A/N: I cannot truly explain where this one originated. I suppose it was just too much of a pleasure to plan and write. All I can really say is this: in the end, I promise, it all hinges around a single What If. I am planning weekly (or more frequent) updates, since the entire first draft is completed.
Disclaimer: I am not Jane Austen, nor am I entirely certain Jane would approve of this.
"…And I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry!"
Lizzy Bennet had begun her speech calmly, but even her dear sister Jane could not have called her final tone anything other than a shout. Lizzy had always considered herself a clear-headed, composed person, especially in moments of confrontation, but as she stood in Charlotte Collins's parlor watching the normally staid, haughty, and imperturbable Mr. Darcy's handsome face shift between enraged shades of purple, red, and white, she wondered distractedly whether her composure in the face of true provocation had ever been tested before.
"You have said quite enough, madam," Mr. Darcy said through gritted teeth after a moment's obvious struggle to master his emotions. "I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having…"
His voice trailed off, and he cocked his head to the side, his eyes straying toward the closed parlor door. "Did you hear something?"
Lizzy raised her eyebrows. "What sort of something?" Was this a strange ploy to distract her from their conversation? What could he possibly hope to gain from such a maneuver? "I heard nothing out of the ordinary."
"There was… a cracking… like splintering wood…" He paused and listened again. "You heard nothing?"
Lizzy shook her head. Honestly, she may have missed any sounds outside of the parlor, given the absolute focus of her attention on their conversation and the rushing of blood that still seemed to be blocking her hearing.
"Hmmm." He shook his head slightly and returned his gaze to her. He appeared calmer, and that short, strange moment seemed to have somewhat pacified her as well. "Miss Bennet, I will leave you now. I can only imagine that you have been desiring my absence most passionately for some minutes." A pained look flashed across his face, dissipating her ire further. "But, in the interests of justice, I beg leave to present you with an explanation of sorts regarding one or two of the accusations you have leveled against me, perhaps tomorrow before my cousin and I quit Rosings."
"I cannot imagine that another meeting between us would produce anything beyond discomfort, sir."
He closed his eyes tightly. "Of course." He drew in a few deep breaths, and when he looked at her again, he had lost all traces of emotion. "You are correct that further conversation between us seems problematic, but I believe that both you and I deserve to have truth between us. Therefore, may I write you an explanation? I am a better writer than speaker."
Lizzy opened her mouth to refuse. She did not need any explanations from him, nor did she wish to offer him time during which he might concoct justifications for his actions. Then she paused, scolding herself. Of all the things he was, Mr. Darcy had never been disingenuous toward her. She did not truly believe he would lie now that he knew there was no hope of winning her favor.
And besides, she was nothing if not curious to understand his version of events. It would be fascinating to see how his pride and arrogance had twisted the situation to make his actions seem reasonable.
"Very well. I will read your… communication." She could not say letter because that felt too intimate.
His expression did not change, but she thought she sensed relief in his posture. "Thank you. I will deliver it to you in the morning. You will walk out?"
"Yes. In the hawthorn grove."
He nodded. "Good evening then, Miss Bennet. Forgive me for taking up so much of your time. Please accept my best wishes for your health and…"
Both Lizzy and Mr. Darcy started at a strange, high-pitched sound that had struck at them from the corridor. "What was that?"
Mr. Darcy frowned toward the door. "An animal?"
"A cry, most certainly."
The gentleman hesitated for a moment, and Lizzy understood his reluctance. Strictly speaking, his presence here at Mr. Collins' house, visiting her alone in the closed parlor, was not entirely proprietous, especially given that he would not be leaving the room as an engaged man, as he had hoped to be. However, as the only gentleman present, it was his duty to resolve any trouble.
Finally, with a bit of disgruntlement, he strode forward toward the door and swung it open. "You there?" he demanded. "What is…?
He did not finish his words, instead suddenly stiffening and standing very still.
"What is it, sir?" Lizzy asked, moving toward him.
He turned his head slightly at the sound of her movement and commanded, "Stop! Do not come any nearer! Stay back!"
"Back up slowly," said a baritone voice from the corridor, one Lizzy did not recognize. His tone was casual, even friendly, but as Mr. Darcy backed into the room, his arms now raised at his sides with his hands open at chest height, Lizzy knew the owner of the voice was the opposite of cordial. The rapier resting against Mr. Darcy's waistcoat made that particularly apparent.
She drew in a sharp breath and clasped her hands together against her own chest, as if she could somehow protect both herself and Mr. Darcy from the weapon.
"Who are you?" Mr. Darcy demanded. His complexion was pale, Lizzy noticed from the side, but his voice came out steady. "What do you want?"
The man finally came into view around the open door, and Lizzy's heart moved into her throat. There was nothing particularly sinister about him. He was tall and broad, and he wore a travelling cloak over the fine boots and breeches of a gentleman, but he had no jacket under the cloak, only a patterned waistcoat, and he wore no hat. His features were distinguished, maybe even handsome if Lizzy were not so afraid, and his light-colored hair was long enough to be pulled back into a tie. His expression was cheerful and easy, and he cut a swift bow toward her.
No, he was not frightening at all. Except that he was pointing a sword at Mr. Darcy.
"I am afraid that my name is not particularly important," the man answered. Even his speech was that of a gentleman. "But your names, on the other hand, are far more important than you can imagine, given that you are clearly not Mr. and Mrs. Collins. Tell me please, who are you?"
Neither Lizzy nor Mr. Darcy moved to answer.
The man sighed. He looked back and forth between them. Then he smiled at Lizzy, his friendliness so at odds with his weapon that it made her stomach curl. "Wait. I remember now. Mrs. Collins has guests, I was told, her sister and a friend. Which are you? Miss Lucas or the other one?"
His eyes swung back to Mr. Darcy. "But then who would that make you? Another friend? A brother? Or…" he added with a twinkle in his eye and another glance between them, "…a lover? To be closeted alone with such a lovely young lady as this, I would imagine that as the most likely scenario."
Another man entered the room, this one burly and not quite as impeccably dressed as the first but still neither scruffy nor disreputable in appearance. His countenance and person were forgettable, nothing out of the ordinary, except for the darkness of his long hair and the extreme squareness of his jawline. "Geoff, the servants are secured, and the rest of the house is empty."
"The entire house was supposed to be empty," the first man replied sharply, betraying displeasure for the first time. "Bring me Molly."
The other man disappeared, and the first man turned back to them, all ease and friendliness again. "Now, I really must insist on an introduction. Otherwise…" Before Lizzy could blink, the man had darted the few feet between them and taken up a position behind Lizzy with one arm around her waist and the other holding the rapier at her throat. "…I shall have to employ more powerful methods of motivation."
Belatedly, Lizzy swallowed a scream. How had he moved so fast? Or was it just that, in her continuing shock, her mind was moving too slowly?
"Please," Mr. Darcy said urgently, now directly in front of her some feet away, "do not harm her. My name is Darcy, and hers is Miss Bennet."
"Bennet," the man mused, tightening his grip on her. "Yes, that was the name of Mrs. Collins' friend, was it not? And Mr. Darcy. Now that is a name I have heard all too often of late. You are exactly as you have been described." He laughed. "I wonder how dear Lady Catherine would feel if she knew that you are here wooing the penniless friend of her parson's wife."
Mr. Darcy glared daggers at the man but stayed still, keeping his hands out in front of himself. The man evaluated him earnestly and was silent for several seconds before his arms tightened and Lizzy felt herself drawn more securely back against him.
"Not that I can blame you, sir. In fact, given the difference between poor Miss de Bourgh and our lovely Miss Bennet here, I would like to compliment you on your very good taste." The man leaned his head down, placing his face very close to the skin of Lizzy's neck, and inhaled deeply. "She even smells appetizing."
Lizzy was unable to suppress a shiver of revulsion. For the first time, her surprise subsided enough for her to feel real fear. She looked up desperately at Mr. Darcy, who had started forward, heedless of all dangers, with wide eyes and fervent rage. "Unhand her, you fiend!"
"Tut, tut, good sir," the man said, shifting himself and Lizzy a step back and holding his sword toward Mr. Darcy again. Mr. Darcy stopped just before running into the blade, but Lizzy wondered whether such fire as she saw in his eyes might melt a sword, or even burn a man from that distance as effectively as a torch. "I will not harm her, I give you my word, as long as the both of you cooperate."
"What good is the word of a thief?" Mr. Darcy spat.
"I suppose you will come to find out."
The other man returned again, this time accompanied by two more men who were obviously as strong and formidable as himself, and a young girl, one of Charlotte's housemaids.
"Molly! So good to see you again, my dear!"
The girl was shaking badly, but she tried not to show it, standing as tall as she could and wearing a defiant expression. "My Lord."
The man holding Lizzy used a single finger to motion the girl forward. She came reluctantly, stopping as far from him as she could.
"Now, dear girl, tell me why, after you assured my representative this morning that all the residents of the house would be out this evening, I have entered this home to discover it occupied."
He asked his question very kindly, his tone almost paternal and just slightly chiding, which was why Lizzy frowned in confusion at the sudden pallor of the girl and the distinct shake in her voice as she replied, "They were all to go tonight, sir. I'd no idea, sir, that Miss Bennet was to stay behind until only a few minutes before you arrived, nor that the gentleman would come to see her. I'd have tried to warn you, sir, except that Mrs. Locken set me to peeling potatoes and was watching me so close!"
"Of course, of course," he said kindly. "That would not be your fault at all, if it were true. Is that the case, Miss Bennet? Did you decide to remain back from the evening at the final moment?"
A part of Lizzy thought perhaps she should deny the girl's claim and get her in trouble as revenge for the girl's spying on Charlotte and Mr. Collins, especially as the man did not seem particularly inclined to punish her, but finally she nodded, saying quietly, "I did not feel well. It was only before walking out the door that I informed Mr. Collins of my intent to remain. And no one knew of Mr. Darcy's coming, not even myself, until he arrived."
"Then little Molly really did do her very best?" he asked cheerfully. "I am so glad to hear it." He motioned for Molly to step nearer, and she did so now with slightly more confidence, comforted by his gentleness.
He reached out and chucked her chin. "Thank you, dear one. You may tell your Papa that his debt is repaid. Although I would encourage him to avoid becoming indebted to me in the future, if I were you." He lowered his face so it was even with hers, and his smile dropped away as his tone lowered. "I will not be so understanding of a second mistake."
Molly swallowed with difficulty and nodded vigorously, trembling a little with new fear. Lizzy felt a matching shiver in her own limbs and was glad that the man's threatening tone was not directed at her.
Through the entire conversation, his sword did not waver from Mr. Darcy.
"Return her to the others," he said to one of the other men, turning her by her shoulder and handing her off. "We would not want her to lose her place now, would we?" He waited until the shaking girl had been guided from the room before returning his attention to his other captives.
"Now," he said with a smile, "what are we to do with the two of you?"
"We are obviously not who you expected," Mr. Darcy said calmly, his eyes fixed on the man's face. "Leave us here and go your way."
"Unfortunately, that is not possible, not now. And besides, you are a very wealthy man, Mr. Darcy. I am beginning to wonder whether perhaps this little mistake is actually a blessing. I can hold the two of you for ransom, whether paid from your own coffers or those of your relations I care not, and still move forward with my original intentions, although with a few… adjustments."
"Geoff," the dark-haired man said warningly, "adding hostages to our journey will slow us considerably."
"Nonsense, Reg," the lead man answered with a laugh. "'Twill be worthwhile to accommodate them, I assure you. I have it on good authority that Mr. Darcy here is disgustingly flush, and the unexpected windfall will be spread evenly among the men, a parting gesture of gratitude for all their hard work."
"Very well," Mr. Darcy said, "keep me for ransom. I will pay whatever sum you ask in order to be returned my freedom. But let the lady go. Her family is not in a position to pay you for her, and trying to keep a lady from causing trouble whilst in hiding is nearly impossible."
Lizzy felt, for the first time, a flicker of warmth for the man before her. His attempt to gain her release was fumbling, but she was touched by his determination, even if she feared that he was doomed to fail.
"Is this young lady particularly troublesome?" the man asked, chuckling deeply. "Yes, I think you may be right. Despite the sword at her throat only a moment ago, I can still feel the fight in her. In fact, I am certain her eyes are flaming as I speak. However, no one has ever accused me of being a coward, and I feel certain that her presence amongst my company will be quite entertaining."
"And besides, I suspect that danger to her person will be much more effective in keeping you helpful and willing than you would be if she were released."
"Sir, I believe that you have come to incorrect conclusions regarding the nature of my connection to Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy said very formally. "I am naturally concerned for her, as any gentleman would be, but we are neither confidantes nor lovers. We are barely acquaintances. Her presence will only complicate your purposes, whatever they may be."
Lizzy closed her eyes, willing the man to believe Mr. Darcy. Given the coldness of his features, the absolute hauteur that had stolen back over him, she found herself nearly believing him. After all, it made much more sense than his claims of deep affection earlier.
"Indeed?" the man cried, sounding deeply shocked. "Have I misinterpreted? What possible other reason could there be for you to visit her alone?"
"He is frequently seeking excuses for escaping his aunt's odious company," Lizzy blurted, hoping she sounded convincingly earnest. "He claimed that she was in particularly fine form today, that he could stand no more, and he came knocking here only a few moments before your arrival, begging for shelter and the use of Mr. Collins' library for a few minutes of peace. Mr. Collins has a particularly fine collection of… religious texts, an interest Mr. Darcy shares. He was just on his way there when you accosted him."
"Really?" The man seemed perfectly credulous. "Which particular text were you seeking tonight, sir?"
"A collection of sermons by George Whitefield."
He had answered without a pause, and Lizzy had to give him credit for it.
"How drab," the man sighed, sounding truly disappointed. "And to think I had concocted an entire love affair for the two of you, conducted right here under Mr. Collins' hallowed roof. Ah, well. Life is rarely as exciting as it might be. But I suppose there are significant benefits to your lack of romantic connection."
"Yes," Mr. Darcy said seriously. "You may release Miss Bennet without further trouble."
"Oh, dear me. No, no, no. In fact, I believe this will all work out much better if I take her with me. It will be a shame to leave you here, sir, but under the circumstances, I believe it will be wisest."
"How so?" Mr. Darcy's voice was so casual, Lizzy felt like spitting at him. Should not the idea of the woman whom he claimed to love being kidnapped be disturbing enough to break through his austere façade?
"Well, if I bring you along without a beloved, I believe you are the sort of gentleman to cause a ruckus and perhaps even take it into his head to plot the capture and subsequent fall of myself and my compatriots. You are, after all, a wealthy, educated man who is used to getting his own way. The purse might be sweet, but there will be too much potential difficulty. However, women are more easily controlled, even troublesome ones, so in taking Miss Bennet instead, we will be able to use her as insurance to gain the cooperation we seek from the ladies of Rosings, which was, of course, the original motive for tonight's visit to Mr. Collins."
"Their cooperation in what, exactly?" Lizzy had not been able to help asking the question. "If you believe Lady Catherine has any great love for me, sir, you have been sadly misinformed."
The man leaned forward, chuckling yet again, and kissed Lizzy's cheek lingeringly. She could not prevent herself from pulling away sharply, eliciting a deeper laugh. "I shall explain all to you, my darling, as soon as we are away. Perhaps over a glass of wine in your chamber." His eyes took on a mischievous expression. "Although you will first wish to rest, I am certain, given that our journey will be long and arduous this night. But do not worry. I will be happy to keep you warm as you sleep."
"I insist that you not be so familiar with me, sir!" Lizzy was blushing fiercely, although she was uncertain whether the main cause was embarrassment, anger, or terror. "Act the gentleman you pretend to be and release me at once!"
"The title of gentleman is an interesting one, is it not? I know Reg thinks so." He sent a cheerful smile to his compatriot, who was watching the proceedings with both alert interest and impatient forbearance. "The world is full of them, and yet I do not think I could name more than a dozen men of my acquaintance who actually embody the full meaning of the word, could you?"
There seemed something familiar to Lizzy about his statement, almost as if she had heard it or something like it before, but she brushed the niggling impression aside.
"I suppose that depends on how it is defined," the man called Reg answered, giving the first man an exasperated look. "We must hurry, Geoff."
"Please," Lizzy repeated, a little of her desperation escaping. "Please let us go. You have no quarrel with us."
"Poor girl," he clucked sorrowfully. "Do not worry. Before long, you will not be reluctant to accept my comfort. We will grow quite used to one another, I assure you."
The two missing men returned before Lizzy could answer him.
"My friends! Has all been accomplished?"
The men both nodded, and the slightly darker-haired one answered, "Yes, sir. The clock in the study was as reported, and we found a jewel-handled letter opener in the desk and some decent jewelry in the mistress's chamber. Along with the silver, I believe we have enough."
"Excellent!" he crowed, kissing Lizzy's cheek roughly again. "That should do the job nicely. Come here," he said, motioning to one of the men. "Tie Mr. Darcy's hands and feet together, and leave him on the settee. Bring me a length to tie Miss Bennet's hands as well." He looked her over with an eyebrow raised. "And another for her feet. She is a mite too spirited to be trusted, I think." He made his final statement with relish.
"Sir," Mr. Darcy said, struggling against the bonds as one of the brutes began expertly wrapping a thin rope around his wrists, "I beg you, do not do this. If you will release us both, you may go your way unhindered. We will speak to no one of what has occurred."
The men ignored him. The lead man accepted rope and began tying Lizzy's wrists together tightly, murmuring soothing words as he finished the knot. He then guided her to a chair and forced her to sit before tying her feet together. Lizzy blushed again as his fingers traveled rather freely over her stockings, but she bit her lip to keep from crying out.
Mr. Darcy's disavowal of affection had been wise, she saw now. If they could keep the man from changing his mind about leaving Mr. Darcy behind, then there was at least some hope of later discovery, and she knew she must do her part to keep Mr. Darcy stable on his course, even if it meant suffering such indignities in silence.
"There." The man stood and moved to the small desk in the corner where there lay a few sheets of paper and an inkwell. "I shall just leave a little note of explanation for our kind hosts, and we shall be on our way."
The room was silent as the man wrote for a few minutes, and in the quiet, Lizzy found she could no longer keep from glancing up at Mr. Darcy. A moment later, she knew she had made a grave mistake. He was sitting as straight as he could in the chair, and his expression was arrogant, almost bored, but his eyes…
He was gazing into her with such a depth of desolation and fear that she felt tears gather at the sight.
It will be all right, she mouthed to him. Stay here.
He did not respond. He only kept staring, and she found she could not look away. Had she ever truly seen this man before? He had a shell of stone, an exterior as hard as granite, but no man as cold and arrogant as she had believed him to be could ever feel so much as she sensed he was feeling in that moment. Who was he?
The man signed the missive with a flourish, arranged it neatly on the side table, and returned to Lizzy's side. "Come along, my darling," he said, reaching beneath her and lifting her effortlessly. "We are off for a little adventure."
He moved toward the door, followed by the rest of his men, and Lizzy felt her heart gallop faster. Her instinct was to struggle, but she remained very still, knowing it would be wiser to seem docile until a moment when her struggle would have some effect. Would she ever see this place again? Not that she had loved it, but she had never felt unsafe here. Where she was going, wherever that was, would she ever feel safe again? Would she ever see her home, her family again? Or would she disappear completely into whatever insanity was before her?
Lizzy grimaced at the cry, equal parts annoyance and relief, and as the lead man turned, Lizzy caught sight of Mr. Darcy through the open parlor door. All semblance of haughty control had disappeared, and he was struggling at his bonds, pressing toward her with a face as pale as death.
"Mr. Darcy?" the man queried, sounding surprised again.
"Take me with you."
"Because you were right. Miss Bennet is my… I am in love with her." The words rushed from him like a spring waterfall. "I will pay any sum of money, do anything, in order for us both to be freed unharmed."
The man stared at him for only a second or two before breaking into a broad grin. "The truth always comes out at last. Bring him! If you make even a second of trouble…"
"I know. I shall not."
The man swung her unceremoniously over his shoulder for a moment as he strode to the side table, unfolded the document he had written, and scrawled a few more words across the bottom. Then he cradled her against him again and tugged down one of Mr. Collins' greatcoats from the closet near the door.
The last Lizzy saw of Mr. Darcy was one of the broad men untying him from the chair and swinging him over his shoulder, and then they were outside in the half-light just after sunset, hurrying toward a group of horses hidden in the vegetable garden behind the house. Lizzy felt a passing moment of sympathy for the tiny lettuce sprouts being trampled under so many feet and hooves.
The lead man handed her off as he mounted, then reached out and accepted her, cradling her securely between his arms as they held the reins. He wrapped the oversized coat awkwardly around her.
And then the dark trees were rushing around them. They rode west for some time, past all the roads and villages she recognized, then changed to a southern road well past twilight. Any passing travelers were skirted widely, and the other riders, perhaps five others in all, traveled closely around the horses carrying Lizzy and Mr. Darcy.
They moved swiftly despite the questionable light of the half-moon. She knew not how long they rode, but finally she could keep her eyes open no longer, and leaning her head against the man's chest, she fell into a troubled sleep.
"Fitzwilliam! I insist that you find Darcy at once! I had thought this would be a good opportunity for him to sit with Ann for a time, given that you are both leaving tomorrow. Most irregular of him to ride out in the middle of the afternoon. He did not even take tea!"
Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam bit back the snide remark he wished to make regarding Darcy being a man of eight-and-twenty and perfectly capable of choosing whether or not to spend teatime in company. Instead he bowed respectfully. "Of course, Lady Catherine."
He was, he had to admit, the slightest bit curious himself regarding Darcy's whereabouts. As far as Darcy had indicated shortly before teatime, he had planned to remain in company for the duration of the afternoon, but only a minute or two after the party from the parsonage had arrived, he had made some distracted comment about "business" he had forgotten and excused himself, much to Lady Catherine's displeasure. Even Ann, their delicate, indolent cousin, had roused herself enough to echo her mother's dismay at his abandonment before subsiding into her usual listlessness.
Fitzwilliam could not really blame his cousin for jumping ship. Afternoons were arduous enough for the two gentlemen with Ann, Mrs. Jenkinson, and Lady Catherine, but adding Mr. Collins to the party without the delightful presence of Miss Bennet to counterbalance him was more than any man should have to suffer. There had, of course, also been Mrs. Collins and her sister present, but Miss Lucas counted no more than did Mrs. Jenkinson, both as silent and useless as statuary.
Mrs. Collins, however, was a different case altogether, and in Fitzwilliam's opinion, she was the worst of the lot. Her wide-eyed sister and oaf of a husband were noisome, but observing and conversing with Mrs. Collins was acutely painful. Watching that intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate woman humble herself before Lady Catherine, patiently ignore Mr. Collins, and attempt to gently converse with Ann made Fitzwilliam's chest ache. He much preferred her lively friend Miss Bennet, who inspired no pity or concern, only good humor and ease.
He offered short farewells to the general party, who were rising to take their leave anyway, and moved into the corridor, approaching a footman standing at the ready in the doorway leading to the entry hall. "Giles, where did Mr. Darcy go when he left the drawing room an hour or two ago? The study?"
"No, sir," the young man replied, trying to look as if Fitzwilliam had not just caught him half-napping. Not that Fitzwilliam blamed him. Lady Catherine's policy that a footman must remain in the corridor whenever she had company in case anyone needed direction to another part of the house was perfectly ridiculous. "He returned to his rooms and went outside a few moments later. He was moving very quickly."
"And he has not yet returned?" Fitzwilliam glanced toward a small, decorative clock on a table. The Hunsford party had been at Rosings for nearly two hours, much longer than a usual visit thanks to Lady Catherine having droned on at length regarding the misbehavior of certain of Mr. Collins's parishioners.
Fitzwilliam's idle curiosity flared into interest as he moved outside and learned that Darcy had not left on his horse and had last been seen moving in the direction of Hunsford parsonage. He had taken to frequent solitary walks since their arrival at Rosings (although he had never been in the habit previously), so it was possible that he was simply taking a tour of the park before their departure, as Fitzwilliam himself had done earlier that day. But it was a bit coincidental that Darcy had desperately needed a walk in that direction on the first afternoon that Miss Bennet had not called on Rosings with her friends.
But what possible purpose could Darcy have had in going to visit Miss Bennet, especially as she was ill? He could not have meant to…
Fitzwilliam's pace slowed and stopped, leaving him standing very still in the center of the ornately paved courtyard. Suddenly, with a single thought, all of his observations of his cousin over the past few months clicked into place.
Darcy had been understandably troubled and quiet at the end of the summer after the Wickham fiasco. Fitzwilliam himself, a normally cheerful and quiescent commander, had dealt with his own personal outrage regarding Wickham by treating the troops and officers of his company with a firmness bordering on tyranny for a few weeks, but Darcy had retreated into himself, especially after Georgiana had asked for some time on her own to sort through her feelings and come to terms with the situation.
After he had returned from Hertfordshire, however, Darcy had seemed even more reserved but at the same time possessed of a strange, near-frenetic energy. He had avoided his more intimate friends but dived feverishly into the events of the Season, attending parties and balls and dinners and performances of every sort, and he had danced once or twice at each event. He had even been seen to speak with a few young ladies, although the conversations never lasted long. Darcy's butler had confided to Fitzwilliam that he usually returned home after the events and collapsed, sleeping for several hours but arising the next morning looking as if he had not slept at all.
Then one day, Fitzwilliam had received a note from his cousin, informing him that their yearly visit to Kent was to occur three weeks earlier than normal and last almost a month, and that with only ten days' notice!
But as strange as all that was, the most remarkable oddities had appeared after their arrival in Kent. Darcy was even shorter and sharper with everyone than usual, even sometimes with Fitzwilliam, who could usually manage to bring him out of his typical brooding melancholy. Darcy's patience for Lady Catherine was as flimsy as paper, and his interest in Ann was nonexistent, despite several uncharacteristic attempts on her part to engage his attention. He walked a great deal, and when at Rosings, he was either puzzling over the accounts with Mr. Nelson, Lady Catherine's new steward, or standing at a window in the neglected library and gazing out over the grounds.
Except, that is, when Miss Bennet was present. He was still quieter than usual, but Fitzwilliam had seen him watching the young lady with his mouth set in a grim line, and he had gone out of his way on several occasions to initiate conversation with her, even if her usual response was merely to verbally spar with him. Fitzwilliam had chuckled to himself a few times regarding the possibility of Darcy being attracted to her obtuseness, but he had never seriously considered it. Darcy was too level-headed, too duty-bound to entertain thoughts of any sort of dalliance with or connection to a young lady as obscure as Miss Bennet, no matter how charming.
And yet, if he had gone to see her, sought a private interview with her on the day before he was to leave the county, that would strongly imply that he was not, after all, immune to the idea of a relationship between them. The consideration of the sort of relationship Darcy might have in mind propelled Fitzwilliam's legs into motion. He was back inside, retrieving his hat and walking stick in a matter of moments, and out the door again just in time to come across the Hunsford party crossing the courtyard.
He cursed under his breath at his own timing even as he smiled at their surprised greetings.
"Are you still seeking Mr. Darcy, Colonel?" Mrs. Collins asked politely.
"Yes. That is…" Fitzwilliam answered, hoping he did not look as flustered as he felt. He certainly had no wish to confess his suspicions to this particular audience. "I am told that he left just a few minutes ago for a final stroll before evening settled, and since he is reported to have gone in this direction, I wondered whether perhaps he would think to stop in and ask after Miss Bennet's recovery."
"Of course!" Mr. Collins crowed, his eyes glowing with his typical fanatical fervor. "Such wondrous condescension from all of the illustrious occupants of Rosings Park, even those who only come to visit, has never been known before in any other neighborhood! I am certain that, if Mr. Darcy truly deigned to stop and call in on my poor young cousin, she would be braced, uplifted, and healed by the very act of inquiry. We ought to make haste, Mrs. Collins, in case he is still there, that we might offer our gratitude in concert with Cousin Elizabeth's for his ineffable benevolence."
Mrs. Collins had been eyeing Fitzwilliam shrewdly during the whole of her husband's monologue, and it had taken all of Fitzwilliam's military nerve to keep from squirming. He normally had no problem lying for the sake of loyalty, comfort, or simplicity, but he was grateful that Mr. Collins had dragged Mrs. Collins ahead before her measuring stare forced him to confess the entire truth in one explosive burst.
Fitzwilliam offered no protest against the increased pace of their travel, although he was uncertain what he hoped to find on his arrival. Darcy might be a bloody, lovesick fool, but as far as he had seen, Miss Bennet had shown no signs of returning his regard besides a marked observation of Darcy's person, manners, and whereabouts. Perhaps she had denied him and he was even now roaming the grounds in long, angry strides and muttering under his breath.
But what if Fitzwilliam was wrong and Miss Bennet had harbored a secret passion for Darcy in return? Would they be discovered locked in an ardent embrace? Would they hide their liaison and behave as if they had only been discussing the state of the roads in preparation for his journey?
Perhaps he was not there at all. Perhaps he really was taking a walk and all this worry was for naught.
By the concern in Mrs. Collins' eyes as she glanced back at him over her shoulder more than once, he was not the only one who feared that was unlikely.
Mr. Collins hurried them at such a pace that there was little breath left for conversation, and they made excellent time across the grounds. They spilled into the parsonage entryway with little ceremony, and Fitzwilliam was the first to reach the parlor door, throwing it open unceremoniously.
It was empty.
Fitzwilliam's breath left him in a relieved rush. Darcy had not called on Miss Bennet after all. For a single moment, he actually considered falling on his knees and offering a prayer of gratitude. Darcy was not so lovesick as Fitzwilliam had feared, at least not enough to make confession. Unless, that is, he and Miss Bennet had already left.
No, they would have needed a carriage and trunks and preparation in order for him to spirit her back to London and install her in an apartment of her own. Taking a mistress was not something one accomplished on a whim. Although he could, even now, be upstairs convincing her…
Fitzwilliam felt Mrs. Collins look into the room from behind his shoulder, release a relieved breath, then spin away. "Locken! We are home!"
Mr. Collins, his wife, and her sister stood in the small entry, removing their outer garments and watching the door from the kitchens expectantly. Fitzwilliam knew he should go, but he kept eyeing the stairs, hoping to hear from the servants that Miss Bennet was safely ensconced upstairs, resting and alone, before he left to seek Darcy on the grounds.
The party stood waiting for several seconds before Mr. Collins began grumbling about having to stand holding his hat for rather longer than a busy clergyman should be expected to do. Mrs. Collins moved toward the kitchen, calling alternately for the cook, the maid, or the manservant. She disappeared through the door, leaving Fitzwilliam with Mr. Collins, who began muttering apologies to the colonel for his staff appearing to be inattentive, and Miss Lucas, who was still so cowed by Fitzwilliam after several weeks of acquaintance that she was unable to speak more than a word in his presence without blushing profusely.
"I see that Darcy is not here," he said slowly, wondering whether there might be a ladder in Mr. Collins's garden shed that would reach to the upper floor windows and which room might belong to Miss Bennet. "I shall bid you farewell then…"
"Mr. Collins!" Mrs. Collins shrieked from the kitchen. "Come quickly!"
Fitzwilliam was not summoned, but something about the dismay and alarm in her voice drew him to follow Mr. Collins through the door. Mrs. Collins was just disappearing through a smaller door into a larder.
The gentlemen followed her, as did Miss Lucas some steps behind, but they all stopped as they neared and the light from a lamp on the table shined into the back of the large, shelved closet. There were people in there!
Mr. Collins remained frozen in shock, but Fitzwilliam jumped forward, seeing that Mrs. Collins had already retrieved a small knife from a shelf and was cutting at a gag around the young maid's mouth. As soon as it was removed, the girl's whimpers escalated into full cries, although they were mostly garbled gibberish.
Mrs. Collins began working at thin ropes binding the girls' hands and feet while Fitzwilliam squeezed further in, removed a small dagger from his boot, and made short work of the bindings on first the cook and then the manservant, Locken. Their words tumbled from them as soon as their gags were removed, but it was not until they had been pulled from the closet and seated at a rough wooden table with glasses of sherry that they began to make any coherent sense.
"There was just so many of 'em, mistress!" the middle-aged, soup-faced cook said through tears while massaging her bruised wrists. "Locken tried to fight 'em off, but they were young and as big as oxen, all of 'em! They trussed us tight and threw us in the larder before we even knew what was happenin'!"
"I tried, missus," Locken said grimly, brushing thinning gray hair from off his forehead. "I had no chance. I couldna even move by the time they came back for wee Molly 'ere. Thank goodness they brought her back to us none the worse for wear."
"If you could all please calm down," Mrs. Collins said, worry lining every feature.
"Did they take anything?" Mr. Collins asked, his voice oddly high-pitched. "What did they take? How much?"
Miss Lucas stood in the corner of the kitchen whimpering.
Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes as all three servants began speaking at once.
"Quiet!" he roared, stepping forward and drawing everyone's attention. "Now, Locken, tell us everything that happened from the beginning."
The man launched into a somewhat wandering account that amounted to a group of three or four large men armed with knives and clubs swarming in from the front doorway, seizing and binding the three servants as they were preparing supper, and locking them in the closet. Then, a few minutes later, one had returned and taken Molly, the maid, away, then returned her soon afterward shaking and terrified. And then some unknown amount of time had passed until Mrs. Collins had heard their moans and opened the door.
Fitzwilliam turned to Molly, whose swollen wrists Mrs. Collins was doctoring with a cloth soaked in witch hazel. "What happened when the men removed you? And why did they?"
Molly, whose eyes were still bright with tears, looked down and to the side for a moment before answering quietly, "They just asked me whether Mrs. Collins kept all the silver in the cupboard they'd already broke, sir. I said yes, and then they took me back in the larder."
"The silver?" Mr. Collins screeched, running for a cupboard at the back of the kitchen. There was a lock on the door, but when Mr. Collins reached out to touch it, the door swung open, revealing that the mechanism had been yanked so hard it had tugged right through the opposite door, leaving a long, broken, shard hanging from the frame. Mr. Collins moaned piteously at the sight of the empty cupboard shelves.
Mrs. Collins winced but braced herself quickly, offering Molly a kind smile. "I would much rather have you whole and safe than have a few dishes. I am so sorry you were frightened."
Molly gave her a watery smile that Fitzwilliam thought looked rather forced, but he did not comment on it.
"What did the men look like?" he asked patiently. As an officer, he had some experience with questioning witnesses regarding misbehaving soldiers and officers, and he knew what was most important to get from a person before the memories drifted away. "The man who spoke to you, did you recognize him? Can you remember anything unique about his appearance?"
"I canna remember much," the girl said, looking down and to the side again while winding a strand of her flyaway hair around a finger. "The men were all tall and big, like Mr. Locken said, and the one who spoke had a right mean face, although he was smilin' pleasant enough at Miss Bennet, and he…"
"Miss Bennet!" Fitzwilliam cried at the same moment that Mrs. Collins wheeled around in distress and flew out the kitchen door toward the entry. He followed on her heels, both of them nearly flying up the staircase. How could they have forgotten her?
Mrs. Collins burst into the second bedroom on the left, calling out, "Lizzy!" The room was empty, and nothing was disturbed. The blankets on the bed were a little mussed, as if someone had laid out across the top of them, a shawl was draped over a chair at a small dressing table, and a few books were piled on the nightstand, but there was no evidence of anything having been moved or taken.
Mrs. Collins darted back out, going from room to room, growing more frantic as she discovered Miss Bennet was nowhere to be found. Fitzwilliam stood in the center of the upper hall, eyeing Mr. Collins, who had finally deigned to follow them up the stairs, and concentrating on the sick feeling swirling through his middle.
"Miss Bennet was ill when you left for Rosings this afternoon?"
"Yes, yes," Mr. Collins answered distractedly, his eyes roving from item to item along the walls. "She was pale and claimed to have a severe headache."
"Then she would not have gone out walking or to visit anyone?"
"I would imagine not."
"She is not here," Mrs. Collins said as she emerged from the last room on the floor, flushed and breathing heavily. "But her wrap, her spencer, and her bonnet are all on the table in her room, so she did not go out intentionally."
"She may be downstairs," Mr. Collins said, moving toward the far end of the hallway in a sudden rush. He added over his shoulder before entering a darkened room lined with bookshelves, "Perhaps she fell asleep or something."
Mrs. Collins plunged headlong down the stairs, but by the time Fitzwilliam had finished glaring after Mr. Collins and checking a few closets on the main floor, she had flown through all the other rooms and come up empty-handed. She stood very tall and straight in the center of the parlor, a picture of self-possession, but on approaching her, Fitzwilliam could see that her hands were shaking.
"Where could she be, Colonel?"
Fitzwilliam wanted to answer, wanted to assure this poor, frightened lady that her friend was safe and would be just fine, but as she looked up into his eyes with desperate inquiry, he knew he could not lie to her. "I do not know."
She turned her back on him, hunching her shoulders and wrapping her arms around herself. She made no sound, but her shoulders heaved once and a shudder ran through her.
He stood awkwardly for a minute or two, uncertain whether to leave her. It was painful to stand there watching, unable to help or to offer comfort as he wished to do. Where was Mr. Collins? It was his place—nay, his duty!—to take her in his arms and whisper words of hope and faith that all would be well, but the idiot man was upstairs combing through his possessions, entirely unconcerned about his missing cousin or his frightened wife. Fitzwilliam considered returning above stairs and dragging the man back down, but he strongly suspected that nothing about that man would be a comfort to this suffering woman.
The reality of her pitiable situation flashed on him all at once. As the wife of Mr. Collins, she was well-respected and comfortable, but away from her parents and home, she was alarmingly unaided here. Mr. Collins had provided her a living and a name, but he was as useless a husband as a stump of wood would be in a time of need, and in any truly difficult situation that arose in her life, she would always be alone.
Fitzwilliam stepped up beside her finally, offering his handkerchief. It was all he could do, and so much less than he wished he could do, so much less than she deserved.
She accepted it without comment, wiping the silent tears that had streamed down her cheeks.
"I will do everything in my power to find your friend," he assured her quietly, feeling the depth of his sincerity ring through him like the cry of a bugle. "I swear it."
"Thank you, Colonel," she whispered, looking up at him with something like hope. "Anything you could do would be… Colonel? What is it?"
Fitzwilliam had frozen part way through turning back toward the parlor door.
No, it could not be.
That sick feeling still spinning inside him intensified so instantly that he was forced to close his eyes for a moment to fight a slight dizziness. When he opened them again, gazing toward the tabletop near the doorway, he uttered the most impolite curse he knew.
"What is the matter, sir?"
He strode silently across the room, stopping before the table and reaching out as slowly as possible to run his fingers across the smooth shaft of an ebony-handled walking stick. Beside it lay a familiar beaver hat and a piece of folded paper.
As he lifted the stick and grasped the familiar, well-worn, brass falcon handle, he unfolded the paper with his other hand and let his eyes run over the words. He felt Mrs. Collins move beside him and begin reading as well.
"Dear Mr. Collins,
"My friends and I wanted to thank you for your hospitality this evening, no matter how short a time we enjoyed it. Your home is lovely, and your staff was most accommodating. Given your reluctance to make good on the debt you have owed for some time, you will be comforted to know that we have gathered enough tonight to clear it all, including interest. I hope it was not nearly as painful as you had feared, nor as frustrating to your lovely wife.
"I do, however, regret to inform you that your houseguest's presence was required elsewhere. We have taken it upon ourselves to aid her in her journey posthaste, and I am certain she wishes for me to convey her regrets that she was not able to take proper leave of you. Worry not for her, dear sir, for she is in very capable hands.
"If you would be so good as to inform Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh of the darling Miss Bennet's change of plans, I would be ever so grateful. Would you pass them the message that I hope they are now far more aware of the seriousness of the intentions I conveyed to them in my previous communications?
"My thanks to you again, sir, and my best wishes to your dear wife. Here is a parting piece of advice: in future, I suggest that you avoid becoming so deeply indebted to anyone. It really is not healthy. Or wise.
"G. J. Smythe, Earl of Aberforth"
At the bottom, in a hastily scribbled postscript was added, "Please let Lady Catherine know that her beloved nephew shall be well looked after as well. He seemed most eager to join us, given Miss Bennet's presence among us, and who am I to deny a man's pleasure? Tell her that I insist Rosings' debt be paid within the next fortnight, for Miss Bennet's sake, and that I shall be contacting her within a fortnight to clarify a ransom for her nephew's safe return. Best wishes!"
Fitzwilliam held the note very still until he was certain Mrs. Collins had perused all the contents, and then he stepped back, holding the note in his hand and turning to face her.
"Lizzy and Mr. Darcy…" Mrs. Collins breathed.
Fitzwilliam nearly choked as he finished, "…have been kidnapped."