A/N: Hey, it wasn't six months this time. *wincing* A reminder that the timeline is divergent from Pride and Prejudice due to the direction the characters are taking from this juncture.
From last chapter:
"Ladies!" interrupted a jovial male voice. "I have someone for you to meet. He will shortly be joining the regiment. I have at last managed to convince him, I believe. Let me introduce you to George Wickham."
Darcy's fist clenched, his jaw tightened against a regrettable wish to dress the son of the prior Pemberley steward down to his very marrow. All the pain that man had been the cause of, only a few months before, and he dared to show his face again?
"Mr. Darcy?" Jane's voice brought him under a more certain command of himself.
He barely nodded at Wickham, who paled noticeably. "Wickham."
"Miss Bennet," Darcy whispered, half-turning from the new-acquaintance conversations amongst the others. "I believe I would like to return to Netherfield, to make arrangements for the Christmas holidays at Pemberley. Would you care to join me? I will meet the coachmen at the inn, as we had earlier arranged, and can return for you directly." At her slight hesitation and worried glance at her sisters and the officers, Darcy urged her to accept, reminding her of her prior injury. She consented and he only barely managed not to offer Wickham the cut direct as he made his farewells.
Wickham. What was he going to do about the man? He could not be allowed to impose upon the innocents of Meryton.
Especially not any of the young ladies of Longbourn.
Ailing and Away
As it happened, Darcy was unable to take Jane to Netherfield after the encounter with Wickham in Meryton.
"Mr. Darcy, would you care to join me for an evening's shooting?"
That Mr. Bennet had so invited him drove all other plans out of Darcy's head. "Of course, sir. It would be a pleasure." He offered an apologetic look to Jane. "Perhaps we can work on those arrangements tomorrow?"
She smiled warmly into his eyes as they stood in Mr. Bennet's library, a fire snapping brilliantly away. "It would be my pleasure, Mr. Darcy. I would then have time to alert my family."
"I'll speak to your father this evening." Taking her hands, he pressed a light kiss to her forehead – he felt comfortable with nothing more, with her parents so close. "Mr. Bennet, I'll return for shooting in an hour. I'll return with my own gun."
"As you will, Mr. Darcy." Mr. Bennet smiled benignly and nodded as he left the room, calling, "Jane, you may see him out, if you wish."
"I do not suppose it improper," his so-proper fiancé murmured when they were quite alone. Still, her cheeks flushed and she fluttered a quick glance up at him.
He smiled and drew her hand up to his lips. "Not at all. We are betrothed. I shall return soon."
They walked in peaceful silence through the small foyer, where the butler waited with the barest of smiles on his disciplined countenance. "Mr. Darcy," he said, holding Darcy's greatcoat in his hands.
Hill. The man's name was Hill. Darcy accepted the coat, hat and gloves. "Thank you, Hill. I shall return presently."
Jane continued with him out to his horse, which was saddled and waiting, as Mr. Bennet did employ good servants. "I hope my father's invitation is not an inconvenience, Mr. –"
He pressed her hand lightly where it rested in the crook of his arm. "Who?"
With a soft laugh, she corrected herself. "Fitzwilliam. I do hope it isn't an imposition."
With the warmth of his horse wafting toward him and his beloved, Darcy shook his head. "Not at all. I welcome the opportunity to become better acquainted." He darted a glance toward the house and saw that he and Jane had been left altogether alone. That she had seen the same thing he knew in the slight lift of her brow and the glow in her eyes when they met his. "Jane..." he whispered.
She tilted her chin up just a little, just enough to let him know that they were of like mind. His heart pounded with a little more enthusiasm than was its wont as he cupped her lovely face in his palm and brushed her lips with his own. Sweet and soft, firm but yielding, he lingered on his second kiss, restraining himself to all that was proper before, with a wistful tug at his lips, he parted from her.
Her smile followed him all the way back to Netherfield.
"Mr. Darcy!" Caroline Bingley called languidly, accosting him as he was about ready to climb the stairs to his suite of rooms. "A messenger came for you from London not an hour ago. Your valet took a note and the messenger is still waiting...?" Her voice rose in query, but Darcy's heart chilled in dread.
"I wasn't expecting anyone, Caroline. Has Bingley returned?"
"No, I thought he was with you."
"I left him in the company of the Bennet sisters in Meryton. If he arrives, please send a servant to inform me."
Taking the steps two at a time, Darcy abandoned propriety and ran to his rooms. To his credit, Watkins was waiting immediately within the chamber. "Mr. Darcy. A messenger arrived from London."
Impatient, worry for his sister churning within, Darcy snapped out one hand. "Yes, yes. Give it to me." The paper was heavy, the handwriting on it spidery and thin, but utterly legible.
Dear Mr. Darcy,
Pray pardon my interrupting your visit with Mr. Bingley, but your sister Georgiana has taken ill. Of course, Staff is utterly capable of handling most things, but her fever has not abated and I wished you to be notified.
Please send directions as to your wishes or any physician you feel most comfortable contacting. Miss Darcy suffers so without complaint and I am afraid to have her imposed upon.
Your ob't servant,
Almost every thought was driven from Darcy's head. He envisioned his Jane's sweet face, regret briefly twisting his heart, but really there was no help for it; he had to go to his sister in London. "Watkins!" he called, never thinking that his valet would not be within calling distance.
The small door to the dressing room opened. "Mr. Darcy?" Taking in his master's disturbed countenance, Watkins braced himself.
"I must get to London immediately. We must leave."
"Yes. For an indefinite stay. The messenger. I must send him back with assurances. I'll draft a note while you prepare us. Have my carriage brought round."
"Of course, sir." Clearly, Mr. Darcy was quite upset, the valet thought, as he felt the need to give these basic directives. "Anything else, sir?"
"I'll need to send a note to Longbourn. Have someone prepared to do so."
"Of course, sir."
Watkins left to see to affairs. Darcy gave him no more thought as he focused on a physician for his sister as well as what to write to Jane Bennet.
Physican first. Yes. He jotted off a note to Mrs. Annesley, directing her to send for Dr. Fitzsimmons or Dr. Barnaby, giving his sister's companion the directions for both. He instructed Mrs. Annesley to spare no expense – of course – as well as to forward that very note to the housekeeper and butler so they knew that the companion had full authority in this matter until Darcy himself arrived.
"I'll be on my way directly. See to it that my rooms are made ready at my sister's house. I shall, of course, be in residence there until she is out of danger."
He rang for Watkins, who knew just what to do with the message to London and Darcy let his mind be as much as ease as it could be with that out of the way. He was on his way to Georgiana but the messenger would arrive first and things would be set in motion in advance of Darcy's own arrival.
"Jane," he murmured next. This letter was harder.
As they were betrothed, there was nothing inappropriate about writing to her.
My dearest Jane,
Yes, he could say that to his fiancé.
Please forgive me for not bringing you this information myself. My sister, Georgiana, is quite ill in London, as I have just been informed by her companion. I must, of course, go to her immediately and see that all is being done for her. This will, I am afraid, prevent our recent plans from being solidified. Please know that my regrets are sincere and I look forward to welcoming you to Pemberley as soon as may be, since of course all future plans are uncertain at this juncture. I beg that you will extend my apologies to your esteemed father as I will be unable to fulfill our evening's shooting engagement.
May I ask you – if it is not too much – to write by return post to London and let me know how you fare? I would count it a great kindness on your part. I know my sister wishes to get to know you as well, and I am sure that she will be a fine correspondent when she is able to write again.
Please give my regards to your family. God bless you, my love.
After giving Jane his direction in London, as well as his sister's, he sealed up the letter and, with another pang of regret, knew he would miss her calm good spirits and peaceful presence as he sought to do his all for Georgiana.
He would have felt more than a pang if he had known how long it would be before he saw her again.
The trip, though hurried, was made largely in the dark, with the carriage lanterns providing more of a notice of their existence than serving any real purpose. One mishap did occur, resulting in a delay as he and Watkins assisted their driver with replacing one of the wheels, which had broken in transit.
"It is well that you had one to spare, Barton," Darcy said on a grunt as he helped to lift the laden carriage whilst Watkins and Barton slid the new carriage wheel onto the axel.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. There, I think you can set 'er down, now."
With a jolt, Darcy did so, rolling his shoulder to ease the lingering pressure that it had been under. "All right. Are we able to continue this evening?"
Watkins wiped muddy hands on his own breeches and grimaced mightily. In spite of their adverse circumstances, Darcy was hard-pressed not to smile. His valet might never forgive him for putting them into a circumstance requiring such a disaster as muddy breeches. "Mr. Darcy, I daresay that we can." The valet and driver exchanged a look and nod and Darcy inhaled deeply in subdued relief.
They reached town shortly before dawn, due to their evening departure and the delay on the London road. Pulling up in front of his house, Darcy was out of the carriage before it had entirely stopped.
The door was opened immediately by Williams, his sister's butler. "Mr. Darcy," the older, rail-thin man said with soft urgency. "Welcome. We've been expecting you."
Handing the man his unused gloves and mud-damaged hat, Darcy stepped past him. "Mishap on the road. We are well, but late. How is my sister?"
"Both Dr. Fitzsimmons and Dr. Barnaby have been here, sir. Miss Darcy is being tended by Mrs. Annesely."
"I'd like to see her," Darcy insisted. He was reminded of the evening when Jane Bennet was injured and being treated at Netherfield. He had not been allowed to attend her. Tonight, with his sister, he had every right and he would see her.
"This way, sir," Williams said, as if Darcy did not know his own sister's house. Still, he followed. The glow of the butler's single candle was small in the gracious halls of Georgiana's residence, casting shadows on landscaped images captured on canvas, on tasteful works of marble, and the small details in the woodwork. A peaceful place, Georgiana's home, marred only by the over-loud sounds of their footsteps as they went up the stairs.
Williams scratched lightly on the first door on the right and a soft, shuffling sound came from within the room a few moments later. The illumination of another candle joined the butler's as a worn pale face topped by a white lace cap peered through the door. "She's sleeping," admonished the older woman.
"Mrs. Annesley," Darcy began.
Her eyes widened and she bobbed a quick curtsy. "Oh, Mr. Darcy. I beg your pardon. You'll be wanting to see her."
"I do. Williams? Get some rest," he instructed the butler. Meeting the older man's eyes, he added, "And thank you." He would certainly be adding to everyone's Boxing Day gifts in his sister's household this year.
"Very good, Mr. Darcy."
One candle's light bobbed off to the servant's staircase while the other moved out of Darcy's way. "Mr. Darcy, the physicians have both been here and consulted," Mrs. Annesley informed him, seeming to drift over the floor toward the canopied bed where Georgiana lay supine under the bedclothes. "Her fever continues, sir. They bled her, and left me a tonic for when she is more able to drink."
Georgiana appeared more pale than was her wont, lying there on the pillow. Her hair was spread out and brushed – her companion or lady's maid had been taking good care of her. "Go to your rest, Mrs. Annesley. You have done well. I'll tend to her for a while."
The older woman gasped. "But, sir!"
"She's my sister. I can see to her while you rest for a while." Darcy hadn't done a great deal of sickbed duty for Georgiana, but he was confident that he could provide her with some comfort should she awaken. "Go on. You may return after you've had some rest."
Mrs. Annesley nodded her acquiescence and, after giving him instruction regarding the physician's tonic, left for her own chambers.
Taking off his coat and draping it on an embroidered chair, Darcy pulled up another small chair to Georgiana's bedside. He took her slender hand – a hand capable of coaxing music from a piano forte or executing a landscape on canvas – in his own. She was indeed fevered.
But she awakened. "Mrs. Annesley?" Her voice was dry, sounding cracked and whispery.
Smiling, Darcy pressed her hand lightly. "Georgiana. It's me. I came to visit."
"Fitzwilliam... You're here." Her eyes slivered open, but did not seem focused. Darcy hoped it was merely exhaustion that had her in its grip. "When?"
"Just now, my dear." He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to it. "I have some medicine Mrs. Annesley insists upon your having." He rose and saw to the dispensation of the tonic with the water on the night table. "And then we can talk." His heart ached to see how pale and drawn his sister was, how slight she felt against his arm as he helped her to sit up. "I'll hold the glass."
"I'm not a child, Fitzwilliam," she protested, angling a frown at him.
"No, you're not. Here," he offered, watching to see if she held it steady. It trembled in her hand, though, so he helped her. "We'll both hold it."
Once she had taken her medicine and Darcy had helped her get comfortable again, he was quite gratified that she appeared alert enough to converse.
"I must hear of Miss Jane Bennet," she said, her voice stronger and less parched-sounding than it had been. Her forehead crunched in concern. "Oh, my dear brother. I fear you have had to leave your lady on my account."
"She will understand, Georgiana. She is everything that is excellent and praiseworthy. I daresay you will find her to be good company when she comes to visit."
Excitement flared in his sister's dark eyes. Under her curly blond hair, the contrast was striking and Darcy was struck anew by the fact that his little sister was growing into a lovely young lady. "What does she look like? Did you give her a betrothal ring?"
And...yes, Georgiana was only sixteen after all. Subtly reassured in the familiar, Darcy grinned at his sister. "No, no ring yet, but I shall remedy that soon. She is about your height, I would guess, with hair like sunshine in the wheat fields."
"Fitzwilliam!" Dry lips smiled broadly. "You are smitten!"
He confessed this to be so and the two spent the next hour talking, until Georgiana drifted back to sleep and Darcy, exhausted, leaned back in his chair and let his eyes close likewise.
Georgiana seemed to have benefited from the bloodletting and tonics, as well as from conversation and nourishing soups taken in front of the fire in her room. Toward the end of the first day that Darcy was back, he and his sister were conversing when a servant entered with a note on a salver. "Mr. Darcy. A letter."
"Thank you," he said. Noticing the handwriting, he felt warmth bloom in his chest. "It's from Jane," he informed his very-interested sister.
She laced her fingers together as she sat in her bed once more. Her fever had lessened during the day, though it was not gone entirely, and Darcy would not let her exhaust herself. "Well, tell me? Unless," she went on, her eyes twinkling in mischief, "she says aught that I not know?"
Darcy felt his skin flush slightly with his sister's teasing. "Miss Bennet is a lady," was all he could say at first. He remembered the last kisses he shared with her, before he thought to be gone only an hour. How sweet, but how tempting...
I am so dreadfully sorry that your sister is unwell. I pray that her health is soon restored and that your mind and heart are eased.
My father, of course, teased about your absence but he is not at all discomposed in truth. And there is nothing to forgive, sir, as you have not offended anyone, anywhere. Indeed, a gentleman such as yourself could give no offense.
I would be only too happy to correspond with your sister when her health is regained.
I am faring well. Elizabeth sends her regards. Mr. Bingley might appreciate hearing of Miss Darcy's improved health; he seemed distressed when I shared the reason for your absence last night.
I must away. We have a visitor in a crested carriage and my mother is all in alt. I daresay it is merely someone whose horse has lost a shoe.
I find myself at a loss, sir, as to how to close, so I shall return the kindness you showed me.
Darcy smiled as he shared the greater part of Jane's letter with his sister, but then he noted the odd tilt to the postscript and his gut clenched.
As before when confronted with evidence of his aunt's meddling, Darcy clenched his fists.
"Fitzwilliam! Pray, what has Miss Bennet said to make you so angry!"
Chagrined, furious, but still mindful of his sister's delicate health and the fact that he held Jane's own words in his hands, Darcy endeavored to master himself, smoothing the letter on his thigh before folding it with great care.
P.S. Did you know Lady Catherine de Bourgh was in the area? I shall seal this and send it and then go to meet her. I confess, Mr. Darcy, to be quite nervous to be meeting your family without you by my side. ~jb
A/N: The timeline will go radically divergent from this point on, so bear with me. If I can answer any questions for you, feel free to PM - just make sure you are accessible so I can respond! Thank you! ~ LJ