Authors: Abigail Reynolds
Tags: #Adult, #Romance
"Andrew!" cried Elizabeth, rushing towards the boy an instant before he toppled into the water.
Darcy was closer, though. The boy was in no danger in the shallow water, or would be once he thought to stand up, but his freckled face screwed up in dismay as he flailed. Darcy touched Elizabeth's arm briefly to stay her and then waded out into the water and fished the boy out. He carried him to the bank and set him down. Darcy asked, "Are you injured, lad?"
Elizabeth was there before he could reply, brushing Andrew's dripping hair from his forehead. "There is no need for fear, you are quite safe, my dear."
Andrew hiccupped. "I fell in," he said, quite unnecessarily.
"Indeed you did, and now you are quite wet. That is an adventure to remember." Elizabeth managed to elicit a smile through the boy's tears. "You must thank Mr. Darcy, Andrew."
The boy mumbled his thanks, and Elizabeth straightened. "It was very good of you, sir. I am sorry to put you to the trouble. I fear you must be uncomfortable."
"It was nothing," he said brusquely. Any discomfort he felt had nothing to do with dampness. "The water barely reached over my boots."
"Yes, I can see you are quite dry indeed," Elizabeth said archly, gesturing towards his chest where the evidence of water could not be denied. "Your poor valet may be even more devastated when he sees you now."
He glanced down. The front of his tailcoat was wet where he had held the boy. He brushed off a few drops of water, but it made no difference to his appearance. "It is no matter." It was not. A stain on his coat was a small price to pay to see Elizabeth teasing him again. He would have happily jumped into the Serpentine himself if he thought it would make her smile. "But this young man is soaked through. Our house is but a short walk from here. We can find him some dry clothes and a warm fire there."
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "We could not
impose on you."
"Nonsense. I insist. Do you not agree, Georgiana?"
"Of course!" his sister said. "You cannot take him all the way to Cheapside like that. He would catch his death of cold, and I would
Darcy wondered when Georgiana had developed her sudden talent for dramatics. "You would not want my sister to worry, would you, Miss Bennet?"
She gave him an amused look that said she was fully aware he had trapped her after all. "Well, then, I suppose we must accept your kind offer."
Elizabeth looked down Brook Street to the townhouse Mr. Darcy had indicated. "Your house is indeed very close to Hyde Park," she said.
"Very convenient." He looked a bit smug.
"Almost too convenient," she teased. "I might wonder if you persuaded poor Andrew to jump in the lake."
"No, indeed," Darcy said, "though had I realized it would have such an outcome, I might have tried."
Elizabeth smothered a laugh at his brazen answer. "I must ask you one question, sir."
"How did that letter come to appear in my room?"
"The same way I knew you would be in the park today."
"Indeed?" Her words were a challenge.
He smiled indulgently. "Yes, indeed, but a gentleman never reveals his sources."
They stayed but an hour at the townhouse, long enough for Andrew to be hurried off by a servant, his clothing dried and returned to him still warm from the fireside. Both Darcy and Georgiana attempted to persuade them to lengthen their visit, but to no avail, as Elizabeth insisted the Gardiners would worry if they did not return soon.
Darcy was content. The meeting had gone far better than he hoped. Elizabeth seemed more natural with him by the end of the visit, and as her smiles and laughter returned, his spirits rose with them. There was no chance for them to speak privately, but perhaps that was for the best at this stage.
He walked them out to the street where a hackney cab, summoned by his footman, awaited them.
Elizabeth lingered on the steps. "Mr. Darcy, I must thank you for all your kindness today. Were my aunt and uncle here, they would add their gratitude to mine."
"There is no need for thanks. I am grateful for such pleasant company."
An impish smile hovered about her mouth. "You will not even allow me to thank you, then?"
He pretended to consider the matter. "No, I think I shall not. You must save your thanks until next we meet."
She gave him an amused look. The hackney driver coughed pointedly, stamping his feet on the board. Darcy opened the door, and the children hurried in, impatient with the grown-up conversation. Elizabeth lingered a moment as if she would say something else, but then she took his offered hand and stepped into the carriage. "I thank you
, sir," she said.
"It was my pleasure entirely." He kept his eyes fixed on her, determined not to lose a minute of his opportunity to see her. The driver cracked his whip, and the horses took off at a brisk walk.
Georgiana was waiting just inside the door. She tugged his arm until he followed her to the sitting room, where she closed the door behind him. "Well, Fitzwilliam?"
"Would you care to explain to me why you staged that encounter? Could you not have simply called on her?"
Darcy sank onto the cushioned sofa embroidered with wildflowers. "I have not seen Miss Bennet in some time. We quarrelled, and I did not have a chance to make amends. A spontaneous meeting seemed safer."
"That meeting was no more spontaneous than Napoleon's march on Russia!"
"But somewhat more pleasant, one would hope."
"She is charming, naturally. Ought I to wish you joy, then?"
"Premature, my dear. Quite premature." He was not about to tell Georgiana just how badly their last meeting had gone, but by the time Elizabeth left that day, she was smiling at him again, and she understood his intent. "But perhaps someday."
Elizabeth's giddiness lasted through the rest of the day. She could not forget her meeting with Mr. Darcy for a moment, even if she had not been subjected to repeated recitations of the entire adventure by the children. She was aware of a whispered conversation between her aunt and uncle when he came home that afternoon and of the sharp looks Mr. Gardiner gave her afterwards. She could not miss that Mrs. Gardiner penned a letter of thanks to Miss Darcy and Mr. Darcy for their kindness to the children, since her aunt made a point of writing it in front of her and read it aloud when she finished it.
But Elizabeth had little time to reflect on it until bedtime. She tiptoed into her room and set the candle on the vanity before the small mirror, careful not to awaken Margaret, who had recently graduated from the nursery to share her room. With a sigh, she lowered herself onto the stool before it.
Why had he reappeared now, months after their last contact? At first she had thought it an accident and schooled herself to be satisfied that they could have a civil conversation, but then he revealed he had planned it, and how had he known? One of the servants, obviously, but which one? She must be careful what she said and did.
She pulled out hairpins, setting them in line on the vanity, ready for the morrow. Her heavy twist of hair fell down onto her shoulders. What would Mr. Darcy do if he could see her now? She imagined his hand running through her curls, to rest on her shoulder. Would he kiss her then, as he had that day in Moorsfield?
Moorsfield. They had always met there. Would he look for her there and not find her? Or had his source told him that her uncle did not permit her to walk out alone anymore? He had indicated he expected to see her again. Perhaps he meant to seek her out as he had today.
She held her hand in front of herself, in the light of the candle, remembering the pressure of his fingers on it as he handed her into the hackney. She had even imagined she felt the warmth of his hand through her glove, but that was impossible. Not that it made a difference, since she had felt warm all over from his look, and he had not touched her at all with that. Mr. Griggs never elicited those feelings from her.
She picked up her hairbrush and ran it slowly through her hair. The look of Mr. Darcy's had said that it was not over between them, but how and when would she see him again? Would it be days or weeks or months again? Perhaps she should have said more to encourage him, but her embarrassment over her past behaviour was too great. Now she could do nothing but wait. She touched her fingertips lightly to her burning lips, wishing it could be his touch.
Mrs. Gardiner's letter left with the morning post, and a reply arrived that very afternoon. "Quite a prompt response for so slight an acquaintance," Mrs. Gardiner said as she broke the seal.
Elizabeth waited in a torment of impatience as her aunt read the letter. She knew better than to press Mrs. Gardiner, but she was certain her aunt must have read it through at least three times before she said a word.
Finally Mrs. Gardiner folded it, set it on the tray, and turned an inquisitive gaze on Elizabeth. "You must have made quite an impression, Lizzy. We are invited to dine with the Darcys on Tuesday next."
"At their townhouse?" Elizabeth's heartbeat threatened to drown out her every thought.
"Where else?" Her aunt knitted her brows and examined Elizabeth, looking her over from head to foot. "That dress will not do. We must think of something else, since we are unlikely to find a
who can prepare a new dress so quickly."
"There is no need. My Sunday dress is still serviceable and will do once again." It was an automatic protest against any money being spent on her.
"Nonsense. You must make the most of this opportunity to create a good impression. If you can catch Mr. Darcy's eye once more, it would be a fine thing."
"Somehow I doubt Mr. Griggs would agree with you."
Mrs. Gardiner took Elizabeth by the arm and walked to the corner of the room where they could speak more privately. "Mr. Griggs is not a fool. He will be disappointed, but he would not expect you to pass up such an opportunity as this. He is a good match, but he will not begrudge you a brilliant one."
Elizabeth's lips quirked. "You are very quick to marry me off to a man you have never met."
"Lizzy, you know I only want the best for you. Think of what you could do for your family as Mrs. Darcy."
The use of that name took Elizabeth off guard, and she said more frankly than she might have otherwise, "I would not need that inducement to accept him."
Her aunt's eyes softened. "You care for him, then?"
"I think he is a good man." Further than that she was not prepared to go.
Mrs. Gardiner rubbed her hands together. "Well, then, we must prepare. It occurs to me that my new blue silk dress could be altered to fit you without much difficulty."
"But you have wished for that dress for so long!"
"Your happiness is more important to me. And, if you marry Mr. Darcy, there will be benefits to all of us, and I can easily obtain another silk dress."
No arguments Elizabeth could make would prevail.
The next few days were quiet in the Gardiner household. The younger children were relegated to the care of their nursemaid, while Elizabeth, with some assistance from Margaret, put finishing touches on the blue silk dress. It was finer material than she had worn before, even when she lived at Longbourn.
Mr. Griggs did not pay his usual calls, leading Elizabeth to believe her uncle had spoken to him. It almost frightened her how ready her aunt and uncle were to believe that Mr. Darcy needed but an opportunity to propose. The wish was so close to her own heart that she could barely stand to think on it.
Their toils were interrupted one afternoon by a loud pounding at the front door. It did not presage well for a visit from a well-mannered person. Elizabeth assumed it must be a vendor of some kind and paid little attention to the manservant who left to answer the door. She continued her careful stitching of the fine fabric until she heard the servant clearing his throat.
"Miss Lydia Bennet," he announced.
Elizabeth rose in surprise and embraced her sister, who seemed disinclined to reciprocate.
"Where is my aunt?" Lydia demanded, without even a greeting.
Elizabeth frowned at her lack of manners. "Margaret, would you inform your mother we have a guest?" She waited until the girl's footsteps had faded away. "What brings you to London? This is quite a surprise."
Lydia flounced across the room and settled herself on an embroidered settee. "Lord, how dirty Cheapside is! I don't know how you stand it. Why could our uncle not purchase a house in a more fashionable part of town?"
Elizabeth's lips tightened. "Perhaps you would like some refreshment. I imagine Bates will be bringing some shortly. But tell me, how is our mother? Is Jane well?"
"They are all well, or at least well enough. Mama is ill, but then again, she always is."
"Ill? What ails her?"
Lydia shrugged. "Some fever or other, no doubt."
Mrs. Gardiner bustled in, much to Elizabeth's relief. "Lydia, my dear! What brings you here?"
Lydia grimaced, then rummaged in her reticule and pulled out a crumpled letter. She held it out. "From Jane," she said, as if it explained everything.
Mrs. Gardiner took the letter and broke the seal, her lips moving as she read the close-written lines. She shook her head once and then passed her hand over her forehead as if she were suddenly extremely weary.
Elizabeth had not truly worried until she saw the expression on her aunt's face. "What is the matter?" she cried. Without concern for her manners, she reached for the letter, but Mrs. Gardiner pulled it away.
"No, Lizzy. This is a matter I must discuss with your uncle."
Mrs. Gardiner's skirts swished as she hurried out the doorway.
Elizabeth rounded on her sister, ignoring the sullen expression that boded no good. "If you do not tell me what has happened, it will go hard with you!"
"It is all a tempest in a teapot, and you may keep your superior ways to yourself! You're just jealous. No real man has ever looked twice at you."
If only she knew! But Elizabeth knew better than to breathe a word to Lydia about Mr. Darcy, who had looked more than twice at her. "If you will not tell me, I will apply to our uncle directly." She swept out of the room.
Despite her words, she knew better than to interrupt her aunt and uncle when they were conferring, so instead she went to her room and began to move some of her possessions aside to make room for Lydia's belongings. They would have to share the room, and even the bed, since there was no other place for a visitor, not since Elizabeth had come to live there. She would lose the little bit of privacy she had, that precious hour after Margaret was asleep when Elizabeth was free to dream her dreams. She paused at the thought of Mr. Darcy, her summer nightgown in hand. Perhaps it might not be so long until she left the Gardiners' house. The idea did a great deal to restore her good spirits.
After half an hour, her worry and curiosity became too strong to bear, and she sought out her uncle in his office. His grim face and her aunt's red eyes bore testament that whatever the letter said was even more serious than she had believed.
"Sit down, Lizzy," her uncle said heavily. "This matter concerns you as well."
Visions of her mother or Jane ill danced before her eyes. "Please tell me, Uncle. Lydia refuses to say a word."
"And well she might!" her aunt exclaimed, wringing her skirts in her hand. "The foolish girl--"
Her uncle said, "There is no point in denying the matter. Your sister has succumbed to the blandishments of a young man who now denies knowledge of her, and she is to pay the price."
"Not with child?" Elizabeth's hand travelled to her own stomach, as if to forfend the disastrous news from being contagious.
"I wish I could say she were not. How many times I told your father to rein in her spirits and break her of her free ways! But it is too late now." Her uncle sat back in his chair. "Lydia must stay here until after her confinement. There is nowhere else for her to go."
"And the child?" Elizabeth asked steadily.
"We will raise it as ours," he said, with a glance at his wife, "although the timing is poor. But this is not the only news. Jane begs for your return to Meryton, as she is close to her own confinement, and your mother in poor health. She does not trust Kitty or Mary to watch over her, and, if I read between the lines correctly, Jane herself may require assistance. It is the best solution, although we shall be sorry to lose you. We can ill afford to add Lydia to our household as it is."
Leave London and return to the crowded rooms in Meryton? Now, when Mr. Darcy had returned to her life, against all odds? Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, trying to wish it away. Apart from Jane, there was nothing for her in Meryton any longer. But it was the end of all her plans and wishes, in any case. With Lydia's disgrace, any possibility of marriage to Mr. Darcy would now be at an end. How quickly a dream could die! "When do you wish me to leave?" she asked, her throat tight.
Her uncle glanced down at the letter. "Jane expresses some urgency."
"Then I shall go tomorrow." It was for the best; the longer she stayed in London, the greater the chance of seeing Mr. Darcy again, and she could not bear it, not now. She stood, while she still maintained her composure. "I must start my packing."
"Lizzy," her aunt said gently. "I hope you will return to us when... after Lydia no longer needs to stay here."
Her kindness brought tears to Elizabeth's eyes. "Thank you. For everything." She fled before she started to sob.
Elizabeth folded her shift with great care and laid it in the trunk. Even Lady Catherine could have found no fault with the neatness of her packing. Her concentration on it allowed her to pretend Lydia was not there, lounging on the bed and complaining.
"I still do not see why I had to leave Meryton. I could have worn my dresses loose, and no one would have known the difference. There at least I could have some freedom." Lydia huffed a sigh. "My uncle says I will not be allowed to leave the house. For months on end! Can you imagine?"
"He is quite right. You have caused enough damage." Elizabeth kept her voice even, but she longed to slap Lydia.
"Why should you care? You are not the one imprisoned here, with no entertainment at all." Lydia flounced over to a chair.
"It is better than you deserve. If you have no care for your own reputation, you might at least think of what this is costing the rest of us. Do you think our aunt wishes for another baby to care for now, when she is not yet recovered from her last?" Elizabeth did not dare begin on the subject of what Lydia's misbehaviour had cost her.
"They are our family, and it is only right that they should provide assistance." Lydia discovered Elizabeth's gloves and immediately put them on, holding out her hands to admire them. "These are lovely. Wherever did you get them?"
"They were a gift." Elizabeth longed to rip them off Lydia's hands.