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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 6 part 1

Mademoiselle Valerie Degas (who, in her days in rural Shropshire, was known as Polly Mills, but who eschewed such a common name in favor of a more refined appellation when she left the country for London five years back) slipped out of bed. The floor in her room was ice-cold, and she swore under her breath, for a moment losing the carefully-honed French accent she had perfected over the years. She had worked on it for so long, it had become her second nature to pronounce the "n" in "ange" with a slight nasal lilt, and to softly roll the "r" in "cherie" against the back of her throat. Wake her up in the middle of the night, and she would sound like a genuine Frenchwoman.

Well, she thought wryly, except possibly on a night like this. It was March all right, but in the middle of spring, the treacherous winter had returned, catching them unawares. Valerie cast a rueful glance upon the window; the night was hidden behind a pane full of frost-painted silvery designs. Mademoiselle Valerie shivered, pulled the shawl tighter about her shoulders and thought, longingly, about being able to sleep in a long, warm nightshift, which, on a night like this, seemed a survival minimum. Unfortunately, there was little seduction to be done in a flannel nightshift with cuffs and a collar. Her own night things, a bright, insubstantial finery, now lay tangled amidst the sheets-silk white stockings, pale-blue ribbon garters, a beautiful-and beautifully expensive-set of whalebone stays, designed to make her young, high bosom look even younger and higher.

She went into her dressing room, which felt, by now, like hell frozen over. Stooping, fumbling, she pulled a chamber pot from its shelf.

Two minutes later, tiptoeing towards the bed, she tripped over something. Only a precarious balancing act saved her from crashing into a tea table housing an arrangement of Chinese knickknacks. She paused, exhaling slowly, then leaned to pick up the object from the floor. It was a man's heavy winter coat. She smiled, not unlike a happy cream-fed cat, remembering how the coat had come to be there, tossed carelessly in the middle of the room. Its owner slept now soundly amidst the sheets and blankets, and she wanted nothing more than to return to his side. If nothing else, her sleeping lover would be an excellent source of warmth in the cold night, as the blankets have trapped the heat from his young body.

As she hanged the coat neatly upon a chair, she saw something white sticking out of its pocket. Reaching down, Mademoiselle Valerie tugged carefully on its corner. It was a letter; her fingers detected, immediately, expensive paper. After a moment's hesitation, she slunk back into her dressing room. There, she quickly lit a single candle, burning the tips of her fingers in the process and issuing another very English curse. She set the candle on a small dressing table, and swathing her lithe nude form in a huge shawl, sat down on the edge of the chair. Her teeth chattered a little as she read the letter. It paid to know things about her gentlemen-friends (she thought of them that way, avoiding that hideous word, customer, for they were a chosen few, and she developed with them relationships that were not unlike friendships).

Having finished the letter, Mademoiselle Valerie folded it thoughtfully and snuffed the candle. She sat in the dark for a few moments, trying to digest all she had just read. Yes, his fiancée. Immediately, she was resolved-and resolute-that she would not grieve this new intelligence. She had known as much, from something he had let slip once-when he had appeared on her doorstep two months ago (looking not unlike a snow-drifted ghost, so that she became frightened for him and urged him inside; it was a good thing, indeed, that she was not entertaining anyone else that night, or it might have been rather awkward. It seemed that the knowledge of that betrothal had distressed him terribly.). Yes, she thought, marry, why should he not marry? He was already four-and-twenty, and an heir to a great estate. He could not remain heir forever; one day, he would be called upon to become its Master, responsible for its future prosperity. He would need an heir himself, then. It was only natural that he should be betrothed. She reread his father's letter, the pertinent parts: she is no longer the little savage you remember, though a long way away from a lady fit to govern Pemberley at your side. Reading, she felt the man's optimism, and her heart squeezed. His father seemed to like this Miss Bennet, indeed, he seemed to be grooming her to become his son's wife. When would that happen? Mademoiselle Valerie thought longingly. How much longer until the "little savage" is fit to marry him? Not yet. Oh, she thought, please, not yet. It was one thing to know it might happen some day, and another-to see it written on a piece of paper, black on white. Rallying her spirits, she told herself that she would not lose him, not for certain. He was affianced now, and he still came to her-why should he cease to do so when married? His fiancée clearly had little claim on his affections. Whoever she was, this girl, this must not be an engagement of the heart. He had never spoken of her, beyond that one night, weeks ago. To confess, she had felt wistful and unhappy then, for it felt to her as if a pretty dream had broken. She banished all thoughts of that. There had never been a dream, not then, not now, not ever. Not consciously, in any case (and who was to know the deepest crannies of her soul, where all forgotten dreams had been banished?). They were too different for any kind of future together.

Still, she sighed uneasily. What a pity it would be to lose him. But perhaps not?

She tiptoed back into the room, slipped the letter, carefully, into the pocket of his coat. When she slid into the warmth next to him, her lover groaned and turned, instinctively moving away from her cold feet.

But he failed to wake.

Much of Elizabeth's time at Pemberley was spent writing letters. All of them, every single one, addressed to Lieutenant James R. Bennet, the 19th Light Dragoons, Colonel Forster's regiment. Wherever it might be, for she never knew for certain where the garrison might be stationed. Jamie's latest letter had come from Madras, the one just before that-from Calcutta. She penned a missive a week, at the least, though she knew they took months to get to India. She wrote of the goings-on at Pemberley, told him of Cat's excellent progress in terrorizing the population of Pemberley mice (which made him a great favorite with Mrs. Reynolds), of waking up and finding the orange beast on top of her head, as it was his penchant to sleep on pillows. She wrote to him about the family, too, trying to be cautious and kind in her judgments. She liked them much more than she let on; but she feared that any reminder of the Darcys would bring back painful memories for her brother. Therefore, she trod lightly. (And, however kindly she spoke of Mr. Darcy and his daughter, she said nothing, whatsoever, about the son. Indeed, conspicuously, not a single word. It was as if Fitzwilliam Darcy had disappeared off the face of the earth; indeed, as if he'd never been.)

Thoughts of the interminable distance between them intruded, leaving her to wonder whether Jamie even received her letters. He was so far away. Madras, Calcutta, Bombay. The Indian Ocean. The words felt like fragrant coffee beans, like the most flavorsome of spices, like the richest, most vibrant hues. But to apply them to the one she loved... to imagine Jamie in this faraway place! The distance between them never felt so real, never weighed so heavily, as when she wrote her letters, dating them, knowing that it would take them months to traverse the seas. If, indeed, they managed to at all. She hoped that they would catch up with him, wherever he went. Pemberley did not have a map of India, but, with Mr. Darcy's permission, she did scavenge a map of the world from the library. She hanged it on the wall in her room, above her escritoire. She could see it every night as she fell asleep, dim in the shadows. Looking up at that enormous, dangerous land, and an even greater expanse of land and sea that separated them, she fought her hardest not to despair.

Georgiana's companionship made Elizabeth feel a little less alone, easing her longing to a degree that a book or needlepoint or solitary walks could not. The girl's company was a pleasure to her-however unfinished a child Georgiana was at the age of twelve. On their long walks around Pemberley, on their bedtime chats, they talked of everything they knew in the world. Only one subject could make Elizabeth uneasy; indeed, she purposely avoided it. While Georgiana attempted, occasionally, to gush and wax poetic about the virtues of her brother, the subject pained Elizabeth, for she could not find it in herself to agree with the girl. Indeed, she would not be caught dead cataloguing the virtues of Fitzwilliam Darcy. She understood that Georgiana missed her brother (though for the life of her, she could not see what it was she missed about him), but she had nothing good to say about him. After all her attempts to speak well of the absent man were met with stubborn silence, Georgiana caught the hint. Soon, she, too, stopped her warblings on the subject.

And of course, the subject of their disgraceful betrothal was never brought up. Elizabeth believed, honestly, that Georgiana knew nothing of the subject. She would have it remain just so. Indeed, she hoped that by the time Georgiana were old enough to understand, the whole sordid matter would be done with and buried.

To her great chagrin, Jamie did not hurry home. She had received no letter from him after the one in November; she had assumed he was on his way to England. But April came, and then May, abundant in blooms. Starting at Easter, Elizabeth spent her mornings in a window-seat, with Cat curled up at her feet. She was watching the road, looking for the tell-tale cloud of dust that would announce her brother's arrival... indeed, her liberation. She believed that Jamie would save her from marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy. How, she did not know, for her father's will for her was to marry the man, so that she might be the mistress of Pemberley. She had raised the question with him during the last years of his life, and was rebuffed every time. Even as he breathed his last, his wish was for her to marry that awful, awful man.

In her darkest moments, Elizabeth despaired. She knew that all her determination aside, she had very little control over her own future. In Jamie's absence, her guardianship was in Mr. Darcy's hands. She tried her hardest not to lose heart. Jamie would help her. Perhaps, he and Mr. Darcy would arrange something ...she did not know what, the particulars of such an arrangement too complicated for her sixteen-year-old mind. But she did know that Jamie would save her, he would save her when he came. She felt guilty even thinking it like that, like she needed saving, for the Darcys were most gracious towards her... but she only had to remember the scorn in Fitzwilliam Darcy's eyes to forget all about her guilt.

She fought the weaker, gloomier parts of her heart, fought them not to lose hope. After all, Jamie had said to her, do not marry him in my absence. It had to count for something. The memories of his voice, his hand upon her shoulder, gave her strength. Jamie had never lied, had never broken a promise. He would do as he had said. He would come back for her. Her spirits rising with every thought of her brother, Elizabeth trained her eyes on the road, and watched, and watched, and watched for that cloud of dust.

But it did not come, and she grew steadily more and more worried, and more and more miserable. Mr. Darcy watched her shuffle around, quieter now, barely talking to anyone, and not a walk to be had out of her, not a single piece on the pianoforte, not a poem declaimed. Georgiana no longer had her company during her lessons, for she would not leave the window-seat, for fear of missing Jamie's carriage. Even Cat abandoned her more and more often, evidently finding her company very dull.

"This travesty of a marriage must not proceed!"

Fitzwilliam Darcy grimaced at his reflection in the window. A gentleman, he could not allow himself to make a face like that at the speaker, who, being his elderly aunt, had an advantage over him in sex, age and position. But Lady Catherine de Bourgh-his late mother's older sister had taken to her favorite diversion, pulling scabs off his old wounds. Every time he visited with her, she reminded him, rather forcefully, that he had contracted to marry beneath him. How she had come to learn of the fact, Darcy could not fathom: for he had not told her, and he doubted his father would have, for all communication between Mr. Darcy and his sister-in-law had ceased following Lady Anne's death. Therefore, he thought, an unscrupulous spy of a servant. He would have to speak with his father, alert him that he could not, perhaps, trust his stuff as he had before.

"What is she?" the irate lady ranted. "Who are her family? Where are her connections? What dowry does she bring with her?"

Pemberley, he thought, wryly. She brings Pemberley with her. She is a godsend, a boon of a bride. Over the past three years, he had begun to find a certain degree of bitter mirth in the idea. Aloud, he said nothing, merely shrugged, affecting the superior indifference, the polished haughtiness he adopted when he could not bear to face the world. He was very well aware of the low opinion his aunt held of the Darcy line in general: according to her, her younger sister had committed a misalliance all those years ago. Lady Catherine often decried her late father's laxness; had it been up to her, she would never have allowed Lady Anne to marry a commoner. Admittedly, the commoner had a few redeeming qualities-such as the largest estate in three counties, a strikingly handsome appearance and all the goodness of character one could hope for in a husband-but they hardly signified, when one considered his vulgar beginnings.

Darcy, well aware of his aunt's opinions as concerned his entire paternal line, only continued his acquaintance with her because she was his late mother's sister. That, and he was afraid that any rift between the two of them would lead to a great scandal, tarnishing his family name. He disliked the old shrew; her readiness to harangue him about his engagement to Miss Bennet unnerved him terribly-and another lovely habit of hers-reminding him that he had been promised to marry her daughter Anne, that such was the dearest wish of both the mothers-unsettled him even more. His visits with Lady Catherine were only of a perfunctory length.

"You must speak with your father!" Lady Catherine insisted in the meantime. Darcy sighed, resting his forehead against the glass. Such a thought was well-nigh revolutionary. Over the past three years, in his letters from London and the Continent, during his visits to Pemberley, he had never brought it up. It was not that he expected to be refused. Indeed, should he throw himself at his father's mercy... But it was unfathomable. It was his duty to keep Pemberley in the family. He would do a lot worse for that.

"Nephew, do you hear me? You must speak to your father! You must make it clear to him, you are already betrothed to Anne-"

Darcy pressed his flaming face against the glass; it was cool but for a moment, acquiring, a second later, all the warmth of his own skin. For a second, he contemplated throwing himself out the window, then discarded the undignified thought.

"Oh, to see the shades of Pemberley thus polluted!" his aunt cried, forgetting conveniently, that Pemberley had always belonged to the Darcy common line, not the considerably more well-born Fitzwilliam family.

Darcy wondered, in passing, whether Elizabeth Bennet had changed at all over the time he had not seen her. Three years ago, she and the Professor had left Trinity while he convalesced, following Bennet's abrupt departure. Once again, he frowned at his reflection in the glass, feeling an old pang in his arm, where Bennet's bullet had torn through his flesh. Then, he had wakened from his nightmares and his pain, having well-nigh lost his arm, to find that his friend... his former friend had gone. Ironically, it was Mr. Darcy-senior who had arranged to spirit Bennet away from inevitable prosecution, had procured for him a lieutenant's commission with the 19th Light Dragoons-in India. The Trinity authorities were furious with the duel, which had made the college the stuff of London newssheets for at least a fortnight. The authorities were keen to punish someone-anyone. Preferably the one who had started it all. Bennet's motives in calling Darcy out, however noble, mattered not at all (nor were they known, a bevy of wild rumors circulating around Trinity in their stead). It was Bennet's luck, really, that he had graduated already, or he would have been thrown out of Cambridge altogether. In any case, a career in the military, as far away as possible, was an alternative preferable to being flung to gaol.

Darcy remembered that, waking up, he spent hours in front of a window, staring at the green, at the graceful Elizabethan turrets. His father had wanted him to recuperate before taking him back to Pemberley... but he would not go back. For the longest time, he could not bear to go back, could not stand to be around all that Grecian splendor, so dearly purchased. It would be another year and a half before he would visit there. Then, after Trinity, he spent a month in London, then went, heedlessly, to the Continent. There, he consumed every pleasure, but all of it was bitter ashes to him. Every time he cast his eyes upon the glittering Mediterranean or a pretty girl, he could not help thinking that his pleasure from these beauties would have been far greater, had his best friend been next to him.

"Darcy!" He startled, turning around. "You are not listening to me!" His aunt pointed an accusative finger at him and scowled. The old bat. "You must write a letter to your father! You must tell him to put off all this nonsense about you marrying that girl!"

Darcy frowned again and squared his shoulders. "You must see it is impossible, Aunt."

"I do not see how it is impossible, nephew!" Lady Catherine pursed her lips, then went on a renewed offensive. "Indeed, if only your poor mother were alive!"

"I should never contradict my father's wishes," he said, politely, yet firmly. "Neither did my mother."

"Good God, the man is positively daft, to be forcing you into such a misalliance! What's in it for him, if I only knew!"

Darcy shivered. The last thing he wanted was for his aunt to know the truth behind his impending marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. He had told her the official version: that his father and his father's best friend had decided, years ago, to marry their children. It was a simple enough idea-and after all, whatever Lady Catherine said, marrying Miss Bennet was not such a misalliance. She was a gentleman's daughter and brought some inheritance with her, and that would be sufficient for many. After all, Lady Catherine claimed a similar arrangement between Darcy and her sickly, consumptive daughter. Darcy doubted severely that his mother would have betrothed him as a child. It was his father's province, he thought bitterly. As it was, his engagement to Elizabeth Bennet provided a rather convenient excuse from courting Anne, who was in such poor health that she could not possibly be counted upon to produce an heir for Pemberley. Not to mention that he found her downright distasteful, with bad teeth and sallow skin, and absolutely no sense of humor. He would not marry her for the world. Indeed, even Miss Bennet was preferable to her.

He heard the clock in the parlor strike two. This was enough, Darcy decided. His familial duty was done for this week... perhaps this month. He swung away from the window and bowed sharply.

"I must away, Aunt," he said coldly. He would not beg the old shrew's leave to go.

"You must away!" she repeated disagreeably. 'What business do you have, that you cannot spend an hour in my company?"

"Very sad business, Aunt," he replied, his lip curling in distaste. And I have already spent far too long in your company, you damnable hag. "Good-bye." He went, quickly, to her protestations that he must visit again, no later than tomorrow, did he hear that? And that Georgiana, too, must visit, for she was sorely in need of proper female instruction. He took his hat, his gloves, his ebony walking stick, from the footman at the door, and walked away without turning around at her harangue. Outside, a footman swung the carriage door open for him, and the driver bowed to him from his high seat, awaiting instructions. He thought for a moment, tarrying with one foot on the carriage step. Then, he told his man to drive to Miss Valerie's address.

Elizabeth awaited Jamie's letter desperately, and, in the middle of June, it finally came. Alas, it proved a bitter disappointment. Elizabeth had hoped it would herald her brother's return, but instead, Jamie wrote that the 19th Light Dragoons had been kept behind in Madras for another six-month at least, if not for a year. He wrote nothing of the reasons, but she knew, from having read Mr. Darcy's newssheets obsessively that the British contingent in India was under a constant threat of being massacred, and the Dragoons-its only hope of defense. The news had tugged at her heart, the harbingers of loneliness.

And now, it had come. She could see, by the date on his letter, that Jamie had received one or two of her missives from Pemberley, before he posted this one. Elizabeth went to hide in her window-seat; but she could not bear look upon the road, knowing that no cloud of dust would herald her brother's return. Tears streamed, bitter tears of disappointment. He was asking her to hold on. "Please remain at Pemberley whilst I am detained here; for I believe that Father would never have placed you with Mr. Darcy, had he not thought him able to take care of you." Elizabeth knew she could not fault Jamie, not if she were to be serious, not if she were to think like an adult. Jamie was a soldier; no, more than that: an officer. A man of honor. Who could blame him for going where his duty called?

And yet, and yet, she could not overcome the feeling of having been betrayed, of her trust having been somehow abused. Of all her hopes-dashed. She had not realized how much she had counted on Jamie's return. Even amidst all the kindnesses done to her by the Darcys, she longed for her brother to come back. Her soul had found nourishment in the knowledge that their separation was soon to end, that they would go home. He had been late; but perhaps, she had told herself, another day, another week, at most! And now... She could not bear think that his absence would be so extended! Oh, how thwarted she felt.

It was by a strange and fateful coincidence that on this same day, a handsome carriage stopped in front of the house at Pemberley. Elizabeth saw it from the window, and for a second, her heart gave. Despite Jamie's letter, despite knowing that he was still in India, one instance of mad hope: he is come! And then, the door of the carriage opened, and she knew how foolish she had been-for its occupant was not her brother, but a lady she did not know.

Immediately losing all interest in the visitor, Elizabeth turned her face away from the window and mused some more on the unfairness of it all. She had quite put the visitor out of her mind-until she saw Mary, her maid, running towards her, stumbling in her steps. Elizabeth started off the window-seat, even as Mary came to sink before her in a breathless curtsey.

"Ma'am," she said. "A grand lady-very grand-she says she is your aunt!" However much she tried to sound dignified, her girlish excitement was palpable. Elizabeth was dumbfounded, if only for a moment; then, she remembered her mother's relations, her brother and his wife, whom she had never seen, who had lived all their lives in Jamaica. Her uncle had a plantation there, one that grew sugar cane, or something else, perhaps coffee or cotton or whatever else one cultivated on plantations-and that was all she knew. She had never met her relations; it had not occurred to her-or her father-to apply to them in times of need, for they were simply too far.

And now they were here, it seemed. Well, at least her aunt was. Elizabeth wondered, a bit hostilely, what it was they wished with her. Instantly, she promised herself she would not go back to Jamaica with them (if that was, indeed, what they had come for). She was not a piece of baggage to be lugged about around the world.

"Master bids you come, ma'am," Mary informed her unnecessarily. Elizabeth nodded sullenly and followed the maid back to the large East drawing-room. Even as she approached, she heard her aunt's voice, telling Mr. Darcy about Jamaica:

"... very lovely, but the mosquitoes! Though one gets accustomed to-well, really, everything. We did not leave because of that, of course." There was a wry chuckle in her voice."

"Indeed," Mr. Darcy's sonorous baritone agreed with her. "We heard tales of insurrection-Ah," he said, "here she is."

Elizabeth, entering, schooled her features into a polite expression, though she felt nothing but turmoil inside. Upon seeing her, the lady-Mrs. Gardiner-rose from her seat, her countenance showing most joyful surprise.

"To think only!" she exclaimed. "A real young lady! And I have thought to find a little girl!"

Elizabeth curtseyed, then glanced up at the woman-and found her appearance pleasing. She had no airs about her, but her manner and smile were genuinely friendly. Elizabeth could not tell her age; perhaps, five-and-thirty or so, but in any case, ancient enough. She was dressed fashionably and tastefully, carrying a feathered turban with considerable grace upon her head.

"Elizabeth, do you know who I am?"

Elizabeth nodded. "Mrs. Gardiner, ma'am. My uncle's wife."

"You may call me "aunt", child." All of a sudden, she smirked like a young girl, and added, "if you so wish, of course. After such a long absence, one can hardly hope for easy familiarity."

Elizabeth did not remember ever feeling quite this awkward. What was expected of her? What was she to do? As if sensing her unease, Mr. Darcy rose from his chair.

"I think I shall leave you ladies alone to talk."

Mrs. Gardiner smiled up at him. "I was thinking, perhaps, Elizabeth could take a stroll with me? I did grow up around here, you know-just in Lambton," she added, to his unasked question. "I remember hearing that the grounds at Pemberley are exceptionally fine."

Mr. Darcy smiled graciously at the compliment. "Thank you, ma'am. They are at your service."

They walked in silence down the stairs, then outside. It was a hot, fair day, with the sun beating down upon them-but Elizabeth was not afraid of a tan, and did not go upstairs for her parasol. Mrs. Gardiner's own lacy creation threw an ornamental shadow upon her face, as they ambled away from the house and towards the woods. Elizabeth, not quite knowing what to say, said nothing-and her guest, on her part, seemed in no hurry to begin their conversation. Then, once the winding path took them into the deep purple woods, Mrs. Gardiner said:

"Your uncle regrets that he is unable to be here today. He is setting up our house in London." She smiled, tiny cobwebs forming at the corners of her eyes; despite them, she looked young, younger than the five-and-thirty Elizabeth had originally assigned her. "He sent me in his stead."

Elizabeth shrugged, not quite knowing what to say. It was immaterial to her that her uncle did not come to see her, for she did not know him at all. Wishing to be polite, she asked, unsurely:

"You have left Jamaica? You are to live in England now?"

"We have and we are." Mrs. Gardiner stopped to admire some flowers-bluebells-growing by the wayside. "It has been a good ten years since I have last seen flowers like these," she said.

"Surely Jamaica has its own flowers?"

"Of course. But none as modest and dear as these. The colors there were far too garish for my simple country tastes." She gave Elizabeth an amiable smile, laughter dancing in her eyes. The women resumed their walk. "Do you like Pemberley?"

"Very much so," Elizabeth said on a sigh, and could not resist adding, "Though I had so hoped to go back to Longbourn..."

She told Mrs. Gardiner about the letter she had just received; about Jamie not coming home. The lady's countenance expressed the deepest regret.

"I am ever so sorry, my dear," she said, as they walked on. Telling this woman-a stranger, really-that Jamie was not coming back had brought the worst emotions of this day up to the surface. As she walked, Elizabeth stared anywhere but her aunt's face, lest she see the turmoil in hers. Then, Mrs. Gardiner said:

"Do not think we have abandoned you. Your Uncle never forgot about you or James, but we had not left Jamaica in a decade-"

"I know," Elizabeth said, deeply uncomfortable that this lady should seek an understanding from her. After all, they did not know each other at all.

'Please understand. To visit you was the first thing I have done upon return to England. Your Uncle would have been here-and he will be-soon as he sets up our house in town."

"Ah," Elizabeth said faintly. "How long are you to stay in England, then?"

"Oh, we are come back to England. Mr. Gardiner has sold L'Etoile, our plantation in Jamaica."

An uneasy silence then ruled; for a while, they walked without saying a word, both taking in the beauties of the estate around them. Finally, the guest said, stopping in the middle of a lane:

"Elizabeth, we have no wish to disrupt your existence ever further. I know that you have suffered. If you are happy at Pemberley, we wish you to continue being happy here. But if ever-if ever you long to leave here-please know that we are opening our home to you. Your Uncle and I-we would like-we would be very happy if you came to live with us in town."

Elizabeth, dumbfounded, knew not what to say: to acquire, within the space of half an hour, a family of relations and new prospects, was nothing short of amazing. That said, she knew not how to answer such a generous proposition. Her feelings about the Darcys and Pemberley always dual, she was torn between her love of the place and the knowledge that she had once longed to leave it... that indeed, she ought to want to leave, for it was his home first.

Her senses in confusion, she did the only thing she could at the time and asked her aunt's indulgence:

"May I think about it?"

"Of course," the lady said, and they walked on, in silence at first, and then, to Mrs. Gardiner's stories of the wonderful island of Jamaica.

That evening, Elizabeth begged Mr. Darcy's forgiveness and remained in her room. She was wistful and surly; she knew it was not good to be so, but she simply could not get over her slump. So she cried a little, and soon enough, her spirits calmed to a point of reasonable-though unhappy-reflection. She sat on the bed in her favorite manner-legs crossed like a Turk, feet tucked under-and thought about what she should do.

She did not know what made her more unhappy: that Jamie was not coming to her, or that her other relations had. To be sure, she liked her aunt well enough from first impression (or rather, she could not find any reason to dislike her). But she had hoped for Jamie's return... nay, she had planned for it, assuaging her longing for him with assurances that he would soon return. Now that he was detained, she knew not for how much longer, her pain burst forth full-strength, making her intensely miserable. Her aunt's unexpected arrival added even further to her confusion. Elizabeth would have been perfectly content to spend the evening sulking; now she was forced to decide what course of action to take next. Most vexing and rather inconsiderate of her aunt to appear in her life like so.

She had yearned to leave Pemberley, once. Had Jamie come for her, she would have left it now, without a shadow of regret. After all, 'twasn't her home. But it was only if Jamie had come for her; otherwise, she was not at all sure she wanted to substitute one stranger's home for another. True, her aunt was every thing pleasant, and she had no reason to suspect her uncle would prove otherwise. Still, though her relations, they were strangers to her; she would not fool herself into thinking otherwise. She would not fool herself into believing she cared nothing for Mr. Darcy and Georgiana. And yet-the very thought that she might run into Fitzwilliam Darcy here, at his father's home, chilled her to the bone. She would give something... a lot... to escape such a re-acquaintance.

What to do? She groaned and pressed her fingertips to her temples.

As if an answer, there was a knock on the door. Thinking it was Mary, Elizabeth lazily bid the maid enter. Her surprise and embarrassment were paramount when it was Mr. Darcy she espied at the door. Immediately, she flew to her feet, dropped a quick curtsey. For Miss Lucas' instruction did teach that gently-reared young ladies did not sit in the manner of uncivilized Turks.

Mr. Darcy laughed and waved his hand at her.

"Belay that, Elizabeth," he said gently. He had long quit calling her "Miss Bennet," and she found she did not mind at all. "You would forgive my intrusion upon your privacy?"

"Of course, sir." She watched him sit down in a chair, considered returning to her place on the bed, and found it unseemly. Therefore, she perched, awkwardly, on the very edge of a chair across from him.

"You look quite crestfallen, child."

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders at his observation. She was reluctant to reveal her misery to him. In the past months, she had come to regard him as a finest gentleman of her acquaintance. He was so kind to her. She did not wish to grieve him.

"Not at all," she lied, but then, immediately, hung her head and did not attempt to argue further-for while she did not wish to distress Mr. Darcy, neither could she bear to lie to him.

"Ah, Elizabeth." He smiled, wryly. "You would as soon be rid of us, would you not?"

Elizabeth's face grew hot, and she buried it in her hands. He could read her all too well, this man, could see into her, as if her most secret desires were written plain on her face. Her long, desperate nights of longing, of hoping she could go home; her breathless vigils for Jamie's return; her heartbreak, fresh at the news that he would not be coming back. Her turmoil at the appearance of new relations in her lonely life.

But it would not do to behave like a skittish child. Clearly, he expected an answer of her. Taking a better hold of herself, she moved her hands away from her face.

"Not true," she said firmly. "Sir, I shall forever be indebted to you. Everything you have done for me-" She sighed. "My own family could not do more."

He raised his eyebrows at her.

"Your family appears to want to do more." Ah, pointing out the obvious.

She pursed her lips, tightly, bitterly.

"My mother died when I was born. This is the first I have heard from them-in my seventeenth year. Too little, too late, perhaps?"

"Do not be unkind, Elizabeth." Mr. Darcy frowned at her, and her heart fell. "It becomes you not at all. 'Tis a great distance between England and Jamaica, and the treacherous sea makes it all the greater. The lives of the English in the West Indies are not at all easy. They have come for you once they could." He frowned again. "It ought to be enough."

She said nothing to that, only sighed; deep inside her, she knew the truth of his words. Her words had been mean, unnecessarily so... After all, though her mother had been dead for sixteen years, until her father's death, she had neither wanted nor needed her relations' patronage. Until very recently, she had her father, she had Jamie-they were all the family she had ever needed.

"And if they now come to offer you their hospitality and benefaction, you ought to be suitably grateful to them."

Elizabeth sighed again. "Yes, sir." Grateful she was, but it did not ease her quandary.

His voice softening, he went on: "That said, this does not mean I wish for you to accept their invitation. You are welcome to remain at Pemberley as long as you wish. Indeed, it was your father's wish, and mine, that you should sojourn here."

"Yes," she said quickly. "Yes, I thank you."

"Have you thought," he asked cautiously, "have you thought on what you intend to do?"

She shrugged. Has she thought on it! Indeed, ever since her Aunt's arrival, she had dwelt on nothing else.

"Are you to leave us, then?" His voice was easy. Elizabeth dared not look at him, her hands twisting idly the fringed edge of her Kashmir shawl (Jamie's gift, sent to her from India two years back).

Finally, she forced herself to speak. "No," she said, slowly. "I have come to no decision."

He said nothing in response; unable to ascertain his reaction, she glanced, finally, at him, to see a perplexed look on his face, a small frown lodged between dark bushy eyebrows.

"You need not be concerned for any of us, Elizabeth," he said, finally. "Keep only your own well-being at heart."

"But-" she murmured, uncertain. He held up one hand, begging her to silence.

"You are welcome to stay at Pemberley," he continued, "But if you choose to move to London to live with your relations, remember that you will always have a home here-and friends. I will always be your friend-and so, I believe, will my daughter."

Nothing about his son, of course, Elizabeth thought. And rightly so: she was uncertain Fitzwilliam Darcy was capable of friendship. The sad friendship of his connection with Jamie was a testament to that.

But aloud, she said:

"I thank you. I am indebted to you, for everything you have done for me. For the welcome you have shown me at Pemberley. I consider you, sir, and Miss Darcy, my friends-no, no, more than friends. But," she added, "I should dearly like to see my brother again. I should like to go home."

"Ah," he said, smiling wistfully. "Home. It is always here, no?" He touched his forehead lightly.

"And here," she agreed, touching her chest lightly. She smiled unhappily. "As much of it as I have known. Three years only it had been my home."

He nodded. "I know. We have uprooted you, your father and I. You might still have been happy at Trinity-though God knows it was not a proper place for a young lady's upbringing!"

"Well, I liked it well enough," she said sullenly. "And then Longbourn-" Her voice trailed off. He watched her for a while, and then he asked, softly:

"And your relations-"

"Are somehow part of that home. I do not know how, or why, but I would be closer to Jamie, were I with them."

"But you would not be," he said, gently. "You know you would not be. And you know that were your brother to return, I should gladly give you up to him. But I am loathe to part with you for less than that." He smiled. "I admit, I am not impartial-I have become fond of you. I have come to care for you. My child, can you not be happy here? I have always thought that if ever there was a place where true happiness was possible, it was Pemberley."

Pemberley was lovely, indeed-and yet, her heart longed for Longbourn, for the safety of her brother's arms. For what once had been, and now was no longer possible: for Trinity's vine-covered walls, for the time when she had her father, and Jamie was no officer, but simply her beloved brother. For the time when she was happy, when she had no greater care than how one of her books ended. But however much she longed for the past, it was not Pemberley's fault. She must acknowledge the truth of Mr. Darcy's words-there was nothing here to interfere with her comfort. By all rights, she should be content here.

"It truly is a beautiful, happy place," she agreed grudgingly.

"Praise from your lips!" Mr. Darcy chuckled wryly.

She shrugged. "Who would not praise it? Indeed, there are few who would not approve of it."

He grinned at her, looking so very young, she could hardly credit it. "Ah," he said, "but your good opinion is rarely bestowed, and therefore more worth the earning."

Elizabeth started, surprised and displeased at his understanding of her: surely he did not think her difficult and hard-to-please?

"Yes," Mr. Darcy continued, his eyes twinkling mischievously. . "One would be willing to put up with a good deal to be a mistress of Pemberley!"

Before she could stop herself, she exclaimed: "The mistress of Pemberley will have to put up with a good deal!" Before she even finished speaking, she knew what she had said. Appalled, she held a hand to her mouth. But he only laughed at her mortified expression.

"I have never said it was otherwise," he said, waving her off. "But we all have our sins, do we not? Fitzwilliam may have a difficult nature, but he is a decent enough man, and he is not unkind. I believe there are rewards enough for the one who can manage him." He arched an eyebrow at her. Feeling more than a little perturbed, Elizabeth turned away. She had nothing to say to him, would not continue this conversation. Fitzwilliam Darcy was this man's son, surely the dearest thing to his heart, and yet she could find nothing good to say of him. Even when he was Jamie's friend, he was always reserved, and she could never understand what drew her lively, easy brother to this too-cold, stony-faced young man. And then, later... With a small shudder, she thought of her own encounter with him... heard, as clearly as if he stood a step away, the cruel words he had uttered to her. Not unkind, she thought. No, she could not say that about Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Mr. Darcy seemed to sense her hesitation; the smile faded off his lips, but his eyes remained trained on her, his gaze fatherly and warm. "Take heart, child," he said, "Your brother will come back."

She gave an exasperated sigh and bit her lip against an onslaught of emotion.. "Oh, but when?"

He frowned at her, as if she was a silly child. "Elizabeth, you must understand. Your brother is not his own person anymore." He rubbed his arm, just below his shoulder. "He is a soldier, a hired man. He will be here, soon as his orders allow him-of that I am sure."

"What is wrong?" She leaned forward, touched his sleeve, gingerly. He gifted her a gentle smile.

"Nothing. A spasm. I must have stayed out of doors too long yesterday. The weather is unreliable these days-cannot be trusted." He smiled at her again. "Elizabeth. Do not cry, child." She had leaned forward, allowing him to wipe the tears off her eyes with his thumbs, as one might do to a little girl.

She had not even noticed she was; mortified, she bit her lip and looked away, the way she always did when the truth was too painful to admit. She felt absurdly embarrassed, as if it was wrong to want to leave here. As if she was being ungrateful in her unhappiness.

He rose from his seat, holding out his hand to stop her from rising as well. "Please. Do not trouble yourself, my girl. I merely wished to assure you that Pemberley is now-and forevermore-your home." He smiled. "But the decision--whether to accept your Aunt's invitation-must be your own."

Elizabeth slept poorly that night, waking up to her sheets twisted around her legs and soaked with sweat. Had they told her, six months ago, how hard it would be to make this decision, she would have laughed. She had not wanted to be here, had argued to be allowed to stay behind at Longbourn... she had not known how much it would come to mean to her... how much these people would come to mean to her. But-the thought of meeting Fitzwilliam Darcy the day he came home chilled her; for surely, that day would come? The heir to the estate, he could not stay away forever... however much he must prefer the dissolute existence of a town dandy. Exhausted, she left her bed and went to sit in the window-seat; but the moonlit landscape failed to calm her heart, for at night, Pemberley looked like an enchanted wood, easy to get lost in; and Elizabeth shuddered every time a quick shadow crossed the grounds, her heart disturbed to its depths. The thoughts that visited her were more distressing, more maudlin than ever. She left the window-seat and sought refuge in lighting a candle and opening her Bible.

She sought some consolation, but the first page she chanced to open held the story of Job, the story of a man lost and wandering.

~ * ~

In the morning, she came down to breakfast, not quite sure whether she had made her decision, or whether she had dreamt it. But then, by the doors of the breakfast room, she ran into Georgiana, who looked thoroughly anxious, pacing from side to side.

"Are you to leave us, now?" she spat out, and then shrank back, mortified at her forwardness; but Elizabeth had already answered, with as much candor and impulsiveness:

"No!"

Georgiana's face expressed relief and consternation at the same time; she seemed to be vexed at whoever had given her the distressing news, which had now, thankfully, proven untrue. Thereupon, she grasped Elizabeth's hand and verily dragged her into the dining-room, crying out:

"Papa, papa!"

Mr. Darcy looked up from the table and, upon seeing Elizabeth, rose-an acknowledgement that in his eyes, she was not a child, but a young lady.

"Tell him!" Georgiana urged Elizabeth. "Tell him, Elizabeth?"

"Tell him what?" Mr. Darcy smiled wryly at his daughter. "What momentous news are to be delivered in such a dramatic manner?"

Losing her calm, all aflame with embarrassment, Elizabeth dropped a deep curtsey and murmured:

"Forgive me, sir, I did not-"

"Never mind that, Elizabeth. Tell me what?" His question of her was as direct as any; but his manner, his voice were nothing if not tender and paternal.

She looked up, straightening up from her curtsey. "Only that I am to stay at Pemberley... with your permission."

"Ah," he said, smiling at her. "I am glad to hear that." He watched her sit down at the table, a footman holding a chair out for her, watched Georgiana plop onto a chair next to her; then, as he sat down himself, he added: "Though I wager your aunt will not be quite so glad when she hears of it."

And so she was not. But neither was Mrs. Gardiner despondent over Elizabeth's decision to stay at Pemberley. Before leaving, she held Elizabeth's hands in hers and kissed her cheek:

"You are always welcome to visit with us in town. Please say that you will."

Elizabeth, her heart a little more at peace now that she had decided, made that promise easily.

Chapter 6 - Part 2

Perhaps he had been feeling ill for some time, but he had not told a soul. The doctor had not been to the house more than once or twice in the past few months, and that was to tend to Miss Darcy's rather severe cold in March, as the weather had turned unexpectedly frigid. If the Master had stolen an audience with the doctor when he came to pay a visit to his daughter, no-one was the wiser.

But one morning in early June, Elizabeth woke to a great commotion. Behind her door, there was more movement and more running than usual. There was an undertone of anxiety in their hushed voices: something was clearly afoot. Elizabeth sprung out of bed, disturbing Cat, who had come to sleep by her side during the night, curled up in a warm circle. He gave a little discontented huff and jumped off the bed, landing gracefully on all fours, even as Elizabeth herself walked quickly to the doors.

She opened them just in time to see Mrs. Reynolds shuffle past her, without noticing her enough to say good-morning.. That, in itself, was a bad sign. Elizabeth called after the old lady.

"Oh! Miss Elizabeth." The old lady looked as if she had not slept the night. Wretched misery was written upon her wrinkled face. "Forgive me, I did not see you standing there!"

"What is happening?"

"Oh!" The housekeeper held a hand to her mouth for an instant, stifling a tiny sob. "Bad news, Miss Elizabeth, such bad news!"

"What is it?" Elizabeth demanded.

"The Master is ill-fell ill during the night-" She shook her head in distress.. "Oh! Miss Elizabeth, what grave news!" she said again. It was as if she had lost command of intelligent speech and was reduced, temporarily, to such helpless little cries of distress.

Elizabeth, still hazy from sleep, pressed her fingers to her temples, trying her hardest to gather her thoughts...they scattered and crawled away, as if alive.

"And the doctor-has the doctor been-"

"Yes, yes!" The old woman actually sobbed, then bit her fist to keep quiet. "Said to wait-see what will happen. He could nothing for him, Miss Elizabeth!"

Just like Father. Elizabeth turned and strode towards Mr. Darcy's room. Before anyone could stop her, she pushed the door angrily and stormed in.

Mr. Darcy was in bed, and awake. Elizabeth shrunk back, startled: he had aged a good ten years in one night. Still, upon seeing her, he managed a smile and a friendly nod, a half-bow. Always a gentleman, she thought in amazement. .

Elizabeth came closer. "Why have you not told me you were feeling ill?" she asked him, abruptly. "Why have you not told anyone?" She was biting her lips to keep from crying. It seemed a grown-up thing to do-to present herself as strong and composed-but she could barely contain her tears. It was happening, she thought, it was happening to her all over again.

"Good morning to you, too, Miss Bennet," he said archly. "Someone-someone ought to teach you manners, child." He wheezed as he spoke, gasping for air. Elizabeth steeled herself, fighting the panic that had quickly begun to take hold of her. To stem it, she sought contact with him, boldly reached for his hand on top of the blanket. She tried to give it a warm, encouraging squeeze, but it came out paltry.

"Mr. Darcy," she said, trying her best to bear up. "I ought to send for the doctor!"

Doing something was better than nothing, she thought, better than waiting for Death to come and claim him. She would not sit and wait, not again, not again, she thought.

"Come and gone, my child, come and gone," he said. "I am afraid he is useless in this business. Oh do not look at me like that." He frowned at her severely, then closed his eyes in exhaustion. "I need you to be strong, Miss Bennet. While Will is not here-" It took her a second to understand that he was talking about his son. Will. She had never before heard him referred to as Will. "Georgie will need you."

Succumbing to fear and grief, Elizabeth wagged her head from side to side. In fact, it was all she could do not to stick her fingers in her ears.

"No!" she said, squeezing his hand. "No, you cannot! Do not tell me that Georgie will need me! She does not need me! She needs you! All of them-all these people-they all need you!"

What she thought, but dared not say out loud was:I need you, maybe most of all.

The smile returned, sarcastic this time, making light of her misery. "Well, do not bury me just yet, girl. I might live after all. And if I do not-" His expression grew sterner, "-if I do not, then this is my time...and there is nothing to be done about it."

"Tis so unfair!" she spat.

He raised one eyebrow at her. "You are old enough to know it has never been about fairness."

She was crying now, openly. She had not known-could not have imagined-how attached she had become to him. Her heart had found a home at his side after her father's death; and now, the fragile structure was crumbling to dust before her very eyes. The thought of losing him, was unbearable. She kept thinking, two words throbbing in her mind like a military drum: so soon, so soon. So soon after her father. She was unlucky, cursed, she brought death and misery to those around her. She had not thought it was possible to feel more frightened and more alone than she had at her father's death... but here it was. If Mr. Darcy died now, she would have no rock in this world.

And Jamie still had not come back!

"Elizabeth," he said to her, softly. "Poor child. Do not ruin your eyes crying for me."

Mortified, she turned away, trying her hardest to stifle the desperate weeping rising in her breast. She knew, then, that she was not crying for him, but for herself and for her many losses. For a moment, she stood like that, eyes averted, fists squeezed tightly at her sides , fighting her panic and the powerful urge to run away He was quiet behind her, saying nothing, waiting while she rallied her spirits and her strength.

Then, he reached for her, his fingers wrapping quickly around her wrist.

"Sh-sh-sh-sh," he whispered to her, drawing her closer. She knelt, then, resting her forehead against his hand. His hand was patting her hair, gently. "You poor child," he whispered. "How much have you had to shoulder, already."

His compassion-his compassion, for her-made her terribly ashamed. Here was a man suffering, a man at the very doorstep of death... and he had found strength to console her... He was so ill, dying, perhaps, and he was telling her to be strong, concerned with her crumbling emotions.

He was right, of course. She must. For Georgiana's sake, and for his. And for her own, too. Somehow, calamity was more easily suffered when you kept your backbone. So young, she knew this much. Obliged to caring for others' pain, one would have no time for her own. Elizabeth rose back to her feet, gathering all her will, wrapping it around her fist like the reins of a runaway horse. Quickly, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and essayed a smile, telling herself she did not care if it came out crooked and forced.

Mr. Darcy saw her rally and smiled back at her, approvingly.

"What a good girl," he said, wheezing slightly. "Now would you kindly do something for me, Elizabeth?"

She smiled back at him, squeezing his hand.

"You need not ask."

"Well, then, go and write a letter to Will. Tell him I want him here forthwith."

Elizabeth shuddered inside. Here it is, she thought. She had so hoped to avoid seeing him. But it was unthinkable to refuse him. She hoped that she had managed to mask her distaste at the thought; but perhaps not, for he saw her hesitate, and said, with all the considerable sternness he could still muster:

"Madam! Do as I said."

Elizabeth still hesitated. Her feet felt leaden, stuck to the floor. "But you-" she said lamely. "You are not dying-surely-"

Wryly, he arched one eyebrow at her. "And what if I am? Would you deny him one last meeting with his father?"

That last effort at conversation seemed to drain him of all strength. He closed his eyes and fell back against the pillows. For a moment, Elizabeth tarried by his bed, then, aware that no different order was coming, shuffled out of his bedchamber. Her task, however unpleasant, must be done. She would write a letter, and that was that. She sighed heavily as she went up the stairs to her room. Thy will be done, she thought. She had thought to escape his company altogether, to be gone from Pemberley before he returned... but it was not to be. .

In her room, she sat down by the escritoire and played a little with the pen, twirling it in her fingers. She sharpened it thoughtfully, though she saw it needed no sharpening. She checked the level of ink in the inkwell and pulled a fresh sheet of paper from the stack. Finally, she put the pen to the paper, steeled herself, and wrote:

"Sir." Her pen stilled on the paper. She did not like him, could not stand him...but, recently orphaned herself, she could not bear deal him such a blow. How do you tell a son his father is deathly ill?

Still, there was only one way to say it, she thought, and wrote: "There is only one way to say this: your father is gravely ill (on reflection, she eschewed the word deathly, though it rang prominent in her mind). " The doctor says he might not recover. Please hurry back to Pemberley. I remain, Elizabeth Bennet." " She counted in her head: if indeed he set off immediately upon the receipt of this letter (as she believed he would), Fitzwilliam Darcy would be at Pemberley within four or five days. She shivered with distaste and poured too much sand over her letter before taking it to be posted.

Darcy ran up the steps of his father's townhouse, taking them two at a time. He had been walking in St. James' Park. Valerie had met him there, a leisurely, quiet companion, and they had walked together for a while. He had even kissed her under a tree, a sweet romantic thing to do, though there was nothing romantic about their liaison. He liked Valerie, appreciating her company more for what she did not say than for what she did. She was very pretty, too, a sparkling diamond of a woman to dress his arm. Despite her profession, despite her roots-which he suspected to have been very humble, and all the more impressive the transformation-she was never an embarrassment to him, as she was by no means stupid or unmindful of what their relationship represented. If anything, over the past year of their acquaintance, they had developed the kind of friendship... a friendship with an understanding, of course, one that would never develop into anything more, that would never leave the confines of her house, or a lane in St. James' Park. A friendship on his terms. But a friendship nonetheless, as much as it was possible. He walked her home after their promenade. She asked him to come in, to come up, smiling at him in the beguiling way that, he knew from experience, promised certain pleasures. He hesitated, but in the end, shook his head, suddenly restless. Something was pulling at him, calling him back. He kissed the tips of her fingers lightly and strode away. By the time he reached his father's town-house, he was almost running.

Clifton, the London butler, met him at the door, silent, holding out the silver tray with a single letter on it. Darcy's heart fell. The letter was sealed with his family's crest, but, just under his name, someone had scrawled in youthful handwriting: "Urgent. Please open soon as may be." He did not know this hand, but he guessed, immediately, to whom it belonged.

But he had not the time to consider the implications of Elizabeth Bennet's presence at Pemberley yet again. What had happened, why was she writing him urgent letters? He ran up the stairs to his apartments, slamming the door shut behind him. Standing by the window, he tore furiously at the letter.

As he read the letter, terrible feelings assailed him, panic being the most dreadful of all. For a moment, he lost his nerve compleatly, turning on one spot, not quite knowing what to do next. The letter crumpled in his fist.

"Cassidy!" he shouted.

His valet was at the door immediately, not unlike a genie appearing from his bottle.

"I am going to Pemberley," Darcy informed him, gruffly.

"May I ask when, sir?"

"Straight away. Have them saddle Kublai." He waved off the solicitous inquiry about whether to follow him.

"I-I do not know," he said, frowning at the nuisance of it. "Whatever you think best."

He felt his voice break with emotion and turned away, mortified, for he was unaccustomed of making himself ridiculous, particularly in the eyes of the help. Thankfully, Cassidy went immediately.

Even waiting for his horse to be saddled was unbearable. Darcy paced around the room, considered changing his clothing, and swept the thought away. He was, after all, dressed for a riding excursion. He stood at the window for a while, looking out into the street. He picked the letter, defaced, up from the rug and stared at it, dissecting, once again, the grave news. The letter was spare, lacking in information, as if the writer wanted to torment him, to leave him to agonized guessing. His father-ill-with what? What had happened to him? Was it sudden, or was it long in coming? Could he have known earlier? Could it have been prevented? Stupid girl, could she not explain it better? Furious thoughts, creatures of filial guilt, tormented him..

He fell into a chair, spread the crumpled letter on his knee. Elizabeth Bennet. Thus introduced, his grown-up intended stared at him from a sheet of paper. She was nothing to him, merely a name, and he thought, demmed inconvenience that she should be there now. The last thing he needed right now was a surly, sullen, difficult adolescent. That was the last thought he spared her; he would think of her when he saw her. Better to occupy his mind in some useful manner. He forced himself to look around the room, trying his hardest to see whether he had forgotten anything. Ah, he thought. Malvina. He strode to the escritoire, and quickly penned a letter of his own, noting with distaste that his hand was shaking. He begged Bingley's widow to postpone her departure until he could oversee it, until he could assist her in procuring her passage upon a respectable ship. Until he could say good-bye properly. She had no family here, no relation to take her back to her father's in India; the least he could do was to take her to Southampton, as they had agreed.

He did not know whether she would listen to him. He supplied her with his Pemberley address, begging her to let him know of her decision, to write to him whether she would stay or go. He swore softly under his breath: this was another demmed nuisance... Women! He had always thought Malvina most sensible: but what idle idiocy had set in her head, pushing her to return to India? Why was she so stubborn about it? And if he truly could not prevent it, why was he feeling such guilt about her impending departure-indeed, as if he had failed his friend? He quickly sealed the note, set it on the tray for Cassidy to post. He was vexed with himself. Somehow, his thoughts had routed to another troubling subject, one upon which he chose not to dwell at the moment.

"Sir."

It was his man, here to inform him that his favorite horse, Kublai, had been saddled. Best to set out now. He nodded at the letter on the tray.

"Have it posted."

Four days after writing the letter to Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth was sitting in Mr. Darcy's room, reading to him from a book of her choosing (a tome of Samuel Coleridge's poetry). He had grown worse steadily for the past two days, and was now insensible most of the time. Elizabeth had long banished all thoughts of her own father, focusing on keeping Mr. Darcy alive at least until his son came home. She believed that as long as she talked to him, he would not die. It was a silly and childish thing to believe, a fancy, really, but she held fast to her faith. It seemed logical that her voice, floating over them, hoarse from hours of reading, served as a thread connecting her to him, a fragile bond keeping him in this world. Without it, it seemed, he would relinquish his hold on life within hours, would slip away all too soon.

She had been reading to him for a good three hours, not minding at all that he was asleep and not listening.. The words slurred wearily off her tongue, but she hardly noticed. He had taken a turn for the worse the night before, his breathing gasping, uneven, the life in his breast like the flimsy flame of a stooping candle. His sleep was a blessing. From time to time, she stopped for a moment-to listen, with her heart dipping in fear, to his fading breath. Elizabeth threw a glance at the clock: it was half-past-seven... which meant she had not slept for well-nigh thirty hours... She pushed herself up in the chair, shook the sleep out of her eyes, and continued reading.

The door cracked opened an inch. Elizabeth looked up from the book, squinting. Georgiana. She forced a smile off her lips, knowing precisely how the girl's world was now crumbling around her.

"Shall I read in your stead?" Georgiana asked. Her voice was trembling, a fine tense vibration, predicting hysterics, but she seemed to keep a hold of herself. Crying did unimaginable things to her porcelain skin, blurring angles and sending red blotches all over her pretty face.

"Would you?" Elizabeth slid off the chair and held the book out to her. "I should go down to the kitchen for a cup of tea."

"Reynolds has served you tea in your bedchamber."

Gratefully, Elizabeth watched Georgiana climb onto her chair, tucking her feet under herself. Standing next to the girl, she pointed out her place on the page. "Here."

Mr. Darcy's breathing seemed a calmer cadence, each light pant no longer a desperate fight it had been during the night. Georgiana nodded solemnly. "I do so hope you are right about this, Elizabeth."

"I am," Elizabeth said firmly, trying her hardest not to think about her own father, and how she was unable to keep him out of Death's clutches. "I am certain that I am." Moved by an impulse, she leaned and kissed the top of Georgiana's head. "I shall be back," she said. "Soon."

As Georgiana's voice rose over the room, Elizabeth slipped out, her mind on her tea. Perhaps she could steal an hour or so of sleep, she thought, as she nodded, absent-mindedly, to a curtseying maid.

Immediately, she reeled, having collided with a large, tall man that had only just run up the stairs. , Indeed, she had walked straight into him, bumping into him full-force. To her sleep-deprived senses, he seemed as hard and as large as a rock, an impressive pillar of dust and sweat and horse smell. The shock of the impact made her lightheaded. She would have fallen, but he caught her by the arm.

"Careful," her intended said curtly, releasing her. She could feel her arm where his fingers had gripped her a little too hard. Elizabeth looked up, seeing a dark, unhappy, scowling visage. Oh, no. She curtseyed reflexively, expecting her intended to utter something by way of greeting, but he merely turned away and headed for his father's doors.

Shocked, Elizabeth froze in her tracks. She had never thought the man particularly civil, but this was beyond the pale! Clearly, three years have done nothing to sweeten his disposition or teach him better manners! Next to Elizabeth, the young maid looked completely flabbergasted.

"Pardon me, ma'am, Miss Bennet," she muttered, finally, retreating towards the stairs.

Already at the door, Fitzwilliam Darcy turned around and stared at her as if she was a part of a county freak show. A homunculus, a -a bearded lady, a giant eight feet tall. And though she felt exactly an inch away from the ground, Elizabeth met his gaze-one of shocked and appalled variety-head-on, lifting her chin and crossing her arms on her chest.

"Mr. Darcy," she said, vesting her voice with as much scorn as she could muster at the moment (tricky business, for the floor was beginning to roll towards her, and the walls swayed gaily about). "Welcome home, I suppose." She did not curtsey to him, nor did she extend her hand. If he began by being uncivil, by God, she could match him.

He stared at her for another moment. "Miss Bennet," he said coldly, cutting her a short, curt bow. "Forgive me, I did not recognize you." "An easy mistake to make, as you have not seen me in years." God, what a poor introduction this was!

He flinched, as if slapped across the face. "Perhaps," he agreed coldly, "it would not be quite so easy, had you looked a little less like a dingy kitchen-maid!"

Elizabeth gasped at his affront. Though she had told herself she did not care for his good opinion, it would not be untrue to say that her pride was wounded grievously. His eyes held such scorn, such contempt for her! Nothing she could possibly say would make him see how wrong he was in speaking to her in such a manner. Indeed, she would not even bother; it was far beneath her to try and respond to this ungracious bait!

He bowed curtly and turned to go, only to be confronted by Georgiana. Standing by the open door, the girl appeared to have heard most of their recent exchange. He strode towards her, as if to take her in his arms.

To Elizabeth's open-mouthed surprise, Georgiana swept her brother's hands aside. "Will!" she cried, sounding irate. "I cannot believe how uncivil you were to Miss Bennet just now!"

A deeper frown crossed his face, and Elizabeth swayed on her feet, mortified. The last possible thing she needed was for the two siblings to have a row over her at their father's bedside. She wanted to tell Georgiana that it did not signify, that she should welcome her brother home, that-but in the next second, the floor sped towards her with overwhelming swiftness, and the walls curved and dipped above her. She heard Georgiana's alarmed cry, heard Cat dash away down the stairs, hissing. Then, and saw him, as a shadow, over her, lifting her in his arms, so easily as if she weighed merely a feather.

Chapter 7
(Finally, I managed.)

Someone held a bottle of smelling salts under her nose, making her sneeze. Opening her eyes, she found herself in her bedchamber, a circle of concerned faces leaning over her--Georgiana, Mrs. Reynolds, Mary, and even Cook. Attempting to move, she dislodged a cold compress on her forehead and was urged back onto the bed.

Georgiana was very pale, looking, for all intents and purposes, as if she was about to cry. She said not a word, stricken seemingly mute. Elizabeth reached for her hand, squeezing it, and felt a gentle squeeze in return.

Elizabeth found she was dressed, still wearing her dress, but that someone had pulled down the bodice of it. Her stays had been loosened indecently.

Suddenly shamed, she reached for a blanket. Her lips were dry, as if she had not drunk in a day; she licked at a rivulet of water running down her face from the compress.

"How are you feeling, ma'am?" Mary covered her solicitously. Elizabeth was not certain of the answer. It took her another moment to recollect all that had happened. Remembering, she felt ill to her stomach.

Like a dingy kitchen-maid. She frowned, crumpling her face in a grimace of distaste. How precisely he put it, and how unkindly.

"Ma'am?"

"No," she forced a smile to her lips. "I am all right. Really. But I should like an hour or so of rest."

At that, Mrs. Reynolds urged Georgiana out of the room-the girl went, still having not said a word-and helped Elizabeth to finish undressing, all the while murmuring about the burden she had taken up on her shoulders, the poor poppet.

Even as Mrs. Reynolds drew the covers over Elizabeth's prone body, the girl was already asleep.

She woke up to find that the day had already gone: the evening seeped, blue and black, through the half-open drapes on the tall windows. Disoriented at first, she sat up, groggily, trying her best to remember what had happened. Then, she did. Oh, she thought.

Slipping out of the bed, she dug in the covers for her gown and slipped it on. Her feet were still a little unsteady, her knees weak. There was a distant ringing in her head, as if she had slept for three days, and not three hours. Quickly, she sought a surface-a chair in front of her vanity-lest she should fall again. A haggard, sick countenance looked at her from the mirror.

Somewhere in the house, a clock sounded seven. Elizabeth seriously wondered whether to ask that supper be brought to her in her room. Surely, it would not be too much. She could go down to Mr. Darcy's room after she ate. The thought of solitude in her own room, a quiet meal, a reflection, a half an hour of a good read, appealed to her. But then, she thought: hardly. She was not ill, not truly, there was no sense in staying inside. She could tell herself she was unwell all she wanted, but if she were to tell the truth...

Thereupon, she considered her reasons and found them wanting-for the most prominent amongst them rang her fear of facing Fitzwilliam Darcy. Him, she thought, that man. That was how she thought of him now, loath to say his name even in her mind; she imagined his countenance like a dark cloud upon a lovely day, ruining all happiness and good spirits.

She reached for the bell-pull and rang, resolutely, twice. Have Mary come and dress her for supper. She would not hide in her room. Not from him. Yes, she did not wish to think of him, surely loathed seeing him-but she was not afraid of him. Instinctively, her jaw clenched; looking at herself in the mirror, she saw a drawn white face, dark rings under her eyes and a stern, furious expression. I look an old woman, she thought, darkly amused. But it was all just as well: she would not prettify herself. Most certainly not to appeal to the man who had been so uncivil to her, be he a thousand times her future husband (though inwardly, she shuddered at the thought; not if she could help it, she promised to herself).

Mary appeared, solicitous of her health. Elizabeth answered the inquiries on the subject, politely, though it cost her some composure. Her instructions to the girl were brief and to the point:

"Water to wash myself, lace me and set my hair, please." The water Mary brought was biting cold as Elizabeth splashed it, again and again, over her face and shoulders. It refreshed her, but not enough: and so she lowered her face down into the basin for as long as she could. Holding her breath under water, she bet to herself that if she could remain like so for a full minute, Fitzwilliam Darcy would not be in the dining-room when she came down. At forty-two seconds, she could bear it no longer and rose, gasping, regretful.

Inside the bedchamber, Mary laced her stays tightly, then stood behind her in front of the looking glass, ready to make magic with her hair. Obviously she was harboring pretensions of becoming a real French maid, therefore attempting to arrange Elizabeth's hair in a style of coy femininity. She even pulled a tiny black feather out of a box, ready to stick it behind her Mistress' ear.

"No." Elizabeth wagged her head, pushing pretty tendrils behind each ear. "None of this. Just pull it all back, please, Mary."

Mary stared at her in the mirror, nonplussed, two long pins between her teeth.

"But ma'am-" she murmured, her speech obstructed.

"Do as I said, please. Make a twist at the back and pin it, like so."

She took the pins out of Mary's hands and started on her hair herself, awkwardly raising her arms. Frowning, the maid obeyed, and finished the job, pulling Elizabeth's hair back so tightly, her face felt wooden.

"Use these." Mary said nothing, taking from her two plain ivory combs that would hold Elizabeth's hair in place. "Yes," Elizabeth said. The woman in the mirror presented a most severe visage. "Yes, just like this."

Mary stood in front of Elizabeth's wardrobe, flung open its doors, and inquired, in the insulted tone of a misunderstood talent:

"What dress will madam wear tonight?"

Now a bit steadier on her feet, Elizabeth came forward, to pull out the simplest and the darkest of her full-mourning dress. No jewelry of any kind, not even jet, only her father's cross, deep-red, nearly black, on a black velvet ribbon around her neck.

She laced her high, tight boots herself. Straightening out, her head spinning a little, she smiled at Mary.

"I am ready."

Mary regarded her disapprovingly. "That you are, ma'am, and I daresay look a right proper papist nun!"

Elizabeth frowned at the girl severely. "You are too free with your tongue," she said coldly. "Now leave me, please."

She came down to supper and stopped dead in her tracks at the very entrance to the dining room. It was all very well to bet on his absence, but here he was, at the window, his back turned. Whatever did he see in the total darkness that had crept upon Pemberley, having replaced the luxuriant blue evening. Not quite knowing what to say, or whether to say anything at all, Elizabeth took a tentative step across the threshold.

It must have been the rustle of her dress that caught his attention. He turned about, abruptly and surveyed her with a troubled, unhappy gaze. She stood, back ramrod-straight, chin up, fighting her very desire to run away. Fighting the natural instinct to hide her eyes from him.

"Miss Bennet." After an awkward pause, he cut her a bow. Obliged to return his civility, she dropped a perfunctory curtsey, barely bending her knees. He hardly deserved better, she thought meanly.

"How is your father tonight?"

He frowned at her, again. "Not very well. He is insensible, mostly. I tried speaking with him-he does not recognize me." He sounded pained.

"Is someone reading to him?"

She thought he might have smiled, but it was more of a nervous tick than a smile, his thin lips twitching unpleasantly.

"Indeed," he said. "My sister insisted on it. I have assigned a footman to the task, for now-a literate fellow, knows how to read, has a good voice." He coughed discreetly, clearing his throat; he was no longer looking at her, rather studying, assiduously, a pattern in the pale-yellow wallpaper-indeed, studying it as if there was nothing more fascinating in the whole world. "Georgiana said it was your idea of, ahem, keeping my father back." He looked sheepish, faintly embarrassed to be repeating such girlish nonsense aloud.

Elizabeth shrugged. "Perhaps you know of a better way."

"No," he agreed, looking, all of a sudden, rather lost. "No. I wish I did, but I do not."

"After supper, I shall return to his side."

"Indeed, there is no need of that. I believe you have done enough." Another careful cough. "I am-much obliged to you for that."

Elizabeth looked away, trained her eyes on the swaying of the darkness behind the window. What to say to that? How to react? This was as a good a praise as ever she had heard from him... and she could care less. Whatever she had done in care of Mr. Darcy, had been done in care of Mr. Darcy, not in any concern for his son. Indeed, she cared very little for the man; between writing her letter to him and their horrid confrontation, she had hardly ever thought of him. And now, now that she had met him... the only thing Elizabeth desired of him was to never speak with him again. Having him in her debt had been the furthest thing from her mind. Indeed, the last thing she wanted. She would be perfectly content to never again lay her eyes on the man.

She made to walk past him, to take her seat at the table. Behind them, a footman froze at the door.

"Miss Bennet."

She froze in shock, at the feeling of his hand upon her elbow.

"Unhand me," she said, all breath rushing out of her in furious indignation, in one long whistle between clenched teeth.

He ignored her.

"May I have a word?" His voice sounded grave. He was so polite, but she could hardly take her eyes off his hand gripping her. "Take your hand off me," she repeated. . She was beginning to sound hysterical, no longer recognizing her own voice. It was as if she had aged a decade in the past months, but had only just noticed it-not unlike waking up in the morning to find herself with a head full of silver hair...

He obeyed, then, his hand falling away-but his dark gaze haunted her still.

"May I have a word?" he repeated, seemingly oblivious to the anger ringing in her voice.

"Are you not having one now?" she demanded, deeply irritated by his obtuseness-and furious, furious at his presumption. How dare he, how dare he lay a hand on her, the insufferable man! Something cluttered loudly in her mind. If Jamie were here, if only Jamie were here!

"Indeed," he agreed. He cast a shamefaced glance at the footman by the door, his manner instantly turning from gruff to cold and off-hand. "Leave us," he said, indifferently, in a voice used to giving orders. The man obeyed, walking out silently, not looking at either of them. Disturbing thoughts swirled in Elizabeth's mind: what is this, why is he doing it, why am I alone with him? How improper this situation was! How dare this footman leave them alone, stupid man- But if Mr. Darcy had been of a mind to ravish her-which Elizabeth, upon reflection, would herself have found rather unlikely-he did change his mind after they were left alone. Turning away, he walked away to stand by the window. Elizabeth, seething, crossed her arms on her chest.

She would have liked to wait it out, but her anger forbade all pretense. She would play no games with him.

"Well?" she demanded, bristling. He turned back to look at her, and she saw nothing but contempt in his eyes. She thought back to Georgiana's warbling about how she would only marry a man like her brother. God save you if you do, child.

"I wish to beg your forgiveness," he said, flatly. "What I said to you-it was unpardonable-ungentlemanly."

Elizabeth first froze, then scoffed, her initial surprise at his deliberate humbling wiped out by her anger at his manner of it. Ungentlemanly! What he had said to her was not merely ungentlemanly, it was downright cruel. Words were not birds, but stones-carelessly thrown, they did not fly away, but bruised and scarred. His words had bruised her-for a while longer, there would remain a bitter aftertaste; she would look at herself and wonder-was she really so homely? ... For a while longer now, she would feel as if she had been kicked in the gut. Yet he only concerned himself with behaving a gentleman, with no regard whatsoever for her feelings!

Oh, she thought, he would never understand. One had to have a heart to understand.

"I shall make no judgment of that," she said, affecting her coldest demeanor.

He frowned at her, as if she were a child speaking nonsense.

"Pardon?" he demanded. "What is the meaning of that?" She shrugged.

"I do not know, nor care, whether you behaved a gentleman. It is not up to me to judge you a gentleman, or otherwise."

"I am my own harshest judge," he said, somberly. "I have found my behavior wanting, and am asking your forgiveness."

"You need not concern yourself with it. You words were of no import," she lied.

He looked at her, thoughtfully, and she had the uneasy feeling that he was studying her-nay, that he did not need to study her, that the truth was written on her face, plain as the day was bright.

"You do not easily forgive, I do not think..." he murmured.

Elizabeth flashed, hotly, her vexation with him-and herself-growing. Indeed, he had hurt her, but to simply grant him her pardon was unthinkable. For truly, wouldst that he did not apologize! His apology, accomplished in his insufferable manner-it injured more than it healed, opening up her wounds. She was even more hurt, and surprised, at the notion that his one careless word could bruise her feelings so.

"Why, to the contrary!" she cried. "I forgive, when there is anything to forgive." She took a deep breath. "I do not waste forgiveness on people so thoroughly inconsequential to me!"

He raised his eyebrows at her, affecting the same amused expression she had so often seen in his father-only without the warmth.

"I-inconsequential to you?" He sounded nearly pleased. "Why, Miss Bennet, I believe you wish it to be so. But surely you are clever enough to know how untrue it is?"

Elizabeth bit the inside of her lip. He had gotten the best of her: she had not intended to let the conversation go into this loop. The worst thing, she knew, was that he was correct: he was anything but inconsequential, having ruled and ruined her life for the past three years.

She knew, then, she felt the danger he presented. Perhaps, it would be wise to remove herself to her rooms-but her anger had already bubbled up to the surface, leaving her both powerless and unwilling to resist it. She narrowed her eyes at him, feeling every single cruel word as it rolled off her tongue:

"Mr. Darcy, you were almost killed once for being uncivil to me," she said, viciously biting off words. "I am sorry to see that you have not learned your lesson."

Clearly, she had hit a nerve, Elizabeth thought in mean pleasure. He turned whiter than his stock, and his shocked expression needed no words. Gasping at her effrontery, he opened his mouth to say something...but then clearly thought better of it. Instead, he cut her another curt bow and strode quickly from the room.

Darcy took his supper in the small drawing-room adjacent to his boyhood bedroom. He read as he ate, a bad habit he had developed years ago at Trinity; but tonight, it was he only way to keep his thoughts from driving him mad. He picked at his food absent-mindedly, leafing through a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress-the first book he had pulled off the shelf. But the philosophy and the theology drove him to restless distraction; and so, miles away from reaching the Celestial City, he closed the book and set it aside. The London newssheets, solicitously set near his plate by his valet, were a few days too old-he recalled reading them two nights ago in town-and in any case, idle London gossip was the last thing interesting him right now. He tossed the papers aside in annoyance.

Nor did he have any appetite, having picked at his food for a good half an hour and finally set aside a plate that was three-quarters full. His thoughts were dark and ponderous-despair at his father's illness and deep displeasure with himself. Not to mention fury at Miss Bennet-indeed, he tried his best to keep away from thinking of her, the impertinent chit. You were almost killed once for being uncivil to me. Did she know what agonies her cruel words caused him? Not so much because they reminded him of his dishonor, of a combat lost-but because they rung true. Three years ago, Bennet had had all the reasons to run him through; indeed, had it been his sister thus insulted... he would have run himself through.

Perhaps she was correct about him. Shameful to think he had not learned his lesson.

He forced himself out of the chair. It did not help any to sit and brood; he must make himself useful, must do something- He changed his clothing, removing his coat and donning a long house-robe instead. He would go down to his father's bedchamber, to keep watch.

At Mr. Darcy's doors, he stopped, frozen still. It was shut solidly, but he could hear, distinctly, from behind it, Miss Bennet's voice, reading quietly to his father. All of a sudden, it disturbed him less to hear her than he had thought it would. Her voice was low-and feminine-and surprisingly adult and sure.

He eavesdropped, leaning against the doorframe.

"Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown
But vainly flapped its tinsel wing."

Marvel, he thought, automatically. He knew this poem, he knew he knew it, and yet he could not remember the title. He pushed the door open. Miss Bennet looked up, startled, her book of poetry immediately sliding off her lap. She grasped at it, but too late-it had already landed on the rug with a dull thud. Striding towards her, Darcy picked it up and held it back out to her. She took it from him without a word of thanks. Ye gods she was ungracious. (And, he thought, throwing a cursory glance over her, rather plain. Perhaps he was unkind in his first assessment of her, but he had not been incorrect.)

With a small cough to clear her throat, she threw him a quick glance and began to read again:

"And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixed;
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
For Fate with jealous eye doth see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close..."

Turning away from her, he stood by his father's bed, watched the slow rise and fall of Mr. Darcy's chest, listening to his labored breathing. Not yet, he thought, oh not yet. Just a little more time. Behind him, Miss Bennet stopped reading; he heard her slide off her chair. Then, she came to stand near him, holding the book tightly against her chest. Faith, she looked as if he would wrestle the tome away from her.

The ailing man moaned and shuddered in his uneasy sleep. Darcy closed his eyes; it tore at his heart to see his father like so. His months of absence from home, every day he had spent away from Pemberley in his wounded selfish pride now weighed a stone on his heart. Wouldst that he could turn back the clock!

For a short time, they stood next to each other, and next to the bed, looking at Mr. Darcy. Stood, not unlike two siblings. Darcy cast Miss Bennet a wary glance: who was she now in this household, this girl? Earlier, Georgiana, cried in her fury at him: she is like a sister to me! How dare he speak like that with a woman who had supplanted him, in his absence, as his little sister's best friend and confidante? He shook his head, disgusted with himself, with the self-pity in his thoughts. If anything, he ought to be grateful to her for keeping company with Georgie-and for watching over his father.

She turned away from the bed, walked back to her chair. He sat down near and listened to her read for a long time, poem after poem, all the time keeping his gaze at his father. She was reading from a book of Elizabethan poetry he himself had liked as a boy... strange that she should choose it, of the many. He struggled to recollect the name of that first poem, uselessly so, memory slipping away from him like a silk scarf on the wind. He caught, in her voice, a small hitch, a note of exhaustion.

Darcy rose from his seat.

'Tis late," he said. He came to stand near her, towering over her, and she stopped reading, a line of one of Ben Johnson's poems freezing dead on her lips. Looking up at him with a little frown lodged firmly upon her brow. "Perchance you should retire." His voice came out hoarse, startling.

He had steeled himself for an argument, for resistance, but she simply slid off her chair and held the book out to him.

"Here." Her finger stopped at the beginning of the next poem. He saw, then, in her face, a shifting, a lightness he had not seen before. "Do not lose heart," she murmured impulsively. "Do not let him go. Death takes those we leg go of too easily." For a moment, they stood, silently, facing each other in the dim light of the candle; then, e nodding, he took the book from her. He set it face down on his chair-to keep the page-- and reached for the bell pull. Its dull ringing, far in the servant quarters, would not wake his father, deep in his own world.

"No," she said, quickly. He frowned.

"Someone ought to walk you back-" It was improper that she should skulk around Pemberley all alone... particularly when the hour was so late.

"I shall be fine, thank you." They both spoke in hushed, hurried whispers. "I know the way to my room perfectly well."

"But-"

"Everyone is asleep, sir," she murmured, frowning at him severely. "It would be unkind to wake them--simply because you do not trust me to find the way to my own bed."

With that final retort, she turned around and was gone. Confounded, Darcy lowered himself into his chair once again and started to read. Words fell, dead, from his lips. Death takes those we let go of too easily. He sighed. Where was this from? Was it something she had thought of herself? Wouldst that he had her faith! He tried his best to focus on the poem. Bermudas.

What should we do but sing His praise
That led us through the watery maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own--

Oh what a long night this would be.

... "Oh do let him be, Peregrine! Do not wake the young Master!" "Don't you think he should want to know?" "He'll know soon enough, when he wakes-"

The hushed whispers and hisses filtered through the haze of sleep. Instinctively shielding himself from the intrusion, Darcy sought to burrow into slumber for another moment. It was blissful in his sleep, for he did not know who or where he was.

But it was not meant to be; he felt someone's hand on his shoulder, shaking him.

"Mr. Darcy!" A young female voice, trembling with great anxiety. He opened his eyes, groggily, forcing himself back to the reality. The curtains were drawn from the window, the sheer summer light pouring in with vexing self-assurance, as if it was alive and intruding, as if it meant to be here. Darcy squinted, straining to see against the bold brilliant streaming radiance.

In an attempt to sit up in his chair, he well-nigh slid to the floor and now clambered, awkwardly, back to his feet.

"Mr. Darcy."

It was, of course, Miss Bennet, dressed in a somber black dress, a blue Kashmir shawl around her shoulders. This smudge of color looked surprisingly refreshing on her.

"What-" He forced himself to focus on her face. His whole body ached from the uncomfortable night spent in his chair.

"Your father is awake."

All hope he felt at Miss Bennet's announcement was dashed upon spending a few moments with his father. Mr. Darcy was not better; he was merely awake and fully conscious of his misery and suffering. The doctor was no help at all, not even to tell Darcy of the fate that awaited his father. It drove him mad, this not knowing. For his part, he would always much rather know. It amazed him to see that Miss Bennet seemed to take the doctor's lack of certainty as a good sign-for she took his refusal to pronounce Mr. Darcy a dying man as a reason to hope.

Two days hence, she said to him (was one of the very few things she said to him these days, for ever since their confrontation in the dining room, they had barely said two dozen words to each other).

"The doctor told me straight away my Father was dying. You ought to be happy this is not the case with yours."

He was startled-and slightly shamed-by her understanding of him. Indeed, she saw into him better than he did himself. Of if only he could share her certainty that the doctor's silence was a good thing; but it seemed to him that the cruel Death merely prolonged his father's suffering-only to snatch him away later. He said nothing, merely shaking his head and walking away from her, to brood. He felt, all of a sudden, as if she looked into him, deep into the very middle and heart of him... and he did not like it. This homely girl, this strange dark girl affected him in a most peculiar, disquieting manner.

They developed a cautious, nearly silent camaraderie at Mr. Darcy's bedside. They spoke only when required, and yet they took turn reading poetry aloud, one beginning when the other lost his voice. Still, they hardly ever ate together, she always dining with Georgiana, he taking supper in his apartments. Sitting at the silent table with them would have been torture (with Georgiana still not talking to him, he felt like a leper in his own house!).

Still, somehow, they spent a prodigious amount of time together, and he could not help watching her, more and more. She was a curious sight. Would he marry her-such a girl? Not at all an attractive girl, a boyish figure, flat-chested and narrow-hipped, and almost unhealthily slender for her height...Her face was-no, could have been pleasant; but she did nothing to make it so, dressing her hair in a most austere manner, pulling it away from her face, so tightly it looked painful (indeed, he suspected she did it on purpose). Dressed constantly in mourning attire, she looked as dark as a crow. A young feisty crow, but a crow nonetheless. Darcy scolded himself for these unkind thoughts: after all, she spent countless sleepless nights tending to his father. But the fact that he would have to marry this girl kept intruding. She was not ugly... but nothing about her enticed or attracted.

He would have thought her boring, too, for he could hardly get a word out of her-but for her choice in her father's reading. She read to him from Johnson and Sidney, and Marvel, and Milton. She also read to him from the Bible, Old Testament and New, the Psalms in particular. Darcy was as impressed by her taste in literature, as he was by the effortless way with which she navigated the intricacies of Paradise Lost. Then, remembering Old Bennet's favorite subjects, he thought wistfully: she is, after all, her father's daughter.

So she was definitely well-read; he had to give her that. Or perhaps more: she seemed to possess an able greedy mind. She was also kind, he thought, as he watched her with Georgiana-kind in particular to those weaker than herself, to those in need of comfort. Once, he saw her on the stairs, soothing his weeping sister. He came near them, opening his mouth to speak, but she looked at him over the girls' head and shook her head no. He tiptoed away, somehow convinced that Miss Bennet would do well by his sister. Better, perhaps, than he could-for there seemed to have developed a curious bond, of the nature that only ever exists between females, and that no male could ever hope to foster with a person of the opposite sex. He envied Miss Bennet that.

If he were to be honest with himself, Elizabeth Bennet would make a better wife for the future Master of Pemberley than any of the brides he might find in London. Though she fainted upon their first meeting this year-faith, how it shamed him to think of that!-she was not the fainting kind. Though she looked as thin and fragile as a waif, he suspected that she was stronger than most. He watched her at his father's bedside (there were moments when he or Reynolds did insist that she step away from the bed, for modesty's sake... and she did, returning soon as she could), thinking that she would be awful-miserable-in town, and very well-placed in the country. A country squire's wife, he thought-for no matter what else he was, this what he would soon become, a country squire, with a country squire's cares. Perhaps he would need a wife like her-clever enough to manage the household, compassionate enough to supervise the people dependent on them? Plain enough to look the part (for as much as he tried, he could not imagine some of his more refined and attractive lady acquaintances taking soup to tenant households).

One morning, having spent a few excruciating hours in the chair, he woke to the sight of her, hunched over his father's bed. Their voices, quiet, drifted over the room, and he caught the tail end of the conversation, her saying, I dared not wake him, and then, she saw him, and startled and froze. He hated the look that came over her whenever their eyes met. He had seen the same on a wolf, frozen still in a clearing, at the sight of him with his rifle raised.

He rose, quickly, and came over to the bed. Miss Bennet sprang to her feet, then and was gone without a curtsey, without a word to him, without so much as a nod.

"She has not taken to you," his father said. He realized he had been looking after her, watching the edge of her black skirts disappear, as the door closed softly behind her. Turning back to face his father, he forced a smile and inquired after Mr. Darcy's health.

"Ah, Will, you are too clever by half to ask me such silly questions."

He shrugged, awkwardly; he never knew what to say to his father' sarcastic wit. "May I ring for something? If there anything you require?"

"A new heart, perhaps." The old man's lips twitched. Darcy was startled to think thus: his father, an old man! An old dying man, an unkind voice said inside, for it cannot be helped. He chased such thoughts away vehemently. "Sit down, Will."

He did, blindly pulling up a chair, thinking to himself that the last time his father had called him Will must have been years ago. He was uncertain if it was welcome, now-for it almost brought tears to his eyes to hear it.

"I wish to speak with you. There is one thing... one thing I could not leave unsettled before I go."

"Pray do not speak like so," Darcy murmured, averting his eyes. He had dreaded this conversation: it seemed to tip the scale away from Miss Bennet's stubborn hopefulness and towards his own miserable certainty that his father was dying. "You will get better." Somehow, he could not muster the girl's certainty that it would be so; indeed, his words sounded hollow to his ears.

"And what if I do not?" His father spoke harshly, each word a struggle against his heavy breathing. He sounds as if a mountain is heaped upon his chest, Darcy thought; what should he not give to move it?

"You will," he repeated desperately. "You will." Empty words he no longer believed himself.

"All the same, I want to plan for a different-er, eventuality," Mr. Darcy said, smiling wearily. "As my obedient son, you will hear me out, Will." He took a pause, breathing deeply. "And you will do as I say."

Darcy bowed his head, acquiescing. To argue with his father had never been easy; but it was unthinkable now.

"I want you to marry Miss Bennet."

Darcy looked up in surprise.

"I know that, Father, but why mention it now? We have spoken of it before."

"I want you to do it now. Soon as may be."

"But-" He froze for a moment, deeply shocked. Marrying anybody now was the last thing on his mind; and he was particularly poorly prepared to marry Miss Bennet, whom he found homely and though no longer a brash tree-climbing hellion, far from pleasant. In addition, a blind man could see how much she disliked him ... if not to say detested. Outside of his father's rooms, she had not said ten words to him; every time they met in the hallway, she made to pass by him, lips pursed, eyes lowered.

He had thought about marrying her-for indeed, their marriage has been in the works for years-but it was always a thing of the distant future. A time, in the distant future, when she looked a little less like a gaunt young crow. A time, when she would-perhaps-maybe smile at him.

"Hear me out." For the next several minutes, his father proffered to him the same arguments he had thought of himself: that indubitably, the girl was clever, with a developed and excellent mind; that she was also rather good (if one judged by her devotion to his father and her kindness to Georgiana). That already, at the age of sixteen, she had grown to be a head above any society beauty he might consider for a wife. That she had had hardship in her life, losing both her parents so early, losing, essentially, her beloved brother-and that such adversity had shaped her in ways to have made her most suitable for the role of the Mistress of Pemberley.

"But more than that," his father continued, "for the role of your wife."

More arguments, to Darcy's stunned ears: that on a life's harsh journey, one needed a true mate for a wife. A friend, a supporter, a shoulder to lay your head on.

"A friend!" Darcy cried, losing control. "A friend! Father, she can barely stand the sight of me!"

"And with good reason," was Mr. Darcy's immediate riposte. "You have behaved towards her in an unpardonable manner-"

"How-" Hot red stained his face, first of shame, then of anger- To imagine that she would complain of him to his father, who was so ill-why, he had thought better of her!

"Servants talk!" Mr. Darcy snapped. "Even in this house, servants can be indiscrete. Nothing you do is done in perfect solitude." He took a heavy, angry huff. "If I could, I should give you a whipping for it myself-no matter how big you think you've grown!" He sighed, frowning. "But no matter. I am certain you will find ways to apologize and make her forgive you."

Darcy remained in a state of bewildered disbelief, frozen awkwardly in his chair. "But-why now?" he murmured. "I have long resolved myself to marrying Miss Bennet, but Father-"

"Because I want it to happen before I die," was his father's harsh reply.

"You do not trust me to do it after-" He froze on the last word, after-the very word which he had forbidden himself to think.

Mr. Darcy gave a weak wave, a fading smile. "Oh, I trust you. I know you to be an obedient son and a man of your word." He smiled wistfully. "However faultily given. But her-" He sighed. "She is a good child, but she is willful."

"But do you wish me a willful wife, Father?" It was a pathetic attempt-and it met with a fitting reply.

"I most certainly do!" Mr. Darcy's said irritably. "A strong-willed one to keep you on your toes. A sharp-tongued little shrew that will never let you forget yourself!"

Darcy groaned, dropping his head into his hands. "Do you suppose she will repudiate her father's wishes-"

Mr. Darcy gave a small snort. "Surely you are not so naïve, Will? I know that she will repudiate Bennet's wishes. She does not want to marry you. All she ever talks of is her brother coming back. Saving her from you."

Darcy felt ill. "But Father!" he exclaimed. "Truly, if she detests me enough to wish to be saved from me-how can you force this marriage? Let her be willful, but I daresay the chit cannot bear the sound of my name!"

"As I said, you gave her all the reason in the world. But I believe-I believe you are good enough, Will-I believe that you can change. You can make this girl a good husband-and if you do, I daresay you will be rewarded."

"Oh Father!" he cried. "What if I am not rewarded? What if both of us are made miserable by this? Is it not better to arrange something for her? A living, so she would be secure--after all, it was her father's only wish... I am certain he saw no qualities in me to want me for a son-in-law!"

"Perhaps," Mr. Darcy agreed. His eyes drifted closed and his breathing grew heavier... as if every mouthful of air caused him unending pain. "But it is my wish for you to marry her. I told you my reasons. If you do not understand them, you will obey them."

With a flick of a wrist, he dismissed his son. Darcy sat in the chair by the bed for another moment, slowly digesting the shocking news.

"Who is-" he asked softly. "Who is to tell Miss Bennet?"

There was no answer, Mr. Darcy drifting away.

Chapter 8

All day he avoided her, meeting her only late in the evening at his father's bedside. As he entered, she was reading to Mr. Darcy in a strong, even voice. Darcy noticed she held the book-having finished with Paradise Lost, she had moved on to the more hopeful Paradise Regained-a little too close to her face, and thought: her eyes are bad. As always, she barely looked up from the book when he entered. He watched her for a moment, thinking that perhaps she knew-but oh no. He could not fathom her reaction when she did know; surely she would not remain this composed. He caught himself shuddering inwardly and smiled at his cowardice. He should rather go to war against Bonaparte's troops-and yet she was a mere girl. A child, really, at sixteen years old.

Soon enough, he feigned exhaustion-though how much of it was feigned and how much was real, even he, himself, did not know. She told him to go to bed, then, and he was glad to-and ashamed, deeply, of his need to be away from her. What he knew, and she did not, the secret he kept from her, weighed heavily on him. Well, he thought, it could not remain a secret for much longer. He would have to do it in the morning.

Darcy spent a sleepless night, twisting and turning in the sheets, then rising to pace restlessly about the room in his nightshirt. His thoughts were poisonous, driving him slowly mad. He would tell her tomorrow-there was no reason to wait. But the very thought terrified him and he did not know why. He kept repeating to himself: she was a child, a child, a mere child. Surely her will in this matter was inferior to his?

It was unthinkable to deny his father's wishes-particularly now, when he was so ill. He had long accustomed himself to the thought of marrying Miss Bennet one day, and though that marriage was still far away-in the manner his own old age and death were, years away-he could have accustomed himself to the thought of its immediacy. After all, it made little difference when to put a ring on her finger. She was plain-but who said that a Mrs. Darcy had to be pretty? He had never thought to marry for love, therefore beauty mattered little. Having met her, having received his father's approbation of her, he had found no major faults in her, certainly far less of a fault than he could ever find in the best-born London beauty. They were even living in the same house already... little would change if they married.

If only she did not hate him quite so much!

There was no question: he had been in the wrong... there was no excuse for his incivility to her, not really... but he did apologize, after all. Yes, that. He had apologized, but could not shake the feeling, even still, that his apology was not accepted. And that it was, all in all, rather poorly accomplished. What had come over him that he should attempt to restrain her? Really, laying a hand on a lady! Perhaps it was the overwhelming feeling of guilt still lingering after their initial encounter that had led him to behave in such a thoroughly ungentlemanly manner.

Still, through the haze of displeasure with himself, he remembered, with peculiar curiosity, how her eyes had flashed at him. He had never been hated before... perhaps only by George Wickham... but no, Wickham hated him for what he was, what he had... it was greed and envy, simple as that...Darcy had long learned that he could do nothing to make Wickham like him more, or at least hate him less. But Miss Bennet-he had the dubious honor of having earned her resentment. The thought of it made him terribly uneasy, for he knew he had done wrong.

But she! The insufferable girl treated him as if she could not bear to be next to him. He thought of Bennet, then, immediately, with a twinge of real heartache (over the years, it had hardly subsided at all). Miss Bennet reminded him of her older brother in an uncanny way. If Bennet was angry with you, he would give you a beating-or rather, in Darcy's case, would attempt to, in the process garnering himself a black eye or once, a broken nose. But he would only ignore you completely if he were truly, deeply hurt-and Darcy had hardly known him like so, for Bennet was not easily hurt. He thought it strange-how this girl reminded him of her brother. How he saw his old friend... his best friend, long gone... in her.

She could not stand him, never particularly liked him, not even when he and Bennet were friends, and she-a mere girl. And then... lately, she has had plenty of reason to detest him. He had given her enough. His father's harsh words rang in his ears: all she ever talks about is her brother coming back, saving her from you. There was no question-he would do his best to make it up to her. She deserved no less. He could do no less, having behaved towards her in a most ungentlemanly manner.

But the immediate question remained: how would she react when told about Mr. Darcy's insistence that they should marry at once? He found, to his great surprise, that his opposition to the immediate marriage was built in large part on her defiance of him. If only she was milder... softer... if only she were indifferent to him. It was a sad business, indeed, to have so poorly recommended himself to a lady so many years ago-and to have now reinforced her unfavorable opinion of him. How do you marry someone who dreams of being saved from you? How do you make it work?

But perhaps-perhaps he would not need to make it work. Many couples of his station never attempted to make it work. Indeed, it is strange that such a maudlin thought had ever entered his mind, for surely were he to marry one of the ladies of the ton, he would not think of it. But then again, he thought grimly, no lady of the ton would behave with such obvious incivility-such that all she thought of him was written plainly on her face every time he looked at her. Incivility, he thought grimly. Dare you talk to her of incivility?

He groaned and pitched himself onto the bed, desperately hoping for peace. But sleep would not come, not until the early hours of the morning, when the sky behind the window acquired a peculiar grizzled quality. Thereupon, after merely an hour of sleep, he rose from the bed and rang for his valet, to order himself a bath. As he faced the daunting task before him, he would feel more certain looking immaculate.

~ * ~

"No."

He had expected her to rant and rave, to denounce him a scoundrel and to demand a carriage at once. God knows what else, really; he would not put it past her to throw something heavy at him. But she only looked at him and shook her head.

"You are compleatly mad to even ask me that."

Her serious, convinced tone threw him, leaving him uncertain as to his next step. If she walked out presently, what would he do? He had asked her to the music room straight after breakfast-a silent and gloomy affair, for Georgiana still said not a word to him, and Miss Bennet herself spoke to him as little as possible. When he had asked her, quietly and out of his sister's hearing, she looked up at him, and he thought, with sudden pleasure, that she was surprised. But now, now-how to behave in the face of her cold defiance? A "no" he had expected, but not a "no" spoken in such a cold, weighed, adult manner!

Wouldst that she actually threw something at him!

The worst thing was, he knew that she was correct. What marriage had ever worked built on such animosity as now existed between them?

Still, he affected the confidence he did not feel:

"Mad?" he inquired. "Pray tell, why is it so? After all, was it not the desire of your father, and lately, mine, that we should marry?"

She was standing, leaning slightly against the side of the pianoforte, rocking lightly on her tiptoes. An unladylike pose, but when did she ever attempt to look a lady to him?

"My father!" she said, still keeping her tone light and cold, but her soft brown eyes flashed at him, full of anguish. "You know that my father was blinded by what is not his. He coveted your estate, and for that, I am deeply sorry. He tied me to you by a promise extracted from your father, years ago, and for that, I hate him sometimes." She folded her arms on her chest and stuck out her chin at him. "I have no intention to holding you to Mr. Darcy's promise."

He could not contain a wistful smile: oh, how easy it seemed. She would release him from the obligation-if not now, then upon reaching the age of one-and-twenty-and out of kindness, he would settle a sum of a few thousand pounds on her, enabling her to marry well. They would each go their own way, and would see each other no more.

If only his father found such a departure agreeable.

He told her so; she looked up at him as if she thought him mad:

"Surely he cannot wish you such unhappiness!" she said.

"And yet he does." Darcy rose from the sofa and stood at the mantel, arms folded on the chest, protecting himself from her certainty that she wanted no part of him. "For some unfathomable reason, my father seems to think you and I are splendidly matched."

"He is sadly mistaken, sir." Finally a reaction: her lips trembled as she spoke.

"He has the benefit of years of experience," he suggested.

"I have the benefit of knowing my own nature!" she huffed, furiously scowling at him.

"But not mine," he riposted, and regretted it immediately, for a dark shadow covered her countenance. Goading her a little was all fine; but he had to know where to stop. Presently, her disagreement was immediate and fierce.

"I beg to differ," she said bitterly. "I think I know your nature well enough to say that you are the last man on earth I should want to marry."

Darcy felt as if someone had knocked all breath out of him He had prepared himself for this conversation-for this confrontation, indeed-but was shocked by her vehemence. Finally, regaining his composure, he

"I am certain there ought to be men in this world who would make less desirable prospects than do I," he said, and regretted it immediately, for it made him sound almost plaintive.

"None that I know," she replied. She spun around on one spot, walked to face the window. He could see her neck, fragile, vulnerable, open, just under her hair that was rolled into a tight chignon at the back of her head.

He clenched his teeth and silently cursed the two men who had tied him, so recklessly, to this impossible creature. And why was his father so certain that they were well-matched? Even if they did marry, what possible life could they have with so much vitriol between them? They would claw each other's eyes out before their honeymoon was over.

"I can see what you think of me," he said to her back. Without turning around, she shrugged in a manner that was so dismissive and uncivil, for a moment, he was very much of a mind to conclude the entire conversation.

"Despite what you might believe," she replied, evenly, "I do not consider you so very bad. I merely think you a selfish man, unaccustomed to thinking of anyone but yourself. A man who can afford to give offense wherever he goes, for he will always be liked for his yearly income."

Darcy rolled his eyes. Her self-righteousness made him ill; yet he strove to keep his manner civil, and to keep his biting words to himself. "Would you believe me if I told you that I have regretted my harsh words to you, more than I can say?"

Another infuriating little shrug, without turning around. "Perhaps," she said. "But it changes nothing. Nothing you do now should change the fact that you were cruel and thoughtless enough to say them. I should rather die an old maid than marry you."

He heaved a disgusted sigh. "Miss Bennet, I am not declaring my love for you. I am not a romantic knight on bended knee. This union was arranged by our fathers, years ago, and I now see no reason not to follow their arrangement. That is all, so perhaps if you could just spare me the theatrics-"

She turned around, staring at him in disbelief. "And you-you are prepared to marry me? Now?"

"This very minute." Well, he thought, maybe with a single night left for soul-searching and drowning himself in Malaga wine.

"But why?" she now sounded lost. "You do not love me, you do not even particularly like me-have you no care for your own heart?"

"My heart has little to do with this," he explained. The conversation had worn him out, leaving his physically drained. This was so obvious, almost self-evident: why did he have to pound it into her stubborn head? "I do not dislike you. There are many things about you... about your character... that I admire. Many marriages are based on far less."

"But you do not love me!"

He could not help smiling. "Only at the age of sixteen do such arguments have weight. I have never expected to marry for love. The only thing of importance to me is that my wife not shame the Darcy name. I do not think you would, madam. I might as well humor my father."

"Three years ago, you pronounced me unfit to wear it!" she said, with perhaps a little too much temper.

"Three years ago, I was young and foolish, and I have paid for my stupidity amply-as you, yourself, have reminded me but recently. Was my blood spilled for your honor not recompense enough?"

She made a frustrated little moan: the memory seemed to pain her just as much, Darcy discovered with surprise. "No matter," she murmured finally. "None of it signifies. I have no more wish to marry you now than I did three years ago. You may be willing to tie yourself to a person who dislikes you-but I have no such desire. I shall not marry you, now or in any conceivable future."

"Oh." He frowned. "That is a problem."

"Yes," she said. "I believe this is. Perhaps you could be so kind as to explain to Mr. Darcy what I think of the whole sordid business."

Darcy groaned aloud. The mental vision of himself, appearing at his father's bedside, to tell him that he could not fulfill his dying wish was nothing short of terrible.

"No," he said quietly, resolutely.

She had been staring at the black hem of her dress; now, she looked up at him in vivid amazement. "Pardon?"

"No," he said. "I am not accustomed to disobeying my father so flagrantly. And I do not see why I should be the bearer of bad news, when I am prepared to obey him."

She frowned at him. "You are talking nonsense, sir."

Darcy leaned more comfortably against the mantel. "Not at all. I believe you should be the one to tell him. He is fond of you, after all." He inspected his nails in a most nonchalant manner; the conversation had just turned to favor him.

"He asked you," she said, helpless, clearly struggling to contain her anger, "not me, and I think it is only fair-"

"Fair! You and I both know fairness has little to do with this!"

"I thought you were above such low methods!"

"Faith, madam," he replied, "it is a great relief to know you thought me above anything!"

"You will not tell him?"

Slowly, he shook his head from side to side.

"Very well," she said. "Neither shall I. I shall go to my aunt's house tonight, forthwith."

Darcy narrowed his eyes at her. "You will run? Flee? Without first saying good-bye to my father? You will simply abandon him?"

All of a sudden, she sat down on the edge of the window-sill, hiding her face in her hands with a stifled sob. "You have no honor," she said, her voice dulled. "No decency, no kindness in you."

Darcy frowned. The last thing he wanted was to set her to thinking about the deficiencies of his character-it seemed to him she had already spent entirely too much time dwelling on them in the past years.

He came closer. She was sitting with her head bowed, still hiding her face in her hands, and he felt a surge of sudden, terrible guilt. They have placed heavy burdens on the shoulders of one so young. Her father had wanted her to have Pemberley once; now his wanted her for a daughter-in-law. But she was not yet seventeen years of age-and she was caught, caught in the net of their grown-up intrigues. "Miss Bennet," he said. "Perhaps there is a way."

He had not thought of it until now, but seeing her like so, broken and miserable at the very thought of marrying him, touched him deeply.

"Miss Bennet," he said.

She looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. She wiped at them, awkwardly, with long fingers, and he leaned, offering her his handkerchief. Then, he pulled up a chair and sat across from her, leaning forward with both elbows upon his knees.

"Thank you." She looked sheepish, embarrassed, and she crumpled the wet handkerchief in her fist. "You said that you think-"

"Yes, there might be a way to keep my father happy without sacrificing your young life to the horrible Baal-me." He smirked at her and was surprised by the shy, tentative smile that curled the corners of her mouth. Truly, he did not think she could smile like that.

"You are not-" she protested weakly, but he silenced her, raising one hand.

"Whatever I am, clearly the thought of marrying me is repugnant to you."

She lowered her eyes without saying more-without needing to say more.

"The way things are between us-and considering my father's wishes-the only way to do this is to get married-"

"But-" She started from her seat, indignant already.

"Grant me a moment of silence, Miss Bennet, so that I might explain myself," Darcy snapped. He shot her an angry glance-an intolerable child! "We shall get married-for a time."

"For a time?" she repeated, sounding perplex?d. Her eyes, dark and restless, searched his face.

"Only while my father is alive." The words, spoken aloud, caused him physical anguish. It was one thing to think it, but saying it-the awful truth, that his father was dying-made it suddenly more real. "To pacify his heart. To do as he wishes."

"And then?" she murmured, her lips trembling.

"And then, madam, we shall annul the marriage."

"Annul it! Sir, what an idea!"

"Why yes, I can think of no other way. Can you?"

"No," she whispered, looking at him, bewildered. He could see how torn she was between her fear of him-Lord!-and her pity for his father. "But-how do you-how do you annul a marriage-"

Darcy frowned. "You will leave that to me and my solicitors." Why must she know everything? Her lips trembled, and he felt compelled to reassure her: "Please understand, madam, that our marriage will remain thus in name only-"

"Oh!" she blushed furiously and lowered her eyes. "It would have to be so, yes."

Darcy bit his lip, trying his hardest not to laugh, for the very thought of conjugal relations with this scrawny child made him feel odd-if not to say revolted. Their marriage would be easy to annul. And at any rate, how did she know about such things?

"Will you think about it?" he persisted. "Will you at least consider it?"

She nodded, slowly, without looking at him. "I shall give you your answer today."

"Very good." He rose and strode from the room, forgetting to bow to her-for his thoughts were in too much tumult. Outside the sitting room, the feeling of having been punched in the stomach intensified, and he slumped against the wall. What had he done? Panic washed over him, anguish and fear. He had been so certain she would refuse... he had not thought beyond convincing her.

He heard Miss Bennet move within and hurried away, lest she find him like that, so undignified. The least thing he wanted was to show her how terrified he was. He paused by his father's door, listening; he heard the valet reading-and walked by, downing his guilt. He simply had to take Kublai out for a ride; he felt he would go mad if he could not feel the horse between his legs.

Perchance, by the time he returned, his answer would be ready.

Elizabeth watched Fitzwilliam Darcy leave the house. At the sight of him striding purposely towards a handsome black horse, held at bay by a young groom, her fingers closed furiously over the drapes. Insufferable man! The presumption, the gall on him! And yet-she found she could not simply sweep his offer aside, not when it meant disappointing his father-who had been so kind to her-and who was now dying. She would do anything for him. Anything.

Even this?

Elizabeth spun away from the window, restless. She would go for a walk, too. Perchance fresh air might clear her head, help her think. She needed that. She went up to her room (wouldst that she were a man and could jump over two steps as she once saw Jamie do; but constricting skirts made it impossible), to take her bonnet. On her way out the door, she ran into Georgiana, who, upon seeing her ready to walk out, asked if she could accompany her. Mumbling some half-hearted excuse, she caught a glimpse of a girl's face, lost and mired in disappointment. She had always welcomed Georgiana's company, but today, she wanted solitude.

"Well, 'tis going to rain!" Georgiana said loudly, spitefully behind her. Elizabeth ignored her, walking out quickly, almost running; for surely if Mrs. Reynolds saw her leave before the rain, she would attempt to stop her-the good woman had a mortal fear of putrid colds.

She walked through the courtyard and under an arch, and then, she made her way across the lawn towards the lake. She walked quickly, her black skirts flying across the grass. Longing for the woods to hide her, longing to be away from the tall Pemberley windows; to not be seen, to not be watched! Finally, secreted away in a wooded lane, she slowed her pace and breathed deeply as she walked. It was lovely around her, really-Pemberley, gorgeous in the full bloom of summer. A damnable piece of land, she thought, and kicked a small stone with the tip of her shoe. It skidded across the lane, disappearing in the tall grass at the side. If only somebody saw her, Elizabeth was certain they would think her a hoyden.

She cared little: lately, it seemed, the world had gone mad. Her beloved brother all but abandoned her, but an Uncle she had never met how wished for her to live with him; and Mr. Darcy wanted her to marry his son-wanted to, apparently, for all her good qualities. Stranger still-the very son who had brimmed with bitterness three years back... he, too, seemed unmindful of her temper, her mean tongue, her homeliness he had so loudly proclaimed a mere s'ennight ago. He no longer even seemed to mind the very fact that he had been saddled with her, but wanted to marry her-merely to please his father. Truly, the world has gone mad. There was no other way to wrap her mind about this.

The black silk ribbons from her bonnet dug into the skin under her chin, paining her. Standing in the middle of the lane, Elizabeth yanked at them, furiously, until they finally came apart. There, she breathed, better. She retied them, loosely, letting the bonnet trail behind her back. It mattered little that she was now bareheaded; for there was no-one here to see her (and had there been someone, she should not care!).

She continued to walk. What to do, what to do, what to do. The thought beat in her mind like a loud Sunday bell. Foolishly, she had promised him an answer tonight. What was she thinking? Could one make such a decision in a day? She shook her head, amazed at her own stupidity: it made little difference how much time she took to think on it. The breaking of another day would change naught in her circumstances. Jamie-the one person whose advice she craved-was so far away, it would take months to receive an answer to any question. Her situation remained the same-for Jamie was the only person who could change them, and he was not likely to come galloping down the lane on the morrow. It would all be the same, come morning.

However much time she had, it was not enough. She choked on her anger, the bile rising in her throat: how she hated him!

But she was not given to unfairness, not even at the moments of such upheaval: be honest, she said to herself, tell yourself the truth. The truth remained: the choice was hers. She had only promised Fitzwilliam Darcy an answer-she had not promised him she would agree. She could say no, could refuse, without feeling at all obliged-for it was a high price to pay for even such wonderful kindness as Mr. Darcy has shown her. Surely it could not be expected of her! She could stay at Pemberley and continue to care for him. Or she could go to London, to her Uncle's house. For a moment, wild hope flared up, the possibility of an escape discovered. But of course!

And then, as if spoken aloud, she heard his voice again:

You will run? Flee?

She clenched her teeth and her gloved fists, closed her eyes against a rush of fury. He was playing with her, so cleverly, so unkindly. His face, in her mind's eye, looked incredulous, astonished. You will-simply-abandon him? When he put it like so, it did seem an awfully low thing to do--to scurry from the bedside of a dying man. To run off without saying good bye... she had never done anything like that. What would Jamie say to her? She scolded herself: it was an old habit of hers to try her every decision on for her brother's size. Would Jamie do this? Would Jamie do that? Childish, really. Jamie was gone, unable to aid or advise her. Her decision would be hers only.

Would she run?

No. She could not imagine skulking out of Pemberley, hiding in the night, under the silent gaze of the servants. These people, every single one of them, had been kind to her. They deserved better-and still, she could not fathom simply refusing Mr. Darcy's one last dying wish... however unreasonable. Yes, it was unreasonable. She would stop at this: she would not let herself sink into resentment, would not let herself be angry with him. She could not imagine denying him what he asked of her.

What to do? The sky had acquired a peculiar mother-of-pearl hue, for the sun was shining full-force behind a thin sheen of clouds. It would rain, soon. It had turned oppressively hot, the air tight and heavy, and she felt a small beads of perspiration as they gathered on her brow and upper lip. Making her decision in this weather was not any easier, but the thought of turning back to the house appealed to her even less. She continued to walk, hoping to find a clearing with a bit of shadow, where she could sit and think at leisure.

But what to do? Why, oh why did she promise him an answer today? She could not leave in secret, and she could not leave in the open, that much was obvious. But could she marry him? Even in jest? His offer to her was as terrifying as it was seductive: to marry him for a time only, to fulfill Mr. Darcy's strange wish and pacify her own conscience. She knew that the young Mr. Darcy was only following his father's command-that he did not truly wish to marry her. All he said about her qualities aside, he had no feeling for her, no affection. Surely he would not force her to stay married? After all, he had given her his word. She did not know if she could trust him... would he go back on his word? She sighed, thinking of her brother again. Jamie trusted him.

Her thoughts then were interrupted by a heavy raindrop that fell, splashing its way down her brow. Elizabeth gasped in surprise, looking up, only to be left stunned by the torrent of water breaking from the sky. Gasping, fighting for breath, she thought to run-but in another moment, she knew that all attempts to escape would be futile. She was soaked to the bone within seconds. It seemed the rain was coming down in buckets of water, purposely tipped over the world, one after the other. No refuge was to be had from it.

"Oh well," Elizabeth said aloud. " 'Tis only a little rain." What a day! She had been a fool to walk out now, when the oppressive heat had promised rain since dawn. Strangely enough, the rain had made it worse-being miserable and soaking wet was certainly worse than simply being miserable. Trying her best to rally, she picked up her sopping skirts and started to walk-or rather plod through the mud. She did not think she would die from the cold; all the same, it was important to get to the house as soon as possible and change out of her wet dress. Most certainly she would not run: scuttling down a slippery lane, in the rain that obscured her vision, could only serve to send her tripping. Flying face-down in the mud would not make today any better.

The rain now came down in sheets and she trudged almost blindly down the lane. Elizabeth's bonnet was ruined hopelessly, the straw under the bombazine hanging in a floppy valance; water sloshed in her boots with every step she took. She bit her lip and forced her tears back. There was little use in crying when water ran in streams down her face. A tortured, sobbing laugh escaped her lips.

She had not heard it approach, for the sound of the rain and the wind obscured all else. It overtook her, suddenly, the sound of galloping hooves and the huffing of a large animal, and then the horse itself appearing a black shadow in the falling rain. Elizabeth screamed in alarm. Quickly and awkwardly, she stepped back and almost fell in the slippery mud.

"Miss Bennet!" Fitzwilliam Darcy made to jump from the saddle, but Elizabeth had already righted herself. She looked up, squinting through the rain. He towered above her on his gigantic black horse. In the falling rain, glaring at her from his great height, he looked fearsome. She shrunk away, hiding her eyes.

"Miss Bennet," he repeated, leaning forward. "You are all soaked. It will not do." He, himself, was drenched all the way through, his coat dripping and his usually impeccable starched cravat hanging limply. His had ridden out bareheaded; now his hair was sticking to his forehead in wet dark curls. Leaning lower, controlling the dancing horse with one hand, he extended his other towards her. "Come."

Come? What did he think he was doing? She shrunk away from him and wagged her head, stubbornly. A shiver set in, deep in the pit of the stomach and the marrow of her bones.

He frowned at her, as if she were a disobedient child and he had the means to make her do as he wanted.

"You will catch your death of cold," he said disapprovingly.

"I shall not," she replied bravely. " 'Tis only a little rain." But now, spoken in his presence, her words no longer rang as convincing as before, when no-one was near to hear them.

"A little rain?" He frowned again. "Madam, you are behaving a child. Come, get in the saddle with me."

His insistence made her all the more determined to refuse him; she wagged her head, made a wide circle around his snorting, dancing horse and continued on her way.

" 'Tis a good half-hour walk-" he said behind her, and then, in a tone of exasperation: "Be that way!" She heard him turn the horse around, then the sound of hooves galloping away. For a moment, she could hardly believe he had gone. What manner of gentleman left a lady to walk in the rain! Then, scolding herself for being the very manner of an insipid female she had always been determined to despise, she thought, well, you have dismissed him, and so he has gone.

In the very next moment, she felt herself swept off her feet. The earth spun away with nauseating speed and she heard herself cry out, once, in shock and indignation. He held her tightly as he fitted her in front of himself, in front of his low-slung saddle.

"I'll be demmed if I let you die of cold," he said grimly into her ear. Elizabeth felt his chest heave behind her; she could only guess at the feelings consuming him. I could care less, she told herself stubbornly. Let him be angry if he so wished! Let him burst with it, for all she cared. What boyish theatrics! A knight in shining armor come to save her life from a putrid cold! Indeed! She bit her lip and shut her eyes tightly, fighting the tears that had come, sudden, unbidden and humiliating.

"Hyah!" He kicked the horse into a gallop. Elizabeth's hands closed firmly on his broad arm, clutching him for dear life. She was never much of a rider, and she had never galloped. Her seat outside his saddle felt precarious; it seemed, another moment and she would slide off to the ground-to be trampled to death by the flying hooves. At this speed, the rain lashed them painfully, making it almost impossible for her to breathe; she opened her eyes, once-and regretted it momentarily, for the speed and the sight of the earth flying under the heavy hooves made her almost ill. She shut them tight again and did not open them again until the horse stopped.

Soon they were back at the house. A swarm of domestics met them at the steps; even as Fitzwilliam Darcy alighted, quickly, from the saddle, Elizabeth slid gracelessly onto someone's outstretched arms. Mrs. Reynolds clucked and wrung her hands; and very soon, Elizabeth felt herself spirited away to her dressing room, where a hot bath was waiting for her. She was, however, so shocked and distressed, that she locked herself into a gloomy silence; for she felt that she would burst out crying with a single word.

"We were so worried for you, ma'am." Mary gently rubbed her neck and shoulders with a warm washcloth. Elizabeth, sitting in her bath, put her face against her drawn-up knees and closed her eyes.

"It was only rain." Her voice sounded dull. Hot water and the maid's ministrations felt wonderful; slowly, she felt the tension in her back let go.

"The worst downpour I have seen this year," Mary opined weightily. She let go and Elizabeth slid back in the tub, eyes still closed. "I daresay Master Fitzwilliam was beside himself when we told him you had walked out. And then he turned his horse around and rode off-and then I daresay Mrs. Reynolds was beside herself with worry for the both of you-"

Oh. Elizabeth frowned to herself. He had gone in search of her. Why should it change anything, she thought-she wanted to tell the girl that her intended husband hardly cared if she should die of a putrid cold... but bit her tongue. Her feelings raged inside her; but she had no wish to appear ungrateful. Had he not brought her back, she would still be plodding through the mud. However infuriating his behavior, he had meant well. Elizabeth sighed.

"Well, I hope your Master Fitzwilliam is spared a cold himself," she murmured. Nothing more was said on the subject and soon enough, the bath was completed.

The fireplace had been lit in her bedchamber by the time she came out of the dressing room. Mary drew the brush through her wet curls, apologizing quietly for the pain she caused her. But if Elizabeth bore in silence the penance of all the yanking and untangling, neither did she reassure her maid. Cat circled once or twice around her legs, then curled up, pressing his warm back against her bare soles. Elizabeth drew one foot absent-mindedly through the long orange fur, again and again; the beast bent and purred under her ministrations.

What to do? He was waiting for her answer. The time was already past noon, and she had promised him an answer. She should think on it; she should come to a decision-for her earlier musings on the subject, had been interrupted, rather indecorously, by the veritably biblical opening of the skies.

But she could not think; her head remained empty, her thoughts-sluggish. She could not make herself concentrate on such a momentous subject, the exhaustion and tension of the past hour finally dissolving. Smaller things captured her attention completely-the pull of Mary's brush on her still-wet hair; the arch and purr of Cat against her feet.

"I think I shall rest a while," she murmured, stifling a yawn. Yes, yes, to sleep, to rest-perhaps, when she woke, her head would be clearer-perhaps the decision she sought would shine on her. Perhaps it was obvious, and she simply could not see it for her fatigue.

She yawned again and caught Mary's eyes in the mirror. "I think I shall sleep awhile," she said. "A short while."

Mary, solicitous of her health, inquired worriedly whether Miss Elizabeth was feeling well; having assured her maid that indeed, she was feeling splendid if only a little tired, she climbed under the covers without even waiting for Mary to remove them. The last thing she saw before falling into a deep slumber was Cat jumping atop the covers and settling, comfortably, behind her bent knees.

Elizabeth woke, disoriented, after a dream in which she kept flying up, up, away from the ground. In her dream, she was not afraid, for the hands holding her were strong, and she knew it, and knew to trust them.

Waking up, she did not know where she was; then, looking around, she knew it again. Cat was gone from her bed, having left to seek his fortune in another part of the house. Confused, Elizabeth cast a glance behind the window and saw that the sun had almost reached the horizon. She had slept nearly the entire day; slipping out of bed, she went to ring for Mary.

She came downstairs in a huff. Her vexation was mostly at herself, for having slept so long, there was no more time left to think. But Fitzwilliam Darcy, now sitting in comfortable chair, leafing through a London newssheet, took up a large part of it. Why on earth was he doing this to her? Why could he not refuse his father himself? What honor was there in piling his heavy burden onto her shoulders? She tried her best not to think of it like so; after all, he did get her out of the rain today...

Yes, about that. Pulling her up in the saddle with him had been a shocking liberty; but for this, she was inclined to forgive him. Far more than his, she was mortified by her own behavior this morning. Thinking of it, she flushed with shame, for it was not like her to behave in such a foolish and irresponsible manner. Nobody whose opinion she valued-her father, Jamie, Mr. Darcy-would approve of such infantile conduct! Could she fault him for treating her like a child when she had behaved like one?

She stopped in the doorway to the drawing-room, watching him read. He was frowning at the page, as it was alive and had contradicted something he had said.

"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said, causing him to look up. Immediately, he set the paper aside, rose to his feet and bowed to her with great civility. He seemed determined to behave a gentleman, but she was waiting, desperately waiting for him to ask her. What would she say to him, then? For she was no closer to the answer at the end of the day than she had been at the beginning.

Elizabeth sat down, quickly, in the chair across from him, her hands clenching in her lap. She could not bear to look up. He returned to his seat and was watching her, curiously, as if expecting her to do or say something; she could feel his eyes on her. Why is he looking at me like this? Driven nearly mad by his scrutiny, she blurted out:

"Would you kindly stop staring at me!"

She took a deep breath, horrified by how rude and vulgar her words had sounded, even to her own ears. Finally daring to look him in the face, she saw that his curious expression remained, and that he did not look any angrier than before.

"Forgive me," he said softly. 'I did not mean to be uncivil. The violence of your emotion, however, makes me believe that you have thought-dwelt-upon my offer to you. For surely you would not be so distressed otherwise."

She nodded slowly. Her cheeks, her nose, her brow were hot with shame. "I have," she murmured, "And I still have no answer to give you."

He said nothing, just looked at her, thoughtfully, resting his chin on one hand. Then, unexpectedly, a wry smile curved his lips. "Well, you looked rather determined at first. I thought you had made up your mind to reject my suit."

Elizabeth shook her head. "No," she said. "I have not. But neither have I decided otherwise. Perhaps," she added, "I have promised you an answer too hastily."

"You will forgive me if I say to you that you could not answer me too hastily, madam. My father is very ill."

"Yes-yes-I know," she murmured, looking away. It was a matter of comforting a dying man... she had no time to think.

"What keeps you hesitating?" he queried her.

This was a very good question. If, indeed, their marriage was to be a mere pretense, what frightened her? All she wanted was to be free of him, and so she would be-at Mr. Darcy's death.

"I do not know," she replied, truthfully.

"What if I gave you my word?"

"Your word-"

"That we shall annul the marriage at my father's passing."

"Oh," she said.

"A gentleman's word," he confirmed gravely. He said nothing else, clearly waiting for her to answer. Indeed, what more was there to say? A gentleman's word. She knew, she must know that it would be sufficient. It ought to be sufficient, for there could be no greater assurance. She had thought poorly of him, true-but she could hardly fault his character. She had formed her bad opinion of him because he was boring and stiff as a youth, and because he often monopolized her beloved brother when she had wanted Jamie's attention. He had been unkind to her, that was true; indirectly, he was the reason she had not seen Jamie for nigh on four years.

But she had never known him to break his word. However little she liked him, she must allow him at least that-that she knew, or heard, nothing of him to suspect him dishonest. And the rest-the rest did not matter, for she would not stay married to him.

Trembling, she slowly raised her eyes at him: "Do you promise?"

"I do," he said evenly. He spoke calmly, but his gaze was intense on her, deep dark-brown eyes that did not leave her face for a moment. A Bible verse came to her: if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. She could not remember the source or the circumstance of it, but she thought: it is true. She had no other way but to trust him. Still, aloud, she probed him again:

"We shall annul the marriage?"

He frowned and rolled his eyes at her in obvious exasperation:

"Miss Bennet, I have given you my word. It ought to be enough for you and I shall repeat it no more. I shall offer you no further guarantees, madam."

Looking up at him, quickly, she nodded, then nodded again and flew to her feet.

"Yes," she said, hysterical weeping rising in her chest. "Tell him yes."

Thereupon she fled the drawing room, for she did not want him to see her cry.

Later that night, she was roused from her bed (where she lay curled up in a pose not unlike a cashew nut; for in the aftermath of her conversation with Mr. Darcy-fils, the impact and the immediacy of what she had done rolled over her like heavy stone). A gentle rapping on the door made her rise and walk to open.

"Mr. Darcy." He looked unusually sheepish as he bowed his head to greet her. Cat, bent on good hunting tonight, slipped past their legs and was gone. Elizabeth felt dull irritation with him: "Sir-" she said, intending to remind him that her consent to their marriage did not grant him a right to appear in her bedchamber late at night (or at any time, really). But he raised one hand, and said, quickly:

"Would you come with me to my Father's?"

For a second, she panicked, thinking the worst; then, in a flash, she imagined she was fortunate enough, that her benefactor's death had spared her the need to marry his son; then, everything inside her blazed with heated mortification at such thoughts, so ungrateful, so unkind.

"Yes-" She pulled her blue fringed shawl tighter around her shoulders. "Of course."

They passed the five-minute walk to Mr. Darcy's bedchamber in absolute silence. He held the door open to her, and then closed it behind them.

Mr. Darcy was awake, his breathing shallow. Elizabeth forced herself to smile at the man and leaning, she kissed one thin hand over the blanket.

"Good evening to you, my child." His hand cupped her cheek, caressing. "I have not seen you all day today."

"I beg your forgiveness for it." She straightened her back again. "I have slept for most of the day. I shall stay awake tonight and read to you."

"Father," Fitzwilliam Darcy said next to her. "I-we have something to tell you. Good news." He took a deep breath, and then, suddenly, his hand found hers in the semi-darkness and squeezed it, painfully. "Miss Bennet has consented to be my wife."

Mr. Darcy's gaze wandered over to Elizabeth. "You did, my child?" he inquired.

Elizabeth thought she might crash through the floor. Pretense was not for her; pretense, trying to trick the ill man, felt an abominable thing.

"I did, sir," she said quietly, hiding her eyes. The sick man watched her intently, she could feel his eyes on him. She wondered what she would say if he asked her why. But he only heaved a sigh, his eyes drifting closed, and said:

"I am glad of that."

She thought he might put their hands together or otherwise bless them; but he did nothing of the kind. Instead, he seemed to drift away. Sitting down in a chair by his bed, Elizabeth picked up a heavy book from the rug; turning it over, she saw that his son had been reading him from Marlowe's Tamburlaine.

"Show me where you have stopped."

"I have but started," he murmured. Elizabeth nodded, opening the book from the beginning.

"...I find myself agriev'd;
Yet insufficient to express the same,
For it requires a great and thundering speech..."

She did not hear him leave as she read.

As it happened often, she fell asleep closer to the morning, when her tongue could no longer pronounce the names of all the Persian lords; and when her fingers just as often turned two pages at the same time. She awoke, cramped, because someone had touched her shoulder softly. It was still dark behind the window, bur a hint of first morning light had bled onto the dark sky, slowly changing its color to gray. Elizabeth stared up, disoriented, into the face of the man she had just agreed to marry. What has she done! The thoughts rushed in, mutinous; shaking inside, she righted herself in the chair, fought to regain control of her senses, lest she cry or recoil.

"Would you come outside with me?" he murmured. Still disoriented, she nodded and slid off the chair, pulling Jamie's blue shawl tighter about herself. She had only just now noticed that he was dressed for the road.

Outside of Mr. Darcy's bedroom, she asked:

"You are leaving?"

"I must away," he said. "To procure the license."

"The license," she repeated, stupidly.

"The special license," he explained. " 'Tis required, for us to marry. Otherwise we would have to cry bans-and we have no time for that."

"Oh," she said, and then: "When will you-"

"Within the week," he said. "Tell Father I shall return as soon as I can."

Elizabeth nodded. She was half-asleep, half-alarmed by her waking realizations. He leaned towards her, briefly, and her first instinct was to shrink back. But he only took her hand and pressed it, warmly.

"I thank you," he said. Then, turning, he strode away from her. Elizabeth stared after him, until he turned the corner and disappeared. His gratitude made her feel a co-conspirator, made the weight of her decision a little easier to bear.

Thereupon, she sighed, and shivered, and went inside Mr. Darcy's bedchamber.

Chapter 9

Upon his arrival to town, Darcy chose most carefully whom to tell his news. He had always been a most private person; nothing had changed that would make him surrender his privacy. After all, his marriage might be completed in another month; no sense in stirring the rumors. He could not risk it that his aunt should know, except as a post-factum; he would not put it past her to appear at Pemberley herself to put the fear of the Lord into his intended. His other relations living in London would hardly approve, either; in any case, he refused to worry about this now.

Still, there were those who, he felt, should know. He told his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, with whom they had always been exceedingly close. He told his friend Lord Gregory, a confirmed bachelor himself. And then, despite his better instincts, he told Valerie.

The Colonel took the news with due enthusiasm; Darcy's entreaty to not tell a single live person he took with a certain amount of curiosity and as a sign that there was something unsuitable about the bride.

"Leave it to you to say such a daft thing," Darcy sneered. "There is nothing unsuitable about Miss Bennet." Come to think of it, that was true; there was nothing unsuitable about her. But Lord! Her looks-and her manner of making them so much worse! Her poisonous little tongue! Her bullish stubborn head! Was there ever such a bride?

"Well, then, it must be a love-match," Fitzwilliam concluded. They were playing billiards at Darcy's town-house during his first night in London; he had paid his obligatory visit to the Archbishop first upon his arrival, having pled that there was no legal impediment to their marriage and paid his twenty-six guineas. Now he would wait.

Darcy scoffed at him, rolled his eyes, and said, after a pause: "She is suitable, and my Father desires that we should marry. 'Tis enough for me."

Fitzwilliam clucked his tongue. "How boring you are, cousin." Bending over the billiards table, intent upon the ball, he queried: "Has she any dowry to speak of?" He was a second son, nigh on penniless; no pair of lovely eyes could capture his heart without a respectable dowry. He sent one ball against three, scattering them all; but not a single one hit a hole.

Darcy shrugged, then leaned over the table and sent a ball straight into the corner.

"I see you are disinclined to speak of her," Fitzwilliam continued, watching it disappear into the hole. "She must be you father's choice indeed."

"So she is," Darcy replied. "And I see no shame in it."

"No luck for me today." After missing yet another hole, Fitzwilliam set his key aside and fell lazily into a chair, stretching out his legs in handsome black Hessians. Fumbling blindly, he reached for a snifter of brandy on a small table next to him. "No, my friend, no shame at all. Lud, if my father found me a suitable bride with a comfortable dowry-I should marry yesterday." He smiled tiredly at his cousin and lifted his glass. "To you and your lovely bride, Darcy."

Unlike Fitzwilliam, who hardly ever showed his surprise, Lord Gregory proved all astonishment. Perhaps, for him, the part he had once played as a second between Darcy and Jamie Bennet was still too fresh a memory. Hearing Darcy declare that he had already applied for a special license and would marry Miss Elizabeth Bennet forthwith, he cried, in entirely too shocked a manner:

"Bennet's sister?!"

"Indeed." Darcy frowned painfully. It was the very early morning of his second day in town. He had risen early-too early for the late night he and Fitzwilliam had spent playing billiards. In the spirit of self-mortification (a sentiment prominent in his life lately), he had pretended to ignore the pounding in his head and had gone for this ride in St. James Park with his old friend from Trinity-Lord Gregory. His only friend left, indeed.

"Darcy, but-" Lord Gregory was an honest fellow, so everything he thought about the idea was written plainly on his face; but he was also a gentleman and a tactful one at that-therefore, he said naught. Coming back to his senses, he murmured under his breath, an expression of utter disapprobation descending over his features: "My felicitations on your marriage. You will relay them to Miss Bennet, I am sure."

And then there was Valerie. He had wanted to see her from the moment he set foot in London. But there were things one needed to do: errands, calls, matters of great importance-and so, his visit to her house was delayed by two days. He had sent his man ahead of him, asking whether Miss Degas would accompany him to Vauxhall, tonight.

As he dressed at his town-house, Darcy perceived a pinch of wistfulness, added to the state of excited anticipation he usually felt when thinking of Valerie. As he straightened his cuffs and lifted his chin so that his man might put a pin in his cravat, he could not shake the feeling that tonight was his last night on earth. He felt foolish even thinking thus, for it was merely his last night as a carefree London bachelor-at least for a time. But he felt curiously morbid, as if never again he would have any pleasure in this life.

He collected her at her house; she was resplendent in blue silk. No other woman he knew could look so regal; not even her unfortunate occupation was an impediment, for in addition to great beauty, she had sly wit and impeccable manners. It took him all his willpower to actually take her to Vauxhall, and not up to her bedchamber. True to form, she behaved demurely outside the bed; it was easy to imagine that she was not what she was. To imagine that he would not need to marry another-ah, what contrast between the two!-in two days' time! Darcy heaved a barely noticeable sigh as he offered the lady-indeed, there was no other way to think of her-his arm.

At Vauxhall, Valerie was all girlish delight as she watched Madame Saqui dance above the crowds. But Darcy barely looked, his gaze trained, indecently, upon the soft swell of her bosom above exquisite lace. He was very poor company and poorer conversation still; and soon after they dined, she took pity on him and took him back to her bed.

Her bed-or rather, for a time, a sofa in her boudoir. There, matters progressed smoothly enough-until telling himself he was mad, must be mad, Darcy untwined Valerie's arms from around his neck. She giggled and tried to put them there again-whereupon he replaced them, quickly, at her side. Pointing at the opposite end of the sofa, he asked her to sit there.

"Am I to be reprimanded for something?" She smiled coquettishly. They had kissed, at length, and her dress, her tousled hair, her blushing countenance-all of her spoke of an amorous assignation interrupted. She was lovely, and Darcy caught himself thinking that he did not know her age. He was too much of a gentleman to ever inquire; and nothing about her face or body had ever suggested she was a day over two and twenty.

"Valerie, please," he repeated. She raised her eyebrows-light-gold, perfectly groomed-and pouted. He had never seen a woman who could pout like so-as if her mouth turned, momentarily, into a lush rosebud. It robbed him of all ability to think logically, to even speak in coherent sentences. He closed his eyes.

"Darcy, what is it?" All coquettishness was gone; she sounded truly concerned. "Are you ill, my friend?" Darcy opened his eyes, to see her looking at him inquisitively.

"I am to be married," he said.

Were he ten years older and a better judge of character, he would have noticed how her eyebrows moved just barely up, and how her upper lip pressed against the lower for a mere second in an expression of consternation. But it was just a moment-and he was too consumed by his own turmoil, too young, too selfish-and then, the expression of surprised hurt disappeared and she smiled luxuriously:

"Congratulations to you, then. When will the event take place?"

"Soon as I am back at Pemberley." He watched her cautiously. "I am telling you this-now-because-" He drifted off, embarrassed to tell her the truth: that he was telling her this now because he did not wish to use her. She could now choose whether to cast him from her bed, if she so desired. He did not know whence the sentiment came; after all, did he never use her before? Nor other women? Was it not her lot-to be made use of, for gentlemen's pleasure? But such thoughts, vocalized to himself for the first time, seemed crass and wrong.

To his monumental surprise, she smiled at him and stretched like a cat, nudging one exquisitely decorated kidskin slipper off her foot with the tip of the other. Her skirts were raised just a bit, raised and showing a slim ankle. One foot arched gracefully as she pushed her second slipper off. He could not take his eyes off her.

"Well," she said slowly. "Perhaps you will be a faithful husband." She sighed and raised her hands, fumbling with her pins but for a moment before releasing a mass of white-gold hair to spill down her shoulders, naked and round. "Perhaps not. In any case--" she continued, even as she hiked up her blue skirts, just enough to untie her garters, stretching out one perfect leg, then the other. "In any case-" she repeated, distractedly, leaning to roll the stockings down her legs; her breasts almost spilled over the décolletage and Darcy well-nigh died on his end of the sofa.

"In any case what?!" he snapped, and she laughed, and tossed the stockings at him. He caught them, the flimsy silk things, and set them aside-quickly, shamefacedly.

"In any case," she repeated, rising from her seat and slowly edging the blue dress off her lovely shoulders, "you are not married yet."

Thereupon, she extended one beautiful hand and, curling a finger at him, beckoned the shocked Darcy to come thither.

He had no choice-no other thought in his mind-but to obey.

~ * ~

On his last day in London, before he was due to collect the license from the Archbishop (a slightly presumptuous assumption, for it was a well-known fact that the granting of special licenses was a matter of the Archbishop's discretion), he took Charles Bingley's widow to Gravesend and saw her board a ship named The Rose. He did not tell her that he was getting married; perhaps, by the time she reached the shores of India, his marriage would long have been dissolved. He did not wish for it to be this way, but there it was. He boarded the ship with Mrs. Bingley and examined her accommodations. He found them more or less suitable; and after all, she could not expect compleat comfort during a journey that would cross two oceans-and neither did she seem to require it. To Darcy, Malvina seemed easy, no longer grieving her poor husband, but steeped in quiet sadness. He dared not persuade her to stay.

He came back with a great clattering of hooves. Elizabeth must have heard it a mile away, his great black horse, for she felt restless, worried and deeply unhappy-though she tried, as best she could, to ignore such feelings. She had taken a break from reading to Mr. Darcy and was sitting with Georgiana in her school room, listening to her read from a French book aloud, in tact to Miss Lucas' somnambular nodding. She, herself, had refused to read aloud today; she cherished her silence.

"...il n'a pas trouvé dans toutes ses affaires et amitiés ce qu'il cherchait-l'unité d'esprit et de- Do you hear that?" Georgiana dropped the book. With great impulsiveness, she sprung to her feet and took herself to the nearest window. "Will!" she cried, beaming, pressing her hands together in delight. "Elizabeth, Will is back!"

Elizabeth felt a curious sort of sickness rush in upon her-an invisible hand that quickly squeezed her heart and made each breath difficult. In the week of his absence, she had almost accustomed herself to the thought of being married to him. It was an agreement between them, simple as that. It would have no lasting effect on her life, other than to save her conscience. In the face of Mr. Darcy's insistence that they marry now, there was little else to be done.

But now, knowing that he was back and that he had with him, in all likelihood, the license permitting them to marry... Oh how would she suffer it?

"Yes," she said softly, endeavoring to keep her turmoil hidden. "Yes, Georgie, I told you your brother would come back."

"Miss Lucas, may I go?" Georgiana turned impatiently on her toes; then, without waiting for her governess' permission, she rushed out of the room. Last week, waking up and finding that her brother had gone to town without saying good-bye, she had chided herself cruelly for having treated him with such coldness. "But of course he deserved it," she confessed to Elizabeth through loud sobs, interspersed with sniffs, "but now he is gone, and he must think I detest hiiiiiiiim!" Elizabeth could not tell the girl the reason her brother had gone to London so quickly; but she comforted her as best she could, promising her that Will should return quickly. Now, coming to the window, she saw Georgiana rush out of doors, right in time to throw herself at her brother who had only just alighted from his saddle. Her brother, who laughed and clutched at her, and lifted her up in the air, so that her feet dangled and her laughter pealed.

Elizabeth put her hand against her mouth, afraid that she would cry. She had never felt quite this alone in the world. Behind her, Miss Lucas quitted the schoolroom with quiet step; Elizabeth was grateful to her for her silence, grateful to everyone in the house who had pretended that nothing was out of the ordinary. That the young Master had gone to town on a private errand of no importance-not at all to procure the special license for their marriage.

She wondered, in passing, whether she could hide here, in this schoolroom, which now looked unusually cozy. Indeed, cozy enough to spend the rest of the day here; for she did not wish to face him, afraid of the news he had brought.

Darcy did not see Miss Bennet until tea-time. Having looked in on his father, he demanded that a vicar be sent for. He did not wish to lose any time-partly because time was dear, indeed; and partly because his courage was wavering. The sooner, he thought, the better.

Thereupon he went up to his apartments and fell asleep on the edge of his bed, without even removing his mud-spattered boots. He had ridden for many hours, only taking shelter when he could no longer see through the rain...he had arrived to the house exhausted and almost ill. He was gone the moment his head touched the pillow.

His valet woke him some hours later, announcing that the vicar had arrived.

"Miss Bennet will be in momentarily," Darcy said to the vicar. He was not apologizing-he rarely did, particularly when no fault was his own-but the lengthy absence of his bride-to-be did require an explanation. As it was, they sent for her a good half-hour ago. Before she left, Mary, Miss Bennet's maid, had informed them that she knew precisely where her mistress was. Either Mary had gotten irretrievably lost in the corridors of Pemberley... or... He touched his forehead lightly with a handkerchief to remove the thin sheen of perspiration. She would not deny him, he thought, not now, not after had already agreed.

"Of course," the vicar replied pleasantly. Darcy could wager this was not the strangest wedding he had had to arrange, and yet he looked openly curious. Nor was this the first occasion where the vicar was invited to Pemberley; and still, he looked around as if it were.

Another five minutes passed, and then ten. The vicar, having studied his surroundings to a sufficient degree, now sat frozen in his chair. Somewhere, the clock struck four o'clock. Forty-five minutes since Mary had gone. Is she taunting me? The vicar gave him a wan smile, even as Darcy rose and paced impatiently around the room. He stood by the window, trying to attach his gaze to something-anything-that would keep him from running out the doors to check whether Miss Elizabeth Bennet had absconded from Pemberley in his absence. If the damn girl knew exactly where her mistress was, why was her mistress not showing up?

Damnation.

He forced himself to step back, then, from his anger. To think of her... as a friend. For she was Bennet's beloved little sister and his father's protégé. A child, to whose fate he was not indifferent. One, perhaps, whom he wished well. One whose presence in his father's house had confounded him-but whose fault was barely in it, and who suffered, he believed, more than he did.

"Forgive me," he said to the vicar. "I shall inform Miss Bennet myself." He bowed, quickly. "I shall be back, presently."

She had read a bit to Mr. Darcy, relinquishing the task to Georgiana when the man fell asleep. She was restless and frightened, a cold heavy stone deep at the base of her stomach... she dreaded seeing him-and yet she knew she must see him, soon. They must talk, she must ask him the logistics. For indubitably he would wish to marry as soon as possible, as time was so dear. Thereupon, Elizabeth did a cowardly thing: she picked up Cat and sought shelter in her old window-seat.

Some hours later, Mary came and informed her that Master Fitzwilliam was asking for her. She scowled at the girl: if Master Fitzwilliam wished to speak with her, he would come and find her. The truth was-she could not bear go to him. Waiting for him to find her gave her a bit of a reprieve.

"Go on, then," Elizabeth said, and turned away again, pressed her forehead against the glass, not listening to the girl shuffle away. She was sinking inside, afraid, so afraid; this was a fine mess to find herself in, and she had only herself to blame. She could have refused him. She should have refused him. She had a place to go, her Uncle's house-why, oh why did she ever agree to this? Seemed a pure lunacy now. Cat purred and pressed himself against Elizabeth's legs-at his small caress, she felt tears gather in her eyes and blinked them back. He would come for her, soon. She did not want him to see her cry.

From then on, it was a matter of half an hour before she espied Darcy's exceedingly tall figure walking down the hallway. And it was upon seeing him, that Elizabeth felt, most acutely, how short her time away from him had been.

She willed herself to get off the window-seat and drop him a curtsey (unhappy to be thus disturbed, Cat jumped off her lap and disappeared behind the corner). What would he say? She was prepared for any manner of battle, any sort of incivility; for surely he would be most displeased for having to come looking for her.

Yet, he only bowed to her-and he did so with great politeness. Their names, falling from each other's lips, were almost whispers. Thereupon, they simply stood, facing one another.

Finally, Elizabeth murmured:

"Do you have it?"

Darcy nodded, his eyes eager and fearful upon her face.

"I do-but you, you have not reconsidered? I thought you might have reconsidered!"

Elizabeth frowned. "You think of me worse than I think of you. I can no more go back on my word that you can on yours." Wouldst that she could go back on her word.

He seemed sheepish, embarrassed, as he hung his head penitently.

"You are correct, of course, madam-I have no reason to doubt you."

Elizabeth sat down on the edge of the window-seat.

"So," she said evenly, without looking at him: "when?"

"Tonight."

Elizabeth was grateful for having sat down, for she would surely have swooned otherwise.

"Tonight," she echoed. "But so late in the day-" She threw a panicked glance behind the window, when the sun inched leisurely beyond the tall line of trees in the west.

He answered her in a familiar manner of well-bred arrogance.

"Madam, this is precisely why the special license is granted at the Archbishop's discretion-one in possession of it can get married at any and all time and place."

This was too sudden, too soon. She had hoped for a lengthier stay, hoped that she would be given more time-perhaps another day. A lengthier reprieve. But not even the lateness of the hour could save her.

Still, what would be the use? Another night (surely a sleepless one at that), another day, another hour would not serve to prepare her any better-or to make this match any more desirable.

"I should need an hour or two to prepare," she said. Her voice was low, dull; the words felt heavy on her tongue. She did not know why she asked for so much time; though she supposed one should have clean hair and clothes when getting married, she had washed her hair but yesterday, and it would hardly take her two hours to change her clothes (not that her were dirty, either).

"Of course." He bowed to her, again. "Thank you."

Elizabeth thought he would leave, but he remained, silent and still-waiting for her. Well, why not. She rose from her seat. Together, they walked along the corridor in grim silence. They were co-conspirators, that much was true. She had chosen to trust him. Still, Elizabeth could not shake off the dread that their conspiracy might prove too much for them. Indeed, she was afraid it would swallow them whole.

~ * ~

Elizabeth had never been the sort of a girl who imagined her wedding day in great detail. Before her unfortunate betrothal, she had dreamed of great white ships and pirates' treasures. And ever since she knew she was promised in marriage to Jamie's best friend, all her imagination had worked towards not letting it happen. How could she dream of wedding clothes and rice when all she hoped for was her freedom from the man?

Still, had she been more romantically inclined, most likely she would have imagined her wedding day as something she had seen in Meryton as a girl. A small crowd leaving the parish church in the wake of the happy couple, gay laughter abounding, the smiling groom tossing coins to the revelers, the bride beaming at everyone from beneath the veil pinned at her bonnet. A quick wedding breakfast and the newlyweds leaving in an open carriage.

Certainly, she could not have imagined herself as she was now, walking down a badly lit hallway with Miss Charlotte Lucas at her side. Wearing a black-and-white half-mourning dress on her wedding day. Nothing borrowed, nothing blue, nothing new, either; and not a twopence in her shoe to be had (to her blithe amusement, Mary had attempted to offer her one as she dressed earlier; for which the poor girl was ridiculed squarely). For old, though, she had her worn black leather slippers-a step up from the serviceable boots she wore every day.

What a fine bride she was.

Next to her, Miss Lucas walked in bewildered silence; Elizabeth was grateful that the governess had neglected to offer her any congratulations-for it was getting more and more difficult to accept them with grace. Behind them, Mary followed, sniffing suspiciously from time to time and mumbling something that Elizabeth cared not discern. The good girl had received the news that her young mistress was to marry Master Fitzwilliam forthwith upon a special license with great enthusiasm. Two hours later, she was in deep despair, having finally wrestled Elizabeth out of her usual crow-like black gown and into a half-mourning dress-but it was all she had been able to accomplish, her young mistress verily unyielding on the subject of veils, sprays and reticules.

Elizabeth forbade herself to wonder what they thought of her; what they thought of this sudden wedding, so hurried they would not wait the night. She forced herself to focus on the now; and now they were standing before the door leading to Mr. Darcy's bedchamber. She wondered, deeply, at being able to go through with this-would her courage falter? Behind her, Mary heaved a deep sigh; it was as though she was feeling for her mistress, breathing, sighing, and crying in her place... for Elizabeth herself could feel naught inside.

She pushed the door.

The room was drowning in the soft radiance of so many candles, the air swam around her. The sun had set; it was full-dark outside. Mr. Darcy, ill as he was, had insisted that the window be kept open to the summer breeze-but now, the indigo air was almost compleatly still, and the candles made the room almost unbearably hot.

They were all there, and they all turned to look at her as she walked in. Mr. Darcy, propped up as high as possible in his bed, the vicar, Mrs. Reynolds and the beaming, excited Georgiana (who seemed to take the news of their marriage as something of a proof that all their snarling at each other had been for naught; her smiled seemed to say--now, we shall all be perfectly content!). And he. Impeccably dressed and pressed, and still gazing at her in that dark and troubling way. He had asked his valet to serve as his best man, and Elizabeth wondered if he had no friends who could do that office for him. She did the only thing she had been able to do in response to his staring: she lifted her chin and stepped forth.

"Fancy that, a bride without a veil," Mr. Darcy noticed wryly from the bed. Elizabeth felt the heat rush to her cheeks. There had been a veil, a simple stretch of lace that Mary had meant to fasten to her hair. She had demurred the girl's efforts on her behalf, rejecting all attempts to make her a pretty bride. She refused, briskly, the veil, as well as the spray of wild flowers the maid had quickly gathered for her. She was not a happy bride and she would not pretend otherwise. So, instead of answering Mr. Darcy's gentle quip, she dropped him a deep curtsey.

"My child," Mr. Darcy said softly, "wouldst that you had a real wedding. My heart breaks for having denied you that."

She found that she could not speak, could not bear to comfort him, too afraid that she may burst out crying. Instead, coming closer, she leaned quickly and kissed his hand atop the blanket.

Then, unbending, she took her place beside the man who would now become her husband.

"Shall we begin, then?" the vicar inquired. A young man, he seemed uncomfortable and spoke more to Mr. Darcy than anyone else, as if aware that the whole display was being put on for his benefit. The Master nodded slowly in agreement. "Dearly Beloved," he began, his voice subdued and wary. "We have gathered here today-"

When the question was asked regarding who gave this woman to this man, Elizabeth panicked and rejoiced at the same time. They have forgotten to think of something! Could their marriage fail for this reason? Her heart beat madly in her chest.

There was an awkward pause, and she felt her spirits soar momentarily as she stared dully in front of her; then, Mr. Darcy's hoarse voice rang out from the bed:

"I do," he said.

Elizabeth fought her disappointment with guilt: it would not do to seek excuses. If she was counting on him to keep his promise, her own had to be her bond. Praying that something should happen to relieve her from it was-ought to be-beneath her.

Elizabeth stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her groom, but avoided looking at him all through the service. She had fixed her gaze upon the edge of Mr. Darcy's bed, on the scalloped border of the coverlets. All she could see of his son was his arm, his sleeve indubitably a perfect length, his hand open, limp, at his side.

She did not wish to listen to the words of the lengthy service, could not bear to think of the pronouncements on the purposes of marriage. Wouldst that she'd not heard that matrimony was not to be enterprised unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly...for surely she was not entering this marriage reverently, advisedly or soberly?

She felt a fraud: for she did not intend to rear children with her husband, therefore defeating the first purpose of matrimony; nor was she marrying him to keep away from sin. He had promised her that their marriage would be such in name only-and it was only under such a condition that she had agreed to marry him at all, for she would not share a bed with him. Indeed, whatever she imagined of this side of human existence agreed with her very poorly-and all the less so if this man was somehow involved.

Nor did she intend to give him society, help or comfort...and would dissolve the marriage as soon as she could. Well... if one thought of it this way, this would be a rather poor union, indeed.

But, Elizabeth thought angrily, at least she knew precisely why she was getting married. And her purpose was rather good, even if the means was deceitful. In fact, her purpose was the best one of all, as it was the most charitable. How many English brides could say the same about themselves?

Why, then, was her heart so heavy?

"Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace."

Despite her best intentions and against all hope, she had wished, desperately, that Jamie might appear and rescue her. Ah, she thought wistfully! Despite his lengthy absence, despite her hopes crushed, she still thought him her savior! Her absent, missing brother. She knew he would not come; therefore, when the answer to the vicar's question was met with a dead silence-interrupted only by Mr. Darcy's harsh breathing and Mary's quiet sniffs in the back-she managed to feel only slightly disappointed.

Do not marry him in my absence. His words still rang in her ears three years later. Now, there was nobody who would mind this marriage.

"Fitzwilliam Darcy, wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?"

"I will." Elizabeth was surprised to hear how hoarse his voice sounded now-as if he had been stirred from hours of deep silence.

"Elizabeth Bennet, wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?"

Love Fitzwilliam Darcy? Obey Fitzwilliam Darcy? She found the notion almost comical. Wouldst that this had been a joke.

But aloud, she said, "I will," and found that her throat was as raw as his.

The vicar, fumbling, reached for their hands. There seemed to be some confusion. "No," he said, "your right one, sir-" Throwing a clandestine glance at Darcy, she noticed that he was red in the face, embarrassed of his fumbling, as he gave the priest the correct hand.

His hand was almost twice the size of hers, and it covered it completely. He spoke in a low, hushed tone, as he pledged her his troth-for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. Promised to love and to cherish her until death did them part... For a fleeting moment, she almost believed him. She hoped that when her turn came, she could say her words with the same earnest, sincere expression, without flinching or mumbling. For she despised pretense and lying, and had never taken her own word lightly.

And though, when her time came, she did speak tolerably well-with just the kind of tremor in her voice that might be expected of a bride so young-she could not bring herself to look her groom in the face. How many brides daily said these words all over England? Not all of them married for love, surely, and many would prove poor wives to poorer husbands. Why, then, did she feel like such a fraud?

He put the ring-a plain band of dark yellow gold, gleaming softly in the candlelight-in the middle of the vicar's open Bible.

Sliding down her finger, the ring felt cool and a much too large-a sign that he had not bought it to size. Such poor planning on his part amused and pleased her: he had been just as caught in this as she was. Immediately, he released her hand and she made a fist, lest the ring slide off and tumble across the floor.

It was over, then. Elizabeth felt a sort of odd detachment creep over her; she smiled mechanically in response to congratulations, kissed Mr. Darcy and Georgiana-and kept her eyes determinedly away from her husband. Soon thereafter, she claimed a headache and begged to be allowed to take her leave.

"I am not the man to ask anymore," Mr. Darcy said to her quietly. "But I am certain your husband will release you."

Well, she could not imagine begging his indulgence in anything; thereupon, she simply slid out of the room. Halfway down the corridor, she heard his steps, gaining on her, and his voice:

"Miss Bennet!"

With a bitter laugh, she spun around. "What!" she said. "To think you still call me that! Tsk-tsk, Mr. Darcy! One would expect you would know your own wife's name?"

He grinned at her, sheepishly. He seemed vastly relieved and a lot more at ease now, once the deed was done. "Forgive me," he said. "It will take some getting used to--Mrs. Darcy."

She had goaded him-but she had not known the effect this appellation would have upon her. It showed plainly, it must have, her distaste, for he seemed to shrink away from her, the smile disappearing briskly off his face.

"Forgive me," he repeated. "I merely wanted to-thank you. Again. I am very grateful to you, Miss Be-madam. And I also wished to--wish you a good night."

Thereupon he turned on one heel and strode away.

"Good-night," Elizabeth said to his retreating back.

Still holding her left hand clutched in a fist, she went up to her bed-to cry herself to sleep.

Chapter 10

Elizabeth woke up with the knowledge that something had changed. For a moment, she lay there, staring at the ceiling. Then, it came to her. At once, her tolerable mood was ruined-as if someone had put a gray cover over the morning sun. She had barely had a moment to digest the unpleasant realization, when the door opened softly, admitting Mary.

"Good morning, ma'am!" the girl said cheerily.

Elizabeth considered digging herself further into the covers and pretending she was dead. She had no desire to face the world as it was; not today.

"Shall I help you dress?"

So much for that. She slipped out of bed and dragged herself to her dressing room. Thereupon, coming back, she plopped grimly in front of the vanity.

"My gray cotton dress," she said, keeping her mind firmly on trifling matters. The dress, with black velvet trim around the neckline and cuffs, was half-mourning and actually a step up from what she had worn two days ago. Mary, however, did not seem to think so and frowned upon it, and even opened her mouth to say something. Thereupon, a silent, but fierce argument occurred between the girl and her young mistress. The former read the expression of the latter as reflected in the mirror to say that one word, one more brazen word!-and she would ask Mrs. Reynolds to give her another maid. The mistress won; the maid lowered her eyes and dropped a compliant curtsey.

Elizabeth ordered her hair dressed in her usual severe manner, setting it in a heavy bun at the back of her head. There was a knock on the door and someone entered, without waiting to be allowed in. One of the upper maids, here to make the bed. Elizabeth turned back to her reflection in the mirror, only to catch sight of the girl-a new one, whose name she did not know-pause by the bed and stare, curiously, at the sheets.

A maddening rush of blood to her head almost felled her. She shut her eyes, trying her best to keep silent-not to scream, not to throw the insolent chit out of her bedchamber. How dare she! How dare she stare so openly, so brazenly! How dare she... look for it!

"Are you all right, ma'am?" Mary asked solicitously. Elizabeth nodded, keeping her eyes firmly shut (for she did not wish to see, and could not predict her reaction if she should see).

Her mortification, however, was augmented by the speed with which the news about the pristine state of her sheets circled Pemberley. It was not that she was embarrassed of that-rather, that such things were talked of at all. Passing by one of the bedrooms, with the door half-open, she heard maids gossiping. She caught the tail end of the phrase:

"-did not have her," a female voice said. "Spent the night in his bed from night 'till morning."

"Aye, well, can you blame him?" The other voice, also a woman, opined weightily. "If you were a man, would you sleep with such a dried-up little thing?"

Had she not been so utterly mortified, Elizabeth might have imposed upon the irreverent hussies the proper respect due to the Mistress of Pemberley (indeed, the thought had hardly occurred to her before, but this was what she was). But mortified she was, and so she fled down the hallway, quickly, before they apprehended her.

By the time she reached the breakfast room, Elizabeth was of a mind to have a talk with her husband (the word rang so strange in her mind!). After all, was it not his fault that they were talked of, and that such horrible things were being said about them, on the very morning after their wedding?

"Mrs. Darcy." He rose the moment she walked in. He looked poorly rested-as if he, too, had to coax himself to sleep for many hours. "Good morning." She opened her mouth to tell him what she thought of this morning, and of him-though she could not, upon reflection, understand why it was he who drew her anger, and not the idle gossips themselves-but at that moment, Georgiana, eager to welcome her new sister-in-law, flittered into the breakfast room followed by Miss Charlotte Lucas.

The breakfast was very short, for everyone-or at least, everyone who understood- wanted it so: they had barely had time to finish their food, when Miss Lucas begged their pardon and rose, urging Georgiana to the schoolroom. The girl walked up to Elizabeth and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"I think I can do this now," she explained. "After all, we are now sisters."

"Yes." Elizabeth slipped her arms about the girl. "Sisters." Over Georgiana's head, she caught her husband's eyes, his pale visage. When the girl had gone, finally, she said:

"She will be terribly hurt when this ends."

"Yes." He shrugged, looking away. "Well, someone always is." Then, looking back at her again: "But I daresay you will always have a friend in her."

An awkward pause ensued, during which Elizabeth toyed with the edge of her napkin, and Darcy studied, attentively, the play of morning light in the polished silver. Finally, getting her courage together, she said:

"You know, the servants talk." It came out less of an accusation than she had hoped, more of a complaint.

He looked up at her, quickly. "Let me guess-the subject of their conversation has something to do with us not spending the last night together."

Immediately, her face burned with embarrassment, forcing her to look away. "Sir-"

"Well, madam," he said. "I take it you have never before lived in a house where a great many wait upon only a few."

She flushed, angrily. "We had servants at Longbourn-"

"Indubitably. And yet, it is not the same. Servants always talk, so you should know. Had I spent the night in your bed, they would talk about that." Unexpectedly, he grinned at her. "Though perhaps, their talk would not be quite as injurious to my pride-"

She gasped. Tossing her napkin, she rose quickly and moved to leave the breakfast room. An insufferable man! She would not stay a minute longer in his company.

Unexpectedly spry, he caught her by the doors, cutting off her retreat. To Elizabeth's mortification, he was laughing.

"Madam," he said, plastering himself across the doors. "Mrs. Darcy, please. Do be reasonable. They talk is all. What would you have me do? Shall I fire the offenders? Do you want them turned out of doors without a decent reference?"

Elizabeth shook her head and pressed her lips together, tightly, willing herself not to cry.

"Come, madam," he said. "Shall I come and visit with you every evening? Merely to assuage the doubts of all our domestics?" He spoke seriously, but his eyes were laughing. "We could pass the time by reading poetry to each other, or playing chess, whatever you wish?"

"No," she said. "No, no. Forgive me. This is childish of me. It is just that they said things-"

"Oh!" He frowned, and then, before she could protest, took her hand and led her to a chair. "Sit down," he said, and took the seat across from her. "I am sorry-I did not realize that they have wounded you. What did they say?"

She waved her hand at him. "Nothing. Nothing. That you-that I-"

He regarded her for another moment, then said grimly: "Perhaps I shall fire them, whoever they are!"

"No, no!" she said. "It would be cruel."

"Then promise me you will mind them no longer."

She found herself smiling at him. "I do-I do, I promise."

"There," he said, "That is better. Mrs. Darcy, nobody reasonable would expect us to bed yet. You are far too young a bride, and I do have my sense of honor."

Thereupon, properly horrified at the turn the conversation had just taken, she, too, fled the breakfast room. Walking away, quickly, she threw a glance over her shoulder-only to see him standing at the door, looking after her.

There was an urgent matter-a letter to be written to Jamie, apprising him of her marriage. On the first day after having married Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth sat up at her escritoire, staring dumbly at the blank sheet of paper. Yes, a letter to write-but how? What would she say? Perhaps, she told herself, perhaps she needed a few hours to gather her thoughts.

Perhaps.

A few hours turned into a day, and then a few more. What does it matter, another day-- this letter will not reach him for many months, and by then, it might all be over. But this was a cowardly way of thinking, unworthy of her, and she very well knew it. Well, perhaps tomorrow.

It took Mr. Darcy himself asking her whether she had yet informed her relations of her change in status. She could not lie to him and simply lowered her eyes.

"Dear girl, it will not do," he said. "You cannot keep them in the dark. Go forthwith and write them all."

Thereupon, she had no choice left but to obey-but she wrote the one to her aunt first. Now, that was easy. More of a formal note than a letter, informing Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner that she had married Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley House, three days ago, and that there had been no formal wedding or celebration of any kind, as his father, Mr. Darcy, was so gravely ill. There. She sprinkled the sand over the letter, half-satisfied with herself.

The letter to Jamie took her the rest of the day to write. She sat at her escritoire, in front of a large window and peered grimly at the paper before her. Each word she wrote had had the time to dry before she wrote the next one. Jamie had said, once: Do not marry him. Now that she had gone against his wishes, she had to tell him about it. She hoped, sincerely, that her letter would not give him too much grief-for she dared not explain her reasons on paper.

He would be sorely disappointed with her. Irrational anger, seized her: what right had he to be disappointed with her, when she had not seen him in nigh-on four years, when his letters had been so few and far between? Then, shame, for she knew well enough that he wasn't his own man, and that his love breathed off the pages of the few letters that did come across the ocean.

She told him, on paper, how much she missed him and that she prayed he does not worry for her, and then:

"Dearest Jamie, yesterday I have married your old friend Mr. Darcy."

There, she said it. It was easier than she had thought it would be.

"I know-I remember -that you did not wish me to do so, but under the circumstances as they are today, it is best that I should."

She paused and re-read what she had written. What would Jamie think when he read this: under the circumstances are they are... She frowned: this made her appear compromised, made it seem as if she had done something wrong. No, she must explain better.

"Do not worry, dear brother, that something untoward has occurred: Mr. Darcy's conduct is irreproachable towards me."

Well, she thought, not entirely; but there was no use in Jamie's knowing the truth, now was there?

"Perhaps I am not so happy a bride as I thought one day I could be... but I have come to see some merit in Father's old plan. I care deeply for old Mr. Darcy and Miss Darcy, they are the dearest of friends. And as for my husband-Jamie, I am certain, that many brides enter their wedded bliss feeling far worse about their spouses."

Thereupon, she knew it was as much as she would tell him. She veered off, then, telling Jamie of their Aunt's visit, and of Mr. Darcy's illness. She told him how much she loved Pemberley, and that Cat was doing very well here (indeed, it was the only creature in all of Pemberley who seemed unmindful of her change in status). Of the new books that she had read since her last letter to him, and of the weather as it continued. "For being married," she wrote, "I do not miss you any less. Waiting for you to come back, I remain, your loving sister Elizabeth Bennet Darcy."

There, she thought. This was not at all a poor letter. She did not bother re-reading it, for surely then, she would find a thousand things wrong with it. As it was, she quickly threw sand over it, waited-impatiently-for it to dry and went to post it.

Elizabeth found it oddly disconcerting that everyone in the house now called her Mrs. Darcy. Not that she minded the name itself, for it was worn by her dear patron and her friend Georgiana-and not that it was unexpected, for she was a married woman now and it was normal for a married woman to wear her husband's name. But it lent her escapade an air of heavy permanency. A woman, once she became a Mrs., hardly ever returned to her girlhood appellation. Her husband seemed awfully certain that when the day came, they would be able to extricate themselves from this predicament... Elizabeth deferred to him, for he was older and knew more of the world. But sometimes, she grew terribly afraid: what if, what if they could not? What if the marriage was never annulled because something-anything-prevented it?

Elizabeth found she did not wish to dwell on that. Firmly, she told herself, that Darcy no more wanted to be married to her than she to him; and that he would not have put himself into this situation without first knowing the way out.

She hoped that much was true.

As it stood, her days changed little, and her nights-not at all. The summer continued, waning, and Mr. Darcy remained ill, growing neither better, nor truly worse, but persisting in the constant state of exceedingly poor health. She spent her days reading to him and waiting for a letter from Jamie. Georgiana was a frequent companion on her long walks through Pemberley, having grown quite a walker over the period of their acquaintance.

One morning, as the two girls set out down of the house, Elizabeth's attention was captured by the sound of her husband's voice, calling her name.

"Mrs. Darcy!"

She turned around, thinking that he meant to keep her back, ready to be deeply displeased with him for that-only to see that he was walking towards them, hastily straightening his lapels.

"Will!" Georgiana beamed up at him. He bent and kissed her small hand, eyes laughing at her, then tucked it quickly into the crook of his elbow. Elizabeth thought she should own it: he looked rakish and handsome when he smiled-but the smile faded off his face when he addressed her.

"Would you mind terribly if I accompanied you this morning? I am sorely in need of exercise."

Elizabeth did not know quite what to say. Did she mind his rude intrusion upon her time with Georgiana? Of course she did. But how could she tell him that, particularly in front of the girl herself? She shrugged, meaning to show her indifference, and walked beside them.

What a strange company they were. The two siblings gay and cheery, and Elizabeth plodding meanly, darkly beside them. Darcy and Georgiana stopped at every turn to gawk at every interesting flower or bird. At some point during the walk, Georgiana stopped, to remove a pebble from her shoe. Elizabeth, waiting for her, watched her lean on her brother's arm.

"Shall I carry you on my back?" he offered, half-seriously. Georgiana looked up at him and blushed.

"Tsk, Will!" she said. "I am grown already-surely this is no occasion for such childish games! What would Miss Bennet-" Thereupon, she knew what she had said and blushed ever stronger. "Forgive me!" she said, turning to Elizabeth. "I keep forgetting."

"Oh," Darcy said, "I am certain Mrs. Darcy will forgive you, Georgie."

Elizabeth forced a smile. "Of course." "She is of a forgiving nature," he continued. "My wife."

Elizabeth wondered whether she should, perhaps, turn and walk back to the house. Dare he mock her? Laugh at her? But he seemed utterly serious, even somber, dark eyes regarding her attentively, considerately. Elizabeth looked away.

"No more and no less than anybody else, Mr. Darcy."

She watched Georgiana put the slipper back on...then, the trio walked on. Elizabeth, who was usually much at ease with Georgiana, now felt awkward and at a loss for words. She answered any questions posed to her monosyllabically... and she proffered no information herself.

Darcy proved himself useful at least once, having carried Georgiana over a lively little brook. His boots, of course, could take more abuse than the girls' shoes. Or at least, he must have thought so, for he walked back across the stream and cut Elizabeth a polite bow, holding out his hand.

"Madam?"

She shot him a glance full of righteous indignation-long as she could walk herself, he would not carry her! In great annoyance, she demurred all his efforts on her behalf and walked upstream to find a shallower spot. Then, feeling an utter fool, she hopped across, awkwardly holding up her skirts-and naturally ending up with her hem completely soaked. The brother and sister stood, primly, on the other side of the creek. Waiting for her. She wished they had gone ahead. She felt an utter fool-but to let him carry her across? She did not understand his sudden determination to play a gallant, and she would certainly not encourage it.

That afternoon, at Mr. Darcy's bedside, Georgiana was all aflutter, telling her father in great excitement that Will and Elizabeth both had come on the walk with her. Elizabeth bit her lip, certain that she could hardly escape her husband's company from now on; nor could she complain of it, for he was her husband. She gritted her teeth at the thought-but she could blame no-one but herself.

And when the next morning, waiting for Georgiana to start their morning walk, she espied her coming down on the arm of her brother, Elizabeth was not one bit surprised, and none too pleased. And the next one, and the next one after that. Finally, on the fourth morning, sure that he would impose himself on her again, Elizabeth hid in her window-seat, in the company of Cat. In all likelihood, they were waiting for her... but she was too cross with him for the intrusion. If they were so content with each other's company, let them so remain! After a bit of time had passed, she watched them walk out together, just the two of them. Georgiana, was pointing up to something, showing something excitedly to her brother, and he seemed all attention.

They harldy looked like they missed her.

"Be that way," Elizabeth said darkly to Cat, who did not seem to hear, or, if he heard, did not deem that particular pronouncement worth answering. At that moment, it seemed interested mostly in catching a pleasant nap in a large spot of warm August sunlight. Leaning forward, Elizabeth laid her cheek against his silky fur, feeling tears spring easily. "I have no-one but you, Cat, no-one in the whole wide world."

Later, she went down to check on Mr. Darcy and read to him-a bit. It no longer seemed that he was in danger of slipping away each moment...He was also now more awake, and tired more from listening. Soon enough, he asked her, ever so kindly, to stop, for he now heard more of what she read and found it more difficult to sleep.

Thereupon, she returned to her post in the window-seat, having taken the book of Shakespeare's Sonnets up with her. But the book had failed to enthrall her-and soon, she abandoned it altogether. Luckily-or unluckily, as the case may be-she had little time to be bored-for she espied (lo and behold) her husband walking her way, back from the morning's walk. Elizabeth frowned at herself-for he had caught her unawares. She had not seen them return to the house.

"I have not seen you return to the house," she said aloud.

"Good morning to you, too, Mrs. Darcy."

She scowled at him, then stared back out the window. She was not disposed to be particularly civil today.

"Do I find you unwell this morning?"

Without asking for her permission, he sat down next to her in the window-seat. "Mrs. Darcy," he repeated. And then, "Elizabeth."

It had come as a surprise-and she did not control herself well, too outraged by that liberty. "I have not given you leave to use my Christian name!" she exclaimed.

"Ah, but this way I have your attention-Mrs. Darcy." She saw that he was smiling-a lazy, easy smile, as if they were the best of friends.

"Cheap tricks." She turned back towards the window.

"Madam." He sounded appeasing and kind. "Why are you here this morning? Why did you not come with us?"

She shrugged, keeping her eyes determinedly on a particularly rusty hinge on the other side of the window-pane. A pleasant summer breeze wafted in through the half-pried window.

"Seriously-are you unwell?" He seemed all the more determined to be inquisitive this morning. "Shall I summon a doctor?"

"Oh!" Elizabeth wagged her head. "You know I am well. You know I am well enough."

"Then why did you not join us for the morning's walk?"

Elizabeth shrugged, still looking away. "You were a merry enough company without me."

"My sister missed you."

Another shrug, as if to say that when he insinuated himself between them in such an insufferable manner, Georgiana would have to content with the company of one, and not both, of them.

"You did not want me there," he stated.

"How can you say that?" She rolled her eyes, feeling herself blush because he had guessed the truth precisely. Yet, somehow, she felt compelled to deny that. "She is your sister. How can I-"

"You do not want me there," he repeated weightily. "You were avoiding me. This is why you are here, hiding in this window-seat like the little coward you are."

Anger flared, making Elizabeth snarl at him: "What would you have me do? You have put yourself between us-" She gasped and cut herself off, afraid that she might say too much-only to find that she already had. He started and cried, with a look that told her of his injury:

"As you have just so astutely pointed out, madam, she is my sister! Am I not allowed to seek Georgiana's company-even if this would make me seek yours at the same time?"

She felt lost for a moment, taken aback by the hurt in his voice: "Mr. Darcy," she murmured. "Of course-I never said-You know perfectly well what I meant! Of course you may seek your sister's company-but you cannot make me remain there if I do not wish!"

"I cannot make you do anything, even if the law has made me an absolute master of your person. But I did not think that I should be so repugnant to you as to make you quit Georgiana's presence as well."

Fighting her embarrassment, she thought to tell him that he had not recommended himself well, and could he now be surprised that she detested him? But such way of thinking seemed petty to her all of a sudden. After all, he had apologized, however clumsily...

He drew one hand through his hair, looking as if he remained in deep confusion, as if he sought and sought an answer that was denied to him.

"I have apologized, time and again, for having insulted you upon my return to Pemberley. I could ascribe my behavior then to the confusion of senses, but I shall not-for it would be immature of me to do so. I take full responsibility for having spoken to you as I did-but madam, what must I do to make you forget it?"

Elizabeth bowed her head, diligently studying the back of her hands, folded idly in her lap. She knew that he was correct-that there was truth in his words. What did it help that she resented him so? What good did it do to be filled with such vitriol every time she saw him? The first person to be made miserable by it was she, herself. In their present position, she could do no better than to try and feel a degree of friendliness towards this man.

"Yet," he continued. "I think-I feel that you blame me for something else. And I even know for what." A pause. "I am sorry, madam, I cannot bring your brother back to you."

She looked up, in surprise, for he had articulated that which she would not have admitted to herself-that she blamed him, bitterly, for Jamie's estrangement.

"If he is not writing to you, it is not because of me."

"But he is in India because of you." She found, all of a sudden, that she was speaking through her teeth, and that tears-that she had held back so valiantly-were now streaming down her face. "I have not seen him these three years-because of you."

"No," he said evenly, yet resolutely. "Not because of me. His fault is as great as mine."

"His fault!" she cried, put quite beside herself by his stubborn insistence. She was instantly irate with him: how dare he argue with her about this, this pain of hers these four years?

"Madam, he called me out. He wounded me."

"You've left him no choice!" she shouted at him through her tears.

"There is always a choice," Darcy said mournfully. "You idealize him, but you must, at least, divide the blame between us."

She closed her face in her hands and wept, for it was true, and she knew it. There was no one person, at whose door she could truly lay the blame. They had each done their best to make this terrible mess: her father, his father, and Jamie himself-a boy who thought that spilling blood would assuage their pain; a brother banished. And, of course, her husband, too, was culpable-but perhaps no more and no less than the rest of them. From somewhere deep in the alcoves of her heart, a thought floated up: her poor husband. Indeed, she thought, how she had blamed him! How everyone must have blamed him! And she, herself, was guilty, too! Perhaps if she had not talked to him then, if she had not goaded him, perhaps then he would not have said the words he had said. She wept all the more bitterly, for the truth was so much worse than the picture she had painted-and so much nearer.

"Mrs. Darcy." She looked and saw that he was holding out a pristine starched handkerchief to her, his initials stitched in indigo on the corner. She smiled at him through her tears, tremulously:

"Soon enough I shall have a collection of your handkerchiefs." She took it, dabbing at her eyes.

"Perhaps you can open a shop."

"A fitting occupation for a gentleman's daughter." She crumpled the handkerchief in one hand. "I am sorry," she said dully. "I do not hate you. Truly. I am just...Every time I look at you, I am reminded how alone I am in the world."

"But you are not," he said, quickly. "You are not at all alone. I am squarely grateful to you for the way you have behaved-for the kindness you have shown to my father and sister. Georgiana will remain your friend, too-and then, I know that you are not without family-"

"Yes," she said, "My uncle-I have an uncle living in London. And then Jamie-somewhere..." Her face crumpled again, and she bit her lips trying to keep from breaking down again.

"Madam, do you not think that I miss your brother cruelly?" he asked, suddenly. The tone of his voice changed, then, from soft to anguished. Elizabeth looked, and was shocked-and moved-to see that tears had gathered in his eyes. "That I have not made a friend such as him in the past four years? That I regret the duel-all that has happened-my every waking hour?"

He brought one hand to his eyes, shamed to have cried in her presence. The only thing she could think to say, so deeply shaken she was:

"Oh! And now you have no handkerchief!"

Thereupon, both of them burst into nervous, excited, nearly frenzied laughter.

"Elizabeth," he said, and this time, she did not have the heart to reprimand him for the liberty of using her Christian name. "I remember my promise to you. But come, let us be friends while this marriage lasts. For our own sakes, madam. Why live in this state of warfare?"

She found she was smiling at him, then. He extended one large hand, and she put hers in it. He shook hands with her, seriously, and they both laughed again.

"Very good," he said, drawing the back of his hand across his eyes. "That is settled. Now you must promise never to tell a soul about this. I shall never show my face in polite society again if it becomes known that I came apart like a woman."

She kept smiling at him and promised him she would, indeed, keep his secret. He threw her a sideways glance.

"Will you walk out tomorrow with me and Georgiana?" His large hand claimed hers, again. "Promise me that you would, Mrs. Darcy."

She did.

The next morning, they walked far together. Georgiana was blithe to have both of them walk out with her; and she chattered without stop-an arrangement that suited both of them just fine. For neither found he wanted to speak; their new-found camaraderie did not extend to having lively meaningless conversations just yet. But this time, having come to a brook, Elizabeth watched him carry Georgiana across. Thereupon, she did not seek a crossing herself, but stood and waited for him to return. He caught her eyes from across the water, and then smiled at her, broadly. In another moment, he was next to her-and, before she could make a sound, Elizabeth found herself swung up in his arms.

He held her warmly, securely, and for a moment, she closed her eyes, imagining what it would be like to be married...really married to someone she could love. To rest in the security of his embrace... to offer her own arms to him at his worst, darkest moments. She did not have much time to dream, as he set her down; but for the rest of their walk, she felt oddly discomfited.

It was a fresh enough morning, and soon, she had regretted not taking a spencer with her. She shivered a bit, rubbing her arms.

"Are you cold?"

She shook her head no, then nodded, quickly, embarrassed that her first instinct was to deny anything he said. Thereupon she gasped and opened her mouth to protest as she saw him cast off his coat-but in the next moment, it was wrapped about her shoulders and her husband was walking ahead of her in his shirtsleeves.

"Mr. Darcy!" she called after him. The jacket reached down to her knees, reminding her yet again of his impressive height. He picked up Georgiana, swinging her unceremoniously about with a sing-song "whoooo!"-the girl was laughing and clasping at her brother's arms. Momentarily, all the disposition Elizabeth had felt towards him evaporated.

"Mr. Darcy! I do not want your coat! Please take it!" She was yelling now-very unladylike, but she would be demmed if she would run after him. He ignored her, walking away, quick, graceful, long-legged. He flipped Georgiana over his shoulder and carried her thus-a supremely undignified position that she did not seem to mind in the least. Insufferable. Elizabeth treaded grimly across the grass, his jacket heavy around her shoulders. In that manner, they reached the house. He ran up the front steps, as if the girl on his shoulder weighed nothing at all. She watched him gently let Georgiana off her shoulder, then slipped the heavy coat off and thrust it at him, angrily. He only managed to catch it, quickly, before she turned and strode away.

"Mrs. Darcy! Pray, wait!"

How could he have caught up with her so quickly? He must have the longest legs in the world. She spun around, ready to give him a piece of her mind, and saw that he was smiling at her in a most beguiling, disarming manner.

"Madam. You are angry with me."

"Yes!" she cried. "Of course I am! You've no need to play a-a-a gentleman with me!"

Instantly, his expression betrayed astonishment and offense; and she knew, right then, what she had said, and that it would cost her dearly to have said it.

"Play a gentleman," he repeated, slowly. "What a fine opinion you have of me, Mrs. Darcy."

"Oh-I did not mean-" She stopped and flailed a little for the right words, but there were none: she had said it; and she had meant it. She would only dig herself in further trying to deny it. "Yes, well." She looked up at the ceiling, wondering at how to extricate herself.

He stood there, scowling, glaring at her. Clearly waiting for her to apologize. Elizabeth bit her lip-perhaps, she thought, she was behaving unkindly. And it was untrue, on reflection she would have to admit it. Past his first two days at Pemberley, he had not behaved but a gentleman to her. Was her first impression of him so strong that it continued to cloud her judgment even now-weeks after she had first met him? Could she not be magnanimous enough to forgive it?

So she clasped her hands together and told him what she truly thought.

"I am sorry," she said. "I-I should not have said that."

"What difference does it make what you say if this is what you think of me?" He sounded insulted, he looked-for the first time in days-truly angry with her.

"I-do not, truly. But sometimes, I see you-I cannot forget you as you were then." She wanted, more than anything, to look away from him, but felt compelled, strangely, to keep holding his dark, heavy gaze.

"Ah." He shook his head. "I suppose I am asking too much of you-to forget the insult dealt to your womanhood. Hell hath no fury, indeed. "

"No!" she cried, for she did not wish him to think her so petty. "No, it is not-it is not too much! You are right, of course-we have agreed to be friends. Only yesterday, we agreed not to quarrel. So let us-let us not quarrel." All of a sudden, she wanted this most of all-to have some peace. To not quarrel with this accidental husband of hers, this strange man, who glared at her one moment and laughed like a boy the next. Trembling, she asked him: "Do you forgive me?"

He watched her for the longest time, his eyes stormy on her face. "Undoubtedly I shall," he said. "But first I shall also ask a forfeit of you, madam."

"A forfeit," she repeated, shocked.

"Yes, for your insult. Wouldst that you called me a murderer. But you could not have insulted me worse than you did when you said I played a gentleman."

"But I apologized!" she cried, anguished.

"Did you? And how many times must you apologize for your insult-as many or more than I have for mine?" His eyes bore into her countenance. "Come, Mrs. Darcy, you are behaving a coward again."

"I am not-"

"What do you suppose I shall ask of you?" His lips curved in a derisive little smile.

"I could not-" She started, then shook her head in utter exasperation. "Very well," she said, scowling back at him. "An interesting beginning for being friends, Mr. Darcy."

"I could not agree more, Mrs.Darcy." He offered her his arm, which she obediently took, and they commenced walking back.

"So," she said, trying to sound nonchalant. "What-what kind of forfeit do you desire?"

"What kind of forfeit do you suppose a man merely playing a gentleman may ask of his pretend wife?"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "I am not afraid of you," she said. He shrugged.

"I should not have you so. I shall tell you the forfeit-"

"When?"

"When I think of it."

"So?" his wife hissed.

"Pardon?" Darcy looked up from the chessboard. They had camped out in Mr. Darcy's bedroom. It has become increasingly clear that his father had settled into a kind of dreary ill-health that often plagues invalids for months and even years. Darcy, though thrilled and relieved that his father was not dying, could not think without a shudder about what this meant for him and Elizabeth. Were they now tied forever? So he cast such thoughts away, for they also made him feel like a terrible son. Did he wish that Father were worse, that he were dying? Of course not. And as for the rest of it, it would eventually resolve itself.

They were playing chess. His little bride had proven a worthy opponent. Mr. Darcy, from the bed, looked on and gave her hints, which drove his son verily mad.

"Would you like me to move this board to your bedside, sir?" he asked mildly. "Perhaps you can then move the figures for Mrs. Darcy."

Mr. Darcy smiled at him, but said nothing in return, merely closing his eyes again.

"Well?"

"Well what?" Darcy stared absent-mindedly at the figures on the board. She had just eaten two of his pawns and stood poised to take a bishop.

"Your forfeit!" she whispered, barely audible.

"Ah-what of it?" He moved his knight, quickly gathering a pawn of hers from the board. "And it is yours, madam, not mine."

She took his bishop and unwisely placed her king in a vulnerable position.

"Tell me."

"Tsk." Another move, and his queen was poised across from her defenseless kind. "Check, Mrs. Darcy. Move something, madam, I do not wish to win too easily."

She rolled her eyes again, biting down on a smile, but moved a pawn in an unrelated direction; for there was no figure she could use to defend her king again. The game was all but decided.

"Mate." Darcy picked up her king and twirled it in his fingers. "I shall tell you later-tonight."

"But it has been two days!" she hissed, her eyes glinting with impatience.

"Has it now?" Darcy whispered back. He gathered the figures, setting them into the velvet-lined folding chess-board, slowly and softly lest they knock about and wake his father. Thereupon he gave her a smile and a quick bow, and walked off, holding the chess-board under one arm.

"You want what?"

Darcy took in the look of his wife with her mouth half-open. Not the most fetching picture, but certainly satisfying. For once, the little shrew was at a loss for words. He had asked Miss Lucas that she dine with his sister above stairs tonight.

"You heard me."

"And perhaps you also wish me to dress up a circus girl and learn to walk on ropes?"

"Thank you, but no. Madam Saqui in London is doing just this already." Darcy smiled at her over the supper table. "But not a bad idea."

"What makes you think I should agree-"

He shrugged. "Nothing. Only that you have agreed to grant me a forfeit in exchange for my forgiveness for your extreme incivility."

"I may change my mind."

"You may," he agreed. "But that would be tantamount to not keeping your word. Which, if you were a man, would be considered very-ungentlemanly-behavior. And after all, I am not asking so much."

"No, indeed!" she mocked him. "Merely complete power over my person!"

Darcy frowned as he buttered a slice of bread.

"Madam, you have a talent for some truly spectacular exaggeration," he said, offering it to her first. She wagged her head, irritably, and he took a bite himself. "But yes. I want you to obey me," he said, having finished with it. "For the duration of this marriage, I want you to behave like a wife ought."

She laughed, derisively. "Three days ago, you were bent on becoming friends!"

Darcy shrugged: nonsensical child.

"I do not see how this makes our friendship impossible, Mrs. Darcy," he replied. "I do not wish you any harm. On the contrary, I want to make things good-comfortable between us. After all, should you feel I am imposing on you, you can always break this agreement. But I am tired of fighting with you over every little thing."

"An agreement within agreement, then," she said heavily.

"Yes, madam. An agreement within agreement. I promise you, I shall do nothing that would jeopardize the first one."

Elizabeth lowered her eyes, staring at her plate, and said nothing.

"You may, of course, refuse."

She knew precisely what he was doing-and she did not like it one bit. But she did not like having to break her word. It was not like her to break her word. He had thrown her a gauntlet, sure as the day was bright. She could hardly refuse it without losing if only a little bit of her honor and self-worth.

"Remember your promise to me, Mr. Darcy."

He inclined as if his head to her, politely. "Of course, madam. Now!" He looked her over quickly and smiled-a self-satisfied smirk that Cat occasionally wore when happy and well-fed. "I should like, first of all, the luxury ... the liberty... of being able to use your Christian name."

She narrowed her eyes at him in annoyance. "Do not make me regret this!"

He raised his eyebrows, smiling. "What, no? You are refusing me already, and such a small thing?"

"Oh, very well!" Elizabeth grumbled, looking away. "Call me what you wish."

"Ah," he sighed in satisfaction. "Now, Elizabeth, kindly eat your soup!"

Chapter 11

Darcy congratulated himself on having thought of the forfeit. It was a most brilliant idea. Now his little wife watched him cautiously, clearly both entranced and terrified by the idea of what he could ask of her. It was obvious to him that her knowledge of such things was more, perhaps, than for most females her age-for she was a reading kind of girl; but on the other hand, it was necessarily incomplete. Now she trembled every time he looked at her and blushed whenever he arched an eyebrow-not so much in fear, mostly in breathless anticipation.

But of course, he had nothing like that in mind. At first, he intended to use the forfeit-a strange idea that had occurred to him at the sight of her distressed, shamed countenance, a moment before he had said it-to make his life easier. He had told her the truth: her stubborn refusal to do as she was told was driving him slowly insane. He was not accustomed to be constantly gainsaid. She was continuously ready to deny him before giving it a moment of thought. He could never guess what would cause her displeasure. He had wrestled from her the pleasure of her company on morning walks (not that he desired her to be there, but he liked walking out with Georgiana, and Georgiana liked walking out with her new sister-in-law), but she had protested vocally when he had slipped his coat over her shoulders. Lud! What was so unacceptable about that? Though he was not of an incredibly gallant disposition, he was no worse than most, and he had tried to do well by her. It had wounded him greatly to hear her say he played the gentleman. (What a scurvy thing to say. Had she been a man, he would call her out for that. Still, he suspected she had not done with saying nasty things to him.)

He was uncertain why he so wanted peace with her, but he did. Perhaps he wanted to know a way to control her, if only for the sake of tempering her biting, angry tongue. Not unlike breaking a young, restive mare. Then, too, he found her... curious. Fascinating. A riddle, a challenge. Before her, his dealings with females were simple. There was his mother-to adore and grieve; there was Georgiana-to spoil and coddle; there were women like Valerie, who served a particular purpose in his life and would never rise above it... dealing with them was circumscribed by a neat set of rules, which suited him well and never changed. But nothing about Elizabeth was simple, or easy, or even understandable. She left him, quite simply, at a loss. She made him feel awful where he was certain of his rectitude, made him feel touched and amused where he should have been angry, made him feel remorse for having said and done things which would ordinarily have left him quite cold.

Sometimes it seemed to him that she was hopeless-this dour, obstinate, dark girl who was bitter at all the world, and in whose pantheon of monsters he occupied a prominent spot. But sometimes... when she laughed over something she had had read in a book... when she talked to his father, in low, kind tones... when she listened to Georgiana's incessant warbling... she appeared transformed. She had a smile... more than a smile. A light, which suffused her countenance, from her lips to her dark eyes, turning them a translucent shade of amber. It was not often that she smiled like that-and never at him. He would not admit, not even to himself, that it vexed him... that he wanted her to look at him with something other than annoyance or blank resignation on her face.

Glimpses of her, of a woman she would one day become, aroused Darcy's curiosity and unsettled his heart. Particularly because she was by no means guaranteed to become anything extraordinary. Leave her to her own devices, he thought, and she would forever remain a gray little mouse with her nose perpetually in the book, mean and dry and difficult... but in the right hands, in hands of the right man... Darcy looked at his hands, wondering, honestly, whether he was up to the task. He scoffed at himself for this foolishness... after all, she was determined to leave him the moment his father died. In truth, he was at not at all certain that he wanted it otherwise.

As it was, he was conscious of having temporarily got the upper hand in their unceasing struggles. But he was also aware that it would not last long-should he overuse it, she would snap back at him, upsetting the fragile truce. How would he use the forfeit? What would he have her do?

How would he like her to change?

Yes, he thought, that. First things first.

Make her smile more.

Then, make her smile at him.

As it was, both of them were initiated into the management of the great estate-she by Mrs. Reynolds, and he-by his own realisation that he had dallied far too long. He threw himself into running Pemberley with guilty zeal: for it was the work with which he had never bothered. The very labour his father had done for years. There was a mound of correspondence on his father's desk; it took him a good four days to sort through it, answering letters and inquiries about his father's health, paying all the bills.

The bills terrified him at first; he liked doing accounts exceedingly ill. For the first time, all he saw was the multitude of expenditures-what was paid for food, wine, clothing, timber, lye, flour, soap... For a thousand of small daily comforts of a rich person's life. For the maintenance of the house, pristine as it was, and for the wages to the numerous servitors, and for the keeping of the horses. Bills, unpaid as yet because of his father's illness, for Georgiana's new piano-forte, her dresses, her sheet-music, and a larger one-for the blue curricle and four handsome grays his father had bought days before his illness. The cumulative effect of the money spent was staggering. It seemed impossible that even the most profitable estate in the most profitable year could cover this.

His immediate reaction was to panic; but instead, he doggedly bent his head to the books, intent on settling all the accounts. He stayed awake late after everyone had gone to sleep; for he could not sleep himself, worrying that he might mis-manage something. His game of billiards had become exceedingly good, his skill sharpened by the long sleepless hours he had spent playing it (a pastime not at all conducive to riding across the estate nigh-on every morning). Only when he realised, having paid the unresolved bills, that Pemberley was still far from financial collapse, and that all the merchants were ready and eager to forgive their unusual lateness with payment, did he calm down enough to sleep through the night.

To avoid a similar situation, he made it his habit to go over the accounts weekly. As little as he liked it, it helped him to not think of it for the rest of the week. Not that he was idle, or unoccupied, either-for he soon found himself riding out with the tenant overseer Mr. Hawthorne early in the morning, very nearly daily. In town, he had thought himself an early riser, going directly for a ride in Hyde Park every morning... at Pemberley, his London hours would have caused the chickens to laugh. The first time that his man woke him-upon his express instructions-to go out with Mr. Hawthorne, he could not get his bearings, thinking that something terrible must have happened so that he was roused in the middle of the night.

He adjusted, eventually, though for the first two...four times, he could have sworn he would fall out of his saddle, dead asleep. Coming back, he would breakfast and then walk out with his wife and sister, though it happened not infrequently that they were more eager for exercise than he. Oftentimes, all he wished in this world was to go back to bed. He resisted the urge, knowing that it would do him no good to indulge himself. Sooner or later, he would have to accustom himself to the life of a squire.

Elizabeth, on her part, was now formally introduced to the servants as The Mistress. She had met many of them when she was first Miss Bennet... but Darcy was of a mind that announcing her as his wife and their lady would go a long way to establish some respect for her. In particular, he hoped that it would stop the whispers regarding his disinclination to bed her... Therefore, it was done, and she was paraded along the long row of servants, presided over by Reynolds, and introduced to them all. The Mistress. She seemed so young to him, too young for this burden-the burden she would hardly shirk. Sometimes, passing through the portrait gallery, he would stand and look upon Lady Anne's portrait. His beautiful mother, the former Mistress, all poise and loveliness in her gilt frame, gazed upon them with serenity and detachment.

Darcy watched Elizabeth undertake the duties of the Mistress of Pemberley with surprised amusement. He hardly remembered his mother, but he was ready to bet a part of him that the late Lady Anne was not over-fond of visiting tenants' households and going over supper menu with Mrs. Reynolds. She had been a gentle, ephemeral creature... Darcy was fairly certain that the lovely Lady Anne had not the faintest idea of the location of the kitchens in the house.

Yet Elizabeth seemed to take to it. Beyond her first post-wedding mortification, she seemed to get over the fact that the entire Pemberley knew they had yet to consummate their marriage. She liked the servants, and they seemed to like them back-for she addressed them with kindness and seemed to take a genuine concern in their well-being (except that Mary had been as sour at her as ever, for she had yet to have a chance to practice new London hairstyles on her mistress). Reynolds conferred with her every morning in regards to the luncheon, tea and supper to be served, to the any alterations that needed to be done to the stores of produce, or to the linens and silver to be bought, if any. To his wife's credit, she did not attempt to evade her duties-though more often than not, she deferred to Reynolds' opinion, thus firmly securing the old lady as her ally.

As regarded social calls, they talked between them and decided that it was yet unnecessary to begin calling upon neighbours... for she was still in mourning, and everyone in the county knew Mr. Darcy was far too ill for visits. Thus, their make-believe marriage was secure from intrusion...and it suited both of them admirably. It occurred to Darcy that he would not mind it at all if he could cut the social engagements entirely. But it was a daft thing to think, and surely he would think differently, were he in London?

One morning, having come back from his ride with Mr. Hawthorne, Darcy found his wife in the library, looking determinedly over a thick folio, scribbling something on a piece of paper. Her fingers were blue with ink-a sure sign that she was preoccupied.

"What are you doing?" he asked, hanging over her, trying to read the book over her shoulder. An agricultural catalogue, he noted with wry amusement.

"Oh, good morning." She looked up at him, looking very much preoccupied, and he saw that she had smeared ink over her cheek. He bit his lip, to keep from laughing.

"You are busy this morning, I see, madam."

"Very," she said distractedly. "Mrs. Reynolds asked me to choose flowers to plant for the spring-for the conservatory-"

"Elizabeth. Look at me." He frowned a little as he pointed to the ink spot on her cheek. "You have something-right here. Ink." He had the strongest temptation to wet his finger and rub at it, but he would not humiliate her so. As it was, she blushed deeply and violently, dropping her eyes to her hands-but the sight of them, ink smeared, only served to undo her further.

"Pray excuse me," she murmured, springing up to her feet.

"Mrs. Darcy!" he called after her. She stopped by the doors, beet-red, holding one hand to her mouth, looking at him questioningly. "Please come back here... after."

Darcy sat and waited for her, all the while flipping through the catalogue. He had already convinced himself that she would not come back, and was startled-and pleased-when he heard her at the door. Her face and hands seemed freshly scrubbed.

He said nothing, merely rose and moved a chair up for her, so that she could sit next to him. He was pleased... more than pleased she had come back. He told himself it was because coming back showed good sense-he would have expected her to run and hide in her favourite window-seat.

Darcy knew little about plants and planting-but he did remember the conservatory as it was when his mother was giving the orders... flowers, orchids in particular, had been Lady Anne's favourite pastime. She had spent hours amongst them, as if flowers alone could do nothing to hurt her. Darcy wagged his head, angry at himself for slipping into such maudlin thoughts; for he liked it little, and his bride, it appeared, not at all.

"Mr. Darcy," she said, frowning disagreeably. "You are not listening!"

"Forgive me, Elizabeth."

"What is appropriate for the conservatory?"

"Anything you desire, madam."

She stared at him, as if not understanding, he found he had to explain.

"I should order whatever you wish. Perhaps you wish to consult with a man skilled in making gardens-"

"Sir!" she protested, her face growing even redder. "Mrs. Reynolds has asked me-"

But Darcy was already waxing poetic, excited about the possibilities.

"Would you like-" He flipped quickly through the catalogue. "Would you like an orange tree? Or exotic flowers...Or-I have heard of it in London, a thing called a butterfly bush-it attracts butterflies, can you imagine?" He paused, taking in her surprise, unable to contain a silly grin. "What do you think?"

"I have no opinion on the matter. I should simply like to know what is usually ordered-" "Whatever the Mistress of Pemberley desires."

"I desire nothing, sir," she repeated feelingly. She seemed half-indignant, half-enchanted by the idea. "Faith, sir, there is little need for such luxuries!"

Slowly coming back to earth, fighting his disappointment, Darcy murmured:

"You are my wife, madam. Luxuries befit you. You do like flowers-all women do. Will you tell me that you are so different from the rest?"

She frowned at him again, and then said-not disagreeably, but with unexpected sadness in her voice:

"It is not that, Mr. Darcy. It is only that I-I should not want to plant flowers I shall not see bloom." Thereupon, she rose, eyes lowered, and quit his presence altogether. Darcy was left alone with the catalogue of trees and flowers. He returned it to Reynolds forthwith, with instructions to choose whatever she deemed appropriate. He felt very much the fool.

It must have been years since the Lady of the House had last visited the tenants, but one morning, as he sat in his father's office going over accounts, in strode his wife, wearing a bonnet and a spencer, and carrying a basket on her arm.

"Mr. Darcy, I think you should come with me," she said pointedly, forgoing any other greetings. They had both taken breakfast in their rooms today, and it was the first time he had seen her since supper.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said, looking up at her in amusement.

"Good morning, sir." She stood in front of his desk, holding that incongruously large basket on her arm. It looked as if it would tip her over presently. "As I said-I think you should come with me."

"Gladly," he replied, closing the accounts book: he had been at it for the past three hours and could now hardly see the morning light for all the criss-crossing blue lines and a multitude of numbers. "Especially if you tell me where it is we are going."

"I am visiting with a few households this morning," she informed him. "Mrs. Finlay is sick, and so is Mrs. Hogan's baby-I am taking them some medicine-and I am taking some food to them and some others-" She looked up at him and uttered: "The basket is too heavy, and I have another one. I need you."

"Merely to act as your pack-horse?" He toyed with her. "None of the footmen will do?" "No," she said, frowning at him as if at a particularly dim-witted fool. "Not merely. I think you should come with me because these people are your responsibility-or very soon will be. It would help if they knew the face of the man soon to be their Master."

Darcy felt the sting of her words. It was true-he had not paid the proper attention to the people on his father's estate. Well, he thought, now was as good a time as any.

"You are correct," he agreed with her, gravely. "I shall drive you myself."

"I should rather walk," she replied.

"Very good of you," he agreed, "but I am not dragging this basket on my arm all the way. Nor am I making one of my men drag it."

"But do you wish to appear imperious-to drive up in a smart curricle is not the same- "

"Elizabeth," he said quickly. "Remember my forfeit. Obey."

She bit her lip. "Very wrong of you to use it this way," she said. "But very well. As long as you come with me."

He did, and they had a decent morning of it. Here, once again, he was able to observe the Elizabeth he liked-the easy, sweet girl he did not really know. He watched her pick up a baby, feed an invalid soup with care and compassion, hand out bread and milk to the family whose mother was ill. He had warned her to be careful, to stay away, for he did not wish her to fall ill. He stood behind her, silent, awkward, watching her interact with his people with ease and grace. Her youth was not an impediment-indeed, he quite forgot her age as he watched her. His father had been right about her-she would make a capital Mistress of Pemberley.

On their way back, he stopped the curricle at the side of a meadow, alighting quickly. "Come," he said, holding out his hand. "Take a turn with me, Elizabeth."

She watched him with wary eyes. His first instinct was to be angry with her. To ask her what it was she feared-would he savage her, his own wife, forgetting all about their agreement? Did she think herself so irresistible to him? Mean words, ready to wound. But he fought himself and said, merely:

"Please. I should much like a turn with you."

She nodded, then, squinting against the sun, and put her hand in his. Having alighted from the step in a tiny cloud of dust and flying skirts, she stood and watched him tie the geldings to the nearest tree.

"We shall not be long."

It was a breezy morning in late, waning, dying summer. They strolled through the high grass for a while without saying a word to each other. For the first time since it began, Darcy noticed that he enjoyed being silent with her. Not awkward, not bored, not obliged to say at least something, to proffer meaningless statements regarding the weather. It was as if they both had tons to say, but chose this pleasant, tranquil silence instead.

"Take your bonnet off, please," he said, suddenly, without quite knowing why. Somehow it seemed intolerable that her view of the world should be obscured by this unattractive dark concoction. Not unlike a set of horse blinders, he thought.

Without a word of objection, she set on undoing the laces under her chin-tying them, within a minute, into a Gordian knot impossible to untie. She tugged at them, further tangling them and growling in quiet frustration. "On further reflection, Mrs. Darcy, you could never be a sailor," he said. "Come." She lifted her chin, obediently, letting him start on the knot himself.

As he worked on the ribbons of her bonnet, his fingers brushed the underside of her chin, strayed precariously to the small hollow between her collarbones. The stretch of skin there, warm and soft, was a shock to him, and for a moment he froze, afraid to exhale. Her eyes flew open, too, suddenly too large for her small heart-shaped face, and her hand dashed quickly to cover his at her throat.

The moment stretched interminably, as they stood, petrified amidst the high grass. Darcy could feel her heart, beating slowly and deeply in her very fingertips as she touched his hand. His own resounded hers, pounding wildly against his ribcage, his blood roaring, leaving him in deep confusion.

Then, the momentary enchantment fading, she shrunk away from him with an anguished moan and started walking towards the carriage. Coming to his senses, Darcy hastened after her.

"Elizabeth, please." She swung around, her face white, her mouth set. "Forgive me, madam. I did not-I forgot myself."

"No matter," she said softly. "Let us speak of it no more." Her voice was unexpectedly hoarse; she sounded, briefly, a grown woman. She looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the sun with the side of her hand. "Mr. Darcy, I find myself fatigued this morning. Kindly take me home."

He obeyed without saying a word. On the drive home, both of them found themselves beyond conversation, and for the rest of the day, neither troubled the other with his company.

During one of their walks with Elizabeth and Georgiana-on a particularly fine late summer morning-they meandered into a clearing, where he watched the women gather wildflowers. He felt listless, half-dead. It had rained during the night, the rain and the wind blowing away the clouds that had obscured the sun for three days before. Unfortunately, it had also felled a tree of substantial size, trapping a tenant's horse. Together with Mr. Hawthorne and the horse's owner, he had spent the earlier hours of the day trying desperately to free the animal. They had succeeded-only to have the tenant ask that the animal be put down. There was little argument there-the injuries were severe enough-but Darcy recoiled when Mr. Hawthorne held a pistol out to him. He had hunted, had shot a stag; but he had never killed a horse before. He was now deeply repulsed by this grim duty that now, too, seemed to be his.

Mr. Hawthorne, having taken one look at the young Master's face, did the dismal work himself.

Now, as his wife and sister wandered through the high grass, he fell back, sought shadow, and soon found himself sitting with his back to a large ash at the edge of the clearing. It was as if his body had finally-and suddenly-felt all the abuse he had heaped upon it for weeks; his spirit was even worse. Georgiana called to him and he merely raised one hand-but standing up was beyond him. He closed his eyes.

"Will!"

"Sh-sh-sh. Do not wake him."

A female voice, low and concerned, then disapproving.

"Georgie, no! Georgie! Tsk!"

Something tickled across his face, under his nose, making him frown, and sneeze, and open his eyes.

Two faces leaned in: his sister, a young blond angel holding a long thin blade of grass, and his wife, dark as ever, and improbably--with a red flower behind her ear. His botany skills were never very strong, but he thought it might be a poppy. Where did she find one this time of year?

"Look, Georgie, look what you did," Elizabeth scolded gently. "You woke him!"

"No, no, 'tis nothing." Somehow, he remained sitting, leaning against the tree, and Elizabeth, too, remained, leaning over him solicitously. Looking at him in the way she had never looked at him before. He recognised that expression on her-she had gazed upon his father like that... and upon Georgiana... and upon the tenants' children that were ill. A look of pity-no, not pity. A look of empathy, of compassion. And though it had never been his ambition to have a woman feel for him, he found himself basking in the warmth of her eyes.

"Are you ill?" she asked, quietly. Before he could manage an answer, she reached out, leaning ever farther, putting one cool hand upon his forehead. All his breath left him in one long sigh. "You are too warm."

" 'Tis a warm day," Darcy mouthed. Elizabeth was looking at him, a small frown lodged between her eyebrows, the red poppy wilting behind her ear, a tiny splash of colour. Her bonnet was off, she had done something with it, had dropped it somewhere amidst the grass. Her hair, under it, did not look as severe as usual; and he drank in the sight of her, quickly cataloguing the changes in her that this small alteration had wrought. Her face, softer, more feminine; her skin flushed with all the vigour of exercise; her eyes, no longer dusky, threaded with gold sunlight.

He felt bereft when she took her hand off his brow. Reaching out, he pulled the poppy from behind her ear... drew it gently across her cheek. "Do not worry for me, Elizabeth. I am merely tired."

She withdrew, quickly, straightening. "I do not," she said shortly. "I do not worry. But all the same I think you should return to the house." Thereupon, she went to gather her bonnet, strutting away from him through the yellow end-of-summer grass. He watched her determined little figure, and then he turned to his sister.

"Lend me a hand, Georgie," he asked. He took her small hand and then heaved himself quickly back on his feet, making it look as if the effort was all hers. They walked back to the house, Georgiana weaving circles between the two of them. They said not a word to each other; and it was only at the front steps of the house that he realised he was still holding the sadly crumpled poppy in his hand.

His fingers opened, letting it fall.

On days when they could not walk out, when the sky turned dismally gray in its prescience of the coming autumn, keeping them prisoners inside... on those days, he sat in the music room, listen to Georgiana practice. His sister, diligent in her musical studies and as talented as their mother had been, was promising to become a true proficient. Elizabeth never played, spending her time with them reading and turning Georgiana's pages. He had asked her to play, more than once, but she merely shrugged and demurred, telling him that she played very ill. He had no wish to use the forfeit here, afraid that she might play truly ill, and not wishing to embarrass her.

But one afternoon, striding down the hallway, he stopped, strangely disturbed by the sound of the piano-forte coming from the music room. He had only just left Georgiana in their father's room.

He stopped outside the half-opened doors and listened. Then, he knew not how, but he found himself inside, standing behind her; watching her play more than he was listening. She was wearing one of her dreary gray half-mourning dresses-but it was cut in the back in way, which allowed him an open view of her graceful neck. She played impassioned, with her whole torso, her arms and shoulders moving to the music. Probably consistently incorrect and improper, he thought; but he could not take his eyes off her. He stood close enough to see the line of vertebrae on the back of her neck, disappearing behind the black velvet edge of her dress. The sight did something peculiar to him, filling him with an overwhelming mix of sudden, fierce tenderness, the strongest yearning and a shocking desire to touch, to hold-and then, something more, something even greater. Something nameless and powerful, something never before felt towards any woman of his acquaintance.

Captivated, he approached, with quiet step. He could see her face now, a high rise of her cheekbone, the straight planes of her nose, the dark shadow of eyelashes against her cheek. She played with her eyes closed, and now he knew she must have made a thousand mistakes, but he could not tear himself away from the sight of her.

She twisted on the seat, looked at him with her great dusky eyes, her fingers slipping across the keys, her music discordant, then stopping altogether. For a moment, still absorbed, she looked at him as if failing to recognise him, with a disarmed, serene expression on her face-and he, too, was momentarily beguiled and enchanted. Quick glances, he thought, long gazes, too little time-for it seemed he could stand like so, eyes locked with her, without knowing time. Completely charmed.

Then, it was as if a dark veil swept across her face.

"You have been watching me!" she accused. Darcy closed his eyes, for a moment, and swallowed a thick lump in his throat. "Yes," he said, evenly, opening his eyes to look at her again-to take in the lightning-quick change in her. "I have. You are my wife, Elizabeth. Surely I can do this much."

She flew to her feet. "I am not-yes, I am your wife, but you know precisely the nature of our relationship! You are forgetting yourself, sir!"

"Of course." He had gotten a better hold of himself within seconds, able now to speak in a pleasant, remote tone. "And is it such that would prohibit me from listening to you play the piano-forte?"

She bit her lip, lost for a moment. He had done nothing criminal in simply listening, and she could not admit-would not dare admit-that it was the look that had undone her so. Little coward. For she, too, had looked at him.

"You played beautifully, Mrs. Darcy."

"Thank you," she said awkwardly, dropping her eyes. "But I-not faithfully at all. You could not have seen it... but I fudged and slurred my way through the difficult passages."

"It may be so. Mayhap my sister would detect it. But I am much more of a listener than a connoisseur. And to a listener, you played beautifully."

"You flatter me." She looked away, drawing the tip of her foot across the rug before her. He noted that her boots were old, worn and rather too serviceable. "I am but middling."

Darcy gritted his teeth. "Why are you like this?" he demanded, with perhaps too much vitriol in his voice. He tried-Lord knows he tried every day-but even a saint would lose patience with her!

She seemed taken aback. "Like what?" she murmured, looking up at him.

"Why are you so determined to prove to me that you are not good?" he asked, impassioned.

She shrugged. "Because I am not good. I am tolerable-at most things. Certainly less than tolerable at the piano-forte."

"Well," he said gruffly. "I did not see tolerable just now. " He paused, hesitating, not knowing how to put into words that, which had taken hold of him while he watched her play-nor certain whether he even should. "Madam, I want it as my privilege," he said firmly, imperiously. "As long as I am your husband, Elizabeth, I want the right to admire you any time I wish."

She shrugged. "You know I cannot refuse you. Not under your rules."

He exhaled, his outrage dissipating slowly; the remainder of it lent his tone a brusque, masterly quality.

"If every time I say a word you will find it fit to disagree with me, I might as well stop saying it altogether. I see little sense in playing a fool to you. So yes, even under our rules, you can make me stop. But I am not some insipid youth, eager to throw compliments around." He paused, breathing heavily. "I should not flatter you if I did not believe it myself."

She seemed lost and sheepish, and a little ashamed. Darcy could not believe his eyes. Looking up at him, she gave him a shy, tiny smile.

"Well, it appears I have every reason to feel a graceless shrew, Mr. Darcy."

He was surprised and not a little gratified to hear her say that. Biting down a smile himself, he murmured:

"I am very glad you admit to it. But I could not possibly compliment a graceless shrew, Elizabeth. Something must be done, or let my compliment go to waste."

"Perhaps we could begin again, then?" Cocking her head, she regarded him thoughtfully. Darcy was of a mind to torture her, but he lost his heart before he opened his mouth. So he said, instead:

"Not a bad idea at all." He walked over to the bench, sitting down with his back to the instrument. Patting the bench next to him, he said. "Come, madam."

Somewhat cautiously, she sat down next to him, facing the other way. He watched her make small feminine movements-cross her ankles demurely, gather her skirts about her, draw one finger along the ivory keys. Darcy thought to ask her to play more; but was suddenly afraid. What if he should feel such upheaval again? He yearned for it, but he also feared it. So instead of asking, he claimed her hand on the seat between them and gave it a light squeeze.

"Mrs. Darcy-Elizabeth-you played beautifully tonight," he said gravely.

She bent her head to him. "Why thank you kindly, Mr. Darcy."

A happy, exultant laugh escaped him, despite his best intentions. Much as he strove to make her behave, he had never expected it, and was surprised-constantly-by the every little moment of grace on her part.

"Whom do you favour?" he asked, toying. It was so good to talk to her about small things, like music. "Mozart? Händel? Haydn?"

"Haydn more than Mozart," she admitted. "Alas, Miss Darcy has but little of his music. And I have left all my music back at Longbourn. Do you play, Mr. Darcy?"

"Aye, but very poorly, indeed."

She cocked an impudent eyebrow at him. "Shall I hear you play?"

He felt himself flush with pleasure. "Mayhap."

"I have no forfeit to use on you."

He caught himself smiling at her; all he felt, all the warmth inside him, gathered in his heart when she was like this, must have shown plainly on his face. He did not care.

"You need only ask."

She tilted her head to one shoulder, raised her chin a little, regarding him curiously.

"Very well," she said slowly. "I ask. Play for me."

He was tempted, sorely, to ask for an exchange: that she change the severe hairstyle that made her look like a noviciate, that made it impossible to truly see her-but he knew, far too well, what her reaction to that would be. He rifled through Georgiana's sheet music, pulled out a Mozart Fantasy.

"I think Mozart infinitely more musical than any other composer of our time," he explained, giving her a glance and a smile. "But do not judge me too severely."

She shrugged, in a strange non-committal way, as if she could not agree to it, could not promise him she would not laugh him down. What a strange girl. Standing up, she leaned on the piano-forte, prepared to turn his pages.

He played, and was even worse than he remembered himself to have been. But when he finished, he found Elizabeth a rapt audience: indeed, she had tears in her eyes. He was alarmed, for a moment, thinking he had distressed her... but she smiled at him as she rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes.

"This was lovely," she said softly. "You should play more often."

He was ridiculously pleased-and proud-of having earned her approbation, even though he knew he did not deserve it. Seized by a sudden impulse, he extended one hand.

"Come," he said. "Sit by me, Elizabeth."

To his surprise, she put her hand in his without argument. With agonising slowness, he pulled her towards him, forcing her to sit down next to him; knowing that she might spring and run at any moment. But she obeyed, sliding onto the bench next to him, her face turned to him, high-cheeked, pale-lipped and sombre.

He pressed her hand, softly, to the bench cushion between them. It was smaller than his, and it turned, slowly, entwining her fingers through his, pressing her palm to his. Darcy held his breath in a surge of violent, sudden delight.

In the next moment, there were steps outside. Startled, she flew to her feet and was gone, without as much as good-bye. Darcy remained on the bench, restless, unhappy. Feeling, all of a sudden, as if he had been robbed.

The next morning, he woke with the knowledge that he had dreamed of her. He remembered little of it, and every moment he remained awake-surly and tired as he rode out with the overseer-the dream slipped away from him by degrees. Still, there remained the overwhelming feeling of her presence, the memory of how she had turned her head upon apprehending him, of how she looked at him, of how she sat, still, while he watched her. It haunted him still, even as he passively murmured something in response to his overseer's questions. I must seem to him a fool, he thought, but he could not shake off the dream. He could not remember it anymore, and still it pervaded his day, filling his heart with such longing he thought it might burst. He was disturbed, too, by the very fact of having dreamed of her.

Still, upon returning home, he went in search of her. They had not spoken all of last night, for she had claimed a migraine, remaining in her room for most of it, leaving Darcy to wonder about her reasons. He did not know whether to be disappointed or relieved she had not come down: for he had wanted to see her, and yet had dreaded it terribly. Now his feet took him straight to her, to the one place he knew he could find her.

She was sitting in her beloved window-seat, with her feet tucked under her, not reading, leaning her head against the window.

"Elizabeth," he said, and sat down next to her, without asking her permission to so. She looked up at him, then, and asked, in an easy, familiar way, how his ride had been.

"Very good. Shall we walk out today?"

"I am tired this morning." She did, indeed, look fatigued. Darcy stifled a surge of disappointment and concern. "Will you present my apologies to Georgiana?"

"Of course. But you-you are not unwell?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. Merely weary."

Moved by a sudden urge, he put one finger under her chin, lifting it slightly.

"Mr. Darcy," she said, a warning in his voice. He put a finger, quickly, against her lips-a tiny liberty that gave him inexplicable pleasure. His one hand gentle on her shoulder, he forced her to remain where she was, kept her from shrinking away from him.

"Hush, Elizabeth, I would look at you, merely look at you." He drew his fingers, tentatively, along the edges of her face, where her hair was pulled back so tightly it looked painful. He wanted so desperately to see.

"Is it your forfeit?" she murmured, eyes troubled on him.

"It is, if you so wish! Elizabeth," he said, his voice thick and restless. "Elizabeth, must you always pull your hair back in so severe a manner?" She sat as if frozen, and he boldly reached with his free hand, pulling a dark tress from behind her ear, letting it unwind along her cheek, then freeing a strand of hair on the other side. "There," he said desperately. "There."

Elizabeth said nothing, but obeyed, closing her eyes. The delicate tendrils of hair, just a bit loose around her face, did unbelievable things for her, softening the lines, rounding the angles, leaving her looking sweeter and more womanly. Indeed, the more he looked at her, the more pleasing he found her. Would he call her beautiful? Of course not. So recently, he had thought her homely. Now... he could not call her pretty, even, for with her dark, narrow, graceful looks, she was too far from the accepted ideals of beauty-from the rounded sloping shoulders and pearly white skin and high, round breasts. A thin, dusky creature, a tender fawn with fragile wrists and neck, and eyes so fine they grabbed mercilessly at his heart, his wife was more than pretty.

She was haunting.

Thick, long lashes flew up, her eyes so unexpectedly, surprisingly bright...

"Oh!" Elizabeth said. "What is this?"

She stretched out her hand, her arm shooting forth like an arrow from a crossbow, fingers entangling themselves in his hair, pulling him lightly closer. Darcy followed her silent direction, pleasantly shocked by such a whim of hers.

But Elizabeth let go of his hair almost immediately.

"Here," she said, opening her palm. He saw a tiny red ladybug, crawling along the length of her fingers. "This was in your hair."

"Oh. It must have landed on me-somehow-during my ride."

"Indeed." Together, they watched the progress of the insect down Elizabeth's index finger, and then over the top of her hand and towards the wrist. Darcy was enchanted: it was like a little red jewel moving along her unadorned hand; there to accentuate its pretty shape, its graceful form, the length and strength of the fingers. Still, he pushed the ladybug into his folded palm, gently, so as not to crush it. "Shall we let it go, Mrs. Darcy?"

"Yes." Scrambling up to her knees, while he kept one hand carefully cupped over the insect to prevent it escaping, Elizabeth pushed the window wide open. Darcy shook the ladybug back into his wife's hand. Leaning out of the window, she opened her palm and recited, in voice that was filled with all the promise and enchantment of a late summer day:

"Lady bug, lady bug, fly away home-"

The ladybug crawled towards the edge of Elizabeth's hand; watching as it opened its red carapace, spreading its wings, Darcy murmured the next verse of the rhyme into his wife's ear:

"-your house is on fire and your children are gone..." Her hair, soft against his cheek smelled fresh, like a sunny, grassy meadow. He fought the beastly desire to pull out all the pins, letting her hair fall as it would, letting it roll in waves down her back. An almost overwhelming urge to bury his face in it until he could not smell, nor breathe, anything else.

He moved one hand, tentatively, under hers, supporting it, so small, on his palm. As if disturbed by his sudden movement, the ladybug took off, disappearing almost instantly into a glorious golden morning.

They froze on the window-seat, too close, too close by far. His cheek against her hair, his shoulder to hers. Their hands entwined, he could feel the ridges of her knuckles, narrow, fragile, feminine.

Suddenly coy, they moved apart, for another moment like this would demand greater intimacy. He thought she might claim her window-seat again; but she remained standing, grave.

"Give my regrets to Georgiana," she said softly.

He bowed to her. Mrs. Darcy. A polite formal bow, despite the fact that his nostrils, his eyes, his insides were still full of her. An inexplicable paradox.

"Mrs. Darcy."

Walking away, he wanted to turn around. Indeed, he wanted to quite badly. But suddenly, oddly, he was afraid that when he looked, she would have gone.

He applied to Reynolds to have the girl Mary, who was maid to his wife, summoned. The girl-herself only a year or two older than her very young mistress-seemed properly awed by being called before the young Master.

"I have a request to make of you," he said. He understood, quite well, that there was little difference between a request and an order-but it was not his nature to issue orders. And the nature of his request was somewhat private. "Mary," he asked conspiratorially, "Can you steal me a shoe?"

He knew from his dealing with his sister, from watching other women, that females liked shoes perhaps even more than they liked dresses. Why should she be any different?

The girl Mary seemed entirely too excited by the thought of all the enterprise. Darcy understood that she had harboured some pretensions of becoming a real lady's maid, as good or better than those French maids which hired out in London-and that Elizabeth had cut the girl's hopes quite short by refusing to let her set her hair, etc.

"I daresay, sir, that Mistress could be made right pretty if only she let me-" She understood, suddenly, what she had said, and froze, terrified. But Darcy only laughed. He knew precisely what she had meant; and he hardly had her certainty that Mistress could be made right pretty (or, for that matter, that he wanted her to be made so).

Mary brought him Elizabeth's slipper a day hence. It was badly worn, the thin silk straps frayed terribly. He felt a surge of embarrassment-for Elizabeth and for himself. His wife... be she even his wife temporarily...had to have the best. It was an oversight on his part that she did not. Wrapped in cloth, he took the shoe to Lambton- to the best shoemaker to be found in the small town. Of course, he could have done better in London, had he send the slipper to his mother's shoemaker -but he valued expediency above all; it would not do to set her wondering where her shoe had gone.

Choosing the actual shoes was torture. He did not like anything that the shopkeeper proposed, for it all seemed too gaudy. He could imagine the amused light in her eyes as she took in some particularly ridiculous confection. The shoes had to be tasteful-pretty-feminine. They had to go with a half-mourning dress. She would have to like them. All of a sudden, it became a matter of great importance that she should like them.

Finally, he chose a pair of slippers-soft black calfskin, delicate roses, deep-red, black silk beaded laces that would wrap thrice around her legs. Thereupon, having allowed the shoe-maker to take his measurements, Darcy returned Elizabeth's old slipper to Mary the maid, to be thereupon returned to her mistress' wardrobe.

Continue reading Strange Bedfellows here


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