Darcy lounged in the sitting room in his quarters, staring into the fire and sipping on his third glass of brandy. He swirled the amber liquid around and around in the glass and re-lived (for the umpteenth time) the final two weeks he’d spent in Kent five years previous, back when he was a sought-after bachelor of the ton. Those were the last two weeks before his world began to fall apart. He considered. No, that wasn’t quite true either; his world began to fall apart the moment he’d encountered Elizabeth Bennet again. He saw her at the parsonage, at Rosings Park, and she bewitched him all over again. Then he started slipping out in the mornings to meet her on her walks. She must have enjoyed his company—why else would she have told him which paths were her favorite? He felt guilty for leading her on, for trifling with her affections. It wasn’t right, but he couldn’t seem to control himself. He wanted so much to see her, and the more he saw her, the more he wanted her for his own. The idea that she also wanted him made his pulse pound. It was an impossible situation, fraught with disaster for his family and for his reputation. If he were completely honest, an element of rebelliousness probably fed his attraction to her. His feelings for this young woman— a girl so below his station—embarrassed him on one level. In addition, the pressure from Lady Catherine and from Richard’s father, the Earl of Matlock, to finalize his long-awaited betrothal to Anne was increasing by the day. He was torn in two directions— caught between his desire and his duty.
And that was when he made his fatal mistake. In his confusion, he had foolishly trusted Richard enough to tell him about his yearning for the forbidden fruit that was Elizabeth Bennet.
Darcy stepped up to the billiards table and lined up a shot, but moved over when he sensed Fitzwilliam enter the room from behind him.
“Darcy,” Colonel Fitzwilliam ventured cheerfully.
“Fitzwilliam. Good evening to you.”
Richard picked up a cue and balanced it on one hand, an old childhood trick he still practiced whenever Lady Catherine was mercifully absent. “Had a most charming walk today with our lovely young visitor staying at the parsonage.”
“Who? Miss Lucas?” Darcy baited his cousin with a smirk.
The colonel scoffed. “No, of course not. Miss Lucas is just a child; I have no interest in talking with her. Miss Bennet is who I mean.”
“Miss Bennet is charming?”
“Yes, quite. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Darcy did not reply, but he could feel his expression betray him.
Fitzwilliam looked at him, realization dawning across his face. “I’ll be damned. You do think she’s charming, don’t you? You’ve developed a tendre for Miss Bennet.”
Darcy’s only reply was the crack of his cue against the billiard ball.
Fitzwilliam whistled under his breath.“Wonder what old battle axe Catherine will have to say about that. She’ll make your and Miss Bennet’s lives a living hell.”
Still, there was no answer from the more reserved cousin. Richard shook his head. “Stubborn arse. You and your secrets.”
Darcy hesitated. He felt his head spin and his stomach roll. This burden of feeling was crushing him. Perhaps Richard would be able to give him some perspective on the whole business. He thought himself most likely incapable of rational thought at that point. So he took a deep breath and in an impulsive rush of words, told his cousin about meeting Miss Bennet in Hertfordshire, about the way she entranced him at Netherfield, about how he couldn’t stop thinking about her even after he left. And now that she was in Kent, he found himself seeking her out far too often. He admitted he was tempted to offer for her, and how it was the most imprudent match imaginable. When he mentioned that he was considering finally capitulating to an alliance with Anne, Richard stared at him in shock for half a minute before turning back to the table.
“Do you think Anne will accept your proposal?” Richard asked as he lined up another billiard shot.
“Why wouldn’t Anne accept? She is currently under the care of Lady Catherine. Surely, being the mistress of Pemberley would be a step up from that.” Darcy powdered his cue stick and stepped up to the table.
Richard smirked. “Maybe Anne has no desire to be the Mistress of Pemberley.”
His voice held a tone of mockery that offended Darcy’s familial pride in his estate. “I haven’t met a woman yet who didn’t want to be Mistress of Pemberley, if the truth were known.”
The colonel ignored Darcy’s haughty remark. “You are your own man, Darcy, and can marry whomever you choose —unlike some of us, who have to marry affluence in order to live in the style to which we have become accustomed. Otherwise, we live our lives preying on the generosity of well-off relatives. If you want Miss Bennet for your wife, you should step up and ask her.”
Darcy shook his head. “This infatuation I have with Miss Bennet is inappropriate; I can never marry her. The society she keeps—a parson and his wife?” His lip curled up in contempt. “And her family! That vulgar mother of hers—and those sisters! I can’t saddle Georgiana with relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath her own. Besides, the family expects a union with Anne, as I am constantly reminded every time I visit here.”
“That doesn’t mean the marriage is inevitable, or that it’s the right course of action for you or for Anne.” Richard’s shot resounded with a loud crack and raced toward the pocket in the billiard table. “Unless, of course, you’re after Rosings Park for yourself. Is that your design in asking Anne to marry you? An estate acquisition?”
“Hmmpph. I don’t give a flying fig about Rosings Park. It’s an ostentatious monstrosity of a house.”
“Spoken like a true snob—I mean, a true gentleman of the ton.” Richard leaned on his pool cue and looked at Darcy shrewdly. After a minute or two, he went on. “But perhaps another type of connubial arrangement might suit you better? You could marry some society maiden as is expected and then… Miss Bennet is lively and charming – might she be induced to be your mistress?”
And that, Darcy now knew, was when Richard figured out the Master of Pemberley’s Achilles’ heel was Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy sputtered indignant protests and declared that Miss Bennet would never debase herself that way. He questioned why Fitzwilliam thought a woman like that, who was by no means alone or unprotected, would consent to a liaison without the benefit of marriage.
Richard laughed at him and held up his hands in a defensive gesture. “Pardon me! I had no idea I was suggesting something so disgusting to you.”
“I’m not disgusted,” Darcy sulked, “Merely surprised that you would consider that any kind of option for a woman like Miss Bennet.”
“A woman like Miss Bennet, hmm? You might be surprised what a woman like her might do with the right inducement.” And with that slight on Elizabeth’s virtue, Fitzwilliam tossed down his pool cue and left the room.
That night, dinner was a miserable affair. Mr. Collins spoke incessantly. Richard did not speak at all. Anne stared at her plate and pushed her food around until it was inedible. Elizabeth, Darcy learned, had stayed at the parsonage with a headache. He inquired of Mrs. Collins after her friend’s health, and was assured that she would be fine in the morning. After choking down his dinner and making a brief appearance in the salon, he excused himself on the pretense of attending to ‘business’ which consisted of a glass of brandy and a book. Late in the evening, Darcy had the strangest visit, from none other than his cousin Anne.
He heard a frantic little rap on the door and when he opened it, she pushed the door open and barged past him. Her hair was a little disheveled and she was dressed in a night shift that nearly swallowed her whole.
“Anne,” he asked in a guarded tone,“what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you.” She paced in front of the fireplace, chewing on her fingernails and wringing her hands in consternation.
“This couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?”
“No! Not after what I heard tonight.” She whirled around to face him. “Are you going to ask my mother to make this farce of a betrothal a binding engagement?” she demanded angrily.
Darcy folded his arms across his chest and glared at her. “Who told you that? Your mother?”
Anne continued her pacing; she looked wild-eyed and a little desperate. Darcy had no idea she had so much life in her, so much passion for …well…for anything at all.
“I don’t want to marry you,” she blurted out.
“I’m so flattered.”
She snorted. “I know you probably find this difficult to believe, but I don’t want you. I love someone else, and I want to marry him, not you.”
“Is this ‘someone else’ suitable? Are you planning to shame the family? He’s not a tradesman, is he? Or, even worse, a groomsman or a stable boy?”
Anne gave him a wicked glare. “God, I despise your sarcasm. And yes, you insufferable bore, he is eminently suitable.”
“Are you going to tell me the young hero’s name?”
She looked at him warily, considering. Finally, she shook her head. “No, not yet.” She paused, chewing on her thumb. “Have you ever been told the conditions of my father’s will?”
“No,” Darcy replied in a bored voice. “And I have no desire to know. Isn’t there a clause requiring you to marry an unwilling relative?”
Suddenly, she laughed – a shrill, maniacal sound that echoed around the room. “Oh yes, poor, down-trodden Darcy – the unwilling relative. I’ve known from the time I was fifteen that you’d rather cut off your own arm than marry me. No, my father’s will states that on my twenty-fifth birthday, which is six months from now, if I am still unmarried, the ownership of Rosings Park reverts to me . So, you see, if I marry before then, I must have Mother’s consent or she will disinherit me. But after that time, my mother has no control over me, whom I marry, or anything else about my life.”
“Congratulations.” If he could wait Lady Catherine out for six months, he might escape this family burden after all. He was about to wish Anne well, when the door to his room flew open and banged against the wall. To his horror, the intruder was Lady Catherine, sporting a look of wicked triumph, followed by Mrs. Jenkinson and Blanche, who was the worst gossip on Rosings’ staff.
“You! I never would have believed it of you! You have compromised my daughter, Darcy! You have to marry her, just I have foreseen. I knew you were staying longer at Rosings this year. Your attachment to Rosings has certainly grown – and now I know why.”
Darcy and Anne both gawked at Lady Catherine with identical looks of shock and dismay. Each was stunned into silence, immobile.
“We will read the banns this Sunday. Mr. Collins will comply with my wishes; I will insist on it.”
Anne shook her head, disbelieving. “No, no, no…” she mumbled. Her voice rose in pitch and loudness until she was screaming. “No! Mother, I beg you!”
Lady Catherine looked on her daughter without pity. “You have to marry him, Anne. He has lured you into his bedroom…”
“Now, see here,” Darcy interrupted. “No one lured anyone in here.”
“Don’t worry, Anne,” Lady Catherine interjected, “he only has to violate you until you’re with child.”
Both Anne and Darcy paled in disgust. Darcy whirled on his cousin. “Did you plan this? Did you commit this sabotage on my good name in order to trap me into a marriage of convenience?”
Anne cried in outrage and launched herself at her cousin, pounding him with her fists and screaming epithets of hatred at him.
Colonel Fitzwilliam appeared in the doorway, tying a dressing gown around his middle. “What is all this commotion? Can’t a man get any rest in this house?”
Lady Catherine turned to her other nephew. “Congratulate your cousins, Fitzwilliam. They are to marry – finally.”
The colonel looked at her, shocked beyond belief. “What?!” He looked at his young cousin with a despondent expression. “Anne?” he said softly. “What is the meaning of this?”
Anne looked from one cousin to the other, and then at her mother’s stern countenance. She burst into tears and ran from the room. Lady Catherine followed after her, bellowing, “I insist on being heard, Anne. Return here at once!”
“Darcy? What in the devil is going on here?” Fitzwilliam’s eyes had a cold hard look that Darcy had never seen before.
Darcy frowned and set his mouth in a grim line. “It appears my matrimonial issues have been resolved for me after all. Our cousin has very effectively tied my hands to hers in marriage.”
Fitzwilliam ran his hands over his face in agitation. “This can’t be happening. She doesn’t want to marry you.”
“More flattery. The compliments of my family are overwhelming. Yes, Anne suggested as much earlier – after she barged in to compromise me.”
“She was not trying to compromise you. She was trying to talk some sense into you.”
Darcy sneered. “I can’t think of any other reason for her to intrude into my private rooms. Can you?”
“She said it would be all right. She said you would understand. I even encouraged her to approach you.” Fitzwilliam shook his head, disbelieving.
“I would understand? You mean her ridiculous tale about wanting to marry some other man? He’s probably some grasping fortune hunter. Think about it, Fitzwilliam. Who else would marry her?”
The colonel was on a smaller scale than Darcy, but life in the Army had given him a strong wiry physique, and the element of surprise and the force of passion were with him as well. Fitzwilliam charged at Darcy, grabbing him by the lapels of his dressing gown and shoving him up against the wall. “You conceited bovine! That man she wanted to marry? That so-called grasping fortune hunter? The one who wanted to marry our sweet delicate Anne? That man…was me.” The colonel closed his eyes and roughly pushed Darcy to the side. He gave him one final glare, and turned on his heel, heaving the door closed with a mighty slam. Darcy stood, a fresh wave of shock sending him sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, his head in his hands.
The next few months were a blur of one agony-filled episode after another. Richard tried to get Darcy to call off the engagement, but Darcy refused to have the blight of a broken betrothal on his family name – not only for his sake, but also for Georgiana’s. She would be coming out in a couple of years. Given her history with Wickham, he couldn’t risk another black mark against her name when she entered the marriage market.
One evening, shortly after the banns were read, Richard gave into a fit of revenge, and in full view of Darcy began to pay special attention to the woman he knew Darcy secretly wanted, Elizabeth Bennet. Before she was scheduled to return to Hertfordshire, the colonel had proposed. And shortly after she returned home, Richard received a letter informing him of Elizabeth’s acceptance. The colonel waved the missive tauntingly in front of Darcy, telling him that this was his punishment for taking the woman that Richard loved. Now Colonel Fitzwilliam would take his precious Miss Bennet, and Darcy wouldn’t even be able to make her his mistress. It was worth having to live off his relatives, he said, to make Darcy suffer like he and Anne had to suffer.
Anne refused to accept her role as Mistress of Pemberley. She also refused to consummate the marriage, and that was just as well. Darcy had no desire for her. At any rate, a year after they married, Anne was diagnosed with consumption. Only a matter of time, the doctor said, before she would be too ill even for daily tasks. After that, her mental condition also began to decline to the point where she had to be confined to her suite of rooms at the house on Grovesnor Street. Under the spell of pain medication, insanity and illness, she cried out her true love’s name repeatedly, and cursed Darcy so loudly she often drove him from the house. He began spending more and more time at White’s, and that led to more drinking, more gambling, and more female entanglements.
To Darcy’s dismay, Richard began spending an inordinate amount of time at White’s as well, and his behavior deteriorated in direct proportion to Darcy’s. It was as if Richard had to flaunt the fact that Elizabeth was his wife, and flaunt his cavalier treatment of her. Richard had consummated his marriage, a fact that he frequently threw in Darcy’s face, and thus began the downward spiral of their kinship toward enmity.
To be concluded tomorrow…