“We should turn back,” Fitzwilliam Darcy cautioned as they pulled their horses even and walked them side-by-side along the hedgerow.They explored the farthest boundary of the Pemberley estate, near what the locals called the White Peak.
“Must we?” Elizabeth Darcy gave her husband an expectant look. “I so enjoy being alone with you—away from the responsibilities of Pemberley.”
Darcy took in her countenance. Hers was a face he had once described as being one of the handsomest of his acquaintance, but now he considered that compliment a slight to the woman. Her auburn hair, her fine sea-green eyes, her pale skin, her delicate features, and her heart-shaped face made her a classic beauty, and Darcy thought himself the luckiest of men. “For a woman who once shunned riding for the pleasure of a long walk, you certainly have taken to the saddle,” he taunted.
“I have never said that I prefer riding to walking. Most would think me an excellent walker,” she insisted. “It is just that when I sit atop Pandora’s back and gallop across an open field, I feel such power—as if Pandora and I were one and the same.”
Darcy chuckled.“Do you call how you ride ‘galloping,’ my Love?”
“And what would you call it, Fitzwilliam?” Even after fourteen months of marriage, he could still stir her ire, though she now understood his love for twisting the King’s English and his dry sense of humor. It had not always been so. Elizabeth had told her friend Charlotte Lucas that she could easily forgive Fitzwilliam Darcy his pride if he had not mortified hers. And Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, had once described Fitzwilliam Darcy as “a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing.”
Darcy’s eyebrow shot up in amusement: He recognized that tone. They had certainly challenged each other often enough. Actually, shortly after their official engagement, Elizabeth declared it within her province to find occasions for teasing and quarreling with him as often as may be. She had playfully asked him to account for his having ever fallen in love with her.The scene played in his mind as if it were yesterday.
“How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning, but what could set you off in the first place?”
It was a time for honesty between them, so he told her,“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” He laced his fingers through hers.
“My beauty you had early withstood.” She teased him by running her hand up his jacket’s sleeve, and Darcy could think of nothing but the natural ease of her touch. “And as for my manners,” Elizabeth continued, “my behavior to you was at least bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now, be sincere, did you admire me for my impertinence?”
“For the liveliness of your mind, I did,” he said diplomatically. He did not—could not—admit to her his dreams of making love to her.
“You may as well call it impertinence at once; it was very little less.” In retrospect, Darcy silently agreed. He often found himself lost in his fantasies of her; so much so that he did not recognize Elizabeth’s challenge as impertinence, but more of flirtation.“The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention.You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you because I was so unlike them.You thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you.” Startled by this revelation, Darcy had to admit that Elizabeth was correct. She caught his attention because she was his complete opposite, although she perfectly complemented his nature.With her, he had become freer. And he had come to think less poorly of the world.
Elizabeth cleared her throat, signaling Darcy that she awaited his response. “I believe, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,” he said as he winked at her, “that I must call it a breakneck ride from hell.”
Elizabeth glared at him for but a split second, and then she burst into laughter.“You know me too well, my Husband. Of course, you must take the blame. It was you who taught me to ride to the hound.”
“Why is it, Mrs. Darcy, that all your bad habits came from my influence?”
“It is the way of the world, Fitzwilliam. Because God created Eve from Adam’s rib and breathed life into her form, a woman is a vessel for her husband’s generosity, but also his depravity.”
“Depravity?” He barked out a laugh.“I will show you depravity, Mrs. Darcy.” He reached for her arm, threatening to pull her from Pandora’s back to his lap.
However, Elizabeth anticipated his move, and she kicked her horse’s flanks, bolting away, across the open field toward the tree line. She lay forward along the horse’s neck, cooing encouragement in her mount’s ear. Her laughter tinkled in the crisp morning air, drifting back to where Darcy turned his horse to give chase.
He flicked Demon’s reins to send his stallion barreling after Elizabeth. Although Pandora was as fine a mare as he had ever seen, Elizabeth’s horse stood no chance of beating Demon in an out-and-out race. As he closed in on her, Darcy admired how she handled her animal—how she gave Pandora her head, but still knew when to exercise control over the horse. Elizabeth was a natural, as athletic as the animal she rode.
Darcy pressed Demon a bit harder, and the distance between them shortened. As he accepted his success as inevitable, horror struck. From nowhere and from everywhere at once, sound exploded around him. Pandora bucked and then stood upright, pawing the air. Elizabeth’s scream filled him, as her horse threw Elizabeth forward. His wife nearly slid over the horse’s neck, and then she slipped from the saddle, smacking her backside hard against the frozen ground. From the tree line, the screech of an eagle taking flight set Darcy’s hair on end as he raced to her side.
Sliding from his horse’s back, he was on the ground and running to her. “Elizabeth,” he pleaded, “tell me you are well.” He brushed her hair from her face as he tilted her head backward.
She groaned but moved with only a few awkward movements. “I am most properly bruised.” She brushed the dirt from her sleeve. “And I fear my pride is permanently damaged.”
Darcy kissed her forehead, relief filling his chest, as he helped her to stand. “Are you sure you can make it on your own?” He steadied her first few steps.
Elizabeth walked gingerly, but with determination. “Did you see him?” she asked cautiously.
“See who?” Darcy looked automatically toward the tree line. “I saw no one, Elizabeth; I concentrated on you.”
“The man…I swear, Fitzwilliam, there was a man…there by the opening between the two trees.” She pointed to a row of pin oaks. “A man wearing a cloak and carrying a hat.”
“Stay here,” Darcy ordered as he walked toward the copse, reaching for the pocket pistol he carried under his jacket.
Elizabeth watched him move warily to inspect where she had indicated.“Be careful, Fitzwilliam,” she cautioned as he disappeared into the thicket.
Nervously watching for his return, Elizabeth caught Pandora’s reins as her horse nibbled on tufts of wild grass. After securing her horse’s bridle, she led Pandora to where Demon waited. “Easy, Boy,” she said softly as she took Demon’s reins, but she never took her eyes from where Darcy had vanished into the shadows.
After several long moments, he emerged from behind an evergreen tree, and Elizabeth let out an audible sigh of relief. As he approached, Darcy gestured toward where he had searched. “I am sorry, Elizabeth. I found nothing—not a footprint or any other kind of track. Nothing unusual.”
“Are you sure, Fitzwilliam?” Still somewhat disoriented, she anxiously looked about her. “It seemed so real.”
“Let me take you home.” He moved to help her mount.
“Might I ride with you, Fitzwilliam? I would feel safer in your arms. Plus, I do not think my backside cares to meet Pandora’s saddle right now.”
Darcy’s smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “You cannot resist me, can you, Mrs. Darcy?”
“It is not within my power, my Husband.” Despite her nervousness, her eyes sparkled
Darcy slid his arms around her and brushed his lips over hers.
Elizabeth’s arms encircled his neck. She lifted her chin to welcome his kiss. “You are indeed irresistible, my Love.”
“I was simply uncomfortable,” Elizabeth told Mrs. Reynolds, Pemberley’s long-time housekeeper. They sat at the kitchen’s butcher-block table; they had spent the past hour going over the coming week’s menus and now shared cups of tea.
“Ye be seein’ one of the shadow people, Mistress,” Mrs. Jennings, the estate cook, remarked although she had not been part of the initial conversation.
Elizabeth hid her smile behind her teacup; but her voice betrayed her skepticism. “Shadow people, Mrs. Jennings?”
“Yes, Mistress.” The woman wiped her floured hands on her apron. “People be seein’ shadow ghosts ’round here for years. It be a man. Am I correct, Mrs. Darcy?”
“Yes, I believe that it was a man, although Mr. Darcy thinks it might have been some sort of animal—maybe even a bear.”
Mrs. Reynolds tried to downplay Mrs. Jennings’ fear of the supernatural, a fear shared by many Derby residents.“I am sure it was a bear, Mrs. Darcy. Mr. Darcy would not minimize your concerns by placating to you.”
“Of course, you are correct, Mrs. Reynolds. Mr. Darcy would never ignore a possible danger to anyone at Pemberley.”
Mrs. Reynolds chimed in, “Mr. Darcy is the best landlord and the best master that ever lived.There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. If I were to go through the world, I could not meet with a better.”
The very man of whom they spoke strolled through the doorway. “There you are, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth offered up a bright smile: Her husband’s masculine appearance always made her heart catch in her throat. Broad shoulders—slim waist—muscular chest and back—well defined legs and buttocks—no extra padding found on the man. And Elizabeth relished the idea that he chose her. “I apologize, Fitzwilliam; I was unaware that you sought me out.”
Darcy’s steel gray eyes caught hers. “I thought we might spend some time in the conservatory; the temperature turns bitter.We are in for a spell of bad weather.”
“Really?” Elizabeth stood to join him.“My first winter in Derbyshire was quite mild. Should I expect lots of snow? We normally received some snow in Hertfordshire, but I was sadly disappointed with Derby last season. I had hoped for sledding and skating.”
“Well, Mrs. Darcy, I do believe you will receive your wish.” He placed her on his arm and led her away from the kitchen and toward the main part of the house.
However, when he turned to the main staircase and their private quarters, Elizabeth leaned into his shoulder. “I thought we were to enjoy the conservatory, Mr. Darcy,” she reminded him.
Darcy tilted his head in her direction to speak to her privately. “Do you object to a change in our destination, my Love?”
“Not even in the least, Fitzwilliam.” A blush betrayed her anticipation.
“I enjoy the flush of color on your cheeks, Sweetling.” He brought her hand to his lips. From the beginning, she had driven him crazy—creating a powerful yearning he controlled only with great determination.
Elizabeth tightened her hold on his arm, but she could not respond. Darcy had that effect on her. Even when she had thought that she despised him, in reality, she sought his attention—his regard—his approval.They made the perfect pair. Darcy gave her the freedom to have her own thoughts and opinions, something she treasured; and Elizabeth showed him how insufficient were all his pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased. She truly esteemed her husband, looked up to him as a superior. Yet, theirs was a marriage of equals in all the essentials, those that made people happy. He was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, most suited her. “I love you, Fitzwilliam,” she whispered.
“And I love you, Elizabeth.”
“Did you hear that?” Elizabeth sat up suddenly in the bed.
“Hear what?” Darcy groggily sat up and looked around for something out of place.
Elizabeth clutched the sheet to her. “I do not know. It was a click—like a latch or a lock being engaged.”
Darcy pulled on his breeches and began to check the room. They had locked the door when they entered their shared chambers, and it remained secure so he checked the windows and the folding screens, but found nothing.
Elizabeth’s eyes followed his progress.
Darcy released the door lock. Peering out, he nodded to someone in the hall and then closed the door again. Sliding the bolt in place, he turned toward the bed. “Murray is changing the candles in the hall sconces. Perhaps that is what you heard.”
“Perhaps,” she mumbled as she relaxed against the pillows.“It just sounded closer—as if it were in the room, not out in the hallway.”
Darcy returned to the bed and followed her down. “I believe your fright earlier today with Pandora has colored your thoughts.” He kissed Elizabeth behind her ear and down her neck to the spot where he could easily feel her pulse throbbing under her skin.“Let me give you something else upon which to dwell.”
Her moan signaled her agreement. Lost to his ministrations, neither of them heard the second click echo softly through the room.
Seventeen-year-old Lydia Bennet Wickham traveled by public conveyance to her sister Elizabeth’s Derbyshire home. It was her first trip to Pemberley, which even her husband reported to be one of the finest estates. She would rather this visit included her husband, Lieutenant George Wickham, but as Elizabeth’s husband, Mr. Darcy, refused to accept Wickham in his home, that was not possible. The men had a long-standing disagreement, of which Lydia generally made no acknowledgment. In Lydia’s estimation, Mr. Darcy should do as the Good Book says and forgive. However, men were stubborn creatures who neither forgave nor forgot, and Mr. Darcy and her husband continued their feud.
Lydia found the whole situation disheartening. Even Elizabeth had taken offense at her congratulatory letter, although Lydia did not know why. She had spoken the truth, and she had lowered herself to ask for Elizabeth’s help. All that she had asked was a place at court for Wickham and three to four hundred a year to make ends meet. She had even told her older sister not to mention it to Mr. Darcy if Elizabeth thought it might upset him.