Nothing seemed amiss as Elizabeth and Darcy returned to the ballroom. Elizabeth glanced around to see if their confrontation with Wickham had been overheard. She did not see any questioning glances directed their way, nor did she feel the sense that the room was waiting to see what would happen next. She breathed a sigh of relief; they may have dealt with the issue with their guests being none the wiser.
Kitty ran up to her. “Lizzy, where is Lydia? I saw her leave the ballroom and I thought she was going to find you, but apparently she was not.”
Darcy looked at Elizabeth and nodded that he would give the two women some privacy. He discreetly moved in the opposite direction.
“She did, and I have not the time to tell you what happened,” said Elizabeth, clutching Kitty’s hands. “However, she and Georgiana are in the sitting room to the left. I am certain that Lydia would benefit from her sister right now. Go and see her.”
Kitty headed directly for the sitting room, and Elizabeth was struck by how much love there was in her family, even if many of its members spent most of their time being foolish. What she had told Darcy was the truth; she knew that Lydia felt her current heartache deeply, but it would not take much time for her to move on and find another man to occupy her thoughts. Certainly much less harm was done than if Wickham’s plan had succeeded. She gazed at Kitty’s retreating back and felt a warm sense of love for her sisters.
“Be cautious, Mrs. Darcy,” a voice said in her ear.
Startled, Elizabeth whirled around to find Caroline Bingley standing next to her.
“Pardon me?” Elizabeth asked.
“Look,” said Miss Bingley, pointing her chin towards where Darcy stood in conversation with the Duchess of Worthingham and a man that Elizabeth did not recognize.
“I see,” said Elizabeth, trying not to let her frustration towards Caroline seep into her voice, “but I do not know what cause I have for caution.”
As they watched, the Duchess laughed and reached out to touch Darcy’s forearm. He raised his eyes to her and their gazes seemed to lock for a moment. She stepped just the slightest bit closer to him and dropped her hand, but she continued to hang on every word that he said.
“Did you know that they had an involvement when he was younger?” said Caroline. “It was before I was out in society, but Louisa was out and she told me all about it. It seems that they were quite inseparable. She was already married, so nothing formal could come of it, but there were whispers of impropriety. If Darcy was my husband, I would watch him very cautiously around her. Old habits, as they say, die hard.”
Elizabeth took a step back and replied coldly, “Thank you for your concern for my marriage, but I think it is very much misplaced.”
Miss Bingley raised an eyebrow. “You can believe what you wish,” she said. “I only tell you in the spirit of friendship. It is nothing to me one way or another what you do with the knowledge.”
She gave Elizabeth a closed-lip smile and walked away.
Elizabeth resisted the urge to roll her eyes and reminded herself that Miss Bingley, however infuriating, was still her guest. She should have expected some sort of interference of the sort, but she had to work to overcome it. Miss Bingley would never change; all Elizabeth could do was learn to tolerate her.
She glanced back at Darcy. The Duchess had moved closer to him, and seemed to be held rapt by what he was saying. She appeared to be very familiar with him; too familiar, if Elizabeth was being honest with herself. She did not trust Caroline Bingley, but she also knew that Miss Bingley would not hesitate to tell the truth if she thought Elizabeth would be hurt by it. Could there be something to the story she had told?
Elizabeth thought that the best way for her suspicions to be assuaged was to join the conversation. That would reassure her that the flirtation was one-sided. She began to make her way over to her husband. As she got closer, she saw the Duchess throw her head back in laughter. Darcy looked at his conversation partner, smiling, obviously pleased by her amusement. Elizabeth felt a twinge in her stomach at seeing this.
As she walked, the twinge grew into a full-blown cramp; Elizabeth realized with horror that her nausea had returned, and it felt as if it was more than making up for the previous day’s good health. She bolted, desperately hoping that she would not be ill in front of the entire party. She made it to the sitting room where Georgiana, Lydia, and Kitty sat, and was violently ill in a rather unfortunate nearby vase. When she looked up, all three of them were staring at her with wide eyes.
“Poor Elizabeth!” cried Georgiana. She sent Kitty and Lydia to retrieve Darcy and produced a silk square for Elizabeth to wipe her mouth with.
“I am so embarrassed,” said Elizabeth, feeling her face flush. “What terrible timing!”
“Something you ate must have disagreed with you,” said Georgiana. “I think you have had quite enough of the ball for tonight. You need rest.”
“I cannot leave,” said Elizabeth. “I am the hostess!”
“I can take over hostess duties,” said Georgiana. “You need to go to bed. We both know that it will not do anyone any good to have an ill hostess.”
Elizabeth realized that Georgiana was right and nodded her consent. Georgiana led her over to the settee and got her settled. At that moment, Lydia arrived with Darcy in tow.
“What happened?” he said, looking alarmed at his pale wife.
“Elizabeth is ill,” said Georgiana. “She is going to rest. I will perform the remaining hostess duties.”
He walked over and tilted Elizabeth’s chin up, looking into her eyes. “Should I call for a doctor?” he said.
“No need,” said Elizabeth, her voice coming out like a croak. “Georgiana is right. I need to rest, and we will see how I feel in the morning. There is no need to call for the doctor yet.” Now was certainly not the right time to tell him about the baby. That was better saved for the following morning, when they were alone.
Darcy did not look convinced, but he did not argue with her.
Jane and Kitty arrived then. Jane was instantly at Elizabeth’s side, stroking her hair and whispering calming words.
“I will take her to her suite,” Jane said.
“But Jane, I do not want you to miss the ball,” said Elizabeth miserably.
“I am a married woman,” said Jane with a smile. “Better I miss some of it than the other girls.”
Elizabeth saw the sense in this and allowed Jane to lead her upstairs. She hoped that she would be able to make it to her suite without a repeat of what had just happened.
She was lucky in this regard, at least. They made it to her rooms with no further bouts of illness. Jane rang the bell to call Stewart, and that was no sooner done than Elizabeth was sick again.
“Poor Lizzy!” said Jane. “The little one is giving you quite a time.”
Elizabeth smiled weakly, glad that she had shared her secret with Jane.
Stewart came quickly through the door, took one look at Elizabeth, and began preparing a cold compress for her.
“My poor lady,” she said, sitting next to Elizabeth and mopping her forehead. “Let us get you to bed.”
Stewart and Jane assisted her to bed. The cool sheets felt wonderful, and she knew that rest was just what she needed.
“Jane, you ought to return to the ball,” she said weakly. “I am in Stewart’s quite capable hands.”
“Are you certain, Lizzy?” asked Jane with a frown.
“I am. There is nothing you can do here, and your absence will just make my sudden disappearance seem even more noteworthy.”
“I will send someone for you if anything changes,” Stewart reassured Jane. “I will take good care of her, I promise you.”
Jane did not look entirely convinced, but she started for the door. “Any change at all, Stewart,” she said.
“Of course, Mrs. Bingley,” said Stewart.
Elizabeth heard the door close, and she once again felt Stewart gently rub her face with the cold compress. That was the last thing she remembered before she fell into a deep sleep.
Elizabeth awoke quite early the next morning—at least that was what she assumed, based on the feeble light outside her window. She looked over to see Stewart asleep in a chair near the bed, and she was struck with what a comfort it was to have a good lady’s maid.
Elizabeth considered her stomach. It felt much better than it had the previous night. In fact, she even felt hungry. It was a relief not to feel the crippling nausea of the night before. She considered waking Stewart and asking for her breakfast, but she decided that she should go to Darcy before that and let him know that she was quite well. Why, with the ball over, she could even tell him the cause of her illness! Her heart rose at the thought, and she got out of bed and approached the door that divided their two rooms. She put her hand on the knob and twisted.
It was locked.