“Dear God, Elizabeth!” Darcy sprang from his horse and ran the last few steps to her, Fitzwilliam on his heels.
Branches snapped in his face, determined to keep him from her. He slapped them, growling under his breath. He could not get to her quickly enough. She was splattered with mud and was that—yes it was … blood!. His guts knotted. Her dress was torn, face scratched and hair disheveled. Cold pooled in his belly, aching, dreading. He skidded to a stop before her.
“Are you injured? What happened?” He huffed the words through heavy pants.
She blinked several times. Did she not recognize him?
“Mr. Darcy? Colonel?” Her voice was more a plea for help than a greeting.
“What happened, Miss Elizabeth?” Fitzwilliam asked over Darcy’s shoulder.
Her gown gaped open, revealing the lace of her chemisette. Darcy stripped off his coat. He draped it over her shoulders and pulled it tight around her. “You are bleeding.”
She looked down at her hands and shook her head. “No—it is not mine—it is Wickham’s.”
Ten heartbeats passed.
Fitzwilliam dashed for his horse. “Stay with her—no, get her back to the house. I will deal with him.” He urged his horse into a trot and rode away in the direction she had pointed.
She clutched Darcy’s coat to her. “I did not—he grabbed me—used my knife.”
He flexed his hands into fists. “I will see him run out of the county for this. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I introduced him to your family.”
She looked up at him with eyes wide and vulnerable, so very vulnerable. “You did not believe him—what he told you this morning?”
He gasped. “No, heavens no!”
Her eyes filled with tears and she choked on a sob.
Bennet might have his hide for it, but dash it all—He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight into his chest. She nestled into his shoulder and shuddered. He stroked her back, willing his hand gentle while his belly roiled. What had Wickham done?
“Papa dismissed him this morning,” she whispered. “He petitioned me to change Papa’s mind.”
Darcy grumbled under his breath. ‘Petitioned’ was a most politic choice of words. “A most unlikely possibility under the best of circumstances.”
His embrace tightened. “You struggled with him?”
She pulled back and peeked up at him. A little of the light returned to her eyes. “Thankfully, no, not very much. Most of the damage can be attributed to a litter of piglets loose in the garden.” She giggled into his chest. “I think I detest piglets right now.”
“Truly? But the blood?”
“Papa insists Jane and I always carry a knife. Not a little lady’s pen knife, but a proper one. When Wickham grabbed for me, I already had it in my hand. I lodged it in his hand, I think, considering the way he howled. Papa will be most vexed I have lost it.” She giggled again, but it was a hollow shadow of her normally rich, joyful sound.
“I hardly think that will be his first concern.” He tucked her head under his chin and pressed her cheek with his hand. “I am relieved you are uninjured. I could never forgive myself had he harmed you.” Could she hear how loudly his heart thundered?
“The worst harm is to my gown.” She snorted. “Thankfully, I never particularly liked this one. There was little enough left to salvage after the piglets.”
“None of that changes the fact he threatened you.”
She nodded against his hand. “He seemed to think he could force Papa to make us marry.”
“Fool.” A growl rumbled through his chest. “He certainly does not know your father. I expect Piper might kill him first, unless your father preceded him.”
“He is in very great danger, although he does not know it yet. Piper is every bit as protective as Papa and without so many scruples. Even here, he has a host of unsavory connections. I am afraid Papa encourages that as well. He says that it is always worthwhile to have a rogue or two on your side in a squall.”
He envied Bennet resources. Fitzwilliam was still much more genteel. “I have no doubt. But I cannot object. His motives are most pleasing.”
“I am sorry. I know you believed Mr. Wickham to be more like Piper than the blackguard he is.”
“I am sorely disappointed in his character.”
She huddled closer. What joy to have her seeking comfort in him.
“Forgive me for asking, but why did you ever trust him when the signs of his duplicity are so clear?” she whispered.
“Clear to you, who are a sterling judge of character, but not so to myself, who finds the circumstances far more muddied by past events and conversations.” Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, who would not let him go unchallenged, even in a moment like this. Who else would so faithfully hold him accountable?
Surely she would pull away feeling the dreadful impropriety of their situation. But mercifully, she did not. He relished the warmth of her lithe form pressed to him, able to feel each rise and fall of her breath. If he held her long enough, he might be able to hear her thoughts as well. Would that they could stay here that long.
She wrung her hands. “Do you know how he came to have the pieces of my chatelaine?”
He craned his neck and peered into her face. “I know you did not throw yourself upon him as he claimed.”
“Is that what he told you?” She shuddered. “I was right. He is a dreadful liar.”
“It was rather egregious considering your reaction to him from the start. But he has always seen himself more attractive to the ladies than he actually is. Ladies of good sense and breeding invariably see through his façade far too soon for his liking. He has been thrown off more than once. I do not introduce him to ladies anymore.” How could he have ever done that in the first place?
“Good thing that. I pity the heiress who loses her fortune to him and then is stuck with his name and children ever after.”
“So how did he come by your scissors and key?” He produced them from his pocket and pressed them into her hand, loathing the loss of something so close to her.
“He ran into me in the hallway and we took a spectacular fall. I found my scissors and two keys missing and no amount of searching turned them up. We moved all the furniture in the hall to no avail. I despaired of ever finding them. I am embarrassed to admit I never considered him capable of the sleight of hand that would allow him to steal them so effectively.”
“What of the key you are still missing?”
“I think that is the key to Papa’s strongbox. Papa has the other one. He will be most displeased to know its whereabouts.”
“I know an excellent locksmith—one I did not grow up with.” His lips turned up in a half-smile.
She giggled. “I am certain he will value your recommendation.”
“I am honored he would still hear me and perhaps trust me.”
“I am not so certain I would go so far as that. But you might earn his trust yet. That is, if you find it a worthwhile endeavor.” She blinked and bit her upper lip.
“How might that be accomplished?”
“Papa is not one to hold a grudge, you know. Besides, you were here to rescue me. That will please him.”
“But does it please you?” He laced his fingers in hers, an intimacy so intense it was almost too much to bear without a kiss.
How would that look to Bennet?
How did that look to him?
He had barely kissed Anne. Theirs was more a friendship based on duty—passion had little place in their cordial relationship. Their relations were pleasant enough—for him. How had Anne felt about them? She never told him. But passion, all that the Bard wrote of, was foreign to him until now.
Now, he held the embodiment of all things to be desired—beauty, wit, charm, affection and worth. He burned with a longing he once believe impossible. He lifted her hand, so warm in his, to his lips and kissed it.
“I…” her voice hitched and quivered with her hand. “I am very pleased.” Her dark, sparkling eyes peeked up. A flicker of kindred passion glimmered beneath her lashes.
Lightening shot through his spine and he could not breathe. His hand slipped up to cup her cheek and tip her face up to his. Summoning every fragment of self control, he gently pressed his lips to hers. Was this her first kiss?
It may as well have been his.
So sweet, an intoxicating nectar. He could never drink enough.
Her breath tickled his cheek with short, shallow flutterings, tentative and shy. She was on unfamiliar ground as much as he.
The moment ended too soon. He pulled back enough to cradle her head under his chin.
“I…I do not know what to say,” he whispered. “Need I apologize?”
He heard the dear, wry, little smile she wore.
“May I speak to your father?”
“I hardly think you have an option. There is no hiding anything from Papa. One look and he will know.” She turned in his arms to look at him. “His fondness for Lady Catherine will be to your material advantage, I think.” The spark returned to her eyes and demanded another kiss.