Pray forgive me! The last time I posted here, I said my new book would be released December 1. I was wrong. Owing to a series of real-life setbacks, I lost over a month of work time, so now I’m aiming for mid to late January. But I’ll try to make it up to you by posting a huge excerpt today to whet your appetite! Get a cup of tea and put your feet up while you enjoy the first three chapters.
Alone with Mr. Darcy
He remembered that old oak, the one with the split trunk. It had been in full leaf, a giant filling the sky, when he first rode to Meryton with Bingley. Now its bare branches reached out over the hedgerow as if to snare an unwary traveller. But Darcy was anything but unwary.
He knew the dangers of the road he followed. It led to Miss Elizabeth Bennet of the fine eyes, the woman who had almost made him forget who he was and what he needed to do. No longer. He had conquered that weakness and put it behind him. This journey to Meryton was for one purpose and one purpose only, and it did not involve seeing her.
Most of his acquaintances in Meryton had already faded in his mind. He could barely recall their faces, but that tiny wisp of hair which escaped Elizabeth’s hairpins and danced over the nape of her neck – that he remembered in excruciating detail. He could practically smell her lavender scent and see the reflected candlelight on the engraved silver pendant she had worn to the Netherfield ball, drawing his eyes downwards and into temptation. And the music of her laugh, the flash in her fine eyes when she was amused, that pale blue dress she wore when Caroline Bingley invited her to take a turn around the room. The sunlight had shown through it when she passed in front of the window, and that image was seared on his soul. But now he was past all that. Should she happen to cross his path today, he would feel nothing. He was once more in control of himself, the master of Pemberley and of his fate.
The icy wind whistled past his ears and down his neck as a few lazy snowflakes danced in the air. With his free hand, he tightened his muffler and turned up the collar of his many-caped greatcoat. His thick leather gloves were fur-lined, but even so, his fingers were beginning to lose feeling as he held the reins. It would have been wiser to take a carriage in this weather, where he could have a warm brick at his feet and another for his hands, but he had wanted the freedom to come and go quickly when he reached Meryton. It was only a few miles now. His numb fingers did not matter. The sooner this was done, the happier he would be.
He squinted up at the grey sky. It had been clear when he left London, but now clouds covered every inch of it. As long as they did not presage a snowstorm, he did not mind. The clouds matched his mood better than sunny skies. A serious snowfall would be a disaster, though. It might trap him in Meryton overnight, and that was unacceptable. It would be better to turn back and find an inn on the turnpike, but he had not brought his valet or clothes for another day, and he would not go to Longbourn looking disheveled. Bad enough he could not hide the traces of his long, cold ride. Not that he had any need to impress anyone at Longbourn – far from it. He had no intention of giving anyone any expectations. None at all.
Elizabeth Bennet pushed her icy fingers deeper into her woolen muff, wishing Lydia had not once again claimed the warmer fur one. Of course Lydia would just laugh and say it was her own fault for walking the long way home from the church. Lydia would never understand the need to get away from everyone, and today she would have run mad without some time to herself.
Why, oh why had she agreed to visit Charlotte in Kent? The last thing she wished to do was to travel all that distance for the supposed pleasure of sharing a house with Mr. Collins and all of his obsequies, platitudes and flatteries. How could Charlotte have agreed to marry that foolish man? What had happened to her good sense? Elizabeth would rather be a poor spinster than marry a man she could not respect.
It had been impossible to refuse the invitation, though. If only Charlotte had not asked her at the church door with everyone around them! She might have been able to find an excuse to avoid the visit then. But now she was committed, because everyone knew she was going to Kent in March. Oh, joy – she would no doubt have the great pleasure of meeting the famous Lady Catherine de Bourgh as well. It was not going to be a happy journey.
The snow was coming down in earnest now, swirling around her and painting the world in shades of white. How could she resist sticking out her tongue to catch a flake on it, even if she was half-frozen? She had always been the best of her sisters at this game, and chasing snowflakes was far more pleasant than thinking of the visit to Charlotte and her horrible husband. Her cold fingers were forgotten as she danced on the path, pausing here and there to examine the intricate shapes of the snowflakes as they landed on her muff. Each was so different from the next! If only she had a way to preserve those fanciful forms. But they melted into nothing in a matter of seconds.
A burning knife was digging a hole in Darcy’s skull. Why? All he wanted was to sleep. The cold had finally gone away. If only the knife would do the same!
“Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy!” A female voice called his name urgently.
He wanted to ignore it, but it stirred some memory. He forced his eyes open to discover the visage of Elizabeth Bennet only inches from his face. “You,” he said distinctly, “are not supposed to be here.”
“I am not supposed to be here?” Her voice rose sharply on the words. “You are the one who… oh, never mind. Are you well enough to walk?”
“Walk? Why would I want to walk?”
She closed her eyes as if hunting inside herself for patience. “Because it is snowing and you are injured.”
“I am not injured. I am merely resting.”
This time her lips twitched. “I see. You have chosen to rest by the side of the road in the middle of a snowstorm with a gash in your head. An interesting choice, Mr. Darcy. Personally, I would recommend a warm bed next time.”
How tempting those lips were! “A warm bed sounds very good to me, although hardly for resting.”
Elizabeth turned her face away, but he thought she was laughing. “Come, sir. I must take you to shelter. I fear you are confused from your injury.”
He frowned. Had her normal intelligence deserted her? “I already told you I am not injured.”
With a sigh, she reached down and touched her hand to the burning knife, sending it ever deeper into his skull. He winced as she held up a bloody fingertip in front of him. “Sir, you are bleeding. That is generally a characteristic of injuries.”
Was she laughing at him? He tried to raise himself to a sitting position, since it was not polite to lie down in front of a lady, but the knife twisted painfully and he had to bite down on his lip to keep from crying out. So he was injured after all. That explained a great deal. “Ah, yes, I suppose it is.”
An icy gust of wind blew past. Elizabeth grabbed her bonnet, holding it to her head. “Mr. Darcy, the storm is worsening. We cannot remain here.”
“Where are we?”
“On the Hatfield Road. Were you travelling alone?”
“I believe…” He shook his head slightly, sending red-hot pain shot through his skull. He could not recollect how he had come to be there. He certainly was not about to admit that to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
“Never mind. Do you think you can stand?”
The snow was coming down now at a slant, tiny ice crystals stinging his cheeks. Gritting his teeth against the inevitable discomfort, he lurched to his feet, his muscles stiff. He dusted off the covering of snow which had collected on his greatcoat. “I must have been unconscious for a few minutes.”
“More than a few, I fear, from the amount of snow on you. You must be half-frozen.” She stood with her hand half extended as if prepared to catch him.
He did not need her help, even if the ground beneath him was moving noticeably. “I am well enough. Is there shelter nearby?”
“Meryton is almost four miles from here, though there is a tavern perhaps half that distance where you can warm yourself at the fire.”
Two miles. He tried taking one step, then another. His vision blurred in and out of focus. Through the haze of pain he said, “I fear that may be beyond my strength. Might I request you to seek aid for me while I remain here?” Having to ask for assistance was always bitter. Having to beg it from Elizabeth Bennet was even worse.
Elizabeth glanced at the sky, though she could not have seen anything through the heavy snowfall, then to the spot where he had lain, already half filled in. “I dare not leave you alone for so long in this weather. There is a laborer’s cottage nearby. I will take you there, then seek assistance.” She bit her lip. “The accommodations will not be what you are accustomed to, but it will be warm and dry.”
“I have been in poor cottages before. I can ask no more than warm and dry.” Warm and dry sounded like heaven at the moment.
Had she passed by the cottage already? It could have been hidden by the driving snow, and she might not have seen anything even a mere thirty paces away. This was taking far longer than she remembered. It had seemed only a few minutes from the time she had passed the cottage on her ramble until she discovered Mr. Darcy lying by the side of the road, but now it seemed they had been trudging through the snow for far longer than that. Mr. Darcy claimed it was no trouble at all to keep walking, which would have been more credible if he did not sway whenever the wind gusted.
They must have missed it somehow. What should she do now? Should she suggest turning back? This direction would just lead them deeper into the countryside. Their chances of being found were better on the road… if they could find the road. They might end up walking in circles. If only she could stop shivering and think!
Her boot struck a hidden impediment, and pain shot through her foot. Apparently her toes were not as numb from cold as she had believed. Crouching down, she dusted off the spot her boot had hit. Her fingers found the shape before her eyes could. A paving stone – the cottage must be nearby! She laid her hand on Mr. Darcy’s arm and peered around them carefully. Then she saw it, just off to their left, its shape a faint shadow in the snowy world. Had she not hit her foot, they would have walked straight past it.
“There it is!” She hurried toward the door and rapped loudly. No response. She knocked again. There was no light coming from the windows. Surely the owners could not be away in weather like this. What if it were uninhabited? She had no means to build a fire.
This was no time for niceties. She was freezing and Mr. Darcy was injured. Lifting the latch, she pushed the door open.
The room inside was dark apart from weak light filtering in through a small window, but it was blessedly free from the wind which had torn at her outside. At least it was free of the force of the wind; the sound of it rattled the walls. It boasted only a few pieces of rude furniture on a dirt floor strewn with straw. Elizabeth crossed straight to the hearth and used the small broom beside it to brush away the ashes banking the fire. Thank heaven – there were live coals underneath! The tenants must only be away for the day. She blew on the coals as she had seen the maids do, but was rewarded only with a rising cloud of soot and ash. She coughed, waving her hand in front of her to scatter the ash.
Mr. Darcy knelt beside her, his long-fingered hands setting one piece of kindling after another over the coals, then leaned forward and blew gently. This time small flames appeared, and with excruciating slowness the kindling took fire.
Elizabeth rocked back on her heels and watched as he set two pieces of wood across the kindling. Stripping off her gloves, she held her hands out toward the struggling fire. Even that slight heat felt like heaven. She would stay only long enough to warm her fingers fully. If she allowed herself to become too comfortable, she would not be able to force herself back out into the cold. She wanted to cry at the thought of putting her wet gloves back on.
Fortunately Mr. Darcy seemed improved, or at least less confused. As he scrutinized the growing flames as if his attention would cause them to burn higher, she attempted to catch a glimpse of his wound. Apparently it was no longer bleeding freely, and she could not make it out under his dark hair, slick from the melting snow. She suspected hers would look no better, but even if her bonnet had failed to keep it dry, at least it was covered. But it was hardly worth worrying about. Even Mr. Darcy, usually so careful of his appearance, looked disheveled.
Fatigue weighed down her limbs, but she would not give into it, nor show him her weakness. “I must go now, but I will send assistance to you as soon as may be.”
He turned his face toward her, one side in shadow, the other catching the firelight. He looked exhausted. “Miss Elizabeth, I commend your bravery, but you cannot go out into the storm. How would you find your way to the road when you can only see a few feet away? No, we must stay here until the worst of the storm lets up.”
“I cannot stay here! It will be dark soon.” And if they were trapped there after dark, her reputation would never recover, even though everyone knew she was not handsome enough to tempt Mr. Darcy.
“It is unfortunate, but there is no other choice. I cannot have you risk your life in that storm.”
He could not have it! Elizabeth tried to count slowly to ten before she replied. “It is my decision, sir, and I intend to go.” Although heaven knew he was probably right, but heaven was more forgiving than Meryton society.
He shook his head. “I am weary, Miss Elizabeth. Pray do not force me to stand in the doorway and block your exit. I am no better pleased by the situation than you are, but I will not have your death on my conscience. If my current condition is not sufficient to guarantee your safety, I give you my word you will be safe with me.” His mouth took on a bitter twist.
It was not the danger he posed that concerned her, but the danger of gossip.
Darcy rested back on his heels, his head throbbing as he inspected the flickering flames. It had been many years since he and Richard built fires in the cavern near Matlock, but apparently he still retained some knowledge from their fumbling attempts. This tiny fire would do little to chase away the chill in the air, but the pile of coal and firewood beside the hearth would not last long if he built it any higher. The cold had sunk so deep into his bones he could hardly imagine ever being warm again.
He stripped off his sodden greatcoat and hung it over a stool near the fire. He doubted it would make much difference, but it would not help him if his clothes became wet as well. Wetter than they were, that is. His trousers were soaked through at the knees and caked with ice over his boots. As he knocked away what ice he could, he looked up to see Elizabeth wringing out the hem of her dress. She seemed to have fared somewhat better than he in that regard; but then again, she had not lain unconscious in the snow, just walked through it. Her pelisse seemed to have protected her well, though her stockings must be cold and wet. No. He should not think about Elizabeth’s stockings or how they must cling to her shapely legs. Not that he had ever seen her legs except as a shadow through that pale blue dress, but he had imagined them often enough, usually wrapped around him. Devil take it! He needed to get control of himself.
He glared at the fire. This was not a good sign. Here he was, half frozen, stiff from bruises, his head pounding, and in an old cottage little better than a shepherd’s hut. He ought to be immune to lust, not thinking about Elizabeth’s legs – especially when those legs happened to be trapped in a small room with him. Perhaps the injury to his head had impaired his mental faculties more than he thought.
In a quest for distraction, he noticed two buckets sitting by the door. They would need water, and he might as well take care of that while he was still cold and wet. If only he were not so dizzy! Somehow he managed to put one foot in front of the other for the few steps needed to reach the door.
Elizabeth said sharply, “Where are you going? Did you not just say it was unsafe to travel in this weather?”
“I have no desire to travel, only to bring in some snow to melt. We will want water later.”
“Oh.” She sounded taken aback. “Thank you for thinking of that.”
A deafening blast of icy wind burned his face and bit through his clothes as soon as he stepped over the threshold. This was worse than it had been just a few minutes earlier. He filled the buckets as quickly as he could and hurried back to the relative safety of the cottage.
It seemed oddly still inside again, even if he had only been out in the storm a short time. He set the buckets beside the hearth where Elizabeth stood warming her hands. “The wind has picked up. We were fortunate to find shelter when we did.”
“I thought it seemed louder.”
There was something odd about the fire. It seemed to be growing, fading in and out…
Elizabeth’s hand clutching his elbow brought him back to his senses. “Mr. Darcy, I pray you, sit before you fall down. One head injury is enough for the day.”
“I am perfectly well,” he said automatically.
She huffed. “In that case, even though you are perfectly well, would you be so kind as to sit down purely to relieve my anxiety? You would not wish me to suffer for your stubbornness, I am sure.”
How neatly she had trapped him. And how fortunate she had done so quickly, since the floor was showing a disturbing tendency to tilt under his feet. “Very well.” Keeping a steadying hand on the wall, he lowered himself to sit on the hearth.
“Thank you.” Elizabeth hesitated, then hurried away from the fireplace – not that there was far for her to go – and rummaged through a small wardrobe.
“May I assist you with anything?” It seemed polite to ask, though he doubted he could even stand up at the moment.
“No, thank you. I am simply looking for… oh, here they are. If you would not mind keeping your back turned for a moment, I would appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Darcy bit his lip so hard it hurt. Surely she was not changing her dress!
Fortunately for his sanity, she quickly rejoined him at the fire, still wearing the same dress. “Thank you. Now, if you do not object, I believe it would be wise for me to examine your injury while there is still light.”
As if he did not feel enough like an invalid already, having been rescued by the woman he was trying to forget! “I think it is unnecessary. The bleeding appears to have stopped.”
Her lips twitched. “I knew you to be a man of many talents, but your ability to see the back of your head is quite remarkable. Perhaps I misspoke when I said I should examine it if you do not object. If you do object, I still prefer to examine it.”
Trust Elizabeth Bennet to make him laugh in the most unpropitious circumstances. “Since you insist, Miss Elizabeth, I will do my best to comply with good grace, but I still think it unnecessary.”
“You may think whatever you like, so long as you allow me to check your wound. If you could turn away from the window so it is in the light – yes, just like that.”
He could feel her fingers in his hair, carefully parting it around the wound. The movement stung, but all he could think of was her touch. How often he had wished for her fingers to run through his hair! This was not the way he had hoped for, but still, she was standing so close to him, he could practically feel the warmth radiating from her.
“I fear the eyes in the back of your head have deceived you, Mr. Darcy. It is indeed still oozing blood. Do you perchance have a handkerchief I could use to clean it?”
Darcy reached into his pocket and handed it to her without a word.
“Thank you. I am sorry to put your fine linen to such a messy task. I will try to avoid hurting you any more than necessary.”
He was tempted to tell her it was too late for that. His inability to possess her had been a constant ache for over two months. In comparison, the gentle touch of her fingers in an open wound was nothing, and her concern was more soothing than he cared to admit.
It would be easy to allow himself to enjoy being cared for by Elizabeth more than he ought. He fixed his gaze on his drying greatcoat to distract himself. It had been joined by two long white stockings. Good God, she must have taken them off while he was gathering the snow! His imagination presented him with a tantalizing image of walking in while she was peeling those stockings off, one leg at a time. Wounded or not, he would have been delighted to offer his assistance, and then to…
“My apologies, that must have hurt. I will try to be gentler.”
It was a good thing she could not guess the true reason he had stiffened. No more thinking of her legs, which must be bare and cold under her petticoats. It would only be kindness to warm them for her.
He was almost grateful for the blinding pain that suddenly stabbed through his head.
“There, I can see it now. Fortunately, the cut is not large, although you have an impressive goose egg around it. I would guess the bleeding will stop with a little pressure. I have folded your handkerchief, and perhaps you could press on it here.” Her hand took his and guided it to the appropriate spot. “Very good. I will check it again in a few minutes.”
What would she say if he told her the touch of her hand on his was the best healing he could have?
“How did this happen? Were you set upon by footpads?”
He winced. “No. I was….” Devil take it, what had happened? Why could he not remember? The road to Meryton was a safe one, and it would have been broad daylight. Surreptiously he felt for his watch. It was still there, gold fob and all. Not footpads, then. They would not have left that behind. “I am not certain.”
Her eyebrows shot up, but instead of saying anything, she crossed to the wardrobe and returned with a threadbare quilt. As she draped it around his shoulders, she said, “It is hardly fashionable, but it should warm you a little.”
He should have declined, but the sensation of having Elizabeth worry over him was disquietingly pleasant.
Why had she not gone to the wedding breakfast at least long enough to fill her stomach? Apart from a roll and a cup of chocolate when she arose, Elizabeth had eaten nothing all day. “I had best see if there is anything we can eat here before the light fades.”
“That would be most welcome.”
At least he was being polite, even if he did keep staring at her. She began to rummage through the shelves and cupboards lining the wall. There was not much – a few items of simple clothing, a pair of shoes with holes worn through at the toes, a bag of rags. A shelf holding simples – dried leaves, flowers, bark. With a glance backwards to assure Mr. Darcy was preoccupied with the fire, she bit into a piece of bark, tasting the bitterness of willow. Excellent. She silently thanked the woman of the house. A cup and a wooden plate.
The last cupboard turned out to be the larder. Some onions, a cloth sack of oats and another of barley. None of that would help her. If only her mother had not been so proud that none of her daughters need learn to cook! At the moment, she would give a great deal for a few lessons from Cook. Half a loaf of bread so stale it would be given to the poor at Longbourn. Perhaps this one had come from another fine house. More onions. Could people live on onions alone? A few carrots, half a dozen wrinkled apples, and two turnips. She cast a glance at Mr. Darcy. The apples would do, but but she imagined he would have to be very desperate indeed to gnaw on a turnip.
At the bottom, half hidden under another sack, she discovered a piece of frayed cloth rolled into a bundle. She lifted it out and unwrapped it. Dried meat! That was a welcome surprise. She would hardly have expected a poor laborer to afford so expensive an item.
“We are in luck.” She showed Mr. Darcy her discovery.
“Indeed.” He picked up a strip and frowned. “Venison. Apparently our host is a poacher, or has a friend in the business.”
“You will not report him, will you?”
“I could hardly do so while taking advantage of the spoils, but it will go against the grain.” He glared at the offending item.
Elizabeth hid a smile. “Well, we shall not starve, but it will be far from the fare you are accustomed to, unless you happen to make a habit of climbing apple trees in winter to pull down the last wizened fruit.”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “It has been many years since I climbed an apple tree.”
“I observe you do not deny ever tasting the forbidden fruit! Mr. Darcy, you have hidden depths. We shall not perish from thirst, either, unless you object to drinking from a wooden cup. There is a keg in the corner which I daresay holds small beer.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “A veritable feast! Dried meat, wizened apples, and small beer.”
Who would have expected the stern Mr. Darcy to possess a playful side? She should be thankful for it. This situation was difficult enough without having to listen to complaints about it. Watching him feeding wood to the fire, she might almost think he was enjoying himself.
After filling the small kettle hanging over the fire with melting snow, she collected the substance of their meager meal and brought it to the welcome warmth of the hearth. “As there is only one plate and one cup, I fear we will have to share.” She watched him through her eyelashes, wondering how he would take this final bit of deprivation. If it troubled him, he showed no sign of it.
He offered her the cup so she might take the first sip. Why did he have to watch her as she set her mouth to the rough edge of the cup? She licked the last drop off her lip as she handed it back to him. “It is rather sour.”
“Only to be expected.” As he drank from the cup, his gaze remained fixed on her.
His look made her shiver. She had shared a cup with her sisters many times, but somehow this felt almost indecent, seeing him put his lips where hers had been, but there was nothing to be done for it. She looked away in embarrassment until the silence reminded her he could not begin to eat until she did, although it could hardly be called silence given the howling of the wind. She hoped the thatch of the roof would hold, or they would be in dire straits indeed.
Somehow he had managed to rearrange the apple slices so the best of the fruit was on her side of the wooden platter. Despite her hunger, she had to force herself to take one and bite into the soft flesh of it.
Once free to begin, Darcy attacked the remainder of the food with a healthy appetite, not hesitating in taking the most shriveled bits of apple.
“I am all amazement, Mr. Darcy. I would not have expected you to be so untroubled by our circumstances.” Perhaps the blow to his head had sweetened his temper.
“When one is sufficiently hungry, even the poorest fare can be appreciated. This is not completely unfamiliar to me. There is a small hermitage at Pemberley, no larger than this cottage, which I have turned into my personal retreat. Naturally the furnishings, though simple, are better and there is always sufficient coal and firewood, but it is similar. We are fortunate our absent hosts take good care of their property. I have seen cottages like this which would be very uncomfortable to occupy even for a few hours. Not at Pemberley, of course. I would not permit such a thing.”
“Of course not,” murmured Elizabeth, shaking her head in amusement. “You have seen the homes of your tenants?”
“Naturally. I would be a poor landlord if I did not, or if I could not recognize the signs of good maintenance. This cottage is tidy, clean, and well cared for.” He waved a strip of dried meat to indicate their surroundings, “There are no curtains at the window, but the walls have been well chinked to keep out cold air, and the chimney does not smoke. Apart from our host’s unfortunate tendency to help himself to his master’s game, he would appear to be a capable fellow.”
“Or his wife may be the capable one.”
“I will give her the credit for cleanliness, and her husband for chinking the walls. Of course, that may be of lesser importance here than it is in Derbyshire, where the winters can be bitter.”
“This is quite bitter enough for me!”
“I speak only in generalities, Miss Elizabeth. A storm like this would be a notable event even in Derbyshire. And it has been twenty years since anyone at Pemberley lived in a cottage of wattle and daub like this. The few remaining mud houses there are used only for storage.”
So Mr. Darcy was back on his high horse! She should be thankful they had managed a civil conversation for as long as they had. Once their simple repast was concluded, there would be no need for talking; they could each follow their own pursuits.
Their own pursuits… in a cottage lacking books, pen and paper, newspapers, or cards. No doubt there was mending to do somewhere, but not of a sort she was accustomed to, and certainly no embroidery. She had found only a small tallow candle, and that would shed little light. No, she and Mr. Darcy were trapped in a small room together with nothing to do but talk to one another for the entire night – and to attempt to avoid thinking about the ramifications of their plight.
A thought occurred to her. “Is Mr. Bingley returning to Netherfield?”
There was a pause. “I have no reason to believe he plans to do so.”
Poor Jane! “I do apologize. I did not mean to be impertinent; I simply could think of no other reason for you to be on the road to Meryton, but no doubt you have many concerns of which I am unaware.”
Darcy looked away before answering. “I wish I could tell you, but I cannot recall that either. I do not even know what day it is.”
How odd! Clearly he remembered who she was, so the memory loss could not be profound. “The ninth of January, three days after Twelfth Night. Does your memory go back to that?”
He frowned as he thought. “I recall Christmas and the New Year, but not Twelfth Night.”
“It has not been long, then. No doubt your memory will come back to you soon. It often does after an injury like yours.” She was more concerned about the wound itself than the loss of a few days of memory.
“What of you? What brought you roaming so far from Longbourn on a cold winter’s day?” It sounded somehow accusatory.
A good question. Had she any sense, she would have made for home after the wedding. “I did not start out from Longbourn, but from the church. Charlotte – Miss Lucas – was married there today. Afterwards, there was to be a large wedding breakfast at the inn, if you can call it a breakfast when it includes free ale for all the townsfolk. That is no doubt where our absent host can be found. I decided to take a walk because I did not wish to join the celebration, and I failed to notice how far I had roamed.” No need to mention her desire to avoid seeing Mr. Wickham dance attendance on Mary King at the breakfast, especially with everyone in town watching to see how she responded to it. He might not have broken her heart, but his quick loss of interest in her still stung.
“I am surprised you wished to miss your friend’s wedding breakfast.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “She and her husband departed from the church door, so she would not be there. He lives… he lives far from here.”
“It is unfortunate you will have fewer opportunities to see your friend.”
If only that were the case! “Not really.”
“Pardon me. I had been under the impression Miss Lucas was your particular friend.”
She would not have expected him to notice such a detail. “She is, or she was until she decided to marry a foolish man, sacrificing every better feeling for worldly advantage. I had expected better of her.” Why was she telling Mr. Darcy this? He disliked her, and could not possibly have any interest in her confidences. Perhaps that was why, and she had so longed to say those words aloud to someone.
“It is unfortunate, but that is the way of the world.”
“It is not my way! I cannot imagine marrying a man whom I could not respect, no matter how much he had to offer. I knew Charlotte’s opinions on marriage differed from my own, but that she should sink so low! I can never feel the same confidence in her as before.” The words seemed to hang in the air.
“How long have you been friends?”
She had said so much already; she might as well tell him all of it. “Since I was fifteen. She is seven years older than I, and like all girls, I thought older girls were wonderful and sophisticated. I was flattered she wanted to be my friend. But she has no sisters near her own age, and she is a clever woman in a household where cleverness in women is not appreciated, so she sought companionship in me. And now she is married to a man who cannot even recognize her cleverness!”
“Have you other complaints about her that you no longer felt you could trust her?”
She dropped her eyes. “No, only that.” But that was enough.
“I cannot imagine ending a long friendship because of my dislike for my friend’s wife. Is it such a sin to be married to a foolish man?”
“No.” It was true. If Charlotte had married Mr. Buscot, who could barely string two sensible sentences together, she could have forgiven her that. “Just this particular foolish man. I had mocked him often when I was with her, and….”
His silence was more of a question than words could be.
“And I had just refused an offer from him because he was such a fool.”
“That is embarrassing.”
“Indeed it is, and now she wishes for me to visit them! Can you imagine how awkward that will be, between with his incessant conversation and his anger at me for refusing him?”
“Highly awkward. Your friendship must mean a great deal to her if she still asked you to visit, putting your companionship ahead of her new husband’s comfort.”
“I suppose.” Yet Charlotte had risked her friendship to marry Mr. Collins. Had she not considered how uncomfortable Elizabeth would be with her choice? But it was not as if Charlotte had other choices if she wished to marry. No man had ever offered for her, and she was close to becoming a spinster. If she ever wished to be independent of her family, this was likely the only opportunity she would have. Still, to marry Mr. Collins? But Elizabeth could have forgiven her even that, if it had not also embarrassed her so mightily.
How humiliating that Mr. Darcy, of all people, could recognize what she herself could not! It was one more thing he could criticize her for. Of course, she suspected he would run a hundred miles from something which embarrassed him. And still he kept watching her!
To disguise her discomfort, she checked the kettle. The willow bark tea was still weak, but it might be helpful. She poured it into the wooden cup and handed it to him. “This may ease your discomfort.”
He sniffed it. “Willow bark tea?”
“At the moment I am happy to drink anything warm, even if it is willow bark tea.” He took a sip and made a face at the bitter taste. “Thank you for making it.”
“Tea is the only thing I know how to prepare. Cooking would be more useful to us now, but unfortunately it is not an accomplishment admired in young ladies. However, should you find yourself in urgent need of having a purse netted or a screen painted, I am at your service.” She remembered his extraordinarily long list of skills necessary for an accomplished lady, most of which she lacked.
“The tea is adequate, thank you. We must do the best we can in these surroundings. ” His eyes travelled down her body.
The weight of his critical gaze was more than she could bear. “Mr. Darcy, my hair is in complete disarray, my gown is ruined, my hands are red, and I am in the most unprepossessing surroundings possible. Surely it cannot take that much effort to find things to criticize about me.”
His words, when they came, were as icy as the air outside. “Pardon me. I meant no criticism.”
What did it matter? She would never see him again after tonight. She might as well speak her mind. “It was not what you said, but how you are always looking at me, trying to find fault in me. I have faults a-plenty, I assure you.”
“I fear you are mistaken. I do not try to find fault in you. I…” He stopped abruptly.
“Then why would you spend so much time watching me? Even Charlotte noticed it.”
He looked away. “It was simply out of… interest. Your…expressions are so lively and changeable I enjoy trying to guess what will come next, what witticism you might make. You do not feign indifference to everything as so many ladies do. I apologize; I meant no offense by it, and certainly not to embarrass you. Had I found you displeasing, I would have looked away, not at you.” To his credit, he did seem genuinely bemused by her accusation of looking at her only to criticize. Perhaps he even meant it.
“Oh. I had not realized…that.” She hoped the light was dim enough to hide her blush. Of course he had not looked to criticize; in the presence of someone like her mother or Lydia, he always seemed to look out the window. What had happened to her common sense? Apparently she might not have been pretty enough to tempt him at the assembly, but her expressions were intriguing enough to draw his notice. But he had asked her to dance at the Netherfield Ball. What was she thinking? Men like Mr. Darcy did not show interest in country girls with nothing in particular to recommend them. She must not read too much into his words, especially not under the circumstances.
He rose and stirred the fire, then placed another log on it. At least he did not appear to sway this time. “I wish I could build it higher, but then there would not be enough wood to last through the night. I will spread the bedroll in front of the hearth for you.”
“You are injured, and I will not have you attempting to take care of me! I am perfectly able to manage the bedroll, and you shall sleep on it. I will be quite comfortable sitting on the hearth. Besides, I would far rather freeze than have to face the responsibility of telling Miss Bingley I allowed you to perish from the cold.” Not that she planned to sleep, but there was no point in telling Mr. Darcy that.
He gave a snort of laughter. “Even though that dire fate may lie before you, I cannot permit it. My injury is minor, and I am still a gentleman.”
Men! Why must they always deny illness or injury, and take on tasks even a child could see they were unsuited for? Rather than argue, she took action, tugging at the bedroll to draw it nearer the fire. Who would have thought a simple bedroll could be so heavy? Was it filled with rocks?
Before she had managed to move it even a foot, Mr. Darcy appeared by her side. At least he did not tell her to stop, but instead pulled at it with her. Now it slid almost easily toward the fireplace.
Elizabeth watched as he wrestled with the ties preventing it from unrolling. He paused, muttered under his breath, then reapplied himself, without any apparent progress. Odd; it looked like a simple knot, and certainly the owner of the cottage would not want a major task untying it every night. Then she saw the tremor in his hands.
She leaned forward and placed her hand over his. He stilled instantly, then slowly turned to look at her. “Sir, I have great faith that under ordinary circumstances, you could tie and untie knots far beyond my ability, but these are not ordinary circumstances, and it pains me to watch your efforts. Pray permit me to make an attempt.”
For a moment she thought he would refuse, but then he stepped back without a word. Before he could change his mind, she reached past and quickly untied the bedroll. Free of its restraints, it unfurled with unexpected rapidity, nearly bowling her over. She staggered back, but strong hands caught her from behind. Fully unrolled, the bedroll stopped at the toes of her boots, and Mr. Darcy was at her heels, his hands still gripping her arms. Apparently his strength was less affected by his injury than his dexterity.
With a breathless laugh, she said, “I had not bargained for that. Feather ticks are simpler to manage. This adventure is proving educational.” Educational. She hoped that sounded cool enough to defuse the impropriety of her present position, able to feel a man’s warmth behind her while a bed lay before her. Why had he not released her arms?
“I apologize I was unable to manage it.” His voice sounded unusually hoarse. She hoped he was not sickening with a cold. That was all they needed.
She looked down pointedly at his hand on her arm, not that he would be able to see her gaze, and retreated into teasing. “I am sadly disillusioned. I thought you capable of any task set before you no matter how adverse the circumstances, and now I discover all it takes is nearly freezing to death and a blow on the head to render you occasionally in need of assistance. If it were not for the fact that building a fire is currently a more beneficial skill than untying knots, I might have to dismiss you as merely decorative and not useful.”
He peeled his fingers from her arms. “I do not believe I have ever been described as decorative before.”
“There is always a first time.” She slipped to the side, careful not to look at him as she spread the worn quilt over the bedroll. “There. I suspect that is the best that can be done. I hope you will be at least somewhat comfortable.”
“Miss Bennet, I cannot…”
She held her hand up to stop him. “Must we play at ladies and gentlemen even in these circumstances, when there is no room for either? You are injured; I am not, and neither of us is a fool. Pray, let us be practical. The pallet is for you.” It had been such a long day, with too many surprises. She did not have the energy to spare for this argument.
He was silent, his lips tight. At last he said, “Very well, but if we are to be practical and not bound by the rules for ladies and gentlemen, the logical solution is that we share the pallet. If we each stay to the side, there is room enough for both of us.”
“I cannot share a bed with you!”
“If I planned to take advantage of you, I could have done so at any point in these last few hours. If it will help, I give you my word you will be completely safe.” His face was pallid in the flickering firelight.
If she was too tired for this argument, he must be at the end of his endurance. The simplest thing would be to agree with his plan, then once he was asleep, she could escape to the safety of the chair. Yes, that was the best solution. “Very well.” She did not look him in the eye.
“Thank you.” He dropped to sit on the edge of the hearth, his exhaustion obvious, and gestured toward the pallet. “Whenever you please.”
The sooner he rested, the better, so Elizabeth began slowly unlacing her boots. It was a struggle to remove them, as they were tight over her bulky borrowed stockings, but finally her feet were free. Her hair was a more difficult problem. She could not lie down even for a few minutes while it was up, at least not unless she wished to have sharp hairpins jabbing her scalp. It would be a terrible mess by morning in any case. Resolutely she turned her back on Mr. Darcy, then removed the hairpins and plaited her hair in record time, without bothering to remove the ribbons braided through it. That was as much preparation for bed as she could manage without stripping down to her shift, and that was not going to happen.
She padded back to the pallet, pausing beside it to remove a piece of straw which poked through her stocking. “I promise I will never again take the smooth floors at Longbourn for granted!” she said drolly, but when she looked up, her mouth grew dry.
Mr. Darcy sat on a corner of the pallet in his shirtsleeves, only his waistcoat covering the fine linen. Frowning, no doubt at her shocked expression, he said brusquely, “My apologies, Miss Elizabeth. The current fashion in tailcoats favors style over comfort, and to be practical, it will be more useful as an extra layer to go over the quilt.”
Elizabeth swallowed hard. “Of course.” It was not as if her appearance were proper, either; she no doubt looked quite disreputable without shoes and with her hair in a plait. At least she need not worry about attracting the wrong sort of interest from him in her current disheveled state! “Perhaps I should check your injury once more before you sleep.”
To her surprise, he smiled. “I shall not waste my energy arguing, since you will no doubt insist in any case.” He turned his face away so the wound faced her.
“I am glad to know you are educable,” she said tartly, but she breathed easier without his dark eyes on her. Parting his hair with her fingers, she peered at the lesion by the dim firelight. “It appears to have crusted over, and no more blood is oozing out.”
“I hope you are satisfied,” he said dryly.
His hair was silky against her fingers as she released it. “I would hate to leave bloodstains on our absent host’s bedding.”
“Indeed.” He gestured to the side of the pallet between him and the fire.
Of course he would insist on her taking the warmer spot. Unfortunately, his gentlemanly act made it difficult to hide her flaming cheeks as she lowered herself into that space. This was without question the most shocking thing she had ever done, and with him in his shirtsleeves! It made her painfully aware of how near her own low neckline was to him, and she hastily tugged the quilt over her and up to her chin.
The scent of musk mingled with smoke as he spread his topcoat over her. It was an almost indecent intimacy, lying beneath his clothing. Squeezing her eyes shut, Elizabeth muttered, “I thank you.”
She felt his weight settling on the pallet beside her. How many inches lay between them? Despite his bold assertion that there was plenty of room for both of them, she knew it had been said only to ease her concerns. Like everything else in this hut, the pallet was no bigger than it needed to be. She tried to still her breathing, not wishing to expose her embarrassment. If only he would fall asleep, she could escape this position.
“Sleep well, Miss Elizabeth.” His voice was unusually gentle.
“A quiet night to you as well,” she muttered.
Darcy closed his eyes, knowing perfectly well that, despite his exhaustion, it would be insufficient to allow him to fall asleep only inches from Elizabeth Bennet. He did not even wish to sleep; that would mean missing this extraordinary experience. Naturally, he had done the only gentlemanly thing and turned to face away from her, but even his inability to see her did not lessen the impact of having her beside him. Despite his headache and his earlier confusion, the evening together had only served to draw him deeper into her thrall.
He had been Master of Pemberley for five years, ruling over tenants and servants, and dictating the use of the estate. But he had never felt so powerful as he had when Elizabeth confided her difficulties with her friend Charlotte. Even if he could do nothing to help, the mere fact she had trusted him so far was an unexpected gift. And her sweet persistence in caring for him could easily become addictive. At Netherfield, she had tempted him, but it was nothing to this.
The sound of her even breathing was like music. She was still awake, of course; no doubt it would take her some time to overcome her discomfort with the situation enough to fall asleep. But she was there beside him – Elizabeth Bennet, whom he had never expected to see again.
How strange it was that she, of all the people in Meryton, had been the one to discover him by the side of the road! It must have been a sign.
But that raised the ticklish question of why he had been on that road in the first place. There was nothing to draw him to Meryton; Elizabeth was the only person there whose presence would have tempted him, but he had already forsworn her. Had something changed? He could not imagine anything which would have made him suddenly decide she would be a suitable bride after all. That could not be it.
Perhaps he had gone on Bingley’s behalf, on some errand he could not even imagine. What could he do for Bingley at Netherfield? Nothing, and from what Elizabeth had said, he was not even on the correct road for Netherfield. It made no sense.
An involuntary smile curved his lips. Only one thing made sense, which was that Elizabeth was with him. That was just as it ought to be.
Elizabeth awoke with unusual stiffness and curled closer to Jane to share her warmth. But the body next to hers did not smell of Jane’s rosewater, but of wood smoke, wet leather, and something essentially male. Her eyes flew open, revealing fine white linen over a distinctly masculine chest. Good Lord! She was entwined with Mr. Darcy! If her heart pounded any harder, it might burst her chest.
She could not allow him to discover her in this utterly compromising position. She would have to remove his arm that surrounded her, holding her to his warmth, without awakening him. With the utmost care, she slowly raised her chin until she could see his face. And his eyes. Watching her.
Her throat constricted. Why was he looking at her in that manner? So intent, so serious, so…she did not even have words for it, but it made her feel quite odd. And he had not released her. What must he be thinking of her?
Sitting up so quickly it made her dizzy, she scrambled backwards away from him. The shock of cold air once she was a few feet from the hearth shook away any last vestiges of sleep, leaving her insides quaking over what had just happened. If anyone had discovered them, she would have been ruined or forced to marry Mr. Darcy. Which would be worse? At least he would be as invested in keeping the incident a secret as she was. He would not wish to be tied to a simple country gentleman’s daughter. But even if no one else ever found out, she would still know, and nothing would ever be the same.
With shaking hands she smoothed her skirts, though they were wrinkled beyond any hope of presentability. Even her plait had become partially undone, though her hair ribbons had miraculously stayed in place. Nell must have used glue to keep them from sliding out! She combed her hair with her fingers, then quickly twisted it into a simple knot, all the while refusing even to look in Mr. Darcy’s direction. She could not hope to play the part of a gentlewoman in her current condition.
“Have you any idea how delighted Miss Bingley would be to find herself in your shoes this morning?” Mr. Darcy’s deep voice from behind her made her jump.
She turned to discover he still lay on the pallet, though he was now propped up on one elbow. It was frighteningly intimate to see him so different from his usual formal self. Her cheeks grew hot. “I did not plan it. I was completely unaware of where I was.”
“I know that.” He sounded perfectly reasonable, as if this were a conversation about the weather over the breakfast table. “Although other women have tried, I cannot imagine you attempting to entrap me.” He held out his hand to her. Could he possibly be trying to invite her back to bed?
Her fingernails bit into her palms. “I have no expectations of you, beyond that you will never breathe a word of this to anyone.”
“You may depend upon my discretion, of course, but I know my responsibilities as well as you do.”
“Then I release you from those responsibilities. As long as no one knows we were both here, no harm has been done.”
He raised an eyebrow. “The fact you have been away overnight is damaging already.”
It did not matter whether it was true or not. She had no intention of being trapped in a marriage with a husband who regretted his choice every day of his life. “My fondness for long walks is well known, and no one would be surprised if I sought shelter until the storm passed. Most likely many people were stranded in Meryton by the snow. Everyone will assume I was one of them.” She turned away to signal the conversation was over.
Why was he so calm about the idea of marrying her? It made no sense. Either she must be dreaming or he was still suffering from the blow to her head. In his normal state, she had no doubt Mr. Darcy would be furious at being forced to marry an impertinent country nobody. He should consider himself fortunate to be with one of the few women who had no desire to take advantage of the situation. Good Lord, married to Mr. Darcy! Her shiver had nothing to do with the cold.
It was imperative they leave this place as soon as possible, preferably separately. Bracing herself for the chill, she approached the window. It was completely frosted over, allowing only a weak light through. She scratched at the frost, then blew on it to clear a peep hole. Her shoulders slumped at the sight of white clouds of snow still falling. Deep drifts of snow covered everything in the small area she could make out. There would be no escape from Mr. Darcy yet.
Puzzled, Darcy allowed his hand to drop. What was wrong with Elizabeth? Surely she understood what must be done. Why was she not pleased? After all, he was a finer match than she could have dreamed of making.
Ah, perhaps that was it. She understood only too well the gulf between their positions and how inappropriate it was for her to aspire to enter the sort of circles he frequented, and wished to spare him the embarrassment of making such a match. Dearest Elizabeth! What other woman would think of his position at a time like this?
He stretched like a satisfied cat, conscious of the empty space beside him which had once been Elizabeth’s warm body. He should have taken advantage of the opportunity to kiss her before she ran off. His lips still ached with the desire to do so. But it was no longer a hopeless desire. Once she overcame her skittishness, he could kiss her as often as he pleased – and it would please him to do so as often as possible. He smiled at the thought.
After all, fate was smiling on him today. Elizabeth Bennet was no longer out of his reach, and at the same time, no one could blame him for marrying so far beneath him. She had saved his life, and in doing so, hopelessly compromised herself. He was not degrading himself by proposing to her, but doing the only honorable thing. People would respect him for that, rather than laughing at his poor judgment in falling victim to the wiles of a girl far beneath him. They might still laugh at Elizabeth, but that would not matter. She would be his.
He pushed the tattered quilt away. Damn, but it was cold in this tiny place! His sleep-stiffened muscles protested as he moved to stir what little remained of the coals. Setting one of the last logs on top of it, he carefully nursed the flames to life. As he did so, a gust of wind rattled the small building. Apparently the storm had not yet spent all its fury.
“I take it the snow continues,” he said.
Elizabeth jumped at his words. “Apparently so.” Her voice was lifeless.
“No doubt it will die down soon,” he said reassuringly, though he was in no hurry for such an event. This cottage might be uncomfortable, but once they left it, he would have to surrender Elizabeth to the demands of propriety until such a time as they were married. He intended to enjoy this opportunity to have her to himself.
Elizabeth took one last look at the snow outside the window. There was nothing to do but to make the best of it. Rubbing her arms, she checked her pelisse. Still wet through. She would have appreciated its warmth, not to mention the extra distance it would allow between her and Mr. Darcy.
Since Mr. Darcy continued to lounge by the fire, it was difficult to avoid looking at him as she refilled the open kettle with the last of the water in the bucket, then hung it once again over the fire. She was almost becoming accustomed to the shocking sight of him in his shirtsleeves. After all, how could she be troubled by the sight of him in his shirtsleeves when she had slept in those shirtsleeved arms only a short time ago? A shiver travelled down her spine.
“Will no one think to confirm your story?” His voice took her by surprise.
“That you were stranded somewhere, presumably alone.”
“Most likely not, in all the chaos. Besides, even if someone learned you were here as well, you are the last man anyone would suspect of compromising me.”
“Why is that?” He had the effrontery to sound puzzled.
She gritted her teeth. Was he truly going to force her to say this? “Everyone already knows you do not find me handsome enough to tempt you.”
“Not handsome enough…Why on earth would they think that?”
His incredulity only annoyed her further. “Because you said so. At the assembly in Meryton where we first met. Pray do not attempt to deny it. I was there and heard you say it. My vanity easily withstood the blow of not pleasing you, but as it is not my favorite topic of conversation in the world, let us say nothing more of it.”
Mortified by her admission, she turned to the cabinet which served as the pantry and began to rummage through it, more to get away from him than out of hunger. It was bad enough to be forced to repeat what he had said, but she did not care to see the reality of it in his face. Truth be told, his slight still stung. There had been gentlemen who had shown no interest in her before, but none had ever spoken of her in such a manner to her face.
Searching through the cabinet was unlikely to reveal something new which had appeared miraculously since the previous night. Choosing two more apples and some of the stale bread, she dumped them unceremoniously on the plate in front of the hearth. If Mr. Darcy wished for something to drink, he could fetch it himself. She was not his serving maid.
Nor were her labors appreciated, apparently. He ignored both her offerings and herself, looking anywhere but at her. Had she actually managed to embarrass the proud and imperturbable Mr. Darcy?
“I did not mean it,” he said flatly, apparently speaking to the fire.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I did not mean it!” he snapped.
“What did you not mean? The offer to restore my honor? That is hardly a surprise.”
“Not that! I did mean that.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “What I said at the assembly. It was not true. I do not recall saying it, but if I did, I was most likely trying to get rid of someone who wanted to speak to me.”
Was he actually trying to apologize? It was more likely she was still asleep and dreaming. “Truly, sir, it is a matter of indifference to me.” She did her best to sound bored with the subject.
“Surely you know… After all, you were the only woman I asked to dance at the Netherfield ball.”
“What do I know?” She had moved from exasperation to bewilderment.
“That I found you too handsome for my peace of mind!” His gaze was more adversarial than admiring.
“Oh, come now. This is ridiculous! I do not know what you are playing at, but I wish you would stop.”
“You are not the only one to wish I would stop.” He pulled his overcoat around him and fastened the buttons. “Miss Bingley knew it, and she did not like it at all.” He stomped to the door and wrenched it open, letting a whirlwind of snow in.
“Where are you going? You cannot possibly reach town!”
“I am going to find a woodpile so we do not freeze to death today!” He slammed the door shut behind him.
Elizabeth shook her head in bewilderment. What a strange man! Did he think her so wounded by his words at the assembly that he needed to create such a story? It was ridiculous. Was he trying to mock her? She would have to ask Mr. Wickham the next time they met. He might understand what Mr. Darcy meant, and why her statement had made him so angry.
A shadow crossed beyond the window. She rubbed a spot clear again, enough to see Mr. Darcy, his arms wrapped around himself and his head bent down, slowly pacing the space near the cottage. Had she seen a woodpile when she had walked past the cottage the first time? She could not recall, and by the time they had reached its shelter yesterday, it would already have been blanketed in snow.
What if he found no wood? Her gaze flew to the hearth and the two small pieces of firewood remaining next to it. Those would not last long. It might be enough if the snow stopped soon, but if it continued, the cottage might become very cold indeed. She did not even dare think of the possibility the storm might persist until it was too late to depart. At this time of year, the sun went down early, and they could not leave without a good two hours of daylight left.
Darcy kicked yet another snowdrift as if his worst enemy lay behind it. Nothing under this drift, either. Devil take it, what kind of fellow would hide a woodpile? An idiot, that was it. Almost as much of an idiot as he was, to be stranded with Elizabeth Bennet in a storm. As he kicked away the snow again, he yelped in pain as his boot contacted something solid. Perhaps this was finally it! But when he bent to brush off the snow, he found only the paving stone that had tripped Elizabeth the previous day. Why had he ever returned to this miserable corner of Hertfordshire?
He trudged on, the ache in his toes reminding him not to take out his anger with his foot this time. How could Elizabeth possibly think he found her unattractive? He had thought himself so obvious, had worried about raising impossible expectations…and on the subject of impossibility, why in God’s name did she not jump at the chance to be Mistress of Pemberley? Any other woman would have been thrilled at the opportunity. What was the matter with her?
Her warm body had felt so right in his arms when he had awakened, at peace with himself for the first time in months despite sleeping in his clothes on a flea-ridden pallet of old straw. It had been a damned good thing he was fully clothed, or he might not have been able to resist the temptation she presented. He knew perfectly well he should not marry Elizabeth Bennet. It would be a mistake on so many fronts he could hardly begin to count them. Yet he had been pleased to have the decision taken out of his hands. She had saved his life, and he had repaid her kindness by compromising her. Marrying her was his duty under those circumstances, and he need not reproach himself for giving in to his attraction to her.
And she had refused to take him seriously! Even if they were fortunate enough not to be discovered together, did she truly believe no one would notice her absence? Ridiculous! The simplest solution would be to go straight to Mr. Bennet with the facts of the matter. But what was he thinking – he should be trying to avoid the marriage by any means at his disposal! Perhaps that blow to his head truly had addled his wits.
If only it had addled his eyes instead! Being so close to Elizabeth, he could not stop himself from admiring her. Her beauty shone through despite her dishevelment, and it drew him to her, the moth to her flame. And now he had as much as told her so. Would she try to use that power against him? Where was that damned woodpile?
Why was he even trying to find it? Without more wood, they would have to huddle together for warmth. He could feel his passion flare even as he stood in the raging snowstorm. But he could not do that to her. He would not take advantage of her vulnerability. And he would keep repeating that to himself until his gentlemanly impulses returned from wherever they were hiding. They were probably with that blasted non-existent woodpile.
He had made almost a full circuit of the cottage, but felt every bit as unsettled as when he had slammed out of the house before he did something foolish like show Elizabeth just how attractive he found her. The woodpile must be farther from the cottage than he dared go. In this driving snow, he could lose their way completely two dozen paces from his destination. That would not solve any of his problems.
The woodpile tripped him when he was only a few feet from the door. Blasted thing! He would have found it immediately, had he only started in the opposite direction. Even inanimate firewood was conspiring against his sanity today. He dusted the snow from his trousers and rubbed his aching knee, then began filling his arms with firewood. It was a good thing his servants could not see him now.
Elizabeth jumped up from the hearth when Mr. Darcy entered in a blast of wind, his arms full of wood and his head covered with snow. He took great care in setting the logs in a neat stack, then returned outside. Just leaving the door open that long had lowered the temperature inside the cottage substantially. If he had to make several trips, perhaps she should open and close the door for him to preserve what little heat they had.
He thanked her coldly for her assistance. After adding a third armload of wood to the pile, he stumbled and had to catch his balance on the mantel. Elizabeth started to hold out her hand to stop him from taking another trip, but she drew it back, not daring to point out he should not be undertaking such exercise.
But this time when he went out, he did not return immediately. Elizabeth waited by the door, peeking out to see if he was waiting for her to open it, but he was not, and the swirls of white covered everything beyond the doorstep.
Well, what do you think? Also, I’m looking for a couple of beta readers to read the final manuscript and give me feedback, so let me know if you’re interested.