Elizabeth Bennet strolled slowly past a line of elegant townhouses in a fashionable area in London for the second day in a row, a maid following a few steps behind her. She knew that, unlike her normal joyful countenance, her face must look pale and agitated. Then, suddenly, her spirits brightened. Increasing her pace, she walked almost directly into the path of a tall gentleman.
“Pray forgive me! I was not looking where I was heading. It was a lovely day and I was hoping to shop at Bond Street but I could not resist taking a walk to admire the lovely townhouses in the area.”
“How long have you been in London, Miss Bennet?”
“But two days, sir.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At my aunt and uncle’s.”
“But of course. I…am walking to my club. Is your family in good health?”
Elizabeth walked closer to him and lowered her voice. “I fear we are very ill indeed, Mr. Darcy. May I interrupt your day and request a more private meeting with you, in the park around the corner?”
She saw his eyes widened. He nodded his head and said, for the benefit of the footman and maid who looked on, “Miss Bennet, it was a pleasure to meet you in London again. May I escort you to Bond Street through the park?” He then offered her his arm.
“My pleasure,” she replied and gave him a small smile. When she put her hand on his arm, she could feel the strength and the warmth of his arm, even through the thick coat. She shivered.
“Are you cold, Miss Bennet?”
“No,” she declared stubbornly, “I am well.”
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy cast her a look. They walked on silently while her maid followed.
“Should we take a rest over there?” He asked at last.
His deep voice startled Elizabeth from her dark thoughts. With a sigh, she took a seat at a bench under a large Chestnut tree. He sat down, as well, at the far end of the bench, while her maid wandered farther.
The park was small, and there were few people present, due no doubt to the early morning hour.
Elizabeth gathered her thoughts. “Mr. Darcy, pray excuse my impertinence for requesting this private meeting with you.”
He did not reply but turned slightly to glance at her.
Bracing herself, Elizabeth began. “I would like to apologise for abusing you so abominably to your face in Hunsford, all the more so because my behaviour was based on untrue facts. I am truly ashamed of myself. My actions were blind, partial, prejudiced and absurd.”
“Pray allow me to continue, Mr. Darcy. Vanity has been my folly. From the very outset of our acquaintance, I was pleased with the preference of Mr. Wickham, and offended by your seeming neglect. I have courted prepossession and ignorance, driving reason away where either of you were concerned. Till the moment I read your letter, I never knew myself.”
“Pray do not...”
“And now, the most dreadful circumstance has overtaken our family.” Tears sprang to her eyes despite her determined efforts to compose herself. “My younger sister, Lydia, has left all her friends, and has eloped, throwing herself into the power of…of Mr. Wickham.”
For a terrible instant, Darcy appeared fixed in astonishment. Then he stood up and paced before her. “How did it happen?” he prompted tersely.
Elizabeth drew a steadying breath, determined to respond in as controlled a manner as possible. “The militia left Meryton about the same time as I left for Hunsford. My sister Lydia was invited by Colonel Forster's wife to stay with her for a few weeks. Lydia left Brighton together with Mr. Wickham on Sunday night, and they were traced almost to London, but not beyond.”
“What has been done? What has been attempted, to recover her?”
“My father is here in London. He has been trying to find her for the past three days, with my uncle’s assistance. He sent for me from Kent at the same time. That was the reason I requested this meeting. You have known Mr. Wickham since your youth. I beg for intelligence to help us in our search.”
Mr. Darcy made no answer. He continued to pace for a while, then stopped and looked sharply at her.
Elizabeth returned his gaze through teary eyes.
“And what would be my reward for helping you?” He asked at last.
It was Elizabeth’s turn to widen her eyes. “Reward? I am appealing to your gentleman’s nature to help a family in distress.”
He laughed coolly. “As I recall, you stated yourself that I had a selfish disdain for the feelings of others, and that I was no gentleman. Why would such a man help a family in distress without some reward in view?”
“But you are a man of fortune. What more…?” Elizabeth's trembling voice faded. Standing abruptly, she said to him coldly, “It was a mistake for me to beg you for intelligence. Mr. Darcy, pray forgive me for interrupting your day.”
She began to walk away, but he grabbed her arm and prevented her retreat. “Sit down, Miss Bennet. You can ill afford to be missish when I can help you recover Miss Lydia and force Wickham to marry her.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “You cannot seriously suggest that I would trade my virtue for it. How can you believe that I would corrupt the reputation of our family just to save it from another form of ruination?”
“You are so certain that I demand you to sell your soul?”
Elizabeth faltered. “But…if you are not asking me to be your…your mistress, pray tell what other reward were you hoping for?”
Maddeningly, he spread his hands. “In truth, I did not have a specific goal in mind when I asked. I was simply inquiring. But since you are already thinking in that direction…”
“Mr. Darcy! Pray do not toy with me,” she protested, her throat aching with distress. “My family is in ruin. I have no heart for playing such games with you.”
“So, you admit that you were always playing games with me, in the past? Was that why you thought that the pain of your rejection would be of only short duration? You thought I was devoid of true feelings in the matter?”
“I have apologised for hurting you…”
“No, you have only apologised for abusing me to my face. You did not take my feelings seriously when you refused my offer, nor have you indicated that you do so even now, with your apology.”
“Sir, if you want me to apologise for hurting your feelings…”
“There is no point in an apology if the need for issuing one did not even occur to you before I mentioned it.”
“What do you want then? I cannot conceive that you would want me as your wife now, even if you should offer your support to us, for you must realise that I would be a sister to Mr. Wickham. Moreover, you have just stated that you do not want me as your mistress – not that I would agree to such a situation in any event. So tell me, please, what kind of reward you could possibly have in mind, considering that you know my family not to be in any way capable of offering financial recompense to you."
His shoulders lifted fractionally and fell. “I do not know yet. Can we not simply agree that you will owe me some reward if I succeed in finding your sister? I can promise that I shall not offer you the arrangement of a mistress. Other than that, I would consider myself at liberty to ask you to do whatever I wish, as reward.”
“But that is the vaguest term of agreement! What if you should request that I do something immoral?”
His face was stern with offended pride. “Is your opinion of me so low that you believe me capable of asking you to do something immoral? If so, I am grieved indeed.”
Cheeks aflame, she protested, “No, sir, I am not saying that I believe you would. But surely we should not enter a bargain without the clearest terms in mind.”
“You are a worthy opponent in negotiation. How, then, does this suit you? I shall bring my sister to walk in the park tomorrow, at the same hour as today. At that time, I shall introduce her to you so that I may contact you through her, thereafter, without raising undue suspicion.” He raised a single brow. “And I shall wait to name my reward until after I have succeeded in arranging for Wickham to marry your sister.”
“What, then, if I refuse to grant your reward?”
His expression hardened. “Then I will simply undo the arrangements.”
Elizabeth gasped. “But that is no negotiation at all, if I do not have the right to refuse!”
“You cannot refuse. You can, however, negotiate.” Darcy’s dark gaze challenged her. “So then, do we have an agreement?”
Returning his glare, she nodded reluctantly.
The following day, true to his agreement, Mr. Darcy and his sister encountered Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet, what a coincidence! Are you walking to Bond Street again?”
“Why, Mr. Darcy, you have caught me once again. Some ladies just cannot stay away from the shops.”
“May I introduce my sister?”
“Miss Bennet, this is my sister, Georgiana, and her companion, Mrs. Annesley. Georgiana, this is Miss Bennet from Hertfordshire. I made her acquaintance when I last stayed with Bingley at Netherfield.”
“Miss Darcy and Mrs. Annesley, it is a pleasure to meet you. Miss Darcy, I have heard that you sing and play the pianoforte very well.”
Elizabeth conversed with Miss Darcy for some moments before her brother invited his sister to take a rest with Mrs. Annesley on the bench under the Chestnut tree while he strolled on with Elizabeth.
“I have intelligence on where they are,” he said without prologue, as soon as they were relatively alone.
“So soon?” Her pulse quickened. “Can we arrange for my father or uncle to be with you when you confront them?"
“It is not advisable. I do not want your family to call Wickham out. They may be hurt.”
“But surely they can help in some way.”
“Once I reach the couple and have negotiated with Wickham, I will talk to your uncle and ask him to take the credit for their discovery, so long as he does not raise the matter with your father.”
“But why? Why must there be secrecy with my father?”
Mr. Darcy gave her a long-suffering look. “Would you be eager to explain to your father how you begged for my assistance? Or how you settled upon some future reward with me? If so, I am certain that he will be calling me out, instead.”
“Then how do you propose to explain all of this to my uncle?"
“You will have to trust me, and arrange a time for me to call upon your uncle at his warehouse. From there, I will do my part.”
“How did you know that my uncle has a warehouse?”
“I make it my business to know about those with whom I am dealing, especially when it comes to any kind of business venture."
A few days later, Mr. Bennet said to his brother, “Edward, you must tell me how much you have laid down to bring this about. I have to work out a plan to repay you.”
“No, Thomas, do not distress yourself. I had a very fine year with my investments. I would not do it if I could not afford it.” Mr. Gardiner replied.
“Wickham is a fool if he takes Lydia for a farthing less than ten thousand pounds.”
Elizabeth exclaimed, “Ten thousand pounds? Heaven forbid! How is half such a sum to be repaid?”
Her father ignored her outburst. “Edward, Lydia is my daughter. I am utterly ashamed of myself for not thinking ahead sufficiently to save up enough money to bribe some worthless young men into marrying my silly daughters. Now I am depleting your children’s inheritance for my own stupidity.”
“Thomas, do not speak of it any more. Lydia is my relation, too. We cannot see her ruined. Besides, we are all family and I fear it would darken the reputation of my children, as well.”
The two gentlemen clasped hands. “Edward, you are a good man. I shall think up some way to repay you, though it may be slowly done.”
Touched, Elizabeth smiled upon them both. “Papa, you look exhausted. I’m certain that Uncle Edward will understand if you retire now.”
Wearily, Mr. Bennet agreed.
As he left the room, Elizabeth said quietly, “Uncle, might I take up just a bit more of your time, to discuss the wedding arrangements for Lydia and Mr. Wickham?”
He acquiesced, and they resumed their seats by the fire.
Elizabeth addressed him, filled with dread, “Uncle Edward, can it possibly be true that Mr. Darcy has laid down over ten thousand pounds over this matter?”
Her uncle sighed. “No, not as much as all that, although it is quite bad enough. It is my understanding that he has put forth roughly five thousand pounds.”
“Five thousands pounds,” Elizabeth echoed despondently “Mr. Darcy did not agree for us to settle it?”
“He argued that this lamentable situation arose because of his reserve and his want of proper consideration. It allowed Wickham’s character to be so badly misunderstood, causing the blackguard to be received and noticed as he was.”
“How could Mr. Darcy blame himself for such a rake’s misdeeds?”
Her uncle shook his head. “Perhaps there was some small measure of truth in it. But in spite of all this fine talking, my dear Lizzy, I would never have yielded if I had not thought he had another interest in the affair. I do not speak it to be grateful, for I would most readily have settled the entire amount myself.”
“What can you possibly mean, Uncle, by 'another interest in the affair'?”
“Well, Mr. Darcy was perfectly well-behaved, polite and unassuming during our meeting. I actually thought him rather sly. He hardly ever mentioned your name. But every time he did, I could see that he had your best interests at heart. Indeed, he has invited us to stay at his estate of Pemberley when we tour the North, come this summer.”
“I thought we were going to the Lakes.” Elizabeth blushed at the thought of staying at Pemberley. Was that the reward that Mr. Darcy had settled upon?
“I was convinced to make the detour by Mr. Darcy, and of course your aunt agreed, as she would enjoy visiting Lambton, the town where she grew up. It is just five miles from Pemberley. We will stay there for some three weeks.”
Three weeks in Mr. Darcy’s house! What does he want with me? Elizabeth thought, and felt a ribbon of heat rise through her.
The next day, Mr. Darcy came to discuss his reward.
He did indeed make it his business to know those with whom he was dealing. He came to call upon Elizabeth when her father and uncle were away, consulting with their lawyers.
Lydia was still upstairs in her bedroom, but Elizabeth and her aunt received Mr. Darcy, his sister and her companion. After a few pleasantries, he managed to draw her to sit aside from the others. In a low voice, he confided, “I have come to discuss my reward.”
Elizabeth looked at her hands, folded neatly in her lap. “Well?”
“I want…to spend some time with you.”
“Spend some time?” she repeated softly. “What do you mean?”
“I shall explain to Bingley that I was wrong about Miss Bennet when he returns to London, next week. With luck, he will not be too angry with me, and will invite my sister and I to journey to Hertfordshire for a few weeks. I plan to do so, after Wickham and his wife leave the vicinity.”
“You would do that? Speak to Mr. Bingley about Jane?”
“I always try to correct what I have made wrong. And I imagine, by now, that you have heard from your uncle about my invitation to them – and to you – to pass time at Pemberley in the summer?”
“Yes, for three weeks.”
“After your visit to Pemberley, you could return the favour and invite my sister and I to Longbourn for Christmas.”
“You want to stay with my family during Christmas?”
“Well, perhaps a happy event will have happened before then and I can stay in Netherfield. If not, I will be happy to stay in Longbourn.”
“What...what exactly will we do when we...spend some time together?”
“I intend to make my ardent admiration more thoroughly known to you,” Mr. Darcy leaned forward and murmured, and Elizabeth could feel his breath hot against the bare skin of her neck.
“Nothing immoral, remember,” Elizabeth cautioned breathlessly.
“Everything will be designed for your pleasure.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, and a retort rose to her lips. She saw Mr. Darcy turn his head and dart a glance at those on the opposite side of the room. Assured that no one was watching them, he took her hand, raised it to his lips, kissed the inside of her wrist, then allowed the tip of his tongue to caress the soft flesh there before biting it lightly.
For Elizabeth, it felt as if a thunderbolt had coursed through her body. Her intended retort was lost as she held her breath, determined not to make a sound that might alert the others in the room to the liberty he took.
Mr. Darcy gave her a devilish smile, straightened, and signaled for his sister and her companion to prepare to take their leave, Thereby neatly avoiding any response that Elizabeth might have been tempted to express.
Oh my Lord! Elizabeth thought wildly as she watched him take his leave, what have I just agreed to reward him with?
“Father! Father! It’s Lydia!” Elizabeth cried out as she rushed down to the morning room.
“My dear, whatever is the matter?" Mr. Bennet replied. He had awakened early and was breaking his fast alone at the Gardiner’s townhouse. The Gardiners themselves had gone out. Lydia’s wedding was scheduled for two days hence. Mr. Bennet longed to finish the whole sorry business and return to his beloved library at Longbourn as soon as humanly possible.
“Father, Lydia has run away with Mr. Wickham again.”
“Again? Whatever do you mean by that?”
“She left a letter. She states that Mr. Wickham does not like the commission in the North that Uncle Gardiner purchased for him. She says that they will marry and move to Bath instead; and that she will be in contact with us after she settled down.”
“The worthless young man! He is after more money, I am certain. I shall…” Mr. Bennet rose from his seat, appearing ready to breathe fire at Wickham, if necessary. A moment later, however, he clutched his chest, and collapsed onto the chair again.
“Father!” Elizabeth cried out.
Mr. Darcy received news of Wickham’s disappearance early in the morning, and came to the Gardiner’s townhouse with the hope of gaining a private meeting with its owner. Instead, he found Mr. Bennet collapsed in the morning room. The distressing news of his youngest daughter disappearing again had put such a strain on Mr. Bennet’s heart that, although he was still breathing, he was unconscious.
Mr. Darcy assessed the situation and immediately took charge. He picked up the sick man and called out to a servant to direct him to Mr. Bennet’s bedroom. He further instructed the servant to fetch his own private doctor.
Throughout the entire incident, Elizabeth could only stand by, watching Darcy’s solicitous actions through tear-blurred eyes. He was gentle and decisive with her father, and polite to every one, even the servants. Surely he would treat me with honour and decency. Oh, how now are we to find Lydia?
Mr. Gardiner returned to a house of unhappy chaos. Mr. Darcy gained his immediate attention for a private meeting and they shut themselves up in the study for the better part of half an hour. Before the gentleman left, however, Elizabeth was able to corner Mr. Darcy in private at the hallway landing.
“Sir, I must thank you for your quick action in sending for the doctor. You may have saved my father’s life.”
He did not say anything but nodded his head, looking grave.
“What are we to do now?”
“Wickham left me a note. I shall take care of the matter.”
“What does he want now?”
“I shall take care of it. You are not to worry.”
“I insist! This concerns my family.”
With a sigh, Mr. Darcy yielded. “He has demanded a further five thousand pounds and a townhouse in Stoke Newington. He says he will contact me once I settle the terms with his lawyer. He has given me five days to arrange it.”
“Another five thousand pounds? Dear Heaven, what greed! How could Lydia be so stupid! What does he threaten to do if we cannot comply?”
“I shall speak to my steward. You must not distress yourself.”
“But you cannot provide for him endlessly. The scoundrel! We must find them, and force him to marry Lydia. If we sent them off to one of the colonies, perhaps that would help us to forget all about them, so that Mr. Wickham could never trouble us again.” Anger grew in Elizabeth’s chest.
“The innkeeper where Wickham stayed overheard him stating that he did not intend to leave for Bath.”
“But where, then, would they go?”
“I know Mrs. Younge has a sister in a fishing village not far from Dover and Wickham had been there before. I shall investigate that area.”
“Might Uncle Edward go with you?”
"I believe your uncle has other more pressing obligations to fulfill, do you not agree? He must inform your mother about your father’s condition, and speak with his steward in your father's absence.”
“Then…may I go with you?”
“Absolutely not. It is not an area fit for a gentlewoman.”
“Elizabeth, you must keep your end of our bargain, and I shall keep mine! Now go back to your father. I will send news as soon as there is any to tell."
Mr. Darcy moved towards the door but Elizabeth blocked his way, insinuating her small body in front of his tall one. “I must help in the search. I am determined!" she said, her eyes ablaze as she challenged him.
But a matching determination had arisen in Darcy. He already blamed himself for not keeping a closer eye on Wickham, nor was he prepared to deal with a hot-headed woman breathing annoyance down his neck. “And how, pray tell, do you intend to handle a lowly man from a disreputable area?” He proceeded to demonstrate his meaning by wrapping his left arm around her waist and pulling her body hard against his. He looked straight down into her fiery gaze, warning her silently to back away.
She was standing on tiptoe, her body pressed against the length of his. She felt flustered and she sensed a hot flush rising onto her face. The bite he had given her on the wrist had only disappeared the night before, and now he was imprinting his shape on hers. Her breath grew quick and shallow, but she would not back away. “My courage rises with each new attempt to intimidate me.”
Further incensed by her attitude, Mr. Darcy lowered his head and whispered into her ear, “Such a man would not be content with intimidation. He would do what I have wanted to do with you every time I have been in your presence, these past months.” He positioned his right hand over her bosom, then squeezed it hard. Anticipating her scream, he was able to muffle it with a kiss, his tongue thrusting between her parted lips.
Elizabeth could not believe that two people could be this close. She felt she could not breathe, with his tongue playing havoc inside her mouth. Passion exploded in her chest as he fondled her roughly. Blood drained from her head down into her body, and she nearly swooned.
Abruptly, he released her and backed away, saying coarsely, “Learn from this lesson! Do not attempt anything hasty. I will send word once I know anything of importance.” He whirled away and departed from the townhouse, leaving a weakened Elizabeth still plastered against the wall in a heated daze.
An hour later, however, Elizabeth felt ready to brave the lion again. Her uncle had left for Longbourn earlier, promising to inform Mrs. Bennet of the bad turn in her husband’s health and to arrange business matters with her husband’s steward. Elizabeth informed her aunt that Mr. Darcy would be going off to search for Lydia and Wickham, and then added that he had requested that Elizabeth stay with his sister while he was away, since Miss Darcy's companion had been called away suddenly.
Departing the house, Elizabeth trusted that her aunt would continue to believe her tale and would not question the matter further.
Arriving at Darcy’s townhouse, she requested a private meeting with Miss Darcy, where she stated boldly that she and Mr. Darcy had been secretly engaged since their Easter meeting at Rosings. Since Darcy had already shared some of the particulars about Lydia and Wickham's situation, Elizabeth was able to persuade Georgiana to agree that she must accompany Mr. Darcy in his search for the wayward pair.
At first, Miss Darcy did not feel right about helping her secretly, but Elizabeth convinced the girl that she feared that Mr. Darcy might challenge Mr. Wickham to a duel, and that she believed that only her presence would prevent it. She also called upon Georgiana to agree, at need, to corroborate the story she had told to Mrs. Gardiner.
In turn, the young lady suggested sending a maid to Gracechurch Street to help care for Mr. Bennet in the meantime, and made enquiries with the footman about her brother’s plan. They learned that he had ordered two hire coaches and had several servants ready for the journey. They would stay in Whitstable, a small coast town near Dover. He would then change into labourer’s clothes and walk to the nearby fishing village from there on a ‘private matter.’
“Why does my brother wish to go to the village himself, instead of sending the servants?” Miss Darcy asked.
“I believe he is determined to confront Mr. Wickham himself. That is why I fear that a duel may be imminent. I do not want him hurt. You must help me, Georgiana. You must!”
This last argument persuaded Georgiana to help her. So determined, the two women then dressed Elizabeth as one of Darcy’s footman and slipped her in the front of one of the carriages after Darcy was onboard.
By the time the coaches arrived in Whitstable, the sun had set.
Mr. Darcy bid his men goodbye. The first village was about two miles away, on an isolated part of the shore. If the enquiry was not long, he hoped to be back to Whitstable before the night was out.
A few metres behind, Elizabeth followed him quietly, able to trail him on level ground. When he took the downward track by the river towards the sea, however, she had more difficulty keeping up with his pace. The growing darkness hindered her progress, as well. A few moments into her downward descent, she encountered a slither of loose rock underfoot, and yelped aloud as it tumbled her down the bank to sprawl in the shallows of the slow-moving river.
Mr. Darcy heard a cry and turned back to find what looked like a slim lad sat in the shallow water. The boy had a smear of dirt on his face, and was staring at him with very bright eyes. In fact, those eyes looked very like…
“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth acknowledged weakly. She had hurt her ankle, and her clothes were soaked. When she tried to stand, the injured leg gave way and she slipped again.
Mr. Darcy moved quickly toward her. Before he could grab her, she slipped back into the water and splashed more of it on both of them.
“I told you that this was no place for a gentlewoman! Why did you not listen to reason?” Darcy hissed.
“I do not want you to call Mr. Wickham out. And I desperately want to help you with Lydia. I know my sister, and you will need me to reckon with her. Besides, I am no gentlewoman now,” she said, gesturing down at her boy’s clothing.
“But you have injured your foot. Now I shall have to carry you the two miles back to Whitstable. Stubborn woman! You are hindering the search, rather than helping it.”
Before they could argue further, they heard the approaching sound of men singing. Quickly, Darcy motioned for her to climb up and ride upon his back, with her arms wrapped around his neck, and her legs around his waist. At her scandalised look, he explained curtly that it was how a big brother would aid an injured younger brother.
“Wat yer doin’ ’ere, mate?”
“My cousin and I were heading to Whitstable, but he fell and hurt his foot in the river just now.” Mr. Darcy said.
“Whitstable be two miles on. Storm’s a comin’. Ye’d best stay till mornin’. My brother, John, has a hut at Herne Bay that’d be closer. Stay there, if y’like.”
Darcy looked up to the sky and agreed. He nodded and followed the men along the river to the sea, where they were taken to the hut of one of the fishermen. His family shared the hut with his brother and his wife. Darcy and Elizabeth were given the brother’s room. The bed filled up most of the space in the room, without even a chair to sit on.
John’s wife, Margaret, asked to have their wet clothes laid out for drying, and gave them trousers to wear for the time being. Inside the room, Elizabeth’s face turned bright red. She could not wear nothing but trousers, and yet she could not refuse to give Margaret her clothes. It would look too suspicious. Mortified, she looked at the bed and whispered to Mr. Darcy, “Pray, turn your back. I will remove my clothing and stay in the bed. You shall give the clothes to Margaret for drying. You must plead a headache for me, as I have no clothes that will permit me to go outside.”
Mr. Darcy turned his back and listened to the slithering noises behind him until Elizabeth said he could turn around. The wet clothes she had worn were now draped on the edge of the bed, and she had lain out another long piece of cloth near the window. She was lying under the bed sheet, and had pulled it up all the way to her neck.
Mr. Darcy said, “Should I not take that piece of cloth by the window out to Margaret as well?”
“No, she would find it strange that I possess such a piece of clothing.”
“I used it to…”
“To bind my bosom.”
“Oh!” Darcy exclaimed, flustered by the thought of her binding up her beautiful breasts. He said quickly, “It is you who must close your eyes now. I need to change.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes, silently listening as he removed his wet clothes and donned the dry ones. “I am finished." He said.
When she opened her eyes, she wished she had not. Although she was a country girl, and had seen many farmers without their shirts working in the hot sun, she was not prepared for the sight of a shirtless Mr. Darcy. His body was nothing like that of most farmers. His chest looked smooth and muscular. He was about to collect all of the clothes to leave the room when Elizabeth called out to him in a low voice.
“Mr. Darcy, you will not do.”
Darcy turned to look at her.
“You do not look like a labourer,” she confided.
He looked at his trousers and said, “These are a fisherman’s trousers, though too short for me.” He must be five inches taller than the owner of the clothes. Elizabeth could see that much of his calf exposed by each pant leg.
Colouring, she tried again. “I mean…your chest. You look… too clean and tidy.”
“Oh!” He looked around the room and spotted a broken bucket of herbs on the window sill. Scooping up a handful of dirt, he smeared some of it judiciously on his face, chest and exposed legs.
Elizabeth was mesmerised by his actions. She felt as if she were spying on him, as if he was taking a bath, a dirty bath.
“Will I do now?” he asked.
“Yes.” She averted her gaze and whispered shyly.
Looking reassured, he nodded his thanks curtly and left her there.
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