A/N: Hi, guys. It is a little bit surreal but so delightful to be back, and I have no expectations that any of you are still here. That's okay. I started off writing to myself and I'm okay continuing like that.

I hope you're all okay in this crazy world, and that your loved ones are okay, and that you are feeling loved. If not, here's some escapism (and hugs).

I intend to turn this into a short story — feel free to ignore. Failing that, I'll turn it into a long story (because I always have too much to say). I intend to return to Coconut Trees as well. Escapism is much needed for everyone right now.

Recap: In the previous chapter, Elizabeth got sick of Mr. Collins and planted herself lips first into Mr. Darcy. There, all caught up now.

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A Wicked, White Cravat
by Anton M.

Chapter 2: The Courtship Begins

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"But I thought she didn't like him," Kitty said, staring at Mr. Darcy from the window in the vestibule. He was walking back and forth, waiting for Elizabeth. He had refused to enter the house today.

Two days had passed since the fateful evening at Netherfield, and Meryton was ablaze with gossip. Rumours had added indecency to the story that, while untrue, fuelled the speed of its delivery. Longbourn household had persevered through many a tattle since the Bennets married, but none had been quite so scandalous. None had certainly been caused by the second eldest daughter.

"Clever girl!" Mrs. Bennet stormed around the house with no apparent purpose than to listen to herself talk. "I always said she was clever! Compromising such a fine gentleman in such high company. He will have no choice but to marry her now!"

"Were they really seeing each other behind our backs?" Mary asked Jane.

Making a decision between loyalty to her sister and the truth, Jane hesitated. A few seconds passed before she nodded.

"Outstanding, I say! Ensuring that he has no choice but to offer for her hand in marriage. You could learn a thing or two from your sister, young ladies."

"We do not encourage such behaviour in our household," Mr. Bennet said, observing Jane putting on her bonnet before he looked out of the window. "What happened was unfortunate, and I will ensure none of our remaining daughters have to suffer such a fate."

"Suffer!" Mrs. Bennet repeated. "Suffer?! Ten thousand a year! Few people of our standing have ever suffered in such a way. Ten thousand, and likely more!"

"But how could they have been seeing each other?" Kitty asked. "She's been with us the whole time."

Jane paused.

"Not when she was walking."

Even Mr. Bennet, who had thus far remained sceptical of the story, breathed a sigh of relief. The only thing more devastating than having to marry his favourite daughter to an arrogant, uptight man like Mr. Darcy would have been to marry her to a man she hated. If she had, indeed, been seeing Mr. Darcy behind their backs, her future might not be as hopeless as Mr. Bennet had feared. If this was true, it had been unwise and reckless of Elizabeth to be putting herself in such a position, but not wholly uncharacteristic.

After all, in Elizabeth's eyes, the unspoken rules of society only existed to be challenged by ridicule.

Mr. Bennet felt responsible. In seeking compromise between his wife and his daughter, he might've forever ruined the future of his most beloved daughter. His only hope lay in the possibility that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had been seeing each other in secret.

"It will not happen," Mr. Collins said from the sitting room, lowering his book. The door was open.

Mrs. Bennet scoffed and shook her head. "He is unpleasant to be sure, but he is an honourable man. He has no choice but to marry her."

"You may eat your words yet," Mr. Collins replied. "He is bound to the daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself. Cousin Elizabeth was foolish to have rejected my advances and will, in time, grow to bitterly resent her choice." He returned to his book, smug and seemingly unaffected by the situation. "You will see."

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Mr. Darcy heard what Mrs. Bennet said about Elizabeth. With her tone of voice, it would have been a feat to remain deaf even if a window had not been cracked open. He heard her words plenty on the previous morning when most of the neighbourhood was asleep and he was having a most nerve-wracking conversation with Mr. Bennet, and he heard it loud and clear today. Yesterday, Mrs. Bennet's words barely registered. Today, they awoke something in him.

It would've been easy to fool him — he was infatuated, and perhaps visibly so. It would've been simple for Elizabeth to make him believe she was taken with him, he was so desperate for her attention. She would've known what to say and how to say it to make sure he felt that offering for her was his decision. Even her vehement denial of his hand, when seen through a cynical eye, could've been proof of her scheme.

It had been two months since he met Elizabeth, but he did not know her. If her mother was right — and she might as well be — Elizabeth might've planned for this outcome. Even as daughters of a gentleman, the sisters were at the mercy of their cousin. Mr. Darcy could offer more than financial security — he could offer connections, freedom, and a world beyond Hertfordshire. How could he know if he was part of a calculated plan to secure her future?

And if it was true, would he be comfortable proceeding with the arrangement?

If it was false, could he proceed with such proof of the difference in their stations?

Elizabeth shut the door behind her and laughed when the wind tried to blow away her bonnet. She walked in front of her betrothed, exhilarated and nervous.

Mr. Darcy, enjoying the sound, felt torn. Seeing her, hearing her, he had little doubt that her behaviour at Netherfield had taken herself by surprise as much as anyone. The moment they shared outside Netherfield, how could that have been a pretence?

But how could he be sure it was not?

Asking her outright, although infinitely tempting, might not have been the best course of action: Darcy might have be too taken with her to notice any signs of lying, and she might have taken offence at such direct questioning.

Not a second had passed before Elizabeth's smile faded and she blinked at him.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," Darcy said.

It was a curt nod, no smile, and she felt rejected in a way that she was not prepared for. Miss Elizabeth Bennet? He had not addressed her so formally since before Netherfield.

"Mr. Darcy," she repeated after him, matching his tone. "Jane and Mary will join us for our walk."

When the party was ready, they set on a walk towards Meryton. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth started walking side-by-side.

Jane, upon receiving the news that Mr. Bingley was eager to join them but had some business to attend to and would visit Jane on the morrow, was so relieved by the news that she delayed Mary until Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were almost out of sight.

"We are too far from them now," Mary complained, looking at the distant figures. "I cannot even hear them anymore!"

Ever the patient sister, Jane took the arm of Mary as they set out in the same direction.

"Mary." She paused. "It is enough that we can see them. They must have private matters to discuss to which we are not and should not be privy to, however curious you might be."

"But it is not proper!"

"Lizzie has accepted Mr. Darcy's marriage proposal," Jane replied. "Giving them privacy is the proper thing to do. With the first of your four sisters betrothed, it is sensible for us to grow accustomed to giving your engaged sisters more space than you have been advised to give previously, as long as they can be seen. Is there not a gentleman in Hertfordshire with whom you would like to discuss private matters, had you agreed to marry him?"

Mary was uncomfortable enough to not reply.

"Are you not even a little bit curious what they are discussing?" she asked after a slight pause.

"Of course I am," Jane answered. "I am only human and I feel as if I know Elizabeth less than I thought I did. However, it is a courtesy to her and to yourself to allow Elizabeth to share everything in her own time."

Jane proceeded to ask questions about Mary's interest in botany, and the topic exited her sister enough to forget about the two figures walking before them.

With Jane's careful pace, they were always within their sight but never within earshot.

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Elizabeth was at a loss, and even a little bit scared. Yesterday, she had squeezed Mr. Darcy's bare hand in the vestibule before he left. He offered a shy but reassuring smile, which, together with the warm squeeze of his hand, had lifted her off the ground for the entire day. She had been driven to enough distraction that she barely ate.

She could not believe that the man who had been so understanding and lovely these past two days had begun to address her formally again.

"Are you quite well, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked.

He did not answer.

"Sir."

Darcy frowned. "Please, call me Darcy."

Not wanting to show her hurt, Elizabeth turned away her head. Two days ago, he had given her permission to call him William.

"Sir," she repeated, face grim. "Please."

"Please?"

"Please share what changed since two days ago. You are frightening me."

"Nothing changed," he replied, voice flat.

"I fear that your words do not match your tone and I am determined to find out what is causing your distance."

Darcy, taken aback by her directness and feeling that he had no way but to address his concerns, started walking back and forth in front of her. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead. He was not eloquent in the best of times, and he was simultaneously eager to find out the truth and terrified that he was so eager for a single answer that his looking for it would ensure that he would never find out the truth. If she lied to him, he could not trust himself to know her well enough to recognise it.

"Miss Elizabeth," he started. He had to look away from her eyes for fear that he would be too distracted to continue.

"Sir," she repeated.

"You are a gentleman's daughter."

A short, amused snort-like sound escaped Elizabeth and she promptly cleared her throat and nodded.

"Your perception does you credit," she replied with a straight face.

Darcy's cheeks flushed, but he continued to pace back and forth.

"However, it has come to my attention that a family with such financial means as yours would seek to find suitors with a certain background."

"Truly, you should write a book," Elizabeth replied, uncertain as to where he was headed in his conversation but determined to make light of his words.

"You are not surprised by my insinuation," Darcy stated, frustrated by the light she was making of his words.

"What insinuation, sir? That five daughters of a gentleman whose estate is entailed are in want of reasonably well-to-do husbands?"

"Yes."

"You are describing what the entire Hertfordshire has known since it became apparent that my mother could not heir a son. I am confused as to which part of this is cause of surprise or alarm to you."

Darcy stopped pacing, and stepped in front of Elizabeth close enough to touch.

"Miss Elizabeth, you cannot possibly be unaware of the difference in our stations. The inferiority of your birth, the manners of certain members of your family, and your lack of connections would have ensured that, had you not compromised me two days ago, I would have never considered proposing marriage to you, however deep I believed my feelings to be."

His shoulders were tense, but he delivered his words with the ease of a gentleman who was merely giving voice to the truth (as he saw it).

Elizabeth blinked.

She could not fathom that this man was the same one who had held her so tenderly two days ago, and she was so taken aback by his words that she stumbled on her petticoat. He reached out to help her, but she withdrew from his touch.

"Did you hear me?"

"Yes," she replied, voice level. She was not surprised by the content of his words as much as the fact that he was giving voice to them. "Forgive me, sir. I had not realised that the manners and incivility of my future husband are a perfect match to those of my mother."

His eyes narrowed and his anger was undeniable. "My manners? My incivility?"

"Yes," she replied.

"You are comparing me to your mother, the woman currently loudly celebrating the rich future husband of her second daughter to any neighbour within fifty miles? The woman who cannot stop talking about how clever her daughter was for compromising a man such as myself?"

"Yes."

"You cannot be serious!"

"I am perfectly serious," she replied, only remaining level-headed because it was far too unreal a situation to be the genuine thoughts of her future husband. "Is this a test, sir? You cannot possibly deliver a speech degrading my background with not a hint of jesting and be surprised by the comparison of your manners to those of my mother. I had hoped that you simply appeared haughty, proud and disillusioned but I did not consider that these are the core traits of the person I am to marry."

His face turned ashen.

"This is what you think of me?"

"This is what you are showing me about your character, sir," she said, and the next words, although she believed them to be true, hurt her to discover and give voice to. "It gives me no joy to acknowledge that the depth of your emotion cannot possibly be as deep as you claimed two days ago."

Elizabeth started walking, so he could not see her face, but he caught up to her. He was disoriented by the arguments, shaken by her words comparing his manners to those of her mother, and she considered him to be haughty and proud!

But most of all, Darcy could not believe that she questioned the depth of his feelings.

If only she knew. Darcy was filled with a nervousness around Elizabeth that even Bingley picked up on, he paid close attention to her conversations and always tried to be within earshot to enjoy her comebacks. If he did only speak to her in order to challenge, it was because her intelligence and wit drew him in, and dear God, he should not admit to the relentless dreams that had begun to star the young lady in front of him that were most certainly not appropriate to their level of intimacy. Even now, if his mind was not so consumed by her insults, he would have been driven mad by her proximity.

But more, he had a desire to protect her so strong he felt it must be visible for he could not possibly contain that much emotion without showing it.

The whole morning had backfired — Darcy had hoped to get to know Elizabeth better and perhaps steal a few kisses, hold her close, tease her with his touch. He had hoped to inspire her laughter and hear her wit and share thoughts on their future together at Pemberley.

"Madam," he said, voice low. "Whatever else you may think of my character, it is unwise to question the depth of my feelings."

Elizabeth's eyes were focused on the horizon and he could not be sure she even heard him.

"It appears that the ease with which you found a future wife — and I take full responsibility — will hinder and possibly halt your personal growth and insight had you been made to see your faults as they are and be driven to work on becoming a better person in order to be worthy of your future wife."

"A better person," he repeated, unbelieving of her audacity. He was given great principles as a kid, he was one of the most eligible bachelor's in the country, and he offered to marry her after she compromised him.

Darcy did not smile, and his voice was grave as he towered over her. He was at a breaking point, and there was no way around asking her the question outright.

"Did you kiss me at Netherfield to trick me into marrying you?" he whispered, eyes intense. "Because of my wealth?"

Elizabeth lifted her jaw.

"No," she said. "I kissed you because you were closest."

"What?!"

The option had not occurred to him, and somehow, felt worse.

"Sir," she replied, painfully aware of his breath on her forehead. "Did you hit your head on your way to Longbourn?"

Unsatisfied, Darcy did not move.

"Did you plan on it? Was it a scheme with your mother to help you land a man of wealth?"

Elizabeth's hand stung almost before she realised that she had slapped the man. Mortified, she took a step back. "Sir," she whispered, looking in his eyes, pleading. "I do not know what came over me. I did not mean to— Please forgive me."

She shut her eyes tightly, mortified. She did not know Darcy well enough to fear or hope for his response. As a child playing in the fields around Netherfield, she had once seen the husband of their cook push her into a tree after an argument. After that, their cook greeted them in the morning with a bruise around her eye. The incident was the first but not the last that Elizabeth heard of among married women, especially those without close male relatives.

Her eyes were still shut, and she stood stiff as a board.

Darcy lifted his arm and dared to gently brush her cheek with his thumb. He leaned closer. "Elizabeth," he whispered. "I am not going to harm you."

"I deserve it," she replied.

At a loss for words, Darcy ran his arm along her back. His touch was tender, and he relished her warmth. In spite of her insults, his blood boiled from the thought of someone treating Elizabeth in that way. "I am not going to harm you," he repeated, unwilling to part from her but beholden to propriety, or whatever was left of it. He lifted a lonely tendril but took a step back.

"I apologise, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth whispered. "It will not happen again."

In truth, he had barely felt anything. He was more concerned for her reaction and reason for apologies than any imaginary hurt he might've felt.

"I take it that it was not a scheme with your mother," he stated, relieved beyond recognition. No, he did not know his fiancee, and apparently, himself. However, her slap was the act of a woman insulted, and he was glad for it. He could not have asked for a more genuine rebuff of his question.

Elizabeth felt such shame that she could not meet his eyes. "You thought I had planned it."

"Well I—" Darcy cut himself off, and then replied. "Yes. I thought it a possibility."

"And it discouraged you," she whispered.

The possibility did not discourage Darcy, it wounded him, and it wounded him in a way he was not prepared to handle. He had already declared his love for Elizabeth two days ago, but the knowledge that not only were his feelings deeper but that hers might've been a pretence altogether, it was more than he could take.

Even more, he was now, for some inexplicable reason, ashamed of his fear. After all, most ladies he had been introduced to were drawn to him for exactly that reason, and he had never been disillusioned by the fact. It was perhaps the reason Elizabeth had first intrigued him — she did not seek out his attention. In fact, he did not recall her ever having done so in the two months they'd known each other, and now, in speaking what he thought of as the truth, he ended up insulting her in every possible manner.

By God, he might have had more work ahead of him to win her heart than he had realised, regardless of her actions at Netherfield.

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A/N: Thanks a bunch for reading! I appreciate any thoughts, should you wish to share them :)