While attempting to suppress his own desire to dance with Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy flees the Netherfield ballroom only to stumble upon a half-dressed Lydia Bennet in the library. After being discovered with her in a compromising position, Darcy is forced to make her an offer of marriage.
Fearing the Bennets will attempt a similar “trick” with their brother, Mr. Bingley’s sisters convince him to leave Hertfordshire without any intention of returning. After Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins, a heartbroken Jane Bennet accepts his proposal.
Having resolved to propose to Jane, Bingley returns to Longbourn; but when he learns of her betrothal, he makes an offer to Elizabeth instead. She accepts, with the hope that Jane will change her mind if Bingley remains at Netherfield.
Meanwhile, Sir William Lucas is aware that Wickham had actually compromised Lydia in the Netherfield library and blackmails him into proposing to Charlotte Lucas, who is in danger of becoming an old maid.
Hertfordshire has become a tangled web of misbegotten betrothals.
Although Darcy yearns for Elizabeth, he feels honor bound by his promise. Elizabeth is also developing feelings for the master of Pemberley, but he has never seemed so far out of her reach. How can Darcy and Elizabeth unravel this tangle and reach their happily ever after?
Read an excerpt
Darcy tripped spectacularly, falling full length on top of the half-dressed girl.
The girl squealed. “Ow! You oaf! Get off! Move your hands!” Darcy hastened to comply, quickly removing his hands from anything that might resemble a female body part. “Get your hands off me!” the girl shrieked completely unnecessarily.
Darcy scrambled backward, attempting to find purchase and regain his feet.
Then he froze at the most horrible sound in the world: the opening of the library door. A female form entered the library from the hallway, silhouetted by candlelight from behind. “Lydia?” a voice called. Darcy had no trouble identifying its owner. Of all the women at the ball, it had to be Elizabeth Bennet.
“Here, Lizzy!” the half-dressed girl called to her sister.
Oh, no, no, no! Why did she say anything at all? Why could they not pretend the library was uninhabited?
“I heard someone screaming,” Elizabeth said, her voice low with concern.
“Yes, that was me,” Lydia admitted, not sounding in the least distressed.
“She is here, Mama!” Elizabeth called down the hallway. “I have found her!”
Darcy’s position on the floor had concealed his presence behind various pieces of furniture. His sole object was escape, through the garden door if necessary, before anyone connected him with this awkward and scandalous situation. But every escape route involved standing. So Darcy stood hastily, not even taking a second to straighten his badly disheveled clothes, and gingerly stepped toward the door. Perhaps Elizabeth would not recognize him from the back.
Or perhaps she would.
He turned slowly to face her. There was no purpose to be served in dissembling. Elizabeth’s brow furrowed in perplexity as she regarded him.
Then Lydia Bennet stood up, and Elizabeth’s mouth gaped open.
Miss Lydia used one hand to preserve her modesty by clutching the front of her unlaced dress to her chest. The dress sagged alarmingly; one sleeve had fallen from her shoulder, and the other was balanced rather precariously. “Lydia, you must cover yourself!” Elizabeth cried, hastening across the room.
Darcy jerked his eyes away so quickly that he had a moment of vertigo. Instead, he was treated to the sight of Mrs. Bennet joining their merry band. She bustled through the doorway officiously but gaped at what she saw.
“Lydia!” Mrs. Bennet shrieked at her youngest daughter.
“Hello, Mama,” Lydia slurred drunkenly. “I was looking for a book.”
Mrs. Bennet shrieked again, a wordless cry of dismay. Darcy was tempted to cover his ears but could not quite bring himself to be so impolite.
Glancing down at the loosened bodice, Lydia giggled. “No wonder it feels so cold in here!” With a little smirk, she yanked up the sleeves so the bodice did not hang so precariously. Standing behind her sister, Elizabeth hastily tied the laces on the back of Lydia’s bodice.
Elizabeth glared at Darcy—at which point he realized that perhaps he should avert his eyes. The carpet. It was a very fine carpet, and no one would object if he stared at it.
Oh, this was not good. Not good. Not good at all. Darcy had been caught in a darkened room with a foxed, partially clad girl from a respectable family. No matter what he said, the circumstances were incriminating. There must be a way to address this situation before it spins out of control. But Darcy’s mind was not working properly. The combination of naked breasts, Elizabeth’s scorn, and Mrs. Bennet’s continued shrieking had somehow rendered his mind nonfunctional. He felt like a fox at the end of a fox hunt—surrounded on all sides.
There was a moment of absolute silence while Mrs. Bennet gasped. “W-what were you doing to my daughter? You libertine!” Suddenly, Darcy missed the shrieking. “Oh, I knew it as soon as I saw you! You are the worst kind of rake—a rogue and a scoundrel!”
Darcy was not accustomed to having such language directed at him. “I beg your pardon…?”
“Look at her!” Mrs. Bennet shrieked, gesturing to her youngest daughter. When Darcy glanced in the girl’s direction, she cried, “No, do not look at her!”
He turned back to Mrs. Bennet’s red, outraged face and took a deep breath before responding. “Nothing happened, Mrs. Bennet. I assure you. I happened upon your daughter as I was in search of a—”
“You came to be alone with my half-dressed sister in a dimly lit library by accident?” Elizabeth scoffed. Darcy could not prevent a wince; of all the women at the ball, why was she the one to have discovered him in this ridiculous situation?
Darcy drew himself up and straightened his cravat. “Well, yes.” He was aware how absurd the claim sounded, but it was the truth. “When I arrived, Miss Lydia was lying in the corner. I wanted to help her, but I tripped and fell on top…” Darcy’s voice petered out. Any details he added at this point would only make the situation worse.
It did not help that Lydia chose that moment to burst into tears.
“I never thought very highly of you, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth intoned as she put a comforting arm around her sister’s shoulders.
Wait, she did not?
“But I at least thought you too honorable to take advantage of girl who is but fifteen!”
Oh, Good Lord! The girl was fifteen? Georgiana was barely older. Elizabeth’s family would think him scarcely better than Wickham. No, it was intolerable!
Darcy rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand. “I do not molest children!” His voice sounded shrill and strained to his own ears. “Another man was present. He escaped through the door to the gardens! Lydia was already dishabille when I arrived—”
“How convenient for you,” Elizabeth sneered. Her words were punctuated by a sob from her sister.
“Ask her!” Darcy demanded. “Ask Miss Lydia. No doubt she arrived here with the man.”
Just as the words left his mouth, Darcy realized how badly he had miscalculated. Lydia’s hands fell from her tear-streaked face, her eyes wide with horror. She would never admit she had willingly accompanied a man into a darkened room.
Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth stared at Lydia. “Lydia, what happened?” Elizabeth asked gently.
For a moment Darcy entertained the hope that Lydia would tell the truth, but then she shook her head vigorously. “No! There was never anyone else. I am not that sort of girl!” She dabbed her eyes theatrically with a handkerchief.
Some man had undoubtedly lured her away from the dance with promises and flattery she was too naïve to question. If she were not seeking to tarnish his reputation, Darcy would feel more than a fleeting moment of sympathy.
Mrs. Bennet’s shrieks had brought a throng of guests crowding around the library’s doorway, including—much to Darcy’s horror—Bingley and Mr. Bennet. Behind them stood that fool of a cleric, Elizabeth’s cousin. Darcy’s stomach clenched and roiled at the sight of so many eyes observing and judging him.
Pushing his way into the room, Bingley shot Darcy a sympathetic glance. “Mrs. Bennet, I am sure it is all a misunderstanding.”
“No! No, there is no misunderstanding!” Mrs. Bennet’s voice climbed into higher and higher registers. “He has taken advantage of my poor girl! He has ruined her reputation! Everyone will know!”
Darcy refrained from observing that the situation could have been concealed were it not for Mrs. Bennet’s shrieks.
Mr. Bennet stepped into the room, his face a grim mask. “I believe there is only one honorable course of action open to you, Mr. Darcy.”
A herd of horses galloped through his stomach, and his heart threatened to pound out of his chest. Oh, merciful heavens! Lydia’s father expected him to offer marriage. Let this be some horrible dream! Darcy paused. Unfortunately, he did not awaken.
Darcy stared at Lydia Bennet: silly, sobbing, foxed, and willing to leave a ball unchaperoned with some unknown man. Without any family position, good understanding, or clever conversation, she met none of his criteria for a wife. In fact, she was the exact opposite in almost every way. If he had wanted a young, empty-headed chit, the ton could supply many with impeccable pedigrees.
His eyes brushed past Elizabeth, who glared at him implacably. Asking her to dance was the least of his concerns now. The thought struck him as darkly humorous.
However, he was troubled by the thought that she would think ill of him, that she would see him as capable of seducing and abandoning her sister. She had already declared her low opinion of him; he would hate to confirm it.
Mrs. Bennet wept noisily into her handkerchief while a scowling Mr. Bennet stalked toward Darcy. “Well, Darcy? What will it be?”
If he failed to propose now, Elizabeth and the other onlookers would think him without honor. But the thought of proposing was…profoundly distasteful. Of course, a proposal was not a marriage. If he proposed under duress now, Darcy might later find a way to escape the obligation. The Bennet family might agree to a monetary settlement, but they could hardly discuss such a compromise here, in front of witnesses.
Yes, he would find the means to escape the situation later. For now he need only scrape together the remains of his dignity and live to fight another day. Devil take it!
He turned to the disheveled, red-faced, sobbing fifteen-year-old. “Miss Lydia,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Y-yes?” She granted him a quizzical smile and a hiccup.
“Would you do me the honor of being my wife?”
Win a copy, ebook or paperback at the winner's choice.
This giveaway contest is open internationally.
This giveaway contest is open internationally.