Dropping his pen onto the blotter, Darcy leaned back in the chair, his lids closing over weary eyes. Sleep had evaded him as he relived the interview with Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, his mind grappling endlessly with its implications, and he had risen early, requesting a tray of tea in his study long before the breakfast table was made ready.
Notwithstanding the fact coercion was a crime, Darcy’s hands were tied—and Sir Walter knew it. If the offense were reported, it would all come out. A baronet in the dock would guarantee the attention of the national press, and Georgiana’s indiscretion would be revealed to all and sundry over their morning repast.
There had to be another way!
Raising weary lids, Darcy blinked and looked around, taking in the scattered pieces of parchment on the floor, before taking a slug from his cup and getting to his feet. Retrieving the papers, he stared at the lettering, then crumpled them into a ball.
Even with the distraction of the Elliots’ underhand actions, the despair and frustration over Elizabeth’s ill opinion showed no sign of abating. The dangers of putting sensitive matters in writing were forcibly before him, yet he had been unable to resist attempting a letter to the lady, defending himself against her charges.
Thrice Darcy had made a start. The first two efforts had stalled, but as the third began to take shape, and he addressed Wickham’s connection to his family, the pen had fallen from his hand.
It was a damned foolish notion; a risk he could not take.
Darcy walked over to the hearth, his hand clenching the parchment ever tighter. There was no way of justifying his actions towards Wickham or his service to his friend. He would have to live with Elizabeth’s condemnation ringing in his ears. Throwing the ball of paper into the flames, he watched it catch and burn, soon fading into ashes, much as his hopes had done.
Flexing his shoulders in an attempt to ease some tension, Darcy consulted his watch. Georgiana would soon be down to break her fast with him. He would—
The doorbell sounded, and Darcy checked the clock to see if his watch had erred. It was infernally early for callers!
Admitted to the house by a surprised Boliver, Anne dutifully waited as the housekeeper sought Mr Darcy, curbing the urge to fly up the stairs to the captain’s room.
‘Good morning, Miss Elliot.’ Mr Darcy had emerged from a hallway to her right, the housekeeper on his heels. ‘There was no change in the captain’s condition when I enquired after him earlier.’
The gentleman’s gaze flicked towards the door, then back to Anne. ‘You are alone?’
‘I am. Forgive the untimely intrusion, Mr Darcy. I must speak to you without delay. I did not know who else to turn to.’
‘Come with me.’ He led her over to the drawing room. ‘Mrs Reynolds, would you bring tea?’
Darcy’s curiosity was at its height as Anne sat on the sofa and he took a seat opposite.
‘You are concerned for Captain Wentworth.’
‘No. I mean, yes, of course, but that is not all.’ Anne drew in a visible breath. ‘In the short time I have known Lizzy, Mr Darcy, she has shown me more kindness, compassion and love than any of my family since my mother was lost to me.’
Darcy inclined his head, his mind racing. Elizabeth was not the subject he thought she would touch upon.
‘She is obliged to leave today and—’
‘Leave?’ Darcy struggled to conceal his shock. ‘Forgive me, please continue.’ His heart was pounding. What if he never laid eyes upon Elizabeth again, what if their paths never crossed in the future?
‘It is an edict from my father, sir. I know not how to account for it, nor does Lizzy, but he sent word to Longbourn yesterday to expect her return, and she is to be on her way at ten this morning.’
Darcy’s despair was tearing at him. Whatever Elizabeth’s estimation of him, he was not ready for her to walk out of his life! Not yet.
A reprieve came as Mrs Reynolds entered with the tray of tea, giving him a moment to gather himself.
Once furnished with a cup each, Darcy strove to marshal his thoughts. He had a fair notion of why Elizabeth was being sent away; his careless slip in front of Miss Elliot had not gone unnoticed.
‘What is it you would ask of me, ma’am? If I am able to do anything to assist, you have my backing.’
‘Lizzy was meant to stay for another se’nnight, but it is the next four and twenty hours that concern us. It is cruel to send my friend away when she is desperate to be my comfort, and I shall suffer deeply for the loss of…’ Anne’s voice cracked. ‘The loss of Lizzy, especially if…when…’
Anne seemed to run out of words, and Darcy viewed her with sympathy. He would aid her in any possible way, and not just for Elizabeth’s sake.
‘Today may be crucial, as I understand it from Robinson.’
Anne raised eyes filled with emotion to Darcy. ‘Beyond which there can be no resolution. I do not wish’—she stopped, her breath hitching—‘I do not wish to be parted from Captain Wentworth again until he must leave this earth. I am come to beg your assistance, sir. May I stay with him as long as is necessary, and may Lizzy remain with me?’
Darcy’s keen mind was whirling with a possible solution. Ought he to suggest it? The likelihood was, the situation upstairs would not last beyond a day, or two at most. He had no qualms over speaking to Sir Walter about giving shelter to his daughter. Much as the man had his hold upon Darcy, it was obvious he was desperate to have him wed Miss Elliot and would likely consider himself to have the better deal.
‘You are—’ he hesitated. Was this foolishness of the highest order? ‘The cottage in the grounds is at your disposal, Miss Elliot, for as long as you require it. I would not have you leave the captain against your will, and this should enable you to be on hand throughout the night in case of need.’
Anne placed her cup unsteadily onto a side table. ‘Willow Cottage? You will permit me to stay there should I need to remain this evening?’ She swallowed visibly. ‘I had longed for a way of doing so. Your kindness overwhelms me, sir. And Lizzy?’
Darcy drew in a short breath. ‘Miss Bennet is welcome to stay with you, if she will agree.’ Would she? Could Elizabeth, for the love of her friend, put aside her aversion to him?
‘Thank you, Mr Darcy.’ The lady’s relief was evident as she rose from her seat and Darcy did likewise. ‘If I am ever able to repay you for such generosity, you must take it as given. I shall return to the Hall directly. The carriage is due to leave at ten, and we will be here soon after.’
Darcy smiled wryly as they left the room. ‘You are assuming Miss Bennet will be amenable to my suggestion. I could never be quite so certain.’
‘Lizzy will do anything for those she holds dear, Mr Darcy. Though our friendship was only recently formed, I am confident I comprehend her well enough.’
As the door closed on the lady, Darcy went in search of Mrs Reynolds to give his instructions regarding the cottage. For all the threat of Sir Walter’s scheme, his spirits had risen a little by knowing he had done all he could to assist Anne Elliot. If he was likewise filled with relief at securing a little more time during which he might lay eyes upon Elizabeth, he refused to acknowledge it.
Elizabeth had returned to her room with her tea and some toast, but once they were consumed, she resumed her place at the window. The sun had risen a little higher in a cloudless sky. There would be no inclement weather to prevent her leaving, and her thoughts turned instantly to what Anne would face without her.
A tap on the door roused Elizabeth, and her friend’s head appeared around it.
‘Anne! I was going to come to your room.’ She noted her friend’s attire in puzzlement as she entered the chamber. ‘You are riding to Meadowbrook House this morning?’
Anne hurried to join Elizabeth by the window. ‘I have already been there.’
Elizabeth placed a comforting hand on her friend’s arm. ‘I comprehend your urgency for news of the captain. How is he?’
Anne shook her head. ‘I have not seen Frederick, though I am told there is little change in his condition. Come. Let us sit.’ They perched on the bed as she continued. ‘I went to speak to Mr Darcy. Listen, Lizzy. You do not have to leave immediately. I mean, you need to quit the Hall, but not the estate.’
Elizabeth’s confusion deepened. ‘How so? My family anticipate my return on the morrow. Besides’—she laughed, though little amused—‘it is a little cold for sleeping under the stars.’
‘Mr Darcy is offering us shelter for the next four and twenty hours.’
Her mouth a little open, Elizabeth stared at Anne. ‘But…why? And how? Surely we cannot be guests in the house of an unmarried gentleman?’
‘I do not think Mr Darcy considers us guests, dear Lizzy.’ Anne’s smile was faint. ‘There is a charming cottage standing empty, just across the lawn from the main house. The gentleman sees no problem with us making use of it should the need arise.’
The thought of staying in such close proximity to Mr Darcy was unsettling, but Elizabeth instantly comprehended the benefit for Anne. ‘It is a kind and generous offer.’
‘You are surprised.’
‘A little.’ Elizabeth sighed. ‘Leastways, I would have been had I not seen the compassion Mr Darcy has already displayed. But will your father not protest?’
‘I intend to tell him I will return to sit with Frederick, nothing more.’ Anne’s expression darkened. ‘It is unlikely we shall be required to stay beyond a day.’
This reminder of the captain and his circumstances was sufficient to have Elizabeth get to her feet and hold out a hand to Anne.
‘Then so be it. If Mr Darcy can tolerate my presence, I am certain I can do the same.’ She frowned as they walked towards the door. ‘I must get a message home.’
‘I will ask for an express rider to come. Write to your father, Lizzy. I shall pack a small bag in case’—she drew in a wavering breath—‘in case we need to linger overnight.’
The express to Longbourn dispatched, Elizabeth waited beside the carriage at the appointed hour, as the coachman, James, attended to their luggage.
‘All loaded, miss.’
‘Thank you. I will seek out Miss Anne.’
Elizabeth hurried inside, filled with relief when she saw her friend walking swiftly towards her.
‘I thought perhaps your father would prevent your leaving.’
Shaking her head, Anne took Elizabeth’s arm as they emerged into the cold morning air.
‘My father blusters with words but often fails to act. He remains excessively angry with me.’ She eyed Elizabeth as they moved towards the carriage. ‘I did not enlighten him to my intention of remaining with Frederick for as long as is necessary. Mr Darcy has promised to deal with my father, should I need to stay through the night.’ Anne drew Elizabeth to a halt. ‘Nor did I make mention of your staying with me.’
A wave of discomfort swept through Elizabeth as James opened the carriage door.
‘Will your father’s wrath be brought down upon your coachman when he returns so precipitously?’
‘You forget, Lizzy. He is wed to Elise, who is a most loyal maid. Indeed, she will join us if we have to stay beyond the evening. James is already primed to return to the carriage house by a back lane. My father will not notice immediately, if at all, and there is every likelihood James will be back to collect you at some point on the morrow to convey you onwards.’
This sobering thought and all it implied washed over them both, and they observed each other solemnly, but then footsteps approached from behind.
It was Miss Elliot.
‘Quick, Lizzy, let us get into the carriage.’
Anne urged Elizabeth forward as James lowered the steps.
‘Where are you going, Anne?’ Miss Elliot narrowed her eyes at Elizabeth, then turned back to her sister. ‘Miss Bennet is for her home. You cannot possibly contemplate accompanying her to Hertfordshire.’
‘I do not.’
Anne took the steps into the carriage, but as Elizabeth made to follow, Miss Elliot came to her side.
‘My father has forbidden Anne to attend that…that man.’ She sniffed. ‘I shall speak to Mr Darcy about it, see that he sends him elsewhere. That is, if the captain does not oblige us by taking himself off permanently.’
A gasp came from inside the carriage, and Elizabeth removed her foot from the bottom step and faced Miss Elliot.
‘You may speak to Mr Darcy, by all means, but do not rely upon his hearing you.’
Miss Elliot raised a brow. ‘The gentleman will do anything I ask of him.’ She smiled coyly. ‘Our acquaintance is more than you might suppose.’
‘I suppose nothing,’ Elizabeth muttered, turning her back on Miss Elliot and taking the steps into the carriage.
‘We send no compliments to your family, Miss Bennet.’
‘I am sure they will be delighted, ma’am.’
The door closed, and Elizabeth met Anne’s anxious look with a reassuring smile.
‘We are free. Do not fret.’ Elizabeth patted her friend on the arm as the carriage began to move.
‘I thought I would breathe easier once we were on our way, but now I fear what this day will bring.’
‘I know.’ Elizabeth held her friend’s gaze. ‘I will stay with you as long as you wish—or at least as long as Mr Darcy permits.’
Anne smiled tremulously. ‘If only Reverend Wentworth could have arrived in time. Though I am saddened for Frederick, and all his family, I am thankful to have seen him once again.’
Elizabeth settled back into her seat. ‘I have not given up hope. I find myself attached to this man I have never quite met, for he had the good sense to fall in love with you and has succeeded in winning your heart.’
Silence fell for a short while as the carriage moved into the lane. Then, Anne spoke. ‘Your countenance is troubled. Is it for your parents when you do not arrive?’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Not particularly, now the second express is on its way to them. My overriding anxiety stems from being beholden to a person I have considered the worst of men for some weeks. An opinion I chose to share with him but days ago.’ Elizabeth rolled her eyes. ‘And here I am, deeply indebted to Mr Darcy for his understanding and kindness towards you.’
‘I do wonder.’
‘What do you wonder?’
‘If it is for me that Mr Darcy has allowed himself to be so imposed upon.’
Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. ‘For whom else would he do this?’
Anne shrugged. ‘Perchance my imagination is at play.’
Elizabeth turned to stare out of the window. They were almost at their destination, and her trepidation was rising. ‘I suppose you could say he has done it for the captain.’
Anne did not respond, and Elizabeth looked over at her. ‘What? Why are you smiling like that?’
‘No reason.’ She leaned forward and took Elizabeth’s hand. ‘Thank you for being my champion, my companion, and most of all, my friend, dear Lizzy.’
‘I would choose to be nowhere else than by your side.’ Elizabeth meant the words, but as the carriage pulled through the gates into the driveway, and she espied Meadowbrook House, her heart faltered.
What would the coming day bring?
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton
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