Beginning, Next SectionJump to new as of April 13, 2010
Posted on: 2010-03-13
Fitzwilliam Darcy shot down the front steps of the Hurst town house and waved away his carriage. He needed to walk... and think. Damn, Caroline Bingley! Why had he let her put him in this position? It grated upon Darcy that he played a part in Caroline's plan to leave Netherfield without any farewells the day after the ball. At the time, he had been certain the smiling, pretty Miss Bennet had no feelings for Charles beyond doing the bidding of her mother. It had seemed prudent to get Charles away quickly from the clutches of a family of fortune hunters.
Now, Caroline had manipulated Darcy into a decidedly more dishonourable act. He had agreed to conceal from Charles that Miss Bennet was in London.
His original action was a simple gesture of protecting his best friend from being trapped into a loveless marriage. Now he was guilty of deception and disguise. Darcy wondered if he could possibly have been wrong about the extent of Miss Bennet's feelings. She had looked more than a little sad when he met her leaving at the end of her visit with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. Although supposedly in town to visit her aunt and uncle, Miss Bennet's trip could be hiding an ulterior motive. She obviously wanted to continue her acquaintance with Caroline Bingley but perhaps only in order to be able to trap his best friend into an advantageous marriage. Perhaps she looked downcast after seeing Caroline because she felt thwarted in her quest. Caroline boasted to Darcy of telling Miss Bennet that Charles was excessively busy and spending a great deal of time with others while in London.
To thine own self be true, man! The real source of his agitation was Miss Bennet's sister, Elizabeth. She was the one he was trying to escape with his brisk strides. She was the reason he had found it necessary to put Hertfordshire and its inhabitants out of sight and out of mind. No fine eyes or sparkling wit to make him forget his duty to family and history.
Davis took his master's things. He hesitated before announcing, "Mr. Darcy, there is a young man in your library waiting to see you. I tried to turn him away asking that he leave his card or a note, but he informed me he had no cards, and he preferred not to leave a note... implying I could not be trusted to keep it confidential." Davis' face betrayed his anger with the visitor, but he continued without rancour in his voice. "He assured me his business was urgent and threatened me with your serious disapproval if I did not comply. He is quite brash..." Davis screwed up his face in thought. "And perhaps a bit desperate... there is something about him that makes me think his bravado is false. His clothing is dated and far from the finest quality. He speaks well, though he appears very young. He insisted on waiting in the library as opposed to your study. I hope I made the correct decision to allow him to wait. His name is Elisha Bartlett."
Blast! Darcy could not recall the name. Perhaps as his butler was implying, it was just a pushy imposter. Darcy would have preferred not to have to deal with an unpleasant visitor at this moment. He wanted to focus upon how to preserve his friendship with Charles and make a decision for action soon, perhaps within the next day or so. Should he tell him the truth or continue on with the web of deception he had allowed Miss Bingley to weave?
Darcy saw no one as he opened the library door and entered. A portmanteau was on the floor, and a jacket was thrown across the back of a chair. Davis was right, it was both an old fashioned cut and the fabric was far from elegant. A noise above caused him to look up. A slender young man more boy than man stood on the library ladder at the top shelf. Darcy took in the lines of the boy's body and the tilt of his head as his concentration was fully on the row of books whose titles he was reading. The boy had not noticed him yet, and Darcy was happy about that because it gave him time to try to figure out his sudden inexplicable reaction stirred by a boy.
This was ridiculous. Darcy makes a plan to banish problematic feelings for an inconvenient woman, and the Lord laughs. Why else would God allow the sight of a young man's bottom to produce such thoughts? He had never before been attracted to a boy. At least his inappropriate feelings for Elizabeth Bennet had been within the bounds of propriety... although of course, she was unsuitable... despite being a gentleman's daughter. But the attraction he had just experienced for this boy was hugely mortifying and probably illegal maybe even a hanging offense. Surely it had been provoked by reading that outrageous Lord Byron she so admired... he had heard the talk of him among the ton... and that poem to the Earl of Clare was rumoured to have a double meaning. Despite isolating a plausible source for his wayward thoughts, he was still unsure how to interpret the surge of warmth shooting through him at the moment. The light from the tall library window touched the boy's unkempt curls. The afternoon sun caused the coppery highlights to blaze. Maybe it was the vision of the young man's profile his eyes riveted on the volumes and the tip of his tongue protruding slightly with intense concentration. Like a beautiful painting brought to life, he seemed a study in both discipline and passion. Damn, it was time to revisit Milton if this was what reading Romantic poetry did to one's sensibilities.
Perhaps this was nothing more than a sign from his body that he was soon to be successful in forgetting Elizabeth Bennet. Meeting her had unleashed inconvenient thoughts that had been escalating since that moment. His first impression of Elizabeth he could not break himself of the habit of thinking of her as Elizabeth was of how impertinence and mischief mixed in her eyes with an arch sweetness. Teasing, almost laughing at him right in his face as they discussed his distaste of dancing. Jabbing at his pride and he found himself both affronted and intrigued.
His eyes were riveted on Elisha Bartlett as he thought of Elizabeth Bennet. No stranger to intense and sudden sexual urges, he had been a victim numerous times in his twenty-eight years and had even acted on his lust on more than one occasion. But he had not felt physical attraction for Elizabeth at first sight. Instead, he had found himself hanging on her every word wondering what she would say next. This led to translating that anticipation into other urges and forced him to notice first the shape and sparkle of her fine eyes soon to be supplemented by an awareness of her grace and the pleasing contour of her alluring body.
The young man was now leaning precariously toward the right in an attempt to pick a book from the shelf. This position highlighted the curve of his back emptying into a narrow waist atop a round rear. Elisha Bartlett's breeches seemed a bit snug across his hips. Darcy felt a tug in his nether regions. To distract himself, he looked to see the title of the volume that prompted the young man's risky move.
He seemed to be reaching for either Voltaire's Candide or Dr. Johnson's Rasselas both about young men on a journey one looking for the philosophical truth of and the other for what constitutes happiness. Darcy held his breath as he waited. Which would this young man choose? He plucked Rasselas from the shelf, righted his body and began his trip back down the ladder.
Jumping down the last few rungs, he whirled around and greeted Mr. Darcy with a wide grin. If Darcy had been more astute at that particular moment, he would have noticed the merriment was laced with anxiety. Still, his discernment was not entirely wanting. Despite the mop of haphazardly coiffed short curls and a poorly tied neck cloth that hid any hint of dιcolletage Darcy saw that Elisha Bartlett was none other than Elizabeth Bennet.
"Miss Bingley was correct, Mr. Darcy. Your library is exceedingly well stocked. And to think this isn't even your most prestigious collection." She held up Rasselas and said, "My father doesn't own this. I reread Gulliver's Travels and Candide last week in preparation, but I knew I should read Dr. Johnson's contribution to round out my approach. It truly is the most serious and germane to my quest. The Prince of Abyssinia is, after all, looking for happiness?"
Darcy's powers of perception improved as he realized with relief that his new urge, rather than a stark new direction he would consider appallingly unacceptable for himself, was just a continuation of his inappropriate reaction to a woman from an unsuitable background with a vulgar mother and inferior connections. As he took her in, he wondered whether the sparkle in her fine eyes at the moment were actually tears. It was hard to tell as long as she seemed so determined to exhibit high spirits and a blithely lively demeanour. The words putting forth a brave face came to mind
"Miss Elizabeth, what has happened to you?"
"You mean why have I cut my hair and dressed in men's clothing? I have left Longbourn. My father demanded something of me, and after a few sleepless nights I decided I was unable to comply with his wishes. Knowing I could not obey has forced me into desperate action. My plan is to go far from the reach of my father and those who know me never to return."
Darcy's face displayed the horror he felt at her words. It was a mixture of unacknowledged personal disappointment and disapproval of such behaviour. The censure she saw in his face must have prompted her next statement. "I am certain Miss Darcy would never defy you or act so totally against society's rules. As you know, my family is beneath yours in connections, position in society, and, most importantly, the fineness of our manners I believe some of us have even been considered vulgar."
He was unprepared for how to act. She had mentioned Georgiana did she know about Ramsgate? Was this just more of her impertinence? Was she toying with him? Had Wickham involved her in a plot to extract money? Damn, Wickham! No, he could not believe she was in league with him. As playfully impudent as she was, she had never once acted with viciousness like Caroline Bingley. In fact, her behaviour had been perfectly creditable unlike her mother and younger sisters. Her grin was still there but pain was now obvious to him when he looked into her eyes. "What did your father ask you to do?"
"Marry Mr. Collins."
Mr. Darcy forced his faced into the convenient mask he had often used to cover his feeling while in her company at Netherfield. "Your father demanded it... not just your mother?"
"No, at first, I thought Papa was on my side, but then Miss Bingley's note was delivered immediately after I refused Mr. Collins. She explained why her brother was abandoning Netherfield. Poor Jane was..." Elizabeth seemed to be cautious about speaking too forthrightly of her sister. Darcy decided to probe the situation despite the query being inappropriate. She was here in his house, dressed as a boy, surely the situation called for extraordinary measures. He prompted her, "Your sister was hurt by Bingley's departure?" He watched her weigh what was proper before she spoke.
"Mr. Darcy, my sister guards her feelings, and even I, who am perhaps closer to her than anyone in the world, would not presume to intrude upon her privacy. She says he never made a promise to her but then, he never mentioned your sister in any of their conversations. Miss Bingley's letter suggested there is an attachment. Had Jane known, she would probably have guarded her heart more closely but that is done."
Darcy's eyes narrowed, but he let her continue her explanation.
"Mother started moaning Jane had lost Mr. Bingley and what would happen to us if Father should die tomorrow. Usually Father pays no attention to her, but he has had a recent illness that put him in a more sombre mood than usual. Instead of teasing Jane and telling her she would get over it, he seemed sad for her and fearful, perhaps. He apologized to me that it was his fault he has not laid by adequate dowries for his daughters." She sighed before she continued. "The terms of the entail were explained, once again. In the end, he demanded I save the family by marrying Mr. Collins to keep Longbourn that way, my mother and sisters would be safe."
"Miss Bingley said that Charles is pursuing my sister?" He watched as Miss Elizabeth nodded, and his mask slipped only slightly as he continued. "What else did her letter say?"
"She implied you agreed her brother should abandon Netherfield because you were all planning to spend time together in London. She and her brother were looking forward to enjoying the company of your sister this winter."
Elizabeth seemed to be studying his reaction, but he continued to keep his face bland and immobile despite his anger with Caroline Bingley's duplicity.
"You're probably wondering why I came to you with this?" she said.
He nodded, turning upon her an intense stare. She seemed uncomfortable under his gaze. "I know you are not fond of me. I am not a stranger to that look of disapproval. But, I believe you are a fair man, and a man of sense. My hope was you would be outraged by my father's demand upon me... you have a sister. Can you ever see yourself condemning her to such a life?"
He answered honestly. "No."
"There," Elizabeth said in triumph. "That is why I knew you of all people might help me."
His eyelids fluttered downward to avoid her gaze. Her words frightened him, but she continued to look at him hopefully. Perhaps, she was gambling her flattering words would have an effect. He asked, "Why not go to Bingley? You always seemed to like him. Has his behaviour toward your sister caused you to question him?"
Elizabeth smiled at his question. "Yes, I thought perhaps Miss Bingley's insinuation about her brother and Miss Darcy might be untrue... and, yes, I thought of approaching him for help. But I could not chance being wrong and risking Mr. Bingley's sisters becoming privy to my actions. I do not trust their discretion." She shrugged as she went on to confess, "I did persuade Jane and my parents to let her come here to London to stay with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. And I encouraged her to continue her acquaintance with his sisters. Maybe Jane wasn't quite as certain as my mother, but she agreed with me that Mr. Bingley had shown... she balked at calling it affection... but did admit, he was very attentive. I thought he might have been misled by his sister, Miss Bingley..." Again, Elizabeth paused and seemed to be searching Darcy's face for some indication of whether her conjecture was correct.
Despite his own inner turmoil, he maintained a politely passive face.
Her own face showed she had just come upon a new insight. "Mr. Darcy, have you seen Jane since she arrived in London? She was to visit Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst today, and I understand from your butler that you have just returned from a visit there? If you saw her, how did Jane look, Mr. Darcy?"
"I did see her," Darcy said slowly. "She looked... " He paused and struggled to find the appropriate word. "Disappointed with her visit." Seeing Elizabeth's crestfallen expression at these words, Darcy attempted to change the subject. "Miss Elizabeth, you said your father wants you to marry Mr. Collins? What did you tell Collins I assume that your family does not realize you have run away?"
"No, they do not but they have probably realized I am missing by now. When my father forced me to return to Mr. Collins and accept, I did not do that exactly. Instead, I persuaded Mr. Collins that I had spoken in haste. The pompous fool was only too willing to believe this since he never accepted I truly refused him in the first place he said it was the practice of elegant females to refuse the first proposal of a man they fully intend to accept eventually." She snorted in a most unladylike fashion. "I wonder if he would think I'm such an elegant female if he could see me now."
Caught off guard by her gibe, Darcy laughed. He remembered his reaction when he first entered the library. She did present the image of a quite passable young man, except perhaps, to someone who knew her. For an instant the two looked at each other like comradely conspirators. It encouraged Elizabeth to make an even more daring confession.
"I used my dance with you to convince him I had mistakenly hoped there was a chance of our forming an attachment. I told him, those feelings had blinded me, but with my learning of your abrupt departure from Hertfordshire, I had been forced to reconsider my silly infatuation and I apologized for my refusal. Please forgive me for drawing you into it... but it did make my change of heart more plausible. But, believe me, Mr. Darcy I have never had any such illusion. I have been aware since our first meeting at the Meryton assembly that you barely thought me tolerable."
Startled to find she had heard his insult, his smiling lips drew into a straight line. She did not notice because she was busy laughing. She said, "As it turned out, my deceit was the perfect ploy to mislead Mr. Collins. He seized upon the opportunity to boast yet again of his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh your aunt, of course. It delighted him to tell me that someone like you would never deign to marry someone like me. And, as he had told me several times before, he reminded me that you are promised to your cousin Miss de Bourgh"
"What?" Darcy barked, before catching himself when he saw her surprised expression. Damn, his Aunt Catherine. He hurried on to a point he thought more urgent. "Miss Elizabeth, does Mr. Collins believe he is betrothed to you?"
She tried to cover her embarrassment with defiance. "I suppose. I was very persuasive that my refusal had been precipitous, but the truth is, I did not actually say I accepted. Luckily, Mr. Collins is very certain of his desirability as a husband." She abandoned her attempt at boldness. "Mr. Darcy, please do not judge me. I realize my actions toward your aunt's parson were not proper, but I was overwhelmed and did what I felt necessary. I needed to buy some time to calculate an escape for both myself and Jane."
"Miss Elizabeth, why were you... " Darcy hesitated because he recognized, having met Collins, that the question he was about to ask was more than a little absurd. And yet, it must be asked. "What were your objections with regards to Mr. Collins?"
He saw a fire in her eyes and for a moment she stared at him in disbelief. She controlled her emotions, but replied in a clipped voice. "He is a ridiculous man. I could never be happy with someone like him as the companion of my life." Once again she held up Rasselas and she returned to a more animated tone. "Hence, my search for meaning. You who are free to act as you wish are unable to understand my need for some semblance of dignity. You will never be forced into subservience."
"You mean, because I'm a man?"
"Not just a man, but your own man. You are master of your domain you answer to no one."
Darcy frowned at her reply, yet another example of her decided way of expressing herself. Did she think he considered himself above the laws of society and of his family? Of course, he answered to several people among them, his sister, and to a lesser extent, the rest of his family and despite his expletive even his aunt.
"But your running away has cut you off from society's acceptance. Even I have to take those norms into consideration. Your action may even have ruined your sisters' chances for marriage."
She loosened her neck cloth as if she was finding it difficult to breathe, but when she spoke her voice was strong. "I am well aware of that Mr. Darcy. That is why I fixed it so no one will realize I ran away. In order to hide my escape, I staged a struggle on one of the paths where I often go for my early morning walk. I left behind one shoe and my reticule a short distance away. I made it appear a branch had snagged a bit of cloth from my pelisse." She smiled sardonically, "Unfortunately, highwaymen sometimes venture quite far off the road and perhaps one stumbled upon me. Many such crimes go unsolved. Also, there are those roving bands of gypsies here today and gone tomorrow so how can anyone trace their actions? I am a great reader of novels... I know such things happen." She stopped and drifted off into a private thought. "I don't think any vagrants will be picked up for this crime... " She halted again. This time he wondered if she was pondering whether she would return to save some innocent person accused of the crime.
"And you are certain your parents have no suspicions that you have run away?"
"My father might be suspicious but all he can piece together are vague doubts based upon the intensity of my arguments against marriage with Mr. Collins and my sudden quick capitulation. He demanded obedience, and I bowed. My mother probably believes I was truly looking forward to my cousin's return and preparing for a wedding."
But, Darcy, being the clever man he was, was unwilling to let the matter drop until he knew everything. "Someone must know. How did you get these clothes?"
Elizabeth smiled involuntarily. It was such a pleasure to find someone who could match wits with her. "Very good, Mr. Darcy one person has some knowledge of my plot. Charlotte Lucas I can depend upon her loyalty. She has brothers and was able to procure some of their outgrown clothes. She knows none of the details of what I planned just that I needed some boys' garments. I asked her to keep her silence with regard my request for assistance and in addition, I suspect she has hopes she can comfort Mr. Collins in his desolation and secure a home for herself. We have often discussed the nature of happiness in marriage. She is much more up to the task of marrying without admiration than I... and she will make an excellent and compliant clergyman's wife."
The impact of her extreme actions hit him with a powerful wave of concern for her in her desperation, she had put herself so squarely in harm's way he turned away to shield his face from her.
She shuddered with anxiety at his gesture. After an uncomfortable pause, he said, "So you have come to me because, I have a sister, and you think I might sympathise with your plight. You ask a great deal of me, to keep your secret. Is it only because you think I am a fair man?"
Miss Elizabeth sighed and lowered her head. His question had discomposed her. He waited while she swallowed, tugged at her waist coat and fiddled with the alien neck cloth. "I am completely aware I have no right to impose, but I am desperate and decided that if nothing else I could count on your discretion. I know you well enough to believe you are an honourable man who will not betray my confidence. I know so few people outside Hertfordshire and my family. You will soon once you are wed become master of Rosings. It is in your interest to keep me from becoming the wife of the clergyman associated with that great estate. I know how particular you are with regard those who serve the church. Your aunt and her daughter your betrothed would never approve of my wayward tongue. I assumed from Miss Bingley's note that I might encounter Miss Darcy here, but your sister is young and seems to be very obedient to your wishes."
Once again, she raised Georgiana. She had also slyly raised the living promised to that damn George Wickham. It was time to ask her about him and watch her reaction. "Did you contemplate asking Mr. Wickham for assistance?"
Her earnest expression became closed, but she did not falter. "I must confess I did. After all, he seemed particularly interested in me after he heard accounts of our dance at the Netherfield Ball. I realize now the impropriety of that as well as his earlier intimations about being cheated by you how inappropriate to share such charges with someone of so recent an acquaintance. But right after Collins proposed; and my parents demanded I accept Mr. Darcy, I was so desperate. I harboured hopes that Wickham might care enough about me to help me escape, and being in the militia, he would have resources to put at my disposal. For a fleeting moment, I even admit, I considered accepting should he propose we elope to Gretna Green. It would have been a disgrace for my family, but it would have saved me from marrying Mr. Collins. At least I would be married which is slightly better than running away without being wed in society's view."
Refusing to flinch under Darcy's penetrating gaze, she continued, "You were right. Mr. Wickham was much more adept at making friends than keeping them. Luckily I learned before I could seek his help that he had proposed to Miss King who had just inherited ten thousand pounds. He must have been courting Miss King even while paying his attentions to me he was never improper, but his engagement was " She drew a breath. "Surprising in its speed. And I knew there would be no help from that quarter."
She looked away from Darcy, her eyes downward upon her unfamiliar footwear.
Suddenly, he thought to himself just how tired she looked and sounded.
With a sigh, she continued. "After I staged my struggle to inspire the belief I was the victim of foul play, I put on boys' clothes. I had cut my hair the night before. She pointed to the portmanteau. I brought it with me and will sell it to raise funds at some point. Once disguised, I walked ten miles to a stage stop no one would expect me to use. I came here to London and made my way to your house."
"How did you know how to find me?"
"Miss Bingley had mentioned you lived in Grosvenor Square. I made my way here and asked in the park if any of the children knew where Mr. Darcy lived."
"Miss Elizabeth, how do you expect me to help you?"
She smiled, and he realized the impression his question inspired. It encouraged a belief in his intent to assist. "I need money to immigrate to Nova Scotia. It is important for my family's reputation that I never be found. All must assume I am dead. I would like a loan that I assure you I will repay."
Silence reigned in the room for several minutes. He knew he could not agree to give her money and send her off alone. He had to persuade her to stay while he took time to think... about several things. She looked exhausted. Perhaps she would be more sensible after a good night's rest. She tugged again at her cravat and sighed several times while she waited. He decided to end their evening with some good natured teasing of his own. "Miss Elizabeth, do you plan to voyage to Nova Scotia as a young woman or a young man? You seem uncomfortable with your new clothes."
She seemed pleased with his teasing. "I have not yet decided. I see good and bad aspects of both options. As for boy's clothes I quite like some of them, but this fashion for elaborate neck ware is very unpleasant."
He let go of his mask and his eyes crinkled with mirth. "Yes, but it is most convenient to cover the absence of an Adam's apple."
She seemed uncertain of how to take the remark before realizing he was trying to make her laugh. He was rewarded with her approval when she giggled. "Yes, Mr. Darcy, that is true." Her mirth switched to thoughtfulness as her eyes came to rest on his neck. She stared as though imagining what lay beneath. She blushed and once more seemed to find her footwear quite interesting.
"I will have a room prepared for you. We will talk tomorrow after you have rested and eaten."
"Mr. Darcy, I need a bath, but... "
He held up his hand to stop her. He suppressed a smile he thought might have betrayed too much of the compassion he felt for her. "I will have one prepared for you, and please know, Miss Elizabeth, I am master of this house. I will ensure your complete privacy... in all matters."
Posted on: 2010-03-16
Darcy had quite a few loose ends to tie up now that Elizabeth was settled upstairs. In two three days at most he must travel to Pemberley. Just that morning, he had sent Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley ahead with the luggage. They were not to return to London until after the holidays, and he fretted whether Georgiana should return with him after Twelfth Night.
These past months, his sister had refused to see anyone in town except her music master and was adamant she would not accompany him to Rosings for Easter. The subject of his aunt inspired more animation in his sister than he had seen since Ramsgate. In fact, Georgiana had assumed a gesture that reminded him fondly of Elizabeth Bennet. With her hands on her hips, she had proclaimed, "Brother, I hope you will not force me to endure Aunt Catherine's incessant advice advice that neither she nor her daughter are ever required to follow. She has the audacity to tell me I will never excel at the piano forte unless I practice. I am in no humour to endure her meddling. Although I will miss spending time with Richard, and Anne is not so very objectionable Lady Catherine tries my patience even when I am in a pleasant mood." With that Georgiana had let out a loud harrumph and left the room.
Darcy sighed and shook his head as he remembered her sobs in the wake of Wickham's deceit. A sad chuckle left his throat as he recalled the letter to Miss Bennet, and Caroline Bingley's fictitious description of the winter Miss Darcy hoped to spend. That damn devious woman was in great danger of being hoisted by her own petard! He could only go so far in bringing about her downfall, but she deserved to be exposed. Of course, he could not tell Bingley of her letter, but he definitely planned to inform his friend of Miss Bennet's presence in London. Once Bingley knew of the fair haired beauty's visit, Darcy hoped the renewal of their acquaintance would set the stage for the duplicity of Bingley's sister coming to light.
Perhaps it was best Georgiana remain in Derbyshire until April. Wickham was in Hertfordshire and no threat at least to his sister. Darcy should have said something about the wolf in sheep's clothing prowling about Meryton. Perhaps it was not too late. Darcy could send an anonymous note to Miss King's uncle or perhaps his cousin Richard should write to Colonel Forster. Darcy was grateful Elizabeth had not fallen for the lieutenant's charms, but he was also painfully aware that he had left the other young women of Hertfordshire vulnerable to the snake he had at least tried to warn Elizabeth. Luckily for her, Wickham had acted like the serpent he was.
After a few minutes of staring out the window as he contemplated the righting of wrongs, he turned and almost bumped into the library ladder. The memory it provoked of her standing on it quite deflated him. He sank to the sofa and put his head in his hands. Elizabeth might have been spared taking a bite of Wickham's treacherous apple, but how would he ever help her out of the mess in which she was now mired? A dilemma which he had no small part in creating.
After a few minutes of moping, he forced himself to focus upon the future. Elizabeth no, Elisha would have to accompany him home for Christmas. Bow Street Runners and maybe even the Horse Patrol would soon be on her trail. Surely her family particularly her Cheapside relatives would report her 'abduction' to them. The important thing was to keep them from catching her scent at his house. The less time his staff had to gossip about his odd visitor the better. Once they were off to Pemberley, the London house would revert to only the minimal staff needed for maintenance fewer gossipy maids or footmen to attract the interest of a detective. He would present Mr. Bartlett to Mr. And Mrs. Davis as the son of a friend who needed his intervention to help him get back in his father's good graces. That story should satisfy any spy from the Runners who might come around asking about their recent visitor.
He would figure out en route what to tell Mrs. Reynolds and Georgiana. Georgiana would not be difficult... despite her quarrelsome mood with regard their aunt, she was not particularly difficult to guide... he was certain he could be at least as talented as Wickham at fooling her. Mrs. Reynolds was an entirely different kettle of fish. He might be forced to tell her the truth. She had known him since he was four years old, and by seven he had given up trying to lie to her.
His first priority would be a simple note inviting Bingley to join him for a dinner. Certainly, that would not tip off Miss Bingley. As with so many of his human interactions, Darcy had been careful not to reveal to Miss Bingley the turmoil her appeal for further dishonesty had caused him earlier today. While being so closed with his emotions had not always served him well, in this case it was a virtue. Neither a commitment nor a refusal to participate in the deception aimed at her brother's heart had he uttered.
Elizabeth's guarded explanation of Miss Bennet's feelings toward his friend gave Darcy an inkling that his powers of observation had been less than perfect. Added to that, was the enlightening recognition of Caroline Bingley's need to imply an attachment with Georgiana to bolster her case with Miss Bennet. Disguise of this consequence betrayed a fear that her brother had intense feelings for someone she deemed inappropriate and prompted a need to protect the reflection of her position among the ton in the strongest way possible.
Aye there's the rub, Caroline! Your place in society is nowhere near as elevated as you imagine. And Miss Bennet is not inappropriate for your brother! She may not place you as high as you think you deserve, but she is a gentleman's daughter with knowledge of estate management. Yes, her family is cash-strapped; at least with regard the daughters' dowries. Bingley, on the other hand, has inherited nearly one hundred thousand pounds reeking with the stench of trade. He is not in need of a large dowry he requires the scent of the land to perfume his funds. If there were true affection, Miss Bennet would be quite adequate to facilitate his friend's desire to move into the gentry.
Darcy stared at the portrait of his mother's family. His grandmother holding a smiling Lady Anne on her lap had been the daughter of the Duke of Wildfaire. Darcy's grandfather painted with his precious spaniels at his feet and his mother's brother looking serious for an eight-year-old boy they were proud Fitzwilliam men and the third and fourth Earl of Elderton respectively. Lady Catherine, though holding a doll, appeared to have already developed a forbidding air by four. Given Georgiana's roots, Caroline Bingley is deluded to believe she would stoop to marry a tradesman's son despite his wealth, pleasant looks and good humour.
Breeding was what was important! Though his parents had not taught him to be selfish in principle, in practice, that is what was tolerated. Fitzwilliam Darcy struggled to make sense of what he should be like in this rapidly changing world. His father in particular had been less rigid than what he could remember of his mother. George Darcy had come from an ancient Norman family, but was without a title. His son remembered him as all that was benevolent and amiable and tried to emulate him in his relationships with those beneath him. Both had taught him to be proud of his place in history and to care little for those beyond his own family circle. He struggled to hide that he felt meanly of the sense and worth of those beneath him.
Darcy rubbed his temples to ease the headache that was threatening. Almost as if the Fates were laughing at him, he now found himself so precariously close to the woman whose temptation had been humiliating each time he slipped and gave into the pleasure of a stolen interaction. Struggling with his own sense of Elizabeth Bennet's inferiority, he had used Bingley as an excuse to separate himself from her. She was completely outside his sphere, and he had hoped absence would quash his attraction. It was during the sisters' sojourn at Netherfield when Darcy had first judged Miss Bennet guilty of indifference toward Bingley. But from Elizabeth's description it now seemed he had at least one trait in common with Bingley's latest infatuation. Both hid their feelings for another behind masks hers was placid and always smiling while his was equally composed but with a forbidding air too much like his aunt's for comfort.
What irony when he contemplated those who seemed to have figured out his true feelings and those who were oblivious. From Elizabeth's mentioning how interesting Wickham had found Darcy's asking her to dance, he knew that man well enough to be sure he had perceived evidence of an attraction and had contemplated how he could exploit such knowledge. In a moment of foolish excitement, Darcy had incautiously told Caroline Bingley of his admiration for Elizabeth's eyes and had endured much ridicule for his lapse in judgment. Caroline's animosity, dare he accuse her of jealousy, had begot rude treatment of Elizabeth and surely fanned antipathy toward her brother's affection.
Oddly enough, Bingley, Elizabeth and even the avaricious Mrs. Bennet had been unaware of Darcy's interest. He recalled her exact words from their recent discussion as proof of her opinion. "I know you are not fond of me. I am not a stranger to that look of disapproval." He could not help but laugh at his limited success at least he had fooled her! Later she had revealed hearing his insult at the assembly that had seemed to be the initial basis for forming the opinion his feelings for her were tepid at best.
Davis answered his bell. He gave him instructions for some purchases to make before the shops closed. His butler looked at the list and raised an eyebrow in query. "Mr. Darcy, shouldn't the young man go with me to buy some of these items? They should measure him for the hat and boots at the very least."
"You are correct, but he is very tired and needs rest. We are leaving on Thursday. I prize the fact that you evaluate those of my guests unknown to you so thoroughly in preparation for any questions I might have. You took great care observing Mr. Bartlett and should be able to determine the approximate sizes. He is looking a bit disreputable, as you pointed out. Elisha Bartlett is the son of a shopkeeper and friend in Lambton. He has run away from school. His father will be very angry, and the better his appearance, the easier it will be for me to effect a reconciliation."
Davis seemed pleased with his master's good opinion. He bowed and left with the list.
Darcy would personally leave the packages in her dressing room. He banished a wayward fear of catching her bathing he had promised her privacy. But before the thought dissipated, he was struck with the random question of how exactly she had managed to flatten the abundance of her bosom.
Darcy hoped that with only a little push Bingley would become a bold devotee of Miss Bennet again. He surely would return to Netherfield as soon as she left for Longbourn: and it was Darcy's guess she would be leaving soon after hearing of her sister's disappearance. With Bingley in Hertfordshire, Darcy would have a way of knowing what was happening there. Several complications might arise, but Darcy hoped they would all go his way. The first was that she would remain in Cheapside long enough for Bingley to pay a visit tomorrow. The second was that he would be as successful in encouraging his friend to write to keep him abreast of his pursuit of Miss Bennet as he would be in encouraging the actual pursuit. Third and most germane was when he did deign to communicate that Darcy would be able to understand the meaning of his message amidst the scratched through words and ink smudges.
"Darcy, are you confessing you were deceiving me when you were so adamant in painting Miss Bennet as indifferent?"
"No, not exactly. At the time... " Darcy realized the only way he could justify his actions was by being open with regard his feelings for Elizabeth. That was entirely too risky at this time. Bingley was among the oblivious ones: and that is how he should remain forever or at least until this disaster was over. Darcy pulled himself up tall and erect and began again, "Yes, I am. It was unconscionable, and I apologize for my interference. I was put off by a strong reaction to Mrs. Bennet the night of the ball. I became convinced your Miss Bennet was doing her mother's bidding in trying to encourage you and had no true feelings of regard. Your sisters had a similar reaction and the three of us decided to save you from being ensnared."
All amiability drained from his best friend's face. "So, you mean you were not certain that she was indifferent? How dare you take such a liberty to imagine you would know what is best for me as if I was a child who needed to be guided!"
This was worse even than Darcy expected. Before his horrified eyes, he watched Bingley draw himself to his full height and ball his fist into an unmistakable fighting gesture. "You may be a great tall fellow in comparison to me, but I had much practice with fisticuffs at Oxford. Prepare to defend yourself." Darcy knew that although the smaller man, Bingley had learned to be quite a good pugilist, having had on more than one occasion been required to defend both his honour and his father's tainted money among the landed gentry with whom he attended college. Many found that despite his amiable demeanour Bingley could also be a fierce scrapper. Fighting became less of a necessity when Darcy became Bingley's friend. The outsider gained the protection of the scion from one of England's most esteemed families. It also helped that Darcy was bigger than most men.
Narrowing his eyes, Darcy said conciliatorily, "My friend, I beg your pardon in this, and I have no wish to spill your blood or have you spill mine."
"You don't think I could take you?"
"I really do not wish to test it. I am sorry, Charles."
At his friends's unusual use of his first name, Bingley's belligerent stance softened, and something seem to occur to him. Why do I imagine that Caroline was the ringleader?'
"Well, she was quite certain you were in danger, but I deserve to be chastised for my role. I reacted not to Miss Bennet's actions but her mother's words. Today, as I was leaving the Hurst townhouse, I saw your angel. She had come to pay her regards to your sisters."
"My angel is in London? Do you believe she wants to continue her acquaintance with me?" Darcy nodded in the affirmative at his question. "Why did Caroline and Louisa not tell me?"
"I only spoke to Caroline briefly today, but I believe she continues to feel Miss Bennet is an imprudent match for you. My main objection had been indifference, but her presence in London seems to contradict my assessment of her sentiment."
Looking like a drowning man who had just been thrown a line, Charles said, "To think she would care enough to follow me to London. . ." And, then, like quicksilver, his modesty found a reason to doubt. "But perhaps it is as you said first? Maybe her mother forced her to pursue me because how I felt about her was so obvious. Perhaps it is my money. . ."
Darcy stifled an oath and gritted his teeth. "You will never know, Bingley, old man, unless you pursue her. Do you think she would lie about her regard if you were direct? She might turn you down, but as men we are willing to face that... are we not?"
"Yes," Bingley said, new resolve in his expression. "Yes! The depth of her feelings should be for me to decide..."
Darcy nodded as his friend finally seemed to be voicing the sentiments Darcy wanted. To reinforce the moment, he said, "I was wrong to interfere. From what Caroline said, Miss Bennet is staying with the relatives in Cheapside your sisters thought so humorous."
"Ah yes, I remember. That was about the same time they had such a great chuckle at the six inches of mud on Miss Elizabeth's petticoat. They were totally oblivious to her concern, compassion and loyalty for her sister. But then, my siblings can afford to look down on others. They were spared boxing for approval at their fancy seminary."
Darcy pretended to laugh at Bingley's humour, but all he could remember was the forced bravado of the woman now sleeping upstairs in his home. Just before he had her... him... shown to his room... she... he had said rather wistfully. "Sometimes I think a lifetime with Mr. Collins might have been acceptable when I consider the alternative. I will never see Jane again."
"Bingley, I believe the address is Gracechurch Street and her uncle's name is Gardiner... if I remember correctly." Bingley, despite his expensive education, was not known for his critical thinking. Darcy felt safe that his best friend would not question his knowledge of precisely where his beloved was residing.
"Thank you Darcy. I must communicate with that family immediately. Would you be able to have a note from me delivered stating I plan to pay my regards tomorrow morning?"
Darcy was pleased at how quickly Bingley wanted to move, but he managed to remain stoic of face. "Of course, old man. It is the least I can do for my role in persuading you to abandon Hertfordshire. Sit here at my desk and write what you wish. I will ring for Davis, and he will have someone take it to the Gardiners immediately." Darcy laughed genuinely at his friend's anticipation of meeting again the love thought lost. His words were designed to encourage. "It is not so very late... I doubt your haste will be considered improper."
Darcy watched as Bingley hurriedly scribbled a few words and blotted only once upon completion of the message. He seemed to take greater care than usual due to the consequence of the subject. Only one word needed to be scratched out.
He left the packages in her bedchamber's dressing room. Davis had purchased three linen shirts two cravats and an additional waist coat. The green brocade would match her eyes. Darcy had requested a half dozen pair of drawers and an equal number of stockings and handkerchiefs. He smiled as he examined the beaver hat, the gloves for dress and riding and the pair of Hessians. The thought of her wearing them filled him with something better left unexplored. The boots though not the finest made by Hoby, would be needed if they were to travel to Derbyshire on horseback. Not using a carriage should throw the Bow Street Runners and the Robin Redbreasts of the Horse Patrol off. Still, he worried someone send round to ask questions might learn of these purchases and wonder who the small guest was that required them.
Darcy had spent hours observing her when in Hertfordshire, and he had to admit his butler had done an admirable job despite not having exact measurements. He had said the hat and the boots were the hardest to procure he had gone to several shops. Both looked small enough. Davis had whispered the admittance that most of what he had purchased was meant for boys not men.
He put his ear to the connecting door to listen for sounds of activity. He heard nothing and assumed she was sleeping. She had walked ten miles carrying her bag and then ridden in a crowded coach to London. Her arrival in London had required another long walk to find Grosvenor Square. The strength required by such a trip boded well for their journey. They had never spoken of riding. He hoped she had at least spent some time on a horse. If she had, he was quite sure she could handle the task but riding for pleasure and to reach a destination were very different activities. He could not shake an excitement at making this journey. The two of them partners in adventure.
The last time they had a partnership of any sorts was when they danced at the Netherfield Ball. They had been debating the merits of the activity from the beginning of their acquaintance, and that evening he had been fighting the urge to actually indulge. As he crossed the room in her direction he had told himself he had nothing to fear he could be strong in the face of her allure. Once in her presence, he attempted to remain aloof and persuaded himself that her gown was hardly up to London standards. And yet, she had appeared so very appealing. He had to admit the dress displayed her most provocatively but totally within propriety. Suddenly, his mouth had ignored the caution of his mind, and he asked her to dance before he realized what had happened. He had seen the flash of surprise in her eyes, and had momentarily felt pulled between fearing he had raised her expectations and hoping he had raised her expectations.
Once the set began, his justification for his precipitous action had been that their time together would provide a harmless memory he could enjoy during those Sunday evenings when he needed a diversion. Darcy smiled at how often during the previous fortnight he had turned to the recollection. He had rarely waited for Sunday and a few times he had pursued his enjoyment despite having important things to accomplish.
As had been the case with Miss Elizabeth from the moment they met, their dance had not played out exactly as he imagined. They had argued about Wickham, of all things. The touch of anger, as she responded to him with an archness bordering on incivility, had worried him as to the regard she felt for George. At least, she had taken his advice to heart. That exchange had been painful so he chose to forget it and enjoyed recalling her teasing him for his lack of conversation in the beginning. When he replayed the memory in his day dreams, he never went beyond her playful banter to the subsequent sparring over Wickham. Darcy laughed silently actually he went much beyond but serious disagreements were not the stuff his dreams were made on.
The totality of the degradation his actual feelings for her signified hit him. A shameful slump of his shoulders followed and was finally relieved with the excuse that his delight in the vision of her was only meant to be until his appropriate someone came along and supplanted the image of her in that ball gown. He was to meet the daughter of the Earl of Blessing at their Twelfth Night ball. Darcy's uncle had encouraged him to consider her as a wife. The Earl of Elderton had written twice to promote her attributes and accomplishments, and Darcy knew he was countering his sister's promotion of her sickly daughter, Anne, as the candidate to win his love. Lady Clarissa had come out the previous spring, and he vaguely remembered seeing her. Perhaps, she would be the one to banish his embarrassing infatuation with the lowly Elizabeth.
He twisted the ring on his pinky as he returned to his recollection of their dance. Soon his fingers found his lips, and he absently stroked them in anticipation of the thoughts he knew he could not repress. His favourite fantasy rushed to mind. It had been inspired by their exchange regarding discussing books in a ball room. Books were often the beginning of his reveries about her. In this one, she is in his library wearing that delightfully low cut ball gown... an involuntary chuckle erupted... not above him on a ladder wearing men's garments that display to advantage a different part of her anatomy. They discuss with considerable energy the enormity of his collection. During the course of their sparkling repartee, he remarks he has a private reserve of volumes that might be of interest. As they sit together on the sofa perusing the provocative texts and being titillated by the pictures he becomes lost in her scent and the delightful view of her bosom. Hardly the behaviour of a gentleman, but then it is only a pleasant reverie and not reality. With a sigh, he forced himself back to that state and left her dressing room.
The evening of the Netherfield Ball had taken a decided turn for the worse when they had been seated near each other and her mother at dinner. Her discomfort with Mrs. Bennet's loose tongue had seemed genuine. As he had travelled to London the next day, he had concluded her mortification was only that she feared he would hear her mother's expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr. Bingley. It had been another example of his thinking meanly of all the Bennets.
Her mother's boasts to her friends made it clear the entire family was counting on an advantageous marriage. Mrs. Bennet had seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match Mr. Bingley being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points she had congratulated herself for accomplishing. Darcy had to laugh as he recalled she spoke of how it was a comfort that his two sisters were exceedingly fond of Jane and how certain she was that they must desire the connection as much as she and her family did. But it was Mrs. Bennet's explanation that such a marriage would be a boon for her younger daughters that struck fear in Darcy's breast. She announced loudly that Jane's marrying such a man as Bingley would throw them in the way of other rich men. In vain had Elizabeth endeavoured to check the rapidity of her mother's words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper. Only now, after the result of his meddling had confronted him in his library, did he remember her mother had scolded her for being nonsensical and whispered she was derelict in taking serious her obligations to her family and sisters. Darcy had been too selfishly absorbed in his own anxiety to consider the ramifications of her admonishment. Instead, he had been picturing his friendship if Bingley married Miss Bennet. Darcy would often find himself in the company of the impertinent Miss Elizabeth, and she would constantly present the temptation to marry outside his sphere.
Fitzwilliam Darcy struggled to sleep. After what seemed like a lifetime of tossing and turning, he arose and added fuel to the fire. He watched as the flames licked the new log and began to blaze. Lighting the candles became his next task. These mundane chores allowed him to avoid for a moment what had been disturbing him for hours. The images he was ignoring for the moment would too soon return.
He had brought a volume of Shakespeare with him to his bedchamber. He picked it up and turned to As You Like It. He found the passage he was looking for and angrily jabbed at the fire before he read aloud. "All the world's a stage. And the men and women merely players." The bard's comedies had surely been the inspiration for her harebrained scheme. She had probably thought it sounded simple to pass as a boy, and her disguise would allow for engaging discourse with those she encountered. Darcy knew that instead of the depressed Jacques with whom she could discuss life's importance and her pursuit of happiness, she would surely meet some randy male who wanted to discuss the meaning of lust and achieve a joyful release upon her body despite her protestations. She had no idea the kind of nefarious characters she would come upon. His next thought caused him to shudder. Even as a boy she was a delectable bit, and that would not be lost on the ruffians she met.
Among gentlewomen and gentlemen, being compromised had been reduced to the ridiculous a stolen kiss or a sojourn alone in a room with the door closed nothing of substance to allow her to understand the true horror that accompanied being robbed of one's virtue. Those novels she read spoke of the threat, but all the women were triumphant in remaining chaste.
Oh, if he had just remained at Netherfield and kept Bingley's sisters in Hertfordshire for a few days longer. Bingley might have returned and been less susceptible to their persuasion. Without that catalyst, her father might have sided with his favourite daughter and realized she was too precious to be wasted on a man of no sense like Collins. Who knows, perhaps, Miss Lucas would have moved in for the kill while the foolish man was still smarting from his rejection by the wilful Miss Elizabeth. Then the woman sleeping down the hall would have had no need to change her spots. He wondered whether it was those damn romantic poets who were causing him to think so frequently in idioms and metaphors.
After breakfast he would attempt to talk sense to her.
He extinguished the candles and crawled back into bed. Once settled, another set of errant thoughts threatened to disturb his sleep. He knew he could resolve her dilemma. A marriage proposal would allow them to travel to Longbourn for permission. Yes, her father would be perturbed she had disobeyed him and run away. But the bridegroom she would be offering in substitution for his Aunt Catherine's court jester should go a long way to make amends. Mr. Bennet could have no objections with that great lady's nephew especially if he could be assured his wife and daughters would be protected upon his demise.
Two major problems with that solution. First, he was uncertain Elizabeth would accept... she had said she was looking for happiness. Was he her romantic notion of the one who could offer that state? He had thought he had seen hints in Hertfordshire that she returned his feelings of admiration, but after her confession earlier... could he be certain he knew her at all. She could easily reject him as stiff and forbidding much like Collins had been dismissed as silly and ridiculous.
Darcy sighed as he contemplated the second difficulty his family. There were problems with the inferior Miss Elizabeth from every corner. Georgiana would be angered that he would stoop to marry so beneath him after chastising her for considering Wickham as a suitable groom. Darcy knew that while Georgiana recognized George had exposed himself as only wanting her thirty thousand pounds, she also continued to be resentful of her brother's harsh words at her poorly considered selection. She would rightly see him guilty of being the pot that called the kettle black.
Then there was his aunt and uncle. In the feud between Lady Catherine and the Earl of Elderton, Darcy was little more than a pawn. Winning Darcy would mean checkmate in a decades-old battle. Lady Catherine wanted precedence over her brother the earl. If her daughter Anne married Darcy, she would have managed to unite two large and prosperous estates. Uncle Henry was determined not to allow that to happen. He was the oldest, and as the only male and an earl to boot he should be the most prominent member of the family. Though the Earl of Elderton's estate was adequate, Darcy's grandfather had left it much encumbered. Elderton was not as prosperous as either Pemberley or Rosings. He had argued with both his sisters when they chose to marry men without titles. His marriage was the latest battle in the siblings' war.
His Uncle Henry had another motive. He was determined to force his nephew to enrich the family by fertilizing the line with some titled blood. At most family gatherings, he could be heard congratulating himself on making such a fine match between his son Darcy's cousin Marmaduke and the current Duke of Wildfaire's eldest daughter, the Lady Annabelle. Marmaduke's grandmother had been the daughter of a previous Duke of Wildfaire, and Darcy was not sure inbreeding had been a good idea in his cousin's case. What twits Marmaduke and Annabelle were? And to think they had already produced two children Maxmillien and Clarabelle. Richard had told him his brother had been too dull-witted to realize until he had pointed out directly after the baptism that he had given his son and heir the same first name as the notorious French revolutionary, Robespierre. Now the future Earl of Elderton pretended the tyke's actual name was Maxwell. Lady Clarissa was the daughter of an earl. Wedding her to Darcy his Uncle Henry's would kill two birds with one stone.
Truth be told, there was no way the master of Pemberley, the grandson of the third Earl of Elderton and the great grandson of the second Duke of Wildfaire could marry a nobody from Hertfordshire... especially one that ran away from home and spent time masquerading as a young man. Regardless of Shakespeare's fondness for such plots, it would never be understood among the best upper sets.
Darcy hoped Jamie would be able to find Elizabeth a position as a governess or a companion in Ireland. Despite Dr. Wilder's forced exile, he still had contacts among the Protestant Ascendancy. Ireland was far enough away to protect her from detection by her family for a few years. If Collins married elsewhere, and Bingley followed through with Miss Bennet, the reasons for her disappearance would be gone and she could return home. Perhaps, he would see her occasionally when visiting his friend, but by then he would be happily married... and there would be no danger.
"Davis said you wanted to meet with me. Mr. Darcy, thank you for the clothes. You should not have."
"Yes, I should. You will draw less attention if you are dressed more appropriately."
She grinned, and he noticed it made her mouth crooked in her face... not the look of an elegant society beauty but altogether attractive in a most engaging and infectious way. He smiled back.
Her eyes widened, and she said without the least bit of guile, "Oh, Mr. Darcy, I never noticed you have dimples. You should smile like that more often you might attract a pleasing young woman." Only the twinkle in her eye gave away her desire to laugh as she continued soberly, "My mother thinks all men of good fortune are in need of a wife."
Her enjoyment of her new clothes was obvious from the way she was strutting about. Smirking, she said, "You have a much better idea of what a man needs to wear than Charlotte. When she gave me her brother's cast-off clothes, she left something out which you included. It really makes walking much more comfortable."
He hesitated for a moment as he tried to figure out to what she referred. As a look of understanding spread across his face, she giggled wickedly. Warmth spread through him as an image of her round behind encased in drawers invaded his mind. She was still smiling naively clueless as to the effect her words had on him but exhibiting irreverent pleasure at making a reference that chafed against the bounds of propriety.
With a broad smile that deepened his dimples, he said simply, "I had many years experience at being a man you almost none. I am happy to have helped." He decided it best to change the subject. "Did you have a hearty breakfast?"
"I did, and I slept better than I have since before the Netherfield Ball. Though, I find I must cut back on what I eat. These breeches are tight, I don't want anything untoward to happen."
He refused to indulge in any additional wayward images. "We will have some new ones made once we are at Pemberley. Perhaps you might favour some biscuit-coloured pantaloons which are all the fashion this year." He waited to see if she appeared excited by the prospect. Instead, her face became stormy and she glared at him.
"Derbyshire? I plan to go to South Hampton. What do you mean by taking me to your estate? I absolutely refuse." Her anger became wariness and her next words startled him. "Is this a trick to force me to become your mistress?" Darcy's face must have reflected his horror at her accusation. Her mouth dropped a bit, and she stared at him quizzically before she spoke again. "I thought you too much a gentleman to resort to such a scheme."
"No, believe me... I have no such plans, Eliz... Elisha, may I call you Eli? I will be less likely to make a mistake in public if I get in the habit of that address."
Her face was still dark with annoyance. She spit out, "I don't care what you call me, but I am not going to Derbyshire!"
"Eli, believe me, I don't want to force you to do anything but going to Derbyshire is the safest place for you immediately."
At the look on his face, her own softened, and she reined in her anger. She seemed to be figuring something out and with a toss of her head, apologized, "I should not have impugned your integrity."
He held his breath as he waited to hear her go on. This time he was better prepared to hide whatever emotion she provoked.
Her laughter brittle, she said, "I saw the revulsion you felt at my accusation. What was I thinking? I know you don't desire me... even when I wear dresses." It was a quick offhand statement meant to apologize for accusing him of disreputable behaviour, but it felt a bit like a dagger to his heart. His reaction had not been as she believed distaste at the thought of her sharing his bed, but that she believed him capable of treating her so dishonourably. She attempted to become stern as she continued. "But, you must know, I am not staying in England. If you will not help me, I will make my way to South Hampton and find some work to earn my passage. I can do figures and I am strong."
Still hiding how much he desired her, he tried to speak to her as he might to Georgiana. "Eli, you would not be safe trying to make your way alone."
She put her hands on her hips and let out an annoyed harrumph. "Mr. Darcy, young men my age survive on their own all over England. I am smart and able and can do whatever I put my mind to... of that I am certain."
"Please, Eli, hear me out. While you may pose as a man, you are not one and despite your best efforts, others besides me might see that. You spoke of my making you my mistress and while I would never do such a thing, there are men who... a young woman faces certain... ah, dangers in this world that I fear you know nothing of." He stopped at the horrified look on her face. He did not want to frighten her, and he thought even his slight allusion had already put a distasteful image in her mind.
Starting again, he said, "I have a friend in Derbyshire who knows families in Ireland. It is my hope he might help you find a position as a companion or a governess. You would be out of the country, and I could ensure your safety during your journey across the Irish Sea."
"What if your friend is unable to secure a place for me?"
"I will figure something out when and if that becomes a reality." His mission was now to persuade her to abandon her preposterous and perilous plan for Canada. His eyes bore into hers and he spoke with the same commanding authority he had used with Georgiana after Ramsgate. "This is the only alternative with which I will be a party. I refuse to be responsible for any harm that may befall you with this ill-conceived intention of yours to travel alone to Nova Scotia."
"Ill-conceived?" she said hotly. "How dare you take it upon yourself to judge me? Forget that I asked for your help, Mr. Darcy. I should have known better." Eyes flashing, she turned and strode away to quit the room. With a sigh, he reached her in three steps and blocked her departure.
Despite the angry look, he put his hands on her arms to restrain her as he spoke. "The Bow Street Runners will surely be brought in by your family to try to find you. They are human bloodhounds. Have you heard of them?"
This time he was pleased she looked frightened.
"Yes... no. What would they do if they found me?"
He decided some exaggeration was in order. "Take you back forcibly to your father. They might even return you to him in chains and parade you before the people of Meryton as a disgraceful disobedient child. All would assume you to be compromised, and he would be forced to advertise you in the northern papers as a suitable wife for some portly shopkeeper in New Castle in need of a young bride to care for his ten children. I do not believe that is your definition of happiness."
She sat down on the sofa and cried softly.
He wished he had not been forced to paint such a depressing scene of what might happen if she was caught. It was nothing compared to the horrors that had kept him awake last night. He could not tell her of the depravity she might encounter had he paid her way to Nova Scotia. His desire to comfort her drove him to the window to avoid watching her despair. When she had finally quieted, he said tenderly. "Please trust me, Eli. I will help you avoid going home until you feel it prudent. Mr. Bingley was here last night." She perked up at that. "He is paying a visit to Cheapside this morning. I am hoping once your sister returns to Longbourn because of news of your disappearance, he will follow. If they marry, your father might mellow, and you could return to your family."
"My father would never forgive my disobedience or disguise. A gentleman's daughter honours her father. She does not go traipsing about the country dressed as a young man."
"Perhaps, but you cannot be sure that is how he will react. Mr. Bingley has agreed to write and inform me of his success with your sister. I also assume he will tell us of your fate and what is being done about your disappearance."
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. He knew she was remembering the discussion of his friend's careless letter writing habits when she said, "Do you think we will be able to decipher his news?"
Darcy recalled how Elizabeth had stifled a laugh at his expense one day at Netherfield, when Bingley had teased about what a bear Darcy could be on Sundays. It was one example that had fostered his belief that there had been a spark of interest in him on her part. He wondered how he could have been so mistaken. He replied, "You know the saying two heads are better than one. Between us we should be able to figure it out."
They sat in silence for a few moments so she could digest his decision. Finally he asked, "Eli, do you ride?"
"A bit. I grew up on a farm, so I was put on a horse early. However, it is not an accomplishment to be added to that list you compile for women of your acquaintance. I rode plodding work horses, not the kind of steeds you and Mr. Bingley were so often exercising in Hertfordshire. I used to watch you racing across the meadow from my perch on Oakham Mount."
"We will leave tomorrow for Pemberley by horseback. It will be less suspicious than going by carriage to those questioning our actions. Since you are now a young man, you will ride astride. It should be easier for you than side saddle."
Seeing her look of trepidation, he teased, "As you said earlier, you can do anything you put your mind to... Mr. Bartlett, I am holding you to that boast." She favoured him with that grin again and he continued with his reassurance. "I will be beside you to give you instruction as we go. When your backside can take no more punishment, we will stop for the night."
She lapsed into another bout of silence. What were her thoughts? Was she pondering her sister's fate, the discomfort of riding a horse for such a protracted journey or what her life would be like in Ireland? He was surprised at the coincidence of her turn of mind when she asked, "Mr. Darcy could you teach me to tie this thing?" She pulled at the cravat, and he chuckled openly. She rolled her eyes, but he knew she was not really offended.
"How do men do this?" she asked.
"Well, I find I don't like tying my own so I'm not really an expert. But I can tie a simple knot that would be acceptable, and I will show you... " He cleared his throat. "The easiest way to show you is from behind. I hope I do not offend, but I will have to stand with your back to me and put my arms around you. Will you be able to endure my closeness?"
Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "Certainly, if I put my mind to the task, I can do anything... even suffer being near so forbidding a specimen as you," she teased back. "Besides, I feel you really are not so bad much kinder than I ever imagined you could be. I'm sorry for my anger before."
Cocking an eyebrow, he said, "I have a feeling it's not the last time during our acquaintance that I will face your wrath I hope you will be able to get over it quickly."
"And see the light because you are always right?" she asked archly. Next she broke out in giggles at her rhyme.
Unsure whether to scowl at her impertinent barb or laugh at her mercurial moods, he merely commanded, "Something like that. Here, come stand in front of me." She allowed him to move her into position in front of the mirror. He was unable to determine what she was thinking as they worked. There was a slight smile, and he thought he perceived a shiver as he had encircled her neck. He was afraid his hands would shake as he took hers to explain the movements needed to tie the cravat. They practiced mostly in silence, and she picked up the skill quickly. Throughout the lesson, when she needed to ask a question she addressed him as Mr. Darcy.
"You must cease calling me Mr. Darcy. We want to leave the impression we are friends. My name is Fitzwilliam, but most of my close acquaintances just call me Darcy."
She looked thoughtful. "Since you are calling me Eli, may I call you Fitz?"
Her request startled him. He despised the name but decided to allow her the privilege. He captured her eyes in the mirror and nodded his assent.
Just before he moved away, she turned her head toward his chest and sniffed. Fitz, what is that delightful odour? You must share your scent with me. I will be more pleasing to the ladies if I smell as sweet... despite what names we use."
Darcy's hearty laugh ricocheted off the library walls. Oh, how he wanted to kiss this wild, unpredictable woman.
Posted on: 2010-03-23
Idle hands are the devil's workshop was the cautionary advice being repeated as a silent prayer by Darcy, as he forced himself to move away from her. A seat behind his desk would provide protection. He took a deep breath to calm his wayward body and plan for the next steps in the education of Eli. Who would have imagined teaching a woman to tie a cravat could be so... It was probably better to banish that thought it was time to face the future.
"So what do you have in mind next, Fitz. This learning to be a man is no easy business!"
He watched as she postured in the mirror admiring her handiwork. She struck a haughty pose and raised an eyebrow in disdain. He wondered what man of her acquaintance she was imitating. Far removed from the four and twenty families that had been her existence in Hertfordshire, she was embracing this masquerade as the lark of her life. While still watching her performance, Darcy spoke absent-mindedly of their next task. "It is time we mount you on a horse and see if you will be able to tolerate the arduous exercise." An alternate image of his careless words sent blood coursing through his body that he was certain caused his ears to blaze crimson.
Her attention was still consumed with exploring her new guise, and she did not seem to notice his colourful glow. But his announcement of their next endeavour caused her to turn and face him despite her crooked grin and eyes brimming with excitement she said firmly, "Fitz, never fear. I will prove to you I am up to your challenge."
Darcy took Eli to the stables where he kept Rocinante a powerful chestnut he preferred for the trip to Pemberley. Also housed at the stables was a gentle mare he had been thinking of purchasing for Georgiana. Within minutes of meeting the dappled grey, Eli was lovingly stroking her and whispering endearing words in the horse's ear. He watched, envying the horse but buying her on the spot anyway. Eli's transporting it to Pemberley for his sister would provide a perfect cover for getting her him out of London. Darcy made certain the proprietor of the establishment heard his plans.
After the purchase, Eli and Fitz spent two hours riding in Hyde Park. Darcy explained to his pupil that Rocinante was the best of his mounts for long journeys. The stallion accepted the punishment with the endurance of a work animal. Upon hearing the name of his steed, Eli had become quite enthused by the imagery of their trip and dubbed herself Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. Until his sister was able to give the mare a proper name, she would continue the Cervantes' theme and call the grey Rucio. He tried to suppress a smile as Eli assured Rucio no implication was meant that the horse was a donkey. Despite Eli's whispering, Darcy heard, "I promise not to grow fat like Senor Panza. Indeed, dearest Rucio, please know my modesty would be compromised long before I become a burden to your back."
Darcy noted how determined Eli appeared to live up to her ahem, that is his boast that he was up to any task. He showed such resolve to learn that he could not help being an apt student. Although they began with a slow trot and cantered most of the time, toward the end, Darcy's pupil insisted upon galloping. He found his eyes returning to how well Eli sat astride the horse and he admired her natural ability. Even better than Bingley when Darcy had tutored him in the equestrian arts she truly had a wonderful seat. Darcy shook his head and said aloud, "He. I must remember... He!"
When they returned from their outing, a note was waiting to expect Charles Bingley with news from Longbourn around four. In anticipation of Bingley's arrival, Darcy made sure Eli would spend the afternoon in her room preparing for their journey.
Twinkling with mischief as she prepared to depart, she whirled around just before she reached the door and spoke. "Remember Fitz, act saddened by the news of my abduction... but don't overact. Mr. Bingley will question your behaviour if you are too downhearted. He knows you only found me tolerable, and that was before he observed our frequent sparring at Netherfield."
She clapped her hand to her forehead as though she had been struck by an amazing revelation. "I know the perfect ploy! Speculate that it sounds like gypsies took me." With that she had flounced out but continued her teasing as she looked over her shoulder and grinned. "Perhaps, I will nap. You have quite worn me out Fitz. And, as you predicted my backside is sorely in need of a rest."
He watched her exit and returned her grin with a smile. Her exuberance in anticipation of their adventure was infectious. He just wished she would forget the remark he made regarding her tolerability how long would she continue to bring that up?
Bingley came bounding into Darcy's study out of breath and red of face as if he had jumped out of the carriage, took the front steps two at a time and had run up the staircase to the second floor.
Words came tumbling out as he rushed through the door. "Darcy, Miss Elizabeth has been abducted! No one has seen her since Monday morning. Mrs. Hill saw her leave for her daily walk just before dawn, and she never returned."
Eli would have been impressed at the concern with which Darcy reacted just the right amount not too much and not too little. "Oh, my, Charles can this be true? How distressing for her family! What has been done to find her? What do they suspect happened?"
"The militia was called to search Longbourn's grounds and the surrounding countryside. Her empty reticule was found as well as one shoe. There were signs of a struggle. Everyone in the neighbourhood suspects foul play."
"Oh, the poor young woman. Do they believe it was gypsies?"
Bingley looked thoughtful as though he was trying to decide how much of what he knew from the authorities to disclose to his friend. Darcy was pleased that he must have evaluated him to have always been the epitome of discretion in the past, as Bingley's reply was completely candid. "That is one possibility, but no one noticed an encampment in the area. Mr. Gardiner and I met with the Bow Street Horse Patrol the ones with the red waistcoats this afternoon. I have just come from their offices. They have been brought in to aid in the search and cover the principal roads between Meryton and London." Bingley paused, but finally shared additional information. "They seemed to find it interesting that she was to be married soon."
Darcy's face registered only mild interest. "Miss Elizabeth was engaged?"
He watched Bingley's discomfort grow as his friend replied, "Yes, and considering to whom, well, her disappearance does seem a bit curious."
Darcy looked down at his nails and asked casually, "Why is that?"
Bingley lowered his voice and said in the tone of one pondering a mystery. "She was engaged to Mr. Collins. He proposed the day after the ball. You recall he danced with her there. But I find it odd that Miss Bennet would say so little when I asked her of her sister's feelings for Mr. Collins because, really they are a rather surprising match, don't you think?"
Darcy harrumphed and shrugged. "I think anyone would be an odd match with Mr. Collins frankly."
"Yes, I know you found him irritating but then, again, you also found Miss Elizabeth irritating."
Pursing his lips, Darcy struggled to control his actual irritation at his friend's remark and though it was not his intention, he assumed his friend would take it as confirmation that even the name of Miss Elizabeth was bothersome to him.
Bingley went on, "But however annoying you find her, you must admit that he is hardly her equal in cleverness or intelligence."
Darcy shrugged again as if bored by the conversation, but the next remark from Bingley nearly made him lose his countenance. "Actually, you are the only one I know that is up to the challenge of Miss Elizabeth's wit."
Holding his breath and assuming what he hoped was an appropriately disdainful expression, he felt his right eyebrow rise with the endeavour. Did he appear like her imitation? He kept his voice nonchalant as he commented, "She is clever, especially considering the haphazard nature of her education. But, of course, she and I are quite different in other ways. While it is true Mr. Collins and Miss Elizabeth seem poorly suited, marriage is not always a pairing of like minds. There are many other considerations that play a role in determining suitability."
Bingley cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. "I suspect she felt a need to protect her mother and sisters from reduced circumstances in the event of Mr. Bennet's demise. Surely that is the only reason she accepted his hand."
"Well, what would be wrong with that?" Darcy asked disingenuously. "It would seem a sensible and prudent alliance."
His soft-hearted friend shook his head. "You make it sound so simple, but marriage means you take a partner for life. How could a woman like her ever be happy with a man like Collins?" And, then, in a tone shaded with outrage, "He probably would have switched his attachment to Ja... that is... Miss Bennet, if her sister had not agreed."
Darcy felt it was time to move the conversation. "What are your plans, Bingley?"
"We are leaving tomorrow for Netherfield. I am escorting Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bennet and the Gardiner children. Mr. Gardiner will travel as soon as he takes care of some business obligations. I have extended an invitation to the Gardiner family to stay at Netherfield. It will make it easier for everyone. Longbourn is at sixes and sevens, from what I hear. The Gardiners were planning to travel to Hertfordshire for the holidays, but the circumstances have left all in a mood little conducive to celebration. Do you still plan to leave for Derbyshire tomorrow?"
"Yes, I will be on the road bright and early, and I have acquired a companion. A young man whose father is a merchant and friend in Lambton will travel with me. I was able to buy a horse for Georgiana as a Christmas present. He has agreed to ride the steed in exchange for my being present when he admits to his father that he got into a scrape at school and was asked to leave. Mr. Bartlett is a stern man, and young Elisha is afraid of his wrath." Before Charles could ask any questions, Darcy turned the subject to his sisters. "Will Miss Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst join you at Netherfield for Christmas?"
With a shrug of his shoulders and a smirk, Bingley replied, "I am not certain. Speaking of wrath, Caroline is in high dudgeon with my decision to return to Hertfordshire. Thankfully, she is not speaking to me an excellent turn of events as I prepare to leave and open Netherfield. But I expect that Hurst will bring my sisters within the week. It will save him the expense of keeping his house here in town open. Their presence won't matter now, even though I am certain Caroline will continue to attempt to turn me away from my angel. At least now I know her true opinion of Miss Bennet, and I am prepared for her devious ways. It is time to tell her I will not tolerate such behaviour in the future." Darcy saw his friend's face harden with resolve.
It was the pugilist Bingley who had faced Darcy when he admitted his part in the deception regarding Miss Bennet's indifference who spoke. "I must prove to Miss Bennet the constancy of my attraction, and my intention of doing whatever possible to help her family in their time of need."
Abruptly his strength of purpose melted, and he seemed to register doubt as to the success of his mission. "Bingley, you seem bothered by something."
As if attempting to clear his head he answered, "It is Jane... Miss Bennet. She seemed pleased to see me, but her worry for her sister is almost all consuming. But, there is something more... as you know, she and Miss Elizabeth are very close. When she thinks no one is watching her, she appears troubled by conflicting emotions. I understand her tears, but other things I observed confused me. She seems guilt ridden. Why would she think it her fault her sister was abducted?" Bingley paused and looked down at his hands for some tell tale sign. "Several times she said things in such a way that made me believe she blamed me for Miss Elizabeth's situation. What do you make of that, Darcy?"
Darcy knew exactly what to make of Miss Bennet's reaction and was troubled by Bingley's probing the meaning of his angel's heartbreak. This development was a slippery slope he preferred not to explore. It was important to keep his friend from dwelling on the meaning of a Miss Bennet who, in the midst of grief, had let her smiling mask slip.
In the interest of protecting Eli, Darcy changed the subject. "Is Mr. Gardiner a sensible man or is he like his sister?"
Bingley's roll of his eyes seemed a bit protective of Mrs. Bennet, but he did not argue with Darcy's contention about his hoped for mother-in-law. "No, he is a man of taste, intelligence and good manners. Jane seems to feel it important he take charge of the search for her sister. She seems to have more confidence in him than her father."
Darcy refrained from pointing out that Bingley called Miss Bennet by her given name. "Tell me more about your meeting with the fellows from Bow Street. Why did Mr. Gardiner have you attend?"
"Because I had recently been in the neighbourhood and had spent time with Miss Elizabeth. They asked me many questions about her acquaintances." Bingley emitted a laugh tinged with embarrassment. "They even expressed an interest in your dance with her at the ball. I told them you were just being polite and making amends for some uncharitable disagreements before you left Hertfordshire."
Darcy was startled by his friend's revelation. "Uncharitable disagreements! What did you mean by that? What did you tell them?"
"I mentioned how you debated the requirements for an accomplished woman. By the way, Mr. Gardiner was moved to laughter when I repeated her words of rebuttal but then became somewhat disturbed as I recounted your other verbal jousts. In case you ever meet him, you should know he is uncommonly fond of both Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth. He was particularly interested in your disagreements over dancing and both he and the investigators were surprised you had favoured her with a turn. I explained that you are a good fellow and certainly meant her no harm I told them I rather suspected you enjoyed your contests of wit with her."
Darcy struggled to maintain his composure, but he was spared responding to his friend's last revelation when Charles suddenly declared, "The thing Bow Street found most interesting was the disappearance of Wickham."
This was not news Darcy wanted to hear. "Wickham has left the militia?"
"No one knows for sure what he has done. According to Mr. Gardiner who had heard the news from Mr. Bennet he participated in the search on Monday with the militia. Shortly after they returned to camp, he went missing. Since we left, he had become engaged to Miss King... you remember the young woman with freckles who had recently inherited a fortune of ten thousand pounds. Almost immediately her uncle and guardian stepped in and forbade the betrothal. She was sent away, and in the wake of that event some unsavoury information started to be revealed. Wickham evidently owes many of the shopkeepers in Meryton, and he has accumulated a significant amount of gambling debts to his comrades."
"I am certainly not surprised to hear that about Wickham. I have told you what a scoundrel he is. But why do they associate his disappearance with Miss Elizabeth's?"
"Evidently, he had been very attentive to her just before his engagement to Miss King." Bingley looked inquisitively at his friend. "You recall, Darcy, we saw them together in Meryton. I remember how annoyed you were that day at seeing him it was a few days before the ball, and I was rather glad he did not attend."
Darcy looked closely to see if his friend would make any connection between his hostility to Wickham that day to the fact that he had been standing next to Elizabeth. In order to reinforce his friend's earlier memory of simple animosity unconnected to any impulse to protect Elizabeth, Darcy said, "Yes, Wickham has been a thorn in my side for years. I should have warned the merchants in Meryton of his tendency to accumulate debt."
Darcy noted to himself that it was an especially good thing Caroline Bingley was not speaking to her brother. He did not need his loquacious friend mentioning to Bow Street his appreciation of Miss Elizabeth's fine eyes.
Would Wickham be able to connect enough pieces to suspect she had come to him?
Thursday dawned sunny and pleasant. At least the beginning of their journey would not be hampered by inclement weather or the difficulties that loomed as possibilities along the way. After breakfast they had started out. Every time he caught a glimpse of her riding beside him the beaver hat bobbing in time to their canter a smile crept across his face. Eli wore it proudly as a badge of her newfound position in life. The sight caused Darcy to want to laugh, and oddly enough he had to shake another strong desire to kiss her. God was determined to test Darcy's scruples. How he hoped Lady Clarissa was everything his uncle claimed. He knew her brother, Lord Colton. If she was like him, she would love to laugh. The last few days had brought giddiness into his life, and he had to admit it was a pleasant state. He had indulged in despair for too long.
Eli was the source of his newfound mirth. He should disapprove of her increasingly irrepressible behaviour, but he was enjoying the adventure. She was so full of herself in these clothes. Confined by her status as a proper young woman, she had always kept her tendency toward roguish behaviour in check with sweetness. Now she seemed to believe her new clothes afforded her the freedom to say anything.
They rode for several hours when he happened to notice out of the corner of his eye that her appearance had lost its jaunty good humour. He knew there was a posting inn a few miles up the road, and he thought it time they rested both themselves and the horses. He would have preferred to make it to a less frequented destination, but she seemed fatigued. He motioned for her to pull up. "We will stop shortly for a meal and a rest. This afternoon we will cover some additional distance and then get a hearty dinner and a good night's sleep. There is an inn where I often stay about five and twenty miles further. They have very comfortable beds and plain but excellent fare. Georgiana gave a letter to the landlord on Tuesday informing him of my arrival today."
She only nodded and he worried about the extent of her weariness. Her words confirmed his suspicions. "Fitz, I approve of your plan. My poor Rucio is quite tired from carrying me and my two wardrobes. We would both appreciate a brief respite before we continue on our way."
Eli insisted Rocinante and Rucio be their first priority. Once assured their needs would be met, they entered the inn, only to be informed there was only one room available for their rest. Darcy saw her eyes go wide with the anticipation of a lack of privacy for certain necessities. Without thinking, Darcy, with a look of unguarded tenderness, promised in a gentle voice that he would ensure the room was adequate and return in a few minutes to escort Eli upstairs. "Rest here for a moment," Darcy said. "This has been a long ride, and I should not have pushed you so hard. I am sorry. If you find you are too tired to climb the stairs, I will... ca... help you." What was he thinking? He had almost said carry you.
Eli looked up in surprise, followed by eyes blinking in consternation at his error. He saw a slight shake of her head in disapproval, and he could tell she was annoyed he had treated her not as a young man but as if she was a helpless woman.
Only at the look of warning in Eli's eyes did Darcy notice that his solicitous words had caught the notice of the landlord's wife. His gallantry toward his young companion obviously seemed unusual to her.
Hoping the curiosity he had created with his overly attentive behaviour would be forgotten in the details of their requirements for a repast, he began to order food and drink for the two of them. He hurried upstairs to complete his errand and attend to his needs so Eli could have the privacy he had promised before the food arrived.
When Darcy returned to show her to the room, she was talking with the innkeeper's daughter. It was the compliment Eli paid the young woman's eyes that aroused Darcy's suspicion his companion was practicing the art of flirting. The girl was only a year or two younger than Eli and seemed completely absorbed in the tale she was being told.
Not making his presence known, he listened as Eli confided, "I will soon have to face the wrath of my father. My friend Fitz is escorting me home to Derbyshire, and he has promised to go with me when I face the old man's disapproval." Eli nodded to indicate the second floor. "I believe he thinks I might flee and not accept the consequences of my poor behaviour. What can I say, I was a little tipsy."
Irritated, Darcy thought perhaps Elizabeth was going too far afield the bounds of propriety in her guise as a young man. He watched as she raised her arms in a gesture of feigned innocence and declared, "Young men just want to have fun before we must accept life's responsibilities. All I did was steal the drawers belonging to the don of my house and fly them from a flag pole. The don was not amused surprisingly poor sense of humour for an educated man." The young woman broke out into giggles.
Eli smirked and leaned toward her to whisper conspiratorially. "The school thought my actions unseemly for a young man of my rank. Fitz, as you will see, is very proper in his deportment. He is from a very prominent family and takes being a gentleman of the first order quite seriously. But I am only the son of a merchant and will never have his precedence. Don't misunderstand me. Fitz is a good man and takes prodigious good care of me... he thinks it his duty to protect me. But believe me I am no child, and unlike him I know how to enjoy myself." With that Eli smiled flirtatiously at the admiring young woman.
Darcy assumed a fierce expression as he broke up the tθte a tθte. "Eli, the room is ready for you."
She gave him a defiant look and said, "Yes, Fitz." She looked back at the landlord's daughter and winked before swaggering in Darcy's direction.
Out of earshot of others, he chastised her, "Eli, you must be careful what you say and how you behave!"
She looked at him with an unwavering gaze. "Fitz, I was just trying to make amends for your slip. You forgot our disguise and treated me like a lady and a helpless one at that in front of the innkeeper's wife. My story was an effort to explain your actions."
"Why do I think that part of what you were doing was enjoying the enthralled look on the young woman's face as you told of your roguish exploits? As if you actually believed it?"
Eli shrugged and gave him a look with more than a touch of cheek. He opened the door for her and watched her enter head held high in defiance. Biting down his irritation, he said levelly that he would return in twenty minutes time.
Once downstairs he ordered a brandy. He sipped deeply and tried to calm himself as he evaluated the impression they were leaving. They were still well within the authority of the Horse Patrol's sixty mile protectorate of London. It would be sometime tomorrow before they crossed the boundary and he could relax. The innkeeper, his wife and daughter were watching him and whispering among themselves as he drank. They might be among those questioned by Bow Street, and he hoped no word of undue protectiveness on his part toward his companion was passed along.
When the twenty minutes were up, and his brandy was downed; he crossed the room to climb the stairs to join her for luncheon. As he turned the corner and prepared to climb the first step, he heard the innkeeper's wife, obviously assuming he was out of earshot, whisper to her husband. "If I had not heard of the great Mr. Darcy of Pemberley's reputation, I would think he fancies that young man. The boy is a pretty one for certain oh my, such long lashes. I think our Sally will dream of those eyes tonight."
Her husband responded, "I do not mean to scandalize you, my dear, but you would be surprised at the number of great men who have unusual attractions. But let us say nothing more of it."
Darcy almost returned to set the record straight about his attractions, but quickly realized that bit of gossip would certainly confuse any Robin Redbreasts who came sniffing around.
Posted on: 2010-03-30
They ate in silence. The mirth of the morning had evaporated when their disagreement over her reckless words said to cover his faux pas had poisoned their pleasant relations. He knew she was the more correct he had not kept his feelings under good regulation. The only bright spot was that she had once again misunderstood him. Her words had implied she believed he thought her weak and helpless. She still had no idea how dangerous his affection for her was. He strangled a chuckle that the innkeeper and his wife thought he was attracted to his male companion. She looked at him with a flicker of curiosity before quickly looking away.
Seeing her avoidance of renewing interaction, he regretted scolding her as if she was a child. They were partners in this journey, and he had not forgotten she asked only for money not protection. What had he been thinking to almost offer to carry her upstairs? So much more was at stake than a rumour that the great Mr. Darcy of Pemberley had displayed an attraction for a pretty young man. Caught travelling alone with him, she would be assumed by all to have surrendered her virtue. He wondered how much that possibility bothered her as she lowered those lovely long lashes over solemn eyes with all hint of teasing gone from her manner. Yes, he would marry her if they were found out, but neither would be happy with those forced circumstances... would they?
She had barely touched her soup and had taken only one bite of bread. Thinking his rebuke the source of her silence, he decided to attempt to rouse her from her dejection. Consciously smiling to display the dimples she commented on earlier, when she still embraced him as a newfound friend, he said, "If we continue at our current pace, we should make Pemberley shortly after noon the day after tomorrow. You will be able to spend your first days resting and inspecting my library."
In his mind he added... at Pemberley, I can protect your identity... and no one will be judging my every action.
"Perhaps, I should meet with your friend as soon as possible. It troubles me that I ever came to you. I don't know what I was thinking."
"I am glad you did. Your plan to travel to Canada alone would certainly have ended in tragedy. You should not be in such a hurry to leave. Pemberley will provide a sanctuary and my friend will, I am sure, help us devise an escape to Ireland when the time is right."
He saw her stiffen at his remark, but she did not address his fears for her safety. "It was just supposed to be a short meeting where I would be successful in my endeavour to secure a loan from you. If England was not at war with Napoleon, I would have gone to France and would not have had to ask for money. I speak fluent French." She attempted a smirk, but her heart did not seem to be into her barb. "That is one of my accomplishments. France would not have been so far and so final."
He needed to make her understand the danger of her scheme to face the world alone. "But, you would still have been without protection from men devoid of scruples."
She looked at him directly for the first time since they sat down. Her glare made him uncomfortable. When she finally replied, her clipped tone was quiet but filled with purpose. "Fitz, you think me helpless and unable to guard myself from wicked men. Charlotte Lucas taught me a trick that her brother showed her... that a woman can use to defend herself. I also made a weapon before I set out on my journey." He saw her effort to keep her temper. "I was even prepared to use both on you if you made improper advances that day in your library."
Of two minds, he admired the flash that illuminated her eyes, but he was appalled that she had thought so poorly of him to believe he might attack her and was possibly the sort of man he felt the need to protect her from. He asked warily, "What would that be?"
Even the newly brash Eli blushed as she asked, "Which what Charlotte Lucas showed me or the club I fashioned?"
Immediately, he felt fairly sure he knew what Charlotte had shown her. If ever a woman had the spirit to strategically injure a man with a swift kick or a knee to the groin, he thought, it would be Eli. But, he was also pleased to see she was too embarrassed to speak of it. Perhaps there was still some caution under her new manly boldness that would keep her from rashly putting herself into harm's way.
His own composure firmly back in place, he said, "I believe I know what Miss Lucas showed you. I recently had occasion to explain the same thing to my own sister. Tell me about your club."
"Then you approve?"
"Eli, I admire you and think you are amply capable of taking care of yourself." This time, his dimples appeared without conscious thought as he allowed his eyes to linger upon her.
Seeming only to appreciate the warm friendliness of his gaze, she replied, "Much of the trouble in my life harkens back to my lack of a brother. Miss Darcy is very fortunate. If I had a brother, I would not be here making your life miserable. My father would never have demanded I marry, and you would be on your way to spend Christmas with your sister without me in tow."
He refused to acknowledge the twinge of disappointment he felt with the sisterly nature of her feelings toward him. Truth was, both their lives would be better off if they had not been thrown into this predicament. "Tell me about the weapon you made."
"I cut down a stout tree branch, and then honed it into something with a bulbous end that I can swing at an opponent's head. Hopefully if I make contact with enough force, I will render my opponent unconscious and allow myself time to make my escape. I read about a heroine using a statuette to strike a blow at her attacker with just that effect."
Relieved, he said, "I am impressed. I believe you can add making weapons to your list of accomplishments. It is much more practical than netting a purse."
He saw the twitch of her lips. She wanted to laugh, but was not quite ready to let go of her melancholy. "In Ireland, you will be close enough to return to your family if the circumstances change. Besides, there is the chance you will meet someone and marry. Don't you want to wed?"
Her look told him how differently she viewed her situation. "Fitz, marrying was never my plan for fulfilment. Besides, once I am in service, I become much less desirable to any man of quality at least as a wife. I will not even have the inducement of my paltry one thousand pound dowry."
Darcy was again discomposed. The thought of an employer coercing her had never entered his consciousness. His fears for her had been at the hands of some coarse ruffian not a gentleman of rank to whom she was beholden as the source of her living. He could not control the shudder of dismay at the picture that came to mind.
"Despite my mother's chief occupation being marrying off her daughters, I never envisioned my life as someone's wife." A chuckle escaped. "Besides, Mama rarely wasted her efforts on me. Jane was her major campaign. We all knew she would be the most pleasing to a man and had the best chance to make an advantageous match. Jane is beautiful... even you remarked she was handsome... I overheard you." She watched for his acknowledgement of his words before she continued. "And, her disposition is as lovely as her looks. All the world is good and agreeable in her eyes. In all my years as her constant companion, I never heard her speak ill of any human being." He knew her teasing nature was making a comeback when she added. "Jane even had a kindly explanation for why you were so taciturn at the assembly."
.He ignored her barb. Darcy realized he knew so little of this woman whose outward appeal a comely body, eyes filled with intelligence, witty banter and kindly nature had caused him to flee Hertfordshire in fear of being captured. "What were your hopes, Eli? There must have been some man who was a possibility as a husband."
Eli seemed amused at his statement. "I told you about my dowry if it even still exists. I am tolerably pretty, but both Miss Longs, who are also handsome young ladies, have three thousand. Who in our neighbourhood would want me?"
He was struck dumb by her words and could think of no other course of action than buttering another slice of bread.
"My grand plan, for as long as I can remember, was to help my beautiful sister marry well. Perhaps, once she wed, my brother-in-law would allow me to make my home with them. I would be the loving aunt who would teach their children to speak French and play the piano forte albeit poorly."
"You play with passion and your enjoyment of the activity is pleasing to your audience. You are not without appeal someone would have recognized your charms."
She looked at him in surprise, and he realized their intimacy had prompted a disclosure he probably should not have made. "You are mistaken, Fitz. Before your aunt's parson expressed an interest, no one had ever seriously pursued me." She laughed as she continued. "As my mother has been telling me my whole life I am too difficult to make a good wife. Mr. Collins made his offer without knowledge of my myriad faults. I am certain you could tell him a thing or two."
He refused to take the bait. "Eli, my point is Mr. Collins did want you he must have seen something to make him offer. Certainly there would have been other young men who found you captivating."
Eli had a similar hint of outrage on the topic of his aunt's ridiculous parson as he had seen on Charles' face. "But my parents took away my right to wait for some mythical Prince Charming. Besides, I was not even Mr. Collins' first choice. Jane was. My mother wanted to protect her from a life with him and embroidered the truth. She told him there was practically an understanding with Mr. Bingley, and I was suggested as an excellent alternate choice. In her mind, I was the perfect sacrificial lamb for the salvation of my family. She could get rid of a disagreeable daughter, entice the reverend with my allurements and manage to stay at Longbourn after my father died. Mary would probably have gone to the slaughter willingly, but my mother contrary to public opinion is not actually without sense. She knew Mr. Collins was looking for something other than piousness in his choice of wife. Mama has yet to persuade Mary that a pleasing appearance is part of God's plan for young women." She looked down at her now flattened bosom as she said with a harsh laugh, "She decided I would meet his needs and his eyes when he looked at me agreed."
Another involuntary shudder at her dilemma left him unable to respond.
She seemed to be debating something and rose from her chair to view herself in the mirror. With a finger, she twirled a curl. "Perhaps, I should change my clothes and take the next post back to London. My Uncle Gardiner could arrange for my return to Longbourn. He would protect me from too much familial scorn and help dispel the notion I had been compromised." Eli turned and smiled mischievously at Darcy. "Something would come to me as a plausible explanation for my short hair and boy's footwear... perhaps, a family of travellers that had no other interest in me than as a trainee for picking pockets at fairs." Turning back to her reflection again, he saw her face was once again sombre. "Charlotte Lucas was convinced my chance of happiness with Mr. Collins was as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state. She seemed to envy my having my own home and pointed out that our parents lead mostly separate lives." Obviously unaware he could observe her in the glass, her face betrayed disgust before she spoke wistfully. "Children could I suppose be a joy to make such a life bearable."
The meaning of her words was not lost on him and he shared her distaste more than she would ever know. Though he realized her suggested course of action was best for both of them, he was not prepared for it to happen just yet. Without a thought for propriety or rationality, he moved in her direction and turned her around to face him. He held her captive, his eyes boring into hers. The declaration he wanted to make stuck in his throat. All he could manage was, "You promised to bring Rucio to Pemberley. I need you I need your help." The desperation in his voice was beyond his control. "The mare is Georgiana's Christmas present. If you still want to go home when we arrive at Pemberley, I will return you to Hertfordshire."
In confusion, she seemed to be searching for meaning in his eyes. After standing very still with his hands on her shoulders for some minutes, she stepped out of his grip and favoured him with a tension cutting smirk. "Oh my, the passion of a brother in fear of disappointing his sister I will live up to my bargain." She moved back to the table and attacked her luncheon with what he suspected was pseudo gusto.
They had spoken very little after his display. She no longer seemed annoyed with him, but she was definitely chewing something other than her luncheon. The afternoon's ride had been easier than the morning's. She was becoming accustomed to their pace, and he saw no sign of fatigue. They made the inn just as the sun was setting in the winter sky. This time, two rooms were available, and he suggested they take their evening meal in the dining room after both spent time freshening up. He did not want to be alone with her.
She was sitting or a more descriptive word would have been something akin to slouching with a pleasant-looking man when he entered the common room. She was drinking a tankard of something. He made his way toward them cautiously and was horrified when he realized the man was wearing the distinctive scarlet waistcoat a sure sign he was a Robin Redbreast and worse yet they were discussing Bow Street. Eli greeted him as though nothing untoward had happened either at lunch or during her discussion with her present companion. "Fitz, I would like you to meet Mr. Fielding. Mr Fielding, this is Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. Mr. Fielding is part of the Bow Street Horse Patrol." Darcy could not believe their bad luck. A myriad of questions began tumbling through his mind. Had this man come looking for them or was he just travelling the roads in pursuit of highway men? His name was Fielding had he heard that correctly? How high up in the administration was he? Had the great grandson of a Duke required a special investigator? What was she doing conversing with someone who might have heard of her abduction? Since she donned men's clothes, she could be such a ninny and so... so... forward sometimes. Her sister Lydia had exhibited that trait when they were in Hertfordshire, but she never... Now as Eli spoke with this man whose business was probably uncovering her identity, her cheeky guise was back in full force. In answer to his look of panic, she seemed to be admonishing Darcy with her eyes to act innocent. "Mr. Fielding and I have been discussing employment opportunities with that renowned law enforcement body. I told him about my recent dismissal from school."
The two shared a laugh, and Darcy knew the fighter of crime had been favoured with the drawers up the flag pole story. "He is a distant relative of both Henry of Tom Jones fame, or infamy, depending on your reading tastes and his brother the blind, Sir John. I was totally ignorant that one of my favourite authors having been the founder of the service."
Darcy shook their adversary's hand and mumbled a greeting. "I am glad to make your acquaintance, sir." His trembling knees told him it was better he sit down. He took the seat across from Mr. Fielding and next to Eli.
"Mr. Fielding thinks I am not tall enough for the service." Darcy was almost blinded by her... his impertinent smile as he turned his face toward him and coaxed him to go along with his eyes. "I assured him I may be small, but I am mighty. Besides, I am due for a growth spurt soon. Tell him, Fitz, how accomplished a rider I am."
It was too late to extricate them from the situation. Darcy had no choice but to play the role she had scripted for him all the world was truly a stage to this newly minted young man who had stolen her way into his life. Could they hear the pounding in his chest? To him each beat seemed to be deafening. He took a deep breath to calm himself and his wayward heart. "Yes sir, Eli agreed to accompany me on this trip, and I have been impressed with both his strength and fortitude during the journey." That had not been so disastrous. Despite an inability to control a certain shaking in his extremities, he felt brave enough to add, "He is still young and a bit too exuberant, but when the job demands steadiness... and courage, he is stalwart." He felt her hand squeeze his trembling one under the table. She obviously appreciated his words, and her approval prompted another struggle with his ever present desire to show her just how much he both hated and loved her wild ways.
She was relishing telling the story and Darcy was in thrall as she attacked the lurid topic with gusto. There was no hint of the melancholy of earlier in the day. "He and his band of brigands prefer to stop the carriages of wealthy travellers, but Harry warned they might change their methods to attack two flush-looking gentlemen." Eli laughed at the description, and though she said nothing more, her smug look spoke volumes of her pride at having fooled the Robin Redbreast.
After their dinner dishes were cleared, they sat for a few moments in companionable silence. His mind was assessing their first day on the road, and she too seemed to be pondering something perhaps, it was a similar evaluation. He soon found out what was on her mind and, once again, she astounded him with the turn of her thoughts. "Fitz, do you plan to marry?"
Fear of exposing his errant admiration which more and more had been threatening to surface during their journey made him cautious, but he decided to let her explore the question. "Yes, I do. My position and property require I produce an heir."
She frowned at his answer. "Yes, but that is about duty. Do you not think it possible for you to achieve a true partnership? Fitz, you have the freedom to choose anyone." She favoured him with a smile. "Why not marry someone who makes you happy... someone who would encourage you to bring out those dimples when you gaze at her?"
Darcy was quite sure from her open countenance that she was not promoting herself. Still he erred on the side of caution. "I am not as free in my choice as you assume."
She cocked her head and looked at him quizzically. "No? Why not? You don't have parents you have to please."
"No, but I have other family."
"Oh, yes, I remember. You are expected to marry your cousin. Does she make you smile?"
He decided it best to reveal little. "Sometimes she does. She is a quiet, sweet, sort of young woman. Her health is not the best, so she rarely goes out into society. Her mother is very protective and does not allow her to venture far from Rosings."
"I understand she is the heiress of that great estate as well as of extensive other property. Mr. Collins also says she is a most charming young lady indeed and is perfectly amiable." She continued using words he was certain had been uttered by the obsequious reverend. "As I recall, my cousin seemed to agree with his patroness that Miss De Bourgh is far superior to the handsomest of her sex; because there is that in her features which marks the young woman of distinguished birth." Her perfunctory compliments of his cousin came to an end. She shook her head, and he could have sworn she choked back a chuckle. "Still, she does not sound lively enough for you, Fitz."
His eyebrow went up at her remark. The stifled giggle spilled out as she took in his superior glance. Ignoring the humour she found in his demeanour, he continued. "My uncle, the Earl of Elderton thinks I should marry into a titled family. Uncle Henry is arranging an introduction with the daughter of the Earl of Blessing at a ball he is giving for Twelfth Night. Her name is Lady Clarissa Holmes. She was presented at court this year, but I know very little about her. My uncle claims she is very beautiful and quite an accomplished young woman."
"Fitz, I hope you are not planning to marry someone just because your uncle the earl tells you to. You should not choose a wife you know so little about? My advice is to learn as much as possible about Lady Clarissa at the ball. It would sadden me to think that a man such as you would wed without admiration or affection titled family or not."
He wondered what she meant by 'a man such as you,' but decided not to pursue the topic. "Lady Clarissa's brother, Lord Colton, is a friend. He likes to laugh. My hope is his sister will share that trait."
Her smile seemed genuine. "That sounds very promising. Laughter is good. It can be relied on to sweeten difficult times. My father often preached of the need to find humour in adversity." A darkening of those fine eyes told him her predicament threatened to intrude on their conversation. "His recent illness seems to have caused him to forget his maxim."
Darcy worried about the return of her sadness. Had she been thinking of the possibility of never seeing her father again? She quickly banished whatever cares had intruded, and she seemed determined to refocus on his matrimonial needs. With her next words she was back emulating her mother. "You could learn much about her while dancing. When we arrive at Pemberley, we should practice."
"Eli, in your present disguise, it would be unseemly for us to dance together."
She rolled her eyes and shook her head in disapproval at his ridiculous statement. "Of course, I do not expect us to be partners. My hope is to help you marry not cause a scandal. Besides, I am certain that at Pemberley, you could find privacy enough for me to help you practice in secret."
"I was not sure what your expectations were. My intent was to make certain you remembered our special circumstances."
"Never fear, I promise to curb my exuberance in the future. Perhaps, Miss Darcy could dance with you, and I could give you pointers. In particular, you could practice making conversation with your partner. Or, I could dance with your sister and show you the steps for country dances. You seem to avoid those more energetic forms at all costs. You are quite accomplished with court dances, but even those you approach with a look of it being a preamble to your hanging. I am sure Lady Clarissa if she does, indeed, love mirth would prefer taking a turn with someone who dances in a less sombre fashion. My job will be to make sure you master the art of enjoying the pastime... or at least appearing as though you do."
He gave her a smile that was at first sheepish but was soon glowing with actual anticipation of their sessions. "I will try. For too long I have approached dancing as a social necessity and feared the expectations of my partners."
"Oh my, Fitz, perhaps someday your fortunes may fall like mine and Shakespeare's Rosalind then perhaps, you would not be so filled with pride. It is merely dancing. The great man deigns to favour a woman with a set and is convinced she believes his invitation gave her license to begin planning their wedding." Eli's face suddenly registered an awareness of something. She laughed and added, "Well, maybe not the young ladies, but you are probably right to believe marriage is the intention of their mothers."
Her remark about his pride was proof positive she had recently read As You Like It. He decided not to defend himself from her taunt. Instead he laughed with her and was pleased how completely her doldrums had been forgotten. She seemed back to her natural insouciance.
"Fitz, one last suggestion young ladies enjoy being admired. If you appreciate something about Lady Clarissa, favour her with complimentary words. Remember you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
He raised his eyebrow in pretend disdain. "You think I should be about catching flies?"
Her eyebrow imitated his. But, it was the clap of her hands, the delight in her eyes and a throaty laugh that caused his heart to skip a beat in anticipation of her reply. "Touchι, Fitz!"
Posted on: 2010-04-06
Catching flies, indeed. Darcy could not suppress the occasional smile when he remembered Eli's advice for attracting a wife. Wanting to spend some moments more with her, he struggled to find a justification. As they had eaten their hearty meal, he noticed Eli had seemed to be pacing himself reaching for another piece of bread but then thinking better of it. He worried she was truly concerned about splitting her breeches.
"Have you had enough to eat, my friend?" Darcy asked. "Would you enjoy something sweet before we retire?"
"No, thank you. Perhaps, I am just too tired to eat anymore." Eli frowned as if the remark had fallen by mistake from her mouth. "Not that I am complaining," she added hastily. "Today was strenuous; but as you saw, I was able to keep up."
Darcy stood and put a reassuring hand on the younger man's shoulder a perfectly reasonable gesture should anyone have been watching them. The common room was free of other guests, and the comfortable chairs arranged before the hearth beckoned. He gestured for them to move and in a moment of whimsy, he offered, "Join me in a glass of brandy perhaps a half glass for you. You are already tired, but this would assure you undisturbed sleep." He watched how Eli's eyes lit up at the suggestion another lark, an after-dinner brandy just as a man might choose to partake. To anyone who observed them, they were just two comrades enjoying a drink and good conversation after a rigorous day.
Her pleasure at the prospect of indulging in such a male ritual was clouded by annoyance with his implication she should have a smaller portion. "Fitz, I am certain I am man enough to tolerate as much as you."
With a laugh he agreed to her demand ... anything to prolong the pleasure of her company.
Darcy was under the spell of the brandy's warmth. He worried he was in real danger of referring to him as her when she grinned and admitted she was feeling quite stiff and sore.
"Well, you know the best thing for that?" he said.
"No, what? Some secret of well-seasoned travellers?" Despite the fatigue, and perhaps because of the liquor, she whispered conspiratorially, "Come on Fitz, you can share your secrets with me."
He swallowed and looked away for a moment before turning back to her. "A soak in a warm bath," he said a bit hoarsely. "And then to bed with you."
"I am almost afraid I will fall asleep in the tub and drown!" she said with a laugh.
At the image that came to mind for him, he stood abruptly; and said he would take care of the arrangements with management. When he returned, he assured her everything was arranged for her privacy. His directions had been very specific; and the management understood that neither gentleman needed any assistance just a tub of hot water, soap and towels.
He enjoyed sitting with her and watching her lips linger on the rim of the glass as she took in tiny sips. For all that she wanted to play the role of a young man about town, she drank like a woman. Darcy pondered instructing her on the manly way to drink but found he did not have the heart to deny himself the pleasure of watching this vestige of Elizabeth. He surprised himself with the sound of his own sigh.
His indulgence was shattered by her next question. "Is Lady Clarissa tall?"
He had hoped 'the help Fitz secure a wife' topic had been exhausted. He was wary as he answered. "Yes, I believe so. Why do you ask?"
"You said your uncle told you she was beautiful. The most handsome women always are tall. Besides, your height is imposing; and your wife's stature should compliment your own and visually signal your ascendancy in society."
He was unsure whether she was poking fun at his puffed-up sense of importance sly sweet barbs had often been directed at him in Hertfordshire. Using surrender as a defence, he said self-deprecatingly, "My uncle agrees with you. He wants to preserve for the next generation the natural inclination of the Fitzwilliams to tower over others of our rank. I, personally, think height as good as any reason for making an offer to a lady. But, to answer your question; I did catch a glimpse of Lady Clarissa during last season, and she was, indeed, tall... taller than most men in fact."
Recognizing his humour and seeing the smile that cracked his cautious expression, she started to laugh. She remembered to drop into a deeper register than her usual melodic tinkling. The sound coming from her throat was earthy and hearty and oddly, provocative. "That probably explains why the lady is still on the market. Men seem to feel they must at least appear superior. You are tall enough to be the match for everyone but a giantess, so I have no fear you are in danger of feeling intimidated by her. Did you find her beautiful?"
Even though he suspected she was not entirely serious, he felt uncomfortable with her assumptions about men and about him in particular. Against his better judgment, he found himself saying, "Short or tall it does not signify with me. Some of the most handsome women I have known have been small, and some like Caroline Bingley have the classical form most admired by society, but it does not render her lovely in my eyes. Beauty is more than physical perfection. There is nothing to compare with the fire of intelligence that can glow in a woman's eyes."
The minute the words flew from his mouth he pursed his lips too late. What was it about Elizabeth that made him take actions and make admissions that skirted propriety or at the very least, that gave away more of what he felt than almost anyone could pry from him. Sharing secrets, indeed.
She tilted her head quizzically and seemed to be digesting his morsel of truth.
He had gone too far, and he quickly reined in his feelings. "From what I remember, Lady Clarissa was quite handsome. The social activities of the Season are not what I prefer, but my uncle considers it a family obligation to participate. Ballrooms seem to strike me blind to the loveliness of young ladies."
Realizing what he had just said, he thought, oh my God, there I go again. He hoped the blush of remorse he felt creeping up his neck would not reach his cheeks. But, having started down the path, he decided he would take the opportunity to apologize for his unfortunate statement about her looks by way of owning his insecurities, not her lack of beauty in any way. "I have always tried to keep interaction with strangers at a minimum and my reserve is so great it has sometimes led me to broach incivility. But, you are correct, it is time for me to become serious and marry. My entire family is agreed upon that being my responsibility, and at 28, I should not put off the task. But as certain as they all are that I need to find a wife, something amounting to a family civil war is being waged over who it should be if only I could marry three women one to keep each faction happy."
Eli laughed, but Darcy thought he could see unease in her expression. "What do they want from you?" Her voice was both softer and higher than it should be. Darcy returned the sympathetic look gratefully for a long moment, before remembering to look around to see if anyone was listening. No one was paying any attention to them.
"For Georgiana, I'd like someone who could offer her an older sister's guidance. Of course, my aunt and uncle each have their own horse in the race my cousin Anne and Lady Clarissa." Darcy hesitated, errant thoughts about what he wanted barging into his mind. Scowling, he pushed them away and reminded himself that a woman who ran away from home and dressed as a boy would not be an acceptable candidate to any he needed to please.
"What colour is her hair?"
Still preoccupied with evaluating her lack of suitability, he asked, "Whose Georgiana's, Anne's or Lady Clarissa's?"
Eli rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Fitz, pay attention to the discussion at hand! We were talking of Lady Clarissa."
Her admonishment forced his thoughts back to her query and he laughed as he recalled his uncle's boast about Lady Clarissa's beauty. She seemed pleased with his sudden burst of joviality. "My uncle Henry, the 4th Earl of Elderton, wrote to me that her hair is auburn and shines with the light of a thousand candles, her eyes are dark pools of mystery, and her lips are lush and red like ripe cherries. It sounded as though he had been reading your romantic poets... although knowing my uncle, I doubt it. He also said she looks remarkably like the paintings Romney did of Emma Hamilton." Darcy thought Eli would direct some humorous insight at his uncle's overblown description of a woman whose attributes he was trying rather ridiculously to sell his nephew.
But Darcy's last revelation brought a thoughtful look to Eli's face, as she said slowly, "Oh. Then she must be quite beautiful. Several years ago when I was in London, I saw the painting of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney." He watched her closely. Warmth that was neither the fire nor the brandy settled upon him as he thought he saw a spark of jealousy flash in her eyes. Did he truly see jealousy there? Did he want to see jealousy?
Eli said with an almost imperceptible blink, "The painting was just as your uncle described. What are your Lady Clarissa's accomplishments... did your uncle tell you?"
"Eli, she is not my Lady Clarissa."
"Not yet, but after Twelfth Night we will see whether she is able to resist your charms."
It was his turn to roll his eyes and shake his head. "She plays the pianoforte, is an excellent horsewoman, and I believe she paints. Uncle Henry spent a full paragraph describing how much she enjoys the hunt and riding to hounds." Again the memory of his uncle's letter caused him to chuckle. "It is not an activity I enjoy. I believe Uncle Henry forgot his purpose of promoting her to me and was enthusiastically describing that which he appreciates. My aunt has always refused to even ride out with him, and I think he feels he was denied the shared enjoyment of a favourite activity in his choice of wife."
Her eyes brightened signalling the importance she placed on her next question. "What quality would you regret your wife not possessing?"
He spoke from the heart without regard for the need to disguise his desires. "Probably, that she enjoyed reading and discussing books."
A slight sigh escaped from her with his answer. It was too small a gesture for him to determine the meaning, and he listened hungrily for her answer a hoped for admission she placed a similar need for such activity as he did. "Yes, I think my father had that disappointment in my mother."
The exchange had gotten out of hand, but he could not stop himself. "But he gained that in you, did he not?"
She went strangely silent and did not reply. Instead she launched into more suggestions to make him pleasing to Lady Clarissa. He should wear a coat in some other colour than black dark green with a pale green brocade waistcoat would look attractive on him. Encouragement to wear that wonderful scent was on her list; and his hair should be washed that day, rinsed with vinegar and the curls left to dry naturally. Planning topics of conversation so he did not appear disinterested in his dance partner was a necessity. It reached a point where he desperately needed relief. Darcy knew that at some point Lady Clarissa would have to become an object, and perhaps she was the answer that would please the majority of his family. But for now, tonight, he wanted to enjoy basking in Eli's eyes and laughter. He excused himself for a moment to procure another drink. She declined.
The tableau to which he returned brought a smile. The innkeeper's mouser had climbed into her lap and the tabby was purring contentedly under her strokes. Like Rucio, she had won the animal's heart in minutes. He set about finding a subject to distract her from the previous uncomfortable topic. It took all his inventiveness exhaustion and the dulling of his faculties by the brandy was working against him. Each time he thought himself successful at turning her thoughts to something more enjoyable, she found a way to return to delving into her plan for his marital bliss. Whetting her appetite for exploration of his vast library at Pemberley was finally the successful ploy.
As they discussed his collection, she took a page from his book and began watching him intently. A tiny bit of her tongue poked provocatively between her lips in concentration. She seemed to be trying to see beneath his protective layer, and he began to worry there was a plot afoot. She had fallen into that habit several times at Netherfield as well, and it had been those keen observations and his fascination with seeing the pink tip of her tongue that had prompted his belief she was devising a strategy for winning all he possessed. It had excited him at the time only to be replaced by an all consuming fear that he would not be able to withstand her appeal. Eli's stare was creating a similar reaction as they discussed his library. Surely she had recognized the signs of his affection and was preparing to confront him with his deception. demanding he marry her and solve her dilemma.
When she asked if he owned a copy of Wycherley's The Plain Dealer, it was not what he was anticipating.
A look both confident and mischievous graced her face as she explained some newly acquired enlightenment. "You remind me of Captain Manly. I have only read an abbreviated version I understand there are parts of the original play that are scandalous. Her laugh was the husky one that had so recently been appealing. "Is your copy of The Plain Dealer bowderlized?. My father used that term recently he may even have made it up... it is quite appropriate... don't you agree? Why that ridiculous man, Thomas Bowdler, thinks women need to be protected from Shakespeare's words is beyond me."
Smiling impishly, she said, "My sister, Mary, thinks Bowdler has performed a great service to fathers in need of help protecting their female children from the dissipation of some of the bard's unfortunate expressions. She bought a copy of The Family Shakespeare, and she chastised our father for allowing me to read the unexpurgated plays." Eli laughed and lingered on the word unexpurgated in a way that made Darcy shift in his seat. As she went on, he found himself visualizing himself sitting with her instead of Mr. Bennet in the scene she related.
"Papa and I spent several enjoyable afternoons last winter comparing the texts. Do you know that Mr. Bowdler referred to Ophelia's death as 'an accidental drowning?' Not to mention, changing 'out, damned spot' to 'out. crimson spot.' Luckily, my papa was a great believer that there was nothing to protect his children from in Shakespeare." Another burst of throaty laughter melted into a look of longing. "His main concern always seemed to be to try to persuade his daughters to read the plays at all."
Where, during his time in Hertfordshire, eavesdropping on her conversation had become a favourite occupation, here, she was his alone to enjoy. He said, "I believe my copy of The Plain Dealer includes all of the original dialogue. Why do I remind you of Captain Manly?" He raised his eyebrow in mock disdain which had become their code to signal impending impertinence. "Do you think there are keys to me that you will find in Wycherley's censored words? Something secret and scandalous you have been unable to decipher about me yet."
Hilarity erupted as a result of his teasing his laughter boomed in smug satisfaction with pleasing her with his humour. In contrast, her femininity could not be repressed, and her contribution was a girlish giggle.
But when their laughter died, she launched into sketching his character with new insight gathered from her relatively close vantage point of the last few days. "You remind me of Manly because you seem intent on doubting the motives of all you meet, and I fear for how this tendency to misanthropy keeps you from finding pleasure in life. You said it earlier when you talked about how the desire not to interact with strangers takes you to the edge of incivility and yet, I am less concerned about that than your dismissing those who might genuinely bring you joy... at least for an evening. I know your manners are rooted in good principles, but your suspicious behaviour appears as overbearing pride to those not of your intimate acquaintance. Have you ever considered this may also have the opposite effect from the one you want? Your obvious need to guard against mercenary matchmakers sends a signal to those who are looking to profit... that you are a worthy prize."
She paused before continuing. Something with her last disclosure seemed to cause her discomfort. She probably wanted to ensure his attention, and her misgivings soon faded. "My father also suffers from a form of misanthropy," she disclosed, "but he revels in his scorn. It has become his raison d'κtre. He feels himself quite the smartest man in any room and encouraged me to act in a similar manner. Both of us have enjoyed making sport of the follies of those we meet."
Again there was a look of hesitation as if she was afraid she should not reveal so much? "From our earliest acquaintance when you wounded my vanity I was set on a course of proving you deficient in common politeness. I delighted in telling my tale of your rudeness which combined with your Manly-like caution and aloofness sealed your lack of popularity with the citizens of Meryton. Wickham's spurious accusations seemed plausible because you were so lacking in manners to me and my neighbours. As Wickham's deficiencies became revealed, some began to doubt the lieutenant's veracity. Now that I am your constant companion, I have observed other things that contradict my first impression."
Silently, he acknowledged the acuity of her evaluation. How different how much more pleasant his time in Hertfordshire could have been. The assembly would have provided infinitely greater enjoyment had he been open to the possibilities of dancing with a lively country miss who was merely tolerable. A flood of images of such an alteration in time momentarily distracted him.
"Fitz, are you listening to me?" Apparently, she had more to reveal. He turned to stare into her eyes, and he felt warmed by the real concern he saw in them. When was the last time someone had looked at him that way? Not even Georgiana, whose love and worry was almost always mingled with a dutiful respect, so much so that it almost overcame her affection at times. Most people, even his relatives especially his relatives looked at him with expectations. How often did someone just look at him, wanting nothing?
"Do you remember our debate at Netherfield with regards your character?" She watched for his nod. "How Miss Bingley proclaimed you could not be teased as I recall, she said it impossible to, 'Tease calmness of temper and presence of mind." She unleashed my prejudice by claiming you were above being laughed at. She was wrong. Perhaps the problem was you never joked with her as you do with me... or encouraged her to laugh?"
He shrugged. "Miss Bingley is... ah, another matter... and though I have laughed with her it was entirely different... "
My time with you tells me just the opposite of what she claimed that day. You don't deny me the right to poke fun at you, and you often encourage me to laugh." Her raised eyebrow and her quirky grin broke a mostly anxiety ridden visage. "
As you just did at your own expense. Your rebuttal that day told me you avoided those weaknesses which often exposed you to ridicule. The thought of mocking you in enmity is now totally repugnant and it was even then when I was wilfully determined to misunderstand you. I will be forever grateful that you often indulge my natural tendency to laugh and seem bent on diverting me from my heartbreak about what I have done. I will always remember our time together with pleasure."
Elizabeth turned away so that he could only see her profile. He wanted her to face him, but she turned from him even more as she continued. "I believe your pride is a natural defect which as you said not even the best education has allowed you to overcome. Perhaps your pride is necessary when you deal with people who want something from you like Miss Bingley no offense intended... "
"None taken," he said, grinning, loving the delicious impropriety of their conversation. "I never meant to take Miss Bingley's part during our debate she is my friend's sister, and I was being polite. I daresay, not even he defends her assertions anymore."
She would not let his gibe distract her from her point, which he assumed was not Miss Bingley, but was something else quite serious. "Perhaps, your esteemed schooling is part of the problem much as my haphazard learning is part of my failings. You feel you have a real supremacy of mind, not to mention, an illustrious family history. But, you do not always keep your arrogance under good regulation nor always use your superior intellect wisely, in my opinion."
A clearing of her throat alerted him she was about to accuse him of something important. "Even though you are confident in Bingley's affection for you; you seem convinced you know better and question his ability to judge others. I fear you might have given Miss Bingley encouragement to keep him from Hertfordshire. It would seem to me to fit what I know of your character. Your relationship seems partially based on your duty to protect him from foolish decisions like attaching himself to my sister. Similarly, I heard you talk of Miss Darcy with genuine fondness, but I fear you may have a tendency to decide what is best for her which is your right as her guardian but I caution you to remember to take into consideration her wishes. If she thinks you are not interested in her hopes and dreams, she may act precipitously as I did her good name could be lost in an instant. My sister, Mary, is fond of saying 'a lady's reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful.'"
Darcy did not like the turn of her words. He balled his fists with annoyance, but she only smiled at his gesture as though she expected such a reaction. How dare she question his dealings with his best friend and his sister? Had not he made up for his misappraisal of Miss Bennet's motives? Once Eli's words had persuaded him her sister had true affection for his friend was not just doing her mother's bidding to make an advantageous marriage he had acted immediately. His confession had been instrumental in Bingley's visiting Jane in Cheapside. The advice of a cheeky young woman masquerading as a boy was not what he needed to help his sister. Unlike Eli's family, he had been there to protect Georgiana from her foolish act. Had Wickham told her about Ramsgate was he part of a plan to trap him into marriage?
Her eyes were not accusatory nor did they hint at any base motives. Instead, she seemed despondent as she continued. "You should encourage Miss Darcy to confide in you? I also hope there are others of your acquaintance that you trust with whom you are able to speak frankly someone you consider of equal consequence and intelligence. I have always benefitted from talking things over with Jane. Her words often curb my tendency to sometimes exaggerate other's poor behaviour." She smiled briefly perhaps with some memory of Jane's cautionary words before she resumed her condemned woman expression. "Unfortunately, my concerns for her disappointment and the need to protect her from Mr. Collins, kept me from seeking her counsel at the crucial point in my own quandary." He was certain he saw tears, but her eyes sought the flames and he was denied the ability to see what was reflected there. "She would have wisely advised me to accept my fate and make the best of it."
He waited for her to continue, and he was soon rewarded with a renewal of her piercing stare. With it, his discomfort returned as well as a growing belief in her duplicity. Her tale of martyrdom was not altogether believable, and he was beginning to suspect the tears an act to garner sympathy.
Although he knew he should be happy she was struggling to reach a mature decision, he found himself anticipating that she had changed her mind about running away from Longbourn. If she was deciding to return home, it also meant she was planning to end her lark and her time with him.
She said, "In vain I have struggled to justify my decision to leave home and continue on my present course. I am not sure why you befriended me, but I will always be grateful for it. It was sheer audacity and desperation that propelled me to ask you for a loan. You must concede your plan to send me to Ireland is not the most prudent path." There was a half-hearted attempt at impertinence when she cocked her eyebrow and laughed with an edge of hysteria. "Believe me, I was not a friend soliciting the guidance of your superior intellect. I must face that my brittle reputation is broken. If I return now, I may never make it beautiful again, but perhaps my short disappearance might eventually be forgotten, and that would at least afford me a quiet life. I made my bed now I must lie in it." The sharp intake of breath at those words was not hers.
His pain was beyond expression. He stared, sighed and coloured. She seemed unnerved for a few seconds by his reaction, but then he was certain he saw a faint curve of a smile reach her lips. When he said nothing to explain, she began again. "Earlier I suggested taking the post back to London, and you insisted my help was needed to deliver Rucio to Pemberley. Fitz, once that is accomplished, I must return to my family."
She paused expectantly, but suspicion mixed with his distaste for her chosen future kept him from speaking. "Stop treating me in such a gentlemanlike manner exercise your right to a resentful temper send me back to face my obligations. Your reputation has not yet been dishonoured by your kindness to me. To your family, friends and staff, I will just be a young man who helped you bring a horse to your sister and needs to be on his way."
Knowing he must do something to hide his growing queasiness, he rose from his chair. Turning his back to her he made his way to the mantle. The action helped him quash his need to retch. She obviously wanted him to comment on her plan, but he could not do that while he was reeling from the sour image of her lying in Collins' bed.
She was purposely ignoring his discomfort while waiting for a reaction to her plan. As he regained his composure, he began to formulate his words. He must act as a gentleman, but it was time he told her the plain truth and let her know he saw through her ruse. His lack of immediate response forced her to speak again this time haltingly. "Sitting here, listening to you speak of your family and all their expectations " Her voice caught and sounded dangerously like a swallowed sob more acting from the consummate player. She continued a moment later, her voice stronger, "The longer you are my co-conspirator... hmm... perhaps, benefactor is more precise... no, we have become friends; each day we spend together, the greater the chance of our being found out."
She obviously felt uncomfortable defining what they were to each other. She stopped short of proclaiming it affection. Instead, she returned to her glib encouragement for his future that she had been feeding him for the last hour. "You deserve to be happy, and I realized the more we talked this evening that I am nothing but an encumbrance. Just remember when you are introduced to Lady Clarissa to notice that which is pleasing about her. If she loves to laugh, indulge her as you have me."
She hesitated, but still he said nothing. He was beginning to enjoy watching her twist in the wind. In the absence of his reply to her pronouncement, she finally seemed to have determined a course of action. She smiled at him sweetly, the infernal cat still in her lap. She stroked it as she spoke, soothingly, as if she was talking to the tabby. "Do not be that stiff Darcy hugging the sides of the room. Dance with her and astound her with your clever words." Her mischievous grin totally at odds with his current feelings shattered the composure he was trying to maintain. "Be poetic like Lord Byron. Tell Lady Clarissa her eyes are dark pools of mystery and you want to learn her secrets. Perhaps, she is a lover of books and will amaze you with her astute observations of Richardson's depiction of her namesake. She is your equal there will be no family obstacles to overcome marrying her would hardly be a degradation."
Ah yes, she had delivered her coup de grβce, and she was expecting him to act. He saw with no slight indignation that she seemed wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse for her deceit. In spite of his deeply rooted attraction for her and she obviously was in full knowledge of the depth of those feelings he could not be insensible to the disgrace of marrying her. He narrowed his eyes as he calculated that she had timed this announcement to prompt him to beg her to stay. Of course, that was the real reason behind her constant references to Lady Clarissa. She was trying to drive him to say he did not want any woman who was not Elizabeth. He could see she was preparing herself for his declaration of ardent love.
He pressed his mouth into a tight line as he told himself he would not be swayed by her charms. Her sly words of praise for his principles and intelligence had been designed to weaken his defences against her inferior connections and how profoundly disgraced running away had rendered her reputation.. She spoke of his successfully courting Lady Clarissa, but her countenance expressed real security in his coming to her rescue confidence that his passion for her could not leave her to the fate of being wasted on a ridiculous man who was without regard for anything much beyond her physical allurements. But her words of false flattery were not turning Fitzwilliam Darcy's head. He lost all compassion for her plight in his anger.
He left the security of the mantelpiece and stood bending over her. Though his words were discreetly quiet, his eyes blazed with his new found rage. "Do you think me a fool? You speak of my happiness and offer suggestions to make me appealing to an Earl's daughter. All the while, your plan is to cajole me into proposing to you..." A harsh laugh erupted with his next words. "... the disgraced daughter of a lowly country squire... who traipses about the country dressed as a pretty boy. You compliment my gentlemanlike behaviour and high code of honour in the hopes I will save you from my aunt's toady of a parson. With him there would be no discussion of Wycherley or Shakespeare. With me, you know I would let you talk your impertinent head off and amaze the room with your wit and intelligence. But what you really need is a connection with my illustrious family to make your tarnished reputation shine again.
The tabby arched its back and hissed in response. He registered a fleeting crisis of conscience when he thought he saw real anguish in her eyes. His mortification was quickly replaced by a feeling of vindication, when she squealed with the pain of his exposure. A moment later, he realized as she rubbed her thighs that the cause of her cry was the cat's claws and not the piercing of his righteous accusation.
He felt it only proper to wait while the throbbing of her injury subsided, and the cat was banished from the warmth of her lap. It was then, she looked up at him with a matching fury. The anger was only a momentary flash, and then she straightened her shoulders in determination before addressing him quietly and calmly. "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose my encouragement for your matrimonial aspirations was meant to affect you in any other way than as the meaning of my words implied. I do not understand why you are so unsettled. My stated plan of action to return to Longbourn should meet with your hearty approval, if my actions are as disgusting as you imply. I am pleased to be spared the anxiety I feared you might express for my revised course. Had I known your reaction would be so vicious, I would have been much more direct in sharing with you my decision to leave your protection."
He started at this, but he said nothing and she continued. "I was not seeking an offer of your hand; and even if you had asked, I would not have been tempted to accept it. Did you not hear what I just said about your pride why would I ever think that you would want me? Yes, I had come to think better of you at least, until these latest charges. Can you truly believe me guilty of such unjust and ungenerous behaviour? One thing is now clear, I was correct in my first impression. You think yourself superior, and it is more than just your caution and aloofness that gives offense. Is it a fashionable form of sport among the highest circles to wound those below you in consequence? Have I been mouse to your cat? You play with me and lull me into believing we are friends only to pounce and put me in my place."
He looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and chagrin. Surely she did not think him capable of such despicable behaviour. Yet, had he not started it by accusing her of trying to entrap him? He removed himself from in front of her and slumped back into his chair.
But she was not finished with him. "I had begun to believe you were a kinder, less suspicious Mr. Darcy than the one I knew in Hertfordshire. Alas, you have proved to me... you are in essentials the same as you were at the beginning of our relationship."
As she calmly spoke, he was certain she was pleased she had forced him albeit only symbolically to back down. Her next statement was designed to check his accusation. "Forgive me for having grown presumptuous that a few conversations with you meant we were becoming friends. My family is most assuredly beneath yours, but almost from the moment I ran away, I began missing despite their low connections and vulgar manners the warmth of their love. Even my cousin, Mr. Collins, who came to Hertfordshire at your aunt's urging to find a bride, was attempting to make amends for the entail that would displace my mother and my sisters and myself upon my father's demise. Perhaps, he will never be such a partner to read and discuss literature with me, but he is an honourable man with respectable intentions."
If her plan was to enrage him beyond rational thought by comparing him unfavourably with Mr. Collins, she played her hand well. The potent mix of brandy, passion and pride compelled him to search for some final insult to win this war of words. His tone was calm and even, his noble mien was filled with hauteur, as he said, "You are not my friend any more than you are a young man. While in my company, you have thought yourself free to revel in your flirtatious bad-boy guise. You may have perfected Bingley's slouch, the oldest Lucas son's strut, and any moment I expect you to scratch your non-existent... umm... uhh... like Hurst..."
He stopped abruptly and blinked in disbelief at what he had almost said. In that instant, his arrogance melted. He had nearly uttered a most vulgar word, and no gentleman would ever speak of those appendages with a lady at least not until after they were wed and in the privacy of their bedroom.
He breathed a sigh of relief that she did not seem to be outraged or even to understand his reference. A droop of her shoulders seemed to indicate a desire to end their childish play; she left her still unfinished brandy on a table by her chair as she stood.
She soon proved him wrong in one of his assumptions but correct in another. Her laughter took him by surprise it began as the erotic throaty variant he loved but finished with a lilting tease. "I will regret denying myself the delight of exploring your enormous collection of books. The expectation has had me shivering with the anticipation of our engaging in a man-to-man discussion of your most clandestine volumes. I had hoped my new status as your boon companion would afford me the chance to read the forbidden Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure perhaps you know it as Fanny Hill. I am certain a gentleman of your varied tastes must have a copy of Mr. Cleland's banned novel hidden away somewhere in your vast library." Her glorious eyes were as wicked as he had ever seen them. She licked her lips before she said, "Perhaps, perched on a top shelf... that I would have been forced to reach by ladder... sadly you will be denied the pleasure of that perspective. Alas, honour calls, and I must forgo the thrill of the forbidden for the respectability of being a parson's dutiful wife."
She stressed the word 'dutiful' and turned to leave, but whirled back and said with a sneer that he found strangely sensual on her wet mouth, "Forgive my impertinence for speaking to you of my best wishes for your happiness." With these words she left, and Darcy heard her climb the stairs to her room no doubt to her bath.
An awareness his lower jaw was hanging halfway to his knees prompted him to snap it shut. He tried to make sense of what she had suggested. In Hertfordshire, she and her older sister's conduct had been impeccable and beyond the censure that often coloured his opinion of her younger sisters, her mother and even at times her father. Now, she had just proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Eli was not the lady he thought she was and she knew many of his thoughts for her were not those of a gentleman.