Unedited beta version
“Curse this mud,” Elizabeth muttered as she charged across the fields toward Netherfield, heedless of the mire that clung to her boots and dress. The path she took was winding, leading her through thickets and over streams, lengthening the journey from Longbourn to nearly four miles.
As she crested the final hill, a vision of Netherfield Manor emerged before her. Its stone facade caught the sun’s rays and glimmered like a diamond amidst the lush greenery surrounding it. A well-manicured garden greeted her, adorned with trellised walks and ornate shrubbery.
Just as Elizabeth drew close to the hedge, a figure stepped out from the nearby woodland path. It was Mr. Darcy, attired in austere black and gray, standing rigidly at the edge of the lawn.
Spotting her, he halted and exclaimed, “Miss Bennet?”
“Mr. Darcy,” she cooly responded with a curtsy. “I am come to inquire after my sister.”
“As you see. Would you be so kind as to take me to her?”
He motioned for her to join him as they walked towards the house. Though surprised by his politeness, she acquiesced, even though she would have preferred to walk alone. After all, Mr. Darcy had not been in her good graces since his rudeness at the Meryton Assembly. He walked beside her, his hands clasped behind his back, content with silence.
Arriving at the door, Mr. Darcy turned to her. “I wish your sister a speedy recovery.”
Elizabeth curtsied. “Thank you.”
His gaze lingered on hers for a moment longer than propriety allowed before he bowed and left. With a flutter of relief, Elizabeth watched him depart. A servant led her to Jane’s chamber, which Elizabeth entered quietly.
Her sister lay in bed, her face turned towards the door. Upon seeing Elizabeth, a weak but warm smile crossed Jane’s features.
“You came,” Jane whispered.
“Of course I did.” Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bed and took Jane’s hand. Though her skin felt overly warm, Elizabeth was heartened by the return of some color to her sister’s cheeks. “How do you feel?”
“I am much better now that you are here,” Jane said, her eyes fluttering for a moment before closing fully. Within minutes, her breathing slowed and deepened as she drifted off into sleep.
Elizabeth watched over her sister, taking solace in the sound of Jane’s steady breaths.
Elizabeth left Jane’s room on tiptoe, her heart heavy with worry for her sister’s health. As she made her way down the hall, she noticed the creaking floorboards beneath her feet and the faint scent of lavender that lingered in the air. She hesitated at the door to the dining room, taking a deep breath before entering.
Mr. Bingley stood as soon as he saw Elizabeth, his concern etched on his face. “Miss Bennet, how is your sister? Is she any better?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Bingley. But thank you for your kindness.”
“Let me send for Mr. Jones; and you must stay until your sister is recovered.”
“Oh, I would not wish to inconvenience you,” said Elizabeth.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst exchanged a displeased look, but Mr. Bingley was undeterred. “Nonsense, Miss Bennet. You must stay until your sister recovers. I’ll send for your clothes from Longbourn right away.”
Elizabeth tried to protest, but Mr. Bingley wouldn’t hear of it. With a grateful smile, she left the room and headed to the library, directed by a helpful servant.
As she entered the room, the afternoon sun filtered through the dusty tomes that lined the shelves, casting a warm glow over the space. Elizabeth traced a fingertip along the well-worn spines, savoring the familiar scents of aged paper and leather binding.
But today, even the comforting atmosphere of the library couldn’t distract her from the memory of a pair of deep brown eyes. With a vexed sigh, she turned down another aisle, hoping to find some respite from her thoughts.
Her eyes slid past a collection of poetry before coming to a startled halt at the sight of several slim volumes bound in shades of scarlet and crimson. Gold lettering on their covers proclaimed them “The Scandalous Adventures of Lady Chatterley” and other rather inappropriate titles.
Apparently the collection had been hidden for good reason, though her curiosity was instantly roused. Never before had she glimpsed anything so brazenly vulgar, yet she found herself drawn to trace the bold letters with her fingertip, a blush creeping over her cheeks. She glanced around nervously, half-expecting someone to catch her in the act.
With hands that trembled slightly, she eased one of the scandalous books from its place and turned to the first page. At once her eyes flew wide, color blooming on her pale skin, but she did not put the story back on its shelf. Instead Elizabeth leaned back against the bookcase, pulse racing as she devoured the wicked tale in guilty fascination.
She allowed herself the indulgence of sinking into a plush armchair and losing herself in the pages of scandalous romance. The vivid descriptions of passion and desire were like nothing she had ever read before. For a blissful moment, Elizabeth forgot about Jane’s illness and the worry that gnawed at her heart.
The clock chiming midday roused Elizabeth from the scandalous adventures of Lady Chatterley at last. With reluctance, she closed the crimson volume, now creased and curled from her avid reading. A heavy-lidded gaze and cheeks still flushed from the story’s bold passions betrayed how she had whiled the morning away.
Shame pricked at the edges of her pleasure but could not overcome the curiosity that continued to hum in her blood. While she knew she should not have lingered so long over such vulgar words, never had a book so transported her from the familiar world she inhabited. The life and desires of a noble lady, unfettered by propriety or duty, had proven an irresistible fantasy.
A wistful sigh escaped Elizabeth as she returned the book to its hiding place. She traced the gold lettering one last time, as if by doing so she could cling to the fading thrill of the scandalous tale. But at last she turned away, gathering her rebellious thoughts and preparing to face the knowing glances of her sister and friend.
They would expect some excuse for her lengthy absence, though how Elizabeth could explain the morning’s diversion without dying of embarrassment, she did not know. With reluctant steps, she made for the door of Netherfield’s library, her eyes straying back to the crimson books until the very last.
Perhaps another morning she might again indulge her curiosity and seek a respite from duty between their covers. For now the memory of passionate whispers and hidden desires would sustain her, though Elizabeth could not escape the guilty wish that life held such adventures as those of Lady Chatterley—or at the least, one man who could make her feel as that irrepressible lady had: desired, daring and deliciously out of her depth.
Elizabeth’s satin slippers tapped against the polished wood floor as she hurried down the dimly lit corridor, desperate to avoid any lingering guests at Netherfield. Propriety dictated that she make some appearance in the drawing room, but after the morning’s scandalous adventures, she needed time alone to gather her wits. With cheeks still burnished and pulse fluttering, any company would surely discern how she had spent the day.
Suddenly, Elizabeth rounded a corner and nearly collided with Mr. Darcy on the narrow stairs. She gasped and stumbled back, her heart racing as she caught herself on the banister. In her haste, she had not heard his heavy tread descending above. Now it was too late to flee, and from the way Darcy’s gaze lingered on her features, he had already noted her flustered state.
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy said, his voice low and measured. “Are you well?”
Elizabeth straightened her spine and forced a smile. “Yes, thank you for asking, Mr. Darcy. I was simply in a hurry.”
Darcy stepped closer, his eyes narrowing. “I see,” he said, his tone inscrutable.
Elizabeth swallowed hard, feeling her cheeks flush once more. Under his regard, the memory of erotic whispers and hidden desires rose unbidden, along with mortification at how readily such wicked thoughts came. “Might I pass, sir?” she asked, gesturing to the stairs.
Mr. Darcy moved aside, his hand brushing hers as she passed. Elizabeth shivered at the touch, then quickly descended the stairs and disappeared around the corner. As she walked away, she could feel his intense gaze following her, making her heart race even faster.
Elizabeth raced to her bedchamber’s solitude, trembling with indignation and unwelcome awareness. How humiliating that Mr. Darcy should again find her discomposed, when she had prayed never again to suffer his censure! She knew not whether to curse the man or her own foolishness at reacting so vehemently to his slightest notice.
Desires once confined to scandalous tales had awakened in her blood, refusing to be banished by propriety or duty. Remembrance of smoldering brown eyes would not fade, kindling a longing that decency could not quiet.
Safely ensconced in her haven, Elizabeth pressed restless palms to flaming cheeks. Why did the slightest exchange with Mr. Darcy leave her so undone? She had thought to dismiss the man from her mind after their last mortifying encounter, yet one glimpse of brown eyes and she was again as foolish and reckless as any heroine between forbidden novel pages.
With an annoyed sigh, she sank onto her bed’s edge. She ought not have lingered over such wicked tales, indulging desires long kept under lock and key. But the stolen delight of that morn and passion’s whispers between book pages would now not be put away.
Shame warred with yearning as torrid scenes rose unbidden to her thoughts. The brush of callused fingers, the scent of spice and mint, the delicious thrill of yielding to another’s masterful—
The rap of knuckles shattered the dangerous reverie. “Miss Elizabeth?” A maid’s muffled tone called through the bedchamber door. “Mr. Bingley bade me inquire after your comfort, and whether you have need of anything.”
Elizabeth started, struggling to steady her breath. “Please convey my thanks to Mr. Bingley,” she managed, thanking Providence the servant could not see the heat staining her cheeks. “I am comfortably situated for the evening.”
“Very good, miss. Shall I have a tray sent up, or will you take supper in the dining room?”
She had little appetite after the emotions of the day, desiring only solitude. “A modest tray in my room will suffice, thank you. But do not trouble yourself for some hours yet.”
“As you wish, miss.” The maid’s footsteps retreated down the hall.
Alone once more, Elizabeth released a shaky breath. She had escaped rousing the staff’s notice, but at the cost of the startling impressions the hidden novels had evoked. And though she knew it folly, she could not help longing for their repetition.
She was doomed. Utterly, irrevocably doomed.