With the Colonel’s Help: A Pride and Prejudice Variation: Chapter 4

Richard leaned toward his cousin as Mr. and Mrs. Collins and their guests entered the drawing room at Rosings. “Wait to see how she acts,” he whispered. “Then we will know how to proceed.”

Darcy raised a brow and rolled his eyes. He had heard Richard say the exact same thing three times earlier this evening. He was not likely to forget the instructions so quickly.

Richard scowled lightly. “I have seen how you lose the ability to form words in her presence.”

“I will do better this evening,” Darcy reassured him.

“Try to look pleasant, and treat her how you would treat Georgiana or me,” Richard advised. He raised an impertinent brow. A bit of a tease might keep his cousin’s mind from becoming a pile of unusable mush, and Darcy’s mind becoming an unusable pile of mush was a very likely possibility based on how Darcy was fidgeting at Miss Bennet’s approach.

Therefore, Richard leaned a bit closer to Darcy’s ear and lowered his voice to a whisper once again. “She is not Caroline Bingley. You do not need to protect yourself from her. That is unless you no longer wish to take her as a wife, in which case, I am certain Miss Bingley would step in and fill the role whether you asked her to or not. Ooof!” A smirking Richard let out a loud burst of air as his cousin’s elbow made solid contact with his gut.

“Are you well, Colonel?” asked Elizabeth, who had just reached where they were standing.

“I am well, thank you, Miss Bennet. Darcy was just showing his displeasure with my teasing. It is something we have done since we were children.”

Elizabeth tilted her head as a small smile crept across her lips. She glanced at Mr. Darcy, who was looking a trifle flushed, before directing her comment to the colonel. “I am all astonishment, sir. I have it on excellent authority that Mr. Darcy is not to be teased.”

Richard’s eyes grew wide, and he could not help his small laugh of disbelief. “I fear your source, whomever that may be, was not correct.”

Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled and her smile grew. “Oh, I am certain there is no better source. Miss Bingley is very knowledgeable about Mr. Darcy.”

At this, Richard let out a loud guffaw.

Elizabeth paused, lips parted as if to speak. Had she seen what she thought she had seen? Had the dour and serious Mr. Darcy just rolled his eyes? So startling was the thought that whatever Elizabeth was going to add to the conversation flew completely out of her head.

Richard, seeing that Elizabeth was looking at Darcy with a rather confused expression, decided it was best to begin broaching the subject of his cousin as quickly as possible. The lady had not avoided either Darcy or himself, which to Richard’s way of thinking must be a good sign.

“I am glad to see your headache did not keep you from our company this evening,” he began.

“It was merely overexertion.” Elizabeth could feel the heat that accompanied such a falsehood creeping onto her cheeks, but she continued in her explanation despite it. “A short rest and a good talk with a dear friend were all that was needed to set me to right.” That part was absolutely honest, yet her cheeks still burned. “I shall have to be more mindful of my time and distance on my next walk.”

Noting the way Elizabeth’s cheeks coloured and how she lowered her eyes as she spoke, Richard felt certain that he was correct in his appraisal of her headache. No matter how much she might protest the fact, that headache was not brought on by walking too far. It had been a result of their conversation.

“Miss Bennet,” Lady Catherine called from where she was seated with her daughter, Anne, on one side and Mr. Collins on the other about half the distance down the length of the room. “You must play for us.”

Elizabeth sighed quietly. “Yes, your ladyship.” She gave a small curtsey and moved toward the instrument as Lady Catherine, in a rather loud and disapproving tone of voice, made note of the fact that Elizabeth had yet to come to Rosings to practice and that there was no way Miss Bennet would improve her skills without practicing. Elizabeth sighed quietly once more as she heard Mr. Collins lending his agreement and accepted the arm of Colonel Fitzwilliam as escort to the instrument.

“Playing will not tax you too much having just recovered from this afternoon’s exertions, will it?” Richard asked. “My aunt is not easily put off, but it can be done if needed. I would not wish for your headache to return.”

“Sir, it will be less taxing for me to play the pianoforte than to contain my comments when faced with your aunt’s censorious conversation and my odious cousin’s profuse praise.” Elizabeth snapped her lips closed and looked at the colonel with wide eyes. “Forgive me, Colonel. I spoke without thought.” Her face reddened in mortification.

“I am not offended,” Richard assured her as she took her seat at the piano.

“I am glad, but it was not right to say,” Elizabeth said as she began to shuffle through the stack of music looking for something easy to play. “I warned Charlotte I would not be fit to be in company tonight. I know that under good circumstances, I speak my mind too freely, but when fatigued, I am afraid my words flow more readily, and much to my discredit, with very little forethought.” She placed a piece of music on the instrument and rested her fingers lightly on the keys. “So, as you can you see, playing will be a good thing for all.” She managed a small smile as she began playing.

“That is understandable,” Darcy, who had joined them, said as he leaned against the piano. “You are not the only one who, when not under proper regulation, has been known to speak without thinking. Your comments, however, carry a certain amount of truth, whereas those of another may have been spoken in haste with little knowledge of the subject, thus rendering his words most untrue.”

His words surprised Elizabeth, and her fingers slurred over a couple of notes. Was he referring to his words at the assembly? She found her place again in the music and, once her fingers were doing as they ought, she looked up to find Mr. Darcy looking nervously contrite. Her playing stumbled once again. It was an apology. She smiled to ease his discomfort as much as to show her appreciation. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she murmured, as she turned her eyes back to her music.

Richard, who was seated next to Elizabeth to assist in turning of pages, noted how the lady’s features softened. Catching Darcy’s eye, he gave him a small nod and smile of commendation and then, tipped his head toward a nearby chair. “Besides playing the pianoforte and walking, what other pastimes do you enjoy, Miss Bennet?”

“Ah, I know this,” said Darcy as he drew the chair Richard had indicated closer and took a seat. “She sings, reads, stitches all manner of things, and enjoys a good verbal joust.”

Elizabeth tipped her head and studied Mr. Darcy’s expression. He was pleased with himself but not in an arrogant way. In fact, he seemed to be looking for her approval of his comments. She arched a brow and said in a very regal fashion. “And there is something in her air.”

Darcy chuckled while Richard looked between them in confusion.

“Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth whispered with a smirk.

Elizabeth’s words did little to ease the look of confusion on Richard’s face, and so Darcy explained. “When Miss Elizabeth was staying at Netherfield to care for her ill sister, Miss Bingley provided us with her list of talents that an accomplished woman should have.”

“Ah,” said Richard as understanding dawned on him, “I assume that according to Miss Bingley, there must be something in a lady’s air?”

Richard was pleased to see the smiles that passed between his companions. Perhaps his task of bringing them together would not be nearly so herculean as he had first thought.

“Precisely,” Darcy answered. “She then stated that she knew only a few ladies who deserved to be called accomplished.”

“Oh, it was not just she who claimed it,” protested Elizabeth.

Darcy inclined his head in acceptance. “You are correct. I also said as much.”

Elizabeth turned her eyes from Darcy. She was finding it hard to keep them on anything else this evening. He was a handsome man, especially when he was smiling as he was.

“To be fair, Colonel, your cousin owned it first, and Miss Bingley agreed with him.” Her eyes, which had taken a moment to look at the colonel while she made her comment, took a brief look at her music before returning to Mr. Darcy.

Richard chuckled. “Indeed? Miss Bingley agreed with Darcy?”

“Shocking, is it not?” Elizabeth said with a laugh.

“Exceedingly,” said Darcy drily.

Elizabeth’s brows furrowed. Was Mr. Darcy not going to be offended by her comments regarding Miss Bingley?

“You sing?” A mischievous grin played at the corners of Richard’s mouth.

“Like an angel,” Darcy answered.

Again, Elizabeth’s fingers stumbled over the notes. “Sir, I thought you despised dishonesty.”

Darcy held her gaze. “I do. I do not lie. You sing beautifully and with great expression.”

Elizabeth’s fingers stilled on the keys. Mr. Darcy was being pleasant and very possibly flirting with her.

“If you were to sing for us, I could verify the truth of my cousin’s statement,” Richard offered.

Elizabeth shook her head. “No, please, not tonight.”

“You are safe,” Darcy’s voice was firm. “No one will inform my aunt of your ability to sing.”

“Thank you.” Elizabeth’s mouth formed the words, but no sound came out. Mr. Darcy was so very surprising this evening. If she was not careful, she might find herself very much charmed by him.

“If I cannot tell Aunt Catherine that you sing. May I tell her you read and insist upon showing you her library?” Richard suggested.

Elizabeth’s shoulders dropped at the relief such a suggestion would bring. “That you may do,” she agreed with alacrity.

“Miss Elizabeth is a great reader,” Darcy said. “It was rare to see her without a book in her hand when she was at Netherfield.”

“I would not say I am a great reader,” Elizabeth protested softly, her cheeks growing rosy. This complimentary Mr. Darcy was rather unsettling.

“What do you read?” Richard asked. He was enjoying watching the effect Darcy was having on Miss Bennet. That the lady was not unaffected by his cousin was good.

“Whatever I can find,” Elizabeth said with a laugh. “My father’s library has books on medicine and science as well as history, philosophy, and agriculture. As you can imagine, some have been more enjoyable than others. I also read poetry, and,” she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “do not let my cousin know, since he has already lectured me at great lengths on this, I quite enjoy novels.”

“Your cousin has lectured you about reading novels?” Darcy asked incredulously.

“Most assuredly he has. They are highly inappropriate for young ladies. It would be far better to read a book of sermons.” Elizabeth chuckled. “However, I have no need to read sermons since my sister Mary reads only sermons and insists on sharing what she has read with us on a regular basis.”

“Pray tell, Miss Bennet,” Richard’s tone was light and teasing, “which novels have you read that cause such censure?”

“Oh, I dare not say lest my reputation be ruined,” Elizabeth returned with a smile. “I will tell you, however, that it did make Mr. Collins much relieved that I had refused his offer as he could not have had a wife who read such books.”

“No!” exclaimed Darcy and Richard in unison, drawing the attention of their aunt.

“Yes,” whispered Elizabeth with a twinkle in her eye, “three days before he made an offer and was accepted by Charlotte.”

“Colonel Fitzwilliam, of what are you speaking? I must know of what you are speaking,” demanded Lady Catherine.

“Books, my lady. I was telling Miss Bennet about the excellent library you have here at Rosings. May I have your leave to show it to her?” He rose in anticipation of his aunt’s approval. She was always willing to show guests all the best parts of her estate, and even some of the less impressive parts if it would duly impress upon the observer how much they lacked compared to her.

“Most certainly, you must!” Lady Catherine answered. “I should think that anyone would be fascinated to see its scope … “

“Thank you, my lady,” Richard interrupted. His aunt continued on with her comments about the importance of a well-stocked library but turned them toward Mr. Collins, who was always eager to hear her opinions and agree with them. “Miss Bennet, may I escort you to the library? Darcy, you will join us, will you not?”

Elizabeth took Richard’s proffered arm, and Darcy rose to follow. However, upon reaching the hall, Darcy stopped. “I will join you in a minute. I have a book in my room that I think Miss Elizabeth will enjoy. I will fetch it and return directly.”

When Darcy reached the library, Elizabeth was walking around the room, trailing her finger along the rows and rows of books. Every now and then, she stopped, pulled a book from the shelf, paged through it or paused to read a few lines before returning it to its place among the other books.

Darcy stood at the door and watched. As much as he wished to give the book in his hand to Elizabeth, he could not bring himself to interrupt her perusal. It was ─

“Mesmerizing, is it not?”

Richard’s whisper agreed exactly with Darcy’s thoughts. It was mesmerizing — the way she moved slowly along her path around the room, the sway of her skirts, the tip of her head as she read, the soft touch of her finger on the binding of each book.

“Imagine when she sees your library in town or at Pemberley.”

Darcy’s breath hitched, and he swallowed. He had often pictured her curled up in a chair with a book in one of his libraries as he had seen her at Netherfield. Her head had been resting on the back of the chair, her feet had been tucked under her skirts and a finger wound and unwound a wayward strand of hair that hung just behind her ear. She had not seen him, but he had seen her, and the vision had not left him.

Richard cleared his throat, softly drawing Darcy’s attention away from his contemplation of Elizabeth. “Before you are completely unable to speak,” Richard said playfully, “did you get the letter?”

Darcy nodded and opened the book he held just enough for Richard to see the missive tucked inside.

“Do you wish for me to give it to her?” Richard asked.

Darcy shook his head and crossed the room to where Elizabeth was paging through a book. She smiled and closed the book she held as he approached her.

“I see you have retrieved your book,” she said as she placed the one she held back on the shelf.

He held the book out to her. “A book of verses by Wordsworth. I believe you mentioned his works being some that you enjoyed.”

She blinked in surprise and took the book from him. He had remembered her preference? She turned the book over in her hands before opening to the bookplate. Fitzwilliam Darcy. This was his book. She had thought that he was merely retrieving a book to return to the library, but instead, he had brought his own copy. She ran her finger lightly over the name.

Richard smiled as he watched her gently stroking the bookplate. He now understood why she had been so adamant in her dislike of Darcy. He suspected her dislike was covering her true feelings — feelings that ran in quite the opposite direction, but not with any less intensity. He shook his head as he looked at the pair in front of him. Were there two people more afraid of admitting their love for each other? He saw her flip through the book and the book falling open to the place where the letter with her name on it lay hidden.

“Oh,” she started, and then looked at Darcy with confusion.

“I can explain,” said Richard. He wanted her to know that, although the book was Darcy’s and the letter was in Darcy’s hand, he knew of both its existence and its contents. It would not do to have her thinking of his cousin as being improper. “There are some things of which my cousin and I thought you needed to be aware before your return to Hertfordshire. Darcy mentioned to me that Mr. Wickham was stationed in Meryton, and neither of us would like you to return home without knowing his true character, for he is a practiced deceiver and fools most, if not all, the people he meets. However, since the things that need to be said are not pleasant, we decided that, in order to give you privacy in deference to how you may feel on learning the information, it should be contained within a letter.”

“Some of the information enclosed within the letter is of a delicate nature, so we are asking that you guard it and let no one else read it. We know that we can count on your discretion in this, or we would not have written it,” Darcy added.

“Of course, you may count on my discretion,” replied Elizabeth. Curiosity was demanding that she read the letter right then and there, but reason insisted she wait.

“You may borrow the book, Miss Elizabeth,” continued Darcy, “and return it before we leave or when you get to London. However, we realize that you may have some questions or concerns regarding the contents of the letter, and so we have decided that we will not be leaving tomorrow as previously planned.”

Elizabeth turned the letter over where it lay between the pages of the book. “This letter is that important?”

“Yes, I am afraid it is,” said Richard solemnly. “Would you be available to walk in the grove with us tomorrow morning? I promise we will not walk so far as to cause a relapse of today’s indisposition.”

“Yes, I will meet you in the grove tomorrow morning, but I must admit all this has put me somewhat on edge.”

“I apologize for making you uneasy.” Darcy could not help taking a step closer to her. He did manage, however, to keep from touching her hand that was once again turning the letter over. “I would not have done anything to disquiet you unnecessarily.”

She glanced up at him. His brows were drawn together in concern.

“I could not.”

Elizabeth was certain her heart had skipped a beat at the whispered admission.

“We should return to the others before my aunt or your cousin come searching for us,” suggested Richard.

Elizabeth slowly shifted her gaze to Richard and nodded before returning her eyes to the surprising Mr. Darcy. This was not the Mr. Darcy she had met in Hertfordshire. Here he seemed relaxed, agreeable, and caring. She closed the letter safely inside Mr. Darcy’s book. Perhaps it would help her discover who Mr. Darcy really was.


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