On the day when the youngest Miss Gardiner married the younger son of the Earl of Matlock, the extended families of both the bride and groom felt the warm June sun shine down on the young couple, a happy omen for two so much in love. The wedding breakfast, which had followed the family service in the Matlock chapel, was a time of much laughter and good will. The many aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends of the new Mr. and Mrs. James Fitzwilliam made a happy throng as they all trooped outside to bid the couple adieu. The couple beamed as they entered their carriage, kissed as tenderly as a lad and lass of twenty-two can manage, and then waved goodbye to all and sundry collected on the steps and pouring out onto the drive and lawns.
A collective sigh from the collected relatives expressed the satisfaction of a job well done for this was a match that promised a lifetime of happiness to both parties.
"Well, that's that," Mrs. Richard Fitzwilliam said briskly when the carriage was out of sight around the bend in the road. "Catherine will make him a good wife, and James will make her a good husband. He will always try to live above his means; he is an artist after all. But she has the sense and economy to keep his extravagances in check, and a smile pretty enough to make him not care." As the others laughed at her wit, for which she was famous, she turned towards the front door and linked her arm with that of an older woman, her Aunt Gardiner. "Shall we go inside ladies, and have another cup of tea and talk over the wedding?" She smiled teasingly at the men of the family, her eyes sparkling, "And since you will not abide ladies' talk of lace and gowns and bonnets and babies, you may do whatever it is men do until dinner."
The ladies gathering in the morning room of Matlock Manor were ready to settle down for a long comfortable morning of tea and biscuits, gossip and chatter. Later they would walk the grounds or ride about in little phaetons or net screens, but now they had a wedding to dissect.
The women and girls, ranging in age from about ten years to well beyond fifty, were all old friends and nearly all were related in some way to each other so there was little formality and much frank discussion. Lady Matlock, the former Eveline DeLisle, and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, the former Elizabeth Bennet, were sisters, having married brothers, and had always enjoyed each other's company and conversation. Elizabeth herself did not lack for natural sisters, however, and the one dearest to her was also present for it was their cousin, Catherine Gardner, who had that day married into the Matlock family. London society might well wonder how a chit of a girl from Cheapside had won the heart and hand of the Honorable James Fitzwilliam, but the families themselves did not. The Gardiners and Bennets, Fitzwilliams and Darcys, and Bingleys were so intertwined that the couple had played together as children and their friendship had blossomed into love as they grew older.
Mrs. Gardiner, mother of the bride, surveyed the room complacently. Her youngest daughter's new family was friendly and not at all aloof or distant as ancient families can often be. And then her eyes rested on her two nieces present, Jane and Elizabeth, who had been as dear to her as her own daughters. Time had been kind to Mrs. Charles Bingley, the former Jane Bennet. As lovely as the day twenty years earlier when her dear Charles first beheld her in the rough confines of a village assembly hall, Jane retained her sweet disposition and willingness to forgive all of humanity for their transgressions. Though the road to matrimony had not been smooth for Jane and her Mr. Bingley, after nearly a year of waffling he had finally thrown caution to the winds and braved her father's sarcasm and her mother's coddling to ask for her hand in marriage. Their children, two boys and a girl, were as sweet and open as their parents.
If time had been kind to Jane, thought Mrs. Gardner, moving her gaze to her other niece, it had been positively indulgent with Elizabeth. Her youthful good looks, flashing eyes, and high spirits, which often bordered on impertinence, had matured into a graceful stateliness that was rendered interesting by flights of fancy and irrepressible good humor.
She and her husband, Richard Fitzwilliam, enjoyed a happy marriage until his death two years previous. And though he often teased her that she had foiled his plans to marry for money, no one doubted that he had married for love, and despite, or perhaps because of that, had prospered. Their one child, a son, was grown and at eighteen was all that a mother could hope for—handsome, tender, brave, and smart. What's more, he was fiercely devoted to Elizabeth and proved invaluable in warding off the many suitors who crowded to his mother's side after his father died. Young Richard Fitzwilliam, his father's namesake, had deftly encircled his mother with family and friends. Friends like Mr. Darcy and his sister Georgiana and her husband, Lord --.
But then, Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy, cousins of the Matlock family on their mother's side, were relatives as well as friends. Mr. Darcy had never married, and though he was fast approaching fifty was as handsome as ever. Society ladies never quite gave him up as a confirmed bachelor, and as one generation passed to the next, women who had once pursued him found they were pursuing him once again, for their daughters.
The ladies were deep in conversation, discussing the lace on Catherine's gown and the warehouses where she had purchased her trousseau, when the door to the morning room opened and a shame-faced Mr. Darcy sidled in, looking for a book he had left behind.
Not one to let him escape scot-free, Lady Matlock called out, "Mr. Darcy, won't you join us. There's really plenty of tea and we would so like a man's opinion on the flowers that decorated the wedding table."
Mr. Darcy was not without charm and rose to the occasion. In his most dignified manner he replied with a bow, "My dear Lady Matlock, I beg you to release me. Your husband sent me to retrieve this book of love poems so that he might learn a new one to recite tonight after dinner."
Eveline, that is Lady Matlock, threw back her head and laughed. "Well done, sir. The day my husband recites poetry is the day when pigs sprout wings. You are released. But warn the others, if anyone ventures back into this room we will be merciless. You will be forced to discuss the cut of the new gowns in town and debate the merits of long versus short gloves for evening wear."
With a "Spare me, dear lady," Mr. Darcy was gone.
"Mama," began a young girl about ten, "Why does Mr. Darcy never smile?"
Mrs. Edward Forsythe, mother of the little girl and older sister of the bride, hesitated and looked to her mother for counsel. Mrs. Gardner nodded slightly, and so Jenna Gardiner Forsythe answered softly, "Well Mary, you're right. Mr. Darcy doesn't seem to smile much. But there was a time, when I first met him, when he smiled a great deal. And he does have a wonderful smile..." She stole a look at Elizabeth, who suddenly found a knot in her embroidery and worked diligently to untangle the threads, head bowed and eyes lowered.
"When was that, Mama?"
"When I was about your age. Ten, I think I was. My mother and father, your grandmother and grandfather, had just returned from a holiday to the North with Elizabeth. We children had been staying at Longbourn with our Aunt and Uncle Bennet and dear cousin Jane. My parents and Elizabeth had cut short their visit—they were worried about Lydia..." Jenna was choosing her words carefully, not wanting to tell too much to her young daughter about Lydia's behavior but becoming caught up in her own story. "They arrived to find Longbourn all in uproar, and Uncle Bennet gone off to London to find Lydia. After we all returned to our home in Gracechurch Street, Mr. Darcy came calling. It turns out that they had met Mr. Darcy while they were visiting Derbyshire and had struck up a friendship."
"Yes, we did." Interjected Mrs. Gardiner, "And I must say, Georgiana," she said leaning over to pat Georgiana's hand, "Your brother proved to be a loyal friend to my husband. He was with him until the end, and Edward truly valued his friendship."
Georgiana comforted Mrs. Gardiner in return, "My brother always spoke highly of Mr. Gardiner." And then a thoughtful look crossed her face. "I remember well the day you left Lambton, though it was so long ago. My brother was so disappointed you wouldn't be joining us for dinner. Quite beside himself, he was. Short with our friends, short with the servants. So unlike himself. He left for London the next day, you know. I've always wondered whether that trip was related to your sudden departure..."
Jenna and her mother again exchanged glances, and again Mrs. Gardiner nodded for Jenna to continue.
"The first time Mr. Darcy called on us, he stayed to dinner. He and father talked for a long time in father's study, and they both had such serious faces. I tried to listen in on their conversations, but Mama always caught me and sent me to the nursery to mind baby Catherine, baby Catherine who was married today, mind you. And I, like you Mary, wondered if Mr. Darcy ever smiled." Jenna laughed and tousled her daughter's hair. "In fact, I must confess to you all—and especially you, Georgiana—and you must all promise not to tell Mr. Forsythe—but I was completely in love with Mr. Darcy until I was sixteen and went to my first assembly ball." She blushed as the ladies exclaimed that they could quite understand her crush, and she coyly continued, "But that is a different story...where was I, ah yes, I like Mary, was curious about Mr. Darcy."
"He visited us for about a week. Not every day, but often enough to pique my interest in what he and Father were up to. Well, one day he came and he was positively beaming. His eyes were bright and I watched him from the window practically leaping up the front steps to our house. As Father ushered him into the study, I heard him say before the door closed behind them, 'Tomorrow, Mr. Gardiner. I'm convinced that he will come to terms tomorrow. The last of the details are being worked out.' Well, you can be sure that I was fairly crazy with curiosity. He stayed to dinner that night again and smiled all through dinner as if he was about to burst. And he does have a kind smile that makes his face all crinkly. I was but ten years old, and all I wanted to do was kiss that kind, crinkly face."
The ladies exploded into laughter at that and were well bent on teasing Jenna when Georgiana, the most loyal of sisters, piped up, "I've never known what all of you mean when you say he never smiles. I've seen him smile all my life. He's more comfortable at home than visiting, but who isn't? And I don't think you should criticize Fitzwilliam because he's not a cut up. He's had to carry a lot and from an early age. He's always been the best of brothers. And I'll have you know that he can take a joke and get a joke as good as anybody, and he does smile and laugh..."
At this last, she was interrupted by virtually every female in the room, insisting that while Mr. Darcy may be attributed an occasional smile, he never laughed. Never. They were emphatic on that point.
Lady Matlock sipped her tea and eyed her cousin over the rim. "Now, Georgiana. No one's criticizing Fitzwilliam. But I'm with Mary. He doesn't smile much, and he never laughs. He really doesn't."
"Except that night at Gracechurch Street," Jenna interjected. The ladies hushed each other and beckoned her to tell more of her story, so she did. "As I was saying, he bounded up the steps, thumped Father on the back, and grinned through dinner. I remember hearing Mama whisper to Father when she thought I couldn't hear, that 'he will make a marvelous addition to the family.'"
Jenna paused and looked into the widening eyes of her audience, eyes bright like those of a fox on the scent of a rabbit, all except Elizabeth. Elizabeth sat still as stone, her hands gripped her embroidery, her face white as she watched Jenna's face. Jenna hesitated, loathe to hurt the cousin she loved as a sister. But her mother had given her the go-ahead. She had known that one day she would tell her story, but she hadn't been prepared for the overwhelming sadness that crept over her as she looked into Elizabeth's eyes—eyes scared but resolute to stay and hear Jenna's story. Mama is right. It's time Elizabeth heard the truth.
"The next day I was so anxious for Mr. Darcy to arrive. I remember Mama scolded me at least three times for not minding my lessons. I kept darting to the window, watching for Mr. Darcy. He never came by carriage, you know. Instead, he would come striding up our street, a foot taller than everyone else it seemed to me, a master of his universe. After waiting all morning for him, I grew restless and even more fidgety. Sam and Tom were teasing me and I was in no mood to be teased. As soon as I finished my lessons, I escaped to Father's study. He often let me play there while he was working, but today he was nowhere to be found—probably upstairs talking with Mama. They had both seemed as restless and fidgety as I was, waiting for Mr. Darcy and his news. As was my habit, I settled down behind Father's desk to play with my dolls and read, safe from tiresome brothers."
Jenna paused for breath. The room was silent. A curtain by an open window rustled with the summer breeze. Below, the ladies could hear a gardener whistling as he turned the soil of the rose beds.
"I was deep in a story when I heard footsteps in the hall and then Father and Mr. Darcy were in the study closing the door, and I was trapped inside with them. They were already talking, and Father was so agitated that I was afraid to interrupt him. I froze. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, really I didn't, but I couldn't move. They were talking in such low tones that I could barely hear them at first. 'He's come to terms then?' Father asked urgently. And Mr. Darcy must have nodded, because Father implored him for details. The details were that Mr. Wickham would marry Lydia for ten thousand pounds plus two hundred pounds per annum."
Elizabeth gasped, and covered her mouth, as if she wanted to stop her thoughts from bubbling out. Her eyes sought out her aunt, "You wrote me that you saw Mr. Darcy in town after you met him in Derbyshire, but you never mentioned that he helped Uncle deal with Wickham. Why didn't you mention that, Aunt?"
"Lizzy, shh." Her aunt said, reaching out and tenderly patting Elizabeth's shoulder. "Listen to Jenna's story, dear."
But Elizabeth plunged on, "Father always said that Wickham would never have married Lydia for less than ten thousand pounds, and by their lifestyle and the fact that they never ended up in debtor's prison, I knew that must have access to more than the hundred pounds Father sent each year." She turned to her aunt, "We always knew but never thanked you and Uncle for paying the other half..."
"Lizzy, please. Your uncle did not pay. Mr. Darcy did."
"Mr. Darcy! Impossible. Why would he do such a thing? I don't believe it. I can't believe it."
"It's true, Elizabeth." Georgiana said. "When Fitzwilliam was sick, so sick five years ago that he could barely breathe and we thought the worst, he told me of the commitment he had made to secure Lydia a husband and that I was to continue the yearly payment...and that I was not to tell a soul."
"But why the secrecy, why should he take so much upon himself?" Elizabeth insisted. "It was our trouble. Charity is one thing, but this..."
"Don't you know?" Georgiana asked, trying to keep the edge out of her voice, trying not to be exasperated. "Does everyone in this room but you know that my brother has loved you to distraction these twenty years."
"Stop it." Elizabeth cried. "This is ridiculous. Please stop." And then she sobbed. "If this is true, if Mr. Darcy paid off Wickham because he..." She swallowed hard and bit her lip, her white cheeks splotchy, "...because he loved me, then why did he never tell me?" she whispered.
Jenna took up the tattered remnants of her tale. "After he told Father the details and Father clapped him on the back and congratulated him on a job well done and proceeded to talk about how to finance the arrangement, Mr. Darcy stopped him. He insisted on funding half the deal himself. They would let Mr. Bennet fund half so that he would not be too suspicious and lose face, but the other half he, Mr. Darcy, would pay. Father argued himself hoarse, but Mr. Darcy would have none of it. He claimed responsibility for the situation. He had not been harsh enough in dealing with Wickham in the past and had allowed him leave to prey on unsuspecting girls. He felt that Lydia's seduction fell at his doorstep and must be allowed to rectify it. Father finally agreed and then to lighten the mood, I believe, jokingly remarked that if he didn't suspect Mr. Darcy of harboring another motive, a more romantic motive, he would never have given in."
"At this, Mr. Darcy staggered and I heard Father clutch him to keep him from falling. I peeked over the desk and saw a sight I never wish to witness again. Mr. Darcy was like a man stricken—his face was completely white and his eyes were wells of loneliness. Father got him to a chair and poured him a glass of wine. Mr. Darcy mopped his forehead with his handkerchief and slowly drank the wine. After what seemed like an eternity he finally spoke, in a voice so low and hoarse, it was like death itself. He said, 'Wickham did have one more demand when we met last night. I had not planned to tell you, but now you see me as I am. I have no choice. I thought I could be strong and hide it from you, my friend. This is it—Wickham vowed he would not marry Lydia for any sum of money, in fact he would parade her as a wanton women, a strumpet, and so wholly disgrace the Bennets as well as the Gardiners, if I did not promise to never marry Elizabeth Bennet.'"
"And then Mr. Darcy told Father terrible things. He told him that Wickham had planned his revenge from the moment they had meet in Meryton, while Wickham himself was meeting Elizabeth for the first time. Wickham, knowing Mr. Darcy as well as he did, instantly knew that his old adversary had fallen in love with Elizabeth, and it took but a moment for him to see a new way to ruin Darcy's life. He told Mr. Darcy how he had poisoned Elizabeth against him with his lies and how he had insinuated himself into her heart. He taunted Mr. Darcy and lured him into confessing that he had proposed to her and had been rejected, but was still in love and hopeful that someday he might win her love in return. And that's when Wickham laid down his final terms. 'She'll never love you anyway,' he said. 'She told you so herself. So make the promise and save her family—it's all you can do for her.' And so he did. Mr. Darcy promised that he would never marry Elizabeth. Father argued, saying that Elizabeth did care for him, that she had told Mrs. Gardiner that she didn't care for Wickham anymore and that Mr. Darcy was daily rising in her estimation. But he resisted all of Father's arguments, 'You weren't there last spring,' he said, 'when she told me that I was the last man on earth she could ever be prevailed upon to marry.'"
"And so they sat, Mr. Darcy and Father, in silence for so long. The room grew stifling hot, for it was August, and I was wet with tears and sweat, and they were too, I think. Finally Mr. Darcy said, 'Edward, my friend, I meant to stand with Wickham at the ceremony. Forgive me, but I can't. I'm afraid the temptation to put my hands around his neck and force the air out of his miserable body would be too great to resist.'"
"And then he laughed a short, bitter laugh, "Don't worry about me. Perhaps in time, this powerful feeling I have for her will pass. I'd struggled so hard to overcome my desire for her to no avail, perhaps old George has done me a favor after all. Now I can't 'disgrace' my blasted family name with this lovely woman who would have brought sunshine and laughter to my old tired house and my tired old bones. Now I can do my duty without even trying anymore. I know that this promise to Wickham will make her happier than I ever could—I saw her weeping at the Inn at Lambton, so humiliated over Lydia and so dreading what the world would think of the Bennet family. Wickham's right—I can do her more good by promising never to be her husband. And for this, all I ask is that you never tell my secret.' I had never seen my father cry before, and I never did again, but he did now. And then he promised Mr. Darcy that he would never tell."
Elizabeth slowly slipped from her chair to the floor and buried her face in her hands, and let her body and soul be racked with grief. The ladies sat in mute sympathy, tears staining their faces as Elizabeth sobbed for all the pain she had caused so long ago. Her sobs subsided and she lifted her head and turned to her aunt and said, "You knew all this?"
Mrs. Gardiner nodded, "Jenna confessed to me what she had overheard. We both talked to your uncle, and decided that his promise bound us as well."
Elizabeth turned to Georgiana, "And you knew too?" She nodded. "And you?" Elizabeth demanded of Jane, who nodded and murmured that Mr. Darcy had told Charles.
Elizabeth turned back to Georgiana, and in as steady a voice as she could muster, asked, "And why did your brother never marry?"
"I think you know," was the soft reply.
A summer breeze rustled the curtain again and Elizabeth looked back toward it and saw in the doorway, Mr. Darcy standing, hand clutching his heart, with a stricken look, much as Jenna had just described.
She staggered to her feet, crying "Mr. Darcy!" but he was out the door, slamming it behind him and she could hear his footsteps down the hall. She reached the door and flung it open. She called again "Mr. Darcy!" but he had already reached the front door was hurrying down the steps. She ran down the hall, and down the steps and across the drive and towards the stables, and when she was within twenty yards, she saw him. Foot in the stirrup of his horse, ready to swing himself upward.
She stopped. "Fitzwilliam," she said evenly. He did not move. Not a muscle. Not a flinch. "Fitzwilliam, please," she said, walking toward him and then stopping again. "Please talk to me."
He removed his foot from the stirrup and leaned against his horse, away from Elizabeth. She could see his chest heaving; she knew his mouth was quivering. He turned to her and stood palms out, unable to resist her plea, his strength finally exhausted from years of trying not to care, of turning the other cheek.
"How could you?" Elizabeth said, taking a step towards Fitzwilliam. Her first words, the words that had leaped from her heart, took her by surprise, but he didn't seem to hear.
"They shouldn't have told."
"How could you?" she repeated fiercely, her eyes flaming, her hands punctuating the air.
"They shouldn't have told," he said, his voice rising to match hers. "Meddling women. They had no right to tell you. Why couldn't you women talk about the weather or the wedding or some other d--- folderol? My matters are not to be the subject of gossip. My own sister, guilty as the rest! Laying forth the privacy of my heart for all to pass judgment on."
"How could you stand beside me at Jane's and Charles's wedding? How could you stand beside Richard at our wedding? How could you stand before God and become my son's godfather?"
"Because I am made of sterner stuff than weak, gossiping women who tell their tales and then leave others to clean up the mess."
"How could you break my heart so?"
He held out his hands in mute apology. His eyes were swimming and his jaw was clenched so tight the muscles in his neck bulged dangerously.
Elizabeth took another step towards him. His horse whinnied and shied. He brushed his hand across his eyes, steadied himself and then called into the stables, "Boy! Tom!" The stable boy came running from the dark recesses of the barn. Fitzwilliam handed him the reins. "Take him to a stall in the back stable. I'll call you when I want him. Now go." He turned back to Elizabeth, resigned.
"Alright then, if this is how you want it. But there's no turning back, you know, once we start. We could go on as friends. We are family and talking about the past and those that have gone will only bring on more heartbreak. Talking too much breaks families apart."
"I waited for you," Elizabeth breathed. Her voice grew stronger as if she were reciting a lesson. "I prayed you'd come as fervently as ever Jane prayed that Charles would. He did...and you didn't. Day after day, I watched the road from Netherfield, but it always lay empty for me. And then after Lady Catherine came calling..."
Fitzwilliam flinched, but remained silent, knowing his turn would come.
"I knew that even if I had read you right at Pemberley and that you did still care some for me..." Elizabeth's face grew wistful as she dreamily went on, "Many's the night I lay awake tracing the contours of your face when you smiled at me while we were in Derbyshire. Many's the time I held my hand to my own face remembering how you had held it while comforting me in Lambton." She straightened slightly, "I was so proud of myself, standing up to Lady Catherine and telling her I wouldn't make the promise she asked of me. I was shaking all over after she left, but I was so proud...and then you never came. I guessed that she had been more persuasive with you—her arguments about the shame my family would bring to yours—I remembered how deplorable my family was to you, and gave you up for lost."
"Oh my darling," Fitzwilliam swept Elizabeth's hands up in his own and clutched them to his lips and then his heart. "You thought I never came back because of Lady Catherine? You poor dear soul. I never thought of that. I knew she had visited you. God, how I knew! The worst day of my life, worse than the day you married Richard, worse than the day young Richard was born, was the day when Lady Catherine told me that you had denied her the promise she had demanded. When I heard her rant and rave because you'd refused to say you'd never marry me, my heart leaped with joy. And then I realized that I would never know joy again. I saw that I had condemned myself to an empty shell of a life, a life without you in it. Because you see, I saw your refusal as meaning that you had changed in your feelings for me—I knew enough of your disposition to be certain, that, had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly."
Despite his bleak tale, Elizabeth could not suppress a teasing smile that skirted her lips, "Yes, you knew enough of my frankness to believe me capable of that."
"Frankness! Some call it impertinence," and he returned her smile with a tender one of his own. "Call it what you will, it was your spirit that first made me love you. That way you have of rallying and rising to the occasion and never letting other people make you feel small. What got me through the darkest nights was honoring that spirit and learning from what I loved in you. It was one thing to promise Wickham to never take you to wife while I still believed that you didn't, that you couldn't love me. It was quite another to know that you might, in fact, have come to love me if I could have had the chance to court you as I should have from the beginning. The day my aunt visited me in London was the blackest I've ever known, and I won't pretend that I didn't sink into a deep gloom. When I stood next to you in the Meryton church to witness the marriage between Bingley and your sister, I repeated all the words the Reverend said, and, God forgive me, I married myself to you instead."
"But you never looked at me. You barely acknowledged that I was there. You were just that 'proud, cold man' our neighbors saw and not the sweet, amiable gentleman I met in Derbyshire."
"Had I not worn that mask, I would have broken my promise to Wickham and declared my love for you there, in front of God, your mother, and...Richard."
"Yes, Richard was there. He was there and he was so wonderful to me. I tried to look happy for Jane, and I was happy for Jane, but I think he knew I was out of spirits. He danced with me at the ball that night and made me laugh by whispering funny remarks about all our neighbors. And he flirted with my mother and Aunt Philips, and talked books with my father, and danced with Kitty. I think the whole family fell in love with him."
"And he with you."
"Fitzwilliam, please understand. I wanted a home. I wanted a family. If I had gotten an inkling of how you felt about me...if I had had a glimmer of regard from you...but you never even looked at me, you who used to watch me all the time. When I visited Netherfield and then in Kent and then Derbyshire, every time I looked up you were looking at me." She looked into his eyes, "Like you are now. Fitzwilliam, please understand. If I had known...I never would have...don't you see, I thought..." Elizabeth stammered, her words choked and strangled. "But I loved you, and you broke my heart. After Derbyshire, I thought I knew you finally...I thought you were the finest in the land—brother, landlord, master, friend...man among men. And I wanted to know you as husband, but you never came back. And Richard was there. So eager to please. So kind."
"I wanted him to marry you. I counseled him to follow his heart and the finances would work themselves out. Better to have you marry someone I knew to be a good man than let you fall prey to a villain." Fitzwilliam went on, expounding the many virtues of Elizabeth's late husband, but she didn't hear him as a traitorous thought raced through her brain. Something in his tone gave her pause.
"Our house—Corley Manor." She said, interrupting him. "That was a gift from Richard's father, the late Earl...wasn't it?" Fitzwilliam didn't answer but she read in his eyes that her suspicions were correct. Every feeling protested this latest revelation. "No!" she cried. "You bought our house for us, didn't you? And Richard's holdings, the land and farms and buildings in town, that was all from you, wasn't it?"
"Not all. He did inherit some from Lady Catherine and some were gifts from his parents. But yes, I did help."
"My God, he didn't know, did he? Please tell me he didn't marry me out of charity. Don't tell me that you were all in this together." He shook his head as she plunged on, frantically trying to salvage her life with Richard, "I was a good wife, I was. And I made him happy. He was a good man."
"He never knew about my promise or my love for you. I know he didn't. He knew I loved you once and he knew I tried to forget you. I made him believe I did."
"Our year in Italy?"
"I wanted you to go. I remember once you telling me, on one of those little walks we took around Rosings, when I stupidly thought I was courting you, that you wanted to see Rome and Florence. I wanted you to go, so I planted the seed."
"And financed the trip."
"It was worth it. Every letter from Richard, every description of every vista filled with Tuscan hills and olive trees and vineyards and castles was worth it. I heard your voice and felt your rapture when you beheld the statues and paintings and most of all, the countryside. It was worth it."
"I'm so ashamed. I feel like a whore, a kept woman. It's like you were a shadow by my side, standing next to Richard and me all those years. Giving us things, sending us places. I loved him. I did. And now I ask, was it him I loved, or you, standing behind him? Would I still have loved him without the trappings you gave him?"
"I never begrudged you loving him."
"You should have. What man is so noble that he would not begrudge the man married to the woman he says he loves?"
"Says he loves?" Fitzwilliam's eyebrows shot up as he spat out the words, scarcely believing she could accuse him of falsifying his feelings. "You doubt that every moment of every year has been torture for me? You doubt that I didn't feel like a cheat for deceiving my beloved cousin?"
"I think you seized the opportunity to promise not to marry me. It was so convenient, wasn't it? You could carry this torch for me and wallow in your misery and buy a husband for me and never have to marry a Bennet, or anyone, for that matter. Marriage takes courage, more courage than you have. Don't forget that I can remember, too. I can remember the night of Georgiana's wedding after most of the guests had left Pemberley and Richard had gone to bed. I found you drunk in your study. You looked up at me and said, or rather slurred, that standing in the chapel that day made you think that if you could go back in time and change one thing it would be to take back your proposal to me in the Hunsford parsonage. Admit it, you wanted me in your bed, but you never wanted me as your wife!"
"That's not true!" He screamed. "Everything I did, I did for you. But you're the one who didn't want me." He was shaking with rage. His face was purple and his hands gripped his temples as if to contain the fury within. "Everything. Everything, I tell you. Everything I did, I did for you."
And then, his voice subsided to a whisper, "All I do, I do for you. Your son is my godson. Your son is my heir. I want some part of you to finally and forever grace my home and live on there with my spirit. Elizabeth, my darling, don't ever doubt that I love you and will always love you even after I am nothing more than a footnote in my family's history. I only meant that I wished I had never said those awful things to you about your family and so ruined the one chance I had to stand as the groom in the Pemberley chapel. Believe me when I say that I would give my house, my land, and the rest of my life if I could be your husband for just one day."
"Marry me. Heal the heart you broke and marry me."
"I made a promise."
"Wickham is dead, dead of his own hand these five years. You know that."
"I made a promise, never to marry you. That promise had no stipulations. It wasn't until Wickham was dead. It wasn't until we were old and gray and tired and out of love. It wasn't until Lydia couldn't embarrass you anymore. It was a promise—I said 'never.'"
"Fitzwilliam, I love you." She took his hand and held it to her breast. "Don't do this to us." She pleaded, her eyes and body entreating him as her words could not.
"I made a promise."
"You made a promise to an evil man. What, are you afraid of hellfire and damnation for breaking a promise to the devil incarnate? Well, let me tell you that there are worse sins than that."
"I made a promise."
"How can you do this?" Elizabeth spat, flinging his hand away and turning away from him, arms crossed, hugging herself.
He put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed them gently. "You love me for who I am. The man I am cannot go back on his word. I am a man of honor. Take that away and you destroy what you love."
He waited, but she wouldn't turn and let him take her in his arms as she knew he was silently asking her to. He waited, listening to her shallow breathing, her disappointed body rigid with anger. Finally, he squeezed her shoulders again and brushed the nape of her neck with his lips and released her and walked to the stable where his horse was waiting.
She heard him call for Tom, and then she heard him give Tom instructions for his servant. Instructions for his carriage and things to be sent to Pemberley. Elizabeth stood rooted, stonily staring at the layers of trees and bushes that shielded the house from the barns. Finally, she heard him walking towards her, leading his horse.
"I need to go home to Pemberley," he said.
"I love you."
"I need to go to Pemberley."
"Don't leave me again."
"I need to go now."
He put his foot in the stirrup and swung astride the horse. He tipped his hat—Tom must have retrieved it from the house, Elizabeth thought crazily. Why am I thinking about his blasted hat when he is leaving me again? And it's worse than before because now I know he really does love me.
He dug his heels in slightly, and then was gone. Riding down the drive that led to the gate that led to the road to Pemberley.
Fitzwilliam's erect back gave not a notice of the inner turmoil that made him want to leap to the ground and fall on his knees before the woman who stood in the stable door begging him to marry her and live again in love.
"NO!" As the cry left her lips, all the energy in Elizabeth's body went with it. And she crumbled to the ground, drowning her skirts in the mud and dirt of the stable yard.
In due time, long enough to begin feeling silly wallowing on the ground like an overwrought romantic heroine, Elizabeth picked herself up, dusted herself off as best she could, and started for the house. Her mind was still reeling from the whirlwind out of which she had just landed. Her mouth felt dry and hoarse from shouting. She, who took singular pride in never shouting at anyone, had stood like a hoyden in the stable yard and shouted and cried and pleaded with a man who declared his undying love with one breath and his unwillingness to act on that love with the next.
As she trudged up the steps, she felt curiously devoid of feeling, as if all the emotion her body could know had been spent. When she reached the top stair, the door swung open for her, but instead of going inside, Elizabeth stopped and looked down a corridor of trees, the avenue down which Fitzwilliam had ridden. The end was barred by a large elaborate gate, emblazoned with the family crest. Elizabeth's words to him came upon her in a rush. 'There are worse sins than that' she remembered saying. The thought arrested her. Like what? What is worse than breaking a promise? What is worse than violating the code of honor that binds us all together? Old sermons bubbled up. Anger, that's an easy one. And envy and sloth. Years of useful tracts and pious teachings dredged up the old fiends for her to evaluate and weigh. Aquinas's deadly seven, yes... She ticked off the rest...gluttony, pride, covetousness...and every country parson's favorite, lust.
She felt pain in her right hand and looked down, unclenching her fists. Her nails had dug into her palm around a ball of mud, which she must have grasped as she swam in the stable yard. She felt detached, lightheaded, almost faint, watching the damp earth crumble in her still unfolding hand. And then with all the strength of Hercules, Elizabeth drew back her arm and heaved the mud clot toward the iron gate. She watched its graceful arc rise heavenward and then fall short, pitifully short, childishly short of the gate. It splattered on the road, inconsequential. With bitterness in her heart, she turned and walked into the soft coolness of Matlock Manor's ancient hall.
The roar of angry voices emanating from the morning salon abruptly stopped when Elizabeth appeared at the door. Disheveled, her skirts well more than the proverbial six inches deep in mud, Elizabeth scanned the room absently. Jane hurried to her sister's side, but Elizabeth held off the embrace.
"Mr. Darcy has gone home to Pemberly." She explained woodenly. "And now if you'll excuse me, I've had a rather trying morning."
As Elizabeth wearily climbed the stairs to her bedchamber, she heard the room explode again in anger and acrimony. I'll give him that, she thought. Talking too much does tear families apart.
Charles Bingley, the amiable Mr. Bingley, renewed the battle. "What were you thinking, Jenna?" he scolded his cousin again. "And you, ma'am," he said turning to Mrs. Gardiner. "And even you, Jane? Did any of you really think that any good could come of telling Elizabeth all that happened? All that happened twenty years ago, I might add. If he wanted to devote his life to her happiness, that's his business. At least she and Darcy were friends. But now you have robbed him of that."
The ladies protested that they had not robbed anyone of anything, but had merely set the wheels in motion for something good to come of all the heartache Darcy had endured. But the Earl, in his booming voice, overpowered them all. "Beastly business, this. Evie and I certainly didn't know that Fitz was all for our Elizabeth. Did we, milady?"
Lady Matlock rolled her sloe eyes lazily at her husband, not quite willing to admit to the room that she had missed the signs and had no inkling of the passion that burned between her two favorite guests.
"And Richard," the Earl blustered on. "My brother never would have married Elizabeth if he had known that Fitz was there first. Richard always was one for fair play, I'll give him that. Well, it's beastly, that's all there is to it. We'd be a darn sight better off if it was still under wraps. Don't let the cat out, that's what I say." The Earl warmed to his topic, "Our man Darcy knows his duty, and he'll do it. Make no mistake. You won't find him breaking a promise just to satisfy his..." Mercifully the Earl remembered that he was holding court in his home with ladies present and was not in attendance at one of his clubs. Had he completed his sentence, there's a high likelihood that one or more of the ladies, probably his wife, would have lobbed a vase in the general direction of his head.
Luckily Mrs. Gardiner took up reason as her vanguard and pointed out that no one, in fact, knew what Darcy and Elizabeth had said to each other. But "We know that Darcy has fled and Lizzy is covered in dirt" was the male rejoinder. The implications of what was meant by Elizabeth being covered in dirt were roundly disputed, and while the last gasps of propriety were being sucked out of the argument, Charles Bingley flanked the lot.
"The material point is that you women should have sought our counsel before you took it upon yourselves to intervene. We could have told you that Darcy would never dishonor himself by marrying Elizabeth, strong as their feelings for each other may be. His word to Wickham, not to mention his respect for his cousin, prohibit this union. Now Elizabeth must join Darcy in imagining how her life might have been. Any hope we had of her remarrying is shattered by this morning's actions." He shook his head ruefully. "You ladies took too much upon yourselves, though the road you trod was paved with good intentions." While this final remark may have sounded like charity itself, its tone betrayed the slightest shade of smugness, and this was a shade so foreign to his features that his female relatives gaped in amazement to hear him slight them so.
"Charles, please, you forget yourself." Everyone, not just her husband, stared at Jane Bingley, flushed and trembling with anger, as she cried, "I am not a child, nor is my aunt, nor is my cousin to be instructed in what we may or may not tell my sister. As my aunt has said, we do not know what they said to each other. But I do know this..." Jane covered her mouth with her handkerchief, screwing up her courage, "I believe, with all my heart, that the truth will set you free and Lizzy had a right to hear the truth about Mr. Darcy's love for her," she sobbed. "And nothing you say will make me believe we were in the wrong." Her speech over, Jane squared her shoulders and clasped her hands to keep them from shaking. She bravely held her husband's shocked gaze, refusing to look down or away. Twenty years of marriage, and this her first indignant speech. It felt good.
Jenna valiantly took up the banner. "After Richard died, we were sure...Mama and I prayed that Mr. Darcy would speak to Lizzy. A year of mourning passed, but Mr. Darcy didn't speak. Last month marked two years since Lizzy became a widow. And Mr. Darcy would just watch her. Every move she made, every word she uttered. And I could tell that she cared for him too. After Richard was no longer with us, it was Mr. Darcy that Lizzy turned to. He was always the first one to receive a smile when the men would join us after dinner. Any fool could see the love in her eyes when she teased him into smiling and made up jokes for his benefit and at his expense. They read the same books, they like the same poets. They admire the same landscapes, they see the same vistas. She always looks to him, whether she is visiting the sick or buying a gem or ordering dinner..."
"And—he—was—content!" Edward Forsythe, Jenna's husband, interrupted.
"He was miserable!" was the rebound.
Lady Matlock stood fast with her sex, "If the stupid man would never speak his heart to Lizzy after he had the chance, then I say my sisters were right to up the ante. Lizzy's lonely, and young Richard is grown and making his way in the world, so why shouldn't she and Darcy..." She was shouted down by her husband's battlecry of family honor, but she rallied and subdued him with a glare, "I just don't see the harm in Darcy finding happiness with Elizabeth, and she with him. By all accounts this Wickham was a rotten one, and he tricked Darcy anyway. What honor is there in letting him win?" Because this last was purely rhetorical, Lady Matlock didn't pause and allow for answers, but plunged on, "I hate waste, and I hate all that love just going to waste and turning both of them into pitiful objects."
Georgiana could stand no more. She rose from the seat she had held while all the anger swirled around her. "Stop it. Stop it, I tell you." She stamped her foot. "Fitzwilliam is not pitiful. He is a man of deeply held convictions. Elizabeth is not pitiful. She is a woman of great character. We have no right to discuss their feelings or their future. We are all in the wrong, we all overstepped our bounds, and now we must all stop before we do more harm still."
Her husband, Lord --, who had also held himself aloof from the drama, came to her side and draped a comforting arm around her thin shoulders. She turned to him and buried her face on his shoulder.
"Enough then," he said. "Remember why we all are here today. We came together to celebrate the union of a daughter and a son of this family. To honor Catherine and James, married this day, and to honor Richard, whom we miss so dreadfully, and to honor Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, whom we love so much, we must not meddle or gossip or argue or conspire anymore. We simply must have faith that those we love will find a way..." He groped for words, "...will find a way...to keep their love from destroying them."
Lord -- helped Georgiana back to her chair, and bent low to kiss her hand and smile into her grateful eyes, so full and brown and troubled gazing back at him. He then kissed Mrs. Gardiner's hand, then Jane's and Jenna's, and finally bowed low over Lady Matlock's. With a glint in his eye, he solemnly apologized for the dreadful scene that had played out in her home that morning.
"Get on with you, you scamp," Lady Matlock scolded, good humor finally returning to her face. "I'll accuse you of being a 'Collins' if you keep on bowing and scraping."
The room exploded with laughter, a welcome relief from the tension that had ruled, for in this extended family, a 'Collins' was considered the very worst of epitaphs."
"Horrors!" he replied in kind. Then all agreed that Lady Matlock had better call for some food and drink, and quickly too, to restore their sense and sensibilities to a more normal pitch.
Meanwhile, above the fray, Elizabeth found her room. Her maid, Elise, was at her side, ready to help her shed her soiled dress and wash her face. Ready to fix her hair and smooth her rumpled spirits. Elizabeth patted her arm and gave her a wan smile, then waved her off, mute and tired, and closed the door behind her.
She sat on the bed, staring out the window without seeing the blueness of the summer day or the airy tendrils of the clouds that drifted by. Her hands held the miniature of Richard that traveled with her always. While her eyes stared blankly forward, she rubbed the smooth contour of the frame and grazed her fingers over the picture, caressing the face of her dead husband.
She didn't need to look at Richard's portrait to see his face as the artist had captured it. The rumple of hair, forever unruly. The curve of his mouth, that had kissed her with tenderness and passion. The sparkle in his eyes, hinting of the tease to come, the compliments to follow, and the embrace that would ensue. She could see, without looking, the scarlett of his coat, for the portrait had been taken early in their marriage, before he had retired from the army, during their first trip together, to Weymouth.
She had gone seabathing for the first time, and he had enjoyed the spectacle immensely. It was one of his favorite stories, how she had fumbled about in the seabathing machine and had gathered quite a crowd around it with her squeals and observations. He had been called upon to rescue her, of course, and then he would wink at his audience and drawl that the rescuing part was the best part of all. Later that day, he had paid an exorbitant sum to have miniature portraits taken—one for each. She could never look at his without remembering the seabathing story. The last thing she saw as the coffin lid was closed was his miniature of her clasped between his hands, folded on his chest.
"What should I do?" She mouthed the words, first to the window and then to the portrait. "What would you have me do, my dear?"
It had happened so fast. One day Richard was himself, riding, boisterous, jovial. The next, he was lying in bed with a fever that raged out of control. Somehow he knew that his body was shutting down, and he clung to Elizabeth in those moments when the delirium eased. He told her what she had meant to him, how happy she had made him, and how he prayed that she would find happiness again. He wanted her to remarry—"Don't forget me, old girl," he had said, "but don't waste all that love you have weeping at a grave."
And then Elizabeth stood up, knowing where to go. She kissed the miniature and stowed it in a drawer. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and pulled a face, what a grimy mug, no wonder I scared him off. And without further ado, she left her room. She walked softly down the stairs, stopping briefly to listen to the sounds of her relatives enjoying a meal together. She smiled—At least they've stopped yelling. That's a start anyway.
She walked the circuit of the park until she came to the stream that tumbled down from the hills, wound its way through the Matlock estate, and then ventured on to Pemberly, which bordered Matlock to the west. She left the main path, and took a smaller one, following the stream up and away from the house, and through a quiet wooded area to a little lake. The lake's grassy bank was fringed with trees, saplings mostly, fleeing the darkness of the wood, looking for a bit of light in which to thrive. In the middle of the lake was an island, and in the middle of the island was Richard's grave.
Elizabeth stood on the grassy shore and gazed across at the island. It was a bower of pink and yellow, blue and purple, orange and white—the colors blending and flowing almost like liquid. Two years ago, she had knelt in its newly turned dirt on a wet day in April and had planted the flowers. Carefully choosing those that would grow wild and natural, reseeding themselves and taking over the island, providing sanctuary for birds and nourishment for bees. She had dug in the earth herself, letting the dirt invade her fingernails and hair and streak her face and cake her dress. She closed her eyes, remembering the cold mist that had enveloped her as she planted bulbs and seedlings around and over Richard's grave.
Every day for six months, she had visited the lake, watching her love take root once again. She and her son had stayed with Richard's family and together they had grieved. And then one day, Mr. Darcy, Fitzwilliam now, had come. They had walked back to the little lake together and sat in silent commune. And then he made a request. "Come to London. You need to get young Richard back into the world. The world needs you again, too. Richard wouldn't you weeping at his grave, you know." So she went to London and fell in love all over again.
The sun passed overhead and started its slow descent into the western sky. Elizabeth threw pebbles into the water and watched the ripples. She practiced skipping stones, trying to remember the technique her son had shown her. She couldn't get but one to skip. She watched birds in flight and listened to the insect hum of summer. She felt the cool breeze from the water caress her cheek and slip down her back and embrace her, making her skin tingle and her heart ache. And all through the afternoon the gentle cooing of doves nesting in the wood filled the air with their love song.
"It is not wrong to want to share this feeling," she said aloud, daring the world to answer back. "It is not wrong to love and be loved. My loving him is as natural as the wind and the rain. It's as natural as saplings seeking light. His loving me is as natural as water running downhill, as natural as the warmth of the sun opening a flower's petals."
And then a thought occurred, so dangerous in its simplicity that she feared it was lie, "There is a natural order that precludes all talk of honor. Honor is what men invent when they do not trust their love."
And then, she knew what she would do. She held her arms out wide and embraced the sky and the trees and the little island running riot with colors that spilled down into the lake. "Thank you, Richard," she breathed heavenward. "Thank you."
Elizabeth walked back to the manor house with a lighter step than when she had set forth earlier in the day. As she wound her way back, she worked though the details of her plan, first smiling with anticipation then biting her well-chewed lip with anxiety. For though the course of action she had decided upon spread clearly in front of her and she was calm in her resolve, she blanched at the ferocity of the arguments that would descend from family and friends, not to mention from Fitzwilliam himself, when they realized her intent.
It was only when she reached the front of the house and saw the Darcy carriage heading down toward the gate and away from her did she blush as her pulse quickened. Had he returned only to find her gone? But no, disappointed but relieved, she remembered his instructions to Tom the stable boy. Darcy had ridden home on his horse and only now were his carriage and personal affects being dispatched to Pemberley, a sad reminder of the chasm that lay between them. Seeing his carriage jarred her nerves and she found herself more anxious than eager for what lay ahead. She gritted her teeth and went inside.
No sooner did she enter the hall, then Jane rushed to her side again. Clearly she had been missed. This time, though, she did not spurn her sister's fond embrace. Instead, she hugged Jane hard, kissed her aunt's cheek and patted Charles's arm fondly. She returned the Earl's wink with a slight one of her own and smiled gratefully into the faces of her worried relatives. She calmly reassured them that all would be well, in time, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief as she ascended the stairs to her bedchamber.
The faithful Elise offered her services again and this time Elizabeth ordered a bath as well as food, a glass of wine and a roaring fire. This last took Elise by surprise until Elizabeth informed her that she wished her hair washed and wanted it to dry as quickly as possible. Then as Elise went about her duties, enlisting other servants to help her do her lady's bidding, Elizabeth shocked her maid further by ordering her to prepare her yellow ball gown and then pack their trunks. They were quitting Matlock Manor that very evening.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, safe in the dim recesses of his study at Pemberley, knew no such calmness of spirit or lightening of mood. Unlike Elizabeth, he felt no heady vacillation between eagerness and anxiety. His only sensation was a dull throb in his head and a dry throat that neither wine nor whiskey nor water would ease. Unlike Elizabeth, he had no plan to breach the gulf that separated them one from the other—why plan what you cannot build, why want what you cannot have? But like Elizabeth, he faced the future with firm resolve and prayed that he would have the strength to do what he felt he must. Like Elizabeth, he ordered his servants to pack his trunks.
Darcy's ride from Matlock had taken him far over the countryside for he found some comfort in riding hard and had spurred his horse to a gallop shortly after he had exited the park. He arrived at Pemberley, dripping with sweat and exhausted, but with a clearer mind. From the housekeeper to the kitchen maids, his staff were visibly relieved to see him home. Word had come from Matlock that their master had left for Pemberley, but he had not been seen for hours and some had feared the worst.
He changed his clothes, ate sparingly and then went to work at his desk. Once he had decided on his course of action, he lost no time in implementing it. He reviewed Pemberley's account books, first alone and then with his estate manager, discussing tenancy and production, the weather and the expected early harvest. He wrote detailed instructions to his solicitor in London and even more minute instructions to his housekeeper at his London residence. He wrote at length to his sister and his cousin, the Earl of Matlock, and then briefly to the hordes that constituted the rest of his family.
He wrote to his godson, Elizabeth's son Richard, at Oxford. They were regular correspondents, for young Richard had a keen scientific mind and enjoyed debating the latest theories with his elder cousin. Darcy wrote about the political stalemate over the Great Western Railway project, a subject he knew Richard followed closely. Darcy had invested heavily in the still new Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the cousins had met numerous times with the engineers, including the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whom Darcy believed to be brilliant despite colossal setbacks.
Finally, he implored Richard to continue on in life as he had begun, steady and earnest, and to stay close to his mother for he, Darcy, was leaving the country and would not be there to watch over her as he had been wont to do. Since his father's death when he was sixteen, young Richard had instinctively turned to Darcy for counsel and support. Together they had advised Elizabeth so expertly and covertly that she believed her son was a financial genius and a managerial wonder.
Had Richard been his own son, Darcy couldn't have loved the young man more. While the Colonel was still alive, Darcy had been careful not to overstep his role as godparent. But his time with Elizabeth's son had been precious. They had done the usual fishing and riding, of course, but they had also spent months together touring the engineering wonders of England and Europe, crawling under bridges and viaducts, inspecting tunnels and aquaducts, analyzing cathedrals and tracing Roman roads. Darcy sighed as he signed the letter and sealed it. He had known he would miss the young man, but he hadn't realized how much until he placed Richard's letter on top of the growing pile and pulled out another clean sheet of paper.
His last letter was for Elizabeth. He delayed writing it, as if the delay would somehow make it easier to finally say all that must be said. He paced the room and then stood at the window, gazing down on his beautiful park with its trout stream and wild, natural beauty. Whether the day was sunny or misty, bright or gray, Pemberley never failed to touch his heart with its grace and serenity. He would miss it all terribly. He had never cared for the Indian sun—eighteen months in Bombay had proven long, hot, and dull and he had returned to England fervently wishing to never live abroad again. But Darcy could think of no better place on earth than India to put himself out of the way of the temptation Elizabeth presented. After the morning's horrible scene in the Matlock stable yard, he knew he hadn't the strength to refuse her again. And he had promised himself as he rode away from her that he would never watch her cry again. There was nothing for it but to leave.
He called for more coffee and idly stirred his cup until it was undrinkably cold. He rested his elbows on his desk and massaged his throbbing temples. He closed his eyes, counted down to zero and then gave in to temptation. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and carefully took out a beautiful black japanned box. He lifted its lid, and then a piece of parchment paper, and then finally laid his treasure before him on the desk. Gazing up at him, with a shy glint in her eye, was Elizabeth. It was only a sketch that Georgiana had done once upon a time when they were altogether for Christmas, sometime within the last ten years. Georgiana had done a second, better rendering that she had given to the Colonel as a present. He remembered that while the others had exclaimed over the brilliance of the artist and her subject, he had rummaged through Georgiana's discards for the trial sketch and had secreted it away. The framed painting hung in the gallery in Corley Manor. The pencil study lay sheathed between parchment in Darcy's desk.
He positioned the sketch to his left, mended his pen, and wrote the letter. He wrote all that he felt in his heart, all that he had ever felt for her. He wrote about the first time he had written to her, from his bedchamber at Rosings after she had refused his proposal. She was right to do so, he admitted. He had been blind to her feelings and regretted that he had caused her pain. He wrote of his joy in discovering her at Pemberley that August day when she and her aunt and uncle had ventured to visit. He told her how he had run through his house, frantic to change his shirt and make himself presentable before she left, as if a changed shirt would reveal the changes within the man beneath it.
He wrote to her of the morning he had ridden to Lambton to see her, the day after she had called on his sister and their friends. "That morning," he wrote, "I felt as if I were riding through Elesian fields. The world was wet and fresh for the sun had not yet dried the dew. I remember the smell of new-mown hay and the earthy sweat of my horse. I can almost taste the joy I felt just knowing I would see you again. I was so elated that had you met me with a smile, I'm not certain but that I would have dropped to my knees on the spot and begged your forgiveness for every stupid thing I ever said or did. I would have rashly given all my love and pled for yours."
He wrote on, a full confession of feelings that should have died and memories hoarded up and savored that should have been released. He wrote that he found solace in knowing that she had loved him once and did again. He wanted her to know that her admonitions of so long ago had been attended to and that her approval was uppermost in all he said or did.
When he finished, he wandered the room, reading his letter, reluctant to seal and stack it with the rest. He sat on the settee and read it again, stretching out his long legs and sinking his head back into the green damask. He read it again and yet again, the pages drifting around him, until he finally fell asleep, exhausted from heartache and hunger.
Elise poured bath salts into the hot water and swirled them with her hand. Then she took Elizabeth's wrapper as her mistress tested the temperature with a toe. Her sigh told Elise that she had met the mark. As Elizabeth sank into her bath, Elise took on her next task, that of preparing the creamy yellow ball dress for whatever Mrs. Fitzwilliam had in mind for tonight.
First she unwrapped the dress, removing the papers that held its shape. Then she aired it and used the heat from the fire to ease the wrinkles from the silken folds and crisp and freshen its lace accents. While the dress was breathing, as Elise put it, she washed and rinsed Elizabeth's hair and then began the long process of drying it, for Elizabeth's hair fell well below her waist in a thick mass of curls. Elise brushed it by the fire and lifted it like a veil to catch the under layer.
"What style tonight, madam?" Elise asked.
"One pin, if you please," Elizabeth smiled back.
"Oh madam, at last you ask me to use my skills again," Elise enthused. "But," she cautioned, "your hair is longer now and still so thick and we have not done 'one pin' for years..."
"Are you not up to the task, Elise?" Her mistress teased.
"I did not say that, madam. One pin I shall give you."
Darcy stirred in his sleep and then rolled, almost off the settee, just catching himself from falling to the floor. The room was dim, almost dark. Darcy could see through the western window the last rays of summer sun succumbing to twilight. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. The pages of his letter lay scattered around him, underfoot and crumpled.
He started to pick up the papers, but stopped and cocked his head as he faintly heard what he thought must be music.
A discrete knock on the study door drowned the thin melodic strains and Darcy looked up to see his man Jasper pushing open the door, flooding the study with lamplight.
"Sir? Sir, I took the liberty to order you a tray..."
Darcy stood up and ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up on end. "Yes, quite so...fine." He looked about the room vaguely. "I must have fallen asleep..."
Jasper motioned to a maid waiting in the shadows with a dinner tray, and then set about lighting the lamps of the study as the girl laid out Darcy's dinner on a small table. When he didn't have guests in the house, Darcy usually ate in his study, reading or watching the park. Deer often came to drink from the stream in the evening and the lush meadow and wood beyond it boasted such an abundance of flora and fauna that he never lacked for something to observe.
Darcy knelt again to gather the pages of his letter, but then stopped, arrested in his task again by a notion of distant music. He hushed Jasper, who had begun to rattle on to jolly his master out of his odd humor. Darcy turned his face quizzically to his man and then to the maid, "What is that?"
They held silent and strained to hear what Darcy was hearing.
"Music, sir? Jasper said hesitatingly.
"Mozart, I think..."
"What the devil..." and then he stopped, remembering. "It's just Mrs. Whitling's son—I told her he could practice on Georgiana's pianoforte in the music room whenever he liked." He stood at the door and listened again to the distant strains of the pianoforte floating through his house. "And it's not Mozart, it's Handel." He leaned against the doorframe and stared upward. "The Largo," he breathed.
And then swore softly under his breath. "I wish to God he hadn't picked that tune tonight."
And then his legs began to move him almost dreamlike toward the music. It compelled him forward, down the hall and up the stairs and down the gallery, past portraits of ancient Darcys and timeless Fitzwilliams. His pace quickened as the music grew louder until by the time he reached the open door he was fairly running, and then he stopped short, gaping at the scene before him.
And then he knew that he was still asleep, still dreaming, for there at the pianoforte in his own music room in his house, glowing like the honey candles that surrounded her was his own Elizabeth. Playing the music she played in his dreams, wearing a dangerously low cut dress of creamy yellow, her chestnut curls flecked with white and massed about her face, smiling the smile that made his heart pound and his flesh burn. Her eyes glinted and teased, and he prayed that this time he would not wake.
She started her song again, "Ombra mai fù"—Never was made.—from near silence to an overpowering crescendo she sang Xerxes's love song to a plane tree, "Per voi risplenda il Fato"— Let Fate smile upon you. She thanked it for its shade, for its loveliness, for its gentle constancy. "Tuoni, Lampi, e Procelle"— May thunder, lightning, and storms —"Non Non vi oltraggino mai la cara pace"— never bother your dear peace. He walked toward her, smiling broadly, the years and cares and shadows falling from his face as he understood her meaning, and took her song as a gift to his heart.
Her words and music swelled to a final soaring description of the delightful world they shared together. And then she was done, and they stared at each other across the gleaming surface of the instrument, neither willing to break the magic that hung, almost visible in the air.
Elizabeth broke the silence first with an arch smile, and said teasingly, "You mean to frighten me, Fitzwilliam, by coming in all this state to hear me. But I will not be alarmed, though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.''
"I shall not say that you are mistaken,'' he replied, almost laughing at their playing out again that damnable scene from so long ago. "Because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in professing opinions which in fact are not your own.''
"I am not afraid of you,'' said she, smilingly, standing up and moving around the instrument towards him.
"Nor I of you," was his loving reply, stepping forward to greet her.
A voice at the door rang out. "Sir? Sir, madam, shall I have dinner served now?"
Darcy spun on his heel to find Jasper grinning like a fool. He looked to Elizabeth, his eyes wide with alarm, who said, "Jasper and I are old friends..."
He took a step back and covered his mouth with his hand, a growing horror gaining on him, "Then you're not a dream..."
"Oh no," she laughed, taking back the step he had gained. "I thought you said you weren't afraid of me."
"We've been through this. Please. Don't make me do this again, I beg you. I've made my plans." His voice cracked as he continued, "I'm leaving England. I'm resolute in this. We've been through this," he ended desperately.
She laughed softly, her curls swaying enticingly. Her white arms soft and round, her waist encased in silk the color of buttercups. "We've only just begun," she murmured.
She took his hand to keep him from backing further. And with her other hand, she motioned to Jasper to have dinner served. She led Darcy to the table, festooned with June lilies and yellow roses and blue forget-me-nots. She poured him a glass of champagne. "Now eat before you faint from hunger. Jasper tells me you've been starving yourself all day. And while we eat, I will let you know what I've been thinking..."
A veteran of married life, Elizabeth knew that difficult subjects are best dealt with during the afterglow of a satisfying meal. Elizabeth wisely let Darcy's French cook seduce him first with aromatic soups and rich, tender meats swimming in mouth-rounding savory sauces. She sat back and let him succumb to the healing powers of roasted root vegetables and flaky pastry. She let him feel the warm caress of wine mingle with the sweet and sour, spicy, savory meal he shared with her.
Instead of arguing her case, Elizabeth simply let the soft candlelight and heady aroma of flowers conspire with gentle music to soothe and fill, heal and calm. As Mrs. Whitling's son took her place at Georgiana's pianoforte, Elizabeth talked softly of this and that, sipping when he sipped, sighing with contentment, and encouraging him with her smiles. Whenever he broached the subject of her presence in his house, she expertly led him down a different, less ominous path of conversation.
Once he started eating, he fell to and finally realized how hungry he had been by how satisfied he became. By the time they reached the last course, Darcy was sufficiently himself again to propose that they walk in the garden. Unabashedly, he took Elizabeth's hand and pulled her to her feet, then he tucked her hand within the crook of his arm, his fingertips lingering over hers.
The torches in the garden cast streams of light that crisscrossed the lawns and winding paths. Darcy and Elizabeth strolled past manicured beds of midsummer flowers, fragrant in the night air. After one complete circuit, he stopped and instinctively turned to the woman at his side.
He felt his whole being bewitched by her presence. He found himself just touching the backs of her elbows with his palms, and then sliding his hands down her forearms until the fingers of each folded onto each other. He wanted so much to kiss her. He didn't think there was ever anything he had wanted so much in the world as to kiss Elizabeth now, this very instant, in the garden, on the last night he would ever see her. He had never promised not to kiss her, he told himself, and everything about her was beckoning him, pulling him in, drawing him forward. The fine hair on her arms, the smoothness of her nails, the rhythmic rise and fall of skin and silk as she breathed in the night air. She was simply and completely intoxicating. Just one kiss...just one night...just one more memory that he could add to his hoard. Almost against his will, he found himself leaning toward her, just beginning to bend her elbow back, and then so fast he couldn't stop her, she ducked and disengaged herself from him.
"I wrote to Richard this afternoon," he said quickly, folding his now empty hands behind his back.
"Oh, good. He was sorry to miss the wedding today..."
"Was it just today? It seems so long ago..." Darcy's voice trailed off.
Elizabeth gritted her teeth, knowing full well that she must speak now before she lost her nerve. "Fitzwilliam," she began tentatively, "there's something I neglected to tell you earlier today, back at Matlock, something that got lost in all the shouting and tears and flailing about..."
He smiled at her, his kind eyes crinkling his face. "You did flail a bit..." he teased, trying to recover the composure that the lost kiss had stolen.
She ignored his tease and continued, "I forgot to say 'thank-you.' But I do thank you, now and always, for all that you did for me and my family. Thank you for finding Lydia." He shook his head and started to interrupt her but she gently placed a finger to his lips, finding courage in speaking. "Thank you for dealing with Wickham. I know how difficult that must have been for you, but you did it and it was a noble thing to do. My poor dear father was not up to the task, we both know that, and our lives would have been shattered if Wickham had not married Lydia. You did it all—I didn't know what you did or I would have thanked you sooner. But I can thank you now and I do, with all my heart."
She slipped her arm back under his and patted it companionably as they began a second circuit of the garden. "And thank you for always being a good friend to Richard. You have no idea what your regard for my husband meant to him. You were more to him than a cousin, more to him than a brother." She looked down as she walked, picking her words as carefully as she picked her way on the gravel walk, "Thank you for the eulogy—your words helped us all...more than my words can say." She stopped and then surprised him by turning toward him and stroking his cheek and smoothing his always-tousled hair. "I see now that I've been taking you for granted. I always knew you were there for us, and that knowledge gave me strength to go on when I wanted to give up. Thank you for helping my son—for knowing when to bring us back to London and for guiding his studies and for being his friend."
"He's a good boy, a good man, I should say." Darcy said hoarsely. Her hand on his face was almost more than he could bear. It required all his strength of mind to hold his body in check and keep himself from wrapping his arms around her.
She nodded, and then rested both hands on his shoulders. She saw him swallow hard and his jaw clenched with tightness as she spoke on, "And thank you for being there for me. I had a guardian angel and I never knew it, but I do now." Her voice dropped so low that it seemed as though he was feeling her words rather than hearing them. "And Fitzwilliam, thank you for loving me, in spite of everything. You loved me even though I gave nothing in return. I can hardly imagine having that great a heart..."
Her cheeks were wet now with tears, which brought him some relief. For now he could fish into his pockets and produce a handkerchief and dab her eyes and then pretend to wring out, as if it were sopping wet. She laughed at him.
"I'm envious of you," she said, serious again. "I'm envious that you can say to me that all you do is for me." She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes, dark and warm in the torchlight. Her voice shook as she said, "But that's going to change. After tonight, I too will be able to say 'All I do, I do for you— because I love you.'"
He cocked his head and looked quizzically at her. "My dear..." he said gently, afraid of the sorrow his words would cause, "I must leave. This night is magical but it's madness. And we both know that we cannot give in to madness. I have decided. I must leave. India. Somewhere—anywhere—not here. You know we never can..."
"All I know is that you will never be alone again as long as I live. Call it madness if you like—or call it poetry or call it love—but this I know...I will stay with you and be with you wherever you go. I will give you comfort and companionship and love and laughter. I am a woman of independent means so if you want to go to India, then I will go as well. If you want to go to America or Italy or the moon, then I will go as well."
"We cannot marry, Elizabeth." He choked on her name, and in the torchlight, Elizabeth could see that his face wore the ashen hue it had that morning in the Matlock stable yard. She felt the magic draining from the moment. "I swore..."
"I'm not asking you to marry me."
"Then what..." The kindness in his eyes hardening at the enormity of what she was saying, as he finally understood her meaning.
"There are many names, pick your favorite...but know this, from henceforth I am your woman, and I will not leave you. I will crawl into your bed at night and wrap myself around you and give you back all the love you've denied yourself for years and years and years." As she spoke, Elizabeth's voice grew stronger and steadier and her tears dried and her courage rose.
"You can't..." he said weakly.
"Then throw me out now. My trunks are unpacked, but your servants will pack them and send me on my way if you tell them to."
"We've already had that row, before I left Matlock this afternoon. If you force me to leave you, I won't go back there..."
Darcy groaned and sank to the garden bench and buried his head in his hands. His stomach knotted with tension and his eyes burned with remorse and desire, guilt and confusion. "What of your son?" he whispered harshly.
Elizabeth sat beside him and lay her arm across his back. "He's a good man," she murmured, tracing circles on his back. "He may not understand now, but he will someday. Sooner rather than later, I think."
Darcy stood up abruptly, vacating Elizabeth's arm, which dropped empty to her side as she watched him stride away. Then he spun around crying, "What of your reputation—the reputation, may I remind you, that I was trying to save in the first place. You couldn't bear to live with the shame Lydia was bringing to your family, now you are proposing to do willfully what Lydia did in ignorance."
"Hmmm, ironic isn't it?" she said calmly. "You made a promise in order to save my reputation, and now I'm throwing that reputation away."
"Oh no you're not. I won't let you do this. You can't do this without me, you know. I won't let you be a wanton woman and live in sin..."
"There are worse sins..." she said rising from the bench as her voice rose.
"Coveting your neighbor's wife!" As soon as the words left her lips, Elizabeth knew she had gone too far. She knew by the crushing silence that enveloped them, she knew by the coldness that invaded his eyes, she knew by the hard, thin line that his mouth became. He turned and, without uttering a word, walked away from her. She felt a blow in every angry stride that propelled him up the gravel walk, across the cobbled courtyard, and up stone steps, two at a time. At the top of the stairs, the door to Pemberley swung open and then shut again, leaving Elizabeth alone in the garden with her shattered hopes and tattered pride.
In due time, long enough to regret her impetuous decision to offer herself to Darcy, knowing now that she had lost her truest friend and dearest love, Elizabeth made her way inside the house. Jasper met her with a long face and offered his assistance. She ordered her coach, and told him to find Elise to help her pack. He protested that a lady couldn't travel at night. She almost replied that she was no lady, but caught herself in time, and merely gave him a thin smile.
Elizabeth stopped at Darcy's study. Through the open door, she could see him leaning against the mantle. She wanted to creep on by, but her conscience forced her to speak. "You needn't leave England. I won't throw myself at you again. I promise. You needn't leave on my account." And with that, she climbed the steps to the room she had so blithely commandeered that afternoon.
Elise joined her and the ladies commenced packing, silently reversing the work they had done earlier in such high spirits. Elizabeth remembered her music books, left behind in the room where she had played her siren song. She sent her maid to fetch them and then, overcome with heat, opened wide the casement windows and gazed up into the starry, moonless night. The forest below was one great shadow and the soft summer breeze made her eyes sting.
If only she had taken more time to think things through. But no, impetuous as always, she had plunged ahead, right in her convictions but so utterly wrong in the words she used to try to make Darcy share in the truth that she had come to understand at the lake that afternoon. She knew that his promise, made under duress and with evil intent, was not sanctioned by God, and so breaking it was not a loss of honor. But now he could never come to see that because she had acted rashly, succumbing to madness brought on by the arrogance of her charm and the magic of midsummer.
She leaned out the window, trying to catch the wind, searching for a light in the blackness of the night. She felt dizzy, as if she had been spinning and whirling and her hands felt slippery as they gripped the window's edge.
The suddenness of his voice coming to her out of the dizzy darkness made her turn with such force that she almost fell to the ground below and she saw Darcy standing in the open doorway of her bedchamber. He took a step toward her, his eyes enormous in his pale face, but those eyes were kind again and his mouth tender. The mask was gone.
"Would you really stay with me?" He walked closer, and lifted one of her hands and slowly turned it over and pressed his lips first into the palm and then into the wrist. He traced the thin blue veins of each wrist in turn and then covered her shaking hands with his warm ones.
"If you'll have me," she managed to say.
"And how shall we get on?" he asked. She looked into his eyes and saw still a remnant of the hurt she had inflicted, but something more was there now too. Some fire that wouldn't die, a spark that now was pleading with her to make him smile just a little, to make him laugh perhaps.
And when she saw that shadow of a tease, that old familiar look, joy raced through her body and her spirit instinctively grew playful under his stare. That stare which hid so much and revealed so much, as if he were on the brink of laughing and was just barely holding it back. She rose to his challenge—she would make him laugh no matter what it took.
"We shall not hide behind sedate respectability. I promise you that everyone in town will know that Mr. Darcy finally has a mistress, although she's not so young as some people might have supposed he would prefer."
"Young enough for me..." he murmured, his eyes sparkling eagerly and his mouth twitching.
"Of course, I shall wear low-cut gowns, as befit a wanton woman..."
"Thank goodness. I hate the fashions of today...and colors, please tell me that you'll abandon those hideous grays and browns that 'nice' women wear."
"Oh yes, I shall wear yellow every other day, and sea-green, and brilliant blue. I'll even sprinkle my dresses as was done at court in our younger days, if you prefer..."
He laughed outright at this. "I'll let you know." He lifted her chin, insisting that she look at him directly. "Tell me more of how we shall get on..."
"I shall paint my face. My lips and cheeks shall be as scarlet as my dress when we go out to concerts and the theatre."
"More..." He was flushed now but still smiling, and finally her upbringing, natural modesty, and sense of decorum caught up with her and she blushed furiously as her heart pounded. Of course, her blushes only served to increase his ardor.
She bravely went on, for she loved the look on his face and wanted to see that look forever, cost her what it might. "And when we go out, I will kiss you with wild abandon in public places so that everyone will know that we are lovers..."
He rested his hands on her waist, and he said huskily, "And will you kiss me now?"
Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and grazed his cheek with her lips, then softly bit his earlobe, murmuring as her eyes closed, "With wild abandon..."
His lips were on hers, bruising them with passion. His left arm circled her strongly, and she could feel him shaking as he held her. His right hand cupped her head back as he kissed her face and throat and shoulders. His fingers caught the pin Elise had used to dress her lady's hair, and as he pulled it out, his lips and his hands and his heart were drowned in her long brown hair.
He gasped, awash at the beauty of the woman he cradled in his arms. "Godiva?" he breathed.
"If you like..." She said as he laced his arms around her hips and lifted her up to him.
"As you wish..." He swirled her around, resting her feet safely in front of his.
"Eve?" He looked questioningly into her eyes, her face secure in his hands.
"Elizabeth." He sighed, slipping to his knees and burying his face in the silken folds of her waist.
She bent and kissed the top of his head. She ran her fingers through his hair, caressing his temples and jaw, outlining his lips with her fingertips. "Forever yours," she promised, stepping back, holding his hands in hers, as if she were a queen and had just knighted him. She laughed and pulled him to his feet.
He looked at her his face aglow with a luminescence that could finally burn unrestrained. "Marry me?"
She shook her head.
"No, please, I want to marry you. I insist on marrying you."
She shook her head. "Either you break a promise or I'm a wanton woman—either way, we fall from grace, and this time it's my turn."
"No, no—don't you see? We fall into grace. 'Into' not 'from.' You must see that because I finally see it. It was my pride, my damnable pride, that all along made me think that a promise must be unbroken, even if keeping it breaks hearts and kills joy. And it was pride that led to all my other sins—sins greater than any you can contemplate—sins of lust and sloth, covetousness and anger. Marry me—embrace our joy—fall into grace with me!"
Elizabeth closed her eyes and felt the breeze from the casement window finally cool her fevered brow. Everything Darcy was saying now she had felt at the lake while she was communing with Richard's spirit. She simply hadn't known how to say it herself. She had not been able to find the words. She had only been able to grope towards them with her actions. She had come to his house, not knowing what to say, only knowing what she was willing to do and that it was right that she do it.
In the darkness of closed eyes, Elizabeth said, "A leap of faith. A leap of faith to fall into grace." And then she stepped blindly forward with her eyes still closed, falling into Darcy's waiting arms. She opened her eyes to find his fixed upon her, and she nodded her agreement to his proposal, just as he willed her to.
Darcy kissed her again, first her lips then her forehead, and while she was swooning, he ran into the hallway shouting for his man.
Jasper hurried down the hall, alarm in every feature, with Elise hot on his heels.
"Get Clarke out," Darcy shouted. "And his missus too. Get them here from the parsonage, double quick now. And change your shirt, man, for I am getting married tonight!"
In vain did Elizabeth argue that they hadn't followed the protocol for getting married. But all Darcy wanted was the ceremony to be performed in the eyes of God in the Pemberley chapel—"If men's oaths to each other are rot as we've established, than all the blasted rigmarole around getting married is rot too. The very reverend Mr. Clarke will suffice, my dear."
Elizabeth sighed—after all, she was marrying a man used to getting his own way.
Long after the servants had cleared away the breakfast buffet, long after the sun had reached the apex of the June sky, Darcy finally made an appearance below stairs the next day. He had left his bride upstairs in their bed, her long, brown curls blanketing her sleeping form, and had slipped into the breakfast parlour for something to eat. Yesterday had been a long day, and last night had been virtually sleepless. But immensely satisfying, he thought, as he stirred his coffee and unfolded the newspaper a footman had left at his place.
The same footman appeared with the letters from his study on a tray. "Shall I post these, sir?"
Darcy picked them up and looked at each one individually, remembering the previous day and the misery in which he had written them. He placed the stack back on the footman's tray, and instructed the man to burn them. "And there's another letter, too," he said. "Scattered about the study, burn that one as well."
"And rob me of entertaining reading?" Elizabeth had entered the room and was now walking up behind her husband. She stood with hands on hips and faced him down, as rosy and lovely as the summer morning she had missed.
Darcy waved the footman off with instructions to burn them all. He was about to pull Elizabeth into his lap and give her a hearty good morning when he stopped short.
"What on earth are you wearing?" he demanded.
Elizabeth glanced about her and looked puzzled in reply. There was nothing amiss with her dress.
"You promised me," he began, and then she smiled and rolled her eyes, knowing what was coming. "You promised me low-cut dresses and bright colors, and here you are in a gray dress with a collar that's practically choking you, and is definitely choking me, and we're not yet married twenty-four hours. Fine start this is."
"Now Mr. Darcy, I only promised such dresses if you did not marry me. But as Mrs. Darcy, I have our reputation to think of."
"Fie, Mrs. Darcy. You led me on. Admit it, you lovely wanton woman..."
At which point, he did succeed in securing her presence in his lap and administering the heartiest 'good morning' yet. After Elizabeth somehow managed to get something to eat, he informed her that he would need to take a closer look at her wardrobe because it was inconceivable that she did not own something more suitable to wear on the brightest day the world had yet seen.
They had planned to return together to Matlock Manor to explain to the various relatives still assembled of the extraordinary outcome to the chain of events that had been set in motion the previous day by Jenna's story. Of course, as it turns out, they got a later start then they intended. Primarily because Elizabeth was forced to change her dress several times before Darcy was sufficiently satisfied that the dress reflected the proper mood and before Elizabeth was sufficiently satisfied that it didn't reveal too much of his mood in particular.
And so at last, Elizabeth and Darcy set forth together for Matlock to brave the lions in their lair. They agreed that the private workings of their hearts were just that...private, and that honorable men need never explain their actions and dishonorable women need never try. All that anyone need know, they agreed, is that love trumps all.
And even now, there are some that say that on the day when Darcy took a wife, he sacrificed his honor and his handshake for the sake of his heart. There are some that say that Elizabeth led him into sin and tempted him and teased him, until he could not win. But wherever they went and whatever they did, they held this to be true—there is nothing greater than to tell the one you love "All I do, I do for you."
With leaping faith and a laughing mate and nature as their guide, our favorite pair found the only way to give their love fresh start. They lived in love and graced their world and taught their families well that what God has put together let no man try to keep apart.
Author's Note: Whew! Can I go on spring break now, and plant my garden, and pay some attention to my family (they're about to pull the plug). Thanks for all the comments over the past couple of weeks--this has been a blast to write. I love this couple!