The night of the ball arrived and with it, the odious Mr. Collins. Elizabeth was introduced to the man by her father and she found his gaze upon her person unsettling. The man stared at her in a manner most disturbing.
She remained silent while he spoke, for it proved an easy task with the man chattering endlessly with much nonsense about Rosings and his patroness in Kent. Her mind wandered as his voice droned on and on. She must remove herself from his overbearing presence at once.
How her father had come to agree that she marry the man puzzled her still, save his explanation that day in his study pinning it to his unwillingness to refuse his wife’s wishes, but Elizabeth decided she would enjoy the ball and dance with the soldiers Lydia and Kitty persuaded to attend. There would be time come the morrow to make the man understand she was not to be his wife.
Elizabeth gave a small curtsy to her father and cousin before moving quickly away. To her consternation, Mr. Collins followed her doggedly about the ballroom. Elizabeth turned to him, ready to shatter his certainty regarding their situation. Before she might deliver her set down, Charlotte Lucas appeared and Elizabeth smiled warmly at her friend. She was forced to introduce Mr. Collins and he turned from her to stand quite close to Miss Lucas.
Charlotte seemed pleased at his attention, easily engaging in pleasant conversation with the man and Elizabeth recoiled in disgust. He was no more a suitable match for her friend than herself, but Charlotte was as yet unmarried and did not share the conviction to marry for love.
Charlotte curtsied to Mr. Collins as a young soldier asked her to dance. Thankfully, her cousin’s eyes remained upon Charlotte as she was led away to her place on the floor for the next set.
Elizabeth seized her chance to wander away through the French doors for a breath of air when her cousin’s hand found hers. Blasted man! Would she spend the entirety of the evening in his presence?
His company was most unwelcome, and his words doubly so. “Come, walk with me in the gardens dear, sweet Elizabeth.”
She shuddered at his intimate use of her name and resisted his efforts. He paid no heed, easily dragging her down the stone steps and out into the shadowy grounds of Netherfield.
“Mr. Collins, I believe you misunderstand what has happened since you were last at Longbourn.”
He held up a hand to quiet her. “I am aware of your fit of temper, my dear, but it worries me not.”
He led her through the gardens as though he had a destination in mind. Soon they were standing before a carriage and Elizabeth attempted to release herself from the heavy grasp of his hand. “I must return to the ball. Jane will be worried.”
Mr. Collins laughed heartily. “She will not be concerned. Your mother and father have likely told her of your fate by now.”
Elizabeth ought to have run, his manner and the way he dragged her through the garden to the carriage should have alerted her to his coming assault on her person.
Mr. Collins placed a hand over her mouth and wrapped a strong arm about her before she could defend herself. With the help of the footman, he threw her inside the carriage and when she began to scream, he delivered a clout to her head that sent her reeling. The inside of the carriage tilted in her vision and she grasped at the bench before darkness took her.
And so it was, some hours later, Elizabeth Bennet came round with a terrible headache, her body aching upon the floor of the carriage. The night air chilled her and she trembled. Mr. Collins pulled her up to sit beside him, his face a mask of indifference.
“Take this handkerchief and clean your face. I will not have people imagining I have kidnapped a poor girl from her home in the middle of the night.”
Elizabeth glared at him, her anger rising. “But that is just what you have done!”
Mr. Collins raised his hand again and Elizabeth hurried into a corner of the carriage. Her parents had given her to a cruel man in a most shocking manner. She bit back the furious tears burning in her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat.
She would bide her time and find a way to escape him. Wandering alone at night along the roads frightened her a good bit but not as much as continuing with this wicked man.
Jane searched the ballroom and the terrace for her sister several times, growing more fearful with each pass. She sought her mother and asked after Elizabeth.
Mrs. Bennet smiled and turned her attention from Lydia and Kitty and their dance partners. “Lizzy left some time ago with Mr. Collins. I believe they are on the road to Hunsford now.”
Jane stared angrily at her mother and stomped a foot. “Elizabeth held no desire to marry the man. Why would she leave with him without a farewell to anyone?”
Mrs. Bennet shrugged her shoulders and turned to speak to the lady seated next to her. Jane hurried across the room to Mr. Bennet. His story was the same. Lizzy had accepted her cousin’s proposal and gone to Hunsford with him. Jane knew it to be a lie and searched the room for Charles.
She took his arm and pulled him gently away from a small group of men. “Lizzy is gone and my parents have conspired with Mr. Collins to remove her from Hertfordshire.”
Charles Bingley held Jane in his embrace. “I saw Lizzy leave with him, she did not seem to be under duress. Surely you may write to her and have an answer in a week’s time.”
It was then the ball ended abruptly. Mr. Bennet fell from his chair clutching at his shirt front. Mr. Bingley cleared the room while the apothecary from Meryton tended the ailing man.
A wall of soldiers formed a line to lend privacy and Jane led her sisters to the terrace with their mother. Mrs. Bennet wailed and complained while Lydia and Kitty cried as though they were disconsolate children. Mary was the only one to remain calm in the ensuing madness, much to Jane’s relief.
The carriage stopped before an inn and Elizabeth moved to the door, eager to escape the deplorable company of her cousin. He caught her hand and pushed her roughly back against the bench. “You will wait here, young lady. We are only changing horses and I would advise against any display that would displease me.”
Elizabeth held back the tears and the angry words burning in her throat. There was little time to indulge in piteous thoughts as her escape would require all her effort and concentration.
She moved carefully about the inside of the carriage after Mr. Collins stepped down, intent on the inn and his plan. Elizabeth glanced out the window finding the driver and footman busy with the horses. She crept slowly to the other side of the carriage and eased the door open.
Because of her years spent wandering the fields and wood around Longbourn, she was able to jump lightly from the carriage and ease her way to the back end of the conveyance.
She glanced about and listened for the voices of the men complicit in her abduction, but they continued with the horses. She spied a shed beside the inn and decided to use it as a hiding place before rushing into the woods beyond.
Elizabeth waited until another carriage passed in front of the inn and set out at a brisk pace with her head down, her heart pounding in her ears. She hurried along and was nearly beside the shed when strong arms caught her from behind.
Mr. Collins had seen her from a window and hurried out to halt her progress. His fingers dug into her arms as he turned her around. His face was red with the effort and Elizabeth stomped his foot.
He pulled her along to the shed and glancing about, dragged her behind the building and into the shadows. He brought his face within inches of her own and hissed menacingly. “Did I not instruct you to remain in the carriage?”
Elizabeth cringed as the spittle from his lips landed upon her face. He loosened his grip for a moment and she bolted away, running blindly for the woods behind the inn.
Moments later, she was caught by the footman and dragged back to the carriage. She saw Mr. Collins speaking with the innkeeper and began shouting for assistance. The footman warned her to cease her ranting and struggled to place her inside the carriage. Mr. Collins nodded to the innkeeper who appeared most sorry for the good man’s troubles. Her cousin’s bold lie drifted across the yard of the inn and Elizabeth buried her face in her hands.
“She is not well, you see. My poor sister could not provide for her nor keep her at home any longer. I am taking her to live with me, for my dear wife has said we must care for her.”
Elizabeth sobbed bitter tears as Mr. Collins strode back to the carriage, his face tight but his pace even as the innkeeper remained at the door of his establishment.
Mr. Collins climbed into the carriage and seated himself with not a glance spared in Elizabeth’s direction. He held his arm out the window and waved to the innkeeper, his ruse intact and Elizabeth’s hopes of escape cruelly dashed.
She was safe while they remained in sight of the inn, but once the carriage was back upon the road her cousin’s abuse began anew. His anger terrified Elizabeth and she huddled as far from him as the small space allowed. Her father and mother could not have known the horrid man he was, for they would not have allowed him a moment alone with her if they had.
Elizabeth clung to the thought and prayed she might send a letter to Jane begging for her assistance before Mr. Collins forced her hand in marriage.
Her mind wandered to thoughts of Mr. Darcy and his mother. Jane would surely send word of her situation once the truth was known. Her only hope lay with her sister and in the memories of her happiness at Brambling Hall and Pemberley.
As the carriage hurried along further and further from Longbourn, Elizabeth found comfort in her recollection of her walk in the garden with Mr. Darcy and his mother. Her life had seemed perfect only a few short days ago. How could she accept her cruel cousin and the horrible life she would lead with such a man?
She decided she would not cease her efforts at escape. Not while there was breath left in her body. Should Jane be successful in sending for Mr. Darcy and his mother, they would mount an attempt to free her from the horrid man. But she must not wait upon them and readily endure the vile presence of William Collins.
Their next stop was his cottage in Hunsford where he led her upstairs to remove the dust of the road from her dress and wash her face. “We shall go directly to meet Lady Catherine. You must not appear as a poor girl from the streets of Town.”
Elizabeth was terrified he might follow her into the small room but he merely stood outside the door, closing it behind her as she entered. She glanced about the sparsely furnished room and hurried to a small writing desk in the corner, hope returning to her eyes as she saw the means to make a letter to Jane.
She wrote swiftly and hurried to do as her cousin asked. His footsteps pacing the hallway just outside the door left her trembling with fear. There was no one to stop him entering and placing his hands upon her. Elizabeth eyed the pitcher by the basin marking it as a weapon did her situation come to that.
Moments later, with the letter tucked safely into her pocket, she opened the door and cast her eyes to the floor. Mr. Collins inspected her from head to toe and sent her downstairs to sit with Cook whilst he made himself ready to visit Rosings. “Do not attempt escape, my dear. The footman stands at one door and the driver at the other.”
Elizabeth simply nodded although her temper demanded she strike him and take her chances with the men at the doors. Instead, she walked slowly down the stairs and turned at the sound of footsteps approaching. “You must be the parson’s betrothed. I am Mrs. Watts, the Cook for Mr. Collins. Come with me and I shall feed you, miss.”
Elizabeth followed the woman, wondering at her kindness. Her cousin must not have shared his plans to kidnap her from her home with his Cook.
She took the pie the woman offered and ate ravenously. Her fear and her cousin’s disregard had kept her from eating on the horrible trip to Kent and she was grateful to the woman.
“We are off to Rosings in but a moment, I fear,” she said as Cook took her empty plate. “I wondered if you might post this letter for me. My dearest friend is away visiting relatives and I was unable to write her before we left Hertfordshire.”
Cook took her letter and placed it on a small table by the back door with several others. “I must go into the village myself on the morrow. It shall be no bother, miss.”
Elizabeth smiled and thanked the woman for her kindness. She startled in her chair as the sound of her cousin’s heavy foot upon the stairs darkened her small reprieve.
Jane received a hastily written missive from Hunsford several days after Elizabeth had been taken from Netherfield. Her hands shook as she opened the letter and stepped away from her father’s bedside.
He had been at Netherfield in a guest room since the night of the ball. His heart was still weak but the doctor from London had said he would recover in time. Jane doubted her father would be the man he was before that night, but she dared not share such sentiment with her mother.
Mrs. Bennet was quartered in the room next to her husband as her nerves required the attention of Mr. Jones, the apothecary. Between the arguments of her younger sisters and Mary’s incessant attention to the pianoforte in the parlor, Jane could find no quarter save the gardens. She longed to return to Brambling Hall and a peaceful life far from her family.
She hurried down the hallway with Elizabeth’s letter and out onto a terrace that overlooked the garden. She breathed deeply and steadied her hands as she glanced to her sister’s hand upon the page.
I must not be caught writing to you but there is much to tell. Mr. Collins has taken me against my will from Hertfordshire to Hunsford. I am to stay at Rosings Park until the day we are married.
I have attempted escape since the night he forced me into his conveyance and I shall continue these efforts until there is no other choice left to me.
I beg you to alert Mr. Darcy and his mother of this situation in hopes they might intervene on my behalf.
I hope this letter finds you before my fate is decided. I am certain mother and father could not have known the low character of Mr. Collins and of his abusive nature, for they would not have been complicit in this cruel plot.
Jane held the letter close to her heart as anger rose in her breast. She had known her sister would not go willingly with their cousin! There was nothing her parents might do now to save Elizabeth but surely Mr. Darcy might. She hurried to the library with the hope she might find her husband there.
Charles Bingley glanced up from his correspondence as Jane entered the library, the bright stain upon her cheeks causing him immediate concern.
He rose and met her as she crossed the room. “My dear, what has happened? Is it your father?”
Jane breathed deeply and held out the letter from Elizabeth. Her hand shook so that Bingley escorted her to the sofa and took the letter, placing it upon the table and holding her hands in his own until the trembling ceased.
“Oh Charles, you must read it now and send for Mr. Darcy!” Jane cried as her husband made soothing noises and held her closer.
“Come now, Jane. What has put you into such a state? I shall read the letter. It is not good for you to become so upset.”
Jane breathed deeply and nodded at her husband. His concern for her had grown since the night of the ball and Elizabeth’s disappearance.
Mr. Bingley retrieved the letter as he felt the tension leave Jane’s body. The business with her father and mother had put an added strain upon her and he would see they spent the evening without interruption from her sisters and mother.
Jane sat, her hands twisting slowly in the folds of her skirts while her husband read Elizabeth’s letter. Mr. Darcy would come, she was sure of it and they must send for him today. Charles stood and paced before her, his eyes returning again and again to the terrible news on the paper in his hands.
“Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne will not be pleased to know of this, of that I can assure you. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Lady Anne’s sister, did you know?”
Jane covered her mouth with one hand, her eyes gone wide. The Darcys would surely intervene. Her voice shook as she stared at her husband. “We must send word to Mr. Darcy today. There is little time to waste. It has been a week since she disappeared and Mr. Collins will force my sister to wed as soon as he is able. You see she has sworn to escape her situation. I would go to her Charles, for I cannot remain here while she is held against her will.”
Mr. Bingley sat again on the sofa beside Jane and took her hand. “I will send an express in a few moments, I give you my word. But my dearest, you shall not travel to Kent in such a state. You must trust in Darcy and Lady Anne, for they do care for Lizzy.”
Jane breathed deeply and tried to make sense of her husband’s words. The world spun around her and she sobbed as the light faded before her eyes.
Mr. Darcy raised his head at the abrupt entrance of his mother to the library. She issued orders to the butler to have their carriage brought round and sent for her maid.
“William, we must leave within the hour for Kent. Miss Elizabeth is in need of our assistance and we cannot fail her. My sister has made a terrible mistake and I will not allow it to stand.”
Mr. Darcy was out of the seat behind his desk at the mention of Elizabeth Bennet’s name. “Mother, what can you mean? What has Miss Bennet to do with Aunt Catherine and Kent?”
Lady Anne handed her son the express from Netherfield and turned as her maid entered the room. “Wells, go now and pack a few things for we must leave for Kent. Have a bag packed for my son as well. Do not fail me, I must be away before the hour has passed.”
Wells hurried from the room, a curt nod the only motion wasted in acknowledgment of her mistresses’s demands.
Lady Anne handed her son the letter from Netherfield without another work. Mr. Darcy read the words of his friend, His anger burning brightly in his eyes as he turned to his mother.
“Miss Elizabeth was not promised to her cousin. I forgot my composure once and asked her that very question. She assured me she was not promised to any man. With Mrs. Bingley’s word that she was taken and is being held against her will, I know it to be true.”
Lady Anne took her son’s hand and hurried to the waiting carriage outside Darcy House.
He helped his mother into the carriage, his mind racing with worry. “Mother, I should ride at once as I would cover the distance much faster upon my own horse.”
Lady Anne Darcy shook her head emphatically. “Miss Elizabeth shall be safe at least for another week, my sister is much too frugal to seek a special license for her parson to wed before the banns are read. Besides, I would not wait here when the young lady who rescued me from my exile requires my assistance.”
Mr. Darcy hoped his mother was correct. Lady Catherine de Bourgh would never be so wasteful, he was certain. And her sense of propriety would demand Elizabeth Bennet remain at Rosings before the wedding to quell gossip among the villagers.
Still, his anger at the Bennets and Mr. Collins left him eager to dash away at once for Kent. He would not allow his mother to travel alone and he knew she would not wait at Darcy House. Resigned to the facts, he rapped his knuckles impatiently against the roof of the carriage.
Elizabeth sat in the shadowy room at Rosings and stared at the window before her. If she were able to ease her way to the window while the maid dozed by the door, and lift it quietly, she might find a way down into the garden below. Evening had come and the darkness would shield her as she made her way through the woods and away from Kent.
She hoped her letter had found Jane, and she believed it might have done if Cook had been faithful. Elizabeth’s heart fell as she had little reason, aside from the woman’s kindness, to think it possible.
The maid had sat with her since her arrival at Rosings to prevent any attempts at escape. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was her cousin’s patroness, and the mistress of this great estate. She had become quite angry when Elizabeth pulled free of her cousin’s grasp and ran from the entry the night of their first meeting.
“Collins, what sort of young lady have you brought before me? I have never encountered such behavior. I am not at all certain you have chosen wisely. She could not have had a governess with such poor comportment.”
Mr. Collins glanced over his shoulder at the great lady and bowed quickly. He turned away as Elizabeth screamed at the footman and driver. The men had easily caught her before she might set foot upon the road.
“Your ladyship, of course you are quite right about my cousin. She must learn her place in the few weeks before we are to wed. I hoped you might be of some assistance as your daughter is a perfect example of womanhood my cousin would do well to emulate.”
Lady Catherine eyed Elizabeth Bennet as the driver and footman led her back inside. “Young lady, you do a great disservice to your parents with such an outlandish display. You will be confined upstairs until you come to understand your situation.”
Lady Catherine called for a maid and sent her along with the footman to see her strange visitor to the room that would become her prison.
Balling her fists at the memory, Elizabeth glanced again to the maid by the door and crept silently to the window. She felt for the chains on either side of the sash and pulled gently, hoping the noise would not awaken the maid.
A breeze pushed against her skirts as the sash rose and Elizabeth felt a thrill in her heart. Freedom was moments away and she must hurry. She ducked her head and gathered her skirts before stepping over the sill.
The door to her room swung open and she froze in place, tears flooding her vision as the maid leapt from her chair and advanced across the room. Elizabeth scurried to pull her other leg over the sill but the maid caught hold of her skirts and pulled her roughly inside. She tumbled to the floor in a heap and the maid closed the window, muttering under her breath.
Anne de Bourgh hurried to Elizabeth and knelt on the floor beside her. She sent the maid from the room with a cross word and demanded she close the door. She turned her attention to the sobbing young woman beside her and spoke as she fished for a handkerchief in the pocket of her skirt. “My dear, what is your name and why would you risk falling from the window in the dark of night?”
Elizabeth took the handkerchief the young woman offered and turned her face away as she dried her eyes. “I am Elizabeth Bennet and I must leave this house. My cousin, William Collins, has taken me from my home and intends to marry me against my will.”
Anne gasped at this revelation and shook her head. “How have you come to be in this room under the watchful eye of that maid?”
Elizabeth stared at the young woman who was clearly not a servant. She must be related to the awful Lady Catherine de Bourgh. “Mr. Collins brought me here several nights ago, and the mistress of this house had me locked away here after I tried to escape upon making her acquaintance.”
Anne de Bourgh rose from her seat upon the floor and paced about the room. Her mother was cold and cruel, that was no secret, but to imprison a young woman at Rosings was beyond the pale. “Mr. Collins is my mother’s parson and he spoke of you during tea several weeks ago. He gave the impression of a man happily engaged and so my mother must have been quite shocked at your behavior.”
Elizabeth stood and dusted her skirts, her eyes returning to the window. An idea formed in her head and she approached the daughter of her captor. “You must help me escape. Surely you see I should not be here, not in this manner.”
Anne took Elizabeth’s hands and spoke softly. “The maid will have alerted my mother by now. I must go, but you cannot leave through that window. The fall might leave you injured, or worse, dead, and all will be for naught.”
Elizabeth pulled her hands free of the kind young woman’s grasp and hurried to the window. “I would rather be dead than married to such a horrible man. No one knows of his cruelty and meanness.”
The door burst open a second time and Lady Catherine rushed in with Mr. Collins on her heels. “See here, Collins, take her away from my home! I will not have her influencing my daughter with her horrid lies.”
Mr. Collins took hold of Elizabeth and hauled her toward the door, his eyes gone to slits in his angry, red face.
Anne de Bourgh beseeched her mother at the sight of Elizabeth being handled so roughly. “Mother, please. Let her stay with me. It would not do for her to be seen at the parson’s cottage before they are married. You must think of appearances.”
Lady Catherine eyed her daughter and halted her parson as he dragged Elizabeth into the hall. “I would rather we were done with her, but in a week’s time she will become Mrs. Collins. Miss Bennet, you will stay in my daughter’s sitting room and seek to behave as she instructs. Further attempts to disrupt my home will be met with measures you shall not find enjoyable.”
She turned to the maid and instructed her on the procurement of laudanum to be used upon their wayward guest should she be caught with even a foot outside Anne de Bourgh’s sitting room.
Elizabeth found her new prison to be well appointed with books and ample sunlight from the long windows set across the sitting room. The view from those windows pierced her heart and she ached for the freedom to flee across the grounds.
Mr. Collins weighed on her mind, but she was not made to endure his presence in the sitting room of Miss Anne de Bourgh. The maid was also absent, for the young mistress would not agree to her company and so she was left to her post outside the door.
Elizabeth was grateful for these small mercies and yet her mind wandered endlessly to avenues of escape. The days were passing swiftly and there was little time before her cousin would become her husband.
She glanced to Anne and admired the young woman’s dress, it was of the best material and the embroidery was of the finest hand. Elizabeth wondered at her generous spirit, so unlike her mother.
Anne glanced up and smiled at her new friend and placed her book upon the table. “I wonder, and you must not answer if you do not wish, whether there is another your heart is taken with Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth’s brow furrowed and she sensed a keener mind than she had just the evening before when first they met. “There is a man whose presence delights my heart, a mutual feeling I believe, but he is unaware of my situation. Had my cousin chosen one of my sisters as his wife, I might have remained in Derbyshire. His mother and I were at the beginning of a wonderful acquaintance before they left for London. ”
Anne rose, her mind busy with the answer her guest had given. She sat beside Elizabeth and considered her words. The door to the sitting room opened and the maid entered with their luncheon and sat it upon a small round table by the large windows and turned to address her young mistress. “Your mother is displeased with your insistence upon dining with Miss Bennet. She demands your presence at dinner this evening.”
Anne nodded to the maid in acknowledgment of her words and waved her away. “My mother scarcely speaks to me at dinner.”
She took Elizabeth’s hand and the two advanced to the table and sat, one gazing out the window and the other full of questions about the man from Derbyshire. “Let us share this meal, Miss Elizabeth, and speak of this man you have come to admire.”
Elizabeth turned her gaze from the window and smiled at the young woman before her. Once more she was struck by her graceful presence and accommodating manner. Where had she learned such hospitality and openness with a mother such as Lady Catherine? It must have been her governess or companion but still, would not the Mistress of Rosings demanded her daughter be as sharp-tongued as herself?
“I first met him in Hertfordshire a year ago when he came with his friend, the man who let Netherfield Park and later married my sister. He appeared to be a reserved man, uneasy amongst all save his friends. Our acquaintance was brief for he was called to Derbyshire for a most tragic reason.”
Anne dropped her fork and struggled to swallow her last bite. She sipped from her glass and regained her composure before speaking. “I cannot help but think of my aunt in Derbyshire as you speak, Miss Elizabeth. She suffered a great loss about the same time you say this man left Hertfordshire. Lady Anne Darcy and her son Fitzwilliam Darcy were devastated at the loss of my dear cousin, Georgiana Darcy.”
Here Anne stopped and placed her napkin over her mouth, sobs wracking her thin frame. Elizabeth rose from her seat and hurried to kneel beside the grieving young woman. “I am quite sorry to have brought the memory of her death into this room and into the heart of one so kind.”
Anne dried her tears and shook her head. “You could not have known of our connection, Miss Elizabeth. Lady Anne is so unlike my mother you would not think of them as sisters. Georgiana, rest her soul, was as close to me as if we were sisters. The last time I saw Georgie was at Easter last. I would have gone to Pemberley did I know how little time she would remain upon this earth.”
Elizabeth embraced the only friend left to her and fought the tears that gathered in her own eyes. She recalled her words of dying spoken so easily to this young woman in her self-pity only yesterday. She knew then, as now, that life was precious no matter the troubles one might face.
Anne dried her eyes and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “We must send word to my cousin and his mother this very moment for they will have to come from Pemberley.”
Elizabeth stood and returned to her seat. “The Darcys left for London before my sister and I left Derbyshire. Lady Anne assured me they would come to Netherfield before returning to Pemberley. Mr. Darcy did inquire as to any promise I may have with another. Do you believe he would have spoken so without reason?”
Anne’s happy laughter lifted Elizabeth’s spirits further and hope blossomed in her heart at the joy in the young woman’s face. “My dear, it can only be that Fitzwilliam has feelings for you. He is not a man of idle chatter and false adoration. My mother seems unaware of a terrible trouble that shall surely come to Rosings on your account. You must not worry, for you shall never be the wife of my mother’s parson.”
The Darcys rode for Kent with all haste. The hours passed in a slow march for Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne was most displeased with the entire situation, furious over her sister’s part in Miss Elizabeth’s kidnapping. This would be the last time they would meet, she promised herself with satisfaction.
Mr. Darcy’s mind was filled with thoughts of vengeance against the parson and his aunt. He had believed Miss Elizabeth’s words that day at Pemberley regarding her lack of promise to another. Her father’s letter had set this event into motion, he was certain of it, and Elizabeth had not known the trap that awaited her at Longbourn.
As they stopped at an inn to change horses, Mr. Darcy helped his mother from their conveyance and led her inside. They sat and Mr. Darcy glanced about deeming the establishment satisfactory. He wondered whether Collins had stopped here and decided he would inquire. “Mother, I will speak with the innkeeper to find whether Miss Elizabeth was brought this way. I can only think it so, for we are near unto Rosings now.”
Lady Anne nodded her agreement and worriedly worked a handkerchief in her lap. The idea of a man, whether betrothed or a suitor, absconding with Georgiana angered her deeply. She pushed the memory of one George Wickham from her mind before she might sink into despair. Miss Bennet was not her daughter, but the young woman was in need of a mother, one who might consider her prospects with a sharper eye.
Lady Anne knew Elizabeth’s family must have a reason for accepting the parson’s proposal but the manner in which she had been taken from her home was a pity.
She would not rest until she spoke with the young woman regarding her own thoughts and feelings on the matter. She would take her as her own daughter if it came to that. The Darcys of Pemberley could provide a more satisfying settlement than some parson aligned with her overbearing sister.
Mr. Darcy returned to the table, the expression upon his face much grimmer than before. Lady Anne waited for him to speak, though the patience required was a burden. “They were here. The innkeeper recalled them readily, for Mr. Collins told him Miss Elizabeth was mad and the man did not doubt his word.”
Lady Anne pounded her small fist upon the table. “Of course he did not. What protection has a young woman against the lies of men?”
Mr. Darcy was startled by his mother’s words. Indeed, Miss Elizabeth would have no power against the parson and his aunt save her own wits. His anger burned hotly and he pitied the foolish man for the fate he would soon suffer.
Lady Anne stood with her son’s assistance and beckoned him to hurry. “I cannot rest until we arrive to the front door of Rosings. My sister has no right to keep our friend captive in that mausoleum of a home. I have a mind to take Anne back to Pemberley with us.”
Elizabeth sat quietly in her friend’s sitting room as her eyes wandered over the pages of a book Anne had given her. An express had been sent to Darcy House in London after their luncheon and Elizabeth hoped Lady Catherine would not come to know of it. She did not like to think of Anne de Bourgh being punished for her caring nature.
Elizabeth slept in Anne’s bedroom now and she worried over how often the young woman cried out in her sleep. Although she appeared well each morning, Elizabeth wondered at the her pale skin and slight frame. Spending the mornings and afternoons together had taxed her more than Elizabeth would have imagined.
After she awakened, Elizabeth would inquire about the gardens of Rosings and whether the young woman walked in them from time to time.
She placed her book upon the table and wandered to the wide windows. The view through the many panes made Elizabeth’s heart ache for even a moment’s time outdoors. She had never been made to stay inside, even in inclement weather, and she fought to remain calm at the reality of her future.
The door to the sitting room opened and the maid entered holding the express her friend had arranged for the day before. Elizabeth’s heart sank as the woman placed it upon the table before her.
Lady Catherine entered the room then and dismissed the maid. “You are to be married this day, Miss Bennet. While my parson wished to marry you here with a fine turn out of his congregation, it shall not be. There will be a private ceremony this evening in the parlor.”
Lady Catherine turned to leave and Elizabeth’s hand went to the express. The woman spoke, her voice as cold as any winter wind Elizabeth had felt skitter down her spine. “As for my sister and her son, I can assure you they will not care for your fate. William is to be married to my Anne, not some pitiable country lass without a home.”
Elizabeth willed herself to remain still and avoid the cold stare of her captor. It would be of little benefit to anger her further. Lady Catherine turned and left the room, her parting words to the maid causing Elizabeth further worry. “Send my daughter to me when she awakens. Her judgment has been altered by our guest.”
She must find a way to escape her fate for there was little time left to her. The door to Anne’s bedroom opened cautiously and the young woman beckoned her inside. Elizabeth obeyed and Anne drew her into the room, closing the door gently and speaking in a whisper. “I shall get you free from Rosings, Miss Elizabeth, but where shall you go?”
Elizabeth wiped the tears of frustration from her eyes and thought for but a moment. “I would not have you know. I cannot bear to think of the censure you shall face from your mother on my behalf. You have been a loyal friend, Miss Anne.”
“You mustn’t worry for me, Miss Elizabeth. I would lie to them as easily as though I were an innocent child.”
“I must not, dear friend. Your assistance in my escape shall be crime enough in your mother’s eyes, I am certain.”
Elizabeth embraced the young woman and they sat together to plot her escape. Anne reached into her pocket and drew out a small purse that clinked as she placed it in her friend’s hand. “There is enough money there to allow you to travel with ease but you must stay out of the roads until you have left Hunsford. Is that possible?”
Elizabeth nodded, her delight with the plan complete. “I have walked many a mile on a whim, Miss Anne, have no fear on that account.”
Anne smiled and rose to cross the room. She opened a drawer in her writing desk and withdrew a small parcel. She returned to Elizabeth and placed the parcel upon the table, unwrapping it to reveal a wicked ivory-handled blade. “You must take this as I do not have a pistol to give you. It offers a bit of protection and I pray you shall not have cause for its use.”
Elizabeth took the knife and handled it carefully. Her surprise that the slight young woman before her owned such a thing was plain upon her face. Anne’s eyes twinkled in merriment as she took the knife and showed Elizabeth how to hide it in the folds of her skirt. “My cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, was thorough in his lessons of self defense.”
There was more to Miss Anne de Bourgh than she’d thought and Elizabeth was truly sorry their acquaintance had happened under such circumstances.
Anne nodded to the door of her bedroom that let out upon the hallway. “We shall escape through a passage in my father’s study that is seldom used. Come, we must go now.”
Elizabeth stood to follow her angel of mercy and whispered softly before they stepped into the hallway. “I shall never forget you, dearest Anne, and I would see you free from the shadow of this house were it in my power.”
At the sound of the door’s hinges, the maid turned her head and left the chair by the sitting room door. “Your mother has left strict instruction. Miss Bennet is not to leave your rooms. And you must go to your mother at once.”
Anne eyed the maid with disdain and took Elizabeth’s hand. “We are eager to sit in my father’s study and read. You will take us there and stay with us.”
The maid began to disagree but Anne strode down the hallway with Elizabeth hurrying along in her wake. The maid caught them up and mumbled under her breath about the women of Rosings Park. Anne smiled sweetly and winked at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth sat in the study with Anne and the maid, her eyes wandering to the clock upon the mantel. Nearly half an hour gone by, and she had become a bundle of nerves awaiting the time when she would make her escape.
Anne cleared her throat quietly and Elizabeth glanced her way. She inclined her head slightly towards the maid and stood, a finger to her lips.
Elizabeth was delighted to find the maid had nodded off in the warmth and quiet of the room. Their plan must work the first try or the woman would surely send for Lady Catherine.
Anne led her slowly across the room and behind an ornate bookcase that was taller than both of them. She pushed lightly upon a paneled section of the wall and it swung gently open.
Elizabeth shivered as a gust of cold air greeted them and Anne removed her wrap, placing it with care around her friend’s shoulders. She turned and took a candle from a table behind them. “Take this and go slowly, the stairs are steep. You will come out near the stable. The door will not open from the outside so you must be certain before you step into the open. Follow the footpath that runs behind Rosings to the north. You will arrive in Hunsford through the woods and must be on a post-chaise before my mother and Mr. Collins discover our plot.”
Elizabeth embraced Anne de Bourgh and held the candle aloft as she stepped into the inky darkness, her heart racing from the hope and fear surrounding her task.
Moments later, Elizabeth stood as still as any statue in the garden beyond, a lovely breeze bracing her as she glanced carefully about. Voices carried from the stable, but she was alone in the shadow cast by the great house. Slipping quietly from the door, she eased it shut and kept her back against the wall.
Giving one last sweeping glance to her surroundings, she lifted her skirts and ran for the far side of the stable. Once protected from sight of the house, Elizabeth hastened to the woods without pause. If she could reach the shelter of the forest, she was certain it would only be a matter of days until she arrived at Brambling Hall. Her cousin would assume she had returned to Hertfordshire, but with the money provided by Anne de Bourgh she would be safely home in Derbyshire.
The Darcy carriage arrived in Hunsford as Elizabeth hurried through the woods nearby. Lady Anne Darcy took the hand her son offered and attempted to quell her anger. They would see Miss Elizabeth soon and put an end to the parson’s plot. “William, I have decided that we shall speak with Miss Elizabeth’s parents once we have settled this business with my sister. There is no offer the parson may make that we cannot exceed.”
Mr. Darcy nodded, relief at his mother’s words flooding his mind. He believed Miss Elizabeth’s second entrance into his life was more than a matter of chance. Besides the benefit of having his mother whole again, he would not be forced into a loveless marriage with his cousin Anne de Bourgh. He adored her, but the idea of a marriage between them had never appealed to him.
“I can only hope we have not arrived too late to intervene,” he said as the carriage passed quickly through Hunsford, bringing them closer to Rosings.
As the light of afternoon faded to evening, Mr. Collins paced before a window in the parlor providing much annoyance for Lady Catherine. “I say, Mr. Collins, cease with your pacing. Surely you would not play the part of a nervous groom at this late hour.”
The man sat nervously and smiled at his patroness. “The maid ought to have returned with Miss Bennet by now. And the vicar should arrive at any moment.”
At his words, the parlor door opened and the maid crept in, her face cast to the floor. Lady Catherine stood and crossed the room. “Where is Miss Bennet?”
Anne de Bourgh entered the parlor and nodded to her mother. “She has gone, mother. We were in father’s study reading and I nodded off. Her voice as she read to me was most pleasant and I was certain the maid would not allow her to escape.”
Lady Catherine raised her hand to the maid who cowered before her but her daughter stepped between them. “Mother, twas not her fault. You had her keeping watch day and night.”
A commotion in the hallway outside the parlor drew Lady Catherine away from the matter at hand. The angry voice of her sister echoed across the entry. The butler arrived with Lady Anne and Mr. Darcy behind him, his face red with the effort of delaying their intrusion.
Lady Anne brushed past the man, her eyes taking in the scene in the parlor. “Catherine, we must speak at once. If the news I have been given is indeed fact, you have done a terrible wrong to a particular friend of the Darcy family.”
Mr. Collins jumped from his seat and began his pacing once more. Anne glared at him and dismissed the maid and butler before taking her cousin’s arm. “Come sit with me dearest William, our mothers have much to discuss.”
Mr. Darcy turned to the parson, his face a mask of anger. “First, I would speak with the gentleman. He has an explanation for the wrong he has done, I am sure.”
Mr. Collins, hearing Mr. Darcy’s words, attempted to avoid the man by quitting his infernal pacing to hurry across the parlor.
Mr. Darcy moved with great speed to stop him before he might escape. His hands itched to close around the parson’s neck but he held the man with one large fist by the cloth of his jacket. Mr. Collins struggled to free himself but Mr. Darcy tightened his grip, his face within inches of the parson’s. Lady Catherine’s voice thundered her nephew’s name and the sound of several sets of feet could be heard scurrying away from the closed parlor door.
“What nonsense is this, Anne? I cannot imagine any situation where a friend of the Darcy family has been wronged at Rosings Park. We have but one visitor, an unwilling and ungrateful one at that.”
Lady Anne held her hand up to stop her sister’s explanation. “Where is this visitor, Catherine? And what could you mean by unwilling? I received an express from Hertfordshire with news of a young lady by the name of Elizabeth Bennet taken against her will by your parson only a week ago.”
Lady Catherine pointed to her daughter, her finger shaking. “Tis your namesake there who has allowed the young woman to escape her rightful future. Miss Bennet was welcomed at Rosings until she behaved worse than any scullery maid I have laid eyes upon. Come to think of it, I am pleased she has gone. I would not have such a horrid match for my parson.”
Mr. Darcy released the unfortunate parson, though still blocking the man’s retreat, and turned to his cousin. “Anne, where has she gone? Do you know?”
Anne, her hands behind her back, raised her head. She blinked back tears that blurred her vision and shook her head at Darcy. “I know not, William. She would not say as she did not wish for me to suffer for my assistance. I did give her money enough to travel safely.”
Lady Catherine advanced upon her daughter at this news but Mr. Darcy moved to stand in front of his cousin. “You will not continue your abuse of my dear Anne,” Mr. Darcy warned his aunt and turned to Lady Anne. “Mother, take her and wait in the carriage. Aunt Catherine and I must speak in private.”
Mr. Collins hurried from the room, his anger at Elizabeth’s escape softened by Lady Catherine’s dismissal of his cousin as a suitable match. He did not wish to remain in reach of Mr. Darcy now that he knew of Elizabeth’s acquaintance with the family.
Mr. Darcy’s voice caught him up short at the parlor door. “Do not misunderstand, Mr. Collins. You shall receive swift and just recompense. You might wish to reconsider your living here in Kent.”
Mr. Collins trembled at the threat he knew to be true and hurried from the parlor, bewildered by the events of the evening having gone horribly wrong.
Lady Anne caught his arm, surprising the man, her countenance one that frightened him more deeply then her son’s words. “You best get on your knees and pray, sir, that no harm comes to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. My sister cannot save you from my son’s retribution should she come to harm. And should there be a shred of you left when he has finished, you shall stand before me.”
Collins drew himself up and bowed to the lady, and Miss Anne de Bourgh, before taking his leave. He cared not where his cousin might be, but would heed Lady Anne Darcy’s advice, for Elizabeth’s safety insured his own.
In the parlor, Mr. Darcy stood before his aunt and considered his options. “I have not the time to argue the terrible wrong you have done. Anne shall leave Rosings with us and we will search for Miss Bennet diligently.”
Lady Catherine tapped her cane angrily upon the parlor floor and glared at her nephew. “Anne shall not leave this house without I say she might. And I do not. She has no business upon the roads without my escort.”
Mr. Darcy thought of delaying to set his aunt straight on the facts of the matter, but turned on his heel and quit the parlor with but a parting message.
“Aunt Catherine, there is nothing you might do to stop me. Anne will come with us as a means of protection. After the discovery of Miss Bennet’s escape with finances provided by your dear child, I feel it best Anne accompany us as we search for Miss Bennet.”
With that, Mr. Darcy left Rosings without so much as a glance spared for the woman who followed behind him screeching of her superiority and ill use.
Mr. Darcy climbed into the carriage and seated himself on the bench across from Lady Anne and his cousin.
Anne turned her face away from the sight of her mother descending the front steps of Rosings, her angry voice bitterly screeching, as Mr. Darcy signaled the driver to be away.