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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

A Singular Proposition

Chapter 25

For the rest of the day, they hardly managed to spend ten minutes in each other's sole company. With Georgiana's birthday on the morrow, and "modest" company coming, every single domestic of any consequence seemed to have matters requiring the Master's personal-and extensive-attention. Cook had the menu to discuss-one last time, as it seemed, for it had long been settled that she would serve doves in white wine and Russian sole; the gardener wished to know the number and color of Oriental lanterns to be procured from a Lambton curio merchant and strung in the gardens; and Mrs. Reynolds worried about the fireworks (she did not like the idea of things being fired into the sky above Pemberley, not ever since she was a very young girl and a family employing her was left well-nigh homeless as a result of a misbehaving roman candle).

Elizabeth, who sat in Darcy's office, watched him in awe as he dealt-ever so quickly and patiently-with the numerous questions and supplications. After Mrs. Reynolds, reassured by him that nothing could possibly go wrong, and that he had all the confidence that the two footmen assigned to the task would do splendidly, had left in a bit of a huff, she dared voice her surprise.

"Fireworks?" she asked, raising one eyebrow. There had naturally been fireworks during the Pemberley Ball last month; but this occasion would be, by all accounts, "small." Fireworks?

"A surprise for Georgiana," Darcy murmured, not looking at her (for, at the moment, he was busy he perusing, quickly, one of the numerous sheets of paper-bills, Elizabeth guessed-given to him to sign). "She adores fireworks."

"Ah," was all Elizabeth could manage. She supposed that with time, she would accustom herself to the opulence that was Pemberley; but it seemed strange to her to have fireworks for one's birthday. (At Longbourn, the only fire-anything for anyone's birthday would be a candle on a cake.) Strange, but not unwelcome. In fact, there have been many things lately that were just so-strange at first, but, at short reflection, quite acceptable and even pleasing.

The thought of that (and the sight of him in his shirtsleeves-he had begged her pardon for removing his coat, but the day was inhumanly hot) bid her leave Darcy's study, lest she commit some indecency. As she went, he remained caught up in his work, and Elizabeth quitted the room quietly, not wishing to disturb him. She retired upstairs, found Georgiana and quizzed her, thoroughly, on history of the first three Roman emperors. The girl was ready, of course, and recited the lesson with energy and thoughtfulness; but then again, she was always ready. Elizabeth marveled at what a diligent student she was, what a quick mind, despite her verbal handicap, at times so severe. Just like her brother, she thought, with no little pleasure. She took pride in Georgiana's accomplishments this summer, partly because she, herself, had contributed to them, and partly for Darcy's sake. Once again, she remembered her own younger sisters and sighed; but such thoughts made her feel disloyal, and she shooed them away.

Having dismissed Georgiana with praise, Elizabeth went in search of Jane. She was walking through the gardens, not eschewing an occasional joyful skip (for just when she was expecting her life to descend into an abyss of despair, it had turned quite wonderful), when she saw her sister, standing under a tall chestnut tree. Jane was not alone; next to her, Elizabeth espied Mr. Bingley. By all estimation, they were not there by chance. Elizabeth's breath caught and she stopped, struck by Mr. Bingley's expression and the smile upon her sister's face. Afraid to disturb the scene-for she wished for Jane's happiness more than she wished for her own-she tiptoed away. Though patience was never a virtue with her, she believed Jane would tell her all there was to tell, in her own time.

For the rest of the day, she amused herself with reading. No, she thought, not the book, thank you very much. The book was still under her pillow, and Elizabeth resolved to leave it there... for now. She did not think there was anything else she could glean from it that would be useful...tonight; and as to the rest of it, she harbored some suspicion that it could not all be quite so incredibly acrobatic . So she sat reading, upon Anne's recommendation, Gulliver's Travels , which she found bizarre and amusing and rather refreshingly dispassionate.

At supper, she and Darcy behaved rather well, though, of course, he did not take his eyes off her all night long. Still, greatly becalmed by their morning conversation, she did manage to finish her meal without spilling or dropping food all over herself. She congratulated herself, silently, on presenting such an admirable façade of demureness and excellent manners; but then, it no longer mattered. For, in the middle of the supper, Colonel Fitzwilliam rose from his seat.

"Ahem," he said.

The company, engaged in rather tepid conversation and too much staring (for, Elizabeth suspected, just as no conversation partner had lately held the appeal of her beloved, so did Mr. Bingley paid no attention to anyone but Jane, and so did Anne seemed to have ears and eyes only for the Colonel) paid scarce attention.

"Ahem," the good Colonel repeated. "Darcy!" he barked, finally. The Master of the house tore his gaze away from his fiancée and said, sounding quite embarrassed:

"Ah, yes, Fitzwilliam."

"Thank you," the Colonel said, caustically. "I have something to say."

"O-o-obviously," Georgiana murmured.

"Well, then. There seems to be no way to put this delicately, other than just say it... and I know that I should hardly outdo Darcy's eloquent announcement two days ago..." He grinned. "Therefore, I shall just say it. Some time ago, I have asked Miss de Bourgh," a polite nod to his wife, who was Miss de Bourgh no longer, "to marry me-"

Georgiana jumped in her seat. "You a-a-a-are en-engaged!" she cried.

"Er, no, Georgie." The Colonel gave a sheepish smile. "Married."

At her own engagement announcement, Elizabeth was far too overwhelmed by hearing Darcy say those words to gauge others' reactions; a task, for which she was far better suited now, when she was an observer, and a prepared one at that. She saw that Anne herself glowed prettily, that Mr. Bingley seemed utterly unsurprised, that both Darcy and the Colonel grinned, looking quite pleased with themselves, and that Miss Bingley seemed at a complete loss for words. Well, Elizabeth reflected, at least she has managed to stay in her seat this time.

One person whose reaction Elizabeth was quite unable to ascertain was, to her great surprise, Georgiana. For the girl seemed far from happy at the announcement, though, Elizabeth knew, she adored both her cousins. For the rest of the meal, she watched Georgiana (who sulked, said nothing at all, and ate very poorly) with curiosity, and resolved to speak with her after the meal.

At the end of it, before the gentlemen retired for brandy and cigars, Darcy put two fingers under Elizabeth's elbow, and steered her, delicately, towards the window. There, in a long-awaited violation of decorum, he kissed her hand rather intimately, holding his lips at her gloved knuckles for a few seconds too long. Elizabeth sighed, feeling the heat of his kiss through the silk. Straightening up, he studied her, seriously, and said in a thick whisper:

"Elizabeth, I dare not ask-"

"Yes," she said quickly, interrupting him, unable to contain a shy smile. "I have told you already, you need not ask. Yes, yes."

If he showed any emotion, it was to her only, and only with his lovely, expressive eyes; to the rest of the company, who could not, thank heavens, see the burning desire in his gaze, he merely appeared to be staring. But then, they deduced, he always stared.

"By the gazebo, then?" she whispered, barely moving her lips, flipping and closing her fan idly. "Midnight?"

He nodded to both, kissed her hand again, and was gone in the company of Mr. Bingley and the Colonel, having left Mr. Hurst to snore peacefully in a chair by the window.

Elizabeth was not the only person to have noticed Georgiana's changed countenance at supper. After supper, the girl retired far too quickly, and Elizabeth went to speak with her, worried by her strange reaction to such a good news. At her charge's very doors, she well-nigh bumped into Anne.

"What are you doing here?" Elizabeth asked. It was late enough. Anne smiled.

"My husband is spending the obligatory hour with Darcy, drinking brandy and receiving condolences."

"Oh, do stop!" Elizabeth laughed. "You are impossible, Anne-you know full well Darcy would never-"

"I know," Anne agreed. "All the same, by the time they finish giving each other encouragement, I shall be waiting for him in my room."

Elizabeth blushed, her thoughts flying, suddenly, to her own wedding night, only a short time in the future (or so she hoped).

"Oh good heavens, Elizabeth!" Anne burst out laughing. "Everything you think must show clear on your face!"

Elizabeth turned well-nigh scarlet. "I know," she said, sighing. "And lately, more than usual."

The door to Georgiana's room flew open, and there was the girl herself, standing there, looking so very severe, Elizabeth and Anne exchanged a worried glance.

"Georgie," Anne said, clearly taken aback at the expression on Georgiana's face.

"Wh-wh-what h-h-have you t-two c-come to t-tell m-me?" she asked, petulantly. "A-a-are y-you w-w-with ch-child yet, M-mrs. F-fitzwilliam?"

Suddenly, she seemed to realize what she had said, cut herself off with a startled gasp, eyes round and frightened, and fled inside the room. Anne actually looked shocked-and it was a considerable feat, Elizabeth thought, to shock this one-as the two women followed Georgiana inside.

Georgiana sat in the window, face turned against the glass.

"Georgie," Anne said contritely. "What on earth is wrong?"

Georgiana only made a vague gesture, a sign that she would not talk. Both Elizabeth and Anne knew that it was only wise and fair to give her some time to come to her senses.

"Very well," Elizabeth said. "If you wish to discuss this, you can find us-where?"

"Blue drawing-room," Anne finished for her.

They left Georgiana's room and started walking down the hall, both in disconcerted silence, when, behind them, there was a tremulous, sullen "Wait!".

She walked towards them, looking every bit miserable, then stopped, stepping from one foot to the other, looking at the hem of her dress. "I-" she said, took a deep breath and continued, "I a-a-am s-sorry-A-a-annie-ab-about w-w-w-what I s-said."

"You need not be," Anne said, calmly.

"Y-you are g-gracious-b-but I should n-not h-have said that..." she sighed. "I t-turn sixteen t-tomorrow-a-a-and everyone i-i-i-insists on t-treating m-me like a ch-child..."

"Oh, Georgie," Anne said, with a quiet sigh. "Forgive me, my love, for not telling you beforehand. I should have. My mother still does not know-" she sighed again and rolled her eyes, clearly summoning her courage for all that entailed. "We are to London the day after tomorrow-to apprise Richard's parents-and Rosings, I am afraid, after that-"

With a sigh, Georgiana came into her cousin's embrace, then pulled Elizabeth close as well. Elizabeth felt thankful, as never before, that she had found such formidable allies at Darcy's side. She would have found it agonizing if those dearest to his heart condemned their union, as she knew so much of the world would, so soon.

~ * ~

Finally, came the night, so eagerly and tremulously anticipated by both. It descended, not unlike a large soft shawl of black and silver, softly swathing the gardens in comfortable moonlit shadows.

Elizabeth had told Jane and Georgiana she had a headache and retired early, intimating that would go to bed almost immediately (lest her and Darcy's sisters become of a mind to visit her before retiring themselves); then, she spent a good hour and a half lying on her bed, fully dressed, and waiting for the Pemberley clocks to strike midnight. Finally, her heart skipping wildly, she slipped outside and walked towards the gazebo; Darcy had asked her to meet him there at midnight, much like he had three nights ago. She gasped at the memories, and felt desire course through her like a rolling river, wide, and powerful and luxurious.

She heard a whispered "Lizzy!"; turned, and downed her own shriek. For she had not expected to see him on horseback, and was startled by Lucifer, almost entirely black, almost invisible in the night, but for his glistening sides, quiet snorts and moonlight reflecting in his black, globular eyes. Darcy leaned down, flashing a smile at her. "Come," was all he said and reached for her hand. Slightly dazed, she put one slipper'd foot on top of his booted one and was pulled, quickly, up in the saddle with him.

She heard him inquire after her comfort, asking whether Lucifer had frightened her. She felt his lips touch her nape, and assured him that she was quite comfortable, thank you. Leaning back gingerly, she rested her head back against his shoulder, then felt his arms come about her. He was holding the reins in one hand; Lucifer, strangely docile, walked down a garden path, into the wind-swept shadows, sweetened by jasmine. All of it-the fragrant moonlit night, the peaceful undulating of the horse under them; the warmth and hardness of Dacy's body behind her, the shielding circle of his strong arms-possessed the quality of an enchanted dream. His breath on her neck, his lips, soft and luscious at her nape, were making her shiver and burn at the same time. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I have gone behind a church during the wrong time of the day; perhaps, this is but a beautiful, beautiful fantasy...

As a way of assuring herself that this was, indeed, her reality, she whispered a question to him:

"Where are we going, Darcy?"

He whispered back, as if afraid to disturb the sleepy warmth of the night. "You will see."

Somehow, that was enough. But such was her degree of enchantment that nothing disturbed Elizabeth; indeed, she would have found it none too surprising should Darcy sprout a pair of silver wings behind his back and fly up, taking her along, or turn into Oberon himself.

She did see, and soon enough. They arrived in front of a small lake, almost perfectly round, all spattered and painted with moonlight. Elizabeth gave a tiny coo of delight at the sight of it, so pretty; her admiration was only augmented when Darcy pointed at the skies, indicating how much brighter the stars were here, away from the big house with all its lights.

Thereupon, he alit, with no little flare, and opened his arms to her. Elizabeth slid down the horse's side easily and landed right into his embrace.

"What is this place?" she mused, admiringly. "Darcy, I have never been here before-but oh what a corner of Eden it is!" Very pleased with himself, he planted a kiss on the tip of her nose, released her, and went to tie Lucifer to the nearest tree. He returned with a saddlebag, from whence he produced, as if by more magic, a blanket, a bottle of wine, two crystal glasses and two large towels. Elizabeth blushed at the sight of it all, thinking, immediately, of Pemberley's no doubt very discreet servants, equipping the Master in such a manner. Darcy, now attuned to her smallest emotion, noticed her unease and hastened to reassure her:

"I have packed all of it," he said, hastily. "I had the wine brought to me from the cellars-and the rest of it"-he made a vague gesture, pointing at the blanket and the towels, folded neatly on the grass, "-is from my bedchamber."

Elizabeth, somewhat becalmed now, turned her attention to other matters. "What are these for?"

Darcy grinned. "Well, I should not wish for you to catch a cold after swimming."

She hardly expected to be taken swimming, and so she gave a little hoot of surprised laughter. "Swimming?" she asked, incredulously. "Sir, I never-"

"You have asked me to edify you, Lizzy," he reminded her. "Now please, give me leave to do it in whatever manner I find fit." Kneeling now, he spread the blanket on the grass, neatly, pinning one end down with a stone. Looking up, he grinned and beckoned her. "Come, my love." Gingerly, she stepped onto the blanket, but Darcy would have none of it. Grabbing her wrist, he pulled her down quickly and she toppled into his embrace, shrieking and giggling. With a deep sigh, he tightened his arms about her, wondering if ever there would come a time when he would not love her, would not want her, would no longer feel faint with desire at the very sound of her voice.

Somewhat calmer now, though still grinning like a fool, Elizabeth glanced sheepishly at him. She had never imagined batting her eyelashes at any man; but he seemed to welcome this small coquetry from her. Indeed, he had changed her, in matter of days, from a girl, so young and severe, into a deeply sensual and loving woman. Now, catching his eyes in the moonlight, she was filled with pure, utter happiness, as difficult to bear in silence as the strongest pain. Her love for him felt too big for her heart. It demanded an egress, begging to be expressed. Laughing delightedly, she sat up and locked her arms about his neck.

"I cannot believe I have you," she whispered, softly, pressing her cheek against his. "You are so wonderful... too wonderful to be mine..."

"Ah, Lizzy," he whispered back, deeply touched, his hands caressing, gently, her fragile half-naked shoulders, slipping down to the flat of her back, "If I am anything at all, it is because you have made me so...dearest, loveliest, sweetest Lizzy..."

A deep shuddering sigh signaled a chance in his disposition, from restful and sweet to passionate. Elizabeth followed him, immediately, as he lowered her tenderly upon the blanket.

They whispered endearments to each other, words of love and passion and sex, and the night seemed to whisper back. The grass was soft under the blanket; cradling Darcy's head against her breast, Elizabeth opened her eyes and looked up into the sky, at the stars that twinkled, invitingly, like diamonds on black watered silk. She felt wild, untamed, so very unafraid.

"Lizzy." Darcy rested himself on his elbows above her, kissed her chin, her lips, nipped, quickly, on one earlobe.

"My love." She caressed, lovingly, his face, her fingers tangled in his dark curls.

"Darling, I just wanted you to know-" he stumbled on his words, drunk on her, on her scent, her taste, the sensation of her breasts, poking, slightly, through the muslin-and the delicious certainty that very soon, he would be removing that muslin from her- "Lizzy, I shall not do anything you would not wish me-" the last words were lost, meanderingly, as he buried his face against her neck-

She tugged on his curls, gently, forcing him to abandon the sweet sanctuary and look her in the eyes.

"Darcy," she whispered.

"I shall always stop, you can always ask me to stop-"

"I know that," she murmured, pulling him back to her for another kiss. His handsome mouth was as sweet as apples to her; she explored it now, unabashed, running her tongue over his lips, tickling the corners of them, pushing tentatively past his teeth and then inside, into the warmth and the sweetness, to caress him in a way she already knew drove him wild.

Gasping, he grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her back, wildly, passionately, so clearly forgetting himself-and making her forget everything but the feeling of him. In that one moment, taut with rapidly burgeoning arousal, nothing else existed in the world but the heat of the other's body, the weight, the taste, the scent, the physical reality of holding each other, so long denied to them.

With an effort, Darcy tore himself from Elizabeth and rolled away.

"No, no," she murmured, still caught up in the kiss and feeling suddenly bereft. She saw the stars again, smelled the water nearby, the warm, dry, summer night. "Come back," she murmured, tugging, wantonly, upon his sleeve.

"Slowly, Lizzy," he said, sitting up, his voice rough with desire. "We must go slowly, lest I take you here and now."

Somewhat chastened by this admission-though something in her clamored for him to lose control compleatly and do what he had so longed to do, and what she, indubitably, would welcome-she rested herself on one elbow and watched him start undressing. Suddenly, she was filled with an utterly irrational, wanton desire to do that office for him. Kneeling up on the blanket, she beckoned for him to come closer, which he did.

"Allow me," she murmured, and he did, surrendering himself onto her, hanging his arms as he watched her, eyes half-lidded with desire. Her small hands slid his coat off his shoulders and made somewhat clumsy work of the buttons on his waistcoat. That off, his cravat he had to undo himself, for Elizabeth's ineptness at the task threatened him with strangulation; but as he felt her hands tug at his shirt, pulling it out of his breeches, and then slip under it, small and warm and precise, against his sides, the small of his back, his flat, hard belly, he could think of nothing other than what would inevitably follow.

His shirt discarded, it landed to the side, like a white flag of their compleat surrender to each other. Elizabeth's hands stilled, cautiously, at the waistband of his riding breeches. Wondering what she would do almost made his eyes cross with wanting and anticipation; but nothing prepared him for the feel of her hand against the falls of his breeches.

Elizabeth, watching him in deep fascination, listening to his breath grow more and more ragged, drew her hand to and fro, pressed the back of it against the bulging hardness, felt his length and girth with curious fingers. Suddenly, the thing under her hand gave a rough jerk. To imagine that it had a mind of its own startled her so much she verily scuttled back from him.

Darcy threw back his head and bayed with frustrated laughter. It was disconcerting to Elizabeth to imagine that he possessed the ability to so, er, brandish it (though she did suspect she would, perhaps, be grateful for such a talent one day, for, she surmised, it portended some interesting... benefits). She had thought men and women identical in the number of active limbs they possessed; to think otherwise was disturbing, indeed. Still, it seemed that it was not by his design, or even his conscious will, that the thing had moved.

"Lizzy," he said, softly, "Forgive me-I can hardly control myself when I am with you..."

Seeing her confusion, Darcy regretted having startled her-but, as he had explained to her, he was a poor master of his body's actions at the moment. Still, she abandoned any attempts to touch him there and moved down, poised to divest him of his riding boots.

Of course, he could hardly allow for such an indelicacy, and Elizabeth found herself thrust aside and watching him do the office himself. Slowly, her embarrassment dissipated and she edged towards him, closer and closer, until she was, once again, firmly ensconced in his embrace.

"My turn now, love," Darcy said, as he turned her around and undid the buttons in the back of her dress-slowly so, for he could not resist pressing his lips to the newly-exposed skin. The dress fell away, and the corset followed, and then the petticoats, leaving her in only a flimsy chemise, a pair of stockings and her pink, flat soled, ballerina slippers-which Darcy took particular delight in taking off her. Holding each leg aloft, he untied the pink ribbons from around her calves, rolled off the white silk stockings, pressing his lips to the tender flesh behind her knees, one, then the other.

But then, even as his office of removing her stockings was finished, and she lay before him, tremulous, her transparent chemise adding to, rather than detracting from, her nude appeal, he found it very difficult to relinquish his hold on her leg. For, his main purpose in kneeling between her open legs satisfied, he still found the sight her of her thus incredibly tempting. Therefore, he did not hurry to leave, but instead, studied her with some deliberation, full moonlight providing unexpectedly decent illumination.

Elizabeth, though still enraptured by the feeling of his lips against the back of her knee, become sensible of being the object of his very determined scrutiny. Glancing down at him, she noticed, in some shock, that he was staring straight between her legs. Elizabeth would have dovetailed them, but for the impediment of his kneeling body in-between.

"D-darcy?" she whispered, all of a sudden finding herself not the mistress of her voice. "What are you doing there?"

Clearly, he decided that simply staring served him poorly; therefore, stretching himself flat on the blanket, he did not answer, but drew up the hem of her chemise and kissed, softly, the insides of her thighs.

Elizabeth squirmed and, despite herself and the simply awful impropriety of it all, moaned at the incredible feeling, thereto unknown-the softness of his lips on her skin there, his warm breath over her most private regions; lest he interpret her moan as an encouragement, she also entangled her fingers in his hair and managed to utter his name.

"Darcy, oh, pray, stop!"

He reared up on his elbows, and, looking very seriously at her in the moonlight, asked a simple question:

"Why?"

Elizabeth could not find a good answer; after all, having come here with him, having undressed him, having allowed him to undress herself... she had already allowed him such liberties... she had no good reason to give, so she said, simply:

"Because you have promised to."

Darcy sighed, then laughed ruefully. "True," he agreed, kneeling up again. He relinquished his enviable position, and immediately, she closed her legs.

"I am sorry," she murmured, and thankful that he could not see her blush. "I do not know what has possessed me-"

"You need not say anything." He came up and stretched himself on his side, next to her. Taking her hand, he brought it up to his lips, kissed each finger in turn, softly suckling her index one. "Lizzy, there is nothing that we must do tonight," he said.

Instead of answering, she kissed him, gratefully, winding her arms about his neck. Her gratitude, in turn, led her to remember her very purpose in coming there. She relished his caresses; but it was, after all, the time to return them. She could hardly abide selfishness and scorned those who did not keep their word.

"I believe I was occupied... rather agreeably... when you interrupted me," she said, huskily. She heard him gasp and suck in his breath as she returned her hand to its previous-and precarious-location. This time, her purpose was far more pronounced, and she knew better what to expect. The very idea of her touch enthralling him, Darcy moaned, unable to help himself. To help her own embarrassment-which not even her growing arousal could conquer-she spoke, playing a seductress.

"You have promised to edify me, sir," she murmured, molding her fingers about him, feeling him grow ever harder under her hand (that , she had not thought possible), hearing his breath grow harsh and uneven, and intermixed with gasps and moans. "Darcy!" she called.

"I-I-Lizzy-" He seemed lost, completely. Elizabeth was left to marvel at the power she held over him, at the beauty of him as he seemed to give in to passion-leaning back on his elbows, his head thrown back, the lines of his neck rigid.

"Lie down," she whispered, and he obeyed, sinking back onto the blanket. Elizabeth took a deep breath and opened-quickly, so that she could not change her mind-a button on his falls, then another and another. Mindlessly, he arched his back and moved his hips, allowing her to tug the breeches down his legs.

"Elizabeth." There was a supplication in his voice, one which she could not ignore. Slowly, he reached for her hand, and placed it, gently, against his aching pride. It took Elizabeth all her courage not to draw away, but in the end, there she remained, kneeling by him. Watching him, slightly shocked, for he looked nothing like the jeweled Indian raja of the kama sutra . She touched him tentatively, tracing his length (still utterly unconvinced she possessed the means to fit that inside of her, and hoping that he knew something she did not; but then, of course, he did), feeling the skin, examining the bizarre configuration. He felt hot to the touch-and dry, and smooth-and not at all like stone, much rather like a resilient, pliant stalk; Elizabeth gulped.

Awkwardly, tentatively, she wrapped her fingers about him. This caress met with his eager approval, if the way he leaned into his touch, his half-lidded eyes, and his quiet sighs and moans were any indication; thus, she grew bolder.

Darcy found it most strange, and yet the most natural thing in the world, that her caresses-awkward, unsophisticated, almost virginal-should undo him to such a degree. He was a worldly man-not some pubescent youth; at any other time, he might have frowned at such a way , finding it woefully inadequate. Indeed, he had , arrogantly demanding all or nothing. But he could not demand anything of Elizabeth, and, having desired her for so long, he found her every touch a joy. Particularly, that sort of touch. She was so generous, he thought, amazed; so kind. Surrendering to her would be such wonderful pleasure. There was no question that such surrender would come, if only she continued with her admirable ministrations.

Elizabeth watched him in deep fascination. Not one to waste an education, she tried to use whatever she had seen in the book to pleasure him. Of course, there had been some things in it that she had dismissed as utterly impossible (for she doubted, severely, that Darcy possessed the considerable talent of being able to wrap his legs about his own ears; she knew she did not). But it had provided her with a semi-decent idea of what to do, and his hand, shooting down to cover hers, did the rest. In any case, he was a most grateful audience. And a talkative one, as well.

"Oh Elizabeth," he sighed. "Oh Lizzy, ah, my love, my sweetest angel-"

Upon seeing his rapture, Elizabeth was inspired even further (if on that was possible).

"Like so?" she asked him, hopefully. His eyes half-lidded, his breath ragged, he managed to focus his gaze enough to look at her. She looked like a vision in the night, kneeling next to his supine body, moonlight seeping through her transparent chemise, through her very person, making her look like a fairy. But her grip on him was so very real, and he knew that inevitably-oh-oh-

He called her name, desperately, his hips thrusting, without his conscious will, through her grip. He quivered in her hand, making her wonder if she were doing it correctly; but his voice, thick with wanting, dispelled her doubts.

"Ah, Lizzy, yes, Lizzy, my love, yes, just like this."

He had starved for her, for so long, and the pleasure of her touch on him was unimaginable. Hardly sensible of anything but the feeling of her hand holding him, he managed to show her the rhythm he wanted. From then on, he was at her mercy-and a considerable mercy it was. His hands pulled her closer, found her body under her thin night-rail, her hips and breasts and legs-but only for a moment, for he was unable to focus, not even on that ... Somewhere at the back of his mind was an idle thought that perhaps, thinking of his aunt or Miss Bingley could stave off the inevitable by... well, by a few minutes at most. Thus, a double office would be accomplished, that of prolonging his pleasure and helping him save face just a little bit.

But he was too much in a bad way for that, too far gone. Still, he thought, hazily, he ought to warn her (he knew, with certainty now, that he would die if she stopped). Rearing up, breathing like a cornered bull in a bull-fight, he fixed her with a stare and stilled her hand (oh, the effort of will it took him to do that). She gazed upon him, not understanding, her expression hurt.

"Whatever is wrong, Darcy? Do I not please you?"

"You do, Lizzy, you do so much that I-" he could not finish the sentence, could not tell her he would spill himself if she continued, and that he wanted her to continue, more than anything in the world. But her countenance brightened at his reassurances, and she pushed him, gently, teasingly, back onto the blanket.

"Well, sir, quiet down then!"

From then on, it was only a few moments longer, until something roared through him, making him twist, arch and cry out. The force of it seemed to lift him off the blanket, and for a second, he remembered, vividly, why the French called it a little death . Indeed, he thought-no, not thought , for thinking was quite beyond him at the moment, not thought , but knew , that he was dying then; and it was too wonderful for words. It lasted longer than he had ever known, and was likely better than he had ever experienced, and even as he sank back, descending, his whole body seemed to reverberate with the aftershocks.

Elizabeth's wonder was profound. Whatever she had read in the book-namely, something vague about the essence of the lotus -had hardly prepared her for the incredible transformation that occurred in him-under her hands-a commotion, she thought, a paroxysm of pleasure. At least, she hoped it was pleasure, for his loud, throaty cry could have been interpreted as one of pain; but, as he settled back, his chest heaving, he pulled her near and started kissing her, like mad.

So it was pleasure, definitely, she deduced, rather pleased with herself. Her mission had been quite a success.

Gently, carefully, Elizabeth unclasped her fingers from around him. Ah yes, she thought, curiously, the essence . It was, in all honesty, everywhere . Perhaps, she mused, there was something she could have done to prevent such an eruption...but the sensible woman in her doubted that. On his part, he took her hand and wiped it, quickly, against the blanket.

"Forgive me," he said, sheepishly. "I did not mean to-"

Elizabeth sighed with happiness. "I did," she said.

He dipped his head and kissed her again, no longer so much in gratitude as in passion. Then, getting up himself, he pulled her up to her feet and well-nigh dragged her towards the water. Elizabeth giggled, barely making it after him, her bare feet sliding on dew-stained grass.

"Darcy, what are you doing?" she hissed, giggling, fighting her own hilarity, trying to pull back her hand, trying to free herself, but could not even manage to stop. "I cannot- Darcy !" she squealed at the first lap of cold water at her feet. "I cannot swim !"

He stopped, knee-deep in water, and grinned. "Lizzy, Lizzy, do you think I should let you drown?"

"No?"

"No," he mimicked her, pulling her, inexorably, closer. She stalled, awkwardly, fumbling with her chemise, wrapping it around her hips, then, at Darcy's openly appreciative scrutiny of her legs, blushed so that her cheeks burned in the darkness, and pulled it down.

"It will get wet," she warned him. Darcy grinned again.

"Perhaps it ought to," he suggested. Elizabeth considered their recent activities and found some admirable truth in his words.

"Very well," she said, solemnly, and waded into the water after him. She had told him the truth, she did not know how to swim, swimming not being the usual discipline taught to genteel young ladies. Therefore, at some point, she stopped, water lapping at her breasts and shoulders, and refused, absolutely, to go any further.

"Come here, put your arms around my neck," he said, and she did, gripping him tight, marveling at his height, the breadth of his shoulders, the sinewy strength of him. It was very different business, she supposed, to be a man, for there was nothing soft about him. He was so handsome, so beguiling to her eyes, all lean muscle and graceful lines, and nude like so, pressed against her, he was her most decadent dream come true. Her head spun with excitement, and it was a very good thing he was now holding her in his arms, or she would have drowned.

The pond, she noticed, was much, much cleaner than the one nearer to the house. Elizabeth did not question how it was that Darcy knew about it: of course, he was the master of this land, he would know about all its beauties. The pond, streaks of silver on the black silk of the water, seemed removed from the rest of the world, tucked away in a fairy-tale all of its own. Elizabeth sighed in happiness, wishing the night, the magic, the love to last, and lowered her head, softly, against Darcy's shoulder.

"I wanted to tell you," she heard his low, husky murmur just above her ear, "that you are an admirably good student."

She giggled. "I think you ought to thank that remarkable treatise of yours."

"I do," he said, fervently. "I bless the day Fitzwilliam sneaked it into Pemberley ten years ago. In fact," he added, his lips velvety against her cheek, "I am so pleased with it, I think it is a crying shame they do not use it in our schools."

"Truly?"

"Absolutely." Absent-mindedly, one of his hands caressed her curves under her chemise, making her shiver and press closer to him. "I think every young lady ought to study it, if she is to be called truly accomplished."

Elizabeth raised her head from his shoulder, not a little distracted by the small, gliding movements his fingers made upon her flesh under water.

"Would you favor your sister reading it?"

Darcy huffed, scandalized. "Absolutely not," he said, and, with a sudden heave, pulled one of her legs over his hip, and then the other, so that she was no longer floating in the water, but attached to him, like a monkey to a tree, in a most scandalous manner.

Elizabeth gave a little squeal, prompted particularly by the apprehension of his manhood (however much she trusted the little Indian book, she refused absolutely to adopt its vocabulary: not even in her most wildest and most preposterous dreams would she refer to Darcy's member as a marble anything), quivering slightly against her bottom. Her naked bottom, for her chemise, now wet, proved utterly useless and floated up, in the manner of the schools of jellyfish, leaving her nude underwater.

What was even more disconcerting that his flesh, seemingly becalmed (she was most impressed at the difference) only moments ago, seemed, once again, up to its full potential. Elizabeth squirmed in his embrace and he laughed, softly.

"Lizzy, my sweet, I shall not ravish you. But I do like to have both my hands free." He grinned wickedly and winked at her in the moonlight.

"W-why?" she stammered, weakly.

"Well," he said, softly, "I could tell you. But perhaps, I should show you instead?"

It was a question, Elizabeth noticed, and one cocked eyebrow to boot. He wanted her to answer, wanted her acquiescence to what was, inevitably, to follow. Why he did, was quite beyond her, for surely he could not possibly think she would refuse him. It was simply wrong, she thought, to toy with her so. But, butterflies at the pit of her stomach-and her legs still tangled from about his waist-she tried to bring his attention, instead, to the incongruity of her position.

"But will it not tire you to keep me aloft like so?"

Darcy grinned, seemingly very pleased with himself.

"Do not change the subject, Elizabeth," he said, somewhat pedantically. "You weigh little enough as it is... but in the water, you weigh practically nothing."

"Ah," Elizabeth said, vaguely, thinking that her father had clearly neglected to teach her some important truths about nature and physics. "Perhaps, I am not so very accomplished, if I did not know this. Perhaps you will now change your mind about marrying me."

"Worry not, lovely Elizabeth," was his somewhat smug answer, "for you know enough to please me in heart and body, and what you do not know, I shall be glad to teach you. In fact, as I told you today, it should be my most exquisite pleasure..."

His words melted against her skin as he lowered his head and kissed her neck, his lips unexpectedly hot in the cool water. She must, indeed, be weightless, for he was holding her against him with one hand, the other lost, completely, in her hair, sliding up and down her back, cupping, with single-minded determination, her behind. Elizabeth sighed at the touch of his fingers against her skin. She heard, from the shore, Lucifer's quiet grunt; a bird cried out somewhere, heralding the passing of another hour of the night.

She threw back her head, to the moon and the star-jeweled skies, and felt his face against her breasts, his lips, deliberate and gentle, against one nipple, then the other. She felt her hair, long untangled, spread on the water, heavy, anchoring her head, tying her with chains to the night. She closed her eyes and melted away.

She moaned under his fingertips, feeling one of his hands still below her, caressing leisurely, brushing against the most intimate parts of her. She trembled, every single sensation new.

"Hold on to me, Lizzy," he whispered, and his voice was different-hoarse, thick with wanting. She obeyed, pushing herself against him, clutching at his shoulders, burying her face against his neck. His other hand had long left her breasts and was caressing, wantonly, where she most wanted to be touched, but did not know it herself.

A whimper escaped her and disappeared into the night.

"Ah, my angel," she heard, and felt herself moved, slightly, so that he pushed her up and buried his face in her breasts, catching her nipples in his mouth, licking and suckling shamelessly. A wave of warmth flooded her, making her writhe in his embrace, making her clutch at him all the tighter, making her strain, making her push herself against his lips, his mouth, his hands.

Then, she felt something spill inside of her, like a cupful of water, turned over by carelessness, felt herself lost, vanquished, compleatly bested by him. The pleasure was almost unbearable, and she clung to him, seeking a harbor, lest it carry her away like a wild river. She bent and sang in his embrace, like a taut string. He held her tighter to himself with one hand, the rasp of his cheek against the top of her breasts, but his fingers continued on her, with merciless precision, until her cries rang in his ears and until she sank, wilted, against him.

"Oh, oh, Darcy."

Weakly, she bit his wet shoulder, her teeth scraping him lightly.

He kissed her, in passion and gratitude and pleasure at seeing her so responsive. He could not imagine the wonders of their marriage bed. This was wonderful, of course, but still, this was nothing to what awaited them. He felt himself grow even harder at the thought, though he had not thought it possible.

Coming down, Elizabeth breathed shallowly, then deeper and deeper. Her eyelashes fluttered, lazily; somewhat disoriented, she stared at him. He was smiling at her, eyes as dark and deep as this pond. She felt a burst of color in her cheeks, even as the last spasms of pleasure inside died away.

"This," he said, in all seriousness, but his eyes, of course, smiling, "was why I wished both my hands free."

She chuckled weakly. "I cannot argue it was a wise idea, Mr. Darcy."

Though still caught up in the tumultuous sensations he had aroused in her, Elizabeth perceived a change in him, saw him take all of her in, felt him push, insistently, against her under water, turgid and hot.

"Darcy," she whispered. Her cup running over with gratitude and love, she dropped her hand under water, felt for him, felt her fingers close over and around. His breath torn from his lips in one ragged gasp, Darcy tightened his embrace around her. His mouth closed over hers, quickly, greedily, disorienting her and making her forget, almost entirely, her new task. But no sooner did her fingers relinquish their hold him under the water that his own hand, quickly, caught hers and brought it back.

"Please," he murmured. But he never did take his hand off hers, and Elizabeth, in profound wonder, allowed him to guide her.

This time, he kept his eyes open and locked with hers. His hand moved over hers, urgently, insistently, stroking, pressing himself against her backside, her curves, where she was the most woman, the most desirable. The thoughts of it drove him wild, almost making him forget himself. Caught up in the movement, he soon lost all semblance of control, rough growls escaping his lips. Elizabeth kept her legs about his waist and flung one arm around his neck, all the while kissing him wildly and praying silently that he does not drop her. She did not wish to drown, particularly not on the precipice of such great happiness.

When it came, he did not know how he managed to remain standing. He was holding her, and she could not swim, and this was the only thought that kept him on his feet at that moment (for even when distracted so compleatly, he could let no harm come to Elizabeth). Otherwise, he would have drowned for certain. But as it was, he merely dropped his head to her shoulder and let it happen.

Elizabeth, this time knowing more of what to expect, did not fail to be surprised. It was a natural wonder to watch him... she fumbled for a word...but her vocabulary was too limited. There, she thought, find his pleasure . (Genteel enough.) Still, no doubt, this expression did not do justice to the tumult that seemed to consume him. For she felt him pulse, violently, in her grip, and felt his own grasp tighten over her hand, almost crushing it; his whole body seemed to rock and shudder, and as she heard him moan, then cry out as if in pain-and she knew she would remember-and cherish-for the rest of her days the sound of her own name falling from his lips at this moment. At such a moment, she thought, and wondered whether he, too, was as moved by the sight of her ...ah, she thought, verbs, in particular, were hopeless. She hoped that he was.

With a shuddering breath, Darcy gathered Elizabeth to himself. He whispered words of love to her, words of thanks, the last aftershocks of his ecstasy making his voice hoarse and thick. He saw moonlight reflected in her eyes, and a tremulous, shy smile on her lips. For she was, all of a sudden, taken with a sudden bout of coyness.

"I hope you do not think me too forward for-" she murmured, but her last words were lost as he crushed his mouth to hers, leaving her in no doubt of his regard.

"Lizzy," he said, finally tearing himself away, "I think you terribly forward, and absolutely wonderful." He held her hand to his cheek. "My love."

She unclasped, finally, her legs from about her waist, and together, they made their way to the shore, where, sitting her down on the blanket, Darcy coaxed her out of the wet chemise. Maddeningly stubborn, she refused to take it off-Darcy could not help laughing, considering that the chemise was compleatly wet and clung to her forms, leaving every last bit of her open for his eager eyes. Finally, disbelieving himself, he said:

"You are a little hypocrite, Elizabeth,"-and turned away. Even as he stood with his back turned, he knew why she had suddenly become so shy: he had to admit, it was a very different business for her to be compleatly nude. He had seen almost all of her, but not all. It stung, and he longed to turn around; but that, in his mind, would be a dishonorable thing to do. So he stood, slightly cross with her, but wildly entertained nonetheless, listening to her rustling about behind his back.

"You may turn around now," she said. He did, and saw her in her corset and petticoats. She was holding the corset, open in the back, to her chest with one hand, holding out a towel to him with the other. Her hair still wild down her back, he noticed as he took the towel from her. He commenced making himself decent, all the while watching, from the corner of his eye, as she pulled on her stockings, awkwardly, with one hand. She tied the garters doubling up, pressing the open corset to her chest, whipping up the white froth of her petticoats over her knees. He found the sight so erotic, he had to turn around, lest he completely embarrass himself. He could not believe it, but he desired her again. Indeed, he reflected, ruefully, it would be a long time before he stopped wanting her every waking moment of his life.

But as it was, he did not wish her to think him insatiable. So he dressed, quickly, and then helped her, pulling her stay closed in the back, pushing little hooks through the tiny eyelets. He smelled her skin, still damp from the water, flipped the heavy curtain of dark hair forward. Unable to help himself, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to her cheek.

"Lizzy my love," he whispered. "My precious, precious love."

She smiled-he could not see it, not really, but he could feel it by the way her cheek moved against his-took his hand and pressed it, quickly but fervently, to her lips.

"And you," she whispered into the darkness, "you are mine."

Lucifer, seemingly displeased with having been so abandoned, snorted contemptuously and tossed his head. They returned to the house, reveling in each other's embrace and company, and Darcy, daring, walked Elizabeth up to her room. He half-wished, half-dreaded, that she should ask him to stay. Wished for obvious reasons-for he was, quite unexpectedly, seized by desire to sleep with her, though he knew that it was all a prevarication, that he would hardly sleep-but dreaded because, despite everything else, he found it somewhat... well, wrong, to sleep in his fiancée's bed before their wedding. Now who's a hypocrite? he asked himself.

Luckily for him, Elizabeth could barely stand on her feet, so tired she was. Unlike him, the only thing she desired at the moment was sleep. She felt so very wonderful, in body and soul, so sated, so happy, so fulfilled; therefore, she did not present her lover with a quandary. Stopping by her door, she stood on tiptoes, and kissed him on the mouth, lightly.

"Good night, my sweet love," she whispered, before disappearing behind the door. Darcy stood there for several moments more, sighing deeply, telling himself they would sleep together yet; all in good time. Tonight had been so very wonderful; he had not dared hope, nor dream that it could be like so. Now, Elizabeth's generosity in love left him stunned, deeply thankful and full of radiant hopes for their future together. He sighed again and walked back outside, where he had left Lucifer tied to yet another tree; he needed, after all, to take him to the stables.

Otherwise, Lucifer's personality being what it was, he might not have a mount tomorrow.

Chapter 26

On the morning of Georgiana's birthday, Darcy stood in the music room, supervising the delivery of his gift to her. By the time he had finally fallen asleep last night, his head and heart and veins full of Elizabeth, the sky had turned faint maidenly pink; yet, having risen only a few hours later, he felt good enough to sing. His gift (a lovely new pianoforte, ordered from London and only just delivered) had been moved into the music room, in place of the old one, moved out, upon his orders, late last night, after everyone had gone to bed, and he, well, he had... but never mind about that, he thought. He watched two footmen and an upper maid fuss over it: the fellows pulled two long pink ribbons about and around the unwieldy gift, and the maid fashioned a coquettish bow on top of it.

"Very good," Darcy said, before quitting the room. It was a strange notion to tie a big pink bow on a gift for his sister; a singular and sentimental one. He had never spared any expense when it came to Georgiana, but he had never put a girlish pink bow on anything he had given her. In fact, before, he would have been embarrassed by the very idea. But that was before, he thought, elated. Before Elizabeth.

She had truly lightened his heart.

It was still very early, and the house was half-asleep in the first shy rays of the morning. Only the servants bustled to and fro, stopping to bow as they passed the Master on his way about the house. It seemed that the rest of Pemberley's genteel inhabitants were still slumbering. There was no end to his surprise and pleasure, when, walking down the hallway, Darcy espied his heart's desire, hurrying his way. Straight into his open arms, in fact (one would think he had not seen her for a good fortnight, such a jolt his heart gave at the sight of her). There was nobody around, and so he felt compleatly justified pulling her against him-only to see that it could hardly be done, for under her arm, she held something prodigious and jangling. Something with a round top and covered by a shawl.

"Good heavens," Darcy said, curiously. "What on earth is this?"

"Georgiana's birthday gift," she said, somewhat defensively. Darcy thought that perhaps, he would do well to remove the note of bizarre amusement from his voice; he would not want her to think he was laughing at her offering. He pulled on the shawl, trying to look under it. She slapped his hand away, lightly.

" 'Tis a secret!" she said, unable to keep from grinning in a silliest manner imaginable.

"Well surely not from me!" he said petulantly and pulled on the shawl again, even as he finally found a comfortable way to hold Elizabeth against him, her back against his chest, his chin on her shoulder. "You cannot have any secrets from your future husband! Not to mention that I am the Master of Pemberley!" Thus, looking over her shoulder, he managed to yank the shawl off the unwieldy object in her arms. That it was a cage, he had already surmised. Perched upon a narrow wooden bar, a brightly-colored yellow bird angled its head and regarded Darcy and Elizabeth with a curious air. It then skipped a little and welcomed the subdued light of the hallway with a cheery little song.

"Oh, Lizzy," he said, touched, and kissed her cheek. "This is wonderful gift."

"Do you truly think so?"

"Yes, yes! I am certain Georgie will love it. But when did you--" Darcy frowned, not understanding--he could swear she had not gone anywhere in the past few days. If anything, he should know, for he had hardly taken his eyes, sick with lust, off her person.

"Oh," she said, sighing. She struggled out of his embrace and set the cage on the floor. Having pulled the shawl over the cage once again (thus effectively silencing the canary), she leaned to lift it.

"Allow me," Darcy said, beating her to it. Holding the canary's cage in front of him, he fixed her with a stare, not unlike the one he had so often employed in the earliest days of his acquaintance. "So? When did you manage to procure this?"

"A while ago--when I first--" suddenly, she cut herself off, and stood, sheepish, looking at the floor and the tips of her pink slippers. Darcy followed her gaze and stared at them, too, awash with memories of the night before. He had taken them off of her, and her stockings, and her dress, and--ah, he thought, longingly, to return with her to the distant, hidden lake. Here you are, he thought, the lovesick, cunt-struck fool.

"When you first what , Lizzy?"

She sighed again, looking pained. Then, with desperate urgency, she whispered: "When I first thought I should leave here."

"I see," Darcy said, suddenly lost. It was unexpectedly painful to remember that once, she had longed to quit Pemberley--and to leave him . That she could have possibly desired to never see him again. He shuddered at the thought.

"I wanted Georgiana to have something--" she sighed again. "Something to remember me by. A living memento."

Clearly his discomfiture showed plainly upon his face, and Elizabeth's own heart squeezed painfully at the memories of their shared misery. It was not a happy recollection, and so she resolved to make him forget (for it was she, after all, who had made him remember). With a clear purpose, she stepped forth and took the cage out of his hands, then set it down on the floor again. She could kiss him while he was still holding it, of course, but it would only be fleeting, and fleeting simply would not do when a kiss was all they had. The canary safely out of her way (having given an outraged chirp at all the jostling about), Elizabeth returned to her lover. Standing in the middle of the hallway, he seemed lost and pained, and in need of reassurance--which she was eager to grant.

Therefore, Elizabeth stood on the tiptoes, held her lover's face cupped between her palms and then kissed him squarely on the mouth, with all the fervor of a truly dedicated neophyte. Somehow, it seemed important that he feel how much she loved him, how she burned for him. It was as if she strove to imprint her love for him upon his lips, much like the lines of a love poem written on a page.

Sighing, he tore himself away and murmured, inspired:

" Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips begin and tell -"

To which she finished, her arms winding about his neck:

"- A thousand and a hundred score,
A hundred and a thousand more -"

Thereupon, the kiss resumed, and they were both lost. Elizabeth did not know who broke the kiss first, but it was only for want of air, or else, neither would have been of much mind to let go of the other. And even then, letting go was only perfunctory. His countenance changing rapidly from pained to passionate, Darcy clutched her to himself, and whispered into her hair:

"I could not bear it if you left me."

She had told him once already that she could not bear it herself. But she was also conscious of the fact that he was a proud man (though perhaps not so vain as she had once thought him to be), and that admitting to such a weakness, to needing someone so badly, hardly came easy to him. Therefore, she was not shy, nor guileful about repeating her own words of surrender.

"I shall never leave you," she told him, resolutely. "Never."

~ * ~

Georgiana, who was by nature a grateful girl, adored all her gifts, but none so much as Elizabeth's canary. The fact that Darcy had personally picked the piano-forte for her when in London that spring, and that the Colonel had given her a lovely carved ivory fan, and that Anne had brought her two bottles of exquisite (and extremely grown-up) French perfume--all of it paled in comparison to the fact that Elizabeth's bird was alive . Indeed, it was so very alive , by the end of the day several members of the party complained of ear-splitting headaches and Darcy was forced to order (in gentlest tones, of course) his sister to remove the offending bird to her room. Georgiana would not let a footman pick up the cage, but did it herself, however cumbersome and heavy it was. Thereupon, seemingly unencumbered by the weight, she verily pranced out of the room.

Darcy, though feigning mild displeasure (though not with Elizabeth, never with Elizabeth), still found that the loud little pest served his aims exceedingly well. For he could claim he had a headache, scowl at the rest of the company for a bit, and then retire to his study and demand not to be disturbed. Still, as he passed Elizabeth reading in a chair (lessons with Georgiana suspended today by reason of the pupil's birthday), he dropped, ever so clandestinely, a tiny note on top of her book.

Elizabeth congratulated herself on having excellent reflexes. For she did not startle (which would have revealed his plot to the rest of the company) nor did she even look up, supposedly completely enthralled by the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver in the land of the giants. She managed to conceal his note in her hand, waited the obligatory ten minutes after he had quitted the room, and then excused herself as well.

Stopping outside the drawing-room, she unfolded the note (she smirked at the thought of Darcy folding it meticulously, to make certain that it was as small as possible). I am in pain , it said. Come and comfort me . She sighed and rolled her eyes to the sky, immensely pleased and not a little excited.

From the contents of the note, she would expect the door to Darcy's to be unlocked, and well, so it was. Slipping inside, she squinted against the shadows, for the drapes were drawn, and it took her eyes a few seconds to adjust. Still, soon enough she saw him, sprawled languidly on a sofa. Suddenly, she was worried--for she considered, for a moment, that he might, indeed, fall ill (to imagine that he, much like any other person, was not immune to illness and human frailty-why, the very thought chilled her to the bone!). Coming closer, she leaned and pressed her lips against his forehead, which she found, to her simultaneous relief and consternation, absolutely cool. The former soon won over; for, in addition to him clearly not being ill or in pain, his arms came about her and pulled her on top of him. Thereupon, a rather heated kissing session ensued, and Elizabeth could only hope that it would serve to mend him. After he finally released her, she perched on the edge of the sofa and stared at him for a long time, smiling amidst the muted shadows.

"You, sir, are a fraud," she said, without even a hint of accusation that her words might have carried. "You are not truly in pain, are you?"

"I am," he said, defensively. "And you, madam, are to blame for it."

For a second, Elizabeth thought he had meant her gift to Georgiana and his resultant headache, if, indeed, he had one; but that was a ridiculous supposition. He was playing with her, she knew, and she would not deny him this little game. Caressing his cheek lovingly with the back of her hand, she asked:

"What ails you, then, my love? Where does it hurt?"

Darcy rolled his eyes, his take on extreme suffering rather poor.

"Oh," he declaimed. "Many places. Here, for one." He took her hand and laid it against his forehead. "For I think too much of ways to be alone with you, and fail to find them in the end. And here," he added, bringing her hand to his chest, "every time I look at you, it aches, Lizzy."

"I know," she whispered, and truly, she did, for she felt the same. "Where else?"

He kissed her palm, seemingly hesitating. Then, he stared at her, pointedly, and in that way . She had come to recognize that stare for what it was--a declaration of intense desire, inner upheaval, once marked so successfully as superior disdain. That, and the slow, steady motion of his thumb rubbing the inside of her palm made her forget why on earth she was there. She gave a little gasp, and felt all her blood rush, in a burst of heat and color, to her cheeks. Still, she did not lower her eyes, but stared back at him, challenging him to look away first.

He did not.

"You know where, Lizzy," he said, thickly. That she did, having lately had the opportunity to study his passion for her at length; at once, the memories of the night before came, flooding her with shameless heat.

"What a teasing, teasing man you are, Mr. Darcy," she whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from his person.

"Tease you, Lizzy?" he asked, eyes narrowed at her, half in inquiry, half in challenge. "I should not dare. Indeed, wouldst that I were teasing you, my love," he whispered, deep longing in his voice. "No, Lizzy, I am not a tease, but you are a cruel, cruel girl. You know all too well what you do to me."

A bit of a coward at heart, Elizabeth dared not inquire what, suspecting that the next means of explanation at his disposal would be an outright demonstration. And she simply was not ready for that. She might dare much in the darkness and mystery of a moonlit wood, but Darcy's own study in the middle of a bustling house was a whole other matter.

Still, she remained quite stirred by his declaration (though it was, of course, not any great news to her, not after his numerous earlier pronouncements and the previous night's edification), and found that such sincerity and passion deserved to be reciprocated. Therefore, she said, with all the feeling that raged, at that moment, inside of her (and that was quite a lot):

"Darcy, if I am making you suffer, it is not without the price of my own."

"How so, Lizzy?"

"Every time I look into your eyes, I long for you as much as you long for me."

Darcy seemed to hold his breath, his eyes rapt at her face. The gentle, steady motion of his finger against her palm stopped.

"Impossible," he said, finally.

"'Tis true," Elizabeth whispered. "You have awakened feelings in me that are wholly... wholly new to me. It seems you are the more fortunate of us two--for you know exactly what you want."

"I do," he agreed. He brought her hand to his face, and she cupped his cheek. Leaning into her touch, he closed his eyes and pressed his lips to the very spot his finger had occupied earlier.

"And I, I--" disoriented and flummoxed, she fumbled for words that would be both on point and proper, then abandoned propriety altogether. "I long for something, I am not certain what... a fulfillment, a freedom... -But," she added seriously, "I dream of you, that much I know."

From the height of his experience, Darcy saw that all this was but a convoluted way to say a very simple thing-that she, too, desired him. Because the very feeling itself was new and it took her some time to learn to recognize it, she would not say it aloud. And neither would he force such an admission out of her. He knew it to be true, knew that she, too, burned for him, and this led him to hope for a most passionate culmination to their union. And so, however much he wanted to hear her say that she desired him... he would wait.

Therefore, with a joyful certainty of one who knew he would not be refused, Darcy took Elizabeth's face between his hands and kissed her, gently. Because his kiss answered so well her own inner passions, Elizabeth forgot all about her earlier misgivings and threw herself at him with wildness not unlike that found in, well, a strumpet. Of course, once his gentle assault upon her lips caused such an eruption of ardor in her, he would be the last to complain or deny her anything she deigned to (silently) ask for. All of a sudden, she was no longer sitting next to him on the sofa, but rather, lying on top of him. Then, more: his arms tightened about her, his hands slipped down and cupped her bottom, and almost immediately, she was on her back, legs splayed, looking up into his earnest, beautiful, beloved face. Only the most severe effort of will allowed her to refrain from locking her legs about his waist; but he seemed strangely unconcerned with the location of her legs, his mouth seeking, rather, the fragrant hollows of her neck, the tops of her breasts, his hands following suit. Matters were brought to a head quite rapidly, and only the ringing of the bell, announcing that it was time for them to dress for supper, interrupted what could well have been a most satisfying experience.

As it was, both of them were left severely disheveled and also mightily aroused. His heart a trapped bird within the confines of a cage, Darcy rose from her. Breathing as if he might succumb at any moment, he repeated his earlier maneuver, cupping her face in his hands and placing his lips on hers.

"Lizzy," he whispered, hesitantly, leaning his forehead against hers. "We must be married, soon as I am back from London."

"Yes," she said, beaming against his mouth. He tasted her smile, her happiness, thought he held a tiny, shining star on the tip of his tongue.

They were quiet for some time, kneeling across from each other, arms wrapped and locked about each other's person, one's head upon the other's shoulder.

"I love you," he said, and she echoed, in a whisper: "I love you more." Darcy dared not argue that: for, if she loved him more than he did her, if ever such a thing was possible, he was a fortunate man, indeed.

~ * ~

When Anne (de Bourgh no longer) brought Darcy's box to Elizabeth's room, the latter studied her with poorly hidden curiosity. If she knew anything about the world, Anne was no longer a maiden, but rather a wife. Indeed, one assumed ( if one thought about it at all, which was highly reprehensible and yet, absolutely inevitable) that she had become the Colonel's wife in more than name only, and that she had also become a woman . How such a momentous transformation could be effected within a single night's time was a mystery onto itself, one which Elizabeth dared not question. If this was the way it was done, then so it would be.

It was a different worry that plagued her. She doubted not that Darcy would know what to do, he had shown her as much; but would his doing so render her temporarily (hopefully) injured? Thus, she watched Anne closely, wondering whether her initiation had dealt her any irreparable damage . It seemed it had not: for Anne did not seem torn, injured or wounded. Quite the opposite, she looked whole and quite a little blossom, Elizabeth thought. She walked normally and even skipped occasionally; that was, indeed, a relief. She ventured, for a second, to consider whether all men were possessed of a similarly sized, er, appendage, but then cast off such thoughts in mute horror. After all, she did remember the outrageous Indian book speak of rabbits and elephants. But never would she be so amiss as to insult the good Colonel by thinking of him as a rabbit (for, her edification somewhat limited, it still allowed her an understanding that bigger was usually better). Or rather, never would she be so wanton as to think of him as anything .

Fortunately, the Colonel's person held little fascination for her. Rather, her ambition was solely to determine whether Darcy's prodigious instrument would render her a cripple. She hoped not. Indeed, she chose to think so, lest she never give in to him, thus making their marriage a nullity.

Quite clearly unaware of the scurrilous direction Elizabeth's thoughts were taking, Anne said, smiling:

"I vow, dearest Elizabeth, that Miss Caroline Bingley should present a particular curious spectacle tonight."

Elizabeth knew precisely what she meant, and almost laughed, having imagined Caroline's face when she saw her wearing the dress. Still, seized by compunction, she said:

"Anne, I feel almost bad thinking thus. I do not like myself when I gloat."

"Oh, but you do not gloat, dear Elizabeth, you simply give due to the extraordinary creature that is Miss Bingley!" Anne plopped the box on top of Elizabeth's bed and said, with a suggestive wiggle of her eyebrows, "if you need any help later...in putting the diamonds on, for one-"

"I shall be sure to call for you," Elizabeth said, laughing.

"Indeed," Anne said, grinning, skipping towards the door. "In the meantime, madam, I shall go in search of my husband."

In the end, having opened the box, she sat down next to it, and stared at the blue silk, the diamonds, and the exquisite silver lace until her eyes went slightly cross with all the dazzle. Would it please him if she wore them? Would it distress him? Would it remind him of his mistakes, of their estrangement? She could not guess, but she hoped for the former-that the sight of the dress upon her person would merely be an old dream fulfilled. Finally, with a sigh of annoyance, she rose from the bed, bent on dismissing all doubts.

She would wear it all tonight, the dress and the diamonds. And hang it all, she added to herself, uncharacteristically and bravely. He was bound to love the sight of her. There was no misunderstanding she could not explain to him, not now, not when they had both opened their hearts to each other. She would wear it, then.

She bathed, thoughtfully. The water sloshing about her reminded her of other water, of the night before, of Darcy's hands and mouth on her, of his wildness, and--the sweetest memory of all--of his ultimate surrender. She felt herself blushing, from her toes to the roots of her hair; that she could still blush was a relief (for it indicated some reserves of conscience, despite her behavior last night-and, indeed, this afternoon as well, for he only had to touch her, and she felt it, once again, the sweetest longing, the most delicious ache, the unconscious urge to cleave and cling to him). She did not like to think her wantonness was absolute; it was most distressing that she had, in the space of the last week, turned into such an absolute hussy.

Hussy, she thought, but without any true censure of herself. Who could have thought, who could have imagined that such spirit of wildness dwelt within him, and that her own would so respond to it? She felt a burst of pleasure, and absolute, cloudless, giddy bliss at the thought. Erupting in bubbly laughter, she slid under the cooling water.

She would wear the dress tonight.

Later, already dressed, she dismissed the maid with thanks and stood, a moment, before the mirror.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the woman in the mirror was simply lovely. Flushed with a glow of happiness and love, blossoming with youth and health, her fine dark eyes dancing with mischief. She was wearing a dress that fitted her exquisitely, and about her neck, a single dazzling strands of diamonds, interspersed with long, drop-like pearls, cool against her skin. The shade of sapphire blue became her ideally, Elizabeth thought coquettishly, and the shape of the gown fit her perfectly as well. The very thought of how he knew her so well made her faint with desire. She took a small twirl before the mirror, the beautiful blue skirts flying airily about her legs.

Good heavens, she was so happy, he had made her so happy.

The diamonds dazzled her, quite in spite of her intention to remain nonchalant about them. She put her hand over the choker, embarrassed a little at its grandiosity. Felt the tiny hard ridges of the stones, looked into the mirror again. The happiness in her eyes did not diminish, even though she could no longer see them.

Ah, she thought. That Darcy was so wealthy-indeed, more so than anyone she had ever known, or likely to know-meant that she constantly had to remind herself she was not marrying him for his money, and had nothing of which to be ashamed. But they will think so, she thought. The world will think so. Her own mother will crow about Pemberley, and the money, and the carriages, ad infinitum , until not even the most well-meaning soul sees anything behind this marriage but his gold and land and connections and her luck. And wiles and seduction, perhaps. For she was certain that the likes of Caroline Bingley would hardly let it lie-indeed, she thought with slight bitterness, what could bind them together but his lust and her cold-blooded calculation?

She took her hand away from the diamonds, tried to see herself in entirety, the way others would. A governess, a penniless adventuress. A mercenary huntress, fortunate to have caught such an impressive prey. She sighed, despaired for a moment; but then, fiercely, she made herself not think of that. For they hardly signified. She needed not prove it to herself, for the truth was there, in her heart, and in his. The truth about them was in the dark velvety gaze of his lovely eyes, and in the touch of his figners upon her. Nothing else signified, indeed.

Elizabeth tossed her head defiantly and stepped outside, where she collided, nose-to-nose, with Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst passing down the hallway. At the sight of her, both sisters froze in one spot. Deeply amused at their stupor (both looked as if they might collapse at any moment), Elizabeth gave them a most gracious smile and a curtsy.

"Miss Eliza!" Caroline croaked out poisonously. "How does Mr. Darcy's headache?"

"I thank you," Elizabeth replied, taking a somewhat perverse pleasure in deflecting Caroline's barbs. "I believe he's a little better."

Then, having dropped another curtsy, she walked away from them, all the while feeling two pairs of eyes at her back, staring at her with shock and envy.

What a delightful beginning, she thought.

She found Darcy and Georgiana downstairs, welcoming the guests (not that many, Elizabeth noticed, a rather select and pleasant company, mostly local families and a few unfamiliar faces). She watched him from the top step, so formally dressed and devastatingly handsome, and was suddenly, dreadfully, robbed of all courage. What if he should be angry with her? What if the sight of her in the dress should distress him?

"A thousand, and a hundred score," she whispered to herself. "A hundred, and a thousand more."

All of a sudden, he raised his eyes at her. For a split second, an expression of deepest shock reflected upon his face; thereupon, she saw, as she met his gaze shyly, his countenance express nothing but absolute enchantment. Georgiana's eyes followed his gaze and, as they rested upon Elizabeth standing at the top of the stairs, the girl adopted a similarly charmed countenance. Soon, everyone in the hall was looking up, staring at her. It was amidst such attention from all four sides that Darcy strode towards the stairs and stood at the base of it, one foot on the lowest step, one hand extended for her. She knew it for what it was-a declaration for all present, an announcement of her as his intended and the future Mistress of Pemberley.

However much she wished to run down and fling her arms about his neck, Elizabeth managed to descend with dignity. Thereupon, everybody around her adopted a suitably disinterested expression, pretending not to stare; still, it hardly signified if they did look on and eavesdropped. As she felt Darcy's hand squeeze hers, she only had eyes for him.

"Lizzy," he said, huskily, looking down at her with such intensity, she thought it was fortunate she was not prone to swoons (or she would have collapsed, definitely).

"I thought I might wear all this"-with her free hand, she made a vague gesture, indicating her general outfit-"after all." She found herself blushing, and whispering, and wishing dearly he should say something, anything rather than that thick, wistful "Lizzy." Her courage fled, once again, for he stared at her in that way, again, and though she would no longer mistake that look for censure...still she felt they were exposed, with dozens of eyes following their every move.

"Say something," she mouthed finally. "Please."

"Forgive me," he whispered back. "I am simply overwhelmed. To see you thus."

"Oh!" Only the presence of some two dozen people around her prevented Elizabeth from hiding her face in her folded hands. Clearly, he was displeased, having found her behavior gauche and perhaps even cruel. "I did not mean to-" she whispered, her voice breaking. "Please do not be angry with me."

At this pronouncement, the expression on his face changed once again, the raptness giving way to what she hoped was warmth and tenderness; thereupon, abandoning all propriety, he pressed her hand, feverishly, against his lips.

"Angry with you?" he whispered. "Lizzy, are you mad ? How could I be angry with you? I am enchanted by you, my love, is all. You do not cease to amaze me."

"So you are not displeased?" she inquired, timidly.

"Displeased?" he repeated again.

"Because I wore this dress?" Elizabeth explained in urgent whispers. "I hoped it would please you, but I took the risk that it might ..." she stumbled, "that it might remind you-"

"Sh-sh," he whispered, shaking his head, cutting her off, even as all her upheaval sputtered and expired. "It reminds me of nothing but your love, Lizzy. And how ethereally beautiful you are."

"Ethereally," she murmured. "Do stop that, Darcy."

"No, truly."

She sighed with great relief, caught his eye, and laughed, giddly.

"I thought I had displeased you," she repeated. He shook his head again, seemingly aghast at the very idea.

"No, never. I have so wanted to see you in this dress-I have imagined you in it-" In a shadow of a fleeting caress, his fingers touched the twisted gold frame of the necklace, and her skin burned where they had brushed it. "-so many times. But my dreams have not done you justice, Lizzy. You are more beautiful than that."

Elizabeth wished dearly she could fling her arms about him and kiss him. But they were both watched, and therefore restricted in their display of affection for each other. Still, when he bowed over her hand, his lips touched, briefly, the white silk over her knuckles, and tasted the shiver that ran through her.

He gazed at her some more, caressing her with his eyes. Then, he offered his arm and said, louder this time:

"Shall we, Miss Bennet?"

They did.

~ * ~

Elizabeth found Georgiana's birthday, though smaller in scope than the July ball, also a far more lovely party. Her shoulders free from any weight, she enjoyed the company immensely, the laughter, the light-hearted banter, the dancing. She danced with many gentlemen, including the dashing Colonel, but Mr. Bingley, she noticed, was conspicuously absent from the dance floor. Instead, he spent almost the entire evening with Jane (who, of course, did not dance in her black dress), having only stood up once with each of his sisters. He looks as if it is a punishment for him , she thought; and indeed, soon enough, both Jane and Mr. Bingley disappeared from the ballroom. But she, too, did not truly enjoy the dancing, if Darcy could not be her partner. And though she relinquished him gladly to Georgiana or Anne (and found that watching him was a pastime unto itself), she took little pleasure in dancing with another.

Luckily, she knew his sentiments to be the same.

~ * ~

Upstairs, a conversation took place. The sound of violins and laughter drifted up, muted by the thick walls as Bingley blew out most of the candles in a small sitting room, plunging it into the almost compleat darkness.

Looking up from her chair, Jane inquired:

"What are you doing, sir?"

"You have refused to dance with me, Mrs. Collins, because in the eyes of the world you are a widow."

"I am a widow, Mr. Bingley," Jane said gently, but made no move to quit her room or even the chair, not even when he leaned towards her, offering her his hand.

"Not when nobody sees," he said quickly, and held his breath at his own boldness. After all, if Darcy could do it, he certainly could. Still, he half-expected her to shoot out of the chair and leave him. They had repaired to this room, mostly to escape the scrutiny of too many eyes, and sat together, keeping quiet company with each other. And now, now he was being bold-more so than he himself could have imagined.

To his delight and relief, Jane did not rise, did not run out of the room.

"What am I, then?" she whispered, laying her hand in his.

My love , he thought, but dared not say it out loud. Instead, taking a deep breath, he slowly brought her hand to his lips.

"Will you not grant me the honor of a dance, madam?"

Jane held his gaze for a long time, and he died and was reborn in her eyes a thousand times. Then, rising, she dropped him a fluid curtsy.

"The honor is mine," she whispered. They moved together, slowly, to the sound of distant violins, looking, deeply, into each other's eyes. What he saw there made Bingley a better, stronger man a thousand times over. And, drowning in his quiet adoration, Jane found in him the strength to endure all that must be. Stopping in the middle of a fancy he gazed at her between their entwined arms, then dipped his head and kissed her, quickly, brushing her lips with his-and then, falling back, waited, in terror, for her to recoil.

But she did not. Instead, she stood, silent, head bowed, still feeling the taste of him upon his lips. Bingley started, took her hand again, pressed it against his heart.

"Mrs. C-" he started and stopped, feeling that saying her dead husband's name would be disruptive to the quiet harmony that he felt, even now, enveloping them. It would simply be wrong . Therefore, he dared. "Jane," he whispered, and her name was like the sweetest wine upon his tongue.

"I am to leave, soon," she said, finally. "My life is in Hertfordshire, Mr. Bingley."

"I shall follow you there," he replied, hotly. "Anywhere, madam."

"I am a widow," she reminded him, once again.

"But your period of mourning will end-" he said, rather tentatively. "Will it not?"

"Of course it will," Jane whispered. "It is just that I am-" she sighed. "I am frightened, sir."

He sighed, desperately, fighting the mad urge to pull her into an embrace. He had heard-had known-she had been unhappy in her marriage-though Jane herself had never been anything but kind when talking about the late Mr. Collins. He would have given all of himself to make her happy.

"May I court you?" he whispered. "When you go back to Hertfordshire, may I court you, Jane?"

She did not answer, and he hurried to assure her:

"I shall be circumspect, Jane, I shall be proper. I shall call on you as a friend only-until you allow me to be more-but I only wish to be near you!"

Charles Bingley was a sensible man, always had been; but when, in response to his desperate plea, she smiled softly and inclined her head in agreement, he almost died of happiness.

Hand in hand, they stepped towards the window, and stood thus, until the sky burst with spurts and torrents and stars of pure gold, flowers blooming, and roman candles shooting across.

"Oh, the fireworks," Bingley said, smiling in delight. "I have quite forgot Darcy was having them this time."

Jane smiled, said nothing, and laid her head against his shoulder. His arm draped about her shoulder, they watched the celebration of Georgiana Darcy's birthday in happy silence.

This particular translation of Catullus' poem "Da mi basia mille" is pilfered from Diana Gabaldon's wonderful Outlander .

Chapter 27

As they danced together, Elizabeth whispered to Darcy:

I shall leave my door open for you tonight.

She blushed at her own audacity, the tips of her ears under the evening hairdo turning faintly pink. His heart seemed to stall with tenderness and lust, but he teased her all the same.

"Not your window, madam?" he whispered at the moment they were closest in the dance. They wove a fanciful figure about each other, their gazes locked. His fingers trailed, barely, the narrow line of her waist and gave a fleeting caress of her fingertips. A faint shake of her head and she smiled and whispered as they do-si-doed around each other:

"You realize, Mr. Darcy, if you were to break your neck climbing up to my window, the society would be utterly scandalized. I would not be able to show my face at a single soiree."

For a second, he looked shocked at such harsh frankness... Seeing his expression, stricken and hurt, Elizabeth laughed, bubbly, and briefly pressed his hand.

"Take heart, Mr. Darcy," she said, low, "there are other reasons why I should not wish you to break your neck, but--"

"But?"

"But I believe I shall elaborate on them later... tonight," she whispered, and, as the figure demanded, switched places with the dancer to her right. Darcy endeavored to erase the expression of extreme sexual hunger off his face, lest he frighten his new partner into a swoon. As she--a Mrs. Polk, of Highgate, a plump little matron, and twenty years his senior--regarded him with some apprehension, he had to conclude his valiant effort was not entirely successful.

He did so wish he could take her back to the lake. The memory of the previous night's enchantment lingered, but the house was full of guests, and Georgiana, giddy with excitement, stayed up long after her usual time to retire. By the time the last carriage went through the Pemberley gate and Georgiana traipsed, sleepy, up the grand staircase, Elizabeth had long since retired.

Darcy was conscious of the fact that, in inviting him thus, she had given him reins of where the night would go. For a moment, all manner of beguiling possibilities swirled in his mind; then, he had to stop and reconsider. Though Elizabeth might be ready, in body and spirit, to give herself to him, the conditions tonight were hardly ideal. If he were to set out for London before first light, as he had planned, it would leave them only two or three hours and he could not imagine leaving her on the morrow after... after... It would be far too painful, for both of them; he was not certain such a separation, one foot into paradise (right now, he believed, they were merely perched at the threshold), would not kill him.

But he could not forgo the invitation entirely. Very quickly, he dismissed his previous misgivings about sleeping in her bed before they were married. To compleatly refuse the opportunity to spend the night holding Elizabeth in his arms would be ridiculous, insane, insupportable. Therefore, having waited until the house had fallen asleep (with only two or so hours before its servitors would rise, and hardly longer before he, himself, would need to forsake the haven of Elizabeth's embrace for the cold, hard saddle...), he directed his steps towards Elizabeth's bedchamber.

The door, as she had promised, was left unlocked.

He stood by the bed, watching her sleep-her profile on the pillow, her peaceful expression, the slight pout of her lips. The deep velvet eyelashes against her cheek. Tomorrow, he was to leave her. For likely not more than a week, for he would hurry back as soon as he had procured the license and had completed all the necessary marriage-related matters with his solicitor. But he could almost feel it, the bond between them, the bloody string, already stretched taut. It would become more so with every step he took away from Pemberley. For G-d s sake, he thought in dim irritation, it is merely a week; still, he could not shake the feeling of loss.

He had seen her sleep before, but then, she had not been his own. Then, his love for her had been tinged with fear for her life, with the knowledge that they would never belong to each other. Now, seized with fierce possessiveness, he sought to hold her to himself for one more night before their separation. Quickly, he kicked off his shoes and discarded his jacket and waistcoat; thereupon, he joined her in the bed. As she lay on her side, he fitted himself about her, rested his chin upon her shoulder, and slipped his arms around her waist.

Ah, Lizzy, he whispered, in a whisper barely audible, a tickle against her skin, what have you done to me. He pressed his lips, tentatively, just below one ear.

That woke her up; she stirred in his embrace and turned and beamed at him, sleepily.

"Darrrrrcy", she murmured, snuggling closer to him. "You have come."

He brought her into a close embrace, feeling all of her, every single luscious curve, the soft peaks of her breasts against his chest, and her lips, warm, soft, against his neck. He sighed as he undid her plait and drew the dark tresses over them, hiding both of them from the world; her hair smelled of lilac and lemon verbena and was like silk to the touch. Molding herself against him, Elizabeth kissed the planes of his face, his closed eyelids, nipped, lightly, upon his lower lip. Nothing of substance was said or even thought for some time.

Then, gasping, he tore himself away and rolled away from her. Sitting up, he huddled on the edge of the bed, his back heaving. This was becoming a familiar routine; Elizabeth knew now why he did it, and did not mind a bit. In fact, it stirred her blood most unseemly. Kneeling up on the bed, she came behind him, slipped her arms about his waist, rested her chin on his shoulder, cheek-to-cheek.

"Darcy," she whispered into his ear.

"Give me a second, Elizabeth," he murmured, cupping her cheek without looking at her. He was staring, fixedly, before him. Perhaps, he thought, he had overestimated his own resolve in the face of her gentle onslaught. For the very idea that she would have him so had inflamed him to such a degree that even the tamest caress seemed to lead, invariably, to his absolute perdition. He wondered, dimly, whether he ought to quit her bed and repair to his own apartments.

"Darcy," she murmured, her hand slipping, wantonly, over his shoulders and down his chest, until he caught them and held him in his. "Darcy, we need not--you need not--"

Turning to her, he gave her a gentle, chaste kiss upon the lips and whispered back:

"I know, my love." He told her why tonight was a wrong night; she seemed to agree with him, but, it struck him, she looked disappointed. Disappointed that they would not lie together. Immensely moved and grateful, he wrapped her in a blanket and took her to the window-seat, where, seating her comfortably in his lap, he showed her the stars in the open window. It was as romantic a thing to do as any on their last night together, when there was not enough time for anything, and the touch of her fingertips upon his skin burned with real fire.

Still, astronomy failed to hold their interest for long. He was telling her to story of Veronica's hair, and in illustration he lifted the heavy dark weight of her hair and kissed her arching, swan-like white neck, feeling the silk of the skin with his lips. She gave a little whimper and threw back her head, allowing him more access.

"Would you like it if I cut off my hair and sacrificed it to the gods for you quick return?" she asked, purring under his lips.

"You do not dare," he murmured back, his brain more and more addled by desire. He was enchanted by her hair, caught in its snares, lost in their silk.

He remembered the red mark she had left upon him several nights ago, and sought to do the same; but he would not embarrass her so by leaving it in a place where all could see--for she would have no neckties to cover the sign of their lovemaking. Gently, he tugged upon the ties holding together the top of her night-shift and watched it slither down one shoulder. Another small tug, all the while kissing the skin thus exposed, and her left breast was bared. Bending his head, he listened to her tiny pleasured moans as he gently lipped and suckled it. The nipple was dark now, and hard, like a berry, like a sweet, better even as he rolled it against his tongue.

Then, moving slightly, he kissed, hard, the inside of her breast, sucking in the flesh, scraping it with his teeth. Elizabeth gave a quiet gasp, but made no move to push him away, and even leaned in. Panting a little, he lifted his head and held her gaze, a challenge in his eyes. If she thinks him a barbarian, so be it.

"The better to remember me," he said, and kissed her again, on the lips, much gentler this time. She regarded him, kindly, as if conscious of his insanity; the mark on the side of her breast was dark red and slightly purple and would be there for days. Just as he wanted, for all the days of his absence, something to mark her as his, if even only to herself.

She was kissing him, then, straddling his lap of her own accord. She was bathed in moonlight and looked silver and almost transparent in it; dimly, he noted to himself that her nightshift had slipped off her second shoulder, baring her to the waist, making her look wild and sensual. For a moment, it seemed that it was a fairy making love to him; he wondered if tomorrow, when he woke, two hundred years would have passed. Still, he caught her in his embrace, pressed her closer, desperate to hold on to her. It was like grasping at a fantasy, trying desperately to hold on to a beautiful dream. Tonight, on the eve of their parting, she was so very sweet to him, and even more forbidden than usually.

But her mouth on his was real, sweet and warm and full, and impossible to deny. She was so passionate, his beloved pupil; like a live, leaping, throbbing fire in his embrace, he thought with tenderness and wonder, and then he no longer thought at all.

He rose, her legs and arms about him, her lips kissing him everywhere she could reach, and walked blindly towards the bed. Falling with her amidst the sheets in a tangle of limbs, Darcy reminded himself that tonight was not the night, and that if he were at all kind to himself, he would leave here and attempt to get a few hours of sleep (a hopeless business, he knew in advance). But she kissed him so sweetly, and held him so tightly, that he simply could not bear to leave her. Her nightshift a line of material lodged around her waist (still, she stubbornly refused to allow him to remove it, even though it no longer covered anything), he made love to her in the only way open to them at the moment. And when she moaned and flapped and fluttered in his embrace, he raised his head from her breasts and, looking upon her flushed countenance, attempted to burn into his memory the lovely image of her finding her passion--the better to sustain him on lonely nights to come.

Then, still trembling from the excess of spent passion, she pushed him onto his back, and did to him the very same service she had only just received.

In the end, the two of them did sleep, and he was amazed to discover that the two hours of sleep served to refresh him so well. In the morning, he stood by Elizabeth s bed, looking at her, listening to the dull ache that had settled within his heart the moment he let go of her person. The scent of her clung and lingered, on his hands, his hair, his clothing, and made the parting a little easier. Sleeping, she looked like an angel. He loathed to wake her, and thus, he penned her a quick note, assuring her of his return, soon as may be, and of his love for her, forevermore. He left it upon the pillow and quitted the room on tiptoes.

Back in his own apartments, Ponsonby had already laid out his traveling clothing and packed his saddlebag (the valet himself would follow by carriage and be at his London residency a few hours later). Ponsonby, of course, would be the last one to question why Master was standing before a mirror in his bedchamber, dressed in the very shirt and trousers he had worn the night before, staring somewhat stupidly at his semiclad reflection, as if unsure of his next step. Nor would he utter a word about Mr. Darcy whipping the shirt over his head in one fluid, impulsive movement, and holding it, preposterously, to his face, as if to inhale the barest whiff of perfume that lingered on the garment. Ponsonby, by virtue of his station, was a soul of discretion. Anybody working as Mr. Darcy's valet would have to be--Master would accept nothing less.

Therefore, without a word, Ponsonby accepted Mr. Darcy's laughable explanation of being in a hurry and therefore needing to forgo a bath. If, as he set out for London, Master wished to have something to remind him of a woman asleep in her own warm bed, so it would be.

He changed, quickly, and was down in the courtyard while the morning was still the color of ink faded upon an old billet-doux. Both Fitzwilliam and Bingley came down soon, the latter wearing a dressing gown and nodding off even as he stood huddling against the morning chill.

"Go back to bed, my friend," Darcy said. He had suggested that Bingley accompany him to town--after all, he did not relish making the trip all alone, with only memories of Elizabeth to keep him company; Bingley mumbled that if Darcy needed him, he would, of course, come--but such turmoil was written upon his good-natured face that Darcy had only laughed. Clearly, the very thought of leaving Mrs. Collins' company seemed insufferable to him. It would be positively cruel to tear him away.

Yawning, Bingley squeezed Darcy's arm and wished him a good journey. Thereupon, he turned, and was gone, leaving Darcy alone with the Colonel.

"Anne and I shall see you tomorrow?" This was a statement, of course, the question mark added more as an afterthought.

"Of course."

From the direction of the stables, a young groom appeared, leading Lucifer by the bridle. The horse looked almost mutinous so early in the morning, but then again, it always did, hence the name. Good disposition was not the chief trade for which Darcy had so singled out his pure-blood, restive mount.

"If, that is, we survive my parents tomorrow," the Colonel said mildly. Unlike Bingley, he was already fully dressed; it was a habit acquired in the military--he had never in his adult life slept later than five o'clock in the morning. The Fitzwilliams were to set out a mere two hours after Darcy himself, by carriage. The Colonel had graciously offered that he join them--Darcy, just as graciously, had declined. First, it would be much faster to travel on horseback. Second, he simply did not have the heart to intrude upon the newlyweds, and he could swear that both his cousins wanted that carriage for their sole possession. He could not blame them--if this had been him and Elizabeth, already married... why, it simply did not do to think of that, not now.

"I am certain you will," Darcy said, smiling. Lord and Lady Matlock would hardly be very pleased with the manner of their younger child's marriage; however, they were both reasonable people, and far from stupid--therefore, they would accept the inevitable and welcome Anne as their daughter-in-law (in fact, it was Darcy's honest belief that they could do much worse in that respect). Lady Catherine, however... "Your parents, I mean."

Fitzwilliam grinned his usual irresistible grin. "I know precisely what you mean, Darcy. 'Tis Rosings soon after--though I daresay, we could simply send a letter--"

"Why bother? You could even put an announcement in the paper--"

"--precisely. I have a feeling we could avoid quite a bit of unpleasantness this way."

"Unpleasantness?" Darcy laughed. "Yes, I suppose, having faced Napoleon's troops, one can consider an irate Aunt Catherine mere unpleasantness."

"You do flatter me, cousin," Fitzwilliam said with a sigh. " 'Tis all mere bravado. In faith, I am quite shaking in my shoes."

"You should, you libertine." About to mount Lucifer, he turned to look at the house, giving it a perfunctory once-over, as he usually did when he left it, be it even for the shortest period of time--and came face to face with Elizabeth. Standing there, huddling in a shawl over her nightgown, she gave him a look of such heartbroken reproach, he immediately felt flushed with shame.

"Well, have a good journey," Fitzwilliam said hurriedly, pretending not to notice the woman before them--for she was far too informally dressed and barefoot into the bargain. He slapped Darcy's shoulder lightly, and, not getting an answer from him--for Darcy was staring, fixedly, upon Elizabeth--turned and walked towards the house.

Elizabeth obeyed proprieties while the Colonel was present, but burst into an indignant speech as soon as he turned his back.

"You would leave without saying good-bye!" she cried, crossly.

"Lizzy," Darcy said, frowning, "I did not wish to wake you."

"You should have," she said, glaring at him. "I daresay I should not miss sleep, but imagine, if I were to awake and find you gone already!" She shuddered at the thought. Darcy stepped forward and drew her into a quick embrace.

"Lizzy," he said, huskily. Now that he had imagined it, it did seem insupportable. Particularly if reversed--he knew the torment of waking up in the bed empty of the one he loved far too well. He kissed the crown of her head, her cheeks, wet with tears, and finally, her mouth. Then, tearing himself away, he whispered into her hair, guiltily: "I must away now, my love."

He grip on his shoulders slackened and he stepped back. She remained standing, in the middle of the courtyard, still caught up in their kiss, eyes closed, lips parted slightly. Then, her eyes opened, and an expression of outright misery supplanted the that of ecstasy.

"Lizzy, Lizzy, it is only a week's separation," he murmured. "I shall be back before you know it."

"I shall miss you so," she whispered, the lines of her face breaking. He could not bear the sight of her tears, the good-byes tearing at his heart. Perhaps he had been wise to leave her asleep. Stepping away from her, he leapt into the saddle and turned Lucifer's head towards the gate.

"Wait for me here," was his final plea for her, and then, as he turned one last time to look at her, he mouthed: "I love you."

"I love you more," Elizabeth whispered, watching him ride out the gate. When she could no longer see him, the tears flowed without impediment. She did not know why she was weeping so; surely, she who had contemplated her life without him forevermore could bear a week-long separation. At least there was no question about her traveling back to Longborne before they married; she would wait for him here, at Pemberley, wait for his return, and make her own veil in the meantime.

Still sobbing pitifully, she returned to the house. It was still very early, and everybody was still asleep (perhaps except for the Colonel, but he was nowhere to be seen, and Elizabeth decided he had retired). She yearned for Jane's company, for a shoulder to cry on, but had not the heart to wake her sister so early.

Elizabeth returned to her bed, took the pillow upon which he had slept, held it to her face, searching in vain for remainders of his scent (for it smelled only of her hair, of the damnable verbena; it is as if he had never been). An idea seized her; tugging quickly upon the strings of her night-shift, she bared her breasts. Looking down at herself, she saw the mark he had left there last night, already fading, and, impulsively, covered it with one hand, feeling her own heart just under it, sheltering it protectively from time and the world.

She cried some more, feeling more and more pained with every minute they spent away from each other (it was nothing, of course, a week's separation, but Elizabeth was beginning to wonder, seriously, how she would manage it). She did not know it when sleep claimed her, and she woke a few hours later, tired and angry at all the world.

~ * ~

At breakfast, the Colonel and Anne appeared, dressed for the road. Elizabeth found herself regretting sharply Anne's impending leave. She had grown very attached to the little woman, having found in her a true and devoted friend, not to mention an extremely sharp-witted and funny one. Georgiana, too, looked pinched in the face and extremely distressed that not only her brother, but also both of her cousins were leaving. She was surly and even quieter than usual; Elizabeth thought she would do well to occupy her pupil with a new lesson this morning. She found that she, too, would likely benefit from something that took her thoughts off how much she was missing Darcy already.

But it was when all of them--Elizabeth and Jane and Georgiana--stood with Anne in the parlor, saying their good-byes ("I shall certainly be back for your wedding, dearest Elizabeth," the new Mrs. Fitzwilliam had assured her) that they heard the mad clattering of hooves outside, and the sound of hurried steps, and a man's voice, winded, asking something not one of them could discern. Involuntarily, all four of them fell silent, listening to Mrs. Reynolds' voice tell the visitor that Master was absent from Pemberley. His answer was fainter, and they could not hear it, but Mrs. Reynolds said:

"Oh. I see. This way, then, sir."

Prescient, uncannily, of an imminent disaster, Elizabeth stepped towards the doors even as they flew open. The man was an urgent messenger, covered in dust and sweat and holding forth a letter.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennett?" he asked. "Mrs. William Collins?"

Elizabeth took the letter from him with breathless thanks. Without excusing herself to read it, she tore at the seal, her first thought being of her mother being ill, or worse. When her father had died, she was not near. She had been visiting with her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner in London, and had received an urgent letter like this one, in the early hours of the morning. Since then, she had learned to fear such letters. They were never up to anything good.

Jane, clearly of a similar mind, looked over her shoulder as Elizabeth's eyes roamed the letter, seeking the assurance that everybody was well. Here! "My dearest girls, Lizzy and Jane, wrote her beloved Uncle, I fear my letter will bring you no glad tidings. But be not alarmed: your mother is well, at least in health, and so are your sisters."

"Oh thank God," Jane murmured beside her. "Now for the nature of the trouble. I regret to inform you that your youngest sister Lydia has absconded with a man. To start from the beginning, the regiment of militia has left Meryton two weeks ago. At that time, my sister Bennett allowed Lydia to go with them to Brighton, as a particular companion of their Colonel's wife."

"I knew it!" Jane said in righteous anger. "They were forever speaking of it!"

"I must tell you that when she told me she had done so, I thought to tell her how imprudent a thing that was to do... but the deed was done, and I did not think it proper to distress her. I wish now to G-d I had. Perhaps then she would have called her back."

"Yes, yes, flatter yourself!" Elizabeth said bitterly. Her fear for her mother's life was forgot; all that remained was fury with her laxness when it came to Lydia and her antics. "As if she has ever listened to anyone!"

"Lizzy," Jane murmured. They read on.

"As it was, your aunt Gardiner and I were visiting with your mother at Longborne when the urgent message from Colonel Forrester came. It seems your sister has eloped from Brighton, in the company of one of the officers, a young man of questionable character by the name of George Wickham--"

Clasping a hand to her mouth, Elizabeth gave an anguished, muffled cry.

"What is it, Lizzy?" Jane was startled out of her wits, by the bad news and Elizabeth's strange reaction (for she did not know George Wickham and could not understand her sister's anguish at hearing his name in such circumstances). But it was to Georgiana that Elizabeth looked.

"Georgie," she murmured. "Oh, Georgie, I must tell you something."

~ * ~

The worst part of it all was that she had quit Pemberley before Darcy came home. There, she said it. She might have thought it was Lydia's ruined future, or the shadow of disgrace it threw over the rest of the family, or Jane's deep distress. But it was not any of those, but rather the sharp, stinging pain she felt at the thought of him coming back and not finding her there. Awful, she was being selfish, and could not even find it in herself to feel bad about it.

Upon hearing the news of George Wickham, Georgiana broke down and cried. Anne, compleatly nonplussed, listened as Elizabeth comforted her young charge, herself much in need of comfort. At length, Georgiana stopped sobbing, and her anguished murmurs of "T-t-t-tis a-a-all m-my f-fault!" ceased; then, Elizabeth told Anne and the Colonel what the letter said, withholding, of course, Georgiana's own story (she felt it was up to the girl herself, or Darcy to disclose, for it was far too damaging). Both Fitzwilliams seemed moved, deeply, and offered to take a letter to Darcy in London, and any other help that they might be able to provide. But at the moment, the only thing that had to be done--beyond the letter, of course, and that was accomplished within the next hour, with many a tear fallen upon the dried blue ink, smudging it--was to return to Longborne, soon as may be. As good daughters', their duty was to be near their distraught mother. And, while Jane accepted this as a most natural thing in the world, Elizabeth chafed cruelly.

At this point, Georgiana stepped in and behaved with all the prepossession of a Lady of the Manor.

"You w-will t-take one of our c-carriages," she announced. "W-with a d-driver and t-two a-a-armed p-p-postillions."

Elizabeth attempted to argue, but to no avail.

"This is h-h-h-how I a-a-always t-travel. B-brother i-i-insists."

The resistance was futile, Elizabeth saw.

While Elizabeth was writing her letter to Darcy, doing her best to explain the particulars of Lydia's escape (her Uncle Gardiner had written further that Lydia left a letter, incredibly frivolous in nature, which indicated that she thought they were going to Gretna Green; however, when traced upon the road, they were never seen to go past London. Where, of course, it would be nearly impossible to find them, which, nevertheless, he would attempt.), Jane went in search of Bingley.

Somewhere in one of many Pemberley hallways, she saw him walking towards her, arms open, his good-natured mien unusually grieved. He had already heard the news, she understood. She was beginning to weep as she walked into his embrace and stayed there, soaking the shoulder of his coat with her tears. He raised her chin, gently, and kissed her tears off her wet cheeks, and her eyes, and, finally and for a long time, her lips. She responded, with passion she had not known she could feel. Quieting down, they stood embraced, until she stirred, and said, for the first time since she had come to him, crying:

"I must go now. Elizabeth is waiting for me."

He squeezed both her hands in his; looking down, Jane saw how large his hands were, and broad, and blunt, and how they cradled hers, so much smaller, and narrower.

"Please write to me," he murmured, pleadingly, "Write to me, Jane, tell me you are well."

She nodded, unhappy, but said nothing.

"I shall come to you," he said. "Soon as I may, I shall come to you. My love."

Then, she was gone and he was left alone, in the middle of the dimly lit hallway, alone, compleatly alone. Strange, he thought; he had been alone for all his twenty-four years, and he had never found it so painful, so deadeningly heavy a weight upon his shoulders. He went down to watch them leave. The Colonel and Anne and Georgiana stood clustered around the carriage, the girl weeping openly, biting her lips, compleatly robbed of all speech. Miss Bennett was looking down at her from the carriage, smiling kindly, saying something he could not, from his point upon the steps, quite hear. But he did see Jane look straight him, over the heads of others. Her eyes were mournful, but she held his gaze.

Anne and the Colonel were gone soon after, in a mad hurry to relay Elizabeth's letter to Darcy in London. Georgiana, still sobbing and sniffing, went back inside the house, feeling abandoned. Seeing Bingley, looking all lost, in the drawing-room, she was moved by a sudden vicious impulse. Coming up to him, she said, lips trembling:

"Ev-ev-everybody h-h-has l-left--w-w-will you g-go t-too?"

He could not lie to her. Jane had left Pemberley, and was pulling him after her, inexorably. He had to follow her. He would go to London first, to be closer to her. He would then go to Hertfordshire, when his presence was no longer a burden at the time of trouble. He nodded, looking like a guilty dog.

"Oh f-f-fine!" Georgiana cried, her tears making her voice sound nasal and foreign. "G-go, then! L-leave! A-a-a-all of you, l-leave! T-take your s-s-sisters, too!"

In a whirl of pink skirts, she was gone, the drawing room door slammed in her wake. Startled out of his skin by such an outburst, Bingley slowly lowered himself into a chair.

This was. Entirely too much. For him to take.

But he had to ponder her last statement; for he had hoped, briefly, to leave Caroline and Louisa at Pemberley while he traveled to London.

Well, then, he thought, perhaps that was not to be.

~ * ~

The Fitzwilliams arrived in London by noon the following day, having spent the night at a small road-side inn. They had planned to direct their steps straight to Lord and Lady Matlock (who now spent most of their time in town, old age hardly an impediment to a bustling social life), but, having found the matter of relaying Elizabeth's letter to Darcy more urgent, went to his town-house first.

The butler, having admitted the couple, apprised them that Mr. Darcy had arrived yesterday afternoon and was now in his office, speaking with his solicitor. The husband and wife looked at each other and Anne cocked an eyebrow. Their missive was urgent, of course, but not so urgent; and neither longed to be the bearer of such bad news.

"I suppose we can wait," Fitzwilliam said, and told the butler to tell Master the Colonel and Mrs. Fitzwilliam were waiting for him in the library. Thus, Darcy's butler was the first soul in London to learn of their marriage. He had known, of course, that they were cousins, but his countenance betrayed no surprise that they were now married; indeed, if he found it strange at all, he endeavored, quite successfully, to not show it. Thereupon, the couple repaired to the library, to wait.

They were reposed, comfortably, on the sofa (Anne, shoes off, leaning against her husband shoulder), perusing the latest newssheet together, when Darcy burst into the library, looking extremely purposeful and energetic.

"Ah," he said, beaming. "Fitzwilliam, Anne. Jolly good to see you. I have already gone to see the Archbishop this morning... was arranging some matters with my solicitor--" He stared at them expectantly. Fitzwilliam smiled wistfully to himself: here was a man in love--having only left his heart's desire the morning before, he already expected a love-letter from her. Sadly, the letter they had brought was not the kind of letter a lover would want. Fitzwilliam sighed and frowned. Wouldst that he could bring his cousin glad tidings.

"Darcy," Anne said, sitting up and looking on the floor for her shoes. "Something happened yesterday, after you left." She paused, pulling on her shoes. She had not known how difficult it would be the bearer of bad news.

He blanched. "Would you mind telling me, what?" he snapped. Looking up at him from the sofa, Fitzwilliam in cowardly silence next to her, Anne said, trying her hardest to sound collected:

"There was an urgent messenger from Eli--Miss Bennett's Uncle--she has left Pemberley--"

"Left Pemberley?" he murmured, looking absolutely stricken. Anne's heart squeezed with pity for him. "Left Pemberley?"

Anne knew that he had counted upon marrying Elizabeth soon as may be upon his return from London. Nothing was said about Elizabeth getting married from Longborne; indeed, their one wish seemed to not part. Anne knew such desire well, and could certainly identify with her cousin's misery. She felt for him then, truly.

"Along with Mrs. Collins," she said, softly. "Here," she said, producing the letter from her reticule and holding it out to him. "This will explain everything."

He snatched the letter from her hand and stepped to the window to read it. As he tore at the seal and unwrapped it, impatiently, Anne shot her husband a look full of reproach.

"Coward," she whispered. He gave her an endearing guilty grin and shrugged. She held a finger to her lips.

Darcy turned back from the window, his face dark. It was uncanny, the change that had been effected in his previously happy countenance. Poor bastard, Fitzwilliam thought sympathetically.

"Do you know--do you know what it says?" he asked, hoarsely, making a vague wave with the letter.

"Yes," both of them said in unison. For a second, he held both hands to his face, rubbing at his eyes. He tore his hands away from his face, his countenance tortured, and folded the letter, neatly, before slipping it under his coat.

"I thank you both," he said. They watched him, in silence, as he paced a bit around the room, sat down on a chair, then sprang up and walked towards the doors. There, he turned around again. "Forgive me," he said hoarsely. "Make yourself at home here. I shall see you both at supper."

Thereupon, he was gone, the door closed quietly in his wake, almost too quietly, as if he tried too hard to control his anger. Fitzwilliam turned to his wife.

"So what do you make of it all, Annie?"

For the first time in her life, the bookish Anne had to claim ignorance in response to a question.

Chapter 28

Inside the sanctuary of his bedchamber, Darcy opened Elizabeth's letter and re-read it. He stared, dumbly, at the letters, saw the smudged ink, where her tears had fallen upon the paper. There were several words he could not read, but he did grasp the meaning... and it made him miserable to the bottom of his heart. Miserable, and not a little angry-and, vexed and hurt as he was, he found some small comfort in those little inky smudges. She had cried when writing this; somehow, the knowledge of her tears at such a moment comforted him. He was embarrassed of the strange comfort he seemed to take in her suffering, and then he was embarrassed no longer--for the words in Elizabeth's letter tore at his heart.

If she made him suffer, it was only fair that she suffered as well.

For, having apprised him of the fact that her youngest sister had absconded with the abominable Wickham (which, in itself, was rather shocking), Elizabeth had written to him the following:

"Mr. Darcy (good G-d, he thought frantically, what had happened, when did he become a Mr. Darcy again?), what my sister Lydia has done will necessarily subject our family to the most severe censure. Indeed, even if our worst fears are not realized and Lydia is already married; even if she is not ruined forever; event then her behavior will forever throw a shadow upon my younger sisters, and upon myself-and, of necessity, upon anyone connected with us. I cannot expect that you should wish to associate with my family (particularly because any association with the perpetrator of this crime, Mr. Wickham, should be intolerable to you). You are a man of honor and a gentleman, and a connection so reprehensible must, of course, be abhorrent to you-but precisely because you are a man of honor, I do not believe you will break your word, given to me in better times. With circumstances so changed, I cannot hold you to it. It would be unfair to you. I know that you will not do so, therefore, I release you from our engagement. Please know that the last week was the happiest of my life-and that it is likely to so remain. You know of my love for you; you will always be my greatest regret. Good-bye and may God keep you in his favor. Elizabeth Bennett. "

Upon first reading the letter, Darcy had found himself in such deep shock that he barely managed a few polite words to his cousins; for his first instinct had been to simply run out of the room. Now, he remained standing, stupidly, in the middle of his bedchamber, feeling compleatly lost, feeling like he had nowhere else to go, no port and no harbor. Surely this was a jest; she could not have meant that. He had raked his hands through his hair, rubbed them against his eyes, trying frantically to get a better grip on reality. He could not believe it; he would not. And yet, the words on the paper spoke plainly. I am releasing you from our engagement. The words stabbed him somewhere deep inside, where he was still soft and tender, and where it hurt most inhumanly; from the pain of it, tears pricked on his eyes, hot and desperate. You know of my love for you. Indeed, he had. Did he know of it now? If she truly loved him, how could she have abandoned him like so? His thoughts in compleat disarray, Darcy paced to and fro, trying his best to justify Elizabeth's actions.

The teary smudges on the paper helped him trust in her-and slowly, painfully, the truth behind her letter came forth. Of course, he thought feverishly, it was only natural that she should have a care for his honor. Still, she was wrong, dreadfully, terribly wrong to make such an insufferable assumption for him-that his honor meant more to him than she. Still, he hurt, terribly, and, on an impulse, he sat down and wrote an answer to her. The kind of letter that Fitzwilliam Darcy he had once been might have written under the circumstances. A cold, polite, accepting answer. He finished with his wishes for her continued well-being and the resolution of the trouble with her sister. As a post-scriptum, he added: "Madam, you understand that you are to keep any and all gifts that you have received from me, at any time. "

He re-read the letter, and then, moved by an irresistible impulse, tore it into little pieces. What was he thinking?! The last line hurt in particular; he knew that Elizabeth would see it for what it was-not generosity, but rather, the desire to sting her. If he spoke of such things... Suddenly, he was filled with live, bubbling fury: no, he told himself, no, it would not happen like this. He would not stand by and watch his life crumble to dust. If Elizabeth wished to leave him, he would not hold her back... but he was not so noble as to make it easy on her. If it meant bowing his head and admitting his utter defeat, so be it. His pride was ashes in his mouth, he had none left, only the ache, and the longing, and Elizabeth. He was full of Elizabeth, his thoughts, his mind, his heart--and the possibility of losing her again was unbearable.

Sitting down to his escritoire once again, he wrote, feverishly.

"Dearest Elizabeth,

This is the second letter I write to you tonight. I have destroyed the first one, for it was but a polite lie, and I have no wish to lie to you, for it think it would demean our love, and it is the greatest of my life, nay, the only one. My one and only love, Elizabeth.

You write that you release me from our engagement, should I so wish. Well, madam, I do not wish. It seems the choice is left up to me, and I do not choose to end our betrothal. And I do not release you from our engagement. Of course, if you wish it, you may leave me (you are, after all, a free woman). The world will know nothing but that the contract was rescinded upon our mutual agreement. Only you and I will know of my broken heart. I know what you will think, Elizabeth-that I am shameless, and truly, so I am. How can I be otherwise, when the happiness of my entire life hangs in the balance? I love you, Elizabeth, you are my very life, my every waking breath, the light of my life. I cannot let you go. Leave me if you must, but do not ask me to let you go...

Dearest Elizabeth, my sweetest love, Fitzwilliam and Anne have given me your letter, which was a painful blow, indeed. I had hoped for a billet-doux, with assurances of your love (true, your letter did contain them, but only amidst the professions of my release-what an abominable word you have chosen, my darling, for I am never truly free, or happy, when you are not about). The events that have prompted your letter are nothing short of astonishing-and very grave, of course. But, as hurdles go, this one does not seem so wholly insurmountable-particularly not compared to what it would mean for me to lose your love. Your sister's behavior is unfortunate, but it will not damn your whole family. Certainly it will not damn you in my eyes.

You write to me that such an association (meaning Mr. W.-indeed, I cannot bear to write his abominable name-I should rather break the pen in my fingers) must be highly disgusting to me. I'll not lie to you, madam-this person is the last in the world to whom I should like to find myself related. But if I do, so it must be-and I shall rather be his brother-in-law and your husband than be neither. Losing you is too high a price to pay... well, for anything, really.

And what if it is not to be and the brigand does not marry your sister? This is very grave, indeed, but you cannot cast yourself into a hegira because your youngest sister has seen it fit to ruin her own life. Elizabeth, I refuse to suffer for your sister's sins, and I do not believe you should, either. I cannot believe you have thought so little of my constancy and devotion; it hurts me greatly to think of it. Did you think I have stopped loving you, all of a sudden? What pernicious nonsense: indeed, madam, I should love you just as much had you sisters enough to commit all the indiscretions in England. Perhaps your feelings for me have changed within the space of several hours... but somehow, I do not believe it. I choose not to believe it. I have more faith in you that you have in me.

Elizabeth, I am being kept in London, partly by waiting for our marriage license to come through from the Archbishop. Had I the opportunity, I should make my way to your side posthaste. I shall, soon as I am able to. Of course, as I said, you are a free woman-and should you wish to terminate our engagement... I shall not stay in your way... but Elizabeth, please consider that the happiness of our entire lives is hanging in the balance? Good God, woman, what is the disapprobation of the ton when compared to that? I do not know what to say, how to disabuse you of the notion that I care a tuppence of what they might say about your (and my) associations. Do not abandon me, my adored one, do not surrender that, for which we both have suffered so. They do not matter; only you do.

Please wait for me, Elizabeth, my love. I cannot bear to lose you again. I remain yours, hopeful despite it all, F.D."

He wrote until his very heart was on the paper, and there remained nothing further to say. He dared not re-read it, nor re-write it (for his usually fine penmanship had suffered somewhat from the onslaught of emotion), not wishing to see such humbling of himself on paper, his heart laid out bare and bleeding. His was an unconditional surrender. He had written the absolute truth-none of it mattered, except that she does not desert him. Hastily, ere he changed his mind, he sealed the letter with dark-red wax, and his seal (the one he had had since Eton, an intellectual's seal with a steadily burning candle and the motto of Luceo non Uro-I shine, yet do not burn; he thought, laughing at himself, that the motto lied: for he burned, of course he burned).

He rang for Ponsonby, and asked him to post the letter forthwith. Thereupon, the solitude became a burden too heavy-for he worried, naturally, that she might not change her mind, that she had it set upon leaving him-and he went downstairs. He found Fitzwilliam and Anne in the music room, alerted by the melancholy sounds of Mozart's Fantasia emanating from there. The Fitzwilliams were sharing a long bench as the Colonel turned pages for his wife. Their heads were close together, and Fitzwilliam's left arm was across Anne's waist.

Darcy stood, looking at them, feeling deeply mutinous at the unfairness of it all. This was what he had wanted; he would not marry for money, nor position, but would take for his wife the only woman who held his heart. Was this asking too much? Was the simplest human happiness to be denied to him? He sighed, involuntarily alerting his cousins to his presence. Anne cut the movement in the middle and both turned around, startled out of their companionable reverie.

"Oh, Darcy," Fitzwilliam said, rising from the bench. "How are you doing, my friend?"

He seemed concerned, and Darcy hurried to assure him and Anne that he was better (he was, he was better, he thought, now that he had parried Elizabeth's unbelievable letter with what he hoped should disabuse her of the notion of leaving him). He lowered himself into a chair, feeling suddenly compleatly exhausted.

The three of them sat in awkward silence. Darcy thought that, when they had told him they knew what the letter contained, they likely meant only Miss Lydia's elopement. For he did not believe that Elizabeth would be so unkind as to tell anybody before she told him that she was leaving him. When, at length, he asked them what exactly they knew about this unfortunate affair...his suspicions were confirmed. They knew of Miss Lydia and naught else. He hesitated before saying:

"There is a part to this story which you likely do not know." He added: "I trust in your discretion as this concerns my sister."

Thereupon, he told them about George Wickham's near-successful seduction of Georgiana, about her intended elopement, about Elizabeth's valiant preclusion of that calamity... and, shamefacedly, about his own ignorance of the matter, about Georgiana's confession to him-and, finally, how it had served to bring him and Elizabeth together.

When he finished, he found himself standing once again, both hands the mantel, head hung low in shame. He would never accept that he, the older brother whom Georgiana regarded almost as a father, could have been so neglectful, so blind.

Both Fitzwilliams sat in stunned silence. The Colonel was a world-savvy man, difficult to surprise, and Anne was too much of a skeptic for even the basest human behavior to shock her. Yet, now, neither found anything of substance to say. To think only, that George Wickham should form predatory designs on Georgiana herself, that he should woo her, right under her brother's nose, and that she should consent to an elopement! But the most incredible part of the story was, of course, Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

"Good God, Darcy," Fitzwilliam said, with a feeling. "What a remarkable woman she is. She has saved your sister!"

Darcy only nodded. He was thinking about Elizabeth's reaction as she received his letter. About how he could help her. His heart bled at the thought of her in such a predicament.

"Yes," he said, slowly. "She has. And now, it seems, I am to attempt to perform the same office for her."

~ * ~

The Fitzwilliams' visit to the Colonel's parents went better than they had anticipated. Lord Matlock raged a bit, asked hopefully whether the marriage could still be annulled. When told, emphatically, that it could not, and would not be so dissolved, the old man sighed, sat down on a chair and then, suddenly, gave a burst of unexpectedly high-pitched laughter.

"Lud, I cannot wait to see my sister's face when she hears of it."

Lady Matlock, on her part, took the news rather philosophically.

"Well, I suppose you could do worse," she said, having given Anne a once-over.

"Mother!" Fitzwilliam said, reproachfully.

"Hush, Richard. You have always been a bit of a fool," she continued. "But I hope you understand the implications of this, both of you?"

She was told they had understood, long ago. As, during this particular conversation, Fitzwilliam's station never wavered from behind his wife's chair, and his hand, reassuring, never left her shoulder, Lady Matlock concluded that they must have, indeed. Or that they were silly in love, which was essentially the same (for even though those in love usually proved impossible to dissuade, deaf to all reason and blind to the very issue of consequences... they would face such consequences in their own good time).

"Well," she said, sighing, "I suppose you have always been thick as thieves, the two of you. But what of poor Darcy?" she asked, cocking one eyebrow, clearly addressing herself to Anne (who sat very primly, a picture of propriety, nothing indicating that her very hands, folded so demurely in her lap, had served to rake her husband's back last night, leaving deep welts, of which he was not likely to complain). "How is he faring? After all, your mama has always promised you to him--along with Rosings."

At this, abandoning her theretofore proper demeanor, the new Mrs. Fitzwilliam grinned like the girl she was at heart, and said:

"Oh, my dear Aunt! I daresay my cousin Darcy is able to bear the deprivation. He is awfully good, you know." For a moment, she had thought to announce to her mother-in-law that Darcy was not only awfully good, but also extremely well-matched with a lovely woman who happened, by a mere coincidence, to be his sister's impoverished companion. But she was hardly sanctioned by Darcy or Elizabeth to say something of their engagement to his relations in London. So she bit her lip and said: "He staggered. A bit. But he is all better now." (This, at least, was an absolute truth: nobody could deny that Darcy was faring better now, having secured Miss Elizabeth Bennett's promise to marry him--temporary difficulties notwithstanding.)

"Now, that is a relief," Lady Matlock said. "It would be awful if you two had broken his heart," she said, and then addressed herself to her son once again: "Indeed, Richard, it would be beastly."

"Save your pity for someone else, Mother," Fitzwilliam said lazily. "The man is an iceberg." He yawned and shivered, as if to show how cold his cousin really was. "I believe he has no heart."

"Well, then," Lady Matlock said, "I suppose you only have Catherine to think about."

Indeed.

~ * ~

But, unexpectedly, they were granted a reprieve: for Lady Catherine, they were told, had gone to Bath for her health and would not be back at Rosings for another four or five days. Anne would never admit it, not even to herself, but her relief at hearing the news was monumental. The couple refused Lady Matlock's polite invitation to stay at her townhouse and returned to Darcy's house. It was altogether an easier and a more needful place to be; for Darcy was not only a cousin, but also a friend-and at the moment, he was also a friend in need.

For every evening following their return to London and the bringing of the bad news, he went out. Where he went, they did not know, and once, he politely refused the Colonel's offer to accompany him on his errand. Still, it was not difficult to guess-he was trying to ascertain Miss Lydia Bennett's whereabouts in London. If, indeed, she was in London.

Fitzwilliam watched his cousin for several days, saw him getting more and more desperate and still reticent and unwilling to talk about it. It, whatever it was he was doing to find Elizabeth's sister and her seducer (Fitzwilliam did not know what would be worse-for if Darcy did not find them soon, he seemed likely to go insane; and if he did find them soon, Fitzwilliam hoped that he would have enough restraint not to murder George Wickham on the spot).

Then, upon his return one early morning, Darcy found his cousin awake and waiting for him in the library. Yet another foray into London underworld unsuccessful, Darcy was in a particularly foul mood-not to mention dead-on-his-feet tired. He cast an unfriendly look over his cousin, slumped comfortably in a chair, and offered him brandy.

"No, thank you, my friend," Fitzwilliam said. " 'Tis both too late and too early for me to drink."

Darcy nodded at such admirable sensibility, then poured himself a snifter. Thereupon, he settled into a chair across from his cousin, not saying a word.

"Darcy," Fitzwilliam said, regarding him with offensive kindness-for his was a gaze of the kind one usually bestows upon children or idiots. Darcy did not see it, too intent upon staring down his brandy glass.

"Why not let me help?" Fitzwilliam asked cajolingly. Receiving, in place of an intelligible answer, an unrecognizable "harrumph", he persisted: "You know, my friend, this need not be a punishment for you."

Darcy harrumph'ed into his glass once again, then said grimly:

"But it is my fault, don't you see? Had I been a better guardian to my sister, Elizabeth would never have the reason to defend her-"

Fitzwilliam raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"Do you think Wickham has seduced Miss Bennett's sister in revenge?"

"I do not doubt it!" Darcy cried.

Suddenly animated, he rose, set his snifter down and paced, and paced and paced. Fitzwilliam, waiting for an explanation, felt his patience ebb away.

Darcy stopped by the window (behind which it was already watery-inky-blue, rather than black) and said, not looking at his cousin, but gingerly tapping the glass with one finger:

"From what I understand, there is nothing about that particular young lady that could seduce a fortune-hunter such as Wickham..."

"La," the Colonel said, mildly. "Still, Darcy, 'tis only your conjectures."

"Of course," Darcy agreed, still keeping to the window. "But Miss Lydia, from what I understand, is nigh on penniless... and you would agree that for a man of Wickham's character, a dowry is paramount in a bride..."

"You are assuming that he intends to marry her... that he has ever intended to marry her... Darcy, however grim such a possibility, you must take it into the account-that perhaps he had seduced her simply for the sake of seduction."

"Yes, but Miss Lydia is not said to be extraordinarily pretty... merely average," Darcy murmured. "No, Fitzwilliam, I am certain-he did it to get even with Elizabeth... for spoiling his plans." Darcy frowned. "That we should be reduced to guessing at this brigand's intentions," he murmured. Fitzwilliam smiled.

"It vexes you, does it not?" he asked, looking amused. "Attempting to understand one you so despise?"

"Despise!" Darcy said, grumpily. "Indeed, I dare not despise him-for he almost stole my sister-I did despise him, Fitzwilliam, and thus-I have underestimated him, gravely."

"Detest, then?"

"Perhaps," Darcy said, darkly. "Oh, wouldst that he strangled at birth!"

At such an uncharitable sentiment, Fitzwilliam only issued a nondescript "tsk"; Darcy could not say whether it was disapproval or merely an attempt to dislodge an appleseed stuck to his cousin's teeth from earlier in the evening.

"You said you wanted to help," Darcy said.

"With all my heart," Fitzwilliam replied. "I cannot bear to watch you waste away like you do. Not to mention that you are likely to receive a blade under a rib during one of your evening forays. Think of your bride-to-be, my friend... she should be disconsolate if you died!"

Perhaps he was too tired to argue, or too despaired, but Darcy only nodded, agreeing to Fitzwilliam's every suggestion, the very first being that following the conversation, Darcy should retire and get a good ten hours of sleep.

The second being that he ought to hire someone to look for his future sister-in-law.

The third being that he, Fitzwilliam, knew just the man for the job.

Though he had refused at first, by the end of the conversation, Darcy was ready to kiss his cousin's hands.

"Rest assured, my friend," Fitzwilliam said. "The man is the soul of discretion."

Whether it was so, Darcy did not know and could only rely on his cousin's word; but when the gentleman in question arrived to Darcy's town-house the very next evening, he looked only like the face of all vice. To an utterly disreputable frock-coat and a questionable smell emanating therefrom was added a murderous expression, a gruff voice, and an appalling-looking snickersnee stuck behind his belt.

He arrived already informed by Fitzwilliam (for which Darcy was rather grateful), bowed gallantly to Anne and was introduced as Captain Simon Danvers. Thereupon he named his price, which Darcy found highly acceptable, took half of it up front, took from Darcy a piece of paper with all the particulars and promptly disappeared.

"Captain Danvers?" Darcy asked, still uncomfortable. It was not every day that the London underworld came to visit in his drawing-room. Fitzwilliam laughed.

"Eh, once a captain, always a captain," he said. "This gentleman had a captain's commission in my regiment. He sold it a few years back and now offers his good services for, as you see, a very reasonable fee...Runaway wives, debtors hiding from creditors and such."

"And you say he is good at what he does?"

Fitzwilliam assured him that the disreputable-looking Cpn. Danvers was, indeed, excellent at what he did; thereupon, Darcy retired, leaving the Fitzwilliams alone in the drawing-room.

"And what do we do now?" Anne asked once the door closed behind him. Fitzwilliam sighed, took her hand and kissed it.

"Now, we wait," he said.

~ * ~

Darcy spent the rest of the week pacing. He had obtained the special license, but the paper felt hollow and almost useless in his hand. He would travel to Longbourn, to see Elizabeth, but he was afraid to miss the return of Cpn. Danvers with-hopefully-George Wickham's whereabouts.

Letters to Elizabeth had been written, one a day, assuring her of his undying love and begging her to be strong in the face of misfortune. Three days after his first letter, came her answer. He trembled as he opened it, but the very first words in it reassured him compleatly.

"My own one," it began. There, he thought, thrilled and grinning to himself, immensely relieved. That is better. "Forgive me, it seems you are, indeed, the one with more fortitude and constancy. You have every right to be cross with me, and I shall not even mind. For at the moment I am almost happy-I am happy, for your letter has made me forget my sister, selfishly-that you did not take mortal offense at my letter. It was written in the first shock of the terrible news, and I am sorry for the hurt it has given you. You could reject me following it, both for its substance and my folly... but you have chosen not to, and I love you for it. You are correct, of course-we should only allow the world to rule our lives so far. Forgive your Elizabeth, my love, I have been a fool. I was so afraid, Darcy, so afraid that you might follow my advice and reject me. God, I do love you. As regards my sister, we have had no news, except that my Uncle Gardiner has been searching fruitlessly in London. Fruitlessly is the important point, however, and my mother has not quit her bed. I do not know even, if she knows of our engagement. I do not believe right now is the time to inquire. Jane sends her regards to you and Mr. B. I love you, I love you, I love you. Yours, Elizabeth Bennett. "

The letter served to mend his spirits admirably. He ran downstairs, saw Anne near the grand staircase, and grasping her by the waist, spun her around. She shrieked and whooped and giggled, such delightful sounds attracting her husband, who appeared from the library, took in the scene and laughed as well.

"I believe you have something that is mine," he said, mildly, took Anne from Darcy and set her on the floor, still grinning. "But what is the occasion for such glee, cousin?"

"Nothing," Darcy said, trying a bit of solemnity. It did not work one bit. "Nothing at all," he repeated, breaking into an idiotic smile. Fitzwilliam patted his arm knowingly.

"Such admirable sentiments ought to be harnessed and put to use, my friend," he noted. "Go and buy her a trinket or something."

"Buy her a book," Anne corrected her husband, and the couple walked away from him down the hallway.

"Or a canary."

Chapter 29

He wrote to her every day, assuring her of his undying love and asking her to be strong in the face of misfortune. She wrote back, of course, but not nearly as often; Darcy told himself that she was busy attending to her mother, but the comparative infrequency of her missives still hurt. Now he truly knew the meaning of the word "lovesick", for he felt almost physically ill from his inability to be with Elizabeth. He imagined her constantly, his days full of thinking about what he was doing at each particular moment, his nights infused with dreams that were as torturous as they were erotic. His arms ached for wanting to hold her, his body smoldered with unfulfilled desire for her. Whoever had dreamt up such madness? Queen Mab, perhaps. It must have been the faerie Queen Mab who held him in her snares.

In the meantime, there was nothing else to do but wait, and Darcy fared really poorly. A man of action, he despised waiting; in all honesty, nor was he accustomed to it-his wishes had usually been carried out with the speed of a particularly diligent jinni. He yearned to go out and do something. Unable to do anything, he remained in the state of aggravated, spiteful misery. To be around him was vexing or impossible, depending on one's point of view, and so the Fitzwilliams escaped his presence and claimed sanctuary in their own apartments. Darcy did not mind it; he loved both his cousins, but he always suffered better in solitude, with no-one to dispel the gloom. In addition, he suspected that such an arrangement served their own ulterior purposes rather well, and, despite his own best intentions, begrudged them this happiness.

But when, on the close of the third day, a maid announced, in hushed tones, that a Captain Danvers was asking to be admitted (the girl's countenance betraying her utter disbelief that the character she spoke of was, indeed, a captain), Darcy flew off his chair in the library (a tome of his and Elizabeth's favorite John Donne, to which he had turned in romantic longing, falling off his lap) and yelled, at the top of his lungs, for the Colonel to come down. Yet, Captain Danvers did not stay to visit with Colonel Fitzwilliam. Despite his still very disreputable appearance, he proved admirably professional. Bowing curtly to Darcy, he said not a word, but merely held out a sheet of paper in his direction. Darcy took the paper, gave the man a hefty little bag of coins (as per their agreement), and lo, the Captain was gone. It was as if he were an apparition, having come out of nowhere, having disappeared without a trace.

Darcy turned the sheet over, cautiously, as if fearing it would sprout teeth and bite him, and stared at the single line of text written there. There, he thought. There they are.

"Fitzwilliam!" he bellowed again, striding out of the room. He pounded at the Colonel's door, and heard, to his absolute chagrin, murmurings, sighs and giggles. How dared they honeymoon when he was in such upheaval, and time was a-wasting? He knocked again, and said, in a voice of a man mortally insulted:

"Fitzwilliam, your man has just brought me the address, and I am going there forthwith." He added: "Alone!"

The giggles behind the door ceased abruptly and were replaced with a sound of quick steps. Open flew the door, and there stood the Colonel, fully dressed, deadly serious and holding a pistol.

"Well, Darcy," he said in rolling tones, "how long am I to wait for you? Look at you, still in your shirtsleeves!"

Darcy stared, speechless. Behind the Colonel, he saw Anne, buttoning her pelisse, tying the ribbons of her bonnet. Darcy's indignation with his cousin evaporated, replaced with a single-minded horror at the thought of Anne accompanying them to the address he was holding in his hand.

"Tell me she is not going with us," he begged his cousin.

Fitzwilliam only shrugged.

"If you can keep her behind when she wants to go, I shall bow to you, Darcy. Besides," he added, "perchance, we might need a gentle feminine touch."

However affronted Darcy was, he was also a reasonable man and always recognized a losing battle. Therefore, he retired to his bedchamber, changed his clothes and lamented the fact that he had no weapon, having left his father's old dueling pistols at Pemberley. Very well, he thought gloomily, he would murder the bastard with his own two hands. After all, how much would it take to snap that chicken neck of his? He certainly felt angry enough, if anger counted for anything.

Yet, the Colonel was clearly of a different mind, and so, upon Darcy's arrival downstairs, he handed him his gun.

"And you?"

"I have this," the Colonel said, pointing to a sword, swinging menacingly off his hip. It was a real cavalry battle sword, used, Darcy knew, extensively in Portugal some five years back. Sharp enough to cut through a length of silk with the smallest movement. He stuffed the gun behind his belt, feeling very much a vigilante, and hoping that it does not go off and render him a eunuch. He threw an angry glance at Anne, who looked rather prepossessed as she inspected a tiny mother-of-pearl-encrusted pistol.

"Anne, why do you have a weapon?" he asked, and, when his indignant question went ignored, he thought to inform her husband of the fact: "Your wife has a pistol," he said.

"She does," Fitzwilliam agreed. "I bought it for her. She wanted one. She also smokes cigars occasionally."

Anne smiled radiantly and slipped the deadly little toy into her reticule. Darcy threw a horrified glance at the couple, thinking that truly, these two had found each other admirably. Therefore, he found it prudent to hold his opinion of a lady smoking cigars to himself; and the threesome set out into the dark London night.

~ * ~

The address Captain Danvers had given him was in the most disreputable corner of London, near the river in Southwark, on the block full of taverns and brothels. For a while, Darcy could not believe it: he had not come here in his search, mostly because it was so bad. After all, not even Wickham could stoop so low as to take a genteel young maid to such a gutter. Perhaps, they would arrive and no-one would be there. He did not know whether he hoped for it, or dreaded it more.

The Colonel was of a similar mind, his usually genial countenance expressing greater disgust than it did on the day, when, years ago, he discovered a properly dead rat in his bed, compliments of his little cousin Anne.

She was the only one who seemed fascinated with their foray into the underworld. She stared out of the carriage window, turned her head curiously, and, from time to time, tried to draw her husband's attention to the wonders of the London slums:

"Ooh, Richard, look! That man over there has the countenance of a murderer-just look at him! I should bet he has killed twenty people! Richard, look at that woman! In faith, her dress! Her bosom is almost naked, you can almost see her nipples--oh, Richard, is she a tart?"

"Fitzwilliam!" Darcy snapped, finally.

The Colonel grinned and pulled Anne closer. "I shall tell you all about tarts, my sweet, when we are alone. Spare poor Darcy's ears, the poor fellow is about to be struck by apoplexy!"

"But of course," Darcy said. If they wished to tease him, it served his purposes very well. All he wanted at the moment was silence.

Finally, they arrived.

"Ye gods," the Colonel said, as he handed Anne out of the carriage (indeed, he might have considered leaving her there, but he trusted his own vigilance and prowess better than those of his cousin's postillions. "Whatever you say, Darcy, about your papa's attachment to this young cad, this is Wickham's natural habitat. Gutter snakes must, after all, live in gutters."

"Gutter snakes?" Anne murmured. "My friend, your tutor is turning over in that early grave you have sent him to. What on earth is a gutter snake?"

"I suspect we shall see all too soon," the Colonel murmured, as they followed Darcy up some very rickety stairs. It was terribly dark, it smelled awful of many things, none of them Anne was able to identify--and for that, she was thankful. A cat tore itself out of the dark, a smudge of the night, and darted from under their feet with an ominous yowl; Darcy swore in the dark, having almost lost his footing; it was an indication of his upheaval, for he hardly ever swore.

Finally, they stood before a door. Darcy knocked, lightly, and a second later, it was flung open, and a young woman, her features vaguely familiar, stood in the rectangle of light. Indeed, she bore some resemblance to Elizabeth, and was somewhat pretty. Her expression, however, was both vacuous and petulant.

Good God, he thought longingly; if he had harbored some hope that Miss Lydia Bennett's honor might be salvaged, it was dashed to pieces at the sight of her. For she was wearing a frilly transparent peignoir, and under which, rather clearly, nothing. He caught himself staring and looked away, quickly.

Good God.

Still, he felt it needed to be confirmed.

"Miss Lydia Bennett?" he asked, hopefully. Perhaps, it was not she. Perhaps, he had already married her--but the girl said, rather abruptly:

"Yes! And who are you?"

He wasted no time introducing himself, but thrust the girl aside and walked in, Fitzwilliam and Anne following him. The girl rushed after them, trilling piercingly:

"And who are you, I said?! Are you sent by my mother? Or by my Uncle Gardiner? God, wouldst that they should leave me alone!"

Darcy saw that this young lady, who had given her family--and his beloved Elizabeth--so much grief, seemed to feel no compunction whatsoever. From then on, his opinion of Lydia Bennett was irreparably prejudiced. He no longer saw her as an innocent victim of George Wickham's machinations rather, he viewed her as his accomplice. Had it not been for Elizabeth and her family, he would leave them be together.

"Madam," he said, putting all his considerable-and chilling- hauteur to work, "I am not here to do anybody's office. My name is Fitzwilliam Darcy," he added, bowing curtly. His companions having introduced themselves as well, the girl seemed to believe that they were not there to spirit her away. She appeared to relax a bit and dropped a graceful curtsy. Which looked, of course, ridiculous enough to seem otherworldly, considering her near-bare state. It struck Darcy that she was not in the least embarrassed of it, either.

"La!" she said, grinning broadly. "How droll! You both are named Fitzwilliam!"

Darcy did not quite know what to say to that; but thankfully, he was spared having to discuss the consequences of his somewhat unfortunate Christian name with Elizabeth's wayward sister. For the door behind the young lady opened, and in came George Wickham.

He was dressed, to Darcy's further chagrin, as easily as his empty-headed consort-in breeches and a loose shirt, he and Miss Lydia presenting a picture of a married couple at a considerable leisure. At first, his surprise at seeing his visitors was paramount; his lip hung a little, making him look, for a mere second, like an imbecile. Then, coming to his senses, he pulled himself up, gave a lopsided grin and bowed cautiously.

"Darcy," he said. "Fitzwilliam," then, turning: "Miss de Bourgh."

Darcy had not realized what it would do to him to see George Wickham again. He was not a violent man, and had never started a fight in his life. He wanted to say something, but his throat closed with impotent fury. He had never hated any one person quite this much; had never wished to see anyone beaten to a bloody pulp; still, he was a reasonable man and a gentleman, and there were things, one did not, did not--But that smile, that pretty, charming, rogue's grin! That filthy smile of his. How it must have turned Georgiana's head; how it did turn Miss Lydia Bennett's. After Georgiana's confession to him, Darcy had thought about meeting Wickham, had imagined this moment to the smallest details; had envisioned, in impotent fury, doing things to him. Still, nothing had prepared him for the sight of his hands closing over George Wickham's throat.

But, the space between them crossed in one furious long stride, they did. The thought of Georgiana, of Elizabeth, that he was for certes doing this to Elizabeth, as an act of revenge-all of it robbed him of all wits. For the first time in his twenty-eight years, he was moved by a desire to murder. This was different from the detached thrill of the hunt, where the chase was more important than the kill. He wanted this man dead, and he wanted him dead by his hand, and with as much pain as possible.

Wickham, on his part, was so shocked that he never even fought back (for he had believed Darcy passionless and had mistaken his reserve for weakness). Darcy saw, right in front of him, Wickham's shocked, terrified, bulging blue eyes (his legs were dangling, to Darcy's satisfaction, few inches above the floor), felt the bones of the man's neck under his hands, unexpectedly fragile and breakable, Fitzwilliam's grip on his shoulders, pulling him off, his voice, Anne's begging voice, and Miss Lydia Bennett's hysterical screaming...and it was likely she who was pummeling him repeatedly on the arm, with no discernible result as to weakening of his grip on Wickham's throat.

Rather, it was the rational man in him who woke and shrank in pure horror.

Good God, he thought, what am I doing?

Gasping, he let go and slumped back. Wickham, on his part, fell against the wall, grabbing at his neck. Darcy looked: Fitzwilliam and Anne stared at him with what could only be described as compassion. Miss Lydia, kneeling next to her wounded darling, tried to pry his fingers away, until, finding his voice, he barked at her to leave him be.

Finally, rising to his feet, he stumbled to the table, where, next to his red-coat militia uniform, lay a flintlock pistol, and a sword similar to Fitzwilliam's. Still, such a move had been predictable enough, and the completely flabbergasted, wheezing Wickham found himself staring down a very long, very lethal blade, pointed straight at his throat.

"Sit down, my friend," Fitzwilliam said, in rather a friendly manner. "Yes, there, on that chair."

At the sight of someone pointing a blade to her lover's throat, young Miss Lydia chose the wisest course of action: she fainted. Very prettily so, Darcy thought gloomily, tumbling gracefully onto the (rather dingy) rug like the last autumn leaf.

Anne shuffled over with salts, but Darcy said, seized with a sudden idea:

"Leave her be, Annie--I think it better that she does not hear all that need be said."

Thereupon, he cocked Fitzwilliam's pistol and aimed it at his (cheating) childhood playmate. Bewildered, Wickham slowly raised both arms in mute surrender and moved back against the wall.

"Sit," he was ordered, and he obeyed, blindly pulling up a chair. His neck still featured numerous spots, red, blue and purple. Whatever might be said about him, blind recklessness was never one of his sins; therefore, he found that it was in his interests to comply with those who had a firearm and a saber trained at him.

He watched them cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, and Darcy found great joy in the same fact that also sickened him so roundly: that Wickham was such a despicable yellow-bellied coward. Never mind that, he thought, fiercely, if you only allowed him access to that pistol on the table...

"Cousin Anne?" he said, politely, not taking his eyes off Wickham, not even for a second.

"Yes, Cousin Darcy," was her demure reply.

"Would you be so kind as to pass me that weapon-"

"But of course," she said, laying Wickham's heavy pistol in his free hand.

"Thank you," he said, with perfect politeness.

"What do the three of you want with me?"

Wickham sounded thoroughly croaky, Darcy noted with satisfaction. Perhaps, he should have done this years ago, to disabuse him of the notion he was likely to tolerate his designs on Georgiana.

"What are you plans as regards this young lady?" he asked curtly, nodding towards Lydia, still in dead faint on the rug.

Wickham shrugged, his eyes turning into narrow, icy-cold blue slits. "What's that to you?" he asked.

"Her family believes you will marry her."

Wickham managed a crooked smile and a strained chuckle. "Lud, Darcy, she has but a hundred pounds of dowry! Oh no, I am not such a fool as that! I have not completely abandoned an idea of marrying a woman with a little comfortable something." His good spirits somewhat repaired, he shrugged and added: "You know I could find one, if I wished."

"No," Darcy said, irritably: how obtuse was this man? "This was not a question, Wickham. You will marry Miss Lydia Bennett."

Wickham stared at him, completely shocked, saying nothing. Then, he tittered in disbelief.

"Surely you must be joking!" he said, incredulously. "And how, after all, does it concern you?"

Darcy chose to remain silent to that, and his companions, of course, said nothing. But perchance, Wickham was somewhat less obtuse than Darcy had thought; therefore, with a flash of understanding, he said: "Oh, I see. The governess." He smiled again. "And here I thought you all gallant and selfless!" ."

"You may think what you want," Darcy said, evenly. "But you will marry Miss Lydia Bennett."

Who, at that moment, came to, sitting up groggily.

"Ohhhhhh," she murmured. "What on earth are you carrying on about?" (A lovely young lady, Darcy noticed, appropriately respectful of her elders.)

The Colonel gave her one of his shining grins, even as Anne hurried over, helping the unfortunate hoyden up.

"Do not worry, Miss Bennett--we are simply discussing your wedding arrangements with Mr. Wickham."

"But why do you-oh, do stop pointing that pistol at him, sir!"

"I think it would be better if you took Miss Bennett to the next room, Mrs. Fitzwilliam," the Colonel said, grinning, clearly savoring the appellation. Miss Lydia stalled at first, but quite wilted away at Darcy's disdainful stare, and followed Anne into what one assumed was the bedroom.

"Well, then," Darcy said as the door closed between the two of them. "I suggest you listen and nod, Wickham, if you do not wish to give your future wife the impression of not wishing to marry her--you are, after all, to live with her for years, perhaps your whole life."

"Oh, yes," the Colonel agreed. "She does look like the sort who would outlive you by a few decades. And women always make certain to commit our worst mishaps to memory!"

Wickham, looking mighty green, attempted to put on a show.

"You cannot make me marry her," he said, not sounding at all certain..

"No," Darcy agreed. "But I can murder you. With my own two hands, for what you almost did to my sister, for daring, the cur that you are, to set your sights upon her."

"You will never get away with it-" Wickham murmured. "Empty threats, Darcy!"

"Oh, he will," the Colonel said amiably. "I shall help him."

"Do not let that trouble you," Darcy said glumly. "Perhaps I shall not. But by God, I shall kill you."

"Lud, he does not even have to kill you," the Colonel suggested amiably. "You have not traveled, my friend, have you? Do you know how the mamelukes make eunuchs?" ?"

"In any case," Darcy added, savagely, "you will never seduce anybody's sister again!"

Wickham sputtered. "This is an outrage!"

"You can say so. Or you can agree that this is a rather enviable situation for you."

"Enviable?"

"I shall settle a sum upon Miss Bennett, to make her a more attractive bride for you."

"Huh," Wickham said, smiled again, and settled himself more comfortably in his chair. "Perhaps, you should have started with that."

"I shall buy you a commission in different county, so that you may make yourself useful. I shall pay all your debts, as of today, so that the creditors do not hound your wife."

Wickham raised one eyebrow. "All of my debts?"

The Colonel laughed. "Beware, Darcy--all of Pemberley might not be enough for that!"

Darcy said, lip curling disdainfully: "Somehow, I doubt that. I shall require that you marry Miss Bennett immediately--I shall take it upon myself to obtain a special license for you."

"Expensive business," Fitzwilliam said, grinning. "But nothing but the very best for our friend Wickham, eh, Darcy? ."

"Do I have your agreement to this plan, Wickham?"

"That would depend," Wickham said, "upon the plan, my friend Darcy." Breaking into a smile at Darcy's pained expression, he inquired: "Good heavens, you do not wish to be my friend?"

"I should rather eat dirt," Darcy said priggishly. "Answer my question, enough of this folly!"

"You first," Wickham said. "How much?"

"Two thousand pounds."

The Colonel whistled; but it seemed insufficient to Wickham, who drove a hard bargain, eyes narrowed, staring at the man he hated more than death itself.

"Five thousand," he said. "As you said, I shall have to live with her 'till the end of my days."

Darcy shook his head. "You think me an idiot," he said. "It will be far cheaper just to kill you. Two thousand, and not a penny more."

"Is she to be your sister-in-law?" Having received no answer to that conjecture, he continued to surmise: "Well, even if she is not-even if you are merely setting her sister up in a nice little town-house somewhere-"

Fitzwilliam's blade quivered under Wickham's chin.

"If you know what is good for you, Wickham, you will stop, immediately," the Colonel advised, seeing Darcy's white-knuckled grip upon the pistol he had given him.

"Very well, very well!" Wickham grumbled, seeing perfectly in which direction the wind was blowing. "But you are taking quite an advantage of me," he complained.

"Do I have your agreement, Wickham?" Darcy said, frowning as if it pained to say the scoundrel's very name.

"You do," Wickham said, and, leaning forward, proffered his hand. Darcy ignored it and rose, his weapon still trained upon Wickham's figure.

Fitzwilliam rose hastily as well.

"Come," he said, strode towards Wickham and forced him from the chair. "Now."

"Well, then," Darcy said, and nodded towards the door in the bedroom. "Shall we tell the bride-to-be the good news?"

"You know, Darcy," Wickham said unwisely, "you do owe me what your father once promised me-the living in Kympton-it should have been mine--"

Before Fitzwilliam had the time to say or do anything, Darcy carefully laid both pistols upon the rug, turned towards Wickham and hit him squarely in the face. Wickham, bloodied and thoroughly miffed by now, heaved himself back on his feet, and, ignoring Fitzwilliam's weapon, threw himself on Darcy. The two rolled on the floor not unlike two rabid dogs, each landing punches anywhere he managed. Fitzwilliam, standing to the side, considered getting involved, but did not think it wise: for he was much better employed keeping watch over the weapons. If Darcy wanted to beat the life out of this bastard, perhaps it should do him good (even if it meant that he would end up thoroughly pummeled himself). Therefore, he carefully negotiated his way towards the pistols on the floor.

Darcy found that Wickham's fighting habits had not changed in the ten years since he had last fought him. He still scratched and pinched and aimed his punches below the belt, the rules of gentlemanly combat clearly unknown to him. Still, Darcy was bigger and stronger and better trained, perhaps, and not quite so weakened by indolence and dissolution and constant drinking and whorring. He did not fare too badly, all things considered.

Therefore, when a shot rang out, he found himself regretting it a bit, however irrationally. Though a drastic measure, it served its purpose admirably and claimed their undivided attention, so that they stopped pummeling each other and sat on the floor, breathing heavily. Darcy's cheekbone stung and his ribs gave an unsettling crack as he sat up and stared at Anne, standing there, holding her tiny pistol.

"Shame on you," she said to him, furiously. "Should Elizabeth see you like this!"

Behind her, Miss Bennett gave a startled cry and rushed to Wickham, whom, on closer observation, could only see out of one eye, and not very well, either.

"What have you done to him?!" she screamed dramatically and seemed about to swoon again. Darcy ignored her as he rose to his feet and was righting his ruffled clothing and thinking of what on earth had possessed him. He felt ridiculously good-he felt as good as he looked poorly. And he must have presented a ridiculous spectacle, indeed, if Anne's expression as she handed him the handkerchief was anything to go by. There was a sickly metallic taste in his mouth, and as he held Anne's handkerchief to his mouth, there was blood on it; yet, as he gingerly drew his tongue over his teeth, all of them seemed in place. It was only a split lip, and it would heal soon enough.

~ * ~

There was little space in the carriage, and all of them sat quite cramped. Too close for comfort, Darcy thought, too close to Wickham. He still had urges, violent ones, to lay his hands on the man. The thought of this predatory cur planning an assault upon Georgiana's innocence and virtue almost drove him to violence again. Fitzwilliam sat between them, all the while holding Anne's tiny pistol pressed against the man's side; which, Darcy knew, must make for a very uncomfortable ride. Anne and Miss Lydia sat on the other side, the latter more respectably clad, but in the foulest mood.

They arrived in Gracechurch Street, in Cheapside, at the address reluctantly given to them by Miss Lydia. What an abominably badly-behaved child, Darcy thought, angrily; for, when it came time for her to quit the carriage, she whined and carried on about how she did not wish to leave "her Wickham," and how her Aunt and Uncle were such terrible bores. He gritted his teeth.

"Miss Bennett," he said, coldly. "Please be so kind as to follow us inside, silently."

She quieted down, reluctantly, then followed him and Anne inside the house, leaving Fitzwilliam inside the carriage with Wickham. Before stepping down from the carriage, she turned about and blew her lover a kiss. Good Lord, Darcy thought; she has no idea how little he wishes to marry her. His irritation with her was replaced by intense pity in a heartbeat. With a husband such as Wickham, her life would be one of constant loss and pain. Turning to the girl in front of the house he asked, quickly:

"Miss Lydia, may I, perhaps, prevail upon you to return to your family?"

"Darcy!" Anne gasped. He knew that this was pure insanity, that she had been ruined (and he did not discount the possibility of her being with child)-but to subject her to Wickham for life...She seemed to love him, but it was clear to Darcy she did not know what she was doing.

It became even more obvious to him in the next second, for Miss Lydia stared at him as if he had grown a second head on his shoulders, and then asked, with all the disdain one reserves for obvious idiots:

"Are you daft?"

And that was that. He saw that arguing with her was pointless... both courses of action seemed equally damaging... but her family would suffer less if she did marry Wickham. Indeed, he thought, she was blind, willfully blind, and there was nothing he could do to help her.

They knocked on the door, and waited in a simple, yet distinguished-looking drawing-room, for Mr. Gardiner to come down. He did, rushing down like a particularly disheveled large bird, and, upon espying his errant niece, let out a gasp of relief.

"Lydia!" he cried, pulling the girl into his arms, pressing her head against his shoulder. "Good God, what fright you gave us all!"

And it isn't over yet, Darcy thought glumly. He introduced himself and Anne; thereupon, a glint of understanding shone in the man's eye.

"You are our Lizzy's employer, sir," he said, and bowed respectfully. "How will we thank you?"

Sadly, it fell to Darcy to explain to the good gentleman that his niece would not be returning to her family; indeed, that she must be married. He omitted the fact that her unfortunate fiancé was, at the moment, waiting in the carriage with a pistol pressed to his side. Upon hearing such news, Mr. Gardiner's good-natured countenance expressed alarm and then, dejection. But he quickly saw sense in Darcy's words and nodded.

"Then so it shall be," he said with a sigh.

Miss Bennett sent upstairs to bed (she threw him a murderous glance as she went; here goes my future sister-in-law, he thought, sighing to himself), they discussed the financial arrangements. Thereupon, a small struggle ensued: Mr. Gardiner insisted that he should be allowed to pay George Wickham's debts and to settle a sum upon Lydia. Darcy would have none of it.

"It is my responsibility," the older man said. "She is my niece. Since their father's death, they have no other male relative."

Darcy felt himself blushing. It was made worse by Anne's silent presence, but he believed he must fully explain his interest in the matter.

"I am not Miss Lydia's family now..." he said, gingerly. "But I shall be... soon enough. Your other niece-Miss Elizabeth-she has-she has accepted me," he finished lamely.

Anne smirked at his side and patted his arm.

"How eloquent, cousin," she murmured. He glared at her.

"You may practice your own explanations soon enough, Mrs. Fitzwilliam," he said poisonously. She quieted down, sighing.

Mr. Gardiner stared at him in mild incomprehension. "Accepted you?" he asked. "Are you saying... that you are to marry our Lizzy?"

Darcy nodded, immensely relieved at the sight of a broad smile upon the gentleman's face.

"Truly!" he said. "I did not know. With all this-but my God, congratulations!" He shook Darcy's hand with such vigor, the young man thought his arm was going to fall off. Thereupon, he resisted a bit longer, but in the end, it was all settled to everyone's satisfaction (as much as was possible under the circumstances). Miss Lydia would become Mrs. Wickham as soon as it would take Darcy to obtain a special license; in view of this union's circumstances, it was their agreement that the marriage should be as private as possible.

Darcy and Anne quitted the house in Gracechurch Street in far better spirits than before. Climbing inside the carriage, where Fitzwilliam and Wickham sat in gloomy silence, he broke into a grin and clamped his hand upon Wickham's shoulder.

"I did not think I should live to see it, but you, my friend, are going to be a married man!"

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