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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

A Singular Proposition

Chapter 7

Elizabeth woke up late, when the rays of the morning sun were already beating against the pane of glass. Immediately, she was seized by fear, for Georgiana was not near; but, as she jumped off the bed, she saw the girl, sitting, knees pulled up, in the window-seat.

"Good morning," Elizabeth said, cautiously. Georgiana nodded.

"G-good m-morning," she said.

"How are you feeling?" Elizabeth came to stand next to the window, looking tryingly into Georgiana's eyes.

The girl shrugged, her expression more tired than anything.

"Have you slept at all?"

A nod. Then, looking up at her companion (Elizabeth noticed the dark rings around Georgiana's eyes, the puffiness and the redness, the traces of tears), the girl asked:

"H-have you a-a-arranged it a-a-all?"

Elizabeth gasped, audibly.

"Arranged it all?" she repeated.

"So that a-a-I m-might s-see it?"

For a second, she thought to deny it. Then, she remembered: she had committed no crime, no falsehood. George Wickham really was unfaithful, had really kissed Lucy Post in the darkened Chocolaterie (and had probably done other things to her, as well, though Elizabeth did not think it prudent to remind Georgiana of that now). Elizabeth reminded herself that she could not bear to stand idly by and let the young innocent lose herself to this terrible, terrible man. She had hurt her friend, but only out of desperation and only for her benefit.

"Yes," she said slowly. "I thought you should."

Georgiana nodded again. "I th-thought s-so," she whispered and looked away again, resting her forehead against the glass. Elizabeth remained where she was, thinking, in strange detachment, that she would be, perhaps, dismissed immediately. All the same, she thought, I have done the right thing.

Georgiana turned back to her, her gaze gentle.

"Th-thank you," she whispered. "He is a b-bad m-man, is he n-not?"

"A very bad one, Georgie," Elizabeth replied. "A very bad one."

"H-he h-has p-played m-me so f-false."

"He would have played you worse, if you had married him." If he had married you.

"W-w-w-was he a-a-a-after m-my f-fortune, Elizabeth?"

"I do not know," Elizabeth said honestly. "I suspect so. Not because he could not love you. Rather, because no honest man would induce a sixteen-year-old to elope."

"H-he s-said he l-loved m-me," Georgiana mused.

"Georgiana, he promised that girl Lucy post that they would marry by Michaelmas!"

"Oh!" Georgiana sighed, torturously, and leaned her forehead against the glass. "Are all m-men l-like G-george, Elizabeth?"

"I do not know," Elizabeth said. "I have never-" she sighed. "It is a bit different, Georgie, when one is poor. I am not likely to be pursued for the sake of money-for I have none."

"H-how f-fortunate you are," Georgiana said. Elizabeth sighed, thinking of Jane.

"We have pitfalls of our own," she whispered. She sat down next to Georgiana, and, wrapping her arms about the girl, pulled her in her embrace.

"It still h-hurts, m-most t-terribly."

"It will, for a while. But it shall pass. Come," Elizabeth added, her relief at Georgiana's change of countenance immeasurable. The girl was still sad, but she was no longer inconsolable, and seemed now unlikely to return to George Wickham. "Let me ring for your maid."

~ * ~

"What on earth is wrong with you, Darcy?!"

He was sitting on the floor, naked to his waist, pressing something cold against his cheekbone. The skin there was split and stung painfully. What was worse, his head spun and he felt, to his mortification, like he was going to be sick. He had harangued Bingley to fight him in an improvised boxing match; Bingley, having refused steadily, time after time, agreed after Darcy had pestered him for a good day. Now, he was squatting next to him, looking terribly upset as he surveyed his handiwork.

Bingley, the gentle boxer, was dismayed at the damage he had unwittingly inflicted. Darcy would have been amused, had he not been quite so sick.

"I should never have agreed to fight you! Where was your concentration? What were you thinking of, man?"

Ah, that. Darcy did not choose to enlighten his friend that the delectable subject of his daydream-in the middle of their boxing match, no less, leaving him so unprotected to his friend's rather powerful knock-was at the moment upstairs, reading Molière with his sister. And that Darcy would have given half his fortune to put his head in her lap and have her soothe his pain.

The compress that Bingley had improvised out of his own shirt was becoming disgustingly warm. Attempting to remedy the action, Darcy rose to his feet unsteadily and stumbled to a bucket of cold water, very aptly at hand in the corner of the room. As he lowered the shirt into the bucket, the water became pink.

Now, Darcy was hardly afraid of blood. He had hunted and fenced. But his own blood was quite the different matter from that of a stag he had shot; and so, he felt hazy again, and terribly vertiginous, and well-nigh sick to his stomach. Slowly, he slid down the wall.

"Dear God!"

It was she, Darcy thought. What an embarrassment that she should see him like that.

"What are you doing here, madam?"

Both of them were naked to the waist, and Bingley, red in the face, bowed quickly and escaped into the dressing room. Darcy, too weak in the knees to attempt to stand up (he would not wish to fall on his face in front of this woman), tried to look his usual imperious self while sitting on the floor, half-naked, with his back to the wall, and his face bleeding.

"I have come-Miss Georgiana and I wanted to invite you gentlemen for a walk in the garden-I thought you and Mr. Bingley were fencing-it is the fencing room after all...But dear God, you are bleeding! I shall send for a doctor!"

"No need," Darcy said, with difficulty. "It will stop."

"No," she said, seriously. "It will not stop. You need stitches-"

"No," Darcy said, quite firmly. "No stitches." He looked up into her face. She looked worried. Dear Lord, he thought, what a remarkable thing it is; she is truly worried for me. She has no ties to me; she receives nothing from me beyond her meager pay-which she finds to be quite generous and a blessing; and still, she is worried for me. He felt warmth rise, unwanted, uncalled-for, from his stomach to the approximate location of his heart.

Arms crossed on her chest, she stared him down. He actually had to look away, so intensely did she gaze at him.

"You may fire me, sir," she said, softly, "but I shall send for a doctor."

Darcy sniffed a little and pretended to give in, reluctantly. But the truth was, he liked her worried expression so much, he would have let her do the job herself. After all, pain was not so far from pleasure, and if he had to be in pain, he would much prefer it come from her hands. Or at least, he hoped, she would stay reasonably near him for the duration of all this ord-unpleasantness.

The doctor was sent for, then, and he was afraid she would go; but she returned and sat near. She had a maid bring a clean shirt and helped him slip it over his head. She and Bingley, together, helped him stand up and then sat him down in a chair in the corner of the room. With gentle fingers, she took the compress from his hands and dipped it in cold water-clean water, he noticed. Gently, gently, she laid it against the side of his face. He winced a little and she said, apologetically.

"I know, I am sorry to cause you pain."

"No-" he found himself smiling, quite stupidly. "No, Miss Bennett, you are not causing me pain." He tried toying with her. "Do you suppose you could do the honors?"

She laughed at this preposterousness, a bright smile momentarily reshaping her pretty mouth, lighting up all of her face.

"Me?" she asked. "You are a brave soul, indeed! I have never stitched anyone before..."

"It cannot be all that difficult," he said.

She cocked an eyebrow, somewhat derisively. "Have you ever done it?"

"No, but you devote a large amount of time to complicated needlework. You create most beautiful images with your needle-I've looked. Surely you can lay a few stitches?"

"And stand a chance of disfiguring you, sir?"

Mrs. Reynolds, who had come up to say that Doctor Ripley had been sent for, turned white at the idea and wrung her hands a little.

"Take care, Miss!" she said. "The Master is quite the handsomest gentleman in all of Derbyshire."

Oh, how he wished she hadn't said that. He raised his eyes at Elizabeth again and saw her bite down a smile.

"Do you see, sir, that I could not possibly allow myself to experiment on-" the smile blossomed again, making the jest bearable, "-the handsomest face in all of Derbyshire?"

Darcy sighed. Indeed, he thought, I should take the chance of being disfigured by you, if you would dare. Then, he shook his head; you are deranged, he told himself, insane. Mad and fit for Bedlam. He thought he saw something in her face that sent the most improbable volley of desire through his body. Now, he thought in utter despair, now?!

"Indeed," Elizabeth said, softly, "I do not dare."

The pain was almost irrelevant, so fascinated he was with her, so fiercely he desired her. She laid the compress against his cheekbone with such gentleness! And her gaze was focused, unwaveringly, upon his injured face. And a good thing it was, too; for Darcy found, that, despite the pain and his best intentions, her presence in such close proximity was doing things to him, things that he would not have her see. Not yet, at least. She was sitting very close to him, turned towards him as she tended to his face; he could feel her knees touch his thigh once or twice. And, to his absolute dismay, as she leaned closer, her bosom became so exposed in the low cut of her dress, he quite fancied he could see the deep, dark, no doubt sweet valley between her breasts and two wine-colored velvet nipples. She was all of her so beautiful; he longed, he could not wait to see her the way she was meant to be seen-without the encumbrances of corset and dress. He suspected that these offending garments concealed a feast that was altogether too scrumptious.

He sighed, and then he sighed again.

"I am sorry," she said, softly. She smelled of lemon verbena. He wished to God he could have crossed his legs-a small maneuver that had saved him in the past two months-but she was sitting too close. Too close, he thought...

"Oh! The doctor is here."

Doctor Ripley had known the family for years; at the sight of Darcy's bloodied face, he only shook his head.

"What has happened to you, sir?" he asked disapprovingly. "You were hardly wild as a boy! That you should start getting into fights now!"

Elizabeth rose and took a step towards the door, making him realize two things: one, the very great pleasure her figure afforded the beholder (him), and two, that he did not wish her to leave. Somehow, the thought of having his face stitched up by a long crooked needle (he had seen one when a similar treatment was afforded to Wickham at school) when she was not near almost robbed him of all his courage.

"Miss Bennett!" he said, hastily. "Do you think you could-I mean to say-do you suppose 'tis possible-if you do not mind, of course-if you are not afraid of blood-I mean, how could you be afraid of blood, having stood here all this-"

"I shall be back, sir," she said evenly. "I only need to inform Miss Darcy that she should not come in here. She, I know, is afraid of blood."

She returned, soon, and stood near, watching him with lively, warm, fine eyes. Darcy knew he had to show courage-after all, there was nothing to it, he thought-but then, to his great surprise and even greater pleasure, her hand found his and she squeezed it, gently. Dear God, Darcy thought, what a woman.

The doctor approached, holding one hand behind his back, Mrs. Reynolds hovering behind him with a brandy bottle and a glass. Darcy frowned.

"Despite of what you might think, sir, I can bear to see a needle and a thread."

The old man shrugged and took his hand from behind his back. Is it really so big? Strange, the one they used on Wickham was quite a bit smaller.

"But," Darcy added, his voice sounding more plaintive than he would have hoped, "I think I shall take some brandy..."

He took quite a bit of brandy, and still his face hurt excruciatingly. Seeing everyone flinch around him did not help one bit, and so, he fixed his gaze on Elizabeth, who did not flinch. She held his gaze, steadily, as she held his hand. He was touched, ever so deeply, and was almost sorry, when the doctor cut the thread, quickly, and handed the bloody needle to Mrs. Reynolds.

"Well, there you are," the doctor said, lightly.

"Oh dear," the housekeeper said, looking concerned. "Oh dear."

"Beautiful work, sir," Bingley said with feeling.

Elizabeth said nothing, but it hurt him more than the stitching-up to have her withdraw her hand.

He kept sitting, looking up into her lovely face. He heard voices, Bingley's, Mrs. Reynolds', the doctor's; he saw Georgiana, who had disregarded Elizabeth's advice to stay away and was now swaying a little. He saw, looming disturbingly, a somewhat horse-like face that he recognized, through the brandy haze, to be Miss Bingley. But none of it mattered. The only thing certain in the world was that he needed Elizabeth Bennett; wanted her, desired her, yearned for her. She must be mine, he thought.

Mine.

Whatever it takes.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was in the Pemberley gardens, reading a letter from Jane. The latter informed her that, upon arrival to Longbourn, she was greeted by her mother's expressing most fervent relief at Mr. Collins' demise. Jane, who abhorred all pretense, was shaken: she still remembered how her mother had lauded her husband when he was alive. Now she seemed to find fault with him for everything: that he was not generous enough with Jane, that he had not left her enough, that the settlement of Longbourn upon her was a pure accident, and that it might not have happened this way, had there existed another cousin of male sex ("and then what would happen to us?"); and even, paradoxically, that he had been incautious enough so as to die.

"And when I asked her as to the incongruity-for she had pronounced herself relieved he was dead (Lud, Lizzy! How can one be happy a human being is dead?), and, at the same time, blamed him bitterly for dying and leaving me a widow-she called me a bad daughter, an ungrateful one, and complained, once again, of her nerves!"

Elizabeth rose from the bench in impatience. Georgiana, who was sitting, a book in her lap, on the other end of the bench, looked up in surprise.

"Please," Elizabeth murmured. "Do not mind me, dear Georgiana."

She paced back and forth on the gravel path, thinking that Jane must truly be miserable at home, if she had dared to write of it. It must be rather bad, she thought, for her to say anything. She turned around.

"Georgiana," she said. The girl looked up from her book, a tome of Keats, in which, upon Elizabeth's suggestion, she was looking for instances of metaphor. With the sunlight on her face, quiet and reposed, her charge looked older than her years. She has matured so in these weeks, Elizabeth thought. Misery ages us, truly it does.

"Georgiana, do you suppose I could speak with Mr. Darcy about my sister coming to visit?"

"I d-do n-not s-see w-w-w-why n-not," Georgiana said. Elizabeth had been pondering, quietly, what to do about her stutter.

"But do you think it a good time? With the ball?"

Georgiana shrugged.

"Well, it does not signify," Elizabeth said. "I must speak with him. Now."

"She-shall I c-come w-with you?"

"No need for it. Finish with Keats, please."

She turned and hurried off, with a little hop, down the path.

~ * ~

Darcy was in his study, reading some reports, and-for the first time in his life-utterly unable to keep his mind on them. Usually, anything of importance to Pemberley was of absolute and automatic interest to him. Now, all he could think of was the lovely Elizabeth and the logistics of making her his. At the moment, it was as difficult as ever, what with Caroline Bingley constantly watching his every move, like a particularly jealous harpy.

There was somewhere he had to be, Darcy remembered. Then, the clock struck twelve, and he groaned, pitifully, remembering more. The picnic. Caroline. The picnic. Caroline indoors was unpleasant; Caroline amidst the beauties of nature was insufferable (particularly as he imagined sharing these treasures with Elizabeth... alone). But he could not have refused it when she had suggested it the night before; and he had prayed, fervently, for rain.

Unfortunately, the weather was beautiful today.

A knock on the door, and he shook his head in exasperation. He considered opening the window and climbing down from the other side. But, he reminded himself, it would be rather undignified.

"Come in," he said, heavily, prepared to see the familiar, somewhat equine, though undeniably anxious to please, countenance (he had noticed, also, that it was in trying to please him that Caroline usually committed the worst of her petty cruelties).

"Mr. Darcy," he heard and twisted around in his chair, only to see Elizabeth standing there, all lovely tan and beautiful tousled curls. Lizzy, he thought, not a little shaken by her sudden appearance, my lovely Lizzy. My beautiful Bess. He shot to his feet and bowed to her, curtly.

"Madam. How may I be of service to you?"

There was an involuntary shadow of surprise upon her face; it nipped him painfully inside to see that she had not expected gentlemanly behavior out of him, to notice that a mere show of courtesy to a lady was not expected of him. He had been rude and wrong in speaking about her like he did, that much was true: but how long must he suffer for it?

"I wished to speak with you-"

She looked so coy and so pretty standing there in her simple peach-colored dress. She looked so much like a nymph in it, what with that tan and that flush in her cheeks, and biting-down-on the full-lower-lip. He swallowed, convulsively.

"Mr. Darcy!" The rapping on the door was insistent, and the voice behind it-anxious. Inwardly, he groaned. The first time, he had been saved. The insufferable Caroline had been replaced, magically, with the lovely Elizabeth. Now, he knew, there was only one Elizabeth in the world... and this time, he would not be as fortunate.

He was not, of course. Caroline was standing on the doorstep, surveying the scene with narrowed eyes. Darcy felt a hint of amusement: she looks at me as if I am her own, he thought, like a cat that has caught its mouse. He shuddered at the thought of being Caroline's mouse.

"Mr. Darcy, shall we proceed with our plan, then?" Caroline Bingley drawled.

"Our plan?" He knew, perfectly, what she meant, but wished her to say it. The last thing he wanted was to have Elizabeth think he and Caroline had plans together...

"I mean to say, the picnic."

"Ah," Darcy said nonchalantly. "I quite forgot! Miss Bennett, there is to be a picnic. Will you join us?"

He saw Caroline grow dark in the face. He was perfectly aware that, having suggested the idea of a picnic to him after supper last night (or, more like it, having warned him that one was to be held on the morrow, and to please appear, or else), she had failed to invite anyone else. But Darcy knew better than to be left with this woman all alone; so, he had informed Bingley covertly. He and the Hursts would be there-he suspected, against Mrs. Hurst's desire. As to Hurst himself, it hardly made a difference to him where to snore; but he would do splendidly as a guardian of Caroline's virtue. Should, that is, she try to take advantage of their solitary state during the picnic.

Be it as it may, having Elizabeth Bennett around was clearly not in Caroline's plans. She raised one eyebrow, surveying young woman with perfect disdain, and said, in rather a loud and haughty whisper:

"Come, come, Mr. Darcy, I thought this picnic wasn't to include any help!"

Darcy felt something inside of him clench, like a fist. Caroline addressed herself to him only, while in reality perfectly aware that Elizabeth heard every word she said. He turned to the woman and gave her meanest, coldest stare.

"You really should make up your mind what you think of Miss Bennett's station in this house, my dear Miss Bingley. If she is help, you can have no business discussing her relations and advising her on her gowns!"

Immediately, Caroline backed down.

"You misunderstand me, Mr. Darcy. I only expressed my surprise-"

"I assumed you held Miss Bennett in some esteem. As a habit, I reserve such haranguing for those I hold equal to me."

Caroline bit her lip, but dared not answer. Darcy gave her another one of his piercing stares and turned to Elizabeth, who seemed as shocked as Caroline was. "Well?" he asked, in a far gentler tone. "Will you join us, madam?"

She seemed lost, and only shrugged, uncomfortably. "I should not wish to inconvenience you, sir."

"No inconvenience, madam," he said, softly, and offered her his arm, leaving the visibly dismayed Caroline to trudge in their wake.

Halfway down the garden path, with Caroline pretending to study the greenery around them assiduously, Elizabeth stopped in her tracks. "I almost forgot!" she said. "I must inform Miss Darcy, so that she may join us."

Without breaking his stride, Darcy walked on, pulling her along. She was such a divine weight on his arm; he longed to know how she would feel when actually in his arms, in his embrace.

"I shall send for her," he said. "Now, Miss Bennett, what was it that you wished to speak to me of?"

Elizabeth shook her head, throwing a fleeting glance over her shoulder, whence emanated Caroline's heavy breathing and her poisonous hostility. "Perhaps later."

One would think that the appearance of the entire Bingley party, plus Georgiana, could not possibly spoil Caroline's mood any further (since her plans had already been ruined by Elizabeth's appearance). But, upon seeing her brother, sister, and brother-in-law, in the company of "dear Georgiana," reposed comfortably on the grass, she could not longer contain her malice.

Therefore, an attack commenced.

"Miss Eliza, do you suppose you could fetch-oh, forgive me, I quite forgot you are not considered help in this house-"

"Miss Eliza, you really should have taken a parasol. You have already grown quite...brown in the sun. It is ever so coarse for a young lady to be so dark in the face."

"Faith, Caroline," Bingley said, disagreeably, "I, for one, quite like a fresh summer tan!"

Caroline threw her brother a murderous look, and said, with unparalleled contempt:

"You would, Charles. We all know you like your chambermaids coarse and brown-but I doubt that Miss Eliza wishes to seem a chambermaid."

Elizabeth, paying measly attention to the insufferable woman-for she had found that ignoring Caroline Bingley was the wisest possible strategy-sat on the corner of a large blanket spread on the grass, legs stretched out, leaning back on her arms, enjoying the rays of the summer sun. It was by no means scorching, for a gentle breeze caressed Elizabeth's cheeks and toyed with her hair.

Darcy, on his part, was hardly as disposed to listen to Caroline's vicious drivel; he stood, arms folded, on the opposite side of the blanket, near Georgiana, who fumed quietly, but dared not attempt a confrontation. Suddenly, he turned to Caroline, and said, scathingly:

"Miss Bingley, I'll thank you to change the subject of this conversation, now!"

The woman's groomed eyebrows crept slowly up.

"Whyever so, Mr. Darcy?"

"I'll not have you speak of such things in front of my sister," Darcy said, coldly, and turned around again. That she might disobey him did not cross his mind; he was not used to be gainsaid, particularly not by someone like Caroline Bingley. A true bully, the woman only harassed those she thought to be weaker than her.

"So what of that ball you are having, eh, Darcy?" Bingley said, as if on cue, and Darcy could only wonder at his friend's ability to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. For Caroline, of course, did not wait to take advantage of this new turn in conversation.

"Yes, yes, Mr. Darcy, tell us all about it!"

He sat down on the edge of the blanket and bit a long, bitter leaf of grass he had been twirling in his fingers.

" 'Tis a local affair," he said, reluctantly. "Nothing outrageous. My father had one every year, I have felt obliged to continue the tradition."

He paused, and felt compelled to add:

"You are all invited, of course."

"Mmm," Bingley said, "particularly since we'll still be here in two weeks' time."

"Ah," Darcy agreed, biting down a smile. "You can see how inconvenient it could be otherwise."

"Right," Bingley said, sprawling on his back, right on the grass. "Us, the uninvited, peering into the glittering ballroom, hanging over the balustrade. Perchance one of us may fall over."

"You see, then."

Elizabeth had turned her head at this exchange (effected in the flattest voices possible) and was listening, her expression amused and surprised.

"What is it, Miss Bennett?" Darcy asked, trying his damnedest not to stare at her-and failing miserably.

"Nothing, sir."

"Are you surprised to see Bingley and me exhibit such levity of spirit?"

"I should not call that levity exactly, sir," Elizabeth said, thoughtfully. "At first, at least, I thought you quite serious."

"Hmph," Darcy said. "A fine opinion you have of my wits, then, madam."

"Only that you are not a man for levity."

"Why, Miss Bennett," Bingley said, making large round eyes at her, "you ought to know by now, he levitates daily! There is hardly a man in all of Derbyshire-nay, shall I say it?-all of the Empire who is as good at levitating as our man Darcy here."

"Right, right," Darcy said mildly. "Do not mind this buffoon, Miss Bennett."

"Believe me, Miss Bennett, the man is a wonder at sprouting wings and levitating at all times-"

Georgiana, seeing that the conversation, now between her brother, his dearest friend, and Elizabeth, had become considerably more friendly, calmed down and busied herself with making a large wreath of wildflowers. Caroline, on the other hand, felt that the reins of the conversation had slipped from her, and fidgeted.

"Speaking of the ball," she said, louder than the occasion necessitated, and clearly-in order to turn the conversation her way. She paused, effectively, ensuring that all heads (save Elizabeth's) turned her way, minded that Georgiana turned her with an expressive roll of her large blue eyes, resolved to remember it all to the impudent brat when she finally married her brother, and then went on: "Louisa, what will you wear?"

"I am thinking purple moire gown I bought at Bath this spring," Mrs. Hurst replied, knowing perfectly well to what the question tended, but always glad to aid her sister's wicked little scheme.

"And you, dearest Georgiana? I find I positively must know, so that I do not wear a dress of the same color as anyone else...I find that quite common!"

"Hmph," said Georgiana, in the exact same manner as her brother had earlier. She had already fashioned one lovely multi-colored wreath, and was now busily braiding another one. "I h-have n-not thought o-o-f it," she said, curtly.

"Darcy, do think how fortunate we men are," Bingley said, with a feeling. "It is a very comforting thought that whatever the occasion, the only thing we need worry about is the color of our coat."

"And that choice can be usually left to one's valet." Darcy nodded and nibbled, once again, on a long leaf of grass. He found that nibbling on something kept him from thinking of what he really wished to nibble upon.

"But Miss Eliza," Caroline said, smiling, "pray assuage my doubts. I must know what you are thinking of wearing to this ball! I think it would be positively dreadful if the two of us appeared in the same dress."

Imagine the likelihood of that, Darcy thought; he knew Caroline to be the most atrociously overdressed person, no matter the occasion. Her elaborately decorated gowns and bright turbans made her look like a parrot, what with her love of canary-yellow and amethyst-two colors that would not become even Aphrodite herself, never mind a young lady gifted, from her youth, with rather dun complexion and appreciably bad teeth. On the contrary, when it came to Elizabeth, Darcy found her simple gowns quite delectable: they but accentuated her loveliness and her beguiling assets. "Oh no, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth said softly, "I have not made any plans."

"But madam, the ball is in another fortnight!"

Darcy watched Elizabeth closely. He would love to have her at that ball: at the thought of standing up with her, dancing with her, holding her hand in his, his heart dipped low and he felt like a green boy of sixteen, sick with lust.

"You must have thought of it," Caroline insisted. Darcy sighed. He knew what the woman wished to hear, what she wished Elizabeth to admit to-that she would not go to the ball, would not be expected there, that she, simply put, had no suitable gowns to choose from.

"I am not much for balls," the young woman said. Caroline opened her mouth again, no doubt ready to deliver the final blow, but at that moment, Georgiana, still genuflecting on the blanket, sidled over to Elizabeth and placed a wildflower wreath on top of her head.

"Oh!" Elizabeth exclaimed, her face lighting up with pleasure and becoming so beautiful that Darcy did quite forget how to breathe. Georgiana, holding another wreath in her hands, slowly beckoned to her brother. He smirked and pointed a finger at himself.

"Me?"

"Y-yes, y-you," the girl said, imperiously. Too lazy to stand, he twisted towards her across the blanket and she placed the second wreath around his head. "F-for the t-two p-people I l-love b-best in the w-world," she added, softly.

Bingley, sitting up on the grass in his shirtsleeves, rather stained now, clapped his hands in approval.

"Bravo, Miss Darcy!" he said and laughed warmly. His sisters pretended they did not see it happen; turning away, they continued to chat about the dresses they and other ladies of the ton had worn to other balls.

Elizabeth and Darcy stared silently at each other. If she was beautiful with the flowers in her hair, he was breathtakingly, dashingly handsome, endearingly young, his dark curls ruffled and pressed by the weight of his crown. Neither could bear look away from each other, Elizabeth examining, apprehensively, the strange fluttering her heart gave whenever he looked at her in this manner; whenever his velvet eyes rested on her, making her feel, strangely enough, the only woman in this world. Darcy, on his part, was dying of desire; thankful, like he had never been before, for the informality of this outing. For it allowed him to lie on his stomach, pretending to study yet another leaf of grass, while in reality, waiting for his erection to die away, so that he might turn about and sit up with dignity.

Oh, if Caroline only knew.

But perhaps she did know, and indubitably, her mind was occupied not so much with which gown she would wear to the ball, but with the possibilities for Elizabeth's sudden breaking of a leg within the next fortnight and with the punishments she would inflict upon Georgiana when she finally did marry Mr. Darcy.

"Why are you looking so dour, Darcy?" Bingley asked, munching cheerily. "You ought to have one of these cucumber sandwiches-they are simply divine. I must, after all, steal your Cook."

~ * ~

In the next fortnight, the household readied itself for the ball. Elizabeth had told Caroline Bingley the truth: she really was not much for balls and other such public entertainment. She much preferred quiet solitude or the company of the few she loved with all her heart (which had once meant her father and Jane, and then, sadly, only Jane, and to which elite group she had now sincerely added Georgiana). Balls were full of empty chatter, of hypocrisy, of people sizing each other up for money and position, of men not unlike her late brother-in-law, and certainly of women quite like the detestable Miss Bingley.

Surely there were better things to occupy herself with.

Therefore, no matter the amount of Georgiana's pestering, Elizabeth had resolved not to go. After all, she could always remain in her rooms for the duration of the ball. Lord knows she had letters to write, one to her mother, one to Jane; books to read; needlework to finish. She would certainly not be bored; and a few hours out of Miss Bingley's company were a blessing, indeed.

But then, one morning, she had finally found a moment when Miss Bingley did not watch her employer in her usually severe fashion, and asked him about Jane, outright.

"I should like Mrs. Collins to visit me at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy," she said, honestly. "Do you suppose it can be arranged?"

He shrugged. "I do not see why you even bothered asking me, madam. Your sister is welcome to Pemberley, of course."

At such a show of generosity, Georgiana well-nigh choked on her bacon, and Elizabeth, to her great surprise, felt a flush of heat against her cheeks.

"Thank you, sir," she said, sincerely. He nodded, curtly, and turned his attention to his food; but, after the breakfast, as Elizabeth was about to quit the dining-room, she heard him call after her.

"Miss Bennett," he said, when she turned around. "I trust we shall see you at the ball next week?"

She bit her lip. "I have not planned on attending, sir."

"What did you plan to do, then?"

"I thought I should simply read in my rooms."

He shook his head, vehemently. "Miss Bennett, I think it ought to be clear that it is my express wish that you attend this ball. You live in this house, and you ought to be there."

Elizabeth had nothing to say to that, not after his magnanimity with relation to Jane (though she suspected, seriously, that he was simply calling on a favor-and so soon, too!); and, saying nothing, she curtsied.

"I shall see you there, yes?"

"Yes, sir," she replied. After all, she was thankful to him; and so she would not anger him; would not deny him. She would go down to the ballroom and dance two or three dances, and then she would retire. There, she said to herself, how convenient; you have killed two birds with one stone. But the Fates laugh at us, constantly. And it was in the midst of thinking thus that a confrontation brewed and Mr. Darcy crossed the line.

Elizabeth had thought to appear at the ball, wearing the prettiest dress she possessed-a dress of ivory silk, done with lovely pale lace and with a single rosette placed in the cut of her bodice. She liked it quite a lot, though she suspected it to have gone out of fashion some three years ago, at the time of her first Season (which was a local one, she had to admit). In addition, Georgiana, upon hearing that Elizabeth already had a dress (and her garnet cross, which Georgiana had by then relinquished, her heart more at peace), insisted on seeing her wear it. Upon seeing Elizabeth don the gown, the girl clapped her hands and threw herself at her companion.

" 'T-t-tis e-e-e-ever s-so p-pretty!" she opined.

Elizabeth knew her enjoyment to be absolutely genuine, and so, she assumed, it was her choice which gown to wear to the Pemberley ball; therefore, her distress was rather great upon finding, three nights before the ball, a box on top of her bed. It was foreign there; Elizabeth could say, with reasonable certainty, that the box had not been there before she had gone down for tea. Havingsome idea as to its contents, she nevertheless scooped up the box and went to find Georgiana.

The girl, disturbed in the middle of critically studying herself in the mirror wearing an improbable lilac confection, stared at her in amazement.

"N-no," she said. " 'T-t-twasn't m-my d-doing...W-w-w-what's in it?"

Elizabeth marched towards Georgiana's bed, set the box on top of the covers, and pulled on the lacy bow that held it together.

Inside was the most beautiful dress she had ever beheld. Fashioned out of rich indigo taffeta, it had a deep plunging bodice and an overlay of silver lace. Without a doubt it was an evening gown; it even came with a pair of pretty indigo dancing slippers, which Elizabeth, to her amazement, judged to be her size. But what amazed-and angered-her even more, was that atop the dress, in a separate box of its own, lay a rather stunning pearl necklace.

Georgiana gasped and held one hand to her mouth.

"This m-must b-be f-from W-wills!" she whispered, her eyes shining. "Elizabeth, he r-really-"

"Silence," Elizabeth said, curtly, startling the girl with her rudeness. "Do not tell anyone-"

She exhaled, loudly. Then, moving perhaps too quickly, she stuffed everything back inside the bigger box, tied the ribbon haphazardly, and took off running from the room.

Furiously, she strode towards Mr. Darcy's apartments. What on Earth does he think of himself? Surely, he was a rich man, used to getting his own way, but did he think she would simply swoon if he put an expensive dress and a necklace of pearls on her bed? How inappropriate it was of him to toy with her so; how wrong. How criminal it would be of her to accept these gifts.

She did not wonder whether the Master would be in his apartments, but rapped, urgently, on his door. Quick steps behind it, then it swung open, and there he was, wearing naught but his shirt and breeches, his stock hanging, like a long kerchief, around his neck.

"Forgive me," he murmured, cutting her a bow, "I was dressing for sup-"

Without letting him finish, Elizabeth thrust the box at him (in his stupor, he accepted it and held it to his chest), turned and left.

That night, she claimed a bad head and did not go down to supper, no matter how much Georgiana importuned her. To say that she was distraught would be to grossly understate the emotional upheaval she was experiencing. On the one hand, she knew, all too well, how inappropriate such a gift would be from any male not engaged or married to her, and particularly, from her employer. It seemed to intimate certain things in their relationship which, Elizabeth knew, she would never allow to happen. On the other hand, lying back on her bed, she admitted to herself that she had begun to like him-but, she argued, in rather a Christian sort of way, as a man who was changing for the better from his insufferable superior self right before her eyes. Yet, dishonesty had always been abhorrent to her; and, after much arguing with herself, Elizabeth had to admit that Christian good works had nothing to do with it. She was beginning to like Mr. Darcy as a man; now that she saw how generous, how kind he could be, nothing prevented her from admiring, rather like a brazen hussy, his impressive height, his handsome visage, but most of all, his restless, dark, well-nigh burning eyes.

What a pity, she thought, what a pity it is-but she could hardly allow herself to dwell on possibilities, or to feel sorry for herself. When she thought of what the dress on the bed portended, a warm fluttering appeared in her stomach; but she could not allow herself to be so carried away. The attraction was mutual, she knew; but she knew, also, that a marriage between them would necessarily be a misalliance, and that any such connection would be regarded as highly reprehensible by the society. And Mr. Darcy did not seem a man to disregard the society's opinion; of the two of them, he had far more to lose.

Elizabeth sighed and tossed and turned into the very late night, before finally succumbing to uneasy sleep. When she woke, the sun was shining, and it was a new day. It was easy to convince herself that the events of the previous night were a mere misunderstanding-perhaps, she thought, he had meant the dress for Georgiana, or for Miss Bingley. She was momentarily amused at the questionable reasoning her mind had concocted in an attempt to placate itself.

There was a scratching at the door. Barefoot, she padded to it, and opened. A young maid, curtsying, held out the familiar box, now properly folded once again and with the bow retied.

"Please, ma'am," she said. "From the master, ma'am."

Anger, cold and sudden, flooded her heart.

"Take it back to him," she said, frowning. The girl blanched.

"Forgive me, ma'am, but it was Master's orders that I deliver this one to you-"

"Take it back!"

The girl shook her head, mutely, and set the box on the floor by the door. Apparently, the Master's displeasure was not easily suffered, Elizabeth thought, softening a little. The girl was simply a messenger; there was hardly a need to subject her to Mr. Darcy's anger. She leaned and picked up the box.

"Tell the Master you have delivered it," she said.

The girl curtsied. "Thank you, ma'am."

The maid hurried away, and Elizabeth took the box back inside her bedchamber. Sitting down on the bed, she noticed a small rectangle of paper attached to the bow. She unwrapped

it.

"My dear madam," the note read. "I have spent several hours choosing this dress and pearls and I should like, very much, for you to wear it at the ball. If you do not wish to keep it as a gift, consider it a loan and return it to me after the ball. Yours, F.D."

Fuming, Elizabeth crumpled the note and threw it away. Then, she sighed, climbed off the bed, found the note and smoothed it out on her lap. Then, with a resounding mental slap, she sat up again. Wake up, she said, wake up. Men of his stature do not make gifts like these to women of yours, unless a relationship exists, one that would be wholly impossible. She sighed, plopped back on the bed, folding her arms over her chest, and, closing her eyes, thought of what it would be like to have a hope for a man like him. To be his, in every honorable way, to appear with him in public, to have in him, not only a suitor, but also, a friend. She could not imagine a marriage that would not rest on the fundament of friendship; and Mr. Darcy was the first man, she was surprised to discover, with whom she could become friends. She imagined receiving gifts from him, but not this kind, the compromising, inappropriate kind-rather, small signs of his affection, until they were properly engaged-gifts that would warm her heart without injuring her conscience. She hoped that this one, so wholly out of place, was merely an expression of his will, rather than an intimation at something improper. It would be strange and wonderful, indeed, to have someone so...she searched for a word, but nothing short of amazing came to mind. She sighed again. One more time, she thought. You can sigh once more and pity yourself just a bit longer. She did, and then it was time to go down to breakfast. As she dressed, Elizabeth threw a thoughtful glance at the box, which, this time, she did not even open.

Before going down, she sat down at her writing desk and penned a quick note, feeling, annoyingly, that her penmanship could hardly compare to that of her addressee (whose strong, aristocratic hand spoke of a man of refinement and privilege).

"Dear Sir," she wrote, "I am ever so thankful for your thoughtfulness. However, I cannot possibly accept your gift (or loan, call it what you will), without compromising myself. Accept my thanks, and please do not send this box to me again. Yours truly, Elizabeth Bennett."

She rang for a maid, and, having handed the girl the box, instructed her to take this to the Master's apartments.

At breakfast, Mr. Darcy seemed so absolutely, utterly nonchalant, Elizabeth would never have believed he was the one to send her such a compromising gift. He joked with Mr. Bingley, who seemed to have a bad head from overindulging in brandy the night before; he was kind and attentive to Georgiana, who seemed to bloom every time their eyes met. He ignored, utterly, the solicitous Miss Bingley. And he hardly looked once at Elizabeth herself.

It was towards the end of the breakfast, however, that he turned to Elizabeth and said, rather strictly:

"Miss Bennett, I trust you have found my note to you this morning satisfactory."

She felt herself blush, a thin pink sheen covering the tops of her breasts and creeping, unpleasantly up to the roots of her hair.

"No sir," she said, softly. "That is, I find the note itself quite satisfactory. It hardly lacks in either style or propriety. However, it has failed to assuage my doubts."

He frowned.

"Am I to expect a reply, then?"

"Yes, sir."

"Hmph," said Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth wondered whether it only seemed to her that a shadow of a smile touched his eyes.

"A note?" cried Miss Bingley. "Do tell, Mr. Darcy, what is it you have been writing Miss Bennett! Dear Georgiana, you simply must demand that he tells you! After all, Miss Bennett is your companion!"

Georgiana shrugged in the surly manner she specially reserved for Caroline. But she was eyeing them curiously, her large intelligent eyes darting from her brother to Elizabeth and back to Darcy again. To her disappointment, neither was useful in providing her with any clues to their bizarre behavior (but, in truth, she had to say, her brother had behaved strangely every time Elizabeth was around).

Therefore, Miss Bingley's outburst went quite ignored, as had most of her lately.

~ * ~

Having quitted the dining room in his usual dignified gait, Darcy looked back across his shoulder, and seeing himself quite alone in the hall, ran up the flight of stairs, jumping over three steps at a time.

In his bedchamber, upon his bed, like such utter mockery, sat the box. Pinned to the ribbon that held the box together, there was a note. Not his note, not the one he had sent her. Her note. Her reply. Though he knew, approximately, what the note would say, his fingers were still exceedingly clumsy as he opened it.

Hm, he thought. Hm.

Do not send this box again.

He was surprised, and even a bit disappointed. That she should leave him such a glaring loophole! Immediately, he reached for the bell-pull.

Some two hours later, he had only just come back from his morning ride with Bingley and was about to dismount Lucifer in the courtyard, when Ponsonby came hurrying out, and informed him that a different color box was procured, with quite a different ribbon.

Up in his bedchamber, Darcy refashioned the midnight-indigo dress inside the new box, placed the pearls, now without their box, over the silk, tied the box together and gave it to Ponsonby. He then sat down at this desk and wrote a new note.

"Madam, as you have objected to me sending you the ill-fated box, I have taken it upon myself to procure a different one, which I am now sending to you. Yours, F.D."

Ponsonby returned some half an hour later. Darcy was soaking in a tub, lazily contemplating how delicious Elizabeth would look if only she conceded to wear this dress. He had seen it upon a mannequin when accompanying Georgiana to a modiste a few months back; he was hardly a man to dwell on ladies' clothing, but this one really did strike his fancy. It was not pretty, not girlish, but truly feminine, with simple lines and noble colors. Just the thing to wear with a single string of precious round Baroque pearls. Just the thing for Elizabeth. In his anticipation of the ball, he had gone back and bought it, supplying the measurements very approximately. After all, he had studied her figure far too much in the past months; he could not have possibly be mistaken.

But he had not anticipated that she would prove so bullheaded about wearing it. After all, it was only a dress; yet, she saw it as a sign, as some sort of a bizarre portent of her own moral failure. He had not thought of it, had not thought of what it would mean for her to accept such a gift-for the dress was quite expensive, and the pearls were more so, of course-from a man such as him...

As always, thinking of Elizabeth sent a rush of pleasing warmth coursing through his veins-and his loins. It was then that Ponsonby returned, carrying, to Darcy's chagrin, the goddamned box and a new note.

"Dear Sir, you have misunderstood me. I apologize for not making myself clear. It is not the particular container to which I have objected, but its contents. You understand it would be highly improper for me to accept them. Truly, Elizabeth Bennett."

Darcy groaned and crumpled up her note.

"What shall I do with this, sir?"

"Just take to my bedchamber-leave it on the bed... And Ponsonby, bring me more hot water!"

He hated the thought of giving up; he would pay great sums of money only just to see her in this gown. Why was she so stubborn? He thought, but then, smiled inwardly. She is a match for you.

No, he corrected himself. No match. No woman was ever a match for him, not in wits, not in determination.

As Ponsonby, having lugged two buckets of hot water up three flights of stairs, helped him lather his hair and then poured, generously, blinding him temporarily, Darcy kept thinking, already composing his next note-and the next contents for the box.

~ * ~

The morning of the day before the ball dawned, and a young maid, wearing a white cap and a white starched apron, brought the box from Mr. Darcy's bedchamber to Miss Bennett's door. She almost knocked on the door, but the hour was still very early, and so, she merely set the box on the floor by it. Surely, when the lady woke, she would come out and get the box.

Some half an hour later, a gentleman and a lady were passing by the hallway. Upon seeing the box by Elizabeth's door, Caroline slowed her step and came nearer to see what it was. Her brother, in vain, tried to hold her back by hissing:

"Caroline! Don't you dare! Don't-"

"Sh-sh!" Caroline turned around, putting a finger to her lips. "Charles! Will you hush, please?"

He did not; instead, he grabbed her arm before she had managed to undo the bow.

"How dare you?" he whispered. "It is not yours!"

"I'll only look," she murmured, twisting out of his grip. She managed to grab the box, and, sitting back on her heels, gave an eager tug on the ribbon, and was nearly blinded by the soft gleaming of pearls and the stunning shimmer of diamonds in the subdued light of the hallway lamp. She gave an arrested gasp and almost tumbled backwards.

At that very moment, there was a sound of a key turning from the inside of the door.

"Damnation!" Bingley growled, grabbing Caroline's arm and pulling her after him, behind the nearest corner. There, they stopped, and, peeking carefully around it, Bingley saw Elizabeth Bennett come out. Dressed in a simple morning frock, the young woman almost stumbled over the box. At the sight of the box already opened, she frowned and shook her head. Then, she leaned lower, looked in, and gave a gasp that was surprisingly like Caroline's. Upon which, she reached inside the box, and extracted, to Bingley's open-mouthed surprise, the very thing that had made Caroline sputter in indignation: a stunning, shimmering, exquisite necklace of large round pearls and long dripping diamonds.

"Dear God," he heard his sister whisper. "What a harlot!"

"Sh-sh," he murmured, continuing to watch the girl. He could not read her face very well: it showed no joy at finding such an exquisite piece verily on her doorstep. Rather, there was confusion written on it, and bitterness, and not a little anger. Bingley, who was by no means a stupid man, wondered at whether the sender of the jewels had expected such emotions to show on her lovely face.

Silently, Bingley and Caroline watched Elizabeth Bennett pick up the box and take it inside.

~ * ~

Madam,

I understand that I have made a mistake in my meager offering. I completely agree: it was inappropriate for one such as you. Please accept my apologies and wear these diamonds with the dress (which, I confess, is so much to my liking that I absolutely refuse to change it). Humor me, Miss Bennett. I believe it is a small thing to ask. F.D.

Elizabeth folded the note again carefully and hid it inside her desk. Standing by her bed, she was looking at the dress and the diamonds, which were, she had to admit, far more gorgeous than the pearls he had sent her earlier, or anything, for that matter, that she had ever seen-never mind worn-before.

Amused, she thought that here were her wages for a good decade; and yet, she could not wear them. It would not be right. She would be allowing him an unprecedented liberty-one she found quite repulsive. Sighing to herself, she swept away the thoughts of how she would look in indigo silk and diamonds and chided herself for thinking thus: for clearly, he did not respect her enough not to send her such inappropriate gifts; and not even enough to desist and leave her be. No, she thought, choking the vile little twinge of regret, and turning to her dressing-room door, where her old ivory dress was hung, seeming now so plain and not a little old. No, she could not wear these.

But neither could she send them back to him; not when he was so bent on having her wear them. He had substituted diamonds for pearls; Lord knew what he might do if she rejected this offering. Elizabeth did not like lying, did not like herself when she lied. But, she thought, it must be done: for the next day and a half, she would placate him, letting him think that she would wear his dress and his outrageous diamonds to the ball.

Therefore, when he asked her, over supper, whether his latest note had provided a satisfactory explanation, she looked him straight in the eye and said yes.

Chapter 8

The morning of the Pemberley ball dawned. The household bustled. It was only a tradition, nothing else, and only for the local society, but it was also the tradition of the Darcy family that any formal entertainment given at Pemberley had to be given on a scale equal to that of the finest London houses. Doves in white wine, Russian salmon and caviar on ice, French truffles, the best wines from the Pemberley's own cellars; long lines of lanterns stringed in the gardens, to make them beautiful and inviting once the darkness fell (the gardener had been praying for no rain for the past fortnight, and, he said with a superstitious crossing of fingers, all signs portended a dry and lovely night). Fireworks were carted in from two counties away and set up to produce elaborate and colorful patterns in the night sky, "so that they may dim the stars," as the man in charge of them had said. If he had to entertain, Darcy would do so as befitted a Duke.

In the midst of all the preparations, a rather fine carriage rolled into the yard, accompanied by a red-coated gentleman on horseback. Georgiana, upon seeing the visitors from her window, left her post by the mirror (she had been in front of it for hours, absolutely disheartened by a pimple that had the ungraciousness to appear on her nose the day of the ball. Elizabeth watched her, half-amused, half-pitying the girl. Finally, Mrs. Reynolds put a salve on it, and told Georgiana that she ought to pray for it to disappear by night-which was hardly satisfactory to a young lady of sixteen) and dashed down the stairs. On her mad sprint through the hallway, she well-nigh toppled Caroline who was already at her finest in a new feathered turban (though it was not nearly the time to dress for the ball yet), and thought she might have heard her whisper the word "hoyden."

In the yard, having already descended from carriage, a young woman, rather small and pale, dressed in traveling clothes and a rather homely bonnet, leaned upon the arm of a tall, exceedingly handsome, blond man. Come to think of it, Cousin Fitzwilliam, with his fair curls and large blue eyes, looked far more like Georgiana herself than her own brother did.

"C-cousin Anne!" Georgiana cried, throwing her arms about the young woman's neck. She was a head and a half taller and almost knocked her down to the ground, but Anne de Bourgh did not seem to mind. She was laughing and then pushed Georgiana over to the Colonel, who looked upon the scene with certain older-brother warmth. Before her dashing cousin, the girl pulled herself up and dropped a proper curtsy, but he would have none of it. Pulling Georgiana into his embrace, he placed a fat square kiss on the tip of her nose, making her sputter and fight and fuss.

He was then gone up the stairs into the house, to bother and distract the Master. Anne threw a worried glance at her little cousin, who towered over her and looked all angles, elbows and awkward knees.

"My, my!" Anne de Bourgh said. "My, my! That is some pimple you have there, Georgie!"

Georgiana blushed, furiously. "M-mrs. Reynolds s-says it'll b-be g-one b-by t-tonight..." she mumbled.

"Oh, no, it'll not," Anne said with a vehement shake of her head. "But you need not worry about it, Georgie. I have some powder that we can put over it, so that no-one'll be the wiser."

Georgiana's jaw dropped. Young ladies of proper upbringing did not use powder, only actresses did, and other such "loose women."

"P-powder? You h-have p-powder?"

Anne winked at her. "For as long as I listen to her sermons on proper behavior for young ladies, my mother is surprisingly uninterested with what goes on behind my closed doors... In fact, I do not believe she has ever set foot in my bedchamber," she said cheerily.

Not a little shaken, Georgiana grabbed Anne by the arm and dragged her upstairs, to introduce her to her wonderful new companion and friend. Elizabeth was in Georgiana's own room, helping Maggie, Georgiana's maid fashion a light headpiece of spray roses, for the girl to wear tonight. She rose as Georgiana dragged her cousin into the room; instinctively, she bristled at the memory of the humiliation she had suffered in front of this woman. But Anne de Bourgh seemed all warmth and sincerity, and she pressed Elizabeth's hands in hers, fervently.

"I am so glad Darcy has taken my advice and hired you!"

Elizabeth looked at the girl. Pale, and sickly, she still had eyes that burned with a strange fire; large, luminously-gray, lively eyes. Elizabeth sighed, letting go of her old animosity. She pressed Miss de Bourgh's hands in a gesture of friendly warmth and smiled back at her.

"I am glad to be here, Miss de Bourgh."

"Anne, please. I insist."

A dark shape shadowed the doorway; two dark shapes, actually-the Master of the house, with the grinning Colonel at his side. It was simply uncanny, Elizabeth noticed: the Colonel was a large man, but he reached just over Mr. Darcy's shoulder. He grinned broader and whiter at seeing Elizabeth.

"My dear Miss Bennett!" he said, stepping forward and bowing over her hand with such gallantry, she well-nigh swooned. "Words cannot express how lovely it is to see you again."

Elizabeth, her heart fluttering slightly, looked over the blond head over her hand; his curls shone pure gold in the rays of the sun falling through the window. He straightened out and flashed her another blinding grin.

"You look ravishing, madam."

She looked up and saw Mr. Darcy, who seemed, suddenly, darker than usual, his eyes like bright coals.

"Thank you, sir," she murmured, sinking into a low curtsy. "You are too kind."

"Anne," Mr. Darcy said, his voice suddenly rasping. "Lovely to see you, my dear." He reached over and kissed the young woman on the cheek. Then, he straightened out and gave the Colonel an askance glance. "Fitzwilliam, we must away now, if you wish to accompany me."

"Come to think of it, Darcy," the Colonel drawled, "I am somewhat tired from our journey. I think I might stay-"

Mr. Darcy looked like not a little like Lucifer if you startled it; his nostrils flared, his mouth disappeared into a thin line. Elizabeth thought he might rear up any minute and start spouting steam from every orifice.

Anne de Bourgh must have seen it as well, for she grasped the Colonel by the sleeve and verily pushed him out of the room.

"Well, you are not wanted here, either of you!" she said nonchalantly. "You'll only be in the way, Fitzwilliam, so why not go with Darcy wherever it is he is going?"

The Colonel laughed, mirth abounding. "Hush, Darcy, I have no intention of stealing what's yours."

Elizabeth thought she might die, right there, right now. Why was it that her every meeting with this family must lead to such utter mortification? Mr. Darcy seemed to think the Colonel in the wrong as well. His eyes flashed dangerously; his frown was verily terrifying.

"Nothing is mine, Fitzwilliam, and it is presumptuous and wrong of you to say that!" he ground out. Seeing that he had wandered into a dangerous territory, the Colonel sobered up immediately.

"Forgive me, Darcy, perhaps I was out of line," he said, all of his hilarity suddenly gone. He might as well have been an attendee at a wake, so grim was his handsome mien. He cut a bow to the women, who were still standing in the doorway, in an array of emotions: Elizabeth-mortified, Georgiana-confused, and Anne-shrewdly guessing. "Ladies. Pardon me."

Later that day, after Anne had retired, claiming a headache and the need to rest before the evening's entertainment, she sat on the bed in her room, wearing only her undergarments and listening to the report of her maid on the goings-on in the house. The girl had been picked by Lady Catherine herself for being sensible and proper, and knowing her station well; she was also an excellent spy. .

"Miss Bingley-"

"Oh, how I detest that harridan," Anne murmured. She knew that the Bingley woman wanted Darcy for all the reasons that were not enough for Anne to want him: his money, his status, his land. His overall grandeur. It was strange, Anne thought, so strange, to want someone for what they are, rather than who they are.

The maid, as small as Anne, and as inquisitive and shrewd, smiled. "Then you will be pleased to know, madam, that Miss Caroline Bingley has been falling over herself because of a certain box that has been going back and forth between the Master of the house and Miss Elizabeth Bennett."

"A box?" Anne murmured, pricking her ears.

"Yes, ma'am, and Miss Bingley's maid says that her mistress saw what's in it."

"I am certain she isn't the only one who has."

"Yes, ma'am, but it seems to me that in this house, no servant would utter a word if it were injurious to the family. Rather, it was Miss Bingley's maid who informed me."

"Well, then?" Anne looked impatiently at the girl, who was unfolding a pretty gown of gray silk and laying out on the bed. "What did Miss Bingley's maid tell you?"

"That there was a beautiful gown in there, ma'am, and a necklace of diamonds."

Anne, who had been studying a mole on her shoulder, snapped back.

"A necklace of diamonds?" she whispered. "Good Lord, has he seduced the poor girl?"

"That was what Miss Bingley's maid seemed to intimate. And she says that her mistress was mad angry over it all, and that she was going to tell everyone tonight, that the dress and the diamonds Miss Bennett wears at the ball are from the Master-"

Anne considered the matter for a minute. Of course, she thought, of course. That look in Darcy's eyes, that proprietary, possessory look when Fitzwilliam gave her that smooth smile of his-

She jumped off the bed.

"Get me a dress, quickly," she said.

A minute later, she was striding down the hallway, hopping one-footed while pulling on a slipper as she walked. She rapped, urgently, upon Georgiana's door.

"Where is your companion?" she asked, quickly, when her cousin opened the door.

"I d-do n-not-w-w-what is this about, A-anne?"

"I must have a word with her," Anne said. "Where is her room?"

Georgiana, not a little shaken already by all the arrivals and all the things that were happening, passing just over her head, just barely out of her understanding, pointed down the hallway.

"Three d-doors t-to the r-right..."

To Anne's chagrin, Elizabeth Bennett was not in the room, but the room itself, she found, was unlocked. And, under Georgiana's shocked gaze-the girl was standing near the door to her own room, watching shakily-she opened the door and slipped inside.

There it was, the box, sitting in a chair. Anne studied it, quickly, then pulled on the lacy ribbon. She was blinded, momentarily, by the glimmer of diamonds inside. She did not recognize it-it did not belong to her late aunt (true, Anne was only seven or so when Lady Anne Darcy had died, but if there was one thing she did not forget, it was her aunt's exquisite, tasteful diamonds); he must have bought it specially, as a tool of seduction-oh, she thought, what an insufferable man he is! Try to gainsay him when there is something he wants!

"Pray tell, what are you doing here?"

She spun around in one spot. Elizabeth Bennett was standing there, arms folded on her chest, looking absolutely furious. Georgiana's pale countenance loomed over her shoulder.

"I realize that I present a bizarre curiosity, Miss de Bourgh, but would you please refrain from rifling through my things?"

Anne sighed. "I suppose it would be rather pointless to try to convince you I had a higher purpose in mind?"

The young woman shrugged. "That would depend, entirely, on your powers of persuasion."

Anne looked, askance, at Georgiana. "Georgie," she said softly. "Go to your room, sweeting."

The girl, looking suddenly resolute, wagged her head. "N-no," she said. "I th-think I h-have a r-right to h-hear your r-reasons."

"Georgie," Anne said. "I am older than you, and you ought to obey me."

Georgiana's lips narrowed into a thin line, making her look almost exactly like her brother.

"I-I ought to," she murmured. "B-but I sh-shan't."

"Oh dear," Anne said. "Elizabeth, perhaps I can prevail upon you to demand that she leaves? What I am about to say is hardly fit for her to hear."

Their eyes locked, and Elizabeth Bennett nodded, stiffly. "Georgiana, please, leave my room."

" 'T-tis m-my h-house!" the girl said, petulantly.

"Well," Anne said. "I have a sudden urge to take a walk in the gardens, Miss Elizabeth. Do you suppose you might accompany me?"

"Oh, f-fine," Georgiana said resentfully. "B-be th-that w-w-w-way, the t-two of you. B-but you ought to n-know that I-I-I a-am m-mortally offended!"

"We shall be sure to take note of that, Georgie," Anne said, as she followed Georgiana to the door and locked it behind her. She then beckoned to Elizabeth to follow her to the window.

"She will hardly eavesdrop," Elizabeth said, smiling. "She is much too good of a child for that."

"Ah, well," Anne said with a little dismissive shrug. "She is my cousin and if I know myself-"

"Yes." Elizabeth followed Anne to the window seat, and the two women sat there, facing each other. "I can see that. I suppose that if you may go through other people's belongings, you might as well eavesdrop."

Anne smirked. "Only rarely," she said, as he gaze grew pointed and her eyes-serious. "Tell me, Elizabeth, are you to wear that blue dress tonight? The one in the box?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "I fail to see what business it is of yours."

"If I promised you secrecy, would you tell me?"

"I should hardly believe you, after this little display!"

"Very well, then, do not answer my question," Anne said. She was smarting a little from the putdown. She really did like the woman and did not wish to see her humiliated or compromised. Somehow, she did not believe that this lively, clever girl was her cousin's mistress; and she wanted, in all sincerity, to help her avoid the appearance of impropriety where there was no actual impropriety to speak of. "But know that Miss Caroline Bingley knows about the contents in this box. She has practically informed everyone in the household that you, Miss Bennett, will wear the dress tonight. Her maid has told my maid. This sort of news spreads rather quickly. Most of the guests tonight will expect you to wear the dress and Darcy's diamonds."

Elizabeth's face was whiter than the pristine lace on her dress.

"Thank you," she whispered. Suddenly, it seemed important to her that this woman think well of her. "Miss de Bourgh," she said. "Anne! Please believe me, I should never-Dear Lord! I have only accepted the invitation to the ball because I wished to be grateful to him-my sister-"

"No need to explain yourself, Elizabeth," Anne said softly. She rose from the window seat. "I trust you will do what is in your best interests."

Turning by the door, she smirked and said. "Teach him a lesson, Elizabeth. He is in dire need of one."

With this, she left. Elizabeth was sorely tempted to gather the dress and take it to the man herself, and then fling it in his face, diamonds and all. She had thought something was amiss when she had found the box open yesterday morning, but she could not imagine... Miss Bingley, of all people! She felt hot, shameful red flood her cheeks. How dare he compromise her so! Thoughtless, cruel, selfish man! But she, she-what could she have done-how could she have resisted him without making it obvious for the entire household? She had returned the box faithfully each time, making it clear for him that she did not want it, hoping that he would desist... Clearly, the word "desist" was not in his vocabulary... perhaps, she thought, Anne de Bourgh was right; it was, indeed, time to teach it to him.

~ * ~

The formal Pemberley ballroom was lit, softly, by a myriad candles. The sound of strings emanated, softly, to the parlor, where Darcy and Georgiana stood, arm-in-arm, welcoming the arriving guests. Not yet officially out, Georgiana could still serve as the hostess of the ball under he brother chaperonage, provided she did not dance and retired at a reasonable hour.

Darcy almost hummed with excitement. She had not come down yet, and he felt taught and throbbing with desire at the thought of what she would look like in his dress; his diamonds. It would not only be a delectable sight, it would also be a capitulation; the sign that he could, finally, make her his.

Anne, on Fitzwilliam's arm, floated past him. He thought her smile was a bit too catlike, but he paid her no mind. Georgiana, on her part, drew herself up and looked away, at which Anne verily tittered, throwing back her head.

"Come, come, Georgie," she said. "No need to be so mortally offended!" she teased, then reached up and kissed Georgiana's cheek. Darcy felt absolutely lost; but then, he always felt a little lost when Anne was around. One thing was a consolation: the Colonel, usually in on all Anne's ugly little jokes, seemed just as befuddled by the look that had passed between her and Georgiana.

"Clearly, Darcy, this was not meant to include us men," he said in his usual good-natured manner.

The Bingleys came down. Caroline, wearing a rather tall, feathered turban of a most unnatural-and unflattering-yellow color, surveyed the parlor, and the ballroom behind it, with a curious expression. She looks as if she is seeking someone out, Darcy thought.

"Oh!" Georgiana cried softly. "Elizabeth!"

Darcy, who had been speaking to Bingley-who also, rather curiously, looked somewhat unbalanced-pivoted and saw her.

Dressed in that simple old dress of hers. No indigo silk. No diamonds.

She held up her head and stared him down, as if challenging him to say something to her.

"Mr. Darcy," she said, and then, formally, to Georgiana, "Miss Darcy. What a lovely ball."

Darcy could barely speak for want of air. He was not so much angry, as he was bitterly disappointed; that she had lied to him, had disregarded his wish so explicitly, so brazenly, could meet only one thing: she would not have him. He almost choked on bitter bile.

"Miss Bennett," he said, unable to take his eyes from her near-naked neck, its only decoration-a homely small garnet cross. "How lovely you look tonight. Perchance," he added, finally raising his eyes to hers and seeing fire in anger in them, real fire, bitter affront, "Perchance, I might have the honor of a dance later tonight?"

"Yes, sir." She curtsied, gave Georgiana a warm smile and went past him into the ballroom. Darcy's jaw locked; he did not know how he managed to smile at and welcome the next pair of guests. Next to him, Georgiana, softly, touched his hand.

"B-brother," she whispered. "A-a-are you unwell?"

He only shook his head; then, feeling someone's intense gaze upon his form, turned around to see Anne peering at him, smiling in a most offensive manner. Damn her, he thought, and damn me if she had nothing to do with this!

~ * ~

All through the ball, Elizabeth fumed silently. She reserved a dance for Mr. Darcy, but still, he would not come. Here and there, she saw his dark, tall form-taller almost than most of the gentlemen in the ballroom-dancing with this woman or that (she had to admit that he was a rather superb dancer).

She pondered his reasons behind his insistence that she wear the blasted gown. Before, she had simply swept it aside, thinking of it as a rich man's fancy. But perhaps, she thought, perhaps I have been disingenuous with myself. Perhaps I ought to tell myself the truth. Why would he have a fancy like that, unless he was interested in Elizabeth herself? On the one hand, to be wanted by a man like him, to whom hardly any woman dared say no, almost turned her head. Unfortunately, on the other hand, she was confused by what it was he wanted from her. Clearly, there was a great societal gap between the two of them, and she could hardly hope for an offer of marriage. But somewhere deep inside of her, something refused to believe that a man she had come to like so much could be so dishonorable as to make her an offer of an entirely different kind. As to take advantage of her. The very thought was insufferable. Mr. Darcy was a man of honor and no little kindness; he could never-indeed, she thought, sweeping the awful thought away, indeed it must only be a fancy-a notion to see the woman he liked in a dress he had chosen for her.

What a pity she was unable to humor him.

She resolved to enjoy herself and the intoxicating night. She danced-a few dances with Mr. Darcy's various neighbors, one with Mr. Bingley, who was every thing wonderful, and three with the Colonel. As she danced, she felt people's eyes on her; Anne de Bourgh had spoken the truth, she thought. They had expected me to wear that dress, she thought, the dress Caroline had described for them, the blue silk with the exquisite diamonds. She laughed inside at their disappointment, that of a parasite, who had been denied its entertainment at its victim's expense. She laughed, openly, at Caroline's expression, her long face looking longer, sallow and horse-like under the improbable turban.

"How well you look tonight, Miss Eliza," she hissed, hardly able to contain her malice. "This gown you wearing, I recall seeing one like this on Lady Strathmore-when was it, Louisa, three or four years ago?"

"Four, I believe," Mrs. Hurst replied.

Elizabeth laughed again.

"Three, actually, Miss Bingley," she said. "I had it made for my coming-out three years back. I find it still remains quite a favorite. I should hardly wear anything else tonight."

She caught Anne de Bourgh's eyes across the crowded room and waved; Anne, who was dancing with the dashing Colonel, waved back. Elizabeth was truly thankful to this young woman. She had realized the impropriety of Mr. Darcy's sending her the dress, and would hardly have worn it at any rate, but she had not known, could not have imagined that Miss Bingley would sink quite so low as to look into the box.

"Miss Bennett!"

She turned, only to see his dark countenance looming above her.

"I believe I was promised a dance."

She smiled and curtsied. "Sir."

"Shall we, then?"

Elizabeth looked down and saw his hand, extended palm up. She put her hand in his.

~ * ~

Darcy yearned to speak with Elizabeth, and, as they stood across from each other, and he bowed and she dropped a graceful curtsy, he could not help sounding plaintive and accusative when he said:

"You lied to me."

"You forced me to it." She went past him, smiling at the man on her right, and he was forced to take the hand of another woman, all the while staring at Elizabeth.

A moment, and she was back before him, and he said, as they did a do-si-do:

"Why did you not-"

Both of them moved back and to the right. "You would have me a joke in everyone's eyes," she said, bitterly.

Another change, and he was staring in someone else's smiling face; he lowered his gaze and simply went through motions of the dance, eager to be before her again.

"I simply wanted you to wear that dress," he lied, surly, as the two of them held hands and did a little circle, while their neighbors watched. She lowered her eyes; her fingers felt warm in his. Then, her hand slipped out of his; both of them were forced to step back from each other, watching the couples on their left and right repeat their movement.

"Miss Bennett," he said, over their heads.

Once again, they linked hands. "I thought you would look divine in it," he whispered. "I am still certain you would."

She was like a shadow, light and tempting, and impossible to hold on to. "Perhaps," she said, smiling. "We shall never know, shall we?"

And once again, she slipped away from him.

~ * ~

Later that night, Elizabeth, still wearing her ball gown, poked her head through the doors of the library. She had been told that the Master was in the library, reading, alone. Her one intention was to give him back the dress and the diamonds; she already felt compromised and dared not trust the box to a servant; after all, she thought, a servant had already left this damnable box by her doors, exposing its contents to Caroline Bingley's prying eyes.

She would thrust the box at him, thank him as quickly as possible and then turn and go. That was all there was to it.

But when she saw him, the way he was in that chair-him sitting in his shirtsleeves, brooding, the brandy snifter on the table next to him-she instantly regretted coming. Turning, she almost fled, but then, she told herself, this was rather ridiculous. If anything, he was a gentleman, and she could trust him not to throw himself at her.

Quietly, she knocked on the partly open door, calling his attention.

"Mr. Darcy," she whispered.

He started and squinted, rather myopically, into the shadows by the door. He could not be called sober, she thought, not by the loosest of standards.

"Miss Bennett," he said, hoarsely. She had never heard him like that-his voice rasping so, as if his throat was singed-

"I have brought back your gift-loan-thank you so very much-" she set the box near the brandy snifter and turned to go.

"Miss Bennett!" he called, harshly. "Where are you going?"

"To my rooms," she answered, in rather a small voice. He looked so wild, she had to reconsider her earlier determination that under no circumstances was he likely to throw himself at her.

"Stay a while," he said, and pointed to a chair in front of him. "You know not how lonely it is here-all alone."

"Forgive me," she murmured. "You have had too much to drink-"

"I know that," he said and laughed-a strange, ghostly, mirthless laugh. "You coward!"

If nothing else, she was not that. That she knew about herself, with absolute certainty. She turned and came before him. Her cheeks felt hot, and her knees trembled uncharacteristically.

"Ah, I see I now have a reaction out of you," he said, laughing. "All right, all right. You look as if you are about to toss something heavy at me. I take my words back."

"I am not a coward, sir," she said, trying to make her voice as frigid as possible. "I am sorry you are lonely here. Perchance you ought to retire. Loneliness is hardly as keen when one is in his own bed."

"You speak like a preacher," he said. He laughed again, and took a sip of his brandy. "Elizabeth."

She shrank back from the sound of her name; the impropriety of it was nothing, compared to the liquid fire that flooded her insides at hearing her name fall from his lips.

"You must not speak so, Mr. Darcy," she said, taking a step back. "You are drunk. Good night..."

He rose from his chair, and suddenly, suddenly, she was afraid. He was so tall, so dark; she was so alone here, with him, so small, so regretful she had come, both to the library and to his damnable house. He towered over her, looking at her with eyes that were no longer a dark, warm brown, but nearly black, black from his pupils distended, black from drink and lust burning in them.

She stepped back, tripped, almost fell. Felt something behind her, her shoulders resting against a mantel, nowhere else to go. Trapped, she thought, I am trapped. She dared not scream, or call for help, for fear of being compromised even further. He leaned towards her, put both hands on the two sides of her, preventing her escape, pinning her to the marble. His face ever was so close now, so close, she could feel alcohol on his breath, could feel her own knees turning to cotton with fright and-oh Lord-with wanting of something, something-

"Elizabeth," he said, again, and there was longing in his voice.

"This is wrong," she heard herself say. "Wrong, wrong. Please, let me go," she begged.

"So beautiful," he murmured. "When you look at me like that-there is such passion in your eyes-God, Elizabeth-what have you done to me?"

"Sir," she begged. "Please, sir, you are a gentleman-let me go-"

"No," he said, rasping. "No, Elizabeth. Not a gentleman. Not with you."

And with that, he put both hands on her shoulders and yanked her forth. Elizabeth fought and squeaked, but he pulled her against him-dear Lord, she thought, dear Lord, how hard his body was, how hot, verily burning, an instrument in its own right-and crushed his mouth to hers.

She thought she was going to expire. Half-dead with fright, she still shared in his incredible magnetism, feeling him with every inch of her skin-his body, like a furnace, his mouth on her, hot and peppery and tasting of bitter alcohol, his tongue in her mouth, his body harder and leaner there, below his waist, as he pressed himself, deliberately, against her-

Oh, God! Suddenly, somewhere, she managed to find strength to push him away. He grasped her wrists in his and murmured, pleadingly, "Elizabeth, please, please, do not leave me."

"Let me go!" She mumbled the words, like a talking automaton, intent on pulling her hands out of his grip.

"Elizabeth," he said. He sounded desperate, pathetic. "Elizabeth, please. I need you-I think I am in love with you-please, Elizabeth-"

"Unhand me!" Blindly, she tried to fight out, but then he took her chin in one hand, still gripping her wrists in another, took her chin as if she were a disobedient child, and looked her in the eye, deeply, darkly.

"Elizabeth," he said, pleadingly. "Do not reject me-please-I am in love with you."

"Then you ought to have a care for my honor," she said, nearly hysterical.

"I no longer have a care for anything," he said, and his voice sounded broken. "I have struggled with myself, Elizabeth, have fought this-but it was all in vain-it has been weeks that I have succumbed to you-to your beauty-your spirit-God, if only you knew how I desire you!"

She pushed against him, but could not even make him release her chin. He kept looking into her eyes, seemingly intent on nothing but catching a glimpse of her soul.

"Please, Elizabeth," he said. "It will not do like that. I shall go mad without you."

"Eep," she said, aiming to bite his hand. He laughed, again, and his laughter had no longer any warmth in it.

"Elizabeth," he said. "I cannot help it. My feelings for you will not be repressed. I am a rich man, Elizabeth, and I can make it so that you want for nothing-nothing at all, ever-that no-one in your family does-if only you love me-"

"How little you respect me," she said, putting all the upheaval she felt at the moment in her words. "And imagine, I have thought you a man of honor! How I have deceived myself! Lord, you are just like your friend Mr. Wickham!"

He fell back, his face twisting as if in pain, his arms limp suddenly at his sides. Suddenly free, she dashed towards the doors and was gone, running down the hallway, disbelieving of her fortune. She reached her room, thinking all the while that he would catch up with her any minute, slipped behind the door and, falling upon the key, locked the door.

And it was only when she knew herself to be in relative safety from him-for she did not believe he would attempt to break down her door, three doors down from his sister's room-and as to him getting the key to her bedchamber, the ring of all the keys in the house was in Mrs. Reynolds' possession-that she fell on the floor and wept, hysterically.

She chided herself for her naïveté, for thinking that his admiration of her was anything at all innocent; that he might like her for her, as he would a woman of his circle. She was bitterly angry, hurt, and disappointed; by him, of course, but also, by her own stupidity in trusting him, in thinking him a gentleman, and especially, by her own reaction to his kiss. For, if she were to be at all honest with herself, there clearly was a reaction on her part, the sudden singeing, the powerful surge within her when she felt his mouth on hers. True, she had never been kissed before; but somewhere deep inside, Elizabeth knew, with terrifying certainty, that it was not simply the shock of a first kiss, but rather, the power and passion of his lips, his arms, his very burning, searing self.

Yes, she was amiss, sorely, and would have to pay. Having cried her fill, Elizabeth sat up and looked around. Beyond the tragedy of tonight, there was also the debacle of tomorrow. She could not fathom coming to breakfast in the morning, when, if she ran her tongue inside her lower lip, she could still feel the imprint of his teeth there; could not imagine having to look him in the eye, to be polite, to be deferential, when all she wanted was to throw something heavy and ceramic at his head. She could no longer stay at Pemberley, not when it entailed seeing him every day. She would have to leave.

Therefore, when she found she could no longer cry, Elizabeth slowly pulled herself up to her feet. The pale silk of her dress looked grimy after sitting on the floor, and all of her seemed to smell of him-of his brandy, his cigars, his overwhelming maleness. She hated him for it, hated that whenever she went, his scent would follow her, making it impossible for her to forget.

Her eyes dry and feverish, she tossed her things into her trunk, not bothering to fold her dresses, driven by her need to quit Pemberley immediately; having changed her dress for traveling clothes, she was forthwith presented with the question of getting to the nearest post. It was dark outside, the very middle of the night. She could have asked a servant to take her, but everyone would remain asleep for the next few hours; in addition, telling a servant involved a certain amount of indignity and she was uncertain if she could bear any more indignity tonight.

She dwelt upon it for some time, her thoughts disoriented; then, it dawned on her. She rang for a servant and when, some quarter of an hour later, a sleepy maid appeared, begged her to send for the only person in the house she now thought she could trust.

~ * ~

Anne was awakened by a scratching at the doors. For some time, she lay immobile, listening, thinking she had dreamt it. But when she heard a quiet voice calling her name outside the door, she threw her legs over the edge of her bed (they dangled most pathetically, hardly reaching the floor), and slid to the floor.

A young maid, huddling in a shawl over her nightgown, informed her, with apologies, that Miss Elizabeth Bennett begged her, Miss de Bourgh, to come to her room, soon as may be. Anne, still hazy from sleep, stared at the girl for a second. Then, she nodded and went to get her shawl.

Inside her room, Elizabeth Bennett paced, dressed, though somewhat haphazardly, in her traveling clothes. Anne took one look at her, at her packed trunk, and then sat down, as heavily as her diminutive weight would allow, upon the edge of Elizabeth's made-up bed.

"Dear God, Elizabeth," she said. "What's happened to you?"

The girl wagged her head and said nothing. Then, she took a long, deep breath, and said (her voice sounded breakable, as if she might cry at any minute):

"Help me, Anne. I beg of you, help me."

At first, Anne refused absolutely. She could not imagine the responsibility it entailed-that she should have her carriage take a single woman, in the middle of the night, to the post stop and leave her there! She agreed, grudgingly, after Elizabeth threatened to walk to the stop.

"You can have the carriage, Elizabeth, to take you wherever you need to go."

Visibly, the girl gulped down her tears.

"You have been a friend to me," she said, "and so I shall tell you the truth. I really do not have anywhere to go-and even I did, I should not tell you, for fear that you might divulge where your carriage took me."

"You are in such a hurry to disappear," Anne whispered, thoughtfully.

"Believe me, Anne, I have committed no wrong. I have taken nothing from Pemberley, except the wages paid to me-"

Anne blushed with embarrassment-an ability she had not known she possessed.

"I did not mean for it to sound like that," she said. "But do understand, Elizabeth, it is all most singular-"

"Will you help me?" Elizabeth asked, her voice tottering on the brink of hysterics.

"Allow me to wake the Colonel-we could take you together-"

"Absolutely not," Elizabeth said. In her mind, she remembered the Colonel's dashing smile as a leer. Just like his cousin, she thought. They are all the same, quick to prey on the ones who cannot protect themselves- "Pray, Anne! Either you help me, or please, return to your bed and forget about me forever..."

"Very well," Anne whispered, studying Elizabeth's face. "But on one condition. My man will stay with you until you board your post-"

Elizabeth inclined her head. "Thank you," she said. "I am forever in your debt."

Already dressed for the road, she slipped into Georgiana's room and stood over the girl, who slept like a child, one leg sticking from under the blanket, lanky and awkward. She felt tears-bitter, stinging tears. She leaned and touched the girl's forehead with her lips.

Anne came up behind her.

"She is sure to ask about you come morning," she whispered.

"I shall write her a letter, at the first opportunity," Elizabeth replied, ignoring a painful stab at her heart.

"Come, then," Anne whispered. Elizabeth nodded, took a deep breath, and the two women disappeared into the dark of the hallway.

~ * ~

In the morning, Darcy woke with a feeling of having committed a terrible, terrible mistake. He was in the library, wracked in a chair that was too small for him; his mouth felt rather like something had died in it. Next to him, a brandy bottle and a snifter explained the headache, the sickness, the general malaise. He pulled himself out of the chair and stumbled, feeling increasingly ill, to his own apartments. Once there, he thought, he might remember; and then, the awful heavy feeling would disappear.

But he could not remember, and the sense of having done some awful, incurable wrong persisted. It exacerbated his headache, his sickness; it throbbed in his mind as he was taking his bath. I have done something wrong, he thought, so wrong. At breakfast, he did not eat, but downed two cups of coffee; his only companions were Bingley and Georgiana; he did not expect anyone else, thinking that his guests were sleeping off their nighttime revels. Georgie seemed dazed and tired, and Darcy wondered about the wisdom of letting her host the ball with him. She was, after all, but a child. Right now, she amused herself by spearing, absent-mindedly, the omelet on her plate with her fork, as if it was some small animal, and then releasing it again. The yellow mass on her plate had long lost any resemblance to omelet, or to eggs in general. Darcy found his patience unusually short this morning.

"Georgie," he said, irritably, "do stop toying with your food."

"Right," Bingley added, biting down a smile, "Miss Darcy, you should know that there are countless orphans starving in London, even as we speak."

"Ah," Georgiana said and covered her mouth delicately as she yawned. "A-a-and i-if I stop t-toying w-w-w-with m-my f-food they w-will stop s-s-starving?"

Darcy did not know what to say to such unprecedented audacity on her part. Moreover, any, no doubt scathing, reply he might have was prevented by him having bit through his cheek and seeing, in front of him, innumerable interconnecting circles of blue and purple. Bingley, baying with laughter, hardly helped the situation.

My God, what did I do?

A sound of chair being moved, and he found himself staring into a pair of gray, angry, burning eyes.

"Good morning, Anne," he said. "Good morning, Fitzwilliam."

"Good morning, Darcy, Bingley, Georgie," the Colonel replied genially.

Anne said nothing, cutting her food furiously; so furiously, in fact, that a bit of egg-and-bacon flew off and hit Bingley in the nose, making him flinch.

"Anne," Georgiana said, suddenly. "I h-had the st-strangest d-dream l-last n-night..."

"I know nothing of dreams," Anne said curtly, keeping her eyes on her plate. Fitzwilliam at her side threw her a curious glance, his own manners impeccable.

"Yes, b-but you w-w-were in it," Georgiana went on, oblivious to the fact that Anne clearly did not wish to speak of it.

"How curious, Georgie," Fitzwilliam said, grinning. Anne flashed her nearly-white eyes at her cousin.

Anne slammed her silverware down on the table.

"Stop that, both of you! I was not in any dream!"

"Curioser and curioser," Fitzwilliam said. "Is it not, Darcy?"

"Hmph," said Darcy.

"Georgie, I shall have you know that I make it a point to never be in anyone's dreams-it is exceedingly common and vulgar!"

"Oh, b-but you w-w-w-were in m-mine," Georgiana said softly. "Y-you a-and Elizabeth. The t-two of you w-w-w-were s-standing ov-ver my b-bed... and then Elizabeth l-leaned and k-kissed me, and you s-said s-something ab-bout me asking f-for h-her w-w-w-when I w-w-w-woke..."

With a clang and thud of her chair, Anne flew to her feet.

"I shall go now," she said, shaking off Fitzwilliam's calming hand. "Indeed, I shall return to mama. She is infinitely preferable to this pandemonium."

"Oh," Fitzwilliam said. "Now, that is a proclamation to make." "

You!" Anne clamored. "All of you, with your diamonds, and your governesses, and your blasted dreams!"

"Close your mouth, Bingley," Fitzwilliam advised, light-heartedly.

Anne strode out of the dining room, as small and delicate as a figurine, as furious as a particularly ill-disposed harpy.

A second later, all three of her cousins ran after her into the hallway.

"Anne, return immediately!"

"Whatever do you mean, I insist on knowing!"

"C-cousin A-anne, it w-w-was not really a d-dream, then?"

Without breaking her stride, Anne pointed her finger at Darcy's chest.

"You," she said curtly. "A word. Alone."

"B-but A-anne-"

"Fitzwilliam, would you take her away, please?"

"Georgie-"

"L-let m-me b-be-ah! C-cousin F-fitz-p-put m-me d-down!"

Georgiana Darcy was a tall girl, a very tall one, indeed; but all her height was hardly a match for her cousin's military brawn. Therefore, when the good Colonel flipped her over the shoulder and strode back towards the dining room, all the fight she put up was absolutely for naught.

Chapter 9

Darcy and Anne reached the doors of the library in grim silence. It was clear to him that she was furious, and if he knew his cousin, she was never furious without a good reason to be (indeed, one could be sure that, having lived her entire life with her mother, Anne de Bourgh had learned to differentiate between the truly grave problems-like her mother-and the rest of them; if she were furious, most people would be aghast, livid, or worse). Silently, Darcy opened the door to the library and let her go inside. Sliding in after her, he closed the door firmly behind him and locked it. Somehow, he felt, whatever Anne had to tell him was better said behind locked doors.

Then, he turned around, leaning against the door.

"Well?" he asked.

"Well what?" Anne snapped.

"You wished to have a word with me, alone. We are alone. Say what you must."

Anne folded her arms on her chest. "Perhaps I ought to have you offer an explanation for your beastly behavior last night."

Darcy grew paler.

"My beastly behavior?" he murmured, hoping, despite himself, that it was all some jest. But he knew that it was rather unlike Anne to engage in such stupid, cruel jokes; and what was worse, deep inside, he knew that it was no joke. He had done something wrong, terribly, terribly wrong...

Anne pursed her lips and held up her chin. Then, she cocked one eyebrow and narrowed her eyes, a miniature, but scathing enough, picture of disapprobation.

"I suppose it must have been quite horrid, judging by the look on Miss Bennett's face."

Darcy felt ill; very ill, in fact. Snippets of conversation flared up in his memory-her voice, terrified, begging, this is wrong, so wrong, please let me go, you are a gentleman, sir-and his own, possessed, bewildered, covetous. I am in love with you, Elizabeth, he had said. Darcy sat down, slowly, in the nearest chair, rested his elbows on his knees, his forehead on his folded hands.

He could not bear to look Anne in the eye.

Anne was merciless.

"I see that I am correct, then," she said icily. "It was you who frightened her so-but what did you do, Darcy?"

His throat was parched, he did not think he could get a single word out.

"I-I had too much to drink-I fear I might have forgotten myself-"

"Darcy!" Shocked by what she was discovering-more than she had bargained for, perhaps-Anne held one hand to her mouth, instinctively, covering up a gasp. Thereupon, she repeated her question. "Dear God, man, what did you do?!"

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying his hardest to reconstruct, through the haze of a vicious headache, exactly what had happened. But it was all in vain; all he managed to remember was a mélange of images, dreamlike, nightmarish. Elizabeth standing there, holding out a box-a blue box with a lace bow-her hand, white against the dark-blue cardboard-his own hands on her, too dark, too large over the demure pale silk of her gown-greedy hands, grasping her, digging in rapaciously-and the feeling, as divine then as it was terrifying now, the feeling he would hardly ever forget, the maddening sensation of her body pressed against his.

He shook his head.

"Annie," he said. "I know I have done her some wrong. I cannot speak of it with you-cannot tell you everything-"

She shrugged, in visible distaste. "Darcy," she said, seemingly fighting to speak in that tight, controlled voice of hers. "My tender morals are none of your concern. I like that girl, cousin. I demand to know what happened."

He threw her a surprised glance-at that moment, she reminded him of her mother at her most imperious. The resemblance was too close for comfort, and he shivered. Reluctantly, he said:

"I know I have behaved ungentlemanly-but I am not certain whether-"

Whether I have forced myself upon her. He could not bear say that, but fortunately, Anne understood.

"When I saw her," she said, her gaze softening, "when I saw her-she had sent for me-when I saw her, Darcy, she looked-" she paused, looking for a word "-distraught and a bit disheveled."

Darcy let out an inarticulate groan.

"-but she did not look-" Anne paused again, then said, quickly, with a loud rush of breath, "-she did not look violated."

Thank God, he thought. He could not bear to think that he had lost himself so completely-for he had thought himself a man of honor, a gentleman-he could not bear to know that he had fallen so low, drink or no drink.

And then he remembered, remembered what had stopped him. Not the notion of honor, but rather, the words she had thrown at him. Lord, you are just like your friend Mr. Wickham! Even then, with lust driving him and alcohol dulling his conscience and judgment, even then he knew to be aghast at this comparison, and, what was far worse, at the truth of her words. He had behaved like Wickham-had she not stopped him, had she not said these words, God knows what he would have done (he knew, with certainty, what Wickham would have done, and he did not wish to be anything like him)-

"Annie," he said, raising his eyes at her, "I trust in your discretion-"

"You need not worry about that," she said, lips curving derisively. "I should not care a tuppence for your reputation, you awful, terrible cad-but I should never betray her confidence."

He flew to his feet, spurred to activity. "Oh, Annie! How shall I make it up to her? No wonder she has not come down for breakfast! I must go-must speak with her- "

Anne stopped him, laying a hand on his arm. "Darcy," she said.

"-can you ask her to see me-I am certain she would not otherwise-"

"Darcy," Anne repeated, and something in the way she was looking at him stopped him in his tracks.

"What?" he asked, irritably.

"She is gone," Anne said. It took him all of his willpower to remain standing.

"Gone?"

"I had my man take her to the nearest post stop-"

"Anne! How could you?" At this moment he wished, fervently, that his dainty cousin had been born a man; then, he could have throttled her... him. As it was, he caught himself staring in her dispassionate, silver-gray eyes.

"She begged me for help," she said, scathingly. "Certainly, I could not refuse her!"

He turned on one heel, in desperation, in his need to run somewhere, do something. He had not imagined, ever, what it would be like to lose her. It felt empty, more than anything, and a terrible calamity, in the face of which he felt absolutely helpless. Where to go, where to look for her-and he took it for granted that he must look for her-that he must find her, must explain himself-but even as he thought so, he realized how futile such an undertaking would be. She could have taken that post anywhere at all-and even if he did find her, he found himself thinking, what could he possibly say to her, to erase the memory of the night before, of the one time when his cruel, selfish lust had sent her running, like a frightened doe, away from Pemberley. In the middle of the night, he thought, bitterly. How frightened, how mortified she must have been! He closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands-for it was burning with shame.

Then, he turned towards Anne and was at her, grasping her shoulders tightly, raising her off the floor. Her feet dangled in the air, but her eyes were light, derisive, laughing at him.

"Where did your man take her?" he demanded, rasping.

"I do not know," Anne said, coldly. "I never thought to ask."

"As the day is bright, Anne, you are lying to me!"

"Damnation, will you let me go!" she hissed. "Do you suppose I should tell you, even if I knew?! Do you think I should do anything to help you?!"

"She might be in danger-"

"Methinks she is in greater danger here!" Anne snapped, all the while trying to wriggle out of his grasp. "Darcy, you put me down, you great big boor, or I shall call for help! No doubt she took off running, you are an absolute lout!"

Darcy saw it was high time to change strategy. He lowered Anne, rather gently, then tried his best to look like a housebroken dog.

"Anne," he said. "Please. I must find her."

She regarded him with suspicion. "Why? So that you might renew your addresses to her?"

"No, Anne-I do not know-" he shook his head in bewilderment and then repeated, softly. "I do not know. To beg her forgiveness, I suppose."

"I do not believe you," she said. Darcy hung his head, penitent. The truth was, he could hardly believe himself. The news of Elizabeth's escape undid him so utterly, he would have renounced his birthright, if it helped undo the hurt he had caused her... The only thing he knew was that he must find Elizabeth, must bring her back, must make it up to her-or else, he thought, with dismal certainty, my life is done for.

"Please, Anne."

"To think only," she said, bitterly. "I had not known you were even familiar with the word..."

But, in spite of all her bile, she was softening, he could see-and so, he renewed his assault.

"Anne," he said. "Ask what you want of me-"

"I want nothing of you," she said ruefully. "Only an assurance that you would do her no more harm."

"You have it," he said, quickly. He was desperate. He knew that Anne's man would not talk without her permission; those who served his little cousin were devoted to her. "Please, Annie, 'tis no ploy. I am not trying to find her only to try seducing her once again-"

"I know that," Anne said angrily. "I am not certain, however, that you can trust yourself not to."

A long pause ensued during which the cousins studied each other-Anne still angry, Darcy now deeply despaired to ever find Elizabeth. Then, he rose and strode, swiftly, towards the doors.

"Where are you going?" Anne asked quickly.

"To search for her," he said, not looking at her.

"How will you-"

"I do not know," Darcy said, dryly, "I only know that I must." With this, he strode out. Anne sighed, rubbed her hand against her eyes. Then, she shot to her feet and ran after her cousin.

"Darcy! Darcy, wait!"

~ * ~

Only an hour passed, but Darcy was already in the courtyard, dressed for the road, leaning down from Lucifer's saddle to kiss Georgiana good-bye. The house was in a state of great upheaval, but the only thing everyone knew was that Miss Elizabeth Bennett had absconded during the night and the Master-now, that was shocking!-was going to fetch her. Only Darcy himself and Anne knew the truth; and, if Darcy knew his cousin at all, he could count on her to keep an utterly sepulchral silence on the subject.

Leaning down from horseback, Darcy placed his lips against Georgiana's cheek. It felt cool; Georgiana herself seemed to be in a state of utter shock. Her friend had disappeared; and now it was her brother who looked ready to go. Everyone's abandonment pained her; she sighed, unhappily. Anne wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders, and the Colonel patted her cheek gently. Clearly, he, too, knew nothing, and whatever he did know, came out shrewd guesswork; the Colonel, after all, was a very clever man.

"Georgie," Darcy said, forcing her to look up at him. "Miss Bennett and I shall be back before you know it."

She gave him a tortured smile.

"You d-do that," she whispered.

Reaching down from the saddle, Darcy pressed Anne's small hand.

"I am so sorry, Annie," he said. She nodded.

"I am tied between wishing you luck and hoping that you fail direly in your endeavor."

"Wish me luck," he said.

Anne said nothing, but sighed in a way that made the smiling Colonel study her thoughtfully.

~ * ~

As to the rest of the household, bewilderment was the most prominent emotion. Bingley rubbed the back of his head, looking absolutely nonplussed. Unlike the Colonel, he was not quite so clever as to guess at what had happened; dimly, he wondered whether his friend's harried departure had anything to do with the box Caroline had opened in the hallway two days back. As to Caroline herself, she fumed silently, for she felt, once again, that something was happening, going quite over her head, something to which everyone was privy but her; something which was going to make it well-nigh impossible for her to get Darcy. That Eliza Bennett was gone did not bother her in the least; on the contrary, she would have been perfectly content to have the little chit out of Pemberley and Darcy's proximity. But that he looked so miserable setting out to search for her-in fact, that he even bothered to search for her, her being simple hired help-did not bode well for Caroline's matrimonial interests. She would have given her eye-teeth to know what on Lord's earth had happened the night before. She eyed her brother with disdain: for all that he was Darcy's best friend, he knew remarkably little of the man's private life. And if he knew, she thought bitterly, if he knew, he would hardly tell her.

Therefore, when later that day, she wondered into the library (mind you, the library was hardly her usual haunting place, for she read rarely, if at all; but today, she was looking for Charles, who seemed to have disappeared) and found, fallen on the floor below a low tea table, the ubiquitous blue box, she did not hesitate in opening it. After all, she thought, if nobody will help you, you must help yourself. In truth, she did not have to open the box to know what was in it; and still, she pulled on the lacy ribbon, only to be dazzled, once again, by the glimmer of its contents. The dress she did not like-too dark, she surmised-but the diamonds... you could buy a small estate with a necklace like this! The temptation to take the necklace out and hold it to her chest was strong, but she escaped it; after all, she thought, the necklace itself hardly mattered. One who married Mr. Darcy would have no want of necklaces and other such finery; but the question remained, who it would be...

But what was this box doing in the lib-And why, on Lord's eyes, was it tossed so carelessly under the table? Indeed, it is as if a hurricane had torn through the library: a chair was clearly out of place; a few books and a London paper lay scattered on the carpet. Caroline looked about herself, and then, when the revelation struck her, almost cried out in indignation. That harlot!

Furiously, she thought about all the possibilities that finding this necklace entailed; the most solid one lay, of course, in the utter ruination of Eliza Bennett's reputation, no doubt already measly. Make her cower and run in shame, Caroline thought, eyes narrowed, so that she never dare set foot in Pemberley again. Send her to her appropriate oblivion. Make her-

"Miss Bingley!"

Caroline's tarry was her undoing. She pivoted and saw, to her dismay, that gray little mouse, Miss de Bourgh, hands planted firmly on non-existent hips. Now, Caroline liked the little Anne as much as she could like another female, for she could see, plainly, that her mother pronouncements notwithstanding, Mr. Darcy would never marry her. But now, the little thing was clearly in her way-physically as well as metaphorically. Cautiously, she moved the box behind her with one foot.

"Miss Bingley, I believe you have something in your possession that does not belong to you," Anne said flatly.

Caroline smiled her most engaging smile, but it seemed to have a negligible effect on the young woman.

"I believe you know what it is," she said, barely raising her voice.

"Why, I know not what you speak of," Caroline murmured. But she was loathe to go and leave the box on the floor, where they could find it and-

Anne sighed, in visible exasperation, rolled her eyes, and pointed. " 'Tis on the floor. You moved it behind you when I walked in. Shall I walk around you and take it?"

Caroline sputtered. She could not believe the little thing would gainsay her so openly. Pushing past Anne, she hissed, through her teeth:

"Out of my way!" -and almost bumped into the Colonel, who was smiling solicitously, but whose eyes, Caroline could see, were cold as the steel of his sword.

After Caroline had swept down the hallway, Colonel Fitzwilliam joined Anne in the library. She was kneeling next to the box, tying the bow quickly. The Colonel peeked over her shoulder, only to see something blue and sparkling inside, but a second later, the bow was tied securely and the contents of the mysterious box were eclipsed from his eyes.

"What is it?" he asked, curiously. Looking up from her kneeling position, Anne gave him a teasing smile.

"Wouldn't you like to know," she murmured. He was towering over her, a very big man, with fair golden curls, a beautiful smile, and eyes that sparkled with mischief like Darcy's diamonds; Anne's heart gave a slight lurch, which she fought valiantly. The Colonel, being, very unfortunately, a second son, was hardly a presentable match. Mother would have a fit, she thought; but then, the very idea of Mother having a fit amused her so much that she giggled.

"What are you laughing at?"

"Nothing," Anne murmured.

"Anne, you never laugh at nothing. Come, tell me."

He came to kneel next to her, and suddenly, caught up in her laughter, that spilled, gently and musically, like a bubbling spring, did what had to be the rashest thing in all his thirty years.

He kissed her. He dipped his head, and he slipped one finger under her chin, tilting it, and he found her lips with his and he kissed her.

At first, it was shock that kept her in place-for all her posturing before Darcy earlier, she had never been kissed before, for no man of her acquaintance was courageous enough to brave Lady Catherine's displeasure-and then, genuine, heartfelt delight. His arms were around her, very tightly, pressing her to him, so that her breasts rubbed, through her corset and gown, against the thick fabric of his dark civilian coat.

The Colonel hardly knew what had moved him to kiss Anne, whom he had known for over twenty years, and whom he noticed only when he was forced to visit his aunt at Rosings; and even then, she was a friend more than anything, a pale girl, unattractive enough for both of them to feel remarkably at ease. He did not know why he kissed her-perhaps, it was her joyous, girlish laughter-or perhaps, it was the strange ambiance of longing and desire that seemed to pervade Pemberley this visit. He did not know what moved him; but, once he started kissing her, it felt like the most natural and proper thing in the world. It was as if all young ladies of her circle were kissed, regularly-and thoroughly-by their older male cousins, and, in the process of kissing, made delicious little catlike sounds.

Finally, they parted for lack of air. Anne sighed and shivered pleasurably, then closed her eyes.

"Anne," he said, softly.

"Please, no," she whispered. "Say nothing, nothing at all, so that I might believe this was in earnest, Fitzwilliam..."

The impossibility of any future happiness struck her. If she were to fall in love with him-and, skeptical as she was, Anne also saw how beautiful he was, how kind; saw herself tumbling madly in love with him-they would be left penniless. She sighed again, but kept her eyes closed, for she could not bear to open them to reality.

"Fitzwilliam," she said, longingly.

"Richard," he whispered back.

"Pardon?" she asked in her usual brisk manner, the one that bespoke her impatience or unwillingness to waste her time on various little follies. But Fitzwilliam, a military man, knew a losing battle when he saw one; and so, still kneeling next to her, he pressed his lips against his cousin's warm cheek.

"My name is Richard," he said.

"I know that." She opened one eye, then the other; he had not run, shaken by the idiocy of what they had done. On the contrary, he was smiling at her, rather from above, smiling at her, and touching her cheek, gently, with the back of his hand. Anne felt it was prudent to warn him.

"I'll have you know, sir," she said, seriously, "that my mother will never allow us to marry."

"I know that," he said, grinning from ear to ear.

"She wants me to marry Darcy, to join our fortunes, and if I tell her I wish to marry you, why, then she is sure to disown me-I shall be left penniless. So think about that before you decide whether you wish me to address you by your Christian name."

Her words seemed to strike at him like painful lashes; skin-splitting, blood-letting. But of course, he thought; of course. He was the younger son, destined to always stand behind his brother, who was neither more capable, nor more deserving (not a bad fellow altogether, but to inherit it all, one had to be rather remarkable, Fitzwilliam thought). A bought commission; a military man, he still knew he would not make general on it. An unsuitable match; so unsuitable, in fact, that a girl he had just kissed could be disinherited for whishing to marry him.

And the, strangely, he knew that if she were to be disinherited, for him, he would still marry her. He was tired of looking at women and knowing that neither beauty nor goodness meant anything, if they did not come with a solid fortune (and they very rarely did). Anne had no beauty, he thought, but it would be a veritable sacrilege to say that she was not beautiful... Anne was Anne. The first girl, in all his life, for whom he was prepared to subsist on his commission for the rest of his days.

Unfortunately, it seemed, she was not. Indeed. It was selfish of him to think that she would be. She was, after all, a heiress, brought up in luxury. He heeded her warning and rose, swiftly, to his feet, pulling her along.

"Forgive me," he said, giving her his most charming smile. "Cousin Anne. You are certainly correct on that account."

"But Fitz-"

"Forgive me," he repeated, and he was no longer smiling. "Please. I have forgotten myself."

He cut her a curt bow and strode away, leaving her alone in the library.

So distraught she was that she almost forgot the box she had come for.

"Oh, bother," she whispered, as she pivoted at the doors and returned to gather the box from the floor. She would do well to hide it until Darcy returned, with or without Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

~ * ~

Elizabeth had not given a lot of thought to where she would go. Her chief desire was to quit Pemberley, and so she did. She got on the very first stagecoach that came her way, and traveled into neighboring Cheshire. She was shamed, terribly, and it seemed to her that there was nowhere for her to go. She could not bear to go home, to her mother's constant hysterics and nerves; she dared not travel to London, to her uncle and aunt-for she loved them dearly and could not bear lie to them, and neither could she bear to tell the truth. Indeed, her situation was a pitiable one.

She slept a little during her ride, lulled by the rocking of the stagecoach. Still, her seat was hard and her sleep was uneasy, haunted by painful dreams. Invariably, she saw him reaching for her, and in her dream, everything in her yearned to go to him-but invariably, something stopped her. This is wrong, she thought, even as her heart broke in her dream, so wrong. His desire was a burden; if she gave in, she would lose herself. Even in her dream, she was sensible of the shame of his proposal, and disgusted with herself for not being outraged at him as she ought to have been.

The carriage stopped, and Elizabeth was jolted awake. While she slept, the family across from her-a dark-haired young woman and a bespectacled older gentleman, a young blond boy squished between them-had gone, and was replaced by a young man in regimentals. He was now sleeping, or pretending to, and Elizabeth tried to look out the window; but the landscape, however pretty in the rays of the setting sun, failed to assuage her pain. She knew they would soon stop for the night.

She closed her eyes, and reflected, painfully, on what happened last night. She was heartbroken with shame and it hurt her inhumanly to even think about it; but she must, she must, if ever she was to find respite. She thought of him again-his eyes wild, possessed, his fingers burning through the delicate fabric of her gown, his mouth-oh, his mouth. Insensible, she wagged her head from side to side and choked back her tears. He had kissed her-and the pleasure of it, and the pain, was indescribable. In that one moment, when their lips came together and her mouth was pliant and welcoming under his-in that one moment, all the possibilities she had not dared to hope for, all the wonderful, magical possibilities for the two of them came alive, painted brightly-and then died, immediately, lost color and wilted away, like a butterfly speared on a pin. For his kiss was born of simple lust. He had said he was in love with her, and the words seared her soul. Still, if he loved her, truly, how could he shame her so? It made no sense, and the more she thought of it, the less possible it seemed, the more of a pretense. He had not thought of her in honorable terms, had not offered to share his life with her. Indeed, how presumptuous of her to even imagine something like this. He had kissed her, Elizabeth reflected, bitterly, as one would kiss a mistress, and she had all but succumbed to his heat and his passion.

From his selfish, cruel love stemmed that, which he sought to offer her. Mortified, she remembered his words: you will want for nothing, he had said. She wished, with all her heart, to deceive herself into thinking that his kiss was born out of deeper emotions than mere lust; and there was enough desperation in his voice to make her believe it. But his words, his cruel words! Indeed, they belied any residual tenderness she might have imagined in his voice! They brought her back to reality: she was, to him, but hired help, absolutely inferior to him, and, despite of pronouncing his love for her, he had not thought it fit to offer her anything more than being his mistress.

"Ma'am."

She opened her eyes, and saw herself staring into the solicitous mien of the gentleman in regimentals.

"Pardon my intrusion, but you-" he looked away, at the same time proffering her a clean, starched handkerchief. "You were crying, ma'am."

"Forgive me," she murmured, refusing his handkerchief, for indeed, she had her own. The stranger did not seem put-off in the least; on the opposite, he became quite conversational, as if attempting, quite fruitlessly, to talk her out of her misery. Finally, leaning forward, the gentleman-she could not tell his military rank-rested his elbows on his knees and took her hands in his. Shocked at such a lack of ceremony, Elizabeth well-nigh gasped.

"You must tell me," he said, rather forcefully, "why on Lord's earth you're crying. You are far too pretty to be so sad."

"Pray," Elizabeth said, waving him off, "leave me be. Here, you've done your office. I am no longer crying."

But he did not seem to take no for an answer, pressing as to the reason for such wretched melancholy in one so "young and lovely." Finally, Elizabeth, with a deep sigh and great reluctance, told him a crude approximation of her story: that she had been employed and that, in the course of the last few days, she had been forced to quit that employment. And that was why she was crying.

"Ah," the young man said. "I see. 'Twas your employer, was it not? Some rich old goat used to getting his way with chambermaids?"

Elizabeth knew she owed Mr. Darcy no loyalty; but still, she cringed at such a description. She shrugged, not wishing to confirm nor deny the man's supposition. Sadly for her, he took it as acquiescence, and, what fared far worse for her, the sign that there was nobody to protect her-and a call for battle.

Now, Elizabeth was as realistic a girl as there ever was; and she harbored no illusions when it came to the nature of man. But when the stranger on the stagecoach leaned further forward, resting his hands on the edge of her seat, and pressed his lips to hers, she became seriously disenchanted with everything human, and particularly, everything male. The kiss itself was nothing if not chaste; certainly nothing to Mr. Darcy's searing kisses, but oh Lord! to be so assaulted twice, within the space of twenty-four hours! Elizabeth became seriously angry. Therefore, the hapless young officer took the abuse she had secretly meant for the other man, the one who had initiated her so cruelly the night before.

With a groan of disgust, Elizabeth grabbed the man's shoulders and pushed him away; and when he did not let go quickly enough-for he was rather winded and not a little shocked at such behavior-slapped him, rather violently, across his face. Upon which, the man, too, became angry and fought to keep his hold on her by force; a short struggle ensued, and Elizabeth, desperate to free herself, fought and flailed and thrashed about. All of a sudden, the back of her hand, amplified by her desire to be free, connected with something that made a sickening crunch; the man screamed and fell back against the seat, in the gathering dusk, Elizabeth could see him holding his a hand over his nose, and then, the thin lining of something dark-blood, she deduced-spilling between his fingers. Well, she thought, in strange giddiness, 'tis fortunate that he is already wearing red. And then, Oh, but I must have broke his nose. Dear Lord, I broke his nose!

And so, when the driver, having heard the commotion within, stopped the stagecoach and came around to see what was happening, Elizabeth bounded out past him of the equipage and ran along the road, quite hysterical. She was laughing, and crying, and thinking that she should have done the same to Mr. Darcy, and remembering Mrs. Reynolds' words that his was the handsomest face in all of Derbyshire; sadly enough, this poor half-wit was far more respectful of her, and he would probably go the rest of his life with a broken nose.Mr. Darcy, however, kept his handsome face-the fact that Elizabeth was now regretting.

Soon, she could no longer run, winded, and so she walked along the road, reflecting, with strange dispassion, on the fact that she had left most of her things in the carriage, having grabbed only her tiny reticule. It had only enough money for her to subsist on for the next few days; and, small as it was, it had nothing inside but a small mirror and a tiny comb.

She had counted on being able to reach a tavern sometime soon-after all, the driver had told her that they would stop somewhere by evening, and it was certainly evening now-but nothing came along, and very soon, she found she could walk no longer. The warm summer day had long gone; the sun had set, and first stars shimmered on the dark velvet of the sky, bringing to mind Mr. Darcy's extravagant gift to her. Elizabeth picked up her skirts and hurried, or tried to, for she was, after all, quite exhausted. So tired she was, and so despaired of finding a suitable lodging for the night, that very soon, the field to the left of her started looking rather inviting. She steeled herself and tried her hardest not to cry; for she believed self-pity to be a rather base emotion. Unfortunately, in that she failed dismally, and very soon, could barely see the moonlit road under her feet for the tears in her eyes.

Therefore, when, on her left, she espied some dilapidated structure, she felt genuine happiness, though mixed with apprehension. It was a shed, and if she was lucky, there would be hay in it; taking a deep breath, Elizabeth hitched up her skirts ever higher and walked across the field towards the shed, hoping to God that no bats, rats, or anything more dangerous was hiding inside.

She was fortunate in that: the barn was absolutely empty, and there was nary a bat in sight. In addition, there clearly was hay in it. Elizabeth had never slept in hay, having been a young lady of relatively genteel upbringing; well, she told herself, this is a bit of an adventure. As she thought that, she squeezed her eyes harder, to prevent tears from coming; and this time, she even succeeded.

She slipped down onto the hay and dug herself under it. It was soft and it smelled rather... wonderful, she had to admit. She listened, carefully, for she was terrified of rats; but it was no use, and so she said a quick prayer, hoping that whatever rats there were, they would be generous enough in sharing their premises with her this night. Through a hole in the roof, she could see a faraway star winking at her, and so it was looking up to that star that Elizabeth fell asleep.

...Through the hole in the roof, a goodly amount of rain spilled over Elizabeth, thoroughly drenching the hay she had covered herself with and her gown underneath. Only when she felt distinctly cold did she open her eyes; and found, to her displeasure and disgust, that her gown was completely soaked, as was most of the hay, for the decaying roof had leaked. She considered getting out, but it was wetter outside, and it was still a long time until morning. Shivering, Elizabeth found the driest possible patch of hay-which was still far from dry-and tried her best to fall asleep. Unfortunately, the cold and wetness prevented it, and she suffered, shivering, until the fresh breath of morning blew away the rain and the cold. Then, she climbed out of the hay, tried her best to get bits of it from her hair and person, and walked towards the road. Thereupon she took the selfsame road in the purported direction of the nearest tavern. She needed to reach people; she needed to make herself decent again, and she really, really needed to eat. Take care of the simplest things first, she thought; worry about the future-sigh about the past-later.

And so, Elizabeth hurried, trying her best to ignore the shivers that had never left her, the wracking headache and the general malaise in all of her body; but when she stopped, finally, unable to walk, sneezing violently and repeatedly, she had to admit that the night she had spent wrapped in wet hay had not served her well. Once she admitted the sickness to herself, it advanced more and more rapidly, and very soon, she was barely shuffling her feet. Her eyes seemed to be filled with molten lead, while the rest of her body well-nigh shook with shivers. A few times, she contemplated simply falling down by the wayside, and then come what may. But what may was quite obvious; if she fell before finding someone and asking for help, they would leave her for dead-or dead drunk-and so she would be, before long.

Then, finally, when she thought she could endure it no longer and was burning with fever and simply falling off her feet with coughing and sneezing, Elizabeth saw a tavern-a small establishment with a rooster on its sign, crudely painted; appropriately, the inn was called A Golden Rooster. But all of it was lost on Elizabeth when she stumbled across its threshold. A man shied away from her, shielding his face; she would have liked to reassure him that it was not consumption, nor any other plague that made her stagger and shake; but she found she could barely speak.

"Ma'am!" A youthful woman, her apron, perhaps, less than snow-white, touched her shoulder. "My lady!"

Good Lord, but I cannot look a lady, having spent the night in a barn...

"A room," she whispered. With unsteady fingers, she opened her reticule and fished out a coin, then another. "A bed." Marvelously, she was no longer hungry; but her throat was parched. "And some water..."

"I dare say, ma'am, what you need is a doctor-"

The woman's plump, rosy face drifted in and out of focus. Elizabeth wagged her head. "Bed," she repeated, shivering. "Bed. Sleep."

The proprietress' face disappeared entirely and Elizabeth tumbled into darkness, her last recollection being someone catching her in his arms, and the lightness of it, and the comfort.

~ * ~

When it became clear, by evening, that the young gentlewoman that had walked into the Golden Rooster earlier in the day would certainly succumb without medical help-for she rasped most dreadfully, had not lifted her head from the pillow, had not eaten even a drop of soup, and burned with a most terrible fever-Mrs. Liddell, the proprietress, resolved to send for the local apothecary. Mr. Liddell grumbled and tried to convince his wife that she was hardly their responsibility; that the young woman would probably owe them money for food and lodging (she was delirious; they could hardly question her as to her ability to pay), and that he would have rather sent her to the nearest poorhouse. The apothecary, James said reasonably, would charge them straight away; and should the young lady die, or prove too poor to repay them-for she certainly was not rich, scampering about the countryside like that!-why, then they would be out of money. He knew, however, better than really argue with his wife; and as he did not have the heart to throw the poor ill thing out into the street, he certainly did not wish her to die in one of his rooms-such news travels fast, and a death is always ghastly for business. Therefore, he relented, and Mrs. Liddell kissed his cheek, making him feel she had actually needed his approval; thus, both remained satisfied, though James did sigh for a while, thinking that with his wife's good Christian heart, they would never become prosperous.

But no sooner did Mrs. Liddell send one of her stable-boys to fetch the local apothecary that something most extraordinary happened. A young gentleman, tall and rather strikingly handsome, ducked his head as he stepped over the threshold. Mrs. Liddell saw him from afar-there could hardly be a woman who would not single him out. For her, of course, it was no more than idle curiosity-for his dress indicated that he was clearly a gentleman of the highest station, and then, she reminded herself, she was already married, and James was a good husband, even if a bit closed-fisted.

He looked around the room, as if looking for someone; thereupon, his face assumed a haggard and slightly despaired look. Clearly, thought Mrs. Liddell, he had not found whomever he was looking for; as a good hostess, she thought, she ought to welcome the guest. And so, she navigated her way through the dining room, weaving between customers, who were laughing and feasting on her sumptuous fare, and chairs, and tables. Her guest, too, saw her and took a step in her direction.

"Welcome to the Golden Rooster, sir," she said, putting on her prettiest smile and dropping a curtsy. "Will you be needing a room?"

"No, ma'am," he said, shaking his head. "I-I am looking for someone. Perhaps, you can help me."

And, to Mrs. Liddell's great surprise, he described to her the selfsame young woman who lay burning with fever above stairs. For hardly there was another one of such a description-dark curls, dark eyes, pale dress-wandering around this part of Cheshire.

He did not sound as if he had much hope in finding her; and it made Mrs. Liddell wonder what had the young lady been running from. But, women's solidarity aside, she considered that the gentleman looked exceedingly wealthy and would probably be glad to pay for the lady's keep and the apothecary's visit.

And so, silently, she beckoned the gentleman up the stairs, and to her guest's room. The young woman was delirious, Mrs. Liddell reasoned, she'd hardly mind him... whoever he was. But it was a great curiosity for her to see the expression upon the man's face when he saw the sorry state of the young lady-he well-nigh swayed on his feet, and held one hand to his mouth, and Mrs. Liddell thought she might have seen him scrape his teeth over his knuckles, as if attempting to inflict pain upon himself. Mrs. Liddell wondered what it was all about; but the gentleman turned to her, his face dark, and said, in the manner of a man accustomed to unquestioning obeisance:

"Out."

But even as she turned to go, Mrs. Liddell was certain she heard him murmur a name.

"Elizabeth," he said. "Oh, Elizabeth."

Chapter 10

Elizabeth burned, drifting in and out of consciousness. When "in" occurred, she thought she could discern a familiar figure sitting, bowed, by her bed; the familiar, deep, soothing voice addressed her when she thrashed and cried out from her nightmares. But so very strange was his very presence there, that Elizabeth believed, in her dream, that it was, merely, a hallucination, caused by her fever.

Which, unfortunately, persisted, so much that Mrs. Liddell began to worry, seriously, that the pretty young lady was going to die in her rooms, frightening away all the clientele. But she dared not say a word, for the grim young gentleman who spent his every waking moment by her bedside-and most of his moments these days were waking, for he hardly ever slept-dropped another guinea into her apron pocket, rendering her speechless. Indeed, it was most curious, and Mrs. Liddell had wracked her brains trying to guess at their relation. He was dark and somber, and quite distraught. He had taken the room next door to the young lady's, but, Mrs. Liddell noticed, spent no time there at all. In fact, it was unclear why it was he needed a room at all-for he hardly slept at all those days. Yet they were not married; for Mrs. Liddell espied no ring on the girl's finger. Perhaps, then, brother and sister, as Mr. Liddell had suggested-but such a possibility was so exceedingly boring that Mrs. Liddell swept it away.

Indeed, it tickled her fancy to imagine a romantic liaison-the kind of all-consuming passion that did not usually abide at the Golden Rooster. The young gentleman was silent as the grave and about as dark, and brooked no conversation on the subject. He did, however, request a maid, who would help him, for a generous reward, to nurse the young lady back to health. The girl Mrs. Liddell proffered as a helper was instructed, before going upstairs, to pay keen attention to what was going on, and particularly, to what was said.

Spying is a strategy as old as the world itself; and it proved, Mrs. Liddell had to admit, rather effective. The selfsame maid, named Molly, burst into the kitchen the very next day, bringing news. Evidently, the young lady came to, if only for a short time, and, upon seeing the gentleman by her bed, reacted with what could only be described as disgust. The Cook, the kitchen-maids, and Mrs. Liddell herself all gathered around Molly as she retold the most curious conversation that had just taken place upstairs.

The young lady woke up while Molly was bringing a fresh pitcher of water. As soon as she had entered the room, Molly noticed that the handsome young gentleman was sprawled, uncomfortably, in the chair, felled by fatigue. She felt keen pity for him, for the poor thing had hardly slept a wink in the past two days; and she tarried, for just a second, looking at him. He had not given his name, nor that of the young lady, but he was clearly a gentleman of some consequence. Molly was a chambermaid long enough: she knew it when she saw clothes more expensive that her year's salary could buy. She touched the tips of her fingers to the open cuff of white shirt, made of the finest, thinnest lawn. Beautiful hands, long fingers, a golden signet ring. A gentleman. Harried, exhausted, rather dirty, having thrown off his fine coat, to fall asleep in a chair like this. Molly leaned and picked up the dark-blue coat, shook it off gently, hanged it upon a chair.

She took the empty pitcher, left the full one on the stand near the bed, and was about to go-regretfully, for she, like everyone else at the Golden Rooster, was mighty curious about the strange couple-when the young lady in the bed turned, moaned, and then lifted her head up from pillow, gazing unsteadily at Molly.

"P-please," she whispered, and it seemed to Molly, it pained her to speak, to open the parched lips, dried cruelly by her fever. "Tell me-where am I?"

"Golden Rooster, ma'am, near-" Molly said, dropping a polite curtsy, pleased that her day had just gotten so much more interesting. But the young lady had hardly heard her, it seemed; for her gaze was glued, verily, to the person of the gentleman in the chair. She gave a sound that Molly would later repeat as a disgusted "ugh!" and made to climb out of her bed.

"But ma'am, you are ill!" The girl cried out, quite forgetting her station. The lady paid her no mind, but managed, somehow, to climb out of the bed and was now standing, shakily, holding on to an armoire. Standing, swaying, getting whiter and whiter in the face.

"Will you help me dress?" she said, with visible difficulty. "I must be off-"

All of the commotion did finally wake up the gentleman, who sat up in his chair, staring owlishly into the light. Upon seeing the young lady up and out of the bed, he shot to his feet and was near her in a second and wrapping a shawl about her shoulders. "Eliz-madam-you are so ill-where on earth are you going-"

Good God! Molly thought, terribly pleased. He dared not call her by her Christian name; so not brother and sister, surely. This was most precious and would please the mistress greatly. But how gentle he was with her, how solicitous! The young woman slapped away his hands, backing herself into a corner.

"Please-let me go-how dare you come after me-" she murmured, her voice getting fainter and fainter, her face expressing all manner of violent emotion.

"Please," he said, and it sounded to Molly like he was a desperate man. "Madam, please get back to bed. You are still so weak... I promise you, we can then talk about how I dared to come after you-"

Molly saw that the young lady was losing strength with lightning speed and was now leaning, exhausted, back against the headboard. She tried to straighten out, but swayed and would have fallen, had the gentleman not caught her in his arms. Gently, he coaxed her back to bed. From her side, Molly hurried to adjust the blanket around the lady; at this, the young gentleman gave her a look of utter non-recognition and asked her what she was doing there.

"I had brought up the water, sir, I was just going, anything you might need, sir?" she turned to the girl in bed. "Ma'am?"

But the ill young woman did not respond, her eyes closed, her face turned to the wall. The gentleman rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand.

"No," he said, slowly. "Nothing. Please go."

Good God, he looked like he was going to cry. Without waiting for Molly to leave, he sat down on the edge of the bed, took the young lady's hand and held it, without ceremony, to his lips. She flapped a bit, not unlike a landed fish, but attempted no further resistance. Before she finally went, Molly was able to espy, out of the corner of one eye, the gentleman replace the lady's hand on top of the covers, with great tenderness. Turning, she tiptoed out of the room.

~ * ~

If ever Darcy had been in pain, it was nothing compared to the agony he was now experiencing. He tried, ever so hard and utterly without success, to put Elizabeth's expression out of his mind. Her expression when she saw him, her beautiful eyes full of anger, disgust and even fear; oh! what wouldn't he have done to make her forget! He had always lived so certain of himself and his deeds; he had never before wished he could turn back the time.

It was after he had spent a day in searching for her and had envisioned all manner of dreary possibilities-from never seeing her again to finding her dead in some ditch-that he finally despaired of finding her. And it was then that he finally found her, burning away with fever at a roadside tavern. His guilt was terrible-for to see her so ill, and in such poor circumstances (for she was hardly given the best room at the tavern, though she was, he had to admit, insensible of it) was insufferable. His first impulse was to gather her in his arms and remove her to Pemberley; but she burned with terrible fire and a night's ride in a bumpy carriage would almost certainly kill her. So, instead of taking Elizabeth to Pemberley, Darcy worked to make her circumstances at the Golden Rooster as comfortable as possible. He demanded the best room for her, with a comfortable feather bed and pristine sheets; he refused the services of the local apothecary and sent for a proper physician (who, to his distress, insisted upon bleeding the patient). Thereupon, he situated himself in a chair near her bed, a disheartened, miserable sentry.

He could not do enough for her, could not make her comfortable enough.

But she was so ill; and several times during that first night, he despaired and felt the presence of Death keenly in the room, a vague shape standing darkly in the corner. And it was then that he moved closer to the bed and held her hand in his, and held her face, so pale, in his mind's eye. Somehow, he felt, his presence made a difference; and when, terrified, he felt her slipping ever further, her breath fainter, the heat of her skin almost searing, then he knew that simply holding her hand was not enough. Kicking off his shoes, he slowly lowered himself next to Elizabeth and put his arms around her; he knew it to be a gross impropriety, but he could not bear to let go of her-it seemed to him that should he only release her, and Death would snatch her. She was fevered in his embrace, shaking and moaning and burning with a most sinister fire-and he shut his eyes tightly against the tears that had come, unbidden, and prayed, and prayed for her life.

Her fever eased by morning. Never broke completely, but eased, making it possible for him to remove himself to the chair. Possible, and necessary-for in the morning, the maids would come, and the doctor would visit. He could not compromise her so-and so he let go, even though everything in him revolted at the thought.

She was so ill, her fever unrelenting. The doctor had said nothing, but it was clear that she could not endure for much longer. A reasonable man, Darcy had to see it; but at the thought of her dying, he felt such profound loss, such terror-the kind he had not experienced since his father's passing. During his second evening, the doctor-a gruff old man-gave him a look that froze blood in his veins. Suddenly, the world was drained of all its hues, and he rose and paced around the room, trying his hardest to get a hold of himself. He was distracted, and frightened, and utterly, utterly lost.

During his second night at Elizabeth's bedside, he returned to her bed and held her, steadily, in his embrace. How ironic, he thought, that he should finally be here, that he should be holding her in his embrace, and that she should be burning, hotly, against him. An irony, indeed: it was his selfish desire that drove her away from him, and in to the rain, into the illness. He chased such thoughts away-there would be time enough for making penance later. If only she lived.

"Oh, Elizabeth," he whispered. "God! That you should forgive me!"

But she did not hear him, or if she did, his voice was no more than one of ghostly murmurs, whispering within her fever-bright nightmares. Still, as it often happens, this night was the apex of her illness; and in the morning, he found her cool and damp and sleeping soundly in his embrace, her fever gone. Silently, he gave thanks to the kind G-d that saw it fit to save her life.

Darcy heaved himself off the bed and moved to the chair, and was asleep, momentarily. Indeed, it was hardly surprising, for he had stayed awake for two days previously-and he woke, cramped and in pain, to the voices in the room. Opening his eyes, disoriented, he saw Elizabeth. Standing, so small and frail in her long night-shift. Holding on to a piece of furniture.

He was ready to shout with joy, to dance a goddamned jig! To imagine that she had so nearly died-and that she was so much better now as to stand, however unsteadily...But what on earth was she thinking, out of bed so soon! She would catch a cold; she would tire herself too much! He was on his feet in seconds and swathing a shawl about her shoulders, so that she might not make herself worse.

Thereupon, he saw her looking at him. All manner of emotion was in her gaze, none that he would dare to decipher. Still, lie to himself as he might, he could not escape the fact that the most prominent emotion reflected in her eyes was fear. Her fear of him was what had driven her out of her bed; what made her shy away from his touch. She was afraid of him, afraid of what he might do to her, so weak, so much in his power. Darcy could not bear to think of it; he bit his lip and sweet-talked her back into bed.

Once in bed, she surrendered to her illness once again. She was no longer delirious, but, tired from her fever, she fell asleep easily, finding an escape from reality in her dreams. Darcy forced himself to relinquish her hand and return to his chair. There, he fought to forget the way she had looked at him-but it was rather beyond him: all the scorn of the world had been in her dark eyes, and it tore his heart in two.

Reassured that Elizabeth was going to live, and, at the same time, utterly disheartened at her contempt of him, Darcy retired to his room-for the first time in two days-and ordered himself a bath. He needed one, badly, had not had one since Pemberley, and waited, impatiently, as two maids lugged buckets of hot water upstairs. They were gone, soon, and he tore his clothes off in a rush and slipped into hot water with a quiet moan of satisfaction.

Bathing without the help of his valet was strange, but he managed, though almost conking himself over the head with a metal pitcher. Dripping all over, he climbed out and stalked around the room in search of a towel he had forgotten to place next to the bath. Ponsonby had packed a change of clothes for him; donning a clean shirt and smallclothes was a pleasure unto itself. Feeling much refreshed, he wiped his hair with a towel and returned to Elizabeth's bedside. Now that she was better, he was seized with an entirely new fear: that she should try to abscond once again. He had spent some very painful hours in search of her, assured that he would never see her again; he would not risk it again for the world.

She woke closer to the evening, and, at the sight of him, turned her face to the wall. Darcy rose, came closer and situated himself on the edge of her bed.

"Miss Bennett," he said.

No answer.

"Madam."

"You have followed me," she whispered, faultily, still not looking at him. "Am I to have no respite from you?" Her lips were chapped, and it seemed to pain her to speak. Darcy rose, then returned, bringing her a glass of water. There was a peculiar pleasure in being able to wait on her, in holding her head up with one hand, his fingers lost in her thick, tousled curls; in holding the glass to her lips with another. She did not fight his touch, but drank obediently. Gently, he lowered her back against the pillows.

In a gesture almost unconscious, Elizabeth pulled the covers around her, trying her hardest to hide her dishabille under them. Darcy caught her gesture and thought, suddenly, that, for the first time in months, she inspired no desire in him. She was so ill; he would have been most perverse to want her. Here they were, she in bed, barely dressed, he sitting on the edge of the selfsame bed, and he did not want her. Why, who could have imagined! For the first time since their very first meeting, he did not want her.

But he could not tell her that; could not reassure her in this particular manner. The best he could do was to move back to his chair, which he did, a bit regretfully-for howbeit he did not desire her, it was still wonderful to be near her, and to have her alive.

"Miss Bennett," he said, again, and this time, she looked up at him. "Miss Bennett, how are you feeling?"

She shrugged, weakly. "I am not sure," she said. "Heavy. Lethargic. Lazy-as if I could not lift a finger."

"It will pass," he said, hurriedly. " 'Tis your fever, it has weakened you."

"How long have I been-like this?"

"Since two days ago-no, three. For you had been ill for a full day before I found you."

"How did you find me?" she whispered. "I should have known better than to trust Miss de Bourgh, I suppose."

"In Miss de Bourgh's defense, Miss Bennett, I have well-nigh forced this information out of her."

A semblance of a smile curved her mouth, now almost bloodless.

"I believe that," she whispered, then coughed the same heavy, hooting cough that had terrified him these two days.

"Miss Bennett," he said, urgently. "You ought to sleep."

"Could you call a maid?" she whispered.

"Is this anything that I can help you with, perhaps?"

"No," she answered with a slight wag of her head, dark curls tossing on the pillow; then, she bit her lip and-oh joy!-reddened with embarrassment. "You know. You could not."

He did not move, and she eyed him, with surprise.

"Perhaps I have not made myself clear-"

"I'll have you promise," he said, urgently, "I'll have you promise, Miss Bennett, that you will not try to flee if I quit this room-"

Dark eyes lit up, for a mere second, with the bright, virulent anger that had once made him want her.

"How dare you?" she said, he voice still weak. "Shall I have no privacy from you?"

He wagged his head. "Not unless you promise not to leave-not to try to leave."

She rolled her eyes. "Do you suppose I could, in this condition?"

He considered it. "No," he said, with a smile. "But it would hardly stop you from trying."

She acknowledged the truth of his words with a nod. "Very well," she said. "I promise you not to abscond when you quit the room. Seeing as how I could not, at any rate."

Satisfied for now, he quit the room and called a maid to attend upon Elizabeth. As soon as she would have him, however, he returned to her room and sat down next to her bed once again. Her eyes were closed, and he assumed that she was asleep; but then, she curled up on her side and said, her voice small as a little girl's:

"Mr. Darcy, I have promised you not to flee."

"Yes," he said.

"But I shall have a promise from you as well."

"Yes, madam, anything," he said, but his heart sank, for it knew exactly what she would ask.

"When I feel well enough to go, you will not hinder my departure."

"Madam," he said. "I should hardly dare. Indeed, I'll have a carriage take you from Pemberley-"

"Pemberley?" she asked, raising her head from the pillow. "I am not going back to Pemberley, sir!"

"But Miss Bennett," he said, reasonably. "You will hardly get better here... you need fresh air and good food, and the Golden Rooster, while being the fine establishment it is, cannot provide any of it-"

So great was her emotion that she rose, eagerly, on the bed: "Mr. Darcy," she said, and her voice sounded substantially more steely, "I am not going back to Pemberley!"

Thereupon, she collapsed back on the bed, seized by a fit of violent cough, and Darcy found the subject better discussed at some other time. He noted, mildly, that he only wanted her to get better-upon which she said through clenched teeth.

"I shall be well enough to go!"

Fortunately, the maid came back, bringing a tray with a bowl of hot soup; upon which, Darcy received a blessed opportunity to feed the soup to Elizabeth-which she resented, greatly.

"I can eat myself, thank you," she said, testily; but it seemed to take a great effort on her part to sit up and hold her arm aloft. Darcy rejoiced, quietly, for he quite enjoyed taking care of her; but his delight waned considerably when he saw two perfect, round tears trace their routes down her cheeks. He looked: her teeth were clenched, as were here fists, balled by her sides.

He put the spoon back on the tray and touched her hand, gently.

"Miss Bennett," he said. "Pray, do not be so silly. I have given you credit for being the cleverest woman of my acquaintance, yet you are behaving like a spoiled child!"

"I cannot bear-" she whispered. "Not from you."

"I daresay it does not matter who is feeding you-'tis the humiliation of it that matters. I should not like it from anyone."

Ah, he thought, but here you lie, Darcy: for you should like it fine from her hands...

"But you must eat, madam. You must get better."

With obedience that touched his heart, she opened her mouth and swallowed the spoonful of soup, and then another, and another. Though he would never admit to it, now that there was no longer any danger to her life, Darcy quite enjoyed his part of a nursemaid; and he felt keenly disappointed when there was no more soup to be spooned into her lovely mouth. Thereupon, an uneasy truce was reached...

Chapter 11

"...I trust in your absolute discretion to keep the contents of this missive to yourself and to reveal only so much as not to damage Miss Bennett's reputation..."

Anne de Bough folded the letter in a fit of pique. "Now he has a care for her reputation!" she whispered.

"W-what?" Georgiana danced around her, demanding to see her brother's letter. Adamantly, Anne folded her arms on her chest:

"Nothing," she said, in a voice that brooked no argument. "The letter was written to me."

"Has h-he f-found Elizabeth?"

Anne hesitated. After all, Darcy's letter brought no glad tidings. He had found Miss Elizabeth Bennett at a road-side tavern, barely alive; Anne had not fully considered the implications of revealing this information to Georgiana. But if, she surmised, the girl had the trustworthiness of her brother, his ability to keep a secret, she could be trusted with anything... and so, she said:

"This is between me and you, Georgie. Your friend is ill-your brother is taking care of her-"

"Oh!" The news seemed to hit Georgiana rather hard: she grew pale and her lips trembled-a strong indication of a storm coming. "I-is it s-something I've d-done?" she whispered, two perfectly fat, round tears hanging from her eyelashes.

Anne rolled her eyes. "No," she said, patiently. She gave Georgiana her lace handkerchief, embroidered prettily with her initials, and watched the girl wipe, carelessly, at her eyes and blow her nose.

"I'll h-have th-this w-w-washed," she whispered, stuffing the handkerchief into her pocket. "Oh, Anne, she w-w-was m-my b-best f-friend! H-how c-could she l-leave m-me like this?"

Anne shook her head. "There are things," she said, quizzically, "things that you should not know, nor understand, Georgie. Miss Bennett could no longer stay here, that much was true. If ever you see her, I am certain she will explain herself to you."

"W-why c-couldn't she s-stay h-here?" Georgiana demanded.

"Oh, Georgie," Anne said, with a sigh. " I cannot tell you."

"B-but you state it w-w-with such c-conviction..."

"Yes," Anne agreed. "I do not claim ignorance. But 'tis not my secret to tell, dear Georgie."

Georgiana, however young, seemed to understand and respect that, at least. She was not becalmed, but resolved to wait for her brother's return. She had his perseverance, after all, when it came to those she loved. Therefore, she sighed and asked no more.

There was a knock at the door, a loud and unceremonious one, more announcing an arrival of a guest, rather than asking a permission to enter.

"Come in," Anne said quickly, holding a finger to her lips, urging Georgiana to silence. The company entering consisted of Mr. Bingley and his sisters, the somnambular Mr. Hurst, and the Colonel. At the sight of the latter, Anne looked away and pretended that he did not exist. It was quite silly, really; following their kiss several days ago, the two of them took extreme pains to ignore each other. Indeed, more effort rarely went into the most affectionate courtships.

In her turn, Caroline Bingley pretended Anne was not in the room; for she could not bear to look at her since the incident with the blue box. She hated the slight young woman so much, she only detested Elizabeth Bennett more. Caroline was afraid that if she caught Anne's taunting, laughing stare, she would lose all control of herself and say-or do-something rash. As it was, Louisa drifted, immediately, towards the piano, and Mr. Hurst assumed a reclining position in a chair; Caroline attempted to small-talk Georgiana, but the girl was indisposed to chatting-and said nothing at all, turning away quite rudely.

On his part, Mr. Bingley was developing a most severe headache. He felt the waves of animosity emanating from Caroline, but could not quite guess at the recipient, since Miss Elizabeth Bennett was not present; he was cross with Darcy for up and disappearing (most inhospitable, he thought; you did not invite a house-ful of guests and then vanish, leaving your long-term guests to deal with your overnight guests); he felt awful for the moping Georgiana. But most of all, he suspected that most everyone else knew what was happening (save, perhaps, Georgiana, who looked about as lost as he felt) and it made him feel incredibly, utterly, stupid, and very angry with Darcy. After all, one did not run off, leaving one's best friend in the dark.

"Miss de Bourgh," he asked, trying his best to will the headache away, "are you to leave with the Colonel?"

Anne looked up, and for a second, before she managed to put up a screen of perfect equanimity, Bingley saw that the news of the Colonel's impending departure had caught her unawares. He regretted it instantly, for he liked the girl quite a bit, and he saw that the news hurt her feelings. His headache worsened immediately: he had not known she did not know.

"No," she said, evenly, smiling graciously at Bingley. "I should not wish to leave Georgiana without any family here." Then, she turned to the Colonel who was standing, attentive, behind Mrs. Hurst, turning her pages as she played. "Cousin," she said, "are you to leave us, then?"

He looked up. "Yes," he said, with unusual stiffness. "I am being called to London-'tis imperative that I go. Army business, Anne."

"Ah," she said, pleasantly, and opened her fan with a flip. She wished she could raise it to her face and hide behind it, so that she could bite her lips at leisure. He was running from her-that was clear-she thought of their strange, out-of-this world conversation in the library several days ago; she sighed. Clearly, he must have misinterpreted her words-or else, she thought with a sudden shudder, or else, he had come to his senses and resolved not to pursue the one woman who could never make him rich. Anne clenched her teeth and hooked her finger through the lace on her dress, tearing it.

"Fitzwilliam," she said, when she could trust her voice. "When are you to go, then?"

"First thing tomorrow morning, madam," he said, paying entirely too much attention to the task of turning Louisa Hurst's pages.

Anne rose and walked to the window-seat. The day behind the window was all lovely summer, full of bright colors and glorious light, the lake shining brilliantly under the rays of the midday sun-but the room behind her was swathed gloom. What irony, indeed. She sighed again, and stretched like a cat, feeling strange restless and very, very sad. Sad enough, in fact, to

After tea, and supper, and some more half-hearted playing and singing in the music room, after everyone finally felt safe enough to retire, Anne lay in her bed, tossing and turning. Sleep did not come, and everywhere she looked, she saw the demons of her future life-lone and miserable amid the dusty opulence of Rosings-for who would dare defy Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Perhaps, she thought, perhaps only Fitzwilliam. She had reflected about this at length in the past several days; she did not believe that he would be put off by her disinheritance... and she, she could be content with so little! Anne sighed and tossed and turned again. She tried reading-Mr. Lipscomb of Lipscomb & Sons, the reputable London book-seller, had done her a favor and concealed a copy of Gulliver's Travels inside the cover of the Young Ladies' Guide to Proper Comportment, by the Rev. H.J. Livernois. But not even Gulliver's misadventures could keep her interested and contended tonight; and so, Anne hid the book back under her pillow and sat up, her feet dangling off the bed, not quite reaching the floor. She slid down the behemoth bed, her nightgown riding up the backs of her legs. She wrapped a shawl about herself and picked up a candle; quiet as a mouse out to steal a piece of cheese and feeling about as wicked, she slipped out her bedchamber.

What on earth was she doing? If anyone happened upon her-if anyone knew her purpose-her reputation would be ruined, utterly. But then, when did her reputation ever matter? When did anything but her mother's money matter, anything but Rosings? Should she will it, should the news spread that the ill little Miss de Bourgh was in search of a husband-everyone, it seemed, assumed that she would marry Darcy, just as her mother had said so many times-there would be suitors a-plenty at her feet tomorrow, oblivious to the fact that she was homely, gray and possibly too ill to ever give a man an heir. She could behave as wildly as she pleased, could reduce her own reputation to tatters-and still, there would be men around, oblivious to everything but her money. She gritted her teeth, pulled her shawl tighter about herself. Fitzwilliam wanted her for her... and for that, she should risk her mother's displeasure, should give up the luxuries of Rosings... should subsist just fine on a colonel's pay.

Anne opened the door into Fitzwilliam's bedchamber and slipped inside. It was just a guest bedroom, but Anne's head spun from the very masculinity of it. She saw his coat, now looking dark-red, almost black, buttons and epaulets gleaming with gold in the candlelight; on the table, she espied his sheathed sword, the scabbard intricately engraved, and, lost in thought and the audacity of what she was attempting (and what was it? she hardly dared ask herself), ran her fingers up and down the grooves in the metal, several times. Thereupon, she approached the bed, and the man in it, and stood some time looking at him.

He was covered to the waist, albeit in a rather flimsy way-with a sheet, which seemed to cling somewhat too strongly to his long legs, and far too much-to his loins, from whence Anne drew her eyes with a stifled gasp. For the sheet, along with a creeping moonlight, did an excellent job of accentuating what it was meant to conceal. Anne gasped again, silently thanking the powers that be that the room was too dark for the crimson in her cheeks to be noticeable.

At this, the man in the bed could no longer pretend to be asleep. In fact, he had long retired, having stayed up far too late for his planned early-morning departure. Providentially, before retiring, Fitzwilliam had resolved to speak to Anne once more before leaving on the morrow; about what, he did not know, quite assured that she was unprepared to risk disinheritance for the sake of being with him. He had called himself a fool a thousand times, wondering why on earth she would-why would Anne, being an eminently practical girl, abandon a life of great affluence-and for a single kiss, too! But then, he had said: no, not only a kiss-for they had been friends forever, ever since she had turned precocious, and lively, and sharp-tongued. Ever since she had become his mate in making light of Darcy-the very man she was fated to marry...

No, Fitzwilliam had said; no, not him. He does not love her; he never could. I-he had thought-I do... not him, he had thought; not him. .

Friends, he had thought, wondering. Cousins, friends. They had been that before they were anything else. And out of their friendship, grew something lovelier, more singular, and far more beautiful. Fitzwilliam had not thought how he would approach Anne come morning. Somehow, he had no doubt she would come to see him off. She had done so every time he had left Rosings early in the morning. Then, he would speak with her; would beg her to reconsider, perhaps... would promise to go around the world and find the El Dorado... or perhaps, would simply assure her of his undying loyalty, and friendship. And love.

So resolved, he had cast himself into further tumult and had lain there, his veins on fire and his heart beating wildly. He was feeling like such a youth in love; and to think only, he was thirty years of age. And his own cousin, too. Never before, he knew; never before had he felt so strange; and, something was telling him, never again. If he could not have Anne, he could not imagine himself feeling this way about anyone else.

He had despaired of falling asleep...and had been almost on the verge of getting up and stalking his way to her bedroom, to demand an understanding... when the door opened with a tiny creak, and a small figure slipped into the room, silent as a ghost. Fitzwilliam sucked in his breath and pretended to be asleep, all the while watching her through lowered eyelashes. He saw her tiptoe around the room, towards the bed. She passed the table on her way, saw his sword laid out, ran her fingers up and down it. Fitzwilliam had to bite his lip so hard, he could taste blood, but he could do nothing about he sharp rush of desire to his loins as he saw her do that. It was all he could do to keep from flying to his feet.

He half-hoped, half-dreaded she would leave. But she did no such thing. She set the candle on the table and approached the bed. She stood, looking at him, studying. He had never had a woman look at him this way. Her eyes drifted, time and again, downward, forcing upon him an ill-timed realization that the reason why she was staring at him in such an infamous manner was because the sheet had proved a rather poor covering for him.

She looked down, then up, engaged in some private battle with herself.

Finally, she gasped. She made that little, frightened sound-as if the results of her exploration had quite commandeered her will-and he could no longer bear it.

He sat up, quickly, and locked his hand around her wrist.

"Anne," he said.

She looked at him for a quarter of a second, as if considering whether to scream-and then, she did, and, had he the time for it, Fitzwilliam would have quite appreciated her vocal diapason. But he had not the time for it. In another minute, half of Pemberley would be on his doorstep. Therefore, he yanked Anne towards him, unceremoniously and clamped one hand over her mouth. The scream disappeared, muffled by Fitzwilliam's broad palm; it was as if someone had turned the key, switching Anne off like a doll.

"What are you thinking?" he hissed, not a little angry with her. It was as if she was determined to ruin herself. Anne did not reply, her eyes big and round and looking down. Fitzwilliam followed her gaze and felt himself color: for, in the rush to pull her closer and to quiet her down, he had quite divested himself of the superfluous sheet. Anne, on her part, was now pressed, effectively, against his muscled thigh, a mere inch from his rampant manhood.

That, and the two of them were in his bed.

With a groan and a curse, Fitzwilliam let go of his cousin, trusting that she would not scream again. It was true, she did not-rather, she scrambled off the bed and turned hastily away. Thus she stood, straight like a good little soldier, while he stalked about the room, searching for his dressing gown.

"Are you decent now?" she asked, finally.

Hardly, Fitzwilliam thought. But he was no longer naked-and that he told her. Turning back, Anne studied him assiduously-so assiduously, in fact, that he felt quite ill at ease.

"Why are you here, Annie?"

"I suppose we ought to address a question of our kiss," Anne said, all business-like. Fitzwilliam hooted with laughter.

"You suppose we ought!" he said, testily. "Suppose you tell me what it is you are doing in my bedchamber at the time when you ought to be in bed!"

Anne flushed, from her toes to the roots of her hair.

"How dare you," she said through her teeth. Then, "Indeed. I should not be here. I am sorry I've come."

She turned and marched towards the door, only to be interrupted by the very warm-and large-Fitzwilliam who, driven by a single-minded need not to let his woman leave, cut her off at the door, and, leaning against it, usurped all her opportunity of escape.

"What are you doing here, Anne?" he asked again, crossing his arms on his chest, his determination to know the truth evident.

"I've come to-"she seemed lost, lowering her eyes, munching on her lip.

"Annie," he said, pitiably. "Do not do this to me. You have always been a friend-a friend like no other. You have never shunned the truth. And you must tell me the truth now."

Anne took a deep breath. Then, she ranted. "I have come to tell you," she went on, gesticulating wildly, "that if, when you walked off from the library-in the infamous manner, I'll have you know, you do not kiss a woman and leave her there all alone-it is simply not done!-when you left me there, if you did it for me, so that I am not disinherited, if you did it because you cannot bear to have me live with you on your colonel's pay-"

"Then what?" Fitzwilliam asked, quickly, his eyes riveted to Anne's face.

"Then," she said, much more slowly, "you needn't have bothered."

"Ah," he replied, his nonchalant tone belying the violent emotion in his eyes. "And why is that?"

"Because I should rather live with you on your colonel's pay-or even if it were captain's pay, I should hardly care!-than live without you at Rosings my whole life." As she said that last bit, she shuddered, as if the picture was really quite insufferable.

"Ah," he said, breaking into a smile. "That is very good news, Annie."

"And why is that?" she asked, mocking him.

"Because that is exactly what will happen if you should marry me."

But he was smiling, and she smiled back at him, disbelieving of her own fortune. For she had never hoped to be loved. Indeed, hardly any person of her acquaintance married for love, and if they did, they were considered imprudent, rash, stupid. Anne might think her mother blind for denying that true love existed, might resent her insistent attempts to marry her to Darcy to unite their fortunes-but she had hardly expected love to come her way. Indeed, the most she had ever hoped for was to marry someone she could at least respect. And, failing Darcy, who she knew would never marry her, the circle of her mother's acquaintances did not include any people she respected; therefore, she had long resigned herself to spinsterhood. At the age of twenty-three, it had seemed increasingly likely.

But now, it had all changed. She threw back her head and laughed, exaltedly, giddily, like a girl.

"Would you like that, Anne?"

"To be disinherited for marrying you, Richard?" Oh! How well that sounded: how lovely it was to say his name, not as his cousin, but with a new right to it-the one of his intended; the one of the woman of his heart! She laughed again. "Oh, you know I should like that!"

"Really?" he asked, incredulously. His eyes were shining; he could not stop smiling.

"Really," she said, serious now; and she dipped forward with her whole body and she kissed him on the mouth.

The kiss, closed lips on closed lips, caught him unawares; immediately, his body went up in flames at its innocence and awkwardness and sweetness. And passion-God, she had so much passion. For him. It baffled him, it left him breathless. He cradled her face in his hands, marveling at how lovely she seemed to him, all of a sudden.

"More," he whispered, releasing his hold on her. Her brown hair, auburn in the glow of the single candle, stood in a crown around her head. She came to rest against him, her small breasts flattened against his chest, her arms about his waist. Looking up in his face, she asked, shameless:

"Would you like that, Richard? Knowing that I am all but poor?"

"Yes," he said, thickly, and buried his face into her hair. "More than anything in the world."

They kissed again, still sweetly, gently, he nipping lightly on her lower lip. She giggled and squirmed against him.

"Richard," she said, savoring how it felt to say his name. "My Richard."

He kissed her harder, more thoroughly, much like he did the other day in the library; her arms slipped, as if by their own volition, around his neck. He was a man of thirty, experienced and savvy enough when it came to women, but she undid him, utterly; another minute, and he no longer knew what he was doing, kissing her like mad, his tongue slipping, wantonly, inside her mouth, his mouth slipping lower, to her graceful neck, her fragile clavicles, little pockets of sweetness and fragrance.

"Oh! I love you," they said to each other.

Dimly, Fitzwilliam remembered that defiling one's own intended, a virgin, was not a thing a gentleman did. A gentleman had enough self-control to wait for his wedding night-wherever that might occur, what with the battle that they would soon face. And he intended to stop, he really did, promising himself that he would, only let him kiss her a bit more, let him touch her here-no, there-and then he would stop. It was never enough, though, and he kept kissing her, holding her against him, touching her gently, tentatively.

But then, Anne stilled in his embrace, and he felt it, and fell back.

"What is it?" he asked. "Is anything wrong? Have I offended you, Annie-"

She raised her hands to the ties of her nightshift, and pulled, slowly, opening. The words froze in Fitzwilliam's throat as he watched the garment slither, like a white dream, down her body. It pooled at her feet, a circle of moonlight, and he watched, spellbound, as she stepped over it.

"Anne-" he said, feeling weaker with every second.

"I love you," she said, simply. "I want to be with you. Tonight."

"But Anne-" He leaned forward, cupped her face, small and heart-like, in his hands. Tears, bright and clear like crystal, sparkled in her eyes.

"You are to leave tomorrow," she said, desperately. "I do not know when I should see you next. I want you with me tonight. I want the scent of you on my skin when you go."

"But you know-you know that if this happens, you will be forced to marry me," he reminded her, already giving up, his arms already wrapping around her, his body pressing itself against her. She was light when he lifted her, light and dangling her feet, so very unembarrassed of her nakedness.

"I should like nothing better," she said, and she pulled his robe apart on his chest, and buried her face there, against the warm hard muscle and the soft downy hair.

Later, he would remember that night and wonder at what possessed him. After all, he had known Anne her entire life, and most of his, and had anyone told him, before, that he would be unable to wait until his wedding night-why, he would laugh in his face. But even as he thought of it, the very memory of that night would flood his veins with both tenderness and fire, making him insensible with love and lust for her. When he considered it, Fitzwilliam had never been with a virgin before; he had imagined that with Anne, whose well-being was of paramount importance to him, it would be all the more difficult. But once they were in his bed, stretched out next to each other, her toes tickling his calves, Anne made it all easy. She was clever and talkative and easy herself, and things seemed to happen, naturally. And then, they were joined, finally, and he looked down at her face, glowing and lovely and flushed with love and sweetness, and he took, with her eager cooperation, her maidenhead. When he saw how little she minded the pain, he loved her all the more. He wrapped his arms about her, held her tight against himself, and loved her, loved her until the very breath was torn from his chest and he thought he might die of pleasure.

They fell asleep, spooned, his chin resting on her shoulder, his arms holding her tightly.

When the morning filtered through the window, Fitzwilliam rose, a soldier's internal clock rousing him infallibly. Leaning over Anne, he gently shook her shoulder.

"Annie," he said, dipping his head to kiss the tip of her nose. "Wake up, sweeting."

The morning was their enemy, and they looked away from each other as he dressed, hastily. Clad in shirt and breeches and still barefoot, Fitzwilliam went back to the door, picked Anne's nightgown off the floor. She held up her arms, like a child, and touched, he slipped it over her head. Anne knelt on the bed and helped him do up the shiny gold buttons on his coat and to fasten his sword: her fingers tarried, once again, caressing the length of the weapon; their eyes met, and a second later, both of them were laughing.

"I wonder if your mother knows what a little shrew you are, Annie," Fitzwilliam said.

"Hah! I should hope she does. She has dedicated years of her life to making me into a proper shrew."

"I think she has succeeded, admirably." He picked her up, under her arms, and pulled her off the bed. "Up you go, madam."

Thereupon, both of them stilled and studied, with some reflection, a bloody spot of some magnitude on the pristine sheets. The sight of it moved them both to tenderness; for it was evidence that they had given themselves to one another. Gently, Fitzwilliam wrapped his arms about Anne and rested his chin on top of her head; she fit into his arms precisely, as if made for them.

"I shall hurry back to you," he said, softly. She said nothing in response, but kissed him on the lips once again.

"If I must go back to Rosings," she said, "I shall inform you. But if not, I shall wait for you here at Pemberley."

He threw a worried glance back at the bed. "The servants-"

"-are very discreet here. And then, who would ever guess it was me in your bed last night?"

Fitzwilliam considered it and found the logic admirable. Somewhat regretfully, the two quitted the bedroom, and Anne, still in her nightgown, saw him off in the courtyard. His mount danced under him, and Anne had to stand on tiptoes to give him a kiss, which she intended to be but chaste and sweet, such as a cousin might give a cousin, but which turned passionate very quickly.

"I love you," she said, softly, her hand caressing the side of his face. "So very much."

"I love you, too," he said, and he smiled at her from under his tricorn, a dashing, blinding smile, so very beautiful. And then, he turned his mount's head towards the gate; but turned in the saddle at least three times, to look at the woman in the courtyard.

"You come back to me soon," she whispered, feeling her words disappear into cool gray morning. She stood there until she could see him no longer; and then, she went back inside the house.

Chapter 12

Elizabeth sat in her tavern bed, propped up by pillows, arms folded on her chest, staring at the man in front of her.

Darcy sat facing her, looking calm, collected and every thing unruffled, arms folded as well, one leg over the other.

"I should like to see what the weather is like outside," she said. He cast a quick glance at the window and the beautiful summer day behind it.

"Lovely," he said.

"Well?"

"Well what, madam?"

"Will you call the maid, I need help getting dressed."

Darcy shrugged.

"No."

Elizabeth raised her chin defiantly. This was the third time since yesterday morning, when she first fell good enough to stand up and walk around, that they were having this conversation.

"Pardon?"

"No, madam, I will not call the maid."

"How dare you?"

"Easily, Miss Bennett. You are not well enough to go yet."

"I was not going to go yet," she said, insincerely, for this was exactly what she was going to do. "I just wanted to take a breath of air."

"You can take a breath of air simply sitting by the window, madam, you need not be skulking between carriages."

"You do not trust me!" she said, her pride hurt. She fought to down her irritation-at his perceptiveness, and at herself, for not being more persuasive, and at the weakness and fatigue that had failed to leave her in the past two days, reminding her, in spite of her determination to flee, that she was still unwell.

Darcy shook his head. "Miss Bennett," he said. "You are lying through your teeth. And are appallingly bad at it. You should have Miss Bingley give you lessons."

"How dare you to keep me in here against my will?" she demanded, ignoring his accusations of lying.

He rose, so tall and lithe, and approached her bed, forcing her to look up. From his position, he studied her face, thoughtfully, all the while downing the urge to reach and move a stray dark curl out of her eyes. Then, he said, just as thoughtfully:

"Miss Bennett. I understand that my person causes untamed revulsion in you."

She said nothing, but he read the answer in her eyes, and it hurt, it hurt dreadfully to know what she really thought of him. But then, he swallowed the pain and said, in a voice as controlled as it was gentle:

"But you must believe me, madam, you are safe in my company. Please do not expect a repetition of those-those-" he searched for a proper word at length-for the right word to call his shameful attack on her-and then, he found it, and said: "-those advances upon your person that were so offensive-" he had almost added "to you," but thought best of it and dared not paint his assault on her in colors of subjectivity. What he had done was wrong. It was offensive-to any decent person-and to a woman like Elizabeth, with principles and dignity and honor, it could not but seem vile. He repeated, closing the sentence. "-that were so offensive."

She nodded, brusquely, acknowledging that she no longer had to fear him.

"I was drunk, Miss Bennett," he said, evenly. "And still, that does not begin to do it justice."

Elizabeth shuddered, momentarily reliving those awful moments in the Pemberley library.

"Please," she said. "Please, no more. I cannot bear-" Darcy was penitent, and frightened of her pallor.

"Forgive me," he said, quickly, contritely. "I have upset you."

Elizabeth shook her head. "No," she said. "But I should rather we did not talk of it. It is my shame as well as yours."

Darcy was genuinely appalled. That she should blame herself! "Miss Bennett!" he cried. "You were irreproachable!"

Elizabeth made a sound, which, had he not been so distressed, Darcy would have appreciated as a very lively snort. "Hardly," she said. There was, during which, Darcy, shaken, pondered that he had not realized the implications all of this might have for Elizabeth. Then, she moved a strand of hair out of her eyes and said, softly. "I am not afraid of you. Had you wished to take advantage of me, there could be no better opportunity but in these several days-"

"Miss Bennett!" he said, with an indignant sputter. "What do you take me for, madam? You were so ill!"

A doubtful look of fine, dark eyes told him that she now thought no vileness below him; and once again, he almost choked on his bile, his former desires ashes in his mouth.

"Madam," he whispered, shaken.

"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth replied, resolutely, "Let us forget it, sir. I am grateful to you for tending to me so kindly. But I have not changed my mind-as soon as you stop interfering with me, I shall leave. I should leave now, had I not known you would prevent it."

"I should," he agreed. "I have enough on my conscience with respect to you, madam. I do not wish your death on it as well."

She shrugged, dismissing his concerns for her life, and went on.

"I am not going back to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy."

He frowned, then pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers.

"What is it?" Elizabeth asked, curiously. "Do you have a headache? All this sitting within four walls. I told you we should go outside."

"I do not remember a "we" in there, Miss Bennett... you clamored to go outside on your own... and it is not the room. Arguing with you gives me a headache. But pray, go on. You are not going back to Pemberley."

"No."

He released his nose and stared at her again.

"You do not think you owe it to Georgiana to say good-bye to her?"

She flushed, hot and angry. "Of all the dishonest, dirty moves!"

"But don't you, Miss Bennett?"

"I shall write her a letter, sir." Elizabeth said, resolutely. "After all, I am in no condition now to provide guidance." Growing angrier as she spoke, she said, poisonously. "If you were so concerned about your sister-"

Darcy laughed, a low, tired laugh. Touché, he thought. Still, aloud he said: "Speaking of dirty moves, Miss Bennett. But," he added with a pleasant smile, "I suppose you are entitled to each barb you choose to fling my way." He took another pause and was suddenly too tired to argue with her. After all, he could not drag her back to Pemberley by force. Perhaps, he thought bitterly, perhaps it is all just as well, perhaps I have truly lost her.

He rose and bowed to her. "Very well, madam. As soon as the doctor says you are well enough to travel, you will go-"

Elizabeth almost sprang off the bed.

"The doctor!" she sputtered indignantly. "Mr. Darcy, the doctor says what you tell him to say!"

Darcy considered: it was true, that. He had strongly hinted to the physician that he felt the fresh air and the natural beauties of his estate would be highly beneficial to the lady's health and overall welfare.

"Oh, very well, he does," he said, exasperated. "But truth for truth, Miss Bennett! Do you feel good enough to go?"

She was silent for some time. Then, she said, her voice weak, faltering:

"No." And, to his shock, Darcy saw her lips tremble and heard a sniff, then another and another. Then, for the first time since the damnable interlude in the library, he saw the indomitable Elizabeth Bennett hide her face in her hands. All of a sudden, his equanimity was in shreds, and everything inside of him strove to comfort Elizabeth and to assuage her tears. It was so strange, really: usually, women's tears caused him to feel nothing but annoyance. Far too often, he felt, far too often they were used as a cunning device. And yet, with Elizabeth, he could care less if she did use her tears to get her way-all that mattered was that she was crying, suddenly tearing his heart to pieces. He would have given anything to stop her from crying, to see a smile on her face. But he could not even hold her, could not kiss her tears away like he wanted, more than anything in the world, and it hurt him terribly.

"Miss Bennett," he said, softly. He yearned to reach out and touch her, to cup her cheek gently, to wipe those lovely eyes of hers. But he dared not, fearing to offend her. Therefore, he waited for her to stop crying, upon which he offered her his handkerchief. She cried like a little girl, with sobs and sniffs, and then she calmed down, ever so slowly, the last miserable sniffles disappearing, quietly, turning into tortured sighs. Then, she raised her eyes at him, and he thought that she looked, for the first time, not beautiful, but tired, the youthful loveliness ravaged off her by her illness, her tears, her violent emotion.

"Forgive me," she whispered. "I-I shouldn't have-"

Strangely enough, seeing her in this way inspired in him an entirely new emotion-a violent desire to shelter her and protect her from the world. To throttle anyone who would dare cause her grief. That this "anyone" had been, largely, himself hardly presented a contradiction-except to fill him, of course, with burning shame, and a desire to make it up to her, to make it all better. If only she came back with him to Pemberley.

Oh, Pemberley, he thought, he could fix it all at Pemberley, he could make her see-- but aloud, he said:

"Miss Bennett, as soon as you feel well enough to go, I shall put you on a stagecoach myself."

"Thank you," she whispered, and he knew that she had believed him.

"Try to sleep now," he said. She sat up straighter, and sat there, obediently, holding her nightgown together on her chest, while he moved her pillows around, making it so that she could lie down. Then, he stepped back and watched her sink back against the pillows. She was still rather weak, he saw, as her eyes closed and she was asleep almost instantly.

Darcy stood by her bed, watching Elizabeth sleep for a long time. For the firs time since he had found her, she did not toss, nor turn, but slept like a child, curled up on one side, one hand under the pillow.

Elizabeth was determined to leave; Darcy did not believe he could hold her back, not even if he threw himself under her feet. He was losing her, losing her as surely as if she were dead. At the thought of it, he felt desperation seize him, and feared he would cry. He strode out of the room, ran down the stairs, jumping over the last three steps, and ordered his horse saddled. A ride in the countryside had suddenly become a necessity, and he trusted Elizabeth not to leave in his absence.

When he came back, somber and resolved to let her go, the proprietress stopped him below and told him there was a letter waiting for him. He looked: it was from Anne, from Pemberley. He waited until he was in his room to read it, thoughtfully. Then, just as thoughtfully and carefully, he folded it again. Thereupon, Darcy was moved, very strongly, to jump up in the air and yell for joy; but he could hardly imagine anything less dignified-and so, he merely smiled, suddenly made very happy.

Elizabeth would go back to Pemberley with him.

~ * ~

At Pemberley, Anne de Bourgh locked herself in the library. She was tired of everyone and craved solitude, where she could think, at length, reliving the events of three nights ago, when her life was turned topsy-turvy. Gulliver's Travels could not hold her attention: indeed, she had not moved a page beyond where she was three days ago.

Three days, she thought, incredulously.

Anne smiled, dreamily, like a cat that had fed on cream. For two days after that night, she forsook bathing, loathe to wash his sent from her skin. Though she was ashamed to admit it, she hoped that he, on his part, had been just as loathe. Then, of course, reality intervened, and on the third day, she grudgingly took a bath, all the while pondering-and disbelieving-her own newfound shamelessness.

She had thought of the one night she had shared with-why, she could not think of him as Fitzwilliam anymore, he was no longer simply an older cousin; nor could she think of him as The Colonel, for that was far too wifely; she would call him that when they were married. Therefore, that left only Richard. Richard, she thought. Richard. What a lovely name it was, strong and kingly. (History was never Anne's forte; that the only King Richard that came to mind was a murderer hardly bothered her.) She laughed, half-embarrassed at such thoughts; but they were nothing compared to the ones that came next.

She remembered turning her head on the pillow and seeing their shadows reproduced, bizarre, the wall, in the flickering light of a candle, their bodies moving, intertwined, the sharp angles of her knees, and Richard's profile. She remembered the shadows flickering, the candle burning down to a tiny stump, the moonlight playing on Richard's sweat-slicked back as he leaned over to crumple it with his fingers, and his face so beautiful as he returned The melodious confluence of whispers and moans and sighs, and her own sharp intake of air at the pain she had expected and welcomed and embraced. His passion for her, a man's passion, thrilled and gladdened her. And though her own lay dormant yet, she did accept him and loved him, the best she knew heart, with all of her heart and body.

She walked to the writing desk in the corner of the library, and having hesitated a second, wrote, in fluid hand: Anne. And then, after a pause, she added Richard to her Anne, and put an ampersand between the two of them. She put an "equals" sign after Richard, and, feeling dreadfully silly, drew a pretty little heart following the "equals." And then, having actually thrown an almost clandestine glance behind her shoulder and disbelieving her own foolishness, Anne wrote: Anne Fitzwilliam. And then, Mrs. Richard Fitzwilliam. She thought for a second, then inserted "Col. And" just before that.

Giggling at such silliness, Anne held the paper to a candle and watched it shrivel and be reduced to a mound of warm gray ash. She had only managed to destroy the evidence of her complete mental breakdown, when there was a knock on the library door, and Georgiana's stuttering voice, calling her name.

"A-anne? Anne, I n-know you're th-there. You b-better c-come out, w-we h-have a v-visitor."

Anne sighed in slight exasperation and pitied the future Mistress of Pemberley, whoever she might be (nobody I know, she thought, though the thought of Miss Elizabeth Bennett occurred to her, curiously, but then was gone immediately).

"Yes!" she called. "Coming, Georgie!" She swept the ashes into her palm and tossed them into the empty fireplace, content that nobody will ever know how silly she had behaved. Thereupon, she went outside, where Georgiana, hanging by the doors, her speech hampered badly by the excitement, attempted to explain to her who their guest was. But she stammered more than usually and was practically impossible to understand.

"Georgie, you must calm yourself," Anne said, taking her cousin's arm and leading her down the hallway. "You would think the Queen of Sheba herself is here!"

"N-no!" Georgiana finally managed. " 'T-tis b-better! Or w-worse, d-depending. 'T-t-tis Elizabeth's s-sister, M-mrs. C-collins!"

Chapter 13

Darcy knocked discreetly before entering Elizabeth's room. She had to admit, he had behaved a perfect gentleman; now, too, his face expressed nothing but concern for her-except, perhaps, for a barely perceptible lift in emotions. It was as if something had gladdened him, Elizabeth thought. Immediately, she was curious-and wary-of what it was.

She did not wait long to find out.

"You seem in high spirits today, sir," she said, cautiously.

"Why, Miss Bennett," came the reply, " 'tis only because I am able to brighten your day. I have the best possible news."

Elizabeth pricked her ears, but said nothing.

"Your sister is at Pemberley, madam," Mr. Darcy said, smiling graciously. "And, according to my cousin's information, very eager to see you."

Elizabeth felt, physically, all color drain from her face. She bit her lip, tasting blood.

"You have tricked me," she said, finally, incredulously. "You have kept me here, all the while waiting for Jane to arrive!"

Offended, Darcy drew himself up. His voice rasped as he spoke.

"Tricked you? Good God, Miss Bennett! How dare you level an accusation of trickery at me! Madam, if my memory serves me right, you were the one to ask me for a permission-"

He flew to his feet, glowing with anger, but Elizabeth's fury was to match him, and she only crossed her arms on her chest and stared him down.

"You have promised to let me go," she said, bitterly. "Promised me, sir. But you have kept me here, have convinced me to stay a day, then another day-so that now I must go back to Pemberley with you!" She bit her lip and tried her hardest not to cry. In truth, she did not believe there was any trickery there, of course; she only had Jane's poor timing to lament, and her own delay in writing to her sister. Now, she would have to go back to Pemberley, there was no way out of it, she could not simply leave Jane there.

"I have not forced you to stay," he said. "But if I did, I should have done no wrong! You could die alone on the road!"

He was towering above her bed now. She looked up in his face and saw that he was squinting at her, wrinkling his nose, and biting his lip. As if on an impulse, he said:

"Miss Bennett, I should travel to Pemberley and bring Mrs. Collins here-but I have no man to leave with you-and I shall not leave you all alone here."

She rolled her eyes, annoyed that he thought her so unable to fend for herself. She wondered at his reaction, had he known how she dealt with that idiot on the stagecoach-

"I understand," she said, finally, heavily. "I thank you, sir."

Looking down at her, Darcy said, longingly: "You do so loath going back to Pemberley! What are you afraid of, Miss Bennett?"

She looked up at him, shocked at the pain she heard in his voice; and even more so, at the answer she had to give to him, immediately. You, she wanted to say. You, and me, perhaps even more. My own reactions to you, the fever you had all but ignited in me. That one day, all my strength might not be enough to resist you, with your beautiful velvety eyes, and beautiful sculptured hands, and a unhurried, easy, confident way of walking that takes my breath away; and with your laughter, so easy and so unexpected in someone so serious; and with your slow seductions, your little kindnesses, your astonishing passion.

All of it, even after the violence he had almost committed...

She gasped at such thoughts and exhaled, slowly. Then, she said:

"I am not afraid of anything, sir. It is just that I should rather... not... revisit... the place where it all happened."

Darcy did not know what else to tell her, how else to reassure her. She did not believe him-but of course, how could he expect her to, after what he had done? His voice ringing, intense, desperate, he asked:

"That I shall respect your person-you do believe that, do you not?"

Elizabeth studied him, softly. He seemed, truly, to be so anguished, so distressed. For the first time, not because he could not get what he desired; rather, because he knew her opinion of him to be too low. She examined her feelings: she did believe him, however little he answered to the standard of a gentleman her father had established earlier. She had accused him of trickery, but those were mere words-whatever his vices, Elizabeth had never believed Mr. Darcy to be dishonest. If he had set a trap for her earlier, she was no innocent victim: she had seen it and walked into it, almost willingly.

He took up pacing about the room, striding back and forth, tugging viciously on his forelock. Elizabeth flinched.

"You'll go bald like that, sir," she said, irreverently.

"Do not pretend to care, madam!" came a curt reply.

"Very well, sir, I shall not."

"Good."

"Good."

Stopping in the middle of the room, he said, suddenly and in great agitation:

"Elizabeth."

The shock at hearing her name fall from his lips again was acute; it was intense. She bit her lip.

"I do not believe I've given you leave-"

He interrupted her-rudely, frantically-and spoke, quickly and with great passion, as if striving to convince her of something.

"I'll not lie to you, madam! This is what I have called you all the time you were ill, when saying your name seemed to keep you back in this world. Believe me, it portends nothing. I shall not attempt any further liberties with you, madam, but in this conversation, I shall have your name."

Elizabeth shrugged, not quite knowing what to say. It seemed absurd to deny him that right when she was sitting in front of him in her nightshift. He had cared for her so intimately, yet so discreetly. She was not at all certain she would have lived, had it not been for his selfless, sleepless vigils by her bed (or so the maid told her: "The young squire here, he spent day and night sitting with you, ma'am, hardly eating or sleeping at all!").

"Very well," she said, softly.

"Elizabeth," he said. He was standing in front of her bed, arms folded, defiant, and unconsciously, she mimicked his stance, crossing her arms on her chest, raising her chin, pursing her lips. "I know I have offended you. Gravely. Believe me-there is no possession of mine I should not give to undo what I have done. Including Pemberley."

At such excess, she smiled, incredulously.

"You think I am merely jesting! I have been wrong about you, Elizabeth, all wrong. I did not mean to offend you, except that possibly I was not thinking about you, caught up in my selfish desires. Oh, Elizabeth," he whispered, longingly, and then, before he knew it, he said, and knew his words to be true: "You could have been my greatest happiness. As it stands, you are my greatest mistake!"

"Mr. Darcy," she whispered, feeling that his gaze, so intense, ignited a fire deep inside of her.

"Allow me to finish, please, madam. I accept my blame fully-I know that no apology could recompense for what I have done to you-but Miss Bennett-Elizabeth-do you believe that a man can change?"

"Not a man of eight-and-twenty, sir," she said, softly. She wished, dearly, she could have told him otherwise; but pretense of every kind was her abhorrence. Yet, he was not deterred; and so, he said, with the same passion that had so captivated her, that had drawn her to him, like a fly into the spider's net, like a moth towards the candlelight.

"And yet I have-I think I have. When I first set out to search for you, I had thought to merely explain myself to you, to ask your forgiveness for my assault on your person-" he seemed to shudder as he said that. "But when I saw you here-so weak-so helpless-so ill-Oh, Elizabeth, only then did I realize the full extent and gravity of my mistake. Elizabeth, I dare not beg your forgiveness-"

"Sir," she said softly. "I did not believe you concerned yourself with my forgiveness-after all, I am but the woman to whom you've offered the station of your mistress. Surely your esteem of me must be low-"

"Enough!" Darcy said, furiously. "There is highly a woman in the world of whom I think as highly-"

Elizabeth could not contain a derisive little laugh. "Truly?" she asked, arching a brow. "I suppose I ought to be flattered, sir."

"I know 'tis difficult to believe-" he started.

"Extremely so," she said, and added, with bitterness, unexpected even to herself. "If you esteem me as you say you do, sir, would you shame me so? Would you make me your mistress in the eyes of the world-"

"Elizabeth, I was drunk!"

"What an excuse this is, sir!" Elizabeth cried. "For a man of such mind as yours! a man so formidable-what a sad excuse it is!"

Darcy said nothing to that: she was right, he knew it, however much it hurt him to admit to it. The strange truth was, he had told her the truth-he did esteem her, more so than any other woman of his acquaintance. She was by far the cleverest, kindest, most honorable woman he knew, possessed not only of a passionate nature, but also, of remarkable, innate sense of worth. It did not lead her to demean others, like Caroline Bingley's faulty vanity; indeed, she saw no need for it, and was, therefore, unwaveringly kind to those around her. Indeed, he esteemed her greatly.

How could he, then, how could he have committed such an abomination?

"Look me in the eye, sir, and tell me that you would not do so, had I agreed. Tell me that when you stopped being drunk, you would withdraw your shameful offer!"

Darcy was lost, again. In spite of himself, he thought of what it would be like to have her for a mistress, and was filled with terrible longing. But he did esteem her, did... respect her, and so, he owed her the truth.

"No," he said. "I should not."

He sat down in a chair, dropping his head on his folded hands. She watched him from the bed, chastened and a bit afraid-for his latest admission, which she had well-nigh forced out of him, reminded her immediately of that night in the library; reminded her that he had desired her, had nearly forced himself upon her; and that now, she was sitting in front of him in her night-dress.

Running one hand through his dark curls, Darcy raised his eyes at her. When he spoke, it was in a voice so quiet, she had to strain to hear him.

"Miss Bennett-Elizabeth. I'll not deny any accusation you choose to fling at me. I have castigated myself a thousand times already. I am very, very sorry," he said, and repeated, with feeling, "very sorry for what has transpired the other night at Pemberley. You know not just how sorry I am. Beyond this, I cannot do, nor say, anything to make it better for you-or myself." He rose from his chair. "Please believe that you are safe in my company-"

"I do," Elizabeth said, softly.

"Good," he whispered, smiling at her. "I should not have you think me a bigger brigand than I am."

He cut her a bow and walked towards the door. She called after him.

"Mr. Darcy!"

"Yes, madam?"

"When are we to leave, then?"

~ * ~

They left first thing on the morrow. The Liddells were exceedingly sad to see them go, the husband for the guineas, the wife for the gossip. The stairs were too much for Elizabeth to muster, and so Darcy, without much ceremony, carried her downstairs in his arms and deposited her in the carriage (it was not one of his own comfortable ones, for he had come to Cheshire on horseback, but it would have to do; he had bought this one from the gentleman who owed the nearest estate, a Mr. Villiers). Once there, she pulled the drapes on the window open, inhaling, eagerly, the fresh air after nearly ten days indoors. Darcy, looking in from the outside, chided her gently for leaving the drapes open.

"You were so ill, Eliz-Miss Bennett." Somehow, it did not seem right to address her so, by her Christian name, in the bright light of the summer morning, in the presence of others.

"But fresh air should only do me good," she argued, and so, he relented, and she watched him mount his tall black horse as the carriage started to move.

She was lulled into sleep almost immediately. The fresh air must have done her good, indeed; for she slept, almost without interruption, until the darkness fell, and the carriage stopped for the night at a roadside tavern. It was similar to the Golden Rooster, and carried an equally birdlike name of the Silver Duck.

"Poultry names abound in Cheshire," Darcy said, smirking, as he handed the sleepy Elizabeth out of the carriage.

One significant difference between this inn and the previous one was that only one room was available at this fine establishment. The driver, a cousin of good Mrs. Liddell, padded off to sleep at the stables; thereupon, Darcy was faced with the unpleasant choice of either following him or informing Elizabeth that they would have to spend the night in the same room.

It had happened before, certainly, but it had been different. She had been so ill, and he had been dressed and sleeping in a chair. If he hoped to spend all of tomorrow atop Lucifer, he would need to sleep in a recumbent position tonight-and, he suspected, an unpleasant feeling of a coming catastrophe, there would only be one bed in the room.

He set her down in the very respectable-looking hall, and so they stood, looking about them, waiting for the proprietor to appear with the keys. With the key, Darcy corrected himself.

"Keep your gloves on, Elizabeth," he said grimly.

"Pardon?" she whispered, turning to look at him.

Keep your gloves on so that they do not know we are not married. Not wishing to embarrass her, he did not tell her that he had signed the register as Mr. & Mrs. Liddell, of the town of Plimpton, in Cheshire. At this moment, the proprietor appeared and handed Darcy the key.

Elizabeth looked between the two men, saw the expression on Darcy's face and arched one eyebrow. She gave no outward sign of displeasure; but inside, she trembled violently. She could not imagine sleeping in the same room with him, not anymore; this was no longer the Golden Rooster, where she was the patient and he-the caretaker. Once again, he was her employer. Her lecherous employer, she added to herself, the very may she had fled.

"I'll show you upstairs now, sir?" The proprietor was a short and portly man with an impatient expression on his somewhat apoplectic face.

Darcy nodded.

"Lead on," he said, and swept Elizabeth up in his arms.

"I really can walk up a flight of stairs myself," she said petulantly, but it was somewhat nice to be carried by him; especially since he set her down again, very respectfully, the moment they had reached the top of the stairs.

The proprietor opened the door for them-a clean space only big enough to fit a large curtained bed, a dresser, a chair, and a fancy Oriental screen-and wished them a good night.

"Should you need anything-" he pointed to the bell-pull by the bed.

"Thank you," Darcy said quickly. He stepped towards the door and locked it behind the man. Then, he turned to Elizabeth.

"Do you believe that I did not know?" he asked urgently. "I did not know when another inn should come along-I could not risk spending all night on the road-"

She nodded, but stood awkwardly, not quite knowing what would happen next. Darcy shook his head.

"I should go," he said. "I could spend the night with John, at the stables."

"No," she said quickly. " 'Tis not right for you to sleep at the stables-"

They both looked around the room. The chair in the corner had no arms, but, Darcy thought wistfully, it did have a very stiff back.

"I shall do splendidly on the floor," he said bravely.

She nodded and thanked him. "I shall give you a blanket and a pillow," she said decisively and strode to the bed.

Thereupon, their agreement was reached. She changed, quickly, behind the screen, and dove into the bed, her modesty revived. He took off his boots, coat and waistcoat, untied his cravat and set it aside; then, he wrapped himself in one of Elizabeth's blankets and tried to sleep.

Which proved, of course, easier said than done. It was a balmy summer night outside, but the floor of the room was obnoxiously cold, eating through the thin blanket, making his teeth chatter; not to mention that it was also a considerably harder surface than any he had been accustomed to using for a bed before. That he was just such a sybarite was an unpleasant discovery-he was certain that it would present no trouble whatsoever for Fitzwilliam to sleep on the hardest floor in the world. He tossed and turned miserably for half the night, trying unsuccessfully to wrench a bit of comfort from the hard, cold floor, trying fruitlessly to warm himself.

"Mr. Darcy," he heard and opened his eyes.

Elizabeth was next to him, crouching on the floor, touching the cold floorboards.

"You'll catch your death this way," she said. "Come to bed."

The offer was more than tempting, if only for the warmth and comfort, but he had to consider her comfort as well.

"What of you?" he asked, his teeth well-nigh chattering.

"Do not mind me," she said. "I've had enough of sleep. I also slept in the carriage. We can take turns, you know."

He refused, unequivocally, to let her quit the bed.

"What must you think of me, madam, to imagine I should let you spend the night on the floor! Or on that rack of a chair, for that matter!"

"Well," she said, slowly, and he thought he saw her blush in the semi-darkness. "We cannot sleep in the same bed, now, can we?"

He laughed, quietly, white teeth flashing. "Madam, you do not trust me! What do you suppose I should do-force myself on you?"

She shrugged, uncomfortably. "I do not know, I do not care to know. You can take the bed. I think you should take the bed, or else, our roles will be reversed tomorrow, for you'll not be able to stand on your own two feet."

Darcy sneered at her. "What do you take me for, madam? I cannot take the bed if I know that you have to spend the rest of the night sitting in that chair."

She said nothing, and he continued: "I thank you for your charity, Elizabeth, but I should appreciate dearly if you left me to sleep, now."

She shrugged and retired to bed. Darcy tossed and turned for a bit longer; at this point, the stables were beginning to look rather good-at least it would be warmer there. He was almost ready to go, when Elizabeth shot out of the bed and, before he had the time to say a single word, yanked his jacket, thrown over the insufficient blanket, off him.

"An insufferable man!" she said, laying the coat in the middle of the bed. Darcy laughed, sitting up.

"I am sorry I have no sword to use in its place," he said. She huffed, angrily, and turned away from him. "You are very kind, Elizabeth," he said meekly and climbed into the bed.

He had thought it would be difficult to fall asleep with her in the same bed; but he had been so tired, so exhausted from the day's ride and the few hours on the floor, that the minute his cheek touched the pillow, he was asleep.

But during the night, something happened; he did not know , or how, but the first thing he felt when he woke was her hair tickling his nose. Looking down, still frightfully disoriented, he saw that he was holding Elizabeth in his arms, in a comfortable, familiar, lovers' embrace. Pressed tightly against himself, very tightly, in fact, to which the stirrings of his body served testament.

Darcy was mortified. He knew he needed to extricate himself now, quickly, before she woke. Mercifully, she was asleep, one hand under her cheek; but, as he was holding her in a close embrace, removing his arm from under her supine form presented a major challenge.

He did not know how he managed to accomplish it-for it required from him the plasticity of a tightrope walker-but he did, and scooted back on the bed, as far from her as possible, his chest heaving. Elizabeth remained sleeping, her breathing even, her shape lovely under the blanket. Clandestinely, he watched her sleep, the rays of the early morning sun throwing a gentle mesh of shadow against her cheek. All of a sudden, he was filled with such exquisite tenderness that he thought his heart would well-nigh burst inside his chest. The feelings inside as he looked at her like this were more than he could bear to examine, but the knowledge that she had not died, that he had not lost her, that she was coming back to Pemberley with him-filled him with strange, almost tearful gratitude.

He rose, dressed, washed his face behind the screen. Then he returned to the bed, and gently shook Elizabeth's shoulder (it was warm through her nightgown). Dark eyelashes fluttering like the wings of a lovely black butterfly, she opened her eyes and looked at him, sleepily.

"Elizabeth, we must away," he said. "We have a long ride before us."

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