“Lady Catherine, there is a man wishing to speak with you and Miss de Bourgh.”
“And who is this man, Jeevers?” Lady Catherine inquired, her tone being frustrated at having to ask.
“A Mr Wickham. He states he has news for you, news he is certain you will wish to hear.”
Lady Catherine knew very well what the subject of the news would be. She had long paid George Wickham to keep a watch over her nephew.
George Wickham had been the son of Gerald Darcy’s steward. He was a year younger than Fitzwilliam Darcy, but had been his childhood playmate, until Gerald paid for the younger Wickham to attend school with his son. The true nature of the young man was shown when he was away from parental guidance. Fitzwilliam had not wished to burden his father with the trouble Wickham got into, and would usually pay the debts Wickham left in his trail, to protect the Darcy family name, a name Wickham had cashed in upon.
When his nature was emerging, Lady Catherine realized the potential ally she had in the young man. As he was constantly in need of funds, it was simple to pay him to spy on her nephew. She wished to know what he was doing, and to ensure that Fitzwilliam was not falling for one of the young ladies of society who flung themselves at him.
As Wickham entered the room, the footman closed the door behind him. “Lady Catherine, Miss de Bourgh, such a pleasure to see both of you once again.”
Anne was well aware of her mother’s agreement with the young man, and, like everything else in Anne’s miserable life, the young lady could not care less.
“What news do you have for me, Wickham?”
“Ah, yes, straight to the point. You never stop to smell the roses, just plow straight ahead.” Wickham stated, waiting for the grand dame to approve his taking his seat. When he saw that no offer would be made, he walked over to the sideboard, pouring himself a glass of port, then took the chair that was situated to the left of Lady Catherine’s throne like chair.
“Well, I have the most interesting of developments to report to you today. It is a most shocking development, one I would not have ever imagined.”
Lady Catherine was impatient with his stonewalling. “Mr Wickham, I suggest you tell us the news or be gone. You are already treading on my nerves, helping yourself of my best port and acting as if you live here.”
“But Lady Catherine, I have traveled from Town, and require refreshment.” Wickham smiled as he raised the glass to his lips. After taking a few sips, the man continued to speak.
“There is a new tea shop in Town, one that has become a frequent stop for several members of your family.”
“Why would I care where my family shop for their tea? How could this matter to me and my daughter?”
Wickham took another sip. “Well, it seems that the shop is favored by the Countess of Matlock, and she has sent your nephew to frequent the little shop. As a matter of fact, your niece, Georgiana Darcy’s new companion is a relation of the shop’s owner.”
“Fitzwilliam Darcy hired a lady from trade to serve as my niece’s companion? How dare he lower Georgiana’s chances of making a proper match? She will never be taken seriously with a companion who comes from a family in trade.” Lady Catherine nearly roared.
“That is not the worst news, your Ladyship.”
“Then speak. I demand to know what else is happening.”
Standing, Wickham returned to the side board, pouring more port in his glass. Before retaking his seat, he sipped from the glass and topped it off for a third time.
“Mr Wickham, you need to speak of your news before I have the footmen throw you from this house, with nothing but the clothes on your back. If you request financial recompense, then speak.”
“The tea shop is owned by Mr Edward Gardiner, who died near a year past. The young man who manages the shop is a nephew of the Gardiners, and runs the shop on behalf of Mr Gardiner’s widow and children.” Wickham took another sip, savoring the liquid as it flowed down his throat. He had not enjoyed such fine drink in some time, as his finances had been tight. Wickham was infamous for being on the run from creditors and male relations of the young ladies he had ruined.
“So are you telling me that the companion to my niece is taking advantage of my nephew? Is she a fortune hunter, and has caused my nephew to compromise her?”
“No, Lady Catherine, the companion is not the problem.”
“Then tell me what the problem is immediately. Out with the news, now, or leave penniless.”
Anne rolled her eyes. She did not care what dull news the man had to share, as she knew that her cousin was a bore.
“Lady Catherine, I was standing across the street from the shop, and I witnessed your nephew protect the young man from a robbery. During the robbery, the young man was injured. A customer was entering the shop as the robbers were exiting, and she went for the physician, at Darcy’s demand. While she was gone, Darcy began opening the young man’s shirt and coats to check the wound, at least that was what I believed, until Darcy took hold of the young man by the arms and pulled him into a passionate kiss.”
Neither Anne or Lady Catherine could have anticipated such news. “Is this the reason my nephew has refused to do his duty to his family? Is this why he has not declared his engagement to my daughter?” Lady Catherine stood and began to pace about the room. “But this is the best news.”
“The best news?” Anne was shocked. “Mother, are you well? You were just told that your nephew was seen kissing another man. Not only is the thought disgusting and repugnant, but it is illegal. He could hang for such actions.”
“And that is why the news is perfect. Do you not see? We can use the information to blackmail Fitzwilliam into marrying you. We will keep his secret, and that of the young man, if he agrees to be married immediately. Once he agrees, we will control Pemberley.”
“Why is it you wish to have me married to a man who would behave in such a manner? The thought makes me ill.” Anne was repulsed.
“Do you not understand? All this time, I have wished to have Pemberley. It was the only way I could take control of the estate. My sister always thought she had the best of everything. But my having both Rosings and Pemberley, I will be the most important of us. My sister will never be able to take that from me.” Lady Catherine was nearly salivating.
“How can you expect me to marry such a man? No, Mother, I will not be bound for the rest of my life to someone who is committing such vulgar acts of depravity.” Anne declared.
“You will marry him, and then you will make certain you bear him a child. Once you have done these two things, you can banish him to his estate in Scotland. You need never see him again, once you have his heir. And the best part of the situation is, the heir does not have to be a male, as there is no entail for either Rosings or Pemberley.” Lady Catherine was planning the future which she could see opening before her. “I will take charge of Pemberley, as it has long been in need of improvements which my sister lacked. You may remain here, or come to Pemberley with me.”
“Mother, this is not a discussion we should be having in front of Mr Wickham. I believe we have much to decide prior to making arrangements to move to Pemberley, or anywhere else.” Anne was becoming more repulsed by the moment. Her desire to flee from the room weighed heavily against her desire to protect herself from spending the remaining years of her life as Mrs. Anne Darcy. If Wickham spoke the truth, the last thing in the world Anne wished for was to be in such a marriage, but how was she to convince her mother not to pursue the dream she had held for so many years?
“Wickham, I will need you to return to Town and keep watch over the situation. Send me express messages if necessary, when there are any updates on the situation. And I need more information on the young man. This is my nephew’s weakness, and I will exploit this weakness, even if it means ruining the young man. But if he is such a carnal creature as to prefer men, he deserves no less than to be ruined.” Lady Catherine started for the door of the drawing room. “Come with me, and I will give you the funds you will require to do my bidding.”
Wickham stood, still holding his glass, and followed the grand dame of Rosings Park from the room.
Left behind, Anne began to search her mind for options to save her from the future her mother had decided for her. Finally, one name came to mind. She would write to her cousin Richard. If anyone could help her find a way to escape her mother’s plot, it would be Richard Fitzwilliam. Was he in England or on the continent? She could not remember what he had written in his last letter. Anne admitted that she had been in a horrible mood the past several months, as she knew it was fast approaching when she would not be able to avoid her mother’s demands to marry Darcy. Yes, she was spoiled, and had continued behaving with Darcy as she always had, praying that she could disgust Darcy enough to refuse to marry her. When she was completely honest, Anne had to admit that she did not wish to marry, as she had no guidance on how to have the sort of marriage she would wish. Her parents had a horrible relationship, filled with anger and bitterness.
If Anne had admitted the truth, she would have been pleased to marry Richard. He was kind to her, even when Anne acted the spoiled heiress. Richard was one of the few people she had respected and cared for throughout her life. So it was with determination that Anne made her way to her bedchamber to search her cousin’s latest letters, hoping that he was in England, and that he could come to her aid.
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~
The Darcys had invited the Bennets and Gardiners to dine with them at Darcy House. Mrs Gardiner was worried about taking her children, but Darcy was adamant that they were welcome to come. “Mrs Gardiner, we have a nursery filled with all sorts of delights to keep the children occupied, and they can dine there. Your niece can tell you that my staff is more than dependable to keep watch over the children for a few hours.”
Finally, Mrs Gardiner agreed to bring her offspring to the grand townhouse in the Mayfair district, along with her nieces. Jane was with Georgiana, as she had decided to keep her position as the younger girl’s companion for the time being.
Along with the Bennet/Gardiner family, Darcy had invited the Fitzwilliam family to join them. It would be the night they all discussed the situation with Elizabeth no longer pretending to be a man. The family would be relied upon heavily to protect Elizabeth and her relations as she emerged to the world as herself once more.
Richard Fitzwilliam was free from duties and had joined his parents and his elder brother, Albert, at Darcy House. He had chuckled when he learned the news of his cousin’s love interest, especially when he was informed of Darcy’s kissing Elizabeth in the tea shop.
After the meal was enjoyed, with Elizabeth sitting to Darcy’s right, the men decided to forgo the division of sexes and joined the ladies in the music room.
Rather than music, those gathered were to discuss the plans for Elizabeth Bennet’s return.
“I received a letter from Mrs. Reynolds, my housekeeper at Pemberley, stating that the tea shop in Lambton had indeed closed. The building is available, and it has living quarters situated to the back of the shop. The living quarters have three bedchambers, a parlor, and a kitchen with a dining area. Above the shop, there is room for two bedchambers and an office. There is a basement, much as the shop you currently have.” Darcy began the discussion.
“How much are they asking for the property?” Mrs Gardiner inquired.
Reading from the letter, Darcy continued. “For the shop, the living quarters, and a small garden area near the living quarters, they are asking about half of what you can earn from the sale of your property in Town. That would be enough to allow you a cushion in the bank. And, when the children are old enough, they can attend school.”
“Will we be able to afford a carriage and horse?” Kitty inquired. We have Uncle’s small carriage, and his horse, but will we be able to keep them?”
Mrs Gardiner took a moment to think of the finances. “Possibly. We will need to consider the expenses of moving. We might need to hire someone to tend the children while Kitty and I work in the shop.”
“Aunt, I have no intentions of leaving you so soon. There will be plenty of time with me assisting you, before you need worry about someone as a nanny for the children.” Elizabeth announced.
“But you will be working as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, correct?” Richard Fitzwilliam asked pointedly. “That is the point of this ploy, is it not?”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “It pains me that I have caused so much difficulty to all of you. At the time, my only concern was to keep my family together, housed and fed.”
“Do not fret, Lizzy.” Jane said. “All will be well.”
“We do not wish to excite any speculation, so Georgiana, Miss Bennet and I will leave Town in three days. We will arrive at Pemberley, and then I will speak with the solicitor about the purchase of the shop in Lambton. Do not fret, it will not be a hardship for me to wait for you to reimburse me. Even if you would prefer to pay me a bit at a time, I find no difficulty in such a situation.”
“No, Mr Darcy, we will repay you as soon as possible.” Elizabeth was firm on that matter. “I will not allow anyone to say that you purchased the shop for my relations, as a way of buying my favors.”
“Of course, Miss Elizabeth. But we will make certain that everything is above board.” Darcy attempted to keep from laughing. It was clear that Elizabeth was nervous, and did not wish to add fuel to the potential fire that could rise when word came out that Darcy intended to wed her.
“I do not wish to sound so ungrateful. It is difficult for me to explain my feelings.” Elizabeth stood, walking towards the window, wishing for a way to speak what was on her heart.
Darcy followed her, standing close behind. He was tempted to wrap her in his arms, hold her close, and take away all of her fears. “Miss Elizabeth, I wish I could take all your worries from you, and show you that I care deeply. Forgive me, for I have always had the tendency to do everything in my power to protect those for which I care. My sister can attest to this truth. As you are not accustomed to this, I must seem overwhelming and pompous.”
Elizabeth gave a slight chuckle. “Indeed, Mr Darcy.”
“It pains me to see you have to work, when you are a gentlewoman by birth. And to see you have to hide who you are, brings me sorrow. I wish to do whatever I can, so you can be yourself.”
Turning around, Elizabeth looked up into the pair of brilliant blue eyes of Fitzwilliam Darcy. She knew she was being foolish, and that she should allow herself to feel. But it had been many months since she had been a carefree young lady, living at her father’s estate, doing whatever she pleased. There had been too many months of having the responsibility for so many others. Even before she had dressed as a man, Elizabeth had nursed her family members through the epidemic. She had been the only member of her family who did not take ill, which had left her to tend to their needs. Keeping them cooled with cold water bathing their faces and arms, broth and tea made to nourish them, washing the bedding and clothes for her family, seeing to their personal needs. And giving them the medicine that the apothecary had sent to them. The physician had come as often as he could, but the epidemic had taken a strong hold throughout London, and very few households were unaffected. The same had been in many counties, including Hertfordshire.
Elizabeth had needed to be strong, to protect her family, to keep them together and living. Could she step back? Could she allow someone else to take over for her? She desired to move forward, to have a life filled with love. She wished to be a wife and mother. But was this the right time to do so? Could her family survive the changes that would come with moving and beginning again?
As she looked into Darcy’s eyes, she felt she could see into his very soul. He was an incredible man, generous, caring, strong, devoted, and extremely handsome. And he spoke of his attraction to her. Could he truly love her, after knowing that others believed her to be a man? What would he do if word were to spread, announcing his desire to marry a young lady who had pretended to be a man? Would he abandon her, if gossip spread?
“I wish to give you an answer, Mr Darcy. I would love nothing more than to believe your words, and give into the plans you have for the future. But what if gossip rose about me? What if word spread that I had pretended to be a man? Can you promise me that it would not matter to you? Can you give me your word that you would not become bitter if your name was dragged through the mud? What would happen to my family if you decided it would be too much to be worth the degradation? We would be ruined.”
“Do you have so little faith in me?” Darcy pleaded with his eyes as he spoke. “I do not give myself over to such feelings lightly. I have thought of nothing more for the last fortnight. Even before I had confirmation that you were a lady. Please, Miss Elizabeth, allow me to show you my love. Allow me to show you my faithfulness and devotion. I would never turn you away for anything as simple as gossip. Gossip is nothing of importance. Ask my family if I speak the truth. Ask them if I am the sort to permit gossip to take you away from me.”
Lady Matlock decided it was time to step in and assist the young couple. “Miss Elizabeth, please, allow me to speak for my nephew. There are few men in this world I would trust completely, and Fitzwilliam Darcy is one of those few men. He will not desert you over nonsense spread by gossips. Believe me, if it meant staying at Pemberley and avoiding the ton for the rest of his life, William would not hesitate for a moment. As a matter of fact, he would prefer to have a reason to live the rest of his life at Pemberley. Georgiana is the same, she is just as shy as her brother, and both prefer the country life of their estate.”
“I know that your words are true, your Ladyship, but my heart is still having a difficult time accepting something so good, after all the bad which left us where we have been these past months. I do not wish to wake to find this all a wonderful dream, and I have to return to dressing as Elijah.”
Darcy lifted her hand to his lips. “Do you feel my lips against your skin?” He turned the hand over, exposing the delicate point of her wrist, and placed another kiss there.
Elizabeth gasped as the simple gesture lit a fire inside her. Unable to speak, she simply nodded her head to answer his question.
“This is real, Miss Elizabeth. Not a dream, but me, wishing to love you. Will you not give me the opportunity to love you?”
Her inability to think rationally had caused her a momentary lapse of speech. When she could finally speak, her answer was simple. “Yes, yes, a million times, yes.”
~~~~~~~ ** ~~~~~~~