Book in hand, Elizabeth headed to her favorite reading nook, a small tree at the top of a hill, fifteen minutes or so from Charlotte’s house. Maria did not wake before eleven in the morning unless prodded, and Charlotte had insisted Elizabeth feel comfortable walking about wherever she wished in the morning, with or without her friend who preferred less active morning pursuits. While it impressed Elizabeth with how well Charlotte managed Mr. Collins, she could not imagine such a life for herself. Elizabeth wished to marry for love.
Mr. Darcy’s secret smile hung in Elizabeth’s memory, making her skin heat and her stomach flutter.
It was no longer their only secret.
Infatuation is not love, she reminded herself. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had married for infatuation, and they barely tolerated each other. Elizabeth would not allow herself the same weakness.
At the same time, infatuation could be seen as a root for love. It was all too complicated, and Elizabeth tried to push this confusion from her mind. The day was fair, and she had hours to read. Or converse, if a certain someone happened upon her.
Elizabeth’s cheeks heated.
Having reached the top of the hill, Elizabeth unrolled the small blanket that she’d been carrying, placed it in the nook of the tree, and sat down carefully so as not to dirty her frock any more than the bottom fringes had gotten mucking through the muddier patches of the meadows. The last thing she wanted was to walk home with a damp and dirty posterior, but the blanket would help her avoid such embarrassing circumstances.
Elizabeth hoped Mr. Darcy found her this morning, as he had done nearly every morning since their dinner at Lady Catherine’s.
Mr. Darcy would ride up on one of his magnificent steeds, bowing when he came upon her as though by happenstance. Except happenstance could not be such a regular occurrence.
Upon finding her, unchaperoned, though neither acknowledged this impropriety, he would bow, climb down and ask her to walk with him.
After an hour of reading, Elizabeth heard hoofbeats, and, truthfully irked he had taken so long, hatched an idea for some fun. Instead of waiting for him by the tree, where he had surely seen her, she swung waited for the familiar shape of his horse to be hidden by the foliage and, leaving book and blanket at the tree’s base, swung up onto the branches and hid.
Hide and Go Seek. Would he seek her?
Mr. Darcy walked around the base of the tree and even called out. “Excuse me? Miss?”
He did not say her name. Though she could only see the top of his head, she imagined his frown, a task made more difficult by their days of pleasant acquaintanceship.
Mr. Darcy started to walk back towards his horse. He muttered something under his breath, his hands fisted.
Could he a simple game so easily frustrate him?
Perhaps. She hardly knew him, infatuation aside.
Elizabeth, light as a feather, dropped to the ground.
“Mr. Darcy!” she called out.
Mr. Darcy turned, his mouth an “O” of astonishment.
“Miss Elizabeth! Where were you?” he demanded.
“You were looking for me?” Elizabeth grinned.
“What if someone had abducted you? There are brigands in this part.”
“So close to your aunt’s estate? Mr. Darcy, you are overwrought.”
“A servant woman was abducted from a neighboring town. Richard spoke with their constable. And there have been thefts. Jewels. Gold.”
“Of which I have none.” Was this why Mr. Darcy had been meeting her ‘by chance’? Concern she might be seized by brigands? Elizabeth was uncertain if she was flattered or annoyed. If he feared for her safety, why had he told her nothing of the danger?
“I was right here.” Elizabeth glanced upwards.
“In a tree?” His scowl deepened. “You will not play such games again.”
How little he knew her to demand such a thing. And to think, she had begun to imagine a future with him. Now, he treated her like a fool. Or a child.
Elizabeth said, “I had no intention to disturb your morning ride. I am well and enjoying a lovely book.”
“I–.” Mr. Darcy scratched his cheek. “It is no interruption. Quite a fair morning, is it not?”
Elizabeth nodded. Once they had finished discussing the weather, they might move onto Lady Catherine’s table settings and other riveting topics. And yet, Elizabeth’s flash of anger cooled at his obvious discomfiture. He cared for her welfare. He might be zealous in his pursuit of it, but she appreciated his interest.
They walked to the tree and sat. Mr. Darcy asked, “What are you reading?”
“You will think me silly, if I tell you,” she began, a blush gracing her cheeks.
“You? Silly? Never.” He reached for the book and she withdrew her hand. “It’s a fairy tale of sorts about a water spirit named Undine. My father got it for Kitty, but she wasn’t interested. I found it to be tolerable.”
He reached over relieving her of the book. “Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué,” he read aloud. “Undine is a water creature?”
“Yes,” she retrieved the book, turning it face down in her lap.
“I had not imagined you liking fairy tales.”
“Well, it is well-written,” she replied as if that was a defense. “The theme is interesting.” She did not understand why she felt discomfited.
“I’m sure it is. I could not see you reading it if it were not.”
You are handsome, Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth thought, in so many ways. My attraction for you grows, because I have caught glimpses of that wonderful person you keep hidden. Elizabeth shook her head looking away from him feeling the heat in her cheeks and other places she would rather not ponder. Now, what brought that on?
“Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?” She felt him, his voice deep, soft spoken, and when she looked back at him, his gaze was all curiosity with a slight smile gracing his lips. “You seem to be a bit flushed.
“No, I was just thinking about something,” she replied. If only you knew how much my affections rise just gazing upon your form. I wonder if this is lust, love or simple friendship? She had little experience except in friendship, and never a male friend except for that cad Wickham whose friendship was false.
Be careful what you wish for, Elizabeth. She had wished for high passion, a love affair that would last for all time with a man who swept her up and took her to a magical place. Mr. Darcy was looking like that man in her dreams. And, oh the dreams she was having. No, this is not merely friendship.
“Would it be impolite if I asked you about what?” How long had she been sitting there ruminating?
“Flower arrangements,” Elizabeth sprang to her feet, nearly running into him. She put out a hand out and stopped herself, and touched his chest, taking a moment too long to feel it. He didn’t seem to mind, his smile widening, and if she was not mistaken, she thought she saw his gaze darken. “I plan on doing some flower arranging with Charlotte this afternoon.” She righted herself, withdrawing her hand reluctantly.
“Flower arranging,” he let out a full-throated laugh. “That must be an intense affair considering your look.”
“It can be,” she replied. His words were not lost on her; he was teasing her. “I also plan on doing some knitting, and maybe some needlepoint.”
Mr. Darcy threw up his hands placating her and stepping back. “That is wonderful! I meant nothing by my earlier remarks, Miss Elizabeth, nothing at all. I know little of the concentration it takes for those sorts of ladies’ activities.”
He was still smiling, now standing and for a little while, she just basked in being so close to him. He smelled of leather and soap, and Elizabeth breathed in. With each deep breath, she could imagine him kissing her, passionately, wantonly and with pure abandon.
She imagined him taking her in his arms, kissing her, at first hesitant and then with more fervor. Elizabeth met his gaze. His pupils widened, and his gaze pinned her. He wanted her, and she wanted him, and if he kissed her, it would sweep them both away. Propriety thrown to the winds, she reached up and gently caressed his cheek. When her hand touched Mr. Darcy, he trembled, closing his eyes, a slight smile gracing his lips.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered. “You bewitch me.” Mr. Darcy’s voice was soft, husky.
“We must stop,” Elizabeth withdrew her hand from him, and he opened his eyes, looking at her.
Infatuation was not love. She had to be certain something deeper lived beneath this passion, lest she make a terrible mistake.
If Elizabeth kept gazing at him, it could lead to something neither of them were ready for. She stepped away from him, took a breath, regaining her comportment as she walked. He dutifully followed, until she slowed down again. “I am returning to the parsonage to help Charlotte with breakfast.”
The sun was still low in the sky, and while Elizabeth wanted to stay in Mr. Darcy’s company, she thought better of it. She had twisted the rules of propriety enough without ruining her good name. And she never would want Mr. Darcy to marry her under coercion. Elizabeth wanted his offer out of love, an intense feeling of deep affection and nothing less.
“May I attend you to your gate,” Mr. Darcy bowed slightly as he spoke, the serious, formal side of him coming to the fore. Was this the same man who had laughed and teased her earlier? You are a complicated man, Mr. Darcy.
“Yes, if that is convenient.”
“It is my pleasure.” He stopped her and handed her a small flower, white with a bit of green on the stalk. He also had an identical flower in his hand. “Pray, I hope you do not consider this too forward, but would you condescend to take this small flower to press in your book, a remembrance of our time together this morning. I will keep this second flower in my vest pocket close to my heart.
Darcy knew that it was at the lengths of propriety and probably over the line, but he wanted her to remember him when they were apart. He did it on a whim, but now in the light of reality, his heart hitched at the deeper meaning it held. Would Elizabeth accept it from him? If she did, it would mean the world to him, that she accepted him on a deeper level than shallow conversation. Darcy was rewarded with a smile, and a sparkle of wonderment in her gaze at him.
“That is so thoughtful, Mr. Darcy.” If Elizabeth accepted it, that this meant a deepening of their relationship, and although she would not allow herself to succumb to meaningless passion, she was developing deeper feelings for Mr. Darcy.
Propriety dictated Elizabeth reject his offering, but she was far beyond the bounds of propriety already. Elizabeth took the flower and placed it on one of the inside pages. With the acceptance, her cheeks heated. He would keep an identical flower with him. This was a secret commitment, something stronger than the kiss she wished she had allowed herself, and she relished their connection.
Perhaps infatuation could lead to something more.