“May I tell her you read and insist upon showing you her library?” Richard suggested.
“That you may do,” Elizabeth replied.
“Miss Elizabeth is a great reader. It was rare to see her without a book in her hand when she was at Netherfield.”
“I would not say I am a great reader,” Elizabeth protested softly, her cheeks growing rosy. This complimentary Mr. Darcy was rather unsettling.
“What do you read?” Richard asked. He was enjoying watching the effect Darcy was having on Miss Bennet. The lady was not unaffected by his cousin, this was good.
“Whatever I can find,” Elizabeth said with a laugh. “My father’s library has books on medicine and science as well as history, philosophy, and agriculture. As you can imagine, some have been more enjoyable than others. I also read poetry, and,” she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “do not let my cousin know, since he has already lectured me at great lengths on this, I quite enjoy novels.”
“Your cousin has lectured you about reading novels?” Darcy asked incredulously.
“Most assuredly he has. They are highly inappropriate for young ladies. It would be far better to read a book of sermons.” Elizabeth chuckled. “I have no need to read sermons since my sister Mary reads only sermons and insists on sharing what she has read with us on a regular basis.”
“Pray tell, Miss Bennet,” Richard’s tone was light and teasing, “which novels have you read that cause such censure?”
“Oh, I dare not say lest my reputation be ruined,” Elizabeth returned with a smile. “I will tell you, however, that it did make Mr. Collins much relieved that I had turned down his offer as he could not have had a wife who read such books.”
“No!” exclaimed Darcy and Richard in unison, drawing the attention of their aunt.
“Yes,” whispered Elizabeth with a twinkle in her eye, “three days before he made an offer and was accepted by Charlotte.”
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, of what are you speaking? I must know of what you are speaking,” demanded Lady Catherine.
“Books, my lady. I was telling Miss Bennet about the excellent library you have here at Rosings. May I have your leave to show it to Miss Bennet?” He rose in anticipation of his aunt’s approval. She was always willing to show guest all the best parts of her estate, and even some of the less impressive parts if it would duly impress upon the observer how much they lacked compared to her.
“Most certainly, you must!” Lady Catherine answered. “I should think that anyone would be fascinated to see its scope … ”
“Thank you, my lady,” Richard interrupted. His aunt continued on with her comments about the importance of a well-stocked library but turned them toward Mr. Collins, who was always eager to hear her opinions and agree with them. “Miss Bennet, may I escort you to the library? Darcy, you will join us, will you not?”
Elizabeth took Richard’s proffered arm, and Darcy rose to follow. However, upon reaching the hall, Darcy stopped. “I will join you in a minute. I have a book in my room that I think Miss Elizabeth will enjoy. I will fetch it and return directly.”
He took the stairs two at a time and nearly ran down the hall to his room as he did not wish to spend any time away from Elizabeth than was necessary. He grabbed a book of verses that he had purchased shortly after his return to London from Netherfield. He was certain she would like it, for it was by an author Elizabeth had mentioned as one of her favourites. He pulled a letter from his coat pocket and tucked it between the pages before returning to the library.
When he reached the library, Elizabeth was walking around the room, trailing her finger along the rows and rows of books. Every now and then, she stopped, pulled a book from the shelf, paged through it or paused to read a few lines before returning it to its place among the other books.
Darcy stood at the door and watched. As much as he wished to give the book in his hand to Elizabeth, he could not bring himself to interrupt her perusal. It was ─
“Mesmerizing, is it not?”
Richard’s whisper agreed exactly with Darcy’s thoughts. It was mesmerizing — the way she moved slowly along her path around the room, the sway of her skirts, the tip of her head as she read, the soft touch of her finger on the binding of each book.
“Imagine when she sees you library in town or at Pemberley.”
Darcy’s breath hitched, and he swallowed. He had often pictured her curled up in a chair with a book in one of his libraries as he had seen her at Netherfield. Her head had been resting on the back of the chair, her feet had been tucked under her skirts and a finger wound and unwound a wayward strand of hair that hung just behind her ear. She had not seen him, but he had seen her and the vision had not left him.
Richard cleared his throat softly drawing Darcy’s attention away from his contemplation of Elizabeth. “Before you are completely unable to speak,” Richard said playfully, “did you get the letter?”
Darcy nodded and opened the book he held just enough for Richard to see the missive tucked inside.
“Do you wish me to give it to her?” Richard asked.
Darcy shook his head and crossed the room to where Elizabeth was paging through a book. She smiled and closed the book she held as he approached her.
“I see you have retrieved your book,” she said as she placed the one she held back on the shelf.
He held the book out to her. “A book of verses by Wordsworth. I believe you mentioned his works being some that you enjoyed.”
She blinked in surprise and took the book from him. He had remembered her preference? She turned it over in her hands before opening to the bookplate. Fitzwilliam Darcy. This was his book. She had thought that he was merely retrieving a book to return to the library, but instead he had brought his own copy. She ran her finger lightly over the name.
Richard smiled as he watched her gently stroking the bookplate. He now understood why she had been so adamant in her dislike of Darcy. He suspected her dislike was covering her true feelings — feelings that ran in quite the opposite direction, but not with any less intensity. He shook his head as he looked at the pair in front of him. Were there two people more afraid of admitting their love for each other? He saw her flip through the book and the book falling open to the place where the letter with her name on it lay hidden.
“Oh,” she started, and then looked at Darcy with confusion.
“I can explain,” said Richard. He wanted her to know that, although the book was Darcy’s and the letter was in Darcy’s hand, he knew of its existence and its contents. It would not do to have her thinking of his cousin as being improper. “There are some things of which my cousin and I thought you needed to be aware before your return to Hertfordshire. Darcy mentioned to me that Mr. Wickham was stationed in Meryton, and neither of us would like you to return home without knowing his true character for he is a practiced deceiver and fools most if not all the people he meets. However, since the things that need to be said are not pleasant, we decided that, in order to give you privacy in deference to how you may feel on learning the information, it should be contained within a letter.”
Some of the information contained within the letter is of a delicate nature, so we are asking that you guard the it and let no one else read it. We know that we can count on your discretion in this, or we would not have written it,” Darcy added.
“Of course, you may count on my discretion,” replied Elizabeth. Curiosity was demanding that she read the letter right then and there, but reason insisted she wait.
“You may borrow the book, Miss Elizabeth,” continued Darcy. “You may return it before we leave or when you get to London; however, we realize that you may have some questions or concerns regarding the contents of the letter, and so we have decided that we will not be leaving tomorrow as previously planned.”
Elizabeth turned the letter over where it lay between the pages of the book. “This letter is that important?”
“Yes, I am afraid it is,” said Richard solemnly. “Would you be available to walk in the grove with us tomorrow morning? I promise we will not walk so far as to cause a relapse of today’s indisposition.”
“Yes, I will meet you in the grove tomorrow morning, but I must admit all this has put me somewhat on edge.”
“I apologize for making you uneasy.” Darcy could not help taking a step closer to her. He did manage, however, to keep from touching her hand that was once again turning the letter over. “I would not have done anything to disquiet you unnecessarily.”
She glanced up at him. His brows were drawn together in concern.
“I could not.”
Elizabeth was certain her heart had skipped a beat at the whispered admission.
“We should return to the others before my aunt or your cousin come searching for us,” suggested Richard.
Elizabeth slowly shifted her gaze to Richard and nodded before returning her eyes to Mr. Darcy. Who was this man? It was not the Mr. Darcy she had met in Hertfordshire. Here he seemed relaxed, agreeable and caring. She closed the letter safely inside Mr. Darcy’s book. Perhaps it would help her discover who Mr. Darcy really was.