Previous parts: Part 1
Richard muttered a curse. “How could I forget that scoundrel?”
“He is part of the regiment that was in Meryton last autumn.” Darcy nodded his agreement to another curse that his cousin muttered. “He was his normal, charming self, and ingratiated himself with many of the town’s people –”
“The young female ones no doubt,” Richard interrupted.
“Precisely,” Darcy agreed. “Elizabeth was among them.”
“He did not…” Richard raised a brow in unspoken question. Wickham was not known for his restraint of desire when it came to many things — young, pretty ladies among them.
Darcy shook his head. “Surely, she would not fall for his tricks, would she?” No, he was almost entirely confident Elizabeth would not fall for his flattery. She was intelligent and witty and not like other ladies, was she not?
“Georgiana did,” Richard reminded him.
Darcy grimaced and shook his head again at the problems he might face when attempting to win Elizabeth’s good opinion.
“So, Miss Bennet and Wickham were in company?” Richard asked.
“They were when I first came upon Wickham in Meryton. I did my best to avoid his presence, and he did his best to avoid mine.”
“And this first meeting was civil?” Richard knew that such a thing was unlikely — even for Darcy. One did not face the man who nearly stole your sister without some amount of animosity being shown in his features.
Darcy’s expression was pained. “No, I could not speak to him or even remain in his presence, so I nodded and rode on.”
Richard steepled his fingers, tapping his first fingers together as he thought. Such a greeting would play nicely into any tale Wickham decided to weave about the arrogant Mr. Darcy. “So, he painted you as rude and who knows what else — none of it favourable.”
Darcy could well imagine the stories that Wickham might have told Elizabeth. None of them would be completely true, of course, for the truth would make Wickham look very bad indeed. However, there would be enough truth sprinkled here and there to make every tale believable. It was how Wickham had always manipulated facts to obtain what he wanted.
Darcy blew out a frustrated breath as he recalled the last conversation he had had with Elizabeth. Thinking about it now, it seemed evident that Elizabeth must have fallen for at least some of Wickham’s tactics.
“At Bingley’s ball, Miss Elizabeth mentioned not being able to decipher my character due to differing accounts about it.” He sighed. “She also mentioned how Wickham had been unfortunate enough to lose my friendship and in a manner which was likely to cause him suffering for the rest of his life.”
Richard’s groaned. Was there any female in all of Britain who was impervious to that scoundrel’s silver tongue? “So to sum up, you have injured her sister, presented yourself as high and mighty, and been painted a blackguard by fraudulent accounts. Is that all, or is there more?”
Darcy sighed. There was at least one more reason Elizabeth might dislike him. “I was not in an agreeable mood when I attended a public assembly upon first arriving in Hertfordshire. Bingley was delighted to be at such a soiree and was insistent that I dance.”
“And you refused.”
Darcy nodded. “Bingley suggested I dance with his partner’s sister, and I let my dour attitude get the best of me and not only refused but declared Miss Elizabeth to be tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Richard let out a slow whistle. “So, injured sister, high and mighty attitude, Wickham, and a personal slight. Darcy, could you make things any more difficult?”
Darcy shrugged. “I could march over to the parsonage and propose while telling her about my apprehensions about her family.”
“Please, do not do that!” cried Richard.
“I would not,” retorted Darcy.
“Yes, you would — in an attempt to make her understand just how much you are willing to suffer for her sake, you would.” Richard shook his head. His cousin, for all his intelligence and good sense, was appallingly dreadful at communicating with ladies. “Winning her will be difficult as it stands now. However, if you were to do that, it would be nigh unto impossible. Whatever you do, your disapproval of her family and connections must not be mentioned. Full stop.”
“But they will come up in my discussion of Miss Bennet and Bingley. How can they not?”
Richard’s head bobbed from side to side as he thought. It was a sticky situation. Darcy would need to be honest about the reason for his separation of Bingley from Miss Bennet ─ he had already mentioned that Darcy thought the match imprudent so it must be explained. “Those facts will arise in that discussion,” Richard said at last. “There is no avoiding it, but you must minimize them as a secondary concern — which they were.” He gave Darcy a stern look. “Your main concern was a match of unequal affections, was it not?”
“Had the feelings of your friend and Miss Elizabeth’s sister been deep and mutual, the concerns regarding connections and whatnot would be easily overcome,” Richard continued to explain the approach that should be taken. “Do you see what I mean? You have easily overcome such concerns due to deep feelings, so why cannot Bingley?”
Richard held up a hand to ward off the glare that Darcy directed his way. “Very well. They were not easily overcome — but they were overcome, and that is the salient point.”
He smiled and moved to the table to resume their game, patting Darcy’s shoulder as he passed him. “Do not fret. I have faced worse odds, and yet I stand before you in one piece.”
Darcy rose from his chair. “True, but you were fighting men not women, and the object was to dispatch the enemy not win them over. I dare say one clever woman whose ire has been raised may well be a more formidable opponent than all of Napoleon’s army.” He accepted his cue from Richard. “And you must remember that our weapon is words — artillery in which our opponent is well-versed.”
Richard chuckled. “Not all of my associates or enemies in France were men, Darcy. Sometimes it is easier to smuggle out information in an attractive, seemingly helpless package. But, you are correct in that this battle will be difficult considering Miss Bennet’s skill with words and your tendency to get tongue-tied in her presence. Now, if you would kindly allow me to ruminate while I beat you in a game of billiards.”
Darcy made a sweeping gesture to the table and gave a slight bow. “Do your best, Cousin.”
Richard stalked around the table taking in all the possible manoeuvres before settling on a rather difficult shot. Darcy, on the other hand, took a quick glance at the table and an equally difficult shot. This continued for some minutes before Richard paused and eyed the table.
“If only you could deal with women the way you deal with billiard balls,” he said, “you would not need my help right now.”
He lined up his shot, his cue striking the ball with precision. “However, I believe I know how to approach Miss Bennet. She returns to Hertfordshire Monday next, does she not?”
“Yes, I believe that is the plan,” said Darcy as he circled the table.
“You mentioned that she had been taken in by Wickham’s lies. So, are you going to allow her to return home without a full disclosure of Wickham’s character? Do you not think that she or her sisters could be in danger if they do not know the truth about the rogue?”
Darcy’s cue skipped across the table top. He had not considered what danger might be posed to the ladies of Meryton with one such as Wickham in their midst. “They are not wealthy,” he argued weakly. Even he knew that Wickham was not above seeking pleasure simply for pleasure’s sake. He might even attempt an elopement only to leave the lady ruined at some inn along the road. His promises were never to be trusted, but a young lady would likely not know that until it was too late.
Richard raised a brow and gave Darcy a look of disbelief.
“Very well, he poses some danger,” Darcy admitted. The thought that in his wish to keep his own dealings with Wickham private he had placed others at risk was unsettling.
“My thinking,” Richard began, “is that we approach Miss Bennet together to inform her about the lies Wickham may be spreading. That way, she will not only have your account but mine as well.”
“Must we tell her of Georgie?”
Richard nodded slowly. “I believe we must. I assume it was Georgie’s situation that had you in such a dour mood when you arrived in Hertfordshire.”
Richard lined up the same shot that Darcy had been trying to take a moment ago and successfully completed it. “Soundly beaten,” he declared with a smirk. “Thank you for your help, Darcy.”
“Glad I could be of service,” Darcy replied dryly, laying his cue on the table. Then turning more serious, he said, “Thank you.”
Richard inclined his head in acceptance. “I assume we will delay our departure yet again?”
“When must you return to your unit?”
“In a fortnight, but I would like to spend at least part of my leave in town.”
“So, another day or two would be acceptable?”
“Monday will be soon enough. What will be our reason for the delay?”
Darcy smiled. “I wish to stay for one more day of services.”
Richard laughed. “So both our aunt and her parson will be pleased with you.”
“Something like that,” Darcy said with a shrug. “If they are both pleased, it will be enough of a screen to hide our true intent.”
“You know,” said Richard as they moved toward the door, “with thinking like that we may just have a good chance to win this battle.” He paused before opening the door. “Do you think you can keep your wits about you?”
Darcy gave a small shrug. “I shall do my best.” And he would, for he knew that his life, or at least the happiness of it, depended on it.