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

Chapter 30

Elizabeth sat in the garden at Longbourn, trying her hardest to concentrate on the book in her hands. A volume of Latin poetry, old translations. Still, she kept flipping back to the poem she and Darcy had read together-Catullus' "Da mi basia mille." It was there, and, at Pemberley, she had dried a tiny forget-me-not between the pages. How true, she thought, longingly. Forget-me-not, my love, forget-me-not. For, if you do, I shall whither and die.

His reply to her letter brought her joy and relief. She was only glad now she had not left his mother's ring (she still thought of it thus, not entirely accustomed to thinking of it as her own engagement ring) at Pemberley. She had thought to, but dared not offend him thus; she could not imagine his heartbreak, were he to find it there, left by her. She resolved to keep the ring until their betrothal was irreparably ended.

But their betrothal was not ended, and she was all the happier for that. She had written him a letter when leaving Pemberley, saying things her conscience demanded, but her heart protested. When his reply had arrived, two days into her sojourn at Longbourn (two miserable days, made not at all better by her mother's moans and black predictions, Mary's unwanted sermons and their neighbor's polite disgust...), she had sat down on the floor in her room (she had repaired there to read it, not quite trusting her countenance as she trembled with fear-what if he had accepted her offer, so gracious and misguided?), put her face in her hands, and cried of happiness and relief. And shame. For he had proven to be the more steadfast of the two of them, the more devoted. She could tell herself she had done this in care of him all she wished... but the truth remained, had she truly thought of him, of his feelings...

Elizabeth sighed. Perhaps, it took time to learn devotion. She was fortunate he was willing to give her that time...

Life at Longbourn was easier than she had thought it would be-for as long as she stayed away from her mother. For she only had to take a step into Mrs. Bennett's room, to find herself in the heart of a veritable maelstrom of complaints and bellyaching. Which was directed at that ruinous blackguard George Wickham, anyone in Mrs. Bennett's direct and not-so-direct circle, anyone who might have had influence upon Lydia as a child, the Colonel and Mrs. Forrester, who had failed so grievously in their roles as Lydia's chaperones. Even Elizabeth herself, who, having selfishly taken employment in Derbyshire, was thus unable to accompany her sister to Brighton (that Elizabeth would rather die than traipse after Lydia as she flirted and flounced did not seem a valid concern). And finally-and, in Elizabeth's opinion, wrongfully, Mrs. Bennett dared impugn the late Mr. Bennett-simply for dying and leaving them so destitute. On one occasion, Elizabeth-who always thought of herself as more of her father's, rather than her mother's, daughter-found her patience short and inquired, rather caustically, how was it that Mr. Bennett's demise had contributed to Lydia's loose morals. To that, Mrs. Bennett gave no reply, choosing, rather, to point the accusative finger at Elizabeth herself. First, for being a bad daughter and abandoning them all that whole summer; and second, for being envious of Lydia. Then, Elizabeth had stalked from her mother's bedchamber, glowing furiously like hot coals, lest she says something unforgivable.

Since then, she had avoided Mrs. Bennett's room; everyone agreed that mother and daughter were both better off out of each other's way. Elizabeth dealt with visitors (there were unexpectedly many, eager to express the family their pity), whom she abhorred, who sat on the edge of their seats and listened eagerly to her updates (which she kept to only a very few words), hoping for a really juicy tidbit so that later on they might cluck their tongues and play at empathy, sighing about that silly ruined Lydia Bennett, and her poor, poor sisters. Elizabeth could always feel when people were disingenuous, and it made her almost ill. Still, it was preferable to the "bedchamber" duty, which had been relegated to the quiet Jane.

But on that morning, there were no guests, and Elizabeth, having written Darcy a letter, had found her way into the garden, thinking to spend a few hours reading.

Yet, the solitude she sought would not be granted to her. For, not more than half an hour after Elizabeth had retired to the garden, Jane appeared on the path, running with all her might towards her, her petticoats a line of white under her black widow's dress.

"Lizzy! Lizzy!"

Elizabeth's heart fell: something must have happened to their mother. But Jane was not crying-quite the opposite, her face expressed a rare combination of shock and delight. Elizabeth rose from the bench and met her sister halfway on the path.

Only then did she espy that Jane was holding a letter in her hand. Panting with exertion, the older sister appraised the younger that-

"Lizzy, they have been found!"

The letter had been addressed to either or both of them, which was the usual custom of their Uncle Gardiner. Flipping it open, Elizabeth perused it greedily, hoping that it brought the news of Lydia's marriage-and dreading it at the same time (try as she might, she could not convince herself that marriage to George Wickham was a good thing for her poor, stupid sister). The news confounded her utterly: their Uncle wrote that, though the wayward couple had not yet been married, they would be soon, under the following financial conditions (which Mr. Gardiner had apparently taken upon himself to satisfy)...

Elizabeth folded the letter and stared, numbly, before herself. Jane, as the proprietress of Longbourn, was asked to settle a small yearly sum upon Lydia for as long as she lived. As to the rest, their Uncle wrote, they needed not worry. He would pay George Wickham's (considerable) debts, in Brighton, London and even Meryton; he would pay for the special license, so that the couple might be married soon as possible; he would purchase Wickham's commission. Though the total sum mentioned in the letter exceeded two thousand pounds, Elizabeth suspected that this was not nearly the sum required to make George Wickham marry Lydia. She said so to Jane.

"But do you think he is so wholly bad, that he would not marry her otherwise? Having, perhaps, taken her innocence?"

Elizabeth took serious issue with Jane's "perhaps." George Wickham was a cad of the worst kind, there would be no "perhaps." Elizabeth found that her store of mercy and forgiveness was at its all-time low.

"Yes," she said, flatly. "He is wholly bad."

Jane looked stricken. "But in this case," she said, holding one hand to her cheek, "poor Lydia!"

Elizabeth nodded grimly. "Indeed," she said. "Poor Lydia."

The question of the obscene amount their Uncle had been forced to spend on this marriage bothered Elizabeth for yet another reason. Namely, that she had never thought him to have possessed this kind of wealth. He was prosperous, to be sure, but the sum stated in the letter-and more so, the sum she suspected-would likely amount to twice his yearly income. She returned to the house with Jane, feeling strangely mutinous and uneasy.

Mrs. Bennett took the good news with the same lack of logic and understanding with which she had taken the bad one. She rejoiced loudly and demanded that Lydia should be married from Longbourn, with all the neighbors in attendance (Elizabeth felt the hairs rise and shiver on her head).

"You must see it is impossible, ma'am," she said tersely.

"I do not see it! Indeed, why should I see it? Can my girl not be married out of her own home?"

"Indeed not, ma'am," Elizabeth said. "You must see how it is-she cannot come back from London unmarried, having-having-" she sighed, seeking a genteel enough expression for what her sister had done, "-having lived with Mr. Wickham at his lodgings." She made round eyes and said, weightily: "The neighbors will talk. Surely you do not wish to make your daughter the talk of the town!"

"Oh, very well!" Mrs. Bennett said disagreeably, looking at Elizabeth with a certain amount of dislike. "What matters is that she has found a husband! And she is only sixteen! And you are one-and-twenty, and will likely be an old maid forever!"

Elizabeth found this the appropriate moment to disabuse her mother of such a mistaken notion. Had she been less out of spirits, Mrs. Bennett would have long noticed Darcy's ring on Elizabeth's finger; but she had been truly caught up in her misery and had no eyes for anything else.

In the space of ten seconds, Elizabeth graduated from the position of Mrs. Bennett's least favorite daughter to that of her-well, at least one as favored as "dear Lydia." And perhaps even more so, considering the size of the stone in Elizabeth's ring. Elizabeth withstood her mother's lengthy effusions on the subject of God's mercy and patiently answered all of her questions with respect to Mr. Darcy's wealth.

"Yes," she said, cringing. "Ten thousand a year."

At this, Mrs. Bennett had to be given salts and reminded that there was no need to faint, that it was not the neighbor's girl who had caught such a man, but her own daughter. Finally free of her mother's clutches (and having ignored, to the best of her ability, Mrs. Bennett's insistence on helping her buy wedding clothes), Elizabeth escaped back to the gardens and plopped, heavily, on the bench. She felt very cross that her good letter, of which she had been quite proud-for it had managed to avoid precisely this sort of an anatomy theater with respect to Darcy's finances-had gone unread. In her mind, she begged his forgiveness. To her father, she would have told how much she loved this man; but to her mother, this was of no import.

~ * ~

In London, Darcy kept Wickham under lock and key in one of the guest rooms. The latter protested this vocally, but Darcy played deaf and paid no attention whatsoever to his promises not to run off. He was far from convinced that the amount of money he had offered the blackguard outweighed the horror of being married for life to Miss Lydia Bennett. Therefore, Wickham took his meals in his apartments-which also had the beneficial effect of removing him from the breakfast table. Darcy was not certain he would be able to swallow a bite if he had to stare in Wickham's abominable face.

The day of the wedding came, and Darcy, being in lousy spirits-for he found it highly unfair that he had to force this bastard to marry, when the only thing he wanted was to rush to Longbourn to marry Elizabeth-unlocked Wickham's door and found the groom-to-be looking absolutely mutinous.

"I dare you," Darcy said, coldly, staring him down. "You'll not make it so far as the door."

Wickham began looking visibly becalmed, though in a greenish, sickly sort of way. Resigned, perhaps, would be the better word. Darcy took his elbow firmly and the two quitted the room.

On their way to the Gardiners' residence (for it was decided between Darcy and Mr. Gardiner) that a private wedding in the library of their home was preferable to one in a church, Wickham sat in grim silence; but, as Darcy's carriage stopped in Gracechurch street, threw a desperate, almost pleading look at him and asked, hopefully:

"I do not suppose you would release me from all this?"

"Why would I do something like this?" Darcy asked as he exited the carriage. All of a sudden, Wickham made a sudden, desperate lunge across the seat and tumbled out of the carriage door opposite-only to find himself face-to-face with a burly six-foot-tall footman with a countenance of a small mountain.

"Well," Darcy said as the fellow verily dragged Wickham around the carriage, a hand firmly squeezing his elbow. "You must think me truly stupid."

Thereupon, Wickham calmed down and made no further attempts at an escape or any other sort of subterfuge (his attempted flight from the carriage having been, clearly, the condemned man's one last desperate attempt to help himself). Less than half an hour later, he was married to one woman sure to make him miserable. His only consolation was that he would make her so as well. Indeed, the two had been more than evenly matched.

Darcy instructed both Lydia and Wickham that no mention of his role in the affair was to be made to Elizabeth; he was not certain why he did that. Perhaps it was that he could not bear have these two tell it; but no more could he write to Elizabeth about it himself, or have Mr. Gardiner do so (indeed, the latter was forced, much against his will, to take all the credit for the undertaking). He knew that the service he had rendered to Elizabeth and the rest of the Bennetts was of considerable magnitude; perhaps, then, it was his natural modesty that prevented him from speaking. Still, silence on the subject was agreeable to both Lydia and Wickham, since the bride did not care, and the groom would as well never say Darcy's name again in his life.

Darcy then made a mistake of inquiring how long the couple intended to stay at Longbourn (for he could not imagine going there while Wickham was still there, and he dearly wanted to). Wickham must have caught a trace of longing in his voice, and found a perfect opportunity to take his revenge, however petty.

"Oh, I do not know," he said leisurely, "perhaps 'till my commission begins..."

Darcy almost gasped aloud: this was nearly a month hence! Furious, he went in search of Colonel Fitzwilliam (who had come, with Anne, for the wedding breakfast), who found his request that the beginning of George Wickham's commission be moved up by as much as possible absolutely reasonable.

"Indeed," Fitzwilliam said, smiling. 'The Army positively cannot do without him..." He patted Darcy on the shoulder. "I shall do what I can."

Darcy was quite certain that Fitzwilliam-a war hero of the Portuguese campaigns, charming, aristocratic, and a genuinely good fellow-could do quite a lot; therefore, his mood improved, he said his good-byes to the Gardiners, bowed to the new Mrs. Wickham (while quite ignoring the Mr.), and went back home, accompanied by his cousins.

At home, he found Bingley waiting for him, and was genuinely glad to see him.

"Have you had news?" Bingley inquired, as soon as the Fitzwilliams had quitted their presence, having gone upstairs to their apartments. "From Hertfordshire, I mean?"

Thereupon, he colored deeply, embarrassed to have bared his soul in two sentences. But Darcy was a receptive audience, his own brains similarly addled by love. He sighed, not bothering to hide his own heartache and malaise, and stretched himself in a chair.

"Yes," he said. Though not as often as I should like, he added to himself. Aloud, he would not say so, would not admit to his quiet anguish; aloud, Elizabeth could not be anything but perfect. "I intend to go there, as soon-"

As soon as Wickham has gone, he thought; for he had had enough of him, could not bear the thought of sitting at the same dinner table with him, could not bear to see him near Elizabeth. That they would be sons-in-law to the same family, he would have to suffer, for the sake of being with Elizabeth; but it did not bear thinking of. Of course, he could not tell Bingley any of it.

"Soon," he finished, lamely. Still, he had to tell him something. Bingley was, after all, his best friend, and, considering the direction things were taking, likely to be married into the Bennett family at some point. Therefore, he apprised Bingley, in very few words, about Miss Lydia Bennett's marriage. Bingley was very correct about it all, but his big blue eyes did widen considerably at the mention of George Wickham's name (he had known that Jane's sister had absconded, but he could not imagine, in his wildest dreams, with whom). Still, he was a wonderfully tactful man, and said nothing.

"Bingley, I trust you to be discreet with respect to this question. There will be an announcement in the Times. Beyond this, nothing is to be said."

Both of them knew what this meant: Bingley was not to discuss the question of this marriage with his sisters. Bingley nodded hurriedly, assuring his friend of his utmost discretion; indeed, it was in his best interests as well, for surely Caroline and Louisa would use the scandal associated with Lydia Bennett's marriage to Old Wickham's son for all it was worth.

"When you go to Longbourn," he said, "I am thinking of coming along. Would you mind?"

Later that day, Fitzwilliam returned and said, grinning brightly:

" 'Tis done. Major George Wickham is officially the most wanted man in all the Army. He is to be in Newcastle three days hence. Two more days, and you can go to Hertfordshire."

Darcy gave his heartfelt thanks. He was no longer counting days, but hours, nay, minutes until he could be with Elizabeth.

~ * ~

Two days later, an unusual guest called upon Darcy at his townhouse. Lady Matlock came, quite early in the morning. Darcy was somewhat at a loss as to what she was doing there; naturally, upon his own arrival to town, he had called upon his Uncle and Aunt, as position and kinship demanded. In addition, Lady Matlock rarely called upon those who were lower in rank-simply because she did not have to. They would call upon her, and from there, she would determine if they were worthy of her association.

"Is Lord Matlock well?" Darcy inquired, wondering what had brought the old woman to his house.

"Yes, yes, well enough," Lady Matlock said, exhibiting a certain amount of impatience (which made him wonder as well). "I shall not beat about the bush, Fitzwilliam." She always called him that, and he did not like it one bit-for his parents had called him that, and Georgiana, when she was angry with him; but other than that, nobody. Though his Christian name, it was nonetheless a private appellation-for he was "Darcy" to most everybody to whom he was not "Master." He did not think it was equitable for his aunt to use it.

Outwardly, he smiled at her and inclined his head, as if asking her to please, be as frank as possible.

"I am here to see my son," she said. Indeed, as if to answer her statement, the door opened, and in came Anne, glowing and pretty and wearing a pretty new hat. And accompanied by her new husband. "Oh, good, Richard," she said, with rather less warmth than one can expect from a mother addressing her youngest son.

"Mother," Fitzwilliam said-with just the right amount of caution for the youngest son, inopportunely married, responding to his mother. "To what do we owe the honor?"

Lady Matlock raised one eyebrow.

"To Catherine," she said. Darcy saw how Anne's face just fell. He felt a surge of irrational anger inside: why, to be so afraid of her own mother! He thought back to Lady Anne-he was never afraid of her, mostly unsure of her feelings for him and often lonely and miserable. But never afraid. And as to his father-Darcy could not imagine being afraid to bring home a wife he loved as much as Anne loved Fitzwilliam.

"Is she back?" Anne asked. Lady Matlock nodded, dryly, then turned to her son again.

"I have a letter from her this morning. I have come here first thing. She is displeased that Anne is not at Rosings by now-she thinks her summer at Pemberley has been unduly extended. So I think it best if you were to haste to Rosings, Richard."

"It is not better or worse, Mother," Fitzwilliam said in the same lazy tone he always adopted when talking to Lady Matlock. "It will make absolutely no difference if we were to put an announcement in the paper than if we were to rush to Rosings and prostrate ourselves before the dowager."

Lady Matlock craned another eyebrow. "Perhaps you still stand a chance of reclaiming Anne's fortune," she said. Anne rose from the settee and walked, quickly, to the window. Darcy was angry at his Aunt for doing this. Irrationally so, because he knew that this was not his fight. Fitzwilliam and Anne had made their choice, and if anybody could win this battle, Darcy believed they could. Both of them were loving and steadfast, and could not be parted for the life of them. But it was wrong of his Aunt to barge in like so: he knew that Anne felt herself, keenly, to be the reason why Fitzwilliam would never be a rich man (for, as an earl's son and a military hero, he could marry any fortune in England). He rose and walked to stand next to her, both of them looking out at the street, and squeezed her hand, briefly, in a small sign of support.

"Madam," Fitzwilliam said behind them, just as lazily as before. "Anne and I are quite thankful for your concern. We shall go to Rosings soon as may be." Darcy saw a tiny smile touch Anne's lips: both of them knew that Fitzwilliam had not the slightest intention of begging for his wife's fortune. She squeezed his hand back.

Lady Matlock, apparently satisfied (or perhaps simply aware that she would have nothing more out of her youngest, handsomest, most stubborn son), found it fitting to change the subject; thereupon, she smiled brightly and said:

"Fitzwilliam!" (addressing herself not to her son, but to her nephew, who turned around, politely, looking quite prepared to indulge whatever question she had to put to him) "Catherine writes to me that a report of a most-" she hesitated, looking for the appropriate adjective to illustrate the report's ludicrousness-"bizarre nature has reached her-" She paused, before blurting out, with a look of utter triumph upon her face: "It says you are to be married! And not to Anne!"

"Well, Aunt," Darcy said, amiably. "You see how that is impossible. England prohibits bigamy, as you must know. I cannot marry Anne because your son is married to Anne."

"Oh, but the report is highly peculiar!" the old lady opined. "It says you are marrying Georgiana's governess! My Lord, what a singular proposition!

The three cousins exchanged a slightly disturbed glance. A report, he thought, viciously, resolving to find out who amongst his domestics served to spy upon him. Lady Matlock, however, was too caught up in conveying the news to notice his discomfiture, or, indeed, the expressive look her son threw at his wife.

"-Catherine is quite put out over this matter! She writes she will demand that you deny the report and put these vicious rumors to rest! Well, I only laughed! If it were anybody else, I might have believed it-but you, of all people! Marry a governess!"

"A companion," Darcy said, quietly. Lady Matlock continued to smile for another second; then, the smile faded off her face, as if washed off with water and soap.

"Beg your pardon?" she murmured.

"The report-wherever it originated-did not lie," Darcy said. "I am to marry my sister's companion. Miss Elizabeth Bennett."

She stared at him, open-mouthed, and then she said:

"No! Your poor mother!"

Darcy ground his teeth so loudly, Fitzwilliam threw a startled glance at him.

"Madam, my mother is dead. If she can see me-wherever she is at the moment-, I am certain she is happy for me. I shall say no more on the subject. I shall bring my wife to London soon enough, and you will be able to meet her." He bowed sharply, displeasure written clearly on his face. "Of course, you are invited to our wedding-and I shall inform you of time and location." He bowed again. "I must leave, now."

Darcy gone, Anne still facing the window in morose silence, Lady Matlock turned to her son.

"Well?" she asked, expectantly, her eyes twinkling mischievously. Fitzwilliam shrugged his shoulders, clearly hoping to avoid answering this rather all-encompassing question. But as his mother was the only person in the world of whom he was even mildly afraid-and that having faced Napoleon's troops in '06-he chose the wisest course of action and appraised her, in the mildest expressions possible, of Darcy's matrimonial plans.

~ * ~

At Longbourn, Elizabeth and Jane visited their father's grave. They brought with them a big bunch of autumn's brightest flowers-asters and dahlias and chrysanthemums- and set it gently upon the stone. Kneeling in the still-green grass, Elizabeth sighed and felt tears, unwanted, gather and spill. Jane, kneeling next to her, watched her with eyes full of compassion. In her goodness, she had loved both her parents equally; but Elizabeth had always been her father's daughter, much more than her mother's. Upon their father's death, she was the one most bereaved-for she was also the one truly orphaned.

"Oh, papa," she whispered. She was breaking down. She was missing her father, more than usual, and the distance between her and Darcy was tearing at her heart. She missed him, too, terribly, with every inch of her skin and every fiber of her body, missed the sight, the scent of him, ached to hear the sound of his voice. The mark he had left upon her breast had long faded; it hurt her when she could no longer see it.

"Lizzy," Jane whispered, resting a hand upon her sister's arm. Elizabeth shook her head mutely.

"I am well, truly, Jane. You need not worry."

Jane nodded sadly, rose to her feet and repaired to the company of the vicar who was standing by the cemetery gate. Elizabeth, though she loved her sister with all her heart, was grateful for the solitude. In the first days after her father's death, she had made it her habit to come here as often as she could manage-so as to tell her father (who had been a friend as well as a parent) the happenings of her life.

She did so now, following an irrepressible need:

"Lydia is to be married, papa," she said softly. "He is not, by any estimation, a good man, and I blame myself, for were it not for me, he might never have approached her." She sighed to herself. She would never know what would have happened, and she could not find it in her heart to regret preventing Georgiana's escape with Wickham. Shockingly, if Wickham had to marry one of the two girls, he was better suited with Lydia-and she was better fitted to survive him. Georgiana, sheltered and accustomed to gentleness and goodness from her brother, would simply wither and die with a man like Wickham for a husband. Lydia... Elizabeth sighed again. She did not like these thoughts, did not like herself thinking him. She forced her mind to take a different direction.

"I am to be married, too, papa," she said. It sounded wonderful, but she did not feel wonderful at all-for the man she loved was far and away from her, and it hurt her heart to think of that. She had not known it was possible to miss another so cruelly. "He is-he is truly wonderful-" She could no longer contain the ache inside her; the tears spilled again, wilder this time, seeping through her folded fingers as she pressed her hands to her face.

Having cried her fill, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and smiled at the gravestone.

"Forgive me, papa," she whispered. "I miss him so much! I miss you so much!" She sat in silence for some time, then continuing her tale: "Jane's husband has died, and I cannot find it in me to feel regret for him... there is a good man writing to her, papa, one she can love with all her heart, one who will make her happy-"

Thus she continued, until exhaustion, until words no longer tumbled from her tongue. Then, closing her eyes, she leaned her forehead against the cold granite of the gravestone and sat so, until the sadness drained out of her, and was replaced by quiet contentment.

~ * ~

The Wickhams arrived the next day. Elizabeth had steeled herself for her initial meeting with her new brother-in-law. She had not seen him since that morning in Lambton when she had helped Georgiana see his vice. Even as a hired carriage stopped in front of the house in Longbourn, Elizabeth wondered, deeply, at her own ability to look George Wickham in the eye and smile-in a sisterly way. To her own (unwelcome) surprise, she impugned him for Georgiana far more than she did for Lydia; still, it had to be done, if only to preserve peace in the family. The commission obtained for him, their Uncle's letter had said, would require his constant presence in Newcastle. She rejoiced in the distance; for God help her, she did not want him near. Hatred was an execrable emotion, and she rarely let herself feel it. But if there had to be one person in the world on whom such emotion were to be directed...

He alighted from the carriage, ever so handsome and elegant a gentleman, holding a hand out for Lydia to take as she descended. Elizabeth looked at her shoes and drove her nails into her palms. Not good, she thought. He had not said a word yet, and she was already feeling ready to separate him from one or both his eyes. Truly, it would not do to be like this...

"Miss Elizabeth," she heard. Looking up at the man before her (he was beaming at her, a picture of brotherly congeniality; you would think he had dreamed his whole life to join a family of five penniless sisters), she smiled with her lips only, keeping her eyes full of ice and her gaze sharp. "Who would have thought," said Wickham raptly, "that I shall call you sister one day!"

"Perhaps, some people would have thought so," Elizabeth said, speaking so quietly that nobody but Wickham heard her. "It is unfortunate, indeed, that I had not thought of it."

She thought she had seen something animal and cruel and defensive in his eyes. An understanding, perhaps, that she remembered, that she saw him for what he was. Elizabeth held up her chin and stared him down. She hoped to God that he does not mention Darcy, or Georgiana, that he would have brains and tact enough not to. Only dare, she thought, not quite certain what she would do if he did say something, if he mocked her like so. But another second, and his expression was warm and congenial once again, his blue eyes twinkling, nothing but goodness and sincerity in his gaze. He bowed gracefully over her hand.

"Miss Elizabeth," he murmured, before turning around and following Lydia into the house. Elizabeth exhaled noisily and shook her head. She had not imagined what an ordeal it would be to have him around when all she wanted was to strangle him. She followed the merry party into the house, having resolved to spend as little time as possible in the newlyweds' company.

~ * ~

Lydia behaved with all the prepossession of a spoiled sixteen-year-old who had suddenly found herself to be the most important of five sisters. That it happened through her own folly did not seem to bother her; what her life with George Wickham portended her, she did not seem to understand. Feeling very smug, she even invited her sisters to come visit her in Newcastle, so that she might "get husbands for them all" among her husband's fellow officers. The spectacle that was their removal from Wickham's lodgings in London and then, following, her wedding, she was forbidden to repeat. Still, when Elizabeth thanked for her generous offer, adding that she already had a fiancé, Lydia inquired of the name (all the while taking in the not insubstantial emerald upon her sister's ring finger).

"Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley, in Derbyshire," Elizabeth replied, blithely unaware of the effect such an admission was going to produce. But when Lydia's countenance expressed an abhorrence of the worst sort, coupled with an exclamation that sounded suspiciously like "ugh!", Elizabeth, deeply shocked, demanded to know the reason for such a reaction.

Lydia's shock stemmed from the fact that during their sprint to Longbourn after the wedding, Wickham, remaining in a thoroughly lousy mood, spoke but a few words to her. Excited by her new status and her pretty wedding clothes, the new Mrs. Wickham did not mind one bit (one could conjecture that the basis of her affection for her husband was never intellectual). She warbled like a bluejay, grinned and cooed admiringly at the handsome ring upon her finger (a ring, she did not know, fished by Darcy out of his own reserves-he would rather supply a ring himself than risk Wickham's escape during the necessary trip to buy one) . Thereupon, nary a word passed between them with respect to Darcy's intended marriage to Lydia's sister Elizabeth (which was, of course, merely a lucky guess of Wickham's). Deeply shaken by the news that her sister was to marry the very man who had so ruined her husband's beauty, Lydia exclaimed (not a little wrathfully):

"Why, that's the same clodpole who has attacked my poor Wickham! I tell you, Lizzy, he is thoroughly dicked in the nob!"

Elizabeth, unused to such language, and particularly with respect to Darcy, gasped and stood with her mouth slightly open. It was Jane who, acting quite against her habit, grabbed Lydia's elbow and steered her under some trees (the setting being the garden behind the sisters' house at Longbourn).

"Explain yourself!" she demanded. Lydia, unaccustomed to such authoritative manner by her gentle older sister, for lack of a better word, folded. Having sighed regretfully that she had promised "not to tell," she stared up in her sisters' unforgiving countenances and told them all.

After she finished, Elizabeth kept standing, for a long time, saying nothing, one hand pressed against her mouth. She was feeling too much; gratitude, of course, but also a strange sort of pique at Darcy-for she could not believe he would conceal something like this from her... It was Jane who set things to rights:

"But of course he would, Lizzy," she said gently, as the sisters walked back to the house, Lydia skipping before them with Kitty, and Mary trudging in their wake, clutching a tome of Fordyce's Sermons. "He is so very modest."

Elizabeth liked this supposition so much, she hugged Jane right there. She knew Jane's words to be true-underneath his arrogant exterior, Darcy was extraordinarily modest and not a little shy. She could not expect him to simply announce that he was the savior of her family; how was such a subject to be discussed? Yet, since the burden of gratitude rested with her, she must be first to speak of it. Returning to the house, Elizabeth twirled in the middle of the garden path; she had not thought she could love Darcy more, yet now, she felt ready to cry for the fullness of her heart, overflowing with gratefulness and adoration.

But he was not there-and she felt his absence all the more harshly, and her heart ached for him all the more.

~ * ~

The Fitzwilliams quit Darcy's town-house that very afternoon, and rode to Rosings. In the carriage, the Colonel found his wife somewhat wistful, perhaps thinking of her impending meeting with her mother. Endeavoring to lift her spirits, he tried to claim her attention the best way he knew how. Following his very valiant (and successful) attempt, Anne fell sweetly asleep, her shoes off, her head pillowed upon his shoulder. The Colonel, who had not slept a wink, but stared in front of himself, eyes misty with tenderness, woke her up shortly before they reached Rosings and held a mirror for her while she righted her hair and clothes. Going to meet the dragon, it would not help her any if her appearance carried all the signs of amorous congress with her undesirable husband.

Before quitting the carriage, Fitzwilliam leaned and kissed Anne on the cheek.

"Whatever happens," he said, "know that I shall never regret marrying you."

She smiled back at him.

"Nor shall I," she said, firmly, and the two quitted the carriage.

On the (rather grand) front steps of Rosings Park (it now seemed inconceivable to Anne that she had lived here, in this monumental house, lived here in loneliness and despair, and quite without the wonderful man now at her side), they were met by Mrs. Jenkinson, her companion. Anne knew that the old shrew was still cross with her for having been left at Rosings when she went to Pemberley in July (whether Lady Catherine hoped that Anne might use her sojourn at Pemberley to thaw the ice that had forever existed between her and Darcy would forever remain a small mystery; but, to Anne's astonishment, she had allowed her this small liberty, claiming that the company of her two older cousins was respectable enough for her to eschew Mrs. Jenkinson's).

"Oh, Miss Anne. You are come back." Her lips tightly pursed, she surveyed Anne with disapproval, then focused on the man by her side. "Colonel."

He bowed, graceful and handsome.

"Is my mother back from Bath?" Anne asked, her tone deep and even.

"She was." Mrs. Jenkinson preceded them as they went inside the monumental house (Anne had almost forgotten the dreary quality always present in this house; after the lovely Pemberley and Darcy's comfortable town-house, it reminded her of a crypt). "But she received a letter!"

"A letter?" Anne murmured.

"The report Mother spoke of," Fitzwilliam said. "News travels fast."

"Oh, I could bet my last pair of shoes, 'tis that Caroline Bingley who wrote it," Anne murmured, frowning in displeasure. "So how does this-?"

"Why," Mrs. Jenkinson said with a shrug. "She told me the letter concerned your cousin Mr. Darcy. So naturally, she went to Pemberley."

Anne's eyes opened wide at the notion.

"Oh," she murmured. "Oh, Richard. Oh, no. When did she leave?"

"Why, yesterday afternoon!"

Quickly, both of them turned around and ran out the door and down the steps, Mrs. Jenkinson following.

"Miss Anne!" she cried in their wake. "Are you not staying?"

"No," Anne said quickly, over her shoulder. "If my mother should return, tell her I went in search of her!"

It was decided, then, that they would not go to Pemberley, but to Longbourn. For Darcy was not at Pemberley-and, Anne conjectured, it was likely that her mother was not seeking Darcy in any case... and since Elizabeth was at Longbourn, she would go to Longbourn... Anne only hoped that they could get there before her.

"And then what?" Fitzwilliam asked next to her. They were in the carriage again, the rather disgruntled coachman driving back towards London and Hertfordshire. Anne shrugged and closed her eyes. She did not know what to tell her husband. She was not certain why she wished, so much, to intercept her mother before she came upon Elizabeth. She truly liked the girl and did not wish Lady Catherine to attack and slander her-and she knew, with certainty, that she would.

~ * ~

...Lady Catherine de Bourgh reacted to Caroline's letter (though she did not know, nor particularly cared, of its authorship) in precisely the manner the author (or shall we say, authors) hoped for. The letter, anonymous, had awaited her arrival at Rosings. It had waited for her there like a trap, and, surely enough, the quarry came willingly and sprang to action.

At first, she had penned a furious letter to Darcy, but it occurred to her, then, that her goals would be better served by a personal appearance (to Lady Matlock's credit, this realization came after she had written and posted the indignant letter to her brother, and written and crumpled and thrown away the even more indignant letter to her nephew; therefore, Fitzwilliam's mother knew nothing of the matriarch's intention to appear in person, or doubtlessly she would have told). Perhaps, she might find the shameless hussy at Pemberley along with her nephew, and tell her every single thing she thought of her.

Yet, as she directed her hasty steps towards Pemberley, Lady Catherine de Bourgh had no idea she was about to precipitate an event of historic proportions. The only thing on her mind was the preposterous rumor that Darcy was about to marry his sister's governess, that brash young thing with eyes too bold. (She would have it denied, before all of the world. Darcy was to marry Anne. Anne was to marry Darcy. It would serve to join the de Bourgh and Darcy fortunes, to create an awesome estate, unequaled among the gentry of England. So there. No brazen young upstart with views on her nephew was going to upset her plans.)

Therefore, when, having arrived to Pemberley in no little huff, Lady Catherine did not find either her nephew or the upstart, but only the sullen Georgiana, she addressed herself to the girl with all the warmth and easiness of a battering ram.

Lady Catherine fancied she knew an awful lot about her relations (and, of course, about people in general). The truth was, she knew next to nothing--or, to be exact, she knew only what she forced out of them. Thus, she did not know, for instance, that Georgiana was extraordinarily stubborn and fiercely protective of those she loved. Had she known her like Darcy or Elizabeth knew her, she would see at once that her quest to get Georgiana to speak was in vain. In the girl's quietude, the bullying matriarch saw only weakness, and bore down at her like a wounded hippopotamus.

"Answer me! I shall not be gainsaid!" she yelled, fuming. No answer followed, but lowered eyes and a demure shrug, which enraged Lady Catherine well-night to a point of combustion.

Georgiana's handicap was a cruel one. Had she been born to less exalted circumstances, no doubt somebody would have long said to her the very words that Lady Catherine was about to utter. But she had not; she had been born a daughter to Mr. Darcy-père, sister to Mr. Darcy-fils. Both the excellent gentlemen had endeavored to treat her as one absolutely normal; the same was, of course, expected and required of all who served the family at Pemberley. A young maid who had smirked presumptuously at Miss Georgiana's stammer would forever serve an example to all the future servants.

Therefore, nothing in her sixteen years of age had prepared Georgiana for what Lady Catherine said next. Her own aunt, indeed. Her brain addled by Georgiana's stubborn refusal to speak (which she took to be the result of her stutter rather than a deliberate evasion), Lady Catherine spat out furiously:

"Answer me, you dumb mute!"

Lady Catherine had not thought before she had spoken. Indeed, she did not usually. But if pressed on the subject, she would have possibly admitted that such harsh, cruel words were likely to cause a certain amount of distress. Tears, perhaps. Therefore, she was caught compleatly unawares by an explosion of fury in her meek niece. The girl grew absolutely white, her lips trembled, her eyebrows came together in one angry line, and for one very unpleasant moment, she looked entirely too much like her grandmother, the late Lady Matlock. Indeed, like Lady Catherine's own mother (perhaps one person in her life of whom she had ever been afraid).

And then it happened. Georgiana's anger, instead of serving to rob her of all her speech, materialized in a loud gasp, a furious rush of breath sucked through her teeth and then expelled (indeed, she had never been so angry at anyone; not hurt, for she thought little enough of Lady Catherine, but furious, white-hot with rage)--and along with it, the words that tumbled, easily, like pieces of driftwood upon the waves hitting the shore.

"Oh you awful, horrible, wicked person! Take yourself from my home at once! " Thereupon, another frantic gulp of air, and Georgiana essayed the worst insult she knew: "You witch!"

Lady Catherine fell back (much to the glee of every Pemberley servitor eavesdropping behind the door) and fumbled for what to say. But the only thing she was able to produce was a shocked:

"Why I never!" and then, as she retreated, hastily. "Your brother will hear of it!"

"Yes, I shall make certain of it," Mrs. Reynolds said vindictively, not even making an attempt to hide her distaste. She then held the door for the flustered matriarch; she had been with the family long enough, back since Master himself was four years of age, and she had known the late Lady Anne, bless her soul, and she certainly knew Lady Catherine for what she was--why, the spiteful, cruel, stupid--and now, she verily bubbled with pride at Miss Georgiana's daring. The old shrew had it a long time coming.

"Go," Georgiana cried, eyes darting lightnings. Everybody at the doors agreed that she had never before looked so much like her brother (for none of them had been alive to remember the late Lady Matlock). They all stood, not bothering to hide their glee as the furious Lady Catherine made her way through this rather malevolent living corridor and out the door, all the while muttering how she was not used to being gainsaid, and how Darcy would have a lot of explaining to do when she finally caught him. Nobody went so far as to actually hoot or jeer (for the lady was, after all, a lady and Master's own aunt, however detestable a creature), but there were quite a few broad grins as the lady took herself out of Pemberley ('till what they all hoped would be the end of days).

Georgiana stood in her wake, the bubbling anger leaving her--for it was an unnatural state for one so sweet and good, and indeed, it took Lady Catherine at her worst to make the girl lash out so. Inside, she felt a deep longing for the wonderful feeling, as, for the first time in her life, words had rolled off her tongue effortlessly. Somehow, the usual awkward barrier, which had so often prevented her from speech or turned even the simplest sentences into torment, had been removed. She sighed and closed her eyes. Oh, how wonderful it had felt. How natural, and yet, how uncanny. She could still feel the great, deep, angry breath that had destroyed the painful barrier, had fashioned the words on her tongue into a seamless, beautiful sentence. Would it come back, she thought anxiously? If she tried it again, would it be as easy? She was no longer angry, just terribly excited; had this gift dissipated along with her fury?

It would break her heart if it had, if, once again, her every word would be a struggle. For one wonderful, thrilling, powerful moment, she had felt free--how could she live, forevermore, having known it and lost it?

"Miss Georgiana," she heard, and opened her eyes. Mrs. Reynolds stood there, smiling kindly. "Shall I serve tea in the garden?"

Yes, Mrs. Reynolds. How simple would it be to say that. How impossibly difficult. But what if she tried again? She remembered the thrilling wind that had torn through her, breaking through her chains. She did not want to be angry again--it was a deeply unnatural state, and she could not fathom why her Aunt chose to remain in it most of the time--but she longed for that rush of air, that splendid feeling of freedom that had engulfed her but for a moment.

"Miss Georgiana?"

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, lungs full of air. Perhaps she could... perhaps she could replicate it. Breathing out, she almost forced the words from her tongue. Almost. Her whole mouth tingled with the effort, her heart clattered wildly somewhere in the vicinity of her throat.

"Yes, Mrs. Reynolds," she said clearly.

The old housekeeper was understandably attached to the family; she had cherished her employment, had respected and liked the old Mr. Darcy and Lady Anne, and had grieved both their passing. But she adored the Darcy children. She admired Darcy, who was in every way perfect, but her heart ached for Georgiana, who was not, and a motherless little moppet into the bargain. At the moment, she looked delirious with pride and joy and tears were shining in her eyes. Still, she said nothing, and only reached for Miss Darcy's hand and pressed it fervently.

"Very good," she said, both of them laughing, and Georgiana repeated (she was still tentative with her words, but still, as she harnessed her breathing, they came out almost flawless, each like a little jewel):

"Yes, yes, very good, Mrs. Reynolds! We shall have tea in the garden!"

~ * ~

After supper, while it was still light, Elizabeth sat by the window, face upraised to the rapidly setting sun, eyes closed. The latest letter from Darcy informed her that "business" had kept him in London, but that it was his last, and that he would be in Longbourn in the matter of days. She could hardly wait. She found it highly vexing that he would not tell her the truth about his pursuits in London, but she tried to see only the best reasons behind his sullenness. Jane was right, of course. For once, Elizabeth could not find fault with her sister's eternal quest to see the best in everyone. If ever there was a worthy candidate for Jane's good opinion... In any case, she did not believe herself capable to remain silent on the subject forever; still, she would rather ask him up front than write him a letter.

"Goodness, that is a smart carriage!" she heard and opened her eyes. Her mother was standing behind her, looking out at a-indeed, a very handsome carriage. With a very familiar coat-of-arms. For a second, her heart beat madly in her chest, but then the door opened and out came Colonel Fitzwilliam. Followed by Anne, who leaned on his arm as she stepped out. Nobody else came out: plainly, Darcy was not with them (which was beyond vexing, beyond disappointing-mostly because they had been with him in London and surely he had the opportunity to come back with them). Elizabeth endeavored to stifle her disappointment. She was glad to see the Fitzwilliams. Very glad, indeed.

She shot out of doors, followed by her mother and sisters, and threw her arms about Anne in a most unladylike manner.

"Oh how good it is to see you," she said. They had quit each other's company just over a fortnight ago, and still it seemed forever.

"Tell me," Anne said after greeting her, her voice anxious, "has my mother been here?"

Elizabeth frowned in incomprehension. "Your mother? What-Your mother, here?" She allowed herself an incredulous grin at such a strange possibility. The idea of Lady Catherine de Bourgh favoring Longbourn with her presence was highly bizarre.

"Oooof," Anne said, in obvious relief, "thank God."

Standing next to his wife, the Colonel laughed, flashing a debonair smile. Behind Elizabeth, Kitty fluttered her eyelashes, and Mary pretended that she had no eyes for such a dashing gentleman.

Introductions over (Mrs. Bennett satisfied with a simplified explanation that the Fitzwilliams were Elizabeth's fiancé's first cousins), the guests agreed graciously to spend the night at Longbourn. That very night, Anne confided to Elizabeth as to the reasons for her anxiety. They were left alone in the drawing-room, the Colonel having retired without his wife. Anne wrought her hands and bit her lip and looked every thing miserable as she told Elizabeth of her mother's quest to have the report of her engagement to Darcy contradicted "before all of the world."

Elizabeth heard her friend out, wondering at the persistent gleam of anxiety in Anne's eyes. She had never been afraid of her parents, could not fathom how one could be, and particularly, how Anne could be, the brave, intrepid little Anne. Deeply surprised, she allowed that Anne, like everyone else, was allowed her little weaknesses.

Still, she wished to reassure her friend.

"I thank you for coming," she said to Anne, trying her best to sound cheering. "But I am not afraid of Lady Catherine. The only person who could take Darcy away from me is Darcy." She exhaled and added, "I believe it, deeply."

Later that night, Anne climbed into her bed upstairs and felt her husband's arms come about her, drawing her into a warm, drowsy embrace. Anne sighed, and hid her face in his shoulder, and was no longer afraid of anything.

The two friends had not discussed in detail how they would approach their meeting with Lady Catherine. Yet, all through the morning, Anne looked so ill and fidgeted so much, one would think she was sitting on a cushion full of nails. Therefore, having thrown Elizabeth an apologetic glance, the Colonel announced that Mrs. Fitzwilliam needed rest (a conjecture that nobody would question, Elizabeth least of all) and dragged her upstairs. He only had one way making her feel better, and it did not involve company.

Elizabeth, reading in the drawing-room, while Jane occupied herself with needlework-Mrs. Bennett had chosen that particular morning to visit her sister Philips in the nearby Meryton, and took her younger girls with her-was left to meet Lady Catherine's assault without Anne's help. She was not truly worried, though she did blame the unpleasant cold clutch inside her stomach at Anne's forewarning. She would have almost preferred Lady Catherine's inopportune visit-somehow, from what she had seen of the dowager, she had no doubts that Anne was right, and that the lady would visit, indeed-to be a surprise.

Still, it was not a true worry. It was as she had said: nobody but Darcy could take his love away from her. Nobody but he.

Therefore, when a heavy coach rumbled behind the window, Elizabeth said nothing to Jane, but sat up straighter and tucked an errant dark curl behind one ear. When the dowager shuffled in, looking so very important and pleased with herself, Elizabeth found that her knees did not ... almost did not tremble. Jane, who rose along with her, could barely hide her surprise at such a visit. Elizabeth had told her nothing, not wishing to distress her.

Lady Catherine then chose to bestow a few comments on the inconvenience of the sisters' sitting-room in place of a greeting. Elizabeth had expected just this; but Jane, though well familiar with the dowager's personality from her sojourn at Hunsford parsonage, looked truly hurt.

"Miss Bennett!" Lady Catherine said sharply, clearly dispensing with what she considered pleasantries. Dear me, Elizabeth thought, she looks like death. Upon first meeting Darcy, she had thought him a fitting nephew to his aunt. Now she could not fathom two people more different. "Accompany me for a walk in that-that prettyish kind of wilderness you have on one side of your lawn." This was not a suggestion, nor a request, but a direct order, and Elizabeth curtsied deeply, and smirked to herself.

"Of course, madam," she said, reaching for her shawl. "Jane?"

"Alone," Lady Catherine said, coldly, eyes boring into her like little dark little nails.

Elizabeth knew she could have insisted upon Jane's accompanying them, but she did wish to spare her sister unnecessary distress. Jane remained behind as the two women quit the highly inconvenient sitting-room and directed their steps towards the prettyish wilderness. Elizabeth hoped, with all her heart, that Anne, doing whatever it was the Colonel had dragged her away to do, should chance to look out the window. But then again, she reasoned, she hardly needed Anne to say what she had to say. It was cowardice, pure and simple, to desire Anne's presence here at the moment.

They walked in silence for some time. I shall not make small talk with her, Elizabeth told herself, highly resentful. Lady Catherine stopped on the spot, signaling to Elizabeth to stop moving as well.

"You can be at no loss, Miss Bennett, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come."

What does one say to this? Elizabeth wondered. She smiled non-committally and said nothing. Fortunately, no reply on her part was expected, or desired.

"Do not smile at me so!" Her ladyship sputtered. "You ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with! Still, however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness-"

Oh my Lord, Elizabeth thought. She could not believe she was hearing this.

"-and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago!"

"Did it?" Elizabeth asked mildly.

"It did, indeed! The dowager stared at Elizabeth with such dislike in her gaze, Elizabeth wondered whether Anne might have understated the "report": perhaps it said that she had killed someone and escaped from a chain-gang.

But no: her crime was a far graver one.

"I was told that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennett, would, in all likelihood, be soon united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy!" She huffed loudly, as if inviting Elizabeth to join in appreciating the ridiculousness of the rumor. Elizabeth, on her part, was having uncharitable thoughts as she wondered how the report had reached the lady within such a short time after the matter was settled. "Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood-indeed, I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible-still, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you."

Well, do not expect me to thank you. ``Perhaps, then," Elizabeth said, taking great disgust in the entire charade, "your visit here is an exercise in futility. If you believed it impossible," she continued, barely trying to hide her disdain, ``what could your ladyship mean by taking the trouble of coming so far?"

``At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted."

Elizabeth, fists balled by her sides, drove her nails into her palms.

"You have gone to such trouble to disprove what you already believe to be impossible!" she said with all the coolness she could muster. "Yet, your ladyship's coming to Longbourn, to see me, will be a direct confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence." Well, you know that it is; and if you are at all honest with yourself, you will admit to knowing its infamous origins as well.

"If!" Lady Catherine cried. "Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it?"

Elizabeth shrugged. She tried to be as calm as possible, but the spiteful shrew was getting to her. She thought back to Darcy's amazing poise and the very chilling hauteur she had so often impugned him for. She could do with a little of that now. She pushed her nails deeper into her palms.

"I never heard that it was," she said evenly.

"And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?"

Shall I tell her? Elizabeth mused. After all, there was nothing to hide. They were honorably engaged, and Darcy had told everyone they were, had introduced her to his relations and friends and neighbors as the future Mistress of Pemberley. Still, she detested this brutal invasion to her privacy. She knew that Darcy would, too. She owed the old woman no answers.

"Ma'am," she said coldly, "You choose to ask questions of me that are of exceedingly personal nature. It is true that you may ask them. But I do not choose to answer them."

"This is not to be borne!" Lady Catherine sputtered in anger. The tail end of her heavy walking stick struck the ground. However, the dramatic effect was lessened by the fact that it immediately became stuck in the freshly-ploughed earth of the tomato patch. Elizabeth stifled a smile, imagining Cook's reaction when she discovered someone had vandalized her tomatoes.

"Miss Bennett, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?"

"Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible,' Elizabeth replied, raising her chin and staring the woman down.

"It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in."

Ill-timed thoughts intruded: of the allure that Darcy's own person held for her, of the heat that seemed to breathe on her from his letters, the longing, of her own heart beating only for his love. She clenched her teeth, held her chin higher and said:

"If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it." Particularly not to you.

"Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns."

Elizabeth wondered whether Darcy himself would be of a similar mind. She replied, patiently, as if explaining a basic truth to an unruly child:

"That may be so. But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behavior as this, ever induce me to be explicit."

"Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?"

Oh, where was Anne? Elizabeth threw a glance towards the house. Right now would be an excellent time to tell this woman why Darcy could never marry her daughter-but surely she could not do so. Surely it was presumptuous of her to aspire to deliver such a blow. But was it so bad of her to wish to witness the delivery? Thereupon, she stalled for time, thinking feverishly of a comeback to the lady's last pronouncement.

"Only this," she said. "That if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me."

Lady Catherine hesitated for a moment, and then replied,

"The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favorite wish of his mother, as well as of hers."

Elizabeth, who had heard only good things of Darcy's mother, had to wonder whether she would wish it for her son: to have him joined, from the age when he could not know, nor understand, nor make a decision, to a girl he might never love; to decide his fate for him before he might even say a word about it-simply for the sake of joining two large estates. For Darcy's sake, she hoped it was not so.

Lady Catherine, in the meantime, continued to harangue the brash young upstart standing before her.

"-while in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss De Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Have you not heard me say that from his earliest hours he was destined for his cousin?"

"Yes," Elizabeth replied. " And I had heard it before. But what is that to me?" she asked sharply. "If there is no other objection to my marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing that his mother and aunt wished him to marry Miss De Bourgh. You both did as much as you could in planning the marriage. Its completion depended on others. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honor nor inclination confined to his cousin, may he not make another choice?" She took a deep breath. "And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?"

"Because honor, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennett, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you willfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by every one connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."

Elizabeth wondered at the lady's wishful thinking: for so far, every civility had been occasioned to her by Georgiana, Mr. Bingley (if not his sisters), the Colonel, and Darcy's various neighbors (not to mention Lady Catherine's own daughter, who had been such an eager supporter of the whole affair). But then she thought that in any case, she did not care: had the entire world censured them, he would be all the society she required. She hoped the same was true for Darcy, and then she knew that it was.

"These are heavy misfortunes," she said. ``But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine."

She blushed slightly even as she thought of these sources, and hoped that the old shrew takes her high color for anger rather than what it was-a quick series of shocking recollections.

Luckily, Lady Catherine's intrigue did not lie with deducing the source of Elizabeth's sudden flush. She was furious.

"Obstinate, headstrong girl!" she gasped. "I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to your sister? And to you, when you visited Hunsford in the spring? You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person's whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment."

"That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me."

"I will not be interrupted! My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honorable, and ancient -- though untitled -- families."

Then, perhaps, you can find it a consolation that your daughter has married into the same noble line, she thought, before remembering that Anne's choice among the Matlock scions had the unfortunate disadvantage of being a second son. A pity, she thought dispassionately.

"-their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."

"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere," Elizabeth said crossly. "He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."

Elizabeth held her father's memory quite dear. Had Lady Catherine attempted to disparage it, blood might be spilled. But the dowager must have felt something, some readiness to fight; and she acknowledged what was, to Elizabeth, an absolute truth.

"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."

"Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, ``if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

"Tell me once for all, are you engaged to him?" Lady Catherine thundered.

Suddenly ill to her heart from stalling the answer to this, the most important question, Elizabeth looked Darcy's aunt in the eye and said:

"I am."

Clearly, the lady had not expected it. Having thoroughly convinced herself in the impossibility of it, she looked incredulous for a moment. Then, she gasped.

"What impudence!" she cried, and then cried again, this time moved by spiteful, wishful thinking: "You lie!"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes: "I shall not stoop so low as to lie about it, madam." Not to you, she added bravely to herself. Quickly, she pulled off her left glove-she had donned it, along with its mate, to hide Lady Anne's ring from her sister's jealous eyes-and to thus avoid a confrontation. Still, now that the fight was clearly inevitable, such a heavy-handed maneuver seemed most appropriate. Therefore, she raised her left hand and held it flat before her face, demonstrating to the shocked Lady Catherine the engagement ring she knew so well.

Lady Catherine gasped again. Elizabeth half-expected her to accuse her of stealing the ring, like Caroline Bingley had almost done. But the old woman believed it this time; believed it far too well. Thus, she flung herself into battle, and insisted, to Elizabeth astonishment (and she had resolved not to be surprised, no matter what):

"You must promise me to break off the engagement!"

It was now Elizabeth's turn to gasp. Furiously, she tugged the glove on, and crossed her arms on her chest defiantly.

"I will make no promise of the kind," she said.

"Miss Bennett! I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require."

"And I certainly never shall give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable! If Mr. Darcy has given me his word, I have given him mine. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but do you suppose he is more likely to do so if I break off our engagement and make him miserable? You believe him attached to me-if I break his heart, will that make him marry your daughter?"

She was angry now; this was far too much. Having to deny the report of her own engagement was one thing; being so rudely pressured into leaving the only man she had ever loved, entirely different. She could not believe the old woman's gall-but she also refused to kowtow to it. Glowing with anger, she continued:

"Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on to betray my promise and the man I love. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject."

"You are then resolved to have him?"

"I am resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

She turned and walked past the dowager, having resolved to speak of this no longer. If Anne wished to speak with her mother, she better hurry, for she would stall for time and play this game no longer.

Yet, Lady Catherine would not be dissuaded from continuing her spiteful harangue:

"Not so hasty, if you please!" she cried, darting after Elizabeth with ease which belied her advanced age and the monumental cane. "I have by no means finished! To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man's marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expense of your uncle!"

Elizabeth was tempted, sorely, to turn about and tell her that the expense was all her nephew's; and that he did that to help her, simply because he loved her. But it was Darcy's business, and she did not presume to interfere. If he wished to, he, himself, would tell his aunt what he had done.

"And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister?" Lady Catherine continued. "Is husband, is the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth! -- of what are you thinking?"

Lips pursed tightly, Elizabeth shook her head and kept walking. And perhaps, the dealings between the two women would have ended at that; but, unfortunately for Lady Catherine, at that moment, her gaze fell upon Jane. (The latter had only just stepped out of the house and was standing nearby, looking in their direction.) Thus, the harridan found new inspiration, and attacked Jane's person with the same vigor she had only just besmirched Lydia's.

"And your older sister! Why, my late parson's wife! Whom he married out of pity, so as to allow your family to remain at your estate! What mean connections! Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"

The distinction between the new Mrs. Wickham and the widowed Mrs. Collins was lost upon Lady Catherine, but to Elizabeth, it was very real. As much as she detested the old woman, she felt no particular inclination to defend Lydia; Jane, however, was a very different matter. She spun around and stared at Lady Catherine, who must have seen something in her face to fall back and quiet down:

"Madam, you have insulted me in every possible manner. You have pried and meddled and interfered in something that did not concern you, in something intensely private! You have demanded that I give up my engagement to the man I love, that I ruin my life to conform to the matrimonial plans you have set for him in your head. I believe that I have heard you out with far more civility than such rude intrusion deserved. But I shall not have you insult my sister. She is the best human being I know of in this world, and she had married your parson-a despicable, stupid, hypocritical man-because she was forced to. He did not take her on out of a goodness of his heart-he took himself a wife he would have no hope for, had only my father been alive. Lady Catherine, my sister's presence will do great honor to Pemberley-or anywhere else she chooses to visit!"

Having almost shouted her last, Elizabeth turned and continued back to the house; Lady Catherine, however, was highly incensed at such unprecedented language (not since her mother had anyone dared to speak to her in such a brash manner), and would not be denied the satisfaction of a last word.

"You have no regard, then, for the honor and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?"

"You can now have nothing farther to say," Elizabeth resentfully answered. ``You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house."

"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honor, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."

"Neither duty, nor honor, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, ``have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern -- and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn."

"And this is your real opinion! This is your final resolve! I can see now where that brashness comes from in my niece! Obstinate, headstrong girl! Rude and common! And to think only, my daughter was forced to remain in your company this summer! I shall hardly know her when I see her!"

Above the stairs, Anne heard her mother's familiar hysterical cadence; she gasped, gave a cat-like hiss at Fitzwilliam who had until then been impeding her access to the window-or her exit off the bed. Within a moment, to the accompaniment of his laughter, she rolled off the bed, and down the stairs, righting her disheveled clothes as she went.

"Mother!"

Elizabeth stopped in her tracks. "Oh," she said, putting her hand to her cheek in mock surprise. "Your daughter! Lady Catherine," she said seriously, taking great pleasure in the woman's long face and the knowledge that in a moment, it would become all the longer. "I have quite forgot to tell you-your daughter has come to visit us at Longbourn!"

"Anne?"

"Indeed," Elizabeth said, enjoying herself a little too much at Lady Catherine's expression. "Unless you have another?" At that very moment, Anne came rolling out of the doors, skirts in a clutch, curls flying about, running in such an unladylike manner that Lady Catherine looked ready to expire.

"Right yourself, young lady!" her ladyship cried at the sight of her daughter's somewhat tousled appearance. "My God!"

Elizabeth, with a very good idea at the reason behind Anne's dishevelment, sighed almost in pleasure. She looked towards the house, where Jane still stood, looking worried. There, in his usual lazy gait, the Colonel had just come out of the doors and was walking in their direction. Lady Catherine, however, did not see him, preoccupied with how commonly tan and unpardonably healthy her daughter looked. Why, like a real peasant.

"I think I shall leave you now," Elizabeth said gaily. "I should not presume to interfere with a family reunion. Good day to you, Lady Catherine."

Quite occupied with glaring at her daughter, Lady Catherine said nothing in return; Elizabeth went, wishing, with all her heart, that this were their last conversation. Indeed, she would do well enough if she never saw this woman again. Still, somehow, she knew it was only wishful thinking. Darcy's cantankerous aunt would be back before they knew it.

In the meantime, Lady Catherine roughly tugged an errant lock of hair behind Anne's ear. "This is enough," she said in a voice of steal. "This is the last time I allow you to go anywhere without Mrs. Jenkinson! Look at you! Just look at you!" She stared, in distaste, at Anne's frivolous pink open-necked gown and a flower pin in her hair. "You look like a common maid! And what on earth are you doing here! What was Darcy thinking letting you come here! What debasement!"

Anne opened her mouth to say something, only to be interrupted by the Colonel, who had came up from the house, smiling and startling Lady Catherine.

"Aunt Catherine," he said, grinning. Thereupon, he offered Anne his arm, to which she gratefully attached herself, hiding a bit behind his shoulder. "I am afraid Darcy was not thinking of Anne just now. He has quite a bit on his mind to occupy him, poor fellow." He grinned again. "Not to mention it that he had quite surrendered the office to me-now that he is to be married."

"The office?" Lady Catherine muttered, a little disconcerted by her nephew's presence here, as well as by the way her daughter was hiding behind him. This was an unprecedented frivolity, and she was not going to allow for it, and it ought not even be attempted... but they clearly were attempting it, and the only remaining question was why.

"Of caring for Anne," the Colonel said helpfully. "Anne has something to tell you, Aunt."

"Well, then, let her say it!" Her Ladyship snapped. "What sort of foolishness is this?"

"Go on, Anne," he said, warmly. "Tell Her Ladyship what you were going to, just now."

Anne sighed, screwed her eyes shut, and mumbled something unintelligible.

"What is it?" Lady Catherine asked, coldly. She was rarely in a mood good enough to joke; and today, following such a set-down by this brash young thing Miss Bennett, she was particularly indisposed to be toyed with.

"Shame on you, Annie," the Colonel said. "Shall I say it for you?"

"No," Anne said. She took a deep breath and stepped from behind Fitzwilliam's shoulder. "I shall say it." She took another deep breath. "Mother." Another breath. "I must tell you something."

"We have gathered as much," the Colonel said amiably. "Any moment now, Anne."

"Oh, will you stop it!" Anne cried, losing her patience. "It is all a joke to you!" She turned to Lady Catherine: "Very well, here it is: I am married, mother, Colonel Fitzwilliam and I have married! Now, is this what you wanted?!"

Back at the house, Elizabeth and Jane watched, in mute shock, as Lady Catherine raised her very formidable walking stick and swung it at her daughter. Anne shrunk away from her, and a second later, the Colonel seized the stick from his aunt and broke it in two over his knee. Tossing the pieces away, he gathered Anne-who had suddenly lost the ability to stand and plopped, heavily, on the grass-in his arms and carried her to the house, walking in quick, angry stride, accompanied by Lady Catherine's screams and professions of disownment.

"I shall now know how to act!" she shouted at his back, even as he went into the house without turning around, with possibly the least friendly expression Elizabeth had ever seen him wear. "Mercenary! Fortune-hunter! Do not imagine that your ambition will ever be gratified! Depend upon it, I will see-this-through!"

She turned and swept towards her carriage, all the while screaming, "Upstarts!" Even as her carriage took off, Her Ladyship stuck her head out of the window and yelled at Elizabeth, who was still standing at the doors: "It is all your fault and influence, Miss Bennett! I am most seriously displeased!"

Thereupon, she raised what remained of her walking stick and rapped it, furiously, on the ceiling, urging the driver to go faster.

Elizabeth said nothing in return to the lady's last, but simply turned her face away. She would not pretend civility where there was none. Watching as the carriage rolled towards the gate at a mad speed, she asked Jane, who was standing near, white in the face with shock:

"Do you suppose she could suffer apoplexy when she screams like so?"

Jane waved at her.

"Oh, Lizzy, you are awful," she whispered, holding a hand to her mouth. She fretted and suggested they go back to the house to see after Miss De B-Mrs. Fitzwilliam.

Elizabeth shook her head and linked her arm through Jane's.

"She has all the care she needs at the moment," she said. "And you and I shall go to the gardens. The tomatoes by the garden wall are ripe for picking."

~ * ~

Darcy and Bingley set out for Longbourn after an excellent breakfast. They were already approaching Longbourn, the flat-roofed yellow house already in sight (and each was moved, somewhat, by the idea that here, lived his love), when a monumental carriage almost knocked them out of the road. Bingley cursing and Darcy without a word--but both with great dispatch-they took themselves out of its way. Stopping their horses at the side of the road, both young men turned, looking after the behemoth coach as it disappeared in the direction opposite of their own, raising clouds of dust in its wake.

"Hang me," Bingley said, slowly, 'but Darcy, is it not-"

"Yes," Darcy said, for he had recognized the coat-of-arms on the carriage. "My aunt."

The rest of their way to Longbourn was considerably less pleasant. Both of them hurried, disturbed by the very idea of Lady Catherine coming here. Somewhere along the way, Darcy chided himself for being ridiculous: after all, what could his aunt have done to Elizabeth? In addition, he did not really believe she would have done anything-for, as he knew Elizabeth, she was hardly one to take undeserved abuse. Still, he worried: after all, knowing that Lady Catherine was aware of-and furious at-his impending marriage, he had tarried in London. He simply had not imagined she would go so far as to go Longbourn; he expected an angry letter from her, perhaps a visit in London, a chastisement when he visited.

Imagine then Darcy's relief as the two friends entered the Longbourn courtyard, and saw both Bennett sisters there, Jane in her widow's black and Elizabeth in a simple apricot dress Darcy had so often seen her wear at Pemberley. Neither appeared particularly distressed and both were occupied by gathering something that grew in vines near a small wall just a way off. So pleasant was the picture, so domestic, that Darcy, however much he disliked the idea of his bride-to-be picking anything, was nonetheless enchanted.

Having dismounted and handed the reins to a single young groom, the two friends walked to the wall and the gatherers. The two sisters heard the sound of hoofs approaching, and looked, and Darcy saw Elizabeth looking at him, and then she set her basket on the ground, picked up her skirts and ran to him across the courtyard. (Jane stood black, proper and demure in her mourning gown, and waited for Bingley to come to her to pay his respects; which he gladly did.)

With a strangled 'oh!', Elizabeth threw her arms about Darcy's neck; not caring who might see, he caught her in his arms and held her to his heart. He wanted to kiss her, but could not bear to let go of her, not even for a moment, not even long enough to find her lips. So he held her tighter and kissed the top of her head, again and again, inhaling her scent, the hint of verbena tangled in her dark curls.

"Lizzy," he said with a little moan, squeezing her tighter against himself, and then again. "Oh, Lizzy." The gnawing, painful unease that had eaten at him in weeks past, caused by his longing for her physical presence in his life, dissipated without a trace. Some things were as simple as gazing upon her sunny countenance, hearing her beloved voice, feeling the tickle of her dark curls at his cheek. He could not believe he had done without them for so long.

He was dying to claim her mouth, to kiss her deeply, to drink from her like the sweetest fountainhead she was to him, but this was too bold a caress to allow himself in public (though Jane and Bingley, standing a short way off, gazing in each other's eyes, were oblivious to all).

But, holding her aside finally, he looked into her eyes and whispered to her how much he loved her, and how world was hell without her.

"I have missed you so much," he said.

Elizabeth touched his face, caressing him, traced his features; she could not get enough of him, could not feast her eyes enough.

"Every moment," she whispered. "I thought about you my every waking moment."

He kissed her hand, fervently, and saw how her face creased, and knew she was going to cry. It frightened and disturbed him: she was courageous, he knew that much, and it was distressing to see her succumb. He wiped too large, round tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, wishing dearly he could kiss them away.

"Elizabeth," he said, mild reproach in his voice. "Lizzy, Lizzy, I am here, we are together, why are you crying?"

She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I thought," she said, but then seemed to break down and sagged against him. "I thought you would not-" She sighed again and shook her head. "I thought after what happened with Lydia-I thought you could not bear to marry me."

Darcy laughed, awash with relief that nothing new had happened, that her tears as much of joy as they were of sorrow. Then, he kissed her, if only on the cheek, and pulled her back into a tight embrace.

"Oh, Elizabeth," he sighed. "I do not know whether to be furious with you, or to be amused at your silliness. It breaks my heart that you thought my affections so fleeting. And it diverts me greatly, too, for I could no more live without you than I could live without air itself."

"Forgive me," she murmured, sounding genuinely contrite. "It was wrong of me to think so..." With a deep sigh, she rested her head against his chest. "But oh, Darcy, I was so afraid!"

He wanted to tell her that she had his forgiveness, and his love, forever, until God and death did them part, but found his throat suddenly, curiously, arrested, and said nothing for fear of breaking down himself, and only held her tightly against him. And only later, when he felt able to speak again, he looked in her face again and said what he had longed to say to her for weeks:

"Oh, Elizabeth," he said. "My only love."

~ * ~

As the Colonel carried Anne inside the house and up the stairs, she kept quiet, eyes closed, face turned against his waistcoat. But, once behind the closed doors, her strength seemed to give in, and she wept. The Colonel laid Anne on the bed, sitting down next to her. He was at a complete loss as to what to do next, undone by her tears, moved and surprised by her tears, and not a little disconcerted.

"Annie," he kept repeating, stupidly, leaning over her, trying to wipe the tears off her face. "Annie, my love."

He led her further into the gardens, sat down with her upon an antique marble bench. "Annie," he said, again, supplication in his voice. She tore her face away from his shoulder and sniffed, guiltily.

"I am so sorry, Richard, I do not know what has come over me."

"Anne," he whispered, looking intently into her tear-stained face. "Anne, tell me you are not regretting this!" What would be the use, he thought, she was his wife, they were bound, married, the union consummated. But it frightened him most terribly to know that she might regret it.

"Oh no," she said, quickly, "oh no no no, of course I do not regret our marriage, Richard!" She gave him a look of mild reproach for even thinking thus. "You know I do not," she repeated. "But I confess I did hope... wish that Mama might prove somewhat less... violent about it."

Fitzwilliam bit his lip, his heart flooded with tender pity for his wife; in the hope to capture the unattainable, she had cheated herself into thinking that there might be a way for her to have it all. He knew she was not regretting her disinheritance; but it was the utter break with Lady Catherine, the absolute estrangement from her mother that pained her so.

"Anne," he said, "I never thought you cared--"

"Of course, I care, Richard," she said with a sniff. "She is spiteful, and cruel, and harsh--but she is my mother!" Her eyes brimmed with tears once again, and she wiped at them, angrily.

"She would never see you happy, Anne," he said, consolingly. He wished, with all his heart, that he could help her. But Lady Catherine was, indeed, an old shrew, the fact that Anne knew as well as anyone; unless she relented of her own free will, there could be no reasoning with her. Still, it broke his heart to see Anne unhappy.

"I know that." She gave a shuddering sigh and attempted a brave little smile. "Oh, Richard, I do love you so," she whispered. "It hurts, just now, but it will pass."

He bent his head and kissed her, while she was still clinging to him, gently, thoughtfully even. When she released her, she leaned her forehead against his shoulder again, and said, stubbornly:

"I know it will pass."

~ * ~

Upon returning from visiting her sister Phillips, Mrs. Bennett found the house full of guests. The one whose person held the most interest for her was, of course, Mr. Darcy. Upon speaking with him perfunctorily in her drawing-room, she declared him in every way a satisfactory young man, and a splendid match for her daughter. Though, from time to time, she did enthuse unduly on the subject of Darcy's estate and "ten thousand pounds a year!", Mrs. Bennett managed, on average, to behave with suitable civility. Suffice it to say, Elizabeth was not mortified. And, knowing Mrs. Bennett, Elizabeth being not mortified was quite a lot.

Soon after her return, a walk towards the nearby Oakham Mount was undertaken by the whole young group, including all the guests and Kitty-who became bored all too soon and begged Elizabeth to allow her to run off and say hello to a friend of hers. Elizabeth, selfish as she was, permitted it gladly. She longed to be alone with Darcy, and Kitty had remained the last obstacle after the Fitzwilliams had wondered off in an unknown direction, and Jane and Bingley had lagged hopelessly behind.

Kitty having hopped down the nearest lane, Elizabeth and Darcy found themselves wandering off in the direction opposite. And find themselves they did-but only when they had already lost both sight and sound of Jane and Bingley (the Colonel and Mrs. Fitzwilliam had long disappeared out of sight, intent upon their own, private, pursuits).

Having ascertained that they were, indeed, in a spot so secluded they were unlikely to be troubled by anyone, Elizabeth stopped under a large poplar. Standing there, she looked at Darcy in unambiguous invitation, and said, all the while grinning playfully and fluttering her lashes at him:

"My, sir, we find ourselves quite alone! I am quite at your mercy!"

Darcy made a strangled sound deep in his throat as he strode towards her. He loved that she was flirting with him; he loved it so much, it addled his brain. Which was why, perhaps, he was not so gentle with her as he could have been, considering his long absence and her new-ness to the whole enterprise. They were both inclined to forgive him, however, as he tore at the ties of her bonnet, and Elizabeth welcomed his mouth and hands on hers with ravenous abandon. The poplar was very conveniently (if not accidentally) behind her back, and so Darcy put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her against it. Their eyes met, for a second, and then, their lips did, and then, she was kissing him, and kissing him, and could not stop, could not get enough of him. His hands were on her, everywhere, twined in her hair, touching fleetingly her face, her neck, her breasts, making her writhe and moan and fall into the kiss, making her gasp and cry out against his mouth. Grasping, holding, claiming her all for his own, even as he pushed her harder against the trunk. He pushed against her, and she pushed back, feeling all of him, all lean muscle and the straining of mad desire.

Now that he had her like so, close against him, shimmering and burning in his embrace, it seemed a miracle he had survived these weeks without her. He tore himself away from her mouth and said, gasping:

"Tomorrow, Lizzy! Tomorrow we get married!"

She said nothing, only nodded, pulling him back for another kiss, like a greedy child with her sweet. For some time, they said and thought nothing, glorying in the touch and feel and breath and the sounds, so quiet, of shared pleasure.

Then, all too soon, he knew that he had to stop. He simply could not go on kissing her thus, he would die of such mad excitement. Another minute like this, and he would lose all control and take her right here, against this goddamn tree. How little it had taken him to turn so beastly, he thought, almost shamed. By god, she deserved better. He dropped his hands from her person and stepped aside, looking at her.

Elizabeth stood, leaning back against the tree, eyes closed, one hand against the open collar of her pelisse, as if holding back he kiss he had left there. Then, her eyes opened, eyelashes fluttering, and she looked at him, confused, frowning.

"Darcy?" she murmured.

"I cannot, Lizzy," he whispered. "I shall go mad like this."

She sighed, looking bereft, and it was all he could do not to throw himself at her. She sighed again, and he took off his long coat and threw it, quickly, on the ground in the little clearing. Sitting down, leaning back against a tree, he patted the coat next to him.

"Come."

She did, sitting down next to him, leaning back into his embrace. For some time, he was content to simply hold her, satisfied by the most timid caresses, and happy that she was not attempting anything else. Merely holding her was divine.

"You do understand, Mr. Darcy, that if we are surprised in such a compromising position-"

"Yes, Miss Bennett, there will be no other way for us but to get married." He chuckled affectionately. "You little imp, Lizzy."

She giggled a little, and settled against his chest, her hand caressing his face leisurely; he caught it and kissed its palm, and then kissed every finger in turn.

"Darcy," Elizabeth said, sighing in pleasure. "There is something I must tell you."

"It is not "I cannot marry you", is it?"

"No," Elizabeth grinned against his shoulder. "You will not escape me this easily."

"Believe me, madam, I have no desire to. Well, then?" he asked, squinting at the blue of the sky above him. It was a lovely day, and, sexual discontent aside, he was the happiest man in the world.

"I know it was you who-who forced Wickham to marry my sister," she said. She could not see his expression, but his hand, which had thereto played leisurely with her curls, stopped. Looking up, Elizabeth saw that it had come to rest across his eyes.

"Darcy?" she asked, cautiously.

"Mmmmmmm," he said, and that was all for some time. Elizabeth sat up, then rose to her knees, then took his hand and pulled it away from his face.

"Darcy," she said, frowning at such childish behavior in one so superior and perfect. "There is no need to hide this. I only wished to thank you."

"I shall kill Anne," he said, flatly.

"Anne? Oh, no!" Elizabeth laughed. "It was Lydia who told me, a few days back." Giggling, Elizabeth recounted her sister's extreme reaction to the news of her engagement. Wisely, she chose to spare Darcy Lydia's exact language with respect to his person; nor did she choose to tell him she knew he and Wickham had come to blows. Little by little, the severe expression faded off his face and he smiled and put his head into her lap.

"My whole family is indebted to you."

"If you thank me," he said, staring up at her, "let it be for yourself only. Your family owes me no debt of gratitude, Lizzy. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."

This was accompanied by such an intense and burning gaze that Elizabeth colored and hid her eyes. Then, smirking, her equanimity quite restored, she leaned and kissed his mouth, lingering, upside down, until both of them gasped with burning lust.

"Very well," she said, pulling away, grinning. "I think I shall have a lifetime to thank you for myself, my love."

~ * ~

Soon enough, having righted their clothes some (though a few tell-tale blades of grass did stick to Darcy's back), the couple kissed one more time and walked back to Longbourn. Somewhere along the way, they were joined by the Fitzwilliams, and then, all of them picked up Jane and Bingley; intent on each other, the lovely widow and her shy suitor did not seem to notice their companions' extended absence. The conversation picked up exactly where it had left off-one would think that the six had not quit each other's company for the past hour. Soon enough, Kitty came running down the lane from the direction of Lucas Lodge; thus, the party returned to Longbourn looking as demure as if they had spent the previous hour praying.

Thereupon, Darcy, in the company of his friends, went to see the parson in Meryton, and Elizabeth was left the difficult task of telling Mrs. Bennett her daughter was getting married the following morning.

The umbrage the good lady took at the news was considerable. There were, it seemed, countless relations to invite, wedding clothes to buy, and a trousseau to prepare.

"I have a gown, mother," Elizabeth said. "I have a white dress, which should do splendidly." While waiting, pained, for Darcy to return, she had found it a small consolation to walk to Meryton one day and to purchase some net, which she had since attached to a pretty new bonnet of hers. "I've need of no other wedding clothes."

In her best tradition, Mrs. Bennett whined, complained of her nerves, and pronounced Elizabeth to be "just like her father!"-which was, of course, the best compliment she could bestow upon her determined daughter. In the end, she was left with the small consolation that she still had half a day to send word around.

"It is most undignified and vexing," she grumbled. But Elizabeth stood firm, and, by the time Darcy returned from Meryton, the matter had been settled.

Accepting that her daughter was to be married in such unseemly haste, Mrs. Bennett was faced with the unpleasant task of enlightening Elizabeth as to her wifely duties (and doing it quickly, too). Elizabeth listened half-ear; mostly because she did not really want to hear, or believe, what her mother told her.

"Pleasure in bed is a province of the husband," Mrs. Bennett said grimly. "A lady makes no lewd movements or sounds, but lies perfectly straight and still and hopes it is soon over with, and that she is with child. Of course, once she is with child, she is usually left alone, so, if Mr. Darcy quickens you at once, you will not have to suffer this indignity for long." She sighed, thought for a moment whither she had forgotten something; then, with a look of discovery upon her face, she added: "The first time will hurt you dreadfully, but you must not cry out and distress your husband."

Elizabeth nodded and smiled and asked no questions, knowing that her mother longed to escape this particular conversation as much as she, herself, did. She could always ascertain the particulars from Anne; or-and that, perhaps, was the best thing of all-from Darcy himself. After all, she thought philosophically, there had already been times when she had failed to lie perfectly still and quiet. There was no hope for her, she thought. None at all. It was a good thing, then, that he loved her such a hoyden.

~ * ~

That evening, as all the rules of propriety demanded, Darcy and Bingley removed themselves to an inn in Meryton (Ponsonby, along with Bingley's man, followed the friends from London with express instructions to rent the best rooms in town). Elizabeth wished, dearly, that Darcy would stay at Longbourn for the night-but she could find no justification for such an appalling breach of propriety. In addition, there was hardly enough room: and she could not very well move the Fitzwilliams who had come earlier and were as dear guests as any.

Before leaving, Darcy kissed her furtively in the parlor and whispered, hotly, into her ear:

"Dream of me tonight, Lizzy."

Tonight, she thought, holding his gaze for a long time, this night, the last she would spend a maid. Both of them must have thought of it, and of tomorrow night as well, for both of them colored to the tips of their ears. After Darcy had gone, Elizabeth leaned against the wall, closing her eyes and thinking, Dear me, what a man. She breathed deeper, thinking that there was never a danger she would not dream of him.

Later that night, Elizabeth was sitting in her girlhood room along with Anne and Jane, the former helping Elizabeth sew tiny hooks under the tight little buttons on the back of her wedding gown-"believe me, you will thank me later,"-and the latter blushing a lot. Finished with their task, so delicate it could not possibly be entrusted to a chatty maid, they were soon summoned downstairs to greet a late-night guest.

There, standing amidst a bevy of trunks, looking as ruffled and uneasy as an owl in the daylight, stood Georgiana. Elizabeth was delighted to see her; on her part, Georgie broke into a broad grin at the sight of her friend and companion. A few hugs and kisses later, it turned out that Darcy had written to her a few days back, asking her to come to Longbourn, soon as may be.

"Brother would not get married without me here," Georgiana said, somewhat too self-importantly, and Elizabeth, though inclined to agree, forgot what she wanted to say in response.

"Say that again," she said, starting in disbelief. Anne and Jane wore similarly incredulous impressions. Georgiana swelled with pride and grinned from ear to ear as she said:

"Brother will never get married without me here."

Posthaste, the drawing-room was filled with an inordinate amount of shouting, and squealing, and laughter as Anne and Elizabeth both threw their arms about Georgiana and jumped for joy.

Chapter 31

The day when Mrs. Bennett saw her second (very deserving, though perhaps least favorite) daughter married to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, turned out to be the jewel of the early summer. It was a day made of burning ochre and warm orange and stunning azure. The blue skies seemed even bluer and more brilliant for the vivid gold and burgundy of the trees. Perhaps it was the lovely weather, but there was not a sour mien in church that morning. The love of the couple seemed to throw a gentle glow on all those come to witness their marriage. There was not a person in the congregation who was not affected, if only in the slightest way, by the beauty of the day and their love. As her uncle, arrived only this morning from London after an urgent message by Mrs. Bennett, walked her down the isle, Elizabeth bathed in smiles and adoration.

Perhaps, the absence of several noted characters explained such a uniform enjoyment of the ceremony. For one, the groom's cantankerous aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was nowhere to be seen (Darcy did not know it yet, but if told, it would not surprise him one bit that a furious letter from the dowager already awaited him at Pemberley, announcing (loudly and often) that her nephew was in the wrong in marrying his sister's companion, and that she would not sanctify their misalliance of a marriage by her presence; he could care less.) Similarly, Miss Caroline Bingley had sent her regrets-followed by those of her sister, Mrs. Hurst: the sudden nature of the marriage gave them a good excuse for not attending (yet, all those who truly wished to attend were present this morning in the small church in Meryton, sudden marriage or no). Neither was missed, not even by their own brother, who now stood on Darcy's left, his good heart torn between feeling happy for his best friend and dying of the greenest envy. For, unlike Darcy, he needs must wait nearly another year to marry the lady of his heart.

Then, it was done. They were married, it was done, Elizabeth kept repeating to herself, incredulous. He was hers forever. Darcy was beaming at her, she had never seen him smile so much, nor look so happy and unreserved. He took her hand and gave it a quick, warm squeeze.

"I love you so much," he murmured, holding her gaze.

"I love you more," she told him in her usual fashion. Laughing and holding hands, the newlyweds ran under an archway of branches, and bows and ribbons, held by the numerous well-wishers, to the accompaniment of cheering and congratulations.

There was to be a short wedding breakfast, which both would rather eschew, had they the opportunity-but they had not the opportunity, and had to attend. Considering how much both wished to be alone together, it was surprisingly pleasant to stand there, drinking champagne, receiving felicitations from those they loved so much. Jane, Georgiana, Anne and the Colonel, even Elizabeth's younger sisters, whom Darcy found to be surprisingly unobjectionable after his brief, but intense acquaintance with their younger sister, the new Mrs. Wickham. Not so much Elizabeth's mother, perhaps. (Darcy would never cause his beloved wife grief by saying this aloud, but he did harbor a suspicion, which would ripen into a conviction upon further acquaintance with Mrs. Bennett, that the late Mr. Bennett had chosen to quit this world simply to gain some peace from his wife.) Still, it was delightful, and at least a part of its appeal was its brevity. For it was over soon, and the crowds of well-wishers stood in the wake of Darcy's carriage as it took its owner and his bride away from Longbourn.

Darcy's original plan was to return to Pemberley after the wedding (for in his heart, there was hardly a better place for their lune de miel, in all of the world, barring Venice, perhaps, but it was not safe to go to the Continent at the moment); but, within minutes, it became very clear that unless he wished to consummate his marriage on the road, he would have to find a comfortable bed, and do it quickly. He was in a bad way, indeed. Elizabeth was smiling at him, taking off her bonnet, tucking a straight dark curl behind one ear. An orange blossom had fallen off her veil and was sticking to the small hollow at the base of her neck, in the opening of the white spencer she wore over her wedding gown. Darcy sucked in his breath, shutting his eyes against a wave of desire.

He would take it from there with his lips.

Bed. He opened his eyes and looked her over. She was lovely, flushed with excitement, smiling coyly at him. Looking at him like a doe in the woods. He sighed again, and she patted the seat next to her.

"Will you not sit next to me, Darcy?"

Very well, a less-than-comfortable bed will do. He was willing to compromise. He switched seats, coming across the space of the carriage, and immediately, she claimed his hand. He did not know why he had not sat next to her from the very beginning, but perhaps, this was precisely why. For she laid his hand in her lap-my god, he could feel the shape of her legs through the muslin-tugged off his glove and hers, and studied his hand as if she had never seen it again.

"Lizzy," he said, hoarsely, and she said nothing, intent on him, laying her small hand against his large one, pressing her fingers into his. She looked fascinated by him, by the difference between their relative sizes, and all he wanted at the moment was-

"Darcy?" Elizabeth looked up at him, suddenly serious. "You have not kissed me yet." She colored, suddenly, at her own audacity, taking his breath away. "I mean-not once we were married. Not as your wife..."

It was true, he had not kissed her in church, mostly because he did not trust himself to keep the kiss decent for the church and her family. He was glad to remedy it now, though he knew it would leave him in even a worse way, if such a thing were possible. He grinned down at her:

"You are correct, madam, I am remiss in that. Shall I beg your pardon?"

Bending his head to her, he kissed her. He had hoped to kiss her lightly, to take it slow, to make certain he lasted until they reached London. But she licked at his mouth, and moaned and impatience, and he thought he was going to expire at the first touch of her tongue on his. He heard himself groan deeply, and her echo, as their arms went around each other. Her touch was electric-he could feel her fingertips, burning him, through all his layers of clothes. His hands were everywhere, pawing her shamelessly, and she did not seem to mind one-single-bit. Their lips still locked, he tore at the buttons of her spencer and she allowed him, and even helped him, laughing against his mouth.

Dimly, his brain only half-functioning, Darcy thought that she was not going to stop him, and that if she did not stop him, he was going to take her right here, on the seat- He made a mental note of his hand sliding up her leg, above the garter. The heat of her skin there singed him. Another second of this, and he would not be able to stop. With a groan born, at least partially, of regret, Darcy pulled his hand from under her skirt and tore himself away from her.

Elizabeth remained on the seat, lying back, dark eyes intent on his face. He looked at her, saw that she looked ravished already-hair tousled, skirt high above her knees, her lips full and open and bruised. He shook his head in frustration.

"Lizzy, I cannot allow myself to take you here. You deserve better."

Elizabeth frowned. "I deserve you," she said, and tried to pull him back to her. She did not care, not one bit, not as much as she should have, that she was shameless. That if she pushed him far enough, he would lose control and take her. That a moving carriage was hardly the perfect place where to lose her virginity. That there was a driver and two postilions just behind its walls. Perhaps, if she reflected upon her behavior later, she would be appalled. But at the moment, all she knew was that she had missed him so much, and waited for him for so long, and that had him, finally, all to herself. That she could not get enough of him, could not kiss him enough, could not-

Darcy shook his head again, took her hand and pulled her up on the seat.

"It will not do for me to take you here," he repeated. She sighed in resignation, and he watched as she made herself decent. He righted his own clothing, tugged at his lapels, drew his hand through his hair, hoped the lust-crazed expression in his eyes would fade already.

It would have to be his London residence, then. Much closer than Pemberley, and he was not even certain he would be able to wait this long. He reached up and pounded on the roof of the carriage,. The carriage stopped with a halt and he spoke with the driver, giving gruff orders; it might have only seemed to him, but he thought he caught a hint of a smirk on the man's face. Not even a smile, really, more of a small twitch to his lips. For surely nobody would dare laugh at the Master.

Elizabeth regarded him, curiously, and asked, as he turned back to her after the interruption:

"London? I thought we were to go to Pemberley."

"I thought so, too." He gave a tortured sigh. "But it seems I have overestimated my own powers of restraint. All I can think about is making you mine, Lizzy."

Darcy watched a pretty blush creep up her neck at his openness, and closed his eyes. He could not bear watching it and knowing that it started at the tips of her lovely breasts, just where the perfect silky curve ended in a little rose of a nipple. It seemed he had done himself a disservice by having looked at her, having touched her, before their wedding night. He simply could not take his mind off what he knew was under that pristine wedding gown.

When he opened his eyes again, she was smiling.

"Are you so impatient, sir?"

Darcy thought to take umbrage at being called impatient, but the truth was, he was impatient, could not wait to make her his, to take her to bed, to do to her all the things he had dreamed of for months now.

"I suppose so," he admitted. "It would be dishonest to deny that." Not to mention futile, he thought. "Of course," he hurried to add, "if you wish to put it off-"

Elizabeth wagged her head with such enthusiasm, he actually thought, for the first time in his life, thank you, Lord.

"No," she said, quickly. "I do not." She sighed with happiness, eyes luminous. "No, my love, I wish for it, too. I wish for it, as much as you do."

Darcy laughed. He was dying inside, afraid that she might ask him to put it off. He could never refuse her; mindful of her comfort, but this, this would simply kill him. He had waited for her for so long... of course, if you looked at it from one side, he had waited for her for so long, what was another night? But, if you looked at it from the other side...Oh, God, if she had said yes, if she had begged for a reprieve, a stay, what would he do then?

But she had not, and they spent the remainder of their time in the carriage companionably, but checking their passion. The time for a romp on a carriage seat would come, but not yet. If nothing else, a bed with clean sheets was crucial for their first time together.

~ * ~

When they arrived, he alighted from the carriage with a jump. She stepped down, lightly, into his arms, and he carried her in. He knew that the proper protocol would be to, first, let the lady of the house down on her feet; and two, to introduce her to the domestics. The first, he managed, putting her down in the middle of the parlor. The second, he could not bear do. If his staff thought him besotted, so be it.

~ * ~

Therefore, some ten minutes after their arrival, they founded themselves standing in the middle of his bedroom. The servants were instructed to leave Mrs. Darcy's trunks in the ante-chamber, and the door was shut, firmly, against any intrusion. It was still very early, but they had barely eaten at the wedding breakfast, and Darcy reminded himself that Elizabeth was probably hungry. He, himself, could feel only one sort of hunger, and was absolutely ravenous with it.

Yet, when he asked her whether she was hungry, she shook her head, eyes glowing at him, and said:

"I do not know. Perhaps later. I can think of nothing but you."

Darcy took her hand and pressed it, feverish, to his lips.

"I love you so much," he said, hands untying, busily, the ribbons under her chin. "I love you, I love you, I love you..." Her bonnet fell, sadly dismissed, on the rug. Hands trembling, he pulled the pins out of her hair, until it tumbled, heavy and lustrous, down her shoulders and back. Darcy sucked in his breath at the sight of it, so beautiful she was to his eyes.

"Sir," she whispered, "are you to serve as my maid?"

"Yes-yes-anything," Darcy said, entangling his hands in her hair and pressing his face between her neck and shoulder, kissing her there. "I cannot let you go, Lizzy, please."

She submitted, with all the passion of a truly inspired neophyte. His wits almost commandeered, Darcy reminded himself that she, a virgin, needed to be initiated with all the gentleness in the world. He stilled his feverish movements, then tore himself away from her.

"Oh, Lizzy," he said. She stared at him, her lovely dark eyes questioning.

"My love, is anything wrong?"

"Oh, no," he sighed. He rested his forehead against her shoulder, and murmured: "But if I continue-I shall go quite distracted-and I could not bear hurt you--

Elizabeth held him aside and beamed at him, a sweet smile, full of encouragement. "I am not afraid," she whispered to him, quickly, "and neither should you be. I am certain that you will spare me any unnecessary hurt."

Faced with such trust on her part, Darcy still felt he needed all the pardon he could get. For he would do his best to save her the pain; but he was doubtful it was entirely possible. Thereupon, he ventured to tell her that it was not, all of it, in his hands.

"I should do anything to make this a painless experience for you, Lizzy," he whispered, guiltily, pulling her into a close embrace. "But I am not certain that I can help all of the pain-"

She laid her fingers against his lips, urging him into silence. "And the rest I shall gladly bear for your love." She smiled, almost playfully, then took his face in both her hands and kissed him on the lips. "My love," she said. "I am quite strong. I will not break in half or shatter from your love. If there is pain, I shall endure it, for I am your wife. Come," she whispered, taking his hand again. They approached the bed, neat, fresh, inviting, the covers already turned down for them. Elizabeth sat down on the corner of it, gingerly, feet planted firmly on the soft rug.

"It is still early in the day," she whispered. "You need no hurry, we have the rest of it-and all of the night-"

"Oh, Lizzy," he repeated. It seemed, his very gift of speech had been stolen. Stepping aside, he leaned and suddenly grasped her foot. She gasped in laughter, then toppled on her back, the skirts of her dress sliding up her thighs, baring the white silk stockings and tiny rosettes at the top. He pulled off her white slippers and tossed them off, then ran his hands up and down her legs.

"My wife," he said, greedily, possessively, eating her up with his eyes. He pushed her petticoats farther up, pulled at one garter, then the other. With two quick tugs, the white silk stockings slithered down her shapely legs, and he tossed them, with no little flair, over his shoulder, not minding at all where they landed. A burst of sparkling, happy laughter from her, and he could only smile back at her, tortured.

"God," he said, the fire in his voice chastening her, "Lizzy, how I want you. I am dying for you."

She quieted down and watched him as he moved a little further between her legs.

"Darcy, what are you doing?" she asked, slight alarm in her voice.

"Do you remember that night--at the lake--you stopped me--" His speech was harsh, his breath choppy, and he was staring, hungrily, between her legs. "Good god, I have thought about this so much since then."

She gasped again, this time in understanding.

"Darcy," she said, weakly.

"Please, my love," he whispered. He was speaking to her, but his eyes never left her legs, the foaming lace of the petticoats, the sweet inviting darkness between her thighs. "Please, please, Lizzy-please let me-"

In mute supplication, he fell to his knees between her open legs, pressed his face to one thigh, then another. She squirmed and giggled, uneasily.

"Darcy, Darcy, please, must it be done this way?"

"No," he said quietly, smiling. "It is not done this way... this is merely a prelude."

"B-but-"

"I really want it, Lizzy. I have thought about this so much, you cannot imagine. And if this is not to your liking, you can stop me at any time-"

"Oh good heavens," she whispered, sinking back against the bed. Thereupon, all breath was quickly torn from her chest, for, incredibly, she felt his lips, his tongue, his mouth on her. Where she had not thought it possible to be. Teasing, licking, stroking her into absolute abandon. Dipping deeply inside her. The pleasure of it was so sharp, so wonderful, so awesome--so as to be almost hurtful. It tore all the control over her body out of her hands. And if she flung one arm across her eyes, it was not quite so embarrassing to have him kiss her there; not to mention that he seemed completely enraptured, if his violent grip on her hips was any indication. Elizabeth felt herself being eaten, consumed, almost devoured. She thought she would melt and disappear, like a cube of sugar on his tongue.

It happened so quickly, she had not had the time to prepare herself. Through the novelty and the embarrassment, she shook with the strongest pleasure she had ever experienced; her moans grew louder and louder, until they were screams. It did not leave off, nor end, but seemed to last forever. She pushed against him, moaned and tugged on his curls, made so insensible, so quickly. Then, finally, it abated, leaving her breathless and almost faint, and she felt him rise from her.

He had told her the truth... he had thought about this, a thing so scandalous that it simply was not done...but she had responded so eagerly to his every advance, he found he wanted more and more. He wanted her on his tongue, wanted to know the taste of her and to fill his nose deep with her scent. He also wanted to give her pleasure, before they were joined... for he doubted his ability to do so after.

It was all he had imagined (and he had imagined), and more-and it had inflamed him well-nigh to a point of bursting. He was wound up, trembling, his heart clattering against his ribs... and when she bent under his hands, arching and pulsing against his lips, and cried out, again and again, he stayed with her as long as he could bear-and then he flew to his feet and started tearing at his clothing.

Cautiously, Elizabeth raised her arm and peeked at him through lowered lashes. He was standing next to the bed, jerking at his cravat, kicking off his shoes. Moved by a sudden, wanton, impulse (for modesty and morality had long stopped whispering to her, overwhelmed by love and lust), she sat up, her skirts in disarray over her legs and reached for him. Moving a little closer, he allowed her to undress him, as he watched her, eyes lidded. He did not realize it, but his hands were balled up by his sides, against the tension, against the frenzied, merciless desire. Kneeling up on the bed, she helped him remove his shirt and then, holding his gaze steadily, undid the buttons on his falls. At the rapt expression in her face, he thought, for a second, that he was done for, that he would spill himself. He moved back a step, away from her tempting hands, and continued to undress himself, under her unflinching, curious gaze.

"Oh, Lizzy," he murmured, feeling about to expire. "My angel."

Finally, he stood, quite naked, before her, and Elizabeth heard her own sharp intake of breath. She had seen him like so, but the reality of the late afternoon did not have the magical quality of that night. It was all very new and very real. She watched the long, hard lines of his body, its flowing muscle and sinewy strength, , its agility and form, an instrument in its own right. He is so beautiful. He seemed so very unashamed of his nakedness. With a quiet chuckle, he heaved her limp legs over onto the bed and lay down next to her.

"Lizzy, Lizzy," he teased. "Tell me, my sweet, did you like what I did to you?" He gathered her closer, felt for the buttons on the back of her dress. Her nose pressed to his chest, she inhaled sharply the wonderful scent of him; their naked legs were intertwined, and she felt him hard and powerful against her, hot and heavy against her leg. "Shall I do it again sometime?"

She nodded, too embarrassed to tell him of her rapture.

And perhaps, he thought almost coyly, perhaps you could do the same for me one day. One day, he added, pointedly, to keep himself from flying into compleat frenzy... but he found that it was impossible to even think about it-he only had to imagine her mouth on him and he found himself on the brink.

He wished, honestly, that the big grin on his face was a little less smug-but he had seen, felt, tasted her ecstasy. He kissed her again, then pulled her up in a sitting position, starting to undo the long line of tiny buttons all the way down her back. But it did not look good: there must have been at least forty or fifty... He actually considered ripping the dress, and let her think him an absolute beast.

"Oh lud," he said, contritely. "This is hopeless, Elizabeth. I must-" He tugged suggestively at the dress in the back (meaning that it was high time for her to join him in the state of advanced nudity, for he was feeling somewhat ... underdressed, much like the lover in John Donne's tongue-in-cheek Elegy, which he so admired).

She burst out laughing.

"Oh, I knew it!" she said, looking pleased with herself. "The buttons are for cover only...Upon some very good advice, I had the seamstress put hooks under them..."

Darcy looked at her admiringly. He could guess easily from whence this good advice came. He was pleased, enormously, that she took pains to make access to her body easier for him. That she was clever, he had long known, of course; but that she should be such a sharp little minx... why, it set his blood to positively boil.

Hooks notwithstanding, this must have been the hastiest dress removal in the modern history of England-a mere instant later, it fell to the floor, followed by the corset. Laughing through her embarrassment--for she still had not gotten accustomed to being undressed by him, and found it a delicious, sinful pleasure--Elizabeth plopped on her back, arching, letting him pull off the petticoats which went, quickly, the way of the dress and the corset, fluttering onto the rug like a white dream. A minute later, she was kneeling across from him in naught but her chemise (which had the admirable qualities of only reaching mid-thigh, not to mention being deliciously transparent, so that her nipples were perfectly visible to him, though through a thin mist of sorts).

"This, too, is superfluous," he said, eyeing her breasts covetously. "Why needst thou have more covering than a man? " he declaimed, tugging at her hem suggestively. She raised her arms, obedient and eager, allowing him to draw the garment over her head. Sweet, he thought, hazily, how sweet she is.

"Not more than you, surely," she whispered, a quiet sigh of contentment and desire fluttering through her. "How kind of Dr. Donne to have a line for each occasion."

"For this occasion, especially," Darcy agreed, tossing her chemise away. He smiled in satisfaction. "I like this far better. Skin to skin," he murmured, pulling her into his embrace. "Nothing at all between us."

The heat of his skin seared her, made her gasp in wonder. Instinctively, she pushed harder against him, feeling the hard, smooth planes of his chest, the softly curling hair, and pressing, against her belly, like a weapon trained upon her, his erection. She lowered one hand and touched it, gently, as if patting a dog on the head; then, curling her fingers, she caressed him just like he had taught her. His eyelids drifted closed, a ragged sigh escaped his lips, and he leaned into her caress. But for a second, he was, once again, enthralled by her; then, catching himself on the very brink, he took in the look of the intense concentration upon her face. Oh, God. He smiled dazzlingly and easily, belying the intense physical turmoil in which he persisted, took her hand, pressed it against his cheek.

"No games tonight, Elizabeth," he said, kissing her palm. "You will make me spend far too soon if you carry on."

Elizabeth felt herself go red in the face at such unprecedented language. "Spend?" she repeated, quizzically, looking up at him.

He nodded, smiling. "That is the name for what happens, Lizzy. You know. Spend. Come." He kissed her mouth, really a perfect, beautiful kiss, making her forget all about the semantics. Then, gently, he pushed her against the pillows. "Tonight," he said, between heavy, wet, sensuous kisses of her neck, shoulders, breasts, "Lizzy, I should like to be inside of you when it happens."

"Ah," she said, faintly. She did not know what made her head spin more: his mouth upon her breast, or the prospect of having him inside her. But it did spin, with desire and a bit of fear. For she was not afraid of him, and found him too wonderful for words, and after what he had done to her earlier tonight... truly, there was no place for false modesty. But her conundrum was a logical one: plainly put, would it fit? For she had not perceived an opening in her body that could accommodate such an instrument. Perhaps, she mused, perhaps now would be a good time to, er, question the logistics of it all? "D-darcy?" she asked.

"Mmmm?" he raised his head from her breasts, leaning up on one elbow. "What is it, my love?"

"I am a bit..." she sought a word, finding her vocabulary sadly diminished. "Troubled," she said, finally, then, thinking that it sounded far too ominous, hastened to correct herself. "Well, not precisely troubled... but concerned, perhaps."

He frowned. "Troubled, Lizzy? Concerned? About what?"

She felt herself growing bright-beet-red, wondering if she would look an utter idiot before him, if all other women in England knew the exact logistics of what went where, and did not trouble their husbands with silly questions on their wedding night.

"I do not think--Darcy, I cannot imagine how it would all fit."

He kept looking at her with such seriousness, Elizabeth wondered whether truly, she had made a fool out of herself. Then, she noticed him bite down on his lip, and saw that he was trying his hardest not to laugh.

Flushed with embarrassment, she felt for the closest pillow and then brought it down upon his head, even as his attempt at solemnity failed and he burst into laughter.

She crossed her arms, scowled, and waited for him to calm down. When he did, finally, he did not answer her question, but grasped her tightly and pulled her into his embrace.

Smoothing an errant curl out of her face, Darcy thought about how to reassure her. What he knew, with utter certainty, to be true-that in basic configuration, all women were more or less the same, and that in his experience, fitting ought not be a problem-he could not say to her. After all, the last thing he wanted at the moment was to tell her that she was not unique (and she was, truly she was; the more he looked at her, the more he came to the conclusion that there was not another woman like her in the entire world). Still, he felt the need to comfort and reassure her; and so, leaning over, he kissed her face, reverently and bid her to trust in him.

"Lizzy," he said, softly. "Have faith, my love, it will fit admirably." He kissed her in a way to make her forget to question how exactly he knew that. But Elizabeth, clever enough, had never thought him to be entirely without experience. If anything, it could not be expected of a man such as him-so wealthy, so worldly, so very handsome. In fact, Elizabeth reflected wistfully, looking up into his lovely eyes, it would be almost inconceivable. That was the way things were; she sighed and banished the twinge of sadness and jealousy that surfaced at the thought of those who had come before her. They did not signify, she thought, for he loved her.

"You are made for me, Elizabeth," he whispered huskily into her ear. "Shall I demonstrate that to you?"

She found his objective agreeable enough. Thereupon, a demonstration ensued, which culminated some time later, when, breathless and faint with wanting, he rolled on top of her, parting her legs with his knee.

"I love you," he whispered, holding himself up on his arms, his eyes caressing her face, her form, so beautiful, so beloved. Something rumbled in his chest, surged through all his limbs and throbbed menacingly in his groin; his heart clattered so, he thought it might break apart in his chest. But hers, too, answered his in sweet unison. Darcy looked down at her, flushed and lovely with her desire and fancied he could see it, her heart, beating faintly blue under the silky white skin to the right of her left breast...

Elizabeth looked up, giving Darcy a shy, yet distinctly welcoming smile; for a second, his heart seized with joy and love and the sweetest pain. He touched her, again, checking, just to make sure she was ready for him--however ready she truly could be her first time. Her face, her breasts were flushed and lovely. Groaning, he claimed one breast, holding it supply in his hand, as he lowered himself on top of her. He kissed her neck and she arched, wantonly, knees falling apart, opening to him like the most forbidden book.

"Lizzy," he whispered contritely into her ear. "I have heard the hurt is quite... bearable your first time."

Elizabeth shrugged under him. She had heard differently (Anne seemed to think there had been no pain at all, and her mother had made large round eyes and told her to bite her hand), but it simply did not signify. She did not think he would do her any lasting damage; and she was not afraid of trifling pain.

So she knew what to expect-so she had thought. Yet, what he did to her next was so overwhelmingly private, so very powerful, it seemed that no mystery in the world could compare to it. He lay between her open legs, heavy, and she felt her heart beat against his as she pressed closer to him. She felt his arm come about her shoulder, cradling her to him; his other hand, caressing tenderly, rested on her bottom, pulling her nearer. She did what she could and slipped her own arms about his neck. Turning her face sideways on the pillow, she caught his gaze as he pushed slowly against her, once, then again.

Elizabeth's eyes opened in surprise and her mouth made a small "o", for she felt him enter her, ever so slowly.

But she was left to wonder no longer, for the sensation of him coming into her, inch by inch, stretching her to the limit, completely usurped her understanding. She found that those who said it would hurt did not quite do it justice. She bit her lip, held on to his shoulders, and hid her face against his chest, trying her best to behave with dignity and to not distress him needlessly. She did not believe he did anything wrong; indeed, she did not believe he could do anything wrong, for her faith in him was absolute. If he hurt her, so it must be, she thought; it means there simply was no other way about it.

Still, when he pushed, finally, through her maidenhead, she sank her teeth in his shoulder in anguish and allowed a stifled sob to escape.

The sound she had made alerted her husband that perhaps, he was not so gentle a lover as he had hoped himself to be (for he hoped and tried to spare her pain, and had therefore restrained himself; but perhaps, he thought ruefully, some things could only be made just so much better). He stopped, cupped her face in his hands, whispered little kindnesses, little endearments, little compliments to her. He praised, in a litany of murmurs, the glow of her skin, the silk of her hair, the sweetness of her womanhood; told her how wonderful it felt to be inside her (his own brain did not quite register just how wonderful it felt; had it, he would have spilled himself a long time ago). Her attempts to look nonchalant about the pain did not serve to deceive him.

"Lizzy, oh Lizzy, I am so sorry," he whispered, apologetically, nuzzling her neck. He had stopped moving, allowing her a respite, and she purred at his caress. "Does it hurt too badly? Shall I stop, my love?"

She rolled her eyes and snorted with exaggerated bravado. It was kind of him to offer, but she would not have him stop. For, however much it hurt, there also remained a wonderful feeling of having been taken by him, having truly been made his wife. It was wonderful to be one with him, marvelous and sweet. Her blood sang with it, despite the pain. "It is not half bad," she lied, bravely, for it was half-bad, but it was also half-wonderful.

He kissed her in gratitude. "My heart," he said. "I have an inkling it will be over soon."

Reaching down between them, he caressed her, teasing and stroking, making her feel hints of pleasure through the haze of pain.

"Look, Lizzy," he murmured, moved by a sudden wanton impulse. "I want you to see us joined."

Elizabeth looked, for the first time, and found the sight not a little intriguing. And quite arousing. Indeed, it did quite serve to set her blood on fire, and it did ease the pain--as did his whisperings and the way he had taken her breast in his mouth, dipping his head awkwardly.

Little by little, she relaxed, pleasured, and, when he moved against her again, she found she could bear it all better. With all the presumption of a neophyte, she had thought she had known intimacy. She had thought their previous encounters had taught her that. Now, drowning in his intense dark gaze, knowing that they were one, she no longer knew where he ended and she began. Even the tearing, rending pain, which he had tried so hard (and unsuccessfully) to spare her... even that was a part of this amazing transformation, and even that was beloved.

The thought of such closeness, such compleatness moved, terrified and thrilled her all at the same time. She tightened her grip upon his shoulders and, feeling it, he turned his head and kissed her fingers. He did it with such exquisite tenderness that she felt tears welling up in her eyes; not from pain and not entirely from joy, but from something greater, something that seized her heart and made her head spin.

"You are mine," she whispered, incredulously. He smiled at her and kissed the tears off her cheeks.

"Forever," he whispered into her ear. She clung to him, then, despite the pain, or perhaps because of it, cleaved to him as if seeking the shelter in that storm that was consuming them. Instinctively, she shifted under him, trying her best not to frown when the movement exacerbated the soreness within. She felt his hand alight, gently, on her hip, caressing it, pulling her closer. Responding to the movement, she angled her hips, rearing up on the pillows, forcing herself up to meet his thrusts, still tentative and shallow. Her instinct was to preserve this amazing feeling of intimacy, for it gripped her and ruled her, and she did not think she could get enough, did not think she could get close enough to him. She would melt their skins together if she could.

Gently, wondering at whether he was going too fast, but unable to resist the temptation, Darcy reared up on his knees, took one long leg and bent it in the knee, then did the same to the other one. She regarded him from below, curious yet trusting:

"What are you doing?"

"Trust me," he murmured, planting his hands flat on both sides of her, moving back over her, pressing himself deeper, going further. He heard her draw a sharp breath between her teeth and stopped. "Am I hurting you?" he whispered. The strange thing, he was not, not so much anymore-it seemed that there opened a space within her, letting all of him in, deep, so deep. Her eyes rolled back in her head from the feeling of it. She managed to give a weak wave with one hand. A sign for him to continue.

The pose she was in was strange and awkward, but she tried her best to feel no shame. The expression of desperate hunger upon his face helped, and his whispers to her, full of erotic, sensuous praise, the husky lilt in his voice as he moaned her name, the pounding of his heart against hers. All of it made her head spin, and awakened, somewhere deep inside, a desperate heat. I did this to him she thought, gratified beyond measure, smug with her newfound power, he is like that because of me. That alone was worth all the pain--so much that when, at the finish, he lost all restraint and thrust into her with perhaps more force than she was prepared to weather, she did not cry out, utterly spellbound by what was happening to him. She had seen it, before, several times. But it was a very different business to be so closely entwined as it happened. For truly, as he groaned and shuddered against her, again and again, she felt his every tremor deep within her, and his every breath and cry was her own.

He rested atop her, heavy, and she gloried in the sensation. So much that, having pushed him up just a bit to free her legs, she did not allow him to roll off her, but pulled him back on top of her, wrapping her legs about his waist, caressing his damp back. Her body throbbed, seeped, ached. She sighed contently and pressed her cheek against his. This time, she had not experienced the rapture similar to his; but she was touched, deeply, by their connection, by his undoing, by the intimacy of it all. There was definite potential for the wonderful, Elizabeth concluded.

Darcy raised his head, heaved himself up on his elbows and stared at her, passionately, holding her gaze. So intense was his scrutiny of her, Elizabeth felt a tiny twinge of fear. Perhaps, she had displeased him somehow (though for the life of her, she could not imagine how), perhaps she had failed to do something essential, something required of her-

"What?" she murmured, biting her lip.

He gave her a noisy kiss and broke into a boyish grin:

"Do you see now?" he whispered gently, kissing her face. She could hear his breath, gasping, like the flapping of a trapped bird. "Do you see how it all fits, Lizzy?"

Epilogue

Following the Darcy nuptials, certain developments took place.

Despite Anne's unlikely hope that her mother would relent and speak with her again, Lady Catherine proved sadly intractable. What was worse, immediately after Darcy's wedding to Elizabeth Bennett, the lady set about undertaking her vengeance. In a bit of a snit, the lady wrote to all the common acquaintances and neighbors, demanding that each of her correspondents sever any and all association with the three ungrateful cousins, who had so successfully thwarted her matrimonial plans. Because the aforesaid group included not only Lady Catherine's own now-disowned daughter, but also the Earl of Matlock's younger son and Mr. Darcy (the former admitted absolutely everywhere because of his valor, aristocratic background and winning charm, the latter-for being a dashed good fellow once you knew him and, sadly, but inevitably, for his money), as well as Mr. Darcy's adorable young wife-a seductive combination of money, youth and charm-her entreaties to the ton went mostly ignored. Those who are forced to choose, usually do so-choosing the silent party over the demanding one. For some time, Lady Catherine found herself quite without a social life. In addition, Lord Matlock and his wife did not take kindly to Lady Catherine's barely veiled accusations that Fitzwilliam had seduced Anne in order to obtain her substantial dowry; all correspondence between Matlock and Rosings ceased indefinitely.

Had there been no (determined, yet mostly unsuccessful) efforts by Lady Catherine to besmirch Elizabeth's name, her relationship with Darcy would have suffered irreparable damage nonetheless. For the unfortunate story of her unpardonable assault upon Georgiana's dignity reached his ears within days of it happening.

It was during his wedding breakfast that Darcy first heard his sister speak in several weeks. She had arrived from Pemberley late the previous night and came straight into Elizabeth's open arms. With only Bingley to keep him company, Darcy received a note of her arrival at his inn in Meryton; reassured that his sister had reached Longbourn safely, he dared not disturb the Bennetts at such a late hour. Therefore, the first word he heard from Georgiana was a bright and clear: "Congratulations, Wills!" as he stood with Elizabeth after the ceremony, receiving felicitations. As she embraced him, locking her arms behind his neck, Darcy thought he was mistaken. He held Georgiana aside and looked searchingly into her eyes. She gave him a shy smile, and said, exhaling loudly as she started to speak:

"You are staring, Wills. I am not a talking dog, or any other such oddity."

Elizabeth, who had had an opportunity to acquaint herself with the new Georgiana the night before, beamed at Darcy's side. At that glorious, happy moment, he was too shocked to inquire how such a marvelous change had come about. Neither did he have the time to query her-for there were people, strangers, all around, tugging at them, offering their best wishes, wishes which he had to answer with gratitude-and as he did, he kept his incredulous gaze upon Georgiana, as she was whisked away by Kitty Bennett and Sir William Lucas' younger daughter Maria. He did not think to demand an explanation from Elizabeth on their carriage ride to London; and indeed, who can blame him because his mind was otherwise occupied? Therefore, the miraculous change in his sister's manner of speech became merely another note in the veritable symphony of happiness that was his wedding day.

But, having met Georgiana at Pemberley a week later (for she had tarried with the Fitzwilliams, who had wisely invited her to visit with them in London), Darcy wasted no time in undertaking a full interrogation. Georgiana tried hedging an answer, then essayed a flat refusal, using her time-honored technique of sullen silence. But Darcy would have none of it from her. Though his sister would not speak, Mrs. Reynolds, summoned by the furious Darcy posthaste, would, and with a certain amount of pleasure-for she knew Lady Catherine well, and detested her with all her heart. Those eavesdropping at the door heard Master's somewhat breathless "She called her what?" and Miss Georgiana's frustrated "Oh, Reynolds!" Thereupon, Mrs. Reynolds emerged, looking quite victorious, and followed by the contrite Georgiana. Mr. Darcy himself appeared a quarter of an hour later, looking not unlike Death himself, lacking only a scythe, holding a letter addressed to Rosings. Nobody doubted the contents of the letter, and yet the household would have taken injury to know the particulars. The only thing everyone knew after her nephew's missive to her, Lady Catherine did not go out for the fortnight following. They found it somewhat vexing that she had taken no permanent affliction.

Some time after her wedding to Fitzwilliam, Anne finally relinquished the idle and naïve hope that her mother might behave as a mother ought for once in her life. That she, herself, found herself with child some months after her marriage indubitably served as a wonderful consolation. That she might have wished for her mother's company during this time was possible, though doubtful, for she did not lack in love and support.

Georgiana remained a speaking girl, and with time, the awkwardness vanished from her speech. She no longer required a loud exhalation every time she essayed a phrase; in days, weeks, months, words began coming easier to her, and she no longer needed to summon the mighty current within herself to force her words out. By the time of her coming-out two years hence, she grew into a lovely and charming young woman. Because of her wealth and refinement, she had the courtship of and proposals of marriage from titled persons and those of great wealth; but, inspired by the love her brother held for his wife, her former penniless governess, she hoped dearly to make a love match herself. When she found, amidst the distinguished gentlemen seeking her acquaintance, one special arresting pair of eyes of just the right color, a noble carriage and a good heart, she would be all the more fortunate for that.

But we are hardly there yet.

Some months after the wedding, the Darcys left Pemberley to go to London. It was customary, and expected. The new Mrs. Darcy would be presented at court. Unfortunately, the King had long descended into compleat senility-but not even that could take away from Elizabeth's excitement. She had been to London before, yet she very well knew the difference between her Uncle's quiet living in Gracechurch Street-and the glittering assemblies of St. James' Court. She was as levelheaded and sensible as any woman could be at one-and-twenty, but one-and-twenty she was. Her heart gave a treacherous flutter of excitement every time she thought about all the entertainments London had to offer during the Season. What pleased her best, of course, was that Darcy would be there with her. He seemed even more excited than she-not by the idea of London balls and parties, for he had seen enough of those, but by the sparkle in his wife's eyes. And if the thought of parading his wife before the ton annoyed him somewhat, he did enjoy the idea of Elizabeth bejeweled for the society.

Therefore, the only person at Pemberley discontented at the idea of going to town was Georgiana. London had little to offer her-she was not yet out, and could not partake of all the entertainments available to her brother and sister. Not that she coveted it-in time, she would learn to enjoy the tinseled crowds, the interaction, the gossip and the dance, but now, she was intensely miserable at the very idea of venturing into society. Thus, with unexpected doggedness, she begged her brother to let her remain in Pemberley.

As with all of her more radical ideas, she suggested it first to Elizabeth. At first, the latter was surprised and expressed her own sincere desire for Georgiana's company during their sojourn in London. But after receiving the girl's assurances that she would be infinitely happier with Mrs. Reynolds at Pemberley, Elizabeth found it a tolerable objective to convince Darcy of the same.

Of course, "convince Darcy" was easier said, than done, and Elizabeth spent several evenings arguing with her husband; which was none too pleasant and included a night... almost an entire night... that they spent out of each other's company. Then, as always, he came upon an excellent argument, and thereupon plied it to his wife (as he sat cross-legged on top of their bed):

"But I should like someone to stay with her," he said. "Someone to provide company. Someone to chaperone her. I cannot possibly count on Reynolds to do so. She is far too busy, and there is no-one else..."

He looked all but victorious, and was severely disappointed when Elizabeth seemed to have a response ready (he might have even suspected she had prepared it):

"Why, Darcy! I have just the person! With your permission, I shall write to Jane straightaway and ask her to come."

This was, indeed, a brilliant riposte, for Darcy knew how much Elizabeth loved her sister and would never question the suitability of her choice. Particularly because he knew that Jane would do the job admirably. He had once thought Jane meek, but with time, he had come to recognize in her the steadfast and quiet strength, which he greatly respected. She awed him, a little, with her dedication and kindness.

Elizabeth, guessing where her husband's thoughts tended, hammered the nail home:

"And it would be good for Jane, too-I wager Mama is driving her insane at Longbourn!"

Thereupon, it was decided, and soon enough, Elizabeth had her sister's written concurrence to her request. She would come to Pemberley a few days before the Darcys needed to leave, and would stay there as long as was needed. Elizabeth knew that her sister would cherish these three quiet months at Pemberley and felt very pleased with herself, for her solution would serve more than one person's happiness.

Indeed, for there was yet another, who rejoiced at the thought of seeing Jane away form Mrs. Bennett's clutches. Charles Bingley had rented Netherfield, a substantial estate not three miles from Longbourn, to be near Jane. He had courted Jane, quietly and sweetly, since the day he came back with Darcy from London. He visited as often as propriety allowed him; but Mrs. Bennett's company was taxing even on his easy nature. It was beginning to wear upon him, and he was overjoyed upon receiving Darcy's very pointed letter telling him that Jane was to spend the next three months at Pemberley with Georgiana.

And so, there it was, the logistiques. Having installed Jane at Pemberley, the Darcys departed for London with more pomp than Elizabeth would have liked. Some three days later, Charles Bingley left both his sisters at Netherfield, for once in his life deaf to their entreaties, and traveled to Derbyshire.

Anybody who had ever visited Pemberley would attest that it was at its most beautiful in the spring. Bingley, his spirits excellent, was of a similar mind as he rode towards his friend's house. He was glad, absurdly glad, that Darcy and Elizabeth would not be there. He loved Darcy like a brother, but oh, to be alone with Jane (for surely Georgiana could not be counted, consumed as she was by her books and music)! Jane was the one in whose company he felt the easiest and the happiest; the one whose opinion he cherished and whose approval he craved. Some ten months had passed since he had first seen her in Darcy's drawing-room; his opinion of her as the most beautiful, kindest woman on earth had only been strengthened over that time.

It would not be untrue to say he adored her.

Therefore, his reaction upon seeing her in the garden, reposing contentedly on the grass, her back against an old tree, was both understandable and forgivable. It was certainly understandable and forgivable by Jane, who started as he alit from his horse mere feet away from her, disturbing her quiet reverie. He fell to his knees at her side and reached for her hands, which he brought, fervently, to his lips.

He had seen her last mere three days ago, and it felt like forever.

"Did I frighten you?" he asked against her palm. She looked up at him, no longer surprised but smiling serenely. Bingley thought that her hair looked an immaculate golden coronet around her head, shining with the setting sun; he longed to know the feel of it under his hands, to see the weight of it down, on her shoulders. If he looked close enough, he could see a smattering of pale golden freckles across the bridge of her nose, and a tiny blue vein bright against he pale skin of her right temple.

"Miss Darcy will be pleased you are come," she said solemnly.

"I am glad of it," he said, unexpectedly cross. He let go of her hand, and tilted her chin up, looking pointedly in her eyes. "Jane," he said. "Tell me, love, are you glad I am come?"

She colored a little. "I am," she said.

"May I kiss you?" He asked. He always asked permission, afraid to offend, and, to Jane's credit, she never took advantage of his timidity. He had kissed her many times at Netherfield, though he would wish for more, and more passionate kisses, and for marriage, and for marriage bed. But they were limited by their circumstances, and Bingley took, gratefully, what he could.

"You may." Jane scrambled up, to kneel on the grass next to him, face raised to him expectantly. Bingley kissed her hand again, lingering, gently lipping each finger, rubbed his face against her palm. Then, unexpectedly to himself, he bit her little finger and a second later, crushed his mouth violently to hers.

Jane was taken aback at the intensity of his kiss, at the passion of it. It was very powerful, sensual, deliberate. She had known, had expected nothing of the kind. Still, she was drawn into it, inescapably. He had never kissed her like this; he had always been respectful and tame, ever the self-possessed gentleman. To think only, a moment ago, he was asking permission to kiss her! Even as her scandalized consciousness was clamoring at the impropriety of it, Jane felt her body mold and melt against his. Her hands, treacherous, left their safe post on his shoulders, and went to bury themselves in his curls.

The kiss lasted forever, in silence that was punctuated by their sighs and Bingley's murmurs as he whispered Jane's name. Finally, as the first tumultuous sweep of passion waned, they let go of each other and sat on the grass, eyeing each other warily.

Finally, Bingley, unable to withstand the silence for much longer, wondering if he had frightened her, if he head repulsed her, reached over and touched Jane's cheek.

"Say something," he begged. She smiled, dreamily.

"What do you want me to say?"

"Say: "I missed you, Charles."

Her mouth was raspberry-red, bruised, bitten. He noticed, with some satisfaction, that the majestic coronet on her head had quite lost its immaculate shape, and two lopsided flowing tresses now framed her face.

"Or say: "This was not completely horrible, Charles. "

Jane cocked one eyebrow at him. "I do not believe we have graduated to such informal appellations, Mr. Bingley," she said prissily.

His dismay at that must have shown plainly on his face, because Jane threw her head back and laughed. Bingley sat there, a fool, enchanted by the melodious sound of her laughter, entranced by the lovely porcelain column of her neck, by the way her eyes closed dreamily as she laughed, hidden behind thick golden lashes.

Her laughter died away, like faraway bells. Magnetic violet eyes opened and looked at him with their usual quiet poise. Bingley held his breath.

"I missed you," Jane said. Letting out a quick tortured breath, she added: "It was all of three days that I did not see you, but oh Charles, I missed you most terribly."

~ * ~

Georgiana was pleased, more than pleased, to see her brother's best friend. She was even more pleased that he had come alone, for she could hardly abide his sisters. She knew that it was not for her benefit that he was there, but she was glad to see him nonetheless. That night, they played charades-having coerced Mrs. Reynolds to play with Bingley against the two young women-until they all simply howled with laughter, and Georgiana felt upon a chair, winded from her presentation of a rhinoceros on exhibit in London a few years ago (Bingley had guessed, and yelled the answer, triumphantly. He had never seen Jane laugh so much).

Thereupon, Mrs. Reynolds noticed that it was nearly midnight.

"That wouldn't be enough for you, Miss Darcy?" she asked, and Georgiana knew better than to argue. Three wonderful months of freedom had only just begun. She rose, kissed Jane on the cheek, and was promptly gone. Mrs. Reynolds left as well, leaving Jane and Bingley alone.

They sat in silence for some time, and then Jane rose.

"I shall retire now," she said. "It was a wonderful evening. Mr. Bingley."

From his chair, he locked one hand tightly around her wrist.

"Charles," he said, insistently. "When we are alone, I want you to call me by my Christian name."

"Charles," she repeated obediently. "Good-night, Charles." She tugged her wrist out of his grip. His fingers opened, and she left him, sprawled in the chair, alone and brooding.

~ * ~

An hour or so later, Jane lay sleepless in her bed. The way Charles had kissed her earlier had startled her; but even more so, did her own unexpected reaction to it. The idea that another person... a man... might do things... might put his mouth so greedily, so carnally on hers both terrified and enthralled her. She tried thinking back to her own husband, but of course, Mr. Collins had never kissed her like that. To her shame, she could not suppress a little shudder when she thought of bedding her late husband; so she banished all thoughts of him and the past.

She had not known it was possible to be kissed like that.

But, quite in spite of herself, she liked it.

Quite in spite of her own upbringing and all rules of ladylike behavior, she wanted him to do it again, and more. Something in her did. Badly.

Over the past year or so, Jane had to come to terms with the idea of being loved... of having a future. Charles Bingley courted her with such exquisite tenderness, so quietly and sweetly, that she had fallen in love with him desperately. It was extraordinary to feel so much happiness on her own account. She had been so happy before-for others. In her simplicity, she had not known the difference. When Lizzy married Mr. Darcy, when her life with him over the past months had proved full of tender happiness, Jane had not thought it was possible to be happier than she was for her sister.

But when she thought of Bingley, a different sort of feeling stole its way into her heart. A jubilant, free, fluttery feeling that threatened to knock her off her feet. She remembered, with an inward shiver of guilty pleasure, the way his mouth had tasted, the way his hands had felt on her waist, above, below, everywhere. Nobody can hear you, she told herself, and she laughed, giggling like a girl, then chastised herself half-heartedly. She was no longer a girl. She was a widow, in mourning after her husband. She had never giggled before.

It was most strange, she thought, how sleep evaded her. The skin of her waist burned with the impressions of his hands, though he had held her gently. Before she knew what she was doing, Jane jumped off the bed, fumbled with the lighting, and then, candle in hand, stood before the vanity. Gingerly, she set the candle on the vanity and slowly raised her nightshift above her hips, to see whether he had left a mark on her.

There was none, of course, and, shamefacedly, she dropped the nightshift. Wanton. Perhaps, she thought, you ought to get your head checked for doing things like that! She sighed and cocked her head, studying herself in the mirror. She had been called beautiful oh-so-many times, and yet she did not see herself as such, for she lacked vanity and knew nothing of her own beauty. She shook her head crossly at her own reflection and turned towards the bed.

Then, she heard it.

She thought she might be mistaken, but then she knew she was not. For who would come to her room at so late an hour? Who indeed? She hesitated a moment before opening the door, scaring herself with ghost-and-goblin stories. But she knew, all too well, who it was.

Slowly, and with a heavy heart, she opened the door.

They eyed each other warily across the doorstep. Jane noticed, with some dismay, that he was in his shirtsleeves, having abandoned his coat. The sleeves of his lawn shirt were rolled up to his elbows, its collar open, and she found herself staring at his hands, his open graceful wrists, the strong muscles of his neck.

She did not ask him what he was doing here, for it was plainly obvious.

"Charles," she whispered, his name like a charm.

He was looking at her across the threshold, and the intensity of his gaze left her terrified. Not for what was to happen, for she knew him to be, fundamentally, a man of honor. Whatever happened tonight would remain forever between them; she was no longer a maid, and should there be a child... From the bottom of her heart, Jane knew that he would always do right by her.

Yet, she was afraid, for her heart felt brittle, all of a sudden, heavy, and alien in her chest. It was as if someone had cut her open and replaced her living, beating heart with a small leaping fire that now burned her on the inside. Jane took a deep breath of air, and felt tears brimming in her eyes.

"Charles," she said, again. He dipped his head to kiss her, but she stood back, shying away from him. "Bad luck," she said, hoarsely, her voice no longer her own. "Bad luck to kiss across the doorstep."

"Oh Jane," he whispered. "I love you so much. Whatever happens, Jane, my heart."

She stepped backwards, keeping the door open, keeping her gaze pointed on him.

Whatever happens. He stepped inside, following her, closing the door quietly behind him.

The enormity of what she was doing dawned on her, suddenly. She was no maid, but she might as well be-for she was certainly as ignorant as one. Her husband, a dispassionate enough man, had never really pressed his rights with her. Jane was lucky that way: for she was fundamentally honest and would not stoop to hide behind an excuse of a headache or womanly troubles. But she could count on one hand the number of times-oh no, she thought, suddenly, oh Lord, what am I doing?

Jane turned away, panicking, and stood by the window, pressing her forehead against the cool glass. She felt him behind her, his broadness, his strength, the faint perfume of musk and soap and clean sweat. A man. Her knees felt weak, and she leaned a little against the wall.

She felt him closer, warm at her back, and then his lips touched, softly, the corner between her neck and the collarbone.

"Jane," he whispered. "You need not be afraid of me."

"I am not afraid," she said, in a very small voice.

"Good," he said, his hands alighting, ever so gently, upon her shoulders. "Because there is nothing to fear. I shall do you no harm, do you believe me?"

She nodded. He felt wonderful against her back, she had not known how broad and strong he really was, had not imagined how sweet it would be to lean back into his embrace and to feel his arms about her.

"Good," he whispered faintly again. She felt him lifting her hair, heavy in his hand. His breath was warm at the back of her neck, his lips dry and soft when he kissed her there. It felt wonderful. Taking deep, even breaths, Jane let go of the fear inside her, and in the serenity of it, her heart opening, unfurling like a rose.

"You are so lovely," he murmured. "Jane. My Jane. I adore you."

His hands turned her around, slowly, and she looked up, seeking the protection of his embrace. He closed his arms around her, sheltering her from the world.

"I adore you," he whispered into her hair. His body was hot and urgent against hers, but his movements were slow and delicate. He wrapped one arm about her shoulders and lead her, slowly, towards the glowing fireplace. Jane stood there, awkwardly, not quite sure what to expect, or what he expected of her, as he knelt at the fireplace and stocked the coals. She watched, fascinated, the broad lines of his back and shoulders under the silk waistcoat. She had thought of her late husband as a person, a human being, but hardly ever-as a man. She stepped closer, and, feeling faint with her own boldness, touched him, drawing her hand against the silk of his hair, the hard warm roundness of shoulder and arm under the thin lawn shirt.

Looking up at her, Bingley grinned encouragingly and rubbed his face against her hand.

"I love you," he said. "Come here." He took her hand and pulled her down gently. She did not fight him at all, folding naturally into the warm concavity of his waiting arms. He cradled her before the fire, from time to time gently kissing wherever he could reach-her hair, the delicate shell of her ear, her neck. The side of her face, then, and she turned her head, unthinking, stirred, and met his mouth with hers.

"Oh!" Their sighs mingled in the kiss. Slowly, he turned her around in his embrace, so that she lay comfortably against his chest while he tasted languorously of her mouth. Jane was feeling so light-headed, she thought it fortunate she had no need to stand, for she would almost certainly fall down.

He kissed her mouth for a long time, for such a long time, until she was breathless with it. Then, holding her aside, he studied her face, as if intent upon burning her image into his memory. She could not bear the fire in his gaze-not a furious leaping flame, but a slow, steady glow of burning passion. Her head fell back, weakly, baring the long white column of her neck to his searching lips.

Jane raised her hand in the air, slowly, and met his, palm-to-palm, finger-to-finger. Eyes closing, she felt each spot where her flesh touched his, each point a small conflagration. She curved her fingers, intertwining them with his, urging his hand into an impassioned embrace.

"What do you feel?" Bingley's voice was a soft murmur against her ear, his lips tickling, sensuously, but there was a strain in it, and a desperate need. "Tell me, Jane."

"I wish I could find words to tell you," Jane whispered back. "But you leave me far too transported to speak."

His fingers moved over her lips, outlining, just barely, the contours of her mouth, and she gathered all her courage and kissed them, one by one. Her desire was still young and new, sweet and tame like a kitten, nestling silkily against her heart. She hardly knew it for what it was.

He grew bolder and more purposeful, trailing kisses along her jaw line, and down her neck, to the edge of her nightshift. There, his lips stilled, and he leaned his head against her shoulder, greedily inhaling her scent. His hands were large and warm against her back, and she felt their shape keenly through the thin linen of her nightshift.

"Jane," Bingley whispered, softly, letting go of her. He could not look at her enough, could not feast his eyes full. Desire was a vicious beast, tearing at him from inside, and yet he remained gentle and slow, his each kiss, each touch paced and measured against the lust inside. Jane was lovely, her long hair spilling luxuriously over her shoulders, having acquired an ethereal shade of red gold in the firelight. Kneeling across from him, she studied him seriously with her bewitching violet eyes, her face somber like that of a painted angel. In the even red light of the fireplace, he could see her nipples, dark and round and pushing hard against the linen. He felt as if he would die if he could not touch her.

He dared. Holding her gaze, he brushed his fingers back and forth against the outline of one breast, caressing the nipple with his fingertips. Slowly, delicately, until he could be sure she liked it.

But she did, oh she did. Her eyes opened in wonder, and her mouth unfolded like a flower, beautiful, red, sensuous. He did it again, and felt her move, dip forward, lean into his touch. Her visible rapture gave him license to try further liberties, and he lowered his mouth to her nipple, gently flicking his tongue fore and aft, taking immense pleasure in the feel of it as it swelled and hardened through the thin linen.

Jane seemed to sigh and gasp at the same time, the sweet, warm, womanly sound that echoed deep within Bingley's heart. Her eyes drifted closer, and she leaned back, leaning on her arms, offering herself to him-Bingley sighed, watching her rapture, holding himself back. He was kind and, one could say, well-trained; for, very early in his life, he had been fortunate to meet a woman-a French courtesan of considerable talent and keen intuition-who had not only initiated him into adulthood, but also taught him to listen to a woman's body as if it were a violin, his to tune. He could not boast of an extensive experience, but he had excellent instincts, and he truly aimed to please.

But he was also impassioned, and very young, and was finding it difficult to go as slowly as he would have liked for her. That he did not know how far she would dare go, and where the night would lead made it a little more difficult for him. It went without saying that he would stop when she wanted him to, whatever the cost. He chased the thoughts of stopping away as he gently palmed one breast, going slightly crazy from the weight, the roundness, the warmth radiating through the thin linen of her nightshift. He was finding it difficult to breathe.

"You can tell me to stop," he whispered, sounding more desperate than he would have liked.

"Do you wish to stop?" she whispered back, her eyes still closed.

"No... but I think I still can." He squeezed a little tighter, watched her lips open a little more in rapture thereto unknown to her.

"Only stop if you wish to," she murmured. He saw, then: she would not make it quite so easy on him by playing missish and difficult. Her generous, open nature would simply not allow for it. She was all there, his to take and love, to possess and cherish as he would. Whatever notions he had had of stopping promptly flew out the half-open window.

He kissed her mouth again, quickly, hungrily, and then again, and again, while his fingers, nimble, undid all of the five buttons on her nightshift. Without taking his mouth from her, he pushed the garment off her shoulders and almost spilled himself when he felt her naked skin under his hands, soft and silken and a little warm. Her shoulders and breasts were like spun sugar. She let the nightshift drift down her body without attempting to hold on to it, and it left her gloriously, wonderfully bare, all slender long lines, lovely warm curves, and all this flaming gold hair-spilling down her shoulders, blooming in a silky patch between her legs.

Jane was vaguely aware of a slight breeze caressing her naked, burning skin. It felt welcome, and she lifted her chest in a sigh of quiet relief. She knew she was utterly naked now, and it failed to startle her. Her state of undress, quite scandalous unto itself, was merely a part of this strange, seductive, visceral night. It did not matter that they were not wed: she was neither another's wife, nor a maid. She was her old shy self, and yet, in some way, she felt fundamentally renewed, glowing and lovely and utterly desirable. That she could give her lover his heart's desire left her feeling vividly blissful.

Slowly, she lay back on the soft carpet and opened her arms to him.

"Come," she whispered, but he made no move towards her. He grinned at her in the firelight.

"Jane," he said. "My beautiful Jane. My kind, giving, sweet Jane." Her hair fanned out around her head in a golden circle, the sight of it making him want to cry. "You do not want me yet," he said. "I shall make you want me." His desire screamed to take her now, to possess her, to control and dominate this gorgeous long white body, this pliable waist and soft pink-tipped virginal breasts, this fragrant burst of color between her slender open legs. He was dying to take his pleasure with her, but his heart demanded that he give pleasure first, whatever's the cost. He wanted to see her set on the same kind of fire that burned steadily within him.

He leaned and kissed, quickly, the flat rose of her navel, heard her gasp quietly. Then, he rose to his feet and walked over to a chair in the corner. He kicked off his shoes, dropped his waistcoat on the chair, and thought a second before removing his shirt. Wearing only his trousers, he returned to where Jane lay placidly on the soft rug. He knelt by her head and leaned to kiss her. He took his time now, fully tasting her lips and plundering the sweet depths of her mouth, where her tongue beat like a small golden fish against his.

Jane has long abandoned any attempt to think of time, or place, or propriety. She was living, fully, in the touch of his lips. She felt his hand alight upon her breast, gently, and was seized, herself, with a mad desire to touch him. But she had to see him first.

Rearing up, she gently pushed at him and sat up, her hair rolling in waves over her shoulders, covering her like a silk cloak.

"Is anything the matter?" he murmured softly. "Have I-"

"No, no," she whispered back. "But I do so want to see you, too."

On his knees, he leaned back, allowing her a good look. She sucked in her breath studying him.

"You are so beautiful," she whispered wistfully. He smiled at it, then, and she knew herself to have been very forward, and she did not care. It was the first thing that came to mind, but Jane knew it to be true. She found him very large, startlingly large compared to herself, and very hard in his shoulders and chest. She touched him all over, laying her hands on him, twining his chest hair around her fingers, awkwardly dipping her head to kiss a leaping, beating pulse at the base of his neck. Throughout, he remained very still, allowing her full liberty to play with him. He said nothing, and only allowed an occasional stifled sigh to escape his lips.

Then, feeling quite emboldened by his patience and gentleness with her, Jane looked up in his face, and said:

"Charles, I want to see all of you."

He raised one eyebrow, looking dubious. "Are you quite certain?"

"Have you anything to hide from me?" Jane laughed nervously. "Perhaps you sport a tail?"

She realized that very minute what she had said, and blushed furiously, covering her mouth with her hand. He grinned, very pleased, and suggested that she might wish to help him with the onerous task of removing his trousers.

"Just to make certain I am all human and sport no tail of any kind."

She wagged her head mutely, mortified, and Bingley rose to do it himself. He was not quite certain of how to go about it in a way that would spare Jane's modesty; he decided that it was futile to bother with it, now. He pulled off his stockings and quickly stepped out of his trousers, half-dreading, half-hoping that she might be watching him.

Looking up, he noticed that she was, indeed, watching him. Or rather, staring at him, mouth slightly open. He knew himself to be a reasonably well-proportioned man... in all respects... but he was by no means a freak of nature.

"Jane?" he inquired, softly. "I take it you now see me for the beastly monster I am?" He had meant it as a joke, but it came out a little too tremulous to be a mere trifle; he truly was disconcerted by the way she looked at him.

She shook her head, as if waking up. "It is not that," she whispered, coloring all over again. "You are beautiful..." She gave a quiet wistful sigh, and said so quietly, he could barely hear, "All of you is beautiful, Charles. But I have never-my late-Mr. Collins-had always worn a night-shirt to bed-"

"I see," Bingley said quickly and with a great relief. "Well, Jane, not all men do. You said you wanted to see all of me. I hope I do not repulse you too much."

"No," she whispered. She made a vague gesture in the air. "Turn around for me?"

He laughed, full-throated, and turned around on the spot, slowly, pleased with her careful inspection. Jane scrambled to her feet and came to stand near him, her palms planted flatly against his chest. He took her hands and kissed each in turn.

"My sweetest love," he said, his mood changing from gaiety to solemnity at the look in her eyes. She touched him again, slower this time, trailing lines down his chest, stopping every time at his waist, wary of his cock as it trembled slightly between them. He took her mouth in a searing kiss, and when he felt her fingers skim, lightly, the head of him, groaned against her lips. "Oh God," he said, tearing himself away. "Oh Jane, please do not go on torturing me."

She snatched her hand away as if burned. "Am I hurting you?" she asked, seriously. Bingley shook his head, slipped his hands behind her, and pressed her urgently against himself.

"I want you so much," he murmured into her hair. "I have wanted you for so long. Come," he whispered, and he took her back to the fireplace. There, they lay together, glorying in each other's embrace, luxuriating in the warm russet firelight. Bingley still went slower than he would have wanted, keeping his caresses deliberately light, carefully watching the signs Jane's body gave him. She was like a fire trapped inside a cool glass vessel; he could feel it seeping and bursting from her, an even blaze caught under the silky cool surface of her skin. His fingers, lips, tongue sought out these secret fired places: in the hollow of her neck, under her arms, on the insides of her knees. The wonderful heated fold under her breasts undid him, and he kissed her there, too-there, everywhere, every lovely little place and hollow, his tongue tracing precise lines between each point, and then lower, licking his way down her smooth, soft, female belly. He heard her breath quicken, and caught the sound of his name upon her lips.

"What is it, my sweet?" His fingers were caressing, feather-light, the outsight of one breast. She whimpered a little and pushed against his hand, instinctively begging more pleasure.

"Is it not-" she murmured softly, the end of the phrase escaping her against the sweet torture his fingers inflicted. "Is it not wicked, my love, that I should feel such delight?"

He looked at her in the firelight, eyes confused and tender.

"Wicked?" he repeated, incredulously. "Surely not, Jane." He bent his head and gently kissed one rosy crown of a nipple. Immediately, a tortured sigh escaped her breast and he felt the supple little peak take shape and harden against his tongue. "My love," he murmured, gently. Jane proffered no further argument, and he could not escape the temptation. Slowly, he drew the nipple into his mouth, felt her startle and arch and writhe against him. Putting a steadying hand against her shoulder, he held her in place as he suckled her. He heard her moan low in her throat, and then, the moan was arrested. Looking up, he saw that she had clamped one hand tightly over her mouth, and her eyes were large and troubled above it.

"Jane." He reared up on one elbow, took her hand away from her mouth. "Stop this, Jane. Please. There is nothing to fear." Her lips trembled under his as he kissed her. "My Jane, my love," he whispered. "I shall never hurt you, my sweet."

"You are doing something-" she murmured, gasping as his hand caressed, leisurely, the insides of her thighs. "Something to me... something I cannot resist."

"You need not resist," he whispered. "I shall stop if you want me to."

She squeezed her eyes tightly. "Oh, Charles, but I do not want to...though I know I should want you to stop... I thought you would simply take your pleasure with me...But you are making me feel-making me feel-what are you doing to me, Charles?"

He kissed, ever so tenderly, the inside of her wrist. "My love, I do not know whether to be glad or sorry that you know so little of this..." He put his forehead against her shoulder, nuzzling gently the curve of her shoulder and throat. "The only thing I may ask of you is trust, Jane. And your heart."

"You have my heart, Charles, you know that." She caressed his hair, shyly, tentatively, twining her fingers in his locks. "You have long had it, my love."

"Then, only your trust. Jane." He took her hand, laid it against his heart, her fingers fanned against the hard muscle and soft hair. "Do you feel it?" His heart beat against her hand, quickly and frantically and deeply; it seemed, she could squeeze her hand and hold it, like a helpless little bird. She nodded, hesitant. "It is yours, Jane. Since the very moment I saw you, all these months ago, it has been yours."

Her stupor broke when she took his face into both hands and kissed him, passionately and deliberately, on the mouth. She was as unlearned as a girl, all she knew was what he had taught her. Bingley might have wondered at what that inept idiot Colllins had done with her to leave her such an innocent, but the thought of Jane in another man's arms tore at his heart. Quickly, he swept it aside and allowed himself to sink into her kiss.

But he was not finished with his task: she was not yet mindless with pleasure, and he would not have her otherwise. His mouth at her breast again, his hand caressed, just barely, at the apex of her thighs. The curls there were soft and silky under his fingers, and as he parted her cautiously, he was pleased that she did not start, nor pushed him away.

"You have ravished me, Jane," he whispered to her as his deft fingers found their goal without difficulty. She gave a cry of surprised pleasure as he touched her, arching her hips in her mindless drive to get closer to his touch. He took her mouth greedily, snatching the next sound she made-and the next one, and the next several. He felt her strain, her back arching, and slipped his fingers inside her, and then he, himself, was at her mercy, groaning at the heat and the wetness and the knowledge that she wanted him.

Her eyes opened wide and he felt her shuddering against him, again and again; her hips lifted and her knees locked, and she reared wildly against his hand. Bingley held his breath, enchanted, amazed and gratified beyond his wildest dreams. Lovely Jane, his exquisite passionate beautiful lover... his love... his wife for all times.

"Jane," he murmured as the tremors within her stilled, and she lay prostrate on the rug, breathing shallowly. Her eyelashes trembled and lifted, and she gave him a look of awed adoration, accompanied by a quiet, satisfied sigh. Now that her passion had been gratified, his thoughts turned to his own, and he found it to be rather urgent. He desired her with intensity previously unknown... indeed, he had never wanted anything so much.

Her hand grasped his, fingers intertwining, and she pulled him forth, opening her arms in invitation. Kneeling between her open legs, he leaned and scooped Jane up into his arms. She came willingly, locking her arms about his shoulders, putting her mouth on his, licking at the corner of it to drive him mad.

"My love, my sweet, my heart," she murmured, her heart, her voice full of him. His hands, trembling a little, locked convulsively on her buttocks, lifting her; settling her over him, he entered her with one deep, powerful thrust. He heard her gasp, saw her eyes close in unmistakable pleasure. He held immobile, fighting the mad desire, the painful, vanquishing lust that thrummed, wildly, through his veins. He knew himself to be on the brink, ruled by the primitive need to drive himself higher, deeper, until he touched her womb, until his seed sprang and flowed.

But she was watching him, her eyes rapt, and he wanted her, and wanted to give her more pleasure. He simply could not bear to see it end. Putting one hand behind her head, he took her mouth in a kiss that was searing and possessive. Driving himself forth, he felt her gasp and bear down on him; he moved her to his liking, teaching her the cadence and speed of their lovemaking. His hands under the veil of her hair, he clasped her feverishly to himself, fighting to stay in control until he knew her to have taken her pleasure. He pressed deeper inside her, straining to make them one, unable to get enough of her.

It came soon enough: her grip on his shoulders tightened in the imitation of her hold on him down below. Breaking her rhythm and moaning aloud, no longer mindful of propriety, no longer sensible of where, or who she was, Jane leaned heavily against him and sunk her teeth in his shoulder. He felt her move, come, shudder again and again, heard her moan and whimper once more, and could hold his own lust back no longer. He thrust up once, then again, and again, and heard his own voice crying out at the glorious pleasure and the overwhelming loss of control. He heard her whispering something in his ear, some words that must have been endearments, felt her tease his earlobe gently with her tongue and shuddered again and again. It seemed to last forever, and he felt every single delicious paroxysm of pleasure deep inside him.

His eyes closed, he buried his face against her neck. His arms trembled from the strain and he gently lowered them both back onto the rug. He held her close, their bodies throbbing together in some hidden, faraway place, in the darkness, and the sweetness, and the post-orgasmic quietude; he knew himself to be lying fully on her, heavy, and knew also that she wanted it so.

For a long time, they remained transported, wrapped in each other's arms in warmth and sweetness and oblivious to everything around them. They said nothing, for hardly anything needed to be said, and only held each other tight. Then, as the last of the fire died in the fireplace, Bingley gathered Jane in his arms and took her to bed. He put the covers over her and sat on the side of the bed.

"Will you not lie down with me?" she murmured. Sleep was creeping over her, like a fur blanket in the chilly night, pulling her inexorably into its comforting darkness. Made limp by the pleasure she had never before experienced, Jane was everything at once: happy, dazed and very tired. She stretched under the covers, digging her toes into the cool sheets and smiled sleepily at Bingley. "Come sleep with me?"

"It is late," he said, unsurely. It was late, and if they were to keep any proprieties, he would have to quit her bed in two or three hours. He leaned and searched for his shirt on the floor, slipped it on quickly. Jane laughed and caught the hem of it in her hand, tugging it up suggestively.

"Please," she said, flirting. "I am cold on my own." She flipped the cover off. "Please."

Whole two or three hours. Without saying another word, Bingley swept the over his head and slid into the bed next to her. She locked her arms about him, and he had to admit that a nude woman, still warm with a glow of their shared passion, was a thing far superior to a cold lawn shirt. Much better to have near one's flesh, he thought, as he turned them around in bed, wrapping himself about her, over and above her, her back to his chest, her bottom fitting against his loins as if it was made to suit him.

"Do you like this?" he murmured, rumbling, next to her ear. He knew, with certainty, that she had never had this, had never been held like so, had never slept in a man's warm embrace. He swept the heavy gilt curtain of her hair aside, kissing the warm curve of a shoulder beneath it.

"This is lovely," she said, sleepily. "Like silver spoons." Her voice trailed off into a faint murmur, and a deep satisfied breath, and he knew her to be asleep.

"Jane," he whispered. He wanted to speak with her, to tell her how much he loved her, and how they would need to get married sooner than they had thought, and he also wanted her, again, and was surprised at himself for it, and embarrassed a little as well. But her body in his arms, warm and supple, presented a constant temptation. He laid his head on the pillow behind her, inhaling the sweet rosewater scent of her hair. She slept peacefully in his embrace; he forced himself to think of things beyond the immediate, embarrassing need. They would be married, soon enough, and then, perhaps, or almost certainly, children, little repetitions of them, boys as happy and shy as he had been, girls as gentle and beautiful as Jane. Cautiously, he probed the thought of being a father ... but at the moment, he felt nothing but utter exasperation at having to share Jane with anybody at all, be it even his own child, his own flesh and blood. Possessively, he pulled her tighter against himself. His Jane. His Jane.

Some hours later, he forced himself from her embrace. It was painful to go, but he did have the servants to think about. Already dressed, he sat down on the bed and looked at her in her half-slumber.

"Jane," he whispered, touching her arm. "We must speak... tomorrow...today already... very seriously."

"Hmmmm," she said, a strange non-thing to say, whether signaling acquiescence or merely her inattention, he did not know.

"About marriage," he said, more insistently.

"Well." Jane sat up, propping herself on one arm, shyly holding the covers at her chest. "I am still-" She could not say she was in mourning, not in good conscience, not after what had come to pass tonight. Not when her soul sang as it did. "Oh Charles!" she whispered. "I must-it is proper to wait two years!"

Bingley gasped in horror at that, at the very idea. He had promised her he would wait, but he had already been exhausted by it, by the waiting, by unfulfilled desires, by his heartbreak and hers. Having gone further, having tasted the possible, he found now he had too little patience for waiting. He rose and paced in agitation.

"Madam!" he cried. "Do you see us living like this for another year? Stealing trysts on visits to your sister's?" She did not answer, and he felt his frustration taking the best of him. "Or perhaps not at all, perhaps you do not-" The ghastliest thing of all occurred to him: perhaps she did not love him as she said, perhaps she had never intended to-He could not finish the thought, could not say the hideous words-he had assumed that she wanted to marry him, after tender words and stolen kisses, after what had happened tonight, for Christ's sake! It hurt too much to imagine that he was wrong. He stood next to the bed and looked down upon her, huddled there in the sheets, hair disheveled and an expression of distress on the beautiful face, but still not saying a word. He shook his head in dismay.

"Madam," he said, fighting to say what he felt was important and honorable words to say. "I know that your honor-as a widow's-is intact to the world-and if you so wish, I shall leave you right now, and never trouble you again!" She said nothing, and furious, he spun on one heel and marched towards the doors, only to have her rush after him, crying desperately.

"Charles!" He stopped, frozen in his tracks, inches from the door, and she locked her arms about him from behind. He turned and grasped at her like a man possessed, and held her to him, knowing already that for that one word, for the sound of his name upon her lips, he would do anything she asked of him. She clutched at him, and begged: "No, no, please, do not cry, my love," and he thought, why is she telling me not to cry-and then he felt the wetness on his face. The long sheet she had been holding to her breasts had fallen, leaving her nude and cleaving to him.

Somehow, they found themselves back upon the bed and in each other's arms again. It was late, too late in the morning for that, the gray light was already creeping through the latticed windows, and there were sounds of a household waking up, voices and steps and clanking outside. But he could not for the life of him let go of her, pushing her into the pillows and tearing furiously at his buttons, oblivious to anything but his desire to repossess her, for he had thought her lost already. At the last of it, his own mind dim with wanting and release, he felt Jane strain against him and moan softly in her loveliness, and cleave to him ever tighter.

Later, when they had given up on the idea of parting before the servants came in-Bingley had gotten up and locked the doors against any intrusion, and Jane, when the knock came, had said in the prissiest of voices that she had a bad head and was not to be bothered, all the while stretching and shivering while he kissed the lovely slope of her belly, and below-and now lay curled up together under the covers, Jane asked Bingley:

"When you came here last night-" It was strange to think that a whole night has passed thus, strange, but marvelous-"when you came here, did you think I should let you in?"

"Well." He sighed against her skin. "I did not dare think so, it would be terribly presumptuous of me, don't you think... but I did hope."

"And you came here to-" She knew she was being terrible in asking him questions, but for once in her life, she felt a perfect license to be terrible. Desire and pleasure had been such wonderful revelations to her, she wanted to hear about them, from him, again and again. Shameless, she thought.

"Oh," he said, vaguely, "I thought we might discuss the plight of, um, cauliflower."

"Cauliflower?!" Jane laughed and slapped his arm. "You awful, awful man. You lie, Charles."

"I do," he agreed, readily. "I lie. I was actually hoping you might, er, invite me into your bed. To sleep with you, you know."

Jane giggled. "And I trust I have not disappointed?"

"You have done admirably well, madam," Bingley said somberly, kissing her shoulder. "Admirably," he repeated, and then added, with longing in his voice. "Jane, I want us to marry soon as may be. Please tell me you wish it too."

"I do," she said. "I do, and I am sorry that I have ever given you a different impression-but Charles, I must observe a respectable period of mourning-"

"But not two years?" he asked in dismay. "Having shared what we have just now, Jane-how do you expect me to survive away from you these two years?"

"Away from me?" she asked, turning to look him more fully in the eye.

"You do not intend to go on trysting, while you observe mourning for your husband and wear jet?" Bingley asked, sounding a little too poisonous to his own ears; tempering his bile, he added wryly: "You know, it would be most unorthodox. We might as well marry, then."

"Of course not!" Jane said, sounding insulted. She tangled herself out of his embrace and sat up, pulling the covers up to her chest. "I confess that another year and a half would be trying... for me... as well. I thought that we might... wait until a year has passed since my-Mr. Collins' death-and then we could get married."

"When?" he asked, simply. He knew there would be scandal, if they had cut Jane's mourning period in half, knew what his own sisters would say. But he would think of that later. Right now, it was most important to establish that they would, after all, get married.

"The year runs out in June," she said. He tried his best not to sound wounded when he said:

"Doubtlessly your mama would wish a proper engagement period after that." He did not succeed, sounding pathetically hurt, and Jane gave him a suppliant look and sought his hand.

"Well," she said, hesitantly. "I shall try to fight her on this, Charles, but you must see how it is-after Lydia, and Lizzy-" She paused, reflecting upon what it would mean to Mrs. Bennett to have the third daughter in a row marry on her own terms, without allowing her mother to crow about the upcoming wedding to all her friends, neighbors and relations. "But I shall try," she said, firmly. "It would be better to do it quietly."

Bingley kissed her hand, softening. "Do not fight your mother on this," he said. "You deserve a proper engagement and a big country wedding, with all your friends there...They will forgive you the indiscretion, Jane. "

But as it was, nature saw it fit to decide for them. Bingley was as weak a man as any when it came to the temptations of the flesh, and even weaker, when it came to the temptations of the heart. He was a fool for Jane, and unable to stay away from her; during the next two months at Pemberley, the two tried their best to be discreet-mostly for Georgiana's sake, for they soon abandoned any hope of getting married without vicious rumors flying about-but they hardly spent a night out of each other's company. The servants knew everything, but said nothing; Mrs. Reynolds gave Bingley a cold hard look now and then, which he pretended not to understand. Georgiana, who had little care for where people spent their nights, her own blissfully secure in the innocence of her bed, knew nothing, and that was what mattered. As far as Jane was concerned, she had done nothing to offend. She had been invited to keep Georgiana proper company, and keep proper company she did. What she did at night was her own business entirely, her and the man's in her bed.

As it often happens with such diligent endeavors, theirs was rewarded quite unexpectedly. One morning in the last days of May, some two months after their liaison had commenced, Jane fainted in the garden while picking flowers. She was alone, with nobody to startle, which was a good thing. She came to, got to her feet, picked up her flower basket, gathered the few strewn stems from the ground. She told herself it was the heat, must have been the heat, it was an unseasonably warm day. But that night, she felt ill at the smell of meat. So ill that she had barely managed to make it out of the dining room and to her dressing room. She told herself it was something she had eaten, and when it happened again the next morning (quite without provocation, this time), she convinced herself it was because she had eaten next to nothing the night before.

Then, getting to her feet and turning around, she saw Bingley there, standing there in his nightshirt, frowning at her.

" 'Tis nothing," she said, easily. But he kept looking at her, and she hid her eyes from him. "Nothing," she repeated.

He said nothing, but took her arm and led her back to bed. For the rest of the day, neither of them mentioned her sickness, but she felt him watch her, keenly, as she hardly ate a bite at dinner, as she excused herself from supper entirely.

"How long will you deny it?" he asked her later that night, when they were in bed together.

"How long will I deny what?" she asked, pretending to sound sleepy, hoping that he would leave her be. Futile hope.

"That you are-" he cut himself off and, lifting himself on one elbow, began to undo the ties on her gown. He yanked at them harshly, exposing her breasts, and she gasped. "This," he said, pointing almost accusatively to her breasts. "You-your body is-different. It is unmistakable, Jane."

She said nothing, nothing at all to deny the obvious, and he sat there, looking at her, and then, moved, lay down and gathered her to himself. The next morning, he took himself to London, to secure a special license; and Jane dared not say a single word to keep him back. After all, it would have been far more grievous a scandal to have a child born too early after the wedding. An interrupted period of mourning would not come near to the shame of that.

During his stay in London, Bingley saw Darcy and Elizabeth (who had quite dazzled the toast of London during her two months there). Bingley had quite prepared himself for a stern reprimand from his friend for his highly scandalous behavior; to his surprise, Darcy, upon digesting the news, asked, rather mildly:

"And it is not possible to wait?"

"Absolutely not," Bingley replied.

"Oh," Darcy said. And then again: "Oh."

Perhaps his own marital felicity had softened him, or maybe he was sensible that condemning his friend's behavior would necessarily entail a censure of Mrs. Collins-who was, naturally, above all reproach. Be it as it may, Darcy said nothing further, except a hearty "congratulations!" As to the lovely Mrs. Darcy, she was out of her mind with happiness, and had confessed to Bingley, out of her husband's hearing, that she had always felt it was unpardonable to demand that her sister, in her youth, beauty and goodness, spend two years wearing black bombazine to mourn Mr. Collins.

"She should never have married the man in the first place, Charles," she said.

"I am ever so sorry to cut short your time in London," Bingley apologized to her as they said goodbye. It was understood that if the Darcys came back to Derbyshire a month early, they would hardly wish to return to town for the remainder of the period. Elizabeth blushed and waived her hand at him.

"How can you say so, Charles?" she asked. "You know I wish for Jane's happiness above everything. And I have tired of London already." She smiled again and looked so sheepish, it occurred to Bingley that perhaps, his future sister-in-law had her own reasons for wanting to return to the country.

And there it was. The wedding took place two weeks hence in Hertfordshire, amidst a number of offensive letters from Lady Catherine (her missive calling all the Bennett sisters unprintable things Darcy tore into so many pieces, hardly a question mark remained legible)-but everyone who mattered were there. The world is never as unforgiving as one might think when there is love, beauty and money fused together in a marriage. It was forgiving enough of the lovely Jane and of Bingley, who was universally considered an excellent fellow and a fool in love. Together they made everybody's favorite couple, perhaps even more so than Darcy and Elizabeth, for they were not as rich, and excited not such envy.

Of course, Bingley's sisters were not pleased. They had not the luxury of Lady Catherine's situation and were forced to be civil to the quiet little widow that had snared their brother so abominably-and for some time, they were barely that. The months that Bingley had spent courting Jane should have served to accustom them to the idea he was going to marry her-but sadly, they had not. Not Caroline, at least; for some days after the engagement was announced, she fussed and threw fits. And, for once in his life, her shy quiet brother put his foot down. He insisted that she accept his choice of a bride and behave as a relation should, or else sever all ties with him. Caroline would only be entitled to her share of the inheritance upon marriage, or reaching the age of five-and-thirty; for the time being, Bingley held the strings to the purse, and held it loosely and generously enough. Caroline, realizing what was at stake, quickly came to her senses, and Louisa, following her younger sister's lead, became more sisterly as well.

Jane had learned to read into the sisters' professions of affection for her; and though their falsity grieved her at first, she had come to take them for what they were. If her and Charles' impending marriage irked them so much, it was, plainly put, their pain and their problem. She did not need them to feel happy for her; she had people enough who would. Married, she lived in the felicity comparable to her sister's; some (respectable enough) months after her wedding, a son was born to her and Bingley, a healthy boy baptized Charles after his father. Elizabeth's happiness at having her sister safely delivered was only exceeded by her own joy at giving Darcy a daughter some two weeks later.

Thereupon, Elizabeth did finally agree with her mother's favorite pronouncement on God's mercy to her family; and it was only a joyful event of such magnitude that finally served to reconcile Mrs. Bennett to having been cheated out of planning yet another wedding.

FINIS

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