This was Darcy's vision. To have his Elizabeth surrounded by flowers in the beauty of Pemberley's gardens. He would have loved to plan out the perfect scenario, but it seemed his little sister was one step ahead of him. To have orchestrated their first encounter with Mrs Reynolds, followed by tea was a feat by itself, but the surprises kept coming. Miss Elizabeth Bennet had done what he and others could not. It would have taken a lot of courage for Georgiana to lead the Gardiners ahead in the gardens by herself. And now here they both were, alone in the gardens. 'Say something, you fool.'
"I believe my little sister has become bolder with every minute," he managed to say, and mentally groaned. Of all the things he could have said.
Elizabeth laughed lightly. "Yes, it appears my wit has rubbed off on her. It is one of my attributes which I am proud of. I hope you do not mind."
"Not at all. It is lovely to hear laughter once more within Pemberley's walls. I am very happy she has found a friend. I have you to thank for that."
His lips twitched upwards into a small, but brief smile. If Elizabeth had not been paying attention, she would not have seen it at all. One blink and it was gone. By now, Miss Darcy and the Gardiners were miles away, their silhouettes fading away with every second.
"Well, let's not leave her to bore your relatives to death about minuscule rock formations and flowers. Shall we?" he continued smoothly and offered his arm to her.
Elizabeth found herself unable to decline and accepted his arm. She made a mistake of looking at him when she did so, and could not prepare herself for the sight that followed. He had smiled at her. She had seen Mr Darcy amused earlier during tea with his sister and her relatives, but this time it felt different, almost intimate. Like his smile was directed towards herself, and herself only, and it sent tingles and warmth throughout her entire body. 'He looks so handsome when he smiles. Do not fool yourself Elizabeth.'
There was no way she would ever receive an offer of marriage from Darcy again. Such things were fantasies. She had ruined her only chance, and at the time her pride would not allow her to accept such a proposal. There were some things that a woman would never forget, and first impressions were everything. 'Tolerable enough to tempt' indeed. She wanted to untangle her arm from his but found she could not. Whether she could not, or would not, is an entirely different story, but thoughts of Darcy plagued her mind once more. 'Stop your daydreaming Elizabeth Bennet.'
"Yes," she found herself agreeing with Darcy, "Let us reach the others before we lose them. The gardens are quite extensive."
"Do not fear, my sister knows the gardens quite well. Is it to your liking, Miss Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth loved the gardens very much, but her brain was extremely uncoordinated and found herself saying, "It is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me."
Her eyes widened in horror, 'Oh no, what have I done?'
Everything that happened in the last few days had finally caught up with her. Her many encounters with Darcy, the change in his behaviour towards her, the refusal of his marriage proposal, believing a stranger over Darcy's character without question, and being in his home was too much to handle. Pride. It was always her pride. Her mother had told her time and time again, that it would one day be her downfall, and she was right. Elizabeth began to sob, unable to stop herself. She tried to stop the tears, but they would not cease, continuing to flow down her cheeks undeterred.
Mr Darcy froze in recognition of his words, which had just been thrown back at him. He was in a terrible mood that particular evening and had taken all the frustration out in that one comment. He wanted to apologise immediately, but first, he had to deal with a sobbing Elizabeth. He hated seeing any woman cry, especially since it was his Elizabeth. It was incredibly painful to watch and felt as if his soul had been ripped out whole. Her refusal of him at his first disastrous proposal suddenly made a lot more sense. It did not help that he was the one to also separate Bingley from her sister.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet." he tried without success in getting her attention. He would have done anything to make her happy. He wanted to tell her everything was alright, that he loved her. Without thinking, he drew her into his arms and held her close. He subconsciously scanned their surroundings and prayed that her relatives were out of sight. It would be extremely awkward if he were to explain his actions to them, especially as they had trusted him to behave like an honourable gentleman with their niece.
"Elizabeth," he tried again, "please stop crying. If you want to postpone the tour of the gardens, I understand," he spoke to her softly. The use of her given name worked, and it took a few moments for her tears to subside and get her breathing under control. Elizabeth had never felt so ashamed of herself. She wanted to step away from his person immediately but found she did not want to. With his strong arms enveloped around her, she felt safe and content. Darcy loosened his hold on her somewhat and offered his handkerchief, which she accepted with a grateful smile.
"Did you want to retire for the afternoon? It has been a long day for you and your relatives." he looked at her in concern.
"I have always dreamed of visiting the famed gardens. I do not have the courage to simply leave, now that I am in the heart of Pemberley. Oh, I feel so foolish. Please forgive me for my outburst. I do not know what I was thinking. Please forget what has just happened, and not mention this to anyone." Elizabeth was clearly embarrassed at what had occurred. To have been brought to tears in front of a gentleman, and one who was Mr Darcy, when she was in his home. She would never forgive herself for acting thus.
His breath caught in between his throat. The tears made her eyes glisten, calling out to him for comfort. Though her eyes were slightly swollen and red from crying, she still looked incredibly beautiful, like an angel.
When he finally found his voice, "I promise, Miss Elizabeth, no one will hear about this from me. But if you would allow me, the fault is mine. I recall saying that particular statement at the Meryton Assembly, but I directed it at Bingley. That comment was not meant for anyone's ears, and I am sorry that you had overheard. I was particularly frustrated with Bingley for dragging me along and his sister's presence was stretching my patience thin. And, I may have overhead some unflattering comments as to my fortune, so I behaved the way I did. Georgiana would be extremely disappointed in me if she knew of this. It was ungentlemanly behaviour. Please forgive me."
Elizabeth was humbled by his heartfelt apology. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine Mr Darcy apologising to her. Somehow, she could understand where he was coming from. Her mother for one, was extremely vocal the evening of the ball, about her daughters being matched to handsome wealthy gentlemen. Kitty and Lydia's flirting with the other officers did her family no favours. Jane staying at Netherfield with the Bingley's until her recovery, would have further established that the Bennets were only after fortune. From an outsider, it would have appeared that Jane was more interested in marrying for fortune than love. It was no wonder that Darcy cautioned his friend about being attached to her eldest sister. Once more, she felt deeply ashamed of the actions of her family.
"I accept your apology if you will also accept mine. I believe we are both at fault." Elizabeth told him. "Perhaps it would be best for us to start anew?" she suggested. 'Foolish, foolish girl. As if he would want to renew his acquaintance.'
To her surprise, he had agreed to her offer of friendship and extended an invitation to her family to visit their home in Pemberley.
"It would be good for Georgiana to meet with your younger sisters. Sometimes I am so busy dealing with Pemberley and its finances that I do not spend as much time as I would like with my sister."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and laughed, "I am afraid my two younger sisters tend to lean towards the wild side, although they do have certain qualities. Lydia has potential but spends most of her time looking at bonnets and laces instead of focusing on her other talents. Kitty loves to paint and sew but tends to follow Lydia everywhere. The third youngest, Mary, enjoys playing the piano but is not as refined as Miss Darcy. I warn you in advance, that she will have no qualms imposing her religious views and reciting her favourite scriptures. I fear they will all be looking to Miss Darcy to be their role model."
"Perhaps that is what she needs. A little bit of controlled chaos." Mr Darcy replied with a serious tone, though his facial expression had distorted to a grin and eyes twinkled away merrily. Elizabeth chuckled at that comment. Who knew Mr Darcy had a sense of humour?
"Come, we have been in this part of the garden for a while, I would not want your aunt and uncle to worry." He offered his arm to her once more, and they began to make their way to another section of the gardens.
At the pace his sister was going, they would have reached the lake by the bridge, at most, the grotto by the pantheon. They walked in silence for the duration of their walk. It was a hot sunny day, but with Pemberley's robust trees offering much-welcomed shade, Elizabeth found herself deep within the heart of nature. The rustling of the leaves from the trees, the beautiful floral scent of the flowers, and chirping from the birds and small creatures, the trickling of water from the nearby stream. This was paradise. She sighed content and happy.
"It's beautiful," she replied, drinking in everything around her.
"I am glad you love it," his deep baritone voice synching harmoniously with their surroundings.
Mr Darcy took a deep breath, "Miss Elizabeth, I am not sure if this is the right moment, but ever since you have stepped into my life, I could not help but think of you every day. You have ensnared me body and soul. My affections and feelings for you are unchanged if ever, they have grown. I understand if a marriage proposal may be too overwhelming, perhaps a courtship would be more suitable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would you do me the honour of entering into a courtship with me?"
Elizabeth was astonished, her jaw dropped slightly before she caught herself. "You want to enter into a courtship with me, after everything that has happened?"
When he had nodded in the affirmative, and assured her of his affections, Elizabeth's blush on her face became more refined as she shyly offered him a smile. She cleared her throat, and with her unwavering voice she replied, "I, Elizabeth Bennet, would be honoured to enter into a courtship with Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley."