Posted on 2019-02-26
Summary: Modern AU. Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy clash as they continually run into each other at Netherfield Dog Park. Elizabeth would be happy to never see him again if it weren’t for how attached her dog Jane was to his dog Bingley.
Licensing Note: Based on Characters and story lines from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Text from Jane Austen is in green, text from movie adaptations is in blue . Sorry if this bugs you, I just can't bring myself to quote a text without differentiating it from my own writing in some way. The tense, pronouns, or wording of these quotes may be slightly modified to fit the scene. All original content and plot for Paws and Prejudice is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license by Morgan A. Wyndham. Cross published on Archive of Our Own and fanfic.net as MorganAW
Chapter 1: A Picnic
Elizabeth Bennet sighed as she loaded her pack into the car. She knew she had a problem, she just couldn’t help herself ... whenever a particularly needy dog came into the shelter she volunteered at she inevitably broke down and adopted them. Jane was her first, she was the most beautiful cocker spaniel Elizabeth had ever seen with long golden locks. She had been a breeder rescued from a puppy mill and while she had the largest heart once you got to know her, she was shy around new people and typically afraid of male dogs. Because of this all of Elizabeth’s subsequent rescues were females.
Then came Mary, a shetland sheepdog who was so afraid of people that she would cower under her bed in the shelter and went months shivering alone without being adopted. Even now that most of the fear had subsided, she would rather remain curled up on her bed in between the bookshelves than interact with others. Her great joy in life came from music and she would happily howl along whenever there was a tune to follow.
Next was Kitty the pekingese – unfortunately named by the six year old daughter of her first family. Said family had abandoned her at the shelter when she had a bad cough and they couldn’t afford the vet bills. Even after her pneumonia had cleared up, poor Kitty suffered from severe separation anxiety. She was happy as a clam while people were in sight, but the minute she was left alone she started crying and pawing so frantically at the cage doors that she bloodied her paws. One day Elizabeth just couldn’t bear leaving her there alone for one more night and adopted her.
Finally there was Lydia, a chihuahua puppy who was found half frozen on the streets with a broken leg. She was just so small, vulnerable, and young that Elizabeth couldn’t leave her alone in that cage. As expected, Jane turned into a rather attentive surrogate mother, Mary tried to ignore her as much as possible, and Kitty had instantly idolized Lydia. Elizabeth could see the pekingese’s anxiety fading away with her new companion. After the leg had healed Lydia turned out to be a lively, gregarious dog with an affinity for men and a reluctance to be housebroken.
While working with traumatized animals at the shelter was Elizabeth’s passion project, she paid her bills as an animal behaviorist at an upscale veterinary clinic. She was essentially a therapist for spoiled poodles and their obnoxious owners. Today was the clinic’s annual picnic for their patients and their owners. It was hosted by a stable that the clinic worked with so there was plenty of space for the dogs to roam. When she arrived she clasped leashes onto Kitty and Lydia, took a breath, and opened the door to let her girls out.
"Ms. Bennet," the booming voice of her least favorite customer beckoned her, "you’re bringing four dogs out at once? That seems highly unusual." Mrs. DeBurgh was a wealthy widower with no children who poured all of her attention into criticizing everyone around her and fussing over Anne, her Persian cat with COPD.
"Hello Mrs. DeBurgh, while Mary here would have been happy to stay at home," Mary responded to her name with a harrumph and curled up under a tree with stick, "it would be unfair to leave any of them out of the fun."
"Your house must be quite overrun, I hope you’ve got a good pet sitter."
"Nope, just us girls, but the clinic is close enough that I can stop in and walk them on my lunch break most days."
Mrs. DeBurgh’s eyes bugged at this, but Lydia caught her attention at that moment with a yap and a preen. The puppy sure did know how cute she was, but rather than the coddling that such a display usually would win her, Mrs. DeBurgh just gave a disdainful sniff. "I see two of your dogs are leashed and the others are not."
"Well, Kitty and Lydia are fairly young to be out on their own, but I trust my two old ladies." Jane elegantly sat next to Elizabeth and looked up at her serenely as if to prove her point.
Mrs. DeBurgh looked like she had far more unsolicited advice to doll out, but her attention was drawn by a sleek black sports car pulling in. "Finally, someone sensible," the old lady said under her breath. Elizabeth was intrigued, she’d witnessed DeBurgh treat every member of the staff with similar disdain and wondered who would garner such a reaction. The door opened and quite possibly the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen stepped out. He was tall and handsome in a ’who wears a suit to a picnic in July’ sort of way, and everything about him screamed of wealth and class. Everything, that is, until he opened the door and an excited golden retriever bounded out.
"William! Thank heavens you’ve arrived, there’s nobody here worth talking to!" Mrs. DeBurgh called out to him.
Elizabeth must have done a poor job at masking her annoyance at being brushed off as ’nobody’ because the handsome man’s eyes rested on her a moment too long before he replied, "Aunt Catherine, would you introduce me to your friend?"
William Darcy had been dreading this event, it was just one final straw to this whole absurd business. First his friend had foisted this dog on him against his will. Then his poor, sweet, broken-hearted and currently cynophobic sister had instantly fallen in love with the puppy, leaving him no choice but to keep it. When his aunt found out, she insisted that if he mentioned her name at the Bromwell clinic he’d be taken care of – as if it wasn’t their jobs to take care of him as a paying customer anyway. Then his aunt had insisted that he come to this ridiculous picnic as he was now part of their community. Just because his aunt devoted her life to that wheezing furball didn’t mean that he would do the same.
Nonetheless, his aunt had ordered him here and now he was standing in a stableyard in an Armani suit surrounded by people obsessed with their ’furbabies’. At least that had been his frame of mind until he looked up into a pair of lively eyes with an expression caught between amusement and anger. He found himself asking for an introduction.
"Friend?" His aunt asked in confusion, she looked around and seemed to recall the woman standing next to her, "ah, yes, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, this is my nephew William Darcy. Miss Bennet is a behaviorist at the Clinic."
Those expressive eyes focused on him and she smiled as she breezily responded, "please call me Elizabeth," and held out her hand. Darcy mutely took her hand and nodded, desperately trying to think of what to say to her, but after an awkward moment she raised her eyebrow at him then asked: "and who is this?" She held out a fist toward his dog.
"His name is Bingley," he responded as the dog eagerly sniffed then licked her hand.
She knelt on the ground and pet his dog, murmuring, "aren’t you a handsome boy," as Bingley licked her face. Darcy felt a momentary flash of jealousy that the dog got such treatment from the pretty girl before he reigned in his thoughts and slipped further behind his mask of indifference.
Catherine DeBurgh had begun another long-winded monologue in the awkward silence. As she greeted the happy golden retriever Elizabeth mused to herself that the company was much better down here with the dogs than up there with the humans. Eventually she was forced to stand up as Bingley lost interest in her in favor of sniffing around Jane as Lydia and Kitty ran around him trying to get his attention. When Catherine paused for a breath Elizabeth quickly made her excuses and walked toward the barn turned banquet hall where the food was being set up. Bingley, smitten already, seemed ready to follow Jane as she trailed Elizabeth into the barn but his leash restrained him and Darcy made no attempt to follow.
She found her friend Charlotte Lucas, the Clinic’s veterinary specialist on exotic species, setting out the buffet of kibbles and treats for the pets. "Not three steps out of the car before I was cornered by her ladyship," Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
"Ouch, what were you doing wrong this time?"
"Oh, having too many dogs and walking them myself like a plebeian." Charlotte giggled as she gave treats to Jane, Kitty and Lydia – Mary had remained outside under the tree. Jane greeted Charlotte with a sedate wag of the tail and a gentle nudge with her nose. "And get this, I just met her nephew who just oozes wealth and disdain. Luckily though he’s content to silently judge me rather tell me my faults to my face like his aunt."
"Darcy, right?" Charlotte sighed, "now Lizzie, don’t go making snap judgments, the guy’s hot and loaded with a sweet dog to boot, he can’t be all too bad. I saw a glimpse of him when he brought his dog in for a checkup and just itched to muss up his pristine appearance."
Elizabeth momentarily appreciated the mental image of a disheveled Darcy with a flushed face, but shook herself out of it. The guy was kind of an ass and she wouldn’t waste her time pining.
With a few minor hiccups the picnic went over well. In the brief minutes of madness that she decided to try letting Lydia and Kitty off of their leashes, Lydia dashed into the crowd of dogs and people with Kitty close on her heels. They persistently chased after dogs twice their size and made quite the display before Elizabeth was able to restrain them again. There was also the point when a man had walked by Mary’s tree whistling and Mary started a howl which spread throughout the dogs of the party and lasted several minutes before they all calmed down. But now at the end of the day Elizabeth just sat quietly at a picnic table with Charlotte watching Jane romp around with Bingley.
"I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen her run around like that," Charlotte remarked.
"I’ve never seen her so comfortable with a male dog but they’ve been inseparable all day." She looked around at the dwindling crowd.
"Good for Jane, we could all use a good guy once in a while."
"Well, don’t wish them happy just yet, at the end of the day she’ll be coming home with me and he’ll be going home with mister tall, dark and judgmental." Elizabeth shot a dark look across to where Darcy sat rigidly on the edge of a bench, his eyes shot from hers down to the phone in his hand.
"I’m pretty sure if you tried you could be going home with mister tall, dark, and can’t peel his eyes off of you," Charlotte replied sarcastically.
"Oh please, he’s probably just cataloging every fault I have. I wonder why he’s even still here, his aunt took off ages ago and he doesn’t seem to know anyone else here."
Charlotte rolled her eyes, "maybe he just believes in puppy love and is playing wingman for his pooch."
Elizabeth laughed as she hauled herself up and began cleaning up. Several minutes later she was depositing a large haul of paper plates into a trashcan when Bingley came rushing up to his owner a few feet away. Elizabeth stifled a laugh when the serious Mr. Darcy began speaking to his dog as he pet him.
"What, do you think I’m going to go out there and run around with you? I don’t even know anyone here." Bingley whined with a wagging tail and looked back to where Jane was sitting with Lydia and Kitty. "We can’t all be as lucky as you to hit it off with the prettiest girl at the party." Bingley whimpered and tugged gently at his shirt cuff. "Yeah, ok, her owner’s not bad either, but not pretty enough to tempt me to go crawling around in the dirt playing with dogs. You should go enjoy her company while you can," he said, tossing a stick in the direction of Jane. Bingley chased after it and before long the two dogs were lost in their own little world again.
Elizabeth could hardly believe her ears. Not only was she merely ’ok’, but the jerk looked down on her for playing with the dogs? They were at a dog days picnic for goodness sake! What kind of irresponsible man adopted a dog if they were too good to play with them?
Darcy sighed wistfully as he watched Bingley run back to his newest obsession. He wished he could make friends as easily. He wished that he’d had enough courage to talk more to Elizabeth Bennet that day rather than observing her from a distance and listening in on her conversations like some sort of stalker. He wished that she’d show even a fraction of the interest in him as she showered on the dogs.
The clanging of a trashcan lid rather closer than expected pulled him out of his thoughts and he saw, to his horror, that Elizabeth Bennet was standing nearby glaring at him. She stormed off back to her friend and he was certain that she’d heard his little dialog with Bingley. Embarrassed, he collected his dog and left.
Chapter 2: Netherfield Dog Park
The following Wednesday Elizabeth was happily tossing tennis balls to her girls at Netherfield, their usual dog park when suddenly Jane stopped in her tracks and stood alert with her eyes focused on the parking lot, her tail gently wagging. Elizabeth turned to see Darcy opening the gate and an excited Bingley darted off to join Jane. Darcy slowly made his way to Elizabeth’s side.
"I’ve never seen you here before, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said tersely.
"No, it’s my first time. I heard you speaking of the importance of routines and regular exercise for energetic dogs and I thought I’d give it a try. Bingley is rather ... exuberant."
"Oh," replied Elizabeth, flustered. "I had said something of the sort to Mr. Forster, but I was unaware you were part of the conversation." Had he been eavesdropping on her? If he’d heard that much, he’d also heard her say that she made a point of regular trips to the dog park on Wednesday afternoons. Rather than answering her challenge Darcy fell into silence.
After several minutes Elizabeth couldn’t bear it any longer and asked, "Bingley is an odd name for a dog, where did you come up with it?"
"He was a gift from a friend, Charles Bingley. He was obliged to leave town for several months on business and didn’t want me to get lonely so he got me a dog to keep me company and named it after himself."
Well, Elizabeth mused to herself, Charlotte will be disappointed to learn he has a boyfriend, what other degree of intimacy would require a substitute to keep him company? "You must be rather close."
"Yes, he is a good friend and the dog bears a remarkable resemblance to Charles, happy, friendly, persistent to a fault, and always smitten by the prettiest girl in the room." After another awkward silence, he added with a smirk, "I must say, yelling at Bingley to stop peeing on the floor rather brings me back to our college days ..." at Elizabeth’s raised eyebrow he elaborated, "he was my roommate and he didn’t have the best aim when drunk."
"How unfortunate," Elizabeth giggled as she pictured Darcy as an uptight college kid following his roommate around with a bottle of spray cleaner and rubber gloves. While the ensuing conversation about roommates past was largely carried by Elizabeth, Darcy remained engaged and Elizabeth decided there were worse ways to fill the gaps between throwing tennis balls.
Chapter 3: A Pattern Emerges
The following Wednesday Darcy drove past the dog park twice, berating himself for this weakness. He’d overheard her saying the name of the park and her weekly routine purely by accident. Sure he’d sat nearby so he’d have a decent view of her, but he was fairly certain he hadn’t been intentionally listening in. It’s just that her conversations were so witty and amusing that he’d found himself overhearing her a lot that day.
Last week had been a fluke. He’d suddenly had an investor cancel a four o’clock meeting and found himself in the rare circumstance of finishing work early for a change, why not take Bingley to the park? It would be good for the dog, he could get a little exercise ...
This week he’d blocked off space in his schedule for the dog park. He’d come in an hour early then left work eagerly, dropped by his house to pick up the dog, and now found himself circling the block like a fool. What am I doing? I know nothing can come of it, she’s not the kind of girl I can introduce to investors or bring to a charity event. Not to mention that Aunt Catherine would have a heart attack!
Despite this inner turmoil, he found himself pulling in and parking the car. Over the last week and a half he’d found that he couldn’t stop thinking about her. As they got out of the car he found himself almost as eager as Bingley, though thankfully he had an easier time masking it.
Elizabeth frowned as Jane stopped and pointed for the third time that afternoon. Sure it was in her nature as a spaniel to point, but Jane rarely did so without cause. This time when Elizabeth’s gaze followed Jane’s direction it fell again on William Darcy and the fluffy torpedo headed directly towards Jane. Once she could understand as a coincidence, twice was a pattern.
"Good afternoon, Elizabeth," he said as he approached her.
"Darcy," she replied with a cold nod.
He fell silent and Elizabeth continued to throw balls and sticks for the dogs. She was determined not to break the silence this time. If the man wanted to stand there disdainfully mute, so be it.
After several minutes he ventured to quietly ask, "so, what does a behaviorist do?" Elizabeth read the derision in his tone as she had from so many others. She was tired of having to defend her job to people like him, so she didn’t answer him. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.
“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I didn’t want to give you fodder to poke fun at my job."
"I wouldn’t dare make fun of your job."
"Right," she said sarcastically, "I heard your tone."
"What tone? This is just my voice."
"How unfortunate that your tone just always conveys disdain." He frowned and looked down. Had she actually hurt his feelings? She felt a little guilty, his poor manners were no excuse for her to be mean. In penance she decided to answer his question. "An animal behaviorist, as the name implies, studies animal behavior in relation to their environment and experiences in order to address problematic behavior."
"Ah, so you answer questions like ’why does Bingley pee all over my wood floors?’"
"Well, you don’t need a behaviorist to tell you that, he’s still a puppy. With proper training that should even out. I deal more with issues like ’why does my dog scratch her paws bloody when I leave the room’ or ’why does my cat pull out tufts of fur in one specific spot.’"
"So you’re like a therapist for patients who can’t tell you what’s going on?"
Elizabeth looked up at him in surprise, "yes, exactly." Lydia claimed her attention for a moment as she was pestering a mastiff who was showing signs of losing his patience. As she returned to his side she noted that he looked much the same as he had at the picnic, out of place in a suit and tie, standing rigidly, content to watch the dogs play without taking part in it himself. "So," she inquired, "what do you do?"
"I am an investment banker at Pemberley LLC," he answered succinctly.
Of course he’d be a banker for rich snobs, what else? "Thus the suit," she teased.
He looked down at himself in confusion, "what is wrong with my suit?"
"Nothing ... in an office. It is a bit out of place at the dog park though."
Darcy pulled up to the dog park wearing a new pair of jeans – he hadn’t had any in his wardrobe – and a sweater his sister had purchased him for Christmas. As he approached she was flashing him that irresistible smile that made his pulse race.
They exchanged greetings and small talk, but before long Bingley came to tug Elizabeth out to play with them. She ran around so freely, so full of joy and life and he smiled watching her antics. "You know, you could join us," she called to him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened by the exercise.
For a moment he could only stare at the siren beckoning him to the brink. This woman was dangerous to his peace of mind and he knew he should keep his distance but he couldn’t help but engage in some mild flirting. "No thank you, I have a much better view from over here."
"Ass!" she shouted back at him.
"Indeed," he said under his breath as she turned from him and picked up the stick that Kitty had dropped at her feet. She wore leggings and an over-large tee-shirt, an underwhelmingly casual thrown-together outfit that should not be attractive in the least and yet Darcy was charmed.
After a while Elizabeth came back over to him and collapsed on the ground. "Bingley wore me out. Jane and Mary usually move a bit slower and Kitty and Lydia are itty bitty, so they’re easier to keep up with," she sighed, and tried to calm her breathing. Mary lumbered up to her and cuddled up at her side.
"Well, I thank you for wearing him out," Elizabeth craned her neck to look at him as he talked, "he’s always calmer after a trip to Netherfield."
She’d get a headache if she kept looking at him like this. "Now that you’ve got some halfway normal clothes, why don’t you sit down with me?" She invited, patting the grass beside her
He looked skeptically at the ground then followed her command. "What do you mean halfway normal?"
"Well, the jeans are a nice touch, but what is this? Cashmere?" She asked as she stroked his arm, mostly convincing herself that she was just admiring the fabric. "And you’re still wearing a button up shirt and tie underneath, it’s August for pity sake!"
"What would you have me wear?" He asked contemplatively.
"I dunno, a tee-shirt? Ripped jeans? Old clothes that you don’t care if they get dirty because you were rolling around with the dogs?" She raised a challenging eyebrow to him and he looked at her blankly. "Right, you don’t own old clothes, do you?"
"I’ve never seen the point of retaining clothes I no longer wear."
Of course Mr. Moneybags doesn’t see the point of wearing clothes more than once. She was again struck by the urge to see him rumpled, to discard the tie and unbutton some buttons ... time to derail that train of thought. She stood abruptly and said, "you’re a lost cause Darcy," as she ruffled his hair and walked away, calling for her dogs to join her.
Darcy pulled at the hem of his shirt as he exited his car the following week. He’d managed to find a tee-shirt with his exercise clothes that, while not old or ripped, was something he’d worn before. He wasn’t used to being this exposed or casual in public outside of the gym. It was easier to give off an air of authority in a suit and tie and Darcy hardly knew how to interact with people outside of those parameters.
Outside of his family he had a select few friends that he’d known before... before the accident ... before he’d become an orphan, a guardian, and a CEO in one day ... before new acquaintances feigned interest because of what they could milk him for ... before old friends betrayed him from greed and spite. Since then he’d preferred the emotional detachment of cold formality. Though he’d never admit it out loud, the suit and tie felt somewhere between a safety blanket and armor to him.
Elizabeth Bennet was the first new acquaintance he’d felt inclined to lower that armor for in a very long time. No matter how many times he’d mentally listed the reasons against dating her his mind still drifted to her at the most inconvenient times. In the end he allowed himself this one indulgence, restricted – as all indulgences should be – to small doses. He rationalized that as long as there were no dates, no expectations, no meeting friends or family, there could be no harm in spending an hour or two a week enjoying her presence in a public place. He repeated this like a mantra as he entered the park, but that did not prevent the twinge of regret that he felt when he discovered that she was not alone.
Elizabeth stood beaming at a young boy who was ordering his beagle to do the same three tricks over and over. As Darcy approached, she turned that smile on him and winked at him as she said, "Mr. Darcy, look how very accomplished Carter is, and Billy here trained him all by himself."
Darcy’s stomach flipped at the initial smile and wink and his brain lagged a bit behind as he parsed her words. "It all seems rather standard to me," he said without giving it much thought.
The smile slipped from Elizabeth’s face for a moment before she continued with a brighter, though forced cheer, "but he knows how to sit, lay down, and shake," she had paused between each word so Billy could repeat the command.
"But those are the first three commands every dog learns," he could tell Elizabeth was trying to convey something to him with her eyes but wasn’t sure what it was, so he continued on. "My aunt would expound on the diversity of commands they know, the way they walk, the luster of their coat, their elegance etc – all of the features they look at in show circles – but to me, it’s the service dogs who are really accomplished, they improve the lives of their owners or communities through honing their own abilities."
Elizabeth just stared at the man in front of her in amazement, how could one man miss that many cues? Billy was her friend Charlotte’s younger brother and Elizabeth felt overly protective of his feelings. She rolled her eyes and clarified, "well, Carter is only three months old , and Billy is training him by himself. I think he can hold off on training him to detect seizures for the time being, don’t you?"
Elizabeth had to stifle a laugh as the gears in Darcy’s brain seemed to finally catch up to the conversation. He blushed slightly and turned to Billy and stuttered out a belated and obviously disingenuous complement on the boy’s accomplishment. Billy looked at him skeptically and Elizabeth knelt down beside him, "don’t be discouraged by Mr. Darcy, he doesn’t approve of me either. He has no faults himself so he likes to point them out in other people." Billy still looked a bit disgruntled in that way that intelligent kids get when adults casually patronize them, so Elizabeth continued, "do you want to know how I cope with that?" Billy nodded at her, "my courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me. It just makes me want to prove them wrong."
"Yeah! I’m going to train Carter so good that he’ll get one of those vests and I’ll be able to take him everywhere with me!"
"Alright!" Lizzie said, holding up her hand for a high five, "but he’ll only be able to go places when he’s working." Billy’s eyes dimmed a bit, so Elizabeth continued, "how about you train him up as an emotional support animal, then you can take him to hospitals and cheer up all of the sick kids?"
Billy got excited again, "yeah! When my brother got sick and had to go to the hospital for a whole week he was homesick, I think the kids there could use a puppy friend!"
"That’s the spirit! I can get you some books to read." At that moment, Mrs. Lucas pulled up and honked for Billy to leave. He made his hasty goodbyes and as he walked away, Darcy held out his hand to help Elizabeth up.
"I never claimed that I had no faults."
Elizabeth laughed, "perhaps not, but you do your best to hide them behind stubborn authority."
"Sure, to some extent, but I will happily walk home today with grass stains on my knees not caring that I look like a mess. It’s taken you four weeks to appropriately dress down for the dog park – nice shirt, by the way, J. Crew?" Elizabeth couldn’t help but throw one more barb.
"Under Armor, I found it in my exercise room." Of course! Why else would one wear a tee-shirt? Elizabeth silently completed the sentence for him. Darcy didn’t seem to pick up on the fact that she was teasing him, so he continued on their former thread of conversation. "I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding.
"After telling 8 year old Billy Lucas that only service dogs were truly accomplished I would contest that."
"Ok, so I’ll admit that I don’t always understand social cues and my temper I dare not vouch for. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself."
“That is a failing indeed!” cried Elizabeth, "but you’ve only confirmed what I said to poor Billy. Perhaps if you perceive our faults as only ’follies’ and ’vices’ you see no problem pointing them out, but that doesn’t hurt us any less."
"It was not maliciously done at any rate. I think we all have a tendency to some natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”
Elizabeth noted that he never contradicted her assertion that he didn’t approve of her anymore than he approved of Billy Lucas. She was infuriated that even as he admitted to some faults, he justified them rather than simply apologizing. “And your defect is to hate everybody.”
“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.” Elizabeth just shook her head at the pompous jerk and ran out to play with her dogs.
Elizabeth was caught in the soothing repetition of throwing sticks in four slightly different directions for each of her girls when Lydia suddenly veered off course. She had retrieved her stick – a twig really in the case of the chihuahua – and started back towards Elizabeth as she’d done a dozen times that day when something, or rather someone, caught her eye and she ran off in another direction. Elizabeth watched as her youngest pranced up, dropped her stick, and preened in front of a gorgeous man in ripped jeans and a tee-shirt that were speckled with paint spatter. The pitbull* beside him gave a low growl, but the guy just chuckled and replied: "Easy there Killer, that’s no way to greet the ladies."
As Elizabeth ran over to intervene – and thus stopped throwing sticks – her whole pack followed her to greet the new arrivals. "I’m sorry about Lydia, she’s quite the little flirt."
"No problem, I like it when women know what they want and go for it."
Elizabeth laughed and held out her hand, "I’m Elizabeth."
"George," he flashed her a smile as he took her hand, "and this here’s Killer."
"It’s a pleasure to meet you," Elizabeth bent and offered her hand to Killer and he obediently put his paw in it. "This is Jane, Mary, Kitty, and of course you’ve met Lydia."
They passed several minutes exchanging witty banter and small talk and Elizabeth couldn’t help but compare him to her other recent dog park companion. George was lively, funny, flirtatious, and laid back whereas Darcy was stiff, taciturn, judgmental and formal. The two men clashed in her mind as perfect opposites. As if her mental tally had conjured him to life, Darcy came through the park gate at that moment and started in her direction but stopped dead in his tracks when he made eye contact with George.
Elizabeth watched in astonishment as the color seemed to fade out of George’s face and into Darcy’s. They stood there in that odd pantomime of a wild west standoff – staring contemptuously at each other from the distance of ten paces – until Killer returned with a stick that Elizabeth had thrown, dropped it at her feet, and barked at her inattention. Darcy’s expression shifted from anger to something closer to panic.
Darcy was smiling as he stepped out of his car that day and looking forward to soaking up the sunshine of Elizabeth’s smiles. Sure, he’d hit a stumbling block with the whole ’accomplishments’ conversation last week, but he was ready to play along and help Billy train the dogs if need be. as he entered the gate, he barely gave a second thought that Elizabeth wasn’t alone, assuming it was the kid again. He’d cleared about half of the distance between them when the man stood up and Darcy could see that sickeningly familiar smile.
He stopped, glaring at his former friend, and tried to contain the rage that was boiling inside him. Somehow Wickham was here ... with Elizabeth. He was again utterly unprepared for that man’s reappearance in his life, and yet had the sinking realization that he shouldn’t be surprised. Wickham had tried to take away every other source of joy in his life, of course he would somehow find Elizabeth too.
His intense focus on his nemesis was broken by a dog bark and a surge of adrenaline surged through him. He could still hear Georgiana’s scream and see the blood running down her arm. That same dog was standing in front of his Elizabeth and she had no idea. "Elizabeth, could I speak to you for a moment?" He tried to keep his tone even as he beckoned her over. Elizabeth rolled her eyes but complied.
"You should stay away from that dog, he can be dangerous!"
He could tell it was the wrong thing to say as her pretty eyes danced with agitation, "don’t give me any of that ’bully breed’ bullshit! Pitbulls are sweet dogs under the care of a loving household."
Darcy gave a snide laugh, "Wickham’s not a loving caregiver."
"George has been nothing but kind to me," she snapped back, and he pushed back the pang of regret he felt at the emphasis she’d placed on that scoundrel’s name. "And despite his name so far Killer has been a friendly playmate to the girls."
He remembered how that dog had a friendly demeanor right up until he was angered or startled. "Oh yes, he’s very good at making friends – whether he’s equally capable of retaining them is less certain."
"And what do you have to accuse him of?"
"I ..." Darcy battled with himself, he had been the one to insist on the non-disclosure as part of the settlement in order to protect Pemberley, but he also couldn’t bear to see Elizabeth hurt. In the end, his duty to his company and his sister won out and he sighed, "he’s just not the kind of dog you should let your dogs associate with."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and replied sarcastically, "Oh! In that case, I see what a monster he is. I’ll break cut all communications at once."
Darcy stared at her silently seething for another minute, frustrated that she couldn’t just trust him on this. Seeing no other option, he threw a final warning glare at Wickham, turned on his heel, and stormed away. He made it to the gate before he finally remembered Bingley, who had immediately nuzzled up to Jane, and called for his dog. Bingley spent a moment looking between his owner and Jane whining before he reluctantly followed Darcy out of the park.
Elizabeth shook her head at Darcy’s retreating back, then returned to George. "Sorry about that tantrum, Darcy’s not used to not getting his own way."
"I’m well aware," George scoffed.
"What’s his deal with you anyway?"
He hesitated, looked at her cautiously and asked, "how well do you know Darcy?"
"Not well, he shows up here every Wednesday at four like clockwork, stands around awkwardly, and doesn’t play with the dogs."
George laughed, "sounds about right. He was normal enough as a kid, but he became a stuck up jackass in high school and never looked back on us mere mortals."
"You knew him as a kid?" Elizabeth’s interest was already peaked.
"Yeah, my dad was a senior partner at Pemberley and we grew up together. After my dad died, old Mr. Darcy even fostered me until the end of high school. We used to be good friends, if you can believe it."
"What on earth happened?"
"Well, Darcy was always a bit weird, but in high school everyone sorts into groups, you know? Darcy was the nerdy loaner and – not to brag – but I was popular, star athlete, prom king, the whole nine yards." Elizabeth acknowledged the bragging, but could easily picture the two as teens. "Old Mr. Darcy loved me ... probably more than he loved his son even. After college, I was supposed to have a nice cushy job lined up for me at Pemberley, same as Darcy. He started us out in lower management, intended us to ’work our way up the ladder’ to avoid accusations of nepotism. Sadly, only few years after we’d started Mr. Darcy died in a car accident and suddenly William Darcy was the CEO and I never saw another promotion. Only about a year after that he manged to edge me out of the company completely then blacklist me in the financial sector. Which is why I’m now stuck working for a contractor painting houses," he gestured to the paint spattered clothes that Elizabeth had seen as such a contrast to Darcy.
"Can he even do that?" Elizabeth asked, enraged.
"As incredible as it may seem, finance is a small pond and Darcy is a big fish. There’s not much I can do." After George had completed his story, they’d resumed playing with the dogs mostly in silence and Elizabeth ruminated on all she’d learned. Elizabeth was shocked, she’d known Darcy was a stuck up, self-centered snob but she’d never thought him that petty. But what reason would Wickham have to make up the story? And he had given all of the details so clearly and with such a genuine earnestness. Besides, she’d given Darcy a chance to tell his side of the story and his silence spoke volumes. If even he could not defend himself, she felt no need to make up excuses for him.
*Author’s Note: I don’t want to play into the demonizing of bully breeds, pitbulls can be some of the sweetest and most loyal and loving pets. However, bad people do often buy bully breeds and train them to be mean, and that is a stereotype that Elizabeth can assume that Darcy’s making when he warns her away from him similar to the class issue highlighted in the novel. I thought that was the best way to pull Wickham’s misdeeds into a story about dogs.
Elizabeth was going through some training techniques with Billy when Jane alerted her to the presence of nobody’s favorite stick in the mud. She didn’t understand why he kept showing up at the dog park at the same time as her week after week. He didn’t actually play with the dogs, his conversation was stilted at best, and he obviously disdained those around him. Her best guess was that if Elizabeth and her dogs played with Bingley and wore him out, Darcy wouldn’t have to go through the hassle himself. After the way he’d treated George, she wouldn’t put a little casual neglect past him. She hoped that when the human Bingley got back he would be more caring, the poor dog deserved to have at least one loving owner.
Darcy managed to surprise her when he attempted to smooth over his previous blunder by asking Billy Lucas to give him some tips on training his dog. The three passed a somewhat awkward, but overall pleasant hour conversing and training the dogs.
Chapter 4: Puppy Party
Darcy watched as Elizabeth tapped her shoulders and Bingley jumped up and put his paws there like a hug. It was a cute trick that he had little need for his dog to learn but Billy was convinced that it was important for an emotional support dog, and as Bingley was the only of their dogs large enough to do it he’d went along with it. He couldn’t deny that he appreciated the way Elizabeth smiled when the dog had finally caught on. Billy repeated the command and Bingley happily hopped up for him with his tail wagging and a slight whine as Billy was slow with the clicker and treat.
"It’s your turn," Elizabeth said to him after Bingley’s paws were all on the ground once again, "he is your dog, after all."
He tapped his shoulders, but as he was far taller than his two companions the dog’s paws landed somewhat uncomfortably lower on his chest. He grimaced at the muddy pawprints on his shirt and was grateful that he’d followed Elizabeth’s guidance on his clothing. The dog saw the look of disappointment on his face and ran off to join Jane. Billy, not wanting to be left alone with the grown ups, ran after them as well.
"Oh no, it looks like we’ve taught your dog a trick that you won’t have much use for. I don’t suppose that Bingley the person is much shorter?" Elizabeth asked.
"Charles?" He asked, somewhat confused what his friend’s height had to do with anything. "He’s a bit shorter than I am, but still rather tall compared to his canine counterpart. Don’t worry though, Georgiana is about your height and she’ll love this trick."
"Georgiana?" Elizabeth asked. He took momentary pleasure in the look of confusion and, dare he hope, jealousy that crossed her face before he reminded himself that she was not the type of woman he could date.
Is this a girlfriend? What happened to the absent boyfriend? Elizabeth thought, trying to sort it out in her mind.
"My sister, she’s twenty, a musicology student, and totally enamored of this dog." Elizabeth nodded in comprehension.
"Do you get to see her often?"
"Daily, in fact." A joke about the snobby investment banker still living with his parents was at the tip of her tongue when she noticed the dark look that crossed his brow and silenced her. "I’ve been her guardian since our parents died in a car accident five years ago."
"Oh God, I’m so sorry," Elizabeth murmured, reaching out to grasp his arm in sympathy. Somehow in George’s version of the story, Elizabeth had failed to remember the emotional impact of Darcy losing his father and hadn’t realized he’d lost both parents.
"Thank you," he said softly, staring at the junction where her hand met his arm. "It’s been a long road since then, but at least we have each other."
Elizabeth never knew what to say in these situations. ’I’m sorry’ didn’t seem to cover the gravity of the situation, ’condolences’ seemed too formal, and she didn’t have any personal experience to relate it to. She was nearly ready to spout off something formulaic from a greeting card when Bingley bounded up and diffused the tension by jumping to put his paws on Elizabeth’s shoulders, nearly knocking her over. She grabbed on to the dog and fought to maintain her balance.
"It looks like you’re dancing!" Billy said as he ran up to them.
"It’s just like a night at the club, fighting to remain upright while an unsteady guy paws at me." Billy laughed even though the joke sailed over his head. Darcy scowled rather than laugh. Trying to diffuse the tension, Elizabeth scolded the dog: "Bingley, you’ve got to learn consent, you’re only supposed to hug someone when they give you permission."
"Lizzy!" Billy said excitedly, "can we have a puppy party? I’m sure Mary wants to sing!"
Darcy raised an eyebrow at her in question. "Mary sings along whenever there’s a tune, then all of the other dogs get excited ... it’s a party," she explained with a shrug.
As she pushed Bingley down, Elizabeth thought for a moment, searching for a song with a lot of high, sustained notes. Then she turned towards Mary, who was curled up under a tree and began the first lines of Adele:
"I heard that you’re settled down,
That you found a girl and you’re married now." Mary’s head shot up and she started wagging her tail.
Darcy stared in amazement. Elizabeth’s singing perhaps wasn’t the most accomplished, but it was sweet and lively and he was entranced.
"I heard that your dreams came true..." When she hit that last note, Mary started a low whine and the other dogs started to run up close.
"Never mind, I’ll find someone like you ..." Elizabeth played up the extended note into something closer to a howl and Mary began howling outright.
"I wish nothing but the best for you, too ..." By the second line of the chorus Bingley and Jane had joined in. Lydia ran around with Carter, ’dancing’ excitedly. Billy knelt down and grabbed Kitty’s front paws gently and started dancing with her while she howled. Elizabeth was dancing along now as well.
"I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited," Elizabeth looked at him and beckoned him to join the fun.
"But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it..." He found the words of the song rather fitting to his situation and joined the fray, dancing close to Elizabeth as she sang.
"Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.
I wish nothing but the best for you, too.
"Don’t forget me," I beg, "I’ll remember," you said.
Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.
Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead."
As Elizabeth sang the last rendition of the chorus, Darcy realized that he was falling way deeper into Elizabeth’s charms than the casual flirtation he’d intended. As her voice wavered off their eyes met and they stood there for a moment, his hand lingering on the small of her back, both slightly breathless. He felt himself being drawn in and had little will to stop it.
"Look at Jane and Bingley!" Billy Lucas shouted, shattering that fragile moment. The two dogs were nuzzling each other sweetly. "Are they boyfriend and girlfriend?" the boy asked Elizabeth.
"Ah yes, puppy love," she responded, laughing.
Billy looked at them and asked in the unthinking manner of a child, "are you boyfriend and girlfriend?" Darcy felt like he’d been doused with cold water and his hand fell from her back as he took a step away.
"No!" Elizabeth answered quickly.
"But he only comes here when you’re here, and he only talks to you, and he danced with you ..." Darcy took another step back. This – questions, expectations, labels – this was exactly what he didn’t want with Elizabeth. This had slipped farther than his weekly dose of smiles and banter.
Elizabeth was about to respond when Lydia grabbed one of Carter’s toys and ran off with it, the beagle growled and ran after her and Billy and Elizabeth took off after the pair to mediate. In the ensuing chaos Darcy called for Bingley and left the dog park quietly. He knew that he was on the edge of something, and if he wanted to maintain his own equilibrium he would have to put an end to his trips to Netherfield.