Richard leaned toward his cousin as the Collins’s and their guests entered the drawing room at Rosings. “Wait to see how she acts. Then we will know how to proceed.”
Darcy raised a brow and rolled his eyes. He had heard Richard say the exact same thing three times earlier this evening. He was not likely to forget the instructions so quickly.
Richard scowled lightly. “I have seen how you lose the ability to form words in her presence.”
“I will do better this evening,” Darcy reassured him.
“Try to look pleasant, and treat her how you would treat Georgiana or me,” Richard advised. He raised an impertinent brow. A bit of a tease might keep his cousin’s mind from becoming a pile of unusable mush — a very likely possibility based on how Darcy was fidgeting at Miss Bennet’s approach.
Richard leaned a bit closer to Darcy’s ear and lowered his voice. “She is not Caroline Bingley. You do not need to protect yourself from her, unless you no longer wish to take her as a wife, in which case, I am certain Miss Bingley would step in and fill the role whether you asked her to or not. Ooof!” A smirking Richard let out a loud burst of air as his cousin’s elbow made solid contact with his gut.
“Are you well, Colonel?” Elizabeth had just reached where they were standing.
“I am well, thank you, Miss Bennet. Darcy was just showing his pleasure with my teasing — something we have done since we were children.”
Elizabeth tilted her head as a small smile crept across her lips. She glanced at Mr. Darcy, who was looking a trifle flushed, before directing her comment to the colonel. “I am all astonishment, sir. I have it on very good authority that Mr. Darcy is not to be teased.”
Richard’s eyes grew wide, and he could not help his small laugh of disbelief. “I fear your source, whomever that may be, was not correct.”
Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled, and her smile grew. “Oh, I am certain there is no better source. Miss Bingley is very knowledgeable about Mr. Darcy.”
At this, Richard let out a loud guffaw.
Elizabeth paused, lips parted as if to speak. Had she seen what she thought she had seen? Had the dour and serious Mr. Darcy just rolled his eyes? So startling was the thought that whatever Elizabeth was going to add to the conversation flew completely out of her head.
Richard, seeing that Elizabeth was looking at Darcy with a rather confused expression, decided it was best to begin broaching the subject of his cousin as quickly as possible. The lady had not avoided either Darcy or himself. This must be a good sign.
“I am glad to see your headache did not keep you from our company this evening,” he began.
Elizabeth could feel a blush creeping onto her cheeks. “It was merely overexertion. A short rest and a good talk with a dear friend were all that was needed to set me to right. I shall have to be more mindful of my time and distance on my next walk.”
Noting the way Elizabeth’s cheeks coloured and how she lowered her eyes as she spoke, Richard felt certain that he was correct in his appraisal of her headache. No matter how much she might protest the fact, that headache was not brought on by walking too far. It had been a result of their conversation.
“Miss Bennet,” Lady Catherine called from where she was seated with Anne on one side and Mr. Collins on the other about half the distance down the length of the room. “You must play for us.”
Elizabeth sighed quietly. “Yes, your ladyship.” She gave a small curtsey and moved toward the instrument as Lady Catherine made note of the fact that Miss Bennet had yet to come to Rosings to practice, and there was no way she would improve her skills without practicing. She could hear Mr. Collins lending his agreement as she accepted the arm of Colonel Fitzwilliam as escort to the instrument.
“Miss Bennet, will this not tax you too much having just recovered from this afternoon’s exertions?” Richard asked.
“Sir, it will be less taxing for me to play the pianoforte than to contain my comments when faced with your aunt’s censorious conversation and my odious cousin’s profuse praise.” Elizabeth clamped her lips closed and looked at the colonel with wide eyes. “Forgive me, Colonel. I spoke without thought.” Her face reddened in mortification.
“I am not offended,” Richard assured her has she took her seat at the piano.
“I am glad, but it was not right to say.” Elizabeth said as she began to shuffle through the stack of music looking for something easy to play. “I warned Charlotte I would not be fit to be in company tonight. I know that under good circumstances, I speak my mind to freely, but when fatigued, I am afraid my words flow more easily, and much to my discredit, with very little forethought.” She placed a piece of music on the instrument and rested her fingers on the keys. “So, as you can you see, playing will be a good thing for all.” She managed a small smile as she began playing.
“Miss Elizabeth,” said Darcy as he leaned against the piano, “you are not the only one who, when not under good regulation, has been known to speak without thinking. Your comments, however, carry a certain amount of truth, where those of another may have been spoken in haste with little knowledge of the subject, thus rendering his words most untrue.” He hoped that Elizabeth would hear the apology for the slight he had spoken his first night in Hertfordshire.
Elizabeth’s fingers slurred over a couple of notes. Was he referring to his words at the assembly? She found her place again in the music and once her fingers were doing as they ought, she looked up to find Mr. Darcy looking very contrite and nervous. It was an apology. She smiled to ease his discomfort. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy,” she murmured.
Richard, who was seated next to Elizabeth to assist in turning of pages, noted how the lady’s features softened. Well done, Darcy, he thought as he caught Darcy’s eye and tipped his head toward a nearby chair. “Besides playing the pianoforte and walking, what other pastimes do you enjoy, Miss Bennet?”
“Ah, I know this,” said Darcy as he drew the chair Richard had indicated closer and took a seat. “She sings, reads, stitches all manner of things, and enjoys a good verbal joust.”
Elizabeth tipped her head and studied Mr. Darcy’s expression. He was pleased with himself but not in an arrogant way. In fact, he seemed to be looking for her approval of his comments. She arched a brow and said in a very regal fashion. “And there is something in her air.”
Darcy chuckled while Richard looked at them in confusion.
“Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth whispered with a smirk.
Richard still looked confused, so Darcy explained. “When Miss Elizabeth was staying at Netherfield to care for her ill sister, Miss Bingley gave her list of talents that an accomplished woman should have.”
“Ah, and there must be something in a lady’s air?” Richard was pleased to see the smiles that passed between Darcy and Elizabeth. Perhaps his task would not be nearly as herculean as he had first thought.
“Precisely,” said Darcy. “She then stated that she knew only a few ladies who deserved to be called accomplished.”
“Oh, it was not just she who claimed it,” protested Elizabeth.
Darcy inclined his head in acceptance. “You are correct. I also said as much.” His breath caught for a moment at the smile with which she favoured him. Her eyes were dancing as they often did when she was enjoying herself. It was an expression he found most charming.
Elizabeth turned her eyes from Darcy. She was finding it hard to keep them on anything else this evening. He was a handsome man, especially when he was smiling as he was.
“To be fair, Colonel, Mr. Darcy owned it first, and Miss Bingley agreed with him.” Her eyes, which had taken a moment to look at the colonel while she made her comment, took a brief look at her music before returning to Mr. Darcy.
Richard chuckled. “Indeed? Miss Bingley agreed with Darcy?”
“Shocking, is it not?” Elizabeth said with a laugh.
“Exceedingly,” said Darcy drily.
Elizabeth’s brows furrowed. Was Mr. Darcy not going to be offended by her comments regarding Miss Bingley?
“You sing?” A mischievous grin played at the corners of Richard’s mouth.
“Like an angel,” Darcy answered.
Again, Elizabeth’s fingers stumbled over the notes. “Sir, I thought you despised dishonesty.”
Darcy held her gaze. “I do. I do not lie. You sing beautifully and with great expression.”
Elizabeth’s fingers stilled on the keys. Mr. Darcy was being pleasant and very possibly flirting with her.
“If you were to sing for us, I could verify the truth of my cousin’s statement,” Richard offered.
Elizabeth shook her head. “No, please, not tonight.”
“You are safe,” Darcy’s voice was firm. “No one will inform my aunt of your ability to sing.”
“Thank you.” Elizabeth’s mouth formed the words, but no sound came out. Mr. Darcy was so very surprising this evening. If she was not careful, she might find herself very much charmed by him.