Authors: Abigail Reynolds
Tags: #Adult, #Romance
Copyright (c) 2010 by Abigail Reynolds
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mr. Darcy's obsession / Abigail Reynolds.
1. Darcy, Fitzwilliam (Fictitious character)--Fiction. 2. Bennet, Elizabeth (Fictitious character)--Fiction. 3. Courtship--Fiction. 4. England--Social life and customs--19th century--Fiction. 5. Gentry--England--Fiction. I. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. Pride and prejudice. II. Title.
Table of Contents
To Elaine and Harriet,
with thanks for their enduring and supportive friendship.
"Missed, damn it!" Bingley handed off his musket without a second glance.
With a frown, Fitzwilliam Darcy accepted an intricately decorated rifle from his loader. "Bingley, is anything the matter? You do not seem yourself."
"I missed the damned bird; that is the matter!" Bingley scowled. Darcy had seen little of Bingley's habitual smiles since his friend had arrived at Pemberley.
"There is no shortage of birds to shoot at." Darcy waited while the handler shooed the spaniel into the brush. A brace of partridge rose obligingly from the trees. He sighted down the barrel and shot. One of the birds plummeted to the ground, and the dog crashed through the brush to retrieve it. "I was surprised your sisters did not accompany you on this visit." It was his only guess as to what might be troubling Bingley.
"I do not care if I ever see them again."
So it was something his sisters had done. Certainly they could be irritating, but it surprised Darcy that they would affect Bingley enough to cause this uncharacteristic fit of ill humour. "Have you quarreled, then?"
Bingley took another shot, hardly bothering to aim, but said nothing until Darcy had his own rifle to his shoulder again. "Do you remember Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"
Darcy's finger tightened involuntarily on the trigger before he braced himself. The rifle recoil knocked him back a step, and his shot went wide. "I remember her, yes," he said brusquely.
"I saw her at Kew Gardens. Did you know she is living in London now?"
Darcy rubbed his shoulder where the rifle had kicked him. He tried to still his racing pulse. Of all the mutual acquaintances Bingley could have named, why did it have to be that one? Darcy had almost put her memory behind him after his last Easter visit to Rosings when he discovered Mr. Collins had left his aunt's employment, thus terminating his only potential source of intelligence about Elizabeth. "No, I had not heard."
"Her father died last autumn, and the estate was entailed away from the family. That idiot cousin of theirs, your aunt's clergyman, inherited. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters moved in with her sister in Meryton, but there was not enough room for all of them, so Miss Elizabeth came to live with her aunt and uncle in Cheapside. She helps them with their children."
"I had not realized there was an entailment." Yet another reason it was fortunate that Elizabeth had returned home from Rosings the previous year to care for her ailing father before Darcy had time to act on his impulse to ask her to marry him. Still, the idea of Elizabeth without a home of her own gave him a tinge of discomfort. He had always imagined her comfortably ensconced at Longbourn. And unmarried. His imagination refused to consider the possibility she might marry another. He watched absently as the handler took the dead partridge from the dog's mouth and dropped it into the game bag.
"She seemed to think I might know about it, and said her sister Jane had written to Caroline and told her the news, but never received a reply. I asked her if Jane was in London as well, and do you know what she told me?"
"I have no idea." He was certain from Bingley's savage tone that it was nothing good.
"A week before their father's death, Miss Bennet accepted an offer of marriage from one of her admirers in Meryton, one who had been thought beneath her consideration, but this way Jane could be in a position to provide for her mother in her old age. My Jane, married to a shopkeeper old enough to be her father." Bingley practically spat the words out.
Darcy shook his head. Bingley should be thanking his lucky stars for his narrow escape, and instead he was still pining over the girl two years later. "I hope it will work out well for her."
"Miss Elizabeth told me she had tried to persuade Jane not to do it, because Jane always wanted to marry for love, but she said she could never marry the only man she would ever love, so it mattered little whom she did marry. I could not help but ask what happened to the man she loved. Miss Elizabeth looked me straight in the eye and said, 'He left one day without explanation and never returned.'"
Darcy could picture it all too easily. Elizabeth had never hesitated to speak her mind, and if her sister had truly loved his friend, despite her appearance of indifference, Elizabeth would no doubt resent Bingley for his abandonment. "I am sorry to hear it."
"Not as sorry as I am. Then she asked me if I happened to see her sister when she had been in London the winter before their father died. Apparently Jane had called on Caroline and Louisa, who never saw fit to mention it to me. Caroline claims she did it to protect me." Bingley's bitterness was obvious.
It was just as well Bingley had no clue as to Darcy's interference in the matter. Darcy was not sure he would trust his friend with the information while he had a gun in his hand.
The loader held out a musket to Bingley, but he pushed it away. "I have lost my taste for shooting."
Darcy had promised himself he would not do this. Not a day had passed since he learned of Elizabeth's presence in London when he had not imagined seeing her somehow, but he knew it was foolishness. Their paths were unlikely to cross, and even if by some chance they did, the degradation of such a marriage would be even worse now than it had been when he had first considered it, that night at Rosings when her playing and verbal jousting had entranced him.
Yet here he was, not a fortnight after his return to London, riding down Gracechurch Street, attempting an air of unconcern as if he were paying no attention to his surroundings. It was not truly an attempt to see
; no, he had decided that his preoccupation stemmed from a concern as to Elizabeth's circumstances. If he could see for himself that she was part of a respectable household, he would be able to stop thinking of her constantly.
The street itself did not appear disreputable, despite the warehouses visible just beyond the houses. There were no more than the usual number of beggars and shifty-looking characters. He wondered which house was hers. Was she there, behind one of the windows? Did she ever think of him?
He shook himself out of his reverie, spurring his mount to a faster pace. He had learned what he needed, and now he should go, but instead he stopped at a small flower shop near Bishopsgate. Georgiana would like some flowers.
A street urchin appeared at his side as he dismounted. "'Old your 'orse, sir?"
Darcy handed him the reins. The small, disreputable boy with a smudge of soot on his face no doubt had the privilege of seeing Elizabeth in the neighbourhood, an opportunity unavailable to Darcy. Without much thought he selected a bouquet from the flower girl. Returning to the boy, he fished a coin from his pocket and dropped it in his outstretched hand.
The boy pulled at the edge of his ragged cap. "Thank yer, sir."
"Do you know the house of Mr. Gardiner?"
"Course I do." The boy pointed unhesitatingly up the street to a smallish house with painted shutters and well-tended flower boxes.
It was as if he could not help himself. "There is a young woman who lives there, a Miss Bennet."
The boy screwed up his face in thought. "Pretty bird, wiv dark hair?"
The description could have fit half the young women of London, but it brought only one image to Darcy's mind. "Do you know anything of her?"
"No, sir, but I know the cook's boy. I could find out somefin', if yer wanted me to, sir."
With a certain misgiving, Darcy handed the boy another coin. "Can you meet me here tomorrow? There will be another one of those for you if you can tell me about her."
"For sure, sir. What would yer be wantin' to know about 'er?"
Darcy hesitated. "Whether she is treated well, if she is happy, if she is... engaged or has a young man." He could barely bring himself to say it. "But not a word to anyone that someone has been asking."
"Course not, sir. Yer can count on me!"
"I found out what you wanted, sir." The boy, looking even more disreputable than the day before, barely paused for breath. "She has lots o' sisters at home, and her father's dead. Her ma had five thousand quid in the funds, but she's already spent it, so there's none for Miss Bennet, and no room, neither, so she came to live here. She been here about a year, and didn't go home but once. She writes lots o' letters, but Freddie don't know who to."
Apparently he had picked a very competent spy. "Do the Gardiners treat her well?"
"Seems like. She 'elps wiv the children, gives them lessons and such. No young man she favours, but Freddie says there's one as would like to be, a friend of her uncle's, and Mr. Gardiner favours him for 'er."
Darcy developed a sudden dislike for the unknown Mr. Gardiner. But that was unfair. He should be happy that Elizabeth had the prospect of something better than unpaid employment in her uncle's house, but he could not bring himself to appreciate it. "Anything else?" he asked brusquely.
A knowing grin split the urchin's face. "She rises early and goes walkin' most mornin's in Moorsfield."
Darcy caught his breath. "By herself?"
"By 'erself, sir." The boy was clearly pleased with his initiative.
"Well done." He pulled out a handful of coins, more than the boy deserved.
The boy examined his earnings with wide eyes. "Thank yer, sir! Any time yer need somefin', yer just ask for Charlie. Any time."
Elizabeth pulled her pelisse more tightly around her. It had not seemed so cold when she left the Gardiner house, but Gracechurch Street was well sheltered from the brisk wind that blew across Moorsfield, bending grasses and stems already brown from the frost. Still, she intended to take full advantage of her free hour. She could not complain of unhappiness in her uncle's house; she had always enjoyed visiting them, but it was different to live there. Always before she had known she would return to Longbourn and the countryside she loved. Now her life was in London, and despite the manifold attractions of town, she missed the freedom of her rambles and open land around her.
She nodded to an older couple walking past, one she often saw in the early morning hour. Across a field she could see two horsemen exercising their mounts, and she paused to admire the seat of one of them. As if feeling her gaze, he turned towards her.
Elizabeth froze in recognition. But there was nothing so strange about encountering Mr. Darcy in Moorsfield. After all, he had a house in London. She curtsied an acknowledgment, expecting no more than a nod in return from such a proud man. To her surprise, he reined in his horse and trotted in her direction, followed by the other horseman.
He dismounted and tossed his reins to his companion, who was dressed in a servant's livery. "Miss Bennet," Darcy said.
"It is an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Darcy." The words were not just politeness. Proud and disagreeable as Mr. Darcy might be, he was still a part of the life she had left behind, and his presence was a reminder of better days.
"The pleasure is mine." He looked as if he had no more to say, and she wondered why he had bothered to come to greet her.
"Have you been in London long?" she asked.
"Yes. That is, not long. I was at Pemberley until a fortnight ago."
"It must be very cold in Derbyshire this time of year."
"Very cold, yes."
She had forgotten how difficult it was to engage him in conversation. "It is quite a coincidence meeting you. I saw Mr. Bingley at Kew Gardens only a month or two ago."
The name of Mr. Bingley seemed to rouse him from his torpor, and he shifted from one foot to the other. "So he mentioned. He said you live in London now."
"Yes, I do." Elizabeth wondered what else Mr. Bingley had told him. If Mr. Darcy knew her present situation, she could understand even less why a man of such pride should deign to speak to her.
Darcy rubbed his hands together as if to warm them. "Do you enjoy city life?"
"In some ways. I enjoy living with my aunt and uncle, but I miss the countryside at home. I walk here whenever I can, but it is not the same."
"No, it is not. It must be agreeable, though, to be settled such an easy distance from Meryton."
"An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly thirty miles." Far enough that Elizabeth could afford to go home only once a year. Even then it was not the same, staying in her Aunt Philips's crowded rooms in town. Longbourn was no longer her home. She had visited Charlotte there precisely twice and did not intend to return again. Unlike her mother, she did not find it painful to see her old friend as mistress of Longbourn, but Mr. Collins could not miss an opportunity to comment on her changed circumstances and lost opportunities, and she questioned her ability to keep her temper if it happened again.
"And what is thirty miles of good road? Less than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance."
It must be easy to consider it such when one had ten thousand pounds a year. She did not wish to think on the home that was no longer hers, though, so she merely said, "It is far enough for me."
She expected him now to depart, but instead he offered her his arm. Did he intend to walk with her, then? She could not understand it. She silently thanked her aunt for her recent gift of new kid gloves. Her old ones had been quite worn through, and she would have been embarrassed to accept Mr. Darcy's arm in them. At least he would see the one item of her wardrobe for which she need not blush.