He stood staring at the envelope in his hand on which his name was written in an elegant flowing script... Mister Darcy. The faint scent of lavender, her scent, carried up to him. The event transpired so quickly he had no opportunity to think of what to say or do. He had stepped from his carriage, felt a brush against his arm and over the cacophony of the busy London street he heard a soft voice say "Sir, I think you must have dropped this," as a small, gloved hand pressed an envelope into his hand. He watched the somehow familiar figure of the retreating woman as she quickly stepped away. She looked back only as she started to round the corner. It was Elizabeth, as beautiful as ever. Stunned and paralyzed, he stood struggling to comprehend reality from what was surely an apparition before him. She paused, and ever so slowly, she smiled. Her smiles he knew well, as he had studied her intently over the past months, always hopeful to be the recipient or cause of one of her many mirthful gestures. Her smile now was tender and comforting, reminding him of how she had looked upon her sister during her convalescence at Netherfield. Her soft, dark eyes held his from the distance, both of their bodies still in time. How long? He could not say, but had it been a lifetime he still would have wanted more time to take in her loveliness. Finally, she broke the spell with a slight nod of her head as she disappeared around the corner. By the time he had recovered his wits enough to follow her; she was long out of sight.
Now standing in his library, he was full of conflicting emotion as he clutched her letter. He had beheld her fair countenance once more. This new softer vision could replace his last sight of her, stricken and bewildered, as he had given his letter to her in the park at Rosings. He turned the envelope in his hands over again and again -- afraid to open it, afraid the contents would destroy the comfort that had suffused over him when she had smiled. He needed to grasp at anything that even remotely relieved the pain and misery that had consumed him since her rejection.
After leaving Kent, Darcy had sequestered himself in his London home, indulging his grief and anger, assured of his solitude as Georgiana was away visiting friends. He groomed only on the seldom occasions when he ventured into public, out of absolute necessity for business matters that could not be neglected; nothing remotely social. Long nights had been spent drowning his raw emotions with liquor. He had shouted curses in his fits of anger and shattered crystal against the hearth, the shards scattering in all directions from the violent force of his throw. He had pounded his fists until they were bruised and throbbing so that he would feel anything other than the constrictions of his broken heart. Slowly his dreadful bitterness had begun to give way as he gave reason to the justice of her words, but regret and despair remained his steadfast companions.
The fact she had turned and smiled at him surely indicated the letter was positive and should be opened, but he could not. Darcy stared at his name written in her embellished script while his mind warred with his hands. He paced in his library, the room that at one time had been his haven and refuge, but more recently had become his private hell. The long red flames of the fire raging in the grate had been his demons in pursuit. But now, holding her unopened letter the room became his purgatory, with mere smoldering embers not capable of producing light or heat, just uncertainty. What if the letter contained further thrashing from her arsenal of words? Words fired with precise accuracy to inflict the most damage? He shook his hanging head. Elizabeth was not vindictive. She had retaliated because he had wounded her, she had initially shown restraint, but he had pushed her. If her words were painful, it was because of their truth; he could not hold that against her. Could the letter be a request for help, something which only he could assist her? He fancied a Herculean task that he would complete admirably ... he would slay the dragon and thereby earn her love. Wasn't that how it happened in tales? But real life would never be that simple. Truly, he was his own worst enemy, the beast to be tamed. The final compelling thought that forced his action was that it was Elizabeth's will that he read her words. She wanted him to and he would honor her wishes above all else. The seal was broken.
Dear Mister Darcy,
I thank you in advance for your acceptance of this letter and for your attention to its content. I know I show audacity to affront propriety in such a way and customarily I would not but in this case I cannot conform. My conscience will not allow it. There are times when confronted with self realization that instincts must overrule, and I feel this is such a time. Your letter has opened my eyes to how despicably I have acted. I, who have prided myself on my discernment and valued my rational abilities, have fallen victim to that which I have ridiculed in others. How humiliating is this discovery and yet, how just a humiliation.
You must know that I cannot doubt the truthfulness of what you have imparted to me regarding Mr. Wickham. There is no need to validate that which, once I opened my eyes was all too readily apparent. I am honored you trust me with such a personal disclosure. I shall hold your secret securely and am sorry for the painful reflection required to write of such events. I can now see the scheming nature of Mr. Wickham's behavior that had once eluded me. How could I have allowed myself to be taken in by his charm? I have asked myself this question repeatedly and can only say in honesty that I have been guilty of vanity and blindness.
With regard to my sister and Mr. Bingley, I must allow you your own supposition. My friend Mrs. Collins had also previously expressed uncertainty about my sister's regard, but I who know Jane so well and love her so dearly, forget that others do not see in her expression all that I see. The irony of masked regard is not lost upon me. How easy it is to misunderstand another's intentions. There is no excuse for the harshness of my words to you. Words that I regret were based on falsehood and misapprehension. For the whole of my actions and words I am truly sorry. I regret that I will never know the gentleman that you really are. Lastly, while I have no right to ask, I sincerely hope that someday you will find a way to forgive me. As once wished to me, I truly wish God's greatest blessings on you.
There, in those moments of quiet solitude, Darcy found that which had been eluding him. Holding her letter in his hand he felt the torment of the past weeks begin to slowly slip away. It was replaced by the dawning of understanding: understanding of her, of him and all that had transpired between them. She had stated she did not know the real him. How could she? In addition to never having corrected Wickham's falsehoods, he had also rarely let down his front, that fašade of cold indifference he had used so effectively in recent years as protection from the many who sought to take advantage of his wealth and position. Her reproofs had allowed him to see himself as she saw him, and he had realized he wasn't the man he wanted to be ... for her. A lifetime of instruction on propriety and how to be a gentleman had not taught him that which he now knew was essential. Elizabeth, with her integrity, sense and indomitable spirit, had shown him. Her letter in his hand was his hope and God help him, Elizabeth - his salvation.
Faults of Understanding
"Cousin Lizzy! You're back!"
"Yes, dear Sarah! I'm back," Elizabeth answered pulling her seven-year-old cousin into a tight hug. "Now tell me all about your day. Have you had fun with Cousin Jane?" She released her and they sat companionably side by side on the sofa. Sarah's legs stuck straight out as they were too short to bend over the edge, and Elizabeth watched her rub the toes of her dainty pale shoes together excitedly as she began to talk.
"Cousin Jane had visitors! Mr. Bling-"
"Bingley?" Elizabeth cried out with astonishment.
"Yes, that was it. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy," Sarah said, the latter name drawn out and dreamily.
"Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth stuttered as she struggled to regain her flagging composure. She was thankful to be sitting and doubly thankful her young cousin would think nothing of her sudden uneasiness. Her mind was racing through a myriad of thoughts and questions. Why had they come? Was it because of her letter? What had Mr. Darcy thought of her letter? What did he think of her?
"They are very polite," Sarah continued, drawing Elizabeth's attention back to her.
"Yes, they are," Elizabeth nodded. "Did they stay long?" Her curiosity was getting the best of her, and she knew that with very little prodding her precocious little cousin would tell her all.
"I think so, long enough for Mr. Darcy to read me all of my storybook."
"He read to you? Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth was astounded.
"Oh, yes. Cousin Jane and Mr. Bingley were busy talking, and he looked so sad and lonely. I remembered what Mama taught me about entertaining our guests, so I asked him if he wanted to hear a story." Sarah wriggled, unable to contain her eagerness.
Elizabeth was too flabbergasted to speak but nodded her head encouragingly.
"We sat together and he read all the stories, not just the first one, and he did the voices too. He sounded very funny for the girl voices and his monster voice was scary but I wasn't frightened because I know it was just pretend," Sarah said proudly.
"That is right," Elizabeth agreed.
"I liked his knight voice the best, and I told him that"
"Umhmm. I told him out of all of the gentlemen visitors you and Cousin Jane have, I think he is the most handsome," Sarah smiled and had that dreamy look in her eyes again.
"What did he say?" Elizabeth questioned, all the while thinking she couldn't be any more astonished.
"He said to be sure to tell you that and he smiled. He is even handsomer when he smiles. His cheeks smile here and here." Sarah's small fingers touched Elizabeth's cheeks in demonstration.
Elizabeth laughed both at his implication and her cousin's gesture. "Those are called dimples."
"Dimples? What a funny word. Don't you think him ever so handsome and nice, Cousin Lizzy?"
"Yes I do, Sarah," Elizabeth answered honestly, once again pleased to be conversing with a child and could therefore put aside all pretenses. He certainly was handsome, and while she probably wouldn't have chosen the word nice to describe him, his behavior toward her young cousin merited her concession.
"And then we talked," Sarah continued excitedly.
"What did you talk about?" Elizabeth asked having a hard time even beginning to guess what quiet and reserved Mr. Darcy would talk about with a seven-year-old girl whose acquaintance he had just made.
"We talked about what we do when you and Cousin Jane visit. I told him how we twirl and run in the park and play tag and go on treasure hunts and feed the animals. I told him maybe he could do those things with us sometime because it is so much fun."
Sarah nodded, her eyes were wide. "He said he would like that very much. He wanted to know my favorite color and yours. His is blue. He asked my favorite flower and I told him that you and I like wildflowers because they are carefree and can wander where they will and are for everyone to admire."
Elizabeth remembered the time she had told little Sarah that very thing and smiled.
"He promised to make me a daisy chain crown when I told him how much we like to put flowers in our hair. He said he used to make them for his sister but she is nearly grown now so he'll make one for me. Maybe tomorrow..."
"He is a very busy man, Sarah," Elizabeth interrupted her so she wouldn't get her hopes up in vain.
"Oh, but he promised. Papa said a gentleman always keeps his promises. Mr. Darcy is a gentleman, is he not, Cousin Lizzy?"
"Yes, Sarah. Mr. Darcy is a gentleman," Elizabeth answered reassuringly, to herself as well as to her devoted cousin. She hugged the little girl close as new emotion roiled inside her. Never would she have guessed Mr. Darcy, who so effortlessly offended nearly the whole town of Meryton in a matter of weeks, could so easily charm her bright and insightful little cousin in an hour.
"I told him I thought you would be home soon and that he should wait for you," Sarah spoke. "He got sad again and told me he had said some unkind things to you ... things he was very sorry for and he was afraid you would not want to see him again. That is not true is it, Cousin Lizzy?" she questioned, notably worried.
"No, dear. We had a misunderstanding and I am just as much at fault. I would like to see him again," Elizabeth answered quietly.
"I knew you would!" Sarah called out triumphantly. "I told him how you always say God wants us to forgive each other, and he smiled again."
Elizabeth wondered how it was that children possessed the talent to strip away the complexities of life that adults invariably contrived - and expose the truth so simply.
"I think you are an exemplary hostess, Miss Sarah Gardiner! Your mother will be proud. Let us go find her to see if she needs our assistance," Elizabeth exclaimed into the beaming face of her young cousin while attempting to hide the tumult of her burgeoning mind behind her own smile.
Elizabeth and Jane had managed only a brief time of privacy amidst the chaos of the Gardiner family's life to discuss the gentlemen's visit, but Jane shared enough for Elizabeth to feel easier. Mr. Bingley had explained he had only learned of Jane's presence in town that very morning and his easy, unassuming manners had reassured Jane of his sincerity. The change in Jane's demeanor was readily apparent, and Elizabeth was comforted by Jane's obvious joy. Her own feelings, however, remained ambiguous.
She slid open the window, seeking relief from the oppressive atmosphere that had surrounded her these past weeks. The clatter and din of the ever busy London streets mirrored the chaos of her mind. She had never felt as unsure of herself as she did now. She yearned for Longbourn and the familiar and certain paths of her youth. Alone in the room, Elizabeth finally had the opportunity to contemplate the amazing and unexpected events of the day. She was sure Mr. Darcy was responsible for Mr. Bingley's enlightenment, and such an admission would not have come from the unfeeling, arrogant man she had declared him to be. Elizabeth's heart warmed at the thought of Jane's happiness and she was grateful to Mr. Darcy for his involvement in restoring her sister's smile. One by one, her grievances regarding his character were falling away; first Wickham, now Jane, and she could not ignore the favorable impression he had made on Sarah. That he had willingly sought the company of the family he had openly disdained only weeks ago puzzled her. Was Mr. Darcy here to see her as well, or was he only accompanying his friend? His comments to her cousin led her to believe he was interested in continuing their acquaintance, but could he possibly have forgiven all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him? Did he truly not think ill of her? Had her letter of apology convinced him of her contrition? More importantly, did she forgive him? Did she wish to know more of him and perhaps forge a friendship... for Jane's sake ... or for her own as well?
All of the uncertainty and possibilities were beginning to give her a headache. Each question led to another, each one more difficult, with no hope of any reasonable answers. She ceased her circuitous sequence of interminable questions with a resolute commitment; if she somehow found herself in Mr. Darcy's company, she would make every effort to understand his character, without the imposition of prejudice.
Illustration of Character
In the short time since receiving Elizabeth's letter, Darcy's confidence had returned, mostly due to the letter's contents, which he viewed as more than just a peace offering. It was an invitation to redeem himself. Confidence was an essential part of his character, built upon and fortified by a long history of successes. He had rarely backed away from any challenge put before him, mental or physical. Now, driven by a determination that was exceeded only by his intense desire, the resolute man of action did what he did best, he formulated his plan. He had a deep-seated need to obtain Elizabeth's forgiveness and alter her ill-opinion, and this had burgeoned into his wish to earn her regard. Seeing her again brought forth a resurgence of his need for her, and he could no longer attempt to convince himself otherwise. Once he had allowed himself to acknowledge the sheer joy and vibrancy she would bring to his life, he could not bear to contemplate a future without her. He would apply his tactical acumen in an area heretofore unfamiliar -- proving himself worthy. He had seized the opportunity to correct past regressions, beginning with his disclosure to Bingley. Armed with the information he had gathered from his new ally, he continued to carry out his plan of action. Time was of the essence, and he was not about to squander it.
He spotted them at the far end of the park, near the pond Sarah had mentioned was her favorite play area. He walked unnoticed under the shelter of the trees, grateful for a few moments to enjoy the pleasurable sight of Elizabeth's merriment. Her musical laughter transcended the present. With clarity that defied reality, he envisioned her playing and laughing with their children on the rolling green lawns of Pemberley. And in this lively scene, he viewed himself joining in the gaiety, just as naturally as if the many years since he had truly laughed had never been. Drawn out of his reverie by their voices, he watched as Elizabeth held Sarah by the hands and was spinning her around so quickly her feet floated above the ground. When she finally let go and righted her position, Sarah tottered dizzily about, laughing hysterically. The two older boys with them were clapping and laughing as well.
He approached slowly with his hands behind his back. Sarah saw him first and immediately called out to him. She ran in his direction with a big smile on her face and her long, dark curls fluttering behind her. She stopped before him and demonstrated her best curtsey as she greeted him. "Good day, Mr. Darcy."
"Good day, Miss Sarah," he replied with a wink. He took a deep breath, trying to subdue the tension he suddenly felt upon Elizabeth's approach. The air was all at once thick and heavy, filled with every emotion he had ever felt for her and every tender thought he had left unspoken. Their eyes met, and he was certain that the flush of his cheeks matched hers.
"Good day, Miss Bennet. It is a pleasure to see you," he said warmly. He had chosen to take the lead in this conversation instead of falling back into his usual pattern of quiet adoration of her. He was determined to prove he was capable of pleasant discourse, he had indeed heeded her words and he held nothing of their tumultuous past against her. "I hope I am not intruding. I had promised Miss Sarah a daisy crown," he said as he brought his right hand from behind his back and placed the crown upon her head. She ooh-ed and ah-ed in delight.
Elizabeth smiled and welcomed him to join them. The park setting and presence of the children seemed to ease the awkwardness of the meeting for both of them.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy!" Sarah exclaimed as she twirled about. "It is lovely."
"You are quite welcome, Miss Sarah." Darcy turned and glanced shyly at Elizabeth as he handed her a second daisy crown. "I remembered how becoming you looked at the Netherfield Ball with flowers in your hair, Miss Bennet and brought you one as well."
Elizabeth's blush and quiet thank you calmed his nerves a great deal.
The two boys, James and Michael, bowed politely as they were introduced to Mr. Darcy then reminded their cousin that she had promised they could visit the pond to feed the ducks and practice skipping stones. The children raced ahead while Elizabeth and Darcy followed at a more respectable pace, both staring intently at their feet, as if unsure of the ground before them. All of their previous misunderstandings were looming impediments to be cautiously circumnavigated and left behind on the furrowed path to new-found common ground.
Darcy's degree of unease was increasing again when he suddenly remembered his other gift. As he handed Elizabeth a gorgeous bunch of wildflowers tied with a yellow satin ribbon, she exclaimed, "They are beautiful!"
"They are just the flowers for you ... bright and lively." He desperately hoped she understood his meaning but at the same time did not want to be too forward.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy," she accepted them with grace.
He watched with interest as she lightly stroked the yellow ribbon, happy his ally had provided him with such helpful information. He reveled in the joy that giving her pleasure brought him. Clearly now, he saw what men for centuries before him had intuitively known - the importance of courtship. In that aspect, Elizabeth had been correct in declaring his arrogance. By his presumption, he had determined that he merely need offer to be accepted and had held his position above the humbling enterprise of courtship. He had thought only to convince himself and had given no consideration to her sentiments. What a fool I have been. Had I not been so intent on wooing myself, I could be delighting in giving her an infinite variety of pleasures by now. His eyes were fixed on her full rosy lips. He had no difficulty pleasing her in his dreams, in which he had shamelessly been indulging almost from the beginning of their acquaintance.
After demonstrating how best to skip stones and awing the boys with a quadruple skip, Darcy guided Elizabeth to a bench where they could sit and observe the children.
"She looks very much like you." He broke the silence as he nodded in Sarah's direction. Upon meeting little Sarah Gardiner, he had been immediately reminded of Elizabeth -- perhaps that explained his ease in her presence. She had similar dark brown eyes and long curly hair but there was even more similarity in her manners. She was open, friendly and precocious ... much as he imagined a young Elizabeth to have been. He had long been attracted to Elizabeth's youthful spontaneity and exuberance because it was such a contrast to his own quiet reserved nature.
Elizabeth laughed. "I am reminded of that frequently by my aunt and uncle ... usually when dear little Sarah has just gotten into mischief of some kind."
"So you were a mischief-maker in your youth?" He dared to tease.
"I would never be so foolish as to confess any such thing, Mr. Darcy," she replied with mock indignity, her eyes sparkling. "I will only say my curiosity and love of adventure occasionally led me astray. I have never been one to listen to the words you cannot ...- and those words are spoken all too often to young ladies," she paused with sudden pensiveness, and then continued in her more usual light-hearted manner. "And you, Mr. Darcy, were you a troublesome lad?" she asked with a saucy grin. "Remember before you answer, I have had conversations with your cousin!"
A wave of jealousy passed through him at the mention of his cousin. Jealousy was but one of the many new emotions he had been forced to confront since making the acquaintance of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He was surprised by the strength of his feelings and took care to conceal them from her, for they would not serve him well in his appeal to her. The memory of Fitzwilliam's and Elizabeth's congeniality in Kent incited his envy, but he buried it under the reminder that this saucy grin was for him, not his cousin.
Darcy smiled. "Just the usual boyhood pranks, I believe. I was rather spoiled and indulged by my parents, but I do seem to recall my most severe punishments involved Fitzwilliam in some manner." He was pleased they were able to discuss a topic related to their time in Kent without too much tension.
"He mentioned he had a fondness for leading his younger cousin astray."
He drew a deep breath. The time had come. As much as he hated to do anything that might interrupt the felicity of the moment, his compulsion to apologize and attempt to rid himself of the burden of their past confrontation forced him to speak. He cleared his throat. "Miss Bennet ..."
Sarah's loud cry halted his words as he and Elizabeth rushed to her side. She had fallen and was clutching her bloody knee. He watched as Elizabeth comforted her and dried her tears.
At the Gardiners' door Elizabeth thanked him for the flowers and for carrying Sarah home.
"It was my pleasure. Miss Bennet," he paused and glanced down. "I ... I had hoped to speak with you." He paused again.
With a level of social adeptness that had always impressed him, Elizabeth responded, "We are only in town for two more days. Jane and I extended our visit so that we may attend the Kirkland's ball tomorrow evening, and then we return home."
"Kirkland, you said?"
"Yes, do you know them?"
"I believe I do," he answered as his mind raced.
"Will you be attending as well?"
"I am sure I will. Tomorrow evening then," he bowed. "Good day, Miss Bennet." At this early stage in their re-acquaintance, he did not want to read too much into her behavior, but he indulged his optimism that she appeared to be giving him a chance.
"Where is it?" he exclaimed, voicing his frustration as he hurriedly rifled through the stack of envelopes, scattering them about haphazardly as he searched.
"Jenkins!" he shouted. "Where is the bloody invitation to the blasted Kirkland ball?"
"I have it here, sir, with the remainder of the declined invitations. I was about to send it off." Jenkins was taken back by the emotional outburst of his usually staid employer.
"No, no. I will attend. Tell them I am pleased to be their guest."
Jenkins could not recall having seen Mr. Darcy in such an animated state, but it was a vast improvement over the irritable and sullen mood he had displayed during recent weeks. He raised a surprised brow. "As you wish, sir."
"Yes, I wish..." Darcy took the stairs two at a time in his haste to his chambers. "I wish a great many things!"
The Trouble of Practising
Elizabeth quietly escaped through the open doors into the cool welcoming stillness of the night to be alone with her thoughts. Those thoughts centred upon the one person she was determined to understand, but who continually bewildered her to the point of vexation -- Mr. Darcy. In the park and earlier that evening, he had seemed so desirous to please and free from reserve. The mere passing of time seemed to transform him from the attentive, unassuming gentleman who had welcomed her and her relations, into the disgruntled, pacing effigy that stood in his place. She was vexed at Mr. Darcy because she could not comprehend his behaviour, and she was annoyed with herself because she could not stop thinking about him.
Her mind thusly occupied she failed to notice she had been followed.
The sound of his voice startled her out of her reverie and she flinched from the fright.
"Oh, Mr. Hayes, I had not realised you were there," she exclaimed as her hand pressed against her pounding heart.
"I did not intend to alarm you, madam. I enjoyed our dance together very much and hoped for an opportunity to speak with you. I could not help but notice the room dim upon your absence. You really are so very lovely." He was stepping closer and closer as he spoke.
Elizabeth was discomfited by the familiarity of his words, as well as the indecorum of his approach but before she could respond ...
"Ah, there you are, Miss Bennet!" Mr. Darcy called to her loudly as he passed through the doorway. "I have been sent on a mission by your sister to find you," he continued as he scowled at Mr. Hayes.
"I was just leaving." Mr. Hayes cowered as he bowed, not missing the intent in Mr. Darcy's stern look.
After Mr. Hayes took his leave, Mr. Darcy pointedly asked, "What were you thinking, walking out here?"
"I needed some fresh air," she said, while trying to figure out your odd behaviour, she thought silently. "And I certainly did not invite him, if that is what you are implying." His reprimanding tone coupled with the uncertainty between them made her feel suddenly defensive. "Besides, I was perfectly fine. I am quite capable of taking care of myself," she countered.
"Good God-- this London... not Meryton, Elizab- Miss Bennet!" Mr. Darcy's voice exploded. "He was not interested in the air!"
She stared at him in amazement. "And how is it that you are so sure what Mr. Hayes was interested in?" she questioned, forcing herself to remain calm in spite of his anger.
"I am a man," he answered very deliberately in a quieter voice.
"I had noticed," she quipped.
"Good," he said gruffly as he stepped close to her, imposingly tall and straight, his eyes locked on hers.
Elizabeth felt her breath catch and her pulse quicken as she was suddenly overcome by his physical presence in a way that was new to her. Her body seemed determined to undermine her composure at a time when she required it the most.
He finally broke their silence as he said in an apologetic tone, "Miss Bennet, please forgive my outburst, but perhaps you will believe me if I tell you that I have known Mr. Hayes since Cambridge and that he is not of good character."
"Oh," she hesitated, "But then why would the Kirklands invite him?"
"I do not know."
"Are you a frequent guest?"
"Why are you here tonight?" she persisted, slightly annoyed by his brevity.
"That is indeed a good question," he paused before continuing. "My reason is -- I believe some might refer to it as taking the trouble of practising."
Elizabeth was surprised by his candour. His appealing look compelled her to attempt to discern the truth, and not prejudge him, perhaps unfairly, as she had in the past. The fluctuation of his mood puzzled her. Mr. Darcy had previously acknowledged his unease conversing with strangers, which she had construed as those he considered beneath him. Surely the polished London society was more to his liking than that of the quaint Meryton gatherings. Something about the situation tonight had altered his earlier congenial disposition. His stern countenance and constant pacing reminded her of his behaviour when she first met him, and then again at the Netherfield ball.
"Are you uncomfortable because of the large number of people here tonight?"
"No. While large gatherings are not my preference, they have been an unavoidable part of my life for so long, I hardly give them much thought - and I always adhere to decorum," he added defensively.
"Certainly, if adhering to decorum means stalking about in ill humour and avoiding everyone," she challenged him.
"I have not avoided everyone and the surplus of society here is not the cause of my ill humour tonight." He stared at her intently.
"May I ask what is?" she questioned with a raised brow.
"I had thought that was rather obvious, but I will tell you if you truly do not know. I came with the express intent of talking with you, and, other than a few brief words and a dance, have been thwarted. Instead, I have been forced to watch you flutter about on the arm of every man here -" He stopped abruptly, as if suddenly aware he said too much.
Amused by his petulance, she laughed.
"That is not the response I expected, madam," he said sheepishly, obviously expecting her to be angry.
"But how can I not laugh, Mr. Darcy? We are at a ball. That is what people do at a ball. They dance. A lady has no control over who asks her to dance, or who does not." She watched his expression with interest as her meaning quickly sank in, and a small smile passed his lips. "Furthermore, you know very well if she declines one offer, politeness dictates she decline all others. That would be a shame, would it not?"
"Though it appears that I am failing miserably, I am attempting to correct my ways, Miss Bennet."
Such an admission from a man of so much pride excited not only astonishment, but also respect. She knew her words of refusal had deeply wounded him, as his expression had clearly indicated at the time. He had withstood her insults, endured her rejection and now, still sought her company; revealing more about his character than she could ever hope to learn in parlour conversations. His having taken her words to heart and acted upon them, earned her esteem. What remained for her to determine was the extent of her involvement in his healing.
"I know you are," she reassured him softly, only to be smitten by the dimples of his broad smile. Little Sarah Gardiner was right. He was devastatingly handsome when he smiled like that. She was amazed at what little effort it took on her part to make him happy and was further surprised at her own pleasure from doing so. Much to her chagrin, she had to admit her feminine sensibilities were flattered by his attention and even his barely veiled jealousy.
Dinner had been announced as they were speaking and the thrum of the passing assembly of guests disrupted their conversation. Elizabeth was thankful for the reprieve. Their exchanges ranged far from the mundane topics of the weather and health dictated by the standards of polite society. She worried the exhilaration she felt clouded her judgement, at a time when more than ever, she needed to be circumspect and cautious. She was unequal to the task of appraising Mr. Darcy's attentions while her own emotions remained uncertain.
The last dance of the night was announced. From behind her, Elizabeth heard a familiar deep voice.
"I believe you promised this last dance to me, Miss Bennet." Mr. Darcy's strong hand claimed her delicate hand to lead her to the dance floor. He was surprised by her resistance and felt her stumble beside him, stopping their advance abruptly.
"Mr. Darcy," she whispered as she blushed and tilted her head to the right.
"Miss Bennet?" he asked confused.
"Mr. Darcy," she repeated quietly, nodding her head again. His eyes followed hers as they darted to the chair on their right. There, under the chair, he spotted a small beaded ivory coloured slipper. He bent close to her ear as she whispered, "I slipped it off for a moment - right when you pulled me unexpectedly."
"Guided," he corrected her in the same whisper.
"No, you most definitely pulled," she said challengingly, trying to hide her anxiety. "Well?" she questioned still in a whisper, her flush more pronounced.
"Allow me, Miss Bennet," he whispered back with a grin. He casually picked up the wayward slipper and placed it beside her skirt. She nonchalantly stepped over it, balanced on his steady arm and slid her foot into the shoe.
When her flushed face beamed thanks up at him, he stared back at her so intently she was afraid he might kiss her right then and there, and worse yet, at that moment she could not think of anything but his enticing lips.
The spell between them was broken when the music started, drawing them into the dance.
"There is never a dull moment with you, Miss Bennet," he teased.
"I am glad you appreciate my liveliness, Mr. Darcy," she retorted, totally unaware of how her words affected him. Their conversation continued haltingly as the steps of the dance brought them apart and together.
"Little did I know ...
when I left home this evening ...
that I would be gifted ...
with the sight of ...
your bare toes!" Mr. Darcy said daringly.
Her eyes widened at his provocative statement but her rejoinder, thanks to her father's varied collection of books on exotic lands, was quick and his gloat for having left her momentarily speechless was short lived.
"You, sir ...
did not even glimpse ...
my bare toes," she said in a hushed voice that only he could hear.
"I most assuredly ...
did, Miss Bennet!"
"Pray tell then, Mr. Darcy ...
What colour were they?" she questioned with a triumphant smile.
"They are ... coloured?" he stammered as his head spun to follow her and he narrowly missed colliding with the dancer next to him.
A short time later, as the guests were departing ...
"Your company was most enjoyable this evening, Miss Bennet. Please allow me to express my gratitude with a proper goodbye." Mr. Darcy bowed and gently kissed her hand.
Elizabeth would never be sure if it had been the influence of the wine she had consumed, the competitiveness of their scintillating verbal exchanges or the surprise at the exquisite feel of his warm lips tenderly pressing the back of her hand that had spurred her outlandish reply. "That certainly does leave me wondering about an improper goodbye." She quickly turned to avoid seeing his face. "Good night, Mr. Darcy," she called over her shoulder.
"Good night, Miss Bennet." She heard his choked reply as she sauntered away.
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