The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love (8 page)

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

Darcy waited for Elizabeth by the door. As she approached, he offered her his arm, which she mindlessly took, her agitation at her mother still apparent.

They walked in silence, and he tried to think of something to distract her from her thoughts. “I am happy to see you were so agreeable to our walk, Miss Bennet.”

She released a long sigh. “My mother can be very direct, Mr. Darcy, but I believe in this instance her suggestion was a valid one to ensure that you do not again find yourself in such inescapable circumstances.”

“I can find no fault at all with my circumstances, Miss Bennet. As a matter of fact, I was well aware that your sisters were from home before I called upon Longbourn, as I have just left their company in Meryton.”

The look she gave him revealed her confusion.

“Is it so hard to imagine that I might seek your company?”

She remained silent, and her look of confusion transformed into a look of surprise.

“I find that I enjoy your companionship, Miss Bennet, and I have not that many friends that one more would not be welcome. And I must admit, none are of the female persuasion.”

“That seems exceedingly hard to believe, Mr. Darcy. I would imagine a man such as yourself would have many friends, females included.”

“I am acquainted with many people but very few whom I consider friends.”

“And not one of them female?” she asked with some amusement in her voice.

Yes, he had known many women since he had become the Master of Pemberley, ranging from the titled and more patrician socialite to the meretriciously compliant and practiced companion, yet he would not describe any of them as friends. His mind briefly gave thought to Miss Marston; whatever else their relationship might entail, did he not also think of her as a friend?

“To be perfectly candid, Miss Bennet, I have never considered the possibility of a female friend. Most of the young ladies that I meet usually make their intentions known from the very beginning of our acquaintance. My experience has been that most of them fall into one of three categories. Either they are starry-eyed and looking for love, or they have cunningly set their sights for a rich husband.”

“And the third category, sir?”

Darcy contemplated a delicate way of putting it and when he could think of none, simply stated, “The third category, Miss Bennet, is not one that a gentleman usually discusses with a lady.”

Elizabeth’s complexion blushed pink, and she remained silent for a long moment. “And which category of young ladies do you prefer, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth’s small voice suddenly asked as her gaze met his.

Darcy lips suppressed a smile at the boldness of her question. “Let us just say that I choose to keep my distance from the ones with stars in their eyes. I’m afraid that love is something I am unwilling to offer, as I am most determined to avoid such an emotion.”

His declaration took her by surprise. “Perhaps we shall have to invent another category for you, Mr. Darcy,” she cheekily replied. “Or is it your plan to never marry?”

“On the contrary, I am sure that I
shall
marry one day, and I am confident I shall live a perfectly contented life.”

“So you are not of the opinion that love is a requirement of marriage.” She did not pose it as a question, but rather more an accusation.

“There are any number of reasons why people marry. I believe that love is unnecessary in a marriage, a false emotion that fades away more quickly than it comes and does not benefit either party.”

“And there are young ladies amongst your acquaintances who would consent to such a marriage?”

“You would be surprised, Miss Bennet. In fact, I know of many who would actually prefer a marriage where love is not a consideration. Those who believe that ‘love conquers all’ are bound to be disappointed. ‘Tis better to have a more practical approach when it comes to marriage.”

He could tell by her reaction that it was highly probable she did not share his opinion. And he had to admit that it was quite an unlikely conversation to be having with a genteel young woman. But there was something about her, something that made him feel obligated to speak in such a forthright manner.

For the fact was, he
did
wish for them to be friends, and as a friend, she deserved his honesty. He did not want to deceive her. And now there certainly could be no misunderstanding.

They walked on for several moments without conversation as Elizabeth found herself contemplating his remarks. His words had saddened her, and she found herself, of all things, feeling sorry for him. How odd that she should feel sympathy for Mr. Darcy.

“I should think falling in love would be a most exquisite experience,” said Elizabeth as she broke the silence between them. “To never give your love to another nor receive love in return would seem an unbearably lonely existence.”

“Perhaps, but it would be far more painful to lose someone whom you deeply cared for or to discover that you have bestowed your love imprudently. Braver men than I have taken that risk with regret. As for never receiving love, I find it of little consequence. I have never felt an overwhelming need to be loved, Miss Bennet.”

Darcy was surprised by his own admissions. Had he just casually voiced his deepest fears to a woman he hardly knew? He observed her for several moments, trying to gauge her reaction, but she seemed unwilling to look at him. “Miss Bennet, if you object to our forming a friendship, you may trust that I shall not pursue it any further.”

He said this so earnestly and with such feeling that she automatically looked up and met his gaze. The intensity of his stare made her feel unsteady on her feet.

“I suppose it is a situation I could learn to tolerate if I must,” she said as she quickly looked down again to concentrate on her footing.

Darcy heaved a heavy sigh. Whatever interest Mr. Bennet had thought his daughter had shown in their acquaintance five years ago, he obviously was mistaken. Or perhaps she now despised him for his dispassionate opinions regarding love and marriage. Whatever the reason, Miss Elizabeth Bennet seemed totally indifferent to him.

Darcy was now prepared to inform Mr. Bennet as soon as he was able that he had best find a more suitable gentleman to help him with his plan.

As he was about to suggest they return to the house, Elizabeth turned her face upwards, and he saw her slight blush and the way her lips slightly twitched. Those appealing lips then formed into a mischievous smile that was aimed directly at him, and he realized . . . she had been
teasing
him!

Well . . . that certainly put a different light on the matter, did it not? He was surprised by the overwhelming relief he felt. No, she was not completely indifferent to him.

After giving it a moment’s thought, he decided he could well get used to her teasing him, especially if it was accompanied by such a tempting smile.

********

“Oh Lizzy, you should have come with us to town!” cried Kitty.

“Save your breath to cool your porridge,” said Lydia. “I shall tell it. We came upon Mr. Denny . . .”

“And he was with a most interesting man . . .” said Kitty as she again tried to be the first to inform.

“Whose only fault was his lack of a red coat . . .” continued Lydia.

“Only for us to learn that he shall be in possession of one very soon!” finished Kitty.

Lydia gave her sister a warning look. “You know I can tell it better,” she admonished. Kitty reluctantly held her tongue and let her sister convey the rest of their news.

“His name is Mr. Wickham, and he is tall and fearfully handsome. He is soon to join the regiment, and he will make a fine looking officer, for a red coat is all he shall need to make him perfect. He and Denny have been invited to supper and cards at our Aunt Philips this evening. You must come and meet him, Lizzy.”

She thought upon it for a moment. It was only supper and cards at her aunt’s, not something as intimidating as a party or assembly.

After all, if a man such as Mr. Darcy had witnessed her limp and did not seem repulsed by it, then perhaps she
had
been too self-conscious about it. But then again, not everyone had the laudable manners of Mr. Darcy. No, she was not ready to expose her imperfections to the rest of the world, at least not yet.

She thought of the pleasant afternoon she had just experienced. Had Mr. Darcy truly come to seek her particular company? No doubt he was only responding to her kindness to his sister that day in church so long ago, a mere reciprocation.

As much as she would like to believe that Derbyshire’s most eligible bachelor had developed a fondness for her, she could not help but suspect that his polite regard was based on pity. And pity was the last thing she wanted from anyone, much less Mr. Darcy.

Pity… the word itself made her cringe.

Pity was certainly not akin to passion. If anything, it was contrary to it. Pity perhaps evoked kindness or tolerance. Occasionally it might even result in affectionate concern, but passion was definitely not a byproduct of pity.

Not that she had any practical experience with passion, at least none other than what she had read about in her many novels over the years. Would she ever know the feelings it incited? Would she ever experience it?

She thought about Mr. Darcy’s slightly parted lips as she recalled the kiss he had bestowed upon her finger. At fifteen she had pictured those lips on hers in a chaste kiss. At eighteen she had envisioned what it would be like to feel those very same lips as they languidly travelled a path down her neck, gently nipping as they made their way towards her bodice. And by twenty her imagination regarding his lips had become so limitless that she was thankful her thoughts could not be detected; for if they were, she would surely die of embarrassment.

She took in a breath and released a deep sigh. Passion… it was highly unlikely she would ever experience it with Mr. Darcy.

 

CHAPTER
ELEVEN

Elizabeth opened her bedroom window and looked out at the sun just now rising over the fields. She drew in a deep breath of air and closed her eyes as she recognized that special autumn scent. Such an inviting and invigorating aroma, it begged her to stroll amongst the chrysanthemums and asters, to discover just how many different colours of leaves that nature could devise. How could she have forgotten such delights?

She was suddenly consumed with the idea of taking a ramble. It was something she had practiced regularly almost every morning until the accident, and now for some strange reason she had a desire to resume that routine, at least while the scent of autumn was so prominent in the air.

She dressed quickly and made her way outside unobserved. It was still very early, and the rest of the house had not yet awoken. The last thing she wanted was to be discovered, especially by Mr. Collins who would insist upon accompanying her.

She decided to take the same path that she and Mr. Darcy had taken on their first walk, recalling her enjoyment upon witnessing the changing foliage.

As she strolled the path they had shared, she could not help but smile, thinking of just how very unpredictable fate could be. That after five years of dreaming of him, he, of all people, should now be residing just three short miles away from her, and the very night that her father had insisted she attend the Meryton Assembly, he should be there also.

Yes, it all seemed quite serendipitous to be sure.

After she had gone quite a distance, reluctantly she acknowledged that her leg grew tired. She returned to the house almost two hours after she had departed and quietly made her way up the stairs towards her room. It was not yet nine o’clock, and the house was just beginning to show signs of life. She could hear activity in the kitchen and knew she had just made it back in time to avoid detection.

She waited in her room until she heard footsteps descending the stairs and knew that Jane had arisen for the day. Elizabeth approached the breakfast table and was happy to see her elder sister the only one in attendance.

There was a time when she doubted any two sisters could have been closer than she and Jane, but now Elizabeth conceded they had grown apart. The infrequent time they spent in each other’s company was not by design, but mere coincidence.

For two sisters who had once shared every intimate thought, they had not really talked on topics of any import in a very long time. She suddenly felt ashamed.

Had she been secretly harboring some resentment towards her sister, that Jane had escaped serious injury while she would be reminded of that night for the rest of her life? Had she been unconsciously punishing her sister for events that were not of her making?

She had not realized she was capable of such unkindness. Her injuries were certainly not Jane’s fault, and yet she feared she had taken her vexations out on her dear sister.

Jane was surprised as Elizabeth greeted her with a warm hug.

“Did you enjoy your evening at our Aunt Philips?” inquired Elizabeth.

“Yes, you should have come, Lizzy. It was only supper and cards, after all.”

“Perhaps next time,” she said. “Tell me, did you have an opportunity to converse with the much admired Mr. Wickham? I believe Lydia and Kitty are incapable of speaking of anything else.”

Jane’s expression changed as she admitted, “Yes, we did speak for a short while, but I found his conversation somewhat . . . perplexing.”

“Perplexing?”

“Well, yes. He seemed quite interested in Mr. Darcy and asked many questions regarding his purpose in residing in Hertfordshire.”

“Are they acquainted?”

“It seems they are much acquainted, though one would never have suspected it from the cold manner of their greeting in Meryton. It seems Mr. Wickham’s father worked for the Darcys, and, consequently, he grew up at Pemberley.”

“Well if they grew up together, why do you find it odd that Mr. Wickham should inquire about him?”

“I am not sure. It may have been my imagination, but I believe he was trying to suggest that Mr. Darcy was not a man to be trusted and that both he and Miss Darcy were very proud and disagreeable.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened.

“He even hinted that he had somehow been cheated out of his inheritance from Mr. Darcy’s late father’s estate. But despite the sincerity in his voice, there was something in his manner that made me doubt his words. When I expressed my opinion that I found Mr. Darcy to be all that is amiable, he seemed quite surprised. And when I mentioned that I also once had the pleasure of meeting Miss Darcy and liked her very well indeed, he almost blanched and immediately changed the subject.”

“That is
quite
perplexing. He obviously wishes to discredit Mr. Darcy, for what reason I cannot imagine. Do you think we should warn Lydia and Kitty away from him?”

“I could be mistaken, Lizzy. Perhaps I misinterpreted the gentleman. I would not wish to harm his reputation over some misunderstanding.”

“Jane, you are the last person in the world to ever think meanly of anyone. If you, dear sister, have found his demeanour suspicious, I have little doubt it is true. Besides, I believe I have accurately assessed Mr. Darcy’s character, and I would never believe such a thing of him. ”

Elizabeth bit her lower lip. “But I do see your point, and we can take comfort in the fact that soon the militia shall be gone from Meryton. However, I believe we should at least be certain that our younger sisters are well chaperoned while in his company, for they are likely to be more easily deceived.

“Yes, I quite agree,” said Jane.

********

“We have all been invited to a ball at Netherfield!” informed Mrs. Bennet. “And the invitation includes you, Mr. Collins.”

The family had just gathered for dinner, and as they took their places, there was much talk of the highly anticipated ball, but Elizabeth seemed, as usual, disinterested in such a prospect.

Mr. Collins was growing impatient. As many times as he had tried to seek out Miss Elizabeth’s company, she had managed to elude him. He feared this was no doubt due to her belief in her unworthiness of his attentions, and he wanted to reassure her that she need not worry on that account as he was perfectly willing to overlook her shortcomings. However, it was obvious that he would need some assistance in arranging some time alone with her to better gauge an opinion of their union.

He glanced down the table at Mr. Bennet and gave the gentleman some consideration. Since his arrival, Mr. Bennet had displayed an accommodating civility, but he had the feeling he was not the person who could best oblige in his suit.

He then looked towards Mrs. Bennet. She seemed to have a definite command over her daughters. Yes, she would most likely have more influence. He would speak with her right away, making his intentions known and seeking her help.

Mr. Collins turned to Elizabeth. “May I take this opportunity of soliciting you, Miss Elizabeth, for the first two dances?”

“I do not dance, sir, and I had not planned on attending the ball at all, Mr. Collins.”

“Oh Lizzy, you must,” said Jane. “Mr. Bingley expressed his particular hope that you will come. You do not have to dance if you do not wish to, but I would so much enjoy your company. Please, Lizzy, you just
must
attend.”

Elizabeth knew there would be no end to this discussion if she did not give her sister at least a modicum of hope.

“I shall give it some thought,” said Elizabeth.

Jane gave her father a beseeching glance, as if asking for his intervention, but he seemed unaffected by Lizzy’s response and only smiled at her in return.

The following afternoon Mr. Bingley arrived at Longbourn for tea; he was unaccompanied. Elizabeth could not determine her reaction upon discovering that Mr. Darcy did not accompany his friend. She was disappointed, relieved, and insulted all at the very same time.

She tried to convince herself it was of little matter.

Elizabeth’s disappointment was nothing compared to that of Mrs. Bennet, who had kept her two youngest daughters at home in the hope that one of them would gain Mr. Darcy’s attention.

Immediately upon noting Mr. Darcy’s absence, Kitty and Lydia quickly rushed out the door, their bonnets dangling from their arms as they headed towards Meryton in search of the officers. Mary was sent on a superfluous errand to Lucas Lodge, leaving Elizabeth with chaperoning duties once again, and unfortunately it was Mr. Collins whose company her mother now forced upon her.

He did not offer his arm, a circumstance for which Elizabeth was grateful, for that would have only reminded her that Mr. Darcy was not the gentleman by her side.

Not that I need reminding.

Mr. Collins did not waste any time and immediately began his interrogation. “Do you not like social occasions, Cousin Elizabeth?”

“I have no objection to social occasions, Mr. Collins; I just do not particularly care to attend them.”

“I see. That seems most unusual.”

“Is it?” she asked.

“Well, yes. I have noted that most young ladies seem quite inclined to partake in activities that allow them to socially interact with those of their society. For how else may they exhibit their charms?”

“I admit it is probably uncommon, but I prefer to stay at home and read or perhaps attend to some sewing or embroidery.”

“That is most admirable, dear cousin. Yes . . . most commendable indeed!”

He then turned towards her, and his face reflected the seriousness of what he was about to impart. “But surely you must understand that a man of my position has many social obligations which I must attend, not to mention calling upon my parishioners. Then of course, there is the visiting of the sick and infirmed, a duty I feel honor-bound to perform. But, let me assure you, dear cousin, that none are likely to take offense at your condition.”

Elizabeth stopped and gave him a look of incomprehension.

“How very considerate of them, sir. But I’m afraid I do not understand what one has to do with the other, Mr. Collins. I cannot see how my particular aversion has anything at all to do with your many social activities and benevolent obligations.”

“Well, of course, as my wife you would be expected to accompany me.”

Elizabeth’s look changed from incomprehension to disbelief.

“Oh, have I gotten ahead of myself? Indeed, I have,” he said as if his statement had not been in the least peculiar.

“Mr. Collins, really I must . . .”

“No, no, dear cousin, there is no need to feel inferior. Your deficiencies I am most willing to overlook. And Lady Catherine, I am convinced, will be as equally tolerant.”

Elizabeth was rendered speechless.

“I am sure you are much relieved. Yes, I will pick the perfect moment to ask the question I am sure you are most desirous to hear. But, I will not say another word on the subject for now.” This was emphasized with his bringing his forefinger to his lips.

And much to Elizabeth’s relief, he did not pursue the subject. But she wondered how she could possibly avoid his company for the remainder of his visit?

********

The noon sun provided her first glimpse of the day as Alyssa Marston rose from her bed. On the prior evening she had attended yet another social engagement as she had done quite frequently since his absence.

During the first week of Mr. Darcy’s stay in Hertfordshire, she had dutifully stayed with her aunt each evening, ignoring the stack of invitations that Stivers placed on the salver each afternoon. But by the end of the second week, she found she could no longer resist the lure of society’s beckoning call and attended a small social gathering at Lord and Lady Stockwell’s townhouse.

The rush she had felt at being again in society and the object of such effusive attentions, affected her like a drug, and the addiction was far too great to refuse submission. Soon she was attending a different social engagement every night. Yes, she had to admit it, she was quite enjoying the esteem and privileges society bestowed upon her as the object of Mr. Darcy’s affections.

It seemed she was now on every society maven’s invitation list; every hostess required her presence in order to make their social event a success. Of course the main objective of her much requested attendance was the hope of their gleaning some information regarding hers and Mr. Darcy’s relationship.

Miss Marston was only too happy to oblige and appease their curiosity, for she had seen the jealousy in the eyes of her many rivals, and she knew how much they secretly envied her. She told all the eager to know young ladies of Mr. Darcy’s great affection for her and his regret at having to leave her to attend business in Hertfordshire. With brash boldness she even hinted that a betrothal might soon be expected.

As for the gentlemen, despite the fact that they knew of Mr. Darcy’s prior claim, each one seemed most anxious to find out if he’d be the one who might tempt her away. She thought it all quite amusing as they called upon her, leaving their cards and requesting her company for a fashionably late afternoon ride down Rotten Row or perhaps an evening at the theatre.

At first she had refused all of them, but as the number of days of Mr. Darcy’s absence increased, so did her boredom. After all, if she was going to stay home every night, she might as well be back in Northumberland. She soon had convinced herself there was certainly no harm indulging in a carriage ride or two; after all, she was not yet betrothed.

BOOK: The Last Waltz: . . . another pride and prejudice journey of love
12.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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