Posted on 2015-06-28
Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy swiped the cloth across her daughter-in-law's perspiring forehead.
Eveline cried out, her features contorting and her lithe neck tightening with effort. Elizabeth's pulse quickened.
"Nearly there, ma'am," the midwife called from the fruitful end of the portable lying-in bed. "Once more, I think."
Eyes closed and panting, Eveline sank into the mattress like a horse coiling its haunches to leap a fence.
Elizabeth dipped the cloth into the cool water and wrung it. Earlier was not so difficult, but as the hours passed, as day lapsed into night and Eveline's pains increased, memories of her own experience in childbed came surging back, stronger and clearer with each cry Eveline uttered. Elizabeth inhaled another deep breath. Her grandchild would not be long now. She could see this through. She would provide the support that Eveline particularly requested.
The younger woman's recumbent form tensed further.
"Again, ma'am," the midwife ordered, "this time with all your strength."
Eveline's face reddened with strain.
The midwife started to exclaim, but her words dissolved in a chortle. Indistinct movements flurried beyond the sheet.
A pause hovered, breathless and expectant. Then a newborn cry sliced through the suspense.
Elizabeth's heart stuttered. The room went black.
Shadows cavorted in an unnerving dance on Elizabeth's bedchamber walls. Silhouettes moved near her feet, backlit by candles, their features hazy. If only she could see the baby! Elizabeth fought to wrest her shoulders from the clinging linens, but fatigue and pain pinned her to the mattress. The squalling continued.
"Is the babe well?" she called. She could not keep silent a moment longer.
"Yes, healthy and sound." A towel whipped aloft in the midwife's hands. "You may rest easy on that count."
How could she rest easy when her child was to be snatched away like a lamb in a wolf's jaws? She may have agreed to the arrangement, but that was before she understood the joy of motherhood and the wonder of ushering a new life into the world could surpass the horror which consigned her to this circumstance. This was all wrong. Her arms ached for her baby. She needed to hold him--or her?--just once and then she might let go.
She rolled a little to the side. The midwife transferred a white bundle to Mrs. Lenthall, and Elizabeth's stomach clenched. The rector's wife jiggled her burden and reached into the blanket with one hand, clucking and cooing. The cries dwindled.
Primal jealousy stalked Elizabeth's breast and sunk its claws in her heart. She should be the one comforting her child. She was the one who feigned pleasure that she should rapidly increase following her hasty marriage. She was the one who weathered the questioning glances and bore the secret shame, yet marveled at each kick through the interminable months of waiting.
"Please," she panted, "I must hold my baby."
The lace-trimmed cap flew up to reveal the familiar grandmotherly countenance. Startled eyes above lined cheeks met her gaze. Guilty eyes. The bedroom door opened, and the rector paused beneath the lintel.
"Mrs. Lenthall," he addressed his wife, "we must away this minute. The chaise stands ready to depart."
"No!" Elizabeth stretched both arms toward them. "Please, I beg you. You must allow me to kiss her--kiss him--farewell."
The rector and his wife exchanged a searching look, reading words written in the other's eyes. That was the way with couples long married, not that she could ever hope to know the intimacy of mutual understanding. Wickham had stolen far more than her innocence. Bitterness was a rush light laid to the nest of her anger.
Mr. Lenthall stepped forward, a sad smile deepening the lines between his bushy grey brows. "I am sorry, Mrs. Rawlins, but it is for the best."
"This is not best! You are mistaken." The words ripped from Elizabeth, guttural and demanding, uprooted from the very substance of her soul. She pushed to her elbows, shaking with effort. "Please--"
Mrs. Lenthall cast a final compassionate glance, then turned and ducked under her husband's arm. He held Elizabeth's gaze a moment longer. "God bless you, my child, for your courage and sacrifice. We shall return as soon as may be."
Elizabeth slumped back against the pillows. Her wail, futile with a sorrow she could never have imagined, bombarded the closed door, but it was impenetrable as a fortress. She paused for breath. Footsteps on the stair drew her baby further away, the cord uniting their hearts stretched until it must sever. But she would never forget. No, she could never forget.
The midwife's hands fluttered about her shoulders. "There, there, Mrs. Rawlins, you must not excite yourself so. You have been through an ordeal. It is best if you rest now, quietly."
Best. That word again. Irritation's heat prickled her flesh. Best if she remove to the north. Best if she cut ties with her family. Best if she marry Mr. Rawlins--no matter that he was neither young nor handsome, no matter that she did not love him--at least he was kind. Best if she lose her baby, if she pretend he never drew breath, never keened for his mama. When would she cease being told what was best? Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the past year was for the best.
Elizabeth went limp, her anger depleted, and shivered against the damp linens. Hands moved around her, cleaning her, removing her soaked shift, and drawing down the fresh one rolled beneath her arms. They removed the soiled bedclothes and tucked her into dry sheets. She observed as if it were happening to another young woman.
Her husband came to bear her company. He stroked her temple, patted her hand and read from the psalter, but the psalmist was in error. Weeping did not endure for a night; it endured for a lifetime. A fissure had rent the bedrock of her existence, and the ever-expanding crevasse threatened to swallow her.
The door latched with a soft snick, and Elizabeth peered around the empty room. Alone at last. A solitary candle wavered on her bedside table. She rolled away from the light, drawing up her knees as far as she was able. And wept.
Elizabeth swiped at her wet cheeks. Neither her present name nor the voice belonged in her memory. No, they belonged to Holymoor Abbey, where she was attending Eveline in parturition.
A wrapped bundle rested in the nurse's arms, but the blanket's corner shielded the little face from view. "Would you care to hold your granddaughter?"
Elizabeth glanced at Eveline. Perspiration glistened on her ivory skin, coiled her honey locks in tight ringlets against her forehead and left dark splotches on her gown, but her cheeks were rosy and her tired eyes were beaming. The picture of youthful health and happiness.
"Please?" Eveline's gentle smile mirrored her father's. "I would be honored if you would bring her to me."
"On the contrary, it would be my honor." Elizabeth rose from the bedside chair and approached the nurse, her eyes never leaving the babe. A knot tightened in her stomach. Then the air soured in her lungs, the walls contracted, and she shut her eyes against the dizziness.
Door hinges squeaked, followed by a footstep and the rector's voice. "Mrs. Rawlins?"
"Mr. Lenthall?" Elizabeth uncurled her aching limbs enough to squint past the footboard.
"Forgive me." He stood just inside her bedchamber, a wrapped baby tucked in the crook of his elbow. "If you would like to say good-bye--"
"Yes!" She pushed to a seated position, her pulse battering her temples and darkness peppering her sight. She blinked rapidly and shook her head. "Please bring him--her--"
"Him," he said, "a fine, strong son." He advanced four steps to her bedside and lowered the swaddling into her trembling arms.
Her baby's weight was precisely what she dreamt it would be, and he nestled into her bosom as snugly as a chick beneath a hen's wing. She tugged the blanket from under his chin to expose more of his face, traced the wispy brown hair plastering his crown, and touched the puffy red skin sealing his eyes. She smiled as his broad mouth moved in a sucking motion. If only she might put him to her breast, nurse him, raise him, love him. She swallowed back a sob. He was beautiful. She lowered her lips to his forehead and inhaled his scent, earthy and warm like Papa's leather chair fragrant from the heat of his presence.
"I love you," she whispered. "I love you and I will pray for you every day of my life. Go with God, my precious boy." How could she bear to release him? She clasped him tighter, bowed her head lower. A scalding tear fell to his cheek. He was baptized with her love.
A second tear joined the first and then a third, the bulb of moisture expanding. A fourth tear fell and the drop wobbled before dissolving and coursing down the ruddy skin. Elizabeth dabbed at the moisture with utmost gentleness.
"Mamma Elizabeth?" Concern quavered in Eveline's sweet voice, drawing Elizabeth back to the present. "Are you unwell?"
"No, my dear, I am quite well"--the words rasped in her throat--"only so very pleased for you." Elizabeth studied the baby again and saw her for the first time, dainty features shimmering with her grandmother's tears, sandy brown hair, tawny eyelashes and a petite bow mouth. Not her son, not her Theo, but his own daughter to love and cherish. More tears threatened, but she blinked them away and turned back to Eveline's bedside to transfer the child to her eager mother. "She is perfect. My most heartfelt felicitations."
Eveline's graceful neck curved over her daughter like a sheltering tree, and she cooed inarticulate loving noises. She glanced at Elizabeth from beneath delicate brows. "Will you go to my husband? He will be anxious for news."
"This very moment, my dear." Why had she not thought of it sooner? Elizabeth hurried across the lying-in chamber, sidestepping the servants occupied with clearing the stained linens and restoring order.
Elizabeth entered the upstairs hall, shut the door, and leaned against it. Just a moment's rest. Her chest rose and fell in rhythm with her careening heart. She closed her eyes and focused on slowing her breaths. The memories had sapped her strength--that and the long night and even longer labor. Angela would have come to sit with her sister-in-law and afford Elizabeth some respite, but the nausea from her own condition thwarted her kindhearted intentions.
Elizabeth lifted weary lids.
The Mooring's plump housekeeper stood with raised brows. "May I bring you anything? I fear you are a trifle pale."
"No thank you, Mrs. Millbank." Elizabeth forced a smile and pushed away from the door. "I am commissioned to inform the gentlemen."
"Yes, madam." The housekeeper curtsied.
Elizabeth navigated the hall toward the stairs, her footfalls muted by the runner's worn nap.
Elizabeth paused and glanced over her shoulder.
The housekeeper was nearly at her heels, cheeks flushed with exertion. "If you would be so kind to give us any word?" She puffed for a moment. "We have all been so anxious for Mrs. Mooring."
"Of course you are." Sympathy overshadowed Elizabeth's tangled emotions. "The very best news. Both mother and babe are hale and whole, but I shall not deprive Mr. Mooring the privilege of presenting the child and informing you of the particulars."
Mrs. Millbank expressed her gratitude and relief, but Elizabeth only inclined her head and continued on her errand. She trotted down the staircase, one hand slipping along the polished rail, and started across the vestibule. Lights glowed from every sconce. Night's dark yet reigned, but Holymoor Abbey shone like a church sanctuary.
A figure stepped from a doorway and Elizabeth gasped. "Oh, you frightened me, Dobney-- I did not see you there."
He bowed. Even the Moorings' staid butler was angling for news. "The gentlemen are in the library."
"Yes, thank you. I am en route now." She restrained a chuckle, well aware her husband and sons waited like penned hounds, imprisoned by walls of books.
His gloved hand gestured toward the bookroom. "Allow me to--"
"That will not be necessary. I shall show myself in." But she took pity on the poor man. "All is well, and the next Mooring has arrived safely."
"Thank you, Mrs. Darcy." He bowed again and retreated.
Once at the library door, Elizabeth's hand tightened on the handle. What halted her? Not fear or worry or even elation, yet the slender hairs stood erect beneath her sleeves as if she balanced on a precipice. A shiver coursed through her. But now was not the time for deliberation, not when Theo needed to know he was a father. She turned the handle, swung the door inward and entered the room.
Bookshelves climbed toward the ceiling, their rows of gilded spines glittering in the firelight. On a low table, several glasses at varying stages of emptiness refracted the flames through their contents like a cache of amber jewels.
Three men sprang to their feet as one and advanced. Theo led the way, his chocolate hair rutted and jutting as if he had driven his fingers like wagon wheels through mud. But his eyes were bright with anticipation. Her son, her beautiful son, grown now into this handsome, capable man who was a father himself.
"Mother," he said.
Would her heart ever cease to thrill at that appellation on his lips, innocuous though it was?
He extended both hands to her. "How is my wife?"
Wordless joy seized her and squeezed forth a single sob.
His face collapsed, and his grip tightened painfully. "Please, you must tell me-- Is Eve--"
She shook her head and cleared her throat, trying to recover her voice. "She and the babe are well."
"Oh, thank heavens." He exhaled and relaxed his grasp.
Noel and Darcy caught up to him and stopped to either side.
Elizabeth peeked at her husband. Deep creases marred the patrician forehead above his heavy dark brows. He was anxious for his daughter.
She pressed Theo's hands and for a fleeting moment savored his beloved features. Such congenial brown eyes that sparked with life and tonight were rife with emotion. What privilege was hers to convey this intelligence. She withdrew one hand and cupped his jaw, her thumb tracing his cheekbone, his whiskers a field of short spikes against her palm. "My dearest boy, you have a daughter, and Eveline is calling for you."
"A daughter?" Moisture glistened on his lashes and he blinked hard. His attention flew to the open door.
"Go on," she said, releasing him. "Your girls are expecting you."
Darcy's hand clapped Theo's shoulder. "Congratulations, son."
"And you, sir, or shall I say Grandfather Darcy?" Theo cast him a smile.
Darcy chuckled. "Best not keep my daughter waiting."
Theo obliged with alacrity.
Noel watched him leave and then laughed, the sound reverberating with the same depth as his father. His gaze flicked between Darcy and Elizabeth. Could he discern the barely restrained turmoil in her heart?
"If you will excuse me, I promised to wake Angela once the babe arrived."
"Of course." Darcy nodded.
Noel nodded in return, spun on his heel and exited, pulling the door closed behind him.
Elizabeth released the breath she had not realized she was holding. Was it disloyal to be grateful for the solitude with her husband? Darcy waited with a gentle smile, the lines in his brow somewhat lessened.
How swiftly the last two years had passed. She was so comfortable with him, he was so perfectly her match, and their family was so wholly their own that sometimes it seemed they had been married forever. All she had suffered, all the lost years were fading like an old painting bleached by the sun, fading in the splendor of having him--and Theo--for her own.
Darcy's forefinger traced her cheek. "These should be tears of joy."
"What makes you think they are not?" She sniffed.
His smile rounded enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes. "You underestimate how well I know you."
"But I am happy. To the depths of my being."
"Yes." He dipped his head, that single small movement conveying as much sympathy as Angela's raptures.
Save for the crackling fire, silence yawned between them, and all her earlier emotions rose like smoke drawn through a flue.
"Come here," Darcy said and pulled her close.
Elizabeth pressed her cheek against the smooth fabric of his coat. The scent of saddle leather and a musky spice surrounded her with his arms. Tears swelled in her heart until they brimmed over and spilled from her eyes. Tears of joy for her new granddaughter, for her son, and tears of sadness for the memories and all that might have been. Darcy's palms slid up and down her back, rhythmic and caressing. His shushing sounds fell upon her like the endless snow outside Holymoor, quieting, stilling, blanketing in purest white.
She mumbled into his chest. "Forgive me."
"Your sentiments are nothing of which to be ashamed."
"But I am." She pulled back within his embrace. "I held her. I held our granddaughter, yet all I could see was Theo, what he might have looked like as an infant. It was so real." She shuddered.
"That is understandable."
"No, you cannot understand. It did not happen the way I saw it--I had this vision that the rector returned with Theo in his arms." She described the moment.
He listened and shook his head. "He should never have spirited your baby away without allowing you to bid him farewell."
"That is the odd part." She stared past him into her recollection. "I said good-bye. I hardly know how to explain, but it was as if I were permitted a second chance, that I could speak a blessing and my love over him, commit him to God and release him." She raised her eyes again, hoping her husband would understand the significance that words were inadequate to express.
He took her face between his hands and probed her eyes. "And this has brought you a measure of peace."
"Yes." A light laugh bubbled forth. Would she never cease to underestimate him? "Yes, that is it exactly. The sorrow is gone--that shadow I could not elude, that always seemed to stalk me--it has vanished. Completely. I feel such--such freedom."
He pressed his eyes closed for a moment, his chest expanding with the force of his inhalation, his fingers never leaving her face. Everything in his manner communicated relief.
Suspicion tickled her mind. "Have you made this a matter for intercession without apprising me?"
"I will own that I have." He smiled. "What else could I do? It grieved me to see your happiness inhibited."
"Thank you." How was it possible she could be known so thoroughly and loved so fully by such a man? "I love you."
Darcy tilted her chin and leaned down to kiss her, spicy-sweet as evergreens and soft as the first snowfall, then gaining all the intensity of a winter storm. Exquisite sensations surged through her, coursing like life-giving resin to her very roots, grafting her within his embrace. When he released her lips, she sighed. He rested his forehead against hers, remaining motionless, the heat of his brow melding into hers, his breath stroking her face. Only the sizzle and snap at the hearth suggested time did not stand still.
Fitzwilliam Darcy eased onto his back, taking care not to disturb his slumbering wife. He stared into the thick dark, though the view did not change whether his eyes were open or closed. Had morning arrived outside the pulled curtains of their old-fashioned four poster bed? It was impossible to discern.
When they traveled the eighteen miles from Pemberley the week prior, his daughter had apologized for their chambers' outmoded accoutrements, but Elizabeth declared them charming. Darcy could only praise Theodore for having the wisdom and foresight to invest his time and resources in keeping Holymoor Abbey solvent in these uncertain days, rather than updating the fripperies. He smiled at the memory. However, he could not blame the bed hangings for his restiveness.
Darcy sighed and folded his hands across his chest. Recollection of meeting his new granddaughter the previous afternoon drew his thoughts as inescapably as water circling a drain.
Laughter chased the remains of a light repast, while Darcy observed his family gathered in one of Holymoor's more intimate sitting rooms.
"In only a few months," Theodore waved his cup, the coffee sloshing, "I will be the one endeavoring to keep you calm while awaiting word of your wife and child."
Noel snorted. "As if you had room to boast."
"Brother!" Angela wagged a finger at Theodore, the reproach implicit in her tone no match for the pretty blush climbing her cheeks.
Darcy's lips twitched into a slight smile. Theodore had nearly worn a path in the library's carpet while they kept watch with him.
His wife reached to press Angela's knee. No matter how Elizabeth might tease, she was always led by compassion.
"What do you imply, Noel?" Theodore rested several fingers on his chest. "Are you questioning my composure?"
"About as tranquil as a weanling colt."
"Now, see here--"
The door opening interrupted their fraternal banter. Dobney entered and gave a sharp bow, then his somber gaze encompassed their party. "If you please, Mrs. Mooring is prepared to receive you in her dressing room."
Everyone except Darcy stood with visible enthusiasm.
Noel looked down, his brows contracted. "Are you not coming, Father?"
"Yes, just behind you," Darcy folded his linen and returned it to the tray, "please proceed without me."
Noel shrugged and exited with Angela on his arm and several strides behind Theodore, leaving Darcy alone with his wife.
He stood and pulled his shoulders back. "You need not wait for me, Elizabeth. I will only be a minute."
Her fine eyes assessed him, very likely perceiving his discomfort. "If that is what you prefer, I will indulge you, but I would much rather meet this momentous occasion together."
"But you have already seen the babe."
"All the more reason why I need not be in a scuttle."
It was true delay would achieve nothing, save increasing his inexplicable sense of disquiet. He sighed. "Then shall we go now to greet the newest Darcy?"
"You mean the newest Mooring, do you not?" She accepted his proffered forearm.
He led them toward the door and leaned near to her ear, his voice low. "No, I mean the newest Bennet."
Darcy halted beneath the doorway to Eveline's dressing room. A low-burning lamp could not dispel the gloom, and the window curtain parted no wider than a narrow marble column was little assistance. Only snow was visible out of doors, swirling down from the heavy grey skies. But country scenes populated the shadowed blue walls, and the scent of honey and vanilla imparted an inviting ambience. Still, it was insufficient to induce him forward. He never did like births.
Darcy's children congregated before the chaise longue, their backs to him, probably marveling over the newborn child. Tendrils of Angela's thick, flaxen mane escaped her coiffure and trailed between her shoulders where she leaned against her husband. Theodore stood to Noel's opposite side, his identical height and the cut of his hair making the two young men appear like brothers. Which they were now. They blocked Darcy's view.
Elizabeth tugged his fingers, and Darcy loosed her but refused to budge. Her eyebrow arched, and he shook his head at the unspoken question. Hushed merriment carried across the room, his children oblivious to the pantomime being enacted behind them. Elizabeth touched his hand and offered an understanding smile, then crossed the patterned rug to join the others.
How was Darcy supposed to respond to a new mother--even if she was his daughter--and her helpless squalling infant, not that the child was making any noise at present? When Noel and Eveline were born, he did not visit Eva in her bedchamber or dressing room. His son and daughter were presented to him in the drawing room. To see his family assemble with such informality disconcerted him, no matter that it was entirely within the bounds of propriety. Perhaps he should return below stairs.
Darcy shifted his weight to the other foot, and his gaze circumscribed Eveline's boudoir. He had not been in this room since she practically skipped from wall to wall and chaise to bookcase, displaying her modifications in preparation for assuming her role as mistress of Holymoor Abbey. His heart had pounded while he tried to supplant the image of a little girl skipping through Pemberley's orchard with that of a young woman teetering on the threshold of matrimony. And now she was a mother. How was it possible? He stretched his neck above his collar and swiveled his head both directions. Too blasted constricting.
"Papa?" Eveline's sweet trill reached his ears.
He looked toward the chaise longue. Noel and Theodore stepped apart to reveal a young woman reclining against the scrolled rosewood, her legs hidden beneath a blue throw and a swathed baby cuddled in her arms. Darcy squinted, then squeezed his eyes closed twice and stared. Not Eveline but Elizabeth, appearing exactly as she did when they met, when she was twenty and untouched by the cares of the world.
"Fitzwilliam," she said, "come meet your daughter."
"She looks just like her father." Elizabeth lifted the child toward him and warbled her sunny laugh. "But you will have to leave the doorway to see for yourself."
Darcy took one step forward and then another.
"An elder sister is the finest gift to her younger siblings." Her eyes twinkled. "Or am I in error to think you are anticipating more children?"
His mouth went dry. How could she know? In those early intoxicating weeks at Netherfield, he had dreamed of marrying Elizabeth, of fathering girls with dancing eyes and boys with unquenchable spirits, of raising their family at Pemberley. Those same dreams motivated him to forsake her, all because his lamentable pride deemed her unsuitable. To envision her now, to imagine what it might have been like--this was what he had been denied, another cost to their lost years. Guilt and resentment gusted their icy pall over him.
He stepped back.
Insistent fingers laced through his and forced him to stop.
"Fitzwilliam." His wife stood before him, her face once again etched with the wisdom of intervening years. Her voice was muted. "You need not hold the baby, but at least congratulate your daughter before you leave." She towed him forward.
"She should have been ours."
Elizabeth spun to face him.
Had he spoken aloud? "I did not mean--"
She clutched his hand, eyes as thick with compassion as his warmest greatcoat. He had indulged private hopes early in their marriage--women her age were occasionally surprised with a child. He glanced past her. Noel and Angela were seated together on the adjacent settee, and Theodore lingered near the lounge chair, observing the spectacle unfold. Anxiety masked Eveline's luminous countenance. Did they overhear his unguarded remark? Must his maudlin thoughts ruin the celebratory occasion for everyone? Better that he depart and not return until he was in full command of himself and his traitorous reminiscences.
"My beloved." Elizabeth caught his other hand and drew close, her head angling back to claim his gaze.
He strained to hear her words.
"Do you not see?" Her eyes scanned between his as if she could read his thoughts or compel her own into his mind.
All he could see was the enormity of their loss.
"She is ours." Elizabeth smiled, radiant with hope. Yet it could not melt the chill that sheathed his heart.
Darcy allowed her to lead him forward to the chaise. He bent over Eveline, pressed her hand, and bussed her cheek, his gestures mechanical. "I am so proud of you."
Theodore hovered like a tower guard, his attention riveted by his new daughter.
Darcy cleared his throat. "Of both of you--all three of you."
Theodore's smile flashed like sunlight on lake waters before sinking again into adoration and reminding Darcy of that first moment he beheld his own son. As a younger man, he thought he had loved Elizabeth--and he had, as much as his selfishness and arrogance allowed without genuinely knowing her. And then love had sprouted its thin, tenuous stalk in his marriage to Lady Eva, nourished by choice more than affection, yet crushed by mortality before it dared bloom. But his little son--the mewling babe capped with hair as thick and dusky as a shepherd's collie--awakened a tender ferocity he had never known. He would stand at length watching Noel and Eveline sleep or play in the nursery. He would have moved heaven and earth for them--would do so still. Love compelled his eyes to rest on his adult children each in turn, and the frost in his chest began to thaw.
"Sir," Theodore said, "do you wish to hold her?"
Darcy raised both brows. Hold that tiny child? "Thank you, no. I--"
"Please, Papa?" Eveline's tone echoed the little girl who tugged his trousers for attention. "She has the very best grandfather a girl could wish."
Noel arched a single dark eyebrow in challenge, his lips framed in a knowing smirk, an arm circling his wife's pretty shoulders.
How could Darcy deny his daughter anything? He reached down for the infant, and soft hands caressed his own to make the awkward transfer. But that was not his daughter's touch. Darcy lifted his head in surprise.
Elizabeth's bright smile and brighter eyes beamed at him, a quarter century younger and effervescent. "Did I not say she was perfect? I think she has your forehead but my nose, which is fortunate because yours..." Her teasing trailed off.
The baby yawned, her diminutive mouth a perfect O. His exquisite daughter, his and Elizabeth's. Or did she belong to Theodore and Eveline? Darcy waggled his head, confusion descending on his mind like a blizzard. The baby opened her eyes, dark irises rimmed with honey brown lashes, Elizabeth's eyes staring up at him.
"Oh, look! She's already smiling at her grandfather."
He smiled at the exaggeration, and love seared through him like a stoked fire. He inhaled a deep clarifying draught of the dulcet air. The memories, the hazy imaginings, the icy vestiges of disappointment dissipated like snowflakes on the window panes. He walked away from his family, crooning to the baby, and made a circuit of the room. Holding his granddaughter was not unpleasant. Why did he resist?
But her parchment eyelids pinched, her little mouth opened in protest, and her cheeks and forehead flushed vivid pink.
Darcy's pulse thumped, and he rushed back to Eveline, impatient to relinquish the fussing child to her mother.
When Darcy stepped back, Elizabeth slipped under his arm and snugged her own around his waist. If she was concerned about his inexperience, now she only appeared pleased, her tired eyes still brilliant above apple-round cheeks. The aroma of roses ascended into his nostrils. He pressed his lips to her forehead for a prolonged moment before returning his attention to his daughter and calmed granddaughter.
"I am afraid to offend you, sweetest," Darcy said, "but I must confess she may be even lovelier than you were."
"Papa!" Eveline giggled.
Theodore frowned. "I beg to disagree, sir, as no one can rival my wife--"
Noel snickered. "And I must excuse myself from this fruitless debate, or the three of us shall only come to blows over the beauty of our wives."
Darcy laughed along with the others.
Theodore lowered himself to a chair placed by the head of the chaise and leaned near Eveline in mutual contemplation of their child. "She certainly does take after her mother."
"As her mother did before her." Darcy's smiled faded with the memory, an image of Lady Eva's fairer complexion and lighter locks flitting through his mind. "If your mother had lived to see this day, Eveline, I know she would have been as proud as I am and so very happy for you."
Eveline sniffed and nodded.
Noel might have blinked suspiciously. Angela shifted her seat even closer to her husband, her far hand finding his, their fingers weaving in an unconscious joining as they likewise observed the new family. Another five months and this scene would repeat when the babe she carried was born. Who would have guessed all those years ago that Bingley's grandchild might very well be the next heir to Pemberley? Irony and humor nudged Darcy's lips back into a grin.
The love that flared while cradling his granddaughter had burned down to a slow, even glow that illumined his expanding family. And he understood what Elizabeth meant. She is ours. Not that their blood finally mingled a generation removed, but that the children he thought denied them were gathered in this room--all of them--suffused by almost celestial light, united by bonds stronger than birth.
"It may be too soon to enquire, but have you given any consideration to her name?" Elizabeth's question to the new parents dispelled Darcy's reverie.
Theodore exchanged a speaking look with Eveline, and she reached up to grasp his fingers where they curved around the embroidered fabric covering her slender shoulder. Theodore's gaze rested on the baby for a moment, shifted to Darcy and then alighted on Elizabeth, where she remained sheltered beneath his arm.
Theodore moistened his lips. "We decided before she was born that if the child was a girl and it seemed fitting, we would christen her Elizabeth Joy."
Darcy nodded, the sudden thickness in his throat forcing him to swallow hard several times.
"Oh, why--I..." Elizabeth's voice faltered, then she made a faint choking sound and her arm tensed against his ribs. Darcy pictured the poignant expression that would wreathe his wife's face, the moisture shining in her eyes and the vibrancy of her smile, but he could not bring himself to catch her eye. To do so might be his undoing. And hers.
That was what kept him from sleep this night, not the hash he nearly made of being introduced to his newborn granddaughter, but the influence of this single small life, like rings expanding from a pebble tossed in a pond. Or maybe little Eliza was herself another ring radiating from choices made a lifetime ago. Redemption embodied with tiny fingers to grasp his thumb and a cherubic mouth to smile on him. Darcy stared into the enclosed darkness of their bed.
Eveline confessed that naming her daughter after her mother or Theo's or even Aunt Georgie might have been more sensible, but she and her husband loved Elizabeth as family. "Mother died when I still young, as did Theo's, and Mamma Elizabeth has become like a mother to us," Eveline said with a tremulous smile. "Did you know she lost her only child at birth? We wanted to honor her, and we would be honored if our daughter grew up to be like her grandmother." Darcy could not agree more.
Something tickled his throat, and Darcy tried to suppress his cough. If he was not careful, he would wake Elizabeth, and she was still recovering from the long night attending Eveline. He rolled toward the mattress' edge and slipped from the covers and out between the curtains as quietly as the creaking in his knees would permit. Cold floorboards curled his toes. Faint light bordering the draperies guided him around the bed toward the window. He pulled the weighty brocade aside and sought solace in the prospect.
The windows framed a sunrise still fragile in its infancy yet potent enough to vanquish the winter's dark. The snow that began falling the night little Eliza was born had ceased at last. A celebratory baker appeared to have frosted every shrub, every hillock and dale with lush icing.
Fingers squeezed the sensitive flesh at Darcy's middle, and he jumped. He turned to Elizabeth.
A loose brown braid brushed the shoulder of her dressing gown. "I did not mean to startle you."
"I apologize for disrupting your sleep. I attempted to be as noiseless as possible."
"And deprive me the pleasure of viewing the sun rise with my husband?" Her soft smile illumined a complexion still pale in the low light.
Darcy leaned down to kiss her upturned mouth, a gentle touch of greeting but heady with promise. "Good morning, my beautiful wife."
"Good morning, Fitzwilliam."
She waited beside him in hushed stillness as they watched the morning unfold. Gleaming tendrils began to twine across the glazed land, the increasing light calling forth definition and perspective from featureless uniformity.
Elizabeth burrowed further into his side, seeking his warmth in the chilly air. "What prompted you to rise so early?"
His shoulders rose and fell. "Further contemplating our granddaughter's birth and yesterday's events, not that either Eveline or Theodore has any comprehension of how much it signifies for us."
His wife did not reply, not that she needed to speak. Comforted in each other's embrace, they had exchanged quiet words in the dark of the previous night, at least until slumber suspended Elizabeth's speech. Her far hand slipped down to rest on his hip, and she turned her head to press her lips against his torso. Her touch breached his winter nightclothes, heated enough to reduce the deepest snow bank to a puddle. How blessed he was after all these years and all that had passed to have rediscovered and claimed her, beloved of his heart and companion of his life. Joy soared in his soul, steadfast as the sun, unsullied as the snow.
Darcy pressed his eyes closed, and when he opened them, the landscape resolved further. "Do you see the tower of Holymoor Church rising above those trees bordering the fields?" He pointed into the distance.
She faced the window and leaned forward to peer through the panes. "It seems only yesterday we witnessed Theo and Eveline's wedding, and now there shall be a christening."
"I cannot help but recall a text the rector read when the Moorings' died."
"Which was that?"
"'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.'"
"Indeed." Her sigh bespoke sweet satisfaction. "And many more still to dawn."The End