It was a chilly, winter's night. The hour was still early and they had yet to sup, but for the moment Darcy was content to lie stretched out in front of the warm fire, watching its flames curl tantalizingly into the air before it disappeared into cloudless smoke. His companion lay next to him, fitting perfectly within the curve of his embrace. While she rested, Darcy let his fingers tread lightly down the length of her, and considered the changes this past year had brought to his life. For a time, he'd wondered if this was madness. Now, he knew better. The changes were surely for the best.
It had started more than a year ago, when his friend, Charles Bingley, invited him to assist in the consideration a country estate. It was not a property Darcy would have selected for himself, but his friend had been enchanted with the house and its surrounding lands. Charles had wasted no time in moving in, and Darcy as well as Bingley's sisters had joined him. Darcy was not one who found ease in conversing with strangers, but Bingley wasted no time in making himself known amongst his new neighbors. Within days, invitations piled a fathom deep.
Bingley accepted an invitation to the local assembly on his guests' behalf, and Darcy found himself with little choice but to attend. It was at the assembly that Darcy first noticed her. He spotted her instantly; how could he not? She appeared as if she should be out of place, with her curious looks and overly animated spirits, and yet she was not. Darcy's eyes followed her around the room as she interacted with, what appeared to be, every guest at the assembly. Clearly, she belonged.
Once the dancing began, Darcy retreated to a corner before he could be persuaded into joining a set. Dancing was neither his forte nor an activity he enjoyed. He would have infinitely preferred to have been sitting by Bingley's fireside, reading a book with a snifter of brandy at his elbow. But no matter how much he tried to burrow himself in the corner, he could not lose himself within. It was only two dances later that Bingley came bounding up to him, "Come Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Have you seen the women in attendance this evening?" Darcy asked, thinking of the one woman whose presence had captivated his attention at the outset.
"I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom," cried Bingley, "Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant women in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommon and pretty."
"Hm. Yes, uncommon, indeed, but you are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Darcy, glancing in Bingley's former dance partner's direction.
"That is Miss Bennet. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever beheld! But look, there is one of her sisters sitting behind you; she is unusual to be sure, but a very pretty creature too and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" He turned around and was surprised to find Bingley was speaking of the object of his fascination. "You cannot be serious."
"Why ever not?"
"She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to such a thing, however much she may seem to be appreciated by others. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Bingley followed his advice and the two friends parted ways. It was later in the evening when Darcy was once again solicited to participate in the dancing. This time, the suggestion came from a Sir William Lucas, whose acquaintance Darcy had made earlier in the evening. "What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing at all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
"Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies, I see."
"Hm? What's that?"
"Why even savages can dance apparently," Darcy answered, looking across the room.
Sir William followed his gaze and only smiled. "Your friend performs delightfully," he continued after a pause. "And I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself."
Something brushed against him and Darcy looked down. It was her. The sister of Bingley's dance partner. In her diminutive size, she had managed to navigate easily the crowds and catch him unaware.
"Ah! Here's a willing dance partner, I am sure," Sir William said immediately. "Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you." And reaching for one of her limbs, he would have given it to Darcy, who, through shock and surprise was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back and shook her head.
Darcy, with grave propriety, requested to be allowed the honor of escorting her on to the dance floor, but in vain. She was determined, though Sir William did attempt to persuade her, "Come my dear, you excel so much in the dance that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you. And though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for the next dance."
She smiled, Darcy was sure that was a smile, for her lip did curl ever so slightly along the corner, but she again shook her head. She also looked archly at him, leading him to wonder why she should look so knowingly at him, before turning away with her pert little nose leading her way. Despite his initial impression, her resistance intrigued him, and he found himself thinking of her with some complacency when he was accosted by one of Bingley's sisters.
"I can guess the subject of your reverie."
"I should imagine not."
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner, in such society, and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! Did you see who they count amongst their society? The incredulity, and yet the self-importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your opinion of them."
"Your conjecture it entirely wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty little thing can bestow." And indeed, Darcy could not quite stop thinking about those warm, liquid chocolate eyes, and how they had looked at him with such flickers of secret knowledge. Such intrigue. Such mystique.
Such a source of fascination.
Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face. "And might one inquire as to the source of such inspiring reflections?"
Darcy would not confess. He twisted his mouth in a smile and in concealment. Tapping his nose in a bid of adieu, he stepped around her and continued his quest to avoid the dance floor.
Of course Darcy knew now, just what had caused his dear companion to laugh at him that evening. She had overheard his conversation with Bingley, and while her pride had been somewhat injured at the time, there had also been a sufficient amount of ridiculousness in the matter to lead her to toss her mane and laugh it all away.
The enthrallment that began that evening only continued as Bingley deepened his acquaintance with the Bennet family and, through him, Darcy as well. In the weeks that ensued, Darcy grew increasingly disturbed and disgusted with himself. What had begun as fascination had transformed into an obsession. He could not forget those alluring eyes nor could he stop wondering how her dark, silken locks would feel against the palm of his hands. It did not help that she seemed to appear wherever he went. She was even present for his annual Easter visit to his aunt's estate, Rosings Park.
It was during this visit that things came to the fore. Darcy had tried, he had self-lectured and considered all the reasons why he should not; but his feelings would not be repressed and despite knowing that he owed more to his family, to his ancestors, and the future, he asked her to consider spending the rest of her life as his companion. Unfortunately, he spent so much time worrying about whether to ask, and then the question itself, that it never occurred to him to worry about whether he would be accepted.
He was not.
And the rejection stung. Especially when he considered himself to be such a superior being. She should have been flattered by his attentions, relieved that someone would accept her for who she was. When he shared these views with her, she turned tail on him and let him know exactly what she thought. In short, he was wrong.
Long months followed. They were months that Darcy did not enjoy reflecting upon, for they were dark and difficult times in his life. Only the pain he felt upon losing both his parents could have equaled what he felt after her refusal. It was strange, but until he could not have her, he had not realized just how far his attraction and affection went.
Darcy retreated to his town home in London, and spent a considerable amount of time pondering whether one being could really be considered better than another. The ultimate answer was "no," but it was for naught, as a second chance at love was not very likely.
Or so he believed.
The sun beat relentlessly against Darcy's back as he rode hard up that final incline. The journey from London to Derbyshire had been uneventful, for which he was grateful, but he would be gladder still once he was home. Once past that last crest, Pemberley would lay before him in all her splendor. It was a moment he looked forward to every time he returned home, and he rushed towards it.
Bringing his horse to a halt, both master and trusty steed stood at the top of the hill and surveyed it all as a master ought; it was with immense pride that he beheld his family's heritage. There was only a twinge near his heart as he momentarily allowed himself to think, that had he done things differently, he might be introducing another to it right now. It was a whimsical thought, of a sort he had not allowed himself to indulge in for several weeks now. Seeing Pemberley again brought thoughts of home and hearth to mind.
Brushing all thoughts aside, Darcy focused instead on the pond near the base of the hill. The weather was warm and he had traveled far. Perhaps a detour would not be amiss. With a tap of his heels, he urged his horse on, sliding from its back only when he pulled alongside the banks of the pond.
He had very nearly reached the ground when the sound of water splashing captured his attention. He turned his head and almost immediately his legs gave way, and he stumbled forward.
It was her.
He could not say who was more surprised, or more embarrassed. He for falling off his horse or her for having been caught frolicking in his pond. She yelped in horror and, before Darcy could collect himself, leapt as gracefully out of the water as she could, considering her situation, and raced towards the house.
Swearing, Darcy pushed himself upright and followed. He caught up with her just in time to see her stumble. He ran to her side.
In her haste, she had not paid attention to where she was running and stumbled over a rock. Darcy quickly eased her back down so that he could ascertain the damage. It was with some delicacy that he examined her left leg. When it was clear that she had twisted it lightly, Darcy insisted on carrying her back to the house on his horse.
They were met at the house by her aunt and uncle who cried out in alarm when they saw their niece. "What happened, my dear! Did you fall in the pond and hurt yourself?"
Both she and Darcy felt no need to correct them on that score. Darcy had a feeling they would have been more scandalized to learn that she had gone willingly to wade in his pond than to find her in the arms of an unknown gentleman.
"You must be Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, the aunt and uncle I've heard so much about," Darcy said. "I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service, but I am afraid more formal introductions will have to wait. She is shivering, no doubt from dampness. I would like to take her inside."
"You are very kind, sir," said Mr. Gardiner.
"Oh yes, do, let us get her inside at once," Mrs. Gardiner fretted. "It would not do if she caught a chill."
Later, his companion would confess to Darcy that she had been shivering because of his embrace, but at that moment Darcy's only thought was to turn her over to Mrs. Reynolds, his housekeeper, so that she could be given a warm bath.
After she returned to them bathed and dry, and everyone had dined on finger sandwiches and tea, the Gardiners rose reluctantly to take their leave. Darcy was loathe to part, and immediately sought to secure an invitation to call on them the next day. Mrs. Gardiner did not miss the way he looked at her niece when he asked permission, or the way her niece was trying to pretend her disinterest, and agreed.
They met frequently over the course of the next week. When her ankle was healed, they went on long walks around Pemberley. There was much to see and explore, and it was not just Pemberley's several acres of wood that she got to know better. As they both started to relax, a different side of their selves emerged. Darcy grew softer. She friskier. Darcy shared his favorite childhood haunts with her. She taught him her favorite childhood games. As a result, they spent many an afternoon with Darcy tossing a twig between them.
It was during one of these afternoons that Darcy gathered the courage to try again. This time, his suit was well-received.
As Darcy looked down at her laying next to him, he was glad. And relieved. The past year had been an incredible journey; there were times when he thought it a dream.
Darcy smiled and watched his companion twitch in her sleep before rolling over until she lay on her back. She opened her eyes and looked straight into his. Then she lunged upwards and onto her feet. "Woof!"
"Yes," Darcy agreed laughingly, scrambling to his own feet to avoid that eagerly wagging tail of hers. "It's time for dinner."