Mr Darcy’s Persuasion – a Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion crossover

Prologue

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, writes to his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam

Mount Street

Mayfair

Thursday, 28 November 1811

Cousin,

I trust you are conveniently situated in Dorset and that your quarters answer for your immediate needs—do not, I beg you, send me further details on the sanitary habits of your regiment. I am well able to comprehend the reality, without your explicit illustrations.

Thankful though I am to receive word of your continued good health, I do have a modicum of regret that your hearing is not compromised. Following your call upon Georgiana last week, I shall have to caution her to exercise more discretion in sharing the content of my correspondence.

Despite your suggestion to the contrary, no young lady has caught my attention. Georgie’s imagination is rapid. It has leapt from a casual reference to an expression of interest without any justification. (Pray ignore the smudges; my pen blots at will.)

Besides, even with your poor talent for deduction, you will note I have quit Hertfordshire for Town. My friend and his sisters have likewise returned, and I hope this will be the end of Bingley’s—and thus my own—association with the county.

I can picture you now, Cousin, brow quizzically raised as you muse upon the reasons for such a precipitous departure, when I had envisaged being bound to attend Bingley for some months. My motives were two-fold.

Bingley, you may recall, is of an open disposition and has a propensity for rapidly forming attachments, his admiration for a young lady often turning to love before they have exchanged above three words. He had the misfortune to develop such a tendresse in Hertfordshire, concerning a lady of inferior birth and from a most unsuitable family. So blatant were Bingley’s attentions, a marriage was being anticipated by the local populace.

Thus, when Bingley was obliged to return to Town yesterday—the day after hosting his confounded ball—our party hastened after him.

Bingley’s sisters joined me in expressing a mutual disapprobation over the lady’s circumstances, pointing out the evils of such a match. I feared, nonetheless, my friend would not concede to our plea for him to remain in Town for the winter; thus, I was obliged to further persuade him of the young lady’s indifference. In this I am confident, and my assurance carried weight.

My second inducement for leaving so swiftly—be warned, Cousin—is of a far more disagreeable nature.

Wickham is now stationed in Hertfordshire with his regiment! My immediate anxiety was for the county’s proximity to London and our charge remaining there unprotected by either of us. What is more, I learned shortly before the ball that Wickham had taken himself off to the Capital.

You can imagine my desperation to return to Georgiana’s side directly. I will own this added impetus to my encouragement of the Hursts and Miss Bingley to join me in following my friend (though I did, of course, speak no word to them regarding Wickham.)

There is one final matter, which I am obliged to set before you. As you know, Georgiana has been suffering in recent weeks under a heavy cold, and the impending winter and present damp weather are preventing a swift return to health. She remains wan and listless, with a persistent cough, and though Mr Wilson assures me there is no danger, it keeps her from repose at night; thus, she is also fatigued.

My intention is to take Georgie west, where the climate and rural surroundings will provide better opportunity for her to safely take the air throughout the coming months; as such, I have secured lodgings in Somersetshire, but forty miles distant from your encampment at Blandford.

Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall has been most obliging, offering a property on his estate for the length of our stay. (Though I suspect his assistance is for non-altruistic reasons. The rumours in Town are of his being strapped for cash). Rein in your alarm, Cousin. I am quite safe from any hopes the gentleman may entertain regarding his unmarried daughters.

We shall remain there for the duration of the winter, at the least, and hope to return to Town in the late spring. There is an open invitation for you to pass as much of your liberty with us as you can spare from your parents—you will be a more than welcome sight for your two exiled cousins. I shall send the direction as soon as we are established in the county.

I know you care as deeply for Georgiana as I—indeed, you are as another brother to her. Let us hope this will aid in the improvement of her health, for her spirits, as you know, are still not recovered fully from the events of the summer.

I remain, as ever, your loyal servant.

F Darcy

~o0o~

Miss Elizabeth Bennet writes to her aunt, Mrs Gardiner

Longbourn

Hertfordshire

Friday, 29 November 1811

My dear Aunt,

How are you and the family weathering this inclement season in Gracechurch Street? Be thankful for your pavements; the rains seem never-ending in Hertfordshire, and we have mud and disruption all about.

But oh, dear aunt, if I despaired of only this! When I recollect the catalogue of misfortunes I related in my last—was it but two days ago?—I had no notion matters could worsen beyond my imagining!

How, I hear you say, could they worsen, my disappointment in Mr Wickham not attending the ball being so profound—and all through the insufferable Mr Darcy’s influence? How could they worsen more than the ignominy of being obliged to dance the first set with my cousin Collins—his skill in the activity warranting as much respect as his character—and then his having the temerity to propose marriage to me? How could they worsen for Jane, who—after an evening of such delights—knew Mr Bingley’s travelling to Town the following day would prevent his calling?

This is how. Word has come, by Miss Bingley’s hand to Jane, of the whole party’s removal to London and giving no indication of their return. Further, she claims her brother’s attention is all upon Mr Darcy’s sister—a match she says the families anticipate with pleasure.

I doubt there is truth in what is said about Miss Darcy or that Mr Bingley will not return. His inclination was too pronounced, but  Jane will not heed my words and has taken this letter in all faith. I have failed to sway her to the contrary.

And now for the worst of it. You will recall my relief at escaping such a fate as being shackled to Mr Collins. Sadly, it had not long to endure.

In the light of Mr Bingley’s defection, and all her schemes for seeing Jane settled at Netherfield come to naught, Mama is encouraging my beloved sister to accept the hand of our cousin instead! To prey upon Jane’s sweet, obliging nature when she is so low in spirit is cruel indeed, but Mama will not let up, and Jane is now giving it serious consideration.

Mr Collins thankfully left us today, for he is obliged to return to Kent, but he has avowed his intention of returning in a fortnight to press his case, and Mama is so set upon making it happen, I fear the worst.

I beg you will be able to talk some sense into Jane, for I know there is little point trying to instil any in my mother.

Jane says it matters not whom she weds, with Mr Bingley gone from her life. I hate to see her so disillusioned, but she will not be drawn into my way of thinking. How thankful am I that you will be here within a week of Mr Collins’s return to pass the festive season at Longbourn.

May I petition for an invitation for Jane to accompany you and Uncle Gardiner to Town directly afterwards, that you may give her respite from the pressure being brought upon her? If fortune blesses us, she may even cross paths with Mr Bingley.

I beg an early response, my dear aunt. Send me some solace as I try to lift Jane’s spirits.

Your affectionate niece,

Lizzy

P.S.  Despite the above, I would not have you believe I have kept to my room in a fit of pique at not gaining my point! Indeed, quite the contrary, for I have made a new acquaintance.

A Miss Anne Elliot has come to stay at Lucas Lodge. Charlotte informs me Sir William was introduced to the lady’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, at St James’s. She seems a genteel lady, a little older than I, but we appear to have much in common. I find I like her very well.

We are to dine at Lucas Lodge this evening, and I anticipate furthering the acquaintance before Miss Elliot is obliged to return to her home in Somersetshire.

Chapter One

Darcy adjusted his person in the carriage, stretching his long legs but unwilling to disturb his sister on the opposite bench, who had been sleeping this past hour, her head resting against the shoulder of the lady by her side. Mrs Annesley, a sensible woman in her thirties and companion to Georgiana Darcy, remained engrossed in her book and scarcely seemed to register Darcy’s existence.

The silence suited him; the thoughts in his head did not. With the passing countryside providing little distraction, Darcy’s mind had turned inwards, as it so often did. And as so often of late, only one thing occupied his thoughts: Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

Why? Why could he not free himself from her? Darcy had known his danger, of course. Telling himself he was relieved when she and her sister left after their brief sojourn at Netherfield was mere lip service, and well he comprehended it. Fortunately, no one else was aware of his unfathomable fascination (though Caroline Bingley’s hawk-like eyes missed little).

But the ball last week… Darcy closed his eyes, a vision of Elizabeth, attired in her finest, her hair prettily dressed, appearing before him. How he had anticipated standing up for a set with her. How he had argued with himself beforehand, debating the pros and cons of doing so, knowing all along he would be unable to resist the temptation.

The set had not delivered. Instead, it had revealed Elizabeth’s disapprobation, her disinclination for his company, and worse, her interest in another—in Wickham, of all people. How she had championed him!

A tremor seared through Darcy, and his eyes flew open. Of all people!

Then he took himself to task. Be done with it, Darcy.

He turned to stare out of the window, forcing away the memory.

The journey was nearing its end. They had left the turnpike behind some time ago, their speed lessening to accommodate the winding lanes of Somersetshire. It was pretty country, predominantly farmland and small villages, and the state of the roads reflected it. Darcy winced as the wheels found another rut, bouncing the travellers roughly in their seats. Georgiana, however, did not stir.

Darcy surveyed her with concern. His sister had slept badly of late, her cough troubling her. It was no surprise the somnolent motion of the carriage when on the smoother roads had lulled her to sleep. He hoped—no, he prayed—he had done right in bringing her away.

As the carriage slowed to enter an impressive gateway, rolling in state into the park, Darcy leaned forward and rested a hand on Georgiana’s arm.

‘Dearest. We are arrived.’

Mrs Annesley closed her book as Georgiana sleepily opened her eyes and straightened. Her wan complexion smote Darcy’s heart. Lord, he hoped Wilson’s prognosis was sound.

‘Forgive me, Brother. I have not been the best of company.’ Her voice was hoarse, but Darcy shook his head as he sat back in his seat.

‘You need your rest, my dear. I will make your apologies to Sir Walter. Remain in the carriage with Mrs Annesley whilst I establish our direction.’

Relief filled Georgiana’s features, and she turned to speak quietly to the lady at her side as Darcy viewed their surroundings with growing interest.

The park at Kellynch was extensive, but the house was soon came into view, an impressive Elizabethan building with an excess of windows. The upkeep must be a severe drain on Sir Walter Elliot’s income—the rumours may well be true after all.

Barely had the steps been lowered before Darcy was out of the carriage and striding forward, exchanging acknowledgements with the baronet who had come out of the imposing doorway to greet them.

‘My good sir, welcome to Kellynch.’ Sir Walter puffed out his chest, and Darcy blinked. He was wearing a ridiculously ornate waistcoat for the time of day, his hair arranged with more care and precision than a lady of fashion.

‘Sir Walter. I trust you and your family are in good health?’

‘What? Ah, yes. Capital, I thank you. But you will see for yourself, Darcy. You will join us for some refreshments.’

‘With regret, sir, I must decline for the present.’

A frown creased Sir Walter’s brow, though it was quickly banished. ‘What is this? No refreshments after such a journey?’ He passed a smoothing hand across his forehead, as though in fear the frown had wrinkled it.

‘I thank you sincerely for the kind offer, sir, but my sister has been unwell and requires rest. If your man would be so good as to supply the direction to our lodgings, I will ensure she is comfortably installed before coming to pay my respects.’

Sir Walter’s gaze drifted towards the open door of the carriage.

‘Of course. Shepherd.’ He gestured towards a neatly-dressed man hovering just inside the doorway. ‘Be so good as to furnish Mr Darcy’s coachman with directions to Meadowbrook House.’ He bowed fussily to Darcy. ‘We shall see you directly, sir.’

Darcy was back in the carriage before Sir Walter had disappeared inside the building. His impression of the gentleman had not wavered. He was as much a spectacle at home as he was in Town.

Some minutes later, the carriage drew up on a gravel sweep before a substantial property of much more recent build than the main house. The columns supporting the portico, the tall windows, and the smooth stonework spoke of its Georgian origins. It was, perhaps, in a similar style to Netherfield, only on a smaller scale.

Once inside, Darcy was relieved to see his valet, Raworth, and Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper from Pemberley, waiting in the entrance hall.

‘Welcome to Meadowbrook House, Mr Darcy.’ Mrs Reynolds dropped a curtsey as Raworth relieved Darcy of his greatcoat. ‘Shall I bring tea to the drawing room?’

‘Georgiana?’ Darcy turned to his sister and her companion.

‘May I go to my room, Fitz?’

‘Of course.’ He turned to the housekeeper as Georgiana’s maid, Tilly, took her coat and bonnet. ‘I trust you and the staff are well settled, Mrs Reynolds?’

‘Of course, sir. Come, Miss Georgiana, Mrs Annesley. I will show you to your apartments and send up some tea.’

Darcy watched the ladies making their way up the elegant staircase, then walked over to where one of the Pemberley footmen held open the door to the drawing room, and he entered with interest.

It was a well-furnished room, and a roaring fire in the grate made it all the more welcoming. There was a well-stocked bookcase along the far wall, and Darcy walked over to inspect it, only to mutter at the first book he selected. Was not this the volume of poems Elizabeth had been studying during that interminable half hour in Netherfield’s library? How he had struggled through those endless minutes, determined to remain in his place, whilst equally committed to ensuring no particular attention to the lady escaped him on the final day of her stay in the house.

‘Enough,’ Darcy said aloud as he thrust the slim volume back onto the shelf, turning his back on the books.

There was a desk under the far window, and a quick inspection showed it to be well equipped with the necessary writing implements. Taking a seat, Darcy selected a pen, dipped it into the ink and began to write. His cousin could be relied upon for a great deal, providing distraction being a particular talent. The sooner Richard came to visit, the better.

~o0o~

Elizabeth Bennet closed the door to her sister’s bedroom with a snap. She was quite out of sorts, torn between frustration and concern for Jane. How could someone so sweet-natured be so… so stubborn? With a huff, Elizabeth hurried along the landing and down the stairs. She needed fresh air and, hopefully, a renewed perspective.

Within five minutes, suitably dressed for the chilly November weather, Elizabeth was clambering over a stile into the field situated on Longbourn’s western border, thankful for the crisp overnight frost and the solid ground underfoot.

Deep in thought, she strode purposefully along, hardly heeding her surroundings. Was Jane truly serious in her consideration of an engagement to Mr Collins? It was nonsensical. What could she possibly do to help her sister see the circumstances differently?

Pausing to draw breath as the terrain began to rise steadily, Elizabeth put her hands on her hips, her brow furrowed.

‘There must be an answer,’ she muttered.

At least her aunt and uncle would be here soon for their annual Christmas visit, along with their brood. If anyone could talk some sense into the sister Elizabeth once viewed as the most grounded and sensible of them all, it was Aunt Gardiner. There was, at least, that shred of hope to cling to.

Upon reaching the summit of the small mound, Elizabeth paused again to take in the vista of open country. However, it did not deliver the usual contentment as her mind returned to her current concerns.

At first disbelieving Mr Bingley’s decampment from Netherfield to be interminable, Elizabeth had dismissed Jane’s doubts and anxieties. Now, it was impossible to ignore the facts. She had encountered the gentleman’s housekeeper yesterday in Meryton, who had confirmed there was no indication her master intended to return. A skeleton staff was to be retained through the winter, but rumour was that, come the spring, the property would be sublet to another.

Elizabeth was torn. Keeping secrets from Jane went against her nature, but if she spoke of it, her sister would surely give in to her mother’s pressure over Mr Collins.

Anger towards Caroline Bingley and her sister rose in Elizabeth’s breast, a familiar sensation of late. This was their doing. As for Mr Bingley, how could he be persuaded against his affection for Jane? She contemplated the surrounding farmland. There was little doubt in her mind the blame was theirs alone. He was equally culpable, she was certain—if not even more so.

That man! Setting off at a rapid pace, Elizabeth tried to outrun her thoughts as she descended the slope. Mr Darcy. Mr Cane-Up-His-Rear Darcy. He would fail to recognise true affection were it to rise up and poke him in his sardonic eye.

She doubted not he had brought undue influence upon his friend. After all, had not Mr Bingley himself declared Mr Darcy to be the person he turned to for advice on all matters?

Advice from Mr Darcy on matters of love? Unfathomable.

‘Eliza!’

Charlotte Lucas was in the lane bordering the field with her guest, Miss Anne Elliot, a young lady of four and twenty years and impeccable manners. She was of a slender frame, average height, and had kind brown eyes, and Elizabeth had enjoyed making her acquaintance over the past week.

With an enthusiastic wave, Elizabeth hurried across the grass to a nearby stile and scaled it.

‘We are well met, Eliza.’ Charlotte smiled. ‘For we were on our way to pay a call at Longbourn.’

Elizabeth pulled a face. ‘It is well to avoid the place.’ She sent an apologetic look towards the lady at Charlotte’s side. ‘Pay me no mind, Miss Elliot. I am attempting to walk off a bout of ill temper. How are you enjoying this spell of crisp weather?’

‘It is welcome, is it not, after the persistent rains of late?’ Anne glanced at their mutual friend. ‘I am grateful for Charlotte’s kind invitation, for the downpours in Town were not conducive to taking the air.’

Charlotte indicated they walk on, and Elizabeth fell into step beside them. ‘You were in Town with your godmother, I understand, Miss Elliot?’

‘Yes. She is also a dear friend. Lady Russell much prefers the winter pleasures of Bath, and upon that city she is now bent. For myself, I had endured sufficient of hard pavements, bustle, and noise.’

Her recent frustration dissipating with the balm of company, Elizabeth laughed. ‘And you have exchanged them for muddy lanes and puddles.’

Anne’s expression was wistful. ‘It is always my preference over Bath.’

They paused on the verge for a moment to let a horse and cart pass.

‘I should like to see Bath,’ Elizabeth mused as they continued along the lane. ‘I travel so rarely.’

Charlotte seemed disbelieving. ‘You visit your aunt and uncle in London often enough, Eliza.’

‘Yes, but that is all. There is so much to be seen, and I have experienced so little. I would love to journey as far as the Lakes or the Peak District.’ Elizabeth surveyed their surroundings. ‘I will own to being generally content with my lot in life, but of late, I have become somewhat disenchanted.’

Charlotte was frowning. ‘Is this to do with Jane?’

‘Unquestionably.’

Silence fell upon the ladies as they negotiated a crossing on the lane. Longbourn was now in sight, and Elizabeth viewed it with mixed emotions. She had not anticipated so precipitous a return. However, now was not the time to discuss Jane and Mr Collins—not in company with someone with whom she had only so recently become acquainted.

Elizabeth frowned as she addressed Charlotte. ‘I comprehend the connection between your fathers, their having met at St James’s, but how is it you are both acquainted?’

‘Anne and I met when we attended the ladies’ seminary for a twelve-month.’ Charlotte waved a hand. ‘You recall, Eliza, do you not, my stay in Surrey some years ago?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘We remained in contact through correspondence,’ Anne interjected. ‘But have rarely met in the interim. I had never visited Hertfordshire before, and Charlotte has never come to Kellynch. That is our home in Somersetshire,’ she added.

‘And now we are to address the situation!’ Charlotte beamed as they made their way down the drive to Longbourn. ‘Anne has kindly extended an invitation to accompany her when she returns to the West Country. I shall make a stay of some weeks.’

Knowing of Charlotte’s importance to the running of the household at Lucas Lodge, this was surprising intelligence to Elizabeth and sufficient distraction from her present vexations, and the three young ladies continued a lively discussion on the charms of home until they were inside the house.

~o0o~

‘She is pleasant, is she not?’ Jane Bennet was at the window when Elizabeth returned from seeing the callers on their way.

‘I find her excellent company. She has an independent air that is much to be admired.’ Elizabeth joined Jane by the window, determined to make a point. ‘She epitomises the prerogative of a lady’s choice to remain unwed.’

Jane raised an admonishing brow at her sister, but Lydia, the only other of the Bennet ladies remaining, snorted.

‘I did not find her good company. Miss Elliot is far too piano for my tastes.’ Lydia flounced out of the room, and Jane and Elizabeth exchanged a resigned look.

‘’Tis a shame Lydia makes so little use of the mute pedal herself.’ Elizabeth held out a hand to her sister, and Jane smiled, taking the hand as they crossed the room to settle on a chaise beside the hearth.

‘Jane—’

‘No, Lizzy.’ Jane placed a hand on her sister’s arm. ‘I beg of you. No more. Let me come to my own decision.’ She raised a hand as Elizabeth opened her mouth. ‘And in my own time.’

Sensing the swift return of her annoyance, Elizabeth blew out a breath. ‘I cannot condone you even considering Mama’s scheme.’

‘Dear Lizzy’—Jane turned in her seat, her eyes solemn—‘Mama was quite right. One of us must secure the futures of the others. It is incumbent upon me to at least give the heir to the estate some consideration. Besides, think of the peace of mind it would bring to our parents.’

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Peace of mind? Never! ‘Those are Mama’s words! And Papa is not as content as you may believe.’

‘I know.’ Jane sighed. ‘I do not wish people to be at odds, but I am only doing my duty in not dismissing it out of hand, and if it is my choice, you will not talk me out of it.’

‘So be it. It shall no more be spoken of.’ Neither of them believed it a solemn promise. All the good of Charlotte and Anne’s visit faded as melancholy settled upon Elizabeth with a firm hand.

‘Do not be sad. Let us speak on pleasanter topics, such as this evening’s invitation to dine at Lucas Lodge.’

Elizabeth stayed her sister with her hand as they both rose from their seats. ‘Promise me one thing, Jane.

‘Just one, Lizzy?’

‘I am perfectly serious.’ Elizabeth stepped aside as Jane opened the door. ‘Will you promise to make no commitment to Mr Collins at this point? After all, he has already said he will return in a fortnight.’

Jane held Elizabeth’s gaze for a moment, then nodded. ‘It is the least I can commit to. The matter is sealed.’

‘It is not,’ Elizabeth muttered as she followed Jane out into the hallway.

‘Did you say anything?’

Elizabeth shook her head, hope taking a firmer hold. ‘Naught of consequence.’

Perhaps it was time to channel Mr Darcy himself? If he could persuade his friend away from her sister, perhaps there would be a way for Jane to be persuaded from this ridiculous notion of taking Mr Collins as a husband?

Chapter Two

‘I think Richard is here!’

Darcy looked up from his book. Georgiana, who had been keeping watch at the drawing room window since breaking their fast, shot out of the door.

Putting the volume aside, Darcy rose from his seat and walked to the window. To his surprise, a carriage had entered the gates and was slowing to a halt on the gravel sweep before the main entrance. Even as he watched Boliver, his butler, make his stately way down the steps, Darcy saw Georgiana hurry out of the doorway and overtake him, hovering as one of the footmen lowered the steps and opened the door.

He turned away, picking up his sister’s discarded shawl and went out to join them, thankful for his cousin’s prompt arrival. Much as Georgiana’s health was slowly improving, her spirits remained quite low, and the burst of pleasure she had shown was long overdue.

By the time Darcy reached the top of the steps, the colonel and his sister were making their way up them, and the carriage was moving away. He tucked the warm shawl about Georgiana as they entered the house.

‘You made good time.’ Darcy shook his cousin’s hand. ‘I did not expect you to come by conveyance.’

‘A colleague is on his way to Bristol and offered me a ride as he planned to break his journey in Somersetshire. Seemed churlish to refuse the ease and comfort. Hereward should be in the stables, assuming my man has arrived?’

Georgiana, who still clung to her cousin’s arm, nodded. ‘Mrs Reynolds mentioned he was installed in his quarters.’ She covered her mouth as her cough made itself known. ‘You will find your rooms pleasant, though not as spacious as Pemberley.’

The colonel grinned as Boliver relieved him of his travelling cloak.

‘I am accustomed to coping with the hardship of basic accommodations.’ He turned to Darcy. ‘You are well situated. I had not expected such a modern and airy property.’

‘Built but five and twenty years ago as the dower house for the present incumbent’s mother. She did not live to see it completed, but I believe the late Lady Elliot furnished it and made regular use of it.’

The colonel smirked. ‘Probably hopeful of living in it herself one day. Shame she did not live to do so either.’ He raised a brow. ‘So, Darce, how do you find the air of Somersetshire?’

Darcy pulled a face and the colonel laughed.

‘Do not tell me. You find the company confined and unvarying.’

‘It is like any other away from Town.’

‘Including Pemberley, Brother.’ Georgiana’s impish smile appeared but soon faded. ‘I do miss our home, much as we are well settled here.’

‘We have a dozen of the Pemberley staff attending us, Georgie.’

‘I know, Fitz, but this scenery is so sedate and predictable. I miss the drama of the peaks.’

The colonel grimaced as they turned for the drawing room. ‘You will not miss the winter weather. Mother’s latest says snow is forecast. Ice is forming on the lakes, and the livestock is already quartered in the barns.’

Darcy frowned. ‘I have not heard from Peters. I trust he has all in hand at Pemberley. After the wet summer and the poor harvest, the last the farmers need is a harsh winter.’

‘Peters always has matters in fine shape, Darcy, as well you know.’ The colonel studied the charming and comfortable room. ‘You are simply feeling the boredom of being a tenant yourself, with no steward to order around.’

‘Richard’—Georgiana tried to clear her throat—‘How long will you stay?’

‘I must return to camp in a few days time, but Blandford is not far distant. I have some leave due to me during the festive season and was hoping for an invitation?’

He looked to Darcy, who had resumed his seat.

‘Of course. You would be most welcome, for it will be a quiet Yuletide this year.’

‘Had you not thought to invite your friend, Bingley?’

Darcy stirred uncomfortably in his seat. He did not like to think of the morose Bingley he had last seen.

‘Permit me some leeway before I consider the social whirl of the season.’

‘It will be upon us before you know it.’ The colonel stretched his legs out in front of the roaring fire. ‘And how do you find Sir Walter Elliot as a neighbour?’

‘Tolerable, I suppose.’

‘And Miss Elliot?’

‘Richard.’ Darcy’s tone held a warning as he studied Georgiana, who was listening intently.

Colonel Fitzwilliam merely smirked, so Darcy continued.

‘Should you have the opportunity to become reacquainted with Sir Walter during your brief stay, you can be certain he will introduce his daughters to you.’

‘All three of them? Is not the youngest married?’

Georgiana nodded. ‘Mrs Musgrove suffers with her health, thus, she has not paid a call here, for fear of contracting my cold. They live at Uppercross, two miles across the parkland.’

‘Miss Elliot has called once with her father,’ added Darcy. ‘Though Georgiana did not meet them, and we have not made the acquaintance of Miss Anne Elliot. She has been travelling, we are told, and will return shortly.’

‘I shall anticipate the meeting with pleasure.’ The colonel settled more comfortably against the cushions. ‘A soldier is oft in need of female companionship to soothe his rougher edges.’

Darcy all but rolled his eyes. ‘I doubt the daughters of a baronet are quite the right company for such a purpose, Richard.’

‘What do you mean, Brother?’

‘Some foolish nonsense from your cousin. Would you be so good as to ring for refreshments, Georgie?’

~o0o~

‘Whatever is the matter?’

Elizabeth raised her eyes from her book as her mother came bustling into the room bearing a note, thrusting it at her daughter, then waiting for her to open it.

Recognising Charlotte’s hand, Elizabeth read it quickly.

‘Well, Lizzy? What is it?’ Mrs Bennet flapped her arms. ‘The boy insists on waiting.’

‘Lady Lucas is taken ill.’ Elizabeth raised her head. ‘It is not believed to be infectious, but Charlotte requests her guest, Miss Elliot, stay with us until her departure.’

Mrs Bennet’s mouth opened, then closed with a snap. ‘Miss Elliot? She is the daughter of a baronet, is she not? A lady such as she will expect only the best. I must change the dinner course.’

She left the room, shrieking ‘Hill! Hill!’ and, sinking into a chair at the desk, Elizabeth penned a quick response, assuring Charlotte of Miss Elliot’s welcome at her soonest convenience. Once the boy had been dispatched into the wintry evening, Elizabeth sought out the housekeeper to establish the best room for Anne’s brief stay, hoping she would not find life at Longbourn too trying.

In truth, she was confident this development would bring some relief to her own situation (though wishing no ill upon Lady Lucas). Jane’s intransigence had somehow placed an invisible barrier between them, and though on the surface their relationship seemed as normal, Elizabeth felt unable to talk to her in the open way she was used to. Though Anne lacked the familiarity of a sister, she was amiable in every way and would be a comfort.

The lady had also shown herself to be as fond of walking as Elizabeth, and she anticipated them spending much of the remainder of Anne’s stay roaming the countryside and continuing to talk about books, plays, and the journeys they wished they could make. Anne seemed to have a particular fascination with the sea, and the places she wished to visit were far more exotic than Elizabeth’s, and she looked forward to hearing more from her new friend.

~o0o~

The colonel was interested in exploring the neighbourhood, contemplating as he was passing the festive season with his cousins, and on his first morning in Somersetshire he and Darcy enjoyed a fine gallop across the fields.

Drawing in their mounts on a rise of ground, Darcy eyed their surroundings appreciatively before leaning forward to pat Gunnar’s silken neck.

‘It is fine country.’

Darcy turned in the saddle and followed the direction of his cousin’s scrutiny as it roamed over the green landscape. The fields were bordered by a combination of fencing and honey-coloured hamstone walls, which were common to the area, and were scattered with sheep.

To the left, lay woodland; and to the right, from their raised position, they could see down the valley to Kellynch Hall in all its splendour.

‘Such a charming prospect. Unless one is within, I suspect,’ mused the colonel.

‘You refer to the inhabitants, I assume, rather than the internal dimensions.’

The colonel laughed as they slowly made their way down the slope towards the lane, which would take them back to Meadowbrook House. ‘Yes. It is an impressive structure, and as for the long gallery, I have heard much of its dimensions.’

It was the best part of the house in Darcy’s opinion, the remainder being lavishly refurnished in recent years.

‘It reminds me of Rosings in some ways.’

The colonel frowned as they continued along a grassy track towards the lane. ‘How so?’

‘Not the style so much, but the opulence with no regard for beauty or form.’

They had reached the bridleway now, the colonel using his crop to handle the metal gate, and turning their mounts to the right, proceeded in a comfortable silence for a moment.

Then, the colonel turned to Darcy. ‘I remain curious about your precipitous departure from Hertfordshire. I admire your commitment to both your friend’s well-being and Georgiana’s protection but sense there is something you are not telling me.’

‘Why, pray, would you speak so?’ Darcy’s eyes narrowed as they continued along the way. He thought he had successfully silenced his cousin on that score.

The colonel reached over and grabbed the reins from Darcy’s hands, pulling both mounts to a halt.

‘You are distracted. It cannot be Wickham, for Georgie is safe here with you. I doubt it is Bingley. I suspect it is a woman.’ The colonel grinned.

‘Do not be so asinine. Why should a woman be the cause?’

‘Hah! So, you will own to the distraction of your thoughts?’

Damn it. Darcy drew in a long breath, trying to pretend Elizabeth hadn’t come to mind in an instant. Where was she right now? Would she be out walking if this fine weather graced Meryton, or…

‘And there you go again.’ The colonel’s grin widened, and Darcy wrenched the reins from him and set off at a canter, conscious his cousin had followed suit.

Trying to outrun his thoughts was futile, and he knew it. It was what Darcy had been endeavouring to do ever since the swift removal from Netherfield. Had he not torn himself away rather than gone willingly? And why this ache in his breast even now? How could he miss a woman who hardly acknowledged his existence; who, what is more, championed his nemesis?

Darcy slowed his mount and, oblivious to his cousin having drawn alongside, the name ‘Elizabeth’ fell from his lips.

‘Good lord, Darce!’ The colonel almost choked on a laugh. ‘You are aiming high!  Setting your sights on Miss Elizabeth Elliot?’

Darcy turned to his cousin. What could he possibly say? He most assuredly would not own to an interest in that lady, and he most assuredly would not own to an interest in any other Elizabeth.

But is not Elizabeth Bennet a vastly inferior lady? The thought whispered through his mind, and he shoved it ruthlessly aside. In fortune and connections, perhaps. In character? Never.

‘Darce?’ The colonel’s amusement faded. ‘Hey, old chap, I comprehend the need to secure a mistress for the estate, but Miss Elliot? I may not have made her personal acquaintance, but the word in Town is not favourable.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘I am no fool, Richard. That way, madness lies.’

His cousin, of course, knew not the truth of Darcy’s words.

Chapter Three

‘I shall miss your company when you leave in the morning.’ Elizabeth smiled at Anne as they made their way through the lanes near Meryton.

‘And I yours.’ Anne looked back as a burst of laughter emanated from Lydia Bennet, who was walking behind them with her sister, Kitty.

‘But not my sisters’!’ Elizabeth shook her head as she and Anne turned their steps towards Longbourn. ‘No attempt to check them holds sway. Did you ever have such trials from your youngest sister?’

‘Mary is quite the opposite, though her younger sisters through marriage are not dissimilar.’ Anne paused, then added. ‘Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove are away at school, which may tame some of their exuberance.’

Anne preceded Elizabeth through the open gates, and they continued down the drive towards the house. ‘Sisters can present many challenges, can they not?’

Elizabeth pulled a face, then laughed. ‘Aye, that they can. Tell me about your sister Mary. You said she is the only one of you to marry so far?’

‘Yes, she wed a Mr Charles Musgrove but a year ago.’

‘And is she content?’

Anne did not answer, and Elizabeth stayed the lady with her hand. ‘Forgive me. I am too inquisitive.’

‘You are not!’ Anne’s tone was reassuring. ‘I was merely reflecting. How much do any of us truly comprehend of a married couple’s life when all we see is their public face? Mary is with child at present, and some of her ailments make her querulous, so happiness in her present situation is difficult to determine.’

‘You are quite the diplomat, Miss Elliot.’

Anne shook her head. ‘I speak as I find.’

‘Which is why we get on so famously.’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘Though I will own, you speak with less impertinence than I.’

She flinched at a shout of laughter from Lydia as they resumed their walk. How Anne had endured these few days, she had no idea, but there were another four and twenty hours to get through before she would be able to escape Longbourn. How could she help her pass them without excessive exposure to her family?

~o0o~

Darcy and the colonel were passing the impressive entrance gates on the driveway leading to Kellynch Hall, and they reined in their mounts again.

‘How extensive is the estate?’ The colonel shielded his eyes from the low winter sun as he took in the vista around them.

‘Not dissimilar to Pemberley, but in need of some investment.’ Darcy gestured towards a nearby boundary with his crop. ‘Many of the walls are in need of repair, there are some fences down, and I have already discerned several trees which ought to be felled before they choose to do so of their own accord.’

The colonel raised a brow. ‘The estate is not channelling its resources into where it is required. Is Sir Walter tapped out?’

‘I believe he is headed that way.’ They both urged their mounts to walk on. ‘There seems no shortage of funds for garments, fine dining, and refurbishment of the principal rooms in the house.’

‘That would conform to the general consensus in Town.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam grinned. ‘Sir Walter is as fine a specimen as is ever seen, other than Brummel himself, of course. Quite the dandy and, to be fair to the gentleman, not appearing his age.’

‘He may not look his age, but he ought at least to dress it.’

The colonel laughed. ‘I can imagine his flounce and fancy would not be to your taste, Darce!’

‘There is little about Sir Walter Elliot that is to my taste, other than Meadowbrook House is proving perfect for its purpose.’

‘Georgiana does seem in better spirits.’

Darcy mulled on this as they reached the bend in the lane. ‘Much as I hate to give you reason to gloat, Georgie has improved remarkably in spirits since your arrival.’

The colonel snorted. ‘Yes, she has been telling me you are not much aid to cheering her up. Your introspection has not gone unnoticed, Darce. Come on, it is high time you came out with the cause.’

It certainly was not!

Darcy urged Gunnar into a canter again, calling over his shoulder, ‘Riding is not conducive to conversation.’

He was in no mood for one of his cousin’s interrogations, nor did he wish to reflect upon the origin of his introspection.

A memory of Elizabeth rushed into his mind, and he was powerless to expunge it. Trying to ignore the habitual ache within his breast, Darcy sped on towards home. He would not be drawn in. Elizabeth was his own secret to keep.

~o0o~

Back in Hertfordshire, Anne and Elizabeth were strolling in the garden, both reluctant to give up the fine day.

‘What is through that gate?’

‘A pleasant grove. Would you like to see it?’

‘Oh yes. I have always had a particular fondness for groves.’

‘It is perfect when one wants to escape for a while. My younger sisters are unlikely to consider venturing out here unless they thought red coats might be growing.’

They strolled in the grove in a companionable silence for a while, but Elizabeth felt out of sorts.

‘Will you think badly of me, Miss Elliot, if I speak more openly than our acquaintance might warrant?’

‘If speaking will aid you, then please do. You can trust in my discretion.’

Elizabeth took Anne’s arm and they resumed their walk.

‘I am unsurprised by my mother playing upon Jane’s lowness of mood, but I cannot comprehend my sister’s lack of faith in Mr Bingley’s returning. Her consideration of Mama’s proposition is not duty. It is madness of the highest order.’

‘Is it truly?’

Anne’s soft-spoken question merely confirmed what Elizabeth already knew.

‘No, of course not. But my father…’ She stopped and faced Anne, conscious of rising agitation. ‘If Jane is willing, Papa is not going to dissuade her from her apparent choice.’

‘And you feel Mr Bennet should act?’

Elizabeth raised both hands before dropping them to her sides. ‘Having been rescued from such a match myself, I find Papa’s acceptance of the situation unfathomable. His reasoning is that Jane needs time to reflect, time to see the commitment from a more rational perspective.’ She let out a breath. ‘It does have some merit. Jane is caught up in her own misery. She cannot see happiness with any man and thus concludes she may as well make a convenient match to aid her sisters.’

‘It is a noble gesture.’

‘And I wish I could accept it.’ Elizabeth’s every thought railed against it; her whole being rejected the notion.

‘Come. Let us walk on.’ Anne urged Elizabeth into step, and they followed a winding path to their left.

‘Jane once said I was not formed for ill humour. Never did I foresee the sweetest, most benevolent of my sisters putting me in a humour such as this.’

They came to a bench nestled against the hedging and sat.

‘Oh, Miss Elliot. How fortunate you are.’

‘I?’ Anne’s kind eyes clouded for a second. ‘Yes, of course. Though I struggle to ascertain your present meaning?’

‘Forgive me. I am over familiar.’

Anne shook her head. ‘Our friendship may be of short duration, but we have already formed quite the bond, have we not? Thus, the boundaries are quite liberal and shall no doubt be infinite in time.’

Elizabeth was warmed by the sincere sentiments. ‘I fail to recall a time when I was not conscious of the expectation for all of us to secure a match—and that at least one of us must make a good one to protect the future of the others.’ She paused, inhaling the crisp winter air. ‘Though Mr Collins is not a rich man, being heir apparent to the estate would offer protection for us all, but despite this, I cannot reconcile myself to Jane’s sacrifice.’

‘We have an entailment in common. Kellynch is destined for my father’s cousin, William Walter Elliot, Esquire.’

‘And has there been no pressure upon your eldest sister?’

Anne released a short laugh. ‘I think the pressure might well have been upon the cousin, but it bore no fruit. My sister, from as early as I can recall, meant to marry Mr Elliot—he is the heir presumptive, you see and a future baronet—and my father had always meant that she should.’

‘Was Miss Elliot deeply attached to the gentleman?’

‘I believe they only met twice in Town. Both my father and my sister were angered by Mr Elliot snubbing the hand of friendship from the head of the family and then going on to marry a woman of inferior birth.’

‘Oh!’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘So, Miss Elliot and yourself…’ It would be indelicate to ask if they were in need of a match. Surely they had plentiful dowries and would not fail to secure a situation when they chose to? ‘You have not been persuaded by your father to settle down, have no desire to follow your younger sister’s inclination?’

Anne’s features were indicative of some discomfort. ‘It is true my eldest sister has, this last twelve-month, seemed almost desperate for a situation, and my father is equally desirous of her securing one. For myself’—she hesitated—‘I have never feared being thrust into a situation against my wishes, but…’

Elizabeth viewed Anne with growing curiosity.

‘It is simply… Well, there is the truth. It is not simple at all, for grass spreads no greener over the fields of Kellynch than it does elsewhere. Perchance it is simply of a different hue.’

‘Is your present situation not of your choosing?’

‘Yes…and no.’

Elizabeth was conscious how carefully Anne was speaking. Her air bespoke disquiet. Perhaps she ought to redirect the conversation?

Anne, however, continued. ‘Choice is a complicated thing for a woman,’ Then, she waved a hand. ‘Pay me no mind. For the present, I will own to some regrets—regrets that have never left me.’

‘You make me curious, but I will ask no more. One day, I hope you will share your burden with me.’

‘I am quite content with my lot in life.’

Quite content? Elizabeth knew it would not be sufficient for her, and she doubted, ultimately, it would be sufficient for Anne Elliot.

The lady at her side shivered, and Elizabeth stood. ‘Come. Let us walk back towards the house whilst you talk me into a better humour.’

Anne fell into step beside her. ‘I wish I had an attachment to either of my sisters as strong as yours. I envy you, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth followed her out of the grove, then turned to take Anne’s proffered arm.

‘Jane is my truest friend and a most beloved sister.’ Elizabeth mulled upon this for a moment. ‘I have never felt this way about her before, as though we are drifting apart.’

‘May I make a suggestion?’

‘Of course.’

‘A change of scene may bring you some reprieve. Dear Miss Bennet, will you not come with me, in Charlotte’s stead, to Kellynch?’

Chapter Four

‘Can you be quite serious?’ Elizabeth stared at Anne in part disbelief, part wild hope. ‘Accompany you to Somersetshire?’

‘Why ever not? Charlotte was to make a stay of several weeks with us. In her absence, why not take her place?’ Anne spoke earnestly. ‘I am sorely in need of company—good company. Will you not indulge me?’

‘I—’ Elizabeth cast around for the right words, but they would not oblige, mainly because her head was simply shouting ‘yes, yes, yes’. Why was she hesitating? Because of Jane.

‘Can you not spare a couple of weeks? Your sister has promised to make no decision before your cousin’s return.’

It was true, and there was merit in the suggestion, for Jane showed no sign of listening to anything Elizabeth said.

She smiled. ‘Pay no mind to my dithering. It is not for want of accepting with alacrity. I am surprised, that is all. Would it be acceptable to your family? They are vastly my…’

‘They are expecting me to return with Charlotte. Whomsoever I return with will make no difference to my father or my eldest sister.’

‘They sound most accommodating.’

A small sound escaped Anne, but Elizabeth was too taken up with the notion of escape.

‘I must speak to Papa.’ It was a necessity, but Elizabeth knew her father would always take the path of least disruption, and if she made it clear she wanted to go into Somersetshire, then to Somersetshire she would go.

Anne’s face was alight with warmth. ‘I should so love to show Kellynch to you, Miss Bennet! It is my solace and comfort.’

‘You make me envious.’ Elizabeth considered the charming walled garden. The golden chimney tops of Longbourn and the rooftops were all that could be seen from here. ‘I do like my home, but I would not say it gives me much relief.’ She turned back to face Miss Elliot. ‘Indeed, of late, I have oft dreamed of escaping its confines for the wider world. Your offer is most fortuitous.’

‘Then you will come? And…’ Colour crept into Miss Elliot’s cheeks. ‘Do I ask too much, after so brief an acquaintance…would you give me leave to call you Elizabeth?’

‘Oh, thank heavens!’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘The formality at times is enough to drive one to bedlam.’ She sobered, but she was full of her unexpected good fortune. ‘And please call me Lizzy, as my friends do. Come. Let us repair to the house. I shall speak to Papa directly. With your carriage due on the morrow, I must make haste to address my packing, and you can advise me on the suitability of my wardrobe.’

~o0o~

Darcy dropped Bingley’s latest onto his desk and leaned back in his chair. Distance from Hertfordshire and a certain young lady had done little to lessen his friend’s attachment, and he was making it obvious.

With a faint smile, Darcy stood. Bingley was a lot bolder at expressing his opinion when they were not face-to-face. The momentary amusement faded, and Darcy released a frustrated breath. Damn it! Now he was feeling guilt-ridden once more. Bingley had no patience for writing letters, dashing them off with such speed they were almost unintelligible, but since Darcy and he had parted company, he had become a regular correspondent.

His attention returned to the discarded letter on the desk. All too regular. As was the refrain. His friend was unhappy, excessively so, doubting his own actions and, thus, the advice he had been given. Bingley never doubted Darcy’s advice.

Frowning, Darcy left the room and roamed the hallway. He had no misgivings whatsoever.

Or did he? Was he not painfully aware of his own danger when in Hertfordshire? Did Darcy not feel the same anguish his friend so freely expressed, whenever thoughts of Elizabeth passed through his mind?

However, did the lady not come from the same unsuitable family, who displayed little decorum, had no fortune or prospects, and the weakest of connections? A country town attorney, for heaven’s sake, and a businessman in Cheapside!

Once again, Elizabeth appeared before him, her chin raised and her fine eyes sparkling as she traded opinions with him, and something deep within Darcy’s breast clenched as he instinctively placed a hand over his heart. Why did she persist in haunting him? Her voice played in his ears day and night, her eyes followed him—intelligent, forthright…

‘Brother?’

Darcy stirred, looking towards the drawing room door.

‘Is aught amiss?’

Darcy joined his sister, taking her outstretched hands. ‘Not at all, my dear.’ He frowned again. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Your countenance, Fitz.’ Georgiana’s eyes raked his face. ‘I know you are disturbed. We have not been brother and sister these many years without my comprehending a little of your countenance.’

‘My habitual dour expression, you mean?’ Darcy followed Georgiana into the room.

‘You are not dour!’ Georgiana took a seat by the hearth. ‘You are…’

‘Curmudgeonly? Irascible? Cantankerous?’ The colonel had joined them, and Darcy laughed.

‘Quite often.’ He turned back to his sister. ‘But never with you, dear Georgie.’

‘But what is it, Brother?’ Georgiana’s stare was unwavering, and Darcy stirred under its intensity. Where the devil was thiscoming from?

The colonel looked from one to the other, then dropped into an armchair opposite his young cousin, a smirk spreading across his features.

‘Aha! Caught out, I gather?’ He winked at Georgiana. ‘What has Darcy been revealing? He has a secret of some sort, though I have failed thus far to discern it. Perchance you will have better luck than I.’

‘I have no secret.’ Darcy bit out. You lie, whispered a soft voice, somewhere out of reach.

‘I fear he doth protest too much, Georgie.’ The colonel grinned at his young cousin. ‘How shall we cajole the facts from him?’

‘Is it to do with your time in Hertfordshire? Did some misfortune befall you there?’

Leaning back in his seat, Darcy studied his sister from across the room. If only she knew.

‘Your silence is telling, Brother. Is it connected to Mr Bingley?’

Darcy blinked. ‘What makes you say—’

‘You told me you and his sisters hastened after him, though you did not elaborate on your reasons. And between your return and our departure for Somerset, you rarely saw him, even though it is customary for him to lodge with us or Mr and Mrs Hurst rather than in an hotel. Thus, I must conclude, there is a difficulty between you both.’

‘I think it is more than that, Georgie.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam smirked at Darcy. ‘He has already told me of the service he rendered to Bingley in successfully extracting him from a situation in Hertfordshire.’

Georgiana’s expression was filled with concern. ‘Had he formed another attachment?’

Darcy nodded. ‘Bingley was quickly smitten, but the lady less so.’

‘Oh, poor Mr Bingley!’

‘An indifferent lady and a besotted Bingley.’ The colonel barked a laugh. ‘You did the lady a favour, that much is certain, Darce.’

‘I merely pointed out the ills of such an alliance. The lady was of inferior birth and the family’s situation appalling. Separating them was in both their interests.’

Georgiana was frowning. ‘But if you feel thus, why would it plague you so, have you pacing the hallway with such a conflicted air?’

‘Hah!’ The colonel laughed. ‘Definitely caught out! I wonder, Georgie, if it has aught to do with this mention of a young lady in Hertfordshire.’

‘Enough of this.’ Darcy left his seat, weary of the subject. ‘Amuse yourselves as best you can. I have correspondence to attend to.’

Darcy closed the door on his cousin’s chuckling. Let them speculate at will. There was no possible chance of them stumbling upon the truth.

~o0o~

A new day dawned soon enough, and the trunks were quickly loaded onto the Elliot carriage, but before Anne and Elizabeth left the house, Hill joined them in the entrance hall.

‘A letter has been sent up from Lucas Lodge, Miss Lizzy. For Miss Elliot.’ Hill handed over the missive and hurried away, and Anne frowned.

‘I am not expecting any letters. Oh! It is Elizabeth’s hand.’ She looked up. ‘You share a name but little else.’

Elizabeth smiled. ‘Shall we get on our way? You can read it as we travel. Wait, where is your maid?’

‘She is to travel with the coachman as the weather holds for now.’

‘Is that not a little singular?’ Elizabeth followed Anne into the elegant carriage and took a seat opposite her.

‘Quite. Elise and James are married.’

Elizabeth stared out of the window at Longbourn as the carriage began to move, waving to her sisters, who had come to see them off and feeling little regret at leaving them behind.

It would have been difficult to say goodbye to Anne, for she had been the best of companions. She also talked with such warmth of her home, of Somersetshire, that Elizabeth was all anticipation for her visit.

As the carriage set off along the turnpike towards the West Country, Anne leaned back against the cushions.

‘You seem disturbed, Lizzy. Is it leaving Miss Bennet behind?’

Elizabeth settled back in her seat. ‘I am astounded at my relief. Normally, when I am parted from Jane, I miss her immediately.’

‘Perchance the separation will do your sister some good, permit her to see a way forward more clearly.’

‘I truly hope so.’

Anne’s mild, dark eyes met Elizabeth’s solemnly. ‘Be not so concerned, Lizzy. A disappointment—even one that may not be fully overcome—can be borne. For your sister, it is too raw, too soon, for her to see beyond her immediate sense of loss. I feel for her, I truly do.’

Not for the first time, Elizabeth sensed there was hidden meaning behind Anne’s words, and she responded gently.

‘You are kind and compassionate. As is Jane. You would do well together, I am certain.’

Anne merely smiled, turning her attention to her letter. Her eyes skimmed the two sides of the paper, then her hand dropped into her lap.

‘You are displeased with its content?’

Anne folded the letter and tucked it into her reticule. ‘It is always the way of it. Rarely does my eldest sister write me, and whenever such an occasion arises, she never fails to disappoint.’

‘How so?’

‘My sister takes much after my father, and displays a decided lack of empathy. I must warn you, Lizzy…’ Anne leaned forward in her seat. ‘They are not like me. Or leastways, I am not like them. I know not what I mean to say, but they may not be as welcoming towards you as I would wish.’

It was no surprise to Elizabeth that a baronet and his eldest might be condescending towards her. ‘Miss Elliot will object to your bringing an acquaintance to stay who is not of equal social standing.’ Elizabeth’s tone was matter of fact, but a blush stained Anne’s cheeks.

‘Regretfully, she and my father are obsessed with rank.’

Elizabeth laughed as Anne sat back in her seat. ‘They sound akin to Mr Darcy.’

‘That proud, arrogant man you mentioned? The one who has great influence over his friend?’

‘The very same. Mr Darcy is full of a sense of his own importance, thinks meanly of anyone of lower rank, and is disdainful of those with a prior claim upon him.’ Feeling disgruntled and not liking the sensation, Elizabeth pushed away her memories of the gentleman. ‘But tell me more of your sister. Is she much older than you?’

‘By two summers.’

‘Oh!’ Elizabeth was surprised. ‘I thought she must be quite the elder, with being so set upon finding an establishment.’

Anne was thoughtful. ‘I always believed my sister was content with her circumstances. There was an alteration, and if I recall correctly, it was during the preparations for Mary to wed Charles.’

‘Perchance she resented a younger sister marrying before her?’

Anne clasped her hands in her lap. ‘Perhaps.’

Elizabeth pulled a face. ‘It is ironic, is it not, that the need to find an establishment affects all classes of society?’

‘For women, certainly.’

Not wanting to dwell upon this, Elizabeth adjusted her position.

‘Let us talk of Kellynch. I am intrigued by how attached you are to your home and would love to hear more about it.’

Thus, they continued on their way, the conversation remaining light and easy, until they reached the first inn and change of horses.

~o0o~

Although the air was crisp and the temperature dropping as night fell, both Darcy and the colonel felt the need for exercise after dining with Georgiana and Mrs Annesley, and they set off on foot down the lane. They had only gone but a half mile, however, when a voice hailed them.

‘Ah, Darcy. Well met.’

Darcy discerned Sir Walter Elliot about to enter a carriage in front of Kellynch parsonage. Waving away his footman, the gentleman strode towards them in the falling light.

‘Sir Walter. Permit me to reacquaint you with my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam? I believe you have met before now in Town?’

‘Delighted.’ Sir Walter bowed in his usual fashion, and Darcy threw the colonel a warning look.

‘Likewise.’ The colonel exaggerated his own bow. ‘It is a fine estate you have here, sir.’

Sir Walter drew himself up. ‘Most certainly. Extensive acreage in all directions.’ He waved a hand expressively, then patted his coiffure and replaced his hat. ‘Regrettably, it is entailed upon a male cousin.’

‘As is oft the way of it, sir.’

‘The living is under review.’ Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand towards the building behind him. ‘You would not normally find me attending to such matters myself, of course, but I wish to ensure my own man is installed. Still, glad to have caught you, Darcy. Wished to extend the invitation to dine with us. The morrow would be convenient.’

Darcy and the colonel exchanged a lightning glance, and the former inclined his head. ‘Your attention is appreciated, Sir Walter. Would it not be an imposition?’

Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand. ‘My youngest and her husband will be in attendance, and my other daughter is to return from her travels on the morrow. Bring Miss Darcy along. We shall make a fine party without need of additional guests.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘My sister is…’

‘My cousin is delighted to accept, Sir Walter.’ The colonel silenced Darcy with a look. ‘Miss Darcy is not out, and though her health is much improved, she will be better-served by a warm hearth and her companion to attend her.’

‘As you wish. Well, gentlemen, I bid you farewell until tomorrow evening. Shall we say six o’clock?’

They watched in silence as Sir Walter returned to his carriage, then gave them a regal wave on passing by, and they then continued their walk.

‘How far is it from here to the hall?’

‘Less than a half mile.’

A snort came from the colonel, and Darcy grinned into the falling darkness. He knew Richard would find the gentleman ridiculous too.

Chapter Five

Anne and Elizabeth reached Kellynch by noon the next day, and Elizabeth stared around with avid interest as they entered the great hall. A tall, middle-aged gentleman had emerged from a room at the top of a small flight of steps, accompanied by an elegantly dressed young woman.

‘I begin to wish I had brought Mama,’ Elizabeth whispered to Anne as she was urged forward.

‘But I thought you were not close to your mother?’

‘Indeed I am not,’ Elizabeth said in a quiet aside. ‘She was quite in awe of the splendours of Netherfield, but I believe Kellynch would render her speechless—a rare enough phenomenon but always worth witnessing.’

Anne smothered a laugh as her family joined them. The introductions were swiftly made, and Elizabeth and Anne followed Sir Walter and Miss Elliot to the drawing room, where the former was invited to praise the furnishings, the prominence of the marble fireplace, and several portraits of former Elliots before she was permitted to partake of any refreshment.

Anne’s sympathy was obvious, but Elizabeth was unperturbed. She had sought distraction, and it seemed Kellynch and its inhabitants would deliver tenfold.

Later, having been shown to her chamber and allocated a maid from the household staff, Elizabeth stood by the window, feeling redundant as the servant emptied her trunk and travelling case. She was not used to being inactive and longed to explore the parkland. Two days in the carriage, albeit a conveyance of great comfort, was two too many.

Restless, Elizabeth left her room and peered up and down the landing. Anne had said she would meet her downstairs. Had she returned to the drawing room?

Once in the imposing great hall again, Elizabeth approached the room she had been in earlier. Voices drifted out through the partially open door.

‘Who is this Miss Bennet, Anne? And why, pray, are we to take her into our home as a guest? Surely she is but a companion and should be treated accordingly.’

Sir Walter sounded out of countenance, and Elizabeth paused, highly entertained.

‘When Lady Lucas became ill, I was welcomed as a guest at Longbourn, Miss Bennet’s home. Miss Elizabeth Bennet has become my particular friend, Father, and I ask you to be as welcoming to her as you would towards any of Elizabeth’s acquaintance.’

Anne spoke firmly, and Elizabeth was grateful for her support but less pleased with the dismissive tone of her father towards her friend.

‘Really, Anne,’ Miss Elliot’s voice interjected. ‘How can you compare Miss Bennet with those who count themselves as friends to the eldest daughter of a baronet? We know nothing of these Bennets. What is their status in the world? Who are their connections?’

Elizabeth eased away from the door.

‘Mr Bennet is a gentleman, and the estate has been in the family for many generations, and—’

Anne’s voice faded as Elizabeth made her way back down the shallow steps into the great hall. She felt for her friend, having to defend her to such people, and Elizabeth walked over to stare out of the leaded glass windows. The absurdity of her own family faded in comparison to Sir Walter, and she anticipated observing more of him during her stay. Perhaps if her letters were full of such folly and nonsense, they would raise Jane’s spirits.

~o0o~

After tea, Anne had taken Elizabeth on a tour of the principal rooms, but when she left her guest at her room to prepare for the evening ahead, Anne turned back and hurried down the staircase. Dusk was already falling; if she did not make haste, she would be unable to fulfil her ritual walk.

She slipped out of a side door, stepping onto the gravelled walk bordering the lawns before making her way along the path.

Turning around, Anne stared at the house where it loomed before her: tall, immensely handsome despite its age, the malfunctioning roof tiles and draughty casements invisible to the eye.

So much of the house evoked gloomy memories, despite the time lengthening since Lady Elliot’s passing. Her mother’s chamber had lain empty for eleven summers, the small sitting room where she had taught Anne her first letters and later instilled a love of poetry remained a melancholy place. As for the year six…a spasm shook Anne’s breast as recollections poured in unbidden.

Commander Frederick Wentworth, as he was then, had never been welcomed over the threshold of Kellynch Hall except by Anne herself.

The drawing room, where she had waited on the outcome of his interview with her father, evoked bittersweet sensations, for she could still recall being held close by Frederick when he finally came to her. Such happiness as they had had, despite its brief duration, was not easily forsaken. Sadly, the room also contained the chair into which Anne had collapsed, distraught and broken after ending the engagement.

Frederick’s anger, his cold expression, and his boots striking the flagstones as he walked away from her remained Anne’s last abiding memory of him.

With a shudder, she continued along the path beside a stretch of ancient hedging, seeking the roughly made arch carved in the hawthorn’s sturdy branches. Beyond lay Anne’s favourite place, a grove where she often lost herself in thoughts of a happier time.

Oft had she strolled there with Frederick. It was where he had offered Anne his hand, his ardent love, and the promise of a wonderful life. Here she had once walked with such joy, her arm tucked securely within his, awash with the excitement of love, of romance, of their plans for a cottage in the country where they would raise a family.

It had thus become Anne’s habit, upon a return from any travels, to go there to retrieve her more comforting memories.

It was not long, however, before the light persuaded Anne to leave, and she hurriedly retraced her steps, pausing to cast one lingering look back.

No matter whose feet walked there in the centuries to come, the grove would remain forever hers and Frederick’s.

Anne sped to the house. Her father’s ire was easily roused if she was ever late, but she could not have forsaken the visit.

The grove never failed to remind her she had once been loved. Perhaps, if she was blessed with good fortune, the day might come when someone else might feel the same. Until then, Anne would keep safe her memories; that was something her father could never take away from her.

~o0o~

Elizabeth was unsure how she felt about her arrival at Kellynch thus far. That Sir Walter viewed her as merely a companion for his second eldest daughter was a little galling, but see could see amusement in it. Miss Elliot’s dismissal of her as unworthy of any notice was as she had anticipated. Thankfully, Anne remained a charming and intelligent friend, and—

A tap on the door roused Elizabeth from her introspection.

‘It is time to go down, Lizzy.’

Anne came into the room, then took in Elizabeth’s appearance.

‘Lottie has done your hair with such elegance!’

With a laugh, Elizabeth turned to inspect her coiffure in the mirror, moving her head from side to side and enjoying the effect of the carefully curled tendrils brushing against her neck.

‘Indeed. I shall be able to admire it in every looking glass I pass.’ She grinned at Anne. ‘Though I am unused to such attentions unless I am attending a ball…’ Elizabeth paused, as a memory flashed through her mind, of standing opposite Mr Darcy at the Netherfield ball. ‘And I suspect there will be little dancing this evening.’

‘Do you enjoy the activity?’

Anne led the way along the landing towards the stone staircase leading to the main floor.

‘Vastly.’ Elizabeth laughed as they started down the stairs. ‘Though the assemblies at home leave much to be desired. The same people, the same musicians playing the same airs, the same gowns and conversation. There is little to be had of alteration to our local gatherings…’

It was not true of late though. Had not the arrival of the Netherfield party disrupted the neighbourhood, the Bennet household and—if she were honest with herself—Elizabeth too? Again, Mr Darcy came to mind, his mien filled with disdain as he watched Lydia and Kitty’s cavorting at the ball, rushed into her mind, but Elizabeth forced it aside. No tall, proud man was going to interest her, and certainly not one that had done his childhood friend such a dreadful disservice.

‘There you are, Anne.’ Miss Elliot’s cold voice reached them as they reached the great hall. ‘How tiresome it is when you are tardy.’

Anne said nothing as they walked past her eldest sister and up the shallow steps to the drawing room where Sir Walter was waiting with a young couple.

‘Miss Anne Elliot,’ Sir Walter began. ‘Must you persist in trying my patience?’

Anne appeared remarkably calm, but Elizabeth had a suspicion this was a frequent lament.

Raising her chin, she addressed the gentleman. ‘Forgive me, Sir Walter, for delaying your daughter. She was perfectly on time until I forestalled her with my many questions about Kellynch.’

Sir Walter blinked rapidly and smoothed his fingers over the fine lines below his eyes, and Elizabeth tried—and almost succeeded—in concealing her smile. Ludicrous man!

‘I doubt you have ever seen the like of the interiors here.’

‘I could not have put it better myself, sir.’

‘Quite right. Now, permit me to introduce my youngest to you, Miss Bennet. Mrs Mary Musgrove of Uppercross, and her husband, Charles. Mary will be mistress of that estate, you understand, when the time comes.’

The man at Mary Musgrove’s side seemed a little discomfited at this reference to his father’s future demise.

‘This is Anne’s companion, Miss Elizabeth Bennet from…’ He frowned, and Anne stepped forward to address her sister and brother-in-law.

‘Miss Bennet lives at Longbourn, her family’s estate in Hertfordshire.’ Anne turned to her father. ‘And Lizzy is my friend, Father, as well you know.’

Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand. ‘Friends, companions. What are they, if not interchangeable?’

Miss Elliot had come to join them. ‘Indeed, though there is at least some benefit in a companion. They have their uses, whereas friendship hardly ever does.’ She looked around at the gathered company with an air easily as arrogant as any Elizabeth had seen in Mr Darcy. ‘I have no use for such acquaintance.’

Ostensibly taking Anne’s arm, Elizabeth smiled at Mary and Charles Musgrove. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’

‘Capital!’ Charles Musgrove beamed, and he stepped forward to engage Elizabeth and Anne in conversation, the former only half listening, because Mary Musgrove’s plaintive voice had caught her attention.

‘And who are these people, Father?’

‘An old family from the North. Excellent titled connections, a grand estate and of good fortune. Ah, here they are. Welcome, Darcy!’

Darcy? Elizabeth shook her head. There had to be more than one family of such name. Calmly, she turned to observe the two tall gentlemen looming in the doorway, her face becoming suddenly warm.

There he was. The very same Mr Darcy, and the last man in the world she had ever wished to become reacquainted with.

Chapter Six

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 finally 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.’

~o0o~

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.

‘Lizzy?’

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.

‘Sherry, please.’

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 amused expression.

‘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.’

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 navigate 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 lowered her voice. ‘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.

The sherry may have calmed 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.

~o0o~

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 neckcloth. 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 Miss Bennet by her given name on so short an acquaintance, and you fell—

‘Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth Bennet’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

The meal passed more pleasantly than Elizabeth had anticipated, mainly down to the amusing and undemanding conversation offered by the colonel and having very few, almost monosyllabic, exchanges with Mr Darcy, and before long, the dessert dishes had been arrayed on the table.

‘How are you finding the Somersetshire air, Miss Bennet?’

‘I have yet to experience it, Colonel. We arrived just after noon, and I have only seen the house. I hope to explore the grounds on the morrow.’

The colonel glanced at his cousin.

‘And you hail from Hertfordshire, I believe?’

‘Yes, near Meryton.’ Elizabeth admired the delicate glass dish of blancmange before her. ‘It is a small enough town. I doubt you would have heard of it.’

‘Meryton, you say? On the contrary.’ The colonel sounded amused. ‘I became acquainted with the name quite recently.’

Elizabeth frowned. Had a word emanated from the silent man to her right?

‘How…coincidental, Colonel.’

‘Coincidences are only that.’ Mr Darcy’s clipped tone drew Elizabeth’s attention. ‘Anyone who deems to read further into them is destined for failure, and not least, a waste of their time.’

‘Is that so, sir?’ Elizabeth arched a brow. ‘I have been prone to wonder whether a coincidence is truly such, or perchance, it is a question of Fate.’

‘Ah, the Fates.’ The colonel laughed, and Elizabeth turned back to him with relief. Mr Darcy’s compelling eyes seemed to be boring into her this evening, and she did not appreciate the notice. ‘My cousin has spent some time in Hertfordshire of late, which is, I assume, how you come to be acquainted? I am not incorrect, Darce, if I recall the name Meryton from a letter you wrote?’

‘I…er, I do not recall writing to you during my stay, Cousin. It was of short enough duration.’

Elizabeth almost rolled her eyes. It had seemed endless to her! ‘I believe you were in the neighbourhood five weeks complete, sir.’

The colonel sighed exaggeratedly. ‘Despite which, he did not show me the courtesy of a single letter. My sole intelligence arises from my cousin’s correspondence with his sister.’ He leaned forward. ‘Why have you gone so pale, Darcy? Take some wine.’

He indicated Darcy’s almost empty glass, then applied himself to his dish of raspberry trifle with relish, and Elizabeth welcomed the silence—

‘You…er, I did not know you would be in Somersetshire, Miss Bennet.’

Why can Mr Darcy not remain mute?

‘That is correct, sir, you did not.’ Elizabeth eyed the gentleman for a moment, then relented. ‘To be certain, nor did I until two days ago.’

She picked up her spoon and plunged it into the blancmange but, before she could raise it to her mouth, Mr Darcy spoke again.

‘May I enquire how it is you are acquainted with the Elliot family?’

Amused, despite her general dissatisfaction with the gentleman, Elizabeth lowered her spoon.

‘I see what you are about, Mr Darcy. You are surprised to discover a person of my status counting the daughter of a baronet amongst her intimate friends.’

The gentleman appeared quite taken aback, and Elizabeth faltered.

‘Forgive me. It has been a long day, and I am fatigued.’ Elizabeth cast a longing look at the closed doors, wishing she could disappear through them. ‘Miss Anne Elliot came to visit my friend, Miss Lucas, recently. When Lady Lucas fell ill, Anne became a guest at Longbourn and invited me to return with her to Somersetshire.’

Mr Darcy seemed unable to formulate a response to this, and Elizabeth took the opportunity to attend to her dessert. A minute later, however, she lowered her spoon again as the colonel addressed her.

‘Do you intend to stay long at Kellynch, Miss Bennet?’

‘As long as is tolerated, Colonel!’ Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. ‘By either my hosts or my family.’

‘I am sure there will be quite the battle between them in due course,’ he added gallantly, and Elizabeth laughed.

‘You are generous, sir. I am certain there are some at this table who would disagree. Regardless, I hope to stay for a couple of weeks.’

A movement caught Elizabeth’s eye, but Mr Darcy had merely picked up his wine glass, and she was finally at liberty to pay the blancmange the attention it deserved.

So relieved was she, when Miss Elliot finally signalled for the ladies to withdraw, she almost tripped over her own feet upon rising. Colonel Fitzwilliam moved with alacrity, but when a hand grasped an arm to steady her, it was not his.

Mortified, Elizabeth could feel heat stealing into her cheeks, but she raised her chin as Mr Darcy released his firm grip on her.

‘I thank you, sir.’

She held his gaze for a second, then dropped a curtsey and hurried to join Anne.

‘Mr Darcy has not moved, Lizzy,’ Anne whispered as she took her arm and followed Mrs Musgrove and Miss Elliot from the room. ‘You appear to have turned the gentleman to stone.’

‘If only I could!’ Elizabeth laughed as they returned to the drawing room, shedding her embarrassment over stumbling so inelegantly. Not wishing to dwell upon Mr Darcy’s coming to her aid, she occupied her mind by strolling around the room and admiring more of the paintings—until, that is, an altercation drew her notice.

Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove seemed to be at odds over a chaise longue, upon which the eldest was languidly posed with studied elegance, whilst Mrs Musgrove berated her sister from the middle of the room.

‘How can you say such a thing, Elizabeth? A chaise longue does not care for the distinction of rank. Besides, as a married woman, I outrank you, even though you are the eldest. My condition surely dictates the use of it. I should not be so surprised if the purpose of a chaise longue was first designed for women who are in my condition.’

Observing Miss Elliot feign a yawn that was surely as false as the lady herself, Elizabeth turned back to study a portrait of a beautiful Georgian lady with dark, expressive eyes and a decided likeness to Anne.

There was a rustle of fabric, and Elizabeth turned about.

‘Who is this lady? She is beautiful.’

Mrs Musgrove scarcely looked at the painting. ‘My mother. Did you ever hear of such rudeness, Miss Bennet? That a person in my delicate way should be expected to sit in a rigid position, like a soldier awaiting his orders?’

Elizabeth smiled kindly at the lady.

‘I cannot imagine what the French were about, designing such uncomfortable seating as a chaise longue, Mrs Musgrove. You are well relieved of the discomfort.’ Elizabeth lowered her voice. ‘Do you not see how pained your sister seems in her choice? It is not a position I would covet.’

Anne came to her sister’s side. ‘Come, Mary, take the red couch. I have oft considered it the most comfortable in the drawing room.’

She took Mrs Musgrove’s arm, but her younger sister was digging her heels into the rug much as a reluctant mule being led to water might. Pushing away her sister’s arm, Mrs Musgrove strode across the room and lifted Miss Elliot’s feet up and swung them to the floor, quickly taking the vacated part of the seat.

With a loud tsk, Miss Elliot sat upright but moved no further, and they both stared in opposite directions as the bickering continued.

Elizabeth and Anne exchanged a look.

‘Would you care for some tea? Or maybe something stronger?’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘Do I seem as though I need it?’

‘I am grieved the gentleman’s presence brings you displeasure.’

Elizabeth waved an airy hand. ‘Mr Darcy may do as he pleases. I shall not seek him out, and I doubt he will seek me out either. We are not the best of friends.’

‘Just the tea, then?’

‘Yes please.’ As Anne approached the tea tray, Elizabeth walked over to one of the tall windows, studying her own distorted image and thankful the lingering warmth of Mr Darcy’s touch on her arm had faded. Despite her words, she felt out of sorts. That man was putting her into an ill humour again, and she could not allow it to take hold.

Anne joined her, handing over a cup. Across the room, the war of words between Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove continued, albeit in hissed undertones now.

Taking a sip of her drink, Elizabeth eyed Anne over the rim of her cup. ‘I begin to feel I am appearing in a farce on the stage.’

The two ladies exchanged a look encompassing both the ridiculousness of the battle of the chaise longue and the insanity that was Mr Darcy’s being resident on the Kellynch estate.

Anne’s amusement soon faded, however. ‘I feel I should apologise. If I had taken more interest, I might have ascertained the name of the people who had taken Meadowbrook House.’

Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Not in the least. None of this is your doing, and what would be gained by my having known in advance? Besides, this may inadvertently turn out to be a balm for my aggrieved feelings. Though I may not be able to voice my dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy directly, being in his company once more is allowing some imaginary confrontations full rein, and I feel all the more masterful for it. If Mr Darcy could but hear my thoughts, he would be begging for atonement.’

‘Of that, I have little doubt.’

Miss Elliot’s voice carried towards them. ‘Do play for us, Anne, and make it something soothing, before Mary has a fit.’

‘Excuse me.’ Anne placed her cup on a nearby table and walked to the pianoforte, and a moment later, a soft, lilting melody filled the room. Elizabeth let her lids drop over her eyes as the soothing music floated around her, effectively silencing both Miss Elliot and Mrs Musgrove. She would have to ask Anne if she could make a copy, for she would dearly love to play this piece on her return home.

Elizabeth’s moment of peace was not to endure, however, as Miss Elliot’s strident tones reached her, and she opened her eyes.

‘Miss Bennet, I wish to have my curiosity satisfied. How is it you are acquainted with Mr Darcy?’

Elizabeth approached the fought-over chaise longue. ‘A close friend of the gentleman leased a property near our estate in Hertfordshire, and Mr Darcy came to make some stay with him.’

‘I see. It can only have been a passing acquaintance then.’ Miss Elliot was eyeing Elizabeth’s simply styled evening dress. ‘You do not know each other well.’

‘Passing acquaintances are oft the best, in my experience.’ Elizabeth tilted her head to one side. ‘Though I believe spending several days in the same house as Mr Darcy contributed a little more to our understanding of each other.’

Miss Elliot’s expression was indifferent. ‘It is as I suspected, a fleeting connection of little consequence.’

‘It is certainly as deep an acquaintance as I could ever wish for.’ Elizabeth dropped a brief curtsey and joined Anne, who had finished playing and was browsing through some music.

‘Shall we play a duet?’

Anne surprise was evident. ‘I have never done so.’

Elizabeth was astonished. ‘Not even with your sisters?’ She surveyed the silent women on the chaise. Perhaps not. ‘We have plenty of time during my visit for me to teach you, but for now, perhaps you play, and I shall sing?’

With a flourish, Anne placed some more music on the stand, and Elizabeth skimmed through the words.

‘I am familiar with this. It will liven our spirits.’ She took her place by the pianoforte and, as soon as the rich notes reached their cue, she began to sing.

~o0o~

Darcy’s preference had long been for a prolonged separation of the parties after dinner. He had never precipitated the return to the ladies before now, but this evening was proving to be interminable.

What the devil had Elizabeth’s meaning been earlier? For the sake of good manners, she could not—would not—elaborate on the well-being or otherwise of her family? Then, he took himself to task. What of it? Maintaining her confidence was the lady’s prerogative, should she wish to exercise it.

‘Darce?’ The colonel nudged him as a footman offered more port.

Darcy declined, his eyes moving from his cousin to the doors.

‘Bent upon escape, old man? They will not open of their own accord.’ The colonel sipped his refreshed drink. ‘Though you are in luck. Sir Walter may be ready to grace the ladies with his presence directly.’

The gentleman had left the table to check his appearance in a looking glass.

‘Musgrove, here, has invited us to shoot at Uppercross this Friday.’

‘Indeed, indeed!’ Charles Musgrove grinned affably across the table. ‘There is much sport to be had, Mr Darcy. Your cousin says he must leave on the morrow, but I trust you will join us?’

‘I am all for the activity.’ Darcy flexed his arms. He would relish a little movement now, preferably towards the drawing room.

Sir Walter, who had completed his inspection of the fall of his neckcloth, swivelled around to face them.

‘Come, gentlemen.’ He waved a hand at the footman, who flung the doors wide. ‘Let us join the ladies.’

Charles Musgrove fell into step with his father-in-law as they left the room, and the colonel drained his glass and placed it on the table before he and Darcy followed suit.

‘Musgrove is a genial chap, though I suspect his interest lies more with your rifle of choice than your company.’

‘There is little enough to occupy my time and attention in the district. A shoot will be a welcome diversion.’

‘You surprise me, Darce. You seem sufficiently disrupted as it is.’

Darcy threw his cousin a frustrated look. ‘I am in no mood for your nonsense, Richard.’

‘No mood, you say?’ The colonel grinned. ‘I being to comprehend your distracted air, especially—’

A welcome intervention came when Sir Walter drew their attention to a particularly fine landscape in the great hall, before leading them up the steps to the drawing room.

Darcy instantly sought Elizabeth, who was bringing a song to its conclusion with Anne Elliot’s accompaniment. She made a striking picture, so vibrant in contrast to the paleness of her friend. Might he manage some further conversation, and—

‘As I was saying,’ the colonel continued in a low voice. ‘Especially in the light of Miss Bennet’s being from Hertfordshire and, I suspect, the mysterious Elizabeth.’

Darcy stood stock still at Fitzwilliam’s words, but his cousin marched past him to the ladies, bowing deeply and breaking into applause as the last notes faded.

‘Capital, ladies. It is unfortunate we were not privy to the whole performance. Would you be so kind as to oblige us with another song?’

Darcy was unable to hear Elizabeth’s response, but she had clearly acquiesced, and he was able to relish the indulgence of not only listening to her performance but also keeping his eyes upon her throughout.

Though Elizabeth’s accomplishment at the pianoforte in Hertfordshire had in no way been of the highest standard, Darcy could well recall listening to it with great pleasure. He had also heard the lady sing before, but this evening he was completely entranced.

In his enchantment, however, Darcy remained oblivious to his cousin’s knowing smirk.

Chapter Eight

‘Come, Darcy, I would have you join us.’

Darcy blinked. Elizabeth’s song had ended, and he looked over to where Sir Walter pointed: a seat beside Miss Elliot. With little choice in the matter, he reluctantly crossed the room and took the indicated armchair, noting his cousin engaging Anne and Elizabeth in conversation and envying his easy manners as he escorted them to join the Musgroves.

Miss Elliot’s smile was gracious. She was a handsome woman, Darcy supposed, if one did not object to the excessive ornamentation of hair.

‘Darcy has sound experience with estate management, my dear.’ Sir Walter addressed his eldest with a complacent air. ‘I am hoping to benefit from his guidance over the winter, to make the most of our assets.’

Stunned, Darcy stared at Sir Walter. Confound the man! He had no intention of getting involved in matters at Kellynch.

‘You are too kind, sir.’ Miss Elliot spoke as though he were conferring some great favour on them. ‘Your advice will be invaluable, I am certain, for Cartwright is not the best steward.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘I am master of my own estate, ma’am. Of another man’s, I can offer little assistance.’

‘Yes, yes,’— Sir Walter waved away his words. ‘Be that as it may, we shall welcome your presence on the estate these coming months. My daughter, in particular, is gratified by your attendance upon us.’

Uncomfortable with the implication, Darcy was thankful for the entrance of two footmen wheeling an ornate glass and gilt cart stocked with decanters and a coffee pot, and Sir Walter summoned one of the servants over.

‘A glass of Madeira for Miss Elliot. Darcy?’

‘Coffee, please.’ He turned to Sir Walter. ‘If you will excuse me for a moment, sir? My cousin leaves early on the morrow, and I must speak with him. I shall return directly.’ He bowed to them both, and made his way over to the colonel, who had excused himself from the ladies and the Musgroves and retreated to the other side of the room.

One of the footmen arrived with Darcy’s coffee, then turned to the colonel.

‘Two brandies.’ He smirked at Darcy.

‘Thirsty, Cousin?’

‘One is for you, dunderhead.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam all but rolled his eyes.

Once furnished with their respective glasses, however, the colonel fixed Darcy with a meaningful stare.

‘We must join our hosts, but I caution you: do not let your admiration for one lady be noted by the other.’ He spoke quietly, and Darcy frowned.

‘I cannot comprehend your meaning.’ Darcy placed the brandy on a side table and sipped his coffee.

‘You can and you ought to heed it.’ The colonel took a slug from his glass, but Darcy had no intention of responding.

‘You still plan to leave at first light?’

‘Indeed.’ They both turned their steps towards the company, albeit rather slowly. ‘I must be with my regiment by noon.’

‘I shall break my fast with you.’

‘Excellent!’ The colonel smiled around as they took seats within the grouping either side of the hearth. ‘An early morning start oft brings fresh perspectives. Do you not think so, Mrs Musgrove?’

As his cousin engaged the lady in conversation, Darcy considered the other occupants of the room. Elizabeth had paid him no mind when they had approached and appeared deep in discussion with her friend. Charles Musgrove was listening intently to the colonel’s chatter with his wife, and Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, who—damn it, had her eyes fixed on Darcy—were smiling attentively in his direction.

‘I trust we shall make this a regular occurrence, Darcy. You are welcome to dine at the Hall whenever you wish.’

Darcy inclined his head. With Elizabeth in residence, the temptation to commit to dining there every evening was compelling.

‘You must meet all our acquaintance, Mr Darcy.’ Miss Elliot’s air was fawning. ‘For we are to hold a ball on Boxing Day—an annual event—and we would not have you in want of a partner.’

‘It would be an honour, ma’am.’

It would be horrendous.

‘The Yuletide season will be upon us directly!’ Charles Musgrove smiled genially around the room. ‘The ball last year was the highlight of the local season, Mr Darcy. How could one not delight in the anticipation?’

‘I suspect you will delight more in the following day’s shoot, Charles.’ Anne was soft-spoken, but her words pleased her brother-in-law whilst drawing a scowl from Mrs Musgrove.

‘To be certain, Charles, I do not know how I am to cope.’ Mrs Musgrove lowered her gaze. ‘I shall be in need of constant attention by then.’

Darcy noted the small smile exchanged by Elizabeth and her friend, but Anne quickly attended to her sister, assuring her of any support she may require.

‘You will join us, Colonel.’ Sir Walter’s request sounded more like a command, but the colonel merely inclined his head.

‘A kind invitation, sir. I anticipate a return to Somersetshire for Christmas, but whether I am able to stay for any duration, I cannot say at present.’

‘I do wonder at Lady Russell always absenting herself at this time of year.’ Miss Elliot’s voice was plaintive. ‘She has failed to attend the ball since Mother’s passing. It is eleven years since she died. You would think she might have recovered from the loss of her friend by now.’

A small sound came from Anne Elliot, whose hand was instantly taken by Elizabeth, a gesture which touched Darcy, and he was contemplating the lady with some pleasure when Sir Walter addressed him again.

‘Lady Russell is an old family friend, Darcy.’ He stirred in his seat, then took a sip from his glass. ‘She has passed the winter in Bath for many years, but she lives at Kellynch Lodge. You will meet her when she returns in the spring.’

‘Oh, how I wish it was this time last year.’ Mrs Musgrove threw her husband a wistful look. Charles Musgrove’s expression was blank.

‘Your marriage, Charles. Your wedding day was the sixteenth.’ Anne spoke softly again, but all eyes turned upon Mrs Musgrove, who was continuing.

‘It was such a wonderful day, for all the stresses and strains in the weeks beforehand.’ She turned to Elizabeth. ‘I had the most beautiful gown made. The highest quality silk, with a fur-lined cloak of cream satin. It was the envy of the entire neighbourhood, I assure you.’

‘And how was the service?’ Elizabeth’s voice was kind, as was her expression, and Darcy watched her with some complacency. ‘Which hymns did you choose?’

‘Oh, I dare say I cannot recall.’ Mrs Musgrove waved an airy hand. ‘But the wedding was talked of for many months. Was it not splendid, Father? No expense was spared.’

All eyes turned upon Sir Walter, and Darcy frowned. The gentleman’s expression had become extremely guarded, and his eldest daughter had sent him an almost panicked look at the turn of the conversation. The moment was fleeting, however, and as Sir Walter launched into a panegyric on the finery of his brocade wedding coat, Darcy’s mind drifted to more pertinent matters.

The evening had delivered beyond his expectations, but how this change in circumstances affected him, he had been unable to ascertain. Elizabeth Bennet. The woman Darcy thought he had relegated to the past was sitting across the room from him, as alluring and unattainable as she had ever been, and raising inexplicable emotions in Darcy that he struggled to conceal, let alone comprehend.

~o0o~

Darcy and the colonel had walked up to Kellynch, and they welcomed the chance to stretch their legs, despite the bracing wind as they strode back to Meadowbrook House under the light of a full moon.

At first, Colonel Fitzwilliam amused himself with observations on the Elliots, none of which required a response. When silence fell between, them, however, he nudged Darcy on the arm.

‘You do see the lady’s purpose?’

‘What do you mean?’ Did Elizabeth have a purpose? A strange sensation filtered through Darcy.

The colonel tapped his cane on the ground. ‘Methinks I begin to see the lay of the land.’

Darcy threw his cousin a puzzled look. ‘What land?’

‘Miss Elliot’s intentions. Or rather, she and her father’s. You may believe yourself not to be their target, but whatever your belief, it is their purpose.’

‘How can you discern such a thing on so short an acquaintance?’

The colonel shrugged. ‘It does not take much to ascertain the advantage to Sir Walter in leasing you a property for the winter. It must have seemed as though the best of good fortune had befallen him. Your fortune, to be precise.’

‘Perhaps Miss Elliot has no desire to secure a situation,’ Darcy mused as they continued along the rutted lane. ‘As I understand it, she has been mistress since she succeeded to the position when but sixteen.’

‘Indeed. There is only Lady Russell who walks before her into all the dining rooms of the county, as the lady was prompt to inform us. After laying down the domestic law at Kellynch these many years, she must be ready—more than ready—to be mistress of her own manor, to lead the way, not follow.’

Darcy sensed his cousin’s pointed attention upon him.

‘Can you pretend not to have considered her?’ The colonel paused, but Darcy did not oblige. ‘Your silence is telling, old man. Of course, on the surface, Miss Elliot is the solution to your dilemma.’

‘What dilemma?’ Darcy peered warily at the colonel through the darkness.

‘The continuation of the estate at Pemberley. Come, man. Even you must own Miss Elliot to be the perfect candidate for the role.’

‘I am not seeking—’

‘You are in need of a wife, whether you chose to acknowledge it openly or not. Pemberley needs an heir, and the lady has excellent credentials.’

Unlike Elizabeth Bennet. The thought swept unbidden through Darcy’s mind, and he stopped in his tracks.

Marriage to Elizabeth Bennet had never been a consideration, much as he admired her and was drawn to be in her company. Marrying a woman of inferior birth went against Darcy’s upbringing, and when one added in the appalling family… Miss Elliot had all that in her favour, plus a considerable dowry.

The colonel came to a halt as he realised he had lost his companion and walked back to stand before his cousin.

‘You are eight and twenty, old man. Time to do your duty to the estate.’

Darcy could not deny it. ‘I accede. Pemberley is in need of an heir, but—’

‘Before that, the estate needs a mistress.’ The colonel grinned. ‘You do know they go together, Darce? A bit like a horse and carriage? You need both to make it work?’

Rolling his eyes at the colonel, Darcy set off at a fair stride. He may have been raised to do his duty, and Miss Elliot may well seem the perfect fit, but Darcy rebelled against the notion.

‘Not so fast, Darce.’ Colonel Fitzwilliam stayed Darcy with his hand as they reached the driveway to Meadowbrook House. ‘There is another matter we need to discuss.’

‘There is no—’

‘Regarding Georgiana.’

‘Oh.’ Relieved, Darcy looked up at the clear sky. The temperature had plummeted way below the mild weather he had sought for his sister. ‘Out here? It is sufficient to freeze one’s bones.’

‘I am willing to compromise. As I shall be on my way to Blandford as soon as dawn breaks, we can continue this by the hearth, if that is your wont.’

It was not his wont. Following his cousin into the house, Darcy’s head was still swirling with a maelstrom of thoughts, ones that had only swelled in their confusion and…yes, he must own, anticipation of what the next few days and weeks might bring.

Within five minutes, they were ensconced in the room Darcy had taken as his study, each nursing another glass of brandy from their armchairs beside the hearth.

‘Your health.’ The colonel raised his glass and Darcy followed suit, then shifted under his cousin’s scrutiny.

He took a sip from his glass. ‘What is it you wished to discuss regarding Georgiana?’ Darcy frowned. ‘The hard winter was forecast in the North, but I had not anticipated the milder West Country being so affected.’

They discussed the potential impact of the harsh weather at Pemberley for a while, with the colonel sharing his father’s preparations for their own Derbyshire estate, but then silence fell upon the room. Darcy’s eyes were upon the crackling logs in the hearth; the colonel’s were upon his cousin.

Draining his glass, Colonel Fitzwilliam stood up and held out a hand for Darcy’s. ‘Come on. Knock it back.’

Darcy stared into the fire whilst his cousin replenished their glasses. Though he could hear the slosh of liquid as it hit the glass, the clink of the decanter stopper being replaced, his thoughts were some distance away. One mile away, to be precise.

He had not had a chance to speak to Elizabeth after dinner, but at least he had learned how she came to be at Kellynch and that her stay would be of some weeks. How singular that the friendship had been formed in Hertfordshire of all places.

Darcy’s mind flew swiftly back to the county and his short acquaintance with it. Well, he had successfully extricated his friend some a poor alliance, for that he must be thankful.

And does not Miss Elizabeth Bennet fall into the same class of people? 

‘I know not where your mind has taken you, Darce, but I would advocate closing a door on it. Your countenance has rarely been more conflicted. Here.’

The colonel thrust Darcy’s refilled glass under his nose, and he took it, taking a quick sip as his cousin settled back into his seat.

‘Speak to me of your concern regarding Georgiana, for I assume it is a concern?’

The colonel laughed. ‘It is more for you, old man.’ Darcy raised a brow, as his cousin continued. ‘Despite Georgiana’s need for rest and recuperation, she will soon make the acquaintance of the ladies up at the Hall, including Miss Bennet.’

Georgiana meeting Elizabeth!

Darcy sat up so sharply, he almost spilled his drink.

‘And there it is. All the evidence I require.’ The colonel took a mouthful of brandy before placing his glass on a side table and leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. ‘So, Miss Elizabeth Bennet is the lady from Hertfordshire.’

‘For heaven’s sake, Richard. What of it? So we are previously acquainted. It was of a passing nature and, as you could see from this evening, we had hardly a word to say to each other.’

‘Taciturnity is your staple in company. It signifies naught. It appears quite the opposite for the lady, although interestingly, she had little enough to say to you.’

Darcy got to his feet. ‘I have had sufficient of your blethering. I am for bed. I will see you at breakfast.’ He drained his glass. ‘To quote Homer: There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.’

The colonel stood up as well. ‘And Shakespeare said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” I will wager there will be more dream than sleep this night, Darce.’

Chapter Nine

Despite her dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy’s being in the neighbourhood, Elizabeth slept well and was grateful for the attentions of Lottie as she made haste to dress and join Anne at the table.

Sir Walter was nowhere to be seen when Elizabeth entered the breakfast room, a pleasing space with an ornate domed ceiling and leaded windows through which the weak winter sunshine filtered.

‘There you are.’

Anne smiled as Elizabeth closed the door and dropped a curtsey to Miss Elliot, who inclined her head at the new arrival before returning her attention to the letter in her hand.

Anne hastily tucked a small pamphlet under her seat as Elizabeth came to sit beside her, and they exchanged pleasantries as they broke their fast, both seeming conscious of the third party in the room and not falling naturally into their usual way of speaking.

To be fair, Miss Elliot hardly spared them any notice, caught up in her correspondence as she was, and Elizabeth mused as she sipped her tea. The quietness of the table was in stark contrast to the bustle of Longbourn.

Once she had finished reading, however, Miss Elliot addressed her sister.

‘You will accompany me to Meadowbrook House this morning, Anne. I wish to call upon the Darcys. Father is engaged with his steward, and I cannot go alone.’ She considered Elizabeth, then added, ‘You may bring your…friend.’ She waved a hand in the air and the footman standing behind her leapt into action, pulling back her chair and then darting to open the door.

‘But Sister’—Anne had risen, and Miss Elliot turned about— ‘Do you not think it inappropriate? Miss Darcy has been unwell. We may be considered an intrusion and—’

‘An intrusion? Do not be tiresome, Anne. It is an honour, and not one I lightly bestow.’

Anne moved around the table to join her sister, speaking with low-voiced urgency, but Miss Elliot would carry her point. Anne would accede, thus Elizabeth would do likewise.

Elizabeth had no wish to pay a call—especially out of respect—on Mr Darcy, or his sister, whom she could well recall Wickham describing as too much like her brother, very proud, a person he wished he could call amiable but clearly could not.

No, Miss Georgiana Darcy was not someone Elizabeth had any desire to become acquainted with, especially as both Wickham and Caroline Bingley had described her as highly accomplished. How would one find time to display such an array of talents? Perhaps Miss Darcy amused her visitors by playing the pianoforte—exquisitely, of course—with her left hand whilst speaking fluent Italian as she decorated a screen with her right?

‘I am simply concerned Miss Darcy may not be up to receiving callers. I understand from her cousin that her recent poor health was the primary reason for their relocating to the West Country for the winter rather than travelling to their estate in Derbyshire.’

Sickly, too. The girl sounded delightful. Elizabeth’s earlier irritation was quashed by her rising amusement at what the call might deliver. Indeed, she began to feel quite reconciled to it, and—

‘You are quite wrong, Anne. What could be more pleasing an attention than to present ourselves as thoughtful neighbours on hand to deliver the best of company and care? Miss Darcy was indisposed when we called last time, and an introduction to Mr Darcy’s sister is long overdue.’ Miss Elliot turned away. ‘I wish to leave in a half hour. I do not like to be kept waiting.’

‘Nor do the cows at milking time,’ Elizabeth muttered.

The lady’s eyes narrowed on Elizabeth. ‘Did you say something, Miss Bennet?’

‘I did.’ Elizabeth assumed an innocent expression.

‘Anne, a word, if I may?’ Miss Elliot turned on her heel and Anne followed her out of the room.

Once the door was closed, Elizabeth sank back into her seat, then noticed the pamphlet Anne had been perusing earlier, and she picked it up.

It was a copy of Steel’s Navy List, the likes of which Elizabeth had seen once before, when Lydia—who had become quite taken with a young Lucas cousin who had recently joined the Navy—had begged Mr Bennet to obtain a copy for her.

Elizabeth much preferred a novel or a book of poetry for her reading pleasure, but she flicked through the pages all the same, though the names and accounts of various perils at sea held little interest for her. Then, she frowned, studying more closely a page of naval lists. Was that a pencil mark there, by one of the ship’s names?

‘Lizzy?’

Anne was standing alone in the doorway.

‘My apologies. My sister is quite set upon paying this call.’

‘I shall bear it as well as I can.’ Elizabeth smiled impishly as she stood up.

‘Can you be ready in a half hour? We had best make haste if we are not to provoke my sister further.’

Elizabeth assessed her gown, a smile still tugging at the corners of her mouth. ‘I am as ready as I intend to be.’ She laughed lightly. ‘After all, there is no one I seek to impress.’

They turned towards the door, but then Anne noticed the publication Elizabeth held out to her. Wariness filled her friend’s features, but before her curiosity could be satisfied, Anne reached out and took the pamphlet, tucking into her sleeve and preceding Elizabeth from the room.

‘Forgive me, Lizzy, for putting you in such a situation as this. I truly do not mind if you wish to remain here.’

With a laugh, Elizabeth stayed her friend with a gentle hand.

‘No apology is needed, dear Anne, and there will be no excuses made. If I am your companion, then I have a duty to accompany you.’

Anne’s mild brown eyes widened. ‘You are not my companion! You are my friend and…’

Elizabeth laughed again, and this time, Anne joined in. ‘You tease me.’ She shook her head. ‘Will I ever learn?’

‘Mama has yet to do so, even though it has been my way for nigh on twenty years.’

They turned down the corridor leading to the stairs, Elizabeth preparing to gain what enjoyment she could from observing both Mr Darcy’s discomfort from Miss Elliot’s attentions and the absurdities of his paragon of a sister.

‘What is amusing you so?’ Anne glanced at Elizabeth as they reached the first landing.

‘I am assuming my presence is just as distasteful to Mr Darcy as his is to me. In effect, I may take comfort from extracting at least this much revenge.’

Anne did not respond as they proceeded up the next flight of steps, but when they were outside the door to her chamber, she turned to Elizabeth with a small smile.

‘I believe you may be mistaken, Lizzy. From all I observed last night, I think Mr Darcy finds your presence quite the contrary.’

~o0o~

As was so often the case, Colonel Fitzwilliam had spoken the truth. Sleep had proven elusive and, in those few moments when Darcy had succumbed, his dreams had not been to his satisfaction.

In mixed spirits, he had broken his fast with his cousin and seen him on his way, but Darcy felt the loss of his company the moment the carriage pulled out of the driveway.

Once Georgiana had breakfasted, and Mrs Annesley left to carry out some commissions in Montacute—the nearest of the two estate villages—he had repaired with his sister to the drawing room, where he endeavoured to become engrossed in the paper. It did not suffice as Elizabeth quickly returned to the forefront of his mind. He could not outrun his incessant speculation over the implications of her presence in Somersetshire.

He checked the clock. There was an hour to fill before he must leave for his appointment in Yeovil. How was he to occupy his mind more constructively?

‘What were they like, Brother?’

Darcy lowered the paper. ‘Who, Georgie?’

Taking a sip of the concoction Mrs Reynolds had prepared for her sore throat, Georgiana peeped at him over the glass.

‘You have said much of Sir Walter, but little of his family. Are his daughters much like him, or indeed, like each other? And what of the friend who is currently visiting? If only Richard had not left so early, I could have asked him about it.’

Putting aside the paper and picking up his tea, Darcy cradled the cup in his hands. There was much he could say of the Elliot women, but he had no desire to colour Georgiana’s impression of them, and he certainly had no intention of revealing anything about Elizabeth Bennet.

‘Richard implied the other day your opinion of Sir Walter Elliot is not favourable. I am anxious to comprehend there are some within the family with whom I would be comfortable.’

Darcy fidgeted under Georgiana’s scrutiny.

‘Our cousin would do well to keep his own counsel. Any words spoken of the father were said in confidence.’ His sister’s cheeks pinkened. ‘I mean no censure, my dear, but we are beholden to the Elliot family for our present comfortable situation and will be passing many months on their estate. It is important that cordial relations are maintained between our two houses.’

Georgiana coughed daintily behind her hand. ‘You know you have my support, Fitz, but I would have my curiosity satisfied if you would oblige?’ She looked around. ‘Pleasant though these accommodations are, it is not home, and unable as I am to take any form of exercise at present, you ought to oblige me with what entertainment you can offer.’ She smiled widely. ‘And you did promise, did you not, but yesterday, to put yourself at my disposal once Richard had gone? To do all in your power to make me happy?’

Foolish promise, Darcy.

He summoned a smile. ‘As I think you know, Sir Walter has three daughters. Last evening, we were a small party of eight. The eldest, Miss Elliot, who remains at home, Mr and Mrs Musgrove, Miss Anne Elliot, who had but returned that day from spending some time in Hertfordshire, and her friend—’

‘Hertfordshire?’ Georgiana sat up in her seat, her eyes more animated than Darcy had seen them in some time. ‘Is not that where—’

‘Mr Bingley has rented a property. Now, to answer your initial question…’ Darcy fixed his sister with a firm eye as she leaned back against the cushions. ‘It is true, Miss Elliot does share some similarity of…manners with her father.’ Darcy noted his sister’s rapt attention. ‘All I am prepared to add is that they are not manners I would ever hope to see you emulate.’

‘Brother, should it ever transpire, you have my consent to dip me in a pond, that I come to my senses!’ Georgiana laughed. He dearly loved when she did, albeit this time it ended with that ever-persistent cough. How Darcy had missed her delight in things, absurd or otherwise, in these long months since her unfortunate experience with Wickham.

‘Do not think that I would not.’

Georgiana grinned at him. ‘I do not doubt it, Fitz. Pray, continue telling me about the ladies, for I am well entertained.’

‘Mrs Musgrove is…’ Excruciating and self-absorbed? Darcy cleared his throat. ‘A pleasant enough woman but is soon to be confined.’

‘Oh dear! Is she well?’

‘I believe the ailments are trifling though her complaints are significant.’

Georgiana giggled.

‘Her husband is a proficient sportsman and has invited me to join a shoot this Friday.’

‘I am glad you will have some sport. And the middle daughter? You say Miss Anne Elliot has been in Hertfordshire? Did you know her when you were there?’ It was Georgiana’s turn to frown. ‘You mentioned a lady in one of your letters? I cannot recall her name, but I am certain it began with a B, not an E.’

Darcy stirred in his seat. ‘I—er, I did not meet Miss Anne Elliot in Hertfordshire. She is quiet and unassuming but with pleasing manners. She is also an accomplished pianist. I am certain you would find her to your liking, though she is some years older than you. There, are you content?’

‘And Miss Anne Elliot’s friend? What is her name?’

Darcy viewed the cloudy day through the window. Perhaps now would be a good time to suggest he escape for a ride, before the rains came?

‘Sir?’

Boliver had appeared in the open doorway.

‘There are some callers from Kellynch Hall. The Miss Elliots. Shall I show them in?’

Darcy’s gaze flew to Georgiana’s. Her eyes were wide with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

‘Would you prefer I saw them alone? I can attend them in the library if you wish.’

His sister raised her chin, though her trepidation was obvious. ‘I shall endeavour to speak little, so as not to aggravate my cough. I would like to meet the ladies more than anything.’

Darcy turned to his butler. ‘Show them in please, Boliver, and could you ask James to ensure the carriage is ready? I must depart for Yeovil shortly.’

He got up and walked over to join Georgiana, helping to arrange the woollen shawl around her as she whispered, ‘What if I embarrass us?’

Darcy smiled faintly. ‘That is an honour you can leave entirely to me, my dear.’

Chapter Ten

Georgiana smothered a laugh as Boliver returned with the visitors.

‘Miss Elliot, Miss Anne Elliot, and Miss Bennet, sir.’

Darcy drew in a sharp breath as an urgent tug came on his sleeve.

‘I did not foresee my curiosity being so amply satisfied.’ Georgiana’s voice was a whisper as Miss Elliot swept into the room with an air of familiarity.

Darcy took his sister’s hand and placed it on his arm.

‘Nor did I.’ He straightened as Anne Elliot joined her sister, trying not to seek out the third of their party. ‘But be at ease. I will bear the burden of conversation.’

At least, if he could retain coherent thought…

Acknowledgements were exchanged, and no amount of inner reprimand could prevent Darcy’s gaze from lingering on Elizabeth Bennet’s fine figure and sparkling eyes. The lady, however, seemed vastly interested in Georgiana, and he frowned at the mild surprise upon Elizabeth’s face.

He glanced at Georgiana, but she had performed her curtsey prettily and was now waiting on the introductions.

‘Mr Darcy’—Miss Elliot stepped forward—‘I felt it incumbent upon me to call this morning and pay my respects to Miss Darcy, as I have not yet made her acquaintance.’

Darcy, who longed to say the lady would do better to not feel incumbent on their account, did what he was obliged to.

‘Miss Elliot, Miss Anne Elliot, Miss Bennet. Permit me to introduce my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy, to your acquaintance.’

He led his sister forward two steps, and she performed another curtsey, but contrary to her studying the floor, as was her tendency in the embarrassment of making new acquaintances, she was staring at Elizabeth with rapt attention. Damn it, had she recalled the name Bennet from his letter? How foolish of him to have made such a slip.

Darcy gestured towards the chairs grouped around some small tables. ‘Ladies, please, be seated.’

He led Georgiana over to a chaise and waited for the ladies to settle before sitting beside her. He took her hand and she squeezed it.

‘I trust we find you in good health this morning?’ Darcy spoke the words instinctively, but a flicker of emotion passed over Elizabeth’s features, recalling him instantly to their exchange the night before.

‘As you see, sir, I am in extraordinary good health.’ Miss Elliot’s smile was condescending.

‘The walk was invigorating, I trust?’ Darcy skimmed over all three ladies, refusing to linger on Elizabeth Bennet, then turning to his sister as she burst into hurried speech.

‘Oh yes. Was the weather obliging? It appears quite dry, though there is a lack of sun today…’

Miss Elliot, however, raised a finely arched brow. ‘Walk? The lane is in far too poor condition. Fortunately, the carriage is always at my disposal.’

‘Miss Bennet and I chose to walk and found the air quite invigorating, Miss Darcy.’ Anne Elliot lifted a hand towards the window. ‘It has dropped very cold overnight, so the ruts are quite solid.’

‘Though you would question the elegance of our gait as we teetered on the uneven ground.’ Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes were sparkling much as Darcy remembered them when she was in conversation with…well, anyone other than himself. ‘We held our arms out akin to walking a tightrope. It was a most stimulating exercise!’

Georgiana seemed as though she wanted to respond, but her cough returned to plague her, and Darcy put an arm about her.

‘My sister has been a little unwell. I came to the West Country in the hopes of finding milder weather.’

‘I am afraid we are in for a bracing winter, sir.’ Elizabeth regarded Darcy as he tucked the shawl more securely about his sister’s frame. ‘There was talk of it in Hertfordshire before we left. I believe we shall see snow before too long.’

Darcy frowned. He had not expected it so far south.

‘You do not favour the snow, Mr Darcy?’

Anne Elliot’s expression was politely enquiring, but Darcy smiled. ‘As a child, it was my delight. When one has an estate to manage, crops to consider, and stock to care for, it is less desirable.’

There was a small interruption as the tea paraphernalia was brought in, and knowing it would occupy her, Darcy encouraged Georgiana to prepare the beverage and fill several cups before he walked over to offer one to Miss Elliot.

‘The tea is a little dark for my taste.’ The lady handed the cup back, which Darcy knew would mortify Georgiana.

‘Permit me.’ Darcy returned to the table and, after a moment, picked up exactly the same cup and offered it again to Miss Elliot.

‘Oh, that is quite perfect, sir. Thank you for looking after me.’ Miss Elliot looked at Darcy as though he had saved her life, before refusing milk but accepting two generous lumps of sugar into the cup.

Once everyone was served, Darcy meant to sit beside his sister again, but Miss Elliot had taken the vacated seat, and he was left with no option but to take the only remaining place, beside Elizabeth Bennet.

For some reason, he found he no longer knew how to sit at ease. Though the talk continued at a gentle rhythm around them, Darcy realised, unless they conversed directly, he could no longer look at her without making it was obvious he was staring.

Elizabeth seemed perfectly unaware of his dilemma, her attention all upon Georgiana, and Darcy was puzzled. What did the lady find quite so fascinating in his sister?

‘We anticipate with pleasure receiving you at Kellynch Hall, Miss Darcy.’ Miss Elliot inclined her head graciously. ‘It is reportedly one of the finest Elizabethan buildings in the country.’

Georgiana brightened. ‘I am fond of history. I should be most grateful to see it. My brother tells me the building is quite beautiful.’

Darcy had also decried the way it had been decorated, but he knew his sister had better sense than to bring that up.

Miss Elliot straightened. ‘Kellynch has been in our family for many generations. We respect the age of its exterior, but I feel it is my duty, as the present mistress, to ensure the interior always reflects the latest fashion.’ She sent a complacent look at the company. ‘Such grand apartments warrant only the best, of course. My present project is to redecorate the dining room.’

‘It was renovated in Mama’s lifetime,’ Anne interjected. ‘I think it quite perfect as it is.’

‘Nonsense, Anne.’ Miss Elliot waved her folded fan. ‘The wall coverings are not in the current style and the table is démodé. I have long disliked it, for it quite taints the food upon it.’

A sound escaped the lady at Darcy’s side, but he did not look at Elizabeth for fear he might share in her amusement.

‘I have instructed the most prestigious of craftsmen,’ Miss Elliot continued. ‘The table and chairs are being made from the finest rosewood.’

Silence followed this declaration, and as Darcy could tell Georgiana knew not how to respond, he expected her to make no further contribution to the conversation. He was mistaken.

‘Miss Bennet, my brother informs me you are from Hertfordshire?‘

‘Then it must be true.’ Elizabeth smiled warmly at Georgiana. ‘The county has been my home all my life.’

‘And do you like it there?’

‘I like it well enough, and even more so when I am away.’

Georgiana looked confused, and Miss Elliot concealed a yawn behind her hand as Elizabeth elaborated.

‘I live with my parents and my four sisters. Whilst there is constant companionship, there is also a want of escape.’

‘You have four sisters!’ Georgiana leaned forward in rapt attention.

Darcy was likewise mesmerised. What was this effect Elizabeth had on people, no matter the length of the acquaintance? When had Georgiana ever been this loquacious with strangers?

‘Do not envy me, Miss Darcy. I can assure you, one sister would be quite ample.’ Elizabeth paused.  ‘Provided I could choose which one, of course.’

Miss Elliot sniffed. ‘Sisters are often surplus to requirements.’ She seemed to have forgotten one of her own was in the room.

Colour had flooded Anne’s cheeks, and Darcy turned to her with a smile. ‘Georgiana has longed wished for a sister of her own. I fear I do not answer sufficiently.’

‘It is not that, Fitz.’ Georgiana sent Darcy an apologetic look. ‘I would not trade my brother for the world. But, Miss Bennet—’

‘Your home is in Derbyshire, I understand, Miss Darcy?’ Miss Elliot interjected.

‘I—er, yes it is. At least, I am established in Town, but Pemberley is where I grew up, and we return often each year.’

‘And, pray tell me, for how many generations has your family owned the property?’

Georgiana blinked. ‘There have been Darcys on the land since the 1500s.’

Darcy stepped in. ‘We are merely guardians of the estate, Miss Elliot, trusted with ensuring it is passed on to the next generation. I do not consider myself Pemberley’s owner. As for how long the family has been there, that my sister and I are able to call it home is all that matters.’

Miss Elliot, however, obviously disagreed, and continued with her interrogation.

‘But it is the principal property in the county?’

‘It is the principal property of interest to us, ma’am.’

‘May I be so bold as to request a replenishment of my cup, Miss Darcy?’ Elizabeth smiled kindly at Georgiana, who leapt to her feet with alacrity, her relief at being able to leave her place beside Miss Elliot palpable, and Darcy could have kicked himself for not finding a way to assist her.

Before he knew what had happened, however, Elizabeth was out of her seat and joining Georgiana by the tea tray, and Miss Elliot patted the vacated seat beside her.

Darcy pretended not to notice, addressing her sister instead. ‘Would you care for more tea, Miss Anne?’

‘I have not finished my first, Mr Darcy. But thank you. Do you find the house suitable for your needs, sir? There is a small annexe in the grounds, should you require more space.’

‘Yes. Willow Cottage. It is perfectly charming.’ Darcy smiled at Anne.

‘My mother fitted it out for—’

‘Had you heard, Mr Darcy, that we are connected to the Dalrymple family?’ Miss Elliot raised her chin. ‘Our cousins, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, that is, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret?’

‘I believe it is well known, ma’am.’ It was also widely understood that they were estranged.

The lady launched into a monologue requiring no contribution, and Darcy assumed his habitual mask of inscrutability, resigning himself to his duty, whilst simultaneously wishing he could be privy to the conversation being held behind him between Elizabeth and Georgiana.

Miss Elliot, meanwhile, confirmed precisely why Darcy hated the ritual of morning calls. Much as he wished Elizabeth did not have to go, he had never been so thankful to see the ladies leave.

~o0o~

‘Where is the carriage?’ Miss Elliot turned to Anne in confusion as the door to Meadowbrook House closed behind them.

Anne and Elizabeth exchanged a look, but just then a stable hand came round the corner of the house.

‘You there!’

The lad scurried forward and docked his cloth cap. ‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Fetch my carriage this instant.’

The boy was discomfited. ‘But the carriage ‘as returned to the big house, ma’am.’

‘The big…oh, for heaven’s sake.’

Miss Elliot all but stamped her elegantly-shod foot as the hapless stable boy continued on his way to wherever he was bound.

‘It seems you must join us.’ Anne smiled sympathetically at her sister. ‘The walk will do you much good.’

‘On the contrary. I shall request the aid of Mr Darcy.’

Anne was horrified. ‘You cannot ask that he make ready his own carriage for such a short journey! We are only so recently acquainted.’

Elizabeth, on the other hand, was quite taken with the idea of Mr Darcy being plagued to do something he would rather not.

‘Let us continue, Anne. I am sure Miss Elliot knows what she is about.’

The lady in question inclined her head to Elizabeth before pulling the bell, and the two ladies walked swiftly down the driveway and turned into the lane.

Chapter Eleven

The ladies ambled in silence at first, though Elizabeth sensed Anne’s attention upon her several times. Then, she spoke.

‘You are quite pensive, Lizzy. Did the call not deliver to your expectations? For myself, I cannot see your presence caused Mr Darcy quite the level of dissatisfaction you had hoped for.’

Anne was laughing as Elizabeth mulled on the visit.

‘I confess I paid the man scarce mind. That had always been my intention, of course, but I was distracted by how incompatible my expectations of Georgiana Darcy were compared to the evidence before me.’

Anne raised a curious brow as they continued along the lane.

‘How so?’

Elizabeth smiled weakly. ‘I am not certain I comprehend how this has come about. I had heard reports of Miss Darcy from people who had long been acquainted with her.’

They had reached the corner of the lane now, and Elizabeth looked back towards Meadowbrook House, the rooftops and chimneys just visible above the hedge line.

‘Lizzy?’ Anne nudged her gently.

‘Forgive me.’ She turned and fell into step beside her friend once more. ‘Miss Darcy is, in appearance, much as she was described: almost womanly in figure for one so young and handsome.’

‘And the latter can also be said of her brother.’

Elizabeth did not want to think about Mr Darcy. ‘And she is said to be truly accomplished, though I saw little evidence of that today.’

Anne laughed again. ‘What did you expect? That she would recite poetry to us, or perform upon the harp?’

It was Elizabeth’s turn to laugh, the sentiment being so close to what she had been imagining. ‘Even my biased eye can discern Miss Darcy has little…. Another lady of my acquaintance implied they had much in common, but I could not see it.’

The sound of a carriage coming along the lane drew their attention then, and they both stepped up onto a grassy bank out of its way.

To Elizabeth’s surprise, Mr Darcy’s dark eyes met hers as the elegant conveyance slowed to a stop.

‘May I offer you both a ride to the Hall?’

Anne shook her head. ‘Thank you for the kind offer, Mr Darcy, but as you can see, we are enjoying our exercise.’

He doffed his hat as the carriage slowly moved away, Miss Elliot eyeing them smugly from the opposite bench.

‘It seems my sister is more persuasive than I gave her credit for.’ Anne stepped back onto the lane, and Elizabeth joined her as the carriage turned the corner ahead.

‘Aye, or Mr Darcy keeps a carriage permanently readied, that he might make use of it on a whim.’ Elizabeth feigned amusement, but she felt inexplicably resentful. Was Miss Elliot an object with the gentleman? With her own attention fixed on Miss Darcy, she had missed their interactions during the visit.

Oblivious to Elizabeth’s musings, Anne continued the conversation. ‘Miss Darcy is prone to the shyness not uncommon in someone both so young and not out in society, but she is also undeniably sweet.’

They had reached a gate set into the wall bordering the grounds of Kellynch and, pushing it open, they walked into the garden. Anne was quite correct, but Elizabeth could not account for the discomfort this acceptance brought.

‘In truth, Anne, the young lady’s character resembles my dear Jane’s, especially when she was of a similar age.’

‘You are so fortunate, Lizzy, to have Jane as your confidante and friend.’ Anne shivered as they crossed the crisp lawn, still dusted with the morning frost. ‘My sister Elizabeth is so cold. I cannot account for it. Though we are vastly different in nature, why should that not make us friends? You and Miss Bennet are likewise akin to opposites, are you not?’

Elizabeth burst out laughing. ‘Indeed. Sweet and sour, and I am sure you can discern who takes which crown!’

‘You are far sweeter than you give yourself credit for, Lizzy.’

Smiling, Elizabeth stepped up onto the terrace and they both surveyed their immediate surroundings.

‘The grounds here are exquisite.’ Elizabeth turned to Anne. ‘You did not do them justice in your descriptions to me.

Anne raised a brow. ‘Description did not do justice elsewhere today.’

Elizabeth studied her feet for a moment, then raised her head. Anne remained diplomatically quiet.

‘So be it. The visit was not unpleasant. Miss Darcy was a delightful surprise. Beyond that, I am unwilling to venture, though I will express some sympathy towards her for having such a brother.’

Anne maintained her silence, though humour filled her countenance, and Elizabeth was goaded into speaking.

‘Mr Darcy may have done little this morning to worsen my opinion of him, and I have, on the contrary, shown myself to be wrong in my expectations of his sister, but you must trust me on this, Anne. I have first-hand experience of the harm that man has wrought upon others, of the lives he has ruined.’

Anne nodded. ‘I respect your word, Lizzy. And I comprehend fully your belief in it. All I am saying is that Mr Darcy, for any faults he may have, was on this occasion both a gracious and accommodating host, and his affection for and protection of his sister was evident.’

‘I will not argue with you, though you must own there are few that do not extend unconditional love to their own family, however they might perform to strangers.’

Anne did not respond, and Elizabeth immediately wished to retract the words. The Elliots had so far demonstrated little regard for familial love.

Elizabeth took Anne’s arm and turned her about.

‘Come, we have had sufficient talk on the matter. Let us continue our exercise and permit our minds to wander in a happier direction. I anticipate a letter on the morrow from Jane, and I remain hopeful of a favourable one.’

~o0o~

Relief swept through Darcy as the coachman closed the carriage door, and he ignored Miss Elliot waving him off from the portico at Kellynch Hall as though they were old friends. The more time Darcy spent in the lady’s company, the less he found to admire.

He tried to settle back against the squabs as the carriage found every rut Elizabeth and Anne had negated, as though mocking him.

Mocking him… Elizabeth’s eyes when they had met his as the carriage passed the ladies had been assessing, as though she would judge him. What the devil could he possibly be doing wrong by acceding to Miss Elliot’s request to deliver her safely home?

It was fortunate the carriage had previously been readied to carry him to his appointment, meaning he only had to leave the lady unattended for as long as it had taken to don his great coat. Thankfully, Georgiana had been spared, having gone up to her room to rest, and Miss Elliot had seemed to find plenty to engross her in the book his sister had lately been perusing.

Darcy stared out of the window at the passing scenery. They would be on the turnpike, heading west, shortly where the roads would be in better condition and they would make faster progress. He needed to turn his thoughts to his appointment at the bank, but instead they were firmly fixed on a certain lady.

Had Elizabeth arrived home? Her pink cheeks and bright eyes had been evidence of her pleasure in taking the air.

He frowned. Miss Elliot had made a disparaging remark about Elizabeth’s presence at Kellynch as the carriage had moved on. It had made little impression upon Darcy. He knew full well the situation of her family without it being pointed out to him. He had been more struck by how tightly Miss Elliot appeared to be clutching her reticule. Did she fear he might expect payment for the ride home?

Laughing under his breath, Darcy pulled out his watch to check the time. Miss Elliot’s disdain for others echoed all he had known of her father, and she had clearly been an attentive pupil.

Uneasiness swept through Darcy. Was not this condescension towards those of lower rank also his attitude? Had it not been a significant part of his reservations over Bingley wishing to attach himself to Miss Bennet? Had it not plagued him day and night, both during his stay in Hertfordshire and here in Somersetshire, how far Elizabeth was below him, unworthy of his notice?

It would seem he was not only guilty of looking down upon those less fortunate than himself but also of judging them in the same way the Elliots did. This notion was of little comfort. Darcy was full aware of his own duplicity and, exasperated by his endless speculation about Elizabeth Bennet, he endeavoured to cull the futile dreams and desires whirling through his mind by forcing it onto the impending meeting.

~o0o~

Darcy returned from Yeovil with a half hour before dinner, and little time to refresh himself but confident in the gentleman who would liaise with his London banker as and when required. The weather had turned even colder, so much so, even Darcy realised the West Country was about to receive an unprecedented snowfall. He only hoped it would not be prolonged or oft repeated. If the roads became impassable and the colonel was unable to join them for the season, he might well go mad.

Georgiana was waiting for him in the drawing room, and he poured them both a small sherry.

‘Is all well, Fitz?’ Georgiana was sitting across from him in the chairs they had taken as their own, either side of the fireplace. She remained pale, but her cough seemed less frequent, and Darcy smiled.

‘I am by my hearth with you, my dear. What could possibly ail me?’

She took a sip from her glass and pulled a face. ‘I have not acquired a taste for sherry.’

‘Then do not take it. I would not presume, but it has seemed to aid your throat of an evening.’

‘Indeed, but it seems much clearer these past four and twenty hours.’

‘I am glad to hear it. What did you do with your afternoon?’

Georgiana appeared a little evasive, and Darcy frowned.

‘Did anything occur to disturb you?’

Now she seemed positively anxious. Darcy put his glass aside and moved over to crouch beside her, taking one of her hands.

‘You are cold.’ He rubbed the hand between both of his, then reached up to pull her woollen shawl back onto her shoulders.

‘I am well, Fitz. It is better my skin feels cool to the touch than feverish.’

Darcy sat back on his haunches. He did not wish to recall the concern he had felt when he found Georgiana’s illness to be far more severe than he had been told.

‘Indeed.’ He straightened up and returned to his seat. ‘Did anything happen in my absence, Georgie?’

‘No. At least, I was searching for a letter, but I could not find it.’

Darcy’s eyes narrowed, and she stirred restlessly under his scrutiny. Why had he instantly assumed she had been seeking the one in which he had recklessly mentioned a Miss Bennet?

He ran a hand through his hair. Damn it, why was Elizabeth so easily recalled?

‘I asked if you were troubled, Brother?’

Darcy shook his head. ‘By nothing of consequence. I believe we are set for some snow overnight. I will ensure your fire is well stoked when you retire.’

‘I like the snow.’ Georgiana’s voice was wistful. ‘I should like to be able to go out in it, like we do at Pemberley.’

‘I think now is not the best time, my dear. Let us get you to full health first. If the harsh winter that is predicted comes about, this will not be the only fall.’

‘I hope Miss Bennet is staying in Somersetshire for Yuletide.’ Georgiana became more animated. ‘I should so like to know her better.’

Darcy drained his glass. So would he, but he must not accede to the temptation.

‘Come, Georgie.’ He stood up and held out his hand. ‘Let us dine, and we can start to think about the entertainment we might be able to offer Richard. We have limited acquaintance in the neighbourhood, but I am certain we can find much to amuse him.’

Georgiana hurried to his side, taking his hand. ‘What an excellent notion.’ She almost skipped into the dining room as she said, ‘He will be certain to want to see Miss Bennet and Miss Anne Elliot again. I am sure he found them good company. We must ask them to dine, Fitz.’

Darcy opened his mouth, then closed it with a snap. This instinctive urge to acquiesce to anything where Elizabeth was concerned had to stop, or else would be in even more danger than he had been in Hertfordshire.

~o0o~

Elizabeth found sleep on her second night in Somersetshire more difficult to come by, though she was at a loss to account for it. She had spent a good deal of the day in the crisp winter air, had indulged in a good meal, and plenty of enjoyable conversation with Anne. She should have slept like the proverbial log, but rest was proving elusive.

Even after dawn had broken, Elizabeth tossed and turned in her bed, eventually rolling onto her side and staring at the heavy curtains across the windows. The light filtering in from outside had a strange greyness to it and seemed to be flickering. Sitting up, Elizabeth shoved her hair over her shoulder and swung her legs out of bed.

She shivered. The fire in the grate had reduced to embers, and Elizabeth grabbed a thick shawl from a nearby chair and wrapped it around her as she padded over to pull back one of the curtains.

The grounds of Kellynch were white over, and snow continued to fall from a leaden sky that portended no end to the current conditions. Delighted, Elizabeth pushed both curtains aside and reached up to unfasten the clasp and opened the window.

Shivering again, she hugged the shawl closer, but leaned out, stretching her hand to catch the flakes, and laughing as they danced away from her. The world was strangely muted, as though someone had placed a blanket over it, and Elizabeth was filled with contentment. It so rarely snowed in Hertfordshire, and when it did, it drew protests and wails from Kitty and Lydia until the roads were once again passable. Here, she felt wrapped in a cocoon of silence.

‘Morning, miss.’

Elizabeth spun around. Lottie had entered and a young servant was heading to the hearth to set a fresh fire in the grate.

‘Come now, miss. Close the window, or you will catch cold.’

The maid helped her latch the windows, and Elizabeth submitted to her attentions and soon joined Anne, who was alone in the breakfast room.

‘My sister is breaking her fast in her room, as her hearth is more accommodating, and my father has gone to prepare for a meeting with the departing curate of Monkford—a nearby parish—who is due to call at noon.’ Anne seemed a little conscious, and Elizabeth observed her with curiosity as she picked up a plate from the console table. Was there a chance Anne was sweet upon this clergyman?

‘Is it not beautiful?’ Elizabeth waved a hand towards the leaded windows. The room was bathed in the glow of the snow, despite the heavy skies.

‘It is indeed. And I suspect you are eager to go out, but Lizzy, I must ask you to wait until the snow at least ceases.’

‘Of course.’ Elizabeth filled her plate from the array on offer and poured a cup of tea. ‘What time do you receive the post?’

‘It is usually collected by late morning.’ Anne smiled as Elizabeth took a seat beside her. ‘Today, of course, there may be a slight delay.’

Despite the roaring fires in every grate, Miss Elliot, once persuaded downstairs, complained as steadily as the flakes fell, of the coldness in the air, the ineffectiveness of the chimneys and the paucity of the neighbourhood for offering any possible distraction in such circumstances.

As the clock struck noon, she settled beside the drawing room fire, refusing to move from its warmth. Sir Walter had removed himself to attend the visiting clergyman who, despite the inclement conditions, had managed to arrive on time, and Elizabeth had been relieved when a note came from Uppercross Cottage, requesting Anne to call on her married sister, who was suffering from a recurrence of an old ailment.

‘You will join me, Lizzy? I am sure you are eager for fresh air, and it is a good two miles to Uppercross from here.’

‘It would be my delight!’ Elizabeth, who was sick and tired of Miss Elliot’s complaints, suspected she merely traded them for Mrs Musgrove’s, but the exercise and fresh air each way would be welcome and well worth the sacrifice.

The door opened and Anne greeted the housekeeper, who handed over the post.

‘Here is that which you seek, Lizzy.’

Taking the letter from Anne, Elizabeth viewed the postmark and her sister’s familiar hand with a mixture of trepidation and pleasure.

‘You wish to read your letter in peace?’ Anne took her friend’s arm as they left the room. ‘Shall we meet at the front door in a half hour and head over to Mary’s?’

At the appointed time, Elizabeth hurried down the stairs, fastening a thick scarf about her neck and pulling on her warmest gloves. The letter had delivered news, but none of it to her satisfaction, for the situation in Hertfordshire had hardly improved. Jane was making the best of it, but Elizabeth still feared for her sister’s declining spirits. A brisk walk was required to walk off her frustrations, and though Elizabeth regretted Mrs Musgrove’s apparent ailment, accompanying Anne to Uppercross Cottage would more than compensate.

Anne was waiting for her on the steps, but as she reached the doorway, Elizabeth noticed gloves and a cane on the hall table and a cleric’s hat suspended on the coat stand.

‘The curate from Monkford is with my father.’

The strange consciousness filtered across Anne’s features again, but then she took Elizabeth’s arm.

‘Come. Let us make good our escape!’

With that, they hurried along the passageway were soon stepping out onto the snow-covered terrace.

Chapter Twelve

The blast of wintry weather had come as no surprise to Darcy, but despite the snow upon the ground and heavy festoons hanging from the branches of the surrounding trees, the planned shoot at Uppercross had taken place. To his surprise, Darcy had passed a pleasant morning in company with Charles Musgrove. Once he had partaken of the traditional refreshments, however, and having sent his man home with his guns, he set out on a circuitous route back to Meadowbrook House.

Striding along, Darcy’s boots made no sound in the virgin snow. The skies were lightening slowly, and he inhaled deeply of the crisp, clear air, relishing its coolness but hoping for a quick thaw, for there would be little opportunity to encounter Elizabeth if the conditions persisted.

A strange tightening in his chest—one that had frequently made its presence felt before he left Hertfordshire—returned, and he walked for some distance, unclear on his direction, until a sound caught his ear, and he stopped to listen: children playing, their shouts of joy and laughter drifting to him like snowflakes on the wind. Turning a corner, Darcy beheld them, using make-shift sledges to fly down a nearby slope. before, pink-faced, trudging to the top again, bent upon repeating the pleasure.

Seeking solitude, Darcy headed away from the children and soon slipped through an opening in the hedgerow, his evasive action proving his downfall. With a resounding thud, something hit him squarely in the throat and, as icy slithers of snow began to slide beneath his neckcloth, his gaze met that of a wide-eyed Elizabeth Bennet.

‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy, I did not expect you.’ Her tone was sufficiently contrite, but her demeanour did not speak of regret. Unless he was much mistaken, the lady was struggling to conceal her mirth.

He wiped the snow from his neck, brushing the remainder from his coat. ‘You have a sure aim for a lady, Miss Bennet.’

A raised brow greeted this comment. ‘For a lady, sir? I will take the credit, begrudgingly though you bestow it, but honesty will prevail. I did not take aim and fire, you merely obliged me by walking into my range.’ She waved a hand, and he followed its direction.

A low stone wall ran the length of the copse and balanced atop it was a small snowman, albeit now minus part of its head. Before Darcy could study it further, Elizabeth spoke from beside him.

‘You place yourself in continued peril, sir.’

She gathered the remnants of the snowball and began forming it into shape before returning to the place where she had first stood and, sensing she would make no allowance, he quickly stepped aside, just in time to avoid the missile as it struck its target.

Elizabeth made a charming picture, wrapped up warmly in a thick coat, a colourful scarf at her throat, her pink cheeks glowing almost as much as her hazel eyes and, despite the lingering dampness about his neck, Darcy’s contentment grew.

‘You force me to repeat my praise, Miss Bennet. Your aim is true.’

She laughed. ‘It is a fine accomplishment, is it not?’ Bending to scoop up another handful of snow, she moulded it into a tight ball. ‘You are gallant, Mr Darcy.’

‘You seem surprised.’

Elizabeth pursed her lips. ‘Aye, I had not coupled you and gallantry together before now.’

Shocked by the implication of her words, Darcy knew not what to say. He was the consummate gentleman! How dare she imply otherwise?

Elizabeth, meanwhile, showed no respect for his inner turmoil, releasing the next snowball with expediency.

As she passed Darcy on her way to inspect the damage, he noted the snow clinging in clumps to her boots and the hem of her coat. ‘You are a long way from home in these conditions, ma’am. May I not see you safely back?’

Elizabeth adjusted the snowman’s body; its head now fully dispatched to the other side of the wall and she turned to study him. Though he could not recall saying aught out of turn, her expression did not auger well.

‘My home is indeed somewhat distant, but should I wish to return to the Hall, I will do so when my desire for solitude is satisfied.’

Accepting the hit, Darcy inclined his head. ‘Then permit me to leave you in peace, madam.’

At this, the lady shook her head. ‘Pay me no mind, Mr Darcy. I am out of sorts with myself more than any other. I accompanied Miss Anne Elliot on a call to Mrs Musgrove and was urged to take the air whilst my friend attended her sister. You are perfectly at liberty to walk here.’

Glad of the reprieve, Darcy smiled. ‘May I be of any assistance?’

Elizabeth failed to conceal her surprise at the offer. ‘I doubt you can. I am sorely in need of an outlet for a surfeit of ill temper.’ She paused, then added, ‘Do not be alarmed, sir; I am merely aggrieved by my cousin…’ She hesitated. ‘You recall Mr Collins? Your aunt’s curate?’

‘Indeed.’ How Mr Collins, who was indeed his aunt Catherine’s clergyman in Kent, could have caused Elizabeth frustration here in Somersetshire was beyond Darcy.

Turning, Elizabeth walked back to a small pile of remaining snowballs and picked one up, weighing it on her palm, before facing him. ‘May I ask you a question?’

Did she wish to ask permission to aim the next missile at him? ‘I—er, of course.’

She smoothed the snowball. ‘Would you always put duty to your family before your own happiness?’

Darcy stared at her thoughtfully for a moment, unsure of the relevance of her words. ‘If I thought I had forsaken my duty, I do not think I could find peace or contentment.’ He studied her troubled countenance, then added. ‘But my resolve has not been tested in earnest.’

What he might have said next, Darcy did not know, for voices drifted towards them on the cold air as two ladies appeared near a stile part way along the wall.

‘Come, Lizzy! Mary is somewhat revived since she has eaten, as you see, and requests you join us for some tea.’

Anne Elliot’s astonishment at perceiving Darcy would have amused him, but as he bowed in the ladies’ direction, he was consumed by the disappointment of the imminent loss of Elizabeth’s company.

The lady appeared a little awkward, then said, ‘I am sure Mrs Musgrove would welcome your joining us, sir?’

Darcy shook his head. Much as he wished to remain in Elizabeth’s invigorating company, drinking tea with the ladies held little appeal.

‘I am bent upon exercise, Miss Bennet.’

‘Then I bid you good day, Mr Darcy.’ Elizabeth curtsied, and he bowed by return. ‘I thank you for bearing me company.’ She held out her latest offering towards him, and he took it.

‘I return the compliment, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth soon disappeared over the stile and into the company of her friends, their voices fading, and Darcy stooped to gather more snow, doubling the missile in size.

Though it had been many a year since he had thrown a snowball, Darcy was a keen sportsman with a good eye and a true aim, and the remains of the snowman soon disappeared over the wall in search of its head. How was it he felt such satisfaction from the childish gesture and so revitalised by spending a short time in the lady’s company?

Darcy turned to retrace his steps, deep in thought. A few light flakes of snow began to fall again, and he cast a wary glance heavenwards. Then, he shook his head at his own folly. Whatever the weather chose to deliver, he was caught in a trap of his own making—it was time he owned it to himself.

~o0o~

Anne and Elizabeth had been walking in a comfortable silence along the snow-covered lane since saying farewell to Mary at Uppercross Cottage, both seeming wrapped in their own thoughts.

Elizabeth had been attempting to recapture her joy from when she had awoken to a world of beauty, a memory that had almost sunk under Jane’s letter and the complaints of Mary Musgrove. If only the breeze that had now arisen could brush away the lady’s relentless voice as smoothly as it grazed Elizabeth’s cheek.

‘I am sorry your letter did not deliver pleasing intelligence, Lizzy.’

‘I am becoming accustomed to Jane’s correspondence bringing naught but frustration.’

‘Do you wish to share it? You seemed so much better after your solitary walk.’ Anne stayed Elizabeth with a hand on her arm. ‘All the more surprising for your having met with Mr Darcy, of all people.’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘Mr Darcy was sufficiently obliging in taking a snowball in the neck.’

Anne let out a gasp. ‘He did not!’

‘I will own to its aiding me in releasing some vexation. It was unintentional, of course.’ Elizabeth frowned. ‘He took it surprisingly well for such a proud man.’

Her spirits reviving at the memory of the gentleman’s shocked face, Elizabeth turned to Anne as they fell into step once more. ‘And you, Anne? Did your call upon your sister satisfy your concerns over her health? It is a worry in her condition, is it not?’

There was silence for a moment before Anne said: ‘Mary is as well as she ever is.’

‘A few words speak many.’

‘I fear being indiscreet, but you are an astute observer, Lizzy. It will not surprise you to learn Mary has some ailments, which intensify in accordance with how much attention she receives.’

‘Yes, when I first left you, she was only just sitting up and within an hour, you were out walking in the snow.’

Anne smiled. ‘It is the common way with her. A little nourishment always sets her up. She claims my company is a balm, but I fear I am merely an audience for her in Charles’s absence.’

‘I was surprised to learn he was out in such inclement weather.’

Anne took Elizabeth’s arm. ‘It would take more than a few inches of snow to have Charles stand down the beaters. I suspect my brother-in-law is lingering at the post-shoot gathering at the lodge.’ She hesitated. ‘Do you believe in happiness in marriage, Lizzy?’

For a moment, Elizabeth knew not what to answer. ‘I wish to. I long to marry for love, though I know it is not always possible.’ They had reached a crossroads and turned towards Kellynch, retracing their own footsteps in the snow from earlier.

‘Mary and Charles muddle along. They seem as content as any other couple of my acquaintance.’ Anne frowned. ‘I am saddened that I have thus far failed to meet a married couple who demonstrate the happiness and contentment I anticipated with… Perhaps it does not exist.’

Elizabeth noted the slip. Anne had never said anything about a past love but she suppressed her curiosity.

‘My experience is equally limited, and my parents are a poor example, though my aunt and uncle Gardiner are exceptionally happy.’ The memory of Mr and Mrs Hurst flashed into Elizabeth’s mind. ‘Even wealth, status and good connections do not necessarily equate to a happy marriage.’

‘I fear they often preclude it.’

Meadowbrook House came into view, and Elizabeth became thoughtful.

‘Mr Darcy said he could not be content knowing he had forsaken his duty.’ Elizabeth mulled upon his words. ‘I doubt he was referring to marriage, but it did not surprise me. I have heard he is destined for a cousin.’

‘I believe Mr Darcy takes his guardianship of Pemberley extremely seriously and would put it before anything—other than his sister’s happiness.’

Musing on Jane’s letter, Elizabeth’s thoughts on Mr Darcy’s sister remained all confusion. Then, she let out a huff of breath.

‘You are fairer towards him than I.’

‘I do not have a sister whose own happiness he has damaged.’

Elizabeth shivered, thankful that the chimney tops of Kellynch were in view. ‘Speaking of which, you asked about Jane’s letter. Are you certain you wish me to share my troubles? I believe you bear the confidence of many.’

Anne shook her head. ‘Do not deprive me of the pleasure of being your friend, Lizzy.’

‘Jane’s consideration of Mr Collins continues to be a grave concern with me.’ Elizabeth felt all the frustration from earlier return with a vengeance. ‘There is no sign of Netherfield being readied for its master’s return—and no word in response to Jane’s letter to Miss Bingley.’

‘Mr Bingley is a distant lover, then, if he remains in Town whilst his alleged amour is here in Somersetshire.’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘You are right. If Miss Darcy has been unwell and Mr Bingley is so devoted, why is he not here?’

‘Will you say as much to your sister?’

‘I shall indeed, though I begin to wonder if I have erred in believing the gentleman in love with Jane. To make matters worse, Mr Collins’s return to the neighbourhood draws nearer, and he is sure to press his suit.’

‘And has your sister implied as much?’

‘Jane generally conceals her feelings from the world, attempting to distract me by relating some of Mr Collins’s ridiculousness in his latest to Papa, though I suspect it derives from another source.’

Anne glanced at Elizabeth as they turned their steps along the drive to the Hall. ‘How so?’

‘Mr Collins relayed to Papa some of Lady Catherine’s advice—which, of course, is the gospel by which he lives. She is the person who instructed him to find a wife in Hertfordshire, and she has now had the temerity to suggest his choice must learn to conduct herself in “a manner most befitting the wife of a clergyman with such an honourable benefactress”, or some such nonsense.’

Anne was suitably astounded, and Elizabeth laughed, though without humour. ‘Precisely. Mr Collins, it seems, is beside himself with gratitude that Lady Catherine would deign to give such personal advice.’

‘And how does Jane feel?’

‘She seems to have decided it is humorous.’

‘Your sister appears a sensible young woman.’

‘Far too sensible. I would like to feed Mr Collins his insulting suggestion along with his stupid hat. I have always had great respect for men of the cloth, but my cousin is testing my faith in them.’

Anne smiled, but then it faded, the consciousness returning.

‘The Reverend Wentworth—he is the gentleman presently with my father—is a good man. He has been presented with a living in Shropshire. He departs on the morrow, as I understand it. Though his parish is not under the jurisdiction of the estate, he has called as part of his general farewells to the neighbourhood. My father will not appreciate the gesture, for he does not have much time for the clergy outside of a church.’

Elizabeth was surprised. ‘How so?’

‘He does not consider them “gentlemen”. Thus, beyond the service they render, Father sees no value in the connection.’

There was little enough time to speculate on this, as they had rounded the side of the house and entered the boot room, but not before tapping their boots on the scraper to remove the excess snow.

‘My stockings are quite wet through!’ Elizabeth studied her damp toes, as an obliging maid took charge of their boots for drying and cleaning.

They padded along the corridor to the stairs, intent upon finding dry stockings, but before they had reached the bottom step, Sir Walter came striding through from the great hall.

‘There you are, Anne. Where have you been?’

‘We walked over to Uppercross, Father, to call upon Mary. She sent a message to say she was unwell. Did my sister not tell you?’

‘Hmph.’ Sir Walter turned to admire his image in a nearby looking glass, tucking a newspaper under his arm to inspect his coiffure more closely.

‘Your sister is quite out of sorts. The weather is not to her liking.’

Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘How remiss of Mother Nature, sir.’

Sir Walter had not heard, having dropped the newspaper, which he bent to retrieve with a frown.

‘That Wentworth is a singular fellow. I am not displeased that he has been offered a living elsewhere.’

It was Anne’s turn to frown. ‘But you had so little to do with him, Father.’

‘And thankful am I that it was so.’ Sir Walter drew himself up. ‘I am of course consulted on many a matter concerning the wider district. Wentworth came to pay his respects, or so he said, but the man left without the courtesy of a by your leave!’

Anne raised a brow. ‘How extraordinary.’

‘This is what one must expect when lower classes try to raise themselves. Picked up the newspaper, he did. Proceeded to ask me some such nonsense about a report. Then, the oddest noise came from the man, the paper fell to the floor, and he was gone! Preposterous!’

Sir Walter tossed the offending newspaper onto a side table and stalked off, and Anne, sending Elizabeth a small smile, followed her up the stairs.

They had agreed to meet again in thirty minutes, and by the time Elizabeth was coming back down the stairs, she could see Anne perched on a settle in the great hall.

‘Come, let us repair to the small sitting room.’  Anne rose from her seat, turning back to retrieve Sir Walter’s discarded newspaper before joining Elizabeth. ‘We shall be undisturbed there.’

The room referred to by Anne overlooked the rear terrace and the manicured gardens beyond and had been spared from Miss Elliot’s redecorating schemes thus far, remaining much as it was when the late Lady Elliot had styled it.

‘How lovely!’ Elizabeth stood in the centre of the charming room, turning around to take it all in, drawn immediately to a large painting over the mantelpiece depicting a kindly-faced gentleman, a young woman holding a baby, and a small girl sat upon the man’s knee.

‘Who are these people?’ Elizabeth looked over to where Anne was, but her friend was staring at the newspaper in her grip—a grip that shook the words on the front page.

‘What is amiss?’ She hurried to where Anne had sunk against the doorjamb, but her friend merely stared at her blankly. She was white as the freshly fallen snow.

‘Come.’ Elizabeth placed a firm hand under Anne’s arm and led her to a chaise where her friend all but fell onto the cushions, then waited.

Anne remained silent, drawing in shallow breaths, but then she held out the newspaper to Elizabeth, pointing a shaking finger at a passage in the left-hand column.

‘The Laconia is sunk. All hands lost!’

Elizabeth skimmed the article, then raised her eyes to meet Anne’s.

‘Someone you knew was on this ship.’ Anne said nothing, but the anguished look on her face was sufficient confirmation.

‘Do you wish to talk about him?’

Anne shook her head as a solitary tear rolled down her ashen cheek. ‘Help me to my room, Lizzy. Please.’ She got unsteadily to her feet, tugging a handkerchief from her sleeve and patting her damp skin. ‘I wish to be alone.’

Concerned, Elizabeth offered her arm, unsurprised when Anne kept hold of the newspaper even after she had slumped into a fireside chair in her room.

‘Shall I give your excuses at dinner, have a tray sent up?’

Elizabeth was not sure Anne had heard her. She remained staring into the flames in the hearth, the newspaper clutched in her hands. Leaning down, Elizabeth gave her a gentle embrace, casting one lingering look at her afflicted friend before softly closing the door.

Chapter Thirteen

With shaking hands, Anne raised the newspaper to scrutinise again the ominous words.

‘No,’ she whispered, emotion gripping her throat. ‘Oh, Frederick, not this…’ Her voice broke and the tears she had tried so hard to hold back spilled down her cheeks as she bent over in her seat, her body shaking.

How long the torrent of emotion lasted, Anne was unsure, but eventually, she raised her head.

‘Just breathe. Try to breathe,’ she intoned, taking small gulps of air, then sinking back into her chair, the newspaper finally falling from her grasp.

Anne stared at her hands, stained with the print from the paper, which was damp from her outpouring of grief. She ought to wash them, repair the damage to her face, but her legs felt as though they would not support her.

Wearily, she stood, holding onto the arm of the chair, then stepped towards her bedside cabinet. Pulling out an old wooden box, which had once belonged to her mother, she unlocked it and stared at its contents: a couple of letters bound in ribbon, a faded rose, pressed between fine paper, some lines of poetry, and a small pebble shaped almost like a heart. This was all she possessed of her brief months with Frederick Wentworth.

Anne lifted out the small bundle of letters, pressing it to her lips as the memories made with him replayed in her mind. There were precious few, but she clung to them, forcing out the horror of what his last moments might have been like. To no avail; Anne’s heart betrayed her, winging its way towards his own, longing to have seen him just one more time, and wondering—foolish though the thought was—if Frederick had held any thoughts of her when the end came.

A knock on the servant’s door roused her, and Anne quickly returned the letters to the box as Elise entered with a tray.

‘Miss Bennet said you were unwell, Miss Anne.’ She placed the tray on a small table, and Anne wiped her eyes on her shawl. She had no appetite and no wish to be seen in her present state.

Elise approached her warily. ‘May I fetch you anything? Would you like me to dress your hair? You have become a little…’

‘Dishevelled.’ Anne tried to pull herself together. ‘Thank you, Elise. I will tidy myself. You may go.’

Alone again, Anne approached the looking glass in the fading light. Her reflection stared back: pale cheeks, a pink nose, and clouded eyes, with wisps of hair hanging about her face. Then, she turned her back. What did it signify?

Ignoring the tray, Anne tried not to notice the discarded newspaper as she returned to the chair beside the fire. Perhaps she ought to try and see the Reverend Wentworth on the morrow, before he departed the West Country? They had rarely spoken in the intervening years, though he was the actual reason Frederick had even come into the county back in the year six. Did the reverend blame her for his brother’s never coming to stay again? Whatever his feelings, he had clearly received the intelligence of his brother’s demise much as Anne had.

Anne’s gaze drifted to the flames in the hearth and, hugging her shawl more closely about her, she curled up in her seat and tried to immerse herself in her happiest memories, those of walking in the grove on the arm of her commander.

~o0o~

Elizabeth could not escape soon enough from the dining room and, knowing both Sir Walter and Miss Elliot had no time for her presence, her excuse to call in on Anne was welcomed by all.

‘Do wish her well.’ Sir Walter waved a cavalier hand. ‘Should she remain indisposed on the morrow, I shall summon Robinson to attend her.’

Miss Elliot yawned, as she did with annoying frequency. ‘I am certain she merely took cold for being so foolish as to walk out in this foul weather, Father. It is her own fault if she picks up a chill.’

Sir Walter was quite appalled at this and held his napkin to his face. ‘We do not want it to become a fever. Think of the detriment to one’s looks.’

Elizabeth glared at them both, not that they noticed, having returned their attention to their meal. It took all her self-control not to tell them what she thought of their carelessness towards one of the sweetest people she had ever known. Instead, she turned on her heel and left the room, hurrying up the stairs to Anne’s chamber.

Anne responded to Elizabeth’s call through the door, and she entered to find her friend much as she had left her: wan and listless in the fireside chair.

‘Dearest Anne.’ Elizabeth hurried across the room to kneel beside her, taking one of her hands in her own and rubbing it to instil some warmth into the cold skin.

‘I am so thankful you are here, Lizzy. My family has no comprehension… had no time for…’ Anne’s voice wavered.

Elizabeth adjusted her position on the floor. ‘I suspected there had been someone before now. I am saddened for you.’

Anne lifted a listless hand, which fell back onto her lap. ‘It was years ago.’

‘And you care yet. Was it—did he not return your affection, or was it never even declared?’

Anne lowered her head and stared at her hands, then raised solemn eyes to Elizabeth’s.

‘I had a short attachment in my nineteenth year. He… Frederick,’ her voice faltered as she spoke his name. ‘Captain Wentworth is…was the Reverend Wentworth’s brother and came to make some stay with him. We were soon acquainted and rapidly attached to each other. He asked for my hand.’ Anne smiled, her eyes distant. ‘I could not speak my acceptance fast enough. We were to be the happiest of couples. No one could have more felicity.’ The smile faded, as did the burst of animation.

‘And…what happened?’

There was no answer.

‘Anne?’

Elizabeth spoke gently, unsure whether to leave her friend in peace, but then she straightened in her seat, her melancholy drawing Elizabeth’s compassion.

‘I was persuaded against continuing with the engagement, and much to my later regret, I conceded.’

‘Oh, my poor dear girl.’ Elizabeth squeezed Anne’s hand gently.

‘My father was disappointed—no, more than that. He was angry, claiming it was not a good enough match, that it was too soon, I was too young to make such a commitment, and he would do nothing for us.’

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. ‘He would withhold your portion?’

‘It was all I could assume, from his saying such. Though Mama told me once that I had been well provided for outside of a formal dowry. I suspect that was more down to her father than my own.’ Anne met Elizabeth’s gaze. ‘Money meant little to me, but Frederick had yet to distinguish himself in the Navy, only having achieved the grade of commander. My father believes the institution has its utility but he resents it being the means of bringing people of obscure birth into undue distinction, that it might raise them in honours to which they had no right to aspire.’ She sighed. ‘If such ascendance was detrimental, imagine how he received the intelligence of Frederick having no distinguished connections to assist him in further climbing the ranks. Lady Russell pressed the point that his career was dangerous, a precarious profession with no guarantee of success or financial return. He was ashore at the time because he had no ship, thus no income. They said it was all too much of a risk, but in truth, they felt he was beneath the family, an unsuitable match for an Elliot.’

‘It must have been a heart-breaking decision.’

Anne nodded. ‘For us both. Frederick was angry, and I do not blame him.’ She held Elizabeth’s hand tightly, her expression earnest. ‘I could not have rescinded—let him go—if I did not think I acted for his benefit. To attach himself to another at such a time, his future so uncertain…a wife may have become a burden he could ill afford. It may have hindered his opportunities, his career.’

‘And did the captain gain all he had hoped for in his profession?’

‘Yes, ten-fold, though he has not wed.’

Elizabeth was surprised. ‘How do you know this?’

‘I followed Frederick’s progression by consulting the Navy lists—Steele’s and the Navy Chronicle. At first, I could hardly look, breathless in dread of seeing he had perished or that he was listed newly wed, but beyond his promotions, his name never featured other than when he distinguished himself at sea…’ Anne’s voice faded, and Elizabeth could imagine where they had gone: to the bottom of the ocean.

There was a long silence, but then Anne inhaled deeply and lifted her head to meet Elizabeth’s compassionate look.

‘Do not be uneasy for me, Lizzy. It is a shock, and I am saddened for him, will grieve for him and his family, but in all truth, Frederick was lost to me the day I changed my mind, and he stormed from the Hall.’ Anne gestured weakly with her free hand. ‘We have never been in company since, but had it been so, we would have been strangers to one another.’

‘You are stoic. More so than I could be in such circumstances.’

Anne shook her head. ‘Though I cannot fault the logic of those who had a hand in my decision, my regret has never left me, and had our paths crossed even within months of our parting, I would have begged him to take me back. I will mourn his loss forever, but I have learned to live with it, built myself anew. I am not the same, nor should I be.’

Elizabeth’s heart broke for her friend. ‘I cannot imagine the pain of your parting, or the burden you now bear. This is why you empathise so well with Jane’s situation. Sense versus emotion.’

Anne stirred in her chair. ‘I may understand, but how I wish I had acted differently. My decision has been long repented, and I would not wish that for your sister.’

‘So much sadness, when one ought to be the happiest of beings.’

‘Some things are simply not meant to be.’ Anne summoned a smile. ‘But there is hope for you, Lizzy. Have you…did you ever meet someone whom you could consider attaching yourself to?’

Elizabeth’s thoughts immediately went to Mr Wickham. He was charming, handsome, and his circumstances made him excessively interesting to her. She felt for him, had even defended him to Mr Darcy, despite it being a match that would bring little comfort to Elizabeth’s family or any promise of security.

‘There was someone in Hertfordshire who held my interest, and there is some similarity to your circumstances in that he is in a volatile profession with no connections to further…’ Elizabeth drew in a sharp breath. This was no time for thinking about Mr Darcy’s disservice to his childhood friend. ‘But there is an end to it.’

Elizabeth released Anne’s hand before getting to her feet, noting the untouched tray of food on a side table.

‘Can you not eat a morsel? Sip a little wine? I shall leave you to your rest.’

‘Thank you, dear Lizzy. You are a great comfort. We can talk some more on the morrow.’

~o0o~

Darcy walked with Georgiana to the foot of the stairs, where he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, and she embraced him before heading up to her room.

After she disappeared from view, he turned to survey the empty hall. What now? It would be days before Colonel Fitzwilliam returned. With no estate to oversee, which kept him fully occupied when in Derbyshire, and none of the social commitments of Town, Darcy had little else to occupy his thoughts aside from the next Uppercross shoot. Other than Elizabeth Bennet.

Darcy blew out a frustrated breath. Little else indeed. Unless…

‘No, damn it. You will not contemplate such a thing!’ He spoke the words aloud, as though doing so would clear his mind, but his mind was no fool.

Darcy headed for his study, slamming the door behind him. Then, he crossed to the hearth, grabbed a poker and gave the logs a severe prodding.

It was insufficient to relieve his feelings. Returning to the desk, Darcy flipped open the diary, running a finger down the page to the date of his cousin’s anticipated return. How the devil was he going to occupy himself in the interim?

Much as Darcy loved his sister, there were many years between them, and though she was fast becoming an adult, they were hardly ideal company for each other. Was that not why he had engaged her companion?

No, Darcy. You engaged Mrs Annesley as someone to watch over her. The woman is even older than you are. What could they possibly have in common beyond their sex?

It was true. The lady was old enough to be Georgiana’s mother. Should he have engaged someone who was closer to her in age, more like a sister? What young lady would have the wisdom and caring to guide Georgiana where she needed it most and also give her the best of company and amusement?

Elizabeth… The name whispered through his mind, and Darcy closed the diary and dropped into the chair at his desk before lowering his head into his hands.

Whence had it come, this…obsession with the lady? No answer came to him, and he straightened. Why was he consumed with when he might next see Elizabeth? What reason could he give for calling at the Hall?

Darcy walked over to the tray of spirits, fully replenished since the colonel’s attack upon it, and poured himself a brandy, swirling the amber liquid around the glass as he took a seat by the hearth.

And what of Georgiana? With her health improving, she needed fresh air to aid her recovery. Her introduction to the ladies of Kellynch had now taken place, but she had yet to meet the head of the household. Was it not incumbent upon them to return the ladies’ call, and were they not already a day late in doing so?

Darcy took a slug from his glass, confident in the scheme as the liquid burned a trail down his throat.

Tomorrow, he was for Kellynch.

Chapter Fourteen

As soon as Elizabeth awoke, her thoughts were of her friend and all she had revealed the night before, and she only just allowed Lottie to insert the last pin into her hair before hurrying from the room.

Relieved to find Anne no longer in her own chamber, Elizabeth made her way down the stairs and walked through the great hall towards the breakfast room. Voices drifted towards her, indicating Sir Walter and his eldest were at table, and Elizabeth’s steps slowed. Was she hungry enough to tolerate their company?

Elizabeth decided she was. Besides, Anne may need her.

‘I have told you time and again, my dear. You cannot be too choosy.’ Sir Walter’s strident voice carried to Elizabeth through the partially open door as she approached.

Miss Elliot’s response was muted, but her father continued as Elizabeth pushed open the door. ‘It is the perfect solution. After what I did for you a year ago, you are in no position to delay, and the gentleman is—ah, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth curtseyed as Miss Elliot spun around in her seat, discomfort apparent on her features, but she quickly assumed her usual indolent air.

‘Excuse me, Sir Walter. Is there word from Miss Anne this morning?’

The gentleman raised a brow. ‘We have not seen her. She must be in her room.’

Miss Elliot completely ignored Elizabeth.

‘If you will excuse me, sir, ma’am, I shall seek her out.’

Closing the door with a snap, Elizabeth mulled over where Anne might be. It was good to know she had felt well enough to leave her room but breaking her fast had clearly not been the incentive.

Elizabeth clutched her stomach as an ominous growl emanated from it. She would have to do a raid on the kitchens later, finding Anne took precedence.

A search of all the rooms on the ground floor bore no fruit; a passing footman had no answer for Miss Anne Elliot’s whereabouts, and Elizabeth was on the verge of heading down to the kitchens to beg for a piece of toast or plum cake before searching further when she saw Anne coming through the doorway leading from the boot room, dressed in her riding habit. Her face was flushed and her hair a little disarrayed as she removed her hat, but when she saw Elizabeth, she raised a hand in greeting.

‘I was so worried about you!’ Elizabeth hurried her steps to meet her friend. ‘Where have you been?’

‘Come, Lizzy.’ Anne said no more but took Elizabeth’s arm and urged her along to the small sitting room they had gone to the previous day.

‘You are cold.’

Anne nodded, gesturing for Elizabeth to precede her into the room, and she closed the door and turned around to lean against it.

‘I wished to catch the Reverend Wentworth.’

They each took a seat either side of the hearth where a welcome fire crackled in the grate, and Anne held out her hands towards it. Elizabeth chewed her lip. Her friend spoke in a matter of fact manner that belied the dullness of her eyes and the slump of her frame.

‘Did you sleep at all?’

‘I do not feel as though I did, but I had such dreams…and one must sleep to dream.’ Anne sat back in her seat, tucking her hands into her lap. ‘I had to see Reverend Wentworth, to see if he had any further intelligence.’

‘And did he?’

Anne shook her head. ‘It is oft the way in such cases. Initial reports reach the press before private word can be delivered to the families, the distances being so great.’

‘And is the reverend the only family in this instance?’

The colour in Anne’s cheeks, borne of the brisk walk in the cold air, was receding. ‘Frederick had a sister to whom he was seriously attached—he spoke of her often and with great affection. She married a naval man, now an admiral, and they are currently in the West Indies. It will be some time before they learn what has befallen her brother.’

Elizabeth leaned back in her own seat. ‘So much sadness to be borne, for the families of each and every man lost on the ship. I am so grieved for you, Anne.’

‘Reverend Wentworth is now on his way to Leominster, where he is to be wed. His new wife will be his comfort.’ Anne stretched her stocking-clad feet out towards the hearth, wriggling her toes in search of its warmth. ‘He had heard rumours of a ship going down in the Irish Sea but had no reason to suspect it was the Laconia.’ Anne drew in a short breath. ‘He is full of regret for having only seen his brother twice in the past five years. I cannot help but feel I am to blame. Frederick, as you can imagine, never returned to Somersetshire after we…after he…he has not visited his brother at home since the year six. They met in Southampton, when he was ashore, but he was mainly at sea and…’ Her voice trailed away as her mind drifted, and Elizabeth clutched her stomach again as it let out a protesting gurgle.

‘You have not eaten.’

‘I wished to find you.’

‘Dear Lizzy.’ Anne stood up. ‘I will profess to having no appetite, but I am sensible enough to comprehend I will do myself little service by not eating. Let us see if Mrs Howard can supply us with a little nourishment. I cannot face the breakfast table.’

Grateful though she was to know food would be imminent, Elizabeth took Anne’s arm as they made their way back along the hall.

‘If there is anything I can do, Anne, anything at all… I know there is no way to heal your immediate pain, but if you wish to talk to me, speak of Captain Wentworth in confidence, you have my solemn vow, never shall a word be spoken to another of anything you wish to share.’

They had reached the door to the service areas, and Anne turned to face Elizabeth, her expression solemn.

‘Thank you, dear Lizzy. If I had been here with just my father and my sister, then I do not know how I would have borne the news. I could not share it with them, nor would they understand my loss. They had no time for Frederick, he is… was… of no importance to them.’

‘He was important to you, and that is all that matters. I will let you be the guide but I remain at your disposal.’

Anne pushed open the door. ‘Of that I shall take full opportunity, dear Lizzy. Let us eat, and then, after I have changed out of these clothes, we will go up to the long gallery for some exercise and conversation. It will be the best possible balm.’

~o0o~

To Darcy’s disappointment, only Sir Walter and his eldest daughter were present when he and Georgiana were shown into the drawing room, and once his sister had been introduced to the gentleman, she sat in awed silence and Darcy was left to carry the conversation.

To his further discomfort, Miss Elliot paid Georgiana little attention beyond what was required and came to sit beside him to engage him in inconsequential nothings, to which he responded in a distracted manner, his eye upon his equally uncomfortable sister, and his mind wandering the building in search of Elizabeth.

‘Do you not think so, sir?’

Darcy blinked and turned to the lady at his side. ‘I—er, yes, of course.’

‘There! It is as I told my father only this morning. I was certain as to your finding it most agreeable for you to join us for dinner prior to the ball.’

He looked from Sir Walter to Georgiana, who seemed suddenly interested in the lady.

‘We shall, of course, be inviting only the best company.’ Miss Elliot frowned. ‘Though we are under duress to have all the Musgroves here.’ She did not appear overly pleased by this. ‘A family obligation, you understand.’

Georgiana looked eagerly at the lady. ‘And Miss Bennet?’

Miss Elliot trilled a light laugh.

‘Good heavens, I think not. Miss Bennet will have long gone on her way by St Stephen’s.’ Miss Elliot leaned confidentially towards Darcy, who instinctively leaned further away. ‘My sister, Anne, has some singular notions. Her bringing Miss Bennet here was a misjudgement, one I am certain you comprehend.’

Thankfully, she straightened, permitting Darcy to do the same and save himself from falling off the back of the chaise.

He was torn between indignation at her derogatory tone and owning it would have been his exact reaction, had someone had the temerity to bring someone of the Bennets’ status to stay at Pemberley.

‘Her connections, Mr Darcy, and the situation of her family! An uncle who is a small town, country lawyer and another in trade! You can imagine how Father and I felt when we took steps to investigate the Bennets’ wealth and consequence.’

Elizabeth has more consequence than you could ever dream of. 

‘Did you say something, sir?’

Darcy shook his head. ‘Do please continue. You were talking of the ball?’

Miss Elliot accepted the invitation, but Darcy paid no heed to her words. He had known Elizabeth would only stay for a few weeks, but he had hardly seen her.

Why was he so devastated at the thought of her leaving Somersetshire? His hand went involuntarily to his breast. He was not prepared for this chance encounter to come to a precipitous ending.

The door opened, and a butler entered to address Sir Walter.

‘Mr Shepherd is here, sir. I have shown him to the study, where he awaits your instructions.’

Sir Walter rose from his seat. ‘Darcy, join me, if you will. I must just speak with my legal man, but I have recently sourced a valuable painting and it arrived this morning. I am certain you will appreciate seeing it.’

‘But Father—’

Sir Walter waved a dismissive hand at his daughter. ‘Miss Darcy will no doubt be grateful for your attention, my dear. Come, Darcy.’

To Darcy’s surprise, Georgiana nodded as he got to his feet, albeit she eyed Miss Elliot warily.

‘I will return directly, Georgie, and we will be home in time for your music practice.’

‘Music practice be damned, Darcy. Elizabeth’—Sir Walter turned to Miss Elliot— ‘take Miss Darcy to the music room. She can try out the instruments to her heart’s content, and you can display your own talents by return.’

A glimpse of Miss Elliot’s countenance was sufficient for Darcy to comprehend the lady’s view on this, but then she perceived Darcy’s eye upon her.

‘It will be my pleasure. Do come and find us, sir, when your business is complete. Come, Miss Darcy.’ She offered a hand to Georgiana who, after a fleeting look in her brother’s direction, arose to take it, allowing herself to be led from the room.

~o0o~

Elizabeth and Anne had completed several lengths of the long gallery, an impressive area in which the two of them were quite lost, but which enabled them to speak freely without fear of being overheard or interrupted.

‘I shall, at least, have my memories of the happy times we shared, Lizzy. It is more than some can ever aspire to.’

Anne stared out of one of the many windows along the gallery, and Elizabeth joined her. The colour in her friend’s cheeks was returning, as was her calm manner.

‘I have long mourned the man I loved, and though this is wretched, it alters not my own situation.’ She turned to face Elizabeth with a soft smile. ‘There will still be moments of anguish, but I have had five years to accept my lot in life.’

Impulsively, Elizabeth embraced her friend.

‘What you had with Captain Wentworth, though it ended in a way you would not wish, was more than many experience. You are quite right, the memory cannot be taken away from you.’

Anne was silent for a moment, then she nodded. ‘I have come to realise that Frederick Wentworth was the most important person in my life. So much of who I am today is rooted in the love we shared and lost. I had never connected them until now.’

Elizabeth felt consumed by sadness. She wondered if perhaps the good captain had never quite recovered from his affection for Anne. It was certainly likely he had never come across another such woman.

‘The past few months have shown me the many complications pertaining to matters of the heart.’ Elizabeth took in the beautiful expanse of land, then leaned against the windowsill beside her friend. ‘I begin to understand why so many marriages are founded on business. I do not like it, but it seems finding love is oft insufficient.’

‘And sometimes it is entirely too much.’

‘It is sadly true. I hear all you have endured, and I think of Jane and Mr Bingley.’ Elizabeth turned towards her friend earnestly. ‘I know he cared for her, Anne. I know he did. But persuasion was the means of separating them, much as it was in your own case, and for similar reasons, no doubt. I do not fault you for your decision. I have struggled not to fault Mr Bingley, but if he truly is intending to wed Miss Darcy, I ought to rail against him for his blatant attentions to my sister.’

Anne frowned. ‘It may account for his being so easily persuaded to leave Hertfordshire, particularly if his unguarded attentions had given rise to a general expectation of there being a commitment between Mr Bingley and your sister.’

Elizabeth pursed her lips. ‘I had not given such a possibility credence, but now I begin to wonder. Mr Bingley’s manners were so open and inviting. What if he is prone to such missteps and has had to be warned before now by his friends of the danger of his paying too much attention to a young lady?’ Then, she shook her head. ‘But I am certain he was genuinely attached to Jane, that he fell in love with her.’

‘Being destined for another does not necessarily prevent someone from falling in love elsewhere, certainly if the prior arrangement is more of a business arrangement.’

‘Aye.’ Elizabeth’s mind was grappling with this interpretation. ‘Though I did not accept it at the time, with Mr Bingley’s settled absence, I must began to give it some weight. As for Miss Darcy, she had been portrayed by Miss Bingley and’—Elizabeth caught herself before mentioning Wickham’s assessment— ‘and held up as a virtue, so much older and mature than she is. It seems there was some deception in the case.’

‘And what do you think Miss Bingley’s motives were in making you believe this?’

Miss Bingley’s she could surmise, but Elizabeth was unsettled to realise it was harder to fathom Mr Wickham’s purpose. Surely he had known Miss Darcy all her life, and his interpretation ought to be the most reliable?

‘Lizzy?’

‘At the time, I told Jane I believed it was more about Miss Bingley wanting Miss Darcy as a sister through her own marriage to Mr Darcy.’

‘Mr Darcy?’ It was Anne’s turn to frown as they both pushed away from the window and walked across the room. ‘Is he engaged to the lady?’

Elizabeth laughed as they reached the door. ‘Oh, how I wish! Mr Darcy deserves such a life, for all he has done to ruin others! The machinations of marriage are all too much for me. I shall have none of it.’

Anne opened the door, and Elizabeth looked back along the gallery.

‘You are fortunate to have such a place for when the weather is inclement.’

‘And you would, whatever the elements, prefer to be in the fresh air?’

Elizabeth smiled as she followed Anne down the stairs. ‘We cannot always have what we prefer.’

They had reached the first floor, and Anne paused. ‘Will you excuse me, Lizzy? I wish to take a little rest. My poor night of sleep has made me weary.’

‘Of course. May I return to the small sitting room with a book? You are certain you do not wish for companionship?’

They had reached the door to Anne’s room now, and she turned to face Elizabeth. There was a noticeable calmness about her now. ‘I am quite well. I merely wish to rest. I will join you once I am feeling stronger.’

With that, Elizabeth had to be content, and she hurried to her room to collect the book she was reading before heading down the stairs to the seclusion of the late Lady Elliot’s sanctuary.

Chapter Fifteen

Ten minutes in Sir Walter’s study was sufficient for Darcy to realise why the rumours about the gentleman’s finances were probably true. Such extravagance over one painting, when the estate was failing to direct funds to more important needs, such as keeping the stock in the fields, was blatant mismanagement.

Whether Sir Walter was entirely to blame, with both an accountant and a legal representative to advise him, Darcy knew not, but he was thankful when the painting’s wrapping was restored and escape seemed imminent.

‘If I could have another moment of your time, Sir Walter?’

Shepherd, Sir Walter’s lawyer, was seated before a desk full of papers. Darcy had attempted to close his ears to their conversation on first arriving in the study. Kellynch business was none of his concern.

‘What is it now, Shepherd?’ Sir Walter gestured towards Darcy. ‘I have visitors.’

‘If you would just sign the authorisation for the quarterly payments?’ The lawyer spoke with quiet authority. ‘I shall not trouble you further.’

Turning away as Sir Walter walked over to the desk, Darcy noticed a large table upon which rested an open book. A quick study proved it to be the Baronetage and, unsurprisingly, the pages were opened on ‘Elliot of Kellynch Hall’.

Darcy’s eyes skimmed the entries, his brow rising as he noted the handwritten additions to the printed entries.

‘Ah, I see you are interested in the family lineage, Darcy. Have no fear,’ Sir Walter had come to stand beside Darcy. ‘The family has long been blessed with the baronetcy. Our credentials are exemplary.’

‘It is a fine volume, Sir Walter.’ Darcy pointed at the entry of his youngest daughter’s marriage a year ago. ‘I am surprised to see the annotations. Do they not affect its value?’

‘Done by my own hand. If anyone has the right, then it is I.’ Sir Walter’s pride in himself was blatant. ‘You would be surprised the value of a good annotation.’ He tapped his nose. ‘Needs must and—’

‘Are you well settled at Meadowbrook House, Mr Darcy?’

Surprised by Shepherd’s interruption, Darcy straightened from his study of the book. ‘Yes, quite settled, thank you.’

‘Good, good.’ The lawyer stepped forward and closed the Baronetage. ‘I have much to work on. If you will excuse me?’

Amused, Darcy followed Sir Walter from the room. Had the man just dismissed his employer from his own study?

‘Hmph.’ Sir Walter cleared his throat as they walked back along the corridor. ‘Shepherd is my confidential friend, you understand, of many years standing. His father before him was my advisor when I reached my majority.’

‘You permit him certain liberties, sir.’

Sir Walter raised a brow. ‘When a man knows the intricacies of your personal business, it is well to both keep him close and allow him some perceived authority.’ He gestured towards a corridor to the left. ‘What say you we go in search of Elizabeth, Darcy?’

A smile touched Darcy’s lips, even as his heart clenched again in his breast. He would gladly do so, and it was only as he followed Sir Walter towards the music room that he realised precisely which Elizabeth he had meant. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he at least felt reassured he would relieve his sister from the obligation of Miss Elliot’s sole attention.

Even so, Darcy had hoped to at least see Miss Bennet, engage her in conversation before he left, and he looked around, half expecting his wishes to have manifested her presence.

Strands of music floated through the air as Sir Walter opened the door to the music room. At least Georgiana would be perfectly content at the piano.

The music room was filled with light, so much so, Darcy felt almost blinded by it at first, but as his eyes adjusted, he realised Miss Elliot was alone in the room.

~o0o~

Elizabeth’s book had failed to capture her attention, her mind engrossed by her recent conversation with Anne. Happiness seemed to hold no sway over the lives of women, who seemed powerless to be their own protectors, whether they had a dowry or not.

Frustrated, Elizabeth checked the weather outside. A brisk walk around the gardens was required, and with that in mind, she hurried to collect her stoutest pair of boots and a warm pelisse before emerging from the boot room into the chill of the wintry afternoon.

Striking out along a path cleared of snow, Elizabeth walked for some time, head down and deep in thought, though none were conducive to raising her spirits.

Poor Anne… Elizabeth’s breath mingled with the chilly air to form swirls, drifting away from her. It was true, this intelligence of her captain had been a shock, and a painful one at that, but as Anne herself had owned, her grieving had been done over many years. Her melancholy may never fully loosen its hold, but her immediate distress would be alleviated given a little time to adjust to the news.

Having reached the shrubbery, Elizabeth turned about and surveyed her surroundings. There were few sounds beyond the cawing of some rooks in the bare treetops, and slowly she began to walk back towards the house. As she entered the formal lawned area, however, a movement caught her eye, and she espied a young woman on the terrace.

She waved a hand, recognising Georgiana Darcy, who returned the gesture.

As she reached the terrace, however, Elizabeth became concerned. ‘Miss Darcy, should you be out here?’ She considered the girl’s white complexion as she put a hand to her mouth to conceal a cough.

‘I have been waiting for my brother, but I could not bear’—Georgiana stopped, the hand flying back to her mouth, her eyes widening. ‘Forgive me. I must not speak out of turn.’

‘I did not know you were at Kellynch.’ Curious though Elizabeth was about what Georgiana had been about to say, she was more interested in how she came to be there.

‘My brother’—she cleared her throat—‘Fitz felt obliged to call upon Sir Walter, so I begged him to allow me to come too. I had hoped to see you.’

Elizabeth eyed Georgiana with surprise. ‘Me?’

‘Oh, and Miss Anne Elliot, of course. Only instead I…did not know where to find you.’

Gesturing for them to walk on, Elizabeth fell into step with Georgiana.

‘I cannot condone you being out in this cold weather, Miss Darcy, but as it is not my place to prevent you from doing so, I shall instead keep you company.’

‘Fitz will not be pleased with me, but I could remain no longer in the music room.’ Georgiana shuddered, and Elizabeth frowned.

‘Was the instrument not to your liking?’ Perhaps she was as fastidious in her tastes as Wickham had implied?

‘Oh no! It was exquisite. It is…I was with Miss Elliot.’ Georgiana stopped and turned to face Elizabeth. Her expression conflicted, and colour flooded her cheeks. ‘I know I should not say it, but I do not find her good company.’

Suppressing a laugh, Elizabeth laid a hand gently on Georgiana’s arm as they moved on. ‘She is an acquired taste. We cannot all like each other in the same way. It is human nature and how we are formed. Though I empathise with your desire to escape, I do not think Mr Darcy would wish you to be out for too long.’

‘My brother is protective of me, as he is of those he holds dear. We are but a small family, but Fitz would offer his protection to any of his close friends, or indeed those acquaintances who had need of it.’

Thinking of Wickham, Elizabeth was unimpressed. She liked Georgiana well enough, but she was incredibly naïve. Suddenly struck with a notion, Elizabeth glanced at her.

‘May I ask you a question, Miss Darcy?’

‘Of course?’

‘You are well acquainted with your brother’s intimate friend, Mr Bingley, I assume?’

Georgiana smiled. ‘Indeed. When we are in Town, he is as much in our house as we are. Fitz considers him almost family.’

That was not what Elizabeth wished to hear! They had few steps to go along the terrace before they were back at the door to the boot room. Ought she to ask more? She was being impertinent…

‘Mr Bingley was well liked in Hertfordshire. It is a shame he is said to be giving up the estate.’

‘I was surprised when my brother first told me.’ They had reached the door now and Elizabeth opened it, waiting for Georgiana to precede her into the building. ‘But Fitz takes care of him where he needs it most, and Mr Bingley is most grateful to him for the service.’

Her dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy growing by the minute, Elizabeth did not respond, hanging her pelisse on the coat stand and sitting down to unlace her boots. The sooner the man was gone from the Hall, the better. Then, she frowned.

‘What service?’

The words were out before Elizabeth could think about the appropriateness of them, but Georgiana Darcy was busy hanging up her own pelisse and continued to chatter, unwittingly revealing her brother’s hand in the separation of his friend from a most unsuitable young lady in Hertfordshire.

~o0o~

‘Damnit!’

Pacing was no aid to Darcy, despite the lateness of the hour. Unable to settle, unwilling to make any attempt at sleeping, he glared at the embers in the hearth, scowled at his reflection every time he passed the looking glass and glowered at the undisturbed bed as though his present unrest was down to them and them alone.

Now, a good half hour after dismissing his rather peeved valet, assuring him that he was quite capable of preparing himself for bed for once, Darcy remained wide awake, his mind in more turmoil than ever.

He strode over to the window of his chamber and stared out into the all-consuming darkness. A crescent of the waning moon stood as a slender sentinel in the sky—just as motionless as Darcy. If his line of sight had been clear of trees, and it was not the dead of night, he might be able to see straight to Kellynch Hall. Did Elizabeth’s room face in this direction? Was she, too, awake and unable to settle? Did she think of him?

Resuming his pacing, Darcy’s expression became thoughtful. His sister had long since retired, her delight in her first visit to the Hall down purely to time spent in Elizabeth’s company.

A sudden image flashed through his mind, Elizabeth’s fine eyes meeting his across the music room as she entered, his sister in tow. He could not recall what he had said. Miss Elliot had been talking to him, but his interest was all with Elizabeth.

Darcy frowned. She had not seemed her usual serene self, and her terse response when he had enquired after Miss Anne Elliot confounded him. Was it because her friend was unwell? If it were to be a lengthy indisposition, would Elizabeth’s time be wholly consumed by attending the lady?

It was Elizabeth’s way to care for others. Had Darcy not seen it for himself when she nursed Jane Bennet through her illness at Netherfield? He had seen it too in the way she had spoken so kindly to Georgiana when first they met, and earlier…

Walking to the looking glass, he took in his conflicted air. How could Elizabeth have such a hold on the Darcys? He was bewitched; there was no other word for it. Entranced by her, unable to pull his gaze away.

Georgiana had blossomed under Elizabeth’s attention as she encouraged her to play a duet. When had Darcy last seen such animation in his sister’s face, such rapt attention upon anything, even her music? The sound of her laughter had been a delight, and he had smiled gratefully at Elizabeth.

Was her assessing stare borne of a growing interest in him? Darcy had yet to fathom the intricacies of Elizabeth’s mind, but she must have detected it, for he was becoming powerless to conceal it.

Darcy prowled over to the window again, staring once more in the direction of the Hall. How could any woman affect him so? Elizabeth could not possibly understand the impact she had upon him; he could scarce account for it himself.

What was it he had said? A stammered compliment about the music, and, because he was eaten up with longing to take a seat beside Elizabeth, to have her notice upon him and him alone, Darcy had done the opposite. He had held out his hand for his sister and, he hoped, made a civil retreat from the room and the house.

Consumed by emotions he knew not how to harness, Darcy turned around and leant against the sill. He had known the danger, back in Hertfordshire, not only of paying Elizabeth too much attention, but of wanting more from the lady than a gentleman of his standing should consider or permit. Now he fully comprehended the truth he had battled to suppress. Denial was futile.

Reaching up to unfasten his neck cloth, a faint smile touched Darcy’s lips. The battle with himself was over; the war had been won.

Darcy’s heart was already Elizabeth’s and, God help him, he was going to marry her.

~o0o~

Pacing to and fro in her room, Elizabeth was thankful Anne had decided to retire early, though relieved her friend had seemed more herself. She had chosen not to relate her conversation with Georgiana, for Anne was sufficiently burdened with her own concerns.

Georgiana Darcy’s naiveté could easily be put down to her inexperience in the world, and the cosseted way she had likely been raised…

Stopping in the middle of the room, Elizabeth drew in a short breath. Yes, she wished to blame Mr Darcy for the entirety, even his own sister’s gaucheness at times, but honesty forced her to acknowledge that over-protectiveness surely had more merit than the lethargic approach of her father towards his daughters.

Elizabeth dropped onto her bed. She had placed the blame for Bingley’s desertion with his sisters—Miss Bingley in particular—though she had not been blind to Mr Darcy’s disparaging opinion of her family. Aside from anything he might have said, it was blatant upon his face, tangible in his air when any of the Bennet family was within close proximity.

To learn from Miss Darcy he had been instrumental in removing his friend from the district and advising him not to return had been galling and infuriating. The girl seemed little troubled by it. If she had any affection for Mr Bingley, it clearly did not distress her to know he had paid attention to another.

‘Poor Miss Darcy.’ Despite herself, Elizabeth could not help but smile a little at the recollection of Georgiana’s face as she realised whatever she was saying was affecting Elizabeth.

It had taken a lot of reassurance, and Elizabeth’s best endeavours, as they walked through the hall, to not blame the bearer of such intelligence, before Georgiana could be reassured no harm had been done.

‘No harm?’ muttered Elizabeth, getting to her feet as agitation returned in full measure. ‘What lies we speak to save the innocent.’

Well, she had done her utmost to make the girl easy, had accompanied her back to the music room only to find him there already. Oh, how proud her parents would have been at the restraint Elizabeth held over her feelings upon entering the room.

As for Mr Darcy…

The door to the servants’ staircase opened and Lottie entered with a pitcher of hot water.

‘Oh! Are you ready, miss?’

‘As ready as I shall ever be, Lottie.’

The morrow was another day, and if chance favoured her, Elizabeth would not see Mr Darcy until she had herself under better regulation.

Chapter Sixteen

Darcy had never had such fastidious care taken with his appearance. Raworth—though he knew not his master’s intentions—had seemed to think it more than adequate recompense for his master having no use of his services the previous evening, and fussed around him, knotting his neckcloth three times before he was satisfied and insisting—with due deference—the green stripe waistcoat suited his master best.

Darcy had hurried down the stairs on pure adrenaline, belying the sleepless night he had passed as he tossed and turned, fighting the voice of reason, of duty, whenever it made itself known.

He was going against all his principles, taking a woman of inferior birth, no fortune, no connections, for his wife. There would be family obstacles to overcome; Darcy would invoke their displeasure by connecting himself to someone whose relations and condition in life were so decidedly beneath his own. Even his own parents would have railed against a match with Elizabeth.

‘Then it is a blessing they are at rest,’ he mused as a footman assisted him into his great coat. The gratification of having Elizabeth as his wife overruled all sense, all reason. His heart would win out, beyond any rational argument Darcy’s conscience could summon.

‘Brother? Where are you going?’ Georgiana had emerged from the drawing room, a book in her hand.

‘Up to the Hall.’

She walked over to him, then frowned. ‘Is anything amiss?’

Darcy, who was committing his speech to Elizabeth to memory, did not respond, so Georgiana tugged at his sleeve as he held out a hand for his gloves.

‘What is it?’ He had not meant to speak so sharply and colour flooded her cheeks. ‘Georgie.’ Contrite now, Darcy waved away the footman and took her hands in his. ‘Forgive me, dearest. I have a matter of some import on my mind.’

Georgiana went into his open arms and he held her close, then dropped a kiss on top of her head.

‘And it will be resolved by your visit?’

Darcy smiled, though she could not see it. ‘Most indubitably.’

‘Then you will return in better humour, Fitz?’ Her voice was somewhat muffled by his coat, but Darcy’s heart swelled with the joy he soon anticipated. The family in general may not approve, but Georgiana would, and hers was the only opinion he cared for.

He set her away from him. ‘I shall. And I hope to bring news.’

Her face brightened. ‘What sort of news, Brother?’

Darcy laughed and tapped her lightly on the nose. ‘Later, Georgie.’ He checked his watch. ‘I must leave directly.’

~o0o~

‘You seem a little better this morning, Anne.’

Elizabeth followed her friend into the small sitting room they had taken as their own.

‘I did sleep for a time.’ Anne walked over to the writing desk against the far wall. ‘I am sorry your night was disturbed, though.’ She placed a bottle of ink into one of the compartments and turned to face Elizabeth. ‘Will you not tell me why?’

Knowing how riled she would become if she began, Elizabeth shook her head. ‘Pay me no mind, Anne. Now, I am curious. I was most taken with this painting the other day. Do tell me about it.’

She gestured towards the portrait hanging above the mantel, and they both walked over to stand before it.

‘This is my mother.’ Anne pointed to the young lady seated in a chair, a baby in her arms. Resting a hand lightly on the figure, she trailed a finger down the canvas to rest upon the baby. ‘And this is Mary.’

‘It is beautifully rendered.’ Elizabeth turned to her friend. ‘And the little girl nestled upon the gentleman’s lap? She appears perfectly content.’

‘She was.’ Anne’s gaze had fallen upon the small figure. ‘I was all of four years of age and despite appearances, apparently I fidgeted a great deal!’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘Who is the gentleman? You were vastly at ease in his embrace.’

Anne’s face softened. ‘Grandpapa James. My mother’s father. We were extremely close.’ Her air crumpled, and Elizabeth took her hand.

‘I am sorry if my inquisitiveness has brought you pain.’

‘It has not.’ Anne squeezed Elizabeth’s hand gently. ‘I miss them both so much. Grandpapa only survived my mother by a year. He was devastated by her death.’ She raised her fingers, placing a kiss upon them before touching her mother’s cheek and then her grandfather’s. ‘Mama used to take Mary and I to visit Grandpapa often.’

Elizabeth frowned. ‘What of Miss Elliot?’

‘My eldest sister preferred to remain here with Father.’

A tap came on the door, followed by the appearance of the housekeeper bearing a salver.

‘The post has arrived, Miss Anne.’

Anne took up the letters as the housekeeper hurried from the room.

‘There is one for you, Lizzy.’

‘Oh, it is from Jane.’ Elizabeth broke the seal and began to read, sinking onto a chaise beside the hearth, but within seconds, her hand dropped into her lap and her fingers clenched as she struggled not to screw the letter up and hurl it at the glowing fire.

‘What is it?’ Anne came to sit beside Elizabeth, who released a frustrated breath.

‘Mr Collins has returned a week ahead of himself, but that is not the worst of it. Here.’ Elizabeth handed the letter at Anne. ‘Read the first paragraph, and you shall see.’

Anne did as she was bid, then handed the letter back. ‘So, Miss Bennet has capitulated. I am grieved for you, Lizzy.’

‘I truly thought Jane would come to view the scheme as nonsensical.’ Elizabeth leapt up, though uncertain of her purpose. She took a few steps, turned on her heel, and walked back before sinking onto the chaise beside Anne again. ‘How rude of Mr Collins, to return unannounced to press her for an answer? This is Lady Catherine’s doing, I am certain. He will heed no one’s advice but hers. A curse on that family! I wish they had never been born—any of them.’

‘Lizzy,’ Anne cautioned.

Elizabeth laughed but without humour. ‘Mr Darcy will not overhear me from here, Anne, though more is the pity.’

‘Read the letter fully, Lizzy. See what your sister has to say on the matter.’

Elizabeth took the letter and tried to focus on Jane’s words, striving to suppress her growing despair.

Her sister was resigned, as she had expected her to be, and Elizabeth’s spirits lowered. Much as she had not condoned Jane’s decision to do her duty, as she saw it, to detect her slow awakening to the permanence of her situation was heart-breaking. Damn Mr Bingley for deserting her, and damn Mr Darcy for his influence upon his friend.

‘A letter from Caroline Bingley arrived, putting an end to all doubt. Her brother is settled in London for the winter with no view of returning to Hertfordshire for many months, if at all. The remainder of Miss Bingley’s letter—the chief of it—was given over to praise of Miss Darcy and the anticipated union with her brother.’ Elizabeth was touched by the compassion in Anne’s face. ‘At least my father is insisting upon an engagement of no less than three months. Jane claims her acceptance to be the only logical response, but I cannot condone it. I feel as though I have lost my dearest sister.’

‘Oh, Lizzy. I am so sorry, both for you and for Jane.’

Elizabeth stood again. ‘Will you excuse me, Anne?’ She gestured towards the window. ‘I do not wish to desert you, but I fear if I do not walk off my temper, it will consume me. I am so…I am so angry with that man.’

Anne bit her lip. ‘Is it wise to lay all the blame at Mr Darcy’s feet, Lizzy? It seems Mr Bingley’s family were equally instrumental in separating them?’

Elizabeth knew what they were both also thinking. Jane had put herself in this situation, even if it was a direct result of Mr Bingley’s desertion.

Frustrated and saddened, Elizabeth almost wrung her hands. ‘None of this would have happened if persuasion had not been brought to bear upon Mr Bingley.’

‘Go for a walk, Lizzy. Shed your vexation in the garden.’

‘I am doing you a disservice. I promised you company.’

Anne stood up. ‘Come and find me when you are refreshed. I shall repair to the music room for a while.’

Elizabeth followed her friend out of the room, and they parted at the foot of the stairs.

Anne, of course, did not know of Mr Darcy’s treatment of Mr Wickham. Her mind full of the gentleman’s transgressions, Elizabeth headed for the boot room. Hopefully, Anne’s advice to take the air would adequately calm her agitation, and if Fate was kind, she would return to the house in better spirits and more able to support her friend.

~o0o~

Relishing the crisp wintry morning, Darcy inhaled deeply. He could not stop smiling as he strode down the lane, oblivious to the crunch of snow beneath his boots or the chill wind all but freezing the tips of his ears. Elizabeth would be astonished, of course. For all he had shown her attention, she could not expect an honour such as this!

Darcy felt invigorated, the smile on his face widening as he rounded the corner and approached the gates to Kellynch Hall. All he needed to do was choose the right words, and then, when Elizabeth’s intelligent eyes fixed upon his, her attention fully on him in a way it had never been before, he would not lose the power of coherent thought.

Eying the building’s facade as he walked along the driveway, Darcy’s confidence faltered somewhat. He had not even considered the practicalities! How the devil was he to find a moment alone with Elizabeth? She was constantly at her friend’s side, and even if he found them all in the drawing room, extracting Elizabeth from the room would be nigh on impossible, for what credible reason could he give? What if Miss Anne Elliot was still indisposed and Elizabeth attended to her?

The Fates, however, seemed to be in his corner. As Darcy neared the house, a movement caught his eye, and he espied Elizabeth—alone—walking away from him on the terrace bordering the west wing.

Darcy moved forward, trying to recall his carefully rehearsed speech, insensible to the frozen ground beneath his feet.

‘Collect yourself, man,’ he muttered. ‘You are asking the lady for her hand. It is hardly difficult…just consider all you wish to explain.’ To Darcy’s consternation, this merely brought the entirety of his arguments against the match tumbling into his head.

‘Enough,’ he cautioned himself. ‘You have made your choice. Just decide where to start. The rest will follow.’

Tell her you love her, you dunderhead.

 Though the colonel knew not of Darcy’s intentions, he could hear his cousin’s voice as clearly as though he stood before him.

Yes, Cousin. That is precisely where I shall begin.

Elizabeth would be so gratified, and all he wished to say—of his struggle, of all he was sacrificing for her, of the obligations overcome with such difficulty—would follow quite easily, for his feelings were natural and just in the circumstances.

‘Just breathe,’ Darcy intoned quietly as he reached the terrace. Adrenaline was rushing through him again, filling his ears with noise…

‘Mr Darcy!’

His startled gaze met that of Elizabeth Bennet’s. She had turned about and fetched up short in front of him.

‘Elizabeth!’

Her name fell involuntarily from his lips, but the lady seemed decidedly out of countenance. Darcy stared at her, entranced by the pretty picture she made; then, he recalled himself.

‘Forgive me. Miss Bennet.’

Heat permeated his skin despite the cold.

Speak, you simpleton! Seize the moment!

‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to—’

Must I, Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth’s expression was not encouraging. ‘Well, I must choose not to listen. If you will excuse me, sir.’ She gestured with her hand. ‘I wish to continue my walk.’

Her tone was uncompromising, and Darcy frowned. Had he so affronted her with merely the slip of address? He could hardly help it; it was how he had thought of her for weeks now.

‘Forgive me, ma’am. I meant no offence and certainly had no intention of treating you with any less respect than you deserve.’

Elizabeth raised a brow. ‘Truly, sir? I am curious to learn what level of respect that might be?’

Darcy drew in a short breath. ‘The fullest respect, ma’am. Without question.’ He ran a hand through his hair. Lord, it was more difficult than he had imagined.

‘I repeat, forgive me, Miss Bennet, for such a slip. I should have been more circumspect.’

A sound escaped the lady. ‘How singular of you to own it.’

Darcy winced. ‘I have made my share of mistakes, like any man.’

Elizabeth laughed, but he sensed she was not amused. ‘How…astonishing.’ She looked around. ‘And how unfortunate I am the only audience for this incredible show of humility.’

Something was definitely wrong. Darcy’s perplexed eyes met Elizabeth’s as she returned her attention to him.

‘Have I committed some particular transgression today, Miss Bennet?’

‘Today, Mr Darcy? Not particularly.’

Darcy released a relieved breath. ‘Then—’

‘Your offences, sir, extend far beyond today.’

He almost rolled his eyes as Elizabeth skipped around him and moved towards the house. Surely she was not going to repeat her defence of Wickham from the ball? Then, he frowned.

‘Offences?’ He set off in pursuit.

Elizabeth raised her chin as he fell into step beside her, fixing him with her intelligent eyes. How he wished to lose himself in them and—

‘You are so consumed with your own consequence, you cannot see worth in anyone not fortunate enough to have your background and upbringing. You may have been raised with good principles’—Elizabeth’s agitation was blatant. She did not sound as if she believed it—‘but you seem to follow them in pride and conceit.’

She headed for a nearby door, then stopped so abruptly, he almost ran into her.

‘You are made of the same ilk as Sir Walter and Miss Elliot. Judgemental, supercilious, and filled with arrogance.’

This was her opinion of him?

‘You would tar me with the same brush?’

‘No, you are right. I should not.’

Darcy’s relief was fleeting.

‘Sir Walter and his daughter have slighted me inconsequentially. I find their contempt diverting. You, sir, on the other hand, have brought permanent harm upon people I care for—far greater offences and ones I find no humour in.’

Cut to the quick by this affirmation of her continued interest in Wickham, Darcy drew himself to his full height.

‘I will not discuss Wickham’s false claims.’

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed. ‘His misfortunes are of your infliction. An offence, to be certain, but not what most angers me against you. That is the ruin of my sister’s happiness by your hand. Your obsession with wealth and consequence should not be imposed upon others, nor should your influence be brought to bear to deny someone the chance of making a marriage of affection.’

Darcy suddenly felt on a surer footing. After all, he had done Miss Jane Bennet a service. ‘I do not deny I was instrumental in separating my friend from your sister. Miss Bennet has much to recommend her—’

‘But not fortune or connections.’

With frustration, Darcy shook his head.

‘Your sister’s air was calm, and her manners towards my friend were cheerful and engaging, but I detected no symptom of particular regard, merely a dutiful daughter following a mother’s objective. I observed your sister closely, and Miss Bennet received Bingley’s attentions with pleasure but did not return them. I acted only to protect him from—’

Protect him?’ Elizabeth was shaking. ‘Please do finish your sentence, sir. Your friend needed protection from what, exactly? And what of my sister and the protection of her heart? Does Mr Bingley make a habit of paying his attentions to young ladies when he is expected to please his family and friends by marrying your sister?’

Darcy frowned. ‘What has Georgiana to do with this?’

Elizabeth ignored the question. ‘I hope they are happy together because I like Miss Darcy. My concern is not with your sister, sir, it is with mine and her current circumstances. A dreadful situation for which I hold you wholly responsible!’

Darcy was thoroughly confused, the ache in his breast intensifying at the words falling from Elizabeth’s lips. What the devil had happened to his intentions for today?

‘I have not the pleasure of understanding you.’

‘My father’s estate, as well you know, is entailed upon my cousin, Mr Collins. Jane has, in the light of Mr Bingley’s defection and her subsequent broken heart, succumbed to persuasion and agreed to marry this cousin.’

Broken heart? His was the heart that was breaking.

Elizabeth grasped the door handle, then turned around. ‘For dear, sweet Jane to have agreed to such an attachment is unbearable.’ She glared at Darcy. ‘I have no doubt you will see the fruits of your labour in person when next you call upon your aunt, for the engagement is to last until the spring, after which my sister will be shackled to the Reverend Collins for eternity. Your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others has brought Jane to this.’

Darcy’s head was reeling; his hopes and dreams collapsing around him. Almost in a trance, he stepped forward to stand beside Elizabeth, who held her ground, glaring at him from the fine eyes he had so long admired.

How could he turn this around, speak words that would diffuse the situation?

The silence between them swelled; then, Elizabeth pushed open the door.

‘If you will excuse me, sir. I find the air out here quite disagreeable.’

Drawing on every reserve as Elizabeth disappeared inside the building, Darcy turned his back on it. How could this have gone so disastrously wrong? The ache in his breast he tried to ignore; pain and disappointment would overcome him later, but not now. His head was reeling with the relentless words that had fallen from Elizabeth’s lips and…

The click of the latch as the door opened, roused him. She had come back! He swung around, hope filling him.

‘Elizabeth! I must explain my—’

He broke off as Miss Elliot fluttered her lashes.

‘Mr Darcy.’ She smiled coyly. ‘You are a little familiar, but it confirms my hopes. What is it you wish to say to me?’

What?

‘No! Forgive me, madam. I meant…’ Involuntarily, Darcy’s gaze drifted beyond the lady into the house, and the expectant smile was wiped from Miss Elliot’s face.

‘Miss Bennet appeared to be in rather a hurry just now.’

Darcy had no reply to this. After all, what was there to say?

‘If you will excuse me, ma’am.’ He bowed and turned on his heel, walking rapidly back towards the front of the house, desperate to put distance between himself and the debacle of his altercation with Elizabeth.

Chapter Seventeen

Elizabeth’s emotions were high as she raced through the house, hurrying as quickly as decorum permitted along the corridor to the great hall, where she stopped and drew in a shuddering breath.

How could she have done that? Colour rushed into her face and she put a hand to her cheek.

Because Mr Darcy deserved it. 

All the same, he was Lady Catherine de Burgh’s nephew. Did he not have the power to make Jane’s life even more intolerable? Elizabeth shook her head. How could it possibly become more so? Would it be wise to remain at Kellynch? Her being there had always felt somewhat tenuous, but now she had insulted Mr Darcy in every possible way, perhaps his influence would be brought to bear upon her?

A door slammed somewhere in the distance, and Elizabeth hastened her steps, desperate for the sanctuary of her room.

~o0o~

By the time Darcy reached Meadowbrook House, his head was pounding, and he took refuge in his study, closing the door behind him with a resounding thud.

Then, he stood stock-still, the rigidity of his frame belying the incessant thoughts spinning around in his head. What, in the name of the devil, had just happened?

Be calm, Darcy cautioned himself, but the rapid pounding of his heart and the raw anger filling his being fought against him. How could the world present itself the same as when he had left earlier, determined, fired up by his decision, and excited almost in his anticipation of claiming Elizabeth as his own? Elizabeth

Darcy almost shied away from the name. Miss Bennet, possessor of his mind, his senses and finally his heart. For weeks now, the woman had filled his thoughts…but he must think of her no more.

The clock on the mantel chimed, and a momentary anguish gripped Darcy, sweeping aside the anger and disbelief that had carried him back to the house. Had all this taken place in so little time? Far from realising his dreams, the past hour had unfolded into a nightmare of wretched proportions.

He had no desire to see Elizabeth again, wished he had never come to Somersetshire. Why had they not gone further south?

Then, a flare of frustration shot through him as Darcy recalled her championship of Wickham and her defence of her sister’s feelings. The lady was quite liberal with her affections where she chose to bestow them. Her fondness for Miss Anne Elliot was also obvious, even under such short acquaintance. Darcy seethed in silence. The lady had no feelings for him other than hatred and disgust.

He did not wish to dwell upon what his own feelings had been; they must be forgotten. Elizabeth Bennet did not deserve such honourable sentiments, and certainly not from a gentleman of his consequence…

Yes, he was a gentleman, of excellent character, family, and social standing, and acknowledged by all for his integrity and honesty. How could the lady question his character? How dare she?

Darcy’s throat felt tight, and he tugged at his neckcloth, unable to shut out Elizabeth’s voice.

‘Your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others…’

Ridiculous! Unfounded, totally erroneous accusations and, what is more, a slur on his honour! His conduct was never questioned—–never! What did she comprehend of his worth?

Darcy leaned back against the door; his heart clenched so tightly in his chest he could scarce draw breath. The unspoken proposal and her harsh words smouldered in his gut.

What a damnable day this was!

~o0o~

Elizabeth cooled her face with a damp cloth as she took herself to task. Her anger had all but dispersed but she felt out of sorts from a combination of embarrassment at having spoken so candidly and frustration that the gentleman seemed to have no interest in the consequences of his past transgressions.. Her head felt almost too full for coherent thought, but as she noted the chimes of the nearby church bell, she left her chamber, intent on seeking out Anne before she wondered what had become of her.

Notes from the pianoforte drifted towards Elizabeth as she approached the music room, and slipping inside, she allowed them to wash over her, desperate to soothe her frayed spirits.

‘You are out of countenance. What has happened?’

Elizabeth walked slowly across the room as Anne lifted her hands from the keys. What could she say?

‘Lizzy?’

‘My taking the air did not deliver the hoped for remedy.’

‘You seem flustered. Whatever is the matter?’ Anne rose from the stool with a concerned air.

‘It is nothing.’ Elizabeth tried to push aside a tumult of feelings. Had she not vowed to support her friend? ‘I am perfectly well. Shall we find somewhere to sit and talk? You can tell me more of your captain if you wish.’

‘I think it best you tell me more of what has happened to you. Sit with me.’

They settled into the window seat, and Elizabeth strove to push away her anxieties , but Anne’s need of her only emphasised her sense of culpability.

‘Tell me what it is.’ Anne shifted in her seat to face her friend, and Elizabeth pulled a face.

‘I had an…argument with him.’

Anne blinked. ‘With whom?’

‘Mr Darcy. I—I told him what I think of him.’ The words tumbled out in a rush.

‘He was here at Kellynch? I wonder what his purpose might have been?’

Elizabeth could not care less. ‘He materialised on the terrace, just as I was going over in my head all Jane had written in her letter. It was not the most fortuitous timing.’

‘Oh dear.’ Anne bit back on a smile. ‘Forgive me, dear Lizzy. I can sense you are uncomfortable enough.’

‘I am, though the man does not deserve it. Mr Darcy’s scorn for the feelings of others has long raised my ire.’ Elizabeth waved a hand. ‘He has done a cruel disservice to a…friend, and coupled with Jane’s latest news, my indignation overruled my sense, and out it all came.’ It sounded so childish when said aloud.

Anne patted Elizabeth’s arm soothingly. ‘All, as in your sister’s situation and your belief his influence upon his friend was a factor?’

Elizabeth nodded. ‘He owned his actions with pride and conceit, but he is angry with me, and I cannot say it is completely unwarranted.’

There was silence for a moment; then, Anne sent Elizabeth a searching look.

‘What set you off in the first place, Lizzy?’

With a huff of breath, Elizabeth got to her feet. ‘I felt goaded. He had the gall to claim I must allow him to—’

‘To what?’ Anne was frowning, and agitated, Elizabeth walked over to the hearth, then spun around.

‘I have no idea. I interrupted him. I tried to walk away, to leave.’ She threw Anne a pleading look as she paced back across the room. ‘I promise, I did, but…’ Stopping abruptly, Elizabeth stared at Anne. A vivid recollection of Mr Darcy’s expression, of the unfathomable look in his eyes—one she had no familiarity with—assailed her, as did the words: “My feelings will not be repressed.”

What feelings? What on earth had he been about to say?

‘Lizzy?’ Anne rose to stand before her. ‘What is it?’

Unhappy with indulging her curiosity, Elizabeth summoned a smile. She would not spare Mr Darcy any further notice.

‘Nothing. Shall we indulge in some music? I believe I was charged with the duty of teaching you a duet!’

~o0o~

The remainder of the day passed in a blur, and Darcy kept to his study for much of it, knowing his sister was occupied with Mrs Annesley, but before long the evening had descended. Staring out of the drawing room window into the blackness, Darcy strove to keep Elizabeth from his thoughts. His earlier burst of anger towards her had abated, replaced with a despair he feared would never leave him.

‘Brother?’ Georgiana appeared in the doorway and crossed to stand before him. ‘Is anything wrong? You are quite strained.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘Pay me no mind, my dear. It has been a rather trying day, that is all.

Judgemental, supercilious, and filled with arrogance…’

Darcy winced as Elizabeth’s angry face appeared before him again. Was there some truth in her accusations?

He almost jumped as Georgiana took his hand and kissed it.

‘Your face is dark as night. What is the good news you were to share on your return?’

The irony was galling.

‘I am afraid I was mistaken. I have no good news to impart. Come. It is time we went in for dinner.’

The food would taste like ashes, but he had to maintain a pretence of normalcy for Georgiana, even as his world was in tatters.

~o0o~

It was not until his sister retired for the night that Darcy could finally release the tight rein he held upon his thoughts.

Dismissing his valet, Darcy roamed his chamber like a caged beast, then dropped into an armchair near the hearth. For a while, he stared into the flames, but then his frame sagged, and his head dropped into his hands.

Elizabeth’s dislike and her damning of his character were galling enough, but nothing to the devastation coursing through him at the loss of all his recent hopes and dreams.

Darcy leaned back in his seat, then pressed a palm against his pounding forehead. How foolish of him to assume Wickham’s tales would antagonise her more than his influence over Bingley.

Sitting up, Darcy narrowed his eyes. Elizabeth had been fierce in her claim of his being mistaken. Could he have erred? Had the lady’s affections truly been engaged?

No! He had made certain to observe Miss Bennet closely and had thus done both the lady and his friend a great service. How could Elizabeth doubt his good intentions?

Darcy’s brow furrowed. And what had been her meaning regarding Georgiana and Bingley?

Getting wearily to his feet, Darcy loosened his neckcloth and unbuttoned his waistcoat. How he was to seek repose, he knew not. And how was he to behave when next he saw her? Elizabeth’s departure for Hertfordshire could not come soon enough.

You deceive yourself.

It was a truth Darcy owned as he removed his shirt and tossed it onto a chair. The thought of never laying eyes upon Elizabeth Bennet again brought little consolation to his bruised heart.

~o0o~

More snow fell overnight, and Darcy—who had escaped to his study as soon as breakfast was over, Georgiana having gone on a short walk with Mrs Annesley—viewed the day stretching before him with dissatisfaction. How interminable did time seem now? With little effort at resistance, his thoughts swept along the lane to Kellynch.

What might Elizabeth be doing? Did she spare a thought for him at all?

You are ridiculous, Darcy. Why would the lady think of you? Has she not made her view of your person, your character, plain?

Darcy dropped his pen onto the blotter and got impatiently to his feet. Though his anger had indeed been of short duration, he had no doubt the pain and disappointment would linger. The only saving grace—one he had been haunted by through the long night—was the certainty Elizabeth would have refused him, had he been permitted to speak. How thankful was he that the words had never fallen from his lips.

Rejection! A notion so alien to all Darcy had been raised to expect, he simply could not comprehend it.

A tap on the door heralded Mrs Reynolds, who placed the salver of post on his desk.

‘A note has come from the Hall, sir. The boy did not wait for a reply.’ She pointed to the folded paper on top of the pile. ‘Shall I send in more tea?’

Darcy examined the note, before raising his eyes to his housekeeper.

‘No, thank you. I shall be going out directly.’

~o0o~

Anne and Elizabeth had taken to the long gallery again after breaking their fast, the cold wind convincing them to remain indoors.

Although Elizabeth’s dissatisfaction with Mr Darcy had not abated in its entirety, Anne’s soothing voice and calm demeanour worked upon her vexation much as Jane’s was wont to do.

‘You are good for me, Anne.’ Elizabeth smiled warmly at her friend. ‘I will do as you suggest and ask my aunt if Jane can visit them for a few days before they travel to Longbourn for the Christmas season. Thankfully, Mr Collins can ill be spared from his parish at this time of year, so his stay is of short duration. Distance and Aunt Gardiner’s good sense may prevail upon Jane yet, though I fear it is all too late.’ Elizabeth sighed. ‘I have been selfish, indulging my own low spirits with little regard for yours. You said you still had trouble sleeping.’

‘I am a little weary. It is not a new sensation, to have Frederick in mind. Only now, it is intensified, as though our parting has happened all over again.’

‘Do you’—Elizabeth hesitated, welcoming the change of subject from her own obsessive thoughts—‘Were you fortunate enough to have a likeness of him?’

Anne shook her head as they turned their steps back along the gallery. ‘It was promised, but we were parted before he could have one done.’ She was staring ahead, and Elizabeth suspected her mind was years away. ‘After he left, I was glad I had no permanent reminder. I did not feel I warranted the consolation, so badly did I feel my guilt for being persuaded away from him. I thought perhaps I might forget him, or at least his features, over time. With no miniature to savour, and few letters…’ She sighed. ‘We were only parted once, for but a few days, during the short months of our acquaintance, so any correspondence was of a trifling nature.’

‘You cherish it, all the same?’

‘Our course. Yet’—there was a tremor in Anne’s voice—‘I can see him as clearly in my mind’s eye today as I could then. I am comforted by it, that he has not become some faceless memory, but it pains me also.’

Elizabeth put an arm around Anne. ‘Let us go to the small sitting room. Perhaps your cook, Mrs Howard, will prepare us a hot toddy, and you shall talk to your heart’s content about your captain.’

~o0o~

Darcy had no idea what the matter of business was that had persuaded Sir Walter Elliot to request he call on him at his earliest convenience, but it at least provided him with a purpose. The fact it meant walking up to the Hall was hardly conducive to peace of mind, however, for each step reminded him of the walk there on the previous day and how high Darcy’s expectations had been, not only of bringing his plans to fruition, but also the happiness it would have brought, both to him and Elizabeth.

Disgusted with himself for indulging in such false hopes, Darcy swiped at the snow-capped verges with his cane, lost in his thoughts until he registered the sound of a conveyance making its sedentary way along the lane, the clip clop of the horses’ hooves, and the rumbling of the carriage wheels muffled by the cushion of snow. He stepped up onto the verge, lifting his hat at the gentleman peering out of the window, but the carriage slowed to a halt as the driver turned in his seat.

‘Begging your pardon, sir. Be this the direction for Kellynch Hall? The road markers are all but unreadable.’

Darcy replaced his hat and pointed ahead. ‘Around this corner, then a little further on. You will see the gates on your left.’

The driver urged the horses onward, and Darcy continued his preoccupied march along the lane. If Sir Walter had an unexpected caller, then perhaps he could escape his own meeting?

His desire to avoid seeing Elizabeth wavered as the tight band across his breast tightened. How could he not wish to lay eyes upon her? Harsh though her words had been, they could not extinguish his ardent love for her so easily.

Fetching up at the gates to the long driveway, Darcy noted the carriage pulling up in front of the house. Whatever this business of Sir Walter’s was, it could be of little importance. He would allow the stranger to enter, then Darcy would present his card and indicate his return the following day.

~o0o~

‘I am merely using you as a distraction, you understand.’ Elizabeth smirked as she and Anne made their way down the stairs. ‘I wish to spare no further thought for Mr Darcy today. Instead, I shall learn all about Captain Wentworth from one who knew him best.’

‘And loved him best.’

Elizabeth took Anne’s arm fondly as they walked along the corridor. ‘And that too.’

They were but a few steps from the great hall when raised voices drifted towards them.

Anne and Elizabeth exchanged a look.

‘That is Mr Darcy’s voice.’ Elizabeth’s irritation returned. What was his obsession with being at Kellynch Hall?

‘I will not have it. He cannot come here.’ Sir Walter sounded angry.

‘Sir, where would you have me take him?’ A stranger’s voice this time. ‘He has spoken but two words and one of them was Kellynch.’

There was silence for a second, and Elizabeth frowned at Anne. ‘Should we find another way?’

Anne shook her head. ‘My father is in a temper. He will likely not register us passing.’

They rounded the corner into the great hall, and Elizabeth followed Anne as she skirted past the three men in the centre of the room: Sir Walter, red-faced and indignant, a stranger who was equally red-faced, and Mr Darcy, whom Elizabeth pointedly ignored.

‘Let it be understood! No sailor will cross my threshold, least of all one called Wentworth.’

Chapter Eighteen

Elizabeth turned to stare at Anne, whose shoulders had stiffened. What strangeness was this?

‘Wentworth?’ Anne spoke faintly, and Elizabeth put a supporting hand under her friend’s elbow as she walked unsteadily towards the men.

‘Did you say Wentworth?’ Anne’s voice hitched, but the stranger looked over with relief.

‘Yes, ma’am. A Captain Wentworth. Badly injured, pulled from the ice-cold sea.’

‘Then he is alive.’ Anne wilted against Elizabeth, who put both arms around her and held tight. Involuntarily, her gaze flew to Mr Darcy, but he seemed as bewildered as she.

‘Sir’—the stranger had turned back to Sir Walter—‘I beg of you, as an emissary of the Navy, give the man shelter and a fighting chance. His injury may well do for him, but at least let him die in peace, not on the road.’

‘If he is to die, then so be it. He is no loss to me.’

A whimper came from Anne. ‘Where is he?’ She spoke so distantly, only Elizabeth heard her, or so she thought, but Mr Darcy turned his head suddenly, taking in Anne’s distressed state, before turning back to the stranger.

‘Take him to Meadowbrook House. It is but a mile back down the lane.’ He turned to Sir Walter. ‘You will not object, sir.’ It was not a request, but the gentleman’s colour deepened, and he began a spluttering protest.

Mr Darcy, however, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, ignored him, turning instead to the newcomer. ‘There is no fever?’

The man shook his head. ‘Captain Wentworth suffered no open wounds but took a severe blow to his head. He was pulled aboard another ship, along with a handful of survivors. At first, he drifted in and out of consciousness, which permitted the intake of some fluids, but the captain has not roused once since before the journey here commenced, and if he remains insensible, he will fade rapidly.’

‘If you would be so good as to accompany the gentleman. My housekeeper will summon a local surgeon. Rest assured, sir, he will be well cared for by my staff until…’

Elizabeth held Anne even tighter as a further whimper escaped her lips.

‘Wait. You said he spoke but two words upon his rescue.’ Sir Walter glared at the stranger. ‘Can you not take him to this other place?’

The man shook his head. ‘I would, sir, but it is not a place. He spoke only of Kellynch and a name: Anne.’

Anne swayed in Elizabeth’s arms.

‘I must go to him.’ Her voice was weak, but the emissary nodded. ‘Where is he?’

‘In the carriage out front, ma’am, but…’

Wrenching herself from Elizabeth’s grasp, Anne fled towards the door, and Elizabeth did not hesitate, breaking into a run—propriety be damned—and reaching the carriage standing on the gravel sweep just as the coachman opened the door for Anne to clamber inside.

An anguished cry came, and Elizabeth hurried over and peered into the small space. Anne had fallen to her knees beside the prone figure lying awkwardly across one of the benches. The gentleman was too tall for it, his legs half off the seat, though clearly he was insensible to the fact.

‘Frederick!’ Anne’s voice broke as she grasped his nearest hand. ‘You said my name…’ Tears began to stream down her face as she lowered her head, her body shaking.

Elizabeth leaned forward and placed a comforting hand on Anne’s back.

‘Take hope, Anne. You thought all was lost.’ Her friend did not answer, continuing to cling to the captain’s lifeless hand and weep. ‘Mr Darcy will ensure he has the best possible care.’

Elizabeth blinked. Where on earth had that sentiment come from?

The words seemed to reach Anne, however, and she raised her head, sniffed back her tears, and turned to Elizabeth.

‘Do you think…’ Anne sniffed again. ‘Is it possible Frederick may come round in time?’

‘Anything is possible.’ Elizabeth hesitated, knowing she must be honest. ‘You must prepare for the worst, for what you had already believed to have happened, but there is hope, Anne, as long as he breathes.’

Anne raised a tentative hand and brushed a thick lock of hair from the captain’s forehead, which bore testimony to the blow it had taken. Leaning forward, Anne pressed a kiss upon it, and Elizabeth felt tears prick her eyes. It was a poignant moment and a far better farewell for her friend than never seeing the captain again.

‘Frederick…’ Anne’s voice was a whisper, and Elizabeth leaned forward.

‘Speak a little louder. If you were in his thoughts when last he was conscious, your voice may reach him wherever he is.’

‘Er, excuse me, ma’am?’

Elizabeth looked up. The stranger was at the open door.

‘You are fortunate in your neighbour. I must get Captain Wentworth to Meadowbrook House as a matter of urgency, that the local medical man may be summoned.’ He raised a folded piece of paper. ‘I have instructions from the gentleman for his housekeeper.’

‘I wish to go with him.’ Anne clung tighter to the stricken man’s hand. ‘I cannot leave him. I will not.’

Elizabeth frowned. What was she to do? Anne’s determination to withstand any family opposition to following her heart a mile down the road was evident, but Elizabeth could hardly enter Mr Darcy’s home uninvited in the present circumstances!

~o0o~

Darcy had come out onto the portico. His confusion over who this Captain Wentworth might be and why Miss Anne Elliot had reacted so strongly had soon been answered by a terse explanation from Sir Walter and his eldest, who had joined them. The gentleman’s aversion to accommodating the injured man was thus accounted for, but his lack of compassion was not. How could anyone be so unfeeling of any human soul in such a condition?

Taking in the scene before him, Darcy assumed his habitual mask as Elizabeth aided her friend from the carriage, determined no indication would escape him of his admiration for her. His heart was less obliging, clenching in his breast and drawing an involuntary hand.

‘Anne Elliot! You forget yourself. Come here at once.’ Sir Walter stepped forward to stand beside Darcy.

The lady’s skin was pale but her expression firm as she walked up to her father, Elizabeth at her side.

‘I am staying with Captain Wentworth, Father, and I shall not be persuaded otherwise.’

Sir Walter looked astounded, his mouth open and closing like a stranded fish. ‘You’—he huffed a breath, then blustered on—‘you overreach yourself, Anne. The man was beneath you then. He is beneath you now, and undeserving of any particular attention. Besides, why can his brother not care for him?’

‘The Reverend Wentworth has left the district, as well you know, Father.’ Anne raised her chin as Elizabeth grasped her hand. ‘To send Frederick onward in his condition would be inhumane.’

‘For heaven’s sake!’ Miss Elliot had now emerged from the building. ‘Why must you, Miss Anne Elliot of Kellynch, daughter of a baronet, no less, be reduced to nursing a sick man? There are people paid to do such chores. It will reflect badly upon us. We have a name to uphold, and—’

‘Sir Walter.’ Elizabeth’s interruption drew Darcy’s attention almost against his will, and he strove not to admire her intelligent eyes as they fixed upon Sir Walter. ‘If Mr Darcy permits’—she looked to Darcy. Was she seeking his approval?—‘I can be at Anne’s side throughout the duration of…’ She hesitated, and Darcy knew she comprehended as well as he the likely outcome for the captain. ‘There is no infection in the case, so your daughter’s attendance upon the gentleman will affect no one adversely.’

‘Gentleman?’ Sir Walter all but spat the word. ‘He is a sailor, not a gentleman.’

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed. ‘Captain Wentworth is one of His Majesty’s naval officers, sir, and it is our Christian duty to care for him.’

Darcy wished he could applaud. Instead, he turned to Sir Walter.

‘Miss Bennet will be the most fitting person to be with your daughter. I will send for medical advice, and my housekeeper is more than competent. Miss Anne will not be required to do anything beyond being present.’

‘But a single young woman staying in a room with such a man! It is unseemly.’

‘With Miss Bennet in attendance and my sister’s companion, Mrs Annesley, also on hand, the lady will be more than adequately chaperoned.’

Sir Walter harrumphed, then turned back to Anne. ‘I am vexed beyond measure by your unfathomable behaviour, but never let it be said I am not an indulgent father.’

A small sound escaped from Elizabeth, but Darcy kept his attention firmly on Sir Walter. He, however, had turned his narrowed eyes upon the lady.

‘It goes without saying, Anne must never be alone. You understand, Miss Bennet. You must accept your duty. It is time you were the companion I have always believed you to be.’

Elizabeth inclined her head. ‘As you wish, sir. You will be unsurprised to know you have likewise, in this time of crisis, shown yourself to be what I have always believed you to be.’

Anne had turned to Darcy, her usually mild eyes deep with feeling. ‘May I go to Meadowbrook House directly, sir?’

Darcy turned to the emissary. ‘Are you able to convey Miss Elliot?’

The gentleman bowed. ‘There is room only for one, but if you will allow me, ma’am?’ He offered an arm to Anne, who took it.

‘Lizzy?’

‘I will follow on foot. Let me first gather our pelisses.’

Sir Walter glared at Darcy as the carriage pulled slowly away. ‘You have been part of ruining my day, sir.’

Darcy raised a brow. ‘I am sorry to hear it, sir.’

‘Father!’ To Darcy’s surprise, Miss Elliot sent him a condescending smile before turning back to Sir Walter. ‘You mistake Mr Darcy. Has he not been of the utmost assistance in removing any obligation for us to take that man in? We ought to be grateful to him, do you not think?’

‘What? Hmm, I see your point. Well, you can redeem yourself, sir. Let us now attend to this matter of business.’

‘You will have to excuse me, Sir Walter. I have a duty to go to Meadowbrook House to ensure all is done for the injured man. I shall return later, if that is convenient?’

Sir Walter scowled, then gestured at the footman who hovered by the door. ‘Bring a fresh bottle of brandy to my study! Well, go on, man!’

The footman scurried away and Sir Walter, with a dismissive wave of his hand to Darcy, stalked back into the house.

‘It is all too disagreeable, Mr Darcy. But at least we may assume the situation will persist for a short while only.’ Miss Elliot spoke in her usual languid tone, but Darcy merely bowed. He needed a moment to collect himself, to prepare.

Elizabeth had hurried into the house, bent upon retrieving some outerwear for herself and her friend, and Darcy tried to marshal his thoughts. So much for distancing himself from Elizabeth. Now she was to spend the remainder of the day under his own roof.

~o0o~

‘Oh!’

The involuntary exclamation fell from Elizabeth’s lips as she emerged from the front door once more, a laden basket upon her arm.

She had hoped—nay, fully expected—Mr Darcy to have left, but there he was, turning from his contemplation of who knew what, his expression uncompromising.

Without a word, he held out a hand for the basket, but Elizabeth merely stared at him. Was he truly intending to walk with her, after all that had occurred the previous day?

‘I am perfectly capable—’

‘Did I say anything to the contrary, Miss Bennet?’ Mr Darcy threw her a frustrated look. ‘I cannot allow you to bear the weight of it over such a distance.’

Elizabeth moved aside to take the step down onto the gravel path, but with an exclamation from the gentleman, he tugged the basket firmly from her grasp and set off down the driveway.

She glared after Mr Darcy, then followed, taking a small skip now and again in an attempt to catch up. The basket would indeed have become quite the burden, but Elizabeth was in no humour for his acting the gentleman.

Her step faltered. She was accustomed to holding Mr Darcy in little esteem, but in the time it had taken for Elise to fold Anne’s pelisse and add further items to the basket, she had been unable to shake a sense of confusion over him. His gallantry and compassion in permitting a sick stranger to be taken into his home spoke volumes, but this conflicted with all Elizabeth knew him to be. Or did it truly?

Mr Darcy had reached the gates, and he turned around to wait for her, so she hurried her steps. They made silent progress along the lane at first, and Elizabeth assumed he preferred it that way. He was, after all, prone to being taciturn, and this was hardly a social occasion.

Elizabeth tried not to dwell upon all that had been said between them, though she was conscious the gentleman had constrained his stride now and was merely a pace ahead. Her thoughts most naturally fell upon Anne and the implications of the captain’s sudden arrival. It was evident his chances were slim, but what if he were to recover?

Whichever direction the Fates took Captain Wentworth, Anne would likely need Elizabeth for the foreseeable future, and with no wish to curtail her visit, she realised it might be best if she tried to clear the air.

‘Mr Darcy!’

The gentleman slowed further, though he did not turn around, and Elizabeth hurried to fall into step beside him, chewing on her bottom lip, unsure how to begin.

‘Miss Bennet? You had something further to say?’

‘We have angered each other.’

‘And you have more you wish to add?’ Mr Darcy’s tone was not encouraging, but Elizabeth persevered.

‘No, sir. It is…in the circumstances, with this new development and my friend needing my companionship, I wondered if…’

‘We both know how to conduct ourselves, madam.’

Elizabeth felt she could well contradict Mr Darcy on this, but her situation was precarious enough.

‘It is an imposition for me, in the circumstances, to enter your home.’

‘Is it?’

She raised her brows. Was it not?

‘Whatever you may think of me, Miss Bennet’—Mr Darcy’s voice was clipped, and he continued to stare ahead—‘I do have compassion. This gentleman is in need and unable to ask for help. Providing a safe place for him to pass his remaining days is the least I can do. From the little I have seen and heard, the captain was once of some importance to Miss Anne Elliot. It would be uncharitable to prevent her from being by his side at such a time.’ He threw Elizabeth an assessing glance. ‘She wished you with her.’

‘Aye. And I’ll wager you wished me the other side of the county.’ Perhaps she should not have spoken so, but surely it must be the truth?

‘If it were so, I would hardly be escorting you to my home, Miss Bennet. It is the only right thing to do.’

Elizabeth mulled this over for a moment, but then Mr Darcy spoke again.

‘There is one thing I wish to know. Will you permit me one question raised by our conversation yesterday?’

Elizabeth almost laughed. ‘You are generous, Mr Darcy, in calling it that.’ Uncertain where this might lead, however, she clasped her hands together. ‘Do, please ask, and I shall endeavour to reply appropriately.’

‘Your inference of there being an understanding between my sister and my friend concerns me. If there are rumours to this effect, I would be grateful if you would take no heed of them. Protecting Georgiana’s reputation is of the utmost importance to me.’

With mixed feelings, Elizabeth studied the chimneys of Meadowbrook House as they came into view above the hedgerows. Thankful though she was that, of all the words thrown about on the previous day, this was what he wished to speak of, she also appreciated her own indiscretion. It had been thoughtless of her to mention such a thing.

‘Forgive me, Mr Darcy. I spoke out of turn. I have heard no general rumours, but…’ Elizabeth hesitated. Ought she to reveal her source?

The gentleman stopped, and perforce, Elizabeth did too. Mr Darcy turned to face her, his countenance unreadable.

‘You would not fabricate such a thing.’

‘Never!’ Elizabeth drew in a short breath. ‘It was presented as almost a fait accompli to my sister, Jane, recently, and with it so intrinsically connected to her unfortunate situation—of which I had but that morning received news—I spoke without caution.’ She raised wary eyes to his. ‘As you may have noticed.’

Mr Darcy regarded her silently. Then, he resumed walking and Elizabeth did likewise.

‘I will not ask you for your source, Miss Bennet, for I believe I can guess. Suffice it to say, my sister is only recently turned sixteen and not yet out. I do not envisage her seeking an establishment for the foreseeable future.’

Elizabeth nodded. ‘I was unguarded, sir, and regret that the words were spoken.’

‘We shall speak of it no more.’ He paused, then added. ‘The entire conversation is to be forgot.’

Elizabeth blinked. She doubted she would ever forget it. ‘Must you always have your own way, sir?’

To her surprise, Mr Darcy stopped again, his shoulders stiffening. He drew in a visible breath, then said, ‘If you believe I have had my own way of it lately, then you are much mistaken, madam.’

The look upon his features was unfathomable, but Elizabeth could not help but smile. ‘You did win the battle of the basket, Mr Darcy.’

The gentleman closed his eyes briefly, the edges of his mouth twitching, before he set off again. ‘I believe you would charge me with selfishness again, Miss Bennet.’

Elizabeth winced but persevered as they approached the gates to Meadowbrook House. ‘Will you not enlighten me?’

Mr Darcy gestured with his free arm. ‘We are in public, are we not? No gentleman would be seen walking empty handed beside a lady bearing a burden. Just think of the damage to his reputation.’

Elizabeth laughed, but then she sobered, assailed by a myriad of emotions as she saw Anne hovering beside the carriage, and she hurried forward as fast as her skirts permitted.

Chapter Nineteen

Mrs Reynolds had done all Darcy had asked of her in his note, sending for a surgeon without delay and deploying a maid to ready a chamber for the sick man.

With the aid of two footmen and a flat board, they had conveyed the captain upstairs, and Darcy left his housekeeper to bring tea for Elizabeth and her friend in the drawing room before seeking out his sister.

He found Georgiana in the small parlour she had taken to using.

‘Fitz! I did not realise the time.’ She put aside her book and Darcy indicated they take the chairs beside the hearth. ‘How is it we have an injured naval man in our home?’

Darcy briefly outlined what had occurred. It was no challenge to spare the details, for he had so few.

‘Poor Miss Anne Elliot.’ Georgiana’s sympathy was obvious. ‘And poor Captain Wentworth. How is it they are acquainted?’

‘I believe they were once…’ Darcy’s voice petered out. Betrothed. Much as he had anticipated being by now.

‘Brother? Is there anything wrong? You are pale and drawn.’

Darcy shook his head. ‘Pay me no mind, my dear. It has been a rather trying day thus far. Miss Anne Elliot was once engaged to the captain. I know not the reasons for their separation, but it is evident the lady is extremely distressed by the gentleman’s prognosis.’

‘Could she not stay here, to be with him until the end? It seems unkind for her to have to leave, for she may not be there when…’ Georgiana stopped. ‘How terribly sad.’

His sister was right; it was both sad and cruel, and Darcy ought to be feeling for Anne and her captain rather than wallowing in his own despair.

Your selfish disdain for the feelings of others…

Darcy winced as Elizabeth’s words struck him anew. Then, he felt Georgiana take his hand as she came to kneel beside his chair.

‘Fitz, your face is alarming me. I feel your sorrow for the poor man and his fate, but you must not dwell upon it.’

Recalling himself, Darcy gave Georgiana’s hand a squeeze before releasing it and getting to his feet.

‘I am quite well. We must await the surgeon’s verdict, but there is little to be done unless the captain awakens soon.’

‘I am grieved.’ Georgiana followed Darcy as he crossed over to a writing desk. ‘Do you require Mrs Annesley to act as chaperone? I am well able to spare her.’

Taking a seat, Darcy was assailed by conflicting emotions over Elizabeth being in his house.

‘Miss Bennet attends Miss Elliot, and we can spare a servant to be in the room if need be.’ Georgiana came to stand by his side. ‘The captain is hardly in a position to compromise a lady, my dear.’

‘I know, Fitz.’ Georgiana watched him select a pen and dip it in the ink. ‘Are you writing to Richard?’

‘I promised Miss Anne Elliot I would send word to Reverend Wentworth—the captain’s brother—of his being brought here. The reverend believes him to have perished but has since left the district.’

‘Is there any chance he will discover his brother’s situation before it is too late to wait upon him?’

‘The news will have to await him in Shropshire, for it is the only known direction. I believe he was to be married today and travelling north to the Lakes before taking up his new living.’ Darcy summoned a smile for his sister. ‘We must have faith, Georgie. As long as the captain breathes, hope remains.’

As Darcy set pen to paper, his sister returned to her seat, and he penned his missive whilst his mind grappled with the captain’s situation. If only the timing had not been so unfortunate, Captain Wentworth would have been able to go to Monkford and have kin around him in these final hours.

Sitting back in his seat, Darcy set the pen aside. Perhaps the man was not so ill-served as he supposed. Despite the separation of so many years, Miss Anne Elliot’s devotion could not be questioned.

Darcy reached for the seal, then slumped in his seat as sadness gripped him once more. Would his passion and admiration for Elizabeth haunt him indefinitely also?

~o0o~

Welcome though the tea tray had been, and warming as the brightly burning fire was, Anne’s mind remained in turmoil.

‘I struggle to comprehend all that has come about, Lizzy. First, Frederick has perished at sea. Then, he has not. In his conscious ramblings, he speaks my name and arrives at Kellynch. Now’—Anne’s voice hitched–‘even now, he lies upstairs in a stranger’s home for what may be his final hours, unaware of all of this.’

‘It is a great deal to assimilate, dear Anne. It is no wonder you are conflicted.’ Elizabeth pointed to the teapot. Would you care for more?’

Anne shook her head. ‘I cannot face it.’ She willed the door to open and bring intelligence of Frederick’s condition. ‘Why would he say my name?’

Elizabeth leaned towards Anne and took her hand briefly. ‘Perchance you were his last conscious thought?’

‘If only it were so.’ Anne’s cheeks became chalk white as a hand shot to her throat. ‘Oh, Lizzy!’ She turned frantic eyes on her friend. ‘He said ‘Kellynch’ too. His memories of my home cannot be good ones. He must have recalled an awful time in his life as he felt his own near its end. I do not think I can bear it.’

Elizabeth put an arm about her. ‘Take one moment at a time, dear Anne. Be thankful he has been brought home to England and will be assured the best of medical care for as long as he may need it.’

Holding back impending tears, Anne nodded. Elizabeth was right. She must be grateful for the small mercy of seeing Frederick once more, of having gained her point with her father over attending him.

‘You are wise, Lizzy. I shall do my best to take comfort from seeing Frederick again, of being able to hold his hand in mine, and I shall endeavour—’

They both started as the door opened, and Mr Darcy came into the room.

Getting a little unsteadily to her feet beside Elizabeth, Anne grasped her friend’s hand tightly.

‘The surgeon—a Mr Parker, from Martock—has examined the captain and left. The gentleman is as well as should be expected after such a journey, but he remains unconscious and with no sign of waking at present.’

The tightness in Anne’s throat threatened to overwhelm her, and Elizabeth seemed to sense her struggle, picking up the conversation.

‘Has he given any indication, sir? Any hint of what we may expect?’

‘Mr Parker has made the captain as comfortable as he could but said there was little aid he could offer. He says the blow to the captain’s head must have been severe, but he believes there is no fracture and the contusion, though extensive, is already beginning to fade. An apothecary will be best placed to provide the care Captain Wentworth requires now.’ He smiled kindly at Anne. ‘I understand our local man is a Mr Robinson, and a note has already been despatched to request his services.’

Anne felt as though she were clinging to Mr Darcy’s words like a drowning man takes hold of a life raft.

‘There, Anne. All is as well as we can expect for now.’ Elizabeth’s spoke gently, and Anne turned towards her. ‘An apothecary will likely provide a stimulating tincture or some such, it may rouse the captain.’ She addressed the gentleman. ‘Anne had hoped to sit with Captain Wentworth for a while, sir. Is it possible?’

Mr Darcy inclined his head. ‘I will ask Mrs Reynolds to show you to him. I can place a servant at your disposal.’

Anne’s grip on Elizabeth’s hand tightened. ‘Lizzy will be with me.’ She noted the strained look Mr Darcy sent her friend before walking over to pull the bell. Was he recalling the argument with Elizabeth?

‘I hope you comprehend, sir, how much I appreciate your taking Captain Wentworth under this roof until…’ Anne faltered, then added, ‘I shall never forget your kindness.’

‘Please, do not speak of it. I take no credit for doing what is right.’ The door opened to reveal the housekeeper. ‘Mrs Reynolds, would you be so kind as to show Miss Elliot and Miss Bennet to the captain’s room? Excuse me, ladies. I must return to Kellynch.’

Mr Darcy turned on his heel and left the room, and Anne and Elizabeth exchanged a quick glance before joining the housekeeper who led them out into the hall.

‘May I ask after Miss Darcy?’ Elizabeth addressed Mrs Reynolds as they mounted the stairs. ‘We would not wish her to be distressed by all this.’

‘‘It is kind of you to enquire, Miss Bennet. She is well and has been with Mr Darcy, who has explained the situation.’

They were soon on the landing, and Mrs Reynolds pushed open a door into a pleasant room, with ample light streaming in through the windows and a fire crackling warmly in the grate. A servant rose from a seat beside the bed, placing a damp cloth onto a tray bearing a pitcher and bowl of water.

‘Greening, you may return to your duties for now.’

As the servant left the room, Mrs Reynolds invited Anne to take the seat beside the bed, and Elizabeth took an armchair a short distance away.

‘Ring the bell’—Mrs Reynolds pointed to the pull rope in the wall beside the mantel—‘should you need anything or there is any alteration in the gentleman’s condition.’

Silence settled upon the room, only disturbed by the arrival of a kitchen maid with more tea, and although Elizabeth placed a cup by Anne, beyond a whispered ‘thank you’ they did not speak for some time.

Elizabeth was soon lost in her thoughts. Mr Darcy was a conundrum, one moment angering her beyond reason, the next displaying a strong compassion for his fellow man and—

‘I believe Frederick’s breathing improves. It was weaker when we first arrived, I am certain of it.’

Moving to stand beside her friend, Elizabeth watched for movement of the sheet as the captain’s chest rose and fell. In truth, it was barely discernible.

‘I cannot believe I am here with him.’ With a hesitant hand, Anne reached out to touch the injured man’s hair before tentatively running a finger down the side of his face. ‘This shadowy growth brings me comfort. It is a sign of life.’

‘It is indeed. Talk to him, Anne. Let the captain hear your voice.’

Elizabeth returned to her chair and the afternoon passed with them exchanging a little conversation now and again but with no alteration in the captain beyond the indistinct movement of the sheet upon his chest.

Anne kept up a low-voiced monologue, and Elizabeth drifted back into thought, her mind grappling with her fluctuating emotions towards Mr Darcy. His anger from yesterday seemed all but gone, but there was a strange awareness about him, a constraint to his regard, as though fearful he might display something he would rather not.

Unbidden, Mr Darcy’s words seared through Elizabeth’s mind.

‘In vain have I struggled…my feelings will not be repressed.’

What on earth had been Mr Darcy’s meaning? Then, colour flooded Elizabeth’s cheeks as a sudden notion took hold of her.

‘No,’ she whispered, shoving it fiercely aside. ‘That would be unfathomable.’

Despite the admonishment, however, the memory of the gentleman’s expression as he spoke those words returned, and she—

‘Here we are.’ Elizabeth started and looked up as Mrs Reynolds swept into the room, a gentleman in her wake. ‘Mr Robinson is arrived to treat the patient.’

The newcomer placed a worn leather bag on a table before walking over to study the lifeless captain. Then, he turned around.

‘Ladies, if you would be so kind as to leave the room? Mrs Reynolds, if you would assist?’

~o0o~

Darcy felt no real obligation to wait upon Sir Walter, but as he would rather be where Elizabeth was not at present, it was a welcome release to escape from Meadowbrook House.

He took himself to task on the walk back to Kellynch. His confrontation with Elizabeth had happened; it could not be undone, and he must stand by his earlier declaration to the lady. It must be forgot; all of it. Regulating his mind with the aid of occupation was a given; restraining his recalcitrant heart, however, was entirely another matter.

‘Damned foolishness,’ Darcy muttered as he took the step up to the imposing portico and rapped on the door.

The butler let him into the house, showing him into the great hall just as Miss Elliot sailed into the room.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Darcy.’ She curtsied elegantly, and Darcy performed a cursory bow.

‘Miss Elliot.’

‘It was unfortunate you had to leave earlier. My father wished to speak to you on a matter of some urgency.’ She waved an imperious hand to dismiss the butler and took hold of Darcy’s arm.

He gently but firmly released his arm from her grip, and the lady’s gaze narrowed.

‘As I am aware. If you will excuse me, ma’am, I shall await your father here.’

With that, Darcy walked over to the bookshelves lining the far wall and began ostensibly perusing the titles, relieved to hear the swish of Miss Elliot’s skirts as she swept from the great hall.

She returned directly with her father in tow, who strode over to Darcy.

‘Come, sir. We have business to discuss.’ Sir Walter reeked of brandy.

‘I cannot fathom what possible business could concern us both, Sir Walter.’ Darcy replaced the book he held and turned back, but the gentleman was already walking away.

‘My study, Darcy. if you would be so obliging.’

Obliging Sir Walter was the last thing Darcy felt inclined towards, but the desire for distraction was genuine and his curiosity got the better of him. He would give the gentleman five minutes of his time, and then he would go on an extensive walk before returning to Meadowbrook House.

~o0o~

The apothecary had promised to return to pass the night at the captain’s side but had warned that the next six and thirty hours would deliver one outcome or another. If the injured man did not regain consciousness soon, there was little the apothecary could do to change the inevitable path down which Captain Wentworth seemed destined to tread.

Elizabeth and Anne had lingered for the rest of the afternoon in the sick room, but there was no alteration in the gentleman, his shallow breathing sometimes the only sound to be heard when Anne’s voice trailed away.

She had grown wan and forlorn as the day had faded and no further signs of life had come from the captain, whose hand Anne clasped almost constantly. It therefore took all of Elizabeth’s efforts to persuade her from the gentleman’s bedside, but the impending dusk finally convinced Anne she could linger no longer.

It was a solemn walk back to Kellynch, but with Anne wrapped in her reflections, Elizabeth’s mind returned to the inconsistency of her fluctuating sentiments towards Mr Darcy and growing puzzlement over his words meaning what they hinted at.

‘Will you keep me company until dinner, Lizzy? I do not wish to be alone with my thoughts just now.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Elizabeth welcomed the proposal as she followed Anne into the house. She had no desire to be alone with her thoughts either, for they were not serving her well.

No sooner had they entered the great hall, however, when Sir Walter appeared.

‘Anne. I wish to speak to you. Come.’

Anne exchanged a look with Elizabeth as Sir Walter headed for his study. ‘I will meet you in the small sitting room, Lizzy.’

With a troubled heart, Elizabeth watched Anne disappear down the corridor in her father’s wake. How much longer could her friend endure this strain?

~o0o~

Dusk had fallen before Darcy could face returning home, though he had left Kellynch Hall within a half hour of his arrival. Walking for miles around the estate had done little to shed the feelings assailing him, however, and when he reached Meadowbrook House, he stood for a moment, staring at its benign façade.

Was Elizabeth still within? Then, Darcy assessed the darkening skies. No, she would have returned to Kellynch. Frustrated to feel disappointment instead of relief, he strode towards the boot room. This was no time for such indulgence.

Ten minutes later, Darcy was prowling the house in search of his sister. Mrs Annesley had last seen her in the music room, but it was empty, as was the drawing room, the small parlour, and the breakfast room.

Heading upstairs, Darcy hesitated as he reached the door to his sister’s chamber, but then it swung open.

‘Fitz! I thought I heard a step.’ Georgiana raised her cheek for his kiss, and he followed her into the room, wishing they were anywhere but Somersetshire. What hellish sort of week was this? Firstly, Elizabeth’s damning of his character, then…

‘Fitz?’

Marshalling his thoughts, Darcy took the chair opposite his sister, fixing her with a keen look.

‘Forgive me, my dear, but there is a matter we must discuss. I am going to be brutally candid, and by return, I expect full and open honesty from you. You do understand, Georgie? I would not ask it of you in such a way if it were not of the utmost importance.’

The colour had drained from Georgiana’s face, but she nodded. ‘You are scaring me, Brother. But, yes, I understand, and I promise to speak the truth.’

‘Are you still…does your attachment to George Wickham endure?’

A deep pink filled Georgiana’s cheeks, and she lowered her head.

‘Dearest?’ Darcy tried to soften his voice, though impatience for an answer gripped him. ‘I do not wish to pain you, but it is imperative I understand the reality. Be not afraid of speaking honestly. Do you remain enamoured of the man?’

Georgiana’s head shot up. ‘No! How could you think so? I am ashamed of my foolish inclination and could not regret it more.’

Much as he did not wish to distress his sister, Darcy knew he must press on.

‘But you keep a letter from him between the pages of your book.’

At this, Georgiana leapt to her feet, and Darcy stood too, stepping forward to take her hands in his.

‘Please, Georgie. Tell me the truth.’

Her eyes were pleading, and Darcy’s ire stirred. If that scoundrel did still have a hold upon her, he did not want to be accountable for his actions, should Wickham ever cross his path.

‘It is not what you think.’ Georgiana spoke urgently, holding tight onto Darcy’s hands. ‘I promise you. I merely keep the letter to remind me, daily, not how much I loved him, but never to fall again for such false promises. I do not attend to its content, it is but a marker for my text, but also a constant reinforcement of my foolishness and gullibility.’ Her voice broke on the last word, and Darcy released her hands and put an arm around her, holding her close.

‘I know what it cost you to save me, Brother.’ Georgiana’s voice was muffled against his chest, and Darcy lowered his head to better hear her. ‘I have lived with the guilt these past months, learnt a lesson I wish never to forget.’

Georgiana straightened up, and he released his hold on her as she took a step back to peep up at him. Her eyes were no longer full of guilt. ‘I have no feelings for George Wickham other than hatred and distrust.’

Darcy’s heart clenched in his chest. Much as Elizabeth Bennet feels for me…

He cleared his throat. ‘Thank you for your honesty, Georgie. Forgive me for forcing it from you.’ He dropped a kiss on her cheek. ‘I am immensely proud of you.’

Georgiana sat down as Darcy reclaimed his own seat, wishing he felt as at ease as he normally did when sitting there.

‘I am so relieved, Brother.’ Georgiana gestured towards the small pile of books on her bedside table. ‘I could not work out what had happened to it, other than it must have fallen from the pages. I have been searching everywhere for it.’ Her face reflected her relief. ‘I did not realise you had found the letter.’

‘I did not.’

A hand flew to Georgiana’s throat. ‘Oh no! Please tell me it was Mrs Reynolds, not one of the other servants who…’ Her voice faded as Darcy shook his head.

How he hated to do this to her.

‘It was Miss Elliot.’ Darcy spoke through clenched teeth, his recent interview with the lady and Sir Walter burning through his brain.

‘Miss Elliot? But how…when…?’

‘When she paid her call upon us. You had retired to your chamber to rest after the ladies visited, do you remember?’ To Darcy, it seemed a lifetime ago. ‘Miss Elliot returned with a request for a carriage to take her home. I was bound for Yeovil and bade her await me in the drawing room. I can only assume she discovered it then.’

Georgiana face reflected her horror. ‘She did not…she would not read it?’ Darcy’s expression must have confirmed the truth of it. ‘How dare she?’

‘How indeed.’

‘But—’ Georgiana frowned. ‘Brother, how do you know of this?’

Darcy rose from his seat and strode over to the window. ‘When I was at the Hall earlier, I was obliged to meet with Sir Walter. Miss Elliot was there, and she’—he broke off, anger consuming him as he recalled the meeting.

Georgiana came to join him, taking his hand in hers. ‘She told you she had seen it?’

Darcy nodded. ‘Worse than that, she has passed it to her father.’

‘No!’ Georgiana’s face was all confusion as she dropped his hand. ‘But why? Of what possible importance could it be to Sir Walter Elliot?’

Darcy stared out across the grounds of Meadowbrook House. The snow had all but gone, and all was grey and desolate in the fading light.

‘As an instrument to further his own interest.’ Darcy turned around. Georgiana’s face reflected her despair, and his heart went out to her. ‘I am grieved to say, Sir Walter is threatening to expose your plans with Wickham and cause a scandal around us.’

‘But you prevented the elopement!’

‘He claims it is all in the telling. I do not think he cares if the report misrepresents the facts.’

Georgiana’s eyes were full of tears, and Darcy put his arms around her again, holding her close as she sniffled into his waistcoat.

‘They will not harm you, Georgie. I will protect your reputation with everything I have.’

Darcy held her tightly, but then Georgiana raised her head, her forehead furrowed. ‘What is his purpose? I cannot see how Sir Walter benefits from making such a threat.’

‘His barter for keeping silent is that…’ Darcy forced back the bile rising in his throat. ‘That I take Miss Elliot as my wife.’

~o0o~

Mr Darcy’s Persuasion will be released in February 2021. Some further chapters will be shared in the run up to publication and will always appear on the Home Page before being added here.

© 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton