Standing in his bedchamber, Mr. Darcy touched his cravat with fastidious fingers. His eyes shifted to meet his cousin’s in the mirror. “You know what you are to do tonight?”
“Yes, of course I know. But are you sure you wouldn’t rather do this on one of those blasted walks you’re always meeting her for? A room full of… well, Aunt Catherine and Mr. Collins isn’t exactly the ideal setting for a conversation of this sort.”
“She doesn’t always walk at the same time, Fitzwilliam. I’ve missed her as often as I’ve encountered her, and as we’ll be leaving early Saturday, there’s only one morning left. Tonight”—he straightened a cuff— “I mean to leave nothing to chance.”
“I cannot guarantee you more than a few minutes.”
“It is all I need. While I may not be able to say everything I could wish, the essential words will not take very long.”
“I must admit, Darcy, that once you form a resolution, you carry it through with more determination than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s true.” He smiled slightly as he turned around. “And tonight it is my determination to become engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
She should not have come. That was Elizabeth’s main thought as she sat on the hard settee in the Rosings parlor, trying to ignore the pain between her ears. Why hadn’t she begged off?
It only made it worse that he was there, glaring at her in his insufferable way, the very cut of his coat taunting her with the wealth and influence that allowed him to crush the lives of others at his whim. Her only recourse was to glare furiously back at him, willing all her contempt and fury to show in her eyes.
“Miss Bennet,” said a voice near her, “would you give us the very great pleasure of hearing you play again tonight?”
She refocused her gaze with difficulty. “I am sorry, Colonel, but I’m afraid I have a bit of a headache and really do not feel up to playing.”
His reaction puzzled her exceedingly. He looked comically dismayed for just a moment and shot a quick glance at Mr. Darcy. Why should the colonel care so much whether she played the piano or not? And what did it have to do with Darcy?
“I should hate to appear ungentlemanly by importuning you,” he said after a moment, “but are you sure you will not reconsider? It will be our last opportunity to hear you before we leave. Come now, won’t you indulge us? Darcy adds his entreaties to mine, don’t you?”
“Certainly Miss Bennet must play,” he confirmed coolly.
Elizabeth looked back and forth between them. “Gentlemen, I am sorry to disappoint you, but—”
“Miss Bennet,” interrupted Lady Catherine, “what are you saying to my nephews?”
“Only that I do not care to play tonight, ma’am.”
“What? Certainly not! Fitzwilliam, Darcy, if Miss Bennet does not wish to play, then she shall not.”
“My apologies, Miss Bennet,” muttered the colonel. Darcy just bowed slightly.
Darcy was glaring at him like it was his fault that Miss Bennet didn’t want to play. He could only suppose it was up to him to arrange something else, though why Darcy refused to take the initiative he didn’t know. In the awkward pause that followed his last attempt Fitzwilliam thought hard, then finally ventured, “It’s a very fine night out. Perhaps you would care for a stroll in the rose garden, Miss Bennet? The fresh air might help alleviate your headache.”
He glanced at Darcy as he spoke, and received a slight nod of approval. In fact, it was a dashed sight better plan than proposing by the pianoforte, if he did say so himself. Looking back at Miss Bennet, though, he realized that she had completely misunderstood him: from the expression on her face she thought he was asking for a private tête-à-tête. He blushed deeply. “Miss Lucas may wish to take the air too, and perhaps Mrs. Collins.” He cleared his throat. “Darcy?”
“I will speak to my aunt about it.”
Somehow, Darcy wasn’t sure how, the plan to take a small party to view the roses by moonlight went wrong. First his aunt declared she would not object to an evening stroll, then she was saying how even Anne, if properly bundled up, would not be harmed by a few minutes outside, and before he knew it he was escorting his languid cousin down the hall while Fitzwilliam was commandeered for Lady Catherine. The Collinses walked together, and Elizabeth twined her arm with Miss Lucas’s. He watched her graceful figure in front of him with longing and annoyance. If only she had agreed to play, they would be engaged already.
The garden was fragrant and peaceful in the bright moonlight—that is, until their intrusion. No amount of natural beauty was sufficient to keep Lady Catherine’s opinions and Mr. Collins’s compliments at bay.
What followed rather resembled some sort of peculiar country dance. Fitzwilliam, prompted by many varied jerks of the head from Darcy, first managed to hand off his aunt to a delighted Mr. Collins, who had not been able to stay distant for long before drawing eagerly near again. That left the colonel with Mrs. Collins on his arm. Though ordinarily an agreeable conversation partner, she was, on this night, only a means to an end. A little skillful leading in the manner of the excellent dancer he was, and he was able to walk her back to the level of Darcy and Miss de Bourgh. His next undertaking was even more difficult, as it involved getting Anne to talk. Mrs. Collins was too polite not to join his efforts (Darcy, blast him, was singularly silent), and when he suggested his cousin might like to sit on a bench for a little, she agreed.
With Anne sitting and the colonel and Mrs. Collins to keep her company, Darcy was finally free. That still left the problem of Miss Lucas, though. He could see the two ladies, just up ahead on the path, about to enter a protected walkway. Checking to be sure his aunt was listening complacently to Mr. Collins praise the design of the garden, he made his way swiftly toward them.
The cool night air was doing her good, Elizabeth had to admit, and Maria’s harmless prattle was just the thing to settle her overwrought feelings. She had laughed to see Mr. Darcy trailing behind, obviously unhappy with his designated companion, and was glad that she would not have to be near him. As long as they remained distant she really felt she could retain her serenity.
They came to a divergence in the graveled walk. One path wound back around the rose garden, towards the house; the other slanted off between two hedges. The moonlight was very bright tonight, assisted with lights from the house, but there was no doubt the second path would be dark. “Well, Maria,” she asked, gripping her arm, “how intrepid are you tonight? Shall we brave it?”
Maria giggled. “You don’t suppose there’s anyone lying in wait in there, do you? Or maybe a horrible creature like a vampyre?”
“Oh no, I feel certain that Lady Catherine would never allow such disreputable beings within her garden! Why, the force of her displeasure alone would be enough to terrify the most hardened villain.”
“Even the undead, Miss Bennet?” came a voice behind them. Maria jumped and stifled a shriek and Elizabeth, torn between laughter and annoyance, could only cling more firmly to her.
“My apologies for startling you, Miss Lucas,” said Darcy. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the noise had temporarily drawn the attention of the rest of their party. Praying that his aunt allowed herself to be distracted once again, he refocused on the woman in front of him.
“I would not suggest you enter that section of shrubbery in the dark without someone who is familiar with it. It is easy to become lost, even in the daytime.”
“Well, in that case we will take the open path,” She tugged Maria in that direction.
“I do not object to escorting you if you wish to explore it.” His mind was quickly searching for a way to send the girl off.
“You need not trouble yourself,” Elizabeth replied coldly. Before Darcy could say anything further she had turned her back and was walking off, taking the other with her.
He stared after her, dumbfounded. What the blazes did she mean by walking away from him like that? Hadn’t she understood the purpose behind his offer? Elizabeth was a very quick, very perceptive young woman—hadn’t she guessed his meaning?
The colonel choked back a laugh to see Darcy trailing almost forlornly behind the two young women. Miss Bennet was leading him a merry chase, from the look of things. The man half the eligible women in London pined for was at the feet of a pretty country chit. He wondered if she even knew what she was doing to the poor fellow; was she playing coy on purpose, or was she really oblivious to his interest?
“I don’t see why my cousin must always be talking to her,” muttered Anne fretfully, worrying the fringe on her outermost shawl. “We’re betrothed.”
Both Mrs. Collins and Colonel Fitzwilliam froze, staring at each other in awkward dismay. “Err… Anne…” began the officer with great intrepidity.
“Do you think your sister might wish for you, Miss Lucas?” tried Darcy rather desperately.
Her head jerked around and she stared at him as if she’d seen a ghost.
“I believe Mrs. Collins seems quite well accompanied,” answered Elizabeth for her, annoyed at his officiousness. On second thought… “But perhaps you are right! Come, Maria!” There was a path that cut across the center of the garden, passing a rather grotesque dry fountain, and it was along there that she dragged her, as quickly as she could with reasonable dignity.
“Lizzy!” hissed Maria in her ear. “You’re hurting my arm!”
She loosened her grip. “I’m sorry!”
“Do you think Charlotte really wants me? What could she want me for?”
“Oh dear, I don’t know. I just didn’t want to stay with Mr. Darcy.” She kept her voice low.
“Yes, but, Lizzy…” answered Maria, still in the same hiss, casting nervous glances over her shoulder. “He’s following us. What do you think it means?”
“I long ago gave up attempting to understand him, Maria. I recommend you do likewise.”
Maria let out a rather nervous giggle as they passed by the fountain. “It’s terribly ugly, isn’t it?” She felt safe enough to raise her voice a little—but just a little. Lady Catherine was just across the way, after all.
“Yes, terribly,” agreed Elizabeth. “Let us be glad that the water is no longer running, as I believe it might have proceeded from a rather… unfortunate spot.”
This made Maria giggle again, a little too loudly for propriety, and once again eyes turned in their direction. Behind them, a highly frustrated Darcy felt sure he was the object of their derision, and wondered what Elizabeth thought she was playing at. Strangely, his determination to propose to her was unaffected by these concerns.
As they drew near the group that was their target, it could be seen that Colonel Fitzwilliam was gesturing animatedly with his arms as he spoke earnestly to Miss de Bourgh. Charlotte was standing a little distance off, and when she noticed the two girls coming their way, she hurried to meet them. “You can’t go over there.”
“Why ever not?” demanded Elizabeth.
Charlotte glanced around and, seeing Mr. Darcy behind them, took each girl by the arm and led them off in another direction entirely. Pulling them close she whispered, “Colonel Fitzwilliam is breaking the news to Miss de Bourgh.”
“What news?” asked Maria.
“About Mr. Darcy. That they’re not engaged.”
Elizabeth put a hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh. “Do you mean to say that… Miss de Bourgh considers them betrothed, but Mr. Darcy doesn’t?”
“I believe it was Lady Catherine who led her to that belief. She does speak of it often, but apparently forgot that the bridegroom’s consent is also necessary.”
“And how did poor Colonel Fitzwilliam end up being the one to tell her the truth? I would think Mr. Darcy is perfectly capable of disappointing a lady’s hopes on his own.” She rolled her eyes. “He disappoints Miss Bingley’s hopes all the time.” Maria giggled again.
“He took it on himself—oh, look!” All three ladies turned to stare.
When Mrs. Collins removed Elizabeth further out of his reach, Darcy looked around for Richard, determined to recruit his help again. Seeing him speaking with his other cousin just ahead, he began to walk that way. Just then Richard, who was already gesticulating, spotted him coming and began to repeatedly wave his hand in a decided fashion as he talked.
Darcy paused. Was Richard waving him away? When head jerks got added to the waves he decided he was and began to back up. He backed up so far he nearly fell into the fountain.
“Darcy!” Lady Catherine called as he scrambled, red-faced in the moonlight, off the fountain rim and back onto his feet. “Darcy, what are you doing playing in the fountain? Come here immediately!”
A bout of laughter, hastily smothered, erupted from the small knot of ladies.
Completely mortified at having stumbled before the woman he meant to marry, Darcy made his way without further words toward his aunt. As he drew close her voice rose over the garden. “Darcy, did I not charge you with attending to Anne? What do you mean by going off and leaving her like that?”
Darcy answered her quietly, but Lady Catherine was a stranger to discretion. “No, I do not consider your cousin an acceptable substitute. It is your duty to remain with her!” More low voiced remarks followed.
Meanwhile, Anne de Bourgh sniffed and looked at her cousin the colonel triumphantly.
“Anne,” repeated Fitzwilliam wearily, “just because your mother believes Darcy intends to marry you doesn’t make it so.”
She looked at him as if he were speaking in a foreign language.
“Darcy is never going to marry you, Anne.”
She turned her attention back to her shawl.
“I can tell you with absolute certainty that he does not consider himself bound to you, and your mother has no power to compel him.”
At that she rolled her eyes, as if in derision of an obviously foolish remark.
“Oh, good heavens!” muttered the colonel. “Why can’t I let Darcy do his own dirty work?” He stalked off to where Darcy, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins stood.
“… the perfectly circular shape of this pathway,” Mr. Collins was saying.
“… high time you stopped fooling around and did your duty,” said Lady Catherine, speaking over him.
“Get me out of here!” muttered Darcy, immediately moving near to him.
“I don’t think this will be as easy as you hope,” he returned in low tones. “Miss Bennet is well guarded.”
Darcy glanced over his shoulder toward the knot of women, stifling an exclamation.
“What’s that you say, Darcy?”
“It’s an absolute disgrace that Anne is sitting over there alone—”
“Oh, Lady Catherine, I would be most happy, most honored—”
“Not you, Mr. Collins! It is my nephew Darcy who should be there, like a proper suitor—”
“Quite right, Aunt Catherine!” cut in Fitzwilliam, seeing that Darcy was about to say something rather unwise. “Darcy, why don’t you go over there at once?”
Darcy glared at him, but after a moment he bowed stiffly and turned. The colonel moved to follow him, but Lady Catherine stopped him. “Richard, you shall stay here with me.” He had no option but to obey.
It was unnerving, making the quarter-circle walk back to Anne’s bench with his aunt watching him from behind and Elizabeth and her friends watching from the side.
Darcy noticed, in distracted fashion, that Anne had a rather odd smirk as he arrived, but his attention was focused on the group of women who stood about twenty feet away. “Cousin, why don’t we go speak to your friends?”
She sniffed. “Friends?”
“Yes, Mrs. Collins and her guests.”
“I don’t have friends.”
“Well, perhaps if you begin now you may make some. Come now, let us go over there.” He extended his arm, but she just looked at him. “Anne—”
“I beg your pardon?” He drew back in surprise.
“I don’t have to.”
“W-well, no, but—”
“And since you’re going to marry me you have to stay too.”
Darcy’s eyes grew wide with dismay, and a dark color ran up the back of his neck. He sent a wild, panicked look at his other cousin, who shrugged eloquently. He could not deal with this. Not right now, not this night, when she stood such a short distance away watching, and all he wanted to do was walk over to where her light and pleasing figure and laughing eyes waited in the moonlight, and take her by the shoulders, and say—
He shook his head, casting off his reverie. He had to focus. Fitzwilliam was stuck with Lady Catherine for the moment, leaving him without help. Elizabeth was stuck with her friends and he was stuck with a cousin who erroneously, and against all evidence, believed that they were engaged. A wiser man might, perhaps, have admitted defeat and begun planning a new campaign for the morning, but Darcy had a stubbornness in him that always rose with any attempt to deter him. He had decided to propose to Elizabeth tonight, and propose to her he would.
He spoke in a low, firm voice. “We’re not engaged, Anne.”
She gave him the same disbelieving look she’d given Fitzwilliam.
“There has never been any sort of an agreement between us—you know there has not.” Some sort of movement caught his eye and he looked up to see Fitzwilliam walking across the grass toward the other ladies. “I am going over there; are you coming or not?”
There was a noise behind him; he looked back to see Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins walking their way. “Your mother is coming,” he said curtly to his cousin, who still had not spoken, “Perhaps you will enjoy her company.”
“Mother,” began Anne, raising her voice slightly, “Darcy says—”
As quickly as his long strides could carry him, he moved towards his quarry. By the time he arrived, the women were all struggling to hide grins, and Fitzwilliam guffawed openly. “Cousin,” he said, “you ran from her like Wickham before an angry husband!”
Small gasps (and Darcy’s foot treading heavily on his own) recalled him to his company. “Ahh... ladies! I beg your pardon. I should have said, ‘Darcy, you ran from her like Wickham before a debt collector!’ Ah!” Darcy trod on his foot again. “Oh, very well, no more Wickham jokes. Ladies, you must forgive me. I was simply referring to a certain scoundrel of our acquaintance. Oww, will you leave off?” For Darcy had stepped on his foot a third time.
“They know him,” muttered Darcy in his ear.
“They know what?”
“Wickham! They know Wickham!”
“Oh! A scoundrel of all our acquaintance then, and don’t,” he hopped away, “do that again!”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam,” said Elizabeth, attacking this startling new information with her customary directness, “do you know Mr. Wickham personally?”
“For many years now, Miss Bennet.”
“And you consider him a scoundrel?”
“Of the first order, ma’am. A very charming one, of course. He could charm any milkmaid into giving him far more than just mil—Darcy, blast it, I’m a soldier! I need that foot!”
“Colonel,” persisted Elizabeth, “did you have direct knowledge of his infamy, or was it merely,” her eyes shifted to his tall cousin, “hearsay?”
The question sobered him up a bit. “My knowledge is direct and incontrovertible, Miss Bennet. Although I jest now, he is, all jesting aside, a liar, a cheat, a seducer, and many other things I wouldn’t sully your ears with describing. My advice is to stay as far away from him as possible.”
All the women’s eyes grew very big at this, and they clutched each other rather tightly. Darcy, who had not missed Elizabeth’s questions but had bigger things to worry about, cast a harried glance over his shoulder. “Miss Bennet,” he said, “would you care for a stroll over there?” He nodded towards the corner of the garden furthest away from his female relatives.
This direct approach further unbalanced Elizabeth’s sensibilities. “I—well—” it was like when he had asked her to dance and she hadn’t been able to think of a reason to say no.
“Mrs. Collins, Miss Lucas,” contributed the colonel promptly, “there is a particularly lovely species of rose in that direction”—he gestured to a completely different corner—“which I believe you would enjoy viewing.”
“In the moonlight, Colonel?” asked Mrs. Collins as she accepted his arm.
“Of course. The best way.”
“Why, what’s it called?” asked Maria.
“I have no idea. I just know that it’s lovely.”
Elizabeth watched them go with alarm. Before she could think of a way to extract herself, Darcy had somehow claimed her hand and pulled it through his arm, and then he was leading her across the grass, towards the horrid fountain and away from the safety of the others. She couldn’t imagine what he wanted with her, but whatever it was, she had no intention of obliging.
“Mr. Darcy, I have just remembered—excuse me—” She slipped away and headed towards Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine, a truly last, desperate port in a storm.
Colonel Fitzwilliam swung around, a lady on each arm, blocking her way. “Going somewhere, Miss Bennet?”
“I have something I wish to say to my cousin.”
“You can tell him later, Lizzy.” Mrs. Collins was all agog at the current proceedings and eager to help them along. “He seems most engrossed with her ladyship right now and I am sure could not do justice to your request—or observation—or question.”
“But I wished most particularly—”
“Mrs. Collins is correct,” sounded Darcy’s deep voice behind her. “There could be little gained from seeking him out now.”
“You have always wished to explore this garden; I know you have. Let Mr. Darcy take you.”
And once again she was on his arm, being steered inexplicably towards the remotest of rosy regions. Still flustered over the revelations about Mr. Wickham and still angry about his interference with Jane, she hardly knew what to say. Darcy, meanwhile, was mentally rehearsing the speech he meant to make—and calculating exactly which spot would be the most ideal for making it—when Lady Catherine’s voice boomed across the grass. “Darcy!”
Only the faintest hitch in Darcy’s pace indicated that he had heard her.
“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth tugged on his arm.
“Your aunt is calling you!”
“Yes, do you not hear her?”
“Ah, well…” He was still trying to pull her in the other direction, but she refused to go.
“You cannot ignore your aunt, Mr. Darcy! You must go speak with her.”
He stood perfectly still for several moments, and turned. They trod the distance in silence, although Elizabeth was surprised by how tightly he pressed her hand against his side. The contact made her uncomfortable and she withdrew before they reached his aunt.
“Darcy, your cousin is feeling fatigued. Take her into the house.”
“I don’t think—”
“She cannot remain out here or she might become ill. She requires an escort immediately.”
“Oh, Lady Catherine, it would be my delight—”
“Not you, Collins! My daughter requires more exalted company.”
“I am sure that Mr. Collins would provide a perfectly adequate—”
“I don’t want adequate!” announced Miss de Bourgh.
“Neither shall you have it, my pet. Darcy, I insist that you take her inside at once.”
Darcy had no choice but to acquiesce. He cast a single imploring look at Elizabeth, which she did not seem to see. Anne, Anne, Anne! He was always doomed to have Anne on his arm and never Elizabeth. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have been Lady Catherine’s daughter instead?
Finally set free from Darcy’s strange and irritating presence, Elizabeth attempted for a time to seem interested in a discussion of the feasibility of a topiary at the parsonage. When asked, she affirmed without a blush that a bush in the shape of a duck would make a very becoming tribute to Lady Catherine’s magnificent duck pond, and that one formed into the likeness of a honeybee might honor Mr. Collins’s own modest efforts in the way of apiculture. Yet the evening’s events were leaving her unsettled in a way she could not explain. Perhaps it was the colonel’s description of Mr. Wickham, perhaps something else. Before long, she saw the other three moving back their way and breathed a sigh of relief.
Inside the house, Darcy escorted Anne to the parlor where Mrs. Jenkinson sat in the exact same place and in the exact same posture as he had seen her last. He felt a moment’s pity for the woman, who had been denied even the simple pleasure of a moonlit stroll by her employer, who considered her unnecessary at the moment. “See, I have brought you your charge back,” he said. “Doubtless she will wish to go upstairs now.”
“I won’t need Mrs. Jenkinson anymore when we are married,” announced Anne, as that woman came to fuss over her. “It will be your job to do it. Mother said.”
Darcy shut his eyes. “I meant what I said in the garden, Anne.”
“Mother said,” she repeated, as if that were the clinching argument in any situation.
Desperately aware of how inappropriate it was to have this conversation in front of an employee, he tried one last time. “I respect your mother, but she has no power over me.”
Anne gave him a faint, tolerant smile. “We’ll have two children, a son and a daughter, and the daughter will inherit Rosings just as I will—”
Darcy fled again.
After the colonel deposited Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas with the others, he headed for the house, where he met Darcy in the hallway. “Look here, Darcy,” he said without preamble, “I hate to say it, but it looks to me like your Miss Bennet doesn’t particularly want to be private with you. Every time you come near her she heads in the other direction.”
“She is teasing,” said Darcy, “or else shy. I begin to think it possible that she doesn’t even realize why I wish to speak to her, which would just prove how modest and unpretentious she is.”
The colonel muttered something under his breath that sounded like stubborn. “If I were you I would rally my troops and try again in the morning.”
“Absolutely not. Lady Catherine will have me engaged to Anne by the morning if I don’t preempt her.”
“Yes, about that… I tried to tell Anne, but she wouldn’t believe me.”
“She wouldn’t believe me either.”
“And Miss Bennet is being elusive.”
“Yet I would have managed it if it weren’t for our aunt. I need you to distract her.”
“Yes, but how? She has little interest in me next to you.”
“Ask her permission to marry her daughter,” Darcy suggested.
“What? Are you out of your senses?”
He shrugged. “She will never grant it, but the subject would keep her occupied for quite some time, probably creating enough spectacle to divert the others as well.”
“Oh, no, no, no!” Fitzwilliam threw his hands up. “There is much I would do out of loyalty and friendship for you, cousin, but I draw the line at false proposals of marriage!”
“Oh, very well.” He shook his cuffs out. “Just keep her talking. Ask her the value of her paintings or the history of the east wing, or how Sir Lewis was recognized by the king. Just don’t let her come near me!”
“You’ll catch cold, I tell you. You’ll never extract her from her lady friends without my help.”
“Then I shall rely on receiving it.”
“You’re going to stand so deeply in my debt you may never pay me off.”
“I shall not even try,” assured Mr. Darcy.
The colonel’s gaze turned indignant just as they stepped outside. Sure enough, Miss Bennet, Miss Lucas, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Collins and Lady Catherine were all standing in a knot. Lady Catherine was holding forth on some subject or other, seemingly pleased at the size of her audience. Darcy stalked his target strategically. He eyed Elizabeth’s position, calculated the best way to approach her, and plotted the quickest route of escape. He waited until Fitzwilliam had insinuated himself into the group and was telling whoppers for war stories, and then, just as his cousin said, “I had had three horses shot out from beneath me already, but—” he touched her arm lightly.
Elizabeth wanted to scream with frustration at Mr. Darcy’s inexplicable persistence. Really, the most devoted lover could not be more stubborn, and he certainly was not that! Was he trying to drive her mad on purpose—to mock her hatred of him by torturing her with his presence? Determinedly she ignored him.
He touched her arm again.
She put her chin up.
He leaned towards her, unsettlingly close, and whispered in her ear. “Miss Bennet.”
She looked at him only long enough to narrow her eyes, and turned away again.
He shifted uneasily beside her, and she hoped triumphantly that he was about to leave.
“Miss Bennet!” he whispered again, more urgently this time. “I must speak to you!” His hand was under her elbow now, still light but insistent.
Elizabeth was about to pull her arm away and deliver a piece of her mind when she became uncomfortably aware that one or two members of the group were looking at them. Even Lady Catherine was turning her face in their direction.
Sounding suddenly louder, Colonel Fitzwilliam said, “Aunt Catherine, don’t you have a capital sabre over the mantle in the library? Do you remember what battles it was carried in?”
Momentarily attention was diverted away from them, but when Darcy tried to draw her away again she felt that she had no choice but to go with him—either that, or make a scene. Her anger at this new proof of his arrogance—at his audacity in compelling her, and his general disregard for her feelings—overflowed, and she could hardly contain the bitter words which sprang to her tongue. The original source of her anger for this evening—the terrible wrong he had done to Jane—rose in her feelings as strongly as it had earlier, and the very moment they were a tolerable distance from the others she turned to him, her eyes flashing.
“Actually, I am glad you have called me away, Mr. Darcy. I have a question to ask you.”
He smiled insufferably. “Oh?”
“Yes. I wish for your opinion on a matter that has been troubling me lately. Tell me,” her voice took on an edge, “what do you think of a man who pays a lady particular attentions, sufficient to engage her affections and raise her expectations, and then leaves her without a word? Would you call such a man a cad?”
He stopped so abruptly that she moved ahead, and he put a hand under her elbow, swinging her around. “Perhaps,” he said, looking at her very intensely, “perhaps the man in question has every intention of speaking, and is merely seeking opportunity.”
“That is not the case in the situation I am thinking of.”
He crossed his arms. “Are you certain?”
“Yes, and you haven’t answered my question. Would you consider a man who raises a woman’s expectations and then abandons her a cad?”
“Yes, and a fool. But I, Miss Bennet,” he seemed to loom closer, “am neither a cad nor a fool.”
Infuriated by his assumption that everything was about him, she snapped, “No, you are content to make your friends fools and cads!”
He drew back as if slapped, and watched her storm off. His friends? With a smothered exclamation he went after her. “Let us be very clear, Miss Bennet,” he said, easily keeping pace with her quick step. “I do not believe your question to be hypothetical only, so just exactly whom are you speaking of?”
“Why, do you have many friends whom you have persuaded to abandon the women they love?” she asked sarcastically.
Again he halted mid-stride for several moments before hurrying after her. “This is about Bingley?”
“Mr. Bingley and my sister! Or have you forgotten her existence, as you forgot her feelings?”
Elizabeth had been headed towards the entrance to the house, but just before she reached the steps he managed to somehow seize her hand and pull her into a shadowed nook by the high stone balustrade. “How dare you!” she hissed at him, jerking her hand out of his grasp.
“I have a hard time believing that you are really so angry simply because I persuaded Bingley not to return to Netherfield.”
“Yes. I think, Miss Bennet, that there is another reason for your anger—and that you will quickly find it to be unfounded. Just like you are not like your sister, I am not like—”
As he spoke, Darcy had been leaning closer to Elizabeth, and he put one hand out to the wall to steady himself, but instead of meeting stone it closed around a trailing rose with very sharp thorns. Although he was too manly to cry out at something so minor as four long thorns stuck deep into the meat of his hand, he did make a strangled sort of sound, and jumped back.
This was the moment for Elizabeth to make good her escape, but a combination of surprise and curiosity stayed her, and once she realized what he had done, she was so hard pressed not to laugh that even her righteous anger lessened.
Darcy, as he wound his handkerchief around his hand, said without looking up, “You may laugh if you like, Miss Bennet.”
One giggle escaped her, and then two, and she saw to her surprise that he was grinning ruefully in the near-darkness. She had thought that above all things he despised being laughed at. “You ought to go inside and have that cleaned,” she told him. “It could become infected otherwise.”
“In a moment. But first—”
Once again they were interrupted, this time by the sound of his Aunt Catherine’s voice raised in anger.
Across the garden, Fitzwilliam had been having a difficult time of it. Although Lady Catherine’s ability to wax eloquent on the value of her treasures was almost unlimited—as was Mr. Collins’s willingness to reverentially repeat everything she said—Darcy and Miss Bennet’s erratic progress across the circle had inevitably caught her attention. No matter how wildly he talked, or how many questions he asked, she became more and more preoccupied with watching them.
“And then a cannon ball landed within two feet of where I was standing, and the dirt—”
“Why is Miss Bennet—”
“—was exactly like the dirt they have in gardens here at Rosings! What kind of soil do you have here, Aunt Catherine?”
“Only the best, of course, none of that nasty chalk! But do you see how Darcy—”
“Yes, Darcy insisted it was all sandstone and that green stuff, but I told him you’d never have anything less than loam beneath your trees. But that cannon ball, it nearly killed me, you know, and—”
“Oh, be quiet, Fitzwilliam. Mr. Collins! What does your cousin mean by running across the grass like that?”
“Oh, my dearest Lady Catherine, I wish I could say that this is the first time I have ever known her to run, but I am afraid that it is not. She has a most indelicate love of rapid motion. I shall speak to her about it immediately!”
“But Mr. Collins—” His wife put her hand on his arm.
Lady Catherine gasped loudly as Darcy and Miss Bennet suddenly vanished into the shadows by the steps. “What is the meaning of—”
“Lady Catherine!” cried Colonel Fitzwilliam desperately.
“Well, what is it?” she snapped, her eyes never moving.
“Lady Catherine, I—that is—” He saw Mr. Collins turn to set off in the direction of the potential lovers. “Lady Catherine, I wish to marry your daughter!” he blurted out.
Everyone froze, and all heads swiveled slowly in his direction.
“What did you say?” Lady Catherine seemed unable to believe her ears.
A glance towards the steps showed that they were still hidden away. “I said,” he repeated loudly, with considerable courage, “that I, a lowly soldier, would like your permission to marry Anne. My cousin. Your daughter.” You owe me an estate, Darcy, he thought.
It was hard to tell, but Lady Catherine’s face seemed like it was turning darker. She took a deep breath. “Why you impudent, foolhardy…” she began, her voice rising like a flock of birds at daybreak.
Hurry it up, old man. Hurry it up!
“I’m sure it is nothing,” said Darcy.
“You said that last time.”
“Yes, but she was calling my name then. She’s not now.”
Elizabeth stared at him in astonishment. “No, but she’s obviously very upset. Don’t you think you ought to go see what the matter is?”
“Not really. Miss Bennet, I have been seeking an opportunity all evening to tell you…” unconsciously he clenched his hand, just to wince and look down, “… that these last weeks I have not failed to notice…” he tugged the thicker part of the handkerchief back over the area that was bleeding, and it unraveled, forcing him to try to wind it back on again, “… and noticed back in Hertfordshire, of course, but was unable to act at the time, for reasons that I am sure you can appreciate, because you are sensible, and my objections were after all entirely….” He looked up to suddenly realize that Elizabeth had already stepped back out from under the tree and was standing in the moonlight, staring in the direction of the others. “Miss Bennet!”
“What?” answered Elizabeth absently, her whole attention focused on the sight of Lady Catherine ramming her walking stick into her older nephew’s chest. “Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy, but really—oh, there’s Charlotte. You must excuse me, sir. Do get your hand looked after.”
With that she flitted away like some sort of rare and elusive butterfly. Cursing his hand, his ineptness, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Lady Catherine, that blasted rose, and most of all Elizabeth’s apparent incognizance of his purpose, he watched while she reattached herself to her party, all of whom were beating a strategic retreat before the wrath of his aunt. What his cousin had done to deserve it he couldn’t imagine, but whatever it was, Darcy found himself taking some grim enjoyment from watching it. Then his smarting hand drew his attention again, and he knew that he would have to have it properly bandaged before he could do anything further. With a last regretful glance in Elizabeth’s direction he started up the stairs, even as Colonel Fitzwilliam, driven back before the walking stick, tripped and fell into the fountain.
It was about half an hour later by the time everything had settled down again and they had all returned to the parlor. The colonel had humbly apologized and withdrawn his petition for Miss de Bourgh’s hand. Lady Catherine had been so energized by the experience of browbeating him that she walked three times around the whole circle of the garden, with the rest of the group trailing behind her like some sort of entourage. If she remembered what she had seen passing between her younger nephew and Miss Bennet she did not say so, apparently content to see that it was over now. Elizabeth had been so divided between awe and laughter that she had very nearly forgotten her upset in mentally composing a letter to her father describing the scene. Mr. Collins had attempted to speak to the great lady about every two minutes, the exchange going something like this:
“Not now, Collins!”
“Yes, your ladyship!”
Charlotte had looked suitably insensible, and Maria just spent the entire time gaping.
By the time they all went back inside Darcy had finished having his palm bandaged by his valet, and he came downstairs just in time to follow them into the parlor. He and his cousin exchanged a couple of interrogating, exasperated and (in the colonel’s case) incredulous looks before the latter heaved a big sigh, downed a large brandy from the sideboard, and advanced back into the fray.
Elizabeth turned an amused smile on him. “Yes, Colonel?”
“You must forgive me if I seem repetitious, but I would still enjoy hearing you play the pianoforte, that is if your headache is better now. It might—” he coughed into his hand, “help me settle my nerves.”
“You know, I believe my headache is gone. Perhaps it was frightened away.”
“It would not be the only one. I’ve faced firing lines less daunting.”
“Yes, well… oh, very well. If you really wish it, I will play.”
“Thank you. I would be very grateful,” he said with full sincerity. A sigh of relief escaped him as she rose to go, and he looked victoriously at his cousin. Darcy, who had managed to remain inconspicuously by the side of the room, nodded and tugged on the front of his coat.
Colonel Fitzwilliam escorted Miss Bennet to the piano bench, and for appearance’s sake remained near while she chose some music and began to play. After a minute or two, Darcy joined them and, at the first pause in the music, Fitzwilliam murmured something about needing to rest his feet, and excused himself before Elizabeth could think of a way to stop him.
She had to suppress a roll of her eyes at finding herself, yet again, alone with Mr. Darcy ( or as alone as one can be in a room full of people). “We seem to have had an eventful evening, Mr. Darcy,” she observed.
“It has been… unexpected.”
“That’s one way to put it,” she muttered.
“What did you say, Miss Bennet?”
“I said I hope your cousin is not too disappointed.”
“At having an offer of marriage refused.”
“Ah.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Well, she might think she is, once she accepts it, but I am confident that she feels no true affection, and with reflection she must realize that I never—” He paused uncertainly at the expression on her face. “What is it?”
“I meant your cousin Fitzwilliam, Mr. Darcy.”
“Fitzwilliam?” He stared at her blankly for a moment before comprehension came. “You mean he actually… so that was why…” He colored at his mistake.
Still playing her piece, Elizabeth bit her lip, her cheeks growing pink with mirth, and her eyes dancing in the most bewitching fashion. “Quite so,” she said cheekily.
That was it. With a swift glance over his shoulder, he shifted his body to come between the people around the fireplace and Elizabeth. Leaning forward he said, in a low voice and rather rapidly, “Miss Bennet, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Her hands came down with a crash on the keys, and she stared at him wide-eyed. Hearing the conversation go silent behind him he raised his brows, urging her to answer. The next moment Elizabeth was standing up and hastily gathering the sheet music with trembling hands. “I don’t find your attempt at humor amusing, sir!” she hissed.
“Humor!” It came out louder than he intended, and he glanced over his shoulder again to find his Aunt Catherine’s eyes boring into him. He lowered his voice again. “I was not being humorous!”
“No,” she agreed, placing the music on the piano lid and turning away, “you weren’t!”
His hands clenched with frustration, and he had to physically restrain himself from catching her arm as she swept past him. Fitzwilliam was looking at him inquiringly, and he just shook his head slightly, turning away as he tried to compose himself. Not only his frustration but his disappointment was tremendous. What did the infuriating woman want? Why wouldn’t she answer him?
Her suspicions aroused again, Lady Catherine demanded to know what had caused Miss Bennet to end her playing in such a disgraceful manner. Elizabeth replied that her headache was bothering her again—that it had in fact gotten worse. “You must go home at once!” proclaimed her ladyship. “I will have the carriage called, and you shall leave this instant!”
Darcy shot a look of extreme alarm at his cousin, who immediately said, “Miss Bennet cannot go yet!”
“Yes, I can, Colonel,” replied Elizabeth. “I thank you, but I am most grateful to accept Lady Catherine’s offer.”
A servant was summoned immediately, and Elizabeth went to collect her wraps. “Mr. Collins, you and Mrs. Collins shall stay for another hour,” decreed the dictator of the drawing room. “Darcy, come sit by me.”
But Darcy was truly desperate now, and even his desire for concealment was not strong enough to make him obey her. He muttered some apology about a letter he’d forgotten and almost bolted from the room. Lady Catherine, after satisfying herself that he had not gone to stand in the entry with Miss Bennet, returned to instructing Mr. Collins on the proper organization of his apiary.
Elizabeth watched the carriage rumble off around the corner and turned to walk the short path to the parsonage door. When a certain tall shadow suddenly moved from its surrounding shadows, she could not even bring herself to be surprised, nor to wonder how he got there before her.
Speaking before she had a chance to, Darcy advanced towards her. “You, Miss Bennet, are the most exasperating woman of my entire acquaintance!”
“Then I must wonder why on earth you should choose to follow me here,” she answered crossly.
“You have yet to answer my question.”
“Because you weren’t really asking one!”
“Is that what you believe?” he demanded, staring down into her moonlit face. He was close enough now to touch her. “Do you really think I would utter such words as that in jest?”
“The entire evening seems like a jest to me,” she muttered, rubbing her temples. “One long, absurd jest contrived between you and your cousin as a way of making sport of me.”
For a moment he was silent. “This, then, is your estimation of my character,” he said at last, and even Elizabeth couldn’t miss the hurt behind the anger in his tone. Momentarily, she felt a wave of remorse.
“It’s not what I would have expected,” she admitted quietly. “But I could imagine no other explanation.”
His silence spoke volumes.
“You… you can’t expect me to believe that you actually want to marry me.”
“You’ve always disliked me!”
That did startle him into speech. “Disliked you! Indeed, I have not!”
“Oh.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
After a long pause he sighed. “I have not courted you well, have I?”
She couldn’t lie. “No.”
“I suppose you think I should take my leave now.” His voice sounded bitter.
She opened her mouth to say yes, but found herself suddenly pausing. It had been… such a strange night, filled with startling revelations, and somehow the fierce antagonism she had felt against Mr. Darcy at the beginning of it had ebbed away. He remained strange, frustrating and high-handed, and yet, somehow… compelling. “Mr. Darcy,” she said slowly, “I think we have both misunderstood the other.”
“You… you really intended to propose to me tonight?”
“I did propose to you tonight.”
“All of that—the piano playing, the walking in the garden—it was all an attempt to get me alone so that you could propose?”
He looked away.
“Can you not guess?”
After several long, pregnant moments she said, “You—it is not possible that you could—that you might possibly—”
“Yes,” she whispered.
Darcy contemplated her face in the moonlight. “It seems neither of us is very good at judging the other’s feelings,” he said at last, choosing his words carefully, “but I can judge my own, and I can assure you… I am in love with you.”
Elizabeth’s eyes grew larger than ever, and standing there, looking at her startled, uncertain, overwhelmed countenance, Darcy at last gave up his evening’s determined purpose. He would not become an engaged man tonight; he would not demand an answer from this girl who was so obviously unready to give it. With a long sigh he stepped back from her a pace. “If I were to come to Longbourn,” he said, “—with my friend Bingley, of course—would you receive me?”
For a long moment he thought she was going to answer, then finally she nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said. “I think I would. I can make no promises,” she added hurriedly, as he smiled. “I don’t know—that is, I have never considered—”
“I understand. I began this evening, Miss Bennet, believing that I was about to obtain the prize, but the truth is that I have not yet entered the race, isn’t it?”
There another pause. “I think,” she almost whispered, “I think, Mr. Darcy, you have entered it now.”
“I wish most ardently to win it.”
Then she looked away, placing her hand on her cheek in a self-conscious gesture that told him she was blushing. It was not the first time he had seen her blush, but this blush seemed significant somehow, and he found himself reaching to brush the free cheek that was turned to him. Her head jerked around.
“Forgive me, I did not mean to…”
“Perhaps I had better go in, Mr. Darcy.”
“Yes.” He sighed and stepped aside. “But I may call on you at Longbourn?”
“With your friend, Mr. Bingley, you said?”
“Yes. If he has really engaged your sister’s affections—”
“Of course he has!”
“—then he will be all too pleased to come.”
“And we shall be pleased to receive you.”
“I hope so,” he said softly.
“Somehow, Mr. Darcy,” she answered, offering her hand in a sudden bold gesture, “I really think we will.”
He grasped it eagerly. “Both of us?”
“Both of you.” She smiled a quizzical smile and turned, but before she went inside he kissed her hand, and had the satisfaction of watching her blush again in the light of the door lamp.
“Well?” demanded Fitzwilliam, pouncing on Darcy the moment he walked in the door. “Well, man? Please tell me you got it done this time!”
“I asked the question, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then you’re engaged!”
“No.” He sighed. “I am not.”
“Don’t tell me she refused you!”
“If I had pressed her for an answer I think she probably would have. But I did not.”
The colonel’s jaw dropped open. “Then all of this was for nothing? All of this parading—I should say my parading, and humiliation, and endless contrivances, were for naught? I bled for you, Darcy! I covered for you and worked for you and made a public spectacle of myself; I,” he shuddered, “offered to marry Anne for you, and the end result is that you do not press her for an answer?”
“I’m sorry,” said Darcy remorsefully. “You were right. Proposing to her at Rosings was not a good plan. If only she had chosen to stay home tonight! If only I could have spoken to her alone, without my aunt present. Perhaps then it would have gone better.”
“Well one thing’s for sure,” said Fitzwilliam, as they turned to ascend the stairs. “It could not have gone worse.”