Cries of alarm caused Mr. Darcy to abruptly turn towards the bank. Except the lower half of his body did not move with him, so strong was the mud’s hold on his boots. Arms waving, he dropped the branch before he fell backwards with a large splash, covering her in muddy lake water. Again.
Elizabeth cried out, “Beware the sheep! That was how I ended up in the lake.”
Mr. Darcy erupted from the lake and stood dripping water and aquatic plant life. Curtailing himself from uttering any oaths he desperately wanted to say, he did not know who was within hearing range, he wiped his muddy hands on his soiled breeches then pushed sodden hair out of his eyes, picked up leaves from a water plant that was covering his right cheek and threw it back down into the pond.
He glanced at Elizabeth, who was again bright red. Sighing, he turned towards the well dressed, respectable looking couple standing at the bank of the lake, both aghast. Most likely they had been touring Pemberley and did not expect to find the owner standing in the lake. But, perhaps they did not recognize him.
“The man himself, I presume,” said the man.
“And just as handsome as his portrait. Though, perhaps, a little less formally attired,” said the woman.
Mr. Darcy closed his eyes and groaned under his breath. Heat flooded his cheeks, an occurrence that he had not experienced since he was at Cambridge and had walked into his room to find it unexpectedly occupied by his roommate, Wickham, and a less than reputably employed woman.
At the muffled sound behind him, he turned. Elizabeth was still stuck in the lake up to her waist, but now her hands covered her face. A quick glance at her still nearly transparent dress and he lowered his head before rubbing his hands down his face. He should have called for help or thrown his jacket for her to cover herself like a gentleman. Her previous accusation_“…if you had behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner…”_ rang in his head.
Mr. Darcy lowered his hands with a sigh. His jacket was on the bank where he had dropped it. But he could not ask the gentleman to toss him the jacket for Elizabeth, because he had not yet made his acquaintance. And this was not now he had hoped to ever be introduced to her respectable friends.
He cleared his throat while turning towards the woman who would no doubt deign to never speak to him again. “Would you do me the honor of introducing me to your friends?”
Elizabeth startled, quickly lowering her hands. “Certainly. Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner, Mr. Darcy.” Her uncle removed his hat. “Mrs. Gardiner is my aunt, Mr. Darcy.”
Mr. Darcy bowed. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Madam”
Mrs. Gardiner curtsied while Mr. Gardiner bowed, “Delighted, sir.”
The absurdity of the situation was almost too much for Mr. Darcy to bear. He covered his mouth with his fist while studying the rippling water surrounding his knees.
Giggling floated on the air from behind him.
“Please pardon my attire. One of my tenants is having some difficulties with his flock today. Beware the rogue sheep wandering about. They will not hesitate to push you in the lake with us.” The Gardiners exchanged glances as muffled laughter from the lake reached him again. He cleared his throat. “If you would be so kind, could you return to the house and let Mrs. Reynolds, or anyone, know that we need assistance?”
“Yes.” Mr. Gardiner patted his wife’s arm, then turned dashing up the slight incline that led to the front steps of Pemberley.
Mr. Darcy sighed at the shrewd gaze of Mrs. Gardiner glancing between him and Elizabeth. He kept his eyes averted and on the grass of the bank instead of picking up the long branch and continuing to try to pull Elizabeth out of the lake. He was positive Mrs. Gardiner would not want his eyes on her niece’s figure and so he stood knee deep in his lake like a roly-poly waiting for help to arrive.
The time passed excruciatingly slowly but it did pass and soon the thuds of footmen running across the lawn reached them. “Sir, we brought a lead line from the stables. We thought it best to wrap around yourself and then pull you out.”
“Good thinking. But Miss Bennet will be helped first.” Mr. Darcy reached out. “Throw it here!”
He easily caught the end of the rope, wrapped it around his left arm and slowly pulled his legs out while he turned to face Elizabeth once again. She was peering up through her wet hair, arms clutched across her chest. He turned his head and yelled at the footmen on the bank. “Turn around and show your backs to Miss Bennet, she is a gentleman’s daughter! Pull on the rope when I give the order.”
Facing her again, he trudged through the muck until he was close enough to wrap the rope around her waist. He fought the urge to touch her, to slide his fingers over her hips, the side of her waist. Leaning close to tie a sturdy knot, he breathed deeply and caught her scent that had tantalized him so in Hertfordshire. And again at Rosings. He clenched his fingers hard on the coarse rope as he made the final tie off.
He had thought the next time he would see her, if he ever did, it would be to cheerful smiles and approval of his gentleman behavior. Not covered in lake scum and drenched. Blast those sheep. Being humiliated and thrown in his lake would no doubt further secure her feelings against him.
Avoiding her gaze, he turned his head, “Pull now! Slowly.”
He held out his arm. “Hold on to me. The mud does not give up its prizes easily.”
She flashed him a quick smile before placing her dainty hand on his muddy forearm. “You think I am a prize, Mr. Darcy?”
He sputtered and was saved from having to answer by the sudden lurch of the rope as the footmen began to pull. Elizabeth’s grip on his arm tightened as she was yanked forwards throwing her off balance. She recovered quickly and with the added momentum of the footmen on the bank, it was easier for her to pull her boots out of the mud with each step. Mr. Darcy stayed by her side lending his arm for her to hold on as she steadily approached the bank and safety.
Once they were both on solid ground, Mr. Darcy quickly untied the rope from around Elizabeth’s waist. It would have been a task for one of the servants, but he did not want anyone else to stand that close to her, to brush the backs of their fingers against her body, to feel her heat.
He cleared his throat then raised his head while stepping back but one look at her bedraggled state stopped him in his tracks. Her once pristine dress was now stained with mud and clinging to her body in a most unbecoming way. Her hair was plastered to her head, with leaves and grass tangled up in it. She looked like a drowned rat. Mr. Darcy’s heart sank as he realized she could not have a good opinion of him after this.
“Quickly, wrap the blanket around her,” said Mrs. Gardiner. She addressed the housekeeper who had joined the crowd of servants. “Please have our carriage pulled out front.” She then turned towards Elizabeth after a shallow curtsy, as her husband bowed.
“Thank you for rescuing our niece from the lake. I do not want to imagine what could have befallen her if you had not been here to save her.” Mr. Gardiner glanced away seeming to resolve himself, then faced him directly again. “We have matters to discuss. I will call upon you after my niece has been cared for and situated.” Another bow and Mr. Gardiner turned to follow his wife and niece already several feet ahead of him up the hill.
Mr. Darcy stilled staring at the backs of Elizabeth Bennet and her relatives feeling as if everything was tilted off its axis like he had been knocked off his feet by a sheep again. He squelched the urge to run after them, forced down his desire to run after them, worried he would never see Elizabeth again.
“You cannot -‘“ The Gardeners paused and looked back shock plain on their faces. But the one face he wanted to see was still turned away from him. “Miss Bennet will catch a chill and Lambton is too far a distance having just fallen in a lake. I will have the physician called to assure she is well after she has warmed up and changed.”
He looked at Mrs. Reynolds who nodded and addressed the Gardiners even though she was standing on the other side of Elizabeth. “Run to the house and have a hot bath prepared for Miss Bennet in the yellow room. Have Sally find a dress for her.”
“Oh, we could not impose,” stated Mr. Gardiner. “Lambton is but – “
“Nonsense, I insist. It is my fault. My sheep pushed her into the lake. It would be remiss of me to not ascertain she has not been injured and to keep her from getting ill. You must stay.”
The Gardiners shared a glance, but he was most concerned as to Elizabeth’s thoughts on the matter. But her head was bowed, her shoulders hunched as if she was thoroughly embarrassed. He did not know what to say to ease her mind. She had done nothing to warrant that feeling. He was the one that was mortified.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Gardiner with a bow of his head. “For your hospitality. We will gladly take you up on your offer.”
Mr. Darcy could not miss Elizabeth’s quick turn of head towards her uncle. Or her widened eyes. But she said not a word, faced towards Pemberley again and trudged even faster up hill, as much as she could with her boots sliding on the wet grass and large blanket wrapped around her body.
He rushed up the hill, determined to rush through a cold bath and dress quickly so Elizabeth could see him as a respectable gentleman. It might not have any bearing, the events of the day had probably turned her mind completely from ever considering him again, but would not pass up this opportunity.
Mr. Darcy ran across the foyer, up the curved staircase, down the wing to his bedchamber. He did not know how Mrs. Reynolds would find a dress to fit Elizabeth as his sister was taller and had less of a womanly figure.
His valet entered the room. “Your bath should be ready soon, sir.”
“Have Miss Bennet’s bath ready before mine,” ordered Mr. Darcy as he tore off his ruined shirt. “And have the modiste fetched with a dress ready to be altered for Miss Bennet.”
“The housekeeper has already sent for Miss Bennet’s clothing from the inn in Lambton.”
Mr. Darcy shook his head then continued to undress. Of course, she would want her own clothing. Why was he disappointed that he would not be able to provide for her? He nearly swore at the faux pas he had almost made. Buying her clothing would have been a horrible insult. It would have been declaring her as his mistress.
When he wanted her as his wife.
But she had soundly rejected his proposal in Hunsford, and been pushed into the lake by one of his sheep. Truly, matters could not get any worse.
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