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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 24 - part 1

Having quitted Elizabeth's company, Darcy went for a long walk at St. James'. By the time he reached the park, it had grown nearly dark, the sky intensely blue between the skeletal branches. It had grown colder and more miserable in the last hour; the ground was covered with a thin sheen of ice, and the frigid air held a first whisper of snow. Darcy wandered along the lanes, hands clasped behind his back, thinking, thinking, until his head was abuzz with pain. Until he could no longer fashion a coherent thought in his mind. Until irrepressible sickness rose in his breast at another thought of Elizabeth, and Wickham, and...

He supposed he could have gone to a club; but he did not wish for a familiar society, could not imagine what he would say, for one, to Gregory, should he run into him there. Why are you still here, were you not supposed to leave today? The idea of fashioning a convenient, appropriate excuse was revolting to him: just now he did not feel he could cover up his quarrel with Elizabeth.

In going to St. James, he had hoped for the anonymity of a large crowd; but it was too late, and too dark, and he was seized piercingly by the loneliness of the place. He was the only visitor in the park-he and the cold ducks, huddled by the banks of the narrow lake, and the painted, covered Pitt the Elephant, walked down the path by a silent, turbaned Indian attendant. Darcy stood to the side, wondering why they had taken the beast out so late-moving there through the blue shadows, it looked oddly dreamlike. Glimpsing the elephant again brought back Elizabeth's sweet delight at seeing it weeks ago. Darcy could not help a dejected sigh... Rubbing his hand across his eyes, he marveled, unhappily, about their quarrel.

Last night, he had behaved an utter fool. He knew he should not have told Elizabeth that he loved her-that it was against the rules they had set for themselves. Thinking of it now, Darcy did not know what had possessed him. He must have been mad, to open to her like this, knowing that she did not return his affections. And of course, the setting of it, damned unfortunate-how stupid of him to do so in a public place, and one where every word he said to her she would be sure to misconstrue... It appeared, upon reflection, that he had gambled his all on her response. Now it felt very much as if he had lost.

It had been a mad, rash thing to do-but hopeful. But the terrible disappointment when she had not replied in the manner he had hoped for was nothing to the horror of hearing Wickham's name fall from her lips. He hated the sound of it. To hear Elizabeth ask him whether he knew it... Darcy repressed a shudder. Did he know it! For months... nay, years he had woken, bathed in sweat and with that hated name on the tip of his tongue...

Last night... He did not know how he had manage to get a hold on his emotions, but the truth was, he had. He had behaved well... as well as could be, under the circumstances. He had told her ... well, all there was to tell. Which was, in essence, that he could not tell her. That she had wandered into an area that was private and painful, shameful and delicate-and his alone. Darcy remembered, in the aftermath of the occurrence, the horror that it would become public. It was a fear that drove him, for a while, to pay Wickham off-and that ruled his life for several years thereafter. The thought that someone else might learn of it had left him petrified... Since then, he had not told a soul, not his father, not a single one of his friends. He could not tell a woman; certainly not his wife, whom he loved and desired so much. Perhaps she would judge him, perhaps not; but in any case, he could not imagine humbling himself so.

This was his, private misery. He had spent the previous ten years attempting to bury it is as deeply as possible. That she sought this knowledge from him, demanding insistently that he give reasons and explanations seemed to him an ultimate intrusion. That she dared pry into something so very private, so excruciatingly painful had left him disordered, terrified and furious at the same time.

It was the angry part of him that silenced all tenderness he might have felt towards Elizabeth. Which reminded him, forcefully, that she had no right to query him so. That his past was his alone, and that she must obey him as a wife ought...

He had convinced himself as he had returned home this afternoon, assured that everything would be all right as he opened the door into the garden. That he could simply ask her not to intrude, and she would understand, for she cared for him enough to respect his wishes. Then, seeing Wickham at Elizabeth's side had been the worst trial of all, seeing him help her up from the bench, solicitous. She had called him her friend. Her friend! Darcy had not seen the man this age, not since he had held his rapier to the bastard's throat nearly ten years back. He wished to God he had one now, he would run him through if he had one now, would murder him on the spot for this vile intrusion... And she! Smiling at him in her happy beaming manner, as if his company was so dear to her; the thing most intolerable to him was that Elizabeth, who was never false, could only smile like that at a friend... Darcy stood there, his ears, his temples ringing, red mist in his eyes. He knew that she would abhor what he was about to do, and for that one second, he did not care...

It was fortunate indeed he had had no weapon on him. He would have killed the man on the spot, would have certainly forfeited his own life...

Darcy shivered. How had he come to this? He had not figured on Wickham, had not thought the man would have enough gall to appear in his life. Ah, but what an illustrious, talented piece of work this was, turning his own wife against him; forcing him to confide his darkest secret to her to avoid an irreparable break between them... Darcy could have admired it, but for his insides shaking. He was grieved, shocked and-utterly lost. Black with hatred of Wickham, furious at Elizabeth, but most of all, terrified that she should turn away from him. He loved her so ardently, it sickened him to think she might not care for him anymore. That she might think poorly of him. But he was also angry at her-for her bold presumption, for having dared to question and query him. Most of all, for trusting Wickham and taking his side... Darcy knew how natural it was; he did not care. He wanted Elizabeth on his side...

Deep inside, he knew that she would never simply submit; that she was far, far too independent for that. Damned Wickham had done the worst-he had engaged Elizabeth's compassion and conscience, and now, nothing but compleat candor on Darcy's own part could undo the damage. The bastard had painted a picture of wanton cruelty, of innocence abused, of a rich spoiled child ruining the life of a poor, deserving one. A grim picture, indeed-Darcy had to acknowledge that had he been in Elizabeth's shoes, it would have been impossible to resist just such a story. Poor George Wickham, abused by his benefactor's rich son, abandoned by his benefactor... The story was certain to tug upon Elizabeth's heartstrings.

Perhaps, he thought, taking her back to Pemberley would help. To Pemberley, far away from Wickham. He was suddenly terribly homesick, and so very lonely, he thought his heart would break. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the park. Pemberley, he thought, tomorrow, and if she did not wish to go, he would drag her along.

But back at the house, the lights were dim. Frantic, he ran upstairs, only to find the distraught Mary pacing across Elizabeth's room.

"Where is your Mistress?"

The girl's face, white, distressed, told him more than the intelligence she imparted on him: Elizabeth had gone to her Uncle's, hours ago, right after he had quit the house. She had not returned just yet. Darcy glanced at the clock on the mantel: it was far too late in the day for any manner of a social call.

He waited in the library at first, then upstairs in his bedchamber. Stretched out upon his bed with a single candle burning, full darkness behind his window. Listening for the sound of her carriage below, of her hurried steps upon the stairs. The time for supper came, and he went below; but he could not eat without her, and waited still, the food on the table before him growing cold. He was worried, frantic with worry, his mind dwelling on all the worst possibilities. He was almost ready to call for his carriage, when the butler came in with a letter upon a silver tray. Darcy recognized her hand instantly and broke the seal without waiting for the butler to leave.

"Mr. Darcy,

I shall stay at my Uncle's house tonight and tomorrow. I desire time to think about that, which has transpired between us. I remain your obedient wife, Elizabeth Darcy."

Simultaneously greatly relieved and absolutely furious, Darcy crumpled the letter in his fist with an inward oath. His obedient wife indeed! Her words were but a taunt. He tossed Elizabeth's missive into the fireplace and watched it curl and smolder on the glowing coals-all the while smothering his first impulse-to storm from the room and go after her.

And do what, he asked himself? It was clear from her letter that she would refuse to return with him tonight; and the last thing Darcy wanted was to involve Elizabeth's relations in this row.

He would let her sleep on it. Perhaps tomorrow, she would come to her senses-and back to him.

"Would you see to it that a plate is brought up for me in my room?" Darcy asked the butler, more out of obligation than anything else. He could not imagine having to sit alone at the long dining-room table. He ate alone, upstairs, without really tasting the re-warmed food that stuck cloyingly to the roof of his mouth. Then, having set his plate, three quarters full, aside, he stretched out upon the bed.

His head was abuzz with thoughts. What had happened? Had she left him? The thought seemed too ridiculous for words, that she should leave him-over George Wickham, of all things. He almost laughed at how odd it seemed. He would have laughed, had he not been so wretchedly lonely tonight, so very angry at her. What did she mean by running out like so? They must talk... talk, when she came back, about conduct unbecoming to a Mrs. Darcy...

But then, consider your own conduct. However justified it was in his own mind, on reflection, it was obviously, well, lunatic. Surely it must have appeared so to Elizabeth. What was it about Wickham that had made him lose his wits so compleatly? No use asking himself; he knew perfectly well what it was. He had lived these years, having convinced himself that his past was his past-and who should prove him wrong but his indomitable young wife! Darcy sighed and turned on the bed, hiding his face in a pillow. What a contest of wills it would be if she refused to acquiesce. Not to believe him-he did not need her to believe him. Merely to accept that some parts of his life were his only.

That night, he lay sleepless for the longest time, thinking of Elizabeth and Wickham, separately and together. Chasing away some memories with others. Memories of Wickham, banished with thoughts of Elizabeth, sweet memories of her at Longbourn.

At Longbourn, where the servants had prepared Professor Bennet's old rooms for him-where he had skulked through the hallways to spend the night in her narrow bed, where she had let him in. There was no real dressing room there, merely a screen; Elizabeth had stepped behind it, and Darcy could not, could not take his eyes off her shadow, clearly visible to him in the faint candlelight. It had felt so very wicked-to be staring at her like that, when she likely did not know he was looking-but he could not stop. He could see her standing, elbows sharply out, as she fumbled with her stays; then, the swelling buoyancy of her chemise freed from the corset's confines-then, the said chemise whipped over her head in one audacious movement, and the true lines of her body revealed. She had set one foot upon a puff, drawing off the stocking-Darcy had held his breath, had caught himself craning his neck to see better-but a second later, the stockings were off and Elizabeth herself disappeared beneath a long nightshift.

The sight of her then-the memory of her now drove him to distraction. He loved her so much... Dare she leave him! Dare she take Wickham's side against him! It was simply unbearable. Guilt, love, pique, anger, desire all mixed. He would never fall asleep tonight... Perhaps, he thought, perhaps it was good that she had gone to her Uncle's-the Gardiners had appeared so very sensible to him. Surely they would not suffer such outrageous behavior from her-were she their niece a thousand times? Love her he might, but she did have the damndest temper on her, that child...

In the end, he did fall asleep... and was visited by haunting dreams, in which he lost, and lost, and lost everything and everyone he loved, and then, finally, after there was nothing and no-one left to lose, he lost himself.

In the morning, his intentions were noble: to give her all the time she needed. Time to think, to settle down calm that furious temper of hers.. But the waiting stretched interminably, and after a while, he could bear it no longer. The anticipation of seeing her had driven him mad; and the worry over what she would do had turned him almost dangerous.

So, at noon, he appeared in Gracechurch street. It had snowed all morning, and he spent some time on the front step, knocking his boots together, only to notice, with chagrin, that a lot more snow fell off his greatcoat in the parlor. He waited, nervously wringing his gloves, for someone to receive him-for he had been told that both Gardiners were at home this morning-when the door opened, and Elizabeth herself walked in. She had an unfamiliar-no doubt, her Aunt's-shawl of hers tied all around her, and her face was red, as if from the cold, as if she had just been outside. She was still limping-though, Darcy noticed with satisfaction, she was able to walk by herself now, and her limp was not as marked. He had been terrified for her two nights ago, thinking that the foolish child had lamed herself.

The happiness of seeing her was so great, he could barely contain it. It was all he could do to keep from kissing her.

"Madam," he said politely. "I am pleased this morning to see you much mended."

"Thank you." She sunk into a formal curtsey. "I understand ...you received my note yesterday."

"So I have." Darcy nodded. He did not quite know what to say about that, for the note had infuriated him. But he was determined not to quarrel with her. "Have you visited enough with your relations, Elizabeth? I have come to fetch you home."

Elizabeth's eyebrows shot up, her expression quizzical.

"Fetch," she repeated. "Mr. Darcy, I am not a thing that you can fetch."

Darcy bit his lip. "An unfortunate choice of words, madam," he acknowledged readily. "But the truth remains, we are expected at Pemberley. We have already tarried far longer than I intended."

"Because of me, I suppose," she said. She sat down on the sofa in front of him, lips pursed. Understanding that this would be a lengthy conversation, Darcy himself took a chair across from her.

"No," he replied, knowing just how short his patience normally was with this kind of conversation. 'Because of- It is immaterial, Elizabeth, because of what. I wish to tarry no more. We are to depart today, if we are to make any sort of progress."

"And what of Mr. Wickham?" she asked, narrowing her eyes at him. "Will you dismiss all my inquiries like I am some tiresome pest?"

His benevolent, hopeful mood evaporating, Darcy gritted his teeth. "Madam, I thought I have made myself clear on the subject. I am not discussing Mr. Wickham with you. Now or ever." He added that last one for emphasis, but it appeared no emphasis was needed; for her expression had already turned defiant.

"I am not going anywhere with you until you do."

All his composure going straight out the window, Darcy cried:

"You take such eager interest in Mr. Wickham's concerns!"

"Indeed I do," Elizabeth said disdainfully, lifting her sharp little chin. "He is to serve with my brother, I have just sent him a letter of introduction to give to Jamie."

Darcy thought his ears had deceived him. Clenching his fists to keep from grabbing and shaking her-for he could not hope to shake any sense in her in any other way-he spoke in as quiet and polite a tone as he could manage.

"Madam, you are making a grave mistake. You should warn your brother against Mr. Wickham, not give him a letter of introduction. He is not to be trusted."

Elizabeth stared at him for a second, then shook her head incredulously.

"You are unbelievable," she said. "Do you not understand that without proof, you sound deranged! Without explanation, your words are but a vile slander!"

"Call it what you will," he said stubbornly, though her words had cut him. "I know Wickham very well. You should write to your brother this instant, Elizabeth-tell Bennet to disregard any letter Wickham might show him, tell him not to trust the man!"

"And why is that?"

How could he explain to her that Wickham would use anyone, anyone, in pursuit of whatever he desired at the moment? That he was selfish, cruel, vengeful, a veritable snake of a man? That he would stop at nothing? He could not prove it to her, not without telling her the truth, and that he could not do. She would have to take him at his word-or not at all.

"Just trust me!"

"No," she said with an angry shake of her head. "I shall not just trust you. You do not trust me."

Darcy chewed on his lip. Even through his haze of anger, he saw that she was making sense. How could he demand trust from her when he, himself, could not trust her his with his worst secrets? God, he thought, what a miserable, miserable conundrum. Goddamned poxed son-of-a-whore Wickham. Perhaps his ship would founder on its way to India, so that they may never hear of him again...

He was suddenly very tired-and very bitter. It had not occurred to him that this part of his life, the charmed part, in which he had taken such consternation and delight, might be influenced by his old, sordid past-but, come to think of it, why not?

"Come back to Pemberley with me," he said, quite unable to fashion any further argument. "If not for me, for Father and Georgiana."

"I shall write to them." Elizabeth frowned at him. "And you should be ashamed of using my attachment to them in this way."

"You leave me no other choice!" Darcy rose to his feet and paced, furiously. "You will not come home because I ask you, you will not come home because it is your duty-"

He cut himself off short. Oh, that was a wrong word to have used... He could see it plainly now, just like he could see a small irate conflagration in Elizabeth's eyes. With an indignant rustle of skirts, she, too, flew to her feet.

"Duty!" she cried. "How dare you speak to me of duty! How dare you! You know perfectly well that I owe you no duty! You told me yourself, but yesterday, that our marriage was a charade!"

"Not true!" Darcy cried hotly. "I only said that you should not claim the office of my wife merely because it suits you for the night!"

But it was too late; nothing either of them may say made any difference, and the split between them grew more substantial with every uttered word. Darcy closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the pounding in his temples come back with a vengeance.

Then, he opened them again. He might as well face the music. "As long as we are married, madam, however long that might be," he said, measuring each word, "you are to behave like a wife ought. Not, I might add, like a spoilt, petulant child! As long as you are my wife, your place is at-my-side!"

These last words he had bit off heatedly, coming closer and towering over her while she glared back.

"You cannot make me!" she spat back, hatefully. "Though perhaps you can, the madman that you are lately! Grab me like you grabbed Mr. Wickham, and be done with me!"

Darcy squeezed his eyes shut again, the pounding in his head monumental now. How had they come to this? Come back with me, he wanted to say to her. Come back with me because I love you, because you have stolen my heart, because I cannot be without you... Opening his eyes, he saw her there, bold and furious, full of righteous umbrage. Ready to defy him with her every word. No words of tenderness came, only an order, murmured through clenched teeth:

"Come, Mrs. Darcy, stop playing the fool. We had an agreement."

"I know that as well as you do."

"I am glad to hear that indeed. Come back to Pemberley, then, and be at my side like we have agreed!"

"You have promised me a short marriage, sir, I am ill to the depth of my heart of this pretense!"

A pretense, Darcy thought, was this what this was to her? Certainly he had been true to her! The ache in him doing away with his dearly-bought composure, he exclaimed:

"I have promised to let you go when my father passes-I shall keep my word, madam, believe me I shall! The last thing I want is a wife who takes the word of a stranger over mine! Or perhaps," he continued, horrified at what he was about to say, and yet unable to contain his vitriol, "perhaps he is not such a stranger to you anymore? You two have become fast friends-have I missed something? Perhaps you are something else now as well?"

She gasped, her cheekbones instantly blazing, and swung at him, meaning to strike him across the face. Having anticipated just such a reaction, Darcy caught her wrist and held it away.

"Come back with me to Pemberley," he repeated. "Damn it, Elizabeth, you owe me that!"

"I owe you nothing!" she hissed, wrenching out of his grip. "I have done you a favor! I was forced into this stupid marriage!"

Darcy cringed.

"Were you now!" He laughed, swinging away from her, furious. Stupid marriage: how the words had hurt him... "Was it not your father's distasteful idea-to make you rich! Wasn't it he who forced us all into this stupid marriage!"

"And I curse him for it every day!" she shouted, and burst into weeping. Darcy froze: the desperation in her voice cut even through his anger. To imagine that it was true, that she had been so unhappy with him as to bemoan her father's actions every day! There was nothing more terrible.

"So you have no care for me?" he whispered, coming closer. She was crying, tears rolling down her cheeks. Darcy's heart broke to look at her...Had these weeks in London meant nothing to her?

Elizabeth looked up at him, eyes huge and tear-filled, and, terrified of what she might answer, he did the improbable: taking her trembling chin in one hand, he leaned and planted a desperate, brutal kiss on her mouth. Wouldst that he could punish her for not falling in love with him!

"Mr. Darcy!"

With an anguished sob, Elizabeth shrank away from him, and he turned to face a very angry Mr. Gardiner.

"Young man, I understand that Elizabeth is your wife-but she is also my niece, and is under my protection when in my house! I do not like the sight of her crying, sir. I shall not allow you-"

"You are correct, sir, she is my wife, and I shall speak with her alone. I had no desire to intrude-"

"She is at my house, sir."

"She ought not to be," Darcy said coldly. "Had you good sense, sir, you would have sent her back home last night. Your niece is a married woman and her place is next to me."

Mr. Gardiner frowned at him. "Young man, you are impertinent. Do not presume to tell me how to deal with my own family-in my own home. You have made Elizabeth cry, sir, and I shall not have it! Come, man-leave her be!"

"Is this what you want, madam?" Darcy turned to Elizabeth, who presented a picture of such abject wretchedness, one could think him a truly libertine husband. "If I leave today, I shall not return. I ask you one last time, Elizabeth, come back to Pemberley with me!"

But she was crying, silently, standing next to her Uncle, and Darcy knew, with terrible painful clarity, that he had lost her.

"I shall give you time to think," he said, each word heavy and slow. "Until tomorrow. You must come with me. I want you with me. My father is waiting for you, and my sister-" Good god, what was he saying; what had his sister to do with this? "Tomorrow I shall leave."

"Very well, man, she understands you perfectly. Now leave her be." Mr. Gardiner was impatient, his civility all gone...With one parting glance at his weeping wife, Darcy pivoted on his heel and quitted the house in Gracechurch Street, barely stopping to gather his things from Mr. Gardiner's man.

Elizabeth spent the day in the room given to her upon her arrival to in Gracechurch Street. In late afternoon, a young maid rushed up the stairs, requesting her presence in her Uncle's study. Elizabeth went down, her heart weighing a ton.

"Ah, come in, Lizzy," her Uncle said to her when she knocked shyly on the door. Elizabeth saw that her Aunt, too, was there, and was happy of it, for she believed she had found an ally in Mrs. Gardiner. She did not know whether she needed an ally, or why; but she had come to know her Aunt better than her Uncle, and that alone was a comfort.

"Sit down, my dear," Mrs. Gardiner said to her. She did, obediently, upon the edge of a chair in front of her Uncle's desk. Her heart was thumping in her chest. "Your Uncle and I would speak with you."

Mr. Gardiner, looking preoccupied, peered upon her from his station behind his monumentally well-ordered desk. "Elizabeth, you can be at no loss as to why we have asked you here."

She nodded, swallowing a tight lump in her throat. What if they were to send her back to her husband? She supposed she could always return to Longbourn...

"I have been made to understand that you and Mr. Darcy have quarreled. Would you not enlighten me on the subject of your disagreement?"

Trembling violently, she gripped her shoulders to keep better control of herself.

"Who is this Mr. Wickham that I heard the two of you mention?"

Haltingly, she related to him what she knew. He listened, with calm attention and without interrupting, as did Elizabeth's Aunt, her normally pleasant countenance distressed.

"Do you know the man well enough to trust him, Lizzy?"

"Why should I not, Uncle? He has done nothing whatsoever but recommend himself to me in the best way. You remember, dear Aunt, what happened the other day-with my reticule? Mr. Wickham chased the man and returned the reticule to me-and my brother's portrait with it! He has been but a friend to me-why must I dismiss his friendship, however recent, simply because His Highness wills me so! Imagine only," she cried, stirred to anger by the memory, "he insists that Mr. Wickham had engineered the whole occurrence in order to influence me!"

She saw the Gardiners exchange a glance.

"What?" she asked. "What, Uncle?"

"Well...It is a great coincidence, Lizzy," her Aunt said haltingly. "That he should simply happen to be there..."

"Good God!" she cried, flying to her feet and starting to pace. "You cannot-cannot countenance this, Aunt!"

"Indeed, Maddie," Mr. Gardiner said, shaking his head, "it would be far too devious a scheme to play on someone so young-and to what end?"

"My husband has given me no explanation, and has commanded me to be content-simply content with his orders..."

"And you will not have that," Her Aunt murmured, nodding. "I can understand that..." They were all silent for a while. Mr. Gardiner rose from the desk and went to stand by the window, hands clasped behind his back. Without turning around, he spoke:

"Do you fear him, Elizabeth? Do you think he would beat you-that he would be unkind to you?"

"No, sir," she murmured. She knew that however frightening his reaction to Mr. Wickham, Darcy would never let her come to any harm. "He had been nothing but kind to me... which is why I find it so difficult to understand and accept his behavior towards Mr. Wickham..."

"Right, right," Mr. Gardiner said. "The proper thing to do would be to send you back to your husband, Elizabeth. But I find that I cannot force you-my only sister's child-out of my home, no matter how improper it is." He paused, allowing her to murmur her thanks. "But I do urge you... most seriously, Elizabeth... to do the proper thing."

"If you cannot accuse him of cruelty or unkindness towards yourself, merely not sharing a secret- my girl, you must understand, men will have their secrets-"

"But this is a secret that goes to the core of him..." she said, disturbed. "Understand that, the story, if it has no explanation, reflects upon his character in the most grievous way... I am most anxious that he should be a good man, Aunt, but he will not acquit himself! My conscience requires that I question this-I cannot be happy with him, knowing that he has done someone such an unkindness..."

Both the Gardiners regarded her with an identical pained look.

"Oh Lizzy," her Aunt finally said. "What a good heart you have, my dear." She came forward, drew Elizabeth up from her chair and into her arms. "Poor child. Let us hope that your Mr. Darcy should see the light..."

Later that day, Elizabeth had a letter to write. It was excruciating, perhaps the most difficult thing she had ever had to do. A shameful thing to do, too-for she felt every inch a betrayer. To abscond, leaving Mr. Darcy and Georgiana, who were only kind to her...to run off, like a creature without sense or principle. Kneeling on a chair, huddled over the writing desk, Elizabeth scribbled furiously, scratching out word after word. Nothing seemed right, nothing she could say would be enough to explain what she was about to do, that she was leaving them-perhaps forever. Somehow, she felt that her despair, her affront at Darcy's behavior lent itself poorly to a piece of paper. He had hurt her; it was important to make her father-in-law see that... The last thing she wanted was for Mr. Darcy to think her flippant, inconstant. To think that, seduced by town life, she had changed her mind about living at Pemberley. She was nothing like that... But guilt wore her down, making her think about her each word; making her want to rewrite the letter numerous times... By the end of it, her hands were black with ink, and there were spatters of it upon her chin, the edge of her nose and, regrettably, her dress.

At long last, she finished it. Quickly, before she could be of a mind to re-read it, she poured sand on it, then folded and sealed it. There. There it was-no more thinking of it, no more guilt. She threw a horrified glance at the waste basket, where four... five previous drafts lay crumpled. She shook her head, picked them out and tossed them all into the fireplace. No sense leaving them intact for a curious chambermaid to read...

Elizabeth gave the letter to her Uncle's man, with instructions to be posted directly-perhaps then, it would precede Darcy at Pemberley. She did not think he deserved the added humiliation of having to explain himself to his Father. As the servant bowed to her and took the letter out of the room-the Gardiners' servants being in slight awe of a Mrs. Darcy, ink stains or not-an incredulous chuckle escaped her, and she shut her eyes and bit her lip as if to silence it. She could not believe what she had just done.

Darcy hated London. What a stupid, idle place to be, London, with nothing to do. At Pemberley, he could have ridden until he was falling off his horse; could have worked himself senseless with papers and bills and accounts. In London, there was nothing to do, and he moped about the great town-house, trying a few hits of billiards, consuming more brandy that was healthy for him, scouring the library for something that would not call Elizabeth to mind. But it was no use; and the more he thought of it, the more he hurt. His injured pride and broken heart made for poor judgment; and he grew more wretched and sullen with every moment he killed that interminable night...

Finally, falling asleep in the library, Darcy dreamed she was back near him, forever, that he would never lose her again. Nothing coherent in that dream, only the memory of Elizabeth's cool arms around his neck, her lips against his cheek. Her voice, whispering sweet words in his ear. Waking, he felt racked, his body aching from the uncomfortable position in his chair. It was still very early, and he could have gone up to spend the rest of the night in bed; but now, as he had arisen from such sweet dreams, the reality seemed all the more intolerable-and his aching heart kept him wide awake.

Cassidy, the good man, had already packed all his things. In Elizabeth's bedroom, her things were packed, too, in three neat trunks and several hat and shoe boxes, standing at the foot of her bed. Darcy looked at them blearily in the awful morning light, thinking that he must send them to her Uncle's address in Gracechurch Street. But perhaps not; perhaps she had changed her mind and would come back with him? Hope was but a little thing in his breast. He went back, through his bedchamber, straight into his dressing room. Splashing cold water on his face this frigid morning was less than pleasant; but it did serve to clear his mind...

More and more, Darcy convinced himself that he must have her answer. Not in a letter, but from Elizabeth herself. In his darkest moments, he was certain of what it would be, and that certainty wounded him deeply. He remembered, dimly, saying that he would not return to her Uncle's house-but he could not bear leave London without speaking to her one more time. And so, at the first decent hour, he found himself in Gracechurch Street.

This morning, it was Mrs. Gardiner who received him, and he saw the good woman vacillate between pity and caution: was he, indeed, a deranged madman or simply a man too much in love?

"I have sent for my niece," she said. "Coffee, Mr. Darcy?"

Darcy's stomach was clenched painfully, and he did not think he could take even a swallow of water, so he should his head and thanked Mrs. Gardiner for her kind offer. He really did like the woman and, in different circumstances, he might have liked her husband as well; but just now, he could not forgive the man his officious interference and was heartily glad he was from home. Now, Mrs. Gardiner froze awkwardly on her settee, pretending to be occupied with a stubborn knot in her embroidery.

He heard Elizabeth's steps before she appeared, and rose, trembling, from his seat. With an odd twinge of happiness, he saw that she looked very ill, as if she had not slept the night. She walked much better now, her limp barely noticeable. She was wearing a pale-green dress that went poorly with her present martyred complexion.

Darcy managed to wait civilly while Mrs. Gardiner excused herself.

Elizabeth did not sit down, and so Darcy, too, remained standing. She still had that defiant posture about her-one he remembered so well from the earlier days of their acquaintance-back straight, shoulders back, chin up. Small breasts thrust forward, as if daring him to approach.

"I have not thought to see you here this morning," she said unsurely.

"I have come to ask you-one last time-whether you would return to Pemberley with me."

"Have you changed your mind about-"

He shook his head. "No."

"I have thought as much." She eyed him hostilely. "Mr. Darcy, pray understand. If what Mr. Wickham has told me of you is true-it would change ... a lot. Do you not agree that, without more, his words paint a most repellent picture of you?"

"Repellent indeed! What words you choose, Elizabeth!" Darcy cringed.

"What else do you call it when a rich son who tears a poor orphan away from the only family he had known-all to appease his own green-eyed monster?"

So self-righteous she looked, she only lacked a pulpit; and for a moment, Darcy was tempted, sorely, to tell her the truth. If only to see what it would do to her certainty, to her composure. It had been an act of self-preservation to remove Wickham from Harrow and Pemberley-for he would have murdered the bastard, or killed himself, had he daily need to look at him... For a moment, he thought he might tell her...But, coming to his senses, he only uttered:

"You are right. Without more, I look quite the wrongdoer. But I should hope that you, my wife, would believe me without more..." He checked the bitterness in his voice and said: "Elizabeth, I have never lied to you-I am not lying to you right now. I have good reasons to hate George Wickham, and I had good reasons to do what I did. I realize fully how it must look to you-and so must he, or he would not have told you this story."

"You are determined, then, to cast him as the villain!"

"As he is determined to cast me!"

"But he, at least, has an explanation, while you demand blind obedience!"

"Enough!" Darcy snapped. "I have not come here to continue with this quarrel, Elizabeth, but to ask you to come back to Pemberley with me. My information on the subject remains the same-you can take it or leave it. But I ask you-beg you-to believe me when I tell you I was not the villain-" His voice broke and he paused, gathering his composure again. "Tell me, once and for all, will you come back with me?"

She was silent as she stood before him, eyes once again brimming with tears. Her shoulders, so defiant, sagged, making her smaller and dearer to him; he wanted to take her, shelter her, hide her from the world... He wanted to possess and consume him, for she seemed to possess him.

"I am dying to acquit you," she whispered. A wet trail upon her cheek, a quiver to her lower lip, and she almost undid him. "Tell me something-anything-that would make it all right. Anything other than that you had reasons!"

Darcy wanted to bash his head against the mantel. She was asking the impossible from him. Slowly, he shook his head, speech beyond him just at the moment. Elizabeth stood back, straightening her shoulders once again.

"Then no." With the back of her hand, she wiped at her eyes, pursed her lips together firmly. "I have already sent a letter to your father-yesterday. I hope it precedes you to Pemberley. I have tried my best to explain to him what had transpired between us." She gave him a small shaky smile. "Feel free to blame this on me, sir."

"Oh." There was nothing more to say, he had his answer. "Well, then." But he could not bear to leave her, just yet. Then, before he could really understand what he was doing, and certainly before he could stop himself, Darcy took a step forward, so that they were now standing much closer to each other.

"No good-bye kiss, then, Mrs. Darcy?" he asked hoarsely.

Elizabeth blanched and froze, eyes flying wide; for a moment, she appeared to waver, all manner of conflicting emotion written upon her countenance. Then, she whispered:

"But it is not your birthday..."

No words to describe how low he felt just then: provoked, lost, hurt that she chose this moment to joke about it... robbed of all breath, he took a step back-and was arrested on the spot when she rushed after him, planted her hands against his chest and kissed him, quickly, on the mouth, straining all the while to reach his lips. Feeling the trembling of her mouth against his, Darcy melted into the kiss; but even as he moved to take her in his arms, she had already wrenched herself away from him with an agonized cry and fled the room.

All of a sudden, his knees would no longer keep him upright, and he sank blindly against the doorframe. His heart pounded violently in his breast, the noise of it robbing him of all ability to fashion a coherent thought. He felt overtaken, ambushed, overwhelmed by Elizabeth-what did she mean by that, kissing him like that and running away? He had already forgotten it had been his own preposterous idea that she should kiss him... His feelings, his mind in terrible turmoil, he sat down on a sofa and waited, and waited for her to come back. But she did not, and soon enough, he knew enough to despair. Her answer to his inquiry was clear enough, that last, frantic kiss notwithstanding. He knew, then, that it was compleatly improper that he should remain there-heavily, he rose and quitted the Gardiners' residence, having taken his things from a silent servant at the door.

Chapter 24 - part 2

Later that day, Elizabeth lay, prostrate, upon her bed. Her Aunt tiptoed in, with the salts, but could do nothing beyond stroking her shaking shoulders as she wept. Her anger at Darcy equaled only the desire that he should come back to her. She loved him; she was now sure of that-at the thought that she might never see him again (though her good sense argued that it was still rather unlikely), all light grew dark in her eyes. But oh, wait, her conscience spoke: she could not possibly take him back unless he explained himself! Desperately unhappy and torn inside, she cried until there were no more tears-and then, descending into a blackest mood, she spent the rest of the day in her room, and was only disturbed from her glum by Mrs. Gardiner announced there was a visitor there to see her.

Her aunt sounded somewhat surprised, and Elizabeth's heart squeezed. Could it be? Has he come? She sat up on the bed, her fingers working frantically to fix her hair, to smooth down the wrinkled dress. She walked as quickly as she could downstairs; but her surprise was great when she recognized the visitor to be none other than Mary.

The girl, dressed in her street clothes, looking as if she was moving or going on a journey, stood in the middle of Mrs. Gardiner's drawing-room, her shabby little trunk at her feet. Elizabeth bit her lip, stifling the crushing disappointment.

"Why, Mary, how good to see you," she said with all the warmth she could muster. The girl dropped a polite curtsey and broke into a delighted grin.

"Oh Miss Elizabeth, 'tis good to see you, too," she admitted. Catching Elizabeth's uncertain glance at her trunk, Mary explained hurriedly:

"The man outside ma'am, he wanted to take it from me, but I didn't give it to him, Tin the event that you might not want me to stay..."

"To stay?" Elizabeth repeated, dumbfounded.

"As your lady's maid, Miss Elizabeth. The Master has told me you might still have need of me."

"Why, Mary-" Elizabeth felt a thrill, thinking that he cared enough to think of things like that. "I am not certain that I can afford you now... you see, my circumstances have changed..."

It was hardly true, if she thought of it, she would admit that indeed, she could afford Mary's services; but somehow, keeping a personal lady's maid as talented as Mary seemed a thing that Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy might do... but not an estranged wife, living apart from her husband, living in Cheapside, of all places. She had to accustom herself to a simpler life than she had led as Mrs. Darcy; she had to start thinking of herself as her Uncle's niece, rather than her husband's wife... It would be far more fitting for her to simply share a maid with her aunt ...

"Don't you worry on it, ma'am," Mary assured her, still beaming. "Master's paid my wages for the year ahead, so that you don't have to worry on nothin' like that."

Elizabeth blinked back sudden tears, her mind in terrible turmoil. She was vexed and gratified and deeply confused. Why would he do something like that? He could not be sure that the girl would uphold such a bargain... what if she had reneged and simply disappeared with his money? But how generous it was of him to do that-how very kind...

"Master took my word, Miss, that I should not run off but come here and offer my services and ask if you want me."

"And if I refuse?"

"Then he said I was free to go and find myself another employment, Miss. He said you would likely give me a character."

"Of course I should..." Elizabeth sighed. This act of generosity on his part baffled her-and then again, she could expect nothing less of him. For he was nothing if not generous, even at his worst. "But do come in-" She sighed again. "I am glad you here, Mary. Look at my hair, it looks a fright-my aunt's girl knows nothing about hair..."

"I daresay, Miss, it could use some work." Mary grinned again, dropped a curtsey again and took off her bonnet. "Oh Miss Elizabeth, I am ever so glad to see you again!"

Mary's arrival brought a flurry of activity, for with her, came all of Elizabeth's things. She had not realized how many possessions she had; and she was slightly sheepish to have all of it carted in before her bewildered Aunt and cousins. But thinking on that, and on how to accommodate all that in her new, rather cramped, room, kept her from dwelling on other things; and it was only late at night, when she was already in bed and Mary about to leave her room for the maids' quarters upstairs, that Elizabeth remembered that the slight shadow at the back of her mind was, indeed, a greater unhappiness. Tears flowed once again, and she hid her face in the pillow quickly-but not quickly enough, for Mary noticed it and was at her side instantly.

"Oh, Miss!" The girl dropped to her knees at the side of the bed. "My poor Miss Elizabeth," she murmured, and stroked her Mistress' shoulders in the same maternal gesture that Mrs. Gardiner had employed earlier.

Suddenly, Elizabeth was so glad to have Mary near her-the officious, interfering, indiscreet Mary-that she turned towards her and asked, without any pretense of reserve:

"Tell me, Mary, has he gone?"

Mary watched her for a mere second, then nodded, lips pursed tightly. "Today, Miss."

Elizabeth gave a stifled sob. "Has he-has he said anything ... at all?"

"Only that I should present myself to you, soon as may be."

"Oh." Elizabeth narrowly avoided asking the maid whether Darcy looked at all distressed as he left London. "Oh. Well." A sniff. "Go to bed, then, Mary. I fear tomorrow you will have my Aunt and two cousins to coif in addition to me... "

"Very good, Miss." Mary hesitated, then squeezed Elizabeth's shoulder once, and was gone, leaving her Mistress quite alone and every inch a heartbroken woman.

~ * ~

On the way to Pemberley, Darcy's carriage stalled in a bank of freshly fallen snow. Darcy, driven quite mad by idleness by the eleventh hour of his journey, took heartily to the idea of hopping out of the carriage to help push it out of the snow. Cassidy, riding with him, did not think the idea so capital and implored his Master to get back in the carriage under the pain of a dangerous and protracted cold. Yet Darcy ignored him and toiled with his men, intent on tiring himself enough where he could sleep...where he would no longer think of Elizabeth. Of his Father he thought but little, having acquired a general devil-may-care attitude about what the old man would have to say about all this...

Finally, with the help of a farmer and his two sons passing by, they managed to get the carriage out of the snow bank. Darcy's boots were compleatly wet from the snow; he could feel a sheen of perspiration, cooling rapidly on his back and neck-perhaps Cassidy was right, perhaps he would earn himself a pretty cold standing about like this...He paid the kindly passerbys handsomely and climbed back in the carriage. Cassidy, looking quite despaired, urged him to pull off his sodden boots and covered him with as many blankets as there were. Darcy thought to argue, for he was feeling quite hot... but he had accomplished precisely what he desired, having exhausted himself to a point where he could no longer speak. Gratefully, he sank into sleep and did not wake all the way until Pemberley.

The door of the carriage opened, revealing, standing upon the house steps, Mrs. Reynolds and the butler. Darcy had imagined the reaction of the household when he returned-without Elizabeth-and he found the results less than appealing.. Now, there was no further time to think, or imagine-here he was, home. Darcy quickly pulled on his boots (much worse for wear after his little excursion earlier), and hopped out of the carriage, his feet skidding on the snow.

"Reynolds," he said, leaned and kissed the old woman on the cheek. She felt small, her shoulders narrow and fragile under his hands, and the expression on her face when he pulled away was... stricken. Ah, so Elizabeth's letter must have preceded him, indeed. Darcy sighed. "Good to be home," he said lamely, backing away, and went up the steps.

Behind him, he heard a heavy thud of his trunk hitting the ground and Mrs. Reynolds haranguing the footman for dropping it. He did not turn around.

"Will!"

Georgiana flung herself into his arms; he had not expected such an assault and rocked a moment on his heels, struggling for balance. How absurd, to think that she had grown in the past month, and yet, she seemed bigger, lankier than when he had left... Older, too. Darcy sighed again and locked his arms about his sister. Dear Georgie, he thought, kissing her cheek.

The girl pulled away from him, eyes bright with expectation. "Where is Elizabeth?"

Clearly, not everyone had been made aware of the contents of Elizabeth's letter. Darcy pulled Georgiana closer, dropped a kiss on top of her head. "Georgie. Elizabeth is- she is back in town."

Looking up in his face, still not understanding, the girl smiled expectantly. "But will she be all right-riding in a carriage in all this snow, all alone?"

"Georgie." Darcy swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "She is-she is not coming."

Oh dear, he thought, watching as her face changed from hope to incredulity to hurt. What a rotten beginning. "I do not understand," she said slowly. "Whatever do you mean, brother?"

"She is going to be- she is to stay in London now, with her Uncle's family." He tried to speak lightly, in a voice that belied the mind-numbing misery that had consumed him for the past three days. "She... wanted it so, Georgie."

"Oh," Georgiana said. Wrenching her shoulders out of his grip, she stepped back. "I see."

"No, darling, you do not see," he said quickly, stepping after her. "Georgie, you must understand. We have quarreled-Elizabeth and I have quarreled. Husbands and wives often do. 'Tis nothing to do with you!"

But she had already waved him off, and was gone, running, down the hall. Capital, Darcy thought, looking on as her long white skirts disappeared around the corner. Simply capital-yet another female furious at him; what had he done to deserve this? Well, no point delaying it. His father next.

His father, who, glaring at him, held out Elizabeth's letter to him in lieu of a greeting.

"And good evening to you, too, sir," Darcy said mildly and bowed. However much he wanted to, he did not take the letter, keeping his hands locked behind his back-but he could not keep his heart from giving a pitiful lurch at the sight of her handwriting, so familiar to him now, bold rounded letters, quick impatient strokes of her pen.

"Have you an explanation for me?"

Darcy shook his head. "I suspect my wife's letter is self-explanatory, sir."

"It certainly tells me of your behavior towards George Wickham." Mr. Darcy folded the letter and set it upon a small table next to his chair. "Shameful wicked behavior, if you ask me."

Darcy could say nothing in his own defense and simply hung his head, studying the pattern upon the rug. The room was very hot, a comfortable warm glow coming from the fireplace. He realized, then, how dreadfully cold he was, his fingers icy and stiff; he unbent them, surreptitiously, wishing he were nearer to the fire. He hoped they had prepared his room beforehand; he longed for a hot bath, a warm bed and the oblivion of sleep. Sleep, he had slept in the carriage-why was he so tired now? Good god, he thought, it felt like he had not been home this age...

"So?" Mr. Darcy inquired testily. "What do you intend to do?"

Darcy looked up at his father, who was frowning at him from his massive chair. "Sleep," he said coldly. "I am dead on my feet tonight."

"I meant about your wife, boy!"

"Nothing." Darcy scowled at the persistent pain in his temples. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to disabuse his Father about what a good suit Elizabeth was to him. "She does not wish to live with me, and I shall be damned, Father, if I force her to it."

"Just like that?"

"Yes, sir. Just like that. She is asking questions of me I cannot answer. Questions I have not answered even to you."

"Come, son," Mr. Darcy said roughly, "I should have thought you've let go of that old Wickham business ages ago. What I did then-it still does not answer well with me, Will, but I believed you when you told me you two had quarreled irreparably. Still, I cannot blame Elizabeth if she does not accept this explanation with an equal degree of meekness."

Darcy was just about falling off his feet; but he would also rather finish this conversation now, tonight. He spoke in an even, unhurried manner: "Sir, this matter is old and private, and I shall not bare it to her. She demands an answer, but I find that I am entitled to my privacy and my secrets, like any other person. I can do nothing to command her trust if she has chosen to place it in Wickham rather than me."

"So she has, and can you blame her?" Mr. Darcy asked sharply. "He has given her an explanation at least, you-only orders. She is not the kind of woman to accept orders, of all things..."

Darcy gritted his teeth, afraid of losing his composure, loathe to remind his father that this very business, this marriage of theirs that had tried them so, that it was all his fault... "Good Lord, sir, of course I can blame her! She knows me enough to think better of me, and yet she chose to believe him."

"Indubitably your behavior has frightened her, Will. Candor on your part would go a long way to win her back. Just look what wonders it has done for George."

"Wickham is not candid, he only appears so."

"If you say so." Mr. Darcy shrugged. "You remember our agreement." He did, indeed; neither of them would speak of George Wickham to each other-his Father would say no good thing of him, and Darcy would say none that was bad. Right now, he nodded and went on:

"I cannot give Elizabeth what she wants, Father. She is furious with me, and I, regrettably, can tell her nothing that would ease her anger. She has quit my house and went to her Uncle's. I shall leave her there until she deigns to return."

Mr. Darcy's grizzled eyebrows shot up in surprise. "And what if she never does? Will you live apart from her?"

Darcy shrugged, his patience now threadbare. "I do not know, sir. Perhaps. I simply cannot say right now." He looked up at his father, his expression, he hoped, adding plainly what he would never say aloud: I do not know, and you would just have to live with it. Mr. Darcy did not fail to understand his son.

"I see," he said shortly. "Well. You have made me very unhappy, Will."

Darcy cut his father a stiff bow. "I have made myself very unhappy, sir," he said quietly, before turning and quitting the room.

That night, he was seized by the worst fever he had ever suffered. Cassidy had been correct, of course; he had frozen himself through and through in that snow bank, and was now very ill. Dimly, he recalled seeing the doctor lean over his bed, touching his forehead, putting an ear to his chest, then shaking his head gravely; Georgiana's voice, clamoring to be let in, and then Mrs. Reynolds' loud whispers, urging the girl away from him. In his moments of lucidity, as they forced a bolus after noxious bolus through his teeth, he hoped for oblivion; but the oblivion, he found, was the worst of all. For, as he shuddered and moaned and went from freezing cold to heat that melted all bones in his body, he could not shake off the knowledge that waking, he would not find Elizabeth by his side.

He mended slowly, wondering, as he grew better, whether they had written to Elizabeth that he was ill. But of course they had not-he remembered, during one of his more lucid episodes, grasping Mrs. Reynolds' arm and telling her, in a voice that appeared both urgent and monumental, that Mrs. Darcy must not know... In any case, he preferred that it should be so. He simply could not bear it if she had known he was ill, and had not come to see him. Selfish of him, of course, but he could not help it.

One good thing did come of it all: Georgiana, who had first blamed him for Elizabeth's estrangement, forgave him with all possible dispatch after his illness. As soon as he was able to stand-far too soon, if he listened to Mrs. Reynolds and Cassidy-he assumed his summer schedule: rising before the cock's first crow, going out with Mr. Hawthorne, looking over the needs of the tenants and the estate. But he missed so very much coming back to her. The knowledge that, upon coming home, he would not find Elizabeth in her favorite window-seat, was a constant bleeding abrasion inside, a source of pain and anger.

A squire's punishing schedule should have ensured that he slept the sleep of the dead; but, quite the opposite, he would spend a good part of every night twisting and turning in his sheets, his mind restless and filled with recrimination, against himself and others, then, finally, rising to go and sit in front of the dying fire. In those long hours, he thought often of Bennet, and whether he should warn him against Wickham; but he dismissed the idea as pure lunacy. He had not shared this with him when they were friends. What were they now, who could say? How could he tell him ...that? During those maudlin hours, Darcy convinced himself that Bennet was no fourteen-year-old boy, that he could take good care of himself, that he could... sleep often claimed him at this point.

Darcy hated winter, with the active hours cut to naught and the time for thinking now stretching forever. A man in love, and one whose sentiment is requited, might desire winter's coming-for he had thoughts of his beloved, or perhaps her company, to occupy him during the long hours of the night. Sometimes, in his most private moments, he imagined what it would be like to have Elizabeth with him during this time...

Nobody dared to ask him any questions, of course. But he thought he heard them whisper behind his back. Lost the Mistress in London, did he, he thought he heard someone say. Or perhaps he imagined it all. He hated the thought of it, and the suspicious doubts raised in him mind. Before, ten years back, it had been like this-he had thought, then, that the entire world knew what had happened.

His father informed him, in December, that it was Elizabeth's birthday, and that he and Georgiana were sending her birthday wishes and gifts. Darcy only shrugged.

"I doubt that Mrs. Darcy desires gifts from me," he said shortly, his thoughts flying instantly, unbidden, to the memory of his own birthday and how wonderful she had made it. His father sighed and shook his head, but said nothing.

During these days, he made an unexpected friend and companion-Elizabeth's willful ginger cat. He was convinced, at first, that she would want the animal back. One sleepless night at the library, only him and his brandy snifter in front of a dying fireplace, he felt something brush against his knees. Jerked out of his unhappy reverie, Darcy peered into the dusk, only to hear a plaintive meow and to see a pair of emerald-green eyes glow at him.

"Good god," he murmured-whispered, really, though there was none there to hear him. "Aren't you a fearsome familiar..."

As if to acknowledge that fact, Cat jumped upon the arm of Darcy's chair, then walked around the back of it to make himself comfortable around his shoulders.

"You have uncommon nerve, I grant you that," Darcy said. The cat felt...good, a warm furry reassurance, all better than the awful loneliness of this night. He lifted his hand tentatively and stroked the beast between his ears. A contented loud purr was his answer.

"Miss her, old man, do you not." He reached up, picked Cat carefully up and moved him to his lap. "There, that is better."

So he was talking to a cat. Nothing too strange about that. He had never held them uncommonly intelligent animals, unlike dogs; but this one had been Elizabeth's faithful companion, and Darcy remembered his wife often talking to him... He sighed and scratched the large round orange head, starting up another purr.

From that night, Cat took to following Darcy about the house and sleeping at the foot of his bed, not unlike a dog. Darcy did not know what had caused this surge of affection on the part of the animal, but he was secretly glad of it, for it lessened his solitude somewhat. He worried that Elizabeth should demand Cat back; and he was surprised when she did not-surprised, that is, until Georgiana let it slip, one morning, that she had written to her sister-in-law and had told her of Cat's unnatural attachment to Darcy. He was embarrassed, imagining that Elizabeth did not ask for the animal back because she pitied him; but, to his own surprise, no affronted impulse to return the cat arose in him-he would just as soon take advantage of her kindness and keep the beast.

But what a strange pair they made-an unhappy young man, willing his demons away all night long, and a large ginger cat at his feet.

This year, Elizabeth did not wish for Christmas. For one, she found that her thoughts flew, irrepressibly, to Pemberley-and to Darcy. She missed him horribly, more even-and that took some time and effort to acknowledge-than she missed Jamie. More, and in a different, more visceral way, often longing for the feeling of his arms around her. Thoughts of him, of where he was, of what he was doing at the moment, were driving her mad, slowly but surely. Bitter recriminations filled her every free hour-why was he so stubborn, so haughty, why did he not trust her?

Mr. Darcy's letter arrived, and she tore at it with impatient fingers, only to find that her husband had spoken the truth: the missive brought her not respite. It only spoke of what Darcy had already told her-that in his fourth year at Harrow, he had quarreled irreparably with George Wickham and had written to his father, imploring him to choose between them. I could not but believe him, Elizabeth, for his letter exuded utter gravity, and also, because nothing of this sort had happened before. Mr. Darcy wrote to her that his conscience had suffered grievously, and that he had tried to make it up to his unfortunate protégée-who, unsurprisingly, was also compleatly mum on the subject of his quarrel with Darcy.

No answers, and piqued, she did the unthinkable and tossed Mr. Darcy's letter in the fireplace. It had only mentioned Darcy in passing, telling her that he had assumed his earlier duties of Pemberley Master. Elizabeth downed her fury as she watched the letter curl and crumble in the fireplace. No answers, and she had better accustom herself to it... It was nobody's fault, she thought, standing by the frozen window-for the winter had come in earnest in the first few days of December-nobody's fault they had quarreled... Nobody's fault she had lost him...

Her birthday came and went, and she opened a parcel from Mr. Darcy, sent to her with all his and Georgiana's love and best wishes. Gifts inside, lavish things, an exquisite ruby bracelet from her father-in-law (the Gardiners were suitably awed), and several beautiful lawn handkerchiefs from Georgiana, all stitched with her initials.

But nothing from him-faith, she did not need gifts to be sure, but not even a note! She was terribly hurt by it, and chided herself for such foolishness: after all, what did she expect? She despised herself in moments like this, the terrible inconsistency in her mind, when she was irate with Darcy, all the while craving reconciliation with him, missing him, thinking of him her every waking moment.

Christmas approached inexorably, brining with it the knowledge that they would enter the new year without having mended their relationship. More and more often, it occurred to her that they may never fix this, that the fissure between them was irreparable. She reminded herself, then, that it was no great bother, that she had always wanted to be released from this marriage, was she not? That, when the time came, this separation would only make it easier for them. But the Elizabeth of old, who had insisted upon the annulment, was, these days, not the same inconsolable young woman suffering in earnest over her own husband. Her rational arguments to herself so often fell on deaf ears, she soon abandoned them altogether.

These days, Elizabeth thought a lot about her father. If he had known what mechanism he was setting in motion so many years ago, would he have done it? Was Pemberley worth it? He would never know of her suffering. It was now almost a year since his death, and Elizabeth tried her best not to impugn him for her unhappiness. Nobody's fault, she thought for the thousandth time. Nobody's fault... She thought it passing strange that now, a year after Professor's death, she should have come full circle: having tasted happiness, excitement and the deepest misery, she was, once again, alone.

But no; not alone. It was unfair of her to say that, to even think that! Her Aunt and Uncle were exceedingly kind to her, and she knew, with certainty, that she still had friends at Pemberley. And Jamie... Another letter of his reached her just before Christmas, wishing her all the love in the world. Professing his desire that Darcy should be good to her. For the first time, Elizabeth did not sit down to write an immediate answer. She simply did not know what to write.

But time has a way of dulling all pain; and soon enough, she was able to bury her troubles in Christmas cares and worries and even some small pleasures, shared with her relations. And though she still thought of Darcy constantly, and still ached after him, she no longer missed him with terrible intensity, no longer arose, weeping, from dreams of him. Sharp heartbreak weakened to constant dull pain...she knew it was better this way. Indubitably, better for everyone concerned. Less complicated, to be sure. Perhaps, if he remained at Pemberley indefinitely, and she- in Gracechurch Street, they might manage the remainder of this marriage with relatively few losses and little additional pain. It was only occasionally, when prompted by an intrusion from the outside (Georgiana's letter, imploring her to let Darcy have Cat, which was surprising and too clumsy to understand in detail, and left her crying for hours; running into Lord Gregory during her now-infrequent excursions into West End, and both of them standing frozen, a couple of fools, unable to say anything beyond a polite greeting, for he was with Miss Caroline Bingley...), that she felt fully the brunt of her unhappiness.

Otherwise, her life in Gracechurch Street soon entered a comfortable routine, where hardly anything disturbed her peace; and she convinced herself, after a while, that her heart was not broken.

Chapter 25

Mr. Parmor, the Chief Mate on the Indiaman Rose, offered Malvina his glass.

"Madras, ma'am," he said.

Malvina took the glass and looked: there it was, the familiar shoreline. Home. She peered eagerly in the glass, taking in the harbour, the distant white buildings on shore, and many vessels-several other Indiamen, a large frigate, a sloop (after this, her second, voyage between England and India, she knew her brigs from her sloops like the back of her hand), and numerous catamarans and masoolahs, scurrying in between. She sighed and returned the glass to Mr. Parmor. There had been so many stops already: Ascension, and then the Cape, and Dutch Ceylon, amongst many others. And wherever they remained for any length of time, the passengers were required to reside ashore; and however much Malvina welcomed the feel of the solid earth beneath her feet, the voyage itself seemed interminable and each new instance of delay-intolerable. But now, now-now she was home.

Well, almost.

"A black flag," Mr. Parmor said with a scowl. "They've hoisted a black flag on the beach."

Malvina knew precisely what this meant. At the time of booking her passage, she had been warned to wait and book for a later time-for, the Rose had been calculated to arrive in Madras during the high tides. But she could not bear waiting a day longer-and she had told Darcy that as well. He had seemed disapproving of her very idea to return to India; where and how she chose to do it was of little import to him-as was his opinion to her. She had wanted out-away from England, from tragedy, from tears. Her ancestral land had meant happiness-for a short while, and then, all had been torn away from her. Charles... She had been in a hurry to break away from it all, quite like a snake that sheds a dry and oppressive skin. Now, looking across the harbour, she thought two months' waiting might not have been such an ill idea.

But oh well.

A tall masoolah boat would take her across the harbour. She was very frightened and endeavoured not to show it; certainly not to the disapproving eyes of the fish-eyed, thin-lipped Mrs. Atchley, the other female passenger on the Rose, who traveled with her husband and no doubt thought Malvina too forward for traveling alone. Mr. Parmor proposed to accompany her, and told her, smiling, that she was very brave.

"Thank you," Malvina said nervously, holding on to her hat as they fastened her into the bosun's chair. "You are too kind." He tipped his hat at her and went nimbly over the side, even as they hoisted her down to the masoolah. She sat there, jaw clenched, holding down to the boat's sides, as it rocked and flew and dipped on the high waves. But she would not close her eyes, and she frowned and glared at the little half-naked Indian man who dared to grin at her impertinently.

"Mrs. Bingley, are you all right?" Mr. Parmor asked her; at that precise moment, a wave poured over the stern, dousing everyone in the boat. Malvina could not contain a terrified shriek, and she heard Mr. Parmor curse through his teeth; but their Indian rowers only laughed the movement of their oars unceasing upon the waves.

They landed not a minute too soon, and she stumbled out of the masoolah upon Mr. Parmor's arm. She had worn a boat-cloak, and even so, her mourning gown was sopping-wet. Her hat was ruined, hanging about her face in wet folds. She clenched her teeth and told herself that it was almost over. She was home.

Home. She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer. A five-month voyage, during the typhoon season, and now it had come to an end. Well, she thought, almost to an end. Now, only a short drive to the fort...

"Mrs. Bingley!"

She started, realizing that Mr. Parmor had been asking her something all this time.

"Pardon me," she said thickly. "I was-I was overcome a bit. I am all right now."

"Shall I take you to the Fort?"

She nodded and managed a smile. Her things were on the dock at her feet, a few pathetic bundles, worse for the wear after five months at sea. Her belongings had suffered, of course, a fine leather case eaten through by rats and another one lost during their sojourn on Ascension. But this seemed a small bother now. She was counting minutes until she was in her Father's arms again.

"Gone?! "

Malvina peered at Mr. Engle, the Company man, telling her that the 19th Light had moved to Mysore nearly six months ago. That her Father was not at Fort St. George in Madras, but at a place she had never heard of, a Fort St. John, somewhere almost in Mysore. Mr. Engle, a short, stubby creature, was sweating profusely in the heat, mopping his bald head with a handkerchief that had seen better days.

"Not to worry, madam," he said, while looking exactly as one did when one did worry. "The Colonel wrote to us a week ago, asking us to notify him the moment you arrived, and he would send a man for you... You see, in this season, he could not tell exactly when you would arrive, and it would have been impracticable to have one of his officers waiting here...I shall write to him forthwith, and shall inform him... in the meantime, we shall afford you every comfort."

Stifling her disappointment, she thanked Mr. Parmor for taking her ashore. The young man smiled warmly at her and said:

"May I call on you, if I go ashore again?"

"As long as I am in Madras, I shall be glad of your company."

He bowed politely over her hand, refused any refreshments proffered by Mr. Engle, and stalked away. Malvina drew the sopping hat off her head, gave it, without looking, to a very young Indian servant girl.

"Please take care to write to my father, sir," she said to Mr. Engle.

So she was not home just yet. She gritted her teeth. Soon enough, she thought. Soon enough.

She tried to temper herself and descend with dignity; but her excitement spurred her on, and she came down the stairs in a near run, her clothes flowing about her as she moved: her shalwar pantaloons, midnight-blue, almost black, a long tunic of the same hue, and a matching hooded cloak over them. Her shoes were Western and sensible, fit for travel, but they skidded on the marble floor, making her lose her balance. She fell forward, then, and almost into the arms of the man waiting in Mr. Engle's parlour. The stranger, clad in a dragoon's blue-and-yellow uniform, dropped the hideous helmet he was holding under one arm, even as he reached out to grasp at her shoulders. Malvina glimpsed his countenance-the look of startlement written upon it; but he recovered quickly.

"Ma'am." He set her carefully upright and cut her a sharp bow.

Mr. Engle, coming through the doors just then, appeared displeased that Malvina had anticipated him.

"I have only just sent for you," he murmured, yet so quietly, she was not certain it was even meant for her ears. But no matter: she was so happy to see her father's man here. That he was her father's man-of that, she had no doubt, for the dragoon's uniform he wore was dearly familiar to her. She grinned at him sheepishly, unable to contain her glee. She was going home! To her father!

Mr. Engle, coming to his senses, cleared his throat.

"Allow me to introduce you, ma'am, Captain James Bennet from your estimable Father's regiment. Mrs. Bingley."

Malvina curtsied, and a bemused smile curved his lips. Belatedly, she realized how odd she must look, curtsying in native clothing.

"When can we leave?" The young Captain looked a little nonplussed, and she realized he must not have counted upon leaving straight away. She felt sheepish, as indubitably, her escorts would need a night's rest; but it was no use hiding her impatience. As it was, the fortnight she had spent in Mr. Engle's house had been intolerable-not for any fault of her host, but for her own exhaustion with traveling. Even Mr. Parmor's polite company the two times he had come ashore during this time was only barely bearable. She longed to be home, after all, and was now feeling cheated at having not found the Colonel in Madras. The sooner they get on the road, the sooner she would see him, Malvina thought, tucking a strand of hair away absent-mindedly.

"Would tomorrow at dawn be agreeable to you, ma'am?" Captain Bennet spoke gravely, but she thought she caught a hint of a smile about his eyes.

"Yes," she said, relieved that he evidenced no desire to stay longer.

"I shall arrange for a palki for you, ma'am," Mr. Engle interjected.

"A palki!" Malvina exclaimed, unable to help herself. The thought of a good week, or longer, in a dusty, stuffy litter, swaying, and swaying, and swaying... She almost felt ill. "Oh no, sir, you had better get me a horse!"

Mr. Engle was scandalized and did not pretend to hide it. He used what he considered to be his most persuasive arguments: from those of propriety to those of safety-hers and the men accompanying her. Because the subject naturally involved some delicacy, he had to skirt it, and Malvina finally lost all her patience with him:

"Out with it, Mr. Engle, tell me what you mean!" she said sharply.

Mr. Engle looked deeply insulted.

"I think, my dear madam, that by exposing yourself in such an ...open manner, you are endangering not only yourself, but also the fine officers assigned to you!"

Malvina, now abashed and hesitating, wondered whether he was correct about this. It would not have occurred to her to travel long distances on horseback in England; but she had found the Indian society a lot more permissive, and had made short trips in the saddle as a girl. But perhaps her memory of what was allowed had been skewed? Perhaps her childhood freedom had been an illusion?

"Pardon my intrusion, ma'am." She looked up quickly, to see Captain Bennet smile at her. He really was very young, she realized, beneath a captain's regimentals and all the dust. Dust, which had settled in the creases of his clothes, and in the tiny wrinkles outside of his eyes. Laugh wrinkles, she thought...but he was young. "I do not believe that there is particular danger to you, with us around, and certainly not to my men." He grinned broadly, the smile erasing years from his countenance, turning him disarmingly boyish. "Certainly we are well enough regarded in this part of the country to have earned safe passage?"

"And your things?" Mr. Engle asked disagreeably.

"I shall take with me whatever will feet in my saddlebags," Malvina replied, encouraged, and gave Captain Bennet a grateful smile. "You will oblige me by sending the rest of my things after me."

Mr. Engle, displeased ever more with every passing minute, was obliged to excuse himself.

"Will you not sit down?" Malvina asked. She felt awkward, suddenly, in this man's presence. He bowed to her again before placing himself in a chair. Taking the edge of the sofa across from him, she studied him furtively, thinking about why his name had seemed so familiar.

"Please allow me to offer you my condolences," he said suddenly. "I knew Mr. Bingley at school."

"Thank you," she whispered. Any mention of Charles' name still left her breathless with pain. Then, suddenly, she remembered how she knew this man. The duel. Charles had been a second in but one such fight, and it had affected dreadfully his sensitive person. His principal, Mr. Darcy, had been injured-something he very nearly thought to be his fault-and his adversary forced to take up a commission as far as India (to her, taking up a post in India had not seemed like such a terrible fate; but Charles seemed to think it vile to be cast so far away from home). And here he was, she thought, the adversary. Charles had seemed so affected by the story, it had acquired a dreamlike quality in her mind, as if it had not really happened. It was decidedly odd to see him now, this man, so real, with the white Indian dust in the creases of his dragoon's regimentals.

And then, she thought, hadn't Charles said something about-she forced herself back, trying to remember-about- The memory, fleeting, slipped away from her.

"My husband spoke of you," she said, and then, with absolute sincerity: "I am glad to meet you at last. Now tell me, Captain Bennet, how does my father?"

For the next half an hour, as a maidservant brought in glasses of sherbet, they spoke of her father, and of the unrest in Mysore that had prompted the garrison to move out of Madras.

Malvina fretted about the danger of it, and was discomfited a little by the Captain's smile.

"If you had seen the fort at St. John, ma'am, you would not worry so. It really is impenetrable, cut into steep rock face, with walls taller and thicker than any I have seen, and a maze of escape routes."

"Indeed," she said, not quite reassured. She supposed it was some comfort that if she had to hide, at least the walls around her would be thick, and she might have an escape route. Now she thought remembered hearing of the Fort as a girl.

"The Company bought it, a hundred years past, from a raja who was so rich, and so very much afraid of being robbed, that he had surrounded himself with the grandest fortifications one could build."

Dismal comfort, she thought, to be living in another's prison. But so happy she was to return, she would not mind the Black Hole of Calcutta itself! Anything, anything was preferable to not being here. England was ... England was loss, death, defeat of all her hopes. Just now, she did not want to think of ever returning there.

They talked of her tedious and exhausting journey and the people back in England, and then Captain Bennet said:

"Perhaps you have heard-my sister Elizabeth has lately married Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy."

Malvina remembered then, the second part of what Charles had told her about Darcy's falling-out with Captain Bennet: damned unfortunate business, my pet, all I know that it has something to do with an old wager, and that nobody wanted them married except Bennet's father, but Darcy turns into a beast when asked about it-

"I-did not know about this," she said diplomatically. She hesitated before offering her congratulations, as he appeared, at best, puzzled by the news. Yet not to do so would appear odd and almost offensive, and she said: "My felicitations to you, I hope they may be happily married."

But he only frowned at her, hesitated himself and then said with unexpected bluntness: "I had hoped to prevent this marriage. My late father-"

But before he could utter the indiscretion that this would indubitably involve, they were interrupted by the return of the winded, unhappy Mr. Engle-with the news that he had procured Malvina a horse.

"Why, thank you, Mr. Engle," Malvina said blithely. She thought she heard Mr. Engle murmur something which would be scandalous to say aloud; but she chose to ignore it.

Captain Bennet did not finish the thought about his father; and in another five minutes, he took leave of her, telling her he was to join his men for supper.

"Be ready at dawn tomorrow, ma'am," he instructed her before bowing over her hand and then striding out of the room. Malvina, dizzy with relief and impatience, abandoned Mr. Engle without any further pretence, and ran up the stairs as quickly as propriety allowed her. She had to decide, now, what it was she absolutely needed in her saddlebag, and what could follow her later.

She was absolutely happy with the limited happiness of a single thing going right amidst a personal disaster. Home, she thought, as she disappeared inside her chamber, home, home, home. She was going home.

The next morning, she was up before dawn, coming down to breakfast dressed in her traveling Indian clothes. She was amazed to see the Captain already there, breakfasting with Mr. Engle.

"You are up early," she noted.

"I find that I sleep very ill in Madras," he said seriously. The dust was gone from him, lessening the tiredness in his looks; he appeared to be very young now. "And I should not make you wait."

"Nor I you," Malvina said.

Ignoring her host's repeated protestations that he did not feel easy to have her set out on horseback, she asked:

"Shall we set out immediately after breakfast? I confess I am eager to depart!"

They met the Captain's in a square outside the Fort; less than an hour later, a small cavalcade of ten riders maneuvered through Madras streets, teeming with cattle, traffic of litters, carts and elephants, and every manner of people, and soon quit the city altogether, setting out West.

Malvina liked being on a horse. The reluctant Mr. Engle had procured her a good bay, a large and peaceful animal by the name of Ishmael. She liked sitting high aloft, liked observing the countryside from her perch, seeing far and feeling the wind as she rode. Her clothes were eminently suitable for traveling: made of thinnest cotton, her long shalwar pantaloons and the free-flowing tunic held an advantage over Western garb in comfort, allowing her to sit astride her mount. Captain Bennet appeared at first to be scandalized by her dress, but it was to the advantage of all, for she was able to ride faster this way, and he said not a word about it. Malvina liked the man for being such a sporting fellow and, if he felt any unease at the sight of her as she was, for contriving to recover from it with all possible speed.

That first night, they stopped in a small village. The local tavern was by necessity unspeakable, but sleeping outside was dangerous, for there were snakes in the grass. In the room given to her, Malvina pushed what passed for bedding off the low cot. She would rather sleep wrapped in her cloak; luckily, she did not have to, as she had a blanket in her bag. It would have to suffice. Adventure, she thought, grinning in the darkness, but the grin was half-hearted even to herself. More adventure... For the first time that day, she felt the fatigue of the day's journey, and the ache in her thighs from sitting astride upon a horse. She regarded her meager bed and considered simply falling down; but she was hungry yet, and in the next moment, there was a knock. Not, she thought, at the door, for there was no door, but merely a gaudy cotton curtain in the empty doorway, but at the wall outside what would have been the door.

"Come in," she said. The Captain ducked his head as he entered, and she noticed that either the doorway was ridiculously low, or that the man was rather tall, even without his bear helmet.

"Madam. I am very sorry for these accommodations," he said gravely, throwing a rueful look about.

"Are yours any better?" Malvina cocked an eyebrow at him.

"No, but-"

"Then there is nothing to talk about. I am certain we have done as well as was possible."

She could see him smile at her in the dim room; outside the evening was rolling over the village, and she could hear, from afar, women's voices and laughter, and a sound of a very large animal, a buffalo or even an elephant, she thought, as it was led to water. From a small copse behind the village, even farther a-field, Malvina could hear the distant noises of the waking night-time wood.

"Is there food?" she asked, indelicately, and the Captain laughed.

"Of course. I have just come in to ask you to join us. It is simple fare, and we cook... ourselves."

Malvina, like most of the English, mistrusted and feared native food and its cooks, preferring the English fare, simple as it was. To die of dysentery or cholera was never a pretty prospect, and neither was it ever too far away in India. She joined the men gladly.

The fare was simple, indeed: salted meat of unknown origin, boiled rice and tea. Quiet, too; it appeared the gallantry had quite gone out of the officers. Malvina realized that they were uncertain of how to conduct themselves around her-not only a lady, but their commanding officer's daughter. And, she thought, a widow. She was not wearing her reeds, but they knew-she was certain they had to know-why she had come back to India. Yet, the quiet suited her; for she was so very tired, and also awed, just a little bit, at how long a journey she had just accomplished. Only now, having quit Madras for the countryside, did she fully feel the change in her situation.

She retired almost immediately after the meal, after sneaking behind the tavern to relieve herself. In her room, still cringing from the filthiness of the latrine, she pulled off her boots, wrapped herself in a blanket on her cot, and was asleep instantly.

They had ridden for hours between rice paddies and small copses of trees here and there. Malvina saw two elephants with their weights outside a rice field, and a loaded camel near a village. Her mind processed all this, slowly, but her heart marveled: she had not thought to be in India again so soon. Charles had evidenced no desire to come here, wary of the native diseases. What irony, Malvina thought, that it was not an exotic tropical fever that had felled him, but a simple English cold... She drew her hand against her brow, wiping away a memory.

She watched her companions, their ranks clear to her from their insignia, for she knew the Army well. Aside from the Captain, there was a very young lieutenant, so young that his lieutenancy had almost certainly been a bought commission; his name was Mr. Cranford and he was patently afraid of her-though God knew why. Two ensigns, a Mr. Pitt and a Mr. James; a corporal and three soldiers, who had taken turns to stand watch by her door the night before.

Having traveled since dawn, they stopped once during the day, to water the horses in one of the small villages lost between endless rice paddies. While the men waited, patient with their beasts, she wandered off towards a small temple not far away.

The temple, built of white stone, was covered with crawling vegetation that seemed to spring everywhere outside of a rice paddy. Malvina crossed a small verandah and a smaller outer sanctum, and entered the inner sanctuary. It was half-dark inside, and she could see the half-bright streams of light pierce the gloom in straight, even rays, currents of golden dust floating.

Eyes shut, Malvina breathed in the fragrant, spiced air of the temple. She had not come to one of these since she was twelve. Her ayah had died, and she had stopped coming. Malvina sighed. Her parents had not been pleased with her going to Hindu temples, but she had spoken so animatedly about the colorful deities, that they had detected nothing in her devotion but a child's attraction to something bright and happy. But after her ayah's death... They must have been right, she thought...a grown woman now, she could hardly remember most of the gods, and what each one of them represented.

Awkwardly, as she had not done this in many years, Malvina touched her folded hands to her forehead in a gesture of obeisance, then looked up at the statues before her. There was a male god there, Ganesh, with his four arms and his kindly elephantine face; a blue god with long matted hair and a cobra around his neck, and then, she saw, a devi-a goddess. The three looked strangely like a family, Malvina thought, before remembering who they were. The Hindu Holy Family, she thought with a wicked grin. Lord Shiva, and his consort Parvati, and their son-the elephant-headed Ganesh. She touched her forehead again, stirred by the memory of her ayah doing the same many years ago.

Memories were strange things, fluttering up from nowhere like flocks of bright butterflies. She remembered how her ayah, who herself was half-English and had spoken Malvina's language, had told her how much Shiva loved his wife Parvati, and how all the wives everywhere always prayed to the goddess for their husbands' well-being.

"One day, so will you," her ayah had told her, and Malvina remembered wrinkling her nose and telling the old woman-who, come to think of it, was not all that old then-that she would not, because she did not want a husband.

Maudlin, quizzical thoughts intruded: well, here you are, without a husband. The goddess looked down at her with a sweet expression upon her bronze face, as if to say that it was never too late, and that she could still help. Sighing, Malvina picked up a small handbell that lay at Parvati's feet and rang it quickly, calling the goddess' attention. Terribly self-conscious-for this was not hers, and if she were found, she would be thought strange by locals as well as the officers-she set the handbell down and closed her eyes.

"Make him well, my lady," she murmured. "Make Charlie well, wherever he is."

She turned to go, then, and almost walked into Captain Bennet. He held out his arm, catching her before she collided with him.

"You have been watching me!" she accused him, before stopping to think that she had not done anything for which to excuse herself.

"I have been," he admitted. "I have not known that you are a devotee of the Hindu faith," he said. His eyes were upon her face, curious, but there was no mockery in them.

"I am not," Malvina admitted reluctantly. "I have not seen the inside of a temple this age. Come to think of it," she added with a sudden grin, "I have not seen the inside of a church this age, either."

Not since Charles' funeral, a voice specified inside, but she would not say it aloud. She still could not say those two words-Charles and funeral-in one sentence. But it was true: after her husband's death, she had wanted nothing to do with religion of any kind, and had made a genuine effort to cast God from her thoughts. They had told her that Charles was in heaven; but it was meaningful to her, for he was not near.

"What a heathen you are," he said, smiling, and offered her his arm, which she took, embarrassed for her earlier outburst. He looked around, pensively. "I do like their temples-colorful like carnival tents."

Malvina grinned and threw her head back to observe the paintings and carvings on the walls of the temple. "For sure, they are far more entertaining than ours!" she said.

"And the division of labor is an excellent innovation in religion." He pointed at the majestic Shiva. "What does this gentleman here do?"

Malvina told him all she remembered about Shiva the Destroyer and could not resist telling him about Parvati.

"She protects husbands," she said.

"Does she now," the Captain said thoughtfully. "What a useful goddess. Do you see what I mean, madam, it is much preferable to have each of these gods busy with his own tasks. I daresay we give Old Yahweh far too much to do. Is it any surprise that sometimes he does such a poor job?"

Malvina gaped at him in mock horror, but she wanted to laugh. "And to think only, you are calling me a heathen!"

Later that night, she sat next to the campfire. This time, darkness had come before they could find a suitable-even somewhat suitable-place to rest. Malvina did not like the thought of sleeping on the ground, but then, she told herself, she stood just as much a chance of being bitten inside a small mud-brick house as she did outside. She sat on her blanket, wrapped in her cloak, listening to the crackle of the firewood and the chirping of some night insect.

"Mrs. Bingley."

Malvina opened her eyes to the sight of Captain Bennet standing there, a steaming mug in his hand. He towered against the firelight, and she could barely tell his features. She sat up straighter, pulling her cloak more tightly about her shoulders.

"Tea?"

Gratefully, she took the steaming mug from him and waited for him to leave and return to his men, who had gathered clear on the other side of the campfire. But he lingered long enough, and she patted the ground next to her.

"Will you not sit down, sir?"

He nodded eagerly and plopped himself on the ground at a respectful distance from her, yet apparently close enough to hear her speak without a raising of her voice.

"There is space enough," she said, pointing at the edge of her makeshift bed. But he only flashed a rascal's grin at her:

"I am not afraid of a little damp earth, ma'am."

Malvina shrugged. "Suit yourself, sir."

She waited for him to speak, sipping her tea, watching him as he grew more serious by the moment.

"Do not think me impertinent," he said softly, 'or a gossip-mongerer, but I should dearly like to know what you think of Mr. Darcy."

Malvina knew he would ask her that. She was only surprised he had waited this long. The news he had given her yesterday had startled her. Darcy, married? She did not know why she was so shocked, for she had known of Darcy's engagement to this gentleman's sister. But it was not spoken of, and certainly Darcy himself had ignored the subject so assiduously, she had accustomed herself to thinking of it as something that would never happen. And now, news of his marriage, and apparently a hasty one...

"Tell me-has he improved any? He is now my sister's husband, and though I wish dearly that it were not so, I will likely have to live with the fact."

She thought quickly about this. Perhaps the marriage had occurred some time after her departure. Her sojourn in Asencion had been overlong on the account of their captain's illness-and it would be no surprise if a mail transport came to India more quickly than a Company ship. Still, she felt it was rather ill of Darcy not to mention it, as he had called himself a friend.

But what could she tell Captain Bennet about Darcy as he was today? She thought well of him, or rather, well enough-he had been great help in the terrible days after Charles' death, and he had seemed genuinely touched by it. But when young Caroline had let it show that she was particularly attached to him, Malvina remembered thinking that the poor child had better save her affections for someone likely to return them. Her husband's friend had seemed untouchably cold, indifferent towards female sex, and sometimes even off-putting (though he was unfailingly polite to all and solicitous of her, as if it pained him that she was so young a widow). Yes, she thought well of him, and had trusted him, but she could not fathom how one could be attached to him. At the same time, there were rumours, by way of Charles' abominable other sister, Louisa, rumours that Malvina had stopped with one angry look, rumours about a woman-a French actress, or worse. She remembered seeing Darcy in a Vauxhall box in the company of Lord Gregory and a striking blonde in blue... But it was on one occasion only-shortly before she and Charles were married-and even then, Darcy looked as if he might as well be somewhere else. For all she knew, the beautiful blonde had been there with Lord Gregory.

So she said, as candid as she could be at the moment:

"So far as I know, Mr. Darcy is a gentleman of irreproachable behavior."

The Captain looked at her pointedly.

"So far as you know."

"Indeed. I shall be the first to own that my knowledge of the London society is rather imperfect. My acquaintance is limited to my husband's friends and relations, for my own childhood had passed here... Mr. Darcy was with us occasionally, but not so often as Lord Gregory, for instance. I believe, in the past years, he also traveled on the Continent a great deal."

"Did he mend things with his father?"

Malvina thought about that. She remembered Darcy's note to her last summer: Dear madam, I must beg your forgiveness, but I shall be unable to call on you tomorrow, as I have planned. I have just received news of my most estimable father's grave illness, and I must away to Pemberley, as there is not a moment to lose. She chose to see the desperation of that note as one of a grieving son rather than worried heir. Darcy had spoken rarely of his father, but always in the kindest, most deferential terms.

"I was unaware that they had anything to mend."

"Mmm." He stared, unhappily, into the darkness. "And he had never mentioned my sister?"

"Not once," she said, wondering what it all meant. "I knew of their engagement from my husband only."

He threw her a sideways glance, and she knew she had said too much.

"What else did Bingley tell you?"

To hell with it, she thought bravely. "About your duel with Mr. Darcy," she said. "It was one of his more unhappy memories."

"I have always thought it was ill of Darcy to ask Bingley as his second," he said thoughtfully. "He was much too affected by the whole thing."

"He blamed himself for it, I think."

"Indeed!" He said, sounding surprised. "He must have known perfectly well he had nothing to do with it!"

"But he had hoped to prevent it."

"Poor man, he was no match for the two of us," the Captain said with a tiny, sad smile.

"Why did you fight him?" Malvina asked bluntly. "Was he not your best friend?" He was asking her questions, she would ask some, too. He seemed taken aback by it, and remained silent at first, at length saying:

"Our fathers arranged Elizabeth's match to Darcy, who was not happy with the idea, and said... certain things about it. Things I found insupportable."

Malvina thought this most bizarre. Darcy was not always a pleasant man, but she could not call him dishonorable. The idea that he would insult a woman-a lady!-seemed absurd. She studied the Captain's countenance curiously, thinking back to Darcy. He had not said a word about his intended. How much did he hate the idea of this marriage?

"Yet he married her."

"He has always been a most obedient son."

"Most obedient," Malvina said thoughtfully. "Most obedient, if the marriage was so little to his liking he should rather take a bullet for it!"

He glared at her, and she caught herself and colored.

"Forgive me," she muttered. "I ought not make light of this. 'Tis your sister."

"Yes. I was hoping to gather some information from you." He seemed almost cross with her for being unable to oblige him thus.

"Forgive me for disappointing you," Malvina said. "I cannot fathom Mr. Darcy would abuse his wife."

Another angry glare. "He can be very cold."

"Was he not a friend of yours?" she wondered.

"Indeed, and I knew him well. He is not a bad man, but--"

"Not good enough for your sister."

"Precisely."

"I daresay there are very few women in England for whom Mr. Darcy is not good enough. I believe there may be no more than... six."

The Captain looked at her in great annoyance, as if trying to decipher whether she was joking. She lost heart momentarily and moved to continue the conversation.

"What does your sister write about him?"

"Very little. This announcement of their marriage-I received it some weeks ago-had been a shock... Thereto she had lived with his father-and of that gentleman, there weren't enough good words in the English language, according to Elizabeth."

"Did you know that the elder Mr. Darcy has been very ill lately?"

"Elizabeth wrote to me."

"Perhaps that is why the marriage was rushed."

He was silent for a while. "Perhaps. In any case, it is done," he added bitterly. "She will have to live with him for the rest of her days, and I pity her for that."

"Don't," Malvina said impulsively, stricken by the resentment in his voice. "Don't. People change-improve-you do not know him now-it is possible he has changed-it is possible he is yet to change..."

He did not reply, and she knew he did not believe it. Truth be told, she did not believe it herself. Darcy, though not much older than Charles had been, had seemed to her a finished product. A formidable man, she thought, however young; there was no room for improvement or change. And after all, she had pitied Caroline for having formed a tendre for the man. Poor Captain, she mused, what must it be like-to live with the knowledge of your loved one's unhappiness...

They sat in silence for some time longer, talked, a little, of other things-common acquaintances back in England, Lord Gregory for one, and Charles' sisters-and then, she was unable to contain a yawn.

"I am intruding upon your rest, madam." The Captain rose swiftly. "Good night." She smiled and thanked him, then watched him leave; then, wrapping herself in a blanket, she slept harder than she could have imagined sleeping on cold, hard ground. She dreamt of snakes, and was very much afraid; but none touched her, and in the morning, she woke alive and well-and unbitten.

The next evening, sitting at another campfire some thirty miles down the road, Malvina asked:

"Do you think you will remain in India?"

He shrugged. It was odd, she mused, that other men had simply moved themselves out of their way. They had ridden next to each other for hours today, and were now sitting together, though there was no particular good reason for them to be sitting together like this. But they had not asked the men to stay away, and yet, they did, as if feeling her heartbreak and afraid of it, soldiers and officers all. It must be written plain on my face, she thought. The Captain alone seemed unfazed by her and appeared to seek out her presence. She was grateful to him, for his company was pleasant and took her thoughts off one thing continually haunting her.

Just now, all the men, save two sentries, wrapped themselves in cloaks and blankets and huddled up on the ground. The night was warm enough to sleep outside, and she tipped her head back and studied the stars, waiting for his answer.

"For now," he said. "My duty is here."

"And your sister?"

"My sister is married," he said, a strange coldness in his voice. "Just like you, I do not truly believe that Darcy would maltreat her-and beyond that, I can do nothing to turn this around. She is married to him well and good, and I can torment myself all I want, telling myself I ought to have been there, I ought to have prevented it, but-the truth is, I was not there, and I did not prevent it. It is done now. "

He was silent for some time, leaning down to draw in the sand with one finger, and Malvina thought she knew what he was silent about. Were he to go to England now, his presence there, so at odds with Darcy, would hardly give his sister any comfort.

"And you," Captain Bennet said, "will you stay here?"

Malvina nodded. "So far as I know now. Of course, I will go where my father goes. Should he return to England, I shall follow him."

"There is something comforting about following," the Captain noticed, and she saw him searching restlessly for something-a piece of firewood, she realized, to draw in the sand with. "Spares you having to choose your path."

She smiled wistfully. "Have you followed much?"

He grinned back at her. "No. Not much. To be frank with you, I did not want to come here, either."

"Indeed," she said, surprised.

"I wanted to stay. I went because of my father," he said. "And because of Elizabeth. I was angry enough, then, and penitent enough, to want to stand trial for that duel, for injuring my once-best friend. But I could not subject them to the indignity-the horror-of watching me tried..." He frowned, grimly, as the stick of firewood he had picked up crumbled to dust in his fingers. "As a result, my life has been here..."

"You have done well," she said, uncertain.

"Yes." He nodded and rubbed his hands together, wiping his fingers. "Yes. But my father died in my absence, and by the time I knew of it, he had been dead five months..." He spoke dispassionately. "I am afraid Bess alone had to weather it..."

Malvina knew the guilt well, for she had felt it, first, for staying in England to marry Charles (it had been her first visit there, and she intended fully to return to Madras, for that was her home, and England, however green-a faraway and exotic land), while her father went back to India; and now, for leaving Charles behind, too. She could not bear to think of him as a grave.

Moved by extraordinary desire to tell Captain Bennet of it, she opened her mouth and was arrested, momentarily, but the odd, small sound he had made.

Quickly, she looked up and saw him drop yet another piece of firewood. He had an odd, surprised look about him as he held up his hand.

"Oh," he said disagreeably, as if faced with some nuisance.

"Captain?" Malvina sat up straighter, pulling her cloak about her shoulders, but he said nothing, made no sound. "What is it?"

"Nothing," he said, quickly. But she caught his eye and followed it, instantly, to the slick long shadow disappearing in the grass, where the firewood had fallen.

"Oh no." Whipped into urgency, she threw off her cloak and scrambled towards him on all fours, quickly, hands shaking, fighting to remember what one did in a situation like this, but her memory was clouded by time and ever further by fear. A snake. A snake!

When she was but a girl, a snake had bitten her, and her ayah had-what did she do then? Good god, what did she do?

Captain's attempts to put up a good mien were for naught, for he was cradling his injured hand and breathing heavily.

"Sir, sir." Malvina tried to pry his hand away from his chest. What kind of snake had it been? A king cobra's bite was almost always instantly deadly. She chewed on her lip, and then sprung into action. "Give me your hand, now."

He obeyed, finally, and she whipped her thin cotton tunic up, catching its edge with her teeth, compleatly oblivious to the indecency of it. She ripped the blue edge off, and tied it quickly around his wrist. She knew she ought to use a cupping glass, but there was none to be had, and despite her patient's vehement-and winded-protestations, she sucked the venom off and instantly spat it onto the ground. The thought of him dying here, in the middle of nowhere, was utterly terrifying; she would do anything, anything in the world to prevent it.

"I'll not have any harm come to you," he said, attempting to pull away, but she held fast, and he was becoming weak; and it was alarming to see just how fast. In the leaping firelight, she could see the sheen of perspiration upon his forehead, though the night was cool, and he was shivering visibly.

"Nor I to you," she said stubbornly. But the blood in his wound now ran red and clear, and she let go, finally. "Come," she said, pulling him up, remembering something. "You must walk."

He stared at her and gave an incredulous laugh. "Walk," he repeated, then clambered up to his feet, heavily, and she knew that neither could he stand, nor could she support him for long. She remembered, then, that there were people around them, and she called for help in a voice that sounded to her ears small and strangled.

In another moment, they were surrounded by clamoring men, and someone quickly edged Malvina out of the way. Someone else wrapped her cloak more tightly about her, and sat her down upon a blanket.

"No, no." She struggled up. "You must keep him walking, you must. He cannot lie down."

They did, for a time; but in another quarter hour, the Captain sat heavily down on the ground, and nobody could budge him. One of the men produced a flask of brandy, which was mixed quickly with sugar and warm water...Malvina felt as if the snake had bitten her... the world swam around her, and she closed her eyes, hoping that it would pass. But it did not, and none of the men, preoccupied with their Captain, noticed that she had tumbled sideways onto the ground.

She came to the pungent smell of ammonia and Captain Bennet's querulous voice, refusing to drink something or other.

"Ugh." Malvina held a hand in front of her face. "Good God." Young Lieutenant Cranford smiled at her.

"Good to see you are all right, ma'am."

"How is he?" Sitting up, she drew both hands through her tumbling hair, pulling it away from her face. "Good God, why is he clamoring so?"

"Refusing to drink the ammonia mix, ma'am."

"What a child he is!" Malvina rose to her feet and, still woozy, marched to where Captain Bennet lay, surrounded by several of his men. Kneeling next to his prostrate form, she leaned closer and said, voice low and dangerous:

"I did not risk my life just now to have you die, Captain." Blindly, she reached behind her, and someone put the malodorous flask in her hand. "Drink," she said angrily, bringing it closer to his face. He obeyed her without so much as a word, and so she sat next to him, giving him small draughts every quarter hour, until his pulses steadied and fever appeared to abate. His men, she had waved away, for she did not need them anymore.

It was morning before he finally slept, Malvina herself wrapped in blankets next to him. She woke hours later, but she woke first, for he slept still; though she knew him to be out of danger now, she would not hear about them getting on the road until the Captain was at least somewhat recovered.

He caught up with her, and rode alongside, and she studied him surreptitiously. How very different he was from her fair-haired Charles. A somewhat prominent nose, and a jaw that was masculine without being heavy, dark curls, quite dusty and mussed by the heavy bear helmet, but still wild.

"I have never properly thanked you," he said.

She waved him off. "Captain-"

"You did save my life. You see, I had never been bitten before, and was in a rather unmanly state of shock."

She almost told him it had been obvious, then bit her tongue, realizing how indelicate a thing it would have been to say.

"Were it not for you," he continued, "by the time I woke my men, it would have been too late."

Malvina shrugged. That it was true did not mean that it needed to be repeated.

"Do not mention it," she said. "I am glad you are well. Another death would have been too much."

That last thing, she had not intended, and was frightened, all of a sudden, that she had likened him to Charles. Of course she had not. Of course. Charles had been her husband, her love. This man-she barely knew him! But she had become fragile and frightened of death after Charles had died... To watch another man, another good young man, die suddenly and senselessly would have been unbearable. Malvina shuddered and spurred her horse, riding off some distance ahead, hoping that he would not follow.

He did not; but having removed herself to what she conspired to be a safe distance-where she could compose herself without fearing that her face showed clearly everything she felt-Malvina looked back and found him staring after her.

A day later, he caught up with her on the road and handed her a small statuette. Where he had gotten it, she did not know, but she supposed that he had bought it in one of the temples they passed on their way.

"What is it?" Malvina stared at the statuette of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress. The woman was graceful, slim-wasted, but with heavy naked breasts, and she was small enough to hide inside one's palm. "Parvati?" she murmured doubtfully, recognizing the goddess.

The Captain nodded gravely. "The protector of men," he said. "I think you ought to have one, as you are one, too."

Husbands, Malvina thought, but she did not correct him aloud, and could only nod her thanks as she hid the little statuette in the pouch at her waste. What a strange, strange man, she thought, slightly dazed by the gift.

They said nothing for the rest of that day.

There were moments when Malvina regretted asking for a horse instead of a litter. It was unbearably hot and at times, sweltering, she started to drop off; but invariably, someone would wake her, thus preventing her from falling off her horse. She wished she could sleep, and she did, like dead, every time they made camp (they had been fortunate to find a tavern several times, but it was not every night, and Malvina thought she had never been outside so much in her life). Unfortunately, they did not make camp nearly often enough, and she wished she could ask Captain Bennet to stop for just a few hours. Of course, she could do no such thing-not after she had hurried him, tired from his own travels, out of Madras, eager to see her father again. And so, with an inward sigh (for she would not be thought some weak female, she was no such thing, and of the two of them, she was the one better familiar with India and accustomed to heat), she pressed on.

The closer they came to Fort St. John, the more restless Malvina grew. Oh this interminable travel! she thought. Captain Bennet and his men had tried to grant her every comfort and courtesy during the journey. But there was very little of a lady left in her now, as most of her ladylike sensibilities had been left behind the moment she stepped aboard the Indiaman (and there were even less of them left now, after a week spent on horseback, of camping with the Captain and his men, of waking on hard earth). She missed the thought of a clean bath, of food that was not cooked above an open fire; of a soft, clean bed beneath a canopy. Her hands and face itched from so many bug bites, she had long stopped counting, and the edge of her tunic, where she had torn it, had turned from sky-blue to nearly black.

But it had been good, too: for she had breathed more air than ever before, and had seen women washing bright things in the river, and stunning white-washed temples like snow-capped mountains, and little children, who begged for sweets and coins, and elephants, brightly painted, led across the way. And she had sat with the Captain for many hours, talking. He was the first man-the first person-she told about her despair at the news of Charles' illness; and of her guilt when he died, for if she had believed a little more that he would live, he just might.

The Captain looked at her, dark eyes intense upon her countenance.

"You are tormenting yourself," he said softly, "for naught..."

She knew that, too, and it hurt, in a particular, stinging way, to hear it from him. But she also knew what he meant: the worst thing about Charles' death, about most things in the world, was her own irrelevance. She had been powerless to save her mother, dead from a fever when she was twelve; and powerless to save Charles, too. The worst and yet the most liberating, for it saved her from her guilt, a little bit every day.

He told her things, too: the oddity of growing up at Cambridge, vague memories of his mother, dead in childbirth, about his classmates at Trinity. He appeared to her to have been a great prankster, which was strange to think about, for he was so proper now, an upright, honorable officer. But the tongue-in-cheek stories-like the one about the great skeleton stolen from a Fellow's office and set instead in a chair in his bedchamber, robed as a scholar, one leg over the other, and a cigar between its teeth, to greet the poor man as he woke up-made her want to meet this other side of him. A man who had rode out ahead came back with distressing news. The bridge across the river was out, perhaps by age or decrepitude, but likely by design, for it had been there on their way to Madras.

They would have to find another crossing.

Malvina paid little mind to the news, her own occupied quite fully at the moment, pondering the suspicious pyre they had seen earlier that morning: at the sight of the British, the men around it ran every which way. A seti. Malvina downed the sick feeling in her breast. Like most of the English, she found the local custom of cremation barbaric, and even worse was the fact that its compleatness depended upon one's money and station. A poor man's pyre was often inadequate, leaving his pathetic remains to deteriorate in the heat and the wind, food for the vultures. And what of the widow? Bad enough was the custom of cremation itself; still worse, when a live woman went on the pyre together with her dead husband. The hateful, evil custom! The British did all possible to root out such terrible prejudice; but it was slow work, Malvina thought, very slow work... The unfairness of it chafed at her: for it was not expected of a man to ascend the pyre together with his dead wife.

This time, having approached the abandoned pyre, Captain Bennet held his horse steady for a moment, then turned and galloped back-to where Malvina stood, fuming, relegated to the kind auspices of that boy Lieutenant Cranford ("You will answer with your life, should any misfortune befall Mrs. Bingley"-needless to say, she stayed in one place, though huffing angrily).

"Nothing to see there," he said tersely, and took his horse a good distance ahead, but the look on his face told her that there was something to see there, indeed, and that she ought not attempt to see it. And though she nigh-on retched from the smell that came from the pyre, the next thing she did was odd even to herself: leaning off her saddle, she plucked some flowers off a bush and took them to the pyre. Holding her breath, she threw them upon the pyre without looking, and turned back before the nausea took hold of her.

... "Mrs. Bingley?"

She had drifted off, once again, and now straightened up guiltily at the sound of his voice.

"Captain."

"We must dismount here, and walk our horses down to the river," Captain Bennet told her.

Malvina nodded, though the thought of walking her horse down rocks that were slippery and jagged at the same time was less than appealing.

"Fraser there"-he nodded towards a young corporal-"says he knows of a path."

Malvina dismounted, sliding down Ishmael's side until her feet thumped solidly in the white dust. The air around her felt like a wet towel, smothering her. Without another word, the Captain did the same; and soon, the entire procession filed slowly along the edge of the ravine. For how long, Malvina did not know, and she led Ishmael carefully behind one of the men. Thankfully, he was disposed to follow without fretting.

After a while, Corporal Fraser signaled that they had reached the path down, and Malvina tugged upon Ishmael's reins gently, turning him. The ground gave sharply, too sharply for what was supposed to be a horse trail; rock crumbled and fell under Ishmael's hooves and her own feet. Still, she walked on, gripping the reins more tightly. She could see the river below, looking very fast and wide, and then another trail, snaking up a sloping hill, on the other side.

Ishmael stumbled and whinnied, nervously. Malvina wished she had an apple or a piece of sugar with her; but as it was, kind words and gentle murmurs would have to suffice.

Trying to distract herself from the unpleasant task, she looked about for Captain Bennet, only to see him walking next to their guide. She felt unreasonably piqued, as if abandoned, and decided firmly that he was of no interest to her just now. Concentrate, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her tunic; she did not know whether it was the heat, or the tension that made her so boil.

Finally, there they were. There it was. Malvina trained her eyes on the rocky riverbed she would have to cross with Ishmael in tow. More adventure!she thought wryly. She looked ahead: Corporal Fraser was halfway across the river, remounted upon his horse, but Captain Bennet was nowhere to be seen.

"My congratulations, madam, you've managed admirably." She jerked her head to see him beside her, his horse, Shah-Riyar, in tow. Involuntarily, she grinned at him, her earlier pique all forgot. "May I?" He legged her easily atop Ishmael and then leapt up to his own saddle. "I am right behind you," he said quietly.

Malvina wanted to tell him that it did not matter, that she was not afraid in the least, but the truth was, it did, and she was. Up close, the river seemed utterly wild, and far less shallow than it appeared from above; the rocks-large and exceedingly slippery, polished nearly to glass by the water, and covered in some manner of green slime. So she nodded silently and turned Ishmael's head towards the river.

"Here we go," she murmured.

They walked their horses slowly across the rocks. All of the Captain's men had already gone across and were waiting on the other side, watching them. It made it worse, somehow, to be watched.

They were about halfway across, and Malvina was beginning to feel a little bit more at ease. This is not so very terrible, she thought. She looked behind her to see the Captain, who grinned at her, his teeth white against the over-tanned skin; and then, a terrible loss of balance as Ishmael's legs went from under him and he struggled to stay upright on a particularly slippery rock. Instantly panicked, Malvina leaned against the animal's neck, attempting to calm him; but in another second, his legs went out from under him, and Malvina screamed, and saw Captain Bennet's shocked expression. And then, the brutal impact, her face smashing painfully against the surface of the water and Ishmael's frantic neighing, then gurgling, and she did not know which one of them had made the terrible frightened sound that came next. She could see nothing, could not breathe, and in blind panic, inhaled water instantly...but she was fortunate in that she slipped from the saddle right away. In the fearful confusion of the next several instants, she felt herself dragged forward by the current, felt the impact of a rock, and the feeling of Ishmael's large side against her leg, and tried her hardest to push up, up, up, towards the light-but with the distant, detached reasoning of an idle observer, she knew that the light was too far away, and the current too strong, and that she would drown or be smashed against the rocks...

Someone grabbed her very hard, a broad arm slung across her chest. The light above her shone with sudden brilliance, and she gasped, desperately, for air, her head above water.

"Hold on," the Captain's voice rasped behind her ear, and she grabbed on to the nearest rock. He pushed her up, then, and she scrambled upon it, shaking and dripping like a drowned rat; then, kneeling on the slippery stone, she extended her hand. For a moment, they teetered precariously on the edge of the rock, for he was a big man and difficult to pull up. But then-victory, and he crouched next to her, breathing heavily.

She was shaking so hard, her teeth clanged; she gritted them, hard, trying desperately to calm herself. The Captain stood up, pulling her up as well, without any ceremony.

"Are you injured?"

She did not know whether she was, still too focused on escaping this alive. She shook her head mutely.

"Are you?" First words, forced out through gritted teeth.

"No." He wagged his head in a dog-like manner and moved a wet dark lock out of his eyes. "We had better start moving, madam."

"What of Ishmael?"

From the expression on the Captain's face, she knew the answer to that. She shut her eyes in horror, forcing the thoughts of the poor animal's terrible fate from her mind. Bitterly, she thought that a better rider than she could have prevented this.

"I'm so sorry!" she whispered.

"We need to go."

Sick with terror, Malvina gripped the Captain's arm and followed him across the rocks. How they made it across the river, she did not know, but she swooned the moment after stepping upon solid ground.

He grasped her tightly by the shoulders and shook her roughly, and she saw his face above her, dark eyes both furious and concerned.

"Stop that," he said, almost harshly. "You are all right. We need to go."

The rest of his men clustered a few steps away, looking worried, but not a single one of them approached.

"Yes," she said, and fainted-for the second time in the last week.

Malvina came to beneath a tree. Captain Bennet sat next to her, and she could not understand his expression at all. She sat up, moving wet strands of her hair out of her face.

"You saved my life," she said dully.

"You saved mine first." The Captain held out a flask. "Take a swig of this."

Malvina eyed the flask with suspicion.

"Finest Scottish whiskey," the Captain explained. "From the stores of Corporal Fraser; he swears by its restorative powers after a cold dunk. Drink."

She did, and nearly retched with the repulsiveness of it; but that passed, and then she felt wonderfully warm all through. With an involuntary groan, she sat up.

Dizzy with all that had happened, Malvina rose to her feet and winced at the pain in her entire body.

"Are you all right?" The Captain looked concerned.

"Yes," she said uncertainly, thinking she must have been knocked against the rocks.

"We do not have a free horse, so you will ride with me," he told her.

Malvina nodded and was legged up to the Captain's own saddle instantly (plunging after her, he had left Shah-Riyar on a large flat rock in the middle of the river; two of his men had crossed back later to lead the animal to the shore). Atop a horse once more, Malvina was filled instantly with grief and guilt; she bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut to keep from crying. But behind her, she could feel the reassuring solidity of him; surreptitiously, she leaned back against him and closed her eyes. She could feel his shirt beneath her cheek as she turned her head, still wet from the river, but already warm through from the sun.

"Just breathe," she heard his whisper at her ear.

Several hours later, it was time to make camp again-for the last time. Tomorrow, they would reach Fort St. John. Malvina could not help thinking that they might have been there tonight, had it not been for her. No-one, of course, would impugn her for what happened-at least not aloud... Unthinking, she slid off the horse and into the Captain's waiting arms. They had not really spoken, not since setting out again, though he had inquired, a few times, after her comfort-and she had assured him, lying through her teeth, that she was very comfortable, indeed.

She felt silly and out of place here now, as Captain Bennet placed her carefully onto his folded cloak. She assured him she needed nothing more, and sat there, useless, watching the men go about setting up the camp. Her light Indian clothes had dried in the heat of the day, and she felt a degree cleaner now, the odd advantage of falling in the river.

Later, after most of the men retired, save a sentry-standing watch at the edge of their camp-and the Captain himself, he approached Malvina again.

"Are you at all recovered?"

She patted his cloak next to her. "Sit with me, sir," she asked, and he did. She told him she was feeling better, which was true; hot tea and a simple meal of boiled rice had done wonders to revive her.

"Thank you," she said, "for saving me this day."

He shrugged. "I told you before, madam, it was simply a debt repaid."

"You would have done it in any case."

"Probably." He gave her a sly look. "But not for certain. Perhaps it was only the burden of owing my life to you that drove me to dive for you."

"Indeed." She smiled.

"That, and my fear of your father. What do you suppose he would do to me if I lost you on the way?" Malvina sputtered, then laughed, then checked herself, unwilling to wake up the men around her.

"Good fortune, then, that you can swim."

"Indeed."

They were silent, for some time, sitting next to each other. Malvina's eyes watered a little from looking directly into the flames; she was surprised and embarrassed greatly, at her desire to be next to this man. Never before-certainly not since Charles-had she been so bewitched by a man. But his presence calmed and soothed her, and yet-disordered and stirred her, more than she was willing to admit, even to herself. More, she thought with horror, than Charles' ever did.

"We will reach Fort St. John tomorrow," the Captain said. Malvina jerked her head towards him, wondering whether indeed she had heard a wistful note in his voice. "I am certain you are very eager to see your father."

"Yes," she whispered. She could ill believe herself, but perhaps it was her own wistfulness she felt. The thought of parting from him, even as far as the social conventions of the society and her widowhood would require them, grieved her.

He picked up another piece of firewood-Malvina cringed, but this time, he stared at it closely before touching it-and tossed it in the fire. "No snake," he said, smiling.

"No snake," she said, smiling absent-mindedly, but she felt little gaiety. She looked up at him, wondering whether she could invite him to call on them without seeming overeager-and was startled by the way he was looking at her.

"I do not wish to seem presumptuous," he said slowly, still eyeing her intensely, "or disrespectful, or unmindful of the fact that you cannot quit my presence easily-"

Malvina gave an incredulous little laugh:

"Do you suppose I would run away?"

He smiled, too, and she felt his hand pressing against hers in the darkness. She answered this shy caress eagerly, entwining her fingers with his, whispering "James" so quietly, she was uncertain she had said it. In the trebling firelight, their lips met with sudden, silent force-stronger than any voice of reason, duty or shame.

In the morning, Malvina opened her eyes to the camp's sunup bustle. She had fallen asleep with her head on Captain Bennet's chest; she panicked instantly, thinking that they were thus found in the morning's light. But he was standing some distance away, talking animatedly to Mr. Cranford, even as the rest of the camp was rolled up and packed away with all possible speed-the men were especially eager to get on today, this last day of their journey. Malvina sighed in quiet, secret regret, for he did not look at her. She hardly ached this morning, and she went about her toilet as quickly as she could, she went about her toilet, and was soon ready to go.

With some shyness, she waited for the Captain to approach her, but one look upon him when he came her way melted all her doubts away. His mouth in a stern, preoccupied line, his eyes were smiling at her; and Malvina returned the smile-secretly, using only her eyes...

For the next three hours, they moved without stopping. Surreptitiously, Malvina leaned her head back against the Captain's shoulder, thinking of the night before, of being kissed beneath the brilliant night skies. She felt no guilt about this, though she knew she would yet; Charles has not been in his grave a year, and she-Malvina sighed. She had not planned on it, had not thought of any man since Charles in a way that was even remotely romantic. Charles himself remained, still, a gaping wound. Planning and hoping was a foolish, futile thing to do; and so she let go and closed her eyes. What would be, would be.

It was soon enough that she was jolted from her reverie by the men's excited voices, and a sound of the trumpet announcing their arrival. She opened her eyes to see that they were at the Fort's gate-and that indeed, it was cut into a mountain side. They crossed a drawbridge in a mad clatter of hooves and rode beneath a massive gate. Then, already inside, she heard her father's sonorous voice, demanding to know where she was; and she flung herself into his embrace, broke down and wept.

Chapter 26

For some time, Elizabeth remained uncertain about her Uncle's view of her situation. Young as she was, she understood that Mr. Gardiner could not possibly approve of it. In the Gardiners' simple, respectable, middle-class world, young married women did not abscond from their husbands' company. Once married, women in Gracechurch Street stayed married.

Would her Uncle insist upon her return to Darcy? She was prepared to acquiesce and remove herself from his house, should he demand it-but remove herself to Longbourn. Nothing and no-one could make her return to Pemberley. In moments of her worst anxiety, she imagined just such a disagreeable conversation; it resolved invariably with her leaving the house in Gracechurch Street and returning to Hertfordshire. She simply could not countenance going back to Pemberley-however dreadfully she missed it.

But it appeared, soon, that her relations had no intention of sending her back.

"You must understand our reservations, Lizzy," her Aunt said to her during a walk in the park one morning. It was a middle of January 1808, and Elizabeth listened, absent-mindedly, to the crunch of the snow beneath her boots. "Your Uncle is convinced that your place is with Mr. Darcy. However angry you might be with him, he remains your husband, and your place is with him," she repeated. "As his wife, you have promised to-well, but you know it as well as I do, Lizzy... But all that said, you are his late sister's child, and he will not send you back, and I, for one, in full agreement with him!"

And so it was that she would stay with them-and they would stand behind her. She was glad to be living in Cheapside, for she would take it very ill if she had to keep running into her husband's acquaintances. It was bad enough to nigh-on bump into Lord Gregory on a winter walk through the St. James' Park with her cousins. Unsurprisingly, he was there with Miss Bingley, who eyed her with instant, open hostility. His Lordship, on his part, seemed terribly disordered by the meeting, flushing guiltily to the roots of his hair. Elizabeth felt very bad, for she liked Lord Gregory and thought him a very fine gentleman and a good friend to Darcy. She spoke to him kindly, introducing her Aunt to him, but was quite relieved when the conversation died and they all went their own way. (Her Aunt later pronounced His Lordship handsome, and the girl Miss Bingley particularly ill-looking, her purple bonnet rather unsuited to her skin and hair. Elizabeth wished she could care.) On another occasion, she saw Darcy's cousin Lady Mariah coming out of a shop on Colonel Fitzwilliam's arm and turned away, hastily. She was terribly ashamed of herself. She thought the Colonel a capital fellow, but found she could not abide Lady Mariah's scrutiny. Soon enough, she stopped going to St. James and Grosvernor Street and Brook Street altogether, thinking that she would rather not run into any more of Darcy's friends and relations. If her Aunt should ask her, she would decline politely and regretfully, finding a myriad excuses, from headaches to thing needing mending to books needing finishing.

Her life was quiet in Gracechurch Street. She was happy to help her Aunt with the children, deeply grateful to these people for giving her a home. She took it upon herself to read to her older cousins and to play with the little Amelia, and learned, soon enough, that there would soon be yet another little cousin to play with and fret over. She welcomed the news with honest joy: the more tired she grew during the day, the less time she spent sleepless in her bed, crying over Darcy.

~ * ~

Darcy returned to London in April, and only upon his friends' insistence; and only because Fitzwilliam was leaving for the Continent. He had hesitated about going there, for at Pemberley, he had entered a routine that was ...well, if not comfortable, at least exhausting and familiar. He did not want to break it, not quite knowing what waited for him outside. Still, he went, reluctantly, partly because he did not wish to sequester himself in the country, not even because of Elizabeth; and partly because he was superstitiously worried he might not see Fitzwilliam again.

But the moment he saw his cousin's broad grin and Gregory sly little smile, he remembered how much he had missed them and how glad he was to see them.

He did not mind his friends' company, assured of their tact and discretion. For much the same reason, he avoided his relations assiduously, knowing that his unfortunate marriage would be a subject for scrutiny and dissection. He had no desire to discuss Elizabeth with his Aunt or Lady Mariah, and he knew he would not be able to avoid such a discussion, should he set foot into Fitzwilliam House. Fitzwilliam himself, whom Darcy considered a friend first, had written to him in January that the women of the family-no, of most of the ton-had been all astonishment at the recent events (I have had nothing to do with imparting of information; but perhaps your household has a spy in it...), and therefore-incessantly curious (They are not to be approached, for they will snatch you in their claws and torture you with questions honor itself forbids you to answer; but honor holds no command over them. ). Gregory had written similarly- that the world was interested in Darcy's troubles; but one had to account for Gregory's delicate nature to understand what really went on amongst the ton. Darcy wondered whether Wickham had contributed to the gossip, or whether indeed his London town-house had a spy in it, a spy who had spread the news of his and Elizabeth's discord.

Happy as he was to see his friends, his heart was heavy upon his return to London. All the way from Pemberley to London, he kept telling himself that he was not returning to her. He had been in London before, had lived there, even, and had managed to be perfectly content there without a wife. But the truth was, in his mind, London would remain the place where they had been so happy together-and the place where he had lost her.

The town-house in Leicester Square seemed empty without her, and soon enough, he found he could not bear to be there alone. Thereupon he took his carriage to Gregory's home in Brook Street. His friend appeared thrilled to see him, and expressed no surprise at Darcy's strange request that he should stay with him for a week or so.

"Oh, but of course," he said easily. "This way I can practice my fencing with you whenever I want. What do you say?"

Darcy ached, desperately, to ask whether his friend had run into Elizabeth in the past months-and just barely prevented himself from doing so. Thankfully, Gregory was tactful enough to keep such information to himself without a direct inquiry. Fitzwilliam, too, seemed on pleasure bent during his last days in town; the endless circle of fencing bouts, theatre and Opera and a few society routs here and there (judiciously chosen) kept them occupied all this time.

Darcy did hope to avoid Elizabeth altogether. After all, they did move in vastly different circles. He thought he'd almost managed it. And then, walking out of his club with Gregory one afternoon, he stopped stock-still. Elizabeth was standing on the other end of the street, admiring something or other in a shop window. Her Aunt was with her, he noticed, and the oldest one of her cousins. His heart instantly, violently aflutter, Darcy could not bear to look at her anymore than he could stop looking at her. His eyes sought out, greedily, the signs of how she was doing-was she well, did she miss him, did she sleep through the night? Somehow, he thought, it could not possibly be true that she should miss him as much as he missed her.

"Darcy?" Gregory asked uncertainly. "Did you hear what I just said?"

Starting, Darcy glanced over at his friend, who now wore a puzzled expression. "Hatchard's," Gregory said. "Did you not want to go to-" Then, his eyes following the direction of Darcy's stare, he cut himself off abruptly. "Oh."

Darcy was certain he looked a lovesick fool, but he could not bring himself to care, and he dared not take his eyes off her. How terribly he had missed the sight of her! Gregory said nothing, and in any case, Darcy was barely conscious of him.

What if she should turn around and look at him? He was horrified that she should do so; but when she climbed into a carriage without casting a single look in his direction, he could have died of disappointment.

The carriage rolled past him, as he stood forlornly in the street, and then, directed like an arrow into his wounded heart, he felt her glance. He might have been mistaken at such a distance, but he thought she looked utterly shocked, her great dark eyes gazing at him in compleat misery.

He stood still for the longest time, staring at the dirty cobblestones, his heart full of misery. Behind him, Gregory coughed delicately. Turning, Darcy saw his friend-looking as if he wished to be anywhere but in the street in front of their club.

"I am sorry," Darcy said roughly. "You were saying?"

"Nothing," Gregory spoke in a mild tone of a man entirely ready to acquiesce to another's desires. "Do you still wish to go to Hatchard's?"

Darcy wagged his head. He could not imagine looking at books just now. "Forgive me, Alex, but I have one devil of a headache-"

"Of course." Gregory smiled pleasantly and suggested a doctor. He was a capital fellow, after all, Darcy thought, a most tactful one, and a good friend. He declined the suggestion politely; all he wanted just now was solitude.

He went home, still reeling from the encounter. The interlude had shown him that he should not attempt to cross paths with Elizabeth. She still held sway over his heart, and the wound she had inflicted was yet too fresh. Her very sight disturbed him deeply; it was not often that he felt so torn. It was joy to lay eyes upon her person again-after all, it was not for nothing that he had stolen his sister's drawing paper and spent hours sketching Elizabeth's visage, in secret from everyone-but it was also agony. He now gave extra thought to the circuitous routes he took about town, all to avoid running into her; and he yearned to leave it, so that he might be away from her. But what if she should come to visit his father at Pemberley? Darcy worried he might go mad, simply from his inability to make up his mind about her.

On Fitzwilliam's last full day in London, they found themselves in a small jewelry-shop. Darcy felt safe there, for he did not expect Elizabeth to come buying jewelry, as her tastes had always been rather modest (through his solicitor, he had made certain that she lacked for nothing, having, as his wife, a full access to his bank; but the money, he knew, had not been touched in the past months). Fitzwilliam wanted to buy a memento for someone before he left; both Darcy and Gregory were proving very poor advisors on that, neither, apparently, of a mind to be jewelry shopping.

"You two are useless to me," Fitzwilliam said to them with an exaggerated frown. Darcy wondered at his cousin: leaving for the Continent the next day, he faced a possibility of death, and yet could find nothing better on his last day in London than to go buying trinkets for his mistress. "I need a lady's opinion," he added, turning about in search of just such a lady. Instantly, he applied himself to a dainty figure at the far end of the shop. "Madam, may I trouble you?"

The lady turned in a flurry of Delft blue, and Darcy saw, in shock, the familiar beautiful face, ash-pale hair and startling blue eyes. Fitzwilliam, catching himself-for Valerie's face was familiar to him-was nonetheless forced to explain to the lady why he had addressed her.

"Of course." She smiled at them without acknowledging their acquaintance. Darcy threw a glance at Gregory, who had, at one time, disapproved vehemently of his liaison with Valerie. His friend, appearing unusually miserable this morning, only frowned more.

Valerie was lovely-engaging, friendly, very beautiful, and she did indeed give Fitzwilliam excellent advice. Darcy bit his lip from the inside to keep from laughing incredulously. She was always very good at things like that, having an innate vision for beauty. She would have made a wonderful modiste, Darcy thought. Admittedly, she had found a more profitable occupation.

Fitzwilliam, delighted with Valerie's help, bought the things she had suggested and bowed gallantly over her hand.

"Gentlemen," she said, smiling, her curtsey so very graceful, then turned and floated towards the other end of the shop.

"Darcy," Gregory said, "I shall be right outside."

"And me," Fitzwilliam added, and the pair stalked out of the shop, leaving him alone.

Before Darcy could understand what was happening, both of them had gone. He was about to escape, too, but saw that she had turned around and was smiling at him.

He had missed the narrow window which would have allowed him to extricate himself from this situation, to say to his friends that he was going, too, that he had no other business here-Now, both of them gone, he found himself staring into a beautiful upturned face, a pale perfectly-shaped face with perfect blue eyes and perfect high cheekbones. How had she come so close to him?

"Miss Degas," he said cautiously. What could he say to her next, that he was pleased to see her? But in truth, he was not pleased to see her. Running into her was the next worst thing to running into his wife.

"Mr. Darcy." She held her head high, the line of her chin outlined neatly by the blue silk bow that held her bonnet in place. He made himself look upon her, really look upon her and see her as he once had: as a beautiful woman, to be desired greatly. For the past months, it had been all Elizabeth, all the time, but now Darcy was desperate to drive his wife out of his mind.

"Have you been... well?"

"Very well, thank you." She smirked at him, luscious lips pressing together in a pout. Darcy flushed to the roots of his hair. "And you?"

"I thank you, yes. Very well."

"And how does Mrs. Darcy?" She cocked one perfectly-groomed eyebrow at him, just a shade darker than her luminous hair.

Darcy scowled. "You know very well that you should never have approached my wife."

Her voice a tone lower, Valerie leaned forward-he could smell the light, airy, slightly flowery perfume on her hair and skin-and said:

"She should not have stared at me like she was standing outside a cage in a freak-show."

Darcy frowned, knowing her to be right about it. Valerie straightened again, her damnable perfume wafting about her, upsetting his composure.

"So she should not have," he acknowledged mildly. Valerie blinked at him; she must have known she had spoken out of turn, and expected nothing but a harsh retort. "It was unkind, Valerie, what you did."

He caught himself instantly and, to his mortification, blushed. "I am sorry-I know I do not have the liberty to use your Christian name."

"Do not be daft," she said quietly. 'You have never lost it."

Thereupon, she curtseyed deeply, turned and walked out-from where he stood, Darcy could see her sweep by Fitzwilliam and Gregory, both of them idling outside. After a moment of hesitation, he followed her outside.

His cousin left for the Continent the day after, with fervent wishes and desires from the entire family that he keep himself safe. Despite the fact that this would not be their son's first campaign, Lord and Lady Matlock looked stricken, and the old lady could barely contain her tears. Lady Mariah-now, she could not contain hers at all and stood to the side, weeping silently.

Fitzwilliam jumped off his mount and put both arms around his mother.

"Now, now," he said. "My lady, you know as well as I do that officers are never killed nor wounded, and that I have inherited the extraordinary Fitzwilliam luck. I shall be back so soon, you will hardly know me gone." He dropped a kiss upon the Countess' forehead and remounted his horse. He said nothing else, nor bade farewell to any other person, and Lady Mariah wept all the harder. Darcy stared after his cousin, wanting desperately to be back at Pemberley. He would have left forthwith, had he not promised already to sup with Gregory at Vauxhall-it had only just opened for the season. He had no desire for company tonight, but Gregory had shown patience with him in his most surly and miserable moods. It would not do to cancel his engagement. Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow he would go.

Darcy had worried a little that coming into contact with his cousin's family on the occasion of his departure would expose him to indiscreet questions. To his relief, both the lady Matlocks seemed so utterly distressed by Fitzwilliam's leaving, that they hardly paid him any attention. Still, he knew his advantage when he saw it; and was about to say his good-byes, when the familiar querulous voice and the sound of a stick against the pavement stopped him dead in his tracks. He had forgotten all about the old bat, having convinced himself that she had finally cast him off.

"Where is my nephew?" Lady Catherine proclaimed. Darcy wearily turned around, only to see Lady Matlock flush angrily.

"If you mean to say your good-byes, Catherine, you are late, as Horatio has left," she said dryly. Lady Catherine ignored her and barreled on:

"Here you are," she cried, looking for all the world as pleased as if she had not ignored Darcy assiduously for the past six months. "I was hoping to speak with you, Darcy, as I have only recently learned of that woman departure-"

Darcy clenched his teeth, hating this so, so much. Foolish of him. How could he have hoped to come to London and not be subjected to this infamy? He saw Lady Matlock leave in a half; Lady Mariah, on her part, tarried, curious of the resolution of this scene.

"Madam," he said wearily, "I am still married to her, and I shall continue to be married to her."

Mistaking the exhaustion in his voice for hopelessness, Lady Catherine thought to offer him an option:

"You can likely divorce her for she has abandoned you-unfeeling, selfish girl!"

Something must have shown in his face, for Gregory, standing just behind the lady, saw it and flinched.

"Madam," Darcy said slowly, no longer thinking to show his aunt any courtesy or restraint, "I have told you before that Mrs. Darcy is my wife. She will so remain, and I shall not consult you, or any other person entirely unconnected to me, about her or my marriage."

Clearly, his aunt did not expect such a reply-she had come feeling vindicated, likely thinking that he had seen the error of his ways. Now, she peered at him in silent shock, eyes bulging. Darcy used her momentary silence to cut a short bow to Lady Mariah before retreating, together with Gregory, to his carriage.

"Oh I have hoped you would show sense!" cried Lady Catherine, approaching and raising her walking stick; but she clearly thought better of rapping it on Darcy's carriage door. "And yet you are determined to betray your family, your word given to my daughter-"

Darcy had not expected his Aunt, and was now utterly furious. Another word, he thought, another word, and I shall strangle her with my own hands. To avoid such a disaster, he raised his own stick, rapped upon the roof of the carriage. It moved, tottering at first, and then faster and faster, leaving the old woman to shout and hiss behind them.

~ * ~

Gregory, occupied by the diligent study of his nails, said nothing.

"Do you think very badly of me for being so uncivil to my aunt?" Darcy felt compelled to ask.

"No," Gregory said with a smirk. "Not very."

"All very well for you," Darcy said unhappily. "I wager you do not have an Aunt like her."

"No, my friend. Hardly anybody does." Gregory smirked again, looking out of the window. "You should consider yourself fortunate, indeed, she is a very rare specimen."

"Ha, ha," Darcy mocked. For some time, they said nothing, and then, almost at Gregory's townhouse, he blurted out: "I am leaving tomorrow, Alex."

He told Gregory that the purpose of his visit was now moot, and that he was needed at Pemberley, but he could not hide from his friend's thoughtful gaze his one real reason for leaving: he was miserable in town.

"I understand," Gregory said after some moments' silence. "You can come back any time you wish and stay with me, you know that, do you not?"

~ * ~

That night, at Vauxhall, he did something he hardly ever did: overindulged in spirits and was shamefully drunk before he could understand what was happening. Perhaps it had something to do with his cousin leaving for the war. Or with the scene his Aunt had thrown. Or perhaps, with Elizabeth's pervasive presence everywhere in London. Or with Valerie's presence at Vauxhall-alone, without an escort. He had noticed her, as soon as they had walked in. She was wearing a diamond choker and a dress that showed just enough to drive a man mad. Especially a man uncertain whether he wanted this, and whether he ought to want this, or could still allow himself to desire his own estranged wife.

The two friends stopped before Miss Degas' booth. Darcy bowed above her hand, forcing Gregory to do the same, though he knew that his friend did not approve of Valerie. She smiled up at them, her beautiful bosom rising and falling, her golden hair upswept above the dainty ears and set with live flowers. They returned to their booth, Gregory sullen and unhappy, Darcy drinking more and more. He should not have come here, he thought in great confusion. He should never have come. London had brought Elizabeth's visage before his eyes, but it had also brought Valerie back. Her quiet voice, telling him he had never lost the right to her Christian name. Valerie's smile, dazzling, and Elizabeth's quiet, private one, that he had worked so hard to earn. Soon enough, he could not tell whom he wanted, or what, and where one of them ended, and the other began, but when Gregory put a hand on his wrist, urging him to stop, he swept it off indignantly-how dare he!-and rose-to his vast surprise, unsteadily.

"Darcy, what are you doing-Darcy." Gregory rose after him, his mien alarmed. But laying a hand upon another gentleman was dangerous business, and Gregory stood back, frowning. "Let me take you home," he said peaceably. Darcy, growing more and more vexed by the moment, stepped back himself and said:

"I can take care of myself, thank you, Gregory. You go home." And, with a slurring, which made the next phrase he was about to utter ever more improbable: "You've no head for drink!"

Gregory's anxious countenance was the last thing he saw before turning and stomping off into the dewy darkness of the gardens. He sat there on an old swing, slumped and miserable, his head in a hopeless muddle. The sounds of the revelry reached him, off and distant, as if through a thick blanket. Unbidden, memories of sitting in another garden intruded... Pulling back the swing, he threw back his head and peered, dazedly, upon the starry sky.

A small movement caught his eye, and he stopped the swing abruptly, digging his heels in the ground. Valerie approached him, dreamlike in the Moon's radiance. For a moment, he considered that she might just be an apparition-he was certainly drunk enough for that. But as she came closer, her very real perfume, a redolence of violets, took over his senses. Darcy sighed deeply, inhaling it, and clutched all the harder to the ropes of his swing. His confusion, and the drink, threatened to fell him.

Valerie was standing so close now, he could see a mole at the top of her white bosom, and the tasteful scalloped lace just beneath. Cautiously, he gauged his feelings towards her, first allowing himself to feel the attraction, once so powerful, then almost forcing himself to think of her in that way. She was beautiful, a serene seductress, the silvery-blue fabric of her dress charting her curves to perfection.

Darcy caught his breath.

"Your friend has left," she informed him with a tiny smile. "Seemed very cross, His Lordship."

"Let His Lordship go to the devil," Darcy murmured, himself quite disturbed by the words that were rolling off his tongue. "What are you doing here alone, madam?"

She smiled and stepped closer, brushing past him too close for comfort, then slid onto the swing next to him. "I am not all alone," she said silkily. "You are here."

"You know-you know very well what I mean." Darcy found it difficult to speak, growing more and more lightheaded by the minute. "You know." Shutting his eyes, he felt, powerfully, the rounded shape of her shoulder against his arm. "What about your-" He dug in his memory for the name, fruitlessly. "Your-protector."

A small, willful shrug. "You presume far too much, Mr. Darcy. You must remember, from our previous acquaintance, that I let nobody...protect me."

They sat together for some time, Darcy rocking the swing idly, listening to the Valerie's feet shuffle against the grass, barely reaching the ground.

"Mr. Darcy," she said after a while, "I am sorry about what I said-about your wife. I did not know she has..."

"...left me," Darcy finished for her. "I see you are far better informed since yesterday."

She inclined her beautiful head. "Truly, I am sorry for it."

"What's it to you?" Darcy asked dully. "When did you ever care for anyone's wife?"

He knew, as soon as he said it, that it had been an unfeeling thing to say, and an unworthy one. He hung his head and murmured his apologies, then gave her a shamefaced glance. She did not appear wounded or offended, but was studying him with an openly curious expression.

"You are correct, I suppose," she said after a while. "I do not care about your wife. But I do think her a damned fool."

His anger roused, Darcy started off the swing, almost upsetting it and making her grasp the side rope all the harder.

"How dare you-speak of her like so-"

Holding on to the rope, she moved closer and spoke urgently, looking up at him with eyes that seemed to him as bright as the stars above: "Forgive me, but I must be allowed to say this. Even if it should cause you to never speak with me again. You are a fine man, sir! She did not know what she had. What, I am certain, she still has..." She paused, and he swayed on his feet and wondered at the perversity of his fate. "She does not know how fortunate she is."

Darcy did not realize he, too, was holding the rope, and was startled by the feel of Valerie's hand upon his wrist.

His first instinct was to cast it off; but he felt suddenly very spiteful and terribly bitter, thinking that it did him no good to be faithful. Elizabeth did not want him, would not want him if he spent his whole life a monk. Valerie was still looking at him-as if he were her idol and her salvation. He closed his eyes for a second, and then he, too, grasped her hand and pulled her off the swing and into his embrace.

Darcy kissed Valerie desperately, fighting as if for his very life with the sinking feeling that she was not Elizabeth. Her mouth on his, her body in his arms, the clasp of her hand on his lapel-all of it was bereft of the wonderful heart-stopping passion he had felt for his wife. All of it meant something else entirely. But lust stirred, and he thought he might succeed yet. Falling in love with Elizabeth, staying in love with her, a desperate, heart-broken, besotted fool-it was the worst thing that had happened to him. He wanted it to stop. He did not care about anything just now-neither honor, nor love held any sway in his clouded mind. He pulled away from Valerie, who, to his eyes, looked amazed and hopeful, and said:

"Come!"

He was determined, in his drunken naïveté, to erase Elizabeth from his heart; believing artlessly that he could. Valerie blinked at him in honest surprise, but took his arm and allowed him to lead her out of the gardens. It was decidedly odd to be touching a woman again, to be fastening a soft female body into a silky cloak, to be helping her, by silent mutual consent, into his carriage (as Gregory had taken his own to Vauxhall, having come there from St. James' Court). She leaned upon his arm as he handed her in. Darcy silenced his protesting scruples and climbed in after her.

He was so afraid of his own heart, he attacked Valerie instantly with greedy kisses, pulling her immediately into an impassioned embrace. She did not resist him-knowing, willing, pliant in his arms, her own around his neck. Darcy could feel her hand stroke the back of his head, fingers curling against his nape. Truly, he would have been content simply to keep kissing her, but all too soon, his carriage stopped in front of Valerie's small town-house in Harcourt. Before his head had cleared enough to allow him to think, Darcy alighted and pulled Valerie out of the equipage and into the house. A servant's bewildered gawp followed their progress up the stairs.

The bedchamber door slamming in their wake, Darcy bore Valerie backwards against a settee, pushing her with such force that the dainty piece of furniture creaked piteously beneath their combined weight. A gasp and a giggle flew off her lips, and she arched her back, presenting him with her generous bosom in a way that would have tempted a saint. There was something remarkably pliant about her, and the thought that she would obey him, that she would do as he desired, was both erotic and vexing. No surprises with Valerie, he thought dazedly, kissing the gorgeous long neck and the lovely round shoulder he had somehow liberated from her décolletage. She was a woman who would occupy a particular place in a man's life-would not ruin it-would not break his heart... She was not Elizabeth-

With a groan, he pushed himself away from Valerie and scrambled back to his feet. Ill to the bottom of his heart, he pressed the balls of his hands to his eyes, shutting out the bemused expression on her face.

"Darcy?" Valerie's voice was strangely tremulous, as if belonging to a different woman, one he had not known. Darcy forced himself to look at her-sprawled there on the ottoman, her lavish golden curls spilling over her bared shoulders and bosom. Not Elizabeth, he thought, miserably.

"Forgive me," he whispered. "Valerie, I am so very sorry-"

Sitting up, she pulled the dress over one shoulder, held it closed on her chest with one hand. She looked strangely young like this, with her hair curling luxuriously over her shoulders and a shattered expression on her face.

But slowly, her countenance cleared and she even managed a tiny smile.

"So you are a faithful husband," she murmured. "Your wife is a damned fool, sir."

"Not she," he said tiredly, righting his clothes haphazardly. "The blame is all mine, Valerie."

She sighed, pulling her feet up and her knees up to her chest. "I should throw you out, Darcy, turn you from my door for wasting my time."

"You would be fully justified in that," he agreed. The drunken haze had dissipated, leaving behind only guilt and fatigue.

"If you really love her so much," Valerie said tiredly, "why-why are you here, and not with her?"

He almost thought he might tell her. But somehow, Elizabeth's desertion of him remained too important, too painful a subject to be discussed with anyone. With a miserable sigh and a shrug, he reached for his gloves.

"Forgive me," he murmured and turned to go.

"Wait," Valerie said in a small voice. "Do not leave me. I am terribly lonesome tonight."

He tarried by the doors, indecisive, and she snorted and rolled her eyes at him:

"You can sleep on this very settee. I promise that I shall not make unwelcome advances on your person."

Darcy hesitated but a moment before stepping back towards Valerie. "You must think me unmanned," he said.

Valerie shrugged and stretched like a cat. "Does it matter to you what I think of you? I think you uxorious to a fault." She fought a yawn for a second, then gave in and covered her hand with a delicate hand. "Which is to say, unmanned."

For the first time that evening, he found it in himself to laugh.

Darcy spent an innocent night on the settee. He considered the discomfort of sleeping on the too-short, oddly-shaped bed to be a small payback for the hurt he had dealt to Valerie's feelings. In the morning, he ached all over, but she looked at him with kindness he did not feel he deserved.

"Are you returning to Pemberley, then?" she asked as she handed him a cup of coffee.

"Today," he said. "Soon as I beg my friend's Gregory's forgiveness for being such an arse to him. And yours," he added. He was strangely grateful to her, for taking last night's disaster so well. Valerie shrugged and cuddled tighter into her peignoir.

"Have a safe journey, then," she said.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was surprised when her Uncle announced, at breakfast, that there was a letter for her. Her first thought was about her husband, and the next one about Jamie, and she felt a sting of shame for not thinking of her brother first. After all, he was both the one in danger and the one more likely to write her letters (Darcy had not, not since she had last seen him in December). But the hand that had written the address was unfamiliar. Though vastly curious, Elizabeth waited politely for the breakfast to end. Thereupon, she begged her hosts' indulgence and went off in search of a window-seat.

It was short, several lines in all, and in a hand that seemed schooled and genteel. But she had no time to think about it or analyze it. She sat, frozen in shock, staring at the faintly yellow paper.

"One who only wishes you well writes to inform you that your husband was seen in the company of a notorious courtesan, one Valerie Degas, during a soiree at the Vauxhall gardens. He was seen leaving with her, and he was seen quitting her lodgings the following morning."

There was no signature.

Elizabeth closed her eyes. The hurt had not set in yet, the shock of it reigning over her. Darcy-with the beautiful French courtesan. My compliments to your husband. Her heart felt pierced by the news, and she sat in that window seat, hands folded limply. Logically, she could not have expected anything else. She had abandoned her husband, after all. But the fury inside of her caused her to wrinkle the letter in her hand, caused her to wag her head furiously as she struggled not to think of it, not to imagine him with that woman. He had promised! She could, could have expected something else, as he had promised her fidelity while their marriage lasted.

Later, after she had spent a miserable day deftly avoiding questions about her well-being and her aunt's thoughtful looks, she smoothed out the letter and looked at it again. Who would write this to her? Perhaps Miss Degas herself, for it was in her interest to sow discord between the two of them. Who else? She thought briefly to Miss Bingley, but dismissed the thought as ridiculous. She thought also to his Aunt, who seemed to take great offense in the very idea of their marriage.

Spurred by what she would later regret as a very childish impulse, Elizabeth moved to her escritoire and penned a quick letter to the one person in London who might know the truth about it all:

"26 Grace-church Street, Cheapside, the 15th of May 1808. My Lord, please do not consider this an impertinent letter. I am only addressing Your Lordship because I have always thought of you as a friend. I received the enclosed today, my lord, and would like to know whether there is any truth to it, as well as who the author might be. I remain here, eagerly awaiting any thoughts you might have on the subject, Elizabeth Darcy."

She folded the two sheets of paper and sealed them, before addressing her missive to Lord Alexander Gregory. Tonight would be the first night in months she cried herself to sleep.

The next day, His Lordship called upon her himself. Her Aunt, far too close to her confinement to be receiving visitors, had begged to be excused. This suited Elizabeth entirely too well, and she received Lord Gregory in the Gardiners' small drawing-room.

"Forgive me, my Lord," she said straight away. "I did not mean to disturb you."

" 'Tis no disturbance," he said seriously. "I am glad to see you again, Mrs. Darcy. We have all been wondering how you are."

We all, she thought, wondering whether he meant what she thought he meant.

"I am well," she lied, smiling, but she could not keep smiling and looked away.

"You look well," he said simply. Thereupon, producing the ill-intentioned letter, he held it out to her. "I was grieved to receive this from you. I do not know who wrote it, and if I did, I should not tell you."

Elizabeth nodded gravely. She had regretted a thousand times ever writing to him, for it showed such poor lack of control she would not let anybody see. "Forgive me my presumption."

"I should not want to make this scandal larger than it is, madam."

"Scandal!" she murmured, vexed and surprised at his choice of words.

"Indeed," he said seriously. "No fault of yours, or Darcy's, but the two of you are the favorites of the ton's gossip-mongers."

"Forgive me," she repeated bitterly, and with fake contrition. "I thought you might know who concerns himself so intimately with my well-being."

"Even if I did know that," he asked, growing animated, "even I did, what then? Will you go seeking revenge for this unkindness?"

Elizabeth bowed her head, unable to hide her misery. "Do you know at all whether the letter tells the truth?"

"I do not. I was at Vauxhall with Darcy for some time, and then I left. He stayed behind."

"Was she there?"

"If "she" is Miss Degas, I believe she was."

"Do you believe it?"

Lord Gregory said sharply: "Do I believe that your husband has cast caution, decency and all the promises he had made you to the wind? That he has bedded a courtesan?"

Well, now that he put it like that. Elizabeth colored furiously and opened her mouth to speak, but he held up one hand, continuing:

"I know Darcy too well, think too well of him to believe it. Whatever foolishness Darcy might commit, it would hardly be that. Darcy is a man of honor, and he esteems you far too much, madam, to do something like that. Far too much." He rose and paced about the room. "Most men would, madam. Most men would be set free by an absconding wife. But I do believe-and I daresay you will agree with me-your husband is a better man than most."

Elizabeth, overwhelmed by jealousy and shame, sat down on the sofa and hid her face in her hands. She wanted to believe him so desperately.

"Forgive me," she said dully into her palms. "It was just too-" Too painful, she wanted to tell him, but tears choked her, and she bit her lips to force herself to stop. Lord Gregory said nothing, offering her no comfort, but she could feel his presence there, calming her.

Finally, having acquired a better grip of herself, Elizabeth dared to look up at him. He was standing near her, still holding the abominable letter in his hand.

"Please forget all this," he said kindly. "Pay this foolishness no mind, Mrs. Darcy. People are wicked and envious of you is all."

She nodded, thankful that he did not seem to be angry at her, or to judge her. He held the letter out to her, but she shook her head in horror.

"Please take it," she said quickly. "Destroy it-do something with it. But I cannot bear touch it, for then I shall read it again."

His Lordship frowned disapprovingly, but nevertheless folded the letter and hid it from Elizabeth's eyes. He left some time later, having secured from her a promise that she would write to him, should she need help..

"What did His Lordship want?"

"Merely inquired how I was," Elizabeth said evenly. Hate it she might, but where it concerned Darcy, lying to her Aunt-lying to the world-became easier and easier for her.

Her Aunt came to stand near her, waddling slightly in her advanced pregnancy. "Do you suppose he was doing your husband's bidding?"

"I really do not think so, Aunt." She turned away, hiding the bitterness that the suggestion caused. Her husband had not inquired of her, not since he had left here some six months ago. She wondered, resentfully, whether Lord Gregory had told her the truth.

Elizabeth excused herself soon after that, but she would think about the anonymous missive for a long time after, wondering what it all meant, her unease so deep inside her, she found she could not rid herself of it.

~ * ~

Darcy returned to Pemberley shamefaced. It seemed obvious now that he ought not attempt infidelity, for it sat poorly with him. The entire occurrence had taught him the futility of trying to stray from Elizabeth. Perhaps he loved her more than he had ever surmised. That he could not love one woman and bed another was no great surprise for him.

One small consolation was that infidelity did not actually occur-though not, regrettably, for the lack of trying on his part.

It was good to be home, he thought, contemplating that he would not return to town until ... until he absolutely had to. Perhaps when Fitzwilliam returned from the Continent. His Father attempted to ask him questions about London, clearly trying to find out whether he had seen anything of Elizabeth... but he kept silent on the subject, convinced that nobody, not even his father, could ever understand the turmoil he felt at the very mention of his wife's name.

Thus, he remained at Pemberley, working himself to the bone every day-for there was always enough to do at Pemberley, well-run as it was-and when he was not tired enough at night, he read-Cat curled up in his lap-until he fell asleep, assiduously avoiding any subjects that might be termed even remotely romantic. Mind-numbing exhaustion was necessary, for Elizabeth still haunted his thoughts during his every free moment-just as much as she haunted his dreams.

To his relief, Valerie did not.

~ * ~

In mid-August, some time after her Aunt was safely delivered of a healthy baby-boy, christened Thomas, Elizabeth invited her relations to come with her to Longbourn. It was good-an opportunity for Mrs. Gardiner to take her children away from London. Elizabeth's Uncle remained in Gracechurch-Street, working; he wryly told his niece, just before they left, that he was much obliged to her for finally giving him some peace.

The carriage journey, in the company of her Aunt, the maid, and her four young cousins, the youngest some eight weeks old, was horribly taxing. By the time the carriage stopped in front of the house at Longbourn, Elizabeth sported a bruise upon her calve, where her cousin Christopher had kicked her incidentally, and a vicious headache, brought on by the baby's crying. Still, her joy upon seeing Hill again was of no mean proportions.

The old servant chided Elizabeth immediately and indiscreetly, accusing her of not eating and of looking very ill. Elizabeth did not doubt it was true; for she felt very ill. This winter of tears and heartbreak had left a shadowy imprint upon her features, she thought as she peered in the glass in her old room.

Hill looked at her pointedly, and Elizabeth knew that she was dying to ask her about her husband, whom she had found so very excellent a gentleman during their visit last year. But Elizabeth said nothing to encourage her, for she could not bear to speak about Darcy.

But she was stricken, straight away, by his presence at the house. This was shocking and nonsensical, for this was not his house. But this was, she realized, one place where the two of them had been utterly, incandescently, innocently happy-mere days before they lost each other forever. What a terrible mistake it had been, to come here.

At first, she was angry at herself, and, unreasonably-at him. This was, after all, her home. How dare he deprive her of it! He had Pemberley! He had the London town-house! What was he doing here, at Longbourn, the sight, the smell of him hanging about her everywhere she went? Would she ever be rid of him? Her anger at him revived the lingering unease at the thought that he might have been unfaithful to her in London, and she struggled to banish it.

To her horror, having succeeded at that, she immediately surrendered to her seductive, happy memories of him. Of them, here, together. Their short time together at Longbourn had been the happiest of their marriage... perhaps, of her entire life. Painful as it was to remember it, it was also unbearably sweet-and she found she could not resist it. So blissful they were, she could not bear to banish them.

The day after their arrival, in the gardens, she sat back against a large tree, watching her cousin Emma attempt to make a wildflower wreath. She smiled absently at the girl, then at her Aunt, who was cradling her baby. The sunlight had made her lazy and somnolent, and after a moment's struggle with herself, she closed her eyes. She delighted in the sensation of the sun on her face, seeing and yet not seeing the bright yellow light through her closed eyelids. It warmed her to the depths of her being, leaving her languid and longing, for what-she did not know.

Memories intruded again, as she knew they would. Unbidden, and yet so sweet... Elizabeth held her breath, thinking of walking down these very lanes in Darcy's company, not a year ago. The feeling of his arm beneath hers was nearly physical now, and she could see the tan glove she had given him for his birthday. The exact point her head reached on his shoulder. The sound his walking stick had made as he raked the leaves with its tip; and one it had made when he tossed it aside to gather Elizabeth herself in his arms and kiss her senseless.

They had kissed in the wind, and their lips had dried until they cracked and bled, and she cried and laughed as she kissed him again. Elizabeth sighed, leaning a little more against the tree-trunk. The tree was her only reassurance, her only link to the unvarying familiar misery of here and now; had it not been for the rough bark behind her back, she would have slipped away into the happy dreams. Sighing again, she tangled her fingers in the grass-the same way she had twisted them in Darcy's thick hair...

They had kissed here... and there... and there, on the Oakham Mount. She remembered, flushing deeply, the way his hand had slipped slyly between them to tease her nipple, until she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against his shoulder, breathing shallowly and wishing for the night.

What did he say to her then? Ah... You are my greatest temptation, Elizabeth. She had found it awfully funny that he should call her his temptation when she could barely stay upright for the wanting of him.

They had tempted and teased each other. She had dared, over breakfast, to toe off her slipper and raise her foot into her husband's lap, under the cover of a linen tablecloth. They had been sitting across a small table, set out for them in the garden. He had started, spilling a little of his coffee, then glared at her across the table. Then, he had set his coffee-cup carefully down, caught her ankle and held it firmly in place. She had thought he would remove it, but he had pressed it closer, demanding more of her touch, while holding her gaze unwaveringly across the breakfast table. She had arched and curled her foot, feeling beneath it a growing hardness and the pulse of desire, watching his eyes grow darker and darker with every passing second. When the maid came in, bringing in a pot of fresh coffee, Elizabeth had thought he would release her foot, but he held it still, until she grew shy and looked away first; thereupon, he had released her and she pulled her foot away, fumbled for her slipper under the table, her face scarlet and burning.

During their Longbourn sojourn, she had approached each night with a mix of excitement and apprehension, knowing that she would not refuse him anything he might ask from her. She had always thought him handsome; but following their rapprochement in London, his person in her eyes had acquired such appeal, he could leave her bewildered and yearning with one dark look. She would do whatever he asked of her; and it was her luck, she supposed, that he had asked for so little. A little intimacy, a night spent in each other's arms, tender caresses beneath the blankets, a lingering exploration of her body he allowed himself with the blankets flung away... Nothing at all was said about it, but he seemed content to play with her without taking their games a step too far, leaving their marriage unconsummated.

Elizabeth sighed for the third time and squeezed her eyes shut more tightly. She squirmed inside, a sudden warmth in her belly causing her to squeeze her thighs together as well. Memories of him in the night, his rakish grin and the silent dip of his head as he leaned to kiss her nipple. She should not be thinking of this... she should not ... She could hear the children's voices, rapt at the discovery of a ladybird... Lady-bird, lady-bird fly away home... This, too, brought Darcy to mind, the steadiness of his hand beneath hers as they released the ladybird, the warmth of his cheek against hers. This was not at Longbourn, but at Pemberley-so long ago, it seemed, at the beginning of it all... She felt ages older than that other Elizabeth.

"Lizzy." It was Emma, holding out a wildflower wreath to her. "For you."

"Oh my darling, thank you." All of a sudden, tears welled in Elizabeth's eyes, and she hugged the child tightly, thinking of Georgiana and Jamie and Darcy and everyone and everything she had lost. She took the wreath from Emma and set it upon her head.

"Thank you, love," she said, kissing the girl's cheek, feeling as if she would cry any minute now. All of a sudden, she craved nothing so much as solitude and the four walls of her room. Sighing, she clambered up to her feet.

"Lizzy!" Her Aunt was smiling at her over the bundle in her arms. "Did this little hellion wake you? I thought you were dozing there in the sun."

"No matter, Aunt, I was not really asleep," Elizabeth said with a forced smile. "Fetching, isn't it?" She cocked her head, demonstrating the crudely-made wreath with flower stems and grass blades sticking out every which way.

"You look a real wood-nymph," Mrs. Gardiner said smiling, as she laid her sleeping baby carefully upon a blanket. Little Amelia tugged upon her Mother's skirts, bringing her an offering of a flower; Mrs. Gardiner looked down and cooed to her child, then swung Amy up in her arms and looked at Elizabeth pointedly over her blond head. "Are you well, Lizzy?"

"Tired," Elizabeth replied. "I have had a bad night of it, Aunt, I do not know why. Must be something disagreeing with me. I shall go to my room, now."

To Mrs. Gardiner's concerns and a suggestion of a doctor, she replied that she was not that ill and all she wanted was sleep.

But in her chamber, curled up upon the bed, she cried, seized with despair. For she had not ceased to miss him; and she felt terribly disordered. She had been blissfully blind, happily innocent, before he came into her life. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But the child had disappeared overnight, leaving in its wake a miserable woman full of longing,.

~ * ~

Darcy knocked upon his father's door. Mr. Darcy's man opened the door, then stepped aside with a bow.

"Leave us, Jamison," came his Father's curt voice.

"How are you today, sir?"

"How are the Tennisons?" Mr. Darcy sat, ramrod-straight, in his chair. "Did you resolve that dispute between them and their neighbors, what was their name?"

"The Eardleys," Darcy said. "Indeed I did, sir, to the extent it was possible. There is still much bad blood there. I should not be surprised if one or the other family quits Pemberley before Michaelmas."

"You wouldn't, would you," Mr. Darcy grumbled. Then, with a grimace, he allowed: "Sometimes there is nothing to be done about these tenant feuds but stand by and let one side withdraw."

"I must tell you sir, that out of the two men disputing, I favor John Eardley. He is a hard-working fellow, and he does not drink-which is more than I can say for Hugh Tennison, who indulges in the bottle far too often for my taste."

"Do as you see fit, my boy," said Mr. Darcy. "I trust you are capable enough to handle it." He cleared his throat. "Perhaps you've noticed, Will, but lately, you do not so much ask for my advice as tell me what you've done-"

Flushing to the roots of his hair, Darcy started to protest, but his Father only raised his hand, urging him to listen.

"I do not mind it in the least," he said mildly. "This gives me a consolation of knowing that this estate will not go to the dogs when I am gone. You are a good Master to the people at Pemberley."

Darcy found himself compleatly lost for words. This was as high a praise as ever he'd had from his father. And he did not say "you will be a good Master," but "you are." He cleared his throat, doing his best to conceal his upheaval. So here you are, he thought, a country squire. The thought felt wonderful.

"I did not so call you here to talk about the tenants, Will," said Mr. Darcy, his tone is changing. "Rather-it's Elizabeth."

Darcy felt all blood drain from his face. "Elizabeth," he repeated.

"Your wife, boy, whose name you've not said these six months."

"My wife," Darcy repeated, trying his hardest not to let himself slip into bitterness.

"She has written to me. She wants to come and visit the invalid."

"When?" Darcy asked. This was a great shock, something he had not expected. He swallowed the thick lump in his throat. "When is Mrs. Darcy to grace us with her presence?"

"At the end of next week," his Father said quietly. "Unless I tell her otherwise."

"Why would you do something like that?" Darcy shrugged. "End of next week is as good time as any."

"Indeed." Mr. Darcy craned his head. "You will be-"

"In Cornwall," Darcy finished. He was, in truth, going to hunt with Gregory at Willets Abbey.

"I could write to her," Mr. Darcy said. "Ask her to come before-or after. While you are here."

"Did Mrs. Darcy know that I shall be absent from Pemberley?" Darcy asked, his voice hard.

"I believe she did." His Father looked away, towards the window, towards the gardens. "I believe your friend Lord Gregory does sometimes correspond with her."

"Does he, indeed." Darcy frowned, turned away to follow his Father's gaze at the gold and red of early October behind the window. He did not know why this surprised him: after all, Gregory had always been partial to Elizabeth, looking upon her as an older brother might regard a precocious younger sister. IN the same manner, Darcy supposed, that James Bennet would have treated her, had he been here. Gregory, who was possessed of a very mild and peaceable nature, and who knew of their break with Elizabeth only what Darcy, himself, had chosen to tell him... At least this was what Darcy had believed, until now-but his Father's news incensed him.

"I am certain that were you to ask His Lordship to cease writing to your wife, he would comply. He appears to be an honorable man, and I simply cannot fathom he is doing this with any ulterior motive-"

"Of course not. I shall not speak with him. Gregory is my friend, I trust him." But jealousy, more powerful, more vicious than he had ever felt, swamped him momentarily. His rational mind told him that Gregory would never do anything questionable; but his heart was bitter.

"It would appear, Father, that Mrs. Darcy wishes to arrive to Pemberley in my absence," he said dully. His Father did not deny it, and Darcy felt his anger swell. "Write to her, sir, and tell her to come here next Friday-I shall make myself absent from Pemberley before she arrives."

"Really, Will-" Mr. Darcy frowned. But he could say nothing further of substance, and only shrugged helplessly. "Good God!" he said with sudden bitterness. "How it hurts me to watch the two of you drive your happiness into its grave!"

Darcy shrugged. He needed to be alone just now, fearing that every dark emotion he was feeling showed clearly on his face. "Write to Mrs. Darcy, Father, tell her I shall be gone."

He did go, the day before she was to arrive, but he did not go to Cornwall. Still very sore at Gregory-though on further reflection, the possibility that his friend should play him false was as ludicrous as it was unrealistic-Darcy wrote His Lordship a bitter letter and removed himself to London. Before he went, he had kissed his sister, and his father, and even-furtively and out of everyone's presence-Cat, who had purred and butted his cheek with the top of his orange head.

"Libertine," Darcy grumbled, letting the animal go. Instantly, Cat hopped upon a windowsill and peered at Darcy with his incandescent yellow eyes, his pupils narrowed by the light. "You had better be here when I come back."

He was gone, then, at such furious pace that earth flying from under Kublai's hooves hit the vicar's hat as the good man was leaving the church. Had Darcy seen it, he would have surely dismounted and apologized; but his mind was far away and he saw nothing but Elizabeth in it.

In London, Darcy hid out, avoiding all his acquaintances, not taking any calls, waiting only to return to Pemberley. He was miserable and angry at his wife. What did she mean by uprooting him now? He would have thought she understood that London was her situation, and Pemberley was his. Did she not understand how important-how essential-it was to keep away from each other, each to his own corner? He knew he was being unreasonable. She was, after all, his wife. She had every right to come to Pemberley. Lord, she owned Pemberley. And then, of course, there was his father. Elizabeth was uncommonly attached to Mr. Darcy, and of course, her desire to visit him was only natural. He knew ... he knew all that.

But it did him no good.

Gregory did not fail to follow Darcy to town. On his third day there, His Lordship visited the town-house, waited for some twenty minutes and left his card, asking Darcy to call. To ignore it would be beyond impolite, it would be insulting. Darcy was angry enough at his friend to break it all off; but he told himself that Gregory had not meant to cause him this grief, and he went to call on him.

Still, appearing at his friend's town-house the morning after his call, Darcy knew that his countenance had about it the quality of a black thundercloud. He wished he could do something about it; but the truth was, he wanted Gregory to know just how angry at him he was. One look at his friend, and he knew that the ill feeling was mutual. At the sight of him, Gregory stood up from the breakfast table and bowed stiffly.

"How good of you to call. Will you not sit down?"

Darcy had no stomach for food just now, but he sat down all the same. It would do him no good to refuse his friend's hospitality. But starting the conversation-be it even with recriminations-was beyond him just at the moment, so he sipped his coffee in silence, taking a certain pleasure in the fact that it was very bitter and singing-hot. Gregory, silent as well, peered at him darkly across the table.

"You did not join me at Willets," he said after a while. "And then I received your letter." He glared at Darcy over his coffee cup. "I am surprised at you."

"Indeed, my lord!" Darcy set his own cup down, instantly angry. How dare Gregory even suggest he was the one in the wrong! "Why is that?"

"Because you have known me long enough," said Gregory in tones of mild reproach, "not to suspect any ulterior motives on my part."

"Had I thought so, I should be calling on you with an entirely different purpose, my lord."

"I know you enough to believe that," Gregory said with a heavenward roll of his eyes. There was a pause during which Darcy emptied his coffee-cup like he might a glass of brandy on a cold day; the drink singed his gullet. "If you do not think me duplicitous in the matter, then, why-"

"You had no business writing to my wife," Darcy said bluntly.

Gregory shrugged.

"You are angry at me because Mrs. Darcy is avoiding you. Something in which I had no hand whatsoever, beyond telling her that I was to be out of town this week, shooting with you in Cornwall."

"Why did you tell her that?"

"Because I have made myself available to her, Darcy, in case she might need help-or a friend."

"You admit to that!" Darcy said, shocked.

"You would not want me to?" Gregory peered at him curiously. "Really! You do not think I have it in mind to seduce her, and yet you do not want me to-"

"I have thought you to be my friend first."

"I am your friend-" Gregory frowned. "I have not thought the two things were mutually exclusive. You and Mrs. Darcy are not enemies, surely?"

"No," Darcy admitted grudgingly.

"I thought you would be glad if she had someone to turn to in town."

"She has her family," Darcy said stubbornly. "She has no need of you."

"I should think you somewhat more magnanimous. I should think you would leave that choice to her." Gregory shook his head and paused again. "You are not eating right now, are you? Very well, then, come, I shall show you something."

Each banged a chair as he rose, and the two of them left the breakfast room in dead silence. Nothing was yet mended between them; indeed, Darcy felt worse about the whole matter than when he had appeared here this morning.

In his study, Gregory took a folded piece of paper out of his desk and held it out to Darcy.

"Read it."

Darcy unfolded the paper, nonplussed, seeing that it was a letter, and suddenly mortified of it being Elizabeth's letter. The thought of reading her letters to another filled him with dread, revulsion, and yet-with jealousy.

But it was not Elizabeth's, he saw it the moment he unfolded it. The hand was far too pretty and polished to be hers. Wholly unfamiliar to him, too.

"One who only wishes you well writes to inform you that your husband was seen in the company of a notorious courtesan, one Valerie Degas, during a soiree at the Vauxhall gardens. He was seen leaving with her, and he was seen quitting her lodgings the following morning."

He raised horrified eyes at Gregory who stood there, arms crossed on his chest.

"What is it?" Darcy demanded. A stupid question, if there ever was one.

Gregory said nothing, peering at him expressively.

"How did you come by it?"

"Your wife sent it to me. Desiring to know whether it was true, and who wrote it." Gregory sounded like an accusing Fury.

"Why did you not tell me about this earlier?"

"What would be the use of spreading this even further? I am only telling you now because you seem to think me false."

Another awkward pause, and Gregory asked: "Would not you like to know what I told her?"

"You know that I would, Alex!" Darcy said, deeply moved.

"As to the latter, I told her I did not know."

"Do you?"

"Do you?" Gregory narrowed his eyes. "Lord knows there are people enough amongst your family willing you ill now."

Darcy shook his head. "I had no notion of any such letter ever having been written."

"In any case, I did not think that the identity of the writer was the important part. Any number of people might have witnessed you anticks at Vauxhall."

"That is the latter, then. What did you tell her about the former?"

"I lied to her," Gregory said evenly. "I told her that I could not fathom that you would ever value her and your marriage so little as to consort with a known courtesan."

Darcy opened his mouth to explain himself-for the episode with Valerie Degas remained in his memory as something he had done out of sheer desperation, something so out of character it was... unintelligent. Something that in no way represented how he felt about his wife or his obligations to her. But he could not defend his behavior, could not lower himself to describe to Gregory his fiasco and his own shame in its wake.

So he bowed his head.

"Did she believe you?"

"I think she wanted very much to believe me."

Deeply shamed, Darcy thanked his friend.

Gregory nodded, smiling in clear relief. "I have no better friend than you, and it irks me to see you ruin your own happiness," he said quietly. "You are fortunate to have such happiness, too. Some of us have to scramble for your scraps, Darcy."

Darcy stared at his friend in incomprehension, wondering whether he had imagined the dark cloud that had quickly passed over Gregory's countenance. But His Lordship seemed to have recovered momentarily, and continued:

"And your wife-she is a worthy woman, a lady and a good person. But she is ever so young, and facing the world all alone just now. I have not thought I would need to tell you this, Darcy, but... be kind to her, my friend."

Unable to say anything in response (and what was there to say?), Darcy merely nodded again.

"Do you acquit me of any wrongdoing now, Darcy?"

Though still far from enamoured of the idea of Elizabeth having found a correspondent in Lord Gregory, Darcy also knew, logically, that he ought to acquit them both. Still fighting his own green-eyed monster, he nonetheless agreed. A re-invitation to Willets Abbey followed forthwith; and very soon, their friendship was well on the way to being mended.

Chapter 27

After her arrival to "Fort Sinjun," as both the British and the sepoys called it, Malvina was ill with exhaustion for a good week. For seven days, she did not quit her bed. She closed her eyes and saw, unbearably, Charles die again and again; and she saw Captain Bennet's terrified visage, and Ishmael crashing into the water before her eyes. When she woke, half-drifting back into the world, it appeared to her through the white of the mosquito netting above her bed; and she could hear her father's worried voice asking about her, and a stranger droning where she could not see him.

"-fatigue-exhaustion-not unusual-will recover if bled-"

But when next woken from her reverie by the feeling of a tourniquet being tied around her arm, Malvina pushed him away and sat up.

"Good god," she said hoarsely. "Is there any water?"

A very young half-breed maidservant almost tripped over her saree bringing her a glass of cool boiled water. Malvina drank deeply, with her eyes closed, and then she sighed and fell back against the bed. To think they were about to bleed her!

"You have given me a right fright, Mal," her Father said disapprovingly, but she could hear huge relief in his voice. "How are you feeling now, my love?"

"Home," she said, smiling to herself. "I feel at home, Father. But please do not attempt to bleed me, for I shall not suffer it."

The doctor gathered his things and left in a huff.

Having woken, she ate. From a tray in her bedroom, she ate like a true glutton, without looking what it was she was consuming. The food-cold boiled mutton with curry spices, a delicious baked hen and the best potatoes anywhere this side of the equator-was full of divine flavors, and after she ate, she stretched out upon the bed-to sleep again.

"Oh no," said Colonel Forster, who had watched her gorge herself from beside her bed. "Absolutely not. Perhaps you have mistaken this place for seven sleepers' den?"

With as much ceremony as befitted a child, he yanked the covers off her.

"Get yourself out of this bed, Miss," he said, reaching for a robe near the bed. She caught it and glared at him.

"Why can't I sleep?" she asked sullenly, but sat up and slipped her arms in the robe.

"Because the world is asking about you. Officers' wives are all a-flutter with the news that Miss Malvina is back."

"Mrs. Bingley now," she corrected, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.

"Yes. Mrs. Bingley." The Colonel looked upon her disbelievingly. "My little girl. My poor child."

Malvina looked up at her father as she tied the sash of her robe. "Stop it, sir." She could already see where this was going, could sense the tremor in his voice. She thought she had accepted her loss, but it was unbearable to see him pity her.

The Colonel, without saying another word, pulled her into a quick embrace, patting her hair with a kindly hand.

"My poor child," he repeated bitterly. "Such misfortune, and I could not even be next to you."

Malvina pushed herself out of her father's arms. "It was very sudden," she said, wiping at her eyes. "Nobody could have helped me, Father. Listen," she said, quickly changing the subject. "Did you by any chance bring my old things from St. George? I do wonder whether I can wear my old sarees."

"Malvina," he said disapprovingly. He had never liked her going about "like a savage," as he put it.

"Either that, or widow's weeds, Father. And I cannot abide any more weeds."

As it turned out, the large trunk she had left behind upon going to England had been brought over to Fort Sinjun. She was thankful for it, though she knew it was not by design; rather, lack thereof. Her father, upon relocating the entire military household, did not think to leave his daughter's old things behind, but had all of them brought over to the new fort. That very day, she descended, together with two burly soldiers and her new servant girl. The girl, like many Indian half-breeds, went by a Biblical name of Ruth and a nondescript surname of Jones. They went, by way of the maze-like stairwells and corridors, to a deep cellar. There, to her indignation, Malvina found her old trunk-a beautiful thing of thick rosewood and fanciful brass designs. Unhappy that it was simply thrown about in the cellar, she asked the soldiers to carry it upstairs.

In her bedchamber, which she had finally noticed to be extraordinarily beautiful, with delicate white curtains and exquisitely painted walls, she ordered the dusty trunk placed by her bed. The soldiers then bowed out, and after Ruth quickly wiped the dust off the heavy lid, Malvina herself pried it open.

She replaced the Indian clothing-expensive gold-stitched sarees, long salwar trousers and pretty kameez shirts-with the many dresses of thick, dull black she had brought with her. She would not wear them anymore. She had disembarked in Madras ... Lord, it seemed like forever ago. It had been early December then, and what with her wait in Madras, and with their long travel on horseback, and with her recent illness...

Malvina looked up at young Ruth:

"What day is it?"

The girl told her in her lilting, prettily accented English, keeping her eyes on the floor. The world had passed into the new year while she slept.

She had had enough of mourning, Malvina told herself. She ordered Ruth to freshen the Indian clothes from the trunk and demanded a bath.

Afterwards, dressed in clothing she had bought in Madras, a dark-green silk saree that felt divine against her skin, she stood upon her red stone balcony and looked down at the valley below. The view before her, towards Seringapatam and away from Madras, was one of lush green hills which turned a hazy shade of blue as they stretched towards the horizon. The ghats, she remembered. If she squinted just right, she could tell the white shimmering ribbon of a very distant waterfall. She closed her eyes, overwhelmed by the beauty before her.

"Memsahib?"

Malvina opened her eyes and smiled at the girl Ruth.

"A soldier brought this."

Malvina took the small pouch, wondering at it for a moment, and then she knew. A miniature dancing figure of dark bronze fell into her palm. Next to her, Ruth mechanically touched her folded hands to her forehead. Goddess Parvati. How had he-

Suddenly aflutter, Malvina felt the heat in her face. She had not thought about the Captain since waking up, though he had come to her often in her fevered dreams. She looked inside the velvet pouch and found a note. So this is his hand, she thought, looking at the rather large letters crowding awkwardly on the scrap of paper. Charles' hand was neat and calligraphic, perfect for billets-doux.

"You dropped this when you fell. J.B."

Malvina smiled to herself. How audacious of him. She was momentarily roused, and yet-disappointed. Had J.B. not thought of anything else to say? Her lips burned suddenly, as if remembering the Captain's kisses, and she squeezed her eyes tightly, forcing him out of her mind. Still, she set the little Parvati atop her vanity.

Half an hour later, her hair pulled back and set in a heavy knot in the Indian style by Ruth, she went down to supper, taking care not to tread on her shimmering green saree. Standing quietly on the bottom step, she looked over the people conversing and flirting in her father's drawing-room, which was small and stifled, but featured the same breathtaking views of green valleys and distant waterfalls. Her father was there, of course, speaking with an older, kindly-looking lady with stiff, gray, very old-fashioned hair. Several officers and younger ladies, all wearing European dress of three seasons ago, but no Captain Bennet. It was difficult to think of him as James, even after she had kissed him. Her disappointment welling up inside once again, Malvina wondered whether she would have felt as cheated, had it not been for his earlier gallant gesture.

Suddenly, her Father smiled and beckoned, which made the imperious-looking dowager turned her head as well. Then, everybody stopped their many conversations and turned to look at her. Her father quickly excused himself from his companion and walked forward to offer her his arm. Malvina saw the women look at her with something akin to sacred horror: for she was the only European woman here dressed in native clothing.

"Welcome back, my dear," said the older lady with genuine sweetness and kissed her cheek; she smelled of dried clove and clothes that had been kept in chests all winter. "I am certain you do not remember me, after so many years abroad."

Malvina remembered her instantly: Mrs. Howrey was a wife of a colonel many years ago, when Malvina's own father was a major. The old lady had liked the precocious girl and had allowed her, many a time, to play with her treasures-boxes of fans and rolls of Alençon lace.

"I did not know-" she started.

"Oh, I came back to St. George, after my husband died, and have since followed my daughter-" she pointed at a young girl in the corner, wearing a coral gown. "Mrs. Meadows." The girl, hearing her name spoken, looked up at her mother and smiled. "She is married to a lieutenant serving under your Father."

Malvina nodded absentmindedly, not terribly interested, and Mrs. Howrey instantly misinterpreted her reserve for heartbreak.

"M'dear!" she cried, clasping her hands before her lace-draped bosom. "I did not mean to speak to you of marriage, knowing that you are, so young, a widow..."

"Do not worry yourself with it," Malvina said pleasantly. The subject of her widowhood was utterly unbearable to her, physically sickening; but the old woman had meant well. "Shall you introduce me around?"

Now that she knew the evening would not involve Captain Bennet, any interest she might have in it dwindled and disappeared. She was vastly pleased to see her father, but she would rather see him alone. The last thing she wanted was to be complimented by the brash Welshman Major Llewellyn or accosted by the young Mrs. Meadows and Miss Heloise Stewart. The latter, very pretty and very, very silly, immediately desired to know what one wore in London (and Paris? And Paris!) this winter.

"I really would not know," Malvina said politely. "I have not had much interest in fashion lately."

The girl stared at her with disbelief. "Oh but you do not know your good fortune!" she exclaimed. "What would I not give to live in England! In London!"

Malvina shrugged, thinking about how much she had given up, as it turned out, to live in London.

She smiled at the girl and fixed the long scarf of her own saree.

"People are just as miserable in London as anywhere else," she said pleasantly, and watched Miss Stewart's face grow rather long. "Excuse me."

She stood on the balcony, watching the sun roll down beyond the ghats. It was quickly turning the sky burnished gold. A small bright-green parrot, unafraid, landed upon the latticed balcony railing. Enchanted, Malvina extended one hand, and the bird fluttered up-only to settle another moment later a bare handspan away.

"If you stand very still, it will think you a statue and land upon your shoulder," a voice said behind her. She smiled to herself before she turned around, slowly.

"Captain Bennet," she said, smiling, suddenly shy, looking into the pair of eyes that were the warmest, sweetest brown she had ever perceived.

Later that night, after they had broken every rule of proper conduct by staying so alone, and so far apart from everybody else, Malvina said to James Bennet:

"We had better rejoin my Father's guests."

"Do you wish for it?"

Malvina cocked her head. "It would be proper."

"Odd," he said quietly, earnestly, one finger stroking tenderly the back of her hand upon the balcony's railing. "That your desires should be so different from mine."

"Truly?"

"I should much rather stay away from your father's guests."

From oh-so-far away, came the memory of what it had been like to flirt and tease and laugh.

"Are they so objectionable to you that you would insult them by staying away all night?"

"I confess I could not say." It was growing dark rapidly, and the animal sounds in the night made the hairs on Malvina's bare arms stand up on end. A native servant came out to light the oil lamps; in the uneven glow, Malvina strained to see James Bennet's eyes, to see whether he was making sport of her. But he appeared utterly serious. "They have not crossed my mind all evening."

Malvina felt flushed and momentarily, terrified. There was something terribly familiar in the way he was looking at her just now. Charles had looked at her this way. The two men could not have been more different, and yet, Charles had looked at her just like this. A sudden coldness in the pit of her stomach made her ill. She had gone too far, too fast.

"And yet," she said in an unnaturally high voice, "you shall be forced to tolerate their company for the rest of the evening, for we must return."

She made as if to move ahead of him, and he bowed his head and offered her his arm.

"Of course."

They had not talked at all for the rest of the evening. Malvina, her equanimity nearly restored, attempted her best to ignore the Captain, moving amongst the crowd, smiling and talking. But it injured her to see him speak kindly with Miss Stewart, who looked up at him adoringly.

And then, she could not see him amongst the guests. Trying very hard not to appear eager, she looked for him, but he had gone. Dressed in gold, he walked gracefully amongst the guests. She was feeling absurdly bereft. When it was finally polite to do so, she, too, retired. The next night, her Father invited the officers to dine with him. Malvina dressed with particular care, picking out just the right saree and a pair of heavy dangling ear-lobes for her ears; but her disappointment was acute when once again, Captain Bennet was not found amongst the guests.

They were all there, from the dark Welshman Major Llewellyn to the very young and tender Lieutenant Cranford, who on better acquaintance proved both pleasant and intelligent. But no Captain. Malvina, now feeling utterly foolish, told herself that she would not preen for him anymore. If they should meet over the next days or weeks, Malvina thought, so much the better. They would meet as indifferent acquaintances-she would see to that. Oh yes, very indifferent... She sighed. This had been madness from the start-after all, she was a widow, she had loved her husband...

But they did not meet over the next weeks. He seemed to have gone, God knows where. From her Father's silence on the subject, Malvina concluded that at least the Colonel knew where the Captain was. Still, she thought, would it kill him to write? He had kissed her on their way from Madras, had saved her life on the river (and she had saved his!), had looked at her in a way that turned her weak at the knees. Had flirted outrageously with her first night from her bed. And then, without a word of warning, without so much as a note, he was gone.

After two weeks, her initial disappointment at not seeing him turned to resignation. However little she liked being kissed passionately and then abandoned, she would ascribe no special meaning to that kiss. His absence stung her, and she soon made herself forget the little bronze goddess, and swept it off her vanity into one of the drawers. She thought then, again, that there wasn't much to it: people dallied; widows dallied. She did not like the thought of it-on her part, kissing the Captain under the bright Indian moon was no dalliance, but a desperate urge to fall away from her previous life-but no harm had been done. Never, not even for a moment, did she think that he would be indiscreet; and so, she did not worry.

He came back after nearly a month of absence, completely unexpectedly, and in a flurry of movement and activity. Malvina was in a spare white room that opened generously onto the red stone gallery, when she heard him. She had been sitting with Ruth, teaching her to read. The girl was bright, she had noticed, but untutored and ignorant, for no-one had taken the time to teach her anything. At first, Malvina could hardly credit her ears-hearing the quick, hurried step through the courtyard, the clink of his spurs on the stones, and his voice calling out friendly "hellos" to fellow officers.

"Remember where we stopped," she told Ruth, marking the line in the book-her own old reading schoolbook-with a light pencil. She rose, hitching up the long folds of her saree, and walked out onto the gallery. It was undignified, she knew, to peer at the man from above; but she could scarce help herself.

He did not see her, and she barely saw him, as he had just about crossed the courtyard and disappeared on the western side of the Fort, where her Father's offices were. And yet, it was unmistakable-she would recognize his carriage anywhere she saw it. Immediately, she reached within for reassurance that she did not care for this man. That she would be able to remain indifferent, if she only tried hard enough. No-she would not have to try, even. They were indifferent acquaintances, and nothing else. There, she thought. I do not care for this man...

At supper, they were seated next to each other. Malvina looked sharply at her Father, who feigned innocence with a shrug, but she could not very well change seats without giving offense. She reminded herself that it was hardly necessary. Indifferent acquaintances.

The conversation at the table went to hunting, the subject most women abhorred. Major Llewellyn wished to embark upon a tiger hunt, and immediately, stories of tiger hunts gone bad came from all sides.

"Stop it, stop it!" cried the young Mrs. Meadows impetuously. "You are making me ill, all of you, with your grisly stories!"

"The truth of the matter is," Captain Bennet said quietly at her side, "that Llewellyn is the most abominable shot and would likely get himself eaten by a tiger."

Fighting her annoyance with him-had he nothing better to say to her?-Malvina shrugged noncommittally.

"You are cross with me," came an immediate whisper.

"I am not!" Too much indignant heat in her voice, all her denials immediately belied. She was cross with him. Indifferent acquaintance be damned; one did not kiss a woman and left her hanging.

"You are, too," he whispered, even quieter. "And you have every right to be."

"You are patronizing me." She caught herself and spoke quietly now. "Captain."

"I am apologizing."

"No need to apologize."

"Really. Oh well, then, fine." And he turned away from her. Outraged and humiliated, and yet unable to tell him all she thought of this infamous behavior, Malvina turned to her neighbor on the left-a young man clearly bored with the hunting conversation.

He was a young officer, rather handsome, though not the kind Malvina liked. She had always been attracted to men with faces that were open and honest. Charles had been like that-you could read his every thought in his eyes. She had found that the Captain was like that, as well. The young gentleman on her left, his regimentals so very new, looked shuttered to her, as if he had much to hide. Still, upon her turning to him and inquiring whence he had come, his countenance did clear, lit up by a disarming smile. Perhaps I had been unfair to him, Malvina thought.

"I am Mrs. Bingley," she said, giving him her hand.

"Lieutenant Wickham," he said, smiling at her.

Avoiding diligently the Captain on her right, Malvina spoke with the young man and learned soon that he had only just come from England some ten days ago; that he had traveled from Madras with Captain Bennet, who had kindly agreed to take him on; and that he was already much enamoured of India.

"I have a traveler's soul," he confessed. "It yearns for the wonders of the world."

"You will find those a-plenty here," Malvina said, thinking, oh, then, Captain Bennet had gone to Madras... He started telling her of the things he had hoped to see, the local wonders.

"The Elephanta Caves hold the particular interest for me," he threw out.

So much for the traveler's soul, Malvina thought. "I hate to disappoint you, sir, but the Elephanta Caves are not anywhere near here. You must go to Bombay to see them." Catching an uncomprehending expression, she continued. "On the other side of India, sir."

He laughed shamefacedly and confessed to never having been outside England, which spoke volumes to her. A young man of standing would have likely gone on a Grand Tour, or some approximation of it. Not to mention that one could learn geography without setting foot outside England...

She observed him curiously. He was very handsome, with lank dark hair falling over a high brow and eyes that were an unnatural dark blue. His manners appeared superficial to her and did little to conceal that he was not born a gentleman. His eyes were glassy, Malvina noticed, and she felt his smile was insincere-though bestowed generously all around. Malvina only had the time to shame herself for being unfair to the fellow when he began flirting with her most outrageously, complimenting her on her sea-green saree, and asking her questions that were only short of prying. By the end of the interview, she found she disliked the fellow a great deal, but as he was her escape from James Bennet, she found she could not quite escape him.

Her dislike of the man overran when he informed her, all of a sudden, that they had a common acquaintance.

"Mr. Darcy," he clarified for her. London, and Darcy, had been so far away, she stared at him with incomprehension.

"Indeed," she said slowly at last. "Fitzwilliam Darcy?"

Lieutenant Wickham nodded eagerly. "And his entire family. But I meant the younger Darcy, of course."

"He was a close friend of my late husband," Malvina said cautiously.

"Ah, indeed." Mr. Wickham smiled at her. He had a dazzling smile, and she frowned to herself, more irritated than taken by it. "Darcy can be generous and fair-minded to his equals," he said so pointedly, and with such heavy import, Malvina cringed within.

She would not encourage it. "He was a good friend to me in my hour of need. But then again, perhaps I am his equal." She stared down at the man, challenging another word from him on the subject. She abhorred a teller of tales, a man eager to disparage another's reputation.

She turned back to the Captain and found him agreeably engaged in a conversation with Miss Stewart. She hated him instantly for that. For the next half an hour, she persisted in grim silence-unwilling to entertain the companion on her left, ignored by the companion on her right.

Then, turning to her, Captain Bennet whispered: "What do you say we go for a walk after supper?" She was expected to entertain her Father's guests after supper, and the Captain had only just spent the better part of the second course flirting with Miss Stewart. But she only nodded, immediately and silently.

Mr. Wickham continued to flirt and smile at her whenever she turned his way. He was inexhaustible; it was exasperating. She escaped at the first opportunity, after the men had repaired to her Father's study for cigars and brandy, and the ladies to the sitting room. Mrs. Howrey, lording over all, passed for the hostess tolerably; Malvina told herself she would hardly be missed.

Captain Bennet found her there very soon, before she had time to grow cross with him. He brought her a shawl.

"Mine," she said in surprise. "How did you-"

"I asked your maid, the little black girl. Told her you had asked for it." He grinned at her, pleased with himself.

She was about to tell him off for lying to her maid; but the shawl was welcome, and she said nothing as he swathed the cashmere around her shoulders.

"You look very beautiful in it," he said earnestly. Then, in a quieter voice: "You look very beautiful without it, too."

Malvina shot him a displeased narrow glance: she had hoped he would not start with the lovers' talk. Indifferent acquaintances, she reminded herself.

"Listen," she said to him, leaning upon the proffered arm. They stepped into the shadows and walked slowly across the perimeter of the gallery, which ran all around the Fort's enormous courtyard-a beautiful collection of stone statues, both European and Indian, gurgling fountains and a large rose garden. "What of this man Wickham? What is this story he tells about your sister's husband?"

"I see that he has found a new victim."

"Not in me," Malvina said immediately, his tone of voice allowing her to understand that she had done well to interrupt Lieutenant Wickham's account. "I despise such men."

"And yet you want to know the story?"

"Not from him, but I should like to know what he's saying about Darcy. The man was a good friend to me when Charles died."

"He harps ungraciously upon an injustice supposedly done to him years ago, when they were still boys away at school."

"So many years later."

"Imagine that. He says that Darcy contrived to have him thrown out of school and Pemberley both."

Malvina frowned. "If Darcy was this spiteful as a child, I am glad to say he is much improved as a man."

"Wickham pretends to absolve him of all unkindness, but it is painfully obvious that he holds a grudge."

"Pray tell me he does not say that Darcy's father loved him better than his own son."

The Captain laughed quietly. "How did you know?"

"Every poor child unfortunate enough to lose the protection of a wealthy patron says that." She sighed. "I shall write to Darcy forthwith, telling him of these lies."

She could see the Captain peer at her curiously. "Wickham is a distasteful fellow, ma'am, but how do you know that he is lying?"

She shrugged. "Because had it been true, he would hardly be wearing it like a bloody badge."

He nodded. "You are correct, probably. Wouldst that my sister had your good sense."

Malvina said nothing, and he continued. "Elizabeth gave him a letter of introduction. He brought it with him. Here." He stopped, then took out the folded letter and handed it to Malvina. She unfolded it, frowning in the uneven light of the hanging oil lamp.

"London, October 22, 180*. Gracechurch-Street.
Dearest Brother,

Please allow me to introduce my Friend Mr. George Wickham, who is now to serve in your Regiment. Please know that I am writing this against my Husband's wishes, as he would not have anything to do with Mr. Wickham, for reasons, I cannot help concluding, of extreme Prejudice. Please give my Friend Mr. Wickham any and all Assistance, as my Husband's treatment of him pains me greatly, and I hope that my brother would prove more gracious. I remain here, your loving sister Elizabeth Darcy."

Malvina handed him back the letter. "If ever there was a spirited introduction," she said wryly. "It seems Mr. Wickham has charmed his way into your sister's heart."

"She is young," James Bennet said with an unhappy grimace. "I spent ten days on the road with this fellow, and I am inclined to share Darcy's "extreme prejudice" of him-if any such exists."

"I am glad we feel the same," Malvina said. "I cannot abide a man who shames others into accepting him by recounting childhood ills!"

"And yet my sister has asked me to be gracious to him."

"Gracious you must be, but no more than that."

"No more," he echoed thoughtfully. "I am not at all happy that he has driven a wedge of some sort between my sister and her husband." He peered at the letter again. "My husband's treatment of him pains me greatly. And this is after several letters telling me just how good Darcy had been to her. What a foolish child."

"Do not worry for them," Malvina said quietly. "They will fix things for themselves."

"And if they do not?"

Malvina shrugged. "And if they do not, you are still thousands of miles away and can do nothing to help."

He glared at her. "Have you no heart, woman?"

Malvina shook her head solemnly. "Think with your head, not your heart, sir."

"Ancient Egyptians believe we think with our hearts, and not our heads."

"That they did," Malvina said. "And where are they now?"

They grinned at each other like accomplices and walked on.

"What were you doing talking to this fellow, anyway?"

"You should hardly be asking me this question, Captain, not after I have witnessed you lavish attention upon the young Miss Stewart..."

"Touché," he agreed, "though I only paid attention to her because you ignored me, my friend."

Malvina wanted to tell him that he should not have stayed away so long without so much as a word...that he should not have ignored her after coming back to the Fort... or better yet, to tell him that it did not signify, that nothing was and could never be between them-but she said nothing, standing silent before him.

"Malvina," he whispered, taking a liberty with her Christian name. "You are right to be cross with me."

"I am not cross-" she started irritably, but he caught her wrist and drew her, without another word, into the dusky recess behind a column.

"Listen," he said very quietly. "I could not write to you because I was away on Army business. "

She nodded, her pique with him all but gone. "I figured as much. But one does not kiss a lady and then just... leave her."

She let him back herself against a column. 'I know that, madam. I feel very guilty."

She was looking up into his face now, smiling, expecting to be kissed. He was hovering over her, taller by a head. She could see his unruly dark hair and the glint of dusky eyes. He stroked her cheek.

"Malvina," he said gently. "Allow me to court you, madam."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "I am a widow, sir. What would be the-um-purpose of your courtship?"

He grinned at her in the dark. "Whatever you desire!"

She liked this answer; if he started with marriage talk now, she might well have run.

Malvina reached up, letting her fingers slide into his hair. "But you cannot flirt with Miss Stewart if you court me, Captain. The poor chit well-nigh lost her head listening to you."

"As you say." He leaned lower, grazing her cheek with his lips. Malvina shivered at the strength in his arms. She felt a little faint with wanting.

Someone was taking shallow, loud breaths, and she was quite abashed to know it was her.

She nodded. "Shall we shake hands on it, Captain?"

He laughed hoarsely. "Oh, I have a better idea." He kissed her, then, tenderly and deeply, and she melted, catching his lapels in a kind of desperate, drowning grip. And when he finally interrupted the kiss, she forced her fingers to let go of them.

"It will be a really good courtship," he murmured, releasing her with a sigh.

Malvina slipped past him, turned and hurried away from him and along the gallery, hoping desperately that the cool night air would soothe her burning lips.

The entire Fort believed, then, that the dashing Captain Bennet and the Colonel's widowed daughter had some manner of an understanding. Malvina did not correct their misapprehension; but nothing between them was said about marriage. Malvina knew that the Captain was, indeed, a man of honor, and would marry her before she ever went to bed with him. But she did not want that; not now; not yet. She found James Bennet arresting and desirable, but the thought of marriage filled her with dismay.

For all that, she would gladly take him to her bed. The thought felt wicked, shocking to her-she had never thought of any man in this fashion. But he, her dashing dark Captain, sat with her and Ruth, reading Mallory and Sidney and Lord Byron to them in his beautiful voice, kissed her wrist tenderly at the end of it, walked with her in the gallery, helped her plant roses in the ladies' garden... Malvina had to admit she had not enjoyed herself that much since Charles... no, never. Charles was kind and good; but he could never have looked so innocent and make her feel so weak in the knees at the same time.

The Captain kissed her-sometimes, when they were alone, when the fancy struck him. Just a kiss, no more than that; though less and less chaste every time she saw him. She found it maddening, she found it arousing. After all, she was a widow and had been kissed before, and yet, every time they met, she waited the duration of the meeting for his one kiss. She spent hours pondering the possibility of Captain Bennet's tongue slipping past her lips when he kissed her at the end of supper tonight.

Supper, held in her chambers, brazenly; supper that could have ended in bed. But when it did not, when at the end of it, he kissed her and then released her, with obvious regret, she tried her hardest not to feel disappointed. She would not hurry him, as she enjoyed every desperate, expectant moment of it. He had made good on his word-it was a very good courtship.

He had made good on his word in other respects as well, and had stopped flirting with Miss Stewart-or any other young females around-his very earnestness and sternness leaving Malvina lusting after him even more. Her Father watched them, perplexed and thoughtful, but said nothing. Malvina expected a reprimand for serving supper for the Captain just off her boudoir, but received only a stunned silence on the subject. Clearly, the Colonel knew not what to say.

Though she was, supposedly, her father's hostess, her social obligations were meager, for nobody thought a widow much fun. This suited her quite well, for she found she did not like the society any better than before. The local society, too, mistook her reserve for London haughtiness and secretly declared her a bore. She did host her Father's suppers now and again, but now and again was far from frequent. Here, too, she noticed that her father's men appeared wary of her, much as they did on her voyage from Madras. It suited her fine, for the only man whose society she desired did, in fact, pay her ever kind of solicitous attention.

So, with little to do, she occupied herself with reading and teaching the half-breed servant girl Ruth the English alphabet and grammar. She tried not to think of Captain Bennet as she did so. The girl-orphaned by the same fever that had taken Malvina's own mother some years back-learned with a passion; for no-one had ever instructed her in anything before, save for the most menial tasks, and she found she had a great liking for knowledge. Malvina, on her part, liked Ruth's quiet earnestness and her mien, sweetly intent as she bent over her book. She was sixteen years old, naturally clever, full of faith and amiability, yet ignorant and illiterate; Malvina thought she would do her best by the child, though it might not be enough. But Ruth did incredibly well, learning quickly and showing a wonderful natural aptitude which had not been dulled by years of neglect. The girl was too good to be an abigail; watching her, Malvina harbored all manner of bright ideas for her future.

"What is England like?" the girl asked one day. They were sitting behind a small table, set for them on the ornate red carved balcony off Malvina's private chambers. Malvina stuck her pen back inside the inkwell, noticing with displeasure that she had gotten ink on her fingers again.

"What do you want to know about it?"

Ruth shrugged and tossed her head. She was remarkably pretty, the confluence of the English and the Asiatic bloods giving her visage an unusual brightness--eyes of shocking, vivid green on a dainty olive face. Cheap thin bracelets clinked and jangled together when she raised one hand to move her jet hair off her high, clear forehead. At sixteen, Malvina knew, she was already the subject of many a leering glance from the men at the Fort. She had acquired a grim determination to protect this girl.

"Is it far?"

"Very far." Malvina smiled to herself. Ruth, she had learned, had been born at the garrison's former station, Fort St. George. Coming here from Madras in an awful stuffy carriage, with Miss Heloise Stewart (Ruth's face acquired a pinched look when she spoke about the lady, and Malvina guessed at whatever unkindness was committed against her), had been the extent of her travels. She could not be blamed for it. The majority of the world traveled no farther. Malvina herself was remarkable and knew it.

But how to explain to one such innocent what it meant to cross an ocean?

"Come with me," she said to the girl. Ruth followed her obediently, sprightly graceful in her deep-blue saree. She took the girl down to her Father's study, where there was a large old Globe, brought by the young Colonel from England decades ago.

She could not explain the distance between the worlds. But perhaps she could show her.

But they were to be thwarted. The doors to her father's den were closed, and she could hear voices within-the Colonel's voice, and then, driving her to blush like a girl in front of her maid, Captain Bennet's. It shivered the very bottom of her heart. So benumbed was she with his immediate (and unexpected) presence, she almost did not notice a figure standing near the door.

There was something about its posture which immediately made Malvina think the man had been listening. She made a loud coughing sound and the man at the door turned-but in a nonchalant way, as if he did not think himself caught in a most compromising position.

"Mr. Wickham?" she asked in dismay. After her first unfavorable impression of the man had faded, she was inclined to acquit him of anything but the desperation of a poor social climber. He should not have said what he had said; but it was neither here nor there now. Seeing him here, now, so obviously listening, shocked her deeply and brought up all her earlier dislike of him like a cloud of mud off the bottom of a lake.

He smiled at her, entirely easy. "How do you do, Mrs. Bingley, ma'am?"

For a moment, she doubted herself. Social climber he might be, but to spy upon his superiors? She did not quite know what to ask him-for approaching him with a question of what he was doing just now seemed quite impossible-but then he said:

"I am delivering a letter from Major Llewellyn," he said brightly, producing the self-same official-looking missive. "I was afraid to intrude."

This seemed to be a perfectly good explanation, and yet she made a mental note to ask Captain Bennet whether any such letter was, indeed, delivered. She smiled coldly at the man and nodded to her girl.

"Let us return, Ruth," she said. "I shall show you England some other time."

That very evening, as she stood with Captain Bennet on the gallery, cuddling herself in a soft, patchouli-scented shawl and looking out over the ghats, Malvina told him about what she had seen. He listened to her thoughtfully and said:

"But he did bring us a letter, madam."

"Mmmm," Malvina said, trying to see where the white ribbon of the waterfall was in the gathering dark. "From Major Llewellyn?"

"Indeed."

She was, of course, doubting what she had seen. She did not like it: never before had she felt unsure of her own faculties.

"Perhaps," she said, "you are correct, Captain. Perhaps it is a grievous accusation to make against a man."

He laughed. "Madam, you are injured on Darcy's behalf, and cannot do poor Wickham justice."

She shot him a dark look. "Captain, perhaps you ought to be injured on his behalf. He was your friend, after all, and is married to your sister."

He frowned. "The truth is that I do not know what had passed on between these two, and thus I cannot judge it. Darcy, for all his admirable qualities, can be quite a difficult fellow. And what he must have been like at fourteen, I cannot surmise."

Malvina shrugged, unhappily. "I still think it was a lie."

"In all probability. But I have not heard him talk of it lately."

"Perhaps we have discouraged him from it."

"Perhaps." He kissed her wrist, then, and said, his voice only low enough for her to hear: "You are ever so beautiful when cross."

Malvina could not help a little frisson and shivered. "And yet I do not recommend that you should make me so."

He kissed her wrist again, barely brushing it with his lips. "Not even in the service of your incomparable beauty?"

This time, she could not help an unladylike snort. "Beautiful or not, what I am is invulnerable to silly flattery, sir."

He grinned at her in the dusk. "Lady, what of kisses? Are you invulnerable to them, as well?"

~ * ~

In May, Malvina spent several days cultivating the roses in the great courtyard. A part of it was given over to the ladies' English rose garden, and they all tended it happily. There was something akin to charity in getting down on one's knees and planting, pruning, cutting and watering. The result was satisfactory to all-a bit of England away from home.

This morning, as she busily occupied herself with planting and pruning, young Ruth knelt next to her, hard at work.

An hour into it, Malvina stopped working upon apprehending a pair of well-shined boots. She stopped what she was doing and looked up from beneath the brim of her wide hat.

"Captain," she said, thinking it was most unfortunate that he should come upon her in this undignified position. There were two more pairs of boots, one belonging to the young Lieutenant Cranford, who smiled at her in his usual diffident manner. The other, to her surprised displeasure, belonged to Lieutenant Wickham.

"We have brought you some cold sherbet." Indeed, behind them Malvina could see a native servant setting a small garden table with some glasses, attractively misted, and crisp napkins.

"Oh, thank you!" Malvina smiled at the men and rose, leaning upon the Captain's proffered arm. Young Cranford hurried forward to assist Ruth in the same. Malvina sighed and battled the unreasonable annoyance within: after all, the gentlemen had done them a great kindness in this heat. But all she could think of was how difficult it would be to restart her work after such a delightful little holiday. And Mr. Wickham's presence was strange to her, for she knew the Captain did not particularly care for the fellow. Ah, what a shrew she was, after all, unable to enjoy a simple pleasure of a cool drink on a hot day.

They sat at the small table, the Captain smiling at her silently, and Lieutenant Cranford openly admiring Ruth. The girl had stood awkwardly next to them for a moment, clearly uncertain whether she ought to take the seat next to her mistress-until Malvina quickly motioned her to sit down. Now the girl sat with her eyes demurely on her folded hands, sipping ever so delicately from her glass. "You toil very hard in such hot weather," Captain Bennet said finally, making a sign to the servant to begin fanning them. Slowly drowning in his smiling eyes, she quite forgave him his interruption of her planting session.

"I find that physical labor eases the mind," Malvina said. "And it is not so hot as that."

Lieutenant Wickham grinned. "I do not know, madam, but it seems to me that you have undertaken a Herculean labor. For surely none of us would ever dare venture into the garden in this hour."

"And yet you have," Malvina said quietly, looking at the Captain over the rim of her glass.

He said nothing, but young Cranford murmured, appearing quite moved: "I should have ventured into Sahara itself!" Malvina knew that his admiration was not directed at her, and assessed the young man with as cool a head as she could manage at the moment. But he appeared genuinely moved by Ruth's presence, and she allowed, cautiously, that perhaps his admiration of the girl was of a more honorable kind than that of most men.

Not so Mr. Wickham. Malvina wondered whether she was unfair to the fellow, but she thought he was leering at the girl most unpleasantly. She laid a hand upon Ruth's wrist.

"I do not mean to burden you, my dear," Malvina said kindly to the girl. "Will you return inside? You have helped me tremendously already."

Taking her mistress' suggestion for the order it really was, Ruth rose, and, with a graceful curtsey, learned recently from Malvina and already perfected, disappeared up a stone staircase. Malvina noticed that poor Cranford appeared crestfallen at her departure.

"What hard lives women lead here," Mr. Wickham said slowly. "By all rights, this girl ought to be in England."

Malvina shrugged. "Women lead hard lives everywhere, Lieutenant. Ruth is an orphan and a natural child, with no money and no connections. Her life would be plenty hard in England." Carefully, she lifted the wide-brimmed hat off her head and held it in her lap. "Here, at least she has my protection." She looked the man in the eye to show him that she meant it, and to Cranford, too, if the boy had any doubts of it. She was determined not to let Ruth become anyone's prey.

Both Lieutenants dropped their eyes, Cranford looking mortified, no doubt having taken her to have meant him.

The conversation turned, then, to the rumours of the Tigers. The Tigers, fearless, mad, terrifying, were the elite guard of the late Tipoo Sultan, whose former lands Fort Sinjun overlooked. The Tipoo had been the ruler of Mysore, the son of a palace general Hyder Ali, who had overthrown the reigning Wodeyar dynasty, establishing the Mahometan rule in Mysore. He was renowned for his love of cruel theatrics-his jetty executioners, enormous men with huge hands, performed for the Sultan's pleasure, chocking his prisoners and squeezing their heads until they burst; his real, four-legged tigers fed on what remained-as well as his wondrous treasures, most of which had disappeared in the taking of Seringapatam in '99, when their owner was killed. The Tigers, those that were not killed outright during the siege or hunted down subsequently, were therefore dispersed and gone, and had become, in the last decade, no more than a legend-one of many surrounding the Tipoo.

"I have heard," young Cranford said, "that they had burned a village west of Seringapatam."

Malvina nigh-on chocked on her sherbet. Her childhood had passed at Madras, under the constant threat and fear that the Tipoo would invite Bonaparte to Mysore, that the British possessions would fall to him. The day that the Seringapatam finally fell to Wellesley's troops, the British in Madras celebrated. To think that the men that had once kept them all in such fear were back! Malvina shuddered, made ill by the thought.

"Someone has burned a village," Captain Bennet corrected, sounding annoyed. "Banditry to be sure, but there is still no proof that the Tigers did it."

"And I have heard, too, that a caravan on the way to the old city was raided and all the men in it killed, and all the women savaged," Cranford persisted.

The Captain glared at him.

"The Tipoo and his tigers will continue to haunt these parts for years," Lieutenant Wickham said with a smile. "Come, come, Cranford, do stop frightening Mrs. Bingley with your ghosts stories."

Malvina could not abide such patronizing, and from a man that she already did not like. "It takes much more than a ghost story to frighten me, Lieutenant," she said dryly.

But the truth was, the news did distress her, despite all rational thought. She wondered whether the Tipoo had had a son-dozens of sons, like all Mahometans-and if such an heir would undertake his Father's cause in his memory. She did not remember being afraid since the Tipoo's death; and now, she wondered whether they were too close to his old territory.

"I know you are not frightened," said the Captain quietly, "but I should not have you worry, either. Whatever happens, we are well-protected here at the Fort."

"And Wellesley did shoot all the real tigers," Lieutenant Cranford offered with a poor attempt at humor.

Very soon after, the men left, the Captain saying his good-byes quite formally, and Malvina rose languidly and thought about returning to her work. The rose garden had never looked quite so uninviting... Then, rapid steps of a man at a near-run, and she twisted on the spot and came face to face with the Captain.

"Damn nuisance my officers," he said, leaning in to kiss her. "Inviting themselves along, the plagues."

She laughed against his mouth and allowed him to lead her under an arch and away from prying eyes.

The thoughts of the Tigers resurrecting that old, violent neighbor of theirs, the Muslim King of Mysore, bothered Malvina for a while after that conversation over sherbet. She tried to calm herself by remembering what Captain Bennet had said: they were well-protected at the Fort. Malvina imagined his trips to Madras and the countryside had to do with just that. She knew his meaning: the Fort had one gate in the front, cut into the forbidden rock. It would be easy to defend, and the escape route, if needed, would be provided by a maze of secret underground tunnels. So secret, in fact, that most of the men at the Fort knew only that they were , but not where they were. Most of the women did not even know that. Still, the possibility of having to defend and escape did not please Malvina. She hoped the rumours would be just that-rumours. And indeed, as she listened intently for any more rumours, none came, and she soon stopped worrying about it altogether.

One day, walking towards her roses in the courtyard, Malvina heard a familiar-and familiarly unpleasant-voice saying things that she might have imagined one heard at house of ill repute. She stopped dead in her tracks, her first impulse to retreat; and then she heard Ruth's plaintive whimper. Clutching the one thing she had been carrying to aid her in her garden work-a substantial backhoe-she turned a corner and saw Ruth, cornered against the wall, with Lieutenant George Wickham with his hand upon the girl. Only her shoulder so far, but there was a good deal of violence in the way he was squeezing it. Malvina felt all air rush from her in one furious breath.

The man could not see her, and she called him, hoping her tone of voice would show him just how caught he was. He spun around, still holding the girl-his face betrayed all the anxiety one feels at getting caught doing something disappointing, yet forgivable.

"You will unhand my maid at once," she said coldly. He peered at her stupidly, and she held up the backhoe menacingly, wondering only briefly what she would have to do if he failed to obey her. "Let her go, sir."

He realized, finally, what she was telling him, and let the girl go. Ruth scampered, eyes lowered, past Malvina and her backhoe.

Mr. Wickham grinned. "I was just telling her-"

"I heard what you were telling her," Malvina interrupted him. "I do not wish to hear anything of the sort again. You will not approach my girl anymore."

"Come, come, madam," he said silkily, "a little harmless fun is all. After all, she is only a half-breed maid." Malvina blinked, taken aback. She had not expected it, not even from him.

"Sir," she said angrily, recovering herself, "If the story you peddle around is true, and you were, indeed, brought up within the Darcy family, I daresay they must have taught you not to abuse your help. Likewise, this is not a household where you can mistreat the servants." She rested the backhoe upon her shoulder. "Particularly not my servants."

He bowed to her and assured her that no harm was meant.

"I do not care what you meant," she said, her voice rising, "but if you come near Ruth again, I will learn of it, and I will ruin your career as the day is bright! There will be no place left for you in the Raj, sir, if you ever come near my girl again!"

She had no idea whether she could do what she threatened to do. Her Father's connections in India, both the Company and the Army, were considerable and extended to the Wellesley family; but the Raj itself was vast; its many posts and sinecures could hide one from infamy quite well.

Still, she must have sounded convincing enough, for Mr. Wickham, pale in the face, bowed to her again and walked off with more speed than dignity. Malvina stood for a moment, catching her breath, then tossed the backhoe violently on the ground and went to look for Ruth.

The girl was in Malvina's bedchamber, putting away a blue saree, recently washed and dried, and to Malvina's inquiries, answered politely and meekly that she was all right.

"He will not bother you anymore."

Ruth nodded politely. "Yes, memsahib."

"Do you hear me?" Malvina felt herself growing angry. "Ruth, stop it. Put the saree down and look at me." The girl obeyed immediately, setting the cloth atop Malvina's bed and raising her large, bright-green eyes upon her mistress.

"You must believe me," Malvina said with disgust. "I will not let him near you. Do you believe me?"

But though the child said she did, Malvina was left with a distinct impression that she did not expect anything good out of life, and certainly nothing good from men.

~ * ~

Terribly discomfited, she met the Captain in the courtyard later that day, and told him all. He listened to her, looking at her quizzically, and then rubbed the side of his nose delicately with one finger.

"Are you absolutely certain he was propositioning her, then?"

Already angry, she grew even more dismayed at his questioning. 'I am not blind, nor deaf, nor dumb, Captain, I know what I saw and heard. He had his hands on her, too."

"I see," Captain Bennet said, with the same quizzical expression, and then said nothing else for some time. Upset as she was at not finding in him the reassurance she had hoped for, Malvina finally exploded and, having told the Captain that she would not give a dead fly for men's decency, stalked away.

She expected-she hoped, to be honest-that he would follow her, or at least call on her soon after. But he did not do either thing, and within two hours, his man brought her a brief note from him:

"Madam, I must away. We shall talk when I return. Yours, J.B."

The note was too brief, uncomfortably brief, and she wondered whether she would regret taking her frustration out on the one man who was not, she knew, like George Wickham. Over the next two weeks, she had grown almost desperate for him, and very regretful of their row. She tried her hardest not to show her frustration to the poor Ruth, who was now afraid to lift her eyes to her mistress.

~ * ~

Then, on a lovely May evening, as Malvina sat over a private supper on her balcony (her father dining with the officers tonight), she heard the patter of quick feet, and Ruth appeared, winded, in the doorway from her room.

"Memsahib! Captain-sahib here!" she only had the time to announce before being swept out of the way by Captain Bennet's forceful entry. She disappeared discreetly down a side staircase, even as Malvina herself rose from her table, dropping her napkin. He stood there, looking at her, just so, and she felt her knees quake. He was unshaven, having grown an actual beard during his travels. He was looking at her as if he desired to eat her.

"James," she said in a trembling voice. "You are come back."

He strode towards her just as she rushed forward, and in the next moment, the Captain gathered Malvina tightly against his chest. She closed her eyes and breathed. He smelled of the road, the river, his clothes sun-dried on a large rock. She guessed then, that before coming here, he had bathed in the river, indubitably in the hope to see her as soon as he arrived.

"Oh! James," she whispered between ardent kisses. "Forgive me, my love, what a fool I was!"

"Shsh-sh," he whispered back, as he backed her inside her bedchamber and kicked the door closed.

Later on, Malvina lay, sleepy, within a warm embrace, shivering every time James Bennet dropped a kiss onto her naked shoulder. Their hands entwined, she pressed her hand back against his palm, enjoying the largeness of it. How different they were, how well they fit each other...She flipped like a fish, rolling onto her other side, pressing her nose to his chest. It felt unspeakable. She found herself crying quietly.

"Malvina," said his pleading voice above her. "Dearest Mal, please do not cry..." His arms tightened around her shoulders, his fingers threading through her long yellow hair. "I will shelter you from the world, my love, but you must not cry..."

Her face still wet with tears, Malvina lifted it up to be kissed, and soon enough, they were once again undone. Try as she might to be quiet, Malvina was thankful that the walls of the Fort were so thick and the Indian night so loud with cries of nocturnal beasts. At the last, she sank her teeth into the Captain's shoulder, causing him, too, to lose all control of himself.

Afterwards, she studied, sheepishly, a dark-blue bruise on his shoulder.

"It appears I have damaged you," she said apologetically. Stretched out on his back, he gathered her closer.

"I could, perhaps, forgive you for that," he murmured, "if you promised to do it again soon..."

She did, happily.

Still later, sitting up in bed, he said to her:

"Something I meant to tell you as I was coming up the stairs."

"And then forgot."

"Flew right out of my head the moment I saw you."

Malvina laughed happily. "The impression I have on you, sir!"

"Incomparable," he agreed, stroking her hair with an idle hand, curling the yellow locks around his finger. Then, he grew more serious: "About what you told me the other day. I did not doubt what you told me about Lieutenant Wickham, nor did I think it a trifling matter. My confusion stemmed from-" He sighed, obviously at a loss for the right words. "I have seen enough of the man to believe him capable of the act you describe. Not that he is the only one amongst the men here who would. But I did not-" Amazingly, Malvina wondered, was he blushing ? Now, of all the times?-"I did not think his predilection lay towards females."

He hung his head, then, clearly mortified. "There are rumours, Mal, some I have heard back in Madras-that he needed to leave the city quickly enough, to avoid being spit-roasted by some boy's father..."

Malvina sat up in shock. "A boy's father?"

"Indeed." James frowned painfully, as if the very discussion made him ill. "I observed him on the way here-we have stopped at a house-I had to step outside... thought I saw him-" He cleared his throat "-pushing another boy against the wall of a house."

"Abominable," Malvina said, angrily. "You did not denounce him?"

"I told myself I was imagining things, then, for when I came closer, he was there alone, leaning against that selfsame wall."

"Do you really believe that? That he was there alone?"

He was silent for a moment, then said, with gravity in his voice: "Now less than before. Still...what I may believe may not be enough to ruin a man's life."

"Now less than before," she repeated. "Despite him approaching my girl?"

"There are people out there who would prey on any kind of innocent."

"I know what I saw, James."

"I know that. Forgive me my confusion."

She flipped in the bed, curling herself up into a ball. "I swear I shall damage him if he comes near her again," she said viciously.

He laughed softly above her, gently unfolding and unfurling her, kissing her neck and shoulder and a nipple. "I do not doubt that you can, my love."

Under his ministrations, Malvina stretched luxuriously and stroked one hand against the small of his back. "Let us... let us not talk of Mr. Wickham's vices any more tonight."

Smiling down at her, he dipped his head so that their foreheads touched and she could feel his breath upon her cheek.

"Such very clever ideas you have, Mal," he whispered, a second before their lips touched again.

Continue reading Strange Bedfellows here


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