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The Curse Chapter 3

March 17, 2017 04:43AM
Hi! I'm so sorry for the delay in posting! Real Life decided to sucker punch me in the teeth this last week and then put me on a roller coaster. I'm still not sure if I'm on one of the ups or downs... Depending on what the next couple weeks bring, I may have an unpredictable posting schedule, but never fear that I will abandon this story! If nothing else, I already have most chapters written (though not all beta'd), so I'll be able to post something, even if it is sporadic.

Thanks to my wonderful betas, dreeem, priscillalts, noagnes, Karin E Lb, and Lily.

Chapter 3

Lizzy Bennet had a secret. Well, she had two secrets, really. There was the secret that everyone knew and the one that no one did. The first, the one she thought of as The-Worst-Kept Secret-Ever, was that she was cursed to spend more than half her time as a dragon. It had not been that much time when she was younger, but the older she got, the longer she was confined as a dragon. She had guessed that she had, at most, a year or two before she would be in dragon form all the time.

The reason she called it The-Worst-Kept-Secret-Ever was that though no one spoke of it, nearly all of Hertfordshire knew she was a dragon. Papa had tried to keep her dragon side hidden as long as possible, but it was nearly impossible to keep a normal human child contained, let alone a highly energetic and rapidly growing dragon youngster. Thankfully, Papa had also taught her the importance of responsibility as early as possible. There were times when he might have been stricter on her than on her sisters, but it had been necessary considering the damage she could have done if she had run wild.

The best thing he had done for her was make her responsible for Longbourn’s sheep herd at a very young age. While her sisters were learning etiquette and how to serve tea, Lizzy learned to attend lambing, how to select good bloodlines, to repair fences and manage the pasture. The sheep were more than Longbourn’s primary source of income: they were also Lizzy’s main food supply as a dragon. Being able to control her meals taught her the value of good stewardship. If the sheep suffered, so did Lizzy.

Sir William Lucas, their closest neighbor, had at first objected to Lizzy learning such mannish work. That was, until he noticed the pony-sized dragon that often perched on the fence, watching the sheep and guarding them from predators. Once Sir William understood that the occupation was keeping Lizzy as a dragon from getting into mischief, he became silent on the topic.

That was not to say that Lizzy did not have her share of childhood mishaps. But she was called to account on every one of them, and if she did harm to property, she was made to pay recompense for it like a grown man. That taught her early that her actions had consequences, even more so as a dragon.

That was how the dragon of Hertfordshire came to be an open secret. It was not talked about in front of strangers, but it was understood that the often glimpsed dragon was one of their own.

The second secret, the one that Lizzy told no one, was that she actually liked being a dragon. Sure, there were some aspects that were less than ideal. She would miss her family and her human life when the curse turned her fully dragon; she had no intention of remaining in Hertfordshire when that happened. Her family would only look on her with pity, especially Papa. He was the least reconciled to her condition, for he blamed himself for the curse that controlled so much of her life.

Another part that was difficult about being a dragon was her large size. She was much taller than a draft horse, though only about half as wide and not nearly as heavy. If not for the dower house, it would have been impossible for her to hide herself.

The worst part of being a dragon was the heat. Summertime was particularly miserable as a dragon. Her body generated a lot of heat from her internal fire, and retained it easily. The only way she could cool down was to pant like a dog and fan her wings. Papa often gave her permission to fly northward to cooler climes, or visit the ocean during the worst of the summer. Every year she prayed for an early winter to find relief from the unbearable warmth.

When she spent time as a dragon, she also had to eat as one. That meant she consumed several hundred pounds of meat a week when she spent a large amount of time in her scaled body. She tried to spend at least part of each day as a dragon when it was convenient, to minimize the time she would have preferred to be human but was forced into dragon shape.

Communication as a dragon was difficult as well: she could not speak in the human way. She was lucky that the innate magic of being a dragon—dragons being intensely magical creatures to begin with—was enough to allow her to speak in the magical way, with her mind. Unfortunately, she could only speak to those who already had a magical gift. She could speak freely with Papa and Charlotte Lucas, but not with any of her sisters. The better she knew the mage she was talking to, the further she could reach them with her mind. She could contact Papa from a couple hundred miles away. Charlotte was a much weaker mage than Papa, and so they could only talk from perhaps five miles or less. With a stranger she had never met, she could barely speak across the room.

Other than those limitations, she did not mind being a dragon. Most of the time, she loved it. There was always a part of the dragon that remained with her. She was strong, much stronger than a grown man, let alone the human girl she pretended to be. Her senses and reflexes were much sharper than those of her fellow humans. Her balance was unparalleled: as a child, she used to run through the treetops with the confidence of a squirrel.

She never got cold and she loved the snow. Her internal fire kept her warm, even when she frolicked in a deep, icy lake. She could lie out on an icy mountainside and feel only pleasant coolness.

On a trip to the sea as a child, her strength and immunity to cold had made her fearless when it came to playing in the waves. She swam much further out than most adults would venture. She had turned herself into a dragon in the water and found that she could swim even better in that form. So long as she was never out of the range of Papa’s mental communication, he allowed her to explore to her heart’s content. As a young dragon, she had been able to hold her breath for roughly ten minutes; now that time was nearly doubled.

It was in the ocean that she first discovered sea dragons. Sea dragons! They were as friendly and curious as dolphins, and at least as intelligent. They had only vestigial wings, and could not fly, but were able to hold their breaths for much longer. More than once she had been nudged to the surface when they felt she had stayed under long enough. Cavorting with the sea dragons was one of her fondest memories. To this day she still flew down to the ocean several times a year to visit her aquatic cousins.

Another advantage of being a dragon was that she could breathe fire. She was not very good at it, as she rarely got the chance to practice. However, she was proud of the modest flame she could produce. She had a magical immunity to being burned, even in her human form.

Magic was another bonus she enjoyed. Not only did magic allow her to communicate with other mages, but magic was a part of her daily life. She was constantly amazed by how much magic was in the world around her—and how deaf and blind humans were to all but the most obvious. Even Papa, the strongest spell mage she knew, could not detect half of what she did. Even as a human she was sensitive to the small eddies and currents in the magical flow around her. She was immune to most spells and magical effects. When she chose to, she could dismantle any spell by simply absorbing it.

She was constantly picking up small pieces of magic that way. It happened as simply as breathing. She could be walking with Jane and Mary, and a gust of magic would cross the road, like a breeze only she could feel. The magic would sink into her skin, perhaps raising the small hairs on her arms for a moment. That was only a sign of what happened to her on a daily basis.

When she crossed a leyline, an invisible river of magic, she shivered in response. If she came across a node, where two or more leylines met, her entire body was suffused in magic. It was all she could do to remain on the ground and not float away with the power of it. As a dragon the effect was greater. She could hover over a powerful node for days, letting the magic pummel her muscles like strong blasts of water.

Papa was convinced that magic sustained her as much as food did. She knew that she became restless when she went too long without visiting a leyline. As well as taking magic in, they had discovered that she could also impart that magical strength to another mage. When she did that, she had the same hollow feeling as when she needed to eat.

Without a doubt, the absolute best part of being a dragon was her wings. She could fly. There were no words to describe the great freedom that came from being able to fly. It was a dance in the air that her earthbound family could never begin to understand. She pitied them, for she could not imagine what it was like to look at the sky and not know she could climb upwards any time she wanted.

She loved flying. She lived for the rush of wind on her face and wings. She craved the coil and surge as her muscles powered her ever higher. She coveted that moment of weightlessness when she folded her wings at the top of a dive. She thrilled at the feeling of hurtling towards the earth, and the exhilaration of the great weight that fell on her when she snapped her wings open at last. She gloried in soaring high above everything else. The whole world and all its concerns were reduced to small figures that seemed unimportant when she flew. It was not about being above them; it was about being free.

Lizzy performed aerial acrobatics like other people walked and ran: tight corkscrews, wild somersaults, and lazy loop-de-loops. She had taught herself to hunt as a dragon. At first it was a matter of play when she first began to stretch her wings at ten years old. Later it was a form of exercise and defense as Papa, Lizzy, and eventually Mary began to venture deeper into the territory of other sky dragons in an effort to learn more about Lizzy. In a year or two, it would become a matter of survival when she left the safety of Longbourn to strike out on her own, fully dragon. She was determined not to raid the fields of poor shepherds for her sustenance when she was a dragon.

She had encountered other dragons on her journeys with Papa and Mary. On the whole, they tended to be more territorial and less friendly than sea dragons. Once she hit puberty, she had been larger than most of the fully grown dragons they had met. So long as her family maintained a respectful distance from the other dragons, very few of the wild ones bothered Papa and Mary with Lizzy, in dragon form, watching over them.

So for Lizzy, it was good to be a dragon. She had traveled further and was far more educated than most young ladies of limited means, all in an effort to understand her curse. She told Papa once that she enjoyed her time as a dragon, but he got such a hurt, sad look on his face that she never dared mention it to him again. He already carried the guilt from being the one that had caused the gypsy curse. Through all the years, he had never stopped looking for a cure to the curse. She knew he was not resigned to her future as a dragon, but they had tried every method to break her curse. Papa had chased down every rumor that might have led to a cure.

Lizzy knew he was holding onto the hope that she might yet find a young man to love her, for that sort of love was a strong cleansing force that might finally break her curse. Lizzy held no such hope for herself. She did not believe there was a man alive that could tolerate his wife being stronger than him, or understand her longing to fly. Furthermore, if her curse was truly broken, she would no longer be a dragon. She was not looking forward to the moment when she would be unable to return to her human body, but neither could she imagine not having her dragon-half curled inside her, waiting to emerge.

It was why she insisted on Papa putting all of their discovered knowledge of dragons into a book for publication. When she was gone, he would still have that book to remind him of her. They had spent hours in his study, slowly compiling his notes into a cohesive volume. She wished she was still in his study now, instead of this crowded assembly hall.

She did not care for dances as a rule. They were hot, noisy, and smelly. Having tasted the freedom of the skies, she hated being hemmed in on all sides. It was difficult to hide what she was in a crowd. She was so much stronger and faster than everyone else that she had to be careful how she moved and interacted with people.

She had a reputation as a graceful dancer, but when possible she preferred to defer to her sisters. Dancing in a hall was not at all like dancing in the air, and she did not feel that the company of a man made up for it. Her sisters were more likely to find husbands on the dance floor than she was. While she would never stoop to the levels of Mrs. Bennet in an effort to see her sisters married, she would be more comfortable when it came time for her to leave as a dragon if she knew good men were taking care of her sisters.

Lizzy moved slowly through the dance hall, avoiding attention while surreptitiously keeping an eye on her sisters. She mentally reached for Papa, somewhat jealous that he had managed to remain home this night.

What is it, my dear? Papa asked.

What book are you reading? she asked plaintively. Reading was another of those things she would miss when she was fully dragon. She loved to read, but as a dragon she was rather far sighted. It made reading the small print of books very difficult for her. First Papa, then later Jane and now Mary read to her as a dragon, continuing her education when she was unable to turn pages herself.

Papa chuckled. Bored, are we?

Please, Papa, she begged, Everyone is dancing but me.

He snorted. And if I know you, you already turned down everyone who asked you. Do not lie to your old man.

She did not answer. He was right, of course. He usually was.

If you would only relax a little at these gatherings… he began.

There was a stir at the door. Her curiosity was peaked. Dragons were as curious as cats, and that was another part that had bled into her human nature. The new party from Netherfield walked in. Among them was the stranger she had pulled from the river. Her focus narrowed on him. In the light of the room, she was surprised to realize that he was actually quite handsome. In her dragon form, she was not always the best judge of human appearance. Just now, his face was pinched and frowning. He walked with a cane and a heavy limp.

Lizzy, are you even listening to me? Papa asked. You feel distracted suddenly.

The Netherfield party has just arrived, she replied absently. The man from the river is here. He looks like he is in great pain.

Do not mother him, he warned. Men do not want to be mothered by their potential mates.

I am not a potential mate, she scoffed, and broke the connection to her father. She faded into the shadows of the dance hall, subtly stalking her prey. She did not usually reveal herself as a dragon to strangers, but once she discovered the man in the river, she could not have left him there. Papa said she had saved the stranger’s life, but she did not like to think of it like that. She preferred instead to say that she helped him, as though he only needed a little assistance to get out of the river on his own.

She did have to admit she was deeply curious about him, far more than even Papa suspected. She was the first in Hertfordshire to discover him and she felt drawn to him since she had played such a big role in his arrival. Papa thought she was only concerned that the stranger might cause trouble for her if he spread the tale of his rescue, but it was more than that. She studied him closely, trying to understand the tug she felt near him. His eyes swept the assembly. Her heart lurched in her chest, and she ducked behind a tall man to hide.

Suddenly she did not want to be near him. She wanted to run—fly—from him. Something like horror gripped her limbs, freezing her blood to the marrow. No other person had ever caused such a reaction in her. Dragons feared nothing in the wild, and she had shared that fearlessness all her life. For the first time, she felt her heart pounding in panic. She backed away from the Netherfield party, careful to remain unseen. And yet… she could not leave. She turned around to face the stranger again.

She still felt the peculiar urge to flee, but for the moment it was overwhelmed by that curious draw towards him. She had never felt such a thing for another person before. She did not know how to deal with her emotions. It left her fragile and unbalanced, two things she hated as a dragon.

She tore her eyes from the dark-haired stranger to look at the others in his party. There was the young gentleman mage she had summoned with an image of Jane. The older, heavy gentleman took a chair near the refreshments, helping himself liberally. His bland wife clung fearfully to the second lady of the party. This lady was proud and disapproving. She looked over the assembly as if each occupant had personally offended her. Lizzy was not fond of the gathering herself, but she bristled to see how fast the shrewish lady from Netherfield dismissed the good people of Meryton. The lady also stood possessively close to the stranger, seeking to draw his attention to herself. Lizzy was unaccountably jealous at the woman’s obvious scheming.

The stranger, however, was not taken in by her charms. He rebuffed her advances repeatedly, until the prissy woman gave up. Lizzy’s estimation of the stranger’s intelligence and taste rose. Thereafter, the proud lady spent the evening complaining to the little mouse still clinging to her arm. With the exception of the stranger and the one lady, the Netherfield party seemed harmless.

Mrs. Bennet bustled up to the newcomers with four of her daughters in tow. The fair-colored gentleman gave a start as he looked at Jane and quickly asked her to dance. Lizzy thought Jane seemed pleased by his attention. Not for the first time, she wished she could speak to her sisters in her mind.

Her attention was drawn back to the handsome stranger as he moved cautiously to a window. He limped, but tried to hide it. Did he feel as trapped in here as she did? The longer she watched him, the more her unease about him faded, leaving only a curious sense of kinship. Of course, he would not recognize her as the one who had pulled him from the river, but she found herself wanting to know more about him.

He stiffened when Sir Lucas and Charlotte approached him. The stranger inclined his head curtly, and moved away. His abrupt manner shocked the assembly. Murmurs rose around Lizzy, easily overheard with her sensitive ears. She did not care for the slight to her best friend, but as the man turned, she caught an expression like panic in his grey eyes. She had not seen eyes like that before, light and dark at the same time. Was he not healing well? She remembered how grave his injuries had been; against her better judgement, she had given him a dose of magic once he was free of the river. At the time, it had seemed the only way to keep him alive.

She shifted to keep the stranger in view, always keeping to the shadows on the opposite side of the hall from him. She felt a brush on her mind, and recognized the caller.

Would you like to know about them? Charlotte asked eagerly.

Lizzy laughed silently. Please, do tell, she responded. As the daughter of the master of festivities, Charlotte often learned things before anyone else. Being able to communicate in the magical way allowed the girls to trade information freely.

The one dancing with your sister is Mr. Bingley, and he is estimated to have 5,000 a year. The two women are his sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. Mr. Hurst is the one refilling his plate a second time. The last gentleman is very rude, but I suppose since he is worth 10,000 a year, he can afford to give offence wherever he goes. He is Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire. I understand he owns a great estate there.

Lizzy was further intrigued by this tall Mr. Darcy. She had visited the Peak District in Derbyshire several times, and had all but decided to make it her home once she was fully dragon.

He is in pain, she defended him to Charlotte, and I do not think he likes crowds. She did not know why she was shielding him. Her friend, like most of Hertfordshire, knew that Lizzy was sometimes a dragon, but saving Mr. Darcy was something she had shared only with Papa.

Charlotte paused for a long time. What do you know that I do not? she asked.

Nothing yet, Lizzy said, and allowed the connection to fade.

Realizing that she could not stare at Mr. Darcy all night without drawing attention to herself, Lizzy forced herself to mingle with the crowd. She smiled and nodded to her neighbors, and danced once. Her attention remained trained on Mr. Darcy. She was always listening for him, if she could not always be looking. Loud gatherings usually gave her headaches, but now she was grateful for her dragon hearing. She stood with Charlotte and shamelessly eavesdropped.

Mr. Darcy remained a mystery. Other than refuting Miss Bingley’s advances, he said little. Was he arrogant or frightened? Pained or proud? Shy or aloof? Between dances, Mr. Bingley came to him.

“Darcy! Surely you can make a better effort than this,” Mr. Bingley chided. “Why not enjoy a single dance? You are walking so well, I am sure you can manage it. I have never met so many agreeable people in my life.”

“I rather doubt I am capable of dancing,” Mr. Darcy muttered. His eyes darted around anxiously. He desperately did not wish his weakness revealed. He was like a dragon concealing his injury for fear that others would prey on him. “And I daresay that you are dancing with the only handsome lady here.”

Lizzy watched Mr. Bingley carefully at the mention of Jane. His face lit up.

“Yes, she is beautiful, truly,” he agreed, then dropped his voice so even Lizzy had a hard time hearing him. “Darcy, she is the angel, I am sure of it.”

Lizzy smiled inwardly. Golden Jane was the prettiest and calmest of her sisters, and it pleased her to know others thought well of her.

Mr. Darcy rolled his eyes. “Not hardly,” he snapped, “She smiles too much. If that is an angel, I will swallow my cane.”

Any warm disposition toward Mr. Darcy abruptly shriveled. Indignantly she reached for Papa again.

Yes, Lizzy? he asked warily.

I do not think I like the man from the river at all, she snarled. He is very rude, and he does not like Jane!

Now, Lizzy, he warned quickly, I forbid you to growl and throw him out the window.

she complained, I was twelve, and John Lucas was pulling Mary’s hair.

Yes, he agreed amiably, and to this day young John will not come within a mile of Longbourn. I think he would be fond of Kitty, if he were not so frightened of you. Now stop bothering me and go enjoy yourself. He cut the connection sharply.

Lizzy yet seethed at Mr. Darcy. Everyone loved Jane. How could Mr. Darcy not see Jane’s inherent goodness? It was why Lizzy used Jane’s image to summon help for Mr. Darcy instead of her own face. Her features were too pointed and dragonish; it made people uncomfortable around her.

Mr. Bingley was still trying to make Mr. Darcy more sociable.

“Please, Darcy, at least talk to someone if you are sure you cannot dance. Look, there is my angel’s sister, she is quite pretty as well. Can I not introduce you?”

With a sense of inevitable horror, Lizzy realized Mr. Bingley was pointing at her. Mr. Darcy looked up. Their eyes met. The desperate need to flee consumed her. Charlotte grabbed her arm.

“Lizzy, you have gone pale, what is it?” she asked.

Lizzy could not speak. Her attention was focused on Mr. Darcy and his answer. She could guess what he was going to say, since he had already made it clear that he had no desire to dance. She knew when he was cornered he was liable to make cutting comments. What would Mr. Darcy say about her? Why did she care about it so much? She wished she had never seen him and yet she desperately wanted to dance with him.

No man wanted to dance with such a creature as her. Though her sisters claimed she was just as pretty as them, when she peered into the looking-glass, her features reminded her of her dragon form, with eyes too large and features too narrow. She looked like a dragon about to stoop on a deer. It was not a comforting image to partner on the dance floor.

Lizzy was certain that Mr. Darcy was going to refuse. No, worse than that, he was going to make it very clear why he would not want to dance or even speak with her. She could see it in his eyes, could almost hear his answer before he gave it. Words like, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me…”

Her heart pounded wildly and her fingernails bit into her palms. She stared into his eyes, waiting for him to dash all her hopes. His mouth opened to speak. Lizzy could not face it. She closed her eyes as if facing a firing squad.

“Yes, please.”

Her eyes flew open. Had she heard him right? Mr. Darcy was still staring at her. His grey eyes were alight with curiosity. It was the first time all night he did not appear to be in pain. Was it possible he wanted to meet her, and was not put off by her appearance? Mr. Bingley clapped Mr. Darcy on the back, and they began making their way toward Lizzy and Charlotte. The gentlemen were jostled in the crowded hall. Lizzy winced at what Mr. Darcy had to be feeling, but he let nothing deter him. She tried to back away from his approach, but Charlotte held onto her arm. She felt something like panic at the thought of actually talking, never mind touching, Mr. Darcy. Lizzy braced herself as the gentlemen reached them.


The assembly was every bit as miserable as Darcy had feared. The journey to the assembly hall had been an ordeal in itself. Unable to ride like Bingley, he had been forced to share the carriage with Miss Bingley and the Hursts. Miss Bingley had simpered at him the entire way, her powerful perfume threatening to overwhelm him. He still felt residual fear of being enclosed in small, moving spaces and it had been all he could do to not embarrass himself. His chest had lurched at every bump in the road; he had gripped his cane with white fingers as they delicately edged past the damaged area where the accident had been. It had seemed almost a miracle that they arrived safely.

For the first time he had realized his body was not the only thing that had been damaged by his accident in the river. His mind had been broken as well, and would require as much recovery as his leg. Acknowledging his fear as real had not made it easier to deal with, but at least he would be better prepared for it.

Once they arrived at the assembly, Miss Bingley clung to him for the first part of the night. He rebuffed every hint to dance, until she left with her sister to sulk. Then he stood around, feeling boorish, and wishing every moment he was back at Pemberley. His leg hurt terribly and every slight movement caused pain to jolt up his body.

When Bingley came over to coerce him to dance, he was not in the mood to be sociable. Bingley was convinced that Miss Bennet was the angel from his dream, and could not understand why Darcy showed no interest in “his” guardian angel. Frankly, Bingley would have been drawn to anyone who vaguely matched the dream. Bingley might have found his angel, but it did nothing to ease the pain in Darcy’s leg. Darcy was no closer to solving the mystery of his dragon.

Darcy realized that his responses to Bingley’s efforts were peevish. He had not wanted to come in the first place, and now that he was here, there was nothing for him to do. When Bingley obtrusively tried to get him to meet a young lady, a cruel comment sprang to his lips. By chance, he looked up to see the young lady in question. A flash of black and violet caught his eye. He thought of his dragon, and his heart clenched.

He met… the most beautiful pair of eyes he had ever seen. They were a unique violet-blue color, bright jewels in a pale face surrounded by silky black hair. He had seen pretty women before, but never one that caused such a visceral reaction. His breath froze in his chest and his heart stuttered erratically.

For the first time since the accident, he was not thinking of his dragon. He only thought of meeting this vision before him, of learning her name. Bingley called every lady he met an angel; for once, Darcy understood why. Except this lady could not be an angel. There was something too strong, too lively and centered in her air for her to be an ethereal being. Perhaps she was a wild pixie; she certainly looked as though she belonged to nature rather than the structures of man.

To think he almost eschewed her before looking at her! He would have been a fool to avoid her acquaintance. The pain of his leg faded as he agreed to meet her. He no longer felt clumsy and out of place. His limp was only a detriment slowing him down, rather than the brand of a cripple.

As they reached the beautiful woman, Darcy realized he had not taken his eyes off of her. She was looking at the ground now, determinedly avoiding him. It was rude to stare, but he could not help it as introductions were performed. He scarcely noticed Bingley asking Miss Lucas to dance, leaving him with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He loved the long syllables of her name. He savored the way they rolled in his mouth before escaping his lips.

She glanced at him from under her lashes. Those strange eyes regarded him with a sharp intelligence that added to her appeal. Even the wariness in her face was new. Most ladies would throw themselves at him. To find one that did not instantly fawn over him was refreshing. As yet, she had not spoken. He longed to hear her voice, to see if it added to the mystery of her.

“Would you care to dance?” he asked.

She nodded very slightly. Darcy started to offer his hand, only to realize he was holding a cane. He carelessly set it aside, for he could not dance with a cane in his hand. He took Miss Elizabeth’s small hand and took a single step toward the dance floor.

That was as far as he got. Agony lanced up his muscles when he tried to bear weight on his leg. He had all but forgotten his injury in the fervor of meeting Miss Elizabeth. Now it came back to him as his leg buckled. His balance wavered; he groped for the cane but it was out of reach. To his horror, he tumbled toward Miss Elizabeth. This was what he had feared all night, that he would stumble because of his weakness. He was going to fall onto Miss Elizabeth and crush her, for she was such a small lady.

His body crashed into hers with a jarring thud. And there he halted. The force of the impact drove the air from his lungs as if he had hit the ground, but she was unmoved. She did not fall, but seemed to hold him up easily. She was much stronger than she looked. Was he damned that even in this moment, he noticed her softness and warmth? He felt her hands on his ribs, pushing him back to his feet. He tried to stand on his own, but his entire body trembled with pain and exhaustion. He was forced to lean on her a moment longer.

“I apologize, Miss Elizabeth,” he gasped. His mouth was dry and grey spots swam in front of his eyes. He was mortified. He had wanted to meet this enchanting lady, not paw at her! Worse, his humiliation had been witnessed by half the assembly hall. By tomorrow, the entire country would believe him a drunken idiot. Would they believe he only stumbled, or did they think he deliberately set out to press himself against Miss Elizabeth?

“Maybe you should sit down, Mr. Darcy,” Miss Elizabeth spoke for the first time. She sounded distressed. He struggled valiantly to bear his own weight, but his head was swimming. He might as well be drunk, with the way he felt now.

“I think you may be right,” he agreed hoarsely. The pain threatened to overwhelm him; it was all he could do to keep from passing out. Without warning, she ducked away from him. He teetered dangerously, but she shoved his cane into his hand. He leaned on it heavily, with both arms. His skin was on fire from the brace cutting into his leg. He half-expected to feel the trickling warmth of blood running down his leg from tearing his scar open again.

It took several minutes and many deep breaths before the pain began to fade. Only then was he able to think clearly. What had he been thinking, to ask Miss Elizabeth to dance? He could barely walk, let alone dance. Was it worth this pain and humiliation? Worth the rumors and the laughter behind people’s hands when they looked at him now?

He looked anxiously for Miss Elizabeth, certain she would have disappeared by now. His heart rose as he realized that she had not completely left him. She stood half a dozen paces away, poised as if to take flight. She was too far to catch him if he fell again—he did not blame her in the slightest for extracting herself from that situation—but so long as she did not run from him, he had a chance to redeem himself. He straightened slowly and took a careful step toward her.

She retreated several paces then halted. She watched him with those violet eyes, as wary as a wild creature. The look on her face was not fear or disgust, but she clearly did not want him near. He clenched his jaw but forced himself to not go after her. This was the first time he found himself wanting to pursue a lady, when her only wish was to be away from him. He could not chase after her in his current condition.

Above all else, Darcy was a gentleman. If she wanted to be gone, he would not stop her. Later, when he was more healed and able to walk without the damned cane, nothing would prevent him from at least having a conversation with her. He felt the sharp sting of defeat as he inclined his head toward her in farewell.

“Good night, Miss Elizabeth,” he said. She could not possibly hear him through the crush of people, but hopefully she would understand his intention. Damn his leg for failing him now. Damn his pride, which stung worse than his leg at the moment. He turned away from Miss Elizabeth and began looking for a place where he could relax.

“Mr. Darcy, are you well?”

He would recognize that voice anywhere, though his ears had been ringing the first time he had heard it. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of black and violet. Miss Elizabeth had come back. He started to stiffen, but forced himself to relax. He had a feeling that dealing with her would be like breaking in a new horse. The more he pressed her, the faster she ran. But when he turned his back, established himself as nonthreatening, then her curiosity got the better of her. He smiled secretly.

“I am recovering, thank you,” he replied evenly. “I apologize again for my stumble. I am afraid that I suffered an accident recently which has left me unsteady on my feet.” He did not like to reveal his weakness, but he felt he owed her an explanation.

She nodded, her face serious. “Were you trapped under the carriage long?”

He stopped in surprise, turning to face her.

She blushed. “I saw that the road to Netherfield had been damaged. It must have been difficult for you to arrive today.”

He nodded slowly, still not sure how she had known of his ordeal. He had wondered if Mr. Bennet had managed to tame a dragon; was it possible Miss Elizabeth Bennet was the dragon tamer instead? He dismissed the idea quickly. No man would allow his daughter to be in close contact with such a dangerous creature. He still had no evidence that his dragon was controlled by an outside force. It seemed most likely, but there were stories of wild animals saving men before. Anything was possible.

There were… some difficulties, yes,” Darcy managed. He was not looking forward to the trip back.

“There you are, Mr. Darcy!” said a shrill voice he wished he could forget. Miss Bingley pounced on him. She placed herself firmly between Miss Elizabeth and himself. He had to step back to avoid bumping into her. “Do you not feel this company is rather dreadful? It is so crowded, they caused you to trip. How abominably rude! Come Mr. Darcy, sit down by me. I will find Charles and tell him we are taking the carriage back early.”

“No, thank you,” he said louder than necessary. He leaned around her, looking for Miss Elizabeth. It was too late. She had disappeared as easily as a wraith.


Did the assembly meet your expectations?

The Curse Chapter 3

Autumn DMarch 17, 2017 04:43AM

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