Here is my new story - it is a work in progress but I only aim to have about ten chapters and have written more than half. I will be posting every sunday until it is finished. Special thanks to Gayle and Wendi for listening to my rants, reading my work & offering suggestions, and Gayle again for BETA-ing!
An Unexpected Choice
This story is set after Lydia's marriage, and just as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are returning to Netherfield.
Everything is canon up until this point, except that we find that Lizzie has a new suitor. What will happen when Lizzie finds that she holds the interest of two men - will she choose Mr Darcy? And what will happen when her mother decides to interfere?
There will be angst but no violence.
Delicate fingers trembled across perfect embroidery. Rosy lips quivered before white teeth bit down on them to still them. Brown eyes shimmered for a moment with euphoria that could not be hidden.
Elizabeth Bennet felt as if she needed to do everything at once. Laugh, cry, scream, jump, run, and hide. How had she come to this? Never would she have believed that just the knowledge that he was even now riding towards Longbourn, could cause such a flurry of emotions within her.
Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.
He was the man that she had vowed to despise forever.
The man that she had sworn never to dance with.
The man that she had insulted and rejected and pushed away at every opportunity.
The man she loved with every passionate beat of her young heart.
Around Elizabeth, a buzz of excitement could be heard. Her mother was loudly and shrilly demanding that Jane smile and flirt and make Mr Bingley regret her. Her sister Katherine was floating around in excitement that such important personages were coming to call after a time where they had been shunned by society. Her sister Mary was loudly and rudely declaring that she did not understand what the fuss was about. And Jane was lost in her own thoughts as was Elizabeth herself.
Had a thunderstorm blacked the world at that moment, Elizabeth would not have been aware of it. Her thoughts were such that attendance to anything else was impossible. She craved his presence like one would thirst for water in the desert. She had not seen Mr Darcy since the fateful day at Lambton, when he had happened upon her after she had read the news of her youngest sister Lydia's elopement. And though he was kind and gentlemanlike, and comforted her by his mere soothing presence, Elizabeth had been certain that she would never see Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy again.
How could a gentleman of his consequence in society, one of the most sought after matrimonial prizes in the whole of England for his wealth and appearance, continue to seek the acquaintance of not only a mere country gentleman's daughter with no dowry to speak of, but also one whose sister had eloped with an officer of the regiment; an officer that Darcy had long resented for a recent injury to his own sister?
Hope had bloomed within Elizabeth's heart that all might not be lost when she had received confirmation that it had been Darcy himself who had arranged and enforced Lydia's marriage, even though there had never been any intention on the part of the officer in question to go through with the marriage that he had initially promised.
After weeks of trying not to think on her growing affection for the gentleman in question lest she be disappointed, even though late at night tender remembrances would attempt to plague her, suddenly the full force of her emotions flooded within her, and Elizabeth was hard pressed to disguise her happiness that Mr Darcy was here.
That she was totally, completely and irreversibly in love with Mr Darcy, Elizabeth could no longer deny, even to herself, though she had tried time and time again to do just that. She was finally forced to admit, not least from the palpitations that her heart was making, nor the sense of completion that she was experiencing in knowing that soon she would be able to look upon him again, that her favourable feelings towards the gentleman had been getting stronger and stronger since their meeting in Kent. After his proposal, and her refusal, she had read his letter explaining his actions that she had found repugnant. From that moment onwards, Elizabeth had begun to come to a new understanding of Mr Darcy, and from that new understanding dawned a new respect, which led easily to deeper feelings when he had behaved so gently towards her at Pemberley when she had visited there with her aunt and uncle.
"I must say that I hate the sight of him, but I am determined to be civil – if only because the man is a friend of Bingley's." Her mother's shrill voice, filled with contempt for the subject of her discussion, pierced the fog in Elizabeth's brain, and the cruel words registered like a blow. Elizabeth felt that her heart stopped beating in panic, her breathing became laboured and her cheeks pink.
She opened her mouth to speak, and when no sound emerged, she closed it again. A whirl of emotions rushed through Elizabeth as the time of meeting him again drew nearer – but she could not find the words that would force Mrs Bennet to be polite to Mr Darcy. She wanted to tie a gag around her mother's mouth, or else rush out to the entrance hall and stop him from entering, but instead, she sat in her chair, outwardly composed though a storm raged inside her.
Too soon, yet not soon enough, the gentlemen were announced, and Elizabeth rose and curtsied, her eyes lowered to his feet. She did not know what to expect and almost feared looking directly at Darcy. What if he had come to Longbourn merely as a courtesy? What if he had only come to prove to himself that he had conquered the folly of falling for her?
Suddenly her eyes met his, and for one perfect moment, everything was right in the world of Elizabeth Bennet. A completeness that she had not realised she was lacking, suddenly filled her steadily beating heart, though to the discerning eye there was nothing special about the look. If truth be told, Darcy's eyes were filled with unease – as if he did not know what to make of the situation in which he now found himself – but the way that they sought hers and softened ever-so-slightly was enough for Elizabeth.
Darcy, himself was in a state of agitation. He was so unsure of Elizabeth, so uncertain if she would accept his attentions – he had made the grave mistake once of not taking the time to understand her, resulting in her devastating rejection of his marriage proposal – he could not do that again. She had softened towards him at Pemberley; she had even aimed her dazzling smile at him on more than one occasion, but was that enough? Did she care for him enough to accept him? Darcy knew that he could not bear it if she refused him again – for if she did, he would live his life miserable and alone.
He glanced across at Elizabeth, his breath catching as he glimpsed her lovely form for the first time in all these long weeks. She was more beautiful than ever – her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed enticingly. His gaze instantly softened, though he knew that he must drag his eyes away from Elizabeth and greet her mother.
Mrs Bennet refused to make it easy for him though. He knew that Elizabeth would be impressed if he could be civil and attentive to her family, but her mother almost refused even to acknowledge him, so Darcy did not know how to proceed. So, instead of doing what he wanted more than anything else in the world, namely to sit beside Elizabeth, take her hands and declare his love... or, if he were to exercise propriety, to even speak to her without constraint, Darcy spent the entire visit to Longbourn as silent as the grave, his eyes fluttering across to Elizabeth as often as he was able to take his fill of the sight of her.
Elizabeth was embarrassed by Mrs Bennet's continued rudeness towards Mr Darcy. Though she was disappointed in his silence, she could not even find the energy to blame him for it. How could he even entertain the idea of renewing his addresses to her if this was the treatment he was to receive from her family? Her mortification grew, until Elizabeth felt that her face might catch fire if she did not escape the confines of the room. She stood abruptly and excused herself from the room, rushing out to the back garden, her glance of apology towards Darcy understood and accepted.
When she returned to the house, the gentlemen had taken their leave, and a stab of disappointment shot through her.
He had not waited for her.
"Lizzie," Jane's soft voice floated to Elizabeth as her sister entered her bedchamber, where she was being readied by Harriet, her family's maid, for the assembly this evening. Elizabeth looked at her sister's reflection in the mirror, and her face broke into a wide, dimpled smile. Every time she saw Jane, her classic, angelic beauty only reflecting the purity and kindness within, Elizabeth could not help but smile. Though she had never been of a jealous nature, Elizabeth knew that could anything have provoked the emotion, it would have been that she herself had not inherited even half of her sister's exquisite beauty, but Elizabeth had never found it in herself to resent Jane – in fact, she adored her beyond the mere bond of sisterhood. Jane and Elizabeth would be best friends and confidantes for the rest of their days – no matter what happened in their lives from this point on.
Elizabeth held out her hand to Jane, who padded quietly over to her, looking in the mirror. "Jane, you look magnificent. Mr Bingley will not be able to take his eyes off you tonight."
"Oh Lizzie, I do not believe that he... that is to say, he may not have any intentions of renewing our acquaintance, even though he was so kind when he called yesterday."
"Sweet Jane, Mr Bingley loves you – of that I am certain. The way he stared at you yesterday can only prove my point. I believe that tonight will make everything clear, and I believe that you may have some wonderful news before much more time has passed." Elizabeth's eyes sparkled at her sister, her hands moving up to artistically rearrange one of the tiny yellow rosebuds that adorned her secured brown curls.
"Thank you Harriet. You have outdone yourself in taming this wildness. I require no further assistance as Jane will stay to help me with my dress." Thus dismissed, a smiling Harriet left the room.
"We shall see," Jane replied demurely, studying her sister's reflection. "But now let us talk of you, Lizzie. You are making a great deal of effort for tonight's dance; I do not think I have seen you this excited since the Netherfield ball last year. I believe there is something that you have not told me, sister..." Jane watched as Elizabeth's cheeks turned a deep red, and her expressive brown eyes looked down at her fingernails. "I see I have touched upon something, Lizzie. Could it possibly be Mr Charlton? He has shown a keen interest in you, as you know, and our mother would be ecstatic for you to marry him."
Elizabeth glanced up sharply. Mr Charlton was a rich tradesman who had come to Hertfordshire a month prior to visit with his friends. The ladies in Meryton could talk of nothing but his wealth, rumoured to be fifty thousand pounds, which was a figure likely only to increase with his lucrative business dealings. The only thing lacking in Mr Charlton was a title... and perhaps to some, his youth. Approximately eight and thirty, Mr Charlton was a tall, brawny man, his face and forearms tanned from too much time spent in the sun. His hair, once blonde, was now greyed with increasing age, though his features were pleasing, with shrewd green eyes and a charming smile. But he seemed to favour Elizabeth, dancing with her on every occasion, conversing with her and calling at Longbourn too frequently for her taste. She had done nothing to encourage his attentions, beyond the usual civility that was part of her very nature.
"Jane, I have not encouraged Mr Charlton as you know very well. I confess that I could not contemplate marriage to him. He is amiable enough I suppose, but you know that I want to marry only for love. I am not the sort of girl who could tolerate a life of suppression and obedience. He speaks to me in a manner that suggests I am a child in need of reigning in. Until you just said that, Jane, I confess I had not seriously considered that he could want to marry me. What am I to do?" She looked imploringly up at her sister, concern etching a line in her forehead as her earlier excitement dissipated.
Jane laughed softly, her gentleness soothing as she smoothed the wrinkle on Elizabeth's brow. "Do not worry about that. You will just refuse him, much like you refused our cousin Mr Collins, and Mr Darcy, poor man. Which brings me back to the subject... Mr Darcy." Elizabeth made a valiant attempt to appear nonchalant as she stood and stepped into her gown, a pale yellow concoction of the softest muslin which her aunt Gardiner had purchased for her in London.
"What about Mr Darcy?" She turned so that her back faced Jane, and her sister commenced the task of fastening the array of tiny buttons at the back of the gown.
"You may think that I did not notice, Lizzie, but I did. The way you watched him... and he watched you. I even considered that... but, it cannot be true, as I know how much you dislike him... yet..." Jane paused, her expression thoughtful as she considered what she knew of the relationship between her sister and the gentleman in question. "I believe I must ask... though the very idea seems ridiculous - do you love Mr Darcy, Lizzie?"
"I cannot answer that question, Jane."
Elizabeth had recovered her composure by the time they arrived at the dance, though she was unnerved to realise that it was here, on a night much like this one, that she had first met Mr Darcy. That night she had cared little what he thought of her, though his slight and his rude comments had stung her feminine pride. This night however, Elizabeth did not know how she would endure if he did not ask her to dance – if she could not find a moment to speak to him. She almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation – here was she, Elizabeth Bennet, who had sworn never to depend on anyone over her own independence, centering her enjoyment of this evening on one gentleman's behaviour. They had come full circle.
The Meryton Assembly Hall was filled. Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, had come to attend the assembly tonight. The fluttering of silks and muslins and crisp cotton, was muffled by the sounds of laughter, lively conversation and festive music. The senses were overcome by the colours in the room, from pure white and darkest black, to the brightest red and every colour in between – the gowns, the jackets, the jewellery, the turbans and feathers – a rainbow of colours to be admired.
More than usual, the single ladies of Meryton had dressed carefully, for tonight there were a plethora of rich, single men present – at least, more than the country town usually entertained. They had been practicing their best feminine wiles for weeks now, hoping to catch the eye of one Mr Henry Charlton the rich tradesman staying with the Lucas' family. And now, the added interest of the sudden return of Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy to the neighbourhood had everyone in a frenzy of excitement.
When Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy entered the assembly room, it was like the first time that they had been there. The music suddenly stopped and the room at large turned to look at them. They looked magnificent, turned out in the height of fashion, and every single woman there wished to entrap them.
The gentleman, however, had eyes only for the two eldest Bennet girls, Bingley immediately moving towards Jane to claim the first two dances, and Darcy following in his wake to speak to Elizabeth. He had yearned for the chance to be close to her for two months... longer if one did not count the short time she had spent in his company at Pemberley and Lambton. He ached to hear her sharpen her rapier wit on him, smile that dazzling smile for him, sing and play for him, and laugh with him. Darcy would endure any hardship, if it would only put Elizabeth in his exclusive company.
His steps faltered as he neared her – he was so struck by her beauty tonight. "Miss Elizabeth," Darcy greeted her as he bowed towards her and Jane, who was occupied with Bingley. Elizabeth's eyes met his, and he was lost. "Miss Elizabeth, may I say... that is, you look particularly lovely tonight." He blushed at his hesitation, and he cursed his inability to speak flattering words, though this he truly meant.
"Thank you, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth spoke huskily in reply, her face as flushed as his. Those words coming from his lips, uttered in his mesmerising deep voice, swirled over her like the sweetest wine. Unsure what to say next, Elizabeth spoke playfully, shocking herself as she heard the words that spilled forth. "I am happy that you decided to attend our assembly tonight. I hope that you will find it more to your liking than the last time you were here." Her eyes held his, dancing with a mixture of teasing impertinence and horror that she was speaking to Mr Darcy this way.
To her relief, a short burst of laughter erupted from him, and his teeth flashed at her as his dimples transformed his face. "Nicely done, Miss Elizabeth. I do not believe that you shall ever fail to remind me of my bad manners on that occasion." His eyes sparkled with a humour that Elizabeth had not yet observed, displaying an ease of character that she had never even guessed he could possess.
She laughed with him. "I apologise Mr Darcy, I spoke in jest. Though, you have to admit that you definitely did not find pleasure in that first foray into Meryton society."
"Much to my continued regret, Miss Elizabeth, I assure you." His eyes held Elizabeth's in a meaningful gaze, and the smile disappeared from her face in shocked intimacy. Had they been alone, Elizabeth was sure that something exquisite would have followed... would he have kissed her? She could not even deny to herself that she wished for nothing more than to feel those soft lips on hers.
Elizabeth chided herself – such unladylike thoughts were not for a dance, in fact, they were not acceptable at any time.
Darcy was trapped. Indeed, Elizabeth was the most lovely woman in the room tonight. In a gown of pale yellow muslin, her figure was light and graceful, and her face shone with blissful wholesomeness. In her hair, yellow rosebuds were artfully arranged in her bouncing curls... enough to drive a man to distraction. Had she placed them there just to taunt him? Darcy fought the urge to reach out and touch one of the curls that kissed her slender, white neck.
Instead he cleared his throat and spoke. "I intend to make up for my incivility at the last such occasion. I implore you to assist me, Miss Elizabeth."
Elizabeth's right eyebrow lifted in a look of pure archness. "How would you have me assist you, Sir?"
"Why, by dancing at least the first set of the evening with me, if not further dances when you find yourself without a partner?" Darcy smiled, his body already tingling with the anticipation of being close to Elizabeth for at least an uninterrupted half hour.
The disappointment welled within her, threatening to disturb her spirits when Elizabeth had to decline. "I am sorry, Mr Darcy, I am already engaged for the first and second sets." So he would not be able to touch her for the next hour. "Perhaps the third set?"
Darcy nodded, grateful for at least that small pleasure, and for the fact that she was willing to dance with him at all.
The music started, signalling the commencement of the first set, and Elizabeth allowed Mr Charlton to possessively claim her, his hand clamped firmly around her forearm as he steered her to the floor with the other couples. Elizabeth could sense Darcy's dark gaze on her as she walked away, and throughout the dance, found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on her enraptured partner.
As soon as Darcy took her hand in his to lead her to the dance floor, Elizabeth was lost. An ocean of swirling sensations filled with the deepest desires of her heart, totally engulfed her, and did not release her until long after the dance had ended.
Darcy cursed the preposterous fashion of ladies wearing gloves, though he had never before found cause to complain. He wished that he could feel Elizabeth's skin upon his, the warmth of her hand within his, and feel the fragility of her bones under her softness.
No words were spoken for what seemed a long time; on this occasion Elizabeth did not feel the need to force speech. Instead she gazed into his eyes and secretly delighted in every touch, every brush, every breath that he took.
"Miss Bennet, my sister was sorely disappointed when you left Lambton so swiftly those few months ago. She asked me to convey her regards, and she hopes that you and she can very soon renew your acquaintance," Darcy spoke quietly as he danced close to Elizabeth.
She smiled at him, only a slight twinge of embarrassment surfacing as she recalled the circumstances of their rapid departure – namely, her sister's elopement. "Miss Darcy is a lovely young woman, and a credit to you, Sir. I would be honoured if she would count me among her friends."
"Thank you," he whispered huskily, his breath coming close to Elizabeth's ear and causing her to shiver with pleasure.
"There is something that I should wish to thank you for, Mr Darcy, regarding the business that took us from Lambton. I shall not speak more of it here, but I want you to know that you have my sincerest thanks."
After the dance, Darcy found himself thinking on everything that had happened that night. That Elizabeth was accepting of his attentions, he could not doubt. She was not a woman who would toy with a man's affections – nor would she pretend an interest that she did not have.
To every other man tonight, Elizabeth had been friendly and polite, much like she had always been at social engagements. She was a popular partner, dancing with anyone who asked her, and never more than once. Darcy had tried to secure a second dance, but she had already been promised. So instead, he had watched her... and been content.
Still, he was concerned about her thanks to him. He was sure that Elizabeth knew that it had been he who had brought about her sister's marriage and prevented the ruination of her family. Was it just gratitude to him that made her amenable to him? Darcy found himself resting his head in his hands on the carriage ride back to Netherfield, his heart aching at the possibility that this was the cause of Elizabeth's acceptance. He wanted to rush to Longbourn and propose to her this moment, but Darcy knew that he could never be content without knowing that she cared for him – even a little – that her caring could one day grow into love.
Mr Charlton was no fool. He noticed immediately that Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy was enamoured with Elizabeth – the way his eyes followed her around the room, drinking in the very sight of her throughout the entire ball.
However, until Elizabeth accepted said gentleman's offer for a dance, he had not seriously thought that she could hold any regard in return. How could a woman of Elizabeth's spirit, wit and vivacity, have any feelings for one as dull, haughty and silent as Darcy? He watched closely as they danced together, and though they said little, Elizabeth's blush and the way her eyes fused with his concerned him.
Elizabeth was his! He did not wish to be thwarted in gaining her. In marrying a gentleman's daughter – even a poor country gentleman such as Mr Bennet – Charlton knew that he could elevate his status in society. His money should be inducement enough for Elizabeth, and he would take her without a dowry.
Mr Charlton rubbed his hands together, his eyes gleaming as he imagined Elizabeth on his arm at balls and parties, her beauty and wit would be the talk of London, and the very idea of making her his wife in every sense of the word sent an ache of lust through his entire body.
He could delay no longer. Charlton knew that if he did not act immediately, he could well lose her to Darcy. He would call on her at Longbourn on the morrow, and if she did not accept, he would appeal to the mercenary Mrs Bennet to win Elizabeth's worthy hand.
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