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While exploring the countryside near Rosings Park, Elizabeth witnesses an unfortunate accident, the likes of which will complicate her life in more ways that she could have ever imagined. She finds herself changing her opinion of the last man on earth she could ever be prevailed upon to marry while his family presumes she is engaged to another. A Pride and Prejudice twist inspired by While You Were Sleeping.

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Chapter 1

Elizabeth Bennet walked along a wooded path, enjoying the robin’s song wafting towards her on the gentle breeze. Though she could not say as much for the company, she freely admitted that the country environs of Rosings Park seemed perfection itself in the height of spring’s lush bloom. A flash of color caught her eye, and she turned to see a gentleman galloping across the fields, his horse jumping fences and hedgerows with graceful and fluid movements. She admired the gentleman’s posture, eagerly urging his mount to the next hurdle, the tails of his coat billowing behind his swift steed. A sense of dread overwhelmed her as the horse awkwardly lost the rhythm of its stride just yards before a fallen tree. She cringed as she saw the horse halt abruptly, sending its rider flying helplessly over its head, crashing and tumbling into the turf beyond the fallen tree. Frantically she searched the horizon for another rider, hoping the unfortunate man had been accompanied by someone who might offer assistance. Seeing no one approach, her concern only intensified. Elizabeth took the only course of action she could conceive at that moment and hurried down the hill. Running heedlessly towards the vicinity of the gentleman’s fall, she did not slow her pace until she neared the fallen tree, wary of looking over its edge for fear of his present state.

When the gentleman’s figure came into view, she found him face down, sprawled across the grass.

“Sir?” she inquired hesitantly. “Sir, are you seriously harmed?” she petitioned more forcefully.

“Sir?” she inquired uncertainly, “Sir, are you seriously harmed?” she petitioned more forcefully.

Still gaining no response, she hesitantly approached his prone figure, thankful that she could discern a steady rise and fall of his back, indicating that he still took breath. Taking another helpless glance about her, she reached down and gently pressed the man’s shoulder, calling softly for him to respond. Firmer attempts and louder calls did not increase her success at rousing him, and as her concern began to grow frantic, she lifted his arm, gently rolling him onto his back. She gasped as she observed the deep gash over his left eye, her wonder over its cause soon overcome by the realization that the bleeding must be stopped. Knowing her handkerchief would be pathetically inadequate, and not daring to remove anything from the gentleman’s person, she hastily removed her wrap, rashly tearing at the lightweight material, drawing long strips of cotton fabric to apply pressure to his forehead. He moaned lowly and turned his head as she applied greater pressure, and she resisted the urge to jump back as his hands and arms flicked occasionally at his sides. Suddenly his eyes fluttered open, hazy with disorientation. He hoarsely attempted to speak, drawing Elizabeth’s attention.

“Please sir, you have had a terrible fall, and have gained quite a large gash over your eye. Forgive me the presumption, but I bid you lie still while I bind this as best I can.”

Elizabeth was not sure how much time had passed, but at length she was grateful to recognize the resounding hoofbeats of several approaching horses mingled with male voices. She turned to see three men arriving on horseback, two gentlemen, one slightly taller and the other slightly fairer than the other, accompanied by a manservant. Her relief at gaining assistance was immediately overshadowed by the shock of finding the taller gentleman all too familiar.

“Richard!”

“Miss Bennet!”

“Mr. Darcy!”

Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth stood staring at each other, equally shocked at facing one another as with the circumstances of the injured party. The fairer gentleman, feeling no such confusion regarding the country lass unbeknownst to him, rushed to the fallen man’s side.

“For heaven’s sake, what has happened?” he demanded impatiently.

The sharp address snapped Elizabeth out of her stupor and turned her attention back to the unconscious man. “I was walking along that ridge there,” she said, pointing to the place where not half an hour previous she had stood in pleasant reflection, “when I saw the gentleman riding across the field. His horse balked when he attempted to jump that fallen tree,” she gestured towards the offending wooden mass, “and he took a rather terrible fall. I knew not what to do but attempt to assist him.”

“Where is your escort? Did you not send your servant for help?” Mr. Darcy inquired anxiously.

“I was walking alone, sir. I had no one to send for assistance.”

“Nevermind that,” the other gentleman interjected, “We need to get my brother to the house.”

Elizabeth stood aside as the two eased the injured party onto the fairer gentleman’s horse – said gentleman walking alongside as they moved towards Rosings as quickly as his brother’s precariously slumped position in the saddle would allow.

“Miss Bennet, take my horse,” Mr. Darcy said forcefully, his concern leaving him to speak more in a tone of command than request.

Elizabeth had scarcely begun to voice her objection when Mr. Darcy reached to lift her into the saddle, hesitating briefly to see that she gained her balance. He then positioned himself beside the other horse such that he could hold the reins of his mount with one hand, and offer support to the injured gentleman with the other.

During the short trip to the manor house, Mr. Darcy spoke but little, his agitation clear as he belatedly revealed the other two gentlemen to be his cousins, James Fitzwillam the Viscount Cressbrook, and Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, sons of the Earl of Matlock.

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Quite a commotion was stirred as the party returned to Rosings, the Viscount impatiently rushing Mr. Darcy to his side that they might carry his brother into the house, all the while shouting orders to the nearby staff for the doctor and an express rider to fetch his own doctor from London.

“Are those my nephews?” bellowed Lady Catherine, “I demand to know the meaning of this!”

“Richard has been injured, Aunt. I bid you delay your questions until his condition as been ascertained,” called the Viscount as he maintained a hold on his younger brother, allowing a pair of footmen to assist in carrying him above stairs.

This was enough to send Lady Catherine barking orders at her staff, calling for the doctor and many other things already requested or being prepared. When Darcy moved to follow up the stairs, however, his aunt immediately turned to detain him.

“Darcy, I insist on being told what has happened to my nephew. I am sure some great negligence has been practiced, as I am excessively attentive as to prevent such occurrences. You young gentlemen are always gallivanting across the country in so reckless a manner. I have told my nephew that Prussian beast he rides –”

“Andalusians hail from Spain, Aunt.”

Mr. Darcy’s interjection was met with a brief narrowing of the eyes, a far lesser punishment than would be given a correction from any but the gentleman she intended to see marry her daughter.

“I have informed Richard several times that such a mount is entirely unsuitable. The stables of Rosings house sufficient mounts, descended from the superior breeding stock established by Sir Lewis de Bourgh, and he would do well to select an appropriate mount from among them – as shall you, nephew. No horse from my stables would conduct itself in so infamous a manner.”

It was for no short length of time that this monologue from Lady Catherine continued, heedless of the fact that any response from her nephew detailing the accident would only come following the cessation of her own speech. Such silence did not come from her for such reasonable motives however, as she was only silenced when she haltingly became aware of the young lady standing aside in the foyer.

“Miss Bennet, it is highly improper for you to stand so without making your presence known. It behooves you that you have taken my advice and desire to avail yourself of my hospitality that you may improve your skills at the pianoforte, but you must realize this is a most inopportune time for such endeavors.”

“Aunt,” Mr. Darcy interjected with no small amount of frustration, “Miss Bennet’s presence this morning could perhaps be termed a gift of providence.”

Mr. Darcy braced himself for impact, expecting a rather coarse demand for explanation from his Aunt, and the Lady herself was not one to disappoint.

“Fitzwilliam was thrown from his horse while riding, aunt. I assumed from your previous statement that you had already gathered as much.”

“Yes, yes. But of what consequence could Miss Bennet be to the present circumstances? It is so terribly clumsy and foolish to fall from a horse. There was some great negligence in Richard’s riding instruction, I am sure of it. I am thoroughly knowledgeable of the best riding masters and if only Anne’s health had allowed, perhaps my nephews would have benefited from taking their instructions alongside her.”

“The circumstance was unexpected, aunt. Even the best horsemen could fall in such a way.”

“You still have not answered my query nor explained in what ill-conceived manner this situation involves Miss Bennet,” Lady Catherine demanded impatiently.

If I were afforded a moment of clarity between demands, perhaps I would have, Mr. Darcy thought irritatedly as he replied, “She witnessed his fall.”

Lady Catherine turned narrowed eyes in the direction of Miss Elizabeth, who, being anything but impervious to the meaning of the Lady’s expression, steadied her voice as she clarified, “His horse balked as he attempted to jump a fallen tree, and he was thrown from the saddle.”

“And who was your escort, Miss Bennet?” though stated in form of a question, no pause was allowed for response from the young lady, “He must have brought the incident to the attention of my nephews. Tell him to present himself to me and I shall reward him appropriately.”

“I walked alone, your Ladyship.”

“Alone? Miss Bennet, that is highly improper.”

Mr. Darcy cleared his throat to interject, “Under the circumstances, I cannot think Miss Bennet’s actions to be anything but advantageous, her lack of escort notwithstanding.”

“Hmph,” Lady Catherine turned away, disgruntled by her nephew’s lack of complaisance and replied, “Young ladies are never of so much consequence to gentlemen in such predicaments.”

“She used her shawl to bind his wounds.”

Lady Catherine gasped, visibly affronted at the notion of such a display. Recovering herself, she declared imperiously, “Yes, I suppose in so provincial an upbringing, such nursing skills are quite inherent. Miss Bennet must be present to answer any questions that the apothecary may have. Darcy, you will escort her to the green sitting room until her presence is required.”

With that, Lady Catherine strode off, demanding of the nearest footman to know when the doctor was to arrive and sending another to ensure that sufficient supplies were brought up to the sickroom, heedless of the similar demands made not five minutes prior.

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The doctor arrived soon after Colonel Fitzwilliam was settled into his room, and after ascertaining that his patient was in no immediate danger and re-bandaging his wounds, he sought out the party waiting in a nearby sitting room.

“Mr. Joseph,” Viscount Cressbrook greeted as he rose to meet the doctor of Lady Catherine’s regular employ. “I thank you for coming with such haste. How fares my brother?”

“He is unconscious, which is not unusual for such a head injury, though his breathing and pulse are strong. Unfortunately there is little means of predicting the length of time that shall pass before he awakens, though any information I could be given about the patient’s state since the accident would be helpful. I understand he was thrown from his horse?”

At this inquiry, all eyes turned to Miss Bennet.

“The horse balked, and he was thrown over the fallen log it refused to jump.” the lady offered.

“And has he regained consciousness for any length of time since the accident?”

“A little, sir. He…he did make a hoarse attempt to speak a bit before I attempted to bind his wound.”

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The Viscount then went to send an urgent summons to his parents, the Earl and Countess of Matlock, who were currently residing in London. He had been hesitant to send a rider off with a vague note, but now that the few specifics of his brother’s condition they had been able to extract seemed to be the total of the information that was forthcoming for some time, he could delay the task no longer. He did not hesitate to include that their younger son was currently under the care of Lady Catherine’s personal physician, a less than subtle suggestion that their own family doctor would be a valuable addition to their traveling party.

Left in the company of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Joseph, Elizabeth began to feel the discomfort of her intrusion into so intimate a family scene, despite her lack of culpability for it, and suggested it would be best for her to return to the parsonage.

“Miss Bennet, allow me to escort you,” Mr. Darcy replied distractedly, more out of duty than inclination.

Though she may not have credited his stiffness to an endeavor at restraining his concern – rather considering it nothing beyond his typical deportment – he did not keep his anxious glance towards his cousin’s door from her notice. “That will not be necessary, sir. It is but a short walk to the parsonage, and I am sure your presence is better served here.”

Elizabeth stifled a smirk as another anxious glance was thrown over his shoulder towards the door to the sick room, and instead added before he could speak.

“I shall detain you no longer, sir. I wish your cousin a healthful recovery, and he shall remain in my prayers, but I believe Mrs. Collins shall be quite concerned about my own well-being if I do not return in time for tea.”

With a short curtsey to the gentleman, Elizabeth left the room before he could offer further protestations, offering a polite nod in acknowledgement to the doctor as her skirts swished through the doorway.



Chapter 2

Having received their son’s express after darkness had fallen over London, the Earl and his wife, in company with their family doctor, Dr. Grant, departed from town as the first faint glow of predawn light made travel permissible. Upon their arrival at Rosings Park, the housekeeper anticipated them in the foyer. She acknowledged their presence with a subtle nod towards their solemn faces and was not surprised as the sound of their footsteps followed her immediately towards the staircase without pause to allow the waiting footmen to remove their coats. The sickroom was soon reached and Mrs. Jacobs opened the door for the newly arrived guests, curtseying as they passed through the doorway. She quietly informed Dr. Grant as he passed that the nearby maid and footman were at his disposal should anything be required. Closing the door behind them, the housekeeper moved quickly down the hallway to ensure that every comfort had been prepared for her mistress’ road-weary guests.

Mr. Collins had insisted that a contingent from the parsonage arrive shortly after breakfast to console and support, as befitting his position as a clergyman, and indeed as he felt anyone should conduct themselves towards so noble a personage who had provided such condescension upon their humble persons. Once admitted to Lady Catherine’s drawing room, Mr. Collins, it seemed, was perfectly content to remain where he was, and offered his particular services to his patroness. It was Mrs. Collins, however, who had the sense of mind to inquire after the Colonel and his newly arrived family and offered to provide whatever comforts and assistance they might require. Lady Catherine gave her approval and offered to escort them above stairs – provided of course, that Anne remain and not expose herself to the certain risks inherent to a sick chamber. This scheme came as quite a relief to Miss Elizabeth, anxious as she was for any news she might hear of the injured party more sensible and relevant than Lady Catherine’s monologues on the previous injuries of the inhabitants of Rosings Park.

Upon reaching the sitting area adjacent to the sick room, Lady Catherine provided the necessary introductions and inquired of Mr. Joseph after the current state of the patient. She received her doctor’s information imperiously, giving the impression that it was not indeed vastly similar to the report she had gained not an hour before, and that the Matlocks’ own doctor was not in fact conducting his own examination at that very moment. Some moments were devoted to Lady Catherine’s pontifications that any doctor aside from her own Mr. Joseph should not be necessary, which Lord Matlock dismissed with the finesse of a man well used to handling his sister’s eccentricities. Lady Catherine was particularly grieved however, to find that the specific nurse she had recommended had yet to arrive, and with a disgruntled huff, announced her intent to see to the matter personally. Charlotte Collins was fairly confident that Mrs. Larson’s absence was due to her primary role as a midwife and the coinciding knowledge that Mrs. Hamilton had called for her services early the previous evening. However she also had a great deal of confidence that such information would be little appreciated by her Ladyship, and therefore resolved to keep such assurances to herself. That she was also fairly certain Lady Catherine’s personal attention to the matter translated into the butler being commissioned to perform the task without delay, she knew was neither here nor there in relevance to the situation at hand, and she nodded politely as her husband followed his patroness out the door.

So it was that Mrs. Collins and Miss Bennet remained and discreetly took upon themselves the tasks of ordering refreshments and seeing to whatever general comforts they might be able to provide. Whether their continued presence was due to Mr. Collins’ insight or Miss Bennet’s first-hand knowledge of the accident was left for each party to determine.

Soon after, Dr. Grant emerged and explained that in essentials, his diagnosis of the Colonel’s present state did not vary greatly from that which the family already knew. The Earl motioned gravely to his elder son and nephew, requesting they join himself and the doctor for a private conference in the library. He gave no verbal explanation as he rose, though the gentlemen knew he would wish to be thoroughly appraised of the details of his son’s accident and his prospects for recovery, not withholding any details that ought not to be repeated before the ladies.

“Miss Bennet, you must allow me to thank you most sincerely for your assistance to my son,” Lady Matlock said earnestly as the gentlemen left the room. “James told us briefly of your assistance. I understand Richard was thrown from his horse and you came to his aid?”

“Yes ma’am,” Elizabeth replied cautiously, “I knew not what to do but offer him any assistance I could. We…we were very fortunate that Viscount Cressbrook and Mr. Darcy arrived so quickly.”

“Of course, my dear,” agreed Lady Matlock, pausing to maintain her composure before inquiring further of what details the young lady before her could relate.

The ladies continued to speak as pleasantly as they were able under the present circumstances, when Lady Matlock asked Mrs. Collins if she would be so kind as to relay a brief message to her relations below stairs. She apologized for the unusual nature of her request, but Charlotte placatingly offered her understanding, and could not fault the Lady for wishing to remain near her son.

When the two ladies were alone, Elizabeth did her best to provide comfort to Lady Matlock, as she recognized the unfortunate truth that sensible counsel was unlikely to be found amongst the female residents of Rosings Park. She did not realize that this proffered degree of intimacy would wreak quite a drastic change upon the circumstances of her presence in the great house.

“Oh, Elizabeth…I hope you do not mind if I address you so informally…I must tell you again how grateful I am that you were present so quickly after Richard’s accident, and you need not feel you are to blame in any way. You could not have known he would ride so recklessly.” In her distress, Lady Matlock did not observe the confusion passing over her companion as she spoke.

“Richard told me, you know, that he had met a young lady in London recently. He was quite insistent upon journeying to Rosings this spring knowing that so dear an acquaintance would be nearby.”

“You need not tell me…I know I should not speak of this, but Richard told me…” though her confusion had heightened considerably, such that it might be most recognizable as alarm, Elizabeth could not but reach out and place her hand over Lady Matlock’s as the Lady’s voice broke.

At last feeling herself in control of her emotions, Lady Matlock smiled lightly at the young lady holding her hand and said, “I am so very glad he found you!”



At last feeling herself in control of her emotions, Lady Matlock smiled lightly at the young lady holding her hand and said, “I am so very glad he found you!”



Chapter 3

Not more than an hour later, Mrs. Collins and Miss Elizabeth walked in the direction of the parsonage, possessing neither the desire nor the fortitude to await Mr. Collins.

“It was good of you to accompany me above stairs, Lizzy,” Charlotte began.

Miss Elizabeth nodded briefly in acknowledgement.

“Your presence seemed a great comfort to Lady Matlock, though I must say your countenance had taken quite a turn when I returned to you.”

“Oh Charlotte, you will scarce believe me when I speak of it to you, but I beg you would save this conversation until we can be assured of our privacy.”

“Certainly, Lizzy. My husband is not likely to return to the house before dinner, let us go into my parlor for tea. Once I have given Mrs. Hitchens some directions for the evening meal she shall not have reason to disturb us.”

Upon reaching the house, Mrs. Collins spoke briefly to her housekeeper and after gathering a tea tray from the kitchens, entered the sitting room where Miss Elizabeth had been waiting for her. Encouraging her friend to be seated, she poured a cup of tea for each of them as she spoke.

“Now tell me Lizzy, what has occurred to distress you so?”

“It is simply a mistaken impression that I must correct as soon as may be. At the time I thought it odd that Lady Matlock requested you personally communicate her message to Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, for I had no idea that she would be desirous of a private audience.”

Miss Elizabeth proceeded to relate the details of the conversation that had led to her present situation.

“It was so frustrating Charlotte! After hearing such a declaration, I could not allow the conversation to continue without rectifying the situation, but with each attempt to correct her, her Ladyship assumed that I was merely reluctant to speak of such things without a formal arrangement or that I was distressed over the Colonel’s present state. I was reluctant to speak frankly in the face of the Lady’s own distress, and with the reentrance of the Earl and the doctor, the subject had to be dropped before I could tactfully correct her mistaken impression.”

“That explains the whispered conversation I observed between them,” Charlotte said almost under her breath.

Elizabeth turned an inquisitive gaze upon her friend, fearful that her situation was about to endure a further complication.

“Oh t’was nothing at first sight; I should have mentioned it sooner otherwise. As we spoke to Mr. Collins before taking our leave, I observed that the Earl and his wife retreated across the room for a private conversation. I thought perhaps Lady Matlock wished to speak of some detail of your involvement yesterday that had yet to be related to the Earl, as they both looked at you a great deal as they spoke. There was an odd expression passed between the two, which I now interpret quite differently in light of your information.”

“That will certainly make things more interesting when I tell them the truth, as now I shall have to request the presence of two persons for the interview.”

Mrs. Collins considered her friend carefully as she replied, “Lizzy, I wonder if such an interview ought to be attempted.”

“Charlotte! I can hardly allow such a falsehood to be taken as truth!” Elizabeth cried, taken aback by the suggestion.

“But consider, Lizzy, surely they will be reluctant to spread this mistaken intelligence under the present circumstances. All of this can be addressed when, God willing, the Colonel awakens, at which time their primary occupation will be the happy circumstance of their son’s recovery.

“I saw the look she gave you Elizabeth,” Charlotte added earnestly, “I think she will benefit from your support during this time of uncertainty.”

“I know,” Elizabeth acknowledged softly, “she beheld me so earnestly, and then the gentlemen rejoined us, and I simply could not tell her.”

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The next morning Elizabeth set out for a walk, determined to escape the house before her cousin demanded her presence at Rosings Park, that she might attempt to order her thoughts before facing the inhabitants of that great estate. She was surprised to be drawn from her reverie by the approach of a gentleman she had not expected to encounter outside of the walls of Rosings.

“I did not expect, sir, to find you walking this morning.”

“I have been making the tour of the Park," he replied, "as I generally do whenever I happen to visit Rosings. I admit I did not expect to do so this morning any more than you might have supposed, though my father concurred with Dr Grant’s insistence that no amount of pacing in the hall shall speed my brother’s recovery, nor is it conducive to the quiet environment they are attempting to maintain.”

“And so you find yourself relegated to the groves and shrubberies, and the company of whatever young ladies might happen to pass by?”

A slight smile crossed his face, “Yes, I believe I do, though I would not have you think I do not appreciate your company. It is beneficial in cases such as these to escape the somber miens at Rosings for more spirited company.”

Elizabeth returned his smile appreciatively before he continued, “I believe in time you may have a similar effect on my mother. Her spirits were improved after the time she spent in your company.”

At this, Elizabeth’s face fell, disheartened by the misconception which had falsely raised the Lady’s spirits. She turned an uneasy gaze upon her gloved fingers as she spoke, “I think it is best I apprise you of a misunderstanding that arose between Lady Matlock and I when we met yesterday.”

“Come Miss Bennet, I realize she may not be at her most agreeable at present, but surely you can understand my mother is going through a rather trying time…”

“No! Forgive me, sir, I meant no slight. Lady Matlock has been all that is kind and amiable, despite the present difficulties. It is simply that she formed a mistaken impression of me, and the fault is now my own for not finding the means to correct her.”

“I do not understand; what could have been misunderstood that would distress you so?”

“She believes your brother and I to be engaged.”

“Engaged? To be married?!” he cried.

Calming himself, the Viscount added, “You must pardon my ungentlemanlike outburst – I am only at a loss to understand how such an assumption could be made.”

“Apparently your brother had written to the Countess of a young lady he had met in London…a young lady he had hopes of meeting again in the spring…in Kent,” Elizabeth answered uncomfortably. “It seems my presence so near his accident has led to the assumption that the lady in question was me.”

The Viscount remained silent for a moment, staring intently at the horizon in a manner Elizabeth found not dissimilar to another gentleman of her acquaintance. She was surprised to find reflections of Mr. Darcy’s stoic behavior in the gentleman she had assumed would be relatively amiable under different circumstances.

“Perhaps it is best that my mother not be corrected,” he stated firmly, not bothering to shift his gaze to his companion.

“But, sir! That is hardly fair to the Colonel, nor to the lady he truly cares for.”

“If I know my brother, it is more likely that any preference on his part was exaggerated, either in his explanation to my mother or her interpretation of it. He will soon be one and thirty, and my mother has long been desirous of seeing him well settled. It has not been uncommon for him to hint at a future attachment with a suitable young lady in order to appease our mother.”

“If that is truly the case, then at least I may need not be concerned for the lady’s feelings, but that still does not solve the primary issue at hand.”

“Miss Bennet, surely you see the advantage to yourself that will arise from this situation. My brother may be a second son, but he is the son of an earl, a very eligible match for you. I realize our acquaintance is a very short one, but I believe my brother could be quite happy with you, and it would be best for all parties to consider this an act of providence.”

Viscount Cressbrook imparted his speech quite passionately, equal parts convinced of the material advantages that should oblige Miss Bennet to accept the match and true conviction that his brother deserved a felicity in marriage unlikely to be found in an arrangement such as his own. His wife was in every way what was considered to be an appropriate match, rich in connections by noble birth as the granddaughter of a duke and by her dowry of twenty five thousand pounds, and lacking in compassion and affection. If the Earl could be swayed by the precarious situation of his younger son’s injuries and the tacit approval of his wife, such circumstances could only play to his advantage.

While not oblivious to the Viscount’s impassioned defense of his position, Miss Elizabeth was no more convinced of its soundness, her skeptical expression encouraging him to continue.

“Perhaps you shall at least agree to wait until the situation of my brother’s state of health is not so dire before this subject is broached. I truly believe you and my brother to be well-suited, and I would advise you to at least further the acquaintance before rejecting him out of hand. If after some reasonable length of time your objections remain, I shall speak to my family of their mistaken assumptions.”

And if by this my brother’s charm can persuade you to change your mind, then all the better. Mother does deserve to see at least one of her sons happily married.

Glancing down at his companion, the Viscount was drawn from his reverie by her expression. “Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I see I have distressed you with my persistence, a rather fallible trait amongst the Fitzwilliams, I am afraid. Allow me to escort you back to the parsonage.”

“It is quite alright, sir. I merely require time to order my thoughts, I confess my mind to be troubled by the present circumstances, but I am perfectly capable of returning safely.”

“Very well, though unless you intend to venture further into the park, I insist that you allow me to attend you at least to the point where the path to the parsonage breaks from that to Rosings.”

No sooner had Elizabeth reached the parsonage gate than her cousin could be seen moving rapidly in her direction.

“Cousin Elizabeth! Thank goodness you have returned in time. We have been invited to take tea at Rosings this afternoon, and I am certain I need not relate to you the importance of accepting that which is always an honor of the highest order, but can also, in the particular instance, be termed as the expressed desire for conciliation and support during this most difficult time. I must impress upon you the importance that we arrive promptly, as the hour is hard upon our heels. Make haste, dear cousin, make haste!”



Chapter 4

The scene at Rosings was much as it had been the two days previous, and Miss Elizabeth immediately felt a pull of remorse over her reluctance to attend when she observed the strained countenances of the Fitzwilliams, and the slight smile that came across Lady Matlock’s face when her eyes met Elizabeth’s. More disturbing, however, was when Elizabeth observed Lady Catherine paying her equal attention, a circumstance which was neither precedented nor expected, and could not be interpreted as anything but foreboding.

“Miss Bennet, I understand you are to remain several weeks at the parsonage before your return to London.”

Elizabeth’s reply died in her throat as Lady Catherine began to speak again without troubling herself to hear the young lady’s response.

"And you wish to be of assistance, I am sure, during these trying times, in those ways which you are able.”

“Indeed, she would, your Ladyship,” Mr. Collins interjected subserviently, “Since your honorable nephew’s most unfortunate accident, I have advised my young cousin on those ways in which we ought be of assistance to the noble family which has provided such condescension upon my humble person so willingly, particularly as that condescension has so graciously been bestowed upon herself by extension.”

Miss Elizabeth fought to keep her countenance as she began to ponder the fact that her monosyllabic reply could not be accommodated, yet her cousin’s ridiculous soliloquy went uninterrupted. Perhaps she ought practice her fawning if she desired to be heard, as comments seemed to be received on the basis of their servility rather than their pertinence to the conversation. She politely returned her attention to her hostess, however, as Lady Catherine addressed her anew.

“I have always known the most appropriate entertainments to be provided for those persons confined, and would direct Anne appropriately, if her health allowed for her presence in the sickroom. You, Miss Bennet, seem a stout and healthy sort of girl, and your voice seems tolerably pleasant for reading, though your diction would undoubtedly improve with practice. If you promise to remain and assist in my nephew’s care for a month complete, I shall see to it that you are established in the guest wing of Rosings. You will be in nobody's way in that part of the house, and it would be most inconvenient if you happened to be at the parsonage at such a time as you could be of use. If your presence is required beyond that length of time, I shall see you as far as London in the barouche box. I am most attentive to all these things, and shall reward your Christian charity appropriately.”

An air of silence swept across the room as Lady Catherine completed her remark – at least it felt as such to Elizabeth, who felt anything but equal to an appropriately civil response to such an officiously communicated request. Her disbelief was soon interrupted as Mr. Collins began to extol the great thoughtfulness and compassion of Lady Catherine’s offer, as well as the eagerness with which it would so humbly be accepted by his young cousin.

“At my request, Mr. Jacobs collected an appropriate selection of tomes from the library this morning, Miss Bennet. Your reading shall begin with this,” Lady Catherine offered up a book with some distinction, which Mr. Collins did not hesitate to retrieve and ceremoniously transfer to his cousin, who needed but the slightest glance at its title to confirm her suspicions of the Lady’s rigid and monotonous literary tastes. “Upon its completion you may choose from the other titles you see here,” She motioned dismissively towards an overburdened table. “The best diction is given when you are familiar with the text. Be certain that you have read sufficiently ahead so that you will be prepared appropriately. You could not have had the opportunity to do so today, but it is most appropriate that you begin reading now and continue on until an hour before dinner, therefore I shall not entirely blame you for your present lack of preparation.”

“Perkins!” Lady Catherine called abruptly to the footman awaiting her near the entrance to the room – though whether her tone was unnecessarily shrill, and perhaps caused the nearest constituents of her unfortunate audience to wince, the great Lady termed herself resonant and was not to be contradicted on the matter.

Returning her attention to the young lady before her, Lady Catherine continued, “Miss Bennet, Perkins will see that the remaining volumes are placed appropriately for your convenience. I trust that you shall prepare yourself accordingly, and apply yourself to the certain strictures of your attendance as I relate them to you.”

Having accepted the book she was to begin reading aloud – immediately, Elizabeth received a dismissive nod from her hostess, and observing the summoned footman, book-laden and waiting at the ready, realized she had little recourse but to excuse herself from the company and begin the first of many appointments with the Colonel.

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As Elizabeth followed the footman into the sickroom, she began to understand that her presence there had been anticipated. The curtains on one side of the room had been partially drawn, allowing a gentle stream of natural light to fall upon a chair adjacent to the foot of the bed, which Elizabeth amused herself in imagining to be quite deliberately placed at what Lady Catherine would deem the only acceptable angle.

Nodding her acknowledgement and offering a small smile to the maid that entered the room and began to stoke the fire, Elizabeth made herself comfortable – as comfortable as could be in a chair which she discovered to have a surprisingly rigid back, all the better to enforce proper posture for reading aloud, she supposed – and cleared her throat in preparation to read. She opened the book, turning the first few pages until she reached the text, and with a good humor that some might classify as impertinent, began to read aloud. After she had read a few pages, however, she reflected that perhaps it was not so bad that her education had been rather self-guided, as she had an inkling many governesses insisted on such a text by form. She soon cleared her mind of such thoughts, and allowed herself to become absorbed in the printed pages before her and their melodic rhythm as she gave them voice. She was only vaguely aware of the maids who moved quietly about the room, seemingly ever-present, adjusting the curtains, changing wash basins, or placing hothouse flowers on a table beside the bed.

She could not but feel compassion for the gentleman who lay motionless aside from the steady rise and fall of his chest. Her thoughts turned to the many times she had attended her family and close friends in times of illness, and she determined that if it were in her power to bring some amount of cheer and assistance in this case, she would. Be it at Lady Catherine’s bidding or her own, she hoped the result to be a positive one all the same.

Her reflections were interrupted by Mrs. Jacobs who informed her that Mr. and Mrs. Collins had already departed, but a coach was arranged to return her back to the parsonage. As she was escorted downstairs, it was explained that the family party had retired to dress for dinner, so she need not concern herself about taking her leave of them this evening.



Chapter 5

Upon her return to the parsonage, Miss Elizabeth possessed enough familiarity with her cousin’s tendencies to expect very little reprieve from the absurdity of the day until she could escape to her rooms for the night. It was with very little surprise and a great deal of politely concealed dread that she observed his very person lying in wait to usher her from the equipage to the house. Thankfully Mrs. Collins appeared in the foyer as they entered, undoubtedly prepared to subtly intervene on behalf of her friend, as she was no less familiar with the direction her husband’s fancies should take him were they to go on unchecked.

“My dear, let us allow Elizabeth to retire upstairs before dinner. She may appreciate a few moments to refresh herself and we would not want to delay the meal.”

As expected, Mr. Collins immediately lapsed into parroting Lady Catherine’s most valuable advice regarding appropriate dress for dinner and the importance of maintaining a proper schedule for the meal, along with the inherent evils of disheveled guests and late dining.

During the meal Charlotte was so kind as to draw Maria into conversation, thus inhibiting her husband from inquiring after the smallest details of Elizabeth’s extended time at Rosings Park. After dinner Charlotte’s efforts proved to merely be a stay of execution, however, as upon their entrance into the parlor, Mr. Collins came to sit near his cousin, overtly attentive to her every response, no matter how vague and hesitant it might be. After a few minutes’ reflection, during which he appeared to be pondering the information analytically, Mr. Collins replied,

“It does you credit, my young cousin, that you should acquiesce to the wishes of so illustrious a person. As I am sure you are well aware, Lady Catherine is most knowledgeable regarding such matters as the honorable Colonel’s recovery, and how could she not be, given her rank and attentiveness! As it stands, should Lady Matlock find that your presence is in any way beneficial to her comfort, I must advise you to make yourself available to her in whatever manner she may wish. I flatter myself that I have rather refined the art of servitude appropriate for cases such as these, and shall advise you periodically as to how you might best make yourself agreeable to those persons of superior station.”

A rather tight smile was all Elizabeth could manage in response to this speech, and so Mr. Collins continued with his latest epiphany.

“Perhaps if you are quite lucky, Lady Matlock will desire to take you on as her companion. Imagine the society you should bear witness to in so privileged a situation!”

For Elizabeth, this conversation was of course quite vexing and equally distressing. No semblance of her composure was gathered sufficiently for her to speak without bursting forth with most natural though highly inappropriate responses. With a brief curtsey she excused herself, belatedly murmuring an excuse regarding her fatigue, and made her escape.

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The following morning at breakfast, Mr. Collins excitement had not waned in the slightest, and he addressed his cousin immediately upon her joining the family party.

“What a fine morning, is it not, cousin Elizabeth? How I neglected to inform you last evening, I cannot explain, though I trust her Ladyship has related that a carriage will be brought round to collect you within the hour. Do not trouble yourself over the packing of your trunks, Margaret has already been sent up to assist you, and Lady Catherine will undoubtedly be most attentive to your needs.”

So it was that before noon, Elizabeth found herself once again being of use in the sickroom while her trunk was transported to a room in the guest wing. Though the solitude of such arrangements could not go unnoticed, she admitted a location amongst the family apartments to be neither expected nor particularly desired, and at least she was not relegated to the same corner of the house as Mrs. Jenkinson.

Elizabeth allowed herself to once again become absorbed in the task of reading, all the while watching hopefully for any increased sign of movement from the gentleman bedridden beside her. She could not but observe the copious amounts of attention paid by several maids and footmen to a multitude of tasks, just as they had the afternoon prior, and wondered just how many persons had encountered head wounds at Rosings Park for Lady Catherine to be such an expert on the subject of recovery from unconsciousness. As she observed a maid coming to dab the Colonel’s brow with a cool damp cloth for the third time in no more than half an hour, she wordlessly stilled the young woman’s hand, and looked up to meet her startled gaze. Elizabeth smilingly assured her that she could very well complete so simple a task in her stead, as her presence would continue throughout the day whether or not she had been charged with a specific occupation, and she would prefer to be of some use rather than to sit idle.

It was not until she heard the gentleman clear his throat that she noticed Viscount Cressbrook leaning against the doorway, watching her with a peculiar expression as she returned the cloth to its tray and moved to resume her seat. He nonchalantly explained that the doctor was due to examine his brother shortly and he was eager to hear if she had any positive changes to report. When she hesitantly explained that she had not yet detected any of the movements such as flickering eyelids or fingertips that the doctor predicted would preclude his regaining consciousness, his peculiar expression finally faded into the impassive countenance she found so familiar.

Elizabeth dearly wished to tell the Viscount how the situation was getting out of hand. Allowing a false pretext to remain from a distance where she may not have had the opportunity to correct it was one thing, but being expected to live a lie within the bosom of their family was another matter indeed! There was very little she could say, however, with so many servants bustling in and out of the room at any moment.

Elizabeth turned again to Viscount Cressbrook as he watched his brother intently from his position at the foot of the bed. He moved suddenly, as though deliberately trying to break his fixation. He smiled weakly and uttered a short chuckle as he raised the book Elizabeth had placed on the side table not five minutes before.

“I see my aunt has been quite attentive to your choice of reading material,” he said, returning the book to its place as he continued, “It is unfortunate that she had selected a volume so infamous for inducing my brother into slumber even in the best of health.”

“I admit a preference for livelier selections in situations such as this, though that may very well be because I am usually charged with entertaining my sisters or my young cousins.”

“If you would care to change your reading material, I am familiar with my brother’s taste in literature, and we might hope that a few favorites can be found amongst my aunt’s collection.”

Elizabeth smiled as she replied, “I believe I would, sir. I would be glad to read something known to your brother for less nefarious reasons.”

“Very good,” the Viscount smiled back before raising her current book and adding conspiratorially, “I shall, however, leave you with the recommendation that you keep a tome such as this in a prominent position. I would not wish for you to endure my aunt’s ire, particularly over so trivial a source.”

“Do not worry, sir. For the sake of the Colonel’s entertainment, I will be sure not to leave evidence of my dissention.” Elizabeth smiled impishly, glad to see her companion in raised spirits for the first time in their acquaintance, no matter how short lived the sentiment might be. “I shall excuse myself to the library then, so that you may visit with Dr. Grant.”

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Elizabeth descended the staircase, grateful for the relative freedom of venturing towards the library on her own. She smiled to herself as she recalled her cousin’s loquacious descriptions of the many rooms of Rosings Park and the inherent advantages of their superior arrangement, struck by the ironic truth that the information would actually prove useful for locating the library.

Entering timidly, she was happy to find the library unoccupied and began to leisurely peruse the shelves, her eyes seeking out familiar titles as well as the particular objects of her search. She was just about to reach for a book when the soft creaking of oak and hinges alerted her to the entrance of another.

“Miss Bennet, I see you have found your way to the library.”

“Good day, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth curtsied.

The gentleman responded with a curt bow, and when no additional reply came, she added, “I was selecting another book to read aloud, as your aunt has advised such entertainment to be advantageous for the recovery of those confined to a sick room.”

“Indeed, in that we are in agreement. There are several medical journals that suggest continued stimulus is highly conducive to minimizing the lasting effects of a head wound.”

“Yes, my father’s library contains more than one such work. Though I confess through personal experience I have found reading those passages which are familiar to and favored by the indisposed party are particularly beneficial.”

“My cousin may not be an avid reader, but it would be no trouble for me to locate a few titles he would enjoy.”

“I thank you for the offer,” Elizabeth replied as she plucked a book from the shelf, which Mr. Darcy could not help but notice would have been one of his first choices, had he been permitted to make the selection, “I have found the book I was seeking.”

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Though she had not argued with her sister by marriage when Lady Catherine had quite officiously dictated that Miss Elizabeth should be installed at Rosings, Lady Matlock at least had the good sense to see to it that the young lady was well attended, and showed her appreciation by requesting that they take tea together. She expressed a preference for taking their tea in the Colonel’s room, for though it was an unorthodox location, being near him would be a comfort to her as his mother.

So it was that before Elizabeth had been afforded much chance to decide how to address the mistaken impression she had made upon Lady Matlock, she found herself ensconced in the sitting room and taking tea with the Lady herself.

Though Lady Matlock’s agitation due to the present circumstances was only thinly veiled by her attempts at composure, it did not reduce her efforts at making herself agreeable to the young lady before her, an action which Miss Elizabeth could not but reciprocate with compassion.

“Miss Bennet, it is so kind of you to come and assist my son.”

“It is the least I can do, your Ladyship, I only hope my efforts will be as effective as Lady Catherine anticipates them to be.”

The ladies smiled in tacit agreement that Lady Catherine could not be matched in determination, though whether or not her methods were actually effective was left to be seen.

“I am afraid both of my sons are determined to put me through such trials at their bedsides at some point in their adult life.”

Elizabeth nodded understandingly.

“Unfortunately it is not only my Richard whose enthusiasm can lead to trouble. Though James’s circumstances were not nearly so serious, he did give us some days of concern a few years ago, at the hands of that driving club of his, no less. He paid his due punishment, however, when the doctor ordered two weeks bed rest to ensure he would suffer no residual injuries. I believe the time would have passed more amiably for him, if only…”

Lady Matlock paused to refill her teacup, stirring thoughtfully before she continued.

“Little James, my grandson, was but a swaddling infant at the time, hardly capable of the pleasant diversion he can give his father now. And as to Lady Cressbrook,” Lady Matlock paused and looked affectionately upon her young companion with a knowing smile, “not all men are blessed with such a compassionate woman to stay by their side.”

Not knowing how to respond to the last, Miss Elizabeth instead inquired further about the Lady’s young grandson. The conversation turned pleasantly to four year old James, who according to his grandmother was quite the strapping young lad and rather adored his father. Tales of his escapades and scrapes it seemed were not dissimilar from those of the Viscount and Colonel in their younger days, and soon the Lady’s conversation centered on her young Richard. Whether this was out a misguided consideration for Elizabeth’s preference or her desire to think of her son in happier than his present circumstances was debatable, though Elizabeth chose to believe the latter for her own peace of mind.

Such effort was made fruitless, however, by her Ladyship’s next inquiry.

“Elizabeth… I hope you do not mind if I address you as such, my dear?” Elizabeth indicated that she should not mind in the least. “Splendid, and I hope I shall be Lady Cassandra to you. Will you tell me how you met Richard?”

Miss Elizabeth smiled weakly as her mind fumbled and raced to find a suitable response that was not a direct untruth. Thankfully Lady Matlock took this pause as a means to continue. “I can well imagine him riding up through Hyde Park on that dashing horse of his, and we all know him to be more than genial enough to effect a pleasant introduction.”

“Well,” Elizabeth began cautiously, “when I first saw him, he was indeed riding his horse…I could not but admire the beautiful animal, and the gentleman’s skillful seat. I had not known it at the time, but I realize now that from that moment, my life would never be the same.”

Lady Matlock squeezed Elizabeth’s hand affectionately, but was kept from any verbal response by the entrance of Mr. Darcy and Lord Matlock. Feeling rather discomposed from having made such an intentionally misleading statement to Lady Matlock, Elizabeth made her excuses to return to the Colonel and Lady Catherine’s literary dictates for an hour before retiring to dress for dinner.

Elizabeth descended the stairs in her more formal dinner attire and joined the party gathered in the drawing room awaiting an announcement that the evening meal was ready to commence. Though she had dined at Rosings Park on one previous occasion, she did feel a certain awkwardness at joining a more intimate family party. Such feelings were universally pushed aside, however, as she found herself not seated in a similar manner to previous experience there, but relegated to the chair beside Mrs. Jenkinson. Though the others around the table attempted to include her in their discourse, the majority of conversation was made by Lady Catherine, whose interest in Miss Elizabeth was primarily limited to her adherence to the instructions she had been given regarding her conduct in the sick room. It seemed her personal concerns, once a great subject of concern when Lady Catherine discovered her five sisters to be out and having grown up quite without a governess, were now equally insignificant as those of Miss de Bourgh’s companion.

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Elizabeth arose quite early the following morning, which caused her no consternation whatsoever, and rather instilled a hope that she might find a quick breakfast and escape what would surely be a repeat performance of last evening’s condescension if she were to break her fast with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Expecting the room to be occupied by no more than a few of the kitchen staff delivering pastries and such, she was surprised to find Viscount Cressbrook and Mr. Darcy already seated and enjoying a leisurely breakfast over coffee and newspapers.

Both gentlemen greeted her with civility, albeit one more cordially and the other more curtly. The Viscount saw that the young lady was served her choice foods and settled with a cup of tea before excusing himself, undoubtedly anxious to look in upon his brother.

Elizabeth enjoyed her breakfast with nothing more than the occasional rustle of a newspaper page for company. She was rather surprised, then, when as she rose from the table, the newspaper was folded down, and Mr. Darcy spoke his third and fourth words of the morning.

“Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth turned towards him, keeping her expression as innocent and polite as her wit would allow.

“I was about to take some morning exercise, as is my usual habit, and as I know you are fond of walking, Miss Bennet, I thought you might accompany me.”

“Indeed, sir. I happened to be moving in this direction with a similar intent.”

Mr. Darcy escorted Miss Elizabeth through the pleasure gardens, seeming perfectly content with allowing the lady beside him to observe the flora while keeping his own gaze fixed upon the distant expanse of Rosing’s grounds. At first satisfied to enjoy the fresh air despite her taciturn companion, Elizabeth amused herself with the thought that perhaps she should not have been specific to the ballroom when suggesting the oddity of spending a half-hour of each other’s company in silence.

“Aha,” Elizabeth said softly, pausing to pick a vibrant bloom from a nearby planter before continuing on her way.

Mr. Darcy turned inquisitively at her outburst, but her only response was to meet his eye with a challenging gaze of her own. She could not hide her amusement at his obstinate refusal to break the silence between them, and at length he gestured towards the flower whose stem was being twirled between her fingers.

Elizabeth smiled to herself, not a little proud that in some small way he had ceded the point that her own stubbornness could stand equal to his. “It would seem this is the source of some of the flowers so carefully placed in the Colonel’s sickroom.”

“Yes, you will find my aunt to be… quite particular in the placement of such things.”

“I gathered as much when a third servant entered to make some adjustment before I had read but a page.”

Mr. Darcy’s brow furrowed slightly at this, though whether in consternation over his aunt’s officiousness or distaste for Elizabeth’s audacity to not only be present in Kent, but now housed at Rosings – and speaking so of his Aunt no less – was for one to know and the other mistake.

“I hope you do not find the circumstance uncomfortable.”

“Not at all; were I not accustomed to the bustling presence of others, I should never be able to concentrate on anything at Longbourn.”

An extended silence was his only response, aside from the continued rhythmic crunching of gravel beneath his boots, and Elizabeth was surprised to see him dart his eyes down towards them when she turned to look at him.

“I thank you for your company, sir,” she said as they reached the end of their current path, “I believe it will soon be time that I am wanted in the house.”

“Allow me to escort you, Miss Bennet.”

Though she expected that they might part ways at the stairs, Mr. Darcy gave every appearance of intending to escort her to her destination, and his actions soon proved such to be the case as he opened the door to the sickroom, revealing a small bevy of servants bustling about the room, adjusting bed linens, delivering wash basins and he knew not what else. Elizabeth retrieved her book from the side table and moved towards her chair.

“My throne awaits,” she remarked lightly.

“It is a rather interesting chair,” Mr. Darcy replied, running his hand over the tall back and finding its large cushion remarkably firm.

“Indeed, though I suppose its… uprightness… must be thought beneficial to my posture.”

Mr. Darcy politely bid her a pleasant day and left the room, his opinion on the usefulness of that particularly oppressive piece of furniture not far from his mind.

That morning, Elizabeth diligently attended the Colonel with a combination of adherence to her Ladyship’s dictates and deviance to her own knowledge where Lady Catherine’s advice conflicted with common sense. In fact, it could be said that the remainder of the day passed without incident, with one exception. After luncheon, Elizabeth returned to the sickroom, only to find two footmen positioning a new chair beside the Colonel’s bed, her previous reading chair having been moved to a far wall. The upholstery of said new chair was clearly suited to the color scheme of some other room in the house, but after Elizabeth seated herself, her only care was to enjoy that it was infinitely more comfortable. She thanked the footmen for their efforts, and turned to pick up her book, curious at the changeable requirements of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and wondering just how many of her numerous staff had time remaining to be occupied by anything else.

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Chapter 6

“It is insupportable, such incompetence in my own house. Repeatedly have I given specific instructions regarding my needs from the apothecary, which each of the servants I have sent simply cannot manage to follow. I am most seriously displeased. To think of such erroneous concoctions being of any use to my nephew’s recovery!”

A number of solutions to this problem entered the minds of those seated around the breakfast table at Rosings Park, though the Lady presiding over the table continued to speak before any of said solutions could be voiced.

“Each servant has impudently claimed that they repeated my exact request to Mr. Joseph Jr., though I know this must be the grossest falsehood, as such is not the preparation I have received, and I cannot believe the apothecary to blame. Why, Mr. Joseph Jr. has been serving Anne’s apothecary needs these five years at least, just as his father, Mr. Joseph, has competently provided and planned her medical care from infancy.”

Having been present when the housekeeper relayed instructions for the most recent failure, Miss Elizabeth addressed her Ladyship, though perhaps such an action was against a fair portion of her better judgment and best interest. “Is it an herb and sage draught that you seek, your Ladyship? I have often seen as much recommended to the tenants of my father’s estate by our apothecary.”

“Yes, indeed,” Lady Catherine imperiously concurred, “Though I cannot consider it proper for a young lady of good breeding, and would never approve of Anne becoming knowledgeable of such things, in this case, your correctness behooves you, Miss Bennet.”

“Perhaps the nurse shares a familiarity equal to Miss Bennet’s, and might prove more effective in attaining this elusive curative?” Viscount Cressbrook suggested.

“Absolutely not, for should her services be needed during her absence it would be most distressing,” Lady Catherine replied, speaking as though her nephew’s suggestion had been most ludicrous. “This is all quite vexing.”

“I would go to the apothecary, your Ladyship, that this dilemma be resolved without any further vexation,” Miss Bennet offered, the manner in which she referred to her Ladyship’s ‘vexation’ not lost on at least one member of the present party.

“I suppose you would have me call a carriage for you, Miss Bennet. Yes, you would be quite glad to opportune yourself of the barouche box, I am sure of it,” Lady Catherine nodded definitively.

“Though I do appreciate the kindness, your Ladyship, I would be perfectly content to walk into the village. It is not above two miles hither and I have often accompanied Mrs. Collins on such an excursion these past weeks.”

With a slight narrowing of the eyes in response to this dismissal of her celebrated generosity, Lady Catherine proclaimed that Miss Bennet would journey into the village that very morning, being sure to read for an hour complete before departing from Rosings, and to return before luncheon, as her Ladyship was not in the habit of having her meals delayed for any reason.



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After having recited from a livelier than recommended selection for no less than one hour, Elizabeth cheerfully donned her bonnet and gloves, anxious for the fresh air and exertion to be found in her walk to Hunsford village. Though maintaining a sedate and ladylike pace within the bounds of Rosings Park, once gaining privacy from the house, she could no longer restrain herself from assuming the quick pace she was wont to take through the privacy of her favorite haunts about Longbourn. No sooner had she reached the main road to Hunsford village, however, than the sounds of a conveyance could be heard behind her and she reluctantly shortened her strides.

It was much to her surprise when rather than slowing to pass her, the rhythmic pounding of the horses’ hooves gradually came to a halt and an immediately recognizable voice addressed her.

“Good morning, Miss Bennet.”

“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth replied with a brief curtsey.

“Allow me to be of assistance to you.”

Elizabeth glanced down the road, where the outmost buildings of Hunsford were already clearly visible. “I thank you, sir, but it is not necessary, I am only destined for the village, which is not much farther.”

Even as she politely refused the offer, the gentleman had already descended from his curricle and upon hearing her words, made no effort to change his course.

“It would be my pleasure to escort you, madam,” he replied, offering his arm to escort her to the conveyance.

“As you wish, sir. Though truly it is not far, and I am not opposed to walking,” she answered as he handed her into the curricle, maintaining a firm grasp on her gloved hand until she was firmly seated.

“Of that I am well aware.” Mr. Darcy quickly resumed his place and gathered the reigns before adding, “Despite my understanding of your fondness for walking, a gentleman cannot in good conscience leave a lady unattended on the roadside.”

Though he had tried to mask it, Elizabeth was at this point familiar enough with Mr. Darcy’s stoic expressions to detect the smug satisfaction that accompanied this speech, and in her opinion, such orchestrated behaviors were not to go unanswered.

“It is most convenient, sir,” she smiled amicably, “that you happened to drive out in this particular direction. For myself, I might have chosen a less common route to better view the countryside.”

“Perhaps I would agree with you, in terms of a longer excursion.”

“May I assume you have just departed Rosings?”

Mr. Darcy nodded in the affirmative.

“It is an interesting time to set out, being so close to luncheon, unless you did not plan on returning to dine.”

Elizabeth smiled impishly as she turned to her companion, well aware that he would now be recalling his aunt’s declaration that the entire party would be present at luncheon, his concurrence, and her own presence bearing witness to the whole.

“It seems you have found me out, Miss Bennet, though I should know you well enough to expect nothing less.”

“Well, I suppose now that you have admitted to driving out for the express purpose of assisting me, I am obliged to thank you,” she replied smartly.

“And in turn I am obliged to assure you that no thanks are required,” Mr. Darcy replied with a smile.

In a matter of moments their conveyance had reached Hunsford proper, and Mr. Darcy made quick work of reining the horses in before the apothecary’s shop and hopping down to assist Elizabeth from the seat. “If you will excuse me, Miss Bennet, I do have some small matters of my own to address. I shall return to collect you directly.”

Elizabeth entered the establishment, and was immediately addressed by the proprietor himself.

“Mr. Joseph Jr., Apothecary,” he greeted with a short bow, “May I be of service, Miss…?”

“Bennet, sir. I am currently a guest at Rosings Park.”

“Miss Bennet, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I thank you, Mr. Joseph. It seems Lady Catherine has had some difficulty in her messengers’ relating her needs to you, and thought to send a proxy more familiar with the goods at hand.”

Over the course of their continued conversation, Elizabeth observed that while Mr. Joseph Sr. may have been a reasonably sensible gentleman, Mr. Joseph Jr. was a somewhat awkward fellow. Though rather taller than her cousin, and more handsomely featured, he was not so unlike Mr. Collins in that his figure suggested an equal fondness for honeyed ham and thick dressings of all sorts. Though Mr. Joseph Jr. did not conduct himself with half of her cousin’s obsequious servility, that said servility was just as strongly directed towards herself proved quite alarming, and she was quite pleased when Mr. Darcy arrived, having completed his own business in the village.

Miss Elizabeth laughed politely at Mr. Joseph’s parting sally and thanked him for his services as he reminded her that the required draught would be prepared and delivered to Rosings the following morning.

Mr. Darcy’s behavior during their return trip to Rosings reflected much of the same reserve Elizabeth had learned to expect of the gentleman whence they first met in Hertfordshire, such that with little more than a perfunctory bow from him, Elizabeth found herself released to the routine that had been established the previous day. Scheduled readings, a formal luncheon accentuated by Lady Catherine’s pontifications, thankfully directed towards Mrs. Jenkinson and Miss De Bourgh rather than herself on this occasion.

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While the Viscount had a reputation for being no less a personable man than his younger brother, he was by no means any less astute than his stoic cousin. Now that the Colonel’s situation was not so dire as he had initially feared, he began to think more clearly on his conversation with Miss Bennet and the possible reasons behind her reluctance. He still gave her credit for being of sturdier character than to jump at the opportunity to be attached to the son of an Earl, but given the vehemence of her attempted refusal, he should have considered the chance of a prior attachment on her part. It did not escape his notice that Mr. Darcy paid Miss Bennet more attention that the rest of their party, and there did exist a prior acquaintance from the fall. Though she may be affronted, there was nothing for it but to approach Miss Bennet and inquire, hoping he had not muddled things even further than he first imagined.

“Miss Bennet, shall we take a turn about the garden before tea?” Viscount Cressbrook inquired from the doorway of the sickroom. “Your reputation as a great walker precedes you, and I would not have you feeling neglected cooped up in the house.”

Elizabeth kindly agreed, equally desirous of enjoying the fresh air and attempting again to reason with the Viscount about deceiving his relations. To which end, they had not escaped the prying eyes and ears of the house for more than a moment before she addressed the latter.

“Lord Cressbrook, while I am very happy to do what I can to aide your brother in his recovery, I must implore you again to address the misapprehension between Lady Matlock and myself.”

Quite prepared for this line of questioning, he smilingly replied, “I am sorry that my family has imposed on you so, and I do realize I had neglected to ask something of you when we spoke of this last, as much as I hesitate to do so now.”

One glance at the lady’s serious expression was all the Viscount needed to obligingly continue, “I should have asked if there were a prior commitment you had made or an expected attachment…I understand you made the acquaintance of a few eligible men this fall, not the least of which being my cousin Darcy.”

“You have nothing to fear on that score,” Elizabeth smirked. She debated on whether or not to say more, though her countenance hinted that she was anxious to speak. Her indecision was swayed by the impish curiosity that tugged at the Viscount’s innocent expression.

“Though it is impolitic for me to repeat them, they are the gentleman’s own words, and this will be a small confidence in comparison to that which you already hold for me – ‘She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.’ – so you see we are not the best of friends.”

“Ha! Leave it to Darcy to mistake a lady such as yourself so thoroughly, for you must know that he quite missed the mark. In that case then, we shall proceed as planned – you can continue to charm my entire family, be of great aide to my brother, and we will address the rest when the time comes.”

James Fitzwilliam smiled at his companion and offered his arm, putting an abrupt end to further attempts at conversation. “Now then, let us return to the house before we miss tea.”


Chapter 7

Elizabeth entered the sickroom, surprised to find it rather placid considering the milling of servants that had become her constant companion during each of her visits. For a moment she wondered if the early hour were to blame. She had never come before breakfast before, but she only intended to remain for a few moments – on second thought perhaps she ought to remain longer so that the Colonel would not be left unattended. It was not until she had collected her book from the side table and turned to her chair that she noticed the space to be occupied.

She observed none other than Mr. Darcy, his formal mien belied in repose as his left leg lay sprawled out comfortably before him and his head rested on the wing of the chair, his ever artfully arranged curls having shaken their restraints, a few resting loosely across his forehead.

At that moment, she could not but recall that while he spoke little at Rosings – hardly unexpected given their previous acquaintance – when he did speak, the majority of what he said regarded his cousin. Against her own inclination, she admitted herself touched by this evidence of his concern, as she herself had been found in such a position at Netherfield not so many months ago. Not desirous of creating a scene which would embarrass him and be no more comfortable for herself, she retreated to the doorway, being sure to clear her throat and re-enter the room with far less that her usual grace, her manner more reminiscent of a foot soldier than a gentleman’s daughter.

Thankfully, movement could be detected from Mr. Darcy’s quarter before Elizabeth had taken more than a few steps into the room, such that he soon rose, and she was able to feign surprise over his presence.

“Mr. Darcy, forgive me. I had not expected to find anyone here and did not intend to interrupt your privacy.”

“It is quite alright, Miss Bennet.”

The gentleman took only a few steps towards the door before turning somewhat awkwardly to address Elizabeth. “I was…concerned upon hearing that Richard’s sleep had become so restless yesterday afternoon.”

Elizabeth nodded softly, her kind and understanding expression leaving Mr. Darcy more at ease to continue.

“I suppose I overstayed last night, but am glad to see him sleeping peacefully this morning.”

“As am I, Mr. Darcy.” Indeed, I seem to have found two gentlemen sleeping peacefully this morning. Elizabeth blushed at the thought, and teasingly added that they both ought to prepare for breakfast before they were missed, else Lady Catherine might send out the hounds in search of them. She dropped a slight curtsey and hastily left the room.

Mr. Darcy remained idly rooted to his spot, still somewhat groggy from sleep and equally affected by the lady who had awakened him. At last he recollected that he stood in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, most likely appearing quite disheveled in his rumpled attire from the previous day. Shaking his head, he knew there was nothing for it but to send for his valet and prepare for the day ahead, so with a last long look at his cousin, he did just that.

__________


Breakfast that morning did not include any further dictates regarding Elizabeth’s schedule, with the exception of a brief comment that her Ladyship understood Miss Bennet’s performance at diction thus far to have been tolerable – though perhaps not remarkable enough to tempt Lady Catherine into speaking further on the matter. Elizabeth therefore presumed herself at liberty to spend the late morning as she wished, and after having spent an hour reading in the sickroom, wasted little time before escaping out of doors to explore the gardens. She thought wistfully that a week previous she would have sooner found herself exploring the groves and undisturbed beauty found in the furthest recesses of the park, though at least she could enjoy the gardens without the risk of finding her petticoats six inches deep in mud.

It was with no great amount of surprise, though a far larger amount of dread, that Elizabeth found her morning constitutional interrupted by an approaching rider, none other than Mr. Joseph Jr. She now doubly wished that she had not restrained herself to the gardens and hurried her steps, attempting to lose herself further into the garden’s depths. Her efforts proved unsuccessful, however, as the distinct crunching of gravel behind her could not be mistaken for anything but a gentleman determined to approach her.

“Miss Bennet, what a pleasant surprise to come upon you this morning,” Mr. Joseph Jr. greeted her, smiling widely as he bowed.

“Mr. Joseph,” she curtsied in reply.

“I hope you will find these remedies to be as requested,” he replied, indicating the parcel he had removed from his saddlebag before he approached.

“I am sure they will be satisfactory, and I believe the housekeeper, Mrs. Jacobs, will know where to keep them.”

“Very well, then. Allow me to escort you inside, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth had little choice but to accept his proffered arm, little knowing that the exchange had been observed from the library window. It was unfortunate that from his vantage point, the observing gentleman could not discern the reluctant expression on her face, nor have any way of knowing that once the housekeeper was met in the entrance hall, Elizabeth left Mr. Joseph Jr. to that lady’s company, excusing herself to return upstairs.

__________


That afternoon, Elizabeth entered the Colonel’s sitting room only to find it occupied by the Fitzwilliams anticipating a report from Dr. Grant, who was at that moment completing his examination. She immediately turned to excuse herself, and suggested that she might be found in the library once their private business had been addressed, but as Lady Matlock met her eye and wordlessly held out her hand, Elizabeth could not but offer her support. Reaching out to give the Lady’s hand a comforting squeeze, she seated herself beside the anxious mother. Elizabeth drew some comfort of her own as she received an approving nod from the Viscount, missing the soft expression on the face of the other young gentleman in the room as Mr. Darcy looked upon her compassion with admiration.

The Earl and Dr. Grant exited the sick room, bearing less somber expressions than they had upon entering it, giving some sense of relief to the three family members who noted the difference.

“He shows no sign of fever, which relieves my greatest concerns,” began Dr. Grant, “His breathing is steady and his heart is strong. Though I must caution there is always a strong danger inherent to such lapses of consciousness, his sturdy constitution gives us every reason to believe that he shall eventually awaken, and be able to make a complete recovery with time.”

Though their highest anticipation was in hopes of the moment the Colonel would awaken, this news was no less a blessing to those assembled outside of the sickroom. Elizabeth smiled upon seeing the heartfelt relief that Dr. Grant’s confident report spread across Lady Matlock’s features. Nothing could be stated for certain until the Colonel was awake, but Dr. Grant’s confident report and the faith her husband had put in it were enough to sustain her optimism.

__________


The party from Hunsford Parsonage called at Rosings Park the following morning just as those in residence completed their breakfast. Lady Catherine announced that she had parish business to discuss with her parson, and declared that Miss Bennet would join her to receive Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas. After the requisite half hour had passed, and Charlotte relayed news of no great consequence, Lady Catherine made note of the time, prompting Elizabeth to excuse herself to attend the Colonel.

The upstairs staff now familiar with her frequent presence, Elizabeth entered the sickroom and took her place beside the bed. She opened her book and began to read, occasionally pausing to dab the Colonel’s brow with a cool cloth from the nearby basin, and looking up to acknowledge each of the servants who occasionally came near.

She was surprised then, to see one the maids bringing a tray laden with a pitcher and pair of drinking glasses. When a footman followed with a small side table and the tray was placed beside her, she paused in her reading and inquired if she was to attempt to get the patient to drink, and if so a spoon or small ladle such as the nurse had used would make the task easier.

“Oh no, miss. This was requested specifically for your use.”

Elizabeth smiled and politely expressed her thanks, wondering to which of the Fitzwilliams her kindness was truly owed, for she hardly expected such a gesture from her cousin’s noble patroness.

__________


The gentlemen at Rosings were called from the library for luncheon, only to return to it at the completion of the meal to conclude their business affairs, as the family situation that kept them in Kent by no means suspended the needs of their estates. Mr. Darcy found that his own affairs were settled rather quickly, whether this was due to his own strict diligence or to the distraction of the other two gentlemen could not be discerned. He politely excused himself from his uncle, and before he had thought to have any particular destination in mind for the remainder of the afternoon, he found his hand reaching for the door of the Colonel’s sitting room. A moment’s hesitation later and he found himself in the room, treading towards the bedchamber, only to stop abruptly upon hearing the soft and pleasing voice lilting through from the other side of the door. He cursed his foolishness in forgetting that she would more likely than not be reading to the Colonel at any given moment throughout the day. He then argued back, albeit weakly, that his thoughts were of course strictly concern for his cousin. He lingered over the seemingly simple decision, neither wanting to make him presence known nor able to tear himself away. He stood transfixed as he fought the niggling feeling that told him he knew full well she would be there, and it was her very presence that had drawn him hither.

At last his reason intervened, and he acknowledged that worse than taking the course he fought desiring would be to be discovered in his present position, without any sensible excuse for his hovering at a closed doorway as though he were daft. Frustrated at the thought of ever describing himself as thus, he determinedly left the sitting room, an act which proved quite providential when but a moment later, a young woman entered the same, shrugged at the mistaken notion that she had heard someone there, and exited the room herself.

__________


Breakfast the following morning was carried out with all the usual grandeur the participants had learned to expect – the party fully assembled in a rather formal setting, the lady of the house staking her claim to a vast majority of the conversation, pontificating on matters regarding her estate that were of little concern to anyone but herself.

“Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth startled at the clipped pronunciation of the address and was thankful she had been paying some mind to Lady Catherine’s words rather than having tuned them out completely.

“As any young lady ought consider, it would only be appropriate to return the call paid by Mrs. Collins. As it would not be of great inconvenience to accommodate for your brief absence, and I know the weather to be tolerable, you shall want to address that civility this morning, I am sure.”

“Yes, ma’am. I should always enjoy time in spent Charlotte’s company.”

Elizabeth was rather proud of how she addressed the civility of receiving and responding to such a ‘suggestion’, but whether her thoughts remained equally civil during the rest of the meal is best left unmentioned, as it would hardly reflect in her favor.

__________


“Miss Bennet,” Mr. Darcy spoke, rather conveniently as they left the breakfast room and the scope of Lady Catherine’s attention, “Cressbrook and I should like to join you in calling at the parsonage this morning.”

“After all,” the Viscount leaned in to interject, “the residents of this house have quite shamelessly stolen one of Mrs. Collins’ guests, and some of us ought express our appreciation of her forbearance.”

“I shall go and request that the horses be saddled – I am quite sure the groom has a suitable ladies’ mount, Miss Elizabeth,” said Mr. Darcy as he turned from the lady to his cousin, “And I am sure your stallion will be glad to seat his master rather than a groom this morning.”

Not in the least oblivious to Miss Elizabeth’s opinion of such presumption, the Viscount turned to address his cousin, and was quite amused to see that the purportedly intelligent fellow seemed completely unaware. “You forget, Darcy, that while Miss Elizabeth enjoys a well deserved respite, I shall be seated at my brother’s side.”

With that, Viscount Cressbrook headed towards the staircase with a twinkle in his eye, one which his misguided cousin was inclined to interpret as much more for his advantage than reality would have it be. Nonetheless, said misguided gentleman mused that he did not have the slightest objection to keeping Miss Bennet’s company all to himself.

“Mr. Darcy, I thank you for the offered mount, but I would much rather walk. I am no horsewoman after all, and besides which, I would not be adequately attired.”

“Of course. I shall have the curricle brought ‘round.”

Had she not been distracted by her increasing frustration with the presumptuous gentleman now headed towards the stables, Elizabeth would likely have heard the soft chuckling of the Viscount halfway up the stairs. At his cousin’s last statement, James Fitzwilliam was even further amused that so intelligent a man could not see how his obtuse behavior nettled Miss Bennet.

__________


During the ride to the parsonage, conversation was found as uncomfortable by one party as it was encouraging to the other. “It must be very agreeable to Mrs. Collins, being settled within so easy a distance of her own family.”

“An easy distance, sir? Why it is nearly fifty miles.”

“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. I call it a very easy distance.”

“I would not consider Mrs. Collins as settled near her family, and I am persuaded she would not think of herself as such at half the present distance.”

"It is a proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire,” Mr. Darcy smiled, “Anything beyond the very neighborhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far – though I did not imagine you would wish to be settled so."

"I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too near her family,” Elizabeth replied thoughtfully, “The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances. Perhaps where there is fortune to make the expense of travel unimportant, a woman may consider such a distance as near her family, but that is not the case here.”

Mr. Darcy drew himself a little towards her and said, "You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn."

Elizabeth knew not quite what to make of this speech, but thankfully the drive to the parsonage was a short one, and as they had nearly arrived, she was saved from having to make any reply.

Mrs. Collins welcomed her friend quite warmly, grateful to have Elizabeth back as her guest, if only for a short while. She accepted Mr. Darcy’s compliments gracefully, finding it rather unfortunate that the gentleman’s presence impeded any chance for the ladies to discuss Elizabeth’s situation, no matter how strongly they wished to. Such a circumstance could not be helped, however, and Charlotte Collins determined that the visit could still be of some use to forwarding the interests of her friends.

Having dispensed with the prerequisite civilities, Charlotte saw to it that each of her guests were settled comfortably with a cup of tea, and set to engage the two silent parties in conversation.

“It has been some months since we last met in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy. I trust you have been well, sir?”

“Very well, ma’am,” the gentleman replied.

“It is unfortunate we never had the opportunity to meet after the Netherfield Ball. I must say having that great house occupied again and the additional society did make my last months in Hertfordshire quite enjoyable.”

Here Charlotte did not dare sneak a glance at Elizabeth, knowing how well her friend was likely to suspect the direction of her conversation and how unlikely she was to approve it. Alas she had never quite agreed with her friend’s assessment of Mr. Darcy, nor been equally convinced that he bore the greatest share of blame for Mr. Bingley’s withdrawal. Here was an opportunity to discover the truth of the matter, and so she continued, “Though I suppose the crush of engagements that come with a new neighbor does inevitably fade. I trust Mr. Bingley has found himself well settled into the neighborhood since I have left?”

That Mrs. Collins would be uninformed of the activity, or lack of activity, in one of the principle houses of her old neighborhood while having so many gossiping acquaintances to litter the post seemed highly improbable to Mr. Darcy, and such sentiment was not entirely hidden on his visage. Elizabeth looked upon him with apprehension, and turned in askance to her childhood friend.

Thankfully, however much he may have doubted the veracity of the lady’s statement, Mr. Darcy was too much the gentleman to acknowledge it, and replied, “I understand that Mr. Bingley has remained in town on business, and finds himself quite fixed there.”

That this information was not surprising to Mrs. Collins, and that it was not taken well by Miss Elizabeth was etched on each of their countenances, though the former carried on the conversation without missing a beat.

“His sisters must be enjoying London,” said Mrs. Collins. Turning to Elizabeth, she asked innocently, “Has Jane had the opportunity to call on Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth replied as kindly as she could, considering her anger towards one of the persons in the room and her growing ire towards the other, “She was quite anxious to renew the acquaintance upon leaving Longbourn, and called in Grosvenor Street very shortly after her arrival in London.”

“I understood from my mother that Jane had been somewhat out of spirits of late. I hope being reacquainted with her new friends has helped to distract her and bring her out of her melancholy?”

“Unfortunately it seems the same business matters which keep the brother in town have also kept the sisters much occupied.” Elizabeth could not stop herself from casting a sharp look towards Mr. Darcy as she said this, and prided herself that he did not seem unaffected by it. “As much as Jane would like to continue their friendship, Miss Bingley informed her that she is so busy she does not know when she will be able to resume her morning calls.”

The contempt in which Elizabeth held this falsehood was thinly veiled as she spoke. Mr. Darcy could not deny the falsehoods that lay hidden behind Miss Bingley’s claims, having been a party to them. Their effect on Miss Elizabeth, however, made such an impression on him that he was content to withdraw into his own thoughts. Mrs. Collins, desirous as she was to converse with her friend, and gathering she would be unsuccessful at ferreting additional information from Mr. Darcy, paid little mind that the gentleman hardly contributed to the continuing conversation.

While the ladies chatted, as old friends are wont to do, Mr. Darcy thought over his actions the previous fall. At first, he could not find fault with them. His concern over Mr. Bingley’s tendency to move from admiration to love, and from love to matrimony in a moment was legitimate. Considering how such a disposition could be opportunized, and given Mrs. Bennet’s blatant and vulgar interest in the face of her daughter’s unaffected manner, his concern was natural and just.

His actions in London, however, he could not look upon with an equal sense of pride. To deliberately hide Miss Bennet’s presence in town from Bingley had been beneath him. He had known it almost from the moment the deceit had been carried out, and yet had seen little advantage to his friend in revealing the truth so belatedly, unless – What if he were to have truly been mistaken where Miss Bennet’s feelings for Bingley were concerned? And here he was on the verge of courting her sister! No, it would not do. He would at least inquire further and reconsider the matter, he owed Bingley as much.

As Mr. Darcy drove her back to Rosings Park, Elizabeth was perfectly content to ride on in silence, her mind occupied by unpleasant thoughts of the Bingley sisters and their actions against Jane. Mr. Darcy, however, observed her darkened countenance, and hoped to be of some comfort to her.

“I am sorry to hear your sister is not as well as when I saw her last, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth accepted the gesture civilly, but made no effort to forward the conversation.

“Perhaps she is in want of her sister’s lively company?”

“No, sir, I am afraid not,” Elizabeth sighed despondently. “As much as I have attempted it, I fear it is not my company that would lighten her spirits, for she has not been herself since early December last year. Even the Christmas season did not bring anything that could restore her good humor.”

“Miss Bennet does not strike me as one prone to ill humor.”

“She could not be farther from it! You have been in my sister’s company enough to know that she is as good-natured as she is serene and reserved. My sister may not be overly expressive, and I daresay she tries to make herself appear as tranquil as is her wont, but those closest to her know of her disappointment.”

Well, there you have it, Darcy. Unless you believe Elizabeth is lying directly to your face, or that her own sister has deceived her, Jane Bennet truly did share Bingley’s regard, as she now shares his melancholy… While Mr. Darcy still could not think of Jane Bennet as the best match for his friend, he had to admit the primary motive behind his interference had just been overturned.

“I must say that Bingley seems to have been experiencing much of the same in London,” Mr. Darcy replied seriously, pausing before he added, “Perhaps if he knew the address at which to call upon your sister, a renewed acquaintance might lighten the spirits of both?”

Mr. Darcy could not believe the words he had just spoken to sound anything like himself, but as he turned to Elizabeth with a falsely innocent smile, he found his efforts well rewarded in the bright smile she returned.

“Then perchance a friend will tell Mr. Bingley that my sister stays with our aunt and uncle Gardiner who reside in Gracechurch Street,” Elizabeth replied merrily, “I can say for certain that at least one party will be very happy to become reacquainted.” Oh, Jane! If only I could be there to see you so happy! I do hope Mr. Darcy is in earnest.

Elizabeth cast a sidelong glance at Mr. Darcy, whose slight smile became a bit self-satisfied as he met her look with a knowing gaze. Of course he shall keep his word, like him or not, Mr. Darcy is nothing if not fastidiously honorable.




Chapter 8

Miss Elizabeth was sent to the apothecary again the following morning, as given her previous success, Lady Catherine saw it only fitting that she continue with the task. She was not surprised to find once again that a curricle approached not long after she had departed Rosings, though she did not look upon the identity of the driver with quite the same aversion that she had once felt towards him. Little conversation was to be had as they travelled into the village, both parties inhibited by the subject of their last conversation; she not quite brave enough to ask if he had written to Mr. Bingley, and he bearing a letter in his pocket addressed to the very same.

That evening after dinner, Lady Matlock approached Elizabeth as the party left the dining room and pressed that she would enjoy her conversation over tea and coffee. While she had a genuine interest in becoming further acquainted with the young Miss Bennet, she was also very eager to demonstrate to the young lady that she considered her one of the family party, no matter Lady Catherine’s opinion on the subject.

Elizabeth was thankful for the pleasant reprieve of making polite conversation with Lady Matlock, speaking on the same trivial subjects that are common between new acquaintances. Neither lady objected to the neglect from their hostess, as they were quite content to talk amongst themselves, and nearly a half hour passed before Lady Catherine’s voice became loud enough to command the attention of the entire room.

“Darcy,” the great Lady called imperiously, summoning her nephew to her side. “I understand you have been ordering the curricle quite frequently. I trust you find the conveyance and the horses to your approval.”

“Indeed, Aunt. They suit my needs most adequately.”

If at this statement Darcy turned away from Lady Catherine and looked about the room, daring only the briefest of glances towards a certain young lady in attempt to meet her eye, none were the wiser as to his intent. All those present, including that certain lady, assumed his actions to be nothing more than the formal and aloof behavior he typically exuded in his aunt’s presence.

“Taking the air in such a way is most beneficial, nephew, as I have never hesitated to express, and I often encourage Anne to ride out with her phaeton and ponies when the weather is suitable to her constitution. And to do so without the inherent risk of going by horseback,” Lady Catherine continued as she turned smugly to her larger audience, “my nephew, being such a staid and serious young man, is obviously quite cognizant of the inducements.”

A rather violent coughing fit immediately followed the last of Lady Catherine’s statement, and all eyes turned towards the gentleman responsible who appeared to have choked on his tea. Mr. Darcy’s only response was to discard the offending teacup and saucer on the nearest table and develop a sudden interest in a turn about the other side of the room, resolutely keeping his back to the party until he heard the general hum of conversation resume.

__________


As he had on the occasion previous, Mr. Joseph Jr. came to Rosings Park the following morning to deliver his draughts, once again desirous of taking them directly to the lady who had requested them. Upon his arrival, he was directed to the Colonel’s sickroom, where Miss Bennet was to be attending the patient. Somewhat shocked by his sudden presence, Elizabeth excused herself from Lady Matlock, with whom she had been conversing, and attempted to address the awkward situation as smoothly as possible. Lady Matlock, confident that Elizabeth’s heart belonged to her son, immediately recognized Mr. Joseph Jr. for the unwelcome admirer that he was, and did not take long to follow the pair into the sitting room.

It was unfortunate that while Lady Matlock was easily able to discern Elizabeth’s discomfiture, the gentleman causing it was not. Though the business that brought him to Rosings could have been resolved by a simple exchange, Mr. Joseph Jr. was inclined to draw out the conversation – and how could he not be, with such an inducement before him. Polite attempts by both ladies to curtail his visit were unsuccessful, whether this was due to his determination to press his suit or obtuse ignorance they could not determine, but either case seemed rather likely. At length came an interruption – which was quite welcomed by the ladies – as Mr. Darcy entered the sitting room.

If Mr. Darcy was surprised to find the sitting room thus occupied, his countenance did not show it. After greeting his aunt civilly, he was quick to express his purpose in joining them. He suggested that Miss Elizabeth might benefit from taking the air, and that he would accompany her. Lady Matlock was quick to corroborate with the scheme, as she assumed her nephew to have made the suggestion in order to help discourage Mr. Joseph Jr. She may have given too much credit to Mr. Darcy’s astuteness, however, as he was inclined to take her ready agreement as a forwarding of his own suit.

As the other half of the already established walking party, Miss Elizabeth had little choice but to accept Mr. Darcy’s invitation – although she was quite willing, considering her other option for male company.

Mr. Darcy led Elizabeth out to walk in the back gardens. Their conversation was slow to start – she being the more sociable of the two, and still regaining her equanimity after her encounter with the younger Mr. Joseph.

For Mr. Darcy’s part, he endeavored to think of something to speak to her about. It was too early to know if anything had come of his revelation to Bingley, and surely no good would come of speaking on that subject if in the end all were to come to naught. Surely there is some intellectual topic on which we are both knowledgeable…

At last he settled on a more neutral topic. “And how do you like Rosings, Miss Bennet?” Apparently I am content to settle on a more inane topic, Mr. Darcy thought ruefully after he spoke, though he soon reminded himself to attend her answer.

“My opinion continually improves as I get more opportunity to see the grounds.”

Mr. Darcy knew he looked at her strangely there, and he feared she would note his reaction to be more than her simple answer warranted. He was in fact contemplating how well she might like getting to know the grounds at his own estate, and struggling for a more articulate manner of expression than the phrase running through his head, ‘When we are married, you will take an even greater liking to our grounds at Pemberley.’ – very eloquent indeed.

He could not realize that she fancied his pause to be due some interpreted slight to his Aunt’s home in her previous comment and added, “The house itself is very grand, and I am becoming sufficiently familiar with a good portion of it, such that I can find my way without becoming hopelessly lost.”

He smiled at this, as she had hoped he might, considering her previous concern. “My Aunt does rather pride herself on procuring the finest and grandest, as she has little need to limit her expense. Perhaps on future visits you will have occasion to become more familiar with the house.”

Conversation came to a stilted halt as both parties turned away. The implication that she would be a guest at Rosings Park on several occasions in the future affected Elizabeth greatly, though perhaps not in the way Mr. Darcy had hoped. Where he felt to have made a strong allusion to his intentions, she was brought to mind of how deeply rooted and complex the Earl and Countess’ misconception was, and realized they must have shared their ‘intelligence’ with their nephew. She was quite apprehensive of Mr. Darcy’s opinion on this subject. The notion of her being acquainted with and engaged to the son of an Earl was rather unrealistic to her mind, and Mr. Darcy had seen enough in Hertfordshire to know her every reason.

As she kept her eyes steadily averted from Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth saw a rider off in the distance; undoubtedly Mr. Joseph returning to the village. Now that her inducement for remaining outdoors had departed, she murmured her excuses to return to the Colonel and hastily retreated towards the house. Mr. Darcy was left standing amongst the shrubberies, wondering at her odd behavior.

__________


Mrs. Collins had issued an invitation for her friend to take tea with her at the parsonage that afternoon, no doubt credited by her husband to the preconceived request and approval of Lady Catherine. Given the odd events of the morning, Elizabeth was happy for the freedom found in the company of her friend, and the two spent a pleasant half hour conversing in the parlor. Elizabeth had acquired plenty of experiences at Rosings Park which she could relate with good humor and a sense of wit, which Charlotte was not averse to hearing.

The afternoon took an unfortunate turn however, when another visitor could be heard arriving at the door. A heavy shuffling in the hall indicated that Mr. Collins had anticipated this visitor, unexpected as he might be to the mistress of the house. The identity of the caller soon became known when Mr. Collins ceremoniously swept into the room, presenting Mr. Joseph Jr. and expressing their intent to spend ‘a most pleasant afternoon in the company of two most charming ladies’. Having heard enough of Elizabeth’s anecdotes to guess her feelings about such company, Charlotte sent her friend an apologetic look. She truly had not expected her husband to use an innocent invitation to tea for such machinations.

The ladies were obliged to greet Mr. Collins and his guest politely, no matter their true feelings regarding the interruption of their tete-a-tete; and when Charlotte offered the gentlemen tea, Elizabeth had little choice but to regain her seat. Mr. Joseph Jr., she was grateful to find, did have a sufficient sense of propriety not to take the seat beside her on the settee, but his taking the armchair angled just beside it she considered a rather small degree of improvement.

Mr. Joseph enthusiastically expressed his delight at finding Miss Elizabeth present, Mr. Collins’ introduction having implied the meeting to be intentional not hindering his effusions in the least. Miss Elizabeth replied civilly, if not with equal enthusiasm, which Mr. Joseph took as sufficient encouragement to monopolize her attention for the next quarter hour. He expounded on his father’s prestigious position as doctor to more than one of the principal houses in the area, and his having been brought up to follow in his father’s footsteps once he had completed his schooling. How it was that he was now at least five and twenty and had instead become the local apothecary was conveniently left out as he went on to speak of his own career and what he considered to be the finer points pertaining to it.

As much as she enjoyed so detailed a description of the numerous advantages Mr. Joseph believed his situation entailed – and therefore could offer a wife – Elizabeth noted the time, and that she could now excuse herself from the conversation without giving offense. Before another moment passed, she turned to her friend and announced the hour had come that she must return to Rosings Park.

__________


Another week went by, the busy comings and goings at Rosings Park carrying on much as they had during the days previous. Lady Matlock grew very fond of the young lady she expected to one day call her daughter, and quite often requested that they take tea together. Lady Catherine’s rigorous schedule for the servants attending the sickroom did not change, nor did her frequent commissions that Miss Bennet attend personally to some apothecary need or other. It came as no surprise to Miss Elizabeth that a curricle would invariably happen to overcome her not long into her walk, sometimes driven by the Viscount but most often by Mr. Darcy, and that the gentlemen would gallantly offer to assist her. Elizabeth was more surprised to note that just as the opportunities she found to escape the house for a walk increased, so did the occasions where she would either be accompanied by Mr. Darcy or come across him in the park. She had always been at ease with making conversation, and he often made more of an effort to join her. Upon reflection she did note the subjects he brought up were sometimes disconnected, sometimes strange; she could not discern whether these odd questions were intentional or merely due to his want of practice making idle conversation.

As much as Miss Elizabeth feared his mentioning the supposed engagement, he did not, and the context of his speeches did not often imply that he might aware of it. Thus all the more disconcerting were Mr. Darcy’s continued implications about her future visits to Rosings Park. Once he even went so far as to suggest that there would be no need to avoid riding on the next occasion, as the Colonel would likely want to be up in the saddle again even sooner than his recovery would allow. However he went on to speak of the far corners of the estate he and his sister Georgiana would enjoy showing to her, which puzzled her more and more.

The only difference to note was the frequency with which Mr. Darcy came to be in the Colonel’s sitting room. He would of course attend to business matters first, and would often retire to the library once the post had arrived. Yet Pemberley continued to run remarkably smoothly, quite conveniently allowing its master a prolonged absence with little issue, and thus leaving him with very little to do. Ostensibly he reasoned that the sitting room was simply a natural place to be available should his cousin’s condition change and a quiet place to read the books he often picked up on his way out of the library. Whether or not he spared a glance for the books’ titles as he reached for them, and knew whether he held Mrs. Radcliffe’s latest novel or Aristotle, was neither here nor there.

Mr. Darcy would settle in with his book, smiling softly at the tranquil melody seeping through the sealed doorway, a certain lady reading peacefully beyond it. On the few occasions that he was caught, there were ready excuses that the doctor was to examine the Colonel soon or that he had come to offer her a walk once her reading was completed. Most often, however, he was left to his own company. It was during these times, as he stared past the pages before him, that Mr. Darcy realized he knew exactly how many days Elizabeth had been in residence at Rosings. He knew which dishes she enjoyed most when they dined, and he knew when he would be most likely to encounter her on her way out for a walk. He had long come to recognize the expressions on her lovely face, but he now knew the things to say that would make her smile, raise her playful ire or bait her wit. His idea of their future was no longer just a blurry vision of idyllic happiness, but of specific outings he knew she would enjoy, and places she would like to visit again, or had expressed an interest in seeing.

Mr. Darcy allowed himself to consider further the reason he had been behaving so uncharacteristically. He had long given up the pretense of limiting his time in her company, and though he was not a man given over to romantic sentiment, admitted that he was all but pursuing her openly. His previous conviction that she would be an inappropriate match for him had slowly crumbled, and was further shattered by the Matlock’s open acceptance and admiration of her – clearly welcoming her as more than a slight acquaintance. He even considered that they had perhaps noticed his regard and acted thusly not only out of respect for her admirable character, but as a sign of their tacit approval. A languorous smile spread across his features as he gave himself leave to think further on the matter.

__________


The gentleman who sat beside his ailing cousin showed none of his usual calm, his agitation at last dragging him to his feet, as though the movement would ease his preoccupation. Mr. Darcy had come to an unfortunate juncture, where having at last acknowledged the depth and strength of his feelings, the next step was less clear. The natural course of progression for such cases as these was simple enough; and required naught but a particular question from him and affirmative response from her. Under his family’s present circumstances, however, it seemed grossly vulgar to make her an offer at the present time, particularly as she was so closely involved in the situation. But surely there must be some way to broach the subject with her? Even if I should not yet propose, or we cannot make a formal announcement, to go on without reaching some sort of understanding

Miss Elizabeth entered the sickroom, surprised to find therein Mr. Darcy pacing back and forth, the agitation of these thoughts etched upon his countenance. Unfortunately her attempt to make her escape unnoticed was thwarted by a creaking hinge, and after a brief passing of shock, and then perhaps embarrassment over his features, Mr. Darcy sedately moved to sit beside the bed, and offered for Miss Elizabeth to do the same.

“Will you not be seated, Miss Bennet?” he said, hoping to have schooled his tone into some degree of normalcy.

“Thank you, no,” she replied with a light smile, not nearly as calm as she wished it to be, “I would not wish to intrude – that is, had I known you were here, I would not have dreamt to trespass upon your privacy.”

“There are two of us present, besides yourself,” Mr. Darcy said lightly, indicating his cousin, who, he was happy to note, once again had more color than the day before.

Appreciating the smile that accompanied his speech, she replied in kind, “Hence my arriving at the hour deemed appropriate for reading today, as Lady Catherine has suggested.”

“Yes, my Aunt is very fond of giving ‘suggestions’.”

At that moment, a maid entered from the adjoining sitting room and announced, “A Mr. Joseph for Miss Bennet, sir.”

Elizabeth excused herself to the sitting room, so as not to unduly disturb the Colonel. Mr. Darcy remained by his cousin’s side, turning frequently to the door that lay partially ajar between the bedchamber and the sitting room, each glance growing more rueful as the voices of Miss Bennet and Mr. Joseph Jr. trickled through its opening. Though he could distinguish very little of what was actually said, he found Mr. Joseph far too ingratiating and Miss Bennet far too receptive. How much his own interest in the lady biased these opinions, he would not admit. At length Miss Bennet returned, nonchalantly explaining that Mr. Joseph had brought some additional remedies for the Colonel. Mr. Darcy internally scoffed that their conversation seemed rather longer than necessary for such an exchange. To Miss Elizabeth he responded politely, and making excuses on the pretext of business, made to leave.

Had not the darkening of his mood been clue enough, Miss Elizabeth distinctly recalled Mr. Darcy’s remark at luncheon stating that his business for the day was already in order. She was not immune to the agitation he had displayed before she made her presence known – which had apparently returned – and supposing it to be attributed to weighty concern for his cousin, was compelled to draw him out of it. In truth, she was a few minutes early for her scheduled reading, and in this instance she was inclined refer to her own judgment on how to best help this family rather than refer to Lady Catherine’s.

Elizabeth suggested a walk, surprising herself at the ease that came with making such an offer. He looked at her questioningly for a moment, but her challenging expression dared him to reassert the pretext of business which she obviously knew to be false. With a smile, he welcomed the opportunity, and they agreed that a brief tour of the gardens would best suit Elizabeth’s time constraints. Conversation easily returned to anecdotes and suppositions about other occasions where Lady Catherine’s suggestions were not heeded.

__________


Mr. Darcy entered the sitting room early one afternoon, hoping once again to sit and ostensibly read while a young lady in the next room did the same, albeit more earnestly. However, finding the room occupied by Lady Matlock, he did not wish to intrude and bowed slightly before turning to take his leave.

“Darcy,” his aunt called after him, much more softly than another of his aunts was inclined, “do come and sit beside me.”

Mr. Darcy did as he she requested, and gently took his aunt’s offered hand as he settled himself beside her. “He is going to be alright, you know,” Mr. Darcy began, “I have been reading several texts on the subject, and as Dr. Grant has said, there are many particulars that indicate he should make a full recovery, and likely very quickly.”

“I know, Fitzwilliam,” she said softly, reaching over to pat the hand which comfortingly held hers. “I assure you I did not have so dire a reason for asking you to remain.

“My Richard would have our heads for sitting and worrying over him in such a way,” she added, drawing a small chuckle from both. “Am I not allowed to simply welcome the company of my nephew?”

Mr. Darcy raised an eyebrow, something about her innocent tone implying a far less simplistic reason behind her request.

If Lady Matlock noticed this gesture, she wisely chose not to acknowledge it. “Come, let us go and sit beside Richard. You and Dr. Grant are always reminding us that it may soothe him to hear our voices, so we may as well continue our conversation there.”

“It is so kind of Miss Bennet to assist us in such a way,” she said, gently running her hand over the book left on the side table, “I certainly hope she has not taken offense at my sister’s manner of request.”

“I would think her more likely to find humor in the situation than offense.”

“Yes, she is quite witty, though I sometimes wonder if she speaks so out of discomfort, meaning to defend herself.”

“On the contrary,” Mr. Darcy smiled softly, “I believe she takes pleasure in advocating her side of a debate. At times I think she quite enjoys professing opinions which are not her own.”

Lady Matlock continued to speak of Miss Bennet, occasionally recounting an experience with the young lady from the past weeks at Rosings, though always return to more direct questions and fishing for her nephew’s opinions of Elizabeth.

“May I ask to what these questions tend?” Mr. Darcy asked, having answered his aunt’s many inquiries about Elizabeth’s social habits and acquaintances, reading preferences and musical taste – and not being particularly fond of the exercise.

“Come Darcy, I am merely trying to learn more about the young lady’s character. Given your longstanding acquaintance, I thought you would know more of her and I did not think you would mind speaking on the subject.”

“I am not so very well acquainted with her as you seem to think,” he replied carefully, “I had not met her before visiting at Netherfield last fall.” Throughout this interview, Mr. Darcy had become increasingly convinced that his aunt was probing for information to qualify her as a future niece. This in itself was not a daunting prospect, as he had every intention of making her just that and he believed his aunt to be fond of her already. That his aunt had detected his interest and chose to address in it such a matter was more disconcerting.

“Oh? I had thought perhaps you would have been introduced in London,” Lady Matlock replied, not only oblivious to his attachment, but also his present distress.

“In London? I do not see how that would be possible, as unfortunately we do not move in quite the same circles, and thus we are not likely to have any mutual acquaintance there.”

“Richard did not introduce you?” asked Lady Matlock with some degree of incredulity. Perhaps she should not feel so excluded after all if Richard had not introduced her to Darcy either.

Richard?” Mr. Darcy found himself thoroughly confused by the conversation’s sudden change in direction, “I had not known he was previously acquainted with the lady.”

“Then you truly do not know? I had only assumed you were hesitant to speak of it.” Lady Matlock continued softly, almost to herself, “How very strange, I had always understood the two of you to be thick as thieves.”

Here Mr. Darcy began to panic as he tried to piece together what his aunt could possibly be referring to, none of the possibilities boding well at all. “Aunt,” he replied slowly, trying to keep the agitation from his voice, “what is it that you had assumed I would know?”

Lady Matlock hesitated at her nephew’s intense gaze, but there was nothing for it but to speak of the knowledge he apparently lacked. “I cannot say for certain how formally the subject has been broached between them, but I am quite sure that if Richard and Miss Elizabeth are not engaged, once he has recovered they very soon shall be.”


Chapter 9

Mr. Darcy could scarcely credit what his aunt had said regarding an attachment between Elizabeth and his cousin. His shock was great, and he was too horrified by how this would affect his own hopes to allow himself to think on it. How exactly he had excused himself from his aunt, he knew not, he only knew that he needed to get as far from the house as possible before he lost hold of his equanimity.

He should have realized that in Elizabeth’s absence from the sickroom she was likely to be found out in the park and considered the danger of encountering her there, particularly as his feet led him towards one of her favorite haunts at a furious pace. So occupied was his mind, however, that he did not think of such things, and as fate would have it, the lady herself soon came into view. He stood frozen in shock at the sight of her, but after the briefest moment he fearfully realized the danger he was in of making a fool of himself before her. She greeted him in an easy manner and he numbly attempted to act as though nothing were amiss. To speak would have been impossible, but he did manage a nod and a quirk of his mouth as he fell into step beside her.

At length Mr. Darcy spoke, displeased that he found himself unequal to speaking on the subject with the indifference he had hoped to display. He did not realize that to the young lady beside him, the hint of displeasure in his guarded tone overshadowed any traces of his unease. “I understand congratulations are in order, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth paused and averted her eyes in discomfort, “I see you have spoken with Lady Matlock,” she replied, more to her shoes than to the gentleman himself.

“That I have,” he answered blandly, “My aunt seemed quite happy as she relayed her hopes and the consolation she had found in your presence.”

“I am glad to have provided a source of happiness and comfort,” she replied, with little of either feeling in her own voice.

“I had not realized you were previously acquainted with the Colonel,” Mr. Darcy drove on, his words tumbling rapidly and he fought to restrain the biting edge in his voice, “Though I suppose without knowing the connection between he and I, you would not have thought to mention it.”

“It is true that I did not know him to be your cousin before this trip,” Elizabeth answered cautiously.

The conversation was not going as Mr. Darcy had hoped. What he had expected to come from it, he was not certain; an outright denial would not have been rational to expect, no matter how welcome it might have been. Whatever he had imagined this conversation would be like, he had not thought of distressing her so. It took a long pause to calm himself before he trusted himself to speak again.

“I suppose you have frequently traveled to London then,” he said thoughtfully, and in a much quieter tone than his previous inquiry.

“My aunt and uncle, to whom I am particularly close, reside there.”

A man who felt less might have inquired further, though he found himself unequal to the task. She had scarce been able to meet his eye throughout their conversation, and seemed to grow more and more distant with each answer. As for the lady, while she could not have been knowledgeable of the reason for his silence, she was no less appreciative of avoiding questions she would have been unable to answer. She had already spoken evasively in half-truths, something of which she could not be proud.

For a time it seemed they would spend the remainder of their walk in tense and awkward silence, and Mr. Darcy realized this would not do. He was not insensible to the fact that this would be the best – perhaps the only – opportunity he would have to broach the subject, and he refused let it pass only to go on wondering how things could have gone differently.

“I apologize if my congratulations were not the most forthcoming.” The strangled tone of his sudden outburst did not encourage her to respond, and when she turned towards him, he seemed to be gathering himself to continue.

When at last he did look up, he noticed her gaze and met it intensely with his own, his eyes penetrating hers, searching for her to understand.

“Did I not…? That is…have I not been…? I had thought…” Mr. Darcy sighed frustratedly as his speech faltered. He knew not how to continue and resolutely turned his attention back to the path before them.

He had cut himself off quite angrily, Elizabeth observed. That he believed her to have breached something that was understood between them was clear, but she was not sure what to make of it. Does he not approve of me as a match for his cousin? She had to admit an heiress would have brought something to the marriage that she could not, a matter of great significance for a man of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s circumstances. Perhaps he finds it more upsetting that he had not been informed? He did seem a man who liked to be in control of situations around him…justified or not. Be that what it may, he was obviously quite put out with her, and for some reason, this bothered her a great deal more than she would have expected.

“I am sorry if your aunt’s information was disagreeable to you,” Elizabeth offered, hoping to smooth some of the tension between them.

The look he threw her in response was at first very rueful, but softened as he met her eye, and she was emboldened to continue.

“I…I do not know what to say of our earliest acquaintance, Mr. Darcy, but I would like to think that upon furthering our acquaintance here at Rosings Park we have become…friends.”

Contrary to her expectations, he was silent at this – grave even – taking on much of his old manners from the earlier acquaintance she had just mentioned. She sensed that much had been left unsaid, though exactly what she could not determine as they came upon the lane that would return them to the manor house.

The reason for his silence was of course no mystery to the gentleman himself. U p until this point, he had taken Lady Matlock’s notion of an engagement between the two as unbelievably false, and had only wanted the opportunity to have the report universally contradicted. Yet every word Elizabeth spoke confirmed it. His own hopes were crushed such that he was now left reeling, frustratedly trying to pick up the pieces and find where his well-laid plans had gone so terribly wrong.

He thought over his acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth in Hertfordshire, his mind replaying overheard conversations and searching for any clues that she were attached. Words exchanged with Colonel Fitzwilliam he also reviewed. He had spoken of someone, but on the subject of young ladies he was almost as bad as Bingley! Half he knew were more ploys to satisfy Richard’s mother than anything else. Now that he thought about it, Richard did imply himself to be more serious about this one, but did he really mean it – and for all that is wretched, what was her name?

Then Mr. Darcy thought of the past weeks at Rosings Park. Elizabeth had spent much of her time caring for and watching over the Colonel, but was that not at Lady Catherine’s bidding, and was it not the same as she did for Jane? The same as she did for Jane…who she loves hardly the point he was trying to make. But in the library, she had no problem selecting books very well suited to the Colonel. Lady Matlock welcomed her with open arms, and Cressbrook did not seem taken aback by it in the least. Perhaps the Colonel had confided in his brother…and I too foolhardy to see the truth of it!

__________


Elizabeth returned to the sickroom after her walk with Mr. Darcy, feeling guilty for allowing her own muddled situation to take her attention away from the gentleman lying unconscious. She attended her tasks determinedly, waiting until she had assured herself of his having every possible comfort and read through three additional chapters before allowing her thoughts to once again turn introspective.

Thinking back on what had been said between Mr. Darcy and herself, she was unsettled in no small measure by the misleading pretense her side of the conversation seemed to support. She was anxious to communicate to the Viscount that the situation was getting further and further out of hand. Reluctant as she had been to go along with the scheme in the first place, it was now far more complicated than she had thought possible. She determined to express her concerns as best she may amidst the bustling and ever-present staff, and felt a surge of boldness to accomplish the task as she heard the door open behind her, only to feel her bravado deflate as she turned to find not the Viscount, but Lady Matlock entering the room, about to add yet another complication to Elizabeth’s already convoluted circumstances.

As they exchanged polite greetings and the expected inquiries regarding the Colonel’s health, Lady Matlock noted that try as she might to mask it, Elizabeth’s smile was not as bright and genuine as could normally be expected. She assumed this could likely be attributed to excessive time spent worrying in the sickroom, and smiling affectionately at the young lady beside her, she suggested they adjourn to the sitting room to await the gentlemen for tea.

“I imagine you have yet to meet Georgiana,” Lady Matlock inquired good-naturedly.

“I have not yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance,” Miss Elizabeth replied. Any emotion behind her response was lost on Lady Matlock, for at that moment, the gentlemen entered the room.

Polite greetings were again exchanged as Lady Matlock and Miss Bennet welcomed the gentlemen and rang for tea. The party settled in to make small talk as they awaited their repast, a situation which Mr. Darcy found altogether intolerable.

“When is your sister due to arrive, Darcy?” Lady Matlock asked, continuing the line of conversation the gentlemen had interrupted.

“She and Mrs. Annesley will be travelling from London in a few days.”

“I am sure you will enjoy her company, Miss Elizabeth,” Lady Matlock added, “I know how young ladies often want for the companionship of others close to their own age, and you will find my niece to be a sweet girl.”

Elizabeth nodded acceptingly. Where once the testimony of another might have caused Elizabeth to doubt such a claim, she did not question the truth of Lady Matlock’s words, as she had come to put a great deal of trust in that good lady’s opinions. In fact, it surprised her to note that in the few short weeks she had been separated from him, she had long ceased to think of Mr. Wickham at all.

“You have heard much of her I am sure,” Lady Matlock continued.

At this moment, Mr. Darcy looked decidedly uncomfortable, though by Elizabeth’s easy response, one would not suspect the reason.

“Yes, we shared a few common acquaintances in Hertfordshire. I heard much complimentary praise of Miss Darcy this past fall.”

Mr. Darcy made a small sound at this, somewhat passable as a cough, and covered it by adding, “Mr. Bingley’s sisters, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley were in residence at Netherfield…”

A smirk from the Viscount masked a slightly audible reaction of his own. While it was not uncommon for the sisters of his cousin’s acquaintances to seek his attention, with regards to Miss Bingley, the lady’s unparalleled reputation preceded her.

Ignoring his tittering cousin, who seemed to be refining a most irritating habit of finding amusement at his expense, Mr. Darcy turned to Miss Elizabeth and said, “I hope you will allow me to introduce my sister to you. She is not yet out, but we shall all be much in each other’s company under the present circumstances.”

Elizabeth could do little but accept the offer, and assured Mr. Darcy along with the rest of the party that she looked forward to making Miss Darcy’s acquaintance. As the conversation moved on to more remedial topics, she could not but hope that Mr. Darcy’s sincerity indicated some alleviation of the breach between them.

__________


Despite the tumult he had felt in the days since Lady Matlock’s revelation, Mr. Darcy continued in the habit of sitting with his cousin at least once during the course of the day. He could not in good conscience allow his own conflicted emotions to interfere with this course, and considering how his social interactions had gone of late, thought perhaps this should be seen as a welcome respite. So it was that he seated himself beside his cousin, the immediate reminder of his cousin’s precarious state of health calming his warring emotions. If, God willing, Richard were to pull through this ordeal, far be it from him to wish Miss Elizabeth away from his side when the two had apparently already formed an attachment. He could not wish a better match for his cousin in beauty and temperament, and he pushed aside the only negative involved – that under different circumstances, he would prefer the match for himself.

“How are you, old chap,” Mr. Darcy addressed his unconscious cousin, as pleasantly as he could be expected to do. “Dr. Grant assures us you are showing steady improvement, we only await confirmation of such from yourself. I should warn you the only downside will be a renewed place in our aunt’s notice – consider that added inducement to make a quick recovery that you might spirit yourself away.” Here he paused, knowing what must come next. He was well aware that the subject must come forward eventually, and all the better to accustom himself to it with a one-sided conversation. At least in this he need not fear that he should reveal himself.

“I understand there is some news you have been hiding from us, though I admit in the past you have spoken so frequently of your budding attachments – real and professed for your mother’s sake – that you may very well have mentioned it and I did not catch the seriousness of it, nor make the connection when I met the young lady. Having had the pleasure of Miss Elizabeth’s acquaintance these many months, I must say I have a new respect for your taste in women. She is…”

‘…wonderful… perfect… intoxicating’. Darcy shook his head as though to rid it of the hyperbolic descriptions coming to mind.

“…charming, and exuberant. You have done very well for yourself, I am sure she shall make you very happy.” His practiced smile turned despondent at this. In the years since they had come of age, he had never thought the task of wishing his cousin joy would be a melancholy one.

“I daresay the liveliness between the two of you will make very good company,” he admitted honestly, “although you have always been well-liked, making friends everywhere you go. People will always be easier in your company than mine and I have accepted that. I have never been envious of you…until now.”

After a moment collecting his thoughts, Mr. Darcy turned to observe his elder cousin in the doorway. Any doubts between the men about Darcy’s true feelings – and James Fitzwilliam having overheard his confession of them – were cleared in the meaningful look that passed between the two.

Without a word, the Viscount came to sit beside Mr. Darcy. Though the times when the undertaking was necessary were few and far between, he had always taken on the role of older brother when his younger cousin needed it, and this appeared to be one of those occasions.

“I simply cannot comprehend it,” Mr. Darcy said at last, “If they are engaged, why did I not hear of it before? Why would Richard not tell me, and in all the time I spent in her company, not a word of it was spoken.”

“If she did not know you were related, she would not see telling you as any matter of importance.” James Fitzwilliam was having increased difficulty in misleading his cousin, particularly from the position of a confidant. However he saw little advantage in destroying his brother’s chance at happiness because of his cousin’s sudden inhibitions regarding a young lady he had previously dismissed.

“That is true,” Mr. Darcy admitted thoughtfully, “but even if not specifically to me, an engagement would still be spoken of. If he has gone to her father, surely an announcement has been made of some kind. Such news could never be concealed in so small and insignificantly populated a village. And her mother! A woman more boastful of her daughters’ suitors could never be found! Two dances and Bingley might as well have proposed to the eldest Miss Bennet, if one were to gauge the situation by her mother’s tongue.”

And I might as well question your love for her if I were to gauge the situation by the opinions spouting from your own. At this thought, a portion of the Viscount’s guilt faded away. “Perhaps nothing had been announced. You of all people should understand that there exist some engagements of a peculiar kind.”

“James, you know very well that I am not engaged to Anne,” Mr. Darcy replied hotly.

“Of course I do, but that is hardly my point,” replied the Viscount, his cousin’s presumptuous behavior raising his ire. “You must make allowances for particularities of the situation. You know as a younger son, Richard would have some difficulty garnering father’s approval of the match under normal circumstances.”

“I suppose you are correct,” Mr. Darcy admitted again, his tone deflated, “and it would just as easily coincide that if they had met in London, nothing would be spoken of to her family, particularly her mother, until all had been settled. She is at least intelligent enough for that.”

“A very rational idea,” the Viscount replied, quite relieved to lay the subject to rest, “Now, enough trying to rouse my brother with all of this idle speculation. I am sure my father would appreciate our assistance in the study working to keep Rosings from going under.”




Chapter 10

Elizabeth called on Charlotte Collins again – something which had become a more frequent possibility of late. An unfortunate side effect, however, was the frequent presence of Mr. Joseph Jr. whenever Elizabeth’s visits were expected. As much as she enjoyed the company of her dear friend, her visits were invariably curtailed when he could be found in Mrs. Collins’ parlor.

“It has been a pleasure to see you, as always, Charlotte, but I believe I shall now be expected to return to Rosings,” Elizabeth announced at the soonest moment that would be considered polite, studiously avoiding Mr. Joseph Jr.’s steady gaze.

“Allow me to see you out, cousin,” said Mr. Collins with his typical simpering smile as he grandly gestured towards the door. Elizabeth held her tongue as she passed through the doorway, only to find that bad would go to worse when the odious man detained her for a conversation he apparently wished to hold in the middle of the hallway.

“I am glad to see, cousin Elizabeth, that you continue to recognize the amiable qualities Mr. Joseph possesses. For as much as your…impertinence may have hindered you in other endeavors – though perhaps on that subject it is best to remain silent – there remains a great opportunity for you there. The honor of providing service to the great house of Rosings Park, as you have seen for yourself Mr. Joseph does with some frequency, now that would be a stroke of good fortune indeed.” Even Mr. Collins realized that he had begun to carry himself away, and returned to his point.

“In light of this great prospect for yourself, it would behoove you to ensure that your behavior in other quarters does not jeopardize this opportunity,” he stated seriously.

“I do not understand your meaning, sir,” Elizabeth replied hotly, her confusion over what particular behavior he objected to not dulling her anger and revulsion at the idea of this ‘opportunity’.

“Why, that you must be very cautious not to overstep your place!” the bulbous gentleman exclaimed, “I realize you are currently in residence at Rosings Park, an esteemed honor indeed, but you must be very guarded in not allowing your estimation of your place to rise. We had previously spoken of your becoming a companion to the Countess of Matlock, but such an offer has not yet come, and it would not do to neglect Mr. Joseph, who has all but settled upon you.

“Furthermore, during your continued stay at Rosings Park, you must be careful not to give the appearance that you wish to insinuate yourself in the family party. Though you may have previously held a slight acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine would be most displeased if she were to find any indication that you were imposing yourself upon one of her nephews. Do not think that Mr. Joseph Jr. would not be influenced should you offend her and gain her ill opinion. The opinions of Lady Catherine de Bourgh are highly respected by those persons in my parish, as it should be with a citizen of rank amongst us. I say indeed, dear cousin, it would do no good to neglect your suitor in pursuit of avenues that should not be open to you.”

To say that Elizabeth was shocked and outraged by this presumptuous speech would be quite accurate; to say that Mr. Collins correctly interpreted the appalled expression on her face would be less so.

“Do not be upset, my young cousin,” Mr. Collins added condescendingly, “that this had not already occurred to you. You cannot help that your upbringing did not allow for exposure to such grand attentions as I have found in my patroness.”

Elizabeth was finally permitted to take her leave of Mr. Collins, feeling that she could not gather her gloves and bonnet fast enough as she rapidly escaped the confines of the house.

Had she been in better humor, she might have appreciated the self-congratulating expression written across Mr. Collins’ face. The poor man earnestly believed that he had given her much helpful advice, and that her silence reflected her realization she had much to think on in light of his generous assistance.

As she increased the distance between herself and the parsonage, and also the number of bushes which had received a good thrashing as she passed, Elizabeth felt her ire cool and her natural disposition began to return.

At this moment, however, her introspection did not leave her very attentive to her steps. It was not until she stepped out of a thicket and onto the adjoining path that she heard the pounding of hoof beats approaching and turned to look directly into the wide eyes of a gentleman’s horse. At the last moment, the horse swerved to avoid her and skitted sideways before coming to a halt, nearly throwing its rider with its awkward and sudden movements.

Elizabeth looked on petulantly as she watched none other than Mr. Darcy right himself in the saddle, taking a few moments to calm his horse before he dismounted.

“Miss Bennet, you seem to have a penchant for being present at the equestrian mishaps of my family.”

When she did not immediately respond to his attempted jest, he realized that she may have applied the wrong meaning to his words, as he had indeed expressed himself quite badly. “Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I hope I have not upset you.”

“Not at all sir,” she smiled weakly, “I was merely contemplating a few troubling things.”

“I hope it is nothing too serious.”

“Merely my future,” she muttered quietly.

Mr. Darcy was quite confused by this – was she not to marry the son of an earl? Perhaps the Colonel’s injuries were more distressing to her than she let on.

“I admit such lines of thinking often inspire me towards similar moods,” he replied cautiously, “though I am reminded of what my cousin’s reaction would be, ‘Surely it is not as bad as all that, particularly if you look at it from a fresh perspective’”.

Elizabeth laughed merrily upon hearing a philosophy so close to her own, “Yes, I suppose I ought not allow my outlook to be heavily influenced by…”

Mr. Darcy turned to her with a brow raised in inquiry, bidding her to continue.

“I have just had the privilege of the excellent advice of Mr. Collins.”

Ha! A disturbing thought indeed. The pair shared a smile at the loathsome notion. “Let us continue on through the park, that you might think on better things.”

Such a thing was not to be accomplished effortlessly, particularly as the gentleman beside her was having difficulty taking his own advice. It was not easily done to ‘think on better things’ when the lady at the crux of his troubles was right beside him. At length their conversation resumed, albeit not with the liveliness they once enjoyed, but by the time they returned to the manor house, their equanimity had been somewhat restored.

__________


“Miss Bennet, this morning you shall return to Mr. Joseph Jr. and see to it that another supply is ordered,” Lady Catherine called imperiously from the head of the breakfast table.

Given her recent discourse with Mr. Collins on the subject of that very man, Miss Elizabeth was more than a little reluctant to go. Such sentiment must have caught the attention of at least one other in the room as Mr. Darcy then inquired on her behalf, “Can we not simply write to Mr. Joseph?”

“Do you care nothing for my nephew’s health?” Lady Catherine replied sharply, “It is of utmost importance that this matter is seen to personally.”

Thus ended any further discussion on the matter.

Elizabeth walked reluctantly into the apothecary’s establishment, not particularly anxious to further her acquaintance with Mr. Joseph Jr. or give the appearance of offering him encouragement. She was surprised then, to find the front room occupied only by Mr. Joseph Sr.

“Miss Bennet, I bid you good morning,” the elder Mr. Joseph greeted cordially.

“Good day, Mr. Joseph,” Elizabeth smiled easily, pleased with the prospect of addressing a man more calm and sensible than the one she had expected.

“I shall not delay your business long, Miss Bennet. I have merely come in to make a simple request of my son for a patient before my weekly visit, and he should be joining us shortly.”

“I am in no great hurry, sir, and I am sure Mr. Joseph shall complete the task promptly.”

Miss Elizabeth Bennet soon regretted her polite compliment, as the elder gentleman was inclined to draw much more than the cursory sentiment from it.

“My son is always extraordinarily efficient and works with a great deal of care – though he conducts himself thus with all things he is passionate about.” Mr. Joseph Sr. paused deliberately and offered a wide smile at the compliment he paid his own son. Miss Elizabeth wondered if perhaps he were not so sensible as she had originally believed. “It is a wonder that he is still single, though there are plenty of young ladies who would be very happy to have him, I am sure.”

Elizabeth could offer no more than a slight nod and a nondescript utterance in response. A moment later she could not believe she was actually feeling relief at the sight of Mr. Joseph Jr. coming from the back room. This conversation with his father had gone quite dire indeed.

“Miss Bennet,” the young gentleman smiled widely, “a pleasure to see you, as always.”

Elizabeth replied politely, attempting to conduct the necessary business as quickly as two eager and verbose gentlemen would allow.

Having taken care of the few small matters of business that brought him into the village, Mr. Darcy approached the apothecary and observed the trio in conversation through the window. Joseph Sr. seemed to be chatting along while Joseph Jr. was hovering near Miss Bennet. The younger man’s behavior was affable and all too familiar in Mr. Darcy’s opinion. And then there was Miss Elizabeth herself, smiling and conversing much as she had with himself in Hertfordshire – the very behavior from which he had drawn so much encouragement – that is until he learned that she had likely been engaged to his cousin throughout. The same teasing smile which had once brought him such pleasure now only gave him a feeling of disgust on his cousin’s behalf.

“Miss Bennet,” Mr. Darcy spoke tersely. He cleared his throat as he entered the shop, drawing the attention of three pairs of eyes. Belatedly he added greetings to the gentlemen. “Dr. Joseph, Mr. Joseph.”

“Miss Bennet,” he continued, “I apologize for the interruption, but I fear my aunt will shortly be anticipating your return.”

While the gentleman might have hoped to startle some sense of shock or remorse into her gaiety, he did no such thing. Elizabeth was well aware of the hour, and that ample time remained for her to walk back to Rosings. She was however, more than desirous of quitting her present company, and serenely accepted the opportunity for escape.

Miss Elizabeth’s nonchalant and almost eager attitude only riled Mr. Darcy further. Flouncing indifferently from her flirtation and into the curricle that would return her to her unconscious fiancé – did she think he could not see what she was about?

Something within him argued that it went against her character to deliberately act in such a way, and his own wounded feelings posed too great a bias for him to see this clearly. His own uncertainty aside, the best course of action was to speak to Miss Elizabeth and make her aware of the effect of her actions, that she might correct them at once.

__________


That afternoon, Mr. Darcy strode toward the parsonage, knowing Miss Elizabeth to be calling there, and also knowing this to be the most likely means of securing a private conversation with her. He was taken by surprise, then, to encounter Mr. Joseph Jr. in the front hall. Stilted greetings were exchanged between the two would-be suitors, Mr. Joseph Jr. pronouncing his intention of going into the parlor and Mr. Darcy awkwardly following, hoping to find the ladies within.

“Is Mrs. Collins not present to host us, Mr. Joseph?” Mr. Darcy inquired upon finding the parlor decidedly empty of anyone, much less the lady he most wished to see.

“I understand from Mr. Collins that she and Miss Elizabeth are expected to return from the kitchen gardens shortly,” Mr. Joseph Jr. replied with an air of feigned nonchalance mingled with giddy anticipation.

Mr. Darcy silently cursed his ill-luck for not having spotted the ladies as he approached the house.

“Such a delightful young lady,” Mr. Joseph Jr. mused as he casually examined the figurines Mrs. Collins displayed on the mantel, “I imagine she should be well pleased to remain in Kent.”

Mr. Darcy cleared this throat uncomfortably, wary of Mr. Joseph’s implication, “Yes, though I am sure her visit has not gone precisely as she expected. I should hope Colonel Fitzwilliam will be well enough for her to be at leisure to return to her family within a few weeks.”

“Ah, but what you do not realize, sir, is that I intend to make an offer that is certain to change that, and Mr. Collins has just granted me his consent regarding a most particular conversation with her on the subject.”

Mr. Darcy had heard quite enough to wish himself anywhere but the parsonage, and with a cursory apology, excused himself for just that purpose. The pounding of the floorboards beneath his boots set a fine rhythm for the racing of his angry thoughts as he finally allowed himself to let loose on all of the vexatious circumstances of the past weeks. He could no longer imagine what direction his life would have taken had he not chanced upon meeting Elizabeth again at Rosings. He knew with absolute certainty that his chances for happiness had become smaller and further convoluted with every cursed event that had taken place. It could not be enough for him to trample his own happiness for the sake of his cousin – no. Now even that blasted possibility was jeopardized by the same vexatious woman, and he the only one with knowledge of it, and therefore honor-bound to act in some way to protect the Colonel’s happiness.

Letting himself out and closing the door behind him, Mr. Darcy began to stride away from the parsonage just as determinedly as he had approached it not a quarter of an hour before. Just as he was prepared to declare that the situation could not possibly try his patience further, two figures appeared from around the corner of the house, Mrs. Collins and Miss Elizabeth. A lesser man might have screamed out in frustration, but no matter how much he wanted to do just that, Mr. Darcy did no more than lower his head with a resigned sigh, clenching his fists for a moment before he approached the ladies.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Collins greeted warmly as both ladies curtsied.

“Mrs. Collins, Miss Bennet.”

“Might I invite you back into the parsonage for tea Mr. Darcy, if it is not inconvenient?”

“I thank you, no, Mrs. Collins. I was just on my way back to Rosings, and as the hour draws late, I truly should return.”

“Of course, sir.” Mrs. Collins replied before turning to her friend, “Lizzy, I hope I have not inconvenienced you overmuch with this long visit. You need not tarry on my account.”

“I should not mind if we sit for a few minutes, Charlotte.”

“I am sure Mr. Joseph Jr. will be glad not to have missed your company, Miss Bennet,” Mr. Darcy intoned as impassively as he could manage at the present moment, an effort which was not successful in the least.

The effect of this statement was immediately apparent on Elizabeth’s face, though the sentiment behind it was interpreted correctly by one of her present companions, and quite misconstrued by the other.

“Perhaps you are right Charlotte, though I do hope to enjoy your company again soon.”

After parting with her friend, Miss Elizabeth glanced briefly at Mr. Darcy and turned towards the parsonage gate. She was not eager walk back to Rosings in the company of a gentleman who seemed to be in a rather black mood, though she had to admit that after enduring the company of Mr. Collins and Mr. Joseph Jr. as he just had, she would not expect to find herself in a much better mood than he.

“I am sorry if my appearance drew you away from your friend, Miss Bennet,” said Mr. Darcy. His tone bespoke more polite obligation than genuine concern.

“No harm is done, sir, I can pay call at the parsonage again another time.”

“…though the company there may not be as appealing as it was today,” he added for her.

“I do not understand your meaning, sir.” Miss Elizabeth turned to face him. His expression did nothing to ease her confusion about why Charlotte’s company would be less appealing from one day to the next.

Having lost the peace of mind to deal politely with coy behavior, Mr. Darcy was less than candid with his response.

“Mr. Joseph Jr. will not always be present,” he deadpanned. “Though I suppose with a little effort such things could be arranged.”

Though she began to have her suspicions of where this was headed, such behavior as this could not induce her to admit it. “I am afraid I am not closer to understanding your meaning when you apply significance to that gentleman.”

Mr. Darcy turned aghast to his companion, “Do you honestly believe the ease and friendliness of your manner to have accomplished nothing with an eligible man, if not secured his addresses?”

“I apologize if my ‘ease and friendliness’ have given you a mistaken impression regarding my brief acquaintance with Mr. Joseph Jr., but allow me to assure you that the gentleman has not paid me addresses of any kind, and such addresses would be most unwelcome.”

“Then what of his meeting with your cousin, Miss Bennet? Both gentlemen are quite confident that your relationship with Mr. Joseph Jr. is of a much more familiar nature than you profess.”

“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth cried exasperatedly, the unpalatable idea of her cousin and Mr. Joseph making arrangements for her future only adding to her vexation. “I do not know which is more extraordinary, your implication that I have a ‘relationship’ of any sort with the man, or your belief in anything those ‘gentlemen’ have expressed to you! I am not sure I want to know what those two have arranged amongst themselves, but their schemes can have nothing to do with me. It is my understanding that any arrangements for my future would be made with my father, and as a man of sense, I am surprised you would credit anything less.”

“That in itself is a relief.” Though it still does not leave you unattached, and you are no less lost to me.


Chapter 11

The next day brought the arrival of Miss Darcy, a circumstance which was very welcome to Mr. Darcy, despite Lady Catherine’s vexation that her ill-timed arrival would delay lunch by at least a quarter of an hour. Once Miss Darcy had been allowed a brief respite to change, she rejoined the assembled party outside the dining room, where greetings and brief introductions were made.

“Miss Darcy, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Miss Elizabeth greeted kindly.

“The pleasure is mine, Miss Bennet, I assure you,” Miss Darcy replied, her speech inflected with all the grace a privileged young lady is raised to possess, for all that the words were murmured out of shyness.

Having seen all of the social niceties to their completion, Lady Catherine turned to lead the party into the dining room. Mr. Darcy stepped forward to offer an arm to each of the young ladies, escorting them into the dining room and seating them next to each other before finding a seat of his own.

“Would you mind, Miss Bennet, if I were to come and sit with you in the afternoon?” Miss Darcy inquired softly as the meal began.

“I would be very glad of your company, Miss Darcy, and please do call me Elizabeth. ‘Miss Bennet’ always puts me in mind of my elder sister Jane, and I do hope you and I shall become friends.”

After the initial shock of seeing her elder cousin in such a state, Miss Darcy’s focus shifted not to her own distress, but towards his care. Though she still expressed herself with some amount of shyness, she was clearly eager to assist in any manner she might be able, and looked to Miss Elizabeth as her example. The ladies quickly became quite comfortable with one another, particularly as Elizabeth explained to Georgiana that simply conversing and allowing her cousin to hear her familiar voice would be a great comfort.

As the ladies spoke, chatting of mutual interests and other inconsequential subjects, Elizabeth confirmed her initial suspicion that Miss Darcy possessed none of the pride she had heard spoken of in the fall. She saw nothing but the sweet and unassuming – if rather timid – character Lady Matlock had described. She felt very far removed from the few conversations she had held with Mr. Wickham, given all that had preoccupied her since leaving Hertfordshire. Without overmuch thought, she assumed there must have been some mistake there, but considering that she was unlikely to encounter the gentleman again, she resolved to think on it no more.

__________


Once Georgiana had sought the sole company of her brother, any news she had not shared in her letters was pushed aside as she expressed her delight in Miss Elizabeth and the esteemed character of her new friend. Such praises were not unexpected by Mr. Darcy as the entire family shared her opinion – himself included – though he was struck by how fervently his reticent sister praised her new friend as she eagerly sought his concurrence on how lovely Miss Bennet was.

As Mr. Darcy listened to his sister’s raptures about Miss Elizabeth, he had to admit that she was of steadier character than his accusations regarding Mr. Joseph Jr. implied. He knew the moment he heard her response to them that his assumptions had been proven entirely false. He had truly spoken out of turn when he broached the subject, and in such a manner that was surely most offensive to Miss Elizabeth. While this was not a time that he wished to compare his own strength of character to hers – as his would likely reflect rather poorly by the comparison, his integrity did require that he at least make a proper apology for his mistake.

Successfully seeking out Miss Bennet had long ceased to be a matter of difficulty for Mr. Darcy, and he was quick to find her as she walked about the park the following morning. Her countenance did not show the same ease or pleasure upon spotting him as it had for a time, but she accepted his company with civility nonetheless.

“I wished to speak to you, Miss Bennet,” Mr. Darcy stated formally as he fell into step beside her.

Hardly impressed by such speech, Miss Elizabeth met his eye with a meaningful look, showing him that he ought to expand upon the point if he wished a response.

“I owe you an apology for my accusations regarding Mr. Joseph Jr.,” he began, adding in a softer tone, “quite a sizeable one.

“I know enough of your character to recognize that you would not conduct yourself in such a way. My concern regarding Mr. Joseph Jr.’s behavior remains – though I should have known better than to make assumptions regarding your own. The words I spoke to you and the manner in which I expressed them were unpardonable, but I should hope that you would forgive me all the same.”

“If you have seen the error of your ways, there is nothing for me to do but forgive you.” After all, you acted in defense of your cousin, and could not have known that the interest you were defending does not exist.

She feared Mr. Darcy might notice that she had turned introspective – whether he would assume this to mean she had not forgiven him or that he might suspect the truth behind the matter, she knew not, but she did not wish to encourage either sentiment. Smilingly, she teased, “You do seem to be making quite a habit of acting to defend the best interest of your friends.”

“With each attempt being equally misguided as it is well intentioned?” he replied with equally light spirits.

“Unfortunately so,” she replied as they laughed together, amiability between the two now restored.

“Thank you for allowing me to introduce my sister to you.” Mr. Darcy said this with enough sincerity for Elizabeth to understand he meant far more by it than perfunctory sentiment.

“It is a pleasure to know her, I assure you,” Elizabeth replied with equal seriousness, “She is a lovely young woman.”

“But you have done so much to make her feel at ease with regards to our cousin’s situation, and I thank you for it,” he pressed on.

“She has done nothing that her own good and caring nature did not urge her to do, she only wanted for a bit of direction,” Elizabeth replied smilingly.

Mr. Darcy shook his head – in how different a light did the two ladies paint the same picture. “It seems both my sister and I are determined to give you more credit than your modesty will accept. Nonetheless your good opinion of her is something to be valued.”

Elizabeth did not know quite how to respond to such a speech, and turned away a bit. She could not, however, keep a faint blush from her cheeks at his compliment.

“I have recently had a letter from Jane,” she said a few moments later. “It seems that she has been receiving a great number of calls lately.”

“Is that so?” Mr. Darcy replied innocently, though something in his expression gave away his greater understanding.

“Yes,” Elizabeth smiled in response, “and it is quite convenient that they have all been from one gentleman, for the particular gentleman is the one whose company she would most prefer.”

In that short walk, the gentleman she had come to know at Rosings had returned. Since their argument, she had feared that the haughty gentleman she met in Hertfordshire reflected the truest version of his character, his kinder altered manners the effect of distressing family circumstances. She now saw that while in essentials he might be as he ever was, and glimpses of that prideful character would periodically surface, by knowing him better, she had improved her opinion of him. Having been in such close company, and so much more exposed to his manners, she could not but understand him better. This change had come on so gradually, such that her former – and temporarily reinstated – dislike of him was no longer rational to hold.

__________


That afternoon, Elizabeth had just settled herself on a garden bench with a favorite book when the crunching of footfalls on the path alerted her to Mr. Darcy’s rapid approach. She began to wonder why he would wish to speak to her again so soon, but then observed the wide and uncharacteristic grin spread across his face.

“Richard’s eyes fluttered!” he announced almost before he had reached her.

Remembering his original purpose, he reined himself in a bit and added, “I had come down to fetch my uncle and saw you from the window. I thought you might like to hear the good news…I had best continue on and find him now.”

He left just as quickly as he had arrived, but not without another beaming smile as he took his leave.

Goodness, he is handsome! The thought struck Elizabeth before she realized what she was thinking, and she found herself a little overwhelmed by it. She had already admitted that she no longer had any reason to hate the man, and he could be entirely amiable, even friendly, at times, but why she should be thinking of him as handsome – Elizabeth snapped herself out of this line of thinking. The Colonel would awaken soon, perhaps even at this very moment. While this was a blessing in itself and she could not be anything but grateful for it, what the gentleman might say was of much concern. Surely the truth would not be hidden for very long.


Chapter 12

The next few days brought a flurry of activity about Rosings Park. The Fitzwilliams vigilantly watched over the Colonel for additional signs that he would soon awaken, and on more than one occasion, their hopes were not disappointed. Lady Catherine, of course, met this progress in his condition with changes to her plethora of instructions for his care, leaving a good portion of her staff bustling about accordingly.

For Elizabeth, it became increasingly easier to distance herself from the many distracted parties, without fear of neglecting the Colonel. This situation suited her very well, as she could never over-indulge her affinity for nature. No little additional benefit was the privacy she might use to sort out her thoughts.

So fully did she welcome this opportunity, that on one such occasion, she became so lost in thought that she did not notice a gentleman approaching until he had nearly fallen into step beside her. Her countenance had remained unguarded before he interrupted her solitude, and the uncharacteristic furrow in her brow did not escape his attention.

“Is something troubling you, Miss Bennet? I had thought you would be pleased by such glad tidings as the Colonel’s progress.”

“Oh, yes! It is wonderful, Mr. Darcy, and I hope he shall awaken soon,” she replied earnestly, despite her distraction.

Why Mr. Darcy did not immediately respond, she knew not, but his silence only made her uncomfortable and drove her to speak of that which weighed heavily on her mind.

“After he does, however…things shall be different,” she added seriously, raising uncertain eyes to him as she continued. “I would have you know that I have appreciated your friendship at Rosings, as much as you might think on our acquaintance in Hertfordshire as having been somewhat inauspicious.”

Mr. Darcy turned to face her and squarely met her eye. Reaching for her hand, he pressed it briefly before he replied, “Miss Bennet, I have always valued the pleasure of knowing you.”

The softness of his expression and the earnestness of his gaze spoke of more than friendship – strongly enough that for the moment, the indications of his attachment she had overlooked in the past seemed so very clear. She could not dismiss them now, and she resolved that she must tell him the truth.

“Mr. Darcy, I…”

“Richard is awake!” Georgiana cried excitedly as she practically bounded up to the pair. So marginally had she contained her excitement over the news and having located her brother that she took no notice of the somewhat intimate scene she had interrupted.

With a brief darkening of countenance in response to the troubled look that remained on Miss Elizabeth’s face, Mr. Darcy offered an arm to her and then his sister that they might all hasten into the house. He knew she must have seen something in his eyes that told her the full meaning behind his words, and had no doubt that she had been about to reproach him for speaking so when she was already attached to his cousin. Never would he suspect that her agitation stemmed from how desperately she wished she had been allowed just a few moments more to tell him she was not engaged.

Upon entering the sitting room, they were awaited by Lady Matlock, who explained that she had already sat with the Colonel, and that he was now speaking to his brother and father. Mr. Darcy’s concerns about overtiring the patient with excessive visitors were quelled by the doctor’s response that unless any of them were prone to nervous displays, seeing familiar faces would likely bring more comfort than potential harm.

“Let us go in and see him then,” Lady Matlock smiled.

“I had not…I would not wish to intrude on a family scene,” Miss Elizabeth replied shakily.

“Nonsense, Elizabeth! I am sure he is most anxious to see you! Come along, my dear.” Lady Matlock linked their arms and smiled so warmly that she barred any further protestations, as much as Elizabeth might have liked to make them.

As they passed through the doorway, the room was in essentials much as Elizabeth had ever seen it. Maids bustled about, the curtains were drawn and adjusted at just the appropriate degree for the particular hour of day. Were it not for the additional chairs and the occupants necessitating them, she would have had no qualms over reading another passage from the poetry volume she had set aside that very morning – that is until an unfamiliar voice drew her attention.

“Wh-who is she?”

“Richard, it is Elizabeth,” Lady Matlock supplied.

The Colonel’s expression did not register a change with this information, and Lady Matlock expanded, “We have become quite good friends these last weeks. Is she so much changed since you last saw her?”

“She has been quite kind in coming to read to you each day since your accident,” Viscount Cressbrook added tentatively. He noted the confusion that their mother’s comment had set over his brother, which his own remark had done very little to alleviate.

The Colonel smiled at his brother, albeit rather bemusedly, and turned to the lady in question. “That is very kind of you, Miss…?”

“Bennet, sir,” Elizabeth finished with a kind smile, maintaining a smooth expression as best she was able. At this, Lady Matlock’s confusion grew to rival her son’s.

In the momentary silence that followed, Richard Fitzwilliam took on a bit of embarrassment at this unconventional introduction. He was suddenly very aware of his current state of informal dress, positioned in a sickbed no less. “To, ah…” he faltered and cleared his throat.

The Earl interpreted this pause as his son’s need for refreshment, and hurriedly offered a glass of water. The glass was gratefully accepted and partaken of, though perhaps more for the purpose of diversion than quenching thirst.

“To perform such an office for a person outside of your acquaintance is indeed very thoughtful, Miss Bennet,” Colonel Fitzwilliam offered, speaking with more confidence than his first attempt at the same.

“T’was nothing, sir. Indeed, you did not make for a difficult patient.”

Lady Matlock went white as a sheet, and Mr. Darcy, noticing her distress, offered his arm and guided her out to the sitting room. Not wishing to alarm his recently re-awakened patient, Dr. Grant offered a few general suggestions for the Colonel’s recovery, and requesting a moment of the Viscount’s time, excused himself to follow the party that had retreated to the sitting room. Suddenly the large group crowding the sickroom had been reduced to the Earl and his niece, with Miss Elizabeth standing awkwardly to the side, but all were much too caught up in the Colonel’s recovery to pay much mind to it.

Meanwhile, tempers were not so calm just beyond the adjoining door.

“What is happening? Why does he not remember?” Lady Matlock inquired frantically, once Dr. Grant had joined her.

“There are a wide variety of conditions that can come as the result of a head injury, and some degree of memory loss is not uncommon,” he replied with all the calm reassurance a doctor of his years’ experience is sure to possess. “A wide range exists in terms of the amount of memory loss and also its duration. So far your son has seemed very cognizant and in control of his faculties. It seems very likely that the memory loss is limited, and over time it may very well prove partially or completely temporary.”

“Thank you, sir; that is most reassuring,” the Viscount replied to Dr. Grant before turning in comfort to the Countess, “See, Mother? It is not so very bad, and he may yet recover completely.”

Dr. Grant concurred, “Physically I expect him to make a full recovery, much of which he has already done in the past weeks’ bed rest. His condition should now be quite stable, and it is a blessing to see him so well restored to us.”

“But what of Miss Bennet, sir?” Mr. Darcy spoke out, albeit somewhat hastily. He collected himself to rephrase before he continued, “That is, as to those events which Richard does not presently recall. Are we to avoid subjects entirely once we find he does not remember them?”

“That is a difficult question to answer, Mr. Darcy,” the doctor replied. “As you may already be aware, there are many conflicting opinions published on the subject, even amongst the most renowned experts in this field of study. It is my opinion that while discussing events he does not remember could be distressing to the patient and encourage his mind to replace first-hand memory with second-hand intelligence, it could be equally distressing to see certain subjects studiously avoided or awkwardly circled, thus creating a tension in general conversation. A discussion in general terms to canvas what he has lost may also be useful in triggering his memory.”

Given this advice, it was not long before Richard Fitzwilliam was once again surrounded by his nearest relations, attempting a benign and polite conversation.

“What is it? Will someone please tell me what it is that I am supposed to remember?” the Colonel asked, his eyes darting from one family member from the next. His mother, who valiantly tried to conceal her emotions as she anxiously held his hand; his brother, sitting at the end of the bed and somehow not quite able to meet his eye; and his cousin Darcy standing silently off to the side. His gaze settled last upon his father, who finally offered a response.

“Calm yourself, Richard. I understand your frustration, but nothing of great consequence has occurred.”

“Forgive me, but some of your expressions suggest otherwise,” he answered wryly.

“Do you have any memory of your acquaintance with Miss Bennet?” Lady Matlock asked kindly.

“Should I? I do not remember meeting the lady before this afternoon.”

“She is from Hertfordshire, dear, her visit here to Kent coincided with yours.” Lady Matlock paused to see how this information affected her son. His attention, however, had been caught by the dark look Mr. Darcy had cast him at the implication of he and Miss Bennet coordinating their travel plans, and he wondered at the significance of it. Why do I feel as though I have heard the name Bennet before? I have the strangest feeling that the name should be familiar to me… he allowed the thought to trail off as his mother continued. “I believe the timing of your visits was meant to be a reflection of the attachment between you.”

…that’s it! Maybe this is the beginning of what I am supposed to be remembering. But an attachment, if that were the case…

Here the Colonel took on an expression of alarm, “Are we…? That is….such a thing could be materially harmful to the lady if I have forgotten it!”

“You have not yet placed a formal announcement in the Times, if that is your concern, son,” the Earl added, “I am sorry we cannot say more as to the true progress of your attachment. But she seems a good and understanding sort of girl.”

“Indeed Richard, I am sure you have no need to worry of her pressing you or doing anything but allowing you time to recover,” Lady Matlock added.

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s alarmed expression had faded at these remarks, though his countenance still could not be considered remotely peaceful.

“Give yourself time, old chap,” said the Viscount, who up until this point had remained silent. “It will all become clear to you soon enough, and in the mean time, there is no harm in acquainting yourself with Miss Bennet and enjoying her company.”

An involuntary sound escaped Mr. Darcy’s throat at this, which – much to his benefit – Lord and Lady Matlock were inclined to misinterpret, taking it as a hint that the two brothers might like some time to speak alone.

Once the other occupants of the room had left, Colonel Fitzwilliam voiced his concerns about his supposed engagement to a woman he did not remember a jot prior to the current day. The idea that until his memory returned, he should continue on where he was supposed to have left off – and no one knew where this was exactly – he found incredulous.

The Viscount reiterated that as no formal announcement was made in London, there would be no pressing reason to move forward immediately. Certainly Richard would be allowed time to complete his recovery, and he could take adequate time to ascertain their feelings and get to know her again. If, after time had allowed them to become more comfortable around each other, he still did not recall their initial acquaintance, he could speak to her about whether or not she wished to maintain their attachment. After all, circumstances had changed enough, such as the possible end of his military career, to justify such a conversation.

Colonel Fitzwilliam found himself with much to think about, and such would haunt much of his private thoughts in the days to follow. As much as Dr. Grant had assured him that his memory would return in time, and it could be harmful to his health to trouble himself over it, at times he could hardly occupy himself with anything else.

Little fragments of memories would be triggered by idle conversation, an occurrence not uncommon in the healthiest of men, but he could not place them as clearly as he ought. He tried not to be concerned that none of the surfacing memories regarded Miss Elizabeth, as many of these remembrances were still hazy – past military campaigns, old Cambridge acquaintances, social functions of both family and society.

The bits of London’s balls and parties did more often than not have a recurring theme, however. A flash of red Irish curls, a glimpse of brilliant green eyes, slender fingers falling delicately into his grasp. A soft and teasing laugh, at times so much like Miss Elizabeth’s that he thought it must be hers, though other times not. All of these blurs and glimpses hinted at being the same woman, and it bothered him that he truly could not place her. Then again, his affable nature had always given away to flirtations – albeit innocent ones – and as they were great in number but not duration, perhaps he should not be surprised that the memories of this particular infatuation had become hazy. At any rate, perhaps it would be best to follow Dr. Grant’s advice before he drove himself to distraction over a situation that could very easily amount to nothing.



Chapter 13

Now that Colonel Fitzwilliam was awake, Lady Catherine’s strict sense of decorum deemed it no longer proper for Miss Elizabeth Bennet to attend him, and thus the young lady’s residence at Rosings Park was no longer required. This pronouncement suited the opinions of all parties, as the majority of the household believed the Colonel to have previously secured an understanding with the young lady, and the lady herself had long wished to distance herself from the awkward situation that had grown to surround her.

Though Lady Catherine had ordered a cart for Miss Elizabeth’s trunk, and most likely assumed she would be transported by the same, Viscount Cressbrook had taken the liberty of ordering the curricle to escort her back to the parsonage. Elizabeth did not find this terribly surprising, given the frequency with which the curricle appeared, though she was pleased with the prospect of being escorted by Viscount Cressbrook instead of Mr. Darcy.

The Viscount greeted his charge gladly as he handed her up into the curricle, drawing her into conversation not a moment after flicking the reins and getting their conveyance underway.

“I must thank you again, Miss Elizabeth, for the great service you have done for my family. Unwitting misrepresentations or no, your presence has done much to see us through such a difficult time, and I do not think we would have been the better for it without your strength of character.”

“I thank you, sir.”

The demure nature of the lady’s response did much to ease the Viscount’s mind and convince him that he had brought her to his way of thinking. Unfortunately for him, her quietness was only due her preoccupation as she formed the proper words for the second half of her response.

“I did no more in this case than I should hope to do for any other person, though I cannot say whether those ‘misrepresentations’ were so positive as you imply. I would hope the strength of your own character would drive you to correct them now that your brother is recovered.”

Viscount Cressbrook had long wondered if this conversation would one day come, and alas it had.

“Now Miss Bennet,” he replied carefully, “while I thank heaven that my brother is indeed well on the road to returning to his former self, I might remind you of our conversation about the merits of such a match, and that you ought not dismiss the opportunity out of hand?”

“I do not deny that even in my limited experience, your brother seems all that is amiable and respectable, but to gain the connection by such deceptive means! I should hardly know myself were I to behave in so devious a fashion.”

“And such is a credit to your character,” the Viscount reluctantly conceded, “Perhaps I should endeavor to correct the misconceived notions my family holds regarding yourself and my brother. I do realize the greater share of the blame is mine, and so must the remedy be.”

Miss Elizabeth smiled widely with genuine relief, “Again I thank you, sir.”

__________


As she entered the parsonage as a residing guest for the first time in weeks, Miss Elizabeth did her best to put her personal concerns aside. Charlotte’s warm greeting made her feel keenly how her hostess had been neglected, even if it had been by no choice of her own. Though they had seen each other at regular intervals during her stay at Rosings Park, it was as though Miss Elizabeth were come for her first visit all over again, and she listened as her friend proudly discussed all the little changes and improvements she had made to her household during that time. At length the subject of Mrs. Collins’ domestics was extinguished and conversation turned to Elizabeth’s time at Rosings. It was nearly the dinner hour before Mr. Collins returned to the house and the evening passed quietly, just as those at the beginning of her stay were wont to do.

The next day Elizabeth broached the subject weighing most strongly on her mind, only to find herself wishing she had been more successful in her persuasion. The original length of her stay would expire within the week, and by her estimation, it would be most sensible for her to return to Hertfordshire with Maria Lucas as planned. Mrs. Collins, however, insisted that she could hardly consider the last weeks as a proper visit. Added to her arsenal was the correspondence Mr. Collins had held with Mr. Bennet, wherein Mr. Collins had explained the importance of Elizabeth’s remaining in Kent, and the great service she was providing. If only her father had not indulged Mr. Collins and supported his belief that to be a companion to Lady Matlock would be something indeed! His expression that he could remain parted with his daughter for so worthy an endeavor was taken as stated, and Elizabeth could only refute it so strongly without giving offense. To bring up the misconception of an engagement between herself and the Colonel she knew to be unwise. Charlotte Collins was nothing if not prudent, and while she would not support an outright lie, neither would she allow Elizabeth to run away without exploring the opportunity of securing such an advantageous match.

Though she had not long been returned from Rosings Park, Elizabeth was not surprised to receive an invitation for tea from Lady Matlock the next day. The invitation was of course addressed to Mrs. Collins and included both of her young guests, and at the appropriate hour, the trio set out walking to Rosings Park.

Elizabeth met this visit with a feeling of keen anticipation, for it would be the first occasion on which the Fitzwilliam family would likely have heard the true version of events that led to her acquaintance with their son, and she could not think they would react kindly towards it. She was soon to find, however, that while the Viscount had promised to act, he found it to be something easier said than done and apparently he would have some difficulty finding the right time to broach the subject.

Upon entering Rosings, Miss Elizabeth was pleased to find that Viscount Cressbrook had anticipated their arrival and awaited them in the foyer. At the earliest possible moment to speak to him aside, she whispered agitatedly, “Please sir, do tell me how differently your family thinks of me now. Their extending this invitation to tea is encouraging, but I cannot imagine they took the news well. Lady Matlock must think me most conniving.”

“Oh, I would not be so concerned, Miss Bennet,” the Viscount replied soothingly.

“Truly?” she responded with not a little astonishment, “You would not?”

Here the gentleman grew sheepish as he replied, “I have not exactly told them yet.”

Their precarious lack of privacy kept Miss Elizabeth from making a reply worthy of a fishmonger, though her expression was no less communicative of the same.

“Forgive me,” the Viscount added earnestly, “it is a delicate situation that only wants for the right time, but I will address it.”

Miss Elizabeth may have muttered something about it only wanting less reluctance, but such would hardly be ladylike, and as no one heard her for certain, it shall remain neither here nor there.

As the party gathered in the sitting room, Elizabeth’s only comfort was that the addition to the party added a dynamic of formality to the conversation. However this could not change that the conversation eventually turned to Colonel Fitzwilliam and his progress towards recovery, which gave way to the suggestion that Elizabeth would enjoy visiting him awake after so many one-sided interactions. Even if Lady Matlock had been of a mind to stand on ceremony with Miss Elizabeth, propriety still could not be truly offended by these particular circumstances. The daily regimen of provisions and instructions from Lady Catherine had not decreased, only changed now that Colonel Fitzwilliam was conscious, and they would never be remotely unattended.

So it was that not half an hour had passed since Elizabeth’s return to Rosings Park and she was once again seated beside the Colonel – a gentleman who was now very much awake.

The first moments that passed between Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Bennet could only be described as awkward. Though both parties were amiable and sociable enough in their own right, avoiding the primary subject that connected them did significantly hinder their conversation.

After some minutes filled with many stilted and failed attempts at conversation, Elizabeth resigned herself and said laughingly, “I think you should now that your family believes us to be engaged.”

“Yes,” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed, grateful for her levity in broaching the subject, “I had an inkling that such was the case.”

The Colonel’s smile soon faded, however, in the face of his current resolve. His expression remained kind, but grew serious all the same. “I…I must be frank with you Miss Bennet. At this juncture, I cannot remember our earlier acquaintance, as much as I wish I had not lost those particular memories.”

“Do not concern yourself, sir. We…our acquaintance is not so extensive as all of that implies.”

“Then I do not...that is, I have not asked you…” Though both had a fair idea of what the Colonel was trying to say, he was rather at a loss for how to express it, being that asking directly whether or not he had proposed to her was out of the question.

“Sir, I believe it is safe to say this is the weightiest conversation we have had in terms of discussing our futures.”

Both could not help but smile with relief at this statement, as it effectively relieved much of the tension that had built between them. In her honesty and good humor, Colonel Fitzwilliam saw a glimpse of what was so admirable in her. Elizabeth could only wish she had long ago possessed the strength to say much the same to his mother, but at least she could find a great deal of comfort in conveying to the gentleman that he was in no way honor-bound to her. Heaven help her if he had felt the need to tender a proposal thinking it was his duty to do so.

__________


“Mother, I still cannot think well on this,” the Colonel said to Lady Matlock after their guests had departed, “I have no desire to lead the lady on, pretending an affinity I cannot recall or feel.”

“Oh, you needn’t trouble yourself so,” Lady Matlock fussed kindly.

Colonel Fitzwilliam cast his mother a sharp and doubtful look.

Taking his hand in hers, she met his eye and said with affectionate firmness, “Richard, she will understand.”

Her son smiled softly at her warmth, though he did not credit it to much more than maternal bias until she continued.

“Elizabeth Bennet is a wonderful young woman, Richard, and she is perfect for you. Once you see that, you can propose for a second time and all will be restored to what it once was.”

“You assume much, mother. In conversation with Miss Elizabeth, she gave me to understand that I yet to propose.”

“Perhaps,” Lady Matlock smiled sadly, “or perhaps she was too demure to admit it. I can imagine how difficult it would be for a young woman to know that all fond memories of courtship are hers alone…perhaps forever.”

Lady Matlock lightened her smile as she continued, “Now I do believe your brother James has already tendered the best advice – take this time of recovery and get to know Miss Elizabeth. Soon enough you shall see what the rest of us have already observed in her these last few weeks, and everything will be set to rights.”

__________


Though the entire party was exceedingly glad for Colonel Fitzwilliam to be awake and on a steady path to recovery, Dr. Grant was insistent that the returned color in his cheeks and his good humor were no indication of a full recovery. He gave strict orders that the Colonel was not to overexert himself after having spent so many days in bed, unconscious no less. Logistically speaking, this meant that he was to be left to rest quietly at the first moment he began to tire and would remain confined to his bed for a week – much to the Colonel’s chagrin.

The added rest required by the Colonel’s recovery did much to relieve any potential for frequent meetings between himself and Miss Elizabeth. The change in his condition made it no longer appropriate for her to attend to his health in any way, and given the frequent hours at which he slept; it was not uncommon for her go through an entire visit without laying eyes upon him. This circumstance was just as well, for neither felt entirely comfortable with the prospect of meeting often while he was confined to his bedchamber. That is not to say that she spent much more of her time at the parsonage than she had in weeks previous, as one might expect for her having returned there, for invitations were frequent from both Lady Matlock and Miss Darcy. The invitations never failed to include Mrs. Collins as well, and though Mr. Collins eagerly reminded the ladies of the honor of receiving these attentions from so noble a family, even he admitted that Mrs. Collins could not neglect her parish duties, and Miss Elizabeth was just as often sent on alone.

So it was that Miss Elizabeth often found herself amidst the family party, the gentlemen of the house being no exception. This was no particular hardship as she had grown quite fond of Miss Darcy and her conversation, though this often had a side effect of drawing the attention of the young lady’s brother. While he was at many times content to sit in silent observation, as a reticent gentleman is often wont to do, Viscount Cressbrook found this development to be very telling. What the Viscount found to be more concerning, however, were the occasional contributions Mr. Darcy did make when the conversation turned to the subject of his brother.

“And did you truly feel comfortable reading all of that time, Miss Bennet?” Miss Darcy asked with some degree of wonder, “I confess I do not know how I would feel to do such a thing aloud.”

“Indeed I did,” Miss Elizabeth smiled kindly, “Though with as many younger sisters and cousins as I have, one learns many bedside amusements, reading perhaps being one of the least eccentric. Knowing their favorites or reading a grand fictional adventure has helped keep the attention of the most unruly lot, though at least I did not have to worry about that form of dissention from the Colonel.”

“But you did read his favorites nonetheless,” added Mr. Darcy, leaving the Viscount very glad he had heard that odd remark. Obviously Cressbrook knew Miss Elizabeth had gained her information from his own lips, though if his cousin assumed the information had come from the Colonel, he was not about to reveal evidence to the contrary. Of some concern to more than one member of the party was the slightly accusatory tone of Mr. Darcy’s voice, as nonchalant as he attempted to make it.

This particular incident was not enough for Mr. Darcy to have done with the subject; odder questions would often follow about what dishes the Colonel would most likely be anxious to be allowed again, whether he was more likely to want to go fishing or hunting at the first opportunity, and whether or not Elizabeth had seen his favorite hound.

The lady was not unaware of how Mr. Darcy intended these remarks to frighten her, however she would not be intimidated them. She had in fact gained sufficient knowledge to answer most of Darcy’s questions – after all she had spent the better part of the last weeks in the bosom of the Fitzwilliam family – but she rather preferred to remain truthful by relying on her wit. She offered light and teasing answers that deflected the question, often back to the questioner himself, and prevaricated enough for her to carry on with some degree of credit. She did feel some guilt for carrying on a conversation that offered support to this deception, but her remorse was overshadowed by the vindictive undertone of his questioning, which left her feeling quite affronted.

Before the conversation could turn to Richard’s birthday, whether he was left or right handed and the name of his first horse, the Viscount interrupted and laughingly asked to what all these questions tended. Thankfully his light-hearted tone gave the impression of an innocent and teasing inquiry, thus the subject was dropped. As for Miss Elizabeth, she began to think Mr. Darcy had a penchant for strange and disjointed conversation, and she was more than a little inclined to take exception to his interrogations.

Miss Elizabeth was on her way out soon after this latest incident, and was surprised when Mr. Darcy reappeared and asked for a moment of her time.

“More questions, Mr. Darcy?” As much as she tried to speak civilly, Elizabeth’s tone was impertinent at best.

The gentleman smiled wryly in response. “Actually, I have a bit of a surprise for you, Miss Bennet. It is in the library.”

She obviously had not expected this, and her tone softened, “You needn’t have arranged anything on my account.”

Mr. Darcy held out his hand in a polite gesture for Miss Elizabeth to lead the way, “I confess I did not. It was Georgiana’s idea; I simply brought it to fruition.”

Elizabeth walked into the library to observe a collection of newly arrived books sitting on a nearby table, only one of which having been removed from its parcel and laid carefully before the others.

“This is exquisite,” Elizabeth said appreciatively as she lifted the volume, “I have been wishing for an original copy of this work for some time.”

Mr. Darcy smiled a bit and cleared his throat. “Well, Georgiana actually thought you might like a sketch book and drawing pencils, as she knows how fond you are of observing all of the flora that is now coming into full bloom.”

“ –Oh, I apologize,” Elizabeth colored slightly as she turned to see the prominent arrangement of artist’s supplies in the center of the room. “That is quite lovely as well. I thank you.”

“Think nothing of it, I have been waiting anxiously for that very book myself.”

Their encounter came to somewhat of an awkward end soon after, though that is not to say that it did not frequently occupy the minds of both Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth for some time after they parted .

__________


The following week, Dr. Grant permitted that the Colonel may begin to gradually resume normal activities, at first limiting himself to resting on a settee and seeing that his growing appetite was well encouraged. So it was that while he could not yet join his Aunt Catherine in the drawing room, the Colonel was permitted to return to the family party above stairs.

Each member of the family was eager in their attempts to entertain the Colonel and facilitate the doctor’s orders as much as possible with a man ever recovering towards his active self. Georgiana had long become equally fond of Elizabeth as her Aunt Fitzwilliam, and between the two ladies, Miss Bennet seldom found herself without an invitation to join them. While no amount of time in their company could make her feel more comfortable with the pretense behind her attendance, Elizabeth had to admit she did quite enjoy the marked difference in the liveliness of their conversation now that the Colonel had been restored to them.

It must also be said that with her son’s recovery now proceeding apace, Lady Matlock was rather concerned to correct what she thought to be the greatest loss to her son due to his injury – the hindrance of his courtship with Miss Bennet. She had long recognized the happiness such a wife would bring her son, and what a pleasant addition she would make to the family. For Lady Matlock to facilitate the opportunity for the pair to rekindle whatever must have begun in London, then, she felt to be no more than a just kindness in the best interest of her son.

Thankfully Lady Matlock’s notion of matchmaking was far more decorous than that of Mrs. Bennet; her initial tactic being nothing more than to ask Miss Bennet to sit with her after having seated herself beside her son.

“Miss Bennet,” Lady Matlock began artlessly, “you must forgive me that in all our weeks together, I have not yet had the opportunity to inquire much about your family. I understand that you are the second of five sisters, and I would enjoy hearing more about them.”

Though her sisters had each been mentioned in passing to some degree, Miss Elizabeth was happy to answer Lady Matlock’s inquiry. The conversation easily grew to include Colonel Fitzwilliam as they discussed Hertfordshire, lightly canvassing Elizabeth’s likes and dislikes having grown up at Longbourn. It was not impossible for her to discern that the mother had started this conversation for the benefit of the son, but it was handled delicately enough that she could not truly object to it.


Chapter 14

Though Lady Catherine had eschewed any and all exposure to the sick room – after all it would not do to risk Anne’s health, which such exposure would certainly do – the Colonel soon reached a point in his recovery where he could no longer avoid his aunt’s company. It must be said, however, that with Lord and Lady Matlock in residence, Lady Catherine was far less likely to meddle with the affairs of that family, and aside from the reasonable expectations of any hostess, they were left to do as they pleased.

The Colonel’s first formal dinner with the family was met with much pomp and celebration; for to the minds of many, it heralded an end to his incapacitation and a beginning of his full recovery. In the days that followed, the entire Fitzwilliam and Darcy party sat with Lady Catherine, Colonel Fitzwilliam and his relations paying all the requisite civilities that had not been afforded since their visit began. Those callers which Lady Catherine did receive were quick to offer their congratulations to the Fitzwilliams on the Colonel’s recovery, and Lady Catherine went so far as to invite Mr. Collins and his household to tea, and occasionally to dine.

The weather was particularly fine, and Colonel Fitzwilliam was at long last permitted to return to the fresh air – something which was as much condoned by Dr. Grant as it was advised against by Lady Catherine. His first outings were large parties for tea, or short walks around the garden with his brother, but as the invitations extended to the parsonage were still frequent, it was soon contrived for him to walk with Miss Elizabeth.

Thankfully the genial personalities of both were quickly able to overcome the initial awkwardness, particularly as Miss Bennet was so fond of nature, and the Colonel was quite glad of finally being outdoors. He was dutiful to the doctor’s orders not to push himself too far – after all it would not do to overexert himself, and it would be quite embarrassing to do so in front of a lady. They soon found shaded bench where they might sit and converse.

“I must say, Miss Elizabeth, it is odd to find that much of our courtship of sorts and your entire acquaintance with my family have been conducted without my being so much as conscious.”

“Indeed, sir,” Elizabeth smiled, “I would hardly call it an ordinary situation.”

“Though I suppose Darcy at least you had known a few months in Hertfordshire last autumn.” The Colonel furrowed his brow, thinking of how he remembered spending his own time in the fall. He wondered how he could remember certain details so clearly, and yet none of them contained Miss Bennet. Not wishing to alarm the lady, however, he laughed – albeit a little forcedly – and continued lightly, “I am not sure how much that acquaintance was helpful to you though, I know my cousin can be a bit boorish around the sickroom.” He turned towards his companion and was pleased to see her return his gaze easily; she did not seem to have detected the previous turn of his inner thoughts. “I hope he was not too difficult?”

“No, not at all,” Elizabeth replied distractedly, the mention of Mr. Darcy bringing on her own reflections on time spent with said gentleman. “While it would be foolish to deny to you – a person who knows him so well – that he was at times rather stern and solemn,” I could hardly imagine him to be anything else, “he was also considerate and even attentive – to your needs, that is.”

Without much more to be said on the subject, Colonel Fitzwilliam soon escorted Miss Elizabeth back to join the rest of their party, conversing on pleasant though inconsequential topics as they took tea.

__________


Several days passed in a very similar fashion, which did much to accustom Miss Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam to each other’s presence. As much as Elizabeth enjoyed the Colonel’s company and became quite fond of him, she could not help but notice the strange difference she felt in response to Mr. Darcy. He was still present nearly as frequently as he had always been, and spoke a little more than he had when the Colonel had first awoken. Perhaps the contrast presented by the time she now spent with the Colonel was the reason behind the change she felt, but something in his conduct was ever so slightly off, and this managed to draw her attention more than it ought. She felt a rush of anxiety when he entered the room, not at all an unpleasant sensation, only puzzling in that any reaction she had to the Colonel – however amiable that might be as well – paled in comparison.

One gentleman could not look on the progress between the ostensibly affianced couple so easily, and when one afternoon he and Colonel Fitzwilliam sat together in the library, he could not but broach the subject.

“So you are to pursue Miss Bennet then?” Mr. Darcy asked suddenly, his tone was even and dull, dampening the despondency that threatened to emerge.

“It would seem so,” the Colonel replied with some caution. It seemed a rather odd question, and he saw little reason for his cousin to ask or care. After all, Miss Elizabeth was a nice enough girl, and his family was well satisfied with her.

Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, was equally miffed by Fitzwilliam’s lackadaisical response. “I am just surprised to see you so easy about all of this,” he rejoined fervently, “I had not thought you were so eager to settle down – or rather you were waiting for sufficient monetary inducement in a lady who could well afford to keep you.”

“Perhaps not,” Fitzwilliam replied a bit defensively, “but I am making a fresh start with Miss Elizabeth, she’s…well, she…”

“She intrigues and exasperates you at once,” Mr. Darcy responded somewhat darkly, speaking more to himself than to his cousin, “it is as though you never know quite whether to take her remarks seriously, so frequently does she tease and bait, or profess opinions which are not her own – yet on the whole, the effect is captivating.”

“No,” the Colonel replied easily and shook his head, “that’s not it, at least not exactly, but father supports the match, as do James and mother no less. By that measure I am willing to find out what it is that makes her so special.”

And these the words of the man I must give way to, for apparently he was there before me, Mr. Darcy thought dejectedly. Once again rationale insisted that any hopes of the Colonel abandoning his suit were futile, as convenient as they might be in rescuing his own aspirations.

__________


The next morning over breakfast, a discussion ensued at Rosings Park on how Miss Bennet should be sent for as an addition to the family party. This was not an infrequent occurrence between Lady Matlock and Miss Darcy, though they had not previously spoken so openly in the presence of Lady Catherine. As much as Lady Matlock professed herself to be motivated by appreciation for all of Miss Elizabeth’s help, Lady Catherine was still inclined to believe they were considering her as a potential ladies’ companion for someone of their acquaintance, if not for Lady Matlock herself. Her pontifications on the subject were received as something between unwelcome and offensive, yet if by this misconception Lady Catherine would welcome Miss Elizabeth into the party, they would not correct her.

“Cressbrook, you shall take the curricle out to collect Miss Bennet,” Lady Catherine had declared once her speech was complete.

A note was then dispatched to inform Miss Elizabeth of their plans. When the manservant shortly returned with a note indicating that the young lady had no objection to the scheme, Viscount Cressbrook obligingly ordered the curricle, and asked that Mr. Darcy accompany him out to the drive.

The cousins stood and spoke amicably of gentlemanly pursuits until the curricle was brought round, whereupon Viscount Cressbrook promptly excused himself and turned back towards the house.

“Well then, Darcy, I’ll see you to it.”

“Are you not going to collect Miss Bennet?” Darcy asked confusedly, staring blankly after his cousin.

“And what – abandon my brother’s company so as to provide Miss Bennet with a stodgy old companion?” And while I know not how kindly she looks upon me at this moment, I do know she would quite take advantage of the opportunity for a private conversation to express her opinion on a certain subject again, and that is a conversation I would rather avoid! “No, no. It is better I leave that task to the man who would be likely to take the curricle out anyway, Miss Bennet or not. And besides, the two of you are something of old friends.”

Friends, Mr. Darcy thought despondently as he drove towards the parsonage. He had not slept well the previous night, as he had spent much time thinking on his conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam. He could not be proud of his recent behavior towards Miss Elizabeth. Since the Colonel had awoken, his conduct had been less than gentlemanly, and while he knew well the reason behind it, he found himself in less control than he would wish when in her presence.

It was not her fault in the least that he had found himself in so conflicted a place, and yet by his boorish conduct, she had borne the brunt of it. Last evening he had considered apologizing to her again, yet he could not dare to do so if it would remind her of the reason he had been acting so. He knew she must have seen the truth written plainly in his eyes the day Fitzwilliam awoke, and he both feared and longed for what she might have said had Georgiana not interrupted them. This morning though, his task became clear, and he determined the only acceptable course of action would be to apologize anew – with the unfortunate necessity of choking out his congratulations.

As she spied the curricle coming up the lane, Elizabeth was surprised to see the driver’s seat occupied by Mr. Darcy. After all, the note from Rosings had indicated that the Viscount would be dispatched to collect her. Then again, she thought wryly, with the frequency he and his deuced curricle had appeared, perhaps she should not be completely surprised.

Mr. Darcy presented himself at the door to collect Miss Elizabeth, performing the appropriate civilities with all the stiffness and formality that might be expected from him. He soon escorted her to the awaiting curricle, and it was not long before he interrupted the silence to say what must be said.

“Miss Bennet, I wanted to apologize to you again, for the… many misrepresentations I have made on your character and that of your sister. The situation with Mr. Joseph Jr., my behavior towards Bingley, more recently…”

“Sir,” Elizabeth interjected, “you need not apologize so profusely. I can hardly hold anything against you regarding the latter gentleman when all happiness has been restored to my sister.”

“I am very glad to hear it, especially as I hear much the same from my friend. Though I still regret how much simpler their road to happiness could have been, had I not interfered.”

“Perhaps, but in cases such as these I believe there is nothing for it but to only remember the past as it gives you pleasure.”

Mr. Darcy smiled fondly at her kind and teasing sentiment, which was at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, knowing that while she no longer despised him and bore him no ill-will, he could never expect any more from her. All that he most desired had already been promised to his cousin.

“I would have you know that while I may not have expressed it well as of late, I do appreciate your kindness and your friendship…towards all of my family.” Mr. Darcy swallowed harshly, words that wished her happiness or professed she and Richard to be well-suited so distasteful on his tongue that he could not force himself to utter them.

Meanwhile at Rosings, the gentleman who had chosen to stay behind was engaged in a much more pleasant conversation.

“How does my brother fare today?” Viscount Cressbrook asked jovially as he came into his younger brother’s bedchamber.

“Well enough, for a man whose relations continue in their attempts at confining him to his bed.” Though the words were spoken lightly, the exasperated truth of them was poorly concealed.

“Why not venture further out into the park then? Surely viewing something beyond our aunt’s torturously manicured gardens would do you good.”

The Colonel offered his brother a baleful glance and reached for a book on the side table.

“Come, Richard, I know you much prefer to be back in the saddle, but your Andalusian will be just as ready when Dr. Grant pronounces you fit for the activity as he is today. I brought my best groom for my own mount, and the lad has been riding both of them regularly.”

“I would settle for a tour outside of the formal gardens, if only I trusted that after weeks of inactivity I could move fast enough to escape before my absence was reported to my most attentive warden.”

“Bah! Our aunt could never frighten you when you were seven, why should her disapprobation prove such a hindrance to you now? Besides,” the Viscount smiled mischievously at his brother, “I have it on good authority that Lady Catherine has some very important calls to make tomorrow morning, such that if you were to venture out on a morning drive, you could quite easily return to your gilded cage before you are missed, and avoid spending the afternoon receiving a lecture over your inauspicious behavior.”

The best of efforts aside, Colonel Fitzwilliam could hardly keep his countenance from revealing his approval of such a scheme. With a twinkling of his eyes, the Viscount acknowledged that he had received his answer.

“I suppose it would be futile for me to suggest that while we’re at it, I think we can make Bromley by noon.”

Viscount Cressbrook barked with laughter at this unexpected remark, though he wisely chose not to address it directly, “Very well then, Richard. The carriage will be ready at ten on the morrow. Let me see if I can conjure up some more pleasant company than your dour self for the occasion!”

Viscount Cressbrook went to seek out his mother directly. He was almost positive she would support the scheme and thought her just as likely to invite Miss Elizabeth to join in it. She was soon found, in company with Miss Darcy, who expected to be joined by Miss Bennet at any moment. Better and better, the Viscount thought cheerfully.

What began as the gentleman’s plan for a morning drive out into the groves, the ladies soon expanded into a picnic. With all the fanfare this would entail, it would be impossible – not to mention rather rude – to exclude Lady Catherine from their plans. Though neither would voice it, the Viscount and Miss Darcy did not look on that prospect fondly, but Lady Matlock was undaunted. Lady Catherine would almost certainly use Anne’s health as just cause to remain at Rosings, and knowing how stalwartly the Earl would support the scheme, they needn’t fear Lady Catherine’s antagonism.

It was just as the foremost details of the plan had been established that Mr. Darcy entered, having just returned from the parsonage with Miss Elizabeth in tow.

“Well Darcy,” the Viscount greeted merrily, “I hope you do not object to driving a few of us about the countryside tomorrow.”

“Pardon?” the gentleman replied confusedly, wondering if perhaps he had missed another of his cousin’s jokes.

“We are taking Richard out, cousin. As far from this place as possible if he and I have anything to say about it,” here Viscount Cressbrook glanced towards his mother, who smilingly implored him to stop teasing, “though I suppose a picnic in a shaded grove shall suffice quite nicely.”

“James, I am anxious to take Richard out into the park and raise his spirits as well, but…” Mr. Darcy began to argue, fastidious by nature as he were; though taking in the reactions of those about the room, he stopped short.

The Viscount looked inquisitively to Miss Bennet, who, having caught the hopeful expression in Georgiana’s eyes, smiled brilliantly as she replied, “I think a picnic to be an excellent idea.”




Chapter 15

So it was that while Lady Catherine and her daughter departed from Rosings at precisely forty minutes past nine, two open carriages were ordered not a minute past the hour of ten. Just as Lady Matlock had expected, Lady Catherine had denied any possibility of Anne’s health allowing their inclusion in the party, despite her being well enough to make morning calls. Her only suggestion as mistress of the house was that in the absence of herself and Anne, who certainly had been considered when arranging provisions for the picnic, Mr. and Mrs. Collins should be invited to join the party. After all, they would greatly appreciate the condescension, Lady Catherine was excessively attentive to these things, and there would be no burden in adding two members to the party where two had been removed.

So it was that Miss Elizabeth had been accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Collins as she walked from the parsonage that morning. After having sat with the assembled family party for some minutes, the carriages were pronounced ready and the group proceeded to the front of the house.

Elizabeth was rather impressed by the two lustrous and well-matched landaus that awaited them, appreciative that in this case, Lady Catherine’s ostentations were quite convenient indeed.

Viscount Cressbrook was almost gleeful as he addressed the group. “Given our party’s number, we would be most comfortably settled if two of the gentlemen were to drive, and so Darcy and I shall do just that.”

Even Mr. Darcy could not fully restrain a bit of boyish excitement at handling the reins of such a conveyance and the very fine quartet of horses from his aunt’s stables.

“Mr. and Mrs. Collins, if you will be so kind as to follow me,” the Viscount continued, “this smart set of grays and I shall convey you. “Miss Elizabeth, brother, if you would join me as well, Darcy should be able to accommodate the rest quite comfortably.”

Cressbrook handed Mrs. Collins and Miss Elizabeth into the carriage before calling the groom to join him on the box. He turned in his seat to observe that Lord Matlock and Mr. Darcy had seen Lady Matlock, Miss Darcy and Mrs. Annesley into their landau. Lord Matlock took his place beside his wife, and once another lad from the stables had climbed up beside Mr. Darcy, their party was underway.

Upon gaining a convenient distance from the house and into the natural and undisturbed groves, the grooms were left to attend the horses while the gentlemen unloaded the carriages. The ladies busied themselves with setting up a modest arrangement, that the escaped Colonel might enjoy a comfortable picnic of fine food with the added pleasure of good company.

The comfortable acquaintance which the Colonel and Miss Elizabeth had established in the last weeks could only be enhanced by their pleasant surroundings. The Colonel had always seemed a fairly affable fellow, was quite happy to be outdoors, and Elizabeth was equally joyful to pass the hours in such a way.

As the group settled themselves into conversation, Elizabeth was very pleased to find that neither the brother nor the mother of her would-be suitor were prone to making overtly prominent efforts at matchmaking. The Colonel did choose to sit beside her, but in such a manner that she would have thought nothing of it had she not known of the misconception his family had shared with him. They spoke lightly of many subjects, hearing each other’s opinions and soliciting the opinions of others from time to time.

To Elizabeth’s mind, the conversation could have been enjoyable enough were it just herself and the Colonel, as his light-hearted answers were always pleasant and entertaining. Unfortunately, by comparison, Mr. Darcy’s comments seemed more to follow Elizabeth’s way of thinking. She did not always agree with him, but each could speak eloquently in support of their own opinion, such that their exchanges became a much more amiable version of the debates they were wont to have in Hertfordshire. Even with the opinions which the general conversation did not allow him to fully explain, she could often reason out and make sense of his perspective, an activity which she would later loathe to admit she indulged in quite frequently.

If the Viscount noticed anything in these interactions, he did not call attention to it. The others present did not seem to find anything amiss, even though Mr. Darcy was unusually talkative, and Viscount Cressbrook suspected the reason for it.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he interjected, having only half-attended a conversation in which the lady’s attention was equally drawn in response to Mr. Darcy’s opinions as his brother’s statements, “Now that you have seen a bit more of the countryside in Kent, I wonder how you find it in comparison to Hertfordshire.”

“I admit I like it very well, sir,” Elizabeth smiled, “The landscape is a bit different than the surrounds of Meryton, and I have enjoyed watching a diverse variety of flowers and trees come into bloom these last weeks.”

“Am I to understand you have been enticed to prefer it?” Cressbrook teased.

“No, I am afraid that despite the inducements, my preference shall remain with my home county,” she admitted freely.

“As does mine,” the Colonel agreed, “though when I am parted from it, any place can substitute quite nicely.”

“There is something universally serene about nature; that certain stability to be found amongst the trees, knowing that though they gradually change through every season, they will always come back to something much the same as they were one year past.”

“Well said, Miss Elizabeth,” Mr. Darcy cut in, having watched her intently as she spoke.

“For myself it is more enjoying the thrill of the morning air against my cheeks, while from the seat of my horse, that beautifully described scenery goes flashing by,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, smiling at Miss Elizabeth as he added, “I hope that does not make me a simpleton.”

“No not at all,” she replied in kind, “the morning mist can certainly be invigorating.”

“Though I suppose you would prefer to experience it by walking nonetheless,” said Mr. Darcy.

When Miss Elizabeth smiled in agreement but did not speak, Colonel Fitzwilliam added, “Indeed! Were I to know nothing else of you, my family would have me know that you are a great walker. Perhaps we can change that with a curricle ride or two.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam noticed that his comment seemed to have a weightier effect on some members of the party than he would have expected. Mr. Darcy’s reasons he could not guess, but he did not concern himself overmuch – his cousin had been a grown man for quite some time, after all, and could fend for himself if he found discussions of curricle rides to be so distressing. In Miss Elizabeth, he realized her distress could be due his reference to having been told of her preferences rather than remembering them himself. Whatever the reason, there was nothing for it but to lighten the general atmosphere, a task to which Richard Fitzwilliam found himself rather well-suited.

“Do you never wish to ride more, Miss Elizabeth?” the Colonel inquired.

“Not particularly, sir,” Elizabeth admitted, “I am no horsewoman, and though I do occasionally ride, I have enough memories from childhood to make me wish to only take on the activity when necessary.”

“Though I admit to being curious, I suppose it would be impolitic of me to press a lady for anecdotes of her juvenile days, interesting as they may pose to be,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said with an impish grin.

Miss Elizabeth laughed merrily in response, “In that, I am afraid I have you at an advantage sir, for your mother was kind enough to regale me with a few choice tales from your past.”

The Colonel moaned in mock dread, though the chuckle that followed showed his good humor.

“Do not worry, sir. They were quite tastefully related through the eyes of a loving mother. You are fortunate to have a mother who possesses the good sense to only repeat those stories which allow you to continue to pass yourself off with some deal of credit.”

“Stories told by your brother, on the other hand…” Viscount Cressbrook added teasingly.

Conversation continued thusly into the early afternoon, and though they were eventually required to return to Rosings Park, all those present deemed the picnic to have been quite a success. As expected, the fresh air and gaiety did much to further lighten their spirits and return a feeling of normalcy to the party as they enjoyed the late spring weather. Dr. Grant saw that Colonel Fitzwilliam had suffered no ill effects from the long outing, and announced that as the patient had now made a full physical recovery, the doctor should soon be returning to London. He did advise as a precautionary measure that the Colonel refrain from traveling any great distance in the near future, but as it was, the Fitzwilliams had no intention of quitting Rosings Park for some time, considering the young lady currently residing in the Hunsford parsonage.

__________


Invitations to the ladies at the parsonage continued steadily, and it was not uncommon for the large group to take afternoon tea in the gardens, or for the younger people to walk out into the park while the rest of the party enjoyed the shaded benches that were plentiful amongst the nearest groves.

It was a matter of no great significance, then, when one afternoon Colonel Fitzwilliam asked Elizabeth if she would walk with him. They had spent much time in each other’s company, and been part of many a walking party before. The Colonel offered his arm, which she accepted, wondering that he had not invited any of the remaining party to join them. When Lady Matlock called Mr. Darcy and Miss Georgiana’s attention to discuss arrangements for the young lady’s coming out, Elizabeth began to realize this might not be an outing of little importance after all.

The two made amiable conversation with very little pause, as two genial people are likely to do despite any apprehension they might feel. A discussion of recent events and discussions at Rosings Park soon enabled the Colonel to turn the conversation in the direction he intended it to take.

“Miss Bennet, I must say how pleasant my recovery has been with your addition to the family party.”

Miss Elizabeth blushed at his gallantry, “Come now sir, your relations could hardly be termed an unlively lot on their own.”

“Point taken,” he agreed with a laugh, “though the compliment to your vivacity stands.” Colonel Fitzwilliam had sobered as he said the last and turning to Elizabeth, he took her hand from his arm to hold it within his gentle grasp. “You must know, Elizabeth, that you are truly a remarkable young woman. In your kindness, you came at my time of need, and within days my family respected and admired you, recognizing you for the commendable woman that you are. My family loves you as one of their own, Elizabeth.”

As he spoke, the Colonel attentively observed Elizabeth’s reaction to his speech, and while she blushed at each of his compliments, he was not immune to her growing unease, and so changed tactics as he continued.

“Miss Elizabeth, perhaps it would be best that I speak frankly. As much as it may be expected of a man in my position, I have never wanted a marriage of convenience, arranged for the alliance of finances and connections alone. In the successful marriages I have seen, the matches were founded in friendship and grew to become more. I would have you know that I will never regret your smaller portion, for I have yet to meet a London heiress with whom I would have much chance of happiness, and after all – much to my mother’s chagrin – I am not getting any younger.”

The gentleman was glad to see Elizabeth smile as he said the last, and they both laughed softly for a moment before he continued.

“We are both too rational, I believe, to put on affectations of a love that has yet to come forth, but I do believe we are quite compatible, and the opening for warmth and felicity is there. Over these last weeks in Kent I have come to know that given the chance, I could love you. I would be happy to stand beside you for the rest of my days as your husband and friend. Will you do me the great honor of accepting my hand in marriage?”

Elizabeth drew a shaky breath as she looked down at the man who now kneeled formally before her, his steadfast gaze meeting her own. Complications notwithstanding, she had to admit it was quite moving to receive such a proposal of marriage. Though far short of a fairytale prince passionately declaring the violence of his love and affections, here was everything she ever had reason to hope an offer would bring. The man before her was charming and affable, and earnestly pledging to care for her for the rest of her days should she choose to accept.

“I…” she faltered, her expression lost and beseeching. She thought of the circumstances that had placed her in a position such that he would even consider proposing. She knew she should be ashamed to even consider accepting, and turned away, but not before the gentleman observed her troubled expression.

The Colonel rose hastily to his feet, but maintained a steady and comforting hold on her hand. “Forgive me, Elizabeth, I have had time to think on this where you have not. Do not think that you must answer immediately.”

“Colonel, before I can answer you in good conscience, I fear there is one more subject we must discuss.”

Richard Fitzwilliam’s countenance grew serious, having no doubts as to which subject she referred.

“Yes,” he sighed, “I hesitated to broach the subject just now, as it hardly seemed conducive to the romantic appeal of an offer of marriage.” The pair shared an amused smile at this, giving further confidence of their bring well-suited to both, “but my illness, my memory in particular–”

“About your memory,” Elizabeth interrupted with some urgency, “I must tell you–”

The gentleman held up his hand, his expression sternly imploring her not to press the subject further. “Please do not feel you must shield me from the unpleasantness of it,” Richard smiled softly, “Whatever I can and cannot recall and when such things will be restored to me, I cannot control. You must know that our acquaintance in Kent alone has been enough for me to believe we are well-suited, far more than any lady of the ton and I would be. I admit my family’s approval of you has led my father to be more generous than I had ever expected him to be, such that if you accept, I will find myself better situated and with a more pleasant wife than I ever anticipated. Beyond that only time will tell, but if it is enough to satisfy you, it is enough to satisfy me.” The Colonel smiled at Elizabeth, a smile which she returned, nodding in circumspect agreement.

This turn of her countenance did much to encourage the gentleman. “There, now that I have sufficiently sapped all of the romantic sentiment from my proposal, might I hope that you are any further inclined to accept my hand?”

“I will,” she replied at last.

At these small words, the Colonel beamed and placed a firm but lingering kiss upon her hand.

“Thank you, Elizabeth, you have made me a very happy man – though I will leave it to you to omit and embellish as you see fit when repeating the tale.” Both laughed merrily at this further evidence that the gentleman Elizabeth had accepted was very affable indeed.

“On the contrary,” Elizabeth replied earnestly, once their amusement had subsided, “I believe much can be accomplished by speaking with a little more frankness than politeness generally allows.”

The Colonel’s wide smile did not diminish as he gently tucked her arm within the crook of his and continued their walk.

With her hand once again on his arm, the Colonel and Miss Elizabeth returned to find the family much as they had left them. However the inquisitive expressions and significant glances of the three Fitzwilliams could not leave the Colonel unaffected for long. With a grin for his mother – and a wink to his brother – he shared the news they most wished to hear. Of course nothing could be formally announced or settled without Mr. Bennet’s consent, but such did not place any restraint on the joy expressed by the assembled party – with one notable exception. Try as he might, Mr. Darcy could offer no more than his rather stiff congratulations, and a continuous stare in the couple’s direction, unbroken from that which Elizabeth had first noticed when they returned from the grove.


Chapter 16

Elizabeth was obliged to the task of informing her father of her engagement, and subsequently a letter of introduction to go along with the letter her betrothed would send, formally requesting Mr. Bennet’s consent, as he was yet unable to travel. Mr. Bennet was much surprised by this news, as he had only heard of Colonel Fitzwilliam as the invalid behind his daughter’s taking up residence at Rosings Park. Though he would express to his daughter some concern over the brevity of their acquaintance, Richard Fitzwilliam acquitted himself well enough on paper to convince Mr. Bennet that the two were indeed well matched, and as the son of an Earl with his family’s approval, Mr. Bennet hardly felt in a position to deny the man anything.

Of greater comfort to Mr. Bennet was his required presence to approve the settlement papers. Any fears he may have harbored regarding his daughter’s happiness he knew would be assuaged once he had confirmed with his own eyes the felicity she claimed in her letters. So it was that not two days after the Earl’s courier had been dispatched to Kent, Mr. Bennet surprised them all by arriving to answer his letters in person.

“A Mr. Bennet to see you, ma’am,” announced Mrs. Hitchens.

Nothing could compare to the delight which effused Miss Elizabeth’s countenance at this – except perhaps the expression of her father.

“Papa! You have come,” she cried happily as Mr. Bennet came to press her hand.

“Mrs. Collins, I see my Lizzy is no worse for being left to your care,” Mr. Bennet smiled as he greeted their hostess. “Though I understand there is a young gentleman residing nearby who would take her away from me.”

“You are most welcome to Hunsford, sir,” Charlotte replied, well used to Mr. Bennet’s teasing. “I hope you will stay with us for some time.”

“If your husband does not object to housing me, I shall hope to impose on you for a few days at least. Shall he have much to say to me about my daughter’s good fortune, do you think?”

“We have not spoken to Mr. Collins on the subject, Papa,” Elizabeth interrupted, “We did not intend to until we had heard from you and made some arrangements for the announcement.”

“Not eager for your mother to get involved, eh Lizzy?” Mr. Bennet replied shrewdly.

“I confess my tolerance for lace is not equal to it.”

“Very well, my child. Now about this young gentleman of yours, when shall I meet the man who means to steal you away from Longbourn forever?”

“I am expected at Rosings after luncheon, if you should like to accompany me.”

“Yes, I believe I shall.”

“Then I shall write to Lady Matlock directly.”

__________


T hough Mr. Collins would be quite put out at not having been able to make the introduction himself, it must be said that introductions between Mr. Bennet and those in residence at Rosings Park went tolerably well. Lady Catherine may have been all condescension as she greeted the gentleman whose estate was entailed upon her parson, but any efforts she would have made to expound upon the subject were cut short by the Earl’s firm greeting. He requested that if his sister had no objections to their use of the room, the gentlemen would be conducting a brief matter of business in the study before joining the rest of the party in the gardens. If by some of Lady Catherine’s comments it was clear that she believed the matter of business to be arrangements for Lady Matlock’s taking Miss Elizabeth Bennet on as a companion, it was decided just as well that she not be disabused of this notion in favor of a more accurate one.

The Earl of Matlock and Mr. Bennet were each pleased to find the other a sensible gentleman with reasonable expectations for the terms of the marriage contract, thus their acquaintance was off to a very smooth start. During the finer points of discussing the settlement, only one point of concern was to be found, and it was one on which Lord Matlock and Mr. Bennet were in complete agreement.

There had been nothing of direct impropriety about Miss Elizabeth’s extending Christian charity to an injured man – particularly as to Lady Catherine’s view this had been a role of genteel servitude akin to Mrs. Jenkinson’s – however the announcement of an engagement between the pair bore the potential to cast an unfortunate shade on Miss Elizabeth’s conduct. The servants in Lady Catherine’s household were not known for their discretion, and their suppositions would run rife. The mistress of the house would be of little use to control the gossips amongst her staff, as by her objections to the match, Lady Catherine was far more likely to denounce Miss Bennet strongly and vocally. Whether by information from the servants or Lady Catherine herself, society would have little reason to treat kindly an unknown young lady of small fortune, nor would the Fitzwilliams wish for their difference of opinion with Lady Catherine to be aired publicly.

It was decided best that the marriage take place sooner rather than later, and most likely in Kent, as Colonel Fitzwilliam was still advised not to travel beyond necessity. Mr. Bennet was not of a mind to protest, having no desire to witness the bridal cacophony of Mrs. Bennet that would inevitably result should the ceremony be performed in Hertfordshire.

There was also the matter of the Colonel’s commission to consider. From the beginning of his recovery, the Fitzwilliams had hinted at his giving it up, and he had written to his commanding officers to detail his current opportunities in the military, including possible candidates to purchase his commission. There had been some inheritance money bequeathed to Richard Fitzwilliam by elder relatives, which, in combination with Mr. Bennet’s portion of the settlement, would provide a meager yet livable income. In reviewing the figures, Mr. Bennet was not overly concerned that his Lizzy would manage, as they were quite livable by country standards. He was, however, a bit skeptical as to what the son of an earl would know of such a standard of living. Lord Matlock assured Mr. Bennet that as a Fitzwilliam, his younger son would find himself settled quite affluently upon his marriage. He made it clear that the Fitzwilliam coffers were comprised of several family estates and holdings, and once confirmation had been made with his solicitor as to which were for the Earl to bequeath and which were the rightful inheritance of the Viscount, he would see to it that the young couple was established quite respectably.

Meanwhile, the rest of the visitors at Rosings had excused themselves from Lady Catherine shortly after the Earl and Mr. Bennet, that the early afternoon might be spent in the gardens for tea. Lady Matlock had captured Elizabeth’s attention as they left the drawing room, an occurrence which Colonel Fitzwilliam was wise enough to wait until they were out of Lady Catherine’s realm of attention to correct. Once they had safely quit the house, he approached Miss Elizabeth and offered his arm.

“Now that we have made our escape, I had thought we might take a bit of a circuitous route through the gardens before joining the others,” he said smilingly.

“Certainly, sir,” Elizabeth obliged. “Though do you not think it might be better for us to join our fathers? I realize it is not entirely proper for a young lady to be present during such negotiations, but I cannot be easy knowing that my future is a primary subject of conversation and I am not present to contribute.”

“Aye, I cannot disagree with that sentiment, though you need not be overly concerned. From what you have said, your father is a man of reason who holds you in the utmost affection, and my father has kept me abreast of those plans he is making in provision for his poor second son entering into matrimony. The only point of contention comes to my own plans.”

The first was of some little comfort to Elizabeth, though she would rather know of the arrangements herself than trust that the Colonel approved of his father’s plans. His last statement she met with wary anticipation as he explained.

“Though I believe myself sufficiently recovered to return to active military duty, I know how strongly my parents do not wish it. I believe my injury will prove to be sufficient inducement for my general to provide a post working with the many training encampments on British soil.”

“Would that not require much travel?” Elizabeth asked with some concern.

“Indeed it would, from time to time; but I am not wont to be an idle fellow, and I am not of a mind to give up my career just yet. It is particularly influential to me that the added income could substantially raise the standard of living we shall be able to afford without dependence upon the family’s holdings.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam glanced at his fiancée, expecting her to be rather glad of this news, but instead found that she looked troubled.

“Do not be anxious,” he added comfortingly. “The work would only require a month here and there throughout the year, half of which may very well be in London. You would most always be welcome to travel with me. Would you not enjoy the opportunity to see more of the country?”

Elizabeth gave a soft smile at this. “Yes, I admit I would.”

“Very good then,” the Colonel smiled in return, “let us join the others for tea.”

Miss Elizabeth could not have been more pleased with how the afternoon passed, and not only for the pleasure of enjoying her father’s company once again. Here was one family member whom she could proudly introduce amongst the Fitzwilliams’ acquaintance. Mr. Bennet conducted himself with gentility and wit; it could not be said that he did not tease, but it was done in good taste and affection such that he complimented the party very nicely. The boon of her father’s presence assured Elizabeth that a Bennet could make a respectable addition to this family circle, and that she could take her place in it with confidence.

At length the time did arrive for the Bennets to announce their departure, assuring their hosts that they were in no need of escort to return them to the parsonage. As they ambled through the garden paths that led out to the lane, Mr. Bennet was quick to voice his approval of Elizabeth’s choice of husband. In fact, he could not imagine a finer family in all of England for her to be connected to by marriage. He jokingly added that by his observations this afternoon, and its meager comparisons to Matlock and Pemberley, perhaps the family libraries had been the greatest inducement to the match.

This put Miss Elizabeth to mind of the book from Longbourn’s library that she had not found among her belongings, and assumed had been left in the sickroom. She then told her father of her intention to retrieve it before leaving Rosings. Mr. Bennet obligingly suggested that he was more than capable of making the half mile journey to the parsonage on his own, perhaps taking a few detours along the way to view the great pinnacles of nature which Mr. Collins had described so verbosely in the fall.

Miss Elizabeth knew that with Dr. Grant’s recent departure, the Colonel had been released to a room closer to the rest of his family. Therefore she saw no harm in retrieving her book unescorted, and gaining entry from the housekeeper, she took the familiar hallways to the appropriate suite of rooms.

Assuming the bustle emanating from the room to be nothing more than servants cleaning out the old sick chamber, Miss Elizabeth did not hesitate to enter, and was very surprised to find Mr. Darcy himself directing two of the footmen. He had not yet noticed her presence, but she could not help looking on as he directed the men to collect her chair – the very one in which she had read daily once Lady Catherine’s oppressive choice had been moved aside – and return it to his suite of rooms.

A moment later he turned toward the door, a blush spreading across the cheeks of both as Mr. Darcy noticed her presence, hers for discovering that he had been the one to arrange for her comfort, and his for being caught at it.

Neither spoke for a moment – nor did their blushes abate, a condition which Mr. Darcy found altogether intolerable. He cleared his throat and stated, “I took the liberty of collecting the chair, Miss Elizabeth, seeing as you will no longer have need of it.”

Elizabeth straightened at the formality of his speech, and replied in kind. “I apologize for having kept something Lady Catherine intended for your own comfort, I would not have supposed to keep it if I had known.”

Mr. Darcy saw that his cold manner had put her ill at ease, and softened as he replied, “Not to worry, Miss Elizabeth, it is only one half of a matched pair, and I have not minded taking in the perspective from the other for a while.”

Noting that his footmen had long since departed, Mr. Darcy offered a quick bow and excused himself, leaving Elizabeth to wonder if he had meant to imply more than the face value of his words would suggest. She retrieved her book absentmindedly; once again unsure of where the influence of her own feelings ended and the truth of Mr. Darcy’s began.

__________


It seemed a day destined for Elizabeth to unintentionally encounter gentlemen of the Fitzwilliam line, as she found the Colonel coming out into the foyer just as she descended the last steps of the staircase.

“Miss Elizabeth, I thought you had departed along with your father,” he greeted with a smile, not at all affronted by the surprise.

“Yes,” Miss Elizabeth replied with a hint of embarrassment, “I had intended as much, but recalled that I had left this book from his library above stairs, and thought he would be eager to be reunited with it.”

“Might I walk you back to the parsonage, then?”

“I would not ask too much of you when I was perfectly prepared to walk myself.”

“Do not concern yourself,” he replied, taking her arm and leading her out of the house, “for all the times Darcy and I raced to the parsonage as young boys, I think I can manage the walk.”

“You visited the former occupant often, then?” Miss Elizabeth turned to look at the Colonel as she inquired, squinting a bit as they stepped out into the afternoon sun.

“Yes, there was a boy there not more than a year Darcy’s junior, and while my brother James would not be troubled to play with a boy even younger than us two scraps, Darcy and I enjoyed his company well enough. He knew all the best places to conduct our boyhood mischief.”

Elizabeth smiled at the picture he presented. “It sounds as though the group of you were thick as thieves.”

“In many ways we were, though it did not last more than a few summers. I believe that my uncle Lewis, before he passed, found something of a naval position for him.”

Elizabeth could not help thinking of the growing similarities to another gentleman of her acquaintance, and did not hesitate to mention him. “I must say I am surprised that for all of the boyhood tales that have been shared of late, no one has mentioned Mr. Wickham. I understand he and Mr. Darcy had been close friends when they were boys, and that the elder Mr. Darcy had intended similar provisions.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam all but snarled at the mention of that man’s name. In a manner quite similar to his staid and stoic cousin, he took a moment to compose himself before replying in a steely tone, “Forgive me, but I would just as soon forget that we ever accepted the reprobate’s company, regardless of whether or not he was allowed to take part in our boyhood adventures at Pemberley.”

Impressed by the vehemence of the Colonel’s words, Elizabeth replied cautiously, “Your cousin seems to share your opinion of the gentleman.”

At the word ‘gentleman’, Colonel Fitzwilliam looked a bit ill, and not at all due his recent injury. “I dare say he does!” the Colonel spat before he could school himself to continue with less intensity, “Though by your manner of expression, I imagine Darcy has not shared the reasoning behind his resentment.”

“He has not,” Elizabeth answered plainly.

“Then for your own protection, please allow me to provide a brief history of Mr. Wickham’s association with my family…” the Colonel went on to explain the truth behind Mr. Wickham’s refusal and subsequent demand of the living at Kympton. Mr. Wickham’s rakish ways were also addressed, though in a manner that was respectful of a young lady’s sensibilities and protected the identity of the victim most dear to him. Any further details the Colonel deemed could best wait until after he and Elizabeth married, and perhaps until after Mr. Darcy had been consulted. After all, there were many closer family members who knew nothing of Ramsgate, and he would not wish to usurp Darcy’s role as guardian and brother.

It was nearing the dinner hour by the time the Colonel escorted Miss Elizabeth through the parsonage gate, and she bid him adieu before heading to the door. Judging by the cacophony emanating from the parlor, she knew Mr. Collins had returned, and by the sound of it he had found a captive audience in her father, who could now be questioned on his impressions of Rosings. With no one present in the front hall to detect her presence, Elizabeth did little more than roll her eyes and head abovestairs. While she did pity her father’s position, she had been subjected to the same on numerous occasions, and it was just as well that she be allowed some time to compose herself before joining the party.

To say that the truth of Mr. Wickham’s history was shocking to Elizabeth would be quite accurate, however any sympathy she might have felt upon hearing so poor an account of him was lessened by her lengthy absence from Hertfordshire. Any feelings of disbelief she immediately discredited, given the intimate knowledge of the Darcys and Fitzwilliams she had gained in Kent, far beyond anything she had established with Mr. Wickham in the fall and winter months. What did concern her most was the spectacle her youngest sisters most certainly continued to make of themselves over that rake of a man. She would have to speak to her father as soon as may be, perhaps he should even speak to Colonel Fitzwilliam directly before returning to Longbourn.


Chapter 17

Richard Fitzwilliam recognized very well the importance of courting his fiancée properly in order to make a positive impression on the lady’s father, and did not hesitate to call on them at the parsonage the following morning. Mr. Collins was out on parish business, as Mrs. Collins was pleased to find he most often was, though the lady was happy to greet the Colonel and invited him to join their other guests in the parlor for tea.

“Mr. Bennet, I hope I find you well this morning, sir,” the Colonel greeted with a proper bow.

“Well enough, Colonel. I see we find you the same,” Mr. Bennet replied. As much as he loathed the idea of being parted from his favorite daughter, he had to admit that Richard Fitzwilliam continued to make a favorable impression, and he was hard-pressed to imagine a gentleman who would be more alike his daughter in temperament. That Bingley chap had seemed affable enough as well, but lacked something of the staid character Colonel Fitzwilliam hid behind his joviality. Perhaps, Mr. Bennet mused, that could be expected of the man nearly ten years older.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam had greeted Miss Elizabeth, and after a perfunctory shake of hands, diplomatically seated himself where he could converse comfortably with both Bennets, rather than seating himself beside Elizabeth on the settee. While Mr. Bennet could not be anything but appreciative of this, he thought it best to draw his attention back to their conversation.

“I quite enjoy living in Hertfordshire,” Elizabeth was saying, “the countryside is beautiful, and the small set of friends and family around Meryton are enough for me, though I suppose some would think it rather too provincial for such esteem.”

“My cousin Darcy enjoyed it well enough, I understand,” the Colonel replied, being sure to turn his attention to Mr. Bennet as he spoke the last, so as to include him in the conversation.

“I would have thought he found our society merely tolerable,” Mr. Bennet answered humorously.

“On the contrary, I recall in his letters he mentioned that there were ladies of some wit and friendliness to be found in Hertfordshire. I look forward to the day I can meet some of your friends and neighbors.”

Mr. Bennet smiled in response to the obligatory sentiment of the Colonel’s latter remark before he replied to the former, “I admit such information comes as a surprise. Mr. Darcy did not seem eager to express his enjoyment of our society last fall.”

“No, I imagine not,” the Colonel laughed freely, “Such a lot falls to his friend Bingley, who is more than eager to compliment everyone he meets and everything he sees. Quite the pleasant chap, Mr. Bingley, though I would not consider Darcy any less so, for all that he is reserved and sensible.”

“I must say, Papa,” Elizabeth added, “that whether it be my knowing him better, or having spent the last weeks in a more informal setting, Mr. Darcy improves upon acquaintance.”

“All he and Georgiana have ever wanted for was a little liveliness,” Colonel Fitzwilliam agreed, “which Miss Elizabeth and I shall just have to provide them!”

__________


As much as he enjoyed his daughter’s company, Mr. Bennet could not remain more than a few days without raising the suspicions of both Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Within three days of his arrival, he admitted to Elizabeth that he could no longer stretch the vague excuse of business in town, and departed for Longbourn with a promise to return a few days before the date of the wedding. He was not immune to some feelings of remorse over keeping such a secret from his wife, and most particularly over seeing his daughter married in such a clandestine fashion. However any wedding, no matter how small nor how grand, would invariably separate him from his dearest Lizzy, and he did see great advantage to his serenity in receiving the couple at Longbourn fait accompli.

So it was that within three weeks of the Colonel’s proposal, the day would come for Elizabeth to walk up the aisle on her father’s arm. A special license was to be purchased, a task of no great significance when petitioned for by an Earl. Once the license had been obtained, any location would be possible for conducting the ceremony, and it had already been settled that a neighboring parish some ten miles from Rosings Park would be most appropriate. A wedding in Hunsford parish was unthinkable, as neither attracting the attention of Lady Catherine nor having the ceremony officiated by Mr. Collins were desirable prospects to the parties involved. The Earl and his son planned a visit to consult with the neighboring rector and secure his cooperation in performing the ceremony.

Miss Elizabeth had never been one to place great importance on wedding finery, and the practical nature of her engagement did not induce her to think more on the subject. Lady Matlock, however, insisted that a future daughter of hers could not do without having at least a simple gown made up to mark the occasion of her wedding. She kindly ignored Elizabeth’s protestations, maintaining that her seamstress in London could attend their needs with no trouble at all, and with that measurements were taken and sent off to town along with notations on a current fashion plate.

Of much greater concern to Elizabeth was the marked change in behavior of a certain gentleman as the wedding date drew near. The same gentleman for whom her feelings had changed from dislike to respect, and from respect to – she feared what else, though admiration would not have been an inaccurate description. His efforts to be agreeable and supportive of his cousin had become more and more strained, such that it was not uncommon for one of the party to ask if some estate matter at Pemberley was particularly troublesome.

Once, the Earl even went so far as to make a rather direct suggestion to his nephew, their lack of privacy from the entire party not dissuading him.

“Darcy,” said Lord Matlock, his elder son seated beside him, “I realize you have already been absent from your estate far longer than you originally anticipated. Let me assure you, we would quite understand should you need to return to Pemberley, even if you cannot yet say whether you would be able to return in less than a fortnight for your cousin’s wedding.”

Mr. Darcy’s countenance took on a terrible scowl at first, though he quickly became aware of his expression and schooled himself to appear as though he were contemplating his uncle’s suggestion. So distracted was he by this effort that he did not notice his sister’s approach until she seated herself beside him.

“Brother,” Miss Darcy implored softly, “I am glad to have had you near these last weeks, but that would not make me any less sorry to see you depart. It distresses me that business may necessitate your going away at such a significant time.”

With a wistful smile, Mr. Darcy assured his sister that he would stay, though he quickly excused himself, citing the same pretense of business that had started the conversation.

Miss Darcy calmly returned to her needlework, sufficiently placated by her brother’s assurances. Across the room, however, Miss Elizabeth was anything but. However with a great deal of effort, she was able to turn her attention back to her conversation with Lady Matlock and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Privately, she cited this incident as yet another example of Mr. Darcy’s odd behavior. Over the last weeks leading up to the wedding, it seemed to Elizabeth that while Mr. Darcy was careful to ensure that they spoke enough not to draw undue attention, they did not interact as much as they once had, and each of their exchanges lacked something which she now only recognized in its absence. It was as though there was nothing to be said between them and too much left unsaid all at once. This barrier of sorts was a constant presence, the only change in their situation being her suspicions grew daily that she would one day regret this course. Unfortunately each passing day also increased her conviction that she had worked herself into an insurmountable muddle with no feasible means of escape – were an escape even to be attempted. How could she take back her promise to an honest gentleman, injuring himself and all of his family, and harming the reputation of her own relations – all of this based on only the unconfirmed hopes that an illustrious gentleman of ten thousand a year might return her modest affections, the Colonel’s cousin no less!

Elizabeth might have found her situation overwhelmingly dire indeed, were she a woman prone to melancholy and self-pity. As it was, she urged herself to focus on all of the positives attached to her situation. After all, she did not think she should not allow her confusion over Mr. Darcy to discount the fact that her interactions with Colonel Fitzwilliam were consistently pleasant and alluded to a very companionable future. He was very fond of dancing, and as the season would not yet be over after they were married, Lady Matlock was eager that they join the Fitzwilliams for some weeks before the close of the season. They talked of balls and parties where she might be presented to his friends and his parents’ acquaintances.

Neither could say for certain whether their married income would ever support spending the season in town. However the Colonel seemed to accept the idea of quitting such a lifestyle and Miss Elizabeth had not known it to begin with. It was agreed between them that they could enjoy what was left of the current season without the expectation of extravagant visits to town for the season in future years, with the exception of those times when they were invited to Matlock house for a few weeks and might attend a ball or two.

__________


With less than a week before the proposed date of the wedding, Elizabeth eagerly awaited the arrival of her father’s carriage. It had been of great comfort to her to learn that as Jane was still in residence at Gracechurch Street, she would travel with their father from London into Kent. By this, the Gardiners had been brought into the scheme , and Mrs. Gardiner had immediately sent a letter on to her niece.

Dearest Lizzy,

I understand we are to congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials to the Honorable Colonel Fitzwilliam. My dearest niece, how sly you have been to keep all hints of your attachment from us in your letters! Be forewarned that as penance I shall expect you to be most cooperative as I extract all of the details from you when I see you next. I admit I first held some concerns when your father told us of your engagement and wedding arrangements, but I will not distress you with them, for I have every confidence in your good judgment, and any maternal lessons you have been given on “how to draw a man in and secure him” will not have been applied here. Mr. Bennet assures us that your Colonel seemed a very fine young man, not unlike you in joviality and wit. This pleases me greatly – though I have always been confident you would one day find a gentleman who was nothing less and would recognize you for the treasure that you are.

Please accept my dearest wishes for your health and happiness, and know that in your marriage you will always be my beloved niece, and I hope you will continue to confide in me that we may support each other as you embark on this new aspect of life.

Your loving aunt,

M. Gardiner


Elizabeth had just finished another perusal of her aunt’s letter when a carriage could be heard turning into the small drive before the parsonage. She leapt from her seat and bounded through the front door, heedless of the bonnet and gloves hanging idly in the entrance hall. She reached the carriage almost before Mr. Bennet had a chance to hand Jane down and the two Misses Bennet embraced fiercely, as reunited sisters can be expected to do. Charlotte Collins soon followed – albeit more sedately – greeting her guests and inviting them to settle into the house.

Miss Jane Bennet was included in an invitation to Rosings the following day, Lady Matlock having learned that Miss Elizabeth’s elder sister had arrived. The eldest Miss Bennet was presented to Lady Catherine, much as her sister had been before her. It must be said however, that Jane’s delicate manner and demure responses did much to recommend her, and had she not come from such an unfortunate family, Lady Catherine would have been inclined to assist her. It should come as no surprise that while this disparagement of her connections was not expressed directly, the sentiment was thinly veiled in many of the great Lady’s remarks.

Far from proud of her sister’s comments, Lady Matlock was quick to intercede, informing Lady Catherine that if she had no objections, they had planned to take their refreshments in the gardens again, the fresh air being of such great benefit to the Colonel’s health. Lady Catherine agreed with this completely, and pontificated on the benefits of fresh air – in reasonable doses of course – to a recovering constitution. Though as she had on most previous occasions, Lady Catherine deemed the weather not mild enough to suit Anne’s needs, and announced that they would not join the party.

While Jane had wished to see the best in the situation, and would wonder if there had been some mistake on her part, what she observed that afternoon at Rosings made her uneasy. Having known something of the joys of being in love from last fall, she had travelled to Kent in anticipation of seeing her sister experience much of the same. She was surprised, then, to see her sister’s liveliness not brightened at the side of her fiancé, but somewhat constrained. It was not that Elizabeth seemed unhappy in any way – far from it – but to a sister’s eye, something was amiss.

Mr. Darcy’s attention to her sister, she also noticed. He bore the same mask of reserve she had seen often in Hertfordshire, but the effect was belittled by how frequently his gaze was fixed upon Elizabeth. He seemed to avoid speaking to her, but he was no less attentive as he discreetly followed her conversations. Jane had never been one to share her sister’s ill opinion of him, and while she admitted she had been too distracted in the fall to form suspicions of a tender regard, she was developing them now. Not only of the gentleman, but that in unguarded moments, her sister did not seem unaffected by him. That Elizabeth noticed Mr. Darcy’s behavior was clear; that she was troubled by it, equally so. Jane felt she could not in good conscience go without speaking of it to Elizabeth, and endeavored to do so once they had reached the privacy of their room at Hunsford.

“Are you sure this is what you wish, dearest sister?” Jane inquired as she and her younger sister prepared for bed that evening.

Elizabeth’s hairbrush stilled in her hand as she turned to face her sister. “Do you doubt me, Jane?”

“Of course not, Lizzy. It is just that your letters were more often full of Mr. Darcy than the Colonel.”

“Well, I could not have much to say about the poor Colonel when his unconscious condition had not changed since the last time I wrote,” Elizabeth rationalized defensively, though under Jane’s gentle gaze, she immediately regretted her harsh tone. “I had not realized how much I wrote about the rest of the party,” she added softly.

That there were several other members of the party Elizabeth could have written about and did not, Jane would have to ignore at present. Elizabeth had not welcomed the subject of Mr. Darcy, and Jane was unsure of pressing the point. Even if her implication was founded, there was a fair chance it would prove to be entirely fruitless, and it would hardly be helpful to call her sister’s attention to it if that were the case.

Jane moved to sit beside her sister, taking her hand and pressing it affectionately. “I know that you have always desired only to marry a man you can respect,” she replied at length, “and I worry that you are being rushed into something less, or at least without being afforded time to know the gentleman well enough to allow the potential for respect to grow into something more concrete.”

“Oh Jane,” Elizabeth cried somewhat desperately, the earnest expression in her eyes imploring her sister to understand, “a kind and amiable man, the son of an Earl no less, has proposed; any woman would be hard-pressed to refuse such an offer. Besides,” she added with an impish smile, “given the ilk I have previously attracted for offers of marriage, I would have been a fool not to accept him.”

Jane reluctantly admitted her sister’s first point to be valid, though she was no less concerned that Elizabeth had prevaricated to humor in the last. She was not left to this melancholy thought for long however, as her younger sister pointed out that by some gross bout of negligence, they had yet to speak a single word of Mr. Bingley. She did try to keep that happy subject from distracting her, but Jane soon found herself absorbed in relating the more intimate details of her courtship that she had not committed to paper in her letters. The sisters spoke animatedly into the night about the gentleman who had promised Jane she would not long bear the name Bennet.

__________


With only two days remaining before she was to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam, Elizabeth found herself with surprisingly little to do. The majority of her belongings remained at Longbourn, and would be packed once she arrived home – or rather made her first visit to her childhood home. Those possessions she had brought to Hunsford were already in order, and many already placed in her trunk. A final fitting of her new gown had taken place the day prior, and with no adjustments needing to be made, it now hung in the parsonage, ready for use. The Earl and his younger son had gone to meet with the neighboring rector who had agreed to conduct the ceremony, that any final details would be addressed. Miss Elizabeth could think of no better way to pass this extra time than by venturing out into the park for a walk.

Little did Miss Elizabeth know that another gentleman was occupied much the same, and that he had been so with more and more frequency of late. He often hoped to come across her in the park, though he knew the hope to be in vain, and knew not what he would wish to say even if he were to find her there. So vividly had he imagined her walking through one of his favorite groves that when she entered it, he at first doubted whether it could truly be her.

“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth exclaimed with genuine surprise, not having attended her whereabouts until she found the gentleman immediately before her.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he responded stiffly, something about his expression giving her to further study of it. She held a strong suspicion that this was more a hint of despondency than formality, but given her own emotional involvement she could not say for certain.

“I hope I have not interrupted your privacy, sir,” she offered quietly, wishing further opportunity to gauge his state of mind.

“Not at all,” he replied with a taut smile, “I should have turned in just a moment.”

Elizabeth could not help wondering if perhaps her interruption had not been entirely welcome – that is until Mr. Darcy offered his arm to her. The hand before her was tentative, and when she brought her eyes up to observe his countenance, she could only think to describe his expression as shrouded but tender. He must have found a positive response in her answering gaze, for his free hand reached to place hers in the crook of his arm. Any uncertainties that she may misread his gentle expression were belied by the cherished manner in which he linked her arm with his.

At length, Mr. Darcy spoke, “I hope my recent conduct has not led you to believe I bear you any ill-will. I know I have been reticent, but I have only the highest opinion of you, I assure you.” Mr. Darcy was taken aback by his own words, and the very fine line drawn between their innocent meaning and the extent of his feelings that lay just barely concealed beneath them.

“I know this is long overdue and I will say what must be said,” he said hurriedly, his agitation clear, “I wish…that is, I can see how well you and Richard get on together. I hope you shall find every felicity…in marriage to my cousin.”

“Mr. Darcy…” Elizabeth implored, not at all unaffected by the mechanical tone in which he had spoken.

“Please Miss Bennet,” he cried, abruptly halting his pace, “let us speak no more on past behaviors. Yours have been beyond reproach,” he paused, looking up to hold her gaze as he continued, “I have only to be ashamed of what my own have been.”

He had just stopped himself from taking her hand before he said the last; she knew it – and a part of her very much wished that he had. Not breaking eye contact, she knew this might be her last opportunity to make a rather significant query of the gentleman before her.

“Can you give me any reason that I should not marry your cousin?”

The confusion and apprehension Elizabeth felt were clearly evident in her tone of voice, and she at once hoped and feared that he understood the full meaning of her question.

For the first time in their acquaintance, Mr. Darcy could not meet her eye and resolutely turned away. He feared his countenance would be unequal to hiding the truth he was honor bound to conceal. It was some moments before he trusted himself to speak, and in a low, distant tone replied, “No, I cannot.”

They had started walking again after he spoke, each moving numbly under the crushing weight of their conversation. Neither said anything further nor greatly attended the direction of their feet. Both were strongly aware of a sense of limbo between them that would end when they parted, and were equally reluctant to break it. Whether any acknowledgement was passed between them as they parted, neither would be able to say, though after walking for some time in such a fashion, they inevitably went their separate ways. Each for their own destinations, and each under the weight of thoughts left unexpressed.


Chapter 18

As the day of her wedding dawned, Elizabeth awoke determined to be glad of the event to come. This day she was to receive a better lot in marriage than most women in her situation, and perhaps better than she ever had rational hope of expecting. She need never fear the inequality and discord her parents suffered, nor the genteel poverty and starvation in the hedgerows her mother so frequently lamented. It would instead be a new adventure of intelligent conversation, managing her own home, and one day a growing family, all of which were happy anticipations indeed.

Miss Elizabeth and her sister were escorted to the church by their father, Mr. Bennet’s carriage conveying the trio into the town of Westerham where the ceremony would take place.

Upon their arrival, Miss Elizabeth was taken into the vestibule to make final adjustments, receiving well wishes and warm embraces from Jane and her father until the time came for the ceremony to begin.

The doors to the sanctuary were opened and Miss Elizabeth walked up the aisle on her father’s arm, as many a bride had done before her. She searched the Colonel’s face as she slowly approached the front of the church, wondering if any signs of apprehension she might have detected were genuine or only the imaginings of her anxious mind.

At last Miss Elizabeth reached the altar, her father placed a tender kiss upon her cheek, and stepped back to take his seat. In a matter of moments the ceremony would be complete, and Elizabeth believed she would be able to complete her part in it with her equanimity intact – that is until she turned to look upon the one gentleman whose eyes she had been trying to avoid. His gaze had been averted as she came up the aisle, but now Mr. Darcy’s eyes bore into hers, emotions both raw and conflicted piercing through the steely mask of his facial expression. As much as she had struggled to read his countenance in the past, Elizabeth could not ignore or misunderstand its meaning now, despite his efforts to conceal it. She struggled for words to say or an action to take, when suddenly that necessity was taken from her.

The doors to the church crashed open, and with no small amount of apprehension all eyes turned to see Lady Catherine storming up the aisle at a much faster pace than Elizabeth and her father had just taken.

“I object to this wedding, and I demand to be heard!” she proclaimed to the assembly at large, ignoring the challenging expressions of Lord and Lady Matlock. “You, Miss Bennet, must give up this scheme of marrying my nephew at once. I simply shall not allow it.”

“Now see here,” the Earl interjected strongly, taking a firm step towards his sister.

“It is alright, my Lord,” Elizabeth replied, her courage rising. She knew there was nothing for it now but to state the truth of the matter. Her integrity demanded it. If any remnants of her hopes should remain to be collected, such matters would have to be addressed after the dust had settled.

“Lady Catherine,” said Elizabeth, boldly meeting her Ladyship’s eye, “I am afraid I must agree with you,” she paused as several faces around the room fell, though Lady Catherine smiled smugly, “because I am in love with your nephew.”

Elizabeth hesitantly turned her gaze to Colonel Fitzwilliam, her bravado failing at the puzzled expression she found there, and she instead turned to the kind and concerned eyes of her father as she continued.

“Not that one…that one.” Elizabeth gestured from Colonel Fitzwilliam to Mr. Darcy as she spoke. Every eye turned to her in astonishment, such that Mr. Bennet may have been the only one to notice the shock, recognition, then pride and joy that shone in Mr. Darcy’s eyes.

The chaos that followed Elizabeth’s pronouncement was no less than she had feared and expected. Lady Catherine’s descent upon them was rapid and fierce as she insisted that Mr. Darcy explain how this young woman could make such a claim. She demanded he clarify at once that no such attachment existed on his part, as he had already established himself as promised to Anne. Mr. Darcy was no less vehement in his defense of Miss Elizabeth’s character than he was in reminding his aunt that as a gentleman of independent means, assertions as to his immediate marital prospects would be made by no one other than himself. As the heated discussion began to escalate, the Earl sharply interjected that now was not the time for Lady Catherine’s self-important machinations, and further argument ensued on how she had made a most unwelcome intrusion.

One gentleman stood witnessing the scene, feeling the full weight of how his own actions had contributed to the situation at hand, and how differently he had imagined this event would transpire. At that very moment, however, the two parties most directly involved stood silent amid the vicious upheaval. For once he was very glad of his Aunt’s vociferous and demanding nature, as it allowed him the opportunity to extract the would-be bride as well as his brother.

“Miss Bennet,” Viscount Cressbrook said quietly as he offered his arm. Turning to the Colonel, he placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder and silently led to two towards a side door. “I believe there is an issue to be addressed,” he said softly, “and neither of you shall benefit from bearing witness to this scene.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed rather reluctant to heed this instruction, but Lady Matlock had noticed their movement, and looking fondly on her younger son, nodded for him to go before Lady Catherine’s attention was drawn.

Once outside, the Viscount turned a wary eye to the distressed young woman before him, ever conscious of his brother’s unreadable expression. “Miss Bennet, forgive me,” he said remorsefully, “Neither of you would be in this situation if I had not pressed you in spite of your own reluctance. Allow me to go and fetch your father, I imagine you are eager to leave as soon as you are able. I know there are things you and Richard must discuss, but rest assured I will bare all to my family directly. Do not hesitate to explain my culpability in all of this while you speak to my brother; once you have been allowed to depart, I will speak to him as well.”

The Colonel was not entirely clear on what matter his brother had pressed Miss Bennet, and would be sure to demand an answer, but for now he was struck by the kindness and contrition with which the Viscount spoke to her. He determined to withhold the full weight of his judgment until he had heard the whole of her story, particularly as it was plain to see the young lady was quite distraught and scarcely able meet his eye.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam, I assure you I am very sorry for all that has just taken place, but I must tell you the truth before another word is spoken, for much is not as it seems.”

“Very well,” the Colonel said calmly, offering a fine display of restraint as he led her to a bench just beyond the churchyard. “Let us be seated, that I may hear what you have to say.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath to steady herself. The gentleman before her deserved to hear the full truth of the matter, and that is precisely what she would tell him.

“We never met before the day of your accident,” she began with care, “I should have been more adamant about the truth, but your mother assumed…I should have corrected her at the first opportunity but then your – …someone,” Elizabeth smiled a bit, as clearly it was no secret to Colonel Fitzwilliam that she referred to his brother, “someone feared it would be unwise to do so. I never should have allowed myself to be persuaded.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam sat thoughtfully for some moments, during which Elizabeth both respected his need to consider this information and feared his reaction.

“I must admit,” he said at length, though with an inflection not quite his own, “when I awoke, I was barraged and swayed in much the same fashion.”

“As a matter of fact,” he added, sounding much more like himself, “I would say that in essentials, this has been an arranged match between the two of us – we were each given to accept it under the same basic principles, or at least pursue a continuance of the attachment on that foundation. We simply had not known before this moment that the other was under much the same pressure.”

Though much more could have been said between Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Elizabeth, neither gave voice to anything further. The explosive revelation of the truth was too fresh, and neither could give words of comfort to the other without giving further embarrassment to themselves by the same.

The pair rose a few moments later as Mr. Bennet approached, placing a protective hand on his daughter’s shoulder as she and her former suitor exchanged earnest – if not formal – adieus and wishes for each other’s health and happiness.

__________


The general uproar had died down by the time the Colonel left the churchyard where he and Elizabeth had spoken. Miss Elizabeth had long ago left the church under the escort of her father and sister, and by some miracle – or perhaps a stroke of mercy – Lady Catherine had departed as well.

As it happened, the Earl had all but ordered Lady Catherine into her carriage, stating that no wedding was to take place, and as such, the matter did not concern her and she should return to Rosings Park. Any further discussion she wished to hold would be addressed once the Earl and his family joined her there. Having said all he cared to say on the subject, Mr. Darcy had ushered Miss Darcy to their own carriage, with every intention of seeing his sister and her companion ensconced in the privacy of their own rooms once they returned to Rosings.

While much further discussion would take place on the subject, the Viscount was then able to at least give his parents to understand that he knew of the primary misunderstanding between the Colonel and Miss Elizabeth, and that the outcome would not seem so distressing once the particulars were sorted out.

So quiet was the once frenzied scene that Colonel Fitzwilliam might have thought himself entirely abandoned had he not come around the corner to see his parents and brother exiting the church in company with the parson.

Lord and Lady Matlock said their farewells to the vicar and headed towards the carriage awaiting them in the lane. The Colonel was about to cut across the churchyard to do the same, but his attention was drawn to the parson’s actions as he turned to lock the church doors, muttering something to the effect of, “Eleanor will hardly believe me when I tell her of this.”

At first the Colonel was not sure if he had heard the parson speak, but when the words registered, he was struck still. The name Eleanor unconsciously hung on his breath as a flood of blurry memories trickled back into clarity.

That fiery red hair, her curls bobbing as they danced, her green eyes smiling affectionately when he spoke and laughing when she replied, her tender hand meeting his grasp each time the steps of the dance brought them together. It had been a supper set, followed by the most pleasant dinner he had ever had at a ball. To think that Major Jacoby, the second son of a modest estate, would have such a charming and beautiful sister.

“Eleanor Jacoby, of Tatsfield, Kent…” Colonel Fitzwilliam whispered with a faint smile hanging about his lips as he slipped back into reverie. He had kissed her hand as he left her uncle Lord Braynard’s townhouse, knowing that she would soon return home to Kent, and informing her that they should likely meet again soon when he visited Rosings, a prospect which was quite pleasing to him indeed.

The Colonel realized the probable effect of the last months with no little amount of trepidation. Had she heard of his injury through her brother? He could scarcely imagine what she had heard or what she must think of him. Of more immediate concern was whether or not it would be wrong of him to call, so belatedly to Miss Jacoby and yet so immediately following the misunderstanding with Miss Bennet. Yet how long could he wait, and what on earth should he tell his family by way of explanation?

Colonel Fitzwilliam was rather preoccupied by these reflections when he approached the carriage, but given the events of the morning, his family made no objection to his reticence as they returned to Rosings Park.

Viscount Cressbrook knew enough of the particulars to explain the situation to his parents without his brother’s assistance, and offered to do so as they entered the house. Colonel Fitzwilliam had no desire to be present for the recounting of it, and silently assented, leaving his parents and brother to have a rather important discussion in the study. At long last, the charade had ended, and each of the Fitzwilliams was cognizant of the true extent of acquaintance between Richard Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Bennet.

“Oh Richard, I am so sorry,” said Lady Matlock as she entered her son’s room, not half an hour after they had parted.

“It is alright, mother, truly,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, his manner of expression strikingly genuine, “I do not have the slightest idea how this whole muddle came about, nor grew to such unfortunate proportions, but…”

The Colonel paused thoughtfully, wondering how much to convey and how to go about it, “I have only just recently recalled…that is…do you remember when I wrote to you early in the spring? I told you of a friend's sister that I met in London, a very beautiful sister who would be traveling to Kent just a few weeks before Darcy and myself.”

“But I had thought...” Lady Matlock faltered.

“Forgive me for not expressing myself more plainly,” he said, truly regretting that he had been so ambiguous in his letter, “I believe father has met Major Jacoby on occasion, as we have shared a post these four years. It was not until this year that I met his sister, Miss Eleanor Jacoby.”

“Oh!” the fanciful expression brought on by the mere mention of her name was not lost on Lady Matlock, such that she could not suppress her happy exclamation.

Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled – albeit a bit bashfully – at this evidence of how his attachment satisfied her maternal hopes, “I am very happy to say that I can now recall each of our meetings quite vividly...and also quite tenderly.”

Lady Matlock returned his smile and pressed her son’s hand affectionately as he continued.

“Her family may not be of Aunt Catherine's particular notice, for they are not of the first circles, nor of the most affluent means, but her father is a gentleman, and as the second son of the previous Lord Braynard, he is of good connections. Mr. Jacoby’s estate, Brenstrom, is not ten miles from Rosings.”

The Colonel did not quite know what to add, for as much as he was quite determined to pursue Miss Jacoby despite the modest size of her dowry, he was unsure of what his mother would say.

All such concerns were answered for him by Lady Matlock’s next statement.

“Do promise me you will be careful when you travel there. Is there any hope of talking you into ordering a curricle in the morning instead of riding out to see her?”

__________


Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy had not hesitated to use the continued disarray at Rosings to his advantage, escaping the distracted attention of the family party as quickly as possible. Miss Darcy accepted his hurried excuses and within moments his feet propelled him on a direct route to the parsonage. He did feel some remorse for the inauspicious end of courtship that the Colonel would now endure, but could not ignore the happy fate now afforded to him. Elizabeth loved him, she loved him! A happier thought he had long ceased to hope for, and yet in one crucial moment, all his hopes of happiness had been restored.

She would have much to explain regarding Colonel Fitzwilliam – he knew. That he should be feeling some great amount of guilt for pressing his suit to Miss Elizabeth he knew as well, and yet the overwhelming relief her words had given were too great for him to dwell on anything else. He desired nothing more than to see her standing before him, those blessed words of love falling from her lips and the answering sentiment falling from his own.

At last Mr. Darcy approached the Hunsford parsonage, only to find the front of the house already a flurry of activity as a carriage was loaded and prepared for travel. He could not have reasonably expected the Bennets to stay longer, but that particular truth could not make him any happier about being separated from Elizabeth in such a way.

As had most often occurred when Mr. Darcy called at the parsonage, he could clearly see Mr. Collins watching his approach from the bookroom – albeit with a wary eye on this particular occasion. He had almost declared his mission a hopeless case when much to his relief, Miss Elizabeth herself passed through the front door. Whether she had also seen him approach and run out to greet him or was simply preparing for the journey he would not flatter his vanity to guess, but his effect on her was immediately recognizable nonetheless. She blushed quite prettily, though soon replaced this with an impish smile as she wordlessly led him to the garden around the side of the house.

Mr. Darcy’s first impulse was to express the depth of his affections as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do, but he settled for a more prudent approach.

“I hope I find you well, Miss Elizabeth, considering the eventful proceedings of the morning.”

“I am well, sir, I thank you,” Elizabeth replied, “I trust you are the same?”

“Tolerably so,” he replied with a warm and teasing smile, “though I admit to coming here with great hopes of improvement.”

Elizabeth could have laughed aloud with happiness at his good humor, but settled for the bravado to say, “If it would be of any assistance to the improvement of your wellbeing, I would have you know that I meant what I said this morning.”

“Truly?” Mr. Darcy asked hopefully.

“Indeed, sir,” Elizabeth looked down, a sudden blush diffusing on her cheeks for her bold admissions, “I do believe it cannot be helped. Though I do regret the effects this shall likely have on the Colonel and his family, and even your own reputation.”

Mr. Darcy would not have her apprehension cause her to miss the earnestness of his response, and so reached to ever so gently lift her chin before he replied, “If I may hope to one day secure our happiness together, I shall never have cause to repine.”

A rustling from a nearby window gave the pair an untimely reminder that they had not been so fortunate as to escape the notice of Mr. Collins, who by all appearances was growing quite agitated by the tete-a-tete taking place in his garden. It would certainly be most upsetting to his noble patroness.

“I am afraid I must return to Hertfordshire, sir,” Elizabeth said softly.

Mr. Darcy took her hand in his, and pressing it with firm reassurance, said, “All will be well, Elizabeth. I promise you, all will be well.”

Mr. Darcy bowed over her hand, his lips hovering over her fingers for a moment before brushing them with the lightest of kisses.

It was some moments before Elizabeth became aware of her surroundings, and that Mr. Darcy was now several paces away, passing through the gate and out into the lane. As much as she might have wished to unabashedly run out in pursuit of him, there was nothing she could do but return to the house and allow her father to escort her home.




Chapter 19

Just as Lady Matlock had predicted, the sun had not long risen in the sky before Colonel Fitzwilliam set off to Brenstrom, where Miss Jacoby resided. His arrival there was clearly of much surprise, such that Mr. Jacoby was hesitant at best to receive him, particularly as the Colonel had inquired whether an audience with Miss Jacoby would be permitted. Mr. Jacoby did, however, agree to his wife’s prudent suggestion that the young gentleman at least join them for tea, having ridden such a distance to pay a call.

“I understand from my son that you suffered quite an injury earlier this spring,” Mrs. Jacoby began kindly, “I am glad to see that you are so well recovered.”

“Thank you, madam,” the Colonel replied, trying to keep his attention on the lady speaking to him, though admittedly his eyes were more often directed towards her eldest daughter, “I confess my recovery was neither so rapid nor so uneventful as I would have wished, but I am very glad to be free of it.”

“It has been some time since my brother and I last met with you in London, sir,” Miss Jacoby ventured at last.

“Indeed it has,” Colonel Fitzwilliam replied wistfully, “Not since the twenty-sixth of February, following the Sutherby’s ball. I have long anticipated the honor of being able to sit with you as I do today, and making the pleasurable acquaintance of all of your family.”

The lady’s eyes shimmered with remembrance, though she endeavored to even her reply, “It is a pity my brother cannot be here to join you, he was only able to remain a fortnight after escorting me from town.”

“A pity indeed, though I imagine he would require detailed accounts of my injury and recuperation that the ladies present might not care to hear,” he replied, with a moderately successful attempt at levity.

“I would not object to them, Colonel,” said Miss Jacoby, concern and compassion quite evident in her expression.

“Why do you not take a turn about the garden, then?” suggested Mrs. Jacoby, “Your younger siblings should be returned to their lessons, and I imagine the doctor has recommended fresh air and exercise that is not overtly strenuous, Colonel?”

“That he has,” the gentleman agreed with a brilliant smile.

Miss Jacoby preceded her guest into the foyer where she set about securing her bonnet before accepting the Colonel’s arm to escort her outside.

“I cannot tell you how truly glad I am to renew our acquaintance, Miss Jacoby,” the Colonel began.

“As am I, Colonel Fitzwilliam,” she replied with feeling.

“I do hope you were not too distressed by my unexpected delay.” He turned to her attentively, intent on observing her reaction.

“It was not long before my brother received news of your injury, though I admit I was rather concerned when he would share little of the details with me.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam could see the inquiry in her eyes, though she hesitated to be overly forward. And yet, he knew she was not a lady of feeble sensibilities from whom he must hide the truth. He considered her for a moment before he replied, “In truth I was thrown from my horse the day after my arrival in Kent. My injuries were such that it was some weeks before I regained consciousness.”

Miss Jacoby gasped, though with rather more compassion than shock as she laid a caring hand upon his arm.

The Colonel smiled to reassure her, “I am fully recovered now, as you see, but as I mentioned before, much occurred during my recovery. I am not proud of it, and I fear it may be painful for you to hear, but I do care about you, Miss Eleanor, such that I could not feel right furthering our attachment without revealing the truth to you.”

Miss Jacoby paled a bit at this, but resolved to hear what her suitor would say without distressing herself over speculation. They moved in silence until they came upon a garden bench, the Colonel aiding Miss Jacoby to seat herself before sitting beside her at a polite distance. One look upon her countenance, a politely impassive mask inadequately concealing her apprehension, was all he needed to know he must begin.

“When I awoke, my family had been gathered for some time, hoping to aid my recovery in any way they could. My aunt’s parson was eager to offer the assistance of his household, and a young lady, a visiting friend of his wife, was of particular comfort to my mother and of use to my aunt. I had written to my mother of a wonderful young lady I hoped to meet in Kent,” here the Colonel paused to give his companion a significant look, leaving her in no doubt that he had written of her, “Unfortunately during the weeks of my unconsciousness, my family came to mistakenly connect the information in my letter with Miss Bennet who had come to visit her friend.

“I regained consciousness to the immediate revelation that my family ‘knew’ me to be all but engaged to her, and that I must have somehow lost those memories to my injury. Everything was so fuzzy when I first came into consciousness. The bits and pieces of all my memories were there, it seemed, but disjointed. As I continued to recover, my clarity gradually came back together, but I cannot tell you how much it pains me that I could not immediately remember clearly enough to refute my family’s claims as false.”

“Do you come here to tell me that your honor is now engaged to her?” Miss Jacoby inquired breathlessly.

“No! Forgive me, Eleanor, I should have assured you at once. I come here a free man, in fact in some ways more able to commit myself than I was previously. I do regret how close I came to pledging myself to another, a match founded in prudence and persuasion rather than strength of attachment. I only wish my remembrance of our time together in London had been clear at once, else none of this would have come to pass.

“I am sorry if this revelation has brought you pain, I assure you it was not intended,” the Colonel said earnestly, clasping her hand as he did so, “but I could not allow myself to speak to you of my affections, ask anything of you regarding my hopes of your own, without being completely truthful with you.”

Miss Jacoby seemed to consider this for a while, before smiling playfully up at the man before her, who while bearing ill tidings, had all but declared himself in love with her, and would likely do so were she to encourage him, “Well then, I suppose now you may speak and inquire as you choose.”

Her response earned a broad smile from Colonel Fitzwilliam, and he expounded on all that recommended her to him, and how striking a contrast she made to the daughters of the haut ton who had never drawn a second glance from him before. He praised her vivacity, beauty, and wit; cementing quite clearly that in the Colonel’s opinion at least, she was everything that was lovely.

He then addressed the delicate matter of his father’s new-found opinion regarding his second son’s felicity, citing his limited means as the primary reason he had held back before. He assured Miss Jacoby that he would no longer have to consider whether he could ask a lady such as herself to accept the lot of a poor soldier’s wife.

At length Colonel Fitzwilliam admitted he had lingered far longer and said far more than her father was likely to approve. He joked that he best leave before an angered Mr. Jacoby drove him off the property, but not without a promise of returning to call on her again very soon.

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Not two days had passed since Miss Elizabeth’s return to Longbourn when Mr. Darcy could be seen approaching the house, a nosegay of summer blossoms clutched firmly in his grasp. All but one member of the household was rather surprised by his sudden appearance, and given that his cold and quiet manners had not much improved from his last visit, they were quite taken aback.

The motive behind his presence was soon revealed, however, when after the requisite civilities had been performed to the lady of the house, Mr. Darcy turned his attention to Miss Elizabeth. He greeted her warmly, offering the nosegay in much more tender a manner than most of the Bennets had believed him capable. Miss Elizabeth smiled and blushed, as the recipient of such a token can be expected to do. After what seemed an interminable length – though only to the gentleman so anxiously anticipating her response – she raised her eyes to Mr. Darcy’s and returned his warm greeting, a broad smile effusing over his face as she did so.

In a manner completely devoid of tact did Mrs. Bennet then usher her least favorite daughter and a most unexpected – though by no means unwelcome – suitor out into the gardens. In this particular case, however, the gentleman would have been hard pressed to recall a single detail of the matron’s indelicate effusions, to which he gave so little consequence or attention. Only one lady held his rapt attention, and she graciously accepted his arm as he led her from the house. The rustling of curtains and muffled squeals and speculations, while hardly indiscernible, gave him not the slightest degree of pause regarding his present course. He needed only to look down upon Miss Elizabeth’s bright and open countenance to feel a swell of determination, and found himself quite driven to act upon it as quickly as possible.

At the first garden bench they approached, Mr. Darcy asked Miss Elizabeth if she might care to sit for a moment. He held her hand to steady her as she descended, not releasing it as he then made a descent of his own, his knee pressing firmly into the grass beneath. Elizabeth spared a brief glance for the untimely interruption of what sounded like a shriek from her mother – though intermixed with Kitty’s giggles it was hard to tell. However her attention immediately returned to the handsome gentleman humbling himself before her – bearing a rather becoming expression with glints of boyish enthusiasm she might add – and she found herself clamping down on her lower lip to suppress her joy.

“Miss Bennet, I have a particular question to ask of you, and I care not who hears it. May I court you?”

“Yes,” she smiled brilliantly at his nearly defiant determination, for she was almost positive his speech showed a certain influence of her own impertinence. “And may I add that I shall very much look forward to your calls.”

Mr. Darcy returned her smile with equal strength and placed a kiss upon her hand, which was still encased in his tender grasp. He then rose to his feet and helped Elizabeth to do the same, leading her further into the garden and away from the audience he hoped would now be distracted by Mrs. Bennet’s imminent shouts of glee. “Thank you. And I shall add that I look forward to our time together as well, that I may anticipate a future request that would have you make me the happiest of men.”

“And do away with that dour gentleman you seem to have left behind in my mother’s drawing room?” Elizabeth stopped and turned to smile impishly at him, “Pity, that. I had developed quite a taste for serious young gentlemen.”

“A development of which I intend to take full advantage, I assure you,” Mr. Darcy returned her smile then, again catching her hand in his. His free hand reached up to caress her fingers, and for a moment, both were lost in the activity while he tenderly traced his fingers along her hand, as though to commit its every contour to memory.

At length, Mr. Darcy looked up at her and ceased his movements, offering his arm as he placed her hand upon his sleeve, covering it affectionately with his own, “As much as I would love to continue on in such a fashion, I imagine Bingley has arrived by now.”

“Mr. Bingley has accompanied you?” Elizabeth replied as they resumed a circuitous path through the garden.

“Indeed he has.”

“I suppose I should not be surprised. It would hardly be proper for a guest to occupy the house in his absence.” The overt sincerity in her voice and curl of her lips gave a hint that she was yet to have done with it, and Mr. Darcy looked on expectantly with some idea of what was to come. “Though I suppose departing for Longbourn without him this morning may fall into the same category of behavior.”

“Of that, I must admit myself entirely guilty. I know not the particulars of his delay, only that it was nothing serious, and that this particular morning I was not of a mind to wait.”

At that moment, a horse’s hooves could be heard striking Longbourn’s gravel drive, none other than Mr. Bingley in its saddle.

“It seems all dilemmas of ill-matched waistcoats and the like are now resolved,” Elizabeth teased amiably.

“I suppose your mother would not allow us out for a lengthier walk, now that Bingley has arrived?” Mr. Darcy inquired hopefully.

“On the contrary sir, your positive opinion of the idea is highly providential, as I believe such a circumstance should hardly be avoidable, even if you wished it.”

It was soon to be found that Mr. Bingley’s delay was due the very significant nature of the call he would be paying at Longbourn, such that Mr. Bennet was formally approached by two gentlemen that day – one for permission to court Miss Elizabeth, and the other for consent to the proposal of marriage he had made to Miss Jane. A happier day at Longbourn could not be easily remembered, and therefore if Mrs. Bennet was more than usually boisterous in her effusions, or overeager to include all of the gentlemen’s favorite courses in a celebratory dinner the following evening, none could blame her for the excitement.



Chapter 20

The gentlemen from Netherfield had been sent away the previous afternoon with nothing but the felicity that further securing their ladies’ affection is wont to inspire, and were still under the influence of the same when they came to call again the following morning. That is not to say, however that such happy thoughts could override the more serious forever, and while Mr. Bingley sat with Miss Bennet to discuss the date and other details for their upcoming nuptials, Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth discussed another matter of equal sincerity.

They greeted each other warmly, basking in the novelty and comfort that newly confessed lovers can scarcely contain. Though each had their own reasons to believe the discussion necessary – she very concerned that nothing be misconstrued in his understanding, and he feeling a responsibility towards his cousin, himself, and even her, to understand to what degree he had interfered.

“I think we can both agree that something must be said of what has occurred, and I cannot pretend this conversation will be easy or entirely pleasant,” Mr. Darcy began, “but first I must tell you that while they would not go into details, both of my cousins have been adamant that you are not to blame, James being rather remorseful about it. I will not press you for more than you wish to share, but you must know that you need not fear that I will think badly of you for anything that you relate.”

“I would prefer that you know all,” Elizabeth replied seriously, “I could not feel well about it keeping any portion of the truth from you. Truly I see no need for it, as any false assumption could only be less pleasant than the truth. Oh! I can hardly imagine what you must have thought and felt.”

Elizabeth internally began to scold herself for the foolish part she had played in their predicament, frustrated by how much could have been avoided had she acted differently. She soon felt the reassuring pressure of Mr. Darcy placing his hand over her own, and looking up to offer him an appreciative smile, began.

“I had never met your cousin before the day of the accident…Lady Matlock was so distraught, I had hardly realized what she was implying, and then she embraced me so fiercely,” Elizabeth went on to explain her conversation with Viscount Cressbrook the following day. “I should have carried on and spoken to Lady Matlock just as I had determined to, despite his ‘persistent Fitzwilliam traits’. If I had, none of this would have happened.”

Mr. Darcy could well imagine how forcefully Cressbrook would have expressed himself, no matter how much he swathed his sentiments in good manners. That the man would presume to pressure his Elizabeth into a match of prudence was another issue entirely, but Mr. Darcy begrudgingly admitted that the concept was neither illogical nor uncommon, and any ill-will he harbored would be reserved for Cressbrook himself, “In that, I must concur with my cousin James. We Fitzwilliam men are used to having our own way, and considering how acutely the decision affected his mother and brother, I understand your reluctance to forcefully contradict him or act against his wishes – not that he would have let you.”

Elizabeth awkwardly began to accept this, not that she could instantly absolve herself of the guilt she felt, but she could acknowledge there was now little sense in holding onto it.

“I had thought to remain at the parsonage as much as possible, perhaps even return to Longbourn under the circumstances, but…well, you were present when Lady Catherine made her ‘request’, I hope you can understand how with a series of similar events, things quickly got out of hand.”

“Then you…that is…you never…” Mr. Darcy faltered, though thankfully Miss Elizabeth understood and was quick to assure him.

“I never had tender feelings for your cousin?” she supplied, “No, I did not. Nor did he, I greatly suspect. It would have been a testament to prudent matches.”

It may not have been the most appropriate time for humor, but they both chuckled lightly nonetheless, glad to lighten the tone of their conversation.

“I confess I did not expect that I should ever have any solid hopes for a more affectionate match.”

“And now?” Mr. Darcy smiled puckishly.

Elizabeth turned to him with mock ire as she replied, “I would not think you in need of asking to know the answer to that question, but I must say,” she continued softly, “they are much better indeed.”

They shared a smiled at this, and Mr. Darcy raised her hand to smooth a gentle kiss across it. He then fixed upon her a gaze full of promise for words soon to come, but at a time when they could be tied to nothing but their own pleasant remembrance.
“Come, my dear Elizabeth, let us return to the house,” Mr. Darcy said at last, for in truth he had little time to return to Netherfield without immediately turning back to return to Longbourn for dinner.

__________


The engagement dinner at Longbourn that evening was the first of many such celebratory gatherings Mrs. Bennet planned to host – hopefully for two of her daughters, and she did not hesitate to openly say so. The more intimate setting of only the Bennet family and their daughters’ suitors did give the gentlemen a pleasant – if rather boisterous – idea of their future felicity.

Mr. Bingley could not be more pleased to be welcomed to the Bennets’ table once again. He allowed himself the liberty of occasionally caressing Miss Bennet’s hand beneath the table, as he had often wished to do in the fall. In this, he was again thankful to have been so advantageously reunited with his angelic lady, and to have further secured that soon – after what he hoped to be a short engagement – never again should they be parted.

Mr. Darcy, having not the happy freedoms reserved for the affianced, exerted himself to partake in the general conversation about the table. He was pleased to find Mr. Bennet a rather well-informed man, who while limited in the areas he cared to explore, did share his fondness for the written word. That is not to say, however, that his primary focus, or at least those opinions which he sought most frequently, were Miss Elizabeth’s.

The remainder of the evening passed pleasantly over coffee and tea in the drawing room. The mistress of the house was eager to extend the evening as long as possible, and her guests were quite happy to oblige. Once the party had lingered over coffee, cake, and lively conversation, Mrs. Bennet suggested that Miss Elizabeth entertain the party at the pianoforte. Miss Lydia was about to insist that her sister play something lively, for even if their party was short of gentlemen, they should be very merry with a dance; she was quickly hushed by Mrs. Bennet as Mr. Darcy approached the instrument.

“Do you mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I may not have had much occasion to practice these last months, but my courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me,” Miss Elizabeth said humorously.

“No, indeed,” the gentleman replied in kind, “I should think you know with me well enough to recognize that I intend no such thing, and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”

“It would seem you have schooled yourself not to believe a word I say. I wonder at my luck in having an acquaintance so able to discern my real character, and all that you now know to my disadvantage. The prospect must be terrifying.”

“I am not afraid of you,” he said smilingly, leaning closer as he added, “quite the opposite, I assure you.”

As though to prove his point, Mr. Darcy then asked if he might turn the pages for her, and the pair spent the next half hour enjoying the close proximity of each other’s company.

__________


Anxious though he may have been to propose – in fact the idea of whisking her off to Pemberley, with a necessary detour to Gretna Green, had developed a certain appeal – Mr. Darcy did appreciate that his Elizabeth deserved to be courted with affection, and Netherfield’s proximity along with Mr. Bingley’s frequent calls did much to enable him.

A niggling thought would occasionally surface that if his visit to Kent had not gotten off to such a tragic start, he might have even proposed to her there, perhaps out in the groves where she so enjoyed walking – though with his luck, he would likely have found himself stuck with no alternative but the parlor at the parsonage. In either case, they could now be planning their own wedding alongside Bingley and Miss Bennet. Nevertheless, he would court her properly, and so it was that Elizabeth’s ardent suitor was frequently present at Longbourn, bearing words and small tokens that spoke of his attachment.

Mrs. Bennet was perfectly content to send her two eldest daughters out with their suitors, that one might act as an adequate chaperone for the other. The most popular activity for the young couples was to spend their time out of doors, though whether this was to appreciate the fine summer weather or to escape the cacophonous demands one proud matron can make, was wisely left unsaid.

That Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth were far more enthusiastic walkers than Mr. Bingley and Miss Bennet was also left unsaid, for there was little advantage to Mrs. Bennet knowing that within half an hour of departing the house, the latter couple would find a shady place to sit and converse until the others returned.

It was on one such occasion that Miss Elizabeth suggested Mr. Darcy might enjoy a fair prospect of Netherfield from a rise on the far side of Longbourn’s borders. They came to the creek that separated Longbourn from the adjoining property, just as Elizabeth had described, though fortunately a footpath to cross it had been fashioned out of smooth stones.

Being a gentlewoman of independent spirit, Miss Elizabeth laughed gaily and began to hop gracefully from one stone to the next. She misstepped on the third stone and nearly lost her footing, though whether this was due to her mirthful antics, or having paid more attention to the movements of Mr. Darcy’s person than her own, she preferred not to clarify.

Thankfully, Mr. Darcy reached out as soon as she began to sway, thus being able to steady her before a more embarrassing predicament could befall her.

“It is a bit slippery here, Miss Elizabeth. Do take my hand.” Mr. Darcy planted his feet firmly that he might support her next step.

“I thank you, sir. Though I assure you I have crossed this creek many a time since my youth, and can do so again without incident,” she replied teasingly, gingerly wrapping her fingers around his as she hopped to the next stone.

Mr. Darcy answered with a devastating smile, always pleased by her lightness of spirit, “I would not doubt it for a moment, though I should like to play my role nonetheless.”

He then took a rather larger leap than necessary, his intent to skip a stone that he might help Miss Elizabeth across to the next. It could not be helped that a rather inconvenient bit of undergrowth compromised his landing, and though he made a reasonably graceful recovery – with a boot firmly planted below the waterline of the creek – he would have come quite close to falling into the water if Elizabeth had not grasped his sleeve.

“I thank you again for your gallantry, Mr. Darcy, but I think in this particular case I may be better off on my own,” Elizabeth giggled. She was quite fortunate that her now quasi-aquatic suitor was too much the gentleman to splash a lady, though as a few water droplets happened to land at her feet, she could not but retaliate in kind, except that she felt no similar compunction against splashing a gentleman.

It was then rather unfortunate that the couple paid so much more attention to their flirtation than to their steps, for in the next moment, though neither would be able to say who lost their footing first, they began a series of awkward bends and fumbling sways that resulted in the pair tumbling into the creek, each quite taking the other down with them.

They both came up sputtering, and once the shock of their descent had worn off, they both gave way to mirth. Mr. Darcy did have the wherewithal to attend to Miss Elizabeth despite his continued chuckles. After assuring himself that she had not been injured, he assisted her out of the creek, being solicitous that she not muddy her attire on the bank.

“At least the weather is quite warm today,” Mr. Darcy reasoned as they ascended to solid ground, “and neither of us is completely soaked through. With any luck, we can return to Bingley and your sister with none being the wiser.”

“That is easy for you to say, sir.”

Not expecting the sharpness of her speech, Mr. Darcy glanced up from the task of straightening his moist cravat, and gave her a curious look as he took in her charmingly perturbed expression.

You may be able to run a hand through your hair or simply don your hat and consider it well enough; I on the other hand, am left with a bit more to repair.”

Mr. Darcy then took in the loosened and tangled tresses that dripped and curled around her face, a few heavy strands cascading around shoulders and down her back. He reached to assist as she tried to brush a stubborn curl from her forehead and began to chuckle – hard – until he was laughing out loud, eventually cracking her stern expression as she succumbed to mirth herself.

“Forgive me, Elizabeth, you make a strong point,” Mr. Darcy replied once they had finally recovered, “it was ungentlemanly of me to not offer my assistance straight away, though I confess without your explicit instruction, I would not know how to begin.”

“No, I do not imagine you would,” Miss Elizabeth smiled. Struck by the sudden image of the illustrious Mr. Darcy of Pemberley fussing over arranging his sister’s hair, she could not quite contain her giggles, gaining again a look of curious inquiry from the gentleman.

“Oh, never mind,” she explained with a laugh, “let me see what pins I can rescue from my hair, and you can assist by collecting them and handing them back as I use them.”

Elizabeth’s mind then conjured another image of Mr. Darcy, this time gently working his fingers through her thick tresses as he combed them. The tenderly domestic image was quite endearing, such that this time, she was not given to mirth at all.



Chapter 21

The days continued to pass as Mr. Darcy’s focus remained on his current plans in Hertfordshire, with little room for anything else. It cannot be said, however, that while Mr. Darcy conducted the happy business of courting and securing Miss Elizabeth’s affections, his cousin was doing anything less than the same.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was not permitted a great number of calls on Miss Jacoby before a frank discussion of his intentions was required by her father. Fitzwilliam sincerely assured Mr. Jacoby that he hoped for nothing less than the privilege of marrying his daughter, and he only hesitated out of desire to give Miss Eleanor a proper courtship before securing his own happiness. Being privy to his daughter’s opinion of the matter, this response was enough to satisfy him, and the discussion moved further to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s immediate plans.

The Colonel was due to meet with his superiors in London to resign his commission, not to mention the welcome at Rosings which had mutually worn thin. It was arranged that the entire Fitzwilliam party would depart within the week, with no immediate plans of returning to Rosings Park.

He respectfully expressed a hope that the Jacobys would consider an upcoming trip to London as well, for while he would certainly not wish to cause inconvenience, nor would he be able to return to Kent for several weeks, and only as a guest at the local inn. Lady Matlock had already suggested that Miss Jacoby and one of her sisters would make excellent company for herself and Georgiana at Matlock House in town, and Colonel Fitzwilliam relayed that a letter of invitation would quickly be issued were the family not inclined to travel. He adamantly assured Mr. Jacoby, however, that whatever his decision, a suitable arrangement would be made for his calls on Miss Jacoby to continue.

Well aware of the potential advantages to his daughter’s happiness, and desirous of playing a more active role as guardian than he could from afar, Mr. Jacoby soon came to the opinion that perhaps they should avail themselves of the many delights and entertainments of town. He thanked Colonel Fitzwilliam for his consideration, but informed him that the invitation to his daughters would not be necessary, as the entire family would travel to London within a fortnight. Were Mr. Jacoby to presume that this action would bring the Colonel’s courtship of his daughter to its natural conclusion in quite timely a manner, he could not have been nearer to the truth.

__________



Though Mr. Darcy frequently arrived at Longbourn by horseback, that is not to say he had left his skill at the seat of a curricle behind in Kent. As a matter of fact, he looked quite fondly on those occasions that he had driven Miss Elizabeth about, and were it not for the impetus of Mr. Bingley joining him, he would have been quick to repeat the experience. However this particular morning was different, Mr. Darcy explained to his friend. He would be driving to Longbourn momentarily, and he believed Mr. Bingley to be perfectly capable of fending for himself with regards to his own transportation.

So it was that half an hour later, a gleaming curricle came up the lane, passing the garden where a certain young lady sat enjoying a book in the morning sun. If that young lady were to have smiled rather exuberantly at the gentleman, or he were to have responded with a beaming grin of his own before tipping his hat to her, none were present to witness this evidence of their attachment.

Given the fortunate occurrence of finding the lady he sought already out of doors, Mr. Darcy entered the drive, reining in his horses directly beside Miss Elizabeth as she approached the conveyance.

“Miss Elizabeth, I need to ask something of you,” Mr. Darcy said strongly, offering his hand to assist her into the curricle.

Miss Elizabeth smiled brightly, though hesitated from accepting the offered hand. She fought back a smirk as a throat was cleared behind her. It was then that Mr. Darcy looked past the lady of his affections to see her father observing them from the door of the house.

Mr. Darcy wordlessly stepped down from his conveyance, displaying as much embarrassment as so reticent a gentleman is capable of for having committed such a faux pas. “That is…Mr. Bennet, sir,” he bowed stiffly in belated greeting, “if you might permit me to escort your daughter on a drive through the neighboring countryside.”

“Certainly, sir. You must be anxious to enjoy the fine weather we are having, and I may as well allow my Lizzy to partake of the exercise,” Mr. Bennet acquiesced with much amusement. He may have been a man unable to restrain himself from exploiting the humorous follies he found in others, but he was also an intuitive man who quickly discerned the likely motive behind Mr. Darcy’s appearance and demeanor. His suspicions were only further confirmed by the distracted manner in which the young gentleman offered his thanks.

With his back turned to the house, Mr. Darcy handed Elizabeth into the curricle, a small smile playing about his lips, which only grew when her eyes met his and she smiled in return. In but a moment, Mr. Darcy had raised himself onto the seat beside her, and after a small wave from the lady towards her father, the pair were underway.

For some time they drove on in silence, exchanging only the sparest glances and smiles attributed to all that was hoped for but had yet to be spoken of between them. It truly was a beautiful day, the sun already offering a pleasant warmth, broken only by the gentle breeze that rustled the trees and fanned the blossoming fields in gentle waves. At last Mr. Darcy could refrain from action no longer, and with a fluid motion of the reins he brought the horses to a stop and turned to the lady beside him.

“Miss Elizabeth, you must know how dear you are to me,” he began intently, such that she alone appreciated the peaceful clearing where he had stopped, “and such you have been these many months. I hesitated to speak of it for so long, but now you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth smiled brilliantly, applying an affectionate pressure to his hand, though he scarcely seemed to notice as his words continued to tumble forth.

“I had resolved to be patient, allow you time to witness my affections, to be courted as you deserve to be courted. I can wait no longer. I love you, Elizabeth, and I beg you to become my wife. Please say you will accept my hand in marriage.”

“Yes, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth replied through glistening eyes, “I will be your wife.”

Mr. Darcy then expressed himself as a man violently in love can be expected to do; Elizabeth was not unresponsive to the strength of his affections, and was quite happy to find herself in his warm embrace.

“I love you, Elizabeth,” he smiled down at his fiancee.

“As I love you, Mr. Darcy,” she happily replied.

“Am I to be Mr. Darcy even when you speak of love?” he teased affectionately, then quieted as he softly inquired, “Can I not be Fitzwilliam?”

“I suppose you should be…Fitzwilliam,” she replied, her shy smile bearing a hint of excitement as she hesitated to continue, “though I confess you have been William in my innermost thoughts these past weeks, and I should like to address you as such, if you did not mind.”

He smiled tenderly at this, and slowly moved ever so slightly closer to her before he softly replied, “I should not like to be anything else.”

“I love you, William,” she professed anew, though barely over a whisper given his close proximity.

“As I love you,” he murmured over her lips.



~~~ The End ~~~




Epilogue


The news of Mr. Darcy’s proposal of marriage to Miss Elizabeth Bennet was received quite happily at Longbourn, just as could be expected. Mr. Darcy was quick to address his plans for Elizabeth’s settlement with her father, giving the ladies of the house ample opportunity to rejoice in their felicity. Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth soon agreed that nothing could please them more than to have a double wedding ceremony, and their fiancés – gentlemen farmers that they were – happily provided the excuse that a wedding date allowing for a brief tour before the harvest at summer’s end would be most sensible.

In relating to his wife the oddity of events that took place at Rosings, and his role in orchestrating them, Viscount Cressbrook also instigated a change in his own situation that perhaps he had not intended. As they sat together, holding the first conversation of any substantial depth between them for some time, Viscount and Lady Cressbrook began to realize that though they had come together in an arranged match, they may have written off their marriage too quickly. In this moment, Lady Cressbrook saw her husband in another light, for she had never known her friendly but lackadaisical spouse to invest so deeply in the feelings and concerns of others. Both husband and wife soon recognized that any deficiency of warmth and affection in their marriage was theirs to control. Whether an overwhelming love would bloom in the years to come remained to be seen, but a bond of understanding and mutual compassion had been formed, such that their happiness in marriage was greatly increased, and perhaps Lady Matlock would not be grandmother to only one child for much longer.

It cannot be said that the first meetings between the Hon. Richard Fitzwilliam and the new Mrs. Darcy were completely devoid of awkward feelings, nor that Miss Eleanor Jacoby, soon to be Mrs. Fitzwilliam, did not feel some wariness upon meeting the lady who nearly came to bear the same title. As the years passed, however, and each family settled into their own happiness, welcoming the babes that such felicity often brings, all was forgot. Each new addition to the Darcy, Fitzwilliam and Bingley families was presented proudly, and within a short number of years, the group of cousins were often found playing together at Pemberley or another of the family’s estates.

It was on one such occasion, as Mr. Darcy carried his third child, swaddled and sleeping, to a nursemaid to be taken indoors for his nap, that Lord Matlock turned to his nephew’s wife and said, “It is still remarkable to me, the change you have wrought in my nephew, though the strong affection between the two of you is equally clear. When would you say you fell in love with him, Mrs. Darcy?”

Elizabeth smiled as she replied, “Inauspicious as the Richard’s injury was all those years ago, in this case some good did come of it, for I would have to say, it was while he was sleeping.”

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