She expected to see his butler—dour, stone-faced, menacingly clad in black, and challenging the audacity of an unescorted young gentlewoman calling on an unmarried gentleman. So much for the speech that she had rehearsed on the way over, in hopes that it would speed her into Mr. Darcy’s company without raising eyebrows.
Elizabeth summoned her courage, silenced her pounding heart, and smiled. Certainly, he must be surprised in seeing her. Decided incivility had marked their last meeting.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet—” His voice sounded more piqued than astonished.
Why would it not? He is a wealthy single man who never looked at me for any reason, except to find fault. He barely tolerated my company before, yet here I stand on his doorstep, uninvited and unannounced.
“Mr. Darcy, I pray you do not find this an imposition. I have come here owing to a matter of some importance that I wish to discuss with you.”
One hand placed on his hip, he gripped the heavy door with the other, thus giving Elizabeth pause.
What was I thinking in coming here? “If this is not a good time, I can call again ... when it is convenient.”
The cold, misty shower she had hoped would have passed by now took a nasty turn. Heavy rain poured down in sheets, sopping everything in its path. Elizabeth pulled her cloak tighter. The hood, weighed down by the rainwater, clung to her face. She imagined she appeared as a pitiable wet wretch.
Darcy glanced over his shoulder. Then, as his apprehensive expression eased, so did his grip. Though Elizabeth would have preferred a warm reception in place of his earlier put out scowl, his befuddled mien would have to suffice. Elizabeth covered her nose before trying unsuccessfully to prevent a sneeze from escaping. Another followed.
“Pardon me, Miss Elizabeth. Please, come inside. I cannot allow you to remain outside in such a deluge, and I cannot send you away. I do not see your carriage.”
Elizabeth entered the grand foyer. She lowered the hood of her cloak to rest upon her shoulders.
“May I take your coat?” Elizabeth silently accommodated his request. “I am afraid you will find me ill-prepared to receive you properly, Miss Elizabeth. I returned to town only hours ago, days ahead of schedule. It seems my butler and staff are scattered about London attending ailing relatives and what not, I suppose, in view of my unannounced arrival,” Darcy said. His voice rang with a hint of frustration.
Darcy looked about for a place to lay her cloak to rest whilst she remained speechless. Elizabeth could not open her mouth as she considered what had just happened. Mr. Darcy had answered his own door! No butler, no doorman, instead she found a rich gentleman performing a mere servant’s task.
“Join me in my study.”
The two walked the length of the foyer in silence. Rich smells of polished wood, and the warm glow of brass candelabras gave the place a feeling of home, quieting her anxiety even as she questioned her scheme. Darcy pushed the door open and stood aside to allow her to pass.
“Please have a seat.” He gestured toward the chairs in front of his desk as he closed the door. Elizabeth did as told, and Darcy soon joined her. Rather than take a seat in the large leather chair behind the huge mahogany desk, Darcy sat in one of the armchairs about a foot away from Elizabeth. He rearranged his chair enough to face her.
She had expected the formal, reserved Mr. Darcy of whom she had learned to think poorly in Hertfordshire, and thus was astounded. He did not even wear a jacket. His shirt hung from his trousers, and his cuffs were undone. His dishabille was a stark contrast to his stately study. Except for a blanket, casually strewn upon his finely upholstered settee, the room was immaculate.
“Now, you say you came here because you suppose I might be of some service to you?”
“Indeed. Mr. Darcy—”
Darcy beckoned her silence by the haughty lifting of his chin. “I trust you did not walk here from Hertfordshire ... unescorted.”
“No, I did not walk from Hertfordshire. I am staying in Cheapside with my Uncle and Aunt Gardiner.” His ill-disguised grimace came as no surprise to Elizabeth. Whilst in Hertfordshire, he had made no attempt whatsoever to hide his disdain for everyone whom he deemed beneath him, which turned out to be everyone he met. She had no reason to suppose he might view her relatives from Cheapside any differently.
“Yet, you are unescorted.”
“Mr. Darcy, you know as well as anyone of my propensity to come and go as I please. When have you known me to be accompanied by a maid when venturing about?”
“Do I need to remind you that you are not in Meryton? What passes as appropriate behaviour there will be frowned upon amongst London’s Society.”
“I do not require a lecture from you on etiquette, at least not now. At the risk of exposing myself to Society’s disdain, I came to you because you are Mr. Bingley’s closest friend. My request is one which can be made only in person.”
“Excuse me, Miss Elizabeth. How did you know where to find me?”
“I came here by coach ... hackney.”
“That does not explain how you were able to arrive on my doorstep.”
“I asked my driver to make enquiries until we came upon your address. Finding you was easier than I thought it would be.” Elizabeth raised her eyebrow. “I trust that does not harm your sensibilities.”
Darcy shrugged. “I am in my home. Concern for my sensibilities is not the point.”
“I trust you and I are sufficiently acquainted that I should not fear for my safety.”
“That depends upon what you mean by safety. I believe it is incumbent upon me to inform you that you and I are the sole occupants of this house. Except for my valet who is out on errands, other members of the household staff are not expected until tomorrow.”
Startled. Only the two of us? Elizabeth’s heart beat as rapidly as the pounding of Mary’s fingers when she practised her scales. She had hoped his young sister would be there, at the least, to lend some air of decorum to her visit. She removed the handkerchief from her sleeve. A muffled sneeze nearly escaped. She felt a slight chill creep over her body.
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes—no,” Elizabeth cradled her arms. Her body trembled. “I find it a bit nippy.”
The warmth of the fire had not loosened the cold’s grip on the room. “Pardon me. Let us move by the fireplace.” Darcy stood and led the way. “May I offer you a drink?”
“Please do not go to any trouble on my behalf.”
Darcy walked over to the liquor cabinet to pour himself another drink. He also poured one for Elizabeth and returned to her side. He handed her the snifter of brandy. “I suffered no trouble.”
With reluctance, Elizabeth accepted the proffered drink. What made him think she imbibed liquor? Did he mean to challenge her? She raised the glass to her lips and sipped the slightest of sips. Darcy sat in the seat opposite her and enjoyed a larger swallow.
Elizabeth set her drink aside and smoothed her skirt. His intent gaze was unsettling. She had never been as nervous in his company. She supposed she had long since grown immune to his impenetrable stare. Being in his home, alone with him before a comfortable fire, imbibing brandy, was not something she had planned. Unlike their meetings in Hertfordshire where their time in company at Netherfield Park was spent sparring, her matching his verbal challenges with witty repartee always rendering her the victor, he now clearly held the advantage.
“Your family ... I trust everyone is well, Miss Elizabeth?”
“Everybody is the same as when you departed, Mr. Darcy. Everybody, that is to say, save my sister Jane.”
“Miss Bennet? Please continue.”
“I fear there has been a grave misunderstanding on Mr. Bingley’s part as regards Jane’s sentiments. She loves him. The manner in which he took such precipitous leave of Netherfield Park destroyed her spirit. I fear she is in danger of its threatening her health.”
“I dare say one does not suffer, physically, any ill-effects from disappointed hopes.”
“Why should she suffer at all? She loves him. He loves her. I am convinced of their mutual affection; else, I would not have come here to correct an injustice.”
Darcy shrugged. “Why did you come to me? You might have gone straight to Bingley with your account.”
“Actually, Mr. Darcy, I did go directly to Mr. Bingley. At least, I attempted to. I just left there, in fact. His sister, Miss Bingley, received me. She wasted little time in apologising to me in Jane’s stead, saying that her brother had thought better of his behaviour in Hertfordshire and deeply regretted raising Jane’s hopes.
“When I told her that I would rather hear an explanation for his behaviour from him, she said he was away in the North, visiting family. I rather doubt her account and that is why I am here. Mr. Darcy, at the risk to my own reputation, I appeal to you, as Mr. Bingley’s closest friend to intercede with him on my behalf.”
Darcy frowned. “You might have come right out and said this upfront. What do you expect of me?”
“If what Miss Bingley says is true, that he is visiting family in the North, I appeal to you to write to him, telling him of Jane’s sentiments.”
“That will not be necessary. Bingley is in town.”
“Then I would ask that you speak to him on my behalf. Tell him there has been a terrible misunderstanding as regards my sister’s sentiments towards him, that his own sister has misled him. I dare say Miss Bingley will do everything in her power to keep me from seeing him in his home. He will surely believe you if you tell him of his sister’s deception. Besides, he may take offence in hearing all this from me. However, your being his closest friend, having the information come from you will lend credence to my assertions.”
Darcy closed his eyes and moaned. Elizabeth surmised with his groan that he had ignored her argument. “If nothing else, will you tell him that I am in town and that I wish to see him?”
“I fear you have come here for naught, Miss Elizabeth. I do not intend to intervene on any family’s behalf regardless of their needs in matters of marriage. The choice of a bride must be beneficial to both parties.”
“How can you refuse me? Is your friend’s happiness of no interest to you?” Elizabeth’s voice bristled with frustration. “I know not why this comes as a surprise. You have always viewed my family with disdain. You barely tolerate my presence.”
“That is not true.” He ran his long fingers through his dark hair. “I admire you, regardless of what I may think of your relatives. Why would you think otherwise?”
Elizabeth sat back in her chair and looked at him point-blank. “Does, ‘she is tolerable though not handsome enough to tempt me,’ sound familiar?”
He rose from his seat. Unhurried, he walked towards the fireplace. He turned to face her. “I supposed you had overheard me, though I never knew for certain. This is my sole excuse for not apologising. I am sorry I ever uttered those words. I did not mean them at the time. Without question, those words do not describe my sentiments now. The truth is—”
Darcy halted his speech. Elizabeth caught a glimpse of something in his face, what seemed an air of longing. She had witnessed it many times when gentlemen looked at Jane. What might it mean if she had more than tempted him? Perchance his look was one of adoration. But how could it be? Mr. Darcy never looked at her, even once, except to find fault.
“The truth is what, Mr. Darcy?”
“Never mind what I was about to say.”
“In the letter that Miss Bingley wrote to my sister telling of Mr. Bingley’s plans never to return to Hertfordshire, she hinted of an attachment between Miss Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Can this be true?”
Darcy raised his eyebrow. Elizabeth’s muscles tightened. He was questioning her audacity!
“If it is not true, why would you allow such falsehoods to be spread about your young sister? Miss Bingley told Jane. Surely, she would tell others when it suited her purposes.”
Darcy walked to the window. He said nothing.
“You need not confirm nor deny Caroline’s assertions, Mr. Darcy. From what Mr. Wickham told me of your sister, I find it difficult to believe she would even consider an alliance with Mr. Bingley.”
Catching his breath, he turned to face her. “Wickham? I trust you are not taking your cues on human behaviour from the likes of him!” Darcy rolled his eyes in displeasure. “What is this power he holds over gullible, unsuspecting young women?”
“Gullible? Unsuspecting? You dare to accuse me of such measly traits, merely because I chose to befriend a perfectly amiable gentleman who makes himself agreeable wherever he goes, whilst you, sir, are content to give offence to anyone whom you deem beneath you!”
He raised both hands in mocked surrender. “If the shoe fits—”
Insufferable man! Elizabeth rubbed her temple. The throbbing headache she had suffered whilst in Miss Bingley’s company was returning. Her gaze drifted past him to the world outside. All had quieted. Elizabeth’s eyes darted towards the mantle clock. Time had passed quickly. She had not planned to be away from her relatives’ home so long. She surmised she had better take her leave rather than argue with the stubborn man who stood before her. She had grown tired by now, owing to more than her present company. Unlike the night before, she supposed she would have little trouble finding sleep when she laid her head to rest that evening.
Elizabeth arose to her feet. She cleared her scratchy throat. “I realise what you are about, Mr. Darcy. You do not intend to help me. You merely intend to taunt and bait me, knowing where any discussion between the two of us on the subject of Mr. Wickham leads. An ensuing argument will pacify your guilty conscience for refusing to help reunite Mr. Bingley and my sister!”
Darcy looked more surprised, or amused, rather than offended. This upset Elizabeth even more. Any disappointment she suffered, she directed towards herself. She had taken her chance with him and failed miserably.
“Good-bye, Mr. Darcy.” Elizabeth walked to the door and grasped its handle. “I feel it is more than I owe, but it would be rude of me not to thank you for your time.”
What had started as light inconvenient drops of rain as Elizabeth made her way down the stairs of Darcy House soon gave way to buckets of water pouring from the sky when she stepped on the footway. Already damp from the earlier downpour, her hooded cloak was her sole protection.
Where is the hackney coach? She had asked the driver to return for her in under an hour. Has he come and gone? She prayed another would happen along soon. Her cloak was no match for the harsh rain. Already she felt the rain seeping through.
Before she knew it, the tall dark figure she espied from the corner of her eye loomed over her, holding a large black umbrella. Despite the reprieve from the pounding rain against her face afforded by the protective cover, she did not bless its bearer with any measure of charity.
“I do not need to tell you that you should not be standing out in this weather.” He, too, shivered from the brutal elements’ chill. “This is ridiculous. Please, come back inside.” By now, he was shouting.
“No!” Elizabeth cried back above the deafening rain. What would have been the point in returning inside with him when he only meant to mock her? He certainly did not mean to help her. The sooner her hired coach returned, the sooner she might fend for herself.
“Why are you even standing here?” His elevated voice barely resonated over the rain’s fierce drumming. “I assure you the chances of a passing coach are minuscule.”
“I have made arrangements, Mr. Darcy. My coach will return for me.”
“Then where is it? Come inside. I shall arrange for your safe return to Cheapside once my valet returns with my carriage.”
She pretended not to hear his magnanimous offer. I would never allow such a thing. What might my uncle and aunt think in beholding such an indecorous spectacle?
At last, her carriage, no—not her carriage, but a carriage, nonetheless, rounded the corner. Elizabeth stepped forward, nearer to the curb. Darcy stepped forward, as well, attempting to keep her sheltered by his umbrella. Elizabeth held out her hand in vain. The coachman had no intention of stopping, making avoidance of what was to come impossible. Swished puddles of street water splattered the two of them from head to toe.
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