Elizabeth Bennet roamed the woods near Brambling Hall and came out upon the road that led to Pemberley. Although her sister had married Charles Bingley, a close friend of the master of Pemberley, she had never been a guest inside the great home. She wished and hoped to become one before long, as Charles Bingley had purchased Brambling House on Mr. Darcy’s recommendation.
Mr. Darcy was now a shadow of the man she had met at Netherfield all those months ago. His mother had taken to her rooms after the family’s great loss and Mr. Darcy appeared haggard from the constant travel from Pemberley to London and back again.
Before the death of his sister, Georgiana, Elizabeth found him to be a proud, reserved man, but he had walked with her once in the garden at Longbourn and asked her to dance during a party at Lucas Lodge.
He left Hertfordshire weeks after that party due to the untimely demise of his dear sister. Elizabeth had not seen him since, only his profile in a carriage or what she assumed to be him upon horseback riding as though the devil was behind him over the fields of Pemberley.
She paused at the rise of a hill overlooking the great house and sighed. When first they met, her mother had made a fuss over his ten thousand only to abuse him later for his proud manner, but Elizabeth could not have imagined the jewel that sat before her now. The house gleamed richly in the sun and the lake before it enchanted her.
Brambling House was divine, and her room there took her breath. Still, the whole of the house with all its splendor could not match Pemberley from without and she imagined certainly not from within.
She wore a mischievous smile and set her feet toward Pemberley. It was unlikely Mr. Darcy was home, for Jane told her the day before during tea he was in London. She was certain he was the reason Caroline Bingley had given to refuse a visit to Brambling House.
Elizabeth was pleased to know Miss Bingley preferred London to the countryside and hoped it would always remain so. With the woman’s vehement dislike of the Bennet sisters, Elizabeth doubted the woman would visit more than once or twice a year. Her life at Brambling House provided her with all she required, between the library and the varied woods and hills for her daily exploration.
Her mind wondered at the Lady Anne Darcy closed away in such a fine prison. Ghosts of her daughter must appear in every shadow of the evening, in the empty chair at the dining table, in the cup missing during tea.
Elizabeth could not imagine the sadness and quiet that must pervade the woman’s rooms. At their home in Hertfordshire, there was never a quiet moment, never an empty seat. Tragedy was unknown to her at the age of not quite twenty and one.
The surface of the lake before the house glittered in the late afternoon sun and Elizabeth wandered to its edge. She lifted her skirt, longing to cool her feet in the shallow waters. Glancing about and seeing no sign of life, she bent to remove her shoes.
The water was warm and the bottom of the lake as smooth as the surface. Lifting her skirts higher, she splashed the water with much satisfaction moving farther from the bank.
She twirled round, happy and carefree with a view of the great house meeting her at each graceful turn. Elizabeth stopped to regain her balance, her head spinning. One step and her foot became tangled in an unseen snag.
Elizabeth threw her arms out to steady herself but the motion pitched her to her side. She landed with a great splash, gasping and clutching at the water.
Though the day was warm, the water was cooler in the deeper reaches and the frigid water took her breath and weighted her skirts in moments.She sat shocked at her present state of being, mortified that she must return to Brambling House as a wayward child, soaked to her skin.
She attempted to pull herself from the watery seat; her face coloring as she struggled with her now heavy skirts. The shadow of the great house moved across the lake and she cursed her own folly. Thoughts of her failure to learn to ride came unbidden to her mind. A horse would be a welcome companion in her current predicament.
As Elizabeth struggled to escape the lake, a figure moved with haste and purpose inside Pemberley. Lady Anne shouted for help and no less than three maids and a footman came running with the butler. “There is a young lady in our lake! We must see that she is safely removed!”
Lady Anne shouted her warning and kept pace with the butler. He flung open the front door, aghast at the site before him. There was indeed a young woman in the lake determined to crawl on her hands and knees to escape the chill waters.
Lady Anne hurried behind her footman as the man dashed to Elizabeth’s aid. The butler caught Lady Anne up and stopped her before she entered the lake herself. “My Ladyship, you must not!”
Lady Anne turned to him, her face gone pale with worry.
Elizabeth was mortified as the footman fished her from the lake and helped her stand on the bank alongside Lady Anne and the butler. The maids had stopped at the door, their number growing as word spread throughout the great house of their visitor.
Lady Anne rushed to Elizabeth’s side. “My dear, are you well? How have you come to such calamity?”
Elizabeth gazed upon the lady’s face with awe and not a little shame. Her body shook from the chill of the water but her face remained a bright crimson.
Lady Anne took Elizabeth’s arm and led her past the curious butler and footman. “Come, dear. We must see to your clothing. I cannot abide for a young lady to come to harm at Pemberley.”
Elizabeth nodded and bit her bottom lip to stop the tears that threatened. She was grateful Mr. Darcy was absent for she was sure he would find her behavior most outrageous. His mother appeared not the least surprised at her trespassing and resulting quandary.
Elizabeth stopped to wring out her skirts before entering the grand house but Lady Anne urged her forward. “Have not a care, my dear. The maids shall draw a hot bath. I will await your return in the parlor.”
Lady Anne had her own maid take Elizabeth upstairs to the bedroom adorned with rose paper that reminded her of Elizabeth’s complexion. “See she is bathed and dressed in good order, Wells. You may search my closet for a lovely gown for the young lady.”
Elizabeth smiled at the graceful woman before her and murmured her thanks. She lowered her lashes in a bout of uncustomary shyness. The Lady Anne was a most handsome woman and Elizabeth imagined that Georgiana must have been as lovely as her mother.
A sharp pain at the memory of the woman’s recent loss took her breath as she recalled it but she followed behind the maid, eager to be warm and dry.
Elizabeth hoped Mr. Darcy would not be given the news of her unsettling adventure, for she was certain there had never been a young woman found floundering in their lake. She vowed to keep to the grounds of Brambling House in future excursions.
The maid led her up the stairs and Elizabeth admired the great paintings they passed in the hallway. A young lady with hair the color of Jane’s smiled down at her and Elizabeth was certain it must be Georgiana. The next was a lovely portrait of Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne with the girl in the first painting and an older gentleman who must have been George Darcy.
The affection in the portrait shone through the brush strokes and Elizabeth clutched at her heart as she hurried behind the maid. Mr. Darcy had been happy once, as had his mother. She ached for their losses.
The maid cleared her throat as she stopped before a door along the hallway. “This is the room her ladyship recommended, miss.”
She opened the door and Elizabeth entered, her eyes wandering from the lovely ornamental design of the fireplace mantel to the exquisite pale yellow silk that adorned the bed and then the soft blush rose pattern of the paper on the walls.
Wells opened an adjoining door and two maids from below stairs were pouring steaming water into the bath. Elizabeth went to stand by the fireplace as Wells approached her. “Shall I help you, miss?”
Elizabeth nodded and allowed the maid to help her undress. She gave Elizabeth a sheet and sent her ruined clothing downstairs with one of the younger maids. “I shall do as her ladyship bids and return with a gown from her closet. Betsy, here, will see to your bath.”
Wells left and Betsy beckoned Elizabeth forward. “Come miss, we cannot have you shivering as you are. Her ladyship would be most displeased to find you standing round in only a sheet.”
Elizabeth smiled at Betsy and stuck a toe into the gloriously warm water. Her favorite scent, lavender, greeted her as she sunk gratefully into the water. If heaven were on earth, Pemberley was certainly as close as she had come.
Not an hour later, Elizabeth followed Wells downstairs to the parlor. Her hair was swept up and secured with the loveliest pins Elizabeth had seen. They were a pale blue representation of roses that complemented the darling blue silk dress the maid had chosen for her.
She was surprised not by the style of the dress but by how well it fit her body. When Elizabeth thought for a moment, she supposed she and the Lady were of a similar form.
Her eye drawn below by the large round table in the entry which held a heavenly array of the most lovely blooms she had ever beheld, Elizabeth allowed her mind to wander. Glancing below from her vantage, she imagined there were guests waiting to meet her, the new mistress of Pemberley. She smiled as her steps became lighter in the lovely satin slippers upon her feet.
Her dreams of Mr. Darcy were never so bold as they had been once she had come to Brambling House. Being near to the man must have increased her longing for him and his fine handsome house. That she might one day call this wonderful house her home was a dream she held as a secret, even from Jane.
Elizabeth recalled the unfortunate business of the entailment of Longbourn and their cousin, William Collins. She was pleased to be far from the argument which would ensue should he choose one of her younger sisters as his bride. Their mother was most pleased with Jane and her match and hoped for Elizabeth to catch Mr. Darcy’s eye. But if she did not, Elizabeth was certain her mother would give her to Mr. Collins to marry. She shook thoughts of that situation away and allowed her eyes to feast on the beauty that was Pemberley.
The maid led her to the parlor and Elizabeth cleared her mind again of all the thoughts flitting about as birds in a cage, their wings weary of their prison.
She smiled and nodded to Lady Anne as she entered the room, keeping her eyes on the lady and not upon the furnishings, though tempting they were. Tea arrived and Elizabeth sat across from Lady Anne by the fireplace.
“My dear, you bring such graceful beauty to the dress. I have not worn it since I was your age I daresay.”
Elizabeth released the breath she held and gave one of her infectious smiles to the woman. “It is the loveliest dress I have ever worn. I am most grateful for your thoughtful hospitality, Lady Anne.” Elizabeth leaned forward in her chair as the lady took her hand.
“I am at a disadvantage I fear. You well know my identity and yet, I know you not. I have seen you walking the property of Brambling House where it joins Pemberley and hoped you might venture closer, but not into the lake, my dear! Your name, please?”
“Elizabeth Bennet, your ladyship, I am from Hertfordshire but live at Brambling House with my sister and brother, Jane and Charles Bingley.”
The woman nodded and her eyes became distant as though she had just remembered the name Bingley. “Why yes, he is a particular friend of my son William. How wonderful he has settled near Pemberley.”
“Speaking of Mr. Darcy, is he expected home soon?” Elizabeth asked as she took the cup the maid offered.
Lady Anne smiled weakly and Elizabeth feared the woman might weep at any moment. “He has gone to Town for business once more, I fear. This house once held precious memories but has become our grave.”
Elizabeth trembled, for the woman’s grief was palpable. Lady Anne placed her cup upon the small table between them with shaking hands and sighed a heartbreaking sound that caused Elizabeth to kneel before her and take her into her arms. She rocked the great woman gently and smoothed her hair.
Elizabeth understood the shadow Mr. Darcy had become. His sister lie beneath the cold ground and his mother lie above, her life taken as surely as Georgiana’s.
She stayed past tea time and helped Lady Anne to her rooms. She got her into bed and read to her until the woman called for her evening tea, given with laudanum no doubt. “Please stay Miss Bennet. I cannot bear another night alone. I shall have a footman return to Brambling House in your stead with an explanation for your sister.”
Elizabeth would not abandon the woman and so she nodded her consent and continued reading until Mr. Darcy’s mother fell into a deep sleep.
As the morning dawned, Elizabeth stretched in the chair beside Lady Anne’s bed. The book in her lap slid to the floor, and she bent to retrieve it. Her stomach rumbled, and she placed a hand there in apology as she rose and met the piercing blue eyes of her host.
“Miss Bennet, have you sat there the whole of the night? You ought to have left me and gone to your room and sought your slumber, dear.”
Elizabeth stared for a moment before she smiled at Lady Anne. “You were so kind and helpful yesterday. I wanted to repay your generosity.”
Elizabeth opened the book where she had left off but Lady Anne yawned and stretched in her bed. “I am famished this morning, dear. Would you break fast with me?”
Elizabeth nodded and rose to place the leather-bound book in her seat. “Shall I call for Wells?” she asked.
Lady Anne smiled at her, and Elizabeth rushed to her side. Plainly, the charm of the man she admired had come from his mother. “Would you mind helping me instead? Wells will enjoy a morning to herself and I find myself well pleased with your company.”
Elizabeth took her hand and helped her from the bed. “It will be my pleasure. Shall I ring for the bath?” Living at Longbourn, Elizabeth was accustomed to sharing the one maid with the ladies of her home, so Lady Anne’s request was quite normal to her.
Lady Anne nodded and Elizabeth arranged her morning ritual and sat her before the closets as they chose her outfit for the morning. For Elizabeth, it was a quiet, precious time. There was no screaming of her sisters, no chatter from her mother, and no rush of six ladies in the stirring of a house come the morning. Lady Anne chose a claret silk gown and Elizabeth undressed her for her bath.
“We shall be ready for the morning meal soon, my dear. You may wish to freshen up in your room and meet me here before we go down to the breakfast parlor together.”
She embraced Elizabeth before following the maid into the bath. Elizabeth made her way from Lady Anne’s rooms to her own, farther along the hallway. She thought she heard the faint sound of voices downstairs. In a house this grand, it must be the servants preparing the house for the day ahead.
The door to the her room was open and a maid tended the fire. Elizabeth’s eye fell upon another lovely gown on the bed. The pale pink satin was exquisite and tiny pearls decorated the neckline. She hastened to wash her face but waved the maid away, preferring to dress herself.
The maid left her and Elizabeth twirled around the room, her heart giddy at the opulence of just this one room, a guest room. Lady Anne’s room was cheerfully decorated in teals and yellow with plum accents here and there. When Elizabeth had thrown back the drapes, she had gasped at the beauty of the room. Her sadness at the beautiful woman sitting alone in the darkness in such splendor pierced her heart once more.
After a glance in the mirror, she hurried from her room and along the hall to meet Lady Anne. She did not wish to disappoint her generous host by being late. At the stairs, she glanced down to adjust her skirts and startled as a pair of large warm hands found her own. Her breath caught, and she stifled a scream.
“Miss Bennet, what are you doing at Pemberley?” Mr. Darcy’s deep, rich, voice and the touch of his hands sent a delicious thrill through her body. She faltered for words as Lady Anne approached.
“William, you have come home.”
She came and stood beside Elizabeth and gazed proudly at her son. Mr. Darcy took his mother’s hand and kissed it gently, the worry in his eyes plain.
“Yes, Mother. I finished my business in Town. I was unaware you were entertaining a guest.”
Lady Anne smiled and took Elizabeth’s arm in her own. “Come to the breakfast parlor and I will introduce you to the lovely Miss Bennet of Brambling House. She came to us in a predicament yesterday, she did.”
Lady Anne winked at Elizabeth and led her downstairs. Her heart was still racing at the unexpected meeting with Mr. Darcy. She felt his eyes upon the nape of her neck as they gained the breakfast parlor.
It was clear his mother was unaware of their acquaintance in Hertfordshire and Elizabeth did not find fault with the man for that slight. Their brief meetings would have proven forgettable at the loss of his dear sister, swallowed whole as he was by the consuming tide of grief.
Lady Anne waited while Mr. Darcy pulled out her chair as a footman helped Elizabeth to be seated. The twinkle in his mother’s eye had returned and Elizabeth noticed a color in her cheeks which had not been there the day before.
Having her remaining child home wrought a dramatic change in Lady Anne. Elizabeth suspected it was the only happiness the woman found within these lovely but lonely walls.
“Mother, Miss Bennet and I met in Hertfordshire before Charles married her sister. From my recollection of that time, she was quite capable in her wanderings. I cannot imagine she required rescue.”
Mr. Darcy glanced at her from his seat and Lady Anne spoke of Elizabeth’s disastrous arrival. “I was gazing from my window upstairs when I saw her descend the path from the top of the hill. I hoped she might be coming to tour the house but she stopped at the lake. I arose and crossed the room for my wrap with the hope I might go out and meet her.”
Elizabeth felt the bright stain which crept up her neck to settle in her cheeks. “I only wished to wet my feet. The water was welcoming after a long walk.”
Mr. Darcy smiled and bit his tongue. He recalled the mischievous nature of Elizabeth Bennet well. Lady Anne’s voice contained a hint of mirth Mr. Darcy found amazing after all this time.
“You might imagine my surprise when I returned to the window and saw her tumble into the lake. I raised a great noise and brought the servants from all corners of the house to save the dear girl.”
Mr. Darcy nodded his approval. “What good fortune, Miss Bennet, that mother happened to see you before your situation grew dire. I know not how we might explain the loss of a young lady to the depths of our treacherous lake.”
Elizabeth smiled warmly at Mr. Darcy. His jest did not trouble her heart in the least. She found his mother to be of a certain influence upon her own behavior. “Why Mr. Darcy I would have gotten free of the lake, I assure you. But your footman was brave and your mother insisted upon a most lavish recovery. I have never received such kindness.”
Lady Anne laughed aloud and looked to her son. “William, is she not the cleverest girl? Much more so than Miss Bingley. I wish to prevail upon Miss Bennet to stay at Pemberley with me for a time. Would you see her home to Brambling Hall and inform Charles Bingley of my wishes?”
Mr. Darcy smiled broadly. The tension in his shoulders eased and Elizabeth felt he might have breathed a sigh of relief at his mother’s words. The slight towards Miss Bingley amused her and she wondered what Lady Anne was about with such an aside in the conversation. Her memory of Miss Bingley certainly proved the woman’s words.
“Mr. Darcy has just returned home and I would not have him leave your side on my account, Lady Anne. I shall go to Brambling Hall myself and return. I would be pleased to visit with you here at Pemberley. It is a most generous invitation.”
Lady Anne sipped from her cup and thought over Elizabeth’s words. “At least we might send the footman along, just to be certain you come to no harm, my dear. I now know you are a capable wanderer but my mind would rest easier if he accompanied you.”
Mr. Darcy rose from his chair. “Nonsense. We shall not bother the footman to follow Miss Bennet to Brambling. I would fancy a walk with her and a visit with Charles and Jane, for I have not seen them since the wedding.”
Elizabeth attempted to hide her pleasure at his words and regulated her breathing as he approached her chair. She took the arm he offered, her hand finding it’s resting place naturally.
Lady Anne’s smile signaled her approval and she asked the footman to fetch Cook upstairs so they might plan a wonderful meal for Mr. Darcy’s homecoming.
“Miss Bennet, of course you must ask your sister and Mr. Bingley to come. We shall have a happy return for the master of Pemberley.”
Elizabeth stopped at Lady Anne’s chair and bent to receive the woman’s embrace. Her eyes were brighter this morning, the blue true and clear against her soft, pale complexion.
Elizabeth knew then she would spend as much time with the woman as she might. Perhaps one day she could entice her outside the walls of her elegant home and bring a bit of happiness to her life again.
Mr. Darcy swallowed the great knot in his throat at the tenderness Elizabeth Bennet displayed to his mother. He could not forget the hours Lady Anne had spent locked away in her rooms after the loss of Georgiana.
He led Elizabeth from the room and pulled her closer to his side. A change had come to Pemberley and he could feel the gray mantle of grief moving slowly aside. That a young lady from Hertfordshire could accomplish what he had not over the months formed a tenderness in his heart for her that had not been there before.
Elizabeth lowered her lashes to avoid glancing at the lake as Mr. Darcy led her up the hill and onto the lane towards Brambling Hall. The sunlight glanced brilliantly from its surface but Elizabeth was wary of it now. Mr. Darcy noticed her avoidance and struggled to maintain his composure.
Once they were away from Pemberley, he began a conversation and Elizabeth was surprised by the warmth of his voice. “I have not seen my mother leave her rooms in many months, Miss Bennet. I wish to make it known you have accomplished what I could not in all this time. I am most grateful.”
Elizabeth smiled up at him, her eyes sparkling at his compliment. “Your mother would not be denied, Mr. Darcy. I was eager to return home after such a display in the lake but she would not hear of it. Perhaps a matter of chance has made all the difference. As for my part, I could not have hoped for a happier ending.”
Mr. Darcy breathed deeply and sighed. “I wondered if you might come to live at Brambling Hall with Jane and Charles. I recall the fondness you hold for your sister. Do you long for Hertfordshire or Longbourn?”
Elizabeth considered his query and at last shook her head. “I am quite pleased with my place at Brambling as it keeps me close to Jane. I do miss my father, my friend Charlotte Lucas, and my particular paths through the countryside.”
Mr Darcy smiled. “You do not find the relative quiet of Brambling odd?”
Elizabeth laughed, a bright sound that caused a sharp ache in Mr. Darcy’s heart. The happy noise was one he missed dearly from years spent as the older brother to a much younger and livelier sister.
“I must say the arguments of my sisters and the nerves of my mother do not make me long for home. Derbyshire suits me in ways Hertfordshire no longer may.”
They approached the winding lane to Brambling Hall and Elizabeth increased her pace. Charles and Jane would be pleased to have Mr. Darcy’s company and certainly the invitation to dine at Pemberley. The butler welcomed them and saw them to the parlor.
“Mr. Bingley is out riding. Your sister will be pleased, Miss Bennet, with your return.”
Elizabeth nodded, wondering if Jane had become concerned with her absence the night before.
Jane stood as Elizabeth entered with Mr. Darcy. “What a lovely surprise, Lizzy! I thought Mr. Darcy was still in London. Charles would have delayed his ride had we known.”
Mr. Darcy took Jane’s hand and smiled. “I admit I ought to be in London, but Pemberley is much more appealing these days.”
He glanced to Elizabeth and Jane noted his interest. “I see. Lizzy left on her walk yesterday afternoon and imagine our surprise when a footman from Pemberley arrived much later with a message from your mother.”
Mr. Darcy laughed and sat with the sisters before revealing Elizabeth’s adventures at Pemberley. “It seems your sister found herself nearly up to her neck in our lake and my mother came to her rescue, a surprising and unlikely event. Mother has a fondness for your sister and wishes to have her visit Pemberley for a time.”
Jane took Elizabeth’s hand and frowned. “Lizzy, how could you? I am aware of your mischievous nature but the lake in front of Pemberley of all places? I am grateful Lady Anne acted as quickly as she did.”
Elizabeth smiled at Jane, her complexion growing rosier by the moment. “Dear Jane, you of all people understand my habits. I only meant to wade around the edge of the lake. It was never my intent to cause distress.”
Jane glanced to Mr. Darcy and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “Still, Lady Anne has come out of her rooms and that is wonderful news.”
Mr. Darcy agreed with Jane, his praise for Elizabeth’s accomplishment returning. “For that, I am most grateful to your sister. It has been a difficult time at Pemberley and I expect it shall continue to be so for some time but the reappearance of my mother gives me hope.”
Elizabeth shifted in her seat and glanced to Jane. They would speak later of the matter but she was not imagining the light in Mr. Darcy’s eyes. Jane had seen it too.
He recalled the invitation to dinner and offered it kindly. Jane sent for tea and declared she and Charles would be delighted to dine at Pemberley.
“We shall all go back together after Charles returns from his ride. Although he is a happily married man, he has missed your companionship Mr. Darcy.”
Charles Bingley entered the parlor then, his hair disheveled and the color in his face proving the morning had been fine for an early ride. “Darce, old man! Had I known you were home I would have sent word for you to join me.”
He strode to Jane’s side and took her hand, placing a gentle kiss upon it.
Elizabeth lowered her lashes and wondered how it was to be a married woman. To be the wife of a man as handsome as Mr. Darcy caused her heart to beat faster and she smiled as she imagined him being privy to her thoughts.
“Bingley, we shall ride another day. I have brought Miss Bennet home and would enjoy a tour of Brambling. Jane has accepted a dinner invitation for this evening from my mother.”
Charles glanced at Elizabeth, wondering at the mention of Lady Anne and dinner. “Your mother invited us for dinner? I would enjoy sitting down with Lady Anne once more as we have in days past. She is well, I hope.”
Mr. Darcy knew his friend was concerned. Lady Anne had welcomed Charles to Pemberley many times over the years and so he was aware of her consuming grief. “She appears quite well. I returned from London late last evening, after mother had gone to bed and did not disturb her. This morning I startled Miss Elizabeth in the upstairs hallway and then came mother out to meet her. We went to the breakfast parlor where mother told me of all the excitement I missed.”
Jane took Charles’s hand and nodded at him. “I shall tell you of it later dear, when we have left Pemberley this evening.”
Elizabeth spent the day with her sister in her room sorting a small trunk to take to Pemberley for her stay with Lady Anne while Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley lounged in the library. Elizabeth hoped Mr. Darcy might find himself returning to Derbyshire more often.