rambles. Perhaps the solitude would dispel the tensions of the last few weeks.
She shook her head at her reflection in the dressing table's mirror. A tumultuous past few weeks, indeed. It began when Fitzwilliam's reassignment took him away from The Ritz. Cooped up with her bedridden patient who was declining day by day, loneliness became Elizabeth's closest companion. And then the...interrogation. Was that what it was? Belgian officials had come to question her about some hairpins Lieutenant Wickham had given her in Boulogne. For some reason the officials suspected the pins were a threat to national security. She smiled. It was funny now, but at the time, it was terrifying.
Even more terrifying was the early morning air raid last week that had jolted her from bed. Bone rattling explosions and aeroplanes humming overhead struck her with a terror she'd never experienced. And it was that same morning dear Monsieur Dubois breathed his last. How lonely she felt when The Ritz staff hastily evacuated to a convent and she was left at the chateau alone!
She picked up her brush and tugged it through her unruly dark hair. Perhaps it was foolish of her to have stayed behind to clean up the wards for the incoming Canadians. But if she hadn't stayed, she would never have fallen down the side of the bluff and Fitzwilliam would never have rescued her. But Fitzwilliam had come! And the next three days with him were the most glorious of her life. But Lydia! Her brush stilled. How could her sister have been so reckless to steal away on an army transport ship—and then marry a German officer? Elizabeth winced in humiliation and regret at the actions of her younger sister. Yet Fitzwilliam had been so gentle and kind in breaking the news to her. She smiled, shaking her head. It was certainly strange to be falling in love in a war zone.
She resumed her brushing. With Lydia's treacherous behaviour, perhaps it was a good thing Mama and Papa were no longer living, and her two younger sisters Mary and Kitty were far away in America with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. At least her beloved sister Jane was happily situated with Charles Bingley. Should she tell her elder sister that Lydia had married the enemy? Elizabeth narrowed her gaze, staring beyond herself in the mirror. Maybe it was better Jane continued to believe Lydia was deceased.
With a sigh, Elizabeth rose and pushed her arms into her dressing gown as a knock sounded at her door.
Mrs. Reynolds peeked inside. “Good morning, Miss Bennet. Are you awake?”
“I've brought your breakfast, a letter, and the Daily Express .”
“Thank you.” Elizabeth's pulse kicked up a notch in anticipation of a letter from Fitzwilliam. Plumping the pillows, she climbed back onto the mattress.
The good-natured housekeeper crossed the room and presented the steaming tray. “May I get you anything else? As Mr. Darcy's special guest, we want you to be comfortable here.”
Heat rose in Elizabeth's cheeks at the woman's insinuation and the twinkle in her eye. “I'm quite comfortable, thank you.”
“You just ring if you need anything, dear.”
“Thank you, I shall.”
As soon as the door clicked behind the housekeeper, Elizabeth snatched up the letter. Her heart dipped. It wasn't from Fitzwilliam, it was from Caroline Bingley. Why would she be writing?
She slid the missive from the envelope, then took a bite of eggs and began reading.
7th October 1917
After seeing you with Captain Darcy in Boulogne, I felt it my duty to warn you of some damning allegations against you.
Several months ago Dr. Ernest Cowart was hospitalised here, and because he had known my father, I visited him. Naturally we spoke of his time at The Ritz, and when he realised that you and I were acquainted, he asked my opinion of your character. He then proceeded to recount numerous incidents and behaviours that cast suspicion on your allegiance to the Crown. I surmised he had already brought (or intended to bring) the evidence before the authorities. Whether or not he did before he was killed, I do not know.
His suspicions were all relayed in confidence, of course, but as you know, a good reputation is priceless in these perilous times. You can rest assured that I would never betray you as my own brother has chosen to marry your sister, and Charles could suffer ruin should this information be brought to light.
Captain Darcy, however, is another matter. He has no permanent connection with your family, unless you insist on maintaining one. If you truly care for him, I suggest you carefully consider the precarious position you are putting him in, and ask yourself if you might best demonstrate your regard by severing all ties with him. After all, he is not only an important landowner with much to lose, but also the guardian of his beloved and innocent sister. It would be a shame should he lose his standing due to his association with you.
I trust you will do what is right and not unnecessarily jeopardise the captain's future.
With kind regards,
Elizabeth tossed the letter aside, then smacked the bed with a huff. Caroline Bingley was the most conniving, spiteful, catty... cat she'd ever known. Elizabeth had no involvement in any sort of treasonous activity. Caroline must be making it up. It wouldn't be the first time she'd twisted the knife on someone she didn't like—and she certainly had no fondness for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth took a bite of bacon. And then another. Could there be any truth to Caroline's assertion? What could the now-deceased Dr. Cowart have possibly observed that would cast Elizabeth in a suspicious light? She had suspected that his loyalties were divided!
She dabbed her mouth, then snapped open the newspaper, scanned three articles, and froze.
Later that afternoon—A convent near Ypres, Belgium
Darcy grunted and thumbed through the stack of papers on the altar table that now served as his desk. Relocating the clearing station hospital from The Ritz to a convent had created a mound of paperwork.
A knock sounded on his office door. Darcy looked up. “Come in.”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam just arrived, sir.”
“Thank you, corporal.” Darcy reached for a manila envelope on the desk, then pushed to his feet just as his strapping cousin crossed the threshold in his uneven gait.
“Ah! I see you made it back from your.. .soirée with Miss Bennet.” His cousin two years his senior tossed his peaked cap onto the desk, then flopped into the chair. “Damn rain.” He raked his fingers through his sandy-coloured locks and reached into his breast pocket. “I'd hoped to be back for your report two days ago. What do you have for me? I trust you found Miss Bennet?” He thumped a cigarette from the package and raised his gaze to Darcy.
“So...?” His cousin slanted him a cheeky smile.
“I sent her to Pemberley.”
“Ha!” His cousin laughed, slapping his thigh. “You are besotted with the girl!”
Darcy leaned against the desk. “I'm concerned for her safety, Richard. Enough that I've made arrangements for additional security at Pemberley. She's oblivious to the conspiracy, and after you see the photographs I took near The Ritz, I think you'll agree she'll be in the crosshairs of the agents. Frankly I'm surprised they haven't hunted her down already.”
“Show me the pictures! You're sure Miss Bennet isn't one of the agents?” Richard lit the fag.
“Judge for yourself.” Darcy straightened and pulled a stack of photographs from the manila envelope. “Although last week's air raid at The Ritz left the chateau intact, it destroyed several of our outdoor tented facilities—two prisoner marquees and a bell tent.”
“Miss Bennet's bell tent, if I recall.”
“That's correct.” Darcy leaned over and slid a picture onto the desk. “This is what's left of it.” He pointed to a mound of rumpled canvas swimming in muddy water. “When I inspected the remains, evidence suggested that an explosion from inside the tent caused the damage, not the night's air raid.”
“And although the tent was empty, you think the blast was intended for Miss Bennet?”
“I'm not convinced.” Richard sat back and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Have you considered that she may have sabotaged her own quarters—to hide something, perhaps?”
“It's possible, but doubtful. I think you'll agree when you see the rest of these.” Darcy slid another picture in front of his cousin and planted a finger on the interior of a stone structure. “This is the broken windmill across the meadow from The Ritz. It appears the agents used it as a staging point during escapes. I found cases of Bully Beef, boots, and blankets that I presume are the ones missing from The Ritz. And these are German cigarettes littering the floor.” He traced the objects in turn. “Elizabeth once mentioned she noticed that the windmill's remaining two blades were shifted on occasion. Turns out they were the very occasions when the prisoner escapes took place. I suspect the agents used the blades as a signalling device, manually shifting them to indicate an impending operation. Anyone within two miles would have been able to see it—if they were looking.”
“Clever plan. I suppose you believe if Elizabeth were an agent, she wouldn't have revealed another agent's tactics. What else do you have?”
“It occurred to me that the windmill lies only a few hundred yards from Meneer Bongaerts' chateau. When I paid a visit, it was obvious he'd cleaned out. It's possible he suspected we were only a step behind the conspiracy and high-tailed it after this last escape.”
“Bongaerts, yes.... The perfect rat. But I don't see how that exonerates Miss Bennet.”
“It doesn't, necessarily. But before Dubois became ill, he visited his neighbour Bongaerts twice a week. Yet I can't recall a single instance that Miss Bennet joined the monsieur as Bongaerts' speaks only French and Dutch—neither of which are familiar to Miss Bennet.”
Richard nodded thoughtfully, absorbing the new intelligence.
“Next I went to the canal.” Darcy laid down another photo. “The rain would have erased any pole marks and footprints, but it didn't disguise the empty tin of Bully Beef and the worn pair of German boots you see there.” Darcy pointed to the objects. “It appears to confirm our earlier suspicion that the prisoners escaped via the canal.”
“My final stop was at the cottage of the woman who did washing for the hospital.” He flopped down the last two photos showing soggy sheets half hanging off a clothesline and a rotund woman lying on the ground with a hole in her head.
“Hmm. I suppose we can conclude the agents were finished with her and ensured her silence. Anything else?”
“Only this.” He reached into his pocket and tossed Elizabeth's Croix de Guerre medal onto the table. “I found it behind the monsieur's bed the morning Elizabeth and I left the chateau.”
“Did Miss Bennet see it?” Richard looked up at him.
“She did. I got the feeling she'd have left it at the chateau had I not asked for it. It was clear she wanted no reminders of that buffoon Cowart who sent it to her.”
Richard sat back in his chair. “But nothing to connect Wickham?”
“I have a lead, but it makes no sense.” Darcy perched on the edge of the table. “I encountered him at the hotel's bar in Boulogne—drunk. He was aware Elizabeth and I had...sorted out our differences. He also said, 'I'm sorry to hear of her misfortune. I couldn't have orchestrated your demise any better had I planned it myself.' But I can't figure out what he meant. What misfortune of Elizabeth's was he referring to? The death of her mother or her French employer? Or perhaps Lydia's disappearance?” Darcy shook his head. “And I don't see how Elizabeth's misfortune could have anything to with my demise. It doesn't add up. Wickham also said, 'Never know what can happen at the Front.' I can only assume that was a threat. But he was drunk, so he could've been babbling rubbish.”
Richard pressed his lips together. “Clearly he was keeping tabs on you and Miss Bennet.” He took a drag on his Gold Flake, contemplating the information, then blew out a cloud of smoke and looked up. “What does Robert make of this new information?”
“I've hardly seen him since I returned. The operating theatre's been a revolving door day and night.”
“Excuse me, sir.” The corporal peered around the cracked door at Richard. “Your meeting at headquarters starts in an hour.”
Richard grunted. “Tell my driver I'll be along straightaway.” He turned back to Darcy. “Brief Robert tonight. We'll formulate our next course of action in the morning.”
A gentle rain began falling outside, and tears brimmed in Elizabeth's eyes as she closed the newspaper after reading it for the fourth time. Clearing Station Nurse Suspected of Espionage. ...may have gone by the names Florence or Chérie. ...spotted in the company of an unidentified officer.
How could this be happening to her? She wasn't involved in any sort of treasonous activity, but apparently Dr. Cowart and someone else seemed to think otherwise. They'd even identified her by the nicknames given to her at The Ritz! It would only be a matter of days before the authorities discovered her true identity—sooner if Caroline, or whomever else Cowart might have told, tipped them off. Traitors were shot—or hung!
Her gaze darted around the room with an eerie sensation that eyes were leering in at her from every window.
Elizabeth flinched as a clap of thunder boomed outside. Dashing to each window, she jerked the curtains across the windowpanes, then pressed her back against the wall and closed her eyes. She needed a plan, not paranoia and hysteria. A plan.... A real plan. First she should review her behaviour and every association at The Ritz. Then she could formulate a reasonable response to prove her innocence.
Squaring her shoulders, she crossed to the writing desk, then took out a sheet of paper and began writing.
An hour later Elizabeth laid down the pen and sat back, stunned. This was a horrible nightmare. Had she been framed, or was she just an unfortunate victim of circumstance? The evidence was certainly stacked against her. No one would believe her actions in Belgium had merely been coincidences—certainly not her countrymen, whose insatiable appetite for witch hunts against German sympathisers showed no mercy and left reputations in tatters. If her identity was revealed, she'd be ruined!
Worst of all, when questioned, she'd be obliged to confess that Fitzwilliam was the unidentified officer seen with her the day after the air raid. That would surely lead to a new series of questions, forcing her to reveal her close association with Fitzwilliam and what she had observed of him. Undoubtedly his actions would be misconstrued, implicating him as well. Even if they were to prove their innocence, he would be shunned by society. These days, in the court of public opinion, mere suspicion was equated with guilt.
She shook her head in disbelief. There seemed to be only one option. It would break her heart, but it would protect the man she loved. And isn't that what love is? Doing what's best for the other person, in spite of your own desires? A lump formed in her throat as she picked up her pen and drew out a clean sheet of paper.
An hour passed. And then another. Rain pounded the windowpanes when at last she was satisfied with her detailed plan. It would be a difficult undertaking, but what else could she do to protect herself and Fitzwilliam?
She forced herself from the chair and moved towards the wardrobe. Reaching for an aubergine wool suit, her hand froze in mid-air and she grimaced. She'd have to wait until after luncheon to set her plan in motion. A travelling suit was hardly appropriate dining room attire. She swallowed hard and redirected her hand towards a pale green day dress.
Her mind reviewed her plan as she pulled the dress over her head, then wrestled her wavy hair into a chignon at the dressing table. Had she thought of everything? One overlooked detail could be the ruin of them both. Fitzwilliam . She owed him some sort of explanation, but what could she say that wouldn't further implicate her—and him? Any letter she mailed to him would only confirm their association. How could she assure him she was safe? Jane. Surely Fitzwilliam would contact Jane as soon as he learnt Elizabeth was missing. Yes. She could write to Jane. But after all poor Jane had endured with Lydia's disappearance, she would be heartbroken with this. Another wave of panic flushed over Elizabeth. Elizabeth's tainted reputation would spread like a disease to all her close associations, condemning them as well—including Charles and Jane living in London. Would Caroline go to the authorities and spill her story in an effort to distance herself from it all?
Elizabeth's hands fell limp. She had no control over Caroline, the authorities, or anyone else. All she could do was assure Jane of her innocence and try to protect Fitzwilliam.
She returned to the writing desk once again and picked up her pen.
Sealing the envelope, she glanced at the mantle clock. She had just enough time to complete her final task before luncheon. She reached for her garnet necklace, then clasped it around her neck. Catching her reflection in the mirror, she stopped and fingered the rough stones of the garnet cross she wore every day. It had been a gift from her father for her twelfth birthday and her most precious reminder of him. But the matching bracelet she only wore on occasion. She dug in the drawer and pulled out the string of garnets. It wouldn't bring a lot of money, but perhaps it would be a fair exchange for what she needed.
With a sigh, she slid it into her pocket and rose to her feet, then paused. Perhaps she could do something else for Fitzwilliam. She sank back into the chair and picked up her pen again.
Minutes later Elizabeth cracked the door and peered into the hall. All was clear. Drawing a deep breath, she stole down the corridor and turned the corner into the portrait gallery. She slowed her pace to admire the large portrait of Fitzwilliam. At least she had her own photograph of him—a wonderful picture of them together, taken on their last day in Boulogne.
The floor creaked, and she whipped her head, scanning the hallway behind her. Nothing. It was only her own weight on the floor. Elizabeth blew out a relieved breath, then hurried on to the door at the end of the hall. Though Fitzwilliam had given her permission to do this, she couldn't risk anyone seeing her. Glancing both ways, she reached for the doorknob and slipped inside. With her heart pounding, she stepped into the hallowed chamber of her beloved.
Her gaze circled the massive room. Cobalt blue-coloured walls provided a handsome contrast to the dark wood of the large four-poster bed, writing desk, and upholstered seating area before a marble fireplace. Her focus landed on a bronze statue of a leaping stag gracing a side table. It was a fitting symbol of Fitzwilliam. Powerful. Masculine. But tranquil and soothing. She closed her eyes, feeling his presence. Would she have joined him here one day? Yearning swelled inside her, but she forced the emotion aside.
She rounded the bed to the table on the other side, then opened the drawer as Fitzwilliam had instructed. Her breath caught when she came face to face with herself. There she sat, smiling in a red dress at the piano at Rosings. It was a perfect likeness of her. She reached for the sketchpad whose cover was folded back, and a dozen other pages fluttered over her hand—all drawings of her. She hugged the tablet, and tears filled her eyes. He'd truly loved her even back then—months before they were reunited in Belgium—but she'd held only disdain for him.
Regret washed over her as she folded the cover over the drawings. She found the small key just where Fitzwilliam said it would be, then returned the sketchbook to the drawer. After crossing the Persian rug, she turned a doorknob and entered his dressing room. A large armoire covered one wall, and a full-length mirror stood beside a handsome table on the other.
Inhaling his familiar scent, she moved to the mirror and gazed at herself. She was only a country girl from Hertfordshire. Could she have been a good wife, helpmeet, and partner to such an important, distinguished man? She imagined his tall form standing at her shoulder, his handsome face and dark hair reflected beside her, his brilliant smile, his dimples. Yes, she could have. And she would have showered him with affection, laughter, and joy. Her chest swelled with love and longing, but she'd come in here for a reason. It was best she complete her task and leave any reminders of him behind.
She opened the large armoire doors. Jackets and trousers for every occasion hung on one side. The other held shelves of shoes and hats sorted by colour and size. It was fastidiously neat and spoke of his importance and wealth.
Parting a row of evening jackets, she located the burl wood box and set it on the floor. She turned the key in the lock, then lifted the lid, revealing a mound of coins. Fitzwilliam had urged her to take whatever she might require until his return, but until today, she'd never expected to touch it. Now she was thankful for his offer, for she would surely need all of it.
She gathered the coins and left the letter and garnet bracelet in their place. She swallowed back tears at the thought of him retrieving the items. This was so hard! She might as well have been stabbing him a thousand times.
An hour later
With the luncheon finally over, Elizabeth forced relaxed steps up the stairs even as her pulse thrummed. It was time.
Lightning flashed, and she glanced out of the window on the staircase landing. The driving rain would make her task uncomfortable, but no one would expect her to venture out on such a stormy afternoon.
Back in her room, she traded the dress for the aubergine suit, then folded her VAD uniform and pressed it into the bottom of her red carpetbag. She turned back to the wardrobe and froze. If someone realised she'd taken her VAD uniforms, they'd come looking for her in hospitals. She closed her eyes. These were just the sorts of mistakes she couldn't afford to make. Removing the blue uniform, she replaced it with two serviceable dresses, then stared at the wardrobe filled with new clothes from Fitzwilliam. It was hard to leave them behind, but she could only take her carpetbag. Where she was going, she wouldn't need the rest.
She shrugged into her blue coat, then added the matching hat and picked up her bag. Moving towards the door, she stopped, then darted back to the desk. Sliding the drawer open, she lifted a letter from Fitzwilliam and the photograph of her beloved. She couldn't leave them behind. Tucking them in her bag, her gaze circled the lovely room she'd called home for the past three days. Goodbye, Pemberley.