I’m back in the saddle (my office chair) this morning after staying up late last night rereading the first 16 chapters of this story. Sweet Nicole Clarkston sprinted with me this morning so I could get chapter 17 completed. Thank you so much, Nicole.
In her news, please read her upcoming release “London Holiday” as soon as it comes out. The story is done and every single word is wonderful/magnificent/swoonworthy.
In my news, health woes continue for my family. In two days it will be two months since we returned from Ecuador. Since then, John has been at Urgent Care twice, I had an emergency CT-Scan yesterday for nasty kidney stones, and my Mom offered to sing to everyone in the operating room when she had her angiogram last Friday. She flunked her test, which disappointed her less than being told they did not want to hear her sing “I’m An Old Cowhand”. Can you imagine? We should find out tomorrow when we go back to the hospital.
So, without making you wait any longer, here is Chapter 17. (This story will be removed one week from the final post.)
The next week passed fairly quietly with Mr. Bennet spending long hours discussing literature and the current state of British politics with Darcy, Lord Matlock, Richard, and Elizabeth. His wounds were slowly healing which pleased Elizabeth. Therefore, it pleased Darcy as well. The minutes set aside for these lively interchanges was Darcy’s second favorite time of each day.
His favorite, which also opened his eyes to Jane Bennet’s value, was when Elizabeth’s eldest sister regularly suggested they meet in a small parlor behind the library for somewhat private conversation. Often, Bingley and either Darcy’s aunt or uncle attended them. Miss Bennet was a master at distracting both his friend and the Matlocks.
Because of her subtle, though beneficial, interference, Darcy vowed to increase Miss Bennet’s portion once he married Elizabeth. He also decided, after consulting with his betrothed, that Jane could stay with the soon-to-be newlyweds at whatever house they would occupy.
Miss Mary, who joined the group when they met in Richard’s sitting room, rarely participated in the conversation. Nonetheless, the silent communication between her and his cousin was obvious to the onlookers. The glances and nods passing between the two bore testimony to a growing appreciation. Elizabeth smiled at them often. Darcy discerned her pleasure in the relationship.
Mrs. Bennet, intimidated by Aunt Helen, remained in her room with her former housekeeper, suffering the misery of losing her home and possessions. According to her moans, her life ended when Mr. Collin’s knocked over the candle, then left without engaging one of her daughters.
While Miss Kitty was allowed downstairs on occasion, Miss Lydia had dug in her heels, refusing to associate with any of Netherfield Park’s residents until they understood how poorly they had mistreated her. Darcy was confident the Bennets could remain for the next six months and he would never set eyes upon the youngest Bennet, such was her rebellion.
Richard’s frustration with his limitations was difficult to watch. Doctor Stevenson came daily to offer care. Each day without fail, Richard inquired how much longer until he could put weight on his leg. Each day, the answer was the same—not yet.
On the eighth day since the fire, the fragile peace ended.
Lydia Bennet had been caught sneaking back into Netherfield Park by none other than her father. Refusing to volunteer her whereabouts, she finally admitted to strolling the gardens to relieve her boredom when said parent outlined consequences unheard of before at their former home.
Mr. Bennet balked. “Young lady, the sky is as dark as pitch and you have no candle to light your way. The hem of your skirt is covered in mud and your bonnet is askew.” He growled, “I demand you immediately tell me where you have been.”
Darcy, who witnessed the confrontation, was impressed when Elizabeth’s father hovered over his youngest, the veins standing out on the skin above his collar. Never could he have imagined passive Mr. Bennet as aggressive. However, aggressive he was.
“Very well,” she stomped her foot. “Lord, how ashamed I would be to not be married Like Jane and Lizzy—even Mary. Thus, I have been seeing to my future, something which has been of little concern to you, Papa.”
Jutting out her chin, she stubbornly ignored the signs of growing irritation by the parent confronting her. “As I told Lady Matlock, I will be the first of my sisters wed.”
In a complete change to his countenance, Mr. Bennet dropped his shoulders and stepped back. What Darcy assumed was defeated acquiescence turned out to be a mere ploy. Miss Lydia apparently had the same assumption.
“Married? Have you found a man willing to put up with your silliness for a lifetime? I cannot begin to imagine anyone in our neighborhood who knows your character would be willing to attach himself to you.” Mr. Bennet taunted.
“You know nothing, Papa,” she now acted the aggressor. “My George returned this morning from an important assignment for the militia that took him all the way to Kent. He had another mission for the colonel to travel quickly to Scotland but asked that I meet Mr. Denny tonight to receive a note he was leaving for me.” She sighed. “My George is handsome enough to tempt me and tells me I am the same to him.”
George? Kent? Scotland? It could not be Wickham, could it? He had been gone from Hertfordshire since shortly after Richard’s injury.
“By the by, Mr. Darcy. I was disappointed to find the note was not for me, but for you.” She pulled a folded parchment from her pocket. “Mr. Denny told me it was top secret and I needed to get it into your hands as soon as possible.” She snorted. “I believe it is possible, is it not?”
“Lydia Bennet, you will…”
Darcy no longer heard. His suspicions that George Wickham had again reared his ugly head were confirmed when he read the name on the outside of the missive. He recognized the penmanship as George’s.
Leaving the two Bennets in the hall, he ran to Richard’s room. Fortunately, he found his cousin alone.
“Good God in heaven, Darce, you look like you have seen a ghost.” Richard teased.
Holding up the paper in his hand, Darcy uttered the one word sure to cause alarm, “Wickham.”
“Read it,” the colonel demanded as Darcy ripped open the seal.
Giving the note a cursory glance, certain words jumped out at him, making his stomach churn and his heart beat faster than a galloping horse. Lady Catherine. Niece. Georgiana. Scotland.
His stomach landed at his feet as anger, unlike anything he had ever known before, shot through him like lightning bolts.
Your aunt, Lady Catherine, was horrified to learn you have attached yourself to a country miss from Hertfordshire. Imagine how interested she was, and I was in fact, in your marital prospects especially should they happen before your sister’s next birthday.
Deciding to aid Lady Catherine in her efforts to obtain and control the fortune of your dear sister, I humbled myself to the idea of welcoming your aunt’s authority once Georgie and I wed. We will reside at Rosings Park.
Therefore, you can release the Bennet chit from her painful attachment to you for you or Richard no longer need to marry before January. So, I am actually doing you a favor, one I expect to receive recompense from when next we are in company.
Imagine having Georgiana as Mrs. George Wickham. I am all astonished at my good fortune.”
Your devoted new brother,
“Find him.” Richard threw back the blankets and swung his legs around until his feet hit the floor.
“No!” Darcy rushed to his cousin’s side before he could put weight on his injury. “I will pack and leave immediately. If he is on horseback, he has a head start which will be difficult to overcome. However, I cannot see him riding through the night as I will do.”
“Yes, Wickham always looks to his own comforts. He will be tucked safely in bed trusting your reputation and habits of taking the safe course will prevail. He will not expect you to catch him until his return from Gretna Green when he will desire nothing more than to gloat over his success at thwarting you. Stop him, Darcy.” Richard’s fists pounded ineffectively on the covers. “Would that I could ride with you.”
“I would wish nothing more. I am off.” Leaving the missive in his cousin’s hands, he rushed to his room to instruct his valet and order his cousin’s horse be readied. The mare would not balk much with an unfamiliar rider once she realized the commands were the same. She could outlast any other horse in Bingley’s stable, including his own.
Not wanting to leave without saying his goodbyes to Elizabeth, he moved quickly to her room. She answered his brisk knock.
“Sir, you are not well.” Closing the door behind herself, she stepped into the hallway. “Pray, can I help?”
He adored her.
“I am leaving in chase of Wickham who is threatening Georgiana’s safety. I do not know when I will return, Elizabeth.” Looking at her closely, he impressed her lovely features into his mind’s eye. Readying herself for the night, her hair was down. He could not keep his fingers from capturing one of her curls. Soft.
“Then go. Do not tarry.”
This kiss was a promise—a confirmation or guarantee of a future together. With one final glimpse, he turned and fled down the stairs. Donning his heaviest greatcoat and gloves, Darcy mounted Richard’s horse and was off.
Conflicting emotions warred inside him. Bitter hatred and disgust with Wickham, frustration with shameless Miss Lydia Bennet, and tender appreciation for Elizabeth. Her unhesitating encouragement for him to pursue the correct course at the expense of time spent courting was a testimony to her superiority. He would be proud to have her for his bride.
A sliver of moonlight peered from behind heavy clouds. He was fortunate the rain was not falling. Heading due north, minutes and then hours sped by. They stopped only for needed rest. As Darcy warmed himself before a fire, the horse enjoyed a rubdown by the stable’s groom. Had the night been lighter, their pace would not have been slow. Yet, with each step, they were drawing closer to their quarry. Wickham would pay for this!
Elizabeth tapped on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s door early the next morning, unsurprised when his Batman reported the man had been awake for hours. When she stepped into the room, the man remained.
“Sir, I cannot help but fear for the situation. Do you have information to ease my concerns?” Elizabeth sat next to him, her words cautious to protect Georgiana.
“Do not worry that Sergeant Simmons will speak freely. He knows of Wickham’s offenses against the Darcy’s and despises gossip.” Richard reassured her. Then he handed her the note.
After she read it in its entirety, she asked, “Why does he hate Mr. Darcy?”
“How much as Darcy shared with you of their past?” the Colonel inquired.
“Very little. In fact, it was only his reaction at seeing Mr. Wickham standing in the drawing room here that clued me into their strife with one another. I know no details.”
“Then, settle in comfortably for the tale is long and sordid.”
Darcy’s cousin rubbed his hand over his mouth and looked away from her. Then, he began.
By the time he finished speaking of childish rivalries and moved into their adolescence, Elizabeth had a sick feeling growing in her stomach. This would not end well. When the colonel detailed the envy possessed by the son of Pemberley’s former steward against the heir, her own ire flared against Mr. Wickham. She wanted to cry when he spoke of the interrupted elopement and the pain Georgiana was continuing to suffer from her heartbreak and embarrassment.
“Would I had your sword, Colonel Fitzwilliam. I would follow Mr. Darcy on your fastest horse and join him in his battle.” The desire for physical action burst inside her.
He chuckled. “I am confident you would be fierce.” Clearing his throat, he continued,” Since you are soon to be my cousin and I already think of you informally, pray call me Richard and your intended William as the rest of the family does. Well, with the exception of Aunt Catherine who calls him Fitzwilliam and calls me Fitzwilliam too.”
Relaxing a mite, Elizabeth agreed. “Please, share the details of the chase if you would. My mind has already imagined the worst. Anything you tell me will be a relief.”
“We are approximately one-hundred fifty miles from Pemberley. From Pemberley to Gretna Green is another one-hundred fifty miles. That is three-hundred miles of hard riding for anyone making the trip. Wickham spoke with Miss Lydia this morning and, we assume, apparently left immediately. Unless Aunt Catherine gave him the funds to hire a carriage, he will be on horseback, which means his potential for progress is greater.”
“Despite this, you have confidence in Will…William?” Elizabeth liked the feel of his name on her tongue.
“I am both confident in Darcy and Earl.” The colonel nodded.
“Earl? Did your father accompany William?” Elizabeth was puzzled. She understood from Lord Matlock’s comments when Mr. Wickham had entered Netherfield Park that he knew the man. Nonetheless, he appeared to be more a man who relished a good debate to a hard ride over the shires in the darkness.
“My father? No, he is in his room as far as I know.” Richard chortled and so did the Sergeant. “Earl is my horse.”
“She is not a mare then?” Elizabeth had not made the effort to peek underneath to determine the horse’s sex as it meant nothing to her at the time. However, she recalled clearly being introduced while in the stable to the colonel’s ‘only lady love’.
“Oh, yes. She is a female in both form and attitude. Darce will have his hands full taking control of the second stubbornest creature of my acquaintance.”
She laughed. “And, the first?”
“My father the Earl of Matlock, of course.”