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Elizabeth stood in front of the full-length mirror, nervously adjusting her hair and smoothing the light blue tulle gown in anticipation of the Netherfield Ball. The intricate white and silver thread stitched at the top glimmered in the candlelight, making her feel like a fairy princess. Hill, the maid, had styled her hair in the latest fashion, securing it with several sparkling silver pins that glittered like diamonds.
As she turned to the door, she heard a frantic knock, and her younger sister Lydia bustled into the room. “Lizzy, are you almost ready? Everyone’s already downstairs waiting for us!”
Elizabeth nodded, still fussing with the curls that framed her face, hoping they would hold all night. “Yes, I’m nearly done.”
“You look splendid, Lizzy! Now come on, let’s go.” Lydia picked up her skirts and hurried out of the room, leaving Elizabeth alone.
She took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet fragrance of the lavender water she had applied earlier, willing herself to calm down. After one last scrutinizing look in the mirror, she stepped out of her quarters, nearly colliding with Mary.
“Don’t monopolize Mr. Collins this evening, Lizzy. He said he would save dances for all of us.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, wondering why anyone would want to converse with Mr. Collins, let alone dance with him. “No need to worry. I’ll leave plenty of dances for all my sisters,” she assured her.
Mary solemnly nodded before turning away to descend the stairs. Elizabeth shook her head slowly and followed her sister to the waiting carriage.
The Bennet family arrived at Netherfield amidst the lively sound of music and laughter filling the air. Mr. Bennet was absent, having taken ill with a sudden coughing fit.
But Elizabeth, always one to doubt, suspected her father’s ailment was nothing more than a clever excuse to avoid the tediousness of the ball. “I suspect Papa’s illness is fabricated,” she whispered to Jane with a sly glint in her eye.
Jane stifled a giggle at the irony and wit in her sister’s words. Elizabeth scanned the room, searching for Mr. Wickham’s familiar smile.
“You look lovely, Lizzy,” Charlotte said, smiling at her friend.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth replied, scanning the crowd for any sign of Mr. Wickham.
“Are you looking for someone?” Charlotte asked, raising an eyebrow.
Elizabeth prepared to answer when she heard her name being called. She turned to find Lieutenant Denny, a handsome soldier from the militia, bowing his head in greeting. “Miss Bennet, you look quite remarkably well this evening.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, smiling while glancing behind him with a slight frown.
“I regret to inform you, Miss Bennet, that my friend Wickham has been prevented from attending the ball due to urgent business in town. It seems the matter might not have been so pressing if he did not wish to avoid a certain gentleman.” He looked behind him to see Mr. Darcy, and as soon as Elizabeth caught sight of him, her smile slipped away.
With a quick pace, Lydia dashed toward Elizabeth and the group. Her eyes lit up as she exclaimed to Lieutenant Denny, her back facing Elizabeth, “I do hope you will join us on the dance floor tonight.” The gathered militia member interjected, cutting into the conversation. “Please forgive the intrusion, Ma’am. I would dance with both your sisters at once if I could, but regrettably….”
Rolling her eyes, Lydia grabbed Lt. Denny’s arm tightly. “Oh, never mind that. Come on, Denny.” She led both men away from them toward the set, starting the dance as they reached the floor.
Mr. Darcy strolled around the room’s perimeter while Elizabeth pressed her lips together disapprovingly at the sight. Just as she turned away, her cousin approached and cleared his throat. With a tight-lipped smile, Elizabeth made the introductions. “Charlotte, allow me to present our relation, Mr. Collins. Meet my dear friend, Miss Lucas.”
Charlotte gave a deep curtsy and said politely, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.”
“Miss Lucas, I am honored to meet any friend of my fair cousins. So many agreeable young ladies. I’m quite enraptured,” he responded with a smile.
Unfortunately, the previous song was brief, and Elizabeth gave Charlotte a long stare as Mr. Collins took her out on the floor for the first two dances. Elizabeth was mortified when he abruptly changed direction and bumped into another woman. “Other way, Mr. Collins!”
Elizabeth tried to ignore Mr. Darcy’s amused smirk as he trailed behind the dancers, watching them with an intrigued expression.
As soon as her sets with Mr. Collins were over, Elizabeth rushed over to the refreshments table.
Miss Bingley approached, standing condescendingly close. “Miss Eliza, I hear you’re quite taken with George Wickham. Did he not tell you that he is the illegitimate son of old Wickham, Mr. Darcy’s late steward?” She laughed mockingly. “Nevertheless, as a friend, I must advise you not to trust all of his statements. Wickham mistreated Mr. Darcy terribly.”
Elizabeth lifted her chin and met Miss Bingley’s gaze with a steady expression. “Did he? How?”
“I cannot recall the details, but I am certain that Mr. Darcy was innocent of any wrongdoing. It is unfortunate for you, Eliza, that your favorite’s innocence proved false; however, given his background, his actions were not entirely unexpected.”
Elizabeth scowled, attempting to suppress her anger. “It appears that what you are saying is that his guilt and parentage are one and the same. And as for his background, he himself confided it to me.”
“Please excuse my interruption. It was meant with the utmost kindness.” Miss Bingley spoke haughtily and pivoted on her heel, the rustling of her petticoats echoing across the room.
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation, turning towards the crystal punch bowl that glimmered with a golden liquid. “What an insolent girl,” she muttered under her breath, her fingers curling around the delicate ladle.
“Lizzy,” Jane scolded gently, her soft voice barely audible over the sound of the orchestra.
“I see nothing in her paltry attack but her own willful ignorance,” Elizabeth continued, her words laced with frustration. “She’s blinded by Mr. Darcy’s wealth and power.”
“Yes, but Lizzy. Mr. Bingley did say that, though he does not know the whole of the history, he fears that Mr. Wickham is by no means a respectable young man,” Jane said, her brows creasing with concern.
Elizabeth spun around to face Jane, the punch sloshing over the rim of the bowl. “Does he know Mr. Wickham himself?” she demanded, her eyes flashing.
“No, not at all,” Jane replied, shaking her head.
“Oh, well then, he has had his account from Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth exclaimed, her voice rising with indignation. “I’ve not the least doubt of Mr. Bingley’s sincerity. Of course, he would believe his friend, and it does him credit, but as to the other two gentlemen….” She shook her head, her curls bouncing around her face like tendrils of flame. “I should venture to think of them both as I did before.”
Mary appeared by their side, her steps soft and quick. “I have news of Mr. Wickham that you must hear,” she whispered conspiratorially.
Elizabeth froze, her cup of punch hovering mid-air. “What is it?” she asked, her voice low and tense.
Her sister glanced around quickly before grasping Elizabeth’s hand firmly. With a sharp tug, she led her away from the throngs of dancers down a dark, narrow passageway. Elizabeth trailed behind Mary, her heart pounding in her chest as they ventured into the unknown.
“Where are we headed?” she asked, her throat tight with fear.
At the end of the hallway, Mary pushed open a door and gestured for Elizabeth to enter first. The room was shrouded in darkness, leaving Elizabeth disoriented and bewildered.
“Why couldn’t you tell me the news out in the hallway?” she asked, squinting against the gloom.
But before Mary could answer, Elizabeth heard the sound of the key turning in the lock behind her. Terror flooded her as she realized that her sister had locked her inside. “Mary? Mary!” she called out frantically, her voice echoing off the bare walls.
“My dear Lizzy,” Mary sang out teasingly, “you don’t think I’d let you have Mr. Collins all to yourself, do you?”
Elizabeth felt her heart sink as Mary’s footsteps retreated, leaving her alone in the darkness. But suddenly, she heard something that made her jump in fright.
A loud throat-clearing interrupted her thoughts. She gasped and spun around to see a man standing in the corner near the window.
Elizabeth’s face flushed as she realized that the stranger had been privy to their entire conversation, including Mary’s confession. She strained her eyes to make out his features in the dim light pouring through the window. Eventually, as her vision adjusted to the darkness, she spotted a deep blue coat and trousers that hugged him perfectly. A hint of his cravat, embroidered with a golden pattern, peeked out from beneath his coat collar.
A hush fell between them until, finally, he broke the silence. His voice had the familiar drawl of Mr. Darcy’s, “It appears you are locked in this room with me….”