/ Language: English / Genre:love_history

Darcy's Voyage: A tale of uncharted love on the open seas

Kara Louise

A Tale of Uncharted Love on the Open Seas In this enchanting and highly original retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet sets out for the new world aboard the grand ship Pemberley's Promise. She's prepared for an uneventful voyage until a chance encounter with the handsome, taciturn Mr. Darcy turns her world upside down. When Elizabeth falls ill, Darcy throws convention overboard in a plan that will bind them to each other more deeply than he ever could have imagined. But the perils of their ocean voyage pale in comparison to the harsh reality of society's rules that threaten their chance at happiness. When they return to the lavish halls of England, will their love survive?

To Kathy Pryor and her daughter, Christina Comiskey, who first introduced me to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and thus began for me this new journey of writing.

Prologue

Elizabeth stood patiently with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner at the post station where they awaited the carriage that would take her from London to her home in Hertfordshire. Her journey would take about a full day, including having to transfer to another carriage that would convey her to Meryton, where Elizabeth’s family’s coach would be waiting.

It was the end of summer, an exceptionally warm day, and she had just finished spending a month with her aunt. Her uncle’s trade had taken him to Bath for an extended time, so Elizabeth joined her aunt to help her care for their four young children. It had been a little more difficult than anticipated, as she had the misfortune to sprain her ankle just before leaving for London and was still favouring it.

As the time for the departure drew near, Elizabeth kissed her aunt and uncle goodbye and slowly limped to the carriage. She took care to step on her sprained foot gingerly.

It appeared that there was only one other person leaving London at this particular time. Elizabeth had earlier deemed this gentleman, whom she had noticed while tarrying at the station, to be fine and tall with dark, handsome features. By his dress, she concluded that he was a man of wealth, so his taking this carriage for hire seemed curious, indeed.

As she turned back to wave one last time to her dearest relatives, she felt a bump and was almost knocked to the ground by the gentleman who had likewise been waiting. He had charged abruptly for the carriage and seemingly did not see her, colliding with her and sending her off balance.

Elizabeth let out a cry and made a mental note to add to her quick judgment of him: preoccupied and interested only in himself.

He quickly reached out and retrieved her, pulling her back up and steadying her. But her foot was now painfully sore, and she most assuredly let him know with a frowning glance up at him.

She reached down for her foot, and her aunt and uncle came running over.

“Dearest Elizabeth, are you all right?” Her aunt took her arm and looked into her face, noting her wince.

“I shall be fine, Aunt.” She looked directly at the gentleman and stated, “I shall just have to be more careful to watch where I am going!”

The gentleman narrowed his eyes at her and shrugged off a quick and seemingly insincere, “I am sorry, miss.” He took a deep breath and briskly ran his fingers through his hair. With what seemed to come from a source of guilt rather than civility, he offered, “Allow me to lend you a hand, please.”

Elizabeth, keeping her eyes directed on him, replied curtly, “My uncle will assist me, thank you.”

The gentleman turned abruptly and extended his arm toward the carriage to allow her to enter before him. Mr. Gardiner took her arm, as she now limped to an even greater degree, and he helped her in.

“Are you sure that your foot is all right, Lizzy? You are limping a vast deal.”

“I am well, Uncle. But thank you for your concern.”

The driver loaded her luggage and the gentleman’s in the back as Elizabeth pulled herself in, and she slid over as far as she could to the other side of the carriage. The gentleman followed her in. Immediately he turned his face away and stared out the window on his side. She was quite convinced that he was most unhappy with his travelling arrangements, as well as his companion. Upon making a sly glance back at him, she resolved further that he had uninviting manners, most likely due, she was sure, to his inclination to associate only with those of his own superior society.

Her overactive imagination, stimulated by his fashionable dress and stiff manner, credited him with intolerance toward anything and anyone not his equal in consequence. He most likely was one who felt that his wealth and status in society secured him anything he wanted and he would definitely not give the time of day to someone he deemed beneath him or of little advantage to him.

There! She had him figured out. An easy subject, he was. As she finished her scrutiny of him, he turned back and met her startled glance with a discerning perusal of his own. She was not expecting this and felt a sense of uneasiness as she realized he had caught her staring. She quickly turned to look out her window.

The carriage finally began to pull away from the post station, and Elizabeth gave one last wave to her aunt and uncle. When she could no longer see them, she turned back and saw that the gentleman continued to gaze upon her. He seemed to be about to say something, so Elizabeth waited. When no words came forth, she turned her attention to the book she had brought along.

After a few minutes of silence, he finally spoke. “I am truly sorry, Miss, for my inattention back there.” The words did not seem to flow out easily. “I was not watching where I was going as I was only intent on getting on this carriage. I needed to depart London early today and my own carriage was unfortunately in need of repair. It has been most inconvenient for me to have to take a post carriage. It is not something I normally have to do.”

So that explained why he was travelling in this carriage. She simply smiled and arched one eyebrow as she considered his overwhelming plight. “I imagine not. It must be most disagreeably inconvenient for you.”

Most disagreeably inconvenient! He shifted in his seat, as he realized how she had taken this. He turned to the window again, tapping the fingers of his left hand against the window well. He turned to her again, making an attempt at civility, and asked, “What happened to your foot? How did you hurt it?”

“I sprained it. It only hurts when I step on it wrong… or take a spill.” The look she gave him emphatically reminded him he was the cause of the pain she was again experiencing. The smile that then appeared on her face revealed to him she did not harbour resentment toward him.

With a long ride ahead of them, he continued attempts to be civil. “How did you sprain it?”

The question caused Elizabeth to sigh heavily, and she averted her eyes from him. She wondered whether she should own the truth to him. He would laugh; of that she was certain. Or he would scoff at her for her impertinence and unladylike behaviour. But she never allowed anyone to intimidate her before and would not this time. She boldly looked at him and declared, “I was climbing a tree, sir, and I fell!”

Elizabeth had a difficult time keeping the smile off her face as she saw his reaction. He arched one eyebrow and shook his head in the most infinitesimal manner; all the while he pursed his lips in a vain attempt to hide a smirk. Elizabeth, however, noticed the disapproving furrowing of his brow. It took him a moment to respond, and Elizabeth thought perhaps he had been rendered speechless.

He finally said with a sly smile, “Certainly if you fell from the tree as a young girl, I doubt that you sprained your foot if you are still limping on it. You must have unknowingly broken it.” He stared at her, waiting for her to respond.

Elizabeth took in a deep breath. His statement indicated an assumption on his part that a lady would not have climbed a tree, certainly not someone her age; therefore she must have done it years ago. He was mocking her, but she refused to give him the upper hand. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I did not do it when I was a young girl. I did it just a little over a month ago.”

This time he openly smirked and nodded his head, as if confirming to himself that indeed, this lady had engaged in a very unladylike manner.

“Delightful diversion for a young lady such as yourself.”

She felt indignation rise up within her as she felt his mocking censure. Elizabeth suddenly blushed and ignored his comment. Delightful diversion! She echoed his words to herself as she turned back to look out the window on her side. She had prodded herself to try to astonish him with the truth; now why did she suddenly regret that she had?

The gentleman made a concerted effort to reconcile this image with that of the young lady sharing the carriage with him. He estimated that she was close to twenty and apparently was an accomplished tree climber. She seemed refined enough, well mannered, and nicely, but moderately, dressed. She was commonly attractive, her figure light and pleasing but not altogether striking. Her hair was attractively styled, but not overstated.

He continued. “Do you often climb trees, then?”

Elizabeth blushed and dropped her eyes to her lap, but resolved not to back down. She cast her eyes toward him. “Only when they afford me a better view or…” She paused and then added, “Or they give me a better chance to hide than the ground does!”

“And what, pray tell, was the occasion this time? Was it a better view or a better hiding place that prompted you to climb this tree?”

Elizabeth seriously wished that she could bring this conversation to an end, but she finally decided to tell all, knowing it would most likely shock him further. She reasoned that it really did not matter, as she would never see him again.

“This particular time, I climbed the tree to hide from someone who was coming up the road.” She said this without taking her eyes off him, with a forced sort of audacity. She would not look away. She would not let him think she was discomfited.

“Pray tell then, from whom were you hiding?” Elizabeth noted his apparent amusement.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and continued. “From an unsolicited suitor, sir, whose attentions I was in no mood to receive! I could not endure one more meeting with him, so when I saw him coming—and I knew he was looking for me—I scurried up the tree!”

The gentleman smiled, as if conjuring up this image in his mind. “And did it do the trick? I mean, were you able to stay out of his sight?”

Elizabeth laughed unexpectedly. “Most definitely! The tree spared me at least one unwelcome walk with that man.” Thinking back to the incident made her laugh even more, and he eyed her more acutely as the smile brought a sparkle to her eyes and illuminated her face. The gentleman was caught off guard by the magnetizing effect this had on him. He had to make a conscious effort to pull his eyes away. She seemed oblivious to his plight and continued to laugh.

He looked back at her again, this time more cautiously. “What is it that is so humorous? I cannot imagine your fall causing you so much mirth.”

“It is merely that… he knew I had been ahead of him and he looked all around for me, calling out my name. He had no idea I was above him watching. I had to keep my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing aloud. I cannot imagine what he would have done if he had looked up and seen me.”

“Perhaps if he had seen you up that tree, it would have discouraged him from pursuing you any further.” He paused. “Or perhaps he would have climbed up to join you.” A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and his eyes crinkled, causing Elizabeth much consternation within. For a moment, his severe countenance eased and was almost inviting. His next words sent her reeling even more. “I think perhaps I might have been tempted to climb up there with you.”

Elizabeth blushed as she imagined this gentleman discovering her up a tree and wondered whether he truly would climb up to join her. “He would never have done that!” she replied.

“And then how did you fall?”

Elizabeth shook herself out of her reverie to answer his question. “After he had passed by a considerable distance, I started down the tree. My foot stepped on a small branch, which broke, and I fell to the ground.”

“How did you get back home?”

“I hobbled back on my own.”

“I see. It was not far, then, that you had to walk on your sprained ankle?”

“It was close to a mile.”

“What were you doing walking that far from home? No, wait. Do not tell me. You were trying to put distance between you and this gentleman.”

“Why, a mile is not far at all. I actually enjoy walking. I do it all the time. I prefer it exceedingly to riding when I have the chance.”

He tilted his head at her comment, wondering at the dichotomy of this young lady. She was pretty, indeed, but obviously of country breeding and most likely had little to offer a man in terms of wealth or connections. He did give her the benefit of the doubt and in his estimation proclaimed her to be a gentleman’s daughter. For some incomprehensible reason, however, he was strangely drawn to her. “You prefer walking to riding then.” He repeated it as if he was making a mental note of it. “Would that be on horse or in a carriage?”

“Both, actually. I definitely prefer it to riding horses, but I also prefer it to riding in a carriage when it is an easy distance to walk.”

She was now uncertain whether the conversation on his part had been patronizing, critical, or simply courteous. They rode in silence for a while, but Elizabeth noticed him occasionally glance up at her.

She set her attention back to the book she was reading when she noticed the gentleman straining to see its title.

“It is Richard III in case you were wondering.”

“‘Now is the winter of our discontent; made glorious summer by this sun of York,’” he quoted. “I have read it. It is very good. You enjoy reading, then?”

“When I am not climbing trees, I do.”

He could not stifle his smile. “Have you read other works by Shakespeare?”

“Several of his sonnets. A few of his plays. My father loves reading as well, and he has a small library. He is fond of Shakespeare, and this is one of his own that he allowed me to take with me on my visit to London.”

The two of them began a discourse on literature. His knowledge far exceeded hers in the extent of what he had read, but her discussion on what she had read equalled his. He enjoyed the fact that she was willing to question his views, even disagree with his opinion. They settled into an easy parlay of words, and before they knew it, the carriage was slowing down and pulling into a livery station.

She watched as the gentleman began to gather his things. She smiled inwardly, convincing herself that he was probably used to fashionable women from polished society who would never walk across a street on their own accord, let alone climb a tree. His heart was not likely to be touched by a poor country girl such as herself. He was most likely eager to get off this carriage for hire that he had just shared with a decidedly inferior woman who had the impertinence to challenge his every thought.

The gentleman looked out the window and then back to her. “This is where I get off. I see the carriage from my country home is already here.” The door was opened and he looked out and then back at Elizabeth. “I enjoyed travelling with you. I confess I was not looking forward to this ride when I first boarded the carriage. But you have, somehow, made it pass most pleasantly and I thank you.” He stepped down and looked back at Elizabeth as if he was about to say something else, then turned away as if he had changed his mind.

Elizabeth blushed at his words of praise and smiled. “It was my pleasure,” she said softly to herself.

As the carriage pulled away, the gentleman thought to himself how odd it was for him to be drawn to a woman like her. Perhaps it was because she was so unlike most of the women he had met over the years. He turned to watch as the carriage continued down the road, and then walked slowly toward his own. He realized he had not even asked her name.

“Good day, Barstow. It is good to see you.”

“Good day, Mr. Darcy. Sorry to hear about the other carriage. Hope it was not too much of an inconvenience taking the one for hire. I shall get you home in no time.”

Elizabeth sat still in the carriage, her heart beating wildly as she furtively turned back to watch him easily step up into his own carriage. Why was she feeling this way? She had to admit he was one of the most handsome men she could remember meeting. Something inside of her ached at the thought of never seeing him again. She was not sure why, when he was obviously a man who would never lower himself to the likes of someone such as her. Why someone of his wealth and station even bothered to talk with her she was not sure. For one short carriage ride, she enjoyed his presence and he acknowledged her, yet she did not even know his name.

Chapter 1

Two years later

Elizabeth Bennet walked into the parlour at her Aunt Madlyn and Uncle Edmund Gardiner’s empty home in London. She and her father had spent the day travelling from their home in Hertfordshire and were now spending the night at the Gardiners’ home in Cheapside, where they would both depart early the next morning for the harbour on the River Thames. Elizabeth would board a sailing ship, which would take her from her England homeland to America. Her aunt and uncle were already in America, where they had been these past three months, so this evening they had the house to themselves.

Mr. Gardiner’s business had taken on additional work that spanned the two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Elizabeth understood only that it involved some importing and exporting details that needed to be worked out on the American side. The Gardiners had expected to remain there between six to nine months. Elizabeth planned to visit them for the remainder of their stay. The Gardiners and their four children had all made the crossing together, taking advantage of this opportunity to see some of the sights in the New World.

With her uncle’s work taking him to New York, Elizabeth understood that she and her aunt would have sufficient time to tour the area together. When her uncle’s work was completed, they would all travel back together to England.

Elizabeth’s only regret was that her sister, Jane, was not able to join her. She had also been invited, but due to Jane’s tendency for severe motion sickness, she declined. She knew from a past experience on a boat in the English Channel that four to five weeks on a ship out on the ocean would be exceedingly difficult for her. Consequently, Elizabeth was setting off by herself, much to her father’s consternation.

When the letter from her aunt had arrived, the discussion between herself, her mother, and father had been typical of the conversations that took place in the Bennet home. Elizabeth tried to remain calm as she gave her reasons for desiring to go. Her father was adamant against it and her mother wavered back and forth, giving her nerves full rein as one moment she saw no reason why her daughter could not go, and the next, changed her mind.

It was Elizabeth’s steady, calm, and rational argument that finally persuaded her mother. She knew it would take more to convince her father to allow her to travel unaccompanied, but she knew she could appeal to their mutual love of history, geography, and books. To pass up an opportunity such as this to see America would be something she would always regret if she did not do it now. She appealed to his trust in her character, her wisdom, and her maturity, and in due course, he gave in.

Elizabeth sat down on one of the chairs that occupied the Gardiners’ sitting room. She thought nostalgically of all of the times she had come here to visit her aunt and uncle over the years. She was extremely fond of them and considered them practically a second mother and father. She closely identified with her aunt, and as a young girl scrutinized her closely and tried to imitate her ways. She had never understood her own mother’s ways and knew at a very young age that she did not wish to grow up to be like her.

The Gardiners’ home in London, although neither exceptionally fashionable nor elegant, was very warm. Elizabeth always found it to be a respite from her own home. The Bennet home in the village Longbourn was, by society’s standards, neither modest nor extravagant. Situated in the country on a good parcel of land, it did give Elizabeth a chance to enjoy her favourite pastime, which was to walk. Their own home was a good distance from their nearest neighbour, while her aunt and uncle’s was located on a busy street in Cheapside. Yet she felt the Gardiners’ home was more tranquil because of their easy nature and that of their children. It was far too often that the Bennet household resonated with the nervous ranting of her mother and the uncontrolled outbursts from her youngest sisters. She enjoyed every visit she ever made here. Now, she was looking forward to seeing them again, this time in America.

She pulled out the letter that her aunt had written to her and her sister and read it again. From the moment she first read the missive, she knew she had to go.

“Well, my Lizzy, are you still determined to do this?”

Elizabeth looked up. “Yes, Papa. I am so looking forward to it.” She stood up and walked over to him, taking his hand in hers. “Do not worry. All shall be well with me.”

***

The next morning, Elizabeth pulled her wrap tightly around her as the carriage carrying her and her father drew them closer to the harbour in London. She shivered, not so much because of the cool, foggy mist enveloping them, but because of her realization that the day had finally come. She could admit to herself, but not to her father, that she was indeed nervous about all that was in store for her.

The only way Mr. Bennet had agreed to allow Elizabeth to travel alone was for him to take her onto the ship himself and put her under the protection of the ship’s captain until she reached the foreign shore. But even then, he felt very troubled. The journey would take from four to five weeks, depending on the weather, the winds, and a multitude of conditions. He had heard too many tales of ships that never made it across, sickness spreading throughout the passengers and crew, and other adversities that could befall them. But he also feared for his daughter arriving in this new world and the type of people she might encounter there. He absently shook his head.

“What is it, Papa?” asked Elizabeth.

He turned to her with a sad look in his eyes. “You know what it is, my dearest Lizzy. I would give anything to talk you out of this right now and turn this carriage back around to the safety and security of Longbourn.”

“But Papa, this is an opportunity that I may never get again! Think of it! All of those places I have only read about. Aunt and Uncle Gardiner certainly would not have asked us to come if they did not think it was safe. Do not worry about me. I shall be well.” Elizabeth smiled to reassure him. The only betrayal to her words and her smiling face was her rapidly beating heart.

They soon saw the tall masts of the ships docked along the harbour on the River Thames. One of these very ships would transport Elizabeth out to the eastern coast of England and down around the English Channel. From there it would sail out into the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean, farther from any source of land than either dared comprehend.

“Elizabeth, if anything were to happen to you…”

Elizabeth quickly put her hand over her father’s. “Nothing will happen to me, Papa. Please try not to worry.”

The smile he returned to her was weak. Elizabeth noticed, but did not comment on, the tears that welled up in his eyes. He quickly turned his head to look out the window of the carriage. She knew this was difficult for him, and she wanted to do all she could to set his mind at rest. She could think of nothing else to say. She knew he would not rest easy until she was back here in his sight, in a few months.

In a very soft, sad voice he suddenly said, “We are almost to the port. Are you sure, Lizzy, that I cannot talk you out of this?”

“This is something I have to do.” Elizabeth looked out the window. She saw the masts of the ships, some with sails completely unfurled and already sailing, and others with the sails still furled tightly about their masts. Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat as she suddenly felt a wave of excitement pour through her. Yes, this will be a life-changing adventure. I will not be the same when I come back!

As the carriage pulled up as close as it could to the dock, Elizabeth and her father kept their eyes on the ships they passed for the one on which they had booked her passage. It was one of the first of the packet ships that were being used to travel at regular intervals between London and New York. Her father had done much investigating into the ships offering passage to America and was most pleased with this particular one. Even though they could not afford a private room for Elizabeth, they understood that the steerage accommodations in this ship were among the best.

Despite Elizabeth having to sleep with many other women and children far below the deck for the next month, he was sure she would be in good hands. His only consolation was in believing that his second eldest daughter was not one to shrink from discomfort, draw back in fear, or yield to adversity. She would face anything head on, speak her mind if she felt any injustice, and would stand up to anyone who provoked her. Of all of his five daughters, he had to admit that Elizabeth was the only one he felt was confident enough to make this kind of trip without some kind of mischance occurring. She was also his favourite, however; if anything happened to her, he would never be able to forgive himself.

His eyes took in the tall ship. There was a flurry of activity as the crew climbed up the masts and readied it for an imminent voyage. In an area just off the gangway, he saw carriages pulling up and unloading passengers and freight. The Bennets’ carriage pulled up behind the last carriage and came to a halt.

Elizabeth had brought along one large trunk, which would be stowed down below in the ship. She had packed enough other items in a large, heavy duffel, which she would keep with her in her accommodations.

When they stepped down from the carriage, her ticket was checked and her trunk taken. She was given her bed number and instructions on how to get down to the steerage deck.

Mr. Bennet tightly gripped Elizabeth’s arm and escorted her toward the ship as their coachman went ahead of them with her duffel. It appeared that there were many people making this trip, and that was comforting to Elizabeth. Surely they felt everything would be all right.

As they approached the ship, Mr. Bennet inquired of one of the crew where the ship’s captain might be.

“He is inside greeting everyone. Just step right on in and you will not miss him.”

“Thank you.” Mr. Bennet looked down at Elizabeth. “Seems like a nice young man.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth laughed. She knew her father must have been scrutinizing everything and everyone on this ship. She felt that the captain would get the fiercest scrutiny. She only hoped he would live up to her father’s expectations, or she was certain he would haul her off this ship without one further thought.

When they stepped inside, there were several crewmen helping the passengers find their quarters. In the centre was an older gentleman, obviously the ship’s captain because of the uniform he was wearing. Elizabeth thought to herself, Older is preferable; that means much experience and maturity.

A crewman, standing by the captain, asked Mr. Bennet if he required assistance. Mr. Bennet politely declined, stating that he preferred speaking with the captain. He and Elizabeth waited until the captain was free and they stepped up to him.

“Good day, sir. I am Captain Wendell. How may I be of assistance to you?”

Mr. Bennet introduced himself and Elizabeth. “My daughter is making this journey without anyone to accompany her, as much as I dislike the idea. I had been informed that, under these conditions, I might put her under your protection for the trip. Would you be willing, sir, to accept that responsibility?”

“I have done it many times before, Mr. Bennet, and you can be confident I will do it again, especially for this young lady. I would be most happy to. We frequently have ladies who have to make the trip alone for one reason or another.”

Mr. Bennet looked somewhat relieved, but a lingering touch of nervousness spurred him to vigorously rub his hands together.

The captain turned to Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet, I will do everything in my power to assure a safe trip for you.” He glanced at her ticket. “You may proceed down to steerage area for the ladies and children and get settled in there. Mr. Bennet, you need not worry. Once we are safely out at sea, I will be going down to give all of the ladies some commonsense guidelines.”

Elizabeth and her father walked down the steps that took them first to the deck that accommodated people in private cabins. They followed the signs and proceeded down another two sets of stairs that took them to steerage. The steerage section had been divided; one side was for men and the other for women and children. They walked in and glanced around. It appeared clean enough, but very dark, with no natural light coming in save for the hatchway, which was now opened. Elizabeth was sharp enough to realize that in bad weather it would be tightly closed. The room was filled with bunk-style beds, many of which already had a person or parcels upon them. They walked down the rows, looking for bed number twenty. That would be Elizabeth’s bed for the next month.

They found her bed and she was grateful it was a lower bunk. There was a small wooden chest next to each bed, where Elizabeth determined she would stow most of her possessions. Her large duffel would be stowed under the bed. They greeted a few people, and Elizabeth was amazed at how many children were sailing. As they left to return up to the main deck, Elizabeth made a mental note of where the bath chambers were.

She knew, as she walked up the steps with her father, that each step was taking them closer to their inevitable moment of parting. Her arm was wrapped tightly around his as they came up and once again stepped into the sunlight. Word was being sent out among the passengers that all non-passengers would be required to disembark shortly.

Mr. Bennet turned to Elizabeth and cupped her face in his hands. “I will be praying for you each and every day, Lizzy. You can count on it.”

“Thank you, Papa. I appreciate that.”

“And it would not hurt for you to say a prayer each day, too. When you see the sun rise, thank God for taking you through the night. And every night, when you see the sun set…” He stopped, choking on his words. “When you see the sun set, thank God that he took you through another day.”

“Yes, Papa, I promise.” Elizabeth hugged her father and kissed his cheek. It seemed an eternity before he let go. Finally, as they were given the last call for visitors to leave, he turned slowly and walked away. She noticed his shoulders rise and lower in a huge sigh. With one last look back at her, he exited the ship.

As the ship slowly pulled away from the dock, tears welled up in her eyes as she continued to wave at her father. She looked at the name of the ship on a hanging sign that was carved out in wood. It gave her hope that this crossing would be most exceptional. The name of the ship was Pemberley’s Promise.

Chapter 2

Fitzwilliam Darcy walked behind his valet, Durnham, down the stairway to his cabin. “Watch your head, sir. This is a particularly low ceiling.”

It was too late. Darcy had already bumped his head. “Drat!” He wondered with great consternation how he would ever survive a month in the confines of this ship. He hadlowered his head at Durnham’s words; however, it was not enough due to his tall stature. He would have to remember to duck his head a vast deal more than usual in walking down to the first deck of the sleeping berths, where his was located.

They walked to the fore of the ship, to the premier of rooms, and entered. He gave a quick glance around his room, the finest on Pemberley’s Promise. But despite its elegant furnishings and expert craftsmanship, he was not looking forward to this journey, particularly if he had to spend an excessive amount of time in this exceedingly small vestibule.

“Sir, I hope you know what to expect. A month on a ship can be quite daunting, even on one of the finest ships around.” Durnham looked at him sternly. “Are you quite certain you do not wish me to accompany you?”

“Your father is ill and needs you. There is no need to concern yourself with me, Durnham. I shall manage quite well.”

“Still, it will not be easy. Even the most exceptionally constructed ship, such as this one, can be tossed and ravaged like a piece of driftwood in a storm. And storms come up frequently and quite suddenly out at sea.”

Darcy took in a deep breath, acknowledging the truth in Durnham’s words. He looked around his room and mumbled an agreement. Even though this ship, his ship, was one of the finest built, and this particular cabin was the premium on the ship, he knew he could be facing a physically demanding month at sea going, and then another month returning.

He had purchased the ship from his friend, Edward Stearnes, as an investment. Stearnes had been a fellow student at university and was known for building only the finest and expertly crafted ships. Darcy looked upon it as an excellent prospect. He handpicked the captain for the ship, Captain Martin Wendell, a longtime friend of the family. He knew this man had an excellent reputation as both a captain and gentleman, and paid a high sum to lure him from his previous ship.

He had never actually intended to embark on one of the ship’s crossings to America once he purchased it. He found himself today on board, nevertheless, facing a voyage that would most likely tax his patience and unsettle his nerves. He was not looking forward to it, but it had to be done.

He had been guardian of his sister, Georgiana, for the past five years, since their father had died. She had recently been put under the companionship and care of Mrs. Annesley, who was a longtime friend of the Darcy family. Her husband had passed away, and she eagerly welcomed taking on this responsibility for the young girl. She had taken Georgiana under her wing after a most distressing and embarrassing incident. Distressing to Darcy and embarrassing to his sister. Georgiana had come very close to eloping and marrying a most deceptive and conniving childhood friend, under the complete approval and encouragement of her companion at that time, a Mrs. Younge.

Mrs. Annesley had always been well liked and trusted by Darcy. When he approached her to take the position as Miss Darcy’s companion, she heartily agreed. But subsequently, a few months after consenting to do this, she received word from her son and his wife from America that they were expecting their first child and invited her to come for a visit when the child was due to arrive. As she greatly desired to be there when her grandchild was born, as well as continue in her responsibility to Miss Darcy, whom she had known since she was an infant, she approached Darcy with a plan.

Her solution, which she proposed to him, was to take Georgiana with her to America. Initially Darcy was adamant against even considering it. Although he trusted Mrs. Annesley to the fullest and he certainly could not deny trusting his ship and its seaworthiness, he was not quite certain if he was willing to entrust Georgiana to it. Mrs. Annesley, armed with the arguments that Georgiana might never have this opportunity again and they could have many historical and varied lessons in seeing the new world firsthand, presented her case to him. But her greater argument in favour of it was that she felt that the young girl needed to be as far away as possible from the presence and power of George Wickham, the deceptive suitor, at least for a while.

Georgiana was also in favour of this. She had been hurt, deceived, and embarrassed by what happened. She had believed herself in love with Wickham, but looking back, she realized he had wormed his way into her heart with nothing more than a lust for her fortune. She felt that she had let her brother down in allowing herself to be deceived by him, by displaying a wanton lack of wisdom and maturity, and now she wanted an opportunity to get away and grow into the woman he expected her to be.

With the two of them pressuring and encouraging him, Darcy wrote to his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, who shared Georgiana’s guardianship with him.

On the surface, Fitzwilliam tended not to take things as seriously as his cousin. He had a lively personality that Darcy lacked and often envied. Darcy therefore enjoyed their special familial relationship, close friendship, and joint decision-making responsibility regarding Georgiana. Fitzwilliam had strongly encouraged Darcy that this would be good for her, an experience that could bring about much growth and maturity, and he gave his hearty approval. Darcy knew the only thing hindering her from going was his own fear and concern for her safety. Finally, and most reluctantly, he gave in.

He waited anxiously for that first word back that they had arrived safely. He was grateful at length to learn they had a good, uneventful crossing. But he received word, soon after, that Mrs. Annesley had taken ill and it was unlikely that she would be able to make the trip back for some time. Darcy adamantly refused to allow Georgiana to make the return voyage unescorted, so he was now sailing on his own ship to America, to bring her back with him.

Darcy sat down on one of the two benches astride a very small table in his cabin. Two beds were situated on opposite walls in the narrow berth, and a small closet, a chest of drawers, and a dressing table and mirror would be the extent of his world for the next month.

Durnham finished putting away Darcy’s belongings and gave him some well-needed advice. “I have heard, sir, that the ways on board a ship differ greatly from what we have come to expect in good society. You may likely have people boldly approaching you without first seeking an introduction.” He looked over at Darcy and raised his eyebrows as he fixed his eyes on his master. “The ladies, sir, when they find out who you are, will not, I fear, leave you alone.”

“Then they will not find out who I am. I am quite certain that there is no one on this ship who frequents the same circles I do. And I shall have a little talk with the captain so that he does not let anyone know anything about me, especially the fact that I own this ship.”

“That is wise, sir, but I fear it will not stop the ladies… or their mothers.” He smiled a knowing smile.

Darcy shifted uncomfortably. The last thing he wanted was to be pursued on this trip. A month in the confines of a ship, where anyone would be bold enough to come up and strike up a conversation with him, would disconcert him to no end. He could certainly be polite when the situation demanded it, but there most likely would be times when he would prefer solitude. He knew he would not be able to stay in his cabin for extended lengths of time. For his own sanity he would require to be out in the open, getting some fresh air, and taking ample opportunities to walk up on deck.

“Then what do you suggest I do?” Darcy asked, not really expecting an answer.

“I suggest you find yourself a wife for the duration of the voyage.” Durnham laughed and Darcy grimaced.

Darcy had always respected his wise, faithful valet. But Durnham had a tendency to occasionally tease him, and it had taken Darcy years to accept it as part of his personality. Darcy had never nurtured the ability to tease others himself, and sometimes wished he could. Whenever he did make an attempt, it usually was not taken in the way he intended. He had learned over the years to read his valet’s face to determine whether or not what he was saying was in jest.

Durnham continued. “Oh, and sea sickness, sir. Until you get your sea legs, it is likely that the movement of the ship will cause you to be sick. Eat just enough during your first few days to keep food in your stomach, but do not overdo it. If you begin to feel sick, breathe slowly and deeply. Keep out in the fresh air as much as you can. It will help.”

“Thank you, Durnham. I shall heed your advice. Er… the sea sickness part, not the wife part.”

“Yes, sir.” Durnham tried to hide a small smirk as he thought of all the years he had been with this man and how, slowly but surely, Darcy had come to accept his friendly humour. Durnham strongly felt that his master still took himself too seriously, and it was only in very rare and exceptional moments that he let his guard down and really enjoyed life. It was truly his only fault of character.

With his task completed, Durnham asked if there was anything else he could do before he disembarked.

“No, but I thank you for everything. Let me accompany you back aloft. I want to be up on deck when the ship pulls away from the dock and the sails are unfurled.” He was anxious to watch the crew as they climbed the rigging and manoeuvred the sails when she set out.

As they walked up to the top deck, Darcy resorted to the stern, taciturn mannerism he had come to perfect over the years. He avoided eye contact with the multitude of people about him, hoping to disappear in their midst. They had not yet called for non-passengers to depart the ship, so the deck was replete with tearful farewell hugs and kisses as loved ones prepared to depart.

Durnham solemnly turned to his master, whom he had been with for five years, having moved into that role when Darcy’s father died. He had kept the position of head valet, merely changing masters. He had not been out of his presence save a few days here and there for all those years.

“Sir, I must now take my leave. I pray you have an excellent crossing now, and again when you return with Miss Darcy. I hope that your sister is well and I look forward to your return.”

“Thank you, Durnham. I hope all goes well with your father. I shall see you, hopefully, inside three months.”

The two men shook hands, and Darcy sadly watched him leave. He was an exceptional valet, and even though Darcy was capable of taking care of himself, he would miss the respectful friendship they shared. Durnham was without equal in his ability to know when Darcy needed solitude or companionship, silence or a tactfully placed word, and when he would tolerate teasing and when best to refrain from banter of any sort.

Darcy found a place to stand out of the way of passengers. He was anxious for the voyage to begin and passed the time by watching the other passengers as, one by one, family members or loved ones departed the ship. He tried to conjecture why those passengers sailing on his ship were going to America. It touched him to think that families were possibly being separated for the rest of their lives. It had been hard enough to know that Georgiana was such a distance from him for only a few months. He could not imagine her going off indefinitely. But he had heard of many doing that very thing.

He stood with his back to the side of the ship, leaning against it, and his elbows bent back, resting upon the rails. He was grateful that at this point, everyone was more concerned with their goodbyes than with noticing him. He could watch without drawing any unwanted attention to himself.

He noticed a young, dark-haired woman he estimated to be about twenty, on the arm of an older gentleman. He initially thought she looked familiar, but given the clothes she was wearing, he judged she most likely did not frequent the same social circles as he. As he watched them, he was surprised when the elder gentleman gave her a fervent hug and, with tears in his eyes, left the ship.

Could she be travelling unescorted? He found that impossible to comprehend and would never have allowed Georgiana to do such a thing. He wondered what her circumstances could be that would have induced her to do this. Perhaps she had secured a position as a governess in America. Perhaps she was a mail-order bride. No, he absently shook his head. He did not like that idea.

He looked over at an older couple. He pondered whether they might be travelling to see a son or a daughter who had set off for the new world to find a better life. Perhaps they had finally sent for the parents, having secured work that raised them to a higher position than they had been in England.

There was the young man who, Darcy conjectured, was off to America solely for the adventure. Perhaps he loved to travel and for him, this was just another exciting place to visit.

He saw many ladies, fashionable and not so fashionable, and began to feel their eyes and the eyes of their plotting mothers, and sometimes even their fathers, upon him as they noticed the absence of any lady on his arm. He knew his patience would be tried and his composure stretched to the limit as he would have few places on this ship to seek the solitude he needed and desired, except for his room. And that was too small for him to remain secluded in for the length of the trip!

It was announced that those not sailing had to depart the ship. Loved ones bid their final farewells, and the passengers lined the railing for one final glimpse. He looked over at the dark-haired young lady who was now waving at the man he supposed to be her father. The gangway was removed and shortly after, a few sails were unfurled. Darcy looked up at the beautiful white sheets that billowed like clouds against the deep blue sky. Only a few were set free, to give the ship just enough wind to pull slowly away from the dock.

He brought his eyes down and noticed that the young lady, whom he had seen earlier, was watching the sails, as well, and she was smiling with apparent joy. He kept his eyes on her as she turned back to her father on the shore. The ship slowly began to sail away from the dock, and she continued waving. As people on the shore grew smaller to the eye, many left the railing. But this lady remained as long as she could see the dock where the gentleman stood. He wondered whether she was ever going to see her family again.

He walked with long strides toward the front of the ship. He knew he would enjoy being out on the deck, and hoped that at least two things would be in his favour on this crossing. The first was that the weather would be accommodating so that he could come up often and take undisturbed walks. He knew in bad weather he would need to remain below. The other favourable condition would be that he would not be assaulted by single ladies or their matchmaking mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, or friends, looking at him as some sort of prize in the pursuit of a husband. He was in no mood to contend with such intrusions as his thoughts were singularly focused on reuniting with Georgiana and returning her to England.

Darcy noticed a few people had begun greeting one another and were making new acquaintances. Most everyone extended amiable courtesies toward one another, impervious to one another’s standing in society.

As the ship slowly made its way toward the open seas of the English Channel, Darcy continued to quietly conjecture about his fellow passengers instead of converse with them, and stood off by himself, content in his preference for solitude.

At length he was grateful to find his good friend, the captain, up on deck, and he walked over to him. “Good day, Captain Wendell.”

“Darcy! How do you find your room?”

“Excellent, sir.”

“Good. It is one of our finest; only the best for the owner of the ship.”

“Yes, well, I would prefer that you not make that fact known to anyone. I would not want people coming to me with their problems and concerns.”

The captain laughed. “And neither would I want them to do that. Take no offence, Darcy, but I fear your knowledge of sailing and this ship would be most inadequate to help them with their concerns.”

“That is true.” Darcy looked at him wryly. “May I inquire something of you, Wendell?”

“Certainly!”

“If we are now on our way, and as you are the captain, who is sailing the ship?”

“Ah, how often I am asked that question! I do have others perfectly capable of taking the helm. Be not dismayed, Darcy, you are in good hands.”

“I did not doubt that, sir.”

“Good.”

Darcy noticed the young lady he observed earlier coming toward them and pass by them. She nodded to the captain, glanced in Darcy’s direction, and continued on.

“Captain, another question, if you do not mind.”

“Yes?”

“Do women often make this voyage unescorted?”

“Yes, frequently. On each voyage I normally have a handful. They do it for various reasons, usually financial. But do not fear, Darcy, I issue them some commonsense guidelines and try to ensure that there is no impropriety aboard this vessel. You can be confident of that.”

“Thank you, Captain. I am reassured to hear that.”

“Good. I would not want to have to use my upper hand in keeping you in line with the ladies on board.”

“Do not worry yourself, Captain. I have only seen meagrely tolerable women on this ship; certainly none handsome enough to tempt me in the least.”

The captain laughed. “Darcy, you have not changed one bit in the years I have known you. You and your impeccable, fastidious nature. I have seen several whom I would regard as quite pretty.”

“I have no intention on this voyage to give consequence to ladies who have been unable to secure a husband for themselves in England and who are determined to find one aboard this sailing vessel even before arriving in America. It is apparent to me that the ladies on this ship, for the most part, have very little beauty and no breeding at all. Most are decidedly beneath my station.” At this the captain raised his eyebrows. Darcy continued, “As it is, my main goal is to retrieve Georgiana and return her to England, not to seek out a female diversion; let alone secure for myself a wife.”

“You are still the interminable critic. Always determined to be displeased with everything and everyone you meet. Well, Darcy, I shall leave you to your scrupulous musings. If you will excuse me, sir, I need to see to the passengers on my ship.” The captain smiled and walked away, wondering just what it would take to penetrate the Darcy armour.

“Of course,” Darcy nodded as the captain turned and walked away.

Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped in derision as she heard the gentleman’s disagreeable assessment of his fellow passengers. She turned and eyed the man who had been standing with his back to her, talking with the captain. She had not intended to eavesdrop, but as she walked past them, there was a vague sense of familiarity with the gentleman, but not such that she could put her finger on. When she saw a bench situated directly behind where they were standing, she decided to take a seat there, hoping to hear something that would help her determine if she had met him before. However, after overhearing his caustic words, she was quite certain she had never made his acquaintance and was even more certain she did not wish to.

At that moment, Darcy turned to walk on and saw Elizabeth sitting directly behind him, her eyes mocking, one brow raised. Darcy tensed, feeling at the moment the object of this young lady’s scorn, believing she had heard his every word. He turned away from her and briskly walked to the other side of the ship.

He certainly seems to think himself above everyone, she mused. Not one lady handsome enough to tempt him, and most everyone decidedly beneath his station. She stood up and brushed her hands lightly over her dress, walking over to the ship’s rail. If Jane were here, or perhaps her good friend Charlotte, she would heartily laugh at this gentleman’s blatantly proud and arrogant manner.

Darcy proceeded to the other side of the ship and leaned against the hull, holding himself stiffly. He watched people coming and going, trying to appear as indifferent and as invisible as he could, so he would be left alone.

The winds picked up a little and the sails billowed out even more. Darcy was anxious to see the Dover cliffs and watch the coast of England as they sailed past. He turned to walk over to the other side of the ship and took in a deep breath, recognizing that first scent of salty air. He contentedly let it out slowly when suddenly a great sound from above caught his attention and prompted him to look up.

Elizabeth had been drawn out of her reverie, watching the land pass by, when the remaining sails were unfurled and, in catching the wind, abruptly propelled the ship faster.

“Oh my!” exclaimed Elizabeth in awe as she glanced up at the magnificent ship in full sail. She brought her hand up to secure the bonnet on her head as she stepped back a few steps to get a better view.

Darcy continued to gaze upward at the magnificent sight as he strolled across the deck of the ship. Being more captivated with the sails than where he was going, he was suddenly dismayed when he inelegantly collided with someone. He looked down and found himself face-to-face with the young lady he had seen earlier.

Elizabeth’s eyes continued to sparkle in delight from the sight of the sails as she turned her gaze to the man into whom she had just collided. Unwittingly, Darcy found himself captivated by those eyes, but when Elizabeth saw who it was, the sparkle quickly departed.

“Excuse me. Please forgive me!” As he said these words and reached out his hands to steady her, a very fleeting memory teased his thoughts. He looked at her, wondering if she would return a look of recognition, but instead she gave him one that reflected an air of indifference, laced with a touch of agitation, as she coolly replied to him that no harm was done.

After Elizabeth collected herself and walked past the gentleman, she wondered, as well, what it was that swept through her mind when they collided. He was of a higher class than she and not someone she would have an occasion to know. So what was that tenuous recollection that touched her mind and then evaporated? She shook her head absently as any sort of remembrance eluded her. She doubted that he would ever have heard of the little village of Meryton, let alone visited it. And when she was in Town visiting her aunt and uncle, it was highly unlikely that he would frequent the Cheapside area in which the Gardiners lived.

Her determined departure from his presence, however, did not remove thoughts of her from his mind. He concluded she was definitely not a woman of society, most likely had very little fortune and connections, and would, by all means, be most ill suited for him. He turned back to the cliffs, which were now growing smaller in the distance, and for some strange reason found himself sighing.

Chapter 3

Elizabeth walked briskly away from the gentleman whose character she had determined to be proud and disagreeable, but lingered up on deck as long as she was able to see the coast of England. She leaned against the rail of the ship, letting the breeze lightly play against her face as she kept her eyes set upon the shore. At length it slowly grew smaller and smaller and soon the last vestiges of it disappeared from the horizon. At that moment her stomach quickened and she wondered with a fleeting sense of apprehension whether she had made a sensible decision in making this voyage. Tears pooled in her eyes as the realization hit her that she would be at the mercy of the unpredictable seas, changing weather conditions, and this large piece of floating wood for at least the duration of a month, and then have to endure it on the return voyage. Would she ever see her family and England again?

With land no longer visible, the ship was completely surrounded by a vast array of blues from both the sky above and the sea below. Each was dotted with splays of white, in the puffy clouds and the tips of the waves as the ship glided through the water. The weather was comfortably warm, but the constant breeze demanded that she wear her shawl. She hugged it closer to herself as a chill swept through her. Whether it was from the breeze or a disquieting feeling, she could not settle on.

At length, she decided to make her way back down the steps to her quarters to unpack her belongings. With each step that took her farther down into the dark bowels of the ship, her heart tightened. When she had come down here earlier with her father, she had assured him that the accommodations were adequate and she would manage comfortably in them. But in reality, she hoped she would not have to be confined to this place very often, as it was dark, dank, and very musty smelling.

It was not that the ship’s accommodations were inferior or unclean, but it soon became apparent that it was considerably crowded with people in a tightly confined space. There was very little room to move. They had been assured that the steerage accommodations on Pemberley’s Promise were among the finest. Now, however, with the quarters being filled with people, luggage hauled in, and the first indications of sea sickness taking hold, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. In an environment such as this, even the finest accommodations would become daunting. Elizabeth found herself wondering how she would fare down here for any considerable amount of time.

When her aunt and uncle invited her and Jane to join them in America, the Gardiners offered to pay for the return voyage if the Bennets could pay for the voyage over. As it turned out, Jane determined she would not be able to make the long voyage over. Elizabeth, anxious to make the journey, but knowing her family had not the means to spend a vast deal on a trip such as this, insisted they purchase the least expensive ticket for her. That meant she would have to travel in steerage.

As she returned to her simple bed, she readily and easily greeted those around her. This confined compartment for ladies and children would be her home for at least the next month. She sat down upon her bunk, absently smoothing it with a wipe of her hand. A simple pillow, sheet, and two coverlets upon a thin mattress were to be the extent of her bedding down here. This was a big difference from the soft, comfortable bed overflowing with thick quilts and blankets in which she normally slept. She was grateful she had brought along an extra light coverlet in case it was needed.

Elizabeth soon struck up a conversation with a woman who was in the bed next to hers. Mrs. Rawlings was travelling to America with her husband and two daughters, Pauline, who was five, and Penelope, who was seven. She was four months with child, and her husband was in the other half of steerage with the men. In talking with her, Elizabeth was surprised to discover that her children and a few others were doubled up in the beds.

When Pauline began complaining of feeling ill, Elizabeth offered to entertain Penelope while Mrs. Rawlings looked after Pauline.

Little Penelope boldly handed Elizabeth a book she had brought along with her and eagerly climbed up onto her lap, squirming to get comfortable. Elizabeth obliged this little girl who was very close in age to her aunt and uncle Gardiner’s daughter, Amanda. When Elizabeth made extended stays with the Gardiners in London, she enjoyed entertaining her little cousins and, sensing that Mrs. Rawlings had her hands full with Pauline, was grateful that little Penelope was warming up to her very nicely.

Fortunately, Elizabeth knew the story well, for the light coming down the open hatch was dim. She told the story to Penelope with much animation, securing the young girl’s affections and approval. Upon finishing, Elizabeth inquired of Mrs. Rawlings whether she would consent to both of them going up on deck to get some fresh air. Mrs. Rawlings heartily agreed, which allowed her to concentrate fully on trying to help her other daughter feel more comfortable.

Elizabeth held on to the little girl’s hand tightly as they ascended the three flights of stairs and came up to the top deck of the ship. Elizabeth savoured the fresh air as she took in a deep breath, taking delight in the sights about her. There was a gentle wind propelling them forward, and to Elizabeth’s novice eyes, it appeared as though every sail was unfurled. The sailors seemed to have an excellent knowledge of what was required of them, and she watched in delight as they climbed up and down the rigging. It reminded her of the acrobats at the circus she had seen once in town, who climbed the ropes with ease and with seemingly no sense of fear that they might fall.

Penelope, confined so long in steerage, was anxious to get out and run. Elizabeth was afraid to let go of the young child’s hand, so she walked briskly while Penelope ran alongside of her, occasionally breaking into a trot herself. She enjoyed being up on deck again and relished the opportunity to expend some of her own energy and pent-up emotions she had been feeling since leaving the coast of England.

Elizabeth knew the only way she would be able to enjoy herself for the duration of the month on this ship was if she could be up on the deck and walk. It was something she enjoyed immensely at home, and hoped the weather would oblige them and be favourable enough for a brisk walk frequently upon the deck.

Suddenly Penelope squealed and called out, “Daddy!”

Elizabeth looked up and saw a young man rush over to Penelope, sweeping her up in his arms. “Hey, there is my little girl!” He swung her around. “Where are Pauline and Mother?” He glanced questioningly at Elizabeth.

Penelope answered. “Polly is not feeling well, and Mother is taking care of her. Miss Bennet is taking me for a walk on the boat.”

“Excuse me, sir, but I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Your wife is tending Pauline who is feeling a bit unsettled, so I offered to bring Penelope up to allow her to get some fresh air and exercise.”

“That is very kind of you, Miss Bennet. I am Jack Rawlings.”

“It is a pleasure, Mr. Rawlings.”

Penelope held on to her father’s hand and twirled around him as they talked. Elizabeth laughed at the playfulness and endless energy of this young girl.

Her father looked down at her as she continued to dance around him. “Penny, remember what we told you. You must engage in calm and quiet activities while on the ship.”

“I am afraid, sir, that, if she is anything like me, she will need to engage in some brisk activity occasionally to make up for the confinement down below.”

“She is a lively young girl.”

“I have noticed.”

He proceeded to ask Elizabeth about how his wife and daughter were faring. She was drawn to his easy manner and evident care and concern for his family.

***

Darcy wandered into the eating area, a large room filled with tables and benches, where the meals would be served and people could congregate and visit. He walked in hoping to find something light to eat or drink and discovered, much to his consternation, that it was filled with noisy travellers who, for the most part, and upon his initial assessment, appeared unpolished and hailed from exceedingly low connections. Most were engaged in conversation, either with friends or family with whom they were travelling or with new acquaintances they had made since coming aboard.

He looked around for some obscure place to sit down where he could be by himself, but none was to be found. People were spread out everywhere and it was irritatingly loud. He scanned the crowd, and not observing anyone whose manners or company looked inviting, at once began to feel uncomfortable. He was able to secure some tea for himself and walked toward the outer wall, one which was dotted with small windows looking out to the deck.

He gazed out the small window as he drank the tea, leaning against the wall with one shoulder, tilting his head as he looked out at the people walking by on the deck. Over the years he had become proficient at putting on this façade of aloofness which, as a rule, allowed him the privacy and solitude that afforded him personal comfort. He suddenly realized he was watching the movements of the lady he had encountered earlier, walking by with a child.

His eyes narrowed as he witnessed this, straining his neck to watch them proceed toward the front of the ship. She was holding on to the young girl’s hand, walking along with her and occasionally allowing herself to slip into a skip or a run. He found himself unexpectedly drawn to her vivacious and unreserved nature. She seemed not at all concerned what others might think of her actions.

With his mind engaged on the scene playing out before him, he gradually became aware of someone standing next to him, disturbing his preoccupation and speculations.

He turned to see a woman standing by his side. She was definitely striking, more so in a fashionable than handsome way. She had been gazing off across the room, but when he turned his eyes upon her, she met his gaze and knowingly mistook it as a sign of the gentleman’s interest.

“Good afternoon, sir.” He was taken aback by her forwardness. “What a relief it is to finally find someone onboard this ship who obviously frequents the same circles in society as I! I can certainly guess your thoughts at the moment. You are thinking how insupportable it will be to spend a month in such tedious company as found on this ship.”

Darcy’s jaw tightened as he pondered his response. “Your assessment is more correct than you would imagine.”

She smiled, pleased with his apparent agreement. “My name is Eleanor Brewster.” She held out her hand, extended with her palm down, in hopes that he might take it and bestow a kiss upon the top of her hand.

She was more than disappointed when he merely answered, “I am Fitzwilliam Darcy,” and gave a quick, short bow.

Despite her disappointment, she asked, “Are you travelling with family?” She looked around him and quickly added, “Are your wife and children with you?” She put on a smile that was intended to evoke a response.

Darcy eyed her suspiciously and felt the all too familiar sense of discomfiture come over him as she continued her ploy of persuasion. The very fact that she claimed to frequent the same circles of society as himself, yet was completely disregarding the dictates of that society by approaching him and beginning a conversation with him, appalled him. She obviously thought herself above the good manners of polite society, having the unrivalled audacity to approach him so boldly.

Every movement of hers was meant to entice and ensnare, but Darcy was more annoyed than allured. He forced a civil smile upon his face and offered a simple, “I am travelling alone.”

This pleased her greatly. Desiring nothing more than to continue the conversation, she asked, “May I inquire, sir, as to why you are heading to the colonies?”

Darcy, lacking all desire to continue this conversation or encourage this woman, replied with a paramount lack of enthusiasm, “Strictly to retrieve my sister and then return to England as soon as possible.”

“Oh, sir, what a kind brother you must be! To have such concern for your sister, to give up at least two months of your life to travel to and fro…” Her hand went up to her neck and she fingered a rather large brooch that hung there as she calculated her next comment. “But perhaps, Mr. Darcy, while you are there, you might find the need for a companion to show you around. I would be…”

“I think not,” Darcy interrupted.

His response was not the one she wished for. Darcy felt a surge of agitation infuse throughout his body and he impatiently excused himself, bowed, and turned away. He quickly finished the tea and set his cup down, anxious to put as much distance as he could between this woman and himself.

As he quickly headed for the door, an older man and his wife entered, followed by a young lady in her late teens. The older man greeted him and immediately introduced himself.

“Good day, sir. My name is Gerald Summers.” He extended his hand and Darcy reluctantly, but civilly, extended his.

“Fitzwilliam Darcy,” was his only response.

Summers jovially expressed his pleasure at making the acquaintance. “And may I introduce my wife, Henrietta Summers, and my lovely daughter, Miss Angela Summers.”

Darcy bowed to both, sensing that the father and mother were eyeing him and going through a checklist of sorts of eligible suitors for their young daughter. He sensed uneasiness rather than eagerness, however, in the young girl’s demeanour.

“May I assume that you are travelling alone, sir?” Mr. Summers inquired.

Darcy nodded reluctantly. “You assume correctly.”

“Good, good! You can complete our table tonight at whist. Can we count on you?”

Darcy took in a deep breath. His natural tendency would lead him to brusquely brush him aside and not give a second thought about putting him in his place. But he knew spending a month with the same people in the confines of this ship required him to make more of an effort at civility, so replied, “Thank you, Mr. Summers, but I rarely play. If you will excuse me…”

Darcy removed himself from a most discomfiting situation for the second time in just a few minutes. As he walked past them, he sighed. How am I ever going to endure a month on this ship without keeping myself sequestered in my cabin?

Darcy walked out, eager for some fresh air before he finally succumbed to temptation to return to the solitary confines of his small, private room.

It has begun, he groaned to himself, and it was only the first day.

He absently found himself turning in the direction in which he had seen the young lady and the child earlier, but apparently she was no longer up on deck.

***

Later that afternoon, the captain made his way down to steerage to address the ladies. When he came in, he welcomed them to his ship and informed them that he had come to give some general guidelines for travelling aboard Pemberley’s Promise .

“Ladies, I know that some of you have husbands in the men’s steerage compartment, but I do not want you to think that this announcement is not intended for you. I have some things to say to all the women as commonsense guidelines, and you would be wise to listen. I am especially directing this to those women who are travelling unescorted, however. I strive to make this ship and the journey we are on a safe and pleasant one. But I cannot guarantee the character of everyone onboard this ship. Of my crew, I will say without doubt that they will behave as gentlemen around the ladies. If I hear word otherwise, they will suffer severe penalties. But as for the other passengers on this ship, I cannot vouch for them all. Therefore I say this to every woman. Do not walk around this ship after dark unescorted. I can only guarantee your safety to a degree. Again, if there is any impropriety that you become aware of, please inform me. If there is anything you need, please let me know.”

The captain ended by giving instructions for various things they would need to know for this voyage, ending with meals. The meals were served in a large dining area that would also be available to lounge in during the day and into the evening. He gave them the hours meals would be served, along with some other essential information, answered some questions, and then left.

After the captain departed, Elizabeth found her way to the large dining room. She seated herself at a table with some women she had met in steerage who were now joined by their husbands. She enjoyed making their acquaintance and conversing with them.

The meal that night, as it would be for only a few days, consisted of some fresh meat and vegetables, a little fruit, and a light bread. They had been told, however, that due to the length of time at sea, they would eventually have to subsist on dried, salted meat, hardtack biscuits, and some hardy vegetable such as potatoes. Most other vegetables and fruits, unless dried, would spoil.

Elizabeth glanced out of the corner of her eye at the tall man in the far corner of the room who had so earnestly expressed his views to the captain earlier about the lower class citizenry of the passengers. He was unquestionably holding to a position of superiority, as he seemed loath to assemble with the others and make new acquaintances. But there was something else about him that puzzled her. She could not place it at the moment, but his look and posture suggested something else, as well. It intrigued her and she was determined she would figure it out by the time they reached the American shore.

She settled into an easy conversation with a young lady just about her age who was travelling with her husband. Her name was Jenna Michelson, and Elizabeth discovered that when they arrived in America they would make their way to the Dakotas, where her husband’s brother owned some land. Elizabeth listened in awe as Jenna read a letter from her brother-in-law describing the winters there. They would be housebound for days, even weeks on end, when severe snowstorms came upon them.

“And this is your dream, to live in such a place as this?” asked Elizabeth incredulously.

Jenna smiled and nodded softly. “It is the only way. We had no hope for a better life in England. At least here we shall have some land and our own home.”

Elizabeth smiled sympathetically. She was grateful for Longbourn, their modest home, yet knew that unless one of her sisters made a marriage with someone of fortune, they had little hope for much more. With their home entailed to a distant cousin, whom they had never even met because of a family dispute between her father and his father, they could hardly hope that Longbourn would always be there for them.

Jenna interrupted Elizabeth’s thoughts. “We saved for years, giving up many things so we could make this trip. For us this trip means everything.” The young friend looked over at the gentleman sitting off by himself. “We sacrificed quite a lot to make this voyage. For that gentleman,” she discreetly motioned toward him, “it was probably no sacrifice at all for him to take this trip.”

Elizabeth, with her eyes turning back to the gentleman, whose impeccable dress and manners more than hinted at his wealth, asked, “Do you know anything about him? His name or where he is from?”

Another woman at the table, a Mrs. Nichols, answered for her. “His name is Darcy, so I hear. Has a home in London and in Derbyshire somewhere.”

Another one answered, “I heard he owns a great estate.”

From across the table, someone added, “No, I think I heard he owns his own castle and allows no one near.”

Elizabeth was amused at the rumours that were already circulating about this man of wealth.

“Perhaps he even owns his own island, or even his own country somewhere,” said another.

Everyone laughed.

“Not a very sociable person,” added Mr. Michelson, “but from the looks of him and his dress he is definitely a man of wealth and therefore has no need for any of us. Almost certainly the only sacrifice he is making in taking this voyage is being in the same room with people he deems beneath him.”

“You are not far from the mark there, Mr. Michelson,” Elizabeth smiled. “I overheard him say to the captain that the women on this ship were not handsome enough to tempt him, and most everyone decidedly beneath his station.”

Michelson added, “I am glad to hear that for the sake of the ladies on this ship. He may have the looks and the wealth to attract any number of ladies, but I would wager that he would consider it a punishment even to speak to any lady on this ship.” He nodded toward a table where a young lady was seated with some other passengers. “Now she has had her eye on him all evening. I would wager that she deems him someone most suitable for herself.”

“Well she looks like she deserves him. But you do not have to worry about me,” Elizabeth stated emphatically. “I believe I can safely promise you never to cast an interested eye in his direction.”

At this, her eyes gave a teasing glance at Darcy just as he looked up to see three sets of eyes upon him. Somehow he suspected that they were talking about him, and he shifted uncomfortably on the bench. At times he wished he was more like his outgoing friends… Bingley, for instance, who could speak so easily amongst strangers and would, in very little time, be acquainted with the whole room.

Yet in reality, when Bingley was with him in situations where he had few or no acquaintances, he would watch Bingley circulate about the room while he remained anchored at some window or mantel, unable to keep up with him, unwilling to make the effort. No, having Bingley around did not always help.

Darcy had brought in with him a book to read, but no longer had a desire to remain in here. He knew that in time he would get to know a select few of the passengers, most likely as he found opportunity to speak to them alone. When in the company of one or two, he more often than not could summon up all effort at civility and get through the very basics.

He looked over to the woman who had boldly come up to him earlier, noticing that she was still eyeing him most overtly. If he really wanted to, he could put on a charming façade and a civil demeanour, endure her company, and charm her and her companions. But at the moment, his thoughts were not inclined toward viewing this voyage as something that would offer him any modicum of pleasure or refined enjoyment. He was solely focused on the task at hand: to secure his sister and return home with her. Finally, deciding he needed the solitude of his room, he slid himself out from the bench.

Elizabeth had turned back to her friends and she excused herself, wanting to get back down to steerage before darkness settled across the ship. As she turned toward the door, she again inadvertently collided with Darcy, who was also walking hurriedly in the same direction.

Elizabeth gave a wry smile as she saw whom she had bumped into again. “Perhaps we ought to stop meeting like this, sir. One of us is bound to get hurt!” Her eyes flashed a lively, almost mischievous look his way that caught him off guard and seemed to pull him in and, at the same time, back to some fleeting memory again.

“I would hope not. Again, I apologize.”

He walked on ahead of Elizabeth and she thought, Just as I would expect. He wants to distance himself from the likes of someone like me. He cannot endure being in the presence of one so decidedly beneath him!

But instead of continuing on, when he reached the door, he opened it, stood off to the side, and allowed her to pass through ahead of him. His unexpected action pleasantly surprised her, and at once she regretted her previous thought about him. At least he can choose to display good manners when he wants to , she thought. “Thank you,” she replied and made her way to the stairs that took her down below, wondering at the difficulty she was having in attempting to sketch his character.

Darcy stood still and watched as she left, noticing that she was headed down another flight of stairs. He found himself captivated by her eyes and found it difficult to pull his away. As he finally turned to proceed to his cabin, he had to abruptly divert his direction to avoid encountering yet another woman he determined had planted herself in his path to make certain to attract his attention. His decision to walk completely around the other way to his cabin brought him to it in a most exasperated state.

Chapter 4

As darkness encased the ship, the environment within steerage became markedly bleak. Elizabeth made her way toward her bed and found Mrs. Rawlings still tending to her daughter, Pauline, who felt exceedingly ill. Penelope had fallen asleep in her mother’s bed, and Mrs. Rawlings decided she would sleep on the floor, as she did not want to disturb her sleeping daughter. Moreover, in the state she was in, she would not be able to fit upon the narrow mattress next to her daughter.

Elizabeth would not have it and offered her bed to the woman. “Please, I insist that you take my bed. Allow me to sleep on the floor!”

“Thank you, Miss Bennet, but no. I cannot do that.”

“Mrs. Rawlings, I am younger, and you need a good night’s sleep to keep yourself and the baby healthy.”

“I appreciate your generosity, but we chose to save money by having our girls sleep together. It is my dilemma.”

Elizabeth shook her head firmly. “Mrs. Rawlings, I have oft slept on the floor in my sister’s room. I would sneak into her room at night and we would lie on the floor whispering and giggling, falling asleep before we knew it.”

Elizabeth extended her hand toward her bed while gathering her coverlet and a coat to use as a pillow, placing them on the floor. “Please.”

Mrs. Rawlings was more than grateful to Elizabeth, but remorseful for causing Elizabeth such discomfort. They sat and talked for a while, Elizabeth continually reassuring her. Elizabeth eventually changed into her nightdress and robe, and then crawled between the folded warmth of her coverlet.

As Elizabeth lay there in those first few moments of darkness, she thought it was not so much the hard floor that might keep her awake, but the rocking of the ship and the noises from this crowded room of women and children. At home, she had her own room and she was a very light sleeper.

As she lowered her head upon the pillow, she remembered the words of her father and offered up a silent prayer thanking God for taking them through this first day. She was grateful she did not seem affected by the swaying of the ship and prayed for those who were, especially little Pauline. As she closed her eyes, she added to her prayer a request that she would be able to sleep well on this ship for the duration of the voyage. But the noises from children crying out and other odd sounds of so many people sleeping together did little to help this part of the prayer being answered that night.

***

They were blessed with pleasant weather, allowing the hatch to steerage to be left open all night. This allowed for a meagre amount of light to seep down into the depths of the ship as soon as the sun began announcing the new day. At the earliest signs of dawn, Elizabeth awoke, silently cursing her propensity to awaken with the morning sun. At some point in the night she had fallen asleep, but now she was stiff and sore, and believed herself to have had only a few hours of sound sleep.

She sat up slowly, working out sore muscles and stiff limbs. Most of her steerage companions were still asleep, and she sat quietly, leaning her head against the wall, contemplating what this new day would bring.

She looked up toward the hatch and watched the thread of sunlight sneaking through. She stifled a deep breath because of the variety of odours that were building throughout. As she sat motionless, she thought of her father’s words again, and thanked the Lord for her first night on the ship and then beseeched Him that He would continue to carry them safely across these waters.

Her attention was drawn to Pauline, who had awakened and began to whimper. Elizabeth stood up as Mrs. Rawlings awoke and they both went to the little girl. Elizabeth felt the little girl’s forehead and found it to be feverish. “She does seem to have a fever, Mrs. Rawlings. Perhaps her illness is something other than seasickness.”

Mrs. Rawlings pulled the blanket off the bed and brought it up to Pauline, covering the little girl, who had begun to shiver.

Elizabeth gently reassured the woman, who was quite concerned for her daughter. “Let me go freshen up, and then I will go up on deck and see if I can secure another blanket for her.”

“Thank you.”

Elizabeth changed into a simple muslin dress and quickly brushed out her hair, easily pulling it up. She put on a bonnet and tied it securely under her chin, then set out for one of the small necessary rooms they had for the women. When she had readied herself, she wrapped a shawl around herself, climbed the stairs, and instantly felt strengthened by the gradual increase of sunlight that poured down on her. Upon reaching the floor just below the top deck, she obliged herself and took in a well-needed deep breath. She filled her lungs with the fresh air and immediately felt strengthened and more alert.

She decided to walk down the hall, looking for some sort of linens storage room. To her delight, she found a door that was marked with the word Linens .

She did not see anyone around, so she turned the door lever and was pleased to find it unlocked. She walked into a very pleasant, clean room that had shelves of blankets, pillows, towels, and assorted other items. A small window let in some light and a fleeting thought passed through Elizabeth’s mind that she could curl up in here and sleep for the night so soundly and no one need to know. It would be much more endurable than steerage. As she was musing over this very foolish, yet appealing, idea, the listing of the ship closed the door behind her, bringing her back to her purpose in being there, and she set out to collect a few things she needed. She decided to pick up an extra pillow for herself, as well as two more blankets in case they were needed.

Her arms were full as she managed to open the door. As she backed out, she slowly closed the door behind her. She turned and found herself staring into the face of Mr. Darcy, who was walking down the hall.

A look of surprise crossed his face as he saw her arms laden with linens. He smiled slightly, tilting his head as he spoke, “I did not know when I collided with you yesterday that you were a stowaway.”

“I am not a stowaway, sir,” Elizabeth declared as she shook her head in irritation and for emphasis. She looked down at the blankets and pillow. “I am bringing these down to steerage for a little girl who has a fever and the chills, and where, I might add, I am a paid passenger.”

“I see,” he said. “I am sorry to hear that a child is unwell.” He had never seriously considered that she was a stowaway, but he should have known that his attempts at teasing usually were not taken as such. This was unfortunately one of those occasions. “Were you not given enough blankets and pillows, then?”

Elizabeth was eager to let this gentleman know what she thought about this very poor policy on the ship. “We would have had enough if only one person was assigned to each bed.”

“There are people doubled up down there?” asked Darcy incredulously.

Elizabeth started at his question. She tilted her head and looked at him askance, pondering yet another example of his unpredictability. “Many of the children are. Unfortunately one of them is the sick little girl. The child’s mother, who is again with child, gave up her bed to her other daughter.” Elizabeth pondered whether to go on to tell him that she gave her own bed to the mother, but decided against it.

Darcy looked at her with feelings of disbelief and displeasure at what he learned his ship’s policy was and what had happened as a result. “So this woman is left to sleep on the floor?”

Elizabeth now looked at this man, whose character was becoming increasingly difficult to sketch. That he seemed concerned did not harmonize with the image she had of him.

“No, I could not allow her to do that.” Elizabeth paused. “I gave her my bed.”

Darcy nodded. “So you slept in the linens room instead?”

“Not quite, sir,” Elizabeth let out a sparkling laugh. “I went in just a few moments ago to secure these items.” She paused, and when Darcy said no more but seemed highly disconcerted about this whole thing, she added with a touch of mischievousness and a sly smile, “Although while I was in there, the thought did cross my mind that it might be just a bit more comfortable sleeping in there than on the floor in steerage. Do you think that anyone will mind?”

She did not wait for an answer, but pressed the need to get the blankets down below. “If you will excuse me, these are required downstairs.”

Elizabeth walked away, surprised by this man’s character. Her first impression of him had been that he entertained feelings of superiority and disdain for the common passengers on this ship, and that out of his own mouth. Now she had just seen evidence that he might possess a little compassion for others. And then there was something about the way he reacted to her comment about the sleeping conditions. What was it? Why would he even be concerned about how people in steerage were faring? She was exceedingly puzzled.

***

Darcy sought out the captain immediately upon leaving Elizabeth. He was not aloft, so Darcy made his way to the captain’s cabin, which was at the front of the ship, just down the hall from his own room. He knocked firmly and impatiently at the door.

Captain Wendell opened the door, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of bread in the other. “Come in, Darcy. I am just having a small breakfast. Would you care to join me?”

“No, thank you, sir. That is not why I am here. I was disturbed by some news I heard and wanted to inquire about it.”

The captain looked up at him questioningly. “What is it, Darcy?”

“I understand that in steerage some of the passengers, the children to be specific, are doubled up in the beds.”

The captain turned and returned to his chair, sitting down and motioning for Darcy to sit down. “That is true. Several ships allow this policy to enable more passengers to afford the crossing. Usually the children do fine sharing their bed with a brother or sister.”

Darcy walked over to the table and sat down opposite Wendell, regarding him intently. “There is a young lady down there who has been forced to sleep on the floor after giving up her bed to a sick child’s mother. She did not ask me to inquire about this, Captain, but might there be another bed available for her? I would gladly make up the difference in her fare.”

The Captain eyed him suspiciously, wondering at his sudden generosity. “I am sorry, Darcy. The ship is full to capacity. There are no extra beds at all on this ship… except the one in your cabin, and I most certainly will not allow her to take that one.”

“There is not another available anywhere?”

The captain shook his head, wondering whether his concern over this matter was directed toward the young lady or how people would feel if they were to find out he was the owner of the ship and go to him with complaints.

“I am sorry, Darcy. This particular young lady friend of yours should claim her bed back. I am sure the child down there will improve in time. It is most likely the motion of the ship, and that should pass soon enough once she is used to it. If I were you, I would not worry about it. There is nothing you can do, and unfortunately, it happens all the time.”

Darcy turned in exasperation. She is not my particular lady friend! he thought to himself. Yet for some odd reason he was repeatedly being thrown in her presence, and he continually found his mind agreeably engaged on this lively, perplexing, and slightly familiar-looking woman with very fine eyes!

“Is that all, Darcy?” the captain asked.

“Yes.” He turned toward the door.

“Darcy?”

“Hmmm?” Darcy looked at him with a single raised brow.

“I do not fully understand why you are taking such an interest in this lady’s situation, but I would not go about entertaining thoughts about her.”

Darcy tried to interrupt and deny that he had any intention of doing such a thing, but the captain raised his hand to stop him. “Darcy, just remember. I will not allow any impropriety on my ship.”

Darcy took in a deep breath. “Yes, sir. As I said earlier, I am grateful for that.”

He left, closing the door behind him, and set out for the top deck to take a determinedly brisk walk before the majority of the passengers came up.

***

Elizabeth returned below and placed the folded blankets and extra pillow on her bed to use that night. People were beginning to stir, and Elizabeth was grateful she was already up and dressed, although if she could, she would curl up in her bed and fall asleep. It was now vacated and had been straightened out by Mrs. Rawlings. And despite the narrow, thin mattress, it looked extremely inviting.

She inquired how Pauline was faring, and Mrs. Rawlings answered that she was sleeping, but still had a high fever. She was now, however, concerned for Penelope, who was complaining of feeling unwell, herself.

Elizabeth recognized the drawn look of fatigue on Mrs. Rawlings’s face, as well, and wondered if she was beginning to come down with what was ailing her daughters.

“May I inquire how you are faring, Mrs. Rawlings?”

“Thank you for your concern, Miss Bennet. I am just a little tired.”

By the way she avoided looking at her, Elizabeth concluded that she did not own up to the complete truth. Elizabeth believed her to be concealing her ailment so she could continue to care for her daughters.

“Mrs. Rawlings, if there is anything I can do to help you, please do not hesitate to ask. If you need some rest, or if you need to get up and get some fresh air, I would be more than willing to watch over your girls for you.”

A look of relief passed over Mrs. Rawlings’s countenance. “Miss Bennet, you are too kind. Have you had anything to eat yet?”

“Actually, no. I might go up now and secure a bite, and then I shall return immediately to keep an eye on your daughters so you may go up. If I see your husband, I shall let him know you will be up shortly.”

“Thank you, Miss Bennet.”

“Please, call me Elizabeth.”

“And you must call me Lenore.”

“I shall return momentarily, Lenore.”

Elizabeth walked up the two levels of stairs to the deck where the eating area was located. She glanced around the room and recognized some women from steerage who were eating with their families. She walked over to join them; greeting those she had already met and introducing herself to those she had not, and settled into an easy conversation with them.

Elizabeth had a natural gift for meeting and conversing easily with people, and her sharp wit and lively personality endeared her to many. But the prominent thing that people noticed about her was how she reached out in concern to others.

When Elizabeth returned to steerage after eating that morning, she found Mrs. Rawlings fatigued and feeling quite ill. She knew it would benefit her greatly to get some rest, so Elizabeth offered to run back up, get some food for her and her daughters, and bring it back down to them.

Elizabeth returned with some hardtack bread, a few pieces of fruit, water, and tea, but Mrs. Rawlings took only a little liquid nourishment. Neither of the girls appeared to be hungry; they seemed not at all interested in what she had brought them. Elizabeth did all she could to get them to at least take some liquid, and when it was quite apparent that they would not eat, she simply made an effort to keep them comfortable and still.

She later returned up to the top deck when the girls and Mrs. Rawlings had fallen asleep. She was anxious for a walk, although it was quite difficult with so many people aloft. The ship itself also had obstacles that made it difficult to take a leisurely, pleasant walk without having to walk around things. Elizabeth decided if she wanted to get a walk in each day, something she definitely desired, she would have to do it early in the morning when few people would be up.

While up on deck, Elizabeth noticed Mr. Rawlings and informed him that his wife and daughters were unwell. She told him she had brought them something to eat, but they would likely be resting for the remainder of the day.

By late afternoon, Elizabeth was weary, having spent much of her day sitting with either Mrs. Rawlings or her daughters, and occasionally going aloft for a break and the respite of fresh air. She ate as soon as the meal was ready, but instead of staying up to visit with others as she would have liked, she returned to steerage and readied herself for bed, hoping to fall asleep early and get a good night’s sleep. She curled herself up on the floor and while a trace of light was still making its way down the hatch, she pulled out a sampler she had brought along and began stitching. As the light eventually diminished, and with her eyelids growing heavy, she lay down, but the sounds of coughing, sickness, and children crying continued to assault her, preventing any real success at falling asleep again for the second night in a row.

Earlier in the evening, but after Elizabeth had returned to steerage, Darcy entered the dining area, book in hand. As his eyes quickly scanned the room, he looked for a suitable place to sit, but in reality he was seeking out a particular young lady. Being unable to locate her, he settled for a table off to the side that had some room on the end of one of the benches. There were other people sitting there, a family, but since none of the women he had been trying to avoid were anywhere near, he decided to settle himself there. From where he was sitting he was also able to keep an eye toward the door, enabling him to see who walked in.

Seated with him were a middle-aged gentleman, his wife, and their two sons. Mr. Jennings made the introductions to his wife and sons. Darcy did not need to worry about making any kind of effort in conversing with his dining partners, as Mr. Jennings seemed content to carry on quite admirably himself, with Darcy only making an occasional sound of agreement or nod of his head. Mrs. Jennings occasionally looked at him with a somewhat embarrassed look as her husband carried on, but she contributed very little to the discourse. Darcy was content to sit and tune out the endless chattering of this man while his mind was solely preoccupied with one particular lady whom he was hoping to see tonight.

If he had only to put up with Mr. Jennings’s droning monologue, he would have been able to endure the evening. As the evening grew later, however, his frustration increased as he was not allowed to be content just sitting—had not even been able to pick up his book—but was approached by several others requesting him to join them in their table games, or conversation, or a smoke or drink. He was easily suspicious of their reasons for singling him out for company. He politely declined, knowing he would not be able to concentrate on anything but where she might be tonight.

She, the vivacious woman with the fine eyes, did not come up at all that he could see. Instead of his thoughts being able to dwell on her, he was continually assaulted with the presence of those whose sole objective was to make sure this man took notice of them.

After enduring only what he could while still remaining civil, he finally excused himself from those around him, grasping book in hand, and retreated to his room for the remainder of the evening.

***

The next morning, as soon as sunlight poured down through the hatch, Elizabeth awakened. She was not sure how much she had slept, but by the way she felt, she knew it had again been insufficient. There were only a few others in steerage who had awakened. She slowly pulled herself up and began readying herself for another day, remembering to offer up a prayer for the Lord to continue to watch over them.

Once she came up on deck, she breathed in the fresh air. How invigorating just a breath of fresh air made her feel. The staleness of the air down below seemed intent on taking away any morsel of energy she had, but up here she felt alive and revitalized, despite her lack of sleep.

She began walking, up one side of the ship and back on the other. She walked briskly, watching the sailors man the sails and attend to their morning chores and looking out to the vast sea, hoping to catch sight of the dolphins that she had heard often could be seen soaring alongside the ship. She quickly plotted out the best course along the deck to avoid the obstacles scattered throughout.

After having walked up and back a couple of times, she became aware of someone walking behind her. Thinking it was a crewman, she stepped over toward the right so she would be out of his way and he could pass. At length that person’s strides brought him to her side. But instead of passing her, he slowed his pace and began walking alongside of her. She glanced over, surprised to see that it was Mr. Darcy.

She was not sure whether he seemed surprised to see her when she turned her head, but he did appear uncertain about what to say.

Never to be at a loss for words or intimidated by wealth or rank, Elizabeth greeted him. “Good morning, Mr. Darcy! Pleasant morning for a walk.”

“Yes it is.” They both continued in their stride and he looked at her oddly. “It is apparent you know my name, but I am at a loss to know yours.”

For some inexplicable reason her heart made a tiny erratic leap as he inquired about her name. It went undetected by Darcy, however, and she answered, “Please forgive me. I overheard someone mention your name the other day, Mr. Darcy. I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

Darcy glanced down at her. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Bennet.”

They turned their attention to their walk, and after a brief silence, Darcy asked, “They mentioned me? And what precisely did they say?”

Elizabeth cast a glance up at him, a single eyebrow briefly arching. A smile crept across her face, recalling the rumours that people were spreading about him.

“I believe, sir, that one person claimed you owned your own castle.”

“Is that so?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I am afraid it is, Mr. Darcy. It was settled that you almost certainly own a large estate, a castle, an island, or, I might add, possibly your own country. I am surprised no one thought of the likelihood that you might also own this ship!”

Darcy tensed as she made this last remark, but realized by the smile on her face that she was saying it in jest. “What do you think?” he asked.

She pondered whether to tell him what her opinion of him was, which was based on what she overheard him say that first day. “What I think is of no importance. And it is no one’s business but your own, at any rate.”

He turned his eyes forward, feeling fairly secure that word had not leaked out of his ownership of Pemberley’s Promise . The two walked practically in step. Elizabeth felt awkward that he most likely felt obligated to remain with her as they continued, given that they were the only two passengers up on the deck. They had walked nearly the full length of the ship before he was to speak again.

“May I inquire, Miss Bennet, have you worked out the sleeping arrangements in a satisfactory manner?”

She turned to look up at him, almost as surprised that he remembered as that he was asking about it.

“Unfortunately no. The woman to whom I gave my bed is now ill, and I could not, in good conscience, ask for it back. So I find myself sleeping on the floor again. It is of no consequence. I have done it often enough at home.”

She detected a deep, aggravated sigh from him, but he said nothing. His only response was to bring up his hand and brusquely rub his chin.

He did not make further effort to converse with her, and seemed lost in thought as they walked. She cast a furtive glance up at him to see if she could detect whether he was irritated by her presence, oblivious to it, or took any sort of pleasure in it. She was certain it was not the latter, but was hard-pressed to discern which of the other two it was.

They walked another two lengths of the ship in silence, Elizabeth pondering why he felt he must remain with her if he had no intention of talking with her, other than about the sleeping conditions in steerage.

But if she was surprised by his earlier question, she was astonished by his next comment.

“I did not see you up in the dining area last night.”

Elizabeth stammered for some sense to come forth. Certainly he was simply stating a fact. He could not mean anything by it, and she would be a fool to interpret it any other way.

“I took an early supper in the dining hall and then returned to steerage directly.”

Darcy nodded but wondered if her sleeping on the floor was as tolerable as she claimed it to be.

During the course of their walk, more passengers began making their way up, and Elizabeth felt the necessity to return to steerage and check on the Rawlingses.

“Mr. Darcy, if you will excuse me, I need to return down below.”

“Certainly, Miss Bennet. I enjoyed our walk this morning.”

As Elizabeth walked away, there was a moment when a memory teased her thoughts like an image from a dream that you try to recall but evaporates before it can be fully recollected. She had an odd sensation of having been at the receiving end of his approving deference before. A long time ago.

***

Darcy returned to his room. He did not have to remind himself that he enjoyed the company of Miss Bennet a great deal more than he should. She had neither the breeding, nor was she of the sphere of society into which he was expected to marry. Everything about her position resonated against his better judgment. Viewed in a rational light, he knew he should take his walks at some other time in the course of the day and thus avoid any more of Miss Bennet’s delightful company.

He shook his head. He did not want to give up his early morning walks, but for his own peace of mind, he determined it would be best that he keep his distance from her at all other times while on this voyage.

Chapter 5

The following day, Elizabeth rose at the first signs of dawn and quickly made her way aloft, beckoned by the promise of sunshine and fresh air.

She politely nodded to the crew she passed as they hurriedly set out to ready the ship for another full day of sailing and she determinedly set out to walk. She stepped briskly, holding her shawl tightly around her shoulders as the morning air was cool, and the breeze from the sea, coupled with the movement from the ship, made it cooler than it really was.

At length, just as she began her second time around the deck, she noticed Mr. Darcy step out. He looked her way, and she was surprised to see that he refrained from walking until she reached him.

“Good morning, Miss Bennet.”

She nodded and replied, “Good morning, Mr. Darcy.”

He joined her in her stride, walking with his hands clasped behind him, looking either straight ahead or out across the sea. Elizabeth sensed that he was far away and was perfectly satisfied with the silence between them. She felt an awkwardness that stemmed from her uncertainty concerning whether, if he had his preference, he would wish to walk unaccompanied.

She occasionally slowed or quickened her gait to see if he would pass on ahead of her, but each time he adjusted his steps accordingly. She finally settled in her mind that he was content to walk in this markedly silent manner, which was broken only occasionally by one or the other in a comment about the weather, the sea, or how other passengers were faring.

Elizabeth stole some glances at him and marvelled that while walking, his stern demeanour seemed to soften somewhat. He seemed at peace, almost at home, in this activity. They continued to walk briskly and talk little, but when they did, he offered very little information about himself and she did not pry.

As more and more passengers came up, it became increasingly difficult to walk in a leisurely, unobstructed fashion. Elizabeth commented that she should get back down to steerage to see how the others were faring.

Darcy seemed inclined to say something as he took in a deep breath. Fully expecting him to speak, Elizabeth waited, but when he did not, she turned to leave.

In an action that surprised her because she did not expect it from him, nor did she expect the stirring feelings it provoked in her, he reached out and stopped her by slipping his hand through her arm.

“Miss Bennet, will you be walking again tomorrow morning?”

Elizabeth pondered whether his question was to ascertain if he would finally have the pleasure of a walk in solitude, or, however unlikely in her opinion, he looked forward to a walk together again. Her rapidly beating heart made it terribly difficult to think, let alone be rational and reasonable.

“I love to walk in the early morning hours, Mr. Darcy. It is one of my favourite pastimes at home, and as the exercise and fresh air are all I need to keep up my strength and endurance on the ship, then I imagine I will.”

He merely nodded, letting go of her arm, almost reluctantly. She did not believe that he could truly enjoy having her as a walking companion. They had not engaged in any kind of lively discussion or divulged any personal information. But, when she left and as she made her way down to steerage, she wondered whether his question reflected a desirable anticipation.

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head. No! How absurd! She was one of those very women who were intolerably beneath him , as he had so adamantly informed the captain!

Elizabeth spent that day helping Mrs. Rawlings and her daughters, as well as a few others who had taken ill. She was grateful that she felt well enough to come up for a break for some intermittent fresh air and sunshine. She found herself in a routine acquiring food and drink, applying cool cloths to fevered foreheads, and simply sitting with, talking with, and encouraging those who were not doing well.

***

It continued in this manner for several days. If Elizabeth came up first for her walk, Darcy joined her when he made his way aloft. If he was up first, when he noticed her he either quickened or slowed his pace until she was by his side.

He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or questioning much, but she was struck with the fact that he did ask some questions occasionally that bordered between civility and genuine interest. In addition, he continued to be peculiarly concerned with not only the sleeping arrangements but also the living conditions down below.

In the course of those few days, they shared very little about themselves save that Elizabeth was heading to America to visit her aunt and uncle who were there on business. She hoped to remain over there for a couple of months before returning to England with them.

Darcy, in turn, talked to her of his sister and how he was making the voyage simply to secure her return to England. He told Elizabeth how her governess, who had taken Georgiana to the States with her, had become too ill to accompany her home.

Elizabeth did find, on about the fourth day of their walks, that Darcy was an avid conversationalist when it came to discussing books. She had noticed him reading in the dining area the night before, still keeping to himself, and a simple inquiry about what he was reading seemed to capture his interest.

That began a very diverse, animated, and enjoyable conversation between the two. Elizabeth loved to read, and although she enjoyed indulging in some of the current romance novels of her day, she also read books of more substance, plays and prose by Shakespeare, interesting biographies, and had even ploughed through some historical books with great enjoyment.

Elizabeth looked at each successive day after that as a challenge to discover a subject that interested him and get him involved in a healthy discourse. She loved to question his opinions and disagree with him. She thought it odd that he seemed to enjoy it when she expressed an opposing view.

When they first began discussing books, Darcy assumed Elizabeth’s knowledge would be limited. He was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise, but what intrigued him most was the fact that she did not pander to his opinions. She expressed her views without hesitation, albeit politely, and did not try to align them with his solely because he was a man of wealth and connections.

A few days later, Elizabeth began to feel the effects of not sleeping well for several successive nights, but she still eagerly looked forward to her walk. As she readied herself to go aloft, she determined that on this day they would discuss poetry. She wondered whether he enjoyed that literary genre. She imagined he would not.

Later, after they had walked the perimeter of the ship a couple of times, she finally inquired, “What do you think of poetry, Mr. Darcy? Is it the food or foolishness of love?”

“I believe it is said that poetry is the food of love,” answered Darcy, fairly suspicious that she was ready to challenge his statement.

“So they say. But how often has poetry actually driven away love? If it is a good, strong, healthy love, then anything will nurture it and cause it to grow. But a weak love… I am afraid that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

“But would it not also have to do with the sonnet itself? A good, strong, healthy sonnet should have a positive effect on even the weakest love, whereas a weak sonnet, in even the most fervent and ardent love, might it not even be injurious to it?”

Elizabeth smiled. “But would not the recipient’s knowledge and appreciation of sonnets be essential? What is pleasing to one person may not be to another.”

A fleeting thought crossed his mind that she was much like a young lady he had met years before. The memory was merely a faded blur, having spent only a couple of hours with her in a carriage, but she stirred him in the same way. He could not remember her name or where she had been travelling.

They continued to banter back and forth, but this morning Elizabeth had to excuse herself early. She had grown more weary and even the fresh air was not obliging her as it normally did in reviving her spirits.

Elizabeth retreated back down to steerage and did a little to help out Mrs. Rawlings and her daughters, as she normally did, in addition to a few others who were struggling with illness. She soon found herself growing more and more weary, and finally was compelled to curl up and take a short nap, even though she felt she needed to help out those who were suffering from more severe illnesses. She ended up sleeping for most of the day; something that she rarely did.

***

With the rising of the sun the following day, Elizabeth struggled to open her eyes. Her head ached, as well as her body, and she was only vaguely aware of the sun sending its light and warmth down into the depths of the ship in a futile attempt to awaken her. She shifted her position on the floor but could not get comfortable. The voices she began to hear were only murmurs, and she could not make out any particular words. Her one thought was that perhaps she was becoming ill as well, as she dug herself deeper into the coverlet, covering her eyes from the light that was beginning to filter through the room.

Darcy had eagerly pulled himself out of bed, looking with anticipation toward his morning walk. That he found himself looking forward to being with Miss Bennet altogether surprised him. He rarely had, in all his adult years, been so captivated by a woman. Although he knew it was an injudicious partiality on his part, as she was not at all suitable for him, he was helpless to put her out of his mind.

She had become the one thing on this ship he found tolerable; a refreshing, lively distraction from both the unpleasant obligation this journey had become and the intolerable array of women seeking his attention. She enjoyed doing things he enjoyed doing. He tried to convince himself that there was nothing more to it than the simple fact that they enjoyed their morning walks together talking about books they had both read.

She does not seem particularly to seek out my attention as so many women do. What a pleasant change! That last thought surprised him. He shook his head, contemplating the oddity that he considered a woman not interested in him a pleasant change.

He vigorously splashed himself with the water from the pitcher and managed a frugal attempt at bathing using the hand basin in his room that was the only provision for bathing on this ship. He looked at himself in the small mirror, frustrated with his unruly, curly hair that was becoming more unmanageable with each passing day. He wished he had his valet along, who could work wonders with very little. He wished he could don a hat and cover what he considered his least favourable attribute, but the wind up on deck would only whip it away, so he resigned himself to just walk up and face her with his hair looking the way it was. And it was certain only to get worse.

He readily walked up and out on deck, pleased to find another fine day, and he began his walk. Each time around, when he approached the door that led to the stairway, he paused, hoping to see Elizabeth appear. Several times during his walk he glanced behind him, thinking that possibly he would find her there, but each time he was disappointed.

He scolded himself, arguing that he had no business dwelling on this lady whom he would most likely never see again and one whom he would probably never have given a second glance in Town. She was simply a young lady from a small, inconsequential country village somewhere in England.

His strides became more determined as he contended with himself regarding the disparity between the two of them. Resolving to cease his musings of her, however, and the actual realization of it are two different things. He continued on with the hope of seeing her. After a disappointing walk, he finally returned to his room and wondered at her absence.

Later that morning, he went to the eating area for the prepared meal that was becoming less and less desirable as there was nothing remaining that was fresh. He overheard passengers talking about the sickness taking hold in steerage.

“With all those people confined together, what do you expect?” one man asked in frustration.

Another spoke up. “I have heard o’ ship’s fever that takes hold and runs rampant. Sometimes it can be fatal. I heard o’ ships coming to port having lost a whole one fourth of their passengers.”

“Excuse me,” Darcy spoke and a look of silent surprise passed each face as they looked toward this man who usually extended only the minimal courtesy of conversation that civility required. “What was that you were saying about disease spreading through the ship?”

“Not the whole ship, sir. Just down in steerage.”

“Do you know what it is?” he asked.

“No. It’s mainly in the women’s and children’s area and a fever seems to be part of it.” After a pause the man added, “I just hope it’s not the typhoid.”

Darcy tensed and his jaw firmly tightened as he thought of Miss Bennet. He knew she had been caring for the Rawlingses, as well as a few others, and wondered if she had grown ill herself. His mind went back to his walks with her, and he recalled that she appeared increasingly tired and worn each morning. “Has anyone inquired of the captain for some medical assistance for them?”

“I believe so, but he can do nothing. At this point he does not think it is anything serious and it will run its course. Till then we must wait and hope.”

“And pray!” added another.

Darcy stood there silent, as all the eyes in the group were upon this man who, for most of the past week, had been distant, aloof, and exhibited a very austere persona. That he was suddenly conversing with them was surprise enough, but that he appeared concerned astonished them even more.

Darcy felt a presence behind him, and he turned to see Miss Brewster standing behind him.

“Mr. Darcy, what a pleasure to encounter you this morning.”

The last thing Darcy wanted was to endure this woman’s wearisome presence. Each day it seemed she had sought him out at exactly the time he least wanted it. There were two or three other women who seemed to take pleasure in finding him unattached and wanting for company. Yet now she was displaying the audacity to approach him while in the midst of a conversation with a group of men. Would it never cease?

He turned politely to her, yet inwardly felt very much otherwise, and nodded. “Miss Brewster.”

“It is such a lovely day, and I particularly recall you enjoy a pleasant walk on deck. Would you mind accompanying me?”

“Thank you, no, Miss Brewster. I have already had an early morning walk, and it is imperative that I speak to the captain directly.”

He excused himself from Miss Brewster and the others, intent on finding Captain Wendell, and leaving Miss Brewster to wonder what she could do to get this man to notice her.

Darcy was pleased to find the captain on deck and free from any imminent responsibilities.

“Good morning, Darcy,” the captain greeted him when he saw him approach.

“Good morning, Captain.”

Wendell eyed him with a suspicion that Darcy was again approaching him with some concern about the ship.

“What is it, Darcy?”

“I understand that there is sickness, a fever spreading through steerage.”

“It is a normal part of the voyage that a few of the weaker passengers come down with something. Unfortunately it does spread more readily in steerage because of the closeness of quarters, the lack of fresh air, and the number of people down there. There is nothing that can be done about it, other than to let it run its course.”

Darcy let out a frustrated sigh, guarding his motivation for asking and seeking a way to bring up Miss Bennet without raising the captain’s suspicions.

“Do you suspect it to be typhoid?”

“At this point we cannot tell. There is one young lady who has taken ill quite unexpectedly and suddenly. It may be a simple case of influenza, but she has been weakened quite dramatically by it, more so than the others.”

Darcy could not hide the alarm on his face. “Who is this woman, Captain?”

“Her name is Mrs. Trimble. She is travelling to America to join her husband who is already there.”

The captain saw a wave of relief pass across his old friend’s face.

“Captain, is there anything that can be done to alleviate the potential for an epidemic breaking out down there among the passengers?”

“Apart from moving everyone out of steerage? No, I am afraid not.”

The captain watched as Darcy nervously rubbed his hands together and wondered whether it was truly a concern for all the steerage passengers or one in particular, having noticed his walks each morning with Miss Bennet.

Darcy was frustrated that he still did not know anything about Miss Bennet and decided to be frank with the captain.

“What do you know of Miss Bennet? I have not seen her yet today, and I know she has been aiding several down there who are unwell. Do you know if she has taken ill herself?”

Captain Wendell looked intently at Darcy, seeing something in his countenance he had never witnessed before. “I understand she has taken ill, as well. Whether it is as severe as Mrs. Trimble’s case, I do not know.”

“Is there any doctor onboard?”

“Not as such. The head cook serves as our doctor. He has training in preparing medicinal remedies. He is aware of the illness and has been doing all he can for those passengers. If I hear anything more, I will let you know.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“Darcy…”

Darcy looked up at the captain. “Yes?”

The captain slowly shook his head. “Never mind,” he sighed and turned to leave. He wondered with grave concern whether he would have to come down hard on the man who owned this ship and who had ultimate authority. Darcy had been spending a vast amount of time with a woman who had been put under his very own protection. He wondered how he would do it. He wondered if he would be able to do it.

Chapter 6

Darcy stood still for a few moments, feeling frustrated and helpless. If diseases like typhoid did come upon this ship, those who were in steerage were the most susceptible because of the living conditions. Elizabeth, who was helping those very people, was at an even greater risk, in view of the fact that she was getting very little sleep. He knew disease was a possibility on every ship, but he felt acutely responsible himself, being the owner of Pemberley’s Promise .

Darcy was pondering the situation when he looked up to see another of his adoring women, Miss Evans, strolling toward him. At the moment, he was feeling anything but civil, giving her only an infinitesimal nod of his head, then turned and quickly returned to his room before she was able to utter a word.

He remained there for some time, trying to read a book but making little progress. They had been just over one week at sea, and had about three more to go. He suddenly slammed his book closed and set it down abruptly on the table.

He felt a restlessness suffuse through his body. He did not know what he wanted to do, but he felt he needed to be out of the confines of this room. He refused to be a prisoner on his own ship.

Perhaps if he went to the dining area he would find out something more. He battled with the thought that it would likely throw him again into the presence of one of those annoying, persistent ladies, and he was in no humour for it. But he did not wish to remain in his room. Hang those blasted women!

After contemplating his options, he finally stood up, opened the door to his room, and walked down the hall, his concern for Elizabeth stronger than his wish to shield himself from unwanted advances.

As he passed by the stairs, he was suddenly put off balance by an unexpected swell that rocked the ship, but he steadied himself easily. Hearing a soft cry for help and the sound of tumbling, he hurried to the stairway and looked down. He was stunned to see that a young lady had lost her footing and tumbled upon the steps. Darcy immediately rushed down the few steps to reach her and bent down. When she looked up in his direction, he saw a very tired and pale-looking Elizabeth.

“Miss Bennet, are you hurt?”

She let out a meagre smile. “I had to come up and get some fresh air. Perhaps I should not have.”

She reached down and grabbed her ankle. “I believe my ankle turned when the boat listed.”

“Let me help you. You may have broken it or sprained it.”

“No, I will be all right, truly.”

Before she could protest, Darcy reached down and agilely picked her up. “My room is right here. Let me take you there and see what can be done.”

“Please, Mr. Darcy, you do not have to do this.” Her words did not come effortlessly, as being unexpectedly lifted by his strong arms added confusion to her already feverish and foggy mind; more than she wished to acknowledge.

“No, I insist.”

He carried her with ease to his room, calling out to a woman who was passing by. “Could you help us? Please come with me and see to Miss Bennet. She seems to have injured her ankle.”

“I would be glad to,” the woman replied.

They walked into Darcy’s room as Elizabeth struggled to keep her head upright, although the pleasant scent that seemed to emanate from him strongly tempted her to lean her head against him and turn her face into him. He gently placed her on the small bench next to the table. He stood up while the woman, a Mrs. Mullins, as she introduced herself, stooped down to look at the ankle.

“Not to worry, Miss Bennet. I have raised five children, and I have seen many sprains and broken bones in my life.”

Elizabeth reached down to rub her ankle and felt quite foolish that all this attention was being paid to her when it was her fault and she was quite certain there was nothing seriously wrong. She was fighting against the effects of lack of sleep and illness, but was able to glance around the room and notice the relative splendour of Mr. Darcy’s accommodations.

Mrs. Mullins stooped down and addressed Elizabeth as she gently began unlacing her boot. “Where does it hurt, Miss Bennet?”

“The inside of my ankle, Mrs. Mullins. I twisted it two years ago and it goes out on me occasionally. It shall be back to normal in no time.” Elizabeth took some deep breaths, as this was all extremely arduous for her in her ailing state.

Darcy, trying to avert his eyes from the most desirable sight of her now bootless slender ankle, casually asked, “You said you sprained it?”

Elizabeth lifted her head slowly, looking up at him, and Darcy immediately noticed her pale and worn appearance. “Yes. Two years ago I fell out…” She abruptly stopped, then, as if she changed her mind, simply said, “I fell.”

Her fevered mind seemed to make an attempt to recall something, but it evaporated as quickly as it had appeared. Whatever it had been was gone, but she had a clear enough mind to know that she did not want Mr. Darcy aware that only two years ago she made it a practice to climb trees.

Elizabeth turned her attention back to Mrs. Mullins and therefore did not see the startled look upon Darcy’s face. From out of the past, a voice finished her sentence… out of a tree . He looked upon her and realized that it had to be her! Elizabeth had to be the one he shared the carriage ride with two years ago! His mind raced. What did he remember about her and that ride? She told me how she had fallen out of a tree and sprained her ankle. We had a lively discussion about books. She challenged my every thought. I was not able to get her out of my thoughts for months after. I chided myself for never asking her name!

Mrs. Mullins advised that they wrap it tightly and that she avoid walking on it. Darcy stepped out and called a member of the ship’s crew who was passing by to obtain something with which to wrap her foot. Darcy was grateful for the chance to step out of the room. His mind now reeled with the almost complete conviction that Miss Bennet was the very woman who ended up haunting him two years earlier.

He tried desperately to remember any details about that day. Where was she going on to after he departed the carriage? He did not recall. He recollected a man and a woman waiting with her and who gave her assistance as she stepped into the carriage, when he carelessly ploughed into her. Her aunt and uncle . She was on her way now to visit her aunt and uncle in America. All right, but most everyone has an aunt and uncle . He turned to look at her and thought he could simply ask her if she sprained it by falling out of a tree, but that would most likely embarrass her. He was quite sure she did not finish her sentence because she did not want to let on that she had climbed a tree and fallen from it. He did not believe it would do any good to ask her if she remembered him and the carriage ride, as she most likely would not.

The crewman returned with some rolled-up cloths, and Mrs. Mullins began the slow, delicate process of wrapping her foot. Darcy stood back with his hand firmly planted against his jaw, rubbing it briskly as his mind searched the deepest recesses of his brain to try to recall anything more about her. Elizabeth glanced up and noticed a very disconcerted look on his face and she felt he was most irritated and impatient with this interruption.

“I am so sorry. So sorry,” was all she could say. She was convinced he was put out having to assist her, when he must have others things he wanted, or needed, to tend to.

Darcy watched as Mrs. Mullins gingerly wrapped Elizabeth’s ankle with the cloth. It was very evident to him how weak she was. His anger had increased now and he directed it at the ship’s policy, of which he had been unaware, allowing children to be doubled up in beds. He was angry at the conditions in steerage, even though, on the whole, they were better than most other ships. He was angry that he could do nothing about Elizabeth’s situation.

She was very ill and she would not improve unless she was out of steerage. But how to get her out was the question. Where else could she go? There was not one available bed on the ship.

Once her ankle was wrapped, Darcy came over and helped Elizabeth stand up, asking her to try to put some pressure on it. As she stepped down upon it, she winced in pain.

“Miss Bennet, I am afraid you are not going anywhere with your ankle like that for a while.”

“Well I certainly cannot stay here!”

Her liveliness, even when she was feeling as poorly as she was now, humoured him.

“You need not worry about that, Miss Bennet. I shall carry you to the dining area so you can get something to eat. Right now you need to eat for strength.”

Elizabeth tried to protest, but he was correct; she did not have the strength. This time when he picked her up, she was too tired to do anything but relax against him, and as her head fell against his chest, not only could she smell a pleasant scent that came from him, but she could feel his beating heart, which in itself, soothed and comforted her.

As he carried her toward the door, Darcy looked down at her and spoke. “You are not well. I can see that you are not getting enough sleep. Miss Bennet, this can turn quite serious if you do not take care of yourself. You must claim your bed back.”

Elizabeth let out a frail sigh. “Perhaps in a few days. The Rawlings girls are improving.” She took a few shallow breaths before she continued. “But I fear it is not so much for want of a bed, but that I am a light sleeper, and am kept awake more by the sounds of the crowded room than the discomfort of sleeping on the floor.”

“Miss Bennet, certainly there is something you can do.”

“Mr. Darcy, I am unfortunately ill, as are several people in steerage. I just need some fresh air and something to eat.” Her words were almost whispered, and fatigue prompted her to close her eyes.

Darcy looked back into his room and rested his eyes upon the second bed in his room, the only vacant bed in the ship. If ever he had come up with a crazy notion, he had one now. The words of his valet in this very room came back to him. Get a wife for the trip. He looked back at Elizabeth as he closed the door behind them and carried her to the dining area.

There were not many people inside, for which he was grateful. He placed Elizabeth on a bench off by herself and secured for her some hot tea and some hardtack biscuits.

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy watched her as she slowly sipped the tea, but he did not leave. She looked at him curiously. He seemed intent on saying something, but no words were coming.

“Was there something else, Mr. Darcy?”

“Miss Bennet, I… I have a proposition that I would like you to seriously consider.”

Elizabeth raised one eyebrow at him, wondering what it was he was proposing. “What would that be, Mr. Darcy?”

“I… uh… I am concerned about your sleeping conditions…”

“I have told you there is no need for your concern.”

“Since you do not seem to be inclined to ask for your bed back…” He did not seem able to go on.

“Yes?” She lifted her eyes to his face but seemed unable to lift her head.

Darcy sat down on the bench opposite her. “I would like to offer you the spare bed in my room.”

He saw the flash in Elizabeth’s eyes just a moment before he felt the sting across his face.

She would have indignantly stormed off, but was prevented by her sore ankle and the weak state in which she found herself. Darcy reached up to the place on his now stinging cheek she had just slapped. “Perhaps you are not as weak as I believed.”

Elizabeth turned her angry eyes back down to the meagre nourishment in front of her. “Please leave me alone, Mr. Darcy. I beg you, please.”

Darcy took in a deep breath. “Miss Bennet, I ask that you just hear me out. I am not suggesting anything unseemly.” He continued to rub his cheek.

Incredulous, but with extreme fatigue consuming her, Elizabeth turned to him. “And just what are you suggesting then, Mr. Darcy?”

“You need a bed, and I… I have the only spare one on the ship. Obviously it would not do for you to share my room with me as we are not married.”

Elizabeth almost laughed that he seemed to be struggling to articulate something, and she was more curious about hearing him than serious about considering it, whatever it was. She did not say anything, but patiently waited.

“I suggest we have the captain marry us and then there would be no problem with you sleeping in my room… on that bed. It would be strictly a marriage on paper, not a… I would not… it would, of course, be strictly platonic.”

Now Elizabeth did laugh, however weakly. “Mr. Darcy, you are certainly a man of unexpected surprises. If you will excuse me now, sir, I would like to be left alone.”

“Miss Bennet, walking up and down these stairs will be even more dangerous for you now that your ankle has gone out. You are ill and are not sleeping well, which makes you more prone to getting seriously ill down there. Heavens! You are not even sleeping in a bed!”

“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth’s head felt light and she wondered whether she could even express her arguments in an intelligible way. “I appreciate your concern, but what would induce you to make such an offer? What is in it for you, if I dare ask?”

Darcy leaned toward her. “I am tired of being harassed and pursued by the women on this ship. There are times I prefer solitude, and while, granted, most people leave me alone, there is a desperate group of women on this ship who will not. My getting married will bring an end to their disturbing me.”

Elizabeth shook her head, trying desperately to clear the thoughts that were now so foggy. “You want to marry me, so that these ladies, who are solely interested in securing a husband, securing you as a husband, will stop bothering you?”

“That is a correct assessment.” Elizabeth was stunned at how matter-of-factly he spoke.

“Mr. Darcy, I find this a highly foolish idea. What is to become of our marriage after the voyage? A marriage ceremony performed by a sea captain is as valid as one done by a clergyman.”

“I will have it annulled once I return to England.”

At this, Elizabeth was speechless. At her look of shock, Darcy continued. “There will be no problem in annulling it, as the marriage will never be consummated.”

Elizabeth looked down, blushing, as Darcy added, “I am sorry to have to speak frankly, but I want you to be assured, in advance, of what my intentions are… and what they are not.”

“Mr. Darcy, you may think you have an admirable idea that will solve your problems as well as mine, but there is one obstacle you have not considered.”

“What is that?”

“Captain Wendell! My father directly asked him if I could be put under his protection! He will never allow it!”

Darcy leaned in toward Elizabeth and tightly gripped his hands together, asking, “And if he does agree?”

Elizabeth was tiring more and more by the minute, and it was a strain for her to have to argue her point. “He will not, Mr. Darcy. I think we should leave it at that.”

“Miss Bennet, if he agrees to perform the ceremony, will you agree to it?”

Elizabeth struggled to look up at him. She could not make any rhyme or reason of Mr. Darcy’s proposal, nor come up with any argument against it. Finally, in great fatigue and weariness of mind she answered, “Mr. Darcy, if the captain is willing to do such a thing as this, then yes, I will agree.” She turned her attention back to the cup of tea and bread in front of her. “But I assure you, he will not!”

Darcy did not respond, but simply stood up. “Miss Bennet, if you would be so kind as to wait for me here until I return. I am going to speak with the captain immediately!”

Chapter 7

Darcy hurriedly departed to seek out the captain, whilst Elizabeth sat quietly with her hands wrapped around the small tin cup that was holding her hot tea and providing warmth and steadiness to her hands. She felt weaker by the moment and knew she required nourishment to aid in her recuperation from the fever, and needed to stay off her foot to aid in her ankle’s improvement. At the moment, eating was cast aside as her hazy mind struggled to ponder Darcy’s proposal.

She could not entertain any serious notions about it, as she was convinced the captain would refuse. As she pondered the extent of Darcy’s wealth, however, she wondered if the captain would be prone to taking a bribe. Elizabeth shook her head. Darcy would have no reason to bribe the captain to perform a wedding ceremony to a common lady as herself.

If the captain said no— when he said no—Darcy would have to accept it. She would express her appreciation for his concern for her welfare, but would assure him she would manage as well as she could with the rest of the passengers in steerage.

She slowly sipped the tea and began taking small bites of the hardened bread that she softened by dipping in the steaming liquid. Although it was not truly palatable, it was sustenance. She forced herself to partake of it, thinking that if she had a clearer mind at the moment, she would be able to make better sense of what Darcy had just put forward. But try as she might, she could not!

She was torn whether to remain up here savouring the fresh air or to ask for some assistance getting back down to steerage. She knew Darcy would soon be returning from seeing the captain. For some reason she felt anxious about what news he would bring. In the state she was in, she had difficulty discerning whether she was troubled more that the captain might agree to marry them than she was that he might refuse. But neither did she look forward to returning to steerage as yet, so she determined to remain where she was and deal with Mr. Darcy when he came back.

If truth be told, at the moment and under the present circumstances, Darcy’s proposal actually began to sound quite appealing to her. She was surprised to find herself now rationally and practically viewing it as having some merit and see the benefit in it. He reassured her it would be strictly platonic, and she would no longer have to sleep on the floor or breathe in the stale and stifling air in steerage anymore. She would be in a better state to help those who were faring worse than she. She would actually be in a nice, clean, quiet cabin. Most importantly, he would later have the marriage annulled, and no one ever need know. No one.

The alternative was not very appealing. Elizabeth had found each successive day and night in steerage more difficult. Now that she had taken ill herself, she knew it would likely be a lengthy illness without fresh air or sleep.

Elizabeth shook her head. No, she must be feeling the effects of the fever. All the other steerage passengers had to endure the same thing as she! She was not a weak, spoiled little girl who could not endure a little discomfort. No, it was not a good idea, she tried to tell herself, not at all!

***

When Darcy went in search of the captain, his determined strides surprised even him. That he was pursuing such an uncommonly foolish path was highly out of character for him. For every action he took there was usually a methodical line of reasoning behind it. This time was a rare exception.

Each step he took away from Elizabeth was a constant reminder to him of the vast difference in their standing in society. If his family, particularly his aunt, were ever to discover that he had done such a foolish thing, that he had even considered such a thing as to marry a woman like her, his aunt would not hesitate to renounce him and cast him out of the family.

Is this really something I should be even considering? A man of my means and status… He was distracted by his line of argument, reasoning, and questioning when he found himself face-to-face with another Miss whatever. He could not recall her name and had no desire to.

“Mr. Darcy, such a pleasant day it is. Would you not agree?”

This is why I am doing it! The women assaulting him day in and day out when all he wanted was to be left alone. They would never learn that he was in no humour on this voyage to entertain thoughts of reciprocating their interest.

“It is a very nice day, and as such, I unfortunately must take my leave and discuss something with the captain!”

He quickly strode off, leaving Miss whatever disappointed and at a loss for words.

He thought of Elizabeth. She seemed to have a gift for knowing when to speak and when to be silent around him. He felt as comfortable in their silence as deeply as he felt invigorated by their intelligent dialogue. For these other women, any pause in the conversation prompted them to fill it up with nonsense and idle chat, none of which was satisfying to him in the least.

Darcy made his way to the captain’s cabin and paused. He thought back to the woman he met two years ago in the carriage—the woman he was fairly certain was Elizabeth. Could it be that the real reason he asked Miss Bennet to marry him was because he did not want her to get away again? Darcy closed his eyes and rolled his head back. I cannot think like that! This is solely for her benefit now, and I cannot allow myself to dwell on any future possibilities, because there can never be any!

Darcy knocked sharply on the captain’s door, hoping he would find him there. A wave of nervousness began to roil up inside of him.

“Come,” a voice from inside called out.

Darcy slowly opened the door and peered in, finding the captain entering some notations in his log book. When he saw that it was Darcy, he pursed his lips together as if fighting off the urge to make some comment.

“Good day, Captain. Do you have a moment?”

“For you, Darcy, of course. Come in.”

Darcy walked in and the captain waved for him to sit down. Darcy obliged, but never really settled into the chair, constantly adjusting himself in it and nervously tapping his fingers on the armrest.

It was apparent to the captain that Darcy was obviously distressed or nervous about something. “What is it now?” Wendell asked, folding his hands firmly in front of him on the desk.

“I have a small favour to ask of you, Wendell.”

“Is the food not to your liking? Are you beginning to tire of the hardtack bread and dried meat? Are they not up to your expectations? Or perhaps you would prefer a more varied array of entertainments onboard?”

Darcy looked down at his hands that he now gripped together and held firmly in his lap. “No, sir. It is a rather odd, personal request.”

“Pray, continue.”

Darcy took in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then slowly let it out. “I would like you to perform a marriage ceremony.”

The captain’s eyes widened, then immediately narrowed. “Between who?”

Darcy leaned forward and spoke with forced decisiveness. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet and myself, sir.”

The captain remained gravely silent, gathering his thoughts and wondering what had prompted this man to make such a preposterous request. Finally he stood; his towering presence over the seated Darcy intended to make an impression.

“Darcy, I have only been approached with this particular request but a few times. I have presided over a couple of weddings in my years as captain. But being as how Miss Bennet was especially put under my protection by her father, it is very unlikely that I will agree to it.”

“Captain Wendell, are you refusing me?”

“Are you asking me as a passenger or as the owner of this ship?”

Darcy placed his hands on the armrest and pushed himself up, now looking directly in the captain’s eyes. “I am asking you to trust me, to vouch for my character, have confidence in my reasons behind this, and agree to marry us.”

The captain’s brow furrowed. “I have known you for many years, Darcy. I have always thought highly of your character. This is foolish; your family would disown you for marrying a woman from her class, and besides, I can hardly believe that she would agree. She barely knows you, and from what I have seen of her, she is not the type to latch onto a man solely based on his wealth.”

The captain watched Darcy’s face as he asked, “What exactly has prompted you to such an inclination as to marry Miss Bennet? Do you find yourself suddenly longing for a woman’s company?”

“On the contrary, Captain. This marriage is strictly to allow her the opportunity to get out of steerage and the propriety to sleep in the extra bed in my room so she may regain her health back. You must have heard yourself how she has been helping out passengers down in steerage who have taken ill themselves… to the point of endangering her own health. She gave up her bed, has now become ill herself, and just now she turned her ankle. Taking those stairs up and down will only aggravate it. She cannot remain down there, and this is the only solution! You, yourself, said there was no other bed available.”

The captain firmly placed his hands behind his back, tilted his head down, and began pacing around the room. “And Darcy, what is in this for you?” His question sounded grave.

“Captain, I swear upon my dead father’s grave that I have no ulterior motive. I give you my word that I will not lay a hand on her. You know, sir, that I do not give my word unless I am willing to keep it. She gets the chance to improve her situation while onboard this ship, and I…”

The captain looked up. “And you?”

Darcy felt somewhat sheepish now, but confided to the captain, “Being married will bring a stop to all the ladies on this ship who have been plaguing me with their unwanted attention!”

The captain forced a laugh, feeling very little humour in the situation. “Your dilemma is heavy indeed. And what is to happen after the voyage, Darcy? Are you determined to go through life married to a woman you do not love, whom you have vowed you will never touch?”

“My plan is to have it annulled once I return to England.”

The captain stopped pacing and turned to look at Darcy. “Are you now?” He rubbed his chin vigorously as he wondered whether this was truly an act of compassion on his part. “And what do you really know of Miss Bennet? How do you know she will not come after you for your money once she is legally married to you, even attempt to stop the annulment?”

Darcy looked at the captain. “I do not believe she would.”

“Neither do I,” admitted the captain. “But I still do not like this. I assume you have spoken to her on this subject?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And she is willing to marry you solely for propriety’s sake so that she can avail herself of the empty bed in your cabin only to have this holy union later annulled?”

“Yes, she is willing if you agree to perform the ceremony.” His hand clenched in reaction to this minor stretching of the truth a bit, something he disliked doing immensely.

“Again, Darcy, I ask, is this request of yours being made as a passenger or as the owner of this ship? As the man whose ultimate authority I am under?”

“Whichever it takes to get you to agree.”

The captain went back to his desk and sat down. “When do you wish to have this ceremony performed?”

Darcy let out a breath as he realized the captain was leaning toward agreeing, however sceptical of it he was. “As soon as possible. What do I need to do?”

The captain opened his desk drawer and pulled out some papers. “Fill these out. You both need to sign them, and then bring them to me when you return with Miss Bennet. We can begin as soon as you like.”

Darcy grabbed the papers. “Thank you, Captain. She is waiting in the dining area. I shall return with her promptly.”

The captain only nodded, as he could scarcely believe what had just transpired in his cabin, let alone understand it. He wondered what had ever prompted him to agree to perform such a ceremony, and what had ever gotten into the Master of Pemberley even to conceive of such a course of action!

***

When Darcy returned to the dining area, he found Elizabeth making a concerted effort to talk with some passengers who had gathered around her, inquiring about her ankle and her illness. She still looked tired, and he hoped the other passengers were not causing her too much exertion. As she turned her head and saw Darcy walk in, her heart made a barely noticeable leap, especially when she saw the papers he carried in his hand.

Darcy walked toward her and apologized to those she was conversing with, asking that they forgive him, but he needed to speak with Miss Bennet alone. They gave Elizabeth some reassurances about her health before leaving, turned a curious eye to Darcy, and then departed.

Darcy took a seat across from her. “The captain has said all that is required is for us to sign these.”

Elizabeth took in a slight gasp of air and felt her body shudder as he spoke the words she had assumed she would not hear. Obviously the captain was willing to perform the wedding! She could not look at him, but looked down, eyeing the very formal-looking papers that he spread out in front of her. Words refused to come, and she could not formulate one thought to press her argument against doing this.

Darcy had secured a pen and some ink, and pushed them toward Elizabeth. “The captain is willing to do this, Miss Bennet.”

She looked up at him with weariness flooding her surprised eyes. “As are you?”

He nodded. “It will benefit us both, but primarily yourself.”

“And you will have it annulled once you return to England?”

“Your family and friends need never know. And you will certainly never see any of the other passengers on this ship again, as they will be staying in America. As far as they know, we fell in love on the ship and decided to marry.”

“We hardly have looked like a couple in love, Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy cocked his head. “Who is to say what love looks like, Miss Bennet?”

Elizabeth looked up and met his gaze. She felt as though she was simply entering a business transaction with someone, and yet there was something in his eyes now that had not been there before. She also felt there was a stronger beating of her own heart that she could not ascribe to anything. She took another deep breath as she pondered this man. She wondered if he had ever been in love. Had there ever been a woman who lived up to his impeccable standards?

Darcy’s attention was directed toward the papers. “You sign here.” He gently nudged the pen into her hand while she studied the paper. She looked up at him one last time before signing “Elizabeth Julianne Bennet” and “Hertfordshire” for residence. She slowly pushed the papers toward Darcy.

“Now what?”

Darcy signed his name. “Now we go to the captain.”

“You mean we are to do this at once?” A sense of panic began to rise up within her.

Darcy nodded. “Tonight, Miss Bennet, for the first time on this ship, you will get a good night’s sleep.”

He stood up, came around, and picked her up again. “Shall we go to our wedding?” A reassuring smile swept across his face but quickly disappeared as he looked at the concern on Elizabeth’s.

As he picked her up, he was even more aware of how weak she was, and suddenly wondered if she would look back on this with regret when her mind was free from the effects of the fever. Would she harbour resentment against him for pressing her for a decision when she was feeling so poorly?

When he picked her up and began to carry her, her heart pounded even more fiercely. She was not sure whether the warmth she felt was a result of fever or being held so securely by him. But she knew it was not the fever, but the feel of his arms around her that prevented any rational thought or objection to this course of action to penetrate her mind.

***

The captain was still in his room when Darcy arrived carrying Elizabeth. He was surprised, yet not, to see him return so promptly. He had always known Darcy to be a man to accomplish quickly what he set his mind to do. Usually it was based on sound reason and judgment. He believed his reasoning on this particular occasion was based on something other than rational thinking. Perhaps it was emotion, but that was something which he rarely saw in Darcy, who prided himself on always remaining in control. Although Darcy was trying to appear level-headed, there was something else that was prompting this decision, and Wendell could not quite place what it was.

Could it be love? He could not determine it one way or another, but for some reason, he chose not to fight Darcy about his determination to pursue this course of action. Perhaps it was his own fondness for Miss Bennet and the fact that he saw something between the two of them that neither of them had yet realized was there.

“Darcy, come in. Good day, Miss Bennet. I understand you have not been feeling well and that you turned your ankle today.”

“Yes, Captain, but it is nothing. It shall be back to normal in no time,” she replied weakly.

The captain motioned for them to sit down. Darcy placed Elizabeth in the chair and he stood behind her.

“Miss Bennet, I understand that Mr. Darcy has made a rather peculiar request in this offer of marriage to you.”

“Yes, sir. I realize it must appear odd, but I think we are both of like minds that it will benefit us to pursue this course of action.”

Darcy raised his eyebrows as he heard Elizabeth’s words, which now sounded very much in favour of proceeding with the marriage. Elizabeth, herself, was surprised at how easily they flowed out of her mouth.

“Hmmm,” murmured the captain. “I would wish you to take under advisement to consider all the ramifications of such a marriage before I proceed.”

“I have, sir,” Elizabeth said softly.

“As have I, Captain,” added Darcy quickly.

“Well, then. Let us proceed.” The captain rang a bell and his first mate entered. “Webber, here, shall be witness. Normally I have the bride and groom stand, but in your case, Miss Bennet, seeing as how you are quite unwell, I shall allow you to remain seated.”

The captain looked up at Darcy and raised his eyebrows, as if giving him one last chance to change his mind.

“You may proceed, Captain.”

“Do you have any kind of a ring?”

Darcy suddenly frowned, not having thought of it.

Elizabeth lifted up her hand. “I have this ring I usually wear on my other hand. We can use it.”

She took it off her one finger and handed it to Darcy, who looked down and saw a small ruby stone set in a gold band. He held it in his hand until it was time to place it on her wedding ring finger.

The ceremony was simple. The vows were spoken with little attempt to disguise the fact that they were going to be nullified once Darcy returned to England. When they were pronounced husband and wife, Darcy simply reached for Elizabeth’s hand and placed a kiss on the back of it.

“Congratulations. You are now married.” The lack of enthusiasm in the captain’s voice was recognized by all in the room, and Elizabeth swallowed hard as she contemplated what this would now mean.

The captain excused the first mate, and the three were left with feelings of awkwardness. “What do we do now?” asked Elizabeth.

The captain looked at the two of them. “If this were a real marriage, you would not have to ask me that question. As it is, we must get word out before rumours begin circulating, especially if you return to his room now. I suggest we make an announcement to those in the dining area later this afternoon.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Darcy shook his hand but felt a twinge of guilt that he had pressured the captain into doing something that had gone against his conscience because Darcy owned this ship. He was not proud of the fact and hoped Elizabeth would not find out.

“What about my things?” asked Elizabeth weakly.

“I could send someone to collect them,” Darcy offered.

“I should like to retrieve them myself, if you do not mind. I should like to tell Mrs. Rawlings and her daughters myself… about our… our… marriage.”

“I shall take you down after you have had some rest and a good meal.”

“Very good. I have done all that I needed to do,” the captain said austerely. “I shall see you both later.”

Darcy picked Elizabeth up and walked out the door. Elizabeth hoped that no one would see her being carried to his room, and she was grateful when they were able to make it there and inside without encountering anyone. It helped that Darcy’s room and the captain’s were up toward the front of the ship away from most of the other rooms. She felt awkward this time, being carried into his room and hearing the reverberating sound as the door closed behind them.

He set her down on the bench again, inquiring how she was feeling.

“Tired. I think I should like to sleep, if I may.”

Darcy nodded. “I have done some thinking about the arrangements in here. I will hang up a sheet across your bed so you can have some privacy and separation from my side of the room at night. Of course we will remove it during the day so if anyone notices it, they will not become suspicious as to why it is there.”

“That is very considerate of you, sir.”

“It is nothing, Miss Benn…”

Darcy stopped and looked at Elizabeth. “I cannot call you Miss Bennet now, can I?”

Elizabeth looked down; neither of them had contemplated this.

“What would you have me call you: Mrs. Darcy or Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth flinched slightly as she pondered what each would mean. Mrs. Darcy sounded so official, so legal, and so wifely. Yet Elizabeth sounded so intimate, so familiar. Her hand was nervously drawn to the small necklace she wore around her neck as she pondered an answer. She fingered it momentarily and finally answered, “Elizabeth, please.”

“Very well, Elizabeth.” He walked over and easily picked her up, carrying her over to her bed and placing her upon it. Exhausted from fatigue and illness, Elizabeth practically fell across the bed, laying her head upon the pillow and bringing her legs up on the thick, soft bed.

For a few moments Darcy let his eyes rest upon her pleasant, reclining figure before sternly admonishing himself about what that kind of indulgence might lead to. Without allowing his eyes to linger any longer, he reached for the coverlet and pulled it up over her. He suddenly realized how difficult this arrangement might end up being for him.

“I shall leave you to rest now.” His words were spoken most reluctantly.

As she heard him walk slowly toward the door and open it, she opened her eyes and quietly asked, “And what shall you have me call you?”

Darcy stopped in his movement and turned back to her. “My given name is Fitzwilliam, but I should prefer that you call me William.”

Elizabeth nodded as he turned to leave.

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy.” He looked back at her, shook his head, and walked out. She closed her eyes, plumping up the pillow underneath her head, and fell into a deep sleep that she had not had the pleasure of having for almost a week now.

Chapter 8

When Darcy returned somewhat later, he was not surprised to find Elizabeth in a sound sleep. Not wanting to disturb her, fully aware that she needed as much rest as she could get, he quietly laid out the tea and an assorted array of foods that he had secured from the captain’s private supply. At times like this, there was an advantage to being the ship’s owner, and he did not have to twist the captain’s arm too severely to get what he desired.

He turned toward her and stood silently observing her, intrigued by the calm demeanour that had spread over her face in sleep, captivated by the few long, dark tresses that had escaped from her pinned-up hair, but greatly disturbed about the pallor that was taking hold of her features. He fought the temptation to reach over and gently run his fingers through her hair or stroke her cheek, compelling himself to turn away instead. He could not allow himself the liberty to dwell on things that could not be.

Sitting down on the bench at the table in his room, he absently picked up the book he had been reading. He opened it to the page he was on, but found his attention reverting back to the sleeping form in the bed on the other side of the room. He had always found time to read, enjoyed reading, and looked for any excuse to read, but at the moment he was easily finding a justification not to read.

He finally gave up and closed the book, setting his mind to trying to recall more about the carriage ride two years ago and the young lady who shared it with him. While he was fairly certain it was her, he tried to think of other things he remembered about her from that day.

Vigorously rubbing his chin, as though that would help facilitate his memory, he did vividly recall that he had been impressed with her knowledge of the books she had read and they had shared a lively discussion about many of them. He remembered afterwards crediting her as being an accomplished woman who sought the improvement of her mind by extensive reading. She had been willing to express a difference of opinion and even argue with him about some aspects of literature and his opinion of them. That was certainly descriptive of the lady asleep in his room.

He furrowed his brow as he tried to recall any part of the conversation they shared. What else could there have been that would enlighten him as to whether or not it was her? He recollected that she had dark, sparkling, fine eyes, as did Elizabeth. She had sprained her ankle falling from a tree that she had climbed… she had to walk home injured… she loved walking! Yes, that would be true of Elizabeth.

Suddenly he remembered a vague discussion they had about horses. She had told him that she preferred walking to riding a horse and sometimes even to riding in a carriage. Darcy smiled. That should be easy enough to discover without raising suspicion. He would wait for the right opportunity and then work it into his conversation. If he found that to be true of Elizabeth, he would be certain it was her!

Darcy stood up and walked over to the small port window. He looked out at the vast sea that surrounded them and realized that it had been days since his thoughts had turned to Georgiana and the sole reason for his coming on this voyage. He had boarded this ship with her retrieval being first and foremost on his mind, and having to cross the ocean to fetch her was something that had originally caused him great consternation.

He had come aboard with a very poor disposition, to the point of being irritated with his fellow passengers even before becoming acquainted with them. He felt anger toward Mrs. Annesley and his cousin Fitzwilliam for their persistent and persuasive arguments to allow Georgiana to go to America in the first place. He had not looked forward one bit to the crossing and had it settled in his mind from the first that he would not enjoy the voyage at all.

Added to all this was that upon boarding the ship, he still reeled from the recent blow of Georgiana’s close call with that deceitful, scheming George Wickham. These past few months had been taxing on his ability to handle the things life dropped in his lap, had affected his decision-making ability, and altered the way he had begun to look at life.

Certainly he had boarded the ship angry at the very people with whom he was having to make this journey. He cringed with shame as he recalled the comment he made to the captain that first day, and he still wondered whether Elizabeth had overheard him.

He turned to look at her. Somehow she had made him forget all his anger, frustrations, and even some of his resentment.

He left the window and looked around the small room that they now shared. Once her health improved and she could think more clearly, would she feel comfortable spending the rest of the trip in the confines of this cabin with him? Would she continue to trust him or would she harbour suspicions that he had ulterior motives in proposing this arrangement? Would she have second thoughts and regret her decision?

Darcy let out the breath he had been holding. It would be too late for second thoughts. The captain had married them, and they were now husband and wife—at least until he had the marriage annulled back in England. It may have been something he had done with very little rational thought behind it, but he believed he had done it with her best interest in mind.

Knowing he would be unable to simply sit still and wait for her to awaken, he began to pace nervously around the room, going to the window and looking out, walking the short distance over to Elizabeth, and then back to the window.

Darcy’s movements eventually awakened Elizabeth. She opened her eyes, aroused from the deepest sleep she had enjoyed in close to a week, and took a moment to get her bearings. Darcy was standing with his back toward her, as he stood at the window, and she was able to watch him for a few moments before he turned and saw that she had wakened.

“Good afternoon, Elizabeth. Did you sleep well?”

Feeling a little self-conscious lying in the bed, she struggled against her weakness to pull herself up. “Yes, Mr. Darcy, thank you.”

Darcy ignored her persistence to acknowledge him formally.

“I brought you some tea and something to eat, as well. I think it would be best for you to eat something first before we go to the dining room. It would be wise not to spend too much time with anyone until we know that you are improved. Try to eat and drink a little, and then we will go up and join the captain for the announcement.”

The announcement. He spoke those words devoid of any emotion. She could certainly comprehend his feeling, or lack of feeling about this whole arrangement. But at the moment, although she greatly enjoyed the welcomed sleep, she was hard-pressed to know exactly what her feelings were regarding this marriage. She still felt the assault against her body from illness and lack of sleep, and she could barely conjure up a reasonable sentence, let alone discern her thoughts at the moment.

Elizabeth brought her feet around to the floor, quite convinced that she looked as poorly as she felt. But she had slept soundly, and for that she was grateful.

Darcy walked over to her. “Here, let me help you over to the table.”

As he reached out his hand to her, her initial response was that she could do it herself, but due to her ankle’s continued tenderness and her unsteadiness upon sitting up, she accepted his offer. He pulled her up and slipped his arm underneath hers, supporting her body as she used one foot to propel herself along. Surprisingly, she felt a strength from him that seemed to boost her energy even more.

He set her down at the table and she looked down at the plate of food in front of her. Instead of the normal fare of dried, hard, unpalatable food, she found a very pleasing array of some fresh fruit and chicken.

“This looks delicious.” Her appreciation was apparent, but subdued. “Is this what everyone is having this evening?” She dabbed a little at the food, unwilling to pass it up, but suffering from an untimely lack of appetite.

“Not exactly. This is something special from the captain’s cupboard. He had some fruit that was still good, however very little, and there is a pen of chickens onboard that he gets eggs and an occasional chicken meal from.”

Elizabeth looked up at him curiously, wondering what he had to pay the captain for him to turn over some of this delectable fare.

“Thank you.” As Elizabeth took some small bites, she wondered how often he himself had been privy to these kinds of meals all along.

“If you would like, I shall leave you to finish eating and then you can tidy yourself up before going to the dining area. Is there anything I can get for you before I leave?”

“No. Unfortunately all my things are still in steerage.”

“Help yourself to anything of mine that you require.” He pointed to a dresser full of items. “The captain will join us to make the announcement in the dining area. We shall linger but a short time to allow you to speak briefly with your acquaintances. We shall then retrieve your things from steerage. You must not exert yourself.”

Elizabeth merely nodded in weak acquiescence. She had a difficult time fully comprehending all that Darcy had just said, but knew that he was resolutely laying things out the way he expected them to be. She realized if she had a morsel more of strength and even a remote ability to think more attentively, she would have been inclined to challenge these dictates he was giving.

Darcy left the room and the first thing Elizabeth did was to take her unused napkin and hide the remaining morsels of food into it, slipping the napkin into the pocket of her dress. She would take it down to her friends in steerage.

She hobbled over to the dresser, propelling herself along with her arms braced on the tabletop and dresser top, putting as little pressure on her injured foot as she was able. She sat down in front of the mirror and for a few moments silently looked at her reflection. Elizabeth weakly picked up a brush and combed out her hair, pulling the dark, thick locks back on top of her head. She reflected back on how uncomplicated and unemotional their conversation had been. He talked as if he were discussing with her the details of a business arrangement. She sighed as she looked at her weakened, pale reflection in the mirror. Perhaps he was.

When she had finished, she called out and Darcy stepped back into the room. He looked over at the empty plate on the table, wondering how she could have eaten it all so quickly, but said nothing. “Are you ready to go to the dining room?”

“We might as well get it over with,” Elizabeth replied, suddenly feeling very uneasy. She wondered what the reaction would be from those with whom she had formed acquaintances.

Darcy’s jaw tightened at her response, speculating whether now, after having had a good sleep, she regretted what they had done.

He walked over to her and his arms easily scooped her up. She made every attempt to view being held in his arms as strictly a necessity born out of her clumsy stumble earlier in the day. She had begun to feel an unanticipated warmth and appreciation toward him, however, that in her condition, she could not dwell on.

They proceeded to the dining room, which was already crowded with people. As Darcy walked in carrying Elizabeth, a sudden quietness fell over the room, followed immediately by whispering and rising speculations.

The captain quickly walked up to join them and raised his arms to silence everyone. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement I wish to make. Today, as captain of this ship, it was my privilege and honour to unite Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet in holy matrimony. I am honoured to present Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.”

A very audible buzzing was heard as people came around to bestow upon them surprised, but sincere, best wishes. Darcy accepted their words of congratulations with a simple nod of the head and “thank you.” He watched as Elizabeth received their attentions warmly, and she graciously offered back words of encouragement herself, despite her weak and fragile state.

Not everyone was inclined to approach; some from simply a lack of introduction to either of them. A certain handful of ladies sat rather stupefied that this singularly common woman had somehow snatched the one man onboard they deemed most eligible and desirable. They thought it was incomprehensible!

Darcy carried Elizabeth to a table and set her down, whispering to her as firmly as he could that they would only remain for a few minutes because of her health. They accepted continued words of congratulations from their well-wishers and soon were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, who had made Darcy’s acquaintance earlier, but not Elizabeth’s.

Mr. and Mrs. Jennings expressed their congratulations to the newly married couple.

Mrs. Jennings looked at the two and asked, “What a surprise this is! How long have the two of you known each other?”

Darcy replied, “We met only upon coming onboard the ship.”

“So the two of you just met? You did not know each other before?” Mr. Jennings asked incredulously.

“That is correct,” Darcy replied.

He could tell by Jennings’s look that this did not bode well with him. Knowing his tendency to speak his mind without giving thought to what he said or how he said it, Darcy was quite surprised when he simply raised an eyebrow in a manner indicative of inner speculation and silently nodded.

The Jenningses soon left, and after spending what Darcy considered a reasonable amount of time allowing Elizabeth the chance to visit, but not so much time that she would become too wearied, he offered up an apology that they must leave and reached down to lift her up again.

“Come, Elizabeth. Let us go down and get your things.”

He carried Elizabeth quickly down to steerage, very much aware that she was becoming weaker and weaker. He took the three flights of stairs easily and agilely. Bringing her in, and per her direction, he brought her over to where Mrs. Rawlings and her girls were. He set her down and she sat toward the foot of the woman’s bed. She was glad to see that Pauline and Penelope had improved and Mrs. Rawlings seemed a little bit more on her way to recovery. Darcy had agreed to step out until she had broken the news to her.

“I have something I need to tell you, Lenore.”

“Oh, Elizabeth, I understand you hurt your ankle today. You must want your bed back,” Mrs. Rawlings contritely said. “I have been expecting that. You have been unwell yourself. It would be very wrong of me to insist on keeping it.” She began to pull the blankets off of herself, but Elizabeth stopped her.

“No, no, Lenore. You stay right where you are.” Elizabeth found herself at a loss to explain what had transpired that day. “Lenore…” Elizabeth looked down at her hands that she was rubbing nervously together. “Today I was…” She paused, almost afraid to say the words. “Today I was… married, and I shall no longer be travelling in steerage but in the room with my… with my… husband.” Her heart tightened when she softly uttered those words, as suddenly a more acute awareness of what she had done, the vows she had taken, swept over her.

She looked into Mrs. Rawlings’s face and knew she needed to explain. “Lenore, today Mr. Darcy and I were married. I wanted to come down and tell you myself when I came to get my things.”

Mrs. Rawlings’s face showed a great deal of surprise. “Mr. Darcy? When did you meet him? How did this happen?”

“I actually met him the first day on the ship.” She had not quite met him then, but rather bumped into him. There was no need to go further into that.

Mrs. Rawlings reached out for Elizabeth’s hand. “Please forgive me, Elizabeth, but can you really know a man in such a short time?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Do not worry, Lenore, he is a fine man.” She felt awkward discussing this and greatly desired to change the subject. She reached into her large pocket and withdrew the napkin. “Here, I brought you something from my dinner.”

Mrs. Rawlings looked with amazement as Elizabeth slowly opened the napkin. Her eyes widened as she recognized the delectable array before her not just by sight but also by the pleasant aroma.

“Elizabeth! How did you come upon such fare?”

“That does not matter. I just want you and your daughters to enjoy something that might make you feel a little better and help you get your strength back.”

“You are too kind, Elizabeth. That husband of yours got for himself a mighty fine lady!”

“That was him who brought me in. He is outside the door, waiting to retrieve my things. May I ask him in and introduce you?”

“Yes, please, I should like to meet him.”

Elizabeth called for Darcy. That he was feeling the uncomfortable effects of steerage was very noticeable. Its stifling air and putrid odours began to take a toll on him.

He walked back in and Elizabeth introduced him to Mrs. Rawlings and the girls. “It is a pleasure, Mrs. Rawlings. Elizabeth speaks highly of you.”

“Thank you, sir. You have chosen well, Mr. Darcy. There is none finer than Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth blushed, grateful for the darkness of the room. She quickly pointed out to Darcy where her things were, and he picked them up, helping her put them in her duffel. “I shall take these to our room and return for you shortly.”

He turned to leave, and Elizabeth turned her attentions back to Mrs. Rawlings. “Oh, Elizabeth, he is indeed a fine-looking man. When did all this happen?”

Elizabeth knew she could not lie to her friend, but she did not have to tell her the whole truth. “We became acquainted on early morning walks together. He and I both arose at sunrise and found we enjoyed many similar things.” Elizabeth marvelled at how easily those words came.

Mrs. Rawlings nodded, still at a loss to understand this, but very happy for her friend.

Elizabeth played with Pauline and Penelope, who were well enough to have some energy, but still not well enough to venture up. They eagerly partook of the delicious offering that Elizabeth had brought down.

Before Darcy returned, Elizabeth carefully hobbled over to Mrs. Trimble, finding she could put a little more pressure on her ankle without too much discomfort. Mrs. Trimble was very pale and weak, but it was apparent that she was more than grateful for Elizabeth’s visit.

Elizabeth sat down with her, giving her a portion of the food she had set aside. As she watched the woman take only small bites and eat meagrely, she wished she could pass on some other morsel of strength to her. She was concerned about her appearance; she looked almost as if she was giving up the fight to get well. If she could barely eat the tasty supply of food Elizabeth brought her, she certainly would not be able to eat the food the rest of the passengers were getting.

Elizabeth remained with her for just a short while, and then returned to Mrs. Rawlings until Darcy came back down.

“I shall visit you tomorrow, Lenore.”

Mrs. Rawlings put up her hand. “Now Elizabeth, you are just married. You need to be with your husband and not worry about us! Besides, I can see that you are still not well. We are doing just fine!”

Elizabeth shook her head and smiled. “If I can, I shall see you tomorrow!”

Elizabeth stood up as Darcy came over to her. He assisted her in walking to the door and out. He began to reach down to lift her up, but she stopped him. “I can walk on my own now, thank you.”

Darcy paused, taken aback by Elizabeth’s stubbornness, but only for a brief moment. “Not when there are three flights of stairs and I am around to carry you!” He spoke his words and lifted her up with such authority that she tensed with anger.

“Put me down, please! I can walk on my own!”

“Elizabeth, do not be a fool! It has been only a few hours since you turned your ankle and you are still unwell! Just relax and let me carry you.”

Elizabeth had not the strength to fight him. This evening had taken its toll on her, but deep down inside she knew he was right. Being carried in his arms was affecting her in quite a different way, and she was disconcerted to find there was something stirring within her as he carried her through the now darkened ship to his room—now their room.

Darcy sensed Elizabeth’s fighting spirit doing battle with her diminishing energy. “Just relax, Elizabeth. You are tired. Rest your head against my shoulder.”

Elizabeth felt that relaxing was the last thing she could allow herself to do. She feared what might happen if she relaxed in his arms. She kept herself rigid and tense, purposely avoiding that which she knew she needed and wanted—to lose herself in the arms of the man who was now her husband, because she knew he would only be her husband for a very short time.

When they reached their room and entered it, Darcy set her down on the bench at the table, still silently angry with her for her stubbornness. Elizabeth noticed that he had put the sheet up across her bed. He must have done that when he brought her things back to the room earlier.

“Elizabeth, in the morning, I shall rise first, get myself ready, and then leave. That will give you the opportunity to come out from behind the sheet, and do what you need to do in privacy. As long as you are still unwell, I expect you to get as much sleep as you can. When you are feeling improved, then you can join me up on deck for our morning walk. Only when you are completely well, only then, will I allow you to go back down to steerage to help out those who are ill. Not one moment sooner!”

Her eyes widened as she listened to his orders, spoken in a severely authoritative tone, of how things would be! How things must be! Her mouth opened to respond with a vehemence of words unleashed, but was halted by her lack of strength and his continued commands.

“You must now get yourself ready for bed, so I shall leave you to it. You have had an exerting afternoon. I shall return later and expect to find you asleep.”

“Yes, Captain!” Elizabeth gave him a mock salute.

Darcy looked at her, his eyes darkening. “Elizabeth, this is for your own good.”

He stood silently watching her, very aware that if she had the strength she would have had much more to say to him on the subject. Instead she simply replied, “Yes, Mr. Darcy, I am sure it is.”

She lifted her eyes to watch him walk out the door as it slammed behind him. He did not enjoy being so forceful with her, but he needed to set up boundaries for her sake as well as his own. The sheet was a safeguard against what could be the greatest temptation he had ever faced. The sheet itself would not be enough to hold him back, but it would be a reminder to him of his resolution and his assurances to Elizabeth.

He was impatient to get out on deck, to breathe in the fresh night air after having been down in steerage. He wondered how anyone could endure that for a month. He came up and filled his lungs to capacity with the cool air and let it out slowly.

He was also anxious to get outside, where he could better clear his thoughts about the woman in his cabin. Two years ago he had looked back at the carriage conveying her away, annoyed at himself for not thinking to ask her name, while at the same time berating himself for becoming so captivated by a woman so decidedly beneath him. It had not been easy to remove her from his thoughts. Several months following that carriage ride he still found himself thinking of her.

Whenever he made a trip to Town, he looked for her, hoping he might encounter her there. He held her up as a standard to every woman he met, and found that they all lacked something he had found so appealing in her. But the memory of her gradually faded… he had almost completely forgotten about her… until meeting her on his ship!

He walked over to the ship’s railing and rested his elbows upon it, clasping his hands together. He looked out at the vast sea of blue surrounding him and took in a deep breath. Elizabeth was truly a remarkable and attractive woman in all aspects of her person, and he was honestly concerned for her health. He just had to remember that this marriage was solely to get her out of steerage to allow her a better chance to improve her well-being. He could never seriously consider a real marriage to a woman who was not at least of equal birth and connections as himself, to a woman whose family was not in the first circles of society and had little or no fortune.

He shook his head. Apart from that, however, she was the type of woman who stimulated him, who entertained and challenged him at the same time. She brought out something in him that very few other women did. She had a vivacious personality, something that he lacked, being more often than not quiet and reserved. She had an engaging nature that actually drew him out of his fastidious shell without her even making a decided effort to do so. This was very unlike so many other women who, in making the same exerted effort, actually drove him deeper inside himself and further away.

But then she can certainly be obstinate! It was very apparent to him that she disliked the fact that he was taking charge. Perhaps we have gotten off to a bad start; no doubt due to her feeling unwell and the awkwardness of the situation. Things will improve. I certainly hope they do.

***

Back in the room, Elizabeth looked at the duffel containing all her things. She would have preferred to put everything away before retiring, but she was fatigued from the exertion of the evening. She felt completely unable to attempt anything of that sort now, and although she had enjoyed a good rest earlier, she felt sleep strongly beckoning her again.

She quickly put on her nightdress, modestly covering it with her robe, ever conscious that Darcy could walk in through the door at any moment. Although he said he would return later, she was fully aware that this was his room and he had every right to return to it whenever he desired.

She let down her hair, grateful for the weight of it now set free, and brushed through it a few times. Just the exertion of the few strokes of the brush tired her even more, and she resigned herself to the fact that all she cared to do right now was crawl into the bed and lose herself to a night of deep slumber.

She pulled aside the sheet that Darcy had hung and climbed into her bed, taking off her robe once the sheet fell back down into place. She eagerly crawled under the blankets. This time, as she lay her head down, she did not succumb to sleep right away, as she had done before. She was able to truly appreciate the comfort of a real bed, its soft mattress beneath her. She breathed in the fresh air, very unlike that which had been in steerage. As she looked over at the sheet that would act as a barrier between her and the man who was now her husband, she actually felt a sense of gratefulness for the thought he had put into this. That was the last thought that passed through her mind as sleep stole upon her.

Darcy later returned, quietly moving about the room readying himself for sleep.

He crawled into his bed and lay down, his eyes wide open at the knowledge that Elizabeth was asleep in the other bed. He lay awake, listening to the sound of her deep, steady breathing, savouring a very faint scent of lavender that must have been the lingering essence of perfumed toilet water. Even though the room was bathed in complete darkness once he extinguished the oil lamp, he found himself glancing over to where she slept. He did not have to see her with his eyes, for he had a very detailed image of her in his mind that would not go away.

Elizabeth slept soundly, barely moving a muscle as her body tried to make up for her lack of sleep and discomfort the past week on the ship. For the first time since coming onboard his ship, Fitzwilliam Darcy slept very poorly.

Chapter 9

Instead of improving in the comfort of Darcy’s cabin, Elizabeth seemed to grow steadily worse those first few days. She was barely able to get herself out of bed, her fever climbing dangerously high. To aid in her recovery, Darcy secured whatever remedies he could acquire from the ship’s cook, who was the only expert onboard pertaining to these illnesses.

He also enlisted the help of Mrs. Jennings to give assistance to Elizabeth where he believed it would be more prudent for a woman to aid her. She came to the room several times a day, helping Elizabeth out of bed, taking her to the necessary room, encouraging her to eat and drink, and securing her back into bed. Darcy needed only to remember to remove the sheet first thing in the morning so she would not have any questioning suspicions as to the nature of their marital arrangement.

Mrs. Rawlings, for the first time since boarding the ship, was eventually well enough to come up out of steerage and repaid Elizabeth’s compassion with some of her own. The two women eagerly and graciously helped Darcy out with his wife’s care. Elizabeth slept a lot, said very little, was growing increasingly pale, and Darcy was concerned.

Between Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Rawlings, they took good care of her but saw little improvement. Mrs. Rawlings was compelled to repay Elizabeth for all she had done and stopped by at every available opportunity. As Elizabeth’s fever climbed higher, Mrs. Rawlings took damp cloths and applied them to her face and encouraged her to drink plenty of fluids, advising Darcy to do the same with her, as well. When Elizabeth was too weak to do anything but sleep, she brushed out her hair for her and tidied her up.

Darcy was at a loss to know what more to do. He found himself gravely concerned for her health; wondering whether he had been too late in bringing her up out of steerage. He received varied accounts of Mrs. Trimble, and it was apparent that she was not making any sort of recovery. He wondered whether Elizabeth had contracted the same thing she had.

The evening of the third day that they had been married, Elizabeth was at her worst. Darcy awoke in the night to find Elizabeth moaning and thrashing about in her bed. He quickly pulled himself out of bed, lit the oil lamp, and walked over to her, removing the sheet that separated them. He sat down beside her and felt her forehead. Even to his inexperienced touch, he had the unsettling feeling that her fever was higher than it ever had been or should be. He did as Mrs. Rawlings had advised, putting moist cloths across her forehead and trying to get her to drink some fluids.

In the light of the oil lamp, Elizabeth’s face appeared flushed. He gingerly let his hand trail down her cheek, delighted by its softness, disquieted by its scorching heat. As she began again to thrash and cry out, Darcy tried to waken her by gently shaking her and calling out to her. “Elizabeth, do you hear me? Elizabeth, wake up, you are having a bad dream!”

He seriously doubted that it was merely a bad dream, however. He was quite certain she was delirious from the effects of the high fever. She did not respond to his voice or touch, would calm down for a short spell, and then frantically cry out again. He steadfastly stayed by her side as he continued to apply the cloths to her face, hoping the fever would break.

As he sat there, he silently pondered whether her ailment could be the judgment from God on the two of them taking solemn vows so lightly. Could this be a punishment for entering into a marriage covenant without due consideration? He closed his eyes and uttered what he considered a meagre prayer. He was not a man who normally found himself relying on God, but having no other options available to him, he appealed to God’s mercy for the plight he may have brought upon them and beseeched Him for her healing.

Elizabeth began murmuring again and then frantically cried out, “No! No!”

Firmly grasping her shoulders, Darcy drew his face close to hers and called out to her, “Elizabeth, wake up! I know you can hear me!”

She mumbled something unintelligible, tossing her head even more, and then suddenly stopped. Her eyes unexpectedly opened, and he found himself staring into her beautiful, wide eyes, unsure whether or not she was really awake and seeing him. She then cried out, “Mr. Wright, Mr. Wright!”

Darcy took in a quick, sharp breath, fully convinced now that she was not awake, although she seemed to be looking right at him. He briefly wondered who this Mr. Wright could be when she cried out again.

“I did not know… I did not know…”

Elizabeth continued to thrash about while Darcy diligently applied wet cloths to her face, feeling more and more at a loss to know what to do. He wondered what it was that she did not know, and again, who this Mr. Wright might be.

Darcy lingered with her the remainder of the night, keeping watch over her, alternating between attending her and pacing the floor. She cried out a few more times, but in the early hours of the morning, her fever finally broke. She fell into a deep, restful sleep, and relief flooded Darcy, knowing that she was on her way to recovery. He sat with his elbows resting on his knees, and his head buried in his palms. He could do nothing until he offered up another short prayer of thanks to God for bringing her through this. Exhausted, and ever so reluctantly, he walked the short distance over to his bed and crawled in, just as the sign of first light broke through the window. He did not bother to put the sheet back up.

***

After a few days of little more than bed rest, Elizabeth steadily began feeling improved. For those first few days after her fever subsided, she resisted the urge to rise with the sun, prompted principally by Darcy’s strong admonition that she remain in bed to allow her the rest she needed to fully recover. Her more than satisfactory meals from the captain’s private cupboard, although provided only occasionally now due to diminishing supply, strengthened her. She regretted that she was not feeling well enough to go visit the friends she had made, but greatly appreciated the visits from the now healed Mrs. Rawlings. On more than one occasion, she enthusiastically relayed to Elizabeth how Mr. Darcy showed such compassion and concern for her while she was ill. It was apparent to Elizabeth that he had secured Mrs. Rawlings’s approval.

On those mornings while she had been ill, she had been only vaguely aware of Darcy rising and readying himself for the day. She had barely been able to open her eyes, and before she knew it, he would quietly remove the sheet and be gone, followed by either Mrs. Jennings or Mrs. Rawlings, who would come in to help her up.

It was dark one morning and Elizabeth could hear rain pelting the ship. The overcast skies did little to give light to their room. When Darcy arose, he lit the oil lamp and began readying himself. Being the most alert she had been since their marriage, she found herself entranced by the shadows his movements projected upon the sheet.

It was by no means a distinct silhouette of the man, but she continued to watch it in silence. It was when he began walking closer toward her that the shape took on a more definite form, and she was surprised to find her heart had begun to beat a trifle more erratically. When he unexpectedly spoke to her from the other side of the sheet, she practically jumped, reeling from the irrational thought that he must have known she had been watching his shadow through the sheet.

“Elizabeth? Are you awake?”

It took a few moments for Elizabeth to compose herself, and she manufactured a loud, long yawn. “I… I am now,” she answered softly.

“I am sorry to have awakened you. I wondered if you needed me to fetch Mrs. Jennings or Mrs. Rawlings this morning.”

“No, no, I believe I am feeling well enough to take care of myself this morning.”

Darcy smiled. “Good. Unfortunately it looks as though it is raining. I will go to the dining room for a while to allow you to get ready and then bring you back some food if you like.”

“Thank you, no. I should like to partake of my food in the dining room itself. It has been too long since I have seen everyone.”

“I shall return for you shortly, then.”

Later that morning, when she went to the dining room with Darcy, Elizabeth was grateful to renew those acquaintances whom she had not seen since she took ill almost a week ago. Sitting with her, Darcy was more intent on keeping an eye on her to ensure that she did not overdo it rather than be inclined to join much in any conversation. But he did occasionally contribute, and for that Elizabeth was glad. She remained there until early afternoon, but fatigue gradually demanded she return to the room and rest, and she complied.

A couple of days later, she finally felt well enough to join Darcy on deck for their first walk since becoming husband and wife. The rain storm had passed without too much of an inconvenience. As the sun gradually rose above the horizon, she felt more compelled that morning to engage in the activity that she enjoyed best and had sorely missed. Elizabeth waited until after Darcy left their room that morning; then she promptly arose, readied herself, and proceeded to join him up on deck.

She peered out when she came aloft, feeling almost completely back to her old self. She took in a deep breath, anxious for a walk. She looked up one side of the deck and down the other, when she saw Darcy coming toward her.

“Good morning, Elizabeth.”

“Good morning, Mr. Darcy.”

By now Darcy was resigned that this woman would continually insist on being formal with him when they were not in the company of others.

The sun poured its warmth down upon the deck, but the breeze seemed to compete for attention. Elizabeth had inadvertently come up without her shawl, and Darcy insisted he go back down for it.

“You cannot walk without your shawl. I shall run down after it.”

“I am fine, truly,” Elizabeth attempted to assure him.

“I do not want you coming down with a chill immediately after recovering from your fever! I shall return shortly.”

He left without giving Elizabeth the chance to utter another word.

When he returned, he spread out the shawl in his hands and brought it around her. As he draped it around her shoulders, his hands came up and straightened the shawl around her neck, brushing against it lightly with his fingertips. If she had felt nothing this past week other than the effects of the fever, suddenly a fever of another kind swept through her at his touch.

She had been unaware of the extent of his care for her, too ill to be attentive to much of anything, and now was greatly discomfited that this simple touch, although most likely unnoticed by him, greatly stirred her. And there was something else. When she had been ill, she had dreams of him, and yet it had not been him. They were too hazy for her to clearly recall, and she was left again with a sense of something she was trying to recollect, but could not.

Elizabeth was incorrect in her assumption that Darcy most likely had not been affected by the touch. He had, in fact, been just as affected by the simple act of placing her shawl around her as she had been. He had cared for her these past few days, and there was something in caring for her that seemed to strengthen his regard for her. As he felt his irrational feelings toward her doing battle with his rational mind, he reprimanded himself for being so adolescently affected by something as simple as a fleeting touch.

They both turned to walk, Darcy politely extending his arm to Elizabeth. She gingerly placed her hand inside his arm, and they began to stroll leisurely up on deck, their first time since becoming man and wife.

It was different now. They both sensed it. It had been over a week since they had taken their last walk together, and so much had happened since that day. A sense of awkwardness hung over their walk, as they both recognized that since Elizabeth was now well, their marriage would be more open for scrutiny by others. They would have to play the part convincingly and well.

Their conversation that day seemed stifled and forced. She could not think of any subject to introduce that might interest him. He appeared miles away in thought, apparently content in his silence, and so, apart from some general comments and observations, they said little.

In reality, though, both of their minds were full of thoughts that they wanted to pour out, but held themselves back.

As other passengers and some of the crew greeted them, Elizabeth found it disconcerting to be called Mrs. Darcy. She wished to be able to have everyone call her Elizabeth, instead of that name that was only a pretence, but that could not be. As they walked, she considered that Mr. Darcy had been spending almost this whole week posing as her husband while she had been ill in bed. Now she was faced with doing the same thing, and she wondered if she would be able to. In the fogginess of her mind when she agreed to his proposal, she could not have foreseen the awkwardness it would cause her.

She stole a look up at the man walking next to her, who seemed content to walk in silence and seemed oblivious to the moral or ethical dilemma she was facing. He was obviously one who did not struggle with lies and disguises. Did she really know him at all?

Darcy kept their walk that day short due to Elizabeth’s only recent recovery, and she was grateful when he suggested they had walked enough for the day. Feeling invigorated by the walk, but suddenly unnerved by the whole idea of living a deception in front of others, Elizabeth was grateful to return to the room.

When they stepped back inside the room, Darcy strongly suggested to her that she should not overexert herself, and that she should occupy her time resting in the dining area with a book or visiting with some of her acquaintances in there.

“I believe, Mr. Darcy, that I should prefer to pay a visit in steerage. I know there are some ladies who are still not well, and I would like to see Mrs. Trimble.”

“Not yet, Elizabeth. You are not yet fully well. There is no reason for you to exert yourself and put yourself in harm’s way.”

He spoke to her in a way that, in his mind, it was a settled fact.

“On the contrary, Mr. Darcy, I believe there are several reasons for me to go down, and whether I exert myself or put myself in harm’s way is left to be seen.”

Darcy’s eyes narrowed as he recognized the look of challenge permeating Elizabeth’s features. He readied himself with an answer and girded himself for an expected retort. “I beg to differ, Elizabeth. You are not the only one capable of taking care of these people! You must think of yourself!”

Elizabeth’s ire, coupled by the awkwardness she had felt earlier with him, rose. “Upon my word, Mr. Darcy! I believe I know myself well enough to know that I am perfectly well enough now to go down! You may think what you like. I will be paying a visit to steerage!”

She turned and walked toward the door. Darcy reacted by reaching out and grabbing her wrist, yanking her to a stop. She angrily turned back to him.

He stood facing her, unable to speak for the mesmerizing sight of her fiercely dark, challenging eyes. They arrested any thought he might try to conjure up, and an uncomfortable silence ensued. How could he tell her that he was only concerned for her? How could he convey to her that he only had her well-being in mind? At length he realized she would most likely do as she pleased anyway, and he released her hand.

“You may go, Elizabeth, if you are so strongly inclined. But I beg you, do not spend too great a length of time down there, and when you come back up, wash your hands thoroughly!”

She paused before turning to leave, debating whether she desired more to speak out again and have the last word, sarcastically informing him she did not need his permission, or whether she should apologize to him for her obstinacy and unreasonableness. At length, she opened the door and walked out, saying nothing further.

Darcy stood still for a few moments, contemplating this woman who was so independent, strong-willed, stubborn, compassionate, intelligent, lively, and beautiful! He had no idea how any man would be able to handle her as his wife. But a thought quickly materialized that he would surely love to give it a try and find out how!

Elizabeth sullenly made her way down the three flights of stairs to steerage, being ever so careful to step gingerly so as not to injure her ankle again. She was not happy with herself and wondered about her outburst. Whereas she told herself that Darcy was only looking out for her, she found it difficult to hold her tongue at his inclination to oblige her to do things the way he wanted without question.

She sighed as she approached the door that would take her into the steerage accommodations. She could already feel the stifling effects of being down within the bowels of the ship and the lack of fresh air. How grateful she was to be out of here. With that thought, she had to admit she was grateful for the man who was her husband, however temporary it might be.

When she walked into the large room, she was happy to see that many had completely recovered. There were only a few left who were still ailing, including Mrs. Trimble, who did not seem to be able to rise above her illness. Elizabeth did whatever she could to aid in their recovery and comfort.

When she met Darcy again later that day, Elizabeth was a bit more subdued than normal. Darcy could not determine if it was due to their argument earlier, that she had done too much that day, or both. As they sat together at dinner that night, he noticed she was exceedingly quiet, and he was pretty much left to his own devices to converse with those around him.

He was grateful to discover the next day that Elizabeth was one who rebounded quickly and completely, both in her health and in forgetting the conflicts of a previous day. By the next day she was pretty much back to her former self, and Darcy made every attempt to avoid appearing overbearing and controlling, for he knew exactly what her response to that would be.

The length of their walks each day grew longer and longer. As long as they kept the conversation from becoming too personal, they both began to enjoy the time and feel comfortable again. At length she even resorted to a little teasing.

One morning when she joined him for a walk, she commented on his attire, which she had found to be much too formal and elegant for an ocean crossing. She often contemplated how she must pale next to him in her simple muslin dresses.

“Tell me, Mr. Darcy, are these the only clothes you have?”

Darcy’s eyes narrowed, looking down at his clothes in bewilderment. “May I inquire what you find wrong with these clothes?” he asked as he waved a hand over them.

Elizabeth smiled. “Nothing, if you are planning to go to a ball!”

Darcy looked at her incredulously. “A ball? These are not clothes one would wear to a ball!”

“Perhaps not yourself.” Laughing lightly, she asked him, “Did you not bring any travelling clothes with you on this voyage?”

Darcy turned his head away from her, took a deep breath, and then brought his eyes back to see a most sparkling pair of dark eyes taunting him. He smiled at her and said, “Elizabeth, these are my travelling clothes!”

Now she let out a lively laugh. “Then perhaps you ought to bring out your work clothes for a change! I dare say you might be more comfortable!”

Suddenly Darcy turned serious. “I have no work clothes.”

“You have no…?” Elizabeth paused, perceiving that he felt rather discomfited at the moment and checked her laugh. But she wondered whether he meant that he did not have any work clothes on this ship or not at all. She turned her attention away from him as they continued to walk, pondering whether this was the kind of man who never lowered himself to a menial task. She cringed as she thought what his life must really be like.

Elizabeth became increasingly concerned about Mrs. Trimble, who was growing weaker and eating and drinking less. Others in steerage recognized the look of impending death spreading across her features. Elizabeth continued to do all she could to make her comfortable while others tended to stay as far away as possible from her, fearful that what she had might spread to them.

Darcy and Elizabeth continued their daily walks, keeping the conversation to general things. When in the dining room, Elizabeth encouraged Darcy to meet others and prompted the conversations to veer toward those subjects he enjoyed talking about. He did not appear as withdrawn as he had, and Elizabeth found that he seemed to relish conversation on politics, religion, and current thought, but she also found he rarely offered any real insight into his personal life.

She was surprised with the effort at civility in which Darcy had begun to speak to those seated around him. He certainly did not seem to be at a loss in communication skills when in the company of a few. Why he would deliberately choose to sit off by himself in a crowd of people, as he had those first days out at sea, she had assumed was because he thought himself above everyone. But now she was of the opinion that it might be due to the fact that it took him some time to open up to people he did not know.

Darcy was convinced that Elizabeth was completely back to her former, spirited self a few days later when the dolphins made their appearance. They took their walk earlier that morning, and then went their separate ways, much as they had done each day since Elizabeth’s recovery. In the early afternoon Elizabeth went back on deck looking for the Rawlingses when she saw a group of people congregated at the rail.

When she walked over, she was amazed at the sight she saw. Several dolphins were swimming alongside the ship, their bodies gracefully coming up out of the water and then going back down. She watched for several minutes, quite engaged in the sight before her, believing she would never see anything else like it again. They seemed intent on staying alongside the ship, and Elizabeth, although finding it difficult to pull herself away, went in search of Darcy.

She found him in the dining room reading, and excitedly exclaimed, “William! You must come up and see this!”

Curiosity, as well as satisfaction, propelled him to get up and follow her, for in her excitement, she had used his Christian name. She practically pulled him up onto the deck, lightly holding his hand in hers, and when they came up and looked out, Darcy was quite impressed.

But it was not so much the dolphins with which he was impressed, although they were definitely quite a sight. It was the fact that Elizabeth had thought to come down and find him to bring him up so he could share in this sight with her. As he continued watching the dolphins, he experienced an even greater pleasure in watching Elizabeth as she took infinite delight in observing the dolphins soar out of the water, almost as if they were at play.

“Are they not the most beautiful things you have ever seen?” she turned to him and asked.

He had never seen her eyes more sparkling and lively than at this moment. “They most certainly are.” At the moment, he felt a leaning in his heart that he wished he did not have to push away.

***

It had been almost two weeks since their marriage; the ship had been making good progress, and they heard that they had but a week to go. The captain came to their room early one morning. The sun was just up over the horizon and there was a knock on their door. Darcy pulled himself out of his bed and opened it. The captain, holding an oil lamp to light his way in the early morning, asked to speak with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth looked out from behind the sheet. “Yes, Captain?”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Darcy, but Mrs. Trimble is fading. You may want to go down to her. I shall wait outside your door and take you down if you like.”

“I shall be there directly, Captain.”

Darcy thanked the captain and closed the door as Elizabeth scrambled out of bed. He turned, and in the palest light coming from the window caught a glimpse of her quickly donning her robe. He swallowed hard as Elizabeth looked up to see a look of discomfiture cross his face.

“Shall I go with you?” he forced himself to say. He really did not want to go for himself, or for Mrs. Trimble, but he would go solely for Elizabeth if she wished it.

“No, I shall go alone.”

Elizabeth went down with the captain and found a few of the passengers gathered around Mrs. Trimble. Her breathing had grown shallow and her eyes were open but did not appear to see.

“Mrs. Trimble, it is me, Elizabeth.” She watched as the woman’s eyes fluttered, but there was no other response. Elizabeth took her hand and held it firmly as each breath seemed to be a struggle. Elizabeth lightly touched the woman’s forehead, and tears came to her eyes as she contemplated how sad it was that this woman had no one on the ship to grieve for her. Her husband, who was already in America, would not find out about his wife until the ship reached the shore.

Elizabeth sat for what seemed an eternity of intermittent breaths until finally, one last breath was sucked in and then slowly let out, her lungs never to fill with air again. Elizabeth watched as a peace overtook the woman’s face; a peace that she had not seen in this woman at all since meeting her. Perhaps the hardships of her life had been many, and now, she was finally in a much more desirable place.

But that comfort still did not prevent Elizabeth from collapsing in a heap crying. Others around her sniffled, some merely walked away, offering simple words of prayer or comfort, but Elizabeth could not tear herself from this woman. Perhaps she could have done more. Perhaps she should have spent more time with her instead of Mrs. Rawlings or remained down here instead of going back to her comfortable room with Mr. Darcy. She thought with regret that if Mrs. Trimble had been given the opportunity to come up out of steerage as she had, perhaps she would be in good health and still alive today.

At length she felt a strong arm reach down and pull her up, and she looked up to see that it was Darcy. “Come, Elizabeth. She is in better hands, now.”

He picked Elizabeth up, and as he carried her up the stairs, she turned toward him, burying her head against him, letting the tears fall. His arms tightened around her as she sought to find some sort of solace in them. He carried her upstairs back into their room and sat down with her on her bed, still holding her in his arms. He began to slowly rock, as he often had to do with Georgiana when she was downcast, and waited for her tears to cease.

“I am sorry,” Elizabeth struggled to say between sobs, feeling completely foolish and unable to stop her crying. “I cannot help but think there might have been something more I could have done for her.”

Darcy reached up and stroked her long hair that she had not had time to put up when she left so abruptly earlier. “I assure you, Elizabeth, you did all you could have done for her. The captain said she was in a gravely weakened state when she came onboard, but no one was aware of it soon enough.”

He did not say any more, being content to simply hold her and stroke her great length of dark hair, occasionally letting his fingers dig deeply into her thick tresses. He kept his face averted from hers, for her close presence was greatly unnerving him and he felt that if he looked down and she were to look up and meet his eyes, he would be hard-pressed not to lean down and kiss her. They continued to sit in silence until her sobs ceased.

He could have held her in his arms indefinitely. Hesitantly, he turned and placed her beside him on the bed. “I shall leave you now so you can get dressed. The captain has said he will have a service for her at ten o’clock.”

“That soon?”

“Yes, it must be so.” His voice oddly sounded firm and resolute. “I shall be up on deck if you wish to have a morning walk.”

Darcy stood up, and Elizabeth suddenly felt an emptiness replace his presence. He had been there to comfort her, and it had been an indescribable strength to her, however momentary. She wished he did not always have to leave. She found herself suddenly wishing that this marriage was real, that she could find solace in his arms, and he did not have to pull away.

When Darcy left the room, Elizabeth forced herself to walk over to the mirror and reluctantly looked at her reflection. Her red eyes and splotchy face were certainly not the looks of a woman who would attract the eye of a man such as Darcy. She splashed some water on her face, trying to rid her eyes of the redness.

After doing all she could to freshen herself up, she looked through her meagre selection of dresses, each one becoming more and more wrinkled and worn. She thought how much she must pale next to Mr. Darcy’s fastidious wardrobe. She finished by putting up her hair and soon left to join her husband up on deck.

When she stepped out, she found Darcy with his arms resting on the side of the ship, his gaze looking out across the water. He had come here to think, to sort out the thoughts that had continued to swarm in his head about Elizabeth. His thoughts went back to the image of her that morning as she climbed out from behind the sheet, to the feel of her in his arms as he consoled her and how it felt so right. As much as he wanted to concede that she was everything he had ever wanted in a woman, a deeper, more practical voice argued that she was not.

What he had done in arranging this façade of a marriage had certainly been a great help to her. But in the long run, could he really seriously consider her as Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mistress of Pemberley? What would others think? he repeatedly asked himself. What obligations do I have to my name? To my family? He wondered if he did take her back as his wife whether she would be accepted by his circle of society, and that question gnawed away at him in a way that he could not reconcile.

Darcy closed his eyes to that thought. As much as he hated to admit it, he had to think about what others, especially his family, would think. He had to consider his elevated position, her much lower position, and the expectations to marry someone in his sphere. His mind was miles away when Elizabeth came up to him.

They walked in silence that morning. Darcy could not summon up any words, and Elizabeth was too filled with grief to talk.

Chapter 10

As Darcy and Elizabeth made their way up on deck for Mrs. Trimble’s service, she willingly slipped her hand into Darcy’s extended arm, knowing she would need his strength to get through. People stood or sat on the few available benches, and Elizabeth was grateful they had come up a little early so she could stand close to the captain and hear what he had to say.

The captain began the service reading a passage from the Bible and then opening in prayer. Standing off to the captain’s side, Elizabeth bowed her head deeply. Darcy lowered his head but kept his gaze upon Elizabeth, enjoying her closeness. He then chided himself for being so distracted by her presence when he should be focused on the captain’s words. At length he closed his eyes as he heard the captain close with an “Amen.”

Elizabeth saw that Mrs. Trimble’s body had been put in a white canvas bag of sorts. About halfway through the service, when a brief eulogy was spoken with what little information had been gathered about her life, Elizabeth suddenly realized what was about to transpire. Darcy knew the moment she realized that Mrs. Trimble’s body would be let out into the sea, as she tightened up, tears filled up her eyes again, and she gripped Darcy’s arm more tightly.

Even the prior realization of what was to transpire was not enough to prepare Elizabeth for it. When the sailors lifted the bag and sent it over the edge to sink into the depths of the sea as the captain prayed, Elizabeth turned to Darcy, trying to stifle her sobs. His arms reached around her and drew her more deeply into his chest. They did not move for the longest time, even as everyone slowly began to disperse, and Elizabeth wished that he would never let her go.

After the service, Elizabeth desired some time by herself in their room. Darcy obliged her request and spent most of the day in the dining area where people had gathered and much of the conversation was about Mrs. Trimble. There was also much praise for Elizabeth, which he received graciously.

Feeling a little better but not yet ready to venture out and visit, Elizabeth pulled out the needlework sampler she had begun earlier in the voyage. She felt the healing effect of each embroidery stitch as a few flowers and words appeared by her own doing. She was working on it when Darcy returned.

He sat down, wishing there was something he could do to engage her spirits. He never knew what to do when Georgiana was feeling down, and he felt the same awkwardness with Elizabeth. He nervously tapped his fingers on the table, bringing a smile to Elizabeth.

“Mr. Darcy, you do not need to stay here with me. I am feeling improved.”

Feeling a sense of disappointment that she still chose to address him with such formality, he responded, “I do not mind being here with you, as long as you do not mind.” He sat down across the table from her.

Elizabeth looked at him and saw a tenderness she had never before seen. “Thank you.” She wondered at his behaviour at times. She had to remind herself continually that their marriage was a pretence, but there were times when her husband played the caring, concerned, even loving husband all too well. It was those times when his behaviour had her most confused.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

Elizabeth shrugged. “It just seemed so sudden, so definite.” She put her needlework down and looked up at him. “It is not that Mrs. Trimble was really that close to me, but that I had been seeing her almost every day for some time now. I have never had anyone close to me die before. At least that I can remember.”

“You are fortunate. I have lost both my mother and my father.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened at this personal disclosure. “I am so sorry.” She was surprised that he had not mentioned that fact before, and she impulsively reached out her hand to place it on his in a comforting gesture. When he looked down upon it resting on his hand, she hesitantly pulled it back.

“So it is just you and your sister?” she managed to ask, nervously tightening her withdrawing hand into a fist.

“And a few odd relatives.” He looked back at her hand, almost willing it to return atop of his.

Elizabeth laughed. “I have a few odd relatives myself.”

Darcy smiled, grateful that she was not so despondent that she could not laugh. Elizabeth was suddenly struck by how attractive he was when he smiled. She mused to herself that she would like to see him smile more often.

Then Darcy said something quite unusual. “I have one cousin, a younger cousin, who actually prefers walking to riding. Can you imagine?” He seemed intent to watch her, waiting for her response.

“I most certainly can! I prefer that myself!”

Darcy’s heart leaped as Elizabeth continued. “I actually have never felt safe around horses. I merely try to keep my distance if I can.”

She laughed as she wondered why he would consider this an odd trait, and continued, “And Mr. Darcy, if this is the extreme of your odd relatives, I would gladly trade any of my odd relatives for yours!”

He was drawn to her fine eyes when she laughed and felt himself becoming more and more lost in the depths of them. It was especially difficult now, being fairly confident that Elizabeth was the one in the carriage who so briefly captured his heart two years prior.

With this confirming revelation and the amount of time he had spent with Elizabeth, he found it difficult to hold firmly to his resolve to keep his distance emotionally from her. He began to wonder whether it was prudent to remain in the room with her.

Elizabeth expected Darcy to make a retort about her fear of horses, but he remained silent, an odd expression on his face.

She wondered whether he regretted sharing personal things about his family. She decided to keep things light-hearted. “Although my father is most definitely a gentleman in every sense of the word, his humour can sometimes be sarcastic and teasing. My mother has her sole objective in life to marry off all her daughters, and my younger sisters are all very silly, indeed.”

Darcy smiled, not being able to take his eyes off her. She returned his gaze curiously. She could not entertain any serious notion that it was out of admiration, and could only construe that it was because he was experiencing uneasiness due to the personal nature of their conversation. They remained silent for a time as Elizabeth turned her attention back to her needlework.

“What is that you are employing your time with there?” he struggled to ask.

“A needlework sampler.” She turned it around for him to see. “It is not much. It will be surrounded with flowers and script.”

He looked at it and read the words that she had begun to form with a steady line of stitches. “Think only of the past…”

“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”

“Is this your philosophy in life?”

Elizabeth nodded. “It is one. I actually have several.”

Darcy began to wonder how she would look upon her time on this ship; how she would look upon him when this was all in the past. Would she be able to consider him with any pleasure?

“You are fortunate if you can truly live by it.” He looked down in reflection. “I have a very unyielding temper. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost is lost forever.”

“That is unfortunate, indeed. I pity anyone who may have wronged you.”

Darcy looked at her with an odd expression on his face, as if he were recalling some particular person who had hurt him in the past.

He stood up and walked over to her, lifting the sampler from her. She grew somewhat unsettled as his tall, close presence and attention stirred those feelings again in her that she knew not how to counter. The satisfaction it gave her, however, left her feeling that she did not want to counter it.

An unspoken mutual admiration and respect drew them closer that day. As the last days of the ship’s journey were upon them, Darcy knew he was faced with making a decision regarding Elizabeth that, if dependent solely upon his feelings and, even now, his intellect, would be easy to make.

His feelings he had no control over. They had grown stronger just from being in her presence, enjoying her company. He believed she enjoyed his as well, although he had to admit that she seemed to enjoy the company of most people on this ship. His intellect was stimulated by conversations he had with her that gave evidence of her own intellect and liveliness.

But the deeper recesses of his being still demanded he think beyond his personal partiality and consider how she would, or would not, be accepted by his whole circle of family and acquaintances. Surely there would be those who would graciously accept any woman he deemed worthy of his hand. But there would be others who would go out of their way to make life unbearable for him and her alike.

He lay awake those last few nights on the ship, listening to the sound of her breathing, and he tossed and turned as the battle waged even more fiercely. He struggled for that which was so close to him, yet so far.

He knew himself too well to know that once he had it settled in his mind, he would adamantly set forth to attain that which he so greatly desired. He knew it would put him in an awkward position with Elizabeth if she did not return similar leanings of her heart toward him. If he approached her with his strong feelings of regard and she did not return them, she would most likely no longer feel comfortable sharing the room with him, but that would be comparatively minor compared to the anguish he would suffer. At length he determined he would have to wait until they were just upon American soil. He knew, however, where the inclinations of his heart lay.

Elizabeth, unaware of his struggle, tried not to look ahead at what lay before her. She put aside all thoughts about their inevitable parting, and daily strove to enjoy their time together. They got along exceedingly well, apart from her stubborn nature that tended to clash fiercely with the authoritative streak he possessed. Although she was not a woman who easily retreated from obstacles she faced in life, she would never consider pressuring Mr. Darcy to go against his original intent to annul the marriage and retain her as his wife. She was all too aware, although she did not agree with, the irrational obligations those in the first circles of society placed on the position of the person they married.

With these thoughts and feelings surrounding Darcy and Elizabeth, the last few days of the voyage passed with camaraderie, and before they knew it, they found themselves facing the fact that it was their last day upon the ship. They would be reaching America sometime the following day.

On the final day of sailing before arriving in America, the winds picked up and clouds began to form. They had previously passed through several storms along the course of this voyage, but none had been too severe. The captain could tell this storm was different, and he began taking precautions well before the storm hit.

The first thing that became noticeable to everyone was the increase in the size of the swells, causing the ship to be tossed severely to and fro. As passengers gathered in the dining room, anticipating their final evening of revelry, they had to keep a firmer grip on their cups of tea and coffee, their plates of food, and utensils. Revelry soon turned into a struggle to maintain order.

The captain knew they were heading straight into the storm, as the storms came off the east coast of America. He had heard many tales of vicious ones that spun ships around and ripped them to pieces.

Although the sun had not yet set, an eerie darkness settled over the ship. Lightning flashed around them and the winds picked up fiercely. The crew scrambled to furl the sails to prevent the ship from being blown over by the forceful gale.

At sunset, the storm hit with fury. Festivities were abruptly cancelled, and everyone was ordered to their rooms as rain began to pour down in torrents. What was earlier thought to be a savage tossing of the ship proved to be nothing compared to what they now experienced.

When Darcy helped Elizabeth return to the room, as it was exceedingly difficult to even walk, she watched in utter frustration as Darcy pulled out a coat and began to put it on.

“What are you planning on doing?”

“I am going out there to see if there is anything I can do!”

“Are you a fool? You could get yourself killed up there!”

“Elizabeth, I cannot just sit here, knowing that the ship could break apart at any minute! You stay here!”

He opened the door and slammed it behind him as the boat encountered a swell that tipped it precariously on its side.

“William, please, no!”

Elizabeth grasped for something to hold on to as she cried out for him to stay. Her voice was lost in the crashing of the waves against the boat. She was left alone to ponder in anger why this man insisted on doing such a thing as to venture out into the storm when the captain and crew were most capable of handling things. Who did he think he was?

As her mind unwillingly became engaged with the worst scenarios of what might befall them due to the intensity of the storm, she was gripped with fear.

The ship made a sudden, violent lurch to the side and Elizabeth was harshly flailed against the wall. She frantically tried to grasp hold of the table to keep from falling. She then leaned against the table to secure her own balance as the ship swayed in the opposite direction. It returned to its upright position only for the briefest moment, and then continued its tremulous tilting. The ship tossed as if it was in the hands of a mighty, relentless force, and its pitching was increasing in intensity by the minute.

She stubbornly refused to let her fear get the best of her and consequently decided to do something. She determined her first course of action must be to stow away and secure everything that was susceptible to falling down, toppling over, or scooting precariously across the floor.

She worked quickly, fighting against her fear and the savage tossing of the ship, quickly and adeptly stowing everything that was not secured. The ship swayed one moment from one side to the other, and then would rise up from the front as it encountered a swell head-on and then come crashing down again. Her heart pounded as the realization swept through her of what a storm like this could do to a ship.

When she had secured all she could, she made the decision that it would be best for her to stay low to the floor. She felt that even trying to secure herself in the narrow bed for the night would be fruitless due to the extent of the ship’s unremitting tossing. She knew she could easily be thrown from the bed onto the floor. She took her pillow and propped herself against a wall, bringing her knees up and grasping hold tightly with her arms. She whispered a silent prayer that the ship would remain intact and all onboard would remain safe.

Her thoughts and prayers dwelt particularly on Darcy and his safety.

What a fool he is! her thoughts repeatedly echoed. Why must he always insist in being in control of a situation, when it is not even his place to worry? She let out a frustrated sigh and a cry heavenward for his safety.

Chapter 11

Elizabeth sat still, keeping her eyes on the door, hoping and praying that Darcy would return. After what seemed an eternity of waiting and imagining every horrible thing, it finally opened and a very wet Darcy stomped in.

“The captain says it looks to be quite a severe storm!” He had to compete with the thunderous resonance to be heard. Pulling off his coat as it left puddles of water on the floor, he informed Elizabeth, “He has all hands on deck and they have furled all the sails. There is as much water coming from the swells over the sides of the ship as there is rain coming down from the heavens! It is going to be a long night.”

A tremendous sense of relief had washed over her when he walked in, causing her to close her eyes in a quick, prayerful “thank you.” But it was tempered with residual anger toward his foolish stubbornness. She knew there would be no benefit in expressing her anger now. “Does the captain appear concerned?” she asked.

“The captain says not to worry, but we need to stow everything that is not secured or it will come crashing down.” Taking a quick glance around the room, he said, “Oh, I see you have done that already.”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He hung up his coat on a rack and raked his hand through his wet hair. His coat had kept out some of the water, but his shirt was soaked in places.

Elizabeth made her way over to the dresser and secured a towel, handing it to him. “You should get out of your wet clothes.”

Darcy looked at her and nodded. “That is something I plan to do.” He took the towel and briskly rubbed down his hair, removing the excess water. “It would have been better for me up there if I had had an oilskin coat. That is what the crew all wear in a storm such as this, and it really helps them keep somewhat dry.” He walked over to the small closet, and as he did, the ship made a sudden lurch to the left, propelling him off balance and sending him against the table, his shoulder going right into its edge. With a moan, he grabbed his shoulder with his other hand, and promptly slid himself down to the floor.

“The other thing the captain said is to stay as low to the floor as possible.” He grimaced painfully. “I now see that is a wise idea.”

“Are you hurt?” Elizabeth asked as the ship rose and fell mercilessly.

He vigorously rubbed his shoulder and replied, “I do not think it is fatal.”

Elizabeth smiled as she realized he was trying to be light-hearted with his last remark, possibly to help ease her fears. He continued, “I shall most likely be sore for a few days, that is all.” He sat on the floor, continuing to rub his injured shoulder, and soon made another attempt to retrieve a dry shirt. When he reached out the arm with the injured shoulder, he withdrew it back in pain. “Ohhh!” His hand immediately went up to rub it again.

“You are not all right,” Elizabeth said as she reached him. “Let me help you.” She easily took hold of the dry shirt he had been attempting to reach and then turned to look at him. “Can you unfasten your shirt?” she asked.

He tried to untie his neckcloth with his unhurt hand, using his injured arm as little as possible. Elizabeth watched with the expectation that she would help if he needed her assistance, although in this area she wondered whether her fingers would be a help or a hindrance to him as they had begun to shake nervously. As he began to undo the buttons to his shirt, she forced herself to look away.

As much as she would have liked to approach this circumstance in a very practical, unemotional way, her heart’s pounding and her rising tide of feelings began to overpower her. That he was hurt almost made him more vulnerable, more desirable. She suddenly felt that she would be very happy taking care of this man until they were old and grey. But she halted that thought immediately, knowing it would not do any good to think about things that were not to be.

As her thoughts were engaged in this direction, Darcy attempted to remove his shirt, and Elizabeth was stirred from her reverie by another groan of pain from him. The pain in his arm was such that he could not manoeuvre the shirt down off his arms, and he looked helplessly at Elizabeth.

“I am sorry, but I do not seem able to accomplish this. My arm is causing me a great deal of pain.”

Elizabeth positioned herself behind him and calmly responded, “Drop both of your arms down by your side.” When he did so, she gently took the shirt by the collar, her fingers lightly brushing his neck, and brought it down along his long arms and slid it off. She was glad she was situated behind him, as this simple action and the sight of him shirtless from the back caused some unexplainable stirrings within her and a very noticeable blush across her face.

She quickly fumbled for the dry shirt and lowered the sleeve so he could easily move his hurt arm into it, and then she brought it around and he was able to slide his other arm into it as well without any problem.

Darcy felt her breath on the back of him, and the very slight touch of her fingers upon his neck produced an involuntary shiver. When she slid his shirt off, he thought how different it was to have a woman do the same task that Durnham had done throughout the years. He enjoyed this much more than he should have allowed himself to.

Once the dry shirt was on, he quickly reached up with his good arm and nimbly began buttoning the buttons one-handed. An awkward silence had enveloped them, and his jaw tightened as he considered that Elizabeth must feel exceedingly uncomfortable.

“Thank you for your help, Elizabeth. I would not have wished to cause you any uneasiness.”

He spoke softly and with much gratitude.

Elizabeth drew herself around from behind. “I only did what I knew I must.”

She sat aside him, marvelling at the goodwill that had come to exist between them in just the last week. The ship suddenly tipped again violently, and she fell against him, causing him to reach out for her with his good arm, and he planted his sore arm against the floor for stability.

Another groan escaped him, and Elizabeth apologized profusely. “Mr. Darcy, I am so sorry.”

He looked down at her, not wanting to let her go. “Elizabeth, do you not think we have been through enough together, that even when we are alone you can call me by my given name?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and blushed. When she found herself unexpectedly wanting to draw nearer to him, she became more intent on reverting to formalities in addressing him.

“Mr. Darcy, we are almost at the end of our voyage. I think it best we keep things between us as we agreed.” He was still holding her when she met his eyes. “Our marriage is on paper only.”

Darcy sighed softly and released her. His idea to marry her solely for the duration of the voyage had indeed caused him greater consternation than if he had allowed himself to be tormented this past month by all the single women, their mothers, and their fathers, and all the other matchmakers and fortune hunters onboard this ship. He had fallen in love with Elizabeth, and it was clear that she did not love him in return. On paper only . That was certainly not how he felt toward her now.

Mustering all the strength he had to keep from succumbing to the storm of emotions that were erupting within, he calmly and deliberately spoke. “The captain said it would be wise to sleep on the floor, as a storm such as this will even throw one out of bed. We need to bring the bedding down to the floor for the night.” He looked around the room, much as Elizabeth had done earlier.

“There is not much room…” He looked over to the space between the two beds. “This is probably the best place for us to sleep tonight. There really is not any other room on the floor.” He tried to control his voice to sound calm, rational, and not at all ruffled, which was not at all what he was feeling. “With the dresser drawers underneath the bed, that will give us some stability from the rocking and keep us from sliding all over the floor.”

Elizabeth looked over to the small area. It was certainly long enough for them to stretch out in, but suddenly it seemed very narrow. “Yes, it seems to be the wisest,” she reluctantly agreed.

Darcy looked at her and recognized the look of discomfort written across her face. “Perhaps it would be best if I sleep over there. I could easily sit against the wall behind the table… if you prefer.”

“No, no,” she stammered. “I could not allow you to do that. We are both adults.” How she wished she did not sound so nervous. Then, in almost a whisper she added, “We are, after all, married.”

Darcy’s chest suddenly constricted and his jaw tightened as he heard her speak those words so dispassionately. He looked into her eyes and saw the pain. Does she really regret this marriage that much? he asked himself. “There is not much more we can do. We might as well try to make ourselves as comfortable as we can.”

As the ship continued its relentless rocking, they both began to pull the blankets off their beds. There was room for only one mattress on the floor, and Darcy pulled it off of his bed. Elizabeth pulled two blankets off her bed, one to go underneath her and one to cover her. She scooted as closely as she could to the dresser on her side, and lay her head down on her pillow. The room was dark now, except for the frequent flashes of lightning that ripped across the sky, lighting up the room through the tiny window. There seemed little likelihood of them falling asleep any time soon, with the clamouring of the forces of nature outside as well as in. The rumble of the thunder, the howling wind, and the crashing of the waves against and over the boat seemed to take their toll on the ship in addition to their nerves, as did the rising tide of their feelings.

Earlier, Elizabeth’s fear had propelled her to do something. She had tried to secure everything that was not bolted down so it would not fall over or come crashing down. Then she had set her mind on helping Darcy after he hurt himself. But now, as there was nothing to do but listen to the tumultuous sounds and feel the assault on the ship as it laboured and strained, her fear began to spiral, as the storm seemed to be intensely overpowering and growing in severity by the minute. With each pitch of the ship, Elizabeth grabbed either the mattress, the dresser, or the floor itself, hoping it would keep her in her place.

But as the ship rocked and swayed, as it creaked and groaned, there was little either could do to keep themselves settled in one place. More often than not, Elizabeth either slid into Darcy as the boat tipped his way, or he slid into her when it tipped the other way. The worst of it occurred when the boat encountered a wave head-on. The fore of the ship would rise up, and then come crashing down violently.

There was little chance that they could grow accustomed to the constant swaying, dipping, and crashing down, but they lay there together, each consumed by their own thoughts and feelings. At one sudden, very strong jolt of the ship, Elizabeth cried out as she was pelted against Darcy. He immediately wrapped his arm around her, driven by a protective instinct, but he let it remain there out of a selfish desire to feel her in his arms.

She lay there still, suddenly feeling very safe in his arms. The thunderous beating of her heart competed with the sounds of the storm outside. Whether it was simply fear or the fact that she was now being held tightly in his arms, she was not sure. But she had this very strong assurance that while in his arms, no harm would befall her.

Despite her overwhelming sense of fear, she became aware of some other feelings that were awakening within her. It was more than just a sense of being protected by this man. There was a yearning inside her to draw closer to him. A stirring within that she had never experienced. She wished to be able to turn toward him and bury her head in his chest. She closed her eyes tightly, wishing away these thoughts and feelings. He was not really hers to think about. Her regard toward him that had been growing these last few days could never be reciprocated. She took in a deep breath to steady the overwhelming feeling of despair that began to overtake her. But it was not enough to prevent a tear from escaping her eye and travelling down her face.

She had two pictures in her mind, and neither of them was at all pleasant or desirable. The first was that the ship would not make it through the storm this night and they would all perish, being lost at sea. The second was that they would make it through the storm, and once the ship pulled into the harbour in America and they left the ship, she would never see him again. As the ship violently rose and fell, the thought came to her that perhaps she wished for the former. For in that case, they would at least be in each other’s arms for eternity.

All the while, Darcy closed his eyes as he considered how right it felt to have his arm wrapped around Elizabeth. If it were not for the extremely dangerous and trying conditions they were in, and the violent rocking and swaying of the ship, he knew he was in danger of another kind; that is, overstepping his bounds with her and breaking the agreement they made for the conditions of this marriage. He was not sure how he would survive an entire night with Elizabeth by his side, without struggling with the temptation she presented.

After lying awkwardly in silence, stirred both by heightened feelings in the midst of the storm waging outside and in, Darcy attempted to engage Elizabeth in conversation, if nothing more than to take his mind off her discomfiting proximity, since neither of them would be able to sleep anyway.

“Did you ever finish your sampler, Elizabeth?”

“Why, yes, I did.” She lifted her head and looked around as if she suddenly realized that she did not know where it was, even though in the darkness she would not have seen it.

“I should like to see it now that it is finished.”

Elizabeth smiled, knowing this was a very meagre, but appreciated, attempt to keep her mind off the storm.

Attempting to keep their minds engaged on other things, he asked, “And may I inquire what other accomplishments you employ while you are not sailing across the oceans of the world?”

Another round of violent swells delayed her answer, as she gripped tightly to him, but she smiled. “You know I enjoy reading, I do a little sewing, enjoy singing, and play the pianoforte, but very ill indeed.”

“Those are delightful diversions.” He spoke the words softly, but the reaction Elizabeth had was almost as if he had screamed them.

Her eyes opened widely in an acute sense of stark realization.

Delightful diversions! The very same words the gentleman in the carriage two years ago had said!

She stared into the darkness, the room flashing with light from the bolts of lightning outside, and she suddenly recalled the image of the man who, for several months after their encounter, never left her thoughts! Her heart tightened and she suddenly felt as if she could not catch her breath, tightly closing her eyes as she deliberated this disclosure.

Suddenly it all became very clear! She knew why he had seemed so familiar! Those fleeting memories that she could not pull to the surface since she first saw him on the ship were from that carriage ride, the gentleman sharing the ride with her, and the following months that held her captive to his memory.

He had uttered those exact words when, as a young, impetuous eighteen-year-old, she told him how she had recently climbed a tree and fallen from it, spraining her ankle. She had thought he was mocking her behaviour, but in the course of their time in the carriage, she found him to be quite engaging, very attentive, and effortlessly charming.

For weeks and months following the carriage ride, she found herself repeating those words at every opportunity as a reminder of her short time with him. “Mary is reading Fordyce’s Sermons! Delightful diversion for her!” or “Jane! Guess what! We are going to visit Aunt and Uncle Gardiner!” What a delightful diversion that shall be!

And when she and Jane would talk about life and love into the wee hours of the morning, Elizabeth could only talk of him. For months, she talked of her “Mr. Wright,” the man whose name was unknown to her, but seemed so right for her.

At length the memory of that day had faded. As months passed into years, she no longer was able to draw up an image of what the gentleman looked like, or what his voice sounded like that had been so pleasing to her ears.

Her thoughts assaulted her. Could he really be the same man? It was as if she suddenly remembered everything very clearly! It was him! The man who visited her in her dreams in the past week was both Mr. Wright and Fitzwilliam Darcy! The same man! She simply had no idea.

She hoped that he would not sense her discomposure. At least in the darkness of the room she could hide her face of shock and make a futile attempt to still her shaking fingers. At once, all those little episodes trying to recall a vague memory made sense—her colliding with Mr. Darcy that first day, feeling that she had been on the receiving end of this proud man’s praise once long ago. She took a deep breath as she tried to gather her thoughts.

She knew that now she would have an even greater struggle getting off this ship without him. If she could not forget the man with whom she only spent a couple of hours, how could she ever forget the man who had posed as her very own husband over the course of several weeks?

Elizabeth was rendered silent by this realization, and Darcy, receiving no further response from her, assumed she was in no mood to talk. Their conversation for the night ceased.

For several hours the storm continued mercilessly with wind, rain, and occasionally hail battering the ship. In the early morning hours, the storm gradually weakened, and Darcy and Elizabeth fell into a sound sleep. Darcy awoke a few hours later and discovered his arm still protectively wrapped around her. She had turned in the night and her head was snuggled deeply against his chest and her arm wrapped securely around his waist. He could only see her when the occasional flash of distant lightning lit the room. She was beautiful, and he found it exceedingly difficult to remove his eyes from her.

Her hair was splayed around his arm and he found himself anxiously waiting for each successive bolt of lightning off in the distance to light up the small cabin so he could better see her. How he wanted to comb his fingers through her hair, caress her face with his hand, kiss her lips.

Darcy lay very still, but his heart pounded mercilessly. When Elizabeth moved in her sleep and drew herself up against his chest, Darcy gave in to the temptation, leaned his head over, and gently kissed the top of her head, letting his lips linger there. He wanted to draw her into a fervent embrace, but that kiss would have to suffice for the time being. He lay there for some time, listening to every breath she took, sensitive to every slight movement she made, and breathing in the flowery scent of her hair from the toilet water she most likely sprinkled in it.

At length, the only way Darcy felt he could endure the prospect of spending the remainder of the night with Elizabeth in his arms, and remain the gentleman he promised he would be, was to think of her as his best friend’s sister. He forced a mental image to appear of the woman who grated his every nerve, tested his patience, and pushed the boundary of his civility. The only way he found to deal with this temptation was to imagine that she was Caroline Bingley! Never before had he thought so much about that annoying woman! At length he fell asleep.

As the sun began to peek up over the horizon through the scattered clouds that were remaining from the storm, Elizabeth awoke. She had been in the middle of a dream. In the dream she had been up on the top deck of the ship and a fierce storm was raging, much like the one that night. One of the masts had broken and crashed down over her, the sails from the mast and yardarm falling atop her. She was sure that no one knew she was trapped under them, and felt frantic, unable to move… unable to scream.

When at last she awoke, it took her a moment to realize where she was and that it had only been a dream. Her mind gradually cleared and she recalled how she and Mr. Darcy had come to sleep on the floor that night. Darcy was next to her. She could tell by his heavy, steady breathing that he was sound asleep. She also came to realize that the masts that were lying across her in her dream were actually his leg that was draped across her leg and his arm that was slung over her. The sails that had entrapped her in that dream were the blankets that she was wrapped in.

Her head was buried deep within his chest and she not only recognized the constant rhythm of his breathing but could also hear and feel the steady pulse of his heartbeat. She lay there quietly, so as not to awaken him.

As more light began to seep into the room, she pulled herself away slowly and looked at his sleeping face. Something about watching him sleep halted her. While asleep, he appeared very vulnerable and unassuming. He had a very pleasing countenance that she only wished could permeate his features more often while awake. Normally fastidious about his looks, he now lay with his curly hair dishevelled. She thought how much more unpretentious he appeared. Here was a man with a large fortune, and yet as she looked at him, she felt that at this moment, he was purely flesh and bones as she, and his fortune meant no more to him than her lack of fortune meant to her. Finally, here was a man who normally put on a mask of pride, and yet now that mask had fallen away, and he was as innocent as a baby.

She thought how attractive he looked in this state. No airs, no pride, nothing to recommend him. She could easily fall in love with someone like that.

She steadily watched his face, and without even thinking, her hand went up and pushed aside an unruly strand of curly hair that had fallen across it. As soon as she let it go, it fell back down. In doing this, another thought came to her. Darcy was a man who took meticulous care in his appearance. She was aware of how he worked to get his hair in place, often with fruitless results once he went up on deck and the wind whipped through it. His dress was always immaculate, and he was of exceptional height and build. All these things inevitably drew attention to him.

That was it! That was what she could not figure out that first night she saw him in the dining area. His fashionable dress, exceedingly handsome looks, and tall stature all commanded attention; yet that was the very thing he loathed!

Elizabeth had to keep herself from chuckling aloud. He most likely considered his good looks a curse because of the attention they drew to him—attention he did not want. When he planted himself against a wall or a window, he hoped to disappear. If he was just anybody, he would have succeeded without too much notice or idle speculation. But due to the very nature of the man, it simply drew more attention to himself; attention that misinterpreted his actions as prideful.

Elizabeth closed her eyes with this thought, as she savoured the novelty of lying in his arms. She did not want the night to end and, for the very first time, began to fear what it would mean to them when the ship docked. As she dwelled on these thoughts, she noticed him begin to stir.

She closed her eyes so he would not see her watching him if he awoke. She was surprised when his arm closed around her more tightly, securing her against him. She could barely breathe, and suddenly felt ill at ease that if he should awaken, he should not find them tangled as they were. She tried to pull away carefully so as not to awaken him, when suddenly he spoke. “Lie still, Caroline, you are safe in my arms.”

Elizabeth gasped in a sharp breath as he spoke these words. She lifted her eyes to his face. He did not appear to be awake, but his words pierced through her and she felt a real sharpness of pain. She had never once considered that he might have a woman back in England waiting for him. How foolish she had been to entertain thoughts about this man, when from the start, he made it clear that their marriage would be annulled and forgotten once he returned.

She grabbed her pillow and blanket, pulling herself away with little attempt to be careful not to awaken him. Once that was accomplished, she climbed into her own bed.

She closed her eyes, her body trembling, whether from her strenuous effort to pull herself away from him or her feelings for him that were now so overpowering she was not sure how she would endure one more day. As she turned her head to the wall and closed her eyes, she felt them swell with tears and one slowly escaped down her cheek.

Darcy opened his eyes, awakening when he became aware of Elizabeth leaving his side. He looked over to her as she returned to her own bed. He was grateful to see it was Elizabeth, as he had just been suffering in a dream where his wife for the journey had been Caroline Bingley and he had the arduous task of comforting her in a storm!

Looking back at Elizabeth, he was disappointed that she left his side, but if she had remained, it would have been exceedingly difficult to maintain even a modicum of restraint. The storm outside had ceased, but another storm had taken hold in his heart.

Chapter 12

Darcy lay quietly absorbed in thought for almost an hour after Elizabeth left his side, unable to keep from thinking about this captivating lady.

A soft, hopeless moan escaped him. How did this happen? How did she do this? Was it with some sort of feminine allurement that she had set out from the beginning to entrap him?

He thought back to those months after the carriage ride when he had first met her. He had not been able to get her out of his mind. Now, he had just spent a month with her, posing as her husband, living within the close confines of their small cabin, and he was supposed to forget her when they got off this ship? He knew there was very little chance of it. She expected him to return to England and annul this marriage when he, in all truthfulness, wished to keep it intact! In a frustrated sigh that deepened into a yawn, he stretched out his arms and began to sit up.

He grimaced in pain as he had forgotten about his sore shoulder and brought up his other hand to briskly rub it. He looked over at Elizabeth, who was still sleeping soundly in her bed. She was facing the wall, so he could only see her hair flowing down her back. He sat up and leaned against his bed, keeping a watchful eye on the sleeping maiden. Due to the storm, last night they had never put up the sheet separating their two beds, and he enjoyed the sight of Elizabeth as he gazed upon her sleeping form.

As he worked out his stiff muscles, he thought of those first few nights on the ship when she had to sleep on the floor in steerage. How did she do it? He did not think he would have been able to, as he had been pampered and spoiled all his life. She was not afraid to step out of the comfort of her world, something that he personally found exceedingly difficult!

Now he was faced with stepping into a discomfort of another kind. He knew that today would demand that he address his feelings. Today, before they reached shore, he would somehow manage to convey to her his love and admiration. He felt his chest constricting and his pulse racing just at the prospect of it.

His thoughts went back to the previous night and how Elizabeth had so graciously and selflessly tended to him. From there his thoughts carried him to their lying together during the storm, and then awaking to find her nuzzled close against him.

These recollections were most pleasant indeed, but he was seriously displeased with himself. Why did he have such fierce reactions to the thought of speaking those words to her that would clearly express his sentiment and intent? Why is the mere thought of that so difficult for me? He could be articulate about a great number of subjects. He and Elizabeth shared deep, meaningful conversations. So why did the prospect of articulating his emotions leave him feeling so inadequate and vulnerable?

He longed to sit here watching her endlessly, but he knew he must get up and leave the room, as she would want to arise in privacy. With a few quick adjustments to the clothing in which he had slept, he prepared to go aloft. He knew how he had weathered the storm; now he was curious how the ship fared.

He quietly opened the door, turning back to look one last time at Elizabeth. Then he closed it behind him.

His first stop was down the long hall to the dining area. When he came upon it, he was stunned to find some windows had broken out and water had flooded the room. Some of the tables and benches had broken loose and were now in a chaotic heap. One of the crewmen advised him that the dining area would be inaccessible until they got things cleaned up and repaired.

Slowly he walked to the deck, and as he came up, he deeply breathed in the fresh air laced with the scent of a recent rain.

He could immediately tell that the storm had waged a war with the ship last night, but in his novice opinion, it appeared as though the ship had won. He noticed several of the crew mending sails and repairing broken yardarms. For the most part, the ship had endured satisfactorily. Several men were vigorously mopping down the deck, ridding it of the excessive water. He was grateful the ship had a good crew who all seemed to know exactly what needed to be done. It was good to see that firsthand. His ship was in excellent hands.

He inquired of the whereabouts of the captain and was told that he had retreated to his cabin as soon as morning broke and he was able to assess the damage. He remained on deck throughout the night and was likely getting some rest now. By the looks of the deck, it would not be a good morning to walk, as rigging, sails, and various pieces of equipment were strewn about and sailors were attempting to make amends. The topsail, gallant sail, and a few smaller sails had been unfurled and the ship was moving along nicely. Darcy inquired as to their bearings.

“We won’t be arriving in the New World today as we hoped. We got pushed too far off course last night,” answered one of the sailors. “We are currently farther south and east than where we need to be. Prob’ly be making land early in the morning if we are lucky.”

Darcy sighed. Another night aboard the ship. That gave him a little more time to formulate the words he wanted to say to Elizabeth, along with the decision whether to acknowledge his feelings today or wait until tomorrow. Darcy took in a deep breath as he contemplated what to do.

Since he could not walk easily on deck nor go into the dining area, all he could do now was return to their room. He knocked lightly and heard a soft, “Come in.”

Walking in, he found Elizabeth sitting at the dresser brushing out her hair. She had changed from the dress she had slept in, and looked surprised to see him.

Darcy felt awkward returning before she was ready, and offered an apology. “It is quite a mess up there, Elizabeth. It would be too difficult for us to attempt to walk this morning, and even the dining room is unfit for passengers until they get some work done in there.” He walked over to the small bench and sat down.

From where he sat, he could watch Elizabeth brush out her hair, but she could not see him. He watched as she slowly and repeatedly brought the brush down through her thick, dark length of hair. Having only seen it down a couple of times, but never having had the pleasure of watching her brush it, he could not take his eyes off of her. As she deftly lifted its length up and easily pinned it into a very becoming style, Darcy was mesmerized by the sight, and noticed particularly how graceful her neckline was when she lifted her hair. The urge to walk over and gently kiss it was overpowering.

As she sat there brushing out her hair, she had been doing a great deal of contemplation about this man whom she discovered last night was her “Mr. Wright.” Those two years had probably changed him in some degree, but it was most likely in her mind that he had changed. She reasoned that the greatest factor in not recognizing him was that after she had carried about the thought of this man for months and months, even giving him a name by which to refer to him, she eventually knew she must put aside this girlish infatuation and forget about him. It was a struggle that she had a difficult time conquering, but at length, after considerable willpower and effort, she let her “Mr. Wright” go, determined to grow up and set her mind on more attainable aspirations in the area of prospective suitors.

That did not make the realization any easier. Her thoughts since awakening were mixed with the staggering recollection of his whispering the name “Caroline” as he held her in the night, and Elizabeth felt that any conversation with him today would be a struggle for her. A struggle because her heart was aching to love him and be loved by him, and because they would be arriving shortly in America and go their separate ways.

The silence between them was deafening to her ears. She struggled for anything to say. “Are we to see land shortly, do you think?” Her stomach tightened in a knot as she asked this.

“Not today, at least. The crew tells me that the storm pushed us off course. Hopefully we will reach land early tomorrow morning.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth turned back to the mirror. The tightening and tenseness grew worse as she heard his word “hopefully.” He looked forward to moving on.

Perhaps that was what she needed. Once they had gone their separate ways it might be easier. In one way she wanted it over with. Perhaps when he was out of her sight and out of her presence, she would be able to put him out of her heart and mind. But if her former association with him was any indication, she would likely not forget him any time soon.

As Elizabeth turned her attention back to making some final adjustments with her hair, Darcy pondered again, for perhaps what was close to the hundredth time, what he should say to her, how he should say it, and when. Each time he even considered it, each time he would feel the impulse to begin, his heart would beat rapidly and he would feel a shortness of breath. He did not enjoy this feeling at all, as it was something he seldom experienced. He finally resorted to picking up his book to read, deciding he would attempt this later. He simply did not have the capacity at the moment.

As things up on deck were mopped down, cleaned up, and cleared away, people began congregating in the dining room again. Everyone needed to share their experiences from the night before, and Elizabeth found that many in steerage had been terribly frightened and exceedingly seasick. The conditions down there had been dreadfully terrifying. The savage tossing of the ship, coupled with the complete darkness and crowded conditions, produced a night most would not soon forget. She went down to see if she could help, and for her own peace of mind ended up spending most of the day down there away from Darcy.

Having a good amount of time to himself that day, Darcy put that time to use reflecting on what had been the greatest struggle of his personal life in deciding to preserve his marriage to Elizabeth. As he again began applying himself to further thought about what he would say to her, the formulation of any coherent, sensible, moving sentiment was proving to become his second greatest struggle.

There was also the underlying fear of what she would say. He would be going expressly against the conditions he had set forth and that she had agreed to. And what of this Mr. Wright? Was he someone she had an understanding with back home? The thought had gnawed at him intermittently since that night she spoke the name.

All these thoughts converged upon him. Did he even have the right to do this?

He did not think he would be able to live with himself if he did not. He would tell her tonight. The fact that the decision was made gave him a great peace. The prospect of doing it did not.

***

That evening, as anticipation again mounted that they would be drawing close to the American shore, most everyone gathered in the dining area for a final night together of conversation, reminiscing about the voyage, and a gathering of cards and games. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings pleaded with the Darcys to join them as a foursome at cards for this last night. Elizabeth looked at Darcy, who surprised her in every respect by saying he would be happy to.

The four settled into a spirited, and very competitive—at least between the two men—game of cards. Elizabeth was surprised to notice a more relaxed demeanour and openness in Darcy’s behaviour. A few times he made some humorous comments, and once he even laughed without restraint. Her heart ached in believing him to be feeling a bit more relief in that he was bound to her but one more day.

The activities in the room were lively, most everyone feeling a great sense of anticipation that the morning would bring a new life for them; a better life. An occasional strong wave that lifted the boat and sent hands scrambling to hold things down reminded them also that they had all weathered the storm together with little lasting damage.

When they were in the heat of their final round, Jennings leaned back in his chair, commented to Darcy on how well he was playing, and seemed to get a mischievous glimmer in his eyes.

At length he said, “Darcy, I do believe marriage agrees with you.”

Darcy’s eyes had been glued intently on his cards, and he tensed before lifting them slowly to Jennings. He could do nothing to prevent his gaze from subsequently travelling over to Elizabeth, who was looking down at her cards with a blush that had overtaken her features.

Darcy did not respond except for a somewhat forced smile. Elizabeth made every attempt to disguise the discomfort she felt and hoped that would be the end of the conversation. It was not to be.

“But then, you have certainly found yourself a lovely wife.”

Darcy saw Elizabeth’s eyes slightly close as she took in a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, she still did not bring them up.

“Yes, that she is.” He said it softly, all the while keeping his eyes on Elizabeth. Darcy played a card, hoping to keep the game on track, and the hand went around.

When it came to Jennings’s turn, he began to pull up a card and then paused. “You know, Darcy, when I heard that the two of you were getting married after knowing each other for such a short amount of time, I had my doubts. I was very sceptical of whether such a marriage was prudent.” He pulled out a card from his hand and laid it on the table. “But I must confess you have proven me wrong. The two of you certainly seem well suited for each other!”

That Elizabeth could barely concentrate on the game was expected, but when she saw that Darcy had played a completely worthless card and had uncharacteristically given the trick to Jennings, she realized he was just as troubled by this line of conversation as she was. Her emotions roiled within her. She finally mustered the courage to look up at Darcy’s face, which had discomfort written all across it as well. He had been rendered silent by this man, so she decided she must speak up.

“Mr. Jennings, I believe what makes a marriage successful is when the two partners completely agree on the direction they expect the marriage to go, know what each one wants out of it, and what each one is willing to give. Fitzwilliam and I are in complete agreement about this marriage in all those aspects. Is that not correct, Fitzwilliam?”

Darcy met the look of challenge in Elizabeth’s eyes with a look of resignation in his. He had determined to enjoy Elizabeth’s presence tonight and approach her later about keeping their marriage intact. With these words, she was essentially reaffirming the arrangement they made almost a month ago.

“Yes, Elizabeth is right. We do agree totally on all those things.”

Jennings laughed. “Is it not amazing how Providence sometimes leads two people together, who are so right for each other, in the most unexpected way?” Darcy refrained from looking up, believing that if he looked at Elizabeth at this moment she would see in him all the depth of the feeling he had for her, laced with the despair at what he understood her to say.

Elizabeth was anxious to leave the table and any further conversation. With the ship reaching American soil sometime tonight and being in the dock by sunrise tomorrow, she did not feel it within her to maintain her composure with Jennings speaking as he was.

The game finally ended and this time Jennings took the win triumphantly. Elizabeth stood up. “If you will excuse me, I think it time to pay my respects to my friends in the room and then take my leave. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, it has been a pleasure travelling with you and I wish you all the best.”

Darcy saw the strained look on her face and stood up with her. He turned to the others. “If you will excuse me, I will accompany my wife. Good night.”

“I certainly understand!” Jennings laughed. “I was a newlywed once myself,” he looked at his wife who suddenly was the one who blushed, “and I remember how often we would be the first to leave a social gathering.” His wink to Darcy was not missed by Elizabeth, and she quickly turned and began walking from the table without waiting for Darcy.

Walking briskly to distance herself from the present conversation, Elizabeth suddenly felt Darcy’s hand tighten around her arm. She walked over to Mr. and Mrs. Rawlings, expressed her gratitude for her friendship, gave the girls each a hug, and before she was even able to say the word, “Goodbye,” Mrs. Rawlings stood up and embraced her. The two could not hold back the tears.

“If I do not see you in the morning, Lenore, may I wish you God’s blessing.”

“And I hope and pray that you and Mr. Darcy will have a wonderful life together.”

Elizabeth smiled nervously, Darcy bowed politely, and they made their way around the room to those they had come to know well, wishing them the best in the new world.

As they turned back toward the door to finally leave, Darcy again took her arm. Naturally assuming she desired to go back to their room, he began to lead her in that direction. She stopped him. “I need some fresh air, if you do not mind.”

“Of course not. I could use some as well.” There were a few other things Darcy believed himself to need, namely some courage, perhaps some courage-producing brandy, but fresh air would suffice.

They walked up to the deck just in time to see the sun had recently set and the endless horizon was a palette of reds, oranges, and purples that met the deep blue of the darkening sky. Without speaking, they both walked to the side of the ship that looked out to the colourfully vibrant sky.

“I am sorry if Mr. Jennings’s comments made you uncomfortable back there,” Darcy said to Elizabeth. “I would not have wished for you to have been put in that position.”

“Deceptions are not always easy to live with, Mr. Darcy. I am as much a part of this deception as you are. It is not solely your fault, and you have no need to apologize.”

His hand still possessively held her arm and he closed his eyes at hearing her revert to his formal address. The two, standing side by side, turned their attention back to watch the colourful sky. Elizabeth’s heart ached at the certainty that this would be the last time they looked upon a sunset together as man and wife.

As she looked out at the sunset, her thoughts suddenly went to her father when she saw him last. His parting words to her were a reminder to thank God for each day that He had given her. She thought it odd that her father’s words were not first and foremost on her mind this evening in seeing the sunset. She was surprised that her thoughts went first to Darcy, and her father’s words and parting request were almost an afterthought.

The two settled into their customary silence as their thoughts took a more similar path than each would have conjectured. As they enjoyed watching the sky give over its light to the coming night, they were suddenly caught off guard by a random, forceful wave that rocked the boat. Elizabeth was flung against Darcy’s chest, and he reacted to the unexpected jolt by reaching out his good arm to steady Elizabeth while his injured arm grabbed the ship’s railing. He winced as his shoulder wrenched with pain, and Elizabeth pulled away.

“Is your shoulder still in pain?” she asked with candid concern.

Darcy reached over and rubbed his sore shoulder. “It is nothing serious. This is not the first time today I have been reminded about last night.”

He may not have been able to see it written on her face, but if he listened attentively, he would have been able to hear her beating heart. At the moment, it betrayed her true feelings and seemed louder than the storm that passed through last night. He may have been referring to his injury, but when he mentioned last night, her only thought went to sleeping in his arms.

They stood in silence, facing each other in the darkness, when another wave propelled Elizabeth forward. This time the force of it was just enough for Darcy to reach out with both arms and secure Elizabeth safely against him as he was pressed against the side of the boat. After the wave passed and the ship settled, he told himself that he should release her, but he found it difficult to obey what he knew was gentlemanly and proper.

With the feel of his arms now wrapped securely around her, she suddenly did not care whether it was prudent, whether she might later regret it, nor whether there was some “Caroline” waiting for him back home. She wound her arms around his back and pulled herself closer to him, all the while slowly lifting her gaze to him.

She knew she was in danger, but was without any facility to resist. His hands came up and took hold of the shawl that rested on her shoulders, adjusting it slightly and then pulling it—and Elizabeth—even closer toward him. Elizabeth felt as though time was moving exceedingly slow.

As Elizabeth was drawn up against Darcy, he slid one hand behind her neck and brought his fingers from his other hand up to her chin and lifted it up just enough to allow his lips to gently meet with hers. He was momentarily surprised that she offered no resistance. That thought, along with any other, was soon erased into oblivion as he lowered his lips to meet hers and savoured their softness against his.

As he more boldly deepened his kiss, he relished the response this woman, his wife, was displaying. Elizabeth, rendered breathless and feeling slightly askew in her equilibrium, brought her arms up to the upper part of his back, clinging to him fervently as if for her very life.

Neither was aware how long the kiss lasted, nor were they aware of passengers who strolled past them, smiling at their ardent display. Nor were they aware when the captain came up from below, quite stunned by what he saw.

Elizabeth unexpectedly sensed a change in Darcy. He tensed and purposefully brought his hands to her shoulders, drawing her away from him. She met his eyes warily, unsure of what she would see in them. In merely the light of the moon, she could make out that his eyes had narrowed, and he took in a sharp breath, letting it out slowly.

He spoke, his voice uneven and low. “Elizabeth,” he paused, steeling himself for what he knew he wanted to say, but rendered incapable of any lucid thought by his fiercely beating heart. “What I have to say… I hope you understand, Elizabeth, but I do not think…”

As Darcy struggled to put into words what he so greatly desired to tell her, the sound of someone standing nearby caught Elizabeth’s attention, and as she looked over, she saw the captain watching them. Without thinking, she pushed away from Darcy’s embrace. Nervously acknowledging the captain, she expressed a rather shaky, “Good evening,” to the one man who was aware of the extenuating circumstances surrounding their marriage. Feeling a great deal of mortification to have been found in such a state by him, and even greater distress at what she was sure Darcy was about to say, she promptly excused herself and left Darcy’s side to return to their room.

Darcy turned to follow, but the captain gave him a friendly nod and joined him at the side of the ship. As the two stood silently in the darkness, the captain finally spoke.

“It is amazing, is it not, Darcy, how a violent storm can rise up out of calm, idle waters so unexpectedly? I am always surprised, but never caught off guard. We can be travelling through what we think are tranquil waters, believing everything is going exactly as planned, heading in the exact direction we want, when in the blink of an eye, everything around us is jostled, tossed around, and completely shaken up. When it has passed, we are not at all where we thought we would be when we first set out.”

“May I ask if you are referring to the storm we had last night or might it be something else?”

The captain did not answer, but was silent for a moment.

At last he said, “I believe there may have been another unforeseen storm that came upon this voyage.” He turned and steeled his eyes at Darcy. “You know I was never in favour of this marriage between you and Miss Bennet. But I knew you well, trusted you, and I hoped that some good might come out of it.”

Darcy looked at him quizzically. “Good?”

“That perhaps you would see what a treasure Miss Bennet was and would fall in love with her.”

Darcy rested his elbows on the rail of the ship, looking out across the water.

“When did you fall in love with her, Darcy?”

Darcy closed his eyes. “I really cannot say. I was in the middle before I knew I had begun.”

“But you do love her?”

“Yes, I do.”

The captain smiled, knowing that Darcy could not see him. “So what do you intend to do about it?”

The captain heard Darcy’s sigh. “I had planned to talk to her tonight. But with some things Elizabeth has recently said, I believe that she expects the marriage to be annulled when I return to England.”

“From that kiss I witnessed, I would tend to disagree.”

Darcy looked over in the direction Elizabeth had walked. “Do you really believe there is a chance she cares?”

“Darcy, all I know is that I have watched the two of you over the course of these few weeks. I believe I have not seen a couple more suited for each other, yet who are both completely oblivious to the fact.”

The captain turned to Darcy and firmly planted a hand on his shoulder. “I would do some major thinking about what you need to say to her before you go back down to your room.” He paused and inhaled wearily. “And Darcy, I beg you, do not do anything foolish!”

“Of course, Captain.”

Wendell walked away and Darcy turned back to look at the darkened sea. He had grown accustomed to the sound of the waves splashing against the boat and the wind billowing in the sails. It was comforting, but his heart still pounded from the kiss. As he contemplated going to their room and exposing the leanings of his heart to her, his heart resonated throughout his whole being.

He looked out across the sea, seeing only blackness save the crescent moon and the stars that dotted the sky. He knew the course of the ship was determined by these stars, and he wished at that moment that he could chart his own course so easily and with the confidence and the assurance that Elizabeth would return his regard.

Wrought with anxiety, he paced back and forth up on the deck for some time, compelled to rush into his room and declare his love, and yet held back by the apprehension of how she would receive it. Those little voices with whom he had argued earlier surfaced again, but this time more meekly, and he was able to rid his mind of them. He knew he could not live without her, and it was worth it to take the risk: the risk of what his family would say, what his friends would say, and most importantly, what she would say.

He lingered a while longer up on deck, rehearsing over in his mind his declaration; using every bit of concentrated effort to calm his nerves, and to recover from the effects of the kiss.

Later, when he returned to their room, he entered and found it dark. He was grateful; she would not be able to see the nervousness that relentlessly plagued him. He doubted that she was asleep, as she had only come to the room within the last half hour. He found his way to the bench in the room and sat down, but instantly stood up again, spurred to keep moving by his nerves.

He rubbed his hands together, reciting in his mind the words he wanted to say, the words that had not come to him when they were up on deck; the words he felt that as a gentleman he should have said before he ever kissed her. But even though he knew what he wanted to say, when he opened his mouth to begin his declaration of love, the words still did not come. Finally he came over and stood at the edge of her bed. With one last, concerted effort, words poured forth from his mouth, but his mind barely registered what he was saying.

“Elizabeth, in vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” There, he had said it! The rest came easier. “In declaring myself thus, I am fully aware that I will be going expressly against the agreement we made three weeks ago concerning this marriage, but it cannot be helped. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance I have come to feel for you a passionate admiration and regard. I am asking, Elizabeth, for your agreement to keep our marriage intact. I am asking that you relieve my suffering and consent to remain my wife, a wife not veiled in deception and lies, but in truth and love.”

Darcy was silent, waiting for Elizabeth’s response. He waited patiently, but there was no answer. He began to dread that his words upset her, that she could not answer for her anger. “Elizabeth?” He nervously called out her name. Now he was anxious for another reason. “Elizabeth?” He reached out toward her bed, found that the sheet had not been put up, and when he gently reached down, discovered she was not in her bed.

He rushed out to get a light for the oil lamps and came back in, swaying a candle around the room to make an initial inspection of it. His heart felt like a lump rising in his throat as his eyes took a quick survey throughout the room, realizing with a start that not only was she not in the room, all her things had been removed!

Darcy dug his fingers through his hair as he stared at the empty room. She must have regretted the fact that he had kissed her. Perhaps he had frightened her with this bold, impulsive action, and she felt she could no longer trust him to spend this last night in the room with him. He shook his head as his breathing deepened with distress. He began to pace about the room again, trying to decide what his course of action ought to be.

He reasoned that when she returned to the room, she must have quickly packed her things. She most likely returned to steerage to spend the last night there. He closed his eyes as his fist slammed down against the wall. Why did I overstep my bounds? What have I done? Why did I give in to my impulses before I declared my intentions?

He could not go down to steerage now. It was too late. He would have to wait until morning. They had been told that the ship would reach the coast sometime in the early morning and remain off shore until the first light, when it would enter the harbour. He would get up early and find her. He would tell her then that he loved her and wanted to keep their marriage intact.

As he looked around the room, despairing at the thought that she was gone, his eyes lit on something on the floor off in the corner. He walked over toward it and picked it up. It was the sampler Elizabeth had been working on and had finished over the course of the voyage.

He fingered the stitches and his heart ached as he read the verse on it. “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” Would he be able to look upon this voyage with pleasurable memories or would they eternally plague him with pain and regret? Tomorrow morning would be crucial in answering that.

Filled with remorse and distress that spread throughout the depths of him, Darcy disconsolately walked over to the dresser and pulled out a small case, opened it, and removed a decanter of brandy. He pulled out a goblet from the same case and filled it with the golden liquid. He twirled the goblet and watched it as the liquid swirled around inside. He needed something to calm his unsteady nerves, ease his pain and anxiety, and give him a sense of boldness so that tomorrow he would be able to stand before her and declare his love.

He would speak those words again tomorrow morning before they left the ship. He took a sip and savoured the burning as it went down his throat. With each sip, his heart became a little less erratic, a little less sensitive to the pain and anxiety he was feeling, and he became a little bolder in anticipating his declaration to her when the new day had come.

After downing the contents in the goblet, he poured another glass, wishing to drown those aching and exposed feelings that continued to torment him. At length he put his head down onto the table, feeling the soothing, numbing, and emboldening effects, and fell into a sound, alcohol-induced sleep.

Chapter 13

Elizabeth slowly opened her eyes and it took a few moments to grasp where she was. Her eyes were sore and most likely bloodshot from the tears she shed throughout the night. Her body ached from having slept on the floor all night. She had forgotten what it had been like that first week in steerage sleeping on the floor. But she had not gone down to steerage. She did not think she could bear unwanted questions and speculations.

Instead, she had quickly and secretively slipped into the linens room. She stretched out her limbs, rubbed her eyes, and then threw off the blanket that covered her. With anguish and regret threatening to overwhelm her, she thought back to the events of the previous evening.

***

She had been quite disconcerted that the captain observed her and Darcy kissing, and reproaching herself that she had shamelessly encouraged it, abruptly left Darcy to return to their room. She hastened down the stairs, her heart refused to give up its incessant pounding. To keep her hands from shaking, she grasped them tightly together, rubbing her fingers raw. But every so often she would gently reach up and touch her lips with her fingers. She could still feel the gentle touch of his lips on hers; a kiss that she then unabashedly and foolishly encouraged to build into a fervently deep and passionate kiss.

She closed her eyes in contrition, tossing—as did the ship last night—between remorse for allowing the kiss and pleasure at having experienced it. He must have seen her look of longing when she was thrown against him and looked up into his face. She blushed with shame, as she wondered what had prompted her to draw her arms up and around his back and cling to him as if in immeasurable desperation.

As she entered their room, she sat down on her bed, wondering how she would face him and what she would say to him when he returned.

She dropped her head into her hands. What must he think of me?

She wondered whether he thought she was now expecting something from him beyond what he had stipulated in his proposal. Did he think she had been attempting to entice him to fulfil his duty as her husband on this final night solely to hold him to their vows? Did he think she was hoping to benefit from a marriage to a man of his means even though it began as a charade?

She violently shook her head as these thoughts continued to plague and torment her. She recollected his words when he pulled away. He did not finish what he was trying to say, but he did not have to. Elizabeth could see the look of discomfort written across his face. He was attempting to tell her that they should not have kissed, that he did not think it was prudent for them to continue. Although it should have been Elizabeth’s duty, Darcy was the one who had to stop the kiss. Elizabeth would have allowed it indefinitely, and now she felt all the shame of that.

She sat still, fervently keeping an eye to the door, wondering when he would return. She absently fingered the coverlet that lay on her bed, sketching in her mind what she would say to him, wondering what she should say to him. As each minute ticked away, she could not decide if she more greatly feared his prompt return or desired it.

When he did not return directly, Elizabeth began to feel a sense of disappointment as well as a rising sense of dread. She surmised that he had reservations about coming back to their room. Did he have similar regrets that he kissed her? Could it be that he thought she had behaved too recklessly? Too wantonly? Or was he now aware of those feelings and regard that she had striven so hard to conceal and reluctant to face her? Did he regret the fact that he had married her, despite the conditions he had set forth?

As her thoughts and doubts gathered momentum, Elizabeth began to feel a stronger and stronger inclination to remove herself from the room before he returned. With a sudden surge of determination, she set her mind to the task of quickly packing her duffel, not taking the time to carefully fold her things as she normally would have done.

She grabbed a handful of dresses, all suddenly looking very plain and worn, and packed them away. Her personal items she put in a drawstring bag, placing that in as well. She picked up her shawl and held it tightly to her chest, then laid it beside everything else. When everything was packed, she looked toward the door again, as if to give him one more chance to return.

With her duffel filled with all of her things, and Darcy not yet returned, she picked it up and half-carried half-dragged it to the door, glancing one more time around the room, which was dimly lit by the oil lamp. She looked at her bed, then his, the table and benches, the smaller dresser and mirror. It was a small room, but it had been her salvation on this trip. His completely unexpected proposal to her had allowed her comforts she would not have known.

But she could not look upon it solely as a room that imparted her comforts this past month. There was so much more that happened to her. When did she actually begin to feel as though she was his wife? When did that foggy, confused, and selfish decision to go along with his scheme transform itself into a deep love?

She thought of him holding her as she cried, following Mrs. Trimble’s death; how he sat with her upon her bed and rocked her while her tears flowed. She looked over to the corner of the room where she had helped him remove his shirt last night; then over to the floor where they had eventually fallen asleep in each other’s arms. She then thought of this woman, Caroline , whose name he had called out. It would be unfair to force herself between them.

No, she could not remain here. She dared not. He would see through any disguise she tried to put on and know her heart’s leaning. He may have come to know it already. She did not want to put him in that awkward position. She would leave tonight so she would not have to face him again. And he would be free to follow through with the course he initially set forth.

Just before leaving, she looked back into the room. Whispering softly, she said, “Goodbye, William.” She extinguished the lamp and closed the door behind her. With its closing, she felt as though a chapter in her life was closing as well, and wondered if she would ever be able to move beyond it.

She stepped out of the room, wondering how she would explain her presence in steerage. They would wonder what she was doing there. She suddenly thought of the linens room, and how, that morning she discovered it, she thought it would be pleasant enough to sleep in there. It was just down the hall, an easy enough distance to carry her duffel, hopefully without encountering anyone.

When she came upon the room and entered it, it was dark save for a thread of moonlight coming through the window. She was grateful that no one had seen her, and she set about securing a pillow and a blanket, and spread them out on the floor. She practically collapsed upon them, grateful for the solitude that would allow her to unleash her tears.

She curled up and covered herself with the blanket, but knew that sleep would most likely evade her. She lay for some time with her eyes wide open, fighting back the tears, wondering if he had yet returned to the room and discovered she was gone. Would he consider looking for her? Rationale pushed away any hopeful wishes she entertained and reminded her that he most likely would not. At length she let her tears fall unrestrained and buried her head into the pillow so no one would hear. She gradually fell into a fitful sleep, her dreams becoming surreal and haunting.

In the first dream, she seemed to be trapped on a ship that was sinking. Lifeboats were picking up passengers, but no one seemed to notice her. She could not move; she was alone and afraid. She could see William and knew his strong arms could easily pull her to safety. But he was looking the other way. She tried to scream, but could not. She watched in agony as he turned and walked away from her.

In another dream, she reached the shores of America and eagerly met her aunt and uncle. They greeted her with the startling news that they had arranged for her to marry someone the very next day and hurried her away to get ready. She was terribly confused and disturbed because she did not know how to tell them that she was already married. In a fragment of that dream, she was in a church dressed beautifully as a bride and standing up in the front next to a strange man. In great desperation she frantically tried to stop the wedding, but no one listened to her. As she looked toward the back of the church, she saw William standing there looking up the aisle at her; again he turned and walked away.

Her dreams finally ceased, at least that she could remember, and she fell into a more restful sleep for the remaining few hours of the night.

***

Now a new day was upon her, and as she saw the sunlight beginning to peer through the window, a strange noise drew her attention away from her thoughts. It was unlike any sound she had heard in the course of the voyage.

As she struggled to determine just what it was, she realized the movement of the ship was different as well. As the comprehension dawned on her, she opened her eyes widely. They were docked! They had reached land and the ship was being unloaded!

She thought it peculiar that her heart could pound so fiercely, yet at the same time feel so completely broken. How could it continue to beat like this when she was about to walk off this ship, away from the man she had spoken marital vows to? Away from the man she had come to love?

She sat up, knowing that the sooner she made the break, the better off she would be. Perhaps once she was in the loving presence of her aunt and uncle, she could leave this part of her life behind her. She would have to go on as if this month, this voyage—this marriage—had never happened.

She quickly rose and peered out the small window, amazed at what she saw. She had not seen land for over a month, and now they had at long last arrived! She quickly readied herself for going ashore, dragging her duffel to the door and pulling it out into the hall undetected. She then found a sailor willing to assist her and carry her duffel up for her. As she followed him through the hall toward the stairs, she cast a glance in the direction of what had been their room. She wondered if he was already up on deck. What would she say to him if she saw him now?

When she came up on to the deck, she was not prepared for the sight. She looked out and saw land, trees, birds, people scurrying about, and carriages awaiting disembarking passengers. A flutter in her heart again reminded her just what it would mean for her to step off this ship. She slowly followed the sailor toward the gangway that would take her ashore, and he pointed out where the stowed luggage was being brought out and where she could pick up a waiting carriage.

With each step toward the beckoning land, her heart grew heavier and heavier. She found herself looking back, hoping to see Darcy come off the ship in search of her. She knew he had to be up by now. It was much later in the morning than when they had normally taken their daily walks. Each time she looked back, however, she was disappointed.

With each step she took, she felt herself grow increasingly unsteady. It became more and more of an effort to walk away from the ship. Her eyes seemed glued to the last step of the ramp that would take her from the ship and on to land. She could not look beyond it. Just as she was about to place her foot down onto that first parcel of land, she paused. Was it really within her to leave like this, without any thank you; without any wishes for his health and happiness; without any goodbye?

Looking back one last time, she gave the slightest consideration to turning back. She swept her eyes back and forth over the length of the ship, as if giving him a chance to appear, willing him to appear. Faced with the bleak realization that he was purposely keeping himself sequestered in his room, she took in a deep breath and decided she must keep going.

She took that final step off the ship, which brought her upon this new land, and as she did, she felt an unexpected and unexplainable pain grip her in the depths of her stomach. She wrapped her arms tightly about her, stooping down to help bear the pain.

It was a fleeting pain, but very real. As she pulled herself back up, she took some deep breaths, closed her eyes, and slowly took a few more steps onto American soil, feeling as though something had just been wrenched out of her.

She inquired of the carriages waiting, finding the one that had been dispatched to take her to the Gardiners’ home. The driver quickly helped her aboard, securing her duffel, and going in search of the trunk she had stowed. She sat alone in the carriage, grateful to be hidden from inquiring eyes, but unable to keep her gaze from drifting back to the area where passengers were gathering as they walked off the ship. It became difficult to take each breath as she began to give in to the despair that he was not to come.

She prayed that the driver would delay in finding her trunk; that perhaps he would be required to wait for some other passengers he was hired to convey. He returned directly, however, stowing the trunk most efficiently.

He then addressed her. “The ride should take no more than a half an hour, miss. Just make yourself comfortable. And welcome to America!”

Elizabeth barely forced a smile in return as she turned her attention once again to the passengers coming off the ship. She scanned the crowd, knowing she would recognize his tall form easily, the way he walked, his unruly curly hair. As the driver gave the signal for the horses to begin drawing the carriage, she tensed up, her breathing becoming increasingly difficult. She knew that with this last look back, it was his last chance to appear, her last chance to ever see him again.

As she looked up, her eyes filled with tears, and she was no longer able to distinguish anyone in the crowd. The carriage slowly began to pull away, and as it did, Elizabeth caught one last glance at the front of the ship where the name was inscribed: Pemberley’s Promise .

Although it was blurred because of her tears, the name of the ship hit her with a greater realization than ever before. It was a name full of promise for those who were headed for the new world. But for her, it was a ship of broken promises. Upon this very ship she had made vows and promises, not three weeks ago, that neither she, nor the man she had married, intended to keep.

She leaned forward as the carriage pulled away, allowing her to have one final glimpse of the ship, and when she could see it no longer, she leaned back into the seat of the carriage and let her tears fall and her sobs pour forth from her, whispering a soft, “I shall never see him again.”

***

Inside the ship, finally stirring within his room, Darcy lifted his head groggily from the table. He opened his eyes and strained to focus them as he glanced around the room, struggling to form at least one coherent thought. His head throbbed with pain, and he succumbed to lowering it again onto the table in front of him.

He sat still for a moment, struggling to recall what had happened. Why was he in the state he was in? When he opened his eyes again, they fell upon Elizabeth’s empty bed, and suddenly his heart lurched.

He fought back a wave of nausea as he struggled to stand, balancing his involuntary swaying by placing both hands firmly on the table. Only one thought came to his mind. I must find Elizabeth before she departs!

The will to put into action what his thoughts impelled him to do, however, was hindered by the state he was in. He glanced at the floor to find the empty decanter that must have rolled off the table sometime in the night and spilled.

Mercy! How much did I drink last night? With each faltering step he took, he fought a rising tide of dread and nausea combating with each other to bring him down into a state of despair.

He reached the door, opened it, and leaned against the doorframe, bringing his hand up to his head and taking in some deep breaths. He tried to rub out the pain that seared inside his head, but the pain would not relent. He decided he would have to take one step at a time, but he must get out. As he walked toward the stairway, he hugged the wall, using it as a source of support.

Pulling himself up the stairs to the top deck, he used his hands on the railing to the same extent that he pushed himself up with his feet. When he finally came up, he squinted in the brightness of the sun, which was too intense for his eyes and seemed to delve straight to the pain in his head. It was also a very strong indicator that it was much later in the morning than he really wanted it to be. He was fairly certain she would have risen by now and would most likely be close to leaving, if she had not already.

There were many people on the deck, scurrying about, carrying their belongings, saying goodbye to one another, and cheerfully heading in sundry different directions in search of a new life. His eyebrows pinched together as he frantically searched the crowd for Elizabeth. Throngs of people passed him, but he did not even make an attempt to see if he recognized anyone. He made his way to the ship’s railing and collapsed against it, closing his eyes for just a moment as he tried to regain some strength and clear his head.

He saw that carriages were already being loaded up, and noticed one was already departing. He dropped his head down, closed his eyes, and in a plea of desperation appealed to One mightier than himself. “God, please let her still be on the ship. Please let me see her before she departs!”

It hurt to open his eyes and look out among the crowd, but the pain of not seeing her was greater. With each passing moment, he became more and more convinced in the depths of him that she had already departed.

He remained where he was, more from an inner struggle of not knowing what to do than from the condition he was in. He had no idea where she had gone. She had told him that her uncle had arranged for an errand boy to watch for the ship’s arrival, and this boy, in turn, would summon a carriage nearby the harbour to pick her up and take her to her uncle’s designated address. He doubted that he would easily be able to find the single carriage that conveyed her away.

As despair began to take hold of him, the captain came by his side.

“Darcy, you do not look well this morning.”

Darcy slowly lifted his head. “You have the gift of discernment, Wendell.”

“I assume things did not go well with Mrs. Darcy last night.”

Darcy turned to look at him. “She had already left when I returned to the room. I was hoping to come upon her this morning, but it appears I overslept and missed her.”

“I understand she was one of the first off the ship.”

Darcy winced as the words confirmed the finality of the situation. He hung his head at the captain’s pronouncement.

“You are not usually one to sleep in, Darcy.”

Darcy let out a frustrated sigh. “I… uh… had a little too much to drink last night.”

The captain silently nodded. “Come back to my room and get yourself some strong, hot coffee. You will feel much better afterwards.”

“I doubt that, sir.”

The two walked silently to the captain’s room. He poured some strong coffee into a cup and gave it to Darcy.

“Drink this. You may not feel better, but you should be able to think better and decide what you must do.”

Darcy gave in to the captain’s suggestion and began drinking the coffee, as he gave in to his body’s demands and closed his eyes. His head still pounded, but now there was a rising sense of despair as he knew he may have missed his final opportunity to tell Elizabeth how he felt; to tell her that he had come to love her.

The captain silently watched Darcy as he drank the coffee, and offered him some freshly baked bread and fresh fruit that had been brought aboard. Darcy declined.

Wendell knew he should be up bidding his passengers farewell and making sure things were going smoothly. But at the moment he felt Darcy required some attention. He had never seen the man in this state, and now regretted having agreed to perform the wedding ceremony under the conditions Darcy set forth.

Out of the blue, Darcy said, “I do not even know how I am going to find her again.”

“Darcy, you do not have to try to find her while she is here. Wait until you return to England.”

Darcy looked up at him with bloodshot eyes. “We talked very little about our personal lives. I have no idea even where she lives, other than some small village in Hertfordshire.”

The captain looked across the desk at his longtime acquaintance and felt moved by his sense of loss. Here was a man of great wealth, superior position in society, excellent connections, and one who most likely never had to think twice about getting what he wanted. It was amazing to consider how the one thing Darcy discovered he wanted had been completely in his grasp, only to slip away.

The captain opened a drawer and pulled out a booklet. “Let us look in here, shall we?”

Darcy looked up. “What is that?”

“The ship’s manifest.” He opened the large book and thumbed through a couple of pages. “We do keep a record of every passenger who boards this ship to America.”

Suddenly Darcy’s eyes widened, his heartbeat quickened in hope, and he leaned over, trying to decipher the writings that were entered. Being unable to read upside down, in addition to his inability to focus clearly, Darcy walked around to the other side of the desk and began looking for the name, Elizabeth Bennet.

They scanned down the names on the first page but hers was not there. Darcy felt a sense of anxiety course through him as he looked upon the names. In no way could he call the manner in which they were written “handwriting.” It was more like they were scribbled, and he wondered if they would recognize her name at all. He only hoped the captain would be able to decipher the entries better than he could in the state he was in.

After going through the first two pages, they were halfway down the third when the captain found her name. “Here it is! Elizabeth Bennet!” He took his finger and followed the line across the page. “Hertfordshire.”

“Yes, I know that.”

He followed it farther. “Hmmm.” The captain and Darcy both had the identical thought. “This may be difficult to make out.”

The first letter was definitely an “L” but what followed could only be described as a tumble of unreadable marks. The captain sighed. “Well, Darcy, it begins with an ‘L’, and it looks as though there is a ‘g’ or a ‘p’ or maybe a ‘y’ here.”

Darcy rolled his eyes, eager to blame anyone for anything this morning. “Who wrote this anyway?”

“One of our clerks in the office.” The captain stood up. “I’ll leave you to sober up a little and try to decipher this while I go back to my duties. Drink as much coffee as you need, and please help yourself to something to eat. It is the best food we have had in weeks!”

As the door shut behind the captain, Darcy began to feel a sense of despair coming over him again. Will I ever find her? Will I ever see Elizabeth again?

After making a vain attempt to make sense of the writing, Darcy returned to his room. He began to feel the sobering effects of the coffee, but knew he had to attend to the emotionally arduous task of packing his things. He lifted the sampler Elizabeth had inadvertently left behind, taking prodigious care of it. He held it between his fingers, looking at it more carefully this time, and noticed how she had worked her initials, “EB,” into the tendrils of a vine. He let out a soft “humph” as he contemplated that she had, unfortunately, used the letter “B” of her unmarried name.

As he emptied the drawers of clothes and placed them in his duffel, he unexpectedly came across their marriage certificate. As he looked upon it, he drew in a quick breath, having almost forgotten that he had secured it in one of the drawers.

His eyes narrowed at the sight of Elizabeth’s signature, and he found himself drawing a finger over her name. Elizabeth Julianne Bennet. Hertfordshire.

He looked back up at the top, seeing his name and hers, united together in matrimony. He dropped the hand that was holding the certificate to his side. How long ago that seemed. So much had happened; none of which was what he had intended. Or had he?

He thought back to that day he asked for her hand in a marriage that, he told her, would be annulled once he returned to England. No one need ever know. But just moments before that impulsive proposal, he had discovered she was the same young lady who had captured his heart in a short carriage ride two years earlier. He wondered whether in truth he wanted to fall in love with her, wanted her to fall in love with him, and for her to be his cherished wife always. Could it be that deep down he felt this was the only way to secure her as his wife? That it was the only way to do it and not address their difference in station?

Darcy shook his head. Then why did I struggle so with my feelings? Why did I wait so long to decide I could not live without her? Why did I have to wait so long that now I have lost her?

Filled with remorse, Darcy attempted to finish the task of packing his things. His head was clearer now, but his heart was still reeling. Why did I not ask her where she would be staying while here? Or where specifically she lived in England? Is there any chance I will see her again?

These questions and more plagued him as he readied himself to leave. At length he picked up his duffel, took one last glance about the room, and departed.

Upon leaving, he took notice of the captain, and walked over to him to pay his respects. “Thank you for all you did, Captain. I know I was not the ideal passenger.”

“Will you be returning with us to England in two weeks?”

“I think not. I think it best not to return on the Pemberley, as I would not want any of the crew to inadvertently speak to Georgiana of my marriage—or my pretence of a marriage.”

“One word to them, Darcy, and their lips are sealed.”

Darcy shook his head. “No. I think it best that we return on another ship.”

“I shall look into whether any of Stearnes’ other ships are in port that will be leaving in the near future to return to England. You should have no difficulty securing passage on one if it is in port. Most people are sailing to America and not the other way around.”

“Thank you.”

“And Darcy…”

“Yes, Captain?”

“I shall look further into where your wife calls home. If I find out anything more, I will assuredly let you know.”

Darcy extended his hand. “Thank you, and God bless, Captain.”

Wendell nodded as he watched his friend turn sullenly and disembark, wondering whether there would be anything he could do to help him. He would certainly make the effort. 

Chapter 14

For the duration of the carriage ride, Elizabeth was unmindful of the passing city of New York as it conveyed her to her aunt and uncle’s boardinghouse. It had been their temporary home since arriving and would be the same for her for the next few months. The city swept past her in a blur as she looked out with red and swollen eyes.

As much as she looked forward to seeing them again, the tumult of her emotions made her feel how unequal she would be to receive their affable and gracious attentions if she remained in this state. She knew not where they lived in relation to where she was, but at that moment she deemed it prudent to make every effort to put aside these heartbroken feelings and make herself presentable for her arrival.

She took in an unsteady deep breath, closed her eyes, and resolutely decided she would think no more of the man who offered himself as her husband solely to aid in her comfort and to ease his discomfort. She certainly benefited from his most unusual and unexpected proposal, but she looked back and wondered if her temporary comfort had come at the expense of her longtime comfort. Her body may have been restored to good health, but her heart felt as though it had been ripped in two.

Pulling out a handkerchief, she dabbed at her eyes, steeling herself to shake out of this and rise above it. She finally turned to look out the window at the city that was passing by her.

It was a new, sprawling city, similar to London but without the buildings that had been erected hundreds of years ago. They lived in an area called Manhattan, an island, the Gardiners had said, that extended for several miles out between the Hudson and East Rivers, that both then reached out to the Atlantic Ocean.

She straightened herself up, secured a few loose strands of hair that had escaped, and nodded, affirming that she was going to enjoy her stay here, take in as much as she could, and hopefully put the last four weeks behind her.

Elizabeth’s attention soon turned to the neighbourhood through which they were driving as the carriage began to slow down. It drew up in front of a large, two-story brownstone building that had flowers blooming in flower boxes hung from the windows, a beautiful green lawn, and a small white picket fence bordering the front. A small sign hung from the front porch which read, “New Amsterdam Boardinghouse.” This would be her home for the next few months, and it could not be more delightful.

The carriage driver promptly opened the door for Elizabeth and offered his hand to bring her down. She felt a tinge of nervousness as she looked around her. It was not just being in a new place, but a completely different country!

“Let me take you in and make sure your kinfolk are here, and then I’ll come back for your things.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said and smiled. She had heard many things about the Americans, but this young man was most polite and helpful. She thought her first impression, through him, had been most positive.

Walking alongside Elizabeth up the long walk to the front door, he opened it and held it for Elizabeth to pass through. They walked into a large reception room, and a friendly woman, who was busily dusting some large pieces of wood furniture, greeted them.

“Hello,” Elizabeth returned the greeting. “I am Elizabeth Bennet, the niece of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. Are they by any chance here?”

“Why I believe they are! I know they have been most anxious for your arrival!” She waved for Elizabeth to follow her, and mentioned to the carriage driver, “You may bring her things upstairs to room 4.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elizabeth followed the woman, and in speaking with her, found out her name was Mrs. VanderHorn and that she and her family had come over from the Netherlands about ten years ago. Elizabeth enjoyed hearing the English spoken by this woman who had a slightly different accent.

When they came to the room, Mrs. VanderHorn knocked at the door. In just a few moments the door opened very slightly and a pair of eyes, about half the height of Elizabeth, peered out.

The door suddenly flew open and she was announced with a wail, “It is Lizzy! Lizzy is here!”

Little four-year-old Caleb threw himself at Elizabeth, and as she knelt down, she drew him into a big hug. How good it felt, and Elizabeth felt the first glimmer of joy flow through her since last night. They were soon joined by the rest of the family, the children jumping up and down, and Edmund and Madlyn Gardiner waiting patiently for their chance to greet their niece.

When the children finally finished with their greeting, her aunt and uncle together drew Elizabeth into an embrace. Mrs. Gardiner patted her lightly on the back, repeating over and over, “It is so good you have come! It is so good to have you here!”

Tears spilt from Elizabeth’s eyes, but this time they were tears of joy.

Her aunt pulled away a little asking, “Was it a difficult crossing, Lizzy?”

“No,” Elizabeth said through her sniffles. “It is just so good to be with family again!”

“Well, come in, dear girl,” her uncle offered. “It has been too long!”

Elizabeth walked in and savoured the modest, yet comfortable room. Sitting down in a large, overstuffed chair, she soon had the two smaller children on her lap, and the two older ones standing at her side, anxious to hear about how things were back home, but competing with each other to tell her about the adventures they had all been having here in America.

The driver returned with her things, and her uncle showed him to the room that she would share with cousins Lauren and Amanda. He thanked the driver, paid him his due, and sent him on his way.

Elizabeth spent the whole day catching up on all they had been doing the past few months. With great detail and excitement her uncle told her of how his business back in London would be able to really expand with his ability to export a good deal of product to America. He had discovered while here that London would not be the most profitable place to export from, but instead he would be shipping mainly from Liverpool. And with that news, he informed them that they would probably be able to leave New York a little sooner than anticipated; travelling to Liverpool instead of London when they returned. He needed to finalize his business arrangements there before returning home.

Madlyn filled her in on all the places of interest they had visited since arriving, and let her know which ones they desired to visit with her. She told her of the wide variety of people, from every country she could imagine, the little shops that sold Dutch, or Greek, or French, or Norwegian foods and products.

The children insisted on telling her about all their new friends, the new games they had learned to play, and some of the words they learned from children who had come from other countries.

Mr. Gardiner had to leave later in the day after a most delectable fare for midday meal. Elizabeth remarked that she had never tasted anything as delicious, while her aunt assured her that it was most likely due to the bland, dried food she had been eating the past few weeks on the ship.

Elizabeth and her aunt enjoyed their time together talking alone as the children went out in the afternoon to play with the VanderHorn children. Madlyn could see that Elizabeth was tired, but began to wonder if there was something else causing her distress. There seemed to be something just beneath the surface that Elizabeth was not inclined to share.

“Tell me, Elizabeth. Was it terribly bad in steerage? I so wished you could have had a regular cabin.”

Elizabeth took in a deep breath, knowing she could never tell her aunt the truth about what happened on the ship. Yet she truly did not want to lie.

“It was difficult at first. Above all else, when I had spent a good deal of time down there, I found myself yearning for fresh air. Fortunately I found early morning walks most desirable after being in the confines of steerage all night.”

“Oh, I know how much you enjoy walking!” her aunt exclaimed happily. “I am so pleased that it was not excessively distressful. But I want to assure you that on our return trip, we shall be in a cabin.”

“I am very glad to hear that.”

Elizabeth smiled, but her aunt noticed that the smile did not reach up to her niece’s eyes as it normally did.

“Come, Elizabeth, you must tell me how everyone was faring when you left home.”

Elizabeth looked at her aunt most appreciatively. She always knew exactly what to say at the exact moment she needed it. At the moment, Elizabeth needed to focus on something other than the voyage and she eagerly told her of all that had been happening back home.

“Mama was, to the last minute, her usual self. She was constantly swayed by the whim of the moment, debating whether it was prudent for me to come or not. I believe she was more concerned that I might run off with some American than anything else.” Elizabeth chuckled. “But even in that, she could not decide whether that would be a bad thing or not. Papa was visibly concerned with my leaving, wishing up to the moment that I boarded the ship that I would change my mind.”

“I knew it would be difficult for them to let you come.” Her aunt reached over and took her hand. “But I am so glad they did. I selfishly wanted you here so much for my own enjoyment.” She looked intently at her niece. “I hope it was not asking too much.”

“Oh no, Aunt Madlyn. I am very happy to be here and I am looking forward to our time together.”

Elizabeth continued to tell her about her family, and how her two youngest sisters were particularly looking forward to the militia coming to Meryton. Word had been circulating that a branch would be stationed there for at least a few months, and the two girls were beside themselves. She had no idea how their presence would affect her sisters, and confided in her aunt that she worried whether they would be able to behave fittingly around the officers.

Elizabeth enjoyed the good conversation with her aunt, but fatigue drew her to bed early that night.

She was grateful to be with her aunt and uncle and her little cousins, to have good, bountiful meals again, and to sleep in a plush, soft bed. She only wished that her heart could fare emotionally as well as she was faring physically. She hoped that in these surroundings she would recover from her heartache without delay.

***

Darcy solemnly departed Pemberley’s Promise and secured for himself a carriage. He gave the driver the address of Mrs. Annesley’s son and daughter-in-law, and waited while the driver loaded his duffel and then went in search of the trunk that had been stowed. It was a short wait and soon they were off.

Darcy’s motionless figure stared blankly out the window of the carriage, his hand cupped around his chin and mouth, as if attempting to keep down what was fighting to come up. His condition, the result of his actions the night before, did little to help either his emotional or physical state.

He knew he must pull himself together. He would be seeing Georgiana shortly, and would need to put aside all these feelings of regret and remorse, and concentrate on her well-being and safely returning her to England.

Darcy closed his eyes, the numbness from the effects of alcohol definitely wearing off. He was thinking more clearly now, but that meant he was also suffering again the depths of emotional pain. He looked around him at the city through which they passed; throngs of people going about their daily routine in this land they called home. As he looked out at the sprawling city passing by, he realized that the chance of encountering Elizabeth while he was here was very slim.

The ride from the dock to the Annesleys’ home took close to an hour. The house was situated in a hilly area with modest homes built on narrow streets. As he watched block after block of neat little houses pass by, he suddenly realized they had stopped. His eyes looked up and down the house that bore the number he knew would belong to Mrs. Annesley’s son; the house where Georgiana had lived the past few months. Suddenly he ached even more, desirous to see his sister again and return to some sort of normalcy in his life. Seeing Georgiana would be the first step.

The driver hopped down, opening the door for Darcy, and he proceeded up to the front door while his things were procured. He took in a deep breath, brushed a hand through his hair, and straightened his clothes. Then he knocked.

The last he had seen Mrs. Annesley’s son was at their wedding, which had been several years ago. That was also the first and last time he had ever seen his wife. So when the young Mrs. Annesley opened the door, he did not at first recollect her.

“Excuse me, but I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, looking for Georgiana.”

The woman smiled and opened the door wider for him to enter. “Yes, of course! We have been expecting you, Mr. Darcy! I am Christine Annesley, Martin’s wife. Please come in!”

Darcy walked in and looked around the modest room. He had not known what to expect their living conditions to be, but knew that Martin Annesley was making only a moderate living.

Christine Annesley invited him to sit down and she excused herself to call his sister. Darcy, however, remained standing as she quickly ascended the staircase.

The sound of feet purposefully hitting the floor drew his attention upwards, and he waited anxiously for his first glimpse of Georgiana. She appeared at the top of the stairs, clasping her hands together, and then took the stairs down in a very brisk, yet ladylike manner.

Darcy started toward her and met her a few steps up from the bottom. Being a step above him, Georgiana was easily able to throw her arms around his neck while he brought his arms around her in a firm hug. Normally the affection this brother and sister showed for each other was fervent, but displayed in a rather swift manner. Georgiana was quite surprised, then, when he held on to her for an unusually prolonged amount of time. She attributed it to her considerable absence and the distance that had separated them.

Darcy’s things were brought in and Christine suggested she show him to his room so his things could be taken to it. He offered to stay at an inn if need be, but neither she nor his sister would hear of it. Georgiana had determined that when he arrived, she would move in with Mrs. Annesley and he could have the room she had been staying in.

They went upstairs, Darcy carrying his duffel and the driver carrying his trunk, and walked into a very small, but practical room. He placed the duffel on the floor, as did the carriage driver with his trunk, who then took his leave after Darcy took care of the fare. Darcy looked around him, feeling very much out of place, very far away from home, and exceedingly torn as to whether he wanted to leave and return to England as soon as possible, or remain and take every opportunity to find Elizabeth.

Christine Annesley observed Darcy look about him at the room and was troubled that he might consider the accommodations inferior. She offered up a soft apology. “I know, Mr. Darcy, that the room is not what you are used to…”

Darcy put up a hand and began shaking his head. “Mrs. Annesley, please do not worry yourself about it. It will do very well.”

Georgiana walked up to him and, leaning up to him, gave him a kiss. “You must want to settle in. I shall be downstairs and look forward to hearing about your voyage.”

Darcy tried to smile. “And I shall enjoy hearing about your adventures here!”

Georgiana and Christine left the room, and Darcy began unpacking his things. He was anxious to get most of his things and himself washed, as there had been very little opportunity to do that onboard. The clothes from his trunk had not been worn, and he eagerly pulled them out. He began putting things away, and was halted when he came upon Elizabeth’s sampler and his marriage certificate. His heart raced as he considered how he must conceal them so they would not be found. He pulled out one of the books he had brought along and, carefully folding the license, placed it inside. He took the book and placed it in one of the drawers underneath his clothes.

The sampler he was not too worried about, although he would have an awkward time explaining it if it was found. He glanced again at the meticulous stitches, her script that so easily flowed from one letter to the next, and her initials that had so cleverly become a part of the flowers. He simply slipped it underneath the book that was now holding the marriage certificate.

With his things put away, he collapsed into a medium-sized chair that was situated in a corner of the room. Anchoring his elbows on his knees, he brought his hands up, making a cradle for his heavy head. He dug his fingers through his hair as he stared down at the floor beneath him. He needed to pull himself together, for his sake and for Georgiana’s sake.

Realistically he could not expect to see Elizabeth while he was here. If he were to see her, it would be purely accidental. With that realization, he set his mind to seek her out when she returned to England.

He began to contemplate when he would be able to do that at the earliest. Elizabeth had said her aunt and uncle were to be in America six to nine months. They had been there three months when Pemberley’s Promise had left England. When they arrived in America a month later, four months would remain. She might return anywhere from two to five months from now. He sighed. Five months seemed like an eternity! Then there would be the long voyage home.

It would make it easier if Wendell met with success in finding out where she lived. If need be, however, he would visit every village and town in the county of Hertfordshire that began with the letter “L” until he found her. He stood up, looked in the mirror, and straightened his coat. Somehow he would get through this. Right now he had to think of Georgiana.

***

The next few days with the Gardiners had proven to be a safe, healing haven for Elizabeth. She was able to rest, take wonderful walks with her aunt and the children, visit the main town, and taste some exotic foods that she found delicious. What most intrigued her was the patchwork of people from numerous countries that made up this city.

New York had originally been called New Amsterdam, and Manhattan had been settled predominantly by Dutch immigrants. She saw the effects of that everywhere, as stores and businesses had a very distinct Dutch flavour to them. But interspersed among them were little sections of the town boasting names from Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, and places Elizabeth had never heard of.

Ethnic pockets seemed to form, with people from one country settling together, their language and culture being their bond. But they all made up this great place called New York.

When Mr. Gardiner was able to spare a few days away from his business appointments, they took excursions around the area. They enjoyed taking small barges across the Hudson and the East Rivers, and visited other parts of New York, although Manhattan seemed to be the most sprawling and growing place they visited.

Elizabeth found herself looking forward to these little excursions, as they provided her with an appreciation for the area that she would have never known.

But as much as she tried, she could not disguise or hide her pain from her aunt and uncle. They were acutely aware something was not setting right with her, and only hoped in time Elizabeth would feel comfortable enough to talk with them about it. In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner tried to make her feel as much at home and loved as they could.

One evening, after everyone had gone off to bed, Elizabeth felt compelled to remain up and read. She sat alone in the sitting room, trying to concentrate on a book she was reading, but was making very little progress. She knew if she were to climb into bed now, her thoughts would overwhelm her. At least with a book in hand, she could attempt to divert her thoughts from the direction they were inclined to go by putting herself in the novel that was before her.

As she sat there, she heard a noise, and turned to see Caleb quietly walking toward her.

“Caleb!” exclaimed Elizabeth. “Why are you not in bed?”

“I couldn’t sleep. My eyes are wide awake!”

Elizabeth smiled. “Caleb, all you have to do is close your eyes and you will fall asleep.”

Caleb adamantly shook his head. “When I close my eyelids, my eyes are still wide open underneath!”

Now Elizabeth laughed. She had to admit that sometimes she felt like that.

“Do you want to sit here with me awhile, then?”

Caleb nodded and climbed up into her lap. When he was comfortably situated, he asked, “Lizzy, are you unhappy?”

Elizabeth gave a start and looked down at him. “Why would you ask that, Caleb?”

Caleb shrugged his shoulders. “I heard Mama and Papa saying how unhappy you seem.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and drew in a very slow breath.

Caleb continued. “Are you not happy to be with us?”

“Oh no, Caleb! I love being with you! You must believe me. I am very happy to be here with you!”

Caleb smiled, content with his older cousin’s words. He sat there quietly while Elizabeth drew her fingers back and forth through his hair, and at length she recognized the telltale sound of his deep breathing. He had fallen asleep.

She carried him back into his room and gently placed him on his bed. Her heart ached that her aunt and uncle knew she was hurting, and now even this little boy knew as well. She determined that beginning tomorrow she would make every attempt to return to her former, lively self.

And that she did. Even though Mrs. Gardiner saw occasional glimpses of pain beneath her lively exterior, Elizabeth put every effort into enjoying her stay in America. The places they saw and the people they met were beyond Elizabeth’s expectations.

***

Darcy and Georgiana were able to take in some of the sights in the area, despite his original intent to bring his sister back with him directly. He willingly acquiesced to Georgiana’s insistence that he visit some historical and scenic places in the area, thereby delaying their return a few weeks. But it was not so much out of a desire to see anything that he put off their immediate return; it was the lingering hope that he might have a fortuitous encounter with Elizabeth.

Wendell had done some investigating about the ships in port, and found that another of Stearnes’ ships, the English Maiden , was scheduled to depart New York for London about two weeks later than Pemberley’s Promise . Darcy booked passage for himself and Georgiana aboard that vessel, securing again two of the finer cabins, and they made plans to leave accordingly.

The month in America passed more quickly than he would have anticipated. He had begun to feel out of place and in the way staying with the Annesleys, and although they always extended him gracious hospitality, he was ready to leave when the time came.

The elder Mrs. Annesley, although burdened with an illness that made getting around difficult, was very grateful that Mr. Darcy understood her predicament and took it upon himself to retrieve Georgiana. She would have felt terribly distressed if she thought Georgiana would have to return to England unescorted.

After a tearful goodbye on Georgiana’s part, knowing that she most likely would never see her companion again, they departed the modest Annesley home. Their belongings were stowed in trunks and duffels, and they looked ahead to another month-long voyage at sea heading home.

Driving through the streets of New York on the way to the harbour the day they were to depart, they passed through a rather crowded business district. Both Darcy and his sister sat quietly in contemplation. Georgiana was suddenly startled when Darcy violently jumped from his seat and pressed his face to the windowpane. She watched in complete amazement as something seemed to unnerve him immensely. At first he violently pounded on the front of the carriage for them to stop. When the carriage continued at its moderate pace, he lowered the window, putting his head out, and called out, “Elizabeth!”

Georgiana’s eyes widened as he pounded again, and then yelled out the carriage window for the driver to stop. This time the driver heard him, and as the carriage slowed, Darcy quickly opened the door and jumped out. Georgiana strained her head to see what he was about, and watched him run toward a lady who had walked past. All she could see of this woman was her bonnet as she continued down the crowded street.

When he caught up with her, she saw him speak, and then he suddenly backed away, looking rather sheepish, and returned slowly to the waiting carriage.

Georgiana was in complete shock, never having seen her brother behave in such a reckless way, and wondered who this Elizabeth was, and why she caused such a reaction in him. When he returned, she sat completely bewildered, as Darcy climbed back into the carriage feeling somewhat foolish.

With her eyebrows pinched together in confusion, she asked him, “Fitzwilliam, who was that?”

He nervously rubbed his hands together, and avoiding her gaze only answered, “It was someone I thought I recognized. I was mistaken.”

She continued to watch his countenance and could not help but consider his brooding disposition lately and this most uncharacteristic outburst. She wondered if both had something to do with someone named Elizabeth. 

Chapter 15

Pemberley, eight weeks later

Georgiana walked over to the window up in her room at Pemberley, looking down at her brother. He was outside with one of the stable hands preparing to mount his horse, Thunder, and take him out for a ride. He had been going out on Thunder frequently since they had returned from America almost a month ago, with the excuse that he had missed riding for the duration of the time he had been away and he wanted to take advantage of the nice weather that was still holding off the approaching days of winter.

Georgiana knew there was something troubling him still. She had hoped that their return to Pemberley and the normalcy of life would have been the impetus to bring him back to his usual self, but it had not. He still appeared distracted, discouraged, and easily disturbed.

Inside she ached, blaming herself that this was all the result of her imprudent actions with George Wickham. It had been over six months now, and she had hoped her brother would have forgotten, despite the fact that she had not. She fretted that he was more deeply wounded by her poor judgment and Wickham’s callous deception than she had ever thought possible. Whereas time should be lessening the pain, his behaviour reflected the opposite. Thoughts of great remorse threatened to overwhelm her.

Now, watching him mount the great black horse, she knew he was still troubled. She was all too aware that he did his deepest thinking whilst out riding alone in the countryside. He worked out his frustrations as he glided easily on Thunder’s back galloping through the woods. He disciplined himself into control as he endured the arduous jarring of a solid trot down a lane. He pondered alternative options in decisions he was facing as Thunder ran a fast canter through the hills. He let his mind wander away from the responsibilities of being Master of Pemberley as he took the horse leisurely through a meadow.

She watched him take the reins and lead Thunder down toward the road. How she wished he would talk to her. Was his anger now compounded against her because he was forced to endure a crossing over to America and back all because of her? She closed her eyes as she dealt with a burning uncertainty whether her brother still loved her, despite his assurances that he did. His inattentiveness recently had just not reflected it.

On this particular day he was gone for several hours. Georgiana knew that being gone that long would mean he most likely journeyed out to Dovedale, possibly taking Thunder up to its peak, where the view of the surrounding gentle rolling hills was unsurpassable.

She knew her brother all too well, as he was, indeed, heading out to Thorpe Cloud, a little hill at the entrance to Dovedale. Darcy prodded his horse higher along the dirt path to the rocky summit, where he knew the view out across the rolling hills and woody copses made one feel at the top of the world. He hoped looking out from the top would boost his spirits and help him rise above his melancholy.

When he had taken Thunder as far up the hill as he could go, he dismounted and tethered him to a tree. Taking the easy climb to the summit, Darcy walked out to the edge. He surveyed the beautiful diversity below him; the hills, dales, small meandering rivers, and the peaks in the distance. He saw the numerous little villages below, many of them hidden by a small hill or nestled in a valley. He turned until he spotted the dense woods that cloaked Pemberley estate from the view from atop. As he looked down, he pondered how small everything looked, and he realized how small he really was in the whole scheme of life.

Recently he had been feeling so small and powerless that he wondered whether God really cared about him. He had not seen any indication of it lately, yet he knew he rarely gave God much consideration in his life. When they had arrived back in London, they spent several days there as he attempted to find out the information he wanted about Elizabeth. The records on this end were as cryptic as the ship’s records had been, and the clerk who had written down the name of the village she lived in was no longer working in the office and had moved away. Darcy felt an anguish that everything was going against him. He had begun to realize that there were some things that even his wealth and position in society could not secure.

As he looked out from Thorpe Cloud on all the splendour that was Derbyshire, his thoughts turned to Elizabeth again and how he wished she could be enjoying this with him. Looking up to the heavens in a manner brought on by desperation, he clumsily prayed a prayer offering to God that he would be more attentive and most grateful if he was allowed the chance to see Elizabeth again.

Wondering whether his prayers were heard, and reluctant to return just yet to Pemberley, he remained up at Thorpe Cloud, reflecting on the desperate straits his life had taken on since that last day on the ship. If he was waiting for any answers to come, they eluded him. Finally, after sitting sombrely for some time, he walked back down to Thunder and began the long ride back.

As Georgiana awaited her brother’s return, she passed the time practicing on the pianoforte, which always soothed her. It was something she knew she could do well, and she put all of her effort into improving herself even more. There were few things she felt confident doing, and even though she did not have the fullest confidence to perform in front of many people, she knew that her ability was such that those she did play for enjoyed it immensely.

Just as her brother would go out riding to sort out his thoughts, so she did while playing. Of course she would not tackle new or difficult pieces whilst allowing her mind to wander, but she would play those pieces that she knew so well, that her fingers could dance across the keys with little concentrated thought or effort.

As she played, she thought about the difference in her brother’s demeanour now from when he first found out about her and Wickham. Back then, he was angry at Wickham, she was certain, but he displayed a more protective, forgiving, and nurturing attitude toward her. She had not doubted that he was disappointed in her, but it was tempered by his obvious display of love. She knew that in spite of her immaturity and foolishness, he had still loved her!

But now she was uncertain. Whereas he went through the motions displaying brotherly affection toward her, she felt he was not fervent in it at all. His mind was definitely elsewhere, and she did not know what to do about it.

She began to wonder, as she had occasionally in the past, whether perhaps he wished to be free from the responsibility of being her guardian. She hit a wrong key, which resonated with a most discordant sound.

She had a strong belief that he should be married by now. He should have found someone to bring alongside him and with whom he could share his life. Was it because of her that he had not? Was he waiting until she herself had grown and married before allowing himself that liberty?

Georgiana now dropped her hands in her lap as she let out a soft sigh. What a nuisance he must consider her! What a burden and a restriction she must be to him! Because of her, he was deeply hurt when she almost ran off with Wickham. Because of her, he had been required to be occupied for over three months just retrieving her from America! Because of her, over the past few years he had spent considerable time trying to secure an appropriate governess or companion for her, and now, because of Mrs. Annesley’s need to remain in America, he was in the process of doing that again!

She could not ask for a finer brother, and she felt deep regret for what she had put him through! A single tear slowly left a trace as it fell down her cheek, and she wondered if there was any way she could make it up to him.

She heard him return and began playing again. She knew he always enjoyed hearing her play, and wondered whether he would come in and sit. It was quite a few minutes that had passed when she heard footsteps come down the hall, but instead of coming to the music room, she heard him enter his study and close the door. The single tear that had fallen was suddenly joined by a multitude of others.

Later that evening, they sat together at the table. Georgiana wanted so much to persuade him to talk, but had no idea how. Fear that she was the cause of his dismal disposition tempted her to refrain from asking what was troubling him. But love and concern for him overtook her fear, and at length, she finally drew up the strength and courage to approach him about it.

They were both quietly eating as she stole a quick glance up at him. “Fitzwilliam, do you mind if I ask you something?”

Darcy looked up at her and smiled; a smile that was more out of effort than joy. “Of course not, Georgiana. What is it?”

She winced slightly and her jaw tightened as she deliberated what she would say. “I… I am worried about you.”

Darcy, who had been bringing a fork full of food to his mouth, stopped and put it back down on his plate. “Why would you be worried about me?”

Georgiana took a deep breath, feeling the need to fill her lungs. “I… um…I have just noticed lately, that ever since you… ever since you arrived in America, and even now that we are back at Pemberley, you seem… you seem unhappy.”

She looked down quickly, and therefore did not see him close his eyes and drop his head as she said those words. A look of sorrow swept across his face as he looked back up at her.

“Georgiana,” Darcy reached out for his sister’s hand and she looked back up. “I appreciate your concern. I have just been preoccupied lately. There is nothing to concern yourself with.”

Georgiana’s eyes pooled with tears as she began again. “But I have never seen you like this before. I feel terrible that it was because of me you had to journey all the way to America and back, and that I put you through so much anguish.”

Darcy grasped her hand in both of his. “Georgiana, I do not want to hear any more of this blaming yourself for anything! It has nothing to do with you! You must know that I love you and nothing will ever change that!”

Georgiana pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and, bringing it up to her eyes, wiped them. “But then what does it have to do with?”

Darcy leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “I cannot discuss it with you now.” He lifted the napkin from his lap and brought it up to his mouth, needing a distraction, needing to formulate what he should say to Georgiana to reassure her. “It just has something to do with the voyage over to America. That is all. Please do not worry yourself, Georgiana. I shall be fine in no time.”

“Are you sure it is not because of me? I would do anything to make it up to you!”

“Georgiana, believe me, it has nothing to do with you.”

Georgiana felt somewhat relieved but a deeper curiosity set in. When her brother was set against talking about something, there was very little she could do to draw it out of him. She would have to be content to wait until he was willing to talk about it, or hope that the hold it had on him would soon pass.

They finished their dinner in relative silence, again, although Darcy did make more of an effort to converse with her just to assure Georgiana his gloomy temperament lately was not directed at her. He was having a very difficult time rising above the feeling that he might never see Elizabeth again, but he had never thought that Georgiana would misconstrue his behaviour and blame herself for it. He would have to be more careful.

He had returned to Pemberley to find an excessive amount of work needing his immediate attention. Part of his struggle since returning from America stemmed from having little time to think about how he would or when he would begin to search for Elizabeth. Now he realized that it had so overtaken him that he had begun to neglect Georgiana. He made a decision then and there to make every effort to show Georgiana he loved her.

***

Back across the great Atlantic, Elizabeth had finally been able to push aside, though not completely eliminate, the emotional pain she felt when she had first arrived. As great a help as her aunt was to her, she realized how much her aunt looked to her for the same. With her uncle gone frequently during the day, Elizabeth did her share of helping with the children and around the home, and was always eager to sit down with Mrs. Gardiner with some tea and simply talk.

It was at those times that Elizabeth truly grasped what it was about her aunt that made her so special in her eyes. She could sit down and have an intelligent, meaningful conversation with her, something she simply could not do with her own mother. She had looked forward to spending time with her aunt, and she was grateful for every moment she had with her.

She spent her days savouring every new sight, every new experience, and soaking in all she could learn. It was during the day that she was able to direct her thoughts to those things around her that made up this place called New York. Whether it was strolling through the ethnic downtown area, spending a leisurely day in a park, or making a three-day journey out to an incredibly beautiful sight such as Niagara Falls, she found herself truly enjoying her visit.

But it was in the dark, quiet moments of the night that she found difficulty reining in her thoughts, and a powerful loneliness and sadness would overwhelm her. At times she felt that William was right there in the room with her, or that she had just seen him, the image of his face so clear. At other times she felt there was a vast distance between them that most likely did exist because of his return to England with his sister. She found herself thinking of him as William, as though their intimacy onboard Pemberley’s Promise allowed her that right. She had often used his full name, Fitzwilliam, when in the presence of others, but the more intimate name, William, she used when they were alone.

It was also during those dark, lonely nights, she determined one more thing. She realized that the vows she had made were solemn, and even though William might be able to annul the marriage, she did not think that, in her heart, she could go against those vows. She knew what that meant. She would never remarry. She would be an aunt to all her sisters’ children, always loving and generous, but a lonely spinster.

In God’s eyes, she would uphold those vows in her heart. But it was not merely an act of sacrifice for her. She knew that the love she had for William was ardent and strong, and she was convinced that to marry anyone else would be a futile attempt to remove him from her memory and from her heart.

***

Darcy sat at the table with Georgiana, having almost all his work caught up, and could now begin to see that light at the end of what had been a very dark tunnel. He believed he finally would have some free time that would afford him the opportunity to do some exploring around the county of Hertfordshire.

He interviewed several genteel ladies about the position of companion for Georgiana, and hired a Mrs. Chatham, a widowed woman from a nearby village. He had been pleased with her manners, her accomplishments, and her references. She moved into Pemberley and began working immediately with Georgiana.

As he and Georgiana were just finishing their evening meal, Mrs. Reynolds came in. “Mr. Darcy, two posts have come for you. From the looks of the blots on one of the envelopes, I believe it must be from your good friend, Mr. Bingley.”

Darcy let out a laugh as he took it. “You are very astute, Mrs. Reynolds. Nothing gets past you, now, does it?”

As she handed him both letters, she informed him, “The other is posted from Captain Wendell.”

Darcy was curious why his good friend Bingley would write when he abhorred writing letters, but he had an even greater interest in Wendell’s letter. Could he have found out something about Elizabeth’s whereabouts?

He looked up at Mrs. Reynolds. “Thank you.”

He ripped open Wendell’s letter as Georgiana watched his face. They often received letters from Wendell, or someone from the ship’s line, to update Darcy of the business details of Pemberley’s Promise . He normally took those letters back with him to his study to open. She had never seen him open a piece of business mail so determinedly, and in addition to that, opening it before a letter from a close acquaintance.

Darcy quickly opened the folded missive and saw before him simply one name, written boldly across the page from the lower left corner to the upper right corner, LONGBOURN .

He smiled. The good captain had met with success! He sat looking at the name for some time, realizing he would need to get out a map to find the location of Elizabeth’s home.

Quickly recollecting his other letter, he carefully opened it up and wondered at the feasibility of reading this letter through all the blots of ink. In addition, the pounding of his heart and the direction of his thoughts were not conducive to comprehending what his friend would have to say.

As he scanned the letter, Georgiana detected a sense of surprised delight in his posture.

“What does he say?” she asked curiously.

Darcy, suddenly finding himself very interested in Bingley’s letter, read it aloud to Georgiana.

My Good Friend Darcy,

 I understand you have returned now from your voyage to America. I hope it was enjoyable and that this letter finds you well.

I have done something and hope to secure your approval. I found a very nice manor about a month ago, and I liked it enough to decide to let it. It is not as grand as Pemberley, but I believe it is just right for me at the present. It is in Hertfordshire and is called Netherfield. I would love to have you come take a look at it and assure me that I made the right decision. Or at least pretend you like it and give me your blessing.

It is a few miles from the little village of Meryton. Anytime you can come, I would love to see you.

My sisters send their greetings.

Sincerely,

Charles Bingley

Georgiana looked at him and asked, “Will you go, brother?”

This was the perfect opportunity to travel to Hertfordshire. Now he would not have to come up with an excuse to journey there. He could go visit his friend, and whilst he was there, he could make inquiries. Hopefully it would be an easy distance to Longbourn! Two answers to prayer dropped in his lap at the same time!

“Yes, it has been too long since I have seen Bingley, and I do want to see what kind of a place this Netherfield is. I shall write to him directly and let him know that I accept his invitation.” Darcy turned to Georgiana. “Would you care to join me?”

Georgiana shook her head. “No, I think I shall leave you to visit your good friend and his sisters on your own. I fear that if I go along with you, Miss Bingley should look upon it as my encouraging her attentions to pairing Mr. Bingley and me together. I shall enjoy remaining at Pemberley, getting to know Mrs. Chatham in the comfort of our home here, while you endure Miss Bingley’s gracious attentions.”

Darcy rolled his eyes at his sister, who knew all too well how much he detested Miss Bingley’s anything but gracious attentions. With a firm grip on Bingley’s letter, he stood, excused himself and informed Georgiana that he would set about making plans to visit his good friend within the coming week.

Georgiana watched him walk away from the table, sensing a complete change in him. She turned back to the table and saw the letter from Captain Wendell that he inadvertently left behind. Curiously, she picked it up.

“How odd,” she softly exclaimed, as her eyes looked at the single word, Longbourn, written across the page. She quickly returned the missive to its place upon the table just as the brisk footsteps of her brother announced he was returning and, without a word, he picked up the letter with the mysterious message and again left the room.

***

The voyage home for Elizabeth and the Gardiners was just as could be expected. They had two cabins on the ship. Elizabeth and her aunt shared one with her daughters, and her uncle took the other with his sons. Although the ship was not as grand as Pemberley’s Promise , at least she did not have to spend any of her time in steerage. She did, however, make herself available down there and tended those who needed it. With a good tail wind most of the way across, it took a little under a month to finally arrive at the port in Liverpool and with little distress. When Elizabeth took her first step back on English soil, she was grateful that she had finally come home.

They planned to spend a week or two in Liverpool while her uncle took care of business. While Elizabeth was anxious to get home after being gone for five months, she continued to enjoy the time spent with her aunt and uncle. She was grateful that her time with them had begun to ease her aching heart.

Not that she had told them anything. But her aunt, having the gift of discernment especially where Elizabeth was concerned, knew something was amiss. She had a gentle way of reassuring her when she did not even know the circumstances that seemed to be closing in around her. Those reassurances had been a needed, daily salve to her.

They sat around the dining room table in the inn at Liverpool after being there close to a week. Mr. Gardiner was exceptionally jovial. As they prepared to eat, he made an announcement.

“I finished my work here today, much sooner than I expected. If you like, we can prepare to leave for home tomorrow and set out the day after.”

Everyone cheered, the children clapped, and Mrs. Gardiner placed her hand upon her husband’s. “You mean we are really going home?”

He smiled and nodded. “We can make it to Hertfordshire in two days, and then another one day to London.” He paused and then looked at Mrs. Gardiner. “Or we can take a little detour and spend some time in Lambton.”

Mrs. Gardiner clasped her two hands together. “Oh, Edmund! Do you really think we have the time to do that? You know I would love to!”

He nodded as he continued. “I do not have to be back to the warehouse in London until next Monday. That gives us a few extra days. It is not directly on our way, but only a few miles’ detour.” He looked at Elizabeth. “Do you think you could put off getting home a few more days?”

Elizabeth looked delighted. “To see the place where Aunt Madlyn grew up? Absolutely!”

The following day they all eagerly helped each other pack up their things in preparation for another day on the road. Elizabeth enjoyed hearing her aunt’s tales of growing up in this small village, and of some of her friends who still lived there. Elizabeth was sure it was a most delightful place.

“How long do you suppose it will take us to get there?” asked Elizabeth as she put the final item in her duffel and closed it up.

“For most of the day. But it shall be a most pleasant journey. The county of Derbyshire is absolutely breathtaking!”

Elizabeth suddenly froze. The mention of Derbyshire brought about a wave of unsteadiness that coursed through her. William’s country manor is somewhere in Derbyshire!

Her eyes were cast down and she felt that she could not meet her aunt’s gaze, lest she suspect something. At length, she calmed herself and looked back up.

“I am looking forward to it very much, Aunt.”

“Oh, Lizzy, I was hoping you would. I would so love for you to meet a few of my acquaintances with whom I have kept in touch!”

Elizabeth took in a deep breath. “I should like to meet them as well.”

***

The next day was spent on the road travelling. Elizabeth had to admit that her aunt was correct in her assessment of the county of Derbyshire. It had a natural, striking beauty that Elizabeth truly appreciated. She looked out at the landscape they were passing through and wondered of Darcy’s proximity and familiarity with it. Along the way, as they passed a handful of estates, she silently wondered if any of them could be his.

After a good day’s travels, they pulled into the delightful village of Lambton. As the carriage slowly conveyed them down the main street, Mrs. Gardiner pointed out places she knew, mentioned who once lived or worked here and there, and what was new or what had been torn down or replaced.

Soon the carriage stopped, and they looked out to see the Inn at Lambton, a charming two-story brick building set back from the road.

Mr. Gardiner arranged for their rooms and they all eagerly followed Mrs. Evans, a young woman who was pleased to hear that Mrs. Gardiner had grown up in Lambton, as she directed them upstairs.

They found their accommodations pleasant and inviting.

Once they had eaten a good meal and rested from the day’s journey, they set out to pay visits to Mrs. Gardiner’s friends. The first was to one of her closest acquaintances, Mrs. Irene Martin, who was most pleasantly surprised by the visit.

The Martins had children just about the same age as the Gardiner children, and when invited to come in and spend the evening together, they settled in for a very enjoyable time. Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Gardiner had much reminiscing to do, and Elizabeth listened contentedly. Mrs. Martin offered to keep the children the following day so the Gardiners and Elizabeth could take a little driving tour of the area.

Mrs. Martin looked directly at Elizabeth. “What would you think of that, Miss Bennet? Your aunt has some favourite spots that I know she would love to show you.”

Elizabeth could think of nothing more delightful. “If it is agreeable to my aunt, I would be most happy to have her show off the place of her youth and take us to some of her favourite places!”

Mrs. Martin clasped her hands together. “Good! It is settled! Tomorrow you shall see, firsthand, some of the finest things Derbyshire has to offer!”

Chapter 16

The carriage conveying everyone to the Martins’ home took a little side trip the other direction before dropping the children off there. They drove past a small, two-story home that sat off from the road. Elizabeth was told this was the house in which Mrs. Gardiner grew up.

From there, as they travelled down the cobblestone street, Mrs. Gardiner pointed out little points of interest in Lambton: the small church she had attended every Sunday, the fine chestnut tree on the green, and the small pond boasting a fine gaggle of geese.

The early autumn day was mild and perfect for their outing. Mr. Gardiner and Elizabeth listened with enjoyment as Mrs. Gardiner related stories about her childhood, places she had visited, her favourite prospects at little turnouts in the road, and the perfect places to go see the finest set of peaks.

As the carriage made slow progress up a hill, Mrs. Gardiner commented on how a short walk to the top would give a wonderful view of the surrounding vista. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner didn’t mind waiting whilst Elizabeth took the climb to the top.

Upon reaching the small summit, she closed her eyes, felt the breeze on her face, and imagined that she was back on the ship; not returning to England as she had most recently been, but making the crossing to America. Her thoughts took her back to standing on the deck next to the man who was— who had been —her husband. She believed in all likelihood he had annulled the marriage by now.

She reproached herself for letting her mind dwell upon these things. What she could not forget, however, was that somewhere in this county of Derbyshire was his country home.

She turned and looked across at the view. She could see for miles, and as she looked at the peaks in the distance, and the hills and dales below, she also saw little villages. But what caught her attention were the woods that dotted the landscape below. She did not think she had ever seen a more delightful prospect!

She returned to her aunt and uncle and commented on how lovely it all was.

“The peaks in the distance are beautiful, and the woods off in that direction seem so dense and lush! Aunt, you did not exaggerate. It is the most beautiful spot in the world.”

“I am so glad you like it, Lizzy. This is Thorpe Cloud, the entrance to Dovedale and its magnificent peaks.”

As they walked over to the waiting carriage, Mrs. Gardiner made a suggestion. “We could go home through those woods if you like, Lizzy. It will be a little out of the way, but there is an estate hidden in their midst that is not five miles from Lambton and is well worth the drive to see.”

“That sounds lovely, Aunt.”

They settled themselves in the carriage, and Elizabeth watched in admiration as they descended the hill and eventually drew into the woods. With trees on all sides and some forming a canopy across the road, Elizabeth pulled her shawl more snugly around her. She took a deep breath and savoured the various aromas the trees and foliage gave off.

“So, Aunt Madlyn, tell me about this estate we shall be seeing.”

“It is a grand estate, Lizzy. Although the house and furnishings itself are well worth seeing, the woods and gardens around the house are just as splendid. It has been years, though, since I have had the privilege of viewing it.”

Elizabeth clasped her hands. “It sounds beautiful.”

“Oh, it is indeed, Lizzy. There is none as beautiful as Pemberley!”

Elizabeth looked to her aunt sharply. “Pemberley?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Why, Pemberley was the name of the ship on which I sailed to America. Pemberley’s Promise .”

“That is right!” added her uncle. “Do you think there is any connection, Madlyn?”

“There is a very good chance it is owned by the same family.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in a quick movement as she reflected on this happenstance. “The ship was indeed very grand; I can imagine what the house must be like.”

“Who owns Pemberley, dearest?” asked Mr. Gardiner of his wife.

“The home belongs to the Darcy family. The elder Mr. and Mrs. Darcy died since I moved away…”

Elizabeth had been watching the scenery pass, but turned sharply at the mention of the name Darcy. Her eyes widened as if she had seen a ghost.

“Lizzy, is everything all right, dear?” her aunt inquired.

Who did you say owns Pemberley?” she asked hesitantly.

“The Darcys. As I was saying, the elder Mr. and Mrs. Darcy died, and now their son, Fitzwilliam, I believe his name is, and his younger sister live there.” Her aunt looked at her with concern. “Lizzy, is something wrong?”

The nervousness in Elizabeth’s answer raised some concern on her aunt’s part. “It is nothing; save that there was a Mr. Darcy onboard the ship.”

“He would be in his late twenties, I believe. I have not seen him since he was a young boy, so I could not tell you what he looks like now. But it is highly probable that it was him. He would be a man of ample means.”

Elizabeth began wringing her hands together in a most disconcerted state. It was imperative that she talk her aunt and uncle out of visiting the home. She was in no way prepared to encounter him, and would feel the deepest sense of awkwardness if he discovered her in his home.

Her heart pounded in her chest and as she contemplated how she could discourage this visit, her uncle exclaimed, “Look!”

All eyes beheld the grand edifice that was suddenly before them. Elizabeth blinked several times, not believing the sight before her. Never had she seen a more beautiful home.

Her aunt looked at her. “Is it not beautiful, Lizzy?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered softly, marvelling at the stately manor before them, and cognizant of the fact that she had become, unknowingly, mistress of this place just a few months back. But she was drawn out of her reverie by the pressing concern that they could not stop here!

She put her hand upon her aunt’s. “Aunt, I am truly tired, and I do not think we should stop and disturb the family. I would feel awkward encountering Mr. Darcy if he should be here.”

“Oh, Lizzy. I am sure he would not even remember that you were on the ship.” She, in turn, patted her niece’s hand in reassurance. “A man in his position surely kept to those of his own society.”

Her uncle then added, “Certainly if you were in steerage, you would have had very little contact with the man.” As he looked back upon the house he commented, “I am sure he had one of the finest cabins on the ship.”

Trying to appear calm, she applied herself to their conversation. “Yes, he did.”

Her uncle’s eyebrows raised and asked, “You saw his room, niece? How did you happen to see it?”

Wishing away the blush that spread across her face, she was grateful she did not have to lie. “I turned my ankle while taking the steps up one afternoon, and he happened across me at that moment. I could not walk on it, so he carried me to his room, which happened to be nearby.” She quickly added, “But he did have another woman accompany us, and it was she who tended my ankle while Mr. Darcy secured some bandages to wrap it.”

“That was very considerate of him,” her aunt commented.

As the carriage drew closer to Pemberley, Elizabeth felt an increasing tightening of her heart and lungs and felt compelled to insist they turn back, but without any rational thought to offer up as an excuse.

“Please, Aunt. May we please just go home?”

Her uncle looked at her. “Lizzy, if you are that uncomfortable, I could go to the door and ascertain if the gentleman is at home. If he is, I shall tell them we do not want to disturb them. If he is not, then there can be no harm in viewing the house. What say you to that?”

The carriage pulled up to the front door and slowed down. Elizabeth thought how much she would love to see inside the home, but her fear of encountering William and her curiosity to see Pemberley battled within. She finally nodded. “But only if he is not at home.”

When they pulled up, Mr. Gardiner got out of the carriage and walked up to the front door. Elizabeth felt as though hours passed as she sat there in the carriage, cognizant of the fact that if he was at home, he could just as readily walk out and see them. Her heart raced as she waited.

At length her uncle returned with a smile on his face. “He is not at home. He is visiting a friend, and we have been invited in. Shall we go?”

Elizabeth felt relieved that he was not here and that they would be able to tour the house and grounds without the chance of encountering him. At the same time, her heart felt a strong regret that she would not have the opportunity to see him.

Mrs. Reynolds graciously received them and she gave them a little background about the home and the family. Elizabeth listened in awe as she looked around her at the elegant furnishings. A month ago she was legally the mistress of this place, yet at the same time she felt as though she was trespassing.

As they walked in, Elizabeth heard music being played on a pianoforte. It was very beautiful, and she wondered if it could be William’s sister.

The first room they visited was a sitting room, boasting a large fireplace with various pictures upon the mantel. Mrs. Reynolds pointed out that they were all the late Mr. Darcy’s favourites, and were exactly as he had left them, in his memory and honour.

Elizabeth at once recognized William’s likeness in a small portrait that was probably done quite a few years ago.

Mrs. Reynolds began going through each one. “This is my master here.”

Mrs. Gardiner looked at Elizabeth. “Is that a similar likeness to the man who was on the ship, Lizzy?”

Nervously, Elizabeth answered, “Yes.”

“Oh, my dear, do you know my master?” asked Mrs. Reynolds.

“We sailed on the same ship to America a few months back.”

“Oh, you sailed on Pemberley’s Promise , then! How was the crossing?”

“It was long, but I do not believe there could be a more superb ship.”

“And what did you think of my master? Is he not the finest, most handsome man?” Mrs. Reynolds barely allowed any time for Elizabeth to answer as she continued with her praise of him. Elizabeth was rendered mute by clashing feelings of nervous distress and heightened elation.

“He is certainly the best master, kind to all his servants. How we missed him, and I must confess worried about him and his sister until they were safely back.”

She turned to the other pictures on the mantel, but Elizabeth could no longer concentrate. She felt pale again, and her head was dizzy with all this news. She had finally found herself able to go through a day without feeling the pain and anguish of never seeing him again, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, she was thrown into the midst of his very life.

They followed Mrs. Reynolds to a few other rooms. They were shown the library, and Elizabeth commented to Mrs. Reynolds on the extent of the books he owned.

“Do you enjoy reading, miss?”

“When I get the chance to, I do. I have never seen a personal library as extensive as this!” She walked from shelf to shelf, eyeing the books and letting her hand brush softly over the spines.

“Oh, my master loves to read. He loves to stimulate and broaden his mind. If you like this, I could show you his study, as well, down the hall.”

As they progressed on the tour, Mrs. Reynolds continued her discourse. “I normally do not show people into this room, but since he is not here, and I feel it is reflective of my master’s person, I think we can take a little peek. I believe you will enjoy how many more books he has in here.”

She opened the door to a large study. Elizabeth immediately noticed more shelves of books that framed the fireplace. The desk in the centre of the room was of strong, dark wood, with a leather chair situated behind it.

“Mr. Darcy spends a vast deal of time here, doing work, reading, and relaxing.” She walked over to the large fireplace on the other side of the room. “And these pictures and various objects are some of his favourites.”

Elizabeth glanced over at the fireplace, above it to the mantel, and then to the extent of the books on the shelves. Her love of books prompted her to walk toward them, but suddenly, her eyes went back to the mantel, seeing something that markedly drew her attention. She walked slowly over to it, feeling a tingling sensation course through her body. There, in the midst of all the pictures of his family, was the small sampler she had inadvertently left behind in his room, framed, and situated on a little stand.

Mrs. Reynolds walked over and joined her. “Most of these are likenesses of his family; his mother, his father, and here is his sister.” She noticed Elizabeth’s attention to the sampler. “This is something my master brought back after his trip. He must have purchased it from the person who made it, as it was not even framed. He had me frame it and set it up here. I believe he must have liked the verse upon it.”

Mrs. Gardiner looked at the words on the verse, “Think only upon the past as it gives pleasure…”

How odd, she thought. That is one of Lizzy’s favourite sayings.

Elizabeth was stunned and rendered speechless by its presence among his favourite mementos. She dared not allow herself to think that her sampler framed and set here meant anything. It did leave her with a rather blissful feeling, however. She turned to leave with the others, falling a little behind, and as she passed his leather chair, she could not keep her hand from sliding over the back of it. She could almost feel his warmth on it as if he had just been seated there. Before stepping out of his study, she gave one last glance back at her sampler and, without thought she drew her hand up to her heart, pressing firmly against it as if to attempt to calm it.

They walked down the long portrait gallery, where a much larger portrait of Darcy was exhibited along with family members of long ago. She was grateful that Mrs. Reynolds stopped in front of it, as the sight of it abruptly halted her. It was a striking painting and captured him with a very peaceful and pleasant demeanour. As she gazed upon it, she realized how living here must afford him the peace and solitude he so thoroughly enjoyed.

As the party moved on, Elizabeth lingered a moment longer, regarding his likeness, finally having to will herself to continue. Mrs. Gardiner noticed Elizabeth’s reflective deportment. It was unlike her niece not to embrace an experience like this wholeheartedly and with an overt enthusiasm. She wondered whether it could possibly have something to do with this Mr. Darcy and his being with her on her voyage to America.

They came back down to the front of the house, and Mrs. Reynolds expressed her regret that the rest of the house could not be seen today. “Miss Darcy is practicing in the music room, as I am sure you can hear. She is very shy and would feel most embarrassed if she knew she had an audience.”

Elizabeth spoke, “She plays beautifully, Mrs. Reynolds. I hope someday she can overcome her shyness and perform easily before others.”

“She does play beautifully. You are very kind.”

Mr. Gardiner expressed his gratitude for showing them the house. “It is beautiful, and we are so grateful to have had this opportunity.”

“It was my pleasure. Now, feel free to explore the grounds.”

“Thank you, I think we shall,” he added.

They bid their farewells and walked toward a small lake that was situated down from the front of the house. Elizabeth was grateful to get away from the house, feeling as though the farther she was from it, the safer she was from any chance encounter. Even though they had been told he was away, she knew there was always the possibility that he could show up at any time. Yet she equally wished she would encounter him!

As they walked, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner talked about, commented on, and praised the grounds. It did not escape Mrs. Gardiner’s notice that Elizabeth was unusually quiet.

As they looked out upon the lake, and Mr. Gardiner was commenting on how much pleasure it would be to be able to fish in it, a voice called out, “Excuse me.”

The three turned in unison to see a young girl coming toward them. “I hope I am not disturbing you, but I understand one of you was on the ship with my brother when he travelled to America.”

Elizabeth could see that it had taken a concerted effort on her part to say this, and immediately responded, “Yes, I was on the ship. My name is Elizabeth Bennet.”

Georgiana tilted her head at her name. Elizabeth . Could this be the woman my brother thought he saw that day in New York? she wondered. “I am Georgiana Darcy. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Elizabeth introduced her to her aunt and uncle.

Elizabeth could see that she had been well trained in her manners and posture, but that it was something she was not quite comfortable with. Or at least she felt that the young girl worried too much whether she was performing adequately in her duties.

“Do you have a moment, Miss Bennet?”

“Certainly, Miss Darcy. What can I do for you?” Elizabeth noticed immediately the resemblance between Miss Darcy and her brother in their eyes, but in all other areas they were very different. He had dark brown curly hair, brown eyes, and a solid build. She had straight blond hair, blue eyes, and was rather thin in stature, although tall for her age.

“I wondered if you could tell me whether something happened on the crossing over. When my brother arrived in America, he was changed… so dark and brooding. And he would not talk about it and he still refuses to talk about it.”

Elizabeth involuntarily winced, but she could not tell Miss Darcy anything about their marriage, however much she believed that could be the reason for his concern.

“I… I do not believe I know of anything that happened.”

“Was it a rough crossing?”

“Not terribly. We had some rough weather, and then the second to the last day we had a terrible storm that rocked the ship violently. But I do not think that would have affected him so.”

Georgiana looked down. “I am sorry to have disturbed you. I was just hoping…”

Elizabeth took her hand, feeling an unexplainable sense of kinship and concern for the young girl. “Miss Darcy, your brother is very fortunate to have a sister who cares so much for him. I am sure that whatever it is that seems to be disturbing him will pass in no time.”

“Oh, I do hope so.”

Elizabeth smiled and gently squeezed the girl’s hand and let it go.

Georgiana turned to go, but then stopped. “Are you to be in the area very long?”

Elizabeth answered for the others. “We are staying at the Inn at Lambton. My aunt lived in Lambton as a child and we are visiting some of her friends. I believe we plan to leave tomorrow.”

“Hmm.” Georgiana nodded. It was not in her nature to pry into people’s business, but she was curious about one more thing and felt compelled to ask. “And where do you all call home?”

Mrs. Gardiner replied, “My husband and I live in London, and Elizabeth lives at Longbourn.”

Georgiana’s eyes widened; another piece of the puzzle falling into place. “Longbourn?” she asked. “I do not believe I know where that is.”

“Oh,” laughed Elizabeth. “It is in a small, inconsequential village in Hertfordshire. If you were to blink while passing through it, you would miss it completely.”

Georgiana suddenly had an unquenchable inquisitiveness about Miss Bennet, and a determined inclination to get to know her much better.

“Would you mind terribly if I joined you out here as you walk the grounds? I should be more than happy to answer any questions you have, and then I should be remiss if I did not invite you back in for some refreshment.”

“Miss Darcy, you are most welcome to join us,” Elizabeth assured her, “but we really would not want to impose on your hospitality.”

“Consider it a pleasure, Miss Bennet.”

Georgiana remained by Elizabeth’s side, and the Gardiners followed behind as they continued their walk by the lake. Georgiana demurely, but diligently, informed Mr. Gardiner about the excellent fishing that abounded in the lake, and that if he felt so inclined, he would be more than welcome to come back anytime and try his hand at it.

He was profuse in his thanks and appreciation. They walked but a bit more, and as Mrs. Gardiner began to feel wearied from the walk, they turned back to the house.

Wanting to get to know her better, Elizabeth engaged Georgiana in conversation. “Miss Darcy, I hope you do not mind my saying so, but while touring your home we heard you playing, and I must say, I have not heard anyone play as well as you do.”

“Oh, Miss Bennet, I was merely practicing. I was not playing well at all!”

Elizabeth smiled and looked directly into the young girl’s eyes. “You play very well, indeed, Miss Darcy.”

Georgiana self-consciously accepted her praise. Drawing from all the lessons in conversation she had from various governesses and more recently Mrs. Annesley, and a determination to discover some answers, she applied herself to Elizabeth. “Miss Bennet, did you come to know my brother at all during your voyage?”

Elizabeth stammered, feeling another unwelcome blush come to her face. “I… um… he…” Elizabeth took in a deep breath. “We did get a chance to meet. He was very kind to me. I stumbled on the stairs one day and he was of great assistance to me.”

Georgiana smiled. “I am glad you think him kind. Many people consider him proud and aloof. But they really have not taken the time to get to know him.” Georgiana was not sure why she felt compelled to defend him, but just in case Miss Bennet had formed a different opinion of him, as so many others quite often did, she wanted her to know what he was truly like.

They came back into the house, and Georgiana offered them some refreshment. She wanted to find out more, but had not the slightest idea how to go about it without unduly prying.

Miss Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner talked of growing up around Derbyshire. Elizabeth noticed how many times the shy, young girl mentioned her brother and that it was always in a positive light.

When they had finished, and the Gardiners announced they ought to take their leave, Elizabeth felt a pang of regret. She and Miss Darcy truly enjoyed each other’s company. She would have loved having her as a sister.

“I am very pleased you came outside to join us, Miss Darcy. It was indeed a pleasure meeting you,” Elizabeth told the young girl.

Quietly the girl answered her, “I do hope we meet again, Miss Bennet.”

“I hope we do, as well.” Elizabeth took the girl’s hand and gave it a squeeze, taking a long look at her face, wondering if she would ever see her again.

During the drive home, Elizabeth was extremely quiet, her thoughts in turmoil. Her aunt occasionally glanced at her, concerned that she did not look well—not so much a look of physical ailment as an emotional one.

The quiet atmosphere of the five-mile ride to Lambton allowed Elizabeth to dwell on all that she had come to know in just the course of an hour. There was the fact that he owned the ship and had never bothered to tell her. There were implications to that fact that threatened to overwhelm her.

Her eyes widened as she realized the captain most likely had no choice but to perform the ceremony Darcy asked him to, as he would be subject to his every command. She had seen glimpses of his concern for passengers in steerage and during the storm; could they have been solely out of concern for the reputation and the seaworthiness of his ship ?

Then there was the grandeur of his home; the praise of his housekeeper and his precious sister. She could not escape the fact that this man was highly esteemed by those who knew him well. She also became all too aware that he had more wealth than she had ever considered, and in marrying her, he had married considerably beneath himself.

Her thoughts then turned to her little sampler, which she had seen in his study. She took in a deep breath as she considered that he found it, kept it, and had it framed, setting it among his favourite things. Did she dare hope that it reflected something about how he felt about her?

She kept her gaze out the window, this time not soaking in the beauty of the woods, but swimming in the deluge of emotions that were building up within her.

Her breathing was distressed, and she had to force herself to act as naturally as she could whilst in the presence of her aunt and uncle. She knew very well how her aunt could easily detect when something was bothering her, and she knew the marriage between her and Mr. Darcy was something she would never be able to confide.

Feigning sleepiness, Elizabeth closed her eyes and leaned her head back. Not since stepping off the ship onto the American shore had she felt such an onslaught of emotions.

Her aunt and uncle, still in awe over the beauty of Pemberley, were not at all oblivious to Elizabeth’s demeanour. Since arriving in America she had been subdued, and her aunt was now quite convinced there was more to her acquaintance with Mr. Darcy than she was willing to share. But she would not press her. She would wait for her to come to her in her own time.

Chapter 17

Hertfordshire

It was near evening when Darcy’s carriage pulled up the long drive to Netherfield Manor. Sitting inside the carriage, Darcy still could not believe his good fortune that Netherfield and Longbourn seemed to be in close proximity to each other. He would not be required to search all over the countryside and visit every village that started with the letter “L” to find Elizabeth. As soon as he could, he would find the Bennet household and discreetly ascertain whether Elizabeth had returned.

His spirits were high. He knew it was only a matter of time before he would see Elizabeth.

As Durnham opened the door of the carriage and Darcy pulled himself out, he gave Netherfield manor an appraising glance. It was very suitable for Charles, not too opulent and not too modest. He absently nodded to himself in the conviction that it had been wise for Bingley to merely let it. He knew a word of encouragement to Bingley to remain at Netherfield or a prompting to move on would be taken to heart. But he would not broach that subject until he saw Elizabeth, was able to declare his intentions, and subsequently ascertain her sentiments. If she refused any consideration of keeping their marriage intact, he would not wish his best friend to live in such close proximity to her and would, with persuasive subtlety, advise him to find another, more suitable place to live, preferably in a more distant neighbourhood. But he would give all that was within him and without to win Elizabeth’s heart.

Caroline Bingley and her sister, Louisa Hurst, were sitting in the drawing room when a servant stepped in announcing Mr. Darcy. Caroline jumped up with great joy at this unexpected interruption.

“Mr. Darcy! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you to Netherfield?”

“I have some business in Hertfordshire. I wrote Charles; did he not tell you?”

“Charles? Tell us anything? Never!”

“I apologize.” Darcy looked at both sisters. “I do hope this is not an inconvenience.”

Caroline edged up alongside him and slipped her hand around Darcy’s arm, unaware that he tensed up as she did so. “Oh, Mr. Darcy, on the contrary! This is not inconvenient at all! You have come at just the opportune time!”

“It appears you are going out.”

“Yes. There is a trifling party that Charles has insisted we attend at some lodge in Meryton, and the worst part…” She paused to look at Louisa and nodded. “The worst part is that Charles has found himself enamoured of some decidedly inferior country girl with the most abhorrent family!”

“Where is he now?”

“You know Charles, always so anxious and optimistically cheerful. We are not looking forward to this evening as much as he. Needless to say, he has gone on ahead of us. Oh, Mr. Darcy, you must come with us tonight and put some sense into Charles’s head!”

Darcy shook his head. “I am sorry, Miss Bingley, but I am exceptionally tired. I really cannot go with you tonight.”

“Oh, Mr. Darcy, please reconsider. We are certain that this infatuation of his is ill founded and foolish. You shall see for yourself!”

Darcy sighed. “I am sorry, but I really do not feel as though I can go.” As much as he was aware that he might be able to find something out about the Bennets, and particularly Elizabeth, at such an affair, he felt too fatigued to make the effort required at such a gathering.

Suddenly, Caroline saw things in a new, more amiable light. “Why, Mr. Darcy, how insensitive I have been, selfishly looking at my own concern for Charles and not your comfort. Of course you are tired. But I would be remiss and the poorest hostess if I were to allow you to remain here alone tonight. I shall stay back as well.” She turned to her sister. “Louisa, tell Charles that Mr. Darcy has just arrived this evening, and I have remained back to make sure all is well with him.”

A look of alarm spread across Darcy’s features, and he protested. “No, no! Perhaps it is best that I do go and meet this young lady of whom you speak!” The thought of spending an evening alone in Miss Bingley’s presence quite easily convinced him to reconsider his state of weariness.

Caroline sighed, not really sure if that was the way she wanted it after all.

With Durnham’s able assistance, Darcy bathed, changed, and came downstairs in a reasonable amount of time. When he walked into the room, an audible sigh was heard from Caroline, who was quite sure that she would be the belle of this affair on his arm as well as on the dance floor. She mused that perhaps it would not be so tedious after all.

Sir William Lucas, at whose lodge the party was being held, greeted them at the door. Trying to bring himself up in their estimation, he began to talk of his presentation at St. James and his fondness for superior society.

Caroline Bingley nudged Darcy away, rolling her eyes at her sister, indicating her disapproval of their host. They walked through the crowd, working their way to an area where they could stand off to the side. Darcy eagerly watched for his friend while fighting off the barrage of unflattering thoughts that assaulted him about the nature of this gathering from a habit that had become deeply ingrained over the years.

It was a typical, small country assembly, and with the hint of whispers he heard between Charles’s sisters, they were not impressed either. A sigh escaped Darcy at the realization that he was viewing with an overcritical eye the very people among whom Elizabeth lived.

The three of them stood off to the side as Mr. Hurst went in search of drink and a comfortable chair. Darcy was determined to counter his critical musings with the argument that he had been able to see the beauty within Elizabeth and certainly could give her neighbours the benefit of the doubt and look upon them, as well, without prejudice. But it was becoming more and more difficult as he observed more than one incident of unpolished and unacceptable behaviour.

At length, Caroline began pointing out to Darcy the sisters of the woman Charles apparently was quite enamoured with.

The first sister he observed was at the pianoforte. Her playing was heavy with little interpretation. She seemed to have neither the inclination as to the preference of the crowd nor the desire to accommodate it. He compared her playing with Georgiana’s, and believed this young lady had a lot to learn about the mastery of music. Her playing was sombre as was her countenance. If she was any indication of the woman Bingley had taken a liking to, she would hardly be an accomplished woman.

Darcy’s critical musings on the one sister were suddenly made insignificant by the outrageous behaviour of another. In a voice that was not subdued at all, she demanded that her sister play something they could dance to. Caroline gleefully pointed out her mother, and he witnessed a display of behaviour so wanting in propriety as she quite loudly and rudely made a demand of the daughter at the piano, that he felt quite repulsed. He hated to admit it, but he had to agree with Miss Bingley on her appraisal of this lady’s family.

“Did I not tell you, sir?” asked Caroline, eyeing his disgust at what he was witnessing.

“Their behaviour is distasteful, indeed!” he answered. “It is hardly reasonable to consider how Bingley would be so taken by a woman whose family is abhorrently ill mannered.”

Darcy was curious to see this young lady and discover for himself just what it was that Bingley saw in her.

Caroline cast furtive glances up at Darcy, quite pleased that he was witnessing what had to be an excess of impropriety in the family. At length they saw Charles walk in from another room with the young lady on his arm.

Darcy had to admit she was pretty. She was fair with gentle features. She had a soft smile, but as he watched them make their way through the crowd, he noticed that it did not appear to reach to the depths of her. He wondered if this attachment was one-sided only. If indeed she was willing to make a match solely for his fortune, she might be willing to lead him to believe she loved him. For Bingley’s sake he would keep an eye on this lady.

After speaking to a few people as they came in from another room, Bingley looked up and he saw his good friend. His eyes widened with joy and surprise.

“Darcy!” Bingley exclaimed from across the room. He turned to the young lady next to him, “Come, I see a good friend of mine is here and I must introduce you to him!”

Bingley escorted the young lady over to Darcy and shook his hand fervently. “How are you, good friend? I completely forgot you had written to say you were coming!”

“I hope it is not an inconvenience.”

“Not at all! This is splendid, indeed!” Bingley turned to the lady by his side. “Darcy, may I present this fine young lady to you? Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, may I introduce to you Miss Jane Bennet?”

Darcy’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he heard the name, and he could scarcely proceed with the barest civilities required of him. His heart pounded erratically as he contemplated whether this could truly be Elizabeth’s sister.

Finally coming to his senses, Darcy bowed politely but felt as though all colour had drained from his face. He knew Elizabeth had sisters, but he could not remember if she ever mentioned them by name. If she had, he could not bring himself to recall a single one. A sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach began to overtake him as he struggled to reconcile the fact that Miss Bennet could indeed be Elizabeth’s sister and consequently, this was her family!

After exchanging the briefest of civilities, Bingley and Miss Bennet left him for the dance floor. As he watched them begin to dance the set, he felt even more distressed than when he had first arrived. He watched, as a man watches a play from his seat in a theatre, as events unfolded around him, trying to come to terms with what he was witnessing. Here was his good friend Bingley, beaming. He could tell he was falling hard for this young lady who shared the surname of his own Elizabeth, but the young lady exhibited nothing more than sweet contentment upon her face.

Darcy had no desire to dance, and he rested against the mantel for physical as well as emotional support. He kept telling himself that this certainly could not be Elizabeth’s family. He hoped it was not.

His disheartened demeanour did not go unnoticed by Caroline. Looking over to her sister Louisa, she whispered, “Poor Darcy! What agonies he must be suffering. How distressed he must be in having to endure this!”

With that she rose. “Louisa, I cannot sit here and watch him suffer so. I must go to his side.” She eagerly walked over to him and placed herself beside him, hoping to ease his discomfort. She was all anticipation that he might be inclined to dance at least one set with her.

When he did not acknowledge her, but seemed lost in thought, she offered in a most sympathetic voice, “I can guess the subject of your reverie.”

Darcy was somewhat startled, but he replied coolly, “I should imagine not.”

“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I have never been more annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”

“Your conjecture is totally wrong. While I do agree that there are some here who are noisy and carry about them an air of perceived self-importance, I find that there are pleasures that can be found in country manners if one looks in the right places.” In truth, he knew the only true pleasure he could imagine finding here would be Elizabeth.

This did not sit well with Caroline, but she remained steadfast at his side.

The evening passed ever too slowly for Darcy. As he tried to determine whether this was Elizabeth’s family, he began to hear bits and pieces of talk from those around him of “Bingley’s wealth,” “a good match for Jane,” and “Mrs. Bennet will be so pleased.” Even a fool would have been able to discern that the tide of sentiment among the people in this neighbourhood was that Miss Jane Bennet would benefit greatly from a marriage to a man of Bingley’s means, and they were beginning to expect it. The more he watched Mrs. Bennet, the more he realized she was one of those pushy, marriage-minded mothers who would do anything to secure her daughter in a marriage with a man of fortune.

He finally decided the only course of action he could take to ascertain any relation to Elizabeth would be to ask Miss Bennet to dance. But before he did that, he knew it would be only proper to ask Miss Bingley first. Reluctantly, he asked Miss Bingley, who was ever so appreciative, to join him on the dance floor.

As he struggled to maintain a polite manner as Miss Bingley’s dance partner, he remained preoccupied with Bingley’s partner. He had to admit he had never seen Bingley so enamoured, so cheerful. She did seem to bring out, even more, his gregarious manner. But the young lady did not seem similarly affected. His concern rose as he considered Bingley did not even notice her cool, unaffected demeanour. There was no harm in being sweet and pretty, but he had to make sure that his good friend married a woman who loved and respected him for who he was and not for what he had.

He thought of Elizabeth and how different, even from this young lady, she was. A vivid recollection of her lively and playful spirit suddenly came upon him, and he could not believe how he ached for her. He looked back upon Caroline, who was methodically performing the steps of the dance with an air of distinction. She may have all the external attributes of a well-bred, fashionable woman of society, but Elizabeth was overflowing with internal qualities that put her on a higher pedestal than Caroline Bingley would ever be.

With the agony of the obligatory dance finally over, he excused himself and walked back over to Bingley, who was readily willing to allow Darcy a dance with his angel. He was eager for his friend’s approval, and he had no doubt that he would get it.

As the dance began, and Darcy stood facing the sweet-faced Jane Bennet, he wondered whether the two would ever begin a conversation. She was very quiet, and Darcy was at a loss to know how to begin the dialogue that might offer up the information he so desired to hear, or not to hear.

A few rounds into the number, Jane finally spoke up. “Mr. Darcy, how long have you known Mr. Bingley?”

“We have been friends for about eight years now, I think.”

Jane smiled. Darcy sighed. It was now or never.

“Miss Bennet, I believe you have three sisters here. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

The two dancers separated and Darcy’s heart lifted. Perhaps that is all she has! Elizabeth is not her sister!

When they came back together again, her voice faltered. “But I have one who is not here.”

Darcy was brought abruptly to a halt with her words. He waited for her to continue, as he watched tears form in her eyes.

“She has been gone for several months now.”

Darcy leaned his head toward her as he asked, most reluctantly, but he had to know. “Forgive me if this is none of my business, but did something happen to her?”

Suddenly Jane smiled, “Oh no, sir. Please forgive me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “It is just that we are so close, and I miss her so.”

Darcy’s heart pounded and he could hear nothing else in the room save what she was saying. “She left for America to visit my aunt and uncle five months ago, although we do expect them to return any day now.”

Darcy closed his eyes as he fought a wave of dizziness come over him. He had to make a mental effort to recall the next steps to the dance, as he wanted nothing at this moment but solitude so he could ponder this revelation.

“You expect her to return shortly?” he managed to ask.

“Yes, the last we heard they were in Liverpool, about to head for home.”

Darcy felt his chest tighten up and he struggled even to breathe. He looked around the room, seeing her mother and three sisters. He could not reconcile that this quiet, demure woman dancing with him, the three vulgar sisters, their mother, and Elizabeth were all from the same family.

A small voice, resonating from his past, his upbringing, and his connections spoke out, You can still annul the marriage and she need never know you actually considered otherwise!

They finished the dance in silence, for which Darcy was grateful. He was anxious to leave and settle his nerves and rationally think out all the implications of this!

That night in his room, Darcy tried to decide what to say to Bingley or whether to say anything at all. The fact that his friend had developed an interest in Elizabeth’s sister provided a very interesting state of affairs. He pulled out the marriage certificate, which he had secured in a dresser drawer inside a book, and fingered it gently.

He looked at her signature and ran his finger lightly over it. How did she ever end up in that family of hers? Her eldest sister was sweet and kind; he could easily credit her with that. But her other sisters and her mother would be a disgrace to his family! He shook his head, determining he would think of them no longer tonight.

***

At breakfast the next morning, Darcy encountered a highly agitated Caroline Bingley. “Mr. Darcy, please come sit down and settle something for us.” Somehow he had a feeling this had to do with Miss Bennet. The fact that her brother was not amongst them at the moment prompted him to suspect that Miss Bingley would unleash all her pent-up anger and sisterly concerns.

She cleared her throat before she began. “Mr. Darcy, you know how concerned we are for Charles’s welfare, and how he sometimes acts in very foolish ways, making unwise decisions.”

“Especially in the area of love,” Louisa added.

“Bingley’s affairs are his own concern, Miss Bingley.”

“Miss Bennet is a sweet girl, Mr. Darcy. But look at her family, her connections; she has nothing to offer him. She is just not the kind of girl and her family is not the kind of family that Charles should marry into. Her mother… certainly you observed last night how ill mannered her mother is!”

Darcy closed his eyes, mentally preparing how he should respond. It was true that Charles had made some unwise decisions before in the area of love. He was not so much concerned now that Miss Bennet was wrong for him, wrong at least in the way Caroline thought she was wrong. He was more concerned that his friend would continue to shower his undivided attention upon this lady and then, as he had frequently done in the past, decide she was not the one for him and leave her. That might eventually put him in an awkward situation with Elizabeth.

“Please do something, Mr. Darcy. Say something to him. He will listen to you, I know!” She leaned in closer to him. “You are staying with us for some time, are you not?”

Darcy looked at her. “As it turns out, I will most likely remain here for a while.”

A look spread across Caroline’s face that seemed to erase any previous thought or concern she may have had. A wide smile appeared, and she thought, at least she hoped, it was because of her that he chose to remain at Netherfield. She was satisfied that the longer he remained here, the better opportunity for him to see for himself the insupportable situation Charles was putting himself into. Caroline was also determined to take full advantage of his presence in her home for her own ambitions.

She was quite astonished, then, with Mr. Darcy’s next suggestion.

“Miss Bingley, I think it would be most cordial for you to invite Miss Bennet to lunch or tea with you and Mrs. Hurst.”

Caroline looked at him open-mouthed. “You cannot be serious! Why should I encourage this intolerable infatuation of his?”

Darcy looked at her intently. “Because he is your brother, and at the moment, Miss Jane Bennet is the object of his regard. If, indeed, he were to decide to marry her, there is nothing that you or I would be able to do about it, and it would be best if you had exhibited friendliness to her at the onset.”

Caroline pinched her eyebrows together. “Mr. Darcy, you underestimate your influence over my brother. Just say the word; give him some sort of warning or discouragement, and he shall end it. I tell you he greatly respects your opinion.”

Darcy let out a short breath, knowing she was most likely correct. “Still, Miss Bingley, I should extend the invitation if I were you. It will be an indication of your goodwill toward both your brother and this young lady, and it will give you an opportunity to get to know her better.”

Caroline knew that if she continued to argue with him, it might spoil her chances with him. She had to let him know she respected his opinion as well.

“Mr. Darcy, now that you mention it, I think it is an exceptionally good idea to invite Miss Bennet over, do you not agree, sister?” She looked over at Louisa with a sly smile.

Louisa looked at her suspiciously, with every intention of speaking to her candidly about this later when they were alone. “Certainly, Caroline.”

“I shall write directly and invite her to come to tea with us tomorrow!”

Darcy pushed the chair back and brought himself up from the table. “If you will excuse me, ladies, I shall be out riding and seeing all that this neighbourhood has to offer.”

Caroline only let out a disappointed “hmmm,” as she watched him leave the room.

Louisa immediately leaned over. “Upon my word, Caroline! Why would you want to invite Miss Bennet over for tea?”

“Louisa, I am greatly surprised you have to ask. I do believe you have been married too long! I am trying my hardest to get that man to notice me while he is here, and letting him know I think highly of his opinion and totally agree with him is one way to do it!” She looked over at the now empty door. “Besides, Mr. Darcy is most likely aware that while Jane Bennet is here, we might be able to discover all sorts of disreputable information about her family that we shall be able to use against her!”

The two sisters looked at each other and snickered, while Mr. Hurst continued to deplete the food on the table.

Darcy walked out to the stable, asking the stable hand to ready his horse, Thunder, for riding. With some seemingly innocent questions, he ascertained the whereabouts of Meryton as well as Longbourn. He would do some riding to clear his head and while he was at it, see if he could find the place Elizabeth called home.

Thunder was saddled and eager for an outing around the countryside. Darcy understood Longbourn was about three miles southeast of Netherfield, so he set out in that direction. Thunder was more than anxious to expend some of his energy, and Darcy allowed him the freedom to gallop through some open fields. As the horse was given free rein, Darcy tried to rein in his thoughts.

He could not get Elizabeth’s family out of his mind. Their behaviour was rude, unrefined, and completely inappropriate. So unlike Elizabeth! Her eldest sister seemed to be of the same upbringing as Elizabeth, and he wondered how there could be such a disparity between them and their sisters. Her mother . He sighed as the uninvited thought challenged him as to how he would ever be able to introduce her family to his own family… to his friends.

Pushing that thought brusquely aside, he came upon a road and slowed down, following it at a brisk canter. Not much farther along he came across a modest two-story home that was set back a ways from the road. A wooden sign marker off to the side was inscribed with the name Longbourn .

His heart skipped a beat as he looked across at the home, wondering if it indeed was Elizabeth’s. Is this where she grew up? Where she took her walks? Where she formed all her hopes and dreams?

A noise drew his attention and he saw two young girls come flying out of the house, one carrying a bonnet. He did not want to draw attention to himself, so he gave his horse a slight kick and walked it slowly down the road, occasionally turning to see if he could recognize the girls as the Bennet daughters from the night before.

They were not paying any attention to the road out front, and so were quite careless in their behaviour. One shrieked, “Give me back my bonnet!” while the other waved the bonnet in the air, taunting, “Just try to get it back! It looks much better on me!”

Darcy’s stomach churned as he realized he was watching the Bennet girls he had seen last night. He hated to admit it, but this little display between the two sisters was another example to reinforce Caroline’s partially correct views of the unsuitability of the Bennet family.

Darcy rode on a little farther up the road, enjoying the crisp autumn day, but knew he ought to return shortly. He felt a chill in the air and if he suspected correctly, it felt like rain. As he turned back, he imagined Elizabeth taking walks along this very road. He pondered whether her love for walking was drawn from a desire to escape the oddities that were displayed in her house by her family or merely to enjoy the beauty of the hills and dales around her home.

Noticing the clouds begin to collect above, he decided to head directly back to Netherfield. He could feel a north wind sending its tendrils of shivering cold, and brought Thunder to a gallop.

By the time he reached Netherfield, Charles had joined his sisters. Darcy walked in and handed his coat and riding stick off to one of the servants.

“Did you have a nice ride, Mr. Darcy?” asked Caroline.

“Splendid, thank you.”

“I was just telling Charles that I will be sending a note to Miss Bennet inviting her to join us for tea tomorrow while you men are out.”

Charles perked up. “I think that is a marvellous idea, Caroline. I am glad you thought of it.”

Caroline smiled a contented smile, but then quickly added, “Oh, but Charles, I must give the credit to Mr. Darcy. He is the one who came up with that most agreeable suggestion.”

“I believe Caroline and Louisa will have a wonderful time with Miss Bennet tomorrow!” Charles declared exuberantly. Charles looked over at his friend. “Do you like her, Darcy? Do you not think that she is an angel?”

“She seems very sweet, Bingley. But why are we to be out? Where are we going?”

“We, good friend, have been invited to dine with the officers.”

“We have?”

“Yes. The timing could not be more perfect. Miss Bennet can spend the time getting to know my sisters while we enjoy the company of the officers.”

Darcy pursed his lips upon hearing this, feeling disposed to think that what he had intended in his suggestion may now not be feasible. He had hoped to be able to glean a little more information about Elizabeth from her sister. Now he could only hope that the visit with the officers would end early enough for them to return to Netherfield before Miss Bennet left, although he doubted it would. He certainly could not expect to hear any favourable information about her from Charles’s sisters.

He could only hope it would not be too long before another opportunity presented itself to find out more about the woman for whom he impatiently longed.

Chapter 18

The following morning, Bingley expressed delight that Miss Bennet would spend the day getting to know his sisters. He had no doubt that the ladies would get along splendidly.

After the gentlemen had departed, Caroline and Louisa settled in to wait for Jane. As they sat, rather impatiently in the sitting room, they noticed the spattering of raindrops against the window.

“Oh dear,” muttered Caroline. “It is beginning to rain.” She walked over to the window and looked out. “How unfortunate that the men are out in it!” She turned to Louisa. “I hope they do not remain long with the officers. I shall have the dullest day if they stay out too long.”

With a surprised look on her face, Louisa looked up at her sister. “How can you say that, Caroline? We shall have Miss Bennet here to keep us entertained. Did you forget?”

“Of course not! I simply cannot imagine we shall have very lively or profitable conversation with her. I must admit, I am not looking forward to it in the least bit, but we shall do our duty by her for our brother’s sake.”

Louisa laughed softly. “And Mr. Darcy’s sake?”

Caroline looked at her innocently, with raised eyebrows. “Hmmm?”

“To please Mr. Darcy, as it was his suggestion to invite Miss Bennet to dine with us.”

“Oh, yes, that.” She tilted her head with a sly smile. “All I need is a little time, Louisa. As he does not seem inclined to leave Netherfield any time soon, I am more than confident that things will turn out as I have always believed they would.”

As she looked back out the window, she felt more confident that it was solely because of her that he had remained on, and she let out a reflective sigh. The rain began to pound more fiercely against the window, and Caroline noticed the wind pick up. At that moment she saw a lone figure approaching on a horse.

“Now who could that be!” asked Caroline in disbelief. “Who would be out on a horse on a day like this?”

Believing it to be someone delivering a post or on some sort of business, she went back and sat next to her sister as they patiently awaited Jane’s arrival. It was with a sense of surprise then, that after just a few moments, a servant came to the door followed by a very wet, embarrassed, and uncomfortable Jane Bennet.

“Why, Miss Bennet! You are all wet! Did you not come in a carriage?”

“Uh, no… Miss Bingley. Unfortunately the horses were engaged elsewhere.”

“So you travelled all the way over here on horseback… in the rain?”

Jane meekly nodded. “But it had not begun to rain when I started out.”

Her cloak had covered her for the most part, but because of the downpour, it had soaked through and she was quite cold and wet, looking somewhat like a lost puppy caught out in the rain.

Louisa walked over to her. “Dear girl, let us see if we can get you into some dry clothes.”

“I would not want to put you through any trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Miss Bingley offered, as she looked archly at her sister, wondering if any of the Bennets had any common sense.

They escorted Jane upstairs and secured a change of clothes for her. They left her with a maid who helped her to dry off and change. While Jane was away doing this, the two ladies returned downstairs and commented to each other on her arrival and how appalled they were at her appearance. They were determined to find out what they could about her family in order to convince Charles how unsuitable she was for him.

Caroline snickered at their plot. “Shhhh, here she comes,” she said when she heard footsteps approach.

Jane joined the ladies, feeling very much more comfortable and grateful for the dry clothes, while at the same time suffering the initial effects of being out in the cold and rain. She felt slightly dizzy and the symptoms of a cold began to emerge.

The three ladies proceeded to the dining room where a delicious hot meal awaited them. As much as Jane enjoyed it and looked forward to getting to know Charles’s sisters better, and as much as she applied herself to the two ladies’ questions and conversation, she found herself feeling increasingly poorly.

“I understand, Miss Bennet,” Caroline Bingley addressed Jane in her most polite voice, “that Longbourn has been entailed away from the female line. Did I understand that correctly?”

Jane brought her hand up to her head as she struggled to assuage her dizziness. “That is correct, Miss Bingley.”

“And you have no brothers?”

Jane took in a deep breath and brought both her hands up, laying them flat on the table as she felt herself begin to sway. “No, only four sisters.”

“So this would mean, most unfortunately, that all of you would at some point be turned out of Longbourn. What a pity. That means that one of you must…” Suddenly Caroline stopped. “Excuse me, Miss Bennet, but you said you have four sisters. I believe we have only met three. Is there another ?” She turned and looked suspiciously at her sister, pinching her eyebrows heavy upon her eyes.

“Yes, my next eldest sister has been away for the past several months.”

“Miss Bennet, you say she has been away ?” Caroline then raised her eyebrows at Louisa with a look of disdainful interest. “And just where has she been and why has she been away?”

Jane fought off another wave of dizziness as she answered Miss Bingley’s questions. “She left to go to America several months ago to visit my aunt and uncle who were there on business.”

“Business?”

“Yes. He is in trade in London and was making arrangements to do some exporting to America. As they were to be there for several months, my sister was able to join them.”

“He is in trade, is he? And your sister went off to America, just like that?”

Jane nodded, feeling a stronger and stronger sense of lightheadedness.

“And your aunt and uncle… just where in London do they live?”

“They live at Gracechurch Street.” When this last question was answered, Jane could no longer fight off the overpowering dizziness and she suddenly slumped down in the chair.

The two women called immediately for help, and Jane was carried upstairs to a guestroom and secured in bed. It was determined that she had a cold and fever, and it was best not to move her. When Jane felt able, although still somewhat disconcerted, she scribbled a quick missive home letting them know she had taken ill, was in good hands, and would remain at Netherfield until she felt improved enough to return home.

The ladies took turns up in Jane’s room for the remainder of the afternoon waiting on her and applying themselves to her care. The fever seemed to quickly grip her, and it was soon determined that they should send for Mr. Jones, the doctor. The only good Caroline could see in this was that it would provide an opportunity to show Mr. Darcy just how kind and caring she could be.

***

The time the men spent visiting with the officers was entirely too short for Bingley, too stuffy for Hurst, and too disconcerting for Darcy. His heart was not in it, and while he normally enjoyed a good discussion with an officer, he could not concentrate. He sat and pretended to listen, all the while anxious to get back to Netherfield with the hope that he could have some opportunity to speak with Miss Bennet.

When they finally arrived back at Netherfield through the rain and increasing cold, they were welcomed at the door by Miss Bingley, who had been keeping an eye open for their return. She excitedly began to tell them how Miss Bennet had unexpectedly taken ill, was going to remain at Netherfield until she was feeling improved, and that she had been doing all she could to make her more comfortable. While her words spoke of her concern for Jane, her focused attention on Darcy reflected her true interest in her desire for his good opinion.

Bingley quickly removed his coat and shook off the water, handing it to a servant, with a look of alarm. “Miss Bennet has taken ill? Say it is not true!”

“She certainly is most unwell. I believed her to be too ill to travel back home and have put her up in a guestroom. I have dispatched a note from her to her family at Longbourn.”

“Good, good.” Bingley rubbed his hands nervously together. “She is being well taken care of, then?”

Caroline smiled sweetly. “We are doing all we can for her. Louisa is up with her now if you would like to see how she is faring. She is upstairs, the second room on the left.”

Bingley took the stairs two at a time toward the room where his poor, sweet Jane was ailing.

Darcy handed off his coat and was removing his gloves as he began to walk toward the stairs himself.

Not wishing him to leave so soon, Miss Bingley asked, “Did you enjoy your time with the officers, sir?”

“They are an excellent group of men,” Darcy replied. Her question did bring him to a halt. He turned and asked her, “Just how seriously ill is Miss Bennet?”

“I believe it to be only a trifling cold and fever. We have called for Mr. Jones and he will be here in the morning. I have done all I can for her to make her comfortable. She has been most grateful for my attentiveness toward her.”

“I am glad to hear that.”

Caroline smiled triumphantly. But she found it beyond her patience to continue talking to him about Miss Bennet and turned the conversation to her concern for him. “Mr. Darcy, you must take care not to come down with a cold, as well, having been out in the rain as you were.”

Darcy looked at her and smiled. “You are so right, Miss Bingley, and I appreciate your concern. If you will excuse me, then, I shall retire to my room to change.”

Bowing, he turned and walked away, leaving Caroline appreciating his compliment, but vexed at his leaving her side.

Darcy went upstairs, passing the room where Jane was resting, and heard Bingley giving her words of encouragement as well as regret that she had taken ill. His room was a little farther down and on the right. As he entered it, another tremor of hope filled him that with Miss Bennet being in their midst for a while, he might just have the opportunity to talk with her and perhaps something about Elizabeth might come up in the conversation.

How he would love to hear anything about her. What was she was like growing up? What are her likes and dislikes? What dreams and aspirations does she have?

He chuckled at himself. He was being ridiculous. He could not, in all propriety, carry on a conversation with Miss Bennet about her sister without good reason and without raising suspicion. He smiled as he considered that even one little morsel of information about Elizabeth would satisfy him until he was able to see her again.

***

That night, after Jane had been settled into bed for the evening and had fallen asleep, the ladies eagerly made their way to the drawing room to spend their time in a much more agreeable fashion. Darcy walked in and found them with Mr. Hurst and Bingley at cards.

“Would you care to join us, sir?” asked Miss Bingley.

“No thank you. I should prefer to read.”

Miss Bingley tried to engage Mr. Darcy in conversation again, but to no avail. She talked of the book he was reading, the excellence of Pemberley, and his influence in making Pemberley such an elegant place, but nothing seemed to capture his interest.

Caroline was left with no alternative but to turn her attention back to the card game.

When two games of cards had been completed, Bingley was the first to excuse himself for the night. He stood up from the table and stretched. “As we will be having some sport in the morning, I believe I shall turn in now if you do not mind.”

“Good night, Charles.” Darcy looked up from his book.

The card game came to an end with Bingley’s departure, and if Darcy had not been so engrossed in his book, he may have planned a little more shrewdly and taken his leave when Bingley did. But as he did not, he unwittingly found himself again in the midst of a conversation about the unsuitability of Miss Bennet, or at least the unsuitability of the Bennet family.

“Mr. Darcy, you would have been appalled at the state in which Miss Bennet arrived today. She was completely soaked from the rain.” She leaned toward Darcy as she said, “She had actually ridden on horseback all the way here! Can you imagine?”

“Perhaps that was her only source of transportation.”

“But certainly you see how imprudent it was! And now look at the result! How long will she have to remain here?” Caroline looked to Mrs. Hurst, who gave her an affirming nod. “I find this whole situation with Charles and this Bennet family highly disconcerting!”

“Charles is an adult. I am sure he is perfectly capable of deciding what is best.”

She remained quiet but for only a few moments. “Mr. Darcy, you would not believe what else we discovered today about her family!”

Darcy cringed, but politely asked, “And what was that?”

“Well, first of all, their home has been entailed away from the female line and that makes it absolutely imperative that one of the daughters marry well. You must see that her interest in Charles is solely to ensure that her sisters and mother will one day be well taken care of!”

“I do not see that at all.”

“Oh, come, Mr. Darcy. Have you ever seen in Miss Bennet any evidence of strong attachment?”

Darcy closed his book. “I have not had the opportunity to see them together enough to make that sort of judgment. There is nothing in her demeanour to suggest she has mercenary motives for marrying.” Although he had been of the same opinion before he knew who she was, he would never admit that to Miss Bingley. He felt until he knew more, he would give her the benefit of the doubt.

“But there is something else we discovered just today.”

“And what is that?” Darcy’s impatience had just about reached its limit.

“That she has another sister who has been in America these past few months.”

Darcy’s heart lurched. Catching himself, he replied, “Does she?”

Caroline stood up from the table and began to walk around. “Are not three Bennet sisters enough? Now we find out she has four !” The contempt in her voice did not go unnoticed. “Exactly what could this other sister have been doing in America? What reason could there be for anyone to go over there?”

“Excuse me?” Darcy asked.

“Oh, except for you, Mr. Darcy, who had to go over there to return with your sister. How kind of you that was!”

“Did she say anything else about her?”

“Anything else?” Caroline mulled over his question. “Only that she expected her home any day now.”

Darcy eyed Miss Bingley with suspicion. She did not seem to be finished with her scrutiny of this unknown fourth sister.

“If you ask me,” she said in a hushed whisper, “the only reason I can fathom for a young, single woman to travel to America and back to visit an aunt and uncle, would be to take care of some impropriety on her part.”

Louisa again nodded her agreement.

“It would not surprise me if she found herself in a most unseemly way and travelled abroad so no one here would find out she was…”

“Miss Bingley!” Darcy stood up, affronted at her insinuations against Elizabeth.

She looked up at him in surprise, silenced by his anger.

Darcy took in a breath as he attempted to calm himself. “Miss Bingley, you have no reason and no right to assume any such thing, and I, for one, will not allow you to spread rumours of that nature.”

A wave of regret crossed her face. She regretted that she had caused him such indignation and that it was directed toward her. “I am sorry, Mr. Darcy. It was… it was… thoughtless of me.” She had never seen such a look of anger on his face before, and could not, for the life of her, understand why he was so determined to defend Miss Bennet’s family.

Darcy stood up abruptly. “If you will excuse me…” Without saying any more, he left the room.

***

The next morning the sun broke through the lingering clouds, and the kind of freshness that only a recent rain can produce filled the air.

Darcy awoke eager to engage in a day of hunting. He loved the thrill of the hunt, the challenge and skill that was required, and being out-of-doors.

As he prepared to go downstairs, his thoughts went to Miss Bennet. Perhaps if she was feeling improved, she would join them for breakfast. Then he might have a chance to subtly bring up the subject of Elizabeth. He was unsettled by Caroline’s inclination to jump to the most abhorrent conclusions about the Bennets.

Joining the others downstairs in the breakfast parlour, he was disappointed to find Miss Bennet missing. He greeted the others and inquired after her.

“Has anyone seen after Miss Bennet this morning?”

Caroline answered. “Yes, I stopped by her room this morning to see how she was faring. Apparently she did not sleep well at all. She is very feverish and drowsy. All she wants to do is sleep, which is perhaps the best thing for her.”

“I am sorry to hear that she is feeling so poorly.” Darcy was served a plate of sliced ham topped with eggs and poured a cup of coffee. “It is probably wise that she not be moved just yet.”

The conversation around the table remained on Miss Bennet, spurred on by Bingley’s continued interest and concern for her. Darcy noticed the spiteful looks between Caroline and Louisa, which spoke much louder than any of their words, and yet were a truer indication to him that they had heard enough of Miss Bennet and their concern for her comfort was merely an outward show.

When he had finished eating, Darcy walked over to the window with his coffee, glancing outside as he took the last sips from the cup. Hurst was anxious to get out on the grounds and begin hunting, but Bingley desired to wait for Mr. Jones to come so he could ascertain how Miss Bennet was faring. Mr. Jones was expected at any moment, and Bingley had to repeat to Hurst several times that he would be the poorest sportsman if he set out before hearing something of her condition.

The door to the parlour opened and a servant stepped in. “A visitor for Miss Bennet.” He stepped aside to allow the visitor to step in.

As Darcy was just bringing his cup of coffee up to take a sip, he looked up and suddenly froze in his movement. There, appearing in the doorway with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise, stood Elizabeth!

The clanging of Darcy’s coffee cup back into his saucer brought all eyes to himself, including the woman at the door. She turned her head and their eyes instantly met; Elizabeth’s cheeks overspread with the deepest blush. Her mouth dropped in shock and surprise, and, without thinking, she cried out, “Will…” The rest of his name was swallowed under her breath as she realized what she was about to say.

Elizabeth was rendered immoveable from surprise, and Darcy took a step toward her, propelled, not by perfect composure, but by perfect astonishment and overwhelming pleasure at seeing her. Elizabeth paled, feeling quite close to fainting, wondering if the man she saw before her was a vision. In a final steeling of her nerves, she turned back to the others in the room and asked in a trembling voice that betrayed her discomfiture, “Will… will someone be so kind as to tell me how my sister is?”

Chapter 19

Silence settled upon the group in the breakfast parlour as all eyes turned upon the lady at the door. Darcy was rendered mute just by the beautiful, long-awaited sight of her; Bingley was in awe of this fourth sister of Jane’s about whom he had heard so much; and his sisters could not believe her appearance. The state of the lady before them rivalled her sister’s appearance the day previous. Mr. Hurst was, of course, completely absorbed with the plates of food before him.

Darcy was grateful the eyes were no longer turned to him, as the blood had all but drained from his face, and he took the cup and saucer in both hands to prevent them from shaking and rattling the china.

Bingley, after being momentarily stunned, jumped up and rushed over to her, introducing himself. “Good morning! I am Charles Bingley!”

“I am Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Bennet.”

“I have heard so much about you! It is good to finally meet you!”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said softly, her voice still quavering, stealing a nervous, questioning glance at Darcy.

“And this is my sister, Caroline Bingley, and my other sister Louisa Hurst, and her husband Mr. Hurst.” Everyone nodded in acknowledgement.

Elizabeth’s gaze was directed at the lady dressed in a most abhorrent orange. Caroline! The name William had called out the night of the storm. Upon scrutiny of the table she could readily see that the empty place beside hers was where he had been seated. A stiffening chill coursed through her as she wondered just what sort of relationship the two had.

“And this is my good friend, Mr. Darcy.”

Elizabeth tentatively turned to him and looked down, her heart pounding. She winced as she noticed the mud that encased her shoes and left trails up her ankles up onto her petticoat. Being so anxious to get out and see Jane, she had carelessly skipped across a large field along the way and had landed in some fairly large mud puddles. She closed her eyes as she imagined how he would consider her in this state. It took all her strength to look upon him calmly when he was the last person she had expected to see, especially in such a dishevelled condition.

“A pleasure, Miss… Bennet,” Darcy quickly interjected, a nervous smile settling across his face, and he bowed. Elizabeth sensed his awkwardness as greatly as she felt her own.

Elizabeth discreetly curtseyed, feeling a sense of unsteadiness threaten to overwhelm her. She could not bring her mind to understand why he, of all people, would be here, of all places.

Caroline stood up and walked over to her as her gaze swept up and down her clothing. She obliged herself to take her hand. “Unfortunately, your sister did not sleep well, Miss Elizabeth. She is still very feverish and not able to leave her room. Mr. Jones has been sent for, and he should be here any moment.” She urgently turned Elizabeth toward the door. “Come, I will take you to her.”

Elizabeth was glad to be ushered out of the room. Her mind and heart swirled in conflicting sensations. As she followed Miss Bingley, she found it difficult to comprehend finding him here so close to her home. She barely returned to Longbourn last night with the Gardiners, had only just caught up with her family, had not even seen Jane, and now she encountered the man who had so frequently occupied her thoughts and settled into her heart these past several months.

Following Miss Bingley up the stairs, Elizabeth tried in vain to fathom his presence in this house. She concentrated on taking each step as Caroline Bingley guided her to her sister. She seemed to be chatting on about something, but Elizabeth was too unsettled to hear and appreciate her words.

When she walked into Jane’s room, her sister’s eyes were closed and she appeared asleep. Elizabeth was suddenly overwhelmed with how much she had missed Jane and how grateful she was to see her again.

She looked back to Miss Bingley and offered up a hurried thank you to her and asked to be alone. She sat down on Jane’s bed as the ache within gave way to a release of tears.

The stirring of the bed awakened Jane, and as she looked upon Elizabeth, she was not sure whether she was dreaming.

“Lizzy?”

“Yes, Jane. I am here. I have come home.”

Jane could not have been more delighted, and she joined her sister in a tearful reunion and fervent embrace.

“Oh, Lizzy! When did you return?”

“Just last night, Jane. Oh, it is so good to see you!” They clung to each other.

“I have felt so downcast, Lizzy, feeling sorry for myself. I wished so much that you were here, and now, here you are!”

“I am so sorry you are unwell, Jane. Are they treating you kindly?” She pulled away, looking closely at Jane’s face and noticing how tired and weak she appeared.

“Oh yes. They have been very kind.”

“I am glad.” Elizabeth took her hand and held it tightly, gaining a modicum of composure. “Mama told us last night about how you had taken ill, and about you and Mr. Bingley.” Elizabeth smiled. “She claims that he danced several dances with you at the Meryton Assembly, and spent almost his whole time with you at Lucas Lodge. Is this true, Jane, or just another one of Mother’s exaggerations?”

As she saw Jane blush, Elizabeth realized her mother was probably correct in her assessment of the attachment between Jane and this gentleman. “You know how Mama is.”

“So, tell me, Jane. What is your Charles Bingley like?” she asked as she drew out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from Jane’s eyes and then her own. “I only briefly met him downstairs.”

“Oh, Lizzy, he is not my Mr. Bingley!”

Elizabeth drew closer to her and whispered, “Is he everything a young man ought to be?”

Jane smiled. “He is, Lizzy. He is.”

Jane’s sigh gave Lizzy the deep conviction that Jane held him in the highest esteem.

“And do you think, dear Jane, that he shall pass my critical scrutiny when I get to know him better?”

Jane turned to her and grasped both her hands in hers. “I do hope so. He is extremely agreeable, is lively, and exhibits such pleasing manners.”

Elizabeth smiled. “That is all well and good, Jane. But do you think him handsome?”

Jane looked down and a blush tinged her cheeks. “Yes, Lizzy, I think him most handsome!”

Elizabeth leaned over and hugged her. “Good! Then I give you leave to like him!” The two women laughed, Elizabeth grateful for the diversion from her thoughts.

Jane, fighting fatigue and the effects of her illness, inquired of her sister, “I am so anxious to hear about your trip. Will the Gardiners be at Longbourn very long?”

“They had to depart this morning. Mr. Gardiner is needed back at his business in a few days. They asked me to send you their love and were so sorry to have missed you. And as for the trip, it was wonderful, but we have plenty of time to talk about it when you are feeling better.”

Jane smiled and closed her eyes.

“I fear I have made you weary, dear Jane, but answer me one more question if you will.” Elizabeth took in a deep breath and took one of Jane’s hands in her own. “What do you know of Mr. Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy?”

“Hmmm,” Jane sighed. “I am afraid I do not know much. I met him just once at Lucas Lodge the other night. He danced one set with me. He seems very kind, but quiet. He kept pretty much to himself the whole evening, except when in Miss Bingley’s company. I did see him dance once with Miss Bingley, but none other.”

Elizabeth’s brows pinched together. “That is Caroline Bingley?”

Jane nodded. “Why do you ask?”

“He… he seems familiar, that is all.”

“Mr. Bingley said Mr. Darcy just returned from America as you did. Perhaps you saw him over there.”

“Perhaps.”

Elizabeth set her mind to straightening out the blankets as Jane closed her eyes. Elizabeth thought it best to postpone further conversation. Jane quickly fell asleep, and Elizabeth stood up and walked to the window. Looking out on the furthest horizon, she contemplated with great pain what this would mean, being again in the presence of Mr. Darcy, in this same house with him, along with Caroline Bingley.

***

After Caroline returned from taking Elizabeth to Jane, Mr. Jones arrived, and she took him to attend to her, while Bingley anxiously awaited downstairs for him to return with news of her condition.

Mr. Jones spent a good half hour with her, and when he returned, he confirmed that she had caught a violent cold and advised that she remain in bed. Her feverish symptoms had increased, and Bingley was concerned. It was only through Elizabeth’s reassurance that she would stay by her sister’s side throughout the day that he decided to go ahead with his plans and spend the day out on the grounds hunting with the other gentlemen.

Returning to the breakfast parlour after the men set out, Caroline could not wait to make her feelings about Miss Elizabeth known to her sister.

“Did you notice, Louisa, how Miss Elizabeth simply gaped at Mr. Darcy when she walked in this morning? I found it positively shocking!”

“She did seem quite overt in her admiration.”

“I do not know if I like her, Louisa, or like her being here! If she went to America for the reason I suspect, who is to say what she will do to try to capture Mr. Darcy’s attention!”

Louisa was not quite as sure as her sister that there had ever been any impropriety on Miss Elizabeth’s part, but nevertheless she nodded in agreement.

Caroline felt strongly that it would be her sole responsibility, and in Mr. Darcy’s best interest, to keep an eye on this fourth sister who was most decidedly deficient in manners, shirking all propriety, and more than likely eager to employ some improper enticements against him.

The day warmed up nicely for the men to go out hunting, but the woods and fields abounded in mud. This would not usually be enough to discourage men who are ardent hunters, but Bingley was surprised to see that Darcy’s heart was not in it. Whereas he normally took down two or three birds quite easily, today he had not hit one. It appeared to Bingley that Darcy’s steadiness was not quite what it usually was. Much to Hurst’s disappointment, Bingley decided to call it an afternoon with a good three hours still remaining of daylight.

As the men returned to the house, Darcy walked with determined strides, propelled by the anxious hope of seeing Elizabeth again soon. He knew it had been her unexpected appearance this morning that had so disconcerted him both in the breakfast parlour and while out on the grounds. He was anxious to get back, anxious to know what she was thinking about him being there, and anxious to talk to her.

When the men walked in, they discovered Elizabeth speaking with Caroline about arrangements for her to take the carriage home.

Darcy caught Elizabeth’s eye as he walked in and, feeling a little more disposed to encounter her, allowed a heartfelt smile to grace his lips as he nodded at Elizabeth. As she attended to Caroline’s conversation, she perceived his tender acknowledgement of her and a warm smile crept across her face.

Miss Bingley spoke in her most accommodating voice. “I am sure, Miss Elizabeth, that your sister will fare most adequately here for the night. Perhaps by tomorrow she will be ready to return home. There is really no need for you to remain here; you just barely returned home yourself. I am sure you are anxious to spend some time with your family.”

“I admit I worry too much,” Elizabeth replied. “I am sure she will do quite well without me.” Although Elizabeth wished to remain with her sister and her sister desired the same, she wondered whether Darcy would prefer she not remain here for the night, and the sisters unquestionably seemed disinclined to extend the invitation.

“Now there is no need to worry, Miss Elizabeth. She is in very good hands. We will take exceedingly good care of her.”

Darcy’s voice interrupted their discussion. “Perhaps Miss Elizabeth prefers to remain here at Netherfield for the night with her sister. If that is acceptable to you of course, Miss Bingley.”

Both women looked at Darcy in surprise.

“I would not wish to impose,” Elizabeth offered nervously.

Caroline waved her hands in artificial protest. “Why, Miss Elizabeth, it would not be an imposition! I was just about to suggest that myself!”

Elizabeth looked suspiciously back at Miss Bingley. “That is very kind of you. If you do not mind, I shall return to Jane and inform her of my staying. I appreciate this immensely. Thank you. Please advise me when supper is served.”

“Yes, well, it is no trouble. I shall dispatch a note to Longbourn; acquaint them with your stay and ask for some clothes to be sent over for you.”

“You are too kind, Miss Bingley.”

Elizabeth promptly returned to Jane, and Caroline was more than pleased that Darcy witnessed her close attention to this matter, sending the note and asking for a change of clothes.

Darcy took the opportunity while Elizabeth was with Jane to go up to his room and clean up in a hot bath. When his bath was prepared, he slipped in, leaning his head back as he finally had the freedom to dwell on Elizabeth. Not that he had neglected to think of her today. But he had been engaged in other things that required his attention, and although he knew his success out hunting today had been gravely affected by unremitting thoughts of her, he now enjoyed the prospect of giving her his undivided attention.

He certainly had noticed her awkwardness in encountering him this morning. He was taken by surprise, as well. He wondered, however, whether she was angry or pleased in seeing him here. But there was something that pressed on him even more. What would be her response to the news that he had not annulled their marriage?

Pulling himself out from the bath and wrapping himself in a towel, he walked over to the window and looked out, watching as rain began to pelt the glass again. It ran down in rivulets, blurring the view beyond. He thought of the storm on the ship and how pleasant it had been to have Elizabeth in his arms that night. Would he ever have that opportunity again?

After he dressed, Darcy stood before the mirror, looking at his reflection, wondering if the clothing Durnham laid out for him after the bath would be the best in which to see Elizabeth tonight. Taking his hand and running it through his hair, he realized he had not concerned himself with his appearance since that last day on the ship.

***

Elizabeth returned to Jane, surprised, yet pleased that Darcy suggested that she stay. Certainly he must feel the awkwardness of this situation. Jane was asleep when she entered the room, and she sat down quietly in a chair next to the bed. She was grateful that he was not against her remaining at Netherfield. She felt, however, that Caroline Bingley was not happy with her staying on.

Caroline! Just the thought of her made Elizabeth recoil. If there was something between them, what did he see in her? She was certainly not the sort of woman Elizabeth would have imagined for him. She recalled the looks Miss Bingley had given her at different times throughout the day. Although her words were polite and caring, there was little substance behind them. In fact, she felt that although her words said one thing, her feelings were actually the opposite.

She had the impression that Miss Bingley felt intruded upon by her presence and was impatient for her to leave. She closed her eyes. Please do not let me find out she has secured William’s love and admiration! Anyone but her!

Just before dinner, her clothes arrived with the servant who was sent to Longbourn. She quickly changed and made sure Jane had all she needed before going downstairs to join the others.

As she came to the dining room, she was joined by Miss Bingley. The gentlemen were already there and seated, and they stood when the ladies entered. Miss Bingley quickly made her way to Darcy’s side, and Elizabeth was left to sit at the far side of Mr. Hurst.

She had barely been seated when Bingley asked about Jane.

“Tell me, Miss Elizabeth. Is Miss Bennet any better?”

“I am afraid not. She seems quite taken down by this cold and fever.”

“I am so sorry! What a shame. But I know she is most grateful that you are here with her!”

Elizabeth smiled and could not prevent her eyes from travelling to Mr. Darcy.

The two sisters expressed several times how much they were grieved to hear this, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how excessively they disliked being ill themselves. With that, they changed the subject, and Miss Bingley continually redirected the conversation to Darcy.

Elizabeth was aware of the difference between Bingley’s show of concern for Jane and his sisters’ concern. His anxiety for Jane was evident, and his attentions to her most pleasing. His sisters’ concern, however, displayed merely a façade and was not indicative of their true feelings.

Elizabeth’s dinner partner, Mr. Hurst, seemed not at all inclined to engage in conversation, and as Miss Bingley was so wholly engrossed by Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth sat at the table eating silently, wishing all the while she did not have to witness such a display of enticing conversation and manner that Miss Bingley directed toward him.

Darcy made several unsuccessful attempts to entertain a conversation with Elizabeth. Each time he did, Miss Bingley quite determinedly steered it away from her. Elizabeth was seated too far away to attempt much of anything else. It was all he could do to simply look across the table, past Mr. Hurst, and set his eyes upon that face he had longed to behold for so many months. He would have to wait for a more suitable time.

As Miss Bingley continued her monologue with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth believed it to be a good time to excuse herself politely to return to her sister. She quickly left the room, prohibiting herself from taking one last look at him before she exited.

Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was gone. Her manners were pronounced very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no taste, no beauty, and her appearance that morning had been almost wild.

“This was all lost upon me,” Bingley cried. “I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. I was simply pleased to finally make her acquaintance.”

“You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley, “and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.”

“Certainly not.”

“What could she mean by walking three miles in dirt? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”

Darcy stood up and walked to the window, looking out as he fought the rising tide of angry words he wished to lash out in Elizabeth’s defence. But from years of discipline, he was able to reply coolly, “As much as you find her behaviour offensive, I found her devotion to her sister, whom she had not seen in several months, very engaging, and the result of her exercise to be a most brilliant complexion.”

“I agree!” exclaimed Bingley. “I could not have stated it better!”

The two sisters continued, however, to disparage the Bennets, their low connections, and their uncle in trade near Cheapside.

“If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside,” cried Bingley, “it would not make them one jot less agreeable.”

Darcy moved to the door. “I, for one, have had enough of this attack on Miss Jane Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, and the rest of the family. They are both fine ladies, and who their family connections are, how they choose to travel around the neighbourhood, and even their decided lack of fashion are not enough to convince me of any poor manners or lack of anything to recommend them. If you will excuse me…”

Caroline Bingley was left with a most nagging, distressful thought that somehow Mr. Darcy had come under the spell of the Bennets, just as her brother unfortunately had.

***

Darcy returned to his room and remained there as long as he felt that propriety allowed him. Just the thought that Elizabeth was down the hall from him was both a great source of joy and temptation to him. How much he wanted to walk down there now, confess his love, take her in his arms, tell her they were still married, and carry her back to Pemberley… to London… or to his room.

At length he determined he ought to join the others downstairs. He had finished his book and decided he would stop by Bingley’s library first.

It was true that Bingley’s library was only a tenth of what Pemberley’s was, but he was confident he would be able to find a book he would enjoy reading. He walked around the room, looking up and down the shelves, picking up a book here and there. He pulled a book from the shelf, noticing the title, smiled, and then placed it back where it had been. He walked to the far wall and stood reading the titles when he heard someone walk in.

He turned and saw that it was Elizabeth. She stepped in and walked toward the wall on the opposite side of the room.

Not wanting to startle her, he whispered softly, “Elizabeth.”

She turned quickly and in response to seeing him, she cried out, “William! I mean… Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy smiled, slowly taking a step toward her, aware only of how beautiful she looked to him. “Do you recall how much I wanted you to call me William or even Fitzwilliam when we were on the ship? Yet you rarely did.”

Elizabeth looked down, feeling quite shaken. He took another step, bridging some of the distance between them.

“As much as I enjoy hearing you call me by my given name, I think it would be prudent if you do not call me that while you are here. It might cause some scandalous conjecture by one Caroline Bingley.”

Elizabeth saw him smile, and his gaze was intent upon her face as he took yet another step toward her. She wondered if he was teasing her, warning her, or simply stating the truth. Her mind refused to comprehend any rational thought.

Finding it difficult to look upon him standing so close to her, she turned toward the bookshelf, as if to study the titles. “I must admit I was surprised to see you here. I had no idea you were at Netherfield.”

“You had no way of knowing I would be here.”

Elizabeth looked down suddenly. She took in a deep breath as her fingers tightly gripped the muslin on her dress once she noticed she had come completely under his shadow, his tall frame blocking the candlelight in the room.

Sensing the distress she was feeling, he calmly and deliberately told her, “I beg you not to feel uneasy. I only recently discovered you lived so close to my friend Bingley and that you were Miss Jane Bennet’s sister, so I was a little better prepared to see you.” He took another step toward her so that now, if he wanted to, he could easily reach out and take her hand. “Although since I was unaware of when you would return home, your appearance this morning took me by surprise as well.”

They stood in silence for what seemed an eternity.

When Elizabeth did not seem inclined to respond, Darcy said to her, “You left our cabin that last night on the ship and did not return. You got off the ship the next morning without saying goodbye. Why?”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and her heart skipped a beat. Did she just imagine that his soft voice seemed tinged with a bit of sadness? She knew not how to answer him and turned briefly back toward him, needing to take a deep breath and gather her thoughts.

“And you conveniently neglected to tell me that you were the owner of Pemberley’s Promise .”

Elizabeth heard him breathe in deeply. “Yes, that is true.”

Darcy’s jaw tightened as he saw Elizabeth’s turmoil. There was so much he wanted to say, and did not even know where to begin.

“How did you find out…?”

He was interrupted by the sound of very determined strides walking in, and Elizabeth, still reeling from the encounter, only vaguely noticed a dash of orange come toward them. A very audible groan escaped from Darcy as he took a quick step away from Elizabeth, but she took no notice.

“Ah, there you are, Mr. Darcy!” Caroline’s eyes flashed like daggers at Elizabeth, noticing how close they were standing to each other, and the fact that they were alone together in the library. She was sure she had arrived just in time to rescue Darcy from a most indelicate situation.

Elizabeth watched Caroline sidle up next to him and slip her hand snugly inside his arm. She kept her gaze upon Elizabeth, who was suffering the effects of being either quite pale from alarm or quite red from confusion.

“Come, Mr. Darcy,” Caroline adamantly insisted. “We are waiting for you to join us in the drawing room.” She turned to Elizabeth. “You may come along as well, if you like, Miss Bennet.”

Not wishing to provide Miss Bingley with any further fodder to kindle her speculations and gossip about Elizabeth, Darcy quickly said to her, “Miss Bennet, that book I recommended is on the second shelf there.”

Elizabeth looked at him with a perplexed look across her face. He simply pointed to the bookshelf behind her and said, “It is the one with the black cover and gold filigree writing. Second shelf, behind you. I think you will enjoy it.”

Elizabeth watched him walk out with Caroline still possessively holding his arm. She closed her eyes as she considered how quickly he had reassured Charles’s sister that their conversation in the library had been solely for the purpose of finding a book.

She turned slowly back to the shelf, her heart beginning to feel the slightest tear in the realization he did not wish Caroline to get the wrong impression.

Her eyes drifted to the second shelf as he had mentioned and was surprised when she did see a black book with gold filigree writing.

Absently she pulled it off the shelf. Hmmm. Richard III. I read that a couple of years ago , she said to herself, as she opened it. Upon looking at the first line of the book, she gasped.

Now is the winter of our discontent; made glorious summer by this sun of York.

She turned back to the now empty door and then looked back down at the book in her hands, the same one she had been reading two years ago in the carriage when she first met him. And now her heart leapt. Certainly he could not remember! Could he?

Chapter 20

Elizabeth lingered in the library for several minutes after Caroline walked out with Darcy. While her heart felt the painful tug at seeing the two of them together, it was at the same time grasping at any hint, any indication, that he might hold tender regard for her.

She closed her eyes and shook her head. Of course he would hold her in his esteem, if ever so slightly! They had a most amiable relationship onboard the ship. They lived for almost a month together posing as man and wife. Well, practically man and wife, Lizzy reminded herself, willing herself to remember the terms of their marriage. Was there any chance that his feelings for her would outweigh any feelings for or previous arrangement he had with Miss Bingley?

She looked down at the book in her hands and chided herself for even thinking he remembered that day in the carriage two years ago, let alone remember what she had been reading. He most likely just said the first thing that came to his mind when Caroline discovered them in there, and the black book with the gold filigree writing just happened to be this particular one.

She slowly turned and walked out of the library, compelled more by a sense of right than of pleasure, to join the others in the drawing room.

When she walked in, she found the whole party at loo and was immediately invited to join them, but she declined, saying she would amuse herself for a short time with her book. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.

“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he. “That is rather singular.”

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth. “I am not a great reader and I take pleasure in many things.”

“In nursing your sister I am sure you have pleasure,” said Bingley, “and I hope it will soon be increased by seeing her quite well.”

“And I would not be surprised to learn that she finds pleasure in helping others, as well,” Darcy spoke matter-of-factly as he kept his eyes tuned to his cards.

Elizabeth, unable to turn her eyes to Darcy, and feeling all the conviction that she could not look upon him for fear of exposing her aching heart, thanked both gentlemen and turned her attention to the book.

“Did you find the book I suggested?”

This time Elizabeth’s eyes shot up involuntarily to Darcy, who had now turned to her, and she felt the revealing warmth of a blush pass over her face. “I… uh… yes, I did, thank you.” She tentatively looked away as she detected warmth and mirth in his.

“Had you read it before?”

Her pulse quickened and she felt her mouth go dry at his words. She steeled herself to meet his gaze again, and offered a quick reply, “Yes, sir, but it has been several years, so I do not mind reading it again.”

He seemed content with her answer and turned his attention back to the game. As she opened the book to the first chapter, she tried to concentrate on the words before her, but she could not. The conversation around the table then turned to Pemberley’s library, and Caroline gushed words of praise.

Elizabeth listened with amusement to the conversation while feigning an interest in her book. She wished that she could say just how much she had enjoyed Pemberley’s library and how grand it was, but she could not. When the conversation turned to Miss Darcy, Elizabeth found herself looking up.

Miss Bingley seemed to have intimate knowledge of Pemberley and Miss Darcy. Regrettably, Elizabeth experienced pangs of jealousy that shot right through her. She braced herself as Miss Bingley talked about this young girl as though they were the closest of acquaintances, and although Elizabeth had spent not an hour with the young girl herself, she had a very difficult time believing Miss Darcy would feel as close to Miss Bingley as the woman thought.

“Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring?” asked Miss Bingley. “Will she be as tall as I am?”

“I think she will,” Darcy spoke softly as he looked at his cards. “She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height, or rather taller.” When he said her name, he looked up from his cards and lifted his eyebrow, before turning his attention back to his hand.

As Elizabeth looked down at her book, still held open at the first page of the first chapter, she tried to calm her violently beating heart. If she became so unsettled when he simply mentioned her name, how was she to survive in this household with him?

The conversation now turned to Miss Darcy’s accomplishments, and Bingley graciously commented about the virtues of women in all their accomplishments. Elizabeth surreptitiously listened as Caroline and Mr. Darcy added their opinions of what made up an accomplished woman. Caroline was resolute that one could not be really esteemed accomplished unless one had a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages. When she added to that the possession of a certain something in her air and manner of walking, tone of voice, her address and expressions, Elizabeth stifled a huff.

“Yes, all these may be important,” added Darcy, “but to all this she must yet add something more substantial: in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading and the desire to learn more about the world by taking every opportunity to travel.”

Elizabeth was rendered motionless by his words, wondering again of his intent. When she came to her senses and glanced up, she found Darcy’s gaze intently focused on her.

Miss Bingley was not unaware of the import of his words or the direction of his gaze. “Yes, Mr. Darcy,” she said. “How right you are. But truly, only a woman in the highest circles of society would have the opportunities to avail herself of all those things you speak of.” She slyly looked over to Elizabeth. “For example, one would hardly find a woman in this neighbourhood who would satisfy your description of an accomplished woman.”

Caroline’s words stirred Elizabeth from her silent reverie and her eyes widened as she understood quite clearly the insinuation of the remark.

“Why… I would have to object, Miss Bingley!” Elizabeth protested.

Darcy looked to Elizabeth, recognizing the look of anger and insult written across her face, coupled with a very determined look of wishing to speak her mind. She continued, “We may not have all the advantages one has in town, but we certainly have opportunities that we may take advantage of to improve ourselves.”

“Perhaps it would not be the norm,” Darcy interjected, “but I do believe one could easily find an unblemished pearl—or two—in a country neighbourhood such as this, if one knew where to look and what exactly he was looking for.”

Elizabeth’s anger was somewhat appeased by Darcy’s words. He had, at least, stood up for her, and for that she was grateful. If he had remained silent, she could only suppose he agreed with Miss Bingley, and she did not think she could bear that.

Finally, not making any progress in her book, she stood up and excused herself, saying she wished to check in on Jane and then retire for the evening.

When Elizabeth walked into the room, Jane awakened. Elizabeth found her to be even more feverish, and poured her a glass of water from the pitcher in the room. Elizabeth secured a blanket for herself, choosing not to sleep in her room, which was next to Jane’s, but to sleep next to her sister in the chair.

When Jane finally settled down again, Elizabeth sat at the mirror and let down her hair, brushing it vigorously in the light of one small candle. She decided to sleep in her dress, and would change into another come morning.

Elizabeth slept little, hoping to keep Jane’s body temperature down and encouraging her to drink as much fluid as possible. Jane fell asleep again, the house was very still, and Elizabeth was certain everyone had retired for the night. She soon found herself in need of refilling the pitcher with water.

She picked up the pitcher and quietly went to the door, opening it slowly and closing it behind her. She walked down the hall, and soon heard the sound of footsteps coming up the staircase and the flickering of a candle could be seen.

She came to a stop when she found herself face to face with Darcy.

“Good evening, Elizabeth,” he whispered softly. “How is your sister tonight?”

“She is quite feverish. I have used up all the water. I was just on my way down to refill the pitcher.”

“Let me do that for you.” He took the final two steps up to reach her at the top of the stairs.

“No, there is no need for you…” She stopped, as did her heart, when she felt his free hand come around hers on the pitcher.

“Please, Elizabeth. I know exactly where to go to refill it.”

Looking at him through the flickering candlelight, and having the warmth of his hand securely around hers, she felt a tremor pass through her.

Darcy could not take his eyes off her, not having had the pleasure for several months of beholding her beauty in candlelit darkness. She was too close for him not to feel the gentle stirrings of admiration build within him, and he thought back to their kiss that last night on the ship, and how much he wanted to take her in his arms again at that very moment.

Her tiny hand felt so right held in his, but he forced himself to let go and reach up above hers and grasp the handle of the pitcher. “Go back to your sister, Elizabeth,” he whispered. “I shall fill this up and bring it back to you shortly.”

Darcy took it from her hands and turned to head back downstairs, leaving Elizabeth quite unmoved from where she had stood. If only he would treat me with indifference, it would make it so much easier for me! She slowly turned and walked back down the darkened hallway to Jane’s room. He is too kind to me. She let out a soft sigh.

Elizabeth sat patiently in the room, waiting for him to return. At length there was a light knock on the door. She opened it, and Darcy walked in, carrying the pitcher of water over to the small table.

“If there is anything else you need, just let me know. I am across the hall, three doors down.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said softly, her eyelashes covering her eyes as she looked toward the floor.

Darcy took a sharp intake of breath and brought his fingers up to her chin, lifting it up ever so slightly. “Elizabeth, this is not good. We have to talk.”

Looking over at Jane to make sure she was still sleeping, she replied, “But certainly, we cannot here! Not tonight, not in this room!”

“No, not tonight. I ought to leave.” His fingers lingered under her chin, holding her face up to his. He thought how easy it would be, how pleasant it would be, to bridge the short distance between their lips and leave her with a kiss of hope, of promise, of purposeful intentions.

But that thought was quickly erased from his mind as he heard a door down the hall open. Glancing back at the door, he whispered to her, “Now I know I must leave!”

Darcy quickly walked to the door, and as he stepped out into the hall, he was met by a tall figure. “Mr. Darcy! Is there some problem here?”

Elizabeth shuddered to think that Miss Bingley had just discovered him walking out of the room.

“There is not, now. Miss Elizabeth needed to refill the pitcher of water, and I encountered her in the hallway. I refilled it and just returned it to her.”

In the silence that ensued, Elizabeth felt she must say something to reassure Miss Bingley that nothing of a questionable nature had transpired. “Yes, Miss Bingley. Mr. Darcy was kind enough to refill the pitcher for me.” Turning to Darcy, she said, “Thank you, again, Mr. Darcy.” She was quite sure Miss Bingley noticed the trembling that affected her words.

Darcy proceeded to his room, leaving Caroline with countless speculations about this woman, her character, her intentions, and just how easily Darcy could be ensnared by her.

***

Having spent the night in her sister’s room, the next morning Elizabeth had the pleasure of being able to send a tolerable answer to the enquiries that she very early received from Mr. Bingley by a housemaid, and some time afterwards from the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters. Jane had improved over the course of the night. Her fever had broken and Elizabeth was quite convinced she was on her way to recovery. But it was Mr. Darcy himself who came and inquired after her.

“How is your sister this morning?” he asked when she opened the door to his knock.

“She is much improved, thank you.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Darcy paused, as if waiting for a response from Elizabeth or deciding to make another himself. He looked over and noticed Jane sitting up in bed, and at length he excused himself with, “Shall you come down and join us this morning?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I shall be down shortly.”

He smiled and turned to join the others downstairs.

Elizabeth returned to Jane, who was enjoying a light breakfast brought earlier by one of the servants. Yes, she was grateful Jane seemed better. But it was her own spirits that had worsened during the night. She thought repeatedly of Darcy’s words that they must talk. Each time she conjectured what he would wish to talk to her about, it always came back to their marriage, its annulment, and Miss Bingley.

She wondered whether Darcy viewed their façade of a marriage in a cool, dispassionate light and wanted to ensure that she let nothing slip of its occurrence to anyone in the household. She looked at Jane, and wondered if he was concerned that she would have confided it to her.

She did not think she could bear hearing the words from his own mouth that the leanings of his heart were for Miss Bingley. Elizabeth closed her eyes as she pondered this. Just the thought of it brought her much distress, and she knew not how she would hold up if he spoke to her on this matter.

When Elizabeth had ascertained that Jane was comfortable, she went downstairs and joined the others in the breakfast parlour.

Upon walking in, she found Miss Bingley to be in a very animated discussion with Darcy. She believed the expression on his face betrayed a look of discomfort.

As her presence was noticed, all eyes turned to her, and Bingley expressed with great enthusiasm, “It is so good to hear that Miss Bennet is improved! Should we send a note home to your family? Should we extend an invitation for your mother to come and see for herself how she is faring?”

Elizabeth, with more apprehension at what Darcy would think of her mother than conviction that her mother actually had a real concern for Jane’s recovery, simply said, “I think a note informing her of her improvement would be sufficient. I would not want to burden her to come if she has other engagements.”

“Nonsense!” cried Bingley. “We shall send a note and extend the offer, and she may reply as she wishes!”

As Elizabeth sat down to join the others in the meal, she sensed tension in the air, and felt it was directed at her. She wondered whether Miss Bingley’s address to Darcy as she was walking in had something to do with finding him with her in Jane’s room last evening. He obviously was distressed that she imagined there was more to it than really was.

The breakfast continued in relative silence. Elizabeth was content to concentrate on the plate before her, not because she was particularly hungry but because she was very much aware of the two pair of eyes across the table bearing down on her. The one pair sent out fiery darts in their connection with hers; the other pair was quite disarming, and if Elizabeth did not know any better, would have supposed it was a look more of tender regard than disinterest.

The note was immediately dispatched, and Mrs. Bennet, accompanied by her two youngest girls, set out for Netherfield soon after the family breakfast. Her prompt arrival seemed less driven by a desire to dispense any words of comfort to Jane or any encouragement to Elizabeth, but instead, to see how things were progressing with Mr. Bingley.

Had she found Jane in any apparent danger, Mrs. Bennet would have been very miserable indeed; but being satisfied that her illness was not alarming, she had no wish of her recovering immediately, as her restoration to health would probably remove her from Netherfield. She would not listen, therefore, to Elizabeth’s proposal for the two of them to return home.

After sitting a little while with Jane, on Miss Bingley’s appearance and invitation, the mother and three daughters all attended her into the breakfast parlour. Mr. Bingley met them with hopes that Mrs. Bennet had not found Miss Bennet worse than she expected.

“Indeed, I have, sir,” was her answer. “She is a great deal too ill to be moved just yet. We must trespass a little longer on your kindness.”

“Removed!” cried Bingley. “It must not be thought of. My sister, I am sure, will not hear of her removal.”

“You may depend upon it, madam,” said Miss Bingley, with cold civility, “that Miss Bennet shall receive every possible attention while she remains with us.”

Mrs. Bennet was profuse in her acknowledgements. To Elizabeth’s dismay, her mother exhibited her typical boisterous and unchecked behaviour, and Lydia insisted in a manner bordering on brazenness that Mr. Bingley give a ball.

By the time her mother and two sisters left, Elizabeth was quite certain that her family’s character had been decided by Mr. Darcy and found lacking. Elizabeth returned instantly to Jane, leaving her own and her relations’ behaviour to the remarks of the two ladies and, she was sure, Mr. Darcy who, however unbeknownst to Elizabeth, could not be prevailed upon to join in their censure.

In the silence of the room as Jane slumbered, Elizabeth could not relax, having felt the greatest humiliation at the hands of her mother. How he must congratulate himself that he has annulled the marriage and will not have to endure being married into a family with a mother such as mine! It would be a wonder if he were not thinking at this very moment that had he known of my family, he would never have even considered such an alignment with me. “Ohhh!” Elizabeth cried out and pounded her fists down onto her lap.

Jane opened her eyes. “Lizzy, is something the matter?”

“Oh, Jane.” Elizabeth came over and sat down next to her on the bed. “I may tell you someday, but for now, just believe me that I did a foolish thing a while back, and it has come back to haunt me.”

Elizabeth spent the rest of the day with Jane, certain of two things: that Darcy did not wish her company and the two sisters desired her gone. Mr. Bingley had proven himself to be most gracious, and Elizabeth saw such goodness and acceptance from him that she felt he could love Jane completely despite all their family oddities. For that she was grateful.

Darcy retired to the solitary confines of his room for the rest of the day. He had struggled; it was to be expected, with the unbridled outbursts of Elizabeth’s mother. Several times he had to fight the prevailing will to silently turn away. Again the quiet, persistent voices from his past rose up, needling him to put aside these irrational feelings and do what was required of him in finding a suitable wife. But Elizabeth is suitable! She is more than suitable for me! He walked to the window and looked out, slapping his hand against the wall and then leaving it to rest there.

As he looked out, mulling over the disparity in Elizabeth’s station and his, the refined Darcy name and her unchecked family, he came to one conclusion. He could not live without her. And until she told him, to his face, that she had no wish—no desire—to keep their marriage intact, he would do nothing to dissolve it. He took a deep breath. He told her last night he needed to talk to her. He needed to talk to her alone, and it was apparent that was not going to happen on its own. Darcy had to come up with a plan.

Jane continued to mend, though slowly, but she remained in her room, and in the evening Elizabeth joined the rest of the party in the drawing room. The loo table, however, did not appear. Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter and repeatedly calling off his attention to it with messages to his sister. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley were at piquet, and Mrs. Hurst was observing their game.

Elizabeth picked up her book, hoping to attend fully to it, although she watched with great interest what passed between Darcy and his companion. As Miss Bingley repeatedly praised either his letter writing, or the evenness of his lines, or the length of his letter, Elizabeth wondered at the woman’s behaviour. If she had already secured his affections, she was not behaving as if she had.

Elizabeth almost laughed as she regarded his short, stilted answers to Miss Bingley’s words of praise. Sometimes he answered not at all. As she looked on curiously, Darcy turned to her.

“Have you finished the book yet, Miss Bennet?”

His address to her startled her. “I have a little bit left.”

“Then you think you will finish it tonight?”

“I imagine so.”

Elizabeth watched him for a few moments, her heart caught in her throat as she met his gaze. She had avoided turning her eyes upon him ever since her mother left earlier that day, afraid to see his censure.

Darcy’s gaze remained on her face several more seconds before Miss Bingley, feeling threatened by something that hung in the air between them, spoke up again, wishing him to send off a missive to Georgiana.

When he finished his letter, he applied to Miss Bingley and Elizabeth for some music, having a great desire to hear Elizabeth play and sing. Elizabeth watched him fold his letter ever so precisely and slip it into his pocket. Miss Bingley moved with alacrity to the pianoforte, and after a polite request that Elizabeth lead the way, which she politely and most earnestly declined, she seated herself. Mrs. Hurst joined her and sang while Miss Bingley played.

Elizabeth walked over to look through the music books that were lying on the instrument, and became aware of how frequently Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to comprehend it, mindful of the fact that he had been exposed to her mother’s foolish oddities that day, and perhaps to an even greater extent the night at Lucas Lodge. To think that she could be the object of his admiration she dared not hope. He lingered at the table where she had been seated, picked up the book she had been reading, and then just as quickly placed it back on the table.

After playing several songs, Darcy drew to Elizabeth’s side, quietly saying to her, “I would be very much honoured to hear you play, Miss Bennet. While Miss Bingley is very proficient, her style does not always suit me.” He looked through the books himself, so as not to draw suspicion from Charles’s sister.

Elizabeth kept her gaze upon the music books but felt the warmth of his breath as he spoke. “I play very ill, indeed, Mr. Darcy.”

“Let me be the judge.” He picked up a piece of music and gently nudged Elizabeth toward the piano. When Miss Bingley finished playing, he presented the piece of music and Elizabeth to her, asking her to allow her to play.

With an air of decided displeasure, Miss Bingley conceded the piano playing to Elizabeth. Elizabeth sat down at the pianoforte, her nerves still resounding from Mr. Darcy’s closeness. She was not sure she would be able to play even two measures without her fingers getting all tangled up together. The piece he selected was a fairly easy piece, and she knew the words by heart. But she was not sure she could sing them in a way to do them justice, particularly the way she was feeling at the moment.

As she turned her attention to the piece before her, her fingers began to move across the keys with a mind of their own, and as she began to sing, she was suddenly no longer aware of anything in the room, except a pair of dark, tender eyes that had settled upon her.

Darcy had taken a seat where he could watch her expression as she played and sang. As she lifted her eyes from her fingers moving across the keys up to the music, she could see his dark eyes immobile and resting upon her. Instead of making her nervous or wondering what he thought of her or her family, instead of conjecturing whether Miss Bingley was an object of his admiration or not, she put all her heart and soul into the song, and the room listened in silence.

Darcy could not take his eyes off her. He had endured two days being in her presence and being unable to talk to her without Caroline interfering. He could only hope his plan would work.

As he watched her, as everyone watched her in polite silence, her playing and singing affected him in an even greater way. Her piano playing was very moving, flowing with an interpretation that he enjoyed immensely. But as she sang, the words and the soft, sweet tone of her voice wrapped around him as if they were as real as two arms in an embrace.

At the conclusion of her piece, everyone graciously applauded her, and a grin came across Darcy’s face that neither Elizabeth nor Miss Bingley missed. Each was just as surprised as the other.

Elizabeth, growing tired, and needing some time alone to ponder some of Darcy’s behaviour, excused herself.

As she turned to leave the room, Darcy stood up as she walked past. “Do not forget your book!” He picked up the book she had left sitting on the table and placed it firmly in her hands.

Elizabeth nervously smiled and thanked him.

She walked to Jane’s room to check on her and found her sleeping contentedly. Returning to her room, she placed the book next to the bed and readied herself for sleep. As she crawled in, she decided she would finish reading, as there was little left. As she opened the book, a small folded piece of paper fell out. She picked it up curiously and slowly opened it.

Looking down at the scrap of paper and reading what it said, Elizabeth gasped.

It read, There is no greater delightful diversion than a walk at sunrise. Tomorrow. Fitzwilliam. 

Chapter 21

Elizabeth held tightly to the small scrap of paper. Her heart pounded fiercely and she felt a shiver course through her. Darcy had purposely placed this piece of paper in the book with the full intention of her finding it tonight.

She wished with every fibre of her being to believe that it was written purely out of a desire to begin the day with her out on a walk as they had done so often on the ship. She was well aware he wanted to talk; they had a great need to talk. She prayed he was not planning to tell her something that would be difficult to bear.

Elizabeth sat in her bed, knowing now that she would find it difficult to concentrate on the book and finish it. All she cared to do was to stare at the missive, written, as Miss Bingley had so eloquently stated, in such an even hand, and yet there was more: an elegance and a style that most men would not possess in their handwriting. She absently ran her fingers across the simple message and across his name.

She could hear, very slightly, a discussion from downstairs and recognized Miss Bingley’s shrill voice and Darcy’s calm, soothing voice. She could not discern their words, but began to feel a bit more confident that he was not blinded by that woman’s character and would not choose to align himself with someone such as her. At least that was her conviction if she had really come to know and understand the man as well as she thought she had.

She closed her eyes but could not sleep. Her heart was not going to let her easily forget that tomorrow morning she would start the day just as she had those days on Pemberley’s Promise , walking with her husband. She let out a long sigh, remembering with a sudden ache that she could no longer claim him as such.

Elizabeth savoured the clear memory of the two of them walking together aboard the ship, and she was not even sure when her wilful meditation gave way to dreams of the very same nature.

Later, as Darcy returned to his room, he paused in front of Elizabeth’s door. Had she read his note? Would she understand his meaning? Would she oblige him by meeting him tomorrow morning?

He put two fingers to his lips and then reached out and touched her door; his heart stirring at the thought of her just inside. He wondered just how much he should say to her tomorrow if she came. He was still unsure of her feelings for him.

If he knew for a certainty that she would remain at Netherfield a few more days, it would be easier. He decided that first he should get some basic issues out in the open with her. Curiosity and the pain that it caused him drove his determination to find out why she left the room that night and why she did not return at least to say goodbye. That would give him a good indication of her true sentiments toward him. If he were to discover any encouragement in her words, then his next step would be to subtly, without Miss Bingley’s observing, give Elizabeth some very definite hints that his feelings leaned toward a very strong regard. Dare he say love? His heart pounded at the thought.

Would she embrace his words warmly? Would he even be able to express the depth of his feeling to her in a way she would understand? Would she look favourably upon him still being her husband when he told her he had never annulled the marriage?

He would take one step at a time, and then he could only hope.

***

As the sun slowly made its appearance above the horizon, sending its first ray of light into Elizabeth’s room, she stirred. Stretching her arms high above her, she opened her eyes and it took her a few moments to begin thinking lucidly. As her mind cleared, she suddenly sat upright in her bed. The walk! She contemplated, with a thread of hope outweighing her doubt, and anticipation instead of apprehension, that soon she would be out walking again with Fitzwilliam Darcy. The chill of the late autumn night had inhabited her room, but the warmth of that anticipation flooded her.

She heard a door open down the hall and footsteps walk past her room, pausing, she noticed, just outside her door. She kept her eyes upon the door, half expecting a knock, but soon the steps continued on down the hall.

Elizabeth quickly arose, slipped on her dress, and sat at the dressing table, scooping her hair up. She looked at herself, at her dress, and began to think those same thoughts she had on the ship; her dress so simple, especially now compared with the fashionable attire of Bingley’s sisters and to what William himself was most likely used to.

Taking in a deep breath and opening her eyes wide, she let out a speculative sigh. Well, it is now or never!

She picked up her coat, knowing that the air outside would be brisk, slipped it on, and quietly opened the door.

She was able to slip out without encountering anyone, and chided herself for feeling as though she was doing something improper.

She walked out and deeply breathed in the cool morning air. Little patches of mud still remained, and as she looked around, not seeing Darcy, she tried to determine which way to go. Off to the right was a gravel path, and she settled on that direction, reasoning that there would be less of a chance of getting caught in the mud as she had the other day.

The path took her to a grove of trees, below which was a small body of water. As she entered the grove, the path wound its way down, and in turning, she saw Darcy standing with his back resting against a tree. He looked up at her, pulled himself away from the tree, nervously straightened his coat, and took the few long strides needed to bring him to her.

She stopped as he did. “Elizabeth, you came.”

“Yes.”

“I was uncertain whether you would see the note, and then, whether you would choose to come at all.”

How could I pass up an invitation for such a delightful diversion as an early morning walk with you? she said to herself. “Yes, the note fell out of my book when I began reading it.” She avoided addressing his other thought.

Darcy noticed a faint glimmer in her eyes before she answered him, and it took him a moment to turn and point in the direction of the pond. “Shall we?”

The two began to walk, awkwardly at first, thoughts of their walks on the ship flooding their minds.

At length, Darcy spoke. “I knew it was imperative we find an occasion to talk without interruption. I was not sure how else to propose it, as we have, both of us , been under the most diligent, watchful, and speculative eye of Miss Bingley.”

“Oh yes. Miss Bingley. We would not want to give her the wrong impression.”

“She gets the wrong impression too easily and too wilfully, I fear.” Darcy looked down and smiled at her, although she missed seeing it as she was staring straight ahead at the path before her. “But I do not believe her to be too early a riser, and thought this would be the best way to have a little time together without her interference.”

Elizabeth walked with her hands clasped together in front of her, as Darcy mirrored her, walking with his clasped behind him.

“I…”

“You…”

They looked at each other and laughed nervously. They had both begun to speak at the same time.

“You first, Elizabeth.”

“No, please, you may go first.”

Darcy stopped and turned toward her. “You left our room that last night on the ship, and then left the ship the next day without saying goodbye. I just wondered why.”

Elizabeth’s brows furrowed and she bit her lower lip as she contemplated what she would say. Being unable to meet his gaze, she lowered her head and answered, “I… I just felt I should not stay in our… in the room that night.”

He gingerly brought a few of his fingers under her chin and lifted it up, forcing her to look at him, and he looked intently into her eyes. “Was it… because I kissed you? Please accept my apology if it offended you.”

Elizabeth quickly closed her eyes, her ragged breath betraying her feelings. “No, it was not the kiss itself.” His fingers still pressed lightly under her chin and the mention of the kiss flooded her with a warmth that prompted her to turn away.

“Did you not like it?”

“No, I mean yes. I mean…” Elizabeth paused.

“I do not wish you to be uncomfortable, Elizabeth.”

“It was… it was because of Caroline.”

Darcy’s eyes widened. “Caroline? Caroline Bingley?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“You did not even know Caroline Bingley then, did you?”

Elizabeth turned back to him. “No, but you called me her name the night… the night of the storm.”

“I called you Caroline?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“And you assumed that by my calling you Caroline, there was someone back home that I held in favourable regard.”

“Yes, something like that, and therefore I should not have kissed you.”

Suddenly Darcy began to laugh, and Elizabeth wondered what he thought was so funny.

“I am sorry you find my conjecture so humorous, sir.”

“I do not find your conjecture humorous at all, Elizabeth. What I find humorous is the reason I called you Caroline.”

Narrowing her eyes, Elizabeth asked, “And what, may I ask, was the reason?”

“I am not sure I should divulge it.”

“Well you certainly must now, as you have piqued my curiosity.”

“Let us walk.” Darcy reached over and took her hand, tucking it inside his arm, and they turned and began slowly walking, Darcy told her, “I awoke that night and found you had turned and were sleeping in my arms. It was quite… disconcerting… in a good way. I found myself fighting a terribly difficult temptation, having you so close to me.”

As he spoke, Elizabeth blushed, remembering the mortification she felt when she had awakened and found herself entangled with him.

“So, I steeled myself to think of you as Caroline Bingley, which apparently worked all too well.”

“Think of me as Caroline Bingley?”

Darcy shook his head. “You have seen Miss Bingley. Do you really think someone like that could be a temptation to me?”

Elizabeth looked down, overwhelmed by his words.

Darcy stopped and turned back to her. “Elizabeth, you did not think… certainly you could not think Miss Bingley means anything to me.”

“I confess I found it difficult to comprehend, but yes, I have wondered.”

They stood staring at each other, Darcy’s eyes travelling down to her lips and back up to her eyes.

“I am sorry, Elizabeth, that you have suffered under such a misapprehension. I had no idea…” The words no longer came as he found himself entranced by the glow in her eyes.

Elizabeth, feeling drawn in by his fervent gaze, shook herself free from his magnetizing spell and turned to walk again.

The ardour that had come over him was quickly dispelled by Elizabeth’s next words. “And why was it that you purposefully neglected to tell me you owned Pemberley’s Promise ? Was it your belief that you could not entrust me with that information?”

“How did you come to learn of that?”

“That is not important right now.”

Darcy brought up his hand to rub his chin. It was not a simple answer. He considered it was not even a sufficient answer. “When I came onboard, I did not want anyone to know I owned the ship. I did not want to be burdened with complaints and problems and requests for special treatment. In essence, I wanted to be left alone.”

This time, Elizabeth stopped and waited while he explained.

“I knew that in my asking you… in making the arrangement we did… I would be able to persuade the captain to agree to it because of my position. I feared afterward that if you found out, you would be angry, or no longer trust me.”

Elizabeth looked away. “Did you truly believe that of me?”

“Remember, Elizabeth, you were the one who claimed, most emphatically, that the captain would not agree to marry us. I felt that if you found out I was his superior, in a manner of speaking, you would believe he had little or no choice because of who I was; you would come to regret it and resent me.”

After a few moments of silence, he asked, “How did you find out, Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth knew this would be more difficult to tell him. Not that she was ashamed or felt she had done anything wrong, but because the whole experience at Pemberley evoked such strong feelings within her.

“We took a ship back to Liverpool from America, where my uncle finished up some business details. Upon leaving Liverpool, we stopped at Lambton, where my aunt had lived as a young girl.”

“Lambton?” Darcy stopped. “Why, that is not five miles from my home!”

“Yes,” answered Elizabeth. “Pemberley. One day my aunt and uncle and I took in the sights around Derbyshire, and my aunt mentioned visiting Pemberley. I was a little surprised by the name, mentioning that Pemberley was the name of the ship on which I had sailed over, and she began to tell us of Pemberley and that it was owned by the Darcys. You can imagine my surprise.”

“I am sorry that I did not tell you. But Elizabeth, tell me, did you go see Pemberley?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, we did.”

“And, may I ask, what you thought of it?”

“I thought it was quite grand, as most anyone would.”

Darcy felt a great sense of contentment that Elizabeth had walked the very halls of his home.

“And I had the pleasure of meeting your sister. She is very sweet and kind and a very accomplished pianist.”

“You met Georgiana?”

“Yes.”

“You heard her play?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“I am amazed. Georgiana usually hides herself in her room when strangers are touring the home. She is extremely shy.”

“Yes, but she can be encouraged out of her shyness. And the only reason we heard her play was because she did not realize we were there. She came out to meet us after Mrs. Reynolds informed her that I had been on the same ship as you on the crossing to America.”

“This is remarkable news to me! Georgiana actually came out to meet you?”

“She was concerned about you and asked me questions about the trip.”

Suddenly Darcy’s face turned serious. “What did you tell her?”

“She wanted to know what may have happened because you had been so despondent when you arrived in America. I told her I had no way of knowing.” She looked up at Darcy’s face and searched the depths of his eyes. “She seemed very concerned. She cares for you greatly.”

“She is very kind and caring. I am glad you met her. I only wish I had been there when you arrived.”

They walked down to the pond, and Darcy stooped down to pick up some small stones and casually began to throw them in. Elizabeth stood with her arms tucked together, marvelling at all they had said to each other.

Elizabeth laughed, “I am afraid, William, that we would not have visited if you had been home. I had my uncle inquire whether you were there. If you had been home, I would have felt too awkward to take the tour of it.”

Darcy held one last stone in his hand, throwing it lightly in the air and catching it. “First of all,” he said, “there would be no reason for you to have felt awkward if I had been there. And secondly,” he tossed the rock into the pond, “you just called me William, we are alone, and you did not correct yourself.”

“Yes, William, I did.”

He stood looking at Elizabeth, taking in a very satisfied breath and wearing a smile that looked on the verge of bursting into a full-fledged grin. The smallest encouragement was all he needed to lean the short distance over and experience the joy and pleasure of kissing her lips again.

But before he had an opportunity to satisfy that thought, he looked up toward the top of the path, noticing Miss Bingley coming down. “I fear, Elizabeth, that we are about to be intruded upon.” He nodded up in the direction of the house, and Elizabeth followed his gaze. “Shall we give Miss Bingley something to speculate about, do you think?”

Elizabeth, unsure of his meaning but not inclined to further Miss Bingley’s suspicious mind, replied, “If you do not mind, I should prefer to continue walking on. I would not wish for her to give a shocking report to Mr. Bingley of Jane’s sister.” Her smile disarmed him, and he reached out for her arm to briefly detain her.

“We could easily climb this tree, could we not, and escape her notice? I heard once that climbing trees might be a good way to avoid someone you do not wish to encounter.”

Elizabeth gasped and stood transfixed, unable to move as she considered his words. The only way he would know of her climbing a tree was if he remembered the carriage ride, the conversation in the carriage, and her!

“I… uh… I must go!” Elizabeth turned and quickly continued down the path, away from the all-knowing, smiling gaze of William and the all-suspicious gaze of Miss Bingley.

Elizabeth walked quickly around the path that eventually brought her back up to the house. She slipped in and went directly to Jane’s room, grateful to see that Jane was up and sitting in a chair.

“Good morning, Jane. Are you feeling better today?”

“Yes, Lizzy. Have you been out for a walk this morning?”

“Yes. It was a grand morning for a walk!”

“You look… you look very vibrant! Walking certainly agrees with you.”

“That it does, on certain occasions. Come, Jane, let me help you get ready to go downstairs.”

“I believe I am ready to go home, as well. Can you see about securing the carriage from home?”

Elizabeth paused in attending to Jane, realizing with a start that now she had no desire to leave. If she had spoken the very same words yesterday, Elizabeth would have been inclined to leave at a moment’s notice. Now she was hoping for every possible opportunity to remain on longer.

“We shall see, Jane. Let us see how you do once you are up.”

***

When they both came to the breakfast parlour, Bingley was there with the Hursts. Darcy and Miss Bingley were nowhere to be seen. Bingley was pleased to see Jane even more improved and able to come downstairs to join them for breakfast.

They sat down at the table and answered the polite inquiries from everyone. It was some time later that Darcy and Caroline walked in. Darcy appeared invigorated by the walk, his eyes emanating gleeful warmth as he looked at Elizabeth. Miss Bingley seemed exhausted and not at all satisfied with life in general.

The conversation around the table focused on Jane’s improvement and her being well enough to come down to the table, but from Bingley, how regrettable it was that she would be leaving. Miss Bingley was unusually quiet, forcing a smile and every now and then, making a trite comment. Darcy seemed very satisfied, and he openly, and quite warmly, looked up and glanced at Elizabeth. He had accomplished the first thing he had set out to do, and he was very pleased with the outcome.

Later, he would tell her the extent of his feelings and that they were still married. His throat suddenly dried as he merely contemplated doing this. He wondered how he would fare when actually telling her!

Elizabeth sat next to Jane at the table and down from Darcy, and smiled as she witnessed Miss Bingley’s occasional attempts to garner his attention again. It was sad, actually, but Elizabeth did not feel sorry enough for her to take away from her enjoyment in watching her make a spectacle of herself.

When the subject of Jane returning home was brought up by Caroline, Jane suggested that they send a note home and ask for the carriage to be sent. Bingley agreed, but the prospect of her having to leave dampened his spirits.

Darcy’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated Elizabeth leaving and not having another chance to speak with her. There was so much more he wanted to say!

A note was dispatched to Longbourn, asking for the use of the carriage to bring them home, and a reply from Mrs. Bennet emphatically stated that it was out of the question, and would not be available until Tuesday. Bingley graciously offered his own carriage, but informed them it would be best to leave the following day as it would be in use most of the day. When that was decided upon, the two men’s countenances shone with satisfaction.

Bingley harnessed Darcy in his study for most of the afternoon while Jane rested. While she was much improved, she had spent a great deal of energy that morning, and wished to spend their last evening in the drawing room in the company of everyone. Elizabeth sat with her, feeling for the first time a great sense of contentment.

Later that evening after supper, Elizabeth and Jane came down to the drawing room. Jane sat off to the side with Bingley, the two engaged in private and concentrated conversation. Elizabeth brought her book to read, Darcy sat in a chair reading his own book, and Miss Bingley appeared as though her nerves would not settle down. She paced the floor, picking up a book at one point and then putting it down. She walked to where Darcy was seated and peered over his shoulder, looking down at what he was reading, but as he paid her no heed, she returned to her pacing.

At length she called upon Elizabeth to join her. “Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”

Elizabeth viewed her with curiosity and suspicion, but agreed. Miss Bingley took her arm as they walked and succeeded no less in the real object of her civility; Mr. Darcy closed his book and looked up. He was as much awake to the novelty of Miss Bingley’s attention to Elizabeth as she herself was, and as the two women passed him, he lifted an eyebrow in wonderment. He was directly invited to join their party by Miss Bingley, but he declined, observing that he could imagine but two motives for their walking the room together, and assured them that his joining them would interfere with either.

Miss Bingley insisted on knowing his meaning.

Darcy rejoined, “I have not the smallest objection to explaining my meaning. You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking. If the first, I should be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.”

“Oh, shocking!” cried Miss Bingley, who was, at least, gratified that he included her in his statement of admiration for their figures. Elizabeth merely blushed, not quite sure how she was to respond to such a bold statement by him.

Miss Bingley continued walking with Elizabeth, and as they came to pass by Jane and Bingley, she spoke again.

“Tell me, Miss Eliza. You have been here at Netherfield practically ever since your return from America. Is there not some favourite of yours that you left all those months ago whom you are anxious to see? Some gentleman who must have been pining for your return?”

“There is none that I call a favourite, no.”

“Upon my word, Miss Eliza. Certainly there is someone!” She turned to Jane. “Tell us, Miss Bennet, does your sister speak the truth? With her great beauty, she is keeping a great secret from us! Tell us who Miss Eliza favours!”

Elizabeth shook her head as she considered the desperate measures of this woman.

“There is no one,” Jane answered softly.

Elizabeth was confident that Jane’s answer would suffice in bringing Miss Bingley’s assertions to a halt. But Jane unexpectedly continued, “Unless you would consider Mr. Wright.” Jane gave Elizabeth a smile, which was met by Elizabeth’s startled gaze.

Behind her, Darcy reacted with a start, remembering this as the name Elizabeth cried out when she had a fever. He had only briefly considered him to have been someone she held in her regard, and now began to wonder if indeed he was. He held his breath as he waited for Elizabeth or her sister to continue.

“Oh? And just who is this Mr. Wright?” Miss Bingley seemed most interested.

“Jane, I really do not think anyone is interested in Mr. Wright!” Elizabeth said firmly as she directed an imposing stare at Jane.

Jane, being encouraged along solely by Bingley’s smile, did not notice Elizabeth’s threatening words or piercing stare. Yet in truth, Elizabeth had very rarely ever given Jane either, and therefore she was not inclined to recognize them as such.

As Jane looked to Bingley, she said, “He is someone she met a couple of years ago in a carriage.”

“Jane, please! I do not think anyone is inclined to hear this!”

“I would be very interested in hearing who Mr. Wright is.” Elizabeth closed her eyes as she heard Darcy’s appeal to Jane.

“Please, Jane, no !” This time she shook her head for emphasis, but Bingley was now applying to Jane to continue.

Jane could only smile at Bingley and oblige him. “Mr. Wright was someone Elizabeth met in a carriage while returning from London.” She looked up at Elizabeth and could not understand why her eyes were closed. “Actually, she never got his name, but she felt that he was so right for her, that whenever she talked about him, and she did quite often, she referred to him as Mr. Wright.”

Elizabeth dropped her head, speechless, as Caroline eagerly jumped in. “You are saying that Miss Elizabeth has been pining all these years for a nameless man she only met in a carriage? Is that not sweet?” Caroline patted the arm she held in hers. “You are really quite the romantic, Miss Eliza. I do hope that someday you shall meet this man and that he shall be everything you have imagined him to be all these years.”

Darcy sat motionless as he considered Miss Bennet’s words. A wave of joy swept over him as he realized that all along, Elizabeth had remembered him from that day two years ago and not only that, remembered him with fervent partiality.

Bingley was most engaged by this thought and asked Jane, “And what was there about this man that your sister found so appealing?”

Jane continued. “Even though they only spent a short time in the carriage, Elizabeth had decided he was the most handsome, most intelligent, most gracious man she had ever met. She really did not think any other man would come close to comparing favourably to him.”

Elizabeth’s face was flushed. She could not move, and if she had been able to, she would have seen a look on Darcy’s face buoyantly displaying that every doubt he had entertained about Elizabeth’s feelings toward him were now wiped away. It was a few moments before he was able to speak.

“And, Miss Elizabeth, if you were to meet this man again, do you think you would know him?”

Elizabeth took a deep breath, “Perhaps I may not recognize him immediately, but in time, I am certain I would come to know it was him.”

Darcy smiled. “And I am quite certain that he, in turn, would remember you from that carriage ride. Indeed, he would have to consider himself a most fortunate man.”

The two stared at each other, completely oblivious to the others in the room.

“Do let us have a little music,” cried Miss Bingley, more than aware that something just happened in this conversation, but finding it to be completely baffling. “Louisa, you will not mind my waking Mr. Hurst.”

Her sister made not the smallest objection, and the pianoforte was opened. With Miss Bingley’s command at the pianoforte, all conversation seemed suspended. After a few songs, as much as Jane and Bingley would have preferred to linger together for the duration of the evening, Jane had grown more tired and Elizabeth thought she should take her back upstairs.

As they excused themselves, Elizabeth noticed Darcy’s warm smile. If she had been able to watch him once she left, she would have seen a man reading a very serious historical treatise while a sly grin had taken hold of his features. 

Chapter 22

As Elizabeth helped her sister get ready for bed, Jane turned to her. “Lizzy, you seemed upset when I spoke of Mr. Wright tonight.”

Elizabeth waved her hand as if to dismiss the thought.

“I was speaking about him even before I realized that perhaps I should not,” she smiled. “Mr. Bingley seemed so interested.”

And Miss Bingley , Elizabeth said to herself. She took in a deep breath, wondering how much to tell Jane. “I will not say that I was upset, Jane, but perhaps I was more unsettled about how certain people in the room would react.”

“But why? It has been so many years; I thought everyone would enjoy hearing the story. I am so sorry if I embarrassed you.”

Elizabeth sat on the bed next to her after she was settled in and took Jane’s hands in hers. “Jane, remember the other night when I said I had done something that I regretted?”

Jane nodded.

Elizabeth pondered how much she should tell her sister. As long as they were at Netherfield, she did not want to disclose that Darcy had been on the ship with her. “Well, I shall not go into all the details, but…” Elizabeth closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. When she let out the breath, she continued. “Mr. Darcy is… he is… you see… he is Mr. Wright.”

Jane’s eyes widened. “You mean… the real one? The one from two years ago? Or just a new one?”

Elizabeth let out a soft chuckle and nodded. “He is the one who was in the carriage two years ago. And he knows it.”

“Oh, you should have told me! I had no idea.”

“Of course not. And I had no idea the subject of Mr. Wright, the man in the carriage, would come up.”

“Oh, Lizzy! Mr. Darcy? I can scarce believe it! But what was it you did that you regret?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Not tonight. Some other time. You need to get some sleep. But please, dear Jane, keep this to yourself for now. I do not want Miss Bingley finding out that Mr. Wright is Mr. Darcy.”

“I promise I will, Lizzy.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Good night, dear sister.”

“Good night.”

Elizabeth tucked in the blankets on Jane’s bed, and then walked to her room to contemplate the events of the evening. The look William gave her had given her pause to consider that he did care for her; he cared for her a great deal.

***

The next morning Elizabeth awoke having had slept much more soundly, but now she felt the all too familiar lurching of her heartbeat as her thoughts went to William. She lay in bed watching the light slowly creep up the far bedroom wall and wondered whether she should get up and take another early morning walk.

Elizabeth smiled and threw off the comforter. Whether she should was not the issue. She wanted to, and promptly rose to get herself ready. As she was finishing her hair, she heard the telltale sound of a door opening down the hall and footsteps walking past. Since coming to Netherfield, she had come to recognize the distinct sound of him walking past her door. Her heart fluttered even more.

She grasped the brush to her chest and willed herself to sit for but a few minutes longer. It would not do for her to walk out with Darcy, knowing Caroline was still doing all she could to keep them from spending any time alone.

Elizabeth waited a little longer, and then quietly walked downstairs. She stepped outdoors and the early morning air beckoned her. It was a little cooler than yesterday, and she pulled her coat around herself tightly as she began walking in the same direction she set out the day before.

Just like the day before, she came upon the turn in the gravel path and saw Darcy leaning against the same tree, in almost the same position. But instead of feeling apprehension, this morning she approached him with a sense of elation.

“Good morning, Elizabeth.”

“Good morning, William.”

Elizabeth was amazed how simply calling him “William” brought a smile to his face.

“I was hoping you would see the benefit of another early morning walk.”

“You should know that I am quite fond of them.”

Darcy smiled and extended his arm to her, and Elizabeth responded in what seemed to her to be a most natural way, slipping her hand around it. They had walked together this way on the ship several times, but then it had been an attempt to convey the picture of a married couple. This morning, it was truly out of a desire to feel the warmth and strength of his arm in her small hand.

As they walked, their conversation began very fundamentally. “Did you sleep well, Elizabeth?”

“Yes, thank you; much better than the two previous nights.”

“I am glad to hear that.” Darcy took in a deep lungful of fresh morning air. “I must admit I slept quite soundly myself.”

“Perhaps it was the evening meal we had,” Elizabeth offered. “I understand some foods are more conducive to allowing one to have a good night’s sleep.”

Darcy laughed. “Or perhaps it was the evening conversation. I, personally, have found certain topics of conversation to put one in a rather contented mood.”

Elizabeth stopped and detected a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Perhaps, instead of being content, you were merely bored. Boredom does tend to leave one in a somnolent state.”

“I think not, Elizabeth. Last evening, I was definitely not bored by the conversation.”

Darcy prompted her to begin walking again.

“I think it would be best if we do not stop every time we have something to say. I have been made aware that Miss Bingley has a most attentive lady who waits on her and keeps her apprised of my every move. I would not be surprised if she is up and readying herself to come outdoors as we speak.”

“I would not have considered Miss Bingley an avid walker.”

“Oh, she is not. So I propose that we take a brisk, longer walk this morning, thereby curtailing the chances of encountering her.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I highly concur with your suggestion, William.”

“Good.” The two began walking at a moderate pace and then Darcy added, “Although, as much as I wish to avoid Miss Bingley, I do owe her a debt of gratitude for her inquisitiveness last night.”

Elizabeth looked up to him and watched as a very roguish air settled across his features.

“Mr. Darcy, you appear to be on the verge of imparting some remark that I would imagine might be at my expense.”

“Do you really think I would do such a thing?” He brought his other hand over and placed it on hers. “Have you reverted to calling me Mr. Darcy?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips. “There are times when your behaviour necessitates it, Mr. Darcy. Now is one of those times, as I must put you in your place before you attempt to tease me unmercifully.” She looked up and his smirk had not dissipated. “Mr. Darcy, just say what you must. I shall bear up under it, I am sure.”

He paused, knowing his penchant for unsuccessful teasing, but he had felt too much elation at what he had heard last night to let it pass.

“Your Mr. Wright, whom your sister mentioned last night…”

Elizabeth closed her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. “Yes?”

“When you were feverish that first night in our room, you called out his name.”

Elizabeth looked sharply at him and stopped, not expecting this. “I did?”

He nodded. “You said something like, ‘Mr. Wright, I did not know.’ Now what do you suppose you meant by that?” His smile became more pronounced.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes as she knew what he wanted her to say. “Mr. Darcy, what would you have me say in answer to that? I have become aware these past few days that you remember that carriage ride, that you remember certain aspects of that carriage ride, and that last night, you became aware that I… that I…”

“Yes?” he leaned his head in, anxious for her to finish.

“Sometimes you can be impossible!” She stamped her foot, folded her arms together in front of her, and turned off to the side, more to hide her own smile than to make a firm point.

“I am only encouraging you to finish your sentence.”

“Very smugly, I might add.” She turned and took a few steps. “I believe we should begin walking again, sir.”

Darcy took her arm. “You were going to say?”

She took a breath and coolly replied, “Yes, Mr. Darcy, you are Mr. Wright.”

She actually felt relieved that it was out in the open, felt a sense of relief that at least he knew how she felt. In a softer voice she continued, “But I actually did not realize it until that last night sailing during the storm.” After a pause, she added with a laugh, “It seems as though something deep inside me was quicker to recognize you than I was, though.”

They walked along in silence and finally Elizabeth asked, “I never imagined that you would have remembered the carriage ride. When did you realize it was me?”

“That day you fell on the stairs. I had been enjoying our lively discussions during our morning walks and vaguely remembered thinking the same about the woman in the carriage those years back. When you told me how you had sprained your ankle two years earlier in a fall, I was fairly certain it was you.”

Elizabeth thought back to that day. “That was the very day you made your… your offer.”

“Yes, it was.”

Elizabeth, having a lively and spirited nature, which, in the past few months had been quite subdued, felt an overwhelming tug within her heart.

“Mr. Darcy, you appear to me to have a very self-satisfied, smug look emblazoned across your face. What you heard last night and what you confirmed just now seems to sit well with you.”

“That it does, Elizabeth. It sits very well with me. And is it still to be Mr. Darcy?”

“At the moment, yes, Mr. Darcy.” She stopped again and looked at him. “But there is something that I can view just as smugly.”

Darcy narrowed his eyes and looked at her curiously. “And what would that be?”

She turned and briskly began walking, and Darcy, taking two long strides, easily caught up with her.

“When my aunt and uncle and I visited Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds was kind enough to include your study in the tour.”

“Your aunt and uncle. These are the two people you spoke so highly of while on the ship.”

“Yes. To me, they are dearest family. They are also the ones from Cheapside.” Elizabeth cast a furtive glance up at Darcy to watch his reaction.

Darcy’s only response was to smile. “But they are the ones you hold in highest…” He stopped abruptly. “The study has never been part of the public tour. Now why would she have done that? Mrs. Reynolds showed you my study ?”

Elizabeth nodded, pursing her lips together and tilting her head to look at him up out of the corner of her eyes.

He looked down at her, his eyebrows creased together, his head tilted, but the remnants of a smile still touching his lips. Elizabeth knew the moment he realized what she was talking about. His head lifted up and his eyes opened wide. He let out a small chuckle.

“Your sampler.”

“Yes, you can imagine my surprise, William, when upon coming into your study, I saw my sampler on the mantel. Mrs. Reynolds was so generous to explain how that mantel carried all of your favourite treasures. There was my sampler, framed no less, among miniature portraits of your family and other favourite tokens.”

They reached the pond and Darcy stopped this time, his heart about to burst, and believing he could not feel any greater depth of feeling, he reached out for Elizabeth’s arm, not taking it as he would if he were escorting her, but in a way that brought her to a halt. She turned back, surprised, and was met by his dark eyes searching hers. It was not a time for words, as Darcy brought his other hand around her, drawing her close. She stood motionless, mesmerized by his closeness, his strong arms embracing her and pulling her against his firm chest. She tilted her head up just as his came down and claimed her lips.

His kiss was gentle at first, their lips lightly touching. Darcy tightened his arms around her as the kiss grew more ardent in its intensity. His arms had pinned hers against her side, but she managed, in a concerted effort to steady herself as well as return the embrace, to bend her arms at her elbows and bring her hands to grasp him lightly around his waist.

The rising sun’s reflection on the pond seemed to give life to everything around it, and celebrate a love that was just mutually realized.

Darcy was the one who finally, and most reluctantly, drew himself away. Looking at Elizabeth’s face in that first moment apart, he beheld her eyes closed, her dark lashes splayed down across her eyes. He watched as she slowly opened them, and the green flecks in her hazel eyes shone in the sunlight.

Seeing his gaze upon her and at a loss to know what one says after such a formidable kiss, she merely fixed her eyes back upon him. He reached for a loose strand of her hair, rubbing it between his fingers. How long had he been dreaming of this day, when he knew, in all assurance, that Elizabeth returned his love!

“William,” Elizabeth finally whispered, finding it difficult to catch her breath, “is there nothing you have to say to me about the presence of my sampler there?”

“Your sampler—and its presence there—speak for themselves, I believe.”

Bringing both hands around her neck, and gently rubbing her jaw with his thumbs, he lowered his forehead to touch hers. “Elizabeth,” he said gently, “I will be leaving for London soon after you leave for home today. I have some business that requires my attention there.” He pulled his forehead away and replaced it with a kiss. “I shall, hopefully, be away no longer than a week.”

Her eyes closed again when she felt his lips touch her forehead lightly. Still holding him at his waist, her hold grew firmer as she grew more unsteady. The only thing she could do, the only thing she wanted to do, was to lean her head forward and rest it against his chest. “I shall miss you, William.”

Darcy softly chuckled. “It appears that calling me William is getting a little easier for you to do.”

Elizabeth smiled, still nestled against him. “I thought about you a great deal since we last saw each other on the ship. In my thoughts you were always William.”

They remained transfixed in each other’s gaze, seemingly content to remain that way.

At length Darcy stiffened and pulled away again, thoroughly convinced that he must convey the news to Elizabeth that they were still married, but just as unsure what her reception of that news would be.

“Come, Elizabeth, let us walk on a little farther.” With light steps, they walked in silence for some time until Darcy was sure they were far enough to be beyond Caroline’s reach should she venture out.

He stopped again and turned to her. Elizabeth looked up to him, seeing a mixture of love and respect in his eyes that was, however, tempered by some disquieting thought. “William?”

Suddenly the words eluded him.

Feeling disconcerted herself, Elizabeth asked again, “William, what is it?”

He brought his hands up to her shoulders, as if to hold her up as well as give himself strength. “Elizabeth, there is something I need to tell you. I am just not sure how to say it.”

“A forthright manner is always a viable option.”

He gently squeezed her shoulders as he began. “Elizabeth, our marriage…”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed as she heard him mention that one thing that had been avoided in all their discussions since meeting at Netherfield.

“Yes?”

No words seemed to come forth from Darcy’s mouth. He looked everywhere but at her as she waited impatiently.

Elizabeth reacted by reaching out and grabbing his arm. “Tell me, William! What is it?”

“We are… Elizabeth, I… I never annulled the marriage. We are still married!”

Elizabeth paled, her eyes widened as her heart faltered, and her body quivered. She swallowed hard, her mouth went dry, and words refused to come. She felt the briefest moment when she thought she would lose her ability to remain upright, and Darcy, sensing it, steadied her with his hands.

She reached up and grabbed both of his arms that were still on her shoulders. “We are still married?”

Darcy nodded. Holding on to her tighter, he said, “I know this must come as a shock to you. I am sorry if I have distressed you with this news.”

“No, no, I am well,” she whispered, feeling a bit more composed. Then she looked directly into his eyes. “I am faring quite well, actually.” She gave him a smile.

“Once I got off that ship, I knew that I did not want to annul the marriage. My only objective was to find you again.”

“And now?”

He cupped her face in his hands. “I still have no wish to end it. If it is acceptable to you, we must now decide when and how we will tell everyone. As soon as I return from London, I want to work toward that end. Elizabeth.” He looked intently into her eyes. “Will you do me the honour of remaining my wife?”

Elizabeth’s heart soared at his words and her eyes filled with tears. To be still married was a wish she had not allowed herself to consider. To think that he wished to remain wed to her was unfathomable.

“I would consider it an honour and a privilege.”

A smile crossed Darcy’s face that seemed to reach into the depths of him. Taking a deep breath, he pulled her close, content just to hold her. Elizabeth wrapped her arms around him, pressing her hands against his back and nestling her head against his chest.

“Telling our families will be difficult,” Darcy whispered.

She sighed.

“What is it, Elizabeth?”

“Oh, if only I could talk to my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They would know the best way to go about it.”

He pulled away and bestowed another brief kiss on her willing lips. “It will work out, Elizabeth. Come, we ought to get back.”

They turned and began walking silently back toward the house.

They reached the pond again, and at the same time both noticed Miss Bingley making difficult progress down the path toward them. Darcy casually walked over to the edge of the pond and picked up a few stones as he had done the day before while Elizabeth remained back.

“I really should leave,” she said again as Miss Bingley was almost upon them.

“You stay right where you are. She can find no fault in our both happening to be here at the same time! And I will not have Miss Bingley dictate when and where I can speak with you!”

She sighed as Miss Bingley approached him.

“Mr. Darcy! What a surprise to see you again this morning!”

“Good morning, Miss Bingley.”

“Is it not a lovely…?” Caroline’s eyes caught a movement off to the side and she turned to find Elizabeth standing there. Her eyes darkened and narrowed, going back to Darcy.

***

Caroline was too stubborn to let Elizabeth remain alone with Darcy, and too ignorant to realize hers was a lost cause. The three of them quietly returned to the house, with two out of the three content to walk in blissful silence, and the third inclined to consider Mr. Darcy not quite in his right mind.

When they arrived at the house, Jane was up, and some very able ladies had been sent up to pack hers and Elizabeth’s things. As they all gathered in the breakfast room for their last meal, Bingley sombrely commented on how greatly he would suffer the impending loss of Jane, but expressed a wish to see her completely recovered soon and come again to Netherfield when he gave his ball.

Miss Bingley was all cordiality in her address to Jane, but seemed not inclined to address Elizabeth or Darcy at all. Finding them together again had completely disconcerted her, and she was counting down the minutes for Elizabeth and her sister to be out of her house.

For the first time since coming to Netherfield, Darcy was able to secure the place next to Elizabeth at the table. As he and Elizabeth listened to Bingley overindulging in his feelings for Jane, doting on her every need, and painfully wondering how he would endure without her captivating presence, Darcy and Elizabeth were content to sit at the table with their fingers intertwined beneath the concealing layers of linen and lace tablecloth.

When they were ready to leave, the two Bennet ladies expressed their gratitude to Charles’s sisters for their hospitality, although Elizabeth was far more aware of Miss Bingley’s true feelings than Jane ever was. Elizabeth felt that Miss Bingley and her sister considered Jane a sweet girl, but that they would never view her as an acceptable choice for their brother to marry. And now, Elizabeth was sure, Miss Bingley’s contempt of her was quite irreversible.

Later, as the two men escorted the ladies out to the waiting carriage, Darcy walked alongside Elizabeth. “I shall see you in a week’s time,” he whispered. “There is much we need to discuss.” When they reached the carriage, Darcy helped Elizabeth up, letting his hand linger around hers as she climbed in. He stepped back and smiled, taking a very contented deep breath. As the carriage pulled away, Elizabeth turned back and watched him until they were out of sight.

“Oh, Darcy,” Bingley said when the carriage could no longer be seen. “You just have no idea what it is to love someone as much as I love Jane. We must see to finding you someone just as wonderful.” Darcy could only smile at his lovesick friend who had been so infatuated with the presence of one Bennet sister that he never noticed his best friend was just as deeply in love with the other.

Chapter 23

Elizabeth’s return to Longbourn was quite an adjustment for her. She had only been home one evening since returning from America before setting off to Netherfield to assist her ailing sister. The unrestrained behaviour of her youngest sisters and uncontrolled outbursts by her mother reminded her just how agreeable her life had been these past six months in the refined presence of her aunt and uncle and in the delightful, close presence of her husband. She smiled as she considered with great delight how wonderful it felt to think of him as her husband and be assured that he still was!

Mrs. Bennet was convinced that Mr. Bingley would soon make an offer to Jane and reminded everyone she met what a good choice he was for her. A match between Jane and Bingley was not disagreeable to Elizabeth at all, but things were not as settled between him and her sister as her mother would have everyone believe. If things did not turn out as Jane desired and her mother expected, Elizabeth feared it would be especially difficult for Jane to face everyone, let alone deal with her own broken heart.

One evening, after Elizabeth had been home only a few days, Mr. Bennet announced to the family the imminent arrival of one cousin, from whom he had received a letter a few weeks earlier. Mr. William Collins was clergyman of Hunsford Parish, whom the family had never before met, and who, upon the death of Mr. Bennet, was next in line to inherit Longbourn.

His arrival caused much consternation and speculation. It was with great curiosity that the family gathered to meet him.

Mr. Collins turned out to be an odd combination of melodramatic discourses and flattering nothings.

Elizabeth spent most of the week trying to avoid her cousin’s presence while counting down the days until Darcy’s return. Jane was greatly improved with each passing day, and as the weather accommodated them, they were able to spend a great deal of time out of doors.

They were usually accompanied by Mr. Collins, as well, and Elizabeth felt certain that he had come to Longbourn to secure a wife for himself from among one of her sisters. At first, his inclination seemed to lean toward Jane, but Elizabeth believed that her mother gave him direct advice to turn his attentions elsewhere. Unfortunately, this meant his attentions soon turned toward her.

Elizabeth did all she could to discourage him, but to no avail. She often wondered what he would think of her if he knew she was already married. She wondered what all of her family would think, but worried particularly how her father and Jane would view it. She believed that neither would understand, although she felt certain that Jane would be more merciful toward her than her father. Her concern with telling Jane too soon about her marriage was that everyone had always expected Jane to marry first. With everyone anticipating an offer from Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth decided she would only tell Jane when she felt it was an absolute necessity.

The days passed slowly, and soon it had been a week since Jane and Elizabeth had left Netherfield. Elizabeth’s desire to see Mr. Darcy grew stronger with each passing day, as did her determination to avoid Mr. Collins.

It was on a mildly pleasant afternoon that the Bennet sisters decided to walk into Meryton to run some errands. Mr. Collins, taking a continued, determined, and most persistent liking to Elizabeth, decided to join them.

The walk was long, but the girls were young and did it frequently, so it was an easy distance for them. But by the time they reached the little village, Mr. Collins was quite fatigued, and his little round face was splotched and enveloped in perspiration. It was all he could do to summon the energy to pull out his handkerchief and dab it across his face.

The girls enjoyed looking in the shop windows to see if there was anything new. Kitty suddenly tugged at Lydia’s arm.

“Look, Lydia, there is Denny!”

The attention of every young lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with Denny on the other side of the way. All were struck with the stranger’s air and wondered who he could be. Kitty and Lydia, determined to find out, led the way across the street.

Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.

As they talked, two men on horseback slowly made their way down the road. They both noticed the group of women talking with the men. Darcy’s eyes immediately picked out Elizabeth and he felt that increasingly familiar lurch of his heart. He could not take his eyes from her.

Bingley then noticed Jane, and the two men, without speaking, led their horses in their direction.

Darcy noticed the others with Elizabeth, but not distinctly; his eyes were content to rest solely on her. When one of the sisters pointed out the two men coming down the road, all eyes went to them and Darcy was only barely aware that one of the men, who had been standing in the shadows, briskly turned and began walking away down the street.

Bingley jumped off his horse and cheerfully greeted Jane and the others. Jane, at first, seemed embarrassed by this surprise meeting, but Bingley, with his endearing personality, soon had her engaged in conversation.

Darcy slid off his horse, taking off his hat, and slowly walked over as well, greeting Elizabeth with a smile in his eyes. He greeted Elizabeth’s sisters and the men were then both introduced to Mr. Collins and Mr. Denny, who then excused himself to rejoin his friend.

Mr. Collins bowed repeatedly, nervousness and excitement overtaking him as he edged closer to Darcy and Elizabeth.

Bingley spoke animatedly to Jane while Darcy and Elizabeth exchanged a quieter conversation.

“How was London, Mr. Darcy?”

“It was most profitable for me. I took care of some business that required meeting with some business associates and then attended to a matter that required making new, rather pleasant personal acquaintances.”

Elizabeth could not read the look on his face except to be sure he was not going to explain any further. At least not now.

“I am glad.”

Mr. Collins hovered close to the pair, seemingly intent on listening to their conversation. Darcy knew he could not overtly express his joy at seeing Elizabeth, with Mr. Collins in such close proximity, as much as he would have liked to. He looked at Mr. Collins and then back at Elizabeth. “As much as London has to offer, I found myself greatly longing for the pleasant company that I have found in this neighbourhood.”

Elizabeth noticed the twinkle in his eyes. She returned a smile, accompanied by a slight blush, knowing his words were meant for her.

Mr. Collins could not contain himself any longer, and when he noticed the pause in the conversation between Darcy and his fairest cousin, he broke in. “Mr. Darcy,” he excitedly addressed the tall, fashionable man, “would you be, by some small chance, of the same Darcy family that is so inexorably linked to my generous, most noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh?”

Darcy looked at him as surprise and concern spread over his features. “Indeed, she is my aunt.”

Collins clasped his hands together in jubilant satisfaction. “Is this not grand news? To actually make your acquaintance! She speaks so highly of you!” His nervousness seemed to propel his wordiness. “I am most pleased to tell you that she was, when I left her a few days ago, in exceedingly good health!”

“I am glad to hear that.”

Elizabeth noticed Darcy’s look of discomfiture. She could not imagine why he would not feel inclined to receive the news that Mr. Collins was his aunt’s clergyman with any pleasure.

Bingley then told everyone that they were just on their way to Longbourn to deliver the invitation to a ball he was having at Netherfield.

Lydia and Kitty were soon beside themselves in anticipation of the ball. Mr. Bingley was now looked upon with great admiration by the two girls, as he was not only giving the ball as promised, but had assured them the officers would also receive an invitation.

Darcy was grateful for the distraction, as it took everyone’s attention off himself, and he took the opportunity to lean in to Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, how long is your cousin to remain at Longbourn?”

“I believe he is leaving Saturday next.”

Darcy pursed his lips as Mr. Collins cast a glance toward the two and then turned back to the others.

In a soft whisper, he said, “It will not be good for me to talk with your father while Mr. Collins is still in your home. I would not want word getting back to my aunt before I am able to talk to her. Unfortunately, that means it will not be until after the ball that I will be able to speak with him. Does that disappoint you too much, my beloved?”

Elizabeth’s disappointment was soothed by his endearing address. “If that is best, I understand.”

Using his hat as a cover, he gently reached over and took her hand in his, giving it a tender squeeze.

Mr. Denny caught up with Mr. Wickham, who had stopped and turned back toward the group at the far end of the street.

“You left very suddenly there, Wickham.”

“Yes,” he said slowly, his eyes on the group gathered. “I deemed it to be to my best advantage to remain unseen by a certain gentleman.”

As Wickham watched Darcy, his old childhood chum, something unusual caught his eye. Normally, Darcy shunned country neighbourhoods and distanced himself from those of that class. And yet, here he was approaching this group, so far beneath his station, as if they were his equals. He noticed that the two elder Bennet daughters were quite pretty, and from the looks of things, the other gentleman with Darcy seemed to have an attachment to the eldest. Could that mean that Darcy had taken a fancy to Miss Elizabeth?

He shook his head and laughed, thinking to himself, Ol’ Darcy, has this country lady somehow touched your heart? How sweet. But knowing you are in the neighbourhood should prove quite profitable for me if I keep out of your sight and play my cards right!

Wickham turned and slapped his friend on the back. “Come, Denny, I suddenly find myself with quite an appetite!”

Chapter 24

The Bennet ladies remained in Meryton to visit their Aunt and Uncle Phillips, while Darcy and Bingley went on their way, expressing the hope to pay a visit to Longbourn later in the week. For the remainder of the afternoon, the subject of the ball was first and foremost on Lydia’s mind as well as Kitty’s. That was all that would satisfy the two girls as the topic of conversation. Elizabeth was content to reflect silently on her husband, knowing he had returned safely, and she looked forward, with joyful anticipation, to the fact that soon she would not have to conceal her affections and regard for him.

While visiting their aunt and uncle, Lydia wasted no time in securing an invitation to return the next night with the promise that her uncle would extend the invitation to Mr. Wickham himself, along with several other officers. With all the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming ball and the prospect of seeing Mr. Wickham the following night, Lydia was quite sure life could not be more perfect!

Later, as they walked home, Mr. Collins brought up the subject of his patroness and Mr. Darcy. “I would have you know, Miss Elizabeth, that Lady Catherine speaks ever so highly of her nephew. I cannot wait to inform her that I made his acquaintance this very day! She is very mindful of these things, and it will please her to no end.” His outburst of enthusiasm was almost too much for Elizabeth to bear, even if it did concern William. She turned to Jane, raising her eyebrows and concealing a smirk.

His endless effusions about the woman, her home, and her excessive attentions continued with nary an audience but himself. It was some moments later that Elizabeth heard him say, “…one day hers and Mr. Darcy’s great estates shall be united.”

Elizabeth heard Mr. Darcy’s name mentioned and looked at him curiously. “Excuse me? What did you just say?”

Collins looked at her, pleased that Elizabeth was taking an interest. “One day their two great estates shall be united.”

Elizabeth gave him a puzzled glance. “Their two estates united? What does she mean by this?”

With a contented grin, he answered, “Ah, my dearest Cousin Elizabeth, do you not see? Lady Catherine’s daughter, Anne, a princess is what I would call her, although it is very unfortunate that she has a weakly constitution, but still, she is a gem, as I often tell Lady Catherine…”

Elizabeth shook her head in exasperation. “Yes, you have often spoken of her. But what of uniting the two estates?”

“Why, she is engaged to be married to Mr. Darcy! And by this marriage, their two great estates, Pemberley and Rosings, will be united.” Collins clasped his hands as he most eagerly relayed this information to Elizabeth, thinking again that his patroness would be quite pleased when he wrote and informed her that his second eldest cousin was the choice for his wife.

Elizabeth paled. “They are engaged?” she asked meekly as she reached over to Jane and took her arm to give her some support.

“Oh, most certainly! And what joy that will give my patroness when they are finally united in matrimony! Lady Catherine has told me how she and her sister, Mr. Darcy’s mother, promised them to each other as infants. I believe Mr. Darcy has only been waiting until his cousin improves in health before he marries her, but her mother is eagerly anticipating their marriage exceedingly soon.”

Elizabeth looked down to conceal the feelings that suddenly began to overwhelm her as Mr. Collins continued. Certainly William’s aunt would understand that he did not necessarily hold to the hopes that two women made years ago, Elizabeth thought to herself. Or would she? She wondered how much Lady Catherine would feel he was bound, either by moral or familial obligation, to this engagement, and what would the neglect of it mean to him and his relationship with his family? If indeed it was expected that he was engaged to his cousin, where would that ultimately place Elizabeth in his family’s regard? Elizabeth no longer heard her cousin as all these questions flooded her thoughts, and she walked the rest of the way home in silent contemplation.

***

The following evening, the coach conveyed Mr. Collins and his five cousins at a suitable hour to Meryton; and the girls had the pleasure of hearing, as they entered the drawing-room, that Mr. Wickham had accepted their uncle’s invitation, and was then in the house.

As Mr. Collins was drawn into a game of whist, the two youngest girls were occupied with some of the officers in a game of cards; Mary was exhibiting on the pianoforte; Jane was politely listening; and Elizabeth found herself alone. At length, Mr. Wickham approached. He was definitely far above the rest of the officers in person, countenance, air, and walk. She watched Lydia’s look of disappointment as he came over to Elizabeth and asked if he could join her.

“Do you not care to play, Mr. Wickham?”

“No, I know little of the game they are playing.”

Elizabeth smiled and there was a pause in the conversation. Elizabeth finally commented, “You left quite suddenly yesterday afternoon. We were not even able to pay our respects.”

“Yes, and I do apologize. I had a pressing engagement.”

The two were distracted by an outburst by Lydia.

“Your youngest sister, Lydia, is a very lively sixteen-year-old.”

Elizabeth raised her eyes at him, wondering if he was attracted or indifferent to her. “She is only fifteen, and yes, sometimes she behaves in a most unreserved manner.”

Mr. Wickham suddenly lowered his voice and looked intently at Elizabeth. “When I left the other day, two gentlemen were approaching. Could you tell me who they are?”

Elizabeth turned her head and met his intense gaze. “One was Mr. Bingley, who recently let Netherfield, and the other was his friend, Mr. Darcy.”

“Hmm, do you know them both well?”

“I… um…” Elizabeth took in a deep breath and felt her face involuntarily blush. “I recently spent a few days at Netherfield, when Jane had taken ill there, and I did come to know them both fairly well. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing in particular. One merely seemed familiar, that is all.”

The subject of the two men was dropped, and soon Wickham left her side to spend most of the remaining time in Lydia’s presence. Elizabeth watched as Lydia continued to engage in a flirtatious way with him and seemed to rather enjoy it. Elizabeth shook her head, wondering just how far Lydia was willing to go to attract a man’s attention. She only hoped Wickham was wise enough to know when to walk away and gentleman enough to do it.

***

The prospect of the ball at Netherfield sent the inhabitants of Longbourn into such a disarray of feminine emotions that Mr. Bennet quite believed he would not be able to endure it.

Mrs. Bennet chose to credit Bingley with giving the ball in compliment of her eldest daughter and was particularly flattered by receiving the invitation from Mr. Bingley himself, instead of a ceremonious card. She was frequently overcome by such a variety of nerves causing her both rapture and distress that she knew not how to coherently articulate her feelings save for a frequent eruption of wails accompanied by a set of very animated gestures and flailing of her hands.

Jane’s thoughts on the subject of the ball were more subdued, but her emotions were actually beginning to spill over in anticipation of being able to see and dance with Mr. Bingley again. More than once she was found to be daydreaming when her father addressed her, and although she denied that she was distracted by thoughts of one Charles Bingley, her blushing countenance suggested otherwise.

The happiness anticipated by Kitty and Lydia depended on the hope that Mr. Wickham would be in attendance and that they could dance half the evening with him.

Mary assured her family that she had no disinclination for a ball, although she could not speak as highly in favour of it or as frequently as everyone else did. She often sided with Mr. Bennet as he commented on the tone of the Bennet household that the ball seemed to be the only topic of conversation and everyone was dwelling to a far greater extent upon it than they should. But Mr. Bennet would not allow that he and Mary were of the same opinion and continually contradicted her just for his own caprice.

Elizabeth’s thoughts on the ball were mixed with all the anticipation that the pleasure of being with William would bring, but it was tempered with the gnawing realization that they had several storms to pass through before all would be smooth sailing for them.

Elizabeth also found herself battling another most discomfiting realization. Mr. Collins, despite Elizabeth’s fervent discouragement, was singling her out and displaying overt signs of amiable behaviour toward her, which, she had to assume, was for reasons of matrimonial deliberation.

Politely discouraging Mr. Collins without offending him became increasingly difficult. To add to her dilemma, a few days before the anticipated ball, he unfortunately solicited her hand for the first two dances. She accepted with as much good grace as she could, mostly at the insistence of her mother, and could barely endure his company, as she became the object of his increasing civilities and frequent attempts at complimenting her on her wit and vivacity. Although she was more astonished than gratified by this effect of her charms, it was not long before her mother gave her to understand that the probability of a marriage between her and Collins was exceedingly agreeable to her.

As long as he continued at Longbourn, she would be painfully miserable having to endure his presence and her husband would be prevented from coming to speak to her father because of the association between Collins and his aunt.

To avoid the misery of Mr. Collins’s attentions, coupled by a wish to encounter Darcy out on a walk, Elizabeth wakened every morning with the hope to venture outside. But unfortunately, from the day they received the invitation to the ball to the day of the event itself, there was such a succession of rain as to prevent anyone from walking or visiting anywhere. This left not only Elizabeth in a pitiable state, but Lydia and Kitty, as well, as that meant there was no visit to their aunt in Meryton, no officers, and no news that could be sought after.

Jane seemed to take the lack of a visit from Bingley with expected serenity and was more concerned with how quiet and withdrawn Elizabeth had become. She knew her sister had taken a liking to Darcy; the fact that he was her Mr. Wright made that apparent. But she wondered if there was something more than just an infatuation with the man from two years ago. If the attachment on her part had grown stronger by his presence at Netherfield, the announcement by Mr. Collins must have disconcerted her. She decided they must talk.

A few days before the ball, whenever everyone had retired, she came into Elizabeth’s room and sat on the edge of her bed.

Elizabeth had been reading, or at least trying to read, when Jane came in and she recognized at once that look of sisterly concern written across her face. She closed the book and set it aside.

“What brings you in here tonight, Jane?”

“I thought we might talk.”

“Hmm,” muttered Elizabeth. “About anything in particular?”

“Is there not something you would like to talk about?”

“You must have something in mind, dear sister. What is it?”

Jane nervously rubbed her hands together. “Ever since the day we walked to Meryton,” she watched her sister’s face, “when Mr. Collins mentioned that Mr. Darcy was engaged to his cousin, you seem distracted, faraway.”

Elizabeth smiled and patted Jane’s hand. “I appreciate your concern, Jane, but…”

“Lizzy, I know how fond you were of Mr. Wright after you met him, and now, having been in his presence, that is, Mr. Darcy’s presence, it cannot be easy to dismiss those feelings you had for him. But you must know that people of their class often marry for reasons of obligation, to improve their status and expand their wealth or, as Mr. Collins said, unite two estates.” She then put her hand on top of Elizabeth’s. “He is of a completely different class, Lizzy. Even if there was not an arranged engagement with his cousin, you could not rationally cling to any hope that he would view you as anything more than an acquaintance of his friend. He may have been your Mr. Wright , but you cannot expect him necessarily to view you in the same light.” Jane gave her sister a smile. “However, in my opinion, he would be a fool to overlook you solely for those reasons.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked away for a moment. She had not wanted to tell Jane this soon, but felt there would be no better opportunity.

“Jane, there is something that I must tell you. But you must promise me not to tell a so