The gentlemen moved forward to greet Sir Walter before Darcy’s eyes skimmed over the other occupants of the room, then stalled, his hand instinctively drawn to his chest as something inside clenched.
What the devil was this? What strange Fate was at work, bringing Elizabeth Bennet not only to the West Country but to the actual estate where he had taken refuge?
Refuge, Darcy? Come now, did you not take this step for Georgiana?
There was a loud drumming in Darcy’s ears as they were led across the room. Elizabeth, Miss Bennet!…before him…and so enchanting, her eyes gleaming with unknown thoughts, her chin raised as if ready to spar with him over any manner of topic.
Lord, he was not prepared for this!
‘Mr Darcy.’ Her voice. How he had missed her voice.
His throat was strangely dry. ‘Miss Bennet. How…unexpected.’
Sir Walter, with complete disregard for the smooth skin of his forehead, was frowning.
‘What is this, Darcy? You are acquainted with my daughter’s com…’
‘Then introduce me at once, Darcy!’ The colonel was smiling widely and Elizabeth returned it. It was hardly helpful to Darcy’s current confusion and lack of wits.
‘Darce?’ His cousin nudged him hard in the ribs.
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ He turned back to the lady who had assumed an enquiring air. ‘May I introduce Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn in Hertfordshire to your acquaintance. Miss Bennet, please forgive me for introducing my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, to yours.’
She laughed delightfully, and Darcy drew in a short breath, then held it as his cousin regarded him intently before addressing Elizabeth.
‘Words cannot sufficiently express my pleasure in making your acquaintance, Miss Bennet.’ His eyes slid towards Darcy and back to Elizabeth. ‘At last.’
Darcy pressed his lips together, silently cursing his cousin, but before any more could be said, Sir Walter clapped his hands together.
‘Yes, yes. Quite, quite,’ he blustered. ‘Come Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam. I shall introduce my other daughters to you.’
Elizabeth glared at Mr Darcy’s back. Had that hateful man thought she found him amusing? Unfathomable. It was the surprise of seeing him, that was all, a visceral reaction. And what did the colonel’s ‘at last’ mean? Had Mr Darcy had the nerve to share his opinions on the Bennet family with his own kin? How dare he?
The blood rushing in Elizabeth’s ears almost muted the exchange between the Musgroves and the new arrivals. How could anyone care how Mr Darcy’s journey to the West Country had passed, or where they rode out to every day? Why was Charles Musgrove so particularly interested in the type of rifle the colonel favoured?
Fixing Mr Darcy with a blank stare, she only wished he could hear her far more pertinent thoughts.
Anne had come to stand beside her. ‘It is he, is it not? The man you told me of?’ She spoke softly, and Elizabeth turned her back on Darcy, thankful he was doing little beyond uttering monosyllabic responses in his usual fashion.
‘Yes. ’Tis Mr Darcy, though how he comes to be here, I cannot think.’ The last word came out almost as a squeak, and Anne took her by the arm and led her to where a footman was preparing drinks.
Anne handed one to Elizabeth. ‘Drink. It will help with the shock.’
‘I am quite well.’ Elizabeth raised her chin, but then she downed the sherry in one, emitting a small cough as her eyes met Mr Darcy’s across the room.
Anne indicated to the footman to refill the glass, then steered Elizabeth to a sofa in a quiet corner.
Positioning herself so she could not see the rest of the party, Elizabeth tried to concentrate on her friend. The surprise was fading, but now she was all anticipation to learn how this coincidence had come about.
‘I did not know you were acquainted with the Darcy family?’
‘I am not. I had not heard the name before you mentioned it.’
‘How is it he is here?’ Elizabeth’s curiosity was at its height, and she tried to curb her impatience. ‘I hope he is not long in the country. Perhaps he is passing through…?’
Anne was a little discomfited. ‘From what I understand, the gentleman and his sister are to reside on the estate for the duration of the winter. Father had merely said he met a gentleman in Town and was pleased to offer him a property. I knew not the name until he was introduced, but then I saw your face and realised it must be your Mr Darcy.’
A small sound came from Elizabeth. ‘Believe me, he is not my Mr Darcy.’
Anne flicked a glance over her friend’s shoulder. ‘The gentleman seems unable to keep his eyes from you, Lizzy.’
‘Hmph. Only because he cannot believe what he is seeing either.’ Elizabeth’s spirits dipped. ‘Perhaps I ought to curtail my visit.’
Anne face clouded. ‘You must do as you see fit, though I shall make a poor few weeks without you, especially with Lady Russell away in Bath. But if his presence so affects you…’
‘It does not!’ Elizabeth’s indignation was momentary, and she pulled a face at Anne’s smile.
‘Or course not, dear Lizzy. I meant considering your deep aversion to Mr Darcy and the damage he has done your sister.’
Elizabeth almost emitted a most unladylike snort. ‘If anyone should go, it ought to be him.’
Leaving so soon after her arrival held little appeal. All she would face at Longbourn would be her younger sisters foolhardiness and more of Jane’s obstinacy. Elizabeth was not afraid of Mr Darcy. On the contrary, she had enjoyed sparring with him in the past and now she had an added impetus to goad him. Perhaps she could, in some small way, atone for some of the disservice he had done.
‘Lizzy? You are frightening me with your stern mien.’
Elizabeth roused herself. ‘Pay me no mind, Anne. I am happy to stay as planned, and if I am in luck, I shall have few encounters with the gentleman.’
Anne inclined her head towards the door. ‘We are summoned to the dining room.’ She placed their now empty glasses on a side table as they rose from their seats. ‘I am relieved, but sorry the gentleman’s presence is blighting your first evening.’
‘Not at all.’
They turned their steps to where the others stood, arranging themselves for the parade into dinner, and a momentary tension gripped Elizabeth as Sir Walter offered his arm to his married daughter and Mr Darcy turned to hold her gaze for a second. Then she released a taut breath as Miss Elliot took her place beside Mr Darcy, taking his arm before he could offer it.
‘I believe we are to partner each other on the arduous journey from the drawing room to the dining room, Miss Bennet.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam was beside her, offering an arm. ‘Are you sufficiently brave to traverse the territory?’
With a laugh, Elizabeth took the proffered arm as they fell into step behind Mr Musgrove and Anne.
‘I am not afraid of being beset upon by any of the wild beasts the West Country offers, Colonel Fitzwilliam.’
The colonel let out a bark of laughter as they traversed the great hall. ‘It would be my duty—nay, my honour, ma’am—to protect you.’
Glancing ahead at their hosts, Elizabeth smiled. ‘The local beasts appear suitably tamed for now. I think we may assume we shall be safe for the duration of a meal.’
‘Thank the Lord for that. Being attacked, I fear not, but the notion of expiring on an empty stomach has provoked nightmares before now!’
This piece of silliness brought them to the table, and Elizabeth was torn between delight and annoyance at finding the colonel was to sit to her right and Mr Darcy to her left. Literally caught between them, she was thankful her initial interaction with the former had proved him a far easier companion.
Sir Walter took his place at the head of the table, with his eldest daughter at the opposite end, and as a footman poured wine into her glass, Elizabeth met Anne’s sympathetic look across the table and summoned a smile.
The sherry may have relaxed her a little, but for the sake of her friend, Mr Darcy and Sir Walter were about to get a lesson in just how well behaved a poor gentleman’s daughter could be.
Darcy stared at the bowl presented to him. He fully comprehended the expectation to pick up his spoon and taste the chestnut bisque but he was struggling with far more rudimentary actions than the challenge of the soup course.
Breathing, for instance.
Elizabeth Bennet had walked straight out of his recalcitrant thoughts to sit beside him. Far from being out of reach, intangible, invisible other than as a distant memory, she was now so close, he could move his hand ever so slightly and touch her.
Darcy tugged at his neck cloth. It felt uncommonly tight this evening.
He viewed his spoon, then picked it up, but his eye was caught by the movement of Elizabeth’s hand. She seemed to be having no such difficulty in wielding her own implement for its given purpose, despite his cousin demanding her attention. Regardless, Darcy had little appetite for the food, longing only to feast his eyes upon the lady at his side.
‘What is your opinion of the soup, Elizabeth?’ Sir Walter’s question was a godsend to Darcy, and knowing she would be turned away from him to address her host, he instinctively swivelled towards her.
Only she was not looking away. Elizabeth had twisted round towards him instead and now he was staring directly into her eyes as Miss Elliot’s plaintive tones drifted down the table to her father.
‘It is palatable, I suppose.’
You utter simpleton, Darcy. Sir Walter would hardly have spoken to Elizabeth Bennet by her given name on so short an acquaintance, and you fell—
‘Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth’s quizzical expression drew Darcy in more quickly than an expert angler reeling in his catch.
‘Er, yes?’ He cleared his throat. ‘My apologies, Miss Bennet. Did you say something?’
Darcy clenched his hand to quash the urge to reach out and touch one of the dark curls grazing her cheek as she shook her head.
‘I merely enquired as to whether or not you like the soup. It is your turn to speak now, Mr Darcy.’
Echoes of their dance at the Netherfield ball swept through him, and he desperately pushed it aside as he sought some common civility.
‘I—I trust all your family remain in good health and spirits?’
To his surprise, Elizabeth’s face clouded. ‘I recall you once saying you abhor disguise, sir.’
He inclined his head. ‘I do.’
‘Then I will not dissemble and, for the sake of good manners, must decline answering your question.’
With that, Elizabeth turned away from him and immediately engaged his cousin in conversation, and Darcy grabbed his wine glass. This was going to be one long meal.
Chapter Seven can be found HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton