He was before her almost instantly, and she felt her hand caught up in both his and passionately kissed. Then Mr. Darcy made a discovery. "You're cold!" It was true. Although she had not even thought of it, she was shivering, and her hands were icy in their light kid gloves. His, on the contrary, were wonderfully warm. "Forgive me."
"No." Then, as he looked uncertain, she laughed again, though a bit shakily. "I mean, there is nothing to forgive."
Her hands were kissed again. "I must get you inside—but... thank you. Thank you... my love." He said the endearment tentatively, and Elizabeth again felt such a rush of emotions, strong and strange and infinitely precious.
"Was it really so simple?" she found herself asking him. "As simple as a sister's reassurance?"
"Simple?" His hands slid down her arms, and closed warmly around her forearms as she shivered again. "It did not seem simple, but perhaps it was. Nothing but the profoundest responsibility could have prevailed upon me to leave you here, I think. Particularly once I saw that I was... hurting you?"
"I must have seemed cowardly to you."
"No, indeed no."
"It was Georgiana who..." He took a deep breath. "It seemed to me that if my sister, who, as you have seen, is shy and diffident by nature, could be so courageous—if she could disregard the past, and desire companionship and affection and happiness over more petty considerations—then I could not do less."
"Yes, Elizabeth, yes." His eyes, so glad again, wandered over her face, and stopped, unexpectedly, on her nose. It was almost certainly red from the cold, and she lifted a hand self-consciously to touch it.
"I must look a sight, I'm sure."
He shook his head and, with quick boldness, bent and kissed her there. The sensation was new and unexpected—a fleeting moment of his face near hers, and his lips, soft and warm and just a bit moist. Elizabeth's eyes opened very wide.
"You are delightfulness itself," he murmured, as hair and brims and hoods and breath all brushed and mingled.
This new frankness was quite delightful, but they could not remain there. When another round of shivers passed over Elizabeth, Darcy moved away. "Come. I cannot have you falling ill through my selfishness."
"I am never ill," she said, but went with him. He gave her his arm and she wrapped both her hands around it, to his evident pleasure. His free hand came to cover hers, and though they had to fight the wind as they walked back up to the path to house, Elizabeth felt it was not so cold any more.
"May I go to your father?" He had to speak into her ear. She nodded, and tried not to feel anxious. At the doorstep they paused, both reluctant to give up their solitude, no matter the necessity. "Promise me you will go get warm."
"And what about you?"
"I am not cold." Something about the almost rueful way he smiled made her heart beat faster again. In some ways, every minute she spent with him was more unsettling than the last. A long, rich moment stretched out between them before he finally pushed the door open.
They entered the house by the same door through which they had left. Mrs. Hill was standing in the passageway, and Elizabeth colored a bit as she handed off her cloak and gloves to her. Glancing only fleetingly at Darcy, she escaped up the stairs to make herself a fit sight again.
Her countenance, when she sat down before the mirror, was indeed very red, her cheeks chapped from the wind, and her hair a tangled mess. But her eyes shone out, and she could not think herself too unbecoming. Her hands trembled as she pulled her pins out and lifted the brush. It hardly seemed possible; how could it be possible?
It took her some minutes to compose herself, but she could not linger too long; even now, her father might be wishing to speak with her. Hesitantly, she descended the stairs, but there was no one there. She peered into the parlor where her mother and sisters sat; Darcy was not there either. Resigning herself to wait, she took a seat in the entrance hall and folded her hands. She was an engaged woman. She, Longbourn's Lizzy Bennet, was engaged to be married to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire. That glorious estate she had visited would be her home. She stood up.
She was engaged. She was an engaged woman. To Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy was speaking with her father even now. She wrung her hands.
Oh, why had she been so intemperate? Why had she spoken her dislike of him so freely? Her father would surely think she had run mad! She began to pace.
Just as she begun pacing, the door to her father's library opened, and she jumped. Mr. Darcy stepped out, checking when he saw her standing there. Their eyes met; without a word, he stood aside, holding the door open for her. Her arm brushed against his coat as she entered.
Her father was very surprised, and not best pleased, but when she had done all she could to explain, and assured him that she held Mr. Darcy in very high esteem, that she believed that she could love him very well—if she did not already, a point on which Elizabeth herself was not altogether clear—and then finally resorted to telling that it was Darcy who rescued Lydia, he was finally satisfied.
Going out, she found Darcy in the hall just as she had been, already well into his pacing. Beyond him, she spied Kitty's face in a doorway, but it disappeared in a flash. She must suppose her mother was ordering wedding clothes by now.
Summoning the happiness she did know she possessed, she smiled reassuringly at her newly betrothed. He was at her side at once, and his smile was of the kind to make her forget everything else. Really, he was so excessively handsome that she thought she would have to spend the next ten years just looking at him. And trying to make him smile, of course.
"All is well," she said.
One of his eyebrows quirked in a most interesting fashion. "He did not seem... enthusiastic," he said carefully.
She smiled ruefully; it was undoubtedly not the reception he had expected. "He was just very surprised. And concerned for me, that this is what I really want. Once I convinced him that it is, he became much happier. He is in there chuckling over the match now, I am sure." She hesitated. "I hope you do not mind, but I found it necessary to tell him the truth about Lydia."
"He needed to know what kind of a man you are—to understand your goodness, as I have come to understand it."
He sighed. "I had hoped it might all remain unknown, but I suppose it is best this way. I trust your judgment." Turning his attention back to her, he took her hand and drew her to sit on the cushioned bench. "I must away back to London now, I'm afraid."
"Yes. My business there could not spare me, but I came anyway, and now I must return before I appear entirely irresponsible. My solicitor expects me tomorrow morning."
"But to travel so far in one day, and then have to return immediately!"
He shrugged and smiled a little. "What is twenty miles of good road?"
"It's not good road. It's muddy."
His smile widened more and he said softly, drawing a thumb across her cheek, "It's road that brought me to you. I shall call it good for that reason, if no other."
The tenderness of the gesture and words were nearly more than Elizabeth could bear. Hardly knowing what she did, she took his hand in her own and turned her face to kiss the palm. His response was immediate: suddenly and shockingly, she was in his arms, with his mouth pressed hot against her own. Almost as quickly, he was on his feet and stepping back. Elizabeth gasped and reeled a little bit, putting her hands down to steady herself.
"I'm sorry, I—" Darcy seemed rather disoriented himself. "It wasn't proper—the hall—someone could have—I should—would not—"
"I would." She could not help interrupting him. He stared at her. "You have not imposed on me," she whispered.
A series of blinks were her only initial reply. A flush started up her neck as she began to regret her boldness, but then his face convulsed in some way she had not seen before, and as he glanced away and back again, she knew that he was fighting for composure. "Will you walk outside with me?" he asked after a moment.
She agreed, of course, and stood by him as he donned his gloves and coat again. His hat, still faintly damp, he held as they went out on the porch. It was even colder than it had been an hour ago, and she drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders. His carriage had not yet been brought around, and in the momentary quiet he took her hand again. "I cannot say all that is in my heart," he told her. "I wish that we were alone—that we were married."
She smiled mistily. "I believe I may require some time to accustom myself to the idea."
"Of course, and I do not intend to rush you, but—" He glanced around and, finding them still alone, bent and kissed her again, softly this time. Elizabeth felt heat bloom in her cheeks and her heart, and returned it as best she could. It did not last long, but he looked as flushed as she when he drew back. The rattle of the carriage wheels signaled the end of their privacy, and he put his hat back on his head—but she fancied his hands shook a little. "You will write to me?" he asked.
"Gladly, if you will do the same."
"Yes—and please, do not concern yourself with the cost of postage."
"Do not tell me you would object to a page that's been crossed three times!" She tried to inject some levity into a parting that was truly wrenching.
"Not if it came from you, but I would prefer one uncrossed. It is an abominable practice." He took her hand. "I will send coin under the seal to pay for mine, of course."
"That's not necessary." Somehow her other hand found its way into his other hand too. "I can afford to pay for postage, at least."
"Nevertheless I—" He paused in mid-sentence, as if realizing the dispute was pointless. "I will return as soon as I am able." His hands tightened and released. "I do not go willingly, you should believe that."
Elizabeth could only nod. With a last few words of good-bye and looks full of quiet yearning, the two parted at last. She stayed outside despite the cold, and only when the last bit of wheel and rail had disappeared did she finally turn away.
"Oh, my dearest heart!" cried Mrs. Bennet, the moment she opened the door. "My clever, clever Lizzy! I knew how it would be, the moment he walked in the door this afternoon! Yes, and Lady Lucas will have to admit that I was right: girls who do not work in the kitchen get better husbands!"
Later, she sat in her room, alternately laughing and crying, incredulous and delirious and full of wonder.
Their courtship period was not perfect; Darcy spent less time in Hertfordshire than either of them would have wished, busy as he was with all the arrangements for their marriage. Once the Bingleys returned he had a place to stay, and with Jane in residence at Netherfield it was perfectly proper for Elizabeth to visit as often and as long as she wished. Mrs. Bennet was also often there, but Netherfield being a larger house than Longbourn, it was at least easier to find privacy.
Putting up with her family proved to be an exercise in patience for both of them. Darcy was quiet and always uncomfortable in her mother's presence in particular, but Elizabeth had the gratification of seeing him make real progress in learning to tolerate her over the course of their engagement. For her part, she tried to keep him to herself, to shield him from the worst of the vulgarity, and to not take offense when his civility was stilted and short.
They were very careful with each other, at first, awkward and uncertain, but by dent of much perseverance in conversing and corresponding, soon got over that. They did, eventually, have to speak of uncomfortable subjects, such as Darcy's early months in Hertfordshire, and all that had happened with Mr. Wickham, and there were times when Elizabeth sighed and wondered and worried if their prospects for happiness were quite as sunny as she had thought them, but since they were both sensible and principled, and the attraction between them was strong, and their esteem for each other real, they found their way through it. It is not to be expected that two young people, one violently in love, and the other rapidly approaching that same state, would wish to remain at outs for very long.
Their first year of marriage was also not without its contentions. They were both too stubborn, both proud, both strong willed. But they learned from each other, and grew in love and felicity and good character. Mr. Bennet came sometimes to visit them at Pemberley, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner more often than he, and Jane and Charles most often of all. When the Bingleys bought an estate only half a day's drive away, Elizabeth's happiness was complete.
"Tell me, Mrs. Darcy," said her husband one day, as they strolled the same picture gallery she had toured that fateful day, "when and how did you come to love me?"
Elizabeth paused just where his portrait hung on the wall. She looked at it before turning her gaze back to its real life likeness. "I believe, Mr. Darcy," she answered with teasing, arch smile, "I must date it to when I first saw your beautiful grounds here at Pemberley."
Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting! I'll be posting more stories before long.