Chapter Six: Acceptance and Appellations
“Jane? Mr. Darcy?”
To say that Darcy was shocked to have forgotten himself so far as to embrace Jane Bennet whilst in the presence of her sister would have been to lie by sheer understatement. To say his face flamed at Miss Mary Bennet’s curious call would have been an accurate assessment indeed.
Gasping, his lips still warm from where they’d been caressing Jane’s, Darcy controlled his breathing and compelled himself to answer Miss Mary. He was a gentleman. There was nothing terribly unseemly about kissing one’s betrothed, but it was not in the best of form to do so in front of her maiden sister. “I beg your pardon, Miss Mary,” he managed, though his voice was far from firm. “Your sister has done me the very great honor of consenting to be my wife.”
Jane’s smile was joyful, her eyes rich and cheeks flushed. “Indeed, Mary,” she murmured as Darcy rapped lightly on the frame of the chaise so that the driver halted the walking horses. “I do ask that you keep this in confidence until –” She stopped, her eyes widening as they met Darcy’s again. “That is –”
Darcy hastened to assure her. “Until I can obtain your father’s consent, of course.” Not that he truly had any worries on that score. He did not presume to know Mr. Bennet’s mind, but he wanted to believe that the desultory fellow would be vastly relieved to have a daughter of his well-settled. Darcy knew himself to be highly eligible.
He alighted from the chaise to hand Miss Mary up into it. The bespectacled young woman had actually closed her book without marking the page upon seating herself next to her sister. Darcy had to smile; it was likely unintentional, but Miss Mary had effectually put distance between her sister and her sister’s betrothed. The way Miss Mary was talking, the happenstance was entirely without a plan.
He indulged himself in listening to his Jane answer what questions she would. “Yes, he is going to ask Papa. Yes, I’m sure there is a library at Pemberley.”
“Is there?” Miss Mary demanded, leaning toward Darcy. “Do you have a library in Derbyshire?”
“I do indeed,” Darcy replied. He would do all in his power to allow her liberty of that room as long as she remained far distant from the piano forte. “It is the work of many generations and I am sure you will find,” he added with a nod at Miss Mary Bennet’s forgotten book on female educational practices, “improving literature among the volumes.”
He had never seen that young lady smile before, he realized. When she did so, she was not nearly as plain as heretofore.
Unsurprisingly, Miss Elizabeth Bennet was only nominally employed when Darcy returned with Jane and Miss Mary. The second-eldest Bennet sister sprang to her feet with a great deal of enthusiasm, catching Jane’s eye as Miss Mary – mouth primly pursed not to smile – handed off her bonnet to the servant and sat down with her book once more, elbows on the small table in the out-of-date parlor.
“Did you have a nice ride about the countryside, Mr. Darcy?” Miss Elizabeth inquired, her smile much too fulsome for her mild query. “My sister looks as if she had a most delightful time. Let me thank you for entertaining her so well.”
The young lady really was quite lively. An idea formed in Darcy’s head and he had to bite back a laugh to keep his composure – but he would have a letter to write, soon.
“Yes indeed, Miss Elizabeth. It was a pleasant drive. Your sister Miss Mary shared a great many ideas about the education of females with me.”
“Mr. Darcy,” Jane whispered, her cheeks pink.
He helped to get his lady situated comfortably while Miss Elizabeth arranged a footstool to prop up Jane’s injured ankle. Meeting Jane’s eyes, he could see the silent question in them, the wish to share her news with her sister. He held her gaze with his own and took her hand to his lips to gently caress her fingers. “I will be back shortly,” he informed her with a smile.
Jane’s color rose at Miss Elizabeth’s gasp of understanding. Bowing, he quickly left the room.
“Mr. Darcy,” Mr. Bennet said after ushering him into the older man’s apparent sanctuary “Welcome.” Thin lips twitched a bit and blue eyes twinkled behind spectacles as Mr. Bennet urged Darcy to settle himself in a chair. “Looking for something to read, are you, sir?”
Composing himself from his eyebrows to his restless feet, Darcy leaned forward slightly in the upholstered chair, studying Mr. Bennet as that gentleman took a quiet moment to wipe a pair of gilt-edged volumes. “No, sir. I am here for an entirely more weighty matter.”
“I imagine you are, at that, Mr. Darcy.” He leaned back, smiling a little, and Darcy wished he had rehearsed in his mind what he would say. How had he not thought of this?
“Yes. Well. Sir.” Clearing his throat, Darcy had to rise to his feet. This was not the sort of thing he felt able to sit through. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he compelled himself once more to stillness. “I would like to marry your eldest daughter, Mr. Bennet. I have offered her my hand in marriage and she has accepted.” Sweat beaded along his hairline – he could feel it.
Mr. Bennet displayed no signs of nervousness or discomfiture at all, allowing Darcy to relax and flex his hands at his sides. Jane’s father nodded after a moment. “She has, has she? Well, she’s always been a good girl, Mr. Darcy. If I may say so, I believe you’ve chosen well.” Rising to his feet, Mr. Bennet held out his hand.
Darcy took it. “Thank you, sir. I assure you, she will be well cared for. A large settlement has long been set aside for my eventual bride and I –” It was on the tip of his tongue, in his happiness, to promise settlements upon all of Mr. Bennet’s daughters, but that might be seen as a slight on the man’s pride. He would discuss it with his fiancée.
His fiancée. A smile tugged at his lips and he let it spread, imagining for a brief moment his Jane in a white gown, walking up the aisle of a resplendent edifice…
“Yes, sir?” Abashed, Darcy felt his cheeks heat before he was more in command of himself.
“Sit down, sir. Sit down. I am curious, and I would beg your indulgence.” Laughter filled the white-browed eyes across the way.
Darcy had no idea what Mr. Bennet would want to know – was there a question about the Darcy family or estate? Did Mr. Bennet already think to avail himself of the fishing, perhaps? Though Jane might have been unworldly enough not to seek out information regarding Pemberley, Darcy had no doubt in his mind that Mr. Bennet had done so. “How might I satisfy your curiosity?” he wondered, trying to put himself at ease, leaning back in the chair.
Mr. Bennet took his spectacles off and cleaned them – a different bit of cloth than he had used earlier on the books – and cleared his throat. “I do not doubt that my Jane will make any man a fine wife, but are you certain that her happiness will be assured at the mistress of Pemberley?”
Taken aback, Darcy nodded slowly to collect his thoughts. “Mr. Bennet,” he began, remembering to keep his tone respectful and even to demonstrate his confidence in his choice. “Mr. Bennet, the mistress of Pemberley will have quite a responsibility, I know. I am aware that Miss Bennet does not at this time have quite the same responsibilities, but I am convinced – through observation and conversation – that she will make an admirable Mrs. Darcy. She will not be running the estate on her own, of course. I have a full staff who will be at her disposal and I know that Jane will make sound judgments and do all things that will be to the betterment of my home.” He leaned forward again, feeling the smile on his own face as it mirrored Mr. Bennet’s. “I love your daughter. She is a woman with a peaceful spirit and a kind heart. She wields authority mildly but with confidence. She is used to being heeded and that goes a long way when managing a household, I know.” Mr. Bennet’s brows rose in surprise and Darcy allowed himself a short laugh. “Did you think I chose her merely for her beauty? I find her charming in all ways, sir, but more than that, I feel that she will be my partner.”
“Well, well… Well, well.” Darcy tried not to stir as Mr. Bennet studied him once again as if he were judging him as a stallion put to stud. “Welcome to the family, Mr. Darcy.”
Thankfully, Mrs. Bennet followed her husband’s good example, refraining from making a garish display after the news was formally announced that evening. Bingley and Miss Elizabeth laughed at them and when Darcy observed Mrs. Bennet looking far too fondly upon Bingley, he just averted his eyes.
After dinner, Miss Kitty sang a light air to Miss Elizabeth’s accompaniment. Though the performance was sadly lacking, Darcy clapped politely. His heart heard music enough in Jane’s voice and soft laughter.
“May I get you some coffee, Jane?” he asked quietly, exulting in the opportunity to use her Christian name openly. She was his Jane and they all knew this and he had every right to address her as such in a family party. Just because his chest felt full to bursting with pride and joy, there was no shame in it.
She shook her head, her eyes liquid as they met his. “Not just now, Mr. Darcy.”
He smiled teasingly at her. “Who?”
Her blush suffused her skin, delighting him. “Fitzwilliam. It just… I’m not used to it,” she confessed. “I shan’t call you that in public, if that’s all right? I feel that it – it’s a private name.”
That his body tightened in response to her lowered tone he could not help, but he did his best to calm himself. “As you wish. I wish only to make you happy, Miss Bennet.”
She laughed again, more loudly, at his use of her surname. “I wish the same, Mr. Darcy,” she assured him.
Upon taking their leave, he offered Jane his arm on a slow walk to the door. “May I call upon you tomorrow?”
“Of course. I daresay there are things we have to speak of, are there not?”
“Foremost in my mind,” he murmured, “is when we can change your name and leave the Miss Bennet to your sister Elizabeth.” And when he could take his Jane home to Pemberley, ensconce her in her own suite of rooms, visiting her there…
“She will rather enjoy that, I imagine.”
Bingley and his family made their farewells, a private ball was mentioned, and in the excitement generated by the youngest Bennet girls, Darcy pulled Jane out the front door. Lifting their joined hands to his jaw, there to caress them skin on skin, he inhaled the soft, gentle fragrance of her. “Until tomorrow.” His lips lingered on her hand.
“I look forward to it.”
But the next day introduced a new member to the family party at Longbourn, and Darcy felt his gut clench in negation of his presence. The new face belonged to a heavy, self-important yet obsequious fellow named William Collins.
Lady Catherine’s new vicar.
Damnation. His aunt was spying on him.