Rivals & Rascals

by Maggie

Chapter 19

October 10, 1812

It was two days before his wedding day and Fitzwilliam Darcy knew he should be feeling a sense of joyful anticipation. He was, after all, about to marry the woman he loved above all else. Instead of anticipation, however, what he felt was a gnawing insecurity and jealousy. He was not entirely certain that Elizabeth loved him with the singleness of devotion with which he loved her.

These feelings had been seeded ten days earlier when Elizabeth had remarked upon his cousin’s remarkable powers of persuasion. This seemingly innocent remark had made Darcy wonder just how persuasive his cousin had been with her. He could not vanquish images from his mind of Fitzwilliam kissing her passionately, and her responding to him the way she had done with Darcy himself in Bingley’s study.

In addition, he found himself dwelling unhappily on various memories he had been trying to repress: Elizabeth’s passionate look from the carriage as she left Pemberley and his cousin’s claim that her look had been directed at him; Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam laughing together in the Lambton Inn; Elizabeth blushing prettily behind the piano at Pemberley while his cousin turned the pages for her; her impassioned defense of the colonel at the Inn after she informed Darcy of her understanding with Fitzwilliam; and, most recently, her joyous expression when Bingley had informed her that Fitzwilliam would be attending the upcoming ball. What tortured him most of all were nightmarish imaginings that when Elizabeth saw his cousin again, she would realize that she preferred him to Darcy.

What was strange about these persistent jealous feelings was that he had not been aware of them at all, or at least not to a significant degree, during the first month of his engagement to Elizabeth. He had felt confident then that she had never loved his cousin. He had even written to his cousin several times inviting him to the wedding, so sure had Darcy been in her affections. But once the idea that his fiancée might have stronger feelings for his cousin than she admitted took hold on his thoughts, he could not shake it loose.

Added to his latent sense of jealousy, was the fact that Elizabeth’s manner to him had changed since the day they had embraced so passionately in Bingley’s study. Indeed, on several occasions since then, she had withdrawn from him when he had attempted to embrace her. She also seemed to avoid spending much time with him; he had hardly seen her at all during the past week.

His jealousy, which had been slowly simmering, was now at the boiling point.

He was walking with Elizabeth in the meadow behind Longbourn. She was playing with the strings of her bonnet and looking uncharacteristically subdued. Knowing that he was not likely to get another moment alone with Elizabeth before their wedding in two days, Darcy finally broached the subject which had been on his mind for some time.

“Elizabeth, do you recall the day that you encountered my cousin and me at Pemberley?”

“Of course, how could I forget.” She laughed. “You both were informally dressed, but quite fetching in your wet clothing.”

“We both looked fetching?” His face darkened. “Was that passionate look of yours when you were leaving Pemberley that day meant for both of us, then?”

Her brow lifted in surprise at the harsh tone of his voice. “I do not know what you mean, sir.”

“As your uncle’s carriage was leaving the drive, you turned around and looked in the direction where Fitzwilliam and I were standing.” His voice had an edge to it. “There was an unmistakable look of longing in your expression. My cousin informed me that that look was intended for him. Was he correct?”

Elizabeth frowned slightly and then looked directly at Darcy. “I had no passionate feelings for your cousin then, nor have I ever had such feelings for him. If I was looking back with passion and longing, I must have been looking at the beautiful grounds of Pemberley. I believe that I fell in love with them on first sight.”

She watched to see how he responded to this. His sudden pique had taken her by surprise. She had thought that her teasing answer would reassure him, but he seemed shaken by her response.

“You fell in love with Pemberley? Was it seeing my estate, then, that made you change your mind about marrying me? I had thought you were above that, Elizabeth. I was confident after your first refusal that you did not care for my money and my position.”

She was silent for a moment. When she finally spoke her voice was shaking; whether it was trembling from anger or from hurt, Darcy could not tell.

“How can you accuse me of marrying you for mercenary reasons? You know that it is not true. I do love Pemberley, partly because it reflects the strength and refinement of your own nature. But I never would marry you or anyone for an estate. Surely, you know the depth of my feelings for you; my response to your kisses should convince you of that.”

“You are highly responsive, that is true, but I believe that is your nature. For all I know, you responded to my cousin in the same way, and to Wickham, as well.”

She put her hands over her ears. “You have said quite enough, sir, I will hear no more.” She turned and started to walk away.

Darcy stepped in front of her, so as to block her path. “Elizabeth, please forgive me. I am so sorry.”

“No, Mr. Darcy, do not apologize. I am not sorry. Indeed, I am glad, in fact, that I learned your opinion of me before it is too late.”

She turned and started to run in the direction of Longbourn.

He stood as if rooted to the ground for a few terrible moments; then he strode off after her. He caught up with her in less than ten strides.

Darcy grabbed her hands and sank on his knees before her. “Elizabeth, please hear me out. I am truly sorry and ashamed of my behavior just now. I have been afraid of late that when you see my cousin again, you will realize that you care more for him than you do me. I know that my accusations regarding Pemberley are unjust, and Wickham, too, for that matter. It is just that I love you so much, and I have been so sure that something would happen to come between us. I believe I have manufactured these accusations against you to spite myself.”

Elizabeth looked down upon Darcy with a desolate look on her face. “But surely, sir, these feelings of yours must have come from somewhere. I must have done something to make you have such little trust in me.”

Her expression looked so pained that Darcy could not bear to look at her. “I am sure I am distorting your actions out of proportion, but you did avoid embracing me last week and you appear to have been avoiding my company this past week.”

Elizabeth’s face reddened slightly. “As for your last statement, you know I have had a thousand things to do to prepare for the wedding and for moving to Derbyshire. My whole life is about to change and there is everything to be done. I have missed spending time with you, but it could not be helped. As for avoiding embracing you, I have a good reason for that, but I cannot tell you now.”

Looking anguished, Darcy slowly rose to his feet. “Please tell me. I must know.”

“There are some things I am not comfortable discussing with you yet. How can you expect me to trust you in discussing personal matters, when you have so little trust in me. You did not tell me of your jealousy of your cousin until just now.”

“Elizabeth, we must talk about this. We are to be married in two days.”

He held his breath waiting for her response. If she tried to back out of their wedding, he would not be responsible for his actions.

Her answer gave him only partial relief. “I agree that we must talk, but not today. We have guests arriving any moment, and I must go home to greet them. Besides, I am feeling too distressed at present to have a rational conversation.”


“Tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock.”

“Very well, I will call for you at one o’clock. Thank you for giving me a chance to explain.”

Darcy’s heart was heavy while he watched Elizabeth walk away. It was little comfort knowing he had only himself to blame for his present misery.

************************** October 11, 1812

The next afternoon Elizabeth found herself seated next to Darcy in his curricle. He had arrived promptly at one and asked her father’s permission to take her for a drive. Mr. Bennet had given his permission somewhat reluctantly, after responding that he would much rather Mr. Darcy take him so that he could escape the bedlam of Longbourn.

When they had left the grounds of Longbourn, Darcy stopped the horses and turned to Elizabeth. He studied her closely for a moment. She looked peaked and tight-lipped.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to come with me, Elizabeth. I have much I want to say to you, but I cannot engage in serious conversation when I am driving. There is somewhere that I wish to take you, somewhere private where we can talk. Does this plan meet with your approval?”

He looked at her with anxiety. She nodded, and for the next twenty minutes they rode together in silence.

Finally, they pulled down a dirt road and came to a halt in front of a large dilapidated barn. She looked at him in surprise.

“I brought you here to show you a wedding present,” he said. “It was meant to be a surprise, but I thought it might help to explain my deplorable behavior yesterday.”

Her eyes widened slightly. “A wedding present, sir? I hope it is not a horse. You know my feelings on that subject.”

"Yes, I do know. It is not a horse, although one day, if you allow me, I hope to help you overcome your fear of horses.” He jumped down from the curricle. “Please wait there a moment.”

He strode to the barn door. It was then that Elizabeth noted that the barn’s doors were secured with a large padlock. Darcy removed a large key from his waistcoat pocket and opened the padlock and swung the door open.

She was beside herself with curiosity. Her anxiety to know what was inside the barn was so great, she that almost forgot her hurt feelings.

Darcy quickly returned and lifted her down from the curricle. He noticed that she relaxed for a moment in his arms, as she usually did, and then she stiffened and held herself apart from him. They walked silently inside the barn, which appeared to be empty except for a few bales of hay. He removed his coat and laid it down over a bale of hay; he then motioned for Elizabeth to sit down.

“Please sit down a moment while I look about. It appears that Mr. Auden has taken the trouble of hiding the apparatus.”

She looked puzzled, having no idea what he was referring to. She sat down, and silently looked around her. As it was warm inside the barn, she removed her pelisse and bonnet, and set them by his coat.

He disappeared around several bales of hay, and then he gave a small shout. “I have found it. Please come and look.”

She walked around several large stacks of hay bales to follow the sound of his voice. Darcy was standing beside what looked like a huge basket, so high that it came to above his waist. Sitting beside the basket were large folded bundles of cloth and various other unidentifiable objects.

After staring at these objects for a moment, Elizabeth’s face suddenly lit up with comprehension.

“Is this a hot air balloon?”

“Yes, or rather it is the makings of one. Wait until you see it inflated tomorrow in its glory. It is a true sight to behold.”

“Was it your plan to take me for a ride in it?”

“No, unfortunately, it is too risky. It will be launched near Meryton so we will be able to see it overhead when we are married tomorrow.” He turned to her. “That is, if you are still willing to marry me tomorrow after my base accusations yesterday.”

“I am not inclined to break off our engagement since you admit you do not credit those accusations, sir, but I do want to know what caused you to behave the way you did.”

Darcy closed his eyes for a moment, and an expression of stark relief appeared on his face. “I will try my best to explain it to you. But please be patient with me, I am not accustomed to articulating my feelings very well. As you know, I often say things that make you angry when it is not my intention to do so.”

He took Elizabeth’s arm and led her over to the bale of hay that was covered by his coat. Motioning her to sit down, he sat down next to her. He could tell from the erectness of her posture that she was not comfortable sitting so close to him. He slid slightly away from her and clasped both his hands around his left knee.

“When I was a child of eight or nine, my mother took me to see a hot air balloon launch. It was the most exhilarating moment of my young life. My childhood was not unhappy; I was very close with my mother, in particular. But I did not get to see her often. She was often away with my father and I was left alone at Pemberley with my tutor. My life was highly regimented and very lonely. I had been raised to focus on my responsibilities, not pleasures of friendships. Until I saw that air balloon float through the sky, I had never felt a sense of freedom or even joy. I felt both that day and after that, my childhood dreams were full of hot air balloons.”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, she appeared to be listening with rapt attention.

“When I was twelve years old, I had an opportunity to watch a second hot air balloon ride. I had the same joyous feeling upon it seeing it rise into the air. It rose in the sky and drifted away. We watched it for half an hour or more, and then when it was still within sight, it exploded in the air. I cannot describe the horror I felt at the moment.”

Elizabeth slid closer to Darcy and put her hand on his. He laid his other hand over hers and closed his eyes.

“Shortly after that, my mother died after being ill for a brief time. I was there in the room, when she died; my father had commanded it. After that, I felt that nothing was safe, that everything wonderful would be taken away from me. Other things happened to confirm that feeling. By the time I was twenty, I had lost my father, an uncle, the woman who had been my nanny since birth. I had also lost the friendship with George Wickham, whom I had been very close to as a boy; he had betrayed my friendship in numerous ways.

“I grew aloof and standoffish. I was too afraid of losing another person to get close to anyone. With the exception of Bingley, the only friends that I had were people such as my cousin and Mr. Crandall whom I had known since childhood. Until you came along, Elizabeth, I was quite determined to never fall in love. I did not want to risk it. I know that during my disastrous proposal, I raised all manner of objections about your family, and your lack of social position and wealth, and these things in truth did have some influence over me. But the biggest impediment to my fully embracing the idea of marriage to you was the strength of my feelings for you. I knew that if I were given the chance to truly love you, and then lost you, that I would never survive it.”

Darcy drew a deep breath and looked at Elizabeth. She brushed the tears from her eyes with one hand, and tightened her grip on his hand with the other.

“I cannot excuse my behavior yesterday, I can only say that it was motivated by fear that I would lose you,” he continued. “I have loved you for some time, but never as much as I have since our engagement. The idea that I could lose you…” His voice cracked slightly and he paused for a moment. “When I tried to embrace you last week and you started pulling away, these dark fears and jealousies took a hold of me. Despite my accusations against you yesterday, it was never you that I lost faith in or stopped trusting you, it was myself and my ability to survive losing you. Please forgive me.”

He turned to her, and she threw herself into his arms. She sat on his lap and wrapped her arms tightly around him. Darcy rested his cheek on the top of head and sighed with relief.

“I forgive you, sweetheart,” she assured him. “I only wish you could have spoken of these fears to me sooner. I know it is hard when there has been so little time. After we are married, it will be easier, I hope.”

He softly stroked Elizabeth’s back. “I certainly hope so,” he whispered.

“As to why I pulled away from you last week, it had nothing to do with you. I…” She paused. “You have a sister and you are a man of the world, you must know that there are times of the month when women are taught to withdraw from close company. At least, my mother always schooled us to believe that we should keep a certain distance from men at these times. I wanted to explain it to you, but I could not find the words at the time. I am not used to speaking of such things to anyone.”

Darcy held her closer to him. “Oh Elizabeth, oh my love. What a terrible fool I have been.”

“I have been foolish as well. If it had not taken me so long to appreciate your worth, I would have accepted your first proposal, and would not have entered into that foolish understanding with your cousin. Please believe me, I was very fond of him, but I never loved him. I have never loved, nor have I ever kissed any man but you.”

Darcy kissed her temple. “I would not care terribly much if you had, as long as you are completely mine now. It wasn’t your past that I really cared about, Lizzy,but my anxieties about the future.”

She turned her face and kissed him softly on the lips. “I truly love you, and I am completely yours. I love being with you and being in your arms. While we are speaking so frankly, however, I must admit that I am somewhat anxious about our wedding night. I have received such radically different descriptions of what to expect and been given such conflicting advice on the subject, that I do not know how to act or what to believe. Lydia’s version was, perhaps, the most fantastical, but the most promising.”

He was almost reluctant to hear what his scandalous young sister-in-law had to say on this subject. He was anxious to know, however, what Elizabeth’s expectations were.

“What exactly did Lydia tell you?”

Elizabeth blushed. “I cannot speak of it; it is very intimate.”

Darcy brushed her ear with his lips. “I know it is, my love, but since we will soon be doing these most intimate things starting tomorrow, I think it is proper for us to speak of them.”

Her ear turned a deep shade of red. He kissed it again and this time nibbled on it very gently. She spoke in a low voice. “Lydia said that if a woman moves together with a man in an uninhibited fashion while he is inside of her, that the climax is so exhilarating that they feel that they are soaring in the air. She also said that it is much nicer if both the man and the woman remove all of their clothing.”

She looked up at Darcy and saw that his eyes had darkened. His voice was husky when he spoke.

“For the first,and probably the last time, I would advise you to listen to your youngest sister. I do not know anything about the other advice you received, but I doubt it was as sound as your sister’s advice.”

Lizzy’s eyes widened. “Do you really mean that we should remove all of our clothes when we consummate our marriage? I thought that you might think it too uncivilized.”

Darcy smiled lustily. “Yes, perhaps, but we are all savages at heart; and when we make love Elizabeth, it will be heart to heart.”

He slowly took the pins out of her hair until her thick tresses tumbled about her shoulders. Now that her hair was down, he longed to undress her.

“And the part about soaring through the air – is that true, then?”

Darcy closed his eyes; she had no idea what she was doing to him. “Yes. Not everyone would describe it so, but I am certain that it will be true for us. Perhaps not the very first time, as it takes some experience to achieve that; but after that, yes, I have no doubt we will be soaring, Lizzy.”

She twisted around until she was straddling his lap.

“Perhaps, then we should make love for the first time now, so tomorrow on our wedding night we will be experienced,” she suggested. “And I will not be so anxious tomorrow if I already have full knowledge of what is before me.”

Mustering all of his will power, Darcy gently shook his head. “Tempting as you are, my love, I do not think this is the right place. You would not be comfortable lying down in this barn. ”

Lizzy started to loosen his cravat. “Perhaps, we can get just a little bit of experience sitting upright.”

She pulled his cravat off and planted small kisses on his neck. Darcy groaned. Elizabeth started to unbutton his waistcoat. She had difficulty undoing the buttons because her fingers were trembling.

“Leave it,” he whispered.

“But I want to feel you skin to skin,” she protested.

Darcy laughed. “Yes, Lizzy, but I can do it faster.” Pushing his betrothed slightly away from him, he fumbled to remove his waistcoat. Then, grabbing each side of his shirt, he suddenly ripped it apart so that the buttons went flying. He hastily removed his shirt.

She stared at him. “You are even more beautiful without your clothes.”

Darcy laughed. “Turn around,love.” he said gruffly.

She quickly turned her back to him, and he nimbly undid the buttons on the back of her dress. “Do not tear it, please,” she whispered. “I must face my whole family and a houseful of guests when I return home.”

“I will take great care.” Soon he had opened her dress completely and slipped it off her shoulders along with her petticoat. He quickly unfastened her stays and chemise, then pushed her chemise down to her waist. He kissed the newly exposed skin.

Darcy gazed at Elizabeth with awe. “It is you, Elizabeth, who is beautiful.”

He kissed the top of her right breast. “Dearest.”

His lips moved to the top of her left breast. “Loveliest.” His lips grazed her left nipple.

“Elizabeth.” His lips then closed around her nipple and suckled it gently.

She gasped, “Please.”

He lifted his head. “Please what?”

“Please, sweetheart,” moaned Elizabeth.

Darcy laughed, and turned his attentions to her other breast. Elizabeth wrapped her fingers in his hair. After a few moments, he lifted his head and his lips found hers. He pressed his naked chest against hers while his tongue explored her mouth.

She melted into his arms. “So, this is making love,” she finally breathed into his mouth. “It is glorious.”

He looked at her and smiled. “This is only the first course, my love. There is much more to come.”

“I want the rest of it now. I cannot wait.”

He stroked her back while he tried to keep calm. His heart was pounding at an alarming speed. “I would love nothing more, dearest; nothing more. But I know there are many guests coming today and the ball starts in only a few hours. We do not want to rush through our first time together, and I certainly do not want you to have any regrets.”

Elizabeth jumped off of his lap; her eyes were wild.

“Oh dear, I forgot myself completely. My aunt and uncle and cousins will be arriving any minute, and there are so many things to do before the ball. Much as I want to stay here with you, we must leave at once.”

Darcy was gazing with adoration at his beloved. She looked almost otherworldly with her long dark hair spread over her pale naked skin. “Let us hurry then, my love, before I change my mind and remove the rest of your clothes .”

He quickly helped Elizabeth dress. Then he kissed her twice on the lips, first hard, and then soft.

While Elizabeth pinned her hair up,Darcy quickly dressed himself. His task was shortened by the fact that he had few buttons on his shirt left to fasten, a fact that fortunately was hidden by his waistcoat and coat.

As they were driving back towards Meryton, Elizabeth leaned towards Darcy and kissed him. “I hope you are now assured of my devotion. I do wish you to suffer any jealousy when we see your cousin tonight. Politeness demands that I dance with him, should he ask me, but my heart will be with you.”

He smiled warmly at his betrothed. “You have been very convincing , dearest,and have soothed my fears away. I cannot say that I will enjoy watching you dance with my cousin but I am resigned to it.”

“Keep in mind, sir, that while I am dancing with him I will be thinking of you and imagining how you will look tomorrow in your wedding clothes, and without them.”

Darcy was so distracted by this comment, that he missed seeing a rut in the road. Luckily, he was an accomplished driver and he managed to steady the curricle before it turned over completely.


Richard Fitzwilliam sat on his horse and stared at the Meryton chapel. It was small and rather dreary looking. It gave the appearance of being slightly lopsided, as if it were sinking into the ground on one side. ‘Perhaps it is just my perspective that is distorted,’ Fitz thought as he dismounted and strode inside the church.

To his relief, the church was empty of people. The church was as gaily decorated on the inside as it was cheerless on the outside. The doorway and the sides of the pews were decorated with great swaths of ribbons and bunches of greenery in preparation for tomorrow’s wedding. The smell of pine, rosemary and sage filled the air.

After walking slowly up the aisle, he stood for a moment to the left of the pulpit, and turned and faced the aisle, imagining that he was the bridegroom and he was waiting for the entrance of his bride. As he stood there inhaling the scent of herbs, the church door opened slightly and the figure of a woman slipped inside. In the dimming light, he could not see her face clearly, but from her dark brown hair and her small, voluptuous figure, he had little doubt of who she was.

“Damnation,” he muttered under his breath. Elizabeth Bennet was the last person he wanted to encounter alone in this setting. He stepped backwards into the shadows, hoping to avoid her notice.

After pausing a moment by the door, the woman starting walking up the aisle with graceful measured steps.

When she was about two yards from the pulpit, Fitzwilliam was finally able to look at her face. Her eyes were closed and she had a dreamy expression. He gazed upon her up tilted face with shock. The woman standing before him was not Elizabeth Bennet, as he had first thought, but someone who looked very much like her. He could not take his eyes off of her. She had a perfect oval shaped face, and her lips were even fuller than Elizabeth’s. Her brow was high and delicate. She had, moreover, the most perfect proportions that he had ever seen in a woman. Her figure was small and pleasingly curvaceous, but unlike Elizabeth, this woman had a figure that was completely symmetrical. ‘She is a goddess,’ he thought and made a small involuntary sound of appreciation.

The young lady opened her eyes quickly and pierced the shadows with a cold, disapproving look; her wide mouth thinned into a prim line. The creature who had just a moment earlier looked like his idea of divinity had instantly transformed herself into a plain young woman with a pedantic air. There was an awkward silence. Finally, he regained his composure, stepped out from the shadows, and executed a hasty bow.

“Since there is no one here to introduce us, please allow me that liberty. I am Richard Fitzwilliam, the cousin of the Fitzwilliam Darcy who is to be wed here tomorrow.”

The young woman curtsied stiffly. “I am Mary Bennet, the sister of Elizabeth Bennet, your cousin’s fiancée.” She gave Fitzwilliam an odd searching look as she said this, as if expecting him to show some response.

He nodded in acknowledgement of the introduction, but said nothing further.

“If may ask you a question, sir, I am curious to know why you are here.”

Fitzwilliam looked slightly disconcerted by this question. “I am soon to be ordained to be a vicar, and thus, I find myself drawn to the church.”

Mary looked at the former colonel and pursed her lips in a sour expression. “If you are practicing to be a vicar, you should stand behind the pulpit, not in front of it.”

He immediately strode to the pulpit and stood behind it. He held his head up high, and his face molded itself into a severe and formidable expression, appropriate for scaring new soldiers.

The middle Bennet sister shook her head in disapproval. “You look like a despot; you will scare away your flock. A vicar must have a benevolent look about him if he wants his parishioners to come regularly to church.”

His face quickly relaxed into an expression of such an absurd degree of munificence that Mary’s upper lip curled briefly in amusement. He looked at her with an affronted look on his face.

“Dare you smirk, madam, when I am trying my best to master my new profession? It is not very charitable of you.”

She stopped smiling, but she did not look at all contrite. “I am not uncharitable, sir; you looked completely ridiculous. You must look a little more dignified than that or no one will take you seriously as a vicar.”

Fitzwilliam placed his hand over his heart. “There, now you have wounded my vanity and discouraged me utterly. It is too much; I shall never get the hang of being a vicar.” He shook his head with a mock dejected look.

Mary managed to look repentant and reproving at the same time. “Oh no, you must not give up so soon. I am sure you can learn to be a proper vicar, only you must practice more. You must avoid the habit of embracing one extreme or another, as a good vicar has the appearance of being both benevolent and stern at once.”

“Like this?” He glared at her out of his left eye while twisting the right side of a face into a ludicrous grin.

He was expecting to make her laugh at his antics, but to his great amusement, Mary frowned and stamped her foot instead.

"No, that is worse than before. You really have to work harder at this if you wish to be ordained.”

To her astonishment, Fitzwilliam leaned his head back and laughed. He had never before met a woman with such an impoverished sense of humor. For some reason, he found this remarkably entertaining.

“I perfectly agree with you, Miss Bennet, but I think there is much more to be done than simply getting my facial expressions under control. I am afraid I am frightfully ignorant about the content of sermons.”

“I should think that the sermon would be the easiest part. I have written a number of sermons myself, although I have no hope of ever being a vicar.”

He looked at the prim young woman before him with interest. “You write sermons, do you? Would you choose a career in the church if it were possible?”

“Oh yes,” breathed Mary. “I should like nothing better. I would make a wonderful vicar. I have a natural aptitude for sermonizing.”

“Then perhaps you should teach me how to do it. I have not the slightest clue how to go about it. Because of my army service and frequent travels abroad, I have rarely even attended a church service in recent years, and on those few occasions when I have done so, I never paid much attention to the sermon.”

Fitzwilliam expected that Mary Bennet would scold him upon this admission, but instead she looked at him very intently as if trying to decide whether he was worth offering her services to or not.

“I will strike bargain with you, Miss Bennet. If you spare some time this evening to give me some pointers on preparing a sermon, I will teach you how to be charming.”

She surprised him again by looking more intrigued than affronted by this offer.

“How would you go about doing that, sir?”

“First, I would teach you to how laugh and flirt.”

“I doubt you would succeed in such an endeavor. I do not know if it is in my nature to be flirtatious, and I am not prone to laughter.”

He looked at Mary appraisingly. “Well, if you want to learn these things, I am confident I could teach you. I have as much or more expertise in flirtation as you do in sermonizing.”

“I do not wish to appear to be ridiculous. I have been told that it is unbecoming for plain women to flirt.”

“Flirtation when properly done is never unbecoming. Besides which you are hardly plain although you do not look particularly attractive when you wear that disapproving dour look. When you walked down this aisle earlier with that dreamy look on your face, however, I found you to be breathtakingly lovely.” He surprised himself at his candor; he had never spoken so openly to a woman he had just met before.

Mary was completely dumbfounded, not by his candor, but by the compliment. No gentleman had ever shown the slightest interest in her before, and now, this man, who she knew to be the son of an earl and the recent recipient of a generous living, was paying her marked attention and complimenting her looks most shamelessly. A thought occurred to her that caused her to look at the man before her with grave suspicion.

“Does your attention to me have to do with your feelings for my sister, Elizabeth?”

Fitzwilliam started and looked uncomfortable, “What do you know of my connection with your sister?” he asked rather harshly.

Mary was not intimidated by his tone; she’d heard harsher reproofs from her mother. “I only just heard today from my sister Lydia and her new husband, who I understand is a great friend of yours, that you yourself desired to marry my sister, Elizabeth, and that you had an arrangement to marry her if Lydia had married Wickham. I also heard that you injured Mr. Wickham in a duel in an attempt to bring about his marriage to my younger sister. Is this true?”

“It is the truth, more or less. I am distressed that it is being bandied about as household gossip. It will be most uncomfortable for me, as well as for your sister and my cousin, at the ball this evening and at the wedding tomorrow if word of this is spread about town. I believe, in fact, that I will forego attending the ball, and perhaps the wedding, in light of this news.”

“I would not advise that, Mr. Fitzwilliam. Word has gotten out that you will be attending the ball and the wedding, and as you are to be Mr. Darcy’s only relative in attendance, besides his sister, it will look most suspicious if you suddenly decide against attending. At this point, only my immediate family knows of your history with my sister, but if you do not attend the ball, it would fan the flames of gossip. My mother, for one, would be sure to respond to inquiries about your absence with wild speculation that you are too smitten with my sister to countenance attending the ball.”

Fitzwilliam considered this. “You are probably correct, Miss Bennet, that it is best if I attend the ball. I am anxious to avoid as little gossip and scandal as possible. Do you have any idea of how to prevent the spreading of this news during the ball?”

Mary thought for a moment. “My sister Lydia has trouble holding her tongue, but she seems fully devoted to her husband and I believe she would do what he asks her to do. You could pen a note to him that I could deliver, asking him to counsel his wife to say nothing regarding you and Elizabeth. Persuading my mother to remain silent, however, is a harder task. She loves to gossip, particularly about her daughters’ conquests.”

“Ah, that is unpleasant for you, I am sure.”

“Not for me. I have never had any conquests.”

Fitzwilliam stared at the woman before him for a moment; he was surprised at how much she intrigued him. “What if I were to show a decided interest in one of her single daughters tonight at the ball. Would that likely keep her quiet on the subject of my earlier interest in Miss Elizabeth?”

“I believe there is merit to that plan. My mother is aware of your social connections, and she has heard from Mr. Shelby of your excellent living. If she thought there was a chance that she could secure you as a son-in-law, she would do just about anything, including holding her tongue. Yes, you must show a marked interest in my younger sister, Kitty. My mother will be so delighted she will forget all about your history with Elizabeth.”

“Why should I pay attentions to your younger sister, when I could do so with you, and kill two birds with one stone. I could teach you how to flirt in exchange for lessons on sermonizing and silence your mother all at the same time. Flirting while dancing is a particular specialty of mine.”

Mary shook her head. “I believe you are serious, Mr. Fitzwilliam. But teaching me to flirt and dance at the same time is out of the question. I have had as little experience with dancing as I have had with flirtation. ”

“Ah then, we better get to work on our lessons straight away.” Fitzwilliam executed an elegant bow and held his arm out to Mary.

“Miss Mary, may I have the pleasure of this dance?”

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