Darcy’s eyes slammed shut with the first eastern bend in the road after daybreak. The glare of the sun combined with the grit stemming from the dirt surface and tiredness hurt. The long night had been fruitless, and he felt the disappointment with his whole body.
Earl had performed as expected. Like Darcy, the horse refused to quit despite not a hint of George Wickham.
If Wickham stayed with his habits, he should be rising soon to break his fast before beginning his travel on the road north. Once Darcy finds him…
All night Darcy considered what he would do when confronting the rogue. His response ranged from shooting him before Wickham could open his mouth to shooting him once he gave a full explanation.
When he was not thinking of him, Darcy’s mind automatically veered towards Elizabeth. Now, that was a pleasant thought. She was his bright light of hope and he missed her more than he could have imagined.
She would have teased him into a calmness he would not be capable of finding on his own. He chortled, startling Earl. Yes, they were both weary.
Uncle Hugh comparing Elizabeth with Anne Darcy had been a revelation. Upon reflection, he should not have been caught unawares. Easily recalled were the many times his father had spoken of his courtship and marriage.
His father, Mr. Gerald Darcy, Esquire, had at first overlooked the former Anne Fitzwilliam, grouping her with the other unattached fortune-hunters on the prowl for a wealthy mate. How he paid for his inattention later! Darcy could not contain his smile.
Uncle Hugh had been correct. His youngest sister snubbed her nose at Gerald Darcy, not because he was untitled, but because she believed him to be the most boring man on the planet. However, the second time they were in company, they began to look at each other quite differently. According to his father, it took less than a quarter-hour of conversation on that second occasion before his eyes could look nowhere else. Lady Anne filled the room, his vision, and his heart. He was captured, willingly surrendering to a love that never faded during the almost fifteen years they had together before her death.
Admitting he was more like his father than he had thought, Darcy relished the dreams of having Elizabeth permanently by his side. Without effort, images of them saying their vows in a stylishly decorated chapel, hovering over their first child’s cradle as he or she slept, fighting tears when their eldest son left for Eton, and becoming grey with advancing age passed through his mind.
Earl stopped, catching Darcy by surprise.
Darcy shook the pictures out of his head as he scanned their location. They had reached the White Stag Inn, one of his normal stopping places between London and Derbyshire. The activity in the yard bespoke of busy travelers hurrying to unknown locations. Checking a group emerging from the heavy wooden door, he hoped to find his nemesis. None of them were Wickham.
Dismounting, he handed Earl to a waiting groom and stepped inside. The questions were the same, did you see a man matching George Wickham’s appearance? Did he stop here or, by chance, stay here? The answers were always the same. No one had seen the man.
Confused at Wickham not stopping throughout the course of the night, Darcy’s tired mind filtered the possibilities until he settled on the only situation that could have explained Wickham’s invisibility—Lady Catherine de Bourgh had supplied him with a carriage where a footman saw to the needs of the traveler while George remained comfortably ensconced inside the coach, protecting his anonymity.
Growling his frustration, Darcy stepped back outside. The chill of the morning bled through his coat until he shivered. Fighting disappointment, he mounted Earl and took off. Wickham could not be that far ahead of him, could he?
By morning, Elizabeth was ready to stuff a dirty sock into the opened mouth of her youngest sister. Lydia Bennet was incorrigible.
“I will not tell you any of my private conversations with George.” Lydia folded her arms over her chest while her chin jutted forward. “You are lying about his intentions to elope with Miss Darcy for he has told me what a silly girl she is with little to attract him other than her money.”
“Mr. Wickham would be most impressed with that very thing, Lydia Bennet. What she has thirty-thousand of you have a mere fifty.”
“He loves me.” Her sister stomped her foot. “He said so right before he kissed me the first time. And the second time. And the third.” Lydia giggled. “Oh, Lizzy. He is everything I have ever dreamed of. When his secret missions are ended he will wear a red coat with style. I will be the envy of all my friends.”
“You are a fool. He only loves himself.” When her sister shook her head in response, Elizabeth demanded, “wait here. I shall retrieve the note he had you deliver to Mr. Darcy and you can read his intentions with your own eyes.”
“Ha!” Lydia’s chuckle quickly turned to laughter. “He told me yesterday morning when we met at the stile how his message would throw Mr. Darcy off his trail. Although, I did think his intention was to write to me as well. But, never mind. He is the most intelligent man I know so I cannot begin to question his decisions.”
“What?” Stepping closer, Elizabeth grabbed her sister’s arm, holding tightly when Lydia attempted to pull away. “What do you mean, he wanted to throw Mr. Darcy off his trail?”
A sick feeling started in Elizabeth’s stomach. Why would Mr. Wickham want William gone from Netherfield Park? What was his plan?
Needing to speak with Richard, Elizabeth released Lydia and stepped back.
“Do not think I will not tell Mama and Papa that you have engaged in improper behavior with a man completely unattached to you, Lydia. Your actions have endangered your reputation and that of ours if it becomes known. You act the child.” Elizabeth’s disgust was evident in her tone. Stupid, stupid girl.
“I will have my way,” Lydia yelled as Elizabeth quickly moved to the part of the house where the Fitzwilliams were staying. How could Lydia be such a fool for a man of little value? Shaking her head, she needed to worry about her sister later. Right now, Elizabeth desperately required the good counsel of Richard Fitzwilliam and his father.
As she entered his chamber after being summoned, she pondered at not running to her father. Mr. Thomas Bennet had always been her touchstone, the one person in the world she bounced new thoughts and ideas off, so she could see the rationale behind the best direction to take. This time? It did not occur to her to consult with him. How things were changing.
Both Lord Matlock and his son immediately recognized the futility of sending someone after William. A rider could not catch Darcy before he reached Pemberley.
“I cannot think Wickham is smart enough nor does he have the resources to come up with a successful strategy.” The Earl appeared relaxed in the chair next to Richard’s bed, his legs crossed and his elbow resting on the padded arm of the wooden rocker. When his fingers tapped against his chin and his foot bounced, Elizabeth realized he was as upset as the two others in the room. “My sister, however, is fully capable of seeing to the task.”
“You cannot believe Lady Catherine would willfully harm her niece?” Elizabeth was appalled at the idea. “From what I have discerned, Miss Darcy is sweet of disposition and shy of nature.”
“She is that,” agreed Richard. “However, my aunt is motivated by the want of power. She would do anything to exert authority over Darcy.”
“But, why? Pray help me understand.” Elizabeth sat across from the earl.
Richard sat up a little straighter when a soft knock on the outside of his door was heard. When he smoothed back his hair and rubbed his hands over his bare cheeks to cover the blush rising from his throat to his eye sockets, Elizabeth suspected the visitor was Mary. She was correct.
Once seated, Richard’s attention to the conversation was lost. Therefore, Lord Matlock continued. “my sister has two desires. The first is to have a reason for others to look up to and admire her. The other is to make William suffer for not marrying Anne. She would think nothing of sacrificing Georgiana’s happiness to reach her goal.”
Hugh Fitzwilliam lifted one hand. “I know. I know. It is a sad little family unit we have here. Rather, I should say a selfish family unit.” He shook his head. “Like Wickham, she thinks of her own desires and would think nothing of stepping on or over anyone to achieve what she wants. Also, like Wickham, they have a personal vendetta against William.”
“What has he done?” asked Mary.
“Why would you believe he has done anything?” Elizabeth jumped to his defense. She had taken on one unthinking sister that morning and would not hesitate to do the same to another.
Richard was the first to respond. “Miss Mary, from your reading and study can you tell me why the man, Jesus, was killed. Was he guilty of all he was charged?”
“Not at all.”
“Nonetheless, he died for sins he did not commit. Who was at fault?” Richard probed.
“The selfish men who despised all he represented.” Looking down at her clutched hands, Mary then glanced up to settle her gaze on the man in the bedclothes. “You are saying a person does not need to bear guilt to be wrongly accused and persecuted. Mr. Darcy is such a man?”
“He is,” Elizabeth quickly reassured.
“This is not just!” Mary stood, her fervor making her unable to sit still. “Something needs to be done and it needs to be done now.”
Elizabeth was intensely pleased to have a sibling who was both passionate and who responded with a reasonable mind. For once, she was also grateful for Mary’s propensity for righteous anger. She did not feel nearly as alone with Darcy gone with Jane and Mary understanding her attraction to the gentleman.
“We shall have to await Darcy’s instructions. After all, the likelihood of him successfully reaching Georgiana and Pemberley before Wickham is almost non-existent. Most likely, we shall be dealing with the aftereffects of a wedding nobody in the family wanted except Catherine. I shudder to think what my niece’s life will be under the thumb of my sister and a reprobate for a husband.” Lord Matlock closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the chair. Speaking to no one in particular, he continued, “I expect to see Cathy before the day has ended.”
Elizabeth felt useless. If only she had been in a position to have traveled with William, she would have been doing something other than waiting. Glimpsing the fisted hands and tight jaw of Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, she realized she was, again, not alone.
“Charlotte, how delighted we are to see you again.” Jane welcomed their friend into the bedchamber she shared with Elizabeth. “Are you well?”
Charlotte Lucas gave an unladylike snort. “I believe the last time you greeted me, Jane, I broke your heart into a million pieces by being pleased Mr. Bingley was going to be made to offer for me. Today, I can honestly say my relief is overwhelming at standing against my father and denying Mr. Bingley’s suit.”
“Whatever has happened?” Elizabeth asked.
“I believe we should all be seated lest you faint dead away, Lizzy.” Charlotte teased. Once settled, she said, “Dr. Stevenson has asked myself and my father for a courtship to come to know me better.” She squealed in a good imitation of Mrs. Bennet and clapped her hands over her face.
“What? This is everything wonderful, Charlotte.” Jane offered.
Elizabeth went directly to the crux of the matter. “Are you happy, my friend?”
“I am exceedingly pleased. The doctor expressed himself well, explaining his reasons for seeking my company. He,” Charlotte blushed. “He thought my rejection of Mr. Bingley proved my value, that I did not selfishly seek an establishment which would elevate me when my heart was singularly unattached.”
Jane’s smile was brilliant.
Elizabeth inquired, “how does Sir William do, Charlotte?”
Dropping her hands, their former neighbor grinned. “Father is well pleased with this new arrangement. Dr. Stevenson is the son of a Baron. Mr. Bingley’s family was from trade. The connection this might bring, should the courtship be successful, pleases Father immensely.”
“And, it pleases you too,” Elizabeth teased.
Charlotte reached for Jane’s hand.
“How fares your heart?” Her inquiry was kindly made.
Jane sighed. Standing, she moved to the window before turning to address them.
“Mr. Bingley was quite contrite when he apologized to me for creating expectations indiscriminately.” She clasped her hands to her heart. “He willingly shared his reasons for his overly-friendly conduct and explained how Mr. Darcy had repeatedly endeavored to provide correction he ignored. As for his laxity with his sisters, I easily understood being the youngest and the only boy placed him in a position where he could be dominated. Nevertheless, I told him in clear terms that I was not interested in a boy. I would only give my heart to a man of good character.”
“Jane!” Elizabeth was impressed. “I believe those are the harshest words I have ever heard uttered by you in my lifetime. Well done!”
“My words hurt him, Lizzy. But his actions hurt me.” Jane shrugged. “While I still find much to admire about him, I am wary. He had not demanded his sisters correct their behavior or leave. They made the choice to retire to London. And his devotion will not be tested until we are again in company with other unattached young ladies. I will guard myself until then.”
Both Charlotte and Elizabeth nodded their agreement. What Jane was doing was bravely done. Charlotte’s actions also displayed valor. Hers? Elizabeth wished to be as bold as the two other ladies in the room. She knew the truth. Her façade was fearless. Her reality was scared. When would William return and what would they have to deal with when she saw him again. It was hard to be heroic when her hero was gone.
Elizabeth had been restless throughout the whole of the day. That evening, she chose to spend time in the barn with the puppies.
The turmoil of the morning had blossomed into an explosive confrontation between Lydia and their mother. Elizabeth was still shocked at the outcome.
Lady Matlock had not forgotten her nephew penning a letter to the girls’ schools for the two youngest Bennets. When a reply with an invitation for Lydia to attend immediately had been received, Darcy’s aunt knocked briskly on Mrs. Bennet’s chamber door and kept knocking until she was admitted.
“Would you rather your youngest be a blessing to your family or bring reproach and shame, Mrs. Bennet,” the Countess had demanded. “If your desire is to see her well-settled, she needs discipline and training, so you can hold your head up in the finer households once Darcy and Miss Elizabeth are wed. Or, do you not mind being shunned and forever denied access to the ton?”
As far as Mrs. Bennet was concerned, with this understanding, the matter was settled. Lydia would be taken kicking and screaming to Liverpool to attend Mrs. Peabody’s School for Young Ladies. She would leave on the morrow.
Deep shame at the poor showing Lydia made in front of William’s relatives distracted Elizabeth. She did not hear the man step up behind her. She was not aware of his presence until he grabbed her arm, twisted it, and shoved it up between her shoulder blades until the pain threatened her with a loss of consciousness.
“William!” her mind screamed when his other hand covered her mouth and nose. She could not breathe. Fighting him intensified the pain.
Twisting her head from side to side in an effort to shake off his hand and gain even a slight whiff of air, the man whispered harshly in her ear.
“You will not get free until Darcy finally pays me what is owed.”
Her last thought before her world turned black? Wickham.