Sleep came slowly for Elizabeth that night. For Darcy, it did not come at all. He had expected her to be confused and possibly upset. He had not planned on her kissing him. He thought back to the way her soft lips felt pressed against his and he groaned as he tossed in his bed. It had taken every ounce of strength he possessed to refuse her when she had spoken of consummating the marriage. He had meant what he said. When it happened, he wanted their feelings and desires to be in concert. But to actually look into her beautiful eyes and deny her? He had not known if he had the strength to do so until the words were already out of his mouth.
He was unsure precisely what came next. Even a welcome change is a change, and he did not know what his next move ought to be. He did know that he would have to be particularly conscious and in control of his temper. One more outburst could permanently damage their relationship, and he had not gotten this far only to lose her now.
As much as it pained him, he realized that the best thing to do would be to hold back and follow Elizabeth’s lead. Now that he had made it clear he did not want to rush her, he hoped that she would only move at the speed that was comfortable for her, and if he did the same, their relationship had its best chance to move forward.
The following morning, both Elizabeth and Darcy took their breakfast in the dining room, the grand table back in its rightful place. Georgiana had elected to have breakfast in her room, and knowing the young lady’s tact, Elizabeth could not believe Georgiana’s absence a coincidence. Elizabeth felt a bit shy, especially when she remembered how forward she had been in kissing Darcy. Darcy certainly did not seem to begrudge her that forwardness, however. Every time she glanced at him, he was looking right at her with a gentle smile on his lips.
Darcy finally broke the long silence.
“Do you have plans today?”
“Georgiana and I have a project that we have been working on,” said Elizabeth, failing to mention that the project was actually two of the servants. “We had planned to speak about that this morning.”
Darcy nodded. He did not know what the two of them had planned, but he pitied anyone who might get in their way. He knew each of the women, alone, to be formidable. Working together, he had no doubt of their success.
“Perhaps we can take a stroll around the grounds later,” he suggested.
“That would be lovely,” she said. “Maybe Georgiana would like to join us.”
He agreed, although her request worried him just a bit. Was she concerned about being alone with him? Was Georgiana to be their chaperone?
Elizabeth saw the concern in his face. “I only suggest including her so that she does not feel neglected,” she said. “I would hate for the growth of our relationship to make her feel like she does not belong.”
Darcy smiled, his fears assuaged. Of course; he was delighted that Elizabeth was so conscientious of Georgiana’s feelings. “Certainly, we should invite her,” he said.
“I shall see you after lunch, then,” Elizabeth said.
As she left the dining room, she stopped and put a gentle hand to Darcy’s cheek. He took her hand and pressed a kiss to the palm, enjoying her sigh at the touch of his lips.
“I will count the moments,” he said.
Elizabeth smiled on her way out of the room, feeling his kiss on her skin for quite some time afterwards.
Georgiana was unable to get much out of Elizabeth about dinner the previous night. Her sister-in-law responded to most questions with a smile, but without many details. However, based on Elizabeth’s mood, Georgiana suspected that the previous evening had been successful. Georgiana was also delighted to hear of the planned walk later that day, although she privately intended to keep a distance from her brother and Elizabeth so that whatever seed had been planted could continue to grow.
The two women turned to the business of the morning: Stewart and Thomas.
“Have you seen the two of them together lately?” Elizabeth asked Georgiana.
“Much less than I have previously,” Georgiana replied.
“And Stewart has seemed a bit quieter than normal over the past few days. Certainly, there has been much less humming as of late.”
“I wonder if something is amiss. Could they really be having difficulties once again?”
Elizabeth thought over the bumpy start of her own relationship.
“They could be,” she mused. “Relationships are certainly not easy things. But I had hoped that their path would be clearer. Ought we to try to determine the problem?”
“Perhaps not,” said Georgiana. “We have given them ample opportunities to spend time together. I think that the work of the relationship is now theirs.”
Elizabeth realized that this was not a new tactic for Georgiana. She had done much the same in regards to Darcy and Elizabeth. Elizabeth further acknowledged the brilliance of this strategy. There was no way that her own relationship would have blossomed had she felt like someone was watching her every move. Things had to be free to move at their own pace. As much as Elizabeth wanted to help things along for Stewart and Thomas, she understood Georgiana’s reasoning behind allowing things to happen unencumbered. The question was whether Elizabeth was as capable of not interfering as was Georgiana. Elizabeth certainly had her doubts regarding her own ability. Nonetheless, she would try to take a lesson from Georgiana and let things proceed at their own pace. Besides, with all the changes between Darcy and her lately, she was plenty busy thinking about her own relationship.
Georgiana spent the first few minutes of their walk chatting with Elizabeth and Darcy, and then suddenly caught a chill. She bade them to continue on their walk while she retrieved a shawl. Georgiana promised she would catch up with them, but it was not difficult for them to see her ruse for what it was. They smiled at each other as Georgiana returned to the house.
The next few moments were spent walking in amiable silence, as the sun warmed their backs and the nearby stream made soothing sounds as water moved over rock. Elizabeth thought, not for the first time, that there could be no place on Earth quite so beautiful as Pemberley.
After several minutes, Darcy spoke. “It is past time that I told you what occurred between Mr. Wickham and me,” he said. “You have spoken truly in the past when you said that I expect you to be aware of things that you could not possibly know. I have been reluctant to speak of this issue, and when I am done, I hope you understand why that is the case. But you are now my wife, and you deserve to know the truth.”
Elizabeth did not speak, but she took his hand to encourage him to continue.
“Mr. Wickham was the son of my father’s steward, and my father was his godfather,” Darcy said. “We grew up together, here at Pemberley. Wickham was, as you have seen, a charming young man, and my father was exceedingly fond of him. Indeed, Wickham and I were close in our youth. However, it was at Cambridge that I began to see a different side of George Wickham. He claimed to be preparing himself for the church, but he was less interested in receiving an education than he was in enjoying himself. It was at Cambridge that he fell in with those disreputable men who so recently abused your hospitality. It was my father’s money that got Wickham through Cambridge, and I was quite shocked when he successfully completed his work there. However, my father was not aware of the base quality of Mr. Wickham’s morals, and continued to support him.
“Our fathers passed away within six months of one another, six years ago. In his will, my father stated that he wished for Wickham to receive a particularly valuable living as soon as it came available. I was conflicted about this. I knew Wickham to be a scoundrel, but I did not want to dishonor the memory of my father by denying him this final wish.”
Elizabeth felt her eyes getting wider and wider as the story continued. The man that Darcy described was so very different from the mannerly Mr. Wickham that she had met in Meryton! She waited for Darcy to continue his story.
“Luckily, Mr. Wickham resolved the issue for me. He came to me one day and announced that he was no longer interested in being a clergyman. Rather, he said, he had some intention of studying the law. He asked for a sum of money instead of the living my father had intended for him. I agreed and he was given three thousand pounds. When he left, I assumed that I would never speak to him again, which was an idea that pained me very little.
“For several years I saw and heard nothing of him. However, two summers ago he once again intruded in my life, this time in a most horrible way. I must warn you that the next portion of my story involves my dear sister. As it seems you love her nearly as much as I, I am not concerned about you speaking of it to anyone else. However, I feel that I must tell you how much it continues to pain her. Please do not mention it to her unless she speaks of it first.”
“I would never act in a way that I thought would hurt Georgiana,” Elizabeth said, her brow knitted in concern. What could Georgiana have to do with the dastardly Mr. Wickham?
“Georgiana had a companion at that time, a woman named Mrs. Younge. They were settled in London, and I trusted Mrs. Younge much too readily, having been deceived about the quality of her character. The two of them traveled to Ramsgate, where Mr. Wickham met them. This meeting was planned between Mrs. Younge and Mr. Wickham, whose connection I neither understand nor desire to. The treacherous woman gave Wickham access to my sister, and he exploited the fond memories that she had of him from her childhood. Soon, poor Georgiana, who was only fifteen, was convinced that she was quite in love with Mr. Wickham, and they began to prepare for an elopement. Certainly my sister’s marriage settlement of thirty thousand pounds was attractive to him, but I rather think that causing me distress by taking the person most dear to me was at least as large a cause for him to put this scheme into action.
“However, he had not planned on the depth of Georgiana’s affection for me, the brother whom she looked up to nearly as a father. She was unable to go through with the elopement without receiving my blessing, so she wrote to me informing me of her impending marriage. I have never in my life traveled so quickly as I did to Ramsgate, and it is lucky that I did. I barely caught them before they began their trip to Scotland to wed. Wickham made himself scarce as soon as I arrived, and Mrs. Younge was, of course, removed from service. Since then, I have not been willing to trust her care to any but I or Colonel Fitzwilliam. I have felt that she was safe enough at Pemberley that I could leave sometimes, but that security was destroyed when I returned home to find Stapleton and Colbourne in my home.”
Elizabeth finally understood the reason for his extreme behavior on the night he returned home.
“I now see why you are so very protective of her,” she said. “I am ashamed that I was so thoroughly fooled by Mr. Wickham. Just the thought of what might have happened had Georgiana not written to you!”
“I do not like to think of it. Regardless, it does not excuse the way I spoke to you the night I returned home,” he said. “If I had trusted you with the truth earlier, I have no doubt you would have made a different choice in regards to allowing those scoundrels to stay.”
“Certainly it would have made me more cautious,” said Elizabeth. “I do wish that I had known this before, but I understand how very difficult it must be for you to speak of this. I appreciate your trust in sharing it with me.”
“It is not my intention to be secretive with you, just as it is not my intention to be cross,” he said, stopping so he could look directly in her eyes. “I have never felt for anyone as I feel for you. This is all new to me.”
“To me as well,” responded Elizabeth. “We will have to learn together.”
With his story told, Darcy and Elizabeth fell into a companionable silence and walked along the water, holding tightly to one another’s hand. Elizabeth felt not only the peace of her surroundings, but the peace of her company as well. If she had been told, a week prior, that she would feel so at ease with Darcy, she would have been unable to believe it. She found that the more she understood the man, the more his behavior made sense and was, if not entirely faultless, at least excusable.
Darcy was even more surprised than Elizabeth at their developing closeness. He had always been a man who kept his own counsel; however, he was quickly learning that Elizabeth would not exploit his openness as weakness. Rather, if she was able to understand him, it made her all the more agreeable towards him. It did not feel natural for him to speak about personal matters, but if it would lead to strengthening his marriage with Elizabeth, he was willing to take the risk.