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"I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry." Elizabeth Bennet's furious response to Mr. Darcy's marriage proposal in Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice has resonated for generations of readers. But what if she never had a chance to say it? Would she learn to recognize Mr. Darcy's admirable qualities on her own? The Last Man in the World follows Elizabeth and Darcy as they struggle to find their way through the maze of their prejudices after Elizabeth, against her better judgment, agrees to marry Darcy instead of saying those famous words. Two of the most beloved characters in English literature explore the meaning of true love on a tumultuous journey to make a success of their marriage. THE PEMBERLEY VARIATIONS by Abigail Reynolds is a series of novels exploring the roads not taken in Pride & Prejudice.
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Abigail Reynolds is a physician and a lifelong Jane Austen enthusiast. She began writing The Pride and Prejudice Variations series in 2001, and encouragement from fellow Austen fans convinced her to continue asking "What if...?" She lives with her husband and two teenage children in Madison, Wisconsin.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpt from Chapter One:
"In a moment, when we leave the trees, you will be able to see the house," said Mr. Darcy. "There it is, across the valley—Pemberley House."
Elizabeth smiled at him dutifully, then looked out the window of the carriage to where he was pointing. The house was large and handsome, even at this distance, and its situation on a rising hill above the water was lovely. Of course, she had expected as much, having heard its praises sung by Miss Bingley as well as Darcy himself. In other circumstances, she might have been delighted by it.
She became aware that his eyes were upon her awaiting her response. Obediently, she turned to him and said, "It is lovely, sir. I do not believe I have ever seen a house more fortunately situated."
His face warmed with pleasure, and Elizabeth hurriedly looked out the window again, pretending to examine the nearer aspects of the house as they drove along a stream which wound its way downhill. There was no denying the beauty of the park. It would be some consolation to have such fine-looking grounds to wander through whenever she wished.
The driver called out to the horses as they pulled up in front of the house. Darcy stepped out immediately, then turned to offer his hand to Elizabeth. She placed her own upon it, accepting his support as she stepped down, then allowed him to bring her hand to his lips for an intimate caress.
There was no point, after all, in pretending he did not have the right or that he had not spent the previous night taking every imaginable liberty with her body. She had no reason to complain; he had been kind and gentle, but after a second long day of travel, her spirits were flagging, and she found the pretence of happiness more difficult to sustain.
He did not release her hand, and eventually she glanced up at him to find a slight smile upon his lips. "Welcome to Pemberley, Mrs. Darcy," he said with evident satisfaction. To Elizabeth's relief, the rooms and furnishings of Pemberley house showed more restraint and true elegance than she had expected. She had tried to imagine living in an even grander and ore ostentatious version of Rosings; at least her surroundings would be more pleasant than that. It demonstrated more good taste on Mr. Darcy's part than she would have anticipated. In all fairness, she had to admit there had been no reason to think he lacked taste beyond the garishness of his aunt's residence. Nothing about his appearance, from his frock coats to his horses, was ever lacking. She schooled herself to remember how little she knew this man who was her husband. It was imperative that she learn to grant him the benefit of the doubt if they were not both to be unhappy.
She was greeted respectfully by the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds. The household appeared to be excellently managed; she could have no complaints in that regard. The servants were deferential without being obsequious, and Darcy appeared genuinely glad to see some of them.
Finally, he asked if she would like to see her rooms. Hoping for the chance to refresh herself, she agreed and followed him through a maze of corridors to a large, well-lit suite. Darcy closed the door behind them and took her into his arms. It was something she had become accustomed to, and in general it no longer made her uncomfortable, but after the intimacies of the previous night, it felt like an intrusion. She would learn to bear it.
If only she could have a few minutes to herself! She had barely been out of his company since she walked into the church the previous day. It was a long time to play the role of the contented wife without an intermission.
Finally, in desperation, she suggested to him that she needed a little rest, and he reluctantly departed, promising to see her shortly at dinner. As the door closed, leaving her alone at last, her façade visibly collapsed, her shoulders slumping in despair. Surely this would become easier with time. She lay down on the bed—larger than any she had ever slept in before—to which she was supposed to welcome her new husband. Tears of loneliness and fatigue slipped down her face.
How had her life come to this? If only she had paid more attention to Darcy's puzzling behaviour when they first met and then later at Rosings, perhaps she might have prevented it. But that was useless speculation. There was nothing left but to make the best of it.
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