« This is perfect, » Elizabeth said.
Night was falling on the mountains. She was sitting at the garden table, sipping her glass; inside Bingley, Jane and the others were trying to start a fire in the gigantic fireplace. Only Darcy had lingered outside, with her, under the lime tree.
The sky, pink and purple over the ancient farmhouse.
"Why?" Darcy asked, with a small smile. Elizabeth looked at him with surprise, so he elaborated. "Why is it perfect?"
God. That man was insufferable. But... Jane was dating Bingley now – it seemed serious, and if Darcy and Caroline Bingley came with the package – oh well. Bingley's mountain house was gorgeous, Elizabeth was having a wonderful time hiking around, falling in love with the sights and enjoying the local specialties – so, you know. As long as Jane was happy. In fact, it was Elizabeth's sororal duty, to get along with Bingley's friends – so she answered with a smile of her own:
"Why is it perfect? Let's see. The sky. The bells of the cows going home, mingling with – maybe a faraway TV – it makes for strange, eerie music, and – this mysterious orange light, north. Maybe a streetlamp. Maybe a mountain fire. Maybe a fairy."
Amusement was dancing in Darcy's eyes. "Is that all?"
Elizabeth could hide her exasperation like a trained professional. "The sounds – the insects, the birds – the way the white shutters of the house are turning purple with the night…" Darcy was still watching her, so Elizabeth asked, genuinely curious. "Don't you like it?"
"I do," he said slowly. "I love this place."
They both smiled – sincerely – at each other – it must have been the first real smile Elizabeth had ever directed at Darcy, who found ways to annoy her daily – but at least this answer proved he had a heart or some sense of aesthetics. "Then why would you ask me to dissect my blissful statement, dear Mr. Darcy?"
"It's a game we play with Georgiana. When one of us expresses a vague feeling or state something subjective, we try to ask the other 'why'… To practice our discussion skills, enrich our vocabulary... you know. I generally tell her, 'give me three rational reasons…'"
"Poor Georgiana," Elizabeth said. "You are a tyrant of logic."
"Oh yes – poor Georgiana – what horrors she suffers – I am an awful brother."
Elizabeth knew it wasn't true – Caroline has waxed so much poetics about Darcy's perfect guardianship that at least a part of the praise must be true – and anyway, you could hear the affection in Darcy's voice when he spoke about his younger sister – Elizabeth imagined her as a haughty, cold, distant creature – a female teenager version of Darcy – clever, certainly, and with a dry sense of humor, but certainly not someone she would willingly choose to hang out with – if she had any choice.
She tried for more polite conversation. "You know this place well, right? Bingley's house?"
"Yes. I've been coming here since I was a kid." And Darcy began to explain, in his habitual neutral voice – God prevents that man showed some emotion – how he and Bingley had been friends till the tender age of six, how Bingley's parents had invited Darcy each summer in their mountain house after… Here Darcy's voice faltered, the "after" was not explained, he just did a quick gesture like he wanted to wave away facts, anyway, he continued, they had a great time scampering around as boys, sometimes in the company of Caroline – who mostly preferred to stay in town – and maybe Darcy shouldn't have pronounced Caroline's name, because Bingley's sister suddenly materialized on the stone steps, throwing a quick dark glance at Elizabeth before whispering in the sweetest voice:
"Oh, are you both still here? You have to come to support my cause, Fitzwilliam. Charles couldn't get the fire going – so now he says we don't need one in July – but it is tradition, right?"
Darcy didn't move an inch. "I am afraid I will side with Charles on the matter. A heatwave is coming, Caroline; a fire is hardly necessary."
But Caroline was determined to get him inside. "Then can you help with the liquors? I can't reach that bottle on the top shelf – you know, the one we opened yesterday – and you are so tall…"
Darcy didn't have a choice – he had to go – he nodded politely to Elizabeth and followed Caroline inside, leaving, at last, our heroine in blissful solitude.
- X -
It was so hot. The heatwave had struck mid-morning – it felt like a tidal wave. The grass was yellow, the sun was stifling, flies were on crack – temperatures were only bearable inside the house, between the thick, two-centuries-old stone walls which had stood through much worse. Elizabeth read in the broken sofa, sipped iced coffee and made jokes, Darcy staid tall and stoic, Richard (Darcy's cousin) cursed the heavens and drank local beer, Caroline had chosen the best seat and elegantly pretended she was dying. Jane was helping Bingley in his endeavor, which was painting "Netherfield", in cursive letters, above the fireplace.
"Didn't you already name your apartment Netherfield? I mean, in town?" Darcy asked while watching the proceedings with a cynical eye.
He was right. Bingley had moved to Netherfield (in town) one year ago, near the Bennet's apartment building – this was how they all met. Don't go imagining the Bennet with a fortune now, please picture a blue-collar neighborhood, a family of five rowdy sisters, poor tenants who forgot to pay their rent, and their owner – Elizabeth's dad – who was too lazy to do anything about it – then Jane broke her leg and stayed two weeks at Bingley's – well, long story short, now they were madly in love and in the mountains they all were.
"Everywhere I live will be named Netherfield," Bingley stated. "It's a name I read in a story when I was little. It's… a beautiful name. It's where good things happen."
Elizabeth put down her book and smiled – her sister had chosen well – it was impossible not to love Charles Bingley. But of course, Darcy had to protest.
"A name doesn't change the nature of a place."
"I disagree," Elizabeth countered sweetly. "First, I will refer you to hundreds of thousands of pages about symbolism, written by savvy philosophers. And second – naming something, it's a ritual. Magic."
"I feel people – and places – are very stubborn. You can name them, try to change them – their true nature generally sips through."
Elizabeth frowned. "Such a pessimistic view of life."
"I… guess," Darcy mused, after some thought.
Elizabeth glanced at Jane with affection. "But if you believe in someone's inherent goodness, don't you think – don't you believe, that most people will try to… live up to that opinion?"
"No," Darcy said coldly. "I don't." Elizabeth was taken aback. "But I can see," he added with a kind smile and a pointed look at Jane, "why you would think so."
Elizabeth had to smile back – Darcy could be very perceptive sometimes – "Shall we have some music?" Caroline asked, standing up suddenly – she quickly put the radio on.
- X -
Hours passed – they all felt trapped – this was a place made for hiking or lounging outside, there was not much to do in the house, and at 5 in the afternoon, tired of the inactivity, they decided to go out – it was a bad idea. The world had roasted all day and wanted its revenge. Elizabeth found herself walking alongside Darcy – the lane was dusty and narrow, Jane had paired with Bingley and an unhappy Caroline had been claimed by Richard as a walking companion. At least Darcy didn't talk much – thank God – they had already fried for three miles on the burning road when Elizabeth realized she had brought the wrong bag, so she had no hat, no sunscreen, and no water – and not a tree or a shadow in sight.
She kept her calm and made a joke about God trying to fry her brains to punish her for having none, but truth was, she was thirsty – and afraid of a heat stroke – Darcy instantly handed her his water bottle, then he grabbed his hat and put it on her head.
"No!" Elizabeth cried – thankful and horrified. "No, Darcy, it would not be fair; I am the one who forgot – we can share the water, thank you so much – but I cannot take your hat."
"Obviously you can. Look, it fits perfectly."
Elizabeth was touched – say what you will about Darcy, but that was classy. She couldn't accept his sacrifice, though, "You have no hair," she protested laughingly, "and I have too much of it. The sun will be much harder on you…"
"I have hair!" he indignantly protested.
"But it's so short," she retorqued, and then she tried to put his hat back on his head, but he was so tall he escaped her grasp easily, so then followed a very friendly hat fight – Darcy was actually laughing (I know, I know, Elizabeth hardly believed it either) ; Caroline, like, teleported near them to see what the problem was – then it was decided by Bingley that hats would be shared so no one would be hatless more than 1/6 of the time – anyway, after three hot and not unpleasant hours, the whole party made it back to the house alive, everyone very ready for some friendly shade, tasty olives, fresh water and cold rosé.
- X -
After dinner, Elizabeth lingered at the garden table again.
Twilight was drowning everything in purple. The air was buzzing, the stones were turning golden; a lonely dog was barking far away. The rosé had disappeared hours ago – the local alcohol was bitter, but Elizabeth was feeling anything but. And for some reason Darcy was lingering in the garden again – again, they were alone, and again – their little corner of the universe was breathtakingly beautiful.
Elizabeth said so to Darcy, before adding with a smile: "And if you ask why, or demand three rational reasons, I will have to kill you. Elegantly, of course."
Darcy smiled in return. "How?"
"How would you elegantly kill me?"
God. That man.
"Hum." Elizabeth looked at the table. "I could break that bottle and rip your throat with the glass."
"I wouldn't call that elegant."
"I could throw this little silver spoon right into your eye and pierce your brain."
"Elegant indeed – and original – but quite a feat, for the untrained individual."
Elizabeth smiled. "Anyway, I should not try. Not when you've been so chivalrous today, with the hat."
Darcy didn't answer directly – he seemed embarrassed – a short silence ensued before he deftly changed the conversation.
The next day they had one of those interminable lazy lunches – you know, the sun is blazing, you are safe under a parasol – you consumed so much food, why the hell would you ever move – even Caroline's petty complaints could not spoil their post-meal torpor – everyone was dozing – Bingley and Jane were holding hands – Elizabeth had closed her eyes, "I am convinced experts could prove, scientifically, that heat slows down time," she whispered, to nobody in particular.
Darcy was the only one who answered. "I believe Einstein spent years researching the question."
"Is that true?" Caroline instantly asked.
Elizabeth smiled. "Relatively."
She didn't open her eyes – but could picture Darcy's smile anyway.
- X -
Then – things got weird. They were drinking coffee when Darcy stood up and declared he wanted to take a walk – his voice was clipped, he was in a bad mood, and clearly wanted to be left alone – Elizabeth threw a puzzled glance at Bingley, who shrugged. "Darcy likes to brood," he told Jane in the kitchen afterward. Elizabeth just filed the information into her "all the reasons Fitzwilliam Darcy is the worst" imaginary drawer. Although…
Truth was, she felt slightly hurt by his attitude. She couldn't explain why – it was just – see, she had feared that between Caroline and Darcy, those holidays would be unbearable – but they were not – not at all – she was having a wonderful time – and – well – the fact that Darcy had brutally reverted to his anterior haughty, spiting demeanor was… a disappointment, somehow.
- X -
There was no lingering around the garden table that night.
- X -
But the next evening, there they were.
- X -
The two of them, talking under the lime tree.
- X -
He had struggled all night. And all the days before, to be honest – but see, it was so beautiful, here, in the garden. He couldn't say it. He couldn't tell her – that he knew it was a mistake, that she was not – Elizabeth was not – what his aunt wanted for him, what Darcy's family wanted for him – his maternal family, of course, his father's – well, that was all the issue, wasn't it? He couldn't tell Elizabeth, not now, not in the light of the setting sun, that he and Georgiana were supposed to prove, every hour of every day, that they were better than his dad – better than their mother's mistake – and it was not Elizabeth's fault, Elizabeth was – she could have had a better education, of course, but you couldn't know that listening to her – her conversation was perfect – and her laugh – but - can you imagine a meeting between the two families – Mrs. Bennet meeting Aunt Catherine? Shudder – well that shouldn't prevent Darcy to have a fling with Elizabeth, right? Except he wasn't the kind to have flings – he had one, three years ago, and didn't appreciate it that much – and Elizabeth – it had been months, almost a year. He vaguely remember meeting her during that party, in her father's derelict building – I hope they have fire insurance, Caroline has snickered, cause they're gonna need it – it was the night Bingley fell in love with Jane, months went by, they all had been hanging out a lot, Elizabeth was always around, and then Darcy tried to talk Bingley out of it, out of Jane, it was getting too serious too fast except long story short, Bingley told Darcy to fuck off – and rightly so, because look at them now, so happy – and Jane Bennet was really interesting, deep waters, the more you got to know her – but Elizabeth – Elizabeth was – but still – he shouldn't
No, Darcy did not say any of that.
How could he? The sky was so deep. Everything was so pure – his thoughts, of social class and the right schools – the mountains put them to shame. It put all his doubts to shame – so he just turned to Elizabeth and said, under the stars:
"I think I'm falling in love with you. I mean – I – I mean, I have fallen in love with you."
He had never given much thought to her answer. Other than the obvious. He would, at last, tell her. Then they would be together. The end.
So her stunned look took him completely taken by surprise.
"You, hum, sorry," Elizabeth stammered. "What?"
Darcy did not answer. Her look. Her face. Everything was crashing down.
"I… I am sorry," Elizabeth finally said. "I consider you a friend, of course, but I never…"
"I never thought, I mean, Darcy, I am sorry, I don't…"
Darcy stood up. "Of course. Fair enough. Sorry for bothering you."
And he disappeared back inside.
- X -
Then, Elizabeth thought about it.
I mean, she began to really think about it.
- X -
"I have fallen in love with you."
- X -
It danced in Elizabeth's mind all day. During her solitary walks, at lunch - Darcy cautiously avoiding her gaze – in bed, hornets buzzing in the glycine below. How could she have been so blind? Darcy's looks. Their conversations. Richard playing wingman… Darcy had even missed an important work trip to come to the mountains with them – yes Elizabeth had been so stupid – even Caroline was cleverer than she was.
Everything was shifting. Darcy's sense of humor. His affection for his sister. Darcy's hat – the one he struggled to give Elizabeth, in the searing heat, while she had forgotten hers. His friendship with Bingley. His loyalty. His recent, but respectful acceptance of Jane, as a worthy mate to his childhood friend.
Why the hell did she say no?
Elizabeth's head hurt. Darcy was cold. Right? Obnoxious? Always disapproving of her (except, obviously, he wasn't). He told Bingley – that Elizabeth was not pretty enough for him – in a party – but a year had passed since then, and – Wickham - turned out Elizabeth was wrong about him too – Richard explained, a few weeks ago, how Wickham had disappeared with a chunk of Darcy's money, not the opposite.
"I have fallen in love with you."
Sweet, absurd, poetic discussions under the lime tree, at night.
- X -
The next morning. Breakfast. The table was set in the garden, Caroline had made a huge pot of coffee, Bingley brought toasts, jam, local butter, the others were talking and laughing – Darcy was so pale.
He was neither rude nor angry, just – off. Like a switch had been turned. He didn't avoid Elizabeth's gaze this time, he even passed her the butter and asked for the strawberry jam.
Circles under his eyes.
- X -
The next morning. The grey under Darcy's eyes was deeper. Elizabeth had not slept much either.
"I want to make apricot's sorbet," Jane declared, in the kitchen. "Could you – Elizabeth, do you think you could go to the river, and bring me back some meadowsweet? At least three stems?"
"To put in the ice-cream?"
"Yes." Jane blushed. "Charles likes to experiment with local herbs and flowers – I want to surprise him…"
Elizabeth nodded distractedly. "Of course."
This was the moment she made her decision. In a fraction of second. Her heart beating like crazy. Darcy was in the garden, Elizabeth walked straight to him. "I have to get some herbs for Jane… would you come with me?"
He looked at her, stunned. Before visibly hesitating.
"I have to talk to you," Elizabeth added hastily.
Darcy hesitated again. Then he nodded.
- X -
They walked in silence, in the southern lane, invaded by brambles and weeds, till they were far enough from the house.
"Listen." Elizabeth's eyes were fixated on the ground. "I – I suppose I have no right to change my mind, after what I told you. But…"
They kept walking. Darcy wasn't even looking at her.
"When we spoke two days ago – you took me by surprise, and…" Elizabeth laughed nervously. "Actually, I would like to change my mind." She was so very nervous. "I would like to… explore this. To get to know you better. If you still want to… If you are still interested..."
Not a word from Darcy. Elizabeth braced herself – rejection was going to be very humiliating – humor was her best bet. She stopped and raised her eyes at him. "As is it clear you are going to tell me to go to hell in a few scathing sentences, may I ask you not to be too harsh? I am a fragile creature."
Darcy stared at her for a while.
"Are you trifling with me?"
"No!" she cried, horrified.
"Ok. Then…" A pause. "Excellent news."
Elizabeth let a shaking sigh of relief. They resumed their walk. "How was that for an answer?" he asked. "Not too harsh?"
"No." Now if only her hands would stop trembling. "But, damn, Darcy, you are the king of… composure and understatement. Really, 'king' is not strong enough a word."
"The Khan of understatement?"
"Right." Elizabeth turned to him with a very relieved, emotional smile – Darcy seemed briefly fixated in place – then he smiled back.
"I was so afraid," Elizabeth owned, after a while. "Thank you for not… going full revenge mode. You would be a formidable adversary."
"I could say the same about you. If we were at war, I am not sure I would win."
"Then better keep the truce." She shot him a new joyful smile, he seemed lost in it for a second.
"I…" Darcy's voice faltered. They paused at Elizabeth's favorite place – a little opening between two giant ash trees, above a deep valley. Woods cascading on the slopes, getting darker as they lost themselves down a river of pines, before flowing full west. One day, she liked to think, they would reach the sea.
"I could banter with you all day, Elizabeth," Darcy said, his tone deep, "obviously I love it, but… I want you to know… How important it is to me that… you came to tell me this. I just had two very, very bad days." New pause. "Why did you change your mind?"
"I am not sure. I replayed our interactions, and… looked at the last months in a different light."
He hesitated – as if he was going to ask more – then: "I am glad you did."
"Why?" she asked, her smile bright.
"Why are you glad? Give me three rational reasons."
"Oh, it's like this, is it?"
"Fine," Darcy said, "One," he whispered – and leaned to kiss her – it was soft at first, just his lips on her – (sun on her skin, the sweet fragrance of pines, the trees rustling in the wind) – then the kiss turned rather passionate – and left Elizabeth quite breathless.
"I – I…" she stuttered, when it was over. "Well." She resumed her walk – her cheeks crimson – confused by her own reaction, physical and emotional. The path was descending deeper in the forest – it was not what she had imagined at all; she had thought they would talk – about – the past – the future - what they wanted… Instead…
"So, this was the first of three reasons?"
"Indeed," Darcy answered. "I believe my point was made clear?"
Elizabeth was so shaken, she could hardly look at him. "Yes. What about the two other… arguments?"
"In a minute." A church bell rang in the distance; their hands brushed – Darcy seemed to want to take hers – but then there was a difficult passage, they struggled among rocks and roots before emerging on a meandering concrete road, under a piercing blue sky – space suddenly opening - Elizabeth felt a rush of intrepidity and turned to him.
"Let me state the second reason myself." That kiss was so long – and so sweet – Elizabeth never wanted it to end. Then they walked again, wordlessly – the sun blazing, Elizabeth felt disoriented – on unfamiliar terrain – before realizing the terrain was literally unfamiliar.
They were lost.
"Damn," she muttered. They had wandered too far from the house and were a second time without hats or water. She had told Darcy they were getting meadowsweet - and instead - she apologized profusely, before being interrupted with a dry:
"You must be joking. This is the best walk I've had in years."
Elizabeth blushed. "Aren't you going to ask me why?" Darcy added. "Because I am very ready to give you three more reasons."
That was the moment Elizabeth sprained her ankle. See, the road was too hot, burning through her soles – she didn't have the right shoes – she wanted to stand on the yellow, wild grass – her foot slipped on a pebble - so instead of appreciating "reasons" she found herself stumbling along under the scathing sun, Darcy supporting her – it was a long, painful, exhausting walk, interrupted only by the rumbling of a distant tractor – when they finally got oriented, her exposed skin was burning – his must be too.
"Ok, the best option would be for you to leave me here," Elizabeth declared. "I will sit down and hail a car… or you could come back for me with Bingley's Toyota…"
"Absolutely. That will totally happen. I'm going to abandon you here in the sun, walk leisurely back home, open a cold beer and drink it to your health."
She had to laugh. "No, what I'm saying is that you could hurry home, and…"
"But I can…"
"I am not leaving you here."
She winced and kept walking, Darcy helping her along. After a while her ankle got better – maybe it was not sprained after all – Darcy was looking around thoughtfully. "When Charles and I were kids…" He gestured toward a hill. "There was a shortcut here, through the trees. The lane must be overrun by now, but…"
"A difficult lane sounds better than a burning road."
It was such a relief to be in the shade, in the damp forest – Elizabeth still walked too slowly – then it got damper, thanks to a tiny rill – no more than three inches of water – it was not potable, but they gratefully wet their heads and clothes, Elizabeth realizing too late that she was wearing a white tee-shirt, and – well.
Darcy was not a gentleman and did not avert his eyes. "I'm telling you – perfect walk," he commented wryly, Elizabeth answered with a lame joke and they began the last, arduous part of the trek home – they arrived in the house very sweaty, very red, and in an excellent mood; Caroline eyed them suspiciously, "we got lost", Darcy explained with a twinkle in his eyes, Jane was not mad about the conspicuous lack of meadowsweet – she fussed over Elizabeth, brought her juice, checked her ankle, dragged her to the shower, before sitting her besides the fireplace with a plate of cut fresh fruit and orders not to move.
"You are the best human being in the entire world," Elizabeth commented, before dozing off on her favorite's sister shoulder.
Caroline mounted guard the rest of the afternoon, so Elizabeth couldn't approach Darcy.
- X -
Dinner. Doubt and embarrassment had replaced Elizabeth's blissful mood.
It couldn't be so easy, right? So simple? So good?
Things had gone too fast. She had been too forward. He would find her so strange, saying no, then behaving like – what the hell was she doing? That was Darcy, she hated him even a week ago, no, make that two – Elizabeth had rather liked him here, in the mountains – as for before – really, it had been a while till Elizabeth harbored really violent, negative feelings about him – there had been a bizarre incident at Hunsford Pub, she remembered, where Darcy got drunk, and seemed on the verge of telling Elizabeth something – and didn't – but…
Something had to go wrong. He would soon revert to his icy former self – and Darcy did, in a way. He was pretty silent during the meal, glancing at Elizabeth a few times – that was all.
- X -
She went to bed early. Exhaustion, confusion – fortunately, she did not have time to torture herself, because she closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, it was morning.
- X -
She made her way downstairs to a delicious coffee smell and a very discontent Caroline. All Elizabeth's efforts of politeness were rudely dismissed – but – truly, reality had shifted. Elizabeth could not see Caroline as a heartless, stupid woman anymore. Caroline was Darcy's childhood friend. Maybe she had a crush on him for years, and Elizabeth was the interloper stealing him – in Caroline's own house – alas, there was nothing much to be done, except staying unflinchingly amiable and not rubbing the situation in Caroline's face.
Elizabeth grabbed plates and mugs and fled outside to set the table – the grass was scorched but the sun still soft – and she, still riddled by doubts – was she really stealing Darcy? Did she want to steal him? Maybe it would be better to erase the previous day from her memory, maybe they could pretend it never happened, and then Darcy himself entered the garden, carrying the steaming coffee pot, and –
Everything disappeared. Elizabeth's heart jumped – she felt a searing pain, or maybe a searing sensation of pleasure, or – a searing light, or – anyway, she knew.
I am falling in love.
It was irrational, it was crazy, but... Darcy seemed cold and tense. Elizabeth walked to him.
"My two favorite things of the week," she whispered. "Coffee… and…"
She beamed at him and let her sentence die – Darcy's countenance changed instantly – apprehension and restraint melting like ice in summer – "Am I to be considered a thing?" he protested, but his eyes were shining – Elizabeth laughed, irrationally – through breakfast they couldn't keep their eyes off each other – the dishes done, Darcy impatiently waited for Caroline to exit the room, then declared to Jane that it was their duty to get her meadowsweet – a duty that they had failed yesterday – he glanced significantly at Elizabeth, and off they went.
- X -
Same lane. Same brambles and weeds. Darcy's arm found her way around Elizabeth's waist.
Come on. It couldn't be so easy.
(She had only known him for – well, it had been almost a year.) (But she never…) (She couldn't...)
"Far from me to criticize our outing from yesterday," she started smilingly, "as a way of kickstarting intimacy it was extremely pleasant – but, shouldn't we talk more? About – I don't know – who we are – our expectations…"
"What a dreadful thought."
She laughed. "Mr. Darcy, you are not playing by the rules."
Darcy slowed down and frowned. "You know everything about me. My… Our mother left when I was ten, we never saw her again. My father – he was busy, so he put me in boarding-school. Then he died, five years ago."
Elizabeth was wholly stunned. "I didn't know any of this."
"I thought we talked about it."
"Or that Caroline would have…" Darcy made a vague gesture.
Silence. Soon they reached the two ash trees (her favorite view - their first kiss,) Elizabeth stopped and smiled, they sat down.
The world, hot and buzzing around them.
"My aunt Catherine – our mother's sister – she took care of us," Darcy explained. "She is… difficult, but she was there. It makes for complicated family life – she has the highest expectations for us."
Elizabeth laughed. "I bet she would not approve of me."
"No," Darcy responded without thinking. "She wouldn't."
The look on Elizabeth's face. Darcy froze, then hurried to repair the damage.
"She hated my father, he was from a blue-collar family and made his fortune in business, while on my mother's side – they are more… highbrow. Intellectual," he said – knowing he shared too much – he was overexplaining – but he couldn't stop. "My aunt blames my father for my mother leaving – he left us Pemberley, but he is – he was – very harsh. Borderline violent."
Silence. Elizabeth stood up. "I am sorry. Too much drama. I wanted to try, Darcy, but your family sounds like a mess. Not for me, thanks. It's not that I don't like you – but – God no. I will see you at the house, ok?"
Dear Reader, obviously it didn't happen. Elizabeth didn't say any of this, she was still sitting in thoughtful silence – but Darcy could see her reaction - it was like a flash - he could hear the words coming – "Don't," he muttered. "Don't say it."
In ten seconds, he would lose her.
His world was upside down. Of course her family was the problem, right? Her education, her background? Darcy never thought it could be his - never thought he could be the problem – but then he hadn't thought she could refuse him either, and two days ago, she...
A pause. Rustling in the leaves – in the hedgerows – a little animal, or maybe a fox. Elizabeth played with the grass for a while, before tilting her head with a prudent smile. "Am I forbidden to speak in general or is there some specific sentence I should avoid?"
"What were you going to tell me?"
"I am sorry," was what Elizabeth was going for. But – Darcy was so proud – of course, he would not want to hear it.
"You are like a puzzle," she said. "And… I finally got all the pieces."
Time passed – yes, the world was humming around them – wind, birds, wasps, bells. "Do you remember yesterday?" he finally whispered. "When I said I loved our banter, but I also wanted…"
His voice trailed off. Elizabeth nodded. "I remember."
"This is what I want. Right now, that look, in your eyes."
Kindness? Tenderness? Affection? He wouldn't define it aloud, it would make him look weak – and that conversation was enough, thank you very much – but she reached over to kiss him – and –
- X -
They remembered to bring back meadowsweet. At dinner – outside, twilight, wine, ham, pies, fruits on the large, beaten oak table – Darcy was slightly euphoric – Elizabeth was too, trying her best to hide her joy and wonder. Richard observed both of them closely before a contented smirk broke on his face – then something must have passed between the cousins – a silent communication of some sort because Darcy colored, then shoved Richard with his elbow – his cousin only laughed – Elizabeth thought no one had noticed but Jane seemed curious – of course her sister was too well behaved to ask questions. After the meal, Darcy suddenly had the burning desire to visit the garage, which doubled as a workshop in the depths of the house. Elizabeth discreetly followed him – after a few kisses in the obscurity and dust Darcy whispered:
"My room is in on the second floor. Maybe…"
"I thought about it," Elizabeth whispered back – Darcy held her closer, "but we have logistic problems to solve. If I go up the stairs at night – the wood creaks – everybody will hear." Everybody meaning, of course, Caroline.
"Ah, but I have foreseen the difficulty, Miss Bennet, and thought of an answer. See, if you enter through the garden door, then climb the old stairs to the attic…"
That was indeed a perfect solution. Came midnight, Darcy waited gallantly for Elizabeth outside before leading her through the dark, deserted upper space, then – in Darcy's bedroom, discretion was necessary – because the bed was creaking too – came morning, Darcy had to enlist Richard's help. Darcy's cousin dragged Caroline in the garden and rambled so much about the great peril of hornets' nests that Elizabeth had time to run down to her room, shower in the right, official bathroom and arrive at breakfast looking fresh and innocent.
Richard's eyes were shining with mirth, but to his credit, he did not joke about "people needing calories after a long night." Maybe he knew Darcy would have strangled him on the spot.
Elizabeth went for a walk with Bingley and Jane. Around 11, she got a text.
** I could take three more days off. We could pretend to leave, but instead… there's a little hotel near the lake, ten miles from here – I could book us a room **
** You want us to lie to our friends and loved ones? ** was Elizabeth's answer.
** Yes. **
** Deal. **
- X -
It was so hot. A second heatwave. The stones of the hotel's terrace had been burning all day. They went for a swim, but the water was so fucking cold – "It has no right to be!" Elizabeth protested. "We are roasting alive! How come the lake doesn't warm?"
"Phreatic water. From very deep down."
"You and your rationality," she grumbled. Then she came to dry on the scorched earth, under the pitiless sun, holding Darcy's hand, it was delightful – as Elizabeth didn't bring any bathing suit she had gone for a dip in her underwear and white tee-shirt – the one from the stream – Darcy hadn't complained. The view was breathtaking – the almost artificial blue of the water, the gentle slopes, burnt ochre and green, the deep forests, the faraway white, eternal snow around the extinct volcanoes.
"I love this place," Elizabeth whispered, "Maybe I will buy a house here one day."
"They are very cheap. I looked online yesterday – you could get a XIXe century home for less than 40 000."
"40 000?" Elizabeth marveled. "I could almost afford it."
(She couldn't, of course, but two years after their marriage they bought a house, in the same hamlet than Bingley's, so the cousins could play together in the summer.)
At night, Darcy and Elizabeth ate dinner on the terrace – the place was hell during the day, heaven at dusk. Elizabeth talked about her family, and how she loved them all but wanted to run away – on Mars – half of the time - Darcy talked about his sister, and somehow Elizabeth found herself booked for dinner on Thursday in Pemberley so she could officially meet Georgiana. Then Darcy breezily arranged two other dates with Elizabeth on the following weekend.
Elizabeth took a sip of wine. "Excellent news."
Darcy raised his eyebrows and waited.
"That we're still going to see each other, once in town," she explained. "Maybe you say 'I've fallen in love with you' to all the girls you meet."
Elizabeth blushed and smiled and tried to change the conversation, but his words of that evening, under the lime tree, floated around them all night – the next morning, when they woke up, the light was shining through the window, eerie and blinding, through the very white curtains, on the very white sheets.
"This is perfect," Elizabeth whispered.
He didn't ask why.