Continuing Tales

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 2 of 21

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Inevitable Change

"Leave off me! Leave off, man!" Darcy spouted as another pitcher of ice cold water was poured over his head. His servant had just unceremoniously tipped him into the empty copper bath, with the help of the man's cousin. Col. Fitzwilliam had commanded McAlvie to take up his master in such a manner, and despite his initial reservations, the valet was relieved that Fitzwilliam had some sense in the reviving of the inebriated Mr. Darcy.

Indeed, McAlvie, in twenty years of service, had not seen the young master ever quite so intoxicated. He had been in town for three months, though mostly in and out of his residence, and McAlvie was ever on call to set the house arights when Darcy would appear. These weeks he had become quite unpredictable in his comings and goings; there was none of the usual attendance of business and theater performances that usually set their master's schedule. The young Mr. Darcy had taken to simply disappearing for hours at a time, often in the evening, and often alone. It was only lately, in the past week, that McAlvie had observed Darcy deep in his cups and stumbling in.

The young lady of the house, Georgiana Darcy, had also taken note of her brother's strange and irregular disappearances. If she had been of a more gothic mind, it would likely be that she would imagine him caught up in some nefarious business; but she knew his character better than that. Her devoted brother's attention had been turned from her very rarely, and having it so abruptly change in its tone and duration caused her some quiet alarm. Since his abrupt departure from Pemberley in the summer, his manner was terse and irresponsive. When she joined him in their London townhouse, he was rarely available to dine with her, and even avoided his good friend Mr. Bingley and his amiable sisters. It was vexing to her to make excuses for him, and her social inexperience made her want to refuse all callers to the house.

Her brother's sudden habit of nightly drunkenness sparked a panic in her. She resolved to employ their dear cousin, Col. Fitzwilliam, to aid her in curing her brother's evident dysphoria. Georgiana cringed in the hallway of the London townhouse now, just outside Darcy's bedchamber.

At that moment, McAlvie was dumping a third pitcher of ice water on his master. "ENOUGH! Damn you! Stop!" Darcy bellowed and pushed away the offending pitcher. "Enough, I am myself...leave me."

"Oh, that won't do, Darcy," Col. Fitzwilliam drawled, lips pursing and teeth gritting. "No, we will not leave off, not McAlvie or myself, until you are roused and sober and acting the proper gentleman."

"Robert - what the devil? What are you doing here?" Dripping wet, still seated in the copper tub, Darcy squinted at his cousin through his sopping hair. He slurred, "Are you behind this mischief?"

Fitzwilliam pulled Darcy's man aside. "McAlvie, tell cook to bring up a pot of coffee and some victuals - an egg and toast. Your master needs some reviving as of yet. Tell Ms. Georgiana the worst is over, she needn't linger in the hall waiting to see ...never mind. Just tell her Col. Fitzwilliam has the matter in hand." With a bow, the valet left the room, leaving the two young men eyeing each other, both filled with not a little disdain if not outright hostility. "Darcy, what the devil indeed? What means you by frightening my ward so?"

"Ward? Georgiana is my sister, more than your ward." His hand tugged through his wet hair to keep the tangled mess from dripping in his eyes. "And what do you mean frightening her? I am certain she is properly abed at this time of night, she knows nothing of my...condition."

With a snort, the colonel rolled his eyes. "Darcy, you are most abhorrently wrong, on both counts I might add. She does indeed know of your drunken debasement this evening, and has observed you in a similar condition not less than four times in half as many weeks. And, she is not asleep, cannot sleep for her worry for you." Here, Fitzwilliam threw his errant cousin a towel.

Darcy sat frozen, fully dressed in evening clothes sans his coat in the tub, water soaking through his fine silk cravat and shirt. The towel landed in his lap and still he did not move, the realization of the injury he exposed to his innocent sister, the one person he adored more than…or as much as…he closed his eyes against the thoughts of his other love. A shaking hand rose up to his face, and he pinched the bridge of his nose, to cease the sudden pressure of tearfulness. "Oh God," he murmured. "Oh God."

"None of it, man," Fitzwilliam abruptly grabbed Darcy by his collar and yanked him to a standing position. With a gritting of his teeth, Fitzwilliam slapped Darcy across the face. "That's for scaring your little sister." He backhanded Darcy across the other cheek. "And that is for reducing yourself to this pitiable state." Fitzwilliam drew his hand back again as if to name another of his cousin's sins worthy of punishment.

Darcy's reaction to the attempted third blow was only slightly delayed despite his inebriation. He blocked the colonel's swing and pushed the man out of the way so as to depart the bath. He grabbed up the towel and shoved his face in its folds. Darcy wished he could bury his face there until the morning, until Fitzwilliam would give up attempting to speak with him about his detestable behavior of the past fortnight. "God, forgive me," he muttered into the cloth.

"Indeed." Fitzwilliam sneered, glaring at his half soaked cousin. The dim light of dawn was staining the horizon. It had been a long night, and Fitzwilliam had spent a good deal of it riding to get to the house at St. James place. He had just been granted a brief leave of service; his commission would be taking him next to France, and into battle. Georgiana's message had reached him in time, thankfully, or else he would've had no idea of Darcy's uncharacteristic lapse in judgment. This was not the childhood friend he'd spent hours with as a boy, when the families would visit one another. This was not the serious, steady scholar that had graduated with honors from Cambridge and humbly took up the burden of father and provider to his young sister. The Darcy that had faced down the evil Wickham when that devil was so near annihilating the family's character, so close to ruining Georgiana. All of the precise thought and logic in Darcy seemed to have evaporated. Fitzwilliam saw before him with no small degree of disgust a quivering, regret-filled man who had turned a terrible corner or who had been dealt an unseen blow of some magnitude. Fitzwilliam would be the one to dig out the truth behind his friend's uncharacteristic show.

Darcy stumbled forward, blinded by the towel and burdened by his misery, and he half-fell into the cushioned window seat. Fitzwilliam paused waiting for some indication from his cousin that he was ready to climb out of his despair and to set the matter right. Darcy peered into the grey light of the sleeping city. The streets were yet stilled, but there was a sense of anticipation behind the shop doors and windows that increased with the gradual lightening of the sky. In an hour's time, the first street merchants would be out, prepping their hand carts and pulling back tarps revealing their goods. Darcy tightened his lips and creased his brow. Again, the regret of having troubled his sister restricted his throat.

McAlvie tapped on the door with the ordered tray. Col. Fitzwilliam reached the door in two strides and opened it for the servant, who stepped in and discreetly went about the business of setting the breakfast out. The colonel caught the eye of Georgiana, who was still hovering just on the other side of the door. He stepped toward her, took up her hand and shook his head lightly. "Georgiana, your brother is in no condition to see you at this time. My darling girl, please do let me take care of this. I have known him...we grew up together, and he and I are familiar enough. I shall set him right so he does not distress you further."

Georgiana peered into Col. Fitzwilliam's eyes, her brow still drawn. "Is he still, still...Is there anything I can do? Does he tell you why he's taken to drink these past nights?"

"No, but I shall learn of it tonight, by God, or I should I say this day, for day is near breaking. And here you are, set to take a chill in just your gown and wrapper," Fitzwilliam said, throwing a glance over his shoulder to Darcy. He gently pulled her away from the door down the hall. "Go to bed, my dear. We will talk of it together, you and I, for he is near ready to tell his tale, I promise, and I am certain all will be revealed. Set your mind at ease."

With a small curtsey, Georgiana turned and left the hall. Fitzwilliam observed her quiet tread down the passage, and noted how she had changed these past months, ever since…well, after the disastrous Wickham rendezvous, she had folded into herself, shamed by her own actions and the trouble she'd brought the family. She was an innocent, to be sure, but aware of how her missteps had almost cost everything valuable to her and her brother – name, dignity, reputation would have been gone, all gone, if the impetuous Wickham had had his way with her, and had eloped as he'd vowed they would. What a tragic scar that would have left on this ancient house of D'Arcy. And now, it was she that had taken up the defense of that sacred house, in calling Fitzwilliam to attend to his errant cousin, who seemed bound to drink himself into ruin.

With a grimace, the colonel turned on his heel and approached the sullen Darcy, who peered glumly down at the grey street below. McAlvie's efforts in setting a breakfast table went unnoticed, and Fitzwilliam nodded the servant out of the room. After the door closed with a click, it was Fitzwilliam's chance to crack open the hardened shell that surrounded his cousin and friend.

"What, pray tell," asked Fitzwilliam. "What is the meaning of this carousing? Is it Carnivale in Cantebury? What could you be thinking indulging to such excess that you would concern your young innocent sister? What has made you so miserable?"

"It's…it's…" and here, Darcy paused to close his eyes and lean against the sill. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Here, the colonel stared at Darcy, waiting for deeper insight. When his patience was met with silence, Fitzwilliam pressed, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet? Miss Bennet, from Hertfordshire?" Shaking his head vigorously, he spouted, "All of this wanton behavior because of some country lass that's caught your eye? I thought she'd not have you, Darcy – did you not reveal your heart to her, and did she not shut the door upon it?"

Darcy winced at the memory of Elizabeth's resounding denial of his affections all those months ago. He had turned to Fitzwilliam then for support in pleading his case to her – he'd ask Fitzwilliam to corroborate his account of his dealings with George Wickham and young Georgiana. He had told Fitzwilliam about Elizabeth's rejection, and her championing Wickham. That was one pretense he could dissolve, with his cousin's testimony, if she had a desire to seek the truth about that vile snake.

"She had denied me, yes, but I had occasion to rejoin my attentions to her. The letter I'd written to her – I believe she'd found a way to disengage herself from the charms of George Wickham. We met during the summer, some months ago."

The colonel was not unaware of the attraction of the second Bennet girl. He had fancied her quite a good deal when they'd formally been introduced at the Rosings' parsonage. She had the most bewitching eyes, and her bosom – well, he had always held a weakness for women with a full breast. Most bedeviling of all was the girl's wit – it was hard to fathom that she was country born and bred, with her intelligence and biting sense of humor. Truth be told, Fitzwilliam admitted some degree of satisfaction to himself when his proud cousin disclosed she gave Darcy a proper scolding for his ungentlemanly approaches to her.

After Elizabeth's refusal to marry, Darcy had retreated into his London home, and no longer spoke of her. The name of Bennet was not again mentioned until George Wickham entrapped Miss Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia in an elopement scandal. Fitzwilliam had not met Lydia, but Darcy assured him she most morally precarious of the Bennet family. It was presumed all was lost for the girl – only 15 years old, but truly an outrageous flirt and conniver. Wickham had plucked the easiest rose of the bunch. Upon learning about Wickham's abuse of Elizabeth Bennet's sister, Fitzwilliam was outraged, but not to the degree that Darcy was. The man had the look of an avenging angel as he related the story to Fitzwilliam; but Fitzwilliam had suspicions that Darcy's true motivation to seek justice had more to do with saving the delightful Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

And she was delightful. Col. Fitzwilliam, as the second son of an Earl, could only appreciate Miss Bennet from a distance – it would not be an advantageous match for him - certainly not now that her family had been disgraced. However, the idea of courting the enticing young lady had its effect on him. He was a practical man, but he viewed the entire situation not without some thought to how a marriage proposal from him might just solve her problem while assuring his happiness. But he was uncertain of Darcy's involvement with the girl. Given his present emotional state, Fitzwilliam feared that Darcy's intense attention had somehow turned from ungentlemanly to unseemly – why else would Darcy be so morose. "Darcy – what have you done?" Fitzwilliam eyes narrowed. "Is she – have you –"

"Never!" Darcy snapped, glaring up from the window sill seat. "I should call you out for that – Fitz, what do you take me for?" At that, he stood unsteadily, and proceeded to loosen his sodden shirt and britches. "She was traveling through Lambton with her Aunt and Uncle. They'd stopped to view Pemberly, and I happened to be returning from London in preparation of Georgiana's arrival. We spent some time together, Miss Bennet and I, and with her relatives. I had reason to believe that Miss Elizabeth's affections toward me might have changed." Flinging aside the wet clothes, he wrapped a dressing gown about him. "That's when the letter from her sister arrived, telling Lydia Bennet's tale of her elopement with…and I left her there, left Miss Bennet with her aunt and uncle at the Lambton inn so I could search for the scoundrel and Miss Lydia and put their situation aright. That's when you and I spent weeks searching for the scoundrel – and nothing! We could not find anyone who'd seen or heard of them." Darcy took up a cup of coffee into his shaking hand and swallowed it in one, two gulps. "I gave up the search, for selfish reasons, really – I had to return home, to England - wanted to see her." He clamped his jaw tightly, recollecting his disappointment in himself – for abandoning Elizabeth in her hour of need, of not finding his quarry, of quitting the search too soon. Fitzwilliam, encouraging him, grasped his arm and urged his narrative forward.

"You know that I first sought her at Longbourn – her family home. But I had not heard her papa had died, and so the home was now entailed to her cousin – Mr. Collins. Our dear Aunt Catherine's hand was in that turn of household. I'd learned she and her sister Jane had taken up in town with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, so I sought her there. Repeatedly, I entreated to see her, and each time I was discouraged. I could see it was a struggle for her relations, for they are not unknown to me – I count Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner among some of my finest acquaintances, in truth." Darcy turned back toward the street below, now tinged with blue yellow dawn light. "It was not until this last fortnight that I finally received word from her – Miss Elizabeth herself – that she would not see me. She gave me a note."

"What did it say?"

"She confessed that she cared for me. She had learned through her sister Lydia's folly just how incorrect she was about Wickham, and how awful she felt in defending him to me. She forgave me even my interference with her sister Jane's connection with my friend Bingley – she could see now that her family's inferiorities would prove burdensome to any eligible suitor. She considered me in the highest esteem, but could not entwine our lives together any further."

"She released you." Fitzwilliam hissed through his teeth. What a blow for Darcy. First to be refused by a young woman, then to be turned out again by her, knowing that the lady had affection for him - he could clearly see how Elizabeth Bennet had conquered Darcy's heart. The man looked broken, in pieces. For the first time in a long time, Col. Fitzwilliam felt pity for the mighty Darcy. "I say, Darcy…it may be time that you let this one go."

"I cannot." Darcy turned to his cousin and shook his head slightly. "I cannot, not yet, maybe not ever." He turned to his cousin, and said, "Her eyes – I love her fine eyes, and the way she looks when she's teasing, and the look of her mouth when she licks her lips – her hair, her smell, my God, I love her and I think I always will."

Fitzwilliam leveled his eyes at Darcy. "You must let her go, though, man – think of your family. Think of Georgiana. Miss Elizabeth Darcy is a fine young lady, to be sure, but she is not…fit. Not now, given the circumstances." He pulled Darcy around, away from the window and looked deeply at him. "Your sister needs your guidance now, more than ever. You must concentrate on her future. She is coming of age, and you must find her a match – the sooner the better. Once she is settled, then perhaps you can settle yourself. Focus your energies on Georgiana." Yes, thought Fitzwilliam, preoccupy yourself with another young lady, one who should be dearer to you than all. Burn your passion out for the Bennet girl by working toward little Georgie's happiness, and along the way you will surely forget.

There was a long silence as Darcy ruminated. He still held in his mind's eye that look of hers – one eyebrow raised, a corner of her mouth upturned, her breath filling her small body, holding steady the laughter that threatened to burst forth. She was happiness to him – spontaneous, unguarded joy. Yet she had acknowledged that she could not be his. He had to be man enough to admit the same.

Darcy nodded. In a flat voice, he stated, "Yes, yes. I know. I know now what I must do. Georgiana is coming of age, it is time that she had a proper suitor. Bingley is the man for Georgiana. I will contact Bingley. This very day – I will let him know we are in town and wish to entertain him and his sisters this week. I will put all of this out of my mind once and for all."

Fitzwilliam smiled at the swiftness of Darcy's mind – to be so inebriated in one moment, and so alert the next. Fitz was surprised Darcy hadn't drawn up the menu for the dinner in his head already. "A moment, good man – you must engage in one unpleasant task first," chided Fitzwilliam. "You must ask for your sister's mercy before you marry her off. She is quite anxious to know of your health."

"I must be made presentable. I must…eat, then bathe. Then perhaps, I shall rest a bit. For it has been a very long evening, and I'm still very drunk, I'm afraid." And with that, he sunk onto his bed and fell to sleep instantly.


Miss Bingley was of a certain age. She had acknowledged that fact, when she had turned two and twenty with no immediate prospects of marital relations. By the time she'd surpassed four and twenty, she schooled herself to feel calm when that fact flitted through her consciousness. She was of a certain age; she'd learn to acknowledge it, to even embrace it. She convinced herself that age was not an obstacle to the delicate luring of the male sex to her side; indeed, with the right airs and presentation, she used her age as a mark of heightened sophistication and worldliness. She marketed herself as an experienced, refined and accomplished young (yes, she would emphasize, young!) lady.

But there were some inevitable artifacts that were attached with the passing of time. She saw changes in her face when she peered in the glass. And the slight shift in her slender figure - no matter, that was easily remedied with a tonic and salt bath usually - and purging syrup, if she'd overindulged at dinner. Her figure was easily maintained, and obsessively so.

But of late, it was her eyesight that became an impediment to her carefully cultivated image of sophisticate. When at a ball or a gathering, she caught herself sometimes squinting at members of their party, giving her appearance a soured look as if she'd just sniffed spoiled milk. She had attempted and failed to cultivate a more poised visage - she had only succeeded in developing a popeyed look, as if always startled. She could no longer deny that her peers were starting to notice these minor twitches in her countenance, and she had grown concerned that it would soon be discussed among those who sought to set her down a notch.

This weakness of the eye brought her to a reluctant conclusion – she was in need of eyeglasses. It would not do to visit the spectacle shop on High Street, in her neighborhood. It would be simply be an opening for her detractors, those petty gossipers who were jealous of her accomplishments, wit and talent. She went to a less familiar area of shops to acquire a tasteful eyeglass – to be used only when necessary, and with a cautionary glance round before perching the glasses on her nose.

Appearance was everything; appearance and connection. Luckily for her, her younger brother had forged a strong bond with the formidable Fitzwilliam Darcy, when the two young men schooled at Cambridge. Darcy had been finishing his studies, as Bingley was just beginning. Bingley became fast friends with the upperclassman, and Darcy, in turn, felt no inconvenience in placing the young man securely under his wing. It was not long after his graduation that Bingley received his first invitation to visit Darcy's ancient family home, Pemberley. Again, luckily, the invitation to spend the entire summer extended to Bingley's immediate family - his sisters and his brother-in-law travelled the distance in their handsome curricle and warmed themselves in the summer sun on the lawns and grounds of the estate.

It was that first visit to the great house that Ms. Bingley had trapped in her head a vision of becoming mistress of such a place - it was like corking Alla-din's lamp and pocketing it for none to discover. Indeed, if her family's fortune had a longer history, she herself might have been raised in a similar household, with as many holdings. But the Bingleys had come into money later than some, through business rather than landlordship. It was on the shoulders of her brother to establish the Bingley roots deep within English soil, as if they had grown straight from the ground beneath their feet.

Miss Bingley had been secretive about her ambitions to become mistress of Pemberley. Really, at first, she had a broader plan for Mr. Darcy. She was well aware that well-bred families surrounded themselves with more well-bred families of land and wealth. She was initially of a mind to focus her attentions on a friend or acquaintance of the fine titled young gentleman.

It was during that long extended visit during that very warm summer that she discovered Darcy's connections had their limits. He was not overly social; indeed, the few acquaintances she made under his roof that season could be counted in two hands. She had expected a newly established gentleman, with his scholarly days behind him, would be anxious and ready to stretch his reach to friends and admirers. She had assumed that the very rich would have balls, parties and soirees every evening. But that was not the case; indeed, the Bingley party would join Darcy and his little sister Georgiana almost every night for dinner in the grand dining room, then quietly retire to the parlor for some cards or reading. It seemed most peculiar to waste such a house and such luxuries on such a small party night after night.

But of course, Mr. Darcy's father had just recently passed, and so the house was still in mourning. Darcy had taken on the responsibility of raising his younger sister, partnering in the effort with his cousin Col. Fitzwilliam. There would not be a proper occasion for a large gathering.

Thus, the summer of introduction passed, with Miss Bingley seeing little opportunity to attach to any gentleman other than Mr. Darcy. And who would not aim for such a grand prize? So very young and mannered and handsome…so very rich…so very easy to love. Her married sister was in full alliance with her in their management of the Darcy plan - for they had set their sights on Georgiana for their Charles, when Georgiana came of age.

Not long out of Cambridge, and fresh from the parting of his beloved father, it was easy to persuade the young Mr. Darcy of Caroline Bingley's able assistance in preparing his young sister for her coming out. Fortunately, he was in no particular hurry to present the girl to society – Carolina had no doubt it was his shame at her indulgently shy manner that kept him from moving the time forward in Georgiana's introduction to the ton. It was partly ignorance, but also his decidedly overprotective tendency that lead him to resist Georgiana's inevitable initiation to society. Thus, Caroline was secured in Mr. Darcy's circle not one but at least two seasons, as he waited until Georgiana was secure in her social conduct before her introduction to the world.

Caroline, her sister Louisa, and dear, darling brother Charles had come quite far in a short amount of time – mainly because of their Darcy connection. There were few things that Caroline thanked the Lord for on a daily basis, but her brother's connection to Darcy was consistently on that short list. Without Charles' convivial and welcoming nature, she and the Bingley family name would not nearly sport the polish it did now. Fitzwilliam Darcy's fateful meeting with the young Charles Bingley while attending Cambridge was the coup d'etat her line needed to lift them from the bourgeouis to the heights of society. Darcy was everything, and Darcy had to be hers always. Thus, she and her sister plotted the capture of not one, but both siblings. And it did not hurt that Mr. Darcy cut such an imposing figure.

Capturing that animal was an endeavor of an artist, one who could embrace a challenge and meet it with both hands extended. Again, it was her fortune that these years had past without narry a competitor to her quarry. Except for that Bennet girl. Elizabeth Bennet, so blatantly inappropriate in proper company. So brazen, so sly as to aspire to a man of Darcy's stature. He had even indicated that she was desirable to him, but he would never stoop to a woman of such poor means and lack of accomplishment. And that she was sister to that trollop, that child of such ill repute – Lydia Bennett, seduced by the unscrupulous Wickham. A steward's son and lately of the Meryton militia. And Jane Bennet – a simple girl, a country bumpkin who had entwined herself with dear Charles for a time, until he came to his senses and realized Georgiana Darcy was the young lady for him.

Yes, Caroline Bingley had much to celebrate in her fortune these days. Charles had detached himself that ill-bred family; he had with his sisters' and Darcy's urging, commenced courtship with young Georgiana. Good match, that, she pondered – they are both shy as snails, and will be content to contemplate each others' shells once they were married. Her snaring of Darcy was a trifle more difficult. He was not so easily moved but again, Caroline had great fortune of late. After an extended absence from Town, and without much ado, Darcy had actually discussed matrimony with her, just as casually as one would propose a turn about the park. Despite his somewhat funereal tone in his voice and the scent of spirits on his breath, she offered her attentions to him without regret. She could not help but speculate a proposal was imminent, and she took the conversation as an understanding which no doubt would lead to their union.

Yes, thought Caroline Bingley, I am a fortunate young woman! She reviewed her luck again, pausing to stare at her reflection in a milliner's window. She slyly looked about her, assuring herself that none in her set had wandered down this street; it would be highly unlikely to find Lady Matlock or Ann DeBourgh poking around Cheapside. She inconspicuously drew the glasses out of her reticule and put them up to her face. She looked at her reflection again. This time, her corrected vision revealed a sight beyond words. Could it be? She thought. Was that Elizabeth Bennet, in a milliner's shop- in a shopkeep's apron? Was she actually working on trimming out a bonnet?

Incredibly, this was the case – and Caroline Bingley headed to the shop door, prepared to investigate Miss Bennet's situation at the store. What an amazing story – she felt she would burst as she strode toward the shop door, hand on the handle, ready to swing the door open and taunt Ms. Bennet. How far her rival for Mr. Darcy's affections had fallen- how much Ms. Bingley wished to revel in Elizabeth Bennet's misfortunes. Ah, but she hesitated. There was another way, another plan that would put both Elizabeth Bennet's unnecessary pride in check, and simultaneously unite Darcy's heart to her own at last. Caroline Bingley promptly turned on her heel, tucked her eyewear away, and swiftly moved up the street away from the shop's view. Caroline Bingley was a lucky woman.


Darcy pulled up the collar of his great coat up around this neck and ears to protect them from the bitter wind and wondered why on earth Miss Bingley had sent him so far from Trafalgar Square to make a purchase of riding gloves for his sister Georgiana's Christmas gift. "Calveskin is the softest and the best for her tender hands. This shop has the best quality skins. She has to have the buttercream calveskin for riding, Fitzwilliam – I mean, Mr. Darcy," Miss Bingley had told him. Darcy squinted from the sting of the winter weather, and also a little from recollecting Miss Bingely's sudden coy appropriation of his first name.

Their assumed engagement had brought changes indeed, in both him and her - but of very different effect. While she increased her already cloying attachment to him, heightening her attempts to stun her with her charm, grace and wit, he had slowly withdrawn from her, barely able to share even a smile at her always present jibes and humors. In the evenings they spent together in the presence of her sister and her husband, and Bingley and Georgiana, Darcy found himself more and more drawn to the punch bowl than with the rest of the party. In fact, he would often catch himself glancing with some surprise at that other proprietor of the punch, Bingley's brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst. Darcy would frown and try to recollect if he had ever spent so much time with the often inebriated in-law before the failed attempt to find the Bennetts' wayward daughters.

He reflected often upon the nature of change. It was like a stick etching small lines in sand until rivulets of water washed the lines away and left eddies and gullies; time and effort made change carve great pits and holes in the once smooth, flat predictable surfaces of the sand. Darcy was full of holes and craters, and he felt them powerful. His decision to seal his fate with Miss Bingley came from a resignation to the inevitable. He was growing older, his family's name on the brink of being irretrievable because of the wrath of his aunt, Lady Debourgh. It was that lady who had threatened to expose his regrettable attachment to the Bennett family - and worse, his sister's unfortunate dalliance with one George Wickham, who now had disappeared as a vapor does into the nothing of air.

George Wickham. All of Darcy's life had been a masterpiece of integrity, of self-control, of propriety. The school of his life had been in self-mastery, maintaining resolve, holding aloft all those morals embraced by a century of landlordship. Wickham was somehow the opposite of all that - the grasping reach of spiritual impoverishment, the bedding of opportunistic tendencies. He had turned Darcy's world upside down with his meditated attempt to stain and abscond with his sister; had he detected the power of Darcy's attraction to Elizabeth? Was that what drew him to Elizabeth's sister, Lydia - destroying her family's good name by taking advantage of Lydia's impetuous nature? By spoiling one sister, he surely would have known he would've spoiled them all, so Darcy's thoughts had been in those months of searching for the wayward couple. Wickham's seemingly unending hatred of the young Darcy had motivated him in the past. Darcy knew in his heart that Elizabeth's pain and suffering because of this latest escapade could be traced back to him on that account, as well.

The memories weighed heavily upon him, it was rare that he would have moments of silence and reflection. The past months had numbed his feelings in such a way that it was always deflating to have his failures surface in his mind's eye yet again. He had played the scenes out so many times, just as he had played out the scenes of happiness and contentment he had entertained when he was so certain that Elizabeth had learned to love him, even a little. He had been so close to the brink of that serenity, the knowledge that he had changed for her, easily and rightly so, because she had seen him so clearly. She had known him all along, and now she was gone, and so therefore he was gone too. And what was left was the gentleman Darcy, tightening his grip on his woolen overcoat against the cold, finally reaching his destination - McWilliams' Millinery. he pulled the shop door open, bell tingling announcing a customer's arrival, and he stepped from the dark London street into a cozy, warmly lit establishment, stocked with bolts of fabrics and cloth, retinues, slippers, and hats decorated with all sorts of frippery.

Widow McWilliams was a bustly sort of woman, small and compact, but taking up more space than needed with the flounces on her sleeves and dust bonnet and shawl. Her mousy hair bounced and jiggled about her face as she turned from her present work to acknowledge Darcy's entrance to her shop. She was just in the action of pinning up a hem, and nearly pricked herself when she spotted the very handsome gentleman at the door - an unusual sight for two reasons. Firstly, men were not common visitors to her establishment in general. Secondly, her shop was small and modest, filled with some finery but mostly everyday fabrics and accoutrement. What a gentleman of Darcy's apparent status was doing in her midst was beyond her.

She quickly recovered after another quick glance to the young man. "Good evening, young sir," she murmured, her lips pressing closed around some pins. She completed putting in the last pin and rose to greet Darcy. "And what brings you to my establishment this evening?"

"Gloves," replied a distracted Darcy. "Gloves for a young lady." He glanced about the store, taking in the quality of the fabrics stacked willy-nilly in wall cubbies. He could not discern why Miss Bingley insisted this place was the creme de la creme in gloving - the meagerness of quality or luxury cloths was not what he was expecting. Perhaps the fashionable Miss Bingley had seen something in the old woman's craft, the way she prettied up the hats in the window.

"Sir, we do have gloves, of all natures. Riding, dress, every day wear. Ready made, in several common sizes. Would you know the young lady's hand?"

Darcy frowned. Of course he did not know Georgiana's exact hand size. He could describe it as best he could, but it would be better if he had a model with him, he thought. "Small, I think, perhaps like yours?"

Mrs. McWilliams laughed and held up hands, wiggling her fingers. "Oh sir, you do flatter. My hands are short, but I wouldn't dare call them small." Indeed, upon inspection, Darcy could see immediately the problem - her fingers were short, fat and stubby, her palms wide and flat. Definitely not a match to his sister's longer, delicate digits - the hands of an accomplished pianist. "Let me get my girl out here - she's a pretty little thing, and maybe a closer fit." With a wink, McWilliams turned on her heel, traipsing through the tight path of counters and work tables to the curtained back room. Darcy's gaze again drifted to the muslins and embroidered floral. He had set aside his hat and gloves and shook out his damp wool coat, when a movement of the back curtain caught his eye.

She stepped out to the shop floor, head down, hands clasped modestly, but even with her face hidden beneath her shop cap and stray curls, he knew instantly it was her. Elizabeth Bennett. After months of effort to forget her, here she was before him. He had in those long arduous months memorized her shape, her form, her scent, and his endeavors to excise them from his mind were now pointless, for his feelings for her rose up again with such force he stopped breathing. "Miss...Elizab-" he exhaled, but his voice froze as he watched her head pop up, and her recognition of him drained her face of all color. She abruptly stopped, and hesitated as if to flee back into the workroom, but Darcy quickly assessed her crisis and spoke, "Miss, would you be so kind as to assist me? I am looking for gloves for my young sister."

Elizabeth paused, panting slightly, and swallowed. Her panic at seeing him was high, and she was not certain what game he was playing. She had seen his face, had seen he was just as shocked as she to meet in such unlikely circumstances. He did not know she would be here, in this obscure shop, yet somehow he had found her. She had become so very confident that they would never meet, once she had made clear her intention never to receive him at her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner's home. She felt that her adamant demand to her caretakers would have sufficed in protecting her from meeting with Mr. Darcy. She resolved he had given up his efforts to see her after his final attempt to visit the townhouse in Cheapside. She recalled her Aunt Gardiner's words to him: "Mr. Darcy, I am most ashamed but insistent on relaying her message to you: Elizabeth has stated most firmly she will not receive you - not now, not ever. I am sorry." Elizabeth had heard the exchange, hidden in the parlor near the front door of the flat. Darcy had at other visits, had protested, at first, as he always did, when her family would turn him away or attempt to deceive him of her whereabouts; but this time, receiving a directive from her never to return as well as her letter of explanation, his response was muddled and reticent. "I...see...I...see. Thank you very much." And he turned and walked away. Peeping through the window, she viewed him walking out of her life a second time, this time she was certain forever.

But now, here he was in the most unexpected of places, and apparently here by coincidence, she was certain. By accident, he had stumbled into her world again; and she was uncertain how to react. The mortification of seeing him in her present condition, assistant to a shopkeep...whatever would he think of this newest degradation she faced? But surely he had heard of her family's fall after Lydia's rash decision to throw their lives away for the sake of lascivious diversion with Wickham?

Widow McWilliams had by now finished the mending of the hem, and had turned her attention back to the oddly silent pair. With a quick wrinkle of her brow she directed Elizabeth, "Bethie, were you just taking this gentleman to the glove counter? He's in need of a hand." Elizabeth winced slightly and mumbled, "Yes, Mrs. McWilliams, right this way, sir," and led Darcy to display of gloves.

Keeping her face down, Elizabeth resolved to keep up the appearance of no prior knowledge of the gentleman. She was extremely aware of the intensity of his gaze, and felt as if he was willing her to look him in the eye over the pile of leather and silk gloves. "Here are some of the ready-mades…sir." She risked a small glance at his face.

Darcy fought to keep his composure. That small glance into those fine eyes which he'd so ardently admired a lifetime ago – to see them again, to have them light even briefly on his face was enough to quicken his breath. He felt suspended in space, he felt connected to her in such a manner as to transcend everything around them. And yet even now he doubted her connection to him. He had walked away from her in her most desperate hour; then, attempted to crash back into her life in a most desperate and ill-mannered way. He was undeserving of her love and her attention. She'd rejected him, not once but twice, and it didn't matter if he'd somehow gained her affections previously. What was between them was forever dissolved. The distance between them was greater than ever; what had come to pass since her visit to Pemberley yawned between them like a deep gorge.

Elizabeth, ever aware of this precarious charade they were playing, picked over the gloves to display to him. Darcy rashly reached over and collected a pair of gloves from her hand, lingering there long enough to brush his fingertips along her open palm. "Yes, this will do - this is what I came for," he murmured. For all of the moments they had strung together in their brief acquaintance, this had been the first time he had felt the soft skin of her hand. The moment moved him too much, and he dared not look at her face to gauge her reaction to his touch. "Coward!" he thought, and immediately cursed his clumsy attempt at trying to reach her – his touch had evidently repulsed her, as she drew her hand away so abruptly.

Her reaction, had he been brave enough to notice, was not of repulsion but of overwhelming shock. His bare hand brushing against hers for the first time since his declaration of love, her rejection of that suit and what she'd concluded was a subsequent courting during her time at Lambton – it was too much to bear. The touch, so brief, had awakened the images she'd held in her secret imagination of what might have been, had Lydia been kept at home that summer. She drew back and closed her eyes, swallowing the teariness that had been inspired.

Darcy sensed her distress before seeing evidence of it, and forced himself to look upon her bowed head and trembling hands, now clenched together in front of her. He looked about, and knowing the proprietress of the shop was out of earshot assisting a newly arrived customer, said to Elizabeth, "Miss Bennett, forgive me…I did not come to distress or disturb you. I am well aware of your feelings towards me. I shall purchase the gloves and leave immediately, and you shall not be worried by my presence again."

The image of him walking away from her yet again – that moment of watching his broad shoulders turn away, seeing how the curls of his brown hair rested just so on the back of his high silk collar, his coat stretched against those broad shoulders tapering down to his waist – the moment that he would pause and place his tall hat upon that fine head of curls – that moment, again, she thought to herself? I cannot bear seeing that moment again, not again. I cannot see him leave me without a kind word between us, without acknowledging his endearing behavior at Lambton and Pemberley that last summer they'd seen one another. He had to know that her feelings toward him had changed, and that she'd misjudged him in his treatment of Wickham. Darcy was indeed the better of the two men, and she felt deep regret that she had not seen it from the start.

Her prejudice against him had driven a wedge between them from the start. Now the wedge was still there, but only because the inferiority of her family had been so clearly laid out before the both of them. What gentleman would ever consider involving himself with a family of so low scruples as to produce such an ill-bred flirt and luxuriant such as Lydia? Darcy had always been right in his assessment of the Bennett family, and her most recent descent as a shopgirl insured his conjecture.

"No,…sir," she glanced again to the bustling Mrs. McWilliams, who had just begun whipstitching the dress hem she'd been pinning. "Allow me to…show you the gloves." She took one of the gloves from him, carefully so as not to touch his hand again and start that same unnerving chain reaction. Slipping into the glove, pulling the taut leather over her slender hand, tugging the glove gently at the wrist, she spread her fingers into the leather. She reached over to retrieve the glove's mate, but instead placed her covered hand directly into his. "It fits me well, as you can see."

"Yes…yes, it does," spoke Darcy in a husky voice. He caught her gaze and held it for a moment, contemplating the true meaning of her words. His intensity caused her to blush and reveal a little smile. Darcy quickly caught himself; his time with Elizabeth had passed. He was nearly engaged, and she was left destitute after her father's sudden demise. No matter what feelings they had for one another, their passion was wasted. She was reduced to something even less than what she was when they first met – no longer a country gentleman's daughter, but now a shopgirl in Cheapside – her fortitude and intelligence the sole barrier to worse employment in a factory, or, as her sister Lydia was most likely reduced to, prostitution.

His thoughts of that foolish girl, Lydia, caused him great pain and anguish. For it was Lydia, along with her gallant Wickham, that truly threaded the needle crafting the meager life that now belonged to his Elizabeth. Elizabeth, witty and charming, so firey tempered but with such an amiable nature as to never let anyone near her burn. Theirs was a tempestuous courtship, if it could even be called that. Indeed, he had struggled so long in those first months of their initial meeting – at first ridiculing her and her bumpkin family – he was so filled with vainglorious righteousness and deep pride in his lofty family's history and connections. It was not until fate threw her into the same household he was visiting, that he was truly able to observe her and tilt words with her. Her wit, her charm, her beauty all came shining through to the surface, as he spent more and more time with her.

And yet he still resisted the connection, knowing full well such a match would be unconscionable. A country squire's daughter marrying into the Darcy lineage, with no gains to be made in the increase in land or property…it was not the family way. Duty was always before desire, and Darcy fought that desire many long nights wintering in London and later at Pemberly.

The battle was not won, however, and he determined that the remedy was to marry the girl once and for all – what he did not expect was her repulsion at the idea of becoming Mrs. Darcy. He had been instrumental in discouraging a connection between his friend Charles Bingley and her dear sister Jane; his arguments had been so absolute, Charles would leave his country home and never see Jane again. And then, there was his supposed wrongdoing against George Wickham. Her rejection, upon further contemplation, had been somewhat justified by her ignorance of his true character; he'd not allowed her the intimacy to understand his deep mistrust of Wickham. Had she known, perhaps she'd have been able to prevent Wickham's seduction of her sister Lydia.

He cursed inwardly again. Lydia and Wickham, two of the most impulsive self-serving creatures ever to walk England – they had successfully with their runaway elopement and abandonment of morals, had brought shame down around the entire family. Lydia, with absolutely no propriety or sense of ethics, had ruined Elizabeth's chances for happiness forever. For who would want her now, but some callow delivery boy or some other shopkeep along the row? Who would embrace her and hold her, unpinning her dark locks to let them flow about her shoulders? Who would gaze into those fine, fine eyes and whisper his devotion to her? "Me," he thought. "No one but me can have her. She deserves so much, and I can give her anything…everything. She must have me, and I must have her." He grasped her gloved hand with both of his and looked longingly at her again. Quietly, so as not to disturb Mrs. McWilliams, he spoke, "I must speak with you, Miss Bennett. Allow me to walk with you once you have finished your employ here this evening. Please do not say no, I must speak earnestly with you and tonight."

Her breath quickened and brow creased. "No, no…" and then catching the earnestness in his eyes, added, "I think it best that we do not have connections, Mr. Darcy."

"I cannot deny the connection I feel toward you, Miss Bennett. I must speak with you, I will follow you. I…beg of you…if you have any gentle feelings in your heart toward me."

And here, her heart broke just a little, and it was very difficult to keep tears from welling in her eyes. "I do not wish for you to beg me, Mr. Darcy. It would be best for you to leave right now and never come back." With a glance at Mrs. McWilliams, she raised her voice slightly, pulling away from his hand, and removing the glove. "I'm sorry, sir, that you cannot find what you are looking for. I wish you good night." She turned away and brushed past the old woman to get into the back room of the shop.

"What? What? Bethie, could you not help this young man?" Mrs. McWilliams set aside her work and approached Darcy. "I'm so sorry, sir, she's not accustomed to assisting gentleman of your quality. Please forgive her – was there anything that was suitable to you?"

Darcy, eyes still peering over the old widow's head to the place where Elizabeth had retreated, murmured negligently, "Hmmm? No. I mean, yes, I'll take the gloves." He absentmindedly dropped five pounds onto the counter before him and took up the gloves she had worn for him. He turned to go, and hesitated at the door, hat and coat in hand. "The shop…girl…she was exceedingly helpful. Please let her know that on my behalf." And he stalked out of the store.

Mrs. McWilliams squinted at the odd comment, never having been said about anyone in her employ before. And then she shrugged, pocketed the five note and went back to her sewing.


He'd be there, she was certain. His carriage had routinely passed the shop each evening for the past three days, and for the past two evenings, she had spotted him pacing the walk across the way. She guessed he was attempting some form of subterfuge, but the quality of his dress and the curricle was not common on this side street; indeed, Widow had started noting his presence, too, and went so far as to ask her, "Say, Bethie, in't that the gentleman from the other day?" followed by a meaningful glance to her.

Lizzy's feelings for him had altered dramatically since his wretched declaration of love for her, some nine months ago. While visiting her friend Charlotte those many months ago, at Hunsford Parsonage near Rosings, Mr. Darcy had laid out an awkward and rather coarse exposition of his undying love for Elizabeth – in spite of her inferiority of connection and frankly obnoxious family connections. Elizabeth was so appalled by his ungentlemanly discourse that she swatted down his offer as she would a horsefly. She roundly scolded him for his ill manners and his interference with the courtship of her sister Jane by Mr. Bingley – Darcy's close friend. Then there was the matter of Darcy's offensive behavior toward a certain gentleman whom she'd recently been acquainted – one George Wickham. Wickham.

Those many months ago, she had truly believed George Wickham to be the wronged party in his dispute with Darcy. He'd claimed that Darcy had robbed him of his rightful inheritance – a livelihood in the clergy. Thinking on it now, Elizabeth thought it more likely that a pig would be a suitable racehorse than Wickham a parson. Nevertheless, Wickham would still hold her in his charms had not Darcy exposed the cad's foiled attempts to ruin young Georgiana Darcy. Darcy's claims weighed heavily in Elizabeth's mind upon her return to Hertsfordshire; she chose not to reveal Darcy's secret to her friends and family (other than her dear sister Jane). She felt that his earnest confession had been to her ears alone in an attempt to correct her view of him; and that it did, somewhat.

It was not until a chance encounter one summer afternoon when she was touring Pemberley with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner that she realized how very wrong she was about Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Time had passed again, but it was evident his feelings for her had not. What had changed most dramatically was his presentation to her. He was far more cordial, warm, even, than those Darcy-s he'd shown before. The Netherfield Darcy – haughty and bored – and the Rosings Park Darcy – resolute and martyring – those Darcy-s were no longer visible to her, only faintly in her mind's eye. The Darcy of Pemberley, praised by farmer and servant, honored as landlord and brother – this was a new Darcy to her – new and greatly improved. The stories of this generous Darcy, this caring brother and tender friend to those less fortunate, these tales enchanted her. But most surprising was the kindness and attentiveness he'd shown to her and to her Aunt and Uncle. Those few days in Lambton were jewels in her mind, glittering and sharp. Her memory of the brief time they had spent together had crystallized and formed a touchstone in her heart. Here she found wonder, and remorse. Here was the moment of revelation when she discovered his true nature – not proud and arrogant, but dignified and honorable. She had even come to a reckoning about his intrusion in the courtship of and her sister. Despite the uncivilized way in which she had refused his offer of marriage, his feelings for her were not spite as she'd predicted on that chance encounter, but indeed he renewed his attentions toward her with a gentleness that was most attractive to her. She'd felt close to him, and he'd become very dear to her indeed.

At the present, however, his insistence upon meeting with her was testing her patience. She was too well aware of her position in society, now that her sister had tainted the family with scandal and desertion; and her father's passing had simply shut the book on any and all attentions she could receive from esteemed gentleman. Mr. Darcy's return into her life only served as a whipping post for her pleasant memories of life before…all this.

She stepped out of the shop onto the pavement, her flat heeled shoes clicking on the brick. She felt him before she saw him, as he drew up behind her, his long legs easily matching her brisk step.

"Mr. Darcy, you should know that there is no usefulness in following me. We have no business together."

"Miss Bennet, if you would, please let me escort you to your home."

Elizabeth quickened her pace, shaking her head vigorously. "As you know, my aunt and uncle live not but a block from here. I have walked this street for many weeks without an escort; I have no desire for one now!"

"Miss Bennet, you must know there is merit found in simply being near you, to see you again…"

"Enough!" She turned abruptly toward him with a roll of her eyes. Catching her temper, she continued, "There is no worth for you to be seen with me. You must understand, Mr. Darcy. I am no longer…of value!" She turned on her heel, and continued.

Darcy exhaled in panic – he had not prepared for this encounter. If she had accepted his calls three months ago, he had rehearsed in his head what he would say to her. When she rejected his marriage proposal at Rosings, she had peeled back his layers like one peels an onion; he was raw from her scrutiny of his true self. He had spent hours with her in his head, imagining his victorious return after resolving the ugly matter between her sister and Wickham. Then, he would not boast of his involvement, no, but instead beg her forgiveness for his pride and arrogance.

In his mind, he saw the opportunity to come to her a changed man, a reformed man; he'd paid his penance, and he saw himself again throw himself down and beg for her hand. He saw himself committed to making her agree to marrying, one way or another – pleading, cajoling, or, most pleasantly, seducing her, but mostly by making her fall in love with him. And, since their last parting at Lambton, he was not so certain that she hadn't already done just that.

But now here they were, after months of separation – and she was running away from him again! "Miss Bennet! I beg of you, hear me out!" and this time, he blocked her path with his broad frame. "Miss Bennet, I will not be put off. You have avoided me for too long. I will speak with you."

"Very well." She checked her frustration, knowing that if it went further, she'd cause a scene on a public thoroughfare. She looked about, with a frown, then cast her eyes down. "What is it you wish to tell me."

He paused, frozen in time. "How…is it with you?" he asked, weakly. He had lost his nerve – all of the desperation of the previous months' search had deflated his resolve. She looked up with him, mouth slightly agape and eyebrows raised. "God," he thought, "what is wrong with me? I sound as insipid as Bingley! Pull yourself together, man!"

"I mean, you would not accept my calls. I had called at your Aunt and Uncle Gardiner's several times. Why would you not allow me?"

She looked up at him, and raised her eyebrows in surprise, not understanding why she had to explain her reasons. "Mr. Darcy, when we last saw one another, you were given privileged information about my youngest sister, Lydia. You, with your strong sense of propriety, must understand why it was that I could not accept your calls."

"Yes, Miss Bennet, I did realize the seriousness of the matter your sister bestowed to you and your family." He knew because he'd witnessed Elizabeth in her uproar after reading about about Lydia and Wickham eloping. What Elizabeth did not realize is he also knew just how desperate the situation was after searching the countryside for the couple. He had traveled to Gretna Green and back, but there was no sign of Lydia or Wickham. He pounded the streets of London, just to be certain. Lydia was certainly lost, and therefore, so were the fates of the other Bennet sisters.

"Miss Bennet, you must be aware…I have concern…for you, and for your family. And I do not think you would be so cruel as to not admit feelings for me." He took his gloved hand in hers, and held it close. "Miss Bennet, I am so very pleased to have found you again."

She pulled her hand away and felt her ire rising, for no good reason. "Mr. Darcy, I cannot imagine how it is you could not understand my direct decline of your calling upon me at my aunt and uncle's home. And now, here you have found me, indeed, in the last place I wish to be found – found, indeed. I can hardly believe it was not without some investigation of my comings and goings that you 'found' me. How is it that you will not heed my request to leave me alone!" She turned on her heel, and proceeded forward again.

He ran ahead of her and blocked her path once again. "I happened upon you, Miss Bennet – not by design, please understand - I will be heard!" She tried darting around him one way, then the other, but he would not let her pass. She became exceedingly conscious of the curious stares of the passers-by and ceased her attempts to flee.

"Very well, then, sir. Speak, if you must. I only ask you make it brief – I am expected at home."

His chance was before him and he gazed into her upturned face, searching for some glimmer of affection for him, some sign that not all was lost. He struggled over what should be said, but then resolved to simply speak truly and clearly to her. "Miss Bennet – I am so sorry I left you that day in Lambton, with the news of your sister's…misstep. I have heard since then of your father's demise and your family's subsequent removal from Longbourn. I am much saddened to see you thus - belabored. I do wish to call upon you while you stay in London. I have longed to… be in your companionship. I…beg of you…Miss Bennet..." He again took up her gloved hand. "Elizabeth…" His lips brushed against the cool leather, and he pressed her hand against his forehead in supplication.

His speech filled her heart with pity and sadness and regret. When he said her Christian name, for the first time, ever, she could feel the blood drain from her face down deep inside of her. His tenderness and sincerity, it was too much. She was moved to tears and started quietly sobbing there on the street corner. "Mr. Darcy, this is unsupportable. You are taking liberties…My name…please leave my name to me." Her grief at his words overcame her, and she swooned in his arms.

Her next conscious thought concerned not her whereabouts – which she quickly identified as the chaise lounge in the Gardiner's front parlor – but how she came to be in those whereabouts. She remembered being on the street with Darcy, and the feeling of darkness falling upon her. As she struggled to recall what had happened next, she heard a familiar voice in the corner of the room.

"Elizabeth? Elizabeth!" Jane appeared in front of her, placing her cool hand upon her forehead. "Oh Elizabeth, you're alright!"

"I…merely swooned, is all, Jane." Elizabeth attempted to sit up, only to be gently pressed back into the cushions by her sister's hands. "How did I get here?"

Just then, her aunt and uncle appeared at Jane's side. "Did I hear Lizzy's voice?" her Aunt Gardiner asked. "Lizzy, what a scare you've given us."

"I am fine, Aunt, just allow me to sit up…" Another figure stepped through the the parlor door and joined them.

"Miss Bennet, it is perhaps well that you remain at rest for a spell," said Mr. Darcy, towering over all of them. A thought flitted through her head, regarding the means by which she had arrived back to the Cheapside residence. A groan escaped her, as she contemplated the possibilities. Had he ridden with her in a hired carriage? Did he hoist her over his shoulder and carry her through the streets?

She swallowed and closed her eyes at the thought of him hauling her about like a sack of potatoes. "Perhaps you are correct, Mr. Darcy. How kind of you to be so thoughtful of my condition."

"Now that I know all is well with you, I shall take my leave. He turned to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and queried, "May I have your permission to visit again tomorrow – to attend to Miss Bennet's recovery?" Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged a puzzled glance at one another. Three months ago Lizzy had requested they turn Darcy away from their home – she had given them reason to believe she had no interest in his companionship. And yet, here he was in their parlor after delivering her from what appeared to be a clandestine meeting and subsequent faint. They turned to Lizzy for direction.

Under the shield of her arm across her forehead, she peeped at them with one eye and shrugged, making a small vague noise. She could see he was resolved to see her, and there was no use in obstructing him. She also was resolved that it would only be a matter of time before he realized her misfortunes would weigh too heavily upon him and his family name to take much more notice of her. Without objection from Elizabeth, the Gardiners agreed to accept Darcy's call tomorrow. He bid them a good evening, and left the parlor, Aunt and Uncle Gardiner trailing behind.

Jane remained at her side, eyes filled with questions. Elizabeth's temper flared at her sister's close inspection, and she covered face with both hands, groaning, "Jane, I dare not even guess how it is that I came to this parlor tonight. I daresay you will be able to share with me the events of the evening as soon as you have regained the ability to speak."

Jane blinked and swallowed. "Lizzy, I'm so sorry, I am not certain how to proceed with the story. We received you at the door, or rather, we received Mr. Darcy…He held you in his arms. He carried you, in your - indisposition. He told us you'd met on the street, when you were suddenly overcome. He assured us it was near here that he…found you." Elizabeth inhaled sharply, listening to Jane's measured words. "How did you come to meet with Mr. Darcy, Lizzy? After all this time?"

Elizabeth rolled to her side so she could be eye to eye with her sister. "I am uncertain how it happened, in all honesty. He found me at the milliner's – he acted as though we hadn't met at first – I'm sure to spare me from mortification. He seemed as surprised as I was to see him." Here, she paused, reviewing the minutes they'd spent together that evening, perplexed as to how it all came to be. And then, when he said his piece to her, there, outside the shop on the street. "Jane," she whispered quietly. "He used my name."

"Does he still bear affection for you? Can it be, after all of this time?" Jane's eyes misted over a little, and Elizabeth could tell she was not thinking of Darcy at all, but rather of her own much-absent Charles Bingley. Jane had not seen nor heard from Mr. Bingley since the autumn – he had sent his condolences upon learning of her father's death. He also had declared the sale of his country estate, Netherfield, signifying his final connection with the neighboring Bennet family had been terminated once and for all. Mr. Bingley would no longer be calling upon Jane.

Seeing the hurt in her sister's eyes made Elizabeth recall with great bitterness the role Mr. Darcy had played in smothering the budding romance between her sister and Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy felt he needed to protect his friend from an impulsive relation with Jane, who, in Mr. Darcy's opinion, did not display a deep, abiding affection for Bingley. The memory of Darcy's admittance to his meddling shook Elizabeth out of her revelry. She sat up and declared, "Whatever affection he bears for me he shall have to bear himself. I cannot allow him to pursue me thus. Surely he sees, that given the unfortunate events our family had endured, he cannot pursue me. He cannot offer me anything, for I have nothing to offer him." With that, she rose and strode out of the room, leaving Jane open-mouthed, staring at her retreating back.

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 2 of 21

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