Darcy was called away for a quick trip to London to manage some banking. Georgiana was well used to her brother’s travels, but this was the first time that he had left Elizabeth at Pemberley. She was worried that something might happen in his absence, but she had no intention of telling Darcy that. She put on a serene face, told him everything would be fine, and wished him well on his trip.
For the first two days, very little was different. Georgiana and Elizabeth took meals, read, embroidered, and plotted how to continue to put Stewart in Thomas’s path. However, disaster struck the second night.
The ladies were in the study after dinner when Mr. Combes announced guests. Two well-dressed men followed him in to the study.
“My ladies, I present The Right Honorable Lord Stapleton and Mr. Jasper Colborne.”
The gentleman both bowed deeply.
“Mrs. Darcy, Miss Darcy, it is an honor to meet you,” said Mr. Colborne. He was the shorter of the two, with a head of thick red hair and bright blue eyes. He grinned at Elizabeth and Georgiana.
“It certainly is,” said Lord Stapleton, who was taller and fairer than his companion. “We had hoped to catch old Darcy at home. We are friends of his. We came through Cambridge at the same time.”
“It is very nice to meet you,” said Elizabeth. She was unsure what to say or do next. In her silence, Lord Stapleton spoke again.
“It was our intention to spend some days at Pemberley shooting,” he said. “It is a shame Darcy was not here to meet us. But in light of the fact that we have traveled such a long way, perhaps we could impose on you for just a day or two?”
Elizabeth looked at Georgiana. This all seemed very improper, but she did not want to turn them away if they actually were Darcy’s friends. She could just imagine the embarrassment that would cause him. Georgiana just raised her eyebrows, leaving the decision to Elizabeth.
“I am certain that we can accommodate you for two days,” Elizabeth said, hoping that the tremble she felt was not heard in her voice. “Have you eaten? We have just finished dinner, but I am happy to let the kitchen know if you would like.”
“That would be lovely,” said Mr. Colborne, with another bow.
“Mr. Combes will show you to the dining room and see that the kitchen is informed. Miss Darcy and I will be down to join you in just a moment.”
The men followed Mr. Combes out of the sitting room and Elizabeth turned to Georgiana in a panic.
“Should I have told them that they cannot stay?” she asked. “Are they friends of Darcy’s? Have you met them before?”
“I have not, nor have I heard my brother speak of them,” said Georgiana, “but certainly he has many friends whom I have not met.”
Elizabeth wrung her hands. “Oh, dear, I am afraid I did the wrong thing in letting them stay. It is not at all proper for them to be here without the master of the house present. But I have told them that they can stay—curse my mouth, always speaking without thinking first!”
“Elizabeth,” said Georgiana gently, “you had to make a quick decision, and you did. No one can fault you for that. This is really quite an unusual situation.”
Elizabeth laughed humorlessly. “Oh, I can be faulted, and we both know by whom.”
Georgiana shook her head. “Fitzwilliam will only care that you did your best.”
No, thought Elizabeth. He only cares that you do your best, Georgiana. Despite what he might say, from me, he expects perfection.
Elizabeth called for two guest rooms to be made up and she and Georgiana joined their guests at the dinner table.
“Mrs. Darcy, it is such a pleasure to finally meet you,” said Lord Stapleton. “We have heard that Darcy married a mysterious woman that he met in Hertfordshire, but aside from that no one seemed to know anything about you for certain.”
“There is little to know, sir,” said Elizabeth, on her guard. “I grew up at my father’s estate of Longbourn. I met Darcy at an assembly, and saw him again when he was a guest of one of our neighbors, Mr. Bingley of Netherfield.”
“And Darcy was instantly besotted!” said Mr. Colborne. “How could he have not been? You are the very picture of beauty, Mrs. Darcy.”
“Sir, you are too kind,” Elizabeth said, more sharply than she had intended. She would hear no flattery from these two.
“That is substantially less interesting than the stories that we have heard around London,” said Lord Stapleton, watching Elizabeth’s face closely in hopes that he was making her uncomfortable. “We had rather expected an Egyptian princess, after everything we heard.”
At this, the men laughed heartily. Elizabeth blushed. She desperately wanted to know what the rumors were, but she was not going to give the men the satisfaction of asking about them.
Georgiana saw that the situation was getting worse and worse, and decided to act.
“Dear sister, I am suddenly taken with such a headache,” said Georgiana. “Gentleman, I apologize, but may I steal Mrs. Darcy from you to help me to my room? She knows what soothes my headaches.”
“By all means,” said Lord Stapleton, waving his hand. “We will just be here, drinking all of Darcy’s wine.”
Their laughter followed Elizabeth and Georgiana as they left the dining room.
“What boorish men!” said Georgiana. “I cannot believe that Fitzwilliam is friends with them.”
“Neither can I,” said Elizabeth grimly. “Perhaps you should sleep in my room tonight. I will send Stewart to post a footman outside our door. The men will not know he is there unless they venture into our private hallway, but you and I will sleep much more soundly.”
Georgiana smiled. “Is this just another plot to get Stewart and Thomas together?” she whispered.
“Merely an advantageous concurrence,” said Elizabeth. “Tonight, I fear we have greater things to worry about than Stewart and Thomas’s courtship.”
Once Georgiana was safely settled in her room, Elizabeth headed back downstairs to check on the men and to ensure that they had not done any lasting harm. She was nearly to the staircase when she heard the men talking in the main hall. She stopped for a moment and listened.
“She is quite something, Darcy’s little country bride, is she not?”
“She certainly is. There must be something exceptional about her, for Darcy to be interested.”
“Perhaps he tested out the wares before the marriage and found them to his liking.”
Elizabeth felt sick listening to them talk about her in such a way. She did not care about their opinion, but at the same time it was offensive to hear two strangers discuss her so callously.
The men continued talking.
“That sister of Darcy’s, though, she is a sweet little thing.”
“A sweet little thing who is worth 30,000 pounds! That makes her all the sweeter.”
“I wonder if she can be won over.”
“Well, I shall find out tomorrow.”
“You shall? I think not. If anyone is winning her over, it shall be me.”
“Tomorrow we will find out which she prefers. Do you think it possible to get some time with her away from Darcy’s wife?”
“I think that we can think up an idea that would get her out of our way so that Miss Georgiana Darcy will have some time to get to know us better.”
Elizabeth had been shocked at hearing them talk about her, but hearing their crude talk about Georgiana prompted her to action. She took a deep breath and was about to make her way down the stairs when she heard a familiar voice.
“I am unsure how you have gained entrance to Pemberley, but you will not be staying,” said Darcy, his voice nearly a growl from anger.
Elizabeth stayed frozen in her place, waiting to see what would happen. She had a fine view of the men across the foyer, and if any of them had looked up, they might have seen her as well.
“Darcy, old chap, how tremendous to see you after all!” called Lord Stapleton. “We were saddened to think we might miss you.”
“I rather think that you were not,” Darcy said, the anger still simmering in his voice. “Have you been waiting for the opportunity of my leaving to maneuver your way into my house?”
“Our only intention was to partake of your shooting,” said Mr. Colborne. “I assure you, we meant no offense.”
“The only way that you could avoid offending me is by making certain that I neither see your faces nor hear your names ever again,” said Darcy. “I may not have your extensive experience with brawling, but I assure you that I can more than hold my own.”
Mr. Colborne threw up his hands. “There is no need for that,” he said. “Let us collect our things and we will be on our way.”
“And let you spend one more minute in this house? I think not,” said Darcy. “There is a carriage waiting to take you to Lambton for the night. I will send your things there, and afterward that, I expect you to never again come within twenty miles of Pemberley, my wife, or my sister.”
Lord Stapleton snickered. “Wickham was right about you,” he said. “He always claimed that you were as dull as you were wealthy.”
Darcy’s voice was almost too soft for Elizabeth to hear it, but there was a deadly edge to it. “Do not speak of George Wickham in my house. Are you leaving on your own two feet, or must I forcibly remove you?”
“Calm, man, calm,” said Stapleton. “Now that you are here, our fun is ruined. We have no desire to trespass on your hospitality any further.”
The men strolled towards the door. Elizabeth could see that Darcy’s hands were balled into fists and she could tell, even from a distance, that his jaw was clenched. However, he let the men quit the house without any further confrontation. He followed them out to ensure that they left immediately.
Elizabeth lost strength in her legs and leaned against the wall to keep from falling. She had been sure that a fight was about to break out. Never in her life had she heard Darcy speak with such contempt and anger. She wondered what the men had done to deserve it. And how did the men know Mr. Wickham? The Mr. Wickham that Lord Stapleton spoke of sounded far different from what Elizabeth knew of him. Her mind was so full of questions that she could not even think what she would ask Darcy first.
Darcy came storming back in again, and Elizabeth did not even get the chance to speak.
“How could you allow men you do not know into my house?” he said as he climbed the stairs, the undercurrent of anger still very much present in his voice.
Elizabeth paled. “They said they were friends of yours,” she said in a small voice. “I did not want to be rude.”
“And they knew that!” said Darcy. “They waited until I was gone, with the idea that my wife was some silly little thing that would let them through the doors of Pemberley. And that is what they found. You played your role just perfectly. Opening the door, giving them access to my sister—my sister, Elizabeth. Perhaps you do not care for her well-being but I certainly do.”
Elizabeth finally found her voice. “How dare you speak to me in such a way?” she said, the anger in her voice rising to meet his own. “As mistress of this house, I was obliged to make a quick decision to keep you from embarrassment, and it was the wrong one. However, I would never put Georgiana at risk; at this very moment, she is locked in my room and guarded by a footman.”
“So you knew that these men were dangerous enough that you did not want Georgiana to sleep unprotected, yet you still let them in?”
“I did not know what sort of men they were! They claimed to be friends of yours from Cambridge. I did not want to insult friends of yours by denying them a room for the night.”
“But they are not my friends, Elizabeth. Rather, they are the friends of the greatest scoundrel that I have the misfortune to know.”
“You expect me to know these things, yet you tell me nothing! You still have not spoken of what happened between you and Mr. Wickham. I know that you denied him his living; what reason have you to speak of him with such harsh words?”
Darcy laughed humorlessly. “Denied him his living? Is that what he has told you? And you believed him. Of course you did.”
“Yes, I did!” snapped Elizabeth. “His is the only account to which I have been privy. You cannot expect me to know things that you refuse to tell me. Even you must see the error in that.”
“Even I?” said Darcy. “Yes, you are correct. It is so obvious that even a simpleton such as I should see it.”
“I did not say that you were a simpleton. You are, rather, the most difficult and stubborn man that I have ever known.”
“Am I?” said Darcy quietly, the pain obvious in his voice. “This marriage must be very difficult for you, then.”
“I remind you, sir, that this was not my idea,” said Elizabeth.
Darcy looked at her for a moment. “No, it was mine,” he said. “I cannot imagine what I was thinking.”
They looked at each other for a moment, daring the other to continue the argument. Finally, Darcy spoke. “It is late, and I am fatigued from my journey,” he said. “I am retiring to my chambers.”
And without another look, he turned and walked away from Elizabeth.