A special note: At All Costs, the last Thursday’s Three Hundred story, is now available for purchase in both ebook and paperback format.
Elizabeth tossed her bonnet on the dressing table and flopped onto her bed. She closed her eyes and drew a slow deep breath. It did little, however, to quell her anger. Of all the horrible, rotten, high-handed, arrogant things! That man had no respect or care for anyone but himself!
She flicked off her shoes, wiggled her way up to her pillow, and draped an arm across her eyes to keep out the afternoon sunlight that shone through the window. A dull pain drummed a steady rhythm behind her temples. She knew tears would relieve some of the pain, but tears would also create red eyes and a swollen nose, and neither would aid her in her hope to retire peacefully to her room this evening instead of making the journey to Rosings and having to endure both his presence and that of his aunts. Then, once locked safely away from prying eyes, she would allow herself to indulge in tears for her sister.
She took another deep breath, followed by a third, a fourth, and so on until the slow rhythm lulled her from her contemplation of Jane’s sorrow into a somewhat restful slumber.
“Elizabeth,” Charlotte called softly as she slowly opened the door to Elizabeth’s room.
Elizabeth lifted her head and propped herself on her elbows.
“Oh, Lizzy, you are not ill, are you?” Charlotte latched the door quietly and scooted across the room towards her friend. Elizabeth rarely rested during the day.
“It is only a headache.” Elizabeth drew herself to a sitting position. She had not intended to fall asleep. She rubbed her temple. It was not hurting as it had been. Drat! She had no desire to be in the same room as Mr. Darcy. Perhaps if she were to dwell on him for a moment, her headache would increase, and her guilt for claiming to have one would lessen. “It is nothing serious. I am certain I will be well by morning.”
Charlotte tipped her head and studied Elizabeth’s face. Her friend rarely had any malady, including headaches.
“It was warm today, and I must have walked too far in such warmth. A little rest and I will be well,” Elizabeth assured Charlotte. “I fear, I will be very ill company this evening. It would be best to leave me here and go on without me.”
Charlotte’s brows rose at her friend’s explanation. The day had been warm, but not overly so, and Elizabeth had not been gone so long as to have out-walked her capabilities. “You appeared well in the sitting room while the colonel visited? Are you certain it was the walk that fatigued you?”
“I do not know what else it could be,” Elizabeth hedged. Her stomach twisted at the need to prevaricate, but she really could not abide being in that man’s presence. Remaining at the parsonage was imperative and, therefore, so was her lie.
“It was pleasant to have Colonel Fitzwilliam call today. I dare say I shall miss his company when he leaves.”
“He is pleasant,” Elizabeth agreed as she groaned inwardly. Charlotte was smoothing the blanket on the bed and only peeking up at her. Both were actions that spoke of her friend’s desire to discover the truth behind the pain in Elizabeth’s head.
“Did you walk together long before you arrived home?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at what she knew was the beginning of Charlotte’s interrogation. “Not for too very long.”
“But it was long enough to have a pleasant conversation?”
Elizabeth sighed at the determined look in Charlotte’s eyes as they finally rose from examining the coverlet to Elizabeth’s face. “I do not wish to speak of it.”
“Lizzy, my dear, you know that Mr. Collins will be expecting you to attend Lady Catherine. I am more than willing to plead your illness with my husband, but I will not do so unless you tell me about your walk.” Charlotte spoke sweetly, but her look was unwavering.
Elizabeth sighed. She knew that there was nothing to be done. If she hoped to avoid going to Rosings this evening, an explanation must be given. “Very well. I will tell you about my walk. It was pleasant and solitary until I came upon Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was, as he said when he arrived, taking his annual tour of the estate before he and Mr. Darcy leave tomorrow. We walked and talked for some time. I cannot say exactly how long it was until we arrived here. My headache was starting even as we sat in the sitting room, but it was not so bad as to alter my disposition. However, it has continued to grow, and I am certain I will be very poor company for Lady Catherine.”
“And that is it? You walked; you talked; and then you developed a headache?”
“That is very strange,” muttered Charlotte. “You have never walked so far as to cause yourself to feel ill.”
“Perhaps it is the air in Kent.” Elizabeth grimaced. It was a sorry excuse of a reason.
Charlotte chuckled softly. “Yes, fresh country air is so taxing, is it not?” She placed a hand on top of one of Elizabeth’s. “What did the Colonel say that upset you? Remember how well I know you, Elizabeth Bennet. You do not get headaches unless you are overwrought.”
“Must I tell you?”
Charlotte smiled sadly and nodded. “I fear you must. About what did you and the colonel speak that has caused your distress.”
Elizabeth gave an exasperated sigh. “Mr. Darcy and Jane.”
Charlotte’s brows furrowed. “I did not know Colonel Fitzwilliam knew Jane.”
“He does not, but Mr. Darcy does.”
This statement did nothing to lessen the confusion on Charlotte’s face.
“You know how despondent Jane has been since Mr. Bingley left Netherfield,” Elizabeth explained.
Charlotte’s brows rose in understanding. “Did Mr. Darcy have something to do with Mr. Bingley leaving?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Colonel Fitzwilliam was telling me how Mr. Darcy is loyal to his friends and always watching out for them. He illustrated his point with a story of how Mr. Darcy saved his friend Mr. Bingley from an imprudent match. It seems that there were issues with the lady’s family.” Elizabeth blinked against the tears that wanted to fall. “He worked to separate Jane and Mr. Bingley. It is Mr. Darcy who is responsible for Jane’s grief these last months. And that is what is giving me this headache.”
Charlotte rubbed the top of Elizabeth’s hand. “Oh, that is serious news, indeed, but I do not think I can hold Mr. Darcy entirely responsible.”
“Why ever not?” Elizabeth snatched her hand away from her friend and crossed her arms. “He separated them!”
“Did Mr. Darcy force Mr. Bingley to leave his estate? Has he kept him bound and unable to return?” Charlotte asked.
“Then, do be reasonable, Elizabeth.”
“He hurt her.” A tear slid down Elizabeth’s cheek.
“Yes, he did, but do you honestly believe that to be his intention?” Charlotte placed a hand on Elizabeth’s knee. “Mr. Darcy could not have separated them if Mr. Bingley placed greater confidence in his own judgments rather than the judgments of a friend. And what of Mr. Bingley’s sisters? Could they not have been party to this separation as well?”
Elizabeth pondered Charlotte’s questions for a moment. There was truth in what Charlotte was saying. Mr. Bingley should not have bowed to the wishes of his friend, and Miss Bingley had proven herself a false friend once Jane had arrived in town. It was quite likely that she and Mrs. Hurst had played some role in the separation. “I will allow that you might be right.”