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There is only one more chapter and the epilogue left to edit. Once those are complete, I will create a new cover and update the files. Then, I’ll start on Promises Kept, which is the “sequel” to this book.
Darcy House, London
The next day
Fitzwilliam Darcy strode through the hall and into the foyer heading to his father’s study. Suddenly, he heard a familiar yet despised voice speaking to Mr. Baxter, causing him to halt. There, accompanied by the butler, was George Wickham, heading towards the study. Must be short of cash, thought Fitzwilliam cynically.
George Wickham was Mr. Darcy’s godson and the son of Pemberley’s steward. He had been, for all intents and purposes, raised with Fitzwilliam, and they had once been as close as brothers. Mr. Darcy took a great interest in George, and as a way of thanking the father for faithful service, he paid for the education of the son. It did not hurt that the two boys were close. He was greatly relieved that Fitzwilliam had a playmate near to his age. He had his cousins, of course, but they lived at the earl’s estate and were not daily visitors. George, on the other hand, lived at Pemberley and was in company with Fitzwilliam daily. This apparently close friendship had persisted even into Eton and Cambridge.
What George Darcy had not known was that his son’s playmate had a tendency toward viciousness, prevarication, and petty thievery. Once at University, those characteristics expanded to include debauchery and gambling to excess.
Fitzwilliam spent years covering for his friend’s misdeeds, until an incident of cheating almost damaged his reputation. Wickham stole one of Fitzwilliam’s essays and turned it in as his own. Thankfully for Fitzwilliam, another student—who had no love for Wickham—saw the theft and reported it to the dean. Due to Wickham’s connection to the Darcys, his punishment was light, and he went on his merry way no less out of countenance than when he had begun.
For Fitzwilliam, however, this was the end of covering up his friend’s misdeeds. He quietly let it be known to his professors, friends, and close acquaintances that the connection between himself and Wickham was dissolved, and that any disputes they had with the gentleman needed to be taken to Wickham himself. Still, he did not tell his father what happened, nor that their friendship was at an end. He was always cordial to Wickham if he happened to be in when the other man came to the house; it was a small price to pay to keep his beloved papa happy.
“Darcy, how good to see you!” Wickham’s face was spread with a smug grin. Truly, he did not think it was altogether good to see his childhood playmate, but one must maintain appearances. In Wickham’s opinion, Fitzwilliam Darcy was austere and frigid. He was never interested in having a good time, or enjoying the benefits of a young gentleman of his station. In Wickham’s mind, it was no surprise that old Darcy enjoyed his company over that of his own son.
Wickham had recently heard a rumor that Fitzwilliam had gotten married. He was sure that, if it were true, he would soon be able to pluck this new wife out from under his former friend’s nose. He doubted the gentleman knew what his member was, much less what to do with it. The poor lady would no doubt be very lonely very soon and need comfort from a gentleman who most definitely knew what he was doing.
Wickham vividly remembered some of the arguments between Miss Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam; she had not seemed to like him much then. Perhaps she had married him for mercenary reasons. If this was the case, Wickham was even more likely to succeed with her.
Fitzwilliam responded stiffly, “Indeed.” He did not trust George Wickham, but knew he needed to be polite. It would not do for Father to hear him being less than correct towards the gentleman.
As the two spoke, Elizabeth descended the staircase. Wickham noticed her first, as Fitzwilliam’s back was to her, and greeted her as she stopped one stair from the bottom behind her husband.
“Miss Elizabeth! How good it is to see you! It has been an age; are you well? Is all your family here?” Wickham knew Lizzy had never quite trusted him. In fact, he laid the blame squarely at her feet for at least two youthful misadventures for which he was punished at Pemberley; she once found him and an upstairs maid in a closet, and another, earlier, time, she tattled to Mr. Darcy when she came upon him beating his horse for throwing him after a failed jump over a short hedge. She had grown up quite nicely, however, and he would not at all mind becoming intimate with her. He gave her a lecherous smile as he bent over her hand, which he had grasped from her side without her permission.
“Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth intoned. She had always been wary of George Wickham, and given her recent reticence following the debacle that was Lord Regis, she was even more so. There was something about Wickham that put her strongly in mind of the peer who was harassing her. The look in his eye today was most assuredly making her uncomfortable, and she vowed to herself to remain cautious when he was near. After retrieving her hand from the gentleman, she reached out for her husband.
Fitzwilliam turned around upon Wickham’s greeting to his wife, grasping the hand she extended and smiling at her. He turned to his father’s visitor and said, “You must wish us joy, Wickham. Elizabeth and I were married nine days ago. She is Mrs. Darcy now.” He wanted his nemesis to clearly understand that Lizzy was under the protection of himself and his father. Fitzwilliam would not put it past his enemy to try to harm his wife. He knew Wickham’s sins had gone far beyond the cheating and gambling he had covered for the gentleman. More than once Fitzwilliam found a home for one of Wickham’s natural children, paying the mother off to remain quiet. No decent lady was safe from the other man’s machinations. While he had never attempted anything with Elizabeth before, the temptation to revenge himself on Fitzwilliam by sullying his wife could very well be too great a one for Wickham to resist.
Wickham was both vexed and delighted. He did not like seeing his childhood playmate so happy. He knew Elizabeth had been a passionate girl, vigorously defending her ideas; surely that passion was still there. And given that she was now a married lady, he was positive her feelings were now channelled in better ways. He was even more certain now that he wanted to trifle with her, just to make Fitzwilliam miserable. He once again turned his smile towards Elizabeth.
“Indeed! I am quite delighted, Mrs. Darcy. You must allow me to congratulate you. Such a shame that you married such a boring gentleman. I’m sure you will soon be in need of some livelier companionship; I assure you I will always be available should you need a … diversion.” Wickham raked his eyes up and down her form, that same lecherous grin on his lips, and winked at her, causing Lizzy to gasp in indignation. He was quite aware of the offense Fitzwilliam would take at this, but he was also aware that the gentleman would say nothing with his father in the vicinity.
“Never fear, Wickham, I am quite sure I will be keeping Mrs. Darcy sufficiently occupied. She shall have no need for your company, and neither shall I.” Fitzwilliam was angry. How dare this rake come into his home and insult his wife?
“You will excuse us,” he continued. “We have matters to discuss.” With that, he placed his wife’s hand on his arm and escorted her out of the foyer and into the parlor, shutting the door to ensure that Wickham did not follow.
Unbeknownst to the trio, Mr. Darcy saw and heard all that had transpired. His son did not know this, but another landowner, whose son attended Cambridge with Fitzwilliam, had told him of enough of Wickham’s misadventures to give him pause. This same gentleman shared story after story of Darcy’s beloved boy cleaning up Wickham’s messes. Darcy had already determined he would speak with Wickham, making it clear that his future sponsorship depended upon good behavior and the taking of Holy Orders. Darcy had the living at Kympton in his gift and had promised his steward years ago that the gentleman’s son would receive the living once it came open and after the boy took orders.
Of course, this was before he discovered Wickham’s perfidy. He now felt it incumbent upon himself to make every effort to steer young George on the right path. If the young man continued as he was, his reputation, as well as Darcy’s, would suffer and Darcy had no intentions of allowing his name to be dragged through the mud.
Darcy quietly made his way back to his study, arriving at the room just before Mr. Baxter knocked on the door and announced the visitor. He greeted his godson warmly, not allowing his countenance to display any of his anger and alarm. As much as he liked the boy, this was going to be a difficult interview.
An hour later, George Wickham barrelled out of Darcy House as though the devil himself were on his heels. What happened to the old man?! He had never spoken so in the past, lecturing Wickham on the proper behavior of a gentleman and threatening to end his support. Wickham was sure Fitzwilliam was behind it all. The prig probably came home from his Tour and told his father about every prank he had ever pulled, including that ill-fated cheating attempt. Blast it!
And there Fitzwilliam was, with a wife he likely did not know what to do with and more money and power than any one gentleman deserved. Of course, he did not actually possess the money and power, as his father was still living, but he was the heir. The old man could drop dead at any moment and there he would be, sitting on top of a pile of cash, several very nice estates, and a house in town. Not to mention a rather delectable lady who was at his beck and call.
And what did Wickham himself have? Not two shillings to rub together. His father was a steward. He had no legacy, no large inheritance to pass on to his son. No, his son was supposed to become a clergyman and spend his life listening to old ladies gossip and praying over sick and dying gentlemen. What a joke! As if he would ever do such things! No, Wickham had dreams that were superior to that. He intended to marry a rich lady and live a life of leisure. He planned to live his life the way Fitzwilliam Darcy was living his—with his every need well met and in a timely and opulent fashion. It was no less than what he deserved.
What escaped Wickham’s notice—indeed, it had been escaping him for years—was that his father lived quite well on his income as Pemberley’s steward. Mr. Darcy was exceedingly generous to his people, and to be hired to work at Pemberley was something. His generous salary, combined with the interest from a small income left to him by his own father, allowed the Wickham family to live, if not at leisure, at least with a solid roof over their heads and fine clothing. They did not want for anything.
However, Mrs. Wickham had been quite the spendthrift during her lifetime, which had ended when George was young. She had encouraged her son to aspire to lofty heights; loftier than he probably should have aspired. It was from his mother that Wickham learned his love of fine things, and it was from her that he inherited his ability to spend large sums of money quickly. He scoffed at his father’s lectures on restraint and economy, preferring to strive for more. He did not understand how his parent could be happy in a subservient position, at another’s beck and call, and forever required to be frugal.
Unfortunately, Wickham knew he had little recourse. He knew better than to offend his father’s employer. He knew the two gentlemen—his father and old Mr. Darcy—were thick as thieves, and he was quite sure his father would hear about today’s lecture. As much as he envied and disliked Fitzwilliam, he would have to control his impulses toward retribution. For now.
Later that night…
The Darcys were engaged that evening to dine with the Earl and Countess of Matlock. The couple had expressed mixed feelings about the betrothal of Fitzwilliam to Miss Elizabeth when Darcy told them of it. While they understood Darcy and Miss Elizabeth’s uncle were friends, and that he would not tolerate disrespect toward any of that family, the fact remained that he had engaged his heir to the niece of a tradesman. It was simply not done! The upper class did not mingle with those of a lower station! However, because they had always been a close family, and knowing that George Darcy would approve of nothing that would damage his name or the name of Fitzwilliam, they agreed to reserve judgement until they met the girl. They wished the families to remain tightly-knit and for the Darcys to always feel able to be open with them, and vice versa.
Accordingly, they planned a family dinner as a way for the two families to become acquainted. The dinner had originally been meant to occur a few days ago, but the sudden wedding delayed it. Now that the pair had completed their honeymoon week, the invitation was re-issued and the evening anticipated with equal measures of curiosity, anxiety, and reluctance. Though still hesitant to approve of their new niece, family unity required it. They could only hope she was not overly gauche or absurd.
To the Matlocks’ great relief, the new Mrs. Darcy was a charming young lady. She had a disarming smile and a sweet manner. She seemed a little timid at first, but Darcy explained some of her history to them, and they understood that it was not her usual way. Indeed, as the evening wore on and Elizabeth began to relax, her personality began to shine through her timorous behavior. Her impishness and slightly impertinent manner made the earl smile in delight. Truly, it seemed Darcy had chosen well for his son.
Fitzwilliam was clearly besotted with his new wife. The countess and her spouse had more than once exchanged astonished glances upon observing the smiles and joviality expressed by their normally quite serious and sober nephew. They did not have much previous knowledge of the new Mrs. Darcy and her habits, but she certainly gazed upon her new husband quite frequently with a great deal of affection.
When it came time for the party to separate after the meal, the ladies repaired to the drawing room, while the gentlemen remained in the dining room to enjoy brandy and cigars. The earl and his wife had earlier decided between themselves to question the new couple during this period of segregation in an effort to understand the union and how it came about. They were curious for the most part, but wanted as much information as possible before they gave their final approval, for their own peace of mind.
As a result, once drinks had been handed around, the earl began asking his nephew questions.
“So, Fitzwilliam, tell me of your bride. This marriage was arranged by your father, yet the two of you seem quite besotted with each other. How did you make her fall in love with you in such a short period of time? Your father has told me how reluctant she was at first.”
Fitzwilliam blushed. “I am not sure that she is besotted with me, Uncle, but I will attempt to satisfy your curiosity.” He glanced at his father for a moment, seeing his mouth twist in a slight smirk. He took a deep breath before beginning his story.
“I had determined upon agreeing to the match that I would do everything I could to make the betrothal as pleasant and romantic as possible for Elizabeth. I have always liked her very much and felt that she deserved more than a cold proposal and betrothal. With that in mind, I spoke of my hopes and reassured her of my fidelity and affection when I proposed. I could see immediately that she appreciated it, and responded accordingly.
“I knew as soon as I saw her in the parlor that day that she was distressed. Her eyes lacked the sparkle I had always associated with them, though her smile was just as sweet as ever. I observed her anxiety increase when mention was made of dinner at our home, and I made it my mission to put her at ease. I knew that while Elizabeth had agreed to the marriage, she had reservations. I knew if I wanted a happy life, I needed to court her.
“During our courtship, brief though it was, I spent as much time with her as possible. We went to the theater one night.” Fitzwilliam smiled at the sweet memory.
“I had decided to woo her, but really had no idea how one went about it. I found that night at the theatre that I rather liked to be close to her, and being close to her in the dark was all the better. Not that I planned to ignore propriety, at least not completely. I was rather hoping she might not object to my holding her hand. We all found our seats in the box, and I was determined to sit beside her, which I was easily able to do.” He lifted his eyes from the glass of port in his hand when his father chuckled.
“Elizabeth did not object when I grasped her hand, turning hers over to thread her fingers with mine. I took heart from her actions; perhaps ours might be a marriage of at least mutual affection, even if we never grew to love one another.
“Even before the trip to the theater, Elizabeth and I had been in each other’s presence daily. I brought her small gifts, like flowers and books, and we walked frequently in the park near the Gardiners’ home. We conversed on every topic we could think of and found that our characters and interests were more similar than we had previously believed. Her mind is so quick! She was able to grasp ideas and draw conclusions that I never thought a lady could. With the barest of information about a theory, she would begin to question and challenge me, going so far as to take a position on an idea that was in complete opposition to her true feelings on the matter.
“Every conversation with Elizabeth is an adventure. I look forward to hearing the next bit of wisdom drop from her lips. I have never met a lady such as she. My heart pounds to think of it! And the teases! My Elizabeth is ever teasing me, quite subtly, and despite the unease and distress she frequently feels. A gentleman could search the world over without ever finding another lady to match her for wit and intelligence. I feel blessed to have found such a treasure.
“I believe that I have made great inroads into making my wife love me as much as I love her, but I do not intend to stop wooing her. I find that I enjoy her, spending time with her and giving her gifts. Elizabeth is not the least bit mercenary, often taking me to task for overspending my allowance, which of course I am not. I like that she teases me a bit. She will one day be a wonderful mistress of Pemberley.” Fitzwilliam smiled softly, the love for his new wife clear on his face.
Darcy addressed his son, “My boy, I agree wholeheartedly. I believe, though, that she already loves you. She may not realize it fully yet, but it is there for the rest of the world to see. Trust me in this, Son.”
The earl nodded in agreement, and the gentlemen lifted their glasses in a toast. “To Mrs. Darcy.” The earl was satisfied that he had garnered enough information to please his wife. She would be vastly pleased with the intelligence he had gathered and he was eager to learn what she had discovered, as well. Accordingly, he turned the conversation to another topic.
Meanwhile, in the drawing room, the countess and her female guest were enjoying a quiet chat along similar lines. Lady Matlock found that the more she spoke with Elizabeth, the more she liked the girl. She knew her sister, Lady Catherine, was opposed to the match still, but the countess was not about to let that bother her. In fact, she would not at all mind tweaking Catherine’s nose about it, and the best way to do that was to give Elizabeth a ringing endorsement in society. To that end, she arranged a shopping excursion with her new niece for the morrow.
Later that evening, after the Darcys had gone home, the countess and her husband shared with each other what they had learned. Both were impressed with Elizabeth, and agreed that Lady Matlock should be the girl’s sponsor for her presentation at court, and that she should begin to introduce their new niece to her friends. The shopping trip tomorrow would be just the beginning. The Matlocks would hold a ball in her honor, as well as a few smaller gatherings. The couple went to sleep with their minds far more at ease than they had been previously.
To be continued …