“Mr Darcy, what are you doing?” Elijah was in a state of disbelief. He had just been kissed, and quite thoroughly, by Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.
“Miss Bennet, you can no longer fool me. I know you are not a man, and I have proof to that fact. A fact, I might add, that has eased my mind tremendously.”
Elizabeth reached up and took hold of her shirt front, holding it closed. “You do not know what you are saying, Mr Darcy. I am Elijah Bennet of Longbourn.”
Darcy smiled. How his heart soared. For the weeks that he had known the Bennet family, he had battled the feelings he had for the young lady who had been passing as a young man. Now that he had the proof he needed, he felt as light as air.
“You are Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn. Do you know how I found out the truth?”
“You are mistaken, Sir. I am not Miss Elizabeth. She died.”
“No, she did not. She stepped forward to protect her family, pretending to be a man.” Darcy stated, his hand reaching up to cup her cheek. “Oh, my dear Miss Elizabeth, you have no notion of what you have done to me. From the first moment I met you, you have touched my heart in a way like no other. You had me questioning my reality, having tender feelings for a young man is not to be borne. But, then I began to wonder. Your sisters have made a few slips, nothing that would have garnered attention from others, but I have been wishing to know more about you, and understand who you really are. The final clue was in a letter from my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I told you she wrote about her clergyman, but I did not tell you all that I learned from the letter.”
Elizabeth shook her head. What could have been in the letter that Lady Catherine wrote, how would the lady know about Elizabeth? She feared the worst, she would be found out to be a fraud.
“Your cousin, Mr Collins, was the heir of your father’s estate. I learned that the estate was entailed to the male line, and that the only male in the line was Mr Collins. That means that Mr Bennet never had a son, and the person before me is not Elijah Bennet, but Elizabeth.”
“Please, Mr Darcy, do not speak of this to anyone. I beg of you. Allow us to sell the shop and move away, you will never have to see us again.”
Darcy did not understand of what she was thinking. “Miss Elizabeth, why would you move away?”
“We will be ruined when word spreads that I have been pretending to be a man. Allow us to sell and move away. Perhaps we can move to Ireland or the Americas. It is much to ask of you, as I am certain that you are furious with the deception.”
Darcy felt so light from the burden that had been lifted from him. “I do not wish to ruin anything for you. I wish to make your lives better. Miss Elizabeth, I have fallen in love with you. Deeply, completely, in love with you. As a young man, you were forbidden to me, and the pain I suffered was tremendous. But you are a lady, a beautiful young lady with courage and strength, so much so that you put your wants and needs aside to care for your family.”
Reaching forward, Darcy pulled Elizabeth into his embrace.
“Mr Darcy, please, this is improper. People can see through the windows. Everyone believes me to be a man.”
Darcy looked around, but did not see anyone outside the shop. He did step back, and ushered Elizabeth into the rear of the shop. Mrs Gardiner came down the stairs quickly.
“What has happened? Martha came and woke me, telling me someone had screamed. What is going on here?
“Your niece was attacked by robbers, and has suffered a minor wound.” Darcy replied. “The lady who screamed was a customer who had entered the shop as the robbers were there. She has gone to fetch a physician.”
Mrs Gardiner’s expression was one of extreme shock. “Y…y…you know?”
“I know that this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn.” Darcy smiled, his eyes locked to her face.
Fear began to well in Mrs Gardiner. “Please, Mr Darcy, forgive us. We did not wish to deceive you. I am aware you would not wish to have Jane continue as your sister’s companion, after all we have done to keep the truth hidden.”
Darcy shook his head. “Mrs Gardiner, you have no need for fear from me. I care for your niece, and Miss Jane has been nothing but the perfect companion for Georgiana. I have nothing but joy in the news that this is not Elijah Bennet, but Elizabeth.”
“How did you…?”
“Why do we not tend to your niece’s injury, then we can talk. The physician should be here any moment.” Darcy replied.
“No…” Elizabeth said. “He will know the truth, that I am not…”
“Have no fear, I will ensure that you are protected from gossip.”
She gave him a look saying she did not trust his judgment, though she was in no way ready to argue the matter. The bell of the door pulled their attention to the fact that the shop was still open. Fortunately the people who entered were the lady and the physician. Elizabeth realized who the lady was, and spoke in her Elijah voice.
“Mrs Kemper, how are you? Forgive us for the situation you encountered. I pray you were not harmed.”
“I am well, Mr Bennet. And you, were you badly injured?”
“No, not bad, just a scratch. Mrs Kemper, this is my aunt, Mrs Gardiner. She will be happy to assist you, and your purchase is on the house. In gratitude for your assistance in fetching the physician for us.”
“That is not necessary, Mr Bennet. I am grateful you were not killed. When I saw blood on your clothes, I feared the worst.”
Mrs Gardiner moved to aid the lady. With that under control, Elizabeth, Darcy and the physician, Mr Carpenter, made their way up the stairs to the apartment.
“Mr Carpenter, I am Fitzwilliam Darcy. Your bill is to be sent to me, at Darcy House. Here is my card. And by my paying the bill, there will be a bonus for you if you keep quiet as to a secret that has to be kept.”
The physician frowned. “What sort of secret are you expecting me to keep? I will not lie for you.”
“No need to lie. Just omit certain aspects of the information. You see, Mr Bennet is not Mr Bennet, he is Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
The physician’s eyes grew wide. Looking at Elizabeth, his eyes appeared to be pleading with her.
“M…M…Miss Bennet? But…I have seen you many times in the neighborhood. Why would you…?”
“There are no men left in our family, Sir. Forgive me, I only meant to protect my family.” Elizabeth said, shame beginning to build.
“Miss Bennet’s father and uncles all perished during the epidemic last year. No one in trade would take a lady, especially a young lady of Miss Elizabeth’s age, seriously enough to do business.”
“This was my Uncle Edward Gardiner’s shop. You may remember him.”
“I do, Miss Bennet. Edward was a kind man, and it broke my heart to see him and his son depart this world. And you know I am the physician tending Mrs Gardiner.” Mr Carpenter stated. “Miss Bennet, I will keep your secret, as I know you have saved your family from becoming homeless and penniless. That makes you a decent person in my way of thinking. Now, what sort of injury did you sustain?”
Elizabeth and the physician moved into a room near the back of the apartment, to her bedchamber, for him to examine her wound. Though it had bled a bit, the physician declared it to be minor, and recommended some salve and bandaging. As Mr Carpenter left, he stopped in front of Darcy, who had been pacing in the parlor.
“Mr Darcy, there will be no bill for this visit. Knowing the Gardiner family, and all that happened to them, and Mr Gardiner’s relations from Hertfordshire, and knowing what that young lady has done to protect the remaining members of her family, I have nothing but the deepest respect for her.”
“I thank you, Sir.” Darcy stated, reaching into his pocket, and withdrawing a few coins. “You may refrain from billing me, but I wish to thank you for your understanding and tending Miss Elizabeth. If nothing else, count this as payment for another family who is struggling and require your services.”
“Very well, Mr Darcy, I will hold these coin in reserve for some other family in need. I take it that you plan to protect the Bennet and Gardiner families.”
“I am. Miss Jane Bennet is my sister’s companion, and now, I plan to court Miss Elizabeth until she agrees to marry me.”
Mr Carpenter smiled. “I wish you success on your endeavor. If the wound becomes red and inflamed, or she develops a fever, call me. Otherwise, she should be healed soon enough.”
The men shook hands, and Mr Carpenter left the apartments, bidding farewell to Mrs Gardiner as he left the shop. Once he was gone, Mrs Gardiner locked the door to the shop and hurried up the stairs. As she entered the door from the inside staircase, Kitty was returning from purchasing more supplies, using the outdoor staircase that led to the apartment.
“What is happening?” Kitty said, seeing Mr Darcy in the parlor. “Where is my aunt?”
“She is downstairs, in the shop.” Darcy replied, as Mrs Gardiner came through the door.
“I am here, Kitty. Your sister was injured in the shop.” Mrs Gardiner said.
Kitty was surprised. “Jane is here? Is Miss Darcy with you?”
Before Darcy could say anything, Elizabeth came out of her bedchamber fixing her neck cloth. “No, Kitty, Jane and Miss Darcy are not here. I was the one who was injured.”
Kitty’s eyes grew round and her hand rose to her lips, as she realized what was happening. “M…Mr Darcy…knows?”
Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner both nodded their heads.
“W…w…what will happen now?”
“Now, I wish for Miss Elizabeth to allow me to court her. I wish to one day be the happiest of men, when I win her hand in marriage.” Darcy replied.
“Mr Darcy, how can you believe we will be able to manage such a thing? I have been dressing like a man. My hair is short, like a man. It will be the end of our business, as people will believe me a fraud. I cannot imagine what people will think of you, Mr Darcy.”
“What they think is of no concern to me. And I am certain that we will be able to find a way to keep your identity a secret. Let me send for our sisters, and we will all sit down and discuss the matter.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
Lady Matlock arrived at the Gardiner Tea Shop to discover the door locked. She found the situation confusing, as she was aware of the hours that the shop kept. Not only that, she had placed an order to be picked up. Lady Matlock had planned to send a servant, but decided to come to the shop, as she wished to discuss another blend of tea. Her guests had all commented on the unique blends she had been serving, and she thought it would be nice to have another blend to serve them.
As the shop appeared to be closed, Lady Matlock shaded her eyes as she peeked through the window. There was no sign of life from the main level, but she was certain that she could hear children from the upstairs front corner. Lady Matlock walked around to the rear of the building, finding the staircase, and climbed the steps. At the upstairs door, she knocked and waited.
When the door opened, Kitty welcomed the Countess of Matlock inside their apartment.
“Nephew, what on earth are you doing up here? What is happening that the shop is closed?”
“Aunt Rebecca, a pleasure to see you.” Darcy said, as he strolled over to give his favorite aunt a kiss on the cheek. “I came to have a word with the family, and ended up assisting in thwarting a robbery.”
“Your nephew was quite heroic, Lady Matlock.” Elizabeth declared, using her Elijah voice. “We are now waiting for Miss Darcy and my elder sister to arrive.”
Rebecca Fitzwilliam turned her attention to her nephew. “So, are you planning to see that Miss Bennet wears gowns from now on, rather than wearing men’s clothes?”
A pin could have dropped and would have sounded like a gun shot, the room was so silent. Darcy was amazed at his aunt’s declaration.
“You…you knew?” Elizabeth asked. Everyone stood still, unable to fathom such.
“Of course I knew. I have known since the first time I met you, my dear girl. But I knew how difficult it must be for you to deal with a man’s world, and I commend you for all you have accomplished. It only breaks my heart that you have had to pretend all this time. Foolish men, thinking they are the only ones who have a brain for business.” Lady Matlock spoke honestly. “I am proud to know that you were able to out fox them all, even my nephew. At least for some time.”
“Aunt Rebecca, do you realize all I have endured, believing myself falling in love with a man? And you were aware that she was not a man?”
“Fitzwilliam Darcy, I did not tell you for two reasons. First, it was not my secret to tell. The second reason is more important. From this day forward, do not ever think men to be the superior in business. If a lady comes to you with a suggestion or idea, listen to her and weigh her opinion as you would a man’s.”
Darcy looked down at his feet. He realized the truth in his aunt’s words. Most likely, he would not have taken Elizabeth Bennet as seriously as he first
did Elijah. Would he have given Jane a chance at being a companion, at the suggestion of her sister? He prayed he would, but he was not completely certain.
“Thank you Aunt. You have taught me a very important lesson. And I am grateful. Now, do you see any objections with my courting Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” Darcy’s brow rose in an arch.
“No objections from me, and I doubt from your uncle or cousins. And I believe your sister will be pleased as well. The only ones that would cause you any problems in the family would be Catherine and Anne.” Lady Matlock said, her voice soft, reassuring him of her support.
“Forgive me, Mr Darcy, but I do not remember agreeing to a courtship. Are you not placing the cart before the horse?” Elizabeth asked.
Seeing that she had turned a bright shade of red, Darcy felt embarrassed. “It is me who should beg forgiveness, Miss Elizabeth. How rude of me to just assume you would wish to be courted.”
“There is far more to the matter, Mr Darcy. Such as the reputation of my family, the business we are running here. If would were to spread that I am a lady, not a man, our business would gain a reputation of being false. My family would be ruined. Can you not see that my desires are nothing in comparison to their needs? The only reason I cut my hair and dressed in my late uncle’s clothes was to protect the remaining members of my family.”
Mrs Gardiner could understand her niece, yet she knew what it would mean to Elizabeth to have such a husband. “Lizzy, you should think of yourself. You have done so much for all of us, it is time to see to your needs.”
“But Aunt, I could not. This business is your son’s legacy. I am holding it for him, and cannot throw his future away.” Elizabeth stuck to her objection. The reality was that she feared what everyone would think of Mr Darcy wishing to court a young lady who had been reduced to a tradesman to survive.
“No, Lizzy, that will not be the reason you turn down the chance to have happiness for yourself.” Mrs Gardiner replied.
Lady Matlock had obviously thought of the situation prior to this day. “Miss Elizabeth, would you mind me making a suggestion. I believe it would be best if you were to sell this shop. Much as I would hate to lose your shop, London will survive. Perhaps you could move the family to Derbyshire. William, did you not say that Lambton has been without a tea shop for some time now? Mrs Jordan and her sister moved to Essex, if I remember correctly.”
“You are correct, Aunt.” Darcy could see the way his aunt was thinking. “And I agree with you. Lambton would be a perfect place for Gardiner’s Tea Emporium.”
Mrs Gardiner smiled. “I would be thrilled to return to my childhood home. But how could we accomplish such a task?”
“You could allow me to assist.” Darcy’s expression was honest and open. “Even if Miss Elizabeth were to refuse my courtship, I wish for her to be someplace that will accept her as a lady, and not have to pretend to be a man.”
Elizabeth looked at those in the room, and was given a brief reprieve from answering when Jane and Georgiana arrived and entered the parlor.
Georgiana was only slightly surprised at the news, as she cared for all of Jane’s family, thinking of them as distant relations for herself.
“Georgiana, Miss Elizabeth is concerned how it will look to others, if I were to court her. Being that she is now in trade, she is afraid of the relationship tarnishing our reputations.” Darcy informed his sister.
“That is not exactly what I said, though it is pretty much the situation.” Elizabeth stated. “I would not wish to cause you problems, as you are not yet out in society.”
“Miss Eli…Elizabeth…forgive me, it will take some time getting used to calling you by this name.” Georgiana giggled lightly. “You are a gentleman’s daughter, gently born and bred, and you only turned to trade when you were forced to support your family.
I cannot see how you could be faulted for such behavior.”
“But society will see it as a fault, and will likely see me as a fortune hunter.” Elizabeth replied. “I would not wish for you or your brother to be treated ill for my situation.”
Lady Matlock sat straight and tall. “Let them say such a thing in front of me, and I will see to it they are cut from all the best society functions. I am the Countess of Matlock, and will not tolerate anyone belittling my future niece.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed deep red with the words. “I appreciate your kindness, Lady Matlock, though we have no way of knowing that I will become your niece one day. Your nephew has only asked for a courtship. He might see that it is a fool notion.”
“My dear girl, the reason I recommended your teas and treats is so my nephew could meet you. I knew from the start that you were a young lady. And, after speaking with you the first time I met you, I knew that you were intelligent and well read. You would make a good match for my nephew. And I was correct. The boy adores you, and I have never known him to fall for someone. Can you tell me that you do not care for him?”
“I…I…” Elizabeth could not look at Lady Matlock or Darcy. Her cheeks felt as if she would burst into flames.
“Lizzy, you know you care.” Jane said. “I know you care for Mr Darcy. You told me so, just a fortnight ago.”
“No, I will not be silenced. I know how much you have given up so to protect the family. It was me who wiped your tears when the men treated you abominably. Their lack of respect for you, simply due to your being a lady, was mortifying. You saved us from losing everything, now it is time to move forward. Your finding joy in your life will lead to our being able to find love in our own.”
“Lizzy, your sister is correct.” Mrs Gardiner stated. “And the thought of raising my children in Lambton, I find such delight in the thought. It will be a simpler life, rather than the life we live here, and the children can have friends with which to play. It would be delightful to open a tea shop in the village I knew so well as a child.”
Darcy made his way to where Elizabeth was sitting. Kneeling down before her, he took her hand in his own. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, I wish to court you. I wish to see you and your family live better lives. And I wish to see you be the person you truly are, not pretend to be someone you are not.”
Elizabeth could feel a tingling of her skin as Darcy’s thumb caressed the back of her hand. Finally, she looked up into his eyes. At that moment, she knew that she had lost her heart forever. “I will allow you to court me, Mr Darcy, as long as you do so with your eyes wide open.”
“Then we will begin to build our future from this day forward.” Elizabeth placed her other hand on the side of Darcy’s cheek, cupping it and allowing him to turn his face to place a gentle kiss on her palm.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~