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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B
A Singular Proposition

Chapter 14

Charles Bingley was hardly the man to fall in love overnight.

He was a serious, reasonable young man, and as down-to-earth as they come. In fact, when before he had pondered his future, love was hardly one of the things he had wished and hoped for. A good wife, a gentlewoman, hopefully with some money of her own, and a kind soul to be sure. He had imagined companionship, contentment, warmth. Love, hardly. And never passion.

He had long known of Darcy's hope that perhaps, one day, he would marry Georgiana. He did not mind the idea, for he did quite like the girl, but it would have to be in the future. Just now, the thought of marrying Georgiana chilled him-for she was too young, too girlish, too adolescent. There would be something indecent about courting someone quite so young as she; but one day, one day, he thought. One day, maybe.

And yet, Georgiana was no longer in his thoughts-and would never be again-after he had come down to the blue tea-room and found her drinking tea in the company of Miss de Bourgh and the most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. Never mind that the stranger looked tired and was dressed in mourning; he saw none of it. Only the incandescent light in her violet-colored eyes, and her honey-colored hair, and the sweet, serene smile of her countenance. If ever he had imagined a angel... of mercy, he thought, it had to be an angel of mercy.

"F-forgive my intrusion," he murmured, startled. The woman looked up from her teacup, and their eyes met. And then, out of the blue of her eyes, she smiled at him. Quite probably, it was only a polite smile one bestowed upon a stranger; but once again, Bingley did not see that. In his mind, the beautiful stranger smiled at him and him alone; and in that smile, there was a promise of such joy to come, he well-nigh cried.

"Why, Mr. Bingley, will you join us?"

He wrenched his eyes away from the beauty in front of him. Anne de Bourgh was smiling at him, in a way that only she could, the little harpy. Hardly anything escaped her shrewd gaze: neither his obvious eyeballing of the lovely stranger, nor his noticeable awe at the sight of her made for an exception

"But of course," he said, taking a step forward. As the etiquette demanded, he waited for the lady to be introduced to him, first. Anne would not be remiss in that:

"Mr. Bingley, may I introduce Mrs. Collins," she said, her eyes glistening with mischief. "Miss Elizabeth Bennett's sister."

Mrs. Collins, he thought, devastated. Aloud, he said, hoping his disappointment did not show too much in his voice:

"Delighted."

She inclined her head, softly, and gave him another lovely smile.

"Delighted to meet you, sir."

She had a lovely voice, very melodious. It reminded him of her sister-but here was the end to their resemblance; for as Miss Bennett was dark and passionate, her sister was blonde and fair and quiet. And ever so angelic, Bingley thought, longingly.

"Mrs. Collins' late husband," Anne said, her eyes trained shrewdly on Bingley's face, which he supposed showed an array of violent emotion, "was my mother's vicar..."

"My condolences, madam," Bingley murmured, happy as a lark. For she was first lost to him, then, miraculously, reprieved. The blonde thanked him and the conversation seemed to stall. Lovely as she was, Mrs. Collins looked tired from the road (come, as Bingley then found out, all the way from Hertfordshire) and not a little sad (to find, Bingley surmised, her sister sadly absent from Pemberley). Thereupon, she retired, and as she rose and quitted the room, accompanied by Georgiana, he stared after her and found that her figure, too, was absolutely-utterly-lovely.

"Perchance you ought to close your mouth," Anne said to him, not unkindly, when the door closed behind the two women. "It is most inelegant to sit with your mouth open, sir."

He followed her advice. He swallowed a tight lump in his throat. He turned to her and asked, no longer afraid of seeming a love-struck fool-for only one so unfortunately wanting wits could fall so obviously, so instantly, for a perfect stranger-in a rasping voice that immediately betrayed everything he felt:

"Who... who is she?"

Anne smirked. "She has this effect on people, on men in particular, that one. Beauteous, is she not?"

"An angel," he said, with conviction.

"I do not believe in angels," Anne said reasonably, "but if ever there was one-" she sighed. "Only an angel could tolerate her late husband."

"Really?" Bingley asked, quite encouraged. "So you knew them well? Tell me about them, Miss Anne."

"Smitten, are you?"

"I must admit I am," he said, simply.

"Her husband has only just died last month-she has a year of mourning before her. Imagine that, Mr. Bingley! Insufferable, stupid man! He had made it his custom to stand outside and get in the way of my horses, whenever I passed by their cottage in Hunsford. I had asked him, time and time again, to stop, but he insisted. Well, in the end, he was soaked by the rain, caught a pneumonia, and it carried him away by the day's end!" She sniffed, angrily. "My mother, you see, has some perverse need to surround herself with the most obsequious, stupid men in the Empire-and I am the one to suffer, by extension. But be it as it may, the good Mrs. Collins is now a widow-at the ripe old age of three-and-twenty."

She smirked, crookedly.

"You could say I did her a favor!" She caught the bewildered look on his face and said. "Be not afraid, sir, Jane Collins is not like him at all. She cannot be insincere, for it is not in her nature, therefore she loves everyone genuinely and tries her best to make everyone happy. Even my mother found her agreeable, and she never finds anyone agreeable unless they have an income of five thousand or higher."

He had to smile at that description.

"But she truly is a very agreeable young woman," Anne said, much more serious now. "Indeed, I think her kindness and loveliness and goodness was wasted on that abominable Mr. Collins! Not that I shouldn't be speaking more kindly about him now, that he is so unhappily deceased."

Bingley wished he was not bound by the laws of etiquette, for he quite wanted to kiss Anne de Bourgh-out of sheer gratitude. He rose and announced that he was going for a walk:

"Go, go," Anne said, grinning. "And while you are at it, gather some flowers for our lovely Mrs. Collins!"

~ * ~

Jane stared out of the window of the drawing-room, submerged in deep.... no, it was not ennui, she would not call it that. She was not bored-she rarely was, generally content with the world-but rather, worried, frustrated, upset. She had torn herself out of Longbourn over her mother's stringent disapproval ("Travel! Why should you travel, girl, and so soon after your husband's death! It is simply not done!"); she had flown to Pemberley, hoping to see her beloved sister-only to be met by the bewildered Miss Darcy-so bewildered, in fact, she could hardly manage a word on occasion-and, to her great surprise, Miss Anne de Bourgh, whose company she had only just quitted two months ago at Rosings. Elizabeth was not there, and nobody was able to give Jane a good explanation as to her whereabouts, or to the reasons for her absence. The more Jane asked, the more evasive the answers became, the more she worried. Then, finally, four days into her stay at Pemberley (which was, she had to admit, as beautiful as Elizabeth's letters had described it), a letter came from apparently Mr. Darcy (who was, too, absent from Pemberley-to Jane's consternation, for his absence was clearly connected with that of her sister). They had been trapped in one of the numerous drawing-rooms, sitting out the torrential summer rain that had crashed over Pemberley from above, suspending all activity on the ground. Miss de Bourgh looked at the letter-brought up by the butler on a silver tray-and asked leave to read it.

" 'Tis from Darcy," she said. She read it quickly, and, when she folded it, her eyes were shining. "Mrs. Collins," she said, quickly, "your sister is coming back."

Jane was thrilled-and relieved-to hear of Elizabeth's impending arrival; it did not answer all her questions, but she would let them be until Elizabeth returned. Then, she would know the truth, finally. As it was, Miss Darcy sulked, Miss Bingley simpered, and Miss de Bourgh smiled sagely; and Jane had to content herself with waiting.

Now, her quiet reverie was interrupted by the loud rattling sound of a carriage rolling into the yard. Before she had the time to say anything, the sound attracted the rest of the females in the room to the selfsame window. Their reactions were markedly different, howbeit expressed simultaneously.

"Oh!" Miss Bingley exclaimed. "He is come back!"

"B-brother!" Miss Darcy cried out. "El-elizabeth!"

"Oh, finally!" Miss de Bourgh snorted.

Jane had to confess herself bewildered; she ran out along with everyone else (Mr. Bingley walking behind them, looking rather dignified in the midst of all this female excitement), only to see Mr. Darcy hand Elizabeth out of the carriage. Shocked deeply, Jane saw the gentleman gather her sister in his arms, wrapped securely in his greatcoat. He never lowered her to the ground, but carried her into the house, all the while getting soaked himself.

Once inside, Jane saw Mr. Darcy lower Elizabeth to the floor, as it seemed to her, a tad reluctantly. She told herself she was imagining things and locked her arms about her sister's neck. Jane pulled back to look at Elizabeth and was frightened and worried by what she saw: her sister looked gossamer-thin and ever so pale.

"Oh, Lizzy," she whispered, pulling the younger sister into another close embrace, fighting to banish the tears that had come upon her, all of a sudden, unwanted. She opened her eyes and saw, over Elizabeth's shoulder, Mr. Darcy's pale, somber mien; it seemed to her, for a second, as if he was going to cry.

~ * ~

"Mr. Darcy, sir!"

Darcy was in the library, wiping his wet curls with the towel Mrs. Reynolds had brought him. His jacket was off, and his boots were very, very muddy. And all this, Bingley thought, all this from a mere dash from the carriage. But then again, Darcy had taken off his greatcoat and wrapped Miss Elizabeth Bennett in it, and had carried her in his arms, as if she was his most precious possession. She was upstairs now, completely dry, and Bingley could not but be amazed at what had happened to his friend, whom he had thought so implacable when it came to women.

"Mr. Darcy!"

Darcy turned about and came face-to-face with the very lovely Mrs. Collins. The very white, very angry, well-nigh livid Mrs. Collins.

"I have only just spoken with my sister," she said, and, to Bingley's waking surprise, she sounded furious. "For shame, sir!"

Darcy hung his head and said nothing. Bingley watched, captivated, first of all, by Jane's beauty and passion-for in the few short days of their acquaintance, he had come to think of her as kind and sweet and rather placid-and, even more particularly, by Darcy's long, shamed mien. Nobody talked to his friend in such an infamous manner; no, the very idea was ridiculous. Even more preposterous was the idea that he would stand and listen, his head bowed. Bingley could hardly believe his eyes.

"My sister was in your employ, sir," Jane went on, reproachfully. "Dependent on you, on your kindness, on your generosity of spirit-on you being-remaining-a gentleman. To be sure, you are known as a-a-a difficult man, but a man of honor nonetheless! Otherwise, I should beg my sister not to go to Pemberley! Have you anything to say for yourself, sir?"

Bingley watched the exchange, open-mouthed. When Darcy, instead of replying, shook his head from side to side, Bingley was of a mind to look outside, thinking that red snow was about to start falling from the sky.

Upon seeing that she was preaching to the converted, and that Darcy seemed to realize fully the gravity of what he had done (whatever it was, Bingley thought dazedly), Jane deflated visibly.

"Mr. Darcy, I expected better of one such as you!" she said, but there was none of her previous vehemence in her voice.

"Believe me, Mrs. Collins," Darcy said, his voice rasping, "I expected better of myself."

She nodded, looking so depressed, it tore Bingley's heart to look at her, and shuffled towards the doors. Thereupon, Darcy called after her.

"Mrs. Collins, please. A word."

She turned, and Bingley was startled to see that bright, brilliant tears shone in those ethereal lilac eyes. Darcy spoke, with great feeling.

"Mrs. Collins, I beg of you. Do not take Eli-Miss Bennett-do not take her away from Pemberley. Not just yet. She isn't well yet."

"She is well enough to travel, sir," Jane said, softly. "She came with you here."

Darcy shook his head, looking desperate. "Mrs. Collins! I have made a grave mistake-I must be allowed to make up for it-" he caught himself, and the imperious note in his voice, when she said:

"Mr. Darcy, I must think of Elizabeth's well-being."

"My dear Mrs. Collins, her well-being would hardly suffer at Pemberley!"

"Yet it did, once, sir." Bingley thought that Jane looked like an alabaster statue in her widow's weeds-so beautiful, yet so cold. He dearly wished himself invisible, a mere fly on the wall, or not to be here at all.

Darcy seemed humbled, desperate, profoundly sad. He shook his head again, then raked one hand through his still-wet curls. Jane waited, regarding him sagely, saying nothing. Finally, he said, and Bingley could swear he sounded utterly broken:

"Mrs. Collins, I think-I have not said that to anyone-but I love your sister. And if I am not allowed to make it up to her-to make myself worthy of her love-Mrs. Collins, even a condemned man is allowed a second chance-"

Her lips curved, tightly.

"Sometimes," she said. "You say you love Elizabeth?"

He closed his eyes and bit his lip. "With all-my-heart," he said, slowly. Bingley thought he would fall out of his chair with the surprise of it.

"Well," Jane said, and she looked as if she did not know what to do with such a confidence. "And your intentions towards her?"

He seemed perplexed. "At the moment, it is to gain her forgiveness, to make her see that I am not wholly bad-"

"And beyond that, sir?"

A shy, dreamy smile touched Darcy's face. "I had not thought of it, Mrs. Collins. But now that you've mentioned it-if she'll have me, Mrs. Collins, they are the most honorable."

"Ah," Jane said. She seemed to consider something. "I believe you," she said, finally. But then, her eyes flashed, dangerously, and she pointed a finger at him. "But only dare break her heart, sir! I shall murder you with my own two hands!"

She turned around on one heel and was gone in a flurry of her black skirts, a beautiful, vengeful fury.

Darcy sank into a chair, looking absolutely exhausted. Bingley rose from his, walked over to his friend and patted, softly, his shoulder.

"You take care, man," he said, importantly, mostly because he had no idea what else to say. "You take care."

~ * ~

Elizabeth could not bear it-upon seeing Jane, she broke into a fit of weeping. She had not imagined how good it would be to see her sister again; as she sank into Jane's warm embrace, she felt like a prodigal daughter, coming home. She had told herself that it would do Jane no good to know of her misadventures in the Darcy household; able to do nothing to help her sister, the gentle Jane would only ache inside. But something inside of her snapped; and, within minutes of seeing Jane, she was opening her heart to her sister, weeping her eyes out on Jane's shoulder. She knew her tale had pained Jane, but she no longer believed it was needlessly; for, indeed, she felt as if she would die if she could not share her story with the dearest person she had in the entire world.

But it was so good to have Jane near, to feel her comforting presence, her warmth, her love. She had brought news from home and related them with her own brand of gentle humor. It seemed that Mary was forever sermonizing, Kitty was forever following Lydia, and Lydia, Lydia... Jane sighed.

"Ah, Lizzy, I do not wish to grieve you, but it seems to me that unless someone reins her in, and soon-Lizzy, it seems she will bring ruin to us all..."

"What is it she does?" Elizabeth asked, biting her lip. Surely it cannot be anything so bad as what I have done.

"Oh, this and that," Jane said with another sigh. Elizabeth found she disliked the mourning black on her exceedingly. Somehow, it did not seem quite so incongruous to see her in it after their father's death-but to think that she should hide herself for a year because of Mr. Collins... "A regiment of soldiers has been stationed at Meryton lately-it is now all balls and soirees and entertainments, and going to Meryton to visit with the officers-"

"And does she go alone?" Elizabeth frowned.

"Mother accompanies her and Kitty wherever it is appropriate-you see, I cannot, for reasons of my mourning. But lately, the regiment's Colonel's wife, a Mrs. Forrester-she seems to hold Lydia as her particular friend, and has offered to chaperone her more and more often."

"Well, that cannot be disagreeable, now, can it?" Elizabeth asked. "A Colonel's wife, after all."

Jane sighed and rolled her eyes. "It is exceedingly disagreeable, Lizzy! She is herself but seventeen years of age, and G-d forgive me, she is as silly as any of them!"

"Have you spoken to Mother of this?"

"Of course, I have," Jane said with another sigh. "But my words seem to fall on deaf ears-she is determined to let them make a spectacle of themselves..."

"Indeed," Elizabeth said, bitterly, "she has always indulged them to a fault!"

"She tells me that I do not wish to, to-to enjoy themselves, because I, myself, am barred from any such enjoyable pastime-"

"Or whatever it is that she perceives as enjoyable pastime."

"Naturally," Jane said, claiming her sister's hand. "My greatest happiness is to be here, with you."

"And my, with you," Elizabeth said, returning the favor and pressing Jane's hand to her cheek. They were silent for some time. Finally, she said: "But our mother does not seem to understand that by behaving so loosely Kitty and Lydia damage their own chances at a good match!"

Jane nodded, then sighed again. "It is not of myself that I think-but if they were to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the world, Lizzy, it would hurt them, and it would hurt Mary, but most of all, it would hurt you..."

Elizabeth shook her head. "Janie, Janie," she said, smiling. "Do not make yourself uneasy on my account, my darling. I doubt very much I should ever marry."

Jane opened her mouth, intending to reprimand her younger sister for thinking so, for allowing one disappointment, however serious, to color so her perception of the world-but then, she thought better of it, and closed her mouth, and sighed again, and again.

~ * ~

Another person whose appearance in Elizabeth's bedchamber served a reason for painful reminiscences was Georgiana. Elizabeth was resting, Jane gone downstairs, when the girl shuffled in, pale and tight-lipped. She stood, awkwardly, by the bed.

"Georgiana," Elizabeth said, patting the bed next to her. "Come sit with me."

The girl did as she was bid. Sitting down on the side of the bed, she stared away, looking very much as if she wished to be anywhere else but there.

Elizabeth bit her lip, seeing her friend's hurt, but unable to assuage it.

"Georgie," she said, softly. "Do not think I have abandoned you."

Georgiana shook her head and said, bitterness ringing in her voice.

"W-what else c-can I think, M-miss B-bennett?"

" 'Tisn't "Miss Bennett!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "Georgie, you know it was never "Miss Bennett"!"

Elizabeth found that the hurt in Georgiana's eyes hurt her more than she had expected; she knew she had to offer some explanation, however little of the truth she could reveal.

"Georgie," she said, claiming the girl's hand (she was gratified that Georgiana did not pull her hand out of her grasp), "dearest Georgie, I am still your friend-"

"P-prove it," Georgiana said, sharply, angry tears glistening in her eyes. "T-tell m-me the t-truth!"

Elizabeth sank back against the pillows, frowning. She studied the girl for a long time-her petulant, hurt expression, her pursed lips, a tear streaking its way down her peachy cheek. Finally, she sighed and said, with a heavy heart.

"I cannot, Georgie. It is not only my truth. My only truth is that I was forced from Pemberley-"

"F-forced?"

"By circumstances beyond my control!" Elizabeth said quickly. "I could not stay. I dared not wake you and tell you I was leaving. I had to leave, Georgiana."

"B-but I f-fail to understand," Georgiana murmured. "Wh-wh-what circumstances? Wh-who f-forced you, Elizabeth?"

"I cannot tell you that," Elizabeth said, softly. "I remain your friend, forever, but I cannot tell you that. And if you remain my friend, you'll not force this confidence from me."

Georgiana huddled on the edge of the bed, looking shaken and afraid. "B-but h-how c-can you b-be cer-certain-"

"That it'll not happen again? I am-I simply am. And so must you be, Georgie."

There was a long pause, during which Elizabeth studied the girl's face, until finally, a semblance of a smile touched her morose features.

"You are m-my b-b-best f-friend, Elizabeth," she said, quietly. "I d-do n-not w-w-wish to l-lose you."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said, with a feeling.

"K-keep your s-secret, if you m-must."

~ * ~

Darcy was in his room, waiting as Ponsonby prepared his bath. He was exhausted from the road, but there was still the supper to attend. He thought back to the humiliation in the library; it was his most amazing fortune that only Bingley was present there. He shuddered at the thought of what Anne or Fitzwilliam would say if they witnessed such a scene. He would be the butt of their jokes for the rest of his days.

He smiled, vaguely, at Ponsonby, thanking him for the service.

"You may go."

"You'll not be needing any help, sir?"

"No, Ponsonby, thank you."

He longed to be left alone. There was such an upheaval inside him, he was certain it was written on his forehead. He could hardly bear to be in anyone's company, not even that of his trusted valet.

Ponsonby bowed and left, a true gentleman's gentleman. Darcy quickly shed his clothes, throwing them all in an untidy pile on the floor, and slid into the hot water with a blissful sigh of relaxation. He had been on horseback when the rain first came down, in torrents; he would have been soaked to the bone, and not even his greatcoat would have been of help, but for Elizabeth. She had poked her head out of the window and said, in a voice that brooked no argument:

"Mr. Darcy, come inside the carriage now!"

He had protested, only as long as was necessary to assure her that he was prepared to risk his life for her comfort. Still, she had shaken her head, pursed her lips and seemed absolutely implacable.

"I'll not be responsible for your death!" she had yelled against the rain. That argument had proven persuasive enough; Darcy had galloped ahead to tell the driver to stop the carriage. They had tied Lucifer to run behind it, and Darcy, gratefully, climbed inside.

The rain had continued to pound the carriage roof for the duration of their ride to Pemberley. Darcy had found it wonderful to sit across from Elizabeth: it was so easy to imagine that they were affianced-no, married. That she was his wife, going somewhere with him, and that at Pemberley, there waited for them a life together. That he loved her every night and rose from her bed every morning, and it left him the happiest man in the world.

This direction of his thoughts was so entirely new, it had startled him. To think that he no longer imagined Elizabeth his mistress, but rather his wife. He had never known a woman who would take that place in his dreams... in all honesty, his dreams had never even strayed into the realm of marriage-but now, to imagine Elizabeth as his constant life companion was the most natural, the most desirable thing. I had torn her out of the jaws of Death himself, he had thought, in slight wonderment. All of a sudden, it seemed an awful waste to offer her but the station of his mistress...when he could have her constancy, her companionship, her loyal, steadfast heart. When he could have her as his friend, his lover, his wife.

Then, of course, he had remembered: he no longer could have her. He could not imagine she would have him, not after what he had done. Perhaps, one day, he had, indeed, stood a chance with her. Not for his money; not for his station. Rather, for the man that he was in his best moments. But now-now his desires, his wishes, his hopes were all ashes in his mouth. In the carriage, seized by desperation, he had turned away, leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the carriage window; hoping against hope that she would not see the angry tears that had gathered, unwanted, in his eyes.

He had banished the thought of his future with Elizabeth.

But when her sister, Mrs. Collins, had appeared as the tangible embodiment of their impending parting, poised to take Elizabeth away from Pemberley-and him-Darcy could bear it no longer. His fear of losing her had moved him, and for the first time, he had spoken his heart, his mind. He had said aloud more than he had ever admitted to himself-and now that he thought on it again, none of it seemed rash. He would stand by his every word.

He loved Elizabeth. For the first time in his life, he loved a woman so strongly that the rest of his life without her seemed an impossibly cruel future. He would not take it, not without her-he simply could not imagine living out the rest of his days in solitude. She was his first true love, dimming any affair of the heart that had come before, and, he suspected strongly, his last. That he could feel the same way about another woman seemed ludicrous; if he could not have Elizabeth, he would be condemned to loneliness for the rest of his life.

Darcy dropped his head back against the edge of the bathtub and groaned, quietly. How could he gain her forgiveness? The hurt he had dealt her was severe, indeed. Moreover, once he did, how could he make her see he had changed? For he had changed, profoundly; he felt himself a new man now-someone better, kinder, more worthy of her. He saw things around him-things he had not ever noticed before: others' suffering, their problems, their very humanity-things that he had never seen, but that had been obvious to her as the light of day.

He thought, for the first time, about what it would mean to make Elizabeth the mistress of Pemberley-about the possible social repercussions, the indignation of his aunt, the opposition of his peers. Yet, he felt strong enough to defy them all-if only she'd have him. It was most surprising: he cared naught for the world...he cared naught for what was proper, or right, or accepted. It was proper and right to listen to his heart-for the first time in his life.

Screwing his eyes shut, he ducked under the water, then, with a grunt, dove out. He lathered his hair, roughly, then, reaching blindly, dumped a pitcher-ful of water over his head.

"Dear God," Darcy murmured, softly, slumping back in the tub. He thought of the humiliation he had just suffered in the library, and of Bingley witnessing it, and how little he cared-for he felt every word that Mrs. Collins had flung at him deep in his heart. He laughed, incredulously. Something had happened to him; something had happened to change him, to make him a better man. An imperfect one at that, but one striving to be worthy of the woman he loved...

He rose, shaking off the water like a large dog and padded away from the tub. Still naked, he walked into his bedchamber, wiped his hair with a towel, then sat on the edge on the bed, head hung low. He was tired, of course, but also, resolved. Resolved to win the only woman he had ever loved; the only woman, he knew now, he would ever love.

~ * ~

"Mrs. Collins!"

"Goodness gracious, sir, you have quite surprised me!"

"Forgive me. Forgive me, madam, I did not mean to startle you. I am, perhaps, imposing upon your solitude-"

"Not at all, sir. Solitude is meant to be imposed upon."

"You are very kind, Mrs. Collins. Are you enjoying your stay at Pemberley, madam?"

"Very well, sir, thank you. It is a lovely estate, though my greatest enjoyment is derived from my sister's improved condition."

"Ah, yes, how does Miss Bennett?"

"Better, sir, I thank you for asking. And how does your friend?"

"Why, Mrs. Collins, you ask questions of me I cannot but stumble over answering-"

"Why, Mr. Bingley, 'tis a simple question, which demands a simple answer. "Very well" could be one variation. "Not so well" another. "Quite dreadfully"-yet another. Do you see my meaning, sir?"

"Indeed I do, madam."

"Let us try again, then?"

"Certainly."

"How does your friend?"

"Poorly, madam, if not to say worse. I have known him for ... let me see, for nearly seven years. He was the fellow in my dormitory, at Cambridge."

"How remarkable."

"Utterly. That is to say, I have never seen him quite this distracted."

"Distracted?"

"Miserable."

"Well, Mr. Bingley, you will forgive me if I say that I have never found your friend a particularly happy person."

"Happy enough, Mrs. Collins, happy enough. Perhaps he is not possessed of the open disposition that makes for an impression of a happy person-but I assure you, Mrs. Collins, he has no improper pride."

"Hmmm. Truly."

"Yes, madam, once you know him better, Darcy is perfectly amiable."

"Ah. Now, Mr. Bingley, could you, perhaps, do me a favor?"

"Anything, madam."

"I have asked Miss Darcy's permission to cut down a few roses for my sister's room... but I cannot quite reach that red one... perhaps, I could bother you to..."

"Certainly, Mrs. Collins. Scissors-thank you. There you go... ah, there."

"Thank you, sir. Does it not make for a stunning bouquet?"

"What-oh, madam, absolutely stunning!"

"Thank you, Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth will be well-pleased. So you say... you say your friend is quite... dispirited?"

"Disconsolate, madam. Crestfallen. There is another beautiful rose, right there. Shall I get it for you?"

"Yes, please. It would be very good of you-"

"Ow."

"Be careful of the thorns, Mr. Bingley."

"Too late for that. Here's your rose, madam."

"Thank you. May I see your hand, please?"

" 'Tis nothing."

" 'Tis a thorn. Thorns infect. Perhaps I could-"

"Would you really use that pin-ow."

"I shall thank you to hold still, sir."

"I am sorry-"

"Ah, there it goes. Ask the housekeeper here for some spirits. It will disinfect nicely."

"Thank you, madam. So what of my friend, Mrs. Collins?"

"What of him?"

"Where there is despair, there is but the faintest glimmer of hope, Mrs. Collins. Is my friend wrong to hope as he does?"

"My dear Mr. Bingley, it is very wrong of us to speak of this-"

"Why, Mrs. Collins, I believe you are dodging the question. And a perfectly easy question it is, too, one which demands a simple answer. A "yes" would be an answer. A "no" would be a perfectly good-better-answer. "Not at all" would, too, be splendid."

"Perhaps, then, "I do not know" will suffice?"

"It is less desirable than others, madam, but it'll do."

"Thank you."

"Shall we return, then?"

"We shall."

~ * ~

It was Charles Bingley's misfortune that, upon leaving the conservatory, he was fated to bump into Anne de Bourgh who whooped in a most unladylike manner and suggested, once again, that he, first, close his mouth, and second, watch where he is going.

"Forgive me, forgive me," he murmured, but the object of his apology hardly registered with him. He was enchanted, utterly, like a man ensnared by fairies behind a church. His right thumb still smarted from the rose thorn and Jane's needle. He raised his right hand to his mouth and bit down on it, slightly. He felt as if she had marked him.

Anne made a face, amused, but said nothing and was gone in a flurry of skirts.

~ * ~

It was Jane Collins' misfortune that, upon walking up to her sister's room, she found that her bouquet of five roses out of the conservatory had been bested by a charming and utterly unpretentious bunch of wildflowers, now set in a lovely Ming vase next to Elizabeth's bed. Perhaps, as an addition to the flowers, a rather large man was sitting by Elizabeth's bed, holding her hand, which he relinquished, quickly, but reluctantly, upon Jane's arrival.

Jane hid her rose bouquet behind her back, loathe to embarrass Darcy. Clandestinely, catching the moment when he was not looking at her-and it was easy enough to do, since he was looking, most attentively, at Elizabeth-she slipped the roses between two stacks of books on top of the dresser. Just as well, because Elizabeth's visitor soon rose from her side, bowed stiffly, and was gone, leaving Jane free to extract the flowers.

Elizabeth laughed at the sight of them, produced as if by a sleight-of-hand by her sister.

"What other rabbits do you have up your hat, Jane?" she asked, giggling. Jane shrugged as she poured some water from a pitcher into a small vase and arranged the flowers in it.

"He brought you these wildflowers-I did not wish to discomfit him, Lizzy."

"You know that I prefer wildflowers to roses-"

"My roses do not please you, then?"

"Oh, Jane, do not pretend not to know what I mean-they please me, very much!" she said, and then touched, tentatively, shyly, the petals of the gentle bluebells and sunny daisies in Darcy's bouquet, and added, in a voice that was much softer, and Jane, had to see, not a little bit sadder: 'But so do these..."

Jane's heart dipped. She leaned over Elizabeth and kissed her cheek, gently.

"I know, of course, that you prefer wildflowers to roses, simple girl that you are, Lizzy. But he did not know that, did he now?"

Elizabeth had to admit Jane's reasoning infallible-and the understanding brought a smile to her face and a lift to her voice when she said:

"I think I shall go down tonight, Janie."

"Do you feel well enough?"

"I do, I do. I am ever so tired of lying in bed."

"Splendid," Jane said, walking into Elizabeth's dressing room. Her voice sounded faint when she spoke: "What'll you wear, then?"

"My peach dress-" Elizabeth said loudly, before catching herself. Her sister, sadly enough, would have to hide her beauty behind a widow's weeds-for a man who was hardly worse the nail on her littlest finger.

Jane came back from the dressing room, holding Elizabeth's favorite dress, the brightest and happiest she owned. Catching her sister's long face, she laughed and shook her head.

"Oh, Lizzy, you shouldn't feel bad."

"I cannot help it," Elizabeth said petulantly. "I resent, very much, that you must wear black bombazine for a year! And for Mr. Collins, too!"

"Lizzy," Jane said, a quiet reproach in her voice. "Do not be unkind. He was not-"

"He was all wrong for you!"

"Perhaps. But not unkind, never unkind."

"In his own way, of course."

"Of course."

"In the end, this is all I can do for him."

" 'Tis a year out of your life!"

"I shall still be young in a year, Lizzy. If that matters at all. Come now, let me help you get dressed."

In silence, Jane tied Elizabeth's corset while the younger sister leaned to pull up her stockings. Still silent, Jane slipped the dress over Elizabeth's head and busied herself with the long row of buttons in the back. Finally, she pushed her gently onto a chair and stood behind her.

"Whatever do you mean, if that matters at all?" Elizabeth asked suddenly, regarding her sister in the mirror.

"Nothing, Lizzy. Shall I do your hair, or shall I call the maid?"

"Jane!" Elizabeth turned around, eyes flaring, and caught her sister by the wrists. "Whatever do you mean?!"

Jane shrugged, picked up a mirror-backed brush from the vanity and started brushing Elizabeth's long dark curls.

"Jane?"

"All I mean to say, Lizzy, is that I am a widow. Without much of anything. Longbourn is mine, true-but I should never let a man have it and dislodge Mama and the girls-"

"Jane! How could you say so?" Elizabeth murmured, aghast. "Your happiness-your whole life is before you!"

"I have been married, Lizzy, and you told me yourself, only two days ago, that you do not wish to marry-"

"This is a different matter-"

"No, Lizzy, you are a different matter," Jane said, gently moving the brush through Elizabeth's dark curls. "I have been married," she repeated.

"You have never been happy!"

Jane caught her sister's outraged expression in the mirror and smiled, softly.

"I have been content," she said. "I am-" she hesitated. "-I am content, right now. I could do very well not to marry again-ever."

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes shrewdly.

"Jane," she said. "You are so good-and yet do not presume to tell me you do not long for happiness."

"What is the use of longing after what you cannot have?"

"Oh!" Elizabeth bit her lip. "Insufferable woman you are, Jane!"

There was a pause as Jane slowly stroked the brush down her sister's hair. Then, as she put it down and reached over Elizabeth's shoulder to gather the hair pins from the vanity, Elizabeth put her hand on her sister's wrist.

"Jane," she said, with unexpected sweetness. "You know how beautiful you are now, do you not?"

Jane studied her younger sister carefully.

"Whatever do you mean, Lizzy? What does my beauty have anything to do with any of this?"

"Nothing," Elizabeth said, smiling. " 'Tis only that others notice it as well. If I were a betting woman, Jane, I should bet that Mr. Bingley, for one, certainly notices it."

"Mr. Bingley," Jane murmured, "I do not know the man, Lizzy, what is he to me?"

Then, suddenly, violently, she blushed.

"I saw you out of my window yesterday-walking with him in the garden."

"Lizzy!"

"Why, Jane," Elizabeth said, mimicking her sister's earlier serenity. "You are beet-red!"

"Lizzy! You impudent!"

Elizabeth laughed, in delight, at the reaction she was able to produce in her sister-anything, anything, she thought, anything but that resolved, lifeless serenity!

"Tell me, Jane, did he help you pick those roses for me?"

"Enough," Jane said. " 'Tis quite enough, Lizzy!"

But, to Elizabeth's delight, her sister was laughing as well.

Chapter 15

Soon after her return to Pemberley, Elizabeth started thinking about leaving it again. After all, it would be in her best interests to find a new situation-soon as may be. She had mended completely, and her daily interaction with Mr. Darcy caused her no little grief. He was ever so solicitous and every thing gentlemanly-but Elizabeth simply could not forget the dangerous crevasse that she had approached. She no longer feared a repetition of the harrowing scene in the library; but she had known, had tasted her own closeness to the edge-and she would not come near it again.

During the remainder of her illness, he had come to visit her every day. He had brought her flowers-more often than would be appropriate-and books of poetry, Donne and Blake and Byron-and once, sitting near her bed, he touched, shyly, her hand. She had looked up, to see him hold his breath-she simply did not have the strength to take her hand away. He had claimed it, then, and held it, in grateful silence, until Jane's arrival. That very night, she came down. She was now well and would not spend any more time upstairs, in bed; there would be no more opportunities for companionable silences in her bedchamber, no more times when he could simply hold her hand. They could hardly be alone, any longer. Elizabeth found herself regretting that.

She had to admit that she liked Mr. Darcy, more and more. He had changed, she could see, following their foray into Cheshire; she could see him softened somehow, gentled, younger. Kinder, perhaps, though she had not thought him lacking on that account even before (he had not hurt her out of unkindness; rather, it was his willfulness, his self-indulgence that had led him to behave as he had). His gaze, when she caught him looking at her-and it happened more often than not-betrayed none of the old savage, unhappy concentration. Rather, Elizabeth now saw in it warmth and emotion; even passion, perhaps. In addition, she did owe him her life; somehow, she did not doubt that she would have died at that inn, had it not been for his valiant effort at her bedside. She liked him; oh, she liked him too much. She could see, easily, her warm regard of him changing into something more-and that she could not allow.

Soon after her recovery, Elizabeth decided that it would be useful to look through a stack of London newspapers, advertising positions for your ladies of good upbringing. She would prefer to be somewhere in Hertfordshire, in order to be closer to Jane; finally, she found an advertisement for a governess, for a family of four girls. This seemed something she would, perhaps, like doing-after all, she had grown up with four sisters, three of them younger. She copied the information into her notebook and returned to her room.

That very night, her heart heavy, Elizabeth penned a quick letter to a Mrs. Gelling, inquiring whether the position was still available. To expedite matters, she thought to add to it a recommendation from her employer and went downstairs in search of Mr. Darcy. She could not imagine his reaction; but, at best, she did not imagine it to be favorable. Still, it had to be done.

She found him in the billiards room, dressed informally in his shirtsleeves. At the sight of her, he straightened out, his eyes alighting with a peculiar mixture of joy and worry. She felt a strange pang in her heart; she did not wish to pain him, but, she suspected, her news would hurt him. She did not know yet, how much. Truly, she felt for him, even if she could not help him.

"Miss Bennett," he said, and she noticed, for the first time, that Mr. Bingley was at his side, leaning on his key, dressed just as informally. He still called her by her Christian name whenever they were alone; but he was careful not to give rise to gossip-and so, whenever anyone at all was present, she was still Miss Bennett to him.

"Mr. Darcy." She dropped a graceful curtsy. It would be doubly difficult to deliver her news-and her request-in Mr. Bingley's presence. "May I trouble you for a moment, sir?"

Darcy regarded her in shocked reverence. You can trouble me for the rest of my life, he thought. You will trouble me for the rest of my life, whether we wish it or not... He laid his key on the edge of the billiards table and turned to her.

"Madam," he said pleasantly. "At your service."

She said, in one breath:

"I am presently seeking a new situation. I think I might have found one-in Hertfordshire, near my family. I should like a letter of reference from you, sir."

With a loud rush of breath, she looked up. He was staring back at her, frowning, as if failing to understand the nature of her request.

"If you think me deserving of one, of course," Elizabeth added, unnecessarily. He nodded, slowly.

"Miss Bennett," he said, evenly, "I think you eminently deserving of the most glowing reference. You shall have one by tomorrow morning. Will that be agreeable to you?"

She nodded. "Thank you, sir. Mr. Bingley."

"Miss Bennett."

She then quit the room, leaving Darcy to stand in the middle of it, looking as if he had been doused with cold water.

Later that night, he flew up the stairs to his apartments, having lost the rest of the game to Bingley, having barely noticed. Alone in his bedchamber, he sat down at his writing desk and thought-what could he write to recommend the one he loved so much to be taken away from him? Yet, in all honesty, he owed Elizabeth that. He had promised to let her go, soon as she was well enough to go; sooner or later, this day would come, and he would rather she go to a good situation. Darcy dreaded to think of it, of the gloom that would swathe Pemberley in Elizabeth's absence. He could not imagine going on without her-could not imagine living without the light of her eyes, without the sweetness of her smile.

He knew that it would be a loss for them all when she went; an unspeakable one for him, of course, but perhaps a greater one for Georgiana, who had found a true friend in Elizabeth. Darcy shook his head. How to keep her back? What to promise her? He would pay her ten times as much, only for her to stay, but he knew that it would be no use. He would offer her marriage-but he dared not, knowing that she would never agree.

Still, he wrote her a good letter. A superior one, full of praise for her kindness, her proficiency, her cleverness. Her superb integrity, her honesty. Her charm and manners. He re-read the letter and laughed to himself; he had not described a governess, but a lady. The woman on the piece of paper possessed all the qualities he would have wished for in a wife.

"You are a fool, Darcy," he murmured to himself, then took note of it-indeed, talking to himself was the last stage of pitiable insanity-and said no more.

The next day, just after breakfast, Darcy kept Elizabeth back and asked her to follow him into his study. There, he presented her with the letter. He had taken care to copy it, and he now gave Elizabeth a sealed copy for her new employer-and an open copy for herself.

"What is this, sir?" she murmured.

"I believe you have a right to read my recommendation of you," he said, evenly. He wanted her to, so that she would know just how highly he esteemed her. But instead, she folded the letter and set it back on his desk.

"I thank you for your kindness," she said, and it seemed to Darcy that her voice trembled ever so slightly. "But I'll not exercise that right. I trust you would not ruin my employment prospects deliberately."

She curtsied, then turned on her heel and left. She posted the letter that very day and waited, impatiently, for an answer.

In the meantime, the life at Pemberley went as it usually did in the summer. Darcy and Bingley left each morning and went on an early ride; Caroline Bingley contrived new (unsuccessful) ways to attach herself to Darcy; Mr. Hurst spent his days in a semi-somnambular state; and Anne de Bourgh spent an entirely too much time reading. In addition, certain things were very different than they were every other summer: Anne de Bourgh also spent entirely too much time musing, with a dreamy look in her eyes; Bingley trailed Jane wherever she went, with a dreamy look in his eyes; and Darcy, Darcy-

Georgiana's sixteenth birthday would herald the summer's end, but this year, no particular festivities were planned. One morning, while walking in the garden, Elizabeth came upon Georgiana. The girl was sitting under a tree, a book in her lap. Trailing along a line in the book, her face gathered in concentration, she bit down on a blade of grass.

"Il-est-m-mort-Elle est-m-mort-"

"Elle est morte," Elizabeth said. Georgiana looked up, smiling.

"Oh, El-lizabeth," she murmured, and patted the grass next to her. "S-sit d-down."

Elizabeth accepted the invitation, stretching her legs out on the grass, and looked into the book over Georgiana's shoulder.

"I th-thought p-perhaps you c-could h-help me w-with this," Georgiana murmured, spreading the book open on her lap.

"Oh, but of course."

On the grass near Georgiana, there were several different books. Elizabeth looked-a volume of Catullus in translation, another book on French grammar, and a book entitled "The Native Plants of Derbyshire, a Natural History," from which some amount of vegetation, clearly freshly picked, protruded.

"Are you making a flower-press, then?"

Georgiana nodded and closed her French book. "I f-found this in the l-library," she said. "I th-thought I ought to t-try and m-make one. Af-after all, B-brother th-thinks I ought to b-be t-truly accomplished."

Elizabeth laughed and nodded admiringly. "But you are going about it all wrong," she said. "You cannot simply put the leaves of grass in the book like that-you'll spoil the paper and leave dark spots-"

"Oh d-dear," Georgiana said, eyeing Elizabeth shrewdly. "B-bother would b-be f-f-furious. P-perchance y-you, Elizabeth, c-could h-help me?"

Elizabeth shrugged. She had been feeling rather useless, but dared not offer her services again, thinking that she would have to withdraw them so soon. She rose, gathered Georgiana's books under one arm and beckoned the girl to follow her back into the house. There, the two locked themselves in the Georgiana's apartments and commenced the making of a real flower-press. Elizabeth knew how, too, having been taught by her father years ago-after she had pressed her own flowers in one of Mr. Bennett's books and had ruined it thoroughly.

Occupied so agreeably, neither spoke. Very soon, Elizabeth found herself feeling as if the ten days of her absence had never happened. As if, indeed, she had always been thus, companionably engaged in making a flower-press to advance Georgiana's education.

But then, Georgiana said:

"El-lizabeth, I h-have to t-tell you s-something. P-promise n-not to be angry w-w-w-with me?"

Elizabeth looked up from a large sheet of paper, onto which she had been affixing a specimen of common stock, complete with pale-blue flowers and somewhat abhorrent smell.

"This does not sound good," she said, smiling. "I know that if you ask me something like that, it is almost certain to excite my anger-"

"P-promise m-me all the s-same."

"Knowing in advance that I should be angry with you?"

"P-perhaps," Georgiana said with a nod. "B-but you are h-h-honorable, Elizabeth-if you g-give m-me your w-w-word, you'll n-not b-be angry w-w-with me."

Elizabeth laughed at such reasoning, then nodded and gave Georgiana her word.

"Well, then, out with it, young lady," she told her.

"B-brother is in l-love with you."

Elizabeth almost choked. She had expected the confidence to concern Mr. Darcy, but that it should come in such a blunt form-and from her charge, too. Her cheeks burning, she shook her head indignantly.

"Georgie, I should not have given you my word, for I am obliged to break it!" she said. "I am very angry with you!'

Georgiana shrugged. "W-w-why?"

"Because it isn't true," Elizabeth said weakly, but something inside of her knew that it certain was true.

"Oh, b-but it is," Georgiana said. She looked up from her project and held Elizabeth's gaze, steadily. All of a sudden, she looked much older than her sixteen years of age. "I n-know him, Elizabeth, I l-love him m-more than a-a-a-anyone else in the w-w-world, a-a-and I n-know him. He is v-very m-much in l-love w-w-with you."

"Georgiana, please stop," Elizabeth said. Her hands were trembling and she spilled the glue onto the sheet of paper, ruining it. "Drat!" she said, using the language she would never otherwise use. She was utterly, absolutely, completely distressed. "You ought to know," she said, "you ought to know that even if that were true, it would be of no consequence-for I may have found a situation elsewhere-and I shall leave here soon as I can!"

Georgiana shrugged, then lowered her eyes again. "We'll all be p-p-poorer for that," she said. "Elizabeth, I am n-not so m-much a ch-ch-child as everyone b-b-believes-" she whispered. "I s-s-see things. I should b-be the happiest p-person in the w-w-world if you should m-marry W-w-w-wills. I h-have al-al-always w-w-wanted a s-s-sister."

"Oh, stop that!" Elizabeth cried bitterly. She flew up to her feet, turning over a sheet and spilling more glue. Marry, she thought. If I should marry him! As if he had ever spoken of marriage-she was sorely tempted to tell Georgiana what other position her brother had offered her-but caught herself in time. This was a highly inappropriate conversation and she would not make it worse by telling Georgiana things to compromise her innocence. She turned away and stood by the window, looking outside at the gardens-there, she saw Jane who was walking, slowly, along, leaning upon Mr. Bingley's arm. He seemed so very solicitous, leaning in to hear her talk, or perhaps telling her something engaging, or flattering, for Elizabeth saw, rather than heard, her sister laugh-he also seemed so very honorable, but at the moment, Elizabeth was indisposed to think well of any man. She frowned, turning back.

"Georgie," she said. "Please stop this. You cannot meddle like so. You know nothing, you are too young-"

"I l-love y-you a-a-and W-w-wills both," Georgiana said quietly. "F-forgive me, Elizabeth-p-perhaps I am wrong to m-meddle."

Elizabeth nodded. "Very well," she said, dryly. "I thank you for your kindness, Georgie. Let us return to the flowers, then. And please do not return to this subject, Georgie, for then, I shall truly be angry with you!"

However much Elizabeth feared the repetition of this conversation, Georgiana heeded her request and said nothing more on the subject. Three days hence, the momentous project having taken their every waking minute (Jane helped them whenever she could, but she could not, most of the time, as her every waking moment seemed to be spent in Mr. Bingley's company), Elizabeth and Georgiana carried The Native Flora of Derbyshire into Darcy's study and presented it to him with no little pomp and all the necessary circumstance.

"H-here," Georgiana said. "N-now you c-can l-learn all about the p-plants around P-Pemberley." She looked around herself and added, with the feeling of a job well done, "We've n-noted the p-poisonous ones-in red."

Darcy seemed stunned. He sat at his desk, slowly moving large plates, tied together with a coquettish blue ribbon; reading the plant names, written in both English and Latin. Finally, he looked up and said, with feeling:

"Georgie, you are to be commended-this is quite an undertaking."

Miss Bingley, who had followed them into his study and was hanging over his shoulder, looking at the project, in which, Elizabeth could swear, she understood absolutely nothing, effused:

"Bra-avo, my dear Georgiana! Indeed, only someone quite so accomplished could manage such a feat-"

"The c-credit is Elizabeth's," Georgiana said, looking the woman straight in the eye. "I c-couldn't have d-done this w-w-without her."

Miss Bingley, faced with the prospect of praising the one she detested so much, soured considerably and found a better-and a more immediate-occupation in buffing her nails by the window. Her brother, on the other hand, in love with one Bennett sister, was generous in his praise of the other.

"Capital, Miss Bennett-and Georgie-capital!" he said.

At the moment, the interlude was interrupted by the sound of hooves outside the window. Elizabeth, who was the closest to it, turned to look and saw Colonel Fitzwilliam, in full regimentals and on a very handsome horse.

" 'Tis the Colonel," she said. Georgiana squealed in delight and rushed out to meet the guest, followed by Mr. Bingley who, very pointedly, grasped his sister's wrist and pulled her out after himself. Elizabeth was left alone with Darcy.

"Miss Bennett," he said, "Elizabeth. Will you not sit down?"

She did, feeling apprehensive; the conversation with Georgiana three days ago was still fresh in her mind. Turning her hands palms up in her lap, she studied the lines on them, trying to focus on the insignificant.

"You are not expected to greet your cousin?" she wondered, innocently.

"I daresay my cousin considers Pemberley his home, and justly so. Fitzwilliam may come and go as he pleases-and I shall see him later at supper-that is, if he does not pop in here in the next ten minutes. Elizabeth, I wanted to ask you something."

Silently, she nodded. Inside, her heart was beating wildly. I shall not assume, she thought, shall not presume, shall not imagine anything beyond that he is my employer...

"I see that you have resumed your instruction of my sister."

She looked up, quickly. "Does it displease you, sir? If it does, I shall stop. It is just that I-I feel rather useless-and if I continue to trespass upon your hospitality, I might as well make myself useful."

"Elizabeth, for God's sake," he said, quietly. "Of course, it pleases me, very much. I only wished to inform you that you are now, again, an employee of mine-and that I must pay you-"

"Oh, no!" Elizabeth shook her head wildly. "Mr. Darcy-"

"There will be no discussion on this subject, Miss Bennett."

"You know I am to quit Pemberley at the first opportunity-"

He frowned, looking pained.

"Elizabeth," he said, "Please do not say this, do not remind me of it-it grieves me terribly to hear you say that."

"But sir, it is true," she whispered. "I cannot in good conscience take your money when all I am doing is binding my time until another situation is procured for me!"

"Never mind that it is true, Elizabeth!" Darcy rose and paced about the room; he seemed moved, violently, and yet, pained, and it broke Elizabeth's heart to see him like this. "Wouldst I that it weren't," he added quietly, and sank into some sort of desperate gloom.

Then, looking straight at her, he said in a voice that forestalled all arguments. "Be it as it may, I shall not have you working for free. If you wish to tutor my sister during your... your sojourn here... I am very grateful. But you cannot forbid me from paying you for your labors."

"But my sister and I are your guests!" Elizabeth protested feebly.

"It gives me great joy to have you here, Elizabeth," Darcy said, slowly. "You know that I regret deeply what I have done."

"I know that, sir."

"I should like to make it up to you."

"Mr. Darcy, you have made it up to me!" Elizabeth cried out. "You have saved my life!"

"Nonsense," he replied, quickly, frowning. "You would have lived without my help. I did what I could for you. But none of it is ever enough, Elizabeth-in my heart, I shall always be responsible for that which has occurred between us."

Elizabeth regarded him; she was deeply moved, now, as well, and frightened for him-and for herself, for she was no longer the mistress of her heart. "Mr. Darcy," she said, softly, and then-oh, what incredible boldness-she reached for his hand, "Mr. Darcy, you must no longer blame yourself-"

"You cannot help it," he whispered, but his hand pressed, convulsively, her fingers. "Oh-Elizabeth," he said, suddenly, impulsively, passion ringing in his voice. "I cannot bear the thought of your leaving Pemberley."

"And yet I must leave," she murmured. Looking up to him, she saw the emotion on his handsome face; she was moved, all of a sudden, to rest her cheek against his hand. Instead, understanding the impropriety of the situation, she coughed uneasily and pulled her fingers out of his grip.

"Perhaps I might-" he sighed, closed his eyes, then opened them again. "Perhaps I might change your mind-perhaps I might make it up to you-"

At this moment, there was an urgent rapping on the door. With a deep sigh, Darcy moved away from Elizabeth's chair and bid the visitor to come in. The visitor was Anne de Bourgh, followed by the Colonel. Both were laughing, smiling, chattering, but Elizabeth felt their eyes on her, felt herself dissected and probed; she quite liked Miss de Bourgh-but she could not help feeling that no event occurring at Pemberley ever escaped her watchful gaze.

She rose, greeted the Colonel, then begged to be excused. As she went, she felt Darcy watching her-all of a sudden, she was moved to bask in the glow of his regard, to raise her face to him as if he were the Sun.

Dear God, she thought, desperately, Dear God, never mind that he is in love with me.

Dear God, she thought, I am in love with him...

Chapter 16

Anne de Bourgh went skipping along the corridor. Yes, the skip was quite undignified, she had to admit, but there was no-one there to see it, now, was it? She would have bounced off the wall if she could, so happy she was. So happy, so absolutely blissfully incredibly happy.

Richard had returned.

She had worried, had felt nervous and anxious and apprehensive of his return. Perhaps, she thought, he had acted rashly and would now not wish to connect himself with one woman who could never make him rich; but he was honorable, she reasoned, he was honorable, he would never abandon her-but that, she told herself, that was even worse. The last thing she wanted was for Fitzwilliam to marry her because he had compromised her and had no way back, against his desires. She had lain in her bed at night, suffering through periods of anxiety, assuaged by the intermittent moments of shameless certainty and joy.

He had written to her, earlier, to tell her that his Army business in London was all but concluded, but he had not told her he was coming back so soon. He had signed it Fitzwilliam, and the formality of it had disheartened her, but then he had added, post-scriptum: "I love you," leaving her faint with happiness.

She had gone on a garden walk, thoughtful and missing him cruelly; she had returned just in time to see him alight in the Pemberley courtyard. The sight of him, jumping lightly off his horse, red coat and all these gleaming buttons and epaulets gleaming with the midday sun, had well-nigh knocked the breath from her. All her doubts gone, she had run then, had picked up her skirts and run, like a common milkmaid, and had met him halfway. But she had dared not fling her arms about him and kiss him thoroughly, like she wanted-not in full view of the entire house.

"Annie," he had whispered then, his gaze caressing her upturned face. "My sweet love."

She had said nothing, then, trusting that her eyes to speak for her.

Later, she had dressed for the evening with far more care than usual. She did have things like powder and rouge, but she hardly ever used them. There was no use to do so at Rosings, where she spent most of her time in doors, protected from the elements and men's eyes. Sitting in front of the vanity in her room, Anne had applied a small amount of rouge to her cheeks, but it was hardly noticeable now, what with that healthy glow of a tan she had acquired during her three weeks at Pemberley. She had bitten her lips, then, to give them more color and laughed at herself in the mirror. I am a fool, she thought, a fool, an utter silly fool. But she wallowed in the thought; it was good to be a fool, for once.

Anne turned around the corner and uttered a small squeal as Fitzwilliam's strong hand gripped her wrist and pulled her towards him.

"Rich-"

"Sh-sh," he whispered, and, pushing her lightly against the wall, kissed her on the mouth. Sudden heat flared and Anne melted inside, feeling his body with the every inch of her skin. Her arms went, as if by their own volition, about his neck, she shivered and moaned.

Tearing himself away, he took her face in both hands and looked at her for a long time.

"I have missed you," he said, simply. "So much."

"Will you come to me tonight?" she whispered, and colored at her own shamelessness. His smile, ever so dazzling, gleamed in the semi-darkness of the hallway.

"Do you wish it, Annie?"

She closed her eyes and sighed, deeply.

"More than anything in the world."

Eyes still closed, she felt the touch of his lips against her cheek. Then, he released her and she opened her eyes again, only to see him smiling at her.

"So," she asked, lifting her chin imperiously, "will you come?"

He grinned again. "You may depend on it, cousin."

The evening was tedious enough, what with Darcy clearly pining for Miss Bennett and that insufferable Bingley woman fanning over him in her insufferable manner, and Mr. Bingley fanning over the lovely widow Mrs. Collins, and her dying to be alone with Richard, who, she hoped, was dying to be alone with her.

She retired early: rose and yawned delicately, pretending to be ever so tired. Every single bit of her hummed with excitement; she could not fall asleep for the life of her. She was ready to strangle Darcy when he suggested that perchance, the gentlemen might join him in the library for brandy and cigars?

How could he do this to her?

But she was even angrier with Fitzwilliam, who accepted the initiation with his usual good cheer. To think only, the man had a perfect excuse-he could, after all, claim to be deadly fatigued after a day in the saddle. She shot him a furious glance and saw him smiling at her. Teasing, teasing man.

"Are you retiring, then, Cousin Anne?" he asked her, quietly.

Disappointed that apparently, he was not burning for her nearly as much as she was burning for him, Anne snapped at him:

"What, are you of a mind to invite me along to take brandy and cigars?"

He laughed, throwing back his head. "I should, but Darcy here would have a fit."

Throwing a glance at her other cousin, Anne had to smile. "I daresay nowadays he would hardly notice if I came along."

"I can see that-he is a damn tedious company tonight..." Leaning over, so close that his lips tickled her earlobe, he whispered to her: "Nothing, I am sure, to you, Annie..."

He left then, following Darcy and Mr. Bingley into the library, leaving her to melt and tremble in her shoes.

~ * ~

In the library, Mr. Hurst immediately took the strategic position next to the brandy decanter. He would stay awake long enough to finish one cigar, Darcy thought as he passed a handsome silver case around (for a man who smoked so infrequently, he certainly maintained an excellent enough supply) and took one himself. He would trust Bingley and Fitzwilliam with his life; Mr. Hurst was simply there. It was not exactly that he could be trusted; Darcy had never really made it out, for, over the course of their acquaintance, they had hardly exchanged a hundred words. But nothing said in his presence ever seemed to perturb his slumber; and nothing said in his presence ever reached the ears of his wife, or-the horror-Miss Bingley. So yes, Darcy could be said to trust the man, in a way one trusts a highboy or a fat cat napping by the fireside.

True to his nature, Mr. Hurst now helped himself to three glasses of brandy, one after another; by the time his cigar had glowed and smoked its last, he was peacefully asleep, sprawled in his chair, his snore a comfortable and even background for the other gentlemen's conversation. Bingley leaned over and carefully pulled the dying cigar out of his brother-in-law's rather stubby fingers.

"Lest he burn himself to death," he said, leaving the remains of the cigar in the ashtray. He settled back with his own, crossing his ankles on a small ottoman.

They could now talk. Nonetheless, for some time, the conversation revolved around a new horse that Darcy had bought; they discussed the animal's fine points, its remarkable coloration, and its rather difficult character; acknowledged the purchasing price to be fair; suggested a number of names, amongst them Beelzebub, Demon and Adramelech, the High Chancellor of Hell; Fitzwilliam mentioned that a young captain he knew had only just bought a similar beast from the Tattersalls; Bingley sighed and reached for another cigar; Darcy studied his nails a bit too assiduously.

Fitzwilliam laughed, quietly. "It is clear to me that all of us have something important to say-and it is equally clear to me that neither of you will say it first."

"Why don't you serve as an example?" Darcy asked, spitefully.

"Very well," Fitzwilliam said. "I shall start." He sat back in his chair, took a swig of his brandy and said: "I am to be married."

"Harrumph," Mr. Hurst said in his sleep.

The other two sat quietly, shocked at such a revelation. Fitzwilliam had been a consummate bachelor and Darcy did not remember him courting any lady long enough to even allow for an attachment. Bingley was the first to come to his senses.

"May we congratulate you, Colonel," he said, fervently. "When is the happy event to happen?"

Fitzwilliam grinned. "I do not know yet. I am oscillating between tomorrow-"

"Tomorrow!" the two friends said in unison.

"-and next week. This should give the lady's mother enough time to lodge her objections and properly disown her daughter."

Darcy shook his head, as if to dispel a bad dream. "Fitzwilliam, you are joking!"

"Oh, not at all, dear cousin, not at all," Fitzwilliam replied nonchalantly. "For I am certain this is precisely what she will do."

"May we inquire as to the lady's identity?" Darcy asked testily. He did not like surprises-particularly not the kind that threatened undoing to people he cared about.

"I suppose you ought, for very soon, I may ask you to witness my marriage to her."

"Well, then?" Darcy and Bingley cried together. Fitzwilliam shrugged and took another swig of his brandy. Then, he patted his lips delicately with a pristine handkerchief and said:

" 'Tis Anne."

"Anne?" Darcy stared at his cousin, irritated at such imprecision. Anne who, he thought, Anne what? "Does your Anne have a surname?"

Fitzwilliam grinned ever brighter. "De Bourgh," he said.

Darcy well-nigh jumped in his chair. "You mean to say, our Anne?!"

"Yes." Fitzwilliam nodded, smiling, and stubbed his cigar. "The very Anne you were always meant to marry. I hope there'll be no ill will on your part, Darcy, but it seems that I shall be the lucky man."

"You are to marry Anne de Bourgh," Darcy said slowly. "Our Anne."

Fitzwilliam said nothing, but inclined his head; he seemed vastly amused.

"And you haven't yet asked Aunt Catherine's sanction-"

"You know as well as I do, Darcy, that she will never consent," Fitzwilliam replied calmly. "Aunt Catherine wants you for her son-in-law. Or someone equally grand. And she will not be gainsaid."

"So you are to elope, then?" Darcy looked genuinely pained. "It is not exactly an honorable thing to do, Fitzwilliam-"

Fitzwilliam shook his head, suddenly serious. "I shall leave this up to Anne. In any case, I believe we should marry soon as may be."

Darcy stared at his cousin menacingly.

"Fitzwilliam, what have you done?"

Fitzwilliam smiled lazily.

"On this subject, I shall be mute; a lady's honor is at stake. I wish to marry Anne as soon as possible because I love her; it is enough for us, it should be enough for you, Darcy. "

He set his empty brandy glass on the table and rose.

"I shall leave you now, gentlemen. I am counting on your discretion."

"But of course," Bingley said, somewhat grimly.

The Colonel's steps disappeared down the hall, leaving the two friends alone. Darcy slumped back in the chair, sipping his brandy slowly, hardly daring to reflect on his somewhat troubling sentiments. That he was slightly angry with Fitzwilliam was normal, of course. This was, after all, his house, and his cousin, a grown man of thirty, might have enough sense not to-but he said he did not, Darcy told himself, or rather, rather... He sighed. Fitzwilliam had refused to answer, but one would have to be blind not to read his meaning. He had seduced Anne-Darcy winced, slightly, at the thought of Aunt Catherine's reaction when she learned of it-and it was certainly not a gentlemanly thing to do, and Darcy had every right to be angry with his cousin, but-

"Darcy," Bingley asked suddenly. Startled, Darcy looked over at his friend. "Darcy, do you not find yourself envious of your cousin?"

For a second, Darcy was of a mind to laugh-so ridiculous was the very idea. Envious! The two had effectively sealed their fate, as far as Aunt Catherine was concerned: Fitzwilliam, the younger son, had no money and no prospects save for his Colonel's commission, and Anne would most certainly be disinherited. Elopement, scandal, social disapprobation. Disgrace. Why, the very idea.

Then, he considered it. What would he not give to have Elizabeth agree to marry him? He sighed and sipped some more brandy. It would make him the happiest man in the world... He murmured into his glass:

"Well... perhaps... only the smallest bit..."

"Ah," Bingley said, lightly. "I thought so. I, for one, am delirious with envy, dying of resentment."

"I am sorry to hear that," Darcy replied.

"Do you suppose she'd marry me, Darcy?"

"Mrs. Collins?"

Bingley laughed, but his mirth dissolved into quiet sadness within seconds.

"However did you know? Am I truly so pitiable-so obvious-so that even you have noticed?"

"Hmph," was his friend's reply. "Whatever do you mean-even I have noticed?"

"For certainly, you have not had eyes for anyone but Miss Elizabeth Bennett-particularly not since she's come back."

Darcy threw him a mildly annoyed look. "Am I so obvious, then?"

"You are, of course." Bingley stretched in his chair and moved his empty glass closer to the decanter. "Pour me another drink, my friend."

Darcy obliged him, but said nothing for some time and poured more in his own emptied glass. An intensely private man, he was severely uncomfortable with discussing his very innermost secrets-not even with his best friend; but tonight, following his cousin's amazing confidence, he felt particularly susceptible and rather wistful. And desperate, and hopelessly in love.

"So what do you think, man?" Bingley queried him, finally. Darcy shrugged. He had once thought Mrs. Collins meek and tame; no longer so after the thorough upbraiding he had received from her on the day of his arrival. She was exceptionally beautiful-even he could see it; she was also, he thought, genuinely kind and all-around agreeable. He repeated his thoughts to his friend. Bingley laughed, incredulously, finding such a characterization woefully inadequate.

"Come, man, admit it, she is an angel!" he cried. Mr. Hurst, disturbed by his exclamation, grunted and jerked in his sleep. Both friends froze for a second, loathe to have their tÍte-ŗ-tÍte interrupted; but sleeping Mr. Hurst remained and they settled back into their conversation.

Bingley sighed, tortured. "I truly love her, Darcy," he whispered dejectedly.

Darcy did not argue with his friend's conviction, nor did he try to dissuade him. His perceptions of Mrs. Collins turned on her sister; it was Jane's relationship with Elizabeth to which he paid the most attention. It was obvious to everyone that Bingley was violently in love with the lovely young widow; but whether she returned his affections was impossible to say. She was partial to him, in the way a woman is partial to her most ardent suitor; but her manner, so even, so quiet, so... serene! Darcy had met the woman's late husband; he did not believe she had loved him. But her manner towards Bingley did not differ significantly from the way she conducted herself with others. Indeed, a month ago, Darcy would have no problem convincing Bingley that the lady did not love him.

But if Darcy had learned anything in these weeks, it was that he knew nothing. He had misjudged Elizabeth-and himself-gravely and had lost the one he loved-loved, without even knowing! Indeed, how could he judge others, when he did not know himself?

He dared not tell his friend what to do.

"Perhaps, you should simply ask the lady," he suggested mildly. Bingley shivered a little.

"I am a coward," he said, "as much as I desire her answer, I still fear to hear it...she is in mourning, after all. But I shall-soon as I feel strong enough-"

"You do that, man," Darcy agreed. They sat in silence for some time, listening to Mr. Hurst's even snores. Then, Bingley said:

"So I have your blessing?"

Darcy laughed, feeling unexpectedly bitter. It was ever so paradoxical that Bingley should want to have his blessing to declare his love to a woman-perhaps, he thought, his sad state was not immediately obvious.

"Do you need my blessing, Bingley? If you love her as much as you say you do, do you need it?"

Bingley snorted huffily. "No," he said, pushing himself up in his chair. "No, I daresay I do not." Then, he smiled and added, quickly: "But I should like to have it all the same."

Darcy smiled, then rose from his chair and stood, towering over his friend, looking down at him. He was a little drunk, and so very sad, he did not quite know what to do with it. The last time he was anywhere near this sad was when he was thirteen years old and his mother-a pretty, quiet, distant woman-had died. Not a terrible, wracking grief of his father's death years later, but simply an overpowering sadness that filled his every pore. How did I come this far, he thought, how did I manage to make such a dreary mess out of it all? He could have been so happy.... He shook his head wildly and regarded the brandy decanter. It had been full at the beginning of the evening; it now had half an inch of aqua vita on the bottom. Damnation, he thought, he had told himself he would not drink with Fitzwilliam.

"Bingley," he said, with conviction. He now felt much, much drunker. He would have a terrible headache tomorrow morning; but at least, intoxication took his thoughts off Elizabeth. Hardly. "I think I have had too much brandy tonight."

"Get yourself to bed, then," Bingley advised. He sounded drunk as well, his speech slurred. When did it all happen, Darcy wondered, when did they manage to get so smashed? They had seemed perfectly reasonable and sober only a moment ago-what was it Bingley had wanted from him, after all?

"Ah!" he said, remembering, "but you have my blessing, if you want it. I warn you, my friend, I am a miserable wreck of a man when it comes to love-I haven't a chance for it. But if you want my blessing-"

"Thank you," Bingley said, quickly, preventing any further confession. "I want your blessing, Darcy, but I seriously think you ought to retire."

Darcy took his friend's advice and walked down the corridor, still sober enough to find his own bedroom (however much his feet carried him in the direction of Elizabeth's), leaving his friend to deal with the somnambular Mr. Hurst. Inside, he tore off his clothes, climbed into bed and slept. Drink had its wages, but one excellent thing about it was that thinking about one's mistakes was not nearly as painful as when sober; and oblivion came quickly.

Chapter 17

Anne de Bourgh sat in the window-seat in her bedchamber, hugging her knees. Her long nightshift was buttoned up demurely, but the purpose of her vigil in the window-seat was hardly virginal: she was waiting for her lover. She tried reading, but her dog-eared copy of Roxanne, (which had taken the place of Gulliver's Travels inside the cover of Dr. Livernois' treatise), failed to captivate her. She had stepped out onto the balcony for a look at the stars, but, to her disappointment, found them obscured by clouds. She fought her annoyance with Fitzwilliam, telling herself that if he wished to spend an hour in Darcy's company, he must have a good enough reason for that. Sadly, reason failed to help, and she remained slightly piqued.

A quiet knock on the door, and she flew off the window-seat. Opening the door just a crack, she stared at the man behind it.

"Perhaps you ought to spend the rest of tonight chatting with Darcy," she said, poisonously.

He grinned and said, "You are angry with me."

Anne stuck up her nose and pursed her lips. "No," she said. "You think too highly of yourself!" She caught the gentle twinkle in his bright-blue eyes and sighed. "A little."

Fitzwilliam leaned against the door, casually. Her breath went out in one loud "woosh!": he was so handsome like this, a fair lock falling over his cornflower eyes.

"Annie," he said, sounding contrite. "I am very much to blame." He took her hand from the doorknob and raised it to his lips. Ever so slowly, he drew it against his lips, one finger at a time. "I shall be particularly diligent in making it up to you." His teeth nipped, lightly, at her fingertips, making her gasp. "Let me in?"

Faint with desire, she stepped away from the door.

Fitzwilliam strode in and locked the door from the inside; then, he turned around and walked towards her. Anne felt giddy and wanton as he put his large hands on her shoulders and leaned in to kiss her; so, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed herself against him, tightly, molding herself against his hardness. His lips were warm and sweet, and then- blazing, as they quickly burned her mouth and slid down her neck. Burning, searing, a sweet blaze of passion.

Anne undid the buttons on Fitzwilliam's coat; she made short work of his waistcoat, only three buttons-he never stopped kissing her as he shrugged out of his clothes, and she could barely stand on her own two feet-and, tugging impatiently, pulled his lawn shirt out of his trousers. Quickly, he whipped the shirt over his head.

"I want to feel you, Annie."

He grasped the hem of her nightshift and pulled it higher, slowly, deliberately, until it was hiked just around her hips. She was looking away, breathing in short, light, rasping gasps. Slowly, she raised her arms and he quickly pulled the nightshift off of her.

His gaze was on her in the candlelight, and in her nakedness, she felt vulnerable and exposed. Seeking shelter in his embrace, she stepped forward and hid her face on his shoulder.

But she had forgotten what it was like to feel his hot, naked skin against hers. Pure, white, intimate heat, hard muscle, warm silk.

She gasped.

"Annie," he said, softly and held her aside. His eyes caressed her form, light golden eyelashes trembling. To hide how stirred she was by him, how moved, Anne said, defiantly:

"Tisn't fair-you have seen all of me, and I haven't-"

He smiled and held up his hands in invitation, palms up. "Well?"

She felt herself blushing, violently. "You expect me to-"

"You have very effectively removed the upper part of my clothing-"

"But this-"

"Ah, Annie, you little hypocrite."

"I am not," she said petulantly and reached for the buttons on his trousers. She pulled open the falls and, shocked at her own looseness, slid one hand inside. There, too, he was hot and smooth; she gave a small gasp as he moved his hips slightly, thrusting against her hand.

"Enough?" she asked, her voice trembling, and pressed harder.

He gasped, too; then, he laughed, his eyes misted with desire.

"Not nearly enough, Annie," he said, gathered her in his arms and took her to bed.

~ * ~

Fitzwilliam sat, cross-legged and shameless, in the middle of the bed. Anne, huddling under the covers, drank in the sight of him. He was so beautiful, she thought, like a lithe golden angel. Drunk on the novelty of it all, she was beginning to understand that beyond the simple mechanics and the undeniable pleasure, there existed different ways to make love: with passionate intensity, joyful abandon, sweet tenderness, when every touch felt like a jewel against her naked, burning skin.

Fitzwilliam took Anne's hand and softly kissed the palm, pressing his lips into the very middle of it. Warmth radiated from his kiss, spread through her veins, made her tremble and cleave to him for her very life.

"I have something for you," he said. Anne pricked her ears.

"Really, what is it?"

He rose naked from the bed and strode, unhurriedly, to where his coat lay, crumpled, on the floor. A military man, enamored of neatness and order, he frowned at its sad state and hung it upon a chair, carefully, before reaching into one of its pockets.

"Two things actually. Are you fond of presents, Annie?"

She grinned broadly, effervescent gray eyes twinkling mischievously. "That depends on a present."

He returned to the bed, holding both his hands behind his back, and sat on the edge of it. "First things first," he said, grinning. "You have expressed a desire to join Darcy and Bingley and me for a cigar. I daresay Darcy would have had a fit. I could not risk his health and life. But I did bring you," he said, and took his hand from behind his back, "a cigar."

Anne laughed, holding one hand to her mouth. "You stole one of Darcy's cigars for me?" she asked. "You wish me to smoke?"

He winked at her.

"If you do not tell on me, I shall not tell on you. Nobody will ever know."

"This does not make it any less of a vice!"

"Sweeting," Fitzwilliam said, laughing, "you are absolutely correct. It is yet another vice-only another vice. It will not be your first one tonight." Leaning in, he laid a well-placed kiss on the tip of her left breast, lightly flicking his tongue against the nipple. Anne shivered and closed her eyes.

"Yet another vice," she said, opening them again. "You are sent to ruin me, my love."

"Well, a cigar will hardly ruin you," he said, smiling. "Look at it like so, Annie: if what I am about to do to you after you smoke it does not ruin you, a cigar certainly won't..."

Anne blushed to the very tips of her toes.

"Very well," she agreed. "I shall try it. And your second "thing"?"

'Aha," Fitzwilliam said, laying the cigar in the middle of the blanket. "The second thing. I like how you think, Miss de Bourgh."

"Thank you."

"Albeit," he said, and took his other hand from behind his back, "it'll not be Miss de Bourgh for much longer."

She stared at the piece of paper in his hand.

"A special license?" she murmured. She disliked feeling stunned by anything, preferring to remain in control of events, but stunned she was, truly. Her eyes stared at him, searching, looking for a hint of a joke. But he, ever the joker, remained utterly serious, and when he spoke, he chose his words carefully.

"So what do you say, Annie?" he asked her.

She took the license from him and studied it at length. Then, she looked up at him and asked:

"When do you suppose we should do this?"

He broke into a broad shining grin, full of joy and relief.

"Whenever you wish it, Annie."

She threw her arms open and then, in a gesture of open affection, locked them around his neck. Fitzwilliam held her, his sweet little glow-worm, kissing, from time to time, her forehead, the tip of her nose, and, more and more often, her mouth. When he lowered her back onto the bed and himself-on top of her, he gently took the license out of her hand lest it should be wrinkled in what was to follow.

Still later, he lit the cigar for her and showed her how to smoke it. She took it with two fingers, somewhat awkwardly and put it between her lips. Inevitably, she inhaled, ignoring his earlier instructions, and broke into a fit of violent cough.

"This concludes your acquaintance with cigars, young lady," Fitzwilliam said wryly when Anne was done coughing, and took the cigar out of her fingers. Red in the face and severely disappointed in the cigar's effect, Anne gave it up without a fight.

"Whatever do men find in this?" she mused with disgust.

"Annie," he said, suddenly turning serious. Anne sat on the bed, knees pulled up to her chest, and her eyes were large and lustrous, like two peculiar gray stars. "Come here, my love."

She crawled over to him on her hands and knees. Fitzwilliam kissed her and laughed uproariously.

"Good God!" he said, grinning. "You smell of cigar smoke, like a man-it is most peculiar-I feel almost unnatural-"

Blushing brilliant red, Anne grabbed the nearest pillow and cuffed her lover over the head.

"Goddamn you, Fitzwilliam, you awful, awful man!" she cried. "You brought me this cigar!" He laughed and toppled backwards, shielding himself with his hands.

"Madam, madam, have mercy!" he cried, distracting her, just before grasping Anne by the arms and pulling her, forcefully, on top of him. Splayed naked in such a compromising position, she looked suddenly wary and a bit embarrassed. Studying her from below-eyes wide-open, he noticed, seemingly not knowing what to do with herself and clearly unaware of how very beguiling she looked like this, with her hair all mussed and standing in a cloud around her head, and her lips kissed and bitten and raw, and her small breasts pressed against his chest (he could feel her nipples, small and taut with desire, hard and sweet like dried strawberries).

He moved his hips against her, saw her eyes grow large and round. For a second, he was of a mind to indulge himself-and her-but he was so very, very tired. After all, every man had his limits; however much his concupiscence protested, his had already been reached. All the happiness of being in love, the novelty and the excitement of it; all his military vigor and exceptional stamina were hardly a match for a very, very long day. He pulled Anne closer, kissed her softly on the mouth, vastly amused by the cigar smell emanating from her. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow. Gently, he rolled Anne off himself and wrapped his arms around her.

"Sleep, angel," he whispered. "I shall wake you tomorrow."

~ * ~

Darcy awoke to the sound of a commotion: Bingley arguing with Ponsonby. No, he thought. Surely this is only an alcohol-induced nightmare. It simply cannot be. Ponsonby rarely argued with gentlemen, and Bingley hardly ever argued with anyone. Struggling to make sense of it all, Darcy jerked upright and knew he was going to die. Slowly, he slid down again and tried to make sense of it all from a more recumbent position.

It appeared that Bingley was clamoring to be admitted, and Ponsonby, the good servant that he was, argued that Mr. Darcy was still sleeping, and must have been unwell. Darcy angled his head on the pillow, fighting a bout of nausea, and tried to catch the glimpse of the tall clock in the corner.

Half-past ten. He shuddered. This was an unpardonably late time to arise.

"But 'tis important-come, man-"

"Master is sleeping and I shall not disturb him."

At that point, Ponsonby clearly attempted to close the door in Bingley's face; Darcy managed to be amused, despite his cruel headache. But then Bingley apparently stuck one foot in the door, preventing Ponsonby from closing it and said, in a most unusually disagreeable tone of voice:

"Goddamn it, man! I shall see Darcy now-or I shall have you fired!"

Here, Darcy knew that something truly important must have brought his friend to his door-for he had always been nothing if not shy with domestics. He heaved himself up, barely, and called, in a rather weak voice, for Ponsonby to let Mr. Bingley in. The valet, looking every bit insulted, stepped aside. Bingley marched inside, victorious in his own small way.

"Good heavens!" he said, looking disgusted. "Good heavens, Darcy, you look like you're about to breathe your last!"

"I am about to breathe my last," Darcy said, cautiously lowering his head back onto the pillow. It felt so good, so cool and welcome. "Aaaaah," he whispered and opened one eye. "Bingley, I am listening to you. I am most eager to know what was so important that you and Ponsonby almost came to blows over it."

"Yes, yes," Bingley said quickly. He reached behind him and yanked forward a chair, into which he fell, sprawled comfortably. Darcy looked, squinting. His friend looked entirely too fresh-faced to have been drinking last night. Good God, he felt pathetic. "I was thinking!"

"An excellent pastime," Darcy murmured. "Something that'll be quite beyond me today, I wager."

"I was thinking," Bingley repeated, significantly, "that perhaps, you should tell Miss Bennett you are in love with her."

Darcy started from the bed with the shock of it, then slid quietly back, then groaned.

"Remind me, Bingley, when did I give you leave to give me such intimate advice?"

Bingley wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Darcy," he said, "it is obvious. Even a blind man can see it that you love the woman. In addition, you did say so yourself to Mrs. Collins."

"Bingley, you are out of line," Darcy said into the pillow. He felt truly ill.

"Perhaps," Bingley agreed. "But it is not only my observation."

Darcy raised his head from the pillow and stared at his friend. "Pardon?"

"You give us too little credit, my friend," Bingley said smugly. "We are more clever than we look."

"Bingley, have you gone completely insane and now think yourself royalty?"

"No, my dear friend. Indeed, by "we" I mean a collective "we." All the people who still have it in their hearts to care about you."

"Bingley, I think I shall ask Ponsonby to throw you out now."

"You could," Bingley agreed affably. "But you cannot possibly ask him to throw Miss Darcy out, now, can you?"

"I do not like this," Darcy said to the wall. "I do not like this at all."

"I take it as a "no," Bingley said, sounding a trifle too self-satisfied. "But I am afraid, this conversation will require a clearer head of you, my dear friend," he added with a tinge of concern.

"I am not having a conversation concerning my private life-not with you, not with anyone!" Darcy growled. He pulled the covers over his head and snarled for Bingley to go away.

"Ehhh," Bingley's voice said, "I am afraid this also concerns my private life, and intimately at that. You see," the voice added, softly, "if you were to marry Miss Bennett, it would make my courtship of her sister so much easier-"

"Ponsonby!" Darcy yelled at the top of his lungs, tearing off the bed. "Goddamn it, Ponsonby!"

Bingley was sitting in a chair, crisply dressed and smiling, one leg thrown over the other-a veritable London dandy. Darcy stared at him, outraged, trying his best to think through the pounding in his head.

"How dare you-" he said, his voice rasping, "how dare you come in here and then pester me-you damned nuisance of a man!" He turned to the doors and yelled, again: "Ponsonby!"

Bingley was smiling, rather angelically. At the moment, Darcy remembered the unfortunate boxing match earlier that summer; perhaps, he thought, perhaps now would be the time to repay him. It was only that in his present state he could not count on himself not to miss Bingley's broadly smiling face.

"My friend, I shall point two things out to you," Bingley said. "For both you will later be grateful. One," he said affably, "is that your valet will not come back, however loudly you shout for him-he is mortally offended and has probably quit your employ by now."

"And two?" Darcy asked gruffly. Despite his atrocious physical state, the situation was beginning to amuse him. He would have to curry favor with Ponsonby for weeks for such a betrayal.

"Two, is that you are quite-er-naked."

Darcy growled deep in his throat and reached for a robe. Wrapping it around himself, he sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Goddamn you, Bingley," he said, coldly. "How dare you."

"Darcy," Bingley said seriously. "We need to talk. Will you, perhaps, take some tea-Mrs. Reynolds has made some for you, it is outside your doors-"

"Have you thought of everything?"

"Absolutely," Bingley replied. "A bath is being prepared for you even as we speak. I can wait for you here in the meantime."

"There is nothing to say," Darcy snapped, but he was already losing his resolve. A bath did sound very nice, as did tea, and as to talking- He sighed and rubbed his eyes. " You are my best friend. I could throw you out, but I shall hear you out instead."

"I am ever so thankful, Darcy," Bingley said, smiling somewhat sardonically. "As I said, I was hardly the only one to notice your miserable state. You can probably guess that I should never dare to pester you so-had Miss Darcy not approached me today after breakfast-"

Darcy groaned.

"Good Lord," he said. "Georgiana. Good Lord."

"She loves you, Darcy, she is concerned for you. We all are."

Darcy nodded-slowly and cautiously, loathe to disturb the gentle, jangling mechanisms inside his head.

"A convent," he said. "The nuns will teach her not to stick her nose in her brother's life."

"Oh," Bingley said, with conviction. "I doubt it."

Darcy could not help laughing, for he knew his friend to be true.

"Bingley," he said, "Say what you must."

"What are your intentions towards Miss Bennett?"

Darcy raised his head and caught his friend's piercing gaze. It was positively heart-warming to see Bingley assume the position of the head of the Bennett family, on guard of Miss Bennett's honor. The man had yet to propose to her sister; Darcy shuddered to think of anyone daring an assault on it after Bingley, so loyal and protective, married Mrs. Collins...

But the question begged to be answered. He loved Elizabeth, surely as the day was bright; he had been in love with her for a long time now-it was these feelings, this utter enchantment by her that he had mistaken for mere lust. But it was in the past weeks that he had come to truly love her, in the way one loves the true companion of his life...

He had answered the question to himself; it was now time to answer it to the world. And to Elizabeth herself-if only he had the courage. With a deep sigh, Darcy replied:

"Most honorable, if she'll have me."

Bingley, however, was merciless:

"Will she?"

Darcy shrugged. "I'd give everything I own to have her love, Bingley," he said quietly. "I'd give my life for her."

Bingley watched him, thoughtful, moved.

"This is incredible," he said, finally, "Have you told her that?" He spoke quickly and with conviction. "Come, Darcy, I do not know what has occurred between you and Miss Bennett on the night she left here-but I was witness to the whole affair of the dress-"

Darcy's head shot up. "Whatever do you mean, Bingley?" he asked, harshly.

Bingley gulped, visibly uncomfortable, and looked away. Then, he looked back at his friend and mumbled:

"Darcy, you kept sending her that dress-and a diamond necklace-she could not in good conscience accept it-everyone would have thought you-she-the two of you were intimate..."

"How do you know about that?" Darcy stared at him; it was clear he was deeply shocked. "Bingley!"

Bingley opened his mouth, intending to tell his friend about how he first came upon the wretched box and its damnable contents. But he was not certain that such a transgression by Caroline would not set Darcy over the edge. She was Caroline, certainly; but she was also his sister, and he was partial to her and wanted her to be invited to other people's homes repeatedly, Pemberley in particular. Never mind that she spied after others and rifled through their possessions.

So he hinted, vaguely, at the general permeability of the Pemberley walls and the easy exchange of information.

"News gets around," he murmured and hastened to return to his original subject. "What I was saying, Darcy, was that even that, the dress and the diamonds, would have compromised Miss Bennett in the eyes of the people around her-after all, she could not be seen wearing them without everyone thinking she was your mistress!"

Darcy sat quietly now, resting his head upon his hands, his face hidden from Bingley's view. Bingley shifted in the chair, feeling terribly uneasy; it hurt to see his best friend so undone.

"Darcy," he said, weakly, as if testing. Darcy's voice sounded dim, dulled by his hands:

"Bingley, I did not know-I did not know that-"

"Did you not?" Bingley asked quietly, kindly.

Darcy took his hands away and looked at his best friend, now sent to play his judge. Bingley was right; he did know of it-or else, he should have known, should have thought of the consequences of his actions... yet he had never stopped to.

Darcy looked tortured, Bingley thought, he looked as if he might cry. The thought startled Bingley so much-for he had never seen Darcy show any sign of weakness, much less look so dismal, as if he had lost his last harbor-it frightened him so much that he found he had to talk, to comfort his friend somewhat.

"Darcy, 'tis not your fault-" he started, stumbling.

"My friend, please respect me enough to tell me the truth," Darcy whispered. "Whose else fault is this? She blames herself. She thinks she had been too forward with me-but she had been all that is wonderful and pure and real-for the first time in my life, Bingley! And I have failed to see her-in my arrogance, my willfulness, my lust for her, I have failed to see how wonderful she was, truly."

They said nothing for a while, Bingley contemplating, bitterly, at the uncanny change in his once-imperious friend. He seemed to have changed so much.

"I have," Darcy agreed, making Bingley realize he had spoken the last words aloud. "Bingley, I should hope I have changed."

"Then you should tell her that- if you still love her, of course. Or if you only just now love her, you should still tell her."

" 'Tis so very strange," Darcy agreed. "I do not remember the time when I knew her and did not love her-essentially, it is the same thing. But my love was selfish, wrong-by God, Bingley, she deserves better!"

Bingley rose from his chair. "She deserves you as you are now. And you deserve her. You are both so wonderful-yours could be a truly exceptional union-if only you dare, Darcy."

Darcy's lips curved in a bitter smile.

"Indeed, Bingley, I do not dare."

Chapter 18

In Darcy's eyes, there was another side to this affair that had to be addressed. Georgiana's feelings for him were admirable, and he was touched, truly, by her attempts to set his life at rights; but something else entirely was wrong, something that had bothered him for weeks since his disastrous attempt at Elizabeth.

She had said something, then, something that had hurt, dreadfully, but had served to bring him back to reality. Something that had perturbed for weeks since.

"You are just like your friend Mr. Wickham!" she had cried. Darcy shivered at the thought; he could not bear to remember that night in the library. He now hardly went an hour without thinking about it.

The phrase itself was disturbing for two reasons. First, it offended him, for surely he had thought himself a better person and a more honorable man than Wickham (indeed, there was hardly a man of his acquaintance of whom he had so low an opinion)! Second, it also bothered him greatly to think how Elizabeth might have come in contact with Wickham-in such close contact, in fact, so as to form an opinion of him in that respect.

First, he had driven the thought of that away, consumed by the overwhelming feeling of his own guilt, by its leaden weight. Indeed, he could hardly think of anything else. But still, the memory of her words persisted; and he found himself wondering what she might have meant.

The thought of Wickham laying a hand on Elizabeth made him ill. To think that she might have welcomed his advance was insupportable; to imagine that Wickham might have forced himself on her made him want to murder the bastard. The thought that he, himself, was no better, was insufferable in its own right.

He knew he had no right to question her. She would be well within her province to tell him off should he dare. Indeed, he had behaved no better than the worst sort of blackguard; what right had he to demand an answer from her?

Guile was not a trait he possessed; he thought it wholly beneath him. Going in a roundabout way to learn things about Elizabeth seemed distasteful; but he dared not ask her. Still, the more he thought of it, the more the possibilities frightened him, finally leaving him at his wits' end. Questioning Georgiana was a last resort, but truly, he had no other way; he would have the truth.

But when, about a week after his discussion with Bingley, he found her in the gardens, she was in the company of Elizabeth and Mrs. Collins. The three women stood near some mulberry bushes, Georgiana holding a large butterfly catcher. Darcy froze to the side, afraid to disturb the large orange butterfly that was the object of his sister's pursuit. He was also staring raptly at Elizabeth, who was, at the moment, staring raptly at the butterfly, her lovely lips parted ever so slightly. She looked fresh, and sweet, and sun-kissed. Darcy's heart ached for her.

But then Mrs. Collins saw him and dropped the necessary curtsy, startling the large orange butterfly. Georgiana swung her catcher, missed, sputtered and turned on one heel.

"W-w-w-wiiiiillls!" she whined. "You've fri-frightened it a-a-away!"

He bowed, then shrugged and held his hands palms up. "Forgive me, ladies, I did not mean to-"

"That is quite all right, sir," Elizabeth said, smiling. "I daresay there are butterflies aplenty here at Pemberley." She turned to Darcy and dropped a curtsy as well.

He wondered whether the longing, the dull ache of his heart showed plainly on his face. She was watching him, her eyes like those of a startled doe, and it pained him to see it. He would have her eyes light up with joy at the sight of him; joy, and love and desire. Still, despite his recent conversation with Bingley, he had despaired to ever see her welcome him.

"Miss Bennett," he said, smiling lightly, "I have come to steal my sister from you."

Elizabeth smirked. "Do you promise to return her in mint condition, sir?"

Darcy felt his heart lighten. She was joking with him; it was certainly good progress.

"What assurances can you make me, sir, that you will return my pupil?" Dark eyes laughing, she pursed her lips. "For I believe she is precious enough you might wish to steal her from me."

"I can give you a bond, my father's old signet, or even the deed to Pemberley," he said, grinning.

"Oh, that would hardly suffice," Elizabeth replied, "but I believe your word should. A gentleman's word."

Georgiana's wary eyes shifted from her friend to her brother and back again; she was guessing, futilely, at what was happening between them.

Darcy felt himself flushed with joy: a gentleman. She thinks him a gentleman. From her lips, he knew, this was a particularly flattering appellation. He nodded, and said:

"A gentleman's word, then, Miss Bennett."

He was tempted to suggest they shake hands on it, but dared not push it quite this far.

He offered Georgiana his arm and led her away. All the way 'till the next mulberry bush, he felt Elizabeth's eyes on him; it took him all his willpower not to turn around.

Looking after Darcy and Georgiana, Jane said, thoughtfully.

"Lizzy, 'tis strange to see. He is so changed. Nothing at all like he was at Rosings."

Elizabeth shrugged. She did not care to venture into what had brought on the change in Darcy, not even with Jane. Her sister knew the facts, but not her heart. Elizabeth had never told Jane of the upheaval she had felt when Darcy's lips had touched her own; of the transformation in her regard for him that had been coming on gradually, ever since she had agreed to return to Pemberley. Every day, she saw him change a little more for the better; it brought on change in her, softening her heart, altering her memory, erasing, ever so slowly, the pain and the guilt. Still, she knew, the social gulf between them persisted. She was a gentleman's daughter; but she was poor and could not expect Darcy, grand and wealthy as he was, to consider her a suitable match. She could hardly hold it against him if he did not. She had taken the job as Georgiana's companion, and had sunk further-however much she liked Georgiana, she did not believe gentlemen married governesses. Indeed, Elizabeth would think herself fortunate if he never renewed his advances, for they would bring her nothing but a broken heart.

Elizabeth remembered thinking that she preferred genteel poverty and honest employment to marriage-but then, she thought, the only male around her was Jane's Mr. Collins. She had not even imagined that she could be in love with a man. Yet, as her perception of Darcy changed for the better, it truly took her breath away to imagine him as her life-long companion. She knew that he was steadfast and kind; she saw the workings of his mind and found him nothing short of brilliant. Theirs could truly be a union of highest regard and enduring love. In addition, she knew, there was passion-perhaps even an excess of it; for she could not deny that even as she had recoiled from him, something in her strove to meet him, love him, be his.

But regret was a useless and pernicious pastime, especially when in the company of one's beloved sister. She leaned over and rested her head on Jane's shoulder.

"Jane," she said, "do not speak of it, Jane. Do not ask me questions. Do not torment me so."

Jane said nothing, understanding everything, but her hand rested, softly, on her sister's hair and caressed it in a gesture of consolation.

They stood like so for some time; then, Elizabeth straightened and flicked a finger at her cheeks. Jane pretended not to notice the tears in her sister's eyes.

"Shall we return to the house?" she asked, softly.

They did; they had mounted the front steps together when a young maid apprised Elizabeth that a letter had come for her. She thanked the girl, took the letter and opened it, quickly.

"It is from the Gellings in Hertfordshire," she said, casting a quick glance at her sister. Jane stood near, arms crossed on her chest, silent. Elizabeth commenced reading the letter and knew, in less than a minute, that her life was about to change.

"They want me," she said, slowly folding the letter again. She kept her eyes low, afraid that Jane might see the terrible doubt in them. "They are most impressed by my employer's recommendation, Jane."

"Splendid," Jane replied. "Lizzy, are you certain you wish it?"

Elizabeth turned the letter over in her hands. She did not know quite what to say. Responding to the advertisement, she had been sure... but now, having only just stepped out of his presence (the effect had been that of quitting a patch of sunlight for a shadowy corner), she could not imagine quitting it forever. The very thought of leaving Pemberley had suddenly become unbearable. Still...

"It must be done," she said coolly. "And I must speak with him, now."

Jane opened her mouth to say something, only to see her younger sister turn around and sweep out of the room.

~ * ~

Darcy was striding towards the house, pulling the somewhat befuddled Georgiana after him. His gate was long and the girl barely made it after him.

"Where are w-w-w-we g-going?" Georgiana panted.

"My office," was her brother's curt reply. "I must speak with you-."

"G-good," she said. "I n-need to sp-speak w-w-with you, t-too."

Darcy stopped in the middle of a trail.

"You do?" he asked, somewhat stupidly.

"C-certainly," Georgiana said. She was only half a head shorter than him-so very tall for a girl-and had a sprinkling of light freckles across the bridge of her nose. "I d-daresay it is easier s-said ou-outside of the h-house."

Darcy considered it. Indeed, after what Bingley had told him about Elizabeth's dress, he had come to reassess his previous trust in his staff as the very souls of discretion. Clearly, someone had heard, seen, talked when they should not have. Therefore, Georgiana was right-what he intended to say was better said in the sheltered privacy of the gardens.

"Very well," he conceded, took his sister's hand and pulled her towards the gardens-but in the opposite direction from whence they had come. They walked in silence until reaching a round clearing in the woods, with a Grecian bench under a handsome tall pine.

Darcy pointed at the bench and Georgiana sat down, obediently. He took the opposite end of it, resting his elbows on his parted knees, his clenched hands hanging in between. Georgiana sat primly, drawing the tip of her kid slipper over the gravel.

"W-well?" she dared, softly. "W-w-why d-did you ask m-me here?"

It occurred to Darcy that perhaps, he should let her speak first. He had gone over this conversation in his head, thinking of ways he could ask Georgiana about Elizabeth and Wickham-for she had been in Elizabeth's constant company for the better part of the summer-without betraying the origins of his fears. After all, Elizabeth did say... well, never mind that, never mind what she said, he thought. But Georgiana had said she had something to discuss with him as well... He was certain that she had long prepared a speech for him, meant to usher him straight into Elizabeth's arms. Sweet Georgie, he thought, sweet little girl. Bingley was right, of course: she was rather out of her mind with worry for him. Perhaps, he thought, if he gave her the opportunity to speak first, he would learn something without revealing his sins to her.

Slouching back on the bench, he threw one leg over the other and suggested, cautiously:

"You go first, Georgie."

"B-but you-"

"Please," he said in the most agreeable tone he could muster at the moment.

"V-very w-well."

She rose from the bench and stood before him, gangly and awkward; locking her hands behind her back, she started to pace. Darcy saw her discomposure and knew, immediately, that allowing her to speak first would be his undoing. This was not merely a caring-sister soliloquy she was about to deliver; indeed, she seemed profoundly undone by something. As usual at such moments, she opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. She looked like a landed fish, her mouth opening and closing and opening again. Darcy felt something inside of him break. He stood up, reached for his sister's hand and pulled her into his arms.

"Sh-sh, Georgie," he murmured. "Whatever it is, there is no need to worry so-"

"F-fitzwilliam," she said and pushed against him, freeing herself. Darcy noticed that she had used his full name-something she almost never did. She stood aside, clenched her teeth so that he saw a muscle working in her cheek. Darcy frowned; he did not like theatrics, and he did not expect them from Georgiana, who was, at her young age, an immaculately sensible young woman.

"Now, Georgie-" he said. Slowly, she shook her head.

"I-" she said. She took a deep breath, and still, the words failed her. Then, she reached beneath her elbow-length glove and took out a folded piece of paper. Darcy could hardly believe his eyes.

"Georgiana, what on earth is this?" he asked, no little irritation in his voice. She made a vague gesture, inviting him to open the missive and read it. He sat down again and unfolded the paper. It read, in Georgiana's hard angular hand:

Dear Fitzwilliam, If you are reading this, it means that my powers of speech are hopelessly compromised for the moment. You know that when it happens, it is better for me not to excite myself any further. At any rate, brother, I have a question for you. I must know what has happened to drive Elizabeth away from Pemberley.

Darcy looked up at his sister, who had sat down next to him on the bench and was now, once again, drawing her pretty blue slipper across the gravel path.

"Georgie," he said, reproach in his voice. "If anyone can tell you, it would be Miss Bennett-"

Elizabeth will not tell me, and I find that I simply must know. I cannot live knowing that an injustice has been done to the one I love, in our very house, under our very roof. Elizabeth says that something or someone has driven her away, but she will not tell me who. I suspect Miss Bingley-"

Darcy almost choked, imagining the implication of this.

"No, no," he said. "Miss Bingley had nothing to do with it, nothing whatsoever."

"-and if so, I shall have a talk with Mr. Bingley, who could, perhaps, be so kind as to curtail his sister's behavior. But please have mercy on me and tell me-or else I should run mad!"

Darcy slowly folded the letter and handed it back to his sister. She was looking up at him, with such trust in her eyes, and he felt profoundly, deeply ashamed. How could he tell her, he wondered, how could he explain to her what had transpired that night in the library. She was certainly clever, but she was also so damn innocent...

And yet he must, there was no other way. He could not think of a thing lower than lying to Georgiana. He never had; he never would. She looked up to him, adored him, respected him; he could not imagine what she would think of him if she knew-but she would think even less of him for cowardice and lying. Indeed, he would think even less of himself.

He reached for her hand.

"Georgie," he said, slowly. "A confidence for a confidence. Promise."

She nodded, slowly, her dark, intelligent eyes never leaving his face.

Darcy took a deep breath.

"Miss Bennett took leave of Pemberley," he said slowly (the words felt leaden, heavy; it took effort to roll them off his tongue), "because I have done something unforgivable."

Georgiana took his explanation surprisingly well. Darcy had expected her to cry, to shrink from him in disgust, to run away. Yet, she sat for a while, resting her chin on one hand, staring in front of her. Then, she turned to look at him and said, ever so slowly:

"W-w-wills...I th-thought it w-w-w-was something l-like this. Sh-she seems to have f-forgiven you-"

"Miss Bennett is very kind," Darcy agreed. He smarted inside from her words; to know that she had thought him capable of something like that! Still, it was better than having to deal with a young girl's hysterics.

"I h-have t-told her you w-w-were in l-love w-w-with her," Georgiana said and watched her brother well-nigh fall of the bench.

"Georgie!" he said angrily. "How could you? I shall thank you not to interfere, young lady!"

"B-but I w-w-want you to m-marry h-her. I th-think you l-love h-her-"

"Georgie, it does not signify-you cannot simply go barging in-"

"W-w-w-why not?!" She flew to her feet, gasping again, staring at him angrily. "I l-love you b-both-"

"Hush, hush," Darcy took her hands and pulled her back onto the bench. "Georgie, please."

They sat in silence for some time. Then, Darcy looked at sister and having found her sufficiently becalmed, asked:

"Georgie, will you tell me something in return?"

Georgiana nodded, silently.

"Georgie, do you know anything of it-what has Wickham to do with Elizabeth? She has mentioned him once, in a way that made me think she knew him-closer than she would have liked..."

He felt her still next to him. Clearly, he thought, there was something. The thought made him mad with fury and jealousy, made him die inside. For a bitter second, his love for Elizabeth was ashes in his mouth. But when, he thought, when? He remembered only a single occasion when Wickham had visited during the past several months (to beg for money, of course; he never came for any other reason). Could he have met Elizabeth then?

"What happened, Georgie?" Darcy asked, desperate, almost begging. "I have told you the truth-please tell me-what did he do to Elizabeth?"

Then, he saw her face. He had never seen her so pale-white-before. She looked close to fainting and gripped the edge of the bench with both white-knuckled hands.

"Georgie, what is it?" Darcy grew cold inside at the sight of her; but all his thoughts were only of Elizabeth, and what might have happened to her. He kept repeating his plea-please tell me, tell me, what has he done to her, tell me-and it did not immediately register with him that she had stood up. Finally, he fell quiet.

"F-fitzwilliam," Georgiana whispered. "I c-cannot b-bear-" she took a deep breath, bit her lip and continued. "I c-cannot b-bear l-lie to you-" she sighed so torturously, Darcy felt all hair on his body stand on end. " 'T-t-twas n-not Elizabeth," she said quietly.

Suddenly, Darcy knew what she meant; everything inside him went dead. His eyes closed, he swallowed convulsively; dear God, he thought, dear God, please no! Do not let this be true-

Georgiana said, her voice a mere whisper.

" 'T-twas m-m-me."

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