“Officers!” Kitty and Lydia swooned in tandem, completely ignoring Lady Matlock’s fine counsel.
“Welcome to Netherfield Park, gentlemen.” Bingley moved forward with his arm outstretched, intending to welcome Colonel Forster and his men to his home.
“Wickham, you scoundrel. What are you doing with the militia?” Lord Matlock had finally looked closer at those newly arrived and identified the rascal who had caused his nephew and son a lifetime of grief and misery. “The last I heard you were hiding from debt collectors and several angry fathers who would see you dead or, even worse, married to their ruined daughters.” To the butler, he demanded, “Have footmen bring my son downstairs—now!”
“Colonel Forster,” Mrs. Bennet, slyly added her voice to the fray. “Did you bring your wife to Hertfordshire?”
“Richard is here? At Netherfield Park?” Wickham retreated quickly. “Excuse me, Colonel Forster. I suddenly recalled a pressing matter needing completion before I am free to enlist in the militia. If you do not mind, I will make my own way back to Meryton.” Bowing to the room in general, he fled.
“Well, I never…,” Colonel Forster huffed to no one in particular.
In the confusion, Elizabeth first felt Darcy’s tension radiating from his person and then sweet relief once Mr. Wickham left the room. As the others settled, she turned her attention to Jane and Mary. Jane was trying to ignore Mr. Bingley’s presence while surreptitiously studying his every gesture and expression, while Mary separated herself from Kitty and Lydia, moving to a distant part of the room.
When the footmen arrived with the Colonel, the mood of the room briskly transformed into order. No introductions were needed between the two colonels as they had known each other for almost a decade. Mr. Bingley provided the necessary protocol for the rest of the men. At Kitty and Lydia arguing over who would tend the needs of the wounded soldier, Mr. Bennet finally roused himself to act.
“Kitty, Lydia, do leave the poor man alone.” Their father looked at his wife. “Come, Mrs. Bennet, let us take these two misfits to the nursery where they belong.”
With three complaining females in tow, he retired upstairs, reducing the noise level exponentially.
“Well, well, well, who have we here?”
Elizabeth recalled a similar greeting when she met Colonel Fitzwilliam upon his arrival in Hertfordshire. She glanced to see who had captured his attention and was surprised to find, not Jane, but Mary as the focus of his address.
Her sister’s hesitant blushes were appealing as Mary wavered between basking in the unexpected attentions of a worthy gentleman and the reticence inherent to her nature.
Richard Fitzwilliam had the skills of a soldier determined to gather necessary information. Ignoring the other men in the room, he asked, “Miss Mary, by chance do you read German?”
“I do.” Closing her eyes and dipping her head, Elizabeth sensed her sister’s discomfort. Yet, she overcame her shyness long enough to have given a reply. Good for Mary!
“Might I have someone fetch the book Miss Elizabeth left on my side table carefully wrapped in a leather portfolio? If so, would you be willing to read a chapter to me? I would deeply appreciate the entertainment.”
The Colonel’s eyes pleaded for…for what, exactly? Whatever it was, Elizabeth was pleased for Mary. Already, Elizabeth knew him to be a good and honorable man.
Der Schweizerische Robinson! Relief rushed from Elizabeth’s head to her slipper-covered toes. When the maid entered the room to hand the book to the Colonel, Elizabeth almost burst into tears. Something precious survived the carnage at Longbourn.
“Are you well, Elizabeth?” Mr. Darcy whispered.
“I am merely overcome with the notion of what surprisingly had the strength to survive and grow and what I had assumed to be strong turning out to be weak.”
“You are speaking of people, not the book?” He asked.
Elizabeth looked at him, truly gazed upon the man who would soon be her husband. Weary lines and dark circles surrounded his eyes. His furrowed brow revealed his concerns, the utmost of which was her. That he endeavored to discern her meaning was worth more to her than diamonds.
“I am, sir.” Turning slightly towards him, their conversation would be unheard by others. “Mary is a mystery to most outside the family as she is, by far, the most complex of all of the Bennet girls. She can appear inconsequential as her tendency is to hide from a conversation. Yet, at a moment’s notice from your cousin, I see her step outside her inclination. I am very proud of her.”
“As you should be.” He agreed. “And the one who turned out to be weak?”
“Mr. Collins.” Elizabeth had no reason not to reveal her disapprobation. “He had everything to gain by helping quench the fire at Longbourn, yet he chose to pace under the tree, complain about the efforts of others to save his future house, and flap his worthless arms as he berated his lot in life. My sex could not possibly respect a man who does nothing for himself. For, how would we expect him to put himself forward on behalf of others if he does not do so for himself? I cannot imagine he would be a good spiritual shepherd to the flock under his care at Hunsford, can you?”
“Unfortunately, he is exactly as you have described. Nonetheless, you should know my aunt would expect him to be no different. It speaks to the negative aspects of her character that she willingly chose to gift him with the living and thus, the care for the needs of those in the parish.”
“Do you fear her coming to Hertfordshire?” The woman sounded as if she would be as uncaring of common sense as either Lydia or Kitty. The thought of having them all under one roof caused a shudder to race through her body.
“I am my own man, Elizabeth, and am beholden to no one on earth other than my sister and now you. Should she make the fifty-mile journey she shall meet with an immovable brick wall in the form of my uncle, my cousin, and myself.”
“Me too, I suppose.” Grinning at the metaphor, she knew where her position would be—at his side.
“Yes, dearest. You too.”
Her breath caught while inhaling. “I am your dearest?”
“You are.” His corresponding grin left her breathless. Where she had thought him handsome before, the glimpse of a dimple to the side of his mouth on his right cheek was endearing.
“You two need to recall there are others in the room.” Lady Matlock had approached unseen. Her whispered remonstration was well-deserved.
Time had passed while Elizabeth was enraptured by the man alongside her. Tea had been procured and served, Mr. Bingley and Jane were in cautious conversation, Lord Matlock and his son were sharing tales with the militia, and Mary was quietly sitting next to Mr. Darcy’s cousin, the retrieved book clutched to her chest. After Colonel Forster and his men departed, it was agreed to reconvene in the Colonel’s bedchamber for the reading of chapter three of Swiss Family Robinson.
By week’s end, Mr. Bennet had Darcy’s agreement he would establish the two youngest Bennets with the same headmistress used by several young ladies known to Lady Matlock who had gone into school as rebellious girls and departed the same classrooms as accomplished debutantes.
The depression that had started to settle on Richard’s shoulders was responding well to the comfort peculiar to Miss Mary Bennet. The two spent hours together, her sitting by his bedside with either his aunt or uncle as a chaperone. Within days, progress had been made with the story of the tropical adventure and how the Robinson family overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It appeared, from casual observation, that Richard Malcolm Fitzwilliam, soon-to-be Esquire, with his constant companion, was overcoming some mountain-like obstacles of his own.
“Darcy, how did you know you loved Elizabeth?” His cousin asked him when they had a moment of privacy. “Do not tell me you do not for it is as evident as the nose on your face that you see only her when she is in a room. You hear only her words, and you care for no one’s good opinion but hers.”
“I have no reason to deny your charge.” Darcy easily agreed. “I do love her with a depth I never thought possible.” Darcy sat back in the chair. “How did I know it was love? In truth, I was completely unaware. In fact, I was in the middle before I knew I had even begun.”
“You have no doubts? No fears?”
“I do not.” Darcy suspected his cousin was developing strong feelings for the middle Bennet girl. “I will confess, only to you, that I was at first determined to be displeased with everyone in Meryton society, including Elizabeth.” He chuckled. “Especially, Elizabeth. I attempted to place her so far below my rank that she would disappear from my view and my thoughts.”
“How did that work for you, Darce?” Now, it was his cousin’s turn to mock him.
“Not well at all.” He confessed. “With only a few conversational exchanges, she intrigued me and entrapped me until I was in her web, captive. However, before you think I am accusing her of trickery or using the mean arts we know females are capable of, she innocently curried my favor until I believe I am stating the God’s honest truth, I would have rushed into her trap even if she had not pointed the direction to go. My heart is her willing slave.”
“Do you not feel weaker for giving her this level of control?”
“Not at all.” Darcy mused. “I give her my heart and devotion most willingly. In doing so, in attaching myself to her, we, together, become a force I could never accomplish on my own. Rich, she makes me feel taller, stronger. I sense a fullness of myself, a completion if you will.”
“Then, you cannot believe you will have regrets for marrying so quickly?”
“I do not.”
“Pray, do not be angered by my next questions as I mean no harm. I merely seek knowledge to help me better understand my own situation.” The Colonel seriously pleaded.
“Do ask. I will not be angry, I promise.”
Richard cleared his throat. Then he looked his cousin directly in the eye. His voice never wavered.
“There are just over seventy days left until Georgie reaches the seventeenth anniversary of her birth. Might you be rushing into this marriage to satisfy your father’s requirements that one of us marry prior to that time? Might the thought of the loss of your beloved sister to Aunt Catherine have motivated you to become emotionally tied-up with Elizabeth quicker than you would have done without the codicil? Are you rushing to the altar, blinding yourself to the areas that concerned you when you first met her? Are you truly in love with her or are you telling yourself you are because she is the means to keep Georgiana with you?”
Darcy paused to give consideration to his cousin’s concerns. He was known to be a meticulous man who, as his uncle often accused him, thought over every decision to death. Had he done this with Elizabeth?
While the Colonel waited, Darcy carefully examined his own heart in light of Richard’s concerns. Eventually, he spoke.
“I see her flaws, and when I have not she has freely pointed them out to me. Yet, I do not want her to change. I can live with and adapt as I believe she can with me. I find I want to be a better man for her, although she has not once requested I change before she can be happy. Some of her sisters are uncommonly beautiful, as I know from you and Bingley. Nevertheless, I already feel a sense of loyalty to Elizabeth and have from the earliest moments of our acquaintance. I do not see other ladies. I see her. I do not want other ladies. I want her. I do not want to listen to the opinions of other ladies. I only want hers. I long to be in her company each minute of the day, Richard. I do not want to be left alone but I would rather be alone than lose her.”
“Then this is no infatuation?”
“I love her. I believe I always will.” Convinced of his own arguments, he excused himself. Desperate to find his beloved, he rushed from the room.
This time, instead of knocking her to the floor, his momentum caused her to drop the basket she was carrying. Immediately, she dropped to the floor as wiggling, complaining masses of fur emerged from the spilled wicker container.
“Puppies?” He was so stunned he forgot his purpose. “You are…hiding a litter from Bingley or you are putting them back?”
Her eyes, so overwhelmingly beautiful, sparkled with mirth blended with concern.
“I am not pilfering pups, no matter how it appears to your jaded eyes, sir.” Attempting to corral the three squirming whelps, she smiled. “Papa’s book was not the only survivor of the fire. Kitty had brought them to her bedchamber when she found out they were destined for other estates once they were weaned. Papa was insistent while Kitty was determined the three stays together. She may be silly, but her heart has a special tenderness for anything with four legs and a tail.” Halting her efforts, she placed a plump little boy in her hands while she plopped another boy into the basket and grabbed the little girl trying to make a run for it down the hall. “Can I keep them?”
“Yes.” What? Pemberley had more dogs than they needed because his sister was very much like hers. They also had a plethora of kids, calves, and lambs who grew into adulthood bearing odd names with a guarantee they would never grace anyone’s table as the main course. Before he could clarify his need to change his mind, she threw her free arm around him and squeezed, with puppies and all.
“This is exactly why I will adore you, sir.” Briefly, she rested her head on his chest. “I see your heart clearly and I love everything I see.”
“You love? Me?” He just had to ask. The puppies in his arm, along with the one currently pressed against his middle, were forgotten.
“Yes, I love you. I would not have agreed to marry you if I did not.” Lifting the wicker container, she shifted her puppy to its interior. Dropping a quick kiss to his cheek, she plucked his puppy from him and dropped it back into the basket as well. Elizabeth gave him no more notice as she sauntered down the staircase to take their new charges to the barn.
Elizabeth loved him! She wanted puppies, she could have puppies.