Continuing Tales

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 3 of 21

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Inevitable Change

Mr. Darcy's departure did little for securing serenity in the household for Elizabeth. Indeed, the moment he left the townhouse, there was a heightened tension as all members of the family circled about her as if she were suddenly in possession of two heads. Aunt Gardiner exclaimed, "But how is it that Mr. Darcy was with you, Elizabeth? Surely, he was unaware of your present employment?" Taking a position at the milliner's was not a welcomed decision in the Gardiner household. Given the circumstances, and that Jane had secured her spot as governess to the Gardiners' children, Elizabeth had insisted upon it. She would not while away her hours in what felt like exile in London, doing nothing to contribute to the household. Indeed, it became clear to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner during those discussions about the matter that their niece had a stubborn streak. The townhouse provided sanctuary for her during the upheaval she'd experienced, but it did not provide ample room she required to regulate her unbounding physical energy. She missed Longbourn and her walks in the country. Her very essence demanded employment, usefulness, and so she sought out a position in a shop very near the Gardiners.

"How did you come to meet with Mr. Darcy, after all this time?" Elizabeth mechanically answered her aunt, as this was the fifth time the same speculation had come forth from either her or Jane. Both women found it extraordinary that of all of the shops in all of London, he would find Elizabeth's. And then, that he would insist on accompanying her to the townhouse, even though she'd been so clear she did not wish to entertain his attentions. She veered away from intimating that he'd kept a post across from the shop door for several evenings now, watching her come and go, without approaching her once, except for this evening; she understood that would have them worried, indeed.

Both Jane and Aunt Gardiner had pinned Elizabeth's unusual swoon to the aggressive attention placed upon her by Mr. Darcy. Sitting on either side of the now-revived Elizabeth, they puzzled over the events of the evening. "I can't understand it….he seemed so gentlemanly and pleasant when we met with him in Derbyshire last summer. To press so hard to escort you home. It seems rather forward." Elizabeth mumbled a response, assuring her aunt and sister that he really was very gentlemanly in his request to walk with her, that she had consented, and that there was no harm done. "I simply fainted from – lack of air." She shrugged.

Jane concurred that Mr. Darcy had always presented himself as the noblest of gentleman, without a fault, and concurred it was fortunate that his presence at the time of her swoon was quite a good turn of fortune – for who knows what would have happened had Lizzy fainted on the street outside the shop? But then Jane raised the question, "He must rather care for you, Lizzie, musn't he? To approach you in public, a man of his stature, and to assist you in your circumstance." Jane's allusions to her circumstance made Elizabeth roll her eyes. Aunt Gardiner's eyebrows raised. "Care for you, does he Lizzy? Would that not be a marvel, a young man like that – with his fortune! But of course, there is your present situation." Aunt Gardiner patted Lizzy's hand in a comforting manner, blind to Lizzy's growing pique. "We are perhaps too occupied with a fancy that is too much hoped for." Jane and her Aunt sighed at this, but Elizabeth jerked herself out of the divan and turned to them both with an attempt at a smile. "Auntie, you are correct. These flights of fancy are best made in the comforts of our own soft down beds, so as not to injure ourselves from the fall! And so I say to you both – good night!" She stalked off to her bedroom, leaving them both to wonder at Mr. Darcy's mysterious reentry into their lives.

"Lizzy, perhaps you've taken on too much," commented her Uncle the next morning at the breakfast table. He had avoided the discussion until that point, and had wished to separate his judgment from his partiality to the young Mr. Darcy. The recollection of Darcy's demeanor during their stay in Lambton in his mind, he concluded the young man had little to do with his niece's uncharacteristic weakness. Indeed, Uncle Gardiner found her lapse in health an excellent opportunity to disengage her from what he viewed as an unsuitable pastime. "Girls your age and station aren't fit for drudgery work, in a shop. You have overworked yourself, and I will send a message to the proprietress of the shop that you will not be in for a fortnight." Elizabeth, lacking the heart to disagree with her uncle's concern, agreed to this proposal, although she deeply wished to have to work as an escape from the inevitable call from Mr. Darcy. And it was inevitable that he would call, for he always was as good as his word.

Elizabeth had slept poorly, and was in her morning dress when the bell rang, announcing Mr. Darcy's arrival. She was still nettled that he had used her swoon as a ploy to come visit her this morning; she chose not to attend to her appearance too carefully. He would have to learn she was not interested in his evident attentions.

She arranged herself on the sitting room settee, along with Mrs. Gardiner. Darcy swept into the room, and made his bow to the two women. "Won't you sit down?" offered Mrs. Gardiner. Darcy perched on a delicate piece nearest Elizabeth. After preliminary questions regarding her health, the conversation grew uncomfortably sparse.

Elizabeth would not seek to make him feel comfortable, and barely tolerated his queries, murmuring "Yes" or "no" when warranted. Darcy, needing to stretch his legs in the small parlor, got up and paced a moment or two, until his attention was drawn to the window. Elizabeth smiled to herself, observing him and amused at his discomfort. It was evident the small drawing room inspired him to grow restless like a trapped animal. Elizabeth thought his long limbs and great height was incongruent to the space, as if a giant had stepped into a dollhouse.

In truth, Darcy did feel very much out of place in the confined quarters. How he wished he were back at Pemberley, with Elizabeth, walking in the outdoors, with no confines, no watchful eyes. He longed to take leave from his present situation, from Georgiana and Bingley, from Miss Bingley. Since happening upon Elizabeth at the dressmaker's, all of London was compressing down around him, and he felt as if he would implode. Instead, he sighed aloud, and concentrated on the street scene before him.

Before long, it was Elizabeth's opportunity for discomfort, for Jane unexpectedly curtseyed at the parlor door, and called Mrs. Gardiner out of the room to help attend to one of her children. Mrs. Gardiner bade her excuses, and with what Elizabeth spied as a rather conspiratorial countenance, promptly left the room.

Darcy turned to Elizabeth, and then to the door, uncertain as to whether he could linger in her company alone. "There is no need to panic, Mr. Darcy," she stated. "I shall not swoon again in your presence. We shall be quite healthy together."

"Your good health is well to be desired, Miss Bennet. 'Tis all I hoped for after last night." He paused here, and then turned suddenly to her and drew up a small framed chair across from her. "I find that rest and rejuvenation can be sought in more…open spaces, in the country, perhaps."

She raised a brow at this statement, not knowing what he meant by it, and agreed diffidently. "It might be that you have overtaxed yourself, and the best remedy might be to quit awhile out of Town."

Here, she smiled, and mentioned how very much like an uncle he sounded. "For my own uncle not two hours ago prescribed that very diagnosis of my sudden illness. But, he did not suggest an outing as cure."

Mr. Darcy saw his opening and took it. "Perhaps, as I am planning on leaving town for Pemberley quite soon – within days, actually – perhaps I can persuade you and your family to come visit me – come stay at Pemberley until you have recovered."

Elizabeth sat, eyes downcast, somewhat stupefied. After all that had past, that he would still seek her society, indeed invite her and her relations to his estate. It was inconceivable. She could not fathom what it was he was playing at…certainly he saw the impossibility of their acquaintance growing any further than it had. "Mr. Darcy, I am not clear as to how to answer your proposal. Should I accept your generous offer and my family and I travel to your home in Derbyshire, surely we will bring with us a taint of gossip and scandal that has befallen us."

"Not at Pemberley. No one in the county would know or be concerned about your family connections."

"Except your sister – and your friend, Mr. Bingley." She did not mention Caroline Bingley, for she believed that Darcy would be quite unperturbed by that lady's perception of him. "I would not cast shadows on Miss Darcy's good name, nor would I wish to disturb Mr. Bingley's good nature with the misfortunes that have been laid at my family's feet."

Darcy leaned forward, intent on winning a favorable answer from her. "I'm certain Mr. Bingley would not be traveling with us. I believe he is otherwise engaged at the moment." He was aware that this was something of a white lie; in truth, inviting Bingley and his sisters to Pemberley would inevitably expose to Mr. Bingley's imminent betrothal to Georgiana. For that matter, it would be nigh impossible to keep Caroline Bingley from flaunting what she viewed as her nearly matrimonial state to him. The Bingleys would have to be kept at a distance, somehow.

Unless, of course, Darcy would make right a wrong he'd committed months earlier – if he could persuade Bingley to reconsider his connection with Miss Jane Bennet. For Miss Elizabeth Bennet's censure to him for his interfering with Jane and Charles' evident love burdened him for too long. He could use this opportunity to mend the damage he'd committed upon both those innocent hearts. Perhaps Charles would be persuaded to come to Pemberley as well…

But no matter – the details would be fine-tuned soon enough, as long as Miss Elizabeth agreed to the journey. He pressed her further, leaning so that his elbows rested on his knees, his eyes gazing into hers. "I assure you, Georgiana would not care about what has proceeded in your situation – she has the highest regard for you, surely you know that." She could not answer, for the intensity of his appeal threatened to overcome her. Mrs. Gardiner's return to the parlor motivated him to stand and move away from her abruptly.

"Mrs. Gardiner, I would like to extend an invitation to you and your family to my home in Derbyshire. You shall be my guests." He shot a glance at Elizabeth, and saw the glint of shock in her face. Mrs. Gardiner's expression was nearly identical to her niece. He was being forward and insistent, he knew, but it arose from the desolation of loneliness he'd experienced since Elizabeth's disappearance from his life. He'd spent too long not being able to find her, then not being able to have her– he would not easily let her go this time. A stolen moment with her at Pemberley, even the space of a few days – that was what he desired most, under any circumstances. The peace and tranquility of the Derbyshire countryside would heal the wounds time and fortune had wrought upon their companionship. He would bend all rules of propriety to see the hurt in her eyes fade away.

"Mr. Darcy, this is unexpected. I do see the value in such a diversion for my niece – for both my nieces at this time." Mrs. Gardiner attempted to read the look on Elizabeth's face, but she'd bowed her head and was barely registering any reaction to Mr. Darcy's invitation. She paused and weighed her words carefully. "I would confer first with my husband, but I do not believe there would be a conflict in taking such a trip. We would very much like to visit Derbyshire and Pemberley again, wouldn't we, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth paled and her breath came quickly. She was able to nod her assent, then gave her excuses for leaving the parlor directly and bid Mr. Darcy farewell. She could feel his eyes on her back as she carefully walked across the hall to the foot of the stairs, and when she felt safely out of his sight, she sprinted up, two steps at a time, to the quiet of the bedroom she shared with Jane. She flung herself upon the bed, fully expecting to burst into the familiar tears that had become a regular routine for her since her father's death; but, most astonishingly, no tears came. Just a sense of wonderment and a feeling of lightness. She was to visit Pemberley – again – and be his guest. She would be with him.


Mr. Darcy, in the meanwhile, took his leave of the townhouse after bidding goodbye to Mrs. Gardiner, and mentally began composing a letter to Charles. He would have to write Georgiana, as well, so that she could prepare for the Bennets' and Gardiners' arrival.

The delicate situation of Georgiana's attachment to Bingley was never, thank God, pressed nor publicly revealed. Indeed, the two gentlemen had not spoke of it but once, and in rather abstract terms; at a recent shooting party, Darcy suggested that Bingley would pay special attentions to his sister, and Bingley had acquiesced. Little else was designed - as Georgiana was still not out, because of her age and reticent personality, there were few opportunities for Charles to have contact with her, except in a most familial way. It was Caroline and Louisa, Charles' sisters, who shared frequent conversations regarding their brother's impending engagement – even when said engagement was yet unfounded!

Of course if Darcy would invite Bingley to Christmas at Pemberley, he would have to invite Charles' sisters and brother-in-law, there was no way around it. Caroline Bingley. The thought of her as a guest at Pemberley again seemed suddenly so burdensome to him – she would prove to be an obstacle in his rejoining of Charles and Jane, he was certain of that. She would expend great energy in undercutting Elizabeth, as she had at Netherfield. Ah, well, little could be done about her behavior. Perhaps Col. Fitzwilliam could be sent for, to spend the holiday in Derbyshire – and act as a distraction for the acerbic Ms. Bingley.

So Darcy had sent his special message to Charles; he enlightened Charles to the Bennet sisters' addition to the holiday gathering. "We are a small party, and would be more than happy to entertain you and your sisters and brother-in-law, should you be available." In his letter, Darcy encouraged his friend to reconsider a connection to Jane Bennet, despite her diminished status. He released Charles from any assumed obligations to Georgiana, for good measure. So single-minded was he in reuniting the two lovers, Darcy was tempted to invite Charles alone, but knew that would raise eyebrows. Besides, he had no reason to exclude Miss Bingley or Mr. and Mrs. Hurst. He had nothing to hide, and he had no shame in bringing the Bennet girls to Pemberley.

Darcy arrived at Pemberley two days before Christmas, and was greeted by his sister with much enthusiasm. "Christmas at Pemberley! William, it will be like when we were children!"

Darcy smiled to see her happiness at the prospect of guests in their home. Christmas had been a subdued affair, usually in London, for the several years since the death of his father. He couldn't remember much of his childhood Christmases, but Georgiana, ten years his junior, would have a clearer memory of the holidays; he had written to her earlier in the week to prepare for the Gardiners and the Bennet girls'arrival. Col. Fitzwilliam had confirmed he would attend as well.

In truth, he was as excited as Georgiana over the upcoming holiday. Georgiana had ordered the trimmings for the great halls in Pemberley; evergreen boughs were brought in and wrapped around the mantles and banisters. A Yule log had been prepared for the grand parlor, to burn constantly over the next two weeks. Darcy found it peculiar that she had also tied a mistletoe pomander above the arch in the sitting room. As if there would be use for that – no one here will be engaged in that sort of activity, she must realize.

But, Georgiana didn't care – she was too thrilled at the thought of entertaining not one but two Bennet sisters. She had gotten on so well with Miss Elizabeth when they had met in the summer; and, after numerous applications to Darcy, she was assured that Miss Jane Bennet would be as amiable. She had great plans of playing her music for them, and with them, and perhaps riding a bit, should they like it. She had ordered presents for them both – a soft Persian shawl for Miss Jane, and for Miss Elizabeth, something more extravagant – an over-gown of bottle green silk. She wanted to indulge the two sisters, as she had few friends so close to her own age, and she knew the girls had recently lost their father. The business about their youngest sister Lydia was unknown to Georgiana, and Darcy was determined to keep it that way.

Darcy was pleased with Georgiana's risen spirits, and that made her even more ecstatic. They had spent so many dreary days and evenings together – those first months after her return from the disastrous elopement attempt, when Darcy would not let her out of his sight; and then, in the end, when she didn't want to see anyone but Darcy, out of shame and fear. And she was so painfully shy to begin with, anyway. It had been hard at first.

On the afternoon before Christmas, word was sent from the village that a coach and four was coming down the lane to the main house. Darcy and Georgiana took their places at the steps of their home, bundled against the light snow that had begun to fall. Quietude fell between them; Georgiana was excited, but nervous in receiving her guests. Darcy was dazed more than anything else; how it should happen that he would be receiving Elizabeth once again at Pemberley was beyond his ken. In his heart, he still had no idea why he felt compelled to entwine himself in her life, one way or the other; his head had convinced him that promoting a friendship with her was only in compensation for his selfish choices to not protect her family from the evil Mr. Wickham.

The coach stopped in the drive, and Mr. Darcy approached the door, greeting Mr. Gardiner with a hearty "Welcome back to Pemberley, sir." The older gentleman then turned and assisted his wife from the carriage. Mr. Darcy stepped forward to help first Jane and then finally Elizabeth down from the step. "It is good to see you well, Miss Elizabeth," he said, clasping her hand lightly. Elizabeth smiled and made her curtsey, but said nothing. He took a breath before moving forward; he did not foresee that her presence would cause such an internal reaction in him. Clearing his mind, he led the Bennet sisters up the steps to greet his sister.

"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth Bennet – I'm charmed to welcome you to my home," Georgiana murmured. "We have tea prepared in the front parlour."

Georgiana led the party to the foyer, with Mr. Darcy bringing up the rear, quietly revelling at a moderate distance the Gardiners and Bennets reactions to Pemberley done up in its Christmas décor. As the footmen collected the travellers' coats, muffs and hats, Mrs. Gardiner turned her attention to Mr. Darcy and made a polite complement about the beauty of the holiday greenery on the archways and stair banisters.

"Mrs. Gardiner, I thank you for the complement. It was Georgiana who oversaw the preparations for the décor – and I agree with you, they are indeed splendid." Georgiana blushed at this, and murmured thanks to her brother and Mrs. Gardiner. The group settled in the parlour for refreshments.

Thanks to the experience and amiability of the Gardiners, there was not a want for conversation in the room. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner exchanged stories regarding their latest fishing conquests; Mrs. Gardiner shared her memories of the Derbyshire countryside from her childhood. Even Jane, who had been so reticent of late, spoke up in regards to the beauty of the house, and mentioned that she had heard of Miss Darcy's gift on the pianoforte.

Elizabeth found the occasion to contribute her recollections of her last visit to Pemberley. "Miss Darcy delighted our party with her playing, although she was hesitant at first to play in front of strangers. I hope you will be at ease to fortune us with a song later in the evening. You do play prestigiously well."

"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. I will endeavor to attempt to please you again, for we are no longer strangers, are we? And your sister Jane, she is just as amiable as you, I can see that." The sisters smiled shyly at one another, and at the young girl. Elizabeth contemplated Miss Darcy's manner at their visit – so different from the quiet, withdrawn girl that she'd met those months ago. Had time healed her shame? Elizabeth's own bitter reflections of Wickham had caused her such grief – and the resentment she felt knowing her father had suffered so from this man's impulsive act. Witnessing the change in Georgiana, her heart felt lightened knowing that some relief might be forthcoming, if she were simply patient.

The party retired into the drawing room at the front of the house, and once everyone was settled with their tea and refreshments, Mr. Darcy announced that Col. Fitzwilliam would be soon joining them from London, as would the Hursts and Miss Bingley. "And," – here he paused briefly, "Mr. Bingley will of course be accompanying them." Darcy attempted to subtly gauge Miss Elizabeth's reaction to this news; simultaneously, Elizabeth immediately drew her gaze to Jane's face, which had paled slightly, eyes cast down. Mrs. Gardiner, knowing Jane's attachment to Mr. Bingley, and his subsequent dissolution of that attachment, sought to clear away the tension in the air by commenting on the portrait of a gentleman and two dogs hanging above the hearth.

"Tis my father, painted when he was not much beyond my years. He was an avid hunter. Mr. Gardiner, there may not be an opportunity for the hunt during your stay, but I do believe that we shall be able to ride if the weather remains amenable."

"Yes, and ice skating if it chills more," asserted Georgiana. She veritably glowed at the prospect of active recreation with the young women by her side. She was very much at ease with the Bennet girls, not at all like entertaining Miss Bingley, whose only objective was so obviously to stay near her brother at all costs. No, it would be the first time in many years that Georgiana would find pleasure in the company of those of her sex, instead of having to rely upon the tender concern and measured wit of her brother and cousin Col. Fitzwilliam.

The guests were allowed to rest comfortably and settle into their respective guest rooms; Jane and Elizabeth took very little time in seeking each other out to confer about the arrival of the Bingleys. "It shall be very comforting to meet with Mr. Bingley again," said Jane.

"One wonders if he is at all informed of our presence at Pemberley," mused Lizzy. Jane gazed at her sister, open-mouthed. "After all, we were not expecting his company this week – I understood that Mr. Darcy would not be inviting anyone other than our aunt and uncle, and you and I."

"Oh well," said Jane. "It makes no difference. Mr. Bingley has made it clear that his affections have moved on, as he has moved away from Netherfield."

"Oh, Jane. Netherfield is not the only home to let in Hertfordshire," quipped Lizzy. "I would not be surprised if he were as in love with you as ever, and will make arrangements to fly back to you as soon as possible. He would lease a cattle stall to be close to you. He is a constant soul, not one given to great changes of whim without some influence from those he views with esteem."

"You mean his sisters, don't you, Lizzy? And Mr. Darcy?"

"His sisters, yes. And Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth stood up from the bed, and wondered at Mr. Darcy's invitation to Mr. Bingley. It was still fresh in her mind the reasons he'd put forth to assist in dissolving Bingley and Jane's friendship; why ever he would invite the two to come together in his own home? She had understood it would just be their small party for the holiday gathering. She fashioned her features so that her trepidation would not be betrayed to her gentle sister, Jane; but she was weary of the pending arrival of the Bingleys and Hursts.


A timid knock at Elizabeth's door announced Miss Darcy, cradling two parcels in her hands. "Oh, good! Miss Elizabeth, and Miss Bennet - I am so glad to have found you both!" Miss Darcy was positively glowing with her enthusiasm. "I wish to present you with your Christmas gifts now, if I may." Jane and Elizabeth exchanged a glance - they had not come prepared with gifts for Miss Darcy. She sensed their discomfort, and immediately addressed the momentary strain. "I believe you may think it forward of me to present you with gifts - my companion, Mrs. Annesely even said as much," she looked down with a blush. "But Fitzwilliam and I agreed that you should be made most comfortable during this visit away from your...well, here, at Pemberley. And, I do love giving gifts so much. Please accept them." She presented a wrapped package to both Elizabeth and Jane, who graciously accepted them.

Jane smiled prettily as she untied the ribbon around her packet. She pulled away the papers to reveal an intricately woven shawl in teals, creams and blues - "I had heard that your eyes were blue from you sister, Miss Elizabeth - I can see now that the shawl will be a lovely compliment to them." Jane murmured her thanks, truly grateful for the extravagance. It was Elizabeth's turn to open, and Miss Darcy had held her breath in anticipation of Elizabeth's reaction to her gift. The packaging was put aside to display gossamer, bottle-green overdress, delicately accented in jet black seed beads. Elizabeth gasped at the lavishness of the material and style - it was unlike any evening dress she had even seen, much less owned. "I must confess, Miss Annesely thought the fabric was a bit luxurious, but I thought it was so correct for your coloring."

"Miss Darcy, it is beautiful - and too much, really." Elizabeth saw the confused look on Miss Darcy's face, and the glimmer of hurt. She did not wish to cause her young hostess strife. Recalling her manners, she accepted the lovely gift. "Miss Darcy, it is an exquisite gown. I will cherish it, truly, and I will always think of your sweet generosity when I wear it. Although I do wish I had the foresight to have prepared a gift for you."

Georgiana, smiling again now that Elizabeth had accepted the dress, chimed, "I do have a suggestion for a gift I would like to receive from you. I would like very much to play the pianoforte with you and Miss Bennet. I have set to work on a new piece of music, and it will sound so very beautiful with two voices. Would you please do me the honor of performing with me tomorrow evening?"

Elizabeth laughed at this. "Hearing my singing may be a dear price for the audience to pay, but well worth it if it means you shall be gracing us with your talent. Shall we practice now?" Miss Darcy assented, and the three women removed themselves to the music room for their preparations.

By late afternoon, snow dusted the grounds around the house. Mr. Darcy had drawn away Mr. Gardiner for a stroll around the stables. Mrs. Gardiner had joined the young ladies in the parlor. The women were enjoying each others' company and talents immensely. As the clock struck half past four, Miss Darcy realized it was time for tea; she called in a servant and bid them to prepare to serve in the main parlor. The gentlemen joined the ladies there, and Mr. Darcy announced that the Bingleys and Hursts would be arriving shortly. Elizabeth glanced at Jane to see her breathe in swiftly at the announcement. Elizabeth wound her way around the room to her sister's side. "We shall see Mr. Bingley again, dear Jane. Does that not excite you?"

"It can be nothing to me, Lizzy. He has determined that I am no longer of interest." She side glanced to Elizabeth, her mouth softening to a small smile. "But it shall be good to see him again." The sisters' exchange was not lost on Darcy, and although he could not hear the words exchanged, he could guess the content of their speech. The palpable tension in Miss Jane Bennet was more proof of her attachment to Bingley- how could he have misinterpreted her feelings for his friend so completely? Never mind, he thought to himself. There was still a chance for Jane and Bingley to unite, if he could convince Charles to disregard her recent decline in social position.

As for his relations with Elizabeth, it was more difficult to see a clear path through the forest. Did she feel the same for him as she did back at the Hunsford parsonage? Was he still the last man in the world she would marry, if given a choice? But no matter, he would not offer marriage to her now anyway; while Bingley could afford to marry beneath him, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley would not be able to solicit her hand now, not with the disgrace surrounding her family. His gaze warmed toward her as he considered his options. No, she could not be his wife, and she would not be kept as his mistress, he was certain - not that he hadn't pictured her in that role dozens of times before. But that would not do. No, his relations with Miss Elizabeth Bennet would remain somewhat undefined; a friendship, but between a man and woman – surely he could discipline his heart to abide with that caveat from her. He owed her friendship, in the very least, for it was his insufferable pride that cloaked Wickham's true character from the world, until it was too late.

The Bennet girls, traveling without the benefit of servants, had been offered the courtesy of employing one of the Pemberley maids to help assist them in their dress and décor. They excused themselves from the parlor to prepare for supper. Their maid, Elsa, was not much older than Miss Georgiana, but had been raised in the great house since she was a baby. With her help, Elizabeth and Jane were attired in simple evening frocks with their hair pinned up for the evening. Elizabeth glanced at Jane as they made last minute arrangements to their skirts. Both of the girls had dresses altered after the death of their father; bands of black crepe lined the edges of their hems, and black lace covered their bodices. To Elizabeth's eyes, the dark material enhanced her sister's pale, ethereal beauty. For her part, the ribbons and laces of mourning served only to aggravate her to no end; for it had been only through a charitable gift from Mr. Collins that the Bennet family had even this small bit of cloth to adorn their clothes in honor of their loss.

The girls thanked their maid, and went down below to gather for the meal. As they descended the grand staircase, Jane felt her heart skip a few beats. Elizabeth instinctively pressed her hand in her sister's, to shore up her courage. They overheard the soft conversation in the parlour, and knew that the Bingley and Hurst party had arrived. They entered the room, arm in arm; Elizabeth had particularly set her shoulders back and raised her chin – for she had some trepidation in meeting with Caroline Bingley for the first time since Lydia's scandal.

Elizabeth, nor anyone else in the party knew, that Caroline Bingley held in her knowledge a significant bit of information about Eliza Bennet; for Caroline Bingley had seen Eliza Bennet in her new position as a shop-keep's assistant. She had not even confided this event to her sister Louisa. Instead, she clasped the information deep into her bosom, waiting for a time when it might be of use to her.

When she had directed Darcy to unknowingly stumble upon the shop where Elizabeth Bennet was employed, Caroline Bingley had sought only to serve that girl a taste of humility. Elizabeth Bennet's independent spirit was her downfall - no real lady would seek work in such an establishment, under any circumstances. Darcy was brought forth to witness the girl's social demise, once and for all. And, of course, Caroline had hoped that the peculiar esteem he held for Miss Eliza Bennet would die, as well. There was no way of telling if Mr. Darcy had made his errand to the glove shop; there was no way to know if he had seen Eliza the shop girl.

Granted, Caroline Bingley was somewhat taken aback when she learned from Charles that the Bennets and their Cheapside relatives had been invited to their Christmas party. However, the gathering simply promised to provide another opportunity to knock the impudent girl down a few more pegs. When Eliza Bennet arrived at the doorway with Jane in tow, Carolina Bingley was beaming at them both.

"Miss Bennet! Miss Elizabeth Bennet! How wonderful to see you both again!" Caroline approached the sisters, throwing a curtsey to them both. "It has been too long a while since our last meeting, has it not?"

Elizabeth gritted her teeth, resisting the urge to recount the tale of her sister Jane's visit to town last winter; how Caroline Bingley and her sister Louisa and – yes, he was a part of it – Mr. Darcy had concealed from Charles Jane's call to their home; in fact, Caroline had informed Jane in so many words that she was not welcome to the Bingleys' home.

There was no need to reveal these accusations, for it was Charles Bingley, already hypnotized by Miss Bennet's enduring beauty, who interrupted, "Yes, it has been too long, hasn't it?" Staring into Jane's eyes, he accepted her curtsey with his bow. He turned a cold gaze to his sister, "Though, you, dear sister, I believe had the fortune of meeting with Miss Bennet in London just this January past, did you not?"

Caroline blushed, and gave a wide-eyed glance to her sister Louisa – who quickly looked away. She turned briefly to Darcy, who stared imperiously ahead, not at all engaged in the conversation. "Yes, of course. London, this past winter. I do believe I recall we met. Once or twice. How silly of me," Caroline stammered. She was not used to Charles' upbraiding manner, and felt a flutter at the base of her throat. She only took a moment to gather her courage, and then Caroline's gaze turned to Elizabeth. "And you, Miss Elizabeth – how well you look – I understand you have recently moved to town. London air must appeal to you."

Annoyed that Caroline had recovered so quickly from her faux pas, Elizabeth sought to turn the conversation in a different direction. "On the contrary, London is nothing next to Pemberley. It is only the graciousness of my host and hostess that invigorates my health on this occasion." Elizabeth gave a side glance to Georgiana, who modestly blushed at the complement.

"Well said, Miss Eliza. And we all are grateful recipients of the Darcy hospitality."

Dinner was announced. Darcy escorted his sister to the table first, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, then the Gardiners. For a brief moment, Elizabeth thought Charles would step toward Jane, but then realized that would leave Miss Bingley without a partner. "Perhaps another occasion," Elizabeth hoped silently. She could see the effect Jane had on Bingley, and had no doubt his feelings for her were not at all changed through their forced division. She marveled at his usurping his sister in the drawing room – to indicate that he knew of her deceptions of the previous winter; that was a marvel, and one that Elizabeth wished she could savor longer. She gave Jane a pleasant smile, and the two girls followed the party to the dining room.

Seated at the head of the elegant dining table, Mr. Darcy assessed his collection of dinner guests with a bemused look. By chance, Jane had been situated toward the other end of the table, but Bingley was seated directly next to her; the two were already deep in conversation. Georgiana was next to him, with Caroline Bingley at her other side. He made a mental note to attend especially to his little sister so she would not be overwhelmed. Elizabeth had taken the place at the far end of the table, directly across from him. It was almost too much to see her at Pemberley again, but then to have the opportunity to gaze across the dining table and see the light in her eyes as she exchanged a witticism with her Aunt – those eyes! He looked about the group assembled at the table and wondered quietly to himself, now what?

Elizabeth turned her attention to Georgiana. "Miss Darcy, you have ordered a lovely feast for us weary travelers."

"Hear, hear, let us toast to Mr. Darcy and Miss Georgiana!" Bingley lifted his glass, and with a broad smile, declared, "To the most happiest of Christmases, with the most gracious of hosts! To the Darcys!"

And around the table, the toast was declared and many others followed as the meal proceeded. Elizabeth glanced down the table, and spied Miss Bingley glaring at her in a slightly squinty way – how much she reminded Elizabeth of Lady Catherine, with her vulture eye. Poor Aunt Gardiner attempted to engage Louisa Hurst in conversation. Elizabeth could tell that Mrs. Hurst was not in a social mood, especially with anyone from Cheapside.

As was customary, the ladies rose to retreat to the drawing room after dinner, while the men remained in the dining room for brandy and cigars. As the women were leaving the room, Darcy could not resist drawing Elizabeth's attention. He stepped over to her and addressed her. "Miss Elizabeth, have you and your sister settled in your rooms adequately?"

"Mr. Darcy, we are most comfortable, I thank you." She turned directly toward him and assuredly said, "We are truly at ease here, at Pemberley. It is an enchanting place."

"Er – yes, enchanting." Having Elizabeth at Pemberley – he was more than enchanted himself. "I am so very pleased that you are enjoying your stay thus far. Whatever your needs, please let the servants know – I would – Georgiana and I would be quite discontented to hear if anything is amiss."

Her eyes turned briefly to see Jane and Bingley in a close tete a tete. She turned back to Mr. Darcy, with a meaningful look, something like gratitude, for it was his invitation that drew Bingley back to Jane. "No thing shall be amiss, now, I think. I thank you, Mr. Darcy."


The women excused themselves to the parlour. Elizabeth detested the thought of having to bear witness to Louisa and Caroline's high airs, but she felt a need to support Jane under their examining eyes. They surely had noted Bingley's attraction had not wavered in the long absence from Netherfield; he seemed eager to pursue his troth just as if he had never been encouraged to leave off it. Her heart also went out toward Miss Darcy; Georgiana's vulnerability was utterly exposed among these experienced socialites.

Darcy, in the meanwhile, conducted the perfunctory conversation amongst the gentleman. Typically, he'd been adequately engaged with Bingley and even Mr. Gardiner – Mr. Hurst would be too deep in his cups at this point in the night to be of much social use. Tonight, though, Darcy's thoughts strayed to the goings on amongst the women's room – what were they discussing tonight, with the odd mix of visitors gathered? Darcy's jaw tightened, thinking of his sister thrown into a room with Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley – she'd expressed her trepidation in meeting with the two women before, and now…but Elizabeth was there, and Jane and Mrs. Gardiner. Darcy felt comforted knowing Georgiana had allies surrounding her even now, to protect her from the sharp eyes and stings of those princesses of the ton.

Just the same, his attention lingered toward the females of the party. During the meal, he had noted Jane's attraction to Mr. Bingley had not altered, nor had his to her. Yes, he would conclude that there was affection evident in her quiet gazes and sweet smiles. Miss Elizabeth was correct in this: Jane was indeed in love with Mr. Bingley, and Darcy had no doubt Mr. Bingley felt the same regarding Jane. He cursed himself for interfering with their attachment, and resolved that it was a matter he could still put right – if Bingley could be worked on. Darcy raised his brow, thinking that Bingley's affection for Jane needed little working, indeed. It would be no trouble to convince Charles that matrimony with Jane Bennet would be suitable for a man of his status – and most importantly, the match would make him happy indeed, and that was what was important.

And what of Miss Elizabeth? His feelings for her had not dwindled, he had to admit. But since the scandal and its outcome developed, it was prudent to keep an arm's length between her and him. He, after all, was Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Derbyshire, nephew to the Earl of Matlock, descended from the oldest families from England and France. He was not Charles Bingley, whose family's status was just recently on the ascent, which afforded him some flexibility of reputation. No, the Darcy's were at the pinnacle of the social order. His decisions concerning whom he was associated would be weighed from the highest levels of society – and it would reflect upon not only him, but his dear Georgiana. It was practicality that forced him into accepting Elizabeth Bennet simply as a friendly acquaintance, and nothing more.

Besides that, he was not even certain she felt any felicity toward him at all, much less a romantic attraction. Their exchanges had been brief since he'd come upon her at the milliner's shop; and, when they were alone, her conversation was rather terse and guarded. He had wished that entertaining her at Pemberley would lighten her load, and perhaps then she would regard him as something more like a social connection, an acquaintance. He would control his passion for her, by God - crucify it - and instead nuture a connection more useful to her. He would focus his energies to become more like an older brother to her in this time of trial, and regard her as a sister to Georgiana. It would go no farther than that – he could never want what he used to want from her. Not with Lydia's scandalous behavior, not with the dissolution of her father's estate. Elizabeth Bennet could be seen as a friend, nothing else – and a sort of companion for his sister.

Companion – that word stuck in his thoughts. How very much would he like to keep Elizabeth here at Pemberley, to be…his…a…companion? …Perhaps a companion to his sister Georgiana. Miss Annesley, Georgiana's present companion, had expressed a desire to leave her post and retire in a short time. Perhaps Miss Elizabeth – with all of her exuberance, her intellect, her good sense – perhaps she could be employed here. Better to work here than in that dingy shop in Cheapside. She was everything he would desire in a sister figure for Georgiana. And then he could further nurture their…friendship.

His firelight reverie was interrupted by a footman's whispered message – Col. Fitzwilliam had at last arrived. "See that he is shown to his room to refresh himself. When he has supped, he may join us in the drawing room." The footman bowed and left the dining room. Darcy smiled to himself. He had assembled in this one Christmas party all of his most cherished companions and family, and some not so cherished. But his heart was light and filled with joy at the thought of the holiday's pleasures yet to be pursued. He proposed to the gentlemen that they retire to the drawing room.

The gentlemen found the ladies scattered about the grand room – Mrs. Gardiner had taken up some sewing at the settee, while Mrs. Hurst and her sister Caroline, looking quite bored, played at double solitaire. The Bennets and Miss Darcy were at the pianoforte, rehearsing music with some energy, in anticipation for the special Christmas Eve performance. "Oh, Fitzwilliam! You were not supposed to enter so soon! We did not wish to have you spying on us while we practiced!" Georgiana scolded lightly.

"My apologies, Georgiana – but we have another guest to welcome. Your cousin, the colonel has arrived."

"Robert? Oh, that's marvelous news – I was worried of his delay on the road." Georgiana stood away from the pianoforte, and paced nervously toward the window. Elizabeth observed the girl seemed nervous for some reason – perhaps for the first time the entire evening. Georgiana licked her lips, and smoothed her skirts. "I so look forward to seeing the Colonel," she murmured.

"Pray, please do go on with your music. Col. Fitzwilliam is supping in the guest room, and will not join us for a while."

"Oh, but we cannot, not while you are here," Georgiana caught herself, and glanced conspiratorially toward Elizabeth and Jane. "I mean, we were simply playing a few pieces to pass the time."

"How fortunate we are surrounded by such accomplished women, eh, Darcy?" Bingley piped up, although it was evident he was referring only to one woman in particular. He had maneuvered around the pianoforte to stand closer to his dear Jane.

Caroline Bingley rose from her seat and approached Darcy and the others. "Yes, accomplished and worldly in her tastes, don't you think, Louisa?" Her sister murmured assent. "I myself have just perfected a rondo by Mozart."

Before Miss Bingley could continue, Darcy asked hopefully, "Miss Elizabeth, perhaps you would be willing to share a piece with us?" It was still very much in his mind how much he enjoyed her singing.

"I…would be honored, Mr. Darcy." Why would he keep looking at her so? She could not help but notice his eyes on her all during dinner – of course, he sat directly opposite of her, so there was a simple explanation. Still, she was flustered at this subtle snub to Miss Bingley. He would draw attention to her, wouldn't he. She took her seat at the piano, and was stunned when he drew up alongside her. Indicating his close proximity, she teased, "Mr. Darcy, to you intend to turn page for me?"

"I am capable of it, if that is what you mean." Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow at him, surprised. She smiled with twinkling eyes. "Mr. Darcy, there is so much mystery about you." She selected a piece and propped it up on the stand.

"No mystery – you just have never asked if I was musical."

She laughed. "Musical? You have astonished me surely? I hardly think music would be a serious enough pastime for you, Mr. Darcy."

Here Georgiana grinned broadly. "Perhaps you shall see how 'serious' Mr. Darcy is about his music tomorrow evening." Darcy gave his sister an ominous glare. "Don't worry, Fitzwilliam, I will not tell your secret."

"Secrets again?" murmured Elizabeth, her hands poised at the keys.

Darcy turned abruptly to her and stared deeply at her. "No. No more secrets. I promise you."

Elizabeth was struck by his intensity, and was uncertain where to look, so she began to play tentatively. Col. Fitzwilliam quietly entered the room, and spotted Elizabeth Bennet seated at the instrument – and Darcy at her side. The colonel was mesmerized by the lovely tune she was singing; simultaneously, he was struggling to keep his composure. When Darcy had mentioned there would be guests at Christmas aside from himself, he'd assumed Bingley and his family would be joining them. Never in his wildest dreams did he think Miss Elizabeth Bennet would be there, seated by his cousin, after she'd rejected him once before, and after her sister ran off with that devil Wickham. What could Darcy be thinking?

When the song was over, the Colonel joined the group. Georgiana noticed him first, and flung on him in an embrace. "Robert! How good to see you! We were worried!" Composing herself, she quickly disengaged her arms from about his neck, and blushed.

"Worried? Not likely," joked Darcy. "We assumed that whatever your delay, be it weather or highwaymen, you gave it the what-for." He rose to greet his cousin. Elizabeth could not help but notice the effect Robert Fitzwilliam had on Darcy's sister. When Georgiana was cheerful and outgoing just a moment ago, she'd turned shy and reserved the next. Elizabeth wondered if Jane or Aunt Gardiner had noticed – she mentally reminded herself to discuss the matter with them.

Darcy introduced the Gardiners to Robert, turned to the Bennet sisters. "Col. Fitzwilliam, this is Jane Bennet of Hertfordshire, and of course you remember her sister, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

"Miss Jane, Miss Elizabeth," the colonel nodded to the ladies. "Miss Elizabeth, as I recall we had some pleasant walks about Rosings while you were a guest there. We had many a fine discussion, I think, perhaps about my dear cousin?" From his perch next to Elizabeth, Darcy drew a solemn face toward Fitzwilliam.

Elizabeth curtseyed, then resumed her seat at the pianoforte, throwing an amiable smile to the Colonel. "Yes, Col. Fitzwilliam. Rosings Park was a lovely setting for a walk. I recall meeting with you and Mr. Darcy many a time while we stayed at the parsonage."

Darcy was weary of his cousin's motives, particularly his maneuvering the conversation to remembrances of his disastrous marriage proposal to Elizabeth. And what was this of all these walks Miss Elizabeth shared with Robert? But no mind, he would corner Robert later about that. What he didn't want is to resurrect in Elizabeth memories of his ungentlemanly behaviour at the parsonage. He would instead embellish her opinion of him with more pleasant times spent together. "Miss Elizabeth had previously visited Pemberley during her summer trip; I was much pleased that she and her family would graciously accept my rather spontaneous invitation to visit again."

"Really, Darcy – who would refuse such an invitation: no matter how unexpected…. or unsolicited," Fitzwilliam raised his brow to Darcy. The men exchanged a glance, and the Colonel narrowed his eyes. Whatever Darcy was playing at, thought the Col., he would call him out. This country girl – no matter how bewitching – had no place in the Darcy home, not after the scandal involving her family, and for God's sake, why would Darcy entertain her after she had refused him? Hadn't he worked that out, at least?

The subtle exchange was not lost on Elizabeth; she knew instantly that the cousins had traded words regarding her and her family, and suddenly, she felt quite out of place in the great home. Col. Fitzwilliam was a son of an earl, of course, and she and Jane, having fallen in rank, would not be a welcome addition to the party. She felt quite besieged by guilt for her part in being here, with these fine people, given the circumstances. She would not belong among the Darcys or the Fitzwilliams – not now, not ever. Even the good natured Col. Fitzwilliam would be forced to judge her ill considering her status.

Feeling unnaturally self-conscious, she dropped her hands from the keys, and abruptly stated, "Excuse me gentlemen – I must bid you good-night. I am feeling…unwell at the moment, and must to bed." She vaguely heard Caroline and Louisa murmuring their sympathies, but with a distinct tone of relief in their voice. Jane's concern was written all over her face; she was compelled to bid her adieus as well, for Elizabeth was so rarely ill that it disturbed her to see her sister taken low with an infirmity. Darcy grew suddenly quiet, disappointed that the evening was drawing to a close so soon – but surely he would see her again tomorrow. And of course, tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and there would be all sorts of entertainment and frivolity. There would be a tomorrow, and he had learned that that was enough.

Jane followed directly behind Elizabeth into her room, and immediately queried to her sister's health. "Oh, Jane, all is well," replied Elizabeth, seated at the foot of the mattress. "I merely wished to be excused from Miss Bingley and her sister. When they look upon me, I feel so very…I do not feel that I am myself. I feel less than I know I am."

"Elizabeth, I do not think anyone is sitting in judgment against us, despite the recent talk of Lydia. Surely, Mr. Bingley…"

"Mr. Bingley has not altered in his feelings for you, Jane - that is true. Tis the others – Col. Fitzwilliam, even. And Mr. Darcy."

"Mr. Darcy has the utmost care for you Elizabeth. I do envision that he is a very close friend indeed, to our family. Why, Mr. Bingley revealed to me this evening, while we were visiting in the parlor that Mr. Darcy actually went searching for Lydia this summer past."

"Searching for Lydia?" Elizabeth gasped. "For what purpose would he? Mr. Bingley must be mistaken. Unless…"

"Mr. Bingley stated quite clearly – Mr. Darcy spent three fortnights looking for Lydia and Mr. Wickham. I do not believe that Uncle Gardiner nor…papa… neither knew of his efforts. I imagine he felt some obligation to curb Wickham's rash behavior. Mr. Bingley said that Col. Fitzwilliam was also on the hunt, as Mr. Darcy bid him to aid in the matter."

"I cannot reckon…Mr. Darcy search for Wickham and Lydia? For three fortnights? It is hard to comprehend." Elizabeth, who'd been absentmindedly pulling at her hairpins, began to stroke her thick locks with the vanity brush. "What would he have done that for? The injury to his sister by Wickham must weigh heavily upon him." She wondered aloud.

Jane sat next to her, taking the brush from her hand, and assuming the job of brushing her sister's hair. "He must've had in mind to demand a sort of justice of Wickham, with what Wickham had done to his sister. And, that Lydia was involved – it must've been out of concern for you."

"Jane, I rejected his offer this spring – he has no concern for me. He cannot – he is too proud." Jane saw her sister's reflection in the glass, and held her tongue. "It is your Mr. Bingley who holds concern for you, even now. He is a good man, Jane. He will do well by you, I am certain."

Jane breathed a deep sigh. "God willing, he will, sister. For I do love him so - even now, after so much has happened. So much time has passed. But he is still everything a man should be in my eyes. And I…I do love him so."

"And I have no doubt he feels the same. It certainly appeared that he was interested in renewing his attentions to you this evening," Elizabeth eyes sparkled.

"We shall see, shan't we? Tomorrow is another day!" With an embrace, Jane bidded a goodnight to Elizabeth and left the room. Elizabeth was left alone waiting for the undermaid to assist in her undressing. "Another day." She thought. "What would another day bring?"


The Bennet sisters had tucked themselves into their beds, after a warming brick had been placed under the feather comforters and the chambermaids had come in to nurse the fire in the grate before midnight. Lizzy's dreams were unnaturally restless and vivid – she was running in the snow, chased by…who was it, she could not tell – but the snow shimmered in the sunlight, and she was dressed in great white ermine furs, and laughing with pleasure. Then the scene would flicker into bright whiteness, and her body would burn and freeze as if she were immersed in fire and water. Her body, once so free, was at once contained in a close embrace, closer than she'd ever felt, like a cocoon. She awoke late in the morning, to her great surprise, for she did not feel well rested, but rather dazed - and refreshed all the same.

Christmas Eve morning brought more snow, and such that a wagon outfitted with sleigh rails could be equipped for a turn about the park. The group (excluding the Gardiners who elected to skip the sleigh ride in order to enjoy a peaceful repose by the massive parlor fireplace) assembled at the breakfast board, and the riding party was decided. Elizabeth found herself on one side of Col. Fitzwilliam, with Miss Bingley on his other side; Jane found a spot next to Charles, and Georgiana shared the bench next to him. Darcy elected to saddle the estate's great draft horse so he could ramble alongside the sled. Seated high on the back of the massive beast, Lizzy had to admit to herself he cut an impressive figure.

The party was merry, slipping along the frosted paths, up to the rear of the great house. The terrain was somewhat hilly, and the sleigh would occasionally dip suddenly or jolt one way or another. Jane was exceedingly modest and could not help but blush when the sudden movement of the sled would cause her to press lightly into Mr. Bingley's side. Lizzy similarly could not easily avoid brushing arms with Col. Fitzwilliam, who sat quite comfortably between she and Miss Bingley. Darcy observed the Colonel's ease at being in such close proximity to Miss Elizabeth, and he frowned upon it. But then he observed even Miss Bingley herself stuck between upholding propriety and surrendering to the rocking of the sleigh.

They approached a small building – a folly of sorts, meant to look like an ancient ruin, but actually a small shelter, where they could disembark and rest briefly. The footmen unpacked a box filled with jars of hot cocoa, warmed by steaming bricks. Once served, the merry-makers chattered excitedly about their adventure so far. Elizabeth strolled away from the group, to site a better view of the vista before her, for the shelter sat at the top of a hill, overlooking whitened acres and acres of farm and pasture below.

"Miss Elizabeth, you are quiet." Darcy took advantage of her solitude. "Are you enjoying the ride so far?"

She turned her face toward him, red cheeked and eyes glittering. "I am, very much so. I am just admiring the view here upon this hill. Derbyshire is a beautiful place. My aunt was right – I believe it is the most delightful place on earth."

"I am of the same mind. It is where I feel more complete, more my true self. If only…" Here, he stopped, and sighed, realizing what he almost spoke aloud. "If only I had a wife to share all of this splendour, then my life would be always complete. If only you had agreed to share my life…If only…"

Elizabeth knew his mind without him speaking it, and reflected upon her own sense of regret. "We must not wish for what we cannot have." She murmured quietly to Darcy, not daring to look into his eyes.

"We can still hope for something else, however," he told her. She looked up at him, eyebrows arched questioningly, not certain what he meant. Miss Bingley interrupted in a most demonstrative manner with a declaration of how chilled the air was on the hill, and asked if it was time to turn back. With another covert glance at Elizabeth, Darcy summoned the footmen to pack the refreshments up and assist the women back into the sleigh.

The afternoon was spent in quietude, each guest pursuing some personal endeavor. Jane proceeded to write letters to her mama and Kitty, and to Mary; Lizzy would have no part in letter writing to her family, her bitterness was so deep. She and her mother had barely spoke two civil words together in the days after Longbourn was entailed; and any letter to Mary would have to pass into her hands via Mr. or Mrs. Collins, and Lizzy would not bestow upon them a whit of the Bennets' trials. Jane, however, had such a compliant sensibility that it didn't occur to her not to keep close touch with her family. Any disregard she held for them, she recognized quite rationally, would be passing, and it did, quite easily. Her feelings for Mr. Bingley were the only emotions that weighed heavily upon her for so long – until these hallowed days when they were thrown together again.

Georgiana naturally settled at the pianoforte, this time with Caroline by her side. The young woman demonstrated some of the pieces she'd recently taken up. Caroline Bingley was sufficiently engaged, and even gave Georgiana one or two genuine compliments. Miss Hurst sat dozing on the settee, for she was in a family way, and was in want of much rest because of it. Mrs. Gardiner and Lizzy had stolen away for a moment to amble through the halls of Pemberley as they'd done so long ago in the summer – they particularly sought out the portrait gallery Mrs. Reynolds had led them to that fateful afternoon, before the Bennet family's fall.

The gentlemen were rather restless still even after their brisk sleigh ride, and sought exercise indoors. A length of the estate's stable was cleared for informal fencing matches, and Bingley, Col. Fitzwilliam and Darcy practiced their techniques upon each other. Seated on stools under arched wooden beams, Mr. Hurst and Mr. Gardiner accompanied them but only to observe. The first duel between Darcy and Bingley was completed in a thrice; Darcy made quick work of Mr. Bingley, whose skill was average at best. But Darcy contending against Col. Fitzwilliam was quite another story – they were matched in skill. More so, their competition was frought with the unspoken strain that was between them. Robert was aggravated that Darcy would enjoin Miss Elizabeth to visit Pemberley after Darcy had freed himself from her once and for all. As for Darcy, he was jealous of the time Robert had spent with Elizabeth while they visited Rosings last spring and the apparent delight Elizabeth took in his company. They men fought sincerely, each occupied by their own thoughts and biddings.

After a fierce rally, Darcy stripped off his cravat and waistcoat. Robert commented, "Ho, Fitzwilliam – are you tiring? I've not seen you so winded before!"

"Care for your own wind, Robert – Mine is a cool breeze compared to your hot babble," and he stepped up, rapier raised – he spoke the start words. The men rejoined the battle, and Bingley, Hurst and Gardiner each shouted with enthusiasm with the thrusts and parries up and down the stable corridor. The foists came so close to the watchers, they were compelled to seek refuge in some of the empty stalls, as the duelers pushed each other to the right and left of the narrow passage. The colonel lead with a series of precision attacks to which Darcy responded, "Touche, Robert. The army training must be outstanding in your regiment." Then, Darcy took on the offensive with near lethal accuracy, much to the Colonel's surprise.

"Darcy, you complement easily, and yet you know you are getting the best portion - but not for long-" and Robert ran through a series of thrusts and dives, advancing closer to Darcy to box him in.

"But I shall still conquer!" Darcy gasped between his moves, and with a sly sidestep and parry, and finally found his mark at Col. Fitzwilliam's throat.

"So you shall, coz. So you shall." The men bowed, and withdrew their weapons. Darcy gave a black glare to the Colonel, like a challenge, and Robert, despite his general good nature, could not ignore it. "Darcy, you fight like a man pursued by demons. What of it?"

"I know not what you mean, Robert. You were a worthy adversary - I sought to win. It is merely that simple." Darcy wiped the perspiration from his brow with his cravat. "But my mind was indeed dogged by other concerns that I will admit."

Col. Fitzwilliam snorted in derision. "Dogged by a woman, I'd have it," he replied. Darcy turned, face ashen at first, then reddened by embarrassment, and again he glared at the colonel. "Only a woman would bring out that sort of passion in a fight, Darcy." There was a deep silence in the barn, as the two cousins stared each other down.

Mr. Hurst broke the tension and guffawed with great animation. "What, ho – Darcy in love! What a Christmas gift that would be!" Bingley joined in the joviality. But Mr. Gardiner only smiled, gazing at his young host with some question.

Attempting to deflect the attention off of his romantic regards, Darcy announced, "Gentlemen, I propose we retire to our quarters to freshen up before dinner, or Christmas will be upon us before we know it. The staff has prepared a feast, and I, for one, am famished!"

The gentlemen, bathed and dressed, gathered in the drawing room, in time to see Georgiana and Elizabeth stroll arm in arm out of the conservatory. They'd spent a quarter of an hour weaving chains of baby's breath and holly berries to weave in their hair. The effect was dazzling, especially in Elizabeth's dark locks. She wore the emerald green overdress Georgiana had presented to her; the sheer organza shimmered over her creamy silk shift to end at a slight train at the floor. Darcy recognized an emerald pendant at her neck, tied on a black velvet ribbon – Georgiana must've lent it to her, for it was one of their mother's pieces. She was a vision of splendor, brighter than any holiday ornament Darcy had ever seen.

Robert was also taken in by the country girl's beauty. He could not deny how easily this little girl could twist a man's heart around her finger – but she never even appeared she was trying, and that was what was so attractive to him. His gaze then moved to Georgiana, who sparkled in his eyes. She wore a satin, golden gown, covered in embroidered flowers. Something was different about her, he thought. Then he realized she no longer wore the slack expression and pale complexion he'd seen on her face for the months after her attempted elopement with Wickham. She was confident, festive and lively for a change. And a good change it was, he thought.

Bingley and Jane had quietly joined the party in unison, with the Hursts and Miss Bingley completing the set. This time the seating arrangements were carefully crafted strictly according to Darcy's desire, rather than the custom. He maneuvered a spot for Robert at the low end of the table near Georgiana – she, as hostess, was seated at the foot, and Darcy across from her at the head. Bingley was at his right, with Jane nearby; Miss Bingley and her sister sat on the other side of Jane. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Gardiner had forged a rather hospitable bond, and so Darcy placed the two gentlemen near one another. Darcy held Mrs. Gardiner in such esteem and was so confident her aimiable nature would be a balm to his sister, so she was seated near Georgiana. It just so happened that the only available seat left for Miss Elizabeth was to his left, across from Bingley. She had such a natural tendency for light conversation, she would've been in place anywhere, he was certain. It just worked out so, in his mind.

The feast was lavish, with seven courses in total: oysters on the shell, and peacock complete with feathers and feet; pork pies wrapped in the lightest of crusts – Darcy's favorite as a child – and a duck stuffed with pudding; spotted dick – at Georgiana's request – and bountiful cheeses and cold sausages and sauce and fruits. The dinner ended with a traditional flaming plum pudding, which, when presented to the merry table, roused a hearty cheer from the revelers. And while Darcy conscientiously doled out his attentions to all his guests, he was hard pressed not to spend an inordinate amount of time simply staring at Miss Elizabeth, taking in the delight that glowed about her face during the magnificent party.

The women left the table, filled with food and spirits, to retire to the parlour, while the men lingered at the dining table with their brandies. Mr. Gardiner rose to propose a toast. "To the Darcys' and a very Merry Christmas to everyone! Mr. Darcy, my complements to you and your sweet sister, for the hospitality Mrs. Gardiner and I have known – Thank you and Cheers!"

Darcy blushed at the "Cheers" echoing heartily across the room. He thanked the men for their enthusiasm, but assured them that the feast had been constructed solely by his sister, "…for Georgiana insisted she try her best to please the party."

Robert responded, "And please she did. Darcy, she is growing into a quite a young lady, isn't she?" In lowered tones, he murmured to his cousin, "She's become quite…beautiful, hasn't she?"

Darcy smiled wistfully. "She is nearly ten and seven. She is, for all intense purposes, a grown lady now, Robert. She shall make her debut this spring, if she agrees to it." Here, Darcy became thoughtful and pulled his cousin aside from the other gentlemen. "Robert, I would like to propose something…" He bit his lip, gathering his thoughts. "Have you noted how well Georgiana gets on with Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"

Col. Fitzwilliam's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Aye, she does seem to take to the second Bennet. Not surprising, as Miss Elizabeth is all that is comfortable and cordial."

"Ahem –" Darcy interrupted, with not a little alarm in his glance to his cousin. "Yes, well, it seems as though the two of them are quite well matched, in age and disposition. I am considering Miss Bennet stay on here at Pemberley as Georgiana's companion."

Robert's mouth flew open in shock and he nearly choked upon the swallow of brandy in his throat. "Miss Elizabeth – a paid companion? Darcy, she's a daughter of a gentleman!"

Darcy glanced around the dining room, securing himself that none of the other gentlemen were in hearing. "Yes, but her circumstances have changed. She is presently living with her aunt and uncle in Cheapside. Our Aunt Catherine's parson has acquired her family home." He gauged the shock in Robert's eyes and continued, "Longbourn was entailed to Rev. Collins, and upon the demise of Mr. Bennet, and with Lady Catherine's blessing, Mr. Collins and his wife sought occupancy immediately. Miss Elizabeth and her sister are the spare relatives at Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner's house – Jane Bennett has taken the role of governess to the Gardiner children, and Miss Elizabeth works- chooses to remain occupied, to contribute to her aunt and uncle's household while she lives there. She is – independent – that way. But I have the means to guide her out of those circumstances, and it would be to her benefit to assume a role in my household."

Again, Robert's eyes narrowed. "Darcy, tell me you've put your affections for this girl aside before you propose this to me. Tell me that you've resolved not to pursue Elizabeth Bennet for yourself, in order to secure a better mate for Georgiana and for you."

"I swear to you, Robert – I have thought this through. I am only concerned for Miss Bennet's welfare because of…I was not forthright with her or her relations regarding George Wickham. I could've been instrumental in preventing her sister's ruin," Darcy hissed under his breath. Robert couldn't help but roll his eyes at his cousin's legendary sense of obligation to all who came in contact with him. Darcy checked his demeanor and continued, "Furthermore, if I had not interfered with Bingley's association with Jane Bennet, it is likely the they would've married – and then perhaps the family would not have suffered in such financial ruin when - oh, cousin trust me on this matter. I only seek to make things right here. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, although I must contend – I must say she is a…fine young woman – she holds no romantic interest for me anymore. I only seek to do what is best for Georgiana and, consequently, for the Bennet family."

Robert sighed heavily, not quite willing to agree to the arrangement. Of course, there was still the matter of getting the aunt and uncle to approve. And, well, he'd known Miss Elizabeth long enough to know that she would also be consulted before the situation was set. He sighed in resignation – Darcy would not let this go, he was certain. Darcy had already made the decision, motivated by his belief he could "make things right" for the Bennet family. Finally, he stated, "Darcy, have at it - if you can talk this independent young woman to do what you think is best for her and her family then move forward. I do think that Miss Elizabeth would be a relief to Georgiana during the months she prepares for her coming out. I worry our Georgiana is a bit reticent when it comes to the social whirl, but Miss Elizabeth will encourage her, I'm sure. And she will profit from the presence of the other Bennet sister - it seems as though Mr. Bingley has renewed his interests in her sister Jane. When Bingley comes to call at Pemberley, it is likely Miss Jane Bennet will not be far away."

Darcy glanced briefly at his friend, Bingley, seated down the table near Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Hurst. The elder gentlemen were caught up in a deep conversation about the war, while Mr. Bingley only half-attended them – from his purview, Darcy could see Mr. Bingley's attention drift, a slight smile touching his face. "Yes," Darcy nodded, "It is evident that Mr. Bingley's mind – and heart – has been occupied with the fair Miss Jane Bennet. It is for the best, for I see them now – Miss Jane is all that is good and would never disassemble to lure Mr. Bingley."

"Darcy, could you be admitting you were wrong about Miss Jane Bennet's affections for our young Mr. Bingley?" Robert asked with a smirk.

"There is no shame in admitting a wrong doing when it was done without malice and without blame. Wrong? I believe I was…not correct in my observations." Ending the conversation, Darcy stood, slapped Robert on the back and declared it was time for the gentlemen to join the ladies in the other room. While the jolly group departed the dining room, Darcy pulled Mr. Gardiner aside to his study, and spoke of his designs for Miss Elizabeth's future employment as Georgiana's companion. He laid out his proposal with such aplomb and confidence, Mr. Gardiner could find no cause not to agree at once. He and Darcy shook on the matter, and Darcy saw only one more obstacle in his path – obtaining Miss Elizabeth's agreement on the matter.

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 3 of 21

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