Having been forewarned by way of a message from Mr. Hurst, who undoubtedly acted under the influence of Miss Caroline Bingley, it did not surprise Fitzwilliam Darcy when a servant showed his friend Charles Bingley into his study.
The room was austere and crisp in its cleanliness. It spoke to the owner’s stature, from the rich, smooth finish of the mahogany desk rubbed with lemon oil earlier that morning to its luxurious velvet curtains and richly paneled walls.
Bingley, whose countenance was twisted into an expression of complete vexation, was on a mission. Having dispensed with all the usual civilities, the younger man came straight to the point of his visit.
“Darcy, old fellow,” he said, “I need to talk with you. I have heard all I wish to hear from my sisters regarding this matter. I want to hear from you why you returned to London on the heels of my leave-taking when you and the others were meant to remain in Hertfordshire. I promised Miss Bennet that I would return in three or four days. I fully expected you would still be there, and now I am trying to piece together what went wrong. Did I misunderstand your intentions?”
“No, you did not misunderstand my intentions,” Darcy replied. “But I could not, in good conscience, let you continue your course without intervention. Hence my return to town with the hope you would remain here.”
“My course? What do you mean?” Bingley asked, a furrow forming between his brows.
“You were behaving much too recklessly,” Darcy said. “I studied you and the young lady during the ball at Netherfield. I was persuaded her feelings are not as engaged as yours. You would be wise to cool your ardor and allow for some time and distance between the two of you to gain a better perspective.”
Bingley appeared crestfallen as Darcy made his claim. The younger man looked aghast—his eyes wide open, his mouth ajar. At length, he said, “No, I am certain Miss Bennet feels the same way about me that I feel about her. Therefore, there is no need to slow down my courtship. I love her and intend to make an offer of marriage in due course of time.”
Darcy frowned from his brow to his mouth, his lips set in a disapproving line. “That would be a mistake, Bingley. You should not rush into such a momentous decision without giving it proper thought and consideration first.”
“I cannot think of anything more important than marrying the woman I love,” said Bingley firmly. “And if you truly care for me, you will support my decision.”
“Bingley, think of what you are doing,” Darcy said. “You would risk throwing away all of your advantages in life by aligning yourself with someone like Miss Jane Bennet. She is from a family of no consequence. She has no fortune, despite her angelic charms. You can do so much better.”
“I love her,” Bingley said stubbornly. “And I do not care about any of those other things.”
Darcy shook his head. “You are young and impulsive and do not know what you are about. I care about you too much to stand by and watch you make a mistake you will regret for the rest of your life.”
“There is nothing you can say that will change my mind,” Bingley said. “If Miss Bennet will have me, I very well plan on marrying her, and I would appreciate your support, not your judgment.”
Darcy sighed. “What you are asking goes against everything I firmly believe. As your friend, I would not see you make such a grave mistake.”
“I appreciate your concern,” Bingley said. “But I am a grown man and can make my own decisions.”
Darcy was about to say something else when Bingley held up his hand.
“I will not mince words, Darcy,” Bingley said. “I fear you are the one who is most interested in protecting yourself—from your attraction to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Darcy could not deny his fascination with Elizabeth grew by the day while he remained in Hertfordshire. There was an air about her that drove him to distraction. The sparkle of her eyes, the twinkle, and the joy he saw there spoke more clearly to him than any woman he had ever known. Her eyes spoke of happiness and playfulness, of fierceness and passion. They drew him in, but he also knew enough to keep whatever feelings she had incited in him at bay. His own feelings aside, there were other matters to consider.
“Indeed, you are mistaken, my friend,” Darcy said after a moment. “I am thinking of you and your future.”
“For me not to return as promised must certainly subject Miss Bennet to everyone’s derision for disappointed hopes. It would expose me to her family’s and our neighbors’ censure for caprice and instability. I simply must return to finish what I started. Should my efforts prove fruitless, then at least I will know I tried.”
“I am not saying your efforts would prove fruitless. No doubt the young woman would marry you in a heartbeat if for nothing else than for the sake of her family.”
Bingley, whose voice was thick with emotion, said, “You speak as though you believe Miss Bennet is mercenary when you must know it could not be further from the truth. Regardless of what you may think of her mother, Miss Bennet should be neither faulted nor characterized in such a manner. Is her own sister’s behavior not a testament to that? My sisters told me all about the uproar caused when Miss Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins’s hand in marriage.”
This was news to Darcy. The Bingley sisters had not breathed a word of it to him. This picture in his mind of Elizabeth in the arms of another man robbed him of his composure. The one woman in the world he dreamed of holding in his arms night after night, only in vain. Darcy felt a flash of rage, but he tamped it down.
His hand gripped the arm of his chair. “When did Collins do that?” he asked, hoping his tone did not reflect the disturbance in his mind.
“According to my sisters, it happened the day after the ball. Do not tell me you did not know.”
Darcy always knew how much the youngest Bingley sister loved to tease him about his fascination with Elizabeth’s fine eyes when they were all together in Hertfordshire. Had his singling her out for a dance at the Netherfield ball further fueled Miss Bingley’s jealousy?
What did she mean by keeping this intelligence from me when making sport of the Bennet family’s lot in life is one of her favorite pastimes?
“It is true. I do not have the highest opinion of her mother, her three younger sisters, and even her father, owing to his questionable behavior on more than one occasion. Still, I always excused Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth from such censure as they always seemed far more sensible than the rest of their family.”
“Dare I say, you seemed more than a little bothered when I told you about Mr. Collins’s proposal to Miss Elizabeth.”
“Why would I be concerned one way or the other? If she indeed refused the man’s offer, it would have been imprudent on her part. I understand he is the heir apparent to her family’s estate.”
“So, one sister is to be faulted for marrying for the sake of her family and the other is to be derided for not marrying for the motive of duty. Is that what you are saying?”
Darcy’s finding himself on the unenviable side of a logical discussion with his friend was indeed unfamiliar territory.
“I am not saying I find fault in either of them. In advising you not to rush into anything, I am thinking only of you and what is in your best interest.”
“If you want what is best for me, then you will cease your objections to my scheme and return with me to Hertfordshire. Granted, I have stayed away longer than I had intended. However, I am sure Miss Bennet will understand once I explain my reason. Besides, remaining at Netherfield until the start of the London season is no less than what we had planned from the start, is it not?”
Caught in a dilemma, Darcy was forced to question his own motives for leaving Netherfield. He had to admit Miss Elizabeth Bennet had bewitched him like no other woman. If his friend was shrewd enough to detect the young woman’s effect on him, would not others? Perhaps even Miss Elizabeth herself.
What could he do? The thought of her affected him more than he cared to admit. If he did not face his unsettling feelings for her soon, he might never resolve them. Instead, he might spend the rest of his life in a state of confusion, avoidance, and possibly denial. This was a moment of truth he could not ignore.
Darcy pressed his lips together and took a breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it. “If it matters to you that much, then I will accompany you to Hertfordshire.”
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