Rating: No language, no violence.
Author's Notes: Happy holidays, everyone! This short story is being featured on the blog hosted by Sillimaure and me. Please visit our blog ASAP if you want to try to be part of the "find the quote" contest (and possibly win a free paperback copy of Acting on Faith). The blog can be found at rowlandandeye dotcom. We would love to see you there!
Characters: Elizabeth and Darcy.
"Mr. Darcy, I should think you were perusing an accounting book rather than participating in one of winter's finest amusements. Your countenance is so grim as to be almost fearful."
Darcy gently slid to a stop so he could pause and look behind him at Miss Elizabeth Bennet, who was coming toward him. The Bennets were hosting a small ice-skating party on a large frozen pond found on the Longbourn estate. The weather was cold enough that most of the Hertfordshire populace could be found seeking warmth and comfort indoors, yet Mr. Bennet's daughters were of a sturdy constitution, and they laughed as they skated around the pond despite the biting wind that nipped at their cheeks and noses.
He took a moment to observe Miss Bennet's expression as she stopped beside him. There was a slight crook to the corner of her mouth that showed she meant her comment to be taken lightly, yet even had he not seen her face, he would have been well aware of the teasing nature of what she had said.
Though Darcy had only known Miss Bennet for a few months, he had spent much of that time observing her, inexplicably fascinated with her arch manner and carefree nature. The only reason he was not indulging in that particular pastime at present was that his mind was consumed by less pleasant thoughts. He had been attempting for a few weeks to convince his friend Bingley that it was in his best interest to leave Hertfordshire—and more particularly, Jane Bennet—behind, but it had all been to no avail. Yet Darcy was determined to succeed in his persuasion. He did not believe the young woman's heart was truly involved when it came to his friend, and he knew Bingley well enough to realize that a marriage without mutual regard could never bring him happiness.
Realizing that Miss Bennet was expecting a reply from him, Darcy inclined his head and spoke. "I will readily admit that ice-skating is not my activity of choice."
With a gesture, she indicated that they should begin skating once more, and he offered an arm to her. Once she had taken it, they began to glide forward, taking the circuit around the pond at a pace that matched the others around them. There was something almost soothing about the sound of skates scraping against the ice, yet Darcy found his dark mood calmed much more readily by the gentle weight of Miss Bennet's hand on his arm. Suddenly, his cheeks felt warm, and he knew it was not from his exertions on the pond.
After a few moments, Miss Bennet observed: "Despite your dislike for the activity, you seem to be skilled on the ice nonetheless."
"I did grow up in the hills of Derbyshire. I have certainly been on my fair share of ponds. My sister is particularly fond of ice-skating."
Still holding his arm, Miss Bennet tilted her head and gave him a glance the meaning of which he could not quite discern. It was almost as if she were looking at him in a new light. "You . . . care for your sister."
Darcy frowned. "Of course."
Miss Bennet's brow crinkled, and she began to pick up speed on the ice, by necessity causing Darcy to go faster. Though he was technically supposed to lead, Darcy did not complain; rather, he found himself almost compelled to smile as he was forced to move faster to keep her hand on his arm. And then when the young woman began to laugh, he felt that he was smiling, unable to stop himself from feeding off her ebullient mood.
"My sisters and I used to race across the pond when we were younger," commented she suddenly. The flush of her cheeks rendered her eyes even more beautiful and mesmerizing, and Darcy felt his breath catch in his throat.
Shaking his head slightly to clear it, he asked her: "Why did you stop?"
"Why, Mr. Darcy, I suspect you know very well that it is because we grew up."
He laughed then, the sound uncommon even to his own ears, and he noted the expression of surprise on her face. "I do not believe you would ever let such a trifling thing as age keep you from any pursuits that interest you."
She chuckled in return. "I suspect you are right, Mr. Darcy. Perhaps, then, I should say that—rather—it was my sisters who grew up."
"I think the Christmas season is a suitable time to allow oneself to lapse back into childhood, even if only briefly."
Elizabeth Bennet beamed at him. "Why, Mr. Darcy, that sounds like something I might say! I dare say my penchant for playfulness shall have an influence on you yet!"
There were words he left unspoken: "You have already had an influence on my heart, Miss Bennet." He had fought his feelings valiantly, knowing the improprieties of her family and the inequality of their stations, yet as he continued to glide across the ice with the young woman, he found he no longer cared about why they should not be together; rather, all he could think about was why he wanted that smile directed at him.
A shout caught his attention, and he looked up to watch Bingley tumble to the ice, taking Miss Jane Bennet with him. Fortunately, neither one was hurt; instead, the couple was enveloped with laughter at the situation, even as they struggled to once more regain their footing. Darcy could not help but notice, however, that Jane Bennet's laugh was much more muted.
Elizabeth chuckled as they passed the grounded couple, giving her sister a smile, and then she said to Darcy: "I believe that you and my sister Jane are quite similar, Mr. Darcy."
He looked at her in surprise. "And why might you think that, Miss Bennet?"
"You are alike in manner. Neither one of you wears your heart on your sleeve. Instead, you keep your feelings to yourself, as one might hide a good hand at cards from any nearby. There are some who might think such a quality an undesirable one, yet I certainly think it is better than the opposite extreme."
Darcy frowned to himself, and as he came to a curve in the pond that allowed him to look at Bingley and Jane Bennet, he found himself wondering if perhaps Bingley were right after all. Darcy had been searching diligently for a sign that the eldest Miss Bennet felt any particular favor for Bingley, yet maybe it had been foolish to assume that she would be anything like his friend, whose emotions were never in any doubt. Miss Elizabeth, to his knowledge, had no indication of Darcy's particular preference for her. Darcy could very well have been in error to try to apply Bingley's own personality to a perception of Jane Bennet.
His mood lightened, Darcy at last replied to Miss Elizabeth: "Perhaps you know me better than I know myself."
A laugh and a yell were all the warning Darcy and Elizabeth had before they were sent careening to the ice.
Darcy's mind was filled with confusion as he struggled to bring himself to a sitting position on the ice, and it did not take him long to realize the reason for his fall. It appeared that Lydia Bennet and one of those infernal redcoats had crashed into him and Miss Elizabeth. Miss Lydia was presently overcome by giggles, and the redcoat—thankfully not Wickham—could not help but chuckle, even as he attempted to apologize to Miss Elizabeth. Miss Lydia did not even bother, so caught up was she in her mirth.
What the two laughing assailants did not see was the hint of pain on Miss Elizabeth's face; it did not pass by Darcy, however.
"Miss Bennet," said he quietly, "are you all right?"
She winced and allowed him to help her sit up. Reaching out to touch her leg, she admitted: "I think my ankle is sprained."
Biting back the angry words he wanted to spew at Miss Lydia and her foolish paramour, Darcy instructed: "Take off your skates, Miss Bennet, and I shall assist you back to the house."
Miss Elizabeth did not even bother arguing; she began to unstrap her skates, and Darcy endeavored to do the same. He gestured to a servant waiting beside the pond, and the young man came forward to take Darcy and Miss Elizabeth's skates.
Darcy carefully stood on the ice and reached down to help Miss Elizabeth to her feet. They succeeded in getting her upright, but the expression on her face told him that she would not easily make it to the horse-drawn sleigh that awaited to take people back to the main house.
"Miss Bennet?" asked he uneasily, his breath coming out in visible puffs in the cold air.
"Might I—might I carry you to the sleigh? I do not believe you will be able to make it on your leg."
She hesitated a moment before inclining her head. "Much though it mortifies me to require such assistance, I am afraid you are quite correct. I would be much obliged if you could aid me."
He gently bent and picked her up. She put her arms around his neck for stability, and there was a brief instant where her cheek was pressed against his chest. Her body radiated warmth, and he could not help but smile down at her.
"Lizzy!" a voice cried.
Darcy turned and looked at the ice to see the eldest Miss Bennet approaching with Bingley.
"Are you all right, Lizzy?" Miss Bennet asked.
"I will be fine," said Miss Elizabeth warmly. "I am afraid Lydia knocked me down. I think my ankle is only sprained, not broken, but Mr. Darcy is assisting me."
Miss Bennet lifted her eyes to Darcy's face, and he knew she was studying him, as if to determine whether he would be the suitable person to take care of her sister. But then she nodded in acceptance, and he felt a strange lightening of his shoulders, though he was still holding Miss Elizabeth. Considering he had earlier been observing Jane Bennet with suspicion, it was odd that he should suddenly value her approval.
With a slight nod of his head, he began to walk away from the pond with Miss Elizabeth in his arms. Her warmth was comforting, and he could not help but reflect on how she seemed to fit against him perfectly. It appeared that all his efforts to withstand her charms truly had been in vain. He was beginning to wonder how exactly he had been living his life without such a beacon of light in it. His sister Georgiana was all that was good, yet she was shy, and though he doted on her, it was easy for the two of them to fall into silence. And the occasion of silence was simply one more opportunity for Darcy to brood. With Elizabeth Bennet nearby, however, it was difficult—if not impossible—to merely withdraw into himself.
They reached the sleigh, and as he assisted Miss Elizabeth into it, he could not help but keenly feel the absence of her slight form against him. How could his spirit have become so intertwined with hers without him knowing?
"Thank you for your aid, Mr. Darcy," said Elizabeth Bennet once she was settled in the sleigh.
He inclined his head, unable to help the smile that touched his face. "It is always a pleasure to assist a young woman such as yourself."
She lifted an eyebrow, a hand coming up to touch his arm in surprise once the sleigh abruptly started to move. She removed her hand quickly, yet he found himself wishing he could grasp it to him.
"As often as you avoid dancing with young women at assemblies," said she softly, "I should think aiding young ladies to be the thing furthest from your mind. Yet that smile on your face seems to be genuine, though I am not accustomed to seeing you wear such an expression."
He could not help but give a slight chuckle at that, thereby earning himself another raised brow. "I am not a beast, Miss Bennet. I do smile when the occasion is appropriate."
She laughed herself, the noise mingling with the ringing bells on the horses' harness. Darcy's first thought was that it was one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. His second thought was an admonition to himself that he was getting too caught up in the jovial spirits that often infected people at Christmastime. But the third thought that came to him was that for once he did not care about avoiding even the slightest appearance of foolishness in order to bulwark his pride, and he began to laugh with her.
When their mirth began to run its course and the house was in sight, Elizabeth turned to look up at Darcy. Her cheeks were pink with the cold, and her eyes appeared almost as if they were shining with joy. For that expression to be directed at him filled Darcy's heart with inexplicable warmth.
"I am glad I sprained my ankle, Mr. Darcy."
"Miss Bennet?" queried he with a frown.
"Though I love the opportunity to glide across the pond like a rather large swan rather than fall upon it like a clumsy duck," said she, smiling at him, "I am glad that I had the opportunity to see a different side to you. I fear that silly prejudices had turned me against you, yet I do not think you are so horrid as I had believed."
Though uncertain whether her words should fill him with gladness or sorrow, Darcy chose to smile back and shake his head. "I do not believe such a thing as a sprained ankle to be a very merry Christmas gift."
But if anything, Elizabeth's smile only seemed to grow larger. "A scheme of which every part promises delight can never be successful; and general disappointment is only warded off by the defense of some little peculiar vexation. Had everything turned out perfectly today upon the pond, I should have constantly been comparing today to the winters I have experienced in the past. I think I have instead gained something much more valuable."
"And what would that be, Miss Bennet?"
She grabbed his arm then, lightly clutching it. "A friend. That is, of course, if I do not presume too much."
"I would be honored to be known as your friend, Miss Bennet. And . . . dare I say . . . you would never be the sort to presume too much."
Miss Bennet looked at him, and gleaning the humor in his eyes, she laughed. "A joke from Mr. Darcy! Shall the wonders of this day never cease?"
He stared at her and thought to himself that the day had been perfect indeed, sprained ankle and all. Though he had fought his burgeoning feelings, he had now realized that all the money in England could not make him feel as warm inside as one smile from Miss Bennet. And if she had decided she could call him her friend, then perhaps there was hope that he might one day be able to court her with her approval and then, God willing, make her his wife.
It had started snowing at the beginning of their sleigh ride, and Miss Bennet tilted her head back, letting the snowflakes fall onto her face. As Darcy watched her, his heart swelling with some indefinable emotion, she told him, her eyes closed, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Darcy."
He whispered back: "Merry Christmas, Miss Bennet."