Darcy paused in the hallway around the corner from Lizzie's office and exhaled slowly. This was it. He'd secured theater tickets yesterday morning and spent the remainder of the day alternately talking himself into and out of visiting her office. The curtain would rise in less than six hours, and he had to ask her now. He called to mind the way she'd smiled and teased him during their "corporate interview" two days earlier, then squared his shoulders and strode toward her office.
Her greeting was everything it hadn't been the last time he did this. She smiled on seeing him in her doorway and, when he asked how she was, leaned toward him and swept her eyes upward in a way that made him forget every single word he'd rehearsed. He shifted in his seat and fumbled awkwardly with his words, causing her to ask in amusement what he needed.
Finally, he asked her. She said nothing for a brief eternity, then started as her phone beeped. She apologized for the interruption, and he made an understanding gesture and looked away, fearing he had his answer. Her eyes had widened and her face stiffened at his words, and now her voice was tight with discomfort. His insides churned as the idea took hold that he'd misread her, again.
Her phone indicated that Charlotte had been trying to reach her. Courtesy dictated, he knew, that he should leave so she could speak to her friend in privacy. His invitation still hung in the air, though, and the thought of waiting in the hallway or in his office, with nothing to occupy him but the dread of coming rejection, was intolerable.
Charlotte did most of the talking, and he could make out little from Lizzie's responses. Then she spoke the name George Wickham in a voice shaking with outrage and fear, and in an instant all thought of the theater left his mind. She said she was going home immediately, then hung up and stared blankly at her phone. He watched her in wretched suspense, each passing second confirming what he'd suspected from the moment he heard Wickham's name. This was going to be bad.
"Lizzie, are you all right?...What happened?" He thought she usually rambled or vented when upset; at least, that was what he'd gathered from her videos. This Lizzie, with jerky movements and barely coherent half-sentences, was a Lizzie he hadn't seen before. His words didn't seem to register with her--or perhaps she was unwilling to share her trouble with him?
"Lizzie, let me help you. Stop." His firmer tone and touch on her shoulder and back caused her to look at him briefly.
"You can't. No one can." "Can't," not "I don't want your help." That was a word he could work with. He persevered, and the story came out--Lydia dating Wickham, the tape, the website, the countdown clock. His mind reeled at what Wickham had done, what he had allowed him to do by letting him off so easily in the past. Now Lizzie and her family would suffer for it.
"I could have prevented this." She was in shock, but already there was worry, grief, and self-reproach in her voice, emotions he feared would ride roughshod over her once her mind cleared. He knew those emotions all too well, for they had nearly consumed him after Wickham hurt Gigi. Lizzie was probably in no state to listen, but he had to try. He ran his hand from her shoulder to her back again and assured her in a low, choked tone that this was not her fault.
"Well then whose fault is it? I could have told Lydia exactly what kind of person George Wickham was…". He leaned back slightly, steeling himself as he waited for her to make the same connection he already had. It took her only a second to do so, and then her tone changed. "…but you asked me to keep it a secret. If you'd let me tell my family the truth about him, this wouldn't have happened."
He nodded slightly and willed his expression to remain open and attentive. She was warming to her subject, each word more vehement than the last. He listened in silence, his hand still steady against her back, though he doubted she drew any comfort from it. "Thanks to you, I had to tell stupid stories about 'Batman' and 'Darvid' rather than warn my sister--my baby sister!--about him. You knew how fast he blew through his college fund and the money you gave him because of Gigi. Didn't it occur to you that he'd find a way to get more easy money?"
She continued, her eyes fixed wildly upon him, her words raw and potent. Listening to her was agony, and he breathed shakily and deeply through his nose as he absorbed her verbal blows. Then she spoke the words that broke him. "I was right about you, Darcy. You do ruin the lives of all people you come in contact with." She turned from him then and reached for another book to stuff into her bag.
With her gaze no longer on him, he closed his eyes and shuddered before withdrawing his hand from her back. "We'll get you on the next flight out."
"Fine," she snapped as she stacked some papers haphazardly.
He rose heavily and walked to the door, then looked back, his gaze lingering on her averted face and the rigid set of her shoulders. Everything within him fought against leaving her like this, but his presence was clearly the last thing she wanted or needed. Grief nearly closed his throat as he realized this might be the last time he saw her, and he had to force out his words. "A car will be downstairs for you in five minutes."
He left then, holding his emotions precariously in check long enough to call for a car and instruct his assistant to book a seat on the next flight. Then he shut himself in his office and sagged against the door. His hands fisted at his sides. It was too much.
As hard as he'd worked to become a better man and as much progress as he believed they'd made, he'd known when he entered her office that he risked another rejection. He'd asked her anyway, knowing she was more than worth the risk and that if he failed again the pain would at least be entirely his own. He had braced himself for heartbreak but had been blindsided by double heartbreak--that of knowing Lizzie was utterly, hopelessly lost to him and that she rightly blamed him for the nightmare that was descending on her sister and her family.
His head tipped back against the door as her words seared his mind anew. She had every reason to regret ever meeting him, for he had brought trouble after trouble into her life and the lives of the people she loved. He had hurt her, again, without even knowing what he did. His groan came from a heart overwhelmed and filled the room…
…and the sound of it woke him.
Another night, another dream. Darcy groaned again, flipping over onto his back and running his hand over his chest, where his heart was still beating heavily.
It had been a week and a half since Lizzie left Pemberley Digital, a week and a half during which he had done everything he could to prevent the tape's release. Fitz spent long hours dredging the internet's underbelly for information on the website, only to be blocked at every turn. Darcy's lawyers had done what they could, but the legal system worked so slowly that the best they could offer was a lawsuit after the fact. He had private investigators assigned to Novelty Xposures and to Wickham. Darcy had joined the latter in the hope that his knowledge of his former friend might be of some use. So far, every possible lead had turned up nothing. Time was running out.
Those were the plain facts that increasingly filled his days with helplessness and hopelessness. As if that wasn't enough, the few hours of sleep he tried to snatch each night were nearly always filled with dreams of his last encounter with Lizzie.
Just once, he wished that whatever part of his mind controlled his dreams would grant him a night when Charlotte didn't call, when Wickham didn't once again prove his loathsomeness, or better yet didn't exist. As long as they were his dreams, couldn't he for even one night hear Lizzie say "Yes, I would love to attend the theater with you" and bask in the warmth of her smile and presence for an evening, savoring all the small intimacies of escorting her, holding her hand, helping with her coat, and discussing the performance over dinner?
But no, his mind was never so kind. Instead, she rejected and blamed him night after night. It was never exactly the same. One night she gaped at him, horrified, at the first suggestion of a date. Another night he came to her office to find her already gone, without an explanation, and he sat for an hour on the stool she'd used for filming, a nonexistent camera documenting every visible sign of his heartbreak.
Sometimes his dreams related to her videos. The night after she posted their final conversation, he dreamed that she burst into tears during Charlotte's call and refused to tell him what had happened, recoiling from his attempts to comfort her and shutting her door in his face with a distraught plea to leave her alone. Her next video showed Lydia's horrified reaction to the website. That night Lizzie turned on him with terrible, cutting words she couldn't know the meaning of, words that, once awake, he recognized as Gigi's from immediately after Wickham abandoned her. Jane returned in the next video, having forfeited her job, and that night she was there when he came to Lizzie's office, sobbing for her sister, for Bing, for the loss of the job she loved. Lizzie didn't say a word, just held Jane and looked at him steadily, accusingly.
Darcy sat up and shook his head resolutely to banish the images that filled his nights. Lizzie hadn't actually said or done any of those things.
What she did was worse. She blamed herself. That in itself would be hard to watch, but it was unbearable to hear her blame herself for what was actually his fault. She regretted introducing Wickham to her family, but he, who knew what Wickham was, had left town without bothering to warn her beyond a single, vague hint during their dance at Bing's party. She blamed herself for falling out with her sister. Perhaps that would have happened anyway, for they had been at odds since the start of Lizzie's videos, and Lydia's birthday celebrations would have tried the patience of a saint. Still, it was Lizzie's unconscious repetition of his word, energetic, that had escalated a sisterly disagreement into a full-blown quarrel.
Lizzie had reason enough to blame him, but she didn't. Part of him still waited for the other shoe to drop, for her to realize as she had in his dream that his insistence on secrecy had allowed a manipulative cur to prey upon her younger sister. Perhaps she did realize his culpability but was too kind to publicly blame him, choosing instead to focus on her fractured relationship with her sister. Perhaps she didn't think of him at all.
He wanted, badly, to call her. Gigi had programmed her into his phone several weeks ago, and while he felt uncomfortable having her number when she hadn't given it to him, he couldn't imagine deleting it. He couldn't call her now, of course, not in the middle of the night, but the temptation was there every day. If they talked, perhaps he could help her in some way--repeat his and Jane's assurances that this was not her fault, listen as she vented, or just help take her mind off her troubles for a time.
He'd be lying to himself if he didn't admit he wanted to call her for his own sake too. He missed her even more now than he had after leaving Collins & Collins. He had seen her more and more frequently as her stay at Pemberley progressed and had reveled in her increasing friendliness and warmth toward him. That closeness had been wrenched from him in those few minutes in her office, and ever since he had handed her and the best part of his heart into his car, he had known a unshakable fear that such closeness would never again be his.
He lay back down and ran his hand wearily over his face, then turned his head and squinted at the bedside clock. Her next video was due in just under six hours. He hoped it would show her more at peace, that she would listen to Jane's advice and stop torturing herself with "what ifs." He fell asleep trying to repress his hope for the impossible--that she would give some indication that she wished to hear from him.
Only thirty seconds into Lizzie's new video, Darcy set his phone on the table before him and clenched his hands together tightly. The video's title, "An Understanding," and length--over eight minutes, the longest she'd ever posted--were promising, but Lizzie appeared exhausted, miserable, defeated. She had admitted at Pemberley her tendency to portray others from her "limited perspective," and now she spoke shakily of "acknowledging that people do not fit into neat little boxes all wrapped and tied up in string." She was in a crisis of self-doubt, questioning whether she saw herself or others aright, reminding him forcefully and painfully of the questions he had asked himself during those awful weeks after she rejected him.
Then Lydia entered, and as much as his heart yearned toward Lizzie, he found himself watching her sister more. The same thing had happened the week before. Something within him had shifted as he saw Lydia learn the brutal truth about the man she loved and trusted, and he'd suddenly recognized her as an uncertain and vulnerable young woman, not unlike Gigi had been.
The Lydia sitting before the camera now seemed drained of energy, a bitter irony that did not escape him. Once her sister affirmed her willingness to listen, everything bottled up within suddenly burst forth. Darcy felt furious and physically ill as he recognized Wickham's pattern of charming a woman into ignoring her better judgment, convincing her that her only worth lay in her relationship with him, taking what he wanted, and then abandoning her to face the devastation of exposure and betrayal. Lydia blamed herself again and again, resisting Lizzie's attempts to reason with her, until finally she broke down and accepted her sister's embrace.
Unlikely as it seemed given what he'd seen in previous videos, Lydia had somehow been drawn to Lizzie for understanding and comfort. This hindered his own desires, of course, for Lizzie would certainly not welcome his call now, not when her attention was rightly absorbed by her sister. Despite that, the image of the two women embracing brought him tremendous relief. Lydia had voluntarily ended her isolation, and she had a loving sister who would assure her as many times as necessary that she didn't deserve what Wickham had done to her. And Lizzie…he knew all too well the feelings that had torn her apart at the beginning of her video and the relief she surely felt now in knowing she could help her sister.
Together, he hoped they could begin to heal, and with that hope came an easing of the worst of the strain he had felt during the last week and a half. His sense of urgency was only heightened, though, for there was no knowing how much of the progress from today's video would be undone if he failed to stop the tape's release.
Unfortunately, failure now seemed probable. He'd received a call earlier from the men investigating Novelty Xposures, and later in the morning he was scheduled to listen in on a conference call with several others who had attempted to investigate the company in the past, on behalf of other families. Apparently Novelty Xposures frequently purchased tapes without one party's consent and was adept at avoiding investigation. The conference call was worth a try, but it seemed unlikely that this would help them locate the company's owners.
The only person who had definite access to the company was Wickham, but finding him was proving impossible. He and his investigators had contacted dozens of Wickham's former friends and associates and had succeeded only in obtaining a phone number that might be his.
Now Gigi had the number. He had ordered and pleaded with her to let him bear the burden of finding Wickham, but she possessed a stubbornness nearly equal to his. First she had revisited memories of the getaway location they had used. Then she had gone one step further, using herself as bait to trap him. Darcy had nearly bitten Fitz's ear off for giving her Wickham's number and had been only slightly mollified when Fitz told him of her promise to text only and not actually call.
She wanted to help, for his and Lizzie's sakes, and he loved her all the more for it. He knew too that she identified with Lydia; the similarities now apparent to him were surprising and alarming. Lizzie's video today reminded him what Gigi risked by involving herself in the hunt for Wickham. Not that he was in any danger of forgetting the days when she had refused to look anyone, even Fitz, in the face, or the nights he had spent propped up against the wall outside her door with his head in his hands, listening to her sobs, tormenting himself with every "what-if" he could think of, dreading outcomes too terrible to name.
Gigi was only now regaining the joy and liveliness that had once been innate to her, and she had recently broken down when telling her story to Lizzie's viewers. She was more vulnerable than she knew, and he would not be able to live with himself if he failed to protect her again.
The conference call garnered them a few additional leads but nothing definitely promising, and Darcy's shoulders slumped uncharacteristically as he hung up. He saw then that notification had come of a new Domino user. Gigi must have called someone new on the demo. The number listed was familiar, and a moment's reflection sent him scrolling through his contacts. It would be just like Gigi to call Lizzie to offer her friend encouragement and a listening ear, and in so doing alert her to the existence of the demo videos. Fortunately, the number wasn't Lizzie's, and he was about to move on when its significance suddenly registered.
It was George Wickham's number.
Darcy's gaze grew intent as the implications rushed through his mind. Wickham had downloaded Domino, dropping squarely into Darcy's lap the information he so urgently needed but couldn't otherwise legally obtain. Gigi had accomplished what he and an entire team of investigators couldn't, but at what cost to herself? Only three weeks ago, Bing's casual mention of her swimming pool had shaken her badly enough that she'd left the room, and now…now she had spoken to Wickham face to face.
Darcy grabbed his briefcase and strode down the hallway toward his car as he dialed Gigi's number. Seconds elapsed, long enough for anxiety to take hold. What had Wickham said to her? He wanted to return immediately to San Francisco, to see her and know for certain whether she would be all right, but he couldn't, not with so little time remaining before the tape's release. If she didn't answer, or if she appeared distressed, he would have to call Fitz and ask for his help again. Finally, she answered.
"Gigi, what did you do?" Fear harshened his voice, and he regretted it immediately, for she sounded nearly frantic as she begged him to not be angry with her. For all that she sometimes pestered him, egged on by Fitz, and made free to shove him into rooms and discuss his nervous mannerisms with Lizzie, she suddenly seemed to fear his disapproval as much as he feared her vulnerability and still-fragile sense of self-worth. Her pleading tone stopped him in his tracks, and he spoke then as he should have at first, more gently, assuring her that his greatest concern was for the encounter's effect on her.
"I'm sorry. I know you warned me, but I had to try. I thought it would help." His words did much to calm her, and he had been without hope too recently himself not to recognize and pity the keen discouragement in her voice at not being able to help.
"It did…he downloaded Domino." He didn't spell out the implications for her but rather watched with affectionate pride as she worked them out for herself, her lingering uncertainty quickly lost in wonder and disbelief that she had provided the breakthrough they so desperately needed. He ended the call soon afterward and began a flurry of calls to Pemberley's technical experts, to retrieve the newly available information about Wickham, and to his investigators and lawyers, preparing for the confrontation and negotiations to come. Much had yet to be done before the crisis would truly be ended, but he was energized now and ready to face it.
At last, he had hope.
Darcy sat on the edge of the bed and toweled his hair dry, feeling refreshed and relieved and yet acutely alone. It was done. Novelty Xposures now belonged to him, and every last copy of Lydia's tape had been destroyed or permanently erased. The rest of the company's inventory would be destroyed too, for he had no way of knowing which tapes might also have been acquired illegally. In any case, he had no intention of owning a company of that nature, so it would soon be converted to distribute Pemberley Digital's video content.
Wickham was tied up in legal knots so tightly it would be suicidal for him to ever bother the Darcys or Bennets again. There was nothing Darcy could do--or at least nothing he could legally do--to ensure he couldn't prey on other families, but the popularity of Lizzie and Lydia's vlogs among young women meant his next intended victim might already know what he was, or have friends who would warn her.
It was done. Darcy ordered room service and dedicated the next few hours to his backlog of emails from the last two weeks. It occurred to him at some point that his correspondents might think him pathetic for replying to work-related emails the evening of Valentine's Day, but he merely quirked an eyebrow and continued.
At last, he readied himself for bed. Before turning out the light, he reached for his phone and rewatched the video Lizzie had posted that morning. Lydia had interrupted it with the news that the website was down. Lizzie had beamed and hugged her sister and thanked the unknown but "wonderful" person who had helped them. Her words had echoed sweetly in his mind throughout the day, warming him even though he knew he didn't deserve her enthusiasm. Lydia had appeared more composed in the video than he would have believed possible given the circumstances, and it seemed nearly miraculous that a second Bennet sister might possess the strength to rally and forge something of value from heartache that was indirectly his fault.
He slept then, and in his dream he steadied his nerves and went once again to Lizzie's office. For once, she was not seated on her stool with the camera rolling. Instead, she stood at the window that looked out on the pool and topiary. She was lost in thought and didn't respond to his knock, but when he spoke her name she turned with a smile of welcome and delight and beckoned him to her. He stood close by her, savoring that smile, his own gaze alive with his love for her. She touched his arm then, and it was a moment before he recovered enough to realize she was trying to direct his attention to the scene outside her window.
Gigi sat at the edge of the pool, her legs dangling in the water, her eyes closed as she tilted her head to soak up the warmth of the sun.
© 2013 Copyright held by the author.