(November 6, 1812)
“Ah, Thacker, has my cousin returned?”
The butler glanced at the door. The colonel was a constant and welcomed guest at Darcy House, but the knocker was not in evidence, a clear sign that the family was unavailable to visitors.
The colonel laughed. “Oh, do not bother, old man.” He moved inside the vestibule. “I will just call on Miss Georgiana.” He handed the imperturbable servant his hat and gloves and was removing his coat when a tall gentleman made his appearance.
“I thought I heard your voice, Richard,” said a smiling Fitzwilliam Darcy, his hand extended in welcome.
“Come into my study, Fitz. Your arrival is most timely if you mean to stay for dinner.”
“Of course! You would not throw your poor cousin upon the mercy of the kitchens of Horse Guards, would you? The horses eat better!”
Darcy harrumphed. “I seriously doubt that the Crown’s food is that deficient, but we will suffer your company. Thacker, be so good as to alert Cook that we have a guest for dinner.” The butler nodded as the two gentlemen continued down the hall.
“You have not answered my question,” Fitzwilliam pointed out. “You have been gone for a month. Did you return to Pemberley?”
Darcy’s response was lost to posterity, for at that instant, a pretty young lady dashed from the music room.
“RICHARD!” cried Georgiana Darcy. “Oh Richard, have you heard the news?” She leapt into an embrace with her cousin and guardian. “Brother is getting married!”
Fitzwilliam was dumbfounded. “Married?” His arms full of Georgiana, he peered over her head at Darcy. “To whom?”
Butter would not melt in Darcy’s grinning mouth. “You are acquainted with the lady—Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Thirty minutes later, the two gentlemen were comfortably ensconced in Darcy’s study with cigars and wine, a roaring fire in the grate, and Georgiana was upstairs changing for dinner.
“Now that you have successfully distracted me with cigars and wine,” said Fitzwilliam presently, “shall you tell me how things came to pass? Engaged to Miss Bennet? I am all astonishment!”
“I thought you had some wind of it. You must have seen evidence of my admiration in Kent.”
“I thought I saw something, but to this degree? No. You have been very sly.”
“Not in the least. I must wonder at your astonishment; surely my aunt spoke to the earl last month.”
“I have not heard anything, and I would be surprised if I did. You know Father and Aunt Catherine hate each other. But why would—oh!” Fitzwilliam frowned. “She knew? You told Lady Catherine of your intentions and not me?”
“Peace, Cousin! It was not so much a matter of telling her as her finding out.”
Mollified, the colonel sat back. “How did that come about? Anne?”
“No, I did not tell Anne, either.” He imparted the story of Lady Catherine’s journey to Longbourn, her confrontation with Elizabeth, and her attempt to warn Darcy off. By the time Darcy finished his tale, the colonel was excessively diverted.
“Ho, this is rich! The old bat thought she would have you bend to her will, but in all probability, she drove you right into Miss Bennet’s arms! How Father will laugh when he learns of this!”
Darcy sat up. “Must you tell him?”
“Of course! I can keep nothing from him—especially if I wish to stay in his best books. My allowance depends upon it!” At Darcy’s dark look, Fitzwilliam sobered and patted his cousin’s knee. “It would be all for the best, Darce. You cannot think he will look kindly on your betrothal to a county lady of no note.”
Darcy ground his teeth. “Elizabeth is a gentleman’s daughter; we are equals.”
“Do not be foolish! You know this will disrupt his plans for you. However, I can be of service. As much as he dislikes being thwarted, he enjoys thwarting Auntie Cathy more! The very fact that our aunt disapproves of Miss Bennet will raise her in my father’s eyes.”
Darcy was hardly mollified. “I will stand no disrespect for Elizabeth.”
Fitzwilliam almost laughed at the image Darcy presented—glowering face, arms crossed over his chest. Why, if only he bit his lip, he would be the perfect picture of an angry, stubborn child. “Miss Elizabeth is charming. She will win over Father in no time, and Mother too, I have no doubt.”
“And the viscount?”
Fitzwilliam’s smile faded. “That will be a harder task. You know how much stock my dear sister Eugenie puts in appearances, and Andrew follows wherever she leads.” The colonel’s and the viscountess’ mutual loathing was well-known within the family. “However, Father demands a unified public front in all things. Win his acceptance and the rest of the family will fall in line—including Lady Catherine.”
Darcy relaxed. “My uncle is a reasonable man. I am satisfied. I shall write him presently. He is still in Derbyshire, I recall.” He took a sip of his wine. “Shall you attend the wedding? If so, I would ask you to escort Georgiana.”
Fitzwilliam nodded. “I shall be happy to if I am granted leave. After all, someone must represent the family. It certainly will not be Lady Catherine.” He frowned. “I wish Anne could… but that is nonsense. Her health would not allow it, even if by some miracle our aunt gave permission.”
The two sat for some time, drinking, the crackling fire the only sound in the room.
“Darcy,” Fitzwilliam began again, “are you certain about this? Please understand I am only concerned with your happiness. Miss Bennet is all that is lovely and charming, but—”
Darcy held up a hand. “Fitz, I am certain. I shall not change my mind—I shall marry Elizabeth.” He sighed. “It is hard for me to speak of this. In her presence, I feel—calm. Complete. At peace. I find she is as necessary to me as food and drink. I do not think I can now live without her, knowing I have finally won her tender affections.”
“She says I have, and I believe her.” He chuckled. “I certainly know my fortune means little to her!”
Fitzwilliam frowned, the source of his misgivings now on the table. “Forgive me, Darce, but how do you know that?”
Darcy laughed out loud. “Because she turned me down at Rosings!”
Darcy ignored his cousin’s inelegant outburst and gave an abbreviated recounting of his misadventure in the parsonage at Easter. “So you see?” he concluded his tale. “If she were mercenary, she would have accepted my boorish proposal, and I never would have been the wiser until it was too late! But she had mercy on me and taught me a hard lesson on what it takes to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
“Apparently, you have learned this lesson.”
“I will endeavor to put my better understanding to good use for the remainder of my days.”
Normally, Fitzwilliam would have disregarded such a statement as mere hyperbole had it come from any other man. “She has bewitched you, has she not?”
“I am a better man for knowing her.”
Fitzwilliam raised his glass and offered a toast. “Then I wish you joy with all my heart.”
Darcy’s eyes were suspiciously moist. “Thank you, Fitz. Your words mean more to me than I can say.” He gathered himself and stood. “Shall we to dinner? Georgiana is surely waiting for us by now.”
Fitzwilliam grinned, already relishing whatever arts Darcy’s cook was to employ that evening. “Excellent! Lead the way, Cuz.” And if what you say about Miss Elizabeth is true, Darce, I shall love her as if she were my own sister, he thought to himself.