A/N - This title is now available on Amazon. Due to Amazon Policy, I can't leave it up on FFN. If you were already reading this story but didn't get a chance to finish it before I took it down, please send me a private message and I will work with you to let you finish. Offer good through November 15, 2016. ~AA
Chapter One – Darcy's Folly
The sun seemed not to rise on Gracechurch Street, until ten o'clock in the morning, when Mr. Darcy came to call. The Gardiner's breakfast was still steaming on the sideboard when he was announced. With a nod of his head to the butler, Mr. Gardiner consented to receive the guest and his would-be nephew was ushered into the dining room.
Elizabeth Bennet had spent the entirety of the night anxiously reconsidering the wisdom of her situation—yet she gained immediate relief in the arrival of her betrothed. The look on his face reassured her; the warmth of his eyes as they gazed upon her whispered the truth of his love though his lips remained silent. She stood when he entered the room, and rallied at the sight of him as the sunflower lifts its head to the dawn.
"Mr. Darcy." She bobbed a demure curtsy with her head, and although her eyes shone with pleasure at seeing him, she censured, "My aunt and uncle are not accustomed to receiving callers at such an hour as this. I fear you have caught us unprepared for visitors."
Darcy bowed slightly to the Gardiners, an apology written on his face. "I beg you—forgive my intrusion. My manners must seem all that is atrocious. I have no explanation for my behavior but this; the presence of Miss Bennet in your home is to me as the song of the siren was to Odysseus. As I had no-one to contain me, I found myself drawn here to your door, quite powerless to contain myself."
Elizabeth pressed her lips together to suppress her laughter. "You astonish me Mr. Darcy! I had not thought you capable sir, of such a pretty speech—in front of my relations no less." She abruptly stopped, looking at those very relations for some reaction to their discourse. Her young cousins were covering their mouths to stifle the giggles that threatened to leak through their lips. Her uncle and aunt however, had the appearance of being genuinely charmed by his manner – the gentlemanly camaraderie that had developed between Mr. Darcy and her uncle in the days before Jane's wedding remained a source of amazement to Elizabeth whose former belief was that Mr. Darcy simply hated everyone when he first met them. Her uncle and aunt were the only exception she had witnessed.
Darcy was secretly delighted with her teasing, and answered in all seriousness. "You informed me yourself that you dearly love to laugh. I believe that, in light of our impending nuptials, it is my duty to afford you whatever pleasure I may. I recall that whims and inconsistencies amuse you, is this not so?"
"Oh yes." Elizabeth's eyes lit at the reference to their long-ago conversation. "Follies and foibles also entertain."
"I see." Mr. Darcy replied with a slim trace of humor. "I had thought to present my arrival at this early hour as a whim, but alas, I discover on arrival that I may have chosen ill in determining the best approach to amuse you. Am I whimsical as I had hoped to be, or have I exposed a tendency to folly and foolishness where you are concerned?
Elizabeth was about to reply when Mr. Gardiner chuckled and interrupted their repartee. "Mr. Darcy, as Elizabeth's uncle, I must remind you that she is under my protection. A want of restraint where she is concerned would be folly indeed. What say you Mrs. Gardiner, shall we send for a length of rope?"
"Rope is unnecessary Uncle," Elizabeth said with an impish grin and twinkling eyes, "I will vouch for him. My intended husband prides himself on being under good regulation at all times, do you not Mr. Darcy?"
"Your niece is correct—there is no need for rope, I assure you." Darcy nodded. "I find that my restraint is intact after all."
"I am glad to hear it. I should make you aware that I employ many large sailors who would be delighted to restrain you on behalf of my niece—should you find your own restraint lacking." Although his tone was light, the truth of his words was evidenced by the stern look on his face, and a heavy silence fell upon the room.
"Mr. Darcy, we are nearly finished, but please, won't you join us as we break our fast?" Mrs. Gardiner offered cordially. "You will soon be our nephew after all, and your morning pursuits have surely whetted your appetite."
"Mrs. Gardiner," Darcy said as he took the seat nearest to where he stood, "I accept your kind offer with great pleasure." With a triumphant glance at Elizabeth, he settled in to break his fast.
Elizabeth resumed her seat, directly across from Darcy, marveling at his ability to prove amiable and gracious to her relations when she had dared hope merely for civility on his part. She sat between two of her young cousins, who had jockeyed for a position at the table next to her, prior to Mr. Darcy's arrival. Lillian and Florence flanked Elizabeth, with Isaac and Simon sitting next to their sisters. Eight year-old Lillian was adept with her knife and fork, but six-year old Florence required assistance, a service her cousin Elizabeth had rendered often in the past.
Elizabeth became increasingly self-conscious in this undertaking when she realized that she was the object of Mr. Darcy's intense scrutiny, and when she had completed it, she arched a brow and spoke boldly to their guest. "How would you rate my performance Mr. Darcy? Did I not make excellent work of slicing Flora's ham? I am convinced that Lord Byron himself would be inspired to compose a sonnet to minced meat had he witnessed my execution of the task just now."
"Why yes," Darcy replied, his eyes widened and darkened as his gaze settled on her, "I believe even Lord Byron would grant you some credit and spare you a few verses. I imagine, were the pig still alive, that he would be most gratified by the precision of your butchery and write you a sonnet as well."
Flora snickered, and Isaac made his best imitation of a pig sound.
"Children," their mother warned, "you must behave if you are to eat at the table. Shall I send you back to the nursery?"
"No Mama." Isaac said, pouting. "That man was talking to Lizzy about a pig."
"I heard him." Aunt Gardiner looked at Elizabeth with a half-smile. "Your cousin Lizzy was teasing him. Lizzy, you must not tease Mr. Darcy in front of the children." She feigned a frown.
"Please accept my apologies Mr. Darcy." Aunt Gardiner was cutting Simon's ham as she spoke. "My niece forgets herself. The Bennet household, as you well know, is not so proper as we are in town, being rooted in country manners." Elizabeth colored at her aunt's excuse and cautiously looked at her betrothed.
"Country manners?" Said Mr. Darcy with an earnest smile at Elizabeth, "I think they're charming."
After breakfast, Mr. Darcy noted that the weather was mild for winter, and after observing that the exercise would be beneficial to her health, offered to walk out with Elizabeth. The suggestion was met with enthusiasm by Elizabeth, but her uncle declared that it would be improper for them to venture out unchaperoned, and he could not allow it. His own schedule was occupied that day with urgent business affairs.
Mrs. Gardiner, with an indulgent glance at Elizabeth, offered to serve as chaperone, which inspired her husband to concede the point.
"It appears that you will have your walk my dear; the accommodations of my wife will certainly be sufficient for propriety. You are fortunate that the children have already gone upstairs or I fear you would have acquired a party of attendants sufficient to for a queen!"
Elizabeth seemed poised to summon her cousins when Mr. Darcy suggested that they walk not to the local park, but take a carriage to Kensington Gardens instead, where they could traverse the pathways unimpeded by traffic.
"I have never been there! It sounds delightful, but is it allowed?"
"Oh yes," Aunt Gardiner said smiling, "the Prince opens the gardens for the enjoyment of his subjects during the day until sunset. The grounds are delightful and vast; one can walk for hours."
"Excellent." Darcy nodded. "My carriage awaits—there is no need to call for yours. We may leave at your earliest convenience."
When the ladies had donned their outerwear, they exited the house by way of the front door, where the Darcy carriage was on approach, a groomsman leading the team to keep them warm. A second, older carriage of nearly the same quality, followed at a slight distance. "My, what beautiful horses!" exclaimed Aunt Gardiner looking at Darcy's carriage, and then beyond it. "I have never seen that carriage on this street before – it is very fine!"
Elizabeth looked to see what sort of equipage could inspire her aunt's comment. Seeing the second carriage, she could not help but exclaim, "It is very fine indeed! Did you bring two carriages today Mr. Darcy? Were you perhaps prepared for my uncle and cousins to join us?"
"I did not. I believe I was thinking only of you." Darcy admitted, as his gaze remained fixed on Elizabeth's face.
"Is that not the Darcy crest on that carriage?" Elizabeth pointed as the other carriage passed by at an increased pace.
Mr. Darcy, who had paid little mind to the other vehicle previously, looked just in time to confirm what she said as truth. A look of puzzlement crossed his brow, although he said nothing aloud except to instruct his driver to proceed to their destination.
The gardens at Kensington Palace were all that Elizabeth had imagined them to be. Mr. Darcy had offered an arm to each of the ladies, but Mrs. Gardiner soon detached herself from it, claiming a desire to examine a shrub more closely and thereafter lagged behind sufficiently to afford the couple some privacy for conversation while still keeping them mostly in her view.
"Your aunt is very kind, to allow such distance." Darcy said warmly. "I am unaccustomed to supervision, and although I know I must accept the dictates of society to preserve your reputation, I admit that I do not like it."
"I would be very surprised if you did, and even more surprised if you were to confess it." Elizabeth said with a slim smile. "You have not impressed me as a man who likes to be told what he may and may not do. I have observed in you a distinct preference for doing exactly what you like. Is this not so?"
"This tendency, I believe, shall make my role as your wife infinitely simpler than it otherwise would be."
"It will?" His sideward glance was unmet, as Elizabeth gazed into the treetops.
"But of course! While other marriages are destined to suffer from vexation and strife, I believe, or rather, suspect that ours shall take a decidedly different turn."
"I am intrigued Madam. Pray continue."
"You may not yet know this of me, so I will simply tell you for your own information. I have made it a habit to study people. What I mean to say is that I rather enjoy sketching the character of persons I encounter. This I accomplish through careful observation of their behavior."
"Of this, I am already aware."
"Of course you are." Elizabeth smiled up at him as if the knowledge pleased her greatly. "In these observations, I have noted that in order to get their way, many wives suffer from a tendency to wheedle and beg, plead their case unceasingly, and if they remain unsuccessful, they will resort to trickery or even to outright deception." Upon hearing this, Darcy frowned.
"But I have greater hopes for us," Elizabeth continued brightly. "I have determined, in the sketching of your character, the thing which gratifies you the most is to render service—particularly in cases where it will please those you love. Am I not right?"
A strange expression crossed Darcy's features. "The foundation of what you say is correct."
"I have made you uncomfortable." Elizabeth patted his arm affectionately. "I will conclude by telling you that I shall do my very best to let you know what pleases me, and then we may both be happy!"
"And what of those things which displease you?"
"Oh, you shall be in no doubt of those, you have my promise." Elizabeth laughed gaily. "But you must not fear–I shall never use these things against you! That would be a capital offense! The only fair use of such information is for our mutual felicity." Her eyes danced mischievously–or so it seemed to Darcy.
He glanced over his shoulder, and finding that Aunt Gardiner's attention was focused on a statue, he grasped Elizabeth's hand and led her forward as he stepped back, effectively concealing them behind a row of hedges.
"Elizabeth," he whispered hoarsely as he cradled her face in his hands and looked into her eyes, "you cannot know what such talk does to me. Can I remain aloof when you speak so? I cannot! Tell me dearest, what would please you now?"
"I…" Elizabeth looked at him helplessly and breathed quietly, "I cannot say."
With a barely audible groan, he lowered his face and tentatively brushed his lips against hers. Her soft sigh was inviting, and the sweet upturn of her lips assured him of her pleasure in the moment, but the voice of Aunt Gardiner shattered the interlude. "Lizzy? Lizzy, where are you?"
"I am here Aunt." Elizabeth called out, straightening her bonnet, and with a meaningful glance at Darcy, she stepped back onto the pathway. "Look here, there is a robin's nest in this hedge and the bird is yonder." She pointed at a bird in a branch. "I wonder at its remaining here for the winter."
Aunt Gardiner raised her eyebrows at the blushing couple. "I suspect that it found the atmosphere here in the hedges to be warmer than the clime would suggest."
Mr. Darcy met her eye. "That very well may be Mrs. Gardiner. A warmer climate in the south may not compare to the relative privacy afforded by this hedge."
Elizabeth, who had turned to face her aunt during the conversation, gestured over her aunt's shoulder and inquired, "Who is that man? "
Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner turned just in time to see the back of a man disappear around a turn in the pathway.
"Why Lizzy? I am sure that he is as we are, enjoying the gardens."
"If that is so, why does he follow the same meandering route as we do? I am sure I have seen him behind us several times now Aunt. It is very odd. If he were acquainted with you, or with Mr. Darcy, would he not approach? Would he not extend the courtesy of a greeting?"
Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy exchanged a look between them, and both turned to examine the path they had traversed. There was no sign of the stranger now.
"What did he look like?" Mrs. Gardiner linked elbows with her niece, "Is there something about him that disturbs you?"
Elizabeth became agitated, walking quickly as she lowered her voice in confidence with her aunt. "I suppose that it could possibly be nothing more than my imagination. On further consideration, he simply cannot be as he appeared to be. It is too strange. He was too far off, that is the cause of it. That must be it."
"The cause of what? Of what do you speak?" Mr. Darcy's stern tone startled Elizabeth, and she hesitated to answer him.
"I am probably making too much of it. He is very likely, as my aunt said, just enjoying the grounds…"
"Miss Bennet, it is obvious that the man distressed you. Tell me at once! What is the cause of this alarm? What did he do? "
"Well, I do believe that he was following us, although he seemed to avoid appearing so, but that which disturbs me is this. The man... he looked…" Elizabeth stared down the path again before turning her face back to Darcy's. "He looked very much like you."