Title: La Contessa Isabella Maria Volturi
Written: June 25, 2018-June 27, 2018
Fandom(s): Pride & Prejudice and the Twilight Series
Paring(s): Bella Swan/Fitzwilliam Darcy, (past) Elizabeth/Darcy
Summary: Bella didn’t remember much of anything. She knew that she enjoyed riding and sitting with her Uncle Marcus Volturi in the evenings… he said she was too beautiful to be seen by “mere mortals” so she wore a veil… even when. she went to Pemberley when the master of the house was not at home. Time Travel AU.
Warnings: time travel, snobbishness, vampires, unhappy Elizabeth Bennet.
It was like a shadow, a dream really. There was a time when birds flew the air and carried humans. She had gone from the Colonies to Italy—run through the sun—and then fallen against something hard. It was all so peculiar to her. She woke up on a bed, her dark brown hair wet and combed out, wearing nothing but a shift.
A man with skin that was as thin and white as paper was sitting next to her, reading by the light of a candle. He was unearthly in his looks, undoubtedly handsome, with eyes so red that they scared her a little.
“Isabella,” he greeted, putting down the book. “Are you feeling well?”
She did not remember her uncle, Count Marcus Volturi. Any memory of him was completely gone. She had thought her name was Bella Swan, only to be informed that she was Contessa Isabella Volturi and she had hit her head on their voyage from Italy to England. She and her uncle had fled given the war with Napoleon, seeking safer shores.
They traveled throughout the island and were primarily reclusive, although Uncle Marcus always dressed her in the height of fashion. When they were staying in Derbyshire they were near the estate of Pemberley, which was known for its extensive grounds.
When they had been down in Kent, Uncle Marcus had taught her how to ride side-saddle, a talent she had forgotten, and Bella had heard that the master of the house was away.
She spent days wandering the trails and enjoying the feel of the sun on her face, although she of course wore a veiled bonnet to protect her complexion. One day when she was sitting and reading near the lake, a horse rode up and she saw that there was a man on top of the large black beast. It reared when it saw her and she shrank back, but the rider stayed astride before dismounting himself.
The man was well dressed but his cravat was messy, his hair wild, his eyes glittering in madness. A beard was growing on his chin as if he hadn’t shaved for several days and his fingernails had been bitten down to the quick.
“Sir,” Bella murmured as she got to her feet, her book still in her hands. “I’m afraid you’re trespassing.”
Looking surprised, he took her in. Bella knew that she was uncommonly beautiful. The shopkeepers often whispered behind her back how the latest cuts suited her so well and more than one gentleman asked to be introduced to her at a dance when she could drag Uncle Marcus out for some form of society.
“I fear you,” he answered arrogantly, “are the one trespassing, Madam.”
She started in surprise. “Are you—you cannot be Mr. Darcy of Pemberley?” Bella tilted her head and looked at him probingly. “The steward said the gentleman had not sent word that he was to be expected, otherwise I never would have presumed—” She looked over the pond, the willow hanging over it, and sighed. Bella had no memory of her native Italy. Her remembrance of the language was also sporadic at best and her uncle despaired at her accent, claiming she sounded more like a Spanish fishmonger’s wife than an Italian Contessa. Still, with her injury he was grateful that she was able to communicate with him verbally at all although, he did say, “You sound peculiarly unlike any English native I have ever heard.”
“My steward allowed you entrance,” the man checked, looking at her and taking in her fashionable pink dress, veiled bonnet, and lace blusher.
“Indeed, sir. I am la Contessa Isabella Maria Volturi. I escaped Bonaparte with my uncle to these shores and I do enjoy the quiet of your estate. We had to leave our lands behind, you understand.” He did look quite wild, but there was a gentle strength to his frame. Somehow, Bella knew he would never hurt her. She wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the barrel of a gun with him pointing it, but this man, whatever hell he had traversed through, would not hurt a lady.
“Quite,” he agreed, indicating that she should retake her seat on the lawn before joining her. His horse was set free to graze nearby. “Forgive me for startling you. I have been unaccustomed to society of late and had a certain expectation of privacy.”
Bella always found that particular word comical. Here, in Britain, the first syllable was short. PRIH-vacy. As she remembered learning it, it was long. PRIE-vacy. She often had to catch herself and remember how to say it correctly.
“I can go—” she offered. “I never wished to be a nuisance—I—” Bella looked around her in agitation. “My horse has got somewhere.”
“I’ll send you back in a carriage if necessary,” he promised. “I must look a fright. I have been traveling nonstop from London for several days. I am not fit to receive any lady.”
“Then I release you,” she told him quickly. “And I shall not darken your door again. You shall have all the privacy you desire, Mr. Darcy.”
He seemed to hesitate, then nodded. “I shall inform the housekeeper that you may need the carriage, Contessa. May I inquire as to the destination?” His speech was becoming more refined, putting Bella more at ease despite his wild appearance, and she let a small smile form on her face.
“The Inn at Lambton.”
“And your excellent uncle.”
She glanced up at him, understanding. Many men wished to call on such distinguished a person, but he had a rare skin condition where he was allergic to light. He told her, when she first woke, that the sun pained him and it caused his eyes to glow red, and he was relieved when she was born and did not show similar symptoms. He stayed indoors during the day, closing all curtains and shying away from any sunrays that might show through, and it wasn’t until Bella had been living with her uncle several months that she realized what happened when sunlight touched his skin.
He had been passing through a hallway, the curtain not quite closed, and a ray of light passed over his forehead, causing it to sparkle. Bella had rushed to him and kept him in place, looking at him with wide eyes. They never spoke of it, but she understood. No one would understand, so he stayed hidden until after the sun set and only then would he come out.
Bella was brought out of her musings when the black beast of a horse trotted a little closer to them, in search of fresh grass.
“Count Marcus Volturi,” she answered. “However, I’m afraid that his eyes are highly sensitive to light. He does not leave our rooms during the day and rarely receives visitors. He means no offense, but the doctors can find no cure, though he has taken the waters at Bath.”
Darcy bowed his head. “I will leave my compliments then and hope to make his better acquaintance when his doctors permit. Contessa.” He took her hand and kissed it gently, looking up toward her eyes that were covered by the veil.
She watched him as he left, wondering at the man.
After reading for another hour and being unable to find her horse, Isabella took the offered carriage and went back to Lambton. Her horse was delivered later that night, and she smiled when it was accompanied by a groom who brought freshly picked wild flowers.
“You are happy, Isabella,” Uncle Marcus noticed, glancing at the token. “Many gentlemen have shown interest in you before.”
“But none of them have had such wondrous estates,” she gasped. “I don’t remember our castle in Italy, Uncle, and I am certain it is superior—but to live in such a place and not to be a wanderer—”
“You would marry for such considerations?” he asked after a moment, his paper thin skin touching the blossoms. “I had not thought that of you. I thought you would insist on marrying for love.”
A thought tugged on her mind, the idea that love left her cold and alone in the dark. “No,” she finally said. “No, I am not such a fool. You never married, Uncle. You proved not the fool either.”
He looked at her with sadness and turned away. “I did marry, il mio piccola. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen—and the kindest. She was murdered before you were born.”
“Uncle,” she whispered, coming up to him and grasping his arm gently. “I’m sorry I didn’t remember.”
He glanced at her with his blood red eyes. “Love hurts, Isabella. Remember that, whatever you may choose. It ravages the heart, though I think, perhaps, that I would do it all again if I had the choice.” His large hand covered hers and he squeezed it. “Perhaps you should not discount it, even regarding a man with such a fine house, though I would like you to catch a title.”
“I have a title,” she reminded him with a sly grin.
“A thought,” he reminded her.
The next morning they were sitting at breakfast, curtains drawn, when the maid came in with a card and a note. Lord Marcus picked it up and read, to no one’s surprise, “Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.” “Well, he has come calling.” Next he picked up the note and opened it, reading it. “He has invited you to a picnic today at two. He will send a carriage with a maid to serve as chaperone. We’re to give his man a reply.”
“I wonder if he shaved his beard,” she murmured, taking a bite of her orange. “I generally dislike men with beards. Did Father have a beard?”
Her uncle smiled. “I don’t believe he did, no. Italian men can be clean shaven, Isabella, dear. Still, you liked his house. You like his grounds.”
“I feel,” she began, glancing at her uncle and then looking away, “as if I know him. As if I’ve read about him in The Times, Uncle, only I do not read, The Times. It is most peculiar. He was not engaged to be married, was he? I might remember that as engagements are announced in the women’s magazines.”
Lord Marcus looked amused, as if he knew something he was not sharing with his niece. “No,” he stated decidedly. “Mr. Darcy of Pemberley has never been engaged. That is not how you know his name, my dear.”
“How peculiar. Well, I shall go to see whether or not he fancies growing a beard, and if it suits him any better today than it did yesterday. I shall go with your consent.”
He waved her off. Bella kissed him before she went to write her response.
What she hadn’t been expecting was for Mr. Darcy to come and fetch her himself. “So you are not like Italian men,” she greeted. “You shaved.”
“I did,” he agreed, taking her hand and kissing it. Darcy took her in. “I didn’t notice yesterday, but your hair is unbound, Contessa.”
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, she shied away. “I did not realize it would offend you—usually I am only seen in the evenings when my uncle can attend, and I bind it on those occasions.”
“No,” he stated carefully, a cane in his hand. “It’s charming. It is just, as a bachelor, I have only ever seen my sister’s hair as free as yours.”
Bella looked at him and offered a shy smile. “Forgive me. England is so peculiar to me and—well—Italy is a distant memory,” she lied. It wasn’t even that. She thought, sometimes, that she dreamt of a town with people wearing red cloaks and a castle in the distance, but she couldn’t be certain if this had been her home.
He smiled at her, some sadness in his mind. “Let me show you Pemberley,” he decided, offering her his arm.
“I’ve seen a great deal of it,” she reminded him. Taking his arm, she paused at the door where he helped her with her blue pelisse and veiled bonnet.
They caused quite a stir in the street when they appeared together and he lifted her into his carriage where, indeed, there was a maid.
“God Bless You, Mr. Darcy!” a man shouted, “and the lady!”
Bella smiled behind the veil and looked at Darcy who tipped his hat toward the man.
Similar shouts were cried out in the street and the open carriage started, Bella sitting comfortably next to a man who bewildered her. He seemed so calm compared to the arrogant wildness of the day before.
“Veiled bonnets are an exception to the rule in England,” he began carefully as they made their way along the road.
Bella glanced at him, waiting for him to continue.
“Are they de rigeur in Italy?”
Pausing, Bella wasn’t certain how to respond at first. “Women veil themselves for religious reasons, of course,” she began, “but it is my uncle. His illness frightens him and he likes me to cover my face from the sun in case I should suddenly take ill. That and,” she blushed again, “two men started a duel over who would dance a Quadrille with me and Uncle Marcus thought that I was perhaps a bit too beautiful for England.”
“A duel for a Quadrille?” Darcy asked in surprise. “You must indeed be a beauty, Contessa, but I have never heard of a ball quite inspiring such admiration in men. I pray neither of the gentlemen were injured.”
“Uncle Marcus thought it best we leave the county before the duel took place. He thought the winner might think himself above his station.” Bella related this quite casually. She was quite used to Lord Marcus and his beliefs on status and wealth.
“Quite right,” Darcy surprisingly agreed. “However, these men should have been driven out, not you and Count Marcus Volturi.”
“I was not overly fond of the place,” she admitted. “Tell me, Mr. Darcy, have you been late in London? Uncle Marcus refuses to go. He believes there are too many people who would call during the daylight.”
Accepting the change in conversation, Darcy inclined his head. “I’m afraid not, Madam. I was at my aunt’s house in Kent: Rosings Park. I go there every Easter.”
“And come back the antihero in a Byron novel?” she asked quite seriously, smoothing her veil over her face and looking at him with her big brown eyes. “You were quite the sight, Mr. Darcy.”
“I imagine. However, you still came.”
“I like your manor,” she answered with a laugh. “I also wanted to see how you would present yourself, sir.”
An arrogant look of self-satisfaction covered his features. “And how do you take the Master of Pemberley?” His voice was full of natural pride and Bella was rather intrigued.
“I find you worthy of being a portrait on Pemberley’s walls,” she told him honestly, “beside your father and your father’s father.”
He took her gloved hand and kissed it, making her smile although he couldn’t see it. Bella didn’t know why she liked his arrogance. He wasn’t hiding anything from her and she appreciated that. She was tired of Edward and his games and his lies—the name startled her in her memory and she turned away from him slightly.
“Forgive me,” she murmured, “I thought I saw—I’m not certain what they’re called in English. It’s a very beautiful bird.” The lie caught in her throat and she turned back to Darcy.
Her hand still rested in his and neither seemed inclined to let the other go.
A fortnight passed this way. Darcy always called, bringing her to Pemberley or squiring her around Lambton. He even invited the uncle and niece to a candlelight dinner well past sunset, but Lord Marcus declined because of his “health.”
“You think he’ll notice your eyes or skin,” Bella said suggestively when they had been there a month and she and Darcy were the talk of Derbyshire despite the fact that he had only glimpsed her face when the wind escaped with her veil. “Or is it something else?”
“I do not wish to interfere, my dear.”
She paused. “Why are we really here?”
He sighed. “I need to hide you, my dear. I chose a place where there was Pride and Prejudice, where others would always know where you are but wouldn’t be able to reach you.” Uncle Marcus said it almost to himself. “It’s a punishment.”
Bella didn’t understand anything but the last bit. “You’re punishing me?”
“No,” he told her quickly. “I am rewarding you for love and loyalty, Isabella. I am also keeping you safe—from Bonaparte. I just wish Darcy had a title.”
She gasped. “Has he asked?”
“Not yet,” Marcus told her honestly. “I think he’s waiting a little longer. I heard the maids talking that Miss Darcy might be expected. He may wish to introduce you to her, perhaps.”
Nodding, Bella turned and sat down in a comfortable chair. “Uncle Marcus, we never discussed it, but Darcy is a proud man. I think he only noticed me because I am a Contessa.”
“Most likely,” Uncle Marcus agreed, seeming to know something again. “What concerns you?”
“My dowry.” There, she said it, straight and with no room for confusion. She had been afraid to ask. Bella knew that they had money, it was obvious in the way they lived, but she didn’t know her marriage portion.
Lord Marcus smirked. “You have nothing to be worried about. When he comes to discuss the subject, he will be more than pleased, little Countess.”
She ran to him and hugged him round the middle, her face buried into his chest. “Uncle Marcus. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“You would probably be speaking Italian,” he jested, running a hand through her dark curls. “With that horrible boy who professed to love you.”
Bella looked up in shock. “Edward—I remember someone named Edward always lying to me.”
“Yes,” he agreed, stroking the side of her cheek. “He can’t lie to you anymore, though, dear one. You’re here with me, and if I even so much as think that this Darcy is lying to you, there will be a duel at dawn and he shall not survive it.”
She laughed a little, thinking he was joking.
A fortnight later, Bella and Darcy were walking along a wooded path at Pemberley, a maid ten paces behind them, when Darcy confessed to her, “I’m in a conundrum.”
“Indeed?” she asked, looking over at him. Her face was completely uncovered, her veiled bonnet hanging from its ribbons from her fingers. That morning she had felt whimsical and so had braided her hair, which fell past her shoulders, a sprig of wildflowers in the ribbon that confined it, placed there by Darcy earlier in the afternoon.
When he had first seen her, his gaze had lingered on her face for several long moments before he had taken her hand gently in his and kissed it, professing her fairer than Helen of Troy.
“When I was at Cambridge,” he explained, “I took a younger boy under my wing. Bingley. He is not quite of my social station. Still, he is a pleasant fellow. His sister is a fortune hunter and I have been her target for many years and his other relations are—harmless embarrassments.”
Bella looked over at him, her eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. Still, she said nothing.
“Last autumn I invited them to Pemberley and Bingley was kind enough to offer to accompany Georgiana up from London.”
“Your sister,” she clarified, smiling slightly.
“Yes. I do not wish to introduce you to society that is so beneath you, Contessa. The Bingley fortune comes from trade—as good a friend as Bingley is I have never introduced him to any of my mother’s family, the Matlocks.”
That name stirred a memory in Bella. She paused and looked over the trees, causing him to stop and glance back at her.
“Why does that sound familiar? The name?”
“Perhaps it’s because it is a title. My uncle is the Earl of Matlock, my mother was Lady Anne Darcy.” Once again there was a natural arrogance in his voice as he told her his pedigree, giving her yet another reason to believe that they were potential social equals. She was a Contessa only because her father was a Count before he died, the title then passing to her Uncle Marcus.
She raised an eyebrow at him, not displeased with the information. “The title, of course. English titles are so different from Italian. Sometimes I find myself having to consider for a moment.”
“Not at all, Contessa,” Darcy disagreed, raising her hand to his lips, his eyes drinking in her features hungrily, which only caused her to blush.
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “you can remain a man of his word and keep us in our separate spheres. I shall not see you quite so much, but I’m certain if you assure my uncle—” Bella said no more as his intentions had never been declared. Still, another blush suffused her cheeks that would be considered white if they were never compared to Lord Marcus’s paler than white skin. She was so used to her emotions and expressions being hidden by a veil that now, when her face was bared to Mr. Darcy, she found herself quite unmasked.
“I quite understand you, Contessa,” he assured her. “I would very much like you to meet my sister.”
“I’m certain it will be a great pleasure,” she agreed, moving on with their walk, blushing still.
Lord Marcus picked up the note the next morning. “He is courting you,” he informed Bella, “but informs me that he has guests that may take up some of his time and they are not worthy of your esteemed personage. He asks for my blessing.” Turning over the page he continued. “Ah, he hopes with his sister’s presence he can finally show you the house.” He set down the note. “He asks for your presence this afternoon. He’ll send the carriage.”
“I’ll ride, Uncle Marcus,” she decided. “I haven’t been able to ride in an age.”
Of course, Darcy came to meet her with a fine horse bred for the hunt and to be mild tempered for the fairer sex. “I had thought to give her to Georgiana one day,” he confessed, “but she feels for the foxes.”
Bella laughed and the two began to canter out of Lambton and back toward Pemberley.
“No,” Mrs. Reynolds assured the guests. “The Master is in Residence but he is not at home today. He went out riding and is not expected back until perhaps after dinner.”
Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes gleamed as she walked into Pemberley and let her gaze linger on the foyer and a painting that was hanging there. To think that Mr. Darcy walked these halls every day … And of all this she might have been mistress …
Bella was lying by the lake, Darcy holding open a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Set your heart at rest:
The Fairyland buys not the child on me.”
Darcy’s voice was dark and melodic and it washed over Bella’s senses as she let a finger curl through her
Somewhere in the background, she could hear voices, but she did not listen, instead paying attention to Darcy’s recitation.
When he finished the scene, she sighed. “How did you know that I was in a whimsical mood today, Mr. Darcy?”
“You wanted to ride,” he told her with the self-assuredness of a man who knows the secrets of the person before him. “You didn’t want to sit back and passively speak for three quarters of an hour. You wanted to feel the wind in your hair.”
“You know me so well? It’s been two months!”
He smirked at her. “I cannot pretend that apart from the afternoon we met, I haven’t been the best of company.”
A similar smile came to her lips, hidden by her veil, and she looked away. “Darcy,” she began carefully, changing the subject. “You’re a man of the world, a man of England. Would a man expect a child of Italy to change all her ways upon marriage?”
“Do you mean would he saddle up the horse with a woman’s saddle?” he laughed as they both knew she rode astride when she had the option.
“I was thinking of my hair. I would not be sad to lose the veil on my face excepting church, but I would be sore to place my hair atop my head each day.”
“That you would have to ask your husband,” he told her after a pause. “Some would bow to your cultural preferences, while others would hoard your beautiful dark hair away as if they were a dragon with a stash of gold, wanting to be the only man alive to see such wondrous curls.”
Bella blushed and was, for once, glad of the veil. She was about to ask: “And you, Mr.—”
But another voice interrupted her, causing the couple to look up and see a tall, thin young woman in a yellow dress, her light brown hair trimmed across the forehead. “Mr. Darcy! We thought you were away from Pemberley today.”
Instantly, Darcy’s demeanor changed, stiffening and becoming more formal. “As you can see, I am not, Miss Bennet.” His jaw clenched. “Contessa, will you excuse me?”
“If you leave me the Shakespeare,” she made him promise. “I shall only read ahead a scene and won’t mind you repeating it to me.”
As was his wont, he took her hand and kissed it and, so unlike her, she lifted her veil and placed it over her bonnet. She smiled at him, betraying the worry in her dark eyes.
“I’ll not be a moment, Contessa.”
He stood fluidly and she picked up the play, pretending to read, but really listening to their voices which were too far away to make out individual words. She could hear the intent in them, however. Miss Bennet was apologetic (Bella thought) and distressed, while Mr. Darcy’s voice was cold and held the usual arrogance she had become so familiar with. Bella finished the passage and surreptitiously looked over at the unlikely couple only to see that Miss Bennet had drawn into herself, her arms crossed, her shoulders slightly hunched, and she thought the lady was crying.
Mr. Darcy was standing there, saying nothing, and then Bella realized that Miss Bennet was speaking through her tears.
“This is not to be born,” he finally stated angrily. “How can you speak to me thus when we are now barely acquaintances?”
Mr. Darcy walked back toward Bella, anger in his eyes, and he sat upon the ground with a decidedness of a man who knew exactly what he wanted in life.
It was all rather startling.
“Are you quite well, Mr. Darcy?” Bella asked solicitously. “It is only—the conversation seemed rather a peculiar one.” She glanced toward Miss Bennet who was standing there and was still crying, now into her hand. “Does she need smelling salts?” Bella had never used them personally but she had heard the mamas at assemblies speak of their varying and beneficial uses.
Pointing to a figure that was approaching them, a woman who was dressed modestly and with taste though, Bella could tell, not in the latest fashion, Darcy supposed, “I believe that is one in Miss Bennet’s company. She will see her right.”
“How ungallant of you,” Bella teased a little, though wondering at him nonetheless. “However, you seem to have a—contentious relationship.” At the dark look that passed over his face, she leaned forward, her face still uncovered, and dared to touch his arm. “I do not wish to pry. I seem to remember a time I was curious and it served to cause more trouble than anything.”
A look of surprise crossed his face. “You have never seemed one bent on curiosity, Contessa Isabella!”
“No,” she said with a smile. “I prefer to observe the world. I would take better care of my uncle and not spend my days with you if he would allow me—but he does so insist that he is a man of distinction and well able to care for himself and that you are a man of worth and good standing and therefore suitable—though he does wish you had a title.” She laughed a little to herself.
“My great-uncle has one,” he admitted. “He lost the estate to a younger brother in a contentious game of cards. The story goes that they loved the same woman and my grandfather, Francis Darcy, wanted Pemberley to woo her. He got his brother drunk, who still lives, and won the estate but could not win the title. They both lost the lady, my grandfather married another woman, a good woman, and Great-Uncle James rents a small estate elsewhere in Derbyshire and holds the title of the Marquis of Ashmoure.”
“He has sons, surely,” Bella breathed, her eyes never leaving Darcy’s blue ones.
Suddenly agitated, she looked at the approaching woman who had almost reached Miss Bennet who was looking at them through tear-filled eyes. The woman unnerved her. “She loves you,” Bella realized. “I’ve seen that look upon my face in the looking glass, I think, long ago. It must have been in Italy.” She shook her head and looked away at Darcy who was watching her carefully. “There was an accident on the ship and I remember little of my home. I awoke to Uncle Marcus reading and have clung to the stories he has told me of Volterra and my uncles, Lord Aro and Lord Caius. Now you’ll think me a simpleton.”
“Never, Contessa,” he swore, taking her hand in his and for once just holding it between them. “You were reborn in my nation. You remember nothing?”
“I dream,” she admitted. “Sometimes a word or a look reminds me of something. That girl reminds me. I wish she were not here, but that is selfish. This is our place. I know, of course, that it is your estate and I am here only by invitation and through your hospitality—” Bella glanced over and saw that the woman was pulling her away. “Do women often love you?” she asked in bewilderment.
“They love my wealth,” he admitted darkly. “This one professed to hate me until she saw Pemberley. Few know about the anticipated title, even my sister Georgiana.—Damn it all, Bingley will want to see her. He was in love with her sister Jane last November.”
“It sounds—complicated,” she offered, her hand still held in his, his fingers playing with her gloved ones. “I wish I could be there with you—but I know that is impossible for a variety of reasons—”
Darcy paused. “I had planned not to make a declaration until you had met Georgiana, but you know I hope to make you Contessa Isabella Maria Darcy, and one day the Marchioness of Ashbourne.”
“The Marquis will let you have it?”
“He. Contessa, he never found love again. He was sick of society as I am sick of society. I believe he hopes Pemberley will be reunited with her proper title.” His fingers fully entwined with hers and then he pulled away, his fingers gently moving to the top of her glove and rolling it down her hand, past her fingers, until her skin was revealed. The boldness of the move was not lost on Bella, as she looked up at him with large brown eyes. He leaned down and kissed the palm of her hand. “Say I may go to your uncle.”
“You may go to my uncle,” she breathed out, her voice barely recognizable. “Tell him of the title. He will—be most pleased—” she gasped “—don’t stop.”
A quiet voice interrupted as his lips descended on her wrist. “Mr. Darcy, sir.”
They both looked over at the maid.
He pulled away and handed her the glove and, with a grin, she replaced it. “I’m afraid we’ve shocked your servant.” She paused. “I’m afraid I can’t marry without the assurance that Lord Marcus will live with us. I can’t leave him alone. He needs a set of rooms with the windows completely covered with black velvet and, without conversation, I fear for him. I don’t want him to feel that his only option is to return to Volterra.”
“Of course,” Darcy responded. “The Count is always welcome at Pemberley.”
The sound of a carriage leaving the park filtered through her senses and she sighed inwardly in relief.
“Georgiana arrives tomorrow,” he reminded her as he lifted her into her saddle. “I shall bring her the next day. I shall speak to Count Marcus tonight, but I should warn you that we shall be calling as is proper.”
“A private tea cannot be arranged?” she suggested. “It is only—I do not wish—You may have to wait a good half an hour while I convince Lord Marcus that permission cannot be given by correspondence.”
“Your veil,” he reminded her with a grin.
Smiling at him, she put it down, partially obstructing her vision.
“Oh,” he told her as he swung into the saddle. “Most of the family jewels are in London and I have yet to quite locate the ring I will be gifting you in recognition of our engagement. Please accept this horse as a sign of my love and devotion.”
It was the first time he spoke of an emotion other than a preference for her company, and she took in a deep breath, deciding not to mention of it. A small voice in her head said she wasn’t worthy of such devotion. Instead she deserved cold words, dark eyes filled with dislike, and being left to freeze on a cold forest floor. “What’s her name?” she asked instead.
“Italia,” Darcy told her without so much as a blush, and she laughed. “I hope it does not offend, Isabella.”
“Only if you do not tell me your Christian name.”
“Fitzwilliam for my mother’s family,” he answered.
That sounded strangely familiar as well. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. She had just met a Miss Bennet. How utterly peculiar. It was as if she had read about it in a story—but she had no memories of reading in Italian except the few novels that Uncle Marcus had procured for her. Bella was quite fluent now. She rarely spoke to her uncle in anything but Italian for the very purpose of making her fluent and she wrote letters back to her other uncles, although getting them through the lines had been proving difficult.
“Dear me,” she answered. “I take it then there are other Fitzwilliams.”
They were now riding out of the park.
“My eldest cousin is a Viscount, the Viscount of Lacock.” Bella had to bite her lip and not laugh at that for some peculiar reason. “And his younger brother is Colonel Fitzwilliam. To avoid some confusion, you may call him ‘Colonel’ or perhaps even ‘Cousin Richard’. He is Georgiana’s other guardian.—I have so much to tell you, Isabella, but I would prefer to wait until our engagement is more fixed.”
She looked at him perceptively, meeting his gaze, and then nodded. “Families are always peculiar,” she admitted, thinking of her own uncle and his strange skin and eyes.
It only took her five minutes to convince Uncle Marcus to speak to Mr. Darcy when she explained why he wanted to speak to him. “He’s locating a specific ring for me,” she explained. “It shall be marvelous to have a home. He says he loves me. That is surely an advantage, is it not?”
“Do you love him?”
Bella paused and thought. “I am happier when I am with him. I know that nothing but the truth will hurt me and he does not wish to hurt me, so he will not make such a truth, a hurtful one, a reality if he can make that possible.—He’s to inherit a title. He’ll tell you, Uncle.”
“Good,” Lord Marcus said, standing and going near a candle. “Let the young man in and then perhaps you might go into the common room. I know there are less refined characters there, but you can probably hear everything through the walls.” That was certainly the truth.
She let Mr. Darcy through and told him where she would be before slipping down the stairs in search of a glass of wine. Skipping down the stairs, she smiled to herself, and took a table and waited to be served. A glass of the finest red wine was given to her and she smiled at the man, only to find Miss Bennet standing behind him.
The girl’s face was drawn, but her deep brown eyes were glittering and her hair was as unfortunate as it had been before. After a moment, she indicated a seat at the table but Bella did not acknowledge the request.
“I think it would be best if you go,” she stated carefully, taking a sip of her wine.
“I wish to understand.” Her voice was quiet, hurt, and it tugged at Bella. Still, it wasn’t any of her business and she didn’t understand the situation in the least. Also, she would never betray Darcy in such a manner.
“I cannot give you understanding to something I know nothing about. I never heard your name before today, Miss Bennet. You’re a stranger to me and the only person I would ever discuss Mr. Darcy with is my uncle, Conte Marcus Volturi.” Her Italian accent was flawless and quick. “Now, we are not introduced. If you will excuse me.” She turned back to her wine.
Miss Bennet, however, wasn’t done. “He loved me. He couldn’t live without me.”
Bella, however, ignored her.
“He loved me,” she contended again. “He was willing to give up his family, the opinion of his peers, all for the hope of a future with me.—The servants whisper that he’s going to marry a foreign countess. Do you have jewels as your dowry, your title making you acceptable to his family and your wealth consoling him to a life without love? Or did you siphon your money into England somehow and now have a vast fortune with which to snag young men—strange, that you didn’t choose a man with a title. Why don’t you leave those who are already in love with other women alone?”
“Miss Bennet!” Darcy had come up behind Bella and laid a hand on her shoulder in support. “How dare you speak to la Contessa in such a despicable manner? It is clear that she finds your presence displeasing and certainly disquieting.—Are you well, my love?” He was now turned to Bella.
She looked up into his brown eyes and gave him a small smile. “I’ve had duels fought in my honor. I am quite used to jealousy, Fitzwilliam, although I had hoped for a quiet half hour with a glass of wine.”
He nodded and then looked up, spotting a portly gentleman that was coming forward. “Sir,” he ordered. “If Miss Bennet is a member of your party, I beg you to control her. She accosted me on my estate at Pemberley and has now imposed herself on my fiancée, a Countess in her own right.”
“Mr. Darcy, I presume,” the man said, placing a hand over his heart and bowing. “Countess. I apologize for my niece’s behavior. She has been much distressed today. I know that is not an adequate excuse but we will keep her away from your estate and will escort her throughout the inn so that she is never able to approach the Countess.”
“Sir,” Mr. Darcy agreed, bowing slightly, the barest of civilities. “Come, Isabella. Your uncle wishes to see you.”
Bella smiled and quickly hurried up the stairs, Darcy following behind her, and she walked through the door and into the inner room where Uncle Marcus spent his days. At night he would go out—she didn’t know where—but sometimes a death would be reported the next morning. Bella tried not to think of it. She knew who was doing it. She didn’t know how. They were in perfect health, deathly pale, left lying in the bushes or off the road. It was the same everywhere they went.
“Little Countess,” Uncle Marcus greeted her, kissing her on both cheeks before taking both of her hands. “You’re to be married and one day—a Marchioness!”
“And you’ll come live with us,” she checked. “You’ll have more rooms to move about in, and you’ll never want for candles.”
“Indeed, il mio piccola,” he promised, kissing her forehead again. “And I daresay I shall watch you dance at your wedding if you have an evening ball.”
Darcy came up to stand slightly to the left of Bella. “Undoubtedly. I wish for Isabella to have everything she desires.” His hand came around and wrapped around her waist and she turned and smiled at him.
“Go say goodbye to your fiancé, Isabella,” Uncle Marcus told her. “Dinner will be served soon. You will see him the day after tomorrow. Do not take too many liberties, son. I may be in a separate room, but Isabella could never keep the small happinesses of life a secret from me.”
Darcy led her through the outer door and instantly drew her into a deep kiss. She sighed against his lips as his fingers tipped up her chin and he carefully plied her lips apart, startling her. Still, Bella took a deep breath through her nose and broke away slightly before kissing him a second time again, letting her lips remain slightly parted. She let her hands drift up his waistcoat, past his cravat, to skate up at his ears.
Then she laughed when his hand that was under her chin, came around her waist and he dipped her, their mouths sealed together. “I think my hair touched the floor!” she giggled in happiness, kissing him gently once before pulling away.
“Goodnight, my love,” he whispered, letting his fingertips skate over her eyebrows.
“Let us be married quickly,” she suggested, not letting him let her go. “I hate this wandering lifestyle. I realize that Uncle and I have been at this inn for months so it has become like a home in a way—but this place is not ours. The servants are not loyal to us. I cannot set the menus to take into account our tastes for the day. If Uncle wants privacy I must leave the apartment and I do not have any place of my own to go.—Perhaps you do not understand, Fitzwilliam. How can you? You do not know the fear of Napoleon in your every thought and dream, and the knowledge that you must give up everything to be free of feeling like you’re being suffocated—and finding that you’re being suffocated in a very different way.”
He looked at her sadly. “I know that’s why you agreed to even speak with me the first day—”
“Fitzwilliam,” she breathed.
“I am not a simpleton. If this will make you feel safe, then we will have a quick wedding. I will get us a special license and we will be married within the month here in Derbyshire. You must go to the modiste and get your wedding dress.”
She shook her head. “No. My nicest dress, Fitzwilliam. I have never liked the idea of a wedding. I have a ball gown that will be fine for the evening that no one in Derbyshire has seen and was cut but three months ago—”
“Then we shall be married quickly and quietly with your uncle’s permission,” he promised, leaning down and kissing her gently. Then he was gone and she was left all alone in a room with blackened windows, but with hopes and dreams for the future.
She had been waiting that night for her uncle to leave. Sitting in a chair near the door, all the candles were blown out and she had pretended to go to bed. He came out at half one.
“Don’t tell me,” she opened as she lit a candle and saw that he had left a note. “You are going to be gone for several days.”
“Isabella, go to bed.”
“I’m not a child,” she argued. “I know you’re the reason for all the peculiar—” now she whispered “deaths wherever we go.” Her dark brown eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “You mean to visit Lord Ashbourne as you wish me to have the title when I marry. You wish for everyone to know that I am to marry Lord Ashbourne and since we are announcing in the Friday Times, you must work quickly.”
“How do you know?” he asked her in astonishment.
“I dream,” she responded. “I don’t believe I ever lived in Italy. I believe I lived with those who kill others, but I can’t remember how or why.”
“Later, Isabella.” He made to move to the door, but she stood in front of him.
“Tell me you do it for me. I won’t ask you not to, but only that you do it for me, because you love me even though I may not be your niece.”
“You are my world,” he promised, kissing her forehead. “I must go.”
She didn’t have time to stop him. Lord Marcus was the swirl of a cloak and then he was gone. Bella stood there, alone, in the dark, tears dripping down her face.
That night she dreamt of a face, pale white with golden hair and black eyes. He was no more than a boy on the brink of manhood. He stood on the edge of the square where people processed in red robes, in nothing more than trousers and an open robe himself. Bella knew she had to get to him before he stepped out into the sun. Running, she jumped into a fountain, her strange shoes getting wet, but she ran through it, shouting at the top of her lungs. No one could hear her through the parade and the celebrations. So she kept on running and she tripped on the rim of the fountain when she tried to leap over it into the square. The clock struck twelve and there were collective gasps. Blood dripped from her nose and she looked up when hard hands encased her arms and she looked up to see the boy-man sparkling in the sun, his eyes so black that not even midnight could be so dark, licking his lips. She knew, in that moment, that he would kill her.
Bella woke up screaming.
The day without Darcy and her uncle was a bleak one. Italia was now being housed at the inn for her so that she might ride whenever she desired, not having to pay for a horse from the inn, and she took the horse out and decided to ride away from Pemberley, only to encounter a carriage. The lane was rather narrow and she pulled Italia to a stop as the driver of the four horses of the carriage did the same. She noticed there was a second carriage behind it.
“Get out of the way!” the obsequious little coachman demanded.
“Sir, there is nowhere to go,” she told him flatly. “There are two stone walls. There’s a large ditch on the other side of one and brambles on the other. Do you suggest that I injure myself?”
He leaned forward. “Listen, wench—” he demanded.
“Wench!” she spat back. “I may not be a native of Derbyshire, but even I know that you are insulting me, and I will tell your master as soon as he is good enough to emerge from his carriage.”
The door promptly opened and a well dressed gentleman (his clothes, though, were not as fine as Darcy’s or her uncle’s) stepped out. “Madam,” he apologized. “It appears we’re in a bit of a quandary as we wish to deliver our dear friend who travels with us to her brother by tea and cannot have a delay.”
“I feel for your friend,” she stated sympathetically, “however, I have little tolerance for rudeness today, or indeed this week.” Bella thought back on Miss Bennet and her words and then again on her uncle’s date with death. “I will ride ahead and see if I can get off the main road.”
“I am indebted to you, Madam.” He pulled out a card and handed it up to her.
Bella outright laughed when she read it. “Enjoy your stay at Pemberley, Mr. Bingley. I would get rid of that man. Mr. Darcy would be—disquieted—to hear how he treated a visiting Countess who was riding a mare he trained himself.” Before he could answer, she turned around and cantered up the lane, looking for places where she could let the carriages pass.
About a half mile up, she found a lane that jeered off to the left and she took it, uncertain where it would go. She rode on it well into the day until she found herself in a beautiful park. Going to the entrance and noticing that no one seemed to be about, she handed her mare to a stablehand and ascended the stairs to the main door.
“Forgive me,” she addressed the housekeeper. “I am Contessa Isabella Volturi and I took myself on a ride early this morning and found myself at this beautiful park. May I refresh myself and could you direct me to a local inn so that I might have a light dinner before I find my way back again?”
“The young master would never forgive me if I were not to offer full hospitality to a lady of some standing. Lunch is being served in half an hour. If you will come this way, I will show you to a bedchamber where you can refresh yourself.”
Bella was pleasantly surprised and after using the chamber pot in the elaborately decorated room and splashing her face, she removed her veiled bonnet, gloves, and riding jacket. She was left in a dark blue cotton with a long train meant for riding and a blusher of sheer material.
When she came downstairs, she was greeted by a man in military uniform. “A man after my own heart,” she greeted as he kissed her hand. “I escaped Italy with my uncle when Napoleon sought to subjugate us.”
“That explains your charming though, dare I say it, peculiar accent.”
“I daresay it does,” she agrees. “I speak like no other Italian I know, and I certainly do not sound like the English. Forgive me for seeking rest at your estate. In fact, I am quite in ignorance as to where I am. I hope I am still in Derbyshire.”
“You are, Contessa,” he agreed, bowing. “This is Matlock.”
She started. “Then you are the relatives of Mr. Darcy of Pemberley! Am I mistaken, good sir?”
“No,” he chuckled, leading her into a dining room that was set for just the two of them. “Darcy is my cousin. I am Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.”
“Colonel,” she greeted. “Contessa Isabella Maria Volturi. I am staying in Lambton with my uncle, the Count. I know the grounds of Pemberley quite well.”
He held out her seat for her and she sat down with the grace Lord Marcus had taught her. She had been quite—uncoordinated—when she first awoke. “How did you find yourself here? There is no direct road.”
“I was taking the main road from Lambton to Pemberley and followed it past the estate as Mr. Darcy expects his house guests today and I would not wish to prove myself an inconvenient visitor, when I came across Mr. Bingley and his party on the road. The road was so narrow we could not pass each other, but I found a lane that led me here, and away from their horrible coachman who dared insult me.” She smiled self-deprecatingly. “Have you seen much action, Colonel?”
“Indeed, Madam. Although I am currently on leave, I am to resume my duties by Christmas. I shall be sorry not to see my cousin and ward, Georgiana, for that particular holiday, but King and Country.”
“Of course,” Bella agreed, knowing the phrase—from a time before. It had been God and Country then. How peculiar. “And Mrs. Fitzwilliam? Do you leave her here at Matlock with your excellent—parents?” she guessed. If she remembered correctly, Darcy’s uncle was the Earl, and his cousin a Viscount.
“Only Andrew is married!” he exclaimed. “The Viscount of Lacock. No, Mariah is in her room with a migraine,” he stated, that odd pronunciation of a word again. “I was hoping she could join us, but her maid sent a note that she would try to come down for coffee.”
“I hope the Viscountess recovers even if I do not have the pleasure of her company,” Bella demurred. “I must confess, I look forward to meeting your ward, Miss Darcy, tomorrow. Will you tell me a little about her so that I might put her at her ease? I take too long to observe a person before I can tell what they are like. I try to please and be pleasant before I can determine what will please. Most women,” she admitted quietly, “become jealous of me. I don’t know how to relate to a young woman who is not.”
“You are uncommonly beautiful,” Colonel Fitzwilliam admitted after a long pause. “Have you had much trouble in Derbyshire?”
“Only from a Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” she admitted. “We met yesterday. She was touring Mr. Darcy’s estate and she became—impassioned. When she did not get her desired result, she blamed me and was vicious. I cannot be blamed for all the disappointed hopes of all the young ladies of the world. It is ridiculousness.”
The Colonel seemed troubled. “Miss Bennet had hopes—with Darcy?”
She blushed. “Forgive me. I meant to give an example. I did not realize you knew the lady.”
“There is nothing to forgive. Miss Bennet teases but I have never known her to be vicious. I will not ask if she was correct in her assumptions. That is between you and my cousin, although I am indeed curious.” His bright blue eyes sparkled. “An Italian Contessa. If it is true, I would not have thought it of him.”
Bella was indeed curious. “For the sake of argument, why not? Is there something lacking in my person?”
“No,” he told her quickly. “You are graceful, polite, well bred. Your hair is a peculiarity, but one that is clearly cultural as are your words. No, it is strange because you are Italian. I would not take Darcy to make love to a foreigner.”
Laughing lightly to herself, Bella nonetheless blushed. “Perhaps you are correct, Colonel, and Miss Bennet was entirely mistaken. Mr. Darcy and I may be simply close neighbors who enjoy riding or just the general beauty of Pemberley.”
Later that afternoon, when Bella was well fed and once again dressed for riding, she stopped at the entrance of Pemberley and looked into the park. She had not met the Viscountess although she had sent a very kind note, making her excuses. Bella was determined to write to her in the next few days. They were to be cousins after all. The initial plan was to announce on Friday, but Bella had a feeling that Uncle Marcus would wish to wait a week until Darcy’s great uncle was declared dead and he was invested with the title. The announcement would look more distinguished that way.
Her uncle confused her at times.
She spent far too long at the looking glass the next morning, preparing herself for Miss Darcy’s arrival. She had settled on green and braided two lengths of hair at her temples to then pull back at the base of her skull to create a simple design. Bella had chosen not to have a ladies’ maid once she discovered there were forward facing corsets even for the elite with whale-bone. She could put herself together quite nicely. Bella supposed, once she was married, she might have to give in and have a maid, but for now she could dress herself.
Breakfast was simple Canadian bacon and eggs with ale and she made short work of it and she had only to read Shakespeare until her guests arrived.
She was surprised when Mr. Darcy brought not only a young girl, tall, thin with blonde hair that came down in ringlets on either side of her face. Her eyes were a surprising green, but Bella immediately liked the look of her. The second guest was Mr. Bingley, which surprised her.
Smiling, she offered her hand to Mr. Darcy. “Good day,” she greeted. “The Count is unfortunately indisposed but he sends his compliments and wonders if you can postpone a week.” It had, after all, been in his letter.
“A week?” Darcy asked after a moment.
“He’s corresponding with his banker,” she lied easily. “He wants a finished proposal before the announcement—so if you can wait for a week from tomorrow?”
“Indeed,” he immediately agreed, kissing her hand but his gaze never leaving hers. “We may speak in public?”
“But of course,” she agreed. “Uncle Marcus could never keep me from sharing joyful news. I’ve had so little of it since Napoleon came to power and then before that with Papa dying.”
He nodded, his hand still holding hers. “Georgiana,” he addressed, turning to face his sister. “May I introduce my fiancée, la Contessa Isabella Maria Volturi?”
Georgiana’s face lit up. “This is Isabella, the young lady you wrote of?” Without needing confirmation, she came up to Bella and kissed both her cheeks. “I shall be glad to call you ‘sister.’ I have heard so much about you, Contessa Isabella.—Did you know, brother, we met her on the road and she gave Mr. Bingley quite the dressing down? I could hear it from the carriage.”
“I came to apologize,” Bingley admitted.
“I actually went on a side road,” Bella admitted, “and found myself at Matlock for lunch. You have a charming cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam. The Viscountess was indisposed and could not receive me, but she sent me the most hospitable note.”
“Mariah?” Georgiana asked. “Hospitable?—You must have made quite an impression.”
“Contessa Isabella,” Darcy claimed, “makes quite an impression wherever she goes despite her usually gentle demeanor. Ladies, we shall leave you to become better acquainted. I must reintroduce Bingley to Miss Bennet as they were neighbors in Hertfordshire.”
Bella shared a worried look with him but he squeezed her hand, so she knew all was well.
“Your brother,” Bella began, “likes to keep you his secret. I know you do not like to hunt. He gave me the charger initially meant for you—”
“It was never meant for me,” Georgiana assured her. “I have not ridden a horse since I was twelve, and that was a good four or five years ago.”
“Indeed,” Bella murmured. “Well, he gave me a charger he said was for you: Italia.”
“How romantic of him,” Georgiana decided. “I knew since he first wrote of you that you would do him good. He had been so despondent in his letters and then he came back to Pemberley and his letters were full of you and—I still don’t understand why—how important it was how you accepted him for his character, exactly as it was.”
Bella was surprised by this. “Why wouldn’t I? He’s honest about all his emotions. I appreciate honesty.—I do not care for gossip, Miss Darcy—”
“Georgiana,” she begged.
“Georgiana,” Bella agreed, “but only if I am ‘Isabella.’—But what do you know of Elizabeth Bennet? I know she is in love with Fitzwilliam.”
“No!” Georgiana gasped. “She teased him at Netherfield and disgraced herself, I daresay. I expected she did the same at Rosings Park when she and my brother met again. I know he found her to be refreshing compared to women who fawn all over him—forgive me—”
“Why would I fawn over any man?” Bella asked. “When I could have any I desire? I prefer to be genuine, Georgiana.”
“I could see why Fitzwilliam wanted to marry you. You were so beautiful and original—but to wish to be yourself and not catch a husband—any man would find that to be intoxicating.”
“Well, Elizabeth Bennet didn’t seem to want to catch a husband.”
“No, but I cannot believe that Fitzwilliam desired her attention, considering how negative it was. I would be most grieved, even by a—dare I call her a lady?—from a failing estate and no dowry.”
Bella placed her hand on top of Georgiana’s. “Then we have the truth of it. It was a misalliance that Miss Bennet perhaps thought—because she was so refreshing—it could turn into something more. I am glad she was mistaken. I try not to be a selfish creature. Uncle Marcus showers me with gowns and sends me to parties and speaks of titles and husbands and what I deserve, but I have only wanted simple things for myself. I am glad that I will have a sister. I have never had a sister before.”
Georgiana looked away and blushed in shame. “You will not want me when you know all.”
“All?” Bella asked. “What is ‘all’?”
And so Georgiana began to cry and told her sad tale of Wickham. Of how she thought herself in love, of the intended elopement, of Darcy coming and stopping it and taking Georgiana, brokenhearted, away. And all for Wickham’s greed of Georgiana’s 30,000 pounds sterling.
“I do not know this man,” Bella murmured as Georgiana cried on her shoulder, “but he is not worth you. The last man who wanted to marry me” (at least, she thought Edward wanted to marry her; didn’t he mention forever?) “lied to me and told me he loved me until the end of time. Then he took me to the cold woods in Italy, told me he had lied, and left me there in the cold snow to die, and I almost did. Then, when he thought all hope of a future between us was lost” (didn’t he think she was dead? Bella couldn’t remember) “he thought of killing himself but instead thought I was to blame, and instead tried to murder me. Uncle Marcus doesn’t speak of it, but I think that’s part of the reason why he brought me here, to England, to get me away. The man who should have loved me the most—” (Almost drank my blood) Her voice faltered and tears ran down her eyes. “There’s a future,” she promised. “I found Fitzwilliam, and I am confident he doesn’t want to kill me.”
Georgiana sobbed harder. “Oh, Isabella! Why are men so cruel?”
“Because some of them are born without hearts,” she decided, not realizing the door had opened. “But there are men that have hearts, Georgiana. I promise you that. Just because this George and my Edward did not have hearts, and they sought to hurt us, does not mean other men will do the same. You just have to trust yourself and your instincts. You know what viciousness looks like; what evil looks like. You’ll recognize it again, even if it’s in the face of a smiling gentleman with a perfectly starched cravat.” She wiped a tear trail away from Georgiana’s face.
“Go,” a voice stated softly and the door opened and closed. Then there was a hand on her shoulder and Bella lifted her tear-stained face to see Darcy. “Some wine perhaps despite the earliness of the hour?”
“Indeed,” she agreed, lifting Georgiana until she was sitting. Bella brushed away her tears and the two girls smiled at each other. “How old are you, Georgiana?”
“I’m eighteen,” she told her as she accepted a glass from Darcy. “Think how happy your life might be in two or four years.” Bella grinned into her glass of red wine, looking at Darcy who was sitting a little way away to give them privacy, though he was smiling softly to himself.
“Tell me what it’s like to be in love,” Georgiana begged quietly.
Bella was startled. “I’m not certain. I’ve never been in love before.—I—” She blushed. “I wish I were at Pemberley with your brother when I wake up from a nightmare. I have many from my time in Italy. I crave every one of your brother’s smiles. Even when I want to drift off to sleep when he’s reading to me, I stay awake because I know how much he enjoys the simple time we spend together. I am never prouder than when I am on his arm. I am saddened when I am wearing a veil and smile, but he can’t see it. It breaks my heart. Is that being in love?”
“Yes,” Georgiana agreed, glancing at her brother. “That’s being in love, I would think.—May I share something with you—as a sister?”
Leaning forward, Bella whispered, “Of course.”
“My cousin, Andrew, the Viscount, is childless.”
“I did not know,” Bella confessed.
“It is just, Mariah is always pretending illness, that she is pregnant. Only it’s been two years of this illness and there has not been one sign of her being with child.”
Bella glanced at Darcy, utterly confused. “I do not understand.”
“Andrew lives a life of dissipation away from her and he is—well—they do not think he will survive the summer.”
Holding in a gasp, Bella nodded for Georgiana to continue.
“It’s just—I love Richard so dearly. I know I shouldn’t; he’s my guardian. If Andrew dies and there’s no heir—then Richard can give up his commission—”
Taking Georgiana’s hand, she kissed it. “You’ve thought a great deal about this, haven’t you? I suppose it is advantageous that you would be a Viscountess?”
“Fitzwilliam could not object as much as he might.” She glanced toward her brother again.
“I understand,” Bella admitted, thinking. “Do you write to the Colonel?”
“See if you can sound more—like an adult lady and less like his cousin. I wouldn’t know how to do that, I’ve never been in your position. And you’re still so young. I’m so young. It’s surprising that I’m to be married. However, that is not what matters now. Then just watch and wait. Pray for your Cousin Andrew’s soul as you want nothing on your conscience, but be mindful of what happens. You see the Colonel at Christmas if he is not called away?”
Biting her lip, Georgiana looked at her with her incredibly green eyes.
“See him before. Figure it out. I will help you as much as I am able, Georgiana. You only have to ask.” The two girls embraced and Bella turned to Darcy, smiling. “Are you happy with the results of our introduction?”
“I was not expecting tears,” he admitted.
“Women always speak of men,” Bella admitted, “and we are to be sisters. We spoke more candidly than most.”
Georgiana leaned up to Bella’s ear and whispered, “I think Caroline wants me to marry Charles.”
Bella looked at her strangely. “Who?”
“Bingley.” That was all the explanation she needed.
“You have an ally in me,” she promised, hugging her close. “Fitzwilliam, we really must do tea, the two of us, without anyone interfering. I don’t like your friend’s coachman and I don’t like the sound of his sister. Sisters, forgive me. If I may call myself a Darcy woman as we are betrothed, I think we Darcy women should have privacy.”
“Please, Fitzwilliam,” Georgiana pleaded.
“If the two of you are of a like mind, I thought you might enjoy a picnic tomorrow afternoon and then Georgiana might show you some of the house, Isabella, as you have yet to venture inside.”
“Wonderful,” Bella exclaimed. “We shall merely need to steal your brother for at least the end of our excursion. I fear I am quite attached to him.”
“I shall leave you,” Georgiana decided, “to say your goodbyes. I shall be right outside the parlor door, so do not think, brother, that I am far away.”
As soon as she was gone, Darcy was beside her. “You were crying.”
“A man wanted to marry me—and he proved false,” she abridged. “Georgiana needed to know she wasn’t alone in her tale of George Wickham although my romance was sanctioned. I told you earlier, I don’t like lies—and it is because of him.”
“I would never lie to you, darling.”
“I would hope I would never lie to you,” she admitted equally. “There is just so much of my past that confuses me that I’m afraid that I try to put the pieces together and find that the answer makes no sense, so I try to make sense of it, and perhaps tell a lie in the process.”
“I do not blame you,” he swore, pushing a piece of hair back in place. “I love you and I understand you had a horrible accident. But you’re safe now. I will keep you safe.”
“Soon,” she begged.
“Soon,” he promised, leaning in for a kiss.
It startled her and she arched her back into him, causing him to moan and pull her closer. His hand found its way into her hair and she reached up until she was grasping his shoulders and pulling herself up onto her tiptoes until, finally, he pulled away. Bella was gasping for breath and held onto him and fell against him as he tightened his hold on her. The side of her face fell against his shoulder and she just breathed through her nose.
“I think I might love you,” she admitted into the quiet.
He pulled her closer, his face buried in her hair. “I know, Isabella. I wouldn’t marry, I think, without love.”
Uncle Marcus still wasn’t back the next afternoon. Bella left out a note for him, saying where she would be, and rode over to Pemberley on Italia. She was surprised when she arrived. Georgiana immediately darted out from a corner and grabbed her, pulling her into a side parlor.
“It’s horrible. That woman—Elizabeth Bennet—is here. Mr. Bingley invited her!”
“We don’t need to see her, though, do we?” Bella asked. “She thinks I stole your brother away from her.”
Georgiana bit her lip and looked toward the door. Bella saw that she would have to take the situation in hand. She looked around and saw they were in a pretty antechamber with a settee near the windows where one could take tea. She found the bell pull and signaled the need for a servant.
When one appeared, Georgiana now turning but saying nothing, Bella turned. “Miss Darcy,” she ordered, “requires tea for two immediately. If anyone asks for her, she is indisposed. If her brother asks for her, please tell him in confidence that she is entertaining la Contessa as was initially planned.”
“Isabella!” Georgiana gasped in delight.
“It is your duty to play hostess, is it not? I was invited.” She took a step toward the window and looked back at the servant who was staring at her. “But of course,” she realized. Bella was still wearing her veil. “You wish to tell the servants what I look like.”
The girl curtseyed. “Mum.”
Bella laughed to herself and undid the ribbon at her chin and lifted off her bonnet, smiling. “Forgive me for being a little windswept, but I trust I pass muster.”
The servant curtsied again. “Tea,” she promised and then hurried away, closing the door behind her.
Laughing again, Bella pulled Georgiana toward the settee and set her bonnet down before taking off her gloves. “You must forgive her. I’ve been wandering the grounds with your brother for two months. We are the gossip of Lambton and no one knows what I look like!”
“You are a handsome couple, if I may say so,” Georgiana admitted. “You’re both tall and dark with curling hair and deep eyes. My nieces and nephews will be handsome heirs of Pemberley.”
Bella looked at her slyly. “Colonel Fitzwilliam is certainly handsome. He does not have Fitzwilliam’s curls or mine, of course, but his eyes are just as dark. You must take after your father and Fitzwilliam the Colonel after Lady Anne?”
“Quite so,” she admitted, the tea coming with a smile from both young women.
There was a small bouquet of poesies and the footman presented it to Bella. “There are rumors, Contessa. We all hope to soon welcome you to Pemberley.”
Quite touched, Bella took them and smelled them. “Thank you. You’re all so kind. I trust you’ll wait for a formal announcement from your master. My uncle, the Count, is quite unwell, and I so hope he’ll be able to be here.”
“Of course, Countess,” he agreed. “Still, the staff wanted to show their support. We’ve caught glimpses of you, of course.”
“Of course,” she agreed, smelling the flowers again. “Thank you, again. This is so thoughtful.”
The footman bowed and they were left alone.
“Oh, Isabella,” Georgiana exclaimed quietly alone, “you were all my ladies’ maid could talk of when we arrived. Pemberley was so full of you. Fitzwilliam has been quite open in his affection for you, ordering rooms to be redone, Italian paintings and needlework. Everyone knows who you are and have been trying to discover if you are simply a pretty face, beautiful and wealthy, or if Fitzwilliam is marrying you for your fortune and you hide your face because you are quite plain, or—worse!”
“I hope he’s not marrying me for my fortune,” Bella laughed. “Uncle Marcus assures me that Mr. Darcy will be pleased with it, I do not know the amount myself, but I like to think that I am more than my fine dresses and expensive Italian silk veils.”
Georgiana set down her cup. “It’s not that, I promise, from one woman to another. His letters were full of you. He never said he was your suitor, but it was clear, reading back, what was happening. He even told me last night he loves you.”
Bella couldn’t help the grin on her face. “I must admit, I didn’t even think of marriage until I met your brother. I just—it always seemed the only outcome to our acquaintance, although Lord Marcus constantly told me he wished your brother had a title. It was almost comical.” She bit her lip and looked at Georgiana. “How well do you know Mr. Bingley?”
“It is only he knows Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s sister—is that why he invited her today?—I don’t like that woman and I try to be kind to everyone. Uncle Marcus said my fall—but of course you don’t know. I had a fall and have no memory of anything before it. I had to relearn Italian like a schoolchild. It was quite embarrassing. However, he said my fall made me kinder. I hate to think what I was like before.”
“He hasn’t confided in me. Caroline Bingley only compliments me and hints that I would make Mr. Bingley a wonderful bride—but I wouldn’t be in the first sets—is that wrong?”
Bella took a quick sip of tea. “Hardly. There’s nothing wrong wanting to be with your own people. It is very difficult finding your place somewhere new. At least I had a clean break. You’d always be outside, looking in.—I don’t think you’ll be seeing as much of him when Fitzwilliam and I are married. He’s very contientious of my position of Contessa.”
“I wish I could see Richard,” Georgiana admitted. “I don’t want to leave Pemberley, but Fitzwilliam does go on about society.”
“Perhaps we two could take a feton and go with a footman?” Bella suggested. “If your brother approves?”
Georgiana looked at her happily, before pulling her out of the room and into the portrait gallery so that she could see her parents. The game turned into one of chase through the public rooms, Georgiana and Isabella screaming in joy, Isabella trying to get away from her friend. She rushed into a room that had the door open and found several eyes looking at her. She identified the warm eyes of Darcy and the hateful eyes of Miss Bennet along with a few others before the sound of Georgiana’s shoes reminded her that she was the prey in this childish game. She put her finger to her lips and rushed through the room to the far door and opened it, ripping through, her hair whipping behind her.
“Isabella!” she heard Georgiana call in shock before she went silent.
It was several minutes before Bella realized she was no longer being chased, but she was in a small library and she let her hands linger over the spines.
“Dante,” she breathed as she took down one book and sat down with it, opening up the cover to read the opening lines of Il Inferno.
The door quietly opened and she glanced up to see Darcy, a worried expression on his face. It morphed into one of relief. “I should have known to find you in the library, Contessa. This is a small one off of the billiard’s room. There’s a larger one closer to the drawing room.”
“Is there?” she asked, glancing around in happiness. “You know how much how I like books and I’ve been waiting for Georgiana to find me.”
“I’m afraid Georgiana was quite mortified and sent me after you. Miss Bennet is preparing to leave for the evening—but if I think if you say your goodbyes to Georgiana at an appropriate length, you’ll miss that particular carriage.” His eyes sparkled with mischief.
Bella smiled at him, standing, pushing her long hair out of her face. “I’m afraid the servants know we’re engaged. They gave me a poesy of roses.” She came up to him and kissed him lightly, delighting when his hands wrapped around him. “I think you better tell them. I’ll rouse my uncle—” (She hoped he was back from his travels) “—and then all will be well.”
“I haven’t had a moment,” Darcy admitted after a moment. “But Uncle Ashmoure died. I got the news early this morning. I inherited everything. The Darcy fortune that was divorced from this estate. The title. I’m a Marquis, Contessa.”
Uncertain how to react, she stayed in his arms and then just laid her head against his chest. “The announcement will have to be changed, then. You’re not in mourning.”
“I’m instructing the servants to put out the clothes tonight. Bingley knows that family matters mean that he and his sisters will have to leave tomorrow. If only it had been under father’s time. Then Georgiana would be Lady Georgiana. As it is, as the mere sister of a Marquis, she has no title.”
“It will still help prospects nonetheless, undoubtedly,” Bella soothed. “Lord Ashmoure.” She paused. “Isabella, Lady Ashmoure. Does that sound too Italian?”
“No,” he promised, holding her close. “It sounds just perfect.”
Uncle Marcus was waiting for her when she came into the door, throwing off her bonnet and gloves, not paying attention to anyone or anything. “You’ve returned,” she remarked. “Are you happy? Darcy is Lord Ashmoure. The family goes into mourning tomorrow for their great-uncle.”
“You are most fortunate,” he told, kissing her forehead. “The man was sickly. He could have lasted for a few minutes or for several years. I merely decided the prospect for him.”
“Uncle Marcus,” she sighed, pushing past him. “You should send a note to Darcy to see when we are announcing, given the change of his circumstances.” Moving past him, she went into her room.
She dreamt of a place that must have been Italy that night. There were soaring mountains, trees that reached into the skies, and mists that made it impossible to see. She was in a strange gathering place. There were these strange carriages everywhere—but they didn’t look like carriages. Hers was a dusty red and was what was known as a pick up truck. It was a horseless carriage. The idea was outstanding.
The squeal of breaks and a carriage rushing toward her over the ice and she knew she would die—
–Then Edward had been beside her, his hand pressed against the oncoming car, stopping it just before it hit her, his other hand cradling her head which hit the strange black ground that was as hard as stone. Her dark eyes looked into his golden eyes and all she saw was fear.
She woke up screaming and Lord Marcus had to fetch her a glass of wine as she was shaking.
Bella was still sleeping when Darcy called the next morning. She heard voices and, because all the windows were blacked out, she didn’t realize how late it was. “Uncle Marcus?” she asked as she came out with a candle in her dressing grown. “Do you have a potion? I don’t want to worry the apothecary—but the fear in those eyes—” She shivered.
Bella had been whispering in rapid Italian and was surprised when the candle was taken from her and she saw a concerned looking Darcy. “Are you quite well, my love?”
“This dream,” she explained as she was seated. “It was so peculiar—I’ve never seen anyone look at me so afraid. Have you seen fear, Fitzwilliam?”
“No,” he admitted, kissing her hand. “Have some ham. Breakfast has not yet been cleared away.” In fact, he seemed to realize that it had not yet been started. Bella surmised that Uncle Marcus ate exclusively at night when he went out. Why, she couldn’t say, but she didn’t ask questions.
Lord Marcus placed a hand on her shoulder. “La Contessa it seems is unwell and is unfit to see company. If you could excuse us for an hour or so, Lord Ashmoure.”
He grimaced at the title. “Of course, Count.” He took Bella’s hand and kissed it before taking his leave.
Sliding a piece of parchment to Bella, Marcus stepped toward the freed chair and sat opposite her. “Take a look, Isabella. It is your future.”
She glanced down and saw the marriage announcement. She hadn’t realized she had so many names. It seemed like Italian nobility liked to give at least ten—well, five. Isabella Maria Theodora Aria Carla. Why she needed all these names, she honestly couldn’t be sure.
“I love you, Uncle,” she murmured. “Did you always know about Lord Ashmoure? Is that why you allowed the romance?”
“You forget, my dear,” he quipped. “I am omniscient.” He tapped the table twice, looking at her, and then turned her head. “I sometimes wonder that we look so much alike. You look like Lord Aro, as well, of course. Brother Caius is fairer than any I have ever seen.”
“And Father—” she paused “—you never met Father—or Mother, did you?”
“No, Isabella,” he answered carefully. “I met you just before your fall. I took you with me from Italy to keep you safe—and you are safe here.”
“What was so unsafe? So many Italian noblemen and women stayed. Why couldn’t have I? Am I even a Volturi? Are you? Oh my God. I’m Bella Swan. That’s the name—the one I remember.”
Lord Marcus was immediately on his feet, his cape swirling around him, roaring. “You are Isabella Volturi and you will be the Marchioness of Ashmoure. Nothing has changed, child. The only difference is that you do not have this curse upon your skin and your eyes. You are free from the family—differences. In Italy we remain locked in our castle, a castle you almost saw, and we drink the blood of our enemies, but when you fell and hit your head, I did not take you into that world. I took you here. I gave you a life away from shadows. We do not even know where you came from. You darted into the square like an avenging goddess, with no friends, no identification, nothing Isabella. Brother Caius wanted to put you to work as a servant, but I would not have it. Now, eat. You need your strength.”
She swallowed. “That’s why they’re not answering my letters.”
His dark face softened. “I’m sorry, Isabella. I wanted you the comfort of the idea of family.”
Bella turned to her ham and began to cut it in precise movements, once again learned from Uncle Marcus. Her table manners had been horrendous when she had awakened. He had insisted she was no better than a Chinaman. It was mildly hilarious in afterthought.
“Thank you,” she murmured when he had turned to the door. “I don’t know what I would have done in another life.”
He bowed his head slightly and walked into his room before she tidied up and went to get dressed.
Darcy was back, his face grim. “Wickham has struck again,” he explained to Bella as he looked at the announcement. “Miss Bennet’s sister.”
“You can’t be his keeper,” Bella stated passionately. “You did what was necessary. You saved your sister from that man. He did nothing criminal so he could not be incarcerated.”
“If I had made his character known—”
“No,” she argued. “You would have injured dear Georgiana, and I would not see my future sister injured in anyway. Just because Miss Bennet has misplaced emotions toward you does not mean you have to be her knight in shining armor.”
Uncle Marcus looked at her in bewilderment. “Beg pardon,” she murmured. “It’s a phrase I must have read.”
Darcy kissed her hand. “But you must certainly travel to London to go to the shops.”
“After the marriage,” she begged. “I’ll invite Miss Darcy over. She can see my dresses and my ball gowns. I know you are a Marquis of distinction now, Fitzwilliam, but let us not still be quiet? I do not like gatherings and only attend for a lack of society. I would much rather stay in your library and read Italian.”
He squeezed her hand. “Then I shall ride quickly to London to obtain the license and we shall be wed.”
The days were long but not with their recompense. Bella ordered new dresses from the local modiste in the latest cuts. By courier, a beautiful jeweled ring was delivered, a large pink jewel, square, surrounded by small clear diamonds along the edge. She slipped it on her finger and admired it on herself.
When Georgiana next saw it, she remarked, “Ah, Mama’s ring.”
“He gave me Lady Anne’s ring?”
“Indeed. It must have been with the bank in London.—Mr. Bingley is leaving tomorrow. Do you think I should invite Cousin Richard? It was announced in the Times that you are both engaged to my brother and that he is the Marquis of Ashmoure. It is an ideal match.”
“I wonder at his extended business in London,” Bella murmured to herself. “It is only—there was an incident that he wanted to pursue, but I begged him not to.” She shook her head at Georgiana’s concerned look. “It involved a certain person I dislike so.”
“He would not go against you.”
“No. However, his pride can sometimes get in the way. I love his natural arrogance but sometimes he takes too much upon himself.”
A fortnight later, Bella was not surprised to read in The Times, when her Uncle Marcus showed her, that Mr. George Wickham, Esq. was to marry Miss Lydia Bennet of Longbourne. How dreadful. She knew Darcy had a hand in this and was seriously displeased.
Still, she greeted him with smiles and a press of hands together when he returned to Pemberley. “Is it done? I saw the wedding announcement.”
He looked at her in surprise. “I had not meant for you to know,” he admitted.
“I had hoped,” she admitted quietly, “there would be no secrets.—Now, I’ve been preparing Uncle Marcus’s rooms. Swaths of the best velvet, I hope you don’t mind, and candles everywhere. I’ve taken some of the Italian and Latin books from the larger library for him, I hope you don’t mind, and I’ve chosen one of the guest stallions for his personal use. He does so love to ride at night.”
“I see you have everything in hand, my love.”
“He is my uncle,” she admitted quietly as they came into the foyer at Pemberley. “He saved my life when he brought me to England, when he nursed me back to health after my injury. It is the least I can do.”
“And the wedding preparations.”
“Father James just needs a date,” she informed him. “I have been baptized in the Anglican faith, you will be pleased to note so you shan’t be marrying a papist.”
He laughed openly at that. “No, I should hope not.”
“The wedding is to take place at ten in the evening so that Uncle Marcus can be present. Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam has also been informed as have the kitchens. We just await your word, Fitzwilliam.”
“Then lets to church tomorrow, my love,” he suggested, kissing her lightly. “I cannot imagine a better homecoming present than you as my bride.”
She kissed him for such a sentiment and the two went in search of Georgiana together.
The wedding was a blur. Under the cloak of darkness, Bella was escorted to the open carriage which would transport her and her Uncle Marcus to the village church. There were no villagers to wish her well. There were no wedding guests. It was just as she would have wished. In a gown of pale yellow, her hair unbound and a wreath of roses to adorn her head, she said her vows and accepted a ring of pure gold as a symbol of her marriage to a man she had barely known three months.
“I love you,” he whispered as he lifted her into their carriage that would carry her back to Pemberley, her new home. “I know you may not yet love me, but I am assured that it will come.”
She breathed out a sigh of relief that they made it home—home!—before their guests, and he swept her up and carried her to the Master and Mistress suites where he carefully divested her of her dress and corset, and did dark things to her body that she knew she could never speak about to another creature.
No one had taught her—but she remembered whispers among girls whose faces she could never quite make out. She should want this, and when he touched her she felt electrified and gasped at the sheer pleasure of it. This would only make him smile as he leaned up to kiss her before she felt him slide her French nightgowns, the cloth nearly invisible except for the stitching of flowers and other whimsical notions, to reveal pale expanses of skin.
“We must go down to Netherfield,” he apologized near the end of September. “Bingley is having a shooting party, and while there aren’t to be any ladies, I am loathe to leave you.”
“I thought you were giving up that man.”
“He means to propose to Miss Bennet,” he explained.
Bella looked at him in shock. “The horrible one? And we can’t leave now. Georgiana has so little time left with Cousin Richard before he goes abroad.”
A mischievous look came into his eyes. They were still in mourning for both his great-uncle and his cousin, the former Viscount. “I thought I would leave her in his excellent care. Perhaps she can persuade him to sell his commission as his duty is to marry and establish the next generation.”
“I think,” Bella began hesitantly, “the next Viscountess already has designs on him. In fact, I think she has for a long time.”
“I think you might be right,” he admitted to her solemnly. “Still, this is Georgiana’s game and I shall not interfere unless she specifically asks me to. I know you have aided her in this campaign, my darling, but perhaps she should be left to her own natural accomplishments and beauty.”
Bella looked at him and nodded. “At least I’ll be here for her when the time comes. I never had a mother. I was quite confused on our wedding night,” she dared to admit.
“I know, dearest,” he said, coming and kissing her hand. “I hope I was able to allay your fears to the best of my ability.—One thing worries me so. We are so above our company. It was one thing when I was merely a country master whose estate was twice that of Bingley’s income. Now I am a Marquis, married to the most beautiful woman in England, and have acquired a vast fortune from my great-uncle.”
“Then let this be goodbye.”
“The society in Hertfordshire leaves much to be desired as well. I think to how you would react to their rough ways.”
Considering, Bella stood and went to the window, when she admitted, “Fitzwilliam, when I had my accident, I forgot everything. Uncle Marcus had to teach me how to eat properly, how to curtsey. I had to learn the proper ways of address from novels. I am the lady you married, but I had to be retaught because I fell in Italy over a fountain of all the strangest things, hit my head, and the boy who wanted to marry me then tried to strangle me.—I’m still not certain of his motivation, but he was stopped. Apparently, I was unconscious for several weeks. They did not know if I would wake up again, if I would remember.” A tear fell down her cheek. “And I didn’t remember, Fitzwilliam. I didn’t remember Italian, only English which I had been taught by tutors. I cannot recollect how to sing, Uncle Marcus taught me how to dance. We lived in seclusion for months while I learnt how to be a lady. I know rough ways. I lived them.”
“Hush,” he said, coming up to her. “I know it was difficult for you. I didn’t realize how difficult. However, you are Contessa Isabella Volturi—now the Marchioness of Ashmoure.”
“True,” she lied, knowing she had been Bella Swan, a secret she would take to her grave. Switching topics, she turned to him and looked into his dark eyes. “If you hadn’t met me that day, when you looked like a wild creature of your own forest,” (they laughed together at this) “what would you have said to Miss Elizabeth Bennet when she declared herself?”
“She insulted me grossly,” he admitted. “However, I was desperate for a kind word.”
“You loved her,” she realized, a sinking feeling in her heart.
“I didn’t know what love was—I thought it was the need to possess a person and bend them to my own will. Have I ever done that to you, Isabella? Even once?” His voice was full of arrogance again, as if he could not imagine imposing such a desire on her, as if he were now above such a display.
“No,” she added harshly, grabbing the seam of his jacket to keep him close to her. “No, you have been kindness itself. You saved me from a self-imposed darkness, one I hadn’t realized blinded me.”
He placed his hand over hers and looked down into her chocolate eyes. “It pains me that this man—this Edward—tried to do you harm.”
“It is over,” she promised. “I am your wife and he cannot find me here.”
“I shall always keep you safe,” he swore.
“I know,” she replied, stroking the fabric of his coat. “To Netherfield we shall go and I shall see this other Miss Bennet and take her likeness. Perhaps she is worthy of your once-friend, after all.”
The trip was tiring and Bella left her uncle with assurances that he would be well and, perhaps, that he might travel. The idea was that there might be fewer deaths in the region. Bella was beginning to suspect that he was a vampire. That Edward, even, had been a vampire, and wondered why she was kept alive and well. There was that strange statement about “punishment”, but she really didn’t understand it.
Netherfield Hall was not as fine as Pemberley and she did not know Mr. Bingley well enough to find him congenial. Instead, she looked on him as she would a stranger, someone she would not associate with except that absolute necessity demanded it.
She did, however, profess interest in the Bennets. One night in the drawing room, when she was at her Italian needlepoint, she suggested, “I would like to pay a call to the Bennets. It is true that I did not care for the Bennet girl at all, but certainly all her relations must not be as unfortunate as she and, well, she accused me of stealing Lord Ashbourne away. I would like to show her she was entirely correct.”
“You seem territorial, my love,” Darcy suggested, coming up behind her and trailing a finger down her face.
“What if I am? My position, while accepted, was precarious as I am foreign. My speech is accented, although softly compared to my compatriots. I will always cause a stir not only because of my beauty but because of my heritage. I would like to show her that I am not a woman to be trifled with.”
“I would hardly call your position precarious, Marchioness,” Bingley immediately replied. “You were always grace and beauty, even when hidden behind your veil and putting our coachman in his place. However, tomorrow we shall go. You shall meet the eldest Miss Bennet, whom I trust will meet with your approval.”
Miss Jane Bennet, it appeared, was two and twenty and unmarried. This was a gross sin in womanhood especially as she was one of five daughters and her father’s estate, though insignificant, was entailed to a cousin, who had married a Bennet family friend and not one of the daughters.
“If I were one to give mind to rumors,” Darcy admitted, “it was Miss Elizabeth to whom Mr. Collins showed favor but she either would not have him or he changed his mind even when expectations were raised.”
“She might have saved her family,” Bella mused. “I only considered you for Pemberley. I thought it would be a wonderful place to ride a horse and rest my weary feet.”
He smiled wryly at her. “I’m glad I could be of some assistance in that area.” He kissed her head, which had a top hat and veil on it for riding, before the couple joined Bingley on their trek to the Bennet household.
Miss Jane Bennet was indeed lovely. With dark curling hair placed atop her head and green eyes, she could never be called an English rose, but she was not one to be looked over. Bella found her too sweet, but wondered if she should make a pet of her while in the neighborhood. She was only just nineteen herself, if Lord Marcus’s assertions that her birthday was at the beginning of October could be relied upon, but still she could help Miss Bennet in a small way, even if it was not to the altar with Mr. Charles Bingley.
“I do not think they are right for each other,” she proclaimed as she took off her pelisse and Bingley had gone off somewhere. “She smiles too much.”
Darcy smirked. “My sentiments exactly. However, you smile.”
“I smile when I am amused or when I am trying to comfort someone. I am rarely happy enough to smile.”
“I know,” he agreed. “It’s why I delight in making you smile.”
“Jane Bennet smiles when she believes it is socially acceptable. It’s rather false. I don’t like falseness in other people. I prefer people like you—the painfully honest. Even your negative character traits become positive ones because they are honest.”
“I had thought you believed me a paragon of virtue.”
The left side of her mouth quirked. “No, hardly that. I would never marry a paragon of virtue. If you want to delude yourself, however, I will not stop you.” She squealed as he picked her up in his arms, one arm beneath her legs, the other supporting her back.
“I think this calls for a short repast, Lady Ashbourne.”
“Short?” she inquired. “I thought I had inspired more than that.”
He only smiled at her wickedly and carried her up the stairs.
She lay, glistening in the heat of the November day, a sheet round her middle and not caring that she was bared to her husband. “I didn’t time it,” she stated as if it were a matter of the greatest necessity.
“Do you often time it?” he asked.
“No,” she responded, turning to look at him. “It’s too dark. I thought I’d make a study, though. Whether you were more passionate before I was with child, when I was with child, or after I was with child.”
“You forget,” he suggested, pulling her close so she was rolled toward him, their noses just a breath away from each other. “While it is after you are with child, it might be before another one.”
“You would not have me grow fat and unappealing like so many Italian women before me!” she scolded.
“No,” he agreed, kissing her lightly. “I would have you round with our heirs. I should like the sound of children at Pemberley. Three, at the least.”
“Three,” she murmured, tracing his chest and letting her fingers be caught in the curly hairs that grew in it. “An heir, a spare, and a little girl to look like her mama?” she suggested.
“I think we have the same idea, Isabella.” He leaned in to kiss her drunkenly, but she pulled away.
“Did you love me, Fitzwilliam, even when I wore a veil? I was intrigued with you and agreed to see you again even when you presented yourself as less than a gentleman and…as my uncle pointed out…you had not a title.” Her voice was small and vulnerable, but he kissed the tip of her nose.
“I was enchanted by your voice and the way your hands moved when you spoke,” he admitted. “I wanted to see behind the veil, but I remembered the ancient proverb: ‘All good things come to those who wait.’”
The answer was near perfect and she leaned forward, pressing her breasts against him, and kissed him desperately, only to find him pressing against her, begging entrance to her body, that she would never think to deny him.
The shooting party and the Bennets were much thrown together. Bella despaired at Mrs. Bennet who seemed to think that Mr. Bingley was the property of her eldest daughter. Elizabeth Bennet was mostly silent though her eyes would follow Darcy across a room, much to Bella’s chagrin.
One night, after shooting, Bella found herself alone with Bingley in the drawing room. Closing her book, she looked at him pointedly and demanded, “Come, come. I doubt because of my husband’s elevation in society we shall ever be in close quarters again. Let me give you the wisdom of a lady who means you no ill will and has no personal stake in your future.”
Dithering about a moment, he came and sat beside her, clearly nervous. “Jane Bennet,” he stated.
“She’s quite a favorite of yours.”
“I find her smiles false, but one must amuse oneself. She is kind, at the least, and the only tolerable one of the four remaining sisters. Also, she is of the preeminent family. In London I would do everything but cut her, but here it is slightly different. Now—you are a gentleman.”
“She is a gentleman’s daughter.”
“I agree. However, she is nearly destitute. She is not your equal. When I met Darcy, my uncle constantly reminded me that we were not equals in society. I was a Contessa, from the ancient line of Volturi, and he was merely a country gentleman. It grated on me more than I would ever let Darcy know. It was a great relief when his great-uncle died and he became a Marquis. We became equal in all things. I hope you understand what I’m saying.”
“I think I do, Marchioness.”
“An unequal marriage can be full of affection, but my uncle was afraid for me. He was afraid doubts would form. Yes, I was Italian which would create an equalizer in English society, but that would not affect how I viewed myself or where I came from. Lord Marcus was afraid I would grow to resent Lord Ashbourne, whatever his property or wealth. The disparity between your and Miss Bennet, although it doesn’t involve a title, is even greater. I hope you know I speak to you in friendship. I wish only that you find happiness.”
“She is the loveliest girl—”
“That you have seen so far,” Bella argued. “If I speak in confidence, Darcy was not the first man to turn my head, nor I the first woman to turn his. However, we were the first equals to recognize each other, and we have made each other happy in this equality. Do not think that equality is only in spirit and in mind. It is in social rank and in wealth. We live in a society that is based on that and we cannot divorce ourselves from society.”
“But, Lady Ashbourne—”
“She is not even your equal in mind, Mr. Bingley!” Isabella declared. “She does not read, she does not hunt, she does not take up needlepoint or painting. She has only sweet conversation that I’m certain would dry up during an evening.”
Looking chastened, Bingley asked, “You do not think she cares for me?”
“I did not say that. I believe it is not prudent. I think your heart will mend and you will meet a lady who is far better suited to your position and mind. Do you want her mama as a relation? Honestly? The woman is a grotesque!”
“I would not expect a lady to speak so.”
“I am Italian. I speak of such things. I will never see you again, Mr. Bingley, except across a dancefloor. I can only speak to you this once.”
The young man seemed solemn and nodded.
Bella leaned forward and tapped his hand with her fan. “You are not an unattractive young man. You have much to recommend you. Use it, Mr. Bingley.” She stood and made to leave. “I’m sorry I cannot recommend any young ladies, but I have not been much in society.” Then she exited the room.
It was during this time that Mr. and Mrs. Wickham visited Longbourne. Darcy was angry, but he chose to spend his days shooting and ignoring the Bennets. Isabella was still riding the countryside on Italia, finding the most difficult paths, and testing her mount’s prowess. She was quite surprised when she was joined by another rider one day, a gentleman, whose coat was made out of coarser material. Bella looked at him as she took a jump, making the stream beyond it, but then she heard the neigh of a horse that was clearly in distress.
Turning, she saw the rider in the stream, getting up and patting his horse on the neck.
“You seem to be mastered by nature, sir!” she greeted.
“It appears so, Madam,” he agreed. “Lieutenant George Wickham at your service.” He bowed despite the fact that he was still standing in a stream.
Bella looked him over and could agree that he was certainly handsome, handsomer than Darcy if she admitted to the truth. “You are well met, sir, but I fear I seek a solitary morning.” She did not bow to him, he was so beneath her in station. Turning in her seat, she urged Italia on, and left Wickham in the damp and cold of the early morning.
“No one told me George Wickham was handsome,” she greeted her husband. “It seems he is visiting the Bennets. He tried to join me on my ride, but, alas, his horse was not up to the challenge.—How much of my dowry did you pay him?”
“Not a cent,” Darcy told her plainly, looking over his shoulders. “I bought his debts and called them in. He’s paying me off every month with a forty percent interest.”
“Excellent!” she exclaimed, coming up behind him and kissing his cheek. “I think he’s run up some more. His riding coat is definitely inferior, but it is handstitched, for certain.”
“He very well could be,” Darcy offered. “I hope not to renew our acquaintance.” He turned. “Were you wearing a veil?”
“I am Italian,” she answered briskly.
Darcy took her hand in his solemnly. “He will know who you are soon enough. Let us hope that your station will keep him away. Do not go by that pathway again.”
“Of course,” she agreed.
When she was separating her veils two days before they were to leave Netherfield, a package arrived with a strange book. It was called Pride and Prejudice and the author was simply ‘a Lady’. The title sounded somewhat familiar and, in interest, Bella sat back and read the story of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley.
“Tell me it isn’t true,” she begged, throwing the book in her husband’s face before dinner. “I can see where the book went wrong, but tell me it isn’t true.”
A note slipped out but she disregarded it for a moment.
“I do not know of what you speak, Isabella,” Darcy told her plainly, taking the book and regarding it in curiosity.
Taking up the note, Bella opened it to see her uncle’s familiar handwriting. I am returning to Volterra. I am leaving you in the pages of this book so Edward Cullen might always read of your love. Here is the original, which you once professed to love and carried all the way to Italy where I found you, near dead, full of venom where Edward had nearly drained you of your blood. It is his punishment to see you happy. It is your reward to be free of your old life filled with vampires and in a new world with wealth, privilege, and affection. Lord Marcus Volturi.
Bella crumpled the note in her hand and threw it in the November fire. Taking the book, she quickly threw it in after. “It is a message,” she said. “Uncle Marcus returns home. I am sorry I doubted—he frightened me.”
Darcy came up to her carefully and dried her tears. “I do not understand.”
“You loved another once. I did not wish to be simply a replacement.”
He looked into her eyes lovingly. “You saved me from the greatest mistake of my life. How can you possibly be a replacement?” Then he kissed her long and slow, and she was happier than she ever remembered being.
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