A Very Austen Christmas - eBook small

No Better Gift

(A short story within the anthology A Very Austen Christmas)

by Wendi Sotis

copyright © 2017 Wendi Sotis

Chapter One

Monday, December 16, 1811

“This was a mistake.” Fitzwilliam Darcy’s strained baritone echoed off the brown leather-upholstered walls of his coach, empty except for him. The sound was hollow — very much the way he foresaw his future.

He snapped the book on his lap closed and pulled the rug up around his neck to ward off the wintry nip in the air. The past few weeks had been colder than ever, or was it the prospect of a life void of the challenge, passion, and comfort she could provide that chilled him to the bone?

Darcy raked a hand through his hair. When had his thoughts become so fanciful?

He shook his head, already knowing the answer. It began soon after Michaelmas, that fateful evening at the assembly ball, the moment he took a second look at her and recognized his first impression was completely wrong.

“Ridiculous,” he huffed with a cloud of breath. Again with the whimsy! He barely knew himself lately.

The impression that she was special or that she alone could soothe the ache within his soul was irrational. And yet, with each hoof step his team took towards the village of Meryton, his awareness increased, as if his mind had been in a fog since his hasty retreat from Hertfordshire several weeks ago. The further away he had been from her, the stronger the strain on their connection had grown, decreasing the likeliness of his concentrating on anything else. Now, as he travelled closer, the tension in his chest eased. Relief swelled through him.

No! He must stop thinking along these lines. The idea they were linked somehow was ludicrous. There had to be a perfectly good explanation for his response.

But if it were some sort of trick of his mind, why did not the illusion originate from where he would expect her to be? From the direction of Longbourn, which would be ahead and to the right, instead of to the left?

Perhaps in his mind’s eye, he presumed she would be on a stroll with her sisters, heading for Meryton, or even on one of her solitary rambles?

His heart thrashed against his ribs as he pulled the window curtain aside. Gaze combing the woods, he searched for a hint of unnatural colour — her gown or mayhap her bonnet.

His well-sprung coach’s wheels hit a rut so deep, the movement threw him against the seatback. The cloth dropped back into place.

This woman — this nobody — how had she cast a spell on him, so strong he was losing his mind?

It was a question he had asked himself many times since leaving Hertfordshire in late November. These three weeks in London, he had yielded to an all-encompassing, irrational dread that if he so much as thought the name of the lady who had captured his heart — let alone spoke her name aloud — his soul would be so completely weighed down with regret that he would never know a moment’s peace for the rest of his life.

He would prove the fear wrong. He must. Now.

Darcy steeled himself. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

He held his breath for several moments and released it.

There! Nothing had changed. The lady held only as much power over him as he allowed. He would tolerate it no more.

However, the voicing of her name did conjure up a torrent of recollections he had struggled to suppress when awake, but which tortured him nightly in his dreams. Elizabeth’s light and pleasing form skipping through a jig at the Assembly ball. Her porcelain skin, glowing with health and vigor whenever she came in from her beloved outdoors. Her delicate hand resting in his during the one and only dance they had shared. Her graceful movements, leaving a swirl of lavender in the air. Her voice, rising in song, filling his spirit with joy. Her eyes, alit with a flash of challenge or sparkle of lively wit, causing his heart to throb. The cleverness behind each of her words as she debated an opinion, forcing his own intellect to sharpen.

Darcy closed his eyes and fingered his signet ring — a symbol of all he had been taught to protect. Duty to his family name reigned above all else. He must select the proper mate, and Elizabeth was irrevocably unfit to be a Darcy.

Although his soul might be altered forever by meeting her, with time, he would have to forget her.

With that seemingly impossible goal in mind and hoping for an effective distraction, he headed for Matlock. He mentally corrected himself. No, he went primarily to spend Christmas with his relations. Three days hence, after months away from his sister, Georgiana, the siblings would reunite. Georgiana had indicated in her letters that spending time with their aunt and uncle had helped to heal the wounds left behind after learning the man she had loved had been interested only in her dowry. Perchance his spending time with family would cure his broken heart, as well?

Darcy’s eyes snapped open. Broken heart? He was becoming nonsensical.

He shook his head. His aunt’s naggings were correct. It was high time he settled down. Then all these absurd longings for Elizabeth would disappear.

When he returned to London in March for the Season, he would, at last, find someone worthy to become his wife.

There was one hitch to his plan. During his hurried flight from Netherfield, he had forgotten a gift he had purchased for his sister. Since he would be passing near the turnoff to his friend’s estate whilst travelling north today, he chose to stop to retrieve it. To prevent temptation ruling over logic, for Longbourn — Elizabeth’s home — was only three miles away, he would not even leave the confines of his coach. His driver would apply to Netherfield’s housekeeper, and they would be on their way in less than five minutes.

The coach banked to the right, the signal that they would soon enter Meryton.

Darcy pulled the window curtain aside once more and tied it back.

One of the reasons he had approved Bingley’s choice of leasing Netherfield was that Meryton reminded him of Lambton, the thriving community near his own estate. Last autumn, the sight of this village — always bustling with members of the four-and-twenty genteel households Mrs. Bennet boasted of entertaining, along with their servants and tenant farmers — often quelled the homesickness he faced whenever he was away from Pemberley.

However, as they pulled into town this time, his heart sank.

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

The village was deserted — peculiar for this time of the morning. No cheery boughs of greenery hung over the shop doors, as would be expected so close to Christmas. Window panes lacked the holly leaves and berries usual for this time of year. Absent were the pedestrians and carriages which had always been present before, save one lone cart sitting before the inn, but even that was abandoned with no horse attached. Shutters or drapes were tightly shut in every upper window facing the street, and “CLOSED” signs hung on many of the shop doors. The bookshop with which he had become so familiar during the time he stayed with Bingley, now had two boards nailed in an X across the doorway.

Darcy struck his cane against the roof. As the coach rolled to a halt, he opened the door and stepped down.

An icy breeze kicked up a whirlwind of dust near the butcher’s shop. It rose, picking up stray leaves as it made its way down the empty road toward where it forked, one lane leading to Netherfield, the other to Lucas Lodge and Longbourn. At the end of the row of buildings, the eddy collapsed, scattering its contents near the sign he knew proclaimed “Welcome to Meryton.”

He shuddered.

A door slammed, and Darcy spun. A man with a kerchief tied around his face exited a door near the milliner’s shop and hurried along the boarded walkway.

“You there!” Darcy called out, but the man ducked into the next door without looking in Darcy’s direction. A bolt clicked into place.

“What in blazes is going on here?” He glanced up at the coachman.

Roberts shook his head and pulled a rifle out from under his seat while the footman slid down from his bench and took a tentative step towards Darcy.

“Don’t know, Mr. Darcy,” Baxter said, “but it don’t seem right.”

Darcy nodded as he scrutinized the upper floors of the buildings across from him. Had the village been taken over by highwaymen? Had the French invaded England and now occupied Meryton?

A curtain moved in a window above the bookshop.

Darcy took a step closer. “Hello, Smithers? Is that you?”

The window opened a hands-width.

“Mr. Darcy?” The bookshop owner’s voice bounced off all structures in the vacant street. “You best leave now, sir. Before it’s too late!”

“Too late for what, Smithers?” He paused. “What is going on?”

The window closed with a bang.

Darcy caught Baxter’s eye.

The coachman called down, “Want me and Baxter to knock on some doors, sir?”

Darcy shook his head. “Let us proceed to Netherfield as planned. Perhaps we can find out what is happening from the housekeeper.”

As the horses followed the fork to the left, Darcy’s gaze strayed down the lane leading to Longbourn. Was Elizabeth at home? Was she safe?

Why was there no tug at his heart coming from that direction?

An unpleasant weight settled in his stomach.

Whether this stop at Netherfield held any answers, and no matter how he longed to erase her from his mind, he could not leave the area until he was certain she was well.

The mile to Netherfield seemed interminable. When the coach jerked to a halt, Darcy bolted from it and up the staircase leading to the front door. Since Bingley was not in residence, the knocker had been removed, so Darcy thumped the thick wooden door with the head of his cane.

Bingley had told him several servants were retained to keep the house in order until his lease ran out. So why, then, did the place seem deserted? Had the same fate come upon Netherfield as Meryton?

He paced the landing… it seemed forever. The tug on his heart began anew, from his right. Longbourn was in that direction.

He knocked again, to no avail. Not a trace of acknowledgment came from indoors, but the scraping of a rake sounded somewhere off to the right of the building.

Descending the stairs, he called out to the driver, “Remain here in case someone comes to the door.”

Darcy motioned to Baxter to follow him, and they headed towards the stables.

He increased his pace to a jog. To a run. He must find answers.

Rounding the barn door, Darcy stopped short.

A lady stood still, rubbing her back, arched in a way that displayed her figure to its best advantage. One long chestnut curl escaped a simple bun. Her gown was of decent material and cut; the dirty hem was pulled up and tucked into the tie of a full-length apron, revealing both ankles and a hint of her right calf. After a few moments, she moved, and pulled a rake towards her again and again.

Darcy blinked several times, but the apparition did not disappear. His heart stuttered.

It was the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet, safe and well… and vigorously mucking out a horse’s stall.

 

Chapter Two

Would Mr. Bingley send assistance?

Elizabeth Bennet pulled the rake upright and leaned onto it. Just one moment of rest, that was all she needed. In truth, it was all she could afford.

A breeze swept through the barn, washing away the stench, if only for a moment. A few stray pieces of straw cartwheeled down the main corridor between the horses’ stalls. When she first came out here, she was shivering, but after raking the soiled bedding from several compartments and all the way out the door, the cold air felt delightful against her overheated skin.

She had seen her father’s stable boys do this work a hundred times. It had always seemed like such an easy job. But now she eyed the pitchfork, certain that the next step, laying out a thick layer of fresh hay, would be more difficult than it seemed, as everything she had done over the past few days had proven to be.

Her mother — so proud to be a gentleman’s wife — had always laughed when she mentioned that the Lucas daughters helped their cook in the kitchen. What would her mother say if she knew her own daughter had spent the last few days dusting, changing linens, washing clothes, emptying basins, and sweeping floors?

And now she was cleaning stables.

Elizabeth would have to keep the details of her current situation a secret, or her mother’s nerves would fray completely.

Meanwhile, privately, Elizabeth would take pride in doing her best at whatever she did, whether it was socially acceptable for a gentleman’s daughter to do or not. Her compensation would be returning the sick to health. Hopefully with no lives lost.

A whinny floated through the window. The three horses Mr. Bingley left behind stretched their legs, galloping in circles around the pasture.

Her chest tightened. Those poor horses. How pleased they must be to finally be out of the barn, even for a short while.

Elizabeth shook her head. She must forgive herself. There was a good reason estates had a large staff — two people could not do it all alone. Not for long, anyway.

She rubbed at the small of her back. Every part of her ached from trying, even muscles she never knew she had before this week.

When all was restored to normal, she would personally thank every member of her father’s staff at least once a week for the rest of her life.

That was enough of a rest.

Elizabeth extended the rake to pull filthy hay toward her. She must continue, must finish and return to the house.

A noise sounded behind her. She spun around and gasped.

“Mr. Darcy!”

Of all people, why was he here?

Without thinking, her hand fluttered to her hair and tucked the loose lock she had ignored as she laboured into the chignon at the nape of her neck.

She closed her eyes. Nothing short of a miracle would remove the grime her gown, face, and hair must have accumulated while cleaning out the barn. Besides, even if her appearance was perfect, Mr. Darcy would always find fault in her. She might as well give him an excellent reason this time.

Hearing footsteps, Elizabeth expected to see Mr. Bingley, but a man dressed in Darcy livery came into view instead.

Darcy bowed. His gaze darted to her ankles and stayed there, as if glued, reminding her she had gathered up the length of her gown to keep it out of the manure.

Lowering her head, in part to hide her burning cheeks, she curtsied in response. As discreetly as she could, she pulled her skirts loose from the tie of her apron.

“Miss Elizabeth.” Darcy cleared his throat. “May I ask why you are mucking out Bingley’s stables?”

Was his haughty attitude the only thanks she could expect for all she had done?

To tame her tongue before speaking, she took a deep breath and counted to five before releasing it. “Since everyone at Netherfield is ill, sir, and I am practically the only one who dares to venture near the estate, anything the maids who are helping me cannot do, I must do myself.” She straightened her spine. “Including mucking out the stalls.”

He stepped forward.

Elizabeth held out her hand, palm outward. “That is close enough, sir, unless you wish to contract the pox. I have been surrounded by the illness for six days.”

Darcy’s entire body stiffened. His face drained of emotion, an expression she had become quite familiar with a few weeks ago. “Not smallpox,” he breathed.

She shook her head. “Chickenpox, sir.”

His shoulders relaxed markedly. “I am immune. I assume you are, as well, Miss Elizabeth?”

“I had it as a child during a visit with my aunt and uncle in London.”

Darcy turned to face the footman. “Baxter?”

Baxter answered, “Yes, sir. It made the rounds at Pemberley years ago when I was a stable boy.” He startled, blanched, and cut a wide-eyed gaze towards Darcy.

Why had the footman reacted so strongly?

Darcy approached, took hold of the rake, and held it out to the footman. “Since you have experience, take over where Miss Elizabeth left off.”

As Baxter went to work — almost too eagerly — Darcy motioned for Elizabeth to precede him out the door. She welcomed the opportunity for fresh air and began to move in that direction.

Elizabeth said, “I thank you for the assistance, sir.”

Darcy bowed slightly. “It is you who should be thanked, not I.”

Elizabeth examined his face. Surprisingly, he meant it.

Once outside, Darcy offered his arm.

Elizabeth swallowed hard. As tired as she was, she could have used his support, but the gloves were filthy. If she took them off, her mother would never forgive her for allowing Mr. Darcy to see the blisters she was sure had formed there, and judging by the pain, she was sure they had broken and were bleeding by now. “I do not wish to soil your suit, sir.”

He stared at her hands. “Those gloves…”

Her stomach jumped. “Oh! Yes; I forgot.” Her face heated again. Goodness, all this blushing must be from being so tired. Sleeping more than a half-hour here and there had been impossible since Mr. Jones had become ill. “I hope you do not mind that when I told Sarah, Netherfield’s upstairs maid, that I was going to clean the barn, she explained where to find these gloves in your former rooms, sir. You must have left them behind. They have been a great help.”

Darcy’s nostrils flared.

What had he expected her to do, rake bare-handed? “I apologize for taking the liberty, Mr. Darcy. I had no other choice but to make do with what was at hand. My father will replace them, I am sure.”

He stared straight ahead. “That will not be necessary.”

They walked on in strained silence. Elizabeth stumbled and flailed. Darcy moved quickly, pivoting in front of her and placing one hand on each of her upper arms. He was so close, her hands ended on his chest. A sudden urge came over her to lay her cheek there and lean against him. She looked up into his eyes — perfect, dark brown pools that always made her insides melt.

She stiffened. Control yourself, Lizzy. He has no interest in you.

Darcy cleared his throat and stepped away from her. “You are obviously exhausted. I insist you take my arm, Miss Elizabeth.”

“But…” she held up her hands, then gestured to the front of his coat. Oh, dear. At least she had soiled only his topcoat.

He followed the line of her gaze. “It matters not. Please, allow me to assist you.”

Since he did not seem upset, she did as he asked. It occurred to her that a man as wealthy as Mr. Darcy probably had more than one topcoat.

When she took hold of his outstretched arm, his muscles flexed, sending a tremor through her to her core. They proceeded towards the house, his every movement reminding her of his physical presence.

It was so much easier to hate him when he was not here in front of her, so handsome he set her heart to race and her breath to catch in her chest every time their eyes met — so long as he kept his mouth shut. Since he had left Hertfordshire, any time her attraction to him haunted her thoughts or when her dreams betrayed her, she reminded herself of everything he had done to prove his character was wholly disagreeable. But it was too difficult to do when he was right in front of her, particularly as he was being pleasant at the moment.

Not that it mattered. He could never have any designs on her, made entirely clear by all the little things about him that practically screamed that she was far beneath him in every way possible. Every time she detected it, she could not help but become defensive and say something she would later regret.

Darcy barked, “How many are ill?”

His tone almost demanded that she salute him. Good! She could more easily dislike him when he behaved in such a way. Sometimes she feared she had made up his haughty attitude to protect her heart, but the proof that she had not imagined it was evident in his manner now.

“Sixteen,” she answered.

“Sixteen children?”

“Ten children and six adults.”

Darcy paled. “It is much worse in adults.”

“Which has been well proven these past few days.” She sighed. “The adults have suffered complications that I do not remember experiencing myself and, so far, have not affected the children. Their fevers are higher, and all have coughs. One woman has developed pneumonia.”

She could feel the muscles of his arm tense. His voice was a bit husky when he asked, “Has Bingley been contacted?”

“It is my understanding that since most people affected were servants and tenants of this estate, Mr. Jones wrote to Mr. Bingley to inform him it was necessary to use the manor house to quarantine the patients.”

Darcy shook his head.

With what could he possibly disagree?

“You must understand that since this neighborhood has had little experience with this illness, many are wary. Someone had to help these poor people, Mr. Darcy. They are too ill to take care of themselves. Though it is difficult for them to be away from their families just before Christmas, it was easier for Mr. Jones if the sick were all in one place.”

She glanced at him and then away. “May I ask, if you are not here on Mr. Bingley’s behalf, then why …”

He fidgeted with a ring on his finger. Had the question made him uncomfortable? “I was travelling to Derbyshire for Christmas and realized I had forgotten something here. I stopped to retrieve it, but nobody answered the door — ”

Elizabeth gasped. “Oh! The gloves? Were they meant to be a gift, sir?”

“Please do not let that trouble you, Miss Elizabeth. I have another gift for my sister.”

The sound of birds in the distant trees seemed quite loud until he spoke again. “Has Mr. Jones received a reply from Bingley?”

“A letter from Miss Bingley was included in the basket of food left at the door this morning. They enclosed a five-pound note as payment for the apothecary.”

Darcy stopped walking. “Do you mean to tell me that Bingley’s staff and tenants are ailing and all he sent was a five-pound note?”

“Yes, sir.” Elizabeth nodded. “Miss Bingley made it clear there would be no other aid offered.”

His face reddened, and his eyes looked as though they might pop out of his head. He inhaled deeply. “What of your family?”

Elizabeth raised her chin. Was he saying her family should be responsible for the welfare of Netherfield’s tenants and staff? “My sisters and Charlotte Lucas wished to provide assistance, but none of them have immunity.”

Jane’s, Mary’s, and Charlotte’s offers were expected, but it struck her as very odd when Lydia volunteered to come with her, too.

She continued, “As soon as my mother heard Mr. Jones’s diagnosis, she took my sisters to London. Other than a few notes exchanged without any physical contact, I have not spoken with my father since coming to Netherfield six days ago, for Mr. Jones has forbidden him to come near.”

“So you are saying that you alone are charged with caring for sixteen patients, Miss Elizabeth?”

“Longbourn’s scullery maid was able, so she is assisting me.” Thank God for Emily. If it were not for her, Elizabeth would have to deal with chamber pots, as well. Elizabeth had an oddly crushing need to justify her actions. “At first, I came simply to assist Mr. Jones, but it seems he did not have a resistance to the illness as he had thought. Since Mr. Jones took to bed, he directs me from there as to what to do for each patient.

“Our food and supplies are from Longbourn and the Lucas household. Some of the children’s parents or older siblings, who can spare a few minutes and are immune, come when they can, which allow one of us to manage some chores. My aunt and uncle’s maid is now here to offer further assistance. She arrived this morning, and as soon as one of the parents came to visit, I immediately came out to the barn. I have been feeding and watering the horses and other animals every day, but the needs of the sick had to come before the more time-consuming tasks involved in caring for the animals.”

He began walking again. She had to hurry her steps to remain even with him.

“We need some supplies, sir. After I clean up, can I trouble you for the use of your coach to take me into Meryton? Generally, I would enjoy a walk into the village, but now … I do not wish to leave Hannah and Emily alone for long with so many under their care.”

Darcy furrowed his brow. “I am sorry, Miss Elizabeth, but we just came through Meryton. All the shops are closed.”

Elizabeth’s stomach tightened. “What do you mean, Meryton is closed?”

Darcy shrugged. “I imagine it has something to do with the illness here at Netherfield.”

She gasped. “Are they all unwell?”

“I saw one man, who would not speak to us, and the bookshop owner only yelled out his window saying we should go away. Both seemed healthy. They do know to come to Netherfield if they are ill, do they not?”

“Yes, Mr. Jones had a boy go to every household in the area, directing them to bring their sick here, but only two from outside the estate have come.” Elizabeth sighed. “When the illness first began, everyone thought it was smallpox and hid in their homes. I assumed that when they heard it was chickenpox, they would have felt more at ease. But now, after seeing how ill some of the adults are, I do not blame them.”

“I am surprised the regiment of militia has not offered support.”

“I have to assume the colonel does not want his men exposed further than they already have been. The ailing man from outside the estate is a lieutenant.” She looked away, not wishing to betray the identity of the man.

“Draw up a list of needed supplies. My coachman will fetch a doctor and a nursemaid or two from London. I will authorize the purchase of anything else you require, as well.”

Elizabeth’s step faltered, and Darcy pulled his arm closer to his side to steady her.

A pleasant warmth filled her chest. Netherfield was not his responsibility — nor was it hers, but this was her community, not his. He should not feel obligated. It said something for the man if he would do so anyway. “Thank you, sir.”

His gaze was directed forward, but she could see a twitch at his jawline as he nodded.

Until this moment, if someone had told her she could ever be this grateful for the arrival of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she would not have believed them.

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A Very Austen Christmas

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