The following morning, Elizabeth was determined to change her attitude towards Darcy. Instead of taking breakfast in her room as she usually did, she dressed and met him at the table for breakfast.
“Good morning,” Darcy said tentatively, as if afraid that Elizabeth would find fault with that statement as well.
She smiled warmly. “Good morning. What plans have you for the day?”
He was startled by her interest. These were more consecutive words than she had spoken to him in quite some time. It took him a moment to answer.
“Mr. Chase and I have some business to attend to this morning, but my afternoon is unscheduled.”
“Perhaps we can take a ride in the curricle? I still feel that I have not seen much of the countryside that is outside Pemberley’s borders. It looks to be a fair day.”
Darcy took a moment to look at her. Could this be some sort of new test she had come up with? If it was, he had no idea of the purpose, nor did he know what the correct answer was. On the chance that she was being authentic, he said, “That would be a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.”
“It is decided, then,” said Elizabeth with a smile. “Do you think that Georgiana will be too upset if we do not invite her to go?”
“She has been out in the curricle many times; I daresay she will not be upset to stay at home.”
“We have a plan, then,” she said.
The two of them sat in silence for the remainder of their breakfast, but it felt much different from the cold silence that had existed between them. Occasionally Elizabeth would catch Darcy’s eye and give him a small smile. He could not help but smile back at her. He did not know what had caused this shift in her attitude, but he was utterly grateful for it.
Elizabeth dressed carefully for their afternoon trip. She and Stewart looked at most of her dresses before deciding on a cream-colored walking dress with a beautiful blue spencer. She could not remember dressing with such care at any point since she had come to Pemberley. Now that she had decided to be sympathetic towards Darcy rather than confrontational, his opinion of her seemed to matter much more. Would he like the dress? Could they get through an entire ride without arguing? She was unsure about the answer to either of those questions, but she was determined to be as agreeable as she could. If he needled her, however, she would not be able to hold her tongue. She hoped that he appreciated the thaw in their relationship and that he would be on his best behavior, as well.
For his part, Darcy had been quite useless during his meeting with his steward. His mind kept wandering to Elizabeth. Not only had she been pleasant to him, she had actually suggested that they spend time together! He still wondered if Elizabeth was laying a trap for him. Could she have something she wanted to say that required a captive audience? He certainly hoped that was not the case. He did not think he could have another conversation like their previous one.
Darcy took lunch in his office and Elizabeth in her suite, so they did not see each other again until it was time for the ride. It was hard to say which of them was more nervous as they prepared for the afternoon. Certainly, both of them were in a state of agitation, hoping the afternoon would be pleasant.
They met in the main hall. Darcy bowed, and said, “You look lovely.”
Elizabeth felt her cheeks color at the compliment. “Thank you for making time for me today,” she said.
Darcy resisted the urge to tell her that he would do quite anything that she asked. Instead, he reached out to take her hand. She willingly let him and was surprised to feel that once-familiar spark between them again. She glanced at his face and caught his eye, and they just looked at each other for a moment, each trying to take the measure of the other.
“Come,” said Darcy, leading her outside to where the curricle was hitched and ready to go. He had ensured that a soft blanket be placed inside, in case she were to take a chill during the ride. He helped her climb into the carriage, and once she was seated he finally released her hand.
Elizabeth was hit with a surprising sense of loss. After everything that they had been through, it had seemed so natural—so right—for her hand to be in his. She watched as he climbed in next to her. His bearing was noble as ever, but there was an undercurrent of excitement about him on that day. She could see that he was as nervous as she about their excursion.
He tucked the blanket around her, taking care not to touch her in any way that would make her uncomfortable. Once they were settled in, he started the horses off at a slow pace. The curricle was certainly capable of much faster speeds, but he saw no reason to rush their ride.
They sat in amiable silence while they rode down the lane that led away from Pemberley. Elizabeth was, as always, awed at how beautiful the house and grounds were. As the horses picked up speed, she felt the wind chill her, and she was grateful that Darcy had thought to bring her a blanket.
“Where are we headed?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“I have no particular plans,” he responded. “Please let me know if you see something that interests you, and we can go in that direction.”
She smiled and agreed that she would. Their silence continued for a few more minutes as they enjoyed the air and the calm between the two of them. Elizabeth was relieved that they were getting along so well. Perhaps that is why she did what she did next—although later, she still was not certain what prompted her to do it. She placed her hand in the crook of his arm and moved closer to him on the bench.
Darcy was instantly aware of her touch; the effect was immediate and intense. It was as if his skin burned everywhere that she touched him, even through their layers of clothing. All he could think about was how close they were, and how it was she who had prompted that contact. He could hardly continue to direct the horses, he was so distracted.
They came upon a lovely glen with a path leading up a hill to a large tree.
“Oh, what a peaceful scene!” said Elizabeth.
Darcy pulled the curricle over at a gate and jumped out to secure the horses. “Let us walk it, then,” he said.
Elizabeth smiled. There were few things that she enjoyed more than a walk on a lovely day, and she had not made the time for one lately. Darcy extended his hand to help her out of the carriage. Once her feet were on the ground, she kept ahold of his hand. She was to hear no complaints from Darcy, who was shocked and nearly overwhelmed at the direction their day had taken.
They began climbing the hill at an unhurried pace.
“This reminds me of a place near Longbourn,” she said. “There was rarely anyone else near it, so I would be alone with my book, surrounded by wildflowers and blue sky. It was a respite from the noise and tumult of my home.”
“I, too, appreciate the power of a solitary walk,” said Darcy. “Often, my obligations keep me from indulging, but whenever I do, I find that it clears my mind more than nearly anything else.”
“It is true,” she agreed, “but there is also something to be said for a walk with someone else who is agreeable.”
He smiled at her in response, a genuine and somewhat earnest smile. She could not help but return the smile with one of her own. She had never imagined this afternoon would be so enjoyable, but she was pleasantly surprised by the time that they were spending together.
They crested the hill near the tree and Elizabeth gasped at the beauty of the view. All around was untouched green, punctuated with colorful dots of wildflowers. A breeze picked up and moved through the grass like a wave. Elizabeth’s curls were blown into her face. Darcy gently reached up, brushed her hair away from her eyes, and tucked the wayward locks behind her ear. She was conscious of how very close the two of them were, and she could hardly breathe. She found that she did not mind the closeness whatsoever; her stomach fluttered at the idea of being this close to him on a regular basis.
Darcy took both her hands and looked into her eyes. “Mrs. Darcy, I do not wish to be presumptuous, but are you available to dine with me this evening?”
She saw his game and joined in. “But sir,” she protested, “I am a married woman. It would be quite improper.”
“Your husband is a fortunate man,” he said, raising her hand to his lips and placing a lingering kiss on it. “I hope he is aware of the prize he possesses.”
“I rather think he is,” Elizabeth whispered faintly, still staring into his eyes. It seemed so strange to be talking with him, to be flirting with him. Their relationship had been so contentious lately that she had never imagined this was a place that they would find themselves.
“I would be honored to join you for dinner, sir.”
“Let us not linger here too long, then,” he said, and led her back down the hill. He walked confidently, and, as she was a step behind him, she had a chance to really study him without his knowing. He kept a tight but gentle grip on her hand. She suddenly felt both protected and entirely able to be herself, which were emotions that did not often go together for her. Certainly, this trip was taking a much different direction than she expected.
The ride back to Pemberley was just as pleasant as the ride out had been. Elizabeth resumed her position close to Darcy, with her hand in the crook of his arm. He occasionally glanced over at her and was rewarded with a smile. He was still shocked and a bit concerned about her change of heart, but the more time they spent together, the more he began to believe it was genuine. Was it possible they had a chance at a real relationship, after all? He was not yet sure, but he was filled with more hope than at any other point in their relationship. He desperately hoped that the peace between them would continue, and have the opportunity to bloom into something even greater.