Eloise & Darcy, Pt. 1

Title: Eloise & Darcy, Part I
Author: ExcentrykeMuse
Fandom: Bridgerton (TV Series) / Pride and Prejudice
Pairing(s): Eloise Bridgerton/Mr. Darcy, (past) Elizabeth/Darcy, Edwina Sharma/Anthony Bridgerton, (slight) Kate Sharma/Anthony Bridgerton, Daphne Bridgerton/Duke of Hastings, Lydia Bennet/Mr. Wickham, Georgiana Darcy/OMC
Written: January 2023
Rating: PG
Word Count: 10k+
Summary: Lady Whistledown has written about the Season’s latest bachelor, who happens to be one Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, and Eloise Bridgerton is intrigued despite herself

Part I | Part II

Miss Eloise Bridgerton had fortunately not been named the Diamond of the Season, although this was much to the disappointment of her Mama.  The Queen, instead, had named a Miss Edwina Sharma, a beauty as serene as she was mysterious.  Already Anthony had set his cap at Miss Edwina.  He had announced to Mama (who had announced it to the Ton) that this was the year that the Viscount Bridgerton was looking for a bride.

Eloise just wished to be left out of it all.

Unfortunately, however, her Mama had other ideas.

Eloise’s hems had been dropped, her bosoms lined with lace instead of covered up to her neck, and her hair piled on top of her head.  She had a new ladies’ maid as she was now a young woman of substance—and she felt that no matter where she went, she was always compared with her elder sister Daphne, the Duchess of Hastings.

It would have been worse, Eloise supposed, if she had been named the Diamond.  Daphne had been the Diamond, last Season’s Incomparable.  Eloise did not wish to be out.  She did not wish to dance.  She did not wish to fan herself.  She did not wish to be admired.

She did, however, look forward to Lady Whistledown’s newest gossip column.

“Ah,” the Dowager Lady Bridgerton sighed as she read the gossip sheet.  Her eyes flitted to her daughter Eloise.  “I see that Mr. Darcy is in London for the Season.”

Eloise had her own copy and was reading it industriously.  She came to the section and paused, her finger hovering over the typeset.

This author has recently learnt that the dedicated bachelor Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esquire of Pemberley has finally turned his sights to London and the Season.  Can it be that his Aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourg, has been unable to entrap him into a marriage with her eligible but sickly daughter Miss Anne De Bourg—and Mr. Darcy is searching for a bride in fresher fields?  Although Mr. Darcy does not hold a title himself, he is of the first circles and is one of the richest men—men, not just bachelors, ladies—in all of Derbyshire.  There have been rumors of a possible romance in Hertfordshire just this past year, but this author cannot give them any credit given this latest development.

Eloise looked up at her Mama, whose eyes were sparkling.

“Perhaps,” Lady Bridgerton mused, “he will be at Lady Danbury’s ball tonight.”

Eloise huffed.  “All of society will be at Lady Danbury’s ball,” she refuted.  She turned back to the gossip sheet.  “I would think, Mama, after Daphne’s triumph, you would wish for me to marry at least an Earl.”

“I wish, my dear,” Lady Bridgerton told her simply, “for you to have a love match.  It is what I wished for Daphne and what I wish now for Anthony.  It is what I wish for you.”

“Love,” Eloise huffed, as she settled back against the settee, “I have more important concerns on my time.”

Lady Bridgerton just looked at her daughter knowingly, smiling a little to herself, but refrained from commenting.

Eloise, though, returned to the column.  She wondered at Mr. Darcy, desperate enough to come to London for a Season when he had stayed away for so long.  He must be of Anthony’s age.  Perhaps they had been at Cambridge together.

She set the gossip sheet aside, but still the idea and his name pressed upon her.  Not an Earl, certainly, but of the first circles.  Perhaps she wouldn’t be forced to entertain, if she even was thinking of marriage at all, given his lack of a title and his seeming disinterest (until this point) in Society at large.

When Anthony returned from the Sharmas’s, Eloise went to his study and knocked on his door.  Finding him behind a pile of papers, she looked at him carefully and was uncertain if she should ask her question.  She wouldn’t want to seem curious about a gentleman, especially one she had never met.  However, she had looked up Pemberley House and it was well situated and she rather liked its countenance.  It was also far away from London and badgering suitors who asked for a dance.

Anthony looked up and smiled upon seeing her.

She flourished Lady Whistledown at him.  “Do you perhaps know Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?  Mama and I were wondering.”  She came in and took a seat in front of his desk, slouching in the chair.

He grimaced at her.  “Is Whistledown sinking her hooks into Darcy?” he asked with a laugh.  “Darcy was two years ahead of me.  What of it, Sister?”

“Oh, nothing,” she responded, looking down at her knees.  “It just seemed that Lady Whistledown appeared unusually interested in him.”

Anthony huffed.  “Poor Darcy.”

Eloise said nothing for a long moment, regarding Anthony who had gone back to his pile of papers.  “Well,” she decided, “thank you, brother.”  She stood and left the study, wondering at Whistledown.

Of course, she was pinched and prodded for Lady Danbury’s ball.  Her mother placed her in a gown of blue, her hair up on her head with some unnecessary form of ornamentation.  Eloise felt like she was on display—and she didn’t like it.

As soon as she arrived, she tried to find Penelope, who was off in a corner wearing a hideous dress of bright pink.  “Ah, El,” she greeted.  “I see you have arrived.”

“Yes, Mama has dragged me out.”  Eloise grimaced.  “She is determined that I shall make a match as great as Daphne’s.”

“No one,” Penelope countered, “can make a match as great as that.”

True, the Duke of Hastings was the cream of society.  Daphne could only have bested herself if she had married the Queen’s nephew, Prince Friedrick. 

“Lord Bridgerton is dancing with Miss Edwina,” Penelope noted as the violins struck up their tune.

“Oh, how pleased Mama will be.”  Eloise sighed.  “There are so much better things to do with an evening than watch my brother dance.”

There was a shift behind her, and she looked over her shoulder.  She only saw a tall man with curling hair looking out of the window.

Penelope regained her attention: “You, dear El, would hunt down Whistledown and discuss the status of women in society,” Penelope teased.  “I do not know why you do not content yourself.”

“Content myself?—With balls?  What if someone asks me to dance?”  She paused.  “It is no matter.  My dance card is full.”

Penelope looked at her strangely.  She then grabbed Eloise’s wrist, examining her dance card.  “The Duke of Wellington?  Lord Byron?”

Eloise shrugged.  “Daphne always said I should always have the right sort of men in my dance card.  Just because the gentlemen are absent does not mean I should discriminate against them.”  She smiled a little to herself.  “And if they cannot be in attendance, then I do not need to dance.”

A subtle shift stirred behind her, but Eloise didn’t look.

Penelope looked down at her hands.  “I was hoping Colin would ask me to dance—but I understand he is not yet back from his travels.  He usually does ask at least once every ball.  Your brother is too kind.”

Eloise smiled at her friend.  “Colin is always at the rescue,” she agreed.  “Not that you need to be rescued.  We don’t want to be maidens in distress, now do we?”

Penelope smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.  “No, of course not.”

Regarding her, Eloise wasn’t completely satisfied.  Still, she said nothing. 

Lord Lumly approached and bowed to them, so Eloise was obliged to curtsey.  “Miss Bridgerton,” he began, and her heart began to sink. 

“Miss Penelope has a place free in her dance card,” she put in quickly, not looking at her friend.  She was feeling a little desperate and Lord Lumly was just the sort of gentleman Mama would approve of.  “And I am afraid I am engaged.”

Lord Lumly looked a little startled and glanced between the two friends, his mouth hanging open.  “Engaged?” he parroted.

Eloise nodded.  “Most definitively.”

The presence behind her stirred again and she felt someone tall come to stand somewhere behind her right shoulder.  “Lumly,” a stern voice greeted.  “I fear Miss Bridgerton is engaged to me for the next two dances.”

Lumly’s jaw clicked shut and his eyes shifted to behind Eloise’s right shoulder. 

Eloise decidedly did not look.  Instead, she pointedly gazed at Lumly as if to prove her point.  “You would not wish to be ungentlemanly and neglect poor Miss Featherington,” she suggested, her look still pointed.

“Of course,” Lumly stuttered, “Miss Featherington.”  He extended his hand and Penelope was obliged to take it as the music was wrapping up, just in time for couples to reform on the floor.  They looked an odd couple, but Eloise had seen stranger.

When they were truly alone, Eloise turned and saw a handsome man standing behind her, wearing an aloof expression beneath his chocolate curls and startling green eyes.  “I do not believe, sir,” she greeted, “that you are the Duke of Hastings.  I fear I am engaged to him this next set.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her.  “Are you acquainted with his grace?”

She snorted and turned back toward the dancefloor.  “I should hope so.  My sister is his duchess.”  Glancing back over her shoulder, Eloise saw that he was regarding her.  “I fear you have me at a disadvantage, sir.”

The gentleman regarded her for a long moment and nodded.  “Darcy of Pemberley, at your service, Miss Bridgerton.”

Her eyes lit up at his words and she offered him her hand, a nicety that she rarely practiced.  “I fear all of London knows of your arrival, Mr. Darcy.”

Taking her hand, he bowed over it before coming to stand beside her.  “I am quite aware.  Whistledown, I believe is the author’s name.  I did not realize she was so prolific until earlier this afternoon.”

Eloise looked over at him, at his strong profile, and smiled to herself.  Leaning slightly toward him, she confessed, “In her first gossip sheet, Lady Whistledown called my mother a simpleton for naming her children in alphabetical order.  I think it’s quite a pleasant tradition, but the author stated otherwise to all of London.”

Darcy turned toward her and raised a single arched eyebrow.

Taking this as a challenge, Eloise indicated Anthony who was dancing with Miss Edwina still.  “My brother, the Viscount Bridgerton.  His Christian name is Anthony.”  Then she pointed out her next brother who was speaking with her mother.  “Benedict.”  Shrugging, she confessed, “Colin is traveling in Greece.  My sister Daphne is the Duchess of Hastings.”  Mr. Darcy turned toward her fully and she regarded him.  “I am Eloise,” she told him, “and then not in attendance are Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth.”

“The Dowager Viscountess has a talent for names,” he agreed.  “Sadly my parents did not.”  He did not elaborate but turned back toward the dancefloor.  After a pause, he asked, “How long has Lady Whistledown been writing?”

“She began last Season,” Eloise told him.  “No one knows who she is.  Even the Queen is baffled.”

He took all this in and bowed, leaving.

Eloise was quite startled but decided that Mr. Darcy must be a peculiar gentleman, and contented herself with watching Penelope dance with Lord Lumly—until Darcy returned with two cups of lemonade.

“I should have asked if you preferred punch,” he apologized, except his tone of voice was haughty with no sense of an apology in it.

Confused by the man, Eloise took the lemonade and assured him, “This is perfectly acceptable, thank you.”  She felt awkward as she sipped the drink, especially as Darcy was still regarding her.  Her gown was cut a little lower than she was comfortable, trimmed with lace, and her hair was piled on top of her head with a diamond comb pinned in it.  Mama had insisted and had even placed diamond earrings in her ears.  Eloise had refused the matching necklace.

“Is this your first season, Miss Bridgerton?” Darcy suddenly asked, startling her.

She looked up like a startled calf, eyes wide, and forgot to answer for a moment.  “—Yes,” she agreed.  “Mama took me to a ball last Season once Daphne was married, but I wasn’t presented until this year.”  Taking another sip of her lemonade, she asked, “And you are only late in London?”

“I prefer to spend my summer months in Derbyshire.”

Eloise nodded.  “Aubrey Hall is in Hampshire,” she admitted. 

She thought Darcy was going to ask her something trivial about the countryside, but instead he pierced her with a look and asked, “Why do you not dance?”

Without thinking, she answered, “It’s rather dreadful, isn’t it?”  Horrified at herself and knowing what her Mama would say, Eloise’s eyes blew wide.  “That is to say, one’s partner—”

“I quite understand your meaning,” he told her unapologetically. 

Her heart beat twice in her chest before he continued—

“I myself only dance with ladies with whom I am intimately acquainted.  I quite dislike the form of entertainment in general.”

Eloise relaxed.  “Then I can safely put you on my dance card without fear of having to dance, if I have need in the future.”

“Indeed, Miss Bridgerton,” he agreed.  There seemed to be a weight to his words.  “I will gladly misdirect any gentleman you desire in the future.”

She looked up at him with wide eyes and opened her mouth to speak, although she wasn’t certain what she would say, when the music swelled and the couples on the dancefloor clapped.  Distracted, she turned toward the orchestra and clapped politely, glass of lemonade still in hand, and saw that Anthony had spotted her and was making his way toward them.

Grimacing, she turned to Darcy and asked, “Do you know my brother?”

“Which one?” he queried back, a slight jest in his voice, causing her grimace to stretch into a smile.

“Ah, Darcy.” Anthony had reached them and was looking curiously between them.  “I never thought I’d find you in a ballroom.”

“Miss Bridgerton,” Darcy assured him, “made the effort worthwhile.”

Anthony looked baffled as he took in Eloise, who took the opportunity to finish her lemonade.

“How was Miss Edwina?” she asked, hoping to change the subject.

Anthony, however, ignored her.  Turning to Darcy, he asked, “Are you long in Town?”

“For as long as the Season can hold me,” Darcy admitted, voice stern and closed off again.  “I have opened up the London House with the intention of staying for some weeks.”

Nodding, Anthony offered a smile.  “You must come around White’s.  Certainly you are a member.”


The music began to swell again, and Anthony looked between them before going and claiming Miss Edwina for the next set.  Eloise was happy to see him go and even happier when Penelope was left in a different corner and she could enjoy Darcy’s attentions for another dance.

The next morning, Eloise was dressed in pale lilac with little adornment.  She stood by the drawing room window, watching the street worriedly despite herself.

“He will come,” Mama assured her, not looking up from her book.

Eloise was only half listening.  “You do not know that,” she murmured.  “Perhaps he heard how disagreeable I am.”

Mama sighed.  “You are not disagreeable.  You are an independent thinker.”

Hyacinth and Gregory were on the floor playing with marbles, which was annoying Eloise to no end.  Benedict was fortunately out and Anthony was calling on the Sharmas.

“Do not bite your nails, my darling,” Mama warned.

Eloise looked down at her nails.  She hadn’t even realized she had been doing it.  Sighing, she came away from the window and picked up her book and lounged across a couch.

“Comportment,” Mama told her.

“He’s not here,” Eloise grumbled.

“But he’s coming,” Mama refuted.  “I looked him up in Debrett’s.  His mother was Lady Anne Darcy.  His maternal uncle is the Earl of Matlock and his sister—” she paused, and Eloise looked up.  Mama smiled to herself.  “His sister is the Viscountess of Owestry.”

Eloise hummed.

“Pemberley is an ancient estate,” Mama continued.  “At least ten thousand a year.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Eloise murmured.

“It means you would be very well situated,” Mama told her, turning the page.  “I would be very well pleased indeed.”

Eloise looked up.  Her mother was not looking back at her.

They stayed in suspension for several more minutes until there were footsteps on the stairs, and Eloise jumped up, her book forgotten on the couch.  There was a knock on the door, and then Mr. Darcy was announced with a basket of strawberries.

“How marvelous,” Eloise exclaimed, taking a strawberry in hand.  “How did you know I liked them?”

“Don’t all young ladies?” he questioned back.

She hummed as she took a bite, perhaps a little indelicately, eating the entire strawberry at once.

Mama offered Mr. Darcy refreshments and a seat, and he sat.

For a moment, nothing was said, as if Darcy was not entirely certain of the next step.

Eloise picked up her book and asked, “Do you read?”

Mama glanced at her as if to chide, but Darcy answered—“Indeed, when I have the time.  I’m afraid that I have pressing business concerns that take up most of my time, however.”

Eloise paused, considering.  “Pemberley must be a prosperous estate then.  Lovely, in the summertime.”

“The loveliest place on earth,” he agreed.  He seemed to consider a moment, then confessed, “I do not care for society.  I much prefer staying on a country estate and the pursuits there.”

Not taken aback, Eloise suggested, “You must hunt.”

“Indeed, I hunt.”

“Small hunting parties are best,” Eloise posited. 

“Do you hunt?” he questioned.

“I have never learnt.  Shooting,” she glanced at Mama, “is not ladylike.”

Darcy took her in.  “I never taught Georgiana, my sister, how to hunt, but that was because of her constitution and her lack of maturity.  I would think a woman with formed opinions such as yourself would be quite capable.”

Looking quickly at Mama, she ventured, “Are you a patient teacher?”  It was a bold question, but it clearly pleased Darcy.

“With the correct student,” he agreed, regarding her.  His eyes were intense.  Eloise would have assumed he was judging her if she had not spent an evening in his company.  Instead, she recognized the look as admiring.  “You would be well suited to a country life, I think.  You could spend your days in the library or walking the gardens, your evenings discussing the rights of women.”

Her mama coughed into her hand, but both of them ignored her.

“I do enjoy to ride,” she told him, picking up another strawberry and biting into its freshness.  She discarded the head.  “I do not have my own horse, but I take out one of the more docile mares when we’re down at Aubrey.”

For some reason Darcy looked momentarily surprised, which Eloise found peculiar, but the look passed quickly from his eyes.

Unfortunately, Darcy asked if she played, which she did not, but Eloise did sing.  She rarely performed, but she hit the correct key on the piano and sang a love song, which held his attention.

Anthony came in during the final verse, and he was careful when he closed the drawing room doors behind him.

When she finished, she forced herself to curtsey, and everyone clapped much to her embarrassment.

“Mother,” Anthony greeted, “everyone, we’re going to the races!”

Eloise looked up at him.  “Why?”

“Do we need a reason to be seen as a family?” he asked.  “The Royal Races are a perfect place to be seen.”

Eloise sat back down and rolled her eyes, which she noticed Darcy caught.  She smiled at him.  “It doesn’t have to do with a certain young lady, does it?” she inquired.

“And if it does, sister?”

“No reason,” she murmured to herself.

Darcy had stood and was now standing at the window, looking down at the street below.  He turned and looked over and asked, “I should be glad to escort Miss Bridgerton, with your permission, Viscount.”

Mama and Anthony shared a look.

“Granted!” Anthony agreed.  It seemed to be decided, then.  “We leave at one o’clock.”

Eloise turned and looked at Darcy, their eyes meeting.  She blushed a little and quickly looked away.  Her Mama was regarding her contentedly.

Darcy left soon after that as he had a few matters of business before their Day at the Races.  He kissed her hand before he left and assured her that he would be promptly on time, and then shook Anthony’s hand.

“Do you like him?” Hyacinth asked as soon as he was gone.

Before Eloise could answer, Mama hushed her.  “Leave your sister be.  She has much to think on.”

Eloise escaped to her room with her basket of strawberries and regarded herself in the mirror.  She was only seventeen years of age and she was wondering if she could see herself married so young—if married at all.  She had always assumed that, unlike Daphne, she would never marry.  She would be a woman of independent means.  However, one evening in Darcy’s company had changed her notion of marriage—and it frightened her a little.

She would have to speak to Daphne about it.

At the races, she and Darcy soon split off from everyone.

“Ah,” she exclaimed as she was regarding a pamphlet at a stall.  “Same paper.”

“Same paper, Miss Bridgerton?” Darcy asked not looking up from a political spreadsheet on William Pitt the Younger.

“As Lady Whistledown,” she told him distractedly as she held it up to the light.  “I’m certain of it.”

He looked up and regarded her.  “And this is of interest?”

“I am determined,” she told him, “to unmask the lady.  First, I thought she was a widow such as Lady Danbury.  Then, a servant, but I was disabused of that notion.  My current thought is a tradesperson.—Yes,” she looked at the sheet, “I am certain this is the same paper.”

Mr. Darcy regarded her for a long moment.  “You are an amateur sleuth, Madam.”  His voice held no judgement, either positive or negative.  It was merely an observation, and indeed he was observing her.

She blushed and turned toward him.  “Nothing so romantic, I assure you.”  She reached into her reticule for a penny, but Darcy paid for her paper, tipping his hat to the seller before leading her off.  “What did you get?”

He turned to her, considering.  “A political spreadsheet.”

Eloise looked at him a moment and realized she had a choice.  She could brush off his political interests as she had her brothers’ on numerous occasions, or she could offer herself up as a true companion to him.  “I am certain,” she began tentatively, “that Mr. Pitt’s speeches are more edifying than the latest gossip sheet.  What holds his attention today?”

At first Darcy didn’t answer her.  Instead, he held her with that impenetrable look in his eye before he blinked.  “Slavery, Madam.”

At this, Eloise startled.  “England does not have slaves.  Our Queen—”

“Indeed,” he agreed, leaning forward.  “While slavery is illegal throughout our Empire, there are other places on earth where it is not.  Our Beloved Queen Charlotte, for instance, is not welcome in the Americas.”

Their eyes held.  Mr. Darcy’s really were the most vivid green.

“That is their loss,” Eloise told him.  “If they are not progressive enough to look beyond skin tone,” she scoffed, “then they shall not know our queen’s wit and vivacity.”

He regarded her a full moment.  “Lady Danbury told me that you were a favorite of Her Majesty’s last night,” Darcy confided as they began to walk again.

Eloise shook her head.  “The Queen merely was interested in my role as amateur sleuth.  Her Majesty does not like Lady Whistledown.—And I was fortunately not named her Diamond.”  She cleared her throat uncomfortably.  “However much Mama should have liked that.”

“Mothers always wish for their daughters to be admired,” Darcy said with a tone of knowing.  “Whether or not they are deserving of such admiration depends on the lady, but I am certain Lady Bridgerton has nothing to fear when it comes to her second eldest daughter.”

Eloise was startled. She paused in her step and looked at Darcy, who in turn looked unabashedly back at her.  Eloise was quite accustomed to Daphne being admired.  Daphne had been last Season’s incomparable.  Daphne was elegant, beautiful, and had the attention of both a prince and a duke.  To Eloise’s shame, she was always compared to Daphne and knew she was found wanting.

But when Eloise looked into Darcy’s verdant gaze, she did not find herself wanting.  She saw that she was admired in all her social clumsiness and eccentricities.—Darcy wished to be in her company not because she was a Bridgerton, but because she was Eloise.

Then in the corner of her eye, she saw—“Daphne.”

“I beg pardon?” he asked her.

She swallowed.  “The Duke and Duchess of Hastings,” she elaborated.  “My sister and her husband.—They’re approaching.”

They were a striking couple.  The Duke of Hastings—Simon—was wearing his red coat which complimented his dark skin beautifully.  Daphne was walking on his arm with a parasol, dressed in a pale pink.  Unfortunately, Daphne was looking straight at her with an eyebrow raised and she was leading her husband toward Eloise and Darcy in clear determination.

Eloise did not wish for Darcy to meet Daphne. Surely his admiration for her would dim when he saw the perfection that was her elder sister.  Whenever the sisters were compared, it was inevitable.  However, there seemed to be no avoidance of the introduction.

As the couples faced each other, Hastings smiling at them charmingly, Daphne was the one to speak, “Eloise.  I had a note from Anthony the family would be here.”

Trying to smile and knowing it was somehow lopsided, Eloise indicated Darcy.  “Have you met Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?”  She glanced back at her sister and her husband.  “My sister, the Duchess of Hastings—and, of course, her husband.”

Hastings charmingly laughed as he extended his hand to Darcy.  “You were a few years ahead of me at Cambridge.  I must confess, I was on better terms with your roommate.”  He thought for a moment.  “What was his name?”

Darcy’s entire body, which had perfect posture before, stiffened ever so slightly.  Eloise only noticed because she was walking on his arm.  “Wickham,” Darcy admitted after a small pause.  “He’s in the Militia now.”

“Ah,” Hastings admitted.  “He always lost at cards.”

Darcy seemed disinclined to answer, the stiffness remaining in his body.

Looking up at him and seeing that his jaw had locked, Eloise turned to Daphne.  “And how is my nephew?”

Daphne’s entire face lit up, making her more beautiful if that was even possible.  “Aubrey is well.  I didn’t want to leave him, but one afternoon away will not irreparably harm him.”  She smiled again.  “Are you enjoying the races, Eloise?”

Darcy was still quite tense beside her, and Eloise was wondering if she should disengage them from the situation.  “Oh, yes.  We should be finding our places soon, I should imagine.  Mama is chaperoning.—Mr. Darcy?”

She looked up at him and he had turned toward her with a nod.  “Indeed, Miss Bridgerton.—A pleasure to make your reacquaintance.”  He tipped his hat again to the Duke and Duchess before leading Eloise away toward the stands. 

Eloise could feel her sister’s eyes on her as they left.

Fortunately, Darcy did relax once they were seated, Eloise between him and Mama.  Benedict was off on Mama’s other side and Anthony—Anthony was elsewhere.

“Did you place a bet?” Eloise asked her brother, leaning over her mother.

Benedict scoffed at her.  “Of course I did.”  He did not, however, elaborate.

She leaned back and turned to Mr. Darcy.  “It seems Benedict will not tell me which horse he favors.”  She saw Penelope a few rows ahead of her and waved before once again returning her attention to Darcy.

Darcy looked at her from the corner of her eye.  “I would indeed not tell my sister—if she were present—such information.”

Intrigued, Eloise smiled at him.  “I understand she is a married lady.  Still you would not tell her?”

He turned fully toward her.  “Georgiana knows nothing of horses.  She thinks they are like her pet dog—to be petted and cooed over.  Seeing sport would only distress her.  The races are no place for a woman such as she.”

His gaze had turned intense once again and Eloise only nodded.  “I’m afraid I have a different constitution.”

“I would not be here with you if you did not,” he told her plainly.  His gaze settled back on the track.  “I favor Apollo.  He’s a good steady horse.  He sometimes has difficulty getting started at the gate, but the weather is favorable.”  He glanced at the sky.  “If not a bit bright.”

Eloise leaned toward him slightly.  “That is why we ladies have hats.”  She had been forced to leave her hair pinned up on her head, but had put a hat on the side, fastened into her mass of hair and tied around the side of her head.  It wasn’t exactly fashionable, but Eloise wasn’t fashionable.  She was herself.

“Your hat does not shade your eyes,” Darcy remarked.

She smiled.  “It is unfortunate, is it not?”  When she glanced up, she thought she saw his face soften.

The race itself was intense.  Everyone was shouting, even some of the ladies, and Eloise cheered on Apollo although he only came in at third. 

She knew her face was flushed pink from the excitement and her breathing was heavy, but she didn’t care as she walked on Darcy’s arm for some refreshment afterward, her Mama in attendance. 

When they finally parted ways, he kissed her hand, and Eloise blushed despite herself.

“You have a suitor,” Anthony stated as soon as they were in their carriage.  He was sitting with a walking stick, hat on his head, looking quite pleased with himself.  “A well placed, if untitled one.”

Mama was beside him, gazing out the window.

Eloise was in the corner opposite beside Benedict who seemed quite happy with his winnings.

“Yes,” Eloise agreed.  “Is there a problem?”

“No problem,” Anthony told her.  “As I mentioned, I remember him from Cambridge.  Dull as dirt, but from a good, respectable family.  You could use some dullness.”

“He’s not dull,” Eloise refuted as Benedict broke into chuckles.  “He just takes life seriously.”

“Dull,” Anthony mouthed, and Eloise hit him with her pamphlet.  “Ow!”

“Come now,” Mama chided.  “You are all out in society.  Remember that.”  She settled herself in her seat.  “I like Mr. Darcy.  He doesn’t prattle around like some young men do.”

Anthony sighed.  “I am nine and twenty and Darcy was at least two years ahead of me.  He is hardly young.”

“Young enough to marry and have children,” Mama argued.  “Young enough to have an interest in our Eloise.”  She looked at her daughter.  “I think you make a lovely couple.”

Anthony didn’t look impressed, but he said nothing further.  Eloise felt slightly vindicated and was the first to exit the carriage.

Of course, Daphne had an opinion when she came for tea the next morning.

“Wickham, the roommate, was a rake,” she told Eloise and Mama.  “Simon says they were as different as night and day.”  She took a cake.

“That only speaks well of Mr. Darcy,” Mama pointed out.

“Yes, but Wickham had debts that Darcy paid off.  It was all quite peculiar.  There were rumors that Old Mr. Darcy was paying for Wickham’s education and that Wickham,” here she leaned in and whispered, “may have been the result of an affair.”

Eloise took a sip of her tea noisily.  “That speaks badly of Old Mr. Darcy and not—Mr. Darcy.”  She set down her cup and looked at the clock.

“Not yet, darling,” Mama soothed.

Just then, there was a knock at the door, and a butler entered with a letter on a tray.

Mama took it and opened it, scanning it quickly.  “Lady Danbury is having a soiree,” she announced, “for young ladies and gentlemen.  You are invited, Eloise.”

Eloise rolled her eyes.  “Tonight?” she guessed.

“Indeed,” Mama told her.  “You will go.”

Daphne let her teacup fall to its saucer.  “Well.  If it’s young ladies, I may not garner an invitation.  I suppose it is for the Misses Sharmas and their suitors.”

Eloise was now looking at the letter.  “Anthony is not invited.”

“No,” Mama realized.  “He offended the elder Miss Sharma somehow.  I believe Miss Edwina quite favors him, however.”

Daphne smiled.  “They make a lovely couple.”

Eloise supposed Daphne had seen them at the races the day before.  Anthony had somehow insinuated himself beside her on the benches, Eloise later learnt, despite Kate Sharma’s best efforts otherwise.

She checked the clock again.  It wasn’t eleven for another twelve minutes.

“He will come,” Mama promised, leaning forward and touching Eloise’s arm.  Her eyes were kind.  “I remember waiting for your father to call.  I cared for no one but him.  All the rest could have melted away into thin air.”

Daphne smiled at her Mama indulgently.  “I don’t think Eloise has any other suitors.”

Eloise scowled at her and got up to look out the window, careful to keep slightly behind the curtain.

“You only need the one,” Mama told her eldest pointedly, “as long as he is the right one.”

“But is he the right one?” Daphne asked the room.  “What if this Wickham is his illegitimate brother and what if Darcy is continuously paying off his debts?  Do you want that kind of burden?”

Eloise stamped her foot and turned.  “It does not signify,” she defended.  “I’m certain there is a rational explanation.”  In the courtyard below, she heard the sound of hooves and she turned to see Darcy arriving on a black charger, a parcel beneath his arm.  She stood on her tiptoes in her happiness, despite the silliness of it all, and signaled to her Mama and sister.  “He’s here, he’s here.”

Daphne sighed and put down her teacup.  “I should be going.”

“If you must,” Mama put in, as if she had been expecting it.  “Give our love to the Duke.”

Eloise wasn’t paying attention.  She was staring into the courtyard below and quickly had to draw back when Darcy looked up at the house.

“Come,” Mama beckoned, patting the cushion beside her, “sit by me.  He will be here momentarily.”

Daphne, it appeared, had already left.

Today Darcy had brought a carton of blue raspberries that he said were from his garden.  Eloise took one and popped it in her mouth, smiling at him.  “Do you not grow flowers, Mr. Darcy?” she asked, reaching for another one.

“There are flowers,” he refuted.  “My mother just liked fresh fruit.  We have an orange tree that is not quite in bloom.”

Eloise swallowed another raspberry.  “I did not know we had such a temperate climate for oranges.”  Then, she had a thought.  Turning to her Mama, she asked, “Does not the Queen grow oranges?”

Mama accepted a raspberry and nodded.  “I believe I saw an orange grove when I was invited to the palace last Season.—These are really quite delicious, Mr. Darcy.”  She closed her eyes at the taste of the raspberry.  “I really must commend you on your garden.”

Darcy nodded, but was watching Eloise.  “Do you take pleasure in a garden, Miss Bridgerton?”

Not quite looking at him, she admitted, “They’re the perfect place to avoid my brothers when I wish to read.  No one ever thinks to look for me there.”

Mama, clearly shocked, breathed, “Eloise!”

“No, Lady Bridgerton,” Mr. Darcy assured, “I should like to know what Miss Bridgerton truly thinks on these matters.  It is disguise of every sort that’s my abhorrence.”

“Eloise, Mr. Darcy, does not disguise herself.”

“No,” he agreed, gazing at Eloise with that intense verdant gaze of his, “she is, I believe, incapable of falsehood.”

Taking another raspberry, Eloise warned, “I am capable of pranks during pall-mall on my older brothers.”

“Pall-Mall?” Darcy asked in confusion.

“A game, roughly based on croquet,” Mama explained, “that my children enjoy playing when they are down at Aubrey Hall.  It is quite competitive.”  She smiled at the two of them.  “Perhaps the two of you would make a formidable team.”

Eloise grinned to herself.  She had never won a game, though she did enjoy knocking her brothers’ balls away from their intended wickets.  “Mr. Darcy is certainly taller than even Benedict.”

He looked at her for a minute, blinking, before admitting, “While I am not one for frivolities, I should certainly not wish you to lose, Miss Bridgerton.”

Mama, tucked away on the other couch, looked quite pleased with herself.

Eloise, however, wasn’t paying attention.  Instead, she was now regarding Mr. Darcy as intently as he had earlier been regarding her.  “I should not like you to be anything other than what you are,” she admitted after a long moment.  “It is horrible to conform to the expectations of others.”  This last part was said so softly, she knew Mama could not hear her, but Darcy seemed to, judging by how his face softened at the proclamation.

There was silence for several long moments, when Darcy just looked upon Eloise and Eloise gazed unabashedly back.

Mama cleared her throat.  “Have you been invited to Lady Danbury’s small soiree this evening, Mr. Darcy?”

He broke eye contact with Eloise, and she was sorry for it.

“Indeed, Lady Bridgerton.  I was uncertain if I should attend.  Small parties are only desirable when one knows the other members of the group.”

Mama did not look put off.  “Eloise is going.”  She fussed with her skirt.  “As I am not a young lady, I shall not be in attendance.  Lady Danbury is serving as chaperone for all the young people under her care.”

Eloise looked from her mother to Mr. Darcy, who appeared thoughtful.

“It appears, then, I have a reason to be in attendance,” he finally decided.

Eloise hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath.  She instantly released it when his eyes fell on her again, and she gave him a small, relieved smile.  Penelope would surely be there, of course, but she should like to introduce them.  There had not been an opportunity the day before at the Royal Races.

“There,” Mama said as they watched him leave from the Drawing Room window.  “I arranged that quite nicely if I do say so myself.”

Eloise came away, wringing her hands, and admitted, “Lady Whistledown will know if she doesn’t already.”

“And she will surely remark what a complimentary couple you make.”

Eloise turned to her, distressed.  “Daphne was the Diamond.  Prince Friedrick wanted to marry her, and she married the Duke of Hastings.  In comparison, I am sorely lacking and even Lady Whistledown will notice!”

“Do you like Mr. Darcy?” Mama asked in all seriousness.

Eloise glanced at her, incredulous.  “That is not the point—”

“That is exactly the point,” Mama argued.  “If you like Mr. Darcy, and he is a man of consequence and good breeding, then there is nothing wanting in the match.”  Mama came up to her and took her hands, trying to catch her gaze.  “You and Daphne are two different women, with different temperaments, different strengths, different flaws, but you are both my daughters.  I only wanted a love match for Daphne, which is what she got.  That is what I want for you, and I think you are well on your way to securing it, sweetheart.”

“Anthony has a list,” Eloise whined, referencing her eldest brother’s list of traits to be found in his perfect wife.

Mama sighed.  “You leave Anthony to me.  You concentrate on looking your best tonight and enjoying yourself.”

Eloise allowed herself to be subjected to her maid after dinner.  She missed the days of high necklines and shorter skirts, when she was able to hide as a child—but if she wanted to retain the attention of Mr. Darcy, then she certainly could pretend to be a child no longer.

When she looked in the mirror, she wasn’t certain she recognized the young woman looking back at her.

The carriage took her to Lady Danbury’s townhouse, and she was handed out by a footman.  The house was all done up in lights, but Eloise didn’t notice.  Instead, she was looking for a tall figure with curly hair and green eyes, but she didn’t see him among the guests when she entered.

“Does not Miss Edwina look beautiful?” Penelope asked when the young men began a poetry reading for the benefit of the Season’s Diamond.

Eloise took in her eager face.  “Anthony certainly believes so,” she answered noncommittally.  She breathed out and craned her neck over a pack of young gentlemen who were conversing near the window. 

“Who are you looking for?” Penelope asked after the poetry reading was finished and another young man took his place.

“Looking for?” Eloise asked, forcing a smile on her face.  “No one.”

Penelope looked up at her through her lashes.  “It wouldn’t be the gentleman you spoke to at Lady Danbury’s ball?  Mama said she thought you were being escorted by someone other than one of your brothers at the Races yesterday.”

Eloise scoffed and waved her hand.  “Gentleman?—Oh!”

Over near the door, Mr. Darcy had just entered the room.  His tall form caused him to tower over nearly everyone else present and as he turned to look over the room, he looked over in Eloise and Penelope’s direction.

Eloise reached a hand upward and signaled to him despite it being unladylike, and Penelope caught the action.

“El,” she chided.

“Perhaps the gentleman is here,” she explained as she saw Darcy make his way over to them through the crowd.  He really did cut quite the figure.

Darcy approached them and bowed formally.  “Miss Bridgerton,” he greeted, his face as stoic as it usually was.

Eloise smiled at him and curtseyed.  “I don’t believe you know my friend, Miss Penelope Featherington,” she introduced.  “Pen, this is Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.”

Penelope, if Eloise had to guess, looked startled, but soon bobbed a curtsey while still holding onto Eloise’s arm.

“Miss Featherington,” Darcy greeted.

Eloise was worried that the three of them would fall into silence, when clapping broke out from the group of ladies who were watching the gentlemen perform.  She indicated the young man to Darcy and explained, “the gentlemen are performing for the benefit of Miss Edwina Sharma.  It seems to have become a contest.”

Her point was proved when Sir George took out a hoop and began to perform tricks with it.

Darcy raised an eyebrow.  “Why does Miss Edwina deserve such consideration?”

Eloise grimaced and looked at Penelope, who seemed mute.  Clearing her throat, Eloise explained, “Miss Edwina is this year’s incomparable.  All the young men want to marry the Queen’s Diamond.  It was so last year with my sister, Daphne.”

“But we never quite had such—amusements,” Penelope added when the hoop was swung into the air.

Darcy looked back over his shoulder at Sir George.  “Indeed.”

Eloise nudged Penelope who remained unmoving.  She nudged again.  Still nothing happened.  “Oh, look, Pen,” she suggested.  “Does not Kate Sharma desire your company for a moment?”

Bad poetry was now being recited.

“Oh,” Penelope said, catching on.  “I think she does.”  She curtseyed.  “Mr. Darcy.”  Then she was off in a flurry of yellow fabric.

Darcy immediately came around and stood beside Eloise.  They were silent for several minutes, listening to the poetry, before Darcy blew out of his nose and commented, “His cadence is wrong.”

Eloise looked up in surprise and asked, “Are you fond of poetry, Mr. Darcy?”

“Not particularly, no,” he answered, looking down at her and ignoring the young man and his recitation completely.  “I do, however, have a younger sister and was obliged to read any book she desired to read herself, to determine whether or not it was appropriate.”

Raising her eyebrows, Eloise asked, “I do hope the lady’s husband does not have a similar notion to the lady’s choice of reading material.”

“I know not,” Darcy responded.  “Owestry and I do not converse on such subjects.” 

Someone else stood in front of the assembled guests and held a spoon aloft, blowing on it, before applying it to his nose.  Eloise didn’t notice.

“Would you approve if he did?” Eloise carefully asked, remembering that the Viscount of Owestry was the title of Darcy’s good brother.

Darcy appeared to consider for a moment.  “Georgiana has an overly impressionable mind,” he admitted, “and is easily led.  I would not object to any precautions he might take.”

That, however, did not answer Eloise’s question.  She wanted to know if Darcy would take such precautions with his own wife.  She waited through the assembled guests breaking out into applause once again.

He just looked back at her.

They gazed at each other for such a prolonged period that they drew the notice of Lady Danbury, who interrupted them by clearing her throat.  She looked between the two of them, clearly amused, and smiled that self-satisfied smile of hers.  “I hope, Mr. Darcy, we can expect to see your talents on display.”

Darcy shifted, his hands clasped behind his back, and Eloise intuitively realized that he was uncomfortable with the suggestion.

Quickly, she placed a hand on his upper arm, turned to Lady Danbury and smiled, “I’m afraid I’m not prepared to release him to the other young ladies.”

If it was possible, Lady Danbury appeared even more pleased.  “Is that so, Miss Eloise?  Why should you enjoy all the good fortune of his company?”

Uncertain at first what to respond, Eloise was lost for an answer.  The thought ‘he brought me strawberries’ ran through her mind, but she didn’t think that was entirely politic.  Darcy, however, responded for her—

“Because we wish for each other’s company, Lady Danbury, to the exclusion of all others.”

Eloise’s neck snapped toward him, and she saw that he was once again gazing toward her with that intense look he had. 

“Is that so?” Lady Danbury asked no one in particular.  “Then I hope, Mr. Darcy, you can convince our Miss Eloise to the dancefloor before the Season is over.  I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing her dance.”

She did not wait for a response but instead left the two of them, who were now gazing at each other once again at the exclusion of the rest of the room. 

The room erupted into applause once again, and Eloise realized she had moved closer toward Darcy.

“You asked me a question,” he noted before amending, “you implied your question.”

She swallowed.  She wanted to know the answer.  “I believe I did.”

“Although I know you to be younger than Lady Owestry,” he began, making Eloise wonder how old his younger sister was, “I believe you to be a lady of sense and not taken up by poetic fancies.”

“Even if I while away my time under an orange tree in the garden with a book of verse?” she teased, half serious.

He leaned in, and she thought he inhaled just over her hair, which she washed with lavender water just that afternoon.  “Even then,” he agreed.

The couple retreated to a window when the room became too hot, occasionally remarking on the young men who were performing for the benefit of the ladies and Miss Edwina Sharma in particular.

Darcy fetched her a glass of lemonade when the fire became a bit too much and they both lamented their inability to leave the drawing room.

“Lady Danbury should have culled her guest list,” Darcy suggested when he came back from a nearby table with what Eloise believed was a decorative fan.

She looked at it, saw that it was operational, and began to fan herself.  She never thought of herself as a young lady who would use a fan, but needs must.  Besides, she wasn’t fluttering it like she was supposed to but instead flapping it in large wrist movements, even occasionally turning it toward Darcy.

Eloise glanced at the large group.  “More and more gentlemen keep on appearing.  Look—there is Anthony and I know he was not invited!”

“Surely he was on the guest list,” Darcy argued, clearly confused.

“Miss Kate Sharma dislikes him,” Eloise explained.  “No one gets to Miss Edwina unless they go through the elder Miss Sharma.  She’s like a guard dog in a dress.”

Darcy’s eyes widened at her description and, when Eloise realized what she had said, a small laugh escaped her lips.

She quickly fluttered her fan at him with a smile, and the couple became silent while Anthony tried to read a love poem.  Soon, however, he abandoned it in favor of his own words—which flowed much more smoothly from his lips—and Miss Edwina allowed him to lead her away from the fire for a private tete-a-tete. 

Eloise regarded them in curiosity and wasn’t ignorant of the fact that Anthony’s eyes strayed twice toward the window where she was standing with Darcy despite his conversation with his Diamond.

When the evening was wrapping up, Anthony made his way over to them and Eloise playfully waved the fan in his face.

“Sister,” he greeted gruffly.

“Is it not hot?” she asked.  “Lady Danbury invited too many people and the fire is too warm.”

He looked at her askance before nodding.  “I had noticed the warmth of the room.—I shall put you in your carriage.—Darcy, join me at my club.”  It wasn’t a request.  Anthony clearly required Darcy’s presence at White’s, and Eloise was clearly going to be the subject of their conversation.

She closed the fan with a snap of her wrist and hit Anthony on the shoulder.

“Ow!” he complained.

“I’m right here,” she told him.

“Sister, you do not understand how the world works,” Anthony told her calmly.  “Let me take you to your carriage.”

Eloise knew exactly how the world worked.  She knew that Anthony tried to force Daphne to marry Lord Burbridge the year before—despite her protestations—because of her lack of suitors, and she knew that Daphne had been forced to marry the Duke of Hastings quickly—though the exact reason was a mystery to her.

She glared at Anthony for a long moment before turning to Darcy with a smile.  “Thank you for a wonderful evening—and the fan,” she added with a laugh. 

He bowed to her and kissed her hand, and she allowed Anthony to escort her out.

She was alone in the carriage with her thoughts, but it was fortunately not a long ride.  Mama was waiting in her dressing gown and asked her how the night went, and she only smiled before adding, “Anthony insisted that Darcy join him at White’s.”

Mama looked at her knowingly.  “They’re probably discussing Darcy’s exact fortune and your dowry, dearest.  Nothing to be alarmed about.”

“We just met earlier this week—”

“And yet there is an attachment,” Mama argued as she led Eloise up the stairs.  “Do not worry about it, dearest.”  She kissed her on the forehead and then released her to her maid.

The rest of the raspberries were on a plate on Eloise’s vanity, and she ate them as her hair was unpinned and she was put into her nightdress.  She put the fan—which must belong to Lady Danbury—on her bedside table, and fell asleep with a smile on her face.

The next week was dull—or rather, Darcy was notably absent.

The Bridgertons had descended on Aubrey Hall to prepare for their annual ball, and Darcy was not set to arrive until Thursday afternoon.

The Sharmas, however, were coming on Monday.

“Why can’t we invite Mr. Darcy?” Eloise asked Mama.

“He is a single gentleman,” Mama explained calmly.  “It is a different matter.  He will be here in a few days.”

Eloise had to content herself with watching the Sharma sisters and reading.  Daphne unfortunately noticed her malaise and teased her about ‘falling in love’ but Eloise tried to ignore her.

She did, however, happen upon Anthony and Kate Sharma in the garden in what appeared to be an intimate embrace.  Eloise stood from her vantage point, watching as Anthony’s hand was pressed to Kate’s chest—waiting for something to happen—before the two seemed to come to themselves and left.

“Anthony?” she asked him later that day when he was in his study.

He didn’t look up at her.

“Anthony,” she pressed.

His eyes glanced upward.

“I—You almost kissed Kate Sharma in the garden.”

His face flushed red before draining of all color.  “She was stung by a bee,” he explained.

Eloise opened her mouth to protest, but realized a bee sting was one thing she could not protest.  “Be careful, brother,” she said instead.

With the guests, however, did not come Mr. Darcy of Pemberley but an apology letter.  “What can he mean by it?” Mama wondered aloud.  “Business keeps him in Town?”

Eloise felt small and looked at her plate.  She could feel Hyacinth’s eyes on her.

Still, there was nothing to be done.  She would attend the ball—and Anthony would most likely propose to Miss Edwina, though Eloise was beginning to think that was a bad idea.  Part of her wondered if Anthony’s private conversation with Darcy at White’s had somehow frightened Darcy away, but when she reread Darcy’s letter she tried to convince herself that wasn’t the case.

Business in town and he promised to call when they were all back in London.

Eloise was in a lavender haze at the ball and spent most of it in the garden.  Fortunately, no one ventured out into it, and she lay on a bench, looking up at the dogwood blossoms above her.

Anthony did not propose at their final dinner, but he did propose when the Sharmas were leaving.  He used Mama’s engagement ring.  It was a beautiful piece—Eloise felt foolish for wondering if Darcy had a similar ring somewhere in his London House, secreted away for when he would need it.  But would he need it for her?

She remembered Lady Whistledown’s original gossip sheet when she had announced Darcy’s arrival in London.  Whistledown had referenced a possible love affair in Hertfordshire.  Who was the lady?  Was she anything like Eloise or was she completely different?  Was she everything that was loveliness and ladylike sensibilities?  Was she more like Daphne and Edwina Sharma?  Was Darcy regretting his short attachment to Eloise and pining for this lady, whoever she may be?

The first morning back in London, Eloise descended the stairs, a book of poetry clasped between her fingers.

“You look beautiful this morning, Miss Bridgerton.”

Eloise looked up, entirely startled, and saw Darcy waiting in the entry hall, a small basket in his hand.  He was just as tall as she remembered, his green eyes bright and shining from underneath his brown curls.  He was utterly kissable—and the thought caused Eloise to blush.

“Mr. Darcy,” she greeted, coming up to him.  “I hope your business is completed to your satisfaction.”

He looked uncomfortable for a long moment but then held out the basket.  Eloise took it and looked inside to see fresh blueberries.  She smiled at him.  “You spoil me.”

He leaned forward and admitted, “That was my intention, Miss Bridgerton.”

She looked into his eyes and saw only sincerity and felt her breath leave her for a long moment.

Mr. Darcy gazed directly back at her.

Eloise wondered what he saw in her blue eyes.  If he was as fascinated with the color as she was with his.

Someone cleared her throat and Eloise jumped slightly, turning to see her Mama standing in the doorway to the drawing room.  “Are you going to invite Mr. Darcy in, Eloise?” she asked pointedly before disappearing.

Eloise smiled bashfully at Darcy before leading him through where they sat together on a sofa.

She took a blueberry and popped it in her mouth, her book of poetry discarded on a side table.

“I feel I must explain,” Darcy began, addressing both Eloise and the Dowager Lady Bridgerton.  “It was a rather singular situation.”

“Mr. Darcy, no explanation is needed—” Mama began, but Darcy put up a hand in protest.

“Undoubtedly you have heard of my father’s godson, a Mr. Wickham.”

Eloise’s eyes flashed up to Darcy at the name in recognition, and he nodded toward her.

“I see that you have.—Mr. Wickham has a dissolute character.  More than once I have been forced to pay his debts and have heard tales of his debauchery.”  He took a deep breath.  “However, my father was fond of him.  He left him the living at Kympton upon his death, but Wickham professed no interest in the church.  He demanded—and I foolishly granted—the worth of the living instead, which he gambled away in a matter of months.”  He closed his eyes for a moment and Eloise reached her hand toward him before recollecting herself and letting it drop back to the basket of blueberries.  He looked at her with his expressive green eyes and she gave him a small smile.  “He then tried to marry into money,” Darcy continued, “but no lady of standing would have him.  This past November he was engaged to a Miss King in Hertfordshire who had ten thousand pounds, but her uncle soon heard of his reputation and took the young lady away.  His attention, it seemed, then turned to another gentleman’s daughter.  I was acquainted, however nominally, with this gentleman, and when I learned that Wickham eloped with his youngest daughter—a foolish girl of fifteen years—and that the elopement had failed to take place…” He paused, “I could not see the family ruined if it was within my power to offer aid.  I grew up with Wickham and I know his patterns.  The family would have been ruined if I had not offered help.  As such, I resolved to find Wickham and facilitate the marriage, which took place just the day before yesterday.”

Eloise blinked and turned to her mother.

Mama looked composed but her eyes fluttered for a moment.  “Thank you,” she began, “for this explanation, although it was unnecessary.  You were, of course, missed.  I had hoped to see Eloise dance, but she evaded the dancefloor as is her usual custom.”

“My dance card was full,” Eloise mumbled before picking up another blueberry.  She glanced at Darcy and saw the smallest of smiles on his face.  Turning to him more fully, she asked, “The young lady, then, is honorably married?”

“Yes,” he agreed, “although I do not believe Wickham will be a good husband to her.—It will be in The Times.”

Eloise did not read The Times, though she knew she could find a copy in Anthony’s study.

Choosing to change the subject, she told Darcy, her voice tripping over itself in her hurry, “Anthony is engaged to Miss Edwina Sharma.”

“Yes,” Mama agreed, clearly slightly perturbed, “he is quite pleased.”

Eloise wondered at it, but instead turned her attention toward Darcy.

“My felicitations,” he offered before the conversation turned to Colin’s latest letter from Greece.  Darcy had never traveled there, but enjoyed Colin’s flare for description.

Eloise should have known that Darcy was getting a sense for her personality because while they were promenading, he leaned toward her and asked, “Are you going to the publishing house?”

She looked up at him with wide blue eyes, her mouth slightly agape, and found she could not answer him.

“There was a watermark on the pamphlet I purchased for you before you left for Aubrey Hall, was there not?” he continued.  “You did not have time to explore it before you left, and with your brother’s engagement everyone will be distracted.”

“You underestimate my Mama,” she scowled at him slightly.  “She is most interested in me this Season.”

“Yes,” he agreed as they continued to walk through the park, several steps behind the other Bridgertons and Sharmas, “but now there is a wedding to plan.”

Eloise nodded cautiously.  “I thought I would bribe our carriage driver to take me to Bloomsbury.”  She looked but at Darcy carefully.

“Wouldn’t it be better if you had an escort?” he asked her just as carefully, “Someone whose presence would dissuade pickpockets and ruffians from harming your person?”

Quirking a smile at him, Eloise inquired, “Are you offering me your carriage, Mr. Darcy?”

“Perhaps I desire to be alone with you,” he suggested, now looking ahead to where Kate Sharma was getting into a boat with some gentleman, making Anthony clearly perturbed.  “We are never completely alone.”

“Not even in a ballroom,” she agreed.  Her eyes flitted out, “If Anthony found out he would force you to marry me.”

“That is a foregone conclusion,” he argued, causing her eyes to snap up to his.  “He cannot force me to take an action I have already decided upon.”

Instead of answering, because Eloise was uncertain if she quite had an answer, she asked Darcy, “Does it not strike you as odd that my brother Anthony desires the attention of Miss Kate Sharma?”

If the change of subject surprised him, Darcy gave no indication.  Instead, he cleared his throat carefully, “It has been my experience that some gentlemen prefer ladies who argue with and tease them.  They view it as a mark of favor.”

“Why?” Eloise asked, stopping and staring between Anthony and Kate Sharma.  “Would it not prove vexing?”

When Darcy did not answer, Eloise turned to him. 

At her questioning look, he eventually admitted, “It has been my experience, that the gentlemen in these situations are mistaken as to the ladies’ suitability.  However, the Viscount Bridgerton will have to learn that for himself.”

Eloise blinked—“You speak as if you—know.”  Her throat felt suddenly dry.  She licked her lips and noticed that Darcy’s face had become unreadable.  “Of course.  The romance in Hertfordshire.”

He shifted.  “I will not lie to you, Miss Bridgerton.”

She nodded and glanced back at Anthony who had now approached the lake.  “She was unsuitable?”

“Wholly and completely,” Darcy murmured.

Eloise turned toward him again and looked into his green eyes, their gazes holding for a long minute until the sound of splashing drew their attention to the lake where Anthony was now sputtering about in the water.

Darcy placed his free hand over Eloise’s, which was linked in his arm.  “Wholly unsuitable,” he assured her as they looked out on the mess.

When they arrived back at the house not an hour later, Eloise slipped into Anthony’s study, a suspicion in her mind.  She sifted through past issues of The Times until she found the wedding announcement of a Mr. Wickham to Miss Lydia Bennet.  Bennet.  If she was right, the unsuitable lady was a Bennet from Hertfordshire, and Darcy had missed the Bridgertons’ ball in favor of saving the lady’s family reputation.

It was surely proof that he was a good and honorable man—but was it proof that this lady still held sway over him?  Was she some great beauty with blonde hair and piercing eyes, who laughed and teased and sparkled at every Assembly, unlike Eloise who was dark and small and hid in the corner of ballrooms?  The idea haunted her—

There was only one thing for it.  She would have to ensure that Darcy fell so completely in love with her he would barely remember Hertfordshire and would have no desire to go there again.  Yes, that would be the answer.  This Bennet would never be Mrs. Darcy, that title—by Darcy’s own admission—belonged to Eloise, and she would grasp it with both hands and never let it down.

Hopefully, Lady Whistledown will soon have a report on Darcy of Pemberley to write where she linked his name to that of Eloise Bridgerton!

Continue to Part II…

Published by excentrykemuse

Fanfiction artist and self critic.

2 thoughts on “Eloise & Darcy, Pt. 1

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