Not long after they returned from their ride, Georgiana knocked on Elizabeth’s door. Elizabeth called for her to enter, and was amused by the hopeful smile on her sister-in-law’s face.
“How was your ride?” Georgiana asked.
“Quite lovely, actually,” Elizabeth said with a small smile. “We very much enjoyed one another’s company.”
Georgiana was much too well-raised to squeal in delight, but she did have to stifle the urge to do so.
“Nothing could make me happier to hear,” she said.
“We are to have dinner tonight,” said Elizabeth. “Well, we always have dinner. But I believe that tonight will be special. Would you help me choose a dress?”
“I would be delighted!” said Georgiana. “It is very convenient that I had planned to take dinner in my room tonight.”
“You need not miss dinner!” said Elizabeth. “That was not my intention in telling you.”
“There is no possible way that you could convince me to eat in the dining room tonight,” said Georgiana. “Not with such a very important meeting taking place.”
Elizabeth smiled and was once again grateful for Georgiana’s tact and intuition.
“Let us look at my dresses, then,” she said, and they spent a lovely hour trying on different dresses and laughing. Elizabeth thought about how it had already been a perfect day, and it was not even time for dinner yet. She hoped that her luck would hold throughout the meal.
Darcy’s time prior to dinner was much less peaceful, and involved quite a bit more pacing. He did not know what brought about Elizabeth’s change of opinion. After their drive, he was certain that she was not trying to trap him into anything. There had been no artifice on her face during their walk. She had been legitimately happy, which had made him happy as well.
But now, he knew, was a risky time for him. If he tried to advance their relationship too quickly, she might startle and withdraw. Darcy had come too far to go back to her disliking him. He thought back to the feeling of her delicate hand in his, of her leg touching his as they sat in the curricle. Every inch of him had been on fire to be so near to her. When he had raised her hand to his lips, it was all he could do to refrain from kissing her sweet mouth. He had to calm himself. Things were going well between the two of them, and it would not do to spook her by moving faster than she wanted.
Darcy dressed mindlessly for dinner, grateful for the fact that his valet was there to handle the details. Once he was finally properly dressed, he had the idea to escort Elizabeth to the dining room. He walked out of his study and down the hall to her sitting room. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door.
Elizabeth looked up from her embroidery. She had dressed early in anticipation and then taken up her needlework to pass the time until dinner. It was still several minutes before it would be time to descend, so she was surprised to hear the knock. She called for the person to enter.
Darcy stepped in and took in the picture of Elizabeth sitting with her embroidery. She was dressed in a dinner gown with a striking pink overlay on a white dress. He was momentarily distracted by the cut of her neckline, which was a bit lower than the dinner dresses she typically wore. It was clear that she had dressed to her best advantage, and Darcy thought that she had been overwhelmingly successful in doing so.
“My lady,” he said, with a formal bow. “May I escort you to dinner?”
She smiled at him. “Of course,” she said. He offered her his arm and then there she was again, pressed up against his side. Darcy had to remind himself to breathe. He escorted her downstairs to the dining room, where he had arranged for a surprise.
The large dining room table had been removed and replaced with a much smaller table with two chairs. She smiled at him as she realized that he had arranged for their dinner to be more intimate, in a way that was difficult with the room-dominating dining room table. He saw her comfortably seated and then took the other chair.
“This is lovely,” she said.
“I wanted to have the chance to speak with you,” he said. “There is so much that I need to say.”
She noticed that all of the servants had stepped out of the room, and realized that he must have arranged for them to have complete privacy.
“I fear that I have not been clear or honest with you up to this point,” Darcy said, his eyes on hers. “I did not ask you to marry me simply to help you out of a difficult situation.”
Her brow knitted. “What do you mean?”
“I took advantage of the situation in order to make you mine. I wanted nothing more than to take you as my wife. Obviously, the circumstances were far from ideal, but I was obliged to act quickly to prevent losing you forever.”
“Could you not have just told me that?”
“There was no time. Before your father’s death, if I had proposed marriage to you, how would you have reacted?”
She gave him a small smile. They both knew how that situation would have ended.
“And after your father’s death, I ran the risk of losing you to a butcher. So I made my decision and made an offer for you. And all this time, the only thing that I have wanted to tell you is that I love you. I have loved you ever since that morning you walked into Netherfield, searching for your sister.”
Elizabeth’s eyes went wide and she sat straight up in shock. So much for not startling her, thought Darcy.
“I do not know what to say, sir,” she said.
“I did not tell you for fear that you might feel compelled to return the sentiment,” he said. “If we get to that point, I want to know that you mean every word you say. But I do feel that you deserve to know.”
“But all those times you have been unpleasant to me over the past few months!” she said.
“Elizabeth, I am not proud of the way that I have spoken to you. I am difficult. I lose my temper sometimes. All I can tell you is that I want to be a better man for you, and that I am working to be so.”
Her eyes filled with tears for a moment. She could tell that he was being entirely honest in what he was telling her. She thought of how lovely their day had been, how she had felt excited and protected, and, well, right for the first time in as long as she could remember. And she thought about what it would be like to live her life like that.
“I cannot say yet that I love you,” she said slowly. “However, I am now ready to be your wife in every way.”
Of all the things she might have said, this was not what he expected.
“I have no desire to take advantage of you,” he said.
“Nor would you be,” she said. “You have been more than patient. I know you will not hurt me. I am prepared to consummate our marriage.”
“But perhaps I am not,” he murmured.
Elizabeth looked at him, confused and a bit hurt. He had just confessed his love for her, and now he was unwilling to share a bed with her as man and wife?
“I want all of you,” Darcy said, “mind, body, and soul. I have no interest in anything less. So we will wait until you want the same thing before we proceed any further.”
Elizabeth understood then that his refusal was due to his gentlemanly nature, and it stung a bit less that he had rejected her; indeed, it reassured her as to the depth of Darcy’s feelings towards her.
“But when I am ready, you will be as well?” she asked him.
“At any moment,” he said. “I am yours, now and always.”
She could not help it. She leaned over and brushed her lips over his. He tensed for a moment, and she worried that she had done the wrong thing, but then he relaxed and leaned into the kiss, placing a gentle hand on her cheek while their lips pressed together.
She broke the kiss and looked at him once again. She almost felt as if she would melt under the warmth of his gaze.
“Oh, my sweet Elizabeth,” he whispered. “This wait shall be agony, but there is no question you are worth it.”
He sat up and moved his chair back a bit, and she instantly missed him. Could it be true? Could she be falling in love with him that easily?
She had much to think about as Darcy rang a bell and their dinner service began. Later that night, as she fell asleep, all she could think of was the warmth of his lips pressing against hers.