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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

A Singular Proposition

Chapter 19

Elizabeth was rushing through the house in search of Darcy. She knew that if she faltered, if she waited, if she let him persuade her, she would never have the courage to leave. She had to tell him, and quickly, so that she would have no way back, that the family in Hertfordshire would have her arrive at her earliest convenience. She had not even stopped to look what they would pay her; surely it would be less than what Darcy paid her, but it was of no consequence.

She felt it almost physically now: ever since that her realization of his love for her had spurred a powerful burst of feeling in herself, her every moment in Darcy's presence seemed to take her further down her road to perdition. She had already lost her heart to him; parting from him, with the knowledge that she would never see him again-it was already unbearable. Elizabeth could not afford to wait and see how much harder it would get.

Yet, she could not find him-not anywhere in the house, not in the gardens-until finally, a young groom at the stables apprised her that about half an hour ago, Master had barged in and demanded Lucifer saddled for him, then rode out at breakneck speed. Elizabeth felt a twinge of worry, which she buried quickly, telling herself that he was simply in a hurry. Unfortunately enough, her worries were not laid to rest; for she espied Georgiana running towards her, crying her eyes out. Or, using a more precise term, bawling.

Elizabeth's worries escalated into full-blown panic, exacerbated by the fact that it would take a good quarter of an hour to get anything out of Georgiana in this state. So she stood by, letting her charge calm down, waiting, however difficult it was at the moment.

Finally, having paced around the small clearing for the longest ten minutes in Elizabeth's life, Georgiana stopped in the middle of it and said:

"El-Elizabeth, 't-tis a-a-all m-my f-fault!"

Elizabeth stared at her young friend, trying very hard to comprehend what had transpired between her and Darcy that had made him quit Pemberley in such unseemly haste.

Georgiana managed, finally:

"I-I-I t-told h-him."

It took Elizabeth a second to read her meaning.

"Told him?" she murmured, frowning. "Told him what, Georgie?"

Hiding her eyes, Georgiana whispered:

"Ab-about G-george."

Elizabeth froze, feeling shocked to the bottom of her heart.

"You told him?" she murmured. "How could you, Georgie?"

Perchance this was not the most supportive thing to say; in any case, Georgiana did not behave as if it was. Instead, she screwed up her face and cried again, and it took Elizabeth another ten minutes to get her to calm down, wild thoughts flying through her mind. She did not know the particulars, but she knew enough to be going out of her mind with worry: Darcy knew about George Wickham and had taken off at mad speed, nobody knew where. This was enough to drive one positively insane: Elizabeth's mind painted grisly pictures of Darcy finding Wickham and the inevitably bloody consequences. She could not bear it. She turned to Georgiana again; the girl was sitting on a bench at the side of the clearing, hiding her face in her hands.

"Georgie," she pleaded, "you must tell me-where did he go?"

Georgiana took her hands away from her tear-stained face, shook her head mutely, then whispered:

"G-george's."

"Where is that?" And what are you going to do? a voice asked inside.

But Georgiana only shrugged. "I d-do n-not know-he h-had l-lodgings in L-lambton, b-but I've n-never g-gone."

There was nothing left for them to sit down on the bench and wait. Elizabeth prayed silently that nothing happen to Darcy, for the thought of him not being in the world filled her with dread and despair. He was not hers, could never be hers, but she did not love him any less for that.

"I am s-sorry," Georgiana whispered, but Elizabeth only shook her head. He was bound to learn of it, of course. She remembered her own rash words to him, comparing him with Wickham-good heavens, she thought, it must have set him thinking, wondering. Her upheaval was all the more terrible in that she could not show it to Georgiana, who was undone in her own way, fearing that her old recklessness would cost her brother his life.

"Do you suppose your cousin the Colonel knows where Mr. Wickham was lodging?"

They ran back to the house, only to learn from Mr. Bingley that the Colonel and Miss de Bourgh had ridden out earlier, with no word to anyone as to their destination or return. Desperate, Georgiana sat down in the chair and cried again. Bingley and Jane watched her, worried, Caroline fluttered over the girl, pretending to be solicitous.

"Whatever is wrong, Miss Bennett?" Bingley inquired of Elizabeth. She could only sigh. She could not tell him-it was Georgiana's secret, of the kind that could ruin her life, and if anything, she ought to be watching that the girl did not blab of it within Caroline Bingley's hearing.

"I think you should lie down, my dear," she said to Georgiana. She escorted her charge upstairs and sat with her for a while. Georgiana was whining quietly, her face red and puffy from the tears. Ever so slowly, she quieted down and slid into an uneasy slumber. Elizabeth then slipped out of the room; she felt suffocated and in need of a gulp of fresh air.

She walked quickly, then, forgetting all about propriety, she ran, light summer breeze drying up the tears that she did not know had spilled from her eyes. Thus, she came to the lake and stopped dead in her tracks.

There, tied to a tree, Darcy's black Lucifer grazed peacefully. Elizabeth froze, her heart beating wildly. She grabbed on to a tree trunk to steady herself, looking hopefully around for the horse's owner. Still, he was nowhere to be found; screwing up her eyes, Elizabeth looked to the opposite shore, only to see his riding boots and coat on the grass-for a second, she harbored a wild and mortifying suspicion that he had drowned himself-

With a huge splash, he dove out in the middle of the lake. Elizabeth's jaw fell, but her heart soared. Her relief was palpable. He was alive, after all, and well enough to have gone swimming. She sighed and leaned against the trunk of a tree, feeling suddenly weak-kneed.

Darcy, not seeing her, swam back to the shore. Elizabeth watched him, feeling faint: his movements were so imbued with grace and power, he made her head spin. She watched him climb out of the water and saw that he was barefoot, his shirt hanging loosely out of his trousers; he sat down on the grass, throwing back his head, eyes closed, letting the sun caress his face.

Elizabeth's charmed faintness dissipated and instead, she felt a surge of hot anger. She could not believe he would simply sit there, in quiet repose, while they were going insane for the worry about him. She picked up her skirts and started walking around the lake; he deserved to hear a piece of her mind, she decided, the terrible, terrible, selfish man!

Sitting on the shore of the small lake, dripping wet, Darcy was feeling completely drained. He had gone to Lambton to find Wickham, at his old apartments, and, of course, failed. The blackguard had long quit his lodgings; his landlady had no knowledge whatsoever of his further whereabouts-a pity for her, too, since he still owed her a month's worth of rent. Darcy easily believed that, for Wickham was about as scrupulous in his monetary dealings as he was in his relationships with women.

In retrospect, of course, it was a wonderful thing that he had not found him. Now, as he thought of it, his state of mind as he raced to Lambton was such that he would not even wait to call Wickham out. Men like him did not deserve to be called out; it was a privilege of a gentleman to fight in a duel. Had he found Wickham there, he would have shot him on the spot, like the dog he was.

Beyond his fury at Wickham for daring set his indubitably mercenary sights on Georgiana, there was also a flash of disappointment with himself. How could he have allowed something like this to happen under his very nose? He loved his sister fiercely and knew himself to be a good brother to her; that she should plot to elope, that she should almost accomplish it! He shuddered inwardly. That a drama of such proportions should play itself out in his home, and that he should know nothing about it! He felt inadequate as Georgiana's guardian, weak, useless.

But he was also angry-a good deal-with Elizabeth. He had thought her first loyalty was to him. He found it unacceptable that she should hide Georgiana's plan from him, all the while attempting to dissuade her. For that, and for succeeding, he was squarely grateful to her; but still, he thought, she should have told him. Indeed, he felt almost betrayed by her. What other things has she lied to him about?

He had ridden back from Lambton, cruelly disappointed at not finding Wickham. He was weary, angry, and not a little disturbed by the whole affair. Upon reaching the lake in Pemberley, he had dismounted, tied Lucifer to a tree and, without thinking long, pulled off his boots and coat, and plunged into the sun-spattered water. It had served to cool his rancor somewhat, and had left him in a state of profound mental exhaustion. He knew he had to return to the house, that Georgiana, in all likelihood, worried about him (good, he thought vindictively, she ought to worry about him-the way she made him worry about her!), but he simply could not make himself rise from the ground.

"Mr. Darcy!"

He flew to his feet, only to see Elizabeth standing there, looking absolutely furious. He frowned and cut her a curt bow.

"Miss Bennett," he said with all possible coldness.

"I see you have returned, sir," she said. Darcy saw that she was very angry, but he also noticed, immediately, that she had cried: her eyes were red and her nose a little puffy. Despite his resolve to remain piqued with her, tenderness flooded his heart. She had worried about him; he had not dared hope that she would.

Still, aloud, he said, sternly:

"So I have."

Elizabeth felt faint again: the last thing she wanted at this moment was to feel infatuated with him, but she could hardly credit how handsome he looked. She noticed that his curls were beautifully tousled, and that his shirt, wet from his swim in the lake, clung to him in all the right places, accentuating his very powerful body-then chided herself for noticing. My God, she thought, I must be blushing red! What good did it do to think of him like this?

She shook her head and said, not bothering to hide the bitterness in her voice:

"I should think you might make your presence known in the house-your sister already thinks you dead!"

Arching one eyebrow, he spoke acidly:

"And I should think, Miss Bennett, that I might avoid being lectured by my own domestics!"

Elizabeth flushed angrily and rolled her eyes. " 'Tis a phrase worthy of Miss Bingley-perhaps you and her will indeed make a good match one day! I concern myself with you, sir, because I concern myself with your sister-who worries about you!"

"How fortunate for Georgiana to have you for so devoted a friend," he mocked, eyes narrowed. Elizabeth crossed her arms on her chest. Deep in her heart, she knew herself to have done the right thing in not betraying Georgiana's secrets; she was prepared to defend her choice of action to him.

"I try my best, sir," she replied coolly. He really was very angry, his mouth curved in a bitter line; she saw it, and something inside of her clenched like a fist, shrinking away from him.

"I find you were remiss in your duties," he said, bitterly, "in not telling me of my sister's plans to elope. You have endangered her well-being-and you have concealed essential truth from me. You lied to me, Miss Bennett!" he finished accusingly.

Elizabeth replied, struggling to maintain her composure in the face of his unfairness.

" 'Tis most-most-most unreasonable of you, sir, to say that I have endangered your sister's well-being. I have tried my best to keep her from eloping; I even succeeded. But I could hardly betray Georgiana's confidence."

"You duty was to inform me, madam!"

"My duty was to be a faithful companion to your sister! I had given her my word!"

"It does not signify! If you had faultily given her your word, it was now your obligation to break it!"

"No!" she cried, fiercely. "Mr. Darcy, if you had told me you would be hiring me as a spy after your sister, I should never have accepted!"

Darcy blanched. He had not expected her to fight him on this: she had been in the wrong, and he had not imagined she would attempt to defend her choice. He almost felt disappointed in her, until it occurred to him that she was not simply trying to find justifications for what she had done; rather, she truly believed she had done the right thing. In the face of her resolve and passion, Darcy's own determination of what she should have done began to falter.

"I have prevented your sister from absconding, have I not?" she demanded, eyes flashing at him.

"You have, and I thank you for it," Darcy conceded grudgingly. "Still, it was very wrong of you to keep this from me, madam."

Elizabeth sighed. "Well," she said, slowly, and, to Darcy's surprise, reached behind her neckline and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "If truly it is so, sir, if you find that I was remiss in my duties towards your sister-then perhaps it is a very good thing that I have received this today."

She held out the paper to him, a defiant expression on her face. Cautiously, Darcy took it out of her hand.

"What is it?"

"A letter confirming a situation for me at Mrs. Gelling's residence in Hertfordshire."

He looked up at her, quickly, and in his eyes, Elizabeth saw a quick flash of panic.

"You are leaving-" he wanted to say "me," but did not dare. "You are leaving us, then?"

"It would appear so. You will then be free to find someone more... amenable to your tactics as Georgiana's companion."

"When are you to go?" he murmured, staring, lost, at the damnable letter in his hand.

"Soon as may be. Tomorrow, in all likelihood."

Darcy ground his teeth, but said nothing. She held out her hand, asking for her letter to be returned to her, and he put it back into her palm, absent-mindedly. He felt as if his life was ending, right here, in front of that lake. He was about to lose the only woman he had ever loved and was powerless to do anything about it.

"Come by my office later today, Miss Bennett," he said, slowly. "I still owe you money for the past fortnight-"

"Certainly," she said, bitterly and dropped a curtsy. "Good day to you, sir."

Darcy stood, as if hit by lightning, still feeling the letter's texture in his hand. He could not believe it-he had truly lost her. The love of his life, he thought, but he had waited too long, and she was now gone. Gone forever from his life, which would, forever, be joyless and cold.

Forever?

Elizabeth was walking away, almost running, bitter tears spilling, once again, from her eyes. When she had given him the letter, something in her had hoped... hoped against all reason... that he would ask her to stay. And what would he offer you? Suddenly, she knew that she would have stayed no matter what, regardless of what he offered her, of what he asked of her. Simply being next to him comprised the very light of her life; she could not imagine not seeing him every day, not being in his company, in the sunshine of his presence. But they could never be happy together-never- She stopped, her chest heaving, tears running in rivulets down her face. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against a tree's bark, weeping.

He overtook her by surprise and without a warning, turned her around, his hands strong on her shoulders, pressed her face into his shoulder. His own head lowered against her shoulder, he held her tightly against him. Elizabeth did not shrink from his embrace, nor did she fight it, pressing against him unconsciously, seeking shelter in his arms; his shirt was damp from his swim and almost hot from the midday sun.

"Elizabeth," he whispered into her hair. "I cannot bear to let you go."

She sighed, tortured. "I cannot bear leave you."

He forced her head up, pushing her chin up with his hand, and looked, searchingly, into her tear-filled eyes.

"I love you," he said. Elizabeth shook her head in distress.

"But I am-" she started.

"Elizabeth," Darcy said fiercely. "You are the only woman I have ever loved-the only one I shall ever love. You are precious to me." He sighed and paused to kiss her tears away. Holding her face in both hands, he whispered to her, "Elizabeth, I dare not ask your forgiveness-"

She shook her head wildly, smiled, and laid a finger to his lips. " Sh-sh-sh...'Tis all long forgiven."

Darcy felt faint with joy; he took both of her hands and pressed them to his lips. Then, he lowered them and held them against his thumping heart.

"Will you-" he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then opened them again. "Elizabeth, I shall not live my life without you at my side. I should have you with me all the days of it, all the nights of it, all of you, forever, before the entire world. I should have you for my wife," he added, firmly, then sighed again. "Will you marry me, Elizabeth?"

She had not been ready for this joy, this delight, this spell-binding, head-spinning happiness. She did not know how to respond to his proposal; she felt fragile inside-she felt she would break down and weep if she spoke. So she simply nodded and, once again, hid her face on his shoulder.

His arms locked about her, pulling her into a passionate embrace, molding her against him. In a movement of fierce tenderness, he pressed his lips to the crown of her head. Still, he could not be content with her silent reply-he felt he needed to hear her say she loved him. He had doubted it for far too long; he could not wait another minute to hear it.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, gently, holding her aside, looking into her eyes with unbridled tenderness. "My dearest, loveliest, sweetest Elizabeth."

Shyly, she laid a hand against his cheek, caressing him; he rubbed against her touch like a large cat, then turned his head and kissed the palm of her hand.

"Elizabeth," he repeated, closing his eyes. His arms were still around her, their protective circle holding her, sheltering her from the world. Elizabeth seemed to feel it-his uncertainty, his fear, his yearning. She rose up on her tiptoes, put her lips close to his ear.

"I love you more than my very life," she whispered. "I shall never leave you..."

His response was as passionate as can be expected from a man who had only just gained his heart's most fervent desire. But it was also joyful, happy, full of youthful glee: her arms locked about his neck, Darcy gathered Elizabeth to him and swung her about, her feet dangling. She giggled like a girl and held on tighter to him-the only man she knew she would ever love.

Chapter 20

They returned to the house in companionable silence, but Elizabeth pulled her hand out of his grip before entering. This was all too new, too wonderful, too hers; she was hardly ready to share it with others. Inside, they were surrounded immediately, and Darcy's informal dress was questioned thoroughly. Ignoring Caroline's squawking and carrying-on and Bingley's surprised looks, he left Elizabeth downstairs and ran up the stairs, two steps at a time, to see Georgiana.

His sister was in bed, asleep. Her face was drawn and her eyes were puffy with tears. Darcy felt a stab of guilt as he looked at her; for a moment, he thought not to wake her, but then, he imagined her waking up, still not knowing whether he was dead or alive- Gently, he leaned and shook her shoulder.

"Georgie," he said. He could not stop smiling. "Georgie, wake up."

She opened her eyes and, for a second, stared at him vaguely.

"W-wills," she whispered, then gasped and threw herself at him, wrapping her arms about his neck. "Y-you're al-alive!" she cried.

"Well, of course, I am alive, you silly chit," he said softly, kissing her cheek, patting her hair. He was full of tenderness for her, feeling urgently protective and so very, very happy.

"I th-thought G-george h-has k-killed you!" she whispered.

"Ah, Georgie, I should never leave you all alone," he said softly, gently lowering her back onto the bed. His news, his wonderful news was leaping off his tongue, but he did not dare tell it yet; it had all been so uncertain-he could hardly believe it himself. It seemed that saying it aloud could scare his fragile happiness away; and so, he told her nothing, except urging her to dress and come downstairs.

As he was about to quit her room, Georgiana raised herself on one elbow and called his name.

"Yes, dearest?"

"W-wills, d-do n-not b-be angry w-w-w-with El-elizabeth-I've m-made her p-promise me..."

He laughed. There was no chance he would ever be truly angry with Elizabeth again; indeed, at the moment he felt as if that emotion was quite beyond him, with respect to anyone. Not even the insufferable Caroline Bingley now seemed quite so insufferable, and nobody else he knew quite... Well, he thought, correcting himself, perhaps only Wickham.

"Do not worry about this, Georgie," he said indulgently. "Miss Bennett and I have quite come to an understanding."

"Ah," Georgiana said, visibly relieved. "Ah, g-good."

~ * ~

The rest of the day passed in a daze. To their mutual consternation, the couple was kept apart for most of it. During the evening's entertainment in the music room, where the ladies took turns at the pianoforte, Darcy watched Elizabeth with hungry eyes. He yearned to speak with her; to tell her, once again, of his love for her. To hear her say she loved him . Their professions of love earlier that day seemed lost in a dream; and while Darcy was certain of his feelings for Elizabeth-indeed, he had never been so certain of anything in his twenty-eight years-it seemed incredible that she should love him. He was dying to kiss her correctly -for in the commotion of the afternoon, they had hardly had time for proper kiss, though he had pressed erratic, passionate, happy kisses all over her face and hands-to hear her speak words of love to him. But it was not to be, at least not tonight, and Darcy suffered, cruelly.

As it was, Bingley was whispering something to Mrs. Collins, who, in her turn, was smiling docilely at him and nodding. (Darcy had once thought her mousy; he could not but disagree with his former assessment of her. She was sweet, kind and true, and would make Bingley a perfect wife.) Caroline Bingley, superbly bored, was opening and closing her fan, yawning delicately, and spearing him with her eyes as if he were a slice of capon on her plate. Fitzwilliam and Anne seemed intent on each other: while she was playing, he stood behind her and turned her pages; when she was not playing, she was occupied with listening to him with attention far greater than the sort one usually bestows upon one's cousin.

Elizabeth was sitting on the opposite side of the room, embroidering something. Throughout the evening, she had hardly looked at him; they had hardly said three words between them. He was beginning to despair.

"What are you making there, Miss Eliza?" Caroline's shrill voice brought him out of his reverie.

Elizabeth smiled and answered pleasantly: "It will be a runner for a table-some day. I am afraid I am not at all good at this, Miss Bingley. At present it hardly resembles anything at all. "

"Fancy that," Caroline murmured, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "A runner. What an accomplished pastime you have chosen, Miss Eliza. And what do you plan to do with it, once you've finished?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I have not thought of it, madam. Perchance, if turns out pretty enough, I shall send it to my aunt and uncle in London."

Caroline's eyes gleamed triumphantly. "Ah, so that is the rage in Cheapsidelately..." she murmured. "Runners! Louisa," she turned to her sister, who was occupied, presently, with leafing through a journal des modes, and therefore oblivious to everything else in the room, "We must be sure to try it at home! Perhaps," she added, smiling like a cat, "perhaps we could commission one from Miss Bennett-after all, she seems quite accomplished at it!"

Darcy shot out of his chair.

"Madam," he hissed, towering over Caroline, who seemed to wither under his gaze, "perhaps you can identify to us some of your accomplishments-since you are so fond of mocking those of other people!"

Clearly startled, Caroline gave him a wan smile and said:

"Clearly, Mr. Darcy, they are nothing at all to Miss Bennett's." She rose, dropped him a curtsy and stepped out to the balcony. Darcy turned around, catching surprised glances all around, and a suppliant one-from Elizabeth. He returned to his seat in the corner, unhappy and restless and slightly ashamed of his lack of control.

"El-elizabeth, will you p-play for us?"

Darcy looked over and saw his sister grasp Elizabeth's arm and pull her out of the chair. Elizabeth did not resist, not really, but laid her embroidery back in her chair and followed Georgiana to the pianoforte. As they passed him, Georgiana stopped suddenly and turned towards him.

"W-wills," she said, "I a-a-am really qu-quite t-tired-I t-turned p-pages for b-both Anne and M-mrs. Hurst f-for that l-long p-piece she chose to p-play-d-do you s-supose you c-could t-turn p-pages f-for Elizabeth?"

He was only thrilled to oblige her and stood to the side of the pianoforte as Elizabeth sat down on a carved bench and opened her music.

"What will you play for us, Miss Bennett?" he asked, gazing down on her warmly. She looked up and gave him such a lovely, shy, smitten smile that his heart rejoiced and sang.

"Mozart," she said. "Cherubino's Aria from Le Nozze di Figaro."

She sang, and to Darcy's ears, never was there a lovelier sound. Or a lovelier woman playing the pianoforte. He was, indeed, a poor choice to turn pages for her, for first, he read music very ill, and second, he was completely mesmerized by the swell of her bosom in the cut of her dress as she sang. His thoughts were as far as possible from Mozart, or turning pages, and his blood was boiling, pounding in his ears and pooling, with sweet discomfort, in his groin. Still, he was unable to take his eyes off her; never before had their mutual arrangement allowed him such a splendid view. Standing above her, he was simply obliged to look down, so that he might follow the music. Instead, he could not take his eyes off a small dark mole just above her neckline; he ached to taste it, to know the feel of it under his hands. Her simple garnet cross lay at a perfectly strategic place between her breasts; Darcy imagined taking it off of her-or maybe, leaving it there, and taking everything else off of her...

"Mr. Darcy!"

He looked down and saw her eyes staring up at him, amused.

"The page, Mr. Darcy," said, smiling.

"Oh, of course." He swiftly turned the page and cast a quick look about him as the music recommenced. His cousins, his friend, even his sister-they were all looking away, smiling, in an obnoxious, knowing way. Sulkily, Darcy turned to Elizabeth's music again. This time he kept his eyes determinedly on the aria, fighting a mad urge to look at her bosom once again. She managed to finish the piece to everyone's satisfaction, and everybody applauded.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, as he walked her back to her seat. "I am dying for you."

She smiled at him, softly, indulgently, and sighed with pure happiness.

"May I-do you think I could-" he stammered. "Could I see you tonight?"

He sat her down and took the chair next to her, resting his elbows on his knees, waiting for her sentence. She held his gaze for a long time, then nodded and whispered, briskly:

"Do you know a white gazebo that's just to the left of the lake?"

He nodded. "Midnight?"

She smiled, slowly closing her eyes, signaling her assent. He rose, bowed, and returned to his seat, trying his hardest not to look too smugly happy. The rest of the evening was the longest two hours he had ever spent in the company of the people he liked as much as he liked his family and Bingley. Still, it was over in time, Elizabeth retiring earlier than the rest of them. Darcy, as the host, was obliged to stay until the end, and was therefore terribly vexed.

~ * ~

Close to midnight, Elizabeth tiptoed through the house, then slipped outside clandestinely. She wore a dark shawl, to make her light-colored dress less noticeable in the night. Her news was still her own: she had not shared it with anyone, not even with Jane. As soon as the news became public, she and Darcy would be subject to close scrutiny by everyone. It seemed that a world of impropriety was expected of an engaged couple; therefore, they were always watched and talked about. Therefore, they had to behave.

Before everyone knew she was to marry Darcy, Elizabeth wanted an evening-or two- with him by herself. Good heavens, she thought in deep surprise, when did I come to be so brazen? But in her heart, there was no room for shame, not where he was concerned.

Darcy was waiting for her, of course, sitting on the wrought-iron side of the gazebo. At the sight of her, he alighted easily, gracefully, and opened his arms to her.

"My own," he whispered.

"My love," she replied.

Standing outside of the gazebo, he held her face in his hands, drinking in the sight of her. His heart was beating wildly as he dipped his head and brushed his lips over hers. During the day, they were too rushed, too overwhelmed, too worried about Georgiana-and God knows what else. Now was the time to really savor their newfound love, and each other...

Their first kiss was tentative; he still remembered the library fiasco and was afraid of frightening her away with his passion. Lips brushed lips, up, down, across; arms tightened around each other. Gingerly, cautiously, Darcy pressed his lips to Elizabeth's, giving her every opportunity to withdraw should she so wish. Yet, though shy, she was hardly fearful. Her lips slightly open, she pressed forward and kissed him on the mouth. It was awkward, unsophisticated, almost virginal, but also sweet, fresh, fragrant like first summer strawberries. Holding her all the tighter in his arms, Darcy groaned and deepened the kiss, pushing against her teeth with his tongue.

A shudder ran through her, and he stopped, afraid that he had gone too far.

"Is anything wrong, my love?" he whispered to her.

"No, no," she whispered back. "It is simply... the closeness... the intimacy of it all..."

Darcy felt lightheaded. Kissing her so chastely was not nearly the level of intimacy that he hoped to achieve, eventually. He sighed, dizzy with desire; he had never wanted a woman like he wanted Elizabeth, and now that she had agreed to be his, it was all he could do not to throw himself on her.

Still, remembering his past transgression by her, he would never go a step further than her comfort allowed; he would never force her hand. Not even if it cost him his sanity.

They were still standing outside the gazebo. Darcy wrapped his arm about Elizabeth's shoulders and took her inside; there, they were hidden completely, by darkness and a vine curling, darkly, across the trellis. Still, moonlight seeped, faintly, through the opening in the roof, allowing them to see each other. Sitting down on a bench, Darcy gathered Elizabeth into a close embrace and pulled her up into his lap. She was a wonderful, solid, sweet weight, feeling right and proper in his arms. He could hardly credit his own happiness.

"Now, where were we?" he murmured, looking intently into her eyes. Her fingers entwined themselves in his curls, pulling lightly, urging him closer. A quiet sigh drifted through the gazebo as their mouths met, and their eyes drifted close from the overabundance of bliss.

Darcy teased her, gently, with his tongue, ran it over her teeth, briskly touched the insides of her mouth, nipped on her lower lip. Elizabeth responded keenly, opening for him, kissing him back, pulling him closer. Finally, she gathered all her courage and, following his example, slipped her tongue, gingerly, inside his mouth. Her caress, so forward in her own estimation, so welcome to him, had an undeniable effect on him-he groaned, sighed and pulled her harder against himself, molding her flesh against his own.

Elizabeth's head was spinning, her eyes closed, the taste of him on her tongue, her nostrils full of his scent-so wonderfully clean and masculine and uniquely his. This was the closest she had been to any human being in her adulthood; her rioting senses were a testament to that. Her reason fled precipitously and she arched, moaning, against him, following his silent call. She did not know how, but very soon, both her knees were propped, comfortably, on the bench on both sides of him. Her skirt was riding up, indecently, baring her calves and thighs; his arms were around her, his hands caressing her back, holding her against him. It startled her, somewhat, to feel a bulging hardness between her legs as she shifted on top of him; still, she did not move from her position. Indeed, she could not bear to tear herself away from him; she had not known how vital he was to her, how sweet. The need in her was overwhelming-the need to be touched by him, to hold him close, to feel his mouth on hers.

With a nearly inhuman effort of his will, Darcy tore himself away from Elizabeth. He was gasping like a fish out of water, his heart thundering in his ears, crashing painfully against his ribs. He had not expected their caresses to escalate quite so quickly-but he had loved and desired her for so long, he was now apt to forgive himself. He did not know what possessed him to pull her astride him; feeling her core rub against him almost served to undid him. Elizabeth did not seem to mind at all, following his cues trustingly, yearning to give of herself with every kiss. But he was a man of honor, he had fought himself to earn that appellation, that status in her eyes-and he could not bear to lose it, not even for a passion as compelling and exquisite as theirs. He sighed, desperately, thinking of the days to come. Thinking of the nights to come was absolutely excruciating.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "My love?"

"M-mmmm?"

"How soon do you suppose we can marry?"

She laughed, softly, and rested her head against his shoulder.

"I have thought about that as well, sir," she whispered. "Whenever it is to your liking, my love."

"It is to my liking to have done that yesterday," he replied with a sigh, his nose buried in her hair. "So that I could take you to my bed tonight."

She was very quiet, and he feared, once again, that he had been too forward. He sought out her eyes in semi-darkness.

"Elizabeth," he murmured. She sighed, nesting comfortably against him, and he felt deep relief. She did not seem to be angry with him for this declaration of his desire; indeed, he thought, it would have been useless to deny it-a blind man could see how he burned for her, in heart and body.

"Whatever is to your liking," she repeated, then raised her head and kissed him full on the mouth. He had not expected it, indeed, it quite took his breath away. His eyes closed, he savored her kiss, the touch of her mouth, the sweetness of it, the gentle struggle of her tongue against his. One of his hands, as if by its own will, left Elizabeth's back and rested, softly, under the curve of her breast. He knew very well the forwardness of such a caress, and he waited, anxiously, for her to recoil. Instead, she moaned and leaned slightly, pressing into his hand.

To touch her more would be so very dangerous, and still, absolutely inevitable, nearly predestined. Without breaking the kiss, he moved his hand higher, slowly claiming the entire soft orb. Her stay, of course, was a sad impediment, and Darcy became possessed by the somewhat single-minded goal of divesting her of it. Provided, of course, that Elizabeth herself did not find such forwardness on his part offensive; yet he hoped, drawing his conclusions from her soft sighs and moans and little shudders running through her, that she would not. She was clinging to him, her lips slipping, softly, onto his neck, tracing delicately, fleetingly, the edge of his cravat.

He drew his hand, palm open, just over her breast, heard her breath shorten and dip, did it again. Hearing her gasp and pant did things to him. He did not know how much longer he would be able to bear it; he knew, with certainty, that he would not be able to stop. Indeed, he thought, if she did not stop him...

Elizabeth was captivated, charmed, spellbound by the touch of his hands, the scent, the taste of him. She could not believe her own wantonness; still, she knew, there would be time for remorse tomorrow... but tonight, tonight, all her senses were held prisoner to his gentle assault. Tonight, she gave herself over to love and pleasure; she savored every physical sensation, relishing the touch of his fingers and lips against her skin and the feel of him under her own. She had not known, had not imagined anything beyond a simple kiss and the sensations it begat; she could not have dreamt such wondrous pleasure as his hands and lips caused her to experience.

Still, perhaps a greater pleasure was born out of the realization that she was able to do the same to him. For the first time in her life, Elizabeth felt the power she had over a man-this man, she thought, the best of men. It stirred her to no end that she was able to please him; and please him she did, if his sighs and groans as she kissed his neck were anything to go by. It was mesmerizing; exhilarating; head-spinning.

She pleased him, she knew, but also-confounded him. For he seemed quite undone by her caress-deeply moved, touched, and yes, she would not be afraid of this word, aroused. His body burned against her, his hands singed her flesh, even through her dress and stays. When she felt his fingers tease her nipple through the fabric, she almost fainted away from the brazenness of the caress; but the pleasure was piercing and exquisite and entirely unexpected. Every time he touched her like this, oh! she thought, yes, just like so-every time it happened, she pressed, unconsciously, closer and closer to him.

Still, his body was hidden from her, secreted under layers of clothing-a shirt, a waistcoat, a coat and even a restricting, binding, complicated cravat. She felt him burn through his clothes, heard the beating of his heart through the thick fabric; desperate to touch him, she moaned and tugged, roughly, on the edge of his cravat.

"Elizabeth," he said, laughing, catching her fingers in his hand and bringing them to his mouth to kiss. "My darling, you will strangle me like this..."

His eyes gleaming dangerously in the moonlight, with a quick practiced movement, he used one hand to undo the knots in his cravat, his other hand on her back, keeping her safe in his lap. She took the piece of fabric out of his hand, folded it, and slipped it into his pocket. Somehow, contorting on the bench, he managed to slip out of his coat without lifting her from his embrace; it fell away with a soft rustle.

Then, his waistcoat was open and followed his coat. His thin lawn shirt was the last garment to be stripped; propped in his lap, she studied him, curiously. She had never seen a man in quite such a state of undress before...the fact itself made her heart beat faster; but it was his person that enthralled her most. A daughter among the family of five, Elizabeth had not had the chance to learn the particulars of male anatomy. She was stricken by how different from her Darcy looked; but she also found him unbelievably beautiful. She had known him to be handsome before, but now, as she watched him in the moonlight.... he simply took her breath away.

Like he did before, she drew one open palm just over the surface of his skin, feeling the long lines of the rippling, flowing muscles, the soft covering of chest hair, the small, flat nipples. He trembled under her and dropped his head back, his neck exposed and vulnerable, giving her full license to touch him. Elizabeth could not deny him, nor herself. She laid her hands, flat, against his chest, feeling its heat and the mad thumping of his heart. She put her lips to the base of his neck and suckled there, where his pulse beat like a trapped bird, making him writhe and tighten his embrace. Touching him, she watched him surrender to her, more and more, watched his eyes drift closed, heard his groans become ever louder.

His hands, all the while caressing her back, stilled suddenly.

"Elizabeth," he said, his voice rasping. "May I see you, too?"

With a loud rush of breath, she leaned in closer, allowing him to undo the buttons in the back. He only opened three-enough to push the bodice of her dress off her shoulders, trapping her arms; it was she who pulled her arms out, pushing the dress all the way to her waist, unwilling to be restricted. Her stays did nothing beyond thrusting her breasts up, in a way that seemed to commandeer his wits completely. He stared at her in the moonlight with a ravenous expression; then, without a warning, he yanked her closer and dropped his face against her breasts, resting his cheek against the cool stone of her garnet cross.

To Darcy's waking delight, Elizabeth's stays had hooks-ever so convenient when one is obliged to keep the lower part of the clothing on. His fingers, nimble, undid the hooks in the back, and the corset fell away like a shell. She gasped, softly, and he froze, loath to stop, unwilling to frighten or repulse her. But she was smiling at him, unmistakably, with warmth and encouragement. Still holding her gaze, he caressed one breast, gently and tentatively, until her eyelids drifted closed and her full, inviting lips opened ever so slightly.

Holding her in place with one hand, he commenced a cautious exploration, gently touching, brushing and squeezing. Her breath was shallow and quick, her lips half-opened, her eyes closed; she was lovely and exquisite like so, submitting to her desires. She was lovely and exquisite always, he thought, but at the moment, she was especially beautiful. All his experience was telling him that she was enjoying his every touch. Yet, after some time, touching her with his fingers no longer seemed enough, and he whispered to her, begging her indulgence for a caress of a greater intimacy.

"May I kiss you, my love?"

Her eyes opened, eyelashes fluttering, a look of surprise in her eyes:

"But you have already kissed me," she said, softly. "Must you ask permission?"

He laughed, quietly, in the dark. "My love, you are so sweet and there are so very many places I long to kiss you," he said. "Here, for instance." His fingers brushed, gently, the tip of one breast, making her gasp and squirm.

Despite herself, Elizabeth felt color flood her cheeks. "Kiss me-there?" she murmured.

"You have kissed me here," he reminded her, quietly, taking her hand and laying, softly, against his pounding heart. She had, of course, and now his words served to prompt a realization of her own looseness. All of a sudden, she felt painfully embarrassed. Shying away from him, she climbed off his lap and tried, unsuccessfully, to redo her corset in the back.

Watching her struggle with it, Darcy considered that he had, perhaps, only just ruined the rest of his life. Of course, he could hardly allow for it.

"Elizabeth," he called, softly, rising from the bench. "Lizzy. Come here, my love."

Silently, she came back, letting him do up the tiny hooks. Together, they pulled up her dress, and he fastened it, too, his fingers clumsy with frustrated desire. Then, he took her by the shoulders and turned her around.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "Lizzy." He could not say it enough, her name, it felt like honey on his tongue; he could not tell her enough how much he loved her, how much he yearned for her. How he had changed and bettered himself, only to be worthy of her.

A hand flew up, like a white bird in the darkness, and rested against his cheek. He kissed her palm, her fingers, closing his eyes at the joy and longing inside. He had not offended her, had not made her regret her decision. Most of all, he feared that she might change her mind about marrying him. Anything else, he thought, anything but that. Anything else, he would weather, endure, survive; losing her love seemed the worst possible fate. Indeed, he thought, worse than death. It would break him to lose her love, would sap his life of all meaning.

"You need not be ashamed, my love," he told her, kissing her fingers, one by one. "We have done nothing wrong."

She sighed and snuggled closer to him, into his arms, until they enclosed her in a loving embrace, brought her close to his heart.

"I know that," she whispered back, pushing her nose into his shoulder, inhaling his scent, breathing him in as if he were the very air for her lungs. "I am simply appalled to find myself so wanton."

"Loving," he said. "Not wanton, but loving. Passionate, trusting. I am blessed, Elizabeth, that you are like so. Our marriage bed will be blessed."

At his mention of the marriage bed, she felt herself color and thanked the relative darkness of the gazebo. "You are not-not shocked, then?"

"Oh, Lord!" he sighed, pressing her ever closer, letting her feel the raging fire that was his body. "Forgive me, my love. It is I who have shocked you, I see-"

"No, no," she whispered, "not at all."

"-but you must forgive me, Elizabeth-for I love you so much, and I thought I had lost you, forever-"

"You have not lost me, sir. You could never lose me."

"Do not call me "sir," my love," he said, seriously.

Surprised, she looked up at him in the darkness. She loved him, but she also admired him, greatly, and it seemed a natural thing to her to address him with a certain degree of reverence.

"What shall I call you, then, Mr. Darcy?"

"Oh, and not "Mr. Darcy," if you please." He sounded petulant, like a spoiled child, and Elizabeth gave a quiet, surprised laugh.

"My mother called my father "Mr. Bennett" his entire life," she said, smirking. "In fact, I did not even know my parents had Christian names until I was five or six years of age."

"Very well," he agreed. "If it pleases you, before others, in company-but not in privacy, not when we are like-like so..." His hands drifted, softly, over her shoulders, brushed the outline of her breasts. "In fact, I may find it difficult, to, to-" He wanted to tell her that it would be difficult for him to fulfill his marital duties by her, but dared not utter such a monumental lie. For as long as she was willing, she could call him anything, she could call him Beelzebub for all he knew, and he would not...find it... difficult.

"What shall I call you, then?" she repeated, but added, to placate him, "My love?"

"Anything you wish," he said. "Anything but 'Mr. Darcy'."

"I do not really like 'Fitzwilliam,' she admitted. "I start thinking of your cousin immediately."

"No," he agreed, quickly. "That would not do at all."

He would hardly ever forget the abominable way Fitzwilliam had stared at Elizabeth upon his arrival to Pemberley. Of course, he was to marry Anne now and therefore, quite harmless, but the last thing Darcy wished was to bring thoughts of him into their marriage bed.

"I could call you what your friends call you," she suggested. "Simply Darcy."

The thought was strange to him at first, but he liked it; it seemed to work, somehow, and the way she pronounced it, with a small purring roll of the r, made his toes curl with pleasure and anticipation.

"It'll do," he said, quickly. "If you say it again."

"Darcy," she whispered, her eyes, twinkling mischievously. "My Darcy."

With a low feral growl, he bent his head and claimed her mouth. The kiss bloomed, like the prettiest tea rose in the garden, bringing them close once again, compromising his sanity and her virtue. Somewhere in the middle of it, as her arms slipped around his neck, Darcy knew that if he hoped to keep his fiancé a virgo intacta until his wedding night, he had better stop, and now (and in any case, he told himself, even if he did not see any particular advantage in waiting until their wedding, in any case he could not take her on a goddamn gazebo bench!). He was gasping with need as he tore himself away from Elizabeth.

"Lizzy," he breathed, shaking his head. 'What you do to me."

She said nothing, but caressed his cheek, his brow, took an errant lock of hair out of his eyes. They understood, both of them, that unless they wished for matters to progress beyond the point of no return, they must return to the house. She fished on the floor for his shirt, handed it to him and watched him dress himself. She could not take her eyes off him, feasting on the sight of him, sighing at how beautiful he was.

Then, finally, he was dressed (more or less, with his cravat stuffed, unceremoniously, into his pocket), and Elizabeth's own shawl was about her shoulders once again. She turned to exit the gazebo, but he grasped her wrist and pulled her back.

"One last kiss," he whispered. "To sustain me until-"

"Until?" she whispered, standing on tiptoes to gently place her lips on his.

"-until I can kiss you again."

Darcy walked Elizabeth towards the house, then stood in the shadows as she went in. Upon which he turned around and walked back to the lake, where, having disrobed completely in the darkness, he dove into the cool water. It was the second time he did it, in one day, but the difference was startling. The first time, he had done it to calm his anger; the second-to cool his desire. Afterwards, as he climbed out and sat, naked, on the grass, he reflected that neither time, he had been particularly successful. Perhaps, Darcy mused, he ought to rethink the use of swimming as a way to dampen his passions; to be entirely honest, that undertaking had proved a monumental, dismal, utter failure.

Chapter 21

Darcy stirred in bed, loath to let go of a delicious dream. It had come, again and again, for weeks now, leaving him frustrated and deeply unhappy. Spent, sometimes. He had dreamt of Elizabeth almost every night-of her soft lips on his, sweet and fragrant, her silken embrace, of bodies slick with sweat of exertion, breathing heavily, limbs entwined, mouths searching, probing, licking, biting, penetrating. Of taking her, making her his; but even more so, of giving himself over to her. For the first time in his life, he had dreamt, erotically, of belonging to a woman, one woman, forever.

Every time, he had awakened, his chest heaving, blood clamoring in his ears and boiling in his veins. Every time, he had found himself alone in his bed, and thus reminded that he would continue in this sad state for the remainder of his life. Or at least, for however long it took him to wrench Elizabeth Bennett from his heart.

Elizabeth, he thought, longingly, still half-asleep, holding on to the dream as if it was his most prized possession. He had been dreaming of lying on his back in a field of high, bitter-smelling grasses, the bright azure sky above, white muslin clouds scattered about, and Elizabeth, wearing one of Georgiana's majestic crowns of wildflowers, crimson and clover and cornflower, leaning into the blue square of the sky above him, kissing him passionately on the mouth, her small hands touching his face, slipping, quickly, under his shirt, her plait, undone, curling, tickling his face and neck so that he laughed, delightedly, in his dream, and was consumed with longing outside it. In his dream, he wrapped his arms about her and held her to him, intending never to let her go.

Then, he woke.

His first feeling was that one of loss, as had happened every time upon awakening from dreaming of her-without her in his embrace. She was not his, and the wonderful interlude in the high grass of the field was but a dream... a dream, he thought, never to be realized.

Then, he woke completely, remembered and flew off the bed.

Elizabeth loved him. It was the strangest thing in the world, the most wondrous-but also, the most wonderful. He looked at his coat, hanging on the chair, at his cravat sticking out of the pocket. He remembered how it had come to be thus, and smiled. Then, in the mirror, he noticed a red spot on his neck, remembered her mouth on him there, her teeth scraping, lightly. His loins instantly afire, he leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the mirror and closed his eyes.

Bliss.

Still, he could hardly believe it. He was moved to go in search of her, to find her and demand assurances of her-that it had not been a dream, that she truly did love him and would soon marry him-but he found he needed a bath. Last night, having swum in the lake, which always was of a dubitable cleanliness, he had dragged himself up the stairs and dropped into the bed. Only to remain wakeful for most of the night, sighing with love, dying with desire, disbelieving his own happiness, until fatigue-physical, as well as emotional-finally claimed him.

She loved him.

The words were like music in his fevered mind. Elizabeth loved him. She had said she would marry him. She had called him sweet, wonderful things, my beloved, she had said, my heart, my darling. Darcy, my Darcy. He laughed, giddily. He had long lost all hope to win her; that it should happen so unexpectedly was the greatest gift fate could have given him.

He took a quick bath, washed his hair, tugging impatiently at his curls. Out of his bath and dressing, he adjusted his cravat, taking care to cover the mark on his neck. He took immense pleasure at the knowledge that nobody would see-nobody would know-that it would be his only, a tiny memento of her passion for him. This was the only thing about his appearance to which he paid such scrupulous attention; everything else he left to Ponsonby-the scowling, piqued, silent Ponsonby, who had not yet forgiven for his betrayal a week ago-and ran down the stairs. He was tempted to take the last three steps with one jump, but reminded himself that beyond his joy, he still remained the Master of Pemberley. Therefore, he descended with dignity.

Most everyone was already at the breakfast table, and Darcy felt quite provoked at not being able to see Elizabeth all alone. Wearing a pretty gown, of so light a pink shade, it seemed barely touched with color, she had taken her usual seat, quite on the other end of the table, between Georgiana and Mrs. Hurst. He sought her gaze the moment he entered. His heart plunged, sickeningly, for he imagined her displeased with something, avoiding his gaze, hiding her eyes. All through the breakfast, he remained in a state of turmoil, his earlier happiness well-nigh shattered by what he perceived as her discontentment.

He hardly heard when addressed by his family, remaining altogether too preoccupied with Elizabeth and her strange, unwelcoming reaction to him. A thousand of disturbing scenarios made him reel. Was she regretting declaring her love to him? Their engagement? Their nighttime interlude inside that gazebo? The thoughts made him ill, but none so much that perhaps, he had only dreamt it all; that nothing had happened, that she was still distant from him and resolved, as ever, to leave Pemberley-and him. That under her dress lay, like a bitter-fanged snake, the letter that would tear her away from him.

He had been famished a moment ago; now, he could barely eat.

After breakfast, Bingley suggested a short walk.

"It really is a most beauteous morning!" he opined. "Do you not agree, madam?" he asked Mrs. Collins. This had become a recent habit of his-to ask her opinion on matters of various degree of importance; he seemed to truly treasure it. Darcy was pleased with his friend's happiness-or rather, would have been pleased, had he been able to feel anything but the most profound anxiety at the moment.

Mrs. Collins, of course, was of a similar mind (it was hardly her wont to deny Bingley anything,both of them by nature exceedingly agreeable people). It then occurred to Darcy that Elizabeth had quietly quitted the room and was nowhere to be seen; he wondered, painfully, whether she had stayed behind to give him sign to do the same; or whether she tried to avoid his company by not accompanying him on the garden walk.

Caroline Bingley, on her part, turned to Darcy and inquired whether he would join them. Feigning regret, he informed her that he far too much business correspondence to attend to in his office. Following his declaration, she attempted to linger behind, claiming a headache; to Darcy's amusement-and slight embarrassment, for it seemed his entire family contrived to leave him alone with Elizabeth-Bingley grasped one of his sister's elbows while Anne de Bourgh took the other.

"A walk in the gardens will do you a world of good, Caroline," Bingley said. Caroline was anything but appreciative of her brother's solicitousness, but she could hardly say so out loud; therefore, she had no alternative but to follow him to the gardens. Darcy could swear that as they went out, Anne threw a curious glance at him over her shoulder. He could swear she winked at him...

He waited until the joyful hubbub of their departure dissipated in the warm summer morning. Standing by the window, he saw Anne release Caroline's arm and hook hers with Georgiana's. The pretense was over, he knew; Caroline would not return to the house all alone, and he was free to search for Elizabeth.

He strode, briskly, through the house, when he saw her-walking straight towards him. Darcy endeavored to remain hopeful and confident, but his heart was somewhere, not to be located, shriveled and mortified by the thought of losing her.

They met in the middle of a hallway and stood close together. So close that the tips of her breasts under the faintly pink fabric touched the lapels of his coat. Shyly, and in a gesture that did a superior job of demonstrating the painful state of his uncertainty, Darcy reached for Elizabeth's hand. Should she reject him, it would be now. What other unequivocal sign, what other clear indication of her lack of regard could she give him, other than withdrawing her hand from his grasp? Yes, he knew, this way, he would not need to ask the question he dreaded so much.

Yet, she did not withdraw her hand. Indeed, her fingers wrapped around his, and gave them a gentle squeeze. This was enough to reassure him; immediately, Darcy raised Elizabeth's hand to his lips and pressed a fevered kiss upon it. Deeply relieved, he murmured her name before claiming her mouth for a kiss, gentle yet passionate; though his enjoyment of the caress stemmed, undeniably, from the realization that her lips were parting for him in a manner of silent invitation-it was augmented, to a great degree, by the realization that he had feared for naught. She still loved him, he knew, and if her kiss, and the fact that her arms went about his neck almost immediately, was any indication, her passion flared almost as strong as his.

But there were things to discuss, their engagement, apprising others, their marriage-and he tore himself away, gasping. Wrapping his arms about her, he pressed her head against his shoulder and placed another kiss-that of joy and relief-against her forehead.

"My dearest, sweetest love," he whispered. "How I've tormented myself."

She looked up at him, curiously. "Tormented?" she asked, arching one eyebrow. "About what, sir?"

He was ashamed to admit to it, now that all seemed right again-it had been rather silly of him to think her affection so fleeting, to have so doubted her. But she was rather ruthless, and demanded from him a full accounting. Thereupon, he confessed how he had mistrusted his own happiness.

"I worried I had dreamt it all, Lizzy," he said, drawing the back of his hand against her peachy cheek. "I am so accustomed to unhappiness-having you in my arms seems quite like a dream."

"My dear love," she whispered, caressingly, touching his face, pressing her fingertips to his lips. "I should never withdraw my love from you-"

He sighed, softly, against her hand, kissing the fingertips with exquisite gentleness. "Good heavens, Lizzy, if only you knew how well it sounds!"

She looked up at him and said, with unexpected cheek.

"I shall, if you tell it to me."

Fiercely, he entangled both hands in her hair, bringing her face closer, looking into her fine eyes, which were not laughing at the moment, and, in the slanting morning light, did not seem quite so dark. Indeed, he noticed with delight, if the light hit them right, Elizabeth's eyes were a most beautiful, transparent shade of hazel.

"Lizzy, Lizzy," he said. "You know you can never lose me!"

Thus reassured, each found it proper to seal the bargain with an ever more passionate kiss. As he held his fiancée in his arms, kissing her with wild abandon, Darcy still had enough of self-control left to remind himself that anybody passing by could find them, easily, could literally walk into them. This was hardly a proper place to engage in such intimacies.

Desperately, he looked about him and was squarely grateful to the architect who had built Pemberley and put in, a mere ten feet away from them, a door. In fact, as he crossed the hallway with two long strides and pushed it, it occurred to him that the door was not a mere bagatelle, but lead to a very substantial room beyond it. A very substantial room, indeed, and one, fortunately (and absolutely fortuitously) in which nobody seemed to reside.

How fortunate, indeed.

How precarious.

Yet, Darcy was not of a mind to ponder the possible dangers of the situation. In fact, he was hardly of a mind at all, at the moment; rather, he was more of a heart. He certainly was of a body. His mind, though usually excellent and a large part of the appeal his person had held for Elizabeth, was hardly functioning at the moment, sadly deprived of blood. He pulled Elizabeth inside and shut the door behind them, and she did not seem to mind.

Inside, he wondered at the degree of composure needed not to throw himself at her. If, during their rendezvous in the gazebo, the surroundings served to cool his ardor somewhat (for he could hardly imagine initiating his wife-to-be on a cold, hard, wet bench), this room, like all rooms at Pemberley exquisitely comfortable, provided no such service. It even had a bed, Darcy noticed with deep longing, and, if he knew his housekeeper, the bed likely had clean sheets upon it-even if nobody slept there during the night. Mrs. Reynolds kept the house in a most magnificent state of order and livability. Sadly so, in this case.

To keep himself from leaping at her, Darcy stood back against the door, locking his hands behind his back. Still, Elizabeth's lovely countenance expressed no alarm. She walked in and stood before him; much like the night before, she seemed utterly trusting of him. So much that it almost made him ashamed of himself, until he reminded himself that he planned no crime by her. He merely wished to love her, with all his powers of heart and body.

She was smiling at him, looking at him with such gentleness, such warmth.

"How good to have you alone, Darcy," she said, quietly and sweetly. "It pains me to have to share you with everybody else." Immediately, she seemed to regret her forwardness, and lowered her eyes; but the damage was done. To imagine that her shy expression at breakfast was caused by displeasure stemming from the same source as did his own-the inability to be alone together-left him giddy with joy. All restraint flew out the window as he strode towards her. Within seconds, they were tangled up in a searing embrace.

Elizabeth could hardly credit what was happening; he truly besieged all of her-her heart, her mind, all of her senses. Last night, he had touched her in ways that had made her head spin; she had spent a sleepless night thinking of it, and had found herself on fire for him. She had not known, could not have imagined the extent of her passion for him; the incident in the library had given her but a taste of what it could be like between them. On a pure subconscious level, she felt that the only way to respond to his fevered caresses was to reciprocate them; that she could not strive to understand them, but merely to feel it all with every inch of her skin. The intensity of his gaze, so much, too much for her, she could not hold her own against it, her eyes closing involuntarily at the heat in his eyes; each touch of his knowing, deliberate, clever fingers sending a thousand tiny quivers down her back; his mouth on hers-also, she felt, on her neck, her shoulders, the tops of her breasts-hot and hungry and rapacious, but also-exquisitely tender and very nearly worshipful.

Darcy's resolve to behave a gentleman was failing with appalling speed. Holding her close, he kissed her with abandon; his hands slid down, brazenly, cupping her behind, bringing her ever closer, pressing her against himself, against his straining, aching flesh. Still, no degree of nearness seemed enough; he could brand himself onto her, and still it would not be enough.

Leaning into his embrace, resting her head against his shoulder, she murmured his name:

"Darcy," she whispered. She was breathing heavily, barely moving her lips as she spoke. "Darcy, could we not sit down-I feel-rather-faint."

Tearing himself away, he looked in her passion-drugged eyes and swung her up in his arms.

"Dearest," he said. "Forgive me, my darling, I turn into a beast when I am with you-"

She smiled, eyelashes fluttering, throwing a shadow on her lovely cheek, and wrapped her arms about his neck. "If you do, my love, it is not without my eager assistance."

He laughed, guiltily, nuzzling her neck. He knew her words to be true-a most wonderful thing, that: she was so passionate, and her passion was for him -but he would never have said them himself. He had no wish to offend her sensibilities; she would discover her passions in due time, he knew.

Still, it seemed that due time had come.

"Elizabeth," he murmured. He crossed the room with her in his arms and laid her, gently, onto the bed, then sat down next to her. Reposed there, she was so very beautiful and so tempting, he thought he would run mad simply from the alluring sight before him, from her lovely smile, from the way she looked at him, in such generous-and quite unmistakable-invitation.

"Elizabeth," he repeated, cautioning himself to remember that her honor was in his hands. She patted the bed next to her, not quite understanding what it was she desired so; the only thing she knew was that she wished to feel him, once again, with the whole length of her body. To cast off the restricting clothing and touch him, skin to skin, like they had the night before. She was not certain how far she would dare go with this caress; a virgin, she did not know all the bridges and crossings that lead to the inevitable...but she trusted him to be kind to her.

"Come," she murmured. He lay down, stretching cautiously on his side, one arm under his head. Suddenly, the gravity of the situation was apparent to him; they were alone in a locked room, in the most compromising position possible. Every step now led, almost inevitably, to their loss. Still, he could not resist; he had never desired anything so much. Eyeing her hungrily, he leaned in and placed a gentle, timid kiss on her bare arm: tasting the warm, slightly tanned skin of it, all the while listening to her quickening breath. He moved lower and kissed, sensually, the inside of her wrist, inhaling the barest hint of verbena perfume she had placed there. A light frisson running through her alerted him to her pleasure, and gave him license to intensify his caresses. Moving closer, he dropped another kiss at the junction of her neck and shoulder, causing her to shiver again and make a quiet, throaty sound; but such was his own pleasure at kissing her there that he felt is self-control slipping, felt himself unable to let go, felt a mad urge to bury his face against her neck and so remain.

"Lizzy," he whispered, caressing her face with gentle, searching fingers. "My Lizzy, remember that you need only tell me, and I shall stop-"

He knew that what he promised her would entail truly Herculean self-control; indeed, if he went much further, tearing himself away from her would threaten him with insanity and possible physical damage. Still, it hardly signified. It was his greatest desire that she feel comfortable in his embrace.

She rubbed her cheek against his hand, then turned head and pressed her lips against his palm.

"I know," she said, smiling up at him. "I trust completely that you will do me no harm."

"Do you give me leave, then," he murmured, holding her gaze intensely, "to-" he tugged, suggestively, on the sash of her dress. She colored, deeply, a crimson flush flooding her cheeks becomingly, making him almost insensible with lust for her.

"To do what?" she murmured. He shrugged. He really did not know what it was he intended to do once he removed the dress; what he could do, in the short time that Bingley managed to keep everyone promenading in the gardens, in the bright sunlight of the morning...

He could, of course, pleasure her senseless.

Without answering her question, he gingerly drew his hand down the front of her, from just under her chin to the valley between her breasts, covered by the thin muslin. Kissing her lovely mouth, he resolved to leave Pemberley and travel to town first thing on the morrow-to obtain the special license. He hoped she would not make him wait too long; which was, of course, a relative thing. He would marry her today...and then carry her to his bedchamber, lock the door, and keep her there for two weeks... until her legs wobbled and she forgot there ever was a time she did not love him.

Elizabeth floated on a cloud of pure happiness; never in her life had she felt so adored- and so adoring. With exquisite tenderness, he worshipped her body, kissing her neck, the tops of her breasts, tugging her dress of her shoulders. She sat up, allowing him to undo the dress and the corset in the back. The top of the gown fell off like a few wilting petals. He pulled the corset off her, threw it aside, leaving her, once again, naked to the waist.

All of a sudden, she felt terribly exposed in the bright sunlight; not wanting to disturb the bedding, she grasped a pillow and held it to her chest, blushing furiously, hiding from his searching eyes. Gently, yet insistently, he took the pillow's edge and tugged.

"My love," he bid, his voice slightly strangled, "please do not shy away from me."

Slowly, she released the pillow and met his gaze head-on. "It is simply it is so-so bright-"

"Lizzy," he said. He could not tear his eyes from her breasts, feeling as if he was about to expire. She was, quite simply, perfect in that... respect, and, absolutely enchanted, he drew one finger over one lush, round cupola. "I am glad it is so... I hardly saw you last night, my beautiful."

She blushed ever harder, and he noticed, with delight and longing, that all of her did, not only her face.

"Do not call me beautiful," she murmured, looking away. He caught her hands and brought them to his lips.

"Beautiful," he whispered, kissing a fingertip at a time, drawing them gently in his mouth, nipping at each, "Lovely, exquisite Elizabeth." Her eyes drifted closed and she leaned into his embrace.

"Darcy," she whispered, her voice shaky. "Would you humor me, my love? Would you-" quickly, she raised one hand and tugged on his cravat. "Would you, too, disrobe? I should so like to feel you against me."

She reddened at such a frivolity, but Darcy was thrilled to oblige her. In less than a minute, he stood before her naked to the waist. Catching her appreciative gaze, he tugged on the waistband of his breeches and cocked one eyebrow in a teasing inquiry. Elizabeth's eyes opened wide and her mouth made a perfect "o"; then, she shook her head, vigorously. She was not ready for that, not yet, and he knew that; but he half-teased her, half-hoped that she would say otherwise. London, tomorrow, he told himself fiercely, before joining her on the bed.

To feel him against her naked back was a shock, but a wonderful one nonetheless: the heat, the smooth muscle, the downy covering of chest hair. . Elizabeth leaned back in his embrace, felt his arms go about her in a tight circle, felt his mouth, wet, against her nape; then, the embrace loosening, and his fingers teasing, mercilessly, her nipples. The many delicious sensations drove her distracted; desire was akin to pain as it made her writhe and bite her lip. Still, her chief ambition at the moment was to look at him, to feast her eyes on his lovely form and countenance, so dear to her heart. Twisting, she turned around, pushed herself out of the tight embrace, the better to look at him.

"It is you who is beautiful," she whispered, moved by him, drawing her hands just over the planes of his chest. He laughed, lightly, but his laughter died away as he saw her eye his neck. His heart beating violently, he wondered whether seeing the mark of her own passion upon him would force her to question her behavior... "Darcy," she said, not taking her eyes off his neck, "did I do that?"

He tried to put as much encouragement into his smile. He claimed her hand and brought to his lips.

"Yes," he said, softly. "You did that, my own."

To his immediate relief, Elizabeth did not shy away, but said, thoughtfully: "It is all your fault, my love. Something about you transports me so... I quite lose my wits!"

"Ah, Lizzy," he murmured, wrapping his arms about her, drawing her closer, kissing the tip of her nose, "I shall be the most fortunate of husbands!" Indeed, he thought, smiling into her hair, if I do not burst beforehand. She caressed the side of his face idly, placed light teasing kisses around his mouth, until he could no longer bear it, grasped her wrists in one hand, her chin in another, and greedily claimed her mouth, pouring all his passion and longing into the kiss.

She was gasping when he released her. Falling on the pillows next to him, she fanned herself, winded and giggling.

"Why, Mr. Darcy," she murmured, nestling against him, "I can say with certainty, my love, that I shall be the happiest of wives."

The moment of frivolity passed, then, when she held his gaze for a long time, and then, to his monumental surprise, took his hand and placed it upon her breast. Monumental, but not at all unwelcome, especially when she explained to him that her plan was to allow him an even greater liberty.

"You have asked if you could-if you could kiss me last night," she said. "It was miserly of me not to allow it."

He laughed in surprise, then kissed her in tenderness. "Lizzy," he said softly. "You can do whatever you wish-I shall not do anything to make you uncomfortable, my darling."

With a loud rush of breath, she said. "But Darcy, I am not uncomfortable-I ought to trust you," and added, correcting herself. "I do, I do trust you, my love." With a quiet sigh, she lay back against the pillows, breathing evenly, eyes closed.

He grinned, superbly happy. The ache in his loins had settled deep and would hardly leave him for days, but he was insensible of that. With a deep sigh of a man who had wandered far and wide, he buried his face against her breasts.

Elizabeth felt his cheek against the skin of her breasts, his curls tickling her there. Opening her eyes, she saw him gazing intently on her, low, tender fire in his eyes; then, still holding her gaze, slowly, deliberately, he lowered his mouth over her left breast. She had not imagined what such a "kiss" would entail. Heat darted, born at the tip of his clever tongue, shooting little lightnings through her entire body in, rushing through her veins like a mighty river. It flooded her loins and claimed her heart. Tossing her head, she heard moans, unmelodious and harsh, and was shocked to know that they came from her.

"Oh!" All of a sudden, she felt him shaking over her, and it took her a second to realize that he was laughing. Then, to her added consternation, one of his hands came to rest against her mouth, stifling her moans. Thereupon his face loomed above her.

"Good God, Lizzy," he said, grinning in a completely hateful way. "Keep quiet, woman. You will bring half the house here!" Leaning in, he kissed her quickly and greedily on the mouth, then licked his lips and winked at her, making her blush.

She wanted to be angry with him, but she could hardly be anything other than enthralled. For, in addition to his mouth playing such beauteous tricks upon her breasts, she felt his hand draw up the hem of her dress.

"Darcy," she groaned. "What are you doing?"

He reared up on one elbow and looked, smiling, into her face.

"Lizzy, I should like leave to touch you," he bid, gently, and added, with unexpected firmness: "Wherever I wish. I'll not hurt you, Lizzy. I only wish to pleasure you. Trust me, my love," he said, and it sounded to her like was almost begging.

She hesitated, but then nodded and lay back against the pillows, surrendering to the pleasure he bestowed upon her. A remarkably clever woman, Elizabeth was hardly insensible of being the object of his edification. She knew herself to be properly ignorant in all matters conjugal; whatever she understood of the mechanics (and she did understand some, of course), the finer points were unknown to her. Still, all her instincts told her that she had not even begun to tap the marvelous spring of passion and pleasure. She saw her beloved to be a most passionate man; she could not quite decide what it was that served to please her so: his seemingly boundless enthusiasm for her (she suspected the bounds did, in fact, exist, but where they lay, she had no idea), or his clever skill in knowing where and how to touch, kiss, caress her. Nibble, for that matter, she thought, arching her back and biting the back of her hand to keep from moaning.

Clever though she was, her imagination hardly stretched to include any of this. It seemed that her body possessed, all of a sudden, a number of burning, aching, throbbing spots that he seemed to find with precision and ease. Elizabeth was amazed that he knew exactly where to touch her... when she, herself, had not the slightest idea of it. His fingers were stroking, feather-soft, her calves, the insides of her knees, and then, higher, drawing up her skirt and petticoats. She felt a light breeze from the half-open window tease her legs, felt his fingers sneak, deftly, about the top of her stockings, and was amazed, once again, at the sensation.

"Darcy," she half-whispered, half-whined. He raised his head, then laid it back against her breasts, eyes warm with mischief and tenderness.

"Do you wish for me to stop?" he asked, his fingers continuing to stroke the insides of her thighs, not stopping, not even for a second, not even to let her catch a breath...

"We should," she murmured, her breath coming in short, distracted gasps. "We really should." Suddenly, her powers of rational speech abandoned her completely, for she felt his hand there... somewhere... her vocabulary had no word for where, really. Young ladies of her station did not know the word, did not need to know it... Perhaps, she had read the term in one of her father's books, a scientific term, of course, indubitably in Latin-but it did not occur to her at the moment to think of that, as her grip on reality slipped at an alarming speed and the only thing remaining was the pleasure his touch brought forth.

"Should we?" he inquired, softly, without ceasing his ministrations. He felt love-struck, cunt-struck, head over heels in love and lust. Elizabeth's response to his caresses was astonishing, better than he had dared hope, a delightful mix of innocence and passion; it promised him wonderful things... if only he lived to see them. He wondered briefly if it was possible to die from frustrated desire; he thought not, but then again, he had not been in such a ... state since he was sixteen years of age.

She did not answer, her powers of speech hopelessly compromised. Instead, she bit her lip in silent anguish and flung one arm over her eyes, her other hand meandering vaguely through his curls. This was riposte enough for him, granting him complete license to finish what he had started. His mouth returned to her breast, suckling her, so that she writhed under him, all burning, sinuous passion; his fingers probed and stroked her, his own desire peaking from her moans and whimpers and little frissons...

Elizabeth, now completely and utterly resigned to her own overwhelming wantonness, was wondering, idly, how it could possibly feel so good and guilt-free. She supposed that guilt would come later, and left it at that; at the moment, she had a more pressing engagement, consisting of enjoying her lover's embrace as much as possible. For indubitably, he was her lover. Her beloved, but also, her lover. Only a lover could do this ... and that ... and kiss her in places she did not know were kissable (he had told the truth last night), and in such a shameless, abandoned fashion...

The blinding, liquid pleasure that had come at the first touch of his mouth against her breast threatened to consume her. He must have known it, for he whispered her name, again and again, begging her to let go, of what she did not know. The fire pooled, finally, between her legs, making her completely insensible and mad for his touch. She might have even drawn up her knees, allowing him easier access between her thighs, his body heavy on hers; but if queried later, she would hardly admit to such appalling behavior.

She ached for him, and moved and rocked under his hands and mouth, wondering, at the back of her mind at this incredible power he held over her. She wondered whether she would be granted the same power over him; she remembered, briefly, the sounds he had made last night, the way he had looked at her, the shifting hardness between her legs as she sat astride him. She hoped that she, too, could learn to possess him as much as he possessed her. Such generosity begged to be repaid, after all. As did such slow, delicious torment, Elizabeth thought.

Then, she stopped thinking altogether, as the aching tautness within her gave way, suddenly, to a wonderful succession of tides, small waves coming and going, washing off her shore, lapping and rocking and pitching her... she sighed, again and again, arching in his arms, wondering at the incredible bliss, moaning softly against his shoulder as he held her close.

Darcy was breathing heavily, watching Elizabeth with rapt eyes. Having been with a number of women (a number upon which he did not care to elaborate), he had never seen anything remotely as beautiful as Elizabeth reaching the apex of her pleasure. Not a little proud that he had brought her to such rapture, he held her against his heart, listening to the quiver in her die away; he was profoundly moved at her trust, and at the evidence of her passion, and at the intensity of it. So much that he almost forgot, for a moment, about his own, however uncomfortable it had become.

"Ah, Lizzy," he whispered, gently caressing her hair, "my Lizzy, how I adore you..."

Her eyelashes trembled, then opened, and their eyes beheld each other, full of wonder.

"And I-you," she whispered. "What have you done to me?" she asked, looking at him with something akin to awe.

Her gown in a state of compleat disorder, he lowered her skirt and located her corset, then, turning her about without ceremony, helped her put it on. Elizabeth stayed his hand, softly.

"Darcy," she said thoughtfully, "I have never heard... of women... I have always thought it was man's province...that women were in it for generation ..."

Sitting up, he found and donned his shirt. Then he looked at her, grinning, undeniably pleased.

"I am thrilled," he said, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips, "to the marrow of my bones, to have, er, augmented your knowledge on the subject. I hope, Lizzy, to have many occasions to instruct you on it." Drawing his lips against her wrist, so that she squirmed and shivered, he whispered: "It is a most interesting field, one you should find much to your liking."

"Truly?" she asked, cheekily, teasing him. "But how much else can there be?" Lowering her eyes, she colored and whispered: "You seemed to have touched all of me today, I cannot imagine-" she paused.

"Ah," he replied, feeling more and more lightheaded. "Lizzy, you do not know the half of it. For one," he whispered, taking her hand and laying it against his thumping heart, "you have not touched me ...I could wager that you will enjoy giving pleasure at least as much as receiving it."

Chastened, Elizabeth took his face in both her palms and kissed him, squarely, on the lips.

" 'Tis true," she whispered, looking in his eyes, "I have not seen to your pleasure as you have seen to mine... Have I been so selfish, then?"

"Lizzy, Lizzy." He sighed, knowing that they could hardly take it much further, that they needed to make themselves decent and return, before Bingley and the rest came back from their promenade (though, he wondered somewhat caustically, how long would it take you?). Taking her hands off himself, kissing them, holding them in his, he wondered how long he would be able to manage... especially if they continued with all of this. London, he reminded himself. "You are not selfish, my sweet, you are an initiate... it fell to me to teach you-and I am all the more fortunate for that-but one day," he sighed, thinking, imagining, "one day, oh, Lizzy, ah-" he leaned his forehead against hers, panting.

"When, my love?" she queried him. After what seemed like a very painful five minutes, he sighed, shivered, then kneeled up on the bed, fastening her dress in the back. Then, as she watched him dress himself before a mirror, fumbling with his stock, he said:

"As soon as I can manage, Lizzy."

She climbed off the bed, hopping, looked on the floor for one of her slippers and put it on. Then, she walked up to him and slipped her arms about him from the back. He caught her eyes in the mirror and smiled.

"What is it, my own?"

"Manage it soon as may be, Darcy," she said throatily, verily making him shiver.

It was then that they heard, outside, the hubbub of the walking party returning from their promenade-Bingley's excitable voice, the Colonel's booming laughter, and Caroline's nasal droning about how tired she was, and how common walking was, and how she would not be prevailed upon to do it again-

"Come," Darcy said, quickly. "It would not do for them to see us leaving here."

Elizabeth tucked in an errant strand of hair and stared at herself in the mirror. Could one tell it? she wondered, could one see what she had been doing? Could her dissolution be apparent from the way she looked, or walked, or spoke? Darcy, ever so meticulous, turned her about, looking at her clothing, and found no fault with her. As if reading her thoughts, he laughed.

"Elizabeth, you are an educated woman! Could you tell the difference in someone else?"

"No-ooo," she admitted thoughtfully. "But you know I am frightfully inexperienced-"

"-well, not so frightfully anymore," he said, grinning, for which frivolity he was rewarded with a cross look and a light slap on the arm.

"Perhaps someone more experienced-someone married -" Jane, she thought, with quiet horror; but then, she doubted that Mr. Collins had ever seen to his wife's pleasure as assiduously as Darcy had to hers. She shuddered. The thought of Mr. Collins in intimate pursuits did not bear dwelling upon.

"No, Elizabeth," he said, ruefully shaking his head. "Pleasure leaves no brand, regrettably..." Thinking about the source for his regrets did not help his constitution one bit; therefore, he held her gaze for some time, then whispered. "You go first, my love. I shall follow you presently-it appears I need another moment or two to collect myself."

Having kissed him briefly on the mouth, Elizabeth slipped out of the room and made it to the drawing-room some minutes before it was invaded by the rest of the company. When they entered to find her there, she looked cool and unruffled, and as if she had been there all along, reading a book in the corner. Darcy joined them soon enough, looking very stiff, composed, and exceedingly disagreeable. He talked little, looked dour and shifted quite a bit in his chair.

But this time, Elizabeth knew that the exact reason for his gloomy expression. She was not certain what penance was exacted upon a man by the state of unsatisfied desire, but if he experienced anything even remotely close to the maddening bodily yearning she had felt earlier... she sighed with pity for him. He burned, she thought, giddily, he burned for her.

For her.

Chapter 22

In the end, Darcy remembered that he could not go to London on the morrow: Georgiana's birthday was in three days, and he could not miss it. Elizabeth would hardly expect it of him, nor, to tell the truth, would she want him gone. As it was, she seemed pained by his impending absence, he could see (though she said nothing, her brow creased every time he mentioned London to her)...and however much he, too, wanted to marry her, he loathed leaving her.

He kept himself busy throughout the day. He functioned, albeit poorly so, far from the efficient, capable, sharp Master of Pemberley he usually was. The day presented no opportunity for a cold swim, however much he longed for one, and watching Elizabeth's comely figure as she played pall-mall with Anne and Bingley and Georgiana (Mrs. Collins, shying away from frivolity in her widow's weeds, looking on; Caroline Bingley, afraid to ruffle the feathers on her hairdo, looking on as well) did nothing to better his rather desperate state of constant, painful arousal.

Therefore, he withdrew inside. Locking himself in his office, he wrote to his solicitor, Mr. Barnaby, to expect him in four...no, he reckoned, perhaps five... days. He was to be married, and wanted to make certain arrangements that included his future wife; that he would be married, there was no question. He was of age, his own master, so was Elizabeth. There could be disapproval, of course, of such a hastily concocted engagement (he could wager there would be disapproval, someone was always sure to be vexed, even with the most perfect match, and, however perfectly matched they were in their hearts and bodies, the world did not look upon misalliances with a kind eye), but there was nobody who could stand in their way. Darcy had adored both his parents and had grieved terribly at their deaths; but he took peculiar pleasure in the thought that he needed not contend with anyone's will on this question. On this, indeed, the most important question in his life, he would do as he pleased. No duty, he thought, for the first time in his life, no duty anyone but himself and the woman he adored. The thought made him a happy man.

He considered, briefly, their wedding voyage... but the very idea conjured up thoughts of their wedding night... and further pleasurable activities...and it did not bear dwelling upon, not in his current state. After all, he could not imagine any discord between himself and Elizabeth on the subject.

It occurred to him that he had yet to give her a ring; and until he did, he felt, they were not properly engaged. He considered going to Lambton to buy one, but nothing he could buy there would be good enough to be worn by his wife... (he marveled at the thought of it-his wife, Mrs. Darcy, the Mistress of Pemberley)...when he traveled to London, then... or maybe, when he could have her choose herself. He would buy her rings a-plenty, ten for each finger, but he suspected that her ambition did not lie with that. Suddenly, he thought of his mother's beautiful hands. She had died when he was still a child; and her face was fading, slowly, from his memory, more so with each passing day. It grieved him, but he had come to rely on Lady Anne's beautiful portrait, more and more, to tell him of her likeness. Still, he did remember her sculpted alabaster hands, which he had admired most of all her appearance...

Jumping over two steps at a time, startling a passing maid, Darcy ran up to his bedchamber. Opening his secretaire, he produced a lacquered ebony jewelry box, spanned with gold bands. His uncle the Earl of Matlock had given it to the late Lady Anne years ago, having brought it from a journey to India. Darcy took the box to his writing desk, where sunlight streaming from the window provided excellent natural illumination, the better to look at precious gems. Opening it, he thought, once again, of his mother, who had kept her most exquisite jewelry in this box, along, he discovered tearfully upon his father's death, with his and Georgiana's first cut-off locks. They were still there, wrapped in paper, and he set them carefully aside, thinking of his mother, who had wrapped them so and then died, so young, a month short of her thirty-second birthday. She had seemed old to him then; he was now eight-and-twenty, and never before had he felt quite so ... young.

For the first time in fifteen years, there would be a Mrs. Darcy at Pemberley again. The thought gladdened him so much, he laughed aloud as he started to look through the box in search of a ring to give his beloved.

There were rings there, of course, and some were more opulent than others. Still, he chose the one his mother had always worn-a very pale-colored round-cut emerald, surrounded by a circle of pure-water diamonds. It was rather simple, he thought, and not too large, but very beautiful, and it truly was the Darcy ring. He held it in his hand for some time, thinking both of the woman who had worn it previously, and the one who would wear it now. He was moved by the thought, deeply.

He walked outside, looking very much a man with a purpose. Elizabeth had only just finished playing, having beat Bingley heavily, but having lost to Georgiana. They well-nigh bumped into each other in front of the house.

"Careful, sir," she said, smiling at him with her eyes. He could not take his eyes off her: she looked fatigued from playing in such heat. He thought to scold her, gently, for overtaxing herself, but felt his throat constrict with deep, agonizing longing: for, warmed by the sun, smiling, slightly disheveled, she looked absolutely beautiful. A faint line of perspiration glistened on her upper lip; instinctively, Darcy dropped his eyes, ogling her neckline and sighed faintly at the sight of a similar little stripe, glistening between her high round breasts.

"Sir?" she murmured. Darcy caught himself staring at her (wolfishly, no doubt) and bid, formally (and loudly, so that everyone else heard the formality of his address):

"Miss Bennett, be so kind as to accompany me to my study. I have a matter of some importance I wish to discuss with you," he said, and added, for even more formality, "please."

She gave him a bemused smile, eyebrows raised in mild surprise. As his employee, she dared not query him aloud, but dropped him a respectful curtsy. Darcy stepped aside, allowing her to walk ahead of him; this was, of course, rather selfish of him, and also-exceedingly self-defeating. For he found the sight of her walking in front of him very agreeable. So agreeable, in fact, that it also made his plight today all the more difficult.

Indeed, having gained his heart's desire, he yearned to claim possession of it.

Inside his study, he closed the door behind them-there was no need to lock it, nobody would dare enter the Master's study without knocking first-and took her in his arms immediately.

Some time later, Elizabeth struggled, giddily, out of his embrace.

"Is this your matter of some importance, Mr. Darcy?" she asked, laughing, licking her lips, thoroughly kissed. She enjoyed his attentions, imbibing him, like sunlight, with every pore of her body. It was uncanny: she seemed to derive more and more pleasure from each kiss, but it was his desire-his inability, his unwillingness to hide it-that pleased her most. He seemed to burn with some deep, hidden fire; and it turned her head to know that he burned for her. How very exciting it was to be his fiancée. It would be positively exhilarating to be his wife.

He laughed, too, at himself most of all, for he was in a bad way; but also, with joy and love and abandon. He sat on the edge of his desk; it was strange-he had not sat anywhere but behind it since he was ... well, never. Then, grabbing her wrist, he pulled her back to him. This time, he did not kiss her, but merely took her hand and subjected it to a rather close inspection. Elizabeth wondered at his rather strange behavior when, all of a sudden, he pulled something out of his pocket, and a second later she was staring at perhaps the most beautiful ring she had ever seen-on her finger.

She gasped, softly, her power of speech commandeered for a moment.

"It fits you precisely," he murmured gently, then brought her be-ringed hand to his lips. "Beloved," he said.

Elizabeth exhaled, softly. "That sounds rather... well," she said, smiling. "In any case, I like that better than 'madam,"... sir." She threw a shy glance at her hand; she did not wish to stare, afraid to seem too eager, but the moss-green emerald, surrounded by sparkling diamonds, was the most exquisite, extravagant thing she had ever beheld, much less worn.

Darcy was anxious for her approval. "My love," he asked, worriedly seeking her eyes, "is it not to your liking?"

She smiled up at him. "How can you say that? It is so very beautiful," she whispered, returning her gaze to the perfect green stone. "I feel almost unworthy of something so... magnificent..."

Darcy scowled at that. "Madam, this is a silly thing to say. You are worth to me-infinitely more than-than anything." He paused, kissing her hand, holding it against his cheek. Then he said, somewhat awkwardly: "This is my mother's ring-I hope you do not mind-"

Elizabeth interrupted him. " 'Tis perfect," she said, simply. "Thank you."

He desired from her one particular form of gratitude, and she was ready and willing to grant it. The next five or so minutes were spent in silence, perchance not so companionable as yesterday, but certainly far more passionate. Finally, Darcy tore himself away, breathing as if he had only just run up and down every single Pemberley staircase. He could not let himself get carried away-particularly not in his study, for Lord's sake, and not with the entire house eagerly likely standing at attention outside these very doors.

"Love," he whispered. "Do wear this ring." He sighed, brought her hand to his lips, kissed her fingers around the ring, sighed again, a happier man this time. The sight of his mother's ring on Elizabeth's hand seemed to make their engagement more flesh-and-blood.

Not only for them, of course. Elizabeth eyed the ring on her hand curiously.

"Do you suppose," she asked, slowly, "do you suppose they will know?"

He had not thought of that-had not imagined that placing his ring on her finger will announce her as his betrothed to the world. But it would be so, of course: the ring was a simple one in his estimation, but obviously far too rich to be worn by a simple governess. Ah, he thought, deuce it all.

"So what of it, Lizzy?" he asked.

She had thought of it, at length. What would people's reactions be? She had never been the center of everyone's attention; she would not relish it now. Yet, she knew, as Mr. Darcy's fiancée, she could hardly escape scrutiny.

"Oh, Darcy," she whispered. She was still feeling dizzy from the kiss; how she adored him kissing her, she thought. He had the softest lips in the world (not that she'd know, of course), the most talented mouth. It was so good to have him to herself, she thought, longingly, even though she did not, not truly; but it was their secret, something they shared, and she was suddenly loath to part with it.

But she knew, as well as he did, that it had to be done. There would be scandal as it is, she thought, when one of the most illustrious gentlemen in Derbyshire married his sister's penniless companion. She would not wish to add to it by marrying clandestinely.

"Do you suppose I could apprise Jane first?" she asked him. He kissed her hand again, squeezing it passionately in his.

"But of course," he said. "Whatever you want, my love."

He promised her he would say nothing about it, to anyone, until she told her sister. His arms slipped, light yet insistent, about her, pulling her back into his embrace. Elizabeth sighed, gentled by him, and rested her forehead against his shoulder.

"I love you," she said faintly.

Seized with fierce joy, he tightened his arms about her, and she slipped hers about his waist. They stood like so for some time, relishing the imminence of each other's presence, the warm steel of their embrace, exhilarating scents, peculiar in their novelty, yet already familiar and precious.

There was a quiet, circumspect knock on the door. The lovers parted, unwillingly, and Elizabeth quickly tucked a stray lock back into her hairdo. She threw a quick glance at Darcy and smiling, he nodded his approval of the state of her dress.

"Am I fit to be seen, Mr. Darcy?" she whispered playfully. They locked eyes, and she trembled under his gaze.

"You are fit to be the Queen of England, Elizabeth," was his reply. She giggled as he turned to the door, and said, in his usual arrogant manner: "Yes!" Elizabeth had to bite down an amused smile, such a change did he effect in himself within a matter of moments. So gentle and passionate a lover to her, he could don an impenetrable façade to the rest of the world.

It was Bingley, of course, looking rather uncomfortable. The sight of him thus embarrassed Elizabeth in her own turn; it was rather obvious that he knew he had interrupted an amorous tête-à-tête. Red in the face, he bowed to Elizabeth; to his stiff greeting, she dropped a stiffer curtsy, feeling color creep up her cheeks.

"Miss Bennett," he said, pressing a finger against the side of his nose, a sign, to Darcy, that he was somewhat discomfited. "Darcy. It seems you are both of you wanted in the gardens."

They returned to the gardens amidst curious glances, and Elizabeth soon found Jane conversing quietly with Georgiana in the shadow of an old oak. She had turned the ring around on her finger, closed her fist, feeling the small flower of a gem against her palm. She looked over and saw Darcy laughing at something the Colonel was saying. He seemed to feel her gaze on him and looked up. For a moment that seemed to span forever and was at the same time all too brief, they stared at each other, with love and longing. Elizabeth found herself dreaming, thinking wantonly of the night to come, and wondering whether he would wish to see her again. Whether he would meet her in the gardens, put his hands, his lips on her.

For surely, she dared not suggest it herself, however much she wanted to.

For the present, she felt thoroughly ashamed at hiding the ring inside her hand. They had done nothing wrong; it was not sinful to love him, to marry him-to spend the rest of her life with him... she had nothing to hide. She sighed and straightened out her fingers; discreetly, she swiveled the ring about the base of her ring finger.

"Jane," she said, sweetly, "I should have a word with you, my dearest. Georgie, will you excuse us?"

"Of-f c-course," Georgiana said, nodding. As she was sitting down upon a stone bench, Elizabeth's hand, with the ring on it, was precisely at her eye level. Catching sight of it, Georgiana said, curiously: "W-w-why, w-w-what a p-pretty ring, Elizabeth! M-may I?" Without waiting for her to answer, she reached for her friend's hand and studied it closely, squinting her eyes, spoiled by reading too much music. Elizabeth barely stopped herself from gasping; it seemed that another second, and the girl would recognize her mother's ring. Why did the possibility frighten her so much, Elizabeth wondered. After all, Georgiana had been very open with her about her hopes for her and Darcy... still, it seemed a monumental revelation to make to someone so young and so involved. It also seemed right that Darcy should be the one to tell his beloved sister.

But all her worries were for naught. Georgiana clearly did not recognize the ring-after all, Elizabeth remembered, she had been less than a year old when her mother died...she had never seen Lady Anne wear it.

"W-w-hy, h-how v-very p-pretty," she repeated, releasing Elizabeth's hand; then, giving both women a sunny smile, she opened a thick volume of French grammar on her lap and became lost to the world.

But Jane had seen the ring, too, and had grown very pale, her skin alabaster-white against the edge of her black moiré gown, staring at Elizabeth inquisitively.

"Come," Elizabeth murmured, looping her arm through her sister's.

"Lizzy," Jane whispered, as the two walked slowly down the garden path, away from the rest of the company. "Lizzy, what is it? You haven't a ring like that-Lizzy!"

Elizabeth gave her no answer, not until they were sufficiently far away from everyone else-not only out of their hearing, but also-out of their sight. They stopped under some trees, and Elizabeth took her sister's hands in hers.

Jane had witnessed Elizabeth's return to Pemberley, knew the truth of what had sent her fleeing it in the first place. Still, Elizabeth did not worry; she knew that whatever her feelings might be in the beginning, Jane respected her enough to trust her. Her sister would learn to be happy for her, sooner or later.

Still, her voice trembled when she said:

"Jane, Mr. Darcy has-"

Before she could finish her sentence, Jane seemed to know what she was about to say. She brought one hand to her mouth, clearly shocked.

"-has asked me to marry him, and I-" Exhaling loudly, she finished, "-I have accepted him."

Jane stared at her sister; it was as if she had not heard. Elizabeth, having anticipated just such a reaction, was nevertheless disappointed. After all, her favorite sister might manage a smile and congratulations! Laughing, she shook Jane's hands in hers, urging her to speak:

"This is a wretched beginning, indeed!" she cried. "If I cannot get a better reaction out of you, of all people! If you are not happy for me, who will be?"

Jane seemed to come to her senses, and squeezed Elizabeth's hands passionately. "Lizzy, Lizzy," she said. "I am not unhappy for you... and I am not so surprised," she confessed. "I daresay hardly anyone would be surprised-he has not concealed his high regard for you, Lizzy-"

"But?" Elizabeth asked.

"-but it is still somewhat of a shock. Not that he proposed, but rather, that you have accepted him. Are you certain, Lizzy?"

Not a little upset at her sister's reaction, Elizabeth assured Jane that she had never been so certain of anything in her entire life.

"But after that, which has happened-" Jane murmured, unconvinced.

Elizabeth's smile wilted; she lowered her eyes, studying the grass at her feet with attention the prospect did not demand. Wouldst she that Jane had not reminded her of that. Still, she knew that one did not deny the truth without paying a price for it; there was noting stupider than lying to herself. Lying to Jane, who was her second self, would be almost as foolish. After a long pause, she spoke.

"Jane, I was hardly blameless in the affair," she said. "Perhaps I saw something in his attentions that was not there-perchance, I was too eager to dream-" she sighed. "I should be foolish-and dishonest-to deny that. I knew there were ways to behave that would have prevented that... which has happened."

Jane, unusually agitated, shook her head. "Still, it does not begin to excuse him," she said, crossly. "He was the one with experience-he was the worldly one-"

"Jane, Jane!" Elizabeth seized her sister's hands again. "Do you not believe that Mr. Darcy loves me?"

Jane seemed to hesitate. "I do," she said, finally, softly. "Lizzy, he-he has told me, long since, of his-his regard for you."

"He has?" Elizabeth was genuinely surprised to hear that. It seemed strange that Darcy, ever so reticent a man, should share his heart with Jane. She was moved deeply by the thought, for it signaled no little upheaval of emotion on his part. "What did he say?"

"That he-oh, Lizzy, it was the day after your arrival here-he told me he loved you and that his intentions towards you were honorable-and I believed him, Lizzy. I had come in there wanting to murder him...but he was so...he seemed nothing if not honest, and I believed him."

Jane paused, tilting her head to one shoulder, looking up, staring up at the white downy clouds drifting lazily through an edgeless expanse of blue. Elizabeth waited for her to continue. She tried to be patient, but she had never been good at it, and she certainly could not suffer it now!

"Jane," she said, pleadingly. Her sister sighed, returning to reality. Her eyes were like the sky above-clear, pure, radiant blue, innocent of guile and pretense. Jane, her best friend, her strictest judge. "Please, my dearest, tell me what you think!" Elizabeth implored.

"Lizzy, he pleaded with me not to take you away from Pemberley. He told me he would marry you, if only you'd have him. I suppose there was something about him, something...an earnestness of sorts, Lizzy, which made me believe him. Still, I never thought you could forgive him-for what he has done-that you would forget."

Elizabeth frowned. "Neither he, nor I will hardly ever forget it," she said quietly. "But this is no longer a question of forgiveness."

"I see," Jane said quietly. "Ah, Lizzy," she whispered. "I suppose I have hoped that you should reject him-I have never thought him right for you. But it seems I really have no choice in this matter, now do I?" she asked, effecting a sad smile.

"Jane, you must trust me," Elizabeth said fiercely. "He is a worthy man, a noble one. He is right for me! I should not marry him for any other reason but love, and truly, Jane, I love him so much my heart feels ready to burst!"

At such a portrayal of Elizabeth's own feelings, Jane could say nothing, but Elizabeth saw her whisk away a tear with one finger.

"Trust me, Jane," she repeated, softer this time. The younger sister looked at the older one in supplication. "You were right to believe him, Jane. He does love me," she said, and added, quietly, earnestly, "and I love him."

Jane seemed pained: she closed her eyes at the fierce emotion she saw in those of her sister.

"I am certain," Elizabeth implored, "that when you know him for the man he is-you will not fail to like him, Jane."

Jane nodded, though her smile was a bit wistful. "I had better, Lizzy," she said. "He is to be my brother now, after all."

She opened her arms, and the two sisters embraced, eagerly.

"Be happy for me, Janie," Elizabeth murmured into her sister's hair; and added, jokingly: "I shall need your support against Mama-"

Jane gave a little snort as the two parted. "Oh, my dear Lizzy, do not fret about that! Your Mr. Darcy will win Mama over easily-she only needs to see Pemberley to like him!"

"Oh, Jane, you are simply awful!" Elizabeth, too, laughed, feeling much more at ease now. "I cannot believe everybody has always thought me the difficult one!"

~ * ~

Before going down for supper, Elizabeth stopped in front of the vanity in her room. Looking at herself, she fancied she noticed a strange glow in her cheeks and an almost wicked glimmer in her eye. She held up her hand, the diamonds in the ring dazzling; had she the courage required to wear it to dinner? There was no knowing how many people at the table had known Darcy's late mother, how many would recognize the ring. Miss de Bourgh and the Colonel certainly would, she thought. She thought of the spiteful Miss Bingley and shuddered at the thought of the woman's reaction, if only she knew.

But she also thought of Darcy and the joy it would give him to see her wear the ring tonight. That was that; Miss Bingley and the others no longer signified. Elizabeth gave a tiny resolute shrug in the mirror and quit the room.

They all noticed it, of course. Naturally, she sought Darcy's regard first, and saw that indeed, his eyes lit up at the sight of her, and at the sight of his mother's engagement ring on her finger. He looked moved, touched.

But others noticed as well. Miss de Bourgh did, of course, her large gray eyes narrowing to slits at the sight of it. So did the Colonel; he, however, only glanced at it briefly and turned away immediately, all captivated by the conversation with Mr. Bingley (who was, perhaps, the only person in the room not to eye her hand with curiosity, or gladness, or malice). As to his sisters, both women stared at Elizabeth with such exceeding rudeness, she was almost moved to take the ring off and pass it around for them to see. She wondered, idly, whether Miss Bingley would manage enough civility not to say anything offensive to her.

Were she a betting woman, Elizabeth would wager a body part that Caroline would not be able to resist saying something.

Still, she clearly overestimated Miss Bingley's perceptiveness. Blinded by her dislike of Elizabeth, Caroline did not see the ring on her finger for what it was-a declaration of her engagement to be married. Rather, she was gripped by a most pathetic emotion of all-a simple, basic, green-eyed envy. It is a truth universally acknowledged that many a wretched person wastes so powerful an emotion on things of little consequence. Caroline, too, could hardly stomach the sight of such a jewel on a governess' hand. She was moved to speak-rashly.

"Miss Bennett," she murmured, in the tone of voice that was her sweetest and portended nothing good whatsoever to the object of her address, "pray what an eye-catching emerald you are wearing."

Elizabeth smiled, determined to remain impervious to Caroline's barbs. Petty, stupid woman, she thought, she hardly signifies.

"Thank you," she said, softly. "It is beautiful, is it not?"

"Quite," Caroline Bingley replied, "perhaps, the position of a governess now allows for certain luxuries," she paused, the better to ensure that everybody was listening. "I suspected Mr. Darcy paid his domestics well, but I did not know it was enough to buy emeralds!"

Elizabeth straightened out in her chair and fixed the pest with a look that reminded everyone that she, too, was a gentleman's daughter.

"It was not bought," she said, clearly, "but given."

She threw a quick glance at Darcy; perhaps, she thought, she had been far too forward in so declaring? He glowered, of course, but it was at Caroline; and when he saw Elizabeth looking at him, a smile-a warm smile, if not to say an encouraging one-appeared on his handsome face.

Still, Caroline was not finished (for it is also a truth universally acknowledged that some people, by virtue of their rather, well, lacking in common sense, never know when to stop); in addition, she did not take Elizabeth's words seriously. If she knew anything, she knew jewelry, and much as she wished to dismiss Elizabeth's ring as a piece of pretty green glass, something inside told her otherwise. The ring was genuine, and it seemed to her a ludicrous idea that a jewel of such price should be given to someone as lowly as a governess. Indeed, that there should even be anyone insane enough; it hardly occurred to her that the lunatic might be the illustrious Mr. Darcy himself.

To her peril, she believed everyone at the table must share in her skepticism; surely it was absurd to even imagine that Mr. Darcy would-

"Mr. Darcy," she declared, turning to him with rather badly acted panache, "I daresay Pemberley will soon go to ruin if you insist on presenting your help with emeralds and diamonds! Though of course, I should not presume to lecture you," she tittered, "for I am certain Miss Bennett's services to the family are considerable!"

Perhaps, she had made a mistake in addressing him thus. For when he rose, suddenly, with a clatter of silverware, Darcy seemed to tower over her, and she felt sudden, terrible unease and wished she had not provoked him so. Elizabeth threw him an imploring glance, but he did not seem to notice.

"Miss Bingley," he replied, his voice grave. "I choose to ignore your intimation that Miss Bennett was not telling the truth when she said the ring had been given to her. Indeed, madam, it is a grave matter about which to lie-for this ring once belonged to my mother. Miss Bennett could only acquire it in one manner, and so she has. I have given her the ring," he said, slowly, before abandoning Caroline, who, it seemed, no longer mattered, and turning his attention to the rest of the company, "because she has consented to marry me."

There was a collective gasp!-they had all expected it, hoped for it, urged it on-but it was still a wonderful surprise. Elizabeth was assaulted, from two sides, by Georgiana (who, on this occasion, could utter nothing but a triumphant "I n-knew it!") and Anne de Bourgh (who seemed entirely too pleased with herself). She was congratulated by Bingley and the Colonel, and even the narcoleptic Mr. Hurst tore himself away from his plate for a long enough time to mutter felicitations to her (though his wife, loyal to her sister, kept conspicuously quiet). Jane smiled docilely at her from across the table. Still, over the joyful racket, she sought but one pair of eyes-and, when she did find them, her happiness was complete.

Caroline Bingley, on her part, sat utterly stunned, her eyes as round as a pair of saucers. Next to her, Mrs. Hurst murmured spitefully:

"I could have long told you that...Indeed, anybody could..."

With a shove of her chair and a whoosh of her skirts, Caroline ran out of the room. Hardly anyone noticed, except, perhaps, her brother, whose kind heart was saddened by her hasty departure. He had known, of course, that Caroline had her sights set on Darcy; still, he had hoped that she would weather the inevitable (and he had always known it was inevitable, and had told her, and if only she'd listen!) disappointment with slightly better grace. He resolved to speak to her of this... after all, Darcy was his best friend.

Bingley could think of no fate worse than having to choose between ties of family and bonds of friendship.

Chapter 23

Sitting in a low armchair, legs sprawled comfortably, Bingley attempted to follow Caroline's movements as she swept about the room. Soon enough, he was forced to give up, for his younger sister tore through it, marching up and down her bedchamber. Not unlike a caged tigress, Bingley thought with a quiet shudder. He hated to be in Caroline's way at the moment, in her very presence; he regretted coming here and longed to get out.

A faience knick-knack clunked against a table leg, knocked off by her sudden movement.

"Careful," Bingley murmured. He had come to speak with Caroline, to tell her, as her older brother, that all was not lost, that she would, in time, find a man she liked as much as she did Darcy. That before she knew it, she would forget him, and think her attachment to him frivolous and silly. (Indeed, he thought, he had been in-usually unrequited-love and had suffered for it, too; now, he only had eyes for the lovely Jane. She had not yet given him leave to address her thus, but in his heart, he repeated her beautiful name a thousand times. In his mind's eye, she smiled at him. Jane, he thought. Jane, Jane, Jane.) He had sought to comfort Caroline, and found, to his surprise, that she needed no comforting. It seems her chief emotion was anger at being so cheated.

"Cheated?" he murmured, raising his eyes up at his younger, furious sister.

She did not answer, but he saw it in her eyes. Cheated out of what is rightfully mine. He became terribly uneasy: he had not realized that his sister viewed Darcy as a mere prize. In his naïveté, Bingley saw every attachment through the prism of his own-if he was in love with Jane, it meant that his sister's feelings towards his friend were similar. He was scandalized to the depth of his very soul to learn they were quite so... mercenary.

A loud crash startled him out of his unhappy reverie. In a fit of impotent fury, Caroline had turned on one heel and made a wide gesture, sweeping an array of bric-a-bracs off the mantel. Bingley jumped in his chair and Louisa, sitting, thereto silent, at the other end of the room, tittered. Aghast that she found such outrage amusing, Bingley shot her an angry glance, then directed his anger at his other sister.

"I shall have you stop behaving this way, Caroline, you are not a spoiled fifteen-year-old!"

"For certes," Louisa said, "she is a spoiled twenty-three-year-old. And just look at it, Charles-all her flirting was for naught, and she did not get the toy she so desired!" Their older sister seemed to beam with pleasure.

"Good God, Lou!" Bingley said, incredulously.

"But I do no blame her," Louisa added, sighing and raising her eyes to the ceiling. "If I had my sights set on your friend... well, I might be a trifle disappointed by such an announcement-and what an announcement, indeed!" She tittered again.

"You both will do well to remember I am actually in the room!" Caroline snapped, turning around. Stooping, she picked up a porcelain statuette from the rug; Bingley was able to see that it was of a young shepherdess, a crown of flowers about her head. The shepherdess, dressed in a dress of the century past, held a staff in her hand; her hair, spilling down her back from under her wreath, was jet-black. The expression on Caroline's face frightened Bingley; for a second, he thought she was about to fling the statuette against the wall. Seeing that his head would be in its direct path, he said, a warning in his voice (though, in truth, he had no idea what he would do if she disobeyed him):

"Caroline, put that down."

She gave him a wan smile. "But of course." Slowly, almost gently, she lowered the shepherdess back onto the mantel. It was then that Bingley noticed that the statuette had already been shattered. Having hit the parquet earlier, the shepherdess had lost the entire left side of her face. Bingley sighed, shuddered, rubbed his hand against his eyes, squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. He wanted nothing more than to be out of this room, as soon as possible.

"Caroline," he said in an even voice. "You are my sister, and I should have you behave with dignity."

"Oh, Charles," Louisa said from her chair. "Go hang yourself, dearest."

Bingley gasped, involuntarily. These two were getting to be too much for him; still, he felt, as the head of the family, he ought to set some boundaries. He ought to, he thought, even though he had a sneaking suspicion that his two sisters cared little for his authority. In addition, he found he was every thing terrified of them.

But Caroline, her bout of fury gone, seemed nothing if not meek.

"Go to bed, Charles," she said, sounding tired. Bingley was lost; he had come here wishing to comfort, stayed, eager to upbraid and lecture, and was now being sent to bed by his own younger sister. Therefore, when he spoke, he sounded far softer than he had first intended:

"Caro-" he rarely called her that, finding it somewhat frivolous, but right now, he felt, the situation called for an endearment. "Caro, I am sorry it has turned out this way-but it has, and Darcy is a friend-my best friend-"

Caroline interrupted him, with a quiet, secret smile.

"Charles," she said, rather deliberately, "you need not worry. I shall hardly drown myself in the lake here because of your Mr. Darcy and his salope."

Bingley nodded, relieved to find her so reasonable all of a sudden. A small voice inside was telling him not to trust Caroline, that it was quite unlike her to simply give up, that she was by no means finished-but he found he simply could not bear listen to it. He could not bear to be in this room; rather, he wished he could be in bed and free to spend the night dreaming about the beautiful Jane.

"It is best that you should accustom yourself to the thought of them married-after all-" After all, he wished to add, I shall do everything in my power to marry Eliza Bennett's sister, so it would be to your advantage to find something to like about the girl-but decided against saying that... after all, he was far more eloquent with his thoughts than with his words. "After all," he added hastily, "we are to see them... often."

She nodded, listlessly, and he saw his older brother's duty fulfilled.

"Good night, Caroline," he said, reverting to his sisters' formal appellations. "Good night, Louisa."

He did not turn his back, fully expecting a piece of faience to hit him in the head, but backed out of the room, quietly, and pulled the door closed behind him.

He walked quickly and stopped only at the end of the hall. There, he stopped and breathed for a moment, feeling strangely... whole. He felt almost surprised to have quit Caroline's presence without any life-threatening injuries, what with all that porcelain flying about. Indeed, he thought, amazed, impressed and humbled, hell hath no fury. A strange thought crossed his mind; perhaps, he thought, her anger could shatter him in the same way she had broken the little porcelain statuette. He shuddered.

Then he thought of Jane and was, once again, amazed that someone so good could exist in the world that had also produced his two sisters. He felt guilty for thinking thus, but found it was best if to douse the embers of remorse with thoughts of the woman he loved.

~ * ~

After her brother had quit the room, Caroline's apathy seemed to give way to another attack of resentful pique. She paced some more about the room, dropped a few more knick-knacks and smashed the rest of the shepherdess (for it reminded her, inexorably, of that hussy Eliza Bennett) against the opposite wall. She stopped only when a hefty mantel clock left a sizable impression in the polished parquet.

"Enough!" Louisa said, sounding somewhat less amused than before. "Stop, Caro, unless you want the rest of the house here in the next five minutes!"

Caroline did stop, sat down in the chair and hid her face in her hands. But she was not crying; rather, it was that her face was burning. All of her was, she noticed. She had never been so angry in her entire life, not even when she had been twelve years old and Louisa, three years her senior, had stolen her pretty ivory-backed hand mirror and refused to give it back.

"I think I have a fever," she said plaintively. Louisa gave a delicate yawn, seemingly superbly uninterested.

"You'll have worse than that, unless you settle down! You might suffer apoplexy," she suggested, as if suggesting a course of travel for the holidays, like Bath or the Lakes. "It was clear as day that the man would not marry you, Caro, he never as much as looked at you."

"Still," Caroline said, crossly. "It is one thing to know that... it is entirely another to know that he is to marry that... that chit! That scheming baggage!"

Louisa laughed. "She is hardly a baggage, Caro," she said, reasonably. "And please, spare me your theory about how she is too tanned and entirely too self-sufficient."

Caroline stuck out her chin. "She is!"

"Clearly, she is good enough for your Mr. Darcy!"

Caroline shot her sister a cross glance. "You are appallingly bad with consolation, Lou," she said, coldly. "Perhaps you should retire."

Louisa tittered again. "Bah! I am not in the least tired!" she said, and added, with an expressive roll of her eyes, "I daresay Mr. Hurst will hardly miss my presence! And as to consolation, Caro-do you not think the scandal will be consolation enough for you?"

Caroline looked-her sister was now anything but listless. Her eyes twinkled mischievously, her teeth were set on edge, she seemed ready to pounce.

"Indeed, Caro, to wish for anything more would be exceedingly greedy of you," she asked, "for I guarantee you, it will be the scandal of the season."

"What scandal?" Caroline mumbled darkly. She saw nothing to be excited about, and, to tell the truth, Louisa's perky manner was beginning to vex her. "He can do as he wish-his money will introduce her to the ton-"

"Ah!" Louisa held up one finger with a scholarly air. "But here, you said it. His money. His money cannot buy her a good name, Caro."

Caroline's thin lips twitched bitterly. "She insists she's a gentleman's daughter," she said, in a mocking tone that showed precisely what she thought of such a claim.

"Perhaps," Louisa replied. "But the rest of her family-they are all in trade, Caro! For Christ's sake, her uncle lives in Cheapside!"

Caroline considered it. It was true; from what she had heard, Eliza Bennett's mother's side of the family-among other things-made her an utterly unsuitable match. True, their own father had been in trade, and had done exceedingly well in it. But he had had the grace to pass on, years ago; it was rather, well, presumptuous to aspire to become Mrs. Darcy with live family still residing in Cheapside. But...

"So what of it?" she asked, gruffly. "Clearly, he knows of it, and cares naught for such things."

"True," Louisa agreed. "He might not."

Caroline sat up straighter and fixed her sister with a look.

"Whatever do you mean?" she asked, sharply.

"Good God, Caro, you are daft," Louisa said derisively. "The family is one of the oldest ones in the country, goes back centuries! All the way back to the Norman D'Arcys with the apostrophe."

"Yes, yes, but what does it signify?" Caroline asked impatiently. "He is the head of the family, he can marry whomever he wants!"

"Of course, he is the head of the Darcy family. But the Fitzwilliams are an even more illustrious family, Caro."

"True," Caroline agreed, rather longingly. "His mother was an earl's daughter-"

"Now, do you see?"

Caroline was losing her patience, quickly; it had never been good to begin with, and it had further been tried by the awful, awful news, and by her humiliation at dinner, and by the stupid, bumbling Charles later on...

"Come, Lou, what am I supposed to see?"

"If his mother was a daughter of an earl, so is-" She paused, staring at Caroline expectantly. "Well?"

Caroline shrugged, disagreeably. "Well," she said. "His aunt, I supp-"

Stopping in the middle of the sentence, she stared at her sister.

"She is known as a really awful harridan," Louisa said, smiling.

Caroline smiled back, a genuine smile of delight, for the first time tonight.

"Do you suppose our little Miss Eliza can stand her ground in front of the family matriarch?"

Louisa smiled indulgently. "Well, Caro," she said. "Do you not wish to find out?"

~ * ~

Walking out of the drawing-room, his step light, Darcy was moved to jump up like a boy and touch the top of the doorway, which he did. Landing back on his feet, he stumbled over the butler's incredulous stare and a cocked eyebrow.

"Carry on, man," he said gruffly, secretly very pleased with himself. After supper, after congratulations, after Anne and Georgiana stopped jumping around him for a long enough time to remember that it was late and time to retire, he remained in most excellent spirits. Taking a candle, he walked about the house, restless and so very happy. He was dying to see Elizabeth, but now that everyone knew they were engaged, they had to behave. He wondered whether he could spend the next several nights before his departure for London without holding her.

He was sore about that. After all, he thought, he would do her no harm; he would always stop when she wished, even if it served to tear the heart out of his chest. Propriety, he thought, damn propriety. The thought was so strange to him-he had never damned propriety before in his life-that he laughed, incredulously. Perhaps, he thought, a cold swim tonight. His thoughts then flew back, inevitably, to Elizabeth, to her lovely face and tempting forms (which he, of course, had not yet had the opportunity to explore fully, but of which he already had some idea). He sighed; what use was a cold swim if he was unable to stop thinking of her-dreaming of her, yearning for her?

He hoped she had not gone to bed just yet; he wanted to speak with her, to explain to her that it had not been his intention to announce their engagement tonight-not in a manner he had, at least. After all, he had promised her he would wait until she told her sister. But she was nowhere to be found, and he wandered, dejected, outside, to see if there was light in her window.

Up in her room, Elizabeth sat at her writing desk, wearing a shawl over her nightgown, writing a letter to her mother. Jane had goaded her into this earlier, staring at her weightily and asking if it was not the time yet to apprise the rest of the family. Elizabeth had dreaded the prospect, and rightly so: for she was now stuck trying to explain to her mother why Mr. Darcy was such an excellent match for her. To her father, she would have written of her feelings for the man, of his many fine qualities, of their mutual love and admiration. He would care about that, first. To her mother, to avoid giving Mrs. Bennett apoplexy, Elizabeth had to promise that her betrothed was every bit as grand, wealthy and important as everybody had said of him. She did mention her feelings, of course, but when she reread the letter, it still made her ashamed of herself. Pemberley, she thought, land, ten thousand pounds a year. None of these things mattered to her; she would have loved him, would have married him had he been penniless. Angry with herself, she tore the letter into little pieces, produced a new sheet of paper and wrote the letter emphasizing all the things that truly mattered to her. And Pemberley with its acres, however much she admired its beauty, was not one of them. So, at the end of the new letter, she added, succinctly, that Mr. Darcy was in every way well-off and able to provide for her as his wife.

Rereading the letter, she reflected that this one did a far better job of representing her true feelings about her upcoming marriage. She signed it "Your obedient daughter, Elizabeth Bennett," threw some sand on the ink and sealed it. Sighing with satisfaction, she leaned back in her chair and heard a light knock, no more than scraping, at the door.

Wrapping her shawl tighter about her shoulders, Elizabeth went to open. She told herself it was Jane, but in her heart, she hoped, shamelessly, that it was not. She could not believe herself, but something inside of her hoped that it was, well, that it was him. All the greater was her surprise when she saw that it was neither. Indeed, dressed in a similar garb of a night-shift and shawl, barefoot and holding a candle, there stood Anne de Bourgh.

"Oh!" Elizabeth said and it took her a second to adopt a properly welcoming expression.

"I see you were expecting someone else. I do apologize for disappointing you," Anne said, grinning. "But would you still let me in, Miss Bennett?"

"Oh, I am sorry," Elizabeth said, stepping aside, letting Anne in. "Goodness gracious, where are my manners?"

"Do not apologize," said Anne as Elizabeth closed the door in her wake. "I shall not detain you for long."

"Please." Elizabeth pointed to a little ottoman in front of the fireplace which was, now, unlit. Anne set the candle on a low table and climbed on, gratefully, pulling up her frigid little feet and hugging her knees. Elizabeth, on her part, sat on the other side of the settee, waiting for her visitor to speak.

"Miss Bennett, I have come to ask you to stand up in church for me, in two days' time."

"In church?" Elizabeth asked, perplexed. Anne beamed.

"I am to marry the Colonel, Miss Bennett," she said. "It is all arranged. The day after tomorrow. Darcy is to stand up for the Colonel, and I want you to be my bridesmaid."

Elizabeth sat back, deeply shocked. She had noticed a degree of easy affection between Anne and the dashing Colonel, but had thought it to be due to their familial ties. Still, she was not insensible of the happiness in her visitor's gaze; she concluded that the match must be highly agreeable to both.

"My felicitations to you, Miss de Bourgh," she said.

"Anne, please. After all, we are to be cousins now- why, almost sisters."

It was true; Elizabeth had not thought of that. She smiled.

"I am glad," she said, sincerely. "I am so very glad of it, Anne. And I shall be honored to be your bridesmaid."

"Well, good!" Anne said, laughing, and pressed Elizabeth's hand. "Elizabeth, I have liked you from the start!"

She hopped off the settee, lightly, grabbed the candle and hurried to the door. "I shall be off now," she said, grinning. "Oh!" she said, suddenly remembering something. "I believe I still have something-something that belongs to you."

Elizabeth knew immediately what that "something" was. For a second, she felt lost, staring down, studying her bare toes against the wine-colored rug. Anne, seeing her hesitate, said, kindly:

"You will tell me if you wish to have it back, will you not?"

"Thank you," Elizabeth said eagerly, gratefully, for she was not certain she did want it back. Indeed, she was not certain it had ever belonged to her. "I shall."

After Anne departed, scurrying clandestinely along the corridor, Elizabeth went back to the window, climbed onto the window-seat and so remained, staring into the night. She mused about the damnable box, and whether she wanted it back. She thought of the feelings it had aroused in her back when she had first received it. Such a gift, she thought. She thought about what had prompted Darcy to insist upon its acceptance; she wondered whether he would be pleased to see her in that blue dress-or whether it would remind him, painfully, of the ill he had dealt her.

So engrossed was she in her thoughts, that it startled her considerably when a tiny stone clunked against the pane. Squinting, she looked down into the moonlit gardens and, to her amazement, saw Darcy standing a little way off, waving at her. Upon seeing that he had her attention, he came closer. Hanging out of the window, Elizabeth hissed:

"What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you," was his answer.

"You are mad!" she whispered, but could not help laughing. "The whole house will see!"

He came closer, and it seemed to her that he was looking up, studying the tree that grew close to her window. Then, before she could say a word, Darcy grabbed a low-hanging, thick branch and swung himself up onto it. Elizabeth gasped, holding one hand to her mouth: it thrilled her to have engendered such madness in him. Still, she had not imagined that the very dignified Mr. Darcy was so good at climbing trees: a few more swings, and he was right across from her, crouched on thick branch. Seeing her stricken expression, he laughed and winked at her.

"You are outrageous," she scolded him. "What if someone sees you so, perched in the tree?"

"They will think they have dreamt it all," he said, laughing. Indeed, the picture was nothing short of incredible-and nothing short of spell-binding. Wondering at what she was doing, Elizabeth opened the second part of the window, allowing him more purchase. She then stepped back, as he gingerly negotiated the treacherous branch, all the while, holding on to the one above, before carefully stepping right into her window. Indeed, she reflected, it was fortunate that this tree grew so close to her window, and the branch was so thick-otherwise, he might fall and break his neck, and then where would they be?

He balanced, for a second, on his heels, until she took hold of his shirt (for he was, she noticed, in his shirtsleeves) and pulled him forcefully inside. Tripping, both of them fell onto the soft rug, he on top of her; for the first time, Elizabeth was able to appreciate the entire weight of his body. Why, she thought, giggling to herself, he was certainly an impressive man.

Bracing himself up on his elbows, Darcy looked into Elizabeth's face and inquired whether he had hurt her when landing, so incongruously, on top of her (all the while making no move to get off). That she smiled and made no attempt to shove him off her enlightened him to the extent that indeed, he had not.

"Do you do that often, sir?" she asked, unable to stop herself from a daft spell of giggles.

"Do you know," he said slowly, tracing the outlines of her face with one finger, "do you know, Lizzy, that I have not done this-this particular maneuver-since I was about eighteen years of age? A good ten years, to be sure."

She giggled again. "Am I to be flattered, then?"

He grinned. "You are to be suitably impressed, madam."

"I am. I am even more impressed by how you managed to find my window."

He smiled at that: he had known the precise location of it-first, because he knew Pemberley so well; and second, because tonight was hardly the first time he had gone outside to look at her window, longingly, from the darkness of the gardens, moving, whispering, alive all around him.

"I have-I have long found it, Lizzy," he whispered, pressing his cheek against hers. She heard a slight tremor in his voice and knew his meaning, instantly. Grasping his curls lightly, she tugged him towards her and kissed him, hurriedly, on the lips.

The kiss blossomed like a blood-red rose, touched, ever-so-slightly, by the nighttime dew, and left them both light-headed and gasping for air. She pushed against him with both hands, demanding that he let up; still, when he did, she did not release him, settling back onto the rug, holding him in her arms. He sank against her obediently, wrapping his arms about her in his turn, burying his face against her neck. Elizabeth remained content to press her lips, from time to time, against his cheek. It was simply wonderful, the way he felt against her, the way he smelled of pine and soap and man. Instinctively, she parted her legs under her nightgown, allowing him a more comfortable station between them.

Raising his head, pushing himself up on one elbow, he took her chin in his other hand and looked, searchingly, in her eyes.

"I have come to apologize, Elizabeth," he said seriously. She eyed him in surprise. As far she was concerned, he had been well-nigh perfect. "I had promised you to wait until you told your sister-but I simply could not sit idly by and watch that woman fling thinly-veiled insults at you."

Elizabeth smiled. "Pray do not make yourself uneasy, my love," she bid. "I had told Jane, when we had gone back to the gardens."

"Oh, good," he said, sighing with visible relief. "I should not have your sister learn of it in such a manner."

Elizabeth, remembering Jane's reaction, had to agree with him. It would not do to surprise her like so-particularly because for her, it would not be a happy surprise. She chased the thoughts of Jane away. Her sister adored her, she knew; she had already accepted her engagement as the choice of her heart. In time, she would learn to believe in it as well.

"Was Georgiana not discomfited that we had not told her before?"

" 'Tis different between us. I am a man, and almost twelve years her senior-she does not expect me to confide in her. Perhaps," he added, grinning, "only you."

For some time, they were quiet. Slowly, gently, he lowered himself back on top of her. With a deep sigh of contentment, Elizabeth wrapped her arms about his neck and pulled his head down. Between soft, feathery kisses, he managed to ask her whether he was stifling her with his weight; to that, she said nothing, but tightened her arms about his neck, her hands playing, wantonly, with his curls.

Darcy knew, perfectly well, that by climbing up to her window, he had already made a substantial step towards their ultimate fall. Now, the longer they stayed in such a compromising position, the more difficult it would be to stop, to extricate themselves, the more precarious their situation. Still, he could not bear to tear himself away; she was honey on his tongue, silk under his fingers, and fire in his loins. A veritable conflagration, indeed. He trembled like the last leaf on an autumn branch, moaned deep in his throat and pressed himself harder against her.

To give them both a greater freedom of movement, he heaved himself up to a sitting position, pulling her along. Holding her chin in one hand, he kissed her, for a long time, until they were both breathless. A sigh fluttered between the two of them, and he could not tell, for the life of him, which one of them it had come from.

"Lizzy," he whispered, kneeling next to her, taking her hands in his, laying them, gently, against his thumping heart. "Tell me you love me, Lizzy."

"Oh!" she cried, eyes opening wide at his request. "With all my heart! I love you with all my heart!"

He wished to hear her speak of love; it touched her, deeply, making her reflect on the nature of their passions. Such was the degree of her feeling for him that to imagine that he was insecure was as insufferable as it was startling. That he, of all people, could be anxious and doubting; why, it moved her most profoundly. Kneeling up, she placed both hand on his shoulders and said, quickly, fiercely:

"Never doubt me. Do you hear me? Never, never doubt my love."

She kissed him, then, with such passion and abandon, that they were immediately, and unfortunately, toppled back upon the rug, though this time, she was on top of him, their legs tangled, his arms holding her against him securely. Looking up in her face, her great, dark eyes shining at him like stars, he ask her to undo her plait, which she did. His hands were lost, momentarily, in her hair, spreading her dark curls over them, a dark lustrous screen to shield them both from the world.

"How beautiful you are," he whispered. "You have been in my dreams-like so-forever." There was a change in his manner, from mild to almost frantic, and she trembled, in passion and sweet anticipation. For she knew herself, all of a sudden, about to be consumed-by him, and by the fires that raged within her, demanding egress. He fanned them with his lips and hands-clever hands, she thought, clever, gifted hands, knowing just where to touch her.

At the moment, they slipped, large and gentle and searing-hot against her skin, down from her shoulders, resting in the small of her back. Then, cupping her behind, he pulled her harder against him, and she gasped and moaned, in fear and excitement, all the while kissing him like mad. He pressed her against him, and once again, she felt it resting against her, a bulk of steel. An excited little shudder ran through her as she wondered at the feasibility of the whole wedding night enterprise. By her estimation, whatever he had ... there, was not anything that would fit, easily, inside of her.

He pushed her again, thrusting his hips at the same time, making her writhe and gasp. The shameful truth was, she quite liked the feeling of it pressed against her; for it seemed to answer some hidden desire of her own. She decided it would be best, for now, to simply trust him. She loved him too much not to and knew, with certainty, that he would never deliberately cause her pain. It could be inevitable, she supposed, but then, no amount of physical anguish could serve to keep her away from him. She would suffer for him, if she must. Still, she was relieved, somewhat, when he released her backside and moved his hand to caress her hip through her nightgown.

"Ah, Lizzy," he sighed. "My Lizzy." He whispered praise to her, erotic praise, things that made her blush and hide her face in the semi-darkness of the room. How she made him feel, like a green boy of fifteen; how he could not believe he could possibly desire her any more than he already did-and how he did desire her more, yearned for her, smoldered and glowed, his every waking moment and his every dream.

He longed to touch her like he had last night and this morning; still, he hardly dared. They were no longer in a wet, uncomfortable gazebo, or amidst a bustling day-indeed, the situation was perfect for a compleat seduction. Elizabeth's own bedroom, secure enough against any intrusion, her bed two steps away-he could not bear to think of it all...and he could not bear risk it. He was an honorable man...she believed him to be honorable, despite his many shortcomings; thus, she depended on him to remain so. In addition, he found it that overexciting himself served his purposes rather poorly at the moment.

He could wait until his wedding night, he told himself, reasonably, and laughed at himself even as he said those words in his mind. Upon reflection, he knew that the situation presented an almost ideal setting for further intimacies. Her breasts were pushing against him through her (rather thin) nightshift, her long legs were entwined with his own. When he laid his hands on her, she bent and purred like a cat, arching her back, pressing herself against his aching loins.

Elizabeth reared up on her elbows, staring in his beloved face, caressing the slanted cheekbones, the day-old stubble on his cheeks, burying her fingers in his curls. She ached for him to touch her, but dared not to ask for it, despite their earlier intimacies today. There were limits, after all, to her shamelessness; but the sharpest sensation at the moment was his hand, caressing, softly, her hip through her nightgown.

Something about that movement told her that he was hesitant to essay any more persistent caresses. But the fact that his other hand remained, lightly, on her posterior, caressing it in a most leisurely and intimate manner, alerted her to the fact that it was not his dislike of her or distaste of the situation that made him somewhat more reticent tonight. Therefore, she leaned low and kissed him, gently, tentatively, trying her innocent best to tease him out of his detachment.

Darcy had not expected her to be forward as he turned more reserved; and it drove him wild when she slipped her tongue in his mouth. He supposed it was the novelty of it; but every time she tried something new, something bolder, he felt ready to die. At the moment, her one caress was enough for him to lose all semblance of control. Grasping her hips, he rolled them both so that he was on top of her once more. Her legs splayed, then closed, on both sides of him, her night-shift riding up her thighs. He had to close his eyes at the vertigo he felt, at the look in her eyes that tore at his heart. When he opened them again, she was still looking up at him, smiling, a sweet, warm, welcoming smile, so absolutely devoid of guile or coquetry.

Powerless to resist the pull she had on him, he bent his head, pushed the neckline of her night-shift down and kissed her neck greedily. Displeased with the meager access it gave him, he grunted, his vocabulary sadly diminished, and, having no patience for tiny buttons, tore the gown from neck to navel. Elizabeth's shriek and her unsteady laughter disappeared into another kiss. He pushed the defaced garment off her shoulders and fell upon her, like a wanderer in the desert falls upon a stream of great clarity and sweetness.

He had not thought where this would lead; all he knew was that with her eager invitation, he could no longer withstand the torture of denying himself. Elizabeth went along willingly, and, as he slid down to kiss and suckle her rather incomparable breasts, she moaned, in a way of a person who had been deprived for some time. She covered her eyes with one arm, ostensibly in embarrassment, but her back arched and she rippled and heaved under him, moaning deep in her throat.

Another sound echoed that one-that of a knock at the door. Both of them froze, eyeing each other in deep shock-who could it be, coming to see her so late at night? Elizabeth, eyes round and stunned, mouthed "Jane" at him, but it was he who was truly dismayed at the sound of a voice behind the door.

"El-elizabeth?"

Darcy was utterly mortified. He hoped, sincerely, that Elizabeth had locked the door, for they had no time, whatsoever, to extricate themselves from such a mess. He threw a glance down at Elizabeth and understood that even if he were to hide behind the bed curtains-the prospect he found rather distasteful-she would still be in no state to open the door and face his sister. Her gown, for one, was torn verily in half, showing her breasts-lovely breasts, he noted, though he doubted Georgiana would be able to appreciate-her hair was wild about her head, her eyes were even wilder. She looked... taken, he thought. He could only surmise that his own appearance was not any more presentable.

"Elizab-beth?" Georgiana persisted. Darcy clenched his teeth and held a finger against his lips. Elizabeth, pretending not to be there, remained very quiet under him, but her uneven breathing betrayed absolute upheaval.

"A-a-are you a-a-asleep a-a-already? I w-w-wanted t-to t-talk-I th-thought I h-h-heard something-"

Elizabeth clamped one hand over her mouth and glared at Darcy. He shrugged, somewhat too nonchalant for the situation; he could do nothing if his mastery in the bedroom induced his fair partner to drown her shrieks in his shoulder.

His sister sighed behind the door. Poor thing, Darcy thought, but all the same, she would do well to accustom herself to the fact that Elizabeth was not available after a certain hour. After all, he intended to occupy her fully during the night, with no time left for late-night chats.

"W-w-well, you s-seem to b-be a-a-a-asleep," Georgiana said, sighing again. "I suppose I shall s-see you t-tomorrow, th-then?" Then, after a pause, she added. "I shall b-be g-going th-then."

There was another sigh and a shuffle of feet leaving down the hallway. Darcy crashed on top of Elizabeth, feeling absolutely drained and not a little shaken. Georgiana was the last person in this world whom he wished to walk in upon them, particularly not after their discussion of two days ago. She probably already thought him a cad-well, he told himself, of course she did not, of course she found some way to explain away the story he had told her, and that was the worst thing. He sat up, pulling Elizabeth after him. She looked pale, dazed, her hands clutching the torn night-shift on her chest.

"Lizzy-" he said softly, tentatively, trying to comfort her, but it took him a second to realize that it was from watching his expression that her upheaval stemmed.

"Good heavens," she whispered. "Your sister, sir!"

Beginning to find some perverse humor in the situation, Darcy bent his head and smiled reluctantly.

"It would have been rather, well-" he fumbled for a good word to describe the horror of it-" painful to be so discovered by her," he finally said, not quite doing it justice.

Elizabeth sat up straighter, demurely, and announced:

"This is all my fault, Mr. Darcy."

"Elizabeth-" He frowned at the strange formality of her appellation. "I cannot even begin to guess where you've found fault with yourself-" though he knew, of course, precisely where that was, "so you better tell me straight away."

With a loud rush of breath, she said, sounding very much a martyr. "In two days, I seem to have lost all my principles. As well as any ability I ever possessed to think straight-whenever you are near, I seem to-" she sighed again, "I seem to only want to-" she paused.

"To what?" he asked, very quietly.

To feel your hands on me, she thought, but dared not say it aloud. Instead, she waved her hand about, in a rather frustrated manner, to indicate that it was impossible to explain. Darcy, however, knew only too well what such desire did to one's mind and body-for he had been the victim of it for weeks and months prior.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, his voice caressing the sounds of her name. "Lizzy, my love." He thought to argue with her, to assure her of her infallibility-but could not bear to be insincere with her. She was fallible, just as he was, and in that, lay their greatest happiness. So, he dared. "Perhaps, it is only fair that you should lose your wits for me," he suggested quietly, and then explained, to her shocked countenance: "Lizzy, perhaps now you understand how I feel about you. What your mere presence does to me."

He was kneeling next to her now, looking earnest and almost pained. This articulation of his desire echoed her own feelings with such precision and intensity that Elizabeth seriously considered, for the first time, what it cost him to restrain himself. She did not know, not really, of course, she could not even imagine. She thought of the way his body stretched against hers, taut like a ringing epee; she wondered at the effort it took him to remain gentle with her. But of course, she did not really have to wonder-for, there had been a moment, only just before Georgiana's intrusion upon them, when he was not gentle; when he did not restrain himself. Indeed, as she thought of it now, she knew, with certainty, that he would have taken her, right there on the rug, were it not for Georgiana's interruption Upon further reflection, she found, aghast, that she would have given in, without so much as a sound, would have given herself unto him, would have gone with him till the end. At his complete loss of restraint, at the sound of her gown ripping at his hands, she had felt nothing but deep tenderness and complete exhilaration.

He would have stopped had she told him to. Still, Elizabeth realized that she would not have told him to, and, however appalled it left her, she would not lie to herself. It was useless, pernicious to deny the very simple truth: she was as drunk on him-his strength, his magnificent body, his love and desire for her-as he seemed to be on her.

She sat there, somewhat despondent over her absolute wantonness and her inability to help him. Darcy, of course, misread her doubts, her dejected countenance, and found himself to be the offender. Gently drawing her back into his embrace, he cradled her against his chest, murmuring abject apologies.

"I ought to know," he whispered, gently kissing the top of her head. "You are an innocent, Lizzy, a passionate one, but an innocent nonetheless..."

Elizabeth said nothing in return, too caught up in her thoughts and feelings, but covered his hand with hers. Thus, her acceptance of their mutual madness became evident, and he kissed her gently for that.

"I love you so much," he whispered to her. It occurred to him, then, that the essence of their relationship lay in a hackneyed phrase, said so often, but meant-hardly ever. Yet, for him, it was the absolute truth, and so he said it. "You have made me the happiest of men, Lizzy."

She yawned and shivered, and he was conscious, all of a sudden, of the late hour and her obvious fatigue. He gathered her in his arms and carried her towards the bed. Her nightshift hung in tatters, and she held it, demurely, with one hand, keeping her other arm securely about his neck.

"Have you another shift?" he asked her, guiltily. She pointed towards a tall dresser. Laughing, he carried her to it, and held her while she rifled through the contents of one drawer. Finally, an intact nightshift extricated from its depths, he carried her back to the bed and set her on top of the covers. Then, with deep reluctance, he kissed her good-bye and started towards the window.

"Darcy!" she hissed, stopping him in his tracks. "The door! I shall not have you break your neck!"

He laughed again. "Indeed, Lizzy, I am the most fortunate of men, for you still have a care for my life!"

His laughter died as he ducked, unsuccessfully, a pillow flung expertly from the bed.

"Very well," he said meekly, picking it up and depositing it on a chair. "The door it is, then."

He closed the door softly behind him, and Elizabeth sank against the pillows in a heap. All of a sudden, complete exhaustion-mental, emotional, physical-took hold of her. She could no longer think, analyze, worry; her brain refused to entertain another conjecture, to humor one more possibility... She thought, tiredly, about changing her mutilated nightshift, but could hardly move a finger. Her last thought, before she tumbled into the warmth and the darkness, was that tomorrow, she ought to speak with- but the object of her address already escaped her, and she was then dreamlessly, momentarily, asleep.

Chapter 24

Elizabeth found that it was best not to dwell on the past.

Whatever it was she had once felt for Darcy-and she was ashamed of her feelings then, of how little of him she had seen, only vanity and pride and the infuriating manner of staring (which, she was now discovering, was not born out of his disapproval of her, but rather the opposite). Still, she loved him now. It ought to make up for everything, for every bad feeling they had ever inspired in each other. For the ball, for his inept attempt at seduction, for her flight from Pemberley. She loved him now, and he loved her.

She awoke early and lay ruminating on what had transpired the night before. Her nightshift, torn and almost completely off her during the night, served a testament to her almost-compleat loss, her ultimate wildness. She sighed, and almost forced herself to rise. She did not wish a maid to see her night-dress in such a sad state, or Jane, or G-d forbid, Georgiana. To that end, she stuffed the said defaced article at the very bottom of her clothes trunk: she did not wish it to become a subject for a discussion below the stairs. If she were to become the mistress of this estate one day...soon, she must behave with some dignity. Though, she suspected, with Darcy for her husband, it might prove rather difficult.

The Mistress, she thought. The Mistress of Pemberley. She repeated the words in her mind as she sat down in front of her vanity and slowly drew the brush down her hair (that was an untidy mess in its own right, her plait undone the night before). It was not wonderful, nor overwhelming to say that. It simply did not register. Indeed, she had so focused on Darcy as the subject of her personal happiness, she had not thought of him being one of the grandest, wealthiest, most important gentlemen in the entire county. Perhaps, she thought dispassionately, in all of England.

She said the words again, to herself:

"The Mistress of Pemberley."

Nothing, she thought. They had no effect on her. And yet, at the very thought of him-of his kisses, his burning gaze, of the way he had touched her the night before-her insides turned to mush. I am hopeless, she thought, very pleased with herself. The words Elizabeth Bennett Darcy had no effect upon her, except to remind her that together with the (indubitably illustrious) name, came the man she would love for the rest of her life.

And that was luxury enough.

She waited to ring for a bath, though she certainly desired one. The solitude was precious, would be precious, now, after the announcement has been made. Everyone who did not know yet, would know within the matter of days. She thought of Georgiana's birthday, in two days, for which modest company was expected. She thought back to the ball (blocking, deliberately, all that happened after), and remembered that Darcy had called the glittering affair "a mere family tradition." She wondered how many guests was "modest company." She bristled at the idea of being the object of everyone's scrutiny, and, she suspected (and if Caroline Bingley was any indication), no little envy.

'Tis not I, she reminded herself. Any woman marrying the illustrious Mr. Darcy would turn heads by definition. Pulling a robe about herself against the morning chill, Elizabeth re-did her plait and walked over to the window-seat. There, she sat down, tucking in her bare feet, and thought, and thought on the occurrences of the night before.

She had always before held to a system of rules. Rather uncomplicated one, she thought. As concerned maidenly behavior, there were, perhaps, more rules than in most other areas (after all, though she was not her sister Mary, Elizabeth as mindful of modesty and propriety, archly unwilling to be considered ridiculous). After all, this was one area that concerned her intimately; and, before her, she had always had a shining example of Jane, who never raised her voice, was always courteous, modest and invariably pleasant, and in general, behaved herself with the greatest decorum. Elizabeth felt, somewhat wryly, that it had fallen to her sister to be so perfect because, well, she was. But she, she did not have Jane's easy, placid temperament-and so, she had placed a number of restraints on her own behavior, watching her own laughter, tone of voice and manner, particularly towards, in the insufferably didactic Mary's parlance, "those of the undeserving sex."

It had not worked one bit. Many a time, having reflected upon her behavior in a particular situation, Elizabeth had found herself severely wanting. She had told herself, every time, that she was no Jane, and that she could not squeeze herself in her shoes, however much she tried. As a girl, she had taken it as a given that her hoydenish nature would always serve to repulse, rather than attract potential suitors. Still, she had not been able to learn speaking to people without looking them directly in the eye. After her father's death, her prospects of marrying well had become non-existent; therefore, she would not fret over whether her unladylike tendencies (if, indeed, a somewhat ardent way of arguing and a habit of looking your listener in the eye amounted to that) served to further reduce to rubble her chances of making an eligible match.

And lately, following Jane's disastrous marriage, Elizabeth had grown somewhat cynical and not a little bitter: Jane was good, in every sense of that word-and it had helped her none. Perhaps, Elizabeth reflected at the moment, had she not been quite so wonderfully ladylike, Mr. Collins might choose another one of her sisters (that his choice might have fallen upon herself she never imagined: she was far too much of a hoyden, maidenly comportment and all, to make a good wife to a clergyman in service to the very grand Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Mary, perhaps, who would be very good for him... What was the use of perfect maidenly deportment if all it did was to attract men like Mr. Collins?

Still, it seemed that her own slightly hoydenish behavior had attracted the incomparable Mr. Darcy. He found it perfectly acceptable and now seemed to do everything in his power to encourage such infamous conduct in her. To think only, climbing up to her window! She could not imagine anyone climbing up to gentle Jane's window-such wickedness would certainly distress the lady, rather than please. Yet, Elizabeth could hardly contain a guilty smile. Shameless, she thought.

Whatever her shortcomings before becoming affianced to him, Elizabeth had found herself sliding into absolute wantonness in the past several days. Thoughts... musings that had not visited before now came in droves, casting her into a perpetual state of mortification. Her dreams, too, had become different, leaving her to wake, swamped in heat with her heart racing. Indeed, she would gladly not dream of his lips sliding, warm, down her neck, suckling the small hollow at its base, then dropping, greedily, to her breasts. It was really quite terrible.

Still, it seemed that her present displeasure with herself stemmed not so much from what she had done-or had allowed him to do to her-but rather, from her inability to come to terms with it. She loved Darcy; she did not see his desire as sinful, or wrong, or dirty. Rather, his undoing at her hands and lips (and, she suspected, not all avenues had been negotiated yet, and she had hardly tapped the well of his pleasure) served to be the greatest source of joy and tenderness. The more he lost of his defenses, his composure, his superior haughtiness, the more vulnerable he became in her embrace, the sweeter he was to her.

The situation, however much it mortified her, did grant her a degree of understanding of his dark stares, sighs, shudders and the general physical disquiet she seemed to instill in him. She thought about it, again and again. She wanted, of course, to come to her wedding bed a virgin. But if it were possible, she thought, to give him the same pleasure he had given her...if he could, somehow, even approach the divine delight she had felt yesterday...if she were able to please him thus... she would think herself fortunate, indeed. Darcy knew her far too well to miss it: he had told her, yesterday morning, that she would derive greater delight from giving pleasure than from receiving it. Watching his eyes darken with passion at the sight of her was the greatest attraction of their rendezvous; what if she could-Elizabeth gasped at the thought, gasped, and colored, but could not stop thinking about it. She had certainly liked taking pleasure from him-but she burned to give it, as well.

Elizabeth sighed. All this love business was most perplexing; she could hardly make head or tail of it. Perhaps, if she resolved not to think of it... but how was it possible? She remembered him falling upon her, last night, ravenously, tearing her nightdress apart, planting his hands, his mouth on her breasts. It had felt so...right then. She colored at the thought of how much she had yearned to feel him do so; at how his actions, so very forward, had answered the most hidden of her desires.

She rose off the window-seat and walked over to her vanity. What does he see in me? she wondered, staring at herself in the mirror. She knew herself to be tolerably attractive; with an addition of a well-fitting dress or a coronet of flowers, she might even be considered pretty. Still, nothing at all to the beautiful Jane. Yet, he had said words to her, words that she had never before applied to herself-lovely, he called her, beautiful, and even loveliest. As if he had known all the women in the world, and they had all come up short to her. To her. She could not believe it, but such overt adoration did not embarrass her. It pleased her, rather. To no end.

Standing in front of the vanity, she sighed deeply, closed her eyes, then opened them again. Slowly, she undid her robe and stood, looking at herself. Dropping the robe off her shoulders, she turned slowly about, casting an askance look at her profile. She stood, looking at her breasts, nipples wine-dark, and thinking only of the look in Darcy's eyes when he first saw her half-nude.

Coloring suddenly at her own shamelessness, she quickly picked the robe off the floor and wrapped it around herself. What has happened to make her so brazen? Shaking her head in half-hearted distaste, she returned to her seat.

She knew of no couple of her acquaintance who doted, openly, on each other. She knew that Darcy could be cold and distant with her in public; she could only guess at the level of intimacy he would demand from her in the bedroom. She was glad at that, of course; she could not imagine a marriage without regard, but even less could she imagine a love without passion. Her simple (though much amplified in the last several days) understanding of it was that one ought to love one's mate with all powers of one's heart and body. (Of course, when one's mate was not yet one's husband, loving him with all the powers of one's body might be somewhat improper... But she eschewed the thoughts of that.) She found it be a considerable blessing to be able to please him and dreamed, now, to bestow upon him the same exquisite pleasure he had given her.

She wondered whether she could possibly find something in the library to add to her knowledge of the subject. It had been her habit during her younger years to seek in books the answers the adults had refused to provide for her; perhaps, she mused, she ought to do the same here. For surely, she could not ask Darcy about it; indeed, how was such a question to be raised? She could hardly demand he show her the particular maneuver to alleviate his suffering (if, indeed, he did suffer, as she believed he did). Perhaps, such a thing might not even be possible. The road to his fulfillment may well lie through one... portal...only, and would thus require her deflowerment. However much the reasonable woman in her doubted that (for surely he could not have been so slighted from birth in his ... configuration), even imagining raising the issue with Darcy left her deeply mortified. If he did not tell her himself, she would not ask.

Sighing, both from distress and wholly unwelcome arousal, Elizabeth slid off the window-seat and shuffled back to the bed. Yanking the bell-pull to summon her bath, she resolved to give the library a most thorough going-over later in the day.

~ * ~

Which was, of course, easier said than done. For, in the nearly four months she had spent at Pemberley and however voracious a reader, she had barely begun to tap the riches that was the Pemberley library. She knew, approximately, the location of Shakespeare, the English poets and the Greek drama. She could find Voltaire and Rousseau, Diderot and Locke; but somehow, the location of erotic treatises (indeed, she would settle for a medical one, one that would explain to her the workings of her lover's body) escaped her. She thought it highly possible that Darcy possessed a number of ars amandi works; both passionate and highly intelligent, he must view that as another subject, in which to excel. And, although one could always practise, and practise, and practise...theory was no less valuable for that.

Still, the mysterious aides eluded her. Elizabeth explored, assiduously, the lower shelves and cursed her relatively short height for the need to climb the tall library ladder to inspect the middle and higher ones. Perched on the top step, she went through volumes of Homer and Plato, Milton and Cervantes, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Molière and Racine. It happened sometimes that the title was not printed, or was old enough to have been erased from the backbone of the tome; then, Elizabeth was forced to pull the book out, risking her balance and her nails. Invariably, it was a treatise on astronomy, or a volume of Schiller's poetry in the original. Invariably, Elizabeth stuffed it back, crossly.

Finally, her instincts led her to explore the farthest corners of the library, the highest up under the ceiling. Tottering precariously on the ladder, she found a relatively thin book, tucked suggestively between a thick volume on animal husbandry and a thicker one on planting and pollination. One look at the cover led her to flip through the pages. She thought she might fall off the ladder when she saw the (rather numerous) illustrations. Satisfied in her mission, Elizabeth commenced her descent, when an appreciative chuckle commandeered her attention, well-nigh making her slip and fall.

Looking down in astonishment, she saw Darcy standing there, arms folded on his chest, one eyebrow raised quizzically.

"My, my," was all he said. Elizabeth froze on the step, holding the nearly-criminal book to her chest with one hand, grasping the ladder with the other.

"What are you doing here?" she asked him, her voice faltering. He gave what could only be described as a snort.

"What am I doing here? Why, madam, I come to find a book."

"A book?" she murmured, softly, clutching her own all the tighter to her chest.

"For certes, madam, a book. After all, what else can one desire from a library?"

He sounded almost scholarly; yet, he was eyeing the slim volume at her chest entirely too covetously.

"Which-which book-" she started, and then, disbelieving herself, pointed to the one she was holding.

"Yes," he replied huskily. "Yes, Lizzy, the very one."

Elizabeth leaned back against the step, feeling suddenly-and dangerously-weak-kneed.

"Well," she said, slowly. "Can you really tell it is this very book, sir?"

He acquiesced to that with such vigor, there seemed to be no doubt. "But it seems that I have been beat to it," he added.

She stared down at him, for a long moment, before asking.

"Are you truly here for this book, or are you merely teasing me?"

"I should not, Elizabeth," he replied seriously.

"But why? I mean to say, why do you need this book?"

Cocking one eyebrow, he said, with a very important air:

"Wouldn't you like to know, madam."

She stuck her nose up in the air. "Not at all," she said. After a pause, she commenced climbing down the ladder, giving the appreciative Darcy below a fine glimpse of her pretty long legs in silk white stockings. Appreciative indeed; the sight almost made his eyes cross with wanting. He even fancied he could see up, above the tops of her stockings, into the darkness, the sweetness, the warmth. He opened his arms to her and helped her down from the ladder.

"Lizzy," he said, seriously. "I should rather you did not climb ladders. If you need something, tell a footman."

"I am perfectly good at climbing ladders," she said, then sighed. "But I must look a fright." She was out of breath, likely red in the face, with hair sticking out in all directions. Unconsciously, she tried to fashion the disobedient strands back into her hairdo, but Darcy stilled her hand.

"You look beautiful," he said. There was a long moment of silence and heated stares, when, but for the door he, through his folly, had left ajar, he would have taken her in his arms and kissed her thoroughly. Finally, she broke the taut silence by gently thrusting the book she held at him.

"You were looking for this," she said. "Please take it."

He glanced at the book without taking it; then, he took her hand and turned it over, so that both of them were staring at the cover. Thereupon, they studied, silently and in particulars, a rather colorful illustration of a decidedly Indian couple copulating under what looked like a fig palm. The faces were stylized, but the bodies were drawn realistically enough... with all the necessary details.

"Ah." Elizabeth said faintly.

"Precisely," Darcy replied.

"Take it."

He grinned and shook his head, then locked his hands behind his back in a gesture of defiance. "I don't think so, Lizzy. You were the first to come upon it today, and I should by no means suspend any pleasure of yours."

"I have come upon it by accident," she lied. "I should have put it back, but for your interruption."

Darcy smiled. "My love, suppose you tell me why you were looking for this?"

"I tell you, I was not looking for it! How could I be looking for it, when I did not even know you had it?"

"I am curious as to the same, Lizzy, but I grant you have the most remarkable powers of intelligence. I presume you thought me wicked enough to possess something like this. Why, otherwise, would you be looking in the livestock section of the library?"

Elizabeth wanted to tell him she was there for Georgiana's benefit, to find something of help to her new obsession with flora and fauna of Derbyshire-but she knew it would only be another useless lie...

"Very well," she said, softly. "I confess I was looking for it. For something like it, at least."

Darcy's eyes widened.

"Truly?" he asked, hopefully.

"Truly," Elizabeth replied.

"Why?" He fancied he knew the answer, but could hardly allow himself to hope.

"Wouldn't you like to know," Elizabeth said haughtily, repeating his earlier quip. She pulled the book out of his grasp, turned around on one heel and swept past him. Thereupon, moved by almost childish levity, she did what she had not done since she was, well, five.

She stuck her tongue out at him.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was faced with a rather thrilling quandary. Disbelieving of her own audacity and wondering what had possessed her, she realized that she had all but made him a promise. A promise of ... what? She was not quite certain, but the very thought of left her quaking in her shoes. She hoped, fervently, that the book she had found would provide her with the answers she sought; otherwise, she would find herself in some trouble.

Throughout her lessons with Georgiana, she remained dazed, barely listening to her pupil, as she reported to her on the pedagogical ideas in the treatises of John Locke. Somewhere in the middle of the lesson, Georgiana fell silent and stared accusingly at her teacher.

"Yes, very good, Georgie, do go on," Elizabeth murmured, the expression on her charge's face not quite registering. Georgiana said nothing, but kept looking at her in a strangest way.

"Georgie?"

"H-have you h-heard a w-w-word of w-w-what I've just s-said?" she inquired. Elizabeth felt herself color, for indeed, John Locke was hardly a subject interesting enough to take her thoughts off Darcy and the book she had left up in her bedchamber. Naturally, she had stopped listening a while ago.

Georgiana stood up, arms akimbo, and turned to the young maid who was, with their permission, busy dusting the furniture.

"L-lucy," she said, "p-please t-tell M-miss B-bennett w-w-w-what m-my l-last w-w-w-words were."

The maid, a bubbly young girl, turned about and happily informed Elizabeth that the last words Miss Darcy had spoken-immediately after "the development of their young minds"-were "the Moon is made of Blue Cheese." Elizabeth felt herself flush with embarrassment.

"Thank you, Lucy," she said, crossly. "You may leave us now."

The maid, curtsying, made her way out of the room. Thereupon Elizabeth attempted to blame her scatterbrained state upon a vicious headache; but Georgiana regarded her skeptically.

"You d-do n-not h-have a headache," she said.

Elizabeth pretended to be angry, quite contrite, in fact, to be caught so easily and quickly.

"Why, of course I do."

Georgiana wagged her head. "I th-think you w-w-were d-day-d-dreaming." And then, eyes gleaming conspiratorially, she added: "I th-think you w-were d-daydreaming ab-about W-w-w-wills."

"Georgiana!" Elizabeth snapped. "You meddling, little-"

Giving a whoop of laughter, Georgiana took off her seat and ran out of the room. Ever so embarrassed, Elizabeth lowered her face unto her hands. It was burning, she noticed, and not from the end-of-summer heat. "El-lizabeth," she heard. Turning around, she saw Georgiana hanging about the doors. "I-I j-just w-w-wanted to t-tell you-" she paused. "I am so g-glad you are d-day-d-dreaming about W-w-wills-"

"I was not-" Elizabeth started, but it seemed useless to deny it. Therefore, she simply sighed, thus admitting to her transgression. Georgiana continued to muse about the possibilities:

"T-to th-think only, he c-could m-marry s-someone like th-that h-h-h-horrid M-miss Bingley! N-no, I am v-v-very h-happy you two are t-to b-be m-married!"

Elizabeth managed a polite thanks, all the while thinking it was imperative she do something with her countenance; for it seemed to have acquired an alarming propensity to show all her emotions. Considering the direction her thoughts had lately acquired...she simply could not allow for it.

She found she was no good for teaching that day-and Georgiana, giggling and grinning stupidly, was no better student than Elizabeth was a teacher-and so she dismissed her student, once again claiming a headache. Thereupon she retired upstairs. She almost ran the last few yards to her room; inside, she locked the door and heaved herself onto the bed.

The book was under her pillow, and Darcy knew she had it. The thoughts of that did not bear dwelling upon: for immediately, they cast her in a state of such ... well, there was simply no other word for it...randiness that she no longer knew herself. Indeed, the Elizabeth she had known could not possibly have such thoughts, such sinful, sinful desires. The Elizabeth she had been before her engagement would hardly occupy herself with devising ways to pleasure her lover. Well, she corrected herself, of course she would...

If she knew Darcy at all, Elizabeth would wager her last shirt that he, too, was unable to put the damnable treatise from his mind. She felt a certain obligation: having so baited him, it would only be fair to deliver on her almost-promise. Therefore, she undertook the studying of the book with single-minded deliberation.

Her first observation about the treatise was that it had been read. Thoroughly so. If the thought did not disquiet her, it was only because she knew so little of the physiology of sex. One can surmise that, having finished her exploration, Elizabeth would look at the book itself in a very different way.

But as it was, it was dog-eared and creased in the back, and so very clearly read, that Elizabeth colored thinking about the reader. That it was Darcy she did not doubt. After all, he had clearly hidden the book in the agricultural section; and, being a young hot-blooded male, he was, indeed, the likeliest reader for it among the household. Elizabeth felt a tremor of excitement at the thought; and from then on, could hardly read the book with detachment. Indeed, she kept seeing her lover in the place of the painted Indian warrior. The man, after all, wore a very Darcy expression-the one of a man who approached all his affairs, even the amorous kind, with the same manner of diligent resolve. (From what she had seen of Darcy as a lover, Elizabeth was certain that it would be so. Such was his nature, she supposed, that he never did anything by halves.)

Perhaps she and Darcy had not yet reached the intimacy required for her to read the book without blanching, flinching, or flushing deep-red to the very roots of her hair, but it was her very good fortune that nobody chanced upon her while she was reading it. Her countenance expressed all manner of emotion, from appreciation to apprehension to full-blown alarm. Still, her chief passions at the moment being curiosity and a desire to please her lover, Elizabeth managed to trounce both her shyness and her doubts.

Therefore, she read on.

And read on, and read on, until there was no room left for misunderstanding. By way of lotuses of womanhood and fiery poles, her edification in the theory of subject was augmented, and the question of the number of ways to please one's lover was forever put to rest.

For there were many. Elizabeth found some of them more palatable than others-howbeit she allowed that with the passage of time, she would find herself to be more open to experimentation, at the moment, there was only so far she would dare go. She loved him, and her desire to please him was heartfelt; but she did not believe he would wish her to do something that made her so severely uncomfortable. With time, she thought. With time. Having seen exactly what Darcy kept among his books, Elizabeth found truth with his earlier words: our marriage bed will be blessed, she thought giddily. Eventually. Sooner or later.

But it was exhausting, all this love business. It did not help her any that, standing up to stretch her stiff limbs, she looked out the window and saw the very object of her affection, together with the Colonel and Mr. Bingley. Once again, Elizabeth could not help noticing that he was, perhaps, the handsomest man in Derbyshire, if not in all of England. His two companions, though both reasonably handsome, looked nothing to him. Elizabeth suspected, of course, that her perspective was somewhat prejudiced; but this was the kind of prejudice she could easily abide. Indeed, as she ogled, shamelessly, the fantastic figure he presented as he leapt atop Lucifer (easily so, as if it was nothing, as if it were not the largest horse Elizabeth had ever seen), she fancied she saw him cast a quick glance towards her window. Immediately, there was entirely new merit in studying the Indian treatise so closely as she did. Besotted, she thought, I am besotted, smitten. Mad.

She went back to bed and was, suddenly, worn out by commotion within her. Stretching out on the bed, she tossed off her slippers and was asleep almost immediately. She dreamt of Darcy, doing things to her the handsome Indian raja had done to his bejeweled Queen.

~ * ~

Darcy had come back from his ride with Fitzwilliam and Bingley and was striding along the hallway, when he stopped dead before Elizabeth's door. Without thinking of what he was doing, he pushed the door, twisting the door-knob. It was locked, and he felt a surge of cruel disappointment. He knew the impropriety of coming to her room, alone, but he simply could not help it. He was dying to know what she thought of the book. The book, he thought. He had read others, but this was the only one he had wanted to keep. It was one of the several treasures the Fitzwilliams had brought with them from one of their trips to India; there was the ebony jewelry box and impossibly ostentatious bracelets Lady Anne would never wear; a pair of nacre-encrusted pistols for his father; an intricately carved sword for Darcy himself; and, during one of his later journeys, a live monkey for Georgiana (the beast had scratched the life out of a maid who attempted to dress it up in a smart riding coat, tore off a number of a draperies, broke a crystal chandelier, and eventually escaped into the fauna of Derbyshire; for a while longer, Darcy was mortified that it would breed there and produce all manner of monsters-but mercifully, it had not). But it was not the old Lord Matlock, but rather, his unruly adolescent son Richard, who brought his cousin a special treat, a so-called kama sutra, translated specially into English (for the titillation of the young colonial gentlemen, one supposed), but with all the original illustrations, Darcy was glad to know.

At fifteen, it had proven an incomparable diversion, but now it had been a while since he had last read it. He wondered what purpose it would serve now; he hoped, with all his heart, that Elizabeth would take the openness of the book-and him keeping it-the right way. That she had chosen to seek it out, left him hopeful; for surely, if she found the whole subject of such liberties repugnant... Darcy found it served him poorly at the moment to think of that; for at the thought of Elizabeth's interest in the very subject of the book, such jolt of heat shot through his loins, he thought he would go mad with wanting. He twisted the door-knob yet another time and walked on, restless and aching with lust.

~ * ~

It was his bad fortune tonight to have to go to Lambton with Bingley and Fitzwilliam to watch a boxing match. Certainly, it was nothing to watching Gentleman Jackson box in London; but it was good entertainment nevertheless. Fitzwilliam, desirous of spending his last night as a bachelor carousing, towed them along. Bingley, though never much for carousing, did find boxing an interesting sport. Darcy, on his part, had not caroused since his Cambridge days (and even then, there were parties-who will remain nameless, lest their unworthy name dirties the paper-who found him an absolutely dreary bore, for he drank little and was particular as to his bedmates). In addition, he remembered far too well his own boxing match two months ago. Still, he could hardly refuse Fitzwilliam, who remained his favorite cousin, though he would much rather spend the evening in the company of Elizabeth.

At supper, Darcy and Elizabeth were perfectly polite to each other and behaved with perfect decorum. The only liberty he allowed himself is to insist she seat herself next to him; as he was her fiancé, nobody dared question the propriety of it. Thereupon, he paid entirely too much attention to everybody else at the table. But Elizabeth was left in no doubt of his affection; for, as, when he was not eating, he kept his hands sedately in his lap, one of them strayed, from time to time, to stroke, ever so gently and discreetly, her muslin-covered knee.

When it first happened, a jolt of energy seemed to shoot through Elizabeth, and it was all she could do not to jump in her seat. Then, as he continued with his ministrations, she found herself rowing bolder and moved forward ever so slightly, so that she could touch his knee with hers. Which she did, naturally, and it was now Darcy's turn to jump in his chair (the Master's high-backed chair, no less); but Elizabeth kept her expression demure and her eyes-on her plate, and said not a word. The rest of the party pretended not to notice, with Miss Bingley putting far too much effort into ignoring the couple.

~ * ~

At Lambton, Darcy was restless and an exceedingly bad sport. He found the match boring and the crowd-too rowdy; did not bet anything on either fighter and squirmed and looked at his watch entirely too much. Finally, with Bingley seriously soused, and Fitzwilliam having won a small fortune on his fighter (for a second son, Darcy thought, he was remarkably lucky when it came to cards and gambling), he was able to wrench them away. Fitzwilliam was too happy to be discreet, and Bingley was too drunk; therefore, they made cruel fun of Darcy all the way back to Pemberley.

He withstood it all, stoically and in admirably good spirits, his one thought being to return to Elizabeth as soon as possible; upon reaching Pemberley, he alighted from the carriage and went, almost ran, up the stairs. Behind him, Bingley made a sound that Darcy chose to blame on his friend's highly inebriated state; inevitably, on the morrow, Bingley, a man much in love himself, would be heartily ashamed of making light of him.

All of the house was asleep when Darcy, having washed and changed his clothes (for, in the general turmoil of the fighting rink, in its smoke and heat and general dirt, he found, they had become quite filthy; in addition, someone had spilled a mug of beer upon his lap-though rather upset at first, Darcy looked at it philosophically and considered himself fortunate that nothing more disgusting than beer had touched his person), started up the hallway, with a single-minded goal of discovering what it was Elizabeth had gleaned from his favorite erotic treatise.

But, to his singular frustration, her door was locked and nary a sound was heard within. Cruelly disappointed that she had not waited up for him, he still told himself he dared not have expected it from her. After all, it was only by the fortune of Fitzwilliam winning so soon and so much that they were able to leave (his cousin having a remarkable talent of knowing when to stop gambling); they might have stayed later-it would be unfair to demand that she wait for him. Still, the disappointment persisted (disappointment not in Elizabeth, of course, but in that he would not see her tonight); he went outside, to look at her window, and found it dark and half-closed. He considered climbing the tree next to her window-much like he did last night-but the window was hardly open enough for him to climb in. Taking his disappointment in stride, he nevertheless felt rather sad for himself (an emotion he abhorred, generally). He was missing her terribly.

Upstairs, Elizabeth sat by the darkened window, watching him as he stood in the middle of the lawn, contemplating the tree. She was dying for him to climb it again; but she dared not open the window, nor light a candle to give him a sign. Her dilemma lay in having overestimated her own brazenness...during the day, she was certain that come nighttime, she would not hesitate to show him what she had learned from his book (knowing, of course, that such was his most ardent desire). But as night crept over Pemberley, she found her resolve weakening. After all, she had contemplated some rather...shocking... deeds. In any case, nothing she had ever done before, and nothing that a young lady of her station ought to do before marriage. Had Darcy been there, had he asked to see her again, she would not have hesitated thus, would not have succumbed to cowardice. But he was not there, and it was awfully easy to slip away to her bedchamber, pretending (to herself, no less-a useless endeavor and a self-defeating one) that she was tired.

She watched him go, something inside of her giving way. He had looked so forlorn, searching hopelessly for a movement or a light in her window; but she had sat perfectly still, hiding from him-and hiding from herself. Her mood thoroughly spoiled, Elizabeth returned to her bed in displeasure and, laying down, prepared for an utterly sleepless night.

~ * ~

Sadly so, because with the first light of the morning, she had an office to perform, that of a bridesmaid. She was still at her vanity, quickly pinning up her curls, when a quiet knock at her door told her that it was time to go. She went to open and saw Darcy's rather long countenance there. He looked as if he, too, had barely slept a wink.

"Good morning," he said, in a voice she found impossible to gauge. She fretted: was he angry with her? She had not imagined he would be, but still, she had made a promise to him... Well, almost.

"Good morning-I am almost ready," she whispered conspiratorially, avoiding his eyes in a most shameful manner. He did not wait for her to invite her in, but stepped inside himself, quickly closing the door behind him.

Elizabeth froze in the middle of the room, holding her bonnet.

"Elizabeth," he said, and he sounded tortured. "I have not slept the night."

"Oh," she whispered, coloring, and greatly relieved: he was not, after all, angry with her. Thus, she found an admission fitting. "Neither have I."

"I should wish for us to discuss this, Lizzy," he said quickly, striding towards her and taking her hands in his. "But there isn't time right now. We must return before everyone is awake."

"Perhaps we can talk later?" She watched him bring her hands up to his lips. "Whenever you find it convenient. After all, you can always summon me to you as your employee."

He smiled, ruefully, and kissed her hand again. "The longest two hours in my life, sweetheart."

Elizabeth found her pelisse, and they went outside. In the barest, gray light of dawn, Darcy helped Elizabeth up into the carriage, where Anne was already waiting; the Colonel, dressed in full regimentals, joined them shortly. The whole party took off-the ladies in the carriage, the gentlemen on horseback.

Inside the carriage, Anne de Bourgh opened her reticule and took out a length of white tulle.

"Will you help me with it, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth gladly obliged and fixed the makeshift veil to Anne's bonnet. She was amazed at how pretty the little gray spinster now looked: her smile blossomed, her eyes sparkled, her hair, live and lustrous, curled wildly from under her bonnet. And, Elizabeth noticed, two adorable dimples appeared on her glowing cheeks. She was supposed to be sickly, with bad chest, bad back, bad everything-but to Elizabeth's eyes, she looked a picture of health and happiness.

"You look beautiful this morning," Elizabeth told her, and added, with genuine feeling. "I wish you every happiness, my friend."

Tearfully, Anne thanked her and the two women embraced. Elizabeth felt fortunate to have found an ally in her; in any case, she could not imagine what it would be like to have Anne for an enemy-she must, indeed, make a formidable one.

"Will you stay at Pemberley after your wedding?"

Anne shrugged. "I am not certain. Richard's situation is somewhat undecided at the moment-what with the situation on the Continent the way it is. In any case, we are to stay through Georgie's birthday-and perhaps, if it comes soon enough, your wedding."

"My dear friend," Elizabeth said, deeply moved. "I know I speak for both Mr. Darcy and myself when I say that it would mean the world to us to have you and the Colonel there."

Anne sniffed suspiciously, and then changed the subject abruptly, as if afraid to show too much feeling. "You have not told me what to do with-"

"Oh," Elizabeth said. She had quite forgotten about it, what with the personal upheaval of yesterday. "I have meant to speak with you about it..."

~ * ~

Upon their arrival to the Lambton church, the gentlemen handed the ladies out. It was clear that the Colonel had not expected his bride-to-be to be wearing a veil. After all, she had entered the carriage without one; he was surprised, pleased, gratified, to see her looking so lovely. A look of true regard passed between them, and Elizabeth turned away to give them some privacy.

Upon which, she met Darcy's pointed stare. If she interpreted it right, there was longing in it, and, to reassure him, she came nearer and reached for his hand. Their gloved fingers intertwined, she tried her best to put all her heart in her eyes as she looked at him.

"You seem pained," she whispered.

"I can hardly wait to bring you here, Lizzy," he confessed. Casting a quick look about her, and finding no-one there but the Colonel and Anne (who were, at the moment, occupied with cooing at each other and therefore paid no attention to the world around them), she stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him, quickly, on the lips.

"I love you," she said, quickly, urgently. "I adore you so."

His countenance brightening, he lowered his head and returned her kiss, forgetting, momentarily about why he was there, and that they were not there alone. It was only when a delicate chuckle from Fitzwilliam alerted him to the impropriety of the situation that he released her.

"Er, Darcy, do you suppose we could go and get married now?" his cousin inquired caustically. "I am quite at loss as to why, but I seem to need your and Miss Bennett's presence there-"

"Forgive me," Darcy said, hanging his head. He released Elizabeth and followed Fitzwilliam inside the church.

"Fitzwilliam," he said to the good Colonel as they walked in and took their places by the altar, "what I should not give to change places with you!"

Fitzwilliam smiled, wryly. "Darcy, Darcy, you will sing a different tune when our aunt learns of this marriage-"

Darcy shook his head. "I should suffer a thousand Aunt Catherines to marry Elizabeth sooner," he whispered.

The most singular thing was, even upon reflection on what that actually entailed, Darcy knew his words to be the absolute truth.

~ * ~

They returned to Pemberley within one hour. The ceremony had gone smoothly (which meant, basically, that Lady Catherine had failed to appear), and the ride back was spent in an easy, lighthearted mood. But it was upon their arrival to Pemberley that Darcy took Elizabeth's hand and spirited her away to walk in the gardens.

For some time, they walked in silence; then, upon reaching a clearance, she stopped, and, of a mind to reassure him, pulled him close against herself and kissed him on the mouth. But she had not anticipated the overwhelming sensations that would course through her at the first touch of his lips on hers, the first gentle, yet insistent, push of his tongue against her teeth. Fluid heat coursed through her and she went slack against him, her legs all of a sudden refusing to do their office and hold her up, her knees useless, made of soft felt. Immediately, all her demons banished, she felt herself his mindless thrall. Indeed, they were both so enchanted, so spellbound, a whole life's worth was crowded into that one moment, in the middle of a sun-splashed afternoon, alone to all the world.

Her fears were all forgot then; all her being reached for him, making her insensible with wanting, making her ache and long, rousing emotions and sensations that had been wholly unknown before. Her heart did not seem commodious enough to contain all the love she felt for him. She whimpered against his shoulder as his lips abandoned her mouth and slid, wantonly, to kiss her neck, her fragile clavicles, the tiny valley between the tops of her breasts.

"I have missed you so," he whispered, moving her cross aside, kissing her there, his lips hot and dry, as if he had a fever. "It has been so long!"

It had been long, she thought, locking her arms about his neck, pressing against him with her whole being, feeding on his warmth, his love, the sheer force and pull of his embrace. It had been long-well-nigh a day and a half.

"Lizzy, Lizzy," he murmured, softly, against her neck. His hands were all over her-caressing her back, grasping her backside, holding her to him-he seemed, once again, a man possessed. "I hope that I have not offended you-but I cannot function, nor think, when you are not about." He spoke of offense, but his lips did not stop, did not tarry for a second, and his hands did not relinquished their quarry.

"Offended me?" she murmured, gasping as his lips grazed the tender hollow at the base of her neck. He did not seem to hear-but she would not have him think he had offended her, for if he had been forward with her, she had welcomed and encouraged such forwardness from him. Consented to it, at the least. To disabuse him of the notion that he was the offender, she grasped his curls and pulled him away from her person, forcing him to look her in the eye.

"Darcy!" she said, somewhat harshly. "Whatever do you mean by that?"

He stared at her somewhat vacuously, then, coming to his senses, pulled her back into his embrace.

"Lizzy," he said, his voice rumbling just above her ear-the soft, luxurious velvet of it, the rich timbre and the familiar, gentle notes. It was like a gift, his voice, like a mink robe thrown over her. "My love. I should never have you do what you do not wish to do-I should never have you force yourself-"

"But Darcy, I do wish it," she murmured against his shoulder. He turned her around, gently, and walked her to the nearest tree. They sat down in the grass, he leaning against a tall, pine, she-cradled against his broad chest.

"Lizzy, however it is, you are an angel to me-and I should not have you think you owe me anything-" he went on, his hand caressing, idly, her shoulder and arm. "I am afraid I might have-might have given you an impression I expected something of you..."

"Well, don't you?" she asked, artlessly, looking up into his beautiful, chocolate eyes.

"No, Lizzy, not at all," he said. He knew his words sounded hollow, but he did not know just how to reassure her. "I know I have been forward-"

"So have I-"

"But I am a man, Lizzy, and you are in my keeping-and I cannot allow myself get carried away-"

"Why not?"

This last question was asked so quietly, it took a second to register. At first, Darcy stared at her in mute disbelief.

"Lizzy," he managed, finally. His heart was beating, madly, in his chest, making him, too, weak-kneed and lightheaded. "Because-" All of a sudden, he had nothing to say. Elizabeth exhaled loudly, taking the reins of the conversation.

"I know what you will say," she whispered, quickly, "but if there was a way, if I could-if I could help you-please you-without losing my-myself-before we are wed-"

Darcy was embarrassed; apparently, he presented a pitiable enough figure that she should wish to help him. Fighting his own embarrassment (for he knew, deep inside, that Elizabeth's desire to go a step further stemmed not from any particular blunder on his part, but rather, from her kind heart and passionate nature), he interrupted her, quickly, kissing her face, her hands, pulling her tightly against himself:

"You already please me, sweeting, you need not-"

"But I want to!" she said suddenly, loudly, petulantly. "I derive my greatest pleasure from watching you find yours!"

Darcy dared not argue with that, finding her logic exceedingly admirable, and she continued, quickly, unwilling to stop and draw breath for fear of her own indecision:

"-if there was a way, and I know there are ways, I have looked at that book of yours-"

"It was wrong of me to give it to you," he mumbled, morosely.

Elizabeth well-nigh slapped him, deeply irritated by his obtuseness. "You did not give it to me, I took it without your permission!" she reminded him. Then, she sighed. "You would make it a thousand times easier for me, Darcy, if you would... teach me...things. I doubt theory can compare to live edification." She finished her tirade in a near-whisper and sat very still, not daring to raise her eyes at him.

Amazed at her, and not a little gratified, Darcy pulled her back into her embrace and placed a kiss upon her nose.

"You are the greatest treasure I was fortunate to find," he said. "Ah, Lizzy, of course I wish for you-for us-" he smiled, rather shy all of a sudden. "-you know."

Elizabeth smirked, relieved. "No, I do not know, sir." Adopting a pseudo-scholarly air, she asked him in her best teacher's voice: "Do you suppose you could edify me on the subject?"

Sighing with happiness, he pulled her ever closer and rested his chin on top of her head.

"It will be my pleasure, Lizzy," he said, laughter and longing mixing in one long, tortured, sigh.

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