It was done. Elizabeth stood back and admired the final touches to Netherfield for the masquerade that night. She loved Halloween and this one was special as it also combined her love for the Regency period of English history. The fading light made the torches and lamps stand out, lending the air of yesteryear already to the estate.
"Wow." Charlie breathed in awe. He was speechless to see the transformation.
"Yep." Elizabeth grinned and looked at her friend. "The orchestra and DJ have arrived and are doing their set up; the caterer is already brewing away in the kitchen, with their wait staff preparing the banquet tables and individual tables. Now, all we need is guests and to get dressed."
Shaking his head from the dreamy scene, Charlie smiled widely. "Even Caroline can't bitch about this. Wonderful work, Lizzie! I have your room ready with your costume. Jane is already upstairs."
"I thought Darcy was coming?" Elizabeth commented.
"He is. He got held up in the traffic on M1, so he is running a little late."Charlie grinned. "Don't worry, he will show up in his usual way."
"Huh, in that stand-offish I'm-too-important-for-you way?" Elizabeth snorted.
Charlie laughed, "He's not that bad, Lizzie. And what about your date?"
Elizabeth laughed, "Rick said he would be here in ten minutes. He had to administer some gruesome task to some corporals."
"Knowing him, it probably involves a toothbrush and being on the knees getting at some dark, filthy corner."
"Oh, you had some experience with that?" Elizabeth's eyes gleamed with mirth.
"Hmm, you could say that." Charlie laughed. "Come on, time to get ready."
They headed into the house and went to get into their costumes. Elizabeth met with Jane in the room and smiled as she took in her sister, hair swept up with curls framing her face. The gowns were a find for them when they managed to hit an auction from a BBC warehouse. With a few modifications, both Jane and Elizabeth were set within a couple of weeks. The longest time spent on their costume was on the masks. Jane was golden with her gown and hair, looking like a dawn goddess. It made Elizabeth a little envious because she was earthier in coloring and thus her gown and mask complemented that. The moss greens and rusts played in the light as she slipped it on, pieces of ivy and baby's breath wound its way around her arm and shoulder. Jane helped with Elizabeth's hair, sweeping it back loosely and letting a few of the wavy tendrils fall around her face. Throughout the auburn locks, Jane would place more baby's breath and pieces of ivy.
In the end, Elizabeth looked like the portrayal of Gaia, goddess of the earth and living things.
"Oh, Lizzie!" Jane stood behind her at the vanity in awe of the transformation. "You look like Mother Earth!"
"Well, I'm grateful to not have added grapes or such or else some drunken man would mistake me as a bride of Dionysus." Lizzie laughed.
"You will make the other girls jealous."
"Or do you mean, Miss Caroline Bingley?" Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. "I didn't think you had a mean bone in your body, Janie."
Jane laughed and tucked one more piece of ivy into her sister's hair. "I don't but sometimes, she does need to know that she isn't the only peahen strutting around."
"No, but she is going to definitely going to attempt to gather all the peacocks in her sphere tonight."
"Maybe, maybe not. There is one she wants but I have it known that he could care less."
"Darcy?" Lizzie asked.
Her sister smiled a secretive smile and reached for her mask. "Come on, we are keeping our dates waiting."
"The party won't start without the host and then, he isn't late because it is his party."
"Okay, I don't want to keep Charlie waiting any longer than needed." Jane laughed.
"Alright, alright. I hope Rick dressed appropriately and isn't regimental!"
"Lizzie, how could you say that!"
"I wouldn't put it past him."
They both laughed and hooked their arms together as they left the borrowed suite and headed for the grand stairs. Guests were arriving, greeted and their wraps and coats were taken, then they wandered further into the foyer and the dining area. Lizzie looked over the railing and watched for a moment, seeing Charles smile, laugh, and share brief words with most of the guests from Meryton. She smiled to see the ease of which Charles integrated with the country gentry.
"You have a good man there, Jane."
"I know." Jane nudged Elizabeth and pointed to who arrived. Elizabeth looked over and the smile dimmed into slight shock.
Even with the mask on, she could tell it was Darcy in full splendor. The mask was expensive tooled leather, painted to look like oak leaves twined with acorns. The Regency suit was a deep emerald velvet that was cut quite fitting and flattering to Darcy's tall svelte frame. The snug pants clung admiringly, which made Elizabeth blush a little to note her eyes roaming over the cut figure of the dour man. As if feeling her eyes on him, Darcy looked upwards at the top of the stairs where she and Jane stood and watched the guests. A flicker of smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, showing Elizabeth that he seemed to be pleased to see her. Charles slapped a hand on Darcy's shoulder, welcoming him back. Charles looked up to where Darcy had his attention fixed a moment before and stopped.
"I think it is time to head down." Jane said.
"I don't know but I think you have a substitute, Lizzie. A quite fitting match, too." Jane winked at Elizabeth and tugged her forward.
"Jane, my golden queen!" Charles greeted, holding out his hands to greet her.
Jane blushed but accepted Charles' hands. Elizabeth was struck at how good a match Charles and Jane made in not only temperament but their golden looks. Her eyes looked over to Darcy at Charles' side, unsure of what to do.
"You are wondering what has happened to our dear Colonel Fitzwilliam?" Darcy asked Elizabeth.
"It did cross my mind in passing."
Darcy reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a mobile phone, tapping on the screen and flipping through something that Elizabeth couldn't catch. His finger paused and then Darcy turned the screen around to show her a text.
Hey, mate, I won't be making the ball. Seems the army rears its ugly head again and my regiment is being assigned to Brighton. Give Lizzie my apologies.
"Why didn't he call?" Elizabeth said, a little put out that her date ditched her, even if the excuse was valid.
"He did. When did you check your mobile last?"
"Oh…this afternoon? Shit." Elizabeth cursed under her breath and wracked her brain to remember where she last had her phone. When it came to her, she excused herself from Jane and Charles and headed to the kitchen. Darcy followed her, determined to not her out of his sight.
The older folk who saw the pair, chuckled as they saw The Green Man chasing Gaia, as if it was some spring rite going on. Dodging servers and milling people or running children, Elizabeth made it to the butler's pantry off to the side of the kitchen. The countertop was cluttered with gathered bottles of wine and champagne, glasses, and a couple of ready to serve hors d'ouvres. Elizabeth went into the narrow pantry, to the far end, where she had stashed her satchel with the planners, appointment book, and other things that helped keep her life together in neat order. She reached the satchel and stuck her hand in flap pocket, drawing out her smart phone. When she pressed the screen power, the flashing 'Missed Call' stared at her, along with a voicemail alert.
Elizabeth dialed her voicemail box and waited for the message to play. She had to hold the phone out as the loud noise of several diesel trucks came out behind Richard's voice. Sighing, she tapped the screen to disconnect the call and slip the phone back into her bag.
"I told you he called." Darcy said behind Elizabeth's shoulder right at her ear.
Startled that Darcy had followed her and so close to her, Elizabeth stepped back onto his foot, making him grunt and stumble back against the counter. Glasses wavered and tinkled as the cabinet shuddered under Darcy's weight.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Elizabeth told Darcy, embarrassed to have been so clumsy and stepped on him. She tried to move past him in the narrow way, to have Darcy now step on the hem of her gown, pinning Elizabeth in place.
Darcy was pinned to the counter, as Elizabeth had the wall at her back, body pressed against the rich, darkly handsome man. He rested his hands on her shoulders, holding Elizabeth still as he released the hem of her gown from under his boot. His eyes caught hers and Elizabeth didn't flinch away. The dark green of her eyes was something you would expect deep in a forest and Darcy found them entrancing. Intelligence and sharp wit spoke out of them, making Elizabeth's eyes very expressive when her face was impassive. With the costume and no mask on yet, the tussle of russet waves played around her face, the sprigs of baby's breath and ivy winding throughout providing a natural and earthy beauty that tugged at Darcy's being. He was a man lost and didn't know what to do having never been in this situation before, except once. And that was a time of youthful impetuousness and rebellion against his father.
Neither of them moved, though what they came to the pantry for was completed and they weren't hindered. Darcy raised a hand to Elizabeth's chin, tilting her head up further. He wasn't sure what he was doing but Darcy let the moment take him as he leaned his head down toward her lips. Before his lips could brush against hers, there was a disgusted throat clearing from the doorway. Elizabeth's cheeks reddened briefly, before she got control of herself and quickly slipped away from Darcy. He looked up, controlling the surge of annoyance, and looked at Caroline Bingley in her peacock blue-green gown and flamboyant mask. The flash of Elizabeth's gown around the corner as she hurried away set Darcy in a disappointed frame of mind. For once, the woman didn't fight him and was welcoming, then Charles' sister happened on the scene.
"Are you still going on with that nonsense about Elizabeth Bennett?" Caroline said snidely.
"What business is it of yours?" Darcy shot back, biting back the nasty tone from coloring his voice.
"Surely, you can do with a better…pedigree."
"I'm sure we had this discussion before, Caroline. If I want to court my attention on Elizabeth, I will. You hold no sway over my opinions, despite what you may think." Darcy walked over to Caroline and towered over her. "I think I made it clear that your intentions will get nowhere with me, so quite acting like a bitch in heat."
With that said, he brushed past her and headed to the ballroom, to see if he could catch up with Elizabeth.
The ball was in full swing now as musicians played reels and dances for the people, groups gathered to talk or gossip. Children that were allowed to come, laughed and chased each other through the throng of people. Mrs. Bennett had her own little hen group and talked enthusiastically about Jane's relationship with the host of the ball. Elizabeth wandered through the people, greeting and smiling at old acquaintances and friends. None of this really mattered to the state of mind she was in at present.
The scene in the pantry with Darcy had her confused and leaving her flushed at what nearly transpired. She didn't know if she liked the man or not but Elizabeth couldn't deny the pull of attraction to him either. He was about to kiss her and Elizabeth wanted it to happen. Then, on the other hand, she didn't want to get involved with a man in such pompous society as his, where the likes of Caroline Bingley vied for his favor and would surely have it. No, Elizabeth couldn't compete with that high-society manner or grace. She was much more content to be who she was, a modern artist with a no-nonsense and practical attitude of the world. Elizabeth didn't need the old fashioned airs of the gentry.
A hand grabbed at her elbow and turned her around, dragging Elizabeth among other dancers as a slow dance started. She was about to protest as an arm slid around her waist and hand grasped hers. Looking up, she saw Darcy give his usual stoic glance at her but his mouth twitched in a small smile.
"You are a hard woman to chase down." Darcy said.
"I am responsible for this little bash, making sure there is enough food and drink to go around, toilets don't plug up and flood the second floor, and so many other little things that Charlie shouldn't worry about."
"Can't you take some time for yourself and enjoy what you put together?"
"I have been." Elizabeth smiled. "For me, it is like an overdue welcome home, seeing all the people I grew up with together in one place."
"Well, if no one has said it, Elizabeth, this is a good party. Thank you for helping Charlie with this."
Elizabeth stared at Darcy, shocked to hear the words of praise and gratefulness from him. This man was a puzzle to her and she couldn't figure out whether she was liked or tolerated. While there were some open moments with Darcy, other times, he was formal and cool, if not a bit annoyed.
"So, Darcy, have you been enjoying yourself?" Elizabeth asked after an awkward moment of silence.
"I'm enjoying this for Charlie's sake."
"But not for yours?"
"It's been tolerable but there are a couple of bright spots in the evening." Darcy looked deeply into her eyes.
"I don't know whether to take that as a slight or compliment." Elizabeth had to chuckle lest she snap to some quick judgment of Darcy's statement.
Darcy stopped their dancing a moment and looked seriously at Elizabeth. "I didn't mean that as an insult, Elizabeth. I'm not a very…social person, so I find myself a bit out of my element in parties like this."
That was the first honest and contrite thing Darcy had ever spoken to Elizabeth since their first introduction. Narrowing her eyes a bit and looking over the man, she could see some tenseness in him that probably came from being in large gatherings. Her opinion of Darcy's aloofness softened as she now understood why he acted the way he did sometimes.
"Then, I'll thank you for the compliment, Mr. Darcy." She crooked a grin at the man.
He nodded and spun her around slowly, finishing the song. Some couples left the main dancing area where others waited for the next song. Elizabeth stood for a moment, unsure of what to do now with the man before her. She opened her mouth to say something but Darcy spoke first.
"Would you like to take a walk and get some fresh air?"
"Sure, that actually sounds like a wonderful idea."
Darcy rested a hand at the small of Elizabeth's back and escorted her to the front hall where the guests wraps and coats were held. She told him that there was a wrap she brought because the gown didn't really fit well into a coat because of the greenery. Finding the wool wrap and his coat, he came back to Elizabeth and like a gentleman, swung the wrap around her shoulders. He shrugged into his long coat and held an arm out for her. Together they left the noise and stuffiness of the ball and headed out into the cool and bright autumn night.
The driveway was lit with torches but the pair took a turn toward the gardens, where periodic lanterns were set to provide soft lighting along with the full moon. There was a crispness to the air that one associates with autumn, giving off the impression of spice, sweet hay, and harvest. Also, with many of the older people, this was a night where the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and it lent a certain respectful hush to the night. Elizabeth walked sedately next to Darcy, her arm wrapped around his and wondered about this turn of events. She saw a different aspect to the man this night and she couldn't help but like it. For all the cold disdain and aloofness he put on around large groups of people, to see that it was a defense mechanism for uncomfortable situations, made Darcy seem just like anyone else. He was, however, very attentive when it came to her and this made her flush.
They came to the little woods path of the garden that they walked a few short weeks before. Darcy raised an eyebrow, asking if she wanted to go down the path, to which Elizabeth replied with a grin. He moved his hand to grasp Elizabeth's and led her down the wooded garden path. To anyone who saw them from a distance, they would see the Green Man escorting his lady back to their earthy domain. They walked deep into the small woods and came to the spot they visited together the first time, where the break through the trees looked down onto the English countryside. The view was still picturesque, even bathed in the silver light of the full moon.
As they stopped, Darcy turned to Elizabeth, raising her hand in his and brought it to his lips. His dark eyes shone out from the mask as he looked into Elizabeth's eyes and laid a gentleman's intimate kiss on her fingers. Elizabeth's heart fluttered at the old world charm and the implications of the gesture. She hardly knew Darcy but she would be lying to herself if she didn't feel some sort of attraction to the sometimes intimidating and frustrating man. Hadn't she been absently sketching his likeness in her pad? She was too practical to believe in love at first sight, for surely, it wasn't so with them. The start of their acquaintance was prickly and antagonistic.
Elizabeth reached up and pulled the Green Man mask off Darcy's face, wanting to see the man, not some stupid mask. His mouth quirked at the corners in a bit of amusement. "Much better." She said.
"In regards to what?" Darcy responded.
"To having your face hidden behind a mask but I get the feeling that you do that most of the time."
Darcy jerked a little in surprise at Elizabeth's astute observation. "You…aren't far from the truth."
"So, Mr. Darcy, what are your thoughts?" she asked softly.
He opened his mouth, stunned to be asked and then not sure of what to say. Would it be too forward to tell Elizabeth that he couldn't stop thinking about her? That he wanted to taste her lips and see if it would be as he had imagined? Since his last disaster of a serious romantic relationship, Darcy had shied from getting attached or being forthcoming about what he felt and thought toward others. Was he bold enough to act on what he desperately wanted to do?
Raising his free hand to Elizabeth's face, he brushed his fingers over her cheek. "I think…"
Elizabeth reached up and brought Darcy's mouth to hers, taking the initiative of kissing the man. She didn't know why she did it but when their lips met, the world melted away and Elizabeth felt her heart beat against her chest as Darcy sank deeper into the kiss. He wrapped a hand behind her neck and waist, holding Elizabeth to him.
It seemed hours, or days, before they parted, flushed and short of breath. Elizabeth licked at her lips slowly and swallowed. She didn't expect that and she could tell, Darcy wasn't expecting it either but was pleased all the same.
"Elizabeth….Lizzie…" Darcy rasped.
A rustle of someone loudly crashing through the woods, along with a giggle and a male voice, broke the spell over Elizabeth and Darcy. Their heads turned toward the direction of the intervening voices and as they reached closer to them to make out another couple sneaking away from the party, Elizabeth froze stiffly. Darcy looked down at her in alarm, wondering why but soon found the answer.
"Lydia!" Elizabeth said in shock, as her younger sister crashed through and stopped suddenly before her and Darcy.
As for the man with the girl, Darcy's face closed down and went cold, shocked to see the man here at Netherfield, much less in Meryton.
"Lizzie!" Lydia's mouth hung open in shock, her eyes darting from her to Darcy and back. Then typical of a girl of sixteen years, she giggled.
A/N: It has been a long time in getting this chapter together. There had been a couple of drafts and then it sat for a long time before getting back to it. The poor people, so much is going to be thrown in their path and with this fragile beginning, who knows what will happen.