AUTHOR'S NOTES: This tale promises a HEA, but will not be an easy road before we reach that point. Should be about 15 -20 chapters in length. Will try to keep a regular once a week Wednesday posting. No beta presently, so please excuse my typos and errors. Feel free to point out anything that needs improvement. I appreciate and encourage all constructive feedback.

If anyone is specifically knowledgable about theatre in Regency England, I would love to pick your brain. Please private message me.


DANCING ON HEDGEROWS

ROMANCE & MYSTERY

PROLOGUE:

April 1809 - Covenant Garden, London

Fitzwilliam Darcy was not a man in the habit of brooking disappointment. Raised with good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit; taught to think highly of his own family, and meanly of the rest of society, he had always assumed on the subject of marriage that he would have his pick. It was only natural and just that he would be an ideal objecT of admiration to any young woman, for he was as uncommonly well-featured as he was well-read, well-off, and most importantly, well-connected. The Darcy family, though untitled themselves, could boast of relations with one of most prominent Earldoms in the country, a more distant cousinship to a very important Dukedom, and ancient lines of no less than royalty.

To be summarily thus rejected, as he had just found himself to be, to be thoroughly denied, to be hated, was perhaps more than he could begin to comprehend. It would take many months of reflection and deep introspection before he would begin to see the truth of what unregulated pride had cost him. He had always assumed that any private interview such as this could have only one conclusion; the happy acceptance of his hand to any lucky female he would deign to extend his offer. Now his object stood before him and had rejected him without a second thought. It could not be.

"Is this all the reply I am to expect?" He spat, taking in her grim countenance. "I might wonder why with so little an effort at civility I am thus rejected - but I must allow for the differences in our respective stations."

The object of his affections, such as they were, had been looking away from him, toward the hearth of the little parlor they shared, but she swiveled in her spot to face him directly. Her words were all that was proper, but her speaking eyes burned with a malice that Darcy had never seen directed toward himself before.

She spoke in a tone of rather strained civility. "I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone, it was most unconsciously done, and shall, I hope, be of short duration."

Darcy paled, grew silent, and stared. In these past several months of sweet torment, the longest winter of his life, the deep ache of longing he felt had slowly consumed him. The way her eyes would meet his across the room, the soft lilt in her voice as they had talked, debating, laughing, dare he say it - flirting, the soft pressure in her hand as she met him in dance … he had never stopped to consider that she had not desired this just as much as he. He was an undeniably eligible match, what woman should not rejoice in so superior an offer as his? He had been assured of his success on that score alone, but he had been sure that there had been more than just material inducement for her. She could not be indifferent to him. It was an insupportable notion, he could not fathom it.

He stood away from her, visibly recoiling himself from the sting of her disdain. In a clipped accent he spoke. "You have always been delightfully enigmatic. I find that in an audience such as this, however, I must beg you to speak more plainly. Why have you rejected me? Can I have been so mistaken in recognizing your regard? I do not think it possible for a man of sense."

She sighed then, with a heaviness that a young woman of not even one-and-twenty should ever carry. "You have asked me to speak plainly - and so I shall, though it will bring neither of us any pleasure. To be frank, Mr. Darcy, I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it upon me most unwillingly. In circumstances such as these, it is the usual form to express a certain degree of obligation for the sentiments avowed, no matter how unequally they are returned. Yet I cannot. You have told me you liked me against your pride, your judgment, and even your character! You have insulted me in every possible manner. What pride, what arrogance, what selfish disdain for the feelings of others!"

With such strongly stated disapprobation tempers could only rise, even for gentlemen of good breeding. Darcy did not shout, for it was beneath his dignity, but his anger came through very clearly in his address. "Disguise of any sort is my abhorrence. I can not pretend to rejoice in your situation. Who are you, Miss Bernard? Do you think my family will take kindly to my lowering their connections so severely? We would be the derision of society, and yet still I offer for you! I have come before you an honest man in this, my conscious is clear. An actress! You have many admirers, Miss Bernard. Mine is not the only offer you will receive in your lifetime, though it may be the only honorable one."

As soon as he words were spoken, Darcy immediately felt his color drain in regret. Though he spoke truthfully, there were many things that should remain unsaid in the presence of a lady, especially the lady you wish to marry. The actress's dark, flashing eyes become suspiciously moist, her cheeks flushed, her pretty, pert lips parted in hurt astonishment.

"You have said quite enough, Mr. Darcy. I must bid you good day."

"Please, Miss Bernard, forgive me."

"I find that I can not, at present." She rang the bell for the footman.

An able bodied gentleman, Darcy was quick to cross the length of the room and take her hand in his. "I have loved you these many months past. Please, if you can not accept me, have pity on me and forgive me for abusing you so abominably just this moment. It was not the conduct of a gentleman."

"I have made many mistakes in my life, Mr. Darcy." She replied, deftly pulling her hand from his. "More mistakes than I would care to remember, in fact. But I have never allowed myself, my very existence, to be considered one. How can I give up the life I have built for myself for a husband who views his love for me as a degradation? It is an inconceivable feat. You remind me of my station, and the superiority of your own, as if I have no notion of them myself - as if every time I am invited to a dinner or receive a caller, I am not painfully aware of how tenuous my place is in society, and how much my very livelihood depends upon the good opinion of those such as yourself!" She paused then, gathering her composure after such a passionate speech. She could not help but speak with feeling, for it was her life's work, but she knew that her skills as an actress must be deployed to regulate her temper rather than heighten it on an occasion such as this.

Though her body pulled from his, her eyes, that had so mesmerized him these past months, could not help but seek his out. Her words were harsh, and yet those speaking eyes held a great deal of pain behind them. "Mr. Darcy, all you have accomplished with the mode of your declaration is spared me any of the pain I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. Regardless of this insult, to accept your offer there is no debate. It can not be done. I am not at liberty to marry anyone."

Finally he bowed, low and mockingly. "Forgive me Madam. You have made your feelings quite clear. I now only have to be ashamed of what my own have been. Clearly you are deserving of all the praise which is delivered to you daily - you truly are the consummate thespian. I had not realized I was simply another player in the saga of winning your affections."

The footman arrived, and the actress turned to him with a beguiling smile. "Mr. Darcy's call has come to an end, Michelson. Will you kindly see him safely out?" She curtseyed toward her would-be suitor with all the regal airs of a queen. "Good day, Mr. Darcy. Do try and remember the bard's words, "All the world is a stage," after all."

"You are only too correct, Miss Bernard. I hope when the curtain falls on this performance, you may look forward to positive reviews. For myself, I think it is a sorry tale." He bowed and turned toward the footman.

"Lucky for me than, that you are my harshest critic. I daresay I hope this performance was at least tolerable for you."

He fixed her then, with one long look, rage, disappointment and unrequited affectations all tangled together in a furious knot. Then he was gone.

They would not meet again for close to two years from this encounter, and under only the most unusual of circumstances.