Excerpt from the opening chapter:
Absentmindedly, Darcy returned his watch to its pocket and strolled down the corridor to the left side of the house, to the predictable sanctuary of his choice. The library would be deserted at this time in the morning. At any time of day, to be precise. For all his other virtues, Bingley was not an avid reader, and neither were his sisters, despite some vocal protestations to the contrary – which, in truth, suited him very well indeed.
He opened the panelled door and entered, closing it quietly behind him.
‘Sparse’ would be the kindest way to describe Bingley’s collection, and Darcy wondered what he could choose today. He slowly ambled in, aiming for the furthest shelves where, a few days earlier, he had found a tome about some intrepid explorers and their perilous travels to the far-flung reaches of the Orient – and suddenly stopped, frozen in his tracks.
The library was not deserted at that time in the morning.
Previously hidden by the high back of the sofa she reclined upon, the occupant was now revealed to him, and Darcy all but gasped. A book loosely resting in her lap, her thumb still keeping her place between the pages, Miss Elizabeth Bennet sat before him, oblivious to his presence – and for a moment Darcy contemplated the wisdom of a swift retreat. But nay, she was bound to notice his withdrawal, and deliberate discourtesy was not something Darcy had ever wished to cultivate – except towards those who clearly deserved it.
He drew breath to greet her – but, as his slow footsteps brought him at last in full view of her countenance, the civil words faded on his lips.
She was asleep. She must have come down in the early hours of the morning for a brief respite, after tending to her sister for the best part of the night, and tiredness must have overcome her as she had read her book.
It forcefully struck him that, for the very first time in their acquaintance, he did not have to swiftly look away for fear that she would notice he was staring, and the unhoped-for chance to take in every detail of her appearance rose to his head, with all the heady effects of a fine wine.
Beautiful? He had taken great pains to make it clear to himself and to his friends – impudent dog that he was! – that she hardly had a good feature in her face. Yet he had scarce persuaded himself of the fact before that very face began to draw him, with the beautiful expression of her eyes, with every play of genuine emotion over the less-than-classically-perfect features, with every smile for her eldest sister, with every arch look towards him.
Whether she was beautiful or not to other eyes no longer mattered. It was she who drew him, more than any reputed beauty. Her warmth, her artless charm, her smile. She was smiling now, her lips ever so slightly turned up at the corners, ever so slightly parted, allowing quiet, tranquil breaths, softly in, softly out.
Her nose – small and endearingly perfect. The stubborn little chin, often tilted up in a playful show of defiance, the latest instance no further than the previous night.
‘I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all – and now despise me if you dare!’
He smiled despite himself as he remembered, the delightful mixture of archness and sweetness in her manner bewitching him more than anything he had ever come across.
She had very long lashes, he suddenly observed. He had never noticed this before, too mesmerised by the mirth in her eyes to pay any heed to something as mundane as lashes. They were thick, dark, and curled up at the ends. Her head was tilted to one side and the auburn ringlets that framed the oval face were now in disarray – she obviously intended to slip out for a moment from her sister’s chambers, and had not readied herself for anybody’s company, and certainly not his.
He ought to leave – that, he knew full well. He ought to turn on his heels and leave her before the lashes fluttered, her eyes opened and she caught him in the unpardonable act of spying on her in her sleep – and yet he could not, would not step away.
It took all the restraint he still possessed to not drop to one knee by her side and reach to brush his fingertips against the rosy cheek. He slowly flexed his unruly fingers into a tight fist, one by one, pressing his thumb against them in forceful endeavour to ensure that he would not succumb to the inconceivable temptation – yet even then, in defiance of his strict control, tantalising thoughts began to weave ever so slowly through him, spreading subtle, delicious poison in their wake.
To have the right to do so! To have the right to reach and caress her cheek, as she would lay asleep in his bed beside him. To see her eyes flutter open and crinkle at the corners as she would smile at him. To be allowed – encouraged – to lean towards her and taste the sweetness of her lips, to feel them soft and pliant beneath his own, as he would take her in his arms, her warm, lovely form cradled to his chest. Tender. Loving. Beautiful. His.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry and drew a ragged breath, so loud to his own ears that he feared it would wake her. She did not wake and, mindless of the dangers of exposure, he still stood exactly where he was, drinking in the sight of her and recklessly courting disaster. If she should wake, this very moment…
Seconds passed, one… two… three… a number. And every shred of reason cried out at him to leave, no longer merely to avoid detection and the attendant mortification, but to preserve himself from an enchanting vision that would most likely haunt him from now on in all his sleepless nights…
At long last he obeyed and walked back to the door, on mercifully sturdy floorboards. The hinges did not creak, another mercy, and he noiselessly closed the heavy door behind him – just as the thud of a book falling to the floor could be heard from the room that he had quitted.
Darcy took his hand off the door-handle as though the intricately moulded metal burned and, exhaling in sudden gratitude at his own narrow, far too narrow escape, he hastened away from the blasted spot – and from the strongest of temptations.
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