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       Darcy & Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship (Darcy Saga Prequel Duo), p.1

           Sharon Lathan
 
Darcy & Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship (Darcy Saga Prequel Duo)


  A Darcy Saga Prequel

  by

  Sharon Lathan

  “Darcy & Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship”

  Copyright © 2014 by Sharon Lathan

  Front and Back Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sharon Lathan

  Front Cover portrait in public domain - “Safe at Last” by George Sheridan Knowles (date unknown)

  Back Cover landscape in public domain – “Wivenhoe Park in Essex” painted by John Constable for Major General Francis Slater Rebow in 1816.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher Sharon Lathan

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only, and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. To obtain permission to excerpt portions of the text, please contact the author at [email protected]

  The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Sharon Lathan

  www.SharonLathanAuthor.com

  Books by Sharon Lathan

  * * *

  The Darcy Saga “Pride & Prejudice”

  Sequel Series

  Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One

  Loving Mr. Darcy: Journeys Beyond Pemberley

  My Dearest Mr. Darcy: An Amazing Journey into Love Everlasting

  In the Arms of Mr. Darcy

  A Darcy Christmas

  The Trouble with Mr. Darcy

  Miss Darcy Falls in Love

  The Passions of Dr. Darcy

  The Darcy Saga Prequel Duo

  Darcy & Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship

  Darcy & Elizabeth: Hope of the Future (coming soon)

  Table of Contents

  * * *

  Prologue: Hope Enters on a Whirlwind

  Declarations at Sunrise

  Love Flurries and Fogs

  Starlit Evening

  Flash Floods of News

  Frosts of Jealousy

  Warmth of Autumn

  October Showers

  Sun Shines on London

  Fall Pruning of Prickly Debris

  Shivering from the Heat

  Emotional Downpour at Darcy House

  Prologue

  Hope Enters on a Whirlwind

  The chalked end of the stick hit the white ball precisely as aimed. The sharp thwack of impact was rapidly followed by sharper cracks as the cue ball bashed into the triangle of red balls.

  Fitzwilliam Darcy watched the balls scatter across the green felt surface. His keen gaze evaluated his potential next shots as one red ball dropped into a corner pocket and three others slowly rolled into favorable positions. Now came the option of choosing an easy point over a maneuver that required extreme deliberation and application of his skills. Considering the purpose in his solo game of billiards, the latter was the sensible choice.

  A week ago, he had departed Netherfield in Hertfordshire and returned to London and his house on Grosvenor Square. His preference would normally be Pemberley, especially this time of the year, when hunting was exceptional and the fall foliage burst forth in vivid colors. The thought of his beautiful Derbyshire home, sitting on a pastoral rise on the edge of the River Derwent, brought an ache to his heart. But the pain of homesickness was a mild sting compared to the agony eating at his soul. Mounting his horse and riding away from Hertfordshire—from her—had proven far more difficult than leaving Pemberley ever had.

  A week of busy days with his solicitor, working at his desk, fencing at Angelo’s, riding at the track, and a dozen alternative activities depleted his energy and prevented his musings from incessantly drifting to contemplations of what Elizabeth Bennet was doing, who she was talking with, what she was wearing, or—most dangerous of all—whether she was thinking about him even a tiny bit. Unfortunately, his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam was not in Town, although Richard would probably bluntly call him a coward and a fool for being here in the first place. Since Darcy fought daily against accusing himself of that very thing, it was probably for the best that the colonel was away on some sort of military mission.

  It was late in the afternoon and the windows of the Darcy House billiard room were open to encourage the entrance of cooling breezes. Even in crowded London, where breezes of any sort were scarce, one could reasonably expect to obtain some relief by opening windows during the first days of October. But not today. Unseasonably warm weather gripped the city. Those citizens who could not escape to country estates added the heat to their list of daily complaints. Not that Darcy was remotely aware of what anyone in London was grumbling about. He was too preoccupied with his own miseries, none of which had to do with the weather.

  For the present, he welcomed the heat because it contributed to the mild sweat he had worked up after three previous, intense games of billiards. Never mind that he was playing alone and not keeping score; the activity of hitting balls accurately necessitated discipline and concentration. Both were excellent for distracting his mind from dwelling upon his love life.

  Or lack thereof.

  Billiards proved a better choice than reading, so he bent over the table to line up what would be a jaw-dropping shot if successful. But the test of his expertise would remain eternally unknown in this particular instance. A sudden tumult from the corridor caused him to straighten from the table, and a half second later, the door burst open and smashed into the wall.

  Lady Catherine de Bourgh charged through, not unlike a raging bull toward a fluttering red cape.

  Shocked speechless, Darcy stared at her advancing body and forgot to bow or relinquish the cue. A white-faced Mr. Travers, the butler, trailed behind her, his pleas falling unheard, and after a stunned nod from Mr. Darcy, he practically bolted from the room.

  Darcy did not have time to envy the butler’s escape. His aunt was already talking—or yelling, to be precise.

  “Darcy, I have passed the most unpleasant morning as a result of alarming reports, scandalous falsehoods that I intended to deal decisively with at the root, in the same manner as one employs to destroy a poisonous weed. My intentions were honorable and wholly of sound reason, I can assure you! One anticipates that a person will be reasonable, especially when confronted with logic and facts by a woman of my breeding and station. To say that I have never been thus treated in all my days is a vast understatement. I had no wish to burden you with this vicious scheming, Nephew. I hoped to ease your load and spare your sensibilities by talking to the chit myself. Never did I expect a girl of uncommon pigheadedness! Such hideous lack of propriety and decency! Rude as I have never before encountered! How could I have been so blind as to not see her for the creature she is? No wonder she could presume, as unworthy as she is in every facet, that she could use her wiles to reach above where she rightfully belongs. I shudder to imagine what our well-ordered world is degrading to if this brand of selfishness and, yes, evil abounds! Of course, considering her upbringing and low connections…”

  After no less than five attempts to interject into Lady Catherine’s tirade, Da
rcy surrendered the effort. He stood at the edge of the billiard table, the cue finally laid onto the felt surface, and focused on his obviously furious aunt. The worst of his surprise passed, to be replaced by concern and confusion. Her disjointed harangue made no sense to him whatsoever, and with the dearth of concrete facts as to what the “scandalous falsehoods” were, Darcy failed to muster a personal concern.

  Lady Catherine, on the other hand, was red-faced and sweating! Rather than losing steam, each sentence appeared to rile her more. Darcy began to fear she might faint or collapse from an apoplectic fit. As he stepped forward to commandeer the unstable situation, Lady Catherine’s most recent remark finally penetrated and instantly doused his concern.

  “What did you just say? You were at Longbourn? Are you speaking of Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”

  His cold inflection and abrupt stride toward her accomplished what his previous, soft interjections had not. Lady Catherine’s voice stuttered to a halt. She misinterpreted the icy anger visible in his eyes and the hard set of his jaw, made evident by her next words.

  “Indeed I am speaking of that horrible girl! Nephew, you have no idea the degree of scheming amongst that family. Tragically the eldest has sunk her claws into poor Mr. Bingley, although perhaps there is hope for him yet. The scandal of a broken betrothal is minimal compared to the devastation of marrying into that family—”

  “Enough!” he barked. “I refuse to listen to slurs against the Bennet ladies or Mr. Bingley. Are we clear?”

  Lady Catherine merely stared, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with his command. Then her eyes narrowed. “I was certain it must be impossible. Please tell me there is no truth to the claims, Darcy. Surely the Master of Pemberley is too wise to be drawn in by a pretty face and seductive advances. You would not forget your promises to Anne and stoop so low as to actually offer marriage to that girl, would you?”

  “Lady Catherine, my personal affairs are absolutely none of your business. Not now, not ever. And I will not listen to another word, from this day on, regarding Anne and me. That topic has been closed for a decade or more.” He stepped closer, fury warring with panic and causing his insides to churn. “As unfathomable as it is, evidently you accepted rumors from God knows where and then traveled from Rosings to Longbourn for the express purpose of confronting Miss Elizabeth Bennet. What, exactly, did you say to her, Aunt Catherine?”

  “Only the truth. That it had been reported to me by a reliable source, by my rector, Mr. Collins, that not only had the eldest Bennet contrived to receive an advantageous offer of marriage, but that you were to soon be united with Elizabeth Bennet! Impertinent girl that she is, a straight answer to my request for clarification was not rendered. By her evasion and shameful arguing, with me no less, I knew it to be a vile lie. Nevertheless, she persisted in countering every logical reason I gave for why a match with you is unacceptable.”

  During her reply, Darcy turned and lurched to the window. Blindly, he stared outside. Darkness, borne of murderous rage and plunging despair, engulfed him. Coherent thought was nearly impossible, and his aunt’s words sliced as painful as a dagger thrust into his gut.

  Yet he had to know the whole sordid tale—not out of any possible hope in salvaging the damage she had done, but because his honor required he attempt to apologize to Miss Elizabeth at the least.

  “What reasons did you lay at her feet? Tell me precisely what you said made… us… unacceptable.”

  “Well, there is Anne, of course! Whether you acknowledge it or not, Darcy, it was the wish of your mother, and Anne is your destiny.”

  He spun about, clutching on to the curtain sash for stability. Lady Catherine clamped her lips on “destiny” and involuntarily stepped backward, his expression clearly alarming her.

  “Not. Another. Word. And never mention my mother again. Ever. Consider that a warning, Aunt Catherine. Now, tell me what else you said.”

  Straightening her spine, she complied, in fine detail, unquestionably relishing the words. Numb, Darcy was unable to wince at the familiar reasons she recounted. Had they not once crossed his lips? Undeniably in a nicer tone, and after expressing his love, but equally as harmful. This debacle coming on the heels of the Wickham disaster was a sure death knell to any chance he might have had with Elizabeth. He struggled not to strangle the woman standing before him—or fall to his knees weeping.

  “I am deeply disappointed in you, Darcy. I fail to comprehend how you can toss aside your honor, family interests, and position in society to entertain an alliance with Elizabeth Bennet. As unfathomable as the prospect is to me, imagine how Lord Matlock would receive such an abhorrent woman. Promise me that you will not make such a disgraceful connection!”

  “I repeat, Aunt, my personal affairs are outside the realm of your authority. I judge for myself and reach decisions based on my wishes and desires in all matters. I am not beholden to you and will certainly never extend to you a promise to do, or not do, anything. Just as I never promised to marry Anne, so will I never promise not to marry Elizabeth Bennet!”

  As if that is an option, his soul sobbed, but it is worth the shock on her face to pretend otherwise.

  “Have my points of fact fallen onto deaf ears, Darcy? Are you to be as unreasonable as she? Refusing to promise entering into an engagement, you must know in your heart is utterly wrong, just as she did. Are you resolved to have her despite the consequences? Like her, you would face contempt and ruin? For what? I know why she is determined to ensnare you. But what is your motivation? Is it love,” she sneered, “or is it simply lust?”

  Darcy frowned, creases marring his brow as he ruminated on her references to Elizabeth being as unreasonable as he, refusing to promise as he did, and being determined to ensnare him. The curiosity of those oblique statements overrode the offense at the last slurs. As if he would discuss love or lust with his aunt!

  Suddenly a number of the comments during her tirade were seen in a different light.

  “Elizabeth argued with you. Is that what you said?” He spoke slowly, examining her face and holding up his hand when she opened her mouth to speak. “A nod will suffice. Thank you. She did not back down or agree with your bleak assessments of a union between us, is that what you are saying? Ah…interesting. She has always been a woman who speaks forthrightly and with courage.”

  He smiled, and in spite of the tense aura in the room, his heart lifted in fresh admiration. God, she is amazing! Facing down Lady Catherine de Bourgh, no less! What an incredible Mistress of Pemberley she would be!

  “Darcy, listen—”

  “One more question,” he interrupted, his voice calm but as stern as his granite gaze. “I presume, by what you said, that you attempted to extract a promise from Miss Elizabeth not to accept me? And she refused to make that promise?”

  Lady Catherine flinched and glanced away, the reaction quickly covered by her hastening to grab the cloak she had tossed onto a sofa back. “I can see that you are overwrought, Nephew, so will leave you. Please dwell upon my—”

  “Answer the question, Aunt. Did she refuse to promise?”

  “Yes,” she snapped, “and that alone should reveal the depth of her recalcitrant… ambitious… horrid nature!”

  “Oh, it reveals a great many aspects of her nature indeed, just none of them as you have listed. I wish for you to leave Darcy House this instant, Lady Catherine. I have had enough of your interference.”

  He crossed the remaining space until he was only a foot away, never diverting his hard gaze from her eyes. She was angry still, that was obvious, but also worried and, perhaps, a bit frightened. Good.

  “Listen to me closely, and have no doubt that I mean this as a threat. If you ever go near Miss Elizabeth, or any of the Bennets, I cannot say precisely what my response will be but can assure you will not like it.”

  “Threats do not become a gentleman, Darcy.”

  “Irrelevant. Of course, if you prefer, consider it a promise rather than a threat. You know the way to the fr
ont door. Good day, Lady Catherine.”

  Without a bow or backward glance, Darcy exited the room.

  Mr. Travers, once again his calm self, stood at the end of the corridor and watched his master approach. “Mr. Travers, please ensure that Lady Catherine is safely escorted to her carriage. Immediately. Then have the groomsmen prepare my horse and carriage. I will be departing within the hour.”

  “As you command, sir. Should I be informed as to your destination?”

  “Of course. I will be joining Mr. Bingley at Netherfield in Hertfordshire.”

  Chapter One

  Declarations at Sunrise

  During the course of a person’s life, there will be days or hours, even brief minutes, that become etched upon one’s memory vividly. Decades later those unique, pivotal times will be recalled with clarity of vision and emotion.

  The day when Fitzwilliam Darcy proposed marriage to Elizabeth Bennet for the second time would not merely inhabit the list of special days in their lives. Rather, it would hold a position within the topmost tier, remaining there on into eternity.

  For Elizabeth, the element of surprise enhanced the memorable event.

  Surprise in the realization that Mr. Darcy still loved her. Surprise in discovering the depth of desire and love she felt for him. Surprise that quick-witted and saucy-tongued Lizzy Bennet was unable to articulate the emotions pounding in her heart.

  How do you tell the man previously rejected that your feelings have profoundly changed? Can it be expressed in words when you barely comprehended the yearning within your soul?

  “My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.”

  Mr. Darcy vowed that one word would silence him on the subject of his affection and wishes, and in no way did Lizzy want him to be silent on that subject. Considering it fortuitous that her mind reeled, she clamped her lips and waited, eyes luminous and fixed upon his face.

 
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