Assured that Darcy had seen her coming before he had dropped into the tree line, Elizabeth skirted the stile on the far-off hedgerow and plunged into the woods. She had seen him turn towards Netherfield, leading her away from Longbourn. Impetuously, she had called to him, but he had not answered; instead, he simply moved further into the wooded area.
Elizabeth quickened her pace, but he remained a focal point, not a reality. No matter how fast she chased after him, Darcy seemed to continue on at an equal distance from her. She called out again, but once more he had not heard her. So Elizabeth simply followed, doing the only thing she could do—keep him in sight. When he turned suddenly toward the manor house, she smiled. “To our secret play,” she said to herself. “Mr. Darcy relishes the idea of my following him. Just because he appeared on the outskirts of my father’s property. Men are so predictable,” she mused aloud. She knew she played to his vanity with her actions, but his teasing had always intrigued her.
At the door, he turned to look back at her. Elizabeth saw his mouth’s corners turn up in a smile, and then he slipped inside. Moments later, Elizabeth crossed the threshold. “Fitzwilliam!” she called. “Fitzwilliam! Where are you?” She rushed forward into the room, and then—then time stopped—her heartbeat ceased when she saw what stood before her. A whimper escaped her lips, but no other sound was heard in the empty house. Leaning casually against the mantle of the cold hearth, George Wickham nodded his head in acknowledgment. “I fear your precious Fitzwilliam is not here, Miss Elizabeth.” His voice sounded to her ears like that of the snake in the Garden of Eden.
She swallowed hard and wondered whether, if she broke into a run, if she could clear the deserted path before he caught her. She realized Wickham read her every thought. “Do not consider it, my Dear; you will never make it,” he warned. Neither of them moved as he continued his taunt. “Obviously, your Mr. Darcy never told you I possess unique abilities. How easily you were deceived into thinking I was your lover!”
“Mr. Darcy and I are not lovers!” she protested, while she attempted to formulate a plan for escape.
“What do you call this rendezvous, Miss Elizabeth? There are remnants of a picnic lunch and a blanket in the other room. You call the man by his given name, my Dear. What does that sound like to you?” He dropped his arms to his sides and edged forward as he spoke.
Feeling the sudden stillness of the room, Elizabeth gingerly stepped back, but she never removed her eyes from Wickham’s countenance. “Mr. Darcy gave me riding lessons; that was all there was between us.”
“If you say so, Miss Elizabeth.” He eyed her mockingly. “Yet you provide me with a unique opportunity, and I exist for such prospects. Whether you return his feelings or not, your Mr. Darcy has never shown a partiality for any woman until you. I make it my business to know Darcy’s weaknesses. Other than his sister, Darcy cares for no one; he has never allowed himself such a pleasure. Then, all at once, he—by your own admission—is giving you riding lessons, waltzing with you on a private balcony, kissing your tempting lips, and rescuing you from unknown terrors. You did like how I staged that one, did you not?” he taunted. “I am certain Darcy was the one who placed the wreaths and the iron ornaments about your home. They only served to confirm my earlier suspicions.” Elizabeth furtively reached for the jeweled crucifix she wore at her neck. Wickham took note of the slight shift in her stance. “Did your lover give you the Christian symbol to protect you from me?” Again, he inched closer to her, while Elizabeth countered his movement with a retreat of her own.
“I purchased this crucifix,” she asserted, dredging up a vestige of resistance.
“Do not attempt to mislead me, Miss Elizabeth. I am not so easily deceived. I have observed Miss Darcy has worn a similar one after my special evening with her, so I am aware of the source of your enchantment. Mr. Darcy hopes to protect you.” By now, Wickham was near enough to reach her if he so wished; yet, his hands remained at his sides; Elizabeth stayed alert for his attack. “It will be a pleasure to take you from Darcy. It will be a revenge like no other; he is the first of his family to dare challenge me, and I do not like to lose, Miss Elizabeth.”
She shivered. “Mr. Darcy has departed.” She hoped her words might stop his plan or, at least, give her a chance to convince Wickham to release her. “In fact, everyone at Netherfield has fled your carnage.”
“My carnage?” Wickham sounded amused. “Two females hardly rates as carnage, Miss Elizabeth.” He finally reached out to her, lightly tracing a line along her jaw to her mouth. He shook his head, and Elizabeth noted the amused, self-mocking smile that twisted his mouth. I must congratulate you, Miss Elizabeth; Darcy has grown stronger with you by his side. That display last evening at Netherfield would never have been possible six months ago. So, you see, my Dear, I must stop your power over Darcy. It will kill him to know that he abandoned you to me. The fact will eat away at him. Plus, eliminating you will keep his powers in check. Whether he is here to witness your demise or not will make little difference. I will make certain that he learns of your tragic end.”
Elizabeth knew that she must do something or die at his hands. A flash of humor crossed his expression as she broke away from him, shoving furniture into his path as she attempted an escape. Just as she reached the door, grabbing it to pull it open, Wickham appeared behind her. An iron grip took hold of her arm as his left hand shoved the door closed. He pulled her back into him, breathing into Elizabeth’s hair. “Good,” he hissed, “I was afraid you might not fight me. I prefer my followers to be spirited.” Elizabeth struggled and flailed, trying to dislodge his hold on her, but Wickham’s grip simply tightened around her waist. “My, you are a spit-fire,” he said and laughed. “It is no wonder Darcy prefers you.”
She screamed as he half lifted, half dragged her toward the stairs. Elizabeth scratched at him and fought him, but her efforts were futile. Wickham easily overpowered her. Halfway up the stairs, he halted suddenly and violently pulled her face to within inches of his. “I would give anything to see Darcy’s face when he discovers I took you in the bedroom of the manor house at Netherfield. It will be a delightful revenge.” Wickham pulled her mouth to his and kissed her with such force that he bruised her lips.
Elizabeth’s stomach turned. She strained against him, releasing her mouth from his unwelcome assault. Disgusted by his closeness, Elizabeth spit in Wickham’s face. For a brief moment, her countenance displayed a gratified smile as Wickham wiped the moisture from his cheek, but then a backhand slap forced her head to the side and split her lip. Blood seeped from the opening.
“The first course?” His hand turned her chin roughly, and he licked the blood from her mouth. “Thank you, my Dear.” Wickham started forward again, dragging her behind him.
* * *
Darcy rode low in the saddle, consumed by his need to reach Elizabeth in time. His heightened senses said she was in dire straits. He once again reproached himself for leaving her behind, while he alternated between praying for God to protect her and cursing the Fates, which had placed her in danger. The horse was lathered with foam by the time he drew up upon the reins before the old manor house upon Bingley’s property. Darcy slid from the saddle to assault the stairs leading to the main foyer.
Bursting through the main door, he bellowed, “Elizabeth!” He continued to call to her as he dashed from room to room. In the ballroom, he found the practice rapier beside the empty picnic basket, left behind after their afternoon together only yesterday. Claiming it, he reentered the main passageway to listen to the house. Closing his eyes, he searched the rooms above for any sound of her.
After several elongated seconds, a thump – a muffled sound from above – announced he had not been mistaken. His heart leapt with dread as he bolted up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. He hit the door of the first of the bedchambers, sending it banging against the wall, but the terrible tableau playing out before him cut Darcy to his knees. Elizabeth’s arms and legs were bound to the four poster. She had been stripped down to her chemise, and her countenance spoke of the terror she had known at Wickham’s hands. Her shining eyes, misted with tears, flooded his heart with anguish. Beside the bed, Wickham lounged in a wing chair. He caressed Elizabeth’s arm lightly with his fingertips.
“Darcy? You have returned.” Wickham’s smile increased by the moment; the changing scenario pleased him. “It is as I have told Miss Elizabeth: Mr. Darcy cares deeply for you.”
Tears steamed from Elizabeth’s eyes. “I am sorry, Fitzwilliam.” A slight shake of his head hopefully told her she had nothing of which to know regret: The blame rested purely upon his shoulders.
“Leave her be, Wickham. Your battle lies with me.” He stalled, searching the room for a means of Elizabeth’s escape, but none other than defeating Wickham showed itself.
Wickham stood casually. He purposely taunted Darcy by running a fingertip along the rise of Elizabeth’s breasts. “Certainly my hatred is firmly directed to you, Darcy, but even so, I find I have become very fond of Miss Elizabeth. Almost as fond as you, perhaps.” He turned to face Darcy fully. “I am of the persuasion that you would gladly die in her stead, but that fact is the real problem: You would gladly die. In fact, you wish to die – to end this battle between us. Yet, I wish you a long life. For when I kill the woman you love, you will spend more than a dozen lifetimes grieving for what might have been.”