A/N HUGE thanks to my betas - K177kat, Lyndsay & FeliciaHM.
It starts a little slowly, but I promise it speeds up by chapter 3!
27 October, 1811
All is well here and I have quite recovered from my bout of cold. Mrs. Annesley insisted I drink a special tea with honey, which, though it tasted horrible, was quite helpful in my recovery. I have kept busy with my studies and am progressing well with French. Do you remember how you and Father used to speak in French in front of me when you did not want me to know what you were saying? Well now I should understand you! If only Father were here to hear me. I think he'd be pleased with my learning French. Do you think he would be proud of me, Fitzwilliam? I do miss him terribly sometimes.
Mrs. Annesley says that I am progressing well with my lessons; I have begun embroidering a new cushion for your study using all your favorite colors. Some of the knots were a bit difficult, but I believe I mended it quite well and that it will be pleasing in the end. I also have been working on a watercolor of Pemberley. Mrs. Annesley suggested I use the painting in your study as a reference. I hope you don't mind, but I had it moved to the music room. It is my favorite room in the house and catches the sun so pleasantly. And it will not do for me to spend the afternoons painting in your study. So far I have made two copies and I will begin the third tomorrow. I believe I improve a little more with each attempt. I shall have so many things to show you when you return!
Are you enjoying your time with Mr. Bingley? Does Miss Bingley play for you every evening? Please tell her I return her greeting and well wishes, and thank her for her praise of my table design. She is too kind. I have started a new song that is rather difficult, but I will master it and play it for Christmas and you shall be so delighted! At least I hope you shall be.
Is Hertfordshire a very pretty place? I would like to see it. It must be quite pleasant if Miss Elizabeth Bennet can traverse it so easily. It is quite sweet of her to come all that way to nurse her sister. I wish I had had a sister to nurse me while I was ill. Mrs. Annesley is very kind, but she is more a teacher than a sister. I think I would like Miss Elizabeth Bennet rather well. Do you think we shall meet? She sounds so very merry! It would be a nice change to be around someone so cheerful.
Please be careful while you are shooting, Fitzwilliam. I know you are quite proficient, but I would be terribly lost without you.
Your devoted sister,
1 November, 1811
My Dear Georgiana,
I am so pleased to hear of your accomplishments. We shall have to find someone who cannot speak French to converse in front of and confound. Perhaps Colonel Fitzwilliam will do? I do not think he paid much attention to his tutors. And yes, my dear sister, I am sure our Father would be very proud of you.
I am enjoying my stay with Bingley. We have had many hunting parties and yes, I am being very careful. I am afraid I could not bear to leave you, my dear girl. Miss Bingley does play for us most evenings, but her playing is not as pleasant as yours. I did hear Miss Elizabeth Bennet playing at a neighbor's; she played well and sang rather sweetly. I imagine you would enjoy a duet; your styles are not dissimilar.
I think a watercolor of Pemberley is a splendid idea. Paint as many as you like. When we are home in the summer, we can take a ride up to the ridge and you can paint from the original. Perhaps Mrs. Reynolds will pack us a basket and we can have a picnic. Would you like that?
I am so proud of you, dearest, and all your endeavors. I cannot wait to see your progress when I return. You know not how I miss you. Miss Bingley is searching for me, so I must conclude.
Your most devoted brother,
5 November, 1811
I have finished the last watercolor. It is much better than the first two. Where would you like to hang it? I should like to put one in the library. I am so glad you have music to listen to, for I know how much you like it. Miss Bingley is quite proficient, but I never know if she is really enjoying the music. I should like to hear Miss Elizabeth Bennet play and sing someday.
I miss you terribly, Brother! I enjoy my time with Mrs. Annesley and she is very agreeable and an able teacher, but I miss our conversations. I know we have letters, but they are not the same. I fear being left with my thoughts too much.
I have a proposition for you. Why do I not come to Hertfordshire? Mrs. Annesley could come with me in the coach, or you could come and fetch me yourself if you like. I would only stay a little while, perhaps a week, and I would not be in anyone's way. I would so like to see you - and of course Mr. Bingley and his new estate. Do you think he will buy it? That is rather exciting for him. Please say I can come and visit you!
Your loving sister,
9 November, 1812
My Dear Georgiana,
I see that you are quite determined to make your way to Netherfield. You know I could never deny you anything that is in my power to give, especially a request as beneficial to me as seeing you sooner than expected. I will arrive in London Monday and return to Hertfordshire with you on Wednesday. I daresay I shall be right behind this letter. Then you shall be able to ask Bingley about his estate yourself.
The following Wednesday saw Mr. Darcy and an excited Georgiana headed to Hertfordshire. Georgiana hadn't looked forward to anything in several months; seeing her excitement, Darcy felt that he had made the right decision to bring her here. He had seen the old Georgiana peeking out occasionally in her letters, but not yet with any regularity. She had always been shy and reserved in company, but at home and amongst those with whom she was comfortable, she had been quite charming and even exuberant. She still had so much of the girl about her. How could anyone want to disturb such precious innocence? He could only hope it wasn't lost in her forever.
As they pulled up to Netherfield, Caroline and Charles Bingley were waiting for them.
"Miss Darcy! I am so glad you were able to join us!" After curtseying to Mr. Darcy, Caroline locked arms with Georgiana and led her inside. As they walked ahead of the men, Georgiana looked over her shoulder to Darcy with a forbearing smile. He winked at her and turned to give directions to the coachman.
Caroline led Georgiana upstairs to her chambers, chattering all the way. "Now should you need anything at all, Miss Darcy, please don't hesitate to ask. I do want you to feel quite at home," she purred.
Georgiana required nothing more than a bath and a rest after her long carriage ride, and after informing Caroline several times that the rooms were quite adequate and she wanted for nothing, Miss Bingley finally took her leave.
Elizabeth awoke early, as usual, and looked out at a bright November morning. It hadn't been sunny like this for several days and the morning was beckoning to her to come and greet it properly. With avoiding the newly arrived Mr. Collins as an added inducement, she dressed and crept downstairs. Seeing no one about, she hurried out a side door and quickly walked out of sight of Longbourn. She chose one of her favorite paths and began nibbling on the muffin she had grabbed from the kitchen.
She had walked a little over two miles from home when she saw two riders in the distance. Not recognizing them, she momentarily stopped and looked in their direction. They seemed to be talking to one another; a tall man on an enormous black beast, and a lady riding side saddle and wearing a blue riding habit, sitting atop a grey with black fetlocks. It wasn't Miss Bingley, there was a decided lack of feathers, and Mrs. Hurst had said she didn't like to ride. Curiosity getting the better of her, Elizabeth stepped onto the first tier of the stile and looked over the small dividing fence.
"Brother, look over there." Georgiana pointed to a low fence running along the field they were riding in. Her cheeks were pink from exercise and her eyes were brightened with a curiosity that he hadn't seen in far too long. "Who is that?"
Following her gaze, Darcy saw a woman in a cream-colored dress and green spencer with matching bonnet. She had dark curls escaping around her face and was walking briskly.
"I believe that is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Really? Oh, what a lucky chance! Now I shall meet her!" Looking back, they noticed that Miss Bennet was now also looking at them and had stopped moving. "Come William, you must introduce us!" Georgiana started off in the direction of the fence, Darcy following her a moment later.
As the riders approached, Elizabeth noticed that the man was Mr. Darcy. She had never seen him atop a horse before. It was a pity that such a handsome man had to be so disagreeable. Cursing the curiosity that forced her to stand and wait to greet them, she stepped off the stile and prepared herself for something unpleasant - and hopefully quick.
They were now close enough that Elizabeth could see the face of the lady. She was more of a girl, really. She had honey colored hair spilling down her back, with a few curls around her face, and while she was a little taller than Elizabeth, she still had a very girlish look about her expression. Her figure seemed to be caught somewhere between a woman's and a girl's. Who was she? Why would Mr. Darcy be out with a young girl? Could she be the accomplished Miss Darcy?
"Miss Bennet, good morning." Mr. Darcy nodded down to her.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth curtseyed in response.
"Miss Bennet, may I present my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy? Georgiana, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"I am very pleased to meet you, Miss Bennet," Georgiana said quietly, looking down as a flush crept up her face. "I have heard a lot about you."
Was this shy creature the paragon of accomplishment whom Miss Bingley praised so thoroughly? Surprised and leaning slightly forward to hear her better, Elizabeth replied, "And I am very pleased to meet you, Miss Darcy. Your brother speaks very highly of you."
At this, Georgiana looked up and smiled genuinely. "My brother is very good to me," she said quietly, glancing at Darcy.
"It is fine weather for a walk Miss Bennet, is it not?" Darcy's loud voice was such a contrast to Miss Darcy's barely audible one that Elizabeth almost startled.
"Yes, sir, a very fine morning it is."
"Have you been out long?"
"Not long, no, barely an hour. I enjoy long walks."
"Yes, I know." At this he looked straight into her eyes, and Elizabeth was momentarily unsettled. Why did she get the feeling he was looking for something in her? Probably thinking how he should not like for his sister to be walking for hours all alone, she thought.
Attempting to break the slightly awkward silence that had come upon them, Elizabeth added, "And I daresay it is rather pleasant weather for a ride. Do you ride often, Miss Darcy?"
"When I am not in town, I like to ride nearly every day. Mr. Bingley was kind enough to allow me to ride one of his mares. I have been in London so long that I haven't ridden in quite some time." Her voice trailed off a bit at the end as her eyes began looking for something on the ground. Seeing her shyness was overtaking her, Darcy stepped in to aid his sister.
"Do you ride, Miss Bennet?"
"No, not at all I'm afraid."
"Truly? Not at all? That is quite surprising!"
"Why should it surprise you, sir? Surely you know many ladies who do not ride," she retorted with a slight bite to her tone. Elizabeth's brow was raised and Darcy felt himself being pulled in once again by her teasing nature.
"Yes, you are correct, many ladies do not enjoy riding. However, I never thought you should be one of them."
"Me? And why do you suppose that, sir?" Her eyes were sparkling now and he felt himself slipping onto dangerous ground.
"You seem to have the perfect temperament for it, Miss Bennet. It can be quite exhilarating. Especially with the right mount," he said in a strange tone as Elizabeth looked down in confusion at the quasi-compliment.
Darcy dismounted quickly and said, "Do horses frighten you?"
Her head snapped up, an angry flash in her eye. "No, Mr. Darcy, they do not frighten me." Trying to cool her temper, she continued in a more subdued tone, "I suppose I never took the time to learn properly. By my third lesson of walking around the stable yard, I confess I was rather impatient to be off and decided I would be quicker on my own legs. I imagine that if I had been able to run and race and jump from the very beginning, I would probably feel quite differently about it now."
While she was speaking, Darcy walked over to Georgiana, who had been listening with rapt attention to the exchange, to assist her in dismounting. Now both standing on the ground, Georgiana on his right arm, the horses' reins in his left hand, Darcy looked Elizabeth squarely in the face and said, "Since you are not afraid of horses, Miss Bennet, shall we continue on together? I am sure you know the area much better than we and we would be most appreciative of the guide and the company."
Knowing she couldn't refuse, especially after her bout of temper, and seeing the hopeful look in Georgiana's eyes, she consented and began to climb over the stile. Darcy quickly handed the reins to his sister and moved to assist her. Taking his hand to climb down the other side, she refused to meet his gaze, not wanting to see his disapproval. As soon as her feet were on the ground, he released her hand abruptly and walked toward his sister. He took the reins from her and allowed the ladies to take the lead, quickly falling behind them.
Feeling some conversation must be necessary, Elizabeth decided to make the best of an awkward situation.
"Miss Darcy, how long have you been at Netherfield?"
"I just arrived yesterday."
"And will you be staying long?"
"I go back to London next Wednesday."
Elizabeth politely asked questions, trying to draw Georgiana out. When they hit on the topic of music, her voice rose above a whisper and Elizabeth could tell this was a favorite subject. They continued on in that vein for the next quarter hour, Mr. Darcy walking a few feet behind them with the horses.
Coming toward a split in the trail, Elizabeth asked Miss Darcy, "What do you think of Hertfordshire so far?"
"It is lovely. I would like to explore the area more, but Fitzwilliam is occupied helping Mr. Bingley with the estate, and Miss Bingley is new to the area herself, so I am afraid my explorations will be limited to the gardens and anything beyond that will have to wait until next time."
"That is too bad. Hertfordshire is a lovely county and there is much beauty to see here. Oakham Mount is particularly nice and not too far. I often walk there myself." Georgiana nodded and they continued walking silently.
After a few moments, Elizabeth had an idea. "Miss Darcy, if you are not otherwise engaged, I could accompany you on your explorations. I have lived here all my life and know every trail in the area; you would be hard pressed to find a better guide. It might be a welcome occupation while your brother and your hosts are seeing to their duties." And it will give me a wonderful excuse to stay away from the ridiculous Mr. Collins, she thought.
"Oh, Miss Bennet! That sounds wonderful! I would love for you to show me around the country."
"Miss Bennet." Darcy's deep voice sounded from behind her. Here it comes, she thought, the denial of all things enjoyable. She had suspected he might not approve, but she could hardly leave this sweet girl alone with Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst all day. The poor thing! Nothing but compliments and doting, gossip and unsolicited fashion advice, morning till night.
Prepared for a reprimand, she looked over her shoulder with a determined and slightly impertinent look on her face. "Yes, Mr. Darcy?"
He looked at her seriously for a moment, and replied, "Thank you for your kind offer. I am sure my sister couldn't be in better hands." His face was a mask, letting no sign of his true feelings show through.
"It is my pleasure, Mr. Darcy."
They walked along a few more minutes before Elizabeth declared that she needed to head home, and took a narrow path in another direction.
"You were right, Brother."
"About what, dear?"
"I do like Miss Bennet."
Darcy smiled softly as they rode toward Netherfield, wondering if he'd made the right decision in allowing Georgiana to visit with Elizabeth. Miss Bennet was delightful, yes, and Georgiana did seem taken with her, just as he thought she would be, but he was beginning to feel that familiar sense of danger. How was he ever to forget all about her when he left this place if she became friends with his sister? Looking at Georgiana, he saw how happy she was and decided to think on it no more at present. Even if they became friends, they certainly wouldn't see each other often; maybe never again. They would likely write letters and nothing more. Perhaps Elizabeth would be invited to tea or even to dine if they were both in London at the same time, but surely he could handle that. What was seeing her for a few hours once a year?
The Saturday air was crisp and cold as Darcy walked into his London town home; he hated traveling in January, but there was nothing to be done for it. Hearing music drift up from the back of the house, he smiled to himself, happy to hear his sister playing. He handed his hat and gloves to the footman, all the while thinking how relieved he was that Georgiana seemed to be coming out of her despair of the last summer. As he walked toward his study, he was arrested by the sound of Georgiana laughing.
Curiously, he walked up the stairs to the music room. Just before he opened the door, he heard something that made him stop in his tracks. He knew that laugh. But surely it couldn't be; she of all people wouldn't be here, in his home, with his sister, playing on his pianoforte? Sure his mind was playing tricks on him, he opened the door and was met by the picturesque sight of his sister sitting next to Elizabeth Bennet on the bench, both playing terribly while laughing so hard they were on the verge of tears. They were so close they were nearly embracing as they giggled and continued to play out of sync.
The sight of Georgiana laughing was so foreign to him that he stood there watching them for a few silent moments before he could force himself to advance into the room. Eventually Georgiana became aware of his presence and looked up, her blue eyes turning to saucers as she gasped and stopped playing. Elizabeth followed her gaze, and her mouth dropped open as her eyes widened in shock at the sight of Darcy before her.
"Brother! I did not know you had returned!"
"Only just. I heard the music and decided to come say hello."
Elizabeth and Georgiana had risen with his entrance, and he made a quick bow as he acknowledged Miss Bennet. The ladies curtsied in return.
"Was your journey pleasant Brother?"
"Yes, quite uneventful. I'm afraid I have some letters to write. I'll see you at dinner?"
At her nod, Darcy quit the room and headed to his study. He would have to sort out this business of Elizabeth Bennet later. For now he knew he had a stack of correspondence to deal with, and it would be rude to question Georgiana in front of her guest; he would simply wait until Elizabeth went home to wherever it was she was staying and then speak with Georgiana later. Surely there was an explanation for all of this. Didn't Elizabeth have family in town? Maybe she was visiting them and Georgiana had invited her to call; yes that made perfect sense. That must be it.
Darcy walked behind the mahogany desk and settled in the comfortable leather chair; he took a deep breath and stared into the fire. "Focus old man!" He shook off his reverie and decided to delve into his work. There was a large pile of letters in the center of the desk and he set to work organizing them into three neat stacks: the first for business, the second for invitations, and the third for personal correspondence. Seeing that the stack of business letters was the smallest, he decided to start with that one first. After writing several "odious" letters, as Miss Bingley would have called them, he looked at his other two stacks. The stack of invitations was, as always, precariously high and he did not have the energy to deal with it at this moment.
He had vaguely entertained the thought of hiring a secretary, someone to handle his business letters and respond to invitations. But it didn't take up that much of his time, and invitations were only so various when he was in town, which was only half of the year, if that, so it never seemed that necessary, and he pushed it out of his mind.
Darcy liked to be busy. It kept his mind engaged and focused. His father had always told him to stay active, that idleness led to mischief and a soft mind. His aunt, Lady Matlock, liked to remind him that if he would marry, his wife would manage both households and all the invitations, cutting back his workload and freeing up his time considerably. He had responded with "So would hiring a secretary, and would likely cost a lot less." She had only shot him a withering glare and moved to a new topic.
Darcy turned to his slightly shorter stack of personal correspondence. As usual, there was one very blotched and ill directed, obviously from Bingley, which he decided to put aside in favor of the letter underneath which was clearly from his sister. Odd, he had received a letter from her the day before he left. He then noticed that it had been directed to his aunt's estate and then redirected to his London town home, as it had arrived on the day of his departure from Somerset.
Breaking the familiar seal, he opened the letter and began to read.
21 January, 1812
I am sure you will be surprised to receive this letter as you probably just received one yesterday filled with all the latest news on my rather uneventful life and feminine education. Yet something exciting has happened! I will not leave you in suspense, but will get straight to the point.
As you know, I have been corresponding regularly with Miss Elizabeth Bennet since my departure from Hertfordshire. Her letters of late have led me to believe she was slightly depressed. Upon questioning, she let me know that her sister Jane was here in London visiting her aunt and uncle and her dearest friend had recently married and moved to Kent. Miss Elizabeth was left quite on her own, with only the company of her younger sisters, and she has admitted she is not as close to them as she is with her sister Miss Jane Bennet.
When I asked her why she did not accompany her sister to London to visit her family, she first told me that she did not think it would be so bad without Miss Bennet, and since she is to visit a friend at the end of March, she did not think it would be necessary. However, having been without her sister these three weeks, she found that she missed her terribly and was rethinking her decision to remain at Longbourn. Her aunt and uncle are also hosting her aunt's family from the North and could not currently extend an invitation to Elizabeth as well. As you have been encouraging me to step out more with my friends and into the role of hostess, as has Mrs. Annesley, I decided to issue an invitation to Miss Elizabeth Bennet to stay with me here at Darcy House, so she might more easily see her sister near Cheapside.
She is to arrive Friday next and will stay for three weeks and then she shall return to Longbourn. I do hope that you approve of my plan, which I am sure you will as you have always spoken so highly of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I feel she is an excellent friend, and I do enjoy her company. It is so much more pleasant to have friends in the house than to be here all alone with my thoughts. Although I will be an attentive hostess, do not worry, dear Brother, I will not fall behind in my studies. Mrs. Annesley is staying on top of me quite diligently and Miss Elizabeth will be going to visit her sister several times each week which will allow me ample time to complete my work.
I have greatly enjoyed the duties of hostess in choosing a room for her and seeing to its preparation; you were right, Brother; it is not as intimidating as I thought it would be, especially with such a pleasant guest in mind. I hope your trip is going well and that you achieve everything you hoped to. Please give my best to Aunt Preston and Cousin Harold. I will see you in a few weeks. Who knows? Maybe you will get back before Miss Bennet returns home, and the three of us shall a very merry party make.
Your most devoted sister,
Darcy leaned back in his chair and let out a deep sigh. So she was staying here, in his home, as a personal guest of his sister. He could hardly rescind the invitation once she was already there, even if he had wanted to. Plus, it meant a great deal that Georgiana felt brave enough to invite someone to her home of her own accord. It was the first time she had ever done so and he would be foolish to discourage her at this point.
Hadn't he just spent months pushing her to make friends? Was this not exactly what he wanted her to do? No, there was nothing to be done for it. He would have to stay under the same roof as Elizabeth Bennet for the next three weeks. Now how was he ever going to escape her?
"I thought your brother was to be away for some time." Elizabeth looked at Georgiana over the tea service in front of them.
"He was. At least that was the plan. He was visiting our Aunt Preston in Somerset. I didn't expect him back for at least two more weeks, perhaps even three or four."
"Hmmmm," was Elizabeth's only reply.
"Our Aunt has a rather large estate that my cousin has been learning to manage, and Fitzwilliam has been helping him. He had told me that Cousin Harold's progress would determine the length of his trip, but he had planned to be there at least a month. But it has only been a fortnight! Cousin Harold must be doing very well indeed!" At this thought, Georgiana lit up and her face glowed in delight. Elizabeth decided not to be discomfited by Mr. Darcy's presence, as Miss Darcy could hardly have planned it and she clearly wasn't the type for creating mischief. I have been too long with impish sisters, she thought, I have become suspicious of everyone!
"Are you close with your cousin?" she asked.
"Not particularly, but I am rather fond of him. I remember him being very nice to me as a child. He has no sisters, is the only child in fact, so he was always very sweet to me and would spoil me terribly! He used to bring me candies wrapped in brown paper that he would hide in his coat pockets. He used to make me hunt them out, all the while pretending there was nothing there." She smiled sweetly at the memory and began to nervously pour the tea.
Noticing this was among the first times Georgiana had served tea to guests, Elizabeth tried to put her at ease. "He sounds very kind. Do you see him often?"
"No, not anymore. Since he went to Cambridge and then on to learn management of the estate, he hasn't had much time to come to Pemberley. It is rather far and I have only recently begun to spend much of my time in town. Fitzwilliam says I should have the benefit of the masters, as does the Colonel."
"Yes, my cousin on my mother's side. He and Fitzwilliam share guardianship of me."
"I hadn't realized your brother shared that privilege."
Georgiana blushed slightly. "I don't know that I'd call it a privilege. I'm sure I cause them undue anxiety." At this a shadow passed over face, and Elizabeth was about to inquire what was wrong when Georgiana changed the subject.
"Would you like to meet the Colonel while you are here, Miss Bennet? I'm sure you would like him very much! He's terribly funny, and always has something pleasant to say. Please say you'll meet him!"
Elizabeth couldn't help but be caught up in her enthusiasm after so quick a mood change. "Of course I should like to meet your cousin. Does he reside here in town?"
"Yes. He is posted at the army college not far outside town, and he often stays at Matlock House, which is just around the corner. Perhaps I'll show it to you on one of our walks! Richard – I mean Colonel Fitzwilliam - will be happy to take us. And you can meet Lady Matlock too!"
"Lady Matlock? Is she the Colonel's mother?"
"Yes. Lord Matlock is my mother's brother. She calls here quite often, I'm sure you'll meet her soon."
Elizabeth was trying hard to restrain a giggle at Georgiana's desire to escort her about town like a new puppy, showing her to all her relations. How lonely she must have been, to be so excited about finally having a friend. Elizabeth decided she would put every effort into making Georgiana happy while she was here. If she could ease some of her loneliness that would surely go a long way toward helping her make more friends on her own.
Living so far from one another and knowing how her brother only tolerated her for Georgiana's sake, Elizabeth thought having more friends was definitely a good plan, since she had no way of knowing how often she'd be able to see Gerogiana. Poor thing, she was all alone without female companionship of any kind, not even a mother. Elizabeth gave a silent prayer of thanks for her sisters and even for her exasperating mama. For while she could try one's nerves, Elizabeth always knew which family she belonged to and believed her mother would do anything for her good, or what she perceived to be her good, even if she was wide off the mark.
As Elizabeth was dressing for dinner, a knock sounded on her dressing room door. In only her corset and chemise, she called out, "What is wanted?"
"Miss Bennet," came Georgiana's sweet voice "I thought you might want some help dressing. Hannah will assist you if you desire."
Elizabeth smiled and opened the door. "Thank you, Miss Darcy. That is very thoughtful of you. I must confess I am so used to having someone about for pinning my hair in this style, I have almost forgotten how to do it properly. I was about to resort to something simpler. Jane and I usually do each other's," she rambled cheerily.
At this point she noticed that Miss Darcy was staring at the floor and that there was a light blush over her cheeks. Realizing the cause of this was likely her state of undress, she quickly pulled on her dressing gown.
"Forgive me Miss Darcy! I am too used to being surrounded by sisters, and I must confess, we are not very private with each other."
"Oh, that is alright Miss Bennet. I am the opposite I'm afraid. Do sisters really do this? See each other without all their clothes on, I mean?"
Elizabeth started and her eyes widened slightly. "Uh, well, I can't presume to speak for all sisters, but in the Bennet household they surely do, within our own chambers at least. And I believe my other friends with sisters are the same." Elizabeth looked at her quizzically, then decided that if she was going to help Georgiana come out of her shell, here was an excellent opportunity. "In fact, Jane and I used to sneak into each other's rooms at night and whisper our secrets under the covers. We would often fall asleep together. It's very helpful for staying warm on a cold winter's night!" She laughed.
Georgiana merely looked at her thoughtfully, but not judgmentally, which Elizabeth took to be a good sign.
"Since I don't have my sisters with me, you and Hannah shall have to help me choose something to wear and figure out what to do with this hair." At that, she flipped her long strands over her shoulder dramatically and smiled brightly at Georgiana.
"Oh, I want to choose your dress!" Suddenly Georgiana was running to the closet, intent on finding the perfect gown while Hannah busied herself brushing Elizabeth's hair. It was obviously new to her, but just as obviously welcome; maybe female companionship was just what Georgiana needed.
As they walked downstairs to dinner, Elizabeth caught her reflection in a mirror on the wall. The yellow dress Georgiana had chosen for her was certainly very flattering and the hairstyle Hannah had fashioned suited her features perfectly. Georgiana had insisted on putting pearl tipped pins in her hair. While Elizabeth did feel a trifle overdone, her dress was simple, as was her jewelry, only wearing a simple ribbon with the pendant Jane had given her last Christmas around her neck. Well, here we go, she thought. She wasn't looking forward to dinner with Mr. Darcy, but she thought it would be worth it for Georgiana's sake.
It was clear that Miss Darcy was desperate for friendship from a woman near her own age. Her companion, Mrs. Annesley, was a very nice woman, but being nearly 30 years her senior, could not possibly relate to Georgiana on the level of a peer. Elizabeth would suffer through dinners with Mr. Darcy, knowing that she was doing Georgiana, one of the sweetest girls she had ever met, a very great favor. And of course he wouldn't always be there; surely social occasions would take him away most of the time, and he did have many matters of business to which he must attend. And since Georgiana was not yet out, they would hardly be expected to accompany him.
She wondered if they would ever be entertaining. Georgiana had told her that she normally had dinner with her brother when it was just the two of them, as neither of them liked to eat alone, but that when he entertained people she would often stay above stairs, mostly because she wasn't comfortable around his friends. Elizabeth wondered if he would be doing much entertaining while she was there; three weeks could be a rather long time to be eating above stairs - she had been out for more than four years and was used to eating with the adults. She suddenly found it rather comical that she might be relegated to having dinner in the nursery. At this thought Elizabeth let a slow smile spread across her face and her eyes sparkled with the image her mind created. It was at that moment that they reached the bottom of the stairs and Mr. Darcy stepped around to greet them.
If Elizabeth had known the picture she was presenting she might have taken a care to control her expression; her eyes were sparkling, her lips parted in a slow and steady smile, her dress clinging becomingly in all the right places, the light yellow color setting off her dark hair perfectly. The pearls in her hair glimmered and her eyes shown in the candlelight.
Mr. Darcy bowed at the appearance of the ladies rather formally and gave Georgiana a light smile. He then extended his arm first to Miss Darcy and then to Elizabeth as he escorted them into the dining room.
Since only three of them were dining, he had asked his housekeeper to make it a simple affair. Darcy sat at the head of the rather large table with Georgiana on his right and Elizabeth on his left. While this was definitely a more intimate dining experience than Elizabeth had expected, she did not regret it. It would have been rather odd to be spread out over so long a space, practically having to yell to one another to converse throughout the meal.
At first she thought this might offer her more opportunity to tease Mr. Darcy and perhaps wiggle some information about Wickham out of him, but then she remembered she was here for Miss Darcy; to make her comfortable and be her friend, so she decided to leave Mr. Darcy alone - for now.
Conversation was basic and simple; they spoke about the weather and their plans for the week. Mr. Darcy asked whether or not they intended to attend church the next day, and Elizabeth and Miss Darcy both agreed that they had been planning on it. He told them he would escort them and instructed them to meet him in the foyer at 9 AM sharp. Elizabeth resisted the urge to salute and say a mocking, "Yes, sir!"
After he asked what they intended to do afterward, Elizabeth mentioned that she had planned to see her aunt and uncle in Cheapside where her sister Jane was currently residing. The hopeful look in Georgiana's eyes gave away the idea that she wished she would be able to accompany Miss Elizabeth, which distracted her from seeing the quick look of guilt cross Darcy's features.
Not knowing Miss Bennet's relations, and armed only with the small bit of information that they were in trade and resided in Cheapside, Mr. Darcy instinctively knew it was not somewhere he wished his baby sister to be going.
"Perfect. I will have Georgiana all to myself. I so rarely spend time with my sister that when an opportunity presents itself, I like to take full advantage."
Elizabeth had a feeling that she knew exactly what Mr. Darcy was taking full advantage of and it had nothing to do with spending time with his sister and everything to do with a certain address near Cheapside. But again, she reminded herself that she was here for Georgiana; not to chide, tease, or infuriate Mr. Darcy. So she let sleeping dogs lie. After all, he was entitled to his opinion just as she was entitled to hers. If he chose to look down and think ill of her relations in Cheapside, people whom he had never met, but judged solely on their business in trade and their address, then she had every right to think him arrogant, conceited, and above his company. At least he is kind to his sister, she thought. Georgiana clearly adores him. There is real affection between them, it is not feigned. How can he be so good to his sister, and so horrid to everybody else?
It was with these thoughts circling through her mind the Elizabeth undressed, slipped into her nightgown and climbed into the soft feather bed at Darcy house. Tomorrow I will see Jane and my aunt Gardiner.She chose not to think about going to church with Darcy, but rather to fall asleep dreaming of the pleasures an afternoon with her family would bring.
Down the hall, Darcy was having a very different experience. What was she doing here? Hadn't she tortured him enough in Hertfordshire? Teasing him, unnerving him, her fine eyes sparkling with some hidden joy he couldn't fathom, no matter how hard he tried. Why could she not leave him in peace? What had he done to deserve this torment?
He was a good landlord, a thoughtful master, a responsible brother, a helpful relation. How many times had he gone to Somerset since his Uncle had died, just to help his father's sister with her estate? There were other relations, but he was the one who went. Would he not perform the same duty for his aunt Lady Catherine at Easter? Colonel Fitzwilliam would go, and even Cyril would be willing to go, but no, she wanted Darcy. Only Darcy would do. He listened to their complaints and checked their books and interviewed their tenants. He spoke with their stewards and put their minds at ease. All this he was responsible for. All this he could accomplish without blinking an eye.
Was he not Master of Pemberley? Was Pemberley not one of the greatest estates in the country? Not only in size and beauty, but it was also one of the oldest and certainly brought in one of the largest incomes. And he did this on his own. He had no father looking out for him, not anymore. No thoughtful uncle to call upon, at least not with any regularity. He had no older, wiser cousin to assist him. He was the one called in to take care of things, the one people counted on to make the best decision. The responsible one, the in-control one, the loyal, steadfast, and honest one. The lonely one.
This thought struck him as a surprise. He had never thought of himself as lonely. He had Georgiana, and he was very close with Colonel Fitzwilliam. He even got on well with his cousin Cyril, though they had their differences. Bingley was a regular companion, and certainly a very good friend. And yet… and yet, he was lonely.
And now this woman, this siren, had taken up residence in his very home, in his private sanctuary, taunting him with pictures of what could never be. How many times had he thought of her coming down the stairs, her eyes sparkling, a smile on her lips just for him? He would take her arm and lead her through their house. No more sitting at opposite ends of the table, no more Caroline Bingley to put up with. He could sit and enjoy her smiles, and look at her without restraint, because she would be his. And he would be able to look upon what was his as often as he chose. He could look at her while they were eating, or drinking tea, while she was practicing the pianoforte, or reading a book, while she was fixing her hair or getting dressed…
"That's enough!" he said aloud.
He began pacing his room like a caged animal, one hand on his hip, the other raking through his already disheveled hair.
Fitzwilliam Darcy had long prided himself on being a man completely under his own control. He did not have fanciful whims or sudden impulses that, he thought, inevitably led to catastrophic consequences. He weighed his decisions thoughtfully and considered the outcomes thoroughly before engaging in a particular action. He was, therefore, not prone to spontaneity or frivolity, at least not anymore. He could remember a time, before his father died, when he was much freer; when he smiled quicker and laughed easier. But that was before the weight of the world began to press on his shoulders and he realized the far reaching consequences of even his smallest action.
As Master of a great estate, hundreds of lives depended on him directly, and even more were touched in some way by his decisions. When he had first realized this, it had had a sobering effect. Darcy had always been thoughtful and responsible, but this added knowledge turned his reserve into reticence, and his thoughtfulness into brooding, twisting him into the man he was today.
Within two years of his father's passing, he had a working knowledge of every inch of his estate and had increased its income by ten percent. He knew every tenant by name, and was known to be a generous and forthright Master by his servants. His steward handled most everything pertaining directly to Pemberley and its mills and various crops, but he personally handled all other investments and communications with his solicitor, and left the running of the households to his very able housekeepers, only checking the accounts each quarter.
He had thought a few times of taking a wife, someone to ease his burden and comfort and entertain him with smiles and music. But the thought had no more crossed his mind before he had dismissed it. He wasn't against the idea of marrying completely, but he did not want to marry just anyone. So far, he had met nearly every eligible lady between seventeen and twenty-seven in the ton, along with her mother, father, and any other relations in the ballroom at the time.
They had all been pretty, batted their eyelashes coquettishly, and sent simpering smiles his way at an alarming speed. They each seemed fascinated with everything he said, never disagreeing with him, and never having an opinion of their own, unless it was about lace or silk, but even then they were remarkably similar. It had gotten to the point where he could hardly tell them apart.
He had first entered the marriage market six years ago. He had just graduated Cambridge and was willing to be a good sport, letting his aunt, Lady Matlock, cart him around to balls and dinner parties with his two older cousins, imagining it would be a few years before he met someone he was interested in.
The season hadn't been under way a month before his father became ill and he had returned to Pemberley to look after the estate. After watching his beloved father waste away for nearly a year, he became Master of Pemberley and guardian to a very scared ten-year-old girl. He had never felt so adrift. He had briefly entertained the idea that a wife might comfort him and be good for Georgiana, but returning to town 11 months after his father's death to commence the search, he had been sorely disappointed.
Everywhere he went, his reputation preceded him. He felt as if he were being compared against an elaborate checklist; like a horse at the races, he had been reduced to a list of stats. The eldest son and heir, Master of Pemberley, in full possession of his fortune and free will; 10,000 a year, nephew to the Earl of Matlock; tall, good looking, excellent stock for the next generation. It made him ill.
It wasn't long before he started to weigh the ladies on the same scale. Young, pretty, passable, plain; she plays, draws, sings, and can embroider his initials into any number of personal items; dowry of 20,000 pounds, 30,000 pounds, 50,000 pounds; daughter of an Earl, niece of a Duke; a pleasing dancer and charming hostess; healthy and likely to produce an heir; if you ever need an Italian translator, she may assist you.
Just thinking about it made him dizzy.
That was when he had decided to give up the search. He had the excuse of running the estate, and in the beginning, people mostly left him alone, thinking he was still grieving over his father and would come around in time. Many a young lady put off other eligible suitors waiting for young Mr. Darcy to come back to town. Each was sure she was the one he would want; and each one was disappointed as the seasons came and went and Mr. Darcy hadn't returned.
Finally, two years after his sudden departure, he had re-emerged into society, only to find the same vultures circling the fields. The smart ones got out of the race sooner, choosing to marry less complicated and fastidious men. The not so smart stuck around longer, every season thinking this would be the time he noticed her, until they began to be fearful of never marrying, and would accept the first available gentleman who was remotely qualified. The unlucky, or perhaps the dim, were still lingering about, not considering that if Mr. Darcy hadn't noticed or preferred her yet, he wasn't likely to.
And so it went every year, with the new round of debutantes being introduced to the legend that was Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, master of his fate, the perfect catch who refused to be caught.
And so he thought he would remain. When he was younger and unfamiliar with the ways of the world, he had desired love. His father had loved his mother completely, and she had returned his affection in full. He had asked his father about it as he sat by his bedside, toward the end, trying to think of something to say, and at the same time wanting to know everything his father could ever possibly tell him.
George Darcy had revealed that he and Lady Anne had been childhood playmates. He would pull her hair and steal her toys, and she would tease him and make him give her pony rides. He had been five years her senior, so at first, a romantic thought had never crossed his mind. Mrs. Darcy and Lady Matlock were very great friends and would often spend days at a time at each other's houses. Lady Matlock would bring Anne with her, presumably to play with George's sister Clara, and the three would go gallivanting off in the woods together.
Then one year George went off to school and when he came back for the summer, Anne was with her parents on a tour of the continent. They kept missing each other, one in town while the other was in the country, and five years passed before they were face to face again. George was twenty-one, recently graduated from university, and she had just turned sixteen. Her older sister Catherine had become engaged and they were holding a ball to celebrate. Though not yet out, Anne had been allowed to attend and dance with the family.
George Darcy had described seeing Anne for the first time with moist eyes. He had remembered it like it was yesterday, even though it was more than twenty-five years ago. He had described to his son how she looked like an angel; golden hair framing her cherubic face, blue eyes so wide and deep you could drown in them. He didn't care that she played the pianoforte and the harp, and spoke German, and knew every dance, and came with a dowry of 25,000 pounds. She was lovely, and in that moment, he loved her completely.
He had talked her father into letting him dance with her, since he was as close as family, and the next year when she came out, George Darcy was at the door the day after her ball, officially asking her father for a courtship.
Watching their relationship had shown Darcy what it meant to be mutually respected and cared for, and he would settle for nothing less. If he didn't find it, which was certainly the way it was looking, he would remain a bachelor. When he was much older, he would take a wife and produce an heir, but he wouldn't marry soon if he could help it. And certainly not to just any woman; even one with perfect Italian and 50,000 pounds.
If only Elizabeth came from a good family! But would she have been the same? He would never know, nor would he ever know the comfort of her arms and the sweetness of her voice speaking tenderly to him, lulling him to peace and sweet rest. She was his perfect complement; she possessed all the talents he wished he had, and was forever gracious and enchanting. He had never seen anyone like her.
Never before had he been captivated by a woman's smile. Never before had he awoken from dreams so vivid he thought they were real, only to crash into despair when he realized they were not. Never before had he seen eyes sparkle like the very stars.
But he knew his duty.
And while Fitzwilliam Darcy was not unaware of the irony of the situation, he knew it could never be. Elizabeth Bennet must remain forever in his dreams, for he could never have her in reality.