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Authors: Abigail Reynolds

What would mr. darcy do?

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Copyright

Copyright © 2011, 2001 by Abigail Reynolds

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Cathleen Elliott/Fly Leaf Design

Cover images © The Bridgeman Art Library International; mirajewel/iStockphoto.com

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Originally published asFrom Lambton to Longbournin 2001 by Intertidal Press, Madison, WI

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Reynolds, Abigail.

What would Mr. Darcy do? / by Abigail Reynolds.

p. cm.

1. Bennet, Elizabeth (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Darcy, Fitzwilliam (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Gentry—England—Fiction. 4. England—Social life and customs—19th century—Fiction. I. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. Pride and prejudice. II. Title.

PS3618.E967W47 2011

813’.6—dc22

2010043654

Contents

Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Back Cover

To Rebecca,even if she does like Shakespearebetter than Jane AustenChapter 1

Elizabeth had smiled at him.

It had been a different sort of smile from the arch one she had worn so many times before. No, this had been a genuine—dare he say affectionate?—smile, something Darcy had despaired of ever seeing. It was only four months since Elizabeth had emphatically rejected his proposal of marriage. She had done more than just reject him, by Jove; she had said he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry! She had accused him of ungentlemanlike behavior, of cheating a childhood friend, of destroying the happiness of her own sister. Her hands had been clenched, her fine eyes had sparkled with fury.

And yesterday she had smiled at him.

He had not seen her between that horrible evening four long, excruciating months ago and two days previously, when he had returned to Pemberley unexpectedly and found her touring the grounds with her aunt and uncle. Once his shock wore off, he realized that providence was providing him with a second chance. This was his opportunity to show her he had changed, that he was a man worthy of her love. He had done his best, inviting her uncle to fish at Pemberley, introducing her to his sister Georgiana, entertaining them with the very best Pemberley had to offer. And she had smiled at him.

Fitzwilliam Darcy urged his horse into a canter and then jumped over the wide hedge. It would have been much easier to follow the road, but he was too impatient for that. He had been awake for hours, waiting for a civilized hour so he could call on Elizabeth. Once he mounted his horse, he could not hold back any longer. He took the very shortest route from Pemberley to the town of Lambton.

He slowed his horse to a walk on the edge of town, making an extra effort to acknowledge the townsfolk on the street. He had not frequented Lambton in the past, and now this was the second time in three days he had ridden up to the inn on High Street. It would forever be Elizabeth’s inn in his mind now. He dismounted and tossed the reins to a lad from the inn. Would Elizabeth smile at him today?

He was greeted by the innkeeper himself. “Mr. Darcy, welcome back to our establishment. It is an honor.”

Darcy inclined his head graciously. “Is Miss Bennet within?”

“Indeed, sir, she’s right in the private parlour reading some letters. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, they walked out to the church a bit ago.”

So Elizabeth was alone! This was better than he could have hoped. Would she smile for him today? He allowed a servant to open the parlour door for him, but followed close on his heels.

She did not smile. Instead, she darted from her seat and cried, “Oh! Where, where is my uncle?” Her pale face and impetuous manner made him start, and before he could recover himself enough to speak, she hastily exclaimed, “I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not a moment to lose.”

“Good God! What is the matter?” cried Darcy, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting himself, “I will not detain you a minute, but let me, or let the servant, go after Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. You are not well enough;—you cannot go yourself.”

Elizabeth hesitated, but her knees trembled under her, and she felt how little would be gained by her attempting to pursue them. Calling back the servant, therefore, she commissioned him, though in so breathless an accent as made her almost unintelligible, to fetch his master and mistress home instantly.

On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, “Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill.”

“No, I thank you,” she replied, endeavoring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”

She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. “I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My youngest sister has left all her friends—has eloped—has thrown herself into the power of—of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to—she is lost forever.”

Darcy was fixed in astonishment. “When I consider,” she added, in a yet more agitated voice, “that I might have prevented it! I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only—some part of what I learned—to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now.”

“I am grieved, indeed,” cried Darcy, “grieved—shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?”

“Oh yes!—They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland.”

“And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?”

“My father is gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle’s immediate assistance, and we shall be off, I hope, in half an hour. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible! When my eyes were opened to Wickham’s real character—Oh! Had I known what I ought, what I dared, to do! But I knew not—I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched mistake!”

Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation; his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it. Her power was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She should neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.

But self, though it would intrude, could not engross her. Lydia—the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all—soon swallowed up every private care; and covering her face with her handkerchief, Elizabeth was soon lost to everything else; and, after a pause of several minutes, was only recalled to a sense of her situation by the voice of her companion, who, in a manner, which though it spoke compassion, spoke likewise restraint, said, “I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I anything to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern. Would to heaven that anything could be either said or done on my part, that might offer consolation to such distress!—But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister’s having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley today.”

“Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologize for us to Miss Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible—I know it cannot be long.”

“Of course. You may be assured of my secrecy.” Darcy paused, then added, “I shall trouble you no longer. Please give my compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and accept my best wishes for a happier conclusion to this affair than can presently be foreseen.”

Elizabeth stood. “Thank you.” How the situation had reversed itself since that afternoon in the Hunsford parsonage! Now she was the one desiring Darcy’s good opinion and affections, while he was departing with a wish to sever the connection. She had lost him; she would never see him again. But before they parted, she knew she must tell him somehow that she recognized the error of the terrible accusations she had made that day in April. He had shown by his gentlemanly behavior he had attended to her rebukes; she needed to demonstrate to him that she recognized her former opinions were based on lies and prejudice.

Gathering a desperate resolve, she said, “I would also like to thank you, sir, on my own behalf as well as that of my aunt and uncle, for the courtesy and hospitality you have shown us here. You and Miss Darcy have been all that is kind and amiable. Your sister is a charming and pleasant young lady, and I am very glad to have made her acquaintance, however briefly. Please know that, despite this unfortunate ending, these days in Lambton are ones I will always remember with pleasure.”

For a moment his face remained closed and distant, almost pained, then he approached her. Somehow she found her hand in his, unsure who had initiated the contact.

She saw his mouth form the word “Elizabeth,” though no sound emerged. Then, recalling himself, he took a deep breath and said formally, “Miss Bennet, the pleasure has been entirely mine.” He paused, appearing to struggle for words for a moment, then added slowly, “I hope your acquaintance with Georgiana need not be brief. She has told me repeatedly of the pleasure she has had in your company, and I am certain that she will be most disappointed your stay is to be interrupted. She does not make friends easily, and is often lonely, I believe, for the company of other young women. May I hope, or do I ask too much, that you will continue the acquaintance, and perhaps correspond with her from time to time?”

The surprise of this application was great. She felt relief that, despite Lydia’s shame, he would still at least consider her an acceptable companion for his sister. Then she realized all of his behavior—his closeness to her, his hand around hers, and most importantly that look in his eyes she was now coming to recognize—combined to tell her that though his words were about Georgiana, his meaning was quite different. In all respectability, he could not, as a single man, contact her directly, but Miss Darcy could; he was offering her a way to continue their own contact by proxy.

How had it come to pass that his good opinion was so important to her that this reassurance could bring tears once again to her eyes? Elizabeth struggled to calm herself. “I… I should like that, sir, very much.”

The slightest of smiles warmed his face becomingly. “And perhaps, in happier times, you might honor us… honor her with a visit?”

To know he hoped to see her again, desired to see her enough to invite her to Pemberley! It seemed too much, coming so soon after despairing of any possibility of his favor. “Mr. Darcy,” she said, then paused, gaining strength somehow from his steady gaze, “the honor would be mine, and I would delight in seeing Miss Darcy once again.”

She would not have thought his gaze could become more intense. The sensations she felt as he raised her hand to his lips were such as she had never felt before, and the intensity of those feelings was so great she felt the need to drop her eyes, recalling she was alone with him and that in the tension of the moment neither he nor she might be best able to follow the dictates of appropriate behavior.

With that thought came the recollection of Lydia’s situation—how could she have forgotten it even for a moment, and how could she so have forgotten herself as to be consenting to accept Mr. Darcy’s addresses in light of Lydia’s ruin? Her breath caught as tears began once again to overtake her, but even in her distress she felt the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, and she found herself tightening her fingers on his lest he perceive her loss of composure as a rejection of him.

“Miss Bennet, I must apologize for putting my… concerns before you at a moment when you are facing such distress,” he said quietly, displaying an extraordinary sensitivity to her shift of mood. “Please, you must sit. You are not well.” Releasing her hand most reluctantly, he led her to a chair.

Burying her face in her handkerchief, she whispered, “I am sorry.”

“No, your feelings do you credit,” replied Mr. Darcy. Had she been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how he was struggling not to take her in his arms to offer her whatever comfort he could. “But how may I be of assistance to you? You are eager to away to Longbourn; shall I ask your maid to pack your bags?”

She nodded, still unable to look up. He quitted the room, and she heard him call to the servant. When he returned, he slipped quietly into the chair opposite her.

“Miss Bennet, will you allow me to sit with you until your aunt and uncle return? There is no need for you to make conversation, but I do not wish to leave you alone at a time like this.”

“As you wish, sir.” Elizabeth tried to breathe deeply and calmly. Mr. Darcy handed her his handkerchief while taking her own damp one. Somehow in the process he managed to reclaim her hand with his.

Elizabeth’s thoughts could not stay still. They fluttered from Lydia’s disgrace to Mr. Darcy to the shame her family would face in the future. How hopeless it seemed that there could be any resolution to this crisis! She felt both pity and furious anger at Lydia for the thoughtless behavior that would ruin so many of the family’s hopes, and then, with a sinking heart, connected those unhappy thoughts once again with the man next to her. Would she risk the reputation of the Darcy family name merely by association with them? She could not bear the idea she might do him harm, no matter how high the cost of preventing it. If that cost was never to see him again, she would pay it.

“Mr. Darcy,” she said, her voice trembling, “I find I must ask you to reconsider your… willingness to further my acquaintance with your sister. It is certain that in light of this event my family’s reputation will be severely harmed, and I would anticipate many good families of much lower standing than yours will no longer consent to receive us. Will you risk associating your sister with a family in such disgrace?”

“Miss Bennet, what has your sister done that my sister would not have done were it not for an accident of timing? Surely there are no two people more likely to understand your position than Georgiana and I.”

She could hardly believe her ears. Even with the many changes he had wrought in his behavior since Rosings, could he possibly be putting aside his pride so far as to compare Georgiana with Lydia?

“But in this case whatyouunderstand and whatsocietyunderstands are two very different matters. And I must argue with you, sir, in your comparison; though there are similarities in their situations, Miss Darcy is far more sensible than my heedless, thoughtless sister.”

“They both took the same risk,” he said with a dark look. “Miss Bennet, if you are attempting to tell me that you have for your own reasons changed your mind from the preferences you stated earlier, please tell me so at once, and I shall trouble you no more. But do not use your family as an excuse.”

“You confuse my meaning entirely, Mr. Darcy; my feelings have not changed, but I am concerned about the wisdom of this course. Or perhaps,” she said, hoping to inject a note of playfulness into the discussion, which seemed to be headed to dangerous ground, “I should say that my feelings have not changedrecently, as we both have reason to believe my opinions not to be completely immutable.”

“So long as you see no reason to change your opinions further, I see no reason for complaint.”

The warmth of his gaze brought blushes to her cheeks and tremulous sensations new to her. She could not look away, and she longed to find a witty comment to lighten the atmosphere, but found all words failed her just as she needed them most.

He seemed as much caught as she, his fingers lightly stroking the back of her captive hand. Elizabeth felt hypnotized by the soft tracery of his touch, and was quite taken aback when he abruptly released her hand and pulled away, the old cold and distant look returning to his face.

She looked away, confused, wondering what had happened. Could she not manage to stay in accord with him for the length of a conversation? Or was she somehow misinterpreting him, as she had done so often in the past? She resolved that this time, at least, she would find a way to ask him, rather than assume, what he meant by his behavior.

Taking a deep breath, she said impertinently, “Pray, sir, what brings on the dread Darcy look of disapproval?”

“The dread Darcy look of disapproval?” he replied with a raised eyebrow and the slightest of smiles.

Elizabeth nodded gravely. “What sin could I have committed, I wonder? Could it have been something I said? Something I did? Hmmm—might you have taken a dislike to the style of my hair, or perhaps the color of my dress?”

Darcy could not help smiling, pleased to see her teasing him again. “As you know full well, Miss Bennet, I approve very much of everything about you. In fact, sometimes I approve far too much, and must then disapprove, not of you, but of myself.”

“Disapprove of yourself! For approving of me? Come, sir, that is hardly friendly.”

“Exactly my point, Miss Bennet.”

“So approval leads to unfriendliness! I must assume I am supposed to ask how this could be, but I shall not fall into your trap, sir.”

It has been too long since I have crossed wits with Elizabeth, Darcy thought,but I must take great care on this point.He said lightly, “I shall decipher the riddle for you anyway. I have always prided myself on my self-control, which has served me well until now. Since meeting you, however, I have discovered the sad truth—that my self-control is far more limited than ever I thought, though fortunately this difficulty seems to be limited to the times when I am in your mostapprovedpresence. I am sure you will appreciate my difficulty. Given how far my self-control eroded when you still disliked me, imagine how much more difficult it is to maintain in the presence of your smiles. Hence, I must disapprove of too much approval, lest it lead me to dangerous ground.”

Dangerous ground, indeed, thought Elizabeth. “Mr. Darcy, I have every faith in your gentlemanly behavior.”

He winced. She could not know how much he had been hurt by her words in Hunsford about his ungentlemanly behavior, so he tried to keep any bitterness out of his voice as he acknowledged the unhealed wound. “But as you yourself have pointed out in the past, I am quite capable of behaving in an ungentlemanlike manner.”

“Pray, sir, do not remind me of the unjust and misinformed things I have said in the past! In cases such as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”

“That particular reproof was well-deserved, as I recall.”

Elizabeth flushed. “My philosophy is to think only of the past as it gives me pleasure, so I prefer instead to think about my current better understanding of you, which includes acknowledging that your behavior is gentlemanly in every way! But I shall try to heed your warning and not test your self-control, lest you be irreparably harmed by discovering its limits.”

“Miss Bennet, I urge you to take care,” he said intently, teasing put aside. “The only thing that separates me from this”—here he touched her letters—“is that self-control you mock. There is otherwise no difference between Mr. Wickham and me.”

“Do not,” she cried, “do not ever let me hear you comparing yourself in any way to that… that scoundrel! There is a world of difference between you!”

He smiled slightly. “Perhaps I should learn to criticize myself more often, for the pleasure of hearing you defend me.”

“I speak only the truth, and you, sir, know enough of myfranknessto believe that!”

“Elizabeth, you are playing with fire. Trustmewhen I tell you not to trust me too far.”

His use of her Christian name felt very intimate, and she sensed that some line had been crossed. She knew instinctively this was the moment when she should look away and change the subject, but instead she found herself saying, “And am I the only one playing with fire?”

“Touché,” he said softly. “But do not say that I did not warn you.” Taking her hand, he lifted her to her feet. “Elizabeth,” he breathed as he slowly lowered his head and allowed his lips to caress hers for a brief moment.

Elizabeth felt the power of his touch run through her, shocked by both the sensation and her acquiescence—nay, her cooperation—in the kiss. What did it mean that she desired his kisses? Was he as shocked at her behavior as she was?

“Elizabeth,”—his voice made her name a caress—“Tell me to leave. Please.” Even as he spoke, he pulled her closer and sought her mouth again, more urgently this time.

She allowed herself a moment of stolen pleasure, then, steeling her resolve, forced herself to say in the steadiest possible voice, “Mr. Darcy. You must stop, sir.” She dropped her eyes, knowing instinctively she must not meet his gaze.

He inhaled sharply. “Yes, so I must.” He firmed his resolve and began to pull away, but could not resist the temptation to let his lips linger a moment on her hair as he did so.

Unfortunately, it was then and not a moment later that the door opened, revealing Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.

Chapter 2

Elizabeth and Darcy hastily moved away from each other, but their faces told it all. There was a moment of shocked silence before Mrs. Gardiner, noting both Elizabeth’s blushes and the tears returning to her eyes, hurried to her niece and took her aside, while a furious-looking Mr. Gardiner eyed Darcy.

Darcy exhaled through clenched teeth. Of all the situations to be caught in! What was he to say—My apologies that I was taking advantage of your niece while she was too upset to stop me? Oh, and by the way, my father’s godson has seduced your other niece and they have disappeared somewhere in London, and now you should trust me to help you find him?

“Mr. Darcy,” Mr. Gardiner said coldly, “Perhaps you will be so kind as to join me outside, as I have a few things to discuss with you.” He held the door, motioning to Darcy.

Darcy gritted his teeth and followed, casting a worried look at Elizabeth, who was now in tears in her aunt’s arms—over Lydia rather than over him, he hoped. This was without question the most mortifying situation he had been in since—well, since the Hunsford parsonage, and he certainly had no one to blame but himself for this one.

Mr. Gardiner turned to face him. “Well, Mr. Darcy? I await an explanation of your behavior.”

“Sir, I can offer no acceptable explanation,” Darcy said stiffly. “My behavior obviously merits the severest of reproaches, and I stand prepared to take full responsibility for it.”

“And do you often reduce young women to tears with your advances?” Elizabeth’s distress clearly shocked Mr. Gardiner the most. After their visits to Pemberley it was evident to him that Darcy was very much in love with Elizabeth, which by itself had much inclined him in his favor, and all reports on him from his servants and the Lambton inhabitants indicated a man of strict honor. This behavior was incomprehensible to him.

“Sir, you misunderstand the situation. Her distress is unrelated to me. Miss Bennet will tell you she was already upset when I arrived. In fact it was my attempts to comfort her which turned into the cause for your concern. But Miss Bennet is indeed very upset regarding a separate matter, about which I must insist that you speak with her immediately.”

“And I must insist, sir, on knowing your intentions toward my niece!”

Darcy ground his teeth. Clearly he would not be able to raise Lydia’s situation until he dealt with the infuriated Mr. Gardiner. “My intentions are completely honorable.”

“Do I assume then you will accept my decision should I insist on taking steps to protect my niece’s reputation?”

“Sir, I would marry her tomorrow if I could obtain her consent!” Darcy snapped, his temper fraying. “If you choose to insist on an immediate engagement, which is certainly within your rights, I would have neither reason nor desire to object, but I am afraid the same cannot be said for Miss Bennet!”

Mr. Gardiner blinked, surprised. “Do you have some reason to believe she would not consent to marry you?”

So Elizabeth had not told her family of his proposal! Little wonder that Mr. Gardiner was so furious! Darcy replied in a calmer but brittle voice, “I had assumed you were aware, sir, that she already refused me, not four months ago.”

Mr. Gardiner, taken by surprise, but mollified by this knowledge, said, “That does cast a somewhat different light on things. But you say that she refused you—this hardly seems consistent with her behavior today. Are you certain you did not misinterpret her meaning?”

“Sir, I believe her exact words were that I was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry.” Darcy felt a certain sense of bitter relief at finally unburdening himself of the words which haunted him constantly. “I defy any ability to misinterpret that.”

Mr. Gardiner was taken aback. He could hardly credit that Lizzy would say anything of the sort, but, observing the pain in Darcy’s eyes, he knew it to be true. He saw for a moment a very different Darcy, one who, underneath the image of the powerful scion of a wealthy family, was a young man who had received too much responsibility too soon, and who now found himself for the first time in the grips of a passion beyond his control. He softened considerably. “Well, young man, it would appear you have made a certain amount of progress since then, would it not?”

“There have been signs which might suggest warming of her regard toward me,” Darcy cautiously allowed.

Mr. Gardiner chuckled. “Well, my boy, if what I saw in there was merely a suggestion of warming of her regard, I wonder what it would take to convince you that she actually liked you!”

“Sir, I… I appreciate your concern, and again, I will accept whatever consequences you choose to place on my actions.”

“Well, Mr. Darcy, I will give this due consideration, but, while I cannot condone your behavior in any way, I am willing to accept that you did not intend to take advantage of Elizabeth. But it seems that I must consult with my niece at this point.”

“I strongly urge you to do so, sir, as Miss Bennet has something she must discuss with you that cannot be delayed.”

Mr. Gardiner, finding himself intrigued with this less controlled side of Mr. Darcy, suggested, “She seemed somewhat upset—perhaps in this case you should tell me this important news to spare her nerves.”

“I doubt that I am the best person to tell you,” Darcy demurred, but then, in response to a firm look from Mr. Gardiner, proceeded to unfold the details of the situation of the unfortunate Lydia, and the efforts being made to recover her. Mr. Gardiner’s shock and dismay were as great as was to be expected, and he agreed that their departure was called for as soon as the current situation could be resolved.

***

Elizabeth, in the meantime, was far more preoccupied with her concerns over Lydia than her aunt’s concerns over her improper behavior. “Aunt, I know that I should not have permitted it; it was a momentary weakness. Fortunately, we were not observed by anyone but you, and I see no reason to go any further with this when we have a true crisis to which we must respond!” she said with some vexation.

“Lizzy, my dear, you do notbelieveyou were observed, but you have no way of knowing who might have passed by that window and looked in. Mr. Darcy is well known here, and his presence attracts a substantial amount of interest, and it is already known that you spent a significant amount of time closeted alone with him! I must take this seriously, even if you will not. Now, you tell me that you are not angry or upset with Mr. Darcy, and you clearly respond favorably to him in many ways, and it has been quite obvious to me since our arrival that he is very much taken with you. So I fail to see where the difficulty lies in taking the appropriate steps!”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and said slowly and very distinctly, “Because I am not yet ready to make a decision about him!”

“It seems to me that you already did make a decision, given what I saw, my dear,” Mrs. Gardiner replied gently.

“I confess that I have been giving the matter of Mr. Darcy a good deal of thought these last few days, and I am generally favorably inclined at present, but I can go no further than that while Lydia’s fate lies in question! Please, aunt, let this take its own course!”

“I do not know we have that option, Lizzy, especially under these circumstances, given that your family is already facing disgrace over Lydia’s behavior.”

Elizabeth turned sharply away and stared out the window. “And I have no desire to force that disgrace on Mr. Darcy, especially since it involves Mr. Wickham!”

A knock came at the door, and Mr. Gardiner entered. He observed Elizabeth’s flushed cheeks, and quietly requested that his wife join him for a short discussion.

Elizabeth paced the narrow confines of the room. How could she have allowed this situation to arise? Was she now to be faced by the prospect of a forced engagement? Even as she fought against the idea, a part of her wondered if it would not be the simplest way out of her larger dilemma with Mr. Darcy. She knew that she respected and esteemed him; she felt gratitude to him, not merely for having loved her, but for loving her still well enough, to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manners in rejecting him. When she had thought earlier that she had lost any chance of his favor, she had felt the deepest of distress. His smiles brought her pleasure, and his touch… she shivered as she remembered the feeling of his lips on hers, and how she had felt the shock of it run through her.

Yet how could she base her future on these things, when in truth they had had no more than half a dozen completely civil conversations in the entirety of their acquaintance? And then there was the question of Wickham, and all that it implied. No, she simply could not agree, even if her heart traitorously wanted her to accept.

Two doors away, Darcy was sprawled in a chair, his agitation clear in his drumming fingers, wondering frantically what Elizabeth was thinking. Was she having warm thoughts of him—could she in fact have changed her mind about marrying him—or was she furious with him for putting her in this position? Would she ever forgive him if she were forced to marry him? He felt like a prisoner awaiting his sentence, and he was almost relieved when Mr. Gardiner entered the room and sat across from him.

“Well, I have spoken with my wife, and had a few minutes of private discourse with my niece. Fortunately for you, Elizabeth concurs with your story in all its particulars with the exception of one item,”—here his eyes twinkled for a moment—“which is that while you claim this affair is entirely your responsibility, my niece claims in fact it was she who provoked you. But I am prepared to overlook this discrepancy. However, the thornier question of what to do remains. Although Lizzy admits to being quite favorably disposed toward you at present, it appears that you were correct in your assessment that she is not prepared to enter of her own free will into an engagement at this point.”

Darcy felt the sharp thrust of disappointment lance through him. So her warmth was only for the moment, and her feelings toward him had not changed.

Mr. Gardiner eyed him sympathetically. “If I, acting for her father, insist on it, she will not refuse to participate in an engagement, but I have some concerns about this idea. Lizzy has never been one to accept being coerced gracefully, and I fear that it would mean a very rocky start to any marriage between you. I would nonetheless insist on it, if it were not for the fact that both Mrs. Gardiner and I believe that in fact Lizzy is quite close to being ready to accept you, and perhaps it is even now only her distress over her sister that prevents us from resolving this to everyone’s satisfaction.

“Here, then,” he continued, “is my proposition: that, in the interest of your future marital harmony, we allow you a period of time to attempt to convince Elizabeth to accept you of her own accord, but if this meets no success in a few months, I will speak with her father regarding her participation. What do say you to this plan?”

The blistering pain of disappointment was still foremost in Darcy’s mind. “I accept,” he said shortly.

“Mr. Darcy,” Mr. Gardiner said with some compassion, “let me remind you that I would not have proposed this plan if I were not convinced in my own mind that Lizzy’s consent will be yours in a very short time. Perhaps we should consider ways to offer you the opportunity to court her—for example, if you will be in town, we could invite her to stay with us at Gracechurch Street.”

“As it happens, I have some plans for the next few weeks which may interfere with that, but are of concern to you, sir,” Darcy said, and proceeded to outline to Mr. Gardiner his plans for discovering Wickham and Lydia in London, which led to much vigorous discussion and planning.

***

During the hurry and confusion of the next hour, Elizabeth was fortunately kept distracted by the business entailed by their rapid departure. There were notes to be written to all their friends in Lambton, with false excuses for their sudden departure, packing to be completed, and accounts to be settled. Had she been at leisure to be idle, she would have been in an agony of uncertainty over what Mr. Darcy could be thinking of her. Her uncle had not been at all forthcoming about his discussion with him, and she could only imagine what a man of such pride would feel about the situation in which they had been caught. So she was glad to have employment to keep her thoughts at bay.

Darcy, meanwhile, awaited his opportunity to bid farewell to Elizabeth with some trepidation. He felt unsure of his reception at a time when he most needed reassurance of her affection. He tried to remind himself he had the assurance of Mr. Gardiner that Elizabeth would be prevailed upon to marry him even if he could not win her, but the taste of that possibility was bitter.

When Elizabeth finally entered, he wanted nothing so much as to fling himself on his knees before her and beg her to marry him. Her loveliness took his breath away.

“Sir, you wished to speak with me?” she said after a moment, her eyes downcast.

He cursed himself. Here was his opportunity to make amends, and all he could think of was what her lips had felt like under his. “Yes, Miss Bennet,” he said with a bow, “please accept my deepest apologies for my most inappropriate behavior earlier.”

She looked up, fearing to see displeasure in his eyes, but finding none. “Your apology is accepted, Mr. Darcy, although, as I told my aunt, I believe you may have had some provocation.” Was there just a hint of impudence in her voice? “I shall endeavor to remember in the future that your warnings should be taken with the utmost seriousness.”

Darcy breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps it was not so hopeless after all. “I hope I have not caused you undue difficulty with your family.”

“Nothing that will not pass. I am trying to appreciate the novelty of being in trouble for misbehavior of this sort,” she said in an attempt at lightness. Then, seeing the concerned look on his face, she clarified, “Truly, my aunt was quite gentle with me. And I hope my uncle was not overly harsh with you?”

Darcy gave a slight, ironic smile. “There were a few rough moments, but we eventually came to an understanding of sorts. The subject arose of my proposal in Kent, which helped to establish my bona fides, but I apologize to you, as it was something you clearly preferred to keep private.”

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