It took some time for Darcy and Elizabeth to make their entrance, as they were stopped several times by greetings from people whom they had not yet seen. After several promises to speak further after the dancing was started, they finally arrived on the dance floor.
Elizabeth called a country dance, hoping to include as many dancers as possible. Partners fell into line on either side of the Darcys and the music began to play. Elizabeth kept her steps simple; it might have seemed that she was doing so out of consideration for the younger and less experienced dancers, but it was really because she had never called the dance for such a large group before, and she was terrified of making a mistake. After several minutes without incident, she was able to relax and actually began to enjoy herself.
After they completed their dance, Elizabeth looked at Georgiana, who was dancing with Colonel Fitzwilliam, to call the dance. Georgiana took over the calling with great delight, and Darcy and Elizabeth returned to speaking with their guests. Most of them were lovely and were very interested in meeting and speaking to Elizabeth. She got the sense that a few of them still considered her to be below their notice, but she was not especially bothered by it; after all, she was the mistress of Pemberley now.
A well-dressed couple that Elizabeth had not met before stepped in front of them.
“My dear, allow me to present His Grace the Duke of Worthingham and his wife, Her Grace the Duchess of Worthingham. Your Graces, this is my wife, Mrs. Darcy.”
Elizabeth curtsied deeply, as was befitting their station. It also gave her a moment to inspect the couple. The Duke was clearly much older than his wife. He was very stout and had pronounced jowls and hair that was nearly white. The Duchess, on the other hand, was dressed very stylishly. She was at least twenty years his junior, and wore a gorgeous ivory gown with a sheer overlay, and there was a large matching feather in her striking black hair. She looked at Elizabeth with heavy-lidded brown eyes and smiled.
“You are simply delightful, Mrs. Darcy!” she said with a smile that did not reach her eyes. “We thank you for the invitation.”
“You are very welcome at Pemberley,” said Elizabeth, although she did not especially mean it. She was instantly on her guard; Elizabeth had met several people who were dismissive of her since her wedding, and the Duchess showed all the signs of being that sort of person.
The Duchess sighted someone across the room, waved to them, and excused herself. The Duke also excused himself, but went to find a seat rather than accompany his wife.
“How do you know them?” she asked Darcy.
“Just through social engagements,” said Darcy. “Especially in my younger days, Her Grace was often at the same parties and balls that I attended.”
“Only Her Grace?” I asked.
“Well, His Grace was often there as well, but he normally finds a place to settle for the evening, while she is much more active,” he said. “I believe that it is the nature of the difference in their ages. It does not seem to bother either of them overly much.”
Elizabeth was not comforted by the fact that the Duchess often socialized on her own, without her husband. There was something about the way that the Duchess looked at both Elizabeth and Darcy that unnerved Elizabeth. She made a note to ask Georgiana about the Duchess later.
Elizabeth looked about to see if she could find Georgiana, but spied the Colonel instead. He was no longer dancing with Georgiana, but rather with a pretty blonde woman. They were smiling widely at one another as they went through their steps. Elizabeth watched them for a few moments, pleased that they seemed to be enjoying one another’s company. She might have watched them for longer if it had not been for the footman who came to tell her that she was needed in the entrance hall. She quickly went to see what the trouble was.
Darcy was facing her, his hand fisted in another man’s cravat, keeping him still and at Darcy’s mercy. Elizabeth gasped and rushed forward.
“Darcy, what are you—,“ she stopped as she saw the face of the other man. “Wickham! What are you doing here?”
“I had just asked him that precise question,” said Darcy in a low, dangerous voice. Then, to Wickham, “We await your answer.”
“Unhand him at once!” came a voice from behind Elizabeth. She turned around to see Lydia rushing at them, her cheeks flushed with anger and excitement. “How dare you put your hands on him?”
Darcy let out a humorless laugh. “Oh, my dear sister-in-law,” he said, “I have more than enough reasons.”
“Let him go!” said Lydia, stamping her foot like a child.
Elizabeth noticed that Wickham was gesturing desperately at Lydia to be quiet. It did not work.
“We are to be wed!” Lydia said. “It is all right, Wickham. What can it harm us to tell them? If they know, we do not have to sneak away to be married. It is better this way.”
“Married?” said Elizabeth. “The two of you, married?”
“Jealous, Lizzy?” said Lydia with a smile. “I know that you fancied Wickham back in Meryton. I suppose it came as a great shock when he was not one of the men who proposed to you. But, you see, it is I that he is in love with.”
“In love?” said Darcy, loosening his grip so the other man could speak. “Wickham, you scoundrel. What lies have you told this girl?”
“I have only told her the truth, Darcy,” Wickham said, regaining his poise and deftly stepping away from Darcy’s reach. “We are quite in love and she is to become my wife. And then… well, my! You and I shall be practically related, shall we not?”
“Is there any low to which you will not stoop to devil me?” said Darcy.
“Why do you think this is at all in regards to you?” said Lydia, moving to Wickham’s side. “Is it so very hard to believe that a man like him could be in love with me?”
Darcy and Elizabeth shared a look, but kept those particular concerns to themselves.
“Anyway, there is nothing you can do about it,” said Lydia. “We will be married, and if Mama will not allow it, then we will go to Gretna Green. We are in love and we cannot be kept separated forever!”
“Is that what he has told you, Lydia?” said Darcy, straining to keep an even voice. “Before you make such a commitment, you must know that the man is a liar and a villain. A marriage to him will cause you nothing but pain and heartache.”
“Yours is not a judgment that I care for, after what you did to my poor, dear Wickham,” Lydia said. “Do not think he has not told me of how you cheated him out of his living.”
Before Darcy could speak, Elizabeth walked over and took Lydia by the arm. “You do not know of what you speak,” Elizabeth said urgently.
“Oh, do I not?” said Lydia. “Do you think that you are the only one he would trust to confide in? Of course you do, Lizzy. You always think that you are so much better than me, and now with your fine estate, you have become even more proud. Well, I am soon to have a husband as well. He may not be as rich, but he is twice as handsome.”
“Lydia, you are making a fool of yourself,” Elizabeth said.
“If I am making a fool of myself, give me proof of what you say,” said Lydia.
Elizabeth and Darcy looked at each other once again. They could not tell Lydia about Wickham’s involvement with Georgiana, and Lydia was clearly not about to trust their judgment on the issue.
Lydia took their silence as confirmation she was right, and smiled at them. “I knew you could not, because my dear Wickham has done nothing wrong.”
“He has,” rang a clear voice across the hall. All four of them turned to see Georgiana approaching.
“I am certain that my brother has informed you that this man is a scoundrel,” said Georgiana to Lydia. “Has he told you why?”
“He has no reason why, because it is a lie,” retorted Lydia.
“I almost wish it was,” Georgiana said ruefully. “But my brother has good reason to protect you from this man. Two years ago, Mr. Wickham proposed marriage to me.”
Lydia’s eyes widened.
“I believed all those things that you now believe, about him being honorable but abused by fortune. Fortunately, I told my brother of our plans to wed, and he came to save me. It turns out that Mr. Wickham wanted nothing more than my dowry, and to cause my brother pain.”
“What reason would he have to marry me?” Lydia asked. “I do not have a sizable dowry. If he were not marrying me for love, what possible reason could there be?”
“Lydia, you heard him say it himself,” said Elizabeth. “It is his way to continue to harass Darcy. If Wickham and Darcy are married to sisters, they will continue to be in one another’s lives.”
“Tell them, Wickham!” Lydia said. “Tell them how much you love me!”
“I love her,” said Wickham, smiling at the group.
“What is it that you love about her?” asked Elizabeth.
Wickham was caught off guard, and stared for a moment at Lydia. She was smiling at him and waiting for him to respond. As the silence stretched out and Wickham could not form a response, the smile slowly fell from her face.
“Wickham?” she said.
He blinked and then launched into a speech about Lydia’s general amiability, and how he would be fortunate to have such a wife. It was too late, however. The damage was done.
“Are they right about you?” Lydia asked, her eyes filling with tears.
Georgiana took her arm. “Come, Lydia. Let us leave them and go find some handsome young men with proper intentions to dance with. I know how you must feel. Come with me.”
She gently coaxed Lydia away towards a side room to clean up. Elizabeth hoped that Lydia’s heartbreak would not last much beyond her first or second dance with an attentive partner.
“Why come here?” Darcy demanded of Wickham. “If the two of you had just stolen away, you did not risk the chance of being caught.”
“I do not see the need to tell you anything,” said Wickham.
Darcy grabbed him by the cravat once again and landed a solid punch. Elizabeth was shocked to see her husband resort to violence, and quickly looked around to ensure that they were not being observed. Thankfully, the commotion did not seem to be noticed by any of the guests; at least, no one had come out of the ballroom.
“I think you know that I can beat you in a fair fight,” growled Darcy. “However, I will remind you that you are in Pemberley. I have already won.”
Wickham seemed to realize that he was at Darcy’s mercy. He sighed.
“It is closer to Gretna Green,” he said.
“But why would you set foot in Pemberley, knowing that you could be recognized?” asked Elizabeth.
Wickham began to sneer at her, but Darcy cocked his arm back once again and he quickly decided to be civil. “I was planning to hide during the ball and rouse Lydia in the night to leave. I know Pemberley well; it would not be a problem for me to maneuver about at night. And with all the people here, I was able to slip in through a side door. Poor security, chap,” he drawled to Darcy.
“A mistake that will not be repeated, I assure you,” said Darcy.
“You know that I will expose Georgiana if you make any move against me,” said Wickham, playing the only card he had left.
Darcy took his hands off Wickham, but remained tensed and ready to grab him again if necessary.
“You will get nothing more from me,” Darcy said. “If I ever see you in Derbyshire again, or if I ever hear that you have spoken a word against Georgiana, I will not hesitate to do what I must to protect my family.”
It was a very clear threat, and everyone in the room knew it.
Darcy took a step closer to Wickham and spoke very softly. “Get out,” he said, “before I change my mind and make things a great deal more uncomfortable for you. You know very well that there are rooms in Pemberley where you would never be found.”
Wickham’s eyes widened and he quickly turned towards the door.
“Never set foot in Pemberley again, Wickham. You know me to be a man of my word,” Darcy called after him.
Wickham made no sign that he had heard. Instead, he hurried quickly out the door and into the night.
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief, and suddenly felt quite faint. Darcy was at her side in a moment, steadying her and directing her to sit on a nearly chair.
“That was unexpected,” he said.
She laughed weakly. “Indeed.”
“Will Lydia’s heart mend?”
“Almost certainly. Lydia is, if nothing else, resilient. Thank goodness Georgiana was here to help convince her.”
Darcy smiled proudly at his sister’s selfless actions.
“Why would Wickham instigate such a plot? What had he to gain, really?” Elizabeth asked.
“I suppose he thought of it as the best way to gain access to me,” Darcy said. “He may have hoped that time would wear me down, and that I would once again provide him with the funds that he so desperately needs.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Thank goodness you caught him,” she said.
“It is over now,” he said. “We should get back to our guests. Do you feel well enough to return?”
Elizabeth nodded. “I do. Let us try to forget about this and enjoy our night.”
Darcy placed a hand on his wife’s back and gently escorted her back to the ballroom. He desperately hoped that there would be no more of this sort of surprise in their evening.