This gets very steamy after this chapter. Enjoy!
Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy sat across from Lady Catherine, cradling a cup of lukewarm tea as she shifted on the finely upholstered yet unyielding chair of the lady’s ostentatious drawing room. Portraits stared down in flat-eyed judgment. Every surface was covered in finery: elaborate plaster molding along the ceiling, lace clothes over the tables scattered with statuary that seemed caught in a perpetual state of flight. Elizabeth wished to flee with them, but marriage required certain niceties; honoring her husband’s family – now her family – amongst the height of them.
“One cannot doubt the propriety of your courtship, considering it is nearly spring, and you have shared no indication that you might be with child, Mrs. Darcy.” Lady Catherine took a sip from her tea.
Elizabeth clenched her teacup and tried, without success, not to imagine it was Lady Catherine’s neck.
“Aunt Catherine,” Elizabeth said, smiling with all of her teeth. “I cannot imagine how any might suspect the slightest impropriety of my husband.”
Lady Catherine pressed her lips together as she always did when Elizabeth acknowledged their current relation. It was one of the few pleasures Elizabeth could claim of this visit.
If Elizabeth had been given leave to do as she wished, she would have stayed with Charlotte. While Mr. Collins had only grown more obsequious since Elizabeth’s marriage, his mingled awe at Elizabeth’s rise and his gratitude at how her elevation affected his own status made it easier to dismiss him in short order. Elizabeth did not have the same freedom to dismiss Lady Catherine. Aunt Catherine.
Where was Fitzwilliam? He had left the previous afternoon for Town on an affair of business with the promise to return straightaway.
“I do so wish to hear the laughter of babes again, soon, I hope. Your mother certainly was blessed with a fecund womb. You are aware of the process—?”
“Well aware.” The last thing Elizabeth wanted was an explanation of the process from Lady Catherine.
“And you are facing your heads to the north when you perform the act? I was certain to have the headboards of your rooms placed in the correct direction, you understand, considering the favoring of your mother’s womb for female offspring.”
Elizabeth shut her eyes. It explained why hers and Mr. Darcy’s beds in the guest rooms were placed at an odd slant. “We shall be happy with any child with which God graces us,” Elizabeth said, smothering a sigh. How much longer must she endure this visit? Triple drat on Fitzwilliam for abandoning her here to make small talk with Lady Catherine.
“Of course. But Fitzwilliam needs an heir, and a man always pines for a son.”
“We have taken all care,” Elizabeth said. She and Fitzwilliam had made love with the headboards at their heads, feet, rears, and on one occasion to the side while her husband held her against the wall and…
Elizabeth sighed, this time out loud.
“Do not despair,” Lady Catherine said. “I am certain there will be news soon. Very soon, if I am not mistaken.” Her gaze pinned Elizabeth who realized Lady Catherine’s discussion of Elizabeth’s future children was not due to fear of barrenness, but an attempt to draw a confession from Elizabeth before she had revealed her condition to her husband!
Lady Catherine continued, “If there is no news soon…” Again, the sharp gaze. Lady Catherine rivaled her statues in focused stares. “We shall have the doctor over to bleed you and—”
Under no accounts would Elizabeth allow herself to be bled. Her mother had birthed five children with neither bleeding nor limiting her food, and she had recovered far more swiftly than Lady Lucas who had endured both. If Fitzwilliam suggested such a thing, she would refuse, blast the consequences.
What if Fitzwilliam tried such things? What if he forbade her morning walks? Elizabeth did not know how his family felt towards childbirth, nor what they expected of her. She did not wish to invite disharmony into her marriage. Elizabeth swallowed. Her stomach twisted and a wave of nausea passed over her, reminiscent of this morning where she had spent half an hour spitting into the chamber pot.
“There will be a storm tonight, mark my words,” Lady Catherine said.
Sun streamed through the large window behind the lady. Above, wispy clouds floated in a sea of blue.
Lady Catherine lifted her right foot from where it had been crossed over her left ankle. “I sprained it when I was a young girl. An old injury can be a blessing, they say. It has never steered me wrong regarding weather. A storm is coming,” she declared. “A large one. We shall be snowbound for three days at least.”
“How fortunate,” Elizabeth said, more to fill the silence. Miss Anne was involved with her pianoforte. Lady Catherine had promised a performance from her daughter later that afternoon, which was, to Elizabeth’s relief, one of the rare occasions where Lady Catherine stopped dispensing advice. Elizabeth looked forward to it. Unless they could get away beforehand. Her husband’s business in Town was complete, and they had stayed long enough for basic politeness.
Through the window came the welcome sight of a carriage approaching.
“Has my husband returned?” Elizabeth stood, praying it was so. If Lady Catherine was right, and a storm was coming, they should leave before it arrived. Elizabeth did not wish to spend any length of time snowed in with Lady Catherine. With good fortune, Elizabeth could convince her husband to leave first thing in the morning.
“Already?” Lady Catherine looked over her shoulder. “He will be ten minutes at least. You must not exhaust yourself. An overtired body is unwelcoming to the seed, you understand.”
Elizabeth did not, nor did she wish to. “I am well enough.”
“I must freshen up.” Elizabeth put the tea down on the table beside the tray of seasonal fruits. “Excuse me.”
Elizabeth curtsied and fled back to her rooms. She hadn’t much freshening to do: a visit to the necessary, a splash of rose water, and a quick adjustment of her hair. She wished she could set Lady Catherine straight. Her courses were not always regular, but now three months late, a sign that she might soon have a happy announcement; but if she were mistaken or if something went wrong, an early confession would be disastrous. Besides, heaven knew what Lady Catherine would subject Elizabeth to if she were with child. Bleeding, as she had threatened, and likely worse.
Heavens, she wished to leave, sooner rather than later. A near fortnight in Lady Catherine’s home was enough to drive even Jane to madness, not that Jane was unfortunate enough to be forced to endure it.
Elizabeth rested her palm over her belly a moment before leaving the rooms to meet her husband at the front entranceway. The carriage had just pulled up. Miss Anne stood outside with her companion, and both greeted Mr. Darcy as he stepped down from the carriage.
Though Lady Catherine had been heartbroken at her nephew’s rejection of Miss Anne, the young woman herself seemed no worse for the disappointment. Elizabeth had suspected Miss Anne favored Col. Fitzwilliam, not that either acknowledged the young woman’s affection. Elizabeth was much relieved. If Miss Anne had encouraged her mother’s animosity, this visit would have been even more difficult to endure.
Fitzwilliam’s gaze caught Elizabeth’s, and her breath caught in her throat as it had every time they reunited from even a few hours apart. His dark hair was mussed, his traveling clothes rumpled, and faint stubble shadowed his jaw. Elizabeth smiled. “Mr. Darcy,” she said, walking to him and taking his hand. She wished to put her arms about his waist and draw him into a kiss, but not under Miss Anne’s gaze.
“Mrs. Darcy.” A soft exhalation followed Fitzwilliam’s claiming of her. He squeezed her hand.
“I have missed you,” Elizabeth said. Some believed it foolish to be so forward in acknowledging how much one missed their husband, fearing too demanding an affection might drive a man to take a mistress. Elizabeth knew from the focus of her husband’s gaze and how he slipped his arm beneath hers, pulling her closer so she could smell the mix of sandalwood and faint tobacco from his clothes, he shared her affection. Desire. She should tell him soon about the child. Perhaps when they had returned to Pemberley, where Lady Catherine and her north-facing headboards and threats to drain Elizabeth’s blood were too far away to matter.
“Is your business finished?” Elizabeth asked.
Fitzwilliam smiled. “Yes. Bingley was absent, unfortunately.”
“Fitzwilliam!” A footman stepped aside from the entranceway, holding the door open for Lady Catherine to step outside. The air was chilly for spring, though not cold enough for the fur hat and muff atop the thick, heavily embroidered gown in which Lady Catherine descended the staircase towards the carriage. “Nephew, it is a relief your business in Town is finished. How awful of your steward to trouble you suddenly with such trifles. Why you might have been caught in the storm!”
“Storm?” Fitzwilliam squinted up at the sky. “I see no sign of a storm.”
“It will be a day or so, or perhaps a week, judging by the throbbing of my ankle.”
Elizabeth met her husband’s gaze. His eyes flicked upwards, a brief gesture but one Elizabeth well understood as amusement. He put little stock in the predictive powers of his aunt’s ankle. A relief. As much as she wished to leave, Elizabeth had little desire to be on the road in a spring squall. She lowered her chin, the briefest nod, and the left corner of his lips raised in the briefest acknowledgement.
Incredible how a few short months of marriage had given Elizabeth such a wealth of tools with which to know her husband’s feelings. The slightest flick of an eyebrow, the twitch of lips or fingers, and the movement of his gaze revealed a wealth of emotions. Elizabeth wondered how she had ever thought him cold.
“What was this business,” Lady Catherine asked. “Nothing too troubling, I hope.”
“Not at all.” The left side of his lips raised again. “There was a most pleasant outcome.”
“Do tell,” Lady Catherine said.
“It is a surprise.”
Lady Catherine rubbed her gloved palms together. “I love surprises.”
“For my wife.”
“I see.” Lady Catherine’s gaze had a calculating glint.
Goosebumps rose on Elizabeth’s arms. “You must be tired, Fitzwilliam. Perhaps a rest?”
“Fitzwilliam is fine,” Lady Catherine cut in. “It is his wife he should be concerned about. Considering her delicate state.”
The harridan! “Delicate?” Elizabeth could not find words that were not blasphemous. She choked on an oath she had heard her father shout more than once, stumbling over a fallen book in the darkness.
“Elizabeth?” Fitzwilliam’s eyes widened. “How is it—?”
Elizabeth stepped back while her husband sputtered.
“I— You kept this from me!”
“I kept nothing from you!” Elizabeth was not certain herself. And had she been, she would not have revealed herself to Lady Catherine.
“Your wife has put on at least a quarter stone since the wedding. I would have thought with so many sisters, younger sisters, she would understand the signs within herself.”
All thoughts of charity towards Lady Catherine or familial obligation fluttered from Elizabeth’s mind like dying leaves tossed up by a fierce wind. Elizabeth said, “If I was to determine myself likely with child, I would first speak with my husband before bringing such news to the attention of society.”
“Society, Lizzie?” Lady Catherine smiled with obvious relish. “We are family, are we not?”
“Aunt Catherine— Lizzie—?” Fitzwilliam’s head turned to his aunt and then his wife. Miss Anne leaned towards her companion and whispered something, her nose wrinkling as her brows lowered.
“I wish to return to Pemberley,” Elizabeth said, pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin with as much pride as she could muster. Lady Catherine attempted to ruin everything. It was only pure luck, or perhaps Elizabeth’s own defiant nature, that had kept the old bat from robbing Elizabeth of her husband and a chance at love. Under no circumstances would Elizabeth allow Lady Catherine’s meddling to steal away the most important revelation of their marriage.
Fitzwilliam said, “Lizzie, there is no need to be rash—”
“I will not stay here, not another minute,” Elizabeth said. She would walk to Charlotte’s and send a letter to her aunt and uncle in Town for a carriage if Fitzwilliam tried to keep them in this wretched house another day. Or, if necessary, she would take a public coach.
“Mrs. Darcy is most certainly with child,” Lady Catherine declared. “It is the only explanation for this outburst.”
Elizabeth choked on fury. She could not find words through her rage, which came out as an ugly, growling cough. She took a step away from Lady Catherine, her gaze fixed on the stairs and door behind her.
“Lizzie, wait!” Fitzwilliam grabbed for Elizabeth who pulled her hand away and, skirting Lady Catherine, ran into Rosings.
A footman swung open the door as Lady Catherine shouted, “Hold her!”
The footman made a half-hearted attempt to grab for her which Elizabeth, neither softened nor slowed by marriage or a possible child, sidestepped.
The footman’s lips twitched as he paused, flicking his fingers towards the main hall before taking a slow step after.
Elizabeth thanked the man—thin and long jawed with thick, fair hair mingled with gray—in her mind. But she dared not slow until she arrived, breath heaving, in her temporary rooms and, without calling for a servant, began throwing her most important clothes onto the bed to pack.