TRIGGER WARNING: Chapter One has a FAILED sexual assault with no description of the attack itself. However, the emotional impacts are felt throughout the story.
Can love grow from adversity?
An attempted assault leaves Miss Elizabeth Bennet seeking tender comfort from the man she had, at one time, abhorred. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s gentle compassion fosters a budding affection as the couple grows to acknowledge each other’s weaknesses and failings while recognizing their own.
From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, we know Mr. Darcy as a man willing to make phenomenal changes for the woman he loves. Once proud and arrogant, he transforms into the gentleman women have admired for centuries. Through Elizabeth’s eyes, we come to know him and see beyond the surface to the inner man–a man willing to give all he has for the woman he admires.
As our heroine struggles with the aftermath of that life-changing event, we discover a strength of character we can admire and emulate. Not even the vile Mr. Wickham can keep Elizabeth Bennet from her happily-ever-after with the man of her dreams – Mr. Darcy.
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She killed him.
Pushing herself to her knees, she wiped her hands on the front of her dress, dropping the large, jagged stone she clutched in her right hand to the ground. Her fingers stiffly flexed, then immediately returned to a fist. Forcing herself, she opened her hands to inspect her nails. The residue undoubtedly matched the deep scratches on his face. She wondered if his hands matched her own. She desperately hoped it was so. Her swollen jaw and the wounds on her cheek would heal. His wounds would not.
She scrubbed her palms against the rough fabric of her skirt repeatedly, as if they would never come clean. Pulling the edges of her spencer together, she paid no attention to the fasteners. It would have been a futile attempt to find the buttons which had launched from the garment into the surrounding grass at the beginning of the assault. She never wanted to see them again.
She wanted to spit in his face.
Blood trickled from his temple into his silky, golden hair as mottled shades of purple and red grew around the wound. He was the most despicable man of her acquaintance. With one foolish decision, he had gone from being a favorite to being abhorred—hated with a righteous vengeance she had never, in all of her twenty years, felt before.
She would not look anywhere but at his face. Not at the shirt she had ripped in an effort to gain escape. Not at the opened fall of his trousers which undoubtedly continued to display his wicked intentions. She would not look.
Lt. George Wickham was evil incarnate. A shiver traveled up her spine as a spasm hit her gut. Her vomit splattered his red coat. Kitty and Lydia would no longer find it attractive.
A manic chuckle burst from her as quickly as her breakfast had done. The incongruity of her thoughts, the randomness of her emotions, shocked her.
In her distraction, Elizabeth failed to hear the approaching horses. Voices, male voices, reverberated in her mind, bouncing like a ball let on the loose. Wrapping her arms around herself, she rocked back and forth, drawing comfort from the rhythm of her movements.
“Miss Elizabeth! Miss Elizabeth!”
She kept rocking.
“Bingley, go to Longbourn and return with her father. Do not alert anyone other than Mr. Bennet of what has taken place.”
A shadow moved to block her sunlight. She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the few rays peeking through the obscuration.
Was it raining? Dampness trickled to her ears and off her jaw.
The comfort of a warm, heavy garment settled around her shoulders while strong arms pulled her close. Sandalwood and citrus. A fragrance from the past filled her senses as memories flooded her mind. Hours spent on her paternal grandfather’s lap while he read her favorite story over and over and over again. Safety.
They rocked together, her back against his chest, as he mumbled indistinguishable sounds. No, they were words.
“Breathe in,” the voice whispered. “Breathe out.”
She found an element of relief in obedience.
The urge to empty her bladder eventually forced her from her refuge. With her slightest pressure, his arms dropped. He helped her stand, her skirts dropping to tangle around her feet. Her legs shook as she ran to the trees. She gulped air, turned and wrapped her arms around an oak trunk, pressing her injured face into the rough bark, almost welcoming the pain, wanting to weep in gratitude at feeling anything at all.
A small branch snapped in the grass not far from her. Panic—sheer terror shook her body and she grabbed the tree tighter, trying to blend in, to become invisible.
“Elizabeth, I am here. You are safe.” The baritone of his voice settled over her like his cloak had done a few moments prior. “Elizabeth, may I be of service? Might I help you?”
“No,” she whispered, hoping he heard so she would not have to try again. The effort it took drained her.
“Yes,” she squeezed her eyes shut, hearing his steps drawing closer on the forest floor.
Sandalwood and citrus. Strong arms. Soft whispers.
Peeling herself away from the tree, she turned into him. Sobs filled the air. She felt the noise in her throat, though the sound did not seem to come from her. It must have done.
His fingers rubbed her scalp and she felt like purring. Like a lone barn cat who finally allowed the touch of a friend. Trust. Relief. Warmth.
Again, she pushed back. Again, his arms dropped to his sides.
“Look away from me.” Her whisper was a plea. He obeyed.
She moved behind another tree. The width of the trunk separated him from view. She rested her hands on the sides of her skirt, grasped a handful of the muslin, then, she looked down.
Her mother would be angry. Dirt on her hem. Again, she wanted to chuckle. Yet there was nothing funny. Nothing at all.
She lifted the fabric to her ankles. Another sob filled the air. Her walking boots had been almost as effective a weapon as the stone. That man, that vile man, surely had bruises covering his lower legs. She did as well.
She lifted the fabric to her knees. She whimpered. Bruises, dark shadows under her pale skin.
She lifted the fabric to her thighs. Exhaling slowly, she examined each visible inch. Nothing. No evidence of his intent. Quickly, she relieved herself, dropped her skirts, and ran back to him. Security. Sandalwood and citrus.
Consequences forced their way into her thoughts. “Will I hang?”
“No!” His arms pulled her to him even tighter. “He will.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, as tight as she possibly could. “I killed him.”
“You did not. He yet lives.”
Tears washed her face and dripped into her soul. Relief.
“Your father approaches.” She felt the vibration of his vocals in his chest.
She nodded, feeling the muscles tighten in her arms. Her hands slid up his back as her palms pressed him even closer. Sandalwood and citrus. “I cannot let go.”
“Then, do not.”
She felt his movements as his heavy greatcoat rested on her shoulders once again.
“Mr. Bennet,” his voice rose. “We are here.”
“Oh, God in heaven, Lizzy!” Each hurried step brought her father closer. She still could not move.
“My daughter.” He exclaimed between pants, the exertions and emotions taking their toll. “Come to me.”
It was reflex. She loved and trusted her father. She always had. Nonetheless, her face turned away from him as she buried her nose into Mr. Darcy’s cravat.
“Sir?” Mr. Bennet bellowed. His curiosity warred with anger, disappointment with shock.
She could never remember being the source of her father’s displeasure, but she could not force herself to move.
Mr. Darcy did not move, nor did he attempt to release her. Gratitude filled her to her toes.
“Mr. Bennet, would you send Mr. Bingley for Colonel Forster? I will bring Miss Elizabeth to Longbourn and would appreciate you riding with us. You will best know how to get her to her room unseen.”
“Yes, sir.” Her father quickly walked away. The sound of Mr. Bingley’s horse galloping towards Meryton blended with her father’s return. He cleared his throat.
“Mr. Darcy, I feel it best to take Lizzy to Mrs. Carr. Her cottage is isolated and she lives alone.”
“She can be trusted?” Elizabeth felt his breath against her forehead as he spoke.
“She was the midwife for each of my daughters. Yes, I trust her. Lizzy does as well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bennet.”
She had been unaware they had been swaying gently back and forth until he stopped. When he removed his right arm from around her shoulders, she whimpered involuntarily.
“Place your arms down the sleeves,” he suggested, gently clasping her shoulders to move her away so she could accomplish the task.
She feared standing alone, isolated from the security of his touch, his voice. The second her fingertips passed into the fabric, her arms returned to him, her hands clutching the lapels of his jacket. The velvet smoothness felt good against her palms. She slid her hands to his neck and stepped forward until they touched from head to toe, holding him as fiercely as he held her.
Quickly, he lifted her. She tightened her grip and buried her forehead in his neck. “Do not let me go,” she chanted in her mind, a mantra she wondered if she could ever move beyond.
“Pray, bring my horse.” She felt the rumble of his voice on her forehead. With his words, Elizabeth finally opened her eyes. He was walking along the tree line, away from where Wickham still laid on the ground. She refused to look back. She never wanted to see him again—ever.
Elizabeth wanted to shoot him—to put a bullet between his eyes. She wanted to take a heavy tree branch and beat him until her arms gave out. She wanted to kick him and kick him and kick him until her toes hurt and the leather wore thin on her boot. She wanted to…she wanted to…
“I will lift you up to your father.”
She had no words. Shaking her head, she tightened her arms until she feared he could no longer breathe.
“Very well, then.” Mr. Darcy moved to his own horse. “You can ride in front of me.”
She wanted to cry in relief, only to realize the tears were already falling.
The horse stepped to the right as Darcy settled in behind her. Her arms were clasped around his waist. She would not let go. Do not let go!
They walked slowly.
“Count, Elizabeth,” he suggested softly. “Count the steps of the horse, count the number of times they snort, count the buttons on my vest, then multiply them by twelve. Do not allow yourself to think of anything other than numbers.”
“Why?” She had to ask when his request finally cleared the muddle of her mind.
“Numbers do not change. They can be relied upon. They are strong. Resilient against any influence.” He hugged her to him. “So, count, and if you need, I will count with you.”
She hesitated, so he started. “One. Two. Three…” He paused until she took up where he had left off, reciting each digit under her breath.
Occasionally, he would lift his hand from her back to smooth her hair. Twice, he turned his head to place his mouth against her forehead. She knew not if it was a kiss or his means to check if a fever had set in. Whatever the reason, each time she had to start her counting anew.
She was not hot. She was chilled to the bone and wondered if she would ever be warm again.
He pulled her tighter and breathed her name. “Elizabeth.”
One hundred twenty-seven.
He carried her into the cabin, leaving her wrapped in his coat. Sandalwood and citrus.
The tea was bitter. Laudanum. Restless sleep. Dreadful nightmares. Quiet.
She woke to him sitting next to the bed. Mrs. Carr moved in the background. His greatcoat covered her from her shoulders to her feet. Her boots had been removed. She blinked. Morning light filtered through curtains pulled back from the small window next to the front door.
“Might I provide something for your comfort? Are you in need?” he inquired.
She shook her head slowly back and forth. There was one piece of information she wanted to know.
She gasped. Fear rather than sorrow. “My father?”
“No.” His voice was firm. Trust. Care. “When he arrived in Meryton in the back of a cart, two of the townsfolk with young daughters took matters into their own hands. Justice was served.”
Was it wicked to be pleased at the death of a human being? Was something lacking in her when gladness filled her heart?
“He is no longer here?”
“He is not.”
“But, you are.” It was not a question.
“I am, Elizabeth.”
He did not move a muscle from where he was seated. He did not lean towards her, nor take her hand in his. He watched her as he had done each time they had been in company. What she had thought was disdain was now warmth. How could she have been so wrong about the goodness of one man and the honor of the other?
“Mr. Darcy, I…” Emotions swirled in her heart. How could she explain to him how poorly she had judged him? Why was he here? Though Wickham had not succeeded in his quest, the fact that he had made the progress he had caused her ruination. Her father, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Carr were all witnesses to her degradation. “I…”
“Hush,” he whispered. “I am here. I am going nowhere. You are secure. I will see you are always safe from harm.”
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Sandalwood and citrus. Sanctuary. Shelter. Refuge. Affection. Respect. Tenderness.
For the first time in the past four and twenty hours, she felt a hint of peace.