Chapter Twenty. And Life Continues On

Richard Fitzwilliam and George Darcy were practically clairvoyant in their assessments regarding Lizzy.

Two days passed before she was clear-headed enough to hear the entire tale of brave deeds and daring rescue. The death of Wickham and status of Lord Orman brought only relief and a suppressed glee that she knew was unattractive but could not hide from her husband. Darcy glossed over the more gruesome details, Lizzy not murderous enough to require a precise picture of Wickham’s broken, bloody body or Orman’s breakdown, but his theatrical tendencies emerged in recounting the exploits and suspense. Largely this was unconsciously done, but he did hope that inserting a fantastical element to the adventure would dilute the reality of how dangerous and terrifying it truly had been.

She was immeasurably proud of her spouse, extolling his courage with a wealth of glowing adjectives until he blushed and begged her to stop. He attempted to downplay his injuries, but naturally she saw through his dissembling and was not satisfied until personally examining the healing bruises and scalp wound.

“Now, if you are appeased with my health and vigor, I wanted your advice on how to proceed with the announcement of Wickham’s death.”

“You have notified no one?”

He shook his head, apprising her of Richard’s counsel on the subject. “I would have proceeded but was not sure how you felt about telling your father. Goodness knows your mother must not know the truth, but perhaps Mr. Bennet should. Yet I am unsure the wisdom of troubling him over your health when it no longer matters.”

“No, please do not tell him. There is no point, as you say. I am fine and do not wish to burden him unnecessarily.”

“Agreed. Then I shall write immediately, as if I have just been informed. I trust he will know how to contact Mrs. Wickham?”

“I have her address written in my directory, not that I have bothered corresponding in ages.”

“Oh, I did not know. Excellent. I shall dispatch a courier with the news and funds to transport her and whatever belongings she has to Longbourn.”

“That is more than you should do, William.”

“Let us pray she will mature through her grief and make wiser choices in the future.”

Lizzy shook her head sadly. “I fear your optimism destined to be disappointed. Most likely she will lament for as long as it takes to ensnare another man when he takes pity upon the poor widow, Lord forgive my uncharitable attitude.”

Darcy smiled, kissing her forehead before replying, “I forgive you if that counts, but then I am as uncharitable since I said much the same to Richard.”

“What is the current status of Lord Orman? He has said nothing of the abduction?” Her eyes were large and haunted, the shadows underneath darkening against the pallor his name increased.

“The Marquis is under evaluation at Bethlem and not saying anything worthwhile,” Darcy assured in a firm tone. “George has seen the patient daily and is keeping abreast of the situation. The diagnosis is not definitive, the doctors hoping to cure in time, as all doctors do, but that does not look to be imminent or probable. He raved bestially for over a day without ceasing, so I am informed. A straitjacket was required to prevent self-injury, as he was devil-possessed in his mania. His words were recorded, most indecipherable or nonsensical, and my name was mentioned. Or at least ‘Darcy’ was mentioned, but nothing beyond that. Then, yesterday afternoon he abruptly passed into a stuporous petrifaction. George calls it catalepsy or cataleptoid insanity. I have no idea what it means, but the prognosis is poor, he says, and the condition prevents any verbalization.”

Lizzy shuddered, Darcy drawing her closer against his side with a sturdy squeeze. They lounged on their bed, Lizzy yet weak and needing to recuperate further before moving outside their chambers. “I pray he never recovers,” she said with heated conviction. “It terrifies me to imagine him loose again, no matter how assured the doctors are of his revived mental state.”

Darcy agreed and prayed for the same without a shred of remorse. He did not vocalize his vengeful thoughts to his wife, settling for tender caresses to the raw rope burns on her wrists and gentle kisses to the fading bruises on her cheeks as a means to convey his protectiveness. His heart was stone where it concerned Lord Orman and his conviction firm that the madman would never take one step beyond the asylum’s walls. Whatever was required to ensure Orman’s incarceration and safe distance from his family would be done—legal or illegal.

Dr. Darcy, although not trained as a physician for mental ailments, had some experience with madmen of varied types. “Lord Orman’s condition is as horrible as I have ever seen, William,” he said the previous evening after returning from Bethlem and a conference with the physicians there. “Some patients reanimate, but not typically. Caring for their basic survival needs takes top priority over mental treatment, and maintaining physical health when they refuse to eat, drink, or move is extremely difficult. I suppose you can deduce what the common outcome is without my illuminating.”

Indeed Darcy could, mustering not an iota of sadness in the idea.

“Well,” he said to his wife, “if he ever does return to reality and coherency it will be far in the future. No need to fret about it at this point. And since there is no evidence of an abduction ever occurring, it does not matter what claims he asserts. You have been stricken with a nasty cold but are rapidly mending. That is all anyone need know, unless you chose to reveal otherwise.”

“Thank you, my darling.” She sighed deeply, closing her eyes as she wiggled into the warm mattress, her arms tight around his waist and head on his chest. “I trust you to manage as fitting.” And moments later she was asleep, Darcy holding her for nearly thirty minutes before pulling away to attend to the final disposition of Mr. Wickham’s body to Hertfordshire.

In the days that followed Darcy strived to create a fa?ade of normalcy by conducting business as planned and keeping most of his appointments. It was difficult, as residual anxiety affected his concentration and produced an aversion to leaving the house. George calmed his fears, wisely pointing out that his appearance in public would quash any rumors that might be swirling about and that physical activity was the best balm for a wounded spirit. “Much like climbing back on the horse after a nasty fall,” he said with a wink.

Darcy did frown and equivocate some, but he knew the recommendation was sound. He was reassured by Georgiana’s steadying presence, trusting that she would inform him instantly if his family needed him. Therefore, he met with Mr. Daniels and other business associates, scheduled interviews with potential housekeepers, engaged in a rigorous bout at Angelo’s, and enjoyed one rousing race around the military horse track with Richard and several others. The constant activity did help restore his mental equilibrium and expend the residual anger coiled within his body. Nevertheless, his thoughts were never far from Darcy House and he returned home as quickly as possible. Evening engagements were canceled so he could spend the hours alone with wife and sons, the three needing his strength and comfort during the long hours of darkness where nightmares stalked.

The excuse of Lizzy suffering a spring cold was accepted since it was a common ailment. Of course her lady friends were worried, sending well wishes and colorful blooms to cheer her, but they understood her need to rest and preference for solitude. Jane and Mary came by with fresh soup, a special family recipe served when any of them were sick. After a heavy application of powder and rouge to hide the fading bruises and donning a long-sleeved gown to cover her healing wrists, Lizzy welcomed them with honest enthusiasm. She was delighted at the interruption to her bland convalescence. Yet, within seconds of asking about her illness, before speaking the rehearsed pretext, she burst into tears.

Needless to say the sisters were baffled and distressed. Georgiana, who possessed no skills in the art of deception, was instantly in tears as well and helpless in salvaging the situation. Lizzy blurted the entire truth in one long sentence, words stumbling over each other and largely incoherent. But finally the story was told in its entirety and the relief Lizzy felt in talking about her memories and experience was strangely cathartic. Georgiana and Darcy had thus far been her only confidants, but Lizzy tended to hold back and gloss over the dreams that plagued her sleep to spare their distress.

After talking with her sisters she was amazed at how much freer her soul felt. A weight was lifted in sharing every tiny detail with them, many that grew clearer or were newly recalled in that hour. That night her sleep was undisturbed except for vague visions shrouded in mist that lacked the power they once wielded. It was then that she realized it was best for her state of mind to be honest. She decided she would rather her closest friends know the truth, trusting in their secrecy and empathy, than perpetuate a lie. Darcy agreed but insisted on channeling the information through the husbands rather than her reiterating and reliving the trauma, and during a long, relaxing afternoon at White’s, he sketchily outlined the incident.

“I trust that you each know your wives’ temperaments best,” he said, “and can edit the tale as befitting. Please stress that Elizabeth is recuperating rapidly and free of any residual sequelae. In fact, her temper is chafing at the convalescence Dr. Darcy and I are insisting upon.” He smiled genuinely, his wife’s rising waspishness a sure sign of her restoration to the woman he loved. “All I ask is that questions are kept to a minimum unless initiated by her.”

To the latter they all agreed.

George Darcy was clairvoyant in his assessment that few days would pass before Darcy was scolding his wife for complaining, vociferously, that she was perfectly fine and ready to enjoy the marvelous spring weather. Darcy stubbornly insisted she walk no further than their terrace and garden. Grudgingly and with some grumbling, Lizzy complied with his overprotective demands since her stomach remained delicate and fatigue struck at odd moments even after all other symptoms resolved. Considering what had transpired it was logical to assign her complaints to that, but neither had forgotten the possibility of a pregnancy even if the topic had not been broached.

On the morning of the fifth day when she lurched up in the bed, inhaling forcefully, with one hand clamped over her mouth and the other searching frantically for the blanket edge, Darcy knew it was time to discuss his feelings on the concept of another baby.

She returned to bed, shaky and pale, sheer force of will preventing disgorgement this time at least.

“Do not smile at me, Mr. Darcy,” she snapped, which only caused his smile to widen. She crawled under the quilt, pointedly lying so that her back was to him, and mumbled grumpily, “I am not in the mood for smiles. Smiles will surely increase my nausea and I may chose to turn your way rather than dash to the chamber pot. Purposefully.”

He caressed one hand down her arm, bending to plant a soft kiss to her shoulder. “I apologize, love. Dare I inquire as to what is irritating you most, being cooped up inside or your nausea? If it is the former I believe I have a solution that may elicit a smile, despite your displeasure for the gesture.”

“What solution?”

“Oh, nothing too extravagant. Merely a gathering in Hyde Park on the morrow with all of our friends.”

She turned her face toward him then, the corners of her mouth lifting although her eyes narrowed. “You are not teasing me, are you?”

“Would I do that?”

“Ha! Yes, you would!”

He shook his head. “Not about something as vitally important to the workings of the universe as a picnic I wouldn’t. Dining outside is serious business.”

Now she was smiling and turned toward him. “A picnic? Truly? That is a marvelous idea! Who have you invited?”

“Our closest friends. The Bingleys, Vernors, Daniels, Drurys, Lathrops, Fitzherberts, Fitzwilliams, and so on. And I plan to extend the invitation to Mr. Butler after we speak today, since I am fairly certain he will be betrothed to my sister as a result of our converse.”

“You figured that out all on your own?”

“Happy to see your sense of humor has returned, Mrs. Darcy. Indeed the puzzle was rather easy to solve since every day he finds himself in the general area of Grosvenor Square, spontaneously pausing to extend his respects. The casual offers to accompany Georgiana on walks or shopping excursions that no man in his proper state of mind would desire to suffer through was a large clue. But if that had not penetrated my thick skull, even I am not so dim-witted or unobservant to miss the loving glances and surreptitious caresses.”

“She has been waiting until the time was right, not wishing to add to your distress. I told her she was being ridiculous and that you would be thrilled. You are, are you not?”

“I can think of no impediments to the match. He is a good man and clearly in love with my sister. I recognize the pose when it is sincere. Furthermore, I like him.”

“I regret that I have been unable to interact with him more. Of course I am hearing of his perfection via Georgiana, but that assessment may be slightly skewed.”

Darcy chuckled and nodded. “Indeed the term ‘perfection’ may be overreaching, but he is a quality gentleman. I may not comprehend the musical discussions that frequently arise, generally choosing to vacate the premises when that topic is attended to, but he is equally versed in estate matters, horsemanship, and politics. He is also proficient at the billiard table.”

“Well that seals it then! As long as he is not better than you,” she teased.

“Surely I am allowed to retain one area of preeminence in my sister’s eyes since all others have been transferred to Mr. Butler?”

He smoothed the hair away from her bright face, bending to kiss each humorously glittering eye and then her lilting lips.

“So were you smiling due to your sister’s betrothal or the picnic?”

“Both fill me with delight, I confess. However, the impetuous for this particular smile, as saddened as I am by your peaked stomach, is the fervent hope that your lingering symptoms indicate we are blessed with a new life on the way.”

He spoke barely above a whisper, running one hand down her satin-gowned torso to rest upon her flat abdomen.

Lizzy touched his cheek. “Is this honestly how you feel, Fitzwilliam?”

“I will not lie or pretend that my initial reaction was not one of terror. I confess this and apologize for how I responded, Elizabeth.”

“It was your heart and natural given the situation.”

“Perhaps. Nevertheless it was wrong of me. I want you to know, beloved, that all afternoon, before any of the tragedy to follow, I realized how mistaken my sentiments.” He told her then of his visions of a daughter and his tremendous remorse at departing the house with unsettling tensions between them. “I chastised myself a fool, mostly for not conveying my feelings adequately or prioritizing us and our relationship over an afternoon’s entertainments. To be frank, my thoughts regarding a baby so soon were tumultuous still, until faced with the horror of losing you, Alexander, and our unborn child. That I would include her, or him, in that appalling possibility added to my distress as you cannot fathom, Elizabeth, but it clarified how I truly felt about the idea.”

His hand continued to rub gentle circles over her belly while the other pressed her palm tight against his cheek. “Every child will be welcomed and loved immensely, my dearest, whenever God chooses to bless us. Please forgive my lack of enthusiasm and any heartache my poorly chosen words caused. Trust me when I say that every shred of doubt or dismay has been erased with only joy remaining.”

Lizzy responded by weaving her fingers into the thick hair on the back of his head and drawing him back to her mouth with firm insistence. The other arm clenched around his back, aided by a leg thrown over his hips, both working to drag him onto her body. It was a demand and affirmation Darcy complied with, his hands greedily skimming over her satin-gowned flesh and pressing her against his chest.

For several minutes they kissed as if starved, rousing desire fueled by the need to erase the turmoil of the past week. Breathing erratic, Darcy parted from her lips to whisper, “Is this a thank-you for arranging the picnic or for granting my sister’s happiness or both?”

“Neither,” she retorted with a chuckle. “Or perhaps those points add to my hunger for you, but primarily it is simply that we have not made love since a week ago on your desk…”

He interrupted with a husky growl, trailing suckles along her neck, “What a titillating vision to conjure now!”

“Indeed. And as nice as a reenactment may be, I do not wish to delay even to walk there.”

“Elizabeth, are you sure we should do this now when…”

She clamped her palm over his mouth, eyes blazing with passion and irritation. “I am not constructed of glass, Fitzwilliam! Why is it that every time I develop the merest sniffle or cough you insist on believing me barely strong enough to raise a teacup and far too weak to engage in activity remotely strenuous when I insist I shall recuperate swifter if allowed to move about and maybe even make love to my husband, no matter how annoying I consider him at the moment, and when will you get it through that stubborn brain of yours that I am tough and if strong enough to birth babies I can….”

The verbal lashing that showed every sign of continuing on indefinitely was halted when he finally managed to peel her gripping fingertips from his face and clamped his mouth firmly over hers. The kiss startled her into silence, but did not last long since Darcy lost his battle in repressing laughter.

“My spunky wife is back in full form, praises to God!” he gasped amid the laughs. “And, I pray, your vacillating temper is further indication of pregnancy.” He traced a fingertip over her knitted brows, still chuckling as he continued, “I plead guilty of zealous guarding when you are incapacitated in any way and shall make no promises to ever change, as it is my character and duty. But believing you made of glass? Not at all! More tempered steel and pyracantha thorns are you, Mrs. Darcy! If I doubted your strength, and I never have, the doubt would have been erased after examining the gouged earth as evidence of how you fought Wickham. And do not think I did not notice the scratches on his cheeks. Gave me a thrill, I must tell you. I could not be prouder.”

“Then why the persistent mollycoddling?”

“I mollycoddle because I enjoy taking care of you, Elizabeth. If my attentiveness disturbs you I will try in future to reign in my need to excessively hover.”

“Well, no,” she mumbled, lowering her eyes in contrition. “I do appreciate your concern and know I am blessed to have a husband who cares so thoroughly.” She glanced upward into his glittering eyes, voice again surly as she added, “Even if he is a nuisance about it.”

“A nuisance am I? Hmmm, then perhaps I should leave and not stay home with you all day as I planned. I would not wish the label to advance from nuisance to burdensome pest!”

She lifted her chin, piercing him with a stern glare. “You may stay home, if you promise not to baby me or limit my activity. I want to move beyond this chamber even if it does tire me and I want to make love! Will you agree to my terms?”

“Did you totally miss my clever innuendos and unveiled glances when I announced I had canceled my appointment with Lathrop so I could remain at Darcy House today? Either I have lost my skills or your perceptions are still blunted from your illness, in which case perhaps we should wait a while longer,” he teased.

Lizzy harrumphed but did flush faintly. “Not on your life! Now you have committed to the course, so do not try to back out of it again!” And she forcefully pulled his entire body back onto hers, not that he had moved too far away, with limbs insistent in their assault and mouth eager to reengage.

The bulk of their nightclothes were removed and both far along the road to full arousal before any words were spoken. Darcy pulled away, primarily to doff his shirt, but paused to ask, “Clarify one thing. When was it that I tried to back out of loving you?”

“When you asked if I was sure we should do this now. After waiting for nearly a week I was in no mood to listen to reasons why we should not be together.” She pressed her fingertips to his lips, her eyes shiny with emotion. “Loving you, having you love me, is what is needed to restore us both, Fitzwilliam. We need to erase any vestiges of fear over what might have been. We need to immerse ourselves in the other, loving hard to declare our vitality and passion.”

“I could not agree more, dearest.” He resumed his roost atop her, their naked flesh melting together as he smoothly embedded himself deep within her, commencing a slow rhythm. He drew her bottom lip between his teeth, his tongue sweeping across before releasing to speak between kisses. “The only reason I have not ravished you days ago and proven my burning need for you is simply because time has been against us, Elizabeth. I have been as exhausted as you and torn in numerous directions. I did not want to rush our lovemaking, and that was what I was about to ask before you flared at me.”

He rose on his elbows, maintaining the steady thrusts that were rapidly causing every coherent thought to flitter out of Lizzy’s brain, and encircled each milk-heavy breast with a broad hand. “I only meant if we should wait until after Michael needed you.” He bent and licked over one taut nipple, Lizzy’s laugh lost in a throaty moan of pleasure. “But now it is too late. He must learn patience as I no longer care to be a concerned father.” He moved to the other nipple, applying the same treatment. “Right now I am the impassioned lover intent upon his wife. I trust this pleases you and fulfills your terms?”

Lizzy nodded, limbs squeezing tightly and body rocking to match his exuberant tempo, and her breathy yes in answer to his question was repeated over and over as a fervent affirmation of her pleasure.

1

Darcy entered his study precisely at eleven o’clock smiling and whistling. In every way the morning had passed delightfully. The refreshing lovemaking with his incredible wife was followed by a visit from Michael, and then Alexander, the four of them breakfasting together. Once the boys returned to the nursery, Michael for a nap and Alexander for his lessons in the alphabet with Mrs. Hanford, he and Lizzy sat on the terrace overlooking the back garden. They talked about general topics, such as the mundane matters of household management and society gossip he had noted for her benefit, as well as weightier subjects involving their children.

“Has it occurred to you that this baby, if you are indeed with child, would probably be born around Christmas time?”

Lizzy’s eyes widened in surprise and the teacup heading toward her mouth halted mid-air. “I… Well, no, I didn’t… Are you sure?”

Darcy laughed, mostly because she was now tapping out the months with her fingertips on the arm of the sofa they sat on. “We cannot say for certain, of course. But it is a rough guess since we are well into April and you are just feeling symptoms.” He swallowed a mouthful of tea and watched her face. “I rather like the idea of a baby as a Christmas present.”

She turned to him with a smile that was so brilliant and countenance so animated with joy that his breath caught and his teacup also hung forgotten in space. They stared transfixed while their hearts quickened, finally leaning for a soft kiss. They never cared to analyze how it happened, but in short order they ended up back in their bed with no ready recollection as to how they got there other than vague images of clothes shed in haste—proven by the scattered garments trailing all the way to the terrace—a vast amount of kissing and touching, and someone slamming the door with a resounding crash.

Taken all together, Darcy was in an excellent mood when he greeted Mr. Sebastian Butler, who was early for their appointment and awaiting him in the sunny room.

“Mr. Darcy”—he bowed—“thank you for agreeing to meet with me today. I know your time is precious and concerns heavy at the moment. May I inquire as to Mrs. Darcy’s health?”

“Thank you for your solicitude, Mr. Butler.” He sat down in the leather wingback near the window, waving a hand toward the identical Chippendale on the other side of the small square table bearing a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. “Lemonade?” He poured two tall glasses of the cool beverage, speaking as he did so, “Assuming I am correct in my deductions based on the week’s interactions, I am guessing Miss Darcy is forthright with you and has revealed that Mrs. Darcy is not suffering from a cold.”

Butler took the glass, meeting Darcy’s gaze boldly but with a hint of worry. “Thank you. And you are correct in your assumption. I hope you are not dismayed by Miss Darcy’s disclosure of a private matter or, worse yet, angry at her?”

Darcy smiled and shook his head. “I have never found it easy or natural to be angry at my sister for anything. Rather it is most comfortable for me to indulge and spoil liberally. I daresay you may encounter the same difficulties.”

“I already have,” the younger man confessed with a laugh.

“Glad to hear it. Truthfully, if the relationship between our branches of the family were the same as two years ago when we first met, Mr. Butler, I would not be forgiving in the least. I am a very private person and this particular situation is emphatically one I do not want discussed openly.” He paused, piercing Mr. Butler with an intense scrutiny. The moment stretched, Sebastian maintaining the contact, his face open and relaxed. Finally Darcy nodded, visibly loosening his posture and easing back into the cushioned chair. “Obviously the relationship between our families has altered and I am thankful you were here as a support for my sister. Your company and dependability were invaluable. I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mr. Butler.”

“Thank you, sir, but you owe me nothing. It has been my pleasure, and relief, to be here for Miss Darcy and to comfort as possible.”

“It is easy to identify the nature of your relationship with my sister so unless I am grossly mistaken in my conclusions, I presume you have a request of me?”

His smile was friendly, in truth his heart overjoyed at his sister’s great fortune. Therefore, he was surprised when Mr. Butler sat his glass down and leaned forward with a serious cast to his face.

“Indeed you are correct, Mr. Darcy. My feelings for Miss Darcy are strong and sure. I am not at all being melodramatic when I say that I would be crushed beyond repair if your response to my desires regarding Miss Darcy were not granted in a positive way. I believe she would be crushed as well.” He lost his composure briefly, clearing his throat before continuing. “My affections for Miss Darcy are genuine and intense, as is my respect for her and appreciation of her relationship with you. In the weeks we spent together as friends prior to our sentiments maturing to love, we talked frankly, on dozens of occasions, about our families. I am sure it is no surprise to you, sir, that Miss Darcy is devoted to her family, primarily you. I easily comprehend this, as my devotion to my sisters is as powerful. It is out of this comprehension and respect that I wish to be honest before formally asking for Miss Darcy’s hand in marriage.”

“Is there some impediment to your union I am unaware of?”

“No! Not in any way you might imagine. I promise that. My heart is set and constancy on my part, and I trust on Miss Darcy’s part as well, is not in question. Please, bear with me as I explain.”

He paused again, taking a large gulp of lemonade to wet his parched throat. “You know, of course, that as the eldest son I will someday inherit my father’s title and lands. God willing this will not occur for many years or decades to come, but I want to assure you, Mr. Darcy, that my ancestry and estate are dear to me. Miss Darcy will be a wonderful Lady Essenton, I have no doubt, and I will be blessed to have her by my side in that capacity, when the time comes. However, you may not fully appreciate that music has forever been my first passion. I have single-mindedly pursued this course; it is a drive that has unfortunately created some tension between my father and I. Additionally, my focus on music nearly caused me to lose Miss Darcy, both of us misinterpreting our goals and desires profoundly.”

He chuckled then, sitting back into the chair and shaking his head. “I am not sure if you can empathize, sir, but young people newly in love can be stupid about it!”

“You might be surprised how well I empathize, Mr. Butler,” Darcy answered dryly.

“Well, it appears we both have intriguing stories to tell. The point I am struggling to make is that although my love for Miss Darcy supersedes everything else, I am not prepared to give up on my dreams and studies. Nor does Geor… Miss Darcy wish me to.” He blushed at the slip, but Darcy just smiled, nodding for him to continue. “And this brings me to the crux of the matter. The truth is that among the numerous attributes I love about your sister and the commonalities we share, our musical passion and gifts bind us in a unique way.”

He scooted forward in his chair, zeal etched upon his face and in every gesture. “Mr. Darcy, do you realize how phenomenally talented your sister is? She is incredibly gifted in both composing and playing, and this is not just a lover speaking. I recognized her talents well before my heart was lost. Furthermore, I have shared her work with professors and musicians at the Conservatoire in Paris, each one impressed by her skill. We both recognize that we do not possess the brilliance of the great masters, but our hearts are as one in our yearning to embrace this shared passion. In fact, we have discovered our inspiration and proficiency improved with collaboration.”

“Mr. Butler,” Darcy interrupted, “so far all you have said merely affirms my pleasure in granting you the hand of my sister, so I am confused as to where the conversation is leading. Georgiana is transparent in her feelings toward you and vice versa, and despite my distraction this past week, I have not been unaware of the piano music constantly drifting through the halls. I make no claim to possess a finely discerning ear for music, but I will attest that what I have been hearing is fantastic.”

Sebastian’s head lifted in pride, his gray eyes bright. “Thank you for the compliment. You are correct, however, in that I have been rambling a bit. Very well, I shall be blunt.” He took a deep breath and kept his eyes steady upon Darcy’s face. “Mr. Darcy, I humbly and with all my heart bare before you, ask for the honor of marrying Miss Georgiana Darcy. I promise to fulfill every vow placed upon me by God and the love I hold for her. I have tendered my heartfelt proposal to her and she has accepted. We will bow to your wishes in the matter, but our prayer is that you will agree and allow us to marry before the summer is over as we mutually desire relocating to Paris, where we are enrolled for study at the Conservatoire in the fall.”

Darcy blinked in surprise. “Georgiana has been accepted into the Conservatoire?”

“With honors, sir.”

Sebastian controlled the urge to squirm impatiently in his chair, waiting a full minute for a silent Darcy to respond. When he did, the surge of relieved energy was so intense Sebastian experienced a moment of extreme light-headedness and almost missed the words uttered.

“I cannot believe she has kept silent.” Darcy’s voice was an awed murmur, followed by a shout of amazement. “This is extraordinary! I am no longer sure which brings me greater delight, her fortune in securing a quality man who loves her or this incredible accomplishment. By God, a Darcy studying in Paris! And music no less.” He laughed again, grinning and blue eyes shining when he refocused on Mr. Butler’s face. “I cannot recall the first time Georgiana sat on a piano stool. My mother attempted to teach me how to play, and I learned the basics, but lacked the aptitude or interest. I remember once when Georgie was seven I sat beside her on the bench of our old harpsichord, turning pages as she impressed Father and me with new material she had been practicing. She began a sonata by Scarlatti, one of the few pieces I knew how to play tolerably well, so I joined in. We played all three movements, Georgiana smiling and nodding encouragingly throughout. I knew my poor proficiency was unmatched to the skill she wielded even then, but she adjusted her tempo to my dismal performance, laughing and applauding as if it were brilliant and the highlight of the evening.”

“Yes, I can imagine the scene. She is eternally gracious and encouraging.”

“Indeed, I shall not argue that truism. However, she later forced me to sit at the harpsichord as she explained my errors, enumerating each one and demonstrating the proper way to play the notes. She was patient and kind, but also amazingly firm that I practice until I learned it correctly!”

They both laughed, Darcy shaking his head. “Tenacious and passionate, at seven! And now to study with the masters in Paris. I should have foreseen this future coming to pass, yet I never have imagined it. Thank you, Mr. Butler, for inspiring my sister to fulfill this dream.”

“Then you are not disturbed by the idea? Of her attending the Conservatoire, I mean.”

Darcy lifted a brow, tone conveying his astonishment. “Not at all. Did she believe I would be? Is that the reason for the secrecy?”

“She was unsure. I was unsure. From your perspective, all of this”—Sebastian waved his hand—“me, Paris, marriage, must appear abrupt and overwhelming. Compound the matter with the notion of a woman studying, a concept not as accepted in England as it is abroad, and we feared your opposition.”

“A few years ago I would have balked at the prospect, I admit. And I am certain I would not allow her to dwell in Paris as an unmarried lady.” He shrugged. “Then again, surrounding myself with highly accomplished and extremely independent women as I have these past years has broadened my thinking. At least to a degree, since I am relieved she will be accompanied by her husband.”

“Her husband,” Sebastian repeated dreamily, a ridiculous grin upon his face. “I do adore the vision that phrase conjures.” At Darcy’s low chuckle he collected himself with a start, flushing and clearing his throat. “Then, I… May I conclude we have your blessing, Mr. Darcy? Have I the honor of formally announcing Miss Darcy is my betrothed?”

“Indeed you do, Mr. Butler.”

Sebastian exhaled in a gush, closing his eyes for a moment before jumping up with the unleashed enthusiasm of a man giddy in love. “Thank you, sir! You have no idea how happy I am! How happy we are at your approval.”

“You are mistaken, Mr. Butler. I have perfect knowledge of how happy you are. Discovering one’s partner in life is a divine gift.” He rose and extended his hand to his future brother-in-law. “I have hoped and prayed for Georgiana to be as fortunate as I have been with Mrs. Darcy. You have brought happiness and relief into my life by treasuring my sister, and I thank you for that.”

“I do treasure her, very much. I want you to know as well that I have planned our immediate future most carefully. Lady Warrow owns a maison de ville in Paris where we will reside with every comfort Miss Darcy deserves and is accustomed to. Money is plentiful so she will want for nothing. We both have friends there, so she will not be without society and companionship. My mother is already renovating a suite at Whistlenell Hall and organizing a grand reception before we leave to Europe, though I warned both actions were precipitous, and my father is gradually adjusting to the idea of Miss Darcy as my chosen bride…”

“I beg your pardon?” Darcy interrupted roughly. “Why would he need to adjust to the idea? Does Lord Essenton have an issue with Miss Darcy?”

Sebastian sucked in his breath. “Forgive me, Mr. Darcy. I should have explained the difficulties with my father more thoroughly. Be assured that Lord Essenton has never, not once, spoken against Miss Darcy in any way. How could he? She has impeccable manners, a lovely personality, culture and beauty, excellent credentials…”

“I know all this. No need to state the obvious. Yet he does not approve?”

“His… reluctance is not based on Miss Darcy in particular. Rather it is his displeasure with the path I have chosen in life. Or, to be blunt, his displeasure with me not walking the path he prefers I do. I respect my father greatly, sir, but he and I have not always seen eye to eye.”

Sebastian straightened, jutting his chin and suddenly looking years older than twenty-three. Darcy’s brow lifted at the abrupt maturity; Sebastian continuing in a firm timbre, “I alluded to some of this in regards to my musical pursuits. Lord Essenton has never comprehended my desires and I regret to confess the battles have been bitter at times. His displeasure pains me, but I am not a man to be bullied and have pursued my studies regardless.”

“I see. Has he learned to accept your choice?”

“He tolerates it, primarily due to my grandmother’s influence and support. Yet also because I have promised him innumerable times that music and my dreams of study and composing do not supplant my love for our estate. He does not concur, but I see no reason both cannot be a part of my life. I think that despite my verbalized conviction he persists in considering it a phase I will grow out of.”

Darcy was nodding and rubbing his chin. “I know Lord Essenton more by reputation than personal familiarity, but do believe I can guess that he now sees marriage as a distraction and further upset—especially to a lady as passionate about music as you. Correct?”

“Partially this is the case. Mainly I think he is simply so accustomed to disagreeing with all I do that the argument comes naturally and without forethought.” Sebastian shrugged, but his expression revealed his sorrow while remaining resolute. “However, the other area we have long disagreed upon is his insistence that I marry a cousin on my mother’s side. To be frank, the lady in question disgusts me for numerous reasons, but even if that were not the case, I have steadfastly refused to marry anyone other than whom I chose: a woman I love and who meets the standards I require, not my father. I trust you can understand and not think less of me for being a disobedient son?”

“Oh indeed,” Darcy said with a laugh, clapping the younger man on the shoulder and steering toward the door. “I can completely understand and now my opinion of you has risen dramatically! What is it about marrying cousins that so appeals to older relatives?”

Sebastian frowned at the question, but Darcy was not expecting an answer. “Now, we better end this conversation since I am sure Georgiana and my wife are at the extreme ends of their patience. Actually, I am surprised Mrs. Darcy has not stormed into the library demanding we speed matters along!”

Instantly upon exiting the library the sound of piano music was heard escaping from the nearby parlor. Sebastian’s puzzled frown turned to a smile and he began to chuckle even before Darcy spoke. “At least my sister is managing to remain calm. But then music always soothes her.”

“I do not think it is working very well,” Sebastian countered, stopping in the hallway and waving a hand toward the distant doorway and the invisible notes floating on the air. “The cadence is too harsh through here, the notes are rushed, and I can hear her nails striking the keys.” He paused to listen. “And… There, yes, I knew she would muddle that particular chord if she were vexed or agitated!”

“That is not a positive sign. If my sister is strained then Mrs. Darcy is probably bleeding from needle-pierced fingertips or pacing to resist throwing something. We best hurry…”

“What in blazes could be taking so long?” Lizzy’s strident declaration followed by the heavy thud of a book onto a tabletop interrupted his words. The music abruptly died with the end sound composed of random keys chiming discordantly when Georgiana’s hands slammed down.

“You do not think he could be saying no, do you?”

“Of course not! He has probably taken Mr. Butler off to the billiard room to celebrate with a game and brandy! I may have to strangle him!”

The men’s appearance on the threshold went momentarily unnoticed as Lizzy continued to rant of how she intended to punish her spouse, her tirade stopping when Darcy cleared his throat.

Georgiana gasped, frozen for a span of seconds with hand to her breast, but the stasis broke at the sheepish but dazzling smile Sebastian directed her way. She flew off the piano bench and was across the room before her fianc? took a breath, barreling into his body and embracing tightly.

Darcy was gazing with lifted brow at his irritated wife, Lizzy not appreciating his humor at the words she knew he must have heard. Yet they both melted at the sight of Georgiana’s effusive happiness. Then Darcy was taken aback when she left Mr. Butler’s arms after mere moments to launch into his.

“Thank you, Brother! Thank you! You have made me the happiest woman alive! But did you have to take so long?” And she actually punched him in the arm.

“Hey! We had numerous matters to discuss, such as your admission to the Conservatoire, Miss Darcy.”

“Are you pleased?” He nodded once, grinning. “So we can marry soon and be together in Paris studying?”

“Georgiana, I would never stand in the way of love being fulfilled, or your musical ambitions for that matter. I am incredibly proud.” This time he enfolded her within his embrace, not letting go for a long while.

Sebastian was unable to steal his beloved away for private kisses and conversation for hours, but the afternoon and evening brought immeasurable joy nevertheless, as he grew closer to the people dearest to his future wife. Preliminary plans were set in motion for a late spring wedding, the men frequently lost in the ensuing discussions, and not a single person thought of the recent traumas.

Love remained the greatest healing force, so it seems.

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