“My nephew always makes dining that much more lively,” Lady Catherine de Bourgh waved her handkerchief at the two men seated at her table. She was making a point to the guests in attendance: Mr. and Mrs. Collins and Elizabeth Bennet. “My daughter, Anne, is always so excited to see Mr. Darcy, aren’t you my dear?” She inclined her head at a pale, young woman sitting next to her at the table. Anne gave a half-hearted smile in return.
“Yes, I always look forward to seeing my relations who bring news of other places.” It was the most she had said all evening, and with that statement, she seemed out of breath.
“Are you well, dear?” Lady Catherine asked. “Perhaps, this is too much for you?”
Anne sat up straighter smiling, but even with her will, she seemed small. “I am quite fine,” she replied. “The air is dryer than I like this evening, but I can measure up.” The pale yellow gown she was wearing did little to add to her look; in fact, it lent a sallow color to her already wan countenance. Her hair was carefully done with curls and small gems that added a glitter to her look, but nothing could erase the dark circles under her eyes and dull skin.
“When the time is right and the person amenable, then a match can be made,” Lady Catherine looked at Mr. Darcy when she spoke, but he ignored her.
“The ladies enjoy walking; we came upon them earlier today in the woods between Mrs. Collins’ home and here,” Colonel Fitzwilliam changed the subject, before Mr. Darcy could respond. Not that it appeared Mr. Darcy planned on making any response, Elizabeth noted. This seemed to be an old bone of contention.
They passed the evening pleasantly enough, with Lady Catherine insisting that Elizabeth play the pianoforte, much to the delight of everyone there and the disguised chagrin of herself. She played and smiled, but refused to sing. One could only be pushed so far. Elizabeth received applause for her efforts. She noticed Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam looking on appreciatively and wondered which of the gentlemen’s interest she liked the most.
Mr. Darcy, dark, distant and aloof, held a certain attraction for her, although Colonel Fitzwilliam was an open book, full of jest and compliments. Elizabeth liked puzzles, and Mr. Darcy was certainly an intriguing enigma.
She wondered why Lady Catherine kept foisting – and there was no other word for it – her daughter on Mr. Darcy. The Lady’s hints were less than subtle. Elizabeth also wondered why Mr. Darcy did not object outright, just looked uncomfortable enough to be amusing. Clearly, Mr. Darcy was not interested in marrying Anne out of amicability, and there seemed no spark from her side either.
Anne did not regard Mr. Darcy as one would a cad, but she seemed to light up in conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam. As did Miss Lucas, though the young woman was far too intimidated to say more than a few mumbled words before allowing the conversation to continue on without her. To Mr. Darcy, Anne gave a bored look, one of forbearance for her mother’s wishes and nothing more.
And for Mr. Darcy’s part, he gave perfunctory conversation snippets raised out of courtesy more than anything else. He seemed less interested in Anne than the potted fichus plant that sat near the door, and it needed watering.
Elizabeth caught him looking at her. When she returned to her seat from the pianoforte, he stood to help her with her chair, although she needed no such help.
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she smiled at him.
He bowed curtly and resumed his seat.
Elizabeth had the impression her earning Mr. Darcy’s solicitude was not to Lady Catherine’s liking, because the Lady regarded the exchange with a sour look, down-turned mouth forming a thin line, eyes squinting as if facing direct sunlight.
Lady Catherine was in a well-lit, but not overly so, drawing room. There was no reason to squint, Elizabeth noted to herself, unless one were attempting to frown and failing that, settling for a squint and a sniff.
She is displeased at Mr. Darcy’s kindness toward me. That amused Elizabeth, causing her to smile at Lady Catherine and earn herself another squinty sniff.
Colonel Fitzwilliam and Anne were engaged in a conversation that was interrupted by Lady Catherine. “You should talk with Mr. Darcy, Anne.”
“About what, Mother?” Anne asked, her gaze traveling from Mr. Darcy to Lady Catherine.
“Well, about your plans for the future,” Lady Catherine said. “Surely, you have some ideas for when we go to Town, something that would interest a man of his stature and means.” Silence followed her statement.
Mr. Collins stepped into the hush, waxing poetic about life in the Ton. “It is a time when all things are alight in London, where you can dance the night away at balls and private parties, is it not, Lady Catherine. I mean, everyone who is anyone is there, and the fashion . . .” he breathed in as if he could smell high society, “it is without equal I’m told.”
“You have attended balls in Town?” Mr. Darcy asked, and Elizabeth saw it again – that slight upturn in his lips, and the twinkle in his dark eyes. He was joking with Mr. Collins.
“Me, no! I am a Man of the Cloth. However, I have heard tales and stories related to me. It sounds wonderful.”
“I should like to attend balls in town,” Miss Lucas said softly. Her gaze drifted to Col. Fitzwilliam who in turn
“I find balls tiresome,” Mr. Darcy replied, dismissing Mr. Collins with a slight wave of his hand.
“Unless, you are with the right person,” Lady Catherine put in. The words ‘like my daughter, Anne….’ hung in the air unspoken.
“That is true, Aunt,” Darcy agreed, but his gaze did not go to her daughter, but to Elizabeth who returned his look with one of mild curiosity. His lip quirked, and she felt a flutter in her stomach in response. Mr. Darcy was quite a curious creature, a mystery to solve. Elizabeth wasn’t sure if she liked or loathed his subtle humor. Mr. Collins did not see where Darcy was having him on. And, Darcy let him put his foot in his proverbial mouth more than once that evening.
Elizabeth found it both funny and annoying. No one less endowed with intelligence should be laughed at, but it was her cousin, which made that inference less offending. He was such an obsequious person, and she laughed at him. Even his wife found humor in his long soliloquys to Lady Catherine.
If he could fall to his knees, no lay flat out on his paunchy stomach to let Lady Catherine walk over him and not muddy her shoes, he would do so with pleasure and thank her for the privilege. So, Darcy’s bit of humor at Mr. Collins’ expense was funny. Elizabeth realized it was only her guilt as his guest, and more importantly, best friend to his wife, that gave Elizabeth pause.
Colonel Fitzwilliam resumed his conversation with Anne, and they spent the rest of the evening laughing and what Elizabeth determined was subtly flirting with each other. In her last visit to the de Bourgh estate, Anne seemed almost disinterested in life, but with the Colonel, she was livelier, engaged, her cheeks reddened and her eyes a twinkle.
This had a disturbing effect on her mother, because although Lady Catherine loved both her nephews, Colonel Fitzwilliam had only his military stipend to live on and provide for a family. Mr. Darcy was a far better prospect in her opinion. However, love knows or cares little of status or wealth, and this instance was no exception.
You are much like my mother, Elizabeth thought. It was not a bad thing that a mother would want what was best for her daughter. Lady Catherine, like her own mother, could be aggressive to a fault in trying to secure it. Both Mr. Darcy and Anne were little inclined to oblige.
“How long will you be with us?” Mr. Darcy’s voice interrupted Elizabeth’s musings. She blushed with the idea that he had caught her wool gathering and smiled.
“At least another fortnight, maybe more,” she answered. “Then I will return home, I believe. I also might take in London and visit with my aunt and uncle. My aunt asked for me to come and visit, as I have not been there in quite a while.” Elizabeth kept her gaze to the left of his, finishing her sentence and looking at him directly at last.
If it was possible, Elizabeth realized that his dark gaze darkened, and she realized, with some consternation, that she felt like she could fall into those obsidian pools. There was something about the way he looked at her that made her stomach clinch.
It wasn’t until after Elizabeth looked away that she realized she had been holding her breath. Carefully and silently, she exhaled lest he know the effect he was having on her.
It happened a couple more times over the course of the evening, and each time her heart quickened. The feeling was both nerve-wracking and wonderful, the latter a betrayal of her firm determination not to get wrapped up and lose her objectivity. That appeared to be a losing battle as Elizabeth’s feelings took charge. She was enamored. But love differed from interest or passion. Elizabeth knew this. She had always depended on her mind in all things: rational judgment, keen observation and quiet objectivity to form an opinion of someone.
In this instance, her mind seemed to be betraying her.
Yes, Mr. Darcy was an attractive man, even when he was being severe and reserved, but she kept seeing cracks in that detached armor which belied the image he had carefully constructed and portrayed. Behind that armor was a mystery, a nice mystery she guessed the slight quirk of his lips betrayed.
Mr. Darcy had a sense of humor, and in conversation, he withheld much of his own thoughts when dealing with buffoonery like her cousin exhibited. However, in a single joke, delivered with the seriousness of an undertaker, she gleaned some of how his mind worked. Or, at least she thought she did.
Was she just making all of this up, based on a flight of fancy? Infatuation?
Could she really know all this from the lifting of an eyebrow, the quirking of his very kissable lips?
Stop that, she admonished herself. You cannot be thinking of kissing the man. You barely know him. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Elizabeth looked at a vase of flowers near the window regrouping. Her thoughts gave her pause, and her silence apparently caused him some concern, because he gave her a shy smile when his aunt was engaged in conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam. It was fleeting, but it reached his eyes which twinkled in response, and she felt hot with the attention.
Her previous opinion of him evaporated. There was a lot more to Mr. Darcy that she wanted to know, she needed to know for her own sanity. If he could bring forth such feelings in her in the parlor while his aunt played matchmaker, what else was he capable of? Clearly, he was not interested in Anne which was just as well. She seemed enamored of the colonel, and he was reciprocating, much to Miss Lucas’ visible dismay.
She is much like my mother when it comes to getting her daughter married, although if I told the great Lady Catherine that, she would have my head for such a rude and ‘wholly untrue’ reflection.
What Lady Catherine hoped was if Anne was left without conversation, she would naturally gravitate towards Mr. Darcy. What happened was the opposite, and judging from the sharpness of her tone, this vexed her. Anne sat as close as was proper to Colonel Fitzwilliam. She ignored Mr. Darcy, leaving him to shower Elizabeth with veiled considerations. He was not flirting, per se. He was more open, showing her what lay behind the wall of propriety and detachment he maintained.
Why in the world was her mind spiraling out of control like this? It was just a smile, but then he gave her another smile, secret from everyone else, just for her. Because she was facing the group, she felt it indecent to smile back at him. So carefully, lest someone notice, she inclined her head, quirking her lips like he did. She stared into his eyes for a moment, then looking away at some perceived mote of dust or shadow on the back of Lady Catherine’s chair.
When their eyes met again, his lip quirked and the softness of his look spoke volumes.
They had reached some understanding and nary a word spoken. Few gentlemen in Elizabeth’s experience could do that. Maybe, because she and he were in harmony; their rapport seemed complete.
With that realization, Elizabeth felt the pull of him. She wondered what would happen next, but only for a moment. Best not dwell upon that which she had no control.