"If I had loved you less...
I might be able to talk about it more."
"How long do you intend to stay in Kent, Colonel?"
Elizabeth had struggled to pay attention to her cousin's mumbled sermon long enough and started up a whispered conversation with her much more agreeable companion, Colonel Fitzwilliam. She was counting on Mr Collins to have an equally dulling effect on the other churchgoers surrounding them, thus providing them with some modicum of privacy.
"As long as Darcy chooses. I am at his disposal," was his quiet reply.
"Everyone appears to be at his disposal. I wonder he does not marry and secure a lasting convenience of that kind." She chuckled quietly and allowed herself a quick glance at the gentleman in question on the other side of the aisle.
"She would be a lucky woman."
"Really?" She must have sounded incredulous, for the Colonel went on to explain.
"Darcy is a most loyal companion. From what I heard on our journey here, he recently came to the rescue of one of his friends," he said with evident pride in his cousin's conduct.
"What happened?" The conversation was quickly becoming far more engaging than anything Mr Collins could possibly have to say from the pulpit.
"He saved the man from an imprudent marriage."
"Who was the man?!" Elizabeth's heart gave a painful squeeze in her chest.
"His closest friend, Charles Bingley."
"Did Mr Darcy give a reason for this interference?" She struggled to conceal the pain from her voice. Fitzwilliam answered, apparently blind to the devastating effect of his words.
"There were apparently strong objections to the lady."
"What kind of objections? Her lack of fortune?" Oh, how she hoped it was something as simple as that.
"I think it was her family that was considered unsuitable."
"So he separated them." She surreptitiously squeezed her eyes shut to keep them from watering.
"I believe so. I know nothing else," he stated simply.
She stared incredulously across the aisle at Mr Darcy, heedless of all discretion and propriety, until he became aware of her scrutiny and turned his gaze towards her. Startled she looked away and stared intently at her tightly folded hands in her lap.
Elizabeth focused on her breathing. She closed her eyes and forced herself to take a deep calming breath. Shutting out the odious sermon of her nervous cousin, she counted the minutes until it would be over and she could make her escape.
Finally, the torture was at an end and she was allowed to stand along with everyone else and escape into the open air. She felt an immense sense of relief at no longer being enclosed within the four walls of the church while bursting at the seams with emotional turmoil. She forced herself to smile politely at Colonel Fitzwilliam before seeking out Charlotte and Maria.
"There you are. How did you like today's sermon?" Charlotte asked, more out of a sense of propriety than any expectation of Elizabeth having something positive to say about her husband's sermon.
"I think it was even better than last week's." She smiled noncommittally. "I think I might go for a walk, before heading home," she said quickly before anyone might ask her more about the sermon she hadn't heard a word of.
Charlotte looked surprised and a bit concerned. "Are you sure? It looks like it might rain soon."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. I won't be long," she said hurriedly.
Lady Catherine, Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam were standing close by talking to Mr Collins. She was certain he couldn't hold their interest very long and soon she would be required to join them – maybe even be forced to accept an invitation to tea at Rosings.
She discreetly slipped into an opening in the hedge and escaped into the copse of trees behind the church. She needed to be away from prying eyes and she desperately needed to be far away from him. Walking through the park, nearly at a run, she heedlessly headed straight towards the storm clouds.
Her mind was reeling and she was astounded at how disappointed she was in Mr Darcy. She hadn't held him in very high regard before his cousin's revelation and was therefore surprised to react in such a way.
After mulling it over for about a quarter of a mile, she supposed that no matter how little she thought of him for his treatment of poor Mr Wickham, she had at least considered him to be better than Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. Whether or not Mr Darcy considered her sister to be a suitable match, she had still assumed that he would respect and protect the happiness of his dearest friend. It would seem she had been mistaken – other concerns apparently weighed heavier on that gentleman's mind than something as simple as marital felicity.
The weather seemed to commiserate with her foul mood and the heavens opened over her in a great downpour of heavy summer rain. Wearing nothing more substantial than a summer dress and a linen coat she picked up her skirts and ran to the nearest shelter she could find. The mausoleum would do just fine – its columns and roof would provide ample shelter and no one could possibly have any business there on a day such as this one.
As she finally reached her haven, she leaned heavily against the marble wall and tried to catch her breath. Having to consider someone other than Caroline Bingley to be at fault for her sister's current, and persistent, unhappiness brought all her bitter feelings and anger back to the forefront. Her reaction to the separation had lessened over time, but now she was as angry at the interference as ever. At least her anger would help keep her warm as she waited out the rain.
Before her heart could return to its normal rhythm, she thought she heard footsteps through the patter of raindrops on the floor and the leaves in the trees surrounding the mausoleum. She had just decided it was all in her imagination when none other than Mr Darcy himself stepped around the curved wall.
He looked at her uncertainly for a moment, but she was too surprised to even so much as greet him.
"Miss Elizabeth... I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer. These past months have been a torment. I came to Rosings with the single object of seeing you... I had to see you." His last sentence was little more than a whisper before he seemingly gathered his courage once more.
"I have fought against my better judgment, my family's expectations, the inferiority of your birth by rank and circumstance. All these things I am willing to put aside and ask you to end my agony."
"I don't understand..."
"I love you. Most ardently! Please do me the honour of accepting my hand."
She was at a complete loss for words and stared at him in unmasked confusion and surprise for a few moments before gathering her wits about her.
"Sir, I appreciate the struggle you have been through, and I am very sorry to have caused you pain. Believe me, it was unconsciously done."
"Is this your reply?" His surprise almost seemed to equal hers.
"Are you... are you laughing at me?"
"Are you rejecting me?"
"I'm sure that the feelings which, as you've told me have hindered your regard, will help you in overcoming it." Anger was simmering in her chest once more as the impact of his words were allowed time to sink in.
"Might I ask why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus repulsed?"
"And I might as well enquire why, with so evident a design of insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your better judgment! If I was uncivil then that is some excuse. But I have other reasons, you know I have!"
"Did you think that anything might tempt me to accept the man who has ruined, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?!" She sounded incredulous and was, in some small way, pleased to be granted the opportunity to confront him about his interference.
"Do you deny it, Mr Darcy? That you separated a young couple who loved each other, exposing your friend to the censure of the world for caprice and my sister to its derision for disappointed hopes. And involving them both in misery of the acutest kind!"
"I do not deny it," he answered simply.
"How could you do it?"
"Because I believed your sister to be indifferent to him."
"Indifferent?!" The nerve of him to presume to know her sister so well after such a fleeting acquaintance!
"I watched them most carefully and realized his attachment was deeper than hers."
"That's because she's shy!" She could not believe that his careful inspection had not revealed this most prominent of her sister's traits.
"Bingley too is modest and was persuaded she didn't feel strongly him," he answered hurriedly.
"Because you suggested it!"
"I did it for his own good!"
"My sister hardly shows her true feelings to me!" She felt like screaming at him and very nearly did. She took a deep, calming breath and forced herself to continue in a quieter tone. "I suppose that you suspected his fortune had some bearing on the matter."
"No. I wouldn't do your sister the dishonour! Although it was suggested..."
"It was made perfectly clear that an advantageous marriage..."
"Did my sister give that impression?!" They were shouting now, their chests heaving and cheeks colouring despite the fact that they were both soaked through.
"No! No. There was, however, the matter with your family..."
"Our want of connection?! Mr Bingley didn't seem to vex himself about that!"
"It was more than that."
"How, Sir?" she asked through tightly clenched teeth.
"It was the lack of propriety, shown by your mother, your three younger sisters, even, on occasion, your father!" The air escaped him at this and he seemed to visibly deflate. He turned his gaze to the flagstones for a moment before squeezing his eyes shut.
"Forgive me. You and your sister I must exclude from this." His voice was sweet and remorseful, and his eyes lingered on her with a tenderness that was at odds with the anger that ruled him moments ago. She, however, was not finished.
"And what about Mr Wickham?" she asked him, archly.
"Mr Wickham?" Mr Darcy started at this and took several steps towards her, apparently needing to read her more carefully, if that gentleman was to be the topic of conversation.
"What excuse can you give for your, your behaviour towards him?"
"You take an eager interest in that gentleman's affairs." His tone was laced with jealousy and something almost dangerous seemed to simmer beneath the surface.
She refused to back down and stared stubbornly back at him. "He told me of his misfortunes."
"Oh, yes. His misfortunes have been very great indeed."
"You ruin his chances and yet you treat him with sarcasm."
"So this is your opinion of me." His voice was hardly more than a whisper before his anger took control of him once more and something in him seemed to snap.
"Thank you for explaining so fully. Perhaps these offences might have been overlooked had not your pride been hurt by my honesty..."
"...in admitting scruples about our relationship. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your circumstances?"
"And those are the words of a gentleman. From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry!"
No sooner were the words out of her mouth before she started to regret her candour. Their faces were mere inches apart by now and she could feel his breath gently caress her face as she raved at him in fury. He looked rather hurt and she felt certain she had gone too far. No gentleman deserved to be thus spoken to.
Her righteous anger left her and she became aware of her close proximity to the man she had just scolded most severely. She felt her heart pound and found she couldn't look away from his intense gaze. As she noticed his eyes flicker from hers down to her mouth for a short second, she stumbled towards him ever so slightly. This tiny movement proved to be sufficient to overcome his sense of propriety; in an instant, his lips claimed hers in a heated kiss.
Sensations, unlike anything she had experienced, washed over her. Her heart pounded in her ears and she held onto him tightly as she was overcome by a fierce heat radiating through her body.
He seemed to be equally affected as he growled and pulled her firmly against his chest. Feeling his arms envelop her, she couldn't help but let out a soft whimper before allowing her fingers to creep up into his wet locks holding him in place.
Their lips battled fiercely against each other until they both needed to come up for air. They stood frozen in their embrace for a few seconds until Darcy seemed to come to his senses. He drew a steadying breath before releasing her and taking a step back.
He couldn't seem to look her in the eye as he said; "Forgive me, madam, for taking up so much of your time."
He turned and briskly walked away while she stood rooted in place, still out of breath. Her emotions seemed to be in complete overload, as she could feel none of the emotional upheaval that had been coursing through her such a short while ago. All she could feel was her heart pounding in her chest, a foreign tingling in her lips, utterly bewildered, and a surprising sense of bereavement as she watched him walk away from her.
"Mr Darcy!" she called after him.
He stopped and faced her, with surprise plainly written across his features.
"I hope you will not think me impertinent, but I think perhaps it is time you and I talked, properly. Unless, of course, you are expected back at Rosings."
"Indeed..." He considered her proposal for a moment before replying. "I am at your disposal, Miss Elizabeth."
They walked around to the most sheltered side of the mausoleum and sat down against the wall, silently agreeing to disregard propriety for a little while longer.
"It seems we have a history of misunderstanding and insulting each other that spans the length of our acquaintance, Mr Darcy. I am, as you know, very fond of studying people's characters, yet I find that I have still made no progress in making you out." She did her best to sound neutral and open to whatever he chose to say in reply.
He surprised her with a light chuckle but kept his gaze lowered to the floor in front of his feet. "That is hardly surprising. The man, I hesitate to call him a gentleman, with which you have been acquainted, bears little resemblance to the gentleman my friends and family know. I can imagine your own observations to be conflicting with how they describe me."
She was pleased that he seemed committed to complying with her request for an honest and open conversation. She was pleasantly surprised with his uncharacteristic candour.
"And, if I may be so bold, why is that?" As his gaze was averted she felt courageous enough to not avert her own in silent admiration at the effort he was making to give her answers she wasn't owed.
"I expect the first thing you learned of me, besides my name, was my income and the size of my estate. It is, after all, the norm whenever I am introduced somewhere new. The rest of the time, this information unfailingly precedes me. As you can imagine, this has a rather predictable effect on the mercenary mamas of unmarried ladies." His sounded rather bitter.
"I am forced to admit that it has made me rather taciturn. I have been told I often come off as being proud and above the rest of my company whenever I am not amongst those who have proved themselves to regard me for something other than my large income."
She almost didn't say anything, but the question left her lips before she knew what she was doing, though her voice belied her uncertainty. "Which category have you decided I belong in?"
At this, he looked up and met her gaze. "Your refusal today certainly proves that you either truly don't care about my money or that you hate me enough to risk an uncertain future regardless of any mercenary tendencies. Though I have been certain that you have no such tendencies for some time now, I admit I have been remiss in treating you accordingly."
She was pleased with his answer and regained some of her wit. "In this, we are in agreement, Mr Darcy. Only the deepest love will persuade me into matrimony, which is why I will end up an old maid. Though I hesitate to compare you to that gentleman, you should know that the prospect of being allowed to be the lady of my childhood home was not enough to tempt me to accept Mr Collins' proposal either."
His disappointment was too fresh for him to find any humour in this sentiment, instead, he was silent and looked down at his feet once more. After mulling it over for a second, he could not help himself and looked up at her in astonishment.
"Mr Collins asked for your hand?" She thought she could see a hint of a smile ghosting at the corners of his mouth.
"Oh yes. He was quite persistent and, dare I say it, even less polished in his delivery than you," she teased and even dared to give him a playful nudge with her shoulder.
At the flicker of pain she could see in his eyes, she said; "Forgive me, Sir. That was unkind. You are incapable of doing anything to justify being likened to Mr Collins."
"Well, that's something I suppose." His quiet chuckle caught her unawares.
"As we can agree that you are not mercenary, the reasons I have just given for my behaviour, in general, does not excuse my behaviour towards you. All I can say in my defence is that you leave me rather tongue-tied and, as I have never met a woman like you, I have no previous experience to draw on."
Elizabeth could think of nothing to say and did nothing to interrupt his contemplative silence that followed this.
"Unlike Bingley, I am not amiable by nature, and so my silences must have been hard for you to interpret and indeed endure. I can only apologize if they have been a source of discomfort to you."
"Think nothing of it, Mr Darcy."
He seemed unsure whether to take this to mean that he was forgiven, or that she had not considered him worthy of enough attention to notice his silences. They were both at a loss for words for a little while and sat in a rather awkward silence until he thought to revisit the topic of Mr Wickham.
"May I ask what Wickham has told you of his dealings with me?" he asked quietly.
"He told me of how you grew up together and that your father left him a living, which you denied him when the time came for him to take orders. He seems to be under the impression that you went against your father's wishes out of jealousy because he loved Wickham as a son," she answered.
"It was always a talent of his to twist the truth to suit him in the best way possible. It is true that we grew up together, that my father loved him and that he left him a living in his will. I will even admit to a certain amount of jealousy with regards to their easy relationship."
He seemed able to see some bitter humour in the recollection.
"What he failed to include in his story was the fact that as we attended school together I became privy to a side of him that my father never knew. I saw his selfish and rogue ways in unguarded moments and knew of his tendency to leave a trail of unpaid debts and broken hearts behind wherever he went. I knew he was wholly unfit to be a clergyman, so when he came to me and said he had decided against taking the living, I compensated him the value of it. I gave him three thousand pounds and considered the matter to be closed. When he came back two years later to tell me he had reconsidered and wanted the living, after all, I refused."
If Elizabeth had any expectations of what possible excuse Mr Darcy could have for his despicable treatment of Wickham, she had certainly not expected this. Wickham had always seemed to be the epitome of amiability and decency. Now that she thought about it, he had done nothing to prove that he had a good character, merely that he had good and pleasing manners.
Darcy seemed to need a moment to steel himself and consider his next words.
"He was very angry and no longer thought it necessary to even attempt to stay in my good graces. The next time we crossed paths he had schemed his way into my sister's life and convinced her to elope with him."
Elizabeth gasped at this and stopped herself from clutching his hand just in time. Embarrassed she looked away, but Darcy was gracious enough to pretend he hadn't noticed.
"I discovered them by chance and Georgiana confessed the whole matter to me. I made it perfectly clear that no part of her 30 000 pound dowry would be made available to him. At this point, he lost interest in her and left without a word of goodbye. She was fifteen years old and has not regained her liveliness or spirit in the year that has passed since then," he finished mournfully.
"That scoundrel!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe I let him fool me to such an extent regarding his character."
"Don't be too hard on yourself. He has always excelled in the art of making himself agreeable where he sees fit."
"I thank you for your kind words, but I will never again consider myself a proficient judge of character!"
They sat in silent contemplation for a little while, before Darcy broached the subject of the other accusation she had laid against him.
"Is your sister in a lot of pain because of my actions?"
"She tries to hide it and steers any and all conversations away from even the briefest mention of Bingley's name. She has trouble sleeping and her appetite still has not returned fully. Even Mama's reproaches that she will never catch a man if she lets herself waste away are not enough to make her eat properly."
She was surprised to see him so remorseful as she replied. If she had expected anything, she had expected cold justifications and half-hearted excuses.
"You must know... surely, you must know I would never knowingly put your sister through the pain I have so closely witnessed my own sister go through. You cannot think me so unfeeling and heartless," he implored her.
"When I heard of your involvement in the matter from your cousin, I will admit that I believed you capable of it. I sometimes fail to acknowledge that my sister may appear different to those who do not know and love her as I do. Where I see a fragile and shy heart others may see a reserved and calculating character."
She paused for a second before continuing.
"Though I hesitate to remind you of my mother's impropriety, I will ask if you remember our conversation at the assembly. Mama told you of the gentleman that wrote Jane those pretty sonnets."
"Yes, I do recall your comments on the subject." His eyes seemed to contain a mixture of laughter and remorse at the memory.
"As Mama told you, Jane was but fifteen when she was first abandoned by a gentleman who had shown her affection. She was more affected by this than either of us let on to Mama. Though Jane is too good to think ill of anybody, she has learned that men can be fickle creatures and guards her heart more closely now. Ever since Jane was little, Mama has been convinced that it is Jane who will save us from starving in the hedgerows when Papa dies. I am sure you can imagine Mama to be even more outspoken on this subject at home than she is at public assemblies. It has been a burden for Jane to bear for many years already."
Darcy could say nothing to refute her claim, having seen such behaviour first-hand many times before.
"Your friend was so charming and seemed so persistent in his affection that she allowed herself to feel something for him. However, allowing herself to feel affection does not mean that she is capable of showing it to the entire neighbourhood. Can you imagine how Mama would react if Jane were to display her feelings on the matter?"
After a moment she blushed and said; "Actually, I'd rather you didn't think too closely on the matter."
He laughed lightly.
"I agree that some things are better left alone. I cannot tell you how sorry I am to give your sister further proof that men are not to be trusted with her affectionate heart. Though I have to say that she is right to be cautious – not all men care about the impact of their actions and the expectations they may give rise to."
He ached to take her hand as he went on.
"I hesitate to speak ill of my dearest and closest friend, but I feel compelled to tell you that Bingley has, on occasion, been careless in that regard. He has an open heart that easily falls in love and a mind that is just as easily distracted. You heard him at Netherfield; he said it himself; he can decide at a moment's notice to pack his things and leave for London only to forget any attachments he had formed earlier."
Darcy watched as Elizabeth's expression grew closed and bitter. She was resolved to not speak against his friend and sat in silence, expecting him to have more to say on the subject.
"However, I must say I have never seen him so taken with any woman as he was with your sister. I suspect his sisters noticed it too and saw fit to separate them. They would not normally go to such extremes as he does not tend to attach himself too closely, but it was plain for all to see where their relationship was headed if Bingley had his way."
This did not seem to make matters much better as Elizabeth heard it confirmed from his own lips that her sister would most likely have been married now, had it not been for his interference.
"He is a tender-hearted soul and it has been his custom to come to me for guidance and advice. I know you will not consider it an attractive quality in a man to be so little self-assured, but please remember that he is several years my junior. I can only say that I was trying to spare him from a broken heart."
"I have trouble understanding you. You agree that Jane is not mercenary, yet you believe her capable of inflicting pain on your friend. Why would she attach herself to him if she felt so little for him as you seemed to believe?"
"It did not seem an unreasonable assumption that she was under a certain amount of pressure from her mother to make an advantageous match," he mumbled.
"Alright, Mr Darcy. I will forgive you for your misunderstanding of the situation. I cannot absolve you of the part you have played in my sister's pain. I will admit, however, that you are not the only one at fault and one could argue that the blame lies with Bingley, who had not the confidence to believe his own perception of my sister's regard for him."
"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. That is more than I have a right to ask," he replied softly.
She looked at him and was in some danger of losing herself in the depth of his gaze. Looking away she noticed that it had stopped raining and a little reluctantly went to stand up.
He was on his feet in an instant and offered his hand to help her up. As she placed her hands in his, she felt a tingle creeping over her skin where they touched. He was seemingly unaffected and helped her to stand. She was more than a little stiff after sitting so long on the cold ground in wet clothes and he held onto her for a little while to make sure she was steady.
His thumb caressed her knuckles discreetly – had she not been so acutely aware of him she might have missed it. As it was, the tiny movement was enough to send a shiver up her spine as she allowed herself to look him in the eye.
"Oh, you must be freezing! Forgive me for keeping you out in this dreadful weather. I do hope you will not catch a cold because of my inconsiderate actions."
"I find I do not think a cold to be much of a price to pay when there is so much satisfaction to be had for my curiosity."
He smiled down at her, and it felt like having the sun on her face. She couldn't help but smile back. When she started shivering again, from the cold this time, he impulsively drew her into his arms again to keep her warm. Her heart pounded in her chest, and, from where her ear rested on his chest, she could his heart fluttering in much the same manner.
She allowed herself to put her arms around him and snuggled closer. In response, he started rubbing his hands over her arms and back to keep her as warm as possible. He would have offered her his coat, but as it was soaked through it would do little to warm her.
After a few minutes, he dropped a tender kiss on the top of her head and reluctantly stepped back.
"May I see you back to the village?" he asked.
"That is very kind of you, Mr Darcy, but surely you are as soaked as I am. Escorting me would take you in the opposite direction of a hot bath and dry clothes. I could not ask it of you."
"You need not ask, as I am offering."
She was staggered by his willingness to forego comforts for himself to be of assistance to her after everything that had transpired. She whispered; "How could any woman think you selfish and unfeeling? Can you ever forgive me for my horrid words?"
She barely had time to register the look of shock in his eyes before he stepped closer and tilted up her chin to kiss her again.
This, her second kiss, was everything her first should have been. It was tender and heart-wrenchingly sweet as his lips ghosted across hers. She couldn't help but whimper and pull him closer.
Passion quickly overtook them and suddenly she was pinned against the wall with his body tightly pressed against hers as their hands caressed anything within reach. She moaned as his hand caressed her breast and he kissed his way down her throat to reach her collarbones and her porcelain chest. Heat, unlike anything she had previously experienced, enveloped her body and seemed to permeate her very soul.
As his hands started to fumble with the fastenings of her dress, he seemed to recollect himself and released her with a shocked gasp. Neither of them could understand how quickly they vacillated between extremes. They looked at each other for a moment in stunned silence. He wore an anguished expression that made her heart twist painfully.
Once he had regained control of himself, he leaned in closer and whispered; "I will leave you in peace. Goodbye, Miss Elizabeth."
And with a light, but tender kiss on her forehead, he was gone.