MR. DARCY’S ABDUCTION
Spring 1812 – Hunsford
“Let me have the blue coat.” Fitzwilliam Darcy felt ridiculous. Never in his life had he been as fastidious over his appearance—not even during his bow at court. He rotated from side to side in front of the mirror, examining himself from head to toe. Not a hair was out of place nor would an unwelcome crease be found in his trousers. “No, I will wear the black.”
His long-suffering valet said not a word as he piled the rejected blue frock coat on top of the six others which had already been discarded as being not quite perfect for the morning.
Darcy pulled at the bottom of the coat sleeve and lifted his chin so Parker could tie the intricate knot of his cravat. Why he should be so concerned about being in fine looks puzzled him as he was not courting Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He was merely going for a walk in the glen she occasionally frequented. Well, daily in actual fact, she walked the same path through the same area, at about the same time each morning. Not that he had noticed, of course.
It was not as if he was planning to see her. After all, she might decide to deviate from her regular walk and he was determined he would not mind if she did. He was solely in the pursuit of exercise and enjoyment of the few areas at his aunt’s home of Rosings Park in Kent where nature had not been tamed in strict obedience to her ladyship’s will.
Did Miss Elizabeth find him distinguished in black? She often wore green. Maybe he should change to the dark olive coat? A man should take pride in his appearance, should he not?
He shook his head at his own caprice and decided it was time to quit making a fuss over absolutely nothing. Checking to make sure he had not inadvertently scuffed the shine from his boots, he left his chambers and headed out the door. He was leaving early so his cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, would not attempt to divert him from his stroll. He had a glade to reach and a young woman to pretend to avoid.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet was a lady unlike any other of his acquaintance. He vowed to himself that he would quit thinking about her as soon as he finished his thought. She was pert, unabashedly intelligent, and one of the kindest, most self-sacrificing women he had met. She was everything he had hoped for as the next Mistress of Pemberley. She would be an excellent wife and mother of his children.
Mother? A vision of Miss Elizabeth sitting on the red settee in his study at his estate with a baby in her arms and a toddler playing at her feet made him smile. She would be an excellent role model for his children.
Stop this! Focus on the negatives!
He shuddered at the vulgar conduct of her family. With Miss Elizabeth and her elder sister, Jane Bennet, he had no complaint. However, her circumstances were entirely unacceptable.
He huffed into the chill of the air. Disguise of every sort was his abhorrence. He needed to halt his dishonest notions that he cared not for her opinion and either decide to set aside his reservations at attaching himself to her or banish her from his mind. He shrugged. His indifference to the expectations of society and his family surprised him. Duty and honour ran through his bloodstream. Intellectually, he knew what he had to do. Nonetheless, his heart moved him mightily towards the spot by the stream where he had accidentally encountered her the past three mornings. He would banish her from his system as soon as he saw her one last time. He would! Darcy feared it would be easier said than done.
“Stand and deliver!” Male voices shattered the silence.
In his distracted mental state, Darcy failed to notice the rapid approach of two men dressed in black with scarves covering their noses and mouths, hats pulled down over their brows, and each holding a pistol pointed directly at him.
“Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy!” One of them demanded.
“Who wants to know?” Darcy was surprised he was able to maintain his composure. There were few things more frightening to a human than staring down the cold metal barrel of a weapon. He wondered if his cousin felt the same when he faced his enemy on the battlefield.
“Never you mind. Come with us.” The taller of the two barked.
“I will not.” An inner war waged. They were obviously after him, however Darcy could not help but worry over Miss Elizabeth. Surely, she was already in the park as well. What these outlaws would do to her if they found her was terrifying to consider. His only recourse was distraction or diversion. “Tell me where you intend to take me and I will decide if I will go.”
The tall man, whom Darcy concluded was the more intelligent of the two, started walking towards him with a purpose. He lowered his pistol as Darcy took up his fighting stance. He had not trained for years at Gentleman Jackson’s for nothing.
The man did not fight fair. In one rapid move, he swung the grip of the pistol until he made contact with Darcy’s temple. It hurt. Darcy’s fist connected with some hard surface on his opponent before his world started fading to black. Miss Elizabeth! Don’t hurt Miss Elizabeth.
“Miss Elizabeth.” He whispered, though it sounded in his head like he was screaming. Fear gripped him as he panicked at what might have happened after the blow. His temples were pounding with the swaying of the carriage and Darcy felt he might be sick. He sensed the light beyond his closed eyes so realized it was still daylight.
“Miss Elizabeth? Miss Elizabeth Bennet, by chance? What is this, Darcy? Are you enamored of the fair Miss Bennet? Who would have thought?”
That voice. That scathingly malicious, disreputable, despicable scoundrel dared address him?
Sitting up, he groaned. His whole body hurt and he knew the two men had used the opportunity of his losing consciousness to thrash away at him. The pain surrounding his chest established at least one rib was either bruised or broken and his head felt like Thor’s hammer was beating the inside of his skull with each turn of the wheels. He cautiously opened his eyes.
“What do you want, Wickham?” He abhorred everything about his former childhood friend and companion. He looked at the man from his head to his toes and was unsurprised he was no longer wearing his militia uniform. His clothing had once been quality, though the sleeves were slightly ragged on the edges and the coat threadbare. Hard times had befallen George Wickham—again.
“What do I always want?”
“You will get no money from me.” He wanted to wipe the smug look off Wickham’s face. Less than a year prior, the vile man had attempted to elope with Darcy’s young sister at Ramsgate in a plan to gain her dowry of thirty-thousand pounds. His failure had to have been a bitter pill for him to swallow. Darcy’s resentment at Wickham’s scheme had grown until he understood there was not another man on earth he hated more.
“Of that I am well aware, my friend.”
“I am not your friend.” Darcy spat out the words.
“How you feel about me matters not.” Wickham laughed, as if he had no cares in the world. “The ransom note goes to Lady Catherine.”
“She will not pay.” Having gone over her accounts, Darcy had repeatedly admonished his aunt for her overspending. If she did not, either he or her brother, Lord Matlock, were going to have to add to her coffers to keep Rosings Park afloat.
“If she wants you to marry her insipid daughter, she will.” Wickham’s confidence oozed from his pores. “If she does not have the blunt, I will contact the Earl. If they want you returned, they will pay.”
“They will not.” Now it was Darcy who was confident. He knew Wickham’s games and he knew how to unsettle him. “Should I become deceased, the Colonel will marry Georgiana who stands to inherit all of the Darcy properties. This would be a boon for the Fitzwilliams. Besides, Richard would squeeze you like the pimple you are if you ever came close to Pemberley. You would die just as destitute as you are now.”
He knew from the shifting of Wickham’s eyes that agitation had set in. Next, it would be…yes, his fingertips began tapping against his leg just as Darcy knew would happen.
“Then the money will come from you.” He saw Wickham’s panic and felt his desperation.
“I think not.” Finally, Darcy had the upper hand. How dare George Wickham try to extort funds from him! His own beloved father had gifted the man thousands over the years, including providing his tuition and livelihood at Eton and Cambridge and leaving him an inheritance upon his death. Darcy was done with him. He owed him nothing.
The carriage hit a bump and Darcy grabbed his ribs as he sought to regain his breath. He swallowed down the bile threatening his throat, beads of sweat popping out on his upper lip. He refused to react, keeping his face set in indifference. To do otherwise would have given a point to his nemesis and he would not give him any advantage at all.
Wickham responded with a quick jab with his walking stick to Darcy’s tender mid-section. Pain radiated to every inch of his body as the bile rose again, this time not stopping. He spewed his breakfast all over the man seated across from him. His last thought before the walking stick met the side of his head was that it must have been Wickham who had beat him badly, not the two men.
Whispered conversation and the smell of unwashed bodies assaulted Darcy’s senses as he became aware of two things. One, he was no longer in a carriage as he was able to lay still, and two, that the taste of blood was on his tongue. Wickham!
He strained to discern the voices speaking and hear their plans for him.
“He walked out with the lady yesterday and the day before. They met close to the glen.” The tall man spoke, his rough voice carrying across the room.
Darcy opened the eye not buried in the bedclothes just a crack to determine clues as to his location and present situation. They were in a small cottage which was in disrepair and smelled of sheep. The mattress he laid upon was hard as a rock and the blankets smelled of damp and dirt. A small table with two chairs leaned against the far wall and the fireplace was unlit. A small window next to the door was the only source of light. Three men were in the room. He recognized all of them.
Wickham, Captain Carter, and Mr. Denny had been part of the militia stationed in the small farming community of Meryton in Hertfordshire. He had first met the two officers after the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, recovered from a short illness which had kept her and Elizabeth at the home of his close friend, Charles Bingley. They had ridden towards the Bennet estate of Longbourn to inquire as to the continued good health of Miss Bennet when he and Bingley happened upon the sisters speaking with a small group of officers.
Seeing Wickham for the first time since he had tried to coerce Georgiana into marriage, had caused Darcy to act in a precipitate manner, one which failed to show him in a good light to Miss Elizabeth. Intense anger had blinded him to none other than his enemy as discretion became the better part of valour and he left without extending the most minimum of courtesy to the young women.
His abrupt conduct had surely opened the way for Wickham to charmingly accuse Darcy of all sorts of misdeeds. He hoped the innate intelligence he had espied in Miss Elizabeth would allow her to overthrow any fictitious tales manufactured by the miscreant. Surely, she would not believe George Wickham? Though his own sister had been completely taken in by the man, Elizabeth was a young woman of keen intelligence with four more years of life experience than his sister.
“Hmmm. I wonder…” Wickham scratched the whiskers on his jaw.
Darcy had not caught that the man was unkempt. George Wickham was prideful when it came to his looks and spent an inordinate amount of money keeping himself properly garbed to play at being a gentleman. His being in this condition revealed a desperation unusual to the man.
“What are you planning, Wickham?” Inquired Mr. Denny.
Darcy held his breath so he could hear every word.
“I say, judging by the elegance of his dress and the direction he was walking, I believe Darcy is enamored of the young woman.” George Wickham glanced over at the bed so Darcy quickly closed his eye. “I see why. She is a lively sort with lustrous hair, fine eyes, pouty lips, and a figure a man would eagerly welcome to his bed.”
Darcy yearned to jump up and plant his fist in the middle of Wickham’s face. How dare he speak in such a way of an innocent young woman! How dare he speak so of Miss Elizabeth!
“Then let us go get her and bring her here.” Offered Captain Carter. “I would not mind a bit of time with her myself.”
“Me too.” Added Mr. Denny. “And if the gentleman is in love with her, it would make it easy to use her to control him so we get what we are after.”
If only Darcy had a gun. He would feel no guilt at killing all three. The loss to society would be as nothing.
“Do you think she would come on her own if she knew he was in danger? She seems the helpful sort?” Asked Carter.
Wickham laughed in disdain. “She hates Darcy.”
Darcy wanted to scream. What? How can that be possible?
“Then she is smarter than most as, no matter his income, he is an arrogant fellow, always above his company.” Mr. Denny offered.
“Ah, but she’s a fool if she lets him know how she feels. A wise woman should be willing to overlook anything for ten-thousand a year and probably more.” Captain Carter said. “She strikes me as being the savviest of all her sisters.”
“If she was more like Miss Lydia, she would gladly jump into the carriage with any of us.” Denny chortled.
Darcy could not help but agree with the man. The youngest two Bennet girls were crass and too ill-behaved to be in society. They were trouble waiting to happen and one of the main reasons he hesitated to pursue Miss Elizabeth. When combined with their screeching, money-grubbing mother, they would put any gentleman off from attaching himself to either Miss Jane Bennet or Miss Elizabeth. It was one of the reasons he cautioned Bingley against the eldest. The younger man needed a far better match to elevate him in society. Exposure to the rest of the residents of Longbourn would be a degradation.
“If she was more like Miss Lydia, even priggish Darcy would have had her tamed by now.”
This was too much. Darcy pushed against the mattress with his left hand, growling and groaning in agony with every inch he moved. Although his body threatened to collapse on him, he stood and walked towards the three men.
“You will not speak of Miss Elizabeth in such a manner.” He imagined how fierce his countenance looked with the injuries he felt on his face. “You will cease immediately.”
“Or, what? You will slap me with your gloves?” Wickham taunted him from behind the other two men. “You have no power here. I make the rules.” He turned to the other two men. “Get her!”
“No!” Darcy yelled, but to no effect. The two men left the room, leaving him alone with the villain.
“Have a seat. We shall be here for a while before they return. I think it time we come to terms.”
“I will not negotiate with you.” Darcy spat out each syllable.
“And that is where you are wrong.” Wickham’s confidence made Darcy want to slap the smile off his face. “We are no longer speaking of your future, Darcy. Miss Elizabeth will be here shortly. What you say and do before her arrival will determine how she is treated.”
“You are vile.” Darcy looked him in the eye without wavering. “If my father had known what you have become…”
“Do not speak of your father to me.” Wickham’s ire had been lit like a flame to gunpowder. “He was the best man who has ever lived. He loved me. He loved me!” He pounded his fist to his chest with each word.
“No, he loved me. The bonds of blood flow through the Darcy veins. You were only ever the steward’s son—a servant. Nothing more or nothing less.”
Wickham slapped him with an open hand and Darcy felt the blood start trickling down his cheek. Automatically, he looked at Wickham’s hand and found his own signet ring with the face turned to his palm.
“Give it back.”
“I will not. I know the power of this ring. It is mine.”
Darcy scoffed. “Without my signature, the family seal will mean nothing to either my banker or my solicitor. You will get nothing.”
“You are a fool.” Wickham retorted. “I have known how to forge your signature for years though I have been saving my skill for something advantageous, like this.”
Uncertainty started to filter into his thinking. He was unsurprised. How could the many blows not addle his brain?
“You will never get away with this. Colonel Fitzwilliam is at Rosings and will be looking for me. He will warn the parsonage and Miss Elizabeth will be protected.”
“Really? By the rector, Mr. Collins? He cannot begin to take care of himself.” Wickham snorted. “Now, his wife? She is a different story. A wise woman is what she is so I have no doubt she will easily connect your disappearance and Miss Elizabeth’s. I believe she will put one plus one together for three, thinking you have run away with her guest so you could use her for nefarious purposes.”
“You are evil incarnate.” Darcy scowled.
“You have already indicated as such. However, I do not fear your words. I never have.”
Darcy knew him to be correct. Over the years as they were growing up, Darcy had not once run to his father with unsavory tales of Wickham’s perfidy. In this way, he protected George Darcy from the hurt his generous heart would feel at his godson’s betrayal. Wickham would laugh at him each time Darcy endeavored to restrain him from acting out at university. Without guilt, Wickham would continue his disreputable course.
“Then fear the Colonel’s sword. He wanted to run you through after Ramsgate and I stopped him. I did not want your death to come back against Georgiana in any way. Had I allowed him to do so, you would already have maggots eating your flesh as you rotted in hell.”
“He has not forgotten, nor will he ever, your treachery towards his ward. In fact, the last time we spoke of his fighting the French, he told me he pictured your face on each man he killed.” Darcy wanted to gloat at the sick look on Wickham’s face. “How confident are you, now?”
“I believe your attachment to the young lady will cause you to do anything within your power to control your cousin.” Wickham boasted. “Though I doubt she will have any inclination to do anything for you.”
Curiosity reared its ugly head. “Why do you say so?”
“Hah! You are found out.” Wickham gloated. “You care for her and have no clue how much she despises the man who publicly proclaimed her as merely tolerable and not handsome enough to tempt you.”
“Of what are you speaking?” Darcy shook his head as if to clear it, only adding to his pain. His memory could not recall him having done so.
“The night you met at the Meryton assembly, my man, you insulted Miss Elizabeth. According to her, you have never apologized for your slight, arrogantly believing yourself above the need for decorum. Since then, you have, in my company and hers, disdained her younger sisters and treated her mother with scorn. You failed to use common courtesy with her neighbors and they all believe you to abhor each of them.” Wickham smiled. “I have never entered a community where the approbation was against you from the start. It made my task of gaining sympathy much easier, so I thank you.”
The sick feeling started again in his stomach. His memory was becoming clearer and his regret was growing exponentially. “She has spoken to you of this?”
“According to reports, she laughed at you, Darcy.” Wickham taunted. “She told Miss Lucas, her closest friend other than Miss Bennet, that you were to be censured for your ungentlemanly conduct. Her mother and friends proclaimed you the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world and everybody hoped you would never show your face again. Yes, you, Fitzwilliam Darcy, who pride yourself on your fine manners and elevated rank. You are universally loathed by everyone in Hertfordshire except for Miss Bingley. Would not your father be proud of you, now?” Wickham threw his own words back at him.
Gritting his teeth, Darcy fought for self-control. He would not allow Wickham to see that his comments carried barbs which ripped at his flesh.
“Then you have no need for her presence.” Darcy whispered. He held his breath in hope that Miss Elizabeth would remain unscathed.
Wickham’s mirth was bitter.
“Too late, my friend. My men will not return without her.”
Darcy lay back on the bed, wrapping his arms around his middle to hold himself in place. What had begun as a morning filled with hope, had turned into something ugly, fraught with danger for the one woman he had already vowed in his heart to protect. In comparison to her comfort, he cared nothing for his own welfare. When had he come to value her so highly? At what point had he completely set aside his concerns and attached his heart so completely to her own?
Yet, she hated him? Now that Wickham had stepped outside the cabin, Darcy pondered the past months since he had made her acquaintance in the autumn. He sighed and immediately felt the pull on his chest, pleased he suffered physical pain from his thoughts. Wickham had been correct. He had insulted Elizabeth and he had never apologized. Instead, he had hoped she had not heard his harsh words. His motive had been to keep Bingley from his constant pressure to have him dance. He had not wanted to dance. He had not wanted to be happy. His young sister was distraught, so why should he not be as well.
He breathed in deeply, relishing the agony as his chest expanded, then let it out slowly. He had not been a gentleman. He had assumed that his status, his elevated rank automatically excused his rudeness. His mother would have been ashamed. He had been raised with proper principles, though left to follow them in pride and conceit.
Oh, Lord! I am sure Miss Elizabeth would hardly be impressed with, “I hate your family. It would be a degradation to attach the Bennet name to mine. Will you marry me?” Even he knew that would never be considered the height of romance. It would only serve to distance her further from him.
What sensible woman would find him attractive? Only those blinded by his wealth and family name, the very ladies he had been running from since he inherited his properties.
God in heaven, but he was finding this far more painful than his physical injuries. Why did he not realize before how his attitude had not recommended him? Was his conceit so ingrained in him that he could not see how others viewed him? What did she say of him the other evening at Rosings? That he had implacable resentment and a propensity to hate everybody? Did she truly believe that to be so?
Had he known Wickham would stay outside, he may have gone to the nearest wall and banged his head on it—repeatedly. He could not go back and change his words and deeds. What he could do was become a better man, a gentleman who would incite the interest of a woman such as Miss Elizabeth.
He did not deserve her. It was a shameful realization that stunned him. Only that morning he had been thinking of the blessings he could bring to her should he decide to offer for her. For the first time, though he lay bloody and battered in a cottage somewhere, he was grateful these changed circumstances had kept him from offering his hand.
“In vain I have struggled; it will not do.” Good Lord in heaven. From the back of his mind he reviewed the words he had mentally practiced as he had bathed that very morning. What an insult! He should be begging for her consideration.
The door burst open and Wickham stepped inside. In his hand was a battered cup Darcy hoped was filled with water. His throat was parched and he longed for something to wash the metallic taste of dried blood from the inside of his mouth.
Darcy was grateful for the small favor. Taking the mug in his hand, he tipped it up and took a large swallow. He heard Wickham’s chuckle at the same time the bitter taste registered on his tongue.
“Good night, Darcy.”
Laudanum. Darcy tried to throw the cup at George’s smirk, but it was too late. The tingling began in his upper arms and moved down his legs. His last thought was the hope Wickham had not drugged him enough to kill him. He needed to tell…he needed to…he…
The cool cloth gently moving across his brow providing blessed relief woke him.
“Am I in heaven?” He whispered without opening his eyes.
“I do not believe so, Mr. Darcy.”
His eyes shot open. Miss Elizabeth was seated next to his bed with a damp cloth in her hand.
“Do you know where we are?”
“I do not.” She shook her head.
“How did they…how did they come to capture you?” His tongue felt swollen until he thought he might choke with the effort to speak. “Water?” He pleaded.
Miss Elizabeth picked up the cup sitting next to the bed and reached behind his head to help him lift it high enough he could drink without wearing the water instead of quenching his thirst. He had never been this close to her.
“The smell of the drug was still strong when I arrived so it has been scrubbed clean and refilled.” She assured him.
“Thank you.” The water tasted pure and he drank until it was gone. “I am sorry.”
“Why?” She took the cup from his hands and put it back on the small table. “Why would you apologize for the outrageous conduct of others?”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy.” She put her fingers lightly on his shoulder. “I now comprehend your warning that Mr. Wickham is not the pleasant, charming man he portrays himself to be.”
His relief was palpable.
She continued. “While you slept, I thought back upon our acquaintance and now believe one of you is good while the other only has the appearance of goodness.”
His voice was scratchy and he wished for buckets more water. He glanced behind her and saw no other containers. Finally, he looked into her eyes.
“Do you know why you are here?”
“I do not.” Elizabeth huffed. “When you did not return in time for luncheon, Lady Catherine sounded an alarm calling for a search. Colonel Fitzwilliam and a few other mounted men, went to Hunsford in spite of my application to him to search the glen where I had run across you walking the past few days. When I discerned they were going in the opposite direction, I set out on the path leading to the stream. It was there that the two men found me.”
“Did they hurt you?” Darcy’s eyes did a quick survey from head to toe as panic filled his chest, threatening to cut off his air.
She shook her head, causing the small ringlets at her temples to bounce joyously, in opposition to the feelings filling the room. “They did not.” She hesitated. “When I asked what they were about, they told me they had located you, but that you were gravely injured. My first thought was to return to the parsonage to get Charlotte’s help. I am notoriously faint-hearted when it comes to the loss of blood. However, the men seemed frantic and begged me to come quickly.”
“I do not understand. How did they convince you to get into the coach?” She was a lady gifted with a sound mind. Her actions perplexed him.
“When we broke through the trees and I spotted the carriage, I immediately felt the danger. As soon as I stopped walking and prepared to turn and run, they showed their pistols. I looked to the man driving the carriage and he turned his back on me. So, with very little inducement, other than the cold steel of their weapons, I climbed inside and prayed for the best outcome possible.”
“So, there are three others besides Wickham.”
“Yes, Mr. Denny, Captain Carter, and the driver.”
“You recognized them?”
“Only after we were on our way. Both men climbed inside the carriage with me and removed their scarves.” She sucked in a breath. “I was quite surprised at their identity as they, including Mr. Wickham, had been my family’s favorites of the militia.”
“I am sorry for your disappointment.” And he was. For whatever reason, he felt her pain and he wanted to make it better.
“Oh, do not be, sir.” She picked up the damp cloth and refolded it so the dried blood was tucked inside and no longer on the surface. “Your face is clean, though the bruises are spectacular. I think your valet will find it challenging to match your garments with the deep purple you will be wearing for a while.”
He smiled in spite of the flesh pulling the wound on his cheek.
“Would you be allowed more water?’ His thirst was desperate.
“We will not know until I ask.” She stood with the cup and walked to the door. Knocking on the wooden surface, it was almost immediately opened by one of the men. Darcy could not see which one. “May we have the cup filled, sir?”
“Is it for you or for him?”
He heard the sneer.
“I am always thirsty, Mr. Denny. Should you not want to pull the water up from the well, I would be happy to make the attempt.”
Denny scoffed and roughly took the cup from her. “This is the last time.”
Darcy saw her shoulders drop and her head bend forward as the man walked away. At the same time he heard his heavy footsteps on the walkway in front of the cottage, Elizabeth stiffened her spine and lifted her head.
“I thank you.” She started to close the door.
Denny stuck his foot inside, keeping it open. “I would appreciate a token of your thanks.” He reached towards Elizabeth.
Darcy swung his feet to the floor and sat up, his eyes seeing red in instant anger. Before he could reach the door, Elizabeth stepped back to avoid Denny’s beefy hands and tossed the contents of the mug in Denny’s face.
Darcy came up beside her and pushed her behind him, placing himself between her and the door.
“If you touch her, I will see you hang.” He felt Miss Elizabeth’s hands on his back, clutching his coat. “That goes for any of you.” His eyes searched out and caught the other three men. He raised his voice so Wickham could hear from where he was standing by the carriage. “I am ready to negotiate. With that said, should Miss Elizabeth come to any harm, you will get not one shilling from me, am I understood?”
As the men started walking towards the doorway, Darcy turned and clasped his hands on her arms. “Do not be surprised at what you hear.” He whispered. When she nodded her head, he walked her to the bed and made sure she was seated as comfortably as possible. Then he joined her.
Wickham and Captain Carter each took a seat, while the other two men stood on either side of the door.
“What is your offer?” Wickham was almost rubbing his hands together with glee.
“I will settle a thousand pounds on each of you plus one-way passage to either India, Canada, or Australia if you leave on the first ship available. For that, you will allow Miss Elizabeth to leave unharmed. I will go with you to my man of business in London to arrange your travel and the transfer of funds.”
The men looked between one another.
“Five thousand each.” Demanded Wickham. Both Carter and Denny raised their brows at the amount.
“One thousand and no more. On this I will not budge.” Darcy kept his voice level and his eyes locked on Wickham.
“How do we know you will not turn us over when we get to London? We need Miss Elizabeth with us to protect our interests.” Carter asked.
“I am a man of my word. Ask Wickham. If I say I will do this then I will, but only if Miss Elizabeth goes free.” Still he kept his focus on his old enemy. “And I will need my signet ring to obtain the money.” He stretched his left hand towards Wickham, while the right hand stayed on the bed between him and Elizabeth. It was his dominant hand and he needed it free in case an altercation broke out of if she was threatened.
He felt Elizabeth’s fingers move under his palm and easily entwined his with her own. The perfect fit. So much for having a free use of his fist. Using his thumb, he gently stroked the back of her soft hand, inordinately pleased when she did not pull back from his caress.
“Not yet, Darcy.” Wickham sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, tucking the hand with the ring close to his chest. “Carter is right. Your love for her gives us power. We would be fools to allow her to leave.”
“What?” She asked almost immediately.
He felt her eyes on him as she fully comprehended Wickham’s charge. Yes, he loved her and he did not mind her knowing of his deepest feelings. For a certainty, he would rather have taken the time to court her so she could come to know the man he desired to be. But the words were said. The deed was done.
“You love me?” Her free hand moved to her chest. He imagined the look of puzzlement on her beautiful features.
“With my whole soul.” He readily admitted. His heart demanded he look at her so she could see the sincerity in his eyes. His mind kept his eyes trained on Wickham.
“But you do not even like me.” Miss Elizabeth proclaimed. “You have long stared at me, looking for faults and I am assured you found plenty to disapprove. Your words have never indicated that you held me in esteem.”
“You make me nervous and my tongue ties itself in knots.” He honestly admitted. “What I plan to say in my mind is, most unfortunately, not what tends to come out of my mouth.”
“I told you she hated you.” Laughed Wickham. “You were a great orator at university and the president of the debate team. That you cannot speak to one woman of mediocre status is laughable. Love makes your tongue unhinged.” The other men guffawed as well.
Darcy did not mind the come-uppance in the least. She needed to know that he was willing to humble himself before her.
“You are wrong, Mr. Wickham.” Elizabeth spoke up. “I do not hate him. I do not know him.”
Darcy gently squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.
“Be that as it may, you two will stay together until we have the funds in our hand.”
“Why?” Elizabeth asked Wickham. “Why now? You surely had opportunity to conduct this crime in a much more familiar setting when we were all in Hertfordshire. You are, none of you, in uniform so I assume you have left your regiment without permission, am I correct?”
“Hah! You know nothing.” Wickham began. “Affable Colonel Forster, who appears to be a bumbling fool with a young wife who flirts and runs him in circles, is nothing but. He has friends in low places who loan money to cover the losses to the colonel. He waits until we are so in debt to him that we will never be able to repay and then he tasks us with collecting from the others. It is a vicious circle where only he benefits.”
“Gambling!” Elizabeth scoffed.
“Yes, Miss Elizabeth, I gamble as do these men.” Wickham waved to Denny and Carter. “Conditions were becoming such that we felt it best to leave the shire and seek a future elsewhere. The colonel’s men were breathing down our necks. Darcy’s offer to provide passage to another land is providential.”
“I imagine so.” She quipped.
Darcy was filled with pride at her refusing to be cowed by the criminal element in the room.
Denny offered. “We have until the end of the week to pay the loan sharks.”
“But today is Wednesday. Will there be enough time?” Elizabeth asked no one in particular.
“If we leave now we can take care of business on the morrow.” Darcy suggested.
“But, Mr. Darcy, your injuries. Certainly, you should remain as you are until you heal.” Elizabeth insisted.
“I will be well.” He stood and helped her to stand beside him. Then he turned back to Wickham. “Do we go now? Are we in agreement?”
The men looked between each other and finally, Wickham nodded his head. “We go.”
Elizabeth dropped his hand to gather her bonnet and tie it under her chin. Darcy searched the room. “Where is your shawl?” There had not been one time she had walked out without the pale green cloth. The color was becoming against the honey tone of her skin and the rich brown of her hair.
She lifted her shoulders and shrugged, slowly shaking her head as her eyes begged him not to mention it further.
“Foolish woman!” Denny proclaimed. “She went and tossed it out the door before we could get it closed and we were not going to turn back to retrieve it.”
“You are the fools!” Wickham looked as if he wanted to slap the man. “She left it behind as a sign. No doubt the carriage wheels ran over the top of it leaving tracks which could easily be followed by someone as canny as the colonel.”
“Colonel Forster?” Both Denny and Carter showed fear.
“No, you stupid mutton-heads.” Wickham scowled. “His cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam who no doubt is already on our trail. Why in the world did you not mention this before? We should have left for town as soon as you arrived.”
They were hustled out of the cottage to the waiting carriage. Darcy helped Miss Elizabeth inside and sat closely next to her as she slid to the far side of the coach, up against the window. He could do nothing about the other men positioning themselves across from her. Without something to cover her shoulders and chest, she was vulnerable to the indecent stares of men who had already spoken of her in a vulgar manner. Disregarding the pain and the cooling air, he shrugged out of his coat and draped it over her shoulders. She immediately pulled the front closed.
“Thank you.” She whispered to him from under her bonnet. “Will you be warm enough?”
“Yes.” This time, it was he who enfolded her hand with his large one.
“Thank you, again, sir.” She looked up and smiled.
His heart sang. She was a petite woman whose form was light and pleasing. Her face, with the small patches of freckles across her nose, was delightful and he knew he could gaze upon it until he took his last breath, feeling pleasure with her presence. He felt like a veritable giant alongside her. He wanted her to feel safe with him.
The driver had fastened one horse into the harnesses and had gone to the shed to retrieve the other when an argument broke out between the three other men.
In their distraction, they did not see the riders coming into the clearing, though both Darcy and Elizabeth did from where they were seated.
“Pull your weapons!” Colonel Fitzwilliam commanded the other riders who Darcy recognized as wearing Lady Catherine’s livery. Each man grabbed a pistol from their belt or a rifle from a scabbard. “Aim!”
Within seconds, the melee between the three men had stopped while the driver returned to the shed with the horse.
“No!” Wickham shouted to no one in particular. He growled at his associates. “You ingrates. Look at what you have done.”
Darcy could hear his frustration and rejoiced in it.
“Drop your weapons!” One by one, Carter, Denny, and then Wickham tossed their guns to the ground.
Without looking away from the men on the ground, Richard commanded. “Keep your eyes on these three. This one is mine.” At that he rode his horse up to Wickham, knocking him to the ground.
Darcy kissed the back of Elizabeth’s hand and commanded her to stay in the carriage. He walked to where the pistols had fallen and gathered them. He was unsurprised when she walked up behind him. Only Elizabeth!
“Can you shoot?” He would have been unsurprised if she said she could.
“No, but I can point and look mean.”
Darcy wanted to chuckle and roll his eyes as she demonstrated her stance with her index finger. Fortunately, he refrained. Instead, he cleared his throat and suggested she leave the weapons alone and gather as many ropes as she could find from the cottage and the shed.
Two of the colonel’s men stood alongside each of Denny, Carter, and the driver. Darcy stepped beside the colonel. Within minutes, the criminals were trussed like turkeys ready for the stove and seated on the backs of their horses. Bridles were removed and lead ropes attached to the outlaw’s mounts so there would be no opportunity for escape.
This left both Darcy and Elizabeth without transportation. Since the carriage horses had belonged to Denny and Carter, the vehicle sat alone in the yard as if abandoned. The idea of bouncing on the back of a horse was unpalatable to Darcy and Elizabeth was known to not care for the beasts.
“We will stay until you return with carriage horses, Richard.” Darcy waved the men away. “I will follow as soon as I am able so we can determine the future of these unworthy men.”
“No need for that, Darce.” The colonel prodded the hind end of Wickham’s horse, causing him to jump forward and almost unseat its rider. “The law is pretty clear about the penalty for desertion. You see, the military frowns on abandoning your post during times of war. When you add kidnapping charges for the two of you to what the military courts will enact, you will not need to worry about seeing their pretty faces for a long time, if ever.”
“Let’s move ‘em out. The hangman’s noose is waiting.” The colonel turned to give Darcy and Elizabeth a final grin before moving his horse alongside Wickham’s.
As quickly as they had arrived, the men were gone leaving Darcy and Elizabeth standing in the clearing.
“Mr. Darcy, will they hang?” Elizabeth worried her bottom lip with her teeth. Darcy longed to kiss away the red marks she was leaving behind.
“I do not know. But what I do know is that Richard will tease and torment Wickham until the man would welcome the quiet of eternal oblivion.”
“And you, sir. What would you do if it was you riding beside him?” She stood her ground when he moved a step closer.
“I would think of all the things I want to berate him for.” He shrugged and was reminded of his injuries. “But I would be unlikely to actually say them out loud. There are too many people around to hear.”
“I see.” Elizabeth took a small step closer to him and tilted her head so she could look him in the eye. “And if you had the opportunity to tell me all the things you want me to hear, what would you say?”
“I…” He struggled to get the giant bullfrog from his throat. “I… well, I would…”
“Yes?” She took another step closer until they were almost touching. “I am waiting, Mr. Darcy.”
He had never been good with words when confronted with a beautiful woman. So, he did the next best thing, bending down he placed his lips tenderly on hers. “Ouch!” It was not tender enough. The corner of his mouth where his lip had split from one of the blows inflicted by Wickham protested his pucker.
“Somehow I never expected that to be the reaction to my first kiss.” She teased. Elizabeth lifted her hand and brushed her fingers lightly over his injury.
His pain melted away at her touch.
“Then let us try again.” This time, they were both much more pleased with the results.
“Mr. Darcy?” Her voice was soft and her eyes were like warm puddles of shimmering liquid.
“Yes?” He whispered.
“Mr. Wickham may have had the right of it when he said your tongue is unhinged. However, I do believe we may have found something your mouth is particularly good at.” Her smile made the sun pale.
“And what is that, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth?”
She answered immediately. “No more talking, Fitzwilliam. Kiss me.”
And he did.