I am not Jane Austen, and I did not write Pride and Prejudice. I also send out a nod to all others who've written a library what-if. I know it's not my original idea, but this is my own take on it.
As he sat glaring straight into the center of the blue flames that were licking the coals in the fireplace, Fitzwilliam Darcy was certain of many things.
He was certain of his family, of having done right by his sister a few months before when he'd sent that cretin, George Wickham, far away from her and exposed his nefarious scheme, thereby breaking her heart and her spirit. He wished things might have gone differently, that Georgie might not have suffered so much, but he was sure he'd acted in the best possible way.
He was also certain of his place in the world. He was a gentleman farmer, the owner, manager, and steward of a vast amount of land, property, and livelihoods. He was sure that his decisions were based on knowledge and intelligence. He knew that his methods were fair and just. He knew that his servants and tenants were well cared for.
He was even certain of his own person. He was a handsome man, a fact he had accepted since he was young, though he had always been cautious not to attribute any worth to himself simply by virtue of his appearance. His father had made it very clear to him that vanity was a great weakness and that there was nothing so despicable as using one's appearance instead of one's dedication and intelligence to move through life. He knew also that he was intelligent, a reserved man who saw no need to open his thoughts or heart to anyone who didn't know him. He was content with his small circle of family and true friends, and nothing else was necessary to him. It was enough, regardless of anyone else's opinion.
This was where his certainty faltered.
He shifted himself in the modern-yet-absurdly-uncomfortable armchair. What he wouldn't give to be at home at this moment, resting back in his favorite armchair by the fireplace in his own library instead of Bingley's. His feet would be propped on the red velvet footstool instead of the seat of the chair opposite him. But he was here at cursed Netherfield with his cursed best friend and finding himself cursedly fixated on the cursedly fine eyes of a woman who…
And there his anger, just beginning to build up nicely, deserted him again, leaving him hopelessly miserable and more than a little confused.
He rolled the few drops of liquid at the bottom of his glass around in circles, watching the patterns of drops forming and absorbing and reforming as it slid. He felt like one of those drops, singular and sure of his shape and purpose in one moment, then suddenly carried away and split into a thousand pieces by a force a thousand times stronger than himself, and then left behind, entirely different and entirely unsure of who he was or why it mattered.
Would he go back, he wondered? If he could choose to take back the last five hours of his life, would he do so? Would he be happier if he'd remained oblivious to the realities of the man he'd become? Or at least, the man others believed him to be.
One of the things he could easily add to the list of other certainties was that he would readily return to six weeks ago, to the moment he had agreed to help Bingley settle into the property he'd decided to lease. His refusal, in this alternate past, would be certain and unyielding. His life would be infinitely better for having never come to Hertfordshire, for never having set eyes upon the dangerously charming Miss Elizabeth Bennett. First she had made him feel things he had never in his life allowed himself to feel, made him wonder things he had no business wondering, considering her station in comparison with his, and made him question the future in a way he had no business questioning. And then she had, with a few spare minutes of conversation, turned his world upside down.
Yes, he would certainly be better off had he never met her.
Darcy was startled by the breathy gasp, causing him to nearly drop his glass. His first considered response was to rise and run from the room: any female coming upon him alone late at night was a potential disaster, as his unfortunate relative, the Earl of Sutton, could attest. The poor man had done everything he could to escape having to marry the scheming young woman who'd accosted him late at night while he stayed in her father's home, but her father had demanded they marry once the entire household was awakened by her shrieks, and he'd chosen to submit rather than weather the disastrous gossip.
Darcy was especially sensitive to the possibility now that he was staying in the same house as Caroline Bingley…
But as he craned his neck around the wing of the chair, his response to the young woman he found standing uncertainly next to one of the book shelves was entirely different.
"Miss Bennett," he choked, moving as if to stand.
"Please," she cried, her dismay at his presence obvious from the largeness of her dark eyes and her arms curving tightly around her, "do not stand up. I did not mean to interrupt your solitude. I will go immediately."
Her obvious discomfort in his presence was as sharp to him as if she'd pricked him with a spear. How could he have thought she fancied him? The reality of the evening crashed down on him again, and instead of rising, as he would have done in any other moment of his entire life, he slumped back in his chair and released a sigh.
"How fine it is to see you this evening," he said. The words came out far more bitterly sarcastic than he'd intended.
"Uh, thank you, sir," she said uncertainly. He heard the swish of a quick curtsey, although he was staring determinedly into the fire. "Good ni-…"
Her voice trailed off, and instead of leaving as she had promised, she stood there for several seconds. He could feel her eyes on him.
"Mr. Darcy?" she finally said, her voice strained with what he was certain was humor. "Are you drunk?"
His indignation flashed. Obviously she knew him not at all if she believed him capable of overindulging in one of the shared rooms of a home in which he was a guest! But then his anger melted into embarrassment as he realized that although he wished she knew he would never allow himself such uncivilized behavior, she did not really know him at all, and the evidence before her eyes was rather indisputable. Here he was, late at night, sitting alone in front of a dying fire in Bingley's library, slumped in an armchair with his cravat untied, his waistcoat unbuttoned, and a nearly empty glass in his hand. Honestly, what was she to think?
It took him a moment to swallow his feelings, and he began trying to construct an appropriately vague and unpleasant response so she wouldn't ask him any more questions. Then he made the mistake of looking up into her laughing eyes.
Heaven above, but she was so beautiful.
How could he have ever imagined himself unaffected by this woman? She stood before him, clad only in a simple, modest nightgown and robe, her dark, curly hair undecorated and woven into a braid behind her back, with tension in every limb but laughter in her eyes, laughter at his own expense, and she was still the loveliest thing he'd ever seen.
And suddenly, he knew that more than anything, he wanted her to stay. He wanted to know why she'd said what she'd said to her sister earlier. Her words rang through his mind again and again.
"Oh, Jane, no," Miss Elizabeth said as she and Miss Bennett passed the open doorway to the billiards room where he was chalking his cue and preparing to entertain himself quietly until the dinner bell. He couldn't see them from his corner, but all of his movement stopped at the sound of her voice.
"No, we must leave tomorrow," she continued. "Indeed, we ought to have left today if only Mama had not been so high-handed. I am sorry you are not entirely yourself again, but you are well enough to return home, and I cannot stand remaining in this house a single moment longer than necessary with these… people!"
Darcy frowned, surprised that Miss Bingley had affected Miss Elizabeth so powerfully. His impression had been that she had more than enough strength of character to withstand Caroline's paltry attacks, but perhaps it had all been a façade. He shook his head and prepared to step toward them and announce his presence, that he could not be accused of eavesdropping, when Jane spoke again.
"Lizzy, I know you have not especially enjoyed your evenings with Caroline and Mr. Darcy, but I am well enough to sit for a time after dinner, and then you can take me upstairs and not return."
"'Not enjoyed my evenings?'" Miss Elizabeth laughed. "That is a very gentle way of putting it. It would be far more appropriate to say that I had barely escaped the evenings with my dignity. I have several times considered offending both parties by sharing my honest opinion of them, just to see the surprise on their faces. It is a miracle that I have survived without telling Caroline to stop leveling veiled insults my direction, that it is completely unnecessary because there is no chance in Heaven or on Earth that I would ever try to steal her prize! What she could possibly see in a future with Mr. Darcy besides wealth unimaginable is beyond me."
Darcy's hand tightened so hard around the cue stick that he nearly snapped it in half. Was it possible that Elizabeth Bennett was just like every other woman he'd encountered, appreciating him only for his money?
"Can you imagine spending the rest of your life subject to lengthy silences and constant derision?" she continued. "I have never been so uncomfortable in my life as I was today when he and I spent thirty silent minutes in the drawing room together, him refusing to make even the slightest effort at polite conversation."
Darcy flashed back to that afternoon, his mind whirling over the pleasant tension he'd felt between them and how hard he'd had to work to keep himself from engaging her and remembering that he'd decided it would be better not to give her false hope. Apparently false hope had been the least of his problems.
"He thinks himself so much better than all of us, even better than a man he professes to call friend. Oh, Jane, he is so arrogant! So conceited! I can barely stand the sight of him anymore!"
"Lizzy, dear. Do you not think you're being a little dramatic? Mr. Darcy is one of Mr. Bingley's greatest friends. He must have some virtues for a man like Mr. Bingley to like him so much."
"Yes, but even you, dear Jane, cannot name any of them, can you?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Miss Bennett said, "Well, perhaps we do not know him well enough yet."
Elizabeth laughed triumphantly then quieted herself. "I suppose we should talk more quietly. Imagine if Caroline or Mr. Darcy came around that corner just now. How should I explain myself?"
They had moved on then, but the chiming of the dinner bell several minutes later had found him still standing, silent and brooding, in that same corner of the billiards room. He'd gone to dinner, and no one had questioned his silent mien. Everyone had cheerfully ignored him except Miss Bingley, who'd finally given up on him halfway through the evening and gone to talk to her brother and Miss Bennett. And then, when everyone else had retired for the evening, he'd sought solitude and comfort in the only place in Netherfield that even slightly reminded him of Pemberley, in the library.
And now he had the chance to confront Miss Elizabeth about what she'd said, the chance to force her to explain herself instead of leaving him in uncertainty and confusion. He simply had to know how he'd offended her.
But he would not attack. He knew her well enough to know she would shut down immediately in the face of an offensive attempt. He was not naturally devious, but need sometimes breeds ability, and a simple plan unfolded in his mind.
He swept a slightly insipid smile onto his face and said, with the tinist slur, "Indeed, Miss Bennett, I think you are right. I am drunk!" Then he raised his nearly empty glass and raised it toward her in a silent toast.
Her eyes narrowed. "And what are you doing here in the library, sir?"
"I find I am… thinking, Miss Bennett."
Of course he was alone. Did she think he would need companions to drink himself into a stupor?
"Until now," was his only answer.
She was silent for a moment, and from the side of his eyes, he watched her shifting uncomfortably. "Forgive me for intruding on your privacy. I'll leave you to drink in solitude."
"No," he said quickly, barely remembering to slur his words. "Please stay. I find I grow morose when I drink alone."
"Really, sir, I think I should…"
"Miss Bennett," he jumped in, realizing that she was entirely proper in trying to leave, considering the lateness of the hour and the absence of a chaperone, not to mention the state of their attire. He was going to have to distract her immediately if this was going to work. "Do you find me arrogant?"
She released a breath as if he'd hit her. Clearly, she had not been expecting that question. Neither had he, of course. It had simply been the first thing to leave his mouth.
Then, with a withering glare at his breech of manners, she drew herself to her full height and threw her shoulders back, forgetting her embarrassment over being caught in her nightclothes. "As a matter of fact, Mr. Darcy, I do."
He wasn't surprised. His previous knowledge of her answer was the reason he was here in the first place, but there was something particularly awful about hearing it as she looked straight into his eyes. He remained slumped and listless, and he mustered an ironic smile. "I thank you for your honesty."
She glared at him, and he thought perhaps he should not have smiled, but wasn't that what a drunk man would do? Having never been truly drunk himself (self-control had always been paramount for him, and he disliked alcohol's effect on one's inhibitions), he wasn't completely sure. "Do you find that I have any other redeeming qualities whatsoever?"
Elizabeth looked uncomfortable again. After too many moments, she answered, "Well, sir, I believe you to be very punctual."
"Punctual? That is the best you have to say of me?" That stung, he had to admit.
Loosening his expression and posture enough to appear drunk apparently meant his features were more apt to show other emotions as well, and some of his hurt must have shown on his face because she stepped forward, looking a little guilty. "I'm sure you have other qualities, sir. I have had so little opportunity to study your character that anything I said would be misrepresentative."
He had preferred her harshness over a softening inspired by pity. "You are hedging, Miss Bennett."
"Sir, might I ask what has brought these questions on? You seemed very much yourself this afternoon."
"I have had occasion," Darcy said slowly, tossing in a mournful look at his glass, "in the last few hours, to rethink much of the way I see myself."
She was interested enough now to step forward, almost out of the circle of light from the candle she'd set on a table near the shelves. Her face was cast into shadow, but her eyes still sparkled in the firelight. "What has caused such an introspection?"
She stepped back, surprised. "What have I done?"
He had to admit to taking the tiniest bit of pleasure from the chagrin he knew he would raise in her. "I had the good fortune to overhear your conversation with your sister earlier. I apologize for eavesdropping. It was never my intention, but I found once I realized who was speaking that I was the topic of conversation, and you can imagine how difficult it was to consider leaving." He added a tight laugh for effect. "I had no idea that our short acquaintance had been of enough duration for you to develop such strong feelings regarding my personality."
By the end of his speech, she was standing with both of her tiny, white hands covering her open mouth. "Oh, Mr. Darcy, I am entirely horrified! I am so sorry…"
"No, Miss Bennett. Please do not apologize." The words were out before he could stop them. Wasn't that why he'd told her, to get a small revenge for the misery of the last few hours?
"But, sir, I swear to you that I never meant to harm anyone with my incautious words. Oh, Jane warned me to guard my tongue, but of course I didn't listen! Drat! Please, sir…"
He watched her for a few moments, dithering unhappily in self-recrimination, and he was overwhelmed with guilt. Had he thought making her ashamed would improve his spirits? Well, he had been wrong. "Please, madam," he said, finally rising from his chair. "I have spent my entire life with almost no one willing to tell me when I have done something wrong or what they truly think of me. As much as your words were painful, they were refreshing in a way."
It was the truth. Never in his life had anyone besides his father corrected or criticized him. The musing he'd been doing for the last few hours, though similar to his response when he discovered and condemned his own mistakes, had never before been inspired by someone else's opinion of him. And if he were honest with himself, it was probably unhealthy to be so entirely insulated from the opinions of others.
"Sir, I never…" Elizabeth began again.
"Please, Miss Bennett, I did not ask you to stay here so that you might apologize to me. In fact I would much rather have… an explanation. I wish to know in what way I have offended you so deeply in so few weeks."
Elizabeth's eyes widened, making them reflecting the dim firelight. "Sir, I do not know how to have this conversation."
"Please try," he said, and he could hear the plea in his voice, but he didn't care. He motioned questioningly toward the armchair opposite his.
The combination of guilt and curiosity must have been enough to make her forget her reluctance. She moved forward slowly, eyeing him uncertainly, and sat down. She shook her head when he gestured toward the tray beside him with its half-empty decanter and small pitcher of water.
Darcy took a deep breath as she settled, organizing his thoughts. "What was the first moment where you found yourself so strongly disliking me? What was the initial cause of such a reaction? I dearly wish to know."
"Honestly?" Clearly, she didn't believe him.
"Honestly," he assured her.
She began slowly. "Well, sir, in all honesty, my dislike of you began almost from the first moment of our acquaintance." She took a deep breath and looked up. He nodded encouragingly, taking his seat again. "You were very rude, unfriendly even, at the Meryton assembly. We were all there with expectations of meeting a new neighbor, and while I can see that it might be a circumstance in which is there is too much pressure to make a good first impression, you made no effort whatsoever. You were barely civil to Sir William Lucas, and you were less than civil to anyone else, even to your own friend. You refused to dance, though that's what dances are for, and you would barely hold two words worth of conversation with anyone who approached you."
She took a breath as if to say more, but then she stopped, wringing her hands in her lap.
He thought over her words. Yes, he had not been entirely himself at the assembly that night. He'd still been rethinking his decision to leave Georgiana on her own after the whole Ramsgate debacle, and he'd spent the better part of the morning rereading her latest letter, in which she assured him that she would be better off spending some time on her own. Then he had been forced to endure Miss Bingley's attentions for over two hours as he tried to use the writing desk in the parlor to organize and complete his latest business correspondence. He'd finally repaired to his room and finished writing on the top of the highboy. He'd tried telling Bingley he wasn't in the mood to attend the assembly, but Bingley hadn't paid him any attention, and he'd given in with poor grace. Was it any wonder he hadn't been at his best?
But it made sense that Elizabeth, not to mention her family, friends, and neighbors would not have known that, nor that he was reserved by nature and disliked balls and parties with longstanding fervor. They would only have known that he made no effort. But still, was that his only offence? Her vitriol earlier implied otherwise.
"Is that all, Miss Bennet?" he asked, clearing his throat. "Is that the entire cause for your dislike of me? I must admit that is a shaky foundation."
"No, sir," she said, a glint in her eye despite her obvious discomposure. "You asked for the beginning."
He couldn't help the small smile that lifted the corner of his mouth. She was so charming. "Would it be too much trouble to ask for the entire story?"
"You want me to list every single thing you've ever done to frustrate, annoy, or otherwise infuriate me?"
Her doubtful look made his heart sink. Was the list so long? "Yes, Miss Bennett, but only if you are willing to be specific."
"I am not certain I am, sir. I do not wish to hurt you more than I already have."
"If I have been awful to you, madam," he sighed, "I want to know about it. Or to anyone else."
"Are you certain?"
It worried him that she suddenly seemed eager, but he pressed forward, sounding confident. "Entirely."
"Very well." She sat up in her chair, brushing imaginary crumbs off her robe and nightdress as if she were finishing tea in a garden somewhere. "My dislike of you, though founded initially upon the things I listed for you already, began in earnest the moment that I overheard you tell Mr. Bingley that although you found me tolerable, I was not handsome enough to tempt you to dance with me."
The satisfaction on her face told him that she'd been waiting weeks to say those exact words to him. For his part, he nearly choked. "You heard that?"
"How could I not have?" she asked accusingly, narrowing her eyes. "It was bad enough for you to say it, but it was much worse for you to say it knowing that I might hear you."
Had he known she could hear him? He thought back over that night. The words rang familiarly in his mind, and he had no doubt she had remembered them accurately. Such an insult would be found memorable by any woman. He recalled the words, then his feelings as he spoke, and then Bingley's face as he'd said them. And he remembered the sight of a young, unremarkable woman sitting a few feet in front of them, exactly where Bingley had motioned as he'd spoken. Yes, he had known she could hear him.
All the frustration, confusion, and melancholy he'd been nursing since the other occupants of the house had retired felt light and whimsical in comparison to the deep disgust and mortification he felt now as he realized that he deserved every insulting word Elizabeth had spoken earlier. No wonder she'd felt so strongly. It was a wonder that she'd ever deigned to speak to him again at all.
Though now that he knew her opinion of him, he could see that she'd put a lot of effort into filling their interactions with veiled insults and subtle jibes. He'd been so proud of her wittily concealed abuses when dealing with Miss Bingley, but he'd been foolish enough to see her invectives toward him as flirtations.
"Miss Bennett," he finally stuttered, feeling her gaze on him, "I cannot even begin to apologize for being such a fool."
She looked surprised by his apology, and he wondered what kind of man she must believe him to be to be surprised by his remorse over such an unwarranted attack.
She didn't respond, only watched him, and he sunk deeply into his self-recrimination. What a fool. What an unbelievable, addle-pated, half-witted fool. To alienate the only woman he'd ever…
He couldn't bear to finish that thought, but not thinking it didn't make it untrue.
He wasn't even worthy of her. Yes, her speech had been incautious, but not uncalled for. He deserved everything she'd said, and it made him wonder how much of his life he'd spent bungling around, insulting and offending and even harming those around him by his complete self-absorption and arrogance.
"I have spent the better part of my life," he finally muttered, unable to bear the thoughts rolling around inside his head without an outlet, "caring not at all for the good opinion of anyone around me but my own family. It was easy enough to secure the good opinion of anyone I wished to simply by virtue of my money and position. My reputation for honesty and uprightness helped anywhere that there might be questions, and I have managed through my life to make a few truly good friends, so I felt no lack of sociality.
"I am not used to pandering to others but perhaps that has given me an unreal view of what others expect of me. It never occurred to me that your good opinion was important to me in any way."
"Was that supposed to be an apology, Mr. Darcy?" asked a wry voice.
His head shot up. He'd entirely forgotten her presence for a few moments. "No, Miss Bennett. That was an explanation. I have found, in the last few hours, that much of my view of the world has been skewed by my upbringing. I have never sought for another's good opinion, but that does not mean that I should not have. For I find very suddenly that there are people here in this neighborhood whose good opinions do matter to me. And it is… disturbing to have lost them before I even knew they were of import to me."
"Such as whom?" She was surprised again, and again he could not blame her.
Should he be honest? What could it hurt now? It could not lower him in her estimation—he was already as low as he could be.
He closed his eyes. "Such as you, Miss Bennett."
He was too afraid to open his eyes, and when she spoke, he could tell nothing from her tone. "Anyone else?"
"Not yet." He thought for a moment, heaped anew with disgust. "But perhaps that is wrong. Perhaps they should matter to me. It has never even occurred to me before that they should."
How many people had he injured by ignoring them and their feelings and opinions? He'd been a kind and careful master, he knew, but that was only to those dependent upon him. What about to others, even to his equals? What did they think of him? He cared not whether they found him handsome or fashionable, but did they find him kind or cold? Were they afraid of him? Was that what he wanted?
"Would you mind continuing with your list?" he finally stumbled, staving off that deeper level of self-assessment. "I should very much like to know the rest of which you have to accuse me."
Elizabeth's voice was subdued now, but he still couldn't bear to open his eyes and meet her gaze. "The rest is hard to remember the specifics of, Mr. Darcy. The remainder of the night of the assembly you spent standing against the wall with Miss Bingley. I assumed you were criticizing. Was I correct?"
"Yes, to my everlasting shame." It had never occurred to him to be embarrassed that others knew he was openly judging and condemning them. Yet what right had he to do so? He was a man, clearly as weak and fallible as they all were.
He knew not how many minutes had passed before Elizabeth's gentle voice broke into his reverie. "It is ironic, isn't it, sir, that I was judging you for criticizing when I was standing against the opposite wall doing the same thing?"
Ironic, yes, but…
"We are not any of us perfect," she went on after a moment. "That does not make us irredeemable."
His eyelids shot open, and he found her gaze fixed so firmly on his face that he could catch and hold it. "You would have mercy on me? After the strength of your just accusations against me? I can only imagine that the list of other offenses against you and those you care about is extensive."
She blushed, seeming… ashamed? For what? "It is long, but perhaps longer than it ought to be. Just as you were seeking reasons not to be here, for whatever reason of your own, perhaps having had my vanity wounded caused me to seek reasons to dislike you."
"I doubt it was difficult."
"No, it was not," she chuckled mirthlessly, "but that does not make it right. Or fair."
"Might I hear the rest now?" he asked quietly, unsure about his strength to bear it but unable to stop himself from asking.
"In generalities," she said reluctantly, gazing into her lap again, "you were regularly rude and unfriendly. At every opportunity offered to you to be kind, to meet someone new, to share something in common with an acquaintance, you shared nothing but disdain and a lack of appreciation for everything and everyone around you who was not of your First Circle."
She was right. He could see it now as clearly as if he were looking through a magnifying glass. He could look back through each interaction and find his pompous arrogance glaring back at him.
He looked up sharply. He had disappeared into his own thoughts again. She looked concerned, so he tried to reassure her. "I am well enough, Miss Bennett."
She sat forward in her chair, not meeting his eyes anymore. "Do you want me to leave? You might justly hate me for the things I have said to you tonight. I have been neither fair nor kind in my assessment of you these past weeks, and it is suddenly starkly obvious to me. I am perhaps as ashamed of my behavior since we met as you seem to be."
He considered breaking in, but he kept his peace.
"I used to believe in first impressions, sir," she breathed, shaking her head and gazing into the embers. "But sitting here tonight, speaking with you as we are, I believe I may have been wrong. I begin to wonder whether you are… perhaps… not quite the man I had imagined you to be."
"Does that mean you think there is redemption for me?" He found that the knuckles of his free hand were suddenly wrapped very tightly around the arm of the chair.
"Not redemption. Understanding. The man I see before me tonight, speaking in such a way, is not the man I met several weeks ago. He is not even the man who sat at the dinner table tonight ignoring the conversation of even his closest friends. And perhaps that is because I did not know the man, because I judged him too harshly from the first moment."
"You were not wrong in your assessment of me, madam. I have been a selfish being all my life, I think, and this is the first time in all these years that I have seen it."
"We are none of us perfect," she argued gently, meeting his eyes again.
And suddenly, there was something there that he didn't even know until that moment had been missing in their previous exchanges. Before there had been passion and exhilaration on her side, probably spurred by anger, but there was a new feeling now, a softness to her gaze, that he felt warming the part of him she had frozen hours before.
"Perhaps between the two of us, we have both been wrong," he said.
She nodded, smiling a little.
"Might we start again, Miss Bennett?"
She bit her lip, searching his face uncertainly. Then her expression cleared, and she raised an eyebrow at him. "I am of course willing to start over, sir, but I cannot imagine why it should matter to you. Forgive me for taking back some of the things I've said, but I assume part of the reason you display such an arrogant mien is in order to keep those who are not of your standing away from you. No matter how much it pains me to admit it, I am one of those."
It was innocently done, but it was a stab at his heart all the same. Could she really believe that after so personal an exchange as they had just shared, he would remember her social class and shut down their temporary intimacy, replacing her in his mind as a distant and unworthy acquaintance?
He was disgusted again to realize that the man he had been yesterday probably would have done exactly that.
"Madam, tonight in this room, you have been more honest with me than any one person I have ever known in my entire life. Does that not perhaps tell me I have valued the wrong things in the past? Doesn't that mean I ought to seek out new acquaintance, new opportunities to know others and a new value system by which to weigh my decisions, one which includes seeing a person for what they are worth as a human being instead of for their place in the social system?"
She gave him a genuine smile, the first one, he realized, she had ever presented to him. "Perhaps we both should rethink our views of the world."
He returned her smile, and their eyes held again, that same softness passing back and forth between them more freely. Elizabeth finally looked away, blushing deeply enough for it to show despite the near-darkness of the room.
She stood abruptly. "It is far past the time that I ought to be leaving. This conversation has been most enlightening. I thank you for it."
He stood as well, reluctant to lose their intimacy but aware of her wisdom. "As I thank you for your honesty, and for your forgiveness."
She nodded and dropped a shallow curtsey. "Good night, sir."
She made as if to turn away, but then she frowned, and instead of leaving, she crossed the carpet toward him. He braced himself, unsure of her intent. In his wildest dreams, she would kiss him, but he was very aware that he was not dreaming.
She stopped before him and reached for the glass he'd finally set on the tray beside him sometime during his musing. She lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed.
Darcy stayed very still, watching her attentively.
She reached her finger into the bottom of the cup, swept up a few drops of liquid, and then stuck the finger in her mouth. Her eyes widened, and she looked up at him.
"You were drinking water!"
He nodded. He wasn't sure where along the way he had forgotten to act drunkenly anymore.
Her eyes narrowed. "You weren't drunk at all."
He shook his head. "Forgive my deception. I never drink more than a glass of wine at dinner. I simply thought…"
She raised her eyebrows, waiting.
"I thought you might speak more freely to me if you thought I was not myself. And truly, I was not. I am still not. And I fear, thanks to you, I never shall be again."
She evaluated him closely, studying his face unashamedly. Finally, after a long moment, she smirked. "The ploy will not work on me a second time, sir, so next time you wish to hear my honest opinion, simply ask me."
She looked down into the glass again, giggling. "Water!"
He couldn't help the smile that broke over his face again.
She looked up, her expression mischievous. "You know, Mr. Darcy, you should smile more often. You are quite painfully handsome when you do."
The blush that broke over his skin was rivaled by her own red face as she realized what she had said.
She stepped back quickly, trying to escape her embarrassment, and bumped into the corner of the small side-table, causing her to stumble sideways. "Oh!"
Without a thought, Darcy jumped forward and caught her by the elbows, preventing her from falling to the floor. She gripped his arms to steady herself and glanced up at his face.
"Are you all right?"
He caught her second glance and held it again. He wanted to say something to her, anything to keep her here for a single moment more, but nothing came. He cursed his own reserve—his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, would have something charming and comforting to say in such a moment, he was sure. Finally, desperate, he asked, "Why did you come into the library tonight?"
"For a book," she answered, still staring at him and gripping his forearms. "I couldn't sleep."
"Do you wish to find one before you go?"
"No. I think our conversation has given me far too much to think on to allow for such a paltry distraction as a history or a religious text, which is all I think Mr. Bingley has here."
Darcy laughed. "There is a shelf of novels in the far corner, if you wish."
Elizabeth smiled uncertainly. "Thank you, but even those would not rival the interest of my thoughts tonight."
"I hope my late-night brooding and life-crisis do not keep you awake too long. It is only a few hours until dawn now."
"I suspect I shall get more sleep than you," she said seriously, searching his eyes. "You still seem… haunted."
"Change is not simple," he confessed readily. "I fear I will not be strong enough."
"You will be. I know you better now, and I am sure you can be whatever you choose to be."
He smiled at her gratefully.
"And besides," she added playfully, "if you ever forget yourself again, I will just insult you until you remember."
"If your lovely, mischievous visage accompanies your criticisms, my future shall want for nothing."
She blushed again, and he waited. He hadn't been able to resist that small flirtation, standing as close to her as he was, touching her bare arms and watching the candlelight beside them dance in her eyes.
"Have we not already canvassed the topic of your opinion on my appearance tonight, sir?"
"We have discussed the fact of my ill-natured behavior that night at the assembly, but it has been many weeks since I decided you are one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance, Miss Bennett. I am only sorry you did not know it."
"Truly?" she asked, completely shocked.
"Truly," he said.
He wanted to lean forward and kiss her, or even just to pull her close and wrap her in his arms, but he could see in her face that he'd taken her by surprise, and he didn't want to frighten her. So instead, he stepped back, sliding his hands so they gripped her fingers, and raised both her hands to his mouth.
"You are impetuous, Miss Elizabeth, and sometimes incautious. But you are clever, intelligent, charming, and unarguably lovely." Then he softly kissed each hand once and released them, stepping away.
His release of her hands had released the rest of her, all but her eyes, which stayed on him as she backed to the door. "I don't know what to… Mr. Darcy, I…"
"Goodnight, madam," he said, bowing to her formally.
She stared for a moment longer, then picked up her candle and moved toward the door. Just at the threshold, she looked back. "I look forward to knowing the new Mr. Darcy better, sir," she said boldly, though her eyes were still uncertain.
He smiled, raising one eyebrow. "Be careful what you wish for, Miss Bennett."
She grinned. "Goodnight, sir."
Then she disappeared, and he heard the sound of her slipper-clad feet running up the staircase at the far end of the hall.
Yes, he would change. He would become a better man. He would examine every facet of his life and become more than he had been. But he would also win Elizabeth Bennett's heart. For what would be the good of becoming a kind and admirable man if she wasn't there to see it?