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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 31

Darcy knocked upon the door to his sister's bedchamber.

"Georgie?"

"Come in," said Elizabeth's voice. He slid in, quiet, uncertain of whether Georgiana was awake or asleep. Awake; propped up in bed, regarding her hands atop the blanket. Elizabeth sat in a chair by the bed, reading to Georgiana from his sister's own Bible. The book's leather cover was creased and the silk ribbon in it frayed, he could see. He remembered when his Father had given the Bible to Georgiana for her tenth birthday. It touched him to see that she had read it so assiduously as to fray the ribbon.

"One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple."

Elizabeth's voice was warm and even, her back straight. She threw him a quick glance, a half-smile, before returning her eyes to the Bible in her lap.

"For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock."

His thoughts returned, stubbornly, to his Father. A peculiar ache pierced his heart at the memory of Elizabeth reading to Mr. Darcy. How pleased he would have been to see this! What irony was inherent in the fact that it was his death that had brought them together... And how well Elizabeth looked here, by his side, by Georgiana's side. As if she belonged here. As if she had never left at all.

He must have stared too hard; for she raised her head from the book and glanced upon him, quickly. Embarrassed at having been caught thus, he was all too ready to hide his eyes - but suddenly, she smiled at him, radiant, sweet. His heart fluttered, stirred, and he, too, broke into an answering grin. He kept staring at her as she turned back to her book.

Soon, Georgiana reached out from her bed and touched Elizabeth's hand gently.

"Thank you, dearest Elizabeth. I think I can sleep now."

Elizabeth brought her sister's hand to her lips, then replaced it atop the covers. "Sleep, Georgie, my love."

Having given his sister a good-night kiss, Darcy followed his wife out of the room. There, he took her hand and kissed it with some reverence.

"Thank you," he said, not letting go.

She frowned at him in her old, shrewish way, but did nothing about her hand. "Stop it," she said. "She is my sister, too. I wish I had been here during your father's illness, Fitzwilliam."

He nodded. There was nothing to be said about it. Whose fault was it that she had not been there? His and hers, both. It would not do to speak of it, they were both, in equal parts, to blame, and both would have to live with it. Refusing to dwell upon it, Darcy kissed his wife's hand again. His thoughts turning, pleasurably, to the evening to come, he wanted to ask her when he could come to her, but was suddenly terribly shy. Elizabeth raised her other hand and moved the hair out of his eyes.

"What time - " she said, but had cut herself off, her face flaming suddenly red. Shutting her eyes in obvious mortification, she stepped forward and hid her face against his chest.

"Lizzy," he whispered into her hair. "Do not be afraid, my sweet."

He was tempted to do the honorable thing and tell her that they did not have to; but deep inside, he knew that it was wrong. They did have to. This, too, was a part of starting their new life together.

That, and he desired her desperately.

Catching her eyes in the darkened hallway, he said gently:

"Would ten o'clock give you enough time?"

She nodded, swallowing, but seemed to have no voice to speak with.

~ * ~

An hour later, Darcy paced about his bedchamber, deeply unnerved. Upon returning to his apartments, he had bathed. His clothing presented a challenge - he did not wish to be presumptuous, and yet, it seemed somewhat ridiculous to get fully dressed again. Having donned a fresh shirt and a long robe, he had pondered for some time whether breeches were necessary. He had decided, after some reflection, that putting on breeches before going to bed would be a rather silly thing to do. Earlier today, he had asked Elizabeth whether she would lie with him again, and she had acquiesced. At the thought of it, of the way her eyes had widened when she said that, there was a shot of pure heat through his veins. It was astonishing - that she had returned to him and that she was willing - more than willing - to share his bed. When he dwelled on it at length, he had a very strong urge to pinch himself. Darcy, not normally given to exaggeration or romantic idiocy, was so gratified, so amazed by Elizabeth's return, he felt as if he was sleepwalking for most of the time.

How did it happen that she was returned to him? He could not even say. He had delayed writing to her - an act that he still had to reconcile with his own conscience - mostly because he knew that she would ask to be released from the marriage on his father's death. It was only after irate Georgiana had confronted him, demanding that he sit down and write this instant, or she would, herself, that he had finally given in and written the letter. But he had been convinced that their marriage was ending, and this knowledge had doubled his misery. To discover that she, too, dreaded their final separation, was astonishing and so wonderful, he simply could not credit it. He had been so certain that Elizabeth despised him - and yet, she appeared deeply reluctant to leave him, had clung to him, had agreed to stay. Darcy had no desire to question this change - as far as he was concerned, this was a minor miracle.

He had stayed away from her the previous night, fighting his own dizzying attraction and desire. He had been overwhelmed by her, by their closeness, by the enormous change her return signified. He supposed she must be, too. It had seemed a proper, gentlemanly thing to do - to give her more time, to give in, too, to his guilty conscience. But his cold bed had proven sickeningly familiar, and his guilt for frolicking in the wake of his Father's death did not grow any less constant for that. Staying away from her had turned out exactly the wrong thing to do.

So, he would do that no longer. Perhaps, should Elizabeth ask for a reprieve, for more time, he would have gladly given it to her. But she had not; and had looked utterly forlorn this morning. One look upon her countenance had been enough to convince him that she, too, had spent an unhappy night without him. There was no sense in denying himself further if it was going to make her miserable. That simply would not do.

But he had wanted to be very sure of it - that she, too, desired his company in her bed. And so he had asked her the most direct question possible, and received the answer he had hoped for, and felt utterly bowled over by it. Of course, she had said, of course I shall. He shivered with pleasure at the thought.

Now, at a quarter to ten, Darcy was both violently aroused and terribly nervous. Nervous - yes, more than he had ever been in his life. Making an assignation with his wife had not helped, for there had been no spontaneity to it. Much like a bridegroom on his wedding night. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself, then clenched and unclenched his fists once, then again. Exhaling, he pulled his dressing gown closed on his chest, quickly tying the sash. He had grave doubts about his own abilities tonight - be it mental or physical. He sighed again and glanced at the clock. It would have to do.

~ * ~

Some ten minutes later, Darcy knocked upon his wife's door. She opened it instantly, and looked upon him in that breathless, ardent way of hers that disarmed him utterly. In the faint glow of his taper, Darcy saw that her hair had been brushed out and left loose upon her shoulders, and that she was wearing a green robe over a long, simple, girlish nightshift. Rather demure, with sleeves and a cut that exposed her graceful neck and lovely clavicles. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest. Standing aside, Elizabeth let him in without a word.

"Lizzy," he said softly, setting his taper on the mantel. "You look very well tonight." Darcy exhaled, opening and closing his hands against the dampness of his palms. Oh. She looked more than well.

She cocked her head demurely. "Why, thank you, Mr. Darcy." She ran one finger up the lapel of his robe, and this act, so unexpectedly bold, made him shiver again. "You look quite handsome, too." Raising her hand, she stroked the back of it against his cheek. He turned his head, pressing his lips against her skin. He had never been this aroused in his life, made nearly ill by his desire for her.

Drawing Elizabeth closer, Darcy bent his head and kissed her mouth, feeling the answering frisson run through her. Her lips were sweet, warm, tasting a little bit of apricot. Opening gently beneath his, responding to him, led by him. Darcy sighed against her mouth. On impulse, he whispered:

"Every time you quit a room, I fear I may never see you again."

"I have missed you," she whispered back, "every single day I was gone from you... So, so much."

A kiss, more powerful than either had expected, her arms slipping about his neck, he lifting her off the floor, her feet dangling. Darcy held Elizabeth to his chest, kissing her with abandon and only setting her down after breath became a necessity. She clung to him and leaned against him, as if her legs were no longer holding her up, her face hidden against his chest. Yet her hands stroked down his chest and tarried at the sash of his robe, provoking, setting him afire. In response, he could not help slipping his palms down, to cup her bottom and hold her tightly against himself. She gasped, but did not pull away, pressing ever closer; Darcy could not contain a bestial sound, a growl deep in his throat.

Within seconds, they were entwined, not knowing where one ended and the other one began. But when Darcy tried to push Elizabeth's robe off her shoulders, she struggled away from him.

"Lizzy?" he murmured, his brain addled by what had just transpired. He felt a momentary shot of panic: had she changed her mind? But she was smiling, looking embarrassed, disheveled and lovely.

"Fitzwilliam," she said, looking sheepish. "Could... Could we..." She motioned with one hand. "This light... could we..." She laughed and pressed her hand against her mouth. "It seems the powers of speech have deserted me."

"You mean ... you would like the candles put out?" He smiled back at her.

"Yes!" she said, laughing again. "Yes, if you please."

He obliged her, though he would have liked to have some light. But there would be time enough for that, he thought, as he put out the candles. Time enough for everything. Before putting out the last candle, he turned to look back at her. Elizabeth was sitting on the edge of her bed, hands folded in her lap, looking up at him... his chest felt hollow, the heart within it large and loud; he put out the last candle, plunging the bedchamber into near-compleat darkness. For a moment, he stood, letting his eyes get used to it, making all possible use of the feeble light of dying coals in the fireplace. Then, he made his way back to Elizabeth's bed, mostly by touch and sense. Awkwardly, he stopped near.

"Lizzy?" he asked tentatively. He could see her shape, huddled awkwardly upon the edge of the bed.

"I am here," she said. "Here, take my hand."

He did, grateful, and sat down next to her.

" 'Tis so dark," she whispered. Darcy, entwining his fingers with hers, raised her hand to his face, tracing the shape of her knuckles with his lips. She made a sound, a low, urgent rumble in her throat. Darcy was now able to see her form, the white of her nightshift - she had somehow discarded her robe... her eyes glistening slightly. Suddenly, this semi-blindness was far more erotic than full sight could ever be; suddenly, all he wanted was touch. Elizabeth made another sound--surprised, startled - when he gathered her in his arms and pulled her quickly onto his lap. "Oh!" she said, but made no move to escape.

Her hair, so fragrant it turned his head, covered them both in sweet-smelling waves. Darcy ran his hand over it, lifting handfuls of it, breathing in her scent. He lifted it away from her neck and kissed her there, pressing his lips underneath her ear. She gasped and shuddered in his arms, and he kissed her again... her neck, the bend of her jaw, the small, finely cut ear. His hand still buried in her hair, he gently nudged her towards him and kissed her on the mouth.

He was lost at the first touch of her lips.

Darcy knew that only a few minutes had passed since he came into her bedroom, and yet, it felt like forever to him. As if he had never left her side, as if this was all there ever was. Intent upon learning her features, Darcy stroked Elizabeth's face lightly, moving his fingertips over her eyelids, nose, mouth, feeling the softness of her skin, the thickness of her eyelashes, the planes of her down turned face.

"You are lovely, Lizzy," he whispered.

"You cannot even see me!" He could feel her incredulous smile against his lips.

"Of course I can," he said, meaning it. "I can see you in my heart..."

She shivered underneath his hands, and then returned the favor, touching him like a blind person might. He caught her fingertips against his lips, kissing them. He thought he might die of sheer happiness when she leaned to kiss him on the mouth.

Still kissing Elizabeth, Darcy managed to gently slide her off his lap and onto the bed; he could see her wriggle under the covers. He threw off his robe, and slid in himself, still wearing his nightshirt. Elizabeth clung to him, shivering.

The bed was not meant for two people, and their limbs were instantly entangled, pressed tightly together. He could feel all of her, and knew, with a shade of discomfiture, that she could feel all of him. It was strange; as if their one night, so passionate, had not made them any more intimate with each other. He still blushed at the thought that in this bed, she was likely to feel just how aroused he was.

"Lizzy," he whispered, "are you afeared?"

He suspected that no matter what, she would not admit to being afraid. She gave a noncommittal murmur. No. Simply cold a little."

He stroked her hair. "We need not do anything," he offered quite generously and a little disingenuously. For though they certainly did not need to do anything, he was desperate that they should.

"No," she whispered against his neck, her lips there teasing, tantalizing, driving him mad. "We shall do everything," she said with some conviction.

Darcy could not help laughing. "It is a very promising..." he fumbled for the right word, but could not find one, his speech for once arrested by the fact that one of his hands at this moment rested comfortably just over Elizabeth's rump. Her nightshift did absolutely nothing to conceal the shape of her. Stroking her, he settled for "...promise."

"That was rather eloquent, sir. Promising promise." Elizabeth mocked him lightly as she pulled the collar open further, kissing above his collarbone. She took her time with it, and he sighed and shivered against her, grasping, mindlessly, handfuls of her gown, pulling it up. He was quite afraid that she would stop him, but she did not, though she did gasp when his hands alighted on her naked flesh.

"You try being eloquent," Darcy said, pinching her rear lightly, "when the sum of all your desires is in your arms." He sought her mouth, then, and said, breathless, against her lips: "You shrew."

?here was something incredibly arousing, something wonderfully erotic about being pressed together so intimately under a blanket, about holding her in the dark. The world had gone, and there were but two of them.

"I am more eloquent, sir," Elizabeth said, "when the sum of all my desires..."

He would not let her finish, rolling over her, pushing her beneath himself. She gave a joyful little squeak, and he kissed her, greedy for the taste of her.

"This bed is hardly big enough for two," she observed when Darcy released her. He was resting on his elbows, looking down upon her. His eyes by now used to the darkness, he could see the sweet familiar face, the arch of her neck, the hair fanned out over the pillow.

"The bed," he said with a sigh, arching against her, letting her feel all of him, "is perfect. I daresay I shall never sleep in a bigger bed again."

Wanting to give them both more time, Darcy rolled to the side of Elizabeth. He saw, in the dark, that she would not pull down her nightshift: he could see her knees, sharp and white, in the scant moonlight. Reclining next to her, he kissed her neck, those beautiful collar bones he had admired earlier; stroking his hand down her front, he discovered, as if by surprise, one small breast and then the other. She gasped and moaned at that discovery. Darcy, by now too excited to even keep quiet, groaned as he touched and squeezed them in turn. With clumsy fingers, he undid the buttons on her nightshift, pulling the fabric apart. Now he was wishing that he had left a candle burning; but once again, the touch proved to be more erotic than he sight could ever be. His fingers stroking gently the outer curve of one breast... her flesh, soft against his palm, and a hard pebble of a nipple; he had never known as great a pleasure as this.

Daring a kiss, then, he felt her arch in surprise beneath him, felt the moan that reverberated deep within her chest, and her hands, tugging, in his hair. He teased the tiny hardness with his tongue, quite aware that he only had a little bit of time left before he could no longer control himself.

"I think," he said, breathing heavily, "it appears to me... that is to say... these seem larger than when I saw them last." He stroked one breast experimentally, grazing the nipple with his palm. Elizabeth groaned softly and flung her head sideways. He could see that she had squeezed her eyes shut, but in another moment, she was laughing.

"My apologies, sir." She slipped her fingers into his hair, as he dove for her again. He continued to kiss her there, wanting to stay there as long as possible since it gave her so much pleasure. He worried that she would not enjoy the act of love itself, violent and physical as it was. He could not tell whether she had, two nights ago; the only thing he knew was that she had been as moved by it as he had.

But then, he could wait no longer, feeling as if he had only moments to spare. Rising above her on his arms, his very veins burned by this desire, feeling everywhere the clatter of his heart, he reached down to kiss her on the lips.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, somewhat shyly. "I do most sincerely wish that I could be better at this tonight. But I cannot. Lizzy," he murmured deeply, stroking a thumb against her mouth. "May I, Lizzy?"

Elizabeth sighed hugely and, with a giddy little laugh, wound her arms about his neck and kissed him, murmuring her invitations against his mouth.

Darcy moved, then, desperate to keep himself in check, desperate to not hurt her again. Once was enough, he thought. Restraint was near-impossible, and yet, he moved slowly, waiting, allowing her to accustom herself to him and to relax. As he waited, he kissed her, again and again, feeling her body give beneath him. He could feel her letting go, sighing, softening, easing all around him. He was whispering words to her, compliments of the sort that could only be said in bed. He felt her arms relaxing about his shoulders, her legs wrapping about his. He held himself in check, certain that one wrong move would set him off immediately. So pliant, so yielding, so very welcoming, she was testing his resolve most cruelly.

When he felt her relax compleatly, he moved again, this time allowing his lust to drive him, harder, faster, against and above her. He could hear his own voice, groaning dully, and Elizabeth's gasps and moans, could feel the clutch of her small hands on his shoulders as she tried to move with him. It did not take long for the pleasure to crescendo, and then - a powerful rush overtook him, an intense melting feeling in his loins. In that short moment, in his wife's arms, he was lost, and found, and lost again. He buried his face against Elizabeth's neck as he spent himself inside her.

Dimly, Darcy was aware that Elizabeth was holding him. He gave a passing thought to her comfort, as he was lying bodily atop her; but as she evidenced no desire for him to move, instead stroking the back of his neck with her fingertips, he remained where he was.

"Lizzy..." he murmured sleepily, kissing her neck. "Lizzy..."

A short while later, Darcy rolled off his wife and gathered her in his arms. This time, she did not shy away from him, but curled herself into his body, her arms over his. Darcy kissed her cheek, her shoulder, whispering words of gratitude and care. She answered him sleepily, bringing his hand against her lips to kiss. After a short while, there were no more answers as her body relaxed into his and her breathing steadied. Very soon, Darcy, too, felt himself starting to drift away.

~ * ~

In the night, he woke, and was tormented by his wanting of her, and embarrassed by his torment. Afraid to wake his wife, he lay still and silent, desperately tempted to move, to embrace her more tightly, to kiss her in the juncture of her neck and shoulder. To... unable to help himself, he exhaled loudly. Elizabeth, as if hearing him, shifted in his embrace, pressing herself closer.

"Fitzwilliam?" Elizabeth asked sleepily.

He cleared his throat and said hoarsely: "Lizzy?"

"Is everything all right?"

"Yes," he said, only now allowing himself to stroke her hip. It was delightfully warm through the fine cambric of her gown.

"Mmmmm." She stretched beguilingly in his embrace. "What time is it?"

"Still night, I suppose," he whispered, still stroking. "Lizzy."

She gasped quietly and then, to his surprise and amazement, pressed herself closer to him; but this time, he knew beyond a shadow of any doubt, it was a conscious act of seduction.

"Do you... " She cut herself off. "Are you..." She no longer sounded sleepy, but winded, he thought, excited. He wrapped both arms tightly about her and dropped his head against her shoulder, kissing her there.

"Lizzy," Darcy said huskily, cupping one small breast. It had only been hours, and he simply hurt with desire for her. But it seemed an unfeeling, selfish thing to do, an imposition so soon after -

At least it seemed so until she slipped one hand behind her and touched him with some purpose. It was his turn to gasp, now; mindlessly, he pushed himself against her hand.

"Oh," she said, sounding mildly shocked and... dare he hope? ...pleased. "Mr. Darcy, how very unexpected."

He laughed softly. 'Not very," he confessed. "Rather predictable, as a matter of fact." He kissed her shoulder again, teased one nipple through the cambric. She groaned dully and threw her head back against his shoulder. Surfacing, she asked:

"Does it mean that we can..."

"If it is not too much of an imposition, Lizzy. If you are not hurt."

Awkwardly, she turned inside his embrace. "I am not hurt," she said gravely. "And it is hardly an imposition...Will." She pressed her lips against the base of his throat, making his heart leap.

He kissed her on the mouth, hard, unthinking, thirsting, wrapped himself all about her. He was basking in the feeling of her against his chest, in the smell of her hair, in the sweet way she lifted her face to be kissed. He obliged, kissing her until they had to part for air. He pushed the blankets off and lay between her open legs, moving slowly down the length of her body. Her breasts a particular favorite, he moved the edges of her open shift aside to pay court. Elizabeth sighed and moaned, tossing her head and digging her nails into his shoulders. Much like before, Darcy stayed where he was for as long as he could; a tactic that was rewarded by a much more relaxed, aroused Elizabeth when he finally entered her. She sighed some more and wrinkled her nose momentarily, but he could feel that her pain, if any there was, was very little and was soon replaced with ... something else.

She held him while he moved, and then, he felt her move with him, rocking her hips instinctively, slightly, pressing herself against his loins. He could see her, her lips open sweetly, could feel her sigh and toss her head. Then, she had her eyes open, seeking his gaze in the semi-darkness. He leaned forward to kiss her, drowning in the sweetness of her. She arched her neck off the pillow, small hands parting his nightshirt on his chest, pressed her lips there. Set instantly ablaze by her touch, by the way she moved, Darcy groaned and pushed harder, faster, desperate to make it last, and yet no longer the master of himself. His heart felt as if it might quit his breast at any second.

It ended abruptly, a powerful wave that whipped through him with only seconds of warning, leaving him gasping and arching, and then... blissful and a little bit embarrassed. Darcy could feel Elizabeth's fingers gently moving the hair off his forehead, her lips at his cheek. He turned his head, kissing her raptly, a little groan of satisfaction flying off his lips.

"Oh Lizzy," he said, rolling off her and pulling her into another embrace. "I am simply... I - " He seemed to have no words. Kissing the edge of her ear, he inquired, somewhat sheepishly after her welfare, and, having received her assurances that she was well...more than well...he asked: "Did you... I thought... It looked like you might have liked it?"

Elizabeth made an indistinct sound and buried her face in the pillow. "How could you tell?" she asked, her voice dulled.

"There were signs," Darcy said. "But was I right? Did you like it? Do not trifle with me, Lizzy." Reclining on one elbow, he stroked down the middle of her back, finding the slight crest of her spine through the damp cambric of her gown. She shivered and said, still into the pillow:

"Yes! Yes, I did." Sitting up abruptly, hugging the pillow to her chest, she said: "My Aunt... years ago, before you and I..." She sought a word, then waved her hand in frustration. "You know. While we were still together."

The memory of their separation, though finished now, was shockingly painful. As if to banish the thought, Darcy reached Elizabeth's hand in the sheets, brought her wrist to his lips. "Lizzy. Please do not speak of it tonight."

"Yes," she said, moving her hand to stroke his hair. "This was before."

"Yes."

"I went to speak with my Aunt Gardiner about... about you. She told me then that she thought you would be kind and gentle in... in bed." She sighed and dropped onto her back, once again clutching the pillow to her breast.

"Ah," Darcy said, faintly mortified at the idea of his person being discussed with such particularity by Elizabeth's Aunt.

"And that the act of love is powerful and leaves us defenseless."

"Your Aunt is a very wise woman," Darcy said.

Elizabeth inhaled sharply. "Will, when you are... there, at the end... is that what she meant?"

Darcy was relieved the room was dark... for he found himself at a loss for words, now.

Finally, he said, quietly. "I do not know. I certainly have no control over myself just then. 'Tis a little like madness. I forget who I am, where I am, I know only that I am with you."

In the dark, his wife released a pent-up breath. "Does this not make you feel... vulnerable?"

"Perhaps," Darcy said. "But I know that you will be kind. That I can ... give myself to you without reserve, and that you will be....merciful." He stroked her shoulder, and she let go of the pillow, sliding down, nestling into his embrace. "Lizzy," he whispered. "I should not like you to like it with anyone else."

"Only with you," she said with conviction and he felt her fingers entangle themselves with his and squeeze.

"Only with me."

"Of course. And you..." He saw her glance up at him."...only with me?"

"Of course," he said, momentarily shamed by the memories of his dishonorable fiasco at the feet of Valerie Degas; but then, he banished the very thoughts of the other woman.

He asked her more questions, giving in to the temptation to know. "Tell me what part of it you liked best?"

"I cannot speak of it like that!" Elizabeth protested, then fell into some reflection. "I suppose it was the knowledge of how close I held you while you were... you know."

"Inside you." Darcy curled a dark lock about one finger, knowing what must come next. Elizabeth exhaled, then laughed giddily.

"Indeed. I suppose there is no other way to put it, is there?" She paused before going on offensive. "And you? What part did you like best, Mr. Darcy?"

He had had the answer before she had asked her question. "You," he said. She laughed happily at that, prostrate on her belly. He could see the dark shadow of her lashes when she closed her eyes.

"Fitzwilliam, how often does one ..." she started after a pause.

Darcy laughed. "If I have my way, Lizzy, you might eventually seek haven from my attentions...perhaps with some charitable society like the Friends." Gathering her to himself, he kissed her shoulder, without any amorous intention, merely as a tendresse. "As often, I suppose, as one wants. And as often as one's fair bedfellow wants."

Elizabeth giggled, then yawned again. "The fair bedfellow wants to sleep just now."

"Quite sensible of her," Darcy agreed, himself starting to drift away. "Sleep," he said. "My favorite person, sleep..."

Suddenly, he, too, felt the fatigue overcome him. Stretching alongside his wife, he kissed her shoulder again and pulled the covers over them. "I am glad you liked this, Elizabeth," he said again, low, into her ear.

"Mmmm. I am glad of it, too, sir."

He wanted to tell her that he would be just as her Aunt had told her - patient and kind, and that she would like it even more as they continued their intimate acquaintance. But she was already asleep, and he, himself, slipping fast after her.

~ * ~
The morning, when it came, was unwelcome. Unwilling to admit the day... for there was nothing he desired less than to quit Elizabeth's bed and attend to the duties of the Master...Darcy dug himself further under the covers. Elizabeth sighed and twisted in his arms, and then, woke.

"Fitzwilliam?" she whispered groggily. "Sir? Good morning -"

"Do not call me sir," he said from under the blanket. He opened his eyes, finding with pleasure that right before them was his wife's bosom, uncovered during the night in a rather careless fashion. The proper, gentlemanly thing would be to cover her up. Last night, she had asked for the candles to be put out. Now, he moved the blanket off her and reclined, taking shameless advantage of the fact that she was still half-asleep. Remembering, quite suddenly, just such a morning almost three years ago, he remembered, also, his own unhappiness in the face of the most overpowering temptation to touch her. Well, now he could... and he did, stroking one hand down her front until it came to rest over one small breast. Small, he reflected, yet not paltry. Lovely, exquisitely shaped, fitting neatly against his palm. Sweet. He rolled the perfect pink nipple between his fingers, watching his wife's eyelashes tremble. A thick, low moan flew off her lips and she drew up her knees, digging her toes into the sheets, causing her shift to slide down, nigh-on to her waist.

Darcy drew in a breath at the sight of her thus unclothed. Elizabeth squirmed, dovetailing her knees, moaning a little. Her legs were long, white, soft fuzz on her skin golden in the morning light. Darcy redoubled his efforts, greedily feasting his eyes upon her, noting all the small changes in her, reacquainting himself with her lovely, familiar form. She was still the same girl who had captivated his fancy three years ago, his errant, estranged, prodigal wife...only now she was a prodigal no longer, now she was, he thought, delirious, now she was his... and all the more tempting for that. He stroked one hand down her warm thigh, down, to the wiry, soft, smooth, slippery center of hers. He yearned to look at her there, but knew it would have been an invasion far greater than he dared to achieve just now. All in good time. Right now, he thought he might run mad for the way she felt against his fingers.

"Oh!" She whispered, twisting herself against his hand. " Oh Will! Oh God!"

Darcy stroked Elizabeth gently, suspecting that she might be raw from what had occurred the previous night. Her breath came in sharp gasps, making him want to take her now. His head swam with the scent of her, with the vision of her as she moaned and ground her hips into his hand.

There was a knock at the door. Darcy did not even register it at first, but then it came again, more insistent. Damnation. Elizabeth seemed to freeze in bed next to him. Her legs closed, and she quickly moved her hands about her person, lowering her gown and pulling it up simultaneously.

" 'Tis Mary," she whispered, eyes round. Darcy sighed, looking down at her, recognizing the girl who had thrown him out of her bedchamber before at the approach of her maid.

"Yes," he said. "I think you should invite her to come in or tell her to go to the devil. But by all means, Elizabeth, do not make her stand at your door."

"I... How can I invite her when you are here?" She seemed to understand the strangeness of it all and shook her head, covering her face with one hand.

"You see your own fallacy here, Elizabeth," he said. "I am the Master, and you are my wife. It is only natural for us to meet morning in the same bed."

Elizabeth threw him a harassed glance.

"No, it is not written upon your forehead that you bedded me last night," Darcy said, trying to tease her out of her gloom. "Nor, I should wager, on mine."

That did it; she started to laugh. "Stop it!" she hissed. " 'Tis not funny."

"I should think not," he said huffily. "Do you intend to throw me out of your bed every morning, to keep appearances for your maid?"

"No, but..."

"Well, then, today is as good day as ever," Darcy said firmly. In a booming voice, he announced: "Come in!"

To Elizabeth's honor, she did not dive underneath the blankets, as he suspected she very much wanted to do. Darcy himself remained sitting up and verily glared at Mary who had flitted in, no doubt ready to observe. His being there startled her, he could tell. She froze:

"Sir! Ma'am. Mrs. Darcy. Good morning."

She came back to her senses rather quickly. "You will call for me, then, ma'am, when you are - when you are ready to rise?"

Elizabeth issued an undignified squeak of agreement, and Mary was then gone from the room.

"See," Darcy whispered in his wife's ear, making her squirm. "Not half bad, is it?"

She sighed, rolled her eyes and pinched his side so hard that he could barely contain a yelp.

Thereupon she made to follow her maid and rise from the bed.

"Mrs. Darcy!" Darcy complained, grasping her wrist and trying to pull her back into his embrace. "Were we not rather agreeably occupied when interrupted by your harridan of a maid?"

Elizabeth grimaced apologetically. "Yes, but now I am afraid I am rather hungry." Darcy sighed, knowing that she was, of course, correct. He released her wrist and plopped back onto the bed with ill grace. Elizabeth smiled sweetly at him:

"I am not going anywhere, Will. I will be here tonight, and tomorrow night as well."

Observing his wife as she moved to sit by her vanity to quickly plait her disordered hair, Darcy was inclined to credit this particular fact as nothing short of a true miracle.

~ * ~
In the breakfast room, they looked upon each other across the long table, held each other's gaze and smiled. Elizabeth was the first one to drop her eyes. Darcy, on his part, was beginning to smolder simply from looking at her. Georgiana, who had ventured downstairs this morning, looked from one of them to the other and then down at her plate with a quizzical smile.

After breakfast, Darcy reprised, with some reluctance, the role of the Master. He did not think he was ready, not yet. He had done the work of the Master for years; but now, now everything he did had a new, heavy significance to it. Now he was no longer the son doing his Father's work; now he was the Master in earnest. It seemed to him that it should have pleased him. The Master of Pemberley! Was there a state more desired? He did not think so; and yet, he was miserable on his first full day in his Father's old office. His Father had not graced this study for more than three years... not since his illness had first felled him. Darcy himself had spent hours and hours here since that time. And yet, this, too, was new. He sat behind the desk for some time, staring at a stack of accounts before him. Then, with a deep sigh, he picked up he top sheet of paper and glared at it. He might as well start now, there was no escaping it.

At the thought of his Father's passing, the misery of the last several days returned; and with it - a terrible sense of shame for having enjoyed himself over the last two nights. A sense of shame for being happy. Horrified at it, Darcy made an inhuman effort to put this conundrum - for could he be happy with his wife while grieving his father? - to the very back of his mind. He would think about it, of course, no doubt about it, but he would think of it later. Escaping the terrible thoughts, he dove into work; anything but leisure, which afforded him the opportunity to brood.

He worked long into the day, and soon enough, was even able to do it conscientiously, to focus on the household accounts, the figures, the numbers. He wondered briefly about the accounts having to do with his Father's illness and funeral; but they were not to be found. Darcy suspected that it was either Mrs. Reynolds or his steward Mr. Hawthorne who had commandeered them away from his eyes.

Several hours later, Darcy pushed the paper away and stretched in the chair. His attention wavering, he mused on the possibility that Elizabeth might come find him here; but she did not, and, in a wholly unreasonable fit of pique, he went in search of her.

He found her in her own drawing-room, Georgiana next to her on a settee. His sister appeared as if she must have been crying, her head upon Elizabeth's shoulder. Darcy came closer, reached out to pat Georgiana's shoulder awkwardly. She heaved a huge sigh, then rose from the settee.

"Thank you, Elizabeth, for listening to me," she said sullenly.

In an attempt to draw her thoughts of away from her melancholy, Darcy proposed a walk in the gardens. Elizabeth seemed quite pleased at the idea, but Georgiana demurred.

"I shall go up to my room and lie down," she said. "You two go on."

To his own strong shame, Darcy felt a bit of a relief that he would be alone with Elizabeth again; he wondered at himself, then, but put these thoughts away. Perhaps, later, he would have a reckoning with himself. Right now, his whole being reached for his wife's person and company; he would do anything to be with her just now. And - sad, but true - being with her alone was preferable to being with her and Georgiana.

She met him downstairs, clad in a pelisse over the borrowed black dress. They walked out and took a path through the garden, avoiding the wet woods. The sun had come out but this morning. Darcy suspected that in some parts, the woods would be nearly flooded.

It was quite awkward and odd to simply be walking out together. Her hand felt so significant upon his arm. She had left her gloves at the house, her fingers turning bluish and stiff inside half an hour. Darcy tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, covered it with his own, squeezing her fingers in his. She threw him a quick glance, then dropped her eyes to her shoes.

'Tell me," he said, trying his hardest to sound normal, fighting the images of last night and this morning, "what did you do while I worked?"

She smiled. "I spent some time with your sister, and some time with Mrs. Reynolds."

"Oh? What did Reynolds want?"

"I sought her out," Elizabeth said. "I wanted to... to tell her that I was here to stay. That I should take over the duties of the Mistress from now on."

"Hmmmm. And what did she say?"

"Nothing. No, wait; she said "Yes, ma'am, whatever you wish."" Elizabeth sighed. "I suppose she is humoring me, thinking that I should disappear tomorrow." Another sigh. "I daresay I cannot blame her."

Darcy bit down a smile. "Reynolds will always be an ally to the Mistress."

"Whatever her private feelings might be."

"Her feelings are quite benign, Elizabeth, I assure you."

"Oh benign indeed!" Elizabeth fretted. "Was she not your old nurse? She must positively detest me!"

"No, my dear, she does not. You are right, she cares greatly for my happiness, and she will see that ... that I am far happier with you than without you." Quickly, he brought her hand up to his lips, touching the cool skin, then hid it once more against his arm. Elizabeth shot him a hot, dark glance. He wanted to tell her that anyone who had witnessed his misery upon his solitary return to Pemberley all these months ago would not begrudge him a little happiness now. But he felt suddenly shy about disclosing his torments to her in the light of the day. "Reynolds is fond of you," he said instead, though he knew no such thing, and if anything, Elizabeth might be correct, and Reynolds might very well carry a grudge against her; though she would never act upon it.

"Will you speak with her?" she asked suddenly. Darcy looked at her, horrified. "Will you tell her that ... that we have mended things between us?"

Darcy wanted to tell her that it was unheard of that he should justify his personal life to his domestics; but he knew very well that Reynolds was not just a domestic, and he could see his wife's anguish. He nodded.

"I shall," he promised, wondering at himself. "What of my sister?" he asked, wanting to change the subject. "What did you and Georgiana talk about?"

"Oh." Elizabeth sighed again, leaning up against him as she walked. Then, straightening out, she said: "Promise not to tell?"

"Yes."

"She had conceived a notion that I like my new sister-in-law better than her."

"Oh." Darcy frowned. "Mrs. Bi...Bennet?"

"Yes. She asked me what Malvina was like, and I told her, that she was very" - Elizabeth smiled. "All I said was that if she had lived under the Romans, she might have been a warrior queen."

Darcy gave a short bark of laughter. "Your brother's wife is certainly reckless enough for a company of men."

"You say reckless, I say brave. And very kind. And beautiful. But I did not say any of that to Georgiana. All I said was - "

He was really laughing now. "Yes, yes, that she was Boadicea personified."

Elizabeth shot him an arch look. "I spent the next half an hour trying to convince my dear young sister that Malvina is not any dearer to me than she is."

His humor fading, Darcy said: "My sister is very unhappy right now. Father's death affected her greatly. After you left..." he said, then cut himself off.

"Yes, go on." She stopped in the middle of a lane, looking up at him. "You need not hide the truth from me, Fitzwilliam. Little as I think of myself, I think I know that my leaving Pemberley had an effect upon the people here. I wish it were not so. I wish they did not care for me...for us. I wish..." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I wish I were with your Father at the last,' she finished very quietly.

Without saying a word, for there was naught to say, Darcy pulled his wife closer to him, pushed her head against he shoulder. She clung to him, and he stroked her black-clad shoulders.

"After you left," he continued, very quietly, 'Georgiana took over reading to him. She reprised the role of a companion that you had with him. I ran the estate for him, on my part."

"I am sorry," Elizabeth said. Darcy shook his head.

"I will not have you so," he said simply. "It was your life, and mine, and we lived it without a reference to others. If you did not want to be with me, I should rather you did not stay with me for my Father's... or Georgiana's sake."

Elizabeth frowned, looking up at the sun that played hide-and-seek with them from behind the rolling clouds.

"Lizzy," he said, suddenly desperate to disabuse her of the notion that anyone mattered to him more than she did. "My dearest." He turned to her, lifting her chin with one finger. He found he could not speak, his emotion wreaking havoc upon his voice. He kissed her instead, standing in the middle of the lane. Her bonnet was in the way, and he untied it and pulled it off, not taking his lips from hers. Kissing her was like drinking clean water after hours of thirst. He had not even known just how much he had missed her.

With a half-sob of relief, Elizabeth pressed herself against him, parted her lips beneath his and kissed him back. All over again, Darcy was undone. The way back to the house seemed interminably long, impossible to undertake in just such a state of frustrated, overpowering desire. He could feel her hands, one in his hair, stroking, one clutching desperately at his shoulder. Wild thoughts of taking her right here flew through his head, but he knew that it would shock her deeply just now, new to this as she was. With an brutal effort, he pulled away from her.

Her bonnet had fallen to the ground, and he found and returned it to her with shaking hands.

"Here," he said. "Put this on before I - " He exhaled deeply. "Elizabeth."

She stood there, holding he bonnet in one hand, the spring wind playing with the ends of her hair. Slowly, she leaned her forehead against his shoulder in a mute declaration that she, too, was bowled over by him.

~ * ~

That night, Darcy selected a tame entertainment for... they sat, each in his turn, for Miss Lucas to draw silhouettes of them. It was called shades, a silly game where the result quite often fell short of the expectations, but Miss Lucas did have some real talent, and her silhouettes bore surprising resemblance to their actual profiles. For sheer amusement, Darcy commandeered Reynolds to participate, and while the old housekeeper huffed indignantly, she would not refuse the Master.

When her turn came, Elizabeth sat very still, staring at the fire in the grate. Darcy could not take his eyes off his wife, very much aware that he was staring at her, but unable to help himself. She would not return his gaze, though she must have felt it some, for he saw her bite her lip.

"Please do not do that, Mrs. Darcy," Miss Lucas said placidly, somewhere far away. Darcy crumpled a handkerchief in his hand. He had hoped, after they had returned to the house today, to spirit his wife away to her bedchamber; but found, upon arrival, that his steward Mr. Hawthorne was waiting for him, had been waiting for some time. He had a list of estate matters, which had accumulated during Mr. Darcy's last illness, a bridge that washed away when a brook had overflowed with rainwater; a letter from an out-of-the-county farmer who wished to rent some land on the estate; a tenant dispute over a fallen tree that had killed a hog, and now urgently demanded his attention. The man had a faintly accusative, put-upon expression. Elizabeth's hand had slipped from his, and Darcy was forced to remember that he was not merely her husband but the Master of Pemberley as well. An unhappy thought just at the moment.

Now, watching her, he recalled their stay at Longbourn and the very shocking act he had committed by watching her clandestinely as she undressed behind a screen. The sight had stopped all breath in his chest then; now, he wanted very badly to see it again.

"All done," Miss Lucas announced, holding up a silhouette that was freshly cut out of black paper and pasted upon a sheet of white vellum.

"Oh let me see!" Georgiana said, even as Darcy plucked the portrait out of Miss Lucas' hand. He stared at it in mild shock, for the resemblance was quite striking. Elizabeth's profile, her nose and shape of her lips, her hairdo with the fringe of hair cut straight over her brow and a simple chignon in the back, and the incomparable line of her neck and bosom.

"Let me see," Elizabeth said, smiling, taking the portrait out of his hand, giving him an arch look. "Oh," she said. "Indeed, Miss Lucas, you made me look... like me."

Georgiana looked in and opined that did, indeed, look like Elizabeth, even if it were only a shade. Darcy made a grab for the portrait again, fearful that it might be damaged.

"I believe that it is mine by the right of a husband," he announced. "Miss Lucas," he said, "perhaps you can repeat this on a smaller scale and make me a miniature?"

Elizabeth blushed. "Really, sir - "

"I should like to have it always with me," he said gravely, still looking at the silhouette.

"Of course," Miss Lucas said pleasantly. "I do need the original for that, sir, and unless Mrs. Darcy wishes to sit for another shade, I will beg that you relinquish your hold upon it."

He did so, reluctantly and with poor grace.

~ * ~

Georgiana retired early that night, still tired after her collapse on the day of the funeral.

"Shall I go up with you, my dear?" Elizabeth asked. Georgiana smiled softly, rubbing a hand against her eyes.

"I do believe that I have exhausted myself sufficiently tonight to be able to fall asleep."

After she retired and Miss Lucas, too, begged her leave, Darcy and Elizabeth were left alone in the drawing room. Elizabeth sat in a chair, squinting at a book in her lap by the light of some dripping, melting candles set in a tall epergne. Darcy, overpowering his own reserve, came closer and knelt before her. He saw, then, that she was not really reading, not anymore, leaning her head upon one hand, elbow set on the arm of her chair. Tendrils of her hair were coming unpinned, her eyes drifting closed.

An intense rush of love filled him then, a consuming, humbling feeling of tenderness and care for her. Gently, he closed the book in her lap, marking the page with the silk ribbon.

"Mmmmm?" Elizabeth looked at him through her eyelashes. "Mr. Darcy?"

"Come to bed, Lizzy," he said.

All of a sudden he, too, was shockingly, embarrassingly tired. He had imagined feats of love that were to take place tonight; but all he had in him was to offer her his arm so that they could stumble upstairs together. His bedchamber was first down the dark hallway, and Darcy steered Elizabeth through the door.

"But I have no clothes here," she protested, albeit quite weakly. He assured her that it was a quandary that could easily be solved tomorrow morning. After all, she was the Mistress of Pemberley. Her clothes could travel the short distance between the two rooms.

He disappeared inside his dressing room momentarily and came back, face wet and without a jacket and waistcoat. He found Elizabeth sitting on the edge of his bed, toeing off her slippers. That mission accomplished, she turned her back to him, silently asking him to undo her dress. Holding it to her breast, she glared at the candles. The moment Darcy, with a sigh, blew out the last candle, he heard the rustle of fabric as she relinquished her hold on the gown. He heard the light, metallic sound her hairpins made against the small bedside table. Very soon, they were in bed together. With some sadness, the new Master of Pemberley had to acknowledge that his stirrings of desire were no match for the vast, deadening fatigue that had overtaken him. Wrapping himself around his already-sleeping wife, he fell through into the darkness.

To his own surprise, he slept through the night, and woke to see Elizabeth in the window seat. She had plucked his discarded gown from the floor and wrapped herself in it, drowning her small frame in its voluminous folds. Darcy watched her from the bed, greatly taken with the way she looked this morning, fresh, soft, a little rumpled, her hair wild about her head. He felt his desire come back in a wild rush, his blood, his loins, his very heart set ablaze by the sight of her. He extended one hand from under the covers.

"Lizzy."

She turned, quickly, eyes bright.

"Good morning," she said, smiling.

"Come here." His voice sounded rough, hoarse, his words suddenly an order.

Embarrassed by it, he cleared his throat discreetly, reached for the pitcher of water and a glass on the night-stand. Watching her walk across the room towards him, he gulped the water down quickly and then set the glass back down. He moved, making space for her in the bed.

"Lizzy," he repeated, made quite dumb by his desire. "Did you sleep well?

"Very well," she said innocently. She quickly shed his long gown and climbed into the bed next to him in her chemise. Then, she put her arms about him so sweetly, it was all he could do to keep from taking her that very moment. Instead, he pulled her atop himself and kissed her lightly on the lips. Unable to help himself, he pushed his hips against her in a move that was as involuntary as it was lecherous.

"Oh," she said, eyes growing round. Darcy pulled the covers over her, the better to touch her beneath.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said, his voice hopelessly hoarse. "I daresay there was some unfinished business left from yesterday morning."

"But," she said, not making a move to leave, "it is morning. Full light!"

He stroked her rump, moved one hand to cup her breast. Elizabeth squirmed and moaned, but then, opening her eyes, looked upon him inquisitively.

"Will?"

"Lizzy," he said, drawing up her chemise quite brazenly, baring her from the waste down, his hands roaming up and down her bottom and legs. To his immense pleasure, she did not object or attempt to pull the article down. "We would have done this yesterday morning, were in not for your infernal Mary. I wager you that, Mrs. Darcy."

She arched one eyebrow down at him. "Are you a betting man, sir?"

Darcy shook his head. "Only when I know that my odds are good, madam."

But she seemed a bit discomfited nonetheless and, to spare her modesty some, Darcy reached up with one arm and yanked on the cord that thereto had been holding up the curtains of his bed. They fell around the bed in a somewhat dusty cascade, plunging it into dusk, a dusk that was far from complete and allowed him a good look at his wife.

"Is this better?" he inquired.

"What if Mary should come again?"

Darcy laughed, boldly drawing Elizabeth's chemise up and over her head, which - to his surprise and pleasure - she allowed.

"A perfect illustration, this!" He moved the blanket off and kissed her neck and naked shoulder. He was dying of desire, the light-headed banter costing him dearly.

"Of what?" She sighed and closed her eyes, already giving in.

"Of one particular fact I am so certain of, Elizabeth, that I should wager on it."

"Mmmmm?"

"Your maid will not come. Not until you call her. Certainly not to my bedchamber."

"And your man?" She sighed again and reached down, shyly, to stroke him. A battle won, he did not even need to answer that.

In the darkened confines of his bed, he urged her gently to straddle his hips. She was hesitant at first, the position appearing to her embarrassingly indelicate.

"Just like this?" she asked in some disbelief. "Be on top of you?"

He felt compelled to point out that she was already on top of him, it was only a matter of some rearrangement for her to do what he was asking.

"But I shall look ridiculous!" she protested.

Darcy touched her, his fingers stroking down from her navel, finding her unerringly. She arched, eyes glazing over.

"You shall look sweet enough to eat," he whispered gently moving her up, so that she was now kneeling above him. Staring up at the lovely form of her, he could hardly contain an appreciative groan.

"Now what?" Elizabeth exhaled. Awkwardly, she splayed one hand over her breasts, covering them. Without another word, he put both hands upon her hips and moved her, slowly. Now, this was agony... this interminable waiting for her to take him, holding his breath, holding himself still, when all he wanted was...

She looked down upon him, eyes open wide, lips slightly parted. There was nothing more to say, her next step patently obvious. Darcy, now approaching actual pain, was watching her raptly. Another groan, far more plaintive this time, rolled off his lips.

"Darling," he whispered, pleading.

For one breathless moment, Elizabeth held herself over the tip of him before sliding slowly, excruciatingly, down his length. Darcy clasped handfuls of sheets, fighting the urge to drive into her and finish it all momentarily.

Elizabeth's eyes opened slowly, eyelashes trembling. She moved an inch and gave a little, startled gasp.

"Sweetheart, are you in pain?" He reached up to stroke her cheek with his thumb, moved his hand gently to caress the outside curve of one breast.

She smiled. "No," was all she said with a resolute shake of her head. For a moment, she flailed, trying to gain purchase, then settled herself upon her knees and heels, seemingly no longer minding her nakedness. "What do I do now?" she whispered. "How do I move?"

She tried doing it, and seemed to find that it worked. Darcy knew, with embarrassed certainty, that he would not last long, not after all the coddling and seduction he had had to undertake; his wife's every inexperienced move brought him closer and closer to the brink. Twice he had had to stop her movements, grasping her hips and holding her in place.

"What?" she asked dreamily. "What did I do wrong?"

In as few words as were available to him just then, he explained to her that she had done everything perfectly right, and therein lay the problem. But he could hardly control her, or himself, their bodies moving together in a primitive unison. He knew, even if she herself did not, what it was she sought as she rocked her hips and moaned. He reached for her, awkwardly, finding the spot that had, on the few occasions he had touched it, given her such delight. He wanted desperately that she should feel the same overwhelming ecstasy she bestowed upon him. He yearned to see her as she took her pleasure.

She was so lovely as it happened, rapt, illumined, her skin radiating a glow. Her hand found his and squeezed, hard, once, twice, three times. She moaned sulkily as her body moved, tightening about him in harmony with the movement of her hand. Darcy had only a moment to feel it, before his own bliss crested and he lost all control, grasping Elizabeth's hips and driving himself up and forward with a rough growl.

Afterwards, he drew her down to lie atop him and stroked her damp back, lifting dark strands of hair off her shoulders. The air inside the bed curtains seemed heated now; Darcy reached up again, pulling the curtains up with some effort with only one hand. Morning light flooded them, and he cradled Elizabeth more tightly against him to prevent all thought of escaping.

"So?" he asked, kissing the edge of her ear. "Do you find now that your Aunt was correct?"

Elizabeth exhaled noisily. "Was she now!" she said.

Darcy laughed quietly, filled with absolute happiness; but any further pleasantries were quickly curtailed by Cat, who had chosen that particular moment to jump upon the bed.

Elizabeth, startled by the animal's appearance, squeaked and rolled off her husband's supine body. Darcy laughed again as he watched her cover herself.

"Was he here? All this time?" She sounded mortified, as if it were an elderly relation that had stayed in the bedchamber and not merely a cat.

"I suppose so." Darcy extended one hand and petted Cat, who bent his spine and undulated underneath his palm. "I let him sleep here when he is so inclined."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Who could have thought that the two of you would become quite so friendly! I seem to remember quite a different ...acquaintance."

"Ah!" Darcy grinned. "I seem to remember quite a different acquaintance between the two of us, too." Seeing her blush and cuddle more tightly inside the covers, he added lightly: "I tend to grow on people. And cats."

She appeared to have nothing more to say, and instead joined him in petting Cat. Sadly, this activity ended abruptly when the orange feline lifted his head and bit his former Mistress on the hand.

"Ow!" Elizabeth snatched her hand away in obvious shock. "What on Earth..."

Darcy would have laughed, but his wife's injured countenance instructed him to do otherwise.

"That would be that, then, sir. You are hereby expelled from my bed." He lifted Cat unceremoniously and tossed him to the floor. The animal landed gracefully on all fours and strutted towards the door, which caused Darcy obvious displeasure as it required him to rise in order to let Cat out of the room. There were, he knew, far more pleasurable pursuits awaiting him back in bed.

~ * ~

Later that day, as Elizabeth put on her one remaining clean mourning gown, she knew that she must travel to Lambton to bespeak some more appropriate clothing. She told Darcy that at breakfast. He protested the idea:

"I can have the best Lambton modiste summoned..."

"Summoned?"

"Invited," he corrected himself. "Invited to Pemberley. I daresay she will be happy to come."

It was Georgiana who spoke up, then, telling Darcy that she would quite like to take the carriage to Lambton.

"It will be good to step out the house," she said. "The last time I was outside was for Father's funeral."

Darcy said no more about it, and the two women set out after breakfast with only Mary for company. The day was truly pleasant, warmer yet than the two before, and finally dry. Despite the somewhat grim purpose of their trip, Elizabeth felt buoyed, light as a feather, shamefully happy. She leaned across the space of the carriage and squeezed Georgiana's hand in hers, receiving a squeeze in return.

In the shop, the local modiste seemed awed and fluttered about them, offering refreshments. The ladies of Pemberley did not often order their clothes in Lambton, when London's best shops were so readily available to them. Elizabeth was able to convince Georgiana to order, in addition to a number of gowns and other articles in mourning black, several dresses in grey, dark-blue and lilac. "For your half-mourning," she told her. Georgiana looked at her as if she doubted such a time would ever come.

They were about to leave the shop when Elizabeth heard a vaguely familiar voice, whispering:

"...it appears she is back!"

Looking over, she saw a pair of neighbor ladies whispering behind a fan.

"...as if she has not been gone but a day..."

"...I daresay, Darcy is a saint to take her back..."

Elizabeth remembered, sharply and painfully, hearing these women... were these the same women? She was no longer certain, and did it even matter? ...badmouth her three years ago. How she hurt then! To her own surprise, she found she took some mean delight in it now.

"Elizabeth?"

"Yes, dearest." She patted Georgiana's hand. "Let us go."

~ * ~

Within a week, the visits began. The neighbors called upon them with their condolences and poorly concealed curiosity. Elizabeth, wearing a well-fitting black gown and only her old wedding ring for jewelry, sat with Darcy and Georgiana in the formal drawing room. Yes, she thought, I am back. Take that. She took particular delight in the visit of Mrs. Deering - the very lady whom she had overheard in the shop.

"Mrs. Deering," Elizabeth said as she handed the woman a tea cup, "I was just now telling my husband that you thought him a saint!" She grinned insincerely, looking over at Darcy's stormy countenance. "Faith, I have always thought myself a great admirer of my husband's fine qualities, but a saint? Mr. Darcy, I do not believe I appreciate you enough! What do you say to that?"

Darcy said not a word but glared so fiercely, Elizabeth felt sorry for the poor Mrs. Deering. The woman made her excuses soon enough, taking herself off with dispatch. Elizabeth fell back in her chair, smiling.

"Perhaps I am a saint," Darcy said grimly, "if I did not throw her out. These women!"

Elizabeth wanted to tell him that the neighbor ladies hated the very fact that he was married, and not to them, and not to their daughters; but she could not quite, not in front of Georgiana.

~ * ~

~ ~

Late one night, cradled in her husband's embrace, Elizabeth asked sleepily:

"Fitzwilliam, one day, can I come with you? Can I come riding?"

"With me, around the estate?" Darcy dropped a lazy kiss upon her shoulder. "I suppose so, but why?"

She could not quite explain it, but it had become vastly important to her to see him acting the Master; perhaps, only then, could she truly feel the Mistress.

"Georgiana has already agreed to lend me her riding habit," she informed him instead. "You only need to teach me how to ride."

"Really," he murmured, tightening his arms about her, kissing her shoulder. "And does the habit fit?"

"Admirably," Elizabeth informed him. "Georgiana told me she has passed my height a year ago."

"Well, then, that settles it. When shall we start our lessons?" He lifted her hair and nuzzled her neck. I shall be happy to show you off to the entire world, Lizzy."

Of course, she already knew how to ride, if only a little. Jamie had taught her when she was but a girl, but his instruction had been curtailed by his sudden departure for India. For Darcy, the task was relatively easy: to reintroduce her to the saddle and to correct her seat in it. But Elizabeth herself had underestimated just how grievous a task it would be for her. After her first lesson, she spent a day in bed, her behind aching in a way that she could not even explain to her husband, such conversation, to her, unthinkable. Her pain was amplified by her chagrin at finding, upon her pillow, a guilty little note:

"Lizzy, perhaps you should rest your injured self tonight. I shall stay in my own bed so as not to inconvenience you. F."

So he had guessed at her state. Elizabeth, deeply annoyed, aching and sleepless, sulked for about an hour, and then took her injured self straight to her husband's bed. Darcy opened the door wearing naught but his nightshirt.

"Lizzy?" he asked, looking surprised at her appearance. "But I thought you were in pain..."

She slipped into the room and pulled the door shut behind her.

"I am," she said quietly, meeting his startled gaze. "And sleeping in a lonely bed will not help it one bit."

Thereupon she blushed at her own candor and stepped forward to hide her burning face against her husband's chest. Darcy gathered in his arms with such gentleness, she hid a grin in the folds of his shirt.

" 'Tis merely some bruises," she said, lifting her shining face to him. "I have not, all of a sudden, acquired the property of glass."

But she could find no fault with his methods when he carried her to his bed and did such things to her as she could never have imagined. For several of the brief, sleepy minutes afterwards, as her blood still pulsed sweetly in her belly, Elizabeth contemplated the strange nature of love, which could be so formidable and so tender at quite the same time.

~ * ~

Elizabeth did better with riding after that, and, within a week, was doing well enough to attempt the long ride about the estate. On the morning of the ride, they set out very early. Mr. Hawthorne was waiting outside and appeared slightly shocked at Elizabeth's appearance on her husband's arm and wearing Miss Darcy's old riding habit. But he said nothing, except acknowledge her presence with a polite bow.

"My wife has expressed a desire to accompany me today, Hawthorne," Darcy explained easily as he legged Elizabeth up atop a placid mare with an uninspiring name of Buttercup. Mr. Hawthorne smiled politely, bowed again and touched the brim of his hat to her.

For most of the morning, Elizabeth rode between her husband, magnificent on his beloved Kublai, and the overseer, who did a very creditable job of pretending that nothing at all was out of the ordinary this morning. But it was; Elizabeth was quite aware that it was the first time a Mrs. Darcy had deigned to accompany the Master about the estate in many years. Certainly the late Lady Anne never had; and she, herself, perhaps had not been as good a mistress as she ought to have been.

And yet the purpose of this was hardly charitable; it was rather that Elizabeth did not wish to part with Darcy, not even for the few hours of his ride. She knew she would not be able to do this every morning, for she had her own duties; but she enjoyed every minute of this one, ogling her husband's fine figure quite unabashedly.

And oh, how wonderful he was. He spoke to her throughout, pointing things out to her, from the new bridge over a deep stream to a very large chestnut tree that he himself had climbed as a lad. There was nothing wrong this morning, nothing to fix or fortify; but Elizabeth enjoyed watching her husband all the more when he interacted with the tenants, speaking of things as mundane and vital as spring planting and a prize sow that had just had a littler of piglets. He introduced her to all of them courteously, and she was quite impressed with some of the families. The Eardleys, with their gaggle of toe-headed children, appeared particularly glad to see them; Mrs. Eardley, in her crisp lace cap, would not let them go without a cup of burning-hot tea and a slice of toast with apple preserves each. Elizabeth, ravenous after several hours on horseback, ate heartily, listening to Darcy discuss last year's crop of potatoes with Mr. Eardley and marveling that she had ever thought her husband cold.

The morning passed quickly, and at the end of it, Mr. Hawthorne bid them good-bye. They rode back to the house together, in pleasant silence. Elizabeth raised her face to the sun, now quite warm. She was not surprised when Darcy suggested they stop and rest for a bit, and slid off her saddle and into her husband's arms with great pleasure.

"So how do you like it, being married to a country squire?" Darcy teased her, gently setting her down on the ground. Elizabeth stroked his cheek.

"I like it best of all," she said seriously.

Kissing business ensued, interrupted when Darcy pulled away to take Elizabeth's, and then his own, hat off.

"Perhaps I should also secure our horses," he said reluctantly, dropping both articles on the ground. "I am certain of Kublai, but I should not wager on Buttercup not wandering back to the Eardleys' farm for some sugar."

"And we know that you only wager on things you are certain of," Elizabeth teased and caught a smoldering stare back, a reminder of the last time they had spoken of wagering. She wandered off while he attended to the horses. Soon enough, he caught up with her, gathered her in his arms and kissed her again.

Matters progressed speedily, and Elizabeth soon found herself pushed quite hard against a particularly sturdy maple, her knees rapidly turning to pudding, as Darcy applied himself to kissing her neck and undoing the buttons on her habit. Giving merely a passing thought to the possibility of being discovered, and no thought at all to the effect that such exercise would have on her back when coupled with four hours' riding, Elizabeth gave in fully.

That is, until she saw, over her husband's shoulder, a rider approaching at breakneck speed. She made a sound of alarm and pushed Darcy away, pointing. Turning away, she righted her clothes, refastened up her buttons, certain that he had done the same before striding to meet their visitor. Indeed, she saw, it was one of the footmen; and her heart fell as she imagined that something might be wrong with Georgiana.

Not so. She saw Darcy shake his head in surprise and exasperation as he listened to the man, but he waved him off after that and there was no urgency in his gait as he walked back to her.

"What is it?" She had set her own hat back on her head and was holding out his now. He took it from her with visible regret written upon his countenance.

"My Aunt Catherine," he said, "has decided to visit and pay her condolences. She has wisely chosen not to warn us of her visit."

"Wisely?"

"Because she knows then we might have elected to leave hearth and home."

Elizabeth was amazed. "So she is there? Here? Now?"

Darcy nodded. "My sister begs us to return to the house, soon as may be."

Elizabeth could not contain a shiver. She had only had one encounter with Darcy's dreadful Aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and she wanted to see no more of the woman. As far as Lady Catherine was concerned, a little went a very long way.

Therefore, she did not fight it when Darcy forwent putting his hat back on, took her in his arms again and kissed her with just as much passion as before; but soon enough, her conscience made itself known, and she wriggled out of his embrace.

"We cannot leave Georgiana to her, Will," she said, taking a step away, just in case.

"Oh tosh," he said, nonetheless putting his hat back on. "Being in my Aunt's company builds character."

Elizabeth shivered again.

By the time they were back at the house, her nerves were set aflame by the very thought o confronting Lady Catherine again. The last time they had met, the old lady had insulted her in every conceivable way, causing Darcy to drag her bodily from their garden in London. Surely she would not do so again? Stop, she thought, stop it, this woman is nothing to you. Certainly Darcy had showed her, once and again, that his Aunt's displeasure mattered little. And then, she told herself, thinking back to this very morning, you are not simply his wife. You are the Mistress of Pemberley.

That ought to count for something.

~ * ~

It was as bad as she had feared. Lady Catherine was as quarrelsome as ever, her condolences to Darcy quite perfunctory. It was quite clear that she had not come to Pemberley for that. Rather, she gave Elizabeth an appraising look that nearly stripped her bare. In response, Elizabeth stuck out her chin and narrowed her eyes at the old biddy.

"I have heard that you are come back, madam," the woman said, pinching her lips tightly. "I have set out for Pemberley in hopes that I might have this report contradicted." She sighed. "But it is not to be, is it now?"

"Aunt," Darcy said, a warning in his voice. Elizabeth set a hand upon his arm. She was suddenly feverish with desire to settle this once and for all. Mistress of Pemberley, she reminded herself.

"No." She forced a smile. "It is not to be."

"You are here."

"I am here to stay, ma'am."

"One should hope so," Lady Catherine said illogically, giving her another appraising glance. "Mrs. Darcy, your selfish behavior has distressed everyone in this family grievously."

Darcy made a move forward as if to step in front of her, but Elizabeth squeezed his arm, holding him back.

"Perhaps it has," she said calmly. "But now I am back in my own house, and I will have you behave with civility towards me. And," she added, her courage sustained by the shocked expression on the old woman's face, "I shall not have you ask me intrusive questions about my marriage, ma'am." She paused and took a breath. "I am afraid that this is the only way you will ever be welcome at Pemberley."

She finished and stood, horrified and expecting a furious harangue. But Lady Catherine said nothing for a few moments, clearly at a loss for words.

"Well!" she said finally. And then again: "Well!" Then, as if having only just walked in, she favored Elizabeth with a condescending smile. "What a warm day this is, Niece. I am quite out of breath from the road. Perhaps I shall take some refreshment, if you order it."

'Of course," Elizabeth said pleasantly and rang for tea.

It appeared then that Lady Catherine had been forced to come to terms with a simple fact: her nephew's wife was not to be bullied. She had threatened the old lady with expulsion from Pemberley, and Darcy had stood by and looked on without saying a word. Clearly, he would not interfere, if she did so. Though she liked her nephew but little and had no more hope of marrying his wealth to her own, Lady Catherine still appeared to have no desire to be expelled from his ancestral home in so ignominious a manner. Elizabeth had no idea why, for she was certain that Her Ladyship despised them both; but so it was, and she was vastly pleased with herself for standing up to the dragon.

Not half as pleased as her husband, it turned out. Later that night, he beamed at her in her looking-glass.

"I was ever so proud of you, Lizzy," he said, smiling. "I could not have handled the woman better myself."

"You could not have," Elizabeth said thoughtfully as she set her brush on the vanity. "It was suddenly very clear to me that as long as she considered me a craven little thing, cowering behind you, she would continue to abuse me. You could not protect me from her, but I could protect myself. I suppose you were correct, and exposure to her does build character."

"I am very much impressed," he said, serious.

"Do not be so," Elizabeth said with a little grimace. "If you only knew how my knees shook!"

"All the more so for that," Darcy said, leaning to kiss her cheek.

~ * ~

The next day, they were all in the small blue drawing room, listening to Georgiana practice her piano-forte a room away. Elizabeth was stitching, her thoughts far away, and Darcy stood by the window, hands behind his back. Elizabeth found it rather amusing that he could so little stand his Aunt's presence. Her voluble, officious, odious presence. For though she had appeared to reconcile herself to Elizabeth's return, Lady Catherine remained insufferable. Full of opinions on subjects she knew little about, she repeatedly professed herself to be a great authority, proficient and expert in pretty much everything. Piano-playing, for one. She had never learned to play it, but had she learned, she should have been a great proficient, no doubt about it. The design and arrangement of drawing-room furniture; Elizabeth's favorite drawing room was declared to be wanting. Travel, and the distance it was advisable to keep between one's ancestral home and one's married home. The proper way to fold one's gowns. Good Lord, Elizabeth thought, when had she ever folded her own gowns?

And finally, Latin poetry. How the subject came about, Elizabeth did not know for certain, lost in her thoughts; but she did snap out of it just in time to see Darcy turn =from his post by the window, affecting interest.

"Really?" he asked. "And which Roman poet do you consider to be your favorite, Aunt?"

Elizabeth watched her husband curiously, uncertain what had caused him to evidence any interest in his aunt's vapid pronouncements. He had suffered the last five or six in disrespectful silence.

"So who is it, ma'am? Juvenal? Or perhaps Catullus? I confess that I prefer Virgil to either, how about you?"

The lady faltered for a moment. It was very obvious to Elizabeth that she did not read Latin poetry any more than she did Quakers' pamphlets or literature on garden grubs.

"I am hard-pressed to choose a favorite, for they are all quite fine!" Lady Catherine said with a thin smile. "Eam Latine minime loqui tibi arguam," Darcy said suddenly. Her own Latin rusty from the time she had studied it as a child, Elizabeth was surprised that she even understood it. I will prove to you that she does not speak a word of Latin. Elizabeth threw Darcy an alarmed glance. What was he about?

Lady Catherine, too, seemed unnerved; but it was clear that she would never admit to her ignorance. Elizabeth bit down a smile, for she suspected her husband might be correct. But his next words startled her so much, she drove a needle into her finger.

"Cupio te. Iam ad cubile meum veni." I want you. Come to bed with me.

With a gasp, she squeezed the injured digit and glared at him. How dare he seduce her so blatantly in his aunt's immediate presence! But he was clearly waiting for an answer, eyes smiling at her across the sitting-room, and she murmured a pathetic "sic!" in response to his entreaty.

Hilarity bubbled inside, and Elizabeth clasped her hand to her lips, barely able to contain hysterical laughter. Fortunately for her, the gesture did not escape the dowager's stare:

"What is it, Mrs. Darcy?" she demanded. "Are you not well?"

"Indeed," she said, her tone stifled by her efforts at not laughing. "I find that I am. Forgive me, ma'am."

She rose and quit the room with as much dignity as she could muster just now.

Behind her, she heard Darcy say, in a concerned tone:

"I do worry for her, Aunt. She is of a strong constitution, but - "

She walked down the hallway, laughing. Darcy took her by surprise when he overtook her, gathered her in his arms and spun her about in the hallway, before stopping just long enough to kiss her. Elizabeth pushed half-heartedly against his chest, but soon gave in and let herself be kissed. Pulling away, she affected a serious mien and said:

"You, my dear sir, have no shame."

"And yet it has worked," he leaned in for another kiss. "Come here."

Stepping back, Elizabeth reminded him of his resolve to allow Georgiana's character harden in his Aunt's overbearing presence.

"Absolutely," Darcy agreed, deftly steering her inside an empty bedchamber. "But my character has no need of my Aunt." He pulled the door shut behind him and gave her a long, lustful stare. " 'Tis already firm enough. Here," he said, taking her hand and drawing it downward. "See for yourself."

~ * ~

Darcy was indecently happy. There was no other word to describe the ill state of his mind just over these first few weeks of Elizabeth's presence at Pemberley. He grieved after his Father, and though it was nothing new to him, he had grieved for his Father for years, this pain was newer, fresher, cutting him deeper. But he was also happy, delirious with it, with the knowledge that at long last, and when he least expected it, Elizabeth was returned to him. Often enough, gazing upon her, he thought that it could not be thus. That it was merely a dream, and that he would wake from it soon and return to his lonely, loveless existence. The illusory quality of these weeks, and the reality of them, addled his mind. How to let himself believe something for which he had not dared hope? And then--how to reconcile deep sadness and vast joy? How could he delight so in his wife's presence and spend every night in her bed, with his Father so recently buried? He did not know and felt an abiding sense of shame for this duplicity of his heart. He tried telling himself that the late Mr. Darcy, who was above all a loving father, would be happy for him, for them. But it worked very ill, and he suffered, not knowing how to merge the two halves of his heart.

He noticed a similar sadness in Elizabeth as well; though, much like in his own case, her sadness did not dampen her ardour, and she, too, seemed very much enamored of him. He wondered about that. He wondered whether perhaps she had yet another emotion coloring her world, whether she was bound by shame for leaving Pemberley in the first place. He never thought of it this way, had never blamed her, and it was a discovery to learn that she did. That she blamed herself. He had tried to tell her not to, tried to convince her to be easy about it; but he knew that it was for naught, and Elizabeth, too, mixed happiness with sorrow.

Perhaps to avoid such contemplation, they filled their nights with sweetness and their days with care. He tried to be as conscientious Master as his Father would have been, judging himself by a harsher standard than ever before. Elizabeth, on her part, was finally the Mistress. Darcy knew that she was mortified of the role, had never really felt it during the last time she had lived here. Now, he saw, she plunged in bravely, no doubt in the same attempt at mitigating her own heartache, at trying her best to feel at home in a place she had left three years ago. Darcy knew that Reynolds would help her with that, and he, himself, found it was best not to interfere. But it did him good to watch her go about her day as the Mistress. It made the truth sink in: she was here to stay.

He found that the years they had spent apart - during which he had had only several fleeting glimpses of her - had done her a world of good. She had grown, though not overly so, and had gained a little in the womanliness of her figure. Though she was still willowy and slender, her body appeared to have a more rounded aspect to it, and her movements were imbued with a very special kind of grace. She had also acquired, to his great surprise, a more tender, feminine aspect about her face, her speech, her very manner. There was very little left of the prickly, blushing adolescent. Elizabeth, whom he had left a child, had come back to him a woman. He loved every little thing about her now. He treasured the miniature silhouette of Elizabeth Miss Lucas had made for him, gazing upon it more often than he would have expected himself to do. Over the following weeks, Darcy managed to convince himself that such an odd state of mind was a temporary thing. Eventually, their grief for Mr. Darcy would fade, as would their shared sense of guilt, for he, too, felt guilty, guilty for not making an attempt at reconciliation with his wife in time for her to see his Father still alive. Perhaps, they would simply have to live with it for now.

One day, come back from his morning ride, face still burning from the spring wind, Darcy went in search of his wife. He was told that Mrs. Darcy was in the music room, and he directed his steps there. Almost at the door, he heard her playing the old piano-forte.

He did not recognize the melody at first; but then, he did and stopped, all robbed of his breath. Haydn. He remembered her playing this, this very sonata three years ago. He had given her these music sheets, tied together with a ribbon, with a sprig of something or other significant in it, hoping that she would recognize its bashful, tender meaning. It was something understated, like friendship, for he did not dare to tell her how he really felt. Perhaps, he himself had not known how he really felt, had not known that he had been falling in love with her even then. Darcy remembered his own desire for her then, and how it had taken him by surprise, and how it had shamed him. Now, she was his, no longer forbidden to him; and yet, all of a sudden, he felt just as shy and just as smitten with her. Standing outside of the music room, listening to the trilling roulades of Haydn, he imagined his wife at the piano-forte, her studious, serious face bent over the keys, her hands moving in a remembered, practiced way over them. He wanted, very badly to come in, gather her in his arms and hold her to his heart; he wanted her touch, her mouth, his flesh inside hers. But somehow, he knew that to interrupt her music would be a thing of selfishness, so he stood and listened to her play instead. Stood there, so lovesick and so happy at the same time, he could hardly believe it himself.

~ * ~

One fine morning at the end of May, the family was all at breakfast. Darcy had not gone out for a ride, and Elizabeth was basking in his domestic company. When a footman walked in with a letter upon a tray, Elizabeth perked up at the sight of it, thinking it might have come to her from Longbourn; but it was given to Darcy instead.

"It is from Gregory," he said, looking somewhat surprised. He set it aside, but Elizabeth, curious for news from town, implored that he should read it. Darcy obliged. Looking up at him as he was reading it, Elizabeth espied a curious expression upon her husband's face.

Darcy looked up at her.

"Gregory," he said, folding the letter," is to be married."

Elizabeth felt a slight pang, for in her mind, she had long been saving His Lordship for Georgiana.

"To Miss Caroline Bingley," Darcy continued, looking bemused.

Elizabeth choked on her coffee.

"But she is horrible!" she said before she could stop herself. Darcy gave her a furtive, slightly uncomfortable look.

"I cannot believe this," Elizabeth repeated, feeling oddly betrayed. Lord Gregory, who knew, no doubt, what Caroline had done, what she was... Was he marrying her for her money? She was embarrassed to think that her friend would do so... marry someone he did not like, could not possibly have liked, for money. "I cannot believe he is to marry her! He has spent so much time in her company, he ought to know her... her... her qualities!"

"I agree," Darcy said, setting the folded letter aside and picking up his coffee cup. "But perhaps she is not nearly as horrible as you say."

"But she wrote that letter!" Elizabeth cried. Immediately, she froze, realizing what she had said.

Darcy was looking at her over the rim of his coffee cup, all sweetness gone from his face. Elizabeth felt the heat on her skin, her cheeks flushing deeply. Georgiana looked curiously from one to the other; then, all of a sudden, she moved her plate aside, rose to her feet and dropped a hurried curtsey.

"Miss Lucas," she said to her governess, "Will you not come with me? I have a question about my French devoirs that I have been meaning to ask you!"

Miss Lucas threw a somewhat bewildered glance at her plate, still full of food, then rose. Darcy, who normally would not countenance such abuse of his sister's governess, said not a word. Elizabeth, staring at her own plate, dared not look up, but felt his gaze upon her.

Thereupon, when they were left alone, Darcy rose, walked along the length of the table.

"Come," he said, extending a hand. A little bit wary, Elizabeth rose and put her hand in his. Without a word, they walked together out of the breakfast room and towards, it soon became apparent, the library.

Catching Elizabeth's sideways glance, Darcy said:

"I think we shall have more privacy here."

Thereupon, having closed the door behind them, he turned to her. Folding both arms on his chest, he said:

"Talk."

Elizabeth bristled. "I have nothing to say, sir."

Darcy frowned at her. "A letter," he said. "You said that Miss Bingley wrote a letter?"

Elizabeth considered inventing something, for the memory of the anonymous letter and her own subsequent behavior caused her to feel nothing but shame. Then, looking back at him, she saw it. He knew. There was simply no question, he did not want to know, he wanted her to confirm what he had known all along. She folded her own arms and glared back, suddenly furious. After all, what was she ashamed of? Her husband was the one who had broken faith with her by, by--

"Why do you toy with me, sir?" she asked. "You know precisely what was in that letter."

Darcy nodded. "I do know."

Elizabeth bit her lip. "I would have hoped that Lord Gregory was more trustworthy a friend. I confided in him and he betrayed my confidence."

"Do not blame Gregory, Elizabeth, I have almost forced this information out of him."

"Well then, now you know," she said defiantly.

Darcy sighed, then rubbed one hand against his eyes. "Gregory told me that you had been... distressed."

"Is there any indignity that His Lordship has spared me?" she asked bitterly. It was all she could do to keep herself from breaking into piteous weeping.

"He was your greatest advocate," Darcy said gently. "I am sorry for it, Elizabeth. I am sorry I have caused you such unhappiness that you were forced to confide in my friend."

She wanted to lie and tell him that she did not care, that it was all water under the bridge. But all of a sudden, she did. All of a sudden, the weight of just how much she cared was upon her, bowing her down. Mortified, she hid her eyes, knowing that when she looked up at him, they would be full of tears.

"You should know," he said, coming closer. "You should know that I did not... "

"You went with her," she said, quickly putting one hand out in front of her as if to stop him. "I suppose I cannot blame you. I gave you all reason to... do what you did." She hoped she sounded dignified, but she heard, and hated, tears ringing in her own voice.

"I did go with her." Darcy froze and dropped his gaze, all of a sudden sounding guilty and young. "That one night I did. But I did not..." He chocked on his words.

Elizabeth wiped at her eyes, crying in earnest now. "Stop it," she said. "Do not speak of it."

Suddenly, he strode forward and grasped her shoulders, making her gasp. "I did not bed her," he said clearly. "Oh, I wanted to. I was so angry at you. I wanted to forget you, to erase you from my mind. From my heart, from my life. You were haunting me, I wanted you gone!"

She gasped again and tried to struggle free, but he was holding her fast. His words hurt: to think that he should want her gone from his life! Elizabeth hid her face, turning away, crying.

"But I found that I could not," Darcy said, still impassioned. "I could not lie with anyone but you."

Now, finally, she allowed herself to look up at him. "That letter broke my heart," she said sullenly.

Darcy, gazing upon her with mild reproach, said quietly:

"I should hope you knew me enough not to believe it."

She shrugged, finally managing to struggle out. "I did not know what to believe. Lord Gregory said that you would not..." she trailed off.

"I am sorry for causing you pain," he said. He offered no more explanation or apology than that, did not tell her that had not done it consciously, or that he had been in his cups. It seemed that he considered further justification beneath him. Instead, he hooked her chin with one finger and tilted it up, trying to catch her gaze. "Oh Elizabeth," he said. "Do you believe me?"

She did. Just now, she did believe him, her heart flooded, momentarily, with relief. She said so, and stepped forward into his embrace. He wrapped both arms about her and lifted her off the floor.

"Lizzy," he said thickly into her ear. "I have not lain with another woman since we were wed." He kissed her cheek, her mouth, held her tightly to himself. She clung to him, hiding her tear-stained face against his neck, feeling his pulse beneath her lips.

As if some madness had overtaken them, Darcy carried Elizabeth to the nearest settee, placing her there rather awkwardly, her feet still on the floor. She pulled him atop her, and he fell into her arms. She found she was no longer crying as she felt his hands underneath her skirts and saw her own upon his buttons. She gave a passing thought to the possibility of someone walking in, but it dissipated when her husband kissed her. Words were said, promises of utter fidelity that she believed wholeheartedly. Mad with desire, she freed him from his jacket, yanked his shirt from his breeches and reached beneath. Darcy groaned and kissed her again and again as she stroked him, feeling the warmth of his flesh against her palms. His hands busy with holding her, he tried to tug the ties on her bodice apart with his teeth in a gesture that was as debonair as it was futile. Succeeding only at tying it more tightly, he cursed under his breath, then laughed, then squeezed her breast, hard, through the muslin, causing her to make a sound she barely recognized as her own.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "I shall be happy to die compleatly yours."

Moved, she stroked his face. "You are mine," she confirmed. He kissed her palm and pushed harder against her.

"Yours alone," he said. "And you are mine."

"Yes!"

She kissed him, then, taking the initiative, wrapping herself around him. With a quiet growl, he slipped inside her. He was panting a little, awkward, his booted feet sliding awkwardly on the rug.

"Oh damnation," he said, giving up and falling sideways down to the floor. Elizabeth, joined to him as she was, fell with him. There wasn't far to fall, and the rug was quite soft, but Elizabeth suspected that had they fallen ten feet onto bare rock, it would not have changed the single-minded intensity of their coupling. As such, it burned hard and fast, and ended with a vocal crescendo when both tried -unsuccessfully - to silence each other's moans and cries with passionate kisses.

Afterwards, Elizabeth rested her head upon her husband's chest. She was deeply sated, happy and a little bit abashed by what had just transpired. She could not have said that Darcy had seduced her; much like the first time they had lain together, her own need for him shocked and humbled her. She rested her chin upon her fist, looking upon his dear face.

"Mmmm." He moved his hand, lazily, up and down her spine. "Lizzy. Perhaps we should argue more often, if that is how we make up."

"I like the making-up, not the arguing," she said to him. "In any case, I had no right to be angry with you."

Darcy frowned. "Of course you did. You had every right to expect better of me." He reached for her hand against the rug and squeezed it. "Lizzy, I am the one who should be sorry. I was so angry at you for Wickham, I simply did not know what to do with myself."

"Do you know, he never..." Impossible though it was, she felt herself color again. "He was always very correct with me. Malvina thought he had meant to seduce me."

She regretted saying that, thinking that he would be angry. But he merely cocked one eyebrow. "Do you think that that was his intention, indeed?"

"I do not know," Elizabeth said honestly. "I hope not."

Darcy regarded her face for a long time, then said: "If he had laid a hand on you, by force or consent, I would have killed him."

Chilled by his even tone, but the terrible words he was uttering, Elizabeth shivered in his embrace; but his gentle hands never ceased stroking her spine through her gown.

"You speak such terrible things," she said. "You have fought one duel too many for me."

"No duels," he said, sounding almost sleepy. "But I would have killed him, and would not have cared if they strung me up for that."

"Oh Will!" Elizabeth whispered. "Do not say things like that. He is dead, and I am here, and he never..."

She leaned over and kissed him on the mouth, trying desperately to get back to the light-hearted, happy feeling of before. Mr. Wickham's name had the effect of pulling a shadow over a sunny afternoon, like a dark shawl thrown over a birdcage to silence a bird.

Darcy, as if snapping out of an unpleasant reverie, started and kissed her back.

"Yes," he said, releasing her after a moment. "He is dead. I should not have mentioned him. Tell me, rather, what made you think that it was Miss Bingley who wrote that letter?"

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose.

"I did not think it was her then. I still have no proof of it. But I know that she wants you." She threw a quick, defiant glance up at him. Darcy frowned.

"I wish you would not say that," he said.

" 'Tis true. In any case, she had all the reason in the world to want to do it. The more I thought of it, the more I became convinced that it was her."

"How would she... how would she even know what I did or did not do that night?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I do not know. Perhaps someone saw you... and told her. She is the one person I know that might have reason to wish us apart."

Darcy arched one eyebrow at her.

"Why, who do you mean? " Elizabeth asked.

"My Aunt?"

Elizabeth thought of it for a moment, and soon came to the conclusion that it was not in Lady Catherine's manner to act so furtively, sending anonymous letters. Much more like her to march in and harangue one viciously! She told Darcy that, and he agreed reluctantly.

He sighed, and shook his head. "If indeed she did so, then, perhaps Gregory would have more on his hands than he has bargained for."

"Perhaps. I have thought better of His Lordship."

"You assume he is marrying her for money."

"Yes, why else?"

"You are very harsh in your judgments, Elizabeth. Perhaps he truly cares for her."

She gave him a look, the way one looks upon a child who utters a terrible silliness.

"Yes! Perhaps he does. But no doubt he knows that she is in love with you, and yet he..."

Before she could finish pronouncing her sentence upon the poor Lord Gregory, Darcy sighed again, rolled his eyes and then silenced his wife by kissing her with some purpose.

Releasing her, he said:

"Elizabeth, you still know nothing of love."

She glared at him, but said nothing, realizing that perhaps, he was not merely speaking of Lord Gregory.

chapter 32

They were to go to the wedding, which was to take place at the end of August. A somewhat too short an engagement for a titled person like Lord Gregory, but it appeared that the pair was in a hurry to marry. By now, Elizabeth was almost ready to absolve His Lordship of making a mercenary union. The more she thought of it, the more she had to agree with her husband that it would be unlike their friend to marry for money only. No doubt Miss Bingley's respectable dowry made her an eligible choice for someone of Lord Gregory's connections and family; but no more than that, Elizabeth soon became convinced. She thought back to the morning that Lord Gregory had asked her not to mind Miss Bingley's rudeness, and to the day of her brother's wedding. She had felt so miserable then, having observed the happiness that was not to be hers, and could read the same misery upon her friend's face. He had been in love with someone, she thought, and if so, why not Miss Bingley?

It took them some time to convince Georgiana to come. She felt it would not be seemly for her to go to a wedding so soon after her Father's death. Darcy, on his part, appeared intent upon bringing her. She was not out, but he concluded-and Elizabeth agreed-that there was simply no profit in leaving the girl alone at Pemberley. They would keep their entertainments in London to the minimum, would not attend public assemblies or balls, but it would be a nice change of pace for all of them. Naturally, the most convincing argument proved to be that Mr. Darcy would not have liked for his daughter to lock herself away at Pemberley in her grief for him.

"But it is not proper," Georgiana insisted.

"Georgie," Darcy said patiently. "There is no gain in always being proper. I should like to see my friend get married, which I should hope is no great sin. It would only do you good to come along."

Elizabeth, on her part, was wildly excited to be going to London again. Shortly after receiving the invitation, she wrote to Malvina, asking that she and Jamie should come up to London as well. To her joy and pleasure, Malvina wrote back at once:

"If I had wanted to avoid London, I could not have done. We now have an invitation to witness dear Lord Gregory's marriage to Caro. Your Brother is invited as a good friend, and I-I suppose, as his wife, if not the bride's former sister-in-law. So have no fear, my dear, I can escape it no better than you."

Elizabeth read this part of Malvina's letter to Darcy, as if to share her levity with him, but in truth, to tell him something far more important: that Jamie would be in London as well. She wanted so, so badly for the two men to reconcile.

To her frustration, her husband reacted rather too mildly, laughing with her at Malvina's language, but evidencing no reaction whatever to the fact that he and his erstwhile friend would rub shoulders at Lord Gregory's wedding. She abandoned the subject altogether, hopeful that it would all go well.

They left for London a fortnight before Lord Gregory's wedding. Elizabeth had helped Georgiana to pack her gowns, convincing the reluctant girl to take a few lavender and gray gowns along with the black. Very soon, they were on their way, Darcy riding Kublai next to the carriage, Elizabeth regaling Georgiana and Miss Lucas with the horror stories of her last trip to London with Georgiana's brother. Much had happened then, she thought, and though she tempered the story for the sake of her young sister's ears, there was still plenty to tell. The swinging highwayman, the commotion and fight at their inn, Lord Gregory's ball with its mermaids and fireworks. Georgiana, her face lightening, smiled, then laughed at the stories.

"I am so glad you came back, Elizabeth," she said suddenly, reaching over and putting a hand upon Elizabeth's wrist. "I am so, so glad."

Miss Lucas looked away delicately at that. Elizabeth patted Georgiana's hand upon her wrist. She simply could not put into words how happy she was that she had come back.

"Me, too, dearest," she said simply.

Upon their arrival to Leicester Square, Darcy ushered the ladies inside. Elizabeth, standing in the parlour, shivered slightly at the memory of the way she had quit this house: furiously angry and limping, and yet-convinced that he would follow her. That he would make it all better. It had not occurred to her that she would be leaving him for years. Had she known it then, would she have tempered her ire? She started when Darcy called her name and looked up to see him gazing at her in his peculiar, thoughtful manner.

"Look," he said, holding out a card. She took it, recognizing it straight away. Her brother and sister had called in Leicester Square a few hours before. Elizabeth threw a quick glance at the tall parlour clock; she would have liked to return the call that very night, but found that it was too late, even if she was thinking of visiting her own brother.

Georgiana now safely whisked away up stairs by Miss Lucas, Darcy put his arms about Elizabeth and whispered in her ear.

"They will still be here tomorrow, Lizzy."

She turned in his arms, slipping her own about his neck. He smelled of the road to her and his embrace tightened around her as she pressed her lips to the edge of his jaw. She had been indisposed for several nights, and then, last evening, they had been on the road, sharing a singularly uncomfortable room and both dead of exhaustion. Feeling already the pulse and tide of desire, Elizabeth twisted out of Darcy's arms, raised an eyebrow and said:

"Bath."

Her husband sighed, acquired a hangdog look and followed her politely up the stairs, pinching her bottom but once in his progress.

~ * ~

They called upon Malvina and Jamie the following morning. Elizabeth threw herself in her brother's arms the moment he appeared in the parlour,. She watched jealously the handshake between her two dearest men. She had to own it-the two appeared... well, if not warm, at least partial. Certainly nobody would take them for two men who had once nearly murdered each other in a duel.

Malvina came down, Tommy on her hip. Elizabeth kissed them both on all available cheeks, then plucked Tommy out of his mother's arms.

"Look!" She was showing the boy off to her husband, inviting him to admire the child. Tommy had grown a full head of soft, brown curls and gained in weight and length. He was babbling, turning his head right and left, looking at the newcomers with some admiration. "Look how big he is now!"

"He is a very handsome young man," Darcy said somberly. "My congratulations to you, Bennet."

Jamie grinned. "He takes after his mother in his looks, don't you, child?" He ruffled his son's hair, the very picture of his own dark curls, then took him from Elizabeth. "Lizzy, have you come to steal my wife?"

"Indeed, I have," Elizabeth agreed. "We are to go to a dress shop together. It has all long been arranged."

"See, Mr. Bennet," Malvina said, grinning in her usual engaging manner, "you cannot even protest as I am going shopping with your sister, of all people."

Jamie bowed to her gallantly. "It would not occur to me to protest, dearest Mrs. Bennet."

"You may come along, too," Elizabeth suggested with fake nonchalance. Knowing that Darcy would be there, too, she hoped very much that Jamie would accept her invitation; at the very least, the two would have time to talk while the ladies were fitted for new gowns. But Jamie demurred.

"I think I had better stay home with young Forster Thomas here," he said, smiling. "We shall find something to occupy ourselves with." The boy gurgled back something only his parents could be expected to understand.

She and Darcy, Malvina and Georgiana went to an overly dear shop in the Strand. Elizabeth could not quite remember whether Darcy had brought her here three years ago; truth be told, she did not truly wish to remember. She remembered, with some pain and embarrassment, watching Miss Johnson shop for her trousseau at just such a shop. How miserable she had been then! She threw Darcy one quick glance as he settled himself in a comfortable armchair-to wait. He smiled at her, arching one eyebrow and looking a little too pleased with himself for her taste.

Georgiana was wary of the colorful silks, fingering the fabrics most reluctantly.

"I am still in mourning, even if it is only half," she said to Elizabeth. "I am not certain how long I must be, but it seems awfully soon..."

"It will soon be six months, dearest," Elizabeth said mildly. "Surely you can wear something ... light?" She held up length of pretty, lavender silk. "This will go marvelously with your eyes."

But Georgiana, unconvinced, turned to Malvina. "How long did you wear mourning for your Father?" Then, blushing, she dropped her eyes. "I am so sorry. I should not have asked."

Malvina shrugged, gaze distant. "I do not remember," she said. "I am certain that I did wear mourning, but I do not remember."

"It seems awfully wrong, terribly wicked to dress in anything but the blackest black," Georgiana confessed, setting down a tan glove with obvious disgust. "To have even the littlest bit of fun."

Malvina made a most unladylike snort.

"Luckily," she said, "you are in no danger of having fun at Caro's wedding."

Elizabeth sputtered with laughter.

"Malvina, this is so very wrong of you."

After a while, they convinced Georgiana of the innocence of a lavender gown. Elizabeth herself had picked silver-gray lustrous fabric.

"You look ever so fine, Lizzy," was the verdict, but she thought only of what Darcy would say - would think, would feel - when he saw her in it. Musing on this made her slightly weak in the knees.

Later that night, Elizabeth sat amidst the rumpled bedclothes, wrapped in a long sheet, hair mussed, knees pulled up to her chest. Watching her husband as he rose from the bed next to her and walked, quite without a stitch of clothing on him, to where he had carelessly dropped his coat onto a chair. What had driven him from the bed and post-coital repose was not quite clear.

"What are you doing?" she asked curiously. Darcy did not answer, reaching instead in the pocket of his coat. He came back to the bed with a small parcel, wrapped in silvery, shimmery paper and tied with a neat purple bow. Without a word, he held it out to her, then plunged himself headfirst into the softness of the bed.

"What is this?"

"Oh, merely a small thing I saw in the shop today."

She gave him a look, compleat with an arched eyebrow, as she shelled the gift as neatly as a squirrel cleans a nut. Inside, a deep-blue velvet box, and in it - a startlingly beautiful dark-red garnet bracelet. Elizabeth gasped with surprised pleasure at the sight of it.

"Do you like it?" Darcy said eagerly. He was reclining, sleepily, on his side, his head upon one arm.

"Good Lord," was all she could say as she turned the bracelet in her hand. The stones were old, dark, almost black; and yet they lacked the peculiarly lifeless property of onyx, and were imbued, instead, with deep, pulsing, red light. Elizabeth held the bracelet up to the candlelight, admiring it openly. But she felt decidedly awkward about being gifted so extravagantly, and somehow-in so erotic a manner; and so she said what she momentarily thought she should feel. "You should not feel compelled to buy me ... things."

Darcy gave her a long, narrow look.

"I recognize the old Elizabeth," he said caustically. "I am glad to see that your ability to accept gifts graciously has not improved by a single iota."

Elizabeth felt the shame of it and blushed furiously enough to, she was certain, match the garnets in the bracelet.

"I am sorry!" she said. "Oh Will.You are correct-this is graceless of me. I should just ... thank you."

"Only thank me if you like it."

"Of course I like it! It is so... so beautiful."

"I am not compelled to buy you gifts," Darcy said mildly. "I am rarely compelled to do anything. But I thought you might like this one. Put it on, Lizzy."

Elizabeth did, opening the intricate jaws and then snapping them shut around her wrist. The bangle slid easily from her wrist to her forearm and back again as she moved her arm this way and that, in awe of the play of light inside the stones.

"It is dark enough where you can still wear it with more somber clothes."

"It is," she agreed, grinning at him. "And it will go admirably with the new gown I am to have for His Lordship's wedding."

"I know," Darcy said, grinning back. "Though I wager not as much as it goes now with this very fashionable sheet."

He grasped her hand then, and pulled her back into his embrace, tickling her mercilessly. She giggled and squealed and kicked but was ultimately no match for him and soon submitted, happily.

~ * ~

They visited with the Gardiners, as well as with Darcy's Fitzwilliam relations. Elizabeth was apprehensive about how the Earl and Countess of Matlock would act towards her now, after nigh-on three years' absence; but she told herself that nobody would dare mistreat her. Not in Darcy's presence, certainly. Still, her heart was in her throat as she allowed Darcy to hand her out of the carriage in front of the Matlock House on their third day in town. She was wearing a very simply muslin morning gown in a charming, periwinkle shade of blue, and a new bonnet with matching ribbons. Next to her, Georgiana was in more formal half-mourning, white and black all over, looking anxious and severe. Elizabeth squeezed the girl's hand as they went into the house, feeling the slight tremor of her fingers through her glove.

Contrary to her fears, their reception was more than warm. His Lordship the Earl was from home, as was the Viscount his son, but her Ladyship was happy to receive them. Her daughter-in-law, Lady Mariah, was there. Both women were excessively curious as to the Elizabeth's return to Pemberley, though of course they could not outright ask her about it, prevented as they were by everything that was proper. But they did ask questions of her-well-meaning inquiries about Jamie's return from India, about his marriage to old Colonel Forster's daughter.

"Oh!" Lady Mariah said, animated. "I remember Malvina Forster! She came from India in ... oh Lord, I do not remember the year-but oh, she was the most remarkably handsome girl! She must have been all of -what? Eighteen? Nineteen--then, and she charmed all the gentlemen excessively. We all quite detested her!" She laughed, not unkindly.

Elizabeth was pleased that someone had such kind words to say about her brother's wife, and she beamed gratefully at Lady Mariah.

"And my cousin Fitzwilliam?" Darcy asked as they were seated in an opulent drawing room, taking tea with the hostess.

"Oh, he will be here directly." The Countess sniffed a little. "I will be very grateful to you, my dear nephew, if you do something to drag him out of his gloom." She sighed and looked at Darcy pointedly. "He is being forced to sell out."

"Forced," Darcy repeated, sounding perplexed.

"He was wounded, as you know. At Talavera. His men were killed. His horse was killed and he delivered back to us in this sorrowful state. We are fortunate to have him back in any state at all."

"Ma'am," Lady Mariah said, a warning in her voice. They all looked up to see Colonel Fitzwilliam who walked, purposefully, into the room. Even considering his heavy limp and a disfiguring scar, he still cut a dashing figure, Elizabeth thought. She remembered dancing with him at the Harvest Ball several years before; how beautifully he had moved then! He stepped forward, bowed over her hand, then did the same to Georgiana. The Countess lifted her cheek up to his lips. Appearing anything but gloomy, he looked briefly over all of them and asked with a charming smile:

"What? Has anyone died?"

Later that morning, as they were about to leave, the Colonel walked them out; he lingered with them in the parlour, and asked where they were going next. Darcy replied that they were going for a walk in St. James, and then, perhaps, for some ices.

"An innocent diversion," he said meaningfully, putting his hand upon Georgiana's shoulder.

"Oh very well, then," Fitzwilliam replied, winking at Georgiana, who appeared to be quite confounded by it. "You have quite convinced me, and I shall come along." He called for his hat and cane-the latter, sadly, no longer a vanity, but a necessity. Georgiana, on her part, brightened up appreciably.

In St. James, Georgiana and Fitzwilliam fell behind, she matching her step to her cousin's slower one. Elizabeth walked ahead with Darcy, quiet at first. She wore her very fine new pelisse, deep-blue and, she knew, exceedingly becoming. Indeed, for the first time, she had come to truly understand how attractive her husband found her. Had come to like this admiration, to bask in it and desire it. For the first time, she was not indifferent to gowns and pearls and tall kid gloves that hugged the line of her arm, to the beautiful silks and underthings so fine they felt like air between her fingers. She had come to know the feel of Darcy's hands on her skin as he drew these things off her figure, and the look on his face as he did it. The very thought of her husband regarding her in the slight candle-light of their bedchamber, eyes dusky with desire, made her want to grab onto things to steady herself. She had undressed for him the night before, slowly and with a candle burning, allowing him to look his fill. She had never done anything of the sort before, her own daring amazing to her in the full light of day, with the quiet, impeccably turned out figure beside her. Last night, he had sat in the chair wearing only his shirt and breeches, silent and intense, eyes trained upon her as she shed her clothes, watching her as she forced herself to move slowly-for her first instinct was to discard every article of clothing as quickly as possible and dive under the blankets posthaste. But she had watched him, too, noticed his eyes widen as she undid her bodice, her stays, her garters, saw him clench and unclench his hand upon the arm of his chair, took in a short bob of his Adam's apple, as he swallowed, hard. Somehow, seeing him like that had made the very exercise possible; what had followed was coupling that was, simultaneously, tender and fevered enough to shake the fundament of the house.

Caught in just such thoughts, she jumped when a young girl, grimy beyond all belief, approached them and asked if the gentleman would buy the lady some flowers. Darcy did, giving her a coin in exchange for a small posy of wildflowers, tied artlessly with a short green ribbon. The girl smiled prettily at Darcy, dropped a curtsey and flounced off. Elizabeth blushed, hiding her face in the small bunch.

"They sell violets here in the spring," Darcy said regretfully.

"No-these are... sweet," Elizabeth murmured, bending her head to them.

"What were you thinking of, Lizzy, when she came? You looked as if you had not seen her?"

"Oh - Nothing." She smiled, and lied, beaming at him from under the edge of her bonnet: "I was thinking about the last time you and I were here. Do you remember the elephant?"

He looked at her in some confusion, as if searching for the memory, but not quite finding it.

"The elephant - " he repeated, his face then lighting up. "Oh, of course. Pitt the elephant."

"Large and gray as a giant rock." She sighed. "I thought about it often, later. Do you suppose it is still alive?"

"I do not know," Darcy said. "I must confess, I forgot the elephant compleatly."

She felt a shard of disappointment inside, but then he said:

"I ... I remembered other things much better."

She caught his eye, a serious, private look, and felt a surge of heat in her neck and face.

Thereupon, they fell back into reflective silence, Elizabeth remembering, most of all, being spun about in his arms in the middle of just such a lane. What had he told her, then? Something, she remembered, about her romantic sensibilities. That he was charged with restoring them. She must own it-he had been quite successful in that. She smiled to herself and, deep in her reflection, jumped when he whispered:

"I do so wish I could kiss you just now, Lizzy."

She knew herself to blush ever harder at these words, thinking back to his Latin jest earlier this year. All of this-these recent memories, this new, intimate new knowledge of him - was shocking, maddening, arousing, embarrassing. It set her head to spinning.

"Your sister - " she whispered.

"I know." His gloved hand closed over hers, fingers entwining, and she thought she could feel the small shudder that rustled through him. "At least tell me you wish for it, too."

Elizabeth, toying, pulled a repressive schoolmarm face, and said:

"Shshsh! Lest we be overheard."

"Nobody to overhear us here," he said, but threw a glance over his shoulder all the same. They had stopped walking, she did not know when, and were standing, quite b?ldly, in the middle of the lane, liable to be come upon at any moment. She was holding the posy of flowers between then, like a small shield. "Tell me you want me to kiss you, Lizzy."

Her grave façade only lasted as long as it took her to catch his eyes again. She bit her lip and nodded, quickly. Such was the pleasure she saw upon his visage at this concession, she had to apply considerable restraint not to jump in his arms right then and there.

They were then indeed overtaken by Georgiana and the Colonel, the latter telling Georgiana animatedly about the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, which she most certainly must see before she departed for Pemberley.

"Do you know what it says?"

"Nobody knows," the Colonel replied. "Though I have heard that it is a funerary stella. And there is nothing wicked in seeing a funerary stella, not even if one is in mourning." He winked again, this time at Darcy, who pursed his lips tightly to conceal a smile, and told Georgiana that the Museum was a sight to see.

"Very well, then," Georgiana pronounced decisively. "If there is no particular evil in it - well, then." She smiled up at the Colonel.

"Shall we go for some ices, now?" Darcy suggested.

They did, and spent a most pleasant hour or so at Gunther's Confectionary, with nary an objection from Georgiana. At the end of it, they thanked the Colonel heartily and returned to the house in Leicester Square. Georgiana then retired upstairs, leaving the other two in the drawing room.

There, Darcy came to put his arms about Elizabeth as she stood by the window. Resting his chin upon her shoulder, he inquired whether his wife wanted to go to the Museum with the Colonel and Georgiana on the morrow.

Elizabeth gave him a sideways look.

"Or?"

He nuzzled her neck, then, one hand moving gently to stroke, lightly, just over her right breast. She gulped air, eyes drifting closed.

"Or stay home with me," he suggested.

"Mrmmmm," she said weakly, thereby removing all doubt as to what it was she wanted to do.

~ * ~

On the morning of the wedding, Malvina came to Leicester Square already dressed in a lovely new gown. Upstairs, she stood sideways before the glass, smoothing the ivory silk over her abdomen, giving herself a fault-finding look.

"You look very well," Elizabeth said. "And no, you cannot tell at all."

Malvina was some four months with child again, Elizabeth had learned just yesterday. The news did something strange to her, brought the matter of her own nonexistent child into the foreground. Her recent courses, ended shortly before their arrival to London, had left her in all manner of inner turmoil - relieved and dispirited, restless and afraid.

Malvina fixed a small blue feather in her hair and chewed on her lips to give them color. Elizabeth forced herself to stop staring.

"No wonder my brother dotes upon you," she said.

"Perhaps it is too indelicate to mention," Malvina said, stepping away from the glass, "but I have only just stopped retching daily and wishing that your brother did not find me quite so fetching."

Seeing Elizabeth's long, shocked face, she burst out laughing.

"Oh Lizzy, you silly goose. I am very fortunate, of course, to be so loved by my husband." She linked her arm with Elizabeth's. "And I love him too, you should know that."

"Good," Elizabeth said with a mock exhalation of relief. She was still embarrassed, cheeks flaming wildly. What a thing to say! she thought, and then, her gaze falling upon the garnet bracelet on her arm, remembered the circumstances under which she had received the beautiful trinket. Oh, she thought, I know all about men who dote upon us. She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward, hoping that her sister-in-law, whose powers of discernment were generally superior, did not guess at her secret thoughts.

The men were waiting for them downstairs, standing, as was their wont, together but apart. It pained Elizabeth to see that, but she dared not exhort Darcy to be more familiar with her brother. He was always the perfect host, the most gentlemanly of men, friendly and aimable. What more could she ask of him? She knew that the friendship between Darcy and Jamie had not repaired itself. She sighed to herself. Perhaps, she thought, her hopes of the revival of their great old amity had been too rash and nave. She stepped downstairs and looked up at her husband's face.

"Fitzwilliam," she whispered. Perfectly dressed himself, he regarded her gravely; but now she knew not to read disapproval into his somber, dark gaze. As if echoing her thoughts, he raised one eyebrow and said:

"What a fetching bracelet, Mrs. Darcy," thereupon giving her a look that nigh-on caused her to turn to ash in her shoes.

It was a merry ride to the church, all of them piled into the carriage, the two men sitting opposite the three women. Even Georgiana was laughing freely in her new lavender silk gown.

Inside the church, Elizabeth watched Lord Gregory pace in nervous expectation, and thought, amazed, that he appeared to be truly smitten. Caroline Bingley, looking uncommon graceful and pretty in satin and lace, made a far happier bride that Elizabeth had expected. Elizabeth fancied that she could tell genuine affection in the way Miss Bingley looked upon her bridegroom. Her heart relented at the sight of Lord Gregory's very obvious happiness and pleasure, and she absolved him of any immoral motives in marrying Caroline. She thought too well of him for that. She hoped he would be loved.

Perhaps, she mused, perhaps Darcy was right. Perhaps she did know nothing of love.

In the middle of the recitation of the four purposes of marriage, she chanced to look upon her own husband and saw him gazing upon her with warmth and adoration; he held her eyes for a long time before looking away.

They exited the church behind the beaming couple, watched His Lordship as he helped his new wife into an open carriage. Gregory, beaming, threw handfuls of coins into the surrounding crowd. Next to Elizabeth, her husband sighed.

"I am sorry that you never had this, Lizzy," he said quietly. Elizabeth shrugged, remembering her own strange wedding. It appeared dreamlike to her now, and also-wholly insignificant. After all, if one had to sacrifice a real wedding to be married to a man such as Fitzwilliam Darcy... She looked up at him and smiled happily.

"I am not," she said with conviction. "I am not sorry. At the very least," she added, feeling playful, "we shall have an interesting story to tell our grandchildren."

Darcy looked startled, but then, a grin broke through the confused expression upon his face, and he squeezed her hand tightly.

Later that night, curled up against Darcy's chest, Elizabeth murmured:

"I must own it that you were right about Miss Bingley. Or Lady Gregory as she is now."

"Mmmm?"

"She looked so happy, all morning long. I kept looking at her, and she never once looked... like I thought she might."

"And how is that?"

"You know," Elizabeth said. "That ... look she so often has...had. That superior pinched look as if she had eaten a bowl of bitterest mustard."

She could feel him grin against her shoulder. "I wager we will not see that look again soon."

"I hope for His Lordship's sake that is indeed the truth. He seemed very happy, Will."

Darcy hemmed and pinched her bottom lightly. "And is Madam Disapproval certain that Miss Bingley agreed to become Lady Gregory for all the proper reasons?"

Elizabeth squirmed and giggled. "No," she said. "But in that case, she must have been hiding her true reasons really well. I saw nothing but that she was quite ...enamored with her husband."

"It pleases me to hear you say so," Darcy replied, his voice dulled slightly as he lowered his head against her bosom. "My friend deserves to be married to someone who cares for him."

"And then," Elizabeth continued, reaching down to return the pinch, which immediately caused her husband to flip her over and roll atop her, "And then-" she repeated, laughing breathlessly - " - I do not believe that I have married you for the right reasons, either."

"Oh?" Darcy stilled above her. His hair, floppy, hung over his forehead, obscuring his fine visage. She moved the hair off, her fingers stroking, softly, the outlines of his forehead and cheekbone.

"Yes," she whispered, "I married you to please your father. And mine, though he were already dead. And because I did not know what else to do." She sighed and stretched in his embrace, slipped her fingers in his hair and kissed him. Then, struggling away to catch her breath, she added: "But I am so very glad I did marry you."

Darcy exhaled, then leaned his face to hers and kissed her gently.

"Lizzy," he whispered back, pulling away. "I think I wanted you then, already. I did not know I wanted you, but I wanted you all the same." He kissed her again, stroked his hand along her shoulder and down to her breast, where her flesh rose up to touch his palm. "I wanted you for the best of reasons," he whispered. "I could see no other as my wife."

She pushed back, then, wrapping herself about him in a fashion which, she knew, drove him mad with lust. It was the second time that night, and they had more leisure, their passion tempered by repetition. Elizabeth kept her eyes open, fighting to remember every delicious, sweet second of what they were doing. The arch of his neck and the soft fall of the eyelashes against his cheek, the way he moved inside her, the way his face changed as he took his pleasure in her, the things he whispered in her ear. All of it drove her mad, too. She felt utterly wanton, absolutely shameless and lustful, his touch like hundreds of little lightnings against her skin. She rose and fell against him, squirmed and writhed, stroked and scratched, all the while feeling the pooling of pleasure in her loins like sweet water. It tipped over the edge and flowed through her like a river, for a long, long, long time. She heard her husband's surprised gasp of pleasure, as if he was taken unawares, felt him arch, and give, and relax in her arms. For the longest time, they simply lay there, her fingers stroking, slowly, his damp, cooling back, before sliding into a comfortable, familiar circle of an embrace and drifting away.

~ * ~

Over supper two days after the wedding, Georgiana announced that she had fulfilled her social obligations, such as they might be, and wished to return to Pemberley. Darcy was surprised, and cross; Elizabeth perturbed. Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was dining with them, said nothing, attending to the food on his plate with very evident pleasure.

"We have thought to stay for another week," Darcy said mildly.

"So stay." His sister watched the plate of sole, placed in front of her by the footman, with utter indifference. "But I cannot bear to be in town any longer."

"How are you proposing to return home, then?"

"Will you not let me have a carriage?"

Darcy frowned, setting down his fork. "Georgie, you are speaking nonsense. Of course I shall let you have a carriage. But I should rather you waited and came back with us."

She gave him a tortured, unhappy look. "You can send enough footmen with me to protect me, I think."

"I should rather not. Why can you not stay for another week?"

Georgiana was frowning and puffing up her cheeks, looking very cross and exceedingly close to tears; it was beginning to look like the beginning of a row, when Colonel Fitzwilliam looked up at them, and said:

"Do not fret, you two. I shall be happy to take Cousin Georgiana to Pemberley."

Georgiana, appearing quite happy with the suggestion, beamed at him over her untouched food. Darcy frowned some more.

"I should not trouble you, Fitzwilliam." "Oh, it is no trouble at all." Fitzwilliam bit into an asparagus spear. "It will be pleasant and will give me a chance to escape my mother's clucking company."

~ * ~

After Georgiana's departure, they spent some of their time with Jamie and Malvina; Elizabeth thought with regret that it was not nearly as much as she would have liked. But Malvina was still frequently unwell, and Jamie often stayed home with her; then, a letter came announcing the Bennets' impending departure from London. Elizabeth grieved, privately; her plan to make the two men into brothers had not worked one bit. The two were still civil and friendly, but, she could see, spoke little to each other, and mostly where it concerned other people.

The night before the Bennets' departure from London, Elizabeth and Darcy invited them to a Covent-Garden performance of Il Tamerlano, a slightly overblown, overly dramatic Italian Opera that was the only thing decent showing that night. Elizabeth thought that were Georgiana there, she would disapprove of such an entertainment, though the Opera was eminently dark and depressing. But Georgiana was not there, and the four of them drove to Covent Garden, merrily enough.

Elizabeth sat in their box, ignoring the Opera compleatly, dwelling instead on how she could fashion a passionate brotherly friendship out of the polite, slightly remote relationship that had now developed between her husband and her brother. Her thoughts were interrupted when, halfway through the performance, Malvina rose and made her excuses, telling them she needed fresh air. Jamie made to rise from his seat, but Elizabeth stopped him with a wave of her hand.

"I shall go with her," she said, jumping to her feet. If the two of them were left alone, so much the better, she thought hopefully.

Malvina's sickness proved only to require a moment with her bottle of salts and a walk outside the stifling box. After another moment, she sat down tiredly on a small bench, while Elizabeth dutifully waved a feathered fan about her head.

"Thank you, I am better," she said, after another moment. "I am having a devil of a time with this one," she added, surprising Elizabeth with the small vulgarity. "It was an ill idea altogether for me to travel to town just now." She sighed and idly stretched her feet in beige kidskin slippers. "I cannot wait to be at Longbourn."

Elizabeth was suddenly seized with a strange desire to go to Longbourn as well, to go with them, and to bring Darcy along, too. She did not know whence it came, for she was also missing Pemberley quite drearily. She phrased her sudden desire somewhat cautiously:

"Perhaps we shall come to visit you there?"

Malvina smiled. "You most certainly should, if you so desire. You are always welcome at Longbourn."

"Move a bit." Elizabeth slipped down onto the bench, nudging Malvina with her hip. "I confess I am not entirely innocent in suggesting it," she said in a hurried whisper.

"Mmmm?"

"I am dying for Jamie to reconcile with my husband."

Malvina frowned, puzzled. "Whatever do you mean, reconcile? I have thought them friendly enough."

"They are, I suppose, friendly enough. But they were not friendly, Mal, they were friends."

"So they were," Malvina agreed. "Many years ago they were. But need I remind you what happened after?"

"No, you need not! But it has been some years since, why could they not go back to being friends again?"

Malvina frowned at her again, this time in mild annoyance. "You truly are a child, Elizabeth, if you think that friendship, once buried, can be so easily unearthed. Simply because you will it so."

Elizabeth smarted at such a rebuke. "You do not understand," she said stubbornly. "They are my two dearest people in this world. I want them to be friends."

Malvina watched her for some time, then shook her head. "Very well, try then. I think that you will injure yourself in the process and will have nothing for your trouble. Both of them are very deep, and very stubborn. They are as friendly with one another as they can stand to be, just now. Why it is not enough for you, Elizabeth, I am at a loss to understand."

They rose and went inside, then, to their men, who were not looking at each other at all, but staring at the stage with such rapturous attention, one would think their very lives depended upon the outcome of the performance. Malvina gave Elizabeth a look, as if to say, look, you will break your teeth on this one; but Elizabeth, determined, pretended to ignore it.

Following the performance, the two men said their good-byes. Jamie and Malvina were leaving first thing in the morning, while Darcy had an appointment with his solicitor. Elizabeth watched as they shook their hands.

"I shall come to see you off in the morning," she told them as she watched Jamie hand Malvina into their carriage.

Later that night, Elizabeth broached the subject to Darcy. He was undressing before bed, standing there in his long shirt. Warm as the night was, he whipped it over his head after a moment of contemplation. Climbing naked into the bed, he stretched luxuriously, yawned and dug his toes in the sheets, before assuming a recumbent posture. Elizabeth looked away, his obvious nakedness disconcerting to her just now. She was sitting on the bed in her nightshift that, whisper-thin, was still too much for this August night. But she found herself too shy to boldly take it off; so she raised her arms instead and twisted her hair up, trying to keep it off her neck. Sadly, it fell right down again. Elizabeth sighed. Now would be the time to ask him. She could chat with him about the Opera, perhaps, but she knew that it would not make the following conversation any better, or easier. So she dove in.

"What would you say to coming to Longbourn with me for a few days?"

Darcy had his eyes closed, slowly sliding down into a sleeping position, one hand lazily pulling a sheet over his body; but at that, he opened them, righted himself and looked up in surprise.

"To Longbourn?" he repeated. "Now?"

"Yes-why not. Of course, now." She smiled, nervously, fingers twisting the edge of her shift. Why was she so nervous? For all she knew, he would not think twice of it, and would be perfectly agreeable to the idea.

But he said:

"To be perfectly honest, Lizzy, I did not think to do this now. Were you not thinking of returning home?"

"I was - but I thought perhaps for a few days -"

Darcy paused, looking slightly embarrassed. "Lizzy, I should rather go home right now. Georgiana -"

"Yes, yes, I know!" She spoke quickly, too loudly, hoping to hide and stifle her disappointment at the same time. "At any rate, please forget I have asked you.' She turned away and began fluffing her pillow vigorously.

"Lizzy." She felt her husband's hand upon her arm. "Perhaps we could do this later?"

"Of course," she said, without turning around. She was so, so bitterly disappointed by this, and she could not quite put into words, why. "Later."

"After all, you just saw your brother, did you not? We only just said good-byes to them tonight."

She turned around then, and spoke, quickly:

"Yes! But I wanted -I thought it would be wonderful if you and Jamie would spend some more time together -we barely had any time together, all of us -"

"Me and Jamie?" he asked in some surprise. "Whatever do you mean by that?"

"Oh nothing," she said, frustrated, but he was looking at her shrewdly, and she felt, all of a sudden, a prickle of tears at her eyelids.

Silent for a long pause, Darcy then said:

"Lizzy, I know what you are trying to do."

Cold in the very pit of her belly and tight in her breast, she denied it all. "I know not of what you speak," she informed him.

"You have tried, rather too hard, to leave me and Bennet in the same room at odd times."

"I have done no such thing."

"And this burning desire to visit Longbourn now, after we have just spent some two weeks in your brother and sister's company -"

"May I not have a burning desire to visit my old home?"

"An old home where you have barely lived? Credit me with wits, Elizabeth."

She blew up.

"Very well!" she cried, throwing her arms up in the air. "I want you to reconcile with my brother!"

He stared at her in such obvious astonishment, she began to doubt her own sanity. Why was it so surprising to him that she should want him and Jamie to be friends?

"I did not know that we were in need of reconciliation," he said placidly.

"You know precisely what I mean."

"I think I do, and I daresay you have managed to surprise me."

"I want you and him to be friends again."

"We are certainly not enemies."

"But you are not friends."

Darcy was silent for a moment, and then said:

"I do not think we are, no."

"I was hoping that perhaps, if you spent more time in his company, you would - I have thought the two of you were great friends."

He was quiet again, thinking. At length, he turned on his side, regarding her thoughtfully in the flickering candlelight.

"I do not know, really. We were certainly fast friends. And inseparable. For a while." He shook his head, his visage serious. "Lizzy, people age, become older, grow up." With an attempt at levity, he pointed at the round, puckered scar on his forearm. "They shoot each other, occasionally."

"Oh stop it," Elizabeth said. "It was a duel."

"I know what it was. And I shall tell you more. I think Bennet was in the right. I think I deserved it. Certainly I would have shot me."

Elizabeth waved her hand at him, frowning painfully against the perverse desire to laugh. "Stop it. You did not. You did not deserve it. You were both fools. Which is why I think you should reconcile, because you were both to blame!"

"But it was not all. We never had time to mend it between us. He went to India, I went to... " He sighed. "I went to London to stew unhappily for a few years. We lost each other, Lizzy."

"I know! But I do so hope that you can find each other!"

Darcy lifted one shoulder. "Perhaps you are right," he said. "But I, for one, cannot find my friend in there, and, I am certain, neither can he in me." He looked pained. "I know what you are doing, Lizzy. I know why. But I cannot help you with it."

She looked at him, then, really looked at him. Naked and tousled, he looked very young. He also looked tired. She would have thought she'd be angry at him for this, but she felt nothing but gentle sadness. I cannot find my friend in there. It broke her heart to think of it, but there was no anger in her, only a desire to make it better.

Reaching up, she ruffled Darcy's hair. "I am sorry. I should not have- "

"No, 'tis nothing." He smiled at her, and, clearly relieved that they were not having a row, pulled her hand to his lips. "Lord, I am tired. Come, Lizzy, let us sleep."

It took Elizabeth a long time to fall asleep. Her husband long dead to the world, she twisted and turned at his side, too hot in the warm August night, and too restless. She pondered how a friendship so great could just disappear. How one could simply lose his best friend over what was fundamentally a misunderstanding. Or perhaps, she thought, it was not all that great? What had he said about it? We were fast friends. Perhaps she had overestimated the strength of attachment between the two men? And it was not, whatever she told herself, a simple misunderstanding. It had been terrible carnage, it had torn her family apart. How could Jamie and Darcy recover from it so entirely as to be friends again? She knew that she would find no answer to these questions. With a deep sigh, closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.

~ * ~

On the morrow, she was driven to Malvina's Mayfair townhouse. She would have walked, but she did not want to lose any time, and it was, too, far too hot already for a leisurely stroll. At the townhouse, there was bustle, servants running in every direction, bags and boxes already packed and set atop the carriage. She went up the townhouse stairs and found her brother and sister in the parlour, already dressed for their travels, and Tommy in his nurse's arms. Malvina's Aunts were nowhere to be seen.

She kissed Jamie and Malvina in turn and took the boy from his nurse. Malvina was puffing a little, waving herself with a fan.

"Oh I shall be glad to be in the country again," she said. "What an abominable thing it is to be with child in this city."

Elizabeth swung Tommy about, causing him to break into good-natured giggles. Her nephew had a propensity to laugh at the slightest provocation, and particularly hard-if his father made a face at him. Jamie did just that, then, causing the boy to laugh first, and then, following him, the women. Elizabeth was arrested, then, with a very strong feeling of love for them all, and a slight feeling of pique at Darcy; what was wrong with him, after all, that he could not be friends with Jamie again?

They all went outside, Jamie asking her when she was to visit Longbourn.

"I shall come for Malvina's confinement for certain," Elizabeth said. Malvina lifted one eyebrow, but said nothing. Jamie laughed.

"Dearest sister, this is five months hence! Say you will come sooner than that!"

Elizabeth nodded and kissed Tommy once before handing him back to the nurse. "Of course I shall," she said. "Soon as I am able."

Embraces then followed, great tearful hugs, and she could not contain a small anguished sob against her brother's shoulder.

"Aw Bess," Jamie said softly, "It will be all right, you shall see."

"I do so want you two to be friends," she said, surly, into his shoulder. "Why are you both so stubborn? Would it kill you both to just be friends again?"

He sighed and stroked her hair.

"My dear, I do not know if it is even possible anymore," he said. "I really do not know."

She felt him freeze before she heard the sound: the even, measured cadence of a company of men walking in unison, the almost-musical jangling of their weapons. The bark of a command as they all came to a stop.

"James," Malvina said next to them, her voice very faint. "Do you see -"

Elizabeth turned and saw them, then. Soldiers. And so many of them! The red of their regimentals brilliant, the glint of weapons almost blinding on this sunlit summer morning. They had stopped a few steps away, and now one of them advanced.

"Captain James Bennet," the man said, not truly asking. He was young, Elizabeth saw, perhaps her age, or younger. His ears were sticking out.

Jamie nodded with a tight smile. "It has been a Mr. Bennet for the last year," he said. "How may I be of service to you, sir?"

"By the power vested in me by His Majesty the King, you are hereby under arrest." The young man was staring past all of them, eyes glued to some indistinguishable spot on the cobblestone. Without another word, he held out a paper with an official-looking seal. Jamie took it from him and read it silently, then handed it back. Then, he asked, slowly:

"What is my crime, sir?"

"Not at liberty to say," the red-coated man said, then nodded at the soldiers behind him. "If you think of putting up a fight -" He sounded worried and doubtful.

Malvina gasped, but Jamie set his hand upon her arm, and she froze. For a moment, Jamie simply stood there, looking lost, then nodded. "Yes. All right. But give me a moment."

The man nodded an officer's understanding. Elizabeth saw that he appeared to be looking away, but not quite; watching Jamie out of the corner of his eye. Should he try to run. The thought-that this was bad enough, serious enough for him to have to run -jerked her out of her numb, slow-witted state and into absolute, animal terror.

Malvina, on her part, appeared more angry than afraid, telling Jamie that it was a mistake, had to be a mistake, that they would sort it out very soon, and that those responsible would pay dearly for such an outrage. Jamie stopped her babbling by kissing her, in full view of Elizabeth and the soldiers, then took Tommy from his nurse and tossed him, once, before kissing the top of his head. Elizabeth, when her turn came, threw herself at her brother, clutching at his coat. Tears choked her, and she had a horrible presentiment that this was far, far more serious than anyone could imagine. She forced herself to some semblance of calm, forced herself to let him go. She could not believe that she was letting him go, again, after he had been gone for so long, after she had almost lost him. Her fingers ached as she unclasped them from his sleeve. Jamie smiled at them and lifted his hand in a gesture of good-bye.

"I shall see you all very soon," he said, before turning and walking away with the red-coated soldiers. The women waited, in grim silence, for him to round the corner, before throwing themselves into each other's arms.

"My god, my god," Elizabeth heard herself say. "What is this, why is this, Malvina, do you know anything about it?"

But her sister said that she did not and she was convinced only that it was a mistake. Had to be a mistake.

They went back into the house, holding one another, the perplexed, silent servants bringing back Malvina's trunks and hat boxes. The nurse carried the whining Tommy up the stairs with an alacrity that Elizabeth first appreciated and subsequently regretted: for without the boy there, there was nobody and nothing to take their minds off what had just occurred. Helpless, they sat in idle silence for some time. To say even a word seemed to validate this horror, and to cause it to become true.

Thereupon, snapping once again to action, Elizabeth sent a missive to her husband, asking him to come to Malvina's house. She instructed a young footman severely that should he to find Mr. Darcy is still from home, he must find out-on her orders-where his solicitor's office was and track him down. The young man nodded earnestly and escaped with all possible speed; she knew she must have sounded possessed to him. God, she thought, drawing her hand through her hair, God, what is happening?

Now, they waited for him. Elizabeth prayed, with a sinking heart, that he should be found at home. She remembered, vaguely, being sad about something yesterday, being a little angry; but it seemed to her now that he only had to come to this house, only had to appear and hear about Jamie's misfortune, and he would fix it all. Make it all better, she thought, plaintive as a child in her own mind.

Malvina rose from her chair and started walking to and fro across the room. Without a single word, she traversed the room, sometimes leaning on her arms against the wall, sometimes coming to the window to look outside, where the morning heat gave way to a sudden, overwhelming thunderstorm. Elizabeth, curled up on a settee, watched her wearily; she remembered this pacing, this restless, determined gait, the way she stood, hands against the wall, head hanging down, from the day when Tommy was born. Was it only a year before-oh, less, even! How very happy they were then, when Malvina's travail was over. How did this happen?

Though she had been waiting for him, Darcy's arrival took her by surprise. She started when he strode in, still wearing his wet cloak, his hair, too, damp from the rain.

"Lizzy," he said. "I came directly. What happened?"

In her short note to him, she had written only that her brother had been arrested. She said, now, stumbling over her words

"They came and took him. They did not tell us why, they would not tell us!" She noticed, then, that she was wringing her hands, and forced herself still. She told him that the arresting officers were not Bow Street runners, nor bailiffs, but soldiers. Darcy frowned at that in puzzlement.

"It must be a mistake," Malvina said from her spot near the window, her voice still full of conviction. She had ceased her restless pacing and was standing very still, one hand playing idly with the thin gold chain of her cross.

Darcy said nothing to that, his gaze grave. This silence, this grim frown upon his face frightened Elizabeth exceedingly.

"What?" she asked, panic flooding her entirely. "Why do you not say anything, do you not think it is a mistake?"

"I should prefer to reserve judgment," he said quietly. "Allow me to go -to investigate - straight away. I hate to leave you alone right now, but -"

"Of course," Elizabeth said. She bit her lip to keep herself composed; it worked poorly.

Darcy bowed to both of them quite formally and was gone immediately.

Several more hours of impatient waiting, of pacing, of feeling as if she should run mad. She told herself that she would not be afraid for her brother, that it was a mere mistake; but cold, oppressive terror had made itself at home in her breast.

It was so gray and wet outside now that she soon lost count to the hours, and was greatly surprised at the clock in the parlor striking four in the afternoon. That late, she thought. They had been there all day. The housekeeper had come in some hours ago and asked whether tea things ought to be brought in. The two women looked upon each other, and both simultaneously shook their heads. Elizabeth could not imagine any food passing her lips just now, the very thought making her instantly ill.

After some time spent in gloomy silence, Malvina fell asleep on the settee. Elizabeth, unable to sleep herself, remained on the sofa, curled up into a miserable ball and staring into the fireplace.

Thereupon, she heard Darcy's voice, speaking to someone; and for a moment, a hope was kindled in her breast that it was Jamie he had brought back with him. She flew to her feet and was utterly heartbroken to see that Darcy had only been speaking to the butler. She nodded at the sleeping Malvina and held a finger to her lips. The two of them repaired to the library posthaste.

"Well, well?" Elizabeth asked the moment the library door closed behind them. "Did you see him? What are they saying, will they let him go?" She let out a sharp breath. "Is this a mistake after all?"

"Lizzy," Darcy said, leaning towards her slightly and taking her hand in his. "My dear, it is not good. It is not a mistake. I mean - I am certain that it is a mistake, but the Army does not believe so. They think that they have the correct person."

"But what are the accusations?"

Darcy exhaled. "They are accusing Bennet of passing a map of Fort St John to the enemy, thus enabling them to enter the Fort secretly, set it on fire, murder a large number of our men and cause general havoc."

As if trying to hide from such news, Elizabeth spun about and went to stand by a large window. It was still raining, the summer day gone, it appeared, quite for good; large, brilliant drops of rain hitting the pavement with visible force and shattering upon impact. Elizabeth stared, mesmerized by their fall.

"Lizzy," Darcy said cautiously behind her.

"Treason," she whispered. The word felt ridiculous upon her tongue, utterly inapplicable to her brother. "They are accusing him of treason."

"Yes."

She swayed on her feet and was instantly held up by her husband, who led her to a chair and sat her down, inquiring whether she wanted some water.

"No," she said. "But why him? Why my brother?"

"It appears," he said, "that they have a witness, a native man who says that the Tigers paid a large amount of money - he was not clear as to how much exactly - to a tall, dark-haired English officer with a signet ring. He remembered the ring in particular as he said it had an owl upon it."

Elizabeth shot Darcy a horrified look.

"My brother's ring," she whispered. "The one that you gave him."

Darcy nodded. "It is likely the very same."

"Oh God. I think I might be ill."

But she was not, and the wave of horrible nausea passed as swiftly as it had come. For some time, the two of them sat in silence. Elizabeth said that she would rather not tell Malvina until tomorrow. After all, she might have yet one more hopeful night.

Later that night, having covered the deeply sleeping Malvina with a shawl, Elizabeth and Darcy retired upstairs to a guest bedchamber. It did not seem right, somehow, to leave Malvina alone. Of course, her Aunts were here, but Elizabeth did not think that her sister-in-law would appreciate their company just now. As it was, the Aunts huffed with such obvious, rude displeasure when Elizabeth asked that a room should be prepared for her and Darcy.

"What of the Captain? Where is he?" the plumper one of the Aunts-Elizabeth could never remember which one was which, and right now, it was a hopeless business-inquired, eyebrow raised.

"He is detained," she replied vaguely. "Mr. Darcy and I shall spend the night here. Mrs. Bennet is asleep in the blue drawing room, pray do not disturb her."

The woman went, mumbling something rude under her breath, and was squarely ignored.

Now, sitting next to one another on the bed in this borrowed guest room, Elizabeth and Darcy spoke in whispers about what had occurred.

"Did this man identify Jamie?"

"No. I do not think so, though it is unclear. All that I was told was that there was an English officer."

"But there are so many officers at that Fort!"

"Yes. But the description of tall and dark-haired excludes at least some of them, I imagine, and the man apparently described Bennet's ring with some particularity."

She thought for a moment.

"But I have not seen Jamie wear it since his return to England. Perhaps he has lost it? Or - oh, of course - or had it stolen from him!"

"Yes. These are all defenses that he can put forth, but -"

"But the truth is, the absence of the ring does not prove that he did not have it - "

" - at the time that he had made his deal."

"Do not say that!" Elizabeth snapped. Darcy regarded her, eyes wary. "Pray do not say it like so. He made the deal."

Darcy opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head. "I am so sorry, Lizzy, I did not mean for it to sound like this. But somebody did. Somebody made a deal for which your brother now suffers."

Elizabeth dropped her head in her hands and groaned.

"Oh God," she repeated. "What will happen now?'

Darcy reached for her hand. In the faint candlelight, Elizabeth saw his Adam's apple bob once, hard, as he swallowed. "I imagine," he said slowly, "that there will be a trial. They do not know when, yet."

He told her that Jamie was being held at the Horse Guards, and guarded very closely.

"Which is a good thing."

Elizabeth threw him a narrow glance. "Is it?" she asked.

"Yes. As a matter of fact, it would probably be best if we all removed to Leicester Square." Catching her worried glance, he squeezed her hand once. "With your sister and nephew."

"Do you really think -"

"My heart would be easier knowing that you are at our town-house. And it would be safer for your sister."

Elizabeth said nothing for a while. The awful reality of this was like a sinkhole, pulling her in with every step she took. She did not inquire as to the reasons for Darcy's certainty, but she was chilled to the bone. She did not know whether it was because she was truly cold, or because she was so very much afraid.

They undressed briefly to their underthings and held each other in this guest bed. A maid had neglected to put a hot-water bottle between the sheets, and they were, strangely, icy on this late summer night. Elizabeth began to cry in great, weak, desperate gulps, and her husband, though he held her, said nothing to reassure her.

To be continued


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