Whatever Piper had done with the boys the night before rendered them so exhausted they slept well past their usual time. Perhaps Piper should consider a career as a governess, Elizabeth chuckled, as she fastened her day dress. The look he would give her for saying such a thing would frighten most grown men. He was such a dear man. What would Papa do without him?
She sat at her dressing table and unraveled her braid. Her maid would scold her for pinning it up herself, but she relished a few moments of quiet, particularly after last night. The silver-handled hairbrush skidded from her fingers and clacked against the table. Eyes shut, she threw her head back. How to make sense of it all?
Wickham was no surprise. He behaved exactly as she expected he would. Just like the fops and dandies of the Ton, he sought to be approved because of his appearance and resented anyone who looked further than that.
The surprise lay in everyone else. Not one of Darcy’s guests had agreed with Wickham or even humored his ill manners. They displayed their displeasure with him most openly. He had no supporters here. Perhaps it was their past experiences with Wickham that colored their reactions. Even so, it left her warm and welcome, something she never expected to feel again. Derbyshire was definitely growing on her.
And Mr. Darcy—her breath hitched and she pressed her hand to her chest. He surprised her most of all when he removed Mr. Wickham on her account. Heat bloomed across her cheeks. The mirror revealed the spreading pink stain. She fanned her face with her hand, laughing at the resemblance to Lady Catherine.
The looks he had given her—even Jane commented on them. How they giggled over that last night! But the weight of it all hit her now. It seemed like he really liked her, the way Papa liked Lady Catherine. She swallowed back the nameless feeling that threatened to break her composure and pinch off her breath.
Was it possible? Though she had proclaimed she had neither need nor interest in marriage, the truth was much more complex. She dared not believe it possible and so shut it away so that it might not hurt. But now, here it was, staring at her in the very light of day.
Yet, she could not forget; Mr. Darcy already had a family. David and George were very dear boys; so much like the twins, she was already excessively fond of them. Would he want more children?
She tucked a final pin in her hair. Her child—oh, had she actually thought that? She pinched the bridge of her nose. If she bore him a son, he would never be Darcy’s heir.
An empty place opened in her heart. Her son, consigned to the same trials and hardships Papa had faced. His horrible brother Collins manipulated and stole, undermining Papa’s every attempt to become a gentleman until all Papa could do was break with the family, giving up even the family name to take his mother’s. Could she live with that reality?
What was she thinking? Darcy was nothing like the Collinses nor would he teach his sons to be so. He had gone beyond mere duty in rescuing Lady Catherine and her daughter from Sir Lewis. His cousin enjoyed an easy relationship with him and appeared most welcome at Pemberley. He would treat his children with no less favor. Surely with Pemberley and Rosings and her dowry, there would be some kind of legacy for other children. He would not see his children go without. But still—
She pushed herself up. Enough reflection; if she hurried, she could still take her morning walk before attending to the household.
Sunrise was well past; hints of sticky heat flew on the gentle breeze. Thin clouds shielded the sun, but it would not last. The afternoon would be quite warm. She needed to check the gardens—
She turned down the path to the first of the kitchen gardens. What was that sound? She ran the last few steps. Pigs! No—the piglets were loose in the garden!
She shouted for the boys who worked with the gardener. Glad for sturdy boots and an old dress, she dashed after the nearest piglet. There was a knack to catching the creatures. One she had not quite acquired.
Amusing a diversion as it was, it soon lost all novelty and her temper grew short. She had finally found a creature less mindful than her brothers.
By the time the piglets were returned to their pens, her good humor had gone the way of her gown, soaked in mud and sweat, and sporting not a few tears. But, bless it all, she would have her walk this mooring—she had earned it. She huffed a deep breath, straightened her bonnet and retied its ribbons. A final instruction to the gardener and she was off.
The joys of country life—still it was better than being in London. Perhaps now she would find some quiet.
No—no, not him! Not now, not in her current dishabille.
“Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Wickham smirked and sniggered under his breath. He bowed and tipped his hand. “You look quite remarkable this morning.”
“It is no concern of yours, sir.” She tipped her head and tried to step around him.
He sidled over and blocked her way. “I am merely concerned for my employer’s daughter. It is not like you to be so…casually attired. Quite improperly exposed as well.” His gaze caressed her neck and slid down along the neckline of her gown to spots on her bosom where tears revealed her chemise.
Horrible, vile creature. She pulled her shawl snugly over her chest and knotted it. Her eyes creased into narrow slits. Arms folded over her chest, she slipped back. He was far too close.
His right eye twitched; his cheek jumped in time. The same corner of his mouth drifted up.
Piper would not have hesitated to slap that thought out of his mind. If only she could do it herself. “You are either a bad liar or a fool. Papa sacked you this morning and you best leave Alston lest he find you here. Whatever threat he offered, I assure you, he means in its entirety.”
“How would you know any of that?”
“What matter is it to you?”
Wickham’s lip curled. “It would seem you have a great deal of sway with him.”
“I am honored that he would seek my opinion in some matters.” She stepped backwards and slid her hand into her pocket. Her fingers trembled as she wrapped them around the cold hard weight of her knife. She flicked open the blade, heart pulsing so hard she felt it in every limb.
He stomped forward. “It was you who advised him—”
“No, he did that of his own accord.”
“But you did not advise him against it.”
Her eyes darted about. The trees to his left closed off that route, but there was an opening to his right. She reached behind her. A beastly large tree rose behind her. “That is no concern of yours.”
He covered the distance between them in two steps. “Oh, but I think it is. You should reconsider your recommendations to him—immediately.”
She withdrew her hand from her pocket and slipped it behind her back. “I think not.”
“You will regret the consequences, if you do not. Look at you, common as a barber’s chair, a little bit of brimstone come to the neighborhood.” He spat at her feet.
Her face flamed. Had this been the first time she had heard such a description of herself, she might have broken, but the ton had given her the mettle for men of Wickham’s ilk.
“I have already been to Darcy this morning to give him proof of your wanton ways—”
“You have nothing.”
“You forget: a piece of your chatelaine broke off when you threw yourself at me begging for me to blow off the groundsils with you. Gentleman that I am, I ran off, leaving you untouched.”
Never before had she been thankful for hearing such rot in London. The abuse had lost its sting and its ability to render her speechless. “You are a bad liar.”
He shrugged. “Darcy believed me. In fact, he thanked me most profusely for the intelligence and intends to keep his distance lest you entrap him in marriage.”
She gasped. Surely he would not, he could not believe—
Wickham towered over her, his face so close that his fetid breath burned her eyes. “Petition your father to restore my position or I will poison the entire neighborhood against you.”
She tightened her grip on the hilt. “No one here cares a jot what you have to say or have you forgotten their responses to you last night?”
“Then I suppose you will have to marry me.” He grabbed the front of her dress and wrenched the weakened fabric.
The muslin cried out and shredded under his hand. She whipped her knife hand around and buried the blade into his hand.
He howled and released her.
She pelted down the path, barely seeing where she went; a string of epithets fit for a sailor followed her. Branches snapped at her face and tore her bonnet back. She stumbled and pitched forward, catching herself a long a tree trunk. Panting hard, she looked up and screamed.