I haven’t been writing anything new for the last couple of weeks because of a small, fluffy version of sleep deprivation induced writer’s block (see picture to the left), but I have managed to get some very important work done. I’ve finished the copyedits for Mr. Darcy’s Refuge, my new Pemberley Variation that will be released Sept. 1, and the proof copy is on order. I’m even a bit ahead of schedule!
But in the meantime, since I have nothing coherent to say that doesn’t relate to housebreaking or puppy development, I thought an excerpt would be in order. I think you’ll like this one. It takes place after Elizabeth has refused Darcy, and they’ve both had an exhausting and stressful day dealing with refugees from the local flooding. Darcy is in the unusual position of knowing that Elizabeth is going to have to marry him whether she likes it or not, and he is trying to show her what he is really like in hopes that she’ll accept the news better when it finally comes.
Darcy made a point of exhausting himself before returning to the parsonage. He found the straying mare, then checked on the villagers staying in the barn, talking to each one about the state of their particular cottage. By the time he decided that there was no more to do, he doubted that even Miss Elizabeth Bennet could draw a reaction from him.
Doubtless she was already abed. He entered quietly, but Sally was there to take his coat and hat. He accepted a candle from her to light his way to Mr. Collins’s room where he had the luxury to strip off his clammy clothes in favor of a housecoat that barely reached his wrists. Still, it was dry, and that was all he could ask at the moment. A glass of brandy would not come amiss, either. The bottle he had found the day before in Mr. Collins’s study barely deserved the name, but it was better than nothing.
He was almost to the study when he noticed a light in the sitting room. Was Elizabeth still awake after all? Could she possibly have been waiting for him? He paused a moment before presenting himself at the open door. The sight before him took his breath away.
She was fast asleep in the wingback chair by the fire, legs tucked beneath her and her dark curls loose. Her slippers were neatly lined up under the chair. The dying firelight flickered across her features and lent luster to her hair.
How could she look so innocent and yet so seductive at the same time? He drank in the sight of her. It was the first time all day he had felt able just to look at her, which had long been one of his greatest delights. She stirred in her slumber, half-smiling as if at something in a dream. If only he had the right to wake this sleeping princess with a kiss – but he did not, at least not yet.
He was sorely tempted to sit in the chair across from her and simply watch her sleep, letting his imagination go where his lips did not dare, but it was not right to take advantage of her vulnerability for his own pleasure. But he also could not leave her there where anyone could walk in and find her unable to defend herself. He would have to wake her so that she could go up to bed.
“Miss Bennet,” he said softly, and then repeated her name a little louder. There was no response, so he drew closer to her chair. It would always be her chair in his mind now, somehow imbued with her essence. “I am sorry to disturb you, Miss Elizabeth, but you cannot remain here. You must go upstairs to bed.” In his mind, he added, preferably with me. Just being in her presence had restored his sense of humor – and a few other senses as well.
She was obviously sound asleep. If she was half as tired as he, it was no surprise. He placed his hand on her shoulder, careful to touch only where the fabric of her sleeve covered it, despite the tempting expanse of warm skin just an inch away. He gave her arm a little shake, but though the corner of her mouth twitched, she did not open her eyes.
What now? He could not leave her and he could not stay. He could, of course, fetch Sally to stay with her, but he wanted to keep this moment private. No, what he wanted to do was to carry her up to her bed so that he could hold her sleeping form close to him for those few minutes. That, of course, was a good reason why he should not do so.
His gaze began to travel slowly down her body illuminated in the flickering firelight, from light to shadow, from draped fabric to tender skin, from her slender neck, past her gently rounded shoulders to the curves that he longed to cradle in his hands… no, this would not do. He had somehow managed to act the part of a gentleman with her all day despite extreme provocation. It would not be the end of the world for him to carry her upstairs, and it just might save him from worse, especially if his imagination kept going as it was.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he returned upstairs to place the candle in her room and turn down the covers of her bed, firmly not thinking of how she would sleep between those very sheets. No, he was not going to think of that, not at all. It was merely a bed like any other, a piece of furniture covered with a mattress and a few linens, not a shrine to the goddess he could not help worshipping. But those fortunate sheets were allowed to touch her all night long; how could he not be just a little envious, when he would give almost anything just to have her sleep in his arms? Not that it would stop with sleeping, but….Angrily he shook his head. He must stop this nonsensical thinking.
He returned to the sitting room, half fearing that she might have awakened while he was gone, but she had not moved. He drew near, then paused. Good God, was he actually savoring the moment of anticipation? He was further gone than he had thought. But savoring the moment could hardly injure her, and it was certainly giving him a great deal of pleasure.
He bent down, close enough to hear her even breathing, and slid one arm behind her shoulders. It was trickier finding a route for his other hand with her legs folded in the chair, and he kept a close eye on her face, ready to stop in an instant if she awoke. It also kept him from thinking about where his hand was, at least mostly. After all, he was supposed to be helping her, not enjoying her body. It was just that it was such an enjoyable body that it was hard not to notice it.
She made a little sound as he straightened, but settled into his arms like a dream. She fit there like a dream, too. Her natural warmth was augmented by her time in front of the fire. His arm was ensconced between her shoulders and the curtain of her hair which shifted with every step he took, showering him with the scent of honeysuckle and roses. Her chest moved with each sighing breath, and her head was a pleasurable weight on his shoulder. She was his Elizabeth, and that was all there was to it. Why could she not see it?
He started up the stairs, taking each step slowly to avoid jostling his precious burden, not that she seemed in any danger of waking. It was worse than that – she was shifting in her sleep, nestling ever closer to him, just as he had dreamed of her doing. His eyes widened slightly as he realized exactly which portions of her anatomy she was pressing against him as she nuzzled into his shoulder. What in heaven’s name had made him decide to wear a thick housecoat rather than just his shirtsleeves? He would be able to glory in her every movement then, but no, he had decided to be proper. Sometimes propriety was distinctly overrated.
Propriety was also distinctly hard to recall when his every instinct was telling him to explore her face with his lips, committing the feeling of it to memory before moving on to meet her own. He could barely think why that was such a bad idea, but he was quite sure he had been resolved on it. It was torture to do no more than to hold her in his arms, and yet he hoped it would never end.
All too soon he reached her room, dimly lit by the one candle. Good Lord, he was alone with Elizabeth in her bedroom, and she was nestled close to him – and he was supposed to put her down and walk away. He was going to be a candidate for sainthood by the time this was over. Crossing to the side of the bed, he lowered her gently until her back rested on the sheet, then slowly and reluctantly began to pull his arms out from beneath her.
He was almost free – what a terrible word that was, free, when applied to something so distasteful as separating himself from Elizabeth – when she stirred. Holding his breath, he watched as her eyes fluttered open for the merest second, then closed again. She shifted onto her side, facing toward him, and clasped his hand so that it was trapped between her cheek and the pillow. With a sound of contentment, she rubbed her face against his hand as she drifted back into a deep sleep.
Only his arm that had supported her legs was now free. What in God’s name was he supposed to do now? Did gentlemanly behavior really demand that he pull his hand from her grasp by force when the incredible silkiness of her cheek rested warmly against it? He had not sought out the position; she had definitely taken his hand, albeit without knowing to whom it belonged. Or perhaps on some level she did know, in some part of her that had never believed in George Wickham’s lies, that knew she belonged with him.
But he could not stand there bending over her forever, so he lowered himself until he sat on the floor beside her bed, his hand still in hers. God help him, but he did not have the strength to pull himself free, not when it felt so unutterably right. He should not be watching her, though – she would not have given him permission to do that – so he closed his eyes against the temptation, resting his head against the side of the mattress, his entire being concentrated into that small part of him she held so close.
In other news, I have several personal appearances coming up. I’ll be appearing alongside many other JAFF writers at the Decatur Book Festival on Sept 1-2, then on my own at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath Sept 14-17, and at the Historical Novel Society convention in London on Sept 29-30. I’ll be visiting various parts of England in between and may be available to get together with readers and writers, so let me know if you’re interested and I’ll see if it works with my schedule. I’m looking forward to the chance to meet so many fellow Austen lovers! I’m also looking forward to the puppy sleeping through the night. Driving back to Wisconsin with a puppy and 2 cats, not so much…