No quicker did Elizabeth open the door, then did Mrs. Bennet step forward with an exaggerated expression of great felicitation. Elizabeth, having spent all her humor trying to convince Mr. Collins that her refusal to his marriage proposal was indeed sincere, had none left for her mother. She simply stepped around the lady and strode as calmly as she could manage through the vestibule, and out the front door.
Not far behind, Mr. Collins appeared at the breakfast room door with a look of self importance mixed with the after effects of straight vinegar. He caught a glimpse of Elizabeth's white frock disappearing around the corner. Mrs. Bennet turned toward him hoping for clarification.
"Mr. Collins?" Mrs. Bennet asked as she tried to decipher his odd expression.
Elizabeth had not even stopped to pick up her bonnet. Her legs would not let her tarry. They moved swiftly without being instructed. They carried her further and further away from Longbourn, and that horrible ridiculous man. "Almost as soon as he entered this house…" How arrogant! How insulting! How self-serving can one man be? And how could he accuse her of being bashful? Had he not observed her for more than one second? Or did he see only what flattered his shallow mind?
Without any thought beyond driving the memory of Mr. Collins' nearness and his breath from her mind, Elizabeth picked up her skirt and hastened into the trees. She had no destination, and no will to return anytime soon. Her mother and her ever-present nerves would be in similar spirit no matter what time she returned. Charlotte Lucas was due to come by and relive the Netherfield ball minute by minute, but Elizabeth would not regret missing the reveling. Too much had happened. This morning. Last night. Oh, last night! Elizabeth's head was full of it, and did not get one wink of sleep. Mr. Collins' superior timing had only added to her misery, and she was exultant to be free of everyone. Of everything--even if only for a while. She would take all day, she determined as she gauged the sky, before its vastness got lost behind the towering firs, and gave no thought whatsoever to her thin muslin or delicate slippers.
The trees provided desperately wanted shelter. Her face was flushed, and the coolness of the shaded wood was the answering remedy. Elizabeth had felt exposed out in the open; exposed to Mr. Collins' insincere overtures, her mother's unbridled tongue, her sisters' wild behavior, the poorly concealed contempt emanating from Caroline's and Louisa's smug faces, and his inescapable eyes. Those eyes. Why she could not get Mr. Darcy's stare out of her head even now, was beyond her comprehension.
Though she ran to escape, uncontrollable thoughts kept stride, and swirled around her head. The unexpected and very intense dance with Mr. Darcy would not leave her alone. Though they sparred, he very gently held her hand. Though his face severe, there was something altogether different in his eyes, almost soft. Though she accused, the way he looked at her seemed to be communicating to her something far beyond their spoken conversation. This would not do! If ever she could disappear, she wished it would happen at that very moment.
She picked up her pace along with her gown and even dared to clear small boulders and fallen branches without any fear. This might not be acceptable behavior for a woman of almost one and twenty, but the surge of release Elizabeth felt with each stride and bound kept her from caring one straw what the trees and woodland creatures would think. She filled her lungs with the scents of moss, earthy lichen, and sharp resinous sap. The damp coolness of the ground spread quickly through her house shoes and chilled her feet, and it gave her a certain measure of boldness. If the tiny beasts were to have a forest ball this evening, she was happy to give them all the scandalous conversation they would need.
"ACCORDING TO THE PRACTICE OF ELEGANT FEMALES!" she let escape from her lips with great volume.
Several black birds were disturbed and flew directly in front of her. Elizabeth drew a sudden breath and stopped where she was. Startled. Waiting. After several seconds, when the furious winging faded, and no one hushed or chastened her, she hesitantly smiled, relieved, and continued forward.
Once again, her mind assaulted her. Why did not Wickham come and claim his dance? Why did Mr. Collins forego decorum and speak to Mr. Darcy without introduction? And why, why does her family insist on constantly humiliating her? Mr. Collins was unadulterated proof that idiocy runs on both sides of the family. Elizabeth wondered if she and Jane might have sudden convulsions and surrender to it one day. Maybe then she would be free of constant mortification, and would be quite happy to marry a seriously stupid man. "Ah, maybe there was some merit to ignorance," she mused.
Having cut through the wood, Elizabeth found herself on a familiar path more than two miles from Longbourn. She slowed considerably and allowed herself to catch her breath, as she realized just how far she had gone, and how exerted she was. But she was far from keeping her mind in check, so she kept walking forward, diverting herself with a Latin verse, still no destination in mind.
"Festina lente," she recited aloud. "Make haste slowly."
Abruptly, a horse, completely saddled, yet without a rider and obviously spooked, galloped past Elizabeth. She made way for it, and watched in shock as it continued west at a great speed. Elizabeth looked scrupulously around for the rider, yet there was no one in her view. Maybe the horse escaped before it was even mounted, she thought as she started walking again.
Curious, but not expecting her curiosity to be quenched, she kept on the path looking to each side. Coming to a crest, Elizabeth could see dark ominous clouds coming her way. She hesitated, wondering if her constitution could outdo Jane's and possibly not succumb to a nasty cold. Of course, Jane was much more delicate than she was. She would risk it. Even if she became so afflicted, she would take a red nose and a day or two in bed in exchange for a few more hours away from her mother's rants, and that odious man.
Down the crest Elizabeth descended, a new power swelling inside. Her fear of living a lie outweighed her fear of poverty. Not that she gave Mr. Collins' offer one thought, but a lesser woman could. If one was allowed to admire oneself, Elizabeth did that moment. Although Jane would never have to choose between love and money, Elizabeth did, and love won out. Or was it poverty?
Her thoughts were thus occupied when she noticed what looked like a twisted log by the side of the path about a hundred yards away--except this log moved slightly. Elizabeth took in a sudden breath. The rider! In just a few moments she found herself kneeling at his side. He was face down.
"Sir, please let me be of some assistance to you."
No reply was made. The rider did not stir. Elizabeth quickly took a hold of his shoulder with one hand, and slid her other hand under his ear and cheek. She gently rolled him to face her, holding his head in her hand. Crimson trickled from a gash in his forehead, and leaves stuck to his face obscuring part of his features, but Elizabeth knew exactly whose coat she was gripping and whose head she was cradling.
She took in his unconscious face and twisted frame, her mind running in every different direction, not knowing what to do next. To her great relief, he groaned, and after a few moments, his eyes blinked open. He stared at her for several seconds, and his mouth opened as if to speak, but no voice joined the movement.
"Mr. Darcy, I am here to assist you, for you are quite injured."
Mr. Darcy continued to stare, and Elizabeth, being so close, wanted to retreat, but she knew he was in danger of losing too much blood. She carefully slid her hand from under his head and placed his head gently down on the leaves below. She reached into her pocket for her handkerchief, and after gently removing the leaves, started to dab the blood from the injury to assess the severity. The blood would not clear, and she tried to keep her countenance for his sake.
"You have taken quite a fall, sir." The handkerchief was soaked in no time. This could not be good, she kept telling herself, all the while looking into his eyes that seemed to be searching and questioning hers. Was it was possible he hit his head hard enough not to recognize her?
Suddenly his hand was on her arm stopping her from her work.
"Miss Bennet, have you seen my horse?" he managed to ask in a weak voice.
She looked at him with astonishment. Here he lies, bleeding before her, yet he inquires about his horse. "Your horse is in Meryton by now, Mr. Darcy. Although I am no physician, I would say that you should not continue your ride this morning." She smiled at him, to calm him, and he looked back puzzled.
He moved to sit up, but Elizabeth stopped him. "Please, Mr. Darcy. Your head is bleeding. It is not safe for you to sit up at this time." She put her soaked handkerchief down on the ground. "I am afraid my handkerchief was not sufficient, do you have your own?" she requested, trying to see if he could comprehend her.
Mr. Darcy hesitated for a moment, then produced one from his coat pocket. Elizabeth continued with her mission, this time holding it firmly against his head. "This might be unpleasant, but you have already lost enough blood."
"Miss Bennet, I am very sorry to cause you this trouble." He put his hand over hers to hold the handkerchief himself. "I am able to take over from here."
She quickly slid her hand away and moved further from him as he tried to sit upright. He moved, but stiffened and made an oath under his breath. Elizabeth saw his pain and moved toward him again.
"What is it, sir?"
"Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but I think my left ankle is broken." He laid back down still holding his head, and this time noticed the menacing sky.
"What are you doing out of doors when it is obvious the weather will turn?" he demanded.
Elizabeth looked at him incredulously. "Mr. Darcy, you lay here ruining good handkerchiefs with excessive blood, and with an ankle that in your estimation is useless for the time being, and yet you chastise me for being outdoors with threatening clouds? If I was not a gentleman's daughter, and a Christian, I might just leave you here with no one but yourself to berate."
Finally smiling, Mr. Darcy looked up at her. "Miss Bennet, forgive me again. I was only thinking that you might catch cold like your sister those few weeks ago."
Elizabeth smiled back. "I weighed the options when I saw the clouds, Mr. Darcy, and found it worth the risk. And now look at what good has come from my reckless behavior. This morning has been a grim one for both of us, but now I can redeem mine by helping you."
An awkward silence enveloped them as they stared at each other. Elizabeth tried to recall her Latin to distract herself, but she could only think of the word for eyes. Oculus. What was it about his eyes? She tried her best not to look at him, but he was beseeching her, and she felt that he was most likely not himself at all. He must have hit his head with quite some force!
Sprinkles of rain started to spatter around them, giving her something else to think on. "Sir, we need to find you some shelter until I can get some help."
"I do not need shelter, Miss Bennet, though you do. I will not send you out in the rain to secure help for me."
"You truly are ridiculous! I will help you to that large oak and then I will hurry to Netherfield since it is closest."
"Miss Bennet--" He was not going to give up easily, but he was no match for Elizabeth. Not today.
"Mr. Darcy, you can make this as difficult and unpleasant as you would like, but I am going to get assistance for you. You may try to stop me, but I wager I am swifter than you at the moment. Catch me if you are able, but I am determined."
A sudden downpour came down, assaulting them. They stared at each other, neither wanting to give in, but the rain was soaking them through. Elizabeth's pins gave way, and her thick hair came tumbling down around her face and back, snapping Darcy out of his stare.
"I will take your assistance to get under the oak, Miss Bennet," he conceded.
Mr. Darcy sat up, and with Elizabeth's help, hopped on one foot to stand. He stifled a groan of pain. With a quick concerned glance at him, Elizabeth ducked under his left arm to support his weight. There was a distinct difference in their heights, and the side of Elizabeth's face was placed against his chest. She could hear his heart pounding wildly. He must have been in more pain then he was letting on. She tried not to think about how she had never been this close to any man besides her own father, and how he smelled of earth and cloves, and failed.
"Adversus solem ne loquitor," Elizabeth said under her breath.
"And do you consider yourself the sun, Miss Bennet?" Darcy asked with amusement mixed with his obvious pain. "You just said to speak not against the sun... in Latin."
Not turning her head, and still supporting his weight, Elizabeth smiled and answered. "Forgive me. That came out a little louder than I intended."
"Indeed. No one should argue with the sun, Miss Bennet. And I should know by now, that arguing with you is a lost cause."
"It is a lost cause when it is over a non-issue, as to whether or not I am going to help a fellow human being in trouble, Mr. Darcy."
The great tree was fifty yards away, and the two had made it safely. Mr. Darcy was carefully lowered under its shelter, and Elizabeth was about to turn to seek Netherfield when he touched her arm once again. This time, an unexpected thrill traveled through Elizabeth, sending her heart racing. She looked down at him surprised, but tried to maintain the rest of her countenance, or her sense of balance at the least.
"Miss Elizabeth, I am certain that rain will let up in a few minutes. Please let me entreat you to stay here until the worst has passed," he pleaded softly. His face was in earnest, and Elizabeth could see that the rain had opened up the wound on his head again.
"I will stay if you let me stop your head from pouring forth anymore blood." He was all relief as she sat down next to him, and he produced the handkerchief. She took it from him and pressed it against the wound once more trying not to look in his dark eyes.
"So, Mr. Darcy, how did you get thrown? Or is that improper to ask a gentleman, since true gentlemen never get thrown from their horses," she teased uneasily as a curl came forward and covered part of her eye. She peered at him around the stray lock.
Darcy looked cautiously at her. "Gentlemen do get thrown from their horses, Miss Elizabeth, but a true gentleman leaves no evidence of it occurring. I think that I will have to buy your silence."
At that moment, a smile broke across his face like she had never observed before. It was lighthearted, teasing, but penetrating at the same time. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. She was almost dumbfounded, and quickly looked away. She had acknowledged that he was handsome the first time she set eyes on him at the assembly, but she had never thought of it again. His pride, superior airs, and his insult directed at her, spread over him like an infection, and she had actually started to believe that he was very ill favored. That was until now, for she was forcibly struck by him. He was more than a puzzle to her, and she couldn't help but be completely fascinated and offended by him all at the same time. She managed to look back at him and gathered her thoughts.
"I found out just this morning that I am impervious to money, Mr. Darcy." She pulled the handkerchief away to see if the bleeding has stopped. "But do not worry, I will not tell our general acquaintance of your spill, sir, if you try forget how wild I must look now all muddy and soaked through." At that very moment, she involuntarily shivered, and realized for the first time how her attire was appropriate for breakfast indoors, but not wise for foul weather in mixed company.
Immediately, Darcy shrugged his coat off. "How inconsiderate of me, Miss Elizabeth. Please take my coat. You must be chilled to the bone." He threw it over her slender frame and it enveloped her, making her look like a small child.
"Thank you, sir… of what were we speaking?" she asked trying to call the attention away from herself.
"You were inquiring whether true gentlemen get thrown from their horses," her reminded her with a knowing smile.
She nodded. "That is right. Please proceed."
"A small flock of birds came out of the woods and startled my horse."
Elizabeth went pale, as she remembered the birds that she startled just minutes before. She dropped her hand from his forehead. Darcy noticed her change in color. "Are you quite well, Miss Bennet?"
Elizabeth's thoughts were everywhere. Was her unguarded behavior responsible for his injuries? Surely there were lots of birds in the area… but… This was dreadful! She was mortified by her sisters' behavior at the ball, but no one lay bruised and bleeding from Kitty and Lydia's ill manners.
"Miss Elizabeth?" Darcy was beyond concern. "Are you chilled? What can I do for you?"
Elizabeth laughed nervously at his kind exclamation. "No, sir, I am quite well." She looked around trying to regain herself. "I just noticed that the rain has slowed. I should go on my errand now. You should be seen by Mr. Jones within the hour. I must set off."
She stood before he could reach her again. "I will inform the coachman and tell him to send for Mr. Jones while you are fetched here." She lingered, her face almost pained, while he stared at her absolutely confused.
"I am so sorry that you were injured, Mr. Darcy. So deeply sorry. Good day." She curtsied, but Darcy would have none of it.
"Miss Bennet! You will stay at Netherfield and get dry clothes before you are taken home to Longbourn." It was not a question.
"No, sir. I couldn't let Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst see me like this." She looked down at herself, wet, muddy and wearing his coat. "Please excuse my frankness, but they do not need much reason to skip from dislike to despise, and my appearance will be the catalyst. I do not think I could bear it. I will talk to Mr. Bingley's coachman and then make my way home."
"That is utterly unacceptable, Miss Bennet! You will not walk home from Netherfield in this weather. I do not care if your vanity is injured. I do not care if your clothes are six feet deep in mud, but I will not have you shivering and soaked through, catching God knows what on my behalf!"
Elizabeth smiled at his concern, and decided to appease him if she was ever going to leave. "Certainly. You are right. I am sorry to distress you, Mr. Darcy. Of course I will dry off and take the carriage home. Thank you for your concern."
Darcy eyed her, not certain if he believed her. "One more thing… I should warn you, Miss Bennet. We were planning on leaving for London this morning. You will definitely hear of it, although I think the trip will be delayed on my account."
She stared at him not comprehending fully. "The entire party?"
Darcy dropped his eyes. "Yes. Mr. Bingley has pressing business and we decided to accompany him. His business might keep us there—all winter, I mean." He looked back up at her.
She maintained her countenance and let the exchange sink in for several seconds. "Does he mean to quit the house altogether?"
"Nothing is settled, Miss Bennet. I am sorry that you had to find out like this. Caroline was writing your sister Jane when I left for my ride."
Elizabeth had never felt more chilled or numb. "I see. I thank you for relating that information, Mr. Darcy. I will leave you now." She curtsied again and then hurried away.
His job was done, but it had not been easy. He no doubt had deep feelings for Jane, but convincing Bingley that Jane's feelings for him were not equal to his, was a great chore. With the help of Caroline and Louisa, Darcy chipped away at Bingley's resolve.
They were able to convince the poor man that although Miss Bennet was sweet and attentive, her heart was not invested. Darcy had to admit that he felt badly for his friend, but something drastic had to be done. Everyone at the ball last night had their eyes fixed on them, and in turn, all were expecting a declaration from Bingley toward the lady soon. There was no time to spare, and Bingley's sisters were most eager to assist. Together, they had broken him, and now they needed to get him to London before he changed his mind. And he was very capable of doing that.
Darcy had already packed, and could not stand to watch his friend as he stumbled around in a broken hearted daze, trying to get his affairs in order to leave. He would take one last ride.
It was a crisp morning, and Darcy had to admit that Hertfordshire was a beautiful place. No great rocks and mountains, but the rolling green hills and the woods pleased. He toured the park around Netherfield, mildly feeling the sting of the loss he tried not to think about. He tried not to think about how her small hand felt in his, how her plump lips tightened into a thin line when she was cross, and he tried not to think about how her eyes changed color with what she wore. Last night they were light green. They matched her gown perfectly. And when he took her hand to dance, those green eyes pierced right through him like she knew every thought he has ever had. He was in awe, he was ashamed, and he was relieved. For if she could read his thoughts, a great slap would have come hard upon his cheek. Oh, but what a pleasure it was to see the fire in those amazing eyes of hers. Darcy smiled slightly, and he couldn't help but think of how very worth a slap from Miss Elizabeth Bennet might be, if he was a lesser man.
London was for more than just Bingley's sake. This was for his sake too. He was in danger now, and he felt it acutely. What he felt now, was more than the sharp edged flirtation he experienced during her stay at Netherfield. Darcy was physically aware of her no matter where she moved in a room. He could pick her laughter out of dozens. Her face and her form were behind his lids when he lay down. No. This must end as well.
Darcy was less than a mile from Netherfield on his way back. He encountered a muddy stretch of road, and not wanting to change his trousers before they departed, he took his horse off the road and close to the wood. There were branches and rocks to navigate around, and Darcy switched the reigns from one hand to the other, as he had to duck and keep a low branch from sweeping him off of the saddle.
At the very moment of exchange, a small flock of black birds came suddenly from out of the wood. They flew low and exited directly in front of the horse. Darcy's horse reared up, and Darcy held on to what little of the reigns he had. The birds kept coming, and the horse came down and bolted in the opposite direction. Darcy lost his grip on the reigns and grasped for the mane, only to have it slip out from under his glove. He tumbled down, but his left foot caught in the stirrup while his body continued toward the ground.
The horse continued at full gallop dragging Darcy along until his head hit a rock. His ankle came loose and he was freed. He stopped with a dull thud to the damp ground below. His body was twisted unnaturally. And then there was nothing.
And more nothing.
And then… a soft voice echoed in his ear. It seemed very far away, as if it was resounding across a lake. And even though it was sweet and dreamlike, it caused him pain. Great pain. A gentle hand cradled his head. He heard the melodic voice again, but it was closer. Very close this time.
He knew that voice, but he was dreaming. It was only a dream. Warmth washed over his face and soft fingers caressed his hair. Yes, he was dreaming… but the pain? There was a great deal of pain. He could hear shallow breathing. Not his. He could feel the small hand cradling his head lightly tremble. Oh! His head! He suddenly became very aware of his head. It was pounding and his ears were ringing. His name rang in his head and bounced back and forth off of his skull.
Darcy opened his eyes, but saw nothing. Was this still a dream? Blackness? Flashes of light and color paused but a second, and then stole away just as quickly. He blinked and the light and the colors started to assemble. They slowly came together and formed a picture. A curious but comely picture.
Lovely grey eyes looked down on him. They were so close and so beautiful, but they were also frightened. Darcy wanted to tell the eyes not to worry, that it was just a dream, but no sound came from his lips. The eyes looked around for help, but saw none and came to rest on him again.
The picture became clearer for Darcy as his wits began to return. The lovely eyes belonged to Elizabeth Bennet! She was cradling his head and leaning over him. Where was he? What was she doing?
She spoke again, and told him that he was injured. Her cheeks were flushed and even though her body was still, he could see in her eyes that something indeed was very wrong. Her words sank in, and he finally understood. He felt her slip her hand from underneath his head and gently lay it down on the leaves below. Pressure was put on his forehead and Darcy winced. He looked up at Elizabeth who was gently wiping scarlet red from his brow.
"You have taken quite a fall, sir." Elizabeth, more like a gauzy vision, than flesh and bone, gently dabbed his head and smiled with concern.
It took a few seconds, but Darcy heard and comprehended every word she said. And even though he knew he was laid out on the ground bleeding, he did not know how or why, when a sudden flash of a branch and black birds streaked by.
His reflexes kicked in, and his strong hand was on her arm in an instant. She was surprised at his movement, but her eyes softened when she heard him inquire after his runaway horse. She laughed at him and told him just where he could find it.
Meryton, he thought as he tried to get up… but she stopped him. She would not have him get up while he was bleeding so. She gently pulled his arm away from hers and then leaned in toward him. Her beautiful grey eyes met his. He had never seen eyes quite that shade before. Grey, but with small flecks of green and blue. So calming, so serene.
"I am afraid my handkerchief was not sufficient, do you have your own?"
He could feel the warmth from her breath, and thought that maybe he did not fall from a horse at all, but Elizabeth Bennet herself stunned him, bewitched him, and he would never be able to act or speak on his own again. Darcy's head was spinning, and he was certain that he was under her spell, and would do or say anything she wished. He would have given her Pemberly entirely, and he would have gone and lived in the woodpile, if she had asked. All she had to do was ask…
Elizabeth stared at him with patience and concern as he registered her actual request. She asked for a handkerchief, you fool!
Darcy found his pocket and produced the kerchief. He watched almost helplessly as she focused on his brow, and this time put direct pressure on the wound. He might have flinched, but he felt nothing. His mind was trying to make sense of the vision before him. The very woman he was trying to escape this very day, kneeling like an angel next to him with nothing but concern on her lovely face. He needed to get his bearings and quit this place immediately!
"Miss Bennet, I am very sorry to cause you this trouble." He put his hand over hers to hold the handkerchief himself. "I am able to take over from here." He felt her slender hand slip out from under his, and watched her back away from him slightly. Darcy moved, but his ankle screamed. Every nerve in his body reacted to the excruciating pain, and he thought that he might lose consciousness once more.
Damn it! His ankle was broken. There was no possibility he could walk at all. He was stuck there. With her. And soon he would own nothing but a woodpile. After he apologized for his outburst, he laid back and saw the thick clouds that matched her eyes. How did she do that?
As his head quit spinning, he started to feel like himself. Now he could put an end to his ridiculous thoughts, and figure a way out from here and away from her. He did his best to converse with Elizabeth without emotion, but her wit and teasing manner softened him, and he couldn't help but admire her, as he had from their very first meeting—as he had every time their paths crossed. He was quite an idiot to think that he would feel anything less.
The heavens opened and the heavy drops started. Try as he may to dissuade her from seeking help in the downpour, she would not back down. The unrelenting rain streamed down her set face, and dripped from her chin. Her pinned hair came loose and spilled in thick dark tresses down her back and around her face. He was stunned. Darcy thought that she had never looked lovelier than she did at that moment. She was an absolute vision. An angelic being, with heaven itself baptizing her in front of his very eyes. He conceded. He could at least get her out of the rain for a while. He accepted her help to get him sheltered under the great oak.
If ever Elizabeth Bennet were to slap someone, Darcy was certain now would be the proper time. Elizabeth was tucked under his coat with her arm around his waist, and his arm over her narrow shoulders. Her head was against his heart and her right side matched up against his left. He could smell her hair and the dampness made it that much more potent. It was a mixture of lavender and roses, and he was certain his head spun from that, and not the blow he had received. Her slender body was surprisingly strong and it was only the sensation of Elizabeth clasping him, and her heady scent that kept him from screaming out in pain at every step. Every nerve in his body was on edge, and he knew it was not from his injuries. Elizabeth Bennet was holding him tightly, and he was very aware of it.
Having no idea that he deserved a great slap, Elizabeth smiled and talked of Latin and obstinacy with him while they made their way to the oak. Once Darcy was at the base of the tree, Elizabeth turned to fetch help. Without thinking, Darcy reached for her arm. He had taken his gloves off before they journeyed to the tree, and the feel of her soft skin sent a jolt through him. He might have to slap himself. "What kind of a gentleman am I?" he thought to himself, as she looked back at him completely surprised.
"Miss Elizabeth, I am certain that the rain will let up in a few minutes. Please let me entreat you to stay here until the worst has passed," he pleaded softly, while warring with himself to finally put distance between them. How could he be so kind to his friend, and yet not do the same for himself?
The rain had opened up his wound again, so Elizabeth agreed to stay, and she took up the handkerchief again to stop the bleeding. Part of Mr. Darcy wished that he had enough blood to pour out for the next several hours just to keep her close by, but he shook off the thought.
The conversation turned to just how Mr. Darcy fell from his horse, and the lady teased him, and smiled at him while she tenderly cared for his wound.
And that was it. The struggle was over.
There was something in the way she delivered her speech, something in her eyes, in her lifted brow, and the way she looked at him through an errant curl, that completely undid Mr. Darcy. He should be as offensive as he possibly could, and end this right now, yet he wanted nothing more than to observe her flawless skin, and see those chameleon eyes turn toward him from under her dark lashes. He was her prisoner now, and he did not care to be anywhere else.
Darcy held on for as long as he could. He cautiously teased her back, and then, as if he jumped right off of a cliff, he let all pretenses go and smiled genuinely at Elizabeth. He had smiled at her dozens of times by now, but this time it was without pretense, without reserve and without fear. All the admiration, adoration, attraction--everything that he felt for her was let loose within his smile. He thought he noticed Elizabeth react differently to him, for she stared back for a few seconds, but then she broke the gaze.
She checked the progress of his head, and then made a pert promise not to tell of his fall, if he would forget her "wild" appearance. As if he would ever be able to forget the way she looked right now. Her dark hair down reaching over halfway down her back, her wet cheeks still pink from her walk. And then… she shivered.
What a rake I am! He chastised himself as he had been admiring his captivating companion, whose thin dress was soaked through and clung to her, not thinking once about giving her his riding coat. Immediately, Darcy shrugged his coat off.
"How inconsiderate of me, Miss Elizabeth. Please take my coat. You must be chilled to the bone."
At that very moment, Darcy became her protector, even if from himself. He would not see this woman hurt, compromised, or gossiped about, and he swore to himself that he would do everything in his power to see to it that Elizabeth was safe, happy and loved.
He swung his coat over her shoulders and sighed with relief when he saw her climb into it gratefully. He smiled when she peeked at him from under the huge wool lapels, and right before him, her eyes transformed from grey to deep mossy green, exactly like his riding coat.
What kind of a creature was she? She was mythical, appearing out if nowhere, windswept, in gossamer white. She was only missing her translucent wings or the churning wave she rode in on. He was either, completely and utterly in love with this woman, or he had hit his head so hard, that he would drool for the rest of his life and never wake up from this fantasy. Either option sufficed.
Darcy somehow was able to collect himself, and continued to relate to Elizabeth how black birds spooked his horse, when she suddenly went white. Although she had his coat on, he was convinced that a chill had taken hold of her. Elizabeth assured him that she was well and noticed that the rain had lessened, and stated that she should leave for help immediately.
Uneasy for her health, Darcy made her promise to stay at Netherfield to dry off. He took comfort in knowing that he would be brought back by that time, and then he would make sure that she was safely taken home in a carriage.
But before she could take off, he had to confess something to her. They were to leave Netherfield. The change in her countenance and voice when she realized what they had planned, pierced Darcy. He had just sworn to himself that he would never hurt her, and he already broke his own pact. Darcy did not have the time or the inclination to explain anything to her. He wanted her to be safe and warm. There would be other chances to make this up to her. He let Elizabeth go and watched her intently until she disappeared around a bend.
When she was completely out of his sight, Darcy threw back his head against the tree. What had just happened? He was not the same person who mounted a horse only an hour ago.
Mrs. Bennet's distant cries of family honor and duty were muffled when Jane closed the door, her arms full of linens. She walked over to Elizabeth, who shivered in her bed. "Here Lizzy, these were by the fire." She piled warm blankets on her sister and then grabbed a free hand to warm it. "Charlotte Lucas came by with Maria one half hour after you left. She could see how distressed our cousin was, as Mama would not stop telling him that she would make you marry him, so Charlotte invited him to dinner at Lucas Lodge. He seemed quite relieved to quit this house, as were those he left behind."
Both sisters smiled and couldn't hold back a few giggles. "Poor, dear Charlotte," Elizabeth exclaimed.
Jane moved in to help towel dry Elizabeth's hair. "I cannot even imagine such a day. Refusing a marriage proposal and then happening upon poor Mr. Darcy like that!"
Although Jane was concerned for Elizabeth, she was relieved to learn from Lizzy that the occupants of Netherfield would not be leaving like Caroline's letter had stated. "I do not know if your refusal to dry yourself, and take their carriage home, will shock them more than if you did go the door, dripping wet and wearing Mr. Darcy's riding coat."
Elizabeth smiled. "It was the lesser of two evils, not having to feel the dreaded sisters glares. But Mr. Darcy will not be pleased when he finds out that I left his riding coat with the groomsman… not that I should care to please him."
Jane looked at her sister with interest. "Tell me Lizzy, was he kind to you?"
Elizabeth met her beloved sister's searching eyes. "Yes. As kind as that gentleman is capable of. I have never encountered such immense pride, though. He would have rather crawled back to Netherfield than have me assist him!"
"Lizzy, might you think that it was his deep concern for your well being, and not his immense pride, that prevented him from seeing you out in the mud and rain?" Jane questioned knowingly.
"Jane, Mr. Darcy does puzzle me. He is capable of perfect civility, and at moments, great ease and charm. I see flashes of it, yet in the next moment, he looks at me as though I have offended him to his core. It is quite disconcerting." She looked at Jane with a sly smile. "I honestly think that any kindness he showed today, was a direct result of the blow to his head."
Jane sat next to Elizabeth. "I may not be as quick and clever as you, Lizzy, but maybe just this one time, I have observed what you have missed." Elizabeth looked at her expectantly. Jane smiled. "Have you not seen how preoccupied he is by you?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No Jane. I know he looks at me, but it is only to find fault."
Jane laughed. "Lizzy, he is not finding fault in you. That is why he is looking. Why would he stare at something unpleasant? It is against nature. He cannot keep his eyes off of you, and I do not doubt this most recent encounter will have even further effect on where he rests his eyes, sister." Jane jostled her damp hair playfully.
Elizabeth looked at her in humor and unbelief. "Jane! I wish you would give up your observances immediately, for they do you no credit."
That night, Elizabeth lay in bed wondering what the day meant. Mr. Collins' proposal was completely driven out of her head, which was now full of Mr. Darcy. She had not even had one stray thought for Wickham. It was only the enigmatic man who may or may not be finding fault with her, that occupied almost every thought. Was he very angry with her for not doing what she promised and stay at Netherfield? How could she properly inquire about his health? Should she tell him that it was all her fault that he was injured in the first place? Was Jane right? Could he possibly be admiring her instead of disapproving? And lastly, why did his touch cause her such an unexpected thrill? It was all too much, and even though it was apparent her jaunt through the rain had no ill effects on her health, Elizabeth felt dizzy and sick to her stomach. She tried to give in to the exhaustion of the day, but she could not stop wondering what was to come.
And there was plenty to come. Mr. Collins had in the course of two days, most willingly transferred his enraptured heart to Charlotte Lucas, and was to marry her in one month's time. As distasteful as that was for Elizabeth to see her good friend give herself over to such a man, Elizabeth bit her tongue and wished Charlotte and her intended great joy. Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, great favorites of Elizabeth, had come from London with their four little children for Christmas. And Mr. Wickham was seen less frequently at Longbourn, since he had been charmed by a certain Miss King, and her ten thousand pounds. But most importantly, Netherfield Park still held all its occupants. No one fled to London.
It took two stable boys and a groomsman to carry Darcy upstairs to his room. Bingley went before him and made sure that his sisters were in another part of the house. Darcy was wet and muddy with dried blood caked on his forehead and down one side of his face. The boot on his injured ankle was taken off in the carriage in hopes that that rain and cold had not let it swell too much. His ankle was reddish purple and turned unnaturally inward.
Once in Darcy's room, Bingley hovered over Darcy throwing some pillows under his head, and continually asked for Mr. Jones to be brought up directly when he arrived.
Darcy concentrated on not crying out every time his ankle was jostled, but also wondered about a certain person keeping dry, and waiting for the carriage. Only when he was set upon a couch in his room, and the friends were left alone, did Darcy ask Bingley about Elizabeth.
"She left quickly for Longbourn as soon as she informed Mr. Fuller where you could be found," Bingley answered.
Darcy roared. "How could you let her leave like that? She was soaked and will catch her death!"
"Darcy, calm yourself, man! As I said, I did not see her! She did not come to the house. She went directly to the stables. Fuller tried to get her to dry herself, but she would have none of it. She left your coat with him."
"She left my bloody coat?" Darcy forgot his injuries and swung his leg off of the couch and regretted it immediately. He let out another howl, while Bingley tried not to laugh.
Bingley helped Darcy to get his leg back up on the couch. Darcy was out of breath, and knew that he was making a spectacle of himself. He saw the smile that Bingley was stifling.
"I am so glad that I can amuse you in this way, Charles." His tone was acidic, and he lay back frustrated, and in a great deal of pain.
"I am just as concerned about Miss Elizabeth as you are, Darcy, but I am sure she will be fine. Even though she is slight, she does not seem as delicate as Miss Bennet. Miss Elizabeth seems a hearty little thing, do you not think?"
Darcy could see instantly that his friend was already thinking about Jane. He knew his face well, and he recognized that particular look. He tried to keep the subject to another sister.
"Miss Elizabeth was shivering, Bingley. She was soaked through, and I let her go out in the rain and the mud," Darcy moaned.
"How did she find you in the first place? You were no where near Longbourn."
"I do not doubt she was on a walk. But the rain had not started when she found me. I caused her to stay out in it. I caused her to not to be able to make it back to Longbourn before the rain started. "
"I will call on her tomorrow at Longbourn to inquire about her health, Darcy. Will that make you feel better?"
Darcy looked over at Bingley who was still thinking of more than just Elizabeth. "Bingley, you, Caroline and the Hursts should go to London. I will catch up…"
"You are preposterous! I will not leave you behind, Darcy. Besides, I can get what little business I have done in a day. Alone. The rest can be done through couriers."
Darcy knew that all the work he had done this morning was unraveling, as he could see hope once again on his friend's face. He was exhausted, injured, and had too much on his mind to do anything about it.
Bingley was already pleased with the way things were working out, and could not but help to be secretly thankful that Darcy lost control of his horse, for the day was looking up.
"I will tell you what. I will ride up to London tomorrow, and Caroline can call at Longbourn and explain our change in plans. She can bring news of Miss Elizabeth back."
He paced the room as his plans expanded. "Also, how rude would it be for us to take off in this manner without taking leave of all of our good friends? I have promised to have dinner with half a dozen families. No, that will not do. I am going down to talk with Caroline straight away. London is not a good idea. Not at all."
"Bingley?" Darcy asked calmly. His friend looked over at him. "Promise me you will be careful. Take your time, and make sure that Miss Bennet returns your affections. There is no rush."
Bingley's face beamed as he took two long strides over to where Darcy lay. "I promise, friend." Bingley turned to walk toward the door when he stopped and turned back around. There was a puzzled look on his face. "Darcy? May I ask you something?"
Darcy looked at him. "You can ask, I cannot promise if I will answer."
"I told you that I was just as concerned about Miss Elizabeth as you were." Bingley lifted one eyebrow. "Is that a falsehood?"
Caroline called on Jane the day after the accident, bringing news of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth made excuses and kept upstairs, but she was very anxious to hear how Mr. Darcy got on. She waited until Caroline rolled away in the very carriage she was supposed to have waited for, when she ran downstairs to Jane. Jane relayed that Mr. Darcy was indisposed for six weeks, and his young sister, Georgiana, was coming down to help him pass his time. Caroline made it clear that she would be very much involved in entertaining Miss Darcy, and little of the residents of Netherfield Park would be seen by anyone in Hertfordshire, if at all. That was perfectly fine with Elizabeth, especially where the sisters were concerned, and she told Jane so, and was slightly reprimanded for her unkindness, but forgiven just as quickly.
Surprisingly, and most likely against Caroline's wishes and knowledge, Mr. Bingley came calling at Longbourn two days later. Elizabeth wondered if he had to lower himself from an upper story while his sister was distracted cooking plump children. She also noted that it was fortuitous that her young visiting cousins were mostly lean and thus safe. Mrs. Bennet could barely contain her raptures, and Bingley was immediately invited to dinner the following night, which he graciously accepted, though they were merely having fish.
Mr. Bingley was able to get his business done in London alone and conveyed that he had no intention of wintering there. Though most of his attention was showered rightly on Jane, Elizabeth thought—no—she was certain that Mr. Bingley smiled at her too much. Not in the way that he smiled at Jane, but in a way that made it seem that he was in on a private joke with her. She decided not to dwell on it, and instead was content to be happy for Jane, who was outwardly pleased.
For the next few weeks, Elizabeth occupied herself with her aunt and the young Gardiners, visiting their Aunt Phillips and the shops in Meryton, when the weather permitted. Bingley was a fixture by now at Longbourn, always kind, and always smiling at Elizabeth in a particular manner, never failing to make her wonder if she would ever see Mr. Darcy again. Why would he tell her that he was planning on leaving, yet not leave? What was he really trying to convey to her. She longed to see him, to try to read his face, to see if the man she left under the oak truly existed, and to have any one of the hundred of questions that she had finally answered.
"Darcy is very ill tempered these days, even with the addition of his sister," Mr. Bingley declared as they had tea one day. Bingley glanced over at Elizabeth and back at his tea before he continued. "He is an active man, and only being able to get as far as the garden is taking its toll on the poor fellow. He must have been a bear when you happened upon him, Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth looked up from her tea. All eyes were on her. Not much had been said to her family on the subject of Elizabeth's assistance, except to Jane. Elizabeth felt that a detailed description of her involvement would only bring unneeded speculation and gossip. If Mr. Darcy had not been so injured, it could have been a very compromising situation. So, she only spoke of her finding him and running for help.
"If you say 'bear' meaning unconscious and bleeding profusely—then by all means, Mr. Bingley, he was a great bear." She smiled innocently and took another sip.
"Good heavens, Lizzy! He was bleeding profusely? How shocking! You did not relate that to us," complained Mrs. Bennet, as she considered that the two who preceded the Good Samaritan, most likely had excellent and sound reasons to pass on the opposite side of the road.
"You did not ask me anything about it, Mama," Elizabeth commented calmly.
Lydia snorted. "No, Mama was too busy with our cousin, Mr. Collins, who was violently in love at the time." Kitty and Lydia both held back laughter, while Aunt Gardiner shot them looks to behave.
"I do have it in my power to tell you how upset I was when I found out you had left on foot in the rain to return to Longbourn, instead of taking shelter in my home, Miss Elizabeth," Bingley said with sincerity, and Elizabeth felt it fully.
"Please forgive me, Mr. Bingley. You needed only to worry about Mr. Darcy, and I did not mind the walk one bit. I did not catch cold, I assure you." She hesitated. Should she say it? "Please also convey that to Mr. Darcy for me, as I know I broke a promise to him."
"Well, you will have to convey that information yourself, Miss Elizabeth." She looked at him in surprise, as did the rest of the room, as if he would produce the gentleman from his trouser pocket at that very moment. "I am to extend an invitation to the two eldest Miss Bennets to lunch at Netherfield tomorrow. Miss Darcy is staying with us and longs for more diverse company. May I tell her that you will attend?"
Jane and Elizabeth looked at each other, the former happy, and the latter not certain at all how she felt. "Certainly," Jane answered for the both of them. "It will be our pleasure and honor to meet Miss Darcy."
The carriage ride seemed unbearably long. Elizabeth had thought too much about what she should wear, and now could not even recall what she spent hours choosing, as she looked out the window. It frightened her to think what it would be like to see him again, after one month. The questions that she troubled over the night of the accident, had tripled since, and she had absolutely no answers, only fears that they would always go unexplained and unexplored. Fears that his dark eyes would be severe, and worse of all, fears that by seeing him again, she would think of him even more, and that was not to be borne.
Jane squeezed her hand as they pulled in front of the great house.
Caroline and Louisa stood reluctantly without a hint of a smile, when the Miss Bennets were shown into the drawing room. Mr. Bingley practically bounded over to greet the two ladies. Elizabeth could see the sisters exchange disapproving glances.
As Bingley invited them to sit, Elizabeth quickly scanned the room, was able to find Mr. Darcy standing up very straight, near a window. He had a cane in his left hand, and his brow appeared healed. He bowed immediately when their eyes met, and she smiled and curtsied in return. She moved toward her seat, her pulse beating loudly in her ears.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, I would like you to introduce my sister, Georgiana, to you."
A slight girl of sixteen got up from the pianoforte and walked to stand next to Mr. Darcy. They had the same coloring and shape of eyes. Georgiana seemed awkward and did not look up for more than a second at a time. The Miss Bennets curtsied, as did Miss Darcy.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Darcy," Elizabeth said with great sincerity. Jane added, "Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst have nothing but kind things to say about you."
Miss Darcy blushed and looked up at her brother who nodded encouragingly. "It is a great pleasure to meet both of you. I have been looking forward to it, especially since I heard of the great service Miss Elizabeth rendered my brother."
Elizabeth immediately glanced at Mr. Darcy, while Caroline coughed to hide an obvious laugh.
"I am not certain if it was a 'great' service, Miss Darcy. I was simply taking a walk, and was able to extend the walk to Netherfield Park to fetch help," she modestly replied.
Mr. Darcy halfway smiled, and the ladies took their seats. He wanted to beg to differ. He wanted to let Elizabeth know just how much he appreciated everything she had done for him, but he could not take that liberty in this company.
For weeks Darcy was forced to hear Caroline's running commentary on Elizabeth's fine eyes, now paired with her shocking lack of propriety in walking by herself again, and then having the nerve to run across Darcy in his injured state. She declared it "unrefined and coarse" that Elizabeth would take it upon herself to do the work of a surgeon, and tend to his wound. Bingley asked his sister if she rather Darcy was left exposed to the elements and bled to death, but Caroline only laughed, and claimed that someone more appropriate would have found him, and they would not have run off wearing his riding coat.
So Darcy remained quiet, but he watched her. He could not help himself. He owed her so much, but he knew not how to repay her. It was almost physically painful for him to see her, and not to be forthright with her.
"How do you like Hertfordshire, Miss Darcy?" Elizabeth politely questioned.
Once again, Georgiana glanced over at her brother before she answered. "I haven't seen any of it but Netherfield, Miss Elizabeth. I am quite happy to stay here with my brother."
"I am afraid that I haven't let my sister out of my sight, Miss Elizabeth. She is not one for villages and shops, and I really do enjoy listening to her play," Mr. Darcy explained.
Her heart jumped when he spoke to her, but she kept calm on the outside. "Oh, I certainly hope that we can hear you play before we leave today," Elizabeth enthused. She tried not to look at Mr. Darcy who was definitely looking at her.
"If you wish, Miss Elizabeth, but you must play and sing," Miss Darcy bravely answered. "For I understand that you can do both, and quite well."
Once again, a cough came from the couch where the contemptuous sisters lounged.
Little Georgiana's fingers expertly flew across the keys as the rest of the party kept busy. Mr. Hurst played with his cufflinks, while Louisa and Caroline whispered, and shot furtive glances at their brother and Jane, who were sitting close together in each other's confidence.
Elizabeth now found herself sitting across from Mr. Darcy. Lunch had been torturous, not because of the offending sisters, since that was expected. Nor was it because of the questionable fatty meat they were served, since young Bertram Gardiner did indeed go missing after breakfast. No, lunch was miserable because she was seated nowhere near Mr. Darcy. They could not have been placed further apart. Caroline was an efficient hostess. Elizabeth longed to talk with him, even if it was only on the subject of the weather. Was the man she saw briefly under the oak just a temporary result of the knock to his scull, or was Mr. Darcy capable of charm and compassion? Elizabeth did not know, and was even more afraid she would get no answers today. She did take solace in the fact that she sat next to Georgiana, and found her to be sweet, and eager to be friends.
She now had her opportunity, but Darcy looked grave as he watched his sister, and did not incline his head in her direction at all. Elizabeth thought this was proof that he was angry with her for her breech of contract. She could only think of how much more his anger would have been compounded when he found that his coat was left behind. Elizabeth tried several times while Georgiana played to find something to say to him, but the subjects that came to mind seemed either too trivial now, or too personal, and she was pained for it. Inside she chastised herself. "Say something! Anything! He will think you are dull and stupid, in addition to horribly stubborn and a liar!"
Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Darcy struggled much in the same manner, but with much more favorable notions. He had wrestled the past few weeks to keep thoughts of her in check, since he did not have as many distractions, with his activities severely restricted. He honestly thought he would go insane if he were not able to set eyes on her and to hear her voice once again, but having her here now, so close, and looking even more beautiful then he had let his mind recall, had him completely off balance.
He wanted to speak with her, and even though he was not afraid that "merciful angel," or "rain soaked goddess" would escape his lips, he did not know how to say anything to her that would not sound distant or inane. Making things even worse, lavender and rose reached his senses, bringing back that day in the rain even more vividly. He had no such excuse as a massive head wound to blame on any unintentional utterances anymore, so he sat staring at his sister, his mouth closed tight, but his head and lungs filled with Elizabeth, who was close enough to touch.
"Miss Elizabeth," Bingley called from across the room, "If I remember correctly, you had something particular to convey to Mr. Darcy." Bingley smiled widely, as his sisters looked from their brother over to Elizabeth. They clamped their steely gazes on her.
Elizabeth was startled, but this was the exact opportunity she needed. For the first time, she thought Bingley a very clever man.
"Oh, yes." She turned to face Mr. Darcy who looked at her with a somber face, but with something very different behind his eyes. She hesitated, fearing those eyes, but continued as the whole room now waited for her.
"Mr. Darcy, I feel the need to apologize for breaking my promise to warm myself at Netherfield, sir, and to assure you that I did not succumb to a cold from the weather."
Mr. Darcy could see that her eyes were cornflower blue today, like the delicate ribbon around her tiny waist. He took a breath, and his countenance melted into an easy, yet sly smile.
"I have to admit, Miss Elizabeth, that I doubted your sincerity when you so easily changed your mind." How he loved to say her name. How it lingered on his lips.
Surprised, but relieved, Elizabeth returned the smile. "You could have kept me out in the cold rain for a half hour more arguing your point, so I decided I could be home and warm at Longbourn far quicker, if I agreed with you."
"Adversus solem ne loquitor," he said with the same smile. "Speak not against the sun?"
Elizabeth looked up at him and caught a small glimmer from his deep eyes. "Exactly, sir."
"Yes, but who is the sun this time?" the gentleman posed.
Finally! Elizabeth was thrilled that the ice was broken. Darcy's eyebrow was lifted, waiting for her response, and she was just about to, when Caroline interrupted.
"That was very ungenerous of you, Miss Eliza, to lie to Mr. Darcy's face like that. Quite distasteful. I have to say that I will think twice before I believe anything else you say," Caroline jabbed. She and Louisa shared a glance of victory before the former fixed her triumphant gaze back on Elizabeth.
"You look very lovely today, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth simply replied with a sweet smile, and then smoothed her dress beneath her.
Almost every occupant in the room, including Georgiana stifled a smile. And the cufflink absorbed Mr. Hurst, actually looked up at Elizabeth in surprise, and laughed out loud.
Louisa shot him a look that could have taken down an elephant, but Bingley's good port was making her husband immune to any weapon she formed against him.
Darcy, who was just about ready to defend Elizabeth, smiled the widest. He was besotted. Not only was Elizabeth mythical in his eyes, she was strong, intelligent, lovely, and was most likely, not aware of any of it.
He wished more than anything that he could close the gap between them, and promise never to leave her side again. The weeks he spent convalescing without being able to see her, had altered him. How could such a short acquaintance make such a tremendous chasm in his heart? He now nurtured a new hope, that he could see much more of her, and that she would soon end his suffering.
Louisa started to complain about how late it was getting, and both Jane and Elizabeth knew that they were in danger of overstaying their welcome--at least where the superior sisters were concerned. Bingley could not bear any talk of them leaving, but Jane encouraged him to come by Longbourn the next day, for the long walk they had talked about.
Elizabeth was crestfallen. Even though they had that one little moment in the proverbial sun, Darcy seemed distant and distracted, although she did find him looking at her frequently. How would she ever be able to truly talk with this man again without several pairs of eyes and ears fixed on them? She simply would have to lie in wait on some lonely patch of road, and suddenly push him off his horse when he was not looking. She had already scampered about the landscape, quite alone and soaked through, wearing Mr. Darcy's riding coat. This seemed like a logical follow up. Elizabeth managed a smile at the very thought.
Caroline broke Elizabeth's revelry and wished her a good day, although her face said something completely different. Caroline turned her back and quickly walked away, while Elizabeth and Jane were helped into their carriage by Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy was unable to manage the stairs without help, so he and Georgiana said their farewells inside. Elizabeth had glanced at him once more before she quit the room, and was not sure if he looked toward her or not. And now they were leaving. And that would have to be good enough.
Jane did not require any conversation on the carriage ride home, so Elizabeth was left to ponder how to quell her great disappointment, and wonder if she would ever sleep again.
Anticipating their arrival back at Longbourn, was their Aunt Gardiner, only six years Jane's senior. Mr. Gardiner was Mrs. Bennet's younger brother by eleven years. He was a very successful young businessman in London, owning a lucrative import business, and Mrs. Gardiner was his very beautiful and stylish bride. They married when she was but seventeen. All the Bennet girls considered Mrs. Gardiner as more of an older sister than an aunt, and save Mary, looked forward to their aunt's fashion reports and catalogs from London. Apparently long sleeves were coming back in style for daywear.
Not being able to help having favorite nieces, since the other three were universally regarded as silly, Mrs. Gardiner grew very close to Jane and Elizabeth. She was particularly anxious to hear about the luncheon, since she had sharp eyes and a notion that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were attached in some manner beyond anyone else's suspicion. She did her best to find out any bit of information, but found Lizzy uncharacteristically dull, and Jane only able to discuss Mr. Bingley and the food. She would have to wait and observe herself, which was not possible, with the fact that the Gardiners would be leaving in just three days.
Elizabeth did make a promise to call on Georgiana, and fulfilled it two days later. Fortunately, Louisa and Caroline made excuses and retired to another part of the house, but unfortunately, the gentlemen had taken the carriage to Meryton. As they found themselves alone, Elizabeth ignored her disappointment at not being able to see Mr. Darcy, and suggested a walk. Georgiana was happy to oblige since she had been no farther than the park. They donned their bonnets and Elizabeth took her down one of her favorite paths.
Although the weather was cool and crisp, the sun was high and bright, and it felt exhilarating to stir out of doors while the weather held. Every few minutes Elizabeth would take Georgiana's hand and they would run together for a small stretch, and then laugh heartily, as though they were getting away with something quite appalling. Elizabeth assured her that the exertion was more important than decorum, and besides, there was no injury to decorum, if no one was around to witness them breaking it.
The two were all over the countryside, on and off of paths, talking all the while. Georgiana turned out to be an intelligent, curious girl, and Elizabeth was making great progress in getting her to express her feelings on various topics. One of Georgiana's favorite topics was her brother, which Elizabeth did not mind spending time on. It was natural to idealize a brother who was ten years her senior, but sometimes Elizabeth felt that Georgiana held him in unrealistic god-like esteem. She painted him as too good, as too kind, and too generous for believability. Such a person could not exist, and could not be the same gentleman who may or may not be looking for faults in Elizabeth, and certainly could not be the same man that Wickham claimed he was.
Elizabeth pondered this, as they found themselves very near to where she had found Mr. Darcy just a few weeks prior. Elizabeth had not been there since. She could almost smell the rain, the wet earth and leaves, and his heavy wool coat. How she wished she could revisit it all without the injury.
At that moment, a carriage crested at the top of the hill, and came down their way. The pair moved to the grass to let it pass, but Elizabeth recognized it as belonging to Mr. Bingley. They smiled as the carriage slowed to a stop. The door swung open, and a very red faced Mr. Darcy appeared in the doorway. Elizabeth had never seen an expression like that on his face, in their entire acquaintance. It was more than annoyance and displeasure; it was almost outrage. Both Elizabeth and Georgiana stared at him, shocked.
"Georgiana! What are you doing out here? I told you never to stir away from Netherfield," he thundered.
Poor Georgiana stood, unable to move or speak for a few seconds. Elizabeth's eyes moved between the siblings trying to make sense of the moment. Finally, with tears rolling down her face, Georgiana answered. "I am sorry brother, I thought that it would be safe to be with Miss Elizabeth."
Mr. Darcy's eyes softened slightly as he saw the distress he was causing his sister. He tried to lighten the tenor of his voice, although once it came out, he could hear that it was still very stern.
"It certainly is not safe. Please step into the carriage and I will take you back."
Georgiana immediately jumped into the carriage without even looking back at Elizabeth, and disappeared behind her brother's much larger frame.
Frozen, Elizabeth continued to stare wide-eyed at Darcy, as he tried to change his countenance. He was the devil himself, she thought, controlling and frightening that poor creature, who did nothing but love and worship him. Wickham was right! All of Hertfordshire was right. Mr. Darcy was not only proud and unpleasant; he was cruel and unforgiving. Elizabeth was now sure that Georgiana praised him so highly, only because she was afraid of him. Hateful man! She wanted nothing more than to be out of his presence.
Darcy could see the horror in Elizabeth's face, and realized how he must have come across. He did everything in his power to calm himself and to look kindly at her. What must she think of me? He would not be able to explain his behavior, especially in front of Georgiana, but he needed to made amends quickly.
"Miss Elizabeth, we can take to you back to Longbourn if you would like," he offered in a different, calmer voice.
Elizabeth's face thawed, but she glared back at him. "No thank you, sir. I prefer to walk."
Darcy's heart sank. Her beautiful eyes were not fire; they were ice. Cold and steely. How could he rectify this?
"It would be my great pleasure to see you home safely," he managed a smile this time. Please Elizabeth. Please, my love… you have no idea what I am about.
And then she noticed him look past her to the oak tree where they both sought shelter from the rain. He looked back at her with almost pleading eyes, but something new burned in Elizabeth's chest. And though she could not put a name to it, it was not anything resembling what the cold shivering Elizabeth dressed in a gentleman's riding coat felt.
"As I said, Mr. Darcy, I prefer to walk. I thank you for your kindness." Elizabeth curtsied and turned on her heel, wanting to be free of his gaze. Needing to be as far away from him as she could manage.
Elizabeth almost burst into the parlor at Longbourn, where her aunt, mother, Mary, Jane, and her young cousin Sara were having tea.
"Lizzy!" her dear aunt exclaimed. "Is everything all right?"
Elizabeth took stock and managed to check herself. She made herself breath and tried not to look desperate.
"I am sorry." She looked around the room and stopped at her aunt. "It is just that I had the most happy thought, Aunt! I know that you originally had asked Jane to accompany you home tomorrow, but most thought it best for her to stay, to…" She glanced over at Jane who looked a bit surprised, "to see how things might turn out here."
"Yes, we know what you mean, Miss Lizzy, get on with it," her mother added impatiently.
"Well, I was hoping that I could take Jane's place and accompany you to London. I long to have a change in scenery, Aunt, and I will be a big help with all my young cousins." Sara's eyes lit up.
"Oh, Mama, could Lizzy please come with us?"
Mrs. Gardiner looked puzzled, but was not about to keep her favorite from accompanying her home. This would be the perfect opportunity to find out just what was going on in that sweet, stubborn girl's head.
"Certainly, Lizzy. We would love you to come, that is, if your mama could spare you."
"Oh, Lizzy is of no consequence to me," complained the lady. "She thinks nothing of throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals, which is the same as throwing us all out in the cold upon her father's death. It is a good thing that Jane takes her duties more seriously." Mrs. Bennet scowled at Elizabeth. "Mr. Bingley visits almost every day," and then she turned to Jane, who had ducked her head in embarrassment. "I knew you could not be so beautiful for nothing, my dear!"
Elizabeth finished packing and sat down to write a note to Georgiana.
I am celebrating, because I have been invited to accompany my aunt and uncle back to London, and help out with my four young cousins—that is, if all can be found.
There are assurances of balls, new bonnets, and my favorite thing of all, an extensive library to lose myself in during my stay. My only regret is that I will not be able to continue our acquaintance while you stay at Netherfield Park.
I find you a very intelligent, amiable and talented young woman. This is the highest compliment, as I have been told by some very esteemed people, that I am quite severe upon our sex.
It has been a pleasure to call you my friend. If you find that you need a friend, at any time, anywhere, please know you can rely on me.
God bless you, dear Georgiana.
Jane entered the room as Elizabeth was folding the letter.
"Lizzy, what will I do without you?"
Elizabeth looked over at her. "You sound like Father. But I know I will hardly be missed by you, at least." She put the letter down and grabbed Jane's hands.
"Dearest Jane, I know he will propose while I am gone, and I am very sorry to miss it, but I must get away from here."
"Won't you tell me what happened?" Jane asked sweetly.
"Nothing happened, and nothing will ever happen, Jane." Jane looked like she wanted to say something, but Elizabeth continued. "Whether or not he was admiring me or finding fault, Jane, I do not think I like the man at all."
Lydia burst into the room, without so much as a knock. "Wickham and Denny are here! They wanted to make sure to see you before you left, Lizzie! What luck to be singled out like that! Hurry, for they only have a quarter of an hour." Lydia was gone as fast as she entered.
Elizabeth and Wickham walked together in the garden while Lydia and Kitty entertained Denny.
"I am sorry I haven't been visiting as much of late," he offered.
"I understand that there is a good reason," she quipped, and Wickham was not sure if she was teasing or accusing.
"Colonel Forster relies on me for many things these days," was his excuse.
She looked over at him wondering if any of the rumors were true about him. For there were more whispers than just fortune hunting. There were supposed unpaid debts and gambling, but Elizabeth knew how much the good people of Meryton loved a good story. She remembered thinking that his looks added to his believability at one time, not long ago, but was not sure if she trusted herself at all where handsome young men were concerned anymore.
"I understand that you have met Miss Darcy," he added cautiously.
"Yes, she is staying at Netherfield Park, and I have had the great pleasure of getting to know her."
The gentleman looked uncomfortable. "Did you find her proud?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Not at all. In fact, I found her quite shy, but perfectly amiable."
"Oh." Wickham ducked his head. "She must have improved in the past few years."
Wickham quickly changed the subject, and they talked of London and other matters that did not have to do with the name Darcy. Elizabeth felt relieved as he took his leave. Yes, he was handsome. Yes, he was charming, but there was something amiss. It was certainly time to get away from Hertfordshire, and all handsome young men she associated with it.
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