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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 22 - Part 1

Elizabeth woke with the distinct sensation of being watched. But the gaze upon her comforted, rather than disturbed. She sighed and yawned and flipped onto her belly, burying her face in the pillow, halfway back to her dreams.

She heard a soft laugh, then a tickle against her bare sole and calf. She squirmed and pulled her feet up under her blanket, twisting away from the assault.

"Stop," she murmured groggily.

"I do believe you could sleep through a French offensive," Darcy said indignantly. The fact of his presence in her bed so early in the morning filtered in slowly. When it did, finally, reach her sleep-addled brain, Elizabeth was roused instantly. Her eyes flying open, she sat up in bed, unconsciously pulling the covers over her breast. Darcy! In her bed! What was he doing here!

In the next instant, she knew the answer to that, and the shock was even worse. Darcy was reclining at her side like an epicurean at his feast. He was dressed easily but presentably in a long deep-green robe over his nightshirt. Over his nightshirt! The evening before came to her in a flash, and then, the night. She had... For a second, Elizabeth found it difficult to breathe, her face, her neck going up in patches of heat. But he was gazing upon her serenely, dark eyes smiling at her in a way that was both kind and reassuring... Little by little, she felt her breathing steady, the thundering pace of her heart abating.

"Fitzwilliam," she said cautiously, swathing the blanket over her shoulders.

"Good morning."

"And to you." She looked away. He was looking very manly this morning, before his valet's razor had touched his cheek. His hair was tousled, a little wild. Elizabeth considered that she, herself, must look a fright; she reached up to plait her hair.

Quickly, Darcy reached over, placing one hand across her wrist.

"Wait," he said. "Leave it like that, Mrs. Darcy." A formal appellation; but his eyes twinkled at her, and his mouth creased mischievously. She remembered him calling her Lizzy the night before, an endearment that was tender and intimate and spoken from his heart...and her own voice whispering his name to him. Will.

Her hand fell away from her hair.

"You look very beautiful this morning," he said gravely. Elizabeth blushed again, dropping her eyes.

"You, too-I mean to say, you look very handsome," she whispered, her voice trembling. "Very fine, sir."

He smiled softly at her, then reached over to take her hand and bring it to his lips. Elizabeth stiffened a bit, wondering what he would do next. But he simply lowered her hand back to her lap.

"Did you sleep well?" he asked easily.

"Like a dead woman." It was true; she had slept like a stone in his embrace. Better, in fact, that she had slept for months. She dared not lift her eyes at him, mortified. Anything and everything they said right now could not but return them to the events of the previous night...

She occupied herself by looking for the pitcher of water on her nightstand, to soothe her parched throat-only to see that he was holding a cool glass out to her. Sighing, she gulped the cool, lemony water down quickly, then set the empty glass on the nightstand.

"Thank you."

Darcy rolled towards her on the bed. Placed now across the width of it (his legs fairly hanging over the side), he stroked two fingers down the top of her bare foot. Elizabeth's breath caught, and she bit her lip to control a powerful shudder. Yet, in the next moment, Darcy moved his hand away and flopped easily onto his back, arms folded under his head.

"You made me very happy yesterday, Elizabeth," he said. She threw him a horrified glance, afraid of a tease-only to see that he was utterly serious about it. Staring at him from behind her hair, she caught an oddly reverent gaze directed upon her. Cautiously, she nodded, not quite sure whether she was happy this morning. Now that the excitement of the night before had been relegated to memory, a distinct sense of unease took its place. "May I hope-" He hemmed, clearing his throat. "I should like to think that you... enjoyed all that had transpired last night."

His voice was quiet, oddly hopeful, almost shy, but Elizabeth did not know what to say and limited herself to a discomfited shrug. She had enjoyed it, more than she cared to admit to herself. Certainly more than she would admit to him in the light of day.

But he kept looking at her with those questioning eyes, and she could not keep back a brusque retort.

"Your pride requires a confirmation?" she asked sharply, instantly regretting her harsh tone.

Darcy flinched.

"My pride," he repeated bitterly. "Not my pride, madam, never my pride..." He rose into a sitting position, then clambered up to his feet near the bed.. "I have long found that my pride has no say where you are concerned. You have humbled me so effectively so many times, I now think it prudent to leave off pride altogether in my dealings with you. The less it comes in contact with you, Elizabeth, the better for it."

She could not read him, not at all. Was he joking? His mouth was folded into something that looked like a smile-no, not a smile. A smirk, a bitter twist to his handsome mouth. And what on earth did he mean, his pride had no say where she was concerned?

"If ever I humbled you, I have apologized each and every time," Elizabeth said defensively.

"I do not seek an apology, madam. Not for this. I daresay you've nothing to apologize for. I've done it all to myself."

Awkwardly, he tugged upon the sides of his dressing-gown, pulling it closed on his chest. "Good day to you, Elizabeth," he said, coldly, making for the door to his bedchamber. All of a sudden, her unease at finding him in her bed this morning dissipated, and nothing but the horror of hurting him remained. That, and the fear that he would leave.

"Fitzwilliam!" He was almost at the door when she grabbed his elbow and yanked him about, making him turn around. A decidedly unladylike gesture, that, but when he turned to her, Elizabeth was hardly concerned with the injury she might have inflicted upon his person... Rather, it was his wounded expression that occupied her. What a damnable fool she was! What was she doing! Unable to look Darcy in the eye, she rose on her tiptoes, slinging both arms around his neck. Hoping desperately that he would not push her away-though God knows she had given him every excuse. .

"Oh." His arms went about her momentarily, and in the next second, she felt his lips upon her cheek. Her mouth at his ear, Elizabeth murmured the words she could not bear to say aloud:

"I did like it, I did, I am sorry, I should have told you, I do not know why I am such a shrew-"

"Sh-sh-sh." He kissed the corner of her mouth, fleetingly, his arms tightening about her form. "You are no shrew, sweetheart. And I am a fool, for wanting to hear it from you so much... and for wanting to please you so much... Sometimes I feel I might-" He sighed. "I might do anything in the world just to see you happy."

"I was happy last night," she whispered. He held her aside, looking her pointedly in the eye:

"Really?"

"Very." She touched her lips against his cheek and felt his hand cup the back of her head, holding her in place. "It was... all...quite wonderful."

The curious, shuttered expression upon his countenance disappeared, replaced by a blinding, breathtaking smile.

"Oh God, Elizabeth, do not tell me that," he said with a wild whoop of laughter, then swung her up in his arms. She laughed, too, her world careening about her. She had a sinking heart-conscious of how much she wanted to please him, and of how much he now mattered to her. She clutched at his shirt, fingertips touching the warmth beneath.

Two long strides took them back to the bed. Elizabeth clung to Darcy as he lowered her back amidst the tousled sheets. Leaning over her on his elbows, he was incredibly tender as he kissed her. Elizabeth could feel the strain in him as he touched his lips to hers-he was obviously holding himself back. She rubbed her hand against his cheek, felt the rough texture of it still unshaven. . It was tremendously exciting, to be with him thusly, to feel his body against her, primed and strong and purposeful beneath his nightclothes. She felt his lips skid to her cheek, then to her neck, then down to her collarbones and the tender spot between. He sighed hugely and flopped upon his back, pulling her quickly atop himself.

"Lizzy," he whispered huskily, his tongue flicking mischievously at her earlobe, making her shiver and twist against him. "I believe I have a debt to repay."

Elizabeth sighed. Her shock at being so intimately reposed was quickly replaced with the realization of many exciting opportunities this pose presented.

"A debt," she repeated faintly. The warmth from his skin, the masculine scent of it enveloped and tempted her, so that she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his neck. His breath turning shallower with every passing moment, Darcy stilled, allowing Elizabeth her ministrations. His hands cupped her hips lightly, his fingers feathered disconcertingly-yet excitingly-over her bottom. Quite conscious of them, and very aware of his rather prominent manhood now pressed against her hip, she moved down, placing slow kisses in the opening of his nightshirt. Tasting his skin, feeling the soft hairs tickle her lips. She'd have thought she would dislike it that he had hair upon his chest, but this small evidence of his masculinity was oddly thrilling. Darcy bit his lip as an incautious moan flittered out, reminding her of another moan she had heard the night before. Making the back of her neck prickle and sending a quiver through her entire form.

"Yes," he said weakly, arching his chin, as she moved back up to kiss his neck. "A gentleman... always pays his debts."

"Good to know," she whispered. His hands had relinquished their hold upon her hips and were now stroking her back, slowly, up, down, from shoulders to waist and up again. She moved the collar of his nightshirt apart, trailing the tip of her tongue along his collarbone. Darcy growled, his hands sliding down to her bottom, cupping it and pressing it, hard, against his loins. A thrilled gasp escaped her lips. 'You were saying?" she murmured, thinking feverishly back to the night before.

"Yes-I have a debt to repay," he repeated. One hand still holding her backside, he pushed his other into her hair, anchoring her head, tilting her face forward for a kiss before his lips seared hers. Surfacing a moment later, he rasped: "I found your ministrations last night... admirable."

"Good," Elizabeth squeaked, her heart high up in her throat. "I am glad you ... enjoyed them."

"Very much," Darcy said with conviction. "More than you can imagine." His gaze pointedly upon her, he murmured: "Which is, I must say, the problem. I do not think you can imagine, and I should like to return the favor..."

"How-" Her modesty outraged, she was nonetheless thrown into such heat by his suggestion, that for a moment her breathing was all arrested. "Whatever do you mean-"

Darcy sighed.

"I am afraid I find it difficult to explain myself at moments like this," he said seriously. He touched his lips lightly to the tip of her nose. "Elizabeth, will you not trust me?"

She nodded, trembling from head to toe. There seemed nothing else to do, for in the reality of his embrace, a "no" was not a possibility. Darcy kissed her again, his hands caressing up and down her back again, soothing her. She sighed and hid her face against his neck, uncertain what it was she had just consented to. She was trembling from head to toe.

"Come, sweetheart," he murmured, gently rolling her off him, so that she reposed now upon her back. Then, another kiss, a lengthier one this time, while he stroked her breast through her nightdress. Pleasure came in sharp little bursts, his fingers finding her nipples first through the linen of her nightshift, then beneath it as he flicked open the buttons.

"Ah." She could not contain her wild little moans, one, then another, biting her lip. Shameful to be so abandoned in the morning's light-but she could not bear to be silent, her cries streaming from her lips like a bird's warbling. Carefully, Darcy parted the nightshift further, baring her breasts. Elizabeth shut her eyes against the harsh brightness, against sight of her own nakedness. She was mortified and wildly aroused...

Like last night. She did not need to keep her eyes open, the image of his face over her breast... could she ever forget it? But she opened her eyes still, unable to keep away. His hair fell over his brow; it was like silk as she twined her fingers in it. He smiled, then, looking up from her breast, his grin wicked and rakish, but not ceasing his ministrations even for a moment. Elizabeth, shocked to the core and flushed with heat, watched him tease one nipple into painful attention while lavishing kisses upon the other one. Then, switching, he drew the other nipple into his mouth, sucking gently at first, then harder and harder. Insensible to anything but the pleasure he was bestowing upon her, Elizabeth tugged upon his hair, willing him closer. Her hips lifted, knees dovetailing, the tender place between her thighs pulsing and seeping.

She did not understand how it was possible to be both so pleasured and so wanting. Absorbing avidly his every touch, she knew that they were not enough, could never be enough. That they were but a prelude to something even more powerful, intense, overwhelming... Pushing her shoulders back against the pillow, arching her neck, she tugged upon her husband's shoulder, urging him up, for she wanted, desperately, to feel his mouth on hers. She wanted... him. He rose up over her, kissing her, his heart frantic beneath her palm. Wild thoughts twirled around her head, unbidden thoughts of love and loss, terrifying her, making her fall all the more into his kiss.

He was whispering words into her ear, his voice husky and excited as it told her of his admiration and desire. Reminding her, again and again, how much he had loved last night. She would rather not remember; but when she did, the memory filled her with such heat, she could scarcely breathe. Her daring seemed almost impossible, and only the testament of his heated whispers lent it credence. She squeezed her eyes shut, grasped his shoulders tighter and kissed and kissed him back with abandon.

Then, another sensation intruded: that of his fingers, stroking tenderly up her calf, pulling her nightshift up along with them. Elizabeth gasped, her eyes flying open, but was silenced instantly by the touch his other hand upon her lips.

"Sh-sh-sh, Lizzy, let me."

She lay back without another squeak of protest; after all, she reasoned, if he said let me, he must know what he was doing. Mustn't he? Lud, it was funny indeed how odd her head had become.

Darcy had stopped kissing her, his eyes intent upon hers, his hand moving the nightshift up with dogged determination. Elizabeth squeezed her knees together sharply, shivered at the touch of his hand along her leg. His hand cupped, lightly, her knee, before stroking up her bared thigh, before gently pushing her knees apart; yet his gaze held hers, intently. She wanted to ask him what he was doing... but dared not, knowing that it had something to do with all that strange talk about repaying a debt; which, in turn, had everything to do with last night... At the mere thought of it, her body seeped embarrassingly, giving of its moisture. Elizabeth was mortified that high as his hand was beneath her nightclothes, he might feel it...

And then he did, touching her where, quite plainly, no other person had touched her in her memory. She gasped, and squirmed, and tried to sit up, only to be pushed gently back onto the pillows. Darcy frowned at her very severely, but the frown dissolved into another jaunty grin, and she watched him, arching her neck off the pillow and trembling with excitement. But did he really touch her there? Perhaps she had dreamt it. She closed her eyes, fighting to imagine again what it had just felt like-the ghosting touch of his fingers on her most intimate flesh.

Then, as if to dispel her doubts, he did it again, stroking softly to and fro, before cupping her mound lightly in his palm. She gasped, squeezing her eyes harder, disbelieving, as she felt him probe deeper and tease between the folds. The hard, swift sound of her own breathing, and a deep throaty groan he gave against her breast as his fingers touched the secret-wet-pulsing side of her.

"Dear God," he murmured, huskily. Elizabeth's fingers scraped for purchase against the sheets. Was such blasphemy in censure or in praise?

The sound of the door handle turning from the outside sent her scampering for cover. So great was her panic, she verily pushed Darcy off her. He sputtered indignantly, but made no attempt to stop her; Elizabeth pushed her nightshift down her legs, pulled it tight on her breast, all the while hissing at him in loud terrified whispers to be quiet.

He sat up in bed, looking every inch virtue insulted. "I locked the door this morning," he said in stage whisper. Elizabeth looked up at him pleadingly, pulling the covers into a semblance of order around her. But there was no hiding the fact that two people had spent the night here...

" 'Tis Mary," she mouthed silently and threw him another pitiful glance. Behind the door, her maid seemed perplexed, and stopped, waiting, before jangling the door handle again and again.

"I should hope so," Darcy whispered back. "Who else would be visiting your bedchamber in this early hour?"

Gasping silently at his impudence, Elizabeth threw a pillow at him, which he deflected and threw to the floor; thereupon, clearly assured of her silence, he tossed himself atop her, pinning her easily to the bed. Elizabeth could not contain a tiny squeak as she struggled and tried to bite him, but was silenced successfully when he cupped her cheek and kissed her with absolute tenderness. Thereupon, he was gone, having replaced her pillow upon the bed, slipping out of the room as stealthily as Cat himself.

Elizabeth scrambled to her feet, threw one desperate glance behind her at the disordered bed, then made it for the door, making a great show of grumbling and murmuring as one who had only just wakened. With a huge and loud yawn, she unlocked the door (reflecting, all the while, how long Darcy had been up if he had poured her a glass of water, had locked the door; and what exactly had been on his mind...).

There was Mary, with her usual pointed stare. It was all Elizabeth could do not to turn and check the bed. She could only hope it looked presentable, and that Darcy had not left any of his personal items in the room.

"Good morning, ma'am." Mary edged her way into the room, carrying a silvery jug of water. "Sleep well, did you?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said evenly. The only effective way of dealing with Mary was, she had discovered, to behave as lordly and haughtily as she could. "I must have drunk too much champagne last night, to lock the door..."

"Yes, ma'am." Mary marched past her-instantly, a sound of water being poured emanated from the dressing room, which reminded Elizabeth of the full impact of the glass of water she had drunk first thing in the morning-and when Mary reappeared and busied herself with making the bed, it was a call of nature, as well as her mortification, that drove Elizabeth from the room.

Emerging some moments later, she plopped in the chair facing the glass. Mary came up from behind to do her hair; she had just finished with the bed. Though it was not technically her province to do this, Elizabeth was glad she had taken it up herself to see to the bed linens this morning. Why did she, Elizabeth wondered, why not leave the task to an upstairs maid? Did she guess, did she know what had transpired? In any case, Elizabeth remembered all too well the unsubtle whispers of the Pemberley maids... Mary might be nosy, but she kept all she learned to herself, hoarding the information. At least Elizabeth could be assured of the girl's discretion.

But she was curious. "Sleep well last night, ma'am?"

Elizabeth threw her an angry glance. "You have already asked me that!" Discretion or no, she was about to tell the girl what she thought of her prying; but thought better of it, for such vitriol made her look utterly guilty. Trying her best to calm down, Elizabeth regarded her flushed countenance in the mirror, and Mary's cool visage behind her as she pinned up her hair. With horror, she wondered once again whether Mary could tell. Nonsense! There was nothing to tell. She was still... as she had been before.

But surely the whole world would be able to tell if she did not stop fidgeting like that. Elizabeth closed her eyes. Which did not help her any, for it served to bring before her the picture of what had just transpired between her and Darcy. She wondered whether it was normal to be so wanton with a man... but he did not seem abashed or repulsed by her, quite the opposite in fact.

"Will madam bathe?"

Elizabeth welcomed the possibility with enthusiasm, hoping that water might erase the heat from her skin. A good hour later, dressed in a modest morning gown, her hair pinned neatly in place, she finally looked in the mirror and thought herself becalmed enough to go down to breakfast.

Darcy was already there, but not eating, rather standing idly with his back to the table and staring out the window. Elizabeth looked upon him with caution, wondering whether he was wroth with her. Then, remembering his parting kiss, she gained in confidence and cleared her throat quietly to call his attention.

"Ah." Darcy turned about, bestowing upon her a sweet smile. "Elizabeth. Good morning, madam. Slept well last night?"

She stared at him for a moment, wondering whether he had gone daft in the head. Then, catching a hint of mischief in his smile, she dropped him a formal curtsey and assured him that she had, indeed, slept like a log.

"And you, yourself, sir? Did you sleep well?" She arched one eyebrow at him. "Aught trouble your rest last night?"

To her surprise, she noted that he could blush with embarrassment. Such a phenomenon made him all the more appealing to her eyes... Well-satisfied at having rendered him a most interesting colour, she went to sit down to breakfast. But then Darcy, recovering from his brief discomposure, stepped in place of the footman to move her chair; and as he leaned over her, Elizabeth heard him whisper:

"You are quite correct, Mrs. Darcy. Something did disturb my sleep last night. Or rather, someone. Would you happen to know who it was?"

"Not the faintest idea," Elizabeth murmured, lowering her flaming face.

"I should like to know whom to seek out, should I wish to have my sleep similarly disturbed tonight," he whispered. A ghosting touch of his fingers against her cheek, and then, he was at the other end of the breakfast table, leaving her in an overwhelming state of upheaval, no longer ruminating upon the night before, but about the one to come.

"Eggs, Mrs. Darcy?"

Elizabeth glared at Darcy across the table. Teazing, teazing man! How in the world could she think to eat, when her heart was in her throat?

It was then that her mind was diverted by a very different source of excitement. A footman, entering, a letter upon the silver tray. Bypassing Darcy, coming to stand before her.

"Ma'am."

Elizabeth saw, before he had even approached, how tattered the letter was, and how thick. Covered with seals and postage and destination names-Madras-Calcutta-Gravesend... Her heart leapt and she grabbed it quickly from the tray.

"Fitzwilliam, this is from Jamie!"

She was dimly aware of him waving the man away as she tore at the string securing the letter-the package, really, for there was something more than a letter in there. Finally, grabbing her butter knife, she sawed through the string with great impatience. Her hands shook as she flung the tatters of it away and snapped off the seal with the same knife and then unwrapped the letter from around something-

Secreted neatly in oiled cloth, a miniature. Jamie's portrait, painted with some skill, but the degree of the artist's mastery was hardly important.

"Oh!" Elizabeth clamped one hand over her mouth, as tears flowed liberally down her cheeks. .

"Elizabeth?" Darcy was on his feet in a moment, leaning over her chair. Upon seeing the portrait in her hand, he gave a quiet surprised sound. She looked up at him, beaming through her tears, so thrilled to share her pleasure at this. He squeezed her shoulder and nuzzled the top of her head. "Would you like some privacy to read it?"

She always did; Jamie's letters did not fail to undo her. But she would not urge him from his breakfast-and she rose, sniffing happily and smiling gratefully at Darcy.

"I shall return presently. Wait for me?"

He nodded.

She did not return for another half an hour. Having gone to the library, she sat in a window-seat there, reading, stopping occasionally to look at the portrait. In the light falling from the window, Jamie looked older, more severe, and she could not tell whether it was due to the artist's questionable talent, or the passing of time, or the rigors of life in a foreign, exotic land... She returned to his letter.

"Dearest Bess," Jamie had written.

"I hope this letter finds you well. I do not know when it happens, the cruel distances being what they are, but I do hope that you are well. The thought of you cared for by Father's friend Mr. Darcy sustains me in this far-off land.

In choosing between the good and the bad news, I feel I must give you the bad news first. The situation here is such that I cannot hope to leave India until spring, or perhaps next summer. I am sorry, dearest Bess. We have only seven years ago bested the devilish Tippoo Sultan, having restored to the throne of Mysore (to the west of Madras, where we are stationed right now) the rightful ruler-who happens to be, unfortunately, too young to rule and is under the constant threat of being overturned. A fortnight ago, my regiment was sent to keep guard over the British contingent at the Fort St. John, on the border with Mysore. There is a constant possibility that the late Sultan's followers may overturn the young Maharajah. That would place our contingent in Mysore, and at St. John, in danger, for the Sultan himself once sided with the French. We had left Madras in a hurry to get to Mysore before the monsoon season began...for even without it, the road here was long and arduous enough. Do not fear for me, dearest: we will be protected in turn by the fort's exceedingly well thought-out system of walls and moats and what-have-yous. It is now three hundred years old, and enjoys the well-deserved fame of the best-fortified posting in the Raj. I think whoever built this place must have learned from King Minos and his Labyrinth. Should anything happen, I am certain we can hold out until help comes from Madras. On the other hand, why should anything happen? Our very presence at the fort is a guarantee of peace and safety, for who would tangle with your brother? The bad part about it is that this appointment is indefinite-at least until April or May of next year, where we may hope to be replaced by another regiment. As you may guess, with the events on the Continent, available regiments are few and far between.

Now for the good news. With this expedition in mind (and, perhaps, for some past achievements), I have been raised to Captain. Yes, your brother, a captain in the 19th Light. Please be proud of me, dearest. I hope Father would have been proud of me, though Lord knows I have found it difficult to please him at times. I hope also that this portrait, in my new regimentals, reaches you intact. I thought you might favor it, though I cannot judge the resemblance of it to the original.

Dearest Bess, sometimes I find myself thoroughly sick of India-all its colors, the heat, the flies, the gnats, the sounds that the night makes here (it is never silent here at night, you know; I have now grown accustomed to it, but for the first few weeks here, I walked around as if in a dream, unable to sleep through the night). The locals, too. I cannot understand them, cannot trust them. And, believe it or not, I do not much like the local society, either (though I suspect it is not the location, but the society part)-and here at the Fort it is even more limited than it was at Madras. I miss you terribly. I cannot fathom how grown-up you must be. Contrive to send me a miniature of yourself with your next letter, if you can.

Have you heard anything from your husband-to-be?"

Elizabeth put down the letter and sighed. Husband-to-be. She had to remind herself that this was written a good four months ago.

"I understand from Father's letter last year that he has not returned to Pemberley, having taken up a permanent residency in town. Do not fear him, dearest Bess, and do not let him intimidate or bully you. Give my thanks to his father; and know that I remain here, your loving brother, J. Bennet."

Elizabeth gave a small rueful laugh. How poorly must Jamie think of Darcy to have written this! She wondered how someone as amiable as her husband had managed to create such an unfavorable expression of himself. Then, leaning her head back against the wall, she wondered some more on the great tenderness that welled up in her heart when she thought how unlike a bully Darcy had been lately. The memory of him as he had been at the beginning of their acquaintance had acquired an oddly fantastical quality about it, as if it had never been. As if she had dreamt it.

With shock, she realized that Jamie's letter had failed to truly distress her. She still missed him terribly and was worried for him, even more now, after his letter; but she no longer felt the intense misery of the past year upon learning that he was to remain in India for now. Perhaps she had come to expect it, and perhaps... With a vague sense of unease, she wondered why it was that Jamie's letter had failed to detract from the happy delirium of last night. She still loved her brother above all... but, but... She no longer was alone in the world. Rather, her delight in his portrait, and her pleasure at the thought of his success filled her heart.

A sound of the library door opening. "Elizabeth?"

She rose from the window-seat to meet Darcy.

"Is everything well? What says your brother?"

Elizabeth held the letter out to him, blushing when she thought of the part that had to do with him. But she could not withhold Jamie's letter from him... He read it quickly, sitting down in the same window-seat she had occupied earlier, making a short comment here or there. Then, a surprised expression upon his countenance, and Elizabeth froze inside, thinking that he was offended. But he only gave a short bark of laughter as he folded the letter.

"I think you can assure Bennet that you are in no danger of being bullied by me," he said, lips quirking, as if he had no desire to laugh, but could not help himself.

"Forgive Jamie," she said, coming to stand before him, stifling the urge to stroke his cheek. "The last time the three of us talked together... you know very well what transpired."

"Far be it from me to blame him," he said calmly, looking up at her. "I should think very ill of me if I were him." Then, reaching for her hand, drawing her slowly closer, leaning his forehead against her waist... "Elizabeth, I do not care... as long as you do not think ill of me..."

So overwhelmed was she by the note of anxiety in his voice, she wrapped her arms about his shoulders and pressed her cheek to the top of his head.

"No," she said firmly. "You know that I do not. You know... In fact, it is quite... the opposite."

She was terrified that he should ask her what she meant by "the opposite"... for she had not the answer. She, herself, did not know what she felt for him... At the age when young women tumble heedlessly in love, Elizabeth was wary of consequences. And so, to drown her own fears, to silence her own questions, she held him all the tighter, giving in to the urgency of his own arms.

Pulling away, he gave her a long, prying look before saying:

"Perhaps you would like to have a miniature of yourself painted, to send to your brother?"

Elizabeth smiled, very happy with the idea.

"And," he added, his voice softening, "I should like one of you as well..."

With a silent rush of breath, quite unable to speak, she nodded. Darcy's eyes on her darkened:

"We were so rudely interrupted this morning," he said, his voice weighty with meaning. "Lizzy."

Ah, Lizzy again. She felt the heat start and spread, from deep within her breast to her cheeks, her neck, her nipples. And down-between her legs, where he had touched her today. But she gazed at him serenely.

"Do you mean to continue what you have started?"

"If it be agreeable to you, madam."

Elizabeth blushed in earnest now. It was one thing to admit she liked his attentions. It was a very different thing to invite him blatantly back to her bed. Darcy leaned back against the windowpane, arms crossed on his chest, one eyebrow arched quizzically. Waiting. It seems these days he was constantly waiting for her to come to him...

Elizabeth broke down.

"Yes," she said in a small voice, instantly backing away from him. "It... be."

Thereupon, she turned and went back to the breakfast room, without a hope in the world of being able to eat.

In the middle of the day, Darcy found Elizabeth in one of the drawing-rooms, reclining shoeless upon the settee, reading. She had escaped there, claiming a sudden fatigue, but in reality, possessed by most wanton and curious thoughts. What would happen-tonight? She had all but invited him to her bed...

Taking the book out of her hands with little ceremony, Darcy scolded her mildly for reading in such an imperfect light. Elizabeth sputtered, only pretending to be angry, as he dropped the book onto the floor near her settee.

"What are you doing here?" she inquired, raising herself up on one elbow.

"I-" He stared at her, his gaze dark and strangely unfocused. "I wanted to ask you something, but it can wait..." He slid down to kneel at her side. Reaching for her, he grasped her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. "I fear I cannot go another minute without kissing you," he confessed in a heated whisper.

Undone by such a candid admission of his desire, Elizabeth shivered and parted her lips, waiting, breathlessly, for the touch of his.

It came, after a moment of heated staring, warm and rousing and unbearably tender. She remained passive, still, though she thought it might kill her not to move, not to reach blindly into his kiss. A soft touch, first, as if to beg admittance, and a tip of his tongue tracing the outline of her mouth, making her gasp in delight, making her part her lips farther in brazen invitation.

Yet, measuring himself, he pulled away.

"I could not think, or read, or-anything." His lips moved, softly, along the side of her jaw, as she arched her neck, hoping he would kiss her in that most shiver-producing spot beneath her ear. "God, I want you so-"

Elizabeth gasped, gulping in air, still shocked and delighted to hear it every time he saw fit to tell her. He rose, then, pulling her up in his arms, then falling upon the settee with her in his lap. She went willingly, sliding her arms around his neck, putting her mouth just near his again. I want you, too, she did not dare say.

His arms held her, tentatively and tenderly at first, then, as he kissed her mouth with tenderness and patience-teasing her by degrees until she was senseless and breathless with wanting-growing harder and tighter about her. His tongue stroked hers, slowly, languidly, until she moaned and pushed herself against him, pressing her breasts against his chest, to quell the unbearable ache within. More kisses, now turning desperate and hot, mouths open against each other, hands stroking greedily through the fabric of her dress, tugging wildly at the ends of his stock. With dogged determination, she pulled the thing apart and unwound it from around Darcy's neck, then dropped it, not looking, upon the rug behind her.

His fingers, undoing the buttons on her dress, one-handed and clumsy, his other hand occupied with holding the back of her head as he kissed her.

And then, that one word again, a hot murmur against her mouth: "Please."

Somehow, before she knew what was happening, she felt herself lifted, and each of her knees planted neatly on either side of Darcy's lap. Dimly, she realized that she was now sitting astride him, her skirt quite riding up her thighs, which were naked above her stockings. She shut her eyes in mortification and held on to her husband's shoulders for the momentary loss of balance as her head started to spin. She felt him reach for her, cradling her cheek in his hand.

"Sweet Lizzy," he murmured, his voice thick and drunk. Opening her eyes, she saw him looking at her, his expression-an odd mix of reverence and lust. She could feel him, his hardness pressing intimately between her legs. Moved by a strange wanton impulse, Elizabeth surged against him, shifting, this small move accommodating him further in the juncture of her thighs. The sensation of his clothed flesh rubbing against her was electric and powerful, the knowledge of how much he wanted her-an aphrodisiac; but it was also intensely pleasurable... For him, too, for he groaned, nuzzling his face into her now-open neckline, kissing along the edge of her corset. Prying the little hooks on her stays open, kissing her breasts through the flimsy cambric chemise. Unthinking, she moved her shoulders, her arms, dropping the stays on the floor with a soft sound; then, tugging upon Darcy's lapels, she urged him silently to take off his own coat. He moaned, unable to break the kiss; and she had to contend herself with prying his coat open as much as possible. Opening his waistcoat and shirt as well, sliding her hands beneath to touch his warm skin, to twine the small curls of his chest hair around her fingers.

Darcy pushed at her, slightly, making her sit back as he labored over her chemise buttons. Elizabeth could hear their own breaths, hard and swift. Darcy parted the cambric before sliding his hands over her breasts; his countenance held an expression of rapture about it, as if he had just discovered a treasure and could not get enough of it... The sight of him regarding her so carnally in full light took Elizabeth's breath away, making her sway as she saw him dip his head. She bit her lip, hard, as watched his tongue slip out to lick and tease her left nipple to painful awareness, before inflicting the same torment upon the other one. His hand, cradling her bared breast, covered it completely, the picture making her dizzy. He looked beautiful at her breast, she thought, imbibing the view before her: his countenance in severe concentration, eyelashes dark against his cheek, hair falling across his brow... She sighed and shivered and could not contain a quiet moan. Darcy jerked his head, eyes searching her face with a bemused smile then, he lowered his head again, rewarding her by intensifying his labors.

His body was still, frustratingly, out of her reach, secreted beneath layers of clothes. Every inch of it uncovered felt like a sin-delicious, forbidden... Elizabeth caressed him everywhere she could, pressed her lips to his open neck, snaked her tongue over the edge of his ear, tearing a thick, strangled sound from him. But however transported, he would not be idle... and Elizabeth was startled by the feel of his hand sliding up beneath her skirt. Up from her knee, up her naked thigh, rucking up her skirts and petticoats in the process-until it stopped, cupping her bare backside, pressing her tighter, harder against his stony arousal. Both of them moaned, eyes open wide, trained on the other's face. Elizabeth leaned closer to rest her burning face against Darcy's shoulder, the edges of his open coat rough against her roused breasts as she did that.

"Oh, God." Wracked by shivers as he stroked her backside, his hand fondling her gently, from her thighs almost to her waist in the bunched-up petticoats, Elizabeth found she could not remain still and squirmed uncontrollably against him. "What are you doing to me?" she whispered. Her only answer was a convulsive tightening of his hands on her.

After a moment, he whispered to her, his voice rasping, his chest rising against hers:

"Oh, Lizzy, I am kinder to you than I am to myself..."

Elizabeth closed her eyes, closed her ears to the mutinous notes in his voice. She knew that he was right, that there was no possible resolution to this quandary. Playing like this, taunting each other with what could never be... it would lead nowhere good. But I want him, she thought, and was shocked to hear another voice echo in her heart. I want him... More than just the pleasure of his intimate company, she knew suddenly, or the joy of his friendly companionship... She wanted, desperately, him, all of him...

Her eyes fluttering open, she looked deeply into his, finding in them the same desperate, sharp-edged desire for her entire person. For the first time since the beginning of their acquaintance, Elizabeth found that she wanted to stay. Her precious freedom, which she had craved so ardently, now seemed a hollow dream, and her life without him-a dismal prospect. In great upheaval, she wrapped her arms around Darcy's shoulders and hid her face against his neck, shaking violently. What had they done!

As if he felt her disquiet, Darcy stilled beneath her compleatly. His hands relinquishing their hold on her more intimate parts, he tenderly caressed her back and shoulders. "Elizabeth," he said softly. "I should not have said that... 'Tisn't fair of me..." His lips alighted, softly, upon her cheek. "Sweetheart, I should not exchange last night for anything."

"But-"

"Do not think of it. We shall come to it when we come to it."

Elizabeth found this way of thinking surprisingly convenient. If they were to stop and dwell on the future... why, how could she ever touch him after that? And would he even approach her? But she, too, had taken such immodest joy in discovering this new, passionate side of him-and herself. She was loath to give it up, wanting more with every breath. What will be will be, she thought.

He was nuzzling her neck, then pulling her head gently up. Asking for more kisses in that sweet way of his. Elizabeth shut off her mind, sliding both hands into his hair and pulling him closer, so that his mouth was an inch away from hers.

"We shall come to it when we come to it," she repeated.

"Yes," Darcy said against her lips, exhaling.

Thereupon, he kissed her again, each of them now holding the other's head quite tightly, their kiss full of frantic passion unfelt before. Tongues probed and stroked shamelessly, flicking and teasing each other until both had to stop for lack of breath. Stop-for a mere moment-still holding on to each other-before plunging in again.

The touch of his hand upon her naked bottom was already familiar, and yet a shock. She arched, pushing against him, then pulled away.

"Take-this-off," she murmured, pushing at his jacket. He frowned at her for the interruption, then managed to shrug out of it without lifting her off himself. His waistcoat followed, and Elizabeth parted his shirt with quick desperate movements, dying to feel his skin.

But, in the next moment, before she could get enough of his heart leaping beneath her open palm, Darcy pulled her tightly against himself. Her nipples, sore from his earlier caresses, rubbed agonizingly against his naked skin. Elizabeth gasped at the great surge of heat shooting through her, straight to her belly.

"Oh God," she gasped, disbelieving her own ears. "Oh God, Will, please."

Darcy held her aside, grasping her hair a little too tightly for comfort. What a mess it would look later. She could see a muscle move in his cheek as he clenched his teeth. She had made his hair look just as wild as hers ...-and all she wanted was to run her fingers through it again.

"What do you want?" he asked, roughly. His hand at the small of her back, gripping her waist tightly, then slipping below, beneath her skirts. Elizabeth's eyes flew open as she felt it trail up and over her bent leg, then over her thigh. Holding her breath, holding his gaze, dark with wanting, Elizabeth felt his hand there, over the juncture of her thighs.. The way she was sitting, she was parted and open. No way to close her legs, not with his other hand holding her breast so intimately. Not with his eyes on her. She swallowed a tight knot in her throat, shut her eyes tightly.

"What do you want, Elizabeth?" Darcy's voice was so close now, so rough, his breath panting at her ear.

Touch me. This morning, his fingers upon her most secret, most shameful parts had been a shock, and now she wanted him to do it again. Still, she could think it, not say it. Her most wicked desires-she could not speak them aloud. Helplessly, eyes still closed, she gave a small shrug, hoping he would understand. He kissed her, then, a strange mixture of brutality and tenderness in the touch of his lips.

"I shall show you," he whispered against her mouth. "I shall show you what you want..."

Biting her lip, seeking purchase, she clutched at his shoulders. This time, no coat, her fingers grasping his body through the lawn. Elizabeth marveled at the strength of him. Opening her eyes again, she could not see what he was doing, his hand secreted beneath her blue muslin skirts. God, god, god, a small blasphemous litany in her head. His eyes were on her, black with profound longing. His voice still rang in her ears: I am kinder to you than I am to myself.

With a strangled gasp, she felt him touch her. She had no word in her mind, no name for that place, but a childish there. His fingers, stroking lightly, sent a powerful jolt of nervous excitement through her every time they touched her. Caressing first the soft hair between her legs, again and again, until she was wild with vivid longing in his arms. Then, slipping quickly forward and parting her, making her draw her breath with a hissing sound. With a slow smile, Darcy leaned closer, seeking her lips, holding her suspended and wondering what he would do next. Elizabeth tumbled into the kiss, desperate to know more; but he pulled away instantly. His hand moved again beneath her skirts, probing a little further... and stunning her with sensation so powerful, she almost toppled out of his lap.

Such pleasure.

"What-what is it-" Elizabeth murmured, stunned. She had not expected it, and had not expected it to go on. Such overwhelming pleasure could last but a moment-but it went on, and on. It became very clear to her that Darcy knew perfectly well what he was doing to her. He had not stumbled over that place in error, but kept returning to it, again and again until all air was stolen from her breast and the day grew dark in her eyes. Her body, wanton, moved in response to his touch, seeking a greater closeness. Images of him from last night intruded, unbidden, memories of him in the throes of passion. How fleeting her advantage over him had been... She bit her lip, shut her eyes and moved, insensible, against his hand, restless, yearning. Seeking some...something, some ease to this heinous lust, coiling more and more tightly in her belly. She could feel Darcy's other hand on her waist, gripping her with bruising strength... A gentleman always pays his debts.

He bent his head to her breast, relinquishing his hold on her waist to free one hand-and Elizabeth almost dropped to the floor. The room was spinning.I am kinder to you than I am to myself. She heard him whisper against her skin, words she would do well to forget, calling her sweetheart and darling and love.... for now, they only served to coil the snake in her belly all the more tightly... Gasping, she arched, pushing herself harder, closer, against him-her breast against his mouth, her... herself against his hand.

"Oh, Will!" Deep in her belly, in her loins, a slow climbing, a nascent warmth. Rising sweetly deep within so that she curled her stockinged toes and thought she might die if she did not kiss him soon, now. Her fingers dug into Darcy's shoulders, one hand forcing him up by his hair. His mouth tasted sweet, like she remembered, the work of his fingers on her more certain, more driven now.

Both of them were panting now, eyes smoky and dark on each other. . Elizabeth heard a whimper tumble off her lips, a weak little sound. No longer the mistress of her own body, she clung more and more tightly to him, breathing frantically against his neck. Dimly, she registered the pounding of his heart against her naked breast, the heat of his skin and the way he moved against her, surging and making small animal sounds. His teeth scraped the tender skin of her neck as he drove her farther, harder. She felt him arch beneath her, pushing up against her body. The fabric of the settee was rough under her naked knees. Squeezing her eyes so hard tiny specks appeared in her field of vision, she heard him whisper coaxing words in her ear, urgent and pleading, please, please, Lizzy. What was he asking for? She felt herself led and lifted; felt herself raised high, her climb steeper and steeper, and she moaned with the fear of it, afraid that he might drop her. Terrified that this heavenly rise might stop too soon.

Elizabeth was dimly aware that every sound she made was matched by another from him. Darcy silenced their next moan with a kiss, his hand grasping her hair roughly, holding her head, his tongue hot in her mouth.

"Come," he murmured urgently against her mouth. Elizabeth grasped his shoulders harder, her fingers curling into him through the lawn.

With another insistent stroke of his fingers, the coil inside gave. With blinding speed, it unwound, flooding her belly and loins with sweetness, forcing a shattered cry from her lips. Her thighs seized, squeezing his again and again. A great shudder seized her entire body, from her shoulders to her toes, and her head fell forward, her neck suddenly too weak to support it. She felt his body's arch beneath hers and heard the strangle noise he made in his throat. Then, his arms holding her, cradling her closer to him, stroking her back. She shivered with the remnants of pleasure and the sensation of air on her rapidly cooling skin, tucked her face deeper into the hollow of his neck and shoulder .

Then, finally, forcing herself up against the great weight of her fatigue, she rose in his lap. That he had known her body better than she was a great shock, and she felt her lips tremble. His face was dark, unreadable, his head thrown back against the edge of the settee. His eyes closed, as if he could not bear to look at her-but his chest heaving as if he had just run a mile.

"Will." She stroked the side of his face, saw his eyelashes flutter and a slow smile lift the corners of his mouth.

"Shall I consider my debt to you repaid, ma'am?" he murmured. Opening his eyes, he sat up straighter and grinned at her. He was fairly glowing with pride. His body was still hard as a rock beneath hers, his heartbeat so loud she could almost hear it. Or was it, perhaps, her own?

"If you will." Elizabeth cocked her head and surveyed him-without a coat, his shirt parted on his chest and his eyes wild like she'd never seen them.

"For now," he acknowledged slowly, then ducked his head and dropped a light kiss upon one nipple. Elizabeth shivered and colored instantly, realizing belatedly that she was nearly naked in his arms.

"For now?" she echoed, weakly. Darcy nodded.

"I reserve the right to repay my debt to you any time I see fit," he whispered.

"Oh." With shaking fingers, Elizabeth refastened her chemise. Leaning awkwardly off the settee, Darcy hooked her abandoned stays with one fingers and helped her into them, before quickly doing up the tiny hooks again. A good thousand questions roared in her head right now, but she dared not ask a single one.

"Do I look-"

Darcy angled his head, looking at her appraisingly. "Only a little bit tumbled, and only because of your hair." He laughed, ducking a throw pillow. With a regretful expression, he watched her re-plait her hair. "I like your hair wild like that," he said. "I shall miss it like that."

Red from her collarbones, Elizabeth pursed her lips to avoid laughing.

"Better now?" she demanded, still holding that pillow. He nodded solemnly.

"Much."

"And you-you look all...like a bedlamite!" she blurted out. Mortified, she held her hand to her lips. She could not believe she'd said that-but he did, he did look positively wild, with his hair all disordered by her hands, and his shirt revealing most of his chest, and his lips raw from her kisses.

But he seemed to take no offense. "Indeed," he agreed. 'I suspect you are correct. I shall make myself presentable, soon as you are no longer in my arms."

She jerked, attempting to dislodge herself from him, but he held her tightly around the waist. "Please stay," he whispered and then kissed her again. Melting against him, Elizabeth slumped back into his embrace.

Then, disengaging himself, Darcy looked Elizabeth in the eye, his gaze long and tender. Cupping her cheek with one hand, he touched a finger to the tip of her nose. "Sweetheart," he said with such tenderness that Elizabeth's heart did a flip in her chest. He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but seemed to stop himself. Then, after a pause: "Did you like it just now?"

She nodded, quickly, unable to deny him that-the truth of what she was feeling. Lord. Though it was true and not true at the same time: for "like" was simply not a word to describe it, the great upheaval that seized her from within, all of her, her body certainly, but also her mind. And her heart, too, before she had anything to say about it. Their agreement of before now seemed so far away now, as if made in another life. These two people, entwined so intimately, so lovingly, in one another's arms, could not have made a bargain so cold. A promise so cruel-to let each other go. Could not have, she thought...

"Elizabeth," Darcy said softly. "I did not come here to-" He sighed. "I came here because I had a question to ask you. Your brother's letter put me to thinking."

"What kind of question?" Elizabeth asked cautiously. He leaned back against the back of the settee, and she helped do up the buttons on his shirt. The delicious flush had left his face, and were it not for the fact that he was missing half of his upper clothing, not for his hair all mussed, no-one could have told he had been so outrageously engaged only moments ago.

"We were going to go visit your domestics at Longbourn. To meet with the steward and such?"

The steward was one Mr. Higgins, a respectable gentleman, hired upon Mr. Darcy's insistence sometime in the spring; Elizabeth had never met him, but as her chief condition-that Hill and others not be disturbed or their wages interrupted-had been met, she found him acceptable enough.

Elizabeth climbed off his lap, a tad awkwardly, and handed Darcy his waistcoat. "When are we to go?"

"Whenever. I have already promised Gregory to meet him at Angelo's on the morrow. But aside from that..."

Elizabeth smiled. "Tomorrow, then!" she said and watched him break into a wide grin as well.

"Tomorrow," Darcy said.

Chapter 22 - Part 2

Darcy strode into his bedchamber, the smile slowly fading off his face. It was not a lie, he had smiled at her because he felt like it. Because it was impossible to answer her infectious girlish grin in any other way... But he was also consumed, he found, with so many other emotions he could not share with her. Desire, bewilderment, longing. Missing her when she was not there. Wanting to be in her presence, more and more. Hating the sight of any other man near her-be it his own cousin, or Gregory, or one of the coxcombs at the ball. All of which coalesced into one terrible realization.

He loved her.

He would have to be blind not to understand, not to connect all of these unpleasant discoveries into this one, the most shattering truth. He would have to be foolish to lie to himself: for all his telling himself it was simply desire, he did not love her any less. For the first time in his life, he had fallen in love-with his own wife, long determined to leave him. But perhaps, perhaps... he thought back to their earlier conversation today, when she had told him she did not think ill of him. Quite the opposite, she had said and had blushed wildly, her cheekbones reddening brilliantly. Quite the opposite. What the rotten thing to say, if one said nothing at all after that... He forced his thoughts away from what it might mean.

Darcy groaned in frustration. How was he ever to let her go? He could not bear think of it. His life without Elizabeth in it would be hell... worse than hell. Dark and gray and miserable, not a ray of sunshine, he thought. Like a purgatory. It was horrible even to imagine. He knew, then, that he would fight it... that he would not simply let her go... Honor be damned, his promise to her was the stupidest thing he had ever done.

Knowing that-that he would not give up on her-made it a little easier for him. Not that he had any idea of how to go about it...

Last night had been sweet, dream-like and exciting. Going to Gregory's, he had not expected anything of her. She had made him so miserable with those damned stupid gloves of her. What a cruel little jest-but he had no desire to hold it against her. Young as she was, confused as she was, he was ready to forgive her. But he had expected nothing but misery from Gregory's party.

Elizabeth had taken him unawares last night, and he had almost lost his head with happiness. And then, in the middle of the night, half-asleep, he had done something he would never have done in the light of day. He had given in to desire, to longing, to her presence near him in her bed. Her hands on him had seared him. She had been so generous, so selfless with him, with a healthy dose of curiosity about the workings of his body... Darcy sighed. It did nothing for his constitution to keep thinking about it-and yet he could not stop thinking of it. He could not stop thinking of last night, could not stop thinking of what had just transpired on that drawing-room settee. Madness, he thought, they had not even locked the door... It was the sight of her, relaxed and shoeless upon the settee, her brow furrowed in concentration, that had done it to him.

With a sigh, he strode into his dressing-room. He needed to change, following that which transpired. Darcy frowned and sighed again, releasing the buttons on his trousers. There had been a moment earlier today when she had shuddered against him and whimpered against his neck, her fingers curling into his shoulders, -and he was done for. Like an adolescent, he thought, but he could feel no real embarrassment about it, inclined to forgive himself. Elizabeth did not seem to notice what had happened to him, too intent upon her own pleasure. Good, he thought with a sudden wolfish grin. Let her think him unfulfilled. It seemed to him she was beginning to understand the interdependence of his satisfaction and hers...

He liked the thought of Hertfordshire, of Elizabeth in Hertfordshire. Her home, as much as she had ever had one. He liked her in London, too, but just now he could not bear Fitzwilliam and Gregory and all others swarming around her like some blasted flies...Flushed and naked, he poured some water into a basin and splashed it on his face. God. Even after what had transpired earlier, he still wanted her. But he could not impose himself on her quite this often. There would be time for it later, Darcy thought. Later. Tonight, perhaps. For now, he needed to remove himself from her presence, lest he go back and pounce on her again.

Twenty minutes later, impeccably dressed, Darcy went riding in Hyde Park. He had thought to take Elizabeth along with him-but that would defeat his very purpose. If he did not cool the blood in his veins just a little...He did not like sneaking out of the house so secretly, so he left her a note, telling her where he went and when he would be back. Then, with one parting, hopeful glance at the house windows, he rode out.

Elizabeth stared, nonplussed, at the letter in her hand. She had not expected Darcy to quit the house so suddenly, and his letter did little to explain such impulsiveness on his part.

"My dearest Lizzy, I find myself in severe need of fresh air. I have judged it best if I go out alone just now. I shall be back for supper. W."

She would have bristled at this, but for the way he had addressed her. That, and the clandestine, secret W at the end lent his brisk missive some tenderness. Lizzy-she could almost hear his voice, his mouth muffled against her neck, husky and sensuous. A pet name, she thought, and was instantly bewildered and aroused all over again.

"What is it, my dear?"

She looked up quickly and gave her Aunt Gardiner a genuine smile. "Oh, nothing." Mrs. Gardiner came to visit earlier with her eldest daughter Emma, intent on spiriting Elizabeth away to tea. Elizabeth had only had the time to right her dress and fix her hair when they arrived. She had thought to invite Darcy along, and was now somewhat disconcerted by his absence.

"Nothing," she repeated. "I shall gladly go with you, Aunt."

Her Uncle's carriage took them to Cheapside, Elizabeth having left instructions to inform her husband of her whereabouts when he returned. Taking tea in her Aunt's small drawing-room, she could not fail to remember that the last time she was here, a question was prominent in her mind: whether to grant Darcy that kiss he wanted. A question that was now answered, and then some. She wondered whether her Aunt knew what was on her mind, and whether she wondered about the resolution of the problem with which her grown-up niece had presented her.

But it was easy to keep the conversation away from that subject, for Mrs. Gardiner was keenly interested in the goings-on at Lord Gregory's party last night. It took Elizabeth a moment to fight through other memories and recall the silvery mimes, the formidable fire-eaters, and especially, the mermaid in the fountain.

"See, Emma, this is what happens to actresses who fail to become successful," Mrs. Gardiner intoned. Her daughter pouted and said nothing. "Would you like to spend your time playing a mermaid in someone's fountain? Ah, but this is a rhetorical question." She sighed. "Her father took her to theatre once, and she had not been herself ever since."

Elizabeth laughed, thinking that floating in Lord Gregory's fountain was perhaps not the worst pastime for a young penniless actress. She went on at length, telling her Aunt about the beautiful fireworks and the scrumptious fare served at the party. Where she did not remember, her mind obscured by other, more private, memories, she added lavishly to the truth, with surprise finding in herself a talent for some truly spectacular exaggeration.

Then, remembering, she pulled Jamie's miniature from her reticule.

"Oh dear Aunt, look what I have."

Mrs. Gardiner took the portrait from her hands and studied it at length. "A very handsome face," she said, finally. "And a good one. He appears to favor you prodigiously. Is this a good likeness?"

"Oh he is better-looking in life," Elizabeth said, beaming. "And he has recently been made a Captain!"

Following a good five minutes of ahs and oohs, and then a tea, Mrs. Gardiner returned to her embroidery-the same blanket Elizabeth had seen her stitch during her last visit, now nearly compleated-only to discover that she had run out of blue floss.

"Ah, this is a pity," she said with a sigh, poking the empty needle through the edge of blanket, near a half-finished blue rose. "I only had a flower-and-a-half left."

"Shall we not go out and buy some at once?" Elizabeth offered. She felt too buoyant, at any rate, to sit still.

"Oh no, I should not take you into the street in Cheapside." Mrs. Gardiner shook her head.

"Why, is it unsafe?"

"Not precisely. But not a place where your husband would like you to walk."

"Come, Aunt." Elizabeth grinned. "Think better of my husband. He has no improper pride and will not care where I walk, as long as my person is safe." She was not entirely certain it was true... but she thought it might be true, and she wanted to go for a walk. Funny how truth sometimes altered if one wanted it to badly enough. Her Aunt thus convinced, the two women set out (on foot, for the millinery was only a step away), abandoning Emma to pout for having been excluded.

They were two doorways away from the millinery, having stopped to admire a flower-seller's display, when Elizabeth felt her arm yanked backward so hard, she thought for a second it might have left its socket. There was a loosening and a snap, and she wheeled on the spot to see an unknown figure of a man dash away from her and into the street, right in front of a mounted officer. A shout of an oath, and Elizabeth watched, as if in a bad dream, the officer's horse buck and rear. By the time he steadied the fractious beast, the man who had startled it in the first place had disappeared, darting into a dark alley on the other side of the street.

"Oh dearest, such fright!" Her Aunt said, grasping her hand. "Are you all right?" she inquired, looking upon her in consternation. Mrs. Gardiner had been two steps away, looking at some flowers on the other side of the stand. She had seen nothing.

Elizabeth opened her mouth, shocked to the core, then silently pointed at the ground beneath her feet. A thin silver chain lay there, torn in two. The man who had startled the officer's horse had torn her reticule off her elbow and had now disappeared with it.

"Oh my dear," her Aunt murmured contritely. "I am so sorry-had you anything of value-" Then, she froze, already knowing her answer-as did Elizabeth, who had been struck by it with the force of full-blown misery. For in her reticule, atop a handkerchief Mary had embroidered E.D., atop five sovereigns, a comb and a small mirror, lay Jamie's portrait.

Elizabeth returned home in low spirits. She had cried in the street, unable to contain her misery, but returning to the town-house, she was obliged to dry her eyes-unless she wanted Mary at her instantly, and her tears reported to her husband. Her Aunt's honest contrition had only made things worse, for she blamed only herself. Never mind Mrs. Gardiner's conviction that they should not have gone outside in Cheapside. Grimly, Elizabeth told herself that this disaster could have just as easily happened in Leicester Square... It was her fault, only hers... She should have held her reticule more tightly. She should have been more vigilant. She should have left the portrait at home! After a while, lengthy self-recriminations had made her so disgusted with herself, she felt ill.

But however much she wanted to climb into bed and cry herself to sleep, she had not such luxury. Not if she did not want Darcy to know-and she did not want him to know. In fact, she wanted to conceal this from him quite desperately. She was ashamed of her loss, of having lost-having wasted-something so dear and precious and irreplaceable through her own folly and carelessness. But she was also afraid that Darcy, on his part, might not see it this way---that he might blame her Aunt. Elizabeth did not think that he cared overmuch about the loss of the miniature... but he might blame Mrs. Gardiner for exposing Elizabeth herself to the danger of being robbed. So, when Mary informed her that Master had not yet returned from his ride, she felt vastly, shamefully, relieved.

She took to her room and tried to occupy herself. There was a library in the town-house, and she went down and fetched a book and tried to read. But her thoughts kept returning to her loss. She felt stupid, wasteful, terribly regretful. Tears gathered, again and again. Would she be able to deceive Darcy when he came home? She could plaster a silly smile to her face all she wished, but she suspected that her eyes would tell the truth. That he, of all people, could read her...Miserable business, that.

Restless, she quitted her bedchamber and went to sit in a window-seat. She found now that she missed the one at Pemberley, with the window looking out over the beautiful grounds; and the one at the town-house, over a busy street, offered her neither shelter nor solitude. But it did provide an excellent view of comings and goings, and would serve to warn her of Darcy's arrival. So grim were her thoughts tonight, she would need a moment to compose her countenance...

Watching for her husband's tall figure in the street, Elizabeth found that her thoughts naturally returned to that which had occurred earlier. Her loss this afternoon had erased all memory of the joy she had shared with Darcy... Only a vague sense of awkwardness and unease remained, making her feel slightly out of turn, and not a little wanton. Perhaps, even, unchaste. So morbid and unnatural a turn did her musings take now, she began doubting Darcy as well. What if he were to judge her! Certain things-ways-manners-were normally expected of a lady-and she found she had failed at them all. Sighing, she leaned her face against the glass and tried to remember the wild ecstasy that had torn that cry from her lips. . A flush crept up her neck, her heart accelerating its pace as she thought of it... as she thought of the way he smiled at her afterwards, his eyelids heavy. She could still feel the weight of her husband's hand upon her nape, craning her into a kiss.

It would not do to think of that, she thought grimly. She focused upon the outside, her eyes tracing listlessly the progress of people and horses and carriages... trying her hardest not to let it remind her of what had just transpired.

It took her a moment to realize that a figure had stopped beneath her window. A man, looking pointedly at her. She was startled out of her repose, and surprised to recognize the person below as the young officer whose flowers she had ruined so rudely a mere s'ennight ago. (Faith, his flowers-she had given his flowers to Mary, somehow guiltily conscious that she should have never accepted him, that there was something improper about it...) What was his name? Ah, she thought, Mr. Wickham. It was Mr. Wickham.

He was holding her reticule in his hand.

She rolled off the window-seat and down the hallway, until, wearing only her dress and slippers, she ran outside. She almost ran him down, for he was standing near the doors now.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said, with a bow, and held the reticule out to her. So shocked she was, and so consumed with only one thought, that she did not thank him at once... did not even say hello. Seizing the reticule, she opened it silently and with shaking hands. It was all there-her money, her things. And-joy-Jamie's portrait. Precisely on top of everything, where she had left it. The thief had not had the time to even open the reticule.

Nigh-on weeping with relief, she turned to the officer. .

"How awful of me," she said. "I did not even thank you. Why, but I do not know how to thank you!"

He smiled at her, and she thought, shocked even more, that he was really quite handsome.

"Your obvious delight is thanks enough."

"But how-"

"I saw it happen," he said. "The wretch started my horse. Almost threw me, too, fine horseman that I am." He smiled again, pursing his lips in light-hearted self-derision.

"It was you, then!" she cried, amazed. How could she have failed to recognize him! She recalled seeing the officer in the middle of the street ride off instantly; but she had not thought he had gone in search of her offender. "But you had gone quite the other way!"

"I knew the entrance and the exit to that alley," he replied, quickly. "I caught him at the other end."

"Where is he?"

"I hope you do not mind, ma'am, I sent him off. I did not think you would wish for a severe punishment... " His easy grin, his cornflower eyes seemed to say, I knew you would be too generous for that.

"No, no," Elizabeth said, feeling very liberal indeed. "He must have tried to steal for food." With clumsy fingers, she pulled Jamie's portrait out of the reticule. "Dear sir, you've restored my brother's portrait to me!" she cried.

"Same valiant brother now serving in India?" Mr. Wickham asked.

"You remember!" she cried, delighted. How easy it was to delight her now. "The very one. Lord, how can I ever thank you enough?" She was suddenly seized with an idea, and offered, blushing, to pay him.

Smiling, Mr. Wickham shook his head. "No. I only ask that you be careful when you go out in the street, ma'am. And that you consider me amongst your friends."

Now that was easily accomplished. She did not know him at all, but she could only think well of a man who had restored her beloved Jamie's likeness to her. Who had erased, through quick thinking and kindness, her horrible blunder. She beamed at him and held out her hand.

"Friends," she said happily.

He shook her hand, then, gravely-"Friends!"-though mirth crinkled the skin around his robin's-egg eyes.

Despite the cold wind whipping the stray tresses of her hair into frenzy, Elizabeth was disposed towards further discourse.

"How did you know to find me here? And where, pray tell, is your horse?"

Mr. Wickham laughed. "What a volley of questions! You told me your name, ma'am, the last time we met. It is easier than you think to find out who lives where in town. I did have to go back to my quarters for that, though- and to stable my horse and change my clothes while I was at it. Pardon the delay."

"Come into the house, then!" she said, impulsively. Her earlier resolution to conceal her folly from Darcy had all but disappeared. Let him be angry with her, she was certain that she could turn it into a trifle now-now that it had been so happily resolved. She burned to introduce her new friend to him. Surely he could not fail to appreciate the wonderful thing Mr. Wickham had done for her. "My husband will be home soon..."

But Mr. Wickham only shook his head, his face acquiring instantly an odd shuttered look. "No, ma'am. In fact, if I were to request a recompense for restoring your property to you, let it be this: do not mention this to your husband. Do not tell him of our acquaintance."

Elizabeth froze. All of a sudden, she was seized with a dreadful feeling, as if of an omen.

"Mr. Wickham," she murmured, "but why?"

He frowned at her, blue eyes piercing.

"Because I ask it of you," he said simply. "Do not tell your husband that I was here-or that you know me. Do not mention me at all."

"Why?" she repeated, frowning back. "What an odd request to make!" His insistence that she conceal this incident from Darcy disturbed her; there was something peculiar about the grave expression all a sudden descending upon his countenance. (She had already forgotten her own earlier resolution to hide the incident from Darcy at any cost, and was now very cross at having to lie to him.)

"Please," he said, seriously. "Promise not to tell. You owe me that, Mrs. Darcy, for restoring your brother's portrait to you."

How could she refuse that? She gave him a cross shrug and a frown and said:

"Very well. I promise. But this is all very odd, I shall have you know."

His visage clearing in a flash of a smile, he cut her a bow and was gone, walking with a quick sure stride before rounding a corner. Elizabeth frowned again and went back inside the house, her momentary happiness quite ruined by the cold hard feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Darcy had stayed away as long as he could. He had ridden until his feet froze in his boots; and then he went to his club-for the warmth and for idle conversation, hoping the latter would help resolve the tension in him a little. This was of little help, for coffee only served to make him overexcited; and other men's admiring comments about his wife-for there were many there who had spent the night before reveling at Gregory's-galled him to no end. He had to remind himself that they were merely being polite... that not every man expressing admiration for his wife wanted to bed her. Well, at least not as much as he did.

He left the club in ill spirits and great upheaval and rode home, resigned. The interlude this afternoon had told him plainly that he was a fool for her... He only had to see her there, curled up on that settee, the hem of her day dress raised just over her delicate ankles, revealing a plain green design upon her stocking-and every sound thought had gone flying out of his head. Desire alone did not explain it, for he had desired women before. He longed to possess her, and yet, it was not the half of it. He had an unconscious urge to follow Elizabeth wherever she went. Sometimes, he found himself simply walking after her-before realizing how odd it must look, that he should follow her like that. Knowing that he had agreed to let her go made him both furious and heart-broken; his only salvation was to avoid thinking about their bargain.

It became more and more impossible with every passing minute that he should let her go ...

And then, today... He thought back to it, a quick smile tugging the corners of his mouth up. He had thought she would be fearless in that as in all things; but he had not expected she would be so responsive. It was natural for a gently-reared young lady to be a little ... frozen. Elizabeth was anything but, burning beneath his hands. Open, trusting, guileless about her own desire. And-last night served testament to that-generous and curious. A perfect lover, he thought, how sweet it would be to teach her things... His imagination fired his loins instantly. What would it feel like to be inside her? Darcy sighed, shifting awkwardly in the saddle. Stop. Think of something else...

But it was all for naught. With single-mindedness that he showed but rarely, and only in the most important things, Darcy wanted Elizabeth. Loved Elizabeth. He had pursued her, foolishly, knowing his heart to be in danger, and it was now lost. It was very odd: for the first time in his life, he wanted all parts of someone... He wanted, desperately, her body, from the touch of her hand to a full possession of it, from the most innocent kiss to the knowledge of her as his prick sank deep within her warmth. He wanted her company, her conversations, her pealing laughter. He wanted her to stay with him, and to want to stay with him-because she loved him.. To let him do all these things to her that he so longed to do, to be a wife unto him. To bear him a child one day... the thought of Elizabeth with a babe at her breast was distant and odd-but by no means unnatural or unappealing. He wanted, most of all, to make her happy and to shelter her. Having never felt it before, he supposed that was what love for a woman felt like, if one took it apart, this powerful feeling that had seized him lately. But only if he stopped and thought of it; for at all other times, it was simply an overwhelming need, a violent longing that took hold of him at the thought of Elizabeth.

With thoughts so maudlin and disordered, worse off now than when he had left, he approached the town-house in Leicester Square. Inside, he pulled off his coat, flinging it onto someone's arms and took the steps two at a time. He was vexed she had not come down to meet him; but his vexation disappeared when Elizabeth nigh-on knocked him off his feet in an upstairs hallway. Darcy opened his arms, catching her into a quick embrace and almost swaying on his feet.

"Hello, sweetheart."

The word-so tender-revealed more about his feelings that he cared to show, and Darcy was terrified. Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck and stood, rocking, on her tiptoes. What had caused this wild surge of affection? Darcy threw a quick look around, and, finding no-one, grasped her behind and pulled her up his body. Her skirts hiked and stretched, baring her legs, which she instantly locked behind him. Darcy could not resist pressing her back against the wall, sighing breathlessly against her mouth as he kissed her.

"Such a warm welcome," he whispered, pushing himself urgently against her. "Am I to expect it every time I come home?"

She said nothing, only slipped her fingers in his hair and kissed him, greedily and awkwardly but with great sweetness. Darcy sighed, holding her against himself. He was tempted to take her into one of the rooms, preferably his own bedroom. He knew that she would put up little resistance, if any; last night, and this afternoon, had taught him as much. Her mouth was sweet and tasted of apple she must have just eaten. His bedchamber was two doors away... But:

"The Colonel and Lord Gregory are here," she informed him the moment he released her. Darcy could not suppress an involuntary groan.

"Mr. Darcy!" She gave a short, surprised laugh. "I should think you would be happy to see your friends!"

"Forgive me such ungracious behavior," Darcy said gruffly, "but I did hope to have you to myself this evening. Plus, I only just saw them yesterday."

"Put me down, you boorish creature," she said, still laughing. Before he did, she kissed him again, and for a second, he forgot all about his guests, responding breathlessly.

"Perhaps you could tell them I am from home?" he murmured as he kissed her neck. "Perhaps-

"Fitzwilliam." She sighed, lifting her chin. "You cannot be serious."

"Mmmm?"

"Besides, I am certain they heard you thunder up the stairs."

"Ah, you are probably right." Regretfully, he let her down, her wriggling down the length of his body having a very predictable effect on him. Still, he was very pleased with this besides: as if she would have gone along with any ruse of his, had the gentlemen not heard him.

Darcy had envisioned an easy and intimate supper with Elizabeth (and then-to bed!), and was very cross to see both Gregory and Fitzwilliam amusing her as he came down.

"Gentlemen," he said, displaying what he thought must look a friendly smile-though he knew his insincere grin did little to deceive either guest. "Good to see you both."

"Good to be here," Gregory murmured, looking discomfited and anxious.

"We thought you would say that," Fitzwilliam said with an easy grin. "Or rather I did. His Lordship was of the mind that you were not to be disturbed today."

"Judging by the state of many of my guests," Gregory said archly, "I should not be surprised if Darcy did prove to be the worse for wear tonight."

"But as you see, I was correct. He looks remarkably spry."

Darcy frowned, annoyed. He knew precisely what had transpired: his cousin, too curious by half, had seen them leave the night before-and now wanted to see where exactly they stood following such a hasty departure. He would wager that Gregory, who was by nature a delicate man, had been dragged along in a most infamous fashion, or had come of his own will, perhaps-to ease the damage the good Colonel inflicted.

"Has anyone told you, cousin, that it is exceedingly bad tone to discuss someone in the third person while they are actually present?"

Fitzwilliam grinned and made large round eyes at him. "You don't say." He grinned again. "Ma'am." Turning to Elizabeth-who was delightful in a simple evening dress of sprigged muslin-he continued. "The truth is, had I been your husband, I should drink but little."

"Indeed," she said, faintly, her cheeks reddening a little. Fitzwilliam-demmed rogue-offered her his arm, quite content to have the other two gentlemen follow them. Elizabeth threw a quick glance at Darcy before she took it; he saw it, and endeavoured to keep the thunderous clouds out of his gaze. In fact, he went as far as to bestow a smile upon his wife-thinking that he would deal with that scoundrel Fitzwilliam when the opportunity next presented itself.

At supper, he found himself but one of three men urgently seeking the attentions of one lady. He found he disliked the arrangement. It went without saying that he would rather have her all to himself; and if Gregory proved diffident and polite and eager to divide his conversation between the husband and wife, Fitzwilliam took full advantage of the privileges afforded to him as Darcy's favorite cousin. In fact, it was only because he was his favorite cousin that Fitzwilliam escaped (however narrowly) being clouted over the head with a fireplace poker.

But favorite cousin or no, supper was not a happy affair. Darcy watched Elizabeth pointedly, searching her countenance for the smallest sign of affection she might show his cousin. He held himself back, reminded himself she had not give him a reason to doubt her. Did he think she might succumb to Fitzwilliam's easy charm, might think him very handsome (as he was, Darcy thought-while clearly unaware that he was at least as handsome as his cousin)? No, she was better than that by far. But that one blasted smile of his, almost blinding, was worth a fortune. Surly, Darcy turned to his supper; but the food, tasteless tonight, only served to irk him all the more.

After supper, it would have been common for the three gentlemen to retire to another room for cigars and brandy; but it would have been unfitting to leave the lady of the house all alone-and it would have been even worse to smoke in her presence. So, with appropriate complacency, they exchanged the bout of male camaraderie in clouds of cigar smoke for an evening of music and singing and sugared fruit. Elizabeth, tireless, played a number of pieces; Darcy was torn between being feeling very proud of her and not wanting Fitzwilliam to turn her pages. But he could not quite push the upstart out of the place he had taken up as soon as Elizabeth had landed upon the piano-bench.

Still, he found vindication enough at the moment his wife looked upon him across her shoulder and said:

"Now you, Mr. Darcy, I should like to hear you sing with me."

"Good Lord, ma'am, Darcy does not sing," Fitzwilliam said with a grin. "Far too trifling a diversion for him."

"I do, too, sing," Darcy said in displeasure, not stopping to think why it was he so wanted to sing. He would have felt compleatly justified nigh-on elbowing his cousin out of his space; but Elizabeth spared him that indignity by smiling up at Fitzwilliam and saying sweetly:

"Now that you said that, Colonel, I simply must hear him sing."

"Only if you sing with me, madam," Darcy said, swiftly taking his place next to the piano-forte. Elizabeth presented him with a shy smile that made him wish sorely they were alone.

He was not a great singer, by any means, but he had voice enough to attempt a short Italian duetto with her. He found that their voices blended very well, the overall effect quite pleasing-and the sight of her intent upon her music was sweet. Dearest, sweetest Elizabeth, so he was in love, there was no denying it...

When it was over, Gregory applauded with vigor, and even Fitzwilliam appeared genuinely impressed.

"I never knew you had it in you," he said. "Next time Lady Mariah desires an accompanying male to sing with her, I shall point to you, cousin, for you have quite a baritone there."

Darcy fixed him with a look, which, Fitzwilliam could not fail to understand, meant death and dismemberment in the event of such a subversive action. After all, he did not sing for just any lady...

After they had sung themselves hoarse, the gentlemen walked off delicately, but very obviously in search of the necessary, leaving Elizabeth alone in the music-room and promising to return forthwith. Returning shortly thereafter, they found the mistress of the house asleep on a settee, curled up like a kitten.

"Oh dear," Gregory said, in obvious distress. "I fear we have intruded too long."

Fitzwilliam said nothing, but Darcy caught his cousin's eyes on him, shrewd and pointed, and looked away.

"I shall take Mrs. Darcy upstairs," he said, before inviting his friends to make themselves at home in the billiards room, where brandy and cigars had been laid out for them. "I shall be down presently," he added, secretly terrified that they would accept his invitation. He loved them both dearly, but enough was enough. He longed to be alone with Elizabeth.

Fitzwilliam opened his mouth to say something, but Gregory took his elbow very particularly and said:

"My friend, I fear I must decline. Remember, we have that fencing engagement on the morrow. Nine o'clock, shall we? Yes. And Colonel-did you not have some awfully important business with your family's solicitor first thing in the morning?"

Fitzwilliam opened his mouth again, looking mutinous, then clamped it shut. Both gentlemen bid Darcy good-night; he watched for a leer, but they both looked quite proper, and if either of them had a chuckle at his expense, it was outside his doors.

He gathered Elizabeth from the settee. He was torn between wanting to be very tender and careful and wanting to wake her by kissing her senseless. He had hoped fora repetition of last night's liberties-and was now feeling a little cheated. With a silent rebuke to himself for letting his concupiscence rule him so, he held her with double care as he took her to bed.

Somewhere along his progress down the hall, she woke-and instantly fell asleep again, turning her face against his chest, her hand closing involuntarily upon his lapel, just over his heart. Tenderness welled up in his breast. If only she stayed with him, he thought, he would love her so well...

Inside Elizabeth's bedchamber, he was faced with a choice: to call Mary, or to undress his wife himself. The voice of reason was strong; but the temptation won over, telling him that she could not possibly mind if he helped her into bed without waking Mary, who was, indubitably, already asleep. A trifle dishonest of him, that, for he did not really care whether he woke Mary. But if the wench stayed sound asleep for the rest of the night, so much the better.

So he commenced undressing his wife, having given himself a solemn promise that he would only put her to bed and retire to his own room. But he was not so familiar with the intricacies of feminine clothing as to manage without a snag. He took her shoes off without a problem, dropping them with a soft thud upon the rug; but it took him a moment to undo the garters below her knees without flinging her skirts and petticoats clear over her head (as would have been both convenient and desirable). Having finally rolled the stockings off, he stared at her legs for just a moment... having quite forgot why he was there. Then, the rest of her clothing, which, he found, was even more labyrinthine. Her dress, for one, had a prodigious great number of small muslin-covered buttons. He managed them tolerably well, amazed at how soundly she slept-but in the next moment, was obliged to wake her up, so as to have her sit up and draw the dress over her head.

"Fitzwilliam," she murmured groggily, frowning at him, even as she raised her arms obediently, "what are you doing?"

"I am putting you to bed," he said easily, pulling the dress up and over, making her disappear beyond a quantity of sprigged muslin. "There now." He flung the dress over the back of the chair. "Wait-wait, Elizabeth, do not just go back to sleep," he said. He blamed the wine Fitzwilliam had poured her at supper. Come to think of it, he simply blamed Fitzwilliam. She stared back at him, still sleepy, but already the realization of their situation had come to her...

Clearing her throat slightly, she drew her hands over her bosom, which had gone up in patches of red. Darcy frowned.

"You would not have me rouse your poor maid just to undress you for bed... Come," he said, taking her by the shoulder. Turning her around, he started, businesslike, upon the fastenings of her stays. Trying all the while to ignore his thundering heart and the tangle of desire in his loins, keeping his hands light on her, lest he frighten or repulse her. He was simply putting her to bed... Nothing much to it... She swayed a little as he plucked the pins out of her hair, as the dark waves rolled down her back... God, Elizabeth...

Finally, her stays conquered, her hair loose, she tumbled into bed with a sleepy sigh, wearing only her chemise and covering a huge yawn with the back of her hand, his unladylike darling. Darcy was lost. He wanted, desperately, to be invited back in her bed; and he could not just invite himself...though, come to think of it, why not? He looked down upon her as she smiled sleepily, struggling to keep her eyes open. He reached over and stroked her cheek.

"Sleep."

Darcy knew all too well that this night would prove nothing short of temptation-sweet, exquisite, torturous temptation... It would be better for them both, lud, it would surely be better for him, if he removed himself to his own bedchamber... but in the next moment, his gaze fell upon Elizabeth sleeping sweetly and soundly, one hand under her cheek... His hand went, as if by its own volition, to his cravat.

Having undressed to his shirt, Darcy climbed under the covers and took the sleeping Elizabeth in his arms, effectively extinguishing all possibility of sleep for himself-or so he thought. After an hour or so of pining away, he finally succumbed. All through the night, the tart smell of verbena haunted his dreams, turning them as disturbing as they were erotic.

Chapter 23 - part 1

On the morrow, Elizabeth woke up first-but not nearly early enough. Opening her eyes, she was faced with Mary's determined glare. Still half-asleep, Elizabeth tried to determine the cause of the maid's peculiar expression-realizing, in the next moment, that her husband was sleeping peacefully beside her, his arm slung over her hip.

Making furious eyes at Mary, Elizabeth hissed:

"What are you doing here?"

"Why, Miss, I should not presume to intrude," Mary said in a hurried whisper, "but Mr. Cassidy's come to ask me for assistance, as there is a gentleman downstairs asking for the Master, who is not to be found in his room!"

"A gentle-" Elizabeth murmured, remembering instantly Darcy's plans to go fencing with Lord Gregory in the morning. It was morning, all right, though so gray and downcast that it might have been dusk just as easily. "Go," she whispered to Mary, waving. "Inform the gentleman that one of us will be down presently..."

The door behind Mary closing, Elizabeth turned to her husband and shook him by the shoulder. He blinked at her in the morning's light, a sleepy smile crossing his features, which, together with his rough cheek and his hair all wild, made him look utterly irresistible.

"Good morning," she said, pursing her lips to keep from laughing, though what amusement she could derive from this situation was unclear even to herself. After all, the last thing she wanted was for the household to know they had spent yet another night together.

"Good morning," he murmured. "What time is it?"

"Clearly late enough for your friend to be downstairs."

"Lud." He rubbed his eyes with both hands. "I thought I told Cassidy to wake me-"

"You might have, but you are obviously not in your bed, Mr. Darcy," she said archly, "and Mr. Cassidy cannot come to look for you in mine..."

"True." With a shamefaced grin, he swung out of the bed and started gathering his things. Elizabeth sat in the middle of the bed, watching him. Finally, all laden with clothes, he leaned awkwardly over the bed and lightly touched his lips to hers. "Come downstairs," he said, quickly, before disappearing behind the door.

In Darcy's bedchamber, Cassidy was busy laying out his master's clothing-but his visage was mournful. Darcy understood: it was a sad day when a valet could not wake his master as requested. It would be natural for Cassidy to resent the situation...

"Sir, Lord Gregory is downstairs," the man intoned.

"Yes, I know," Darcy said gruffly. He had been all but caught in his wife's bed, and it left him red-faced like a boy.

In his dressing-room, he sat in an awkward slump, chin hitched high up in the air, feeling very much the cold steel of his man's razor upon his throat. How could he just oversleep? Damned stupid thing to do! He felt slightly robbed; for he had hoped for a night filled with sweet things, and then she had fallen asleep and had slept soundly through the night; and, disappointed and exhausted, he had slept, too. And now, not even a short morning interlude! Lud, but it was frustrating, trying to make love to one's own wife. Darcy sighed in exasperation, his body giving a great heave, so that Cassidy startled and held the razor away:

"Sir-"

"Forgive me, Cassidy."

"It would be a great pity to Mrs. Darcy if I were to cut your throat inadvertently, sir."

So surprised was Darcy about this, he said nothing, merely raising one eyebrow-such talkativeness on the part of his usually stony-faced valet was one thing, but the meaning of his words was nothing short of amazing.

Cassidy shrugged, starting up with his razor again. "She seems rather fond of you."

He said nothing else, and Darcy, quite confounded by the man's words, asked no questions.

He was downstairs soon enough, wearing high-gloss boots and breeches and his stock crisp and neat. Gregory was there, indeed, by all appearances continuing a conversation from yesterday. Elizabeth sat at the foot of the table, and he next to her; the two seemed to be getting on admirably, conversing busily. Darcy caught the tail end of a phrase: "-I do not suppose he knows," before Gregory saw him, cut himself off short and rose to shake his hand.

Darcy wondered why it never occurred to him to be jealous of Gregory in the same way he was of Fitzwilliam. His friend, unlike his cousin, made no attempt to charm Elizabeth-but, knowing her, Darcy thought she might rather fall in love with someone utterly un-charming-but one who listened with attention and respect.

"Darcy."

"Forgive my lateness," Darcy said. "Mrs. Darcy."

She threw a quick glance up at him, her face lit up by a lovely smile, then held out a hand for him to kiss. Darcy forgot all about jealousy and fencing and Gregory, staring at her in an unabashedly lovesick way. Wouldst that he could kiss on the mouth, now.

He ate very quickly and together with Gregory, they quitted the house and rode over to Angelo's. They rode in silence at first, in the easy silence of old friends; then, despite his desire to appear unconcerned, Darcy could not help himself:

"What were you talking about with Mrs. Darcy-as I walked in?"

Gregory shrugged his shoulders with an unaffected smile. He was, generally, an unaffected fellow. "I confess I cannot recall."

"You said: "I do not suppose he knows." Who knows what?"

Gregory frowned, his gloved hand closing upon his roan's reins. "I truly do not-Ah, I was saying that I did not suppose her brother knew about her being married yet. And then you walked in. Ah, but here we are."

Indeed, here they were; and irked as Darcy was, it was best to put all mutinous disbelieving thoughts aside, put on his fencing glove and murder Gregory the best he knew how.

In Darcy's absence, Elizabeth and Mary packed Elizabeth's things, the latter mum, as she was obviously rather hurt at being left behind-and even more obviously boiling about this morning.

"We are only going for a couple days," Elizabeth had told her. "And I shall have Hill to attend to me there."

Mary murmured something that sounded like "all right for some people." Elizabeth pretended to ignore it and accepted her maid's help silently. Thereupon, her trunk packed quickly, and Mr. Cassidy entrusted with that of her husband, she sat down in the window-seat and reflected at length upon various confounding subjects.

First, there was her husband. How he beguiled her! With his easy reassurance, with his small kindnesses, his kisses and caresses-the new, startling pleasure of them-he was leading her down an uncertain path. Her doubts were strong, now, when he was not about-but she knew that he had only to appear, and she would melt. One look from him, one word, and she would tumble headfirst into temptation.

Their every step took them farther away from their old resolution, from the promises he had made her months ago. Where were they going instead, and what would they find there, Elizabeth did not know. Were these precious few sweet moments worth it? Darcy was older, stronger, cleverer, he should be the one to hold her back; but he was as heedless as she, or worse. Elizabeth, on her part, was inclined to humor him, and herself. Perhaps she had long realized that neither of them would walk away from this marriage unscathed... They may as well enjoy it-and each other's company-while it lasted.

She remembered his words, whispered in her ear a day ago: We shall come to it when we come to it. What an exceedingly, perfectly right clever thing to say.

So, Darcy was one quandary. The other was Mr. Wickham. It was odd to even put these two next to each other, her husband and a perfect stranger. But the said perfect stranger had taken a particular place in her heart, having restored Jamie's portrait to her. Having, quite frankly, absolved her of all guilt in the matter-guilt that she had been quite prepared to weather. Now, Elizabeth was confounded by Mr. Wickham's strange request. It had been exceedingly rude of him to refuse to make the acquaintance... Did he know Darcy? Could it be possible? And if so, what strange and ancient enmity lay between them, to make the officer avoid her husband? She itched very badly to ask Darcy himself about this-but she had given her word. Was Mr. Wickham afraid of aught, and if so, what? And yet, so grateful to him she was for retrieving her brother's portrait, that she was disposed to approve of him. She would acquit him of all cowardice, or any other improper emotion...

After a while, unable to make anything out of his odd behavior, Elizabeth simply set the thoughts of Mr. Wickham aside. It was ever so good of him to save Jamie's portrait for her; but she would not break her head trying to guess at his reasons. After all, as he was trying to hard to avoid her husband, it was not at all for certain that she would ever see him again.

Which took her thoughts to her third quandary-about a woman whom, she had a sinking feeling, she could not avoid quite this easily. This morning, while breakfasting with Lord Gregory, she had asked His Lordship about Miss Bingley. She had not forgotten their conversation on the night of the firework party; and though she had not had the time to wonder about it since, her mind too preoccupied by her husband, the sight of Lord Gregory at her breakfast table had brought their unfinished conversation back to mind.

"My lord," she said politely, "do you remember what we spoke of two nights ago?"

He smiled at her over his coffee-cup. "My mermaid."

Elizabeth smirked. "Yes, that, too. But I meant something else altogether."

His countenance growing more serious, he nodded. "Indeed I remember, Mrs. Darcy." -but he said no more after that.

"Be so kind, then, and tell me what you think of Miss Bingley's behavior."

Lord Gregory frowned a little, as if mulling over a quandary. Elizabeth thought that he was by no means a beautiful man, not at all like Darcy; but he was certainly handsome enough, with striking blue eyes.

"You understand that I must be brief and limited on that subject, Mrs. Darcy," he said after a pause. "As I told you two nights ago, I might give you my opinion about a lady if it involves no-" he paused again. "-no indelicacy."

Elizabeth slowly lowered her coffee-cup. "And you believe that in this case, it does?"

"Most assuredly, madam. Most assuredly."

Elizabeth said nothing further, shocked into silence. It must have been obvious to His Lordship that she expected him to continue, and after a pause, he said:

"Have you never wanted something someone else had?"

Stunned, Elizabeth peered at him across the breakfast table. Her head was in such turmoil, she could not have told sugar from salt. It was only by a conscious effort of her will that she kept her eyes from wandering over to the empty Master's chair on her right; for she knew that such an expressive glance was neither appropriate nor necessary. His Lordship must have known what he had said-what she was feeling.

"What a thing to say," she murmured.

"A true thing to say," he said quietly. "Miss Bingley-and here, I fear, I might venture into an indiscretion-she is not disagreeable-perhaps, it is her wounded feeling that leads her to behave so...infamously towards you."

Elizabeth lowered her eyes to her coffee-cup again, studying the tepid remains of her drink with great particularity. She was sorry she had asked.

"Perhaps you would be so grand as to forgive her."

Elizabeth said nothing; but a hideous thought occurred to her. Looking up at His Lordship, she spoke with more feeling that was proper:

"My lord, does he-" Does he know, she wanted to ask him, does my husband know... And then, her eyes did wander over to Darcy's chair, making it very clear who he was.

Lord Gregory shook his head vehemently. "No!" he said. "At least I do not think he does." He pursed his lips in a semblance of a smile. "Mrs. Darcy, your husband is so ... so very much attached to you, he sees none but you, surely you must understand that?"

It was all Elizabeth could do to contain a gasp at that. Lowering her eyes, she murmured:

"How do you know, then?"

He said nothing to that, but Elizabeth, looking up, caught a most peculiar expression upon his face.

"No," Lord Gregory repeated slowly, "I do not suppose he knows..."-thus letting her understand their conversation was finished; but it would have been interrupted, in any case, by the arrival of her husband. Abashed for speaking and inquiring behind his back, Elizabeth resolved to think of this no longer-at least not until she had the time to sort it all out.

And now, her things packed, she did.

So Miss Bingley had a tendre for Darcy. His Lordship had said that, in so many words. How odd it was to know that another woman was in love with her husband. She did not like it at all. She supposed that, with his relative innocence, she could not blame him. It was likely that he did not know; or that at least, he had never been told. After all, one could guess all he wished... Elizabeth was deeply uncertain what matters of honor and obligation such a situation entailed; but she found she did not like to think about this attachment-about how long these two have known each other; about how their connection had developed; about-No! she told herself. It was not their connection. If Miss Bingley was in love with Darcy, so much the worse for her; Elizabeth was certain that he had done nothing dishonorable-nothing even morally questionable. So it was not his attachment to Miss Bingley, but hers to him; it must have been this way. He had done nothing to answer or encourage it; she was sure of it.

And yet... She was not cross with him, oh no, her mind advanced enough to understand that if he was at fault here, it was only in failing to recognize another person's signs of love, or mistaking them for friendship or familiarity. Or-a likely situation-recognizing them perfectly, yet unable to reciprocate. But she was exceedingly cross, period, that someone else had developed a stronger feeling for her husband that she had... Perhaps after all that was over... after they had let each other go... perhaps he might marry Miss Bingley yet. Elizabeth almost wished, for a second, that she might impart such a hopeful intelligence upon the girl, to make Miss Bingley hate her less. Then, imagining what such arrangement entailed-Darcy married to someone else-she hated the very thought of it. It was so odd, it bordered on macabre, that Darcy should marry someone else...

As it had become customary in the past weeks, she chased the thoughts of breaking with him away, putting them away for tomorrow, or the day after. We shall come to it when we come to it, she promised herself. And as for Miss Bingley... the girl would just have to wait and see...

The three days at Longbourn were such a delight, Elizabeth would remember them-for a long time-as the happiest time in her life with Darcy. Happier even than their sojourn in London with its many temptations. The awful tension of the previous week resolved happily, they were friends again-and more. No words of love were exchanged; but from the moment Darcy came home from fencing with Lord Gregory, exhausted and quite beaten down, but vastly satisfied-and until the instant his carriage disgorged them both at the steps of the town-house nearly five days later, Elizabeth found herself awash in happiness. They did not quarrel; they did not talk of their future, or of Jamie-odd, for their very location ought to have inspired him as a subject for conversation-or anything disagreeable at all, be it past or present or future.

Business was taken care of first. Mr. Higgins, the steward, seemed an admirable gentleman, and pleased both of them-though Elizabeth, knowing little about stewards, demurred to Darcy's opinion. He ran Longbourn with great care and minimum expenditures; he was frugal, prudent and scrupulously honest-almost too good to be true. On their second morning at Longbourn, Darcy and the steward rode about the estate, then sat locked together in the library, going over the accounts. Elizabeth joined them there, though Hill protested vocally, telling her it was none of her business and best left to the gentlemen-but Darcy beamed at her when she came in and moved her chair closer to his. In the end, it was decided that Longbourn could go on like so until Jamie's return, be it even in two years, and that it needed not be rented at all.

Well-satisfied of Mr. Higgins' efforts, Darcy and Elizabeth turned their attention to more frivolous, though still innocuous, activities. They walked together in the stiffening air, to Meryton and back, to Sunday church and back (which was, Elizabeth found, interesting in itself, with the local society stirred by her sudden disappearance from Hertfordshire and just as sudden a return, on the arm of such a very handsome husband, and with them taking the Bennets' old places in the front pew), and just simply-around, until their toes were ice in their boots. On their way back from church, he pressed her back against a tree and kissed her with such tenderness, and for so long, that at the end of it, she could barely stand on her feet. And they spent hours playing chess and reading and drinking hot chocolate before the fire. Longbourn was, in some way, a more innocent place to be, purer than London... In the night, the two of them curled up together in Elizabeth's childhood bed, too narrow for both of them, kissing and touching each other beneath the blankets; but their hesitant, exploratory caresses held a special innocence and particular sweetness about them, and in the morning, waking first, Elizabeth spent long minutes studying her husband's quiescent features, and knew, then, that there was no other man like him in this world.

Thereupon, they returned to town. Elizabeth, upon leaving Longbourn, found herself apprehensive. Something wonderful, something singular was ending. She kissed Hill on the cheek and received numerous whispered compliments about her husband, who was, apparently, the kindest, most civil, handsomest young man the old servant had ever encountered. Tremendously proud of him, Elizabeth could only nod. He was all that, and more; it was difficult to put in words how wonderful he was...

At the town-house, there were letters. Mr. Darcy's missive, inquiring politely when they were to return home, telling them that he and Georgiana had missed them terribly; and not telling them more. Georgiana's letter to Elizabeth an affronted, petulant lament, telling her that nothing was happening at Pemberley, nothing, and surely there was no occasion for them to return home to their father and sister who missed them so? Darcy laughed at the letter, but Elizabeth blushed with shame; for, caught up in town pleasures, she had quite forgot the loved ones left behind at Pemberley.

It was thereupon decided that they would return to Pemberley in three more days.

"There is one more thing I want to show you in town," Darcy said enigmatically. "Two days away. Then we can go."

Elizabeth knew better than to ask him questions when he was like that; and though she was terribly curious about what he wanted to show her, she faked indifference. They spent the next two days together, and on the third, she woke alone-an unusual state, for they had spent every night in the same bed-and only a note on Darcy's crumpled pillow.

"I shall be back to collect you by eight. W."

Grumbling to herself, she rang for Mary and tried to wheedle from her whether Master had told her about where they were going tonight... but the shrewish Mary pretended compleat ignorance. Elizabeth, left to her own devices for the day, spent the morning calling upon her new London acquaintances. Her Aunt first, of course, telling her about their trip to Longbourn, and repeating Darcy's earlier invitation to Pemberley for Christmas. Darcy's relations, then, with some trepidation that the old Lady Matlock should find something lacking in her costume. The Colonel was there with his ever-present pleasant smile and watchful eyes, and Lady Mariah, quite displeased by the fact that the Darcys were leaving.

"Oh that wretched husband of yours!" Her Ladyship said. "Already taking you away from us, Elizabeth!"

"But I want to go back to Pemberley," Elizabeth said, smiling. "I quite miss my father-in-law and Miss Darcy as well. And even Pemberley itself."

Lady Mariah sighed and rolled her eyes, and the Colonel grinned and said: "It seems you, my dear young cousin, are already afflicted with the Darcy family malady-none of them can be away from the place for more than a week before they begin showing signs of desiderium pemberlium."

Elizabeth laughed. "If it is so indeed, I am glad to be thus afflicted. Truly, I do not think there is a finer place in the world."

"I should be inclined to agree with you," the Colonel said, "but for the fact that we shall miss you here in town, shan't we, Mariah?"

"Of course," Lady Mariah said. "What are your plans for the rest of the day?"

They proposed that she should accompany them to a musicale. Elizabeth, as fond of music as the next person, and quite without a thing to do for the rest of the day, agreed.

It was a strange musicale to be taking place so early in the afternoon, and they were late to it, as well. Not a great loss, Elizabeth thought, for the music was all abominably bad. The hostess, a friend of Lady Mariah's from school, insisted upon singing a Mozart aria too high for her rather weak voice; the result was not at all attractive. Soon enough, Elizabeth was mortified to find herself nodding off. In an attempt to keep awake, she turned about, looking surreptitiously at the people at her side, noting curiously their reactions to the singing-from furtive giggles and glances to utter bemusement to absolute vacuity; and in some particularly tone-deaf, a look of genuine pleasure.

The Colonel was whispering something in Lady Mariah's ear; his sister-in-law, smiling absently, was playing with her folded fan. Elizabeth, quite unable to withstand any more music, rose and slipped out unnoticed.

Standing in a gallery, she reflected upon the inadvisability-and the indelicacy-of imposing one's own poor talents upon others. She could only hope that her companions would soon tire of the hostess' questionable talents as well. Her solitude, then, was interrupted by an amused drawl:

"I see I am not the only one despaired of hearing a single true note today."

Elizabeth jerked, looking up.

"Mr. Wickham!" she cried in frank delight. "What are you doing here?"

He swept her a smart bow, looking even more handsome than the last time she had seen him.

"Waiting for my friend to tire of this." He nodded towards the salon, where the singing had reached an alarmingly high pitch. "He brought me here, and I cannot very well leave him-though I am tempted."

She could not help laughing. "Yes, likewise. I cannot quite leave without my cousins, though I wish I could. But how peculiar," she added with a smile. "How very peculiar, Mr. Wickham, one would almost think 'tis fate we keep running into each other like that..."

"Indeed," he agreed gallantly. "We are fated to be great friends, madam."

"I am very glad to have run into you like so-it is my last day in London, Lord knows when I should see you next. We are to return to Pemberley tomorrow."

An odd expression on his face, a look of wistful longing.

"What?" Elizabeth asked.

"Pemberley," he repeated with a smile.

"Yes," she said. "My husband's estate. Why, do you know it?"

She supposed it ought not surprise her; for during their last conversation, he had as much as told her that he knew her husband. But somehow, she had not connected it. Darcy had his acquaintances in town, she knew that only too well; but someone who had known him at Pemberley was a different thing altogether.

"Yes, yes," Mr. Wickham said, laughing. "I suppose I have a confession to make. The day I first met you? You needed not tell me who you were, for I knew you as soon as I saw the coat-of-arms on your carriage. Though," he added, "for a second I did entertain the idea that you might be dear Georgiana." He chuckled. "This goes to show how long ago I saw her last-upon reflection, I understood that she could not be quite so grown, that she must be but twelve or thirteen years of age now." Instantly, his face acquired a serious, shuttered look. "Madam, I fear I have foolishly said too much. Give my best regards to your father-in-law when you see him next."

"You will not escape this conversation quite this easily," Elizabeth said, still smiling. "Now that you have mentioned Georgiana, I want to know how you've come to know her!"

But he kept quiet, smiling mysteriously, and only gave in after another moment of friendly probing.

"Very well, madam," he said. "I grew up at Pemberley."

In shock, Elizabeth stared at him. What a thing to say! Before she could stop herself, she exclaimed:

"But I have spent months at Pemberley, and have not once heard of you!"

Before she finished, she saw that her incautious words must have given him some pain:

"Never?" He smiled wistfully. "Well, that is to be expected. I do not suppose they would talk about me much."

"Whatever do you mean?" Torn between shock, curiosity and apprehension, she knew, somehow, that she should stop this conversation forthwith, but could not bring herself to it...

"Never you mind that, do not let it worry your pretty head, madam," he said, then bowed to her.

But she would not let him be, her curiosity picked, her mind disturbed.

"Mr. Wickham," she said. "You call yourself my friend, and friends do not speak in riddles. You tell me that you know my relations, that you grew up at Pemberley... and you have told me, before, that I ought to conceal our acquaintance from my husband. If I cannot ask my husband about it, then you better tell me the truth! How do you know the Darcys?"

He shrugged. "My father was Mr. Darcy's steward. Both he and my mother died when I was but a boy. Mr. Darcy was very kind to me. I pray you give him my best regards when you see him next. And dear Georgiana. She must be frightfully grown, though I daresay, I do not think she remembers me-she was but a babe the last time I was at Pemberley."

Elizabeth regarded him shrewdly. "You have nothing but good things to say about my father-in-law, and you remember Georgie with fondness-but you would not come to call on my husband. Why is that?"

He dropped his eyes, evading her gaze, which she had leveled at him like a weapon. "Madam. I do not wish to speak of it any further."

"No? Why not? You asked me, last time we spoke, not to mention your name to my husband. I tell you, Mr. Wickham, that did not come easy to me-I am not the kind of wife who keeps secrets easily from my husband."

"I am glad for Darcy, then, that he should have a wife like you."

"You are dodging a straight answer, sir."

"I should take offense at this word, madam. I am not dodging anything, I simply do not wish to talk of it. I should never have told you about my childhood."

"And yet you did, and now my mind is like a beehive, and I must know the rest of it!"

"You are impertinent, madam, pray desist."

"This concerns my family, Mr. Wickham, I shall allow myself this impertinence!"

"Madam," he said gravely, "Pray do not question me any further!"

"Secrets!" she cried, losing temper. "Intolerable secrets! You know that nothing but my own foolish word prevents me from asking my husband for an explanation, to see why it is you are so afraid of him!"

"Afraid of him!" Mr. Wickham gave a hollow laugh. "Indeed not, madam! I have no warmth of feeling towards Darcy, quite the opposite, in fact, but I am not afraid of him!" He took a deep breath and continued. "I fear that if we were to continue this conversation, I should find myself in an unenviable position of belittling a lady's husband-and I could never do that. But your position, madam, would be even worse-for you do not want to know what I have to tell you!"

The last of it he spoke urgently, all pretense at jollity gone. Elizabeth blanched and was instantly aware of the hollow feeling in her breast, as if all air had been pumped from her.

"Dear God," she murmured, shaken. "Now you simply must tell me! Consider what monsters will be born in my imagination if you do not! Sir, please!"

He shook his head, resigned. "You are a stubborn, foolish child," he said. "And yet you have a kindness about you, a sweetness and a na´vetÚ. I wished to spare you pain, but I am afraid that my silence may pain you more..." He sighed and drew one hand against his eyes. "Do not distress yourself, Mrs. Darcy. Your husband has done nothing truly terrible. Children, rich children especially, can be rather... hard sometimes."

"Whatever do you mean?" she murmured.

"Mr. Darcy was always unfailingly kind to me, more so after my father's death. I told you that I grew up at Pemberley. We are similar in age, Darcy and I, and we played together as boys. Indeed, we were good friends, then, and later at school-for Mr. Darcy's kindness had sent me to Harrow. That was, until Darcy found that I took too prominent a place in his father's affections. Jealousy, madam, simple childhood jealousy, but it robbed me of my place at school-or at Pemberley." To horrified Elizabeth, he told. "At fourteen, I was pulled from Harrow, and sent to live with my poor relations in Dorsetshire, never again to return to Pemberley. As I understand it, my kind benefactor was given an ultimatum and made to choose-between me and his own son."

Elizabeth was aware, suddenly, of standing, frozen and mute, one hand pressed against her lips.

"Pray, I did not wish to distress you," Mr. Wickham said, kindly. "My situation was not so very bad. I had ... distant relations."

"In Dorsetshire," she murmured, so very distressed.

"Yes." He smiled. "My mother's very distant cousins. And Mr. Darcy had never left me without help. He sent me money, some of which I used to buy my commission. But his son and I... still do not like each other any better for that. I am sorry," he added after a pause, his features, his expression softening. "I am very sorry to be the cause of any unhappiness for you, Mrs. Darcy."

For a second, his words rang true, could have been true. Then, Elizabeth remembered Darcy as he was only just last night, holding her with such exquisite, heart-breaking gentleness, and everything within her rebelled at the thought.

"No," she said quickly, backing away. "This is not right. I should never have spoken to you behind his back. Forgive me."

He opened his mouth to say something in response, but at that very moment, the doors to the music room opened, releasing the angry sound of yet another high-pitched aria and Colonel Fitzwilliam, Lady Mariah on his arm.

"Good god, Elizabeth, we have lost-" The Colonel stopped in his tracks, staring, ever so surprised, upon Elizabeth's companion. "Why, Wickham!" he said. "I have not seen you here before-"

"Colonel. Ma'am." Mr. Wickham bowed. He, too, looked visibly distressed. Elizabeth hung her head and followed the Colonel and Lady Mariah out of the gallery.

In the carriage, steeped in silent misery, Elizabeth wished she could cry, and she would have cried, had it not been for the Fitzwilliams. As it was, she contemplated for a second asking the Colonel about Mr. Wickham; for the two had seemed to know each other. But she thrust the thought away with horror. She had done quite enough asking around behind Darcy's back; now, only a conversation with her husband would do. Her head a hopeless muddle, she soon abandoned all efforts to feign a happy countenance; and once back at the Fitzwilliam House, she switched to her own carriage with only a short good-bye to her cousins.

On her way back to the town-house, she could not stop thinking about Mr. Wickham's words. She was sorry a thousand times she had asked him, had pushed him-for it was clear to her, now, that he had not wanted her to know. It was kind of him, too, for now she did not know what to do with his intelligence. You do not want to know what I have to tell you. How true that was; having pressed and prodded Mr. Wickham into an indiscretion, she now sorely wished she had not.

To be sure, he had told her nothing truly horrible. Merely a story of childhood unkindness; but she could not get it out of her mind that she wished it would have been worse. Something simpler, like a murder... Somehow, the very subtlety of the evil described made it all the more terrible. The story of a spoiled rich son prevailing upon his father to put a poor orphan out of doors. Surely Mr. Wickham had survived-but in spite of the wickedness of this, rather than because. There was something biblical about the story, something of Abraham, and Hagar, and Ishmael. In the solitude of her carriage, she gave an anguished sob. No. No! She could not believe it, simply could not. Darcy, who was everything good and kind, Darcy could not do something like that. She remembered Mr. Wickham's exact words: As I understand it... There, she thought, there, clinging desperately to every shred of evidence that would exonerate her husband of such inhumanity. Infusing every short bit of information with meaning. As he understood it; but perhaps he misunderstood. Perhaps there was another, perfectly legitimate reason that could cause Mr. Darcy to send him away... perhaps so. Something of which Mr. Wickham did not know...she remembered Darcy as he could be sometimes, cold and difficult and so very proud; how easy it would be to ascribe blame to him, to think him a princely heir! And perhaps his very wealth had served to make him the natural target for Mr. Wickham's reproach...

Surely there must be an explanation!

By the time she reached the town-house, Elizabeth had all but acquitted her husband of any possible malfeasance towards Mr. Wickham. She had seen Darcy exhibit such kindness towards herself, his sister, his father-Lud, even Cat. Jealousy, Mr. Wickham had said, simple childhood jealousy. She could not conceive of any jealousy that would make him behave as Mr. Wickham had said. She simply could not fathom it.

So, when, running into the house, she saw him come down the stairs, already home a good hour, she threw herself into his arms without reservation.

"What-"With a whoop of laughter, he caught her and twirled her about, to the amusement of all servants. "You are uncommon amorous today, sweetheart."

Elizabeth, pressing her face, wet with tears, against her husband's cheek, whispered muddled apologies into his ear, half-dreading, half-hoping that he should ask her what she meant. But he only grasped her, tightly, in his arms, and carried her above stairs, in full view of the domestics.

In her room, letting her down to her feet, Darcy watched her with worried eyes. "Lizzy, why are you crying?"

Elizabeth, having quite convinced herself that she would speak with him once she came home, that Mr. Wickham's accusations could be explained away with ease, now found herself tongue-tied. He was gazing at her with such sweetness... "I missed you is all," she whispered, looking at him through her lashes.

He gave her a lopsided, crooked, boyish smile. "Missed me so much it drove you to tears?" She nodded, and he grasped her wrist and pulled her near to kiss. "Well, then, come here."

Somehow, they found themselves on her bed, kissing wildly. Elizabeth pressed her mouth hard against Darcy's, as if hoping to steal his breath, and his heart. Never before had she wanted him this badly, her body aching in all points, her legs wrapping around him, pressing him closer. His own breath coming hard and swift, his hands frantic on her as he pulled her pelisse, her dress apart on her breast. "God," he said, "God, God." His hands whipping up her petticoats, stroking her knees and hips, his mouth tugging sweetly at her breast. Elizabeth dug her fingers into her husband's hair, pushed his coat off his shoulders; he was moaning throatily, shivering as she tugged his shirt out of his trousers and slipped her hand beneath.

Things were coming along so quickly, their reticence, their caution over the past weeks, all to naught. In minutes, Elizabeth and Darcy found themselves half-naked and desperately tangled atop her bed; her guilt drove her further, leaving her more and more daring, and as he reared up above her, settling between her open legs, leaning on one arm, she wrapped one hand around him and stroked him, delighting in the sounds she was wringing from him.

But then, their interlude interrupted by a rough door-knock and Mary's testy voice:

"Miss, there is a packet here for you. Miss?"

Dazed, they looked upon each other for a second; then, groaning, Darcy rolled off her and off the bed.

"Leave it by the door, Mary!" Elizabeth said. Behind the door, Mary shuffled off, grumbling disagreeably. Elizabeth closed her eyes and flung one arm over them. She could not believe what had just happened, but shockingly, she could not bring herself to be sorry for it, either.

"Your maid is too free with her tongue," Darcy said, shortly. She heard him as he dressed, but she could not bear look him in the eye. "You should remind her that it is not her place to offer her opinions."

Finally, Elizabeth found it in herself to open her eyes. He was almost dressed, his coat flung over his shoulder, his cravat hanging undone around his open collar. Blushing, she pulled her disordered clothing down her legs and up to cover her breasts. Good god, how wanton she had become!

"My dear sir," she murmured. "Do you know anything about that package that has just arrived?"

"Of course I do." He grinned. "You are to wear the ... what is inside. I want you ready by eight."

Thereupon, he left her, to contemplate what they had almost just done. Almost. Somehow, she knew that this moment of unrestricted raw passion was different from all their sensuous playing of the past ten days. She had almost given it to him; another moment, and they would have committed themselves irreversibly.

To her own horror, she could not find it in herself to be sorry for it.

With a sigh, she slipped off the bed and went to retrieve the mysterious package, which was really quite voluminous and held, to her utter amazement, a perfect-and perfectly new-man's costume. Laid out on her bed, everything down to linen drawers and white silk stockings and a... she swallowed on reflection... she surmised it was a wrap to bind her breasts. Oh my. To think only that he had bought these things for her!

Mary, admitted again to Elizabeth's bedchamber, stood, bewildered, over the finery-a blue coat, a pair of soft doeskin breeches with real falls, a pair of well-shined black Hessians, small enough to fit her.

"What on Lord's earth is the purpose of this?" she murmured.

"I do not know." Elizabeth touched the fine law of the shirt, the starched linen cravat. "But yours is not to query me, remember that."

"Well, surely he has told you?"

"Surely 'tis none of your concern, you nosy wench?"

Mary sighed. "Well, fine, if you be like that, ma'am. Shall I help you put it on?"

"You shall."

Distressed, Mary clucked her tongue and pulled something that looked alarmingly alive from under the coat. Elizabeth could not help a bewildered laugh. A wig. Where was he thinking to take her?

"Well, if you want me to hide your hair under that, we best get started," Mary announced unhappily. She was clearly fuming for her lack of information. Elizabeth grinned to herself, thinking that she knew no more than her maid. What a confounding man she had married!

She changed into the clothes, feeling a sense of wonder as she watched her transformation in the glass. The clothes fit her perfectly, and Elizabeth wondered at that. Clearly, this time Mary was not the wiser; therefore, he must have ordered these by sight, without the maid's help in getting her measurements. She flushed hotly at the thought of him knowing her body well enough to do that. Quickly, she tucked the shirt into the breeches, blushing again when her fingers touched their falls, slipped on an embroidered waistcoat.

"Mayhap you need something in there," Mary said appraisingly.

"I need what where?" Elizabeth turned in front of the pier glass in stockinged feet. She looked strangely fetching, even to herself, in boy's clothes with her hair cascading wildly down her back.

"There!" Mary said weightily. Without warning, she quickly undid the falls on Elizabeth's breeches. As her young mistress watched, open-mouthed, she slipped a rolled napkin within, then buttoned the falls again. Elizabeth looked in the mirror. Her face was beet-red, but she looked a lot more manly. She wondered what Darcy would have to say to her suddenly acquiring such an attribute.

"All right, then, do my hair." In the mirror, she watched Mary struggle with her unruly curls, pinning them as closely to her head as it was possible. Finally, when not a strand escaped, she donned the wig. Looking back in the mirror, she gasped-a lovely, wide-eyed, dewy-faced young man stared back.

"I daresay," Mary said slowly. "You make a handsome fellow, ma'am."

Beet-red in the face, Elizabeth pulled on the well-shined Hessians and shrugged into the fashionable long-tailed coat. "My hat, please."

"Ah-yes." Mary handed her a handsome black hat. "To be sure, if the Master wanted a boy, he will not be disappointed now..."

Terribly self-conscious (what would the household thought when it saw her!), she came down the stairs. There he was, dressed somberly, with a black cloak around his shoulders, holding another one in his hands. At the sight of her, a lovely smile gracing his features, his forehead smoothing out and small creases in by his eyes, where the laugh lines one day would be.

"You make a creditable boy, Elizabeth."

"Thank you, sir, I hope 'tis a compliment."

He grinned, as he wrapped her in her cloak, then, unable to resist, leaned to kiss the side of her face. Elizabeth shivered and clutched her gloves in her hands for a second before putting them on.

"If anyone sees you kiss me, sir, they will think you a sodomite."

Darcy chuckled, then rapped her lightly on the nose. "If it is possible to be too well-read, madam, you are it. Come, let us go."

Clearly having an enormous amount of fun with her dressed in man's clothing, Darcy treated her in a way he would never even approach, had she been wearing a skirt. Giving her a light push on the bottom, which sent her into the carriage with dispatch, he followed her inside, then reclined easily, setting his feet on both sides of her.

"Where are we going?"

"I believe, madam, that you need a new name."

"A new name!"

"For you do not look Elizabeth to me in these breeches."

Elizabeth giggled. How forbidden, how exciting this seemed! What a capital, delicious joke.

"So what would you suggest? John? Nicholas? George?"

Darcy frowned. "I think not. How about..." he looked at her appraisingly. "Eli. Yes, I like that."

Elizabeth sputtered: "That makes me sound like a Quaker!"

"A damned beautiful Quaker," he said quietly and leaned over to kiss her hand. His black top-hat next to him on the seat, his hair was soft and lustrous as she stroked her fingers through it. She was seized, then, with a strong a desire to tell him she loved him. Then, mortified, she fell back against the seat. She? Loved him? Where had that come from? Her heart beat terribly within her breast. Darcy must have sensed his commotion and raised his head to look at her.

"Elizabeth?" he whispered. "Are you all right?"

She smiled shallowly at him. "Tell me where we are going."

He sat back against the seat. "A club."

"A gentleman's club! T"

"Ah, yes." He smiled. "I am not a permanent member there, but I do like it, very occasionally. I thought it would be ... fun for our last night in London. 'Tis called a Lying Club."

Gasping, Elizabeth laughed, shocked by the implications of it. "And the reason it is called that-"

"Only that no true word is to be spoken within its walls."

"Shocking," she whispered. He was smiling back at her, eyes gentle in the dark carriage. She came across, then, staggering for a moment against the lurch of the carriage before falling into his arms with a squeal. "I am a terrible liar," she murmured, seconds away from kissing him. "And I do believe you are an even poorer one."

Darcy arched an eyebrow. "We shall see about that," he said. "Eli."

Chapter 23 - part 2

Elizabeth flattered herself that she knew London a little by now; but the meeting location of the Lying Club was held in the part of the city wholly unknown to her. Darcy lead her through a rowdy, stifled tavern, and then, into a private, somewhat airier room at the top of some stairs. She felt odd and inappropriate for the first few moments, until she realized that the men in the room afforded her no more attention they would to any newcomer. Her disguise had worked! They thought her a man. How amazing. She watched Darcy unconsciously, mimicking his loose-limbed manly way of walking, the way he sat with one leg over the other; as she sat down next to him, she had to keep herself from crossing her ankles. She heard Darcy introduce her as Eli Bennet, his secretary. He was compleatly easy when he spoke; no-one would suspect him of even a momentary duplicity.

She rose and bowed to someone, hoping it would not come off too much like a curtsey. Looking up, she found herself staring in the stunned eyes of Lord Gregory.

"My lord," she murmured, her composure shot. Surely he had recognized her. And, when she looked back, it appeared he had.

"My lord, have you met my secretary, Mr. Bennet?" Darcy drawled, waving at his friend. "A most capable young man, most eager to assist."

Gregory stammered, then nodded, then shook his head. "Yes! I mean, no. I have not. But you do look most capable, Mr... Mr. Bennet."

She laughed and said in a low voice. "Thank you, my lord. I am fortunate to have a most capable hus-ahem, employer."

Sitting down around a table, and wine poured, the men-about twenty of them, mostly rather young, and at the head of the table, a somewhat older man, wearing a blue cap with a red feather-soon quieted down. Elizabeth found herself two seats away from her most elegant husband, and, despite the oddness of their situation, found she could not take her eyes off him. Was she truly... had she truly fallen in love with him? She did not know. She had never been in love, had never looked at a man long enough for him to catch her attention. But here he was, chatting easily with someone, indubitably lying through his teeth (she caught him telling his neighbor to the right, in soft tones, something about his pack of hounds; which she knew all too well, he did not at this time have at Pemberley)... and all she could do was to stare at him moonily.

"Stop that, ma-young man," Lord Gregory whispered into her ear. "Unless you want the whole room to think you have a tendre for your employer."

She cast him a shamefaced glance. "Am I so obvious?"

He gave her a wry smile. "Not at all." She blushed to remember that every word meant its opposite in this room. With a sigh, she took a gulp of wine, hoping it would calm her pulses; but its effect upon her was exactly the opposite.

The chairman rose, then, calling everyone's attention to the large clock in the corner.

"Gentlemen, let the proceedings of the Lying Club begin! It is now nine o'clock. Anyone who says a word of truth during the next hour will be fined according to the rules of the club!"

"Be careful, Mr. Bennet, those rules provide for some rather substantial fines," Lord Gregory whispered at her side. The chairman continued:

"I shall start with a lie, but I shall surrender my place to anyone who presents a more outrageous lie than mine."

"Hear, hear."

"I have heard it said," the chairman went on, "that His Royal Highness Prince of Wales has paid all his debts the other day."

A rowdy laugh went up, and Elizabeth saw Darcy smile. She had heard that the Prince's debts were staggering; the Parliament had doubled and tripled His Highness' income, and yet no sum of money had been enough, as new debts accumulated where the old one had been paid.

Lord Gregory sighed. "Yes, well, try to top that, Mr. Bennet."

The chairman sat down, and a young, nervous-looking man, rose in his stead.

"My s-sister," he said, "went into confinement the other day, and she h-had a r-rabbit. A w-white one." There was a short laugh on the other side of the table, and an older gentleman smiled and patted the young man's elbow with a kindly expression, urging him to sit down.

Then, standing up, he proclaimed-with a rather serious mien-that only two days hence, he was visited by the ghost of Mr. Pitt the Younger, "who complained of all the damned Papists in hell!"

"Is it a greater lie, my lord, that he was visited by the ghost, or that His Excellency's specter had finally abandoned its quest for the Catholic Emancipation?"

Lord Gregory smiled. "Ah, but you are a clever young... secretary, Mr. Bennet. Very good."

And so it went, stories about golden eggs being laid intermixed with cruel sport of political figures and dignitaries, alive and dead; some rather sharp barbs flung the way of Prinny and his latest mistress Lady Hertford, particularly in regards to their genteel figures. Elizabeth thought it was unkind to make sport of someone for being, essentially, fat, but she kept her tongue.

But it would soon be her turn-and she cogitated nervously upon what she would say. She did not want to come off a fool, and it was hardly possible to demur, since every other person in the room participated. The last thing she wanted was to be fine-or, God forbid, for it to become known that she was a girl. That added to her nervous excitement: for, when she spoke to the whole room, would they not know her voice to be that of a female? She sighed to herself. What a muddle. Darcy should have prepared her a bit...

So engrossed was she, and so worried-for she wanted to come with something light, witty, sophisticated and entirely natural; but all she knew was that such treasures are never found at moments of great mental effort. The more her mind laboured, the more muddled it became-that she missed entirely the moment when Darcy had stood up. That he had already risen caught her off-guard. As she was sitting down, she was able to appreciate the splendour of his figure rising before her.

She saw that he was looking straight at her, and though he spoke to the general room, he did not take his eyes off her face even for a second.

"It is the strangest thing," he said absently. "I believe I am as fastidious a man as any, but in the past weeks I have found myself quite heedlessly enamoured..." he paused, "...with my secretary." He nodded in her direction, and Elizabeth, to her horror, found herself the focus of the entire room's attention-many appraising, amused looks in her direction. "Heedlessly," Darcy repeated in the same soft, subdued voice, "hopelessly in love with a boy."

A collective exhalation; the chairman rose and clapped his hands three times, slowly, then drew the robin-feathered cap off his head and offered it to Darcy with a flourish. Elizabeth found that, should she remain in the room, she would most certainly break down and weep. That she preferred to do outside of company; and so she flew out of her chair and out the door, the boy's heels rapping quickly down the steps.

"Elizabeth!"

She made her way through the common room and out into the street. Another moment would take her, weeping, down the dark alley-but in the next second, strong hands caught her and held her.

"I am sorry," he whispered, pained. "I should never have done this-I did not plan this, can you believe that I did not plan this?"

She wrenched her arm out of his grasp, twisting her shoulder in the process. She could feel the cooling wetness on her face, and she yanked off her white gloves and wiped her eyes without really caring whether she's caught it all.

She wanted to say so much, to tell him so much, but just now, she could not. Darcy was looking down upon her, eyes hooded and full of longing, and she stepped forward, resting her still-wet face against his fine waistcoat. He held her, then, cradling her shoulders, stroking her nape beneath her wig. Seeking comfort and reassurance, Elizabeth lifted her face to his and sought his mouth; forgetting momentarily that she was still dressed as a man.

A discreet hemming sound caught her attention. Looking over-without breaking her hold on Darcy's arms-she saw Lord Gregory. His Lordship was looking at them, his expression pinched. He thrust their cloaks, their hats, at Darcy; but when he spoke, it was not unkindly.

"I suggest you get in your carriage, unless you wish to be splashed with a healthy doze of pigswill. You two look the embodiment of unnatural vice."

Short good-byes, and an invitation to His Lordship to come visit them at Pemberley this Christmas. An hour's ride home in the carriage; Darcy reclining back against the seat with the look of a man compleatly sapped of all strength. Elizabeth reached up, tenderly, her heart squeezing, stroked his cheek.

"My darling sir," she whispered. He threw her a long thoughtful glance, then asked, with some surprise:

"You are not angry at me?"

She shook her head, not quite knowing why it should be so, only that she was not.

"I do not suppose it came as much of a shock to you, did it?" he murmured, eyes oddly lit.

Biting her lip, she climbed up to kneel on the seat, touched his neatly-shaved jaw with her fingertips. "No. Was it a lie?"

Smiling, he turned his head to kiss her fingers.

"Come, Lizzy, get down. You will do yourself some damage if this thing hits a pothole."

Slinging an arm about her, Darcy maneuvered Elizabeth into his lap.

"Was it a lie?" she repeated in a small voice, looking down into his shadowed face. He said nothing, merely shook his head, and she could do nothing but rest her forehead against his.

"Only to the extent you aren't really my secretary," he whispered. He stroked her hair as she put her head against his shoulder. She felt a shudder run through him. "Take this monstrous thing off, Eli."

Elizabeth laughed and obeyed the gentle order, drawing off the horsehair wig and the net beneath it, shaking out her curls.

"Ah, much better," Darcy said softly. His hand sneaked into her hair, pushing her head down for a kiss that lasted so long, both had to pull away for sheer lack of air. "Good god." His voice was hoarse now. "You understand, madam, that my words oblige you to nothing-I am an honourable man-I am still prepared to-"

She laid a finger against his lips, his half-hearted tirade dying away mid-word. There was so much she wanted to tell him-how his outburst today had called upon some secret place in her heart; how the last thing she wanted him to be was honourable... How she had mourned, in advance, the end to her happiness-the end that would surely come when he let her go. How, for a long time now-it felt like a long time-he had become for her an etalon of a man. How the sight of him took her breath away-Love! She did not know it, would not recognize it if it hit her in the face. But what was love, if not this?

But now, yet, she could find no words in herself, and she kissed him, desperately, longingly, and cuddled herself closer into his arms.

"Do not let me go," she murmured and felt his embrace tighten around her.

For some time, they sat in silence, stroking each other's hair, fingers moving lazily, memorizing the features that had become, so quickly, so beloved.

And then, buoyed by what they had done this night, and by her confidence that she was loved, she felt daring and said:

"Fitzwilliam, would you promise not to be angry with me if I asked you something?"

He laughed quietly next to her ear. "My darling, I believe just now I could give you such a promise with a clear conscience. Nothing you may say is likely to excite anger in me just now."

"Good," she whispered, bringing his hand, gloveless now, to her cheek. "Does the name Wickham say anything to you?"

She could not have mistaken it, how his entire deportment changed. It was not unlike a freezing northern wind had blown through the carriage, clattering the windows. Darcy's body beneath her grew rigid in an instant. When he spoke, his voice was oddly stiff.

"How do you know that name?"

Turning towards him in the dimness of the carriage, Elizabeth squinted to read the expression on his face better.

"I asked you first," she said with an attempt at a joke, though something should have told her it was far more serious a matter than that had come between them hitherto. She brushed her fingers against his brow, as if trying to wipe off a severe scowl resident there... but he did not acknowledge her caress, other than to grasp her hand and hold it away from his face with the same severe mien.

"Madam, how do you know that name?"

Elizabeth gasped at the sound of his voice: for it was anxious, and angry, and laced with shock. A voice she had not heard... for years. Not since their unfortunate encounter which had caused Jamie to call him out.

"Fitzwilliam," she murmured, shaken. "Whatever is the matter?"

He seemed to get a better hold of himself. Having carefully slid her off his lap, he sat for a moment, holding one hand to his brow as if nursing a migraine.

"Tell me," he said, finally, in a voice so even, no-one could have thought him angry, "tell me, Elizabeth, how you came to know Mr. Wickham's name." Then, as an afterthought: "Please. I shall not be angry with you."

And though she knew it to be a promise he might be unable to keep, she also knew that further reticence on her part would only serve to ignite a greater ire in him.

"Very well," she said. She wanted to take his hand again, but did not dare. "Very well, Mr. Darcy, I shall tell you." She took a deep breath and told him all-how she had run into Mr. Wickham in the street, ruining his flowers, and how, on that occasion, he had been all gallantry and amiability. She thought Darcy might be angry with her for accepting the flowers Mr. Wickham had given her; but as she cast a wary look upon her husband's face, nothing in it indicated that he had even heard-no change of countenance, which was, without more, dark and shuttered like a closed window. Clearly, he was angry enough-though she could not understand for what. Her voice hitched and halted, and he said:

"Go on, madam," in a voice that she had not heard from him for months.

She went on, then, about the incident with Jamie's portrait.

"I see a lot goes on in your life of which I know nothing, madam," Darcy said, with a sardonic twist to his lips.

"Why, Fitzwilliam, I should have told you, had I not given my word to him!"

Instantly shot of all self-possession, he glared at her and cried:

"Given your word, to George Wickham? Given your word to do what?"

"To keep this from you." She could barely hear her own whisper. She knew that she was terribly, terribly in the wrong. She should have told him, then-was this why he was angry with her? "I am sorry!" she added, earnestly. "I should have told you, I know-"

"He asked you to keep the incident from me?"

Horrified-now that he put it like that, it did seem a terrible thing to have done-she nodded. Scowling, Darcy nodded back.

"Go on, then."

Now came the hardest part. "I ran into him-today, at that musicale your cousins took me to, and told him we were returning to Pemberley-and he told me he knew it-and Georgiana-and sent his regards to your Father-" She spoke, quickly, too quickly by far, stumbling over words, desperate to acquit herself, but with a sinking feeling that she was only burying herself deeper with every word.

"What did he tell you about me, madam?"

Elizabeth dropped her eyes. "You know, I do not believe any of it. It must be a misunderstanding."

"What did he tell you about me, Elizabeth?"

Pleadingly, she looked up in her husband's eyes. He still appeared very angry, but now his whole aspect was flattened, as if all air had gone out of him.

"Tell me."

"That you had Mr. Wickham ex-pulled from school as a child, by prevailing upon your father to have him sent down...That you had further prevailed upon Mr. Darcy to keep him away from Pemberley, where he had grown up-that he has no home because of you."

"Ah," Darcy said again.

"I could not believe it myself-" She released a pent-up breath. His expression was mild again; perhaps, he was not so very angry after all.

"They are true."

It took Elizabeth a second to understand what he had said. Then, she was so shocked that she almost gave to the rocking motion of the carriage and staggered upon the seat, catching the end of it.

"Sir, I-"

"I did indeed prevailed upon my father to have Wickham sent down from Harrow. And I did tell him to choose between us. So long as Wickham was at Pemberley, I should not come near it."

Elizabeth gasped. "But why?" This was horrible, to have him admit to such unkindness, and with such a calm demeanor, as if giving her an account of an afternoon at his club. "I had my reasons." "What reasons?" "Mine alone."

She stared at him in incomprehension. The story, when told by Mr. Wickham, had struck her as a tale of woe and unfairness. Such an awful, cruel thing to do-to tear an orphan from the only home he had ever known, to ruin his chances at a good education-that she simply could not credit it. She was certain of two incompatible things: that the story was not true, and if it was, that Darcy would have a good explanation for it. But now, her legs knocked away from under her, she could only muster a startled "No!"

He arched an eyebrow at her. "No?"

"You cannot just tell me... that! That you had your reasons! You must tell me what happened!"

Darcy turned towards her, glaring. "I must tell you nothing, madam! I am your husband, and if I tell you that I had my reasons, that ought to be enough for you!"

Elizabeth could not believe her faculties, for before her, sat her fiancÚ of old, the young man she hated so viscerally she would have rather died than married him.

"So I must live with the knowledge that you were the cause of a man's misfortunes!"

"So you must," he said, clenching his teeth.

"With the worst slander heaped upon you, to which you admit, but refuse to explain! What am I to think?"

"Only that as my wife, you ought to trust me, and not some low cur apt to impose himself upon you."

"Cur! What words you use, sir! He has told me nothing that I did not force out of him! He has been a friend to me!"

"A friend, after all of three meetings!" Darcy gave a hollow laugh. "It took you a lot longer to declare me your friend."

"And yet, it appears I did that too soon!" Elizabeth spat. "For friends keep no secrets from each other!"

"Well, then, madam, so be it. We shall have to live with it."

"I shall write to your father, then, and ask him!"

"My father knows no more than you."

"What!" she cried. "He turned a boy out of doors without a good reason for it?"

Darcy shrugged. "There you have it. We are but a nest of villains, heartless savages all ready to prey on your poor defenseless Mr. Wickham!"

"Do not be like that!" she cried, despairing of holding her wits together. "Do not mock me!"

He made a sound, as if to say more, but said only: "We are home." The carriage stopped, and he stepped out first, reaching inside to hand Elizabeth out. She pushed him away, petulantly, and jumped out, but mis-stepped and fell. And though Darcy made a wild grab for her and caught her before she did herself any really serious damage, her left ankle did twist beneath her most painfully. When he righted her again, she could hardly step on it and grasped his arm tightly, blinking away the tears.

In the next moment, she found herself up in his arms, being carried upstairs. She dared not look in his face, and he said not a word beyond the curt "can you stand?" a few moments earlier. Elizabeth closed her eyes and bit her lip, crying to herself.

In her room, she was deposited in Mary's care-Mary, who was staring at her owlishly. But it must have dawned on the girl after a while that the tears on her Mistress' face and Master's thunderous expression were not all due to her fall... For Master indeed seemed very angry, and he quitted Mistress' room instantly-very odd behavior, considering that he had hardly been out of it for the past fortnight.

Elizabeth spent a sleepless night. Her demons, her fears increased in proportion to the shadows on the wall; Darcy's offense against Mr. Wickham grew more and more serious, more and more depraved with every hour, magnified in her mind, restless and inflamed. Her ankle pained her substantially, and after a while, she gave up and wept quietly into her pillow.

"Miss?" Mary-who had, upon Darcy's instructions, taken up a post on a sofa in her Mistress' bedchamber-was by in seconds. "Miss, are you all right?"

At the thought of a commotion that would indubitably ensue should she complain, Elizabeth was moved to lie.

"I am fine," she whispered, keeping the tears from her voice. "Go back to sleep."

A candle lit, and Elizabeth saw Mary's suspicious, earnestly concerned face.

"You are crying!" the maid said, accusatively, as if Elizabeth was doing so to spite her. "Are you in much pain, then?"

Before Elizabeth had a chance to answer, she shot decisively in the direction of the connecting door, and rapped upon it with vigor.

Darcy appeared instantly, clad in his nightshirt, but not in the least sleepy. Elizabeth wondered whether he had even laid his head down; the desire, the weak, treacherous desire that he should do so in her bed, was stronger even than the pain. She wept all the harder.

"Sh-sh-sh." Plopping upon the edge of the bed, he gathered her into his arms and shushed her with such gentleness, it broke her heart. "Send for a doctor," he directed Mary. Elizabeth, too exhausted to argue (for she had refused the doctor earlier), buried her face against his chest, inhaling the warm, clean scent of him and thinking on the duality of his person-how could he be so wonderful to her, and so ghastly to someone else?

They sat so, in silence, until the doctor arrived. He felt her ankle delicately, then bound it with linen and prescribed her rest. Darcy kept holding her as he conversed with the doctor in hushed tones, too far away for her to tell the words, his hand moving, stroking, over her hair. The binding of her leg helped; and soon, Elizabeth slept-a disordered, nightmarish sleep, which gave little rest.

In the morning... she woke, and found that it was no longer morning. The clock showed half-past noon. Never in her life had she slept this late.

Mary fussed over her, helping her out of the bed and to her toilette. Elizabeth found that, though she no long suffered dull shooting pains in her ankle, she had to be extra-careful when stepping on her left foot.

"The Master has left you this, Miss."

She took Darcy's letter-an unsealed note-from Mary's hands.

Madam, I must away. I have postponed our return to Pemberley until you are mended compleatly. Please rest your ankle. I shall see you later tonight. FD.

Elizabeth folded the note thoughtfully. It had been a long time...well, weeks, but it had felt like a long time... since he had signed his notes to her anything but W. Will, the private name she called him in moments of great tenderness...

She sat in the garden outside, a blanket across her lap and another around her shoulders. And though she had a book in her lap, she had not moved from the same page for hours. It was an impossible conundrum: she could not avoid thinking about the last night's conversation-she could not bear to think about it. Darcy's cold, nonchalant admission of his guilt-his utter refusal to take any blame for it, or to explain it, even. What was she to make of it? She had hoped he would deny the truth; but he did not seem to think it worth denying... She would have accepted any acknowledgement of his misdeed, however grudging... It was impossible to countenance, but Darcy seemed to think himself in the right.

And he had refused to speak of it. It was the first time since their marriage that he had cut her inquiries on any subject in so princely, so rude a manner, telling her, in essence, that his past was none of her business. Her pride smarted, preventing any reasonable inquiry into Darcy's reasons-he could not, could not be justified in insulting her so. She was, after all, still his wife.

Her image of Darcy last evening, his countenance impenetrable as a rock, did not make an ounce of sense, not after what he had said at the Lying Club, not after the memory of him later that night. She closed her eyes, recalling his words exactly: heedlessly... hopelessly enamoured. And then, in the night, while she ailed, he had held her-with all the tenderness of the weeks past-and she had felt the soft touch of his lips upon the crown of her head. She had fallen asleep like so, in his arms; and had awoken to his absence from her bed, and a cold note-not on her pillow, like before, but from Mary's hand, and signed FD. How was she to reconcile all that? Her head spun with the thoughts.

She sat in the garden for quite some time, having not arrived to any manner of satisfactory conclusion, except to speak with Mr. Darcy as soon as they returned to Pemberley. She held him so very high in her esteem. Surely he must have a good justification to Mr. Wickham's story. Surely he must. What Darcy, by virtue of his youth, was unable-unwilling-to explain, his father would be able to account for. Desperate for answers, she convinced herself that her father-in-law would tell her something... something, which would allow her to reconcile Mr. Wickham's story with Darcy's goodness.

For she wanted, most ardently, to keep them both good.

Startled by a sound of someone's steps upon the stone path, she looked up, about to tell Mary that she was ready to go inside. Her eyes widened at the sight of two people walking towards her-Mr. Wickham was following Mary, who, hurrying forth to announce him, had about her countenance censoriousness enough for a benchful of judges.

"Mr. George Wickham, Miss," she stated and pursed her lips. Elizabeth, stunned by her guest's unaccountable appearance, murmured her welcomes and waved the disapproving Mary away.

"Forgive me, I cannot stand."

He bowed, politely, over her hand and inquired-in hushed, worried tones-about her ankle.

"My maid talks too much." Elizabeth frowned. "I mis-stepped on leaving my carriage is all. I believe it to be a matter of two days before I am compleatly mended. But you-"she said, looking him over. "Mr. Wickham, I hope I do not seem unwelcoming, but I do wonder-" She caught herself before she asked him what he was doing there-an astonishing thing to do, to appear like so, in view of his earlier proclamations about her husband. .

"My heart is unsettled after our conversation yesterday," he said gravely. "I should never have told you those things-"

Elizabeth sighed in abject misery, her confrontation with Darcy made real once again.

"They were true," she whispered tonelessly. "All those things that you said-he confirmed them all."

He smiled-a slight smile, belying the flash of anger in his bright eyes.

"Of course," he said. "Why should he deny it? No truly grave sin here, after all-what was my life worth to him?" Then, as if catching himself in an indiscretion, he shook his head and said: "But no-Mrs. Darcy, forgive me. This is not why I came here. I have no desire to sow discord."

Elizabeth would have liked to deny that there was any discord, but she found it beyond her to lie about that just at the moment. Tiredly, she nodded.

"It is my fault," she said dully. "I should never have queried you, sir. Ignorance is bliss."

"Sometimes," Mr. Wickham agreed with a smile. "Certainly in matters that are such... old business."

Elizabeth nodded, forced her smile to reappear. She was deeply unhappy about the whole business. She could tell herself it was her fault all she wished; but she did not feel truly guilty. Now that Mr. Wickham was here, Darcy's sins had once again materialized. His wickedness, which made so little sense to her alone, now made flesh-here was the man wronged by him-and a worthy, deserving man, if she knew anything at all.

"But truly," he said. "I should keep my visit short. I am afraid that should your husband find me here, scenes might arise..." He cleared his throat delicately. "-scenes, unpleasant to both. So you see," he said, "I have come to say good-bye."

She nodded again, miserably. She would have liked his friendship-but it would have to be in another lifetime. Would they meet again, after she-after she was no longer married? Lord only knew.

In the ensuing pause, she noticed that he wore civilian clothes.

"It is the second time I see you out of your beautiful regimentals, Mr. Wickham."

"Ah, but that is the purpose of my visit, madam," he said with a congenial smile. "I am to exchange a lobster's uniform for a more---ehh, sedate blue one with a big hideous bearskin helmet. I have been able to purchase a commission in the regulars and my new regimentals are not yet ready. Are you surprised?"

"Indeed, I am surprised! You said nothing of it yesterday!"

"I was going to," he said coyly. "The conversation did not lend itself to this particular subject."

"I understand. Where away, sir?"

He gave her a brilliant grin. "India, ma'am, your brother's very regiment!"

"19th Light!" she cried, now no longer surprised, but astonished. "You are going to India, then?"

"You know that the 19th Light are in Mysore indefinitely."

"Indeed, I do know that." Elizabeth sighed. "But you've kept it all to yourself, you sly man!" He was smiling at her, kindly, benevolently, a friend's sweet smile, and she was seized with an idea to help him: "I shall write you a letter of introduction to my brother, then!"

He blinked in obvious surprise, but could hardly hide his pleasure. "I have not thought of it, but-I should be much obliged, ma'am."

"Here, help me up." She had forgotten all about her ankle. Now, she leaned upon his arm as she rose. "Let us go into the house-" she said, and was momentarily arrested by the sight of her husband striding towards them along the path.

"Wickham," he said, in a voice that seemed to belong to another man. "You will take your hands off my wife, now."

Gently, Mr. Wickham lowered Elizabeth back onto the bench. Mute with shock, she watched Darcy bear at him, grab him by the cravat with all roughness one would afford...well, no-one really. She had never seen him behave this way with anybody, much less with another gentleman. Mr. Wickham staggered at first, then yanked himself out of Darcy's grip-only to have him grasp his cravat again and push him, roughly, against a garden wall. Shocked, she caught the expression upon her husband's face... he was an irate stranger, unrecognizable to her...and Mr. Wickham's, too, clearly furious, whiter than the cravat Darcy was clenching. Thinking of nothing but putting herself between the two men, Elizabeth started from her bench, remembering too late her lame foot-it gave beneath her, and she collapsed upon the stone path with a small anguished cry.

Letting go of Mr. Wickham's person that instant, Darcy leaned to gather Elizabeth from the ground. She thought he might speak with her, but he said nothing, his eyes cold upon her. She twisted in his arms, to see, through the copious tears, Mr. Wickham standing there, his stock all disordered, his arms hanging limply. Then, he turned and thundered away down the path, towards the back gate leading into the street.

Inside the drawing room closest to the back garden, Darcy slid Elizabeth onto the sofa, to the care of her anxious maid, and turned to go. She could not believe her eyes. Surely he did not mean to leave without any explanation? She swallowed the last of her tears and mustered all her anger.

"Mr. Darcy!" she said sharply. He stopped in his tracks, then turned slowly. His countenance was grave, composed; not a trace of the fury that had distorted it only moments ago. But distant still, and very pale, the face of a stranger.

"Leave us." Elizabeth dismissed Mary with a nod.

"But, Miss, your foot-"

"Leave us!" she snapped. The impudent chit fled the room, the door sliding shut in her wake without so much as a sound.

Darcy stood in silence, leaning awkwardly against the mantel. Elizabeth sat on a sofa, her bad foot extended inelegantly. She tried, so very hard, to compose herself. She must say... she must say so much; for, over the past twenty-four hours, a side of him had opened to her, which she had not known, had not recognized. Which she hoped was extraordinary and would not be repeated. And though she trembled at recalling his rage just now, she still hoped-stupidly, uselessly, against all sense and reason-that there must be an explanation. That he could explain away what had just happened. So, she thought. However shaken, however shocked she was, she must speak with him. She must fight through the haze of confusion, must be serious and convincing, must explain to him how much he had frightened her just now.

But her lip was trembling, a deluge of tears imminent. She bit the traitorous part to keep it from shaking, pressed her fingers to her temples.

"Sir, I believe you owe me an explanation," she said, and knew, instantly, that she had taken the wrong tone with him. Darcy's face darkened, closed even more. "Please," she repeated, hoping to soften the effect of her words, "I desire an explanation from you. That is, I should very much like... one."

Darcy kept his silence, frowning, and Elizabeth felt it incumbent upon her to say more.

"You cannot deny that your behavior has been most ... " Barbarous, she wanted to say. Outrageous. "Irregular," she finished delicately. "You have at-attacked this gentleman-"

"A gentleman," he repeated. "You are so very far from the truth, madam, to call him a gentleman."

Elizabeth flushed. She would not get far with him if he insisted upon this vitriol, this biting, scathing tone!

"Mr. Darcy!" she said in an angry whisper. "This is a wicked thing to say! He has behaved a gentleman to me, to be sure, and if you know of any reasons why he may not be called so, I know of none."

"He is a wicked cur of a man, that is what he is," Darcy said, turning away. "No gentleman; surely no gentleman."

Elizabeth gasped, her temper rising. "This is it," she said angrily. "There. I desire an explanation! Why is he not a gentleman? Fitzwilliam, you behaved just now like a man deranged! You will be lucky if he does not call you out for laying your hands on him!"

Darcy snorted derisively-and, she thought, rather impolitely. "There will be no calling-out, madam, you do not know that yellow-bellied coward like I do."

Elizabeth flinched. What was wrong with him, to behave in such a beastly manner? It was not like him at all...

"So he has more sense than you," Elizabeth concluded, horrified at herself, at saying all the wrong things. "And you took advantage of that!"

"Indeed not," Darcy said with disgust. "I simply did not like the sight of him in my home, with his hands on my wife."

"He was helping me up from the bench!" she yelled, despairing, and drove her nails into her palms. "Will you listen to sense?"

"He has no business being here, madam. He knew that. His only purpose in coming here was to, to-to provoke me."

"You are insane," she said quietly.

"I assure you, madam, quite the opposite," he said just as quietly, coming near and starting to fuss quietly over her foot, setting it upon a cushion for comfort. "You are correct, I should never have touched him, I should have had my men throw him out like the dog he is."

"Oh leave me be!" she shouted, losing all composure, and he dropped a cushion in surprise. "How dare you treat me with such contempt?"

"I-treat you with contempt?" he shouted back, springing to his feet. "You, who takes a wicked depraved cur into your confidence, who listens to the tales he tells of me-"

"They were all true!"

"-who invites him into our home after I told you expressly what I think of him! My word means nothing at all to you!"

Elizabeth sputtered. "He called on me without a warning! What was I to do, throw him out of the house? Only because you have an absurd notion that he is a cur!" she mocked him now, her old venomous response to him alive and well under the layers-now gone, gone, dissipated-of infatuation. "It seems that I, as your wife, have not merited a simple explanation!"

"As my wife." Darcy glowered at her. "Now you see it fit to claim this title, when all along you have assiduously reminded me that it is but a temporary one!"

Elizabeth caught a mouthful of air, his barb hitting home. Take a step back, she thought, take one step back before you do something irreparable to each other.

"Just tell me why you hate him so much," she said, biting her lips to blood. "I cannot bear to think you so depraved!"

Turning away from her, Darcy raked both hands trough his hair, so that it stood almost on end.

"No," he said finally, so quietly she could barely catch his words. "Think of me what you will, but no. And in any case, it does not matter. You are determined to leave me anyway."

"Do you suppose such behavior as this would induce me to stay?"

"No; and it is not meant to." He paused, then turned back to look at her; Elizabeth inhaled deeply at the darkness she caught in his eyes; she had never seen him like this... "It is a private matter between me and Mr. Wickham. It is an old private matter, I might add. It does not concern you. As long as you occupy the ignominious office of my wife, you are to obey me as you have promised. If I tell you that Mr. Wickham and I are old enemies, it had better be enough for you! Take it or leave it, Elizabeth, but this is all the information you get."

"Oh I have been such a fool!" she cried. "I have fancied you were actually kind! That you had a care for me!"

For a moment, she thought she might have wounded him; for when he spoke, his voice smarted with offense. "I have a very great care for you, Elizabeth, greater than you have for me. If you were to tell me to trust you in something, I should do so implicitly."

"Well," she said slowly. "I cannot. I cannot trust you. Mr. Wickham has been candid with me. You, on the other hand, are too proud for candidness! I ask you for an honest answer, and you tell me to be content with 'I said so'!"

Darcy shook his head. "You are childish and naive, Elizabeth, if you think he has been candid with you. He has played your good heart quite beautifully, educing compassion for the poor orphan-but believe me, madam, when I say that he has never cared a fig for any of us!"

"Enough," Elizabeth cried. "Would you think him devoid of any human feeling?"

Darcy pursed his lips. "No," he said evenly, "Wickham has human feelings enough. Greed, cruelty, envy, insincerity. And a few other ones. But I do think him devoid of any attachment to my family-or of any innocence in this matter. Oh, he has played you beautifully!" he said again, his voice full of pique. "He knew what he was doing when he ran into you-and that story with Bennet's portrait being stolen-only a child such as you could be deceived by it!"

She stared at him in shock, disbelieving his every word. "You sound deranged," she whispered. "Like a Bedlamite-and now I mean it."

"As you said, enough," Darcy said tiredly. "We are going in circles, madam. I can see that you are obviously feeling well enough to argue with me-you should be well enough to travel to Pemberley first thing on the morrow."

He turned away at that; a mistake, for Elizabeth would not be set aside.

"Is this all the reply I am to expect!" she exclaimed. "A flat dismissal of all my questions, followed by an order that you may give a servant!"

He turned back to her, frowning severely.

"I cannot give you your heart's desire, madam. You will get no more intelligence from me as regards Mr. Wickham. But we are expected at Pemberley, we should have left today, had it not been for your foolishness in jumping out of the carriage-"

"My foolishness!" she exploded. "You behave like a man possessed, and I am a fool for reacting to it! I do not know what you suppose is expected of a Darcy wife-" She cut herself short, but it was too late.

Though she would not credit it as possible, his expression grew even darker. "Certainly not this," he said, quietly. "Be ready tomorrow morning, Elizabeth."

Thereupon, he pivoted on one heel and walked out, having never once looked back. Seething, she called for Mary, then rose and hobbled to the bell-pull, then back to the sofa, where she collapsed in utter misery.

"Miss?" Mary's expression was apprehensive. Elizabeth clutched her arms, unable to keep from shaking. Surely the maid had heard everything; and she found herself mute for a second, fearing that she would break down weeping. So she merely held up one hand, urging Mary to be silent and wait. Then, after a second's pause, she said:

"Have a carriage ordered."

Mary stared at her, questioning. Elizabeth gritted her teeth. "I am going to my Uncle's house, to say my good-byes." She was not quite certain why she was explaining herself to the maid.

"And what of your foot?"

Elizabeth knew that it could not have escaped the maid's notice that she had already gone to Gracechurch Street to say her good-byes. Mary was a Pemberley servant first. Elizabeth motioned for the girl to approach, then said, in a dangerously low tone:

"My patience with you has run. Have a carriage ordered."

"But Miss, the Master-" For the first time in months, Elizabeth saw the boisterous girl frightened and indecisive.

"The Master may not fire you, but I will turn you out this day if you do not do as I say."

Mary dropped a nervous curtsey and took herself out of the room. Elizabeth leaned back against the sofa, assiduously blocking from her mind to what she was about to do. Come to think of it, she did not know what it was. The only thing clear to her just now was that she could not stay in the house another hour. Oddly resigned, she waited for Mary to return with her boots. It was a trial to force one of them, awkwardly, over Elizabeth's bound, aching foot.

Thereupon, leaning upon Mary's arm, she quitted the town-house, carrying with her, of all her things, only Jamie's portrait in her reticule.

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