Scene 17: Fitzwilliam and Jane
Fitzwilliam hung back. Darcy could talk with the admiral and Miss Elizabeth on his own. For once Miss Bennet was not in the company of his aunt or cousin. The boys were occupied with one another. Bless those wooden swords. Such an opportunity should not be overlooked.
He straightened his coat and brushed dust from his sleeves. A few brisk steps brought him to the fallen log Miss Bennet used as a bench. “Good day, Miss Bennet.” He bowed.
She looked up from her writing and smiled. “Good day.”
A beam of sunlight poured through a break in the trees. It glimmered off her hair, engulfing her in a golden halo. How rare a beauty sat before him. Perhaps he was a fool. With her connections and fortune why would she receive him? At least he would have the satisfaction of knowing for certain. The possibility of what might have been would not torment his nights. He smiled back. “May I join you?”
“Certainly.” She turned back to her writing.
He dropped to the ground near her. “My nephews have enjoyed your brothers’ company immensely.”
“They have indeed been excellent playmates.” Miss Bennet did not look up from her journal.
“They have never had playmates who could match their energy before.”
Her pencil scratched the paper faster.
“It was good of your father to give them those swords, or at least it seems so now. I might feel differently after you take your leave though.”
She turned the page and her pencil scratched again. “I expect you are correct. I would suggest that you make it clear to them they are forbidden from using them in the house.”
He snickered. Why would she not look at him? Her voice lacked any flirtatious quality. Her face, her posture had no hint of coyness. She was entirely indifferent to his presence. He swallowed back a sigh. Still, timidity was not in his nature. Perhaps a different tack was required. “Do you ever spar with the boys?”
Success at last, she turned her face to him. “No, that is Elizabeth’s purview alone, though I doubt she will do so again anytime soon given your cousins’ disapproval. Oh!” Her eyes narrowed and jaw tightened. “Disagreeable man! He has done it again.”
He followed her gaze. Miss Elizabeth turned on her heel and stalked away. Darcy stared after her until she disappeared into the trees then hurried after her. Admiral Bennet squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his temples and shuffled to his horse. He struggled into the saddle and trailed after them.
“Your cousin has an astounding ability to discompose my sister.” Jane snapped the journal shut.
“No one has ever accused him of being gifted with a glib nature.”
“I would say so. There is no need for him to judge her so harshly. If he cannot be kind, he should simply leave her alone.” She wrapped her arms around her knees, forehead creased in a lovely scowl.
“Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but you misunderstand my cousin entirely.”
She stared deep into Fitzwilliam’s eyes. “I think not. His dark stares and curt words make his opinions quite clear.”
Deep blue and penetrating, her eyes were compelling, inviting, arresting—
“I pray you will forgive me saying so, but it is a wonder your cousin ever married if this is any sample of the way he treats the fairer sex.”
Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. Miss Bennet was stunning in her righteous indignation. So much so, he almost hesitated to quell it, but his sense of justice insisted. “I do not blame you for thinking as you do. You are not the first to cast my cousin in such a dim light. He does himself few favors with his seriousness and reserve, but you must believe me when I tell you, you have misjudged him entirely.”
“How might that be?” She crossed her arms and looked at him with the same expression the governess used on his nephews.
Laughing would not help his cause. He held his breath until the urge passed. “One might assume your sister to be, as your father says, ‘a sturdy girl’ little in need of the protections you seem to lavish upon her.”
“That would be because they do not know her. She has been ill-used by the Ton and hurt for all her efforts at civility.”
“Precisely. My cousin, like your sister, is not easy to know.” He leaned back on his hands and peered into the leafy canopy. How much should he share? Darcy valued his privacy above almost everything else, at times more than he should. “I know you will not share your sister’s secrets, nor should you. In the same way I cannot breech Darcy’s confidence. But I can assure you, his opinion of your sister is quite the opposite of what you think. He holds her in high regard despite his unfortunate tendency to say precisely the wrong thing.”
“I am surprised.”
“Now please do not think I have said this to raise expectations—”
Miss Bennet snorted and rose, flipping her skirts. Dust and leaves scattered in their wake.
Fitzwilliam clambered to his feet and grimaced. “I have just played Darcy’s role, I fear. I had no wish to offend you.”
Her posture softened and she turned toward him.
“I mean not offense to your sister. Only that…the married state was not a pleasant one for my cousin. It was tolerable, I suppose, but neither he nor Anne was entirely content. They were not like minded and had little in common. I admire the way they made the best of it and created a peaceful environment for their sons. He grieved her death, to be sure. But it left him with little desire to try again.”
“I see.” Miss Bennet blinked several times and looked aside. “Please forgive me. You are correct. I have misjudged him.”
Fitzwilliam chuckled and stepped nearer. “Do not worry. He brings it on himself. You are hardly the first to do so.”
“Still.” She smiled though her eyes still frowned. “I think him very like my sister now. She has tired of the marriage market herself and does not want anyone raising his hopes on her.”
Fitzwilliam offered her his arm. They traced the perimeter of the grove.
There would never be another opportunity like the present. He drew a deep breath to fortify his courage. “What of you, Miss Bennet? Have you the same opinions as your sister?” He winced. Somehow, those words had sounded so much better in his mind. Just as well, though, better have an answer now than make a fool of himself later. Still, his heart barely beat and his mouth dried up.
“I…I have not had her experiences…so I do not have entirely the same opinions.”
He almost stumbled in the light-headedness that followed the sudden return of his heartbeat.
“Do not mistake me. I laud her caution to be sure. But I am not convinced of the certain evils of a match, particularly where there is mutual friendship and even affection among the parties.”
Walking and not grinning like a simpleton required all the strength and concentration he could muster.
“And what are your opinions, sir?”
Words tangled in the cotton wool that filled his mouth. He tongue, surely three times its normal size and bone dry, protested speech. Somehow he prevailed. “Having never been married myself, I do not share his prejudices. I would prefer to form my own judgments.”
She smiled at him.
He caught his foot on a tree root and nearly fell but for the steadiness of her arm in his. It mattered not. Laughter burst forth and she joined in. In the background the boys laughed too, hopefully at their own antics, and all was right with the world.
Scene 59 Jane and Fitz
Fitzwilliam trudged upstairs to his chambers. How close had they come to tragedy? He had reconciled himself to it on the battlefield but had deceived himself in Pemberley’s safety far too long. He dropped into his favorite chair and scoured his face with his hands. Life was too fragile and too short. He had delayed far too many things far too long. Darcy made his complacency too easy, but no more.
The fragrance of honeysuckle wafted through the room. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Funny how that scent soothed the depths of his being and righted his world. A gentle touch on his shoulder coaxed him to open his eyes.
“Fitzwilliam.” Her voice caressed his name, wanton and proper all at the same moment.
A familiar frisson coursed through him, lingering potently with her nearness. He opened his eyes.
She stood beside him, looking down with that look she reserved just for him.
He pulled her into his lap.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and nestled into his shoulder. “You smell like horse.”
He threw his head back and laughed a soul cleansing laugh. “Oh, Janie, you always know what I need.”
“It is hard to believe they are all returned and well,” she whispered.
“It is. I am still surprised a broken arm is the worst of it, considering all that might have been.”
She shuddered. ”Lizzy has just gone to see Papa. I think they shall mend their bridges.”
“About bloody time! The hard headed—”
“Yes, I know.” She laughed the tired half laugh-half sigh she used when she did not want to admit her weariness. “You should be glad I am not nearly as stubborn as either of them”
“I am certain I shall count my blessings for that.” He pressed his forehead to hers. “And for so many other things.”
“Is this finished now?”
“Not yet.” He grated his teeth and shook his head. “Piper has sent men out to find him.”
“You think they will succeed this time?”
“Why? What has changed?”
“I had a very long talk with the boys on the way here from Alston. From Philip’s account, Wickham is very ill indeed.”
“And when they catch him?”
“They will bring him here.”
She gulped. “Then what?”
“I am not sure. It is for Darcy and the Admiral to decide.”
“I am sure Darcy will be far more inclined to mercy than Papa,” she craned her neck to look at him, “or you.”
“No doubt. Given my druthers—”
“I do not like it. They do not need more conflict between them.”
“I know my dear. But I have no desire to think about that now.” He pulled her a little closer and pressed his face into her hair. Honeysuckle and sunshine, so warm and close. Frayed nerves gave way to a new, and far more pleasing, tension.
He kissed her forehead, down her temple, her cheek, until he found her lips. Sweet, warm and welcoming, she received him with increasing vigor. For all her quiet propriety, a stream of passion ran within and bubbled up to greet him. She yielded to his hand at the small of her back, pressing her softness into the planes of his chest.
He should stop now, should right her to her feet, and should be concerned for someone walking in on them. But here and now, after all that occurred that day, ‘should’ mattered very little. Gaping, ragged places in his heart screamed for comfort Jane alone could provide.
He was no Darcy, nor ever would be, but the woman who trailed kisses up his jaw to that spot behind his ear, the one that made him forget everything but her—she did not ask him to be Darcy or an earl’s son. She esteemed him for himself alone. Aching emptiness gnawed within, a hunger demanding to be filled.
He found her lips again.
Her hand glided down his chest to his side and the sharp crest of his hip as she met his kisses with her own. Did she know what her touch did to him? Would she stop if she did?
“Janie, I must know, are you disappointed in me—that I did not find—”
She jumped backwards and nearly fell out of his lap. “Richard Edward Hubert Fitzwilliam!”
Surprisingly strong hands grabbed his ears. “If I ever hear you say something so stupid again, I swear to you I shall box these ears of yours so hard you will—”
He took her wrists and pulled her hands away. “What did I say so wrong?”
She dropped her feet to the floor and stood, hands on her hips, towering over him, a picture of righteous indignation. “You know very well—do not play the fool with me.”
“I have no idea what you are so upset about.”
She huffed, turned on her heel and stalked to the door. It shut with a soft click, immediately drowned out by the angry steps as she stomped back.
“Have you so conveniently forgotten? We have after all had this conversation not just once, but several time before. I would like very much never to have it again.” Her lips flashed up in a thin smile, the one that always portended her sharpest tone. “Though I highly doubt I will be so fortunate.”
He hauled himself to his feet. “What are you going on about?”
“I am tired of hearing you compare yourself to Darcy and anyone else you make out to be somehow better, richer or more accomplished that yourself. I simply will not have any more of it.”
“No—no more excuses. Would you have me go on and on as to how I cannot hold a candle to my fiery sister—neither in the eyes of society nor my father?” She turned her back and paced the length of the room. “I am handsome enough, I suppose—but lack the sparkle and wit she possesses. Papa tries—has always tried—to be fair and not to favor any one of his children, but it is clear he understands neither Philip nor I. Lizzy and Francis are so like him, he cannot help but be more sympathetic toward them.”
She turned and faced him again. Her eyes—oh her eyes! They were not angry as her posture would have suggested, but so very, very vulnerable.
What had he done?
“Shall I wave that as my standard before you? Remind you as to how you are settling for second best? Constantly belittle myself for being who I am, not someone and something else. Tell me— you were the one who played at swords with my sister –were you not tempted by a woman with so much—”
“Stop it!” He strode to her, boots clomping loud on the hardwood floor. He took her shoulders in his hands and gripped them tightly, arms trembling, restraining the desire to shake her. He dragged her to him, kissed her hard, and crushed her into himself. Anger and passion blended, his hands claimed her as his own.
The softness of her curves yielded to the strength of his arms. No doubt she would deny him nothing in this moment. Her need to be desired matched his own, kindred souls completing one another.
“She never tempted me. You must believe that. I enjoyed her playfulness with the boys, but she could never understand me as you do. I have never, will never long for her. Only you dearest, only you.”
She pulled back and met his gaze. “Then stop comparing yourself to Darcy. I want you, not him. You proved your gallantry when you went to look for the boys. Who found them was a matter of luck. You would have laid down your life for them, just as they did and you are not even father to them. Does not that make you even more the hero?” She pressed her hand to his chest. “I know your heart, Fitzwilliam , and that is what I love.”
A strangled cry even he could not decipher tore from his throat as he devoured her waiting, tempting lips. She lost her balance and clutched at him, one hand at his lapel, the other—dear God!—two hand spans lower than his waist.
Desire—ragged and raw—surged through him, throbbing, aching for its completion. He forced his eye open to see his longings mirrored in hers. They were betrothed, Only a date need yet be set. No one else would know.
But he would.
He steadied her on her feet and pressed her cheek to his chest. “I dare not continue. I want you too badly.”
He pressed a finger to her lips. “I know and I treasure that more than I have words to speak. But I will not anticipate our vows. You are too valuable to me for that. Not to mention, I could not look your father or Darcy in the eye again if I did.”
“You are right. Papa would be disappointed—”
“To put it mildly. But let us set a date for our own happiness. My solicitor works on the papers for the estate even now. We need not wait until they are finished, though. There is a house I found in town we can let until the estate is ready for us.”
“I would like that very much.” She exhaled hard and smiled up at him.
Had she any idea how difficult she made his decision when she did that? He drew her close and rested his chin on her head.
“I would also like it very much if you had a bath. You still smell like horse.”
They laughed heartily, the sound of a future being born.