[Note: This story begins what is a series of three short stories taking us from failed proposal to acceptance. The second story in the series is “Just Three Words” and can be found on the next page of this ebook. The third story, “With My Whole Heart,” follows after that.]
“Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.” Darcy turned to leave.
Elizabeth saw the hunch in his shoulders and the slight shake of his head. Was he deriding himself? Had she truly heard pain behind his anger? Her emotions threatened to overcome her, and without a thought, she called out to him.
“Wait. Do not go. I have been abominably rude and have no excuse to plead, save my indisposition.” She sat heavily in a chair and dropped her head into her hands. She tried to rub the pain away.
“You are unwell.” He was at her side in an instant. His manner full of concern as if the horrid things she had just said to him had not occurred.
“I am…” She rose and hurried toward the door, the nausea was starting, and she did not wish to embarrass herself in front of him. “Please, wait. I shall be but a moment.” She clutched her stomach and ran out.
Darcy halted his pacing when she re-entered the room. She was sure her face was paler than it should be for he was immediately at her arm assisting her to a chair and asking if he should call for assistance.
“I should go. You clearly need rest, and I am keeping you from it. I could ride for the doctor before returning to Rosings if you wish.”
“Mr. Darcy, please sit down. Your nervous pacing is making me feel quite faint. I assure you my affliction is nothing out of the ordinary.”
“But you are sick. You have a headache, and I assume from how you left, your stomach is also unsettled. You are in need of care.”
If she were not so on edge, his concern might have been more enduring, but as it was, it was merely irritating. “Mr. Darcy, sit down.” Her tone was curt, and he immediately complied looking at her warily. “Sir, I do not wish to be indelicate, but you do have a sister so I assume you are not completely ignorant of the fact that at certain times a lady suffers from a particular indisposition. For some fortunate souls it is a trifling matter. Unfortunately, I am not one of the fortunate. There is no need for concern.”
He visibly relaxed as she spoke.
“A small glass of wine and a warming brick for you back might ease your discomfort.” He spoke is a soft soothing voice. “Might I call for them?”
She smiled at him. She could not help it. How was it that this man whose presence could fill any room could be so obliging? This man, this sweet, pleasing man disagreed with the man she imagined him to be. This was not the man she had accused him of being.
“Thank you. Your help would be most welcome.” She waited while he arranged for her care. He pulled a footstool close for her use. Then, he took the quilt which hung on the end of Charlotte’s chaise and draped it over her legs.
“Georgiana insists that warmth helps, unless it is summer, and then warmth merely adds to her misery,” he explained.
“You must be a very good brother.” Elizabeth tucked the blanket around her waist.
“I wish I could say I am, but I fear I have failed her on more than one occasion.” He walked to the door and stood looking down the passage way.
“Surely you are too hard on yourself.”
“Do you think me incapable of failure?” His voice held a hint of anger. “I should think you would find me more than proficient in it.”
“I am sorry. I have, I fear, accused you unjustly.”
He lifted an eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest. Leaning against the door frame, he waited for her to continue.
“I should have asked you about my concerns rather than racing to unfounded conclusions. I am ashamed to say at times such as these, my temper often gets the best of my tongue and together the two can cause much damage.”
He pushed off of the door frame and moved into the room as a servant arrived with the wine and warming brick. “Place it on the small of your back, if you can, and sip the wine slowly. I would lower the lights to ease your headache, but for propriety’s sake, I dare not. If you feel the need to close your eyes, I will understand.” Again his voice was soft and soothing.
She shook her head. “You, sir, are an enigma. I truly cannot make out your character. One moment you are lofty in manner ordering and directing the lives of those about you and the next you are solicitous and gracious. You are a contradiction.”
“Does not every person have two sides? The side that is for public display and duty, and a side that is reserved for those closest to you?” He pulled a chair a bit closer to her. “Must they be contradictions? May they not be complimentary, one supporting and balancing the other? Are you the same in all situations?” He settled back into his chair and fell silent, waiting for her reply.
Elizabeth took a small sip of her wine as she considered his questions. “I had not thought of it so. I will grant you might be correct in your assessment, though I believe the two need not nor should be exclusive of each other.”
“Perhaps you are correct.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “You may have uncovered yet another one of my faults, a failure to be all things to all people.”
“I did not mean…” Her words dropped away as she saw the small smile which pulled up the corners of his mouth. She dropped her gaze to her glass. She had yet again misjudged him. She had not thought him capable of teasing. Had Miss Bingley not said he was not to be teased? She felt her face flush as she thought it. Had she truly expected Miss Bingley to be forthcoming with information. Foolish girl! She had told Jane not to trust Miss Bingley, yet here she sat evaluating another based on that woman’s words. She heard a soft chuckle beside her.
“Forgive me, I should not tease when you are unwell. Georgiana scolds me for doing so.”
“You must love her very much,” Elizabeth spoke softly. Perhaps Miss Darcy was not as Wickham had said. Her brother seemed to defy that man’s every word with his graciousness to her after having been so abused by her mere moments ago. Oh, why must she come to these realizations at such a time as this! She blinked to keep from crying.
“I do. She is all I have left of those who are dear to me save for my cousin and his mother.”
“What is she like?” Elizabeth inquired.
As he spoke of Georgiana, suddenly, the man before Elizabeth…the gentleman who filled the room with his presence, who commanded respect from all who he met….crumbled away, replaced by the image of…a person ─ not all so different from herself. She saw not his wealth, nor his connections, nor his authority. She saw him ─ a son, a brother, a cousin, a nephew, and yes, a master. All heavy responsibilities he shouldered by himself.
“I nearly lost her last summer.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “It was my own doing. Had I been more attentive or had I been more willing to bear her displeasure, it would not have happened. But as I was both too willing to please and too occupied with my own concerns, she was nearly convinced to runaway with a man with whom she fancied herself in love. She had known him for years and trusted him because of her history with him. He was not, however, in love with her but with her money. He broke her heart, which in turn broke mine.”
Elizabeth could not keep all the tears from falling. She wiped at them quickly. A niggling suspicion crept into her mind. Mr. Wickham had claimed to know the Darcy family for years. Such a disappointment to his fortunes must have left him bitter. “It is how he lost your good opinion forever.” It was not a question, but a statement of understanding.
“I shall not ask you about him again. I am ashamed I ever believed a word he said.” She wiped again at her eyes with the handkerchief he had handed her.
“He is a pretender, a liar and a cheat. Many have been taken in by his tales. Please do not berate yourself because of it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy. But, I must allow myself to feel the full measure of my shame, so I might not be so easily led in the future.”
He nodded. “I am not presently capable of speaking of him with equanimity, and I do not wish to speak unfairly. However, I would not refuse to speak of him in the future if you still have questions.”
“You are too good, sir!” Did he still offer friendship by speaking of the future? She was uncertain why such a thought made her so pleased, but it did.
“No. I assure you I am not.” His voice was hard. “I…” He paused. “I have done as he did. I have broken your heart by breaking the heart of a dear sister. Though my motives may have been different, the result is the same. It is inexcusable.” He bowed his head in shame.
“You are most heartily wrong.” His head snapped up, his eyes piercing hers with their intensity. “Did you plan to take advantage of my sister’s caring nature, sir?”
He blinked. “Of course not!”
“Did you think her irrevocably attached to your friend?” Charlotte’s admonition for Jane to make her feeling more apparent played in her mind.
“I did not.”
“You feared his attachment was greater than hers?”
“Did you fear she saw only his wealth?”
“I could not do her such a disservice.”
“But, my mother…” Elizabeth looked away, the tears were once again threatening. “She is indecorous at times.” He said nothing, his silence affirming her fears. “My father does little to curb her displays or those of my sisters. What respectable man would wish his friend attached to such a family!” This was not the well-reasoned argument she had planned. She fought to regain her composure. “Your actions in such a light do you more credit than harm.”
“But they still did harm ─ far more grievous than one could imagine. Not only have I deprived my friend of a worthy woman and in so doing broken the hearts of two ladies, I find it has also resulted in the shattering of what remained of my own.” He stood. “But it is no more than I deserve. I shall leave you now.”
He turned to look at her.
“Please do not leave me so. I cannot bear being the source of such sorrow. Could we not try again?”
“Renew my addresses so you can accept me out of pity? I think not.” He shook his head but sat down once again.
“No, not pity.” She shook her head in bewilderment. “I do not know what it is I feel, but it is not pity.” She looked at him, confusion clearly etched on her face. “Until this moment, I did not know you. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I viewed you through my prejudice. I allowed my pride to skew every thought. Would you..” She placed her hand on his arm. “Would you allow me the opportunity to become acquainted with the Mr. Darcy you are instead of the one I had contrived?”
A mixture of hope and agony shone in his eyes. “Do I dare allow my heart to hope? My time at Rosings is at an end. How can you become acquainted with me if we are not together?”
“Oh.” Her hand flew to her chest.
“Are you well?”
“I do not know. My heart hurts at the thought of your leaving Rosings, but I do not know why.”
He smiled knowingly at her. “I shall give you all the time you need to become acquainted with me, Miss Bennet. May I call on you when you are in town?”
“Yes. I would like that very much.” Strange how the pain in her chest vanished!
He rose again to take his leave. “Do not rise to see me out,” he said before she could move. “My cousin and I will call before we leave on the morrow.” He placed his hat on his head. “Do you require anything?”
She shook her head. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy. Your assistance has already brought me much comfort.”
“Very well, until tomorrow then.” He bowed over her hand and gave it a quick kiss, smiling to himself at her quick inhale. He tipped his hat as he left the room.
Elizabeth sighed and closed her eyes. She was not certain, but she happily feared her heart was no longer her own.