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icons by: Fangirldesign, Er my nee2 and Virginia B

Strange Bedfellows

Chapter 30

That March, Captain and Mrs. Cranford came with a visit, and as it often happened at times of revelry and good company, Elizabeth missed Darcy all the more. Lately, he had been in her thoughts all the time, conspicuous to her by his absence. She felt it acutely every day.

One night, at supper, during an excellent meal of partridges with chestnuts, delicious roast mutton and toasted cheese, as the conversation at the table flowed as pleasantly as the wine, Hill came in with a letter upon a tray.

"An express, for Miss Elizabeth," she said, dropping an awkward curtsey.

Elizabeth's mind was momentarily blank as she stared at the letter. Then, she wondered at Georgiana writing so soon after her last missive, merely a fortnight ago. Then, she was thrown into turmoil once it became apparent that the letter had not been addressed by her sister-in-law.

"Elizabeth, what is it?" Malvina asked her, putting down her fork. Elizabeth knew she had changed in the face upon seeing Darcy's familiar hand upon the letter. Now that she was holding it in her hand, she saw that he not sealed it with the Pemberley seal, but with his own round-eyed Athenian owl.

"Bess?"

"You will excuse me," she murmured, rising to her feet.

She carried the letter to a window-seat and held it in her hands, her heart beating wildly. Darcy had not written to her for a good two years, leaving it to his solicitor to discuss matters of business with her, and to Georgiana and his father to write her personal letters.

She opened it, hands shaking. A familiar, dear handwriting she had not seen for so long, elegant letters perfectly even upon a page of vellum.

"March 2, Pemberley, Derbyshire

Mrs. Darcy,

I fear I must bear bad tidings. My father is very ill. It has now become apparent that he will not live much longer. I beg your pardon for disturbing your time with your brother's family, but if you should wish to see him, you must set out post-haste. He will leave us before long.

I remain,

Your husband, F.D."

Elizabeth clutched the letter to her chest and started to cry. She had known, for the longest time, that this day would come. She wished, most dearly, that she had visited more with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley. Her last time there had been a year ago, shortly before the news about Jamie's Fort had reached England. If only I have gone there more often, she thought. If only. If only. Oh, what bitter words these were...

But it was not only Mr. Darcy she grieved; for with his death, her marriage would finally end. Darcy would of course fulfill his part of their old bargain and arrange for the annulment. At the thought of such final parting, misery flooded her heart. Even in her estrangement from Darcy there was some hope, but now it would all be over. He would not "remain her husband" for much longer...

She was done for.

She sat for some time in that window-seat, petrified with grief. Then, with a start, she rose to her feet and strode towards the dining-room. The company was almost finished with their supper: the maids had brought out puddings and trifles for dessert.

She came forward fast, and Jamie looked up at her and smiled.

"Reheat Mrs. Darcy's plate, please," he said to one of the maids, but Elizabeth shook her head.

"No, no, do not trouble yourself. I shall eat no more."

Jamie made to protest, but saw her face and cut himself off sharply.

She sat down, staring straight ahead.

"My father-in-law is dying," she said flatly. "I am to go to Pemberley." She told them that she would leave at first light if they let her have the carriage. Jamie looked shaken by the news, only nodding his ascent.

Later that night, as she was packing her trunk, deep in gloom, there was a knock on the door. She bade the visitor enter and saw Malvina slip into her room, holding something dark and shapeless in her arms.

"It is possible you might need these," she said gently. Elizabeth stared at the offering, only now realizing that her sister-in-law had brought her three mourning gowns. It was a grisly loan, she thought, and yet, eminently appropriate for the moment: for her own black bombazine gowns, which she had worn at sixteen, were now too small for her.

"Thank you," she said, taking the gowns from Malvina and indicating that she should sit.

"You have been crying again", Malvina said matter-of-factly. Elizabeth said nothing, merely found her handkerchief and wiped at her eyes, noticing only now that her face was compleatly wet.

"Your Brother will take you to Pemberley," Malvina continued, taking up the gowns again. She folded them and set them neatly in Elizabeth's trunk.

Elizabeth protested that she did not need Jamie's company, and did not feel it would do to take him away from his guests and his young family.

"You know as well as I that you cannot travel alone," Malvina said reasonably.

"You did," Elizabeth retorted. "Half across the world! And at any rate, I am not alone-I shall take Mary with me."

Malvina narrowed her eyes at her: "Imagine that! I could not find a companion to go with me to India. You know that there is no comparing it! And your maid alone is not sufficient!" Her expression softening, she laid one cajoling hand upon Elizabeth's wrist. "Please, Elizabeth. He needs to go. This is his old friend's father."

"Mal, they have not been friends this age, what possible obligation does he still have to my husband?"

"That of the heart," Malvina said seriously. "Please."

And so it was settled, Jamie would take Elizabeth to Pemberley. Far from helping soothe her anxieties, his presence made them a hundred times worse. How would he and Darcy meet, what would they say to each other? She had been kind to call them not friends. Faith, they had tried to kill each other! Fortunately for her, as they left Longbourn just before dawn, her brother had chosen to accompany her carriage on horseback; that way, he could not read the worries upon her face, and she, in turn, would not drive herself mad attempting to read his countenance.

Inside, she rested her head against the back of her seat and tried her best to sleep.

But sleep failed to come, and she thought, until it made her ill to her heart, about her father-in-law, and about what would happen to them now. Across from her, Mary sat inscrutable and silent, offering her no comfort. When she could no longer think, Elizabeth turned her head, resting her cheek upon the worn velvet seat, and watched the countryside.

They had a long way ahead of them.

~ * ~

It was a large black crepe bow, tied to the estate gates, that announced to Elizabeth that they were too late by half. She gasped in anguish, pressing one hand to her mouth and tried her best to keep a better hold of herself. They would be at the house soon, she thought, it would not do to fall apart like this. She wondered, bitterly, about Darcy writing to her just now, and not before; and about Georgiana not writing to her at all. She would have to ask them about that. She sat up straighter, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Pemberley, she thought. This magical place, of which she was the mistress in name only... She sighed again, remembering the very first time Mr. Darcy had brought her here, the enchanting winter fairytale place that would become her home... How she loved it then!

The carriage stopped, and in another moment, the door was opened by one of the Pemberley footmen. She remembered the man from last year- no, from the time she had last lived here... Thereupon, Jamie appeared outside her door, holding out his hand. Elizabeth stepped out, looking up at the house, seeing yet another black bow upon the door. The one on the gate had not been in error. She had come too late. She steeled her gait and clenched her jaw.

They went up the tall steps. Elizabeth came in first, Jamie just at her heels. There were servants in the parlor, Mrs. Reynolds looking more dried up and tiny than the last time Elizabeth had seen her.

"Oh Reynolds." She squeezed old housekeeper's hands tenderly. "I am too late, it appears..."

"Ma'am," Mrs. Reynolds said softly, her face white and helpless. Elizabeth did not remember her this way. "I am certain that you came as soon as you knew."

"Elizabeth!" Like a sorrowful black bird, skirts flying about her, Georgiana flew down the stairs and flung herself at her sister-in-law. "Oh! Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Forgive me! I should have written to you! He would not let me!" Her shoulders shook as she wept. "I should have written to you!"

"My dear." Now Miss Lucas, Georgiana's long-time governess, looking older than Elizabeth remembered her, tugged gently upon the girl's shoulders, pulling her away. Shaken, lost, Elizabeth looked up, only to the greater shock of seeing her husband. Darcy had come out of one of the side rooms and now stood there, dark, silent and still. Looking at her in much the same way he had looked at her when she saw him at the Serpentine.

Then, as Miss Lucas drew his sobbing sister away, he started briefly, as if wakened from a reverie. Then, stepping forward, his face grave, he bowed formally to his wife.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said quietly. Elizabeth, through her shock, remembered to curtsey.

"Mr. Darcy." Darcy turned to her brother, and the two men bowed to each other. "Bennet. I thank you for coming."

Behind Elizabeth, Jamie said somberly: "Darcy. My condolences on the death of your father."

She saw that the men did not shook hands, limiting themselves to these polite short bows, almost nods. Elizabeth dropped her wet pelisse upon a servant's waiting hands, rubbed her cold hands together for warmth.

"When?" she asked, addressing herself to her husband in a hushed whisper.

He hung his head. "Yesterday afternoon."

"I am very sorry for it," she said earnestly. She was, though her own loss had yet to sink in. She had hoped, to the last, to see Mr. Darcy yet alive, had told herself they were making excellent time...

"You look cold," Darcy said dryly. "Come to the drawing room, Reynolds will send up tea." He gestured for Elizabeth to walk ahead of him. "Fitzwilliam is here, Lord Gregory and Miss Bingley." Sounding slightly guilty, he added: "They have only just arrived this morning."

In the drawing room, the men bowed over her hand. She smiled at His Lordship and tried not to stare at the Colonel, who had acquired, in his time on the Continent, a significant scar and a no less significant limp (wounded, she remembered, but alive). Jamie had never met him, though had heard of him, both from her letters, and from Darcy himself many years ago. They seemed to be two of a kind; though Jamie might wear civilian dress, he was still, Elizabeth knew, a soldier.

Miss Bingley-Elizabeth was astonished at the girl's ability to insert herself in the most unlikely and dreary situations-was dressed quite smartly and seemed, Elizabeth thought, on the outs with Lord Gregory, who had never looked this tired or sad to her. She focused her attention upon them, all of these people, lest it be consumed by one man only.

The conversation lagged and stalled and lagged some more. Tea was brought up, but Elizabeth could not eat, though the large warm cup in her cold hands felt wonderful. Everyone, even Miss Bingley in her smart traveling gown, looked exhausted. Soon, the conversation dying altogether, Darcy did the only thing a gracious host could and offered that they should all go up. There was, just now, nothing for them to do. The funeral was to take place on the morrow. Soon, Jamie alone was left with them.

"I am certain that your room is ready, Bennet," Darcy said. He sounded so fatigued, so bone-tired himself, Elizabeth felt a surge of pity for him. "Hanks here will take you," he nodded at the footman. "Go up and rest."

Jamie threw a tentative glance at Elizabeth, but she released him from any further obligation with a quick and furtive look. Go.

He went, throwing her another hesitant glance, then leaving them alone. Alone for the first time in years.

~ * ~

Elizabeth, warming her hands over her cup, sat silently, trying not to stare too obviously, but all the while cataloguing the changes that had occurred in this, so very dear face. It had been some three months since she had seen him at the Serpentine, and longer still since she had had an opportunity to look at him at length or closely. He seemed older to her, far more mature than the sweet young man she had known. Older, wearied, by loss and burden, exhausted from so many sleepless nights.

All of a sudden, both of them spoke, he inquisitive and she-comforting, not quite registering what the other one was saying. Instantly, both were fell silent, suddenly embarrassed, awkward. This hush lasted too long for Elizabeth's taste, and she did the only thing she could think of.

"Will you take me to him?" she asked, and rose.

Darcy nodded.

~ * ~

The house was frozen in silence as they walked somberly down a long hallway. Not a dish clanked anywhere, not a voice rang out. It was as if the house, itself, had lived and was now dead together with its erstwhile Master. Their footsteps, the rustle of her gown appeared to be an invasion, an insult to its grief. It was dark, too, Darcy's taper-the only light for what seemed like miles' worthy of interminable hallways, its feeble glow-an orphan in their darkness. A quick shadow dashed across the hallway, stopping Elizabeth in her tracks, making her gasp.

"Cat," Darcy said quietly. Elizabeth shivered, feeling her knees tremble. Infernal creature. Darcy gave her a faint, weak smile as he waited for her to recover.

"I am all right," she whispered finally, and they continued.

Finally, Mr. Darcy's room. Elizabeth took a deep breath as Darcy pushed the door. Here, she thought, here it goes, as she stepped forward. She was not afraid, only endlessly sad.

The light inside, emanating from several candles that glowed dully around the body, hurt her eyes. The room was very cold, the fireplace dark, the windows open. Elizabeth could not help thinking that it was left thus by design; a very slight yet distinctly horrified shiver ran through her.

Inside the room, Darcy set his taper upon the mantel. Elizabeth shivered, cuddled more tightly into her shawl. She moved to the bedside where the dead man lay, his features somber, the downturn of his mouth mournful in the reminder of his last suffering. Inevitably, she thought of him as he was on the day he had brought her to Pemberley-so very powerful, so vibrant, so warm. She had loved him, it seemed now, almost instantly. Much faster than she had loved his son. She pressed a hand to her lips, stifling a sob. There was nothing left of him in this heavy, still figure. Her grief felt heavy upon her shoulders, bowing her to the ground, tearing at her breast, her throat. It was suffocating her, and she spun, desperately searching for respite. Finding Darcy there, she stepped, without a single word, into his arms. She heard - felt-his sharp intake of breath, and he hugged her tightly, squeezing her powerfully against him. She felt wetness on her cheek, his tears unexpected and moving, allowing her, too, to cry.

They stood like this for some time, check to wet cheek. Elizabeth had never felt this orphaned, had never shared so in another's anguish.

Then, slowly, arms falling away from each other, they stepped apart. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she said in an angry whisper:

"You should have written to me, sir."

She did not expect him to defend himself, and he did not, merely nodding.

"I did not know... did not know how to tell you.

"Georgiana said you would not let her write?"

"It was my duty, and I failed in it. You have every reason to be angry with me."

She was angry with him, she was! She was furious! But what could she do with this anger? Was there anything she could say to this man, this brokenhearted son who was to bury his father come morning? What satisfaction could she draw from it? Darcy's torment was obvious to her, visible in his features, in the slump of his shoulders. Her heart actually ached at seeing his anguish. She blamed him, but she blamed herself to a far greater degree-she had left Pemberley and had not returned this age. How could she have abandoned them like this?

With a sob, covering her face with her hands, Elizabeth sat down in a chair and cried until there were no more tears. Terrible heartache-she did not remember grieving after her own father quite this much-but most of all, bitter regret. Time wasted, lost. She could have stayed, could have lived at Pemberley, could have been with Mr. Darcy at the last. How could she blame her husband for not writing to her, when it had been her choice to leave Pemberley in the first place?

She felt Darcy's hand upon her shoulder, squeezing gently.

"Mrs. Darcy. Elizabeth."

She lifted her tear-stained face to look at him. He was standing over her, looking so, so tired, so much older than he really was. Still handsome, she thought, but oh so pale, drawn, hunched over. Looking as if he had not slept this age. Poor man. She covered his hand with hers and squeezed back.

"I am so, so sorry," she whispered. "What a terrible loss."

"Elizabeth," Darcy said quietly. "My father and I spoke before he died... he was tormented by ... what had happened to me-to us."

"Oh," she said. He looked down at her, intently, and she knew what must come next. She felt ill. It was a good thing she was sitting down, for she would not have spoken for her legs just now.

"He regretted deeply ever insisting that we marry. He told me, the day before he died, that I ought to -" he paused, frowning, clearing his throat quietly, and Elizabeth had a distinct feeling that he was fighting tears once again-"-let you go."

She exhaled, loudly, and squeezed her eyes shut. In the midst of her grief, the thought of losing them both was unbearable. She had thought she had lost Darcy years ago, but that was nothing to the thought of their annulment coming now. All of her ties to him would be severed, she would truly be alone.

"Elizabeth," he said patiently. She could not bring herself to look him in the eye, or she would weep again, and this time, for her own sake. "I am prepared to do that, whenever we are done with all ... this."

"Yes," she heard herself whisper. "I-I thank you. You are very kind."

It was the wrong thing to say, but that was all she was capable of just at the moment. She did not know quite why it undid her so. She had lost him a long time ago, she had known it. Perhaps it was the finality of this that was so excruciating.

She shivered and regretted not having her shawl with her. Her gown was simply not sufficient for this room, this crypt made colder by their grief. A thought crossed her mind--she was sitting in the very chair where, during Mr. Darcy's first grave illness, she had sat to read him Donne and Marvel and improbable inappropriate novels.

Elizabeth started, feeling Darcy's hands as he swathed a blanket about her shoulders.

"You are cold," he said, reprovingly.

"Thank you," she whispered. "I am much better, now."

Without another word, Darcy pulled up another chair and sat at her side, leaning forward with elbows on his knees. Elizabeth, huddling in her blanket, cried silent tears, this time uncertain whether she was crying for herself, or her father-in-law, or her poor husband. Or, perhaps, for them all. What awful, harmful things they did to themselves! She sat, frozen, tears cooling, drying upon her face. It was over, she thought. She could not believe it, and yet she must. He was doing precisely what she had wanted him to do-what she had insisted they must-and yet she could not believe it, could not countenance that now, after all these painful months, they would not be rewarded for their long suffering by being reunited, but would finally part for ever. Her heart simply could not accept it.

She found it in herself to speak:

"Sir, you do not need to stay here with me. Go to bed, you must be terribly tired."

"It is my father who lies here, Elizabeth."

"I am certain you have kept your vigil by him before."

"This will be the last one, then." He said it with such sadness, Elizabeth could not keep herself from reaching out to touch and squeeze his hand.

A long time passed without another word; it felt like hours with only a quiet sniff from one or the other of them. It was measured only by Darcy rising, several times, to reset the funerary candles in their candlesticks. No servant came to do this, and Elizabeth thought that the Master had told them all to stay away, taking the duty of this vigil upon himself. He would have stayed here alone if I had not come, she thought. Thoughts tormented her, regrets and recriminations of self, and worst of all-selfish thoughts about her own future. A future, for certain now, without Darcy. Her mind disordered and anguished, she thought she had never loved him more than she did right now. He had never been dearer to her than now that she was about to lose him forever.

But then, the morning came, sooner than she thought it might. Darcy rose, awkward and stiff, from his chair, looked, squinting, upon his pocket watch.

" 'Tis almost seven, madam. My father's funeral is at nine ante meridian."

She nodded, forcing herself clumsily out of the chair. Her entire body hurt, her eyes full of sand from the sleepless night. She was very cold, now, the blanket no longer helping. Her teeth chattered a bit.

"Forgive me," she said, biting her lip, eyes filling with tears suddenly. Darcy, looking down at her, himself had an expression upon his visage as if he, too, might cry just now.

"Oh Elizabeth," he said quietly. "My dearest, poor, blameless Elizabeth. You have nothing for which to reproach yourself."

"No, no!" she whispered, shaking her head, tears pouring now. "Forgive me, Will, for everything! For it all! Forgive me!"

She turned around and, losing the blanket as she went, rushed out of the room. Somewhere deep inside her was the foolish hope that he might follow her. What an extraordinary hope, indeed, considering what he had said to her in the night. He was letting her go. They were finished, utterly and irretrievably.

~ * ~

Crying quietly, she trudged up to the room prepared for her-the same room where she had stayed every time she had visited Pemberley. The pretty blue room Mr. Darcy had given her all these years ago. Mary, ever helpful, had brought up some water for washing. She stood over the basin, shivering, splashing warm water upon her face, tears rolling down her cheeks, mixing with it. Then, eyes red-rimmed but dry, Elizabeth sat before the looking glass, watching Mary re-plait her hair. She was wearing one of Malvina's mourning gowns; the face in the glass was pale, pinched, tight-lipped. Old. Mary, sensible of the occasion, forwent pretty in favor of severe. Elizabeth remembered: this is how she had worn her hair years ago, upon first being married. Darcy had hated it, she remembered, and went to impressive lengths to get her to loosen her hair just a bit. The pins hurt her scalp, but she smiled faintly at the irony of it all. How little he had asked of her, and how much it had seemed.

"That will do, Mary," she told the girl, who stood back obediently. Elizabeth rose and donned her sister-in-law's black spencer, and a black mourning hat. The veil on it felt very much like a grate against her face, and she flipped it back irritably. The very least she would allow herself today was a clear sight. Here we go, she thought and went downstairs.

There she found Georgiana, who looked as if she might collapse at any moment, her eyes rimmed with a contrast red against her very pale skin.

"My dearest," Elizabeth said, kissing the girl on the cheek. "Did you sleep at all last night?"

Georgiana shrugged, as if to say that she neither knew nor cared. Her eyes seemed enormous on a white, narrow face.

The men came down the stairs, with Miss Bingley elegant on Lord Gregory's arm. Now she had slept well enough, Elizabeth thought resentfully and caught herself immediately, chastising herself for that unkindness. Why shouldn't Caroline sleep? It was not her father dead, not her family tormented. Not her life falling apart so spectacularly, it would make a wonderful play for the Covent Garden. Perhaps, Elizabeth thought, Miss Bingley might yet end up the beneficiary of it all.

The day was exceedingly wet, the sky a hostile gray, the rain mournful and constant. As if all Nature cried after their grief. Elizabeth wrapped an arm about Georgiana's shoulders as they walked behind the hearse carrying Mr. Darcy's casket to the family cemetery plot. The girl looked years older than her not-quite-sixteen years of age, drawn and exhausted and white. The men walked, too, Darcy alongside the two women, and Jamie, Lord Gregory, the Colonel with his limp behind them. Caroline walked along His Lordship, looking more put out than respectfully grieving. There walked, too, behind them, several of Pemberley's neighboring families, and along the path stood every able Pemberley tenant, adult and child, giving respects to the man who had lorded over this part of Derbyshire with more grace and authority than most lords were known to do.

The Darcy family cemetery was nearly half a mile away from the house. The cold rain blinded Elizabeth, mixed with her tears and sloshed in her shoes. She was looking straight ahead now, at the black bows hanging off the back of the hearse, hearing nothing but the clomping of the horses' hooves in the mud. Georgiana stumbled, and Elizabeth gripped the girl's elbow, hard, and saw Darcy take his sister's other arm. Nobody said a word, and tears, if such they were, were silent.

At the cemetery, there was hardly enough space in the crypt for any of them, so all of them stood just outside, listening to Reverend Hayter recite the psalms. And again, no-one said a word. Georgiana seemed to be barely able to stand now; Darcy was supporting her full weight, her face turned into his shoulder.

Then, it was over, the casket placed inside the crypt, which bore the family name and crest. Elizabeth knew that Lady Anne Darcy, too, lay within it in her eternal repose. She closed her eyes briefly as they turned back. The way back to the house seemed interminable, and Elizabeth was rather relieved to see that Darcy had all the Pemberley carriages follow them to the cemetery. They all piled in, still without a word, Elizabeth and Darcy flanking the half-conscious Georgiana.

~ * ~

Upon arriving to the house, Georgiana finally collapsed. The panicked Darcy raised his sister in his arms and carried her up the stairs to her room, Elizabeth hurrying ahead of them with a taper to light the hallways that were nearly black on this cool, wet day. Inside the girl's chamber, Darcy, himself as white as his most pristine cravat, laid Georgiana on the bed.

"Please go," Elizabeth said, very nearly pushing him out the door. "I shall come down and tell you if-if anything."

He looked dumbstruck, but obeyed, stepping backwards across the threshold, almost tripping on his way out.

"Ask the doctor to come up," she told him and shut the door firmly in his face.

The local doctor, who had been among the mourners, went up immediately, just as Elizabeth and Mrs. Reynolds, working silently together, undressed Georgiana and covered her with a blanket. His verdict was simple: exhaustion during her father's illness, grief after his passing, more exhaustion over the last two days.

"My poor moppet," Mrs. Reynolds said, smoothing Georgiana's hair. The girl was awake now, but gray and listless. The doctor prescribed rest and laudanum, which was duly administered. Elizabeth sat with her sister-in-law, holding her hand, while the girl slipped into oblivion.

Then, she went down. All the local guests had gone, and at the sight of her, Darcy rose tiredly to his feet, followed by the rest of the men that sat with him.

"She is sleeping." It was only now that fatigue took its own with her and she sat down, a little too quickly, in a chair. She was chilled to the bone. "May I have some wine?"

Darcy poured her some; their fingers touched when he handed her the glass. "She will be all right." Elizabeth drank deeply, shivering as she did. "She just needs to rest." And grieve, she thought. Perhaps, they all needed to grieve. Keeping it all in, she thought, could simply tear you apart...

She finished her wine, and Darcy took her glass from her. Jamie was kneeling before her now, his face worried.

"Bess, you are unwell. You should go up." He stroked her cheek.

She leaned her face into his hand. She was tired-beyond tired-and she was unwell, true, but she could not bear to be away from the light just now. Her bedchamber's silent gloom terrified her.

"Jamie, I should rather just sit here, with all of you."

He nodded, silently. She smiled, dismissing him, and he went back to his low-voiced conversation with Lord Gregory and the Colonel. Darcy remained by her, pulling up a chair.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said, very quietly, "I have not thanked you for your kind solicitude to my sister this morning."

She shrugged, too tired to speak. "You need not thank me, sir," she whispered. "She is very dear to me, you know."

He inclined his head. "Yes. All the same I should thank you."

Elizabeth said nothing, captivated by the way the coals glowed from within in the fireplace. From time to time, one or two would give way and crumple, tiny fireworks all around them. It took an effort to tear her gaze away from it.

"Well," she said slowly. "I owed a debt of gratitude to your Father... the kind that could not be repaid simply by being kind to his child."

Darcy looked at her oddly. "Do you really think so," he said thoughtfully, "despite... all this?"

He did not need to explain what "all this" meant. All this, she knew, was her life, the execrable mess that was other men's doing. The pain they had suffered and would suffer yet. Yes, a brutally honest voice had said, other's doing, but also her own. She did not need to consent to marry Darcy. Nobody would force her. Yet she had consented-only to make herself, and him, utterly miserable.

"He was kind to me. In my worst moment, he gave me a home."

They were silent for some time, neither looking the other in the eye. Elizabeth thought back to their whispered conversation last night, in Mr. Darcy's chamber... He told me I ought to let you go. So Mr. Darcy had repented of his doings, and those of her own Father... Had despaired of seeing the two of them fix things for themselves. Perhaps her Father would have repented as well, had he world enough and time... But oh what terrible irony, Elizabeth thought: her dispensation had finally come now, now, when she no longer wanted to be released.

"I believe," Elizabeth said gravely, "that both of them... meant well."

Darcy inclined his head again, a smile ghosting his lips. "I do agree with you," he said, his voice very quiet, very bitter. "For all the good it may do us now."

She felt a sudden surge of hysterical mirth within and bit her lip to keep herself from laughing. She was not amused, not in the least, for her life had been good and ruined. But what a pair of fools the two of them were...

When he took her hand, squeezing it urgently, Elizabeth was stunned into silence. Why it should affect her so, she did not know, but they had had no physical contact for the last two and a half years, save his convulsive embrace last night, and a few ghostly touches subsequently. This one he had meant, she felt, and it made her heart ache. She sat still, not daring to return the small caress.

"Mrs. Darcy," he said quietly, still holding her hand. They were sitting with their backs to the others-she could hear the Colonel tell, in his familiar jovial manner, though in a somewhat more subdued a fashion, about the siege of some Peninsular town or other-and so were not observed by them... Elizabeth sighed, but did not withdraw her hand. She knew he would let her go momentarily, and it hurt to think of it. "Mrs. Darcy," he repeated.

"Yes," she murmured.

"What we spoke of last night. I am to let you go now that my Father is no more." He spoke so quietly, she could barely hear him, but his voice, full of anguish, heartbreak, disbelief, tore at her heart.

Elizabeth hung her head. "Yes."

She shut her eyes, feeling her heart ache, remembering the shock of this last night. She had known he would do this, and yet, and yet, it had hurt so much to hear him say it. I do not want to go! she wanted to tell him, but something had frozen inside and she could not speak of it. Could not tell him how much she had feared this moment, when he would do his promised duty by her. Let her go. The words had such chill to them.

All of a sudden, he whispered: "I do not want to!" He had said it with such urgency, Elizabeth could only sit there in shocked silence. Her heart hammered violently within her breast. "I should be a damned fool not to tell you this, Elizabeth!"

For a moment, she was flooded with great joy and absolute confusion. To learn that he was of the same mind as she, that he, too, dreaded their final separation... oh it should have been the pinnacle of her desires. But she sat frozen and shocked still, hardly daring to speak a word in return.

"But I will do it," Darcy said flatly and a little more loudly, "if you should wish it still."

She opened her eyes and said exactly the wrong thing. "Pemberley will be yours, either way," she said. "I have arranged for it with my Uncle's solicitors." She had, about a year ago. They were not happy, the solicitors, urging her to think; but she would not be moved.

He gave her a wounded look, as if she had slapped him hard across the face. Her fingers slipped from his as he was no longer holding them. "Elizabeth, I am prepared to purchase it from you. I have invested enough and well, I have money-"

"No!" she whispered vehemently. "It should never have been mine. Never! My father was covetous of what was not his..."

"As you said, he had meant well."

Elizabeth sat up straighter. Thinking about her Father, and what he had done, invariably made her very angry.

"He was very wrong in it," she said very quietly, but very harshly. "It is yours. It has always been yours."

Darcy scowled at her and said in a whisper just as harsh and loud as hers had been: "This is not a discussion I want to have in the wake of my father's passing, but I will not accept the deed without a fair remuneration to you. All argument is wasted, madam, so you had better cease to argue altogether." Another glare. "And in any case," he added, still glowering, still whispering angrily, "how wrong you are to think that I would hold you back because of property!"

She knew that her words had been crass just now. She knew his earlier declaration for what it was. Pemberley had nothing to do with it... He had cared for her when they were first married, and it was evident to her that he cared for her still. She dared not hope for more; dared not hope that the budding feeling he had had for her then was alive still. He did not want to let her go-it ought to be enough. She felt the panic flutter in her throat.

"Perhaps," she said, forcing herself to speak with some equanimity, "perhaps, sir, just now is a wrong time altogether, to discuss ... any of it."

He nodded, looking at his hands. "Do you wish to speak of it... at all?"

She could not say yes, could not say no, but sat silent and immobile, like a mournful cemetery statue. He sat with her, and she could see all vestiges of hope draining out of him with every silent second. Why, why was she like that? Behind them, the Colonel and Jamie were comparing the provisional services in India to those in the Peninsula.

"Forgive my presumption," Darcy whispered so softly, she could barely hear him. Thereupon, he rose and left her; however, he had not rejoined his friends, taking a space by the window instead-and so remained there without another word to anyone else in the room. Singular rudeness, but no-one would fault Darcy this day.

Only now did Elizabeth realized how cruelly she suffered from her fatigue. She was surprised to feel it, expecting anything in the world but to feel sleepy; but there she was, unable to keep her head up, unable to keep herself upright in her chair. For a little bit, she attempted to listen to what was said by Jamie, the Colonel, His Lordship; but she neither cared enough to listen, nor to pretend to listen. Soon enough, her fatigue descended upon her like a large blanket. She fell asleep, her brother's voice, dream-like, in her mind, telling stories of elephants and white stone castles and flocks of small green parrots.

~ * ~

She woke with a start and did not know where she was. Momentarily bewildered, she sat up and stared. The room was a lot darker now, the candles out, and only the remainders of the fire in the grate for light. She could not tell the time, but it was entirely dark behind the tall window. For a second, she thought she was alone; then, she saw that it was Darcy crouched by the fireplace, shuffling the coals. The day came rushing in, making her sorry she had awakened.

He rose and turned, looking at her. "Mrs. Darcy," he said. "I woke you." She saw then, that she was covered with a plaid. He was standing, looking at her. He must be looking at her; but his face was dark and impossible to decipher. She moved her hand to her hair, unconsciously, foolishly. Her hair. What did any of it matter, after all?

"Good," she muttered, sitting up straighter and swinging the plaid about her shoulders. Despite the proximity of the fireplace, the room held in it some of the coldness of Mr. Darcy's crypt. "How improper of me to fall asleep like this, like a child. What time is it?"

It was nearly nine o'clock. Supper had been served early, she knew, and nobody had woken her. She had slept through the day.

"Are you hungry?" Darcy asked her. She shook her head. She did not remember the last time she had eaten; and yet, it was true, food was the last thing on her mind just now.

"I am sorry," she repeated.

Darcy shrugged. " You were tired." He turned and paced across the room, and then, unexpectedly, slid down the wall and sat on the floor, leaning his head back against the molding. "We are all tired."

Elizabeth could see his face now, the dark circles and the unhappy lines. She thought back to their earlier conversation. "My brother... everyone else has gone to bed?"

"Yes. "

"Will you not retire, then?"

He shook his head and said, very quietly. "I can admit this to you, of all people, and likely no-one else. I fear the solitude of my bedchamber just now."

To you, of all people. He must have known she would understand that perfectly. He had not wakened her, had not sent her to her own bedchamber. They were both orphans. She knew the thoughts that invaded an exhausted, grieving mind in the wake of a loved one's death. She did not want to be alone, either. Elizabeth sighed and tightened the plaid about her shoulders.

"You need not stay with me," he said generously, but she only shook her head and pulled her knees up to her chest in a decidedly improper manner. Nothing to it, she thought, nobody would judge her tonight.

They sat, for the longest time, in silence, in semi-darkness. Almost companionably, perhaps, like spouses ought in moments of great sadness. Another vigil, Elizabeth thought, this time for themselves, for what they had lost.

So caught up was she in her thoughts, he startled her when he spoke to her.

"How did you live all these years?"

The question was shocking, she misunderstood it at first, thought he wanted to know ... no, she did not know what it was he wanted to know. But oh, how surprised she was at this!

"What did you live by?" he asked. "What did you do? I spent hours ... imagining," he confessed. "Thinking that you might spend time in your Aunt's garden or read for hours in a sunny window-seat..."

Still shocked at the turn the conversation had suddenly taken and deeply uncomfortable at it-for it both pleased her and hurt her to know he had been thinking of her in her absence-Elizabeth shrugged again.

"Much of it is true," she said. "I should read a lot, and prune roses in my Aunt's garden. I learned how." She smiled. "They did not have a permanent gardener... merely a fellow who came in every few weeks to trim things... Servants watered things, and my Aunt and my older cousin Amy. And I. And one day I asked him to teach me how to prune and plant and such."

"And did he?"

"He avoided me at first... unhappy perhaps that I would usurp his territory. But I pestered him enough and he relented. I needed something to occupy myself with some of the afternoons... My young cousins occupied much of my time... but not all of it. I needed something to take up my solitary hours."

It was easier this way. This way, she did not need to think... This strange inquisition, with him sitting in half-shadows, questioning her about her life, both touched and disturbed her, and she did not know what was worse.

"I am proud of you," Darcy told her. "You would not be idle."

"Thank you." Elizabeth inclined her head. "And you? What did you do all these years?"

She felt a hollow cold in her stomach, remembering the anonymous letter delivered to her two years ago. Your husband, in the company of a notorious courtesan...

He shrugged. "Lived here," he said. "Mostly. The first year or so I went to town and back several times... but it grew tedious quickly enough. And then, in January, Father took a turn for the worse, and I have not been away from Pemberley ever since..."

"It appears we have both led dull lives."

"Quiet lives." He looked at her, serious, dark. "Elizabeth, were there... suitors?"

She glared back at him, aghast. "Sir," she said haughtily. "You do forget I am a married woman."

"But I was not there. What was to discourage men from paying court to you?"

"What was to encourage them?" she asked sharply. "Certainly not I. Not in my Uncle's home, where everyone knew that I was still married to you!"

"Forgive me," he said, appearing properly humbled. "I should not have asked."

Another shrug. Elizabeth ached to ask him this same question, to ask him about that night in Vauxhall when he left with a beautiful woman on his arm. A beautiful courtesan. But she kept her cold, prudent silence.

"Elizabeth," he said contritely. "My mind wanders. I should not have asked you that."

"Why do you care, after all? You know that I would not dishonor your name."

He gave a short bark of laughter. "I was not thinking about my name," he said. "Not in the least. I was thinking about you, alone, in town, and the manner of scoundrels you tend to attract."

She gasped angrily. "How dare you!"

"Has Mr. Wickham proven worthy of your valiant support of him?" he asked shrewdly.

Elizabeth slid off the chair then, unbending her stiff knees, getting to her feet. "Good night, Mr. Darcy. I am not fond of your inquisition." She tossed the plaid upon the chair.

She was already at the door, when he said behind her back: "Elizabeth, don't go."

Elizabeth stopped.

"I am sorry," he said, genuine regret in his voice. "I should not have asked you any of those things. And especially that. It was unkind of me-and petty."

Still rather cross, she turned back. He was still sitting with his back against the wall, the uneven light from the fireplace hiding his face in the shadow. Elizabeth thought that now was as good time as any to admit what galled and hurt her most over the years-that she had been wrong in her judgment of Mr. Wickham and that of her husband. Lord knew when they would speak in private again. She said, with considerable reluctance:

"My brother was not fond of the man, apparently."

"Ah." Darcy nodded.

"And my sister Mrs. Bennet positively loathes him.. She is convinced that he had... had played some ill game with us."

"I have always said that your brother's wife had admirable good sense."

Elizabeth smirked unhappily. "Well, she did marry my brother. At any rate," she added, "it is all water under the bridge now. The man is dead, you know."

It was Darcy's turn to gasp and peer at her as if she had grown a second head. "Dead," he repeated. "How do you know that?"

"Malvina told me. He was one of the officers who perished at Fort Sinjun."

"You know for certain?" he asked breathlessly, after a pause.

"Many officers' bodies were never found, for the Fort had burned. The part of it where their quarters were. Malvina's Father for one. Apparently, Mr. Wickham was another one. Presumed dead, yes."

Darcy said nothing for a while, looking grim. "Well," he said finally. "If so, so much the better."

Elizabeth allowed herself an unladylike guffaw. "I do find you lacking in Christian charity, Mr. Darcy."

He nodded. "You are absolutely correct. I have none, not for Wickham."

She sat quietly for some time, removed suddenly to their arguments about this very thing. She was tempted to ask him about it, thinking that perhaps he would disclose it now. Now that they were older and more judicious. Now that the subject of their argument was no more... perhaps they could actually speak of it without fighting? But she did not, abiding by her old resolution to let this matter lie-regardless of how badly she sometimes wanted to know.

Darcy said: "I saw you at the Serpentine at Christmas."

"I know," she said. Then, giving in to the temptation. "You did not approach me."

"I did not," he echoed.

"Why?"

He gave a quiet, bitter laugh. "Mrs. Darcy," he said. "I have never thought that you wanted me to approach you."

They spoke of nothing else that night, sitting in quiet dejection for what felt like hours, until Darcy rose, somewhat stiffly, and extended his hand to her: "Come, Mrs. Darcy," he said. "I shall walk you to your door."

Obediently, she slipped off the chair. She had slept for hours, and was still tired enough where she knew she would fall asleep again if her head touched the pillow. Darcy carried a taper, lit from the fireplace, as they walked; it was their only illumination. No more words were said between them until they reached the door of her room.

There, Elizabeth looked up, seeing his face in the uneven circle of light.

"Good night," she said. But she would not go in, would not even touch the smooth brass door handle. Darcy did not move, either, except to lower the candle a little bit to see her face.

"Good night," he said hoarsely. Elizabeth could not bear to take a step away from him, the pain searing her heart at the very thought that after tonight, they would be parted forever. Parted. A life without him-no, worse, a life without a hope of him. At the thought of just such a lifetime, she could barely stifle a bitter sob. She took a step forward at the same moment as he, bumping into him with an awkward exclamation and causing him to drop his taper.

In the ensuing darkness, they both apologized profusely, in loud whispers, but instead of drawing apart, stayed where they were, pressed together chest-to-chest in the hallway. Darcy's arms came about Elizabeth and cradled her against him. She squeezed her eyes tightly, pressed her cheek against the rough fabric of his coat and inhaled. His very own scent she had known years ago. It made her head spin-the dearest, most familiar, most arousing thing in the world. Earlier in the evening, he had removed his cravat, and, before she knew what she was about, Elizabeth pressed her face against her husband's bare neck.

"Oh Will," she whispered against his warm skin.

She would have fallen, had he not been holding her.

"Elizabeth," Darcy whispered. "Shall we part, then?" He stroked her hair, disheveled now despite Mary's best efforts this morning. "Stay with me, dearest Elizabeth!"

She could not bear to speak of it, not now. She lifted her eyes, able to see only the vaguest outline of his face in the darkness.

"Sh-sh-sh," she whispered back, laying one finger against his lips. And when he leaned his head to hers and kissed that finger lightly, she did not fight or rebuke him.

His composure shattering visibly, Darcy moaned and grasped her to himself in a forceful embrace. Elizabeth felt herself lifted off the floor, feet dangling, heard the sound he made near her ear, a growl and a groan in equal parts. Setting her down, he held her aside, and she knew that he was looking at her.

"Lizzy," he whispered in the darkness. "Do not leave me tonight, Lizzy..."

All breath rushed out of her at the desperate plea she heard in his voice. She found that she could not speak, and, instead of answering, stroked his cheek with her thumb.

He leaned his head to hers, their lips touching for the first time in three years. She opened her mouth beneath his, feeling the searing heat of it, burning with like a glowing coal. She could feel their mutual shudder.

"Do not leave me!"

"Do not let me go..."

Later, she would not be certain which one of them had pushed her bedchamber door open. Perhaps it was he, or she, or the joint motion of their bodies embracing that did it. On the other side of it, she clasped his shoulders tightly as he kissed her, her breath desperately loud and fast in her own ears. He was kissing her as if meaning for her to feel his kisses for the rest of her life.

There was no light, but the dully glowing fireplace, and the room was cold despite it. Elizabeth clung to Darcy, not knowing whether it was for warmth or because she could not bear to let go of him. He made a rough sound deep in his throat, his hands cradling the back of her head as he kissed her, greedily, again and again.

They pulled apart for air, but still holding each other, just as her shawl fell on the floor with a soft "swoosh."

"Come," Darcy murmured, drawing her to the bed. She went, still mute, still willing. Sitting down, he pulled her between his open knees and undid, with shocking alacrity, the buttons upon Malvina's mourning gown, pushing it down over her hips. His hands stroked her back above the stays and the curve of her buttocks below even as he kissed, frantically, her neck, her mouth, her face, the top of her breasts. She could feel his hands shake upon her, clumsy as he fought to undo her stays. Unwilling to take her lips from him for more than a second, Elizabeth helped him with it the best she could. Soon enough, the stays were dispensed with, lifted over her head, falling silently upon the rug. She felt him kiss the grooves and dimples they had left on her skin. Then-his clothing, removing only the bare minimum they could stand to trouble with. His coat, his waistcoat, his boots, falling with the dull thud onto the rug, and Darcy turned to Elizabeth once again and took her hand in his. She could see his eyes, dark now in the firelight, as he kissed the knuckles and pulled her, gently, yet insistently, with him onto the bed. She tumbled over him, kissing him everywhere she could reach. God I love him so. There was no other thought in her mind, not a single doubt, not a moment of worry; merely the recognition that something truly wonderful was about to happen, something of which she had lost all hope.

Entangled upon the narrow bed, they kissed with such passion, it soon robbed them of all breath, and both had to stop. He rolling atop her, they regarded each other with bold, enamored, heated eyes. Brazen, Elizabeth pulled his shirt out of his trousers, slipped her hands wherever they could reach, touching him everywhere, the dimple in the small of his back, his smooth, broad shoulders, and the line of tight muscle down his belly, covered with soft hair that tickled her fingers. He was shaking a little as he kissed her. Blood was pounding in her ears, his heart thundering beneath her palm. His hands, his lips upon her breasts, as he stroked and kissed her with infinite tenderness. Elizabeth moaned, biting the corner of her pillow. There was a powerful ache within her, and she welcomed him when, finally, he rose over her, holding himself up on both arms, breathing heavily. She may have even helped him with his buttons, much like she had helped him with hers. She would not be sure later, but her fingertips would long remember stroking the smooth, taut skin of his hips as she pushed his breeches down his legs.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "My Elizabeth."

Locking both arms around her husband's neck and shoulders, Elizabeth shut her eyes and gave in completely. She heard him whisper her name, and then, in a voice she would remember to the end of her days:

"Do not leave me, Lizzy, my love..."

He took her, then, inching forward by degrees, both of them moaning in pain and pleasure. On pure instinct, Elizabeth opened her legs wider, then locked them behind Darcy's body, stroking her toes up and down his calf as he moved. It hurt terribly, and yet, she was insensible of it, full of joy and exhilaration. . She cried out softly when the pain was at its greatest-at the piercing of her maidenhead, she guessed. He stopped, breathing heavily, kissing her wet face, her mouth, murmuring words of apology to her.

"Lizzy, Lizzy, I am sorry-I have hurt you-I am sorry-"

She took a deep breath beneath him, smiling, shifting, trying her best to accustom herself to the incredible feeling of being thus invaded. She said nothing, merely stroked his face, moved strands of hair out of his eyes.

He knew this for what it was, a liberty and an invitation. He gathered her to himself and moved in her embrace, kissing her all the while with increasing passion. She returned his kisses with equal ardor, her grip on him tightening as she held him, as he moved and arched and then, cried out and shuddered in the throes of his release.

~ * ~

Elizabeth lay with her covers up to her chin, listening to the hammering of her heart in her ears. What have they done? How terribly have they just complicated their lives? She was not angry at Darcy, she was not even regretful--just terribly distressed.

Darcy touched her arm, looking at her with concern from above. "Elizabeth," he said quietly. "Are you all right?"

She could see the feeble light play against his shoulder. He had discarded his shirt... at some point. She had not even noticed. She was not all right, not even the slightest bit all right, damn it. Elizabeth bit her lip to keep herself from weeping. If she cried right now, it would give him an entirely wrong idea. Would lead him to believe that this... their... congress had occurred against her will. It did not. Or that she regretted it. She did not. One thing was absolutely clear-what had happened just now, had happened mutually. She could not even recall which one of them had opened the bedroom door. Why, then, did she want to weep?

"Elizabeth," he said, a quiet persistence in his voice. "Speak to me, please."

She drew a deep, shuddering breath, steadying herself.

"Yes," she said. "No. I do not know."

Her voice must have told him all. He slowly returned to the bed next to her and spoke no more, except to whisper, with quiet resignation:

"Sleep, Lizzy."

She did not think she could, but once again, her tired body proved her wrong.

~ * ~

She woke at dawn to see him rise from her bed. Memories of the night before seemed dreamlike, illusory. If it were not for the sight of him dressing himself near her bed, she could not have credited it. He saw that she was watching and gave her a small half-bow, almost comical from a man wearing naught but his breeches.

"Good morning," he said quietly.

"Good morning," she said. And then: "I am sorry."

"You have done nothing for which to apologize."

"For last night," she said, hoping that he would understand that she meant for the aftermath.

He did not understand.

"No, it is I who must beg your forgiveness for last night," he said, sudden bitterness swelling in his voice. "I have ... lost myself. No excuse for it, madam. I am so sorry."

"Sir!" she protested. "You know it was both of us together."

He gave her a cross look. "I thought it was."

"You did not force me."

"I should think not," he said archly.

"But we probably should not have done it."

He flinched, as if hit across the face.

"Probably," he agreed, sitting down on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots. "Which is why I am sorry."

"Sir-" Will, she wanted to say, as she had said to him last night, over and over. But she did not dare. "Sir, you must understand. It complicates things so. We probably would not have done it, had we had our wits about us."

"Were you witless last night, Elizabeth? It did not seem so to me." He was standing near the bed, buttoning his waistcoat and glaring.

"Oh stop it!" she cried angrily. "Do you really not understand?"

That did it. With a furious glare at her, he grabbed for his coat, dropped it, leaned to gather it from the floor, hit his head upon the side of the bed and gave a yelp of pain and a curse of damnation.

"No!" He hissed in a poor attempt at a judicious whisper. "No, no, Elizabeth, I do not. I do not understand why my person is so repugnant to you, that for the last three years all you have thought and dreamt about is your freedom from me! "

She gasped, holding one hand to her mouth. "Sir!" she cried, aghast. "I have not! You do me ill, indeed!"

"Do I?" He snapped. "Do I, Mrs. Darcy? And anyway what should it matter if I did? You do me ill! You have no care for me! You have taken me to your bed last night, and still, you have not a shred of feeling for me! Well, madam! I, too, regret giving in last night! But I promise you, madam, that my intentions to abide by our agreement have not changed."

Elizabeth felt lashed by his words. "You said you did not want to let me go, yesterday, did you not say it?!" she cried, letting her pain burst forth. She bit her lip, trying to contain a rush of imminent, embarrassing tears. "Why, why, why are you like that now?!" That seemed to stop her husband in his tracks. He turned and looked at her squarely. In the morning's light, with his shirt collar open and his cheek unshaven, he looked nearly foreign to her. Dark, seductive, handsome. All the more unfamiliar for the veil of tears that now obscured her vision.

"Yes," he said, obviously tempering himself at the sight of her tears, "I did. And I meant it. And I still do. But you do want to go, it seems, and I shall not hold you back." He paused. "Not even after last night. However much it pains me, Elizabeth, I shall let you go."

No longer able to contain herself, Elizabeth burst into pitiful weeping. Darcy stood by the bed, looking helplessly at her. His anger seemed to have disappeared, and he looked-and sounded-merely tired now. "Elizabeth, I do not understand you," he said after a while in apparent exasperation. "You have tormented me all these years, but you burst into tears when I tell you that I will not hold you back against your will! Elizabeth!"

But she kept weeping, bewildered by the multitude of emotions that raged in her. Did she regret what had happened? Did she want to stay? Or go? Why did it hurt her so much that he would want to let her go now of all times, after last night, after they had experienced such compleat, frightening closeness? She supposed she ought to be thankful to him-but, shamefully, she was not. Shamefully, she wanted him to hold her back, no matter what. She wanted him to want her, to love her. Damn their annulment. Damn his nobility! Her heart broke at the thought that he might just let her go.

Her crying was not by design; if it had been, Elizabeth would have looked over at Darcy and saw how the expression on his face had changed. But she was consumed by her misery and did not see his countenance pass from poorly contained fury to befuddlement to tenuous hope.

He sat down next to her again. So upset Elizabeth was, she jumped when he reached to wipe her tears. His voice much softened, he asked quietly:

"You do not have to go, you do understand that? I do not want you to go. Do you understand?"

She wanted to answer, but the desperate, pathetic sobs tore at her throat. She was so ashamed of herself! She was better than this, this girlish behavior.

Darcy moved closer, reaching for her. She saw how he was looking at her and flung herself into his arms. "Elizabeth," he said warmly in her ear "Stop it, Lizzy, you fool. What must I say so you believe me? I do not want you to go," he whispered, kissing her wet cheek. "I want you to stay." Another kiss. "And be my wife." Kiss. "You would make me a very happy man if you stayed and lived your life with me. Good heavens, woman, stop weeping, you will look a fright!"

Elizabeth laughed through her tears and shut her eyes tightly in amazement. It was decided, then? So simple, she thought, such a simple understanding. Two-and-a-half years of happiness, so many joyful nights and happy mornings waking up in the same bed-lost, wasted because of their stubbornness, their youthful stupidity! All for lack of a simple understanding like this one. Do not go-I do not want us to part-nor I...

She sniffed and stroked her fingertips across the back of his hand.

"We have made a terrible mess of it all, have we not?" she asked grimly.

"We can fix it all," Darcy promised, catching her hand in his and bringing it up against his cheek. Gravely, he declaimed: "Come live with me and be my Love, and we will all the pleasures prove..." He paused, looking at her. "What do you say Mrs. Darcy, shall you?"

Though she was much moved, Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

"Poetry! If ever there was a way to kill romance!"

"I happen to think highly of poetry." His hand ruffled her disheveled hair. "Come, Mrs. Darcy. Answer me. I do not wish to let you go. Here, I said it." Suddenly, he grasped her by the shoulders and held her away, looking pointedly into her face. "Your turn now," he said seriously. "Tell me, Mrs. Darcy! Do we have an understanding? Will you stay?" She nodded, but he glared at her. "Say it."

Her life's most important, most defining moment, and she was tear-stained and clad in nothing but a sheet.

"We have," she said quietly, 'an understanding. I shall stay with you. I shall... live with you and be your..." Here, she lost her nerve and said: "...wife."

He released his grip upon her shoulders, then held out his hand, somberly. Elizabeth shook it and broke up into peals of weepy laughter.

They sat in bed for some time, Darcy having located Elizabeth's nightshift, thoughtfully laid out for her the night before by her girl and never used. She donned it demurely and put her shawl about her shoulders. They sat, shoulder to shoulder, he almost fully dressed, their fingers entwined atop the covers.

"Do you wish me to speak with Bennet?"

"No." Elizabeth leaned her head back against the pillows. "I shall speak with Jamie today. And ... and the rest?"

The household, she meant, and Georgiana, what to tell them.

"They need no announcement. You are, and have always been, the Mistress of Pemberley."

"All the same we ought to speak with Georgiana."

"She will be delighted to hear that you shall stay at Pemberley." He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head. "As am I, Lizzy. As am I."

~ * ~

Soon, he was gone, and Mary appeared, offering to have water brought up. Elizabeth took her up on the offer, gladly, and was shocked to discover a few rust-colored spots of blood upon her thighs. Mary, too, saw them, as she drew Elizabeth's nightgown over her head.

"Miss, I thought you were a few weeks away from your courses-"

"I am," Elizabeth said firmly and climbed into the bath before Mary could protest. Hot water singed her injured flesh and she nigh-on cried out, biting her lip before she could do so. She was mortified, even more so when she thought of the sheets upon the bed. Panic welled again in her breast-everyone would know! -and she stifled it, angrily. So what if they knew. She and Darcy were husband and wife and had committed no crime. She shrunk inside at the thought of indiscreet tongues set to wagging-though she knew Pemberley servants to be more discreet than many others, she could not hope that just such a news would remain secret for long-but decided firmly that she would not be ashamed. She would stay and be a wife unto her husband, they had decided so.

"Mary," she called from the bath, and the girl appeared, looking decidedly suspicious. Ill in her heart at the thought of the connections Mary's sharp mind would undoubtedly make in short order, Elizabeth nonetheless instructed her that they would remain at Pemberley when everybody else had gone.

Mary stared at her, at first obviously nonplussed, and then-scandalously triumphant. Pursing her lips ever so tightly to ward off a wandering smile, she curtseyed.

"Take care to keep quiet about it," Elizabeth said in her best Mistress of Pemberley voice, the one she hardly ever used. "I have not told my brother yet, or Miss Georgiana. I should not like them to learn this news from the servants."

At Mary's protestations that she had never, and would never, never-Elizabeth simply waved her off. Leaning back in her bath, she closed her eyes.

~ * ~

In the morning, Georgiana would not come down. Elizabeth went up to her room and sat with her, trying to convince her to take a little breakfast. The girl was paler than her sheets in the sparse morning light and only took very little toast and coffee before gingerly setting it aside.

"I really cannot have any more," she said, pulling a shawl more tightly about herself. Elizabeth s?w how thin her sister-in-law was, how fine, almost translucent her pale skin, how dark the circles beneath her eyes. She remembered, briefly, herself orphaned at sixteen, and felt an answering pang in her heart. Poor child, she thought, reaching to smooth Georgiana' s hair from her forehead. She wanted, then, to tell her that she meant to stay at Pemberley-but she was suddenly unaccountably shy to speak of it.

There was a knock at the door, and Georgiana sat up straighter and bade the visitor enter. It was Darcy, also pale, but cleanly shaved and dressed in different clothes from the ones Elizabeth had seen him wear this morning. She bit her lip and dropped her eyes, feeling a stirring deep beneath her ribcage, where she supposed her heart ought to be. Still, she had seen him dart a quick, secret glance at her.

"Georgie." He sat on the edge of his sister's bed. "My dear. How are you this morning?"

"I am well," the girl said, making a brave attempt at a smile. Darcy looked skeptical at that, but said nothing, merely extended a hand to stroke his sister's cheek.

"I shall leave you two to speak." Elizabeth rose, thinking that the siblings might wish to be alone together. But Darcy said, hurriedly:

"Elizabeth, stay, please."

She turned, uncertain, but saw Georgiana's soft smile and went to stand by the window instead, holding herself in a place of comfort by crossing her arms on her chest.

"I am sorry," Georgiana said weakly. "I do not mean to stay abed and make others worry over me."

They assured her, immediately and vocally, that they did not worry, but she only laughed weakly. "Of course! I promise you two I will try to come down as soon as I can. Elizabeth," she said. "When do you plan on returning to Hertfordshire? I do not mean to keep you back by---by this."

"I-" Elizabeth had not expected for this to come up this soon and was now lost for the answer. She threw an involuntary helpless glance at Darcy.

"Georgie." He took his sister's hand again and squeezed it. "Dearest. Elizabeth will not be returning to Longbourn now." He looked over to Elizabeth and held out a hand, a mute invitation to her to come closer. She did, placing her hand in his without a word.

Georgiana said nothing, merely looked from one to the other. "Ah, well," she said, softly, after a while. "Finally." She nodded, smiling, and closed her eyes. "Leave me now, both of you, go off. I shall try to sleep."

Outside of Georgiana's room, Darcy hugged Elizabeth fiercely, holding her against his chest, tucking her head beneath his chin.

"Do you see?" he murmured against her hair. "Your place is here, Lizzy."

She lifted her head and kissed him, tentatively, on the lips. "I believe it, too," she whispered against his mouth.

~ * ~

At breakfast, they said nothing to anyone, nor gave any sign. Darcy was as solicitous as ever, conversing politely with his guests, even, she noticed with some pleasure, with Jamie. Sitting upright in her chair, Elizabeth was mortified, deeply, at the thought of speaking with her brother; but she was also impatient of it, wanting desperately to be done with the looming conversation. It did not help one bit that she was now called upon to answer numerous and insincere inquiries on the part of Miss Bingley, who wanted to know just how dear Georgiana was doing up in her room.

"I daresay she will recover," Elizabeth said, finding the woman harder and harder to bear with every second.

"She is exceedingly fragile!"

"She is much stronger than she appears. " Elizabeth said, and that was the end of that. She changed her subject. "My sister Mrs. Bennet sends you her love."

Miss Bingley pursed her lips. "She has left me," she said coldly. "In the wake of my brother's death, Mrs. Bingley left me and went off on her merry adventure to India."

Elizabeth sighed. "Perhaps you could find it in your heart to forgive her." She rose. "You will excuse me," she murmured. She could feel that Darcy followed her with his eyes, as did her brother. Jamie, on his part, followed her out of the room within minutes.

"Bess," he said behind her. "Are you unwell?"

She twirled quickly, biting her lip. ""Will you walk with me, Jamie?"

"Walk with you?" he repeated. "In that?" He nodded towards the rain-soaked window.

She nodded stubbornly, looking away from him. "I should dearly love a walk." He stared at her, eyes narrowed, piercing, and she dropped hers to study the tips of her shoes. "Let me-" He said finally. "I shall be back momentarily." He was down the stairs in some ten minutes, fastening his greatcoat as he walked. Elizabeth stood waiting, impatient, already wearing her pelisse. At the bottom of the stairs, Jamie held out his hand. "Come."

Outside, the rain had ceased for some time, but the gravel beneath their feet was still soaked, as were the budding branches above them.

Now that she had her brother's company and his attention, Elizabeth found herself lost for words. She had imagined it would difficult to say what she needed to say; but she had not imagined just how difficult.

She took a deep breath, causing her brother to give her a sideways look. It was time. "Jamie," she said, taking his hands and thus stopping his progress down a sodden lane. "Tomorrow, when you go, I shall stay here." He frowned at her. "Stay here?" he repeated. "For how much longer?"

She took another breath and expelled the air with a shudder. "Jamie," she said. "I mean to stay here."

The comprehension dawned, more slowly than she would have expected from her clever brother. He looked at her, darkly, eyes narrowed.

"Indefinitely," he confirmed.

"Yes."

"As his wife."

"I am his wife, Jamie."

"I see," he said, slowly. "And what of your annulment?"

A large drop of water fell from above, bouncing off the edge of her bonnet and splashing against her nose. She frowned and wiped at it, carelessly, with the back of her gloveless hand.

Here it was, time to finally tell the truth. She lifted her eyes to her brother's face. "I do not wish for it, Jamie."

Jamie looked disapproving. "Think of it-Bess! Just think of it. Is this wise? You had not lived together long enough to-"

Elizabeth held up one hand. "Jamie," she said quietly. "It has been a long time since I've truly desired to be parted from Mr. Darcy." Jamie shook his head, then rubbed the back of his hand against his eyes, then, turning, leaned against a tree next to them, causing it to shower them with cold droplets. Elizabeth stood motionless, water running off the brim of her bonnet, and down her face and neck. "Jamie," she said to her brother's back. "Do you remember that day at the Serpentine, when you and I went skating?"

"Yes," he said gloomily.

'Do you remember how unhappy I was?"

"I do."

There was nothing more to say, and she simply waited for him to calm down. Finally, he sighed hugely and turned around. It had started to rain again, heavy round drops splashing audibly against the ground, the branches, their own persons. Jamie wiped at his eyes.

"So you really do care for him, eh, Bess?"

"Yes!" She beamed at him, hopeful. "I do, I do care for him, Jamie! Please just accept it, Jamie, please!"

"Indubitably I shall," he said with another sigh. "For what other choice have you left me?" But the bitterness was now gone from his voice.

"Have you any objections to his person?" Elizabeth asked, though she felt she had won the battle quite easily.

"None, other than I think he would make an abominably bad husband."

"Then you do not know him at all. Not like I know him. He was the best of husbands when we were first married. He cannot have but improved with age."

"If you think so well of him, why have you lived apart from him for so long?"

She dropped her eyes, unable to let him see the pain this question caused her. She had asked it from herself so many times, after her pique at Darcy had cooled, and she had realized he was not coming back for her. These painful months, when she had cried herself to sleep too many nights, convinced of his indifference to her; worse-convinced that she had lost his regard.

"I-I was wrong in it, Jamie. "

"You told me you were angry at him for Wickham."

"I was, until it no longer mattered."

"And now? Does it matter now?"

"I have long believed him, Jamie. Malvina said that you did not like, or trust Mr. Wickham. I was very foolish to take his side."

"I should agree with you in that," Jamie said after a moment's contemplation. "Something was-something was off about the fellow."

"So," she repeated, hopeful and emboldened. "Apart from your misunderstanding of my husband's... husbandly qualities-have you no other objection?"

Jamie took her naked, wet hand into his gloved one. He was no longer looking her in the eye.

"You will not annul this marriage because you will not... or cannot?"

She knew what he meant, and blushed hotly. She was certain they could annul it still, even after what had happened last night. But she could not go into such explanations, nor did she want to.

Jamie, too, was red in the face. "Because, Lizzy, if it is the latter, you need not-we do not have to-"

Elizabeth quickly laid one hand upon her brother's forearm. Grateful though she was that he was prepared to stand by her, she would not need his help.

"No," she said. "Jamie, it is not that. I could leave him if I wanted to. It is just that... I do not want to."

There was more silence, and they stood, facing each other, in the wet garden. Jamie raked one hand through his hair, water running down his face. She knew it hurt him to accept her decision, but she knew as well that he would not stand in her way.

"Well, then," he said, finally. "If you so wish. I am sorry to lose you again so soon, but he is your husband. Pray do not be sorry later."

She nodded fervently and kissed the edge of her brother's hand. "Dearest Jamie, I will not, I promise you that."

They returned to the house in silence. Before going in, she took his hand again and squeezed it. "You will give my love to Mal and Tommy, will you not?"

His face relaxed, suddenly, and he hugged her fiercely. "Oh Bess!" he whispered. "Dearest Bess, of course I will give your love to them!"

"I shall write a letter," she said quickly, kissing his cheek. "For you to take home. I am sorry for doing it-like this. Without saying good-bye to your wife. "

"I fear it will be less of a surprise for her than you may imagine..." He gave a short, rueful laugh. "So here I am, losing you again. I will miss you dreadfully, my love."

Her eyes watered as she stepped out of his embrace. Absurdly, she felt almost disloyal to be leaving her brother's family. "I shall not be so far away as that," she said apologetically. Jamie shook his head, regarding her kindly.

" 'Tis your life, Bess. Go live it now."

~ * ~

They went into the parlor and all but collided with Darcy, who strode out of the nearest drawing room, pale and drawn in his mourning clothes. Elizabeth, in the process of removing her sodden bonnet, saw her brother's eyes narrow, all geniality fading from his person, and froze with the wet thing in her hand. But Jamie simply bowed stiffly, gave her a tight smile and stalked up the stairs. She was left alone with Darcy.

Her husband was silent until Jamie had gone, eyes following his progress up the grand staircase.

"Well?" he asked quietly, returning his gaze to her.

"I told him," Elizabeth said bluntly. Her husband said nothing to that, merely pulled her to him. Elizabeth dropped the wet bonnet onto the floor.

They stood together for some time and then the door to the nearest drawing room opened and Miss Bingley appeared. Elizabeth jerked away, only to be arrested by Darcy's hand against the small of her back. She shut her eyes tightly in mortification, looking away, and knew that she missed an expression of abject shock upon the other woman's face. She heard a rustle of silk and a muffled "Excuse me!" as Miss Bingley fled the parlor.

"Good god!" Elizabeth said thickly, in dismay. "That it should be her!"

"Lizzy. I care not a whit if it should be St George himself."

"Yes," Elizabeth agreed weakly. "But her."

Darcy stroked her hair. "You are my wife, in my home. We have every right."

Elizabeth hesitated-did he really not know?--and then, looking up in her husband's face, said quietly:

"Do you not see that she is in love with you?"

It was an indiscreet thing to say, but a necessary one. Immediately, she knew that this was shocking news to him. He started, then looked down at her, as if trying to see whether she was joking. Elizabeth kept looking at him, steadily, and saw his eyes widen in realization.

"I am sorry for it, if it be so," he said gravely, after a pause. "Elizabeth, you do know I have never-" He stumbled over words, still holding her in his arms. "-Not in word or deed-" Losing this one battle, he closed his eyes, his expression pained.

"I know," she said quietly, resting her forehead against his lapel. "Will, I know."

For the rest of the day, they were giddy with excitement. They behaved exceedingly well, only touching each other's hands in passing once or twice. Darcy was as amiable a host as could be expected of him under the circumstances, and she had occupied herself with Georgiana, who had finally come down to join the rest of the company, and was made much of in consequence. From time to time, Elizabeth looked up and saw her husband, his gaze resting upon her like a firebrand. She felt a quiver very deep inside and tried her best not to dwell upon the night to come. Still, the very thought of it made her knees wobble.

The company was subdued, and Miss Bingley, for one, did not fawn over Darcy or Georgiana, but sat quietly in the corner with some sewing. Lord Gregory had attempted to bring her back to the general conversation, but she merely smiled and demurred, claiming a headache and odium for politics. She looked just like a person whose hopes had been dashed most for the last and final time. Elizabeth felt awful about what was wrought earlier, and Darcy appeared as if he would rather die than look back at the girl. And though she hated to see the girl here, at Pemberley, with the knowledge that she had schemed to separate her from Darcy, Elizabeth was disposed to be kind tonight, her own heart finally at rest.

~ * ~

That night, Elizabeth took Georgiana back up to her room and sat with her until the girl fell into a restive sleep. After quitting Georgiana's apartments, she went downstairs, both hoping and dreading that she might find her husband there. She felt deeply awkward. When she thought of the night before, it filled her whole being with heat; but did one night erase two-and-a-half years of estrangement and separation? Elizabeth's face flushed, she herself was uncertain about what she would say to Darcy when she saw him.

To her disappointment and relief both, she did not find him downstairs. For a while, she sat and read, a volume of poetry picked at random from a library shelf. Her attention rather thin just now, she could not even tell what she was reading. Finally, setting it aside with some pique, she went upstairs. Perhaps he would find his way to her bedchamber later. She desired him with dizzying intensity; but she also feared the great upsurge of feeling and intimacy that must necessarily follow. What had happened last night was so, so wonderful, but it was also like a massive wave that had picked her up, crushing the lights in her breast. What a contrary person she was now: wanting Darcy to come to her more than anything, she also feared it a great deal.

Still, when, an hour later, she felt herself drift away, alone in her bed, she felt rather miffed. Perhaps, she told herself sleepily, perhaps he might come to her in the night...

He did not. This, now, was distressing. Had he not liked what had occurred? It was difficult to say, particularly with their argument in the aftermath. She avoided Mary's eyes in the mirror. Finally dressed in her other black gown, hair set, she went downstairs.

~ * ~

She only had to set foot there, however, before she ran into her husband's imposing figure. Seeing how large he was, she felt all the tinier, having by now convinced herself that she had somehow managed to lose his regard by bedtime last night.

It took her one glance upon his countenance to see that he had not slept well. She remembered, suddenly, an old fight they had had after she had refused to stand up with him at the Harvest Ball. She had come to his bedchamber, then, seeking reconciliation. Even if he were angry with her, somehow, though for what, she could not fathom, could he not have come to her?

"Elizabeth," he said, "have you slept well?"

She stared at him cagily, head bowed. "I have," she said. "And you?"

"Not at all," he confessed. "Will you give me a moment, Mrs. Darcy?"

He offered her his arm and steered her towards the very library where she had spent her waiting hours last night. The book of poetry was still on the little table near the window, just where she had left it. Darcy pointed, briefly, at the couch, and Elizabeth sat down obediently, taking the very corner of it.

He started pacing.

"Elizabeth," he said, stopping suddenly and turning to her, like a Shakespearean actor might upon the stage. Lord, she thought, he looks wretched. "I wanted to explain. About last night."

She waited, mortified.

"Madam," he said. "I did not come to you last night."

"I know," Elizabeth said, amazed at this very conversation and at the unhappy expression upon her husband's face. Amazed, and horrified-for what if he were regretting it all? What if he had come to tell her it was all over, that he had changed his mind? That they were to annul their marriage after all?

"Did you wait for me?" There was no flirtation to this question, and Elizabeth answered it honestly.

"I did," she said.

"I am so sorry," he said hotly, all of a sudden moving to kneel before her sofa. He even looked imposing and daunting there, squeezing himself uncomfortably between the sofa and yet another one of the small tables. "I had meant to come to you, but -"

"But?" she whispered.

"The other night," he said quietly, eyes intense upon her. "The other night, I am afraid that it might have been too ... too overwhelming for you."

Elizabeth bit her lip. "Yes. A little." Giddy with relief that he had not changed his mind about staying with her, she asked him a brazen question: "And for you?"

Darcy held her gaze, then said: "Yes! Of course it was! But you must know-I thought it was ... heavenly."

Elizabeth felt her breath catch at such an unparalleled proclamation. Feeling herself blossom into a happy blush under his gaze, she leaned forward and took both his hands in hers.

"I thought it was, too," she whispered, looking into his eyes. "But it was so... so..."

"Yes," he said, "I know. I hurt you last night... did I not?"

She shrugged, happy at the turn the conversation had taken, happy to have her nighttime fears banished. "Nothing I could not bear," she said generously. "I have heard that there is always some-some pain, is there not?" Her face was flaming now at the delicious impropriety of it all.

"I had hoped to spare you this part of it," Darcy said quietly. Reaching out, he stroked her cheek lightly. "Long ago... when I had thought of it... before our estrangement, when I had thought about what it would be like..." To her amazement, he, too, blushed. "But I think I forgot all about it two nights ago. You have always tested my self-control quite viciously," he added with a wry smile.

"I was afraid," she said, in her turn reaching out to stroke her hand against his temple and cheek. "That you would come to me, and that you would not. But I think that I fear nights without you more than any sort of pain that might come."

"I wanted to give you more time." Darcy caught her hand in his and kissed the palm, pressing it to his face, inhaling the scent of her skin. "This must all be so new to you, Lizzy."

Elizabeth shivered. "Very new," she admitted. "Thank you for having such a care for me," she added. "For being such a gentleman. But I think I should rather have you near me just now. I will gladly suffer pain for it... I think."

Catching the bewilderment in his eyes, she added quickly: "And after all, the more we... spend time together, the likelier I am to grow accustomed to it all. And I heard that pain will pass...with time."

"Yes," Darcy said hurriedly, breaking into a smile-joyful, relieved. "Of course. It must. You are so eminently sensible."

Elizabeth laughed. "I am nothing of the sort," she said. She wanted, very much, to be kissed, and he obliged, leaning forward on his knees to press his lips to hers. The kiss was awkward, but all the hotter for that, starting little fires at a thousand points along her skin.

"Oh, Elizabeth!" Darcy whispered. "This is what I meant-" He was breathing heavily, his arms wrapping more tightly around her.

"But this is a good thing, is it not?" she whispered back, feverish now. "That it feels this way?"

"A very good thing," he murmured, pulling her back into the kiss.

Some minutes later, both of them dazed and overheated, they pulled apart. A button had been opened on Elizabeth's gown and her skin there burned from his lips.

"I should just ... take you back to your bedchamber and ravish you," Darcy said hoarsely. But the awkwardness intruded again, and he pulled a little farther away. "But perhaps my sister will come down to breakfast today," he said, blushing ever deeper.

"It would not do to make her wait," Elizabeth said, herself breathing heavily. The thought of being ravished, particularly in a broad daylight, with servants running to and fro behind the doors and quite likely to intrude, made her light-headed. Would he really do something like that? And she had thought he did not want her!

"May I come to you tonight, then?" he whispered. "Will you lie with me again tonight, Mrs. Darcy?"

She gasped, feeling a new and shocking surge of pleasure at his directness. But she could be nothing but direct in response.

"Of course," she said. "Of course I will."

~ * ~

That morning, they said good-bye to Jamie and the rest of the guests. Lord Gregory and the Colonel had apparently been appraised that she was staying. They asked no questions, and Gregory, standing by his carriage, shook Elizabeth's proffered hand with shining, happy eyes.

"If you and Darcy are in town anytime soon-you will call on me, will you not?," he said to her.

"Of course, my lord," Elizabeth said, with all sincerity, knowing him for the great friend he was.

The Colonel, too, seemed happy for them, and would have indubitably made a joke or two at Darcy's expense, had it not been for the sad reason for their meeting. As it was, he bowed to Elizabeth with somewhat exaggerated politeness:

"Mrs. Darcy."

She dipped him a curtsey and turned to Miss Bingley. The girl, too, knew. Her face was white and drawn and she looked the worst Elizabeth had ever seen. She looked ill. Elizabeth looked at her and thought: did you do it? did you send that letter? She did not find it in herself to be particularly pleasant to the woman, to smile and extend invitations to come back. With a quick curtsey, she murmured:

"Miss Bingley-I wish you well."

She did not wait for an answer, merely turned around and was engulfed, immediately, in her brother's embrace. Tears burst from her, and she hid her face on his shoulder.

"Oh Jamie!"

Jamie said nothing, merely patted Elizabeth's shoulder quietly.

"You will come back to Pemberley, will you not?" she murmured, kissing his cheek, wet with her tears. "Jamie, dearest, please come back." It seemed to her that he would not, that his anger at Darcy-faith, they had barely said three words to each other these three days-would prevent him.

"Of course I will come back," he said calmly, his hand now moving, as if in a dream, over her hair. "Elizabeth, do you think your sister would allow me a long separation from you?"

She laughed through her tears, and then it was time for him to go, and she stepped back, wiping at her eyes.

"Darcy." Jamie bowed to her husband, who had said his good-byes to his friends and Miss Bingley, and was now standing, quiet, behind Elizabeth. "Once again, my most sincere condolences on your Father's passing."

Darcy nodded somberly and the two men stepped forward to shake hands. Elizabeth watched them jealously: overnight, it had become vastly important to her that the two of them should be friends. Or perhaps, she thought, tempering herself, that was too bold a hope. Perhaps all she should wish for is that they not be enemies... Her Aunt Gardiner, the voice of Reason in her life, would have said that she was hasty by half-after all, her own bond with her husband, only just mended, was still tenuous. Elizabeth sighed. She would, of course, be correct.

Jamie, mounting his horse, winked at her and nodded once again at Darcy. Miss Bingley's mournful face looked from the carriage window, where she would now spend hours on the way back to Town. The carriages moved ponderously, the three horses with their riders walking just to the side of them.

Elizabeth looked at her husband and saw that he was not looking after their departing guests, but rather, at her; she smiled quietly and shook her head, as if to say that she would not be sad, not now, not when he was returned to her. His answering smile, shy and hopeful, warmed her heart.

"Well," she asked, "shall we go inside?"

Continue reading Strange Bedfellows here


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