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Tanya's "A Singular Proposition" is a Regency adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. A what-if in which Darcy doesn't offer to Elizabeth upon their meeting in Kent, but where there's a turn of events resulting in a highly romantic, passionate, compelling tale you will adore.


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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

A Singular Proposition

Chapter 1

It had to be the saddest wedding in the world, Elizabeth Bennett reflected. All the more so, because of the bride's goodness and her forced circumstances. Because the bride, a lovely, good-hearted, clever blonde, deserved a very different wedding-and a very different husband.

As far as Elizabeth was concerned, her sister Jane deserved the Moon and Prince Charming on bended knee.

But, as her circumstances went, Jane, the oldest daughter of an impoverished gentry family was forced to marry a man of mean circumstances and a meaner character; a man so wholly unworthy of her it made her favorite younger sister shudder and shake with fury. All to help the family and to save their estate of Longbourn, entailed, through the malevolence of some long-deceased uncle, away from the family of five daughters.

Jane accepted her plight with admirable-and insufferable-resignation. She had resolved herself to be content with her situation; after all, her fiance, Mr. William Collins, was an eminently respectable man, living under the patronage of the very wealthy and grand Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And so great was his attachment to Lady Catherine that he had announced, at dinner three nights ago, that he would be glad to have the Bennett family remain at Longbourn for an indefinite stretch of time-all because he loathed to leave the good lady's side.

"After all," he said one night at supper, "I hope to be so fortunate as to retain the favor of my great patroness for years to come."

Elizabeth ground her teeth. "And what," she asked a little too shrilly, "what if you should lose it, Mr. Collins?"

"Lizzy!" her mother hissed, swatting her arm with a napkin. "Why should you say such a thing, girl?"

Mr. Collins straightened out in his seat and mopped his bloodless lips with the corner of his napkin.

"Indeed, Miss Elizabeth," he said shakily, "I am all astonishment as to why you should suggest such a dreary possibility! There is nothing I cherish more in this world than Lady Catherine's kind favor. To lose it would be most terrible."

"One would think," Elizabeth murmured into her plate, "that there were people in this world whose favor you valued slightly higher-your wife's, for one!"

"Pardon?" Mr. Collins asked, with no little hint of irritation in his voice.

"No, 'tis nothing, sir," Elizabeth looked up from her plate, smiling pleasantly. "I am certain that your enviable position with Lady Catherine should endure, and I wish it so, very much-if only for the sake of my sister."

He smiled broadly, showing some rather poor teeth, and raised his eyes to the skies.

"Indeed," he mused, out loud, "I do not see why a lady as illustrious as Lady Catherine has chosen to bestow her attention at someone so wholly inferior as myself, but the truth remains, she has been the kindest and most solicitous patroness one can aspire to have!"

"Of course," Elizabeth murmured, "if one aspires to have a patroness to begins with." But thankfully, Mr. Collins did not hear this little barb; and if he did, we can safely assume that the sentiment expressed would hardly be understandable to him.

If nothing else, Elizabeth was a very decent human being. A clever girl, she had always found solace in books and contemplation. But that night, sitting on the windowsill in her room, gazing steadfastly at the moon, she did nothing to down the feelings of bitterness and resentment that at the moment invaded her heart. If asked who or what was the subject of her anger, so very irrational-the cruel system of entail, which rendered daughters penniless in favor of distant male cousins, or her father, perhaps, who had not saved for them, so as to prevent the necessarily ignoble pecuniary marriages to men so beneath them, or her mother, who spent money so indiscriminately-she would probably name herself as a main culprit. For most of all, she ached at her own inability to help her sister. If only she could find employment-make herself useful! But the only employment possibly available to her would be that of a governess, and that hardly paid enough to provide for a family of six ladies; in addition, she knew of no family in Hertfordshire in need of a governess, and she could not imagine giving an advertisement.

"Oh," she half-growled, half-sighed in frustration, before striking the window-frame lightly with her fist. "What ignominy!"

There was a light scraping at the door, and Elizabeth bade the visitor come in. It was Jane, of course; hardly a night passed that the two sisters did not congregate in one bedroom or another, to discuss the day that had passed, the books they had read, or to simply talk-about life, their future, their dreams.

Dreams, which at the moment, were so drastically curtailed.

"Lizzy!" Jane climbed on the bed and pulled her knees tightly against her chest. She was wearing, over a long nightshift, a daintily painted shawl Elizabeth had embroidered to her for her eighteenth birthday. Elizabeth despised embroidery; and for no other person in the world would she have undertaken so daunting a task. "Oh, darling, pray don't look so sad-you are breaking my heart."

Elizabeth swept off the windowsill. "I am not sad," she said, curtly. "I am simply... I am incensed, that is what I am!"

"Why, dearest Lizzy?"

"Because I cannot bear see how gladly you stand to sacrifice yourself-and how gaily Mama has acquiesced to your sacrifice!"

Jane regarded her dark-haired sister with such prodigious love in her eyes, the latter was almost moved to weep (but she rarely cried, and hardly ever in the presence of others).

"Oh, Lizzy," Jane whispered sweetly, patting the bed next to herself. "Come sit with me," she said, scuttling over to the side. Elizabeth walked back over to the bed and climbed on top of it, sitting herself in a manner similar to her sister's, with knees pulled up tight and in a girlish fashion. "Lizzy, it is hardly a sacrifice," Jane said.

"Do not be disingenuous with me," Elizabeth snapped. "I'll not take it from you! Can you say, in all honesty, that, that-that that man is not abhorrent to you?"

Jane sighed, looking away. "I try not to think this way," she whispered. "If I do, I'll hardly bear it myself! Lizzy, do you not see? My only solace is in convincing myself that my situation is not altogether so bad. After all, I am to marry a respectable man-" she threw a reproachful glance at Elizabeth who had rolled her eyes disdainfully. "-and you know not what joy it gives me to be able to help my family."

Elizabeth, who knew her sister very well and cherished what she knew about Jane, had to consider that. Jane was the kindest person of Elizabeth's acquaintance; to her, the knowledge that she was considerably easing her beloved family's lot would be a solace, indeed.

"And you, my love," Jane sat, throwing her arms around Elizabeth, "should find comfort in knowing that I am not altogether unhappy. And you simply must come and visit me!"

"Oh Jane," Elizabeth sighed, laying her head upon her sister's shoulder. "I only wish I could help you. I only wish I could help all of us."

And today, on the day of the wedding, she wished that most of all. She was, of course, the bridesmaid, and, standing next to Jane in church, wished sorely that it was not Mr. Collins on the other side of her sister, but someone worthy of her-someone kind, someone intelligent, someone truly respectable-not so much by the society at large, but by Elizabeth's own heart.

But they were poor, and if they were to lose Longbourn, they would be left in the most desperate of circumstances. And so, it was not to be.

Later, as they were saying good-bye to the newlyweds after an absurdly short wedding breakfast ("I should like to stay very much," Mr. Collins said, sounding awfully important, "but I am most eager to introduce the new Mrs. Collins to my excellent patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh!"), Jane drew Elizabeth aside and the two held each other.

"Promise me," Jane said, sounding somewhat stifled, "promise me, Lizzy, that you will come to visit."

"Oh, I promise," Elizabeth replied fervently. "Soon as may be."

"Then I shall wait for you," Jane whispered into her sister's hair. It was not said, but both knew: she would live for her sister's visit.

As the wedding carriage drew away, Mrs. Bennett said, finally lowering her handkerchief, and sounding very pleased. "Now, that is an agreeable match! God has been very good to us!"

Elizabeth, who could not abide such willful blindness, said nothing, but begged to be excused.

Chapter 2

The winter passed in contemplation and reading. Elizabeth, like she never had before, sought solitude within her own home-for she found she had not realized how much she had relied both on her father and Jane amidst the sea of silliness that was the rest of her family. She was missing her father's wry wit and Jane's calming presence; to be sure, she loved her mother and her younger sisters, but perhaps not enough to constantly close her eyes at their continued lack of decorum and their remarkable ability to maintain a deafening level of noise at any given moment. Elizabeth's mother never said anything, except to bemoan their sad situation, praise Mr. Collins or blame her late husband for everything. Neither Lydia, nor Kitty ever spoke about anything but clothes and officers and dances, and whined and whined to their mother about new toilettes for the balls (which infuriated Elizabeth in particular, since she knew that they had barely enough money to keep Cook and Hill). Mary, on her part, only opened her mouth to chide or moralize; and Elizabeth found that her patience ran extremely short these days.

Her uneasiness in her own home was one of the reasons Elizabeth rejoiced when her mother finally gave in and allowed her to visit Jane in Kent. She was aghast, of course, at the idea of her daughter going by a post coach, and all alone, at that (for she could not imagine what Lady Lucas would say if the news of such an indiscretion), but since they had to give up their carriage after Mr. Bennett's demise, there was nothing further to be said on the subject. And so, on the first warm day in March-for she found she could not tarry even another hour-Elizabeth took off for Kent. Gladly so, for her second reason was that had missed Jane dearly that winter; and she could not wait to see her most beloved sister.

The road passed her in a daze, and so, Elizabeth was rewarded when at last the coach stopped in front of Mr. Collins' cottage at Hunsford. She saw Jane run out of the house, Mr. Collins in her wake ("My dear! Do wait! It is most unladylike to break into a run! What would Her Ladyship say?!"), and, without waiting for anyone to help her out, pushed the door open, jumped off the step and ran to throw her arms about her sister.

"Oh, Lizzy, my Lizzy!" Jane cried, as the two embraced and twirled a bit in the middle of a path. Mr. Collins then approached, breathing heavily and perspiring, even though the day was hardly warm. Elizabeth had not known how wonderful it would be to see Jane again: she could not stop touching her sister, would not give up her hand, would not let Jane leave her to rest.

"I am not tired," she said, insisting that Jane stay and sit with her. "Sit with me while you can."

(They were left alone, finally, by Mr. Collins, after a hissed admonition to Jane to join him in the garden to welcome Miss de Bourgh as she passed through Hunsford on her way from her morning ride, as Lady Catherine said she would; Jane had promised, faithfully, to come down as soon as she made Lizzy comfortable.)

"Why does this woman need anyone to welcome her, if she merely passes through?"

Jane shrugged. "I doubt she does, in all truth. She is quite unassuming and quiet. Much fuss is made over her-after all, she is the heiress to her mother's estate. I highly suspect that she would rather people just let her be."

"Ah, well, then you better go," Elizabeth said, eyeing her sister curiously. "Go, and come back up to sit with me."

"I have a minute," Jane said, sitting down on the edge of the bed; Elizabeth lay atop the covers, curled up, on her side. "Oh Lizzy, you know not how good it is to see you again," Jane said, smiling. "Tell me of home, is there any news?"

The biggest news was that the flowers they had planted over their father's grave had burst through, in all their springtime glory-bright yellow daffodils and royal purple irises.

" 'Tis very bright, very happy," Elizabeth sighed. "Hardly looks like a grave at all."

"He would have liked that," Jane said quietly.

Elizabeth knew that: she had chosen the bulbs carefully the previous autumn, dismissing the paler flowers in favor of those that seemed to celebrate life and the love they had carried for their father.

But as to the rest, there were hardly any news. Mrs. Bennett was weathering the second year of her mourning not better than she did the first, daily lamenting her sad fate of living within moments of expulsion from her own home.

Jane's blue eyes misted with sadness. "I do wish I could offer her any assurances that it would never happen," she murmured.

"If it did," Elizabeth said harshly, "it would hardly be your fault. You have sacrificed for all of us already. I think it very wrong of her to speak like she does," she added, "for it was her immoderacy that has so contributed to our present situation!"

Jane well-nigh crimsoned at such harsh words, and Elizabeth, however indisposed to niceties at the moment, took pity upon her sister and turned then to the subject of their three sisters; sadly, that topic hardly proved more satisfactory. Fortunately for Elizabeth, who felt awful about distressing Jane (who was, by her sister's standards, far too easily distressed), Jane suddenly remembered Miss De Bourgh's imminent arrival and dashed downstairs, promising to come back.

Some minutes later, Elizabeth stood by the window, watching a rather elegant barouche, pulled by a pair of handsome grays, stop by the front door, and Mr. Collins race to welcome whomever was inside. She wondered if he did that every day this woman passed through Hunsford; and she felt sharp pity for her sister, who stood behind her husband, huddling against the spring wind, pulling her shawl tighter about her shoulders. At one moment, Jane looked up at the window and gave a small wave; but the next second, she turned back and curtsied, saying something to the owner of a thin, white hand that was extended, mercifully, for Mr. Collins to bow over.

Elizabeth returned to bed; her joy at seeing her beloved sister was quickly replaced by her loathing of Mr. Collins and her dull irritation at their circumstances. Wouldst that it were different, she thought; wouldst that Jane was married for love (for Elizabeth knew, from their long conversations in her or Jane's bedchamber, that to marry for love, to marry a man worthy of loving, had been her sister's dearest wish). For herself, she cared little; if she could not marry an agreeable man, she would not sacrifice herself to someone like Mr. Collins. Solitude and spinsterhood were certainly preferable, she thought archly.

Jane soon returned and sat with her awhile longer. Elizabeth did not ask her about her life with Mr. Collins; for she did not wish to make her sister unhappy. Instead, she opened her arms, and Jane came to lay her head against her shoulder; and Elizabeth, to her anger and consternation, felt wetness on her hand as she touched Jane's cheek.

It was most terrible: as Jane's body was wracked with weeping, Elizabeth felt ready to cry herself; but it would hardly help her sister. A whirlwind of emotions captured her, the most prominent being anger-at her parents for their carelessness, at her father for dying, at Jane for being such a martyr, but most of all, at herself, for being so utterly worthless.

"Oh Lord, I do so wish I could help you," she murmured, planting a fierce kiss on her sister's forehead.

Jane sniffed one last time and sat up, pulling her knees to her chest. "Forgive me, Lizzy. It was wrong of me to distress you. I am-" she sighed, shuddering slightly. "It is so good to have you here, after-"

She did not finish, but Elizabeth knew her meaning, perfectly. After having been alone and friendless for months. She clenched her teeth.

"Lizzy, you must not think me unhappy, for I am not. I am perfectly content."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes, knowing that Jane could be content with living among the cannibals; it did not mean that she had what she deserved. But it would do no good to upset her further; and so, still supine, Elizabeth raised her sister's hand to her lips and pressed a warm kiss upon it.

"Good," she said. "Good, Jane, splendid."

Jane swung herself off the bed and leaned to cover Elizabeth with a plaid.

"Sleep, Lizzy," she said and headed for the door. "Oh," she added, turning around, "I well-nigh forgot! We are to take supper at Rosings Park tonight. Miss de Bourgh has extended an invitation."

~ * ~

The evening at Rosings Park was well advanced; it meant, Anne thought, that she had another hour or so of watching the Parson fawn on her mother. She detested the man, for he was excessively stupid and exceedingly false; and she could not understand, for the life of her, what pleasure her mother found in his compliments and obsequious attention. (Indeed, it was her mother's inclination to surround herself with people who were as insincere as they were stupid.) But her mother thought herself an expert in every area of human knowledge; and she loved to share her opinions, regardless of whether there was anyone there to listen-or care. But, Anne corrected herself, because of Lady Catherine's prominence and her wealth, there usually was-even if it was Mr. Collins.

From her corner of the room, saying little but hardly missing anything at all, Anne studied the tableau in front of her.

There was, of course, her mother, badgering the poor Mrs. Collins with impolitick questions and rude remarks (to the accompaniment of her husband's sycophantic neigh of a laughter). Anne felt true compassion for the poor unfortunate soul; for the lady was as kind as she was genteel-and while she, herself, had developed a bit of a thick skin to her mother's manner, she could see that the parson's pretty young wife was suffering cruelly.

And she was pretty; had Anne been any meaner, she would have detested the poor Mrs. Collins for the lovely gold of her hair, now covered-and, in Anne's opinion, ruined-by an exceedingly ugly lace cap, and her large violet eyes. But she had long accustomed herself to being the homeliest (thinnest, sickliest, grayest) girl in any room she entered; and it was a pity, indeed, that poor Jane Collins' beauty was wasted on a man like her husband.

Three more people were present in the room: her two cousins, Darcy and Fitzwilliam, and Mrs. Collins' younger sister, visiting from Hertfordshire. Looking first at the young woman, Anne could not but notice that Miss Elizabeth Bennett was pretty as well, though far plainer than her sister. Indeed, there was little resemblance, for, much like Mrs. Collins was fair and angelic, Miss Bennett was dark and, Anne noticed with delight, somewhat passionate; once or twice, when Lady Catherine's remarks on the fact that the sisters had no appreciable dowry surpassed all limits on incivility ("I am telling you, Mrs. Collins, you are quite fortunate to find a man like Mr. Collins, who would take you with but a shirt on your back!"), Anne noticed the dark lashes fly up and something fierce, and almost murderous flash in her dark eyes.

She resolved to meet this woman in private, away from her mother's nagging. For the girl seemed not only passionate, she was obviously clever and well-read; she had answered a question or two that Cousin Darcy lobbed at her (in his usual insufferable manner, Anne thought) with knowledge of the world and all requisite thoughtfulness.

"Miss Bennett, what do you think of Miss Austen's writings?" Anne said, speaking for the first time that evening. After all, there was nobody else to speak to that evening; Mrs. Collins, though as clever as her sister, was presently occupied by her mother, as was the agreeable Cousin Fitzwilliam (he, too, suffered, but it served him right, Anne thought, for he was the most dreadful sort about responding to her letters; and the biggest flirt in the world); and as to her Cousin Darcy, he had quitted their immediate company and stood by the window, hands clasped behind his back.

Anne's hands itched-so badly did she wish she could sneak up on him and pinch his arm. An insufferable bore, she thought, regarding his back-a broad back, which had well-nigh eclipsed all light coming through the window, a decidedly broad back, and smartly attired in an expensive coat. But a bore nonetheless. Her mother had declared the two to be betrothed, which was exceedingly embarrassing for Anne; Darcy had never been anything but a most casual of friends to her-and only because his good father had once given his wife's niece an open invitation to use his library (Lady Catherine found books to be an imprudent investment). Anne still remembered how the two of them had clashed over a volume of Tom Jones, the only one in the library; Darcy was scandalized and threatened to inform his father that she was reading books wholly inappropriate for a young lady; but Anne, knowing full well that he would never tell on her, snatched the book from his very hands and galloped away to a secluded corner-for she knew that neither would he follow her, chasing a girl through the corridors being far too undignified for his seventeen-year-old nature.

Over time, they had come to like each other more and more; and she found his letters from Cambridge to be informative of any new piece of literature that came out in London or Paris (and, unlike the Colonel's easy missives, always, meticulously, prompt). If anything, they were intellectual companions; she also envied him, for, an orphan, he was his own man and, despite his many responsibilities, possessed almost unfettered freedom. She suspected, of course, that Darcy, who had adored both his parents, would have gladly given up some of his freedom to have them back.

They were friends, if at all. Anne respected Darcy, though she thought him a bore. Not for a second was she impressed by his stiff manner, his unpleasant personality and his admittedly good looks-which were, she reflected, far too dark for her taste. And as to his money, well, she had plenty of her own, and it had hardly made her happy. As to Darcy's affections, they lay decidedly elsewhere; if anywhere at all, what with that dreary manner of staring he possessed. If she were a betting woman, Anne would, indeed, bet on the complete and utter failure of her mother's matrimonial plans.

Speaking of matrimonial plans, Anne thought, and turned back to Miss Bennett.

"So what do you think of our authoress Miss Austen?"

The girl's dark eyebrows met and her nose wrinkled.

"I do not like her-not what I have read of her," she said.

"Really? Why not? She is much acclaimed, you know."

"She writes well, of course," Miss Bennett said thoughtfully. "So there is talent. And her stories are, well, charming. But they always end happily."

"And that vexes you?" Anne smiled.

"Greatly," Miss Bennett said. "For in this world, most stories do not. And the happiness of Miss Austen's stories only serves to make the sadness of reality a little less bearable."

How most singular, Anne thought, noticing a fleeting glance Miss Bennett threw at her sister. "Well," she said thoughtfully, "perchance Miss Austen still has to write her greatest novel."

"Darcy!" Lady Catherine called from her position on the settee; Anne noticed that the poor, lovely Mrs. Collins expelled a quiet sigh of exasperation and relief. Anne's cousin turned from his position at the window, staring back at his aunt in his usual impudent manner:

"Darcy, what is it the Colonel tells me?"

"I have no knowledge, ma'am," Darcy said icily, "of what it is the Colonel tells you, since I haven't heard him utter a word for the last quarter of an hour."

Lady Catherine missed the barb entirely; but Anne noticed and rejoiced. At moments like this, she almost felt regretful that she and Darcy could never marry; for there was hardly another man in this world able to withstand her mother's detestable moralizing so well.

"So you will need to enlighten me, ma'am."

"You have dismissed Georgiana's governess?!"

"So I have."

"Why?" Lady Catherine inquired. Darcy gave a small shrug and walked to sit, leisurely, on the couch next to the Colonel.

"Because she was teaching my sister nothing but the most frivolous French manners."

"Well, I have told you that she would be in need of a good English governess."

"Well, Aunt, I do think she is a bit too old for a governess. Perhaps I ought to find her a companion."

He rose again, cut a curt bow, and retired to the next room; a second later, the quiet sounds of him torturing the piano-forte came out, making Anne flinch; but a thought, an idea, had lodged itself in her mind and would not let go. So, in another moment, she slipped from the room and joined Darcy at the pianoforte.

He was sitting at the instrument, the small bench ill-suited to fit his large, long-legged, broad-shouldered body. He was so exceedingly bad at it, Anne wondered who had bothered to teach him, and how long they had lasted.

"Oh, you have it all wrong!" she said, annoyed, and, leaning over, showed him a movement from Beethoven he could not quite master. "Look, this is how it goes-fa, la, la, ti-sharp... not ti, ti-sharp."

He repeated the movement with one hand, meandering, then looked up at her and smiled. "Thank you. I have been trying this one for days."

"Do move, please," Anne sidled over and sat down next to him. "You are hopeless at the piano-forte. You should sing instead, Cousin," she said. He gave her a look that meant he thought her quite insane for even suggesting this; but she shrugged and opened her music to a piece she liked.

"I have an idea," she said, as he watched, with poorly hidden envy, her lightly skimming hands. "You said you needed a companion for Georgiana."

"I did."

"Why not ask Mrs. Collins' sister?"

She threw a sideways glance at him. He stared back, seemingly in deep confusion.

"Mrs. Collins' sister?"

"Yes, Miss Elizabeth Bennett. The very woman who has just put your in your place as regards Diderot's philosophy."

He shrugged, looking pained. "Thank you, cousin, for meaning well, but-"

"She is certainly well-read-and in strained circumstances. Or so my mother tells me."

"Anne, I take Georgiana's education quite seriously," he said curtly. "For her companion, I should require someone truly accomplished-and not some silly country miss."

Anne shook her head, but continued to play. "I think you are too particular, Cousin. She is hardly silly. Look whom I have for a companion-Mrs. Jenkinson! And you would be doing a good deed, of which I know you are quite fond."

Sounding vexed, he spat out: "I am truly sorry for this woman's circumstances, but I am not in habit of providing for every impoverished spinster!"

"Pardon me."

The voice came from the side, deep and very, very angry. Incensed, rather. The keys of the piano-forte clanked rudely as Anne lost her bearing, messing up the piece. Darcy flew to his feet, both of them red in the face and staring, in deep shock, at the pretty young dark-haired woman, who was standing at the door.

"Pardon me," she repeated, "But Lady Catherine desires to see the two of you in her drawing-room."

With this, she turned on her heel and strode out, head held high. Anne turned to Darcy, about to say something; but he only held up one hand, demanding silence, and followed the incensed Miss Bennett back into his Aunt's clutches.

Chapter 3

With a jerk, Darcy sat up in bed.

Immediately, he knew that the "jerk" part of it was a grave error. With a quiet moan, he descended back upon the pillows.

His head was filled with pins, each of which, he would swear, was turned about by a gnome, miniscule, yet evil. At present, he had two tasks: to orient himself within the hazily familiar surroundings; and to remember what he had done the previous night, so as to be suffering so cruelly this morning.

The answer to his first query was that he was, clearly, somewhere other than Pemberley. This could take him to only a limited number of places, for he was rather fastidious about his sleeping arrangements. Having made the necessary calculus in what had to be a terribly swollen brain, Darcy deduced that he was not at his London townhouse; nor was he at his Uncle's at Matlock. This left, with reasonable certainty, only one locale. Darcy sank deeper against the pillows and issued a weak groan.

He was at Rosings.

Not only was he tortured by a most cruel headache, he would have to endure it in the presence of his ranting, disapproving aunt. Disapproving of what? he asked himself in his early morning stupor; of everything, was the answer, of anything. Perhaps, his aunt was biologically incapable of having a good disposition. His cousin Anne would also be there, snickering into her tea; as would Fitzwilliam, simpering, and so obviously and clearly without a headache. Seriously, Darcy considered not going down. If only his Aunt weren't sure to be at his doors, should he miss breakfast!

He groaned again. He could not imagine the ridicule he would have to endure from Fitzwilliam, should he miss breakfast because of a weak head.

Ah, Fitzwilliam. Here was the answer to his second question-how he came to be so ill this morning. Fitzwilliam. Library. Brandy. Library. Brandy. Fitzwilliam. The bastard, ten years in the Army, could drink a bucket and wake up clear-headed, Darcy thought jealously.

It took an inhuman effort on Darcy's part, but he did heave himself off the bed and reached for the bell-pull, calling for his valet. If he were to make an appearance at breakfast, he had to look like it cost him nothing.

He did make an appearance, but before, he had soaked, for a long time, in a bathtub hauled, on his rasping orders, into his dressing-room. Floating docilely amidst the steam, Darcy felt his headache let up; nevertheless, he was certain that the pain, greatly subdued, would accompany him for the rest of that day.

Hang Fitzwilliam, he thought, and hang him, if he even considered drinking with Fitzwilliam again.

Which brought him to the next question: why had he been drinking with Fitzwilliam last night? Though he hardly cared what was said about him, Darcy was his own strictest judge. It would not do for him to drink-clearly not more so than hew as able to handle; the thought of losing control over himself, of not being the master of his own actions, of seeming-being!-ridiculous was insufferable to him. So utterly deplorable it was to him, it usually served to nip in the bud any desire to drink beyond a glass of wine at dinner, at home or at White's.

So Darcy was forced to admit it to himself: last night, he reached for the bottle to quiet his uneasy conscience-and something else as well. For the same woman whose fine, lively, dark eyes had made him so uneasy last night, as she stood in the doorway, glaring, her anger shaming and troubling him, that same woman's image came back later, as he sat, with Fitzwilliam, brooding over his ungentlemanly behavior and wondering whether to apologize and remind her of his unkindness (for his words were unkind, indeed), or to simply let it be, pretending that nothing had happened. He did not imagine that she would be merciful to him; on the contrary, he foresaw a confrontation.

Suddenly, his blood had boiled. He had noticed her before, of course, and had found her figure comely and her eyes unusually fine, but the truth was, she was there with that abominable obsequious parson and his irritating mouse of a wife, and he had simply refused to give her another thought. There was nothing in common between them; they might as well be separated by an ocean.

But then, Anne had tempted him, and he had said those words, words that he would never have said, had he not been so angry, and tired, and annoyed at having been dragged in to spend three days at Rosings (but-she was his aunt, after all, and though he disliked her personally, he still had some kinship feelings that needed to be satisfied, mainly, guilt; and Anne was there, and it was good to see her-usually, that is, when the little shrew did not bate him in such an infamous manner!).

And, shocked, he had seen true ire in her eyes. She had held up her chin and her words had been short, clipped, contemptuous, as if she did not even care to hide her anger.

No woman of society had ever looked at him like this. Ire, he thought, passion. He could not believe himself, but the thought of staring again in Elizabeth Bennet's fiery eyes had aroused him terribly. The very thought of facing her, speaking with her, and even being the object of her anger-in fact, being the object of any emotion on her part-all of it had stirred his blood to produce a most unseemly effect. It was most bizarre. Darcy valued discretion and avoided entanglement at all cost; a country squire's daughter was the last thing he needed. Steering his desires in accordance with the norms of social acceptance did not usually present a problem... but somehow, he felt, the word "usual" did not apply where Miss Bennett was concerned.

He had only just met her, had not particularly liked her, had hardly said two words with her-and the two words he did say, perhaps out of his own frustration, served now to be an embarrassment to him-and already she was driving him to distraction... She was hardly the prettiest woman he had seen in his lifetime, maybe except for her beautiful velvet eyes; nor, of course, the most fashionably attired. But somehow, thinking about the impudent, angry, verily burning passion in her eyes-a woman who could be that angry could also be-

But thinking about that would not do: it was as useless as it was dangerous. And so, to quell the mutiny in his mind and body, he had drunk. And drunk. And drunk.

And now, there was hell to pay for it.

One thing was good, of course; in his present state, he could hardly think about desiring a woman-even one so intriguing as Miss Bennett. Yes, he thought, this is precisely the word. Intriguing. She was intriguing to him because she was different from most other women of his acquaintance-the pampered well-born ladies, the chattery actresses, the obedient, knowledgeable, skilled courtesans-precisely in that she was so... unadorned. So simple. So country squire daughter. Her hair was simply done, her gown was plain-though, he had to admit, it fit her shapely figure divinely-and she wore a single garnet cross around her neck. Darcy swore under his breath and splashed his way out of the tub. Damnation-how did he remember so many details about her?

It would go as it had come on. It must go, or else he should run mad from the unsuitability of it all.

"Nephew, nephew, do you hear me? Do you hear a word I am saying, Darcy?"

He clenched his teeth; they made a loud enough sound for Fitzwilliam to throw him an amused look.

"Anne has had a most preposterous idea!"

Oh, no. Darcy threw a desperate glance at his cousin. I shall murder her with my own two hands, if she has set her mother on me! Anne sat very straight, staring down at her plate. She looked so pale, so sickly today. She was hardly eating. If Darcy did not know that a the servants, enamored of Miss Anne, stole food for her-the kind and the amount she really wanted, and never mind Aunt Catherine's healthful diets-he would actually worry for her. But he knew his cousin all too well, and she could be a terrible little shrew. Which only served to enable her to survive, of course, having Aunt Catherine for a mother.

"Mmmmmm," he said out loud, paying far too much attention to the food on his plate. He would do nothing to encourage this ridiculous conversation. Unfortunately, his aunt was in no need of encouragement.

"She has suggested that you ought to hire Miss Bennett as Georgiana's companion! Why, I say, whoever has heard of such an idea-"

"Mmmmmmmm," was all Darcy could muster; a polite way of telling Lady Catherine to stop making his affairs hers. After all, he had his standards as pertained to speaking to a lady-even if that lady was his insufferable aunt. Fitzwilliam grinned at his side. Lady Catherine had not heard Darcy's unintelligible mooing; for she continued to blather about Miss Bennett's unsuitability for the post of Georgiana's governess.

"She is brash, does not lower her eyes, looks you straight in the eye when you speak with her-a veritable hoyden, I say-and after all, their best connection is our parson here, Mr. Collins-she can have no knowledge of fashion, nor of society-she would certainly not make a-"

"Thank you, Aunt," Darcy said, standing up. He crumpled his napkin and threw it, rather rudely, onto his chair. "Allow me to decide, if you please, whom to hire as a companion for my sister. After all, Georgiana was left in my care."

He could picture, as he left the room, his Aunt's stunned countenance, and the surreptitious glance that must have passed at that moment between his two cousins. Strangely, he did not care. He was already outside, and waiting for one of the grooms to ready his favorite horse, a very tall black thoroughbred by the apt name of Lucifer, when Anne ran out.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Wouldn't you like to know," he grumbled, putting one booted foot in the stirrup.

"Very much so," she said angrily. "I hope you are going to apologize-"

"Good-bye, Anne." Darcy flew up in the saddle, and for one fleeting moment, quite in spite of herself, Anne felt something stir deep inside. He looked very much like the very angel after whom he had named his horse: tall, dark, so beautiful. Proud, she thought. If ever pride was a sin-but also didactic, stiff, proper. More like Michael, than Lucifer. She sighed, then laughed. He was not for her; they would drive each other mad in days. Still, she stood there, head cocked to one side, watching him ride off, not knowing whether it was the horse or the rider she admired more.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was in Jane's yellow salon, reading, while her sister busied herself with needlework at her side. All of a sudden, she raised her beautiful eyes from her work and said, indignantly:

"I cannot believe he has said that to you!"

"Well," Elizabeth answered, smiling pleasantly, "he did not say that to me, exactly. I overheard him, speaking to his cousin. You could say I eavesdropped-and it serves me right to overhear something so hurtful."

Jane, who was an angel in bearing the slights the fate had dealt her personally, stood for no man offending those she loved.

"It was wrong of him," she said, stubbornly. "Whatever you say, Lizzy, it was wrong. Unkind."

"Of course, dearest. Men like him have no need to be kind-they are liked, or at least, accepted, merely because they are so rich."

"But he calls himself a gentleman!"

Elizabeth laughed, laid down Mary Wollestonecraft's thesis she had been perusing and went to put her arms about her indignant sister.

"Jane, my heart," she said, "how nave you are! You know, there are many a man who calls himself that, merely because of title of wealth-or simply because they have no need of working-but I doubt that even a quarter of them deserve such a designation."

"Well, Father was a true gentleman," Jane said, fervently, the reminder immediately bringing tears to her eyes. Elizabeth nodded, curtly and returned to her seat. True, her father had been a true gentleman; but it was because of him that any cad could now offend his daughters-but she must not think that. Their late father had loved them well; it he could, he would have them avoid such indignities.

The door opened, and the two sisters looked up. "Pardon me, ma'am," a young maid said, "but there is a gentleman calling." She curtsied as she held up a card. "Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy."

The two sisters exchanged a surprised, discomfited glance.

"What does he want, do you suppose?"

"Do you wish to see him, Lizzy?" Jane asked quietly.

"Do I wish to see him?"

"Well, I am certain he is not here to see me."

"I suppose I cannot escape further acquaintance," Elizabeth said. Her hands reached up to touch up her hair, but she put them down, quickly. She would not concern herself with that. Not for this man; not for someone with such poor manners and such proud, disagreeable nature. Certainly, she looked pretty enough for whatever it was he had to say to her.

"Invite Mr. Darcy in, Hannah," Jane said.

He walked in, and immediately, it became apparent how small and cramped Jane's salon was. When Mr. Collins, on rare occasions, had graced it with his presence, he presented a diminutive enough figure so that the room had seemed almost spacious. But Mr. Darcy seemed to eclipse the light, so tall he was.

Tall and dark, Elizabeth thought caustically, and with that wolfish expression of his. He bowed over their hands; his movements were curt, precise, graceful.

"Please, sir, do sit down," Jane said kindly, but Elizabeth noticed that her eyes were cold. "Tea?"

"No, thank you." He did sit, and the light returned into the room. Elizabeth had to smile at the thought of what Jane might have put in his tea if he agreed. He inquired, briskly, after their health and Mr. Collins' whereabouts. Having received a satisfactory answer to both his questions (that their health was excellent, and that Mr. Collins was nowhere around), he lapsed into distressed silence, which the sisters did nothing to lift. He is not easy with apologies, Elizabeth thought-a vane, vane man.

Finally, Jane took pity on the man and remembered, suddenly, that she had some pressing business above-stairs. Traitor, Elizabeth mouthed, but Jane, having dropped Mr. Darcy a formal curtsy, was gone. He had risen and bowed, looking a bit like the Nutcracker, so tall and gangly.

"Miss Bennett," he said the moment the door closed behind Jane, "you can be at no loss as to the reasons for my visit here."

"You are wrong, sir," Elizabeth said serenely. "I have not the foggiest idea."

"This has to do with the conversation you overheard last night-"

"Which conversation, sir? I might have overheard many a conversation last night." Mostly your Aunt's insufferable droning, of course, she wanted to add, but thought better of it. She did not wish him to repeat her words to Lady Catherine; after all, Jane did depend on the old shrew's patronage.

"I am referring to the conversation in the music room-between me and my cousin Miss de Bourgh-"

"Oh, I see," Elizabeth said unkindly. "The one that centered upon your possible employment of me-"

"The very one."

"The one which you concluded by passing your apt judgment on the pitiable state of my financial affairs?"

To her absolute pleasure, he blushed furiously. Even the tips of his ears went red. Perhaps, he is not so very handsome after all, Elizabeth thought, amused. And his manner of staring is so very off-putting.

"I only spoke the truth," he said coldly. Elizabeth could hardly contain her derisive laughter.

"Perchance you did," she said, "but it was hardly your place to speak such truth. It was unkind and ungentlemanly of you. Not to mention none of your concern."

He stared at her, and she thought, my, my, he is about to be struck by apoplexy. But if he did not come here to apologize-as clearly he did not-what on earth was he doing here?

He shifted in his seat, uncomfortably, throwing one long leg over the other. "Miss Bennett," he said, his tone absolutely insufferable, "even if you are right, and I did behave in an ungentlemanly manner-" his face twisted, painfully-"this is not why I am here. I have considered my cousin Miss de Bourgh's advice, and have found it remarkably sound. I should like to offer you the position of a gov-er, companion to my sister."

Elizabeth was not ready for this. It took her a second to regain her composure. As soon as she did, she shot at him, angrily:

"Does this mean you are now of a mind to provide for an impoverished spinster? Why, I never!"

He opened his mouth to say something, but then simply wagged his head from side to side like a dog.

"We could engage in such vicious banter for the rest of the day, Miss Bennett," he said. "I choose not to."

Because I should have you beat, she thought. Coward. He rose, eclipsing the light once again.

"Consider my proposal, Miss Bennett," he said. "It will be worth your while financially, I promise, and I daresay, not too taxing a job. Please let me know of your decision, soon as may be."

He gave a curt bow and quit the room, leaving Elizabeth startled, shocked, and not a little disturbed. She did not even think to apprise Jane of her news, but kept sitting in her place, thinking: only yesterday, before she had met the man, she would have thought such a proposal a boon. After all, it promised her the very thing she had so strove for-financial independence. She would be able to help her family. Most of all, however, this was a promise of never having to marry a man like Mr. Collins. If he pays me well enough, I can maybe put together a little something for myself. A little bit of security, she thought, so that nobody can ever force me into marriage.

But that was before she had met her prospective employer. Now that she had, she was doubtful about her ability to stay in his employ long enough to earn her security.

"Lizzy!"

Jane was standing there, arms akimbo.

"So?"

"He wants me to work for him," Elizabeth said. "He has come to offer me employment."

"Employment! As what?"

"What do you think, Jane?" Elizabeth laughed. "His steward, of course."

"No!" Jane's shocked countenance belied her doubtful tone.

"No," Elizabeth agreed. "As a companion to his sister."

"But what a singular proposition! Are you going to accept it?"

"I do not know yet," Elizabeth said. "Perhaps. I am sorely tempted to take his offer."

"But he seems like such an unpleasant, proud, disagreeable man!"

Dear God, Elizabeth thought angrily. That I should hear this from you! You, who have sacrificed herself to marry the most despicable man on earth! Unexpectedly bitter words danced on the end of her tongue; but Elizabeth, reining in her emotions, only expressed the hope that Mr. Darcy would improve somewhat on closer acquaintance.

Jane sighed. Then she rose, and in a show of unprecedented activity paced around the room. She then turned to her sister and exclaimed, louder than she usually did:

"But my sweet, what a singular proposition!"

Indeed, the gentle Mrs. Collins was entirely too perturbed by the thought of her sister in the clutches of the bloodthirsty Mr. Darcy; therefore, Elizabeth found it her best strategy to simply put her arms around her sister and kiss her brow, comforting her the best she could.

"Do not worry so, Janie," she said to her softly. "If he is unkind to me, I shall be perfectly terrible to him..."

~ * ~

She thought about it for the next two days. Or rather, she forced herself to take these days to consider the matter; so that later, if she were forced to regret her choice, she might say that she had seriously thought about making it. But there was no choice, not really: for every time she looked at Mr. Collins, she was reminded, sharply, what she would be escaping. She would no longer be powerless, or penniless; she would no longer feel obligated to take the first offer, however mean, that might come her way (if any did, ever, considering her family's sad financial situation). Indeed, she felt, as she looked over Mr. Darcy's subsequent letter, detailing all the particulars of his proposition (she was enthralled by the amount of her wages; it had surpassed all her expectations: she would now become a woman of independent means.

Therefore, two days after Mr. Darcy's proposition, she sat down at a desk and penned a quick reply, accepting it. It mattered little that her mother would probably be aghast ("Work? My daughter, work?! Oh, your poor Father is turning over in his grave-ah, but 'tis his fault! Oh, Mr. Bennett, Mr. Bennett!"), and that she had to withstand a long lecture by Lady Catherine ("Young lady, do not presume to rise to such a station! My niece's companion ought to be a young woman of most exalted connections!"), and that Mr. Collins had been grumbling and whining for the past two days ("Dearest, but Her Ladyship is so very displeased-what do you mean, it is not her Ladyship's business?!")-no, none of it signified. Elizabeth was savoring her new-found independence.

Since her agreement with Mr. Darcy specified that she was to start in the first week of May, Elizabeth spent another fortnight with Jane and then left for Longbourn-mostly to pack her things and to prepare for her move to Pemberley-Mr. Darcy's estate in Derbyshire. There, her new charge was expecting her; and with her, a new life.

Chapter 4

Darcy in the shadows at White's, sipping claret. It was May, and he was counting days. She was to arrive tomorrow, and so today, he would leave London and ride to Pemberley. He wanted to welcome her there; he felt guilty for his words about her-stupid, rash, arrogant words. He was not like that, he knew, he would never have said them, would never have shown deliberate cruelty-had he only a moment to think. Had he not been so irritated by the wily Anne, his impossible aunt, the insufferable, droning parson-and by Miss Bennett's own strange magic, which left him quite stunned-he would never have-

"Why, Darcy, I did not know you were in London!"

He looked up, straight into the bright, wide, beaming smile of his best friend.

"Why, Bingley," he said, mocking him a little, knowing that Bingley was far too good-natured to possibly take offense, "I have only been here a day."

Bingley smiled, pleased with himself at bumping into his friend, and fell into a comfortable chair. "Have you a cigar?"

"You know I do not-"

"Yes, yes. I know." He snapped his fingers, calling up a waiter, and asked him for more claret and a box of cigars. Darcy, feeling pleasantly relaxed, listened half-ear as his friend discussed the varieties of cigars available with the waiter; he closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of his chair.

"So, Darcy, what are your plans in London?"

Darcy opened his eyes and smiled at the sight of his friend's happy mien. Bingley was, without doubt, the kindest, most agreeable, most genial man he had ever had privilege to know; though often, such good disposition comes packaged with extreme stupidity, Bingley was a pleasant exception. He was not a great intellectual; but he was as sensible and clever young man as there ever were. Bingley, three years Darcy's junior, was flanked, almost constantly by two extremely disagreeable sisters, one married and one, unfortunately for any single man in sight, not. Today, however, blessedly, he was alone.

"My plans in London," Darcy repeated. "I have none. I am going home later tonight."

"Ha!" Bingley said, excitedly (as he did and said most of the things in his life), "Home! You spent half the year in London, in your most excellent townhouse, and you still call Pemberley home!"

"Of course," Darcy smiled. "Do you not think the same way of-" he scowled, trying to remember where it was his friend had grown up.

"Harrow," Bingley said, with a sigh. "For I hardly left it as a child. I spent my holidays there."

"Oh," Darcy said. He rarely shared the memories of his own childhood with anyone, keeping that part of his soul intensely private. He assumed that his friend had had similar experiences; it was disconcerting to think of Bingley, whose very nature screamed "Love me!", spending lonely holidays at Harrow.

"Oh," Darcy said again and frowned. "Well, as I am going to Pemberley, do you suppose you might want to-"

Bingley threw his head back and bayed with laughter. "Come, Darcy! Do I look quite so housebroken? Do I instill in you a desire to take me home with you?"

Darcy, crimsoning at the jest, furrowed his brow, but said nothing to that. Bingley, however, in very good mood, would not let it lie.

"Are you certain, old boy? Do you know that wherever I go, Caroline and Louisa follow? If I come with you, you must extend an invitation to them as well."

Darcy rose. "It'll do," he said stiffly, "for you to make light of me. I am inviting you to spend time with me at Pemberley. If you do not wish to come-"

"Come, come." Bingley laid a hand upon his friend's arm. "I shall save your invitation for later. You know I feel quite at home at Pemberley."

"So you should."

"And it would be wonderful to see Georgiana again," Bingley added. "She must have grown frightfully."

Darcy wrinkled his nose disagreeably. "Bingley," he said. "I should rather you did not use the word "frightfully" when speaking about my sister."

"Yes, yes. I know how protective you are about the poor girl. But that is nothing at all! I know you find my sister perfectly frightful, and I do not mind it at all."

Darcy shook his head. "You are hopeless," he said. "But I must be away. Keep my invitation and use it-whenever. Preferably when I am at Pemberley-so that you keep me company. But should you wish to knock us up at some other time-you know."

"I know," Bingley said. "Give Georgiana my warmest wishes. But why such urgency? Surely Pemberley runs itself perfectly well in your absence?"

"Bingley, my young friend, you have much to learn. Estates do not run themselves. Stewards and housekeepers run estates. Butlers and cooks do."

"Pfa! I did not know. I thank you for telling me. So why are you running off to Pemberley again?"

Darcy hesitated. "I have a new employee arriving tomorrow."

"And?"

"And I wish to be there to welcome her."

"Her?"

"Georgie's new companion."

"What was wrong with the old one? I found her quite delightful."

"I know you did. So did half of the male staff."

"Oh, I see. And are you to be there to instill in her the fear of our Lord and the need for proper Christian morals?"

"Bingley, you are insufferable. Now I am going."

As if by magic, a valet appeared, holding his great-coat. Watching his friend shrug into it, then take his hat, gloves and cane from the valet, Bingley grinned at Darcy from below.

"Go, then, Darcy. Go and frighten Georgie's new companion into behaving."

Already at the door, Darcy turned around.

"Bingley," he said. "Come to Pemberley."

~ * ~

In the carriage, he thought of Elizabeth. He had come to think of her this way; for he could not imagine wanting a woman he had to address as "miss" anything, and he wanted her desperately. (The name suited her beautifully: it was beautiful, sensual. Regal. It brought to mind all things queenly; the severe virginal exterior and the deep, hidden passions. Elizabeth, he thought. Lizzy. Bess.) He thought of what she must be doing now; of her going by public coach, the ribbons of her bonnet tied severely under her chin, gloved hands folded in her lap. He wished he could have sent his carriage to fetch her; but it would show unseemly partiality, and he did not wish to compromise her.

Yet.

In the time that he had not seen her-since the morning he had stomped out of her sister's living-room, having made his proposition-he had lost details of her. His memory served to make up new ones, to round off the angles, to bridge the gaps. Yet, some things he did remember with certainty: the petulant, angry mouth; the clipped words she threw at him, like stones; the stormy dark of her eyes. Oh, those eyes. They made his blood boil. He wondered what it would feel like to have those eyes look at him with favor, with desire-such thoughts threw him into a veritable frenzy; and so he banished them. I am mad, he thought; she had shown no partiality for me, no interest. He was not even sure if she were particularly suited for the job he had offered her; it was only that Anne's clever suggestion had answered his own desires so perfectly at that moment-Darcy sighed. He had to stop thinking about her. For now-for the time he could not have her-he must take pity on himself and stop thinking about her. Stop thinking about Elizabeth. Lizzy. Bess.

As it happened, he fell asleep in the carriage, and was jolted awake by the coachman's rapping on the window.

"Sir? Sir-we have arrived. Pemberley, sir."

Darcy sat up and pulled on his lapels, straightening himself. The carriage door flew open, and immediately, his sister climbed in, beaming, and threw her arms about his neck.

"Oh, dear Lord!" she said. "How I m-missed you, Wills!"

Darcy held her in his arms and kissed her, soundly, on both cheeks. She had grown up-though he would not quite use Bingley's words for it-from a lanky, bland adolescent, she was turning into a pretty young woman. She would be sixteen this summer; in two years, he would present her before the court and soon after, she would be married-to the best man he could secure for her. The thought of Georgie marrying sent an arrow of pain through his heart: it was not long before that he had bought her dolls and carried her around on his back. He was not ready to think of marrying her off.

Darcy climbed out of the carriage, carrying her in his arms, to the delight of all his domestics. They were all there-Mrs. Reynolds, the ancient housekeeper, Gates the Butler, Ponsonby, Darcy's valet, having preceded him from London, the Cook, the kitchen maids and the chambermaids, the numerous footmen. Darcy welcomed them all over his sister's body. There were numerous grins as Miss Georgiana had clearly decided to make her home in her brother's arms. Everybody knew that the Master and Miss Georgiana doted on each other; that he was the kindest, best, most loving brother in all of England, and that she well-nigh deified him.

"Georgie," Darcy said with a theatrical groan, "you have grown, in Bingley's words, frightfully." He set her down on the stones, and tipped her chin up with one finger.

"Your new companion is arriving tomorrow," he said. "I do hope you are kind to her."

Georgiana smirked and rolled her eyes. "Oh, well. Only b-because you ask, B-brother. Now, I was p-p-planning on putting three d-dead rats into her b-b-bed-"

Laughing, they went inside the house. By God, it was good to be home. There was no place in all the world like Pemberley.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was dropped off in front of a very tall iron gate.

"That's here's Pemberley, Miss," the coachman told her. She peered through the wrought-iron gate; the house was nowhere in sight. So she would have to walk, she thought, that's hardly a bother. She needed not remind herself how fortunate her position was. Surely she could walk a little.

"Madam! Madam!"

She turned and saw, driving a handsome curricle, a fat little man, liveried and prepossessed.

"Miss Bennett?" he asked. She assured him that yes, she was. At that, the man climbed down from his seat, relieved her from her single trunk and tossed it, unceremoniously, up into the curricle.

"Please." She followed her trunk and was seated quite comfortably and surveying the very handsome estate that spread about her. But when they passed a little copse of trees and there opened, to Elizabeth's charmed eyes, a house of such noble proportions, such architectural beauty-She gasped.

"What is it, madam?"

"Is this the house?"

"It is indeed. Handsome, is it not? Built in Italian style."

Elizabeth was struck speechless: together with the mirror-like lake and, rising behind it, a forest of mast-like pines, the house presented an incredibly beautiful prospect.

"Handsome indeed," she whispered. Surely, she thought, this could explain the owner's disagreeable character. If I had something quite so...great, perhaps, I should then become arrogant and vainglorious as well. She turned up her nose, trying it, and burst out giggling at the thought.

But no sooner had she stopped laughing that they were in front of the house, and someone was helping her down, taking down her trunk; then, the crowd of servants parted, revealing to Elizabeth's eyes the Master of the house, and on his arm, a tall, fair-haired, pretty girl of about sixteen.

"M-miss B-Bennett," she said, amazing Elizabeth with such painful shyness. She would think that Mr. Darcy's sister would share in his somewhat obnoxious self-assuredness. For a second, she opened her mouth, but no sound emerged, and she wrinkled her nose painfully. Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy's hand squeeze hers, tightly. She was touched by this gesture of brotherly support. Then, exhaling, loudly, the girl managed: "W-we are v-very glad to w-w-welcome you to P-pemberley."

Clearly, "w"s came the hardest to her.

Elizabeth curtsied and smiled, openly. "I am glad to be here, Miss Darcy. Mr. Darcy." (He nodded, as stiff as ever.)

"Georgiana, please." The girl smiled. Her own name was one of the few things she could say without stuttering.

"Well, then, I insist that you call me by my Christian name as well."

Georgiana blushed, unexpectedly. "I could not."

"Really! Why not?"

"Well, you- you are here to educate me-"

Elizabeth shook her head adamantly. The sooner she established a warm rapport with her charge, the better. "I insist, absolutely."

Georgiana beamed. "V-very well," she said. She slipped off her brother's arm, and, in a gesture of unprecedented boldness, took Elizabeth's hands. "Miss B-Elizabeth."

"Show El-Miss Bennett to her apartments," Darcy said, feeling suddenly as if he had been dismissed. "Miss Bennett, you are to join us for dinner-"

Both women stared at him in surprise. He caught himself ordering her and coughed, uncomfortably, studying the tips of his black Hessians.

"-if you so wish, of course."

"Thank you, sir." Elizabeth was smiling at him, head cocked to one side. She had not forgotten his embarrassment before her. She remembered him beet-red and stammering; she would not be frightened of him. "I shall be glad to join you."

Standing in the doors, watching the two women cross the large marble foyer and head for the stairs, Darcy had a sudden urge to run outside and fling himself in the pond. He would, had it not been quite so undignified. I must be a glutton for punishment, he thought, thinking of that impudent smile, of one raised eyebrow, of the sparks of laughter hidden deep inside her fine, dark eyes.

Oh God, he thought with sudden dread, what have I gotten myself into? With a quiet groan, he leaned his head against a cool marble column. God help him, this was not going to be easy.

Chapter 5

If Elizabeth wondered at all why it was that Miss Darcy was in such desperate need of a friend, all her questions would be answered soon enough. At first, she attributed the girl's strange and nearly-desperate plea to her youth, her extreme shyness and above all, her loneliness. For there was no mother and no sisters ; and no, Elizabeth could surmise, any discernible friends. She shuddered at the thought of what life would be like without Jane; she pitied her charge.

That very evening, however, a doubt crept into Elizabeth's mind, and remained there, only to be confirmed by the events of the next several days. Elizabeth had come down to supper, only to have Georgiana rush to meet her and Mr. Darcy rise and bow to her, politely. My, my, she thought, as she took her place; had I not met him before, I should now think him a perfect gentleman. She chided herself for such cruel words: for he had clearly worked to make her first days at Pemberley pleasant ones.

"I trust your accommodations are to your liking, Miss Bennett?"

She extolled, sincerely, the comfort of her accommodations and the beautiful view from her window. He seemed pleased, she noticed (if, indeed, a slight smoothing of the deep crease on his forehead could serve as a sign of his pleasure); this surprised her, for he did not seem the kind of man to care what his employees thought-of anything.

"I saw Bingley in London, Georgiana," Mr. Darcy said. Elizabeth wasn't certain what kind of reaction he expected out of her sister, but the small "oh" she issued, coupled with a small shrug, seemed to indicate that she would do nothing to encourage the conversation.

"I invited him to visit with us, soon as may be," Mr. Darcy continued, seemingly insensible of his sister's lack of interest.

Georgiana rolled her eyes and inhaled, deeply, readying herself to speak long and hard.

"Waaaa-" she said, closed her eyes, opened them, and, at the encouraging glance from Elizabeth, essayed again: "W-well! If he d-does, I cer-certainly hope, he'll visit w-w-w-without his s-sisters!!!"

To Elizabeth's surprise (for even though she did not know who this man Bingley was, and why his sisters should accompany him, she would necessarily be offended if whoever extended an invitation to her, omitted Jane), Mr. Darcy smiled; and with that smile, so unexpected, such incredible transformation occurred in his face, making it so very boyish and nearly beautiful, that Elizabeth well-nigh gasped.

"You are unkind, sister," he said. "Though I do admit to wishing the same thing myself. But," he added, the smile disappearing off the face, making it grave again, like an old stone angel's, "they are his sisters, and he is my dearest friend-"

"S-so they m-must b-be b-borne."

"Precisely."

"W-when are they to v-visit, then?"

Before Mr. Darcy could answer, Gates entered and, with a bow, handed him a folded note. Immediately, all manner of ease was gone from his face; for a second, before he could hide them, a myriad emotions crossed his countenance, disgust being the most prominent of them.

"Ladies," he said, rising, yanking off his napkin, throwing it onto his chair, "Forgive me. An urgent matter."

Thereupon, he strode out, leaving the two of them rather perplexed. Though perhaps, Elizabeth was the more perplexed of the two, for Georgiana seemed to prick her ears, move to the edge of her seat and in general, fidgeted entirely too much for someone who did not know what was happening. Finally, she rose, too quick for a footman who did not manage to move her chair in time, and, having murmured her apologies, fled from the room. Elizabeth was left all alone, with the footman behind her, tall and silent and grave like a rock.

She waited for a bit, and finally, reasoned that sitting and waiting meant doing a poor job as concerned her charge. So she rose and quitted the room as well, only to witness a most curious scene.

There was a door, Elizabeth surmised, leading into Mr. Darcy's study. It was closed as solidly as could be, and before it, stood, stepping from foot to foot, Georgiana. All of her-her eager pose, her hands, clenched before her bosom, and, the worst of it, her eyes as she threw a quick glance over her shoulder, betrayed an emotional upheaval of the highest degree. The young Miss Darcy looked very much as if her very future depended on what was going on behind that firmly closed solid oak door.

Elizabeth opened her mouth, wanting to say something, to suggest, perhaps, returning to the dining room, but at that very moment, the door into Mr. Darcy's study swung open, and a young man, impeccably dressed, strode out. Elizabeth was taken aback, for he was the first man she might have ever truly called beautiful. Indeed, no other characterization applied to him. He was as tall and dark as Mr. Darcy, but his features were more finely carved and his eyes were of such stunning spring-sky blue that Elizabeth felt a wholly unfamiliar flutter within her heart. A thought, irrelevant-and irreverent-flickered in her mind: he looks like an angel.

The stranger bowed, gracefully, to Georgiana, and then, with visible surprise, to Elizabeth who was standing behind her. Georgiana made a small sound and, to Elizabeth's vivid shock, reached for the man, desperation seemingly taking the best of her. Elizabeth held her breath, seeing the young man hesitate; then, his fingertips touched, but for a second, Georgiana's hand. And then, like a beautiful vision he was, he was gone, his footfalls melting in the warmth of the afternoon.

"Georgiana-"

Like a mute, the girl held up one hand; then, picking up her skirts, she dashed past the stunned Elizabeth. And stunned she was: to witness something of the sort, and on her first day of employment, too! She was at a loss as to what to do; then, sweeping her scruples aside, she followed Georgiana out of the room.

When Darcy, dark in the face, his very tolerable mood quite ruined, appeared back in the dining room, he was greeted by empty chairs and half-finished plates. Darcy found, suddenly, that he lacked in appetite. He could not believe Wickham would appear here, now, in such a manner. Damn the man, damn it all to hell, Darcy thought, as he strode, furiously, through the abandoned dining-room and went outside, to have Lucifer saddled. An evening ride should do him good, he thought, as he leapt into the saddle.

~ * ~

Up in her room, Georgiana lifted herself off the bed and shuffled to open the locked door. Elizabeth walked in and, at Georgiana's silent invitation, sat herself down on the edge of the girl's bed. Georgiana herself climbed in and sat hugging her knees; she looked so absolutely wretched that Elizabeth abandoned her previous resolve not to ask her charge about what had gone wrong.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Georgiana wagged her head, mutely. Then she opened her mouth and said, with a great effort:

"I-I-I l-love h-him s-so!"

Elizabeth, sitting back, waited. She had suspected something like this, but the passion-and suffering-in the girl's voice startled her. Poor creature, Elizabeth thought. Having never been in love herself, she could scarce understand suffering it inflicted; but she had a good imagination and so could envisage it, vividly. Especially since Georgiana's red eyes and puffed-out nose spoke eloquently enough.

Seeing that she now had an audience to her misery, Georgiana broke down in earnest. A flood of tears came.

"I-aaaaaaiiii-l-l-loooooove h-h-hiiiiiiiiimmmm!" she bawled. Elizabeth could think of no words of encouragement or consolation, since she did not know the identity of the object of Georgiana's affection, nor the reason why Georgiana's love, instead of being a source of joy, was so clearly a cause of sorrow. In fact, the best she could do was to proffer a handkerchief and listen as the poor girl's sobs slowed down and then, mercifully, stopped almost entirely. After a final hiccupping snuffle, Georgiana wiped her eyes, blew her nose and looked up at Elizabeth.

"S-sorry," she whispered. "F-forgive m-me."

"Never mind me, dear Georgiana," Elizabeth said. "I shall ask you no questions-"

The girl waved at her.

"I-I a-aaaaam happy to h-have someone to c-confide in," she said. She then had Elizabeth sworn in to secrecy. "D-don't-t-tell-B-brother," she said, and sighed so torturously, it tore Elizabeth's heart to hear it.

The young man who had come calling on Mr. Darcy was named George Wickham and he was the son of the Darcys' late steward, according to Georgiana, a "m-most c-capable a-a-and t-trustworthy m-man." Upon the demise of both the old Mr. Darcy and the most excellent Mr. Wickham, there had occurred what seemed to be an irreparable rift between their sons. The younger Mr. Darcy, to his sister's great distress, has turned George the Younger away from his door and the latter has seemed exceedingly cross with the new Master.

"B-brother c-can b-be s-s-so haaaaaard-hearted."

"And how do you know that?"

Georgiana blushed and lowered her eyes. Elizabeth sighed. She had been right to guess that the handsome young gentleman was the object of the young Miss Darcy's affection. She pitied the girl immediately, for however promising young Mr. Wickham might prove to be, as the son of the Darcys' late steward, he would never make her, a great heiress, an eligible match.

"B-brother w-would h-have a f-fit of p-pique i-i-eeeeeef he knew-"

Elizabeth did not know what advice to offer Georgiana. In truth, she was rather inexperienced herself; and had lead as unglamorous and uneventful life as could be before coming to visit Jane this spring. So the best she could do, for now, was to proffer a tender company and a soft shoulder to cry upon.

But later that night, after Georgiana had sniffed and whimpered herself to sleep, Elizabeth, lying in bed in her own room, could not sleep. Try as she might, she could not get the image of the young George Wickham out of her head. That Mr. Darcy should be unkind to him-that seemed almost a natural thing; for she guessed, in him, a superior contempt for those less fortunately situated. It seemed a thing often enough encountered in men of his stature; and it only grieved Elizabeth that his haughtiness should serve to make his own sister so unhappy.

She wondered, though, as to the nature of Mr. Wickham's affection for Miss Darcy. She, herself, liked Georgiana-what she had seen of her. She found her perfectly deserving of being loved; and still, she could feel that something here was amiss. He, by all indications poor, she, a rich heiress; she, quiet and painfully shy, he, dashing, handsome, seemingly worldly. Was Mr. Wickham merely a fortune-hunter? Finally, Elizabeth rose and paced around the room, angry with herself for thinking thus, for always seeing the worst in every situation. He loves her, she told herself. Of course, he loves her. Even a blind man could see that.

The next morning, Elizabeth set out to determine exactly what her duties of educating Georgiana would include. She found that her charge possessed an uncommon talent in music-both on piano-forte and singing-a free command of French, and a smattering of geography, history, and letters. Elizabeth, who was excessively well-read, found that some areas were, rather, gaping wounds in Georgiana's education; however, she knew, it was only a matter of time before such gaps would be filled, making her charge a splendidly educated young woman. In addition, in spite of her stuttering handicap, Georgiana proved a quick learner.

As to personality, in her first days of teaching Georgiana, Elizabeth found the girl to be as pleasant and engaging as her brother was off-putting. Perhaps it was the chance encounter with Mr. Wickham on Elizabeth's first day on the job that brought the two young women so close so quickly, but it was clear to Elizabeth that they had become fast friends. Indeed, Georgiana, so young, surprised Elizabeth, for she reminded her of Jane. She was a kind girl and disposed to see the best in everyone and everything (quite unlike her brother, Elizabeth noted to herself); that said, she was far from stupid. Elizabeth thought ruefully of her own younger sisters: she had to admit that the comparison between them and Miss Darcy (who was Lydia's age) was hardly in their favor. No, Miss Darcy, however nave and inexperienced, was hardly silly.

Elizabeth's time at Pemberley provided her with unrivaled opportunity to be in Mr. Darcy's company. At first, she found it a chore more than anything; for she could not forget the slight he had dealt her. True, he now seemed a perfect gentleman, and as kind as could be (though grim and dark as ever). And it was not Elizabeth's place to forgive or not forgive him anything; but his words, so unkind, words for which he had never asked forgiveness, threw a dark shadow over his very countenance. A man capable of such unkindness...

But it was during that time that Elizabeth first noticed that the man was capable of extraordinary kindnesses as well. She watched, carefully, his interactions with his domestics, listened with both ears to what was said of him. The servants were in agreement: he was as kind a Master as there ever was, as equitable a landlord. Yet, she would have found it fitting to dismiss their kind remarks, had she not been, herself, a witness to several such instances of kindness.

A fortnight into her employ, she watched him ride off with Georgiana to take food and medicine to a tenant who had fallen ill. According to Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, this was not an isolated instance, but rather, a pattern of behavior: whenever one of his tenants fell ill, Mr. Darcy, his sister in accompaniment, always took pains to visit with them. Elizabeth was perplexed. But then, she said to herself, perhaps he only does it for show. The words, however, sounded hollow and mean; and so she chided herself for them. No reason why he could not be good to his own tenants; this did not mean that he could not be a perfectly horrid boor to everyone else.

But then, another fortnight later, came the matter of the cherries. The Darcys, and Elizabeth along with them, were outside, about to set off for Sunday church, when all manner of wailing and carrying-on came to their ears. Elizabeth turned around, only to see Mr. Jamison, the overseer of the estate, approach, dragging by the ear, in a most brutal manner, a small, scrawny boy, a child of twelve or thirteen. The boy struggled wildly, and Elizabeth saw that Mr. Jamison was holding, against his hip, a cracked bowl full of that summer's first cherries.

It was Georgiana who first started and flew forth, berating-or attempting to, in any case-the overseer for his brutality to the boy.

"You l-let him g-go!" she shouted. The overseer, taken aback, nonetheless only held the boy tighter. Georgiana turned to Mr. Darcy. "T-tell him t-to let the b-b-boy g-g-go!" she said, furiously.

Mr. Darcy looked pained. Elizabeth regarded him curiously. He looks as if he has eaten something unsavory, she thought. He motioned to the overseer to bring the boy forth.

"Release him, Jamison," he said, frowning. Reluctantly, Mr. Jamison complied; the boy did not dash but stood, looking warily up at the tall, handsomely dressed, gentleman.

"What is your name, boy?" Mr. Darcy asked the young culprit.

"Ingleby," the boy said, clearly fighting not to cry, "Dick Ingleby."

Mr. Jamison slapped him, lightly, on the back of his head.

"Sir," he said, contemptuously. "Say "sir," when you talk to the master, you cur." At that, he threw a glance at the incensed Georgiana, who stood, arms crossed on her chest, next to her brother. "Pardon the language, ma'am."

Furiously, the young woman turned to her brother.

"T-tell him to b-be g-gone, Wills!" she cried. "H-horrid, h-horid m-man!"

Mr. Darcy shrugged. He seems oddly disengaged from it all, Elizabeth thought.

"You heard my sister, Jamison," he said flatly. "Be gone."

For a moment, there was a mutinous expression in Mr. Jamison's eyes, and Elizabeth thought a confrontation imminent. Then, with a polite bow, the overseer turned and was, indeed, gone, leaving them with the sniffing boy, who was rubbing the back of his head, and the bowl of cherries on the ground.

"You stole from me," Mr. Darcy said, mildly. Georgiana opened her mouth to say something, but he held up one hand, asking for her silence. "I know your father. I believe I am a good enough landlord to him."

The boy sniffed again.

"You hardly starve on my estate, and still you steal from me. Why? You know, I could have Jamieson hand you over to the authorities-you will probably we whipped."

"Wills!" Georgiana cried, outraged.

"So you better have a good reason, Dick Ingleby."

" 'Twas for a pie," the boy said. "My mother's birthday is today, and my sister wanted to make a pie, but had nothing to put in it. There aren't no cherry trees on our land.... sir."

In utter amazement, Elizabeth saw the side of Mr. Darcy's mouth curve in a slight smile.

"Well, then, a pie. A pie is serious business, I believe. Isn't it so, Miss Bennett?"

She found herself smiling, too. "Absolutely, sir."

"The lady has spoken, Dick Ingleby," Mr. Darcy said. He was now laughing, and Georgiana was staring at him, as if not recognizing. "Well, then, I hope your sister's turns out a good one. Go, then, take your cherries, and go. And do not let Jamison catch you again-because I shall let him do with you what he will. And he will, you know."

In absolute disbelief, the boy was staring at the landlord. Then, the meaning of his words dawning on him, he took a backward step back, almost tripping over the bowl of cherries. Georgiana hurried to him, picked up the bowl and deposited it into his arms.

"G-go, go," she whispered. She was beaming. The boy, hardly needing a repeat invitation, took off running, the bowl pressed tightly against his chest.

Mr. Darcy stopped laughing as abruptly as he had started. As somber as before, he pointed at the carriage, urging the women inside, reminding them that it would not do to be late for church. Elizabeth, slightly awed, watched her employer as he leapt, beautifully, atop his great black horse. All the way to the church, she watched him, half-secretly, and wondered whether there was more to the man she had so despised for his pride and hard heart. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps, his heart wasn't all that hard?

He rode up to the carriage, his great hunter restless.

"Miss Bennett," he said, holding the horse back, "Can you make good pie?"

"No, sir, I am quite bad at it. My sister Jane, sir, probably could. She is good at everything she does."

"Ah, that's a pity," he said, and, quite unexpectedly, flashed her a smile. She sat back, shocked. When he smiled, she had a tangible feeling of the sun rolling out, spilling sunshine over the most desolate of landscapes. "I should have much enjoyed a good cherry pie, made by you."

Suddenly, she had to fight a perfectly irrational frustration at not being able to make a good cherry pie.

Very soon, it began to seem to Elizabeth that her employer was quite the different man from the haughty rarified dandy who had offended her so at Rosings; and her letters to her sister reflected her surprise at this momentous difference. He went to church every Sunday, having contributed generously, everyone knew, to its reconstruction the year before; he was respectful, even diffident, with his domestics, particularly with the impressive Mrs. Reynolds, who doted on him and seemed to treat him quite like the little boy she had once known. "Master this, master that. Master get out of the rain. Master has hardly eaten breakfast today." She made no exception for anyone's presence, and he never said anything in return as she berated him for not finishing his eggs in the morning.

"Reynolds," he said, somewhat plaintively, "You know I have no appetite in the morning unless I go on a ride, and with this pouring rain, it was quite impossible. Do forgive me."

Elizabeth could not believe her ears, nor her eyes, when the formidable Mrs. Reynolds swept the unfinished plate from under Mr. Darcy's nose and strode out of the dining-room.

"Hrmph," Georgiana said vaguely at her brother's side, but he seemed absolutely unruffled at such a running-through by his own housekeeper. Where was his vanity, she thought, what had happened to him? Had being at home made him so perfectly easy a man?

Elizabeth also began finding Mr. Darcy's manner towards her confoundingly different from what it had been at Rosings. He was courteous towards her, respectful, and yet, under his even demeanor, she felt something stirring and simmering; and it frightened her, most of all for the feelings it aroused in herself. He went to great lengths to make her feel included at the dinner table, always querying her, rather gently, about Georgiana's progress in that discipline or that one, or asking about her opinion on something written in a newssheet come from London. He read voraciously, she was pleased to note, and always had an opinion reserved about one book or another. He was a devotee of Milton, found Pope unnecessarily pompous, and thought King Lear to be the Bard's greatest work. As to poetry, their tastes matched almost completely.

"Donne," he said one night, as the three of them sat in the drawing room, and recited. "No man is an island, etc."

Georgiana shook her head. "L-leave it t-to you to l-like the d-dreariest p-poet in all of England."

"Oh, but dear Georgiana," Elizabeth said, laughing, "Your knowledge of Dr. Donne's work is sadly incomplete, then. I shall have to remedy that!" And, raising her eyes to the ceiling, she read from her memory: "I wonder, by my troth, what you and I did 'till we loved, etc."

As she recited she rose and walked about, all the while feeling his restless dark eyes upon her form. When she finished, she looked over at them. Georgiana sat there, quiet, dreamy, hands easy in her lap. She is thinking of Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth guessed, and was suddenly, terribly, uneasy. But it was Mr. Darcy's expression that shocked her: he was staring at her in a way that made her hear flutter suddenly; it would not do for him to look at me so, she thought vaguely.

"I do like Dr. Donne's poetry so," she murmured, seeking to get away from his burning gaze. Mr. Darcy shifted, uncomfortably, in his chair, finally taking his eyes off her. In a distant, cool voice, he suggested that Georgiana play something for them, a task which she took up eagerly.

For the rest of the evening, Elizabeth felt singed, and Mr. Darcy hardly said three words.

Later, she wondered at the darkness she had glimpsed in his eyes-and at the stirring it had produced within her own heart. He was a handsome man, she could tell that much, and with the haughty, offensive demeanor of Rosings gone, he was also unequivocally charming and attractive-without trying to be so. They argued, sometimes into late hours, often long after Georgiana had gone to bed, and often, she caught herself thinking that nothing but propriety could make her surrender their conversations and retire. It would not do for her to stay up so late, and all alone with a gentleman, whom she found, in spite of herself, increasingly attractive.

Then, the Bingleys arrived, and everything changed.

The Bingleys numbered four: Mr. Darcy's friend, Mr. Charles Bingley, his two sisters, and the older sister's nearly-catatonic husband, Mr. Hurst. Mr. Bingley was the only tolerable one; moreover, Elizabeth found him pleasant and sweet, and, if a little simple of manner, a perfect gentleman. In speaking with the ladies, he made no visible distinction between her and Georgiana, treating them both with respect and affability. His manner was even, his conversation always pleasant, and yet, Elizabeth found his society severely lacking, for he grew bored during her and Mr. Darcy's conversations on literature and history; still, he was better than his sisters in that he was kind and good-natured.

The older one, Mrs. Hurst, could have been tolerable, for she was but a shadow of the younger one. And it was the younger sister, the unmarried Miss Caroline Bingley, who, on her first morning at Pemberley, could not find it in herself to say hello to Georgiana's companion, while at the same time effusing most profusely her love for Georgiana herself. Elizabeth saw Mr. Bingley grow red with embarrassment, and Georgiana shrug off Miss Bingley's droning about how much she had loooooonged to see her.

"A governess for your sister?" Elizabeth heard Caroline ask Mr. Darcy, to whose arm she had permanently attached herself.

"A companion, really," he answered, and it seemed to Elizabeth that he was rather uncomfortable with the discussion. "An clever and educated young lady to fill the gaps in my sister's education."

"Pfa, my dear Mr. Darcy!" the woman cried out, not even bothering to lower her voice, even though, Elizabeth was certain, she was quite aware of her immediate presence. "Do you honestly believe that some unrefined country miss can add to dear Georgiana's education? I believe that she already possesses something in her walk-in her very manner-which makes her quite accomplished!"

Mr. Darcy said nothing in return, and Elizabeth found, to her unpleasant surprise, that his silence hurt her more than the woman's unkind words. Why? she queried herself. Why should you care if he came to your defense? Stop this, she thought. Stop this, stop this. This is the way it is to be: he is in agreement with her about your meager qualifications, and even if he is not, he does not think you important enough to come to your defense.

For the rest of the day, she hid out in the study room, with Georgiana, who seemed to loathe the company of Mr. Bingley's sisters even more than she, herself, did. Unfortunately, for her, there was no escaping their company.

"Elizabeth," she said softly, after they had escaped the dining room, which had begun to feel, for all intents and purposes, a veritable serpentarium, "d-do n-not m-mind that h-h-horrid w-w-woman."

Elizabeth shrugged. "I do not."

"She w-wants to m-marry W-Wills," Georgiana said, with openness often found only in sixteen-year-olds. "A-a-and he'll n-not h-have her, b-but she thinks that i-i-if her b-brother m-marries m-me, i-i-it w-w-will m-make it easier f-for her..." She sighed. "I d-do n-not m-mind M-mr. B-bingley. He's n-not a b-bad sort."

"But you have no wish to marry him?"

A vigorous shake of the girl's head was Elizabeth's answer.

At that moment, a quiet knock on the door interrupted their conversation, and, speak of the Devil, the subject of their conversation loomed on the threshold.

"Ladies," Mr. Bingley said, bowing politely, "forgive my intrusion. It seems you are wanted downstairs."

Georgiana rolled her eyes, and he laughed. "You might as well put on a pretense you are happy to be in our company, Georgie," he said. She colored a deep crimson, patches of red flaring up on her gentle white neck, just above the collarbones.

" 'T-tis n-not you," she said, curtly. Mr. Bingley laughed again, and Elizabeth was surprised, pleasantly, at his easy manner.

"I know," he said. "But if I must put up with Caroline, so must Darcy, being my dearest friend. And so must you, being his sister. Come," he added, offering her his arm. Elizabeth tried, hard, to make herself one with the wall, but he threw, across his shoulder. "Miss Bennett, it seems you too are to come downstairs. Master of the Manor orders."

Elizabeth chafed at the thought of being so ordered around. It hurt her pride that he should relegate her to the status of a servant-one who could be ordered to spend an evening in disagreeable company. Yet, her employment was rather dear to her, and she followed Georgiana and Bingley downstairs, envisioning the most unpleasant evening; she did, however, take her needlework with her to occupy her.

But, whatever she envisioned, she could hardly imagined the numerous barbs that flew her way all through the night. For Miss Bingley, with her woman's eyes, saw what Elizabeth did not: that Mr. Darcy's wandering dark gaze rested, more often than not, on the shapely figure of Georgiana's new companion. So she chose Elizabeth her particular victim that evening.

"Miss Bennett, you say you have family in London?" she inquired, half through the evening. "And where in London, pray tell?"

"My mother's brother resides in Cheapside, madam," Elizabeth replied. She knew perfectly well to what such questioning tended and found no need to hide her connections, meager by Miss Bingley's estimation. She adored her London relatives: people of great sense, mind and heart, they stood a head above any such empty-headed, mean-spirited chatterbox as Miss Bingley.

"My, my!" Miss Bingley cried, "Louisa, what a fashionable location! We ought to call next time we are in town!"

Both women tittered. Mr. Bingley, coloring deeply, only managed a stifled "Caroline!", but the sisters paid him no mind.

"But then again," Miss Bingley said, not quite satisfied with the injury already inflicted, "we are hardly ever in that part of town!"

"Indeed, 'tis quite a walk!" Mrs. Hurst opined. Elizabeth turned her attention to her needlework. I shall not encourage them; I shall not give them more to gloat about.

But Miss Bingley needed no further encouragement; having thoroughly lampooned Elizabeth's relations for living in a not-so-fashionable area of the town, she next turned her attention to her dress of apricot silk, unpardonably simple, in her opinion. She took a chair next to Elizabeth's, and, in a voice of a friendly conspirator, whispered so that everyone in the room could hear her:

"Allow me, Miss Bennett, to offer you a kind advice-as a friend."

Elizabeth folded her needlework and put enough ice in her voice to freeze the Serpentine.

"I did not know we have graduated to that station, Miss Bingley," she said. She thought she read a glimpse of surprise in Mr. Darcy's dark eyes and held her chin up higher. "But if you insist."

Miss Bingley bit her lip. "Indeed I must!" she cried, and, to Elizabeth's astonishment, linked her arm with hers. Short of pushing the woman off, there was little Elizabeth could do, and so she rose together with her, Miss Bingley importuning her to take a short refreshing stroll. A purple feather on Miss Bingley's turban quivered as she verily dragged Elizabeth around the room.

"So," she said, once again projecting her voice for the whole room to hear, "Miss Bennett! I was going to suggest that perhaps, I might assist you when next you visit the modiste-or is there such a thing wherever you are from?"

"Hertfordshire," Elizabeth said. She was beginning to find some amusement, however perverse, in the incessant jabs Miss Bingley was inventing. "If you ever come to a place so backward, Miss Bingley."

"Hertfordshire!" Miss Bingley cried, and Elizabeth noticed that she did not like her answer in the least. "My brother was thinking of leasing a house in Hertfordshire-"

"Do you see how splendid?" Elizabeth asked. "That way, you may spend your valuable time and assist me when next I visit the modiste. If one is to be found, indeed, in all of Hertfordshire."

Mr. Bingley, a kind soul, attempted to intervene on Elizabeth's behalf.

"Come, come, Caroline," he said, half-joking, "you think yourself such an arbiter of fashion! What on earth is wrong with Miss Bennett's dress?"

"Oh, nothing at all," Miss Bingley said, pursing her over-thin lips. "Only that it is three years out of fashion, and of a most unbecoming color! Miss Bennett would much benefit from something more... purple."

"For Lord's sake, Caroline!" Mr. Bingley said, a deep, uncharacteristic frown crossing his usually beaming countenance, "I cannot think where you've gotten this notion! I think the dress is perfectly lovely on Miss Bennett!"

Georgiana, face flushed with the knowledge of her own wickedness, came to Elizabeth's defense as well, and claimed that she had seen just such a dress in a shop window in town, only just this winter. Elizabeth, knowing perfectly well that she had worn her favorite dress through the past four seasons, resolved to give her wonderful charge a kiss after this ordeal was over.

"Why, Mr. Darcy!" Miss Bingley cried, seeking reinforcements. "What do you say, sir? Am I not correct?"

Mr. Darcy looked Elizabeth over, from her toes up to her flushed face, more slowly than propriety allowed, and then shrugged.

"I am in no position to pass judgment on the fashionableness of a lady's dress, madam," he said evenly, "but I must agree with your brother. This hue looks rather gorgeous on you, Miss Bennett."

Elizabeth, pained as she was by being made the subject of such a discussion, felt a strange triumph. It should have hurt her greatly to hear him agree with this woman. And once again, she had to scold herself, silently, for caring what Mr. Darcy thought of her. She slowly pulled her arm out of Miss Bingley's grip.

"Perhaps, then, you should wish to renege on your offer, madam," she said, her smile perfectly pleasant. Miss Bingley's rivaled hers in sweetness, but her eyes were liquid poison.

"Perhaps, then, I should." She turned and left Elizabeth be for the rest of the night, content with making a fool of herself over Mr. Darcy, who would pay only scant attention to her, whatever she did or said. Elizabeth, on her part, was happy enough to become invisible in her corner, paying entirely too much mind to the uncomplicated needlework in her lap.

But the lovely feeling of anonymity was shattered, once she raised her eyes and met the gaze of her employer-deep, dark, searching. Why is he looking at me so? she thought. And why does his looking at me so nearly make me unsteady on my feet?

~ * ~

Darcy's head was spinning. He could hardly bear it; he had never desired a woman as much as he desired this one. It was unnatural for him to have so little control over himself: it had never happened to him before. Insanity! he thought, even as his body refused to listen to reason. The worst of it was, it happened nearly every time she walked by. Like on the night when they had read Blake and Donne in the drawing-room, and she rose, passionately, and paced the room as she read. Her body was supple and her movements-graceful. Her tight black curls sat atop her head, leaving her nape naked and vulnerable to his searching eyes. (Oh how he dreamed of placing his lips there, just where her hair was pulled so severely up; or only just below, where she sported a most unexpected mole!) Tonight, of course, was no better; thanks to that idiot Caroline Bingley-indeed, he thought, momentarily forgetting the lovely Elizabeth, he was a fortunate man to have the sweet Georgie for a sister-that idiot, he thought angrily, who sought to ridicule Elizabeth before his eyes, and achieved only that he was thrown into a state of such ardent desire, such embarrassing heat, that he had to thank his lucky stars he was sitting down, for to rise at that moment would have been his undoing. To rise would mean he could never show his face in polite society again.

All alone in his chambers, he dismissed Ponsonby, locked the doors and, tugging viciously, tore off his clothes. He banished all thoughts of embarrassment, of propriety, of things grown men-gentlemen!-did and did not do, as he flung himself into his bed. His thoughts were full of Elizabeth-Lizzy, he thought caressingly, Lizzy, Bess-and his body throbbed, making him moan and bite the pillow. He possessed a vivid imagination and knew enough of women to trace what he could not see, what was hidden of him by clothes, to imagine her curls streaming down her naked back, like seven black veils. He imagined the heated silk that her skin must be to the touch; the pearlescent gleam it must take on in the moonlight. The sweet luscious curves of her hips and breasts, the perfect sea-shell of her navel. Her legs, long and strong, best imagined locked about him in a passionate embrace; and then, and then, the black silken undergrowth, the hot-lavish-taut secret that she carried, that she kept, for him alone.

He moaned and twisted in the bed, his back arching, his body wracked by his orgasm. His heart was thumping, wildly, clattering in his ears, throbbing against his ribcage. A man could die like this.

Dear God, he thought, I shall presently go insane. This would no longer do, this adolescent longing, his pathetic-he shuddered with disgust at himself. He could have her, he knew, there was hardly a woman he could not get if he set his mind to it. Normally, he would stay away from virgins-he was certain she was one, and the knowledge that he would be the first man to possess her shot a suspect tinge of excitement through his body-from country squires' daughters, from women working for him-she was all wrong, he knew. But he must put an end to his suffering-and she was the only woman in the world who could, he was certain of it. And so she would be his. Sooner, or later. Or hopefully, for the sake of his sanity, sooner rather than later.

Chapter 6

Summer days passed, Elizabeth living for the day when the loathsome Bingley sisters would be gone. Jane's letters arrived with better regularity than those from Elizabeth's mother, but truth be told, they were also more eagerly awaited. Then, one morning, an urgent post came from Hunsford, startling Elizabeth from her morning poetry recital with Georgiana (in an attempt to prove to her charge that Dr. Donne was far from "dreary", Elizabeth had managed to instill in Georgiana a love for Renaissance poetry). Elizabeth took one look at the letter and begged Georgiana's forgiveness, but she had to read the letter right that minute.

"Dearest Lizzy, I have some sad news. My poor husband, Mr. Collins, has succumbed to a bout of pneumonia, having stood too long in the rain to welcome Miss de Bourgh as she passed through Hunsford. I begged him to come in from the rain, but all in vain: he felt his office was poorly done if he did not welcome Miss de Bourgh on her way home. He fell ill that very night-a s'ennight ago-and suffered only briefly, thanks be to God. Sadly, his lungs were so affected that the doctors Dearest Lizzy, I know that you never liked him, but he was never unkind to me, and even tried, in his own way, to make me happy. We buried him here at Hunsford, and, as Lady de Bourgh has wasted no time in informing me she is to hire a new parson, I am presently readying myself to return home to Mama. Please do not worry yourself on my account. I shall write to you again from Longbourn. The entail does not work beyond Mr. Collins, and Longbourn is now mine. I think Mama should find that very good news, never mind my widowhood. I remain your loving sister, etc, etc,"

Elizabeth folded the letter, slowly. She did not know what to feel, or think. She searched, desperately, for her Christian compassion; but she could not help feeling that widowhood would be a blessing for Jane. Georgiana, studying her closely, asked, trepidation in her voice:

"Is a-a-anything the m-matter?"

"My sister's husband has passed on," Elizabeth said, absent-mindedly. She yearned to see Jane; she wondered, deeply, at her sister's feelings. She knew that Jane, possessed of Christian kindness far more than she, herself, was, could truly grieve the man who was so abhorrent to her sister. Not because she loved him; but rather, because he had been too young to die (even though Elizabeth could find no death more fitting for the sycophantic Mr. Collins than to die serving the de Bourghs), and because he had been "not unkind" to Jane during their blessedly short marriage. Yes, Elizabeth thought, Jane probably mourned the incongruous, stupid, obsequious man that had verily forced her into marrying him. Oh, she thought, Jane, truly you are the sister of my heart. She sighed, wondering when she would see her again.

Georgiana's worried mien floated into her reverie.

"You need not worry," she told the girl, "this was a marriage of convenience. The gentleman was your aunt's parson. My sister is the kindest person in the world, and so she found the marriage agreeable enough, but she was hardly happy in it."

She looked Georgiana in the eye. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding between the two women, one which they would never voice aloud. What a good thing it is for Jane he has died. Elizabeth, as was her wont, chided herself for her un-Christian thoughts; but then, in Georgiana's eyes, she read the same sentiments. Perhaps, then, it is a good thing your poor sister is now a widow. She reached over and patted the girl's hand.

Her gaze vague, as it always was when she was struck with an idea, Georgiana silently covered Elizabeth's hand with hers.

"Elizabeth," she finally said, "p-perhaps you c-could inv-vite your s-sister to v-visit us at P-pemberley."

"Won't your brother mind?"

"W-wills? Oh d-dear L-lord, n-no." She even laughed a little at such a ridiculous suggestion. "Elizabeth," she said, "you s-say your s-sister is the k-kindest s-soul in the w-world, b-but surely m-my b-brother is the b-best of b-brothers!"

And so, it was decided. Elizabeth would bring up Jane visiting with Mr. Darcy when the situation allowed. In the meantime, she wrote her sister a letter of condolences and assurances of her love.

But, in the days to come, the question of Jane coming to visit never did arise. Or rather, to her deepest, and inevitable, remorse, Elizabeth found that rather than worrying about her own sister coming to visit, she found it more fitting to worry about the well-being of Mr. Darcy's own sister. For Georgiana, unbeknownst to her brother, had placed herself in considerable peril.

One lovely summer morning, Elizabeth set out to walk to the nearest town, by the name of Lambton, remarkable to Elizabeth because her beloved Aunt Gardiner, whose present residence in Cheapside had served as such a brunt of all Miss Bingley's jokes, had been born and raised in the sweet little town. Elizabeth, in need of some exercise and blue ribbons for an old hat she was refashioning, opted to walk to town, rather than take a curricle. Georgiana, to her great displeasure, was detained unavoidably in the company of Mr. Bingley's sisters, who demanded her presence with them in the drawing-room ("Dearest Georgiana!" Miss Bingley said, with a pout, "You have positively shunned us! You cannot spend all of your time in the company of your governess! After all, she is but hired help!"), doing Lord knows what, but probably, Elizabeth assumed, nothing of value to the humanity.

She enjoyed her walk immensely, what with the refreshing breeze, and the sun only beginning to shine with all its strength, and the conspicuous absence of the Bingley sisters. She even ventured so far as to take off her bonnet and gloves, reasoning that there was nobody there to see her. She walked, even skipped a little, along the road to Lambton.

The lovely weather, the prospect of Jane's freedom (for, after the obligatory period of mourning after her ill-fated husband, she would be, indeed, her own woman), the fact that she had sent her mother three quarters of her latest pay; even the pretty cornflower silk ribbons she purchased in town all served to lift Elizabeth's spirits. That was why she gave it only a little thought when, coming out of the milliner's, she almost bumped into a young gentleman, smartly dressed, whispering something into a girl's ear, pushing her lightly against the doorpost of the shop. The woman looked like a lady's maid at best, and her paramour-for clearly, the exchange was of an amorous character-was obviously a gentleman of some means, dressed like a London dandy. It was that incongruity that first drew her attention. But then the gentleman-if such an appellation could truly be applied to him-parted from the girl, and Elizabeth had to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.

The recognition sent an indignant jolt throughout her very being; almost physically, she tore herself away from the sight and rushed down the street, praying to all powers that be that he had not managed to recognize her. But George Wickham had not met her eyes; all his attention was riveted, to Elizabeth's disgust and simultaneous relief, to the wholly unremarkable person of the maid.

This cannot be, she thought, shaken deeply. Perhaps, perhaps-she searched, desperately, for an explanation. Dear Lord, this must be a mistake! Poor Georgiana, poor dear! Elizabeth hid in another doorway and peeked, clandestinely, at the couple. The evidence she thus received removed the last of her doubts: for she saw George Wickham lean and place a soft, gentle kiss on the girl's cheek, his fingers traced, gently, the skin where his lips had just touched it. Then, he gave her a light push into the street and was gone.

What to do? Elizabeth froze, feeling suddenly ill. She could hardly imagine bestowing such awful news upon Georgiana; and yet, how could she keep it from her? Exhausted and torn, Elizabeth leaned her head against the wall, feeling the rough stones, warmed by the sun, against her skin. She saw the young girl walk by, and, moved by a sudden impulse, dashed into the street.

"Tssssss," she said, and the girl turned around, startled.

"Me, madam?"

Elizabeth nodded, urgently, and beckoned the girl to follow her under the awning of a hat store, which she did.

"What is your name?" Elizabeth asked, quietly, reminding herself that the poor thing was probably just another victim of the conniving scoundrel that was George Wickham.

"Lucy Post, ma'am," the girl curtsied, seeing nothing of the ordinary in a young gentle-lady that clearly wished to question her on some strange doorstep.

"Are you in service, Lucy?"

"No, ma'am, I am an assistant to Mrs. Carrington, who owns the Chocolaterie."

"And the fellow who was with you?"

The girl stiffened and edged away, ever so slightly. "What's that to you, ma'am?"

"Please," Elizabeth said pleadingly, "I need to know. I mean you no harm. But I need to ask you. Is he your-a particular friend of yours?"

"And why do you need to know that?"

Elizabeth wondered what language ought to be used when asking a maid about her amorous adventures. She colored, deeply. She mumbled and murmured. And then, finally, calling on all her loyalty to her young friend, told Lucy Post the truth.

"I have reason to think that the young gentleman with you might have been not entirely honest... with a good friend of mine."

The girl started and grew pale in the face.

"Do you mean to tell me that George is playing me false, ma'am?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I do not know which one of you he is playing false, you or my friend. But you seem to think of him as your-your particular friend. And my friend remains convinced that he is devoted to her-"

Lucy's lip trembled violently. She shook her head and stepped away.

"I don't believe you, you mean, horrid-"

"Please-" Elizabeth grasped the girl's arms, terrified that she would run. "Please, Lucy. All I need is information. If truly he has lied to my friend, then she'll let you have him without a fight. Believe me that."

"And who would you be, Miss?"

"I am-never mind who I am," Elizabeth said. "What has this Mr. Wickham promised you?"

The girl colored, deeply.

"Why should I tell you? What care have I for you or your friend?"

"How old are you, Lucy?" Elizabeth asked, harshly.

Lips pursed, arms akimbo, the girl held up her chin. "Young enough, ma'am. Twenty."

"So am I," Elizabeth said. "But my friend is but sixteen years old. But a child, Lucy. If he has played her false, I shudder to think-"

Lucy sighed and held out her hand, to show off a simple carved ring. "He said we'd marry by Michaelmas. I don't believe you-" she started again, this time half-heartedly.

"No matter," Elizabeth said, softly. She was deeply shaken. "Thank you, Lucy."

She turned and walked down the street, feeling like all the world was filth. She did not know how to approach Georgiana, knew only that she must. If George Wickham had been true in his marriage to Lucy Post-which Elizabeth doubted-then Georgiana had heartbreak lying in wait for her. But Elizabeth suspected something entirely more sinister. She did not know the man, of course; but she could not believe that a dandy such as him would ever marry a simple shop assistant. Perhaps, he simply promised marriage to her in order to-Elizabeth choked on the thought. This particular realm was not so much obscure to her, one who had grown up in the country, but rather, undesirable to venture into. Something she did not particularly think about, for it brought forth thoughts of Jane and Mr. Collins, thoughts she did not relish to have.

But if Wickham was lying to poor Lucy Post to extract favors from her... then, perhaps, he truly did intend to marry Georgiana-clearly against her brother's wishes, and, Elizabeth was now certain, only for her fortune. The thought terrified her so much that she almost run the rest of her way back to Pemberley.

It had recently rained, and, by the time Elizabeth reached Pemberley, her hem and petticoats were spattered with mud, and her boots were a hopeless affair. It was in such state-her face flushed delightfully with pink, her hair quite out of her hairdo-that she appeared to the eyes of Mr. Darcy who was, at the moment, promenading in the gardens with-oh, horror-Miss Bingley. In fact, though it wasn't readily obvious, he had intended to take the walk quite alone, and the insufferable woman had attached herself to him in the last possible moment. He was, after all, a gentleman and could not refuse a lady his company-however little he wished to grant it.

"Miss Eliza!" Miss Bingley's shrill voice rang. Elizabeth never particularly cared for the little nickname the woman had invented for her-and right now, she was absolutely indisposed to niceties. "Pray, madam, have you been chased by robbers?"

"Are you well, madam?" Mr. Darcy said, fixing her again with that curious, heavy, dark gaze that had so bothered her in the two months past.

"Yes sir," Elizabeth gave a quick curtsy and made it to walk past them. He did not keep her back, but she felt, with every inch of her skin, his eyes on her. She heard Miss Bingley say, as if to herself:

"Dear Lord! She has so little class, one only wonders about the wisdom of her companionship to our-Mr. Darcy, sir, where are you going? Are you quite abandoning me in the garden? Mr. Darcy!"

Elizabeth did not turn around, thinking too little of Miss Bingley's opinion to bother. She marched inside and ran up the stairs, to her room, where she flung herself on the bed and wondered, deeply how on earth she would manage to open Georgiana's eyes to George Wickham's nature without breaking the girl's heart. She wondered if it was, at all, possible.

~ * ~

Elizabeth knew that she would do well to ascertain the situation as it was between her charge and that traitorous snake of a man (it made it easier to think of him that way). Perhaps, she thought, he had promised her nothing at all. Perhaps it is all young girl's dream-after all, the man did look like the stunning blue-eyed angel painted on the ceiling of the parish church. That evening, after the household had gone to bed, she tiptoed the short distance down the hall to Georgiana's room. She knocked, quietly.

"Elizabeth!"

Georgiana stood in the doorway, dressed in her nightgown.

"W-what are you d-doing h-here?"

" 'Tis a beautiful night," Elizabeth said (it was). "Will you not take a walk with me in the gardens?"

" 'T-tis almost m-midnight," Georgiana said, looking nonplussed. "B-brother w-would n-not ap-prove-"

"Do you always do that which your brother approves of?"

Georgiana blushed, immediately, and said.

"L-let m-me d-dress, then."

Elizabeth helped her retie her corset and slip back into her gown, and the two women set off. The gardens were quiet, fragrant, lit faintly by the soft glow of the few remaining windows. The women did not venture far, but sat themselves down on a bench at the end of the gravel path.

"L-lovely n-night," Georgiana said warily.

"It is," Elizabeth agreed. A pause followed, after which Elizabeth took a deep breath and dove in. "I find myself wondering-" she started, vaguely.

"W-wondering?" Georgiana repeated, softly.

"Are we friends, dear Georgiana?"

The girl gave her a surprised-and slightly offended-look. "O-of c-course," she said, huffily. "D-dearest Elizabeth, you a-are m-my b-best f-friend in the w-w-world."

Perchance, I am your only friend in the world, Elizabeth thought, pityingly. "Good, then," she said, lightly. "In that case, dear Georgiana, I think I am justified in asking you-do friends have secrets from each other?"

"W-what is this a-about, Elizabeth?"

"Well," Elizabeth said, harshly, "I find myself wondering whether you, as my friend, ought to have secrets from me."

"B-but I d-do n-not-"

"Indeed, you do," Elizabeth said, resolutely. "For instance, have you heard any more from Mr. Wickham?"

Even in the faint light there was, Elizabeth could see how the girl crimsoned.

"Yes," she said, in a small voice.

"You have once said that you should be glad to have someone to confide in," Elizabeth chided her gently. "Well, now that we have been friends for the past two months, confide in me." She folded her arms on her chest, thinking, dear Lord, please let this work! Do not let her turn away from me! I need to know!

Georgiana was silent for a long time, head bowed. Then, raising her large limpid eyes at Elizabeth, she whispered so softly that the latter had to strain to hear her.

"The o-only reason I ha-ave not t-told you a-anything w-w-w-was b-because should s-something ha-appen-I d-do n-not w-w-wish W-w-w-wills to b-blame you."

Elizabeth felt cold in the pit of her stomach.

"Should what happen?" she whispered.

"P-promise m-me you'll n-not t-tell-"

"I promise."

"Sw-wear on something h-holy to you."

Elizabeth felt anger bubbling up. "My word ought to be good for you, madam!" she said, eyes flashing. "Now tell me, should what happen? Why would your brother-"

Georgiana's eyes were like stars in the dark and she was smiling, shyly.

"Oh my dear Lord," Elizabeth said in a small voice. "You are to elope with him."

"P-please d-do n-not t-tell-"

"When?" Elizabeth whispered.

"In a-another s'ennight."

"And then what?" Elizabeth asked harshly. "Have you thought of that? Have you thought of the disgrace that should fall upon your family? Of your brother? Of his feelings? Have you thought of me, after all?"

"I h-have," Georgiana said quickly, "I h-have, and that w-was w-why I d-did n-not w-w-w-want you to n-know."

"So that I could claim honest ignorance of your plans."

Georgiana nodded, quite pleased with herself.

Elizabeth could not help laughing, however frustrated she was.

"And do you suppose it would help me?" she inquired angrily. "Do you think such negligence on my part would be forgiven?"

Georgiana sulked. "I h-have n-not thought of that."

"And what of-your brother still controls your inheritance-what will you live on? You've told me that your friend"-she choked, loath to say the man's name-"is as penniless as a church mouse. A church rat, I should say," she added venomously, unable to help herself. Georgiana's face crumpled, and two large tears streaked their way down her cheeks.

"D-do n-not speak of h-him s-s-so!" she shouted, a second before Elizabeth clamped her hand over her mouth. Dear God, she was such a child.

"Do you want your brother to hear us?" she asked. Georgiana shook her head, mutely, and Elizabeth released her. "You best tell me everything," Elizabeth said.

"P-promise-"

"All right!" Elizabeth cried. "I've already promised you, Georgiana! I do not break my promises!"

Oh, why have I promised her not to betray her secret? For surely if ever there was a secret that needed to be betrayed, this was it.

It was George Wickham who had suggested the elopement, of course, after writing to her passionately of his love and assuring her of the futility of any negotiations with Mr. Darcy.

"He s-said B-brother w-was q-q-quite set a-against him," Georgiana sniffled.

"Go on," Elizabeth whispered with dead lips. This was so much worse, so much graver than she had thought it before. An elopement! And in a week's time! How was she to prevent it? Georgiana continued, stumbling painfully over words and sniffling. It was Wickham, too, who had arranged for all logistics, for them to follow immediately to Gretna Green, where they should be married. They would then return to Pemberley, to "b-beg f-for B-brother's f-forgiveness." And for your inheritance, thought Elizabeth, you poor, nave girl. Of course, Mr. Darcy would never allow his only beloved sister to subsist in poverty. Her head was aching, physically, from thinking about how to prevent this disaster from happening. If she were to try and change Georgiana's mind, the girl would not listen to her. At the moment, Elizabeth could not bear to tell her that George Wickham's only reason for courting her was her fortune of thirty thousand pounds.

The girl sighed and stared, starry-eyed, up at the dark skies.

"I l-love h-him s-so," she whispered. A thought struck Elizabeth, a terrible thought which she had not allowed to bother her before. Seized with sudden dread, she grasped Georgiana's arms.

"Has he done anything to you, Georgie?" she asked, looking intently into the girl's eyes. But they remained calm; and Georgiana only shrugged.

"D-done w-w-w-what t-to m-me, Elizabeth?"

"Any liberties, has he allowed himself any liberties with you?"

Georgiana shook her head. "I am n-not sure I n-know w-w-w-what you m-mean," she said, evenly, "b-but he has a-a-always b-been a p-perfect gentleman-"

"Oh good," Elizabeth whispered, releasing Georgiana slowly. So all was not lost; if she prevented this horror, Georgiana's honor would remain intact. There was nothing more to say: Elizabeth could not imagine to begin her argument now. Georgiana, convinced she had acquired an ally, sighed contently and tried, once again, to swear Elizabeth into secrecy.

"Georgiana!" Elizabeth snapped, sending her a murderous glance.

"V-very w-w-well," the girl murmured, shrinking back. "I b-believe you."

~ * ~

Elizabeth spent a sleepless night. Several times during her painful vigil, she almost gave up and went to wake Mr. Darcy and tell him all. What are you doing, trying to prevent such a disaster? Always tell yourself the truth, she thought, and right now, the truth is, you have waded into waters that are far too deep for you! But-she had given her word. There would still be time to betray Georgiana to her brother, if the girl proved particularly implacable in the days to come. If she would not listen to reason, which Elizabeth planned to apply generously, she would have no other course remaining, and, for the first time in her life, would be forced to break a promise she had made.

Then, the morning came, and Elizabeth, looking, from lack of sleep and mental exhaustion, like one of the Three Fates, washed her face and changed her dress. She slipped out of the house, eager to avoid anyone and everyone, and hurried out of the gate.

Up in his room, Darcy stood by the window, looking at her walk away. As she turned into the lane leading out of Pemberley, she pulled off, quickly, her bonnet and shook out her black curls. Suddenly and irrationally, simply from looking at her pert figure, his loins were on fire, and he had to groan and lean his head against the glass.

"Sir?"

"Go away, Ponsonby," Darcy said, politely, knowing that he could allow his valet to see him in such a state. "I shall dress myself."

~ * ~

Elizabeth walked quickly, and stood, soon, before La Chocolaterie. She slipped into the small dark space, infused powerfully with smells of chocolate and warm pastry.

"How may I help you, my lady?" A comely older woman wearing a starched white apron and a neat lacy bonnet came up to the counter.

"I should like to see Miss Lucy Post," Elizabeth said, and hurried to add, reading the disappointment at the shop-owner's face, "a small box of your bonbons, please."

Lucy Post came out, smiling, looking every bit as white and lacy and starched as her employer. At the sight of Elizabeth, however, she shrunk back and knit her brow.

"I've nothing more to say to you, ma'am," she hissed.

"Lucy," Elizabeth said, pleadingly, "Please, you have nothing to lose." She put a crown on the counter. "For your time. Just entertain me for a moment."

"Very well," Lucy said between her teeth as she swept the coin into her apron pocket. "But be quick. I haven't got time to waste."

"I need your help," Elizabeth whispered, desperately. The owner of the shop had stepped out upon Lucy's appearance, and there really was no need to whisper. Still she felt she must, so terrible was the nature of what she was going to say. The girl pursed her lips and shook her head, stubbornly.

"Who are you to me, and why should I help you?"

"Your paramour is about to seduce an innocent girl," Elizabeth said, trying not to let anger take the best of her. Lucy Post wagged her head from side to side.

"You lie!"

"As the day is bright, Lucy, I am not lying," Elizabeth said. She hesitated a moment before adding: "He is to elope with her."

"What?"

"In a week's time, Lucy. It is all arranged. She is as happy as a lark to have him, poor thing."

"I do not believe you!"

"What reason have I to lie to you?" Elizabeth asked urgently. "I do not know you. My only motivation is to say my friend from making a terrible mistake! She will ruin her life, her honor, if she runs off with him. She is but a child! He is a fortune-hunter, Lucy, and my friend has thirty thousand pounds! Which one of you do you suppose he'll choose?"

The girl's face creased. "I do not believe you," she whispered, tears in her voice. "I do not-"

"Help me," Elizabeth said desperately. "Please help me, Lucy."

~ * ~

The demonstration they arranged would happen in three day's time. Elizabeth felt awful about doing this to Georgiana, but she saw no other way to bring her back to sanity. She had tried reasoning with the girl, telling her of the grief she would cause her beloved brother, of the damage she would do to her own reputation. But Georgiana, starry-eyed, only asked:

"Oh w-w-what d-does it signify, d-dearest Elizabeth? B-brother w-w-w-will f-forgive us-and m-my reputation w-would n-no l-l-longer m-matter, f-for I shall b-be a m-married w-woman!"

Elizabeth tried, further, to open Georgiana's eyes to the true nature of Wickham's affection for her. There was no easy way to put something like that, so Elizabeth resolved to speak frankly. Or semi-frankly, in any case.

"He would not subject you to the shame of an elopement if he truly loved you," she said. They were in the gardens again, strolling softly. Georgiana stopped suddenly and fixed Elizabeth with an angry stare.

"W-w-w-whatever d-do you m-mean t-to say?"

"Only that it is an incredibly rash thing to do, Georgie. Think of your brother-"

"W-w-wills l-loves m-me. He'll understand."

Will he, now, thought Elizabeth darkly. She could not imagine the fury and despair that Mr. Darcy (lo! was it compassion she was feeling for the man?) should experience if his sister's insane plan should succeed.

"But Georgiana, are you certain of his feelings?"

"W-why shouldn't I b-be?" she asked, eyes narrowed, watching Elizabeth suspiciously.

"Because your position is unequal in the worst degree. You have told me yourself, he is quite poor, particularly after his falling-out with your brother. You, on the other hand, have an enormous fortune. Wouldn't it do well to make certain-"

Georgiana shook her head, and Elizabeth saw on her face, to her dismay, the same stubborn, dumb expression she had earlier espied on Lucy Post.

"I s-see," the girl said, bitterly. "You d-do n-not b-believe he c-can b-be in l-love w-w-w-w-with m-me."

" 'Tisn't so."

" 'T-t-tis so!" Georgiana cried. "You think m-me p-p-pathetic! O-o-of c-course, I c-cannot even s-speak! L-lord, you think h-h-he m-m-m-must only w-w-w-w-w-want m-me f-for m-my f-fortune!"

"Georgiana-" Elizabeth tried to take the girl's hands, but Georgiana shrunk away from her.

"I th-thouht you w-w-w-w-were m-my f-f-f---" She did not finish, her distress robbing her of all ability to speak. With a gasp and sob, she turned and rushed away, her dress a white flag amidst the greenery.

In desperation, Elizabeth leaned her head against the nearest tree. This job was not going to be easy, she had known it; but she had hardly expected it to be quite so heartrending.

Later that night, she came to Georgiana's room, fully expecting to be told to go away. But Georgiana opened her door and stood aside sulkily, letting Elizabeth in. Turning to each other, both women said:

"I am sorry-"

"F-forgive m-me-"

"I meant you no offense," Elizabeth said honestly. "You are a wonderful girl, and I have come to care for you as my own sister. Of course you can be loved for the lovely person you are, your gentleness and sweetness and beauty, Georgiana. It's only that-when there is such inequity of fortune-"

"I understand," Georgiana said with a sigh. "It is s-simply that you d-do n-not n-know George," she added, her face lighting up. "I-if you w-w-w-were to m-meet him, you w-would certainly l-love him. He is a-a-all g-goodness and honesty and f-forthrightness."

Elizabeth stared at Georgiana, hoping dearly that the girl would survive tomorrow with no permanent injury. For truly, she had come to love Georgiana. She did not know George Wickham, it was true, but she had also come to hate him with a passion. Goodness, honesty and forthrightness! Elizabeth thought, I should tell this to Lucy Post.

She sighed. "I am sorry I have distressed you," she said, softly. "Shall you walk to town with me tomorrow, dearest Georgiana?"

"To t-town?"

"Or perhaps, we could take your brother's curricle. The other day, I have not bought enough ribbons from the milliner-I need two more yards to finish my bonnet."

On reflection, they took not the curricle, but a heavier carriage, with a coachman. Mr. Darcy would not approve of his sister's walking such distances; and Elizabeth was not certain Georgiana's delicate composition was up to it, either. In addition, she did not relish having to walk back to Pemberley with Georgiana, who, she suspected, would by then be quite insensible with grief. She would need someone to pick the girl up bodily and take her into the carriage; to that effect she had the coachman wait outside the milliner's, where Elizabeth bought the utterly superfluous ribbons, and then, follow them to the Chocolaterie.

Today was the day that Lucy Post would be left in charge of the Chocolaterie. Mindful of her employment, she told Elizabeth she had no wish to get fired if the shop owner saw her kiss a young man inside the shop.

"B-but w-w-w-we have a-a-a-all m-manner o-of ch-chocolates at home," Georgiana protested even as she followed Elizabeth into the shop. Please let it work, Elizabeth prayed silently. The plan was so simple, so basic, that it could not, possibly, work. She was doomed to failure; she would have to tell Mr. Darcy.

But there they were, the two of them in the darkened shop, he pressing the girl against the counter, kissing her crudely. Elizabeth flushed: Wickham's lips were upon the girl's neck, the top of her breasts, and his hand was not-decidedly-lower. Georgiana, of course, had seen them, too, and was staring, eyes wide open, ashamed to witness something like that, but too captivated to leave.

Lucy Post saw them, heard the little bell ring.

"Oh-George-please, stop," she begged, "-sweeting, do stop-I have customers-I'll be fired-George!"

He let go of her and turned around. For a second, no recognition registered and he even flashed them a debonair smile. What a cad he is, Elizabeth thought, but then, the man's jaw veritably dropped. He tugged at his disheveled clothes. He opened his mouth, then he closed it again. Finally, he cut a sharp bow to the women and said:

"Miss Darcy."

He did not choose to acknowledge Elizabeth, and she saw, under the black brows, blue eyes flash dangerously. I have now made an enemy, she thought curiously. But Wickham's animosity was the least of her concerns at the moment. Elizabeth looked, desperately, to Georgiana: it was clear that the girl had recognized George Wickham immediately and was now in the state of deepest shock. Her face was whiter than the lace on her dress; her mouth opened, helplessly, but no sound emerged. Elizabeth grasped her by the elbow and ushered her outside the shop.

The last thing she heard as the coachman handed them both inside the carriage, was a sound of something crashing and Lucy Post's voice, shouting louder than Elizabeth had ever heard a woman shout before.

Inside the carriage, Georgiana broke down and wept. For a long time, all Elizabeth could do was hold her, gently-for she had put up no resistance to being embraced and even buried her face on Elizabeth's shoulder, soaking her dress hopelessly. Not a word was said until Pemberley, where Georgiana alighted with a jump, hitched up her skirts and ran. She dashed, startling the horses, past her brother and Mr. Bingley, who were astride in the courtyard, ready to ride out, past Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, bored in the drawing room, past Mr. Hurst snoring by their side, and clattered up the stairs to her room. Elizabeth made to follow her, but Mr. Darcy's imperious "Miss Bennett!" stopped her in her tracks.

"Yes, sir?" She stopped, curtsied and tried her best to look innocent. His big black horse, appropriately named Lucifer, danced and snorted (it might as well be breathing fire, Elizabeth thought). Next to him, on his smaller gray horse, Mr. Bingley seemed almost insignificant.

"What is the matter with my sister, Miss Bennett?"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "She is upset-sir, you must understand-tender age and all-her little problem-" Yes, Georgiana's stammer could be counted upon to provide a convincing excuse at any moment.

He frowned (more than usual). "I must speak with her," he said and made to jump off his horse. Elizabeth, mortified, assured him that right now was not the best time to approach Miss Georgiana, that she was upset and would not speak with him. That she, her companion, could hardly hope to gain admittance into her room.

Lord, she thought, how I despise these little wiles.

On his horse, Mr. Bingley shifted uncomfortably and reminded Mr. Darcy that he could always speak with Georgie later. Mr. Darcy grunted in acquiescence and both men, having bowed to Elizabeth, rode off down the lane. Elizabeth, finally, felt free to run after Georgiana.

~ * ~

For the rest of the day, Georgiana frightened her excessively by her listlessness and quietude. She hardly said two words to her-though she had, indeed, readily admitted her companion into her rooms, she did immediately burrow under her blankets again (and that, Elizabeth reflected, is in the end of June, on a day that could hardly be called fresh). Elizabeth worried, genuinely: what if she should fall ill? She refused luncheon and turned her face to the wall; Elizabeth called her name, softly, but to no effect. Finally, when she refused to even think about coming down to supper, Elizabeth became quite exasperated. Therefore, she did the most reasonable-and, perhaps, the least lady-like-thing she could think of. She climbed on top of Georgiana's bed, and, kneeling next to her prostrate charge, grabbed the girl by her shoulders and shook her, violently.

"Up!" she said. "Up you go. Sit!" She pushed Georgiana back against the pillows. The girl stared at her, darkly, eyes bleak, face tearstained.

"L-leave m-me b-be," she whispered.

"I shall, gladly," Elizabeth said, "but I doubt your brother should be so understanding. He was already asking about you today. How should I explain your absence-both at dinner and at supper?"

"H-however you w-w-wish."

"Shall I tell him the truth, then? That you had planned an elopement with a man he finds perfectly horrid, and that you are devastated because your paramour had betrayed you."

Georgiana's eyes flashed, dangerously.

"N-no!" she said, quickly. "R-remember your p-promise!"

"You leave me no choice, Georgiana," Elizabeth said.

"Th-think of s-something t-to s-say," Georgiana suggested, gloomily, but, seeing, from Elizabeth's rather fierce expression, that such an arrangement was highly distasteful to her, sighed and sidled closer to the edge of the bed. "H-how shall I b-bear it, Elizabeth?" she asked pitiably.

Elizabeth shrugged and shook her head. "I do not know," she said. "But you will have to. Unless you wish to break your brother's heart and make an utter joke of yourself. Oh, Georgiana," she sighed, leaning forth and taking Georgiana's folded hands in hers. "Dear girl, I am ever so sorry. You do not see it now, but you are fortunate. He would have preyed on you-you would have been miserable with him," and added, to herself, that is, if he had ever married you, if the seduction of you was not some ploy to avenge himself on your brother. Georgiana let out a lonely sob and laid her head on Elizabeth's shoulder.

"Please, darling," Elizabeth said, wiping the girl's tears, "He is a worthless cad, hardly worth one of your tears."

She leaned, picked up Georgiana's slippers off the floor and put them, in the manner a mother dresses her child, upon the girl's feet, tying the pink ribbons around her ankles. She walked Georgiana to her dressing room, washed her face and re-set her hair. Her dress, though somewhat wrinkled from lying in bed half the day, was acceptable. She lead Georgiana to the mirror, and then, moved by compassion and desire to raise the girl's spirits, unclasped the chain bearing her small garnet cross from behind and slipped it around Georgiana's neck.

The girl protested, weakly.

"Please," Elizabeth said. "Only for tonight. It is very dear to me-my father's gift when I turned sixteen. It should give you strength. Ready, now?"

She clasped Georgiana's elbow and accompanied her downstairs. During supper, she was torn between trying her best to ignore Miss Bingley's sneering attacks and watching that Georgiana eat something. But Mr. Darcy's gaze, dark and heavy, was glued to both of them throughout the meal. She thought she had read concern in it when he was looking at his sister; she was at a loss as to what was in his eyes when he was looking at her.

After supper, Georgiana retired, having claimed a headache. Elizabeth, as her companion, followed her upstairs immediately. Had she not been so worried for her young friend, she would be rather thrilled having escaped Miss Bingley's society so easily.

In Georgiana's room, Elizabeth locked the door and sat in a chair by the girl's bed. Georgiana cried at leisure, raved and ranted, blamed and cursed Lucy Post (to whom she referred to as "that w-w-woman!") before finally succumbing to a short and uneasy sleep. She tossed and turned and whimpered in her sleep. Then, she woke, and there were tears in her eyes.

"Elizabeth," she whispered at the figure by her bed, "h-have you b-been here a-all this t-time?"

Elizabeth assured her that it had hardly been two hours. Georgiana turned her way, hands folded under her cheek, watching her with fever-bright eyes.

"I w-woke," she whispered, "a-and I d-did n-not n-know w-w-w-where I w-w-was, a-and I w-was happy. A-a-and then, I r-remembered, a-a-and it has b-become s-so d-dark. A-all l-light h-has g-gone out of m-my l-life, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth, though inexperienced herself, had a crawling suspicion that in a year or so, George Wickham's name would be no more than a vague memory of a man who had once made her cry; however, not wishing to trivialize Georgiana's misery, she did not try to convince her of that. Instead, she reached out her hand and cupped it around Georgiana's cheek.

"It shall pass, dear girl," she said softly. "Tomorrow is a new day, a better day."

"Oh!" Georgiana whispered, tears spilling, large and clear and touching, down her cheeks. "Oh, Elizabeth, if o-only I c-could b-believe you!"

"Believe me when I say that you have the brightest future, Georgiana," Elizabeth said, but received only a sob and sniffle in return.

There was a knock on the door and Mr. Darcy's voice, inquiring after his sister's well-being. Elizabeth looked at Georgiana, who shook her head wildly.

"I must let him in," Elizabeth said. "He is worried about you. If nothing else, he can have this door opened by Mrs. Reynolds."

Mr. Darcy, easily dressed in his shirtsleeves, seemed surprised at the sight of Elizabeth in his sister's bedchamber at such an hour.

"Do you not sleep, madam?"

"Miss Georgiana was not feeling well, sir," Elizabeth replied. "I have sat up with her."

"That is kind of you," he said, "But I am certain you are fatigued and yearn to retire." His whole demeanor seemed to be dismissive of her; but, as she moved to the door, Georgiana shook her head again and said:

"N-no, Elizabeth, p-please stay."

"Georgie," Mr. Darcy said, "It is late-you are keeping Miss Bennett."

"Forgive me, sir," Elizabeth said, summoning all her courage, "but I should rather stay myself. I am not in the least sleepy."

He shrugged and sat on the edge of the bed leaning over the girl. Elizabeth was walking, quietly putting things away: Georgiana's dress, her shoes, her delicate folded lace fan.

"Miss Bennett, you need not do those things, you are not an abigail," Mr. Darcy said, harshly.

"I hardly mind, sir," Elizabeth said, but put whatever she was doing aside and walked back to join him at the bedside.

"Georgie. Whatever is the matter with you, sweeting?"

She wagged her head and hid her face in the pillows. Any attempt to speak brought violent tears to her eyes. Reaching in the sheets, he found her hand-large for a girl, graceful, long musician's fingers-and held it, gently, in his.

"What pains you, my darling? What can I do to make it better?"

Elizabeth was entranced, watching him. His haughty manner was all gone, and his countenance radiated such gentleness, such compassion, that Elizabeth's heart nearly stalled. Was this the real Mr. Darcy-the man out of his shell? Georgiana's suffering and his own inability to alleviate it in any way seemed to torment him greatly. Elizabeth felt intense pity for the man, and gladness that he did not know the truth. Should he know, what would he do? She shuddered.

"You need only tell me, dearest," she heard him say.

"Mr. Darcy," she whispered. He looked up, his eyes hazy and troubled. "May I have a word with you?"

Somewhat surprised, he followed her outside the room. There, looking up at him with innocence and concern in her gaze, Elizabeth essayed the bravest lie she had ever tried.

"Mr. Darcy," she said evenly, "you need not worry."

"How can I not worry, Miss Bennett?" he asked, plaintively, "She is like a child of my own-I do not think I could feel more if I had one!"

Elizabeth swallowed a tight lump at such an admission. Dear God, she thought, how passionate he is, how kind. Why does he make himself so repulsive to strangers, when he is so good to the ones he loves?

"Sir, your sister is not feeling well, and her physical ailment, however minor, is made worse by the emotional upheaval that accompanies it. But it is normal, and it will pass. In about three days."

"Pardon?"

"It happens, sir, to all women. From time to time."

"Oh," he seemed discomfited with the simplicity of the answer. He frowned. "But she has never, before-for two years-she has never cried like this!"

Elizabeth did not know whether to be impressed that he knew such things about his sister, or to be dismayed at it. She chose the former: of course, she thought, he had been like her parent, and better than most parents are, anyway. She thought back to her own family: the only person who knew when her courses first came was Jane. It had never occurred to inform her mother.

"It happens to all women for the first time," she said gently. "She will be better in three days' time."

She managed to turn Mr. Darcy away from Georgiana's doors and went back inside.

"You have three days during which you can be perfectly insufferable," she told her friend. "After that, you must become your own sweet self again, Georgie."

Georgiana managed a weak smile. Elizabeth came closer, to press the girl's hand and kiss her forehead.

"Elizabeth," Georgiana whispered, "d-do you s-suppose you c-could, m-maybe-d-do n-not l-leave m-me t-tonight."

There was such desperation in her voice that an entirely new and desperate fear came into Elizabeth's mind. What if her charge, despaired for ever being loved again, did something terrible and final to herself. She nodded, curtly.

"I shall be back," she whispered, and she was, having changed into her long nightgown. Quietly, she slipped into the bed and clamped one arm, tightly, across Georgiana's middle-should the girl, G-d forbid, attempt to leave during the night.

Her last thought, before uneasy sleep overtook her, was:

If they find me like so, I shall be fired presently...

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