Mr. Darcy hung onto the strap as the carriage completed a swift and sharp right turn into the small posting inn’s yard. His driver shouted at the horses as he worked to stop their far too fast speed in the yard. Something must have gone wrong. He would not pound on the ceiling and ask what the devil was happening even though he was thrown against one side as another sharp corner was taken. He had never experienced such horrible driving in his entire life. Thankfully he was in his well-appointed and cushioned carriage.
The carriage finally slowed down. Mr. Darcy removed his hand from the ceiling strap and looked out the carriage window. There were traveling behind the posting inn and turning to the yard in front. He had never been to this inn before on his annual trip to visit his aunt at Rosings Park. He had to take a different route due to the flooding and washed-out roads. It was a route that must not be used by the mail coaches as the roads were horrific. The innkeeper had to be the only one happy at the flooding for this out of the way inn was a crush with carriages and horses.
Mr. Darcy picked up his beaver hat from the floor of the carriage, opened the door, and jumped down before the tiger could pull the steps down. He found the tiger at the head of one of the horses soothing nervous horses.
He looked up at the driver and saw him shaking while still holding the reins of the four horses. “Mr. Balfour,” yelled Mr. Darcy, “what the deuced happened with that driving?”
Mr. Balfour looked down with a face so pale he was nearly white as a sheet. “I beg your pardon, sir, but the brakes did not work. Samson had the bit in his mouth again and did not want to stop galloping.”
Mr. Darcy sighed and frowned at the tall bay horse, Samson. He had purchased that stallion several months ago for what he thought was an amazingly good price. Now he knew why that stallion had been sold. He was too smart by half and nearly uncontrollable. Mr. Darcy gave up trying to ride him and decided that getting hitched to the carriage would improve his temperament.
That had backfired rather spectacularly. On the way to Rosings Samson figured out that if he worked the bit between his teeth, he could run without being stopped. Mr. Darcy did not want to give up the horse as he was a fine animal with a perfect conformation. Perhaps he should race him? Or breed him to local racing mares.
“Once you have the horses settled, you may take turns coming into the inn for refreshment.”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Darcy.”
The drivers and tigers normally did not come in to partake of refreshment, but they needed it after dealing with Samson. That would also allow him time to recover from that jostling carriage ride. Mr. Darcy rubbed his lower back as he walked to the inn’s front door. If he had to ride on one more road like that, he would need to see the physician for a broken back. No matter how well sprung his carriage was.
Mr. Darcy opened the inn’s door and stood to let his vision adjust to the dim interior. The room was packed, as he knew it would be. He did not see an open chair anywhere. He also did not see a barmaid or waitress either.
Mr. Darcy rubbed his face with his hands. This is not at all how he had envisioned this trip. It had not at all gone how he had thought it would. At Rosings Park, at the parsonage, everywhere he went he remembered Elizabeth Bennet. He scoffed and looked up at the dingy wooden beams on the ceiling. She was still the most fascinating woman he had ever met. But now that he knew how little regard she had for him, he should get over his ridiculous daydream that he would see her somewhere and she would profess her love. He was sure Elizabeth was married now and he completely ignored the pain in his upper chest as he thought that.
He scowled around the dining room still not seeing any barmaid. He did see a man that had to be the innkeeper, a short round man with an apron who looked harried out of his wits.
“Hey there,” Mr. Darcy called, “do you have someone that could bring me a drink?”
Darcy scowled for he did not like how harsh he had spoken. Elizabeth Bennet’s parting words had never stopped haunting him, “had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”
The innkeeper quickly squeezed through the crush and bowed. “I do apologize, sir! As you can see with the flooding we have become the main inn around these parts. I do not know where Sally has gone but I will get Lizzy, our upstairs maid to help.”
“I do not care who serves me as long as I get something. I am parched.”
Damn and blast, he sounded arrogant again, just as Elizabeth, known to her family and friends as Lizzy, had accused him of nearly exactly a year ago. Not that he had been keeping track.
Mr. Darcy crossed his arms and refused to think about her anymore. He looked at the full tables near him, suddenly the occupants blanched and stood quickly leaving with nervous glances in his direction. He should have felt guilty for his scowl causing people to leave, but he was in too bad of a mood to do anything about it.
He walked over and sat down at the table closest to the fireplace. He faced the fire so he could watch the flames dance. That would help him get his thoughts and himself under control.
Then he heard a voice he had not heard for almost a year, exactly. He stilled where he sat, his heart sped but he did not turn his head to look for the owner of that voice. He knew hearing Elizabeth Bennet’s voice was not a good development. He would stare at the fire and pretend nothing was amiss.
Damn, they had always thought the de Bourgh eldest son’s madness came from Sir Lewis, but his hearing Elizabeth Bennet’s voice now put that in doubt. Perhaps the madness was in his mother’s line, as Lady Catherine was his mother’s sister. He groaned and lowered his head into his hands. This was just his luck this trip with rotten roads, a miserable visit to Rosings Park with memories of Elizabeth everywhere, and now he had gone mad hearing her voice. God help him if he started to see her.
“And you sir,” said Elizabeth’s voice, “what may I get you?”
He kept his head in his hands as he realized his sister would be at Pemberley by herself as he would have to be locked in Bedlam. Or perhaps Lady Catherine would take Georgiana under her wing and split her time between both estates?
“Pardon me, sir, did you hear me?”
Now Elizabeth’s voice was even closer. How did one’s mind even do that? How could it take the voice of that woman, which had haunted him for a year, and make it say things he had never thought?
Mr. Darcy sat back in his chair and glanced up in the direction of Elizabeth’s voice, to prove to himself there was no one there. His heart stopped. He swallowed as he would no doubt be incarcerated as he was now seeing a vision of Elizabeth Bennet.
He drank in the vision his mind created, which was odd as she was not dressed as he had remembered her, and she stared at him in horror. The vision backed away, pale as a sheet with a hand covering her mouth. She turned and quickly walked through the crowded tables towards the bar.
He followed her with his eyes and then stood not caring if the entire room’s occupants thought he was mad, for he was surely so. He watched the vision until an arm reached out from a table’s occupant pulling at her arm. The vision stopped and turned back, talking to the person.
By Jove! She was not a vision at all? She was real? What was she doing here at this run down inn off the main roads? And working as a maid! Mr. Darcy walked towards her as another hand reached out and squeezed her derriere.
“Oh!” Elizabeth swung her arm back and smacked the man’s hand. “I am not that kind of woman and I expect you to keep your hands to yourself!” Elizabeth stormed off through a door, which most likely was the kitchen.
Mr. Darcy followed her, pausing only to scowl at that table of men who were discussing teaching that doxy to show proper manners to her betters. He glared at each of them, his look silencing the entire table. He continued towards the door Elizabeth disappeared behind with a new worry, perhaps she was not just a maid at this inn? It was bad enough that she was working for a living as a maid when she could have been a well-placed governess or even at the least a lady’s companion.
Mr. Darcy pushed those thoughts out of his head, determined to not think of it, and walked through the door. It was the kitchen and Elizabeth sat on a stool bent over sobbing.
The cook was speaking to Elizabeth while ladling stew from the big pot over the fire. “I do not know what you are crying about, heaving those great big sobs but you have to go back out there. We have far too many patrons for you to be taking a break. I do not care if they did grab your commodities, but you have got to earn your keep. I do not know where that good for nothing Sally has gone. I told her not to ply her trade when we had such a crush as this but she has probably taken a gent behind the stable again. Lord knows we needs to –“
The cook turned and finally noticed him. She stilled mouth agape and then tried to curtsy while still holding a ladle filled with stew. “Pardon me, sir. We shall have what you ordered right out, sir.”
The cook walked over with her hand out to either shake or smack Elizabeth, but at that moment the woman herself turned on the stool and faced Mr. Darcy. Even with tangled, messy hair, well worn threadbare clothes, it was most definitely Elizabeth Bennet.