Authors: Pat Santarsiero
Her only response was a slight dip of her head and a slight flush of her complexion as she searched the dark depths of his eyes. Even if his offer was sincere, she could not imagine exposing such intimate feelings to him.
Again they were silent, but Elizabeth allowed herself to relax a little. She inhaled a cleansing breath. “I must admit you were right, Mr. Darcy. I
enjoying this most pleasant day. I had forgotten how lovely it is to walk this path. I have missed most of the summer flowers; the jasmine are all but gone,” she said with some sadness in her voice. “Ah, but I see that autumn is already starting to make a most admiral show of colours.”
He mimicked her action and inhaled deeply as his eyes searched around them, wondering why it was still possible to smell the jasmine, though none were about. “I am glad you are enjoying our walk. Perhaps we should resolve to do it more often.”
Her lips curved ever so slightly, giving him a glimpse of the smile that might have been, had she not persisted on resisting it. Several curls that had escaped their pins danced for a moment, caught in a slight breeze, and it was then he realized the source of the sweet scent of jasmine.
“But is that all you are enjoying?” he asked. “I had hoped perhaps my company was enjoyable as well.”
She eyed him with a raised brow. “Do you need reassurance as to the pleasure of your company, sir? I would think that being the richest man in Derbyshire would guarantee such circumstances.”
“Obviously, that does not impress you.”
impressed that you feel the need to entertain me while your friend calls on my sister.”
“Well, since we both have been put upon to chaperone, we might as well make the best of it, for I have a feeling we will be required to perform this duty often.”
As they eyed the obviously besotted couple up ahead, Elizabeth was inclined to agree. “I suppose we shall have to bear it with all good humour,” she said with a sigh.
“Should I be offended?” he asked, trying to keep the mood light but finding it difficult. “Do you look upon my company as an imposition you must suffer?”
Her complexion deepened. She had only meant it as a tease. “No, not at all, sir,” she quickly answered. “If anything, I was concerned that the suffering would be on your part. I am sure there are a great many other things you would rather be doing.”
“On the contrary, Miss Bennet; I find I am quite enjoying myself. I would be more than happy to share chaperoning duties with you again.”
She did not reply, and he did not press the issue. No matter what he had promised Mr. Bennet, he was not going to force his company upon her if she did not wish it.
As their walk brought them back to the house, they joined Jane and Mr. Bingley who waited for the groom to bring the gentlemen’s horses. As their reins were handed off to them, Darcy stood before his mount, and Elizabeth reached up and stroked the stallion’s nose affectionately.
For a brief moment he saw her eyes light up as the horse nuzzled her in return. “Do you ride, Miss Bennet?”
“I did at one time, but no longer. It has been years since I have been on a horse.”
“Is it something you enjoyed?” he asked as a faint smile formed on his lips.
“Yes, I was very
“I see. So you are very fond of riding and, as I recall you stating at the Assembly, you are also very fond of
, yet you choose to do neither.”
His faint smile grew wider.
She tried to ignore it.
“Even if I would wish to take up riding again, we no longer have a suitable mount at Longbourn.”
“I would be more than happy to lend you one of the horses I have recently purchased. They are stabled at Netherfield until I am able to bring them to Pemberley. One in particular might suit you well.”
“That is most generous of you, Mr. Darcy.”
“Of course, I shall require something in return.”
The look she bestowed upon him made him want to laugh out loud.
“It is small compensation, I assure you.”
“What is it you would require of me, sir?”
“You must grant me one of your smiles.”
Mrs. Bennet and her daughters were informed at breakfast that they were to expect an addition to their party at dinner. A Mr. Collins was to visit. The clergyman, a second cousin to Mr. Bennet, was preordained to inherit Longbourn, being the only male heir in the family.
His profession had taken him to the parsonage at Hunsford, where his obsequiousness gained the notice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, aunt to Mr. Darcy. He now resided in a humble abode separated by only a lane from Rosings Park, his patroness’s estate.
With the exception of his ego, almost everything about Mr. Collins was small. He was a small man with a small mind. He was, however, a man who was highly impressed with himself and his position. The main objective for his visit to Longbourn was to choose a wife, a suggestion made by Lady Catherine that he took quite seriously.
Since he was to eventually inherit Longbourn, he thought it only his duty to marry one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters, and he was certain the magnitude of his elevated situation and superior connections would guarantee he would not be refused.
He eyed all five of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s offspring, and appraised each one carefully. Jane, of course, had been his first choice, but he was immediately informed by Mrs. Bennet that it was very likely she would soon be engaged.
He next gave a calculating eye towards Elizabeth. She certainly was pretty, but then again, she had that most unattractive limp.
Kitty and Lydia were not unappealing, but much too silly and frivolous. No doubt Lady Catherine would never deem them suitable in any event.
Mary was just the opposite, too somber, and he was loath to admit, not at all pleasing to the eye.
As he looked over his four remaining choices, he was disheartened. Perhaps he could learn to accept Miss Elizabeth’s flaw. After all, he was a man of the cloth, a forgiving soul who did his best to empathize with human frailty.
Yes . . . that sounded quite honourable, did it not?
He mulled this over in his mind and was suddenly struck with the genius of it. Why, of course! His choice of Miss Elizabeth would demonstrate to Lady Catherine that he indeed practiced what he preached! She would proclaim him a most noble example of the clergy.
Hampered with such a disability, Miss Elizabeth would certainly be grateful for his generous and most advantageous offer. He would observe her behaviour and establish her worthiness before bestowing the honour of his betrothal upon her.
Fitzwilliam Darcy paced the library at Netherfield Park. He was undecided as to his plans for the day. When Bingley had requested that he accompany him on his previous visit to Longbourn, he could see the look of surprise on his friend’s face that he had so readily agreed, so unusual was his willingness to socialize. Indeed, his calling upon a house filled with unmarried females was unprecedented. And now Bingley was again inquiring if he wished to join him on another visit.
Even though he had agreed to Mr. Bennet’s proposal to call at Longbourn, he was beginning to wonder if perhaps he had made an error in judgment, allowing himself such a close association with Miss Elizabeth.
He was confident that it would take more than a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty young woman to alter his opinion of love, but when he thought back to their walk of two days ago, he could not believe he had acted so recklessly. She brought out an unreserved boldness in him that he had not known he possessed. From the moment he had witnessed her full, ripe mouth soothe her injured finger, he had thought of little else. The impulse to place his lips where she had so recently placed her own had overtaken his every thought of good sense. Such a desire was a new phenomenon and certainly out of character, as it seemed were most of his actions since arriving at Netherfield. Indeed, over the last two days, on more than one occasion, he had caught himself thinking about her and those tempting lips. It seemed
about her had an unnerving effect upon him.
He had not known what to expect with regard to her limp. Certainly, one could not ignore her prominent uneven gait. He imagined London society would be most unforgiving of her imperfection as the opinion of the ton was that any young lady worth consideration was expected to be without blemish.
He hoped he was not as shallow as
. But he must admit he never before had reason to give such circumstances much contemplation. Certainly when his mind had given fleeting thoughts to the woman he would one day eventually wed, the young lady he imagined possessed no defects of any sort. Yet, when he thought of Elizabeth Bennet, imperfect was not the word that came to mind.
When he had moved to her right side, her stride had improved, and she appeared more relaxed. As they continued on and she came to rely on the support of his arm, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself. Why he should feel such satisfaction in that, he was not exactly sure, but admittedly it pleased him beyond measure.
Perhaps his efforts would prove to be successful. Indeed, he would like nothing better than to see her confident and happily settled with some respectable young man, a country gentleman perhaps, who would not have to appease the ton’s requirement for perfection in his choice of wife.
He suddenly frowned at such a thought.
The possibility of her belonging to another man should not be so irritating. Yet, for some reason, it seemed to distress him. He silently admonished himself. The fact that he found her attractive should have no effect on him whatsoever, other than making his task that much more tolerable.
However, he found her more than simply attractive; he thought her beguilingly beautiful. Even more worrisome, he also found her quite remarkable. Compared to the frivolous young ladies he had encountered in London, Elizabeth Bennet was proving to be unlike any other of his acquaintance. He judged her a woman of considerable substance for she had endured much pain and suffering and had persevered where others might have given up. She had overcome the greatest of obstacles despite overwhelming odds, yet felt herself unworthy of love. He could not deny his admiration, and, if only for that reason alone, he wished to improve her self-image.
Darcy returned his thoughts to his present dilemma. Should he call on Miss Elizabeth again so soon? She might find some excuse to avoid him, or perhaps Mrs. Bennet would insist that one of her other daughters accompany him to chaperone.
He took a deep breath and realized that despite such adversities, he was most willing to take that risk. After all, he told himself, Mr. Bennet was counting on him.
An hour later as he and Bingley were riding through Meryton on their way to Longbourn, they came upon the Bennet sisters, all but one. As his eyes sought out the face he most admired, Darcy was disappointed to note her absence.
The women were accompanied by three gentlemen, one displaying the uniform of the clergy while another of the militia. But it was the third gentleman who caught Darcy’s eye.
Bingley dismounted and immediately approached the group. “How very fortunate! We were just on our way to Longbourn to call upon you and to issue an invitation from my sister Caroline to dine next week.”
“How very kind, sir,” replied Jane.
She then endeavoured to introduce Mr. Bingley to the three gentlemen in their company: Mr. Collins, Mr. Denny, and Mr. Wickham. Darcy made eye contact with Wickham, who at first looked stunned at seeing him, but then quickly recovered and nonchalantly touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement of their acquaintance. He received no response from Darcy.
Wickham wondered what his nemesis was doing in Meryton. When he had last been in London, he had heard rumours that Darcy had been courting a pretty, young thing by the name of Miss Marston. If Darcy was here in Hertfordshire, who was in London attending the lovely young debutante?
Darcy guided his horse away from the group as he tried not to let his mind imagine what havoc the man was now planning. The only saving grace was that he did not have to worry that Wickham was anywhere near Pemberley or Georgiana, for his sister was just getting over the effects of their association.
Darcy was now grateful that Elizabeth had not accompanied her sisters into town and could not help but feel relief that she was spared Wickham’s company.
“Why, Mr. Darcy!” exclaimed Mrs. Bennet upon the gentleman’s entrance into the parlour. “What an unexpected pleasure.”
Darcy granted her a short bow as a startled Elizabeth quickly glanced up from her reading to give him a look of pure puzzlement.
His eyes immediately fell upon the title of the book she held, and he was surprised to see it was one he himself had read, “The Campaigns of Sir John Moore.” For some reason her unlikely choice of reading material brought a smile to his face.
“It is so good of you to call, but . . . oh my dear sir . . . I’m afraid I must inform you that most likely your journey has been in vain. Most of the family has gone into Meryton with their cousin. Elizabeth remains the only one of my daughters at home at the moment.
“Indeed, that is unfortunate,” said Darcy. “If I am imposing, I will take my leave and call another time.”
“Oh no, of course not!” reassured Mrs. Bennet. “It is no imposition at all, is it, Elizabeth?”
Both sets of eyes turned and were upon her as she looked from one to the other. “I . . . of course we are only too happy to receive you. Is there some particular purpose for your visit?”
“It was my intention to seek an amiable companion who might accompany me on a walk on this pleasant afternoon.”
Mrs. Bennet’s frustration that Kitty and Lydia had yet again missed such an opportunity was obvious, and now she feared poor Mr. Darcy was left with no other prospect for the afternoon than Elizabeth.
“Well . . . Elizabeth would surely do for today; would she not, Mr. Darcy? Perhaps if you tell me when you next expect to call, I will make sure that my other daughters are here to welcome you, sir.”
“That is most kind of you, Mrs. Bennet, but I cannot foresee my plans at the moment.”
Elizabeth was almost amused, but not quite, by the fact that her mother could not even remotely conceive of the idea that Mr. Darcy might prefer her company. Of course, she could not either, but should not her mother think better of her than she thought of herself?
Her mother’s total dismissal of her as a viable option for Mr. Darcy’s attentions made her temper rise, making her say the most unlikely of things. “If you wait until I retrieve my bonnet and gloves, sir, I would be only too happy to accompany you.”
Expecting her reluctance, Darcy hid his surprise and nodded his approval as his eyes met hers. He could see the fire that had been ignited by her mother’s thoughtless remarks.
As Elizabeth left the parlour, Darcy assured Mrs. Bennet they would not travel beyond the immediate garden paths surrounding the house. This seemed to bewilder Mrs. Bennet momentarily as she had not even given thought to such propriety. Why would she—Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy? The notion was absurd!