Elizabeth hurried to her rooms, her vision clouded by the tears she could not hold back. Memories of the halls of Rosings, Lady Catherine’s unrelenting disdain, Mr. Collins hands upon her person, his spittle on her face…it was all so horrible.
But Anne would face none of that, surely? She was the young mistress of the house and ought to be afforded a certain measure of respect.
She dried her eyes and dismissed the maid who sat tending the hearth. She wanted nothing more than to be alone in her misery. She loved Anne dearly. But she held a terribly dark foreboding of never seeing the young woman again. It made no sense. Anne had grown up at Rosings, safe from physical harm though under the cutting stares and dismissal of her mother.
But it was not Elizabeth’s choice. It was that of Anne de Bourgh, as it should be. Elizabeth sat before the fire and breathed deeply. Her emotions were as erratic as her stomach these days. Poor Anne must think she had gone mad. Elizabeth would go to her and make her apologies and help her ready for the trip to Rosings.
Mr. Darcy knocked lightly and entered, for he knew his young wife would be distraught at the departure of his cousin. They were like sisters, the two of them, and there was no doubt the pain Elizabeth would suffer as a carriage from Pemberley carried Anne away.
Elizabeth rushed into his arms, delighted for the comfort of his broad chest. William enveloped her within the circle of his strong arms and Elizabeth sighed with longing. They had come to know a deep abiding love and she stifled a giggle that rose in her throat to think of which night it was that she became the mother of his first child.
Mr. Darcy held a fond fascination for releasing her hair from its pins each night and Elizabeth had become addicted to his gentle touch. He sat her upon the bed and began his ritual.
He was slow and methodical and he spoke to her of his heart’s journey to hers.
“I did not plan to like, nor dislike you, my dearest Elizabeth. I found your conversation and amiable company to be refreshing in Hertfordshire, before I left. I did not think of us as man and wife until I returned home to find my mother drawn from the precipice by your mere presence. I knew what she saw that day was the same I’d seen many times before. A light, a beauty with wit and charm but also with love and mercy in her heart. I still wonder how I was the fortunate man whose lake you tumbled into at just the right moment.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and allowed a molten thrill to languidly spread through her limbs. The delicious knowledge of her incursion into his heart elevated her mood and she turned, pulling his head down until his lips met her own.
She whispered the words she longed to hide from him, the words, once spoken, would change their lives forever. She wanted to be the first to see the moment of realization in his eyes, the speechless way his lips would move, the tears of joy, and the sublime happiness they would share.
Instead, he bolted upright, his face a changing mask of surprise, worry, confusion, and sadness. Elizabeth followed him as he went to stand by the window, his arms before him as he struggled with his pain.
“I watched mother lose a child between myself and Georgie. I thought she might die. I was only a young lad but I saw that which I should not. I cannot have the same fate befall you, Elizabeth.”
She stood quietly behind him and placed a small hand upon his taut shoulder and rubbed gentle circles.
“I am not Lady Anne, William, and I shall not lose this child. I will go to London if it pleases you. I am young and healthy. Do not borrow trouble for us, please, I beg you. Our child shall come safely into this world. Tis the first duty of a mother.”
He turned then, the tears streaming down his face and gathered her tightly against him. She was all he had ever hoped to have in his life. A woman strong and soft enough to hold him. A woman with the sense and wit to make him see reality while taking the sting from it.
He took her gently to the bed and sat with her, his hand upon the small mound that held their child. There could never have been a greater present for Fitzwilliam Darcy and he leaned closer, his eyes lost in hers and kissed his wife tenderly, tentatively, all questions falling away as she pulled him closer.
A light knock upon her door and Elizabeth sighed. She took her husband’s face in hand and whispered sweet promises when they met again later in this room.
She left him and went to the door. Anne was standing in the hallwayld sat upon them.
Elizabeth quietly closed the door behind her and gathered her hair in her hands, self conscious for a moment before mumbling something about a nap. Anne brightened as she saw the dark mass of curls escape her friend’s hair and frame her face.
“Why Lizzy, you seem positively radiant. Is there a babe for my cousin?”
Elizabeth tried to conceal the truth but her mirth gave her away. “You must not tell your aunt, I am afraid for her to know so soon. Promise?”
Anne swore her pledge and the two found a bench in the quiet hallway. “Lizzy, I know my plans are not the ones you would have for me. But I promise, I shall write to you every day, especially now…” she said as she noticed Elizabeth’s middle, “I would not have you worried while you carry our newest family member.”
Elizabeth took Anne’s hand and held it warmly within her own. “There is little doubt I would prefer your presence at Pemberley, we have grown so close these months. But,” here Elizabeth became quite serious, “you must choose the path to follow and I must see you down that path. I was wrong to hurry away and cause you a moment’s worry. But yes, you must write to us. I will ride day and night for you should it come to that. Do not ever believe you are without my help.”
Anne hugged Elizabeth tightly, and kissed her cheek. “I promise. And I shall be back before our baby is born.”
She took Elizabeth’s hand and led her back down the hall to her own rooms. “You must see the evidence of my vow.”
Anne opened the door and smiled brightly as Elizabeth peeked inside. She threw up her hands and caught Anne in a little dance just inside the room.
The wedding dress awaited its bride in the rooms of Anne de Bourgh at Pemberley.
Elizabeth and Anne linked arms and walked the long hallway past Lady Anne’s sitting room. Anne halted and glanced through the open door. Her aunt was reading by the fireplace and so she and Elizabeth continued on their way.
“Shall we walk in the gardens this morning, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth nodded, her eyes bright from too many tears. “Fresh air will do wonders for us both, I think. And we can talk of your wedding.”
Anne smiled, a confident, happy smile that Elizabeth cherished upon her pale features. She furrowed a brow, worried her friend might lose all she had gained whilst at Pemberley but she refused to begin the discussion again. It was pain enough to think of Anne locked away at Rosings once more.
Once past the front doors, the two ladies slowed their pace and turned away from the lake, much to Elizabeth’s satisfaction. She still would not set foot near the treacherous banks.
“I do hope mother is only feeling poorly and my visit might cheer her. As much as she is wrongheaded and stubborn, I do so love her.”
Elizabeth loved Anne and would not hurt her for all the world. A gleam returned to her eye and she confided in her friend. “There is no greater tonic than the love of family, although lately, I have had quite enough.”
Anne laughed aloud and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “At times, there is as much rejoicing at their departure as at their arrival!”
“All save one,” Elizabeth replied and bit her bottom lip. She would never be happy to see Anne leave her side.
Anne pulled her along the garden paths, eager to dispel the thoughts of their parting. “Do you think the wedding should be held near Georgiana’s garden? I would love to feel her near to me as I pledge my love to Henry.”
Elizabeth smiled at Anne’s thoughtfulness. “I can only imagine such a gesture would please Lady Anne greatly. It is right we should recall Georgiana often and with much fondness, especially during a wedding.”
The two young women continued their walk, planning just where the wedding would be held. Elizabeth knew Lady Anne would keep her mind busy with the preparations. The time without Anne by her side would be busy.
* * * At Rosings, a missive arrived later that day whilst Lady Catherine ate dinner with her parson and his new wife, Charlotte Lucas. The timid woman was the perfect match for her toady parson. The fact she had once been friends with the Bennet chit who had taken Anne from her side was not to be forgotten, however.
The butler was loathe to interrupt the dinner proceedings but his instructions were clear. News from Pemberley was to be given the moment it arrived. He moved to the dining room and quietly cleared his throat, nodding to the letter in his hand.
Lady Catherine abruptly left her seat and snatched the paper from the embarrassed butler. Mr. and Mrs. Collins sat as though nothing were amiss.
Charlotte glanced at her husband, grateful for the protection of Lady Catherine’s dining room. News of her friend Elizabeth’s refusal to marry the man, and the gossip of all that had happened since, sat solidly at the back of her mind.
She held little doubt the rumors were true, but still, she was only hoping for a comfortable life when she put aside the scandal and accepted him. Feelings of affection for a husband were not the concern of a daughter approaching spinsterhood, as her mother had oft reminded her.
Her arms and back now bore the marks of a painful existence. Mr. Collins’s idea of affection was vastly different from what Charlotte had ever been led to believe or imagine. Surely his proclivities were foreign to many gentlemen?
She jumped in her seat as Lady Catherine yelled at the butler and dismissed herself from the dining room. She did not appear angry, rather taken by some odd excitement.
Mr. Collins began ordering the remaining footman about, happy to assert himself with his patroness out of earshot. “Come, then, have we another roast duck waiting in the kitchen?”
Charlotte smiled meekly as the footman’s face reddened and he hurried from the room. She dared not speak a word of warning nor advice to her husband. Though, if Lady Catherine became angered after the fact, she alone would bear the brunt of her husband’s displeasure. He would blame her for not cautioning him against his gluttony.
Lady Catherine paced in her parlor, her parson and his wife forgotten entirely. Anne was coming! She had not believed her plan might work. But the Viscount was accompanying her! There must be a way to dissuade him in his pursuit. She thought for but a moment before her mind settled upon the friend of her nephew. He had a sister in need of a match, a grasping, desperate woman with the scruples of an alley cat, or so she had been told.
She sat and hastily wrote a letter to be delivered to Hurst House in London. That Viscount Amestrey would be but a footnote in Anne’s life before she was done.
Pleased with herself, she called for her maid to ready Anne’s rooms for her return and went in search of her butler. The letter must be posted first thing come morning for her plan to unfurl perfectly. The Bingley woman must be a guest at Rosings before Anne arrived with her intended.
Smiling at her own cunning, Lady Catherine retired to her rooms and busied the upstairs maids with the arranging of her sickroom. It would be a terrible bore and bother to playact for Anne, but her aim was a worthy one.
* * * The remaining time before Anne de Bourgh’s departure for Rosings weighed heavily on Elizabeth Bennet. Her younger sisters vexed her daily about a dinner with two particular guests to be followed by an evening of entertainment in the parlor.
Mrs. Bennet scoffed at Elizabeth until she relented knowing she would have no peace until an agreement was made. She glanced to Jane and slid her eye to the parlor whilst their mother carried on with the younger girls over dresses and bonnets for the event.
Jane rose quietly and followed Elizabeth into the hallway.
“Is there nothing I could offer for the favor of relieving Pemberley of the burden of our family for a week?”
Jane laughed and hugged her sister. “I shall have them follow me home this afternoon, my dear. But only because I love you so.”
Elizabeth’s face brightened and she took Jane’s hands and hurried upstairs to the nursery. “We must visit young Bingley then, I shall miss him during our week apart.”
* * * A week later, Elizabeth tearfully made her farewell to Anne de Bourgh. “You must write to me, dearest Anne. I want you to know all that transpires at Pemberley, no matter how small or mundane.”
Anne swallowed her own tears at leaving the comfort and peace of Pemberley. She had come to know a different life with Lady Anne and the Darcys and she fought to hide her insecurity at returning to Rosings.
A young maid from Pemberley stood ready to accompany her at Lady Anne’s request and the weather was agreeable. She smiled at Elizabeth and forced her tone to be happier than she felt.
“I shall not forget our promise, Lizzy, for you know Rosings to be quite different from Pemberley. There shall be little to keep me from writing. I hope to keep the maid busy walking the grounds with me so that I may look to the sky and know it is the same above us now. I can imagine you walking here at Pemberley with Jane or Mary.”
Elizabeth nodded and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. She would not say more for fear she might ruin their parting with her sadness.
Lady Anne embraced her niece as Viscount Amestrey stood ready to help Anne into his carriage. He would see her safely home to Rosings and then return her to Pemberley to become his bride once her mother was well.
Anne’s sweet smile faded from view and Lady Anne took Elizabeth’s arm to lead her back inside. “We must focus on her wedding now, my dear. She shall return home in due time.”
Elizabeth knew Lady Anne’s words to be true and yet she could not shake the fear she held in her heart for Anne. Lady Catherine, whether ill or well, would not miss the opportunity to make Anne pay for her defection.
But Henry would stand beside Anne and the maid from Pemberley would be loyal to her appointed mistress. And if there came the hint of wrongdoing, she would hasten to Rosings for Anne herself.
* * * Only a day before, Caroline Bingley had left London, quite pleased to become the guest of Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Rosings in Kent.
She was unsure of why the Lady had invited her for a visit, she was said to be in poor health, but idling about in a home as impressive as Rosings Park might provide a measure of amusement and gossip to share when she returned home.