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Warning: The end of Chapter 3 contains a scene containing violence. I do not believe it is graphic, but I felt I should warn the readers.
Once the carriage that carried Miss Bennet and the Gardiners was out of sight, Darcy turned and walked slowly to the house. He had never imagined he would see Elizabeth Bennet again, but Fate, it seemed, had different ideas. It was obvious she was embarrassed he had found her at Pemberley. Perhaps she thought he believed she had purposefully come to throw herself in his way again. However, one look at her face, and the truth of her explanation was revealed â she would not have come to Pemberley had she known he would be there. No one knew he was to return so soon. His steward had sent word that he needed to speak to his master, and Darcy had seized the opportunity to leave the rest of his party behind.
He was met at the door by his housekeeper.
âWelcome home, sir. We did not expect you till tomorrow.â She followed along side him as he walked.
âI came ahead early to speak with Mr. Wright. Is he out, or is he here now?â
âHe is out visiting the Johnsons, I believe.â
âWhen he returns, have him meet me in my study.â
They came to a stop. âShould I send a tray?â she asked before she left to return to her duties. His stomach sounded, and Darcy gave her a wry little smile.
âPlease, in one half-hour.â
âVery good, sir.â Mrs. Reynolds paused a moment in indecision. âThe visitors who just left â the young miss said she knew you.â
Darcy nodded. âI met Miss Bennet in Hertfordshire last October.â Then it was Darcyâs turn to pause. âMiss Bennetâs party will be in the neighborhood for a few days and may call again. They are very welcome here, even if I cannot receive them. I have given Mr. Gardiner, Miss Bennetâs uncle, leave to fish. He is to be provided with whatever he needs.â
Mrs. Reynolds was able to hide her surprise. The master could favor whomever he chose, even unexpected guests she had never heard of before.
Darcy was relieved that his steward was out on the estate. He needed some time alone. Seeing Elizabeth had upset him, yet not unpleasantly. She was shy and embarrassed, but then again, so was he. At least she did not appear to hate him anymore.
Mr. Wright arrived a few hours later. In the interim, Darcy had finally been able to focus his attention on the stack of correspondence Mr. Wright had arranged on his desk in his absence.
âIf you will forgive me, sir,â the steward said as he came around and retrieved an item from the back of a desk drawer, âthis is why I contacted you.â He handed the bundle to his master. âWhen the currier brought it, I opened it, thinking it was a matter of estate business, but once I read it, I realized it was more personal in nature. There is a second unopened letter that I found inside.â
Darcy looked at the letter.
Gardiner and Philips, Attorneys
He took one look up at his steward and then returned to the papers in his hand.
To Mr. F.H. Darcy, Esq.
I have been commissioned by Mr. George Bennet, of Longbourn, Hertfordshire on a matter regarding his estate.
As you may recall from your sojourn at Netherfield this past year, Mr. Bennet has five daughters. Since the estate is entailed, and for the lack of a son, a cousin, a Mr. William Collins of Hunsford, Kent, was to inherit Longbourn upon Mr. Bennetâs demise. However, Mr. Collins passed on earlier this year.
Following Mr. Collins death, Mr. Bennet requested that I make an extensive search for all possible heirs to Longbourn as required under the terms of the entail. In the course of this search, it was determined that the primary living male heir of the originator of the entail, a Jonathon Bennet, is you. You are the grandson four times removed of the Jonathon Bennetâs third-born son, Henry Bennet. Upon his marriage to Miss Georgiana Darcy, heiress of Pemberley, in 1668, Henry Bennet changed his name to Darcy.
One of my clerks was recently in Kympton to verify your claim through the Kympton Parish records. I have enclosed an exact copy made of the church registry and of the rest of the pertinent information discovered during this firmâs search, including the terms of the original entail.
There is, however, one possible heir that may precede you. Mr. Collinsâ widow is currently with child. A son of William Collins would become the new heir-apparent to Longbourn. Mr. Bennet has been told by Mrs. Collinsâ family that the child will likely be born in autumn. Once the birth occurs, the order of inheritance will be formally established by Mr. Bennet as is required by the entail.
Of course, you may refuse the inheritance, at which time your cousin, Mr. Michael Darcy, would take your place.
If you have any questions on this matter, please contact me as I am personally handling the matter for our firm.
Finally, at his request, I have enclosed a letter from Mr. Bennet for you.
âI took the opportunity, in your absence, to speak to Mr. Mitchell. He confirmed that a man came with letters of introduction from this firm and requested a review of the Kympton records. He helped him locate the details Mr. Philips included. I thought you would want to know.â
âYes, thank you, Wright. Is there anything else that requires my attention today?â
âNo, sir, everything else can wait. I believed you would want to see this as soon as possible, seeing as you spent time in that neighborhood last autumn with the Bingleys.â
âYes, I did. I do. Thank you, Mr. Wright. I will see you first thing in the morning.â Darcy said in dismissal.
âIt is good to have you back at Pemberley.â Mr. Wright bowed and left him alone. Darcy opened the second letter.
Well, sir, it seems Destiny brought you to Hertfordshire last October as you are very likely to become one of the local landowners one day. I would never have guessed that my two heirs danced with my daughter, Elizabeth, at the ball at Netherfield. One of lifeâs follies, I suppose.
I would very much like to speak with you in person about the Longbourn entail. I am in no hurry and can wait until you are in London next. If you will send word when you are available in Town, I will come and we can conduct our business face to face.
It is possible that Mr. Collinsâ offspring may yet claim my home, but until then, I consider you the next master of Longbourn.
And, sir, if something should befall me before we meet, I ask that you look kindly on my wife and daughters. It is not their fault that Providence gave them no brother to protect them. Instead, it gave them you and me and Mr. Collins.
For all the information the packet contained, one fact kept reverberating through his mind. She is my cousin!
Inferior connections indeed!
The events of the next few days unfolded much the same as a superior authoress once described. Mr. Darcy, his sister, and Mr. Bingley called upon Elizabeth and the Gardiners the following day. A fishing party was planned, and Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner returned Miss Darcyâs call at Pemberley. Meanwhile, word was received at Longbourn of Lydiaâs elopement, letters were dispatched by Jane to Elizabeth, and Mr. Bennet went to London to search for his missing daughter and her lover.
âTwas on the day that Darcy arrived in Town, and Mr. Gardiner left Longbourn for Cheapside, that we resume our story.
Lydia Bennet sat alone in her room at the inn. Wickham had left again that morning â for the third day in a row â and had not yet returned. She was bored with nothing to do with not even an old bonnet to remake. She should have been planning her wedding; she could have been buying her trousseau; she would have ordered her wedding dress, if Wickham had been around to take her to the modiste.
Then it occurred to Lydia that she still had some of her money in her reticule. It was more than enough for a hackney to her uncleâs and back. Surely her aunt would agree to help her with her wedding clothes.
The servant who answered the door could not convince Lydia to stay, for she knew the young lady had been missing, but did manage to get her to leave directions to her lodgings, only telling her the family was out for the day.
Blithely, Lydia took her cab back to the inn, hoping Wickham had returned while she was away. He had not, but he was not out for long. Thinking he would be pleased, Lydia informed him of her errand.
âYou foolish woman! What have you done?â he asked.
âI just called on my aunt for her help in planning the wedding,â she pouted. âWhat did I do wrong?â
âLydia, we cannotâ¦ you left them directions to this place?â
âOf course, how else could she return my call?â
Wickham ran his hands through his hair. He had paid for their room through the next few days, and he did not have money to waste. There was no way the innkeeper would give them their money back if they left early, but he could not be discovered with Lydia! He was not ready to disappear, and he enjoyed her enthusiastic, if clumsy, behavior sharing his bed. He would be sorry to leave her too soon.
âLydia, love. I am just surprised. I am not quite ready to present my suit at Longbourn. My affairs must be in order before I meet your father, and I am afraid your aunt and uncle would try to take you away from me. I cannot be parted with you so soon,â he crooned in her ear. Lydia nearly swooned at his words. Full of lust, deciding he had time for one last tryst, he led her through the door into their bedchamber.
An hour later, a persistent pounding on the outer door, made its way to the ears of the couple. Their time alone had just run out.
A weary George Bennet walked into the entryway of the Gardinerâs London residence. He had spent much of the day looking for his youngest daughter. Systematically he was working his way through differing sections of Town, each less respectable than the last. A servant immediately approached him.
âSir, while you were out, Miss Lydia came to call.â
âWhere is she? Upstairs? The parlor?â
âShe would not stay to wait for the family, but she did leave direction where she is staying.â
Mr. Bennet was flabbergasted. âShe left directions?â
âYes, sir.â The maid handed him the paper with the precious information.
âHow long ago was this?ââ
âGoing on two hours, I reckon.â
Mr. Bennet continued to stare at the paper, his eyes unable to focus on the words written thereon.
âIs there anything I can get for you, sir?â
âI still cannot believe she gave this to you. How on earth did you manage it?â
âI tried to get her to stay, but Miss Lydia would have none of it. Then I says I thought my mistress would be disappointed to miss her and asked if she would give me an address, and the lady agreed. None of the men servants was here, or I would have had âem keep her here by force. We all know how youâve looked for her.â Seeing a horrified look on his face she quickly added, âAnd we have not said a word to no one outside this house, I swear.â
That made Mr. Bennet relax for a moment. âI appreciate your discretion. I must get something to eat before I go to claim her. I am famished and tired and I think I could use some food before I go out to face my daughterâs â¦ my daughter.â
Mr. Bennet did not tarry. A message was sent directly to the kitchen for some nourishment, and he had consumed it and was out the door not even a half-hour later. A different hackney took him to the address his daughter had provided. It was in a section of the city more disreputable than any he had canvassed so far.
He did not stop once he entered into the building, proceeding directly up the stairs looking for the number Lydia had left. Once there, he pounded his fist upon the door.
âWickham, open the door! I say, open this door now!â He grew angrier and pounded even harder against the door. âYou have something that is not yours. Now open up!â
His incessant knocking did not allow him to hear someone stumbling through the room. Suddenly, the man Mr. Bennet wanted to throttle stood before him. Disheveled and smelling likeâ¦
Mr. Bennet blanched when he recognized the scent. He pushed the door further upon and stormed into the room. Lydia stood on the other side, clutching a robe about her.
âI have come to take you away. Come with me now!â Mr. Bennet ordered in barely control fury.
âLydia, stay where you are,â Wickham countermanded.
Mr. Bennet whirled to face the other man. âUnless you have a piece a paper stating that you are her husband, which I highly doubt, she is still under my protection.â Mr. Bennet turned his head back in the direction of his ruined daughter. âWe are leaving. Now!â
Wickham was not ready to give up the game yet. A new thought suddenly occurred to him. Perhaps there was a fortune to be made after all.
âLydia, you chose me when you came away with me from Brighton. Your loyalty is to your future husband now. Go back in the room so your father and I can talk.â He smiled at her. âWe still need to come to an arrangement on the wedding settlement.â
Lydia looked between the two men and then walked back into the bedroom, closing the door. Wickham took a key and quickly locked it behind her. He put the key in a pocket in his waistcoat and motioned for his guest to sit at a small table upon which were stacked a few days worth of plates and glasses.
âSo we are not disturbed,â he said, ignoring the dirty cutlery. Mr. Bennet , still furious, hesitated, and then joined him.
âYou still intend to marry her?â Mr. Bennet asked incredulously.
âIf the incentives are right, why not?â Wickham shrugged.
âBut you must know I can offer you very little. If my brother were here, perhaps he could help me, but he is on holiday and far from London!â
Wickham leaned forward, his eyes gleaming with greed. âOh, I think you are forgetting one thing.â
âWhat could I possibly have that would interest a man like you.â
âAn estate.â There, the words were spoken.
âWhat? Longbourn? It is not mine to give. The entail precludes it. This is madness.â Mr. Bennet threw up his hands in amazement at the audacity of his foe.
Again Wickham leaned forward to press his point. He was deadly serious now.
âYou do not understand me. I want Longbourn to marry Lydia, and I know how to get it. Your heir died. Everyone knows that if Mrs. Collins does not have a boy, it goes to someone else. I will be that someone else.â
âIt is impossible! And if the child is a boy?â
âLeave the child to me.â
âWhat can â¦ No! I will not be party to murder.â
âWho said anything about killing anyone? There are ways around things. And there is no certainty that Mrs. Collinsâ child will be a boy or that it will survive. Babes die all the time. I will use my connections to ensure that there will be no Collins to inherit, and we both shall see to it that it is discovered that I am your long lost cousin.â
âIt is impossible!â
âYou keep saying that word. Nothing is impossible is you desire it enough.â Wickham sat back against his chair. âThose are my terms. Give me Longbourn, and I will marry Lydia, save your family for ruin, and provide for your survivors after your death.â
Mr. Bennet shook his head, shocked at what he had heard. âEven if Mrs. Collins does not bear a son to inherit, I cannot give you Longbourn. There is another heir. My attorney has written him. I suspect Mr. Darcy has already contacted his attorneys about the matter. It is done!â
âDarcy is your heir?!â
âDarcy!â Wickham growled menacingly. âWhy does he always stand in my way?â
In the blink of an eye, a sudden, violent, blind rage seized Wickham as years of dashed hopes crashed down on him. He jumped over the table and knocked Mr. Bennet off his chair onto the ground, sending dishes clattering to the floor alongside them. Wickhamâs hands were about the older manâs neck, and Mr. Bennet struggled in vain to free himself.
âYou will not cheat me out of this one, Darcy.â Wickham vowed through gritted teeth. In the complete madness of his fury, he saw not the father of the woman he had run off with, but the face of his childhood friend and his adult nemesis, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Mr. Bennet clawed at his attacker, unable to breathe, struggling for his very life. He became more and more desperate as he faded from consciousness. This could not be happening! Who would save Lydia, who would save the rest of his family? His last thought as a mortal was that he hoped Darcy was the man his brother-in-law claimed him to be, and he surrendered his family into Darcyâs care.
It was some minutes before Wickham realized that his victim was not moving, and a few minutes more before he realized the man beneath him was not Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Lydiaâs father. And that that man was dead.
âWickham? Papa?â Lydia called out uncertainly from the other room.
In a moment of clarity, Wickham jumped up and ran to the door to the hall, opened it, and without leaving, slammed it shut.
He spent a moment calming himself before he walked to the bedchamber and spoke through the still-locked door.
âLydia, your father and I had a â¦ little disagreement, and he has gone. I am going to leave you here and get us some food. I want you to stay locked away in case he comes back before I return.â
âGeorge, please,â came the muffled pleading.
âYou are safer in there than out here, my dear. I will be back shortly, I promise.â
âHurry back. Your shouting frightened me.â
He had not doubt that it had. It was another reason he needed to leave her in the room.
âEverything will be fine. Your father will settle down and accept our marriage. Then we can resume the wedding plans. I must go, love. I will return soon.â
Wickham hurriedly threw on his coat and glanced at the body on his way out. He needed a few moments alone to think and plan.
How would he get out of this tight spot? He had just killed a man! He needed to flee immediately.
Lydia was a complication. He could not take her with him; he had never planned to stay with her past London. It was only since Mr. Bennet had walked into the room and the idea of forcing his way into the gentry by marriage came to mind, that the possibility that he should marry her became more than just a tool of seduction. The thought of permanently silencing her crossed his mind in an instant and was just as quickly dismissed. He did not know how he would live with himself after taking a life in a moment of blind passion; killing with premeditated murder would be more than he could bear. Yet Lydia must remain behind â preferably unconscious. He needed as much time to escape as possible.
Where should he go? The answer was obvious. He would head to the docks and find passage on a ship leaving with the tide. Wickham did not care where he went, so long as it was somewhere away from English soil. Once Mr. Bennet or Lydia was found, he would be a wanted man. There was no way he would escape the gallows if caught.
How would he pay for his passage? He had ten pounds to his name, maybe less. That would not be nearly enough. If there had been more time, he supposed he could earn some money by offering Lydia to a brothel, but not much. She was no longer a maiden and there were plenty of women willing to sell themselves in London. She was useless to him. But Mr. Bennet â surely he had a purse. If it did not hold a great deal of money, then he might carry some valuables he could pawn. He needed to return to his lodgings and retrieve everything of value.
First he had a purchase to make. Lydia would still be there when he got back. She needed to be dealt with, and then he could take what he required and leave.
A little while later, Wickham quietly carried a tray into their room. Before he unlocked the door to the bedchamber, he made sure the laudanum he had obtained was well mixed into the bowl of stew. Then he moved Mr. Bennetâs body out of sight of the inner door.
âLydia, I have returned with some food,â he announced.
âGeorge? I did not hear you come back. Thank goodness! Iâm so hungry, and I have been worried Papa would return.â
âI know, love. I shall open the door. Stand back now.â He made sure his body was positioned in such a way that she would not be able to move past him. He entered and then quickly locked the door behind him. âJust to be safe,â he explained.
Lydia ran into his embrace. âI feel much better with you here.â She took a deep breath and smelled the hearty meal. âAnd I shall feel even better after I have eaten.â Noticing there was only one bowl, she asked, âAre we to share? Where is yours?â
âI could not wait and ate mine right away. I am sorry, my dear.â He sat down on a chair and pulled her into his lap. He handed her the crockery, and Lydia giggled while she spooned a bite into her mouth. She frowned. âThis doesnât taste like the stew we had yesterday.â
âA different recipe, I suppose. I thought it tasted fine. Different, but still good,â he urged her to keep eating.
It did not take long for the drug to take effect. Within minutes, she was no longer awake. To make certain he would not be impeded, Wickham forced more laudanum into her, bound her hands and feet, and secured them to the bedpost. He loosely tied a gag over her mouth. She would be able to breath, but hopefully, not yell.
That task completed, Wickham retrieved what was left of their money. He took Lydiaâs necklace and anything that he might be able to sell. He then packed a small bag with a change or two of clothes for himself. He took one last look at Lydia and locked her in the bedchamber.
Next came the distasteful job of searching the dead man for valuables. He was surprised to find a ten-pound note. A watch and stickpin, as well as a signet ring should bring in what was necessary to get him away from England. Finally, Wickham removed the manâs boots. There was just enough room in the bag he had prepared to hold them. They would not remain there long, just until they gained him a few more coins.
At last satisfied that he was as ready as he could be, Wickham picked up what little he would take with him and walked down to see the innkeeper. There was one more thing he needed to do to gain as much distance he could from London before his crime was discovered.
âI need to visit Hertfordshire to visit my ladyâs family,â he lied to the innâs proprietor. âI want to pay up for a week complete in case I am delayed.â Whether or not the man believed him, Wickham did not care.
âYouâd best make it two weeks.â
Wickham smiled, âIf it will set your mind at ease, of course.â He handed over the precious cash, thankful he was not asked for more. âUntil I return.â He tipped his hat and walked outside as calmly as his legs would carry him.
Two hours later, Wickham arrived at the docks. He had found buyers for the items he liberated from Mr. Bennet and Lydia. The unscrupulous men paid nowhere near their value, but Wickham had little time and thus little choice but to agree to their offers. However, he did have what he needed to find passage away from England.
He looked for a likely source of intelligence, and after a few moments, spotted a young boy whose clothes had seen much better days.
âOy! Come here, boy,â he commanded. The lad looked hesitant. âI need some information.â Warily, the youth approached, but was careful to keep distance between them. Wickham chuckled, âThat is right, stay far enough back to keep you alive. Do not be alarmed, I will not harm you. I just need to know what ships are to set sail tonight, and where they are headed. I figured a smart lad like you would know.â
âWhoâd be askân?â
âI am.â Wickham produced a coin and the boyâs eyes grew big. âTell me what you know.â As he suspected, the child knew which ships would be sailing with the tide, but not always the destination. It was enough. He would do the rest.
Wickham flipped the coin to the delighted boy. âRemember, if anyone should ask, you never saw me.â
The child nodded eagerly and ran away.
With the knowledge gleaned from his young informant, Wickham squared his shoulders and walked towards the long line of ships docked on the waterfront.
The very first thing Darcy did when he reached his London residence was look for the papers that had been stored in his desk that told of the whereabouts of Mrs. Younge. After Ramsgate, Darcy made sure he knew where he could find the woman, should any news of the events in that seaside town become known. He found what he was looking for rather quickly and considered going there immediately, but it was late, and he was tired and felt it wiser to wait until morning.
His house staff, caught completely off-guard by his visit, reacted quickly. Hot water was ready within an hour of his arrival and a tray of hot food was delivered soon after. Grateful for his servantsâ efficiency, Darcy planned his next move while he ate.
Normally, he would search for Wickham and Lydia Bennet alone, however, his letter from Mr. Bennet made him reconsider such a strategy. Darcy was an heir of two estates now, and while Longbourn was nothing to Pemberley, it was everything to the Bennets.
He would visit Gracechurch Street first thing in the morning. Mr. Bennet would likely be staying there, and Mr. Gardiner should be back as well. He would send a footman tonight to determine the exact address, and tomorrow he would offer his assistance to Mr. Bennet.
Darcyâs body was weary, but his mind would not rest, and after an unsatisfying nightâs sleep, he left to find Mr. Bennet. It did not take long to complete the journey to Gracechurch Street. Soon enough, he was giving his card to the maid who answered the door. A very agitated Mr. Gardiner greeted him moments later.
âMr. Darcy! Pardon me, sir. I thought you were to remain in Derbyshire.â The confusion was evident on his face.
âI returned to London â¦ for the same reason as you.â
âBut how â¦ we should continue this in my study. Come with me,â Mr. Gardiner replied as comprehension dawned. The men entered Mr. Gardinerâs private domain.
âI have come to see Mr. Bennet,â Darcy explained.
Mr. Gardiner shut the door. âI have not seen my brother since I came home late yesterday afternoon. He left the house not long before I arrived and did not return.â It was Darcyâs turn to look alarmed. âHow did you find out about my niece?â
âI came across Miss Elizabeth at the inn right after she read her letters from Miss Bennet. I determined to come to London even before I quit her presence.â
âBut why? You have no interest in this.â
âI must correct you. I have a great deal of interest in finding Miss Lydia and returning her to her family.â
âYes. No â the whole Bennet family, sir. It is a long story, and I fear we do not have time. Suffice it to say that I have an idea where we can find Wickham, and I came to take Mr. Bennet with me. Since he, too, has disappeared, I ask that you come instead. I just hope I am not too late.â
âWhile I wonder what could motivate you to involve yourself in a private affair, any help would be greatly appreciated. I was about to leave myself, though I had no idea where to go.
âLydia was here yesterday while my brother was out. She left an address and then took a cab back to where she is staying, I presume. Bennet went to find her after he returned here and discovered that she had called.â
âMy God.â Darcyâs sense of dread increased. He could not imagine any good reason for Mr. Bennet not to return to Gracechurch Street. âDid anyone see the note Miss Lydia left?â
âYes, the maid who let her in. Unfortunately, she cannot read.â
âWhy did the servant not keep the girl here? How could she let her go?â Darcy demanded.
Mr. Gardiner ran his hands over his tired face. He was exhausted, and the day had only just begun. âLetty was the only one home at the time. She tried to get Lydia to stay. When it became obvious that Lydia would run off again, Letty convinced my niece to leave directions so my wife or I could return her call.â
âI should like to speak with her.â
âOf course, but be kind. The poor girl is worried she has put my brother in peril. She was only trying to help.â
âIt will not take long.â
Unfortunately, the girl could provide no further clues. After she was dismissed to return to her normal chores, Darcy stood and addressed his host.
âMy men are waiting for us outside. I brought several footmen with me. Are you ready?â
They took Darcyâs carriage since it was already waiting. On the way to Mrs. Youngeâs, Darcy informed Mr. Gardiner of his newfound Bennet connection.
âYour recent visit to Hertfordshire was most propitious.â Mr. Gardiner opined.
âThe irony of it all is that I never visited Longbourn during my stay. I visited other houses in the neighborhood, but not that one.â Darcy shook his head.
âI think that oversight may be rectified soon. Should we succeed in finding Lydia, my brother will wish for you to come to Longbourn so he may show his appreciation.â
Darcy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. âNow is not the time to think of thanks. If I had been more forthcoming when I saw Wickham in Hertfordshire, we would not be here in London, but still in Derbyshire.â
âI think you take too much on yourself, sir,â Mr. Gardiner said with a hint of reproof. âEnough of that. Where are we going?â
âTo the lodging house run by a Mrs. Younge. Mrs. Younge was my sisterâs companion until â¦ a prior connection to Wickham came to light.â Darcy did not pause long enough for his companion to make any assumptions and ask the right questions. âI strongly believe that Wickham would have applied to her for help when he and Lydia came to Town.â
Mr. Gardinerâs eyebrows shot up. âThat must be quite a prior connection, Mr. Darcy. I begin to understand your reticence to expose Mr. Wickhamâs ill deeds.â
Darcy did not respond. Instead, he changed the subject to explain what they could expect when they reached Mrs. Youngeâs establishment.
An unsuspecting girl led the gentlemen to her mistressâ study. Mrs. Younge paled when she saw the identity of one of her guests but recovered quickly. Primly folding her hands on the desk in front of her, she addressed her former employer.
âMr. Darcy. This is certainly a surprise.â
âFor me as well.â
âMay I know your friend?
âNo. However, I am here in behalf of a member of his family â a niece to be precise. Now, where is Wickham?â
âI said, where is Wickham?â
Mrs. Younge frowned slightly. âI thought you were here on behalf of the other gentlemanâs family.â
âI am. Wickham has fled his post and took this manâs niece. I ask you again, where is he?â
âHow should I know? I am not his keeper.â Her face gave nothing away.
Darcy stood up, placed his hands on the desk between them, and leaned forward. âI have no time for games. The girl we seek called at my friendâs home yesterday and left an address where she and Wickham could be found. Her father arrived there a while later and then left to fetch her, unfortunately taking the address with him and telling no one where he was going. Neither has been heard from since. I strongly suggest that you tell me where Wickham is NOW â¦ or I swear I will ruin you.â Darcy stared at her for a moment and then sat back down. He reached into his coat and pulled out a bank note and placed it on the desk. âAnd perhaps this will help you remember as well.â
Mrs. Younge, still watching Darcy, reached to pick up the money. Darcy put his hand on it, stopping her.
âThere will be another to match this when I find him. Choose wisely, madam, or I will do as I promised.â
The matron nodded. âI will take you to the place I sent him.â Darcy lifted his hand and she pocketed the bribe.
Darcyâs carriage traveled for several minutes until they reached the building Mrs. Younge claimed housed the fugitives. Before they could debark, she extended her arm across the door opening to stay the men âs exit.
âThe proprietor can confirm I sent them here, and then my part of the bargain is fulfilled.â Darcy nodded, and the three went inside the inn. The man running the place immediately verified Mrs. Youngeâs story.
However, when Darcy asked if Wickham was presently at the inn, the man shook his head.
â âE left yesterday for Hertfordshire, but said âeâd be back. Paid up a full two weeks before âe went.â
â âEâs gone.â
âThe girl, did he take the girl?â Mr. Gardiner franticly inquired.
âNo, âe left the chit âere. Come ta think of it, Iâm surprised she âasnât asked for her breakfast. Sheâs a âungry one, that one. And not only for food, so Iâve âeard, if ya take me meaning.â
Mr. Gardiner and Darcy both bristled with the innuendo. âThis man is the girlâs uncle. We want to see if she is well. You must take us up to the room.â
âYes,â Darcy hissed. He placed a coin on the counter. âTake us to the girl, and you can stay and see for yourself we speak the truth.â
The man raised his hands in front of him, palms forward. âNow, now, I was just teasing. Oâ course, eâs âer uncle. Iâll take ya up, but ya canâna stay if she donâ want nothing to do with ya.â
âI understand.â Darcy addressed Mrs. Younge. âMadam, I think you should come up with us to act as a chaperone.â Darcy tried not to choke on the last word.
The four trudged up the stairs. Darcy left his footmen below with orders to come if summoned. The innkeeper knocked. There was no answer. Darcy glared. The man shrugged and brought out his keys to open the door. Darcy stepped inside and stopped.
âSummon a constable.â
âWha?â The man stepped around Darcy and was arrested by the sight of a corpse. Mr. Gardiner pushed his way in.
âGeorge!â he groaned, and then cried out to the innkeeper, âWhere is Lydia?â Mr. Gardiner looked about the room and spied the other door. âUnlock it now!â he ordered.
The stunned proprietor stumbled across the room, fumbling through his keys as he searched for the proper one. He stopped short of opening the door. Just behind him, Darcy moved him aside and opened it instead, all the while terrified of what he would find. The sight of Lydia straining against her bounds was an instant relief; his shoulders relaxed. At least she was alive. He walked over and undid her gag.
âMiss Bennet, have you been harmed?â
Lydia was in near hysterics. âWhere is George? Untie me! What are you doing here? Uncle Gardiner!â poured out.
Darcy and Mr. Gardiner set about freeing her from her bonds. Once released, Lydia tried to get off the bed and leave her last dayâs prison. Darcy stopped her and looked helplessly to her uncle.
âI have to get out of here. Let me go!â
She struggled but Darcy would not release her. âYou cannot go out there, not yet.â
Darcy looked at the innkeeper who stared at them from the door. âGo, get the â¦ person I told you to fetch.â Darcy ordered. That seemed to shake the man from his trance, and he left immediately
Mr. Gardiner spoke again. âLydia, do you know where Mr. Wickham is?â
She had calmed a very little and was able to speak in a less frenetic manner. âI have not seen him since he brought me dinner. I â¦ I fell asleep and woke all tied up. I donât understand. Has something happened to George?â
Mr. Gardiner sat next to her and placed his hand on her back. He rubbed it with gentle circles. âWe do not know,â he answered in a calm voice. âNo one has seen him since yesterday.â
âI do not understand.â
Mr. Gardiner continued to massage her back. âDid you see your father yesterday?â
Lydia, who had begun to relax under her uncleâs care, stiffened. Once again words tumbled out of the confused young woman. âYes, he came here wanting to take me away from my Wickham. George told him we are going to get married. Then I came and stayed in here while they spoke. And then they had a disagreement, and Papa left. George asked me to stay while he fetched us something to eat. I did as he asked because I was afraid Papa would come and take me away. George brought me something to eat, and then I woke up just as you found me. I wish to go. Please let me leave.â
âLydia, child.â Her uncleâs voice was very tender. âWe cannot, not just yet. We need to wait.â
âWhatever for? I can be dressed in a few minutes.â Lydia wrapped her arms about herself. âI feel as though I am suffocating in here.â
âWe have to wait â¦ for the constable. Lydia, your father is in the other room.â
âPapa? Why does he not come?â
âHe cannot. He â¦ he is dead, Niece.â
Lydia sat in stunned silence and then moved quickly. It surprised both men, and she was able to break their hold on her. She ran into the outer room where her deceased father lay prone on the floor.
âPapa!!!â Lydia shrieked in agony, pounding his chest, willing his cold body to rise. When he did not, she collapsed.