Darcy was running a bit late, something he almost never did. It irritated him in a way few things could, and though it was himself at whom the irritation was directed, he was at least aware of the quickly averted glances he received as he strode hurriedly down the sidewalk from the train station to his office building. He thought for perhaps the eighth time that he must look rather thunderous and again made the effort to smooth out his face into a neutral expression, but then he would remember choosing to stay up rather later than was usual the night before, unable to convince himself to save the rest of a rather gripping book for the next day, and consequently missing his alarm altogether.
A look at his pocket watch revealed that he was now ten minutes late – he who prized punctuality – and was only now about to reach the doors of his building. They stood closed as he approached them, as was normal. Rather out of the ordinary was that he made no move to pull the key for the lock from his pocket. Instead, he reached for the handle and pulled the door easily open, his frown deepening slightly as he did so.
That damnable book! Late, and at the beginning of the week!
Darcy caught his frown again and again tried to erase it. He managed rather well, or so he thought, until he had reached his floor and saw the main reception desk sitting empty. The question for why it should be empty had an immediate answer: today was the day his new secretary was meant to start work. Mrs. Reynolds would be showing them the ropes.
The scowl was back in full force. This was not at all the sort of impression Darcy wished to convey to his new staff. He had always been conscious of leading by example and waltzing carelessly into work nearly 15 minutes late was far from being the sort of example he would wish to set.
But there was nothing to do be done for it so he squared his already straight shoulders and strode purposefully into the antechamber to his office. Mrs. Reynolds was there, as expected, standing behind the new secretary who was seated behind her desk, her eyes fixed on the calendar that was open before her on the desk's glossy surface.
For the briefest of moments, Darcy faltered. She was glossy too, this new secretary. Her skin was like pale ivory, so translucent that he thought he could almost see the blood just below the surface of it. It put him in mind of white rose petals, tinged with pink, like the ones his mother had grown. Her hair made a nice contrast with her skin, a brown so rich and dark he could think of nothing to compare it to. She had it cut in a sleek bob, all symmetrical and stylish.
When she glanced up at the sound of his entrance, he was caught by her eyes. They were dark, like her hair, and seemed to hint at laughing secrets.
In that moment, Darcy could See. It happened occasionally and he had long since stopped being troubled by it, though he never shared the gift or curse or whatever it was with anyone else. It was his secret, that sometimes he had only to look at a person or a thing and be able to say unerringly how it would affect his future. He had known early on that Wickham would come to a bad end, squandering money and attempting to seduce Darcy's younger sister for her fortune. It had not been chance that had brought Darcy onto the scene just as Georgiana had nearly agreed to elope with the villain. He had Seen and he had acted.
In the same way, he had known when the proposal for a business venture that had seemed not only risky but also more than a little insane had crossed his desk that it would be the largest success the modern world had seen in years. Against the advice of many a successful businessman, Darcy had invested in the motorized vehicle industry. They had told him he would lose the investment, but it had paid off many times over what he had put into it.
And now, when Darcy looked at his new secretary, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would be his wife. He could see flashes of a future life with her, loving her, her loving him for something other than this money, their raising a family together, beautiful children, a lovely house, the fairytale life so many people dreamed of but never got. There would be sad times, of course, and challenges. But that was a natural and inescapable part of life and they would, he knew, face those things together.
Now his face eased into a neutral mask, his ingrained reaction to having Seen something. The world started moving at a normal pace again and Darcy stopped in front of his future wife's desk.
His mind was already swiftly analyzing the ramifications of marrying one's secretary. Women were new to the workforce and in any case Darcy knew of where a wealthy and powerful man had married his secretary, there was the usual cloud of gossip surrounding the event. She was a gold-digger or he had got her pregnant. Perhaps both. The speculation was never kind to either party. It would be up to Darcy to make sure she was shielded from it all.
"Hello," he greeted the women, even as he made decisions he was certain would ensure his future happiness. "Terribly sorry to be late on your first day. I am Mr. Darcy."
He held out a hand to shake, quietly and deeply thrilled when she slid her hand easily into his, giving him a nervous smile that strove for confidence. "Hello, Sir," she replied, her voice pleasantly low-pitched and seeming to be edged with something smoky. "I am pleased to meet you."
Mrs. Reynolds had interviewed and hired her. She had told him her name but he had been inattentive at the time and was chagrined to find now that he couldn't recall it.
"Have you a name?" The question came out somewhat abruptly, he realized, after seeing her face flush red. He would have to apologize for that later and explain that he was embarrassed to have forgotten her name. He would have to explain that there were many things about this day that were out of the ordinary. It would come in time.
"Y-yes," she stammered prettily and then seemed all at once to compose herself. Meeting his eyes without a trace of shyness she said, "My name is Elizabeth Bennet."
"Elizabeth Bennet," he repeated, just to savor the syllables. "A pleasure."
Behind Elizabeth, Mrs. Reynolds was staring at him in a puzzled fashion. It was only then Darcy realized he was still holding Elizabeth's hand. He dropped it as though it were a live coal and then attempted to regain some of his usual professional aplomb.
"When you have a moment, Mrs. Reynolds, would you please see me in my office?"
"Yes, Sir," the receptionist murmured in assent. "I shall be in directly."
Feeling that the day had rather started to look up, Darcy took his leave to his office where he merely sat behind his desk for several long minutes, smiling over nothing less than that his future happiness was secured.
"Jane," Elizabeth called, entering the smallish flat she shared with her elder sister much earlier in the day than she had originally planned, "are you here?"
She paused by the front door after she had closed it, leaning against it long enough to balance herself as she removed the heels she had purchased with her first day in her job in mind.
"Elizabeth?" Jane's voice preceded her fair sister down the short hallway. She was in the front room in an instant, an expression of concern drawing her brows together. "What happened, Dearest? Why are you home so soon?"
Elizabeth looked up, her dark eyes shining with what looked like repressed tears. Nevertheless, she tilted her chin up aggressively and her voice trembled rather more with rage as she replied. "What happened? Mr. Demands-Perfection Darcy happened."
Jane's eyes widened and her expression became even more concerned. "Perhaps you had better sit down and tell me what happened."
"I shall tell you what happened!" Elizabeth cried. She started pacing, a clear sign that she was upset even if the unshed tears had not been. "I arrived early, so excited for the opportunity to work for someone as visionary as Mr. Darcy is said to be." She ground out his name like a curse.
"Everything started out so well. Mrs. Reynolds showed up a bit before eight and seemed surprised that I was loitering outside. 'Mr. Darcy is usually early as well,' she told me. 'I think you will deal well with him,' she said. Ha!"
There was a brief silence that Jane didn't even attempt to break. She knew her sister and it was clear that Elizabeth had a great deal to say but was only looking for the right words. In just a moment, Elizabeth was shaking back her bob.
"So we went up and Mrs. Reynolds started to show me around. My office was lovely. The whole place was, really." She sounded briefly meditative. "Mrs. Reynolds was just starting to go over Mr. Darcy's calendar with me when he walked in."
Elizabeth had stopped pacing now, her head tilted back as she stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. "My first thought when I saw him was to wonder how I could possibly work with him. He was so – oh, Jane, the pictures don't do him any justice. He was so severe when he walked in, all tall and impeccably dressed but with his hair disheveled. And I thought at first that he looked so discerning, like a true visionary, and I was going to be his secretary. One of the few men you read about who seems fair and honest in his business dealings and who is progressive enough to hire several women. I thought I must be dreaming."
Jane waited as Elizabeth seemed to be marshaling her thoughts again. At last, even she could no longer take the suspense. "But then what happened?"
Elizabeth shook her head slightly and then met her sister's gaze with a sardonic glance. "Well, he came over and introduced himself and I was a little flustered when he shook my hand so when he said, 'Terribly sorry to be late on your first day. I'm Mr. Darcy,' I gawked at him a bit and said I was very pleased to meet him."
Jane blinked, wondering why her sister seemed to be waiting for her to comment on that. "I daresay that seems like a non-issue?"
"You would think so!" Elizabeth cried triumphantly. "But he got this queer look in his eye and got all stiff. And then he said, 'Have you a name?'"
"No," Jane gasped, for Elizabeth had mimicked the haughty tone Mr. Darcy had used and even Jane, who was the sweetest of creatures, couldn't help but think it rather rude.
"Yes," Elizabeth countered grimly. "So I blushed and I stammered a bit and then I looked him straight in the eye and told him my name. And just like that," she snapped her fingers for emphasis, "he was done with me. He told Mrs. Reynolds he wanted to speak to her once she a moment, dropped my hand and went into his office."
"That's unfortunate, true," Jane hazarded, "but I still don't see why you're home."
The sheen of tears was back in Elizabeth's eyes. "After a few more minutes showing me the calendar and explaining the particular ways Mr. Darcy likes things, Mrs. Reynolds went into his office and pulled the door mostly shut. I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but their conversation carried out to me all the same. And do you know the first thing he said to her, Jane?"
Jane shook her head. "What?"
And at last Elizabeth's face crumpled and the tears that had been threatening spilled over. "He said, 'She can't work for me, Mrs. Reynolds. Please find some other place for her anywhere in my company and then interview again for a secretary for me. And get me a man this time.'"
Speechless with shock, Jane simply held out her arms and caught Elizabeth as she at last allowed herself to cry the tears that had been threatening ever since she had heard his edict. She rubbed her sister's back comfortingly as Elizabeth sobbed into her shoulder, muttering incoherently. "There, there, Dearest," she said helplessly, not knowing what else to say. "It will all be fine. You'll see."
After several minutes, Elizabeth's tears quieted and a watery voice said, "Jane?"
"I hate him, Jane. And I shall never, ever forgive him."
Quite certain her sister meant it, Jane could only murmur in quiet response, "Yes, I know."
Elizabeth was decidedly less weepy by the next day and over a shared breakfast of fried eggs and buttered toast Jane at last hazarded the question that had been on her mind since the previous day.
"Lizzie," she asked, in as unstudied a voice as possible, "what are your plans now, Dearest?"
Her sister would not meet her eyes as she responded in an attempt at an unstudied tone of her own. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," Jane elaborated willingly, "what will you do for a job now? I suspect you won't work for Mr. Darcy despite his… offer."
"Offer!" Elizabeth snorted in derision, a thoroughly unladylike sound. "No, Jane, I will not be taking Mr. Darcy's charity, if you can call it that. I will speak to our aunt, maybe, and attempt to find something as soon as may be. I do not expect you to support me, though, never fear!"
"You know I am well able to care for us both," Jane put in mildly. "I just want you to be happy."
Elizabeth sighed heavily. "I know. And I am grateful, truly! I had just hoped to contribute more than I have been and then I went and got myself practically fired on my first day. It took so long to even get that job!"
Jane maintained a silence, knowing all too well what would come next.
"Perhaps I am being too prideful," Elizabeth mused a moment later, true to form. She cast a soulful look at her older sister. "Should I, do you think, go and speak to Mrs. Reynolds about another job? I'm sure she would understand."
"Of course not," Jane chided. "Did I not just say I want you to be happy?"
"I am glad, Jane," Elizabeth replied, her tone serious but with a sly smile flirting with the corners of her mouth. "After all, I did steal something yesterday. From Mrs. Reynolds."
Jane's eyes and mouth went large and round in shock. "Lizzy!"
"Well, I did," Elizabeth laughed. "And I don't regret it!"
"What have you done?"
"Well," Elizabeth drew the word out, satisfied with the shocked way Jane was looking at her and the small edge of glee she felt every time she thought about how easy it had been to thwart Darcy in that one, small matter. "The last thing I heard Mr. High-and-Mighty say to Mrs. Reynolds was that he wanted her file on me. I knew it was on her desk since she'd had me sign a form and put the copy in there. So I nicked it."
The look of horror on Jane's face softened somewhat. But she still attempted to sound stern as she replied. "You had better not try to speak to her about a job then. For shame, Lizzie!"
"What?" Elizabeth protested half-heartedly. "It's my personal information."
Jane just shook her head.
After a moment, Elizabeth dismissed the situation with a languid wave of her hand. "I will just keep searching," she declared, standing and taking Jane's plate along with hers to the sink. "It's not as though there's really any gap between my last applications and today. I may even get an interview within the next few days." Her voice was too bright, but she kept on determinedly. "And in the meantime, I shall spare you all the housework and put myself at your disposal for all items of research that you wish to give me to undertake."
Jane laughed easily, obviously deciding to drop the issue of her sister's theft, before standing and moving to kiss Elizabeth on the cheek. "I only want you to be happy," she repeated. "And to look up everything you can on the Cult of Thold."
"A cult?" Elizabeth echoed, laughing merrily. "Is this for your first years' benefit?"
Jane blushed, easily as ever, and swatted half-heartedly at her sister, happier than anything to see her laughing. "Hush you," she said. Then, checking the clock, "I really must get going."
"Go," Elizabeth urged her, still amused. "Go educate the young and impressionable minds of this nation and I shall stay here and scrape the burnt eggs out of the pan before looking up your obscure cultish references."
Jane rushed to gather her things and then stopped briefly to lay a cool hand against Elizabeth's cheek. "I love you," she said.
"I love you, too," Elizabeth replied lightly. "But who could not?"
There was a sweet smile of gratitude for that, the kindest mind in the country unable to be swayed by simple flattery, and then Jane was gone to teach her first years things that had nothing to do with cults and everything to do with numbers and letters.
Alone in the flat, Elizabeth sighed softly and set herself to attacking the place with vigor. Despite what she had said to Jane she was not ready to start looking for another job. It was quite possible that she might hear from one of the other places she had recently applied to, and she would give that perhaps another few days before putting her shoulder to the wheel once again.
How unfair to have landed one's dream job only to discover that one's equally dreamy boss was nothing more than a heartless jerk of a man and could not even give someone a decent chance before turning them back out into the world to shift for themselves. She had not even got any recompense for the time she had given, though it was scarcely half an hour.
She had pinned everything on that job, had been more excited and more certain about it than she had been for any of the other advertisements to which she had responded. And for what? To discover that the men who seemed good in the papers probably weren't all that good. Or even if their morals were sound, they still cared nothing for persons below their stations. Did Mr. Darcy think that opportunities like the one his company had so briefly offered to her were the sort that came along every day?
Shaking her head as though to clear it, Elizabeth finished cleaning, checked to make sure she was presentable and then left the flat to head to the library. As she went through the rest of her day she prided herself many times over on not giving the man another thought.
Darcy looked up as Mrs. Reynolds bustled into his office, looking poised to efficiently deal with any request he might be about to make. Only now did he spare a moment to wonder how Mrs. Reynolds would interpret his request. She would be confused at first, he was certain. But when Elizabeth became his wife, she would know and understand.
"Yes, Sir?" Mrs. Reynolds asked.
"Elizabeth can't work for me, Mrs. Reynolds." Darcy spoke with his customary straight-forwardness. "Please find her some other place for her in my company – anything she is interested in and qualified to do - and then interview again for a secretary for me." He attempted a look of apology at this juncture, knowing how much he was asking. "Oh, and please hire a man this time."
Mrs. Reynolds looked momentarily taken aback. Darcy wished he could explain – that he would marry Elizabeth and wished only to shield her from unkind gossip. But there was no way to make such a declaration without also getting into the strange matter of his second Sight.
Ever a professional, though, Mrs. Reynolds merely nodded slowly. "You wish this to happen immediately, Sir?"
"Very good, Sir. Will there be anything else?"
"No," he answered somewhat absently, his thoughts distracted with a vision of Elizabeth, resplendent in a white gown. Abruptly, he banished the thought long enough to add, "Err, actually, do you have a file or something on her?"
"I would like to see it. Whenever you have the time." He was trying to sound nonchalant about it.
"Very good, Sir," Mrs. Reynolds repeated. She backed out of his office, closing the door behind her.
Darcy was out of his chair with alacrity, trying to move swiftly but silently to listen at the door. Mrs. Reynolds had a particular talent for easing things over but he wanted to be sure that it was handled well. It wouldn't do for Elizabeth to get the wrong idea.
Mrs. Reynolds seemed not to have wasted any time or words, for by the time Darcy reached the door he heard Elizabeth saying, "No, I understand perfectly well, Mrs. Reynolds." Her voice sounded controlled, accepting. "And you don't need to go to any trouble finding me something else to do. I think it will be better if I don't work for Mr. Darcy at all."
Darcy smiled foolishly, relieved it had gone over so well. She was a clever girl. She must be if he could be happy making a life with her. Perhaps she understood as well as he did why she could not work for him. She must have seen something in his eyes or felt that same jolt of recognition he had when they had grasped hands.
In any case, there would be no impediments to his pursuing her. And as soon as Mrs. Reynolds brought him the information she had, he would know where to find her.
Darcy returned to his desk and attempted to get his mind back onto matters of business. For the first time in his life, he wished that he could be less responsible or more given to acting on his impulses. Today would be a lovely day to blow off meeting with a boring old stick like Mr. Dyson. And as pleasant as lunch with his particular friend, Bingley, was sure to be, would it not be far pleasanter to chase Ms. Bennet down and go with her to walk in the park? They could get to know each other and he could buy her lunch from one of the vendors that always did their business there.
Shaking his mind from his fancies, Darcy bent to his work. Soon he was absorbed in it as he usually was, although there were one or two points at which he found his thoughts had been consumed by Elizabeth.
It was Bingley who managed to snap him out of his uncharacteristically daydreaming state by virtue of being firmly in the thrall of one of his own, which were decidedly more characteristic.
"Who is she this time?" Darcy asked, amused. It was almost never the same woman twice. Bingley was always mooning over a pretty new face.
"Her name is Jane," Bingley replied, no less dreamy. "She's the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She wants to be a writer."
Darcy's amusement faded, almost immediately. Bingley owned a publishing company, a fact that was known well enough around town. "How did you meet her?"
"We fought over a cab," was Bingley's surprising answer.
"You? Fighting?" Darcy raised a brow, emphasizing how unlikely he thought such an event to be.
"Over who should take it," Bingley elaborated. "We were both running late and then it turned out that we were heading in the same direction so we decided to share it. She was so easy to talk to – it felt like catching up with an old friend."
Darcy waited a moment but it was soon clear that nothing more was forthcoming. He wondered how genuine this Jane person was. The meeting seemed chance enough, but that it should come up that she wanted to be a writer seemed a little fishy. Yet, Bingley was nothing if not fickle. Darcy would just keep more of an eye than usual on his friend's romantic affairs and make sure it all blew past without Bingley being used by a mercenary woman. It had happened before, usually because someone was after Bingley's money and he was too prone to a pretty face to tell when he was being conned.
After lunch had ended, Darcy made his way back to his office, thinking of Elizabeth Bennet the whole way. Only then did it occur to him that Mrs. Reynolds had never brought the file on Elizabeth to him. Shrugging it off, he stopped by her desk to ask for it only to discover that she seemed to have misplaced it.
"Let me know when you find it," Darcy said, trying to sound nonchalant about it. But on the inside he couldn't help but wonder that it had gone missing – and whether or not it would be difficult to find her again.