The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love (22 page)

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Oh, and Mr. Bingley,” he offered as he turned to leave their company, “I should love to hear your views on marriage again in . . . shall we say . . . a year from now?”

With that, the baron tapped his hat down on his head and plodded his way towards the door, not waiting for a reply.

Silence prevailed as Darcy stared down at the amber liquid in his glass. Reluctant to meet Bingley’s eyes, he felt discomfited that Lord Alvanley had expressed his opinions regarding love and marriage so coarsely, so ruthlessly. But were not Lord Alvanley’s opinions similar to his own? Had he not always reasoned that love was a sentiment he had complete authority over and not a requirement for his happiness? But perhaps he had never met a woman worthy of loving before.

“Surely your opinion of love matches is not as severe as your friend, Lord Alvanley’s,” said Bingley. “Or do you regard me as big a fool as he does?”

Darcy looked up from his drink. “Lord Alvanley and I are hardly friends, Bingley, and I would like to believe my opinions were not as crude as his. I have never objected to others wishing to marry for love. It was my
own
heart that I was unwilling to put at risk. I assure you, I do not think you a fool.”


Was
unwilling?” Bingley asked as his eyebrows rose two inches, the way they always did upon hearing something surprising, and this was nothing short of astonishing. “Are you saying that you might be willing to take such a risk now?”

The question hung in the air for several moments as Bingley eyed his friend with anticipation.

Darcy blew out a breath. “I . . . I confess that I have given the prospect a good deal of thought lately.”

After years of hearing his friend profess himself above such a common emotion, Bingley could hardly contain his amused curiosity. “Well, coming from you, Darcy, that is a concession of monumental proportion. And just who is this virtue of perfection that has managed to alter your attitude?”

But just as Bingley suspected he would, Darcy refrained from further comment on the subject. Hoping he might wheedle some further information from his taciturn friend, Bingley ordered another round of drinks.

 

CHAPTER
THIRTY-THREE

“Oh, Harriet,” cried Lydia. “I can scarcely wait for our trip to begin!”

With Brighton now only a sennight away, Lydia Bennet’s anticipation was mounting. With each passing day she became more and more vocal on the subject, flaunting her fortuity before all her siblings. She had thought it a good joke that she, the youngest of them all, had been singled out by Colonel Forster’s wife, as her particular friend, to join them at Brighton where the officers were to be encamped for the summer.

As she now stood in the parlour at Longbourn House, where Colonel and Mrs. Forster and several of the officers had been invited for a luncheon, her enthusiasm knew no bounds.

“Lizzy has offered me her best bonnet. I shall, of course, take it with me to see if I can make something better of it, but I shall buy at least two new ones as soon as we arrive,” Lydia gushed.

“I was thinking perhaps I should also invite Elizabeth to accompany us to Brighton,” said Harriet.

Lydia displayed a look of horror. “Why in heaven’s name would you do that? Lizzy, I am sure, has no interest at all in seeing the officers. It is only to Jane’s credit that she was persuaded to come below stairs to take tea with them!”

Harriet took care to hide her duplicity. “I was hoping she could be convinced. I thought she would welcome some diversion for the summer. And it is very possible she might find someone among the officers to her liking.”

The young and pretty Mrs. Forster had been barely seventeen when she had married the colonel, a man of more than twice her years. And although the match had been considered an advantageous one, Harriet Forster had soon grown discontented with married life. It did not help that it seemed every young man in her husband’s regiment cut quite a dashing figure. Her flirtations with the officers were an amusing diversion from her boredom, and the recent attentions and compliments of the flamboyant George Wickham had easily charmed her to do his bidding.

“Well, I shall save you the trouble of asking, for I know what her answer will be,” said Lydia, her voice conveying her anxiety. After all, what fun could be had if Lizzy was there to monitor her every movement? “Besides, she has already made plans to tour the Lake Country with our Aunt and Uncle Gardiner for the summer.”

“But maybe— ”

“Oh, Harriet, do not spoil our fun. You and I will make such a
lively
pair, just the two of us!”

Across the room, Wickham gave a self-assured smile in Harriet’s direction as he made his way towards the two young ladies. However, as he approached, his confident smile faded as he observed Harriet’s almost imperceptible headshake and her apologetic expression. Obviously, he would have to find another venue in which to perpetrate his seduction of Elizabeth Bennet.

“I have been admiring your lovely faces from across the room.”

Both young ladies blushed prettily.

“Why Mr. Wickham, I believe you could easily charm the birds from the trees, sir,” cooed Harriet.

“Ah, but I speak only the truth, madam.”

When he flashed his smile upon Lydia, she waited with bated breath for his next compliment. However, rather than the flattery she anticipated, his conversation took a different turn. “It seems your sister, Miss Elizabeth, and I have yet to meet. Is she in attendance this afternoon?””

“Yes, she sits
there
,” said Lydia, “next to Jane and Mr. Bingley,” indicating the threesome on the settee in the parlour.

Wickham turned and observed the exceedingly pretty brunette. As he gazed upon her countenance, he could easily understand Darcy’s attraction. There was something compelling about her dark, piercing eyes, and her full figure prompted his imagination to conjure up all manner of enticing occupations. Yes, from the looks of her, he was thoroughly going to enjoy ruining Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

Across the room Elizabeth sat, oblivious of the scrutiny to which she was being subjected. As her father passed by the doorway, no doubt headed for the quiet solitude of his library, he met her gaze for a moment, and she offered him a weak smile. She still had not completely forgiven him for his meddling, and the atmosphere between them remained somewhat strained since her return from Kent. But as she had more and more time to give his argument proper consideration, she was beginning to realize that there had been some truth in his words.

Though she still believed Mr. Darcy’s proposal was impulsive and that he had allowed his compassion to rule his actions, perhaps it
was
an absence of pride that had made her refuse to give any credence whatsoever to his offer of marriage.

She recalled her candid confession to him that night of his proposal; yes, she was far from immune to his kisses. She blushed as she recalled how he had experienced firsthand the desire he had brought out in her. She feared she would always be susceptible to him.

Maybe I could have loved him enough for the both of us.

She released a deep sigh. It was futile to keep reliving their last encounter over and over again. He had made his offer; she had refused. And she was convinced that Mr. Darcy was not a man who, once rejected, would renew his attentions. No, she was certain he was now congratulating himself on his narrow escape.

She was determined to get on with her life. Every day she made a new vow to try and forget him. But every night the memory of their intimate moments together filled her thoughts. How she longed to see him again, and on rare occasions she did, as he came to her in dreams. But they were not the gratifying sweet fantasies that had once occupied her nights. Her dreams no longer allowed her to waltz gracefully in his arms, nor did they grant her a kiss from his lips. Now they were just haunting disjointed images of the man she was forever destined to love in vain.

If nothing else, this entire episode had accomplished at least one thing: despite everything, she now thought better of herself. She no longer pined for the perfection she had once prized. She
was
proud of herself, proud of the accomplishments she had achieved.

Somehow between her father’s and Mr. Darcy’s misguided but well-meant intentions, she had emerged a stronger, more confident woman; well, at least in most endeavours. There was still a particular insecurity that was yet to be overcome: she was still reluctant to attempt a dance.

Yes, it would take all of her courage, but she would now face the world and offer no apologies. Those of her acquaintance would either accept her as she was, or they were perfectly free to avoid her company altogether.

With her physical and emotional scars so thoroughly exposed to the only man she could ever love, there seemed little reason to hide anymore; she had nothing left to fear. Now resigned to spinsterhood, she would be content to be Aunt Lizzy to Jane’s many children, teaching them to embroider cushions quite frightfully and play their instruments very ill indeed.

She looked round her and watched the enthusiastic young men in their red coats as they easily charmed the young ladies of the neighbourhood, or perhaps it was the other way around. She turned to share her observations with Jane, but her sister was engaged in conversation with Mr. Bingley. She suddenly felt like an intruder. “I will go see if Mama requires my help,” she announced to no one in particular.

As she made her way towards the kitchen, Lydia called to her, diverting her attention. Her eyes met those of the gentleman’s as she approached. As soon as Mr. Wickham was presented, Harriet and Lydia quickly flitted away to engage another group of officers.

Upon hearing his name, Elizabeth was far from pleased that she had been left to endure his company alone. When several moments passed in awkward silence, she looked up and observed the man’s contemplative gaze upon her.

“You are staring, Mr. Wickham.”

“Forgive me, Miss Bennet. I know we have just been introduced, but I cannot help thinking that perhaps we have met before.”

Elizabeth tilted her head and focused her eyes upon his face. There
was
something disturbingly familiar about him, but she was sure that the infamous Mr. Wickham was definitely not among her past acquaintances.

“I am quite certain we have not, sir. I have, however, heard Lydia and Kitty speak of you often.”

“Of course, you must be right. The delight of meeting you is a pleasure I would not easily have forgotten.”

Elizabeth fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I can see that the rumours of your excessive charm have not been exaggerated. However, I should warn you, Mr. Wickham, I am not as easily flattered as are my younger sisters.”

Even though he was taken by surprise by her candid reply, his smile remained intact as he studied her. Upon observing her walk just now, he had mistakenly surmised she would be an easy conquest; that her physical defect would render her rather compliant, or at least timid and reserved. She, however, seemed none of those things. Perhaps she would be a contest worthy of his talents after all. He was confident that he would eventually win over the spirited Elizabeth Bennet. Just the thought of Darcy’s reaction to finding her in the arms, or perhaps the bed, of his worst enemy, brought a smile to his face.

However, having now witnessed the list of her gait, Wickham was questioning Darcy’s interest in her. True, she might be exceedingly pretty, but was she someone he would openly court? Society would hardly approve. Perhaps he had merely played with her affections, or was it possible that Darcy had deep feelings for the woman that transcended societal constraints?

Better and better.

“Now that I have finally been honoured with your acquaintance, will you not at least grant me the opportunity to remedy any misgivings you might have of my character, Miss Bennet?”

Recalling Mr. Darcy’s candid conversation regarding the man, she was already quite predisposed to think ill of him. Elizabeth arched a dubious brow. “I’m afraid the chances of that are very meager, sir. I would not hold out much hope for your success.”

Wickham pursed his lips into a forced smile. He was unused to any young lady spurning his charm, and he had to suppress his irritation. “Then I shall take that as a challenge, madam, for I am not one who easily concedes defeat. I am confident that once we are better acquainted, your good opinion will be secured.”

“Perhaps I have not made myself perfectly clear, sir; let me do so now. I have no desire that you and I should form any sort of attachment, Mr. Wickham.”

As Elizabeth regarded him warily, Wickham narrowed his eyes. Looking down at her intently, his pleasant façade was momentarily abandoned. As she witnessed his unguarded look of disdain, Elizabeth felt a sudden rush of unease. Had she not seen that very look once before?

“I beg you would excuse me,” she murmured as she attempted to leave his company, but his hand abruptly reached out and grasped her arm, forcefully halting her departure. Elizabeth stilled; her entire body rigid.

Wickham promptly removed his hand, and his complacent smile was quickly restored. “Forgive me, Miss Bennet; I did not mean to startle you. Please believe I meant you no harm.”

Offering no reply, Elizabeth hurriedly left his company having no doubt that Mr. Wickham was indeed a dangerous man.

********

Alyssa Marston stared down at the large diamond and ruby engagement ring, and her triumphant smile had to be suppressed. His proposal was not unwelcomed, for she had set her sights on The Honorable Archibald Clavering, a descendant of the Baron of Warkworth, almost as soon as she had returned to her family’s small estate in Northumberland.

Mr. Clavering’s ancestry could be traced back for countless generations, and his was one of the most respected and prominent families in the county. His title was ordained as a courtesy due to his family’s long standing association with the Percys. The Alnwick Castle in which the Duke of Northumberland now resided had once been known as Warkworth Castle where Mr. Clavering’s ancestors had been established for many years.

Oh, Mr. Clavering was by no means as handsome as Mr. Darcy (in truth, one might say he was not handsome at all), and he did have a rather weak chin, giving him a look of dim-wittedness (which would not be an inaccurate description of the man), but he was, however, rich beyond imagination; surprisingly even beyond Alyssa Marston’s imagination.

Knowing that he was most likely her best and last chance to capture a rich husband and to restore her family’s fortune, she had played her part perfectly, presenting herself as demure and unassuming for Mr. Clavering’s benefit. Not once did her behaviour defy propriety, and her conduct while in his presence was above reproach. Fortunately, she had never even been tempted in the slightest to encourage any physical contact between them. She could barely endure his chaste kiss upon her cheek, which so far had been his most daring display of affection. To say Mr. Clavering was a most proper gentleman would be a vast understatement.

Alyssa knew that from now on her conduct would have to be exemplary. Neither he nor his family would ever tolerate even a hint of scandal.

Mercifully, rumours of her blemished reputation had not reached this far north, despite Mr. Wickham’s countless retelling of the notorious events of that night in her London townhouse. He boasted to anyone who would listen of his seduction of Mr. Darcy’s prospective bride.

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by Edited and with an Introduction by William Butler Yeats
Passage by Overington, Caroline
All-Star Fever by Matt Christopher
The Untold by Rory Michaels
Virtually Perfect by Mills, Sadie
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
The Rabid (Book 1) by Roberts, J.V.