Having seen Darcy act in this manner once before, she knew he was building up to something. Finally, he stopped before her and said in an exasperated voice,
“Miss Bennet, we are to be wed in two weeks, are we not?”
His formal address worried her. When they were alone he usually called her by her given name, or even Miss Elizabeth, but never Miss Bennet. Couple this with his reference to their wedding, well, she found it quite disturbing. She folded her hands in her lap before calmly replying,
“That is my belief, sir.”
He resumed his pacing. Damn, why will the words not come, he inwardly cursed? She must think me a tongue-tied fool. He stopped to gaze at her; she is quite exquisite, he mused. Like Charles, I am the luckiest of men to have found such a woman. Unlike Charles, I have not yet ‘won’ her. Instead, I lay claim to her by default. Thoughts flashed through his mind until finally, the clouds of confusion lifted. Keep it simple, tell her what you feel, offer her your heart and hope she is willing to accept it. He knew that if he did not give her the choice, he would forever suspect her reasons for marrying him. As much as he wanted her, he would not condemn her to a life of regret. Recalling his mother’s advice when he once nursed a sick deer, ‘if you love something enough, you have to set it free. If it comes back, it is yours forever. If it does not return, it was never yours in the first place,’ Darcy knew what he must do. Drawing a deep breath he began,
“Miss Bennet, I know that you have taken our intended nuptials, as the only recourse open to you after the events at Hunsford, but in all good conscience, I must give you the choice to be free of me,” he said heavily.
He gave her a few seconds to digest his words before continuing,
“I will, of course, take full responsibility for the breakdown of our engagement, should you decide on that course. You could announce that you found me lacking in the social niceties,” he finished with a wry grimace.
Elizabeth raised her brows at the statement. ‘To be free of me,’ she repeated to herself. It was true, she had never expected to be engaged to Mr. Darcy; indeed their betrothal had sprung from her actually refusing him. But after the initial shock, she had grown accustomed to the idea of being his wife. The prospect of being Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley did not daunt her unduly, and came with considerable benefits. Darcy had proved himself to be quite capable of being amicable and civil, and after their recent encounters, she had no reason to believe them incompatible in the bedroom. The thought made her cheeks burn, but it was something she could neither ignore, nor deny. Breaking the engagement had not crossed her mind since that first day, but clearly it had Darcy’s. Did he find the thought of being bound to her so repellent? If this was indeed the case, she must also give him the opportunity to be free of her. Thankfully, their engagement was not yet common knowledge, and could hopefully be dissolved with little inconvenience to either party. She felt quite strange at the prospect of him releasing her, bereft almost. Choosing her words with care, she replied,
“And is this your wish Mr. Darcy?” her tone even and unrevealing.
Darcy met her gaze and tried to read her face, but it was serene, if a little flushed. He was taken aback at her reply. He had not expected her to answer him with a question. He thought she would be eager to accept his offer, and to break their engagement readily.
“It is not,” he said with vigour, “but I would not have you regret your decision at a later date madam. I am mindful of your reply to my original offer.”
So, he did not want to sever their connection either. Elizabeth was puzzled, why ask now then? It had been more than three weeks since Hunsford, and on several occasions she had allowed him to take liberties that she only ever intended to share with her husband. Was that it? Did he think her wanton, and lacking in the proprieties? But she could not deny having feelings for Mr. Darcy; he had elicited responses, and stirred emotions in her she never knew existed. Examining how she felt on seeing him again after an absence of nearly a week, Elizabeth owned that her heart had beat a little faster, especially when his eyes held hers. She felt a warm glow of satisfaction that he looked at her so. She could think of nothing she had said or done, to indicate that she was reluctant to continue with the engagement. Therefore, she must conclude he was trying to do what he thought was right. Darcy watched as a myriad of emotions played across her face. Was she trying to find the words to accept his offer, to be rid of him? After what seemed an eternity, Elizabeth raised her eyes, and began her reply.