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The Benevolence of Scandal

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Chapter VII

Thusly, Lizzy met Mr. Darcy in Netherfield's woods the following two mornings before Jane was well enough to return to Longbourn.

He was a strange creature, she decided. Their conversations, as usual, fluctuated between the rather serious matters of Georgiana's well-being and future and rather complex quips about a mutually loved book. His presence simultaneously made her feel comfortable and disconcerted for while there was a great similarity in the turn of their minds, he had made it rather clear to her that he thought of her as more of a mannish, fraternal-sort of companion with whom he entrusted confidences about his sister.

On the occasion of their second meeting, he told her with the confidence of a compliment, "You are a better walker than any man I have hunted with. I have never known a lady to be so athletic. Are you concealing an expert skill in hunting or fencing by any chance?"

She laughed of course, but his kindly-meant comments—that she was "athletic" or that he suspected her near spinsterhood or that she looked well in her disheveled state—were rather humiliating given how much she found herself attracted to him. He had earned her initial respect when they had met in August, yet her respect and admiration grew with subsequent conversations.

He was erudite and quite eloquent when he had the mind to be. Exceedingly well-read and well-informed, he had an excellent understanding of philosophy and government, and though somewhat shy and reserved in mixed company, he possessed a dry sense of humor which frequently caught her off guard. She felt as though he considered her an equal, and he seemed to listen to her opinions with rapt attention, asking thoughtful questions and never interrupting her. What a shame it was that men seemed to respect the unattractive women more than the ladies who earned their amorous admiration!

Were it not for the pressure of Georgiana's situation and Mr. Darcy's obvious awareness of her unsuitability, she might have found herself on her way to falling in love with the man. He was attractive to her for many reasons, but, for better or for worse, Lizzy had admonished herself not to get attached. She would not seek him out in company after she left Netherfield, and then all would be easier after Georgiana's arrival. When the Darcys inevitably left, she would only hear of him from her correspondence with Georgiana. He would be married to some lady of the ton at some point in the near future, and she would wish him well—so long as he did not succumb to the cheap wiles of Caroline Bingley!

Lizzy was sitting across from Jane in Mr. Bingley's well-sprung carriage and caught her sister with an uncharacteristic expression of wistfulness.


Her sister looked up and smiled faintly.

"Is everything all right?"

"I do not know," she responded tentatively. "I feel rather strange for I had much time to think when I was ill."

"What were you thinking of?"

It took Jane so long to respond, Lizzy had almost assumed she would not answer. "I realized how little I know about being a wife," she said quietly.

Lizzy looked at Jane questioningly.

"I know how Mama or Aunt Phillips are as wives, but they are not the type of wife that I would like to be I think."

Lizzy smirked. "I would agree."

"Yet, even Aunt Gardiner who is a much better model for my own aspirations…I do not truly understand what passes between her and our uncle. What is their life like when we do not see them?"

Lizzy pondered this for a moment and could not say that she knew. They were amiable toward each other and seemed to get along well, but the moments in front of their nieces could not be the entirety of their discourse. "I honestly could not say. Why has this troubled you now? Do you truly think you would like to marry Mr. Bingley? You have not spoken of him much this week."

Jane furrowed her brow and pursed her lips. "I cannot say if I do, and that is what puzzles me. I was so charmed by him upon our first meeting, but after having been in his house for a week and hardly seeing him, I have wondered what it would be like to live there with him. How might we go on together? I daresay you would know better than I after having observed him this past week."

This type of observation was uncharacteristic for Jane, and Lizzy briefly wondered if her recent cynicism had manifested itself in Jane during her illness.

"It does seem rather strange to live so closely with a man without previous knowledge of his habits and private behaviors. I believe, though, that we ladies are allowed too few safe opportunities to know men on a more personal level. What can you learn about a man in a drawing room other than that he appears to be respectable?"

"Precisely, and perhaps that is what disarms me about a potential courtship with Mr. Bingley. I only spoke to him twice during my convalescence, and I felt each time that he would have liked to say more than he did. I may have wanted to speak as well, but I cannot do it properly. If we were married, would it be the same or would there be openness? I cannot determine whether it is propriety or his disposition which strains our discourse. The Bingleys have been in the neighborhood for so short a time.

"I do take assurance in that you knew the Darcys before. Tell me, Lizzy. Would you trust Mr. Darcy's judgement in people? Does it reflect well in Mr. Bingley that Mr. Darcy esteems him?"

"I can hardly say. I do believe Mr. and Miss Darcy to be good, honest people, so I doubt that Mr. Bingley could be a nefarious sort of character, especially given that poor Mr. Darcy is willing to put up with Miss Bingley's presence for his friend."

"Lizzy!" Jane admonished, failing to suppress a smile.

With that, Lizzy let the subject drop, but she felt vaguely bemused for the rest of the way back to Longbourn.

When she arrived, she discovered she had a letter from Georgiana as she suspected. Her mother had begun to berate her about how rude Mr. Darcy had been during her visit and how she had clearly offended him, so Lizzy slipped out the servants' door to an old retaining wall just out of sight of the house and sat down with her letter, dated but three days ago.

7 October 1811

Dearest Lizzy,

I was much amused by your last letter, as I expected I would be. I was delighted by your pleasant descriptions of Hertfordshire and Meryton society. Between your suggestions of the view from your beloved Oakham Mount and the pleasant companionship of your beloved sister, I find myself brimming with anticipation. Such excitement is a welcome distraction from the solitude of our London house when my brother is away. I hardly realized how much his mere presence served to protect me not only from the world but from the direction my thoughts turn in solitude.

If you see my brother, please do not tell him these things for it would only serve to make him anxious. I am determined to not be dependent on him forever yet thinking about the future fills me with such trepidation my head occasionally begins to ache. I do not mean to burden you with my thoughts, but I have no one else in whom I can confide. I do not even feel at ease confiding such things to your dear Aunt, who has been more of a mother to me than any other woman has. I do hope that once we are together again, I shall think fewer dark thoughts about the future and enjoy our diversions as well as I can.

Erstwhile, all I desire is another amusing story about the various characters of Meryton who provided much amusement in your last letter.

Your friend,

Georgiana Darcy

Georgiana's letter nagged at the edge of Lizzy's mind for the rest of the day, and she found herself rather overwhelmed by her inability to comfort her friend or truly understand her thoughts and feelings. Lizzy felt strange and unworthy to have all of the hopes and anticipations of the dear girl pinned on her ability to comfort. Given the situation with her own younger sisters' resentment, it seemed strange that another girl of the same age would long for her sisterly counsel, especially when they had hardly spent such little time together.

In a way, Lizzy felt closer to Georgiana than any of her own sisters. For while her sisters remained innocent of the vile ways of men, she and Georgiana were no longer capable of such blissful ignorance. They had been indelibly changed by their shared experience in Canterbury. Such that their simultaneous loss of innocence—albeit on different scales—had bonded them in some indescribably profound way that gave no significance to the duration of their acquaintance.

Perhaps, she decided, this was why she felt so attracted to Mr. Darcy. He was the only man aside from her uncle with whom she would ever be able to honestly discuss this shift in perspective. He knew that she had witnessed things that no maiden should ever encounter, and he bore her no ill-will for it. How could she not admire and respect a man who overlooked what would be seen as a flaw by most other men? She was certain her attraction stemmed from the shifting sands of her life at the moment rather than any real desire to marry the man. Yes, he was handsome, yet she had always imagined that, if she would marry at all, she would marry a man who was affectionate and made her feel loved—entirely unlike her parents' marriage. Thus, it could not be that she had any hopes of Mr. Darcy's regard for he was not affectionate but rather aloof, if not politely respectful and, occasionally, admiring.

It was with these thoughts in mind that Lizzy made her way back to Longbourn, where she was accosted by her mother who screeched, "Mr. Collins is coming! Mr. Collins is coming!"

"Mr. Collins?" Lizzy asked with a furrowed brow. "The cousin who is to inherit Longbourn?"

"Oh, do not remind me of such things, Lizzy!" her mother chided. "I cannot think of such a thing when an eligible gentleman—the heir to our family seat—is coming!"

"Mama, he may be attached elsewhere. Do not pester the poor man if you do not know what his intentions may be."

"He said that he wants to extend an olive branch to the family and commented frequently on the daughters of the household. He must mean he wants to repair the rift through marriage! There may be hope for you yet, Lizzy!"

Deciding that it was better to avoid her mother than to argue with her, Lizzy fled for her father's study where she could forget about the world and lose herself in one of her father's beloved tomes for a while.

Netherfield Park had become suffocating to Darcy, whose feeling of idleness had roused a restless sort of surliness in him. In the eight days since the departure of the Misses Bennet, he found himself dissatisfied with every aspect of life at Netherfield. Miss Bingley brought him to the edge of an ungentlemanly fit of temper daily, and the dull state of the Hursts' marriage depressed him. Even Bingley, for all his good humor, was irritating, precisely because he did not and could not understand Darcy's profound disquiet. The only thing that had brought him any semblance of joy, even if it was not wholly so, was the news that Georgiana desired to join him sooner rather than later. Upon receipt of Colonel Fitzwilliam's letter, he wrote back immediately agreeing to the decision. Now, his sister would arrive in another four days, and he had hope that he could do better with her this time.

Still, he felt stifled by his situation, and four nights had passed before he realized that his distress was not new. It was the mere renewal of the distress that he had felt before his reacquaintance with Miss Elizabeth. He was somewhat loathe to admit it, but she, in her intelligent and compassionate way, had profoundly improved his outlook on the future for her brief stay at Netherfield. It annoyed him that he began to look for her whenever he rode his horse, and he thought about her—and more shamefully, her form and youthful vigor—more than was appropriate. It was absurd that he had met hundreds of well-bred, imminently marriageable young ladies, yet none of them possessed the same loveliness or spirit as Miss Elizabeth. He, however, could not even entertain the idea of taking their acquaintance further. For while he dearly enjoyed the company of the Gardiners, it had been strange enough for him to socialize with a tradesman and his wife, let alone confide in them as he had. To even consider their niece, who was so far removed from his social circle that they had no mutual acquaintances, was ridiculous.

Thus, it was with no little frustration that Darcy found himself riding his horse in the early mornings through areas he knew she frequented. For the past four days, he rose early and road through the various wooded paths around Longbourn, always making his way toward Oakham Mount. He told himself repeatedly that he came to this precise spot because Miss Bennet had mentioned it as "the most beautiful and peaceful place to take walk"—it was curious that he always seemed to remember her words verbatim. However, he had a tendency to linger at the spot long past the moment when his lack of movement allowed the cold autumn air to pervade his bones, and in those moments, he could not deny to himself that he had a desire to see her, alone, where they could share confidences with one another. His unwilling attraction in such moments felt patently pathetic when he stood with his horse in the cold, waiting for a woman who never appeared.

"Well, Georgie, what do you think?" Richard asked as Netherfield came into view.

"I find it perfectly charming—just as Lizzy described it." She leaned toward the window and watched as she saw her brother come into view. She felt a tightening in her stomach as they approached. While she and Fitzwilliam has been more open with each other in their correspondence, she feared a return to their reticence of the month before. They would be attending a party at the home of one of the local gentry that evening, and she took heart that perhaps Lizzy's presence would ease the tension between Fitzwilliam and her.

Fitzwilliam was at the door to hand her out of the carriage when it arrived, and to her surprise, he took her into his arms the moment her feet hit the ground. "I have missed you, Georgiana. How are you?" he asked softly, kissing her forehead.

She pulled back from him and, willing herself to look him in the eye, took his hands. "I am better. I am excited to see Hertfordshire and to take part in its diversions."

He smiled at her and squeezed her hands before turning to greet Richard. She was grateful for his warm welcome. It was as if she was a child again, and Fitzwilliam would greet her by embracing her and spinning her around when he would return from Cambridge.

It took but a moment for Miss Bingley to ruin her equanimity. The lady appeared like an apparition, grabbing Georgiana by the arm and pulling her away from her brother. "Oh, my dear Georgiana, how delighted I am that you have finally arrived! I was overjoyed when I heard that you had decided to join us early. I am certain we shall have the best time together—even if this country is rather savage."

Georgiana found the lady's fawning manner disagreeable but remained silent as Miss Bingley babbled away, guiding her inside. Upon entering the foyer, Mr. Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst greeted her and Richard. For some strange reason, seeing Mr. Hurst's greying sideburns made her distinctly uneasy, and she suddenly felt acutely aware of her youth among the Netherfield party. She twisted her hands together as the party collectively moved to the drawing room and nearly jumped when she felt Fitzwilliam take her arm to escort her. "Would you rather visit privately than in the drawing room with everyone else?" he whispered.

She nodded and felt shy at the sound of her brother's resonant voice echoing through the hall. "Bingley, would you mind if I used the library? I have some family business to discuss with my sister and cousin."

He steered them into a room on their left and brought them to the fire. Fitzwilliam shot her a half smile. "I figured you might need a respite from Miss Bingley."

It was the most unforgiving speech she had ever heard from him, and she could not suppress a giggle. Fitzwilliam and Richard looked at her in pleasant surprise, and she took pleasure in bringing them any emotion that was not consternation or sorrow. "I see the chessboard there is set up, Brother. I suppose that is your doing."

Richard laughed. "I know Bingley is no fan of the game, and I doubt Hurst is. Have you been playing by yourself, waiting for our arrival?"

Fitzwilliam ignored Richard and turned his whole attention toward her. "How was your trip, my dear? I hope you did not find it too arduous. Are you still prepared to attend the party at Sir Lucas' home tonight? I do not want it to be burden to attend when you are not out and have just spent the morning traveling."

"Yes, of course! I have been longing to see Lizzy, and I would rather not wait to see her."

"I am scarcely less excited than Georgie to meet the infamous Miss Bennet if tales of her beauty and wit are indeed true," Richard cried. Fitzwilliam glowered at him but was silent.

There was a moment of silence before Georgiana spoke for fear of letting the silence consume their congenial reunion. "I am eager to meet Miss Jane Bennet and Miss Lucas. From Lizzy's letters, they seem like wonderful companions. Have you met them?"

"I have made their acquaintance, but I am sure I can give you no more information that what Miss Elizabeth has told you. Either way, I'm sure you shall find their company instructive this evening. I do so hope you will enjoy the evening."

His sincerity was touching, and she reveled in the fragile companionship that they had seemed to rediscover. "I do believe I shall."

Lizzy could not control the beating of her heart as another party entered the Lucases' ballroom. It has been nearly a fortnight since she had seen Mr. Darcy, and her eagerness to see him again was bothersome. She thought about him far more than she was willing to admit and thought she had espied him twice during her morning walks. Deciding that it did her no use to remain near the door, preoccupied with Mr. Darcy's arrival, she made her way to Charlotte's side on the opposite side of the room.

Lydia and Kitty, who had been sitting near Charlotte, purposefully strode away at her approach. Lizzy rolled her eyes as she joined Charlotte.

"I might have asked if they were still ignoring you, but I suppose their hasty departure answered my question," remarked Charlotte with an amused glance at the two youngest Bennet sisters, each taking another punch glass each with upturned noses.

"Yes, but for all their theatrics, they occasionally have moments in which they forget that I do not exist and ask me to pass the potatoes or lend a ribbon for a dress," said Lizzy wryly.

Charlotte laughed before gently nudging Lizzy's arm. "The peacocks have arrived."

Lizzy immediately stood up, and her stomach swooped uncomfortably upon seeing the imposing figure of Mr. Darcy towering above others in the room. They made eye contact, and she willed herself not to blush. She made her way toward him before hearing someone cry her name.

Mr. Darcy was forgotten as Georgiana appeared before her with an overjoyed expression. "Georgiana, what are you doing here? I believed that you would not arrive for another fortnight!" She felt the eyes of the room on them as she took Georgiana's hands in hers but decided that the best course of action would be to ignore it.

"Your aunt and uncle conspired with me to keep it a surprise. Are you pleased?"

"Of course," Lizzy replied, squeezing the girl's hands. "I could not have asked for a better surprise. How are you, my dear friend?"

Georgiana bit her lip and looked away for a moment, seeming to suddenly realize that they were being watched. "I am well." Lizzy supposed she appeared skeptical for Georgiana added, "Truly. I am overjoyed to see you again—even around so many people."

Lizzy laughed. "Oh, do not be frightened of the attention. The people of Meryton have very little with which to occupy themselves, so they must find objects of interest where they can. When your poor brother arrived, I believe that he did not go unwatched for a moment. His countenance seemed like that of a man awaiting the gallows than attending a ball!"

Georgiana burst into laughter, and a stocky man with sandy hair and a broad smile appeared next to her. "That does seem an apt description of my cousin," he said gesturing toward Mr. Darcy, who had also joined the conversation. "He hates notoriety with a passion. He believes himself above it, you see."

Lizzy looked between the Darcys, waiting for an introduction to whom she guessed was Colonel Fitzwilliam. Finally, Mr. Darcy spoke, "Miss Elizabeth, may I present my cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam."

"'Tis a pleasure to meet you, Sir," Lizzy said with a curtsey.

"The pleasure is all mine, Miss Elizabeth," the Colonel replied jovially, bowing. "I have heard extensively of your beauty, intelligence, and wit these past weeks, and I can see now that my cousin was not exaggerating."

Lizzy felt her cheeks heat at his compliment and despised the shyness that came over her. She stung with uncharacteristic embarrassment that the Colonel should compliment her so in front of his cousin, who was undoubtedly recalling the moment when he expressed a contrary opinion.

Then, to her surprise, the Colonel asked, "Would you honor me with the next dance?"

"Perhaps Miss Elizabeth would like to visit with Georgiana for a while before you occupy her time," said Mr. Darcy. His sonorous voice felt so serious that she could only bear to look at him but a moment before looking away.

"Of course," said the Colonel, unfazed by Mr. Darcy's reprimand. "Whatever Miss Elizabeth and Georgiana prefer, but, Miss Elizabeth, you must promise me your next available dance."

"Of course," Lizzy said with a smile that she hoped belied her discomfiture. "Georgiana, I should like to introduce my sister Jane and my dear friend Charlotte."

Georgiana felt relieved upon meeting Lizzy's sister and friend for they were kind and genuine, and they made an effort to include her in their dry musings about the party and the company. She could not recall a time when she truly felt herself to be fifteen. Her old companion Mrs. Younge always made her feel like she was too immature to discern aught for herself, and the past months had made her feel like she was much older than she was. She was afraid to err in any way these days, and her hopes for the future seemed to dwindle.

The evening thus far, however, had been splendid, and Lizzy's friends and family were far more welcoming and less intimidating than the company she and her brother kept in London. Even after Lizzy joined Richard to dance, Georgiana felt quite peaceable left in the company of Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas.

"Lizzy will be the talk of the neighborhood after tonight!" Charlotte cried. "First, Mr. Darcy singles her out, and now Colonel Fitzwilliam does."

Jane laughed, "Don't remind her! Lizzy cannot abide all of Mama's talk about her marrying."

"My brother singled her out?" Georgiana asked.

Miss Lucas' face fell slightly, and Georgiana feared that she had misunderstood the intent of the question. "I am only teasing, Miss Darcy. He did not precisely single her out, but she is the only lady whom he has danced with outside of his own party. It was quite the talk in the village."

"Lizzy, as expected, ignored it all. For she wants naught to do with the careless gossip of our mothers," Jane added.

Georgiana smiled at them, but her attention soon drifted to her brother who was standing on the opposite side of the room, watching the dancers intently. His expression was reminiscent of that which he wore when he was attempting to be stern. She watched closely as her brother approached Lizzy and Richard when their dance was finished and spoke to them but a moment before guiding Lizzy back to the dancefloor.

Richard returned to Georgiana's side. "How has your conversation with the ladies been, Georgie? Better that speaking with your curmudgeonly old brother and me I would presume."

She smiled at him. "Most certainly, but that is not to say that I am sorry that you are here."

He turned his face back toward the dancers and spoke with mock gravity. "I do not like this newly-found cheek of yours. I fear your Miss Elizabeth is a bad influence on you."

"'Tis ironic, is it not, Richard, that you are suggesting that I learned to tease from anyone that is not you."

He laughed, and she followed his gaze to watch Fitzwilliam dance. She had never seen him dance before, and she would not have expected him to move with such gaiety. He was speaking with more enthusiasm than she would have expected of him, though perhaps his enthusiasm was only visible to her. No one could accuse her brother of being particularly emotive.

She was going to remark on Fitzwilliam's surprising dancing abilities, but Richard spoke first. "They make a handsome pair. Do they not?"

Georgiana watched as Lizzy turned around to face her brother with bright eyes and a teasing, half smile, and she felt compelled to agree. "Yes. They are indeed."

Lizzy bowed her head as Mr. Darcy escorted her to the dance floor. "Sir, you should not feel obligated to dance. I am much obliged, but you need not do it, especially when I know it is not to your liking."

"I do not believe I have ever said that I do not like dancing," he said with a nearly imperceptible smile that was becoming familiar to her.

"You did not need to say anything. It is obvious from your aversion. I assure you the matrons of the neighborhood are keenly aware of your preferences for dancing."

"Yes, they always are," he said dryly, prompting her laughter. "Perhaps, my aversion is not due to the activity but the company."

She ignored the skip of her heart at his words and was grateful that the dance separated them for a moment.

"I must say, Sir. I am rather impressed that you managed to conspire with Georgiana and my family to surprise me. I did not take you for a gentleman who cared for such diversions."

"The idea was Georgiana's. My only duty was to remain reticent, which is—as you know—very difficult for me, being as gregarious as I am."

She laughed loudly before quickly composing herself, yet her gaze lingered on the twinkle in his eye. "Well, though I am pleased, I am rather unprepared for her visit. Will you all come to call tomorrow morning? I believe I should like to show Georgiana the wood near Longbourn before our cousin Mr. Collins arrives in the afternoon."

"I am certain my sister will be eager to join you. Her spirits are much improved in your presence, I think, and I must thank you for it."

"You need not thank me for enjoying myself. I find my evening is much improved by her presence. I only hope she is not too discomfited by the impertinent stares which you were subjected to upon your arrival in the neighborhood."

"I am impressed that she has dealt with it far better than I. I had feared her reaction to the attention." She noticed the note of concern in his voice.

"I doubt I am as surprised as you, Sir. I think Georgiana does not despise notoriety as you do. I only think that recent events may have affected her confidence. Regardless, I do think she is comporting herself admirably tonight."

"And, for that I am greatly relieved."

Lizzy tilted her head and regarded him with a critical eye. "Are you indeed, Sir? I would not have supposed you to be relieved given your sour countenance not a few minutes past."

He laughed, but Lizzy could not enjoy it when she noticed how many people were glancing at Mr. Darcy's rare public expression of humor. He appeared to realize this as well for he quickly cleared his throat and composed himself. His aloof mask was back in place once more when he spoke again. "I believe we have established that I have no idea what to do at a party such as this. I do apologize for my dark looks once again. They were not directed at you."

"I did not think so, Sir, for I have made this mistake enough times already," she smiled at him in a manner she hoped was reassuring.

He returned her smile, and they said nothing for a while. Every time their hands touched, she felt the heat of his palms infecting her whole body and shivered slightly. She decided the best manner of escaping these uncomfortable feelings would be to resort to teasing once again. "Have you been losing any chess games recently, Sir? I am aware that that is a pleasing pastime of yours."

He looked at her with bewilderment for a moment before one corner of his mouth tugged upward. "I do not have much occasion to lose games. I am often the victor. In fact, I defeated your father in a game when I visited Longbourn, and I have defeated your uncle several times."

She mustered her best skeptical look just as their set was ending, and he was escorting her off the floor. "I must admit that surprises me, Sir. You appeared to be quite adept at losing from my vantage point."

He narrowed his eyes but could not contain his smile. She felt that she now knew the man well enough to understand that he was not offended by her jests, and there came a queer sense of victory with every smile that she provoked.

"He's adept at losing what?" Colonel Fitzwilliam asked jovially, having heard the last of their conversation.

She looked to Mr. Darcy whose jaw clenched and debated whether or not to respond. "Chess," she finally decided to answer.

The Colonel said nothing but began to laugh. Georgiana appeared by his side. "Oh, Lizzy, you are such a wonderful dancer! It was so much fun watching you."

"Thank you! You are such a loyal friend so sing my praises after a mediocre performance. Your cousin is being gallant by not mentioning how I stepped on his foot. But, enough of watching! Go on and dance yourself!"

Georgiana regarded her brother and cousin nervously. "I am not yet out."

While loathe to make Georgiana uncomfortable, Lizzy did not want her to tread so carefully around her family. "Why do you not dance one set with your brother?" she suggested, looking at Mr. Darcy with a meaningful look. "'Tis only a small neighborhood gathering for friends, and there is no harm in dancing with your brother."

"Would you honor me with a dance, Sister?" Mr. Darcy asked, bowing formally.

Georgiana looked slightly bewildered, but after a moment of indecision, she took her brother's hand with a blush and let him lead her off the floor. She noticed Georgiana stand up straighter as she stepped on to the dance floor and felt a burst of sisterly pride watching her. Mr. Darcy turned back and made eye contact with her for a moment, and she could tell he was pleased. When she turned back to speak to the Colonel, he was watching her suspiciously.

"If you will excuse me, Colonel Fitzwilliam, I must go and check on my sister Mary." Not waiting for his response, she turned around and fled the room, suddenly filled with fear that the Colonel had discerned her unseemly affection for Mr. Darcy.

Darcy sat in the library, starring at the fire. He had almost consumed the last of his brandy but was strangely unwilling to take the last sip. Instead, he had spent the last quarter of an hour in the dark, reflecting on the events of the day.

In many ways, the day had been almost a dream. Georgiana was happier and more affectionate than she had been in months, and Elizabeth had been so open with him throughout the evening. She was bold and witty as always, yet she had also encouraged and guided Georgiana. Though he would have never suggested it himself, his dance with Georgiana had been unexpectedly joyful. It was Elizabeth and Georgiana together that truly made them a family.

It was only later, after they had returned to Netherfield, that his illusions shattered. Georgiana had come to him and thanked him for escorting her on a lovely evening before admitting that she did not want him to join her and Lizzy on their walk the next morning.

"I was disappointed to not spend as much time with Lizzy this evening because you had monopolized her time."

"Georgiana, I—"

"I dearly enjoyed spending time with you both, but there are some things I would like to discuss with Lizzy privately. I would prefer if we could go on a walk tomorrow by ourselves. Would you mind?"

He could not deny her anything and left her at the hall to her bedchamber while he stalked back to the library to ponder her words. He felt miserable that she might feel neglected or ill-used if he attempted to pursue Elizabeth as if she could ever be like all the other harpies who had destroyed Georgiana's trust by seeking his favor!

He finally drained his glass. God in heaven! He could not believe he was actually considering courting a woman—asking for her hand in marriage! It was absurd that the idea should be so incomprehensible when it had always been expected of him, but he had spent so much time running from any inclination of marriage. Now, it nearly felt like a betrayal of himself to consider a woman of insignificant lineage. Or, he realized that it only felt like a betrayal to himself when she was not around. When they were together, he felt that he could only imagine himself married if he was married to her. There was no way he could ignore it, especially when she made it easier for him and Georgiana to communicate.

He heard the door open and saw Richard entering the room with an expression that always accompanied one of the rare moments when his cousin was intending to be sincere. Richard sat down adjacent to him and poured them both another snifter of brandy.

His voice was low when he spoke. "I must say that when we received your first letter from Hertfordshire, I had suspected something. I was surprised, however, to see how far gone you truly were this evening."

"I do not know to what—"

"Do not play the fool with me. I know you better than I know my own brothers. You cannot hide from me."

Darcy said nothing.

"Do you love her?" Richard asked. His earnest stare was disconcerting.

He had, of course, asked himself this same question often over the past fortnight since her absence. Without her daily presence at Netherfield, he had questioned what he thought love was. He thought of the one time he had thought himself in love before as a mere boy of eighteen. The infatuation he had felt certainly seemed to reflect the lofty words of poets, but within mere weeks, it ended in disappointment, leaving him jaded to the idea of love or marriage. He was not a romantic by any means, but tonight he could not deny how differently he felt now nearly ten years later.

After a long silence, he answered, "Yes."

Darcy dropped his arms to his knees and put his head in his hands. His temples ached, and he could not tell if it was due to the brandy or his conflicting emotions.

"God, man! Why do you say that as if it pains you? This is marvelous."

"It pains me because it cannot be. Do you not see that?"

Richard pushed Darcy's shoulder to force his attention off the ground. "I see nothing of the sort!" he cried. "I have not seen you—or Georgiana for that matter—as happy as you were tonight in years! What in God's name is holding you back?"

Darcy did not want to answer.

"Tell me it is not because of her relatives in trade."

"No!" He exclaimed too quickly before sighing. "Perhaps, a little. Not truly. I respect and admire the Gardiners, but I cannot deny I have given some thought to her family's situation. The younger sisters and the mother are rather uncouth."

"I did not think you as lily-livered as that."

"I can manage the mother and the sisters. I am concerned about Georgiana."

Richard glared at him.

"I am being serious. Georgiana told me this evening when we returned that she would prefer if I would not spend any time with Elizabeth when we visit her. I believe that she would rather me not spend time with her and felt put-out during our dances. I also cannot risk marriage right now. It would bring to much attention to Georgiana if I made a controversial match. She would have to bear society's cruel and insipid remarks about my wife. The gossip would be insufferable for her."

"Come now! Georgiana only wants to have her moments to share confidences with her friend after their reunion. I am certain that if Georgiana could choose any sister in the world, she would be overjoyed to have Miss Elizabeth living with her and guiding her though her coming out! And if you think that society would dare say a thing against your marriage, you have clearly been listening far too much to our aunt's drivel. You are the wealthiest property owner in the North of England with a sterling reputation and connections to nobility on both sides of your family. No one would dare say a thing against you. Miss Elizabeth could be a tradesman daughter, and I'm sure that no one would speak a word against you as long as my parents did not."

Darcy's heart beat quicker as he contemplated Richard's words. He wondered if it would be possible. Perhaps after a few weeks, he could broach the subject with Georgiana.

"Would your parents support me?"

Richard placed an arm on his shoulder. "For your and Georgiana's happiness, I will guarantee it. In the meantime, I shall work on it."

Darcy gave him a wan smile. "I will consider it."

Richard nodded and stood up to leave. "Well, do not take too long. That lady is a gem, and if you and I could notice it, I'm sure that others will notice it as well. You do not want to be caught in competition with another suitor."