Apologies to anyone who looked for this chapter on my website first. The site is down after being hacked, so I'm posting this week's chapter here instead, but by next week everything should be back to normal. If you haven't read the first chapter yet, you can find it here.
The boy Tommy was feverish today, a bad sign, but Elizabeth felt none of the tingling sensation of magic when she laid her hand on his ankle. Unwrapping the bandage revealed red, swollen skin above the wound and two red streaks traveling up his leg. She laid the back of her fingers against one of the red streaks. Burning hot.
“Infected,” she said quietly to Charlotte.
“Can you do anything to help?”
Elizabeth grimaced. “Very little under my current limitations.” If only Mr. Darcy would go away! Then she could use her magic to give the boy a fighting chance.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” asked Mrs. Miller.
“It isn’t good. How long has he had the fever?” asked Elizabeth.
“It started last night.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “I had best clean the wound. Is there a basin of water?” She took out clean rags and some herbal simples from her satchel, more for something to do than because she thought they might help.
If she did nothing, the infection might improve on its own, but more likely it would progress. The leg would have to be amputated – most surgeons would be suggesting that already – and even then Tommy might die. If she used her magic, he would have a better chance of recovery, but there would be no guarantee. But if Mr. Darcy caught her using magic, he would put her under a binding spell, and she would lose everything that made her herself. She had seen Mrs. Goulding after she was spell-bound. It had made her slow-witted, nervous, and fretful. It was a choice between her mind and Tommy’s leg, if not his life.
If only she knew more about the abilities of mages! They were half a mile from Rosings. Would Mr. Darcy be able to sense her using magic from that far? Perhaps she was worrying too much. If mages could sense magic half a mile away, they would have caught every woman with magic years ago. But Mr. Darcy had been watching her so closely. Did that make a difference?
Perhaps she could wait until late tonight when Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam would likely be asleep. But how would she explain to the boy’s mother that she wished to treat him in the middle of the night rather than now? The infection could be much worse by then, too.
“This is going to hurt.” She dipped a rag into the water his mother had brought and began to gently cleanse the bite wound.
The boy moaned. “Make it go away!”
“Not much more now, Tommy. You are being very brave.” It hurt to see his suffering.
She had to do it. If she did not take the risk, she would never be able to look at herself in a mirror again. Magic was the only thing she could do to help him, so she would use magic and hope that the distance from Rosings was enough that the mages there would not notice.
Elizabeth placed her fingers on Tommy’s ankles and felt for his life force. There it was, a little weak, but it was enough to work with.
A knock at the cottage door broke her concentration. As the boy’s mother answered it, Elizabeth lifted her hands. Better to wait until they were alone again.
A familiar voice said, “I am Darcy, the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I am here to renew the wards on your cottage.”
Elizabeth jumped backwards, her heart pounding. Thank God she had not truly started yet! Her stomach churned at her narrow escape. She surreptitiously pulled the blanket over Tommy’s wound.
“Oh, come in, Mr. Darcy,” said Mrs. Miller. “We would be very grateful to have the wards renewed.”
Darcy ducked his head to step inside the cottage. “I did not realize you had callers.” He bowed to Elizabeth and Charlotte.
“Young Tommy is very ill,” said Charlotte. “We came to see if there was anything we could do to help.”
“I am sorry to hear it. Is this the boy who was bitten by a redcap?” he asked Elizabeth.
“Yes.” Oh, why had she told him anything about the boy?
Charlotte appeared to reach a decision and stepped closer to whisper something to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth took advantage of his distraction to fade further back into the shadows. She could hardly believe he had almost caught her in the act of using magic.
“I have no particular talent for healing, but I know the basic spells for treating common problems,” Darcy told Charlotte.
“Would you condescend so far as to see if Tommy’s injury is something you might be able to help with?”
Darcy moved to stand at Elizabeth’s side. “Do you think it is a fay spell?” he asked her quietly.
She somehow managed to find her voice. “It started that way, but now the problem is infection.”
“There is a spell for drawing out infection. It rarely solves the problem completely, but it often improves matters. I could try that.”
Why was he looking at her? “Mrs. Miller, Mr. Darcy is a mage. Would you like him to use magic on Tommy’s wound?”
“I’d take help from the devil himself,” said Mrs. Miller, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s that worried I am.”
Elizabeth carefully drew back the blanket to reveal the injury.
Mr. Darcy studied Tommy’s leg, looking at it first from one direction and then another. With a pained expression, he pushed aside the deadly nightshade vine. “What nonsense,” he muttered. He began murmuring in Latin, dipped his forefinger into the water and put two drops side by side above the wound and two just below. Elizabeth felt the tingle of building magic as he passed his hand over the wound.
Nothing seemed to happen as Darcy finished reciting the spell. He said, “Now we must wait for the poisons to flow out of the wound. It may take some time.” But a cloudy fluid was already beginning to fill the bite. “I can check the wards in the meantime.”
He paced along the wall and stopped near a corner. He turned his back on the others to begin the warding spell. Elizabeth could not make out the hand gestures he made, and he was apparently careful not to speak the spell itself loud enough to be overheard. Elizabeth curled her lip. Typical mage behavior, making certain no one else could learn their skills.
She refused to stand there and gawk at him. Instead she tended to Tommy, wiping away the fluid trickling out of the bite. The red streaks running up his leg were already beginning to fade. Nothing she could have done would have worked so quickly or so well. It should have relieved her, but instead anger surged through her. It was not fair. Darcy had the opportunity to study magery and to learn skills and spells instead of having to fumble to discover how to use his magic. Not fair at all.
Elizabeth was still seething when she and Charlotte left the cottage, long after Darcy had finished renewing the wards. “I am glad for Tommy’s sake, but the Millers could never have afforded to pay a mage to heal him. Darcy happened to be feeling charitable, or more likely he wanted to look charitable, and so he deigned to help out. I would help boys like Tommy without charging money, but I am not permitted to learn how to do so, and I can be punished if I even dare to try. It is infuriating!”
“Still, it was kind of him to help when I asked,” said Charlotte reasonably. “He need not have obliged. And it is not his fault that women cannot receive the same training as men.” “No, but he is content to be part of the Collegium that enforces those rules,” Elizabeth muttered. “I cannot forgive him for that.”
***Darcy hurried through the gate to the formal gardens of Rosings Park. It was faster that way and would give him a chance to change his clothes before calling on Elizabeth. Would her warm smiles be back now that she had seen him help the sick boy?
He had just reached the Italian Garden when he felt her presence, that subtle relaxing of the pressure of the elements, and his yearning hunger for her began grow. Then he saw her, perched on the edge of the fountain, her gloves beside her and her fingertips trailing in the pool. It made an enchanting picture, one that took his breath away, at least until she spotted him and pulled her hand out of the water.
Darcy halted and bowed, pleasure in every breath now that he was in her presence. “Good day, Miss Elizabeth. I had not realized you were fond of these gardens.”
“In general, I prefer the grove, but today I was in the mood for flowers planted in straight lines. Lady Catherine told me I might walk in the gardens whenever I pleased so long as I was in no one’s way.” She added archly, “I hope I am not in your way.”
It would be unwise to tell her just how much he liked having her in his way. “Not at all. I am on my way back from the village, and this route is more direct than the road.”
“It is kind of you to renew the wards. I would not have imagined you would take that kind of work on yourself.” There was a slight edge to her voice.
Was she implying it was beneath him? Of course, he would usually think so, too. “The villagers need protection during these fay attacks, and I have a certain responsibility for the tenants of Rosings, including the village.”
She tilted her head. “Is that not Lady Catherine’s duty?”
“She does much of the day-to-day estate management because she prefers it that way, and I have seen no reason to interfere, but the estate belongs to Miss de Bourgh, and I am her guardian.” If only he could kiss her rosy lips instead of making nonsensical chatter!
“You are? It must be challenging to be guardian to a woman your own age.”
“My father was originally named as her guardian. I inherited the responsibility after his death.” It was a nuisance he would generally prefer to avoid, but it was that same guardianship that had forced him to come to Rosings each year, and without that he would not have seen Elizabeth again.
“I hope Lady Catherine has not objected to the wards being renewed.”
“I did not discuss the matter with her. It needed to be done, and so I have done it. Unless she wishes to dig each ward out of the walls, she has little choice but to tolerate it.” He did not want to waste his time with Elizabeth talking about his aunt or the wards.
Elizabeth reached behind her to trail her fingers in the fountain pool again. It was at once innocent and sensual, the movement exposing the curves of her body. She could have been a water nymph sitting there, and he was the Greek god desperate to possess her. How could he keep himself from touching her, twining his fingers with hers and then moving on to stroke her shapely arms, his body demanding more and more from her –
With a cry of surprise, Elizabeth yanked her hand out of the water, staring at it in shock.
“What is the matter?” Darcy asked.
“The water! Only my fingertips were in it, but the water crept up my hand and wrist!” Her disturbance was evident. “Did you cast a spell?” she accused.
“Not a spell as such, but it is my fault.” How could he have lost control like that? He wanted to sink into the ground. “My magic is elemental, and water has a particular affinity for me. When I am this close to a body of water, it can misbehave unless I make an effort to keep it quiet. I failed to pay sufficient attention to it, and I apologize for that.”
Elizabeth continued to stare down at her hand. “Water is not alive. How can it have an affinity for you?”
“Lodestones are not alive, either, yet they turn to point to the north. Natural philosophers have argued about water’s affinity for centuries. Some would say that my presence agitates the aetheric vibrations which keep the water in place. Others would say it is a relic of some fay traces in my blood. I have yet to see a convincing explanation of why I can do this.” He pressed his palms together and slowly separated them by a foot or so. The water in the fountain obediently retreated to each side, leaving a dry space in the middle.
Elizabeth eyed him warily. “That is uncanny. And it is not a spell?”
“No, although there are spells which could do similar things. I simply concentrate on the water and what I wish it to do. Left to itself, without my efforts to keep it quiet, it would do this.” He crossed his arms and withdrew from the constant calming refrain in his mind.
The water inched towards him, splashing over the edge of the fountain and running in rivulets towards his boots. It was slower than usual, most likely because Elizabeth’s odd ability to suppress some of his effect on the elements. “That is why I say it has an affinity for me.” He resumed his calming thoughts and the water stopped splashing out of the fountain. “My moods can affect water, too.” He never told people these things, but she ought to know what she would be facing if he offered for her.
Elizabeth touched one of the rivulets. “Not an illusion, then,” she said, as if to herself. “But I have never seen that happen to you before.”
“Usually I am telling the water not to do that.”
“All the time?” She sounded disbelieving.
“All the time. I had a very wet childhood until I learned to control it.”
That seemed to amuse her. “I suppose it is a useful skill to have.”
“No. It is not useful at all.” He had not meant to sound abrupt, but the subject rankled. “Apart from parlor tricks like these and telling people the best place to dig a well, I am forbidden from using it.”
“Forbidden? By whom?”
“The Collegium. It is a dangerous ability and easy to misuse. If there is drought in my lands and I draw water to my wells, someone else’s wells go dry. If I divert floodwaters from my doorstep, another house is flooded as a result. And while water is my primary affinity, I can also set fires with a thought. I am forbidden that, too.
” She nodded slowly. “They are afraid of you.”
“Rightly so. I could wreak havoc if I chose.”
“So they are willing to trust you to follow their rules, but not to use your powers wisely.”
And that was why it rankled. “More or less.”
She turned her hand palm up and looked down at it. “I do not understand one thing. Why did the water go up my arm instead of moving towards you?”
Of course Elizabeth had seen that one flaw in his explanation. How could he extricate himself from this predicament? Perhaps he should simply say he did not know. Or perhaps it was a sign that he should stop fighting the inevitable. “I was thinking about your arm. The water must have followed my thoughts.”
She stood, color rising on her cheeks. “Mr. Darcy, I believe it is time for me to go.”
He held up his hand. “Wait, I beg you. I meant no disrespect.”
“You were respectfully thinking about my arm? I am not a fool, Mr. Darcy. Good day.”
He dodged around her to block her path. He could not allow her to leave him in anger. “I assure you my intentions are honorable.” The words had spilled out before he had known what he was saying.
She turned slowly to face him again, her eyes wide. “What did you say?” she asked dubiously.
He had started, and now he must go on. “I had not meant to speak today, but apparently I must, since my feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. I have wished to make you my wife since shortly after we met, and my feelings have only grown stronger since then. I have fought against them. I cannot deny that I have tried to avoid this connection. Your father’s position in life is acceptable, although lower than mine, but your mother’s birth is otherwise. More importantly, the inappropriate behavior of your mother, younger sisters, and even occasionally your father caused me to hesitate, and had my attraction to you been any less intense, I could not have –”
“Mr. Darcy, I pray you to say no more,” interrupted Elizabeth firmly. “While I am honored by the great compliment of your attentions, any connection between us is impossible. In addition to the obstacles you have mentioned, I resolved long ago never to marry a mage, and nothing will induce me to change my mind. I am sorry for any disappointment it may occasion you. For our peace of mind, let us say nothing more on the subject.”
Darcy stared at her incredulously. “That you would refuse me comes as a surprise, I admit, but that you should do so because I am a mage? Because I was born with powers I did not request and have spent years learning to suppress? You might as well refuse me because I have brown eyes.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Pardon me. I should have been clearer. It is not because you have magical powers, but because you are a member of the Collegium of Mages. If you belonged to a society of brown-eyed men who were determined to subdue all blue-eyed men by means fair and foul, then yes, I would refuse you for having brown eyes. But it does not matter, since I have other reasons as well.” She tried to move past him.
This time anger made him stand in her way. “Oh? Will you be so kind as to enlighten me as to my other faults?” He bit out the words.
Elizabeth paled. “All of us have flaws, and I do not think a recitation of them would reflect well on either of us. Suffice to say that I must refuse your very flattering offer.”
“I wish to know why.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
She kept her silence for a moment, and then the words began to pour out. “Very well. I do not like your proud and disdainful attitude to anyone beneath your station. It is abhorrent to me, especially your carelessness towards the devastation it causes. Need I explain that you have ruined the happiness of my beloved sister, who still suffers from heartbreak because you thought she was not good enough for your friend? If that is still not sufficient reason for my refusal, Mr. Wickham told me how he lost his ability to earn his living as a mage since you had him expelled from the Collegium because of his low birth.”
Darcy clenched his fists. “George Wickham is a liar. He was expelled from the Collegium for using his magic to cheat at cards. It had nothing to do with his station in life. If you do not believe me, I suggest you ask Colonel Fitzwilliam, who can tell you the entire tale.”
Elizabeth took a step backwards, clearly struggling to contain her own feelings. “I grant you I have no proof as to which of your stories is true, but you yourself showed your disdain for my low connections just minutes ago.”
“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” He could not stop himself.
“You should be relieved I refused you, then, since you have no idea how low my connections go. I can help a boy who is attacked by redcaps because for years I served as the assistant to a wisewoman, or as you would say, a hedge witch, a crone whose father was nothing more than a tenant farmer. She was going blind and could not do her work without someone who could see fay and their traces, and I was the only one she could find. And I admire her, even though she is far beneath me in birth. Now you see why I cannot marry a mage, a man who would imprison her with a binding spell merely because she is female. You should be grateful for my refusal. You are the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”
Each of her words hit him like a dagger. That she should think so ill of him! There was nothing to do for it but to retreat and hope that someday this agonizing emptiness would fade. “You do not know me at all. Pray forgive me for having taken so much of your time.” He turned and strode away, his shoulders stiff.
***Elizabeth turned away from Darcy and hurried off, lest he look back over his shoulder and see her standing there like a lost waif. Had that truly just happened? Mr. Darcy making her an offer of marriage – and in such an insulting manner! And she had been just as bad, saying horrible things back to him. Charlotte would be furious with her if she knew.
She pressed her hands against her hot cheeks. Charlotte’s wrath was the least of her worries. She had put herself in danger. If Mr. Darcy had not known of her magic already, he certainly had enough evidence to realize it now. After all, who would resolve never to marry a mage unless they were afraid of mages? And there was only one reason she would be afraid of mages.
Why had she not simply said it was because of Jane? He had not contested that point at all, as he had regarding Wickham and the Collegium. Oh dear, his explanation for that made more sense than Wickham’s, and Darcy would not have told her to ask Colonel Fitzwilliam if it were false. Wickham had seemed so honest and open. Or perhaps she had just been gullible. Now she had made a fool of herself on top of everything else. What did it matter? Darcy had plenty of reasons to think ill of her besides her gullibility.
Tears ran down her face. She could not return to the parsonage like this, so she stopped at the stone bench in the grove and finally allowed herself to sob into her handkerchief, overcome with shame and wretchedness. That Mr. Darcy had cared for her all this time, while despising her and her family! She had always seen her mother and younger sisters as an embarrassment, but to hear him describe how their behavior reflected on her was beyond humiliation. How many other people felt the same way?
A cold shiver ran up her spine. Her humiliation did not matter. She was in danger now. There was no time to dwell on anything else. Once Mr. Darcy realized she had magic, he would put a binding spell on her. She had to get away before that happened, but how? The coaching inn was five miles away, and by the time she arrived there, the last coach of the day would have departed. She would have to delay until tomorrow. But would Mr. Darcy wait that long? He was due to leave Rosings the day after tomorrow, and he would want to resolve this right away.
Tonight she was to dine at Rosings along with the Collinses. She would have to plead a headache to avoid going. But that might make him suspicious that she was trying to escape, and he would act even more quickly. Better for her to go to Rosings, uncomfortable as it might be, and make him think he had plenty of time to deal with her. After all, he could hardly place a spell on her at dinner. No, he would want to wait until morning when he could get her alone.
She was not safe even now. What was she thinking to sit in a place he knew was one of her favorites? Barely able to see through her tears, she hurried away to the hidden deer path leading to the center of the grove. He would not know to look for her in the glade. She was safe, at least for the moment.
She would have to sneak away from the parsonage during the night if she wished to arrive at the posting inn for the first stagecoach. Once she reached the Gardiners in London, they would help her find a place to hide. Too many people could guess that would be her destination, though, so she needed to lay a false trail to delay Mr. Darcy. She could leave a note saying she could no longer live with herself and that she would find peace in the millpond. Charlotte would be distraught until she discovered it was untrue, but it would delay Mr. Darcy until they dredged the millpond. By then she would be in London.
She gazed across the glade. If she could not reach the stagecoach, there was still one last option. She fingered the smooth stone in her reticule. It would be risky, but better than being bound. The tightness in her chest eased a little.
But even if she escaped and avoided being bound, nothing would ever be the same. She could never return to her home because Darcy would know to look for her there. For now, she could not afford to dwell on that future. She had to be strong, and she had always known this could happen someday. There was even a certain comfort in having it over and done with.
She waited until she thought the signs of tears would have faded from her face before starting off for the parsonage. When she came to the gate at the edge of the grounds of Rosings, she peered up and down the lane. No one in sight.
She had not gone far when she encountered Colonel Fitzwilliam walking towards Rosings. After a brief jolt of fear, she realized he could not yet have spoken to Darcy. But he might still be aware of Darcy’s feelings for her, and that made her unaccountably nervous.
“Well met, Miss Bennet,” he said jovially. “I was just at the parsonage hoping to see you.”
“Now you have found me.” She forced a smile to her face. “I am on my way back there.”
“May I have the honor of walking with you?”
“It would be a pleasure.” Or at least a distraction. And perhaps she could take the opportunity to confirm Mr. Darcy’s story about Wickham. It would answer at least one of the million questions swirling in her head. “Colonel, I would like to ask you a question, if that would not be impertinent.”
“You may ask a question, and I will do my best to answer it.”
“Recently a troop of militia was stationed in the town where I live. Among them was a man who claimed acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, a Mr. Wickham. He told me –”
The usually affable Colonel looked thunderous. “Whatever Wickham told you is likely to be a lie. He is not to be trusted.”
She flushed. Now he would know how gullible she had been, too. “He said he had been a member of the Collegium, but that Mr. Darcy had him expelled because of his low birth.”
“Because of his low morals would be more accurate. Darcy should have reported him to the Collegium years before he did, but he kept giving Wickham warnings and hoping he would change. I could have told him that would never happen. Wickham is a gambler. He used illusions to change the appearance of his cards so he could win. He is a blackguard. I urge you to stay well away from him.”
Wickham, who had seemed so sincere in his attentions to her. How utterly humiliating to discover what a fool she had been! “Thank you. I had been wondering if there might be more to a story than he had told me, and you have confirmed it.”
“I commend you for your perception. Wickham has such a charming manner with ladies. I have never yet known one who could see through his masquerade before it was too late.”
She looked away from him and said in a low voice, “You give me credit where none is due. I believed his blandishments until I was given reason to suspect him. I am mortified to discover I was so gullible.”
“You should not be. I have known experienced, sensible women who have fallen for his charm. I sometimes wonder if he uses magic to blind ladies to his failings.”
“That is a frightening thought.” But it made more sense than she cared to admit.
“Frightening indeed. There are very few mages who can cast glamour, but I suspect he may be one of them.”
“I thought only the fay could cast glamour,” she said.
“They are the masters of it, if the old stories are to be believed. Most mages are limited to illusions which can be easily detected by touch.”
Which would be worse, that he had fooled her with false charm or with magic? Time for a change of subject, or she would start crying again. “I hear that illusion has become more popular as decoration at society events in London.”
“True. It is amusing to attempt to pick out which one of the guests has cast the spells. At Lady Atherton’s ball last month, one wall appeared to open onto the desert and the Great Pyramids. It took two mages all day to weave that one.”
“Was it convincing?”
“From a visual standpoint, yes, unless you attempted to walk into it and hit the wall instead. Since I could still smell the hothouse flowers, perfume, and candlewax and hear the orchestra playing, it was difficult to convince me I was in the Egyptian desert. It is tiring work, maintaining a large illusion for so long.”
It was even more tiring to maintain the illusion that she had no magic. How would the colonel react when Darcy told him she might have magic? She would rather not know.
***Darcy rested his forehead in his left hand while he dipped his quill in the inkwell. Only a little more now. He had already written an explanation why he had separated Bingley from Jane Bennet and laid bare the entirety of his connection to Wickham, from their childhood to Wickham’s expulsion from the Collegium to his attempt to elope with Georgiana as revenge. If Elizabeth was fool enough to trust Wickham after that, her downfall would not be on Darcy’s conscience.
Only one more section and he would be done. Once he was finished with this letter, the stabbing pain in his chest and the nausea of humiliation would end, and he would be free again. He needed to say all the things he had been too angry and hurt to tell her in person. After that, their entire acquaintance would be over.
He had to hurry. He would be expected downstairs in less than an hour, and that might be his only opportunity to give her the letter.
Lastly I must mention the matter of the Collegium. I am not in agreement with all Collegium policies. Many mages would prefer to see an end to the restriction on women’s use of magic, but change comes slowly. Perhaps you will still condemn me for any association with the Collegium, but if those of us who disagree with the rules depart, those changes will never happen.How could Elizabeth, his heart’s own Elizabeth, have simply assumed the worst about him? He had never said a word to her about women and magic, though he had long since guessed she had it. Did she think him so detestable that there was not even the possibility he might have his own opinions on the matter? And he had thought she cared about him. Wretched, wretched mistake.
Now she would know better, and she would see what her prejudiced view of all mages had cost her. She could have been Mistress of Pemberley, and instead she would be nothing.
Why could she not simply have accepted him as any other woman in England would be delighted to do? But he did not want any of them. He only wanted Elizabeth.
He still hesitated to sign the letter. Once he did that, it would be done, and he could walk away from Elizabeth Bennet. Still, there was something so final about signing his name. That would be the end of everything.
What was the matter with him? Was he the Master of Pemberley or a puling schoolboy?
I will only add, God bless you.
Fitzwilliam DarcyHe was going to be late. He sanded the letter quickly and called for his valet to help him dress for dinner.
He had written the letter and said everything he needed to say. Why did his chest still hurt, making him feel as if he could never stand up straight again? If anything, the agony was worse. The agony of not only losing the woman he loved but discovering she had never existed in the first place. The one woman he thought would understand all he had suffered and teach him to laugh again. The one woman who would make him feel as if his struggles were worth something.
Elizabeth. Ah, Elizabeth.
***“Are you certain you are well enough to go to dinner?” Charlotte asked Elizabeth as they approached Rosings.
“It is only a headache, and I would not dream of disappointing Lady Catherine over such a small matter,” said Elizabeth. There was no point in pretending nothing was bothering her. Charlotte would see through that at once.
Mr. Collins said, “An admirable sentiment, Cousin Elizabeth. Lady Catherine’s wishes must come first.”
“I cannot hope to match the depth of your regard for Lady Catherine, but I do my poor best.” She could say what she liked, since Mr. Collins would not recognize it as a barb. The man never thought of anything except Lady Catherine’s desires.
Elizabeth was determined to avoid drawing any notice to herself. She would stay in the background as much as possible and avoid looking at Mr. Darcy. She might sit with Miss de Bourgh, since Mr. Darcy rarely went near her. Besides, she felt sorry for Miss de Bourgh’s loneliness, especially since she had a good sense of the subjects that provoked that lady’s frequent fainting spells.
Thankfully Mr. Darcy was not present in Lady Catherine’s drawing room when they arrived. Relieved, Elizabeth smiled at Colonel Fitzwilliam and sat next to Charlotte, turning half an ear to Lady Catherine’s usual monologue.
“Where is Darcy?” demanded Lady Catherine. “Does he not know how I particularly detest tardiness?”
Colonel Fitzwilliam said, “He was just finishing a letter and said he would be down shortly.”
“I hope he is writing to Georgiana with my advice that she cannot expect to excel at the pianoforte if she does not practice a great deal. Anne would have been a great proficient had her health permitted her to learn.”
How could Miss de Bourgh be proficient at anything if she could barely manage to complete a sentence before being distracted by something else?
“There you are, Darcy. You are late.”
Painfully self-conscious, Elizabeth kept her eyes on the floor after her curtsy. Her anxiety grew with every breath.
“Pardon me,” said Darcy coldly. “I wished to find a particular reference in a book to show to Miss Bennet, and it took me longer than I expected.”
Elizabeth stiffened. What was he about?
“For Miss Bennet?” Lady Catherine sounded displeased. “Why would you be concerned about finding reading material for her?”
“It is something I wish her to read. We had a minor disagreement over methods of land management. She felt her father’s methods were superior to the ones I proposed. I thought it would benefit her to learn the truth of the matter,” he said with no trace of warmth in his voice.
“You are very kind, sir,” said Elizabeth hastily without looking at him. “I am certain you know far more about the matter than I do, or than my father does, for that matter.”
“Darcy is certainly correct,” said Lady Catherine. “He is showing great condescension by pointing out your errors. Is it a long passage, Darcy?”
“Just a few pages.”
“Then she may sit over by the piano as she reads it. She will be in no one’s way there.”
A pair of shiny boots appeared on the floor by her feet, forcing Elizabeth to finally raise her eyes. Mr. Darcy’s expression was cold and disdainful as he held out a leather-bound volume to her. His fingertips were ink stained.
She took it in numb hands. “I thank you.”
“You may start on page 36.” He turned on his heel and strode over to Colonel Fitzwilliam. He could not have said more clearly that he was done with her.
She swallowed hard. At least this gave her an excuse to sit on the other side of the room. She chose the chair where her face would be hidden by an ornate statuette of a shepherdess. Why did his coldness hurt her so much?
She opened the book to the page he had indicated and found three sheets of letter paper, written quite through, in a close hand. She took a deep breath to calm herself, reminding herself of the abominable things he had said. Did he think he could offer some excuse? This letter was likely to make her even angrier than she already was.
***Elizabeth hardly knew how she had made it through the rest of that nightmarish evening. Somehow she had managed to return the book to Mr. Darcy, who merely nodded acknowledgment as he accepted it. Apparently he had already dismissed her from his acquaintance in his own mind.
She could not decide what to make of his letter. His excuses for separating Jane and Bingley seemed weak, but she kept returning to his words about the Collegium. Did he truly disagree with the Collegium view on women and magic? If so, she might not have to leave behind her family and friends to live with strangers. But what if he said it merely to lower her guard? The risk was frightening, but so was the thought of leaving her family and friends. It would be so much simpler if she could accept his assurances. She disliked many things about him, but deceptive behavior had not been one of the faults she had observed. His weak fib about wanting her to read the book had not been the work of a practiced liar.
She passed a restless night haunted by dreams of Mr. Darcy’s disdainful face and cold dislike. In the morning she walked out for the sole purpose of re-reading and brooding upon his letter and the humiliation of his words. She had always prided herself on her judgment of character, and now she knew how wanting in it she was. She was as much a fool as Lydia or Kitty. Mr. Darcy’s criticisms of her family left her spirits lower than they had been in years.
On her return to the parsonage, she discovered her walk had saved her from the mortification of meeting Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam when they called at the parsonage to say their farewells before departing the following morning. Even this fortunate timing could not relieve her oppression of spirits.
The next day, knowing that Mr. Darcy had left Rosings Park, she attempted to put on a brave face with Charlotte. She suspected her friend was not fooled, though Charlotte did not question her. She had always been good about respecting Elizabeth’s privacy.
In the early afternoon, the maid brought a piece of folded notepaper to Charlotte. A look of concern crossed her face as she read it.
“Charlotte, is something amiss?” The last thing Elizabeth needed was more trouble.
“Lady Catherine has taken ill. Mr. Darcy is requesting my presence at Rosings. I suppose her ladyship must want me to read to her.”
Her stomach seemed to turn somersaults. “Mr. Darcy? I thought he had left!”
“Apparently not yet. He asks specifically that I bring you with me.”
Elizabeth’s heart twisted in her chest. “Me? Why would he want me there?” Was it a ploy to do a binding spell after all, or only to berate her, or to show her he no longer cared for her by the cold and disdainful look on his face? You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. And now she would have to see him again, with the shame of everything he had said in his letter fresh in her mind.
Charlotte shrugged. “Perhaps Lady Catherine wishes to listen to you play. I am sorry to impose upon you this way, but we cannot afford to offend her ladyship.”
Her dismay must be showing. “Of course I will go with you.” Somehow she would manage to keep her composure with Mr. Darcy. Somehow.
So...any guesses why Darcy wants Elizabeth to come to Rosings? I'll give you a hint - it's not so he can see her fine eyes! This chapter set all the pieces in place, and things will start to get very interesting in next week's excerpt. The cover reveal will be on Wednesday at More Agreeably Engaged, and I can't wait to show the beautiful cover off to you! Many thanks again to Janet for agreeing at the last minute to post this so that I wouldn’t have to let anyone down!
On behalf of all your readers who were eagerly awaiting this chapter, I was happy to help out. We hope to see you all back Wednesday to share in the reveal of Abigail's beautiful cover for Mr. Darcy's Enchantment! You won't be disappointed!