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Authors: Wendi Sotis

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“I am surprised only that he did not request the last set as well!”

Jane blushed, and her expression turned to one of concern. “But do you think that his invitation will give people the wrong impression that he should ask me to dance those two?”

“Jane! It will give them the
correct
impression, one that anyone who cares to look can already see—that your Mr. Bingley is half in love with you, if not more.”

Jane shook her head but did not refute her sister’s words.

“Sweet dreams, dear Jane.”

“Good night, Lizzy.”

~%~

October 19, 1811

To prove that she was well enough to return home, Jane accompanied her sister downstairs for the morning meal. Entering the breakfast room, Elizabeth could tell her sister was a little disappointed that Bingley had not yet joined his sisters and Georgiana. A few minutes later, a footman brought a letter to Jane, saying it was from Longbourn.

Blushing, Jane handed the note to Elizabeth as she said, “My mother replies that the horses are needed on the farm. My father’s carriage cannot be sent until Tuesday.”

Caroline’s smile did not reach her eyes. “If you are certain you are feeling well enough...” She waited for Jane to nod, “then I offer the use of our coach to take you home. It would be no trouble.”

“Oh, but it is so windy out today, Caroline,” Mrs. Hurst joined the conversation, “I am certain Miss Bennet would be caught in a draft walking to and from the carriage.” Turning to face the Bennets, she asked, “Why do you not stay another day?”

From the look Caroline shot at Mrs. Hurst, Elizabeth was sure she was about to scream at her sister for making such a suggestion. With a glance at Georgiana, their hostess calmed herself before she opened her mouth to say, “I am sure Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth miss their family, Louisa. They wish to return home today.” Turning to Jane, she asked forcefully, “When can you be ready to leave?”

Jane seemed taken aback by her tone. “Agnes and Hanna have already begun packing... With our help, perhaps after luncheon?”

This time when Caroline lifted the bell from the table, Elizabeth had to press her lips together to keep from laughing. A footman took a step forward and accepted his orders to have the coach readied for the Bennets’ trunks to be loaded.

Georgiana broke the uncomfortable silence that settled over the room. “Have the gentlemen gone hunting this morning?”

“Yes, I believe they have,” Mrs. Hurst answered. “Mr. Hurst thought they would return by mid-day.”

When breakfast was finished, Elizabeth and Jane went to their rooms. Elizabeth sent the maids into her own chambers to pack while Jane and she finished with Jane’s trunk. Her sister was unusually quiet.

“Lizzy, what do you think was wrong with Miss Bingley this morning?” Jane asked. “Do you think my illness has been that much of an inconvenience to the household?”

“I am sorry to pain you, Jane,” Elizabeth said, “but our staying here
has
disturbed Miss Bingley’s plans. Though for some reason, at first, she wished us to think she liked me, she does not. She would like nothing better than to see me gone from her house.” Reacting to Jane’s pained look, Elizabeth quickly added, “Do not worry, Jane—I could not care less. The feeling is mutual.”

“But—”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No, Jane, there is no
but
. She does not like that Georgiana is friendlier with us than she is with her.” Elizabeth did not want to hurt Jane by telling her that she also suspected Miss Bingley did not like the attention her brother had been paying to Jane.

Jane and Elizabeth continued with their work silently for several minutes before Jane said, “She is jealous, Lizzy... and not just of Georgiana’s attention, but also that of Mr. Darcy. Even I can see that she thinks of Mr. Darcy as her own.”

Elizabeth stood up straight and stared at Jane. After her shock passed, she said, “Jane, I am proud of you! That is the most unkind opinion you have ever expressed.” Elizabeth chuckled, and then went back to her packing. “While there is no chance of her ever hearing a proposal of marriage from Mr. Darcy, she has nothing to worry about when it comes to me.” She hesitated for a few moments before saying, “He does not think much of me... he even thought I was involved in some way with Wickham.”

“Why on earth would you say that, Lizzy?”

“He told me so himself.”

Jane stood gaping at her sister. “No!”

Elizabeth nodded, fighting back the tears pricking at her eyes. “I cannot blame him, Jane. He cannot understand how I know of Wickham’s coming, and I cannot explain.”

Elizabeth shook the wrinkles from one of Jane’s nightshifts with so much force, Jane was certain she would need to repair the seams.

Jane touched Elizabeth’s arm to still her. “When was this?”

“Yesterday... while you were bathing.” She tried to lighten Jane’s mood and forced a chuckle. “You can imagine how I responded.”

Jane shook her head. “He does not truly believe it, dear. I saw him last night... he
does
care for you, Lizzy.”

“He did apologize—the only way he
could
in company. But I am certain he still suspects me of something untoward. How could he not?”

Elizabeth turned away and continued packing.

~%~

Darcy looked up from the letter he was writing to his steward, staring out at nothing. Knowing he would not be good company this morning and had important business to attend to, he had wished to avoid distraction this morning. Rising very early for his morning ride, he had declined the invitation to hunt with the other gentleman and took his morning meal in his rooms. These tactics had worked well towards avoiding Elizabeth and the confusion that always followed spending time in her presence.

Darcy huffed.
And yet, here I am anticipating the prospect of seeing her this evening instead of working!

At hearing noise in the corridor, Darcy went out to investigate. Curious at the sight of footmen carrying trunks down the stairs, Darcy asked, “Roger, whose trunks are you loading?”

Surprised that Mr. Darcy should address him directly when he was amongst higher-ranking footmen, Roger hesitated before his superior nodded, giving permission for him to answer. “We didn’t mean ta’ disturb ye’, sir. Miss Lizzy’s...” Roger’s eyes opened wide at the slip, and his face reddened. “Miss Elizabeth’s trunk is too wide to make the turn in the service stairs. Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth return to Longbourn today.”

With a “Carry on,” Darcy nodded, stepped back into Bingley’s study, and leaned heavily against the closed door.

She is leaving.

Darcy closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping it would relieve the empty ache that had taken root in his chest at the news.

Bingley will visit the Bennets in a day or two, to see how Miss Bennet fares. He will surely ask if I would like to ride along.
He looked at the unfinished letter lying on the desk.
I cannot concentrate on business now. I should see where Bingley is and return later.

Although he would never admit it, deep down he knew the reason for his change in occupation—his friend would be on hand to send off the Bennets.

~%~

October 24, 1811 ~ Longbourn

“What think you of our Cousin Collins, Lizzy?” Jane asked as she unlaced the back of her sister’s gown.

Elizabeth laughed. “You have to ask, Jane?”

Elizabeth hesitated as Jane helped her lift the gown over her head and then began to work on untying Elizabeth’s corset. “I must say that after Papa read us his letter, I am not surprised to find him as he is. I do not like to speak so of a clergyman, but I think Mr. Collins may prove to be the most ridiculous man I have ever met.”

Elizabeth pulled the stays away from her abdomen and took a full, deep breath. Now standing in her chemise, she turned to help Jane undress as well, and began unbuttoning the back of her gown. “Our cousin speaks in a very precise way—as if every sentence has been practiced until memorized, and he could never stray from rote. Did you notice that when he ran out of compliments for his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, he repeated those that were in his letter? They were word for word, Jane.

“As for Lady Catherine, no lady could be as perfect as he described—I have never seen a woman so noble, generous, virtuous, accomplished, and lovely all at the same time—and yet, he has told us of
two
such ladies living at Rosings Park...” She lifted Jane’s gown over her head and tucked her face around to meet her sister’s gaze. Deepening her tone in an attempt to imitate Mr. Collins’s voice, Elizabeth exclaimed, “If her health had allowed, most assuredly Miss de Bourgh would be the most highly accomplished lady who has ever lived!”

Jane smiled unwillingly and then threw Elizabeth a disapproving look—or as close to disapproving as sweet Jane could get.

Elizabeth went to work on loosening Jane’s stays. “I have nothing against the man, Jane, but I do predict that Mr. Collins will provide us with quite a bit of entertainment over the next fortnight.”

Jane shook her head. When Elizabeth finished helping her sister, Jane changed into her nightshift, and Elizabeth started to remove the pins from her hair.

Jane asked, “Mr. Collins is the clergyman in the drawing at Meryton, is he not?”

Elizabeth hesitated a moment, then continued with her task. “Where we meet with Wickham? I am afraid he is.”

“It is as I thought,” Jane said and went to work disassembling her own coiffure.

Yes, Wickham will soon be here!
Elizabeth sighed and busied herself with brushing out her sister’s golden hair.

 

 

Chapter 19

October 26, 1811 ~ On the road to Meryton...

Two days hence, Mr. Bennet called Elizabeth into his study as she returned from her morning walk.

“Lizzy, if you value your father’s life in the least, take Mr. Collins with you when you walk into Meryton to visit with your aunt. By all means, stay a while and show him the village. If he spends another full day following my every step, I cannot be held responsible for my actions!”

Elizabeth took pity on her father and made the suggestion at breakfast, to which all but Mary agreed.

Distracted by yet another of Mr. Collins’s prolific monologues, Elizabeth and Jane had not kept as close a watch over their sisters as usual and realized too late that Kitty and Lydia had increased their pace. As soon as the group entered the village, the younger girls saw a red coat and dashed across the street after it. The officer was standing with another man, looking into the bookshop window. The younger Bennets caught up to the gentlemen, and both turned to greet the girls.

Mr. Wickham!

Elizabeth took hold of Jane’s arm. Jane looked up, and then followed Elizabeth’s gaze with a gasp.

Mr. Denny, an acquaintance and officer in the militia, seemed to be introducing Wickham to her sisters. Intending to rush to her sisters’ side, Elizabeth stepped into the street and time slowed. Elizabeth watched as Wickham leered at Lydia in such a salacious way that she thought she would be ill. Feeling as if she were mired in mud, she could barely move. Panic rose in her chest.
I must protect them!

Jane’s voice called out, but the sound was too slow for Elizabeth to be able to understand what she said. Elizabeth felt a hand on her arm, and it seemed as if she were being tugged backwards. Wickham began to turn his head in her direction.

The speed of time returned to normal.

Elizabeth turned to see why Jane had pulled on her arm and realized she had stopped just in time to avoid stepping into a large puddle in the street. She turned and met Jane’s gaze. “Thank you, Jane! I had not seen it.”

By the time the trio caught up with Kitty and Lydia, the two young girls were flirting shamelessly with the men.

Elizabeth stepped to Lydia’s side and aimed her best glare at Wickham. His smile widened. Bile rose in her throat as he took in her entire figure, then licked his lips. A moment later, he tipped his hat. “Miss Elizabeth! Ah, and here is Miss Bennet, as well! How good it is to see you both again!”

“You know Jane and Lizzy?” Lydia pouted.

“Yes, we met while at Ramsgate,” Wickham answered. “I had heard you were injured, Miss Elizabeth. Are you quite recovered?”

Confused, Elizabeth asked, “Injured?”

Wickham’s expression hardened as he replied, “Yes, I heard that you had fallen and struck your head.”

Is he threatening me?
She heard a soft gasp come from Jane’s direction, but Elizabeth refused to be the first to look away. Not permitting any fear to show, she tightened her eyes and set her jaw firmly in response. “I am quite well, Mr. Wickham.”

He chuckled without mirth. “Well, it is good to hear that you were not as
foolish
as I was led to believe.”

Wickham looked away, but only to eye Lydia in an inappropriate manner.

Jane stepped between Wickham and Lydia and turned her back to the man, effectively cutting off his view.

If circumstances had been different, Elizabeth might have smiled in response to Jane’s sly maneuver. As it was, she took a deep, calming breath before saying, “I am sorry, Mr. Denny, but our aunt is waiting for us. Girls, we must go now.”

“Oh, but Lizzy, we are early!” Lydia whined. “Aunt Phillips is not expecting us for more than a quarter of an hour.”

Jane answered, “But you know how Mrs. Phillips dislikes it when we are late. It is better to be early, dear. We should go.”

As Jane spoke, Wickham casually stepped closer to Elizabeth. He said in a quiet voice only she could hear, his tone threatening. “It would be very unwise of you to spread rumours about me,
Lizzy,
for then I would have to tell a few tales of my own—about my rather
intimate
familiarity
with a certain acquaintance of yours.”

Her eyes flashed with anger. “No such thing ever took place!” she whispered.

“Ah, yes, ’tis true, but men of the world like to exaggerate tales of their conquests to make them sound more interesting.” He smiled deviously. “And I am sure you are well aware of how quickly stories of that kind circulate.”

Mr. Collins took a step towards the street and pointed, speaking loudly, “Could it be, or do my eyes deceive me? Is that gentleman there coming down the street Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?”

Elizabeth heard Jane sigh in relief.

Wickham backed away. It seemed to Elizabeth he was shielding himself from Darcy’s view, but she was thankful that he was further away from her. Darcy soon would be here, and he would take care of Wickham.

Elizabeth turned and saw Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy riding towards them. Jane answered, “Yes, it is Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Do you know Mr. Darcy?”

“There is a miniature painting of him in the hall at Rosings Park, my dear cousin. He is, after all, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s nephew and future son-in-law!”

Jane asked the question that was tickling Elizabeth’s tongue, “Her son-in-law?”

“Yes, of course. Mr. Darcy is engaged to Miss Ann de Bourgh—there is not a luckier gentleman alive!”

Jane looked at Elizabeth.

A deep chuckle caught Elizabeth’s attention. Wickham stepped closer and whispered, “Your face betrays you. So
that
is your game, is it? You certainly aim high, my dear, even higher than myself.”

Elizabeth scowled and stepped away from him.

Wickham turned his back to the approaching gentlemen and bowed, “It was a pleasure meeting you ladies; I do not wish to leave, but duty calls. I am to report to my new colonel, and as it is only my first day as a lieutenant, I had best not keep him waiting.
Adieu
.” Wickham quickly ducked down an alleyway between two of the shops. Denny made his farewells and followed him.

Bingley and Darcy came up to the group a moment later. Before Elizabeth could turn around again, Darcy had dismounted and was by her side. He almost growled, “Was that Wickham?”

Elizabeth shuddered. “I am afraid so.” She looked over at her sisters and Mr. Collins. They were engaged in conversation with Bingley. Lydia and Kitty were making a racket with their squealing and giggling. She felt safe that nobody would hear her answer except Darcy. “It just so happens, Mr. Darcy, that a moment after we were introduced, he told me that if I said one word against him, he would tell everyone in the regiment about his
involvement
with a certain young lady of high standing in society.”

Darcy’s eyes opened wide, but he kept his voice low. “He would not dare!”

Elizabeth turned and caught his gaze, wearing an expression so serious, it made him sick to his stomach.

Darcy’s nostrils flared. “You believe he would.” He closed his eyes momentarily and huffed. “You are correct. He would concoct a story much worse than the actuality of what
did
happen—defaming her in such a way that he would be certain of the tale being spread far and wide.”

She nodded. “I am sorry, Mr. Darcy. I-I did not know how to respond to such a threat, so I remained silent. Jane and I were trying to disengage our party with the excuse of being late to our aunt’s house—”

“No, it is I who should apologize. Of course, you would have little experience dealing with such threats from such a devious man. I could see you were upset as we came down the street. I should not have snapped at you in that manner, and—Miss Elizabeth, please allow me to apologize for what I said to you the other day, as well. I should not have accused you of such a thing.” He swallowed loudly. “I must admit that I did not fully believe your warning. I should have been prepared—I should have done something to prevent his coming here at all.”

Elizabeth’s expression softened. “It is understandable, sir. I have not been
able
to give you much information about my source. I must say that I am thankful that you and Mr. Bingley arrived when you did.”

He looked deeply into her eyes. Elizabeth’s heart fluttered as he opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it. Feeling someone move close by, she broke their shared gaze.

At her elbow, Mr. Collins cleared his throat. She glanced in his direction and then pressed her lips together.
Time for a little comic relief, perhaps?

Darcy searched her eyes, raising both his brows in response.

“Mr. Darcy, may I present my cousin, Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins, this is Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire.”

Darcy nodded his head. Mr. Collins bowed so low, Elizabeth thought he might fall over. All of the emotion of the past few minutes wanted to release through laughter, but she managed to stifle her mirth by clearing her throat. “Mr. Collins is the rector at Rosings Park, Mr. Darcy. I have come to understand that is the seat of your aunt.”

“Mr. Darcy! It is such a privilege to meet you at last! Your aunt speaks so very highly of you. May I have the honour of informing you that your aunt, the gracious and benevolent Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her enchanting daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh, were well when I saw them but two days ago.”

He glanced briefly at Elizabeth before looking back at Mr. Collins. She had to look carefully, for Darcy had his guard up, but she could see a slight crinkling around the corners of his eyes, indicating he found her cousin as ridiculous as she did.

“Thank you for that information, Mr. Collins.” Darcy turned to Bingley and asked, “Shall we see the ladies safely to Mrs. Phillips’s door, Bingley?”

Bingley seemed a little surprised that there was anyone but Jane in the vicinity, but he recovered quickly. “Yes, yes of course.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Darcy swore he saw a shadow move in the alley. He took a few steps in that direction and saw a blue coat disappear at the other end of the alleyway.

Wickham has been watching us.

~%~

Darcy did not want the Bennets to walk home with only his aunt’s clergyman as an escort. Since Bingley had spoken often of two subjects—Miss Bennet and adding to his stables, Darcy suggested that he and Bingley look at the horses available for sale at the blacksmith while they waited for the ladies to finish their visit with their aunt.

The blacksmith was busy speaking with a customer, so the gentlemen stood a little off to one side. Being one never to stay idle when he could put time to good use, after taking up a position that afforded him full view of the Phillips’s front door, Darcy decided to address the Wickham problem with his friend immediately.

Darcy cleared his throat and asked, “Do you remember my speaking of the son of my steward, George Wickham?”

After a moment’s hesitation, recognition dawned in Bingley’s eyes. “Yes, I do. A deceitful rascal who holds an unreasonable grudge against your family, correct?” Darcy nodded and Bingley continued, “I also recall hearing stories of the man at university from many of my classmates, who, in the end, always seemed to regret making his acquaintance.” Bingley frowned. “From all that I have heard, he is not a man to be trusted to repay his debts, that one.”

“He should not be trusted with
anything
which honourable men hold dear.” Darcy gave him a significant look. “Wickham is here, in Meryton, as we speak. He was one of the men the Bennet ladies were speaking to when we first rode into the village.”

Bingley straightened his form and his eyes bulged. “Here? And speaking to the Misses Bennet? You mean one of those two chaps who seemed to walk away only after seeing us coming down the road?”

Bingley always surprised him by being more observant than he appeared to be. Darcy smiled. “Yes, I am certain he did not want me to recognize him. Wickham was the one in the blue coat, though he will soon be wearing red. Miss Elizabeth mentioned that he has purchased a commission in the militia.” He hesitated. “It is especially important that you do not allow Miss Bingley to venture from home unaccompanied while he is in the area, but, if I were you, I would ask your housekeeper to warn the servant girls, as well. Wickham preys especially on ladies with large inheritances, hoping to convince them to marry him, but once he turns on his charm, girls of any station have been known to surrender to his persuasion.”

Bingley answered, “Now I understand why you wanted to wait to escort the Bennets home.”

Darcy nodded again. “Once we arrive at Longbourn, while you are delivering your invitation to the ball, I will ask to speak to Mr. Bennet so he can be warned about the scoundrel.”

All at once, Darcy realized the blacksmith and his customer, Mr. King, if Darcy was not mistaken, had ceased talking. The two men were faced away from them, but, judging by the way they held themselves, Darcy could tell they had been listening to his conversation with Bingley. The two men must have felt Darcy’s gaze and began talking again.

A feeling of panic gripped Darcy’s chest.
Good Lord! What have I done? If these men spread word of what I have just told Bingley, Wickham may make good his threat to spread scandalous tales about Georgiana!

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