Against expectations. Against reason. Against all odds.
This is a stand-alone story that does not require reading book one in the series.
Fitzwilliam Darcy carries the weight of the past, the present, and the future on his broad shoulders. Driven by his family’s expectations, he slights the one person who could bring him joy.
Elizabeth Bennet is an independent spirit trapped by the constraints of society and the poor decisions of others. Unexpectedly, she gets a glimpse into the heart of a man who insulted her. Instead of arrogance and pride, she sees honor.
When their lives are endangered, can they work together to save each other? Will Darcy be her salvation? Can Elizabeth’s love melt the ice surrounding his heart?
River of Dreams is a sweet and dramatic, enemy to lovers Regency variation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice that is appropriate for all readers.
Late November 1811
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s mare surged down the hill toward the stone bridge crossing the overflowing river. With every pounding hoofbeat, voices from the past haunted him.
“Keep away from the water.”
“Do not get close to the water!”
The river had been angry before the dam breach. Now, it was perilous.
Kicking his feet from the stirrups, Darcy landed on the bridge and slapped the mare on its flank. Fear seizing him, he peeled his great coat from his shoulders, tossing it in a pile with his beaver hat, gloves, and riding crop. He stepped on the heel of his left Hessian until his foot was free. Pulling at his cravat, he attempted to remove his other boot. However, he was out of time.
The terrifying vision he had spotted from the hillside approached: Elizabeth Bennet and two children were in the water, a capsized boat behind them. Tree branches and limbs battered them from all sides. The young ones clung to Miss Bennet, threatening to pull her under. She grabbed a log in all the fast-moving detritus.
“No!” Darcy instinctively yelled.
“Help us!” Her screams increased as the water pushed and pulled. The log began to roll.
Leaping onto the rock wall, he peered into the swirling water. His heart hammered in every pore of his body. He swallowed hard, yet his mouth was dry.
He hated the water.
But he deeply admired her.
Closing his eyes, he only had time to whisper “Dear God” before plunging into the frigid water below.
Fourteen years earlier – Summer
“Father, we are leaving the North Road.”
“I am aware.” Gerald Darcy’s eyes never left the business section of the circulating newspaper. When they departed their home in Grosvenor Square that morning, twelve editions of the Morning Post, the Morning Chronicle, the Morning Herald, and The Times were stacked neatly on the seat. The man across from him studied each word so intently that only one issue was completed by the time the carriage made the turn. The others would take them almost to Pemberley.
His father was a man of routine. Thus, this could not be a spontaneous or leisure detour. For Darcy’s lifetime, when they traveled from their estate in Derbyshire to their house in London, the Darcy carriages stopped at the same inns unless business was involved. Gerald Darcy lived to increase the family coffers.
At thirteen years of age, Darcy was grateful for his father’s silence. Instead of, “How are you faring, Fitzwilliam?” he would hear, “Stop fidgeting,” “Will you keep quiet,” or most frequently, “A Darcy never acts in that manner.”
Peering through the back window, the smaller carriage containing his young sister Georgiana and her nursemaid, his father’s valet, along with the Darcy family’s man of business humbly followed the grander conveyance. Were they as surprised as he by this unanticipated alteration? He hoped that wherever they stopped, there was shade. The heat, added to the dust from the road, was intolerable.
He examined his father from head to toe. Often it was commented upon how Darcy’s looks mirrored his sire. Already he was almost as tall. Both had dark hair. Deep blue eyes. Erect posture and attitude. Even their traveling clothes were strikingly similar. The only distinction besides their ages was that his father wore a mustache and a closely trimmed beard. Darcy had barely begun to shave.
Since his father did not deem his comment worthy of an explanation, Darcy studied their surroundings. Hertfordshire. Stately oaks bordered lush green fields. Small farm cottages dotted the knolls. Healthy cattle grazed in one area while sheep were in another—a narrow river wound through the acreage. The sunlight glistening off the water beckoned him to shed his black traveling coat to find relief from the heat of the day. He would never give in to his inclination, never rumple his polished exterior, especially in front of the man sitting across from him.
Besides, Darcy no longer entered any pool of water larger than his bath. The very thought of it made him shrink back into the seat.
When they stopped before a tall building, a sign identifying it as the White Stag inn, Darcy followed his father from the carriage. Once the smaller vehicle behind them halted, his sister’s nurse hurried Georgiana into the building, followed by the rest in their employ.
Gerald Darcy adjusted his beaver and gloves. “I have business that will keep me occupied for less than an hour. I trust that you will act the gentlemen while I am gone.” Scanning the street again, he added, “Remember who you are and the name you bear.”
The insult pierced Darcy’s heart. When did he not act the gentleman? When had his actions brought reproach upon the Darcy name? Swallowing the hurt, he asked, without thinking, “Where are we?” Immediately, he cursed himself for his unbridled tongue. A Darcy was supposed to know when to speak and when to keep quiet.
His father’s eyes shot up and down the street. “Nowhere.” Settling his eyes upon his son, he commanded, “Stay away from the water.”
“Yes, sir.” The familiar warning barely registered. Without thought, he asked: “Do you know someone here?”
“There is no one here worth knowing, Fitzwilliam, nor will there ever be.”
Gerald Darcy stepped back inside the carriage. Within seconds of its departure, Darcy surveyed the market town closely. Meryton. He had never heard of the place despite having acquaintances from Eton who were from the shire.
Being left alone, even if the only living being on the street was a donkey resting under the shade of a massive oak, felt satisfying—as if his father viewed him as closer to manhood than the nursery. He wondered if any eyes, probably peeking out their curtained windows, noticed his height or status. Why, he could barely pull the lapels of his coat together the way his chest puffed out.
Across the street from him was a haberdasher, a pastry shop, a blacksmith, a milliner, and a bookshop. At the west end of the street stood a church with a small garden on one side and a cemetery in the back. To the east, the road forked. His father’s carriage turned right.
Once the coach was out of sight, he walked toward the small stone bridge in the direction his father traveled.
Despite his father’s warning, Darcy was drawn to water since the day of his mother’s death. For a certainty, he no longer swam. To blatantly disobey his father’s command for the sake of pleasure would have led to dire consequences. Additionally, the idea of entering a body of water where he could not see the bottom was…he shuddered. No, he would never swim again.
However, since the accident, an inner force moved him to study any lake, pond, river, or brook he encountered, searching for obstacles that might snare a lady’s gown, pulling her under to her death.
This day was no different. Instead of keeping away from the river, Darcy approached. He was surprised and horrified to hear a childish voice barking commands from somewhere below the bridge. He peeked over the edge. Gratefully, the clear water revealed the rocky bottom barely a few feet below the surface.
“Heave ho!” A sprite of a girl with dark braided hair and sparkling eyes stood at the bow of a dubious-looking raft. Two older boys manned the oars while another attempted to tie a cloth to a pole fastened to the middle of the deck. The girl peered into the distance, her hand shading her eyes from the sun before looking toward the riverbank. Darcy’s eyes followed hers.
There stood a lovely girl a few years older than the sprite. Her wringing hands and pacing gave evidence of her anxiety. “Lizzy, Papa will not like you taking his octant or map. You should come away so we can return to Longbourn.”
The younger girl replied, “No, Jane. I am afraid we cannot journey to the Amazon to find the lost Inca gold without it. Papa will not mind once we return with enough wealth, and Mama will never need to worry about hedgerows ever again.”
Even with a rising fear of the potential for harm, Darcy barely kept from grinning. The little captain, no more than six or seven, had a mighty lisp. When she smiled at the other girl, he could see the cause. Her two front teeth were missing.
One of the boys spoke up. “Besides, Jane, Lizzy said we’ll see monkeys and black jaguars on our way. I’ve been wanting to see a monkey all my life.”
Another boy agreed. “Yeah. We’ll get to see an elephant and be rich at the same time.” The third boy grunted his acquiescence.
“Well, I do not know,” the eldest girl mused. “Will you be home in time for dinner?”
That seemed to catch the three boys’ attention. “Dinner? Yeah, Lizzy, we can’t be missin’ dinner because Cook was makin’ her apple tart this mornin’. She may get mad at me and Johnny for stealin’ biscuits from the coolin’ rack, but she never gets mad at Bertie, and he shares.”
The little miss planted her fists at her waist. “Robert Lucas! You would encourage mutiny? You can’t leave yet. How can I sail by myself all the way to Peru? How can I find Pizarro’s buried treasure? You promised you would help.”
How bold for a child.
Once the three boys abandoned the raft, they ran from the scene without looking back to wave. The rocking raft pulled away from its mooring, leaving the girl alone.
“Lizzy!” the one named Jane screamed, rushing along the shore as the raft floated to the center of the river. “Come away safely!”
Panic began to rise in Darcy’s chest. The girl was alone on the water.
“No. To reach the River Thames and the North Sea by nightfall, I must continue my journey. Take care of Papa, Mama, and our sisters. They will need your help while I’m gone.”
Darcy had to intervene, but the thought of nearing the water, possibly stepping close or even into its depths, made his heart pound, his palms sweat.
Likely, there was a deep pool where the water turned. Forcing back fears, Darcy ran to the end of the bridge and leapt down the embankment, his long legs racing until he reached the river’s edge across from the girl named Jane. With another burst of speed and without a care for his father’s orders, his pressed trousers, his polished boots, or his own dismay, Darcy pushed through the reeds until he reached a path.
The raft hit the bank, almost bouncing the girl off her feet. The port side gave a violent shudder before succumbing to the mud. One by one, the crudely assembled timbers broke away to float down the river. Without a miracle, the girl and her vessel were going nowhere.
When the pole with the improvised sail splashed into the water, the young girl grabbed a wooden container before jumping to the muddy bank, where Darcy slid to a stop. She ignored his outstretched hand. Shaking water droplets from her skirt, she splattered some on his Hessians.
Regardless of his youth, he could see many reasons her journey, even as far as around the bend, would not have succeeded. Gratefully, she stood on solid ground as the last of the raft broke into pieces.
“Drat!” Looking up at him, she asked, “Don’t you dream of adventure, being as rich as Croesus, and discovering what is on the other side of the ocean?”
Stepping from the river’s edge, he took a moment before he spoke. “I…well, I must admit that I have never given the matter much thought.” Darcy was surprised at the question coming from a girl so young. “It is apparent from your attempt today that you have seriously considered the prospect.”
She huffed. “Aye! I have. I have been planning this trip for a full five days. Robby, Johnny, and Bertie Lucas agreed to join me for an equal share of the treasure. Silly boys, each of them. They sold seven hundred fifty tons of gold for an apple tart.”
His inclination was to scoff at the ridiculousness of her plans. Yet, he admired her spirit. “Is your life so mundane that you sought escape?”
Eyeing him carefully, she said, “I know that mundane means dull. And, yes, my life is certainly very dull. Our father refers to our family as ‘proud Boeotians.’ Do you know what that is? It is a person who is dull, obtuse, and unrefined. My sisters and I are still under the thumb of a nurse who thinks she knows everything. Well, Papa taught me to read when I was quite small. He has many map books. I love to look at the pictures and dream of who lives there and what they are like. I know there is much more out there.” Her arm swept into an arc away from her.
“You do not think you are full young for this adventure? The Amazon is thousands of miles away. The river itself is thousands of miles long. The journey is perilous. For the past two hundred years, many explorers have sought the gold with no success. What makes you think you would ever reach the shores of the Amazon or find the treasure?”
The girl glanced at him like he was a simpleton. “I have a map.”
“I see.” He wanted to smile but inherently knew she would not be pleased. “Might I take a look at this map?”
“Certainly.” Opening the wooden box, she unfolded a scrap piece of parchment with a rudimentary drawing of England in the top right corner with a somewhat hazy sketch of what must have been South America on the lower left. In the middle of the continent, Amazon was scribbled in capital letters.
“My father would be displeased if I took the original map. I made my own copy. However, even if I lost it or some thieving highwayman stole it, I have memorized all the important points to make the trip safely.”
“What would you do if your vessel was damaged?” He gestured toward the wreckage.
She shrugged. “Papa says I swim like a shark.”
His mother could also swim, yet that skill had not kept her alive.
“That ability cannot always save you. What about pirates? Are you prepared to defend yourself, your crew…well, your former crew, and your ship if you are attacked?”
Slapping her forehead, she again looked at Darcy. “I knew I forgot something. Do you have a pistol?”
This time he could not keep the grin from his face. “I do.”
Nodding once, she stuck out her hand. “Very well, then. I am Captain Lizzy of the recently sunk HMS Voyager. I am recruiting crew members skilled in sailing, carpentry, and shooting. You will need to bring your own weapon. Mightn’t you be interested?”
With little hesitation, he wiped his palms on the side of his trousers and took her hand, bowing over slim fingers. “I thank you for the excellent invitation. However, my path in life was set at birth. As you sail the world searching for treasure, I will learn to manage our family estate in Derbyshire as the firstborn son.”
Her head tilted to the side, her eyes squinting in the sunlight. “Jane is the firstborn too. Mama expects her to marry a rich man so we will not be thrown from our house when Papa dies. Longbourn has an entail. Do you know what that is? I do.”
“Yes, I know about entails.”
“Well, I have no intention of living in the hedgerows if I can help it, and my favorite sister should not need to marry if she does not want to. Besides, I want to see monkeys and jaguars and sloths.” She looked back to where the lone piece of raft bobbed in the water. “If you cannot come with me, then I will find someone else. According to my mother, I am persistent, which means that I do not give up easily. I will not quit until my dreams come true. This river is the key.”
Rivers are dangerous! He feared the boldness of this child.
“You sound very grown up for a lady so young,” Darcy admitted. “My father will be waiting for me. Now that you are safely on shore, I shall return to the inn.” He bowed and then waved at the fair-haired girl across the river. “I wish the best for you both.”
The captain gathered a fistful of fabric in each hand and curtsied. Her skirt was coarse cotton, like what Pemberley’s kitchen servants wore. “Thank you for your efforts to rescue me, kind sir.”
Walking toward the bridge, he turned to see if the little girl had followed. She sat on the embankment, her elbows on her knees with her chin in the palms of her hands. Without a doubt, she was plotting her course. He could not keep himself from saying, “By the way, elephants are in Africa and Asia, not South America.”
“I know,” she grumbled. “I had to promise them elephants, or they wouldn’t come. Stupid boys!”
He chuckled. Had he ever been that motivated to set out on his own? Whether he had or not, he was a Darcy. Darcys were responsible, tied to the land of their inheritance. Darcys were as reliable as the sunrise and sunset each day. Darcys no longer neared the water.
He exhaled heavily. Unlike the little girl, the Darcys were dull.
* * *
Fortunately, he gained the attention of Parker, his father’s valet, before Gerald Darcy saw the condition of Darcy’s clothing. By the time the two generations were back inside the carriage, the valet had pressed Darcy’s trousers to a sharp edge, and his boots were polished, removing all evidence of the water, the captain, and her aborted journey down her river of dreams.
“Did you find something suitable to occupy your time?” Gerald Darcy inquired.
The impatient glint in his father’s eye and the heightened color of his face convinced Darcy to be cautious with his words. Gerald Darcy’s anger simmered below the surface. A slight irritation would light the fuse leading to an explosion that would unbalance Darcy’s world for the rest of the trip. “There were some children….”
“Ill-bred misfits, I imagine.” His father jeered. “Darcys do not fraternize with the riffraff in these villages, Fitzwilliam. The less we have to do with them, the better our lives shall be. You did not get close to the river, did you?”
Darcy was even more careful with his reply. “I always listen to you, Father.”
He hated being deceitful, but admitting his actions would have been more than he could bear. If only he had the freedom as Captain Lizzy to seek his own dreams. But he was not allowed, nor would he ever be.
Tapping the roof with his walking stick, his father commanded, “Walk on.”
Darcy forced himself not to look back to see the voyager. Unless he did as his father demanded, there would be no peace on their journey to Pemberley and possibly beyond. The few times his father had given him the silent treatment, he not only refrained from addressing his son but the servants and Darcy’s cousins were not allowed to speak to him either. Darcy knew that obeying his father was the course of wisdom. The alternative simply could not be borne.