The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love (5 page)

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
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She watched as he returned to the rest of his party. It was best this way. She would rather him think her ill-mannered than for him to know the truth. For once he knew the truth, she would witness the look of pity that would surely follow, and she would be left with nothing, not even her fantasies. At least now she could still pretend—pretend that she was perfect, at least in
his
eyes.

As the Assembly was nearing its end, guests were now departing, and Elizabeth watched as the party from Netherfield spoke with Sir William, most likely saying their goodbyes.

Darcy was aware of her presence, sitting alone where he had left her nearly two hours before. She had not danced the entire evening, though more than a few gentlemen had approached her. Perhaps her refusal had been genuine; perhaps she was merely not inclined to dance this evening. Or perhaps by refusing
him
, she had relinquished her privilege to dance with others. He found himself stealing a final glance at her as he left the Assembly Room.

After the Netherfield party had gone, Mrs. Bennet gathered up her three youngest daughters, and then sent for their carriage. Elizabeth observed Charlotte and Jane as they conversed, and after a few minutes her sister looked over and called to her.

“I will wait outside with mother for the carriage, Lizzy. I will let you know when it is here,” she said, knowing Elizabeth wanted to be the last one to leave the Assembly for the same reason she had wanted to be the first to arrive.

Elizabeth nodded, thankful for her sister’s understanding.

She stood and looked around the now empty room. She was glad the evening was over. She just wanted to be home and put it all behind her. At least now she would have a full year’s pardon before she would be prevailed upon to attend another social function.

She steadied herself and took a deep breath. She made her way around the row of chairs, looking down and concentrating on her steps. When she reached the cloakroom, she retrieved her pelisse and waited for her sister’s return.

When she heard the door open, she looked up . . . and stared straight into the mesmerizing, dark brown eyes of Mr. Darcy.

They stared at each other for a long moment as they both seemed to be taking in every aspect of the other’s countenance. “Miss Bingley forgot her wrap,” he offered by way of explanation for his return to the Assembly Room. “And I offered to retrieve it for her.”

Elizabeth numbly nodded.

Once he had the wrap securely in his hands, she waited, hoping he would turn and leave, but he offered her his arm instead. “May I escort you to your carriage, Miss Elizabeth?”

“No!”

She closed her eyes for a brief moment and took a breath.

“I mean . . . I am not ready to leave yet, sir. I . . . I am waiting for someone.”

It was hard to miss the look of distress which appeared upon her face, and for some strange reason he had an impulse to comfort her. He wondered where such a thought had come from, as he acknowledged that for the second time this evening, Miss Elizabeth Bennet made it quite apparent that she wished him gone from her company.

Although somewhat affronted, years of breeding and good manners automatically prompted his response which he accompanied with a curt bow. “I will take my leave then and wish you a goodnight, Miss Bennet.”

She responded with the most perfect curtsey she could manufacture. However
her
voice came out shaky and just above a whisper. “Goodbye, Mr. Darcy.”

 

CHAPTER
SIX

Normally he would have secluded himself in his library to avoid the mundane talk of dances, gowns and lace, but tonight Mr. Bennet was particularly interested in the events that had occurred during the evening. As the family returned home from their social engagement, he sat in the parlour with a book in his hand and tried to maintain a look of indifference. His concentration, however, was not on the page before him.

He listened as his wife sang the praises of their eldest daughter, declaring her much admired by the eligible Mr. Bingley.

“And his friend, Mr. Darcy, as he calls himself, is rumoured to be the richest man in Derbyshire—ten thousand a year!” Mrs. Bennet mouthed rather than spoke the last four words, as if she did not wish this information to leave the parlour.

“And what do you think? The only woman outside of his party whom he asked to dance was Lizzy, and need I tell you what your ungrateful child did?”

Mr. Bennet had not even the time to draw a breath.

“She flatly refused to stand up with him! Can you imagine turning down the richest man in Derbyshire?!”

“Did you now, Lizzy?” he asked of her.

“I told you I would not dance, Papa.”

“Mr. Darcy. Is that not the same gentleman whom you met in London five years ago?”

“Yes.”

“Charlotte thought he had gained your interest,” interjected Jane. “She mentioned that you inquired about him.”

Elizabeth’s colour slightly reddened. “I . . . it was just that . . . well . . . I was surprised to see him again after so long a time.”

This prompted Jane to disclose another of Charlotte’s bits of information. “He also managed to engage you in conversation, a feat Charlotte was unable to accomplish no matter what choice of subject she attempted.”

This drew no response from Elizabeth other than a deepening of her already flushed colour.

Charlotte should learn to mind her own business
, thought Elizabeth.

Jane looked over to her father and between them passed a look that could only be described as conspiratorial.

“I am sure it is just as well,” stated Mrs. Bennet. “For we know nothing would come of it anyway. Perhaps you, Lydia, or even you, Kitty, might be fortunate enough to gain his attention. Yes, we must find some opportunity to display you both to your very best advantage while he is still in the neighbourhood!”

Lydia and Kitty looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Neither was interested in any gentleman who did not possess a red coat. And it was rumoured that soon Meryton would be filled with such gentlemen.

********

“Well, you have to admit, it was an amusing evening,” declared Caroline as the Netherfield party returned home to their parlour. Darcy immediately went for the decanter of brandy and poured out two glasses, offering one to Bingley.

“I found it quite enchanting. I never met pleasanter people or prettier girls in my life—Miss Bennet especially!”

“Of course we knew
you
would find someone who would please you, Brother, but what of you Mr. Darcy? Have none of the Hertfordshire ladies managed to please you?” asked Mrs. Hurst.

“It was not my intention to be pleased. I merely went as a courtesy to my host.”

“Oh? Did I not see you speak with Miss Bennet’s sister?” asked Caroline. “Miss Eliza, is it not? You seemed much engrossed in conversation,” she teased. “Should Miss Marston be alerted that she has competition, Mr. Darcy?” she asked, hoping she might glean some information regarding his feelings towards the young debutante he had been seen squiring about London.

Darcy avoided the subject of Miss Marston entirely.

“Miss Elizabeth Bennet and I met several years ago, and I was merely acknowledging our past acquaintance.”

“At least you had the good sense not to dance with her. The last thing you would want is to raise her expectations.”

Darcy said nothing, not wishing to reveal Miss Elizabeth’s refusal, as it would only encourage further disparaging comments from Miss Bingley.

“The poor girl must be socially inept, as
no one
seemed inclined to dance with her,” chided Caroline as she sat upon the settee in what she hoped was her most attractive pose.

Bingley gave a sideways nervous glance towards his sister. When he had informed Miss Bennet that he intended to ask for Miss Elizabeth’s company for the next set, she had confided in him her sister’s vow not to dance this evening, giving a guarded explanation as to the reason why.

He had not offered this intelligence to the rest of his party as he felt honour bound to preserve Miss Bennet’s faith in his discretion.

“And the mother!” continued Caroline with a roll of her eyes. Caroline and Mrs. Hurst shared a contemptible snicker as they continued in this vein of conversation.

Darcy took his drink and walked towards the fireplace. He reached for a poker and mindlessly stirred the ashes which momentarily brought the flames back to life. Ah yes, yet another one of his useful ploys—this one designed to discourage infringement upon his thoughtful contemplations.

As he stared into the fire, his mind shut out the conversation around him, and he thought about Miss Elizabeth. Why would a young attractive woman attend a dance if she had no intention of dancing, not even with the richest man in Derbyshire?

She had not even allowed him to escort her to her carriage and looked as if she would rather place her hand in the flames of the fire into which he now stared, than place it on his arm. But the look she gave him was not one of abhorrence, but more of fear. He was certain that the young girl he had met five years ago would not have been afraid of anything. What had happened to change that? She was indeed a puzzle.

Tonight when he had first laid eyes upon her, he felt an odd reaction, as if not only his mind had recognized her but his heart had also, causing a sudden unexpected stirring in that part of him which was usually dormant.

He wondered if they would be often in each other’s company during his stay at Netherfield so that he might learn more about her. Yes, an entertaining diversion—a mystery to solve before he returned to London and Miss Marston.

But as he thought upon their last moments together, she had not said
goodnight
to him, but rather
goodbye
as if she was certain they would not meet again.

********

Mr. Bennet tried to be optimistic as Jane revealed to him all she had observed and learned from Charlotte about the night of the Assembly. At least Elizabeth had shown some reaction to the appearance of Mr. Darcy. He knew he was grasping at straws, but Mr. Darcy had been the last person that his daughter had shown any interest in, all those years ago. Could some attention from this young man help his Lizzy regain some of her confidence?

It was worth a try. But what now? She had refused to go to the party at Lucas Lodge which Mr. Darcy had attended and, because of his promise to her, he had not forced her to go.

As the family sat around the breakfast table, Hill, the family maid, entered with a newly delivered letter.

“It is for
you
, Jane,” said Mrs. Bennet with a trill of excitement in her voice. “It is from Netherfield!”

Impatient at Jane’s admiring the vellum stationery rather than reading the message it contained, Mrs. Bennet snatched it from Jane’s hand and skimmed it quickly to reveal that it was from Miss Bingley, inviting her to dinner. Unfortunately the gentlemen were to dine with the officers and would not be in attendance.

When Jane requested the carriage from her father, she was informed by her mother that she must go on horseback, for it looked like rain and she would most likely have to spend the night.

Jane was quite shocked by her mother’s scheme, but Mrs. Bennet thought it quite reasonable, for why would she travel all the way to Netherfield without seeing Mr. Bingley?

As if ordained by Mrs. Bennet, the sky opened up and a drenched Jane arrived at Netherfield.

That evening a note was dispatched to Longbourn, informing the family that Jane had indeed taken ill and would remain at Netherfield until she was sufficiently recovered.

Though this information caused some distress amongst Mr. Bennet and his four daughters, Mrs. Bennet looked quite pleased with herself.

At the breakfast table the following morning, Mr. Bennet peered over his newspaper and addressed Elizabeth.

“Perhaps you should go to Netherfield and attend your sister,” he suggested. “I know she would do the same for you, Lizzy.”

Elizabeth looked up at her father. “I am sure she is being well looked after, Papa.”

“Perhaps we should send Kitty or Lydia,” suggested Mrs. Bennet, as the wheels began to spin in her mind. “What a fortuitous opportunity for one of them to spend some time in Mr. Darcy’s company! This is turning out even better than I had planned!”

This declaration caused quite a stir as neither daughter wished to go to Netherfield. Their ambition was to walk to Meryton in hopes of seeing the officers. It also did not bode well with Mr. Bennet, and he immediately put a stop to his wife’s machinations.

“We will give Jane a day or two to recover,” he said. “When she is well enough to travel,
I
shall go and bring her home myself.”

Elizabeth eyed her father curiously. Although she loved him with all her heart, she had to admit he had never been an overly attentive father, and he had most definitely never interfered with any of his wife’s schemes. Oh, he would vex her incessantly, but he would always end up yielding to her demands.

Now he seemed to be exercising his authority as both father and husband. His forceful handling of this morning’s situation was quite surprising. He had flatly dismissed his wife’s suggestion that Kitty or Lydia travel to Netherfield to attend their sister. And even though no one truly believed Jane’s illness was of a serious nature, he had agreed to travel to Netherfield himself to see her safely returned to Longbourn.

But what was even more surprising had been his insistence that she attend the Meryton Assembly. She could not recall in her entire life a time that her father had commanded her to do anything. Her mind was still reeling that he had so completely disregarded her feelings in the matter.

As much as she had persisted in her reluctance to attend the Assembly, she had to admit she was not unhappy to have seen Mr. Darcy again; the sight of him had caused a mixture of emotions to stir inside her. To see the man she had fantasized about for five years suddenly standing before her in the flesh had all but taken her breath away. But the fear that had enveloped her at the thought of his discovering her defect had diminished the pleasure considerably.

Over the years, she had spent a great deal of time indulging her curiosity about the man, wondering if he had perhaps grown fat and balding. She smiled to herself. No, indeed, he had not. If anything, he was even more handsome than she had remembered. He now had a maturity and command of presence that would make any female swoon.

Could he not have acquired at least one imperfection?

Well, at least, he had not learned of her imperfection; she would not have to bear his pity. It was a small consolation, but she would let herself be content with that.

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
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