Thursday’s 300: To Save Elizabeth Re-edit, Chapter 6: A Trip to the Theater

Welcome back to Thursday’s 300!

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Looks like I’m back on track! Danger seems to be peeking out at Our Dear Girl in this chapter. 

I made very few changes; just removed a couple commas and changed a word in two or three places.

If you missed the first chapter, you can find it here. The second chapter is here.

Chapter 3 is here. Chapter 4 is here. Chapter 5 is here.

Enjoy!

A Trip to the Theater

“Miss Bennet,” Darcy began as he waited for Maddie to pour him a cup of tea during a visit a few days after their trip to the museum. “One of the theaters is showing a production of ‘As You Like It.’”

Eagerly, Elizabeth sat up, a smile breaking out over her face. “Really?” She looked at her aunt. “That would be wonderful to see.”

Maddie chuckled. “I knew you would say that. I know of no engagements this weekend. When he gets home, I will ask your uncle what he thinks. You do realize, of course, that Brutus will have to stay home.”

Elizabeth paled, her smile dimming, and Darcy’s heart seized in shared pain. “Why do you not do as we did before?” he asked Maddie. “Come as far as Darcy House and then ride with me. Brutus is welcome to remain in my kitchen, so Miss Bennet need not face her fear without her companion.”

Darcy saw Elizabeth’s eyes close, he presumed, in relief. Her shoulders relaxed as she looked at her aunt.

“Thank you, sir.” Maddie turned her attention to her guest. “I will suggest it to my husband.” “Excellent!” Darcy placed his now-empty cup on the table and rose. “I thank you, Mrs. Gardiner for the tea, and also for the company.” He bowed to Maddie, and then turned to Elizabeth. Bowing deeply to her, he added, “Thank you, as well, Miss Bennet. It has been a pleasure.” With a lingering gaze at her, Darcy turned and exited the room.

Darcy House

As he had before, Darcy offered Elizabeth a glass of wine before they set out in the carriage, which she gladly accepted. Satisfied with that one glass, she had not asked for more. She had not arrived as panicked as she had on her previous visit, thanks to Brutus, who had happily trotted down the hall after her and Darcy, his long tail swaying. Darcy’s cook gave the animal scraps of roast beef, and he had happily remained behind when his mistress left the room.

“Thrown over for a pile of day old meat,” Elizabeth teasingly complained as she and Darcy made their way back to the drawing room.

“So it seems.” Darcy chuckled at her tone, glancing down at her with a grin. “How shall you bear it?”

With a dramatic sigh, Elizabeth threw her hand up to her forehead, pressing it there as she declared, “I know not! Perhaps I shall wither away to nothingness and Brutus shall forever feel guilty for abandoning me.” The giggle that followed her statement gave lie to any sincerity in her statement, and she and Darcy shared a hearty laugh.

A quarter hour later, the group of five had boarded Darcy’s coach and set off for the theater.

“My cousin will join us this evening. I forgot to mention it before. I hope you do not mind.”

“Not at all,” Gardiner exclaimed. “The more, the merrier.”

“Indeed, it is true.” Maddie agreed with her husband. Turning to Darcy, she continued, “We enjoy meeting new people. If your cousin is happy to meet us, we are happy to meet him.”

“Good, good.” Darcy rubbed his hands together. He was anxious for his cousin to meet these people. “He is a colonel in the army, and on leave. He has been to the war front and has returned injured. He was reassigned and now trains new recruits.”

Gardiner shook his head. “So many young men coming back dead or maimed. All because of a small man with a large ego.”

“Yes,” Darcy agreed. “My cousin’s injuries are not visible, but they prevent him from serving directly. We are all thankful that he came back alive. Injuries can be lived with and accommodated for.” Looking out the window, Darcy noted their location. “Not long now. We are early enough that the line to disembark should be rather short.”

Nodding, Gardiner looked at his niece. “Lizzy,” he began, pausing until her eyes rose from her lap to look at him. “We are almost there. The carriage will stop soon.”

Darcy watched as Elizabeth nodded, her lips tightening enough to make them appear white as her jaw clenched tighter. He was impressed with her ability to appear calm, as he could clearly see her underlying distress. He kept his eyes glued to her face as the coach slowed.

Finally, the door opened and the gentlemen disembarked, reaching in to hand out the ladies. Maddie came out first, then Elizabeth, and finally, Georgiana close on her new friend’s heels. Darcy was pleased to realize that his sister had chosen to exit last in support of Elizabeth. He had seen the way both Maddie and Georgiana had rubbed Elizabeth’s arms as they made the trek to the theater. He did not know if it helped, but he knew Elizabeth probably appreciated the support. Pulling his sister to the side for a moment while Elizabeth caught her breath, Darcy praised her.

“I am proud of you, Georgiana. You are growing into a kind-hearted and caring young woman. Our parents would be equally pleased.”

Georgiana blushed, but beamed at the praise. “I am glad to hear it. I do so want to make you proud.”

“I could not be otherwise.” Patting her hand where it lay on his arm, he walked her back to where their friends stood.

“Are we ready? Does Miss Bennet require some port?” Darcy could see her shivers, though he could also see she was striving mightily to suppress them.

“Yes,” Maddie replied, “I think it would help. Perhaps we should get ourselves into the building and into a corner or something first.”

“Absolutely.” Darcy led the group into the building and then to a sparsely populated corner of the lobby. Once there, he pulled out his flask and handed it to Maddie. He and Gardiner formed a sort of screen to block the views of the curious, and Maddie and Georgiana surrounded Elizabeth on either side, doing the same. Maddie helped Elizabeth hold the flask, but this time, Elizabeth took three or four long sips and then stopped, allowing her aunt to hand the flask back to Darcy. When Elizabeth signaled her readiness, the five of them moved together up the stairs to Darcy’s box.

At the top of the stairs, the Darcys and Gardiners ran into Lady Marlee, who had been talking with a group of other ladies and gentlemen while she waited for her nephew, who was her escort for the evening.

“Hello,” she called as she rushed forward to greet them. “How wonderful to see you again so soon!” Lady Marlee dispensed hugs to all, and this time, Darcy did not escape the pinching of her fingers. He bore it stoically, if not as good-naturedly as he could have. Just as greetings were completed, the lady’s nephew appeared, and she regretfully parted from them, though not before hugging Elizabeth once more. Darcy heard her quizzing the younger woman about her state of mind.

“I am well, I promise you.”

“I smell port on your breath, my dear. Are you quite certain you about that?”

“Riding in carriages remains a challenge, and my aunt and uncle and our friends give me a sip or two to help me remain calm when I do. I promise you that I am not abusing the use of it. Aunt tells me I am doing better every day.”

“Very well, then. I will trust your judgement in the matter. Remember what I said: if you have need of anything, anything at all, you are to contact me. I know the Gardiners can purchase whatever you need, but I wish to help you, also.”

“I promise.” Elizabeth smiled at Lady Marlee, and soon, the lady’s nephew had pulled her away to enter their box.

After seating the ladies in the front row of chairs, Darcy and Gardiner were just sitting down in their own when the door to the box opened. They stood again, and turned.

“Darcy! Good to see you!”

“Cousin.” Darcy bowed his greeting, then grinned. “I see you made it, and on time, too.”

“On time? I am early for once. The general’s wife insisted he come home early to prepare for this show. She has wanted to see it since it first opened, he said.”

“Good; even a general needs to take time off now and then.” “Too true!” Looking toward Gardiner, Darcy’s cousin asked for an introduction. “Who have we here?”

“This is Mr. Edward Gardiner. Behind him are his wife and his niece, Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” Darcy allowed time for curtseys and a bow. “Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bennet, this is my cousin and my sister’s other guardian, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.”

Darcy knew Richard was a shrewd, clever gentleman who was quick to connect the dots in any new situation. He had asked his cousin to keep Georgiana company this evening, and given the expression on Richard’s face as he looked at Miss Bennet, Richard knew why. With raised brows and a slight nod, Darcy silently conveyed they would speak later.

“I am pleased to meet all of you,” Richard bowed. “Darcy had good things to say about you this morning, when he invited me.”

“Thank you, sir,” Gardiner replied. “Mr. Darcy has been a good friend to us. We enjoy his company, as well.”

Richard smiled. After a few minutes of small talk, Richard moved away to speak quietly to his ward. Though Darcy was the person who carried most of the duty toward Georgiana, Richard liked to keep his finger in the pie as much as he could.

At the first intermission, Richard took the opportunity to tease Darcy about his obvious infatuation with Elizabeth when they walked down to obtain refreshments for the ladies, but Darcy was stiff-lipped and would say nothing.

During the second intermission, someone rapped smartly upon the door. Opening it, Darcy exclaimed, “Bingley! Come in, man!”

“Good to see you, too,” Bingley said as he smoothed his hand over his well-cut jacket. “Caroline noticed you first and insisted we come over to greet you. We were late arriving for the performance, or we would have been here after the first intermission.”

“Oh, Charles, do be quiet. I am certain Mr. Darcy understands that ladies need time to prepare for such events. He does have a sister.” Caroline Bingley fawned over Darcy, clutching his arm.

Repressing a shudder at her touch, Darcy answered coldly, “Actually, my sister has never made us late. My father instilled in both of us the importance of punctuality, and I have reinforced his instruction with Georgiana.” He hid a smile when Miss Bingley let go of his arm and asked to be introduced to his guests. “Certainly.” Darcy turned to the group behind him, introducing everyone. “Bingley is one of my oldest friends,” he informed the party. “He comes from a well-respected family in the north of England and has been searching for an estate.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said, her eyes wide and brows risen, “was your father in trade? What was his trade? My uncle is an importer.”

Bingley’s grin spread over his entire face. “Are you, sir?” he asked Gardiner. “What a coincidence it is to find you here! My father owned a cotton mill in Yorkshire.”

“Ah, cotton is vital to the wealth of many, I think. Mr. Darcy mentioned you are looking for an estate? To purchase?”

“Yes, it was my father’s wish to propel the family into the ranks of the landed gentry. With his passing, the duty falls to me.”

“What a noble undertaking.” Elizabeth smiled at the newcomer. “I am certain you will do well by your father.”

Bingley blushed, the hue clashing with his reddish-blonde hair. “Well, I do hope so, Miss Bennet.”

“Of course he will,” declared Caroline Bingley. “He has two sisters to make certain he does.” Caroline looked down her nose at Elizabeth. “Where did Mr. Darcy say you were from?”

“My father’s estate was Longbourn in Hertfordshire.”

“Was? What do you mean, ‘was’?”

Elizabeth cleared her throat, looking down at her gown of lavender before lifting her head again and answering Caroline’s question. “My father passed away seven months ago,” she replied calmly. “I live with my uncle now.” She gestured to Gardiner, who was animatedly discussing the war with the colonel.

“Oh, I see. How … kind of him to take you in.”

Darcy had watched the interaction like a hawk. He was well-acquainted with Caroline Bingley’s tendency to look down on those not of higher rank than she. Though, he thought, being the daughter of a gentleman, Miss Bennet is a higher rank. Or was, anyway. Darcy was also aware of Caroline’s desire to become the next mistress of Pemberley. The look she now gave Elizabeth could be interpreted in no other way than jealousy. Seeing it, he stepped into the conversation. He did not wish for Miss Bennet to be uncomfortable. “Mr. Gardiner and his wife are devoted to Miss Bennet. I have never seen such care given to a niece before. I have complimented them on it.”

Caroline’s narrowed eyes demonstrated clearly that Darcy’s defense of Elizabeth had done nothing to soothe her feelings. Darcy was relieved that Caroline did not get a chance to stake her claim on him. The gong called them back to their seats for the final act before she could speak further.

Once they had the box to themselves again, Darcy apologized to Elizabeth. “I am sorry if Miss Bingley made you uncomfortable. She is often harsh with those around her, and she has not made it a secret that she covets the title of Mrs. Darcy.”

Elizabeth, her brow raised, tilted her head and examined his face. “Is that so? Am I to understand that you dislike the idea?”

Darcy shuddered dramatically, eliciting a chuckle from Elizabeth. “You are. Miss Bingley is amusing enough at times, but I have no wish to be tied to her sense of humor the rest of my life. A little goes a long way.”

Elizabeth laughed aloud at his statement, and the warm, throaty sound wound its way through his insides and squeezed. I could listen to that all day, he thought.

~~~***~~~

Four days later, Darcy and Georgiana entered the Gardiners’ house, eager to enjoy a meal and conversation. The first thing Darcy noticed in the usually peaceful home was an underlying tension in the maid who took their things. Glancing at his sister, he offered her his arm. They followed the servant to the drawing room, wherein waited the entire Gardiner family and Elizabeth. After greeting everyone, and being introduced to the smallest Gardiners, the siblings settled themselves into seats, along with their hosts, and waited for the children to follow their nurse out of the room. Feeling that same odd tension coming from Elizabeth, Maddie, and Edward, Darcy was compelled to say something.

“Is anything the matter? It is usually so peaceful and cheerful here, but everyone seems to be on edge this evening.” Darcy watched the range of reactions, from Maddie’s closed eyes, to Edward’s dropped head, to Elizabeth’s fidgeting.

“There have been some … strange goings-on,” Edward admitted. “We have tried to behave as naturally as possible, but I see we have failed.”

“What has happened?” Darcy’s eyes darted from Edward to Maddie to Elizabeth, settling on her for a moment, wishing he was closer to her. He desired to lay his hand on hers and calm her. Forcing his eyes back to Edward, he listened intently.

“The night we went to the theater, we arrived home to find we had been broken into. The children and staff were well, and nothing was taken, but some rooms had been ransacked.” Gardiner’s eyes darted to his niece, and Darcy understood that to mean Elizabeth was the one whose room was violated the most.

Maddie continued her husband’s tale. “Then, yesterday, after our carriage ride, Elizabeth and I walked to the warehouse to take a meal to Edward. Brutus came with us. He began to behave strangely not long after we set out, as though someone was following us. We remained alert but arrived at our destination safely. However, when we left the building to walk home, the dog immediately began to act up again. As we walked, we began to notice a man following us.” She sighed. “We were frightened and hurried our pace, and the man increased his, as well. We think,” she continued, as her gaze turned to her hands, clasped in her lap, “that he approached, because suddenly, Brutus stopped and growled, then took off running and barking. We looked back to see the man who had followed us running into a store. Elizabeth wanted to follow and demand answers from the fellow, but I would not let her. I was rather shaken by the whole event. When Brutus returned to our location, we hurried home and locked the door.”

Maddie looked at Elizabeth again, and Darcy’s gaze followed hers. Seeing her chin up, lips compressed, and her eyes flashing, Darcy once again admired the passion that made up Elizabeth’s personality. He felt a wild desire to kiss her, but he clamped down on it as tightly as he could, forcing his mind to the matter at hand.

“I am happy your aunt was able to persuade you to remain with her. I fear your safety would have been compromised had you pursued this man.”

Elizabeth met Darcy’s eyes and after holding them for a moment, nodded. She did not address his statement directly, however, when she replied. “I still desire to know what he was doing. I did not know him, and my aunt did not, either.” She paused to look down at her hands, clasped in her lap, and with a sigh, continued. “I do recognize, after further reflection, that it would have been foolhardy to chase after him.”

“I am happy you realize that, Niece.” Gardiner turned his gaze from Elizabeth to Darcy. “Lizzy has always been protective of her family. It is one of her finer qualities.”

“I admire her for that.” Looking at Elizabeth once again, Darcy allowed his feelings to show for a moment. Catching her eye, he smiled. He knew by the understanding dawning in her expression and the gentle smile she bestowed upon him in return that he had hope of her returning his admiration.

To be continued …

 

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