Elizabeth’s insides felt hot, though she maintained as icy an exterior as she could.
‘What if the winner can command the loser to do anything?’ Whatever made her propose such a thing to a gentleman? A stranger!
To win this card game burned inside, but she acknowledged embarrassment at having proposed such an intimate, absurd, scandalous outcome. Darcy was a stranger; she had first spied him sneaking around the Meryton assembly rooms only a week ago. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth considered deliberately losing as she couldn’t think what she would do if she claimed her prize. Jane would be mortified if she found out (conversely, her mother might see her in a more positive light).
But deliberately losing was harder than winning at this game whose rules had only been explained an hour ago; however, like any card game, she counted cards and paid attention to discards. Mostly, Elizabeth watched the faces and hands of her opponents. But with Darcy, that was difficult because of his intensely fascinating hands and that signet ring. He also didn’t betray his elation or disappointment over his cards. He was an excellent opponent.
Elizabeth stared at her cards and had to plan her moves out practically to the end of the game to ensure that she lost, without it appearing she her plays were deliberate. Avoiding his eyes or glancing at his ring, she played methodically. Only once was she caught up. Her eyes whipped up to his; Darcy’s eyes twinkled as if in sympathy. Rivalry flared for an instant, but she tempered it down.
‘Just what would I ask if I won?’ she reasoned with herself for the seventh or seventeenth time since play began.
The final card was laid down; the cards in their hands were totaled. Darcy won, just succeeding in securing the necessary number of points to win the game.
“And what will you ask as your boon?” she asked.
His elegant hands were packing the cards into a neat stack, but they paused. The little finger twitched.
“The carriage is here,” said Caroline Bingley, appearing suddenly.
The two opponents locked eyes.
“I shall notify you later,” he said, nodding. Then he left to find the rest of his party.
Before he reached the first house in the village, one beckoned, and he shot down its contours, hoping to head her off. This track marked the edge of the woods as the trees were sparse here with shrubs under their branches. Fields lay to his left. But through the trees, he spied a figure in a green cloak.
Dismounting, he chose action rather than reticence. Mud on his riding boots was nothing to speaking to her. Elizabeth also chose action and didn’t flee at his maneuvering, but continued her trajectory towards him. Half a smile graced one side of her mouth, and her eyes danced with amusement. Dancing. That was his desire.
“Mr. Darcy.” She bowed her head dramatically. “You appear to have something on your mind if you circled around the rotten bridge to speak to me.”
“I do. I should like the honor of your hand for the first sets of dances at the ball tomorrow eve.” He smiled in triumph, though with being the first to speak, a sense of deprivation hit him, as he had lost. But after all, he hadn’t declared his love, merely asked for a dance.
Elizabeth coughed—or was that a giggle? Her arms swung nervously before her gloved hands clasped as brightness beamed at him.
“I fear, sir, that those two dances are taken.” His smile froze as the hand gripping the horse’s reins squeezed impossibly tighter.
‘Mr. Lucas!’ flashed in his mind, then Darcy immediately dismissed it. His grip loosened as he recalled that John-William had asked Caroline for those dances. He opened his mouth to press for the rival’s name, but in a day he would know. A solution to his desire was, “may I have the pleasure of the second set of dances, Miss Elizabeth?”
She simpered like any other young woman whose hand is solicited for a dance. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I would be happy to save my second set of dances for you.” Those magnificent dark eyes shone with love which he returned, though neither voiced their ardor.
“You’ll excuse me,” she said, gathering up her cloak, again exposing the muddy hem. “I’m overdue at home and fear I walked far afield this morning with much on my mind.”
Darcy blew out a breath through his nostrils at their inability to have more time. He couldn’t escort her home since he was on horseback, though he imagined taking her up beside him.
“Safe travels,” he said, bowing.
Elizabeth said nothing but hurried past him, vaulting over a sinister-looking puddle, then sliding through a gap in a hedge and sprinting across the field. He and the horse watched her until she was out of sight. Darcy then swung into the saddle and returned home.