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The Benevolence of Scandal

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It was a cruel punishment, Lizzy thought, that Mr. Collins should be such an odious toad and happen to arrive before Georgiana and Mr. Darcy the following morning. Mr. Collins had scarcely been in the drawing room a quarter of an hour when Hill announced Mr. and Miss Darcy. Surely, she had done something wicked to have the most embarrassing relative that she had never met exposed to the Darcys. It was some relief, she supposed, that Lydia and Kitty were still abed and that Mary was visiting the vicar's wife so that she might be spared some humiliation in front of those she admired.

She smiled at them as they entered and inquired, "Is Colonel Fitzwilliam not joining you?"

Mr. Darcy replied that the Colonel had left that morning, and Lizzy could not be sure whether she imagined that his expression to be sterner than normal. She performed the standard introductions, and the Darcys had only just seated themselves before Mr. Collins simpered. "Mr. and Miss Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire?"

At Mr. Darcy's curt nod, he continued, "Oh, it is such an honor to meet you both. I do not know if my fair cousins have told you, but I am the rector of Rosings and am acquainted with your aunt Lady Catherine. She is the noblest of patronesses—the condescension she has shown me! Did you know when I told her that I was to inherit a small estate in Hertfordshire, she so generously gave me leave to attend to matters here. I am ever so grateful to her, and now to be meeting with the Darcys of Pemberley in my cousin' lowly home, I can see that such condescension is customary in a family with superior breeding such as yours. I—"

"Mr. Collins," her father interrupted, "perhaps our guests would like some refreshment before you explain their lineage to them?"

"Oh, yes," cried her mother. "Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy, would you care for some refreshment?"

Mr. Darcy answered, "Thank you, Mrs. Bennet. I do believe, though, that Miss Darcy was planning to take a walk with Miss Elizabeth this morning, if you would not mind excusing them. Is that not so, Sister?"

He turned to Georgiana, and she smiled at him, "Yes, Brother. Thank you, Mrs. Bennet, but I shall refrain for the moment as I am anxious to be out in the fresh air."

"Yes, why do you not go now?" Mr. Darcy said with and encouraging look at Georgiana. "Meanwhile, I was hoping, Mr. Bennet, you might show me that 17th century edition of Averroes that you mentioned during my last visit?"

Lizzy thought briefly about how strange it was that her father and Mr. Darcy had spoken previously of book collecting and philosophy before Mr. Collins unceremoniously forestalled her father's reply. "My cousin Bennet, do you truly think that it is proper to show your guest literature written by a pagan?"

Her father made eye contact with her and raised an eyebrow. "Would it make it more proper if we read Thomas Aquinas' critique of Averroes?"

Lizzy had to bite her cheeks to prevent herself from laughing. She briefly made eye contact with Mr. Darcy who smiled and looked at the floor.

Mr. Collins looked quite dumbfounded as to how to reply to such a question. He floundered for a moment before saying plainly. "I do not think it proper to read unchristian literature, Sir."

"Would it be better that they foreswear any literature aside from the bible and Fordyce's sermons?" Lizzy retorted before she could stop herself.

Mr. Collins seemed unreasonably pleased with this comment and cried, "What an excellent suggestion, Cousin!"

Mr. Darcy coughed in a way that led Lizzy to believe he was attempting to stifle a laugh. It was difficult to determine, however, when he kept his gaze resolutely on the floor. There was an uncomfortable silence, and her father decided to take pity on the party. "Lizzy, go take your walk with Miss Darcy now. I shall entertain Mr. Darcy in the library."

She nodded and took Georgiana's arm to escort her out of the room. The last thing they heard before the door closed was the sound of Mr. Collin's voice. "I think I should join you both in the library. I hope I do not presume too much, but as I clergyman, I believe I can offer guidance on theological matters."

The moment the door closed she looked at Georgiana who was biting her lip, and they both began laughing.

Darcy found Mr. Bennet's library, though rather small and disorganized, full of an enviable collection. He looked through the rows and pulled out an old book. "Les mille et un nuits. Is this an original edition of the French translation?"

"Yes, I have all the volumes except the sixth regrettably," replied Mr. Bennet. "It is one of my daughter Elizabeth's favorites."

Darcy imagined her ensconced in the Pemberley library, making pert comments about the book she was reading. "She reads French, then?" he said nonchalantly, not looking at Mr. Bennet.

He chuckled and spoke quietly to evade Mr. Collins' hearing. "Oh, yes. In her words, 'how would a lady ever read anything shocking if she limited herself to what was available in English.'"

Darcy refrained from smiling and schooled his features before looking toward Mr. Bennet, who was eyeing him curiously.

"What was that, Cousin Bennet?" Mr. Collins cried from across the room, where he was eyeing some book with disgust.

"I was merely remarking to Mr. Darcy how pleasant it is to have such an erudite theologian with us."

Mr. Bennet then glanced toward Darcy, and he felt satisfied at being included in Mr. Bennet's joke. The last time he had been in Longbourn's library, he felt as if everything he said was somehow humorous to Mr. Bennet. Only toward the end of his call, Mr. Bennet asked him to play a game of chess, which—it seemed to Darcy was confirmation that he had passed a test of some sort.

He was certain, however, that Mr. Collins was failing for his face had turned red. "Well, I shall try my best to guide your family in morality while I am here."

"Thank you, Mr. Collins. It will be an honor," replied Mr. Bennet.

"On the subject of honor, I must inform you that my purpose in coming here is to honor one of your daughters with an offer of marriage. It is the express wish of my patroness Lady Catherine that I set the model for matrimony for my parish and heal the breech between our two families by choosing one of your daughters to be my wife."

Darcy was aghast. How could a man be so lacking in tact that he would discuss such a matter in front of a guest?

"Mr. Collins, why do we not wait to speak of such a matter until Mr. Darcy has left?" Mr. Bennet said with barely contained annoyance.

"But, Cousin, I would like for Mr. Darcy to know that I am readily doing his aunt's bidding," he said, nodding at Mr. Darcy. "Now, tell me, is Miss Elizabeth an obedient sort of lady? Or perhaps Miss Bennet? I am looking for a lady who would do suitable credit to the position of a clergyman's wife."

Collins may as well have punched Darcy in the abdomen. He felt a sense of rage he had not felt since he had last encountered Wickham. The idea of Elizabeth being the obedient wife to this insipid, pompous toad of a clergyman was absurd.

Mr. Bennet turned the small volume in his hands over several times before he spoke in a calm, detached manner. "Mr. Collins, I shall tell you this once, and I shall tell you it now. I will not gift you one of my daughters like a prized horse. You will not choose one of them to suit the whims of your patroness. I will only consent to a marriage if you rightfully earn the respect of one of my daughters, and she consents to your proposal. Is that clear?"

Though Mr. Bennet's manner had remained aloof, the quiet venom that belied his tone was shocking. Mr. Collins seemed to finally realize his decorum and said, "Yes, Sir. I do believe I will take my book and leave you to your conversation."

Mr. Collins seated himself at the far corner of the room with his book but continually would look toward Mr. Bennet in a nervous manner.

Changing his tone, Mr. Bennet looked to Darcy and spoke almost sarcastically. "Would you like a rematch at chess, Mr. Darcy?"

After witnessing Mr. Bennet's fire, he decided that perhaps there was more to the man than he thought. It was strange to spend time with this man, thinking that if he decided to propose to Elizabeth, that he could be his father-in-law. When he had previously considered all that a marriage to her would entail, he only considered the younger sisters and Mrs. Bennet's fawning, but if visiting his wife's family consisted of playing chess and discussing rare books with Mr. Bennet, then perhaps it would not be such a trial.

"Yes, Sir. I am curious to see if you might prevail this time."

Darcy said this so artlessly that it surprised him when Mr. Bennet gave him a wry look from across the chess table and replied under his breath, "So, the grave Mr. Darcy can tease. I wonder from whence he picked up the skill."

Darcy's eyes briefly met his opponent's, but he said nothing as he made his first move.

Georgiana relished the crisp autumn air as she and Lizzy made their way out of the sight of the house, arm in arm.

"So, tell me, my dear friend, how are you in truth? Did you enjoy the party last night?" Lizzy inquired.

"I believe last night was the happiest night I have passed in a long while. Thank you for making it so."

Lizzy placed her gloved hand over Georgiana's and squeezed. "No need to thank me. I was delighted by your presence. And I never knew you danced so gracefully!"

Georgiana felt her face heat. "I do love to dance, and Fitzwilliam is an excellent partner. Thank you for suggesting it. We have not been exactly easy with each other since…" She trailed for a moment, not precisely sure how refer to the night they met.

"Canterbury?" Lizzy supplied.

Georgiana nodded and swallowed. "There is a change in him since he has been here. He is more open and less reticent with me. I doubt that he would have allowed me to dance with him in public even a month ago."

"I am glad to hear it. I see how much you both care for one another, and it is heartening." She nudged Georgiana's shoulder with her own, smiling playfully. "I wish I could be as fortunate as you to have an older brother to take care of me."

Georgiana once again wondered what precisely the nature of the acquaintance between Lizzy and her brother was. She had come back to the same thought repeatedly since her arrival in Hertfordshire. Richard had made strange remarks about her brother, and Fitzwilliam had laughed publicly in her presence and seemed to take her suggestions seriously. She tried to determine how much of Fitzwilliam's attitude toward Lizzy was due to the general change in demeanor she had witnessed and how much was due to some sort of closeness between them.

Then, Fitzwilliam had come to her that morning before they were to visit Longbourn, apologizing for the way he behaved when they were last in London. "I have spoken about this briefly with Miss Elizabeth, and she has made me realize that there are ways in which I may have been presumptuous in delegating responsibility and that perhaps that has prevented you from coming to me with what you need." He spoke in a humble manner which she had not seen from him before, and it moved her. "When you have aught you want to say to me, you may come to me, and I will try to listen and not command."

She thanked him and replied that she would try and come to him with her concerns. During their carriage ride to Longbourn, there had been a comfortable silence between them, but Georgiana wondered what Lizzy could have told her brother to make him say such a thing.

Now, as she walked through the park with Lizzy, her curiosity returned. "My brother told me this morning that he was endeavoring to listen to me more and apologized for any of his past presumptions. When I asked him what prompted this, he told me that he was motivated by a conversation he had with you."

Lizzy pulled away and faced her directly. "Oh, Georgiana, I apologize if you feel that this has breached your trust. I would never speak of something you shared with me in confidence, such as the content of your letters, but I did tell your brother what I noticed in his behavior and how I believed that was hindering you both. I hope I did not overstep."

"Do not worry. I trust you, and I assure you that I am not displeased. I suppose I am only curious because I did not know that you and my brother were friends."

Lizzy's cheeks became rosier, and she smiled a bit too brightly. "I am afraid I quite pestered your brother for information about you and my family in London when he arrived that he was forced to speak to me. Since then, we have developed a cordial acquaintance."

"I am glad of it, then," Georgiana said, feeling distinctly unsatisfied with Lizzy's answer. She believed and trusted Lizzy and her brother yet felt certain that there was something that they were not being entirely honest about. Given her unusually hopeful mood and the beautiful weather, however, she could not bring herself to dwell on it. "He shall not have any problem with me joining you on excursions."

"In that case, you should come to market day with me sisters and me, and feel free to invite Mr. Bingley as well. I know that we have not seen him in a while, and he is jolly company."

"That would be delightful! Your sister Mary told me last night that there is a good selection of music sheets in the village, and I am looking to purchase something new."

"You have no idea how long I have desired to hear you play! Your brother and cousin—and even Miss Bingley—have oft commented on your talent for music."

"Yes, I am sure Miss Bingley has spoken of it to you. Perhaps more than she has directed her praises directly at me."

Lizzy squeezed her arm. "Does it bother you when she praises you so?"

"No, no…" she replied, shaking her head. "Well, not often, but there was a comment she made last evening when we had returned from the party that warded off my slumber last night. She mentioned how eligible I would be when I came out based on how I had comported myself last night, and I cannot deny that I dread such comments. Not merely from her, but from anyone. For I no longer know if I shall be permitted to come out or even if I want to! What man shall want me now that I am ruined? I am certain that Fitzwilliam and Richard have thought of such things, but if they have made decisions, they have not shared them with me!"

Georgiana's own vehemence shocked her. Her voice has risen such that Lizzy jumped slightly and contrition overtook her. "I apologize, Lizzy. I did not mean to speak so."

"Do not apologize. I have been known to raise my voice many a time, and I daresay you have more right to be frustrated than I do," Lizzy said with an encouraging smile. "You have few answers to many questions, yet I think that it might alleviate your anxiety to speak to your brother directly about these fears, especially now that he has extended an invitation to do so."

"Yes, I know that is what I should do, and I should have done it before. However, I fear what I shall hear in response to my questions."

Lizzy took both of her hands and held them firmly. "I have seen your bravery, Georgiana. I do not doubt you."

Georgiana did not feel as if she merited such confidence, yet she did not want to disappoint her friend, who always seemed to laugh in the face of fear. "Thank you. I shall try."

"Good," she replied satisfactorily before pulling Georgiana to continue their walk. "For you have nothing to fear with your brother," she continued with a nearly imperceptible smile. "For I daresay he likely has as many fears as you do."

The day after Darcy had escorted Georgiana to Longbourn, he had been surprised to come upon her in the library, playing with the pieces of the chessboard.


"May I speak with you now?"

Though he had told himself that he was prepared for her to come to him, he found himself at a loss for what to do. "Yes, of course. Let us go to Bingley's study. He is conducting business in the village today."

He wished that Elizabeth was present to shield him from his own stupidity. He, however, was determined that he must face this task on his own and sat in a chair beside Georgiana, bracing himself for the ensuing conversation.

She almost seemed to tremble as she sat beside him, and he felt awash in shame, seeing how much she feared him. He tentatively put a hand over where hers rested. "Come now, Georgie. We can do this. We have been easier with each other of late, have we not?"

She gave him a watery smile in return and nodded. "Yes, we have."

"Then, might you speak openly with me? I know I am not as warm a confidant as Miss Elizabeth, but I shall endeavor to listen without speaking."

Georgiana gave him a fleeting smile before looking down at her lap and fidgeting with a loose thread on her gown. She did not speak for such a time that Darcy thought she might not speak at all. He had just made up his mind to speak when she released a big sigh and began to speak.

"I am not quite certain how to explain what I want you to know."

He inhaled and nodded. "Why do you not try, and if I do not understand, I shall ask for clarification."

She nodded and returned her gaze to the floor. "When the relations between us were…not as easy as they are presently, I believe we all felt burdened…by what happened. I suppose I forgot how to be diverted or enjoy the company of others—or solitude for that matter. Yet, I also did not know how to be sorrowful in front of you. You see, I often felt melancholy, but it felt—how can I explain it? It felt…improper to show sadness when I felt that I had brought it all upon myself."

Darcy had to quell his desire to contradict her.

"When I was with you or Richard, I often found myself dull or angry for I did not know behave. You both refused to speak of it with me, which wounded me. I did not feeling like I was a child—too stupid and foolish to be trusted or consulted."

She burst into frustrated tears, and Darcy did not know whether he should speak or not. He gave her a handkerchief and allowed her to dry her tears. After several moments, he spoke tentatively, "Why did you never tell ask us about it?"

"I felt like I had no right to ask what was to happen to me. I felt that it was my penance to do exactly what I was told and to do nothing I was not told to do. To my shame, I found that my attitude made me resentful toward you and Richard. I realized after speaking to Lizzy yesterday is that I could not have known what you were thinking without asking…but I cannot ignore the fact that you have given me no inclination as to what you expect to do about my future."

"Pardon me?" Darcy blurted, immediately cursing his lack of tact.

His outburst only seemed to make Georgiana more confident. "I have spoken with Mrs. Gardiner, and I know that I am," she lowered her voice and looked away from him, "no longer a maiden. I do not know whether I can ever be married to a gentleman or if I will be able to be presented or what you shall say if I am not. I do not know what would happen if Geo—if he ever decided to spread rumors about my virtue. I know you and Richard have considered these things. There is no way you have not, and do not deny it."

"I shall not deny anything." He said immediately. "I know that I have not handled the situation well. I have been altogether too withholding and have lacked the courage to initiate a conversation about these matters because I do not have answers. Perhaps, the cause was pride or fear, but it was my failing as a guardian that I did not consider how my reticence would impact you. For that, I am sorry."

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam. I accept your apology. I do not want you to chastise yourself too much. Lizzy once told me that she thinks that we Darcys have a tendency to sit in our discontentment with ourselves, and she counseled me to accept the situation and avoid chastising myself for events which have already caused such sorrow."

He had not expected to be moved by longing for Elizabeth Bennet during this contrite conversation with Georgiana, yet his admiration felt overwhelming in that moment. He cleared his throat. "That is very wise, and I shall attempt to abide by her counsel."

"Good," she said satisfactorily before lowering her voice. "I would still like to know what you intend to do, Fitzwilliam. I do not think I can bear to live in ignorance of it any longer."

He thought for a long moment because in spite of what Georgiana believed, he and Richard had discussed very little—only what they would do if Georgiana's reputation was publicly ruined. Deciding that reassurance was his best option in this moment, he took her hand gently. "Richard and I have made very few decisions regarding your future. The only thing that I know for certain is that you shall never be forced to marry against your will, and regardless of what may come, you shall always have a home with me, my dear sister. You are the most important person in my life, and I shall never forsake you."

At this, she began crying again, and it was a long moment before she spoke. "'Tis so strange for I knew this, but it relieves me greatly to hear it. I somehow still feared that I might be sent off in disgrace." She giggled at herself a little through her tears.

He held squeezed her hand and attempted to school his features in a reassuring look.

"But, Fitzwilliam," she said, after her tears had subsided, "I do not want to ruin your life and reputation by association."

He hesitated for a moment for her situation had made his life more difficult, and he did fear societal backlash. He, however, recalled Richard's words from three nights prior and spoke consolingly. "Do not fear for me, Georgie. I do not fear for myself beyond my concern for your well-being. I will not lament if I cannot marry a society lady who wants to socialize in town half the year," he teased. "You and I shall be fine."

"But what of society? What of my coming out?"

He crossed his legs and spoke in a manner more casual than to what he was prone. "Do you want to be presented?"

"I do not know," she said.

"In that case, we do not have to make a decision at present. We shall wait until you have made a decision, and if you do not wish to be presented, we will make an excuse. Perhaps we shall take you on a grand tour!" he said with mock excitement.

Georgiana suddenly began to laugh, and it confused him. "What might I ask is so diverting?"

"I have never heard you to be so enthusiastic, Brother, even if you were feigning it. I apologize but 'tis rather comical. I would not have recognized your face a moment ago. You are normally so…sensible."

While he felt rather offended by her laughter at his expense, he was thankful for anything that brought her laughter after such a conversation.

"Yes, well, your serious brother has many sides to him, as I hope I have demonstrated. I do hope that you can trust me with your fears in the future."

She had recovered from her fit of laughter and nodded. "Thank you, Brother," she said and stood kissed his cheek. "I believe I will go and rest for I am feeling rather exhausted."

"Yes, of course."

Once Georgiana had left the room, Darcy wandered to Bingley's liquor cabinet and poured himself a brandy. The quality of the drink was excellent, and he laid his head back on the chair as he let the brandy slide down his throat. He, too, was exhausted, but it was the type of exhaustion that stemmed from deep satisfaction with one's work or deeds. He was left with much to ponder and felt unjustly defensive. The path forward, however, would be determined by the strength of Georgiana's trust in him, and he knew now that such trust was possible. It gave him hope for his and Georgiana's future, and suddenly, the dreams he spoke of to Richard seemed within reach.

Georgiana spoke warmly of her conversation with her brother as they walked in close confederation among a large party from Netherfield and Longbourn toward the Meryton market.

"I was so anxious, but my nerves were wholly without merit. He took my criticism without complaint and reassured me in the strongest possible language that I would always be consulted about my future."

Lizzy looked toward where Mr. Darcy was walking alone behind Mr. Bingley, who was escorting Jane, and wondered at the man. He was so imposing and stoic in company that, if she had not witnessed it for herself, she would never have imagined the man to be such a devoted and affectionate brother. Perhaps, a quiet love, like that of the Darcy siblings, was preferable to showy admiration and praise put out for all the world to see.

He caught her looking at him and gave her a small smile. She immdiateley looked away.

Georgiana continued, "I had always considered him so much like our father—who would brook no opposition or criticism—yet I was in absolute error."

"What was your—"

"My dear cousin Elizabeth, would you mind enlightening me as to the history of this church here?"

Although it had appeared that Mr. Collins had his sights set on Jane during the first several days of his visit, he had transferred his attentions to Lizzy by the fourth day after his arrival in Hertfordshire undoubtedly at her mother's urging. While it had been initially diverting to make sport of the man, her enthusiasm for mocking her cousin's outrageously verbose compliments and lack of consciousness waned as his overtures began to interrupt her daily life.

"Mr. Collins," she said with barely restrained vexation, "I may not be able to tell you about the church, but my sister Mary is acquainted with the vicar's wife and would be able to explain more."

She felt slightly ashamed of directing Mr. Collins' undesirable attentions toward her sister, but it could not be helped. One more moment with the man, and Lizzy would have insulted him with such severity that even he would understand.

"But, Cousin Elizabeth, I sincerely hoped—"

"Please, Mr. Collins, I am trying to speak with Miss Darcy. I am sure she does not appreciate being interrupted."

"Oh, no! Yes, of course, Miss Darcy, continue your conversation. By all meaens. I shall direct my inquiry to Miss Mary." Mr. Collins performed a flustered bow and left them.

"Is he always…" Georgiana began tentatively.

"Such an odious fatwit?"

"Lizzy!" Georgiana cried with scandalized laughter.

"Pardon me for my crass words, dear Georgiana, but sometime only the harshest language will do when the object of one's vexation is too awful for polite speech."

"I suppose," Georgiana replied. "Is he truly that bad?"

"Oh yes, and he had now decided that he has some designs on me which would entertain me if it were not so overwhelming."

"Are you in earnest? You will not consider him, will you?"

"Oh, certainly not! It will inevitably cause some problems as he is to inherit my father's estate, but I refuse to marry a man I do not respect or admire. Mr. Collins is certainly not worthy of either."

"Of course," Georgiana agreed, and they lapsed in to silence for a several minutes until Georgiana expressed interest in perusing the music sheets with Mary instead of visiting the booksellers.

Lizzy noticed Mr. Bingley escorting Jane to the milliner's, appearing wholly enamored of each other. It pleased her that they could finally have moments of conversation alone without the pressures of the larger party, and Kitty and Lydia were harmlessly looking over the selection of sweets.

At the booksellers, she immediately went toward the French novels to see if there were any new volumes and discovered one that took place in the New World.

"I would not recommend that one."

Lizzy jumped at the sound of Mr. Darcy's voice from behind her.

"Mr. Darcy! I had not known you were here!"

"I cannot resist visiting the booksellers wherever I may be, and I cannot say I am surprised that you are here as well."

In the narrow space between shelves, he stood closer to her than propriety would dictate in any other space, and her cheeks heated as she realized how tall he was next to her.

"I must say, Mr. Darcy, I am just now realizing how tall you are, and I cannot say I like it."

Her statement must have shocked him for he took a step back and hit his back against a shelf containing a random assortment of atlases and scientific journals. He knocked a volume from a shelf, stumbling slightly, and picked it up with as much decorum as he could muster. The situation was comical enough without the contrast between Mr. Darcy's stately figure and his awkward actions. Lizzy burst into laughter. As soon as she saw him attempt to compose himself with an embarrassed flush on his face, she felt guilty for her amusement.

"I apologize for my laughter, Sir. I assure you that I am well known for my clumsiness, and it is rather comforting to know that you are not as flawless as I had thought. We both can have our moments of awkwardness."

His hair was slightly ruffled on one side where he had run his hand through it, and one corner of his mouth tugged upward in—what seemed to Lizzy to be—a most dashing smile. Her stomach flipped, and she twisted her hands behind her back.

"Let me see if I understand, Miss Elizabeth. You praise me for my clumsiness yet disapprove of me for my excessive height. Forgive me, but I am accustomed to the reverse."

She laughed. "Yes, but you see, Sir, that I am not seeking to develop a first impression. I know you to be a respectable, erudite gentleman of good principles. I do, however, like feeling on equal footing with my acquaintances. Therefore, I would rather avoid feeling excessively short or graceless in comparison to my company."

"I do apologize, Miss Elizabeth," he said, hunching over. "Is this preferable?"

She laughed. "I do not expect yourself to change your posture to satisfy me, Sir. Now—humor me—you just indicated that you know of this novel. Have you read it?"

"I have read it, and though I found some merit in it, I would not recommend it to most. Knowing your fondness for shocking French novels, I think that you are the only lady of my acquaintance to whom I would consider recommending it. Although it is both French and shocking—seemingly synonymous terms—I sincerely doubt that you would enjoy it."

"And how did you come to the conclusion that I enjoy shocking French novels, Sir?" she asked, arching a brow.

"From your father, naturally. I must admit that I was surprised for only a moment until I considered that I doubt I have ever known a person—man or woman—to bask so boldly in her own candidness."

She decided that in light of his smile and generally open attitude that she should not take his words to be too insulting, yet his words brought the familiar sting of rejection. "Yes, I shall be candid and admit to liking shocking literature. I like such novels not only because they surprise me, but I find that it attempts to portray the world as it is and not the world as we would like to see it. People so rarely express what they are truly thinking, but some authors are willing to express those thoughts that might never be shared in polite company."

Mr. Darcy nodded and moved past her to browse the collection next to her. He said nothing for a few moments, and she lamented her inability to read his thoughts. "I have developed the distinct impression that you are not fond of the dictates of society. Am I incorrect?"

She could not see his face nor recognize the tone of his voice, which she found abnormal and frustrating. "You are not wholly incorrect. I do not despise society for I enjoy people, and I generally prefer imperfect people to perfect ones. Yet, I often find that society contrives little games upon which our lives are decided and not all the players are required to follow the rules."

She wondered at herself for becoming so philosophical. She rarely spoke aloud of such things to anyone but supposed that no one had before solicited her opinions on such matteres. He had a tendency to ask and share thoughts not fit for polite society, which seemed fundamentally at odds with the person he appeared to be.

Leaning against a shelf, she regarded him as he searched through the books at her side, occasionally brushing a book with his long index finger to move it out of the way. It felt too intimate to stand beside him speaking thoughts while he casually looked through a mismatched pile of books. How often did she stand beside a man who was not her relation while he did nothing in particular?

She was unsure of how long they stood in silence when he suddenly stood straight with a book in his hand. "You did not ask for my recommendation, but if you want to read something that speaks truly of the mind, I believe this would be an excellent choice."

She looked at the book and turned it over in her hands once before opening it and reading the first stanza she found.

By thy pale beams I solitary rove,

To thee my tender grief confide;

Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,

My friend, my goddess, and my guide.

Unbidden, her mind conjured an image of the walks she had taken with Mr. Darcy through Netherfield woods in which he confided in her about his fears and sorrows. It was torturous for her to stand next to him so closely and scrutinize his every word and action. She felt foolish for her unspoken thoughts and hopes and was helpless to stop it.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and spoke in what she hoped was a dignified manner. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I believe I shall take your recommendation and purchase this one."

With the book in hand, she went to speak with Mr. Brandon the bookseller in hopes of escaping the feeling that threatened to overwhelm her. To her vexation, however, Mr. Darcy followed her. She made her purchase while acutely aware of Mr. Darcy standing behind her in what she assumed was his attempt to be gentlemanly.

As she exited the shop, she stood outside the door, expecting him to continue on his way. "Please do not feel the need to wait with me, Sir. I merely intend to stop here for a few moments and enjoy the view. Do not let me deter you."

His lips quirked. "I do not mind waiting for you, Miss Elizabeth. I am happy to escort you back to the others."

"There is truly no need, Sir. Georgiana and my younger sisters shall return to the square when they have completed their shopping, and I would rather give Mr. Bingley and Jane a chance to speak alone," she said with a wry smile that belied her discomfiture.

He rolled his eyes. "No doubt at your mother's instruction."

She turned to face him angrily. "What are you implying, Sir?"

He looked unreasonably shocked at her tone. "You have told me yourself of your mother's machinations to marry off her daughters to eligible gentleman. I would not be surprised that she would instruct your sister to speak to Bingley alone. I believed you to be laughing at her schemes. Was I incorrect?"

"Yes, and I take umbrage at your implication of its truth! My sister is no mercenary. Any interest she may show toward your friend is out of a genuine desire to know him and learn if they may suit, and I daresay Mr. Bingley would be lucky to secure the hand of my sister. Though she may not have the wealth or connections of the ladies he might meet in town, there is nary a woman kinder or more loyal than her!"

Her vehemence surprised her, and she turned away from him to face the street in hopes of collecting herself.

"Miss Elizabeth, I apologize. I did not mean to insult you or your sister. You had spoken before of your mother in such terms, and I suppose I—"

"Mr. Darcy," she interrupted quietly as she saw Georgiana and Mary coming toward them. "I appreciate that you may not have intended offence, but that does not mean that I do not remain offended. Please excuse me. I would like to see what your sister has found."

She left him, stubbornly refusing to look back. Georgiana and Mary approached with Mr. Collins trailing behind, and Lizzy smiled brightly at them, ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

He had not truly offended her, but he had hurt her. If her father had made such a jest, she would not have reacted so angrily. His descriptions of her mother's behavior were humiliating but true, but the implication that Jane would have to be deceptive to secure Mr. Bingley's affections made her bitter. She had very poor marital prospects, and she could no longer deny to herself that she wished for Mr. Darcy's admiration and affection. Though it made her feel foolish, she could not help but wonder what it would be like to have the love of not only a great man but a good one as well. She would imagine how lovely it would be to live with Georgiana as her sister and to speak and laugh freely with Mr. Darcy for more than a few stolen minutes at a time.

Georgiana rushed over to her. "Oh, Lizzy, I found some hidden treasures which I cannot wait to play!"

Lizzy forced herself to continue smiling as she took Georgiana's arm in hers. "You shall have to tell me all about it," she said, guiding Georgiana away from the rest of the party.

As they walked away, she caught a glance at Mr. Darcy who had not moved from his spot in front of the booksellers. He looked forlorn, and she felt the impulse to resturn and speak to him. Her embarrassment and shame, however, were stronger, so she continued walking with feigned cheer.