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A Slip in Time

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“Forgive me, madam,” said Darcy, his voice barely more than a whisper on the furious wind raging by, “For taking up so much of your time.” His gaze dipped lower and almost against her will, Elizabeth’s eyes were drawn to his lips as well.

They both looked up at the same moment, eyes full of guilt. Oh this infuriating, maddening man! A voice in the back of her head, that sounded more than a little like her dear sister begged her to calm down but Elizabeth was far past caring. Mr Darcy was right there, right next to her – his body warm and solid despite the insulting audacity of the words he had just delivered.

Without thinking about it, she gave vent to her emotions and kissed him. It was no gentle first kiss but a violent, passionate thing, a messy meld of lips and wandering hands. She could feel his surprise and then fury almost as though he had said it all out loud: how dare the low-born Miss Elizabeth refuse him so bluntly and then act thus? She delighted in provoking him further, kissing him more deeply still.

And then it was her turn to be shocked. Cold, proper Mr Darcy’s arms came up around her, strong and sure, to hold her still and she found herself being ruthlessly kissed in a manner that should have outraged her. Instead it left her feeling deliciously light-headed. She would have been offended at the reaction he could so easily provoke in her body had she not caught a glimpse of his expression as he drew back. He looked dazed, his normally put-together appearance in shambles: his hair was a mess, his cravat askew and his coat covered in damp impressions of her finger-prints.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he began only to be interrupted by a much louder bellow of “COUSIN!”

She looked at the woods next to where they stood, where the voice had emerged from. A diminutive figure emerged, walking towards them rapidly. Mr Collins’ body was pulled taut with fury and his stride resembled a march.   

“Oh no,” she said, the full force of her situation, of what she had let a moment’s temptation drive her into hitting her. She wrenched herself away from Mr Darcy’s grasp. He merely stood there, arms outstretched, seemingly as horrified as she was. It may have been her imagination but he looked almost bereft as she put as much distance between them as she could.

He stepped forward and grabbed her elbow. As she attempted to pull herself away from him in a blind panic (could he not see Mr Collins, almost upon them now, so close that she could see the revulsion in his eyes as he looked at his fallen cousin?), Mr Darcy said to her urgently, “Please. Allow me to speak before you do.”

She looked at him then and something about his gaze reassured her. She nodded slightly. He nodded back, before turning and calmly facing the furious pastor. “Mr Collins,” he said, with a small bow.

The formality was enough to make the ever-conscious little man hesitate slightly but his sense of righteousness reasserted itself soon enough. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.

Mr Darcy’s complexion was flushed but his voice steady enough when he answered, “A slightly unwise display to be sure…”

“An unwise display?” Mr Collins’ had summoned all the indignation due to a man of the cloth in such circumstances and it made his small body vibrate as he continued, “My cousin has made a spectacle of…”

“I would strongly urge you to reconsider how you speak of my affianced wife.” Mr Darcy’s voice was cold.

“Sir?” Mr Collins started.

“The engagement between us is of long-standing.”

Elizabeth tried hard to maintain an impassive countenance as her cousin scrutinised them both.

“Today,” continued Mr Darcy, “however, we decided that we could wait no more. We shall be wed as soon as the banns are read.”

Elizabeth’s heart sank down to her stomach even as she recognised that there were no other options open to them. Even a nature as redoubtable and independent as hers shrank from the horrors that fallen women faced in society. Besides, it was hardly a fate that she could afford with four sisters to think of.

“But this is joyous news!” exclaimed Mr Collins. “Why then was it kept a secret?”

“My aunt,” smoothly replied Mr Darcy, “Undoubtedly one so deep in her confidence as you obviously are would be aware of the hopes she cherished regarding myself and my cousin Anne.”

“Ah,” said her cousin, clearly unaware of the matter being discussed but far too proud of being addressed in such a manner by the great master of Pemberly to confess his ignorance.

“We thought to spare her feelings and Anne’s delicate constitution by keeping the matter to ourselves just a little longer.”

“Very well.” Mr Collins puffed up his chest. “I am honoured by your confidence, cousin – if I may call you that already! – and you can be certain I stand your ally.”

It was clear that visions of casually announcing his relation to the great Mr Darcy in order to boost his own standing and awe his neighbours were at the forefront of his mind. Elizabeth cringed at this proof of the truth of Mr Darcy’s accusations against her family (which she had to admit within her own mind hurt all the more for the fact that they were justified) but he seemed unmoved. Although she stole a glance upwards at his profile where he stood next to her, Elizabeth found it impossible to guess his thoughts.

“Ahem,” said Mr Collins, shuffling about embarrassedly, “I must insist on my cousin accompanying me back for the sake of propriety but I hope I am not so lost to the tender impulses of young love as to deny you a moment of farewell.” Then, in an unusual display of tact, he walked a few steps away and pointedly turned his back to them. It was a ridiculous action, and Elizabeth could not help but let out a hysterical giggle at the absurd turn her life had taken in just a few short moments.

“Elizabeth,” whispered Mr Darcy, his voice suddenly full of emotion. “I cannot apologize enough for what has taken place here today. Rest assured that you will not be called on to tolerate any more than my name. But my name I am afraid I must give you for my own regrettable actions have left us little other choice.”

She looked up at him, eyes wide. For reasons she could not quite fathom, his little speech left her feeling far more desolate than any other event so far. Hearing him refer to their kiss as a regret stung and the thought that she had all but coerced an honourable man into marriage solely because he could not in good conscience abandon the idea of it now (as he clearly had after her rejection) made tears prickle uncomfortably in the backs of her eyes.

Mr Darcy obviously caught sight of them as he looked away, jaw firmly clenched. She looked down, not wanting to see his response her moment of weakness. How ironic, that after delivering a scathing rejection to him only minutes earlier she was the one now wounded by his!  

“Very well then, Mr Darcy,” she said, proud that her voice barely shook. “I shall endeavour to stay as far out of your way as possible.”

For some reason, he flinched at that. “If that is your wish,” he said, his expression bleak. Before she could ask him to clarify that mysterious statement, they were interrupted by Mr Collins. Elizabeth took his proffered arm and they began to walk towards the rectory, the rain having ceased as suddenly as it had appeared that morning.

 

Chapter Text

The next month went by as a whirlwind spinning out of her control. Later, Elizabeth could only recollect fragments that made it past the veil of disjointed thoughts that clouded her mind. She could not bring herself to tell Charlotte the whole truth upon her return: both she and her friend had changed too much for that and while the bonds of affection between them remained intact, they were no longer children and confidants. She accepted Charlotte’s felicitations and joy (for she believed Elizabeth had found love at last and seemed so very genuinely happy for her that Elizabeth could not bring herself to disabuse her of her sweet delusion). The rectory did not suffer from any more noble visitors before her hasty departure the next morning, with the exception of Colonel Fitzwilliam, and she knew she had Mr Darcy to thank for that for he told her so. Apparently the intimidating lady of the manor looming over them all had been none too pleased at the turn events had taken but the Colonel confided in her that his cousin had taken it upon himself to bear the brunt of her anger.

Despite herself, Elizabeth could not but be grateful for his intervention. While she liked to believe that she was made of stronger stuff than her hysterical mother, her mind was full-to-bursting with a plethora of confusing emotions that made her determinedly squeeze her eyes shut to avoid an errant emotion from leaking out. She bid Mr and Mrs Collins’ a dignified goodbye, curtsied to the Colonel with a straight face that did not in the least betray her suspicions that he had been sent there to ensure her safe departure by a person she wished to avoid thinking about, and left for home in a carriage far more comfortable than any she had previously travelled in. All her protestations on this last count had fallen on deaf ears; the Colonel was both extremely sympathetic to her dislike of overt ostentation and extremely firm in his belief that the vehicle she had arrived in was unfit for the future Mrs Darcy to step into.

Her heart could not decide whether it was ecstatic or miserable. Ecstatic, for it appeared she had finally met a worthy match. Oh, not in the sense of love or any other such tender emotion of course. But mostly for her to cross swords with, who could be trusted to engage her as an equal as well as bear the full brunt of her fiercest attacks. Much as she might deplore parts of his character, Elizabeth could not deny that Mr Darcy was a skilled wordsmith: dodging an attack from her here, countering with a well-placed quip there and ultimately even swinging past with some impressive cuts of his own. After a lifetime of biting her tongue around a hysterical mother, her ever sweet-natured Jane and much-loved but sadly foolish younger sisters, her heart couldn’t help beat a little faster upon meeting such a fine opponent. Her father had been the only one she could have been her most combative self with – but he was after all her father and there were certain lines of propriety that could not be crossed even within the walls of his study.

But at the same time, a part of her ached. It mourned for the daydreams of the idle, carefree young girl that she had been not too long ago. One who had imagined love to be something that would certainly be hard to find but not impossible... One who had been unable to stop herself from imagining a soft kiss on her wedding day, from a man whose devotion to her shone out of his very eyes as they pledged themselves to one another. She was ashamed of herself, a little, for such imaginings for they were better suited to Kitty or Lydia’s mind, but they had crept upon hers too sight unseen and now she knew not what to do with them.

For it was utterly useless to hope that Mr Darcy could ever be that man for her. Even if (if!) she could grow fond of him - Elizabeth’s being an ultimately practical soul that quickly realised the futility of a lifetime of domestic enmity - it was ridiculous to hope that he would ever regard her with anything other than contempt. After his disastrous proposal and her cutting response, no wonder his last words to her had clearly indicated the distance he would undoubtedly expect to be maintained between them as soon as the ceremony binding them to one another was finished.

While Elizabeth did not much regret her words, she did spend many an afternoon observing the raindrops splattering against her bedroom window while contemplating whether she could have gone about it better. It was not that she believed Mr Darcy innocent but with some time and space between them it had become much easier to see that she too had let her temper, the immediate disgust of finding out what havoc he had wreaked on Jane’s happiness in the church, overrule her better sense while rejecting him.

She wondered too what Mr Darcy himself was thinking at such moments and could almost find it in her to sympathise with his plight – he was after all about to find himself leg-shackled to a mere country Miss with a family he held in deep disdain, who had torn his character to shreds and proven herself more a challenge than the sort of demure lady-like wife a man like him surely sought. She almost snorted then and wondered at the melancholic turn she had taken, “Poor Mr Darcy, indeed,” she thought, shaking her head. “Next I shall find myself pitying the Golden Ball.”

Mrs Bennet’s joy at how creditably her second daughter was to be established was thankfully tempered a little by the mixed emotions her soon-to-be son aroused in her breast. His wealth must of course render him an eminently desirable parti  but his manner left her feeling even more foolish than usual in his wake. Nevertheless, she lost no time in parading her (dearest Lizzie’s) triumph about the neighbourhood in a manner that left Elizabeth herself with red cheeks and her husband looking heavenward for patience.

Her father was the only person who Miss Bennet could bring herself to confide the greater part of the truth in. She grew very quiet in the face of her words and had barely spoken to her since then. She knew not what to think of this development for it did not seem as though he were particularly angry with her. Rather a weariness had settled about him, as though he were tired of the world and it’s ways that necessitated such actions. He withdrew further into his library and only the most severe of scolds by his wife ever served to flush him out from there in the days that followed. Elizabeth was secretly glad of this for sometimes she felt a strange urge to lay her head in his lap and shed a tear or two as she had in the past as a little girl.

For she felt younger and younger as her wedding day approached. Mr Darcy had taken care of the formalities, a notice had been placed in the papers and a Special License procured. Their wedding was to be an unfortunately grand affair in London, for somehow word had spread that the eligible Mr Darcy was wasting his fortune on a Nobody he had compromised. As Colonel Fitzwilliam had kindly explained to her in a letter he wrote to her, such rumours had to be appropriately dealt with, through a public show of strength. After all, quite apart from the esteemed Darcy name, he told her, there was also young Georgiana, with her come-out only a Season away to think of.  

The fact that this news reached her through the Colonel and not Darcy himself made Elizabeth feel terribly cold inside for no reason that she could name. It was one of the few emotions that peaked through the numbness that by now cloaked her almost entirely.

Colonel Fitzwilliam had also included in his missive instructions and directions that sent her family into a tizzy and made Elizabeth herself feel rather like a show pony to be specifically groomed before an Event. These were primarily related to the business of a London wedding itself, such as directions to the house that Mr Darcy had arranged for her family to occupy during their short stay in London before the wedding and that he could evidently not be bothered to direct them to himself once they arrived. His utter disregard for her existence would have left Elizabeth furious if it did not make her rather sad for the future of their marriage instead. However, another example of Darcy high-handedness did have her clenching her fork rather tightly at breakfast as Kitty (who had intercepted Colonel Fitzwilliam’s letter the second it arrived and read it out loud to the table in delighted accents that made her father wince) announced that the best modistes and milliners in London had already been selected for her by her sister-in-law to be.

Apparently Georgiana Darcy (who between Wickham’s description and this last letter was beginning to appear to Elizabeth as an even more monstrous Lady than her aunt) had condescended enough to travel from Pemberley to London itself for the express purpose of showing her new sister the sights and fashions of London. If Elizabeth stabbed her omelettes with an unusual ferocity that morning, it was nobody’s concern but her own. She was only grateful that her dear Jane was still in London and so would join their family party when they arrived. Her sister’s soothing presence would perhaps help calm the chaos that ran through her mind each night even as she struggled to feel.

Finally, the day came when all the travel arrangements had been made and all that remained was for her to step into the ‘bang-up equipage’ (as Lydia had described it while rubbing her hands together with glee) that had been sent to convey her to London. Elizabeth, her mother and Jane would thus be in London for a full week before the wedding, while her father and the rest of the Bennet family would join them a few days later. Her father had simply refused to tolerate the noise and chatter of London for any longer than necessary and Kitty and Lydia, still fuming from his refusal to allow them to follow the militia alongside their friends under dubious guardianship, were so glad to simply be leaving their little town behind that they agreed to his plans with a docility that left even their mother suspicious.

As she sat down and the carriage began to move under her feet, Elizabeth felt a swooping sensation in her stomach and all at once all the feelings she had suppressed for weeks came tumbling back in to form a lump in her throat.

   

Chapter Text

The carriage had barely shuddered to a stop before Elizabeth practically jumped out, racing up the steps of the house before which they found themselves, to leap into her sister’s arms. She had caught sight of Jane’s smiling face from within the confines of the carriage and after hours spent in the exhausting company of their mother, she could not be more delighted to see her. Her soothing presence made Elizabeth’s nerves melt away. Unfortunately her relief was short-lived.

“Well, I do hope I merit so delightful a greeting someday as well, sister.” Elizabeth drew back from her sister’s arms to discover the source of those words and found herself face-to-face with a schoolgirl. The young lady had mischief in her eyes and an engaging grin on her face and Elizabeth found herself smiling back at her.

“And who might you be, madam?” she said, with an exaggerated curtsy. Her joy at escaping the rocking little box she had been trapped in for days, combined with the sunshine streaking through the clouds above, had left her feeling a little giddy.

An enchanting peal of laughter escaped the girl, even as her hand rose up to cover her mouth. She collected herself in short order though, and picked up her own skirts in response. “Lady Georgiana Darcy, pleased to meet you.”

Her smile faded a little at Elizabeth’s expression. Elizabeth herself was aware that she was allowing her shock to betray her into rudeness but she could not help herself. This mere child! This was who Wickham had almost eloped with! This was whom he had spoken of in the vilest manner imaginable to a virtual stranger! She had always known, intellectually, that Ms Darcy could hardly be a very old woman but she had not expected this child. Suddenly, the veil fell from before her eyes and all at once she saw him as he was. Her mind spun as every meeting they had had, every conversation they had shared, now appeared to her in a wholly different light. What else had Wickham tricked her into believing?

No, the responsibility for falling for his lies was hers alone. She smiled back at Georgiana and held out her hand. “Forgive me, I am utterly exhausted after my long journey. But I was told you would be my guide during our time in London, so would you care to guide me indoors please?”

Georgiana giggled and nodded, clasping the hand that was offered her. She turned towards the house and it was then that Elizabeth first caught sight of the magnificence that she would apparently be calling home for the week.

It was well beyond her father’s modest means, more even than her uncle could have arranged. Oh it was not ostentatious. Everything, from the butler who welcomed them in to the furnishings they walked past were in the first style of elegance. It was clearly a tonnish residence, equipped with all the comforts the beau monde demanded.

The opulence of her settings reminded her yet again of all the ways in which Mr Darcy obviously meant to keep her at a distance. Why else would he choose to display his wealth so to her family? She felt a slow anger burn within at the thought. Yes, they were from different worlds and she knew that perfectly well already. There was little need for him to act so.

But it was impossible for her to scowl in the face of Georgiana’s expectant smile so she clasped her soon-to-be sister’s hand and said, “Everything looks absolutely lovely.”

“My brother picked it out himself,” she said, that naughty smile once again tugging on her lips, “Everything of the finest for his bride!”

While they both used the same words, there was such a great discrepancy between Georgiana’s tone and Elizabeth’s thoughts that she was left feeling more than a little muddled. Nevertheless the sight of a most excellent luncheon of the sort that lay upon the tables in the dining hall and provoked a delighted gasp from Mrs Bennet could not but distract her from her thoughts. Mrs Bennet retired shortly after but the ladies lingered over their dessert, bantering as just-met friends did. The afternoon passed in a haze of pleasant conversation and indeed, Elizabeth was conscious of a growing feeling of fondness for her new sister to accompany her love for Jane.

-

But even the longest of respites could not have altered her reaction to meeting Mr Darcy again. She had but stepped out of her room, much refreshed by a short nap and a little bewildered by the ministrations of an excellent dresser who had knocked on the door seconds after she had woken as if by magic.

And then she saw him.

He was making conversation with her sister in one of the sitting rooms, a small chamber with a merry fire flickering away before them. His head was bent towards hers and she had a small smile on her face. Clearly, he had taken some pains to make himself agreeable to her most beloved sibling. But the task could not have been pleasant to one such as him. She could estimate that his mind was too quick to much appreciate the polite talk of the town and his consequence so far had probably made it unnecessary for him to tolerate much of it. Still he was persevering and Jane was at her ease before him now. But the firelight threw the angles of his face into sharp relief and Elizabeth could not help but stare at his lips. Unbidden, a memory of how they had felt against hers rose up in her mind.

It was thus with flushed cheeks and slightly lowered eyes that she entered the room. Mr Darcy stood up at once.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he said, with a short bow. At first, she thought his voice sounded terribly cold but the anxiousness in his eyes when she peeked up at his face through her lashes left her insensibly reassured.

“Mr Darcy,” she responded, with a curtsy of her own.

He gave her a small smile in return and her distracted gaze once again fixed on the curve of his lips and the light in his eyes.

“I was just thanking Mr Darcy for his kindness in arranging our stay here.” Jane’s sweetly modulated voice made her jump. Elizabeth had rarely felt so flustered in her life. It was as though she was in a dream. For a moment, she had forgotten the existence of another person in the room.

Confusion gave way to resolve and when she spoke, her voice came out evenly enough. “Indeed. One wonders why a gentleman would bestir himself so for a country bride.”

Before her words, his hand had been outstretched towards her but upon her little speech Mr Darcy curled his fingers back. “I believe,” he said, stiffly, “That some private words are in order.”

“Are they?” asked Elizabeth, looking straight into his eyes with a challenge in her own.

“Yes.” He regarded her with a steady gaze. “I believe I may have misspoken when we last met. I have excuses, poor though they may be, and some rather unpleasant conclusions that your words led me to upon reflection.”  

Near the end his eyes fell to the carpet below them and it was just as well, for his blunt words had left Elizabeth speechless. “Mr Darcy…” she began uncertainly when a flurry of activity near the door caught her eye.

“Oh my dearest Lizze, my poor Jane!” wailed her mother, as she burst into the room. “We are ruined, all of us ruined! I had only just been awoken by that maid with some of that lovely imported tea – for you both must have noticed that my exhaustion upon our arrival was such that I could not bear to stay downstairs a moment longer but retired immediately until I felt presentable again; travel does not agree with me much…”

“Mama, what has happened?” Jane cut in, gently but firmly.

“Lydia has eloped with Mr Wickham!”

Chapter Text

Elizabeth felt the blood rush into her cheeks even as Jane’s hand flew up in a horrified gesture to cover her mouth. She could not bear to look at Mr Darcy just then, to see his reaction to yet more proof of his words that fateful day.

Hot tears pricked at her eyes and Elizabeth turned away. She raised a hand to dash them away angrily but was halted by the blurry sight of a pristine handkerchief being dangled
before her.

“You would have soiled your evening gloves,” said Mr Darcy, sounding uncomfortable.

But of course! Even in this small matter, she was not and would never be a bride fit to his standards, would she? Elizabeth felt torn. She was furious with Lydia, for behaving in a manner so unspeakably atrocious at so delicate a moment. At the same time, she was conscious of a pin-prick of conscience. A better daughter than she would not have entertained such selfish concerns as her own precarious plans of marriage to a man she was so very uncertain about in a time of such grave crises for her sisters and mother.

For through this one action, Lydia had condemned the Bennets. Elizabeth would be spared, only because Mr Darcy could not in honour draw back from an engagement that had been so publicly announced and so she was no longer a Bennet in any but the most formal sense but as for her parents and sisters... And what of her new relations? Would they hear of the scandal and assume the worst of her before she had even had a chance to meet them? What would Mr Darcy think of his family's opinions on his bride? She risked a glance up and saw Mr Darcy gazing out of a window. His brow was furrowed and his expression stern. Her heart sank.

“Forgive me,” he said abruptly, turning to meet her eyes as though startled out of some reverie by her scrutiny. “But I will be unable to join you for supper tonight.”

So this was how it would be! He would leave her side for Lydia’s disgrace! It was a fitting enough reaction, she knew, but it still made something within her ache uncomfortably.

“A pressing engagement, undoubtedly,” she said, unable to hide her bitterness. She knew herself to be acting insensibly. There was no earthly reason why he should linger. Any man of propriety and taste would be offended by her family’s recent actions and it was not as though there was any love lost between them to soften the blow. Yet Elizabeth was still hit by a rush of disappointment. Despite having no reason at all to do so, she had hoped for better from Mr Darcy.

He bowed, once to her and her sister, again to his own sibling and Mrs Bennet, and left. The only sound now was of her mother’s wails echoing through the room.

Dinner passed Elizabeth by in a haze. Georgiana kept up a steady stream of cheerful chatter about the upcoming nuptials, and Jane responded with almost equal grace and poise. Mrs Bennet lay prone on one of the seats at the table but consumed an astonishing quantity of food in the most resigned fashion.

Elizabeth conversed pleasantly enough with her companions on a number of indifferent topics when appealed to but would have been hard-pressed to recall a single comment made by either herself or them later. But she was still aware enough of her surroundings following the light press of Jane’s fingers upon her hand on their way downstairs for the meal to notice the eagle-eyed butler taking in the moods of all four ladies and the stone-faced footmen with interested ears lingering.

Georgiana’s slightly anxious eyes confirmed her suspicions. A sign of weakness now would undoubtedly have repercussions, spreading from the servants' rooms to stairway gossip to the other Lords and Ladies in town. These were circles vastly different from those she had previously encountered but Elizabeth’s stubborn pride made her determined to prove herself equal to the challenges presented to her by the pitfalls of Mr Darcy’s world. So she talked lightly of wedding arrangements and evening gowns with an air of unconcern even as her mind refused to allow her to forget the look on Mr Darcy’s face just before his departure.

-

She would have pondered over it in greater detail, as questions crowded around her mind even as she blew out her candle and clambered onto her bed: was this how her marriage would be? Cold and lonely, with a husband who had mixed piercingly correct observations with imperfect beliefs to reach his conclusions about her before vows had even been uttered by either of them? Was Georgiana’s presence here to acclimatise her to the fact that she would be expected to do without her husband’s company? Was her company truly that repulsive to him? Elizabeth felt a small, painful urge to run away from such a fate although she quelled it with reason. She was not a romantic heroine in a melodrama and such a life was still far superior to most alternatives even if it was not her ideal of a loving union.

Fortunately for her, the events of the evening at least had the effect of exhausting her enough to make sleep easy. And when she woke, it was only moments before a maid entered her room with a message: “Miss Georgiana had asked to inform you of her intention of setting out after a light nuncheon for the shops, ma’am. She hopes you will join her.”

“Thank you, I will,” said Elizabeth, blinking the sleep out of her eyes just in time to see the woman sniff and turn away. But there was little time for her to puzzle out her strange behaviour. By the time she was bathed and dressed, she was informed there was a meal ready downstairs and the rest of her company awaiting her pleasure.

She hurried down and was greeted by her sisters’ smiles. Georgiana had a marital gleam in her eyes as she detailed a plan of shopping that would take them down the finest stores in London in a manner not unlike a general discussing her campaign. Jane promised her in an undertone to attend to their mother while she was out, an action so sweetly selfless that Elizabeth could only smile gratefully at her and offer her finest of the lemon tarts before them in thanks. But there was still one question that remained, lingering in the back of the room like an elephant crowding out all attempts at distraction.

“But what of Lydia?” she asked Jane softly.

Jane looked straight ahead as she answered, her smile hardening to something more brittle. “You had best speak to Mama when you return. She has had a plate taken up for her in her room and is very much occupied for now.”

A foreboding feeling came over her and lingered in her mind until it was time for her and Georgiana to set out. But when she stepped out of her almost sister-in-law’s carriage (delicately assisted by a stone-faced man footman), she almost gasped out loud. Georgiana turned back to look at her, her face schooled into an innocent expression even as her dancing eyes and the sly curve of her lips betrayed her.

“Do you like it?”

Elizabeth was not a female much given over to fripperies but she could only stare when she stepped into the stylish modiste’s shop. The owner, a fashionably but sensibly gowned lady, herself emerged to greet them and proceeded to take her measurements with much hemming and hawing. Georgiana wandered around the room, suggesting this fabric and that cut. Elizabeth nodded along, a little overwhelmed.

Soon enough though, her common-sense reasserted itself. While initially shocked at the casual extravagance betrayed by her comments, Elizabeth quickly realised that Georgiana’s lack of restraint sprang more from a lack of experience with any need to pinch pennies than any true fault of character. Her own taste ran to the simple but elegant. She rejected all offers of ruffles and elaborate laces in favour of plainer fabrics that were all nevertheless exceedingly rich in appearance with subtle gleams to their very flow. Judging by the modiste’s approving nods and her discreet guidance of Miss Darcy away from heavy gowns most unsuited to her age, her own tastes matched Elizabeth’s and the two ladies found themselves in agreement over the order of several gowns.

Elizabeth looked at herself in a floor-length mirror, a bolt of cream fabric draped over her shoulder, and had the oddest thought of having accidentally strayed into someone else’s life. She was not a particularly vain girl but it seemed impossible to her that this apparently grand lady in the glass should wear her face.

Unfortunately, just then, the modiste quoted the most shocking price that Elizabeth had ever heard for all her purchases and she turned around sharply, “Pardon?”

The lady obligingly repeated the figure.

“I am afraid this is far too dear,” said Elizabeth firmly, keeping the fabric away.

“Oh no, no,” said Georgiana, looking shocked. “My brother would certainly not mind!”

Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed as she realised just who would be paying the bills for all this finery. Looking around her, she declared, not without a hint of wistfulness, “I do believe I am in no great need of new gowns at just this moment.”

She hurried out of the store, aware of how ridiculous she must have just made herself in the eyes of all those within. But somehow their regard mattered far less to her than the thought of Mr Darcy’s reaction if he were to learn that his bride was frittering away his fortune before the ceremony had even taken place. It would do little to improve his opinion of her or her family, of that she was certain.

Georgiana joined her shortly in the carriage. She did not press Elizabeth with either questions or remonstrations about the sudden aversion she had taken to designs that she had admired only moments prior. Instead, she merely told the footman to make sure to inform the maids that she had purchased a few items for herself that would be delivered in a few days.

Indeed, she even agreed to postpone the rest of her planned trip for a later date. Her mood remained remarkably fine in spite of it all until their arrival at the townhouse Mr Darcy had hired. For they had barely made their way across the vestibule, when the butler announced, “A Mr Wickham to see you, ma’am.”

Chapter Text

A quick glance at Georgiana’s white face was enough to confirm Elizabeth’s worst fears. Yet she replied with an admirable semblance of calm, “Escort him to one of the drawing rooms and inform him that I shall be with him shortly.”

As the butler bowed and withdrew, Elizabeth turned to her. At a loss for words, she said, “Miss Darcy – Georgiana…”

The latter swallowed and nodded jerkily. “Miss Bennet. Pray excuse me. I feel – I feel – It is this abominable heat!”

She was suddenly deeply conscious of the fact that they were relative strangers to one another’s habits. Had it been Jane before her, or even Mary, Elizabeth would have known exactly what was to be done. But with Georgiana Darcy, she found herself torn between wanting to provide reassurance and not overstepping her bounds.

Her small hands were trembling, she noticed. The slight sheen of sudden tears in her eyes decided Elizabeth and she stepped forward to embrace the younger girl. Georgiana let out a small sob and drew back at once, “I’m so sorry, it’s…”

“A perfectly natural reaction to an unexpected encounter with a past you hoped you had put behind you,” said Elizabeth firmly. She felt Georgiana’s back tense underneath her palms.

“You know?” she asked fearfully, looking up at Elizabeth.

“Only the vaguest details, but quite enough for me to be certain that you were hardly to blame.”

“Oh no, no,” said Georgiana, with fresh tears, “If you knew what my brother…”

“Your story is quite your own to consider but I do hope you will not do your brother the dishonour of assuming that he was anything but profoundly relieved to be able to assist you.”

It was obvious by the widening of her eyes that this view of the situation was one that she had never before considered. Some colour returned to her cheeks and she said, with a touch of her usual spirit, “I would never think ill of him! He is the best and kindest of brothers!”

“Then how could you ever think he would be anything but happy to help you in your time of need?”

“That is… that is true,” she said. With a small, shy smile Georgiana added, “You know him well.”

“I?” But before she could convey her amazement at that notion, they were interrupted by one of the footmen again. He bowed and asked if any refreshments were to be served to the gentleman in the drawing room.

“No,” said Elizabeth, even as Georgiana took a step back from her and discretely wiped her tears. “Lead me to him, please.”

She stepped forward with an assurance she did not feel and was lead through the still unfamiliar corridors by the footman, coming to a halt before a charming salon. Mr Wickham’s figure stood in stark contrast to the warmth of the room with its merrily crackling fireplace.

“What do you want, Mr Wickham?” she asked, abruptly.

He had risen upon her entrance, and made as if to bow, but at this he stopped short. With an uneasy glance at the stone-faced footman who was slowly withdrawing from the chamber, he maintained his silence until the man had left. Then, he started, “I beg of you to hear me out, Miss Elizabeth…”

“Miss Bennet,” she corrected.

A hint of anger flashed across his usually easy countenance before being swept away by one of his more engaging smiles. “Ah, the air of Town and all its formalities!”

She was disgusted by his attempt at humour at a time such as this and made no effort to hide it. His smile shrank.

“Could it be that I have offended you, Miss Elizabeth?” he had the gall to ask her.

She turned away from him. “In every way, sir.”

“Or is your offence perhaps at my imagined digressions as told to you by one Mr Darcy?” he pursued.

“You deny all charges made against you by him then?”

“I call them exaggerations rather, of a most harmless flirtation with one to whom he is related. Such great men often scoff at those who dare–”

“And what of my sister? Is she another such dalliance for you?”

His face was sombre as he replied but it seemed a mere mask to Elizabeth. “No, she is an excitable child and I let myself be carried beyond the bounds of propriety by her youthful enthusiasm. I most bitterly regret the actions I was led to and my own naiveté. As a man of the world, I ought to have known better.”

“Led to!” Elizabeth was white with fury but Mr Wickham, mistaking it for sympathetic distress, nodded eagerly.

“But you and your family need not worry, my dear Miss Elizabeth. For I shall marry her at once!”

This was so unexpected that Elizabeth could only stare at him in incredulity for a moment. He took advantage of this and strode forward, possessing himself of one of her hands.

“But now for the matter that I came here to address!”

Just then, the door opened once again and Mr Darcy entered. He seemed somewhat harried but as he took in the scene before him, his expression hardened.

“I trust I do not interrupt?” His words sounded clipped. Elizabeth could not imagine why. Somewhat absently, she noted that Mr Wickham had let go of her hand and was glad.

“It being my home I thought it unnecessary to announce myself,” Mr Darcy continued, his gaze now fixed on Mr Wickham. The latter tugged at his cravat, looking like nothing so much as an errant schoolboy caught out in a silly prank.

“Never any need to stand upon ceremony with intimates, is there?” he said, with a credible if slightly forced impression of his usual gaiety.

Mr Darcy’s eyes turned, if possible, even colder at that. “I did not know that you and Miss Elizabeth stood upon such terms.”

Breaking into this incomprehensible exchange, Elizabeth said, “Mr Wickham said that he had an urgent matter he wished to discuss with me, just before you arrived. If he could proceed?”

But all the passionate emotion that had animated him only moments ago seemed to have deserted Mr Wickham all at once. “I merely wished to inform of you of some plans for my future.”

“Ah yes,” said Mr Darcy, “Your plans to move to Liverpool immediately with your wife.”

At that, anger sparked beneath his façade. “I could have sworn you said London this morning!”

“Shall we discuss the events of this morning then?”

“Please do,” said Elizabeth. Her mind was still on Georgiana’s tear-streaked face and she was tired of the oblique references both gentlemen seemed intent on pointedly making while explaining nothing to their audience.

Mr Wickham glanced at her and said to Mr Darcy, with some dignity, “There is no need for that. Surely I may inform Miss Elizabeth of my marriage to her most beloved sister on my own terms?”

Lydia married! Elizabeth was aware that her primary feeling ought to be of dread; of her sister married to a man she now knew well to be a scoundrel. But her practicality won out and all that rushed through her was relief.

“It is most honourable of you, sir,” she said, hoping to wrap the matter up in clean linen and be done with it once and for all.

“And now that you have Ms Elizabeth’s favour once again,” cut in Mr Darcy before Wickham could respond, “There is nothing left for you except to return to your lodgings and prepare for the nuptials before you.”

 Mr Wickham’s expression was inscrutable as he regarded Darcy for a moment but he was all pleasant smiles again as he turned to Elizabeth and said, “I hope we may count on your presence.”

“Indeed,” said Elizabeth, after a cautious look at her own betrothed. The muscle clenching in his jaw provided her with few answers.

So distracted was she that she almost jumped when Mr Wickham clasped her hand lightly in his. She pulled away a little but he held fast and pressed the barest of kisses along her knuckles. “Au revoir! There’s little need for hesitation now that we are to be family,” he said, with the mischievously dancing eyes that she had once found so entrancing.

There was no such good humour to be found in Mr Darcy’s when she turned almost instinctively to look at him as Wickham made his final bow and left. On the contrary, it felt distinctly similar to staring directly at an incoming storm across the plains.

Chapter Text

A thrill ran through Elizabeth and almost unconsciously, her hands curled into delighted fists. She was unsure of her standing here and certain about absolutely nothing in her life right now but this, this look in his eyes gave her such comfort.

Mr Darcy turned to face her fully, his back straight. Oh, he was something out of the daydreams that she had barely let herself picture once on a rare idle afternoon as a young girl. But it was not his handsome features that left her breathless; rather, it was the challenge written across them. He readied himself for a verbal battle against her as a man would prepare for combat against an equal, a worthy opponent. There was no hesitation in his barely concealed anger, no consideration of his gender or hers. But there was also none of the disrespect that would make her fearful of this.

To him, she was a clearly true equal even if it were as an opponent. And it was this that sent joy rushing through her even as she asked him, in a voice so cutting she would have never dared use it on any of her acquaintance for fear of what they would think of her, “Have I offended you, Mr Darcy?”

To her horror, the words came out far more playful than she had intended them to be. But Mr Darcy appeared to be far too occupied in the struggle to keep his own emotions in check just then.

“Offended?” he seemed to choke on the very word. He gave a short, bitter laugh. “It appears you wished to.”

“I find your manner most strange indeed,” she said. It was a provocation and he took it as such.

“I walk into my own home to see my affianced wife, her hand pressed to that of a man I have reason to… And for whom she once harboured some affection. Do you deny it?”

His accusations were so unexpected they left her momentarily speechless. For all their considerations of one another there still seemed to be such an immeasurable distance between his perception and hers!

“I beg your pardon,” she said, true anger colouring her words for the first time since the beginning of their conversation.

“I would rather you avoided situations in which you had to do so.”

She repeated incredulously, “You would rather –”

The butler entered the room with a polite cough. “My apologies, but I am afraid Mrs Bennet has been rather persistently inquiring after the whereabouts of her daughter since her arrival.”

“Of course,” said Mr Darcy. His shoulders tensed and it was only when he held himself with the greatest propriety again did Elizabeth notice how uninhibited he had been before her, how clearly he had allowed his emotions through only moments ago. Almost, she felt privileged even if oddly so.

But he continued stiffly, “Pray forgive my lapse in manner, madam.” And without giving her a chance to reply, he turned about and left.

Elizabeth was left barely managing to supress the urge to glare at his back in a most unladylike manner. Would she ever understand this stubborn, contrary man? Collecting herself with some effort, she said shortly, “Very well, I shall see her at once. Where may I find her?”

“In her bedchamber, miss,” he said, and with a lack of expression that managed to convey more judgement that the loudest of her mother’s shrieks continued, “Mrs Bennet did not feel quite equal to the task of arising today.”

“I see,” said Elizabeth, taking in a deep breath. She nodded graciously at the butler and walked past him with perfect decorum. Then, the second she was past his line of sight, she strode up the empty staircase in a manner not unlike Colonel Fitzwilliam’s military best.

“Mama,” she said, entering the bedchamber and shutting the door firmly behind her. The room was in shadows, the windows closed and the only illumination being provided by the beautiful candelabra on the dressing table. “We must talk.”

“Lizzy, I have news!”

“It can wait.” Her anger, suppressed for far too long came pouring out of her, “You are my mother and so I have made your excuses, even to myself, out of the affection I bear you. But this cannot continue! There are now far too many factors at play!”

There was a sound from just beyond the gauzy material that hung about her mother’s bed. She continued nevertheless, naming the least of her annoyances to begin with, “It is all very well to be unconcerned of servants in the countryside, where one can at least maintain a relative isolation! In the town, where gossip about the manners of every member of Society abounds, what do you imagine would be the consequences of your behaviour, your impropriety and that of this family in–”

“Miss Elizabeth!”

She drew back in horror. That was Mr Darcy’s voice!

“My apologies,” he continued, standing up from where he had been sitting on a small chair at her mother’s bedside, next to where Jane was perched upon her bed. “After our conversation in the salon, I thought it best to inform your mother of Wickham’s intentions towards your sister myself. In the absence of your father, I believed her the most appropriate person to…” He broke off with an embarrassed cough even as Elizabeth stared at the carpet underneath her feet with enough focus to discern every strand. “I believe I had the advantage over you of both an earlier exit and familiarity with the house and so arrived earlier.”

“Oh,” she said, proud to note that her voice only sounded the slightest bit faint. There was little she could do about the colour rushing to her cheeks, but in the dim light she hoped it would go unnoticed.

“My presence in your mother’s rooms is extremely unorthodox of course,” he coughed, “It – It may seem ungentlemanly to you, and you must have wished to disclose the news to her yourself –”

“Not at all!”

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the sound of Mrs Bennet’s heavy breathing. Elizabeth clutched the fabric of her skirt tightly with one hand. She released it hastily barely a moment later, and smoothened the material over. Her gaze dratted about the room even as she could feel the weight of Mr Darcy’s upon her.

“I believe,” came Jane’s calm voice, “That it is almost time for the dinner bell.”

 “Yes!” Elizabeth and Mr Darcy spoke as one.

Jane gazed at them with a fond bemusement. “Perhaps you would prefer a moment alone?”

“Jane!” interrupted Mrs Bennet, “Now here is Lizzy lecturing me on impropriety and you suggest just the thing.” This last part was uttered archly, calculated to bring shame to her daughter’s cheeks. But Elizabeth was too busy scrutinising Mr Darcy’s face for his reaction, for some clue as to his thoughts. There prevailed a moment of silence.

Finally, he spoke. “I believe the cook shall be most displeased if we are late enough to ruin her efforts with the lamb by charring.”

Chapter Text

Dinner proved to be… an interesting event to say the very least. Elizabeth was torn between anger at Mr Darcy’s presumption, mortification at the exchange that had occurred in her mother’s bedchamber, and an overwhelming desire to beat a strategic retreat and consider all that had passed that day. It made her stab at her mutton with unwonted ferocity, an action that made Jane regard her with some trepidation.

Across the table, Georgiana was having a similar reaction but hers was in response to her first true exposure to the full force of Mrs Bennet’s overwhelming personality. Determined to be affable enough to compensate for the perceived injustice her daughter had done to her manners, she took great pains to exhibit what she believed to be her most charming self.  This proved to be so full of well-meaning maternal wisdom that Georgiana was soon sneaking longing glances at the doorway in between answering questions about her marriage prospects, probable dowry, and taste in young men. When Elizabeth finally caught the phrase ‘I know of some excellent military men’ booming across the table in her mother’s less than dulcet tones, she was shaken out of her reverie long enough to put a swift end to the conversation by drawing Georgiana into a discussion of some hats they had seen in a milliner’s window earlier in the day.

The ploy served to break up her mother’s improper line of questioning but it forced Elizabeth to interact far more than she had wished to and observe far less. As such, it was only when he was drawn into the conversation by his sister did she realise that another soul at the dinner table appeared to have been as lost in his thoughts as she wished to be.

“I beg your pardon, Georgy,” said Mr Darcy, looking up from what appeared to be a rather earnest contemplation of his spoon.

“I only asked if you too wished for your first London Season again, with all the excitement Mrs Bennet so kindly wishes for me,” she asked with a mischievous grin.

Mr Darcy grimaced. Mrs Bennet pounced on the expression with a titter. “Why Mr Darcy, all the thrill and excitement the Polite World has to offer and you look as though you would rather be two continents and an ocean away at the very thought!”

“I am afraid large parties do not suit me well, madam.”

“Or perhaps you do not suit them?” Elizabeth’s murmur came out louder than expected in the well-proportioned dining room but she could not entirely regret it.

Georgiana giggled at the remark while her mother appeared a barely step away from her smelling salts at the thought of her daughter treating so very wealthy a suitor with such carelessness before a ring was placed securely upon her finger. Jane continued to cut up her food with perfect serenity, affected with an apparent deafness.

Only Mr Darcy looked directly at her, momentarily startled, and then with a smile of such profound warmth in his eyes that she felt a corresponding upward tilt affect her own lips. “Indeed, Miss Bennet,” he said. “I am afraid my sobriety suits Venetian breakfasts ill.”

“As though any person afforded the privilege could resist such a treat! It is too bad of you to tease my poor Lizzy so, Mr Darcy!” burst in Mrs Bennet, all aflutter, her tone caught in an unfortunate third between archness and barely concealed panic.

“I almost begin to think it is,” said Mr Darcy, softly.

“And what of my thoughts on the matter?” asked Elizabeth.

Georgiana intervened, clearly intent on protecting their conversation from further interruption by Mrs Bennet. “Oh, I think my brother would put his most prized riders at Tattersall’s to be afforded a glimpse of those!”

“Do you ride, Mr Darcy?” Elizabeth was intrigued by this previously unknown side of him, away from the dressing rooms within the confines of which all their previous encounters had been set. She tried to picture him, amidst the loud men she had once seen on a previous visit to a Duke’s estate with her mother and sisters on a Public Day, covered to his knees with mud and surrounded by hunting dogs and horses. Her imagination failed her entirely.

“On occasion, yes.”

He did not look at her but the quiet confidence with which he spoke caused her errant mind to conjure up an entirely different image. Of Mr Darcy, covered perhaps in a thin sheen of sweat, but smiling at his intimates in that relaxed manner she had only been permitted tantalizing hints of so far, returning home after a successful day’s sport.

“He is a noted Corinthian,” explained his sister proudly.

“I believe I have heard something of that around town,” said Jane, joining in Georgiana’s mission as Mrs Bennet seemed on the verge of speaking yet again. She was rather more successful, as long familiarity with her mother led her to not only prevent her speech but also to place a newly arrived dish of sweetmeats strategically where it caught her attention. Her focus diverted entirely, two of the diners at the table exchanged quietly victorious glances while smiling indulgently at the other two for whom the world might as well be lost for all the attention they were currently paying it.

Mr Darcy’s eyes had flicked upwards, away from his plate, towards Elizabeth for a moment when he heard Jane’s remark. Upon seeing her quizzical expression, he coloured slightly and said, “Rumours abound in London, Miss Bennet, you would be wise not to be taken in.”

“Indeed, I should hope not. They seem to me to be the results of hastily formed impressions more often than not. One must always enquire before assessing, as I have learned all too recently myself,” she replied.

There was a momentary hush and Elizabeth wondered if she had gone just a step too far. She could not explain, even to herself, why she sought the good opinion of a man who had not yet entirely secured her own beyond a certain pragmatic instinct for domestic peace undoubtedly inherited from her quieter parent. But she craved it with a sudden ferocity that she had never encountered within her mind before and watched him carefully for what his reaction might be. Her heartbeat sped up, despite her attempts to quell it as firmly as she could. Fortunately, she managed to maintain a disinterested countenance throughout it all but from the look in her prospective sister’s eye it seemed that her light picking of the platter of fruits before her did not present quite as convincing an act as could be hoped for.

“I must confess, I do not know whether I find myself abashed or grateful, Miss Bennet.” Mr Darcy spoke almost ruefully.

She was arrested by the look in his eyes, a strangely heated glance that she had rarely encountered and unhesitatingly avoided in the past when it shadowed a gentleman’s gaze. Seeing it on Mr Darcy, though… She had a terrible suspicion that her own expression bore far too great a resemblance to his for her comfort. It was impossible to look away, just as difficult to keep looking.

“Oh, what has the world come to that a husband must be grateful for a wife’s dutiful assistance?” said Mrs Bennet, completely misreading the atmosphere of the room but not to be contained any longer. Her deliberate over-emphasis on two terms that were not yet quite true was felt by all, and bought crashing to Elizabeth’s recollection the precise history of her circumstances. She busied herself with her dinner, and so quite missed the quick, thoughtful glances that Mr Darcy took in her direction as he lingered over his wine. 

Chapter Text

A fragile peace settled across Elizabeth’s mind as she rose the next morning, fostered by the odd conversation she had shared with her betrothed across the dinner table the previous night. No, not odd. It could not be considered odd to have exchanged a few friendly words with the man she was to marry across a dinner table surely! And yet… the effect that small hint of understanding on his part had had upon her was beyond her understanding.

For the first time in her life, Elizabeth felt shy and more than a little hopeful as she dressed herself for breakfast. She did her utmost to pragmatically squash the warm tendrils spreading across her chest as she attempted to put her hair up in the fashionable manner Georgiana had presented to her in a fashion plate. Her efforts met with mixed success, and with a final doubtful look in the mirror she stepped out of her chambers.

But before she could proceed much further, she met with the housekeeper walking down the hallway. Mrs Bridge was a pleasantly plump woman with shrewd eyes, and a soft Irish lilt to her words. She critically surveyed Miss Bennet for a moment before asking forthrightly if she required the services of a dresser until her own arrived from the country.

Taken aback, Elizabeth said, “Oh no, that is to say, I haven’t got a dresser.”

With a sniff that indicated she had foreseen this answer, she replied, “If I may, with your permission, I could present a few candidates for the post, ma’am?”

She hardly knew how to answer. “The expense –“

The incredulous look the housekeeper gave her, mixed as it was with the beginnings of disdain, forced her to regain her composure quickly. “Please do so, thank you. Was there any other matter for which you have particularly sought me out?”

“If you please, ma’am,” she said a little stiffly, “There are numerous arrangements required for the wedding and the guests we shall be entertaining that require attention. We, that is to say the household, have been waiting on your convenience.”

With these polite words, the enormity of the task ahead of her dawned in Elizabeth’s mind. She permitted herself a small moment of anxiety. Never before had she felt so keenly the difference between Mr Darcy’s station and hers! But she made a quick recover. It was obvious that the first thing she had to do was make amends with the staff she had clearly unwittingly offended.

“Yes,” she said, with a nod, “I was hoping to find my feet in London a little first but I should have made time for such things earlier. I hope we may remedy this after breakfast? Would I find you downstairs at that time?”

At that, the housekeeper unbent a little and gruffly replied, “You need not trouble yourself, ma’am. At your convenience, I shall bring up the accounts to the Yellow Parlour at midday, as I did with the late Mrs Darcy.”

“That sounds agreeable,” she said.

True to her word, Mrs Bridge arrived at the Yellow Parlour with her painstakingly maintained accounts at midday. Elizabeth had made good use of both the library and her sister-in-law by then to discover at least the essence of what she was supposed to do. That the house had long been without a mistress was evident even to her inexperienced eyes after a look at the ledgers. At the same time, she was astonished by how much power she could wield both within the household and on Mr Darcy’s life with the decision-making that was being handed to her. She issued orders regarding the airing of guest rooms ahead of the arrival of the rest of the wedding party, discussed a probably budget for the festivities, and even made some small talk about the daily menus with Mrs Bridge.

She walked away feeling rather satisfied. As such, she was taken by surprise when Mr Darcy burst in upon her in the late afternoon as she sat in library and attempted to further her understanding of accounts.

“You seem to have taken my household in hand, Miss Bennet.”

“I would say, rather it was handed to me sir.”

“By whom?” he demanded.

His peremptory style of questioning bought to the forefront of her mind not only memories of his earlier words flung across the heavy rain at her in Rosings but also her own recent insecurities. Did he not think her capable of managing his household or did he simply hold her unworthy of the attempt at all? As such her voice carried with it a hint of sharpness as she said, “By your staff, who not unnaturally have begun to ask for directions.”

He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment before responding, “I see. Pray excuse me, Miss Bennet.”

A sigh escaped her when he left the room as swiftly as he had entered it. It was as though she was marrying a hurricane rather than a man! She had as little estimation now as she had had before her arrival of his temperament. One moment he behaved in a way that left her feeling so terribly warm, and the other simply confused. It was impossible to know what he was thinking and she had few clues to guide her.

She spoke of her trouble to Jane later in the day and her sister simply laughed.

“For such a keen observer of society, Lizzy,” she said teasingly, “You seem to be missing something excruciatingly obvious.”

Beyond that Jane would not say, pursing her lips up and returning to her stitchery. But there was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes for the first time since the departure of Mr Bingley from Netherfield and Elizabeth would have happily rendered herself an object for far more good-natured humour to see it out of her affection for Jane. However, while she was glad to see her smile again, a caution born out of the possession of four sisters left her reluctant to question her any further just then.

To add to her bemusement, her next visit to Mrs Bridge the next following bore little fruit. The housekeeper merely smiled at her, with a hint of her old suspicion back on her face, and replied that she had little realised the burdens the bride must be facing with the preparations for her wedding.

“Yes, and it is those that I hoped to clarify with you.”

“Never mind, Miss, Mr Darcy has taken care of it all. His secretary will be coordinating with me and we shall put up a grand feast. You may focus on your shopping and your trousseau, Mr Trevor and I have worked together before to handle the young master's entertainments.”

For a moment, she stood there stunned. Then indignation rose up hot and fast until she could hardly choke out a, “Thank you, then.” She turned sharply on her heel and went straight to Mr Darcy’s study, where according to Georgiana he could usually be found going over estate papers and other matters of business with his agent.

This worthy, a Mr Charles Fields, was at the moment of her entry present there. Both he and Mr Darcy were bent over a map of the county to the east of his estate, and were discussing something in low voices. At her entry, both men rose and Mr Fields bowed slightly.

She barely paused to acknowledge his greeting before facing Mr Darcy. “Could I have a moment of your time, sir?”

“Certainly,” he replied, and with a quick gesture from him Mr Fields politely announced his willingness to wait in a nearby Parlour.

“Do you not trust me with the most commonplace of household affairs, Mr Darcy?”

“I thought to spare you their tedium, rather.”

“Truly?” she said. “As you would have spared Miss Bingely or any other lady of your own station?”

There was a small pause. “No. I doubt whether I would have cared enough to intervene in such a case.”

“Then kindly refrain from doing so in mine!”

“If only I could,” he said.

“And what am I to understand by that?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that, Miss Bennet.” He shook his head. “Your understanding baffles me.”

“It is strange,” she said, smiling a little as her earlier anger began to blow away in the face of his honesty, “To find myself so much in sympathy with you. I must confess I find you equally incomprehensible, Mr Darcy.”

He gave her a small, rueful smile in return. “Perhaps we shall have more avenues to further our understanding in the near future?”

“What do you propose?” she asked daringly.

“A ride around the Park tomorrow, perhaps? We may witness the Notables of Polite Society as they saunter and wave.”

“Do you hope to hide in plain sight there?”

A hint of red began to creep through his cheeks. “I am sure I do not know what you mean.”

“Come now, Mr Darcy, newly arrived from the country I may be but I am not nearly the bumpkin you believe me to be. I know well that you are counted among these very Personages.”

He looked up at her quickly at that. “I have never referred to you as such!”

“I must acquit you then,” she responded gravely, but with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Besides,” he added, “I must hope in light of those with far more of the graces you so disdain, I appear more acceptable in your eyes.”

Now it was her turn to blush and it was probably just as well that Mr Fields chose that moment to knock politely on the door.

“Tomorrow, then,” she managed as she brushed past him and left the room.

Chapter Text

The evening that followed was enlivened by a visit from Lydia, thankfully unescorted by Mr Wickham. While Mrs Bennet lamented the absence of her favourite son-in-law, Georgiana took it upon herself to sufficiently distract her brother from her tactless remarks. Elizabeth was glad of it for the peace between her and Mr Darcy still felt like too new and fragile an entity to bear much disturbance.

Besides, with the prompt arrival of the dresser promised by Mrs Bridge before dinner she had made a most unsettling discovery: of all that was required by a lady embarking on a London Season. She had always known that such an expense lay beyond her father’s means even without knowing the precise requirements. She and Jane had long resigned themselves to observing it from afar, in the fashion plates and magazines that reached the countryside. But it appeared that Mrs Darcy would be very much expected to participate in a manner that she had never envisioned.

Indeed the maid’s talk itself was enough to make her head spin: morning dresses, evening gowns, shawls, slips! Mantua makers, milliners, haberdashers! Silk slippers and stockings, and so much more beyond the simple ribbons she was accustomed to picking out. She would have been more than human to not feel a small twinge of pleasure at the prospect of seeing herself so well turned out but it was accompanied by far more overwhelming dread. Firstly, while she was confident enough in her own taste the expense of such things would be enormous and undoubtedly Mr Darcy’s to bear. Second, her mother may well insist on attiring herself similarly and civility (if not duty) would require that once again he assist his new mother-in-law. She had observed enough of her mother in town settings to know that she was perfectly capable of making such an outrageous demand.

These and other matters occupied her to such an extent that she quite offended Lydia with her abstraction. Her youngest sister ultimately departed in a miff, after loudly accusing her of being eaten up by jealousy over Lydia’s triumph in securing Wickham. Mr Darcy’s eyes had hardened slightly in response but he said nothing, and instead excused himself shortly after. Since Jane had adjured Lydia immediately after to mind her manners, Elizabeth was forced to leave her well alone. Nonetheless Lydia's departure left Elizabeth with both a headache and a profound sense of relief.   

It was just as well, for in the course of the evening Georgiana had discovered her plans for the next day and spoken of little else. Generously, she had offered to let Elizabeth’s new dresser let out the hems of one of her own new dresses for the event given her new sister’s greater height. Since this had at once reinforced both the paucity of her current wardrobe as well as the expectations that she would have to bear in London society in her new position, it was little wonder that Elizabeth woke up the next morning in a mood of anxious trepidation.

A little breakfast did much to restore her spirits. Hers was not a nature dramatic enough to envision any truly dreadful outcomes and the smile the housekeeper bestowed on her as they crossed one another in the halls was enough to reassure that in this too she would find her feet. Nonetheless, she found her thoughts whirling in circles around her head.

The dress that Georgiana had lent her for the occasion proved somewhat inadequate for her more generous curves. The top hugged these more tightly than was seemly for an unmarried girl yet to make her London debut. Her maid looked equally scandalised for a brief moment, before quickly attaching a flounce of Interesting Fabric found after a hurried search of her closet to the top with nearly invisible stiches. It would undoubtedly flutter in the wind, but hopefully the effect of the dress would no longer be quite as shocking to the eye as its earlier incarnation. As a result of her dressing woes, she was more than a little late.

Mr Darcy was waiting for her in the hall, and the splendour of his broad shoulders encased in a driving outfit that even a country girl could recognise as Weston’s finest made her pause for just a second as she approached him. His expression though was distant, as though the walls she thought she had glimpsed a smiling man past were being steadily patrolled once again. “Miss Bennett,” he said, “It’s best we don’t keep the horses waiting.”

 She nodded and followed him. Their drive was rendered pleasant by the weather. Initially, Mr Darcy appeared to be in one of his more inaccessible moods. Piqued by his mercurial shifts in behaviour, Elizabeth busied herself with observing the scenery. Of this there was much variety in London, enlivened by the human element as in no other town she had seen before.

As they entered the Park, a peal of laughter escaped her and caused Mr Darcy to look enquiringly in her direction.

“It was the most diverting scene! There, by the entrance, the woman in the orange gown and her companion. He had obviously incurred her wrath for she strolled ahead with her parasol held stiffly back… and it poked him in the eye, upon which she turned back at once to bestow sympathy!”

His brow lightened somewhat. “Remarking upon the fickleness of your sex?”

“Hardly,” she said, giving him a lopsided smile, “I was observing the perversity of yours.”

“How so?”

“He cannot mind her sensitivities but clearly needs her to soothe his!”

“What a disagreeable creature, to be sure,” said Mr Darcy, with utmost blandness.

His tone forced another small burst of laughter from her, and it dissipated the air of awkwardness that lay between them. The next few minutes passed in a far more pleasant silence, each of them admiring the flowers and greenery that surrounded them. But as they reached more crowded sections of the Park, Mr Darcy was frequently hailed by his acquaintances.

One dowager, seated next to a young man who bore a striking resemblance to her and a faintly martyred air, stopped outright to question him, “Is it true what I hear of your engagement to a countrified Nobody?”

“Indeed it is, madam,” replied Elizabeth. “You see her before you.”

The old woman scrutinised her for a second. “I suppose you’ll do. You have spunk at least. I couldn’t have borne it if my dearest Sophia’s son tied himself to a simpering Miss.”

“You have no idea how glad I am to have won your approval, your ladyship.”

She let out a bark of laughter even as her son said faltering, “Pray, Mama…”

“Drive on,” she commanded imperiously. “I shall see you both at your wedding.”

Mr Darcy’s cheeks were dusted fairly pink by the end of the encounter even as Elizabeth’s amusement rose. “You seem to have among your champions quite a few of the more formidable ladies I have seen so far,” she remarked.

“It is just that after my mother died, quite a number of those who were her friends were kind enough to take an interest,” he said. “Although my father never remarried, they were always there if he needed assistance regarding my sister or I.”

Cynically, Elizabeth wondered with what particular motives said assistance had been offered. Given the Darcys obvious wealth and good looks one explanation stood out more clearly than the others to one who prided herself on her observations of human nature. But her time in Town was fast acting upon her, and with great restraint she made no comment.

They had only gone a little further when they were stopped yet again, this time by a young gentleman strolling down the path. The horses whinnied as Mr Darcy jerked them to a stop. “Colby,” he said by way of both greeting and introduction.

“And how are you, old fellow?” said Colby, his good cheer unimpaired by the cold reception.

“Quite well, thank you.”

Feeling that Mr Darcy’s rudeness required some alleviation and remembering his lack of protest at her interjection in his earlier conversation with the dowager, Elizabeth leaned forward to introduce herself.

“Oh, I’ve heard all about you! And from my friend Wickham, no less. He could not stop praising your beauty last night m’dear. Quite offended the tavern wench he was wrapped around.”

Such broad compliments went quite beyond what Elizabeth had ever encountered before. Instinctively, she drew back.

“Thank you for relaying them to me,” said Mr Darcy. “I will be delighted to speak to him about it myself.”

“Pay him back in like?” continued the man, undaunted. Elizabeth was starting to feel more than a little like an actress who had stepped into a play in the third act, with knowledge of only a few other players and none at all of the plot.

With a contemptuous look, Mr Darcy steered his horses further ahead a little faster than was seemly.

“I will thank you,” he said, without taking his eyes off the road, “To not engage with such men in the future.”

She gaped at him. “How could I have known of his character having never met him before?”

“A lady would know a cad by his very air and manner.”

“Is that why none would have you and you have resorted to marrying me instead?” she asked, every word barbed in response to yet another reminder of his opinion of her station.

His eyes were narrowed to icy flints when he glanced at her for a moment before turning his attention back to his horses. “I was speaking of Wickham.”

Before Elizabeth could reply yet another pair waylaid them, this time two smiling girls who were clearly Georgiana’s friends, and Darcy turned to speak to them. An aching bubble of humiliation caught in Elizabeth’s throat but despite it she managed to speak to them with at least the pretence of calm.

Was this to be her life, she wondered, staring blindly as they drove past more and more people waving and smiling? Driving through a crowd of people she barely understood, in a dress that didn’t fit, with a husband who barely tolerated her in a good mood and not at all when she displeased him?

They were back at Mr Darcy’s townhouse sooner than expected, neither quite able to bear the other’s company. Yet when they reached the door, Elizabeth felt oddly reluctant to walk away as well. She bit her lip, and Darcy’s eyes followed the movement.

“I…” she began. And then she stopped, not quite certain of what she wished to say.

Mr Darcy’s eyes hardened with some kind of resolve. “I will be dining out tonight. Please convey my apologies to your mother.”

A footman reached up to help her down and saved her the necessity of a reply. And Georgiana stood waiting for her at the door, with her hands on her hips and a barely concealed air of impatience.

“Your father has arrived!” she squealed, as Mr Darcy drove away.