Fitzwilliam kissed like a man drowning. He held Elizabeth close, one hand on the small of her back, the other cupping her head, his tongue slipping between her parted lips, his manhood hard against her belly. It was enough to make Elizabeth forget his mistress in London.
If he had a mistress.
Elizabeth did not know for sure. She knew he had lied to her though, his steward stating no knowledge of sudden repairs or disaster at their London townhouse. Mrs. Lavinia Dorset, neighbors and old family friends of Mr. Darcy the elder, insisted a mistress the most likely reason Mr. Darcy so frequently visited his London townhouse alone.
Mrs. Dorset’s proclamation had knocked the breath from Elizabeth’s lungs. A week later, doubts knotted Elizabeth’s guts, resting in the back of her throat taste like acid as she and their two children waved their father goodbye for the third time in as many months.
“Dinna fret, childer,” the nanny Sophie, a round-faced Scottish lass with long, auburn hair in braids the nape of her neck, said, patting Elizabeth’s youngest, Emma, on the head. “Your da will return in the flick of a horse’s tail.”
Emma, a dark-haired three-year-old possessed of Fitzwilliam’s quiet nature and thoughtful squint, nodded.
Her five-year-old brother, Aldous, laughed. “A poopy horse?” he said, slapping his hand over his mouth, dark eyes twinkling as honey-brown curls bounced on his forehead.
“Shh!” Emma admonished, stamping her foot and glaring at her brother.
Aldous laughed again.
Elizabeth schooled her face into a serious expression even as inside she smothered a laugh. She loved the children with every fiber of her soul. Though she might doubt her husband, she could never doubt them. Soon, within six months if she measured her monthly courses accurately, she and Fitzwilliam would be blessed with a third child. Surely then, her husband would stay home. Or perhaps a mewling infant would drive him further away. Some men, like Mr. Hurst, avoided their babies until they were old enough for, in his words, ‘a proper conversation.’
No, not Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth might question his fidelity, but not the evidence of his fatherly affection. Fitzwilliam had loved holding his infant children. Even as they grew older, he took time to play with Aldous and Emma, more often than other fathers of their elevated class, as Elizabeth had learned.
If only Lavinia had not put these notions in Elizabeth’s mind. Fitzwilliam, a mistress? Elizabeth had married for love, and she had a wonderful life and family. It was foolish to question her good fortune. She wanted to banish her doubts, and for the next few hours she did, joining Sophie and the children in the nursery, playing games and reading aloud to them as she did often, wanting them to love books as much as she did.
Elizabeth put her doubts far from her mind through the morning and for a picnic lunch after which Emma and Aldous waded gleefully in the fountain in defiance of the early summer heat.
A moment of joy, quickly dashed, rose in Elizabeth as she saw a carriage approaching the house and recognized it was not her husband, changing his mind about his sudden, town business, and instead bore the Dorset seal.
Mrs. Dorset made a habit of popping in around tea time. She had three children of her own, all boys, two of school age, and one in the care of a nanny. None of the boys were in attendance today, which meant they were running about her estate or summering with their cousins near the sea. Likely the former as Mrs. Dorset was not one to forego the opportunity to travel.
Sophie said, “I’m supposing it is Wednesday. Mrs. Dorset invites herself for tea on Wednesdays.”
Normally, a servant would not be so forward in her admonishment of a guest, but Elizabeth and Sophie had grown close over the years and Elizabeth was not one to be strict about proprieties in any sense. Especially as she agreed Mrs. Dorset took liberties, both in her self-invitation and her intimations that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy might be unfaithful.
But Elizabeth knew better than to cut the woman, no matter how well she might deserve it. Mrs. Dorset held the regard of many important ladies in the area, and while Elizabeth had higher status due to her husband’s wealth and relations, Mrs. Dorset could make Elizabeth’s life miserable if she chose.
So Elizabeth left her children, after giving each a kiss on the forehead, with Sophie and made her way to find out what their neighbor wanted today.
“Oh, Mrs. Darcy, you poor dear, out laboring in this heat!” Mrs. Dorset waved a fan over her face. She was a stout, fashionably dressed woman of five and forty. Grey strands wove through her brown hair, which she wore in a knot of elaborate braids, curls framing her face. In her time, she had been a beauty, and the bones of it remained in the regal sweep of her nose, height of her cheeks, clear blue eyes, and excellent posture.
Mrs. Dorset looked over Elizabeth, skin flushed from exertion and browned in the sun, and said, “Your love of nature is laudable, but perhaps it be best not to exert oneself so in the summer months.” She cocked her head, “Especially when one is expecting.”
Expecting! How did she know? Elizabeth lowered her gaze. “We have not spoken with the midwife.”
Mrs. Dorset grinned. “I thought it might be with your youngest just turned three. Mr. Darcy knows?”
“We have not shared it.” Though now, Mrs. Dorsett’s loose tongue would ensure the neighbors and all neighboring villages knew of the Darcy’s news. “We are not certain, as yet.”
“Yes. Yes, the midwife. You are sturdy, I must say. With good hips for birthing, thanks be to the Lord.”
Elizabeth smiled, feeling more like a horse being assessed at market then a friend. Which, despite Mrs. Dorset’s frequent visits and advice, they were not. Elizabeth said, “It is hardly a trial to picnic with one’s children. What brings you all this way?”
“Mr. Darcy is not in attendance?”
“No,” Elizabeth said, the doubts she had so diligently stifled once again rising. “He is once more to town.”
“As I thought!” Mrs. Dorset took Elizabeth’s hands and squeezed. “I thought it was his carriage that passed by our home. It was far off to discern the exact make, but…” She glanced at the entrance to Pemberley, Elizabeth, knowing propriety offered her little choice, said, “Come inside. It is warm, as you say. I will have a maid bring us refreshments.”
Mrs. Dorset grinned. “Have you those finger pastries, with the strawberries, your cook offered last week? They were divine!”
“We were not expecting company, but I am sure cook has something one hand.” It was the closest to admonishment Elizabeth could manage.
They sat, drink tea, as Mrs. Dorset relayed her noticing Mr. Darcy’s carriage, which he presumed must’ve been his, and repeated admonitions for Elizabeth not to worry but to focus her attention on home and family as was her probable as wife and mother.”
“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said, not wishing to use her husband’s given name the presence of Mrs. Dorset who read too much into the slightest information. “Has seemed well… satisfied… In our marriage and…” Elizabeth’s cheeks warmed. “Fully involved in all the activities of a husband.”
Mrs. Dorset laughed. “With a third child on the way, I suspect so. Men are always interested in bed play.”
“So I do not believe a lack of interest is… at all…”
“Oh, Mrs. Darcy! Dissatisfaction does not lead men astray. A gentleman will enjoy his prized cook’s meals and still seek satiation elsewhere. Do not worry of it. Or speak of it. They always come home.” Mrs. Dorset took a third finger tart and bit into it.
Elizabeth sipped her tea. “Mr. Darcy does not seek novelty.”
Mrs. Dorset laughed. “All gentlemen crave novelty, Mrs. Darcy. I suspect he is off to join her at that masquerade ball. My husband and I were invited, but town is a horror in summer. The stench!”
Elizabeth cocked her head. “My husband was invited to no ball.”
Mrs. Dorset asked, “Are you certain?”
“Mr. Darcy is not fond of dancing, or small talk, or large groups of people,” Elizabeth said.
“As you say,” Dorset finished her tart. “As you say.”
Elizabeth took another sip of her tea. The subject shifted, and Mrs. Dorset mentioned the Midsummer Festival village held every year. “Your husband will have returned by then, certainly,” Dorset said.
As it is six weeks from today, I should hope so,” Elizabeth said. And Fitzwilliam would return by then, but would he leave again after?
Finally, Mrs. Dorset left, and Elizabeth had dinner in the nursery with her children before returning to her cold, empty bed.
Mr. Darcy would not have gone to London to attend a ball, costumed or otherwise. The idea was ridiculous! If anyone had invited them to such an affair, Mr. Darcy would have declined.
And yet, the suspicion lingered. Elizabeth knew she had no business puttering about her husband’s study, but, after half an hour of pretending interest in a novel she had been, before her husband’s departure and Mrs. Dorset’s visit, excited to read, Elizabeth snapped the volume closed and, taking a candle, went to her husband’s study.
She would not open his correspondence. She trusted her husband, and he deserved his privacy. As she did. But it would do no harm to glance at the shape of the letters on his desk, if there were any unopened. She would see if there were any invitations, either upon his writing desk or, more likely, thrown away.
She could not be faulted for that.
Elizabeth slipped into the room. Unlike Elizabeth’s writing desk, which was a mess of half-finished missives and notes to herself, Mr. Darcy’s desk was clear. Orderly. Elizabeth opened the desk to look inside. Not to open any of his correspondence, simply to note what was present. She saw no invitation.
Elizabeth glanced at the wastebasket. A paper lay crumpled up inside.
Elizabeth stared at it. Her fingers itched. If he had thrown it away, that hardly counted as a violation of his privacy. After a moment more deliberation, Elizabeth knelt, took the letter from the wastebasket and flattened on the desk, running her fingers over the surface to remove the creases.
Elizabeth’s stomach clenched at the looping script. The paper was scented with rose-water, and the words that followed cloyed at her throat.
My Dearest Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy,
How is it you promise to care for me and then, at your convenience, leave me alone to rot? I cannot bear it.
I will be at the Lord Whitmore’s costumed ball. The invitation is enclosed. If you cannot be persuaded to return from your country manor to retrieve me, I suppose I must offer my dance to another.
With Great Affection,
Elizabeth’s hands shook. Mrs. Dorset’s words rang in her mind. Not that Mr. Darcy was dissatisfied, but he craved novelty. Elizabeth had thought herself enough, but this harlot had tempted him away.
But if Fitzwilliam had a kept woman, it was not clear in their household finances, which he made no efforts to hide. With as much wealth as Mr. Darcy possessed, it was as likely he had some small income hidden away somewhere. Or perhaps he had hidden the income required for his mistress’ keeping as some other expense. The townhouse had flooded last autumn. Or so Mr. Darcy had said. They had not visited London together since the previous spring.
Elizabeth dropped into her husband’s chair. Her stomach roiled. She folded the letter into her palm and put her head in her open hands. The paper crinkled against her forehead. She swallowed.
What was she to do? Elizabeth had no guarantee this Phillipa was her husband’s mistress. If asked, true or not, Fitzwilliam would deny it. Elizabeth needed proof.
Sophie could manage the children for a short time, and the household would manage itself. What Elizabeth could not manage was the waiting. Better to find out her husband had betrayed her than eat herself alive with doubts.
The date for the ball was a week from now. It was enough time for Elizabeth go to London and secure an invitation. She would stay with her aunt and uncle and make no mention of her presence to Mr. Darcy until the ball.
Perhaps Mr. Darcy had not fallen into bed with another woman? Perhaps there was another reason for this lady’s effusive letter? Or perhaps he had succumbed, but only once? Perhaps this Phillipa was blackmailing him?
Mr. Darcy could not love this woman. It was, at worst, novelty.
Elizabeth would not lose her husband to the allure of novelty. If Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy had been seduced, then by all in this world, Elizabeth would find out the truth, and win him back, if she could.
Or end it.
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