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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 17

The thing that Elizabeth noticed first about London was the great throngs that swarmed in its narrow streets and spacious squares: people, people, people everywhere. Crowds everywhere, from the moment their carriage had plunged into the teeming city streets. Noise, too: the sound of hoofs on the cobblestone, the rattling of numerous carriages, people crying to each other, merchants calling out their wares and beggars begging...and a noxious assortment of smells, against which, Darcy, with a frown, raised the carriage window... The city, in its varied multitude, bewildered and confounded her. At some moments, it appeared to Elizabeth, that a veritable sea of unknown faces rocked outside the carriage; and it took them a long time to navigate through the crowded streets. Elizabeth found herself nestling closer to Darcy, for he was the only thing she knew of this strange world; she was vastly pleased when he wrapped his arms about her and tenderly stroked her cheek. He could not know the anxiety consuming her... but he seemed to feel it, instinctively reaching back to her with the response she desired.

They arrived in Leicester Square in the evening. A footman wearing the familiar Darcy livery opened the carriage door. Darcy alighted first, then handed Elizabeth out with great care. Her back and rear aching from long hours in the carriage, her mind dazed from the last several hours, spent in silent intimacy, she stood gingerly on awkward feet. Lord, she was glad this ride had ended.

The Colonel took his leave. Elizabeth bobbed him a semblance of a curtsey, not at all certain her legs would obey her. He bowed to her and Darcy from the saddle and turned his horse around and was gone around the corner in a moment.

Daring, Elizabeth took Darcy's arm. He had never rebuffed her advances, having always taken her hand first, but she was still shy about touching him. He had said little to her during the last half of the journey, but he had held her hand tenderly in his, gloved fingers entwined. Now as they stood together, looking after his cousin, Elizabeth felt, suddenly, awash in intimacy with him, seeing the two of them together, and the Colonel outside and separate. It was a comforting thought.

Gray fog now swept about the horses' legs and carriage wheels and Elizabeth's own feet. She looked down at it, seemingly alive, and was tempted to pet it like she would Cat. Amused, she grinned up at Darcy.

"They call it the London Particular," he said with a shrug. "Shall we go in, madam? Are you not fatigued from the road? I confess I am." Stifling a yawn, he directed her up the steps and into the handsome four-storey town-house.

Elizabeth leaned her head upon his shoulder, for indeed she was fatigued; but she straightened immediately at the sight of the entire London household all in a row in the great hall, ready to greet the young Master and their new Mistress. She was so very pleased to see Mary amongst them, she almost waved at the girl; but it would not do-and so she restrained herself in time. Repeating her official induction into the office of the Mistress of Pemberley from three months ago, she suffered another introduction to the staff with good humor, though she wanted nothing more than to be in bed. To her relief, Darcy did not insist upon showing her the town-house, for he, himself, seemed to be falling off his feet.

They ate a little supper together in exhausted silence, and neither finished his plate. It was all Elizabeth could do to avoid putting her head down right there. She was very glad when Darcy rose, holding out his hand:

"Are you ready to retire now, Elizabeth?"

Retiring in town was decidedly odd: going up to bed, they did not go their separate way as they would have at Pemberley. Elizabeth remembered Darcy's words from their journey: the Mistress' chamber at London is adjoining the Master's . She felt slightly dizzy at the thought of the picture they must have presented to the servants: the Master and Mistress retiring for the night, together. Lord. Her cheeks were flaming with embarrassment. She wondered whether he had always taken the Master's chamber. Likely not: for he had been a bachelor when he had last visited here. Now, the servants had placed her things inside a very comfortable, if not entirely lived-in, bedchamber. The Mistress' chamber.

She peeked in curiously, heard Darcy laugh behind her back.

"You may go in, Elizabeth, 'tis your room."

"Ah." Gingerly, she stepped across the threshold and turned back to him. "And you are-behind that door?" She nodded to the back of the room.

"I am. Knock on it, should you need something in the night." He smiled at her, wearily. "Good night, Elizabeth."

"Good night," she said, giving him her hand. Darcy clasped it in his, then brought to his lips for a light kiss. Thereupon, releasing it, he turned and strode up the hallway to his own bedchamber.

Elizabeth stood by the window, looking out at the shadows that were gathering in the corners of a pretty little garden, creeping down the ivy-covered walls and towards the center of it, where an armless Greek statue stood amidst a clump of autumn's flowers-heavy-headed dahlias, pale-yellow chrysanthemums, wild dark-red roses. She could barely tell the colors apart. Night was coming, another hour and the garden would be wholly engulfed. She was pleased to see that it was hidden away from the city's bustle and noise; she wondered at that, for indeed, it was hardly a city view. It could be anywhere in the country, this little garden with its crawling vines and its sad statue...but it was in London. She sighed, leaning her forehead against the glass. London. She was in London. He had brought her here-for the express purpose of pleasing her. The heaviness she had felt at leaving Pemberley had dissipated, and she was now, despite her exhaustion, hopeful and excited, as if she were a child in expectation of a beautiful Christmas.

She heard Darcy move behind the door. She was embarrassed by the thought of him preparing for bed, undressing and bathing, in such close proximity to her. But it also excited her, made her shiver with the longing she did not understand-much like the thought that this household had no idea that her husband would not visit her in the night. She heard him speak, no doubt to his valet, but she could not discern what he had said, and she was glad of it. Then, the sound of the door opening and closing, the sound of his man Cassidy leaving down the hall... then, all was quiet within.

The door opened, admitting Mary.

"Are you tired, ma'am?" the maid inquired as she helped Elizabeth undress and change into a nightshift. "Indeed you are, you poor thing. I could barely sit or stand after our journey this morning."

"No-truly-I am fine," Elizabeth said. She sat down before her vanity, submitting to Mary's ministrations in removing the pins from her hair.

"How was your journey?"

Elizabeth shrugged, hanging her head in exhaustion. She wanted to tell Mary about the disturbance at the inn, and about the hangman by the road, and about her singularly boring book... But that would mean telling her about waking in Darcy's arms, and about clinging to him for comfort, and about watching him-admiring him-wanting to be near him. She found could not do that.

"Uneventful," she lied.

Mary pursed her lips as she always did when she suspected her young Mistress keeping vital secrets to herself. Silently, she brushed out and replaited Elizabeth's hair, then took her leave. Soon enough, Elizabeth climbed into a feather-soft bed, pulling the blankets over her. The sheets were blissfully warm at her feet and her pillow-cool and soft, and she felt herself drifting herself immediately. She had thought she might have trouble sleeping, with Darcy behind the wall. But the knowledge actually comforted her; soon, she slept.

Although Elizabeth liked the handsome townhouse, furnished richly in exquisite taste, she found it lacked in the magic quality so prominent at Pemberley. She was surprised to learn that Darcy shared in her opinion.

"It is not home," he said. He had been giving her the grand tour; but soon enough, both had bored and tired and sat down in a window-seat to watch the London traffic of carriages and pedestrians. The bustle seemed so wondrous to Elizabeth; she felt she would never tired of looking at it. "I have never thought of it as home. Merely a place to be, with all the comforts attendant."

Soon enough, Elizabeth came to realize that her duties at the town-house would be quite different than they were at Pemberley. In fact, there were none; she was not even asked to decide upon the menu, but to offer her culinary fancies so that Cook may fulfill them. It seemed that the London town-house was accustomed to running itself, as the person chiefly resident there had been a carefree bachelor. Very soon, Elizabeth deduced that their life in Town would be one of pleasure-and of leisure, devoid of any of the responsibilities of the Master and Mistress of Pemberley.

That first day, Darcy took her for a walk in St. James Park. At first, Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the throngs of people, some handsomely dressed, some plainly attired, all walking along the canal. Then, she relaxed a bit, realizing how nice this was, to walk next to her husband, leaning upon his steady arm, looking this way and that, her head turning around so much it felt about to fall off, her eyes and ears full of everything new and exciting. For the first time, Elizabeth experienced a singular pride of a country miss whose fellow was the handsomest in the fair; for her husband was easily the tallest and best-looking man in the crowd. She saw women looking at him, finely dressed ladies and simple girls; he dragged her before a flower-seller, and Elizabeth watched, in amused pleasure, the girl's eyes widen at the sight of so handsome a gentleman. Disconcertingly, two very pretty young ladies in fetching bonnets, buying flowers from the selfsame seller, had a similarly embarrassing moony reaction to Darcy's height and visage. But it seemed that he only had eyes for her, and he bought a small nosegay of autumn flowers and handed it to her with a flourish. Elizabeth felt a stubborn flush rise up her neck, and she took the nosegay and hid her face against it.

They fed ducks on the canal, Darcy producing a little bag of half-stale bread prepared on his express request by Cook. A large grey goose, moving with a sinister purpose, attempted to pinch Elizabeth's hand. Her first instinct was to hide behind Darcy, squealing. She had been nipped by one of the Pemberley swans and had liked it very little. Laughing, Darcy promised the goose the prominent place at the table at their next supper and urged Elizabeth to hasten her step. She obeyed, his hand at the small of her back guiding her. The mean bird falling behind, having lost interest or taken the gentleman's threat to heart, the couple walked on.

"Ah, look at that one." Darcy pointed to a decrepit duck with what looked like a bad wing; it kept away from the general disorder and noise caused by humans throwing bread crumbs in the water. Darcy tossed the bird a larger piece of bread, which it gobbled up in a moment. Elizabeth, surprised by such a charitable impulse in her husband, almost reminded him that these were the same birds he shot for sport at Pemberley... but bit her tongue and instead called his attention to a large sign informing one and all that duck feeding was disallowed at St. James.

In mock horror, her husband tossed the birds the remainder of his breadcrumbs. Folding the bag neatly, he slid it in his pocket and raised both hands in the air, demonstrating his palms in neat crumb-free gloves.

"Observe, Your Honor, I am but innocent."

Elizabeth bit her lip. Oh, he had an effect on her...she wondered if he knew it. One moment, he was dark and silent like a locked vault, the next-brimming with charm and magnetism that made him irresistible. More and more, she found herself captivated by him.

"Do you know that an army captain's wife drowned herself here during the last century?"

Elizabeth stared in horror at the canal, densely populated with waterfowl as it was. The water was covered with feathers.

"Drowned here! How did she find a spot?"

"Well, the birds have only come to be here in the last fifteen years or so. I remember coming here as a boy. There were none then."

"So a perfect place for self-murder."

"Precisely."

Elizabeth sighed, thinking how grim and dismal one's life must appear so that it is no longer worth anything at all. "Poor woman," she said, fixing her eyes on the water and the ducks rocking self-importantly near the bank. "Is it known why she did it?"

"They said her husband had left her for an actress."

"Kill herself because of a man!" Elizabeth said scornfully. "I can hardly think of anything more foolish!"

Darcy threw her a doubtful glance. "You are a seventeen-year-old female-whatever happened to your romantic sensibilities?"

"I married you!" she said impulsively, before she could stop herself. His eyes agog, he turned and looked at her straight on.

"I did not know I had this effect on young ladies," he said, sounding bewildered.

Elizabeth held one hand to her mouth. "Lord, I should not have said that." She stood back, pulling her arm from his, wrinkling her nose in embarrassment, terrified that she had ruined their lovely morning. "Forgive me."

"No, no. The bag is open and the cat is out." He sounded stern, but he reached back for her hand, tucking it in the crook of his elbow. Elizabeth was glad of that, for it served to show her he was not angry at her quip, and she let him do it. Placidly, she walked alongside her husband, hoping he would let the question rest. But he did not. "Tell me, then, Mrs. Darcy, is it just me, or is marriage in general wont to stifle romantic sensibilities in young ladies?"

"Mr. Darcy-"

"Use my name, madam."

"Fitzwilliam-" She looked away. "No-no, 'tis not you. I am certain that you are a capable of inspiring most... romantic feelings in young ladies..."

"But not in you," he confirmed, matter-of-factly.

Elizabeth, wary of the direction the conversation was taking, said nothing.

"So let us see," he continued calmly, "You have accused me of playing a gentleman. And of making a fool out of myself. And now I am guilty of stifling your romantic sensibilities. Indeed, we are a poor match if this is what you truly think of me."

Elizabeth looked down at her shoes, at the gravel beneath her feet, hiding her face in the autumn nosegay he had bought her. Why did she always say the wrong thing around him?

"You are not stifling-not stifling anything." She sighed. "But the nature of our marriage... the very nature of it prohibits that I should be anything but level-headed. Do you suppose that many a girl marries a man who was once courted death to avoid marrying her?"

"Hm. Perhaps. If you put it like that." He seemed thoughtful for a moment, and then he turned back to her, a curious smile tugging at the sides of his mouth. "So...what can I do to bring them back?"

"Bring them back," Elizabeth repeated.

"Yes. Your romantic sensibilities."

"Mr. Darcy, I-"

He laughed, quietly. "Madam, I do not expect to be the beneficiary of them... but how can I live with myself, having ruined your faith in all men? I simply must bring it back, or else drown myself in this very canal-duck feathers notwithstanding."

Elizabeth could not help smiling, despite herself. "Fitzwilliam, you are mocking me," she accused him. But she was not angry with him, only relieved that he was not angry with her.

"A little," he admitted. His hand, in a soft grey glove, covered hers, their fingers twining quickly. It seemed to happen whenever their hands touched, and when they stood close enough, she would lean against him, or take his hand, or rest her head against his shoulder. It was if their bodies had a mind of their own.

Growing more serious, he continued: "You know, there will be a life for both of us after this is over. And I should not wish you to be disillusioned and unhappy."

"I am not so very disillusioned," she said, looking up at him. He was watching her with a peculiarly brooding expression. Suddenly, she did not want to think of that life he had promised her. Of that life without him. She cleared her throat daintily and forced herself to look away. "And I am certainly not unhappy."

"I am very glad of it," he sad seriously, squeezing her hand. "Tell me you still believe in love, Elizabeth."

"Of course I do." She bit her lip in frustration. I do, she thought, I do, but not for us. Switching the subject, she went on: "But what on Lord's earth is so very romantic about killing yourself over a fellow who no longer cares for you?"

He shrugged. "I do not know. I have never loved anyone enough to want to kill myself over them."

"There could be nothing sillier," Elizabeth said disdainfully.

"Perhaps," he agreed. "And perhaps we two are just fools talking of something we know nothing of."

"Well, your mother did not die when the highwayman escaped," Elizabeth noted.

"No." He paused, thinking. "No. But a part of my father died... when she... with her."

He had said it before: my father was my mother's one true love. It was strange to imagine that his world, too, knew love. She had assumed, from his words and behavior, that everyone was like that: that people only married for money, or status, or convenience. She thought she heard a note of sadness in his voice and squeezed his hand in comfort.

His smile back at her was as sunny as the sky shining brilliantly through the leaves.

They walked on, chatting amiably, Darcy pointing at various points of interest.

"See, that there? This is St. James' madam."

"The King lives there?"

"Occasionally, when the fancy strikes him and he is not at Kensington. This is where ladies are presented to the court."

"Is the King really mad?"

"What is mad, really? Who is to say?"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. Mad, like a Bedlamite."

"That is no way to talk about your King, young lady." He laughed and suddenly grasped her about her waist. She squealed, her skirts wild on the wind as he spun her around. She tried to fight her way out of his embrace. Being spun around like a little child did little for the image of a sophisticated London lady... but he was stronger and larger by far, and she had to submit to the indignity of being placed squarely on her feet like a little girl.

"I believe you have just made my point, sir," she declared, stepping a safe distance away from him, smoothing down her skirts. "Should your acquaintances see you do this, they would surely think you utterly peculiar. If not worse."

"Indeed," he agreed, offering her his arm again. "But what do they know? Not one of them has before him a daunting task of restoring young lady's lost romantic sensibilities. Shall we?"

Elizabeth opened her mouth to tell him that she did not appreciate being laughed at; but just then, a great commotion seemed to overtake the crowd, making it surge towards the sides of the promenade. Darcy and Elizabeth found themselves pushed to the side. Shielding Elizabeth from the moving throng of people, Darcy turned to see the reason for the commotion; thereupon, both of them gasped in wonder, and the crowd around them seemed to gasp as well, holding a collective breath.

For, down a lane, there moved a gigantic beast. Elizabeth had only seen the likes of it in books.

"An elephant!" she murmured, clutching Darcy's arm. He grinned boyishly, unable to hide his own wonder and excitement, then pushed her ahead of him, so that she had a better view. An elephant! In London! What a wonder it was, to see the animal move through the crowd with unhurried majesty, lead by a dark-faced attendant in colorful Indian dress. The beast was gray, of course, but its forehead was gaily painted, and its back covered with a cover to shield it from the damp English weather.

"A gift to His Majesty from the Viceroy of India, ma'am," proffered an unknown gentleman next to them. "They named him Pitt."

"After the late Prime-Minister?" Elizabeth inquired, her curiosity picked.

"The lady is well-versed in politics." The gentleman smiled at them. "My condolences to you, sir-or is it my congratulations?"

Darcy smirked. "The latter, sir. Elizabeth," he continued, "It is said that the Viceroy owed his post in India to Mr. Pitt the Younger. He came back to England only just in time to see Mr. Pitt before his death two years ago... and he brought the beast back with him, I believe. But he named it after Pitt and begged the King to keep the name. His Majesty obliged."

"What an honor for poor Mr. Pitt." Jamie had written to her that elephants were clever and gentle beasts, that no building or fortifying work was done without them in India. Seeing one now, she thought their good disposition was a fortunate thing, indeed. How wonderful, how magical it was, to witness the animal's progress though St. James Park-as if she was in the middle a street in Calcutta or Madras... as if she could catch a bit of her brother's world in the middle of everything familiar and English. She laughed. "But I cannot imagine the fortitude of a man set to undertake a four-month-voyage with that aboard his ship!"

Darcy made an indescribable sound. "Better not think about that, Elizabeth." He tipped his hat to the gentleman next to them, then took Elizabeth out of the park. "So where are we off to now?" Elizabeth sat up straight against the carriage seat. They had eaten a wonderfully delicious luncheon at an establishment nearby, their meal compleat with a sumptuous dessert of a crème-brûl&@233e created by a real French chef. She was feeling spoiled, indulged, utterly blissful.

"You do not wish to return home? Not tired of the city just yet?"

She wagged her head, smiling, knowing that he was teasing her. She liked London so much now, and she liked him in London very much as well.

"Well, then, I suppose a visit to the Strand would be an order."

"The Strand-"

"All the best shops are there."

Elizabeth flushed, her ease dissipating momentarily. "I do not need anything."

He shrugged, affecting his favorite expression, maddeningly bored and superior and could-not-be-bothered. "How presumptuous of you, madam. You may not need anything, but I may need something. Will you not accompany me like a wife should?"

Blushing, she looked away, and was caught by surprise when he grasped her wrist and pulled her quickly into his embrace.

"Come, Elizabeth," he said softly, hooking his chin over her shoulder, his arms slipping around her in an intimate circle. "Humor me. How hard is it, really, to stand still while a modiste drapes yards of fabric over you?"

"But I do not-" Elizabeth started, but could not help smiling at the tickle of his lips against her cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. "You are very kind..." She had never been bought things just to please her. If she needed a new dress-normally, because she had grown out of the old one-she was fitted for one. But not like this... she did not see shopping as a pleasure, merely as a task. She was never comfortable with excesses of attention, particularly not when they involved money spent on her behalf. The thought of being bought things in such a wantonly indulgent way-merely because he wanted her to have them-unnerved her. She tried to make herself think of it as something he did, not unlike buying her that nosegay at in the park.

"You will spoil me," she whispered, turning her head until her cheek rested against his, and their lips were so, so close-but then, he moved back, pulling her tightly against his chest. He held her against him all the way to the Strand, until the carriage stopped before a great glass window, until Elizabeth heard-and thought she dreamed-a muted sound of a roar coming from beyond.

"Is there-"

"A menagerie," he said, alighting quickly, holding out his hand. "Not far from here on the Strand." She descended, bewildered. Lions, and tigers, and elephants, oh my. And all in one day. Of course, there was nothing extraordinary about a city menagerie. She knew there was one at the Tower, and she was not surprised to learn there was another one here; but for a moment, she did feel transported to a whole new, and wholly strange, world.

Inside the shop, they were immediately surrounded by the attendants, each young woman eager to serve. Two chairs were brought, sitting them both comfortably, and great rolls of fabric spread in the light from two great open windows. Elizabeth sat very stiffly, her earlier discomfort returning. But she saw, with a great surprise, that Darcy was entirely easy in a place like this. It was as if he was accustomed to buying ladies' clothing, had done it every day.

"That," he said, pointing at one of the rolls held by an attendant. "And that. No... I do not quite see her in that one... Elizabeth, if you like something, you should tell me, too."

But he vetoed her choice of some very serviceable blue-gray cotton.

"Pray, madam, you do not have enough gowns in this color?"

She shrugged, immediately awkward. "Yes, but you said I could tell you if I liked something."

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Very well. If you wish it. But for that, you must try this-" He pointed to a stretch of rich muslin threaded delicately with golden fibers.

"For what?" Elizabeth found the nerve to exclaim. "I should have no occasion for something like that..."

Darcy scoffed. "No occasion!" he repeated. "Elizabeth, you most surely will. We already have had an invitation to one such party."

"An invitation," she repeated dumbly. A gown made from such fabric, aside from being outrageously expensive, could only be worn to a very grand ball; in the candlelight, it would produce an illusion of an overall golden shimmer. It would be a thing of beauty. "What manner of a party, Mr. Darcy?"

"Ah," he said, laughing, "you are too curious by half, Mrs. Darcy."

"Teazing man," she murmured, turning away. But she could not help it and turned back to him a moment later. "Come, sir, tell me! Please!" She even grasped his hand in entreaty.

"Behave, Elizabeth!" He grinned and brought her hand quickly to his lips. Replacing it securely on the arm of her chair, he directed her attention to another roll of fabric held out for her attention.

The time came for her, then, to stand still in front of three mirrors, having each of Darcy's choices wrapped about her shoulders. He vetoed one or two as unflattering, never moving from his seat. Then, as she stood there, an attendant holding the gold-colored pulled tightly about her shoulders, he rose and approached her. She watched him move in the glass, thinking that he had a beautiful way of walking-so very confident, so very free.

"This suits you beautifully, Elizabeth," he whispered-so quietly, that she alone could hear it. She caught his gaze in the mirror, stifling a gasp that threatened to fly off her lips. His eyes seemed to burn right through her. For an instant, the attendants around them seemed to disappear; indeed, she could swear they had gone, leaving the two of them all alone in the room ... nay, all alone in the world. The girl next to them looked away, hiding her eyes, even as Darcy dropped a quick, featherlike kiss at the junction of Elizabeth's neck and shoulder. She was, she must have been the only one in the room who had seen it... She gasped and bit her lip, everything inside her instantly aflutter-but in the next moment, he was gone and back in his chair, no longer looking at her... The attendants swarmed once again. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see herself in the mirror, her flushed face, her lost expression.

How easily he upset her fragile peace.

Their visit to the modiste concluded after only two hours-and only after Elizabeth begged to be released, ready to faint for want of fresh air (indeed, it seemed to her she might scream if someone turned her around once more, or pinned aught to her chest again to see whether the color became her)-Darcy made his intention known to take her further down the Strand. According to him, she was in urgent need of a new bonnet.

"No, please," she begged him in the carriage. "I am in far greater need of respite from all this... Another day, please."

He laughed. "You are an extraordinary creature, Elizabeth. I believe you truly do not enjoy shopping."

"I do," she said. "But for others more than for myself."

"Very well," he agreed. "You will have to suffer my taste, then. Home, then?"

"Home," she said, savoring the word.

Then, as he turned back to her, having instructed the driver to take them back to Leicester Square, Elizabeth ventured.

"Speaking of which-shopping for others, I mean-I have been told that your birthday is near."

Darcy lifted one eyebrow. "Who told you that?"

Elizabeth lifted one back. "Surely you will not tell me that your sister lied about it?"

All pretense instantly gone, he grinned sheepishly. "No indeed she did not."

"How old will you be?"

"Five-and-twenty, madam."

"Getting on in years, sir."

"Oh yes. Growing old and feeble."

Elizabeth smiled at the thought of how far from truth that was, remembering how he swung her about in the park. "So what do you want for your birthday?"

He tutted. "I am no more accustomed to asking for gifts than you!"

"But you must allow that my knowledge of your tastes is limited, Mr. Darcy-I should benefit from some guidance in that regard. It would be a great pity if I spent time, effort and money on a gift you did not like..."

She felt him sigh against her hair. "I can scarcely imagine a gift of yours I should not like." Thereupon, he fell silent, his chest moving rhythmically if only a little too quickly.

"Mr. Darcy?"

"Will you not use my Christian name?" he murmured, his voice unexpectedly low and thick.

"So sorry-Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam, what do you want for your birthday?" she inquired, already perceiving a change in him, but refusing to admit to it yet. It was a perfectly reasonable question to ask one's new husband... and she was entitled to a perfectly reasonable answer. Perhaps he wanted new gloves. Or a book of poetry. Or something ....something for his horse-a bridle, a saddle, a new pair of silver spurs. Lord knows what a young man might want for his birthday. For Jamie's last birthday in June, she had sent him a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. She had embroidered things for her father and for Mr. Darcy... But it would not do here. She wanted to know exactly what her husband might desire.

"I have everything," he said lightly. "You really need not bother, Elizabeth."

She sighed in exasperation. "Come, Fitzwilliam. You now that I shall buy you something in any case, it might as well be something you like."

After a long pause, he said so quietly, she had to strain her hearing to catch his words amidst the clattering of the carriage and the sounds of the city outside:

"Do not buy me anything. Give me a kiss instead."

There was a catch in his breathing; he seemed to hold his breath, as if waiting for her answer. Elizabeth froze in her seat, dreading to look him in the eye. She burned from her neck to her temples, her heart clattering madly within. Stupidly, she had talked herself into this predicament. She should have known what he would request-but how could she? Perhaps one with more experience might... she bit her lip and closed her eyes, mortified.

What was she to do now?

"Do not answer me now," he whispered. His head dipped and his lips touched her cheek with utter lightness. They were lovely, really, warm and soft and dry, and she leaned into his caress, unthinking. "Please, Elizabeth. Just think about it. Promise me you will think about it."

She swallowed, clearing her throat, which suddenly felt constricted. "I shall," she murmured. "I shall think about it."

Faith, she could hardly avoid that now.

In her room, Elizabeth found a set of calling cards, with her name on them. With their names, printed in a delicate hand: Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Number Thirty-Seven Leicester Square, London. And then a set inscribed with her name only, should she choose to call on people herself. Elizabeth sighed. Why would she call on anyone herself, save her Uncle? She did not know anybody here. He astonished her so often, thinking of things in advance, before she had even stopped to consider them.

The cards were tied with a ribbon, a dried pink foxglove, three delicate flowers upon a stem, stuck beneath it. Like the ivy before, she thought, remembering. Was the meaning different? Her fingers trembling, , she turned the stem around and around.

What did this mean? She hid the dried flower in her vanity drawer, then rang for Mary and asked her to bring her the lady's magazine with the language of flowers in it. As it did whenever she was nervous, her voice sounded severe and her request-an order.

"Why?" Mary asked suspiciously. "Which one do you mean?"

"Oh, none in particular," Elizabeth replied easily, knowing herself to be a very bad liar. The maid shrugged and went to fetch the magazine without a word. It was clear as day that she did not believe her, but she brought it and stood, holding it out, daring Elizabeth to take it. Brazen girl.

Elizabeth dared not flip through it in the maid's presence...nor to ask her to leave. She was certain the high color in her face would betray everything she was feeling at the moment. So she sat in front of her vanity, Mary brushing her hair with infuriating slowness, the dog-eared magazine on the corner of it and her hands itching to touch it.

She stopped the maid even as the girl was about to retie her hair.

"I am fatigued," she told Mary. "I shall eat here." The thought of facing Darcy across the dining table left her breathless and dizzy. Give me a kiss. His voice, so, so deep, ringing in her ears even as she stared at her own reflection in the glass. The tiny catch in his breathing. He had sounded like a man asking for his heart's true desire. She could hardly believe it.

Finally, the girl took her leave and Elizabeth grasped at the magazine, flipping through it quickly. A flowers, D flowers... F flowers... foxglove... She swallowed nervously. A wish.

Suddenly weak in the knees, Elizabeth tumbled into a chair. A wish. He had a wish, and she no longer even needed to wonder what it was. He had told her, and that hitch in his voice had told her more...

She shut her eyes tightly, all breath rushing out of her. It would have been easy, had it only been his wish. She could refuse him, and she knew he would not force her. He was too much of a gentleman for that. But she had thought... had wondered about it, every time his lips touched her cheek... what would happen if she turned her head? She had not quite wished for it, for such closeness confounded and frightened her, but she knew she would not take offense should he try. But oh it baffled her: he did not want to kiss her, he wanted her to kiss him...

She wanted to know what it meant to kiss a man. What did it feel like, to allow herself such a liberty? She had read about it in novels, but words now seemed inadequate in the face of real human closeness, of the man-her husband-who was so compleatly in command of all her senses. She was only too witting of the fact that Darcy was a handsome man, and that many a woman would grant him anything he deigned to ask for. And he was passionate--shockingly so. She remembered him brush the crook of her shoulder with his lips, brazenly, in the plain view of several people, and the sudden, powerful heat that had enveloped her when he did that.

She had felt wonderfully at ease with him this morning in the park. Not merely safe and comfortable... rather, truly mindful of his closeness, of the steadiness of his arm under hers. Mindful and enjoying it immensely-more than she had ever admitted to herself. He had said they were friends, again and again, but the truth was, she had long stopped thinking of him as a mere friend...and he would not be content with safety and simplicity. He would tempt her and play with her, and push her a little every step of the way. She closed her eyes again. Push her-no... she no longer knew when he did, and when she went of her own accord. She had told him she had no more romantic sensibilities left, and she had believed it herself. Why then, was her heart so full of him tonight? Why was her chest so tight, her tears so ready to spill?

In her mind, she knew that he was asking for so little... a husband begging his wife for a mere kiss when he had the right to take that and more from her... So little...and yet so much. Pink foxglove hidden in her vanity drawer... She had ordered her supper to her chambers, for she could not find it in herself to face him across the table so soon after their latest conversation. But even on her own, she could not swallow a bite, for she could not put Darcy-and his request-out of her mind. What would she do? Following a tasteless supper, she spent a sleepless night, thinking, thinking. It had been easier at Pemberley... she could have locked herself in her rooms, removing herself from his presence. Here... only a door separated them in the night. That she could hear him walking there, speaking to his valet, preparing for bed-none of it helped her one bit; but she lay there, staring at the ceiling, and twirled and twirled the delicate foxglove in her fingers, her head swimming with enchantment.

Chapter 18

It was impossible to measure Darcy's relief when Elizabeth's introduction to his relations had gone off without any major difficulty, save some moments of awkwardness. Darcy had written his Uncle from Derbyshire, telling Lord Matlock that he was now married, and that he and his wife would call upon the family first thing in town. He could imagine-well, if not their shock, then certainly their curiosity. On the way down from Pemberley, Fitzwilliam had complained to Darcy jokingly that his parents would harass him until he was dead; for how could he know of the marriage and conceal the intelligence? How indeed. Darcy was glad he had not told them earlier. His Uncle he could vouch for, but Lady Matlock was a damned tedious woman. He would not put it past her to come barreling to Pemberley to look at the new Mrs. Darcy. Not to mention that his other Aunt would have known everything by now, for it was a truth universally acknowledged that Lady Matlock, for all her good intentions, could not keep a secret.

But in the morning, riding with Elizabeth towards Fitzwilliam House, he had worried. Not for what Elizabeth might do or say. He knew her enough by now to tell that she would not shame him. But it was difficult to guarantee the same about his Aunt. He had worried that Elizabeth's tender feelings might suffer from his relatives' intrusiveness.

As it was, everybody behaved his best. His Uncle had been appropriately polite and boring, his Aunt- suitably meddlesome and inquisitive with her countless nosy questions. His cousin the Viscount had been properly and conspicuously absent-for reason of being indisposed (bad morning head being a thing one did not wish upon one's worst enemy). And though Darcy thought it abominably rude of him not to appear, he found he much preferred Fitzwilliam's company in any case. Fitzwilliam, who was there, along with the Viscountess, Lady Mariah-who was properly masking her simpering at Elizabeth's outdated fashions. But it was all tolerable; and Darcy found he had reason to be proud of his wife's social graces.

She was warm, lively, her manners flawed only enough to allow one to see that she was so very young. Little by little, Darcy saw his Uncle thoroughly charmed, and his Aunt-thawed. An hour into their visit, Lady Matlock was quite determined to approve of the new Mrs. Darcy. A number of questions was asked and answered, some of them rather sensitive. Elizabeth's missing brother was a persona of particular interest for Darcy's relatives. Lighting up instantly, she told them of his travels and his travails and his successes. She was breathtaking at the moment. He found he could scarce take his eyes away from her and nigh-on spilled his tea as he stood leaning against the mantel. Then, his Aunt, incautious, remembered a great scandal and a duel some three years ago. Darcy cringed, even as Fitzwilliam hemmed gravely, and Lady Mariah made great big eyes at her mother-in-law. But not even that unpleasant memory fazed Elizabeth.

"Why, yes," she said evenly, and with composure that was remarkable in one so young. "My brother and Mr. Darcy did once argue. I believe their quarrel concerned Shakespeare. The true meaning of Hamlet's soliloquy was at issue-if my memory serves me right." She smiled sweetly at the old Lord. "You know how dear Cambridge undergraduates hold all of Bard's works!"

Darcy laughed, sputtering, almost choking on his tea. Sweet child. Fitzwilliam, too, laughed genuinely, as did the Earl. The ladies were then obliged to titter politely. Everyone knew a duel was no laughing matter. Especially a duel with such consequences as might send one of the duelists half a world away. But here they were, in the wake of that bad duel, well-suited to everyone's surprise.

To Darcy, the greatest mark of his family's favor was that his Aunt attempted instantly to take Elizabeth under her wing. For the lady pronounced, after a cursory examination of Elizabeth's burgundy walking-dress (in Darcy's opinion, rather smart and becoming), that she needed to take her nephew's wife shopping.

"My dear," she pronounced, with all the certainty of a papist priest sermonizing to the natives, "you simply must allow Mariah and me take you to our modiste in Bond-street!"

"Dear Aunt," Darcy said mildly, "I have already taken Mrs. Darcy to the Strand and intend to return there this very afternoon."

His aunt huffed dismissively.

"Young man, what do you know about fashion? Mrs. Darcy my dear girl, you cannot possibly rely on your husband's taste. Men know little of ladies' clothing, and this one knows least of all."

At that, Fitzwilliam grinned and suggested that if Darcy were to be the beneficiary of his wife's purchases, he should also be the primary voice in choosing them.

"How so?" Lady Matlock stared at her younger son with the expression of utter incredulity. . "He is not buying things for himself."

"Indeed he is not," the Colonel agreed, "but he is buying things for his pleasure-if he is to look at his wife, he should have some say in what she wears, should he not?"

"Shocking, Horatio!" his sister-in-law the Viscountess said, lightly rapping the Fitzwilliam's shoulder with a folded fan. From the corner of his eye, Darcy saw the light flush he found so becoming rise up Elizabeth's neck and cheekbones.

He felt bold enough to say: "My dear aunt, as much as I esteem your taste, I am hardly ready to give up the office of the attentive husband."

At that, he threw a quick glance at his wife, not even hoping to have it returned-and was amazed to see her looking back at him, smiling. A warm fluttering within, and he lowered his own eyes, instantly undone by her. He knew the truth of his own words-that he wanted to take her shopping for clothes and trinkets and books and whatever else she wished, and to the park, and to take hot chocolate at a club, and that he would pay dearly to see her eyes light up, once again, with pleasure. That he would simply be near her, no matter what they were doing, long as they were doing it together.

They soon quitted his Uncle's house. In the carriage, Darcy took his wife's hand and pressed it to his lips without reservation.

"Thank you," he told her. "You were... you were wonderful."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why, you sound surprised! What did you expect, sir?"

He realized his folly and shrank from her questioning. "Nothing."

"Tsk, Mr. Darcy." She arched one eyebrow at him. "Did you truly think I should be uncivil to your relations?"

"No," he said evenly, the conversation beginning to unnerve him. "But I worried that your ... " Your childishness, he wanted to say, your impulsiveness. "Your youth... would cause them to be."

She shrugged, looking away from him. "I have learned a few lessons during our marriage, sir. One is to think before I speak. Certainly this would be the occasion to remember that lesson."

Darcy remained silent, ruminating on whether he was happy that Elizabeth had learned this particular lesson from him. With a small "hem" to clear his throat, he changed the subject.

"You would do well to allow my aunt to advise you in purchasing a bonnet or a reticule or something silly like that. She has the worst taste of anyone I know...and I should not suffer you to wear anything she picks... but it would go a long way to ensure she loves you forever."

She shot him a surprised glance, laughing. "I have never figured you for a family diplomat."

"Perhaps there are many things for which you've never figured me."

"And your other aunt?" she asked, pointedly ignoring his rather obvious meaning. "The one that inspires such fear in you? Are we to call on her as well?"

Her teazing stung him, but he strove to ignore it. He did dislike the thought of the scandal that would most certainly ensue with Aunt Catherine's arrival to London.

"No, we are reprieved for a s'ennight. Aunt Catherine is in Kent until the twentieth of this month."

"Are you afraid of her?"

To her teazing he reacted by pulling her quickly onto his lap. "Terrified," he whispered, nuzzling her neck. He was dying to kiss her, now, his patience worn thin by her reticence, by his own keen desire for her. How long would he wait? Was a mere kiss so burdensome a request to make of his own wife, when he wanted so much more? "Elizabeth," he said thickly, his hands hard upon her shoulders.

But she froze in his embrace, and he thought, no. He wanted to laugh at his own foolishness, but his frustration was getting the best of him. Wouldst that he could use a stupid forfeit to thaw this ice! For a moment, Darcy almost wished he could make her, order her...that he could conquer her stubborn will with a determination of his own. To make her lips fall against his, warm, open, inviting. But no: he would not have it but from her heart.

His hands left her shoulders, and he put a little distance between them, leaning back. Smoothly, he slid her off his lap. She sank back against he cushions, great dusky eyes upon his countenance. Darcy sighed, his heart wild in his breast. This way was better, safer. This way, he did not want her quite so much. He forced himself to speak.

"Madam, I have introduced you to my family, you must now introduce me to yours."

Instantly, she fidgeted, her fingers playing with one of her gloves, wringing the wine-colored kidskin this way and that. Finally, unable to bear the sight of her in such discomfort, Darcy reached over and covered her hand with his.

"Why do you worry so?"

"I do-I do not worry. Whatever made you think I worried!" She shrugged, raising her chin. Glaring at him, then looking away. Child.

"If you worried any more, you would pull this poor glove apart," he noted mildly, then took the article away from her. "Elizabeth, there is no occasion for this... I am not some monster, and I shall behave with at least as much civility as you have shown to my relations."

She sighed, her brave façade giving way, her childlike vulnerability pouring forth. " 'Tis not that. I do not doubt that you will... You are condescending, but not so much that you would forget your good manners and civility..."

"Why," he said, amused, "thank you."

She squeezed her eyes shut in mortification. "Forgive me. I am saying all wrong things...The truth is..." She sighed, opening her eyes again. "I barely know them myself. I am anxious for that. Not for you."

"I hope that you know that I should never mistreat your relations," Darcy said seriously.

She gave him a grateful smile, and Darcy knew that were her relatives all horrid, he would treat them with every civility in his power... For he would not have her unhappy, he would not... Make her smile more, he remembered his earlier resolution.

But having resolved to behave with utmost civility no matter the manners of Elizabeth's relations, he found that it was easy to do so. Elizabeth's Uncle was in trade; but to Darcy's eyes, honest commerce was nothing to sneer at, provided that the man himself proved sensible and clever. Very quickly, Darcy realized that Mr. Gardiner was all that and more; for his years of living in Jamaica had colored his perception of this world richly and made him a fascinating raconteur, much like the West Indian sun had abused and darkened his features. He appeared to be a gentleman of an exceedingly happy disposition and excellent manners; indeed, Darcy could find nothing about his comportment that would not recommend him. And he had already been disposed to think well of the man, for his concern for Elizabeth, and his earlier invitation to his niece to come live with him in London. However little Darcy wished to part with his wife, it gladdened his heart to know she had some caring family in this world.

And as for Elizabeth's Aunt, he would have liked her even more, had it been politic for a man to like the wife more than the husband; for she seemed as sensible and clever as her Mr. Gardiner and was also incredibly handsome and charming on top of that. Their children were exceedingly polite and well-behaved, and hardly seen or heard at all.

"So I take it you like Pemberley very well, Elizabeth," Mr. Gardiner said. Darcy watched keenly, curious what she would say... though he fancied he already knew the answer. But nothing had prepared him for the open admiration he heard in his wife's voice.

"Oh, ever so much!" she cried, eyes sparkling gently. She had thawed in the company of her relation, warmed to their smiles... "I have fallen in love with it." Darcy held his breath, caught in the dark radiance of her eyes. "For there is nothing wanting about it, nothing at all."

Her incautious words gave him such pleasure... He forced his mind back to the conversation.

"Having seen it, I shall attest to it," Mrs. Gardiner agreed. "A lovely estate in the loveliest of counties."

Her husband laughed at that, then raised his wife's hand to his lips in a surprising show of affection.

"You see, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Gardiner explained, "my wife is partial to Derbyshire for having grown up there."

"Indeed?"

In the next ten minutes, the conversation hardly wavered from the subject of Derbyshire, Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner eager to compare their opinions of the beauties of their home county. It turned out they both knew the same large chestnut tree-on the green, by the smithy in Lambton-and one particularly beautiful stained-glass window in the parish church. Finally, the memories exhausted, Darcy ventured an invitation to his new relations:

"If you would do us the honor of coming to Pemberley this Christmas-I am certain that my father and sister would be delighted to make your acquaintance," he informed Mr. Gardiner. "And to see you again, ma'am," he added to his wife.

The invitation was accepted with much pleasure, the greatest-in his wife's eyes. Darcy wondered what she had expected of him... but there was such happiness in her gaze that he basked in it without reservation.

It was wonderful to have liked her... but it was better by far to have her like him. Wonderful, and not a little confusing. She gazed at him with such grateful admiration that he very nearly gave in, took her face in his hands and kissed her. It would have been so easy-but so uncertain he was of the meaning of it-all of it, what shone in her eyes, what played in his heart-that he held himself back. Perhaps, it was simply that he wanted her to want him. And perhaps she was simply grateful to him for inviting her Uncle's family to Pemberley. Or perhaps it was more, for one or both of them. He wanted her to kiss him, but he did not know where he would be once she did...

That afternoon, he took her to the Strand for more shopping-for precisely as he had told his Aunt, he drew great pleasure out of imagining every thing novel and pretty on Elizabeth. From the beginning of their acquaintance, he had accustomed himself to seeing her in black and gray. Now it was an incredible treat to see in her in color, to go over the sketches of things for her... to imagine them on her-and then to imagine the rich erotic pleasure of undressing her, taking her out of these beautiful fabrics, peeling exquisite silks and muslins away to The modiste's assistant took her to the other end of the shop to look at stays and petticoats, stockings and negligees. All the while, he waited, burning, in his chair, pretending nonchalance. She came back towards him, looking utterly flushed. Even her little ears had turned pink.

"Did you choose aught?" Darcy asked, trying his best to sound casual. His heart was beating rapidly against his ribs, his imagination running rampant with the images of her in all those things. The images of himself pulling open the tightly-laced stays, rolling the exquisite silk stockings down her legs...

She blushed even harder. "Yes," she said weakly, and then nothing at all, leaving him to guess what it was that she had picked. Blood rushed in a decidedly downward direction. Darcy bit the inside of his lip to keep a tighter control of himself. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, damning his predicament. Realizing that he must be staring at her quite frightfully-and in the view of the entire shop, too-he looked away.

He only spoke again when they were outside. "Elizabeth, you must have something beautiful."

"But you already bought me so many things...." She gazed up at him, perplexed.

"No-" He cleared his throat. "These are all things that you need. But I want you to have something beautiful-a trifle of some sort."

Elizabeth protested softly, telling him she needed nothing. Darcy frowned in response.

"Humor me," he said, then took her elbow and steered her towards Mssrs. Huntington & Prescott, Jewelers and Goldsmiths-to look at the trifles.

Of course, she flatly refused to buy any jewelry. The clerks behind the counter regarded them with curiosity. Clearly, it was not often that they became witnesses to a scene where a lady demurred a gentleman's offers to buy her trinkets. He, too, demurred, for the last thing he desired at this moment was an argument; but he did note to himself several lovely pieces that he would like to see her wear.

And for now, he would have to do with something less spectacular. Elizabeth tarried in front of a display containing a gorgeous open fan. Instantly, Darcy motioned to the clerk. She protested, but he would have none of it.

"We are going to the theatre tonight, you must have a fan."

The fan was lovely, a jewel in its own right-an ethereal confection carved so thinly out of blonde horn, it looked as light as air. Intricately etched designs and countless silver sequins decorated the entirety of each delicate blade. Held together by a ribbon of lavender-blue silk, the fan gave an appearance of emitting a curious sort of light when opened and then closed and opened again.

Elizabeth held her breath, visibly.

"Mrs. Darcy will take it," Darcy said. She looked up at him, confused.

"But- Fitzwilliam-should you not inquire about the price first-"

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"It must be frightfully expensive-"

"Do you like it?"

"Oh!" She sighed, then gave a small laugh. "It is beautiful."

"Then no, I shall not inquire. If you like it so much, 'tis yours."

She colored. "I thank you, but-"

"No. 'Tis yours." He took the thin wrapped box from the clerk and held it out to her. "I believe the ribbon on it is the exact color of your lavender dress."

She took the box from him carefully, as if it might break, dark eyes staring up at him in wonder. "I am surprised you remembered."

"I have. I hope to see you in it tonight."

Standing at the bottom of the stairs, he watched Elizabeth descend. To his delight, she was wearing the lavender gown, with the fan he had bought her on a silver chain around her wrist, and a string of pearls around her neck. He thought the pearls wanting, too small and uneven, and remembered another strand he had seen at the jeweler's. He wondered whether she would have the nerve to refuse to wear it if he bought it.

She walked so gracefully, Darcy imagined he heard music playing somewhere far away, distant sounds of flutes and oboes playing Bach to her every step. Elizabeth came to stand before him, dark eyes with lovely long eyelashes gazing up at him. Darcy released a pent-up breath.

"Are you well tonight?" she inquired. She sounded worried, and Darcy laughed, snapping out of the enchantment.

"I am, madam. And," he could not resist adding, "getting better and better by the moment."

She blushed furiously. "What a thing to say! Well, you look well enough." She grinned up at him. "I know I should not say this to you, for it will go to your head. But you are entirely too handsome in evening dress."

"Thank you, madam." He bowed over her hand. Straightening, he held it still, cupped between his palms, their fingers warmly entwined. To have her pay him such an unreserved compliment felt like a little miracle.

For a moment, thus they stood; then, raising her fan, Elizabeth opened it before her face, just as she gently withdrew her hand from his grip. He could not tell whether she was smiling behind the exquisitely carved leaves of the fan... but her eyes held his, and even as she slowly turned and walked towards the doors, Darcy followed her. He was spellbound, and he took her pelisse from the footman and slipped it carefully over her shoulders-if only for the pleasure of touching her a little.

He took her to the Covent Garden Theatre. In the carriage, she demanded to know what they would see.

Darcy opened a folded playbill. "Catherine and Petruchio,"* he announced, adding: "The late Mr. Garrick's take upon the The Taming of the Shrew." To her eyebrow raised in caustic amusement, he explained: "Well, it was that, or Harlequin and Mother Goose." Elizabeth laughed, eyes dancing. "Well, I suppose 'tis only fair."

"Madam?"

"After all, you have called me a shrew far too many times. I should like to know what happens in the end."

Alighting in Bow Street on Darcy's arm, Elizabeth was open-mouthed with wonder. Darcy steered her ably through the crowds, through an impressive Doric portico, through an entrance hall, unseasonably overheated, and into his box. The glittering white-and-gold interior of the theatre seemed to astonish and please her both; and she stared, with some degree of shock, at the three stories of theatre boxes, which appeared, for all intents and purposes, unsupported by a single column.

Darcy had not seen this play, having heard that Garrick's treatment of the Bard's work was far from perfect. Truth be told, it was not that or Harlequin and Mother Goose: he could have taken Elizabeth to see Macbeth at Drury Lane. That, he knew and liked, but his heart was light tonight, and he had no wish for unpleasantness or melancholy.

The silk of her elbow-length glove was cool under his fingers. He sat her into a comfortable chair, then pulled one up for himself, so that her muslin-covered knees were an half an inch away from his. She flittered the fan at him, flirting with him. He grinned at her.

"Do you know what this means?"

"No-what?"

"That-what you just did." He mimicked the fanciful movement with his hand.

"No," she admitted, dark eyes flashing at him. "It has a meaning now, does it?"

"Supposedly every movement a lady makes with her fan as a meaning."

"Really now! So what does this mean?" She held the folded fan against his lips, sending a momentary shot of lust through him. Quickly, he touched his lips back against her fan. "Fitzwilliam?" Darcy caught hold of himself. She drove him to distraction. It unnerved him terribly, how easily she could now drive him to distraction. How quickly he has fallen into this.

"Nothing," he said hoarsely, moving away. "I lied to you. I know no more of the language of the fans than I know of, of-of pins."

Knowing he should abstract himself from her, he nonetheless picked up her gloved hand, held it momentarily against his lips, annoyed at kissing the white silk instead of her warm flesh. Slowly, softly, he replaced her hand in her lap and forced himself to look away from her. Sitting back in his chair, he studied the ton in the boxes across from him, seeking out familiar faces.

"Ah," he said, relieved that he could change the subject smoothly. "There is my friend, Lord Gregory." Indeed, in the box opposite, Gregory beamed at him and cut a smart bow. Darcy smiled back, knowing that his friend would certainly stop by between the acts... then looked over to the left, and saw Mademoiselle Valerie two boxes away.

Why he should be so surprised to see her, he did not know. After all, he himself had sometimes taken Valerie to the theatre. She was certainly the kind of lady one could take to the theatre. And still-his amorous attentions had been focused on Elizabeth for so long... he had hardly admitted any other woman in his thoughts... and Valerie, who had so recently commanded his lust...oh, least of all Valerie. There was something wildly inconsistent about wanting Elizabeth and Valerie at the same time, so different they were.

But of course she should be here. There was-there should be-no awkwardness in running into her, for they had not been exactly lovers in the romantic sense... No awkwardness at all. But Elizabeth called his name, gently stroked his shoulder with the folded fan, calling his attention to something-and all of a sudden, he knew that he did not wish for them to meet. Why should such a thought even occur to him? He did not truly think that they would cross paths; for it was still within his power to control where his wife went and whom she met, and to ensure that she did not run into any of his former paramours. At a different time, Darcy would reflect that every feeling he had for Elizabeth was of a different ilk than ever before-even lust. He had never wanted to possess the whole of Valerie.

Valerie... she wore black silk and was bedecked in diamonds, looking utterly gorgeous. When he last looked, she he was not looking at him, engaged in flirting with a distinguished-looking older gentleman also occupying her box. Now, stealing a quick glance at her box, Darcy almost jumped to see her staring back at him. He could wager he saw a tiny smile curve the side of the beautiful mouth... He blinked, not quite knowing what to do... but her smile at him was fleeting, and in the next moment, she was gazing serenely at the stage, her fan moving in an even, measured movement. He might as well have imagined it all.

Even as Darcy pondered whether he had, in fact, imagined it all-whether his fear of Elizabeth meeting Valerie had caused him to hallucinate-the lights dimmed in the great chandelier above, followed by the various other lights around the theatre. Elizabeth, all girlish excitement, looked over at him.

"Are you watching, are you watching?" she inquired in a hurried whisper. " 'Tis about to start!" He realized that however sophisticated a young woman she was, she had never truly been to a real theatre performance. He regretted momentarily taking her to a light-hearted comedy; perhaps, for her first real visit to a real theatre, something more momentous was in order. His heart swamped by tenderness, he reached for her hand and squeezed it tightly.

During the entr'acte, Elizabeth turned to Darcy and inquired whether they could walk around a bit. Uncertain whether he wanted to do that, Darcy searched for a good enough excuse and found none. He was already rising, offering her his arm (with too little enthusiasm), when he was saved by the appearance of Lord Alex Gregory.

Gregory seemed vastly excited and inordinately curious, his eyes sparkling with interest as he bowed over Elizabeth's hand. Darcy had always thought exceedingly well of the fellow and was genuinely glad to see him now. Three years ago, Gregory had been Bennet's second during the duel; since then, he and Darcy had restored their friendship-particularly, after Charles Bingley's death earlier this year. They hardly ever spoke of Bennet; but Gregory had been shocked at the news that Darcy was to marry Bennet's younger sister.

Still, nothing betrayed his surprise now, and soon enough, it was he who walked Elizabeth out of the box. Darcy followed them quietly, but was very soon detained by a number of acquaintances eager to congratulate him. It appeared the news of his marriage had circled London within two days he had been back; and so he fell behind, throwing a despairing glance after his wife. Elizabeth, on Gregory's arm, was too amused with the gentleman's drollery to turn back and look at her husband. Darcy, having finally lost them in the crowd, bowed to yet another acquaintance, straightened out and found himself staring straight into a pair of luminous blue eyes.

He bowed politely. Valerie looked striking in her black gown, the expanse of open skin above her décolletage milk-white, a massive diamond necklace encircling the graceful neck. She was leaning upon the arm of the same older gentleman-unfamiliar to Darcy-that had sat in the box with her.

"Mr. Darcy," she said in her low, sensuous voice. "Good evening. Allow me to introduce to you Lord de Vere."

Darcy bowed hastily, his face flaming red, his only hope that he should manage to conclude the conversation before Elizabeth and Gregory returned. He did not want to have to introduce them... he was ashamed for it, for he did not think poorly of Valerie, and he was not embarrassed of their association... he should not be embarrassed, he had not done anything wrong...Darcy shook off his stupor. Valerie was saying something, smiling. It took him a moment to realize that she was commenting on the first act of the play. She had liked it, apparently. Then, with a curtsey and a bow, they did part-to his greatest relief. Darcy continued to stand there for a moment, looking after them... wondering what had come over him.

A touch of an eager hand upon his elbow brought him out of his reverie. Elizabeth was smiling up at him.

"Here you are, standing about in this stupid manner!" But her eyes glittered at him, full of excitement.

Darcy reminded himself, once again, that he had not done anything wrong. He had been free to associate with whomever he wished, be it even London's most notorious courtesan. He sighed. Had been, had been. It was all in the past, he was no longer free. Or at least he no longer felt free. With a full heart, he looked down into the pair of dark eyes sparkling with pleasure and gratitude. Gratitude. She was grateful to him. He wanted, fiercely, to wrap his arms about her, pull her against him. He wanted none but her.

It was a miserable thought, for never before had he suffered from unrequited love. Elizabeth bubbled with excitement, telling him all she had seen within the theatre, telling him she had adored the first act. Gregory laughed and bowed over her hand.

"I hope to see you at my party, Darcy. Mrs. Darcy."

"Yes, but I am certain we shall see you before then, my friend."

"Will you come fence at Angelo's?"

"Absolutely. Perhaps tomorrow?"

" Tomorrow at nine in the morning. It has been a boring spell without you in town, Darcy."

Darcy raised one eyebrow. "I look forward to beating you tomorrow, my friend."

Gregory gave a whoop of laughter. "We shall see about that!" He bowed again. "Ma'am."

Her hand upon his arm, Darcy took Elizabeth back into their box. She sat there, beaming at him.

"I really liked your friend," she announced to him with all the guilelessness of a child.

"Do you not remember Gregory from... before?" Talking about Trinity was always awkward, and was rarely done. She shrugged, then smiled at him luminously:

"I only remember you. You were always there."

Deep in thought about whether it was a good thing, Darcy was caught compleatly off-guard when she asked:

"Who is that lady looking at us?"

It was all Darcy could do not to issue an undignified groan. He was forced to turn his head and acknowledge that the lady was, indeed, there. Beyond that, he said naught.

"She is really quite handsome, Mr. Darcy."

Darcy shrugged, stubbornly reluctant to offer an opinion. "Do you not think so?"

Why? Darcy frowned. "Elizabeth, you must learn not to ask men such questions. For whatever the answer, we feel cornered and pressured. If we disagree with you, we risk being thoroughly ungallant. If we are in agreement, we risk offending your sensibilities-for surely no lady could ever accept it as fact that there are other handsome ladies walking the earth?"

She huffed and shrugged dismissively. Opening her fan, she held it in front of her lips as she spoke: "You are ridiculous, or you think me so. Do you suppose I should ever begrudge another lady your good opinion?" A small frown crossed her countenance. "Do you?"

Truth be told, he did not. He thought her intelligent and fair-minded enough to admit that someone else had an advantage equal or superior to her... but somehow, he did not want her to be like so. That she should be so cool about sharing his regard with other women! Cool as cucumbers, he thought. Too cool. Somehow, he wanted her to want his approbation all to herself. She was correct, he was ridiculous when it came to her.

So he limited himself to a cursory glance-mostly to pretend that he had never seen the lady before-and though he knew just how beautiful Valerie Degas was, he murmured dully:

"Yes, well, she is very handsome. But what an odd and dull pastime this is, Elizabeth, to be studying strangers."

There was nothing to hide-nothing, of which to be ashamed. Should Elizabeth query him...clearly, he would admit to his association with Valerie Degas. He would tell her the truth.

But so far, he could not even answer a simple question: do you know her? He could not bring himself to tell her that he did, indeed, know the beautiful lady with the massive diamond necklace. Then, the curtain moved aside, and Petruchio rode out onto the stage, his furious shrew of a wife riding pillion behind him. Instantly, Elizabeth's attention turned to the sight of the two actors riding a horse-a real horse-on stage! Darcy felt reprieved.

For the rest of the evening, he forced himself to concentrate on the play, his mind, his heart full of Elizabeth, and of the fear that he would hurt her. He berated himself for thinking she even cared. After all, their marriage a charade, what were his old dalliances to her?

Elizabeth, on her part, watched the stage and the actors with the eager eyes of a child, caught up in the story compleatly. At the moment when Petruchio cracked his notorious whip, threatening compleat conquest to his difficult wife, Elizabeth gasped and laughed together with the rest of the audience, throwing Darcy a shocked glance.

"Were I a betting woman, I should wager this was not in the original!" she cried. Darcy grinned, and she grinned back at him, both of them arrested in a moment's camaraderie. Darcy was overwhelmed with longing, the maddening desire for something he knew he could not have, and wanted all the more for that. I do not wish to let her go. Suddenly, he could not imagine not having her in his life.

Later that night, in the carriage, Elizabeth bubbled with excitement, while Darcy remained subdued.

"I shall write a letter to Georgiana," she said to him, grinning. "Soon as we are home, I shall write to her about the play."

He did not care, frankly, if she wrote a letter to the King himself. After a day of being near her, his nerves were on edge-and his desire for her had grown nigh-on unbearable. He wanted her, all of her, the fragile wrists, the small breasts he could divine under the lavender dress, the tender hollow at the base of her throat, compleat with a perfect round mole...Soon as they got home, he would... He told himself he ought not think of her that way...but his common sense told him otherwise. Surely it was not wrong that he should desire his own wife? With my body I thee worship, he thought bitterly. His inability to do as he wished irked him, making him irritable and awkward around her. Making him quiet and withdrawn, lest he say the wrong thing, lest he grasp her wrist and pull her into his embrace-to be kissed thoroughly, and perhaps more. She was, after all, his wife...

So he feigned fatigue, giving Elizabeth a tired smile before leaning his head back against the seat. But even as he closed his eyes, his body verily hummed with wanting. She must have sensed that he was on edge, and so she quieted down as well. Back at the town-house, Darcy handed his wife out of the carriage. He wanted to snatch his hand away from her as if burned; but he could not will himself to relinquish his hold upon her fingers, and he cursed his gloves, wanting to touch her warm flesh.

They ascended the stairs in silence, but still holding hands. She pulled her hand slowly out of his grip and disappeared inside her bedchamber with a whispered "good-night." Sighing, Darcy dragged himself to bed. Lord, but he was fatigued. Perhaps sleep would come easily to him tonight.

Not so. A good hour later, he kept tossing and turning, thinking back to the evening. For the first time, he doubted the wisdom of bringing Elizabeth to London, where they were in constant company. Where his past, with all its indiscretions, lay open for her inspection. Indiscretions, faith! He had not lived a monk, but he had been discreet and reasonable to the best of his ability... for all he knew, Elizabeth might not even care about his past peccadilloes.

Darcy sighed, sat up, pounded his pillow in exasperation-then fell back again, hoping desperately that Morpheus should finally snatch him. And again, no such luck. He was growing more and more confused by the day, Elizabeth's presence in his life monumental. Her person, her laughter, her voice filled his days, his dreams of her-his nights. Turbulent, disquieting dreams. Or else-dreams in which she did not shy away from him, but came straight into his open arms, pressing her slender form against his, kissing him full on the mouth. Making him painfully hard as he woke.

Yes, that. Following the morning, several days ago, that they had wakened in the same bed, that had become a problem. Outside of his youth, it had become fairly easy to keep his longings and desires under a good regulation. After all, it has been years since he was more than a few hours away from satisfying any craving of his... and nothing that is so easily available can ever be desired with the urgent frustration with which he now wanted Elizabeth. His own wife! Darcy hoped that it was the abstention of the past several months that had turned him so strange. So maudlin he no longer knew what was good for him.

Perhaps he simply wanted a woman. Perhaps this was all there was to it.

But he had been around women lately-and he had seen Valerie tonight. The beautiful Valerie who had commanded his desires for months... and his only hope in her presence had been that Elizabeth should not come upon them... But Elizabeth-one inadvertent brush of her bare arm tonight had sent him into an agony of lust. She had taken her gloves off in the carriage, and he almost had to sit on his hands lest he reach for hers. No-it was futile to lie to himself. He did not want a woman. He wanted Elizabeth. Wanted her, and could not have her, one woman legally his. It was funny, really. Wouldst that he could laugh at it.

It was no good, he thought, it did him no good. He should go out, tonight, find a woman and bed her, relieving this cruel lust, clearing his mind. Relieving, too, the dull ache at the bottom of his heart.

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Would Valerie see him, if he came tonight? Who was the man with her? She had introduced him as Lord de Vere-Darcy wondered whether Valerie had found a protector. Oh well, it did not signify. If she did not see him, he would find another woman. He thought to ring for his valet, then thought better of it. Suddenly, he did not want anyone to know what he was about to do... not even Cassidy. What are you doing, he asked himself, and why? Finding his clothes in the closet proved an easy enough task, and he started to dress, hurriedly, before he could change his mind. He needed this. It was a matter of sanity, of survival. A little more of this, and he would find himself hopelessly in love with her-one woman who would not have him-and all because he had led a celibate life for months. His hands trembled as he tied his cravat.

He was almost compleatly dressed, minus his coat and shoes, when he was arrested by a small sound. A mouse scratch, he thought, bewildered-but in the next moment, he was already at the door in the back of his room. There was no doubt as to who was behind it. Darcy opened it without asking what she wanted.

"Elizabeth.". She stood there, wearing, of all things, a night-dress. One of her childish virginal ones that covered her from her throat to her toes. His eyes flew instantly to her breasts, the sight of tiny nipples pushing against the linen sending a torrent of fire through him. Damn, damn, damn. What was she doing here, so late, and so undressed, and with her hair pulled loosely back and hanging down to her waist?

He drew his breath in sharply.

"You said, if I needed something-to-to knock." Elizabeth dropped her eyes to the floor. "Well, I-I did. I did knock."

"Are you all right?" he asked, thinking his voice sounded too hoarse, too raspy. He was terrified, suddenly, that she would know what was tormenting him. That she would guess... He straightened out and assumed a superior manner. "Are you ill? Shall I call a doctor?"

"No, no," she hastened to assure him, smiling timidly. "But I am... sleepless." She threw a quick glance over his appearance. "As, I see, are you. Were you going out again?"

"Um-no. No. I was merely thinking to go down to the library to fetch a book." He hated lying, and he especially hated lying to her... but telling her the truth about his intentions tonight was not an option.

"Oh. I am sorry." She took a step back, leaning against the doorframe. "Do not let me keep you from it..."

Deeply frustrated, it was all he could do to keep from grabbing her by the shoulders and giving her a good shake. Mayhap he could shake this obtuseness out of her... But aloud, he said, gentling his voice:

"You are not keeping me from anything, Elizabeth. How may I be of service to you?"

"I wanted company. I thought we might talk." She shrugged. "I also found these in my room, I thought we might share them." Only now did he notice that she was holding a box of confections. He remembered, then, telling his man to procure a box from Gunther's sweet shop and leave it in Mrs. Darcy's bedchamber. It had seemed like a sweet, innocent thing to do. It appeared so no longer.

Thoughtfully, he traced a finger along the embossment of the signature golden pineapple on the cover of the box. Beside his absolute exasperation that, utterly unavailable, she dared to come to him in the night, dressed in but her nightdress-with her hair down, with her small breasts tantalizingly visible under the linen-there was a sense of deep satisfaction that she should seek him out. That, sleepless, she sought his company. That she thought to share a pleasure with him-be it even some sweets from a box. He stifled an inward sigh. He would take what he could. Perhaps he could manage, if he did not seat himself too close to her. And no lying on the bed together, lest he should run mad...

"Come in and close the door."

Darcy watched Elizabeth sink into a corner of the settee, feet tucked in a manner that was as sweet as it was unladylike. In quiet desperation, he sought a place away from her-but still he did not want to be too far away, for her nearness, however maddening, was also a great pleasure. Finally, he sat himself down on the opposite end of the settee, the box of marzipans between them.

"So," he said awkwardly. He felt idiotic without shoes, and so he leaned and put them on-but doing so in front of her made him feel even more awkward. "So."

"So," she repeated.

"Did you write that letter to my sister?"

She shook her head. "No. I am too full-my mind is too full tonight. I need to sort through it all. To put each thought where it belongs."

Darcy smiled in amusement. "You have neatly labeled shelves in your head, then?"

"Shelves in my head, a happy thought indeed!" Elizabeth grinned at him. "But no I do not-though perhaps I should. That way I should never forget anything. Is that how you do it? For it appears you never forget anything. "

Darcy shrugged sheepishly. He was, indeed, blessed with an exceedingly good memory, and a gift of regulation-of his person, his thoughts, his actions. But it would be presumptuous to say that he never forgot anything...He certainly forgot himself when he was with her...

"You have too high an opinion of me."

Her gaze was serious on him, and strangely moving. "Perhaps you will disappoint me, then. But I prefer to think well of you for now."

This was a surprise. Though clearly her opinion of him must have undergone a change in the previous months, Darcy still remained pathetically unsure of it at the moment.

"I am very glad," he said somberly. "I shall try my damndest not to disappoint you." He wanted, desperately, to reach over and-but he did not dare to. If he so much as touched her hand, there was no telling to how far he could go tonight. He had not felt this hot and bothered in years, not since he was seventeen years old.

So, instead of touching her, he took a marzipan out of the box. It was pineapple, Gunther's signature flavor. He chewed, slowly, through the sugary mass, thinking that he would much rather enjoy the sweetness of her lips... but that was neither here nor there, and such thinking was sure to drive him mad, so he forced his mind away from it.

"So how did you like the play today?"

She shrugged, dropped her head back against the seat.

"I do not know." Rolling her neck to look at him, she said: "I am very cross about the whole whip matter."

"The whip matter," Darcy repeated, then remembered the crack of Petruchio's infamous lash. "Ah. You found that offensive?"

"Are we to understand that Petruchio would whip Catherine into being an obedient wife?"

"Must you take it so literally?"

"Indeed I must," she sat hotly, even as she popped a marzipan in her mouth. Vastly amused, Darcy waited for her to finish chewing it, before she said. "Fitzwilliam, the play seems to say that a man will get his way in any way he can!"

Though he did not think so-in fact, his impression of the play's message being the opposite-Darcy enjoyed teasing his wife. "Well, yes," he said. " 'Tis the natural order of the universe, that the man should always have the upper hand."

Elizabeth frowned. "What nonsense!" she said disdainfully. "Did you, yourself, not tell me once that you wanted a partner in life?"

Darcy shrugged. "Marriage need not be an equal partnership. Somebody always gets an upper hand."

"Meaning, you?"

She rolled her eyes and bit into a marzipan in visible frustration. Restless, Darcy rose from the settee. It was not his intention to gall her; he hoped she would not take his tease too seriously. Unhappy, he went to pour himself a glass of brandy. He knew it to be a foolish thing to do, if he hoped to keep a tight rein on his feelings tonight. But the sugared fruit had stuck to the roof of his mouth, and suddenly, he was desperate to wash down the cloying sweetness. Of course, water being as good, or better an agent for the purpose of quenching one's thirst, and there being a pitcher of it near his bed, he could not account for his preference for brandy.

Elizabeth eyed him disapprovingly from the settee.

"No," he said. "I do not think-I do not think the man gets the upper hand. Shall I pour you a glass of brandy?"

"You are joking," she said seriously. Darcy shrugged.

"Why? You are a grown woman, my wife. We are at home, in the middle of the night, at our leisure. What is so criminal about drinking a glass?"

"Ladies do not drink brandy," she informed him as she watched him pour one glass, then pause with his hand near the other.

"Do you always behave in a ladylike manner, Elizabeth? I have not noticed."

She gasped, and he said, driving the nail in: "Perhaps you are simply afraid."

"Afraid," she repeated. "What have I to be afraid of? You?"

"No," he said. "I think you know that a glass of brandy will not make me a beast. But perhaps you are uncertain of yourself."

She snorted in a manner that was anything but ladylike. "Fine, then," she said. "Pour it. Just one glass."

How easily he had caught her! Darcy nodded, pleased and terrified at the same time. What was he doing? "Not even a full glass," he said.

Their fingers touched over the cool crystal, and he watched her raise the glass to her lips. "It does not smell too terrible," she said, appraisingly.

"Try it." Darcy raised his own glass and sipped, slowly. The alcohol rolled smoothly, burning his gullet a little... just enough. He wanted to close his eyes and savor it, but he was too curious by half.

Elizabeth took a tiny sip, and then another. Her face wrinkled for a moment, a frown slipping momentarily between her eyebrows. "This is... so very strong," she murmured. She did not, however, put down the glass.

"You do not like it?" he inquired.

"No... not that." She took another sip. "Oh! It burns a little."

Slipping back into his seat, Darcy laughed. "This is, generally, the idea behind brandy." Amused and terribly aroused, he watched her nurse the glass between her palms, taking tiny sips. "Have another marzipan," he said. Leaning over, he plucked one from the box without thinking and offered it to her delicately. What are you doing?

A quick sweep of dark eyelashes, and she took the proffered sweet from his fingers. Her lips were warm and a little wet from the drink. He could feel her breath, shallow with excitement, over the tip of his fingers. Darcy froze in his seat, thinking that he could kiss her, now, and she would not shy away.

"Now," he said hoarsely. "We were talking of the play." Sliding back against his seat, he took another swig of his brandy. He ought to stop. He was being unkind to himself. "You were displeased with Petruchio's treatment of Catherine."

"Mr. Garrick would have her whipped into submission," Elizabeth said in displeasure.

"Well, madam, have you read the original play?"

"Of course," she said, her expression bearing a strong evidence of insult. Darcy rolled his eyes: indeed, how dare he think that there was something she did not know? "And I daresay Petruchio does not brandish a whip!"

"No," Darcy agreed. "But have you forgotten that Shakespeare's Petruchio inflicts his own torture upon Catherine? He denies her sustenance when she is hungry, he denies her sleep when she is weary... all of that, under the guise of caring for her."

Elizabeth nodded, looking shamefaced. "You are correct, I have forgotten all about that."

"Then perhaps you will acquit Mr. Garrick of any special cruelty towards women?"

She grinned at him. "Perhaps." Darcy could not resist taking their banter one step further.

"Especially because I do not see what it is so wrong about that whip in the first place..."

Elizabeth laughed, incredulously. Taken by his tease, she cried impetuously: "You cannot see! You would whip me, too?"

Darcy grimaced a little, pretending that he was considering it.

"Well," he said contemplatively, "Mrs. Darcy... That would depend on what flaw in your character I was trying to correct..."

Instantly, Elizabeth gasped in affront, and yanked at the nearest sofa pillow. Darcy only had a second to snatch the marzipan box out of the way and drop it onto the table beside the settee, before she brought the pillow down on top of his head. Laughing so hard he soon found himself out of breath, he felt strangely reckless.

"Madam, your behavior gives me very strong evidence in favor of the whip," he murmured, grasping her wrists in one hand. Elizabeth gasped, and kicked, and hissed, but there was really no contest. With a deft maneuver, he pulled her beneath him, pushing her quickly into the pillows and rolling atop her. "Damn it, Mrs. Darcy," he said hoarsely.

She squirmed beneath him, and instantly he knew what a monumental mistake he had made. He could feel all of her-her breasts, her legs, her loins-through her nightshift; her breath came shallow and quick, touched with only a hint of brandy and sugared fruit... The realization that she was naked underneath hit him so strongly, he gave a quiet gasp. The alcohol he had drunk was roaring in his head, his blood eddying in his veins, in his groin. The least pleasant point of intoxication, where the realization of his actions was still very much with him, but the control of them had already slipped. He knew his behavior was foolish, dangerous, that he was pushing all the limits they had established... but he had no will to stop. Perhaps Elizabeth would, if he could not.

But she did nothing to halt him. After another minute, even her half-hearted struggle to quit his embrace ceased. Her hands stopped pummeling his shoulders, landing with the softness of the falling snow, one on his shoulder, one cupping his cheek. It lingered there, and Darcy turned his face against it, desperate for each small caress from her. I could kiss her now. But howbeit her lips were parted in gentle expectation, her eyes were turbulent and unhappy. Her gaze, restless, sought something about his countenance. He pulled back, a little, pushing himself up on his elbows. But he still could not tear his eyes away from her, nor banish the longing that now pervaded his entire being, nor make himself quit her embrace fully and permanently.

And he could not stop himself from falling in love with her.

"Elizabeth," he said roughly, miserably. "You promised me that kiss."

Dark blush ran like wildfire up her neck and cheekbones. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again. "No," she whispered. "I promised you nothing. You asked me... for your birthday. You asked me and I promised you I should think about it."

Before he could stop himself, Darcy demanded:

"Well, have you thought about it?"

Lord, that came out wrong. Though he felt like a lover, he sounded so like a husband-rejected, yet persistent, demanding of her something that was his due. He could feel her shiver beneath him, her every small movement stirring his blood, setting fire to his loins. The lust-the wine-his heart pounded-his whole being seemed one with the desperate beat of his heart. Elizabeth said nothing, regarding him with infuriating calm.

"Have you thought of it, Elizabeth?" he urged her hoarsely. He felt his control slipping further. "You are my wife. Damn it, Elizabeth-you owe me this much."

Horrid, he thought, what am I saying? Horrible crass things that he did not really mean. She owed him nothing. Surely she would push him away, now? But she remained, placid beneath him, her bare toes touching his calf, her breasts pressed intimately against his chest. His endurance worn thing, Darcy was a hairbreadth away from just kissing her himself, and, and-

And then what?

A kiss was never just a kiss. For a courting couple, it was a mere intimacy, but for a husband and wife, it was so much more. A prelude to more, and an invitation to the marriage bed. With visceral certainty, Darcy knew that he wanted more than just a kiss. And that he would find it agonizing to stop once their lips touched for the first time. It seemed a lunacy to want it so much-but oh he did. If she kissed him-why, then, he would then have no choice. Oh damn. He was not fooling anyone. He wanted her to come to him, he wanted that kiss as a sign that she, too, was burning for him. For he was, he was burning for her, his homely young bride. He was once indifferent towards her... he had now forgotten what that was like... He could not imagine feeling indifferent towards her.

But the expression on her face was one of great turmoil and unhappiness. Raising one hand, she pressed a finger to his lips.

"It is not yet your birthday," she whispered.

"God! " It must have cost him a year of his life, but Darcy tore himself away from Elizabeth. Pushing up, he rolled back to his feet. His body almost vibrating with frustrated desire, he stood by the settee and watched her-long white nightdress tangled about her legs, now bared almost to her knees, a dark halo of hair around her head...

And her eyes...There was so much in her eyes... everything he longed for, everything he feared... Despaired, he stalked away from the settee. Standing by the window, he leaned his forehead against it. He hoped that the touch of cold glass, chilled this October night, would serve to cool his blood at the moment. God how he wanted her. Wouldst that he had left before she came here, with her deuced marzipans. And whatever had possessed him to take brandy tonight?

Finally gathering control of himself, Darcy returned to the settee. Sitting awkwardly on his heels, he regarded his wife's face for some time. The feelings inside were far too much, far too strong, for him to consider at the moment. The only thing of certainty was that he must stop these nighttime excursions into one another's bedchamber. It would end nowhere good.

"Let me take you to your bed," he whispered. Without waiting for her to answer, he rose and gathered Elizabeth in his arms. She clung to him, hiding her face upon his shoulder. She seemed undone, and the thought made him happy-perhaps she, too, was no longer indifferent to him. Perhaps he had roused some feeling inside her.

Without another word, he took her back to her bedchamber. Her sheets had been turned down and he let her pull them back farther, leaning down from his embrace. He lowered her onto the bed and stepped aside, quickly, before joining her there became a real thought-a real possibility.

"I bid you good night," he said, "and sweet dreams."

"And I-you." She smiled sweetly at him and held out one hand. However much Darcy wanted to take it, he mutely wagged his head.

"No," he said, to her surprised, hurt expression. "I cannot do this, Elizabeth. You touch me-and yet you shy away. You tease me so that I no longer see the light of day. I cannot do this," he repeated. " 'Tis all child's game to you, but I cannot-I want you too much." There, he had said it. "If you forgive me, madam, I shall not touch you anymore tonight."

He cut her a bow, then turned and walked back to his room. Turning at the door, he saw her sitting there, amidst the sheets, looking utterly nonplussed. Child, he thought, she was such a child yet. She hardly knew what she did to him...how could he want her so much?

Leaning against the doorframe, he could not resist saying to her:

"Now you see, Elizabeth-Catherine does get the upper hand..."

Thereupon, he stepped across the threshold, closing the door firmly in his wake. After a moment of reflection, he turned the key in the door as well.

Sitting down on the bed, Darcy took off his shoes before he could even contemplate going out. Surely it would not work-not with what he was feeling at the moment. He took off his waistcoat and flung it across the room. He was better than this, he thought, he would not seek a courtesan's company because his own wife drove him mad... But oh Lord, what a long night this was going to be... Tomorrow, a fencing bout with Gregory would serve to take the edge off the nervous agitation consuming him... but he would not vouch for his dreams tonight.

*Catherine and Petruchio was a play by David Garrick. This was the version of the Taming of the Shrew popular in late 18th-early 19th century. Garrick had removed the introduction, the storyline concerning Bianca and in general made Catherine more subservient to her husband, and Petruchio--somewhat more triumphant over Catherine. The whip also specifically appears in this version.

Chapter 19 - part 1

What did it mean to want someone too much? Was there a limit to one's desire, a moment when it became unbearable? Elizabeth found she did not care to know, and yet she also found she could not stop thinking of it, for the last night's events had thrust this matter upon her...

Her dreams that night were insupportably sweet. Even as she dreamt them, she knew it would not do. It would not do to dream that she was in her husband's arms, having allowed him all he wanted of her. In her dream, she thought she knew what it was, was happily certain of it and resolved to grant him his heart's desire. He was leaning over her, his smile at her full of gratitude and pleasure, the full-on happy surprised grin of a man whose most secret hope had been granted. In her dream, she reached out and put her arms around his neck, and felt his heartbeat, frantic against her naked breast (the realization that she was-that indeed, both of them were- shamelessly bare in her dream would shake her to the core the following morning). And so Elizabeth dreamt she knew what it meant to want someone too much-for in her dream, amazingly, she wanted him too much, too, thinking that her heart would simply burst from the longing.

Elizabeth woke suddenly, the decadent vision interrupted by a rough morning sound. For several moments, her eyes shut until the sun's first rays, she continued to bask in the glow of the dream... but then, reality intruding, remembered that it was not really like that. That fantastic, wonderful closeness existed only in her dreams. Sitting up in bed, she pulled the blanket tightly about her shoulders in the chilly room and ruminated on the night before, her heart heavy with yearning she could not understand.

Why did he say it? I want you too much. However young, she was not unwitting of what these words meant. The purpose of any marriage-well, she thought, of most marriages-was the production of children; a male and a female, though married, could not truly be spouses until they had consummated the marriage...whatever that meant. Here was where her understanding of the subject became somewhat hazy. Elizabeth frowned even as she washed her face, brushed her teeth, submitted to Mary's fiddling with her hair... Apparenlty, all this wanting business had something to do with the fact that her marriage had not been consummated... Memories floated in, ubidden, of the vicar solemnizing her marriage in the Darcys' library. One of the purpose of a Christian union was a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication. Fornication! The word rang so forbidden! She threw a horrified glance at her reflection in the looking-glass, hoping that Mary could not see the heat radiating from her cheeks.

But Mary had not, intent upon her mistress' hairdo. Elizabeth sat in deep confusion. Why did he say it... Somehow, she had not seen the consummation of their marriage as something Darcy might desire. She had known there was something... shocking and secret and hot about it... something involving her body and his...something that men generally wanted. But she had not thought that playing about as they did had anything to do with it-nor that Darcy was one of those men...or that he might want her... Elizabeth sighed: that showed how much she knew of life. Who could she have thought that hitting her husband with a throw pillow might lead to such a conflagration? Well, now she would keep to her bedchamber at night... After all, the last thing she wanted was to rouse in him some beastly desire...

She rose from her chair, avoiding her maid's eyes. Sitting back on the bed, she pulled on and tied her stockings, her mind furiously at work. Yes, yes, the last thing... But she could not deny that the thought of him undone had a peculiar appeal to it. She had to own that she had long found Darcy very beautiful (however peculiar to her the thought that a man could be beautiful; for, until him, she had not met any beautiful men not made of marble). But it had to be more than that-for she had once known him to be very handsome, and it had left her cold. Now, all of him-his dark good looks, the play of muscle beneath his exceedingly well-fitting clothes, his smile and the way he sometimes gazed upon her-all of him drew and disquieted her. She wanted to look upon him, missing the sight of his face when he was not about. Sometimes, she felt, she could look upon him for hours; the image of him floated in her mind at various moments, unbidden...Shockingly, wantonly, she found herself wondering how he would look without his clothes; though if asked, she would never admit to such immodest thinking. His nearness did not fail to quicken her heart, to set a peculiar flutter to her stomach. This was rapidly turning into a habit, an addiction...one about which she was perfectly content to do absolutely nothing.

Catching herself woolgathering once again, Elizabeth censured her own girlish stupidity harshly. Why must she be daydreaming about him? It was disturbing enough she had spent the night doing that...Yes, he was very handsome, but it was neither here nor there that he should be! Handsome as he was, he was not hers, their marriage merely a temporary arrangement.

She dressed with particular care and some severity. The words still resounded in her mind: I want you too much. There had been a peculiar helplessness to his tone, as if he had found himself powerless in the face of her-he, who was always so strong. Somehow, the memory of his voice had chastened her, setting her to think on her manner of dress and speech. She must not be too free with him. She felt her skin burn again. Casting a quick look in the looking-glass, she regarded herself pointedly. She looked... modest. Ladylike. Every inch appropriate. Her gown was old and of a deep navy color that she knew was neither flattering nor unbecoming. A white lace fichu tucked into her collar added to the general picture of modesty. I look like a preacher's wife, she thought grimly. Behind her, Mary pursed her lips disapprovingly.

"Indeed, ma'am, you look like a-"

Elizabeth threw the maid a sharp glance.

"Do not say it," she said, and rose to go to breakfast.

Darcy was already in the breakfast room, flipping quickly through a fresh newspaper. Upon espying her approach, he folded the newspaper and set it aside. Rising, he bowed politely and held out a chair for her before a footman could step up to do that.

"Good morning."

He sounded perfectly amiable and polite, his respectful civility instantly bringing to mind the the shocking sensation of his body pressed fully against hers, the hoarse misery of his voice when he had told her he wanted her too much.

"Good morning." They sat down across from each other. As always, he was impeccably turned out, with a small waterfall of pristine linen at his throat. Elizabeth sought in her husband's face some small recognition of last night's intimacies. But no, it was as if a different man had held her last night, this one so very well-composed, she began to doubt her memory's veracity, asking herself whether last night had really happened. . Almost convinced that she had dreamt it all, Elizabeth sighed and dropped her eyes to his hand-only to see his little finger, with a heavy signet ring sporting the bewildered-looking owl, rap nervously against the table.

So he, too, remembered. There was considerable satisfaction in the idea. Looking up at him, Elizabeth endeavored not to grin. At the moment she stared him the eye, his composure shattered, and he even spilled a little of his coffee, staining the pristine tablecloth.

"Are you going to fence with Lord Gregory now?"

"Pardon-what?" Frowning distractedly, he mopped the tablecloth with his napkin. "Oh yes. At nine. I have some business at my solicitor's first." He nodded, dropped the napkin and turned his attention to buttering a slice of bread. "Would you like some?" Without waiting for her to answer, he put the slice on her plate and started absentmindedly on another one. "Yes. I am going to Angelo's this morning."

"Angelo's, is it a fencing school?"

"Ha!" Darcy washed down the bread with a gulp of coffee, once again frowning at something-the taste or the temperature not being to his liking. "It is the school." Obviously excited to be discussing a subject which took them as far as possible from the previous night, Darcy told her that Henry Angelo's Fencing Academy had been established by the father of its present owner, a signore Tremamondo. He told her that the scandalous Madamme D'Eon, upon first escaping to London during the Revolution, had won a number of bouts at the school. Forgettig their predicament, Elizabeth gasped with laughter.

"No!" she said. "An old lady! More coffee?" She picked up the coffee pot, and at his nod, started to pour. "You must own it, Fitzwilliam, that there is something rather ridiculous about that!"

"Well, some say that she is not really a lady, but a man who had dressed a woman all his life! Careful there!" he said quickly, as Elizabeth's hand faltered with shock and she almost spilled some coffee on him. "Indeed, I find that more likely."

Sitting back down, she chewed her lip, stifling helpless laughter. "Has no-one thought... to check?"

"Well, Madamme d'Eon is an old lady...quite getting on in years, I must say. Can you imagine the process?" Darcy grinned at her.

"Oh Lord," Elizabeth said expressively. "Well, perhaps I can meet her one day."

"Perhaps, though I believe her very old now. I have only seen her there once, some years ago." He dabbed his lips with the edge of his napkin, tossed it onto the table and rose. "What are your plans for this morning?"

"I thought to call upon my Aunt." She smiled up at him, unexpectedly to herself seeking her approval. "I am hoping to develop a better rapport with her."

Darcy smiled back, then leaned and brushed his lips across the top of her head. "I approve wholeheartedly. I shall tell the butler to prepare the carriage for you. Be a good girl for me, and we shall do something interesting later today."

Thereupon, he was gone. Elizabeth stared at her coffee. She missed him, suddenly, wishing that he had not left her alone. At Pemberley, she had felt comfortable in solitude... here, she could not separate her enjoyment of London from Darcy's person. Impulsively, she rose and ran across the gallery to the side window, only to see Darcy mount his black thoroughbred, Kublai. Holding her coffee cup in both hands, Elizabeth watched her husband swing atop his (exceedingly tall) mount before riding around the house and out of sight. He looked breathtakingly dashing in the saddle, and she wished, in her secret place, that he would turn around and look at her.

Lord, she thought, I am such a fool....

Going to visit her Aunt, Elizabeth stopped at a confectioner's and bought colorful gingerbread men and houses for her young cousins. In Cheapside, Darcy's carriage was likely the finest equipage in the street, and she noticed people turning their heads as a footman handed her out. She had changed her morning dress to a walking one, that was just as simple; she wore a spencer over it. Dressing in her rooms earlier, she noticed that the sleeves of the dress were barely the right length anymore. All of a sudden, she was very eager that her new dresses be ready soon. This new desire of worldly things was new and odd and a little embarrassing, and Elizabeth gave a disconcerted little laugh as she entered her Uncle's house.

"Mrs. Gardiner is in the back garden, ma'am," the housekeeper informed her. Elizabeth followed the old woman to the back, to find her Aunt in pleasant concentration over her needlework. She saw that it was to be a child's blanket, white roses over a blue background. A girl of eight or nine sat on a small stone bench at her mother's feet, wrapped in a huge shawl, a book on her lap. Upon espying Elizabeth, both of them rose.

"What a fine thing for you to visit, Elizabeth," Mrs. Gardiner said. "You know your cousin, Emma."

"Of course." Trying her best to be familiar, Elizabeth leaned and touched her lips to the girl's cheek, receiving the same favor in return.

Elizabeth handed her Aunt the gifts she had brought for Mrs. Gardiner's children.

"Oh my dear, you shouldn't have," her Aunt said, then let little Emma pick the gingerbread man she liked best (the one, Elizabeth saw, wearing a pink glazed top hat), and gave the rest to the housekeeper to give to the children after their breakfast.

Mrs. Gardiner ordered the tea-things to be brought into the garden. A brazier of hot coals warmed the chilly morning; half-consciously, Elizabeth extended her hands towards it as she sat down in a chair.

"We can go inside if you are cold," her Aunt offered.

"No..." Elizabeth raised her face to the sun. At this time of year, not a great deal of warmth was to be had from it, but it was still lovely. "I am not cold, Aunt..."

Tea-things were brought, and Elizabeth cradled her tea-cup with pleasure between her palms, more for the pleasure of its warmth than for the actual tea. She had always liked autumn...had liked it last year at Longbourn, when it had been warm like this, when it had rained and she could stay inside and read...until Father had died, turning her life topsy-turvy...How her life had changed, she marveled.

"And how is Mr. Darcy?"

"Very well, Aunt. Gone fencing this morning." How familiar-and familial-it seemed to be answering inquiries about her husband's whereabouts! She took some pleasure in it, not thinking for a moment that he could be anywhere but where he had said he would be.

Mrs. Gardiner grinned like a girl. "Sometimes I fancy it would be grand to be a man! To go fencing! To ride a horse without the constant danger of sliding off!"

Elizabeth laughed, surprised, and young Emma gave her mother a look of utter bewilderment.

"I daresay there are greater advantages to belonging to the male sex than not riding side-saddle," Elizabeth said. "University education, for one."

"I daresay you are correct," her Aunt agreed. Then, leaning, she patted her daughter on the cheek. "But we do have our own."

"Indeed." Elizabeth regarded her young cousin, thinking, suddenly, how odd it would be to have a child-a part of herself, yet an autonomous being, one that could go wherever it pleased. How odd it would be to have his child... an extension of them both...She felt herself redden and dropped her eyes, desperate to escape all thoughts of him-thoughts that were rapidly turning to desires, to wishes and longing. Is this what seduction felt like?

"Elizabeth?"

Looking up at her Aunt, she endeavored to hide her discomposure, but failed.

"My dear girl, is anything wrong?" Mrs. Gardiner inquired in genuine concern. "Are you unwell?"

Elizabeth hurried to assure her Aunt that she was quite well, thank you; but she could not pretend that nothing weighed upon her. She had an inkling that it would not help her in any case.

"Emma," her Aunt said, "go back into the house, sweeting, go and play with your sister..."

"But mama-"

"Please, darling, do as I said."

Without any further protest, the young girl rose and dropped a polite curtsey, then ran off down the path, Mrs. Gardiner's voice carrying behind her, warning her to be careful lest she trip and fall.

A silence fell, pierced only by the distant sounds of the city behind the garden wall: men's voices, the creaking and jangling of carriages, and the measured sound of hooves. Elizabeth regarded, with determination, a single mosaic tile embedded in the stone garden path. It was blue and yellow, with a swirling design. Her cheekbones felt so hot, she had to raise one hand to her face for a moment. She had not realized she gave an impression of one so preoccupied.

Mrs. Gardiner was first to speak.

"Elizabeth," she said softly. "I should never presume to interfere...Oh, this isn't easy. My dear girl, I should like most of all to be your friend-and if you need help... or advice... or a question answered...I shall be glad to help."

She exhaled, making Elizabeth think that, in order to address her as she had, her Aunt had to step over some barrier of her own. The thought, unexpectedly, made her feel a little better at ease-as if, indeed, Mrs. Gardiner was not her Aunt, but a female companion, a friend she'd never had.

The truth was, she was desperately in need of a good advice. In the past, she would turn to her father for advice, and then to Jamie; and to Mr. Darcy all of this year... but not one of them was here now... and in any case, she could not imagine approaching a man with such questions as were burning inside her mind for the past s'ennight...

Mrs. Gardiner had once again bent her head to the embroidery before her. Elizabeth opened her mouth twice, and twice she held herself back. Then, quickly, before she could even consider what she was doing, she blurted:

"He wants me to kiss him."

"Pardon?" Mrs. Gardiner appeared surprised, and for a moment, Elizabeth cursed her own stupidity. Perhaps she misread her Aunt's invitation? Indubitably she must appear coarse and improper to her now, to have spoken thusly... But in the next moment, Mrs. Gardiner abandoned her embroidery, sticking the needle in the fabric, and moved to sit next to Elizabeth. "My dear girl, what did you just say?"

Elizabeth thought she might cry just then, but she bit her lip and forced herself to a semblance of composure. She fixed her eyes on one of the last golden leaves sweeping to and fro along the stone path.

"My husband," she said slowly, "Mr. Darcy. He has demanded a kiss from me for his birthday. Which is, I believe, on the thirtieth of this month, which is in ...five days?"

Mrs. Gardiner appeared lost in thought for some time. Finally, she spoke.

"Elizabeth, may I ask a question?"

Elizabeth nodded.

"You...are discomfited by the idea, it seems."

Elizabeth nodded, blushing ever harder.

"You have never kissed him before?"

"No," Elizabeth replied, then thought for a moment and added: "Not on the lips."

"I see," her Aunt said. "Have you ever kissed anyone before?"

Elizabeth shook her head.

Mrs. Gardiner pursed her lips tightly for a moment, giving a fleeting expression of suppressing a smile-but before Elizabeth had the time to grow angry with her for mockery, it was replaced with a look of concern.

"And...as to the rest of it...I assume the marriage has not-it has not been consummated?"

If Elizabeth had thought it was impossible to blush more than she already had, she now discovered differently. Her face was flooded with color at her Aunt's question, her temples pounding and her ears burning.

But she answered honestly.

"No."

"I see," Mrs. Gardiner repeated. "Of course, you are so very young yet..." she mused, as if to herself, "but still so many men would treat this part of married life as their inevitable due..." She sighed. "I must say that your Mr. Darcy has just gone up a notch in my estimation. Not to say that I did not already think highly of him. But it is so very good of him to put your comfort before his own." Thereupon she regarded Elizabeth a little anxiously. "You do understand me, do you not?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said unsurely. She had always believed that her husband had as little desire to consummate the marriage as she... had believed it until a few days ago, until last night, at least. Her Aunt's words echoed curiously Darcy's husky proclamation from the night before.

"Are you concerned, then, that this kiss may-might be a prelude to something... greater?"

Elizabeth flew to her feet and started pacing. "No!" she said, finally, though truly she did not know the answer. You tease me so that I no longer see the light of day. 'Tis all child's game to you, but I cannot-I want you too much. Would he be content with a single kiss? Could she really believe it? And yet, he had asked for nothing else. "No," she repeated, more calmly. "I have no reason to suspect that he would-that Mr. Darcy would-press me."

"But of course not," Mrs. Gardiner said gently. "I do not imagine he would. He seems like such a kind young man."

Elizabeth sighed. It had been a long time since she had thought otherwise. He was kind, and she found she was not afraid of any pressure on his part. What frightened her was her own easy slide into intimacy, where his every word and look, his very closeness seemed to seduce her. Where she could not stop thinking about him.

"But, if that is so, why are you so confounded by his request?"

Elizabeth sighed again, sighed and chewed miserably on her lip. It would be utterly impossible to explain her troubles to Mrs. Gardiner. That her husband was not really her husband, that she had married him on the express condition that their marriage be dissolved? All of a sudden, she appeared to herself the worst kind of fraud. But I did it for Mr. Darcy, she reminded herself. Nonsense! Convenient lying nonsense! Mr. Darcy wanted his son to be happy, to live in a real marriage with a real wife-and here he was, begging her for the sympathy of a single kiss! She shook her head mutely.

"I do not know," she said, lifting her eyes at her Aunt. Mrs. Gardiner frowned, but smiled kindly.

"But surely, there must be a reason. Surely two such fine minds as ours will, as a result of a diligent search, arrive at it."

Elizabeth could not help smiling-as much at her Aunt's optimism as at the description of her mind as "fine." Most days it felt little better than a muddle.

Mrs. Gardiner rose from the bench and looped her arm through that of Elizabeth. "Come," she said. "Let us pick this conundrum apart while we take a turn around the garden." With a rueful sigh, she cast a glance about the confined little space. "However many circles we might have to make."

Indeed, they had made a circle and a half before Mrs. Gardiner spoke again.

"Do you find him ill-favored?"

Elizabeth wagged her head. "No... I must confess I did at first..." She flailed about for a way to explain without making Darcy appear harsh and over-proud. But that was what he was, then. Still, this was not what he was now, and that was what counted. To Mrs. Gardiner's expressive raised eyebrows, she explained: "It was all too long ago, and in any case, I no longer do."

"This is good," Mrs. Gardiner said. "We have eliminated one. You find him...handsome enough to kiss."

"Most certainly." Elizabeth trained her eyes at the gravel beneath her feet, but she could not miss the gentle amusement in her companion's voice.

"Frankly, I am not surprised. Another such handsome young gentleman I've yet to see." She paused, thinking. "And he is good to you." More of a statement than a question, and one with which Elizabeth had no inclination to argue.

"Very. He seems determined to cater to my every whim-even the ones I did not know I had."

Mrs. Gardiner laughed. "That alone should induce you to kiss him! But do be serious, Elizabeth: is he... respectful of you? Do you know what I mean? Beyond simple politeness..."

"Yes, I believe so," Elizabeth said, surprised at how much that was true. Frustrated-for she saw the direction in which this conversation was progressing-she cried: "Oh Aunt, I shall save you the questions! There is nothing wrong with him! He is good, he is kind, he is thoughtful! He insists on spending money on me in a most lavish fashion-and yet he always consults my taste... And the way he looks at me!"

"And all he asks in return is a kiss?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said, ready to cry, feeling as if she had just answered her own question.

They walked in silence for a little bit longer. Then, stopping, Mrs. Gardiner walked over to a low wall, beset by the largest rose bush Elizabeth had seen in her life. With a pair of little silver scissors dangling from her belt, she cut off a handsome pink bloom. Returning, she picked up Elizabeth's bonnet off the bench and started affixing the rose to it. Elizabeth watched her in mute frustration.

Once finished, Mrs. Gardiner laid the bonnet aside and said, sounding serious, perhaps even severe:

"My dear girl, I shall speak plainly to you. I believe your husband wants a great deal more of you than a single kiss. But the manner of your marriage, so sudden and urgent, has had both of you thrust into unfamiliar roles... He had not the time to truly court you...had he, then ...I believe a single kiss would not seem so burdensome a request to make of you... Everything would have come in its own good time... As it stands, everything is upon its head..." She sighed, frowning. "Do you want to kiss him?"

Elizabeth looked away, fixing her eyes upon the stones of the crumbling wall, upon her own shoes, anything but her Aunt's face. The truth was, she did, badly now. The night before, his embrace... the feel of his body pressed tightly against hers... his voice, so husky it was almost unfamiliar to her... all of it had created a conflagration in her blood. At the memory of his voice professing his desire for her-the desire, which he knew could have no possible outlet-she was left all aquiver.

"Because if you do not, it is easy enough. You simply tell him you do not wish to kiss him, and I believe he will leave you be. For a time, at least."

Elizabeth was silent, and then, gathering her courage, she raised her eyes back to her Aunt's face:

"But why must he be so difficult! Why must he ask me for a kiss instead of just-just-"

"Just doing it himself? Yes, that would be best," Mrs. Gardiner agreed with a smile. "But men are peculiar creatures, and young men are stranger still... His pride is in it, perhaps." She shrugged. "I do not know, really, why. Mayhap he is just playing with you."

"Oh God!" Elizabeth laughed, bewildered, pressed her hands to her burning cheeks. "I cannot believe we are having this conversation!"

"Nothing wrong with it," her Aunt said firmly. "Had you been married from town, I flatter myself you would ask me these questions before your wedding. There is nothing good about ignorance, you know, Lizzy."

Elizabeth smiled at that appellation and pressed her Aunt's hand. "I am ignorant, it is true. Nobody talks to us girls... my father spoke to me of Milton's angels and Jamie wrote to me of his travels in India..." On a strange whim, she continued. "Aunt, what would you tell me then? Had I been married from town?"

"Perhaps it is good you have only come to me now. My task is made easier, Elizabeth, because I already have some idea what manner of a man your husband is... I should feel comfortable enough telling you to trust him in all...I do not think he will rush you, however much he desires from you. Nor do I think that he would be cruel or selfish in the bedroom-but thoughtful, kind and generous. I think," she said slowly. "I think he will be as good to you in the bedroom as he is outside of it."

"Oh, but what is it like?" Elizabeth cried, her face flaming, her heart tumultuous. "What is it like to kiss a man? And to let him-to let him do whatever it is he must do? What does it mean when he is good?"

Her Aunt, too, blushed now, looking suddenly very young. "To explain in words would be most difficult," she said, her voice so low it was nearly a whisper. "Nigh-on impossible. But I shall try. The mechanics of it are simple enough. Indubitably you have seen animals mate in the fields?"

Elizabeth swallowed, eyes widening against her best intentions. "Like that?"

Mrs. Gardiner bit down a smile. "Well, with considerably more grace and affection, one hopes. But the act itself is powerful. It strips the man and the woman of all defenses...of all pretense. And it can bring considerable pleasure when done... with tenderness. When the man takes care." Her face was full-red now.

"Oh," Elizabeth said.

"And there are a thousand other small pleasures on the way to it. Perhaps you already know some of them."

Elizabeth shut her eyes, blood pounding in her temples. She did, she did know them. She knew the feel of his arms around her, safe like a haven, the soft flutter of his eyelashes against her cheek, the velvety slide of his lips down her neck. His dark disquieting gaze-his sweet disarming smile-both meant for her alone. To think that the cold, hard word of consummation concealed some wonderful culmination to all this...Her heart was too full, making her feel as if she would cry if she took another breath.

"I do know them," she said weakly. "But please, enough..."

When she opened her eyes, her Aunt had returned to her seat on the bench, head bowed over her needlework. Elizabeth walked towards her on unsure feet, finally reaching her.

"Aunt," she whispered. Mrs. Gardiner looked up at her, eyes gentle. Elizabeth was seized, suddenly, with a terrible pain for never having known a mother... "Thank you," she whispered.

"I hope I was not untoward, Lizzy," she said softly. "But you asked me... you wanted to know."

"No, no." Elizabeth reached for Mrs. Gardiner's hand, pressing it fervently. "It is ... disquieting to know all this. But it is better than ignorance. Anything is, Aunt."

"Lizzy, you know you can come to me, always?" Mrs. Gardiner said. "If ever you need help or advice or just-anything, Lizzy?"

"Yes." Elizabeth felt a rush of grateful tears. "Yes, Aunt, I know."

That afternoon, having quit her Aunt's house, she asked the driver to take her to "Angelo's."

"Angelo's, ma'am?"

"Indeed."

"Do you mean Henry Angelo's, ma'am?"

"I should not know. The fencing academy."

"But-"

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and the man bowed. "Straight away, ma'am."

Some twenty minutes later, she ascended the marble steps of a handsome Mayfair house. The door stood ajar, and she pushed it, happy that she did not have to explain her presence to anyone who would open it. Madamme d'Eon notwithstanding, she did not know whether they welcomed ladies there. Thus, she glided down the corridor, as quietly as she could manage, until it turned into a wide gallery with windows to one side-whence emanated a sound of ringing metal, accompanied by grunts, curses, furious shouts and other such warlike sounds.

She peeked out of one window, to see men fencing on the floor below. A dark-haired older gentleman, who she took to be Henry Angelo himself, walked amidst the rows of fencers, making what appeared to be helpful suggestions.

There was no sign of any old ladies, but she did see Darcy instantly, for he was easily the tallest man in the room. Dressed in naught but his shirt tucked into a pair of breeches and riding boots, with a fringed belt tied around his waist and one tall black fencing glove, he was disarmingly handsome-and, it appeared, absolutely lethal. His foil was a single blinding lightning, and his fencing partner-whom she soon recognized as Lord Gregory-stood not a chance.

Elizabeth watched Darcy with baited breath and a wildly beating heart. She should never have come here, she knew, for seeing him here, at his most masculine, echoed powerfully all that her Aunt had told her. He was beautiful like that, Elizabeth thought. She had seen him fence before, once at Pemberley, but she had been so distraught then, and so set on disliking him, that she had hardly paid any attention. Now, she could hardly take her eyes off him.

With a sudden, terrible, shock, she knew that she wanted to kiss him now-and not just to kiss him. She thirsted to know, to feel, to allow more. She trembled with the thought of being the source of his pleasure, with the knowledge that he desired her. Her Aunt had been right... she wanted, badly, that succession of small fascinating discoveries, all leading to that ultimate act of surrender. She wanted, too, that very act, still shrouded from her in mystery and her own ignorance, but made suddenly terribly appealing by the beautiful man before her.

So inconsistent was that desire with the plan she had laid out for herself, Elizabeth simply could not bear to look upon him any longer. Turning, she fled the gallery-but not before registering a powerful hit that Lord Gregory had delivered her husband for the reason of the latter's extreme inattention. For Darcy had stopped mid-parry and stared, bewildered, upon her standing at the window, enabling his adversary to hit him squarely in the shoulder. She heard the jangling sound of his rapier on the stone floor... and she was gone.

chapter 19 - part 2

At the town-house, changed back into her morning dress, the fichu neatly in place, she sat in her room, reading and writing letters. One to Mr. Darcy, writing down her impressions of London, careful in her judgment of his relations. Expressing her most fervent wishes for his well-being. One to Georgiana, telling her of the pleasures of town: shopping and theatre and the elephant in St. James' Park. Asking her what she wanted for a "surprise" gift. One to Jamie, telling him that Mr. Darcy was faring a little better, and that she was ... that she was happy in marriage. She had almost shocked herself when she wrote that. She sat in her bedroom, beneath a sun-dappled window, eyes closed, and thought of how true that was. She sighed and added: "I know that I have broken a promise given to you, dearest Jamie, but I cannot help thinking that my husband is a very different man now than when you had last left us. He is attentive and thoughtful in ways that I could never imagine. I believe I like being married to him." Bitterly, she wondered why she was doing this, and whether it even mattered. By the time Jamie received this, by the time his reply found her... Her life might turn around twice over.

There was now something odd to writing letters to her brother... It was not unlike writing to an imaginary correspondent. Jamie's last letter had arrived in August, weeks after her marriage...It was now the end of October, days before All Hallowes'. With a surge of desperation, Elizabeth thought: it is no use. She felt she had lost him to India, to the East India Company and the Army, to the vast and powerful Empire that had snatched him from her, hiding him away in its farthest spice-filled corner. The thought brought tears to her eyes. Rising from her desk, she turned, just as a knock on the door and a hushed "Elizabeth?" announced her husband had come to call upon her.

Hastily wiping at her eyes, she called: "A moment!" It took her longer than one moment to regain her equanimity, but by the time she opened the door, she felt more or less restored.

Darcy, however, frowned at her, put one finger under her chin, lifting it:

"What is the matter?" he asked sharply, looking at her intently. "Have you been crying?"

"No-" She knew herself a very poor liar, and certainly he was not deceived. Arching one dubious eyebrow at her, he took her hand and stepped across the threshold without ceremony.

"Come," he said, pulling her into his arms. "Tell me why you were crying."

She shrugged, unwilling to repeat what now seemed maudlin even to herself. "Jamie," she said miserably.

"You miss him," he murmured against her hair. "I am so sorry, sweeting."

She rested her head against his shoulder. "I do... I do miss him. But-"

He held her away for a moment, smiling at her in a way so tender, it grabbed her heart.

"I do not like to see you cry," he said softly. "It makes me want to... break things."

She laughed giddily at this admission, and he laughed with her, before pulling her back into his embrace to cradle her against his heart. She could hear its beat-steady, but a little too rapid. Her Aunt's words came, unbidden: he seems like such a kind young man. She pushed her cheek more tightly against his silky waistcoat.

"I have something for you," he said. His voice, deep, rumbled beneath her cheek as he spoke.

Elizabeth groaned. "No more gifts, please!" she said impetuously.

"Come, madam, be civil. Rules of good behavior dictate that you should accept a gift with gratitude and dignity."

"You have given me too many already."

"No such thing as too many gifts."

"Indeed!" She pushed herself away from him, but he caught her wrist and pulled her back. With a singular purpose, he drew one finger across her bottom lip, pulling it down a little. His eyes, narrowed like a cat's, studied her face, and she flushed guiltily, thinking that he knew how hot his gaze had made her. With a gasp, she pushed away from him, and went to stand by the window.

"Well?" she asked.

"Well what?" came the voice behind her. He sounded easy; turning, Elizabeth saw him sit down by her desk. As she watched, bewildered, he picked up her letter to Jamie, already folded and addressed, and she thought, for one brief shocked moment, that he would read it. But he only poured wax on it, before stamping it with his owl ring. "Writing to our mutual friend Lieutenant Bennet," he said. "Complaining of your beastly husband, no doubt?"

Elizabeth blushed. "I did not."

"Never even mentioned me, I wager."

She pursed her lips tightly. "You are being impertinent, sir."

"I did not know I could be impertinent with my own wife," he said blithely. "I thought I was the Master of your person and such."

"Ha," she said, coming closer, to snatch the letter away from him. He permitted her to do so-but quickly wrapped both arms around her waist and pulled her to stand between his open knees.

Elizabeth swallowed quickly, her throat suddenly parched. His face, his lips were inches away from her breast, from the triangle of skin covered demurely by her fichu. In the pit of her stomach, a cold weight anchored her to the floor, making it possible for her to remain upright. But for it, she felt herself quite capable of collapsing straight into his arms. To regain a sliver of her composure, she goaded him:

"I thought you said you did not wish to touch me anymore."

He shrugged, the feeling of his hands against her back light, yet firm. She could feel them excruciatingly through the thin wool of her dress. "Indeed I do not. What sane man would wish to touch a woman determine to leave him? I am not inclined towards self-torture."

She frowned. Though she had always insisted upon their annulment, lately every mention of it had made her peculiarly unhappy, like a thunderous cloud creeping over a perfect summer sky. "Then don't. Do not touch me." She made a move to step away, but the ease of his grip on her had been a deception-all of a sudden, his hands on her became a vise, preventing all movement.

"This has nothing to do with my wishes," he answered earnestly. "Or my wants, for that matter." He pulled her closer, fingers digging into her flesh, though not unpleasantly; then, one hand still on her waist, he raised the other to tug the modest white fichu out of her neckline. "This," he whispered, "is somewhat more." His fingertips traced the edge of her dress, touching her skin just barely. So erotic was that little move that she felt the entire surface of her skin prickle with an electric charge. "There must be a reason why I could not sleep last night," he whispered earnestly, his fingers stroking her throat, the hollow beneath, and the lines of her clavicles... "Why I broke my foil today and almost killed Gregory."

She gasped.

"And most certainly why you came to look at me today, Elizabeth."

With another gasp, she spun away from him, pushing her away out of his embrace. Instantly, he rose to his full height, his face harsh, his voice just as husky as the night before.

"Tell me you did not come to Angelo's this morning."

"I did not," she said, knowing full well that she could not lie to him. He glared at her from his great height.

"Liar," he said. "You want me more than you would ever admit to yourself!" But he did not seem angry, not truly. Soon enough, he sat down again and beckoned for her to come closer.

She stepped near gingerly and was instantly pulled into her husband's lap.

"I suppose this should teach me not to trust you," she murmured, discomfited and plainly aroused. He smelled wonderfully, crisply clean, with a barely-there note of eau de cologne. She was seized, all of a sudden, with a wanton desire to unwind his pristine cravat and push her nose against his neck. His thigh beneath her was reassuringly strong and she had to sit very straight, lest she fall against him.

"I suppose this should teach me to marry such a child," he replied with a grin. "You are exasperating, Elizabeth."

Huffing, she turned up her nose at him.

"But," he continued, regarding her thoughtfully. "I find myself a fool for you all the more just for how exasperating you are. Look," he said, changing the subject instantly, without giving her an opportunity to reflect upon what it meant. "I told you I had something for you."

"What is it?"

He held up two paper tickets. "To the British Museum. You have to order them a fortnight in advance, and I have not had the time. Gregory gave me his."

Their predicament momentarily forgotten, Elizabeth was seized with an explorer's joy. The British Museum was a compendium of wonders. She had heard-had read about it years ago, while still at Trinity... but she had never gone. What a wonderful treat this was! And how wonderful he was, knowing so precisely what she would want.

"Thank you!" she cried. "How did you know I wanted to go?"

He was smiling at her, then.

"Well, the Museum admits "all studious and curious Persons." Are you not studious and curious?"

Elizabeth laughed, delighted.

"When are we to go?"

"Actually-" Darcy picked her up unceremoniously, setting her squarely on the rug, then, pulling up his watch fob, checked the time. "Ours are for half-past two today, madam. We have just about an hour."

At the Museum, having gone through the great columnar entrance, they wandered at ease amongst the antiquities, making their way from the peculiar carved stones of the Druids and the beautiful illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels to the awe-inspiring Rosetta Stone, engraved with mysterious hieroglyphics, and human-size statues of gods with heads of jackals and falcons; from the ancient Irish crosses to the bloody treasures of the Inca to exquisite Ming vases and imperturbable black Buddas. To the famous Parthenon Marbles, brought back from Greece by Lord Elgin; to the serious Roman sculptures, regal-looking men in togas gazing disdainfully upon upon the beautiful Greek ones, shameless in their nude splendor.

"Look," Elizabeth said, pointing at a painted Athenian amphora restored so well it appeared to be full of fragrant wine. "There is your owl."

Darcy smiled. There was no mistaking the round-eyed surprised look of the bird. "Indeed. Athena, the Goddess of all wisdom."

"How did you come by that ring, anyway?" Elizabeth asked absent-mindedly.

"My father had given it to me before I went away to Cambridge." He was silent for a moment, and then asked, impulsively. "Elizabeth, do you know that your brother has one, too?"

"My brother!" Elizabeth murmured, shocked. "Wherever from?"

"I had one made for him for his twenty-first birthday. You have never seen him wear it?"

"No indeed!"

Her answer seemed to pain him, and she hurried to reassure him. "He did go away to India only weeks after..." She did not need to finish. Jamie's twenty-first birthday had come days before he and Darcy had quarreled. Now that she thought on it, she did remember him showing her a signet... but years had obscured from her its design. She thought of her letter, now posted, sealed with Darcy's owl, thinking that Jamie would surely recognize that seal when he saw it...

In ponderous silence, they walked on, and soon enough, stood in India, a particularly lavish exhibit. There, amidst bright-colored shawls and rugs, amidst many-legged, many-armed statues with faces of men and beasts, Elizabeth thought on the hurt expression on her husband's face when she had told him she had never seen Jamie wear his ring. She was seized, then, with tenderness and compassion towards him, whom so many blamed for so much-and stepping closer, she linked her arm with his. He was standing, peering thoughtfully at a statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesha; he started a little at her touch and gave her a gentle smile, making her heart turn over in her chest.

"Come," she murmured, and led him out of India and towards the Incas. However bloody they were, sacrificial knives and all, she found them a safer subject.

That evening, they dined at Lord Matlock's town-house. This time, his son the Viscount was there, as well and proved almost as charming as his younger brother the Colonel; Elizabeth was surprised to find him educated and interesting, for she had imagined him a most boring species of men, a boring libertine. She then found herself the object of attention by several men at the same time. She was wearing a pale-yellow muslin dress with half-length sleeves that made her skin look darker than usual. She had never liked her own complexion, knowing herself to be too dark in the day when fair skin was prized most of all...but she had never received so much male attention at the same time, and it was positively going to her head. Perhaps it was the simple fact that she was one of the few women below a certain age present ...and that she was a new face in the room... but the truth remained, seated between the Colonel and a young American attaché, tall and slightly buck-toothed, Elizabeth had no time to reflect upon the reasons, but simply enjoyed the fact of being courted so openly and by so many.

Still, it was her husband's person that was of particular interest to her tonight.

Darcy was almost a table's length away from her, and she could barely see him, concealed from her by a monumental silver-and-crystal epergne. He was placed, naturally, between two ladies; one was Lady Mariah, and the other one Elizabeth could not see too well. Listening only half-ear to the gentleman on her right, she peered at Darcy, willing him to look at her. He did not seem to notice, listening to the mysterious lady on his right with what seemed like rapt attention. Or at least that was she was able to conclude by the way his hand looked against the edge of the table. Elizabeth told herself she would not be jealous of him, and turned her attention to the attaché-who appeared excessively pleased with the turn of events and started telling her that he had a surprise for her later in the evening.

"What manner of surprise?" Elizabeth asked politely, for she knew she was expected to say that; but the truth was, she was far more interested in the person of the lady at Darcy's side.

"If I told you, it would hardly be a surprise, would it now, madam!" the attaché said, rather pleased with himself.

"Indeed." The Colonel grinned into his wine. "What an astute observation. But perhaps you ought to hurry up with your surprise, Mr. Addison-before the dancing begins. After that, with charms like those of my dear cousin," he continued, giving Elizabeth a blinding smile, "nobody is going to pay the slightest bit of attention to it."

Elizabeth laughed richly, pleased with his banter. He teased her, not unkindly, and flirted with her in a manner that was not at all threatening. She felt a bit like an old friend around him, familiar and comfortable. She knew that he was very handsome, but he was not tall and not at all dark, and he touched her not at all.

"Do you think so?" the attaché inquired, concerned. "Are you serious?"

"Oh, very. You had better hurry." The Colonel winked at Elizabeth, and she gasped at his audacity. She wanted to assure the poor man that the Colonel was joking, and that his surprise would be welcome even after the dancing commenced... but upon turning towards him, she discovered that he had run off, indubitably in a hurry to perpetuate the surprise.

"Now see what you have done," she chided the Colonel.

"Ah, you know that I am devious, my dear cousin." The Colonel grinned at her. "I simply wanted you all to myself." Then, with a thoughtful look upon her, he added: "Though from what I have seen, nobody may have you to himself but Darcy."

This time, she blushed in earnest. "He is my husband," she said quietly.

"Of course. But it is my impression-merely an impression, you understand-that my cousin is wont to monopolize you more than say, my brother is wont to do so with regards to Lady Mariah. Or, to speak plainly, more than any other husband of my acquaintance..."

"Well," Elizabeth said unsteadily, feeling a hot flush rise within her breast, "Colonel, I- We are but recently married." His words had made her unexpectedly, indecently happy.

But he only shook his head, saying nothing. "He is odd like that, Darcy. Very quiet about what he wants, but very sure about it. You never know with him."

What he wants. Elizabeth, glowing with heat from within, clasped her wine glass with shaking fingers. She drank the wine with such hurry that she slopped a little on her chin. Dabbing it with her napkin, she knew that it was a poor decision to drink so much and so quickly when she was in such a state to begin with... Her head spun instantly, her arms growing too heavy to lift. What he wants, she repeated to herself.

The Colonel regarded her with a curious expression. "Are you well, cousin?"

"Yes-thank you..." She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment against the bright glow of the many candles. Quickly, she ate a piece of bread, then drank some water, seeking to restore some equilibrium. "Forgive me, H-Horatio."

"Shall I call Darcy here?"

Suddenly, she wanted nothing better-to have her husband look upon her in thoughtful concern. But he was hidden from her behind the silver-and-crystal monstrosity, sitting next to some lady she could not see. She would not have him summoned, as if she was a child. She would not be jealous of his attention, turned so raptly to his dinner companion. She shook her head. "No, thank you. I am fine."

Coming back a little, she teased: "You see, Colonel, you have accused Mr. Darcy of monopolizing me, and he is not even here."

The Colonel grinned again. "Only because my mother thought it odd to place a husband next to his wife. And full of hubris as my dear cousin is, even he is forced to tolerate his hostess' arrangements. But just you wait 'till the dancing begins, I wager he will be here quickly enough."

"Who-who is the lady to his side?" she asked with as flat a voice as she could manage. It seemed natural to ask it, now, as long as they were discussing Lady Matlock's sitting arrangements.

"I cannot see from here." The Colonel grinned at her again and lowered his voice. "Would you like me to... rise and see?"

She threw him an indignant glance and straightened in her seat, frowning. How easily he had read him. Of course she wanted him to see-but she would rather die than admit to it.

He laughed openly this time, his beaming smile as bright as the golden epaulets on his uniform. "I believe," he said slowly, "that I simply must rise and stretch, before the entire right side of me falls dead asleep."

Elizabeth hid her sheepish smile inside her water-glass. Her head had finally stopped spinning. The Colonel rose easily to his feet, putting on a bit of a spectacle as he stretched his limbs and his back. Then, plopping back into his chair, he said in an exaggerated stage whisper:

" 'Tis Miss Bingley."

"Who?" Elizabeth frowned at him. "I do not believe I know-Mr. Bingley's sister?"

"Yes, well, late Mr. Bingley's younger sister. You need not worry-she is not at all handsome."

Having bestowed such an intelligence, he ignored Elizabeth's outraged sputtering protests that she did not worry, and she did not care a twoppence whether Miss Bingley was handsome. Rising, he bowed politely over her hand and excused himself entirely, leaving her quite alone. Leaving her, as he indubitably guessed, to grimly contemplate how it was that her interest in Darcy had become so obvious.

Luckily, her contemplation lasted only a short while. There was a general ruckus and uproar, and the tall double doors swung widely open to admit the American Mr. Addison. The swinging of the doors had the desired dramatic effect-almost everyone in the room stopped talking or eating or whatever else they were doing, and stared upon Mr. Addison.

"My lords and ladies," he began. "And-eeeeh-gentlemen." (Indubitably having remembered that not every man in the room was possessed of a title.) "I have brought you all a surprise."

"Indeed," said a voice at Elizabeth's side. Without turning, she knew instantly who it was. "That bang alone was worth a good surprise."

She bit her lip, hiding her amusement. Darcy had taken the Colonel's chair at her back. Momentarily, she felt his fingers tenderly stroking the back of her naked arm. She held her breath.

"Stop that," she murmured. "You are distracting me."

"From his surprise?"

"Yes."

" 'Tis no great task to concentrate, if he keeps banging doors like that."

Elizabeth could not repress an amused snort, but said nothing, and entreated him to stop no more. After all, she did not truly want him to stop. In fact, it was the last thing she wanted. She had found that Darcy stroking her arm was far preferable to Darcy chatting with the unseen lady on the other side of the table.

"Come on, man, out with the surprise!" the Viscount urged. Several men in the room cried "Hear! Hear!" On her part, Lady Mariah tittered and rapped her husband on a shoulder with a closed fan, urging him to have some patience.

"Yes-yes, patience." Mr. Addison seemed very nervous, and Elizabeth thought, all of a sudden, that he hailed from a country where they had dispensed with titles-and yet here he was, speaking before a crowd of titled nobility. She could understand his unease, and she felt for him; but she could not, however much she wanted, concentrate on him or his surprise for very long.

"Did I tell you how pretty you looked tonight?" Darcy whispered next to her ear. His fingers left her arm and went to tracing intricate designs in the small of her back, open to him through the opening on the back of her chair. She could feel his every touch agonizingly through the thin muslin.

"No," she whispered. "You did not, as a matter of fact. Stop that."

"Mmmmm? Well, that is unforgivable of me, Mrs. Darcy. You look ravishing pretty tonight."

Mr. Addison, in the meanwhile, had told his-slightly annoyed-audience, that his surprise had come to them from a place called Michigan territory, which was a wild place, and formerly a French territory.

"As opposed to formerly our territory." She could feel Darcy smile next to her cheek. "What do you wager he has brought some poor beast, thinking that our evening could do with a raccoon or a, a-wolverine?"

Elizabeth giggled-but then, Mr. Addison stepped away, and a very tall man stepped in from behind him. He was darker than anybody else in the room, and yet he was not African, for she had seen Africans already in London, and this man looked very differently from anyone she had ever seen. He was almost as tall as her husband and his skin had a red coppery tinge to it. There was quite a bit of it that everyone could see, his costume nothing short of shocking-as it consisted of brown leather trousers and a long colorful cape thrown over one shoulder. On his head was a bright feathered headdress-but he wore no shirt of any kind, his chest quite bare.

"Oh, even better," Darcy said next to her ear. "A savage rather than a beast..."

Elizabeth, speechless to reply, could only nod. The man appeared inscrutable, his countenance as powerful and dark as a rock. Mr. Addison informed the room that his "surprise" was called Elk-Near-Water which in his language-he named the language-sounded like... something unpronounceable. Women around the room were fanning themselves, some in fright, and some in excitement, but Lady Matlock looked decidedly worse for the wear.

"Tell me, Elizabeth, would you like to be dragged about like a curiosity?"

She shrugged, unhappily. She did not like it one bit, not any more than she had liked a traveling freak show when she was thirteen years old. Still, Mr. Elk-Near-Water seemed to show no displeasure-or, for that matter, any pleasure; in fact, his countenance remained not unlike a rock. For some time, Mr. Addison regaled the company with stories of the Indian's prowess in battle. At the intelligence that their unexpected guest had scalped ten rival chiefs and twenty-six whites, there were gasps here and there, and Lady Matlock leaned visibly upon the Colonel's arm.

This served a sign to the Viscount to thank Mr. Addison for such excellent entertainment. Lady Mariah hurried forward, asking the American to offer Mr. Elk-Near-Water refreshments in his language. But when the Indian nodded his head to her and thanked her in only slightly accented English, she, too, looked ready to faint-though, Elizabeth suspected, for an entirely different reason.

In the meantime, the sound of violins being tuned came from the next room.

"Elizabeth," Darcy said, his hand tugging softly upon her shoulder, urging her to turn her attention to him... She turned in her chair, saw him sitting next to her, smiling at her with only the corners of his mouth. "Sweet Elizabeth. Deuce the American and his savage. Come and dance with me..."

She nodded eagerly, her happiness spilling, evident to him, to anyone who cared to look. He rose, then, offering her his hand, in full view of his relations, and led her where the cacophonous tuning of the violins had already turned into a melody.

"Have I told you how pretty you look in this dress?" he asked, as they entered the next room-several dancing couples had already taken their spots on the floor.

"Yes!" Elizabeth laughed. He laughed, too, and it was obvious that he had not forgotten, but was taking simple pleasure in saying courtly things to her. "But you can say that again!"

He laughed, too, and opened his mouth to say something; but at that moment, the violins struck the beginning of the dance, and he remained silent, his mien apologetic. And it was only when they linked arms for a moment, that he whispered:

"You look damn pretty tonight, Mrs. Darcy. I can scarce believe my luck..."

It was after she had danced three sets with Darcy, and two with the Colonel (who had insisted that a man dancing more than two dances over the course of the evening with his own wife looked a fool to all), and one each with the Viscount and Mr. Addison, and was sitting by the wall, resting and drinking negus, that her husband introduced her to the lady who had sat next to him at supper.

"Miss Caroline Bingley-Mrs. Darcy."

For a moment, it appeared to Elizabeth that the mousy brown-haired girl was going to faint. She was her age, but taller-and so unhappy-looking, one was driven to commiserate with her almost instantly. Her pale skin would have been attractive; but it was set off by entirely the wrong sort of color-and thus acquired a sallow tinge. She was there with her older, married sister, a Mrs. Hurst, who was considerably prettier and better attired, and observed Elizabeth with frank curiosity.

Elizabeth felt terrible pity for Miss Bingley, having heard the story of her brother's sudden demise (somehow, Mrs. Hurst did not seem as affected or mournful); that, and a strange sort of sympathy, for one could say that she had lost a brother, too. Impulsively, she took the girl's hand:

"I hope to make a closer acquaintance of you, Miss Bingley."

But nothing registered on the flat, wan face.

"I daresay you will not find the time for me," Miss Bingley whispered. Her hand-ever so cold to the touch-slipped out of Elizabeth's grip. "Excuse me," she said to no-one in particular, dropped a perfunctory curtsey in Darcy's direction, and was instantly gone. Her sister, red with embarrassment, excused herself instantly as well.

Dumbfounded, Elizabeth turned to her husband. "What did I do wrong?"

But Darcy was looking after Miss Bingley, frowning. "She is distressed by something, Elizabeth. But it is very rude of her to speak like so to you... I should speak to her sister-"

"Pray, don't." Elizabeth shook her head. "Poor girl, she has only just lost her brother."

"Still, 'tis no excuse for her incivility," Darcy murmured unhappily. "Forgive me, madam, she is not usually this way."

"I shall gladly believe you," she said, looping her arm through his. "Now, Mr. Darcy, I suppose I have had enough of red-skinned men and ghostly-pale girls for one evening. Would it be polite for us to make an escape?"

He smiled at her, then pressed her hand where it rested on his arm. "Whatever my lady wants."

Before they left, Elizabeth found herself persuaded to spend tomorrow morning shopping with her new relations. Remembering Darcy's request of her, she agreed, however reluctantly.

In the carriage, he instantly sat away from her, leaning against the opposite wall. Elizabeth, a little bit hurt by the distance between them, pondered the mystery that was her husband. Why wouldn't he kiss her himself? Her Aunt-in whose wisdom she had recently acquired a lot of faith-had said that young men were strange... But Darcy was not strange-he exuded confidence and charm, he was intelligent and so very handsome he took her breath away. And yet, his reasoning puzzled her, making her wonder. What was he about? What was he playing at, what did he want from her? Should he reach across the carriage to her and pull her into his arms, she would not mind one bit, indeed she would not... But he did nothing of the kind, instead dropping his mesmerizing eyes to his own hands, studying them with such particularity one might think he had never seen them before. Vexed, Elizabeth turned away and remained like so for the duration of their short ride home.

They entered the house and ascended the great staircase together, his hand gentle at her waist, ushering her inside. But in front of her bedchamber, both tarried, his hands falling away from her dejectedly.

"Well," she said, smiling, "what a day."

"Yes."

Uncertain, she reached out her hand, swept an invisible bit of dust off his lapel. Instantly, his hand covered hers, large and warm through the silk of her glove. It pressed her hand against his heart, so that she could feel it in her fingertips. Thump. Thump. She wanted to curl her fingers greedily around it. Mine. She sighed, eyes drifting closed, her own heart fluttering like a helpless bird inside. He could kiss her right now-she was melting inside-he could do anything he wished to her right now...

"Good-night, Elizabeth." His hand left hers, leaving her bereft. "Go inside, my darling."

She opened her eyes, only to see his door close behind him. Feeling mutinous, she went inside her bedroom and rang for Mary; then, without waiting for the maid, started pulling her pins out of her hair and dropping them, one by one, onto her vanity. By the time Mary appeared, sleepy, in her doorway, Elizabeth had rid herself of all the pins and was standing with her dress half-opened and her shoes off. Looking, judging by the expression on her maid's face, utterly mad.

In his bedchamber, Darcy flung himself upon the bed still dressed. It was becoming more and more difficult. He knew, with certainty now, that he wanted her-and not just in his bed. She had occupied his thoughts constantly in the past several days, and he could hardly miss it-the way her presence both warmed and confounded him, the sudden breathlessness that assaulted him every time she smiled. I want her, he thought fiercely, I want her, I do not want her to leave me... The thought of Elizabeth leaving made him hurt inside, made him wild and furious and dangerous to himself-and to others. He had almost killed Gregory this morning, delivering a riposte of such strength that the tip of his foil had broken off... it was lucky that his friend was so nimble a fencer, or he'd have been dead, the broken-off foil in his heart... And then, stopping stupidly in the middle of a parry, so that poor Gregory had almost slammed into him... and all because he had seen a glimpse of her in the gallery window! Staring at him with just such an expression!

He flipped on his back, then sat up and started to undress, tossing his things this way and that. His flesh rebelled, making it impossible for him to concentrate on anything but her presence next door. He had never been so aroused, but even more so, so moved... his heart, his mind in such a great tumult. Fitzwilliam had laughed at him tonight, calling him a jealous husband, but it had pained him to see her dance with other men... and the smile on her face when he had returned to her, unable to stay away after only a few dances! As if she had only wanted to dance with him, had waited for him to return... As if he had made her so happy by coming back.

The room was stiflingly warm, his man having overdone it a bit. Darcy disrobed to his shirt, then walked barefoot around the room, smothering the candles. Finally, with no more light than the slight glow of the fireplace, he climbed back into bed, pulling the covers over him. He was tempted-more than tempted-to knock on her door. He knew she would open it. He knew she would be wearing her girlish nightdress, and that it would leave almost everything to the imagination-everything but her hands, her neck, the tips of her toes and her nipples pushing brazenly against the cambric. Quite enough, in fact, to leave him in a desperate way. So-knock on her door, sweep her up in his arms and take her to bed. And then...his imagination ran wild, telling him exactly how it would be. He flipped onto his stomach, buried his face in the pillow. No. He was better than that. He had promised her-a foolish and dangerous promise, but the one he would have to honor. He was, after all, a gentleman... And, he had to admit with a certain amount of chagrin, a bit of a fool.

For however often he told himself he would honor that promise, he could not imagine actually doing so. He could not imagine letting her go... He had lived without her all his life, why was it all of a sudden so unbearable to imagine starting without her again? With every day's passing, he felt closer to her, felt more enchanted and farther from any other woman he had ever looked upon.

Sullenly, he contemplated why she should want the damned annulment so much... when she had seemed to him as enchanted as he felt... He remembered, once again, the expression on her face when she had come to watch him that morning... shocked, but in a good way...as if she was surprised and pleased to discover him as he was: in an open shirt, perspiring heavily and waving a sword furiously. As if she had only just realized he was a man. He laughed, exhilarated, and pounded the pillow with one fist. She was ogling him, plain and simple, staring at him at the moment when he was at his... well, at his manliest, really. The memory of her face made him think-hope-that not everything was lost. Perhaps, if Elizabeth felt for him half of what he was starting to feel for her, perhaps then she would forget about the idiotic annulment.

For he had come to believe that if she stayed married to him, he would be admirably happy... and he would do his damndest to make her so.

That night, as he lay in bed, sleepless, he fancied he could hear her small movements next door, almost willing her to knock on her door. Finally, a good two hours later, when no knock had come, Darcy had to content himself with the idea of her. Giving up all gentlemanly affectations, all pretense of self-restraint, he banished all doubts and plunged, greedily, into the memory of her in his bed last week. How she had curled up, warm, against him, her bottom snug against his loins, her hair soft at his cheek. After all, his dreams did her no harm, and if she chose to follow through with the annulment when the time came... well, more fool he. It felt divine to give in, to think of her as his wife, as a woman he desired... As a woman with whom, if he carried on like so, he was sure to fall in love.

His dreams were full of her that night. Sitting on the edge of his bed, smiling at him in a way that was indulgent and admiring at the same time. Her nightgown, pierced by sunlight from the window, almost transparent, the contours of her body slender and feminine against it. Her hair curling luxuriously down her back, falling fragrantly over him as she leaned to kiss him. Her mouth... From then on, his dream took an inevitable course. Morning found him, once again, sleepless, aroused and a little miserable-but hopeful.

Today, he thought, rallying his own spirits, today was another day. Today was another day closer to his birthday.

Chapter 20

For the rest of the day, Darcy removed himself from her presence. Something inside him ached powerfully when she was near, now more than ever. Coming to look at him at Angelo's, Elizabeth had betrayed something about herself. A vulnerability-and yet it made him all the more vulnerable, all the more susceptible to her. Still, he was glad of it... even if he had to remove himself from her presence for days at a time. Idly wondering what would happen if he went ahead and just... kissed her. Surely she could not resist all that he felt inside! But somehow, he could not just... capitulate. He had asked her for a kiss, and she was behaving like a greedy little merchant pocketing her gold-though he knew, he was certain, well, if not... if not that, she certainly was curious and desirous enough to kiss him... But, he discovered with horror, it was becoming nigh-on impossible to be near hear and not want her.

So he spent the day riding in St. James' park (which, unhappily, only served to remind him of walking there with Elizabeth) and having a luncheon at his club-there were so many acquaintances that wanted to give him their felicitations, every single one of them looking rather surprised. Even shopping-buying, on an impulse, a string of perfect pearls from a jewelry store in Bond Street. Unfortunately, thinking about how they would gleam against the skin of Elizabeth's neck soon set him to musing on other subjects.

Bored and restless, his body reacting traitorously every time he thought of his wife, Darcy rode home, wondering whether Elizabeth would be there when he arrived.

In the morning, Elizabeth submitted to Lady Matlock's attentions; for a good three hours, she narrowly avoided having Darcy's money spent on hideous things in variety of garish colors. To her surprise, her new cousin, Lady Mariah, proved to be somewhat of an ally; she had a far better taste in clothes than her mother-in-law. Elizabeth, still uncomfortable with spending money she did not consider her own, told herself nonetheless that she was investing in familial harmony. She was a diplomat, really, and surely Darcy would thank her for that.

By noon, however, she had listened to enough gossip and fashion talk to last her a lifetime. Some of it had made her blush... some of it had made her cringe... and some of it she wished she had never heard. Tired of Lady Matlock's officious manner and the obsequious address of every modiste in sight, she told yet another milliner to send the bill to her husband and watched a footman scurry out, carrying her boxes. She felt a horrible spendthrift, determined that she should spend not another penny more, not even if it were for a cup of ice at Gunther's. Enough was enough.

"Oh Elizabeth!" Lady Mariah cried out, holding up yet another hat, this one-decorated with purple feathers. "This is very much the peak of the season-"

"It is lovely," she said, quickly. "But if you forgive me, Lady Mariah, I think I have enough hats. Perhaps we could go now?"

"Indeed, a moment, my dear."

Waiting for her companions to finish their shopping-for shockingly, they were still not done after three hours-she cast an idle glance about the shop and was struck by a familiar face at the other end of it. The same lady she had seen at the theatre and found so beautiful. Darcy had declared her handsome but had behaved as if he had not known her. But Elizabeth could swear that the lady had been staring at them at the theatre-and that she was staring at her presently. So rudely, in fact, that Elizabeth even turned, thinking that there might be someone behind her for whom such a direct glance was meant.

Before she could recognize her own folly, she dropped the silk scarf she was holding onto the counter and walked across the shop.

Up close, the lady was even more beautiful than Elizabeth remembered. Her features were pretty...regularly pretty, or rather they would have been regular, had it not been for her exquisite coloring. A blond, ethereal being with skin so white it shone and eyes so blue it seemed improbable they belonged to a real person. Her hair, too, was of a most lustrous bright-gold color. Her figure was handsome, as far as it was possible to tell with a sitting person; but her white hands and her long white neck were astonishingly lovely. She was dressed with the understated elegance of a wealthy woman who needed not show off her wealth through her clothes; but her jewelry was beautiful, and, as far as Elizabeth could tell, real.

"Mmmmm?" The lady craned her neck, lifting her lovely face to Elizabeth's, but not rising.

"Madam, I saw you-" Elizabeth caught herself, unwilling to let the lady think that she thought her rude... yes, yes, it was true, but perhaps this woman had a perfectly good explanation for staring... "I thought I saw you looking at me... and then at the theatre the other night...I thought I should come up and introduce myself." She smiled tentatively, hoping for a smile back. She received a small one, one end of the full red mouth tugging up slowly.

"I am Mrs. Darcy," she said. Using this appellation came to her almost naturally now.

The beautiful woman did not blink, but another small, careful smile tugged upon the sides of her luscious mouth.

"I know who you are," she said, her accent unexpectedly French and not a little beguiling. Elizabeth frowned, shocked: she had not expected this. She thought she detected a momentary flash of animosity in the lady's voice, in her gaze-and then, the impression was gone-the smile was as genial as before...

"I am Miss Degas," the woman said, extending a small, white hand. A heavy diamond bracelet, and a ring to match, winked at Elizabeth in the subdued lighting of the shop; so much jewelry, Elizabeth thought, and yet she was not gaudy...

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Elizabeth murmured, uncomfortable.

"Likewise." The lady rose, beckoning to the shop's assistant. She was a little shorter than Elizabeth, her figure remarkably handsome. "Send these to my house," she commanded in the same lilting French tones, and the girl dropped a quick curtsey; then, turning back to Elizabeth, she said: "I must go now, Madame." She paused, smiling, and seemed to consider something. Then, with a resolute shake of her head, she smiled again, this time much more brilliantly. "My compliments to your husband," she said, before sweeping out of the shop.

Elizabeth remained rooted to her spot, quite bewildered. I know who you are... my compliments to your husband. What did she presume to mean by that?

"Oh, oh, oh!"

Elizabeth pivoted to see Lady Matlock, white as the length of tulle she was clutching in her hands, rushing towards her across the length of the shop. "Oh my dear girl! How dare she, brazen woman! Oh, oh!"

Elizabeth, befuddled ever further, watched Lady Mariah lay a comforting hand upon her mother-in-law's shoulder.

"No need to worry, ma'am. No damage has been done."

"No damage, indeed! I daresay 'tis a very great damage when one cannot go where one pleases-not without the danger of running into God-knows-whom! And the gall on that woman! How dare she! This is the last time we come here!"

"Of course," Lady Mariah agreed soothingly, throwing Elizabeth a quick glance full of curiosity. The owner of the shop hurried towards them-unlike Lady Matlock, her countenance was of the most brilliant red hue. Elizabeth heard Lady Mariah explain something to her in hushed-though haughty-tones. However much she strained her ears, from where she stood she could only catch a few words:

"...indeed...dared...introduce herself... notorious...Lord de Vere..."

Then, in the next moment, they were walking out of the shop, Lady Matlock still fuming, Lady Mariah-curiously quiet. Inside Lady Matlock's carriage, she leaned over and grasped Elizabeth's hand.

"What did she say to you?" she inquired eagerly, eyes glinting with curiosity.

"Nothing except tell me her name," Elizabeth lied. "I had come up to her, to introduce myself. Her face had seemed...familiar."

"Well, I very much doubt that!" Lady Matlock cried. "That manner of woman-familiar to you-why, you would have no occasion to even meet her!"

"Indeed," Lady Mariah agreed, smiling in self-satisfaction. "No doubt you were mistaken."

"It appears I was," Elizabeth said slowly. "But-what manner of a woman?"

"Oh, I shall not bear this discussed between the two of you!" Lady Matlock cried, alarming and annoying Elizabeth to the point where she was ready to jump out of the moving carriage.

"Why, cousin," Lady Mariah said, quite ignoring her mother-in-law, "precisely the manner of woman no respectable person ever speaks to!" And, upon beholding Elizabeth's shocked expression, the lady cried: "Why, a courtesan, my dear, she is a notorious courtesan! A fallen woman!"

"Thank you, cousin," Elizabeth murmured. "I know quite well what kind a woman a courtesan is."

But all she could think of, all she could hear was the lady's lilting voice in her head: My compliments to your husband. A courtesan, she thought, and she was sending Darcy her compliments. She dropped her eyes to her lap, hoping her expression did not betray all the upheaval she was feeling inside. A courtesan. To her own surprise, the thought of how that woman knew Darcy was nigh-on unbearable...

The other two ladies, no doubt believing her sufficiently shocked, said nothing more to her, reverting to an idle conversation between them... Elizabeth trained her eyes on the glint of light playing on the carriage window. Truth be told, she was shocked-but not because the blond beauty was a fallen woman... After all, if she thought of it, this was how a fallen woman would look...with so much jewelry and that seductive French accent... But that she should know Darcy! And how? Elizabeth's common sense forbade her to think of it as an innocent acquaintance. A man of his circle, what use would he have for a woman like her-except the most obvious? Everything within her revolted at the thought. She knew so little of this side of life, all of it-little hints she had gathered from books, from living in the country, from being courted by Darcy, from talking to her Aunt-creating a huge mess in her head, something that she wanted, and feared, and would much rather not dwell upon altogether. But she knew enough to know that a courtesan was the precise sort of woman men went to for that... and the thought of Darcy... and her...that pale white skin, those huge robin's-egg eyes... and her body, too, must be beautiful... Elizabeth had a horrid image of her husband wrapped in Miss Degas arms flash through her mind-her husband, as she had seen him once at Pemberley, almost entirely unclothed, with only a towel around slim hips-and then, in nothing at all but this woman's beautiful white limbs... She shuddered in disgust and consternation, willing it to go away. She knew she should not dwell on that. He was not hers... what was the use in jealousy? But the embarrassment she had felt at the thought of Darcy having that kind of life ripened into outright agony when she reminded herself that he had lied to her...

At the town-house, she bid the two ladies good-bye. Lady Matlock, suddenly worried, grasped her wrist:

"Dear girl, do not tell your husband-do not tell him whom we have met! I daresay he will be so very angry!"

Elizabeth had her own ideas as to which one of them ought to be angry; but aloud, she assured the old lady that she had no desire to discuss her shopping with her husband.

"We have things enough to talk about," she said, pressing Lady Matlock's hand with all the affection she could muster at the moment. She sounded ominous to her own ears. Trailing the footman who was carrying her purchases, she went back inside the house.

In her bedchamber, sitting in front of the looking-glass, she pressed both hands to her flaming cheeks. Her head swam. My compliments to your husband. Vile woman, she thought vehemently, and the ferocity of her own feeling terrified her. Why should she be angry at this, this... stranger? The woman had taken nothing from her! If she were to tell herself the truth, it was Darcy with whom she was really angry-and yet, how dare she? How dare she be angry at him? He had had a life before her, he would have one after her...When discussing the terms of their marriage, it had not occurred to her to mention marital fidelity. At the time, it simply had not crossed her mind... Why, then, should it worry her so now? What had changed?

Nothing. Nothing had changed. Their marriage had remained as much a thing of convenience as before.

But for the longest time, she could see nothing before her eyes but the image she had painted in her mind-of the pair of them wrapped in a tight embrace, arms like snakes around each other. Miss Degas' skin and eyes shining like a rare jewel in her mind. And when she looked in the mirror, she felt ugly and dowdy and drab... and not even the new gowns, only just arrived from the modiste, could please her or gain her interest.

Darcy came home-from where, she wondered poisonously, where was her husband spending his afternoons-just before supper. Elizabeth had spent a good part of the day in the gardens, where she could sit with her face hidden in a book, and not be bothered by Mary. Still, she had gone back to her room when it had gotten too cold to stay out of doors... She asked for a tray-she would sup upstairs tonight. She heard him, soon enough, running up the stairs, his voice lively as he inquired about Mrs. Darcy, and whether she had come back from her excursion with his aunt. Then, Mary's hushed voice, telling him something, Elizabeth could not tell what-and then, she had only had the time to sit up atop her bed and swing her legs over to the floor before the knock came.

"Elizabeth! Elizabeth, are you in there? May I come in?"

She deliberated not letting him in-but she would be damned if she showed him how hurt she was. So she tossed her head to nobody in particular and said, in the most even voice imaginable:

"Of course."

He walked in, bringing the cool autumn afternoon in with him. He was still wearing his great-coat, though his head was bare, dark hair floppy over his brow, and he was pulling off his gloves. She knew, suddenly, that his skin, the even expanse of his forehead, his long thin nose, his chin would all be cold; even his hands, despite the gloves. Faith! When had he suddenly become so handsome? Elizabeth downed a strong feeling of resentment, mixed with a powerful desire to toss something heavy at his head...

"How was your day?" He came closer, dark eyes regarding her warily.

She shrugged, trying to sound even and calm. "I went shopping with your Aunt."

He grinned. "As good as could be expected, then."

"Indeed," she said dryly. She found she could not look him in the eye, her face so hot it must be flushed scarlet.

"Elizabeth." She heard the rustle of his greatcoat as it hit the chair, and then he was sitting next to her, reaching for her. He pushed up her chin, gently, and yet with undeniable purpose. "Are you unwell?"

"I am quite well, thank you." She moved away, his tender gaze causing a swelling of resentment within.

"But Mary said you are to take supper upstairs tonight... is anything the matter?"

"Nothing," she said. Terrified that she would cry, now, that he would see her cry over this, she spoke more loudly and harshly than she had intended. "Nothing is the matter. I should like some privacy, that is all." Leave me be.

Darcy rose, looking hurt. "Forgive me." Leaning, he picked his great-coat up from the chair. He threw a glance at her untouched tray, food cooling. "Enjoy your supper, Mrs. Darcy."

And just like that, he strode to the doors and was gone before she had had the time to take another breath.

Elizabeth spent the rest of the evening in her chambers. She ate only when Mary threatened to summon a doctor to see what on earth was wrong with her. But even then, she had little appetite for food, and merely pecked on it, silencing her maid with as haughty a glance as she could manage. Having finally set her tray aside, she tried to read, but failed at that, as well, her whole being in upheaval. To her horror, it was not all disgust she was feeling at the thought of her husband engaged in such intimate pursuits-but a powerful turmoil. Something churned and trembled deep inside her, where she did not know she could even feel... Perhaps only the lowest and earthiest of feelings could be resident so deeply within... And it seemed, all of a sudden, that all of these feelings-all of herself she had not known thereto-had lain dormant 'till now-but were now asleep no longer. There was something deeply coarse and improper about the very idea... but she could not help it. On the one hand-offense, disgust, distress at the thought-on the other, deep animal longing against which she was utterly helpless... how to reconcile these two sides of herself, she did not know.

Half the night, she tossed and turned in sleepless misery. Tears, when they finally came, were no relief at all... pained sobs tearing through her breast, leaving her gasping for breath.

Still weeping, she thought she heard something, and it took her a moment to register that it was her husband's voice, on the other side of the connecting door, asking if she was all right.

She had not the time to answer it, for he said: "I do not like this, I am coming in," and in another moment, there he was, kneeling at the side of her bed.

"Whatever is wrong?" he murmured, reaching for her. She shied away, but he locked one hand around her wrist and drew her closer to the edge of the bed. "Why are you crying?" he bade, softly, and then, to her resolute silence: "Elizabeth, will you not tell me?"

Elizabeth saw that he was dressed in his shirtsleeves, still wearing his trousers from the evening; clearly, he had not gone to bed. In the sparse firelight, his face was shadowed, difficult to read.

"Please," he repeated. "You worry me. I need to know that you are well..."

"I am well," she said, wearily. "Girl's maudlin tears, do not concern yourself with me..."

"I can feel when something is wrong," Darcy murmured stubbornly. Slowly, he pulled her closer, gazing intently into her face. Elizabeth was tempted, sorely, to fling the truth in his face, but even at her most self-righteous, she knew she had no right to do so... She had given him no promises, had offered him nothing, how could she demand anything back? How he conducted his private affairs was no business of hers.

"Nothing," she repeated, firmly, then pulled her hand out of his grip and wiped her tears quickly. "I miss... I miss Jamie is all."

"Really," he said, suspiciously. "Is that the truth?"

"It is. Go now," she whispered. Unable to help herself, she drew her fingers across his cheek, starting at his sideburns and ending at the very edge of his mouth. His lips caught at her fingertips in a tender caress. "I shall not cry any more tonight."

But she did cry, after he had left her room, stopping reluctantly by the door before finally disappearing inside his room; after she had gotten up to lock the door behind him, she did cry. For she might tell herself she did not care, she might tell that to herself all she wished... but brave rallying thoughts did nothing to stop either the tearing pain or the great upheaval within.

Her dreams that night were deeply, strangely erotic. In the morning, she did not remember what she had dreamt, but the vision had left her filled with a powerful yearning. It suffused her entire being, from her throat to her heart to the tender spot between her legs.

Rising from her bed, she learned that Mr. Darcy had gone already, having left orders to let her sleep. She was stung, once again, at the thought of how kind he could be; but her heart felt sore with jealousy and excitement.

"Would you not like to see the gowns, ma'am?" Mary inquired as she set Elizabeth's hair that morning (which in any case was rapidly edging towards the afternoon).

"Gowns," Elizabeth repeated dumbly.

"Why yes, Miss, the ones that have come last night! I do not believe you've had a chance to see them yet!"

"Indeed I have not," Elizabeth said. Her curiosity stirred, she agreed. "Well, I cannot see why not."

Mary, by far the more excited of the two, flounced off to get the packages.

There were seven dresses altogether, arrived from two different shops: two evening gowns, two morning dresses, two regular walking ones, and a sumptuous golden ball-gown made specially for Lord Gregory's upcoming fete. The speed with which they had been made, as well as the craftsmanship and rich materials-all a testament to the expense her husband had gone to on her behalf.

"And not a single gray dress between them!" Mary crowed. Elizabeth shot her an angry glance, but she could not help delighting in the wealth of color before her, and she touched the rich fabrics a little shyly. There were also two spencers and a very handsome full-length pelisse with a fur trim.

Mary sighed. "I daresay Master has an excellent taste," she said appreciatively.

Elizabeth frowned at her. "Master! What told you it was his taste, and not mine!"

Mary said nothing, only looked at her mistress with an excess of expression. "Come, Miss, try them on now, will you not?"

"No... not right now," Elizabeth said. Her sensibilities still abused from the night before, she could not bear prolonged company, be it even that of her maid's, and the last thing she wanted was to be trying on finery. Staring at the gold-stitched ball-gown she was to wear in two days, she contemplated Lord Gregory's fete; and with it, the fact that it was also her husband's birthday. Give me a kiss instead. All breath rushed out of her, and her eyes prickled with sudden tears of humiliation. She could not believe she had seriously contemplated doing just that. That she should think on it, imagine it, wish it-just the day before! A beautiful face floated in her mind's eye, large gray-blue eyes with spiky black eyelashes, porcelain skin, lush red mouth. Darcy had played a lover to her, had humored his plain child-bride, while all the while concealing from her an intimate association with such a beauty. Could she hope to compare to that? How could he want a kiss from her, when such a woman existed in his world? Indubitably Miss Degas would give him all the kisses he wanted.

Despaired, Elizabeth ordered a carriage and marched out of the house, determined to put an end to all this kiss business once and for all.

Some hours later, she quitted a gentleman's milliner's in Bond Street, possessed now of a pair of expensive doeskin gloves. She had taken care to pick something that she felt he would like ... or rather, something he would have liked, had it not been for his request of her. La, she thought, not a great disappointment to him in any case, not with the bewitching Miss Degas readily available to him. So gloves it would be, but she would not pick just any pair, and she had spent a good hour and a half choosing, trying to be deliberately caring and thorough. Finally, settling upon a beige doeskin pair, she paid with her own money and left the shop.

Outside, the sun shone unexpectedly brightly upon the late autumn day, making it a little bit warmer. Elizabeth stood, raising her face to the sun, keenly aware that it would only be there for a short while longer. Thinking about the approach of winter made her melancholy, made her think on death and loss. Making her remember last winter, when she had lost so much. All of a sudden, she was loathe to enter the carriage. Turning to where one of Darcy's footmen stood by her carriage, Elizabeth gave the man the package with the gloves:

"Take this home, please. You may give it to Mary."

"Ma'am?" The man stared at her, visibly nonplussed.

"I shall walk home from here," she informed him. "The day is far too fine to ride cooped up in the carriage."

To her surprise, the man did not move-normally, any request of hers would spur the family's servants to a rush of activity.

"Yes, what is it?" she asked, annoyed by the footman's sheepish expression.

"Surely I cannot leave the Mistress alone in the streets, ma'am."

"Why not? I know the way home." She gave him an encouraging smile, and the footman smiled gingerly back at her.

" 'Fraid Master will not see it this same way, ma'am... Clear as day he'll fire me if I just let you go..."

Elizabeth sighed, seeing his predicament. She could imagine Darcy would not be best-pleased with the person who allowed her to go wandering through the streets.

"What is your name?" she asked, frowning.

"Albertson, ma'am."

"Well, Albertson, let us come to a compromise. I do not wish to endanger your employment with our household. But neither do I wish to ride in the carriage. What if I were to walk through the streets, as I long to do, and you were to drive the carriage behind me?" She smiled at him again, cocking her head. "My husband need never know."

He bowed to her, greatly relieved that she was not sending him away after all. Elizabeth stepped away from the fellow, knowing that the carriage would follow her, and that she could retreat within, should she wish so, at any moment... but hoping that she would not need to.

She walked, amidst the bustling London streets, amidst people of different sorts of quality, and the profusion of sights, smells and sounds; but she hardly noticed any of it...Thoughts plagued her: thoughts of her husband, a contradictory figure that he presented in her life, of the beautiful courtesan and the role she had played in his... and of why on earth the intimation of their liaison had so bedeviled her. So immersed was she in her unhappy ruminations that she had fairly ceased to look where she was going. Frowning and chewing on her lip, she continued down the street, deep in her thoughts.

Then, when she least expected it, came a jarring collision with another solid human body; an overwhelming aroma of flowers; and a shower of petals. Elizabeth staggered, almost falling, and was quickly caught by the arm and set on her feet.

"Faith, I am sorry!" she cried, terribly embarrassed. She dared not look up at the person she had only just divested of a very large bouquet of yellow tea roses that now lay in the mud. Mortified, she kept her eyes firmly ahead of her... and saw a handsome red uniform with some very shiny gold buttons. "I am sorry," she murmured again. "I-your flowers...How clumsy of me. Let me pay you for them...."

" Please, don't. 'Tis no matter," her victim finally spoke. His voice was calm and warm, devoid of even a bit of irritation. Elizabeth dared to lift her eyes, only to see a young officer smile down upon her. "I was the clumsy one."

Elizabeth apologized, suddenly feeling unseasonably hot in the coolness of the day. "I do not know what I was thinking of," she murmured. He was a very handsome man, with bright green eyes and a fair lock of hair above his brow.

He was also embarrassingly kind, refusing to accept money from her, or to ascribe her any blame.

"But your flowers," she stammered. "They are ruined!"

The officer looked about, as if that simple fact had required any confirmation. "Yes," he said, smiling at her. "That they are."

"Well-"

"Well nothing," he said. "I shall buy new ones. And I suppose you do owe me, do you not?"

"Indeed I do."

"Will you accompany me to the flower-seller, then? In recompense for making me drop them."

Elizabeth felt herself blush again. She knew there was something vaguely improper about his request, but she also knew that she was free to deny him. Indeed, she could turn around and leave and she would probably never see him again. She cast a wary glance at the carriage (which had stopped at the side of the street, blocking traffic).

"Of course," she said after a moment's consideration.

They walked silently, and then he said:

"You know, I cannot introduce myself if you do not-Would it be too forward of me-"

"Oh," she said, "of course. I am-I am Mrs. Darcy."

He cut her a short bow. "George Wickham," he said.

"Are you in the Army, then, sir?"

"Militia," he replied with a wag of his head. "We are soon to be moved to some sleepy place in the country. I am not quite sure where, yet. I suppose the populace in some godforsaken hamlet somewhere needs to be defended against the French."

Elizabeth laughed, charmed by his manner, and was suddenly moved to confidences. "My brother is in the Army. 19th Light Dragoons, in India."

"19th Light!" Mr. Wickham exclaimed. "That is very glorious, indeed, ma'am," he said seriously. "I have heard of some rather daring exploits on their part." He gave her a wistful smile. "Surely the monotony of service in the country cannot compare to a life of adventure in India!"

"So you say!" Elizabeth sighed, for conversation about Jamie or India invariably made her most unhappy. "But I should rather my brother was in the monotonous little hamlet, or anywhere else in England, for that matter...it is a very dismal comfort to me, sir, that he is in the exciting India!"

Mr. Wickham looked upon her in sympathy. "I understand. But do not make yourself uneasy, madam. Surely he will come back to you?"

"I hope and pray," Elizabeth said fervently.

He had not the chance to answer that, for they were now at the flower-seller's. Elizabeth attempted, once again, to press some money upon her new acquaintance, for in addition to feeling responsible for his expense, she could well imagine the hardship of a soldier's existence. Mr. Wickham, however, refused any money from her, forcing her to stand uselessly by as he purchased a bouquet of roses.

"What color, would you say, madam?" he inquired of her.

"I should not know," she said. "Perhaps the same as you had before?"

"Indeed not," he said. "For their purpose this time is entirely different."

And, before she had the time to utter a word of protest, he bought a bouquet of barely-open deep-red roses-rosebuds, really-and thrust them into her hands. Shocked, Elizabeth protested, begging him to take them back-but he turned and walked outside the shop, forcing her to do the same.

"You cannot do this," she said, rushing out of the shop, her arms full of roses. "Mr. Wickham, you cannot-"

But he only grinned and wagged his head, showing her that it was a lost cause:

"As a token of friendship and admiration for a young lady who has so many thoughts she has lost her way." He cut her a polite bow, then straightened out and quickly checked a small silver watch at his waist. "May I be so bold as to offer to escort you to your destination? I do not like the sight of a gentlewoman alone in the streets."

She shook her head, then pointed at the carriage that had followed them, faithfully, down the street. "My husband's men will see me safe."

He cast a quick glance behind her.

"Ah! I have not noticed them. In that case, madam, very pleased to make your acquaintance. Good day to you."

She curtseyed, dazed, still pressing the bouquet of roses to her breast, then watched him disappear in the crowd. Then, still shocked, she took the gorgeous roses-and herself-back to the carriage.

"Take me home, Albertson," she told the footman who held the door open for her, his countenance stony. She was deeply unsure of what had just transpired-had she done anything objectionable? But then, she thought as she settled herself back against the cushions, what was so terrible about accepting a bouquet of flowers from a handsome stranger, when her husband was no doubt amusing himself with a notorious courtesan?

Darcy was aware that something was wrong. At first, he attempted to deny it, assigning Elizabeth's sudden low humor to her missing her brother, and the general mutability of female disposition. But then, he noticed, their very daily interaction had changed. She had abruptly stopped flirting with him, and avoided him as cunningly and as resolutely as if he were the Plague. She had not reverted to the rude little savage she had been in the beginning; but, over the next two days, Darcy had almost come to wish she had-for this new Elizabeth-unfailingly polite, quiet, non-responsive-was nigh-on insufferable. Seized as he was at times with a powerful compulsion to shake her back into good humor, it dawned at Darcy after a day and a half that she was angry at him for something.

But of course. His first reaction was to be angry back: why did she not say anything? It was unfair to make him guess at his fault. As it was, he still did not know what he had done... one day, they were laughing, flirting, making love like newlyweds ought; the next, he was treated to a proverbial cold shoulder-without having the slightest idea why. It was horrible, and Darcy almost gave in to a fit of pique himself... until another realization almost made him jump (they were taking tea in the garden, Elizabeth staring quite past him, her fingers shaking almost imperceptibly as she handed him the cup...). Three months ago, Elizabeth would have raved and ranted and insulted him; she would have scorned his company, turning her back on him publicly; she would have... well, that was three months ago. Three months ago, she would have reacted to him like a child... now, she was angry at him in a way that only a woman could be...

The thought was unexpectedly pleasant.

He contemplated her, then, in the afternoon: bareheaded, wearing a simple dark-blue wool dress and a darker indigo cashmere shawl, her feet covered with a throw rug (she had not looked up at him as he had covered her, merely murmured her distracted thanks); a porcelain cup with the dregs of her tea on the stone bench next to her; a pad of drawing paper on her knee. For the past hour, Darcy had watched his wife battle with a sketch of a single autumn leaf, pinned on a small easel in front of her. Having been taught the principles of drawing as a child, he would have found such a task-such a construction of simple, finite lines and shadows-too easy. But Elizabeth, poor soul, really did seem to struggle with it. As watching her inspired in him the worst manner of impatience, making him want to take the pencil out of her hand-making him wonder, angrily, what on earth he had done wrong, Darcy turned and buried his nose in his book. Sir Walter Scott's latest novel, for which he had passed over Rousseau's Social Contract, in an odd whim to enjoy rather than educate himself (this, too, was Elizabeth's influence on him).

A quarter of an hour later, realizing that as a man of some intelligence, he should have long quitted page 152, and that he was not likely to make much headway with Rob Roy's remarkable adventures, Darcy resolutely closed the book. Glancing over at Elizabeth, he saw her just as consumed by the battle with her leaf; she seemed obsessed by it, the page in front of her smeared with many previous attempts, poorly erased.

This was intolerable.

He must speak with her.

But even as he opened his mouth to speak (the act, which in itself had required some courage), he knew it was not to be. For from the direction of the house, there came a harangue of such intensity, that Elizabeth started, looking up, and Darcy knew that there was only one person who could possibly gain admittance to his house while making so much noise. Gritting his teeth in annoyance, he rose to welcome his Aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The old lady bore at him, bursting out through the French doors, her walking-stick rapping sharply on the stones as she walked. He could see the servants' faces, staring, shocked, through the windows. Only the butler hung behind her, looking exasperated by his futile attempts to get her to wait. Darcy waved at the man, releasing him. The last thing he wanted was the help hearing everything the lady had come here to say. Luckily, as he went inside, the butler ushered the others away from the windows as well.

Darcy turned his attention to the matter at hand.

"Good morning, Aunt," he said pleasantly. More pleasantly, in fact, that he felt; but he would not give her an excuse to be uncivil. Lord, she did not need it anyway, for without an answer to his greeting, she burst into excited and furious speech:

"Upon my word, is this the young person whom you are rumored to have married?!" As she spoke, she pointed to Elizabeth a manner that was appallingly rude (but hardly unexpected). Elizabeth rose to her feet, still holding her drawing pad against her hip, looking slightly bewildered.

"Indeed. Madam, allow me to introduce-" Darcy began, determined to remain civilized, but was instantly interrupted by a furious tirade:

"Credit me with having eyes, sir! I can very well see that this unhandsome creature, sitting so cozily in your company, could not be but that little impostor Miss Bennet!"

Elizabeth blanched, but said nothing; she did, however, sit down, turning her face away from Lady Catherine. Darcy frowned: he had expected something of this sort, but had underestimated the violence of his aunt's assault. But he must now allow her to bully Elizabeth.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said weightily. "I shall thank you to refer to my wife by her proper appellation, madam."

"Wife indeed!" the lady hissed, all the while attempting to emphasize her point by rounding her eyes at Elizabeth and grinding the end of her walking-stick into the ground. "This upstart! Occupying the place, which rightly belongs to someone else!"

"Aunt, please!" Darcy said shortly. "I insist that you stop. I shall not have you abuse my wife."

He took a step forward, unconsciously trying to put himself between the two women; Elizabeth, still silent, had grown very white, her nose and cheekbones thrown into sharp relief by her sudden pallor. Lady Catherine, on her part, ignored Darcy and addressed herself to Elizabeth:

"And you! Have you no shame! Have you no decency! To come and take a place long reserved for someone else!"

Elizabeth said nothing, standing very straight, looking away. Darcy was impressed, as she continued to behave with dignity and civility remarkable in someone so young. He would not blame her if she turned and left, or spoke back. But her hands gripped the edges of her drawing pad; it was as if she kept herself from speaking by nothing but frantic determination.

"Aunt-" Darcy said. He expected to be ignored and he was, Lady Catherine continuing to harangue his wife:

"An upstart girl! If you have an ounce of sense in you, you would not aspire to quit your sphere-- Who are your relations! What is your family! And that brother of yours, so scandalous a duelist who had to flee England!"

Now, Elizabeth started in indignation, gasping and sputtering, but was cut off instantly by Lady Catherine, who now once again addressed herself to Darcy. He stood, feeling helpless and particularly foolish, for though he could have predicted his aunt's reaction, he had hoped for some civility on her part. Vain hopes! His aunt bore at him like a French man-of-war at full speed.

"Darcy, you foolish man, you cannot blame yourself! For indubitably she has practiced her arts and allurements on you-though what allurements such a dry black thing could have I cannot say! But men are fools when it comes to women, not at all reasonable!" With an appraising glance at Elizabeth, she continued: "She is very young, crafty little thing! Perhaps the whole sordid business could be annulled? I don't suppose you've had her yet?"

Elizabeth's drawing pad and pencil tumbled into the grass. Darcy, livid at himself for having allowed this to get this far, knew that he could not let this go on a moment longer... Grasping his aunt's elbow, he ushered her down the path with so little ceremony and such great speed, the lady only remembered to be aghast when they were quite out of Elizabeth's earshot.

"How dare you!" she hissed, wrenching her elbow out of Darcy's grasp. "Laying your hand on me, your impudent boy! Oh the shame of it! This will not do!"

"No, madam!" Darcy clenched his teeth, waiting to for his anger to stop choking him. When he spoke, it was in a measured, nearly-polite way. "What will not do is you insulting my wife. How dare you come here and abuse both of us in this vile manner!"

"How dare you marry her!" Lady Catherine riposted loudly, ignoring completely any inference that she might have done or said anything wrong. "How dare you dishonor your mother's promise to me?"

"My mother's promise! Pray leave my mother be, Aunt!"

"You were to marry Anne, such was her promise to me!"

"I do not believe that any such promise was ever made," Darcy said quietly. "I should hope my mother had sense enough not to tie me to a child in her cradle." For the first time, Lady Catherine faltered:

"Your mother, and I, have always felt that we must unite your two fortunes!"

"My fortune," he said softly, "is not yours to command, Aunt. My father still lives."

"Your father, if he had an ounce of sense-"

Darcy raised a warning hand.

"Aunt," he said. "Beware what you say. I shall stand for no more insults."

Knowing that she had just gone too far, Lady Catherine retreated, instantly changing masks:

"But will you not annul the marriage?" she implored. Darcy cringed. If she only knew. "Surely it is not too late! I have heard that the two of you did not share a bed at Pemberley-"

He stood there, stony-faced, hoping not to betray any kind of answer to her; and all the while-calculating when it would be considered forgivable to throw his old Aunt out of the house.

"I shall do no such thing," he said slowly. "I am married, Aunt. Elizabeth is my wife, the Mistress of Pemberley. She will so remain. You had better accustom yourself to the thought."

"But your mother has promised me-"

"I see you persist in your folly, madam! But be it as it may! Consider me to have disregarded her promise. Consider me anything you wish. Shun my house and denounce me as your relation. But do not seek to interfere in this most private aspect of my life. And do not come here with so obvious an intention to insult my wife. I shall not allow for it."

Knowing himself to have said everything there was to say, Darcy turned on one spot and walked back to Elizabeth. He closed the garden gate behind him, cutting Lady Catherine off; there was a pause behind him, and then, a barrage of insults and threats. That went well, he thought, listening to his Aunt scream of scandal and their now-dismal social prospects. Abominable woman, screaming to the whole world that he had broken a promise to her daughter-a promise that he had never made, a promise that, as far as he was concerned, had never existed. He was a little afraid that she would follow him-for though he knew himself capable of asking her to leave, now, he did not quite know what he would do if he refused. He did not relish the thought of calling a footman to throw her out.

Luckily, Lady Catherine was of no mind to follow him. Soon enough, the irate shrieking faded away, and he knew that the old woman had left. He stopped in the middle of the lane, for a moment pressing his fingers to his temples. He was mortified, chastising himself cruelly-how could he have allowed it to come to this? Surely he should have dragged the old hag away earlier... and had Elizabeth heard everything she had said to him? He hoped not, and if she had, that she would not be too wounded.

~ * ~

Inside the garden gate, he stopped. He had not known what to expect, and he supposed his wife's reaction to be fairly natural to having been grievously insulted. For she was sitting very straight, her drawing pad upon her knee again. There were more lines across the page. Darcy had never seen her so white in the face. She looked quite old-much older than her years.

"Elizabeth," he said helplessly. "I am so, so sorry-"

"No matter," she replied. Her voice was dry and grown-up. He was a little afraid of her like this.

"I should never have allowed her to say those things."

"What choice did you have?" She rose to her feet, holding the drawing pad under her arm. "One cannot always choose one's relations, nor the manner in which they comport themselves."

Darcy frowned. "Even so." He did not like this one bit. She was far too generous with him, too calm, too polite...

"Well, you are forgiven," she said coolly and moved to walk past him and towards the gate. Her aloofness frightened him. He knew how to conduct himself with the Elizabeth of their early days-Elizabeth the spiteful child. Elizabeth the unhappy woman was a creature entirely knew to him...

Not wanting her to leave, he instinctively caught her wrist. She jerked, dropped her drawing pad again, looked up at him, eyes huge against the skin that was still too white.

"Let me go," she said. She clenched her teeth, a muscle working in her jaw. "Fitzwilliam, I said-"

"No," he said quickly. "Not until you promise not to run away. We must speak of this. Elizabeth, please."

"Let me go," she repeated, and he only wagged his head. He was holding her wrist just tightly enough to keep her from wrenching it out-yet not so tightly where he would cause her pain or leave a bruise. He would gladly murder his Aunt just now. "You are behaving a barbarian."

He said nothing to that, pulling her slowly, inexorably, back to the bench.

"I am cold," she said, her voice biting. "I am cold here in the garden, you are keeping me in the cold." But as he sat down, she sat down next to him.

Without replying, he slipped his arms about her form. "This should warm you up." To his surprise, she did not fight him.

"Permit me to apologize again," he whispered in her ear. "I should never have allowed her to say those things about you."

She shrugged, her voice faint. "They were not... untrue."

Darcy started. "How can you say that!" he cried indignantly, pushing away just enough to study her countenance and finding that he could not read it at all. "Elizabeth, they were horrible vile things-"

"But I did take a place belonging to someone else."

She spoke just barely above a whisper... and yet he heard every word.

"Nonsense!" he said, suddenly very angry. Moving further away from her, he rose to his feet and started pacing. "Vile offensive nonsense! Nothing belongs to anybody. My cousin and I were never meant to marry-I know of no promise my mother has made-certainly I have never made her any promise, have never done or said anything that might lead her or my Aunt to believe I should offer for her!"

Even as he said that, he thought of another promise, made on his behalf by his father; the irony of it did not escape it... but he found he could not be angry at the old Mr. Darcy just now. Still, Elizabeth she had a cagey, mistrustful look about her, and he returned to the bench at her side, suddenly terrified that she should think ill of him. For if she should believe his Aunt, his faults by that calculation were ... well, they were monumental.

"Please, Elizabeth, you must believe me!" he implored. "Do you suppose-had there really been a promise to my cousin-do you suppose my father would sanction our marriage?"

She thought of it for a moment, then nodded. "You are correct, of course... I do, I do believe you... But!" she cried, her misery gaining renewed vigor. "In any case, if it is not your cousin, there ought to have been someone else! Surely I am in the wrong place!"

"Really," he repeated, flabbergasted. He sat back, staring at her. Did she really think so? "Why is that so?"

"You know how poorly we are suited!"

"Quite the opposite, in fact, I thought we were getting on rather admirably."

"Come, Mr. Darcy! We cannot but misunderstand each other. We spent the first months of our marriage constantly apologizing to each other. Mostly I apologized to you, but you did your good share, too."

"But not lately!" he said, hurt, and had the satisfaction of watching her falter and blush.

"Not lately, indeed," she murmured, looking away. "Lately, other emotions have ruled over us, but what happens when the novelty of that passes? What happens when you no longer--" Her voice fell almost to a whisper. "-when you no longer desire me, and I am no longer captivated by you? Do we start sniping at each other again? I did, I did take the place meant for someone else," she continued, hotly. "Someone more fit to be your wife!"

Darcy rose back to his feet and went to stand by the wall. He could not bear to look at her, fury constricting his throat. . "What are you saying?" he asked softly, his voice dulled by the sudden strong pain that had gripped his heart.

"Nothing," came a trembling little voice from behind, and then a sob. Darcy cringed, as if in pain. She was not the kind of girl who used her tears as a weapon. They were genuine, these tears. She was crying over him. He wanted to comfort her, but was terrified she would push him away just now. It was a horrible feeling.

"Nothing," he repeated slowly without turning around. "Nothing. Indeed you are saying something, madam. I do not believe for one moment that you, with all your youthful hubris, do not think yourself fit to be my wife. Rather, you do not think me fit to be your husband!"

He hated how it had come out: accusatory, as if he had caught her in the act of betrayal. Betrayal, he thought, how could she betray him, when she owed him nothing?

A heavy silence formed behind his back, and then she said. "You are correct. I do not think you fit, Mr. Darcy."

He took his time turning around, afraid he would shout at her. He suspected his expression was nothing short of beastly at the moment.

Finally he found it in himself to look her in the eye. She stood there, looking for all purposes like a little criminal, only just confessed to a hanging offense and sure of her sentence. Darcy bit the inside of his lip, knowing that any unkindness on his part would only make it worse. Indubitably this new accusation had very little to do with his Aunt-and everything to do with the way Elizabeth had behaved for the past two days. Terribly hurt, he was nonetheless glad: for here was a tiny hairline fissure in the impenetrable façade she had put up... something was bothering her enough to speak of it. Perhaps it was a good thing.

He wanted to speak to her with kindness, with gentle persistence; but she never gave him the time, sprinting past him towards the garden gate, the ends of her Kashmir shawl trailing almost to the ground.

"No-" He said, quickly, and caught at her shoulders. "No, Elizabeth. Do not do this, do not leave. Let us talk about it-"

"No use!" she cried, wrenching herself away from him. Dear Lord, he thought, how white she was, how upset, lips trembling, dark eyelashes glued together with her tears. His heart broke for her. Poor child.

He held her tightly, pulling her quickly against himself, and spoke urgently into her ear:

"No, no, please do not do this, please! Elizabeth, please! Do not shut me out like so!"

She growled, pummeling her fists ineffectually against his shoulders.

"Why are you set upon me like some plague?!" she cried in helpless fury. "Why will you not let me be?"

However little he liked her language, Darcy knew her words to be true: he could not relinquish her, not easily. He had agreed to grant her an annulment... and in his mind, it was the only correct thing to do. Indeed, a logical rational man-a gentleman-in him could not fathom doing otherwise...He would let her go... But his heart would not be reconciled with the idea his mind had long accepted, protesting loudly. He did not know why it should be like so.

So, unable to answer the why, he repeated, simply, a whispered "don't," whispered it into her hair, all the while hugging her against himself.

"Come, madam, tell me."

"You press me so!" Her voice was dull, her cheek pushed against his waistcoat. He wondered whether the servants had seen them quarrelling from the house. "Are you so certain you will like my answer?"

"Perhaps not, but I want to know it all the same."

"Very well," she said, wrenching her way out of his embrace. "I shall tell you." She walked away from him, returning to the bench, picked up her drawing pad where it had fallen onto the stones. She paused, and it appeared to Darcy that she was gathering courage the way one gathers air in one's lungs. Finally, she spoke: " 'Tis because of your associations."

"Because of my associations," he repeated dumbly. Like a dim little light, a possibility loomed, but it was too ridiculous, too improbable that she should know of it. No, he decided, she could not possibly mean what he had thought for a moment she meant. "You have met all my associations." He grimaced at the ridiculous word she had chosen.

"Indeed," she murmured, hard bitterness like an icy lash in her voice. "I have met them all-even those you could not suffer me to meet..."

Darcy gritted his teeth, balled his hands up by his sides. "I have not the pleasure of understanding you, madam," he said, keeping his voice deliberately even. Panic started, deep inside, as the light grew brighter. Those you could not suffer me to meet. But no; it could not be... it would be too much of a happenstance, ridiculous like a badly written novel. "Stop speaking in riddles, Elizabeth."

"Your mistress," she said, and though Darcy had almost expected this to be the case, he jumped all the same. "Or perhaps she was not a mistress to you? Lady Mariah has referred to her as a... what was it... "notorious courtesan."' Elisabeth's voice was light, almost teasing, but Darcy would be a fool to mistake the extreme tension underneath. "Can a notorious courtesan be someone's mistress? You tell me."

"Stop that," he said quietly.

"I thought you wanted me to stop speaking in riddles?"

His countenance twisted as if with severe toothache, Darcy could not meet his wife's eye. He was gripped by shame and fury, and he did not know which was worse. Not so much because of Valerie, but mostly because he remembered, with horror, pretending not to know her. It had been so easy... a turn of his head, a shrug of his shoulders. So much easier than having to explain to Elizabeth, with her keen mind, her insatiable curiosity, the role that Valerie had played in his life...

"I have nothing to say," he murmured. "Except that she was not my mistress."

"Well, perhaps not," Elizabeth agreed. "I did not stop to inquire about the particulars. By the way, she sends her compliments."

So outraged he was by that, Darcy forgot that he was ashamed. Shocked, he looked Elizabeth squarely in the eye. "What?"

"Miss Degas sends her compliments." Now that she had his secret out in the open, Elizabeth reverted to the infuriating calm once again; and Darcy, now fully certain that one of them had to be quite insane, could only mutter:

"Does she now?"

"Indeed. I, on my part, must compliment you on your taste. She is very beautiful."

"Stop that." The sensation of toothache gripping his jowls returned. He longed to finish this conversation and escape... somewhere...far. But he could not. Suddenly, it had become of utmost importance to disabuse her of the notion that he had kept a mistress...that he had ever been unfaithful to her. He was not certain how it had happened that they had met...and it did not matter, frankly. He saw that she, too, cared enough to act irrationally over this...he simply could not allow her to think him that kind of man. "I think it was very wrong of her to approach you."

Instantly he knew this had been the wrong thing to say... Elizabeth flushed, angrily. "No doubt you are angry with Miss Degas for ruining your pretty secret! Of course you would prefer to keep me in the dark!"

"No, indeed-"

"You should know, then, that she did not approach me! I approached her!"

For the tenth time, he lost his gift of speech. "Whatever for?" he finally managed.

"Because her face seemed familiar! Because she was looking at me!"

"Ah," he said, biting his lip again. He should have known, that of the two women, Elizabeth would be the one to do something like that. But Valerie! How dare she say that to her... Forcefully, he stopped himself. It would be petty to blame Valerie. This was his fault only.

"Elizabeth," he said. "Allow me to apologize to you."

"No need for that!" she bit off, the bitterness in her voice a clear evidence that there was, indeed, such a need. " 'Tis your life, you are free to live it any way you see fit!"

"Not for that," he said. He was feeling a little more in control of himself now, no longer wanting to break things. "You are absolutely correct, it was my life, and I lived it how I saw fit."

She caught the "was," and the "lived" and stared at him, perplexed.

"You should know that I have not ... visited... Miss Degas since before we were married."

She dropped her eyes to the tips of her shoes and uttered a small "Oh."

"Nor do I intend to do so for the duration of our marriage."

He did not tell her about the momentary temptation two nights prior; that moment of weakness had belonged to him alone...he was happy, somehow, that he had not acted on it. At least that she would never know...

She said nothing, silent, not looking at him, her cheekbones flaming in the late afternoon light. After a long pause, she said, her voice low, her eyes still on the stone path:

"You need not be such a faithful husband to me, you know. I cannot-We are not truly husband and wife-"

"Stop talking this rot, Elizabeth," he said coldly. "As far as I am concerned, we are as married as they come. That we do not share a bed is not a reason for me to defile our union." His lips twitched. "However minor a place it occupies in your mind."

Another long silence, and then she sad, lifting her eyes at him for the first time.

"So you did not...go to her?" she whispered. "Not recently?"

"Not since before we were married," he said tiredly. The conversation was revolting, and yet, he could not shake off a feeling that the worst of it had not actually occurred.

"And before?"

Darcy stilled himself. "I had."

"Often?"

"Does it matter?"

"Not really." But she was looking at him in a way that told him she was still expecting him to answer. He shrugged.

"Often enough, I suppose."

"Often enough," she repeated, in an unhappy murmur. "Did you pay her... every time?"

Darcy scowled at her. "Indeed I did, madam. Every bloody time. What other particulars of my association with Miss Degas do you wish to know?"

"Why did you lie to me, then?"

"Lie to you!" He faked incredulity, though he knew very well to what she was referring.

"You know what I mean. That night, at the theatre! You pretended not to know her!"

There was nothing he could say. He had played a part of compleat indifference that night.

"Do you deny throwing her a haughty glance, saying "she is handsome enough," and then turning away?"

"No, I do not."

Elizabeth said nothing, then, waiting for his explanation. Damn it. He thought of the absurdity of this situation. She was judging him... not because he had kept a mistress, or had visited a house of ill-repute...because he had failed toadmit that he had... What a small sin it was, he thought, compared to what so many men did and what so many wives accepted...An frustrated sigh escaped him.

"It was beneath me," Darcy admitted. "I should have interrupted our lovely evening by confessing to you the nature of my acquaintance with Miss Degas. No doubt that would have made for a scintillating theatre conversation."

Improbably, she smiled. A discomfited little smile, her lips twitching sourly.

"Are you satisfied now?" he said, angrily. "Now that you know all my secrets..."

Well, he thought immediately. Not true. But in any case, all his secrets that could possibly affect her...

"Yes," Elizabeth said, seriously. "I thank you. We are friends, after all, are we not? I should not have you keep any secrets from me..."

Darcy acknowledged that point of view with an unhappy nod. He had long forgotten his own ridiculous idea that they be friends...the last weeks... days... have changed their association so much, they were anything but friends now...

And then, before he had the time to say another word, she dropped him a curtsey, bade him good day, and was gone up the stone path and into the house. Leaving him shamed and feeling quite the evil-doer, though God help him if he knew why.

He was not at all surprised that she did not come down to supper that night. Sitting at the long table all alone intolerable to him, he set his plate aside, asked for his coat and his carriage, and went to his club. It was Friday, and Gregory was often found supping there on Friday nights; perhaps he could have his company, if he could not have hers.

~ * ~

He returned late at night, exhausted, unhappy and drunk enough to tumble into instant sleep. As he passed by his wife's door, he stopped and listened, thinking that he fancied a movement within. But after a moment, he knew it to be his own imagination, and with no small measure of relief-and disappointment-he took himself to bed.

In her bedchamber, Elizabeth sat up at the sound of his footsteps. It was past midnight; she had lain in bed, miserable, driving herself mad with thoughts of having pushed him away. She banished herself from thinking that he was with that woman...after all, she had believed him when he had said he would not defile their union. But she was still intensely unhappy at the thought that once, he had shared an intimacy so great with another woman...a woman who was, in her estimation, the most beautiful creature she had ever beheld.

Elizabeth sighed in her bed. She was half-hoping, half-dreading that Darcy might knock on her door. She had no idea whether she would open, but she wanted, badly, a sign that he was not cross with her. Why should she care? Surely she was cross with him. Was she? For what? For having a life before her? For lying to her? But he did not lie, merely did not acknowledge an acquaintance that was... that would have been difficult to explain. She had to admit, she could scarcely imagine a conversation like today taking place in their theatre box. Surely her enjoyment of the night would have been shot to bits. Suppose she should be grateful to him for sparing her feelings? Elizabeth groaned in frustration. This was a pretty problem to wrap her mind around!

By far the worst part of it was the fact that it had happened. The imaginings of the last two days, when she had tortured herself with the images of her husband in that woman's arms were all true. It was a bitter one to swallow, and the thought that he might want her now seemed so utterly ridiculous...Why? Why would he want her, when he could have a woman like Miss Degas? It was no use being petty and trying to convince herself that there was nothing special about her. The woman was...oh, so beautiful. Nor did Elizabeth doubt that he could have her... the leer-whether real or imagined-in the courtesan's eyes had been unmistakable... she would take him back without a second thought...

By morning, miserable and exhausted, she had convinced herself that he could not possibly want her. Her thoughts so illogical as only an early morning hour could make them, she finally fell asleep-in tears and quite convinced that she would do them both a great favor if she stopped playing Darcy's amorous little games. There was, she decided, before finally drifting away, no use.

She woke late, and with a splitting headache, and was almost late to breakfast. Having dressed quickly, she set her own hair, quickly and awkwardly, without waiting for Mary to appear. Grimly set upon the last night's resolution, she grabbed Darcy's gift from the mantel in her room before going down for breakfast.

He was already there, pale and a little worse for wear. She wondered, once again, where he had spent the night before. Still, he was unfailingly correct, rising to move her chair for her. Elizabeth did not sit down.

" 'Tis your birthday today," she said awkwardly. He smiled at her, a little tiredly.

"Is it now? I confess I quite forgot."

"Yes, well. Happy Birthday." She held out her gift to him, knowing full well that he had asked for something entirely different. But he did not want that, he could not have...

"Ah." He took the small box from her. "Thank you." His expression was curious, as if he did not know whether to laugh or cry. "May I open it?"

"Of course. 'Tis your gift."

He opened the box quickly, dispensing with the elegant wrapping paper and the neat white bow. He looked a little perplexed as he stared at the gloves, and then he said, softly, seriously:

"Thank you. These are very handsome."

Elizabeth exhaled, slowly. "It is... it is getting cold. November. I thought you might need another pair."

"Ah," Darcy said again, placidly. "I shall be sure to wear them. Thank you."

She sat down, then, in resolute unhappiness, all thoughts of courtship and desire buried deep within. She felt a terrible coward. For the duration of the meal, Elizabeth could not bring herself to look Darcy in the eye, feeling as if she was on the verge of breaking down. He, too, said nothing, limiting himself to a polite request to pass the bread; and to reminding her, in the gentlest tones possible, to be ready by six o'clock for Lord Gregory's fete. Thereupon he left her, taking the gloves with him.

Chapter 21 - part 1

On the night of Lord Gregory's party, Mary clasped her hands at her breast with an expression of moony approbation.

"Why, Miss, you look right pretty tonight, if I say so myself!"

"Glad to be to your liking," Elizabeth murmured. Staring in the mirror, she noted that her own visage wore an equally silly air. She was to her own liking, very much so, in this new gown of ivory muslin, gold-stitched all through with fanciful designs. She had tried it on earlier at the modiste, unfinished, and then once again, to make certain it fit her all right. But she had been miserable over Darcy then; she had taken it off quickly and had had no desire to preen. Faith, she had barely looked in the mirror then. Now, standing next to Mary, she felt a slow, silly smile creep over her countenance. The dress glowed in the candlelight, and Elizabeth saw herself glow in it. The skirts swished and shimmered around her legs with her every step. The gown was so very simple otherwise, not a ruffle, not a bow in sight. Not even a piece of lace. The sleeves, of transparent golden net, a delightful illusion of cover that left her arms visible right to her shoulders... and a deep décolletage that, together with Elizabeth's tightly-laced stays created a picture that was pretty, if rather shocking.

Mary set her hair with a single large white camellia. Elizabeth was surprised-but not at all displeased-to find a beautiful strand of pearls on her bed tonight. There was no note with it; but she knew all too well the giver and his intention. The pearls complemented the dress perfectly. As she took in her reflection in the looking-glass, Elizabeth was seized with a sudden urge to twirl on one spot. But she could not do so, not in front of her maid; and the recollection of her quarrel with her husband served to sober her up.

Quarrel or no, it was a treat to see him waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, formally attired and white-gloved, a sleek black cloak around his shoulders. Elizabeth found him... more than handsome. There was dignity and loveliness about him, and also something powerful, something visceral that made her weak in the knees every time he gazed at her in his own, so very peculiar a manner. She had discovered, of late, that he had about him an attractive combination of powerful, elegant maleness and tender kindness. That he was a gentleman she had long known... but that he could be such a sweetheart was a revelation to her. This new knowledge was dangerous to her, as it did something wicked to her heart. She wondered... had he been like this from the beginning...perhaps then... but then she censured herself sharply. Idle thoughts were even worse than idle hands.

Elizabeth swallowed nervously, wondering just how angry he was with her. She had spent the day in an uneasy state, feeling terrible about their latest row... and especially about the stupid gloves. Her face felt hot with embarrassment when she thought about them. Whatever had possessed her? Better give him nothing at all-for surely he must have taken her gift to be a mockery... His hurt expression at breakfast had haunted her for most of the day, and the way that he had removed himself from her presence had served to multiply her own fault in her eyes.

She had thought about the subject of their quarrel, too-and had come to soften her judgment of Darcy considerably. That he had remained faithful to her in a chaste marriage she could not fail to appreciate, however weak her understanding of male nature-and who was she to judge him for what had happened before? As to his lie... well, it was small enough. Not a lie, even, a failure to disclose the truth. Elizabeth had imagined yesterday's conversation taking place in his Covent Garden box. Her evening there - so blissful and exciting - would have been ruined.

"Elizabeth?" Darcy murmured, startling her out of her unhappy thoughts. Elizabeth took another step and stopped again, stumbling over his frankly incredulous gaze. Frantically, she catalogued the changes in her appearance: was her dress too ostentatious? The camellia in bad taste? The décolletage too deep? But then he spoke, in a tone that was low and thick, and there was no doubting the guileless admiration in his voice:

"You look..." He took a deep breath. "You look like a goddess tonight, Elizabeth."

"Oh," she whispered, finally taking herself down the stairs. Her knees felt so weak, and her hairdo so heavy all of a sudden, she felt that the blasted camellia might just tip her over. She did not know how to respond to so obvious, so compleat a compliment. Finally, as she stood before him (he had taken a step up the stairs, offering her his hand with the look of a gallant knight ready to do obeisance to his lady), Elizabeth could only think to thank him with all her sincerity-for his kind words, and for the beautiful pearls. He smiled shyly, inclining his head, telling her it was his pleasure. She wished she could put in words how lovely he was to her eyes.

They tarried, then, as Mary hurried down with Elizabeth's own cloak. He was standing so close to her, Elizabeth could catch the crisp citrus of his cologne, could hear his soft breathing; his white-gloved hand was still holding hers. Elizabeth did not have the heart-or desire-to withdraw it. Then, as Mary swathed her cloak about her shoulders and stepped back with a look of satisfaction at her finished work, Darcy shifted awkwardly from foot too foot, looked owlishly about, as if waking from a dream.

"We had better go now, Elizabeth."

In the carriage, they said nothing. It was full-dark behind the window, their only illumination a lantern's feeble glow. Stealing a glance upon her husband's countenance, Elizabeth found him deep in thought, his gaze strangely unfocused, as if he were looking within himself. He had handed her in, his palm gentle on the small of her back, but then sat himself in the corner opposite from hers, retreating into deep silence. Elizabeth, setting herself back against the rocking of the carriage, tried not to feel slighted. At long last, she succeeded in making herself feel guilty. The knowledge that she had spurned a man who was so very handsome, and just such a perfect gentleman, hardly made her feel any better.

She had over an hour to spend in grim recriminations. Darcy said not a word, limiting himself to inquiring whether she was cold. Having confirmed that she was fine, Elizabeth was sorry to see him retreat into his silence once again. After the look in his eyes earlier this evening, this was utterly intolerable: she felt, all of a sudden, that she had been shown the contents of a treasure chest-only to have the lid firmly snapped and the coffer taken away.

But she had her pride, too; and after a while, she no longer sought his gaze... though she hoped, most fervently, that he should speak to her or take her hand. But he only turned to her an hour later, when the carriage had already entered the long, shaded lane leading to Lord Gregory's manor.

"We are here, madam."

Elizabeth lifted the window shade and peered into the darkness. She could see, with the edge of her vision, a great illumination beginning just a few steps away-and throngs of people, moving with great energy and agitation.

"Take care to enjoy yourself, Elizabeth. Gregory's parties are great fun."

She smiled at Darcy, suddenly shy at the realization that any enjoyment she might derive from this evening depended upon his person alone. She wondered whether he knew that.

They remained in the carriage until it managed to pull close enough to the grand staircase to disgorge its occupants. Elizabeth tried to see out of the window, but gave it up after a while, sitting up with dignity, ankles crossed in a ladylike fashion. Darcy was staring at his white-gloved hands with such attention, one would think he had never seen them before. She wondered, suddenly, about Miss Degas, and whether she would be here. Nonsense! She wondered, further, whether Darcy was thinking of her. Why? He had not seen the woman... not since they were married... a conscious effort on his part to remain a faithful husband... but how could one ever forget a woman like that? And yet, he had told her she looked like a goddess tonight. She felt the heat in her cheeks, hoping desperately his compliment to her went beyond mere politesse. She told herself firmly that there would be no more thoughts about Miss Degas tonight.

Then, finally, the carriage stopped, and a liveried footman in a silvery wig flung open the door. Darcy alighted first, then handed Elizabeth out with great care. She took momentary pleasure in the feel of his hands upon her and gladly slipped her hand through his elbow at his silent invitation. However mortified she was about what had transpired between them, the excitement of the party, together with the memory of the surprised admiration in his eyes, won over. She tried not to stare too much, but it was difficult, considering that Lord Gregory's manor looked a regular fairy-tale castle. A multitude of guests was walking up the great staircase, ladies shimmering with diamonds, white feathers waving above the crowd, grinning and laughing and talking excitedly, eager for the evening's pleasures.

Inside, they dropped their cloaks onto a footman's hands and went through a gold-lit ballroom. Then, onto a wide terrace, and down the steps into the gardens. Elizabeth, surprised that a party should be held in the gardens at the end of October, wondered whether she should have kept her cloak... but a moment later, she realized her own folly. It was eight o'clock in the evening, and yet she could no more feel the autumnal cold than if she was dropped with her eyes closed in the middle of a tropical paradise. For it was light, owing to a number of torches set all around, and also rather warm, due to dozens of hot-coal braziers. The numerous long tables, placed amidst the warmth, glittered with finest silver and crystal, and a great stone floor had been set off with torches, prepared for dancing to the sounds of a musical octet.

She could hardly contain her excitement, and though she knew it made her look a child, she could not resist clapping her hands in delight.

"How wonderful!" she cried, looking up at her husband, who grinned back at her.

"You have not seen the half of it!"

Darcy led Elizabeth through the crowds, where Lord Gregory, immaculately turned out, stood welcoming the guests. Upon their approach, His Lordship's countenance exhibited such obvious joy, Elizabeth would have thought he had waited all this time for them alone.

"Ah, Darcy! Ma'am!" He cut them a polite bow. "Finally!"

"Good evening, Your Lordship." Darcy bowed, smiling, the appellation an acknowledged joke between the two old friends. "How delightful all of this, my friend."

Gregory beamed at them. "I aim to please." He bowed to Elizabeth again. "Ma'am. I do hope you enjoy yourself. There will be fireworks later."

They moved on. There were other acquaintances there, Colonel Fitzwilliam and his older brother the Viscount amongst them; Lady Mariah was not with them, having already abandoned her husband, who seemed none too distressed for it. The Viscount's attention was quite monopolized by a young gentleman who looked, to Elizabeth's eyes, vaguely familiar. A Mr. Welland, she was told; the Viscount was quite preoccupied by their conversation, which revolved, much as she was able to tell, about theatre.

Theatre! Elizabeth remembered. Here stood the very Petrucchio who had brandished a whip so very menacingly upon the stage in the Covent Garden. Up close and minus a fake beard, he looked much younger and quite dashing. For a moment, it occurred to Elizabeth that it was quite odd for Darcy's titled cousin to pay the young actor so much attention - frankly, to the exclusion of everyone else - but she herself was far too full of the evening to think about that. The Colonel, on his part, was gallantry itself, but Elizabeth could not help noticing that Darcy preferred the Viscount's indifference to the Colonel's solicitude. The sweeter was his handsome cousin, the darker and more silent he became. There was a surge of momentary joy inside her, and she found that she wanted, in the darkest part of her heart, to think him jealous. To imagine that she was so primitive as to desire his jealousy...What an insipid female she was sometimes.

There were other acquaintances, and Elizabeth found herself - her gown, her jewels, her hair - very much on display, and very much admired and envied. She reflected, once again, upon her husband's faultless taste.

Then, she had only to take a step, and a young officer applied to dance the first with her.

"Um." Elizabeth glanced over at her husband, unsure of what she should do. It seemed a wanton liberty to accept another partner when he had not reserved a dance for himself. But he had not reserved a dance for himself, she thought angrily. Why hadn't he, after all? She was beginning to fear the repetition of the Harvest Ball debacle; luckily, Darcy appeared to be of a different mind this time; turning to her, he asked her, very deliberately:

"Mrs. Darcy, may I see your dance card?"

Her fingers trembling a little, she unsnapped the thin golden chain from her wrist and handed it to him together with a pencil. Quite audaciously in front of the young officer and several other people, Darcy rested the card against a Grecian column and scribbled his name next to the first two dances. Offering the card back to her, he said seriously:

"The first two are mine." Nodding to the officer, he added: "A husband's privilege, you understand."

Elizabeth released a pent-up breath, her head instantly going into a spin. Her fingers shook so much refastening the card, that she almost dropped it. He was looking at her... it was agitating her insides, how he was looking at her. Next to her, her unfortunate applicant made a polite hemming sound.

"Oh-I am sorry." Elizabeth turned to the man. Her temples throbbed, her heart high up in her throat. "Yes, of course. After Mr. Darcy, I am not engaged. I shall dance "Sir Roger" with you, sir."

The man bowed and left her, pleased. The Colonel instantly applied to dance the next with her, and then, Lord Gregory. Darcy said nothing to any of that, and very soon, she watched helplessly as her card filled up.

"You have stolen so many hearts tonight," Darcy said softly into her ear. She almost jumped: she had never learned to account for his whereabouts, it seemed, he could turn up in any place at any time.

"Nonsense," she murmured. It was hot, despite the late season; but Elizabeth wondered whether it was due to the flaming braziers or because his lips were so dangerously close to her ear as he spoke.

He was silent, and she burned with the nearness of him. He had made her feel so beautiful tonight... the way he was looking at her! Only one amongst many, but no other man's admiration mattered to her. She bit her lip and fought not to lean back into his embrace. Suddenly, she no longer cared about his past, or how many hearts she stole tonight. Not if his was not one of them.

"Mr. Darcy!"

They both looked up, guiltily. Late Mr. Bingley's sisters were standing there, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley both, the latter dressed in a dress of a most unflattering fashion, her hairdo suffering from a feathery overabundance. Elizabeth dropped a curtsey and received two in return - or rather, one-and-a-half: a polite one from Mrs. Hurst, and a barely-there one from Miss Bingley. Elizabeth thought her eyes were lying to her; but her thoughts were so far away from the girl and so preoccupied by Darcy that she did not stop to think on her incivility. Darcy, however, did notice, if a deep frown creasing his brow was any indication.

"Have you heard from Mrs. Bingley?" he inquired politely. Both ladies said no, and Mrs. Hurst asked him how long, in his estimation, a letter would take to come from India to England.

"Mrs. Darcy knows, as she has written to her brother there numerous times." Darcy bowed to them all. "Excuse me for a moment, I see my cousin wishes to speak with me."

"Three months," Elizabeth said miserably as she watched him walk away. "Four."

"So your brother is in India?" Mrs. Hurst inquired.

"Yes-in Madras," Elizabeth said.

"How difficult this must be for you," Miss Bingley said dispassionately. "You have no family here, do you?"

"I have some... relations in town," Elizabeth said cautiously. Miss Bingley looked her over quite particularly, then said:

"I should want my family near when I am thrust into an unfamiliar role."

"An unfamiliar role," Elizabeth repeated, dumbly. "Pray, I do not understand your meaning."

"Why, the mistress of a great estate. I understand that you do not come from circumstances equal to your husband's. Must be difficult for you," she repeated clearly, evenly. Elizabeth saw, then, that not only did Miss Bingley know she was giving offense, she had meant to give it.

She bit her lip. To hell with you, she thought. "I usually find myself equal to my tasks," she said dryly. "Forgive me, Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst." She did not bother with any further ceremony, but turned and walked off quite deliberately, her golden skirts swishing about her legs. She was determined not to let Miss Bingley ruin her evening; nor did she want Darcy to know of it, for it would put him in an awkward situation of having to defend her.

He came towards her, then, across a brightly lit lawn (for there was no tree in the gardens that was not hung with myriad Chinese lanterns; and even some of the statues-those with arms-had tiny lanterns hanging from their fingers) and handed her a glass of champagne. Damn! Why did her fingers start to tremble every time she needed to take something from him?

"Come, let us sit down." She obeyed him; almost instantly, the doors on the first floor of the house were flung open, and a throng of footmen filed out, carrying flat silver dishes. In a matter of minutes, the long tables were set with delicacies so exquisite, Elizabeth felt her mouth water instantly. She was not gluttonous by nature, but such talent and imagination were in evidence at His Lordship's table, that one was tempted to try everything, if only out of curiosity.

Considering the excellent food, it was rather vexing that she could hardly eat at all, all aflutter with nervous excitement. There were at the table with Lord Gregory himself, the entire Fitzwilliam clan, and several other gentlemen and ladies who seemed to know Darcy. They were introduced to Elizabeth, their names and titles soon blurring into a great miscellany. The champagne was going to her head, and she thought she saw the Viscount whisper something into Mr. Welland's ear. The young actor grinned and whispered something back. Lady Mariah, chatting with a gentleman to her right, did not seem to notice, or else pretended ignorance.

At that moment, a man walked past their table, dressed in a glittering suit and juggling so many silver balls, Elizabeth had no hope of counting them. She threw a questioning glance at Darcy, who laughed and motioned to the other side of a table, where a young woman, dressed in an identical silver tricot, hurried by upon a large ball, moving very fast and with exceeding grace. Another man-creature?-walked by majestically, stepping out with dignity and a very large feathered silver peacock's tail. Elizabeth laughed in dizzy pleasure, her vexation at Miss Bingley and her disbelief at their cousin's behavior long forgotten. The night, lit up with lanterns, smelling of flowers and delicious food, had acquired a magical quality. Anything wonderful could happen tonight!

Some time later, the sound of violins called from the side of the dance floor, reminding the dancers that the time for the revels had come. Darcy leaned over her, smiling.

"Shall we, madam?"

She rose, putting her hand in his. "The first two are yours, Fitzwilliam."

Her feet not entirely steady, Darcy led her to the dance floor. They found themselves just behind Lord Gregory, who opened the dance with a handsome young lady (earlier introduced to Elizabeth as the Russian Countess of Lieven). Elizabeth had long abandoned her fears of a misstep; after all, she knew herself to be a decent dancer-and on the arm of such a superior partner, she could not but dance well. To her surprise, they hardly talked at all; but Darcy's gaze did not waver from her for a moment, and neither could she take her eyes off him.

Then, at the end of the second country dance, Elizabeth knew that they must part; and she regretted bitterly having promised the next dance to someone else. They stopped in the middle of the dance floor, both breathing heavily though the dance had hardly been so strenuous as to excite one in such a manner.

"Mrs. Darcy," he murmured. He was still holding her hand, their fingers tightly twined. There was turmoil in his eyes. "I am afraid I might have done something exceedingly stupid."

She only opened her mouth to ask him what it was; but at that moment, her next partner materialized at her side, quite anxious for her company. Elizabeth felt like hitting the unfortunate man over the head with something heavy. She almost wished that Darcy should refuse to give her up. But he only smiled at her and dropped her hand.

"I shall see you later, madam."

With that, he disappeared into the crowd. Elizabeth turned reluctantly to her partner, her polite smile concealing the upheaval within. I might have done something exceedingly stupid. What did he mean by that? Why did he insist upon speaking in riddles, the insufferable man? And to disappear like so! She threw a clandestine glance around her, but he was nowhere to be seen. She danced a Sir Roger de Coverley with the young gentleman, whose manner and countenance barely registered in her inflamed mind; then, she danced a pretty maggot with the Colonel, and then another one with Lord Gregory.

But when that dance was done, she found she could not bear it anymore. She stepped away from her next partner, claiming a headache. The young gentleman, though visibly disappointed, did not dare insist and bowed out politely. Lord Gregory, still next to her, watched her carefully.

"Is anything the matter, Mrs. Darcy?"

"Nothing," she lied. "I should like to find my husband, though. Do you know where he has gone?"

Gregory shrugged. "Somewhere in the gardens, I believe saw him heading that way." He made a vague gesture with his hand.

"Thank you!" She turned and stalked across the stone dance floor.

"Mrs. Darcy! Wait." He caught up with her, his gait springing. "I shall walk you."

"No, my lord, there is no reason for that."

"Ah, ma'am, of course there is." Lord Gregory offered her his arm. "The pleasure of your company is one. And," he added slyly, even as Elizabeth hesitated to take it, "the fact that some of my guests have already overindulged in spirits is another."

"Oh." It had not occurred to her, but with champagne flowing so liberally for several hours, there would be quite a few men here in their cups. "Thank you," she said awkwardly, slipping he hand in the crook of his elbow.

Lord Gregory steered Elizabeth through the gardens, through the crowds of guests. They walked past another juggler, past a bent figure upon a tightrope, past a sword-swallower... past a fakir, his face macabre in the glow of the fire bursting from his lips, a gaggle of gorgeously dressed ladies cooing and ahhhing all around him. A silver figure of a mime stood unmoving, as if frozen, only to shift in a quick fluid motion as they passed, and then freeze again; Elizabeth jumped, and Lord Gregory laughed delightedly. Another fakir released a large burst of fire, scaring a young lady into a faint-an officer in brilliantly red regimentals broke her fall, catching her in his arms. A silver-coated man opened his jacket to release a flock of doves; mistaking the well-lit night for day, they rose up to the skies in a flurry of white.

"How magnificent, my lord."

"Why, thank you, ma'am." Lord Gregory grinned. "We do this every year. The King himself has admitted that I throw better parties than he does. He isn't jealous, however, and will attend later tonight."

"Isn't His Majesty-"

"Mad? But of course. Do you not find this is a fitting place for him?" Lord Gregory tossed his head, indicating the general bedlam around them.

She laughed, as they continued on their way. The violins were all around them, couples courting, smiling, whispering to each other. Men smiling at her in a knowing, admiring way, handsome officers in blood-red uniforms with golden epaulets, ladies glittering with diamonds, one of them carrying a lapdog in the crook of her arm, the animal wearing the same manner of a feathered turban as its owner... Heated braziers, abundant flowers, trees gorgeously lit.

As they passed a large fountain, it occurred to Elizabeth that there was something in it. Someone, as a matter of fact, someone similar to a woman with a large... green... tail. She closed her eyes for a second, thinking that champagne did have the most peculiar effect upon her. When she opened them again, Lord Gregory was looking at her in obvious concern.

"Mrs. Darcy, are you all right?"

"Forgive me, my lord, I thought I saw ... something."

He smirked at her. "Mayhap you did."

She waved vaguely towards the fountain. "You mean to tell me that I did not hallucinate..." she murmured weakly. "That there was really a-"

"A mermaid?" He supplied helpfully, beaming at her. "Why surely," he said easily, as if a mermaid in his fountain was the most natural thing in the world. "Caught her off the Portsmouth pier myself!"

For a second, Elizabeth actually contemplated her host's words (for anything seemed possible tonight), before sputtering and slapping his shoulder playfully with her fan.

"How wicked of you, my lord, to make light of me!" she cried. "I shall tell Mr. Darcy what you are about!"

"Oh no," Lord Gregory said seriously. "You mustn't, ma'am. I have a wager riding on how many people will ask me about her on the morrow. You see, ma'am, I have bet your cousin the Viscount that most everyone would believe her to be a product of their imagination and too much champagne."

Elizabeth could not help laughing. "But really-what is she?"

"An actress, an understudy at the Drury Lane. Mrs. Siddons was supposed to be too ill for the stage tonight, but has miraculously recovered-which left my friend Arabella quite without work."

"And her tail?"

"I leave such tedious details to my steward, ma'am. He could put the late Monsieur Vatel* to shame."

"Very good for him," Elizabeth muttered. "I only hope he does not meet a similar end!"

"Worry not," Lord Gregory assured her cheerfully. "Only a Frenchman could kill himself over fish, of all things. Herein lies the principal difference betwixt our two nations-and the cause of all enmity between us. The French are given to flights of fancy-such as to make them think they can take over the world-while we English are eminently sensible."

"Good to know you can so easily deduce the cause of the present conflict, my lord." Elizabeth smiled. "Perhaps the cabinet can put you to use against Bonaparte. Have you offered your services to Lord Hawkesbury?"

"Oh, his Lordship has idle fools enough to advise him," Lord Gregory said, grinning back at her. "I daresay he has no need of another one."

Elizabeth laughed again at his cheerful self-deprecation.

"If you are such a connoisseur of men's natures, perhaps you can tell me something about a woman's."

"Perhaps, if it involves no indiscretion."

"I should think not. Can you tell me, my lord, what is wrong with Miss Bingley? She has snubbed me for the second time in as many meetings. I can see that she dislikes me, but I cannot see why."

Lord Gregory arched an aristocratic eyebrow. "Can you not?" he asked seriously, all pretence at jollity gone.

"Indeed I cannot!"

He shrugged and was silent for a moment, before opening his mouth to say something, then shutting it again, clearly wavering. They crossed a small bridge and entered the maze-like gardens.

"Am I missing the obvious, my lord?"

But Lord Gregory said nothing to that, stopping abruptly just as they turned the corner. Elizabeth, too, stopped, all thoughts of his strange reticence and Miss Bingley's uncivil behavior gone from her mind in an instant.

Darcy had been sitting on a stone bench, leaning back against a tall hedgerow, eyes turned heavenward. At the sight of them, he flew to his feet an expression of surprise and discomfiture upon his countenance.

"Why, madam, is everything all right?" he asked her abruptly.

"Quite," Elizabeth said quietly. She was pleased that he should be concerned, but what did he mean by his forlorn expression? She threw Lord Gregory a grateful glance, her hand sliding off his arm; a sign for their host to leave-a sign, which he did not fail to understand.

"Darcy, the moor has done his work-the moor may go.* I have brought you your treasure, safe and sound." Lord Gregory stepped aside, cutting Elizabeth a smart bow. "Your servant, ma'am."

"Thank you, Gregory!" Darcy said to his friend's retreating back. For a moment, he and Elizabeth both stood, looking after His Lordship, before turning to face each other.

It was not as light here in the labyrinth, nor as warm; Elizabeth was beginning to regret not taking her cloak here. She saw, then, that Darcy was wearing his, thrown loosely over his jacket.

"You are cold," he murmured disapprovingly, and moved to take the cloak off his shoulders; Elizabeth stayed his hand, and for a few moments, they bickered about which one of them was in greater danger of catching a cold. Finally, a compromise was reached, and Darcy opened the folds of his cloak and slipped it about them both. This brought Elizabeth into such close proximity to her husband, she caught the faint smell of starch and cologne from his cravat and heard the beat of his heart against her cheek.

"Why did you come here?" he asked, his voice so soft, she had to strain to hear him. His arms were around her, holding her securely.

"Why did you leave?" she murmured, her finger tracing, idly, the pattern of silk swirls in his waistcoat. His hand swooped down upon hers, pressing it tightly against his heart.

"His Lordship's festivities have gotten a bit much for me, I fear."

She moved to quit his embrace, then, deeply self-conscious.

"You seek to escape company, and here I am, chasing after you-"

Darcy would not have it. "Do not be daft, Elizabeth," he said, pulling her against him again. "It was not your company I sought to escape."

There was a pause, during which she considered both why he had left, and why she had chased after him. The latter recognition almost robbed her of her ability to stand.

"Well, I am glad to have found you," she whispered, resting her cheek against his waistcoat again. She wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her forearms. Darcy took this as a sign that she was still cold and wrapped his arms more tightly about her.

"I am glad to be found," he said, simply. Elizabeth contemplated, grimly, how she would ever dare tell him. It had been an impulse to come here; but now, her own audacity frightened her, fear constricting her throat and rattling her nerves. She imagined that she had injured him, and that he was fully justified in refusing any advance she might make. But she knew, also, that it was now or never, and that if he moved-if they left the labyrinth-another opportunity might never present itself...

So she dared.

"Fitzwilliam," she called, so softly, she could barely hear her own voice.

"Mmmmm?" His reply, no more than a sigh against the top of her head.

"I want to tell you -ask you something."

"Indeed?" He lowered his voice to a whisper as well, not in mockery, but purely on reflex.

"If you do not-if you do not agree-pretend I never did, will you?"

"If you wish." He sounded a little nonplussed.

Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut, drove her nails into her palms (and ineffectual trick while wearing gloves, she discovered) and took a deep breath.

"I want you to kiss me," she said.

When the roaring in her ears calmed somewhat, she discovered that he had not said a word in response. More, he now stood absolutely still. His arms were still around her, but no longer holding her. Elizabeth wondered whether he had heard her. But of course he had; for he did not ask her to repeat herself... Utter mortification! Another moment of such heavy silence, and she would bolt, unable to bear the shameful rejection.

But then Darcy said:

"Elizabeth, are you certain of it?"

So tremulous was his voice that all thoughts of rejection went out her head momentarily. Elizabeth looked up, quickly, and saw him looking down at her in the dusky air, his face unreadable, full of shadows.

"Because I want to," he added softly. "Quite badly, in fact."

Elizabeth held her breath, wild with joy. She wanted to tell him how badly she had wanted it, too, how foolishly she had doubted-but...the instinct told her this was the wrong time for it.

"Yes," she said simply and with utter conviction, "oh yes."

Darcy gave a short disbelieving laugh. With sweet hesitation, he dipped his head, his lips near hers now. There was a breathless moment, where Elizabeth found herself standing on her tiptoes, reaching for him desperately. Knowing that daring would only take her so far and hoping fervently that he would be there to catch her. Then, his lips came down upon hers. The touch of them was a tenderness, a shock, an assurance of its own. Nothing like she had ever felt before...the warmth, the gentle pressure, the sweet stroking of his lips against hers. It was all so unbelievably sweet that she reached forth, pushing all of herself into the kiss. Her feet were none too steady; momentarily, she stumbled, her fingers curling, grasping his lapels, seeking purchase.

Darcy gave a soft gasp, rocking a little on his heels as she pushed against him. He laughed in enchanted disbelief, sighing and pressing his lips softly to hers, again and again -drinking from her, unable to ease his thirst. The first touches of his lips on hers had been reverentially tender and almost shy; but in another moment, she felt him give and fall into the kiss, his arms tightening around her in a kind of a vise, his neck craning, his mouth pushing harder against hers. She, too, gasped. She could almost taste his smile, her own happy grin in evidence against his lips, her hands sliding up his chest to hold on to his shoulders.

She had thought he would reject her!

"Will," she whispered, this name, the one she had never used. What a beautiful name he had, she thought, like a caress. His hands drifted to her waist, pressing her softly against him under his cloak. Faith, how violent his heart was through his clothes! Almost as wild as her own. Elizabeth clutched harder at Darcy's shoulders, wanting to bring him closer, hating the limits of flesh and clothes. Knowing full well how forward she was, she still could not stop kissing him and was only afraid that he should stop first.

But when he did stop, it, too, was sweet: for he gasped her name and gave her a bewildered, happy smile. Instantly, his hand left the small of her back to tuck her head under his chin. It lingered upon her hair, tenderly stroking. She felt a row of goose bumps where his fingers had ghosted over the skin of her nape.

"Elizabeth," he murmured, his chest heaving. "Oh God, Elizabeth."

"Happy birthday," she whispered against his cravat. She did not now whether he could hear her, but she felt his body move with laughter.

"Thank you," he said into her hair. "My most gracious wife." His lips were against her temple now, his hands stroking her back, his touch unexpectedly powerful through her gown and stays. She shivered against his hands, and he pulled her closer against himself. "Sweetheart, you tremble so... Are you cold?"

"No." Hearing him call her "sweetheart" made her so happy... She missed kissing him already, wanting more and more of this new experience, of this intoxicating closeness; but she was suddenly seized with terrible shyness. She had been so forward, and now, she could barely raise her eyes to him.

But he had no such reluctance... and soon enough, she felt his fingers upon her chin, stroking it in the same fashion she so often employed on Cat. She smiled and looked up, raising her face to his for more kisses. His fingers stroked her lips, caressing tenderly the outline of them.

"Sweet, lovely Elizabeth," he murmured. He sounded a little drunk. She did not care at all, yearning for him to kiss her again. She could hear, somewhere far away, the sounds of laughter and music, one of the country dances she had danced earlier tonight being repeated. The world felt miles, years away.

More, everything inside her cried out, but he lingered, stroking her lower lip with one finger, pulling it down a little.

Finally, losing all composure, she begged him:

" Will you not-will you not do it again?" Heat went up in her cheeks, and she stepped back momentarily, mortified at herself. The black cloak slipped off her shoulders, but Darcy caught her by the wrists, pulling her back against him.

"What was it about a wish and a command?" he whispered. He grasped her tightly across the waist with one hand. With his other hand, he spread the cloak over her once again. Huddled beneath it, they stood so closely, Elizabeth felt the slight rasp of his waistcoat against the top of her breasts.

"Indubitably," she whispered back, said, "it was something about my wish and your command, sir."

"Ah." His mouth came down over hers directly. It lasted for the longest time, the sweet gentle pressure, the mind-numbing caresses. The soft wool of his coat beneath her hands, the warm weight of his palm against her back, through the thin muslin. Then, suddenly, like a shock, his tongue, sneaking out quickly and delicately to touch the very corner of her mouth.

She gasped and jumped in his embrace. Darcy laughed ruefully.

"Forgive me. Could not help it."

"No, no, do not apologize!" she murmured. She had never in her life felt so wild, so aroused. There were fireflies in her side vision, butterflies in her belly, and her head was spinning. Darcy's breath was warm on her cheek.

"I do not wish to frighten you."

"You do not, you do not frighten me..." It was true-and not: for though he did not frighten her... he... all this certainly overwhelmed her.

"Very well, then," he said, smiling, bolder now. "Shall I do it again?"

This time, she laughed at the slightly ridiculous proposition (after all, never before had she seen her self-possessed young husband with his tongue stuck-out, and just such an expression on his face), but laughter stilled quickly as his kisses turned more passionate. She found in herself a need to respond: slowly, tenderly, his lips coaxed hers open, his tongue stabbing lightly against her teeth. Instinct told her exactly what he wanted of her; she clutched harder on his coat, opening her mouth ever so slightly. His tongue slipped in, quickly, lightly, to tease hers. Her head went around and around, and she was drunk on the scent of his cologne, his skin, the soft, new smell of his cloak, the taste of his kisses, the hardness of his shoulders beneath her hands.

Opening her eyes, she saw him, his eyes heavy-lidded, his countenance suffused with the look of intense and reverent concentration, which soon changed into delight. Darcy laughed and rested his forehead against hers.

"Only persons too curious for their own good kiss with their eyes open, Elizabeth."

"But I want to look at you," she whispered. She fought one hand from under his cloak and indulged for a moment in touching his face, the smooth surface of his cheek, his lips, full and raw from all the kissing. She was beginning to understand what it meant to want someone too much. She felt wanton looking at him like that, and so she hid her face against his shoulder.

"Sweet Elizabeth," Darcy murmured in her ear. "Come, let us sit down." He pulled off his cloak, and, to the accompaniment of her futile protests, wrapped it fully around her. Thereupon, he walked her back to the bench. She meant to sit next to him-but was surprised and a little embarrassed when he pulled her down onto his lap.

"You look so beautiful today," he whispered, eyes warm on her. "How have you suddenly turned so beautiful?"

She shrugged, shivering a little.

"Are you not cold without your cloak?"

"My coat is thicker than your dress." He moved her so that she was half-facing him. "I do not believe I am able to feel cold just at the moment. Now you kiss me, Mrs. Darcy." He grinned up at her. "I cannot quite believe my happiness and must have reassurance."

She obliged, gladly, her awkwardness dissipating with his eager encouragement. His hands ghosted across her back, stroking softly; his mouth, worshipful, upraised to hers. Elizabeth's heart was so full, she thought she might cry. She wanted... she did not know what she wanted. She wanted to enclose him in her arms, in her body... in her heart. She did not want this to end.

New to this, she welcomed the sensuous strokes of his tongue against hers, returning them, though a little shyly. Darcy groaned against her mouth, deepening the kiss. Her head swimming, she gasped and inhaled the intoxicating scent of him. There was a warm swell of excitement deep in her belly, and her knees were so weak, she did not think she could stand. She slid her fingers through Darcy's hair as she pressed her lips to his; it was thick and silky and luxurious, slipping through her fingers like ermine.

She sneaked one hand under his coat, pressing it against the silk of his waistcoat, to cup his heart. Mine, she thought, in wild joy, for she felt as if it was truly hers now. Eager to feel the beating of his heart, she slipped her fingers under the stiff edge of his waistcoat-a mindless, daring act unexpected even to herself. Darcy jerked, startled, gave a short nervous bark of a laugh, then, before she could think to snatch her hand away, fumbled with the buttons on the waistcoat, opening them. Elizabeth blushed in the darkness, embarrassed that he should sense her desires so well... But dwell upon it she would not... and she pressed her hand fully beneath his open waistcoat. The heat of his skin through the lawn seared her, and her touch seemed to shock him. Both gasped, and momentarily, Elizabeth wondered what it would feel like to touch him skin-to-skin...

Elizabeth could see the glint in her husband's eyes in the oddly lit garden. Knowing now what he desired, she stroked his mouth awkwardly with her tongue, stroked his chest beneath his waistcoat so that he shuddered against her. She put one hand upon his shoulder and felt the roll of the muscle; raked her fingers through the hair on his nape and heard his ragged moan. The small, hard nub of his nipple was a shock through the lawn of his shirt, and she moved her hand away quickly, mortified to have touched him so intimately. But it was strange and wonderful to feel his body respond to her every move.

Darcy kept one hand on the back of Elizabeth's neck, guiding her as he kissed her... the other, holding her securely in his lap. Elizabeth was aware, as she shifted against him, of a powerful stirring in him, a hardness pressed tightly against her hip. She thought she knew what it was; and the thought that she had such a profound effect on him both thrilled and chastened her. The effect on her, though not as obvious, was just as powerful. The warmth in the pit of her stomach had long turned to a small fire, spreading lower, making her limbs heavy, leaving her aching and tender between her legs. Her skin tingled, especially -oddly- her breasts and the corner of her mouth...the shocking realization was marked by a near-obscene moan which issued from her when he moved his lips to her neck. A deep shiver ran through her, and she heard herself moan again, as if in imitation of some longing nighttime bird, even as his hand abandoned her nape and, having edged the cloak away, stroked, lightly, the side of her breast.

What was he doing? How he caress her so boldly? How could she allow for it-nay, yearn for it? His fingers moved across, ghosting the outline of the stay-bound flesh, spiking her pleasure sharply as they brushed her nipple.

"Ah, Elizabeth." Her small gasps of pleasure seemed to be driving Darcy mad, and his kisses turned nigh-on brutal. Catching her mouth again, he sought to bring her closer still, to kiss her ever deeper, while his fingers teased her mercilessly. Suddenly, Elizabeth found herself hating the confines of their clothing, Darcy's coat, his tight waistcoat, his own heavy cloak upon her shoulders. She wanted more, wanting-needing-to have the ache his fingers stirred inside her soothed, the hunger fulfilled. Helplessly, she clutched a handful of his hair, tugged him closer, caught his moan with her lips.

"Oh! S-sorry," she murmured, appalled by her own unexpected roughness... but her mind did not register any true guilt. Somewhere deep inside she was certain, positive, that this was the way he wanted it.

"No matter," he whispered against her lips; Elizabeth could taste his smile. "I shall take as much abuse as you see fit to heap upon me." Instantly, greedily, he leaned into her kiss again, and in another moment, Elizabeth forgot who or where she was, conscious only of his great closeness and of the riches of his mouth against hers.

Finally, there came a moment when Darcy, gasping, held her aside.

"A moment." Breathing heavily, he lowered his head, a muscle working in his jaw. Elizabeth sat very straight, flushed, all her blood gathered in her temples. Her nipple ached where he had touched it, roused to painful attention by his skillful ministrations, then abandoned. Had it not been for his hand on the small of her back, she would long have fallen off his lap.

Elizabeth did not know whether she had done anything wrong, or whether it was this powerful rising of the blood that had gotten the best of him... Then, before she had had the time to come to a conclusion, Darcy wrapped both arms around her waist and pulled her nearer, resting his cheek against the swell of her bosom. Shockingly so, she might add-if she even had the inclination to think about it at the moment. She did not, rather keen to welcome his closeness. Freeing her arms from under his cloak, Elizabeth wrapped them tightly about her husband's shoulders. Her cheek against the top of his head, she closed her eyes, giving in to the divine sensation of him in her arms.

They sat like that for some time, Darcy nuzzling her neck tenderly from time to time, returning to her lips occasionally, but always, it seemed to Elizabeth, always pacing himself. Always keeping his passions in check, cautious and tentative in his caresses. Also, she found, very tender, his mouth trailing her neck and collarbone with exquisite gentleness. She craned her face over his, finding as much pleasure in the slow and gentle as she did in furious and overwhelming. Her fingertips ghosted over the planes of his face, felt the curves and the edges and the velvet tickle of his eyelashes.

"I want to go home," she said, suddenly.

"Are you fatigued?" He stroked the side of her face, gently.

"No. But would you not rather go home?"

She did not know why, had not yet thought of the reason why she wanted to be alone with him behind closed doors, but he did not seem inclined to question her. With a small grunt, he rose to his feet, swinging her gaily in his arms. Elizabeth could not contain her laughter, buoyant like a small spring. Darcy put her down, carefully.

"All right?"

She nodded, about to say something-and was arrested instantly by an explosion of the sky. Both of them jumped like a pair of illicit lovers. Then, seized by momentary happiness, Darcy grasped Elizabeth under her arms and spun her around as the fireworks His Lordship had promised them colored the nighttime sky every possible hue.

*François Vatel was Prince de Conde's steward and chef, famous for orchestrating elaborate suppers and firework displays. The story has it, he killed himself when the fresh fish he had ordered for a dinner the Prince was throwing in honor of Louis XIV, was late. The story has it further that the carriage taking his body away was passed on the road by the cart carrying the lampreys (or whatnot) he had ordered.

**This phrase is often attributed to Othello. However, it is actually from Schiller's tragedy Fiesco.

Chapter 21 - part 2

They made it out of the labyrinth, walking slowly, hands clasped. The sky split and burst above them. Darcy had refused to share the cloak, telling her that they were heading into the warmth, anyway, and that he was not cold-could not be cold. On the way out of the labyrinth, he stopped abruptly and pulled her tightly against himself, tipping her chin quickly and kissing her deeply on the mouth so that all breath escaped from her, and her knees buckled. When he pulled away, his arms anchoring her in steadiness, both of them were panting.

"Come." They kept walking, Darcy's arm now around Elizabeth's shoulders. Where were they going? Home. She had asked him to take her home, hoping desperately to spirit this newfound treasure away from greedy eyes. She did not want others looking at him, did not want-god forbid-that he should dance with anyone else. Luckily, he seemed of a similar mind. Neither of them wondered what they would do beyond the point of actually getting home.

"Well, here you are!" There was Lord Gregory, grinning at the sight of them, Miss Caroline Bingley upon his arm. At any other time, Elizabeth would have noticed-and would have reeled from-the ice in the other woman's eyes, but not tonight. So consumed was she by Darcy's person, she hardly saw anybody else.

"Gregory, this was a marvelous party."

"Was?" His Lordship arched a quizzical brow. "As far as I can tell, it is nowhere near finished."

"It is for us, my friend." Darcy's hand squeezed Elizabeth's elbow. "I fear we must depart."

Lord Gregory opened his mouth to inquire further; and indeed, Elizabeth realized, such a hasty departure must of necessity invite comment. But she did not care a tuppence, she realized. On his part, Lord Gregory, having looked quickly from her to Darcy, quite abruptly changed his mind about saying anything else and instead made another date with Darcy to go fencing at Angelo's in two days' time.

They waited, then, for their carriage to appear. There were people around, and they could do nothing beyond holding hands surreptitiously. A small smile ghosted over Darcy's lips, and his thumb drew slow circles against her palm, making her wobbly on her feet. Thereupon, their carriage ready, Darcy handed her in, climbed in and closed the shades. Even at that moment, the carriage rocked forward; falling back against the seat, Elizabeth chuckled nervously and righted herself. Instantly, Darcy occupied himself with the covers, ensuring that she was not cold, tucking them in around her knees. Elizabeth wanted nothing but that he should sit next to her again, wanted the solace and pleasure of his mouth on hers. But they were no longer in Lord Gregory's magical lantern-lit gardens... and she found her tongue-tied and unable to ask for it.

Happily, her husband seemed to understand without a word... perhaps because his own desires corresponded to hers so perfectly. Moving swiftly to sit next to her, he leaned his cheek against hers, nuzzling. It was full-dark in the carriage, his face nothing but a collection of shadowy lines and planes. But his skin was startlingly hot in the cold and the darkness, his eyelashes tickling against her cheek. Elizabeth closed her eyes and sought him blindly, their lips finally colliding on an angle. She laughed fretfully and could feel him smile as well.

"Madam, madam, kissing is serious business," he whispered, then traced the edges of her smile with the tip of his tongue. Elizabeth held her breath. Somewhere in the darkness, her hand found his over the fur covers, holding on for dear life.

"Kissing is happy business," she whispered back, her fingertips dancing over the side of his face.

"That, too," he agreed, the second before kissing became serious business in earnest. A gasp and a laugh issued from her as, with a little grunt, Darcy heaved her up onto his lap, snaking both arms around her form. The fur covers slithered to the floor, all his careful work now upset. Elizabeth gasped again at his boldness, then moaned when his hand cupped her nape and drew her head forward for another kiss.

Turning towards him fully, Elizabeth threw her arms around Darcy's neck, surrendering herself compleatly to his lead. His mouth, hot, opened over hers, by degrees, sensuous strokes shallow, then deep, then shallow again, merely teasing until she could no longer breathe, her chest unbearably tight. Excited beyond all measure, she responded eagerly. Their tongues clashed now, and then it was his turn to gasp. It seemed that her response drove him to some sort of terrible impassioned excitement, when he moaned, and pushed away from her, and hid his face against her neck. Elizabeth held him, her cheek against his. She could feel the urgent pulse of blood in his temple. What was happening to them? She had kept such tight control on her feelings, how could this have happened that all she wanted was to be one with him?

But thoughts fluttered out of her head as he moved, leaning his face against her neck, his lips trailing the length of it, their touch radiant and electric against her skin. Elizabeth arched further, giving him access and was then possessed with a shameless urge to do the same to him. She had long abandoned all thought, moving on instinct and desire, and she found she wanted to watch his pleasure far more than she wanted pleasure for herself. Pushing Darcy away, she only had a second to take in the hurt expression upon his countenance before moving to kiss him there, in the soft corner behind his jaw.

His reaction was more than she could have hoped for-dropping his head further back against the seat, he groaned dully and pushed himself more tightly against her. However undone she was by the sensation of a steely bulge against her bottom, the knowledge that she was affecting him so powerfully spurred rather than deterred her. Experimentally, she drew the tip of her tongue down his neck to edge of his cravat, then all the way up to his ear, and then, after a moment's hesitation, over the soft flesh of his earlobe. Darcy groaned again, louder this time, writhing a little beneath her. Elizabeth, exhilarated, drunk on her power over him, squeezed his shoulder hard and nipped at the very edge of his ear.

"Do you like this?" she murmured. The sound of her own voice-intimate and husky-shocked her. Darcy laughed, panting a little, a breathless "yes!" falling from his lips. He then repeated her action, his tongue sweeping over the edge of her ear. An intense frisson running all through her, Elizabeth could not contain a surprised moan-and then another one as he stroked the side of her breast through the thin muslin and the thicker linen of her stays.

Shamed by her body's traitorous response to him, she hid her face against his neck while he stroked her breast, his fingers moving towards the apex of it with quiet determination. A question formed on her lips, to ask him what he was doing, to name the nameless, powerful thing that was happening to them... but she squelched it, biting her lip, loathe to break the delicious reverie. Shamed, she was unable to move away, wanting very badly the final agonizing pinnacle that would come when his fingers grazed her nipple.

Elizabeth held her breath. Her eyes, by now accustomed to the darkness, held his desperately. Please, oh please. How quickly she was falling...

Then, finally, it came, a touch so light, it was easy to imagine she had dreamt it. But it was also real, and it fired her entire body with an untold want. She bit her lip harder, her body betraying her as it swayed wantonly against his hand. More! She could not bear it, but for him to stop, it felt as if the world would crash around her ears. Darcy's eyes gleamed at her in the darkness. She could not tell whether he was really smiling. His fingers stroked her, again, and again, and again, and then he frowned a little and pulled the edge of her dress away from her breast.

Elizabeth inhaled deeply, sharply, shutting her eyes closed again. She could not believe what he was doing to her. There was an endless pause where she sat, ramrod-straight, upon his lap, one hand gripping his shoulder. She felt a brush of his curls against her forearm as he dipped his head, and then, his lips, like warm summer light, upon the top of her breast. Moving slowly, steadily, until they reached the hollow between her breasts; then, his tongue, slipping briskly inside, as she gasped in delighted outrage. Eyes still closed, she felt him draw the dress from her shoulders, trapping her arms. A second later, his hand, touching her where his lips had just singed her, his fingers sliding deep inside her stays. His touch upon her naked flesh brought her such excruciating pleasure she twisted in his embrace, digging her fingers in his arms. As he gently pulled his hand away from her, a loud moan vaulted from her throat, a good octave lower than her speaking voice. Darcy laughed hoarsely, then silenced her with a kiss. She responded with mad intensity, lips wildly searching, rearing against his. The fabric of his coat creased under her hands, and she trembled against him, still moaning.

A terrible ache seized her, not to be fulfilled. She had never felt this wanton, nor this wanting. One kiss, she thought in deep shock, one kiss from his lips was all it took! She felt as if she had lost a treasure and would not be calmed or pacified until she had found it... Darcy's hands were against her back, stroking gently, and he was whispering sweet nothings in her ear, nipping upon it from time to time.

"Oh Elizabeth!" He was looking upon her with frantic eyes. As if despaired, he dropped his face against the crook of her neck. "What are you doing to me?" he demanded fiercely. His hand closed, roughly, over one breast, rumpling the gold-stitched muslin, pushing her nipple, raw and abused from his caresses, to rub achingly against the insides of her stays. She arched, biting her lip, groaned dully, not unlike an animal in pain; like any wordless creature, she knew not whence her agony stemmed, knew only that she was in agony, most acutely...She rested her cheek against his soft curls and closed her eyes.

For some time, they sat like so, bowled over by their desire. Elizabeth wanted to be kissed again, but knew that it was probably for the best they had stopped. She threaded her fingers through Darcy's hair and cupped his cheek tenderly in the darkness.

"Mayhap we ought to talk," she whispered. Her breath was still coming in ragged little pants, her breast heaving. She did not want to talk-but she sensed within herself a dangerous tottering, and knew she would surely fall if they continued. The momentary lapse in his passion had allowed her to come to her senses, if only a bit, to think more clearly. However painful it was to stop, Elizabeth was grateful to him for having realized his boundaries. God, she thought. She knew, suddenly, how close she had been to succumbing. Had been? What foolishness! Surely she was still close...

Darcy wrapped his arms about Elizabeth and kissed her cheek. It was a nigh-on brotherly act, a token of sweet affection... but it took her a great effort not to turn her head. Their lips would meet, then, and she would fall again into his kiss... Faith, how badly she wanted that!

"Very well, let us talk." He fell back against the seat, rubbing the back of one hand against his eyes. "Tell me, what has moved you to come to me tonight?"

Elizabeth felt herself blush in the darkness-even more, if that was possible. Her own daring seemed astonishing to her now.

"I shall, if you tell me first what had moved you to run away."

He laughed softly. "I asked you first."

"Humor the lady, sir." She rubbed the back of her hand against his cheek.

He huffed indignantly. "A fine beginning to our conversation. But very well. I ran away -lud, Elizabeth, could you not find a better word for it? I left...the festivities... because I found that the sight of you so ... admired by other men was little to my taste."

Elizabeth started. "Pardon?" she murmured. She thought he might have been jealous of other gentlemen's regard; but it was still shocking to hear him admit to it. Proud Mr. Darcy, jealous and uncertain! If ever there was a strange thing in this world!

"You heard me." He leaned forward, nuzzled the edge of her décolletage, then rested his cheek against the swell of it, quickening her heart. "I could not bear to see you dance with other men."

She gave a giddy little moan, undone instantly by the rueful longing in his voice. "But you had only reserved two dances!" she cried, no longer caring how much of herself she betrayed. "I should have danced them all with you!"

His hand squeezed hers, frantically.

"How could I deprive you of others' company?"

"Why begrudge me their regard, then?" she demanded.

"A better man would not. But it appears I had underestimated my own goodwill in the matter." He rubbed his cheek against her breast. The tender gesture almost undid her.

"Oh Fitzwilliam, how could you be so foolish? I should have been happy to dance only with you," she whispered, kissing his brow. "Had you taken the blasted card and just written yourself in for every blasted dance-"

"Madam, cursing does not become you," he said, a second before silencing her with another kiss. This time, she sensed a fierce joy in it, a distinct pleasure and passion that beguiled her to no end. Elizabeth bent her face to his, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back. Oh but I cannot stay away. His lips were full and raw from her inexpert kisses, and Elizabeth fancied she heard him moaning against her mouth.

But this time, their kiss was interrupted by a most prosaic sound of their coachman screaming at someone who was crossing the street too close to the horses... They were in London again. Quickly coming to their senses, the two parted, and Darcy slid Elizabeth off his lap, setting her carefully back on the seat. As a parting gesture, he touched her mouth briefly, then carefully pulled the now-drooping camellia out of her hairdo. To avoid any further temptation and calm her blood, Elizabeth turned away, moved to the opposite end of the carriage. Pressing her forehead against the carriage wall, she heard Darcy sigh heavily behind her, but she did not turn around.

In some ten minutes, they were back at the townhouse. Elizabeth wondered briefly whether anyone could tell. Surely Mary would be able to tell. Her breasts ached terribly, and as she walked into the house on Darcy's arm, she felt, mortifyingly, a wetness between her legs.

Mary met her at the bottom of the stairs. Still holding on to her husband's arm, Elizabeth held out the wilted camellia.

"Here," she murmured lamely. "It... fell out." She knew that Darcy's countenance would be inscrutable, and she tried her best for inscrutability as well. Worrying about what her maid would think, bah! And indeed, Mary appeared too sleepy and disoriented even for her usual rude pointed stare. She took the camellia from Elizabeth and bounded up the stairs to her bedchamber.

They ascended slowly and in ponderous silence. Elizabeth was anything but sleepy, and she wondered whether it would be presumptuous to tell him now she did not want to go to bed. Whether it would be stupid, whether he would take it the wrong way. She wanted... she was not quite sure what she wanted. Kissing some more would be good, she thought wantonly, and felt herself color at the thought. She had already discovered that his passions ran high, and that hers tended to answer them... But he remained silent and a little grave, and Elizabeth found herself shying away.

Outside of her bedroom, they stopped.

"Well," she said, looking down at the hem of her golden dress.

"Well," he repeated and fell silent for a moment. It surprised Elizabeth to no end to see him so tongue-tied. He had never wanted for glib answers before. "I suppose you are fatigued."

She wanted to tell him that she was not; but in the next moment, he said seriously:

"I think I shall-I think I shall retire. I am... I am to go fencing with Gregory tomorrow."

Before she could think to protest or even say good-night, he leaned and gathered her in his arms, quickly, so that her feet trailed off the floor. She gasped and opened her mouth to an impassioned kiss. Wild thoughts spun inside her mind, oh, oh, servants, what if Mary came out and saw this, the gossip that would begin tomorrow... then, mind shut off, she thought not at all.

It was only after Darcy had lowered her carefully to the floor (his hand had touched her mouth, briefly, caressing, and she kissed his fingers, unthinking) and disappeared inside his bedchamber that she realized: he had lied to her about going fencing on the morrow. She remembered distinctly that he had fixed the fencing date with Lord Gregory for two days away... She might have felt vexed with him, had it not been for the kiss that had come after the lie. Thoughtfully, she turned on the spot and went inside.

Sleep would be difficult to attain tonight.

An hour after he had finally gained his bed, Darcy rose from it in sleepless frustration. He stalked about the room, thought to pour himself a brandy, but knew that it would not calm him, and ordered himself away from the drink. Standing by the window, he leaned his forehead against the glass, hoping it would cool him a little.

He felt a terrible fool. So she had kissed him. What now? He did not want her any less for it. The opposite, in fact. Her mouth a frontier he had taken, there were now new boundaries to explore. His fingers still held the shape of her nipple- his head spinning with the knowledge that he had allowed himself such a daring liberty. That she had allowed it, nay, welcomed it with all the heat he could have hoped for. He fixed his thoughts on how her breast, rid of the damnable dress and corset, would look in his hand. Such imaginings were horrible for him, arousing him to the point of pain, where all breath in his chest was arrested and he thought he might die from asphyxia. He had quitted her company, but not her presence-for his nostrils were full of her scent, the light, tart verbena and soap, and his ears still held the sounds of her sighs and moans.

Soon enough, he found it impossible to concentrate on anything else, Elizabeth reining his thoughts and desires. Kissing her had been everything he had imagined and more, her mouth sweet and lush on his, her breast unexpectedly full under his hand. She was a little woman, his wife, not a child, not a precocious little tomboy he had once thought her to be. Oh but she was everything confusing: eager, willing, arousing, and yet-unavailable... Thinking of where their marriage stood did not serve but to make him intensely miserable, and Darcy refused to dwell on it tonight. A little more of the magic, he pleaded with himself, a little more happiness tonight... He closed his eyes and imagined her naked, her slender curves under his hands, her skin cool in some places and hot in others. He wondered, wantonly, of the exact hue of the hair between her legs. Dark, of course, like the rest of her, he thought in miserable dissatisfaction. He tossed himself back onto the bed, wondering what he would do now that he knew just what it was he wanted.

Then, he could not bear it any more. He had denied himself for weeks, if not months (now he was deeply unsure of when this witchery had started... for he was in the middle ere he knew he had begun...). Why could he not indulge himself a little-and her? She had liked the intimacy of his embrace, of that he was certain. He found great exhilaration in the knowledge that he had been the first man tonight to kiss and touch her so. Playing around with her was so sweet-and he wanted, desperately, to do it some more. Wanted it almost more than he wanted to bed her.

It was not so late...she might be awake yet. Not of a mind to deny himself, Darcy rose from the bed and went to his dressing-room. He was so very hard, even putting on a pair of loose trousers felt decidedly awkward. For a moment, he hesitated, doubting that he could bear any more such excitement... He knew entirely too well that their frantic caresses could never be consummated, and that it was foolish to so hope-but he ached, still, to be near her. Why must they pretend to be strangers to each other, after all that had transpired tonight? Decisively-though awkwardly-he tucked in his shirt and buttoned his trousers, then slipped a robe over himself, thinking that it helped hide his arousal. Throwing a look in the looking-glass, he found himself presentable enough and wondered whether it would help if he dipped his head into a cold basin.

It did not, and he laughed ruefully as he toweled off his hair. Damn.

Then, before he could do anything else just as stupid, he walked up to the connecting door. It was very quiet behind it, and he knocked lightly, softly, thinking that if she slept, such slight sound would not wake her up.

No answer for a few moments, and he was almost ready to give in to pique... but then, soft padding behind the door, and then her voice:

"Y-yes?"

"Elizabeth?"

A sharp intake of breath, and the door opened instantly. Unlocked. He was glad he had knocked, though the thought of her leaving the door unlocked, tonight of all nights, left him dizzy with desire.

"Is anything the matter?"

She was standing there, wearing her long white nightshift. Despite himself, for he did not mean to be coarse, Darcy quickly noted six buttons down the front...opened, they would bare her almost compleatly.

"No," he said softly. "Nothing is the matter. I wanted to be near you is all."

He was not at all surprised when she gave a little moan and verily threw herself into his arms-but he was vastly pleased.

After a moment's awkward search, they made themselves comfortable on the rug in front of the fireplace. Not on the sofa, for it was by design uncomfortable...Not on the bed, either, for Darcy eschewed the bed consciously. Truth be told, he was a little afraid of the bed. It rose in the middle of the room like some supreme temptation. If they were in bed, it would be just so much harder for him to control himself.

So they made themselves comfortable; but not too near to each other. Darcy landed, sitting like a Turk, just far enough from his wife where he could not touch her. Elizabeth was sitting, leaning with her back against a settee, long legs stretched out. Her feet were bare, slim ankles visible under the hem of her gown. He watched her avidly, searching the white folds of her nightshift for the hints of the body underneath. When he could watch no more, he looked away. The craving he felt must be all too obvious in his gaze.

"Fitzwilliam."

"Mmmm?" He looked up, smiling with feigned nonchalance. He had never felt his own heart so much.

"What is on your mind?"

He exhaled, loudly. Silly child. To ask him that question, when all he could think was bedding her! But he smiled gallantly, for there was no sense in scaring her.

"Nothing of substance, madam. Only how happy I am to be here, in your company."

She gave him a quizzical look. "Really? You do not look happy."

"Forgive me my surly countenance, Elizabeth." He flashed her a pretend grin, making her laugh. "Is this better?"

"Much." She tossed a pillow at him. "Why are you there, Fitzwilliam?"

"Where-there?"

"On the other end of the room? You do not wish to be near me anymore?"

He wondered whether she was so innocent as not to guess, whether she really thought it was possible-that he should not want to be near her anymore. He thought for a moment to tell her that he was there for her protection and his, that there had been moments tonight when he did not trust himself... but instead, he gave up.

"You are correct, of course, madam. Unforgivable of me." Darcy rose and moved closer to her, kneeling at her side, their faces very close now, then sliding into a sitting position next to her.

Elizabeth gave him a tremulous smile. "There now, this is better."

Darcy sighed. It felt like a miracle that she no longer sought to escape his company... that she wanted this closeness. That she wanted - so obviously - to be kissed. His hand flew up, landing softly against her cheek, his fingers sliding down to caress the pretty mouth, the full lower lip. Her face was a beguiling arrangement of lines, curves, hues and shadows, white and pink and red of her skin and mouth contrasting perfectly with the gilt-speckled hazel of her eyes, the dark lines of her eyebrows, the demure thick eyelashes. Was she beautiful? To his eyes she was, or else he no longer knew what "beautiful" meant...

"I want to kiss you again," he confessed, his thumb tarrying in the corner of her mouth. And more. The thoughts of taking it further-as far as the bed behind them-left him breathless.

"Are you asking my permission?" She cocked an eyebrow at him, impudent.

"No," he said, leaning in closer.

The second their lips touched, all thoughts of going slowly flew out of his head. Her mouth was soft and supple beneath his, yielding instantly to his impatient questing tongue. She made a small sweet sound, deep in her throat, as she slipped her arms around his neck.

He kissed her for a long time, floating with her on the tide and ebb of desire, before finally forcing himself to stop. She sat back against the ottoman, her breast heaving, the expression upon her countenance so wounded, it almost drew him back to her, if only to erase the sad little furrow from her brow. But then, examining the moment, he knew himself to be tottering on the brink. All considerations of honor, all promises rashly made... he almost forgot them all. All he wanted was Elizabeth, minus this restricting white nightshift. Minus the idiotic agreement between them. Nude and giving and warm beneath him in bed. He shook his head, shaking off the enchantment that threatened to drive him mad all too soon. He was afraid of over-exciting himself; for he might have to leave her, then. The night was young yet, and he wanted to get the most of it.

"Your hair is wet," she noted, twining her fingers in it. Darcy shrugged, not knowing how to explain his earlier behavior. He moved her hands away, kissing her fingers, then moved himself away from her, pulled up a puff and leaned back against it.

To his own chagrin, he was unable to keep his hands off her. Without much ceremony, he grasped Elizabeth's ankle, spanning it with two fingers. The injured expression fading off her face, she giggled and blushed and pointed her bare toes. She had pretty feet, none too small for a girl her age, but small enough to fit neatly against his palm. Perfectly shaped, too. Holding her bare foot in his hand, he was seized with desire so strong, it threatened to overpower him momentarily. He pressed his hand again her sole, resisting the urge to draw her slowly towards him, so that her nightdress rode up above her hips.

"Let us talk," he said. His throat was parched, his voice rasping. He let go of Elizabeth's foot and rose to pour himself a drink. This being her room, there was no brandy, only a pitcher of water with some lemon slices floating in it. He was glad of it. Brandy would serve him poorly just now. "Water?" he inquired, his voice a little more manageable now. She nodded and took a glass from him.

"Talk," she said, having put the glass down on a small table (her lips glistened a little from the moisture, which was unfortunate, as it made her all the more desirable to him). "We have tried that before." She grimaced, then grinned at him.

"You do not wish to talk?" Darcy could not believe his ears. "Would you rather do something else?" He raised his eyebrows, questioning, only a little amused, but mostly flabbergasted and faint with desire.

In response to his impudence, she flushed, turning bright-red. "N-no... no. I did not mean that... Talking is fine."

He returned to his place, stretching out his legs, flinging his robe over his lap to conceal his arousal. He could not help feeling just a little disappointed. She startled him when she reached out one leg, tickling his bare sole with her toes. Darcy laughed, entirely too tempted, then pulled his knees to his chest. He wanted her so very badly, and he had only just come in. He had to give himself time to grow compleatly insensible...

"Talk, then," he ordered.

Elizabeth twisted her hands, thoughtfully. "Well," she said. "I do owe you an apology."

Darcy frowned; the conversation had taken just the direction he had hardly anticipated. Or, for that matter, wished for.

"Are you serious?" he murmured.

"Quite," Elizabeth said gravely. "For my cowardice. For the stupid gloves."

Darcy laughed, awash in relief. "You should not apologize for that. A gentleman can never have too many gloves."

"Indeed!" she said, smiling reluctantly. "I did not intend them as a mockery of you, you understand."

"I understand. Though I did wish at the moment that you had refused me outright." He smiled back at her, hoping that all the tenderness he felt towards her at the moment showed clearly. "While we are on the subject of apologies, accept mine as well."

"Yours!" she cried, clearly astonished. "For what?"

"For being a fool," he said. "I should have just kissed you myself instead of piling this burden upon your shoulders..."

"You should have," she agreed. "I would have let you."

He sighed. "I should think so. But I was so terrified you would refuse me. Or that you would think I was pressuring you. I could not bear it."

It was true, and news to him-that her refusal would have broken his heart. He told himself it was simply his vanity that would suffer, but knew that it was not true. He wanted her to want him too badly by far...

"I knew you would not want the gloves," she said. "But I was afraid..."

"So I did not," he agreed sadly. "But I have sense enough to accept that you may be unable to give me what I wanted."

"In any case, thank you for accepting my cowardly gift with such grace," Elizabeth said. "You were lovely yesterday."

She glanced at him wistfully, and Darcy, flabbergasted, wondered whether she was doing this on purpose-flattering him, praising him, complimenting him so unabashedly. Seducing him, really, as if to see where his self-control would finally shatter.

Very well, he was all too happy to succumb. He scrambled over towards her, rested upon one elbow, reaching up so that their lips were very close. Grinning at her, he declaimed:

"Lady, shall I lie in your lap?"

She blushed, furiously, looking away. "Fitzwilliam," she murmured.

"You are supposed to tell me, no, my lord."*

But she was very quiet and serious, her fingers caressing across his forehead.

"But I do not want to tell you no... my lord," she whispered with a small smile.

Lord, she was sweet. Darcy found he could not help himself. An incautious moan flying off his lips, he kissed Elizabeth again and was kissed back with all abandon.

For some time, nothing at all was said. Very soon, Darcy changed the uncomfortable position and gently urged Elizabeth to lie down upon the rug. She obeyed him, sliding down into a supine position. Darcy leaned over her, his lips straying, from time to time, down from hers, to kiss behind her ear and down her neck, but always-always-returning to her magnetic, wide, sensuous mouth. What a pretty picture she was, all laid out for him to explore... glowing and pink and doe-eyed. She was deeply flushed, perspiring slightly from the heat of the fireplace, her skin rosy with its glow. Her neck was white and so very fine, he had never seen a lovelier thing in his life. His fingers trembling slightly, he undid the button on her collar, and then, instantly, the one below. And then, unable to resist, another, and another one, his lips following where his fingers had touched her. She let him, lying back placidly, saying not a word when he touched her, his fingers brazenly stroking down from her collarbones. At the sight of her nipples, aroused, poking against the fabric of her nightshift, Darcy drew an audible breath. Happiness and lust left him light-headed; it was a good thing they were already down on the floor, or else he would have fallen.

He touched his lips along the edges of her open nightshift, a sweet open triangle of skin, so incredibly alluring in its girlish modesty... He popped another button, waiting for her to stop him. He had touched her in the carriage... but in the candlelight, his earlier daring in the heated darkness seemed nigh-on incredible- and he felt suddenly very shy. It was as if some other man had done those things to her...

A moment passed, his fingers idle against her breastbone. She lay perfectly still, and yet he knew she was not insensible to what he was doing. They were falling, and she knew it-he could see the knowledge in her fine dark eyes. Not insensible-and not at all insensitive: casting his eyes down along her form, he registered that shuddering sigh that rustled through her, in impatience and arousal. The fingers of her left hand clutched helplessly upon the rug. Her breasts... the thought of seeing them unclothed made him even more vertiginous, and he closed his eyes for a moment, imagining them. Imagining her, nude and in his arms, under him, with her limbs wrapped around him...

Wait. Too soon, he thought. The desire was a vortex, sucking away the dregs of his rationality and resolve. He had not planned that it should come to this... and he knew, entirely too well, where their ultimate boundary lay. But short of that... she could stop him at any moment, of course... and yet she did not, reclining before him-so open, so receptive. So clearly enjoying his every attention, his every fumbling caress. Darcy could not bear to think on her meaning-for what could she mean in encouraging him thus? And still, all he wanted, all he craved was to discover her.

His fingers increasingly clumsy, his throat parched again, he opened the last button. Six in all, enough-if he moved the linen aside-enough to bare her to his eyes. He saw a deep crimson blush stain Elizabeth's neck, her high cheekbones, even the delicate shells of her ears. She realized what he had done-she would stop him now, he thought with an inward sigh.

But she did not. Her hand sought his, pressed it against the rug. Their fingers curling around each other instantly, a measure of comfort they could grant to each other in this terrible confusion. With another sigh, this one of dizzying anticipation, Darcy moved the edge of her nightdress aside.

For some time, he simply watched her, feasting his hungry eyes upon the picture before him. And what a picture it was... fingers trembling slightly, he moved the other side of her nightshift out of the way. Elizabeth did not move-only arched her neck against the rug, breathing shallowly. Her eyes were closed, her eyelashes trembling against her cheek... Her hair spread under her like a luxurious shawl of dark silk. Darcy watched, for a moment, the curve of a hair-thin blue vein beneath the creamy skin of her left breast. He wanted her terribly... Seeing her so bared to him made him feel beastly and dangerous.

Then, she opened her eyes, half-turning to him, looking at him... and all he could see in her eyes, beyond her curiosity and desire, was that she trusted him. It moved him and confounded him. What was he to do with her? Extending one hand, he stroked, slowly, one delicate round mound. He was fascinated with it-how soft it was and how it fit neatly in his palm as he cupped his hand about it. He fondled it, loving the small weight of it against his palm and the way her breathing quickened considerably when he did that.

She was a pleasure to watch- and the knowledge that she had never before experienced any of this was the most exciting thing of all. That, and that she wanted him. One would have to be blind not to see: her every small gesture spoke volumes, the way she sighed and arched her back and curled her toes against the rug. The way her hand grasped his as if to anchor her to this world. Moving on instinct, which allowed him to gauge her responses against the burning need in his loins, Darcy leaned lower, kissing the underside of her breast-even as his fingers teased the other nipple into hardness. Her breath came hotter, quicker, the grip on his hand almost painful. My sweet girl. He kissed up and towards the nipple, slowly, letting her accustom herself to the thought of so intimate a caress.

Then, finally, he could bear it no longer, and he dropped a tender kiss upon the hardened little peak. Elizabeth gasped, and he looked up, seeking her eyes, to make certain she was not rejecting him. He found her looking back at him, rearing upon one elbow, her countenance expressing the very confusing mix of emotions that was eating him up from inside. Taking a chance, Darcy gently pushed Elizabeth back; she tumbled backwards obediently with a sigh, allowing him to return to his exploration.

Her nipple was dark-pink with arousal, and it rose instantly and impetuously against Darcy's lips, grew harder the more time he spent caressing it with his lips and tongue. Then, when he finally dared to draw it in his mouth, his heart racing, Elizabeth groaned thickly and arched. Her hand left his and went to anchor itself in his hair, tugging him closer as he sucked gently. Darcy had not envisioned such a reaction, and it fired him with terrible longing. He had to fight himself to hold back, lest he hurt her.

He could spend a lifetime here, in this fragrant little valley that was quickly becoming his favorite place in the world. Elizabeth sighed and twisted beneath him, twining her fingers in his hair, tugging him up for a kiss. He gave in, willingly, leaning over her so that her nipples brushed his chest; he did not know how it happened, but in another instant, he found himself lying bodily atop her, between her open legs. The position, so suggestive, sent another shot of lust through his veins.

He was startled when, with small mindless movements, she yanked his shirt out of his trousers; but the touch of her small hand against his belly sent him into agonies of desire. He was no longer even thinking to hide his erection, and a quick jolt of pleasure that came when he inadvertently rubbed himself against her took his breath away. For a second, he felt deaf and dumb, his world obscured by the beating of his heart, by the pulse in his temples, by the eddying of blood in his veins.

God, he wanted her.

Elizabeth must have noticed it, too, the change in him; for she froze beneath him, one hand upon his cheek, her eyes huge and dark. He could feel the slight tremor in her thighs. He was suddenly filled with irrational anger: why did she toy with him, encourage him, while meaning to deny him? He had forgotten, already, how much he had wanted to be here- and that he had come to her first. Darcy twined his hands in her hair, gathering handfuls of it, bringing her closer for another kiss. But something in her face stopped him the moment before their lips touched. Regarding her from above, he swallowed the tight knot in his throat and forced himself away from her.

"Forgive me," he said dully, scrambling to his feet. "I fear I must stop now if I am to stop at all."

Darcy strode across the room and deliberately pressed his forehead against the cold glass in the window. After a moment spent standing thus, gathering his wits, he knew he had done the right thing. His fury had dissipated, and only the satisfaction-however hollow-of having behaved honorably remained. If he had not stopped... nothing prevented him from taking her down there, on that rug, certainly she, herself, would not have stopped him... It was an abhorrent thing to do for a gentleman-to break his word... and yet, how close he had come! However much he regretted giving it to her, he would not be the first to undo their blasted agreement... Not like that, in any case, not while she was so clearly unaware of what they were doing and senseless with wanting.

He was a man, he was older, he was more experienced. It fell to him to stop her-and himself-from doing something she might regret later.

Turning, he studied her countenance, slightly terrified that she would be angry with him. That she would be offended. But she was looking at him in genuine concern. Darcy felt a surge of warmth inside. Dear heart, she was worried for him!

"Are you all right?" she inquired warily. He nodded, smiling. The ache in his loins had not gone away-but in the last sobering moments, it had lost its edge. He walked back towards her, noting that she had moved to the ottoman.

"Are you?"

She smiled back, shyly, then colored deeply as she perceived that her nightshift was open on her chest, her breasts visible to him. Turning away delicately, she quickly fixed her buttons; Darcy, too, looked away, though he would have preferred not to. By the time she turned back to him, the high color in her cheeks had gone down a tad.

But it seemed that with the arousal seeping away from her, so did all of her energy. She yawned, covering her mouth delicately with her hand.

"Sleepy?"

"No, not yet," she said, but another huge yawn belied her easy words.

"It appears that you are no longer the mistress of your own tired eyes."

She smiled sleepily at him, acknowledging the fact that her eyes were by far more closed than open by now.

"I have intruded upon you." Darcy himself was not one bit sleepy, rather aroused to the point of pain, his blood humming in his veins with indescribable excitement. Awkwardly, he turned away and sideways, pushing his shirt back into his trousers. "You should go to bed, Elizabeth."

Perhaps it was the miracles this day had wrought, or the magic of the late-witching-hour, but when she spoke next, her words were rash and audacious and oh, so welcome to him:

"Will you not stay?"

Darcy froze, looking down upon her. Hope and consternation and desire all mixed, but he knew that only his hesitation was obvious to her.

"Only stay if you want to," she bade. He knew her words for what they were. She was offering him-no, not hope. Comfort, rather. A small thing, but better than nothing. He thought for a moment to wring from her the admission that she wanted him near... but took pity on her-and himself.

Therefore he said nothing, limiting himself to a curt nod. In a strange gallant gesture, he scooped her up in his arms and lifted her off the ottoman. Elizabeth laughed and gasped, for he was a little bit unsteady as he balanced back on his heels.

"Mr. Darcy, take care or you will drop me," she said, clinging to him. Lord, did it feel good to have her cling to him!

"Mrs. Darcy, have I ever dropped you before?" he inquired with entirely too much hubris for a man so scantily dressed. Thereupon, he lowered her onto the bed with all possible care. She yawned again and scrambled under the blankets, then observed, sleepily, as he moved about extinguishing all candles, until only the small glow of the fireplace was left to illuminate his way back to the bed. He dared not undress any further, only pulled his shirt out of his trousers again. Elizabeth held up the blanket for him as he climbed in.

In bed, they were all awkwardness again. Here they were, in just such an intimate situation. He would never take advantage of her. She must know that, as well, Darcy thought. Still, the situation was far too suggestive to be comfortable. For a moment, he wondered whether they would be able to sleep at all. Perhaps he should not have stayed.

Oh, enough of this nonsense. Whatever the consequences, it was better to be near her than not. He pulled her quickly against him, cradling her in his arms.

"Good night, sweeting," he murmured against her hair. Elizabeth turned her head, and they kissed, their lips tender, their passion tempered by exhaustion. She squeezed his hand one more time before turning her face into the pillow; several moments later, her breathing steadied, and Darcy knew her to be asleep.

He did not believe himself able to sleep; but the weight of the day, in all its enormity, slipped off his shoulders before the simple physical exhaustion. Listening to Elizabeth's quiet breathing, he was surprised to find himself slipping away- but even that surprise was short- lived, and soon enough, he was dead asleep.

Elizabeth woke some time later, not knowing where or who she was. Then, a moment later, the day came back to her in all its wonderful excitement... Fitzwilliam...Will...The memory of his kiss... ... His arm was heavy and warm against her belly, her back secure against his chest. His breathing, unexpectedly choppy, at her ear. Lord, she thought sleepily, how hot his body was... She could feel all of him through her shift, through his shirt and trousers, every lean inch pressing tightly against her. Had she been more awake, she would have the sense to blush at the sensation of one of his hands holding her breast. But, half-asleep, she only knew to rub her chin against his hand slipping deeper into the darkness.

His body moved against hers in response, startling her even through her half-slumber. Elizabeth sighed, arching instinctively against the exquisite solidity of him at her back. It was now full-dark in the room, all the candles extinguished, the fire in the fireplace long dead. A stray ray of moonlight slipping between the imperfectly-drawn drapes remained their only illumination. In the darkness, Elizabeth rolled her head against Darcy's shoulder, seeking his mouth. He sighed as his tongue slipped between her lips, quickly, finding its counterpart within, stroking and gentling it with compleat sweetness. She heard-felt-his moan flutter through his entire frame, resounding dully in her ears. She turned, slowly, in his embrace.

His shirt, gleaming white, was darker where it parted on his chest. Elizabeth pressed closer, touching the exposed skin shyly with her fingertips. Almost compleatly blind, she trusted her fingers to paint the picture of him beneath his nightclothes: the hard smooth planes of his chest, the slight dusting of soft hair that fanned across his chest and then tapered neatly downward. His nipples, flat small soft discs, contracting instantly at her touch; sinew and bone and muscle rolling under the heated cover of his skin; the edge of his lawn shirt, rough to the touch in contrast with his body. Then, her eyes adjusting to the darkness, Elizabeth saw Darcy twist, arching and rolling his head against the pillow, even as her fingers skimmed the ever-narrowing trail of hair on his abdomen. A breath, drawn sharply through his teeth, as she drew even closer, seeking the heat of him like a shelter. One arm thrown over her shoulder, pressing her hard against him, the other flung out, and a hand clutching the sheets.

Elizabeth sighed, inhaling the night time scent of him, the springy hair on his chest tickling her cheek. Daring, she pressed her lips to his skin at random, heard him draw another sharp breath above her. Then, moving, she kissed her way up to one nipple, touched it gingerly with the tip of her tongue. It hardened instantly, and he sighed beneath her, his hands questing restlessly, stroking her shoulders, reaching to touch her breasts. For a moment, she gave in to her own pleasure, stilling against him, listening as he whispered maudlin endearments in her ear, calling her "love" and "sweetheart" and "beautiful," his voice rough from his sleep. The sensation of his fingers teasing her nipples into aching peaks had her groaning, twisting, clutching handfuls of linen. Her hands curled, hard, around his shoulders.

Darcy stopped abruptly, his panting breath against her ear; Elizabeth stared in his face, shadowed by the darkness, his eyes glittering oddly at her, his teeth a dull white in the darkness.

"Oh God, Elizabeth. Please."

With a moan, he dropped his head onto her shoulder, his lips searing the skin of her neck and collarbone.

Please what? She did not know, but she wanted, badly, to give him what he was asking for. She could not bear deny him anything tonight. Half-asleep, she had stopped thinking and only felt, so that all her earlier considerations had become odd, distant memories. Lightly, she tugged upon his curls, forcing his head up.

"Show me," she murmured so softly, she was not sure whether he would hear her. But he kissed her fervently, melting all remaining thoughts in her head. In the next instant, his hand found hers and guided it, with gentle pressure, down between their bodies.

Gasping against Darcy's mouth, Elizabeth felt him thrust her hand against the heavy bulge between his thighs. Both of them moaned at the same time-she with the shock of discovery, he with unabashed carnal delight. Desperate to please, Elizabeth spanned the length of him with her fingers, clutching awkwardly through his trousers. He moaned again, his hand crushing hers to his loins, his hips thrusting as if on their own against the pressure. Then, with a rueful gasp of laughter, Darcy moved her hand away. Elizabeth only had a second to feel slighted or embarrassed, either sentiment instantly replaced by greater shock as she realized he had undone his buttons.

They lay facing each other across the pillow. Not a word was said. Elizabeth could see Darcy's eyes in the darkness, glittering at her, and that he had bitten his lip. She knew he was waiting for her to touch him. She could feel her own heart, beating frantically, blood hammering in her ears. In her dreamlike state, she anchored his shoulder with one hand, moved her other hand back towards him. After a moment's fumbling with the long hem of his shirt-which sent them both into a fit of breathless giggling-she found him. All laughter ceased abruptly, replaced by a sharp indrawn breath and a ragged moan as her fingers closed about him.

Now what? He seemed useless to her, no help at all, prostrate and supine, arching his neck against the pillow. Elizabeth sighed and hid her face against his shoulder, feeling his every quiver. If he would not guide her, she must explore. It was a curious contrivance he had there... she felt fine skin slide beneath her fingers, up and over a slick hot ridge of flesh and then, a blunt convex tip which twitched disconcertingly in her hand. It was all she could do not to drop him, and only because she was mortified of hurting his feelings. Darcy moaned, bucking against her hand, arching his hips.

"Please..."

She was tempted to ask him to elaborate, but in the next moment, moving her hand experimentally, she did, in fact, discover that the slide of it along his length had the most unexpected and powerful effect upon him. In wide-eyed surprise, her reticence forgotten, she watched him writhe, tossing his head wildly, hissing breaths escaping through clenched teeth. Moving closer, rising upon one elbow, she was greedy for more of his pleasure. All of a sudden the desire to see him compleatly insensible rose within her, and so she clutched and stroked harder to the accompaniment of his throaty panting. Rubbing her thumb against the blunt head of him, against the slight wetness that had issued from him, she felt him jerk against her. His hand closed upon the back of her neck, turning her, drawing her closer for a rough, bruising kiss.

"Do not stop," he rasped, pulling away. Elizabeth sighed, obeying: there was some satisfaction in knowing that her efforts were appreciated. His hand slipped to her shoulder and there remained, grasping with bruising strength. She did not know whether he was anchoring her, or himself. She fell into a rhythm-at times awkward and uneven, but, it seemed, enough to reduce him to ragged begging.

"Oh-Elizabeth-do not stop-oh God, Elizabeth, do not-ah-" He groaned and arched, his hips lifting off the mattress. She felt the tensing of his body against hers; the muscles in his leg felt like iron where it touched hers. His flesh grew even harder in her hand, a throbbing vein surging within-before jerking convulsively one, two, three times, and then again... he gave a high-pitched, keening moan, the sound of it making Elizabeth's toes curl-even as she felt a rush of wet heat over her clenched fingers and knew that it was all over.

Elizabeth unclasped her fingers from him in mild horror; but before she had the time to grow truly mortified at having done something so very brazen and intimate, his arms came about her in a tight embrace and his lips sought hers. Still shocked, she turned away, hiding her face against his breast.

"Lizzy," he murmured huskily in her ear. His breathing was still uneven, his chest heaving beneath her cheek. "God, sweeting, thank you. How wonderful you are..."

She was rendered speechless by his worshipful thanks. She was also vastly relieved that he did not think her irreparably damaged and vulgar for what she had done. Lifting her face towards him, she allowed him to kiss her, then watched in mute consternation as he pulled off his shirt and used it to wipe her hand. He rose from the bed, then, and she quickly turned away as he did up his buttons again. She had touched, but she had no desire to see just yet; though Lord knows what she could see in the dark. She was a bit surprised when he went back to his room; but he left the door open, and Elizabeth knew that he meant to return.

Darcy did, indeed, return, wearing a long nightshirt. No trousers this time. Elizabeth supposed she could be confounded and embarrassed at the thought of his nakedness underneath... but her attitude towards her own fallibility had grown exceedingly philosophical in the last minutes. Without another word, he climbed back into bed and pulled her against him. Elizabeth nestled back against him, her upheaval settling a little, pressed his hand between her breasts, interlacing their fingers.

A question came to her, then, a memory from early in the evening.

"Fitzwilliam," she whispered. Answering, his body moved against her, his lips touched her cheek softly. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course," Darcy said drowsily. His fingers were moving up and down and across her breast, lazily, unhurriedly, rousing her nipple into sleepy pleasure.

"Earlier tonight... at Lord Gregory's... you said something... you said you had done something exceedingly stupid-"

Elizabeth felt him freeze behind her momentarily, then relax a little as he kissed a spot at the top of her neck. He was silent for a long time.

"Elizabeth, I cannot answer this- not tonight. Perhaps, in due time..." he murmured, and by the tone of his voice, she knew not to press this any further. "Sleep now, sweetheart."

Everything inside her turned over at the tenderness in his voice. She shut her eyes to the darkness, feeling an errant tear escape for the fullness of her heart. She licked it off quickly, lest it touch his hand.

"Good-night," she murmured. His answer was a soft kiss against the crown of her head.

Soon enough, she was asleep.

*Of course, everyone knows where that's from, right? Right? It's from Hamlet, in case someone doesn't know.

continue Strange Bedfellows here


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