She returned his regard, even as she refused to shrink from voicing her opinion. What fire, what assurance and strength! Anne, so broken by her father’s disdain and the desperation of their circumstances, had been far too grateful to him to ever question or challenge him. In many regards, he could not bring himself to complain. There had been few cross words between them and his decisions were never questioned. But something was missing. Anne never challenged him to be more than he was, to think differently, to see through other eyes. Oh, for such a challenge! Miss Elizabeth would offer it in spades. He might come to regret it, but the appeal was undeniable. He chuckled and reached for a bit of pound cake he had scavenged from the kitchen.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
What a beastly hour to bother a man. That was not Mrs. Reynold’s knock, nor his man’s. Who had the audacity to demand him before the rest of the household even rose? “Come.”
Wickham peeked in.
Of course. Darcy dropped his cake and brushed his hands over his plate.
Wickham shouldered the door open and sauntered in. “May I trouble you for a few moments?”
Darcy flicked his hand. “Sit down. It is a bit early for you, is it not?” He sounded cross, even in his own ears, but it was the truth and could hardly be helped.
“We left on such an unpleasant note yesterday, I thought it best not to allow it to linger.” Wickham slipped into the leather chair across from the desk.
All the pleasant warmth of his earlier thoughts drained away. Not all the memories of the evening were so agreeable. Darcy’s shoulders knotted and he forced his scowl into something less irritable.
“Still have not forgiven me, I see. Really, that is not like you, must unbecoming, really.” Wickham crossed his legs. Hands laced behind his head, he leaned into the upholstery. “You have allowed that Bennet woman to discomfit you. I am surprised.”
Darcy wrapped his hand around his still warm coffee cup. The delicate china quivered in his grasp. Mrs. Reynolds would be displeased if he crushed it and coffee spilt over his desk.
“You have always been so…so…temperate where women are concerned.”
“You imply it is preferable to toy with a young lady’s affections.”
“I am wounded.” Wickham laid his hand over his heart. “Just because I have enjoyed the company of numerous ladies—and they mine.”
“I have no desire to discuss your illicit encounters.”
The sound left a bitter taste in Darcy’s mouth.
“You never have had such an encounter? Surely you take me for a fool. You are a man as much as I.”
“You will not cast aspersions upon my character.”
“You deny you have had an agreeable liaison or two? I am surprised, considering Anne’s disposition, and it has been many years since…it makes one wonder—”
Darcy slapped his desk.
“My, you are testy this morning. You cannot tolerate a wee bit of jest.”
“If you came merely to torment me, you best leave. I have no patience for it today. You know the way out.”
Wickham dropped his foot to the floor. “I see. I came only to do you a favor. You should know by now I am always looking out for your best interests.”
Not long ago, Darcy had believed that assertion. Had it always sounded so ingratiating and self-serving? He rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Perhaps a bit of coffee might rid him of the foul flavor. “Tell me, or leave. I am in no temper to play games with you.”
Wickham’s shoulders’ slumped and his mouth puckered into a frown. “Very well then, I came to warn you about Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Darcy dropped his cup onto its saucer. The clatter rang through the room.
Wickham’s lips turned up sharply. “I am sorry to bear such information, but I would be no friend to you were I to keep it to myself.”
Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose. “I do not—”
“Of course you do not wish to hear me speak about your favorite, but you must listen. I cannot allow you—”
Darcy half-rose in his seat. “Allow me? You cannot allow me? When did you become master over me?”
“Calm down, old friend. Look at yourself. She has already affected you. Whenever have you had such a reaction to me?”
Never. Perhaps it had been too long in coming. Had Wickham always been so insufferable?
“You have heard Miss Elizabeth was cruelly treated by the ton and, like a true gentleman, you believed it. I contacted several of my friends to learn the truth. They have told me that she was treated so with good reason. When her wanton ways came to light, good society had little choice but to censure her. She brought it upon herself.”
Darcy charged around the desk, barely stopping himself before he grabbed Wickham by his cravat. “You have stooped to new lows. I will hear no more.”
Wickham scrambled to his feet and ducked behind the chair. “I..I would not have believed it myself, if I had not witnessed it firsthand.”
Darcy stopped short, panting slightly.
“One morning, while I was working in Admiral Bennet’s office, she entered and threw herself at me. She begged me to—no, I cannot bring myself to share such things. Suffice to say, I was like Joseph in Potiphar’s house. What could I do? I pushed her away and fled.”
“You expect me to believe that flight of fancy?”
Wickham reached into his pocket and paused, as if considering whether to reveal his secret. He pressed a small pair of scissors and a key, both clearly broken from a woman’s chatelaine, into Darcy’s hand. “The chains entangled in the buttons of my coat when I pushed her away.”
Darcy glanced at the objects. They matched Miss Bennet’s. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
“You do not believe me?”
“I cannot. It makes no sense. Why would she throw herself on you?”
Wickham stood straighter and pulled his shoulders back, though he kept the leather wingback between them. “You think me not good enough for her? I am too poor, too low, to be of interest to a woman of quality, particularly when there is a prize like you to be had?”
Darcy’s eyes bulged. “How dare you speak of a gentlewoman—”
Finally Wickham revealed the truth and it was as bitter and ugly as the things he had said of Miss Elizabeth the night before. What a deceived fool Darcy had been.
“I did not have to bring this to your notice, you know. I could have left you to pursue her, believing all her smiles and coy looks were reserved for you alone, all the while she was inviting me to her bed.”
Darcy dug his nails into his palms, fists quivering for a target. “Out! Get out!” He pointed toward the door, panting to hold back his rage.
Darcy snarled and stomped forward.
Wickham dashed for the door.
“Do not return without an invitation. I will inform the staff.”
“You are casting me out? Am I to believe I am banished from my boyhood—”
“This was never your home. You shunned your father’s house, but that did not make Pemberley yours. Now go, or I will assist you out.”
Wickham slipped out and slammed the door behind him.
Eyes still on the door, Darcy lowered himself into his chair. He hands shook, denied their desire to be wrapped around Wickham’s throat. He stared at the items Wickham pressed on him, fixed upon the broken chains that dangled limply over his fingers.
What had Wickham done to acquire them? If he had laid a hand— but no, surely Miss Elizabeth would not have kept such an assault on her person to herself. Bennet would have killed Wickham as soon as look at him, if that had been the case. Or Piper would have slit Wickham’s throat in his sleep.
Then how? Surely there were a thousand ways he could come by such things that did not involve an attack upon Miss Elizabeth. The one thing he was certain off was that Miss Elizabeth had not thrown herself at him. She could barely tolerate Wickham and she was entirely too frank in her deportment—no, that was simply not possible.
He dropped his hand onto the desk. It landed on the cake. Disgusted, he pushed the plate away. He might never be able to abide the look of the stuff again. He dragged his hand down his face, but even that did not dispel the haunting images of Wickham importuning Miss Elizabeth from his mind.
This would not do. He had to see her, assure himself of her wellbeing. Then he would talk to the Admiral. Heaven alone knew what he would say, but they definitely needed to talk.