Here is the next installment of; A Love Most Ardent. Chapter 25.
Re. chapter 24. I have added a couple of lines in this chapter explaining why Anne has not inherited the Rosings Estate.
I hope I am still keeping you guessing.
After the wedding feast had been consumed, and several toasts to the happy couple had been made, Mr and Mrs Angus Galbraith set off on their wedding trip. They were to enjoy a tour of the Scottish Highlands, allowing Angus to introduce his new wife to his family.
While everyone else returned inside, Darcy watched until the carriage had disappeared from view. He felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Never again would he have to defend himself against the accusation that he was engaged to his cousin. He wished Anne and Galbraith every happiness, assuring her that his gift was indeed a genuine one, and not offered merely to thwart his Aunt.
“For a man who is newly engaged, Darcy, you look decidedly down.”
Richard was the closest thing to a brother Darcy had, and as such, he could read his moods effortlessly.
“I should be the happiest of men, Richard, yet I am not. I said what I said because I wanted it to be true, yet I voiced an assumption that Elizabeth, in all good grace, could not deny. Even Anne, before she left, wished Elizabeth joy.”
Frustrated with hearing the same story, again and again, Richard said what he thought.
“Stop wallowing in self-pity, for goodness sake, Darcy. Even a blind man could see that Miss Elizabeth loves you. So, you did not go down on one knee and propose in the expected fashion, but she still said yes.”
Watching Darcy struggle with his own conscience, both exhausted and exasperated Richard, prompting him to offer Darcy his last piece of advice.
“If it bothers you that much, man, then get in there and do it properly!”
Darcy listened as Richard gave him a verbal ear-boxing – and quite rightly so for he deserved it. Instead of brooding that he had cornered Elizabeth into marriage, he should seek her out and propose to her again, only this time with no ulterior motive. Their path was clear. There was no Wickham to blight their union, and no Anne waiting for a proposal. Even Georgiana has said she loved Elizabeth as a sister.
Taking Richard’s hand Darcy pumped it in a firm handshake, thanking him for the excellent advice. Then he disappeared inside, leaving a satisfied and slightly smug Richard, standing alone on the drive.
Darcy re-entered the property through the open French doors. He was not surprised to see that the furniture had been moved back and the carpet rolled up. It appeared there was to be dancing.
He watched as Lydia sauntered over to Reverend Muir and boldly asked him to dance.
“You are no longer mourning the loss of your husband, Mrs Wickham?” he asked, slightly shocked at her forwardness.
“Oh, yes, but George knew how much I loved to dance, Mr Muir. I do not think he would expect me to sit on the sidelines and be a wallflower like Mary!”
“Lydia, that is just the kind of thoughtless remark that caused Mary to write to Lady Catherine. Now leave Reverend Muir alone, and go and help Kitty set the chairs straight.” Elizabeth scolded.
Though they numbered just ten now, the musicians played as if the Prince Regent himself was present. First, they played the Barley Mow, then the Cambridge Waltz which they followed with La Boulanger.
Darcy looked on as Elizabeth partnered all the single gentlemen in the room. Dancing first with Richard, then with Mr Bingley, and the third with the surprisingly nimble footed Reverend. However, when the introduction music for the Shrewsbury Lasses was struck, he could wait no longer.
“Miss Elizabeth, I believe you have exhausted all possible partners for yourself, save Mr Bennet and me. May I now remedy that by asking if you would partner me for the next dance?”
The smile on Darcy’s face relayed to her that he was not displeased because she was popular, merely anxious for his turn to dance with her.
“Forgive me, sir, but you were absent when the frivolity started, and my dance card was quickly filled.” Elizabeth teased as she perused her non-existent dance card, “However, I believe I am free for this next dance, sir.”
Taking her hand, they joined the other couples on the floor. Waiting for the moment when they could join in, Elizabeth stood opposite Darcy.
“This is one of my favourite tunes, and the musicians play it so well, do you not think?”
“They do indeed. It is also a particular favourite of mine.”
“Then how fortuitous for us both that they are playing it now.”
Darcy smiled broadly. He had missed the way she teased him with her keen mind and quick wit. No other woman had spoken to him as she did…ever, and it was refreshing and attractive.
They sashayed and hopped and turned and sidestepped until the dance came to an end.
It was an energetic dance, and Darcy felt a little breathless. He noticed that Elizabeth looked a little flushed too. After all, she had been engaged for four dances in succession.
“May I get you some refreshments, Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth nodded, and the moment Darcy was gone, fluttered her fan as she tried to cool her heated skin. Dancing so excessively on a summer’s evening was not conducive to looking one’s best, especially for a lady.
When Darcy returned, he suggested that they take their drinks outside, where there was at least the hint of a breeze.
Elizabeth looked over at her Papa, and when he inclined his head, she readily agreed. After all, they were engaged, were they not?
It appeared that they were not the only couple to have sought the cool night air. Jane and Mr Bingley were seated on the bench at the edge of the lawn, quietly talking to one another.
“The flowers in this area of the garden are quite beautiful, Miss Elizabeth. It is a veritable rainbow of colour.”
Elizabeth, who was leading the way, smiled.
“Admiring flowers is one thing, growing them is quite another,” she replied.
“My father was always a practical man, Elizabeth. He encouraged me to indulge in all the manly pursuits, such as shooting, fishing, and riding. In fact, the pastime he considered acceptable for a gentleman. But taking a seed, planting it, nurturing it until it blooms…seemed infinitely more rewarding to me. I feel this way about animals too. I would much rather breed a healthy animal than all these new-fangled hybrids the keep appearing.”
Darcy fell silent. He knew he had been rambling, and doubted, if asked, he could repeat a single sentence he had uttered. Feeling nervous and unsure of himself was not emotions Darcy was familiar with.
Elizabeth finally stopped and turned to face him.
Darcy was surprised to see how far they had walked; they were now in the walled garden.
“This is my garden, Mr Darcy, set aside for me by my father. Apart from caring for the grassed area and the pruning of the larger trees, it is all my own work.”
Darcy glanced around, taking more of an interest this time. Remembering the last time he had stopped here filled him with shame. He had acted like a petulant child when Charles had rebuked him for leaving Elizabeth alone. This time, his behaviour would be impeccable.
“The blue flowers, the ones that are mixed in with the red poppies and yellow lady’s bedstraw, it is the cornflower is it not?”
Elizabeth was astounded that a man as busy as Mr Darcy would know the name of any flower, let alone identify three correctly.
“Yes…yes, it is.”
Darcy heard the surprise in Elizabeth’s voice and turned to confront her.
“You sound surprised that I know this, Miss Elizabeth?” he said good-naturedly.
“I am! I would not think botany was a topic you studied.”
Feeling more at ease, Darcy tried to explain.
“Any landowner worth their salt must be able to recognise the plants on their property. Could I send my farm cattle to graze in a field loaded with delphiniums, foxglove, or monkshood? Although attractive, they are all poisonous if ingested by cows, horses, and indeed, humans too. We also tend to give plants a Latin name as well a common name, these were incorporated into my lessons by my Latin master.”
Elizabeth laughed, and Darcy frown in puzzlement.
“Oh, I am sorry, Mr Darcy, but the image of you as a child botanist is one I find hard to imagine.”
“But which amuses you the most, Elizabeth? The fact that I know my plants, or that I was a child?”
“Both!” she exclaimed and burst out laughing again.
He loved how she was not afraid to show her emotions; and when she laughed, the corners of her eyes to crinkle and her sweet voice rippled with mirth.
The urge to sweep her into his arms and kiss her soundly was strong, but his conscience and lack of courage forced him to remain motionless. Though considered engaged, propriety demanded that he heard her accept him vocally before he took such a liberty.
Suddenly all thoughts of plants and laughter deserted him, replaced by an overwhelming desire to secure Elizabeth’s love and acceptance.
Taking a step forward, Darcy waited for her to quieten and notice him.
Elizabeth finally saw the space between them had been closed. She also noticed that his mood was now sombre, and the laughter died on her lips.
“Elizabeth,” he said softly.
There seemed to be a tightening in her chest, and her lungs felt constricted as she tried to draw a breath. At the same time, her heart began racing, pounding against her ribs.
Taking Elizabeth’s hand in his own, Darcy dropped down on bended knee.
“Elizabeth,” he said, his voice ragged with love and uncertainty. “I have no armour left, you have stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me; whatever I am, belongs to you. Marry me, Elizabeth, say you will be mine.”
His actions were so sudden, she had not expected another proposal after already agreeing to marry him that morning.
“But, sir, I thought we had settled this, this morning…”
“I need to hear you say it, Elizabeth; say you will marry me, that you love me, that you…want me,” he said as he searched her face.
Elizabeth clasped his hand between hers and pulled him to his feet. Stepping forward, she left no space between them as she placed his hand over her heart.
“Fitzwilliam, I have waited all my life for a man who would love me for me, and not for what I was worth to him. That last morning in Lambton, before I received Jane’s letters, I thought…I hoped you would come to the inn and propose to me. I knew I would accept because I loved you. I still love you. Even in my dreams, I loved you…”
The time for words had passed. Darcy’s heart was pounding, and his emotions were soaring. Untangling their hand, he pulled Elizabeth into a tight embrace and smothered her mouth with his lips as he murmured her name.
Elizabeth instinctively curled her arms around his neck and tilted her face up that she could receive his kiss more fully.
He tasted sweet, of the punch they had drunk, and his aroma was manly with a hint of sandalwood. His lips were soft and searching, and she was only too willing to surrender her mouth to his.
Several kisses later, Elizabeth tore her mouth away from his, gasping for air. Kissing, she discovered, was something deliciously exciting and sensual, but until she had mastered its art, she had to remember to breathe.
Darcy released her mouth with reluctance, raining feather kisses along her jaw and cheeks before burying his face in her neck.
“My, darling Elizabeth, I thought I should go insane if you turned me away.” He held her tighter. “I did intend to ask for your hand at Lambton, but you were so distraught, I knew I must not.”
“I could not have accepted you then, not while Lydia and Wickham were lost to us.”
Darcy turned his attention to her lips once more, kissing her first lightly and then more demandingly.
With little experience of kissing Elizabeth felt overwhelmed, raising her hands she pushed him away.
“I am sorry, I know it is too much, too soon. I am just so happy, Elizabeth. You shall be the mistress of Pemberley, as you are mistress of my heart.”
Elizabeth feigned shock
“Mistress, sir? I am to be your wife, not your mistress!”
Darcy smiled, of course, she was right. His wife, Elizabeth was to be his wife; and he wanted to shout it to the stars.
Their moment of intimacy had been interrupted, and Darcy realised he must refrain from kissing Elizabeth any more. Her lips were bruised and swollen and had changed to a beautiful shade of dark pink, one that matched her dress perfectly.
On impulse, Darcy stretched out his hand and plucked one of the tight rosebuds from the single bush in the garden.
“A rose, for my rose,” he smiled and held it out to her.
Elizabeth took the rosebud and held it gently in her hands. Though not yet fully open, it released an aroma that reminded her of sweet fruits, like raspberries or blackberries.
“This is the first gift that you have given me, Fitzwilliam. I will keep it always; to forever remind us of this day.”
“There are many things I want to give you Elizabeth, my love, my loyalty, my protection, my fidelity…my children.”
Elizabeth blushed when he mentioned children, hinting at the physical aspect of their union. But, as ever, she covered her embarrassment with a tease.
“I hope a wedding band will be forthcoming before the latter, sir!”
“Most assuredly, Miss Bennet,” Darcy said in his rich baritone voice.
Reluctantly conscious of the time that had elapsed since they had left the party, Darcy stooped down and pressed a light kiss to her lips.
“Come, we must return before they send someone to look for us.”
Darcy ran his fingers through his hair and tugged down his waistcoat, and again hoped he looked respectable.
Elizabeth accepted his proffered arm, and together, the new and officially engaged couple made their way back inside.
Till next time,