April Showers bring May Flowers… and for Elizabeth Bennet, they might just bring romance, as well. On this particular April day, she has an unexpected (and stormy) encounter with Mr. Darcy…
“Odious, despicable man!”
Elizabeth Bennet flung herself out of the kitchen door and hurtled down the path, narrowly missing the watering-can and sending several chickens squawking and scuttling away as she advanced.
“Lizzie!” Jane Bennet hurried after her sister. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“Away for a walk, as far away from Mr. Collins as my feet will take me.”
Jane caught up to her. “You have turned him down?”
“Yes. I should sooner die a spinster than marry that pompous, self-important ass.”
“Elizabeth Bennet!” Mrs. Bennet emerged on the back doorstep and cast an outraged gaze at her daughter. “I will not abide such behavior. You will come back at once and apologize to Mr. Collins for your rudeness.”
“I’m sorry, momma, but I shall do no such thing.” She turned to her sister. “I am very glad for you, Jane,” she added in a low voice, “for your attachment to Mr. Bingley has saved you from the worst of fates – being leg-shackled to Mr. Collins.” She reached out to squeeze her sister’s hand and turned away.
“Elizabeth!” her mother called after her.
But Lizzie paid no mind. She strode across the yard and followed the dirt path to the river, staying to the bank until she was sure she’d left Longbourn behind her. Fury propelled her forward. As she climbed up the bank a quarter of an hour later and made her way across the field, the hem of her dress was muddied and her mind roiled with thoughts of injustice, mutiny, and outrage.
Thank heaven her father was as wise and sensible as her mother was foolish and flighty. For he understood when she told him she wished to follow her heart, and agreed that she should settle for nothing less than love…no matter the consequences. If not for her father’s good sense and her sister Jane’s understanding she should go quite mad.
So wrapped in black thoughts was she that she scarcely noticed the rapidly darkening sky. Only when the wind began to whip at her skirts and the first drops of rain struck her face did Lizzie realize a storm was upon her. There was no time to turn home. Her best – indeed, her only – option was to hurry apace to Netherfield Park, the neighboring estate, and seek shelter until the storm passed.
She arrived sometime later, quite drenched, and lifted the knocker. Her summons was answered and a footman ushered her into the drawing room.
Mr. Bingley rose to his feet. “Miss Bennet! Do come in. What an unexpected pleasure.”
“My apologies for the intrusion.” She glanced past him to see his sister, Caroline, and sketched a curtsey. “Miss Bingley. I was out walking. And the storm…”
Mr. Bingley smiled at his guest. “Summer storms are quite capricious, are they not? We were just preparing to sit down to luncheon. Please say you’ll join us.”
Lizzie flushed and glanced down at herself. “That’s very kind, but I’m hardly fit for polite society at the moment.”
Caroline condemned her muddied skirts and bedraggled hair with a cool glance. “Indeed,” she murmured.
“Whatever is the matter?” a peremptory male voice behind Caroline inquired. “Is no one joining me in the dining room? The table is deserted, and I find myself quite alone, contemplating the cold and unflinching eye of a fish-”
As he caught sight of the young woman standing alone, damp and windblown in the great hall, Fitzwilliam Darcy broke off. “Miss Bennet.” He executed a stiff bow.
“Mr. Darcy.” Her curtesy was equally stiff.
After a moment’s silence, Bingley said jovially, “What say you, Miss Bennet? Can I not convince you to join us?”
“I thank you most kindly for your gracious invitation, Mr. Bingley,” she said as she turned away from Darcy. “But I must decline. I see the storm is ended, so I will trouble you and your guests no further. I should return home before my mother and my sisters start to worry.”
“But I cannot in good conscience allow it,” Bingley objected. “The fields are sodden and the sky threatens yet more rain.”
Elizabeth parted her lips to voice another politely-worded protest, but Mr. Darcy saved her the trouble.
“If I promise to send word to your family and let them know you are here, and safe, Miss Bennet, will that settle your determination to leave?”
After a moment’s hesitation she nodded, and the thing was done.
Over luncheon, Bingley regaled his guests with tales of his most recent trip to London. Although Elizabeth fixed an expression of polite interest upon her face, she attended only to every third word he spoke. For despite his lively accounts of the numerous routs, assemblies, and balls he’d encountered in the city, the fact that his friend Mr. Darcy said little did not escape her notice.
He listened to the conversation; he nodded, and, when appropriate, even managed to produce a fleeting smile or two. But he did not address her. As the soup was removed and replaced with turbot, Elizabeth felt Darcy’s silence most acutely.
His reticence stung.
Did he not think her worthy of notice? Yet he had noticed her. Every time she lifted her gaze from her plate or risked a glance at him over the rim of her wine glass, his eyes were upon her. Why, then, did he not speak?
“How is your sister, Mr Darcy?” she ventured as the conversation waned.
“Georgiana is well, thank you.”
She picked up her fork. “I am glad.”
“And Lady Catherine?” she persisted. “She is also well, I hope?”
“Yes. She is in excellent health.”
Dear God, Elizabeth thought with something akin to desperation, why must conversation with Darcy always prove to be such a trial?
“How do your father and mother and sisters get on?” he inquired as the silence once again lengthened.
“They are all doing very well. Tell me, Mr. Darcy,” she added, determined to leave the topic of familial health and wellness far behind, “are you fond of walking?”
He regarded her in surprise. “I – yes, I suppose I am. I like it well enough.”
“I love to walk above all things. And to read.”
He raised his brow. “But not at the same time, one presumes.”
“No.” She suppressed a smile. “Were I to do so, I fear I would soon make the acquaintance of a tree.”
Although he did not smile – no, never that! – Darcy relaxed his countenance into an expression that was nearly pleasant.
“I see the sky has cleared and the sun is out,” Caroline observed. “Perhaps when luncheon is finished, we might all go for a walk, and escort Miss Bennet back home.”
“What a splendid idea!” Bingley exclaimed. “That is just what we shall do. Perhaps we shall see your sister Jane when we arrive, Miss Bennet.”
She smiled. “I have every expectation that we will.”
An hour later found the group strolling across the fields to Longbourn. There was a great deal of conversation and laughter; alas, Elizabeth noted, these occurrences took place between Bingley and his sister, leaving herself and Darcy trailing behind in awkward silence.
“I fear that Bingley has formed an attachment to your sister,” Darcy said at last.
Elizabeth came to a stop and turned to face him. “And why should that possibility trouble you?”
“Why? Because I do not believe his feelings are returned.” His expression was forbidding. “And I have no desire to see my good friend hurt.”
“As I have no desire to see my sister hurt,” she retorted.
“Excellent. Then we understand one another.”
“No, Mr. Darcy, we do not.” She clenched her hands at her sides. “I fear I will never understand you. You are difficult to know and impossible to like. That you should assume to know my sister’s heart in such a private matter as this is both arrogant and – and misguided!”
With that, she turned and stormed away, her thoughts at sixes and sevens as anger lent speed to her steps. And so it was that she failed to see the long, gnarled tree root snaking through the grass. Her foot caught and sent her sprawling. Elizabeth let out a cry as pain shot through her ankle.
As Bingley exclaimed and Caroline looked on in disapproval, Darcy rushed forward and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt, Miss Bennet?”
She bit her lip but could not answer, she could only nod.
“You cannot walk. I shall carry you the rest of the way.” His eyes, so unreadable, met hers. “If, that is, you have no objection?”
She nodded, and found herself swept up forthwith into Darcy’s arms. The singular unexpectedness of such an occurrence left her incapable of speech and turned her thoughts into a muddle. How could one both despise and admire a man with equal passion? It was most confusing.
“You are a puzzle,” she murmured as he strode ahead of the Bingleys.
“I assure you, Miss Bennet, I am not. There is no mystery about me. I speak as I find and protect those I love.”
“Then perhaps, Mr. Darcy,” she ventured, raising her eyes to his, “we are more alike than different.”
A smile – cautious, but still a smile – curved his lips. “Perhaps.”
And as he carried her back home to Longbourn, his arms strong and reassuring beneath her, saying little, Elizabeth found herself longing to remain in Darcy’s arms, forever.
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