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Being a lover of forced marriage scenarios as many of you know I am, perhaps it is no surprise that I've written another such story. In this story, Elizabeth and the formidable Darcy enter the married state and do not meekly accept their fate - and they remain that way for quite a long time. Fireworks and passion (hopefully) will ensue as they privately do battle while publicly demonstrating a united front.
Abby B


Chapter One

Elizabeth Bennet believed the world had genuinely gone mad.

As she frantically paced the grounds immediately surrounding Longbourn, she realized that all the judiciousness that she thought existed in her universe, seemed to have vanished and the result was pandemonium. Suddenly, she recognized that her previous ordered existence was truly little more than a facade.

It had all began to go horribly wrong three days ago yet, to Elizabeth, the recklessness that had resulted felt as if it had been ever present.

Four days prior had been the cataclysmal Netherfield Ball hosted by Mr. Bingley and his sister, Caroline. So many hopes and dreams had been tied to that occasion wherein the local gentry would attend. The Bennet family had, in particular, believed this to be a monumental evening for them. Her mother had supposed this would publicize and solidify the growing attachment between her eldest and most beautiful daughter and Mr. Bingley. Lydia and Kitty had been thrilled at the opportunity to dance and be jolly with the soldiers who now resided in Meryton while her sister Mary viewed it as a means of revealing to all attendees her musical prowess at the pianoforte. Her father supposed this ball would give him the chance to dissect his neighbors and later poke fun at their idiosyncrasies. Finally, Elizabeth hoped it would give her a chance to enjoy Mr. Wickham's company and perhaps dance at least two sets with him uninterrupted by her younger sisters' quest for his attention.

Yet, as things often do, disenchantment ensued and all hopes of the fantastic had been quickly dispelled. Even though four days had passed, Elizabeth still shuddered at the recollection of her family's lack of politesse and restraint that evening.

It had all gone so wrong and it had begun when Elizabeth was informed, almost as soon as she had arrived, that Mr. Wickham was unable to attend the ball and had instead returned to town. Her tiresome cousin visiting her family from Hunsford, Mr. Collins, had proceeded to remind her of her promise to join him in the opening dance. An uncultivated dancer, he had been unable to remain attentive throughout the piece and the result was he made a number of conspicuous mistakes which drew the attention of several onlookers - most notably, of Mr. Darcy, who had simpered blithely while Elizabeth's mortification grew.

Later, Mr. Darcy had shocked her by requesting she dance with him. Unable to formulate a reply that would not border on insolence, she acquiesced and found herself facing this formidable man on the dance floor while her meddlesome neighbors looked on in awe and skepticism. Dancing with a man she had long decided to detest did nothing to rouse her spirits and, all too soon, Elizabeth found herself desperately longing to destroy the haughty exterior Mr. Darcy rendered to a public he felt was beneath him. They had argued and the fact that they had done so politely during their dance did not diminish the harshness of the accusations Elizabeth had leveled against him. The rest of the evening they both took care to remain apart and, while Elizabeth often felt his gaze upon her, his critical eye did nothing to disorient her for she had other troubles weighing heavily upon her.

During dinner her mother had, quite raucously, prattled about her eldest daughter's imminent engagement to the master of Netherfield and no amount of shushing her had silenced her or made her more temperate in her boastfulness. Moreover, her father had to, almost under duress, lead her Mary away from the pianoforte which she quite obviously intended to monopolize while Kitty and Lydia had behaved recklessly with the officers causing Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst to look toward them and then back at one another with a series of pointed stares. Elizabeth left Netherfield that night wishing desperately that the humiliating evening had never happened at all.

The next morning had done nothing to assuage her lingering turmoil. Almost immediately after breakfast, Mr. Collins had requested a private audience with her and had proceeded to, most vehemently, propose to her in a manner that would have been laughable had it not been so exasperating. He had repeatedly insisted that her refusal of him had been a coy attempt to increase his admiration of her and confirm her suitability as his future life partner. Only after Elizabeth had left the room, clearly annoyed and clearly desirous of escaping his company, did Mr. Collins seem to recognize the futility of his suit. Her mother's wailing insistence that Elizabeth be forced to marry him, her father's steadfast support of her wishes and the tedious bickering that followed between her parents had only confirmed why she had been prudent to refuse a man whom she could never esteem much less love or feel a modicum of passion for.

Mr. Collins had promptly left Longbourn and had sought and been given shelter at Lucas Lodge where he had managed to convince her dearest friend, Charlotte Lucas, to abandon all of her sound judgment and agree to become his wife. When later Elizabeth had attempted to show her friend the error of accepting this ridiculous man, Charlotte remained unmoved. She had accepted him for practical purposes and the idea of a seven and twenty year old woman waiting for a man to love had been shunned in favor of finally being able to have a home and family of her own. For the first time in the course of their longstanding friendship, Elizabeth looked at her friend and realized that she truly did not understand her nor could she ever respect her in this choice.

Today, when she had returned from an early morning ramble, she had learned that Caroline Bingley was visiting with Jane in the drawing room at Longborn. Questioning what had possibly led to Caroline's early rising and visit while ridding herself of her spencer and her gloves, Elizabeth joined them prepared to face the veiled rancor of Caroline Bingley.

"Why Miss Eliza, you look positively flushed! Another trek across the landscape I gather?"

"Yes," Elizabeth responded with a cheerfulness not inspired by Caroline's presence or her obvious criticism of her habits, "I make it a practice to walk out whenever the weather permits. While it is becoming cold, it is still pleasant to be out among the beauties of the countryside."

"Quite!" Caroline turned back to Jane elegantly. "As I was saying earlier, prior to Miss Eliza's appearance, Charles has decided to journey back to London in five days... time once he can properly quit Netherfield and reregister it for occupancy for the duration of his lease. He really is quite determined. We will all be joining him as the country holds little appeal for us as you can well imagine. Mr. Darcy is quite anxious to see his sister who is desperately awaiting our arrival in London. Charles, while he is hesitant to admit it largely due to Georgiana's young age and his own quest for privacy, is particularly anticipating seeing Georgiana once again as well."

Elizabeth looked expeditiously to her sister and noted her pale visage. Elizabeth felt compelled to question Miss Bingley's assertions regarding Mr. Bingley and Georgiana Darcy but opted to speak about his upcoming departure instead. "Odd how Mr. Bingley did not inform us that he was keen to depart Netherfield. This news is surprising indeed."

"Yes, but that is the way it always is with Charles." Caroline suggested quickly. "Eager to maintain the good favour of his neighbours and newfound friends, he would never offend their sensibilities or their way of life. I assure you, Charles has been miserable at Netherfield and yearns to return to the exhilaration London personifies."

"Then it is expected that he is desirous of leaving Netherfield since so much happiness awaits him elsewhere," Jane added bleakly. Only Elizabeth knew what an effort it was for her sister to speak thusly. Her dispassionate reply did nothing to reveal the tumult of emotions that had seized her upon hearing that Mr. Bingley would be leaving them.

The visit ended shortly after this exchange. Elizabeth attempted to converse with Miss Bingley while Jane remained largely noncommittal, but it was clear that Miss Bingley was longing to leave now that she had relayed the news that had inspired the visit in the first place. Thus, with an elegant goodbye, she departed Longborn leaving behind a befuddled twosome.

"Perhaps now Lizzy, you will acknowledge that Mr. Bingley held no special admiration toward me after all." Jane smiled feebly but Elizabeth sensed the ache behind her words.

"I will acknowledge no such thing!" Elizabeth replied with conviction. "Yet, I cannot fathom what has come about to lead to such a change of heart in Mr. Bingley if indeed he did have a change of heart. No, I cannot accept that Mr. Bingley is quite so capricious nor should you accept it Jane! Clearly, he is besotted with you much to Miss Bingley's chagrin and she means for him to forget you and believes she can accomplish this by leading him to London. Insofar as Miss Darcy is concerned, well?"

"Elizabeth, why must you refuse to see what has been clearly laid out for you? Miss Bingley's visit here was a kindness... it was charity itself actually. She means for me to understand that Mr. Bingley did not hold any special regard for me so that I do not suffer overmuch from his departure."

"Jane, you cannot believe that! Was Mr. Bingley merely playacting at the Netherfield ball and in all other occasions when he was loathe to leave your side? Are all his smiles and his displays of tenderness toward you little more than meaningless flirting? If you fail to see the truth of my words, you surely cannot care or respect him to the extent I thought you did." Elizabeth pleaded, hoping she could convince her sister of what she was unable to see clearly for herself.

"Lizzy, I understand that you mean to make this an easier burden for me to bear but you need not rationalize his past behavior or my feelings for him. I do respect him and I will not judge him harshly for this. Truly, you must believe me. Perhaps, in the long run, this will be all for the best?"

Elizabeth knew her sister was attempting to be strong in the face of her disappointment, but she could not permit her to bear the pain of Mr. Bingley's estrangement. "I imagine Mr. Darcy played some role in this sudden resolve to depart. Miss Bingley could not have accomplished this feat on her own certainly."

"Enough Lizzy!" Jane spoke anxiously. "I absolutely forbid you to draw on your dislike of Mr. Darcy as an excuse in this instance. Really, can you not see that none of your conjecture makes this any less painful?"

With that, Jane left the room thereby ending a half-hearted attempt to hide the tears which had been threatening to fall since before Miss Bingley had left them. Elizabeth paced the drawing room anxiously. She longed to rail against this injustice dealt to her beloved Jane but, alas, there was no one to rail to. Her mother's woeful reaction to this news was a thing to be feared and was to be circumvented at all costs. Her father's witticisms would not help in this instance either. Her sisters surely could offer her no wisdom and Charlotte... well, Charlotte was lost in her own world of a future which seemed sure to be desolate. Elizabeth could no longer trust or respect her judgment in matters of the heart.

Suddenly, the amalgamation of the catastrophic developments of the past half week besieged her. Elizabeth longed once more to quit the confines of Longbourn and felt only the outdoors could offer her solace. Once outside, she marched resolutely towards the woodland hoping it could shelter her from the maelstrom of events that had recently upset the equilibrium of her life. Try as she might, she could find no answers to the quandaries that had become very much a reality for her.

Irritated and discouraged mightily, she took a path leading away from the forest and directly espied in the distance a figure on horseback. Unable to ascertain the identity of the rider, she marched on lost in her own thoughts. Altogether too quickly, she recognized her mistake for the rider was none other than Mr. Darcy. Certain that a meeting with him was the very least thing she desired, she did an about turn and began making her way back towards the shelter of the forest. In the distance, she detected the beat of horse hooves making their way toward her but she was as determined to avoid Mr. Darcy as she was to return to Longbourn where he most assuredly could not plague her.

"Miss Bennet." Mr. Darcy had caught up to her and was dismounting his horse. "Making the best of the remaining time to walk before the snow falls I see."

"Yes. I had hoped to meditate quietly before I am prevented from being out of doors once the weather turns." Elizabeth was determined to make her point and rid herself of his presence. She continued to walk quickly away from him when politeness would have dictated that she at least await for him to reach level ground.

"Ah, so I have disturbed your quiet meditations. Yet, I feel there remains a matter between us that must be discussed. If I can have but a few moments, I will leave you once again to your solitude."

Elizabeth bit down on her lower lip to prevent the pent-up hostility she felt towards him from being released. "Pardon me Mr. Darcy but I can think of nothing between us that requires discussion at this time. I really must be returning to my mother who surely is questioning my whereabouts." With this, she continued onward hoping he would not ignore so evident a desire to be rid of him.

"Perhaps then we can discuss this while I accompany you back to Longbourn for I do believe there is an important matter that requires clarification on my part. During our dance at the ball, you accused me of?" His haughty demeanour had returned.

"Mr. Darcy, let us forget about the happenings of our disastrous dance. Neither of us enjoyed it nor do I imagine either of us would benefit from revisiting what clearly caused us duress. Good day Mr. Darcy. Enjoy the remainder of your ride."

Mr. Darcy stopped in his tracks. In his haste to talk to her, he had overlooked her obvious turmoil and now felt every inch a selfish fool. Miss Bennet walked purposefully with balled fists and, after examining her closely albeit briefly, he thought he detected red eyes, a sure sign she had been crying. "Miss Bennet, you are clearly troubled. Perhaps we should not return to whatever it was which caused you to become angry during our dance but mayhap you could benefit from discussing whatever it is that is plaguing you currently with me... unless your anger stems from something I have unwittingly done to offend you."

Elizabeth watched unbelievably as he stopped to tie his horse to a large, withered oak tree. Clearly, he was not going to leave her alone but discuss her troubles with him? Preposterous!

"Please believe me when I tell you that my present troubles have absolutely nothing to do with you." Elizabeth pleaded. "I appreciate the offer but, certainly, you can appreciate how we should not be here alone. Truly, I must get home and I think it best if you continue along on your way. Sir, I am not distressed nor do I require a confidante."

She turned and began to walk once more only to sense that he was following her. What on earth was he about? A rage was boiling within her at his presumption. How dare he willingly disregard her wishes when she had plainly told him she did not want his companionship? If he continued to follow her, she knew she would be unable to keep her hostility towards him under regulation.

"Miss Bennet, this is madness. As a gentleman, I cannot leave you alone to your misery. If you do not wish to speak to me, then I cannot quite force you to reveal to me what you would rather not but do not suppose for one instant that I will simply abandon a lady who is evidently distressed. If it suits you better, then I will see you home and then walk back and fetch my horse. We need not talk at all."

Hearing his resolution to accompany her made the large forest seem suddenly unbearably insufficient. She cursed her inability to hide her agitation from him when they had met and silently mocked his decision to suddenly be a gentleman. She continued to walk, hoping he would lose heart once he realized she meant not to speak to him. However, he continued to tread mutely alongside her, every now and again glancing in her direction which was still more often than she liked for him to look at her.

"Well, you have done your duty Mr. Darcy. I am now all of five minutes away from my home. I believe now would be a good time for you to return to your horse."

"Yes... well... perhaps. Pardon me but I must question if you do have anyone else you can discuss this matter with freely as you clearly cannot do so with me. Yet, discuss it you must for I fear it is consuming you." Elizabeth turned to him and, this time, she made no effort to conceal her disdain for him. "Mr. Darcy, I do not believe our acquaintance affords you the liberty of asking me such personal questions particularly when we do not at all get on at all well. Now, I demand that you leave me be. I'm sorry to be rude but, had you listened to me earlier when I plainly told you that I wanted to be alone, we could have prevented this current and additional hostility between us. Once more, good day Mr. Darcy."

Mr. Darcy reacted in a manner that would later shock him. Before meeting with Elizabeth, he had ruminated over the angry words she had directed at him during their dance at Netherfield and had decided that, while he could not reveal the true nature of his history with George Wickham, he refused to leave Hertfordshire before informing her of his duplicitous nature. Now, he repressed this and could only react to her obvious hatred of him. All else seemed unimportant in the face of her extreme dislike.

Grabbing her arm as she was marching away from him, he spun her around so that she faced him. In a voice a full octave lower than his usual speaking voice, he almost whispered, "Miss Bennet, I fancy myself a patient man and a compassionate one but you have tried both my patience and my compassion today. What precisely have I done to inspire your ire or will you continue to hide behind this veil of surreptitious hostility which you seemingly hold so dear" Are you courageous enough to expose the reason behind your vitriol for I am quite certainly courageous enough to meet your wrath head on?"

Elizabeth struggled against his hold of her but his fingers gripped even more tightly around her arm. He was angry - that much was certain - but she was not afraid of him. Her own rage at least matched his.

"How dare you! Unhand me this instant! What gives you the right to suppose you can command me in this manner?" Elizabeth's voiced her fury loudly as if to signal to him that she was not in any way intimidated by him.

Unbeknownst to them both, matched in their ire as they were, Hobbs the forester employed at Longbourn was looking upon them with great interest. A short distance away, he watched the interplay between them and guessed that their disagreement had stemmed from an inappropriate and amorous overture that the haughty Mr. Darcy had made toward Miss Elizabeth. Clearly, they had met clandestinely, secretly seeking the seclusion that the forest offered them. In spite of this, they had argued and Mr. Darcy was seeking something from Miss Elizabeth that she was not quite willing to give up. Smiling shrewdly, he turned and made to leave quietly but the rustle of the fallen leaves on the forest floor alerted the two opponents facing one another of the fact that they were by no means alone.

Suddenly, their ire quite forgotten for the moment, they turned to one another helplessly. Mr. Darcy's fingers instantly released their hold on Elizabeth's arm.

"You there... Stop! I demand you explain to me precisely what you are doing lurking around spying on a private conversation?" Mr. Darcy demanded heatedly.

"Pardon me sir, Miss Bennet. I wasn't meaning to spy. Mr. Bennet has given me three days to mark the trees in this very forest which are needing to be cut down. It's his bidding that I'm doing and not spying, 'cause I have no interest in what you both are doing in this here place." Hobbs spoke clearly but was discomposed after being discovered.

"Mr. Hobbs. I encountered Mr. Darcy who was riding in the forest. I was just about to return home?" Elizabeth tried to explain the matter but felt powerless.

Hobbs interrupted and put an end to Elizabeth's patched up explanation. "And I was doing my job. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm needing to finish now so I'll be off."

With that, he turned and they were once more alone but the anger they had felt just moments ago seemed inconsequential.

"Can we be assured of his discretion? At my home in London and at Pemberley, I trust my staff implicitly not to reveal to anyone the goings on in my home but here?" Mr. Darcy looked about him helplessly.

"Mr. Darcy - the blame here rests solely on you. Had you seen fit to leave me as I requested long before I even entered into this forest, the matter of his discretion would have been insignificant. While you obviously have found yourself in situations that call for your household staff's secrecy, I find myself in this predicament for the first time. You alone have created this scene witnessed by the forester and now you have the gall to criticize? As it happens, I believe he did not witness much but this could have had dire consequences indeed. I now will thank you to leave me and not trouble me again with your desire to act gentlemanly toward me one instant and use brute force upon me the next."

Even as she said the words, Elizabeth knew they were harsh and perhaps a bit unfair. In his eyes, he perhaps had meant to be kind but she could not rid herself of the blame she leveled against him. She turned rapidly and strode away without looking back.

Mr. Darcy remained rooted to the spot for several minutes after she had left him. He viewed her departure with a mixture of emotions. He was certainly glad to be rid of her, angry and hostile as she was, yet he felt compelled to be compassionate toward her as well. The Elizabeth he had first encountered today was troubled and, although he told himself he should not care, he could not divest himself of the frustration he felt at not being able to relieve her of her own wretchedness.

Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy returned home and attempted to put the fray behind them. Elizabeth spent the rest of the day and night focusing on Jane and fretting about her growing despondency. Mr. Darcy instructed his valet about their departure in five days' time and attempted to read poetry written by Robert Dodsley.

Most importantly and perhaps most strangely, of Mr. Hobbs and what he may have believed he had seen they thought of not at all.

Chapter Two

Rupert Hobbs had been employed at Longbourn for all of two years and had generally speaking enjoyed his tenure there. There truly were not many demands placed upon him as forester as the wooded area surrounding the estate was, on the whole, rather small and unremarkable. In winter, when the growing season ended, Hobbs was relegated to the stables where he assisted in the feeding, tending and the breeding of various mares, cows and oxen. His employer knew precious little about him other than the fact that he was steadfast and strong in spite of his age.

He, on the other hand, was in possession of a bit more information about the family he worked for. For instance, he knew that Mr. Bennet had five daughters who were quickly reaching or had already reached the marriageable age. He understood also that the estate would be entailed away from the family since Mr. Bennet had failed to produce a male heir. Household servants had let it be known that the girls were, for the most part, silly and predictable yet he had heard mention that two eldest daughters showed markedly more sense and kindness than did their sisters. He learned that Mrs. Bennet was almost desperate to marry off her daughters and thereby raise their prospects. Thus, considering he had spent no time at all within the house, he knew a great deal about its inhabitants.

As he relaxed in his cottage that evening, he contemplated carefully what he had observed that morning in the forest. There was no question that Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth had intended to be alone which, in itself, was shocking given their gentle breeding and the risk that would befall them should they be discovered. It was those very factors which had led Hobbs to secretly continue viewing them when he truly should have left them to themselves. Had he not been discovered and subsequently been questioned by them, he could have harbored this secret close to himself and perhaps they would have thoughtlessly arranged to meet there in future and he could have continued to observe their interactions.

He bitterly resented Mr. Darcy's tone when speaking to him. While he realized that Mr. Darcy's wealth and reputation afforded him a measure of haughtiness, he found that all gossip of his unmitigated arrogance had not been exaggerated. With not a little vengeance, Hobbs believed Mr. Darcy would have been wise to perhaps not have been quite so scornful in his dealings with him since he had been caught red-handed in what was a compromising position indeed.

As he deliberated this, he heard a loud rapping at his cottage door. Wondering who would venture out at this late hour in what was now bitterly cold weather, he rose to answer the door. A blast of penetratingly cold wind disturbed the quiet warmth of the cottage as he admitted Moore, a fellow stable hand at Longbourn, into his home.

"Ho there Hobbs! Blasted weather nearly knocked me senseless. Hoping to find ye generous enough to share some warm wine with me." Moore looked at him searchingly as he shivered fiercely and, perhaps, a bit excessively.

"Lucky for you to find me not at all stingy this night and willing to share with ye then."

Hobbs glanced briefly at the closest thing to a friend he had at Longbourn as he poured the wine they would both drink. He and Moore had developed a casual alliance founded chiefly on them being among the oldest workers on the estate. Together, they sporadically met to mock the younger, presumably stronger, workers who in fact were languid and often slothful. Theirs was a relationship built on the occasional necessity to connect with someone, both of them living a rather isolated and often lonely existence on the estate. Whenever they gathered together, their talk had always been easy and friendly, but never had they touched upon the desolation that often overwhelmed them. Instead, their conversations were brief and light and often ended with one of them returning home well into their cups.

"Good. Good. Rather than sitting by myself in my drafty cottage, I thought I'd be smart to pay you some company." Moore readily accepted the warm drink Hobbs offered him. "Readying yourself to sleep I imagine."

"In fact, I'm uneasy this evening and sleep will not come." Hobbs hesitated, wondering if he could trust his friend with the news of what he had seen today in the forest. It would be good to share with someone - anyone - what he had observed if only so that he could lighten the burden for himself.

"Ah, yes. Aged bachelors such as we two regularly find ourselves lost for sleep especially when aught troubles us. What is it that vexes you?"

Hobbs regarded his friend closely. "Little more than a meeting I happened upon in the forest today between a refined young lady and her dishonest lover."

Moore looked at him cynically. What he was suggesting was genuinely shocking. He was old enough to know that clandestine meetings such as the one Hobbs said he spotted today occurred, but he could not believe it would happen under their very noses. His curiosity piqued, he questioned his friend further determined not to stop his probing until he knew all. Intuitively, he sensed the man's thirst to speak of this.

"You say you saw this today? Here?..At Longbourn? In the woods" Moore's mind was remarkably clear as he formulated his thoughts. "Was the lady from Longbourn? For I've heard it said that Miss Jane and Netherfield's Mr. Bingley have become right cozy."

"But, alas, it was not Miss Jane or Netherfield's Master that I happened upon." He paused, suddenly regretting exposing this. He knew, however, that now that he had revealed what he had seen, any attempt he made at subterfuge would be challenged boldly. Moore would not let him alone until he bared all the shameful circumstances. He suddenly felt like a meddlesome old woman.

"Come now Hobbs. You mustn't be coy here! Lord almighty, who did you see and just how much did you see?"

Reluctantly, Hobbs concluded that he could no longer harbor the secret. "Actually, it was Miss Elizabeth who I met with today but the gentleman she was meeting with is perhaps what is most surprising for it was none other than a gentleman visiting Netherfield -- Mr. Darcy."

Once he had begun to speak of it, he found he could not stop and, by the time the men had imbibed another two cups of wine, all had been bared to the rattled, zealous Moore.

"Mr. Darcy, eh? Aye, but this is shocking news indeed for I've met with the man and he is as disdainful as they come!" Moore mused almost as if to himself. "He does no more than grunt when he leaves his mare to me while visiting the ladies of the house. Can't say there is much that is likeable about the man apart from his money, of course."

"Aye, but he is a good catch for someone like Miss Elizabeth though I doubt he is looking for more than a tumble in the sheets or a roll amongst the leaves and muck of the forest."

These boorish comments from Hobbs inspired other base notions among the men and soon they found themselves laughing raunchily. Together they surmised that the argument Hobbs had witnessed between the two probably had much to do with Miss Elizabeth's threat to expose publicly the nature of their relationship and Mr. Darcy's refusal to marry her if she did.

Later, after Moore had left him, Hobbs again wondered if he had been wise to share what he had seen with his friend. He knew that, if word of this was unleashed, he would be held responsible and he would likely lose his position. Yet, he realized that he simply could not shoulder the burden of this enigma alone. While he never had before been one to enter into estate gossip, neither had he ever had any news that had been worth disseminating. He realized that the secret he held had the potential to ruin the reputation of two very well-respected persons and was frankly bolstered by the notion of the covert power and influence he now possessed.

After much contemplation, he decided it was doubtful that the generally solitary and circumspect Moore would expose what he knew to anyone else on the estate. Insofar as he himself was concerned, he knew he would have no occasion to speak of it anymore. Now that he had shared it, he felt the responsibility and burden was less onerous and he didn't mean to think on it further.

Thus, as the night's wind whistled outside his cottage, Hobbs finally submitted to the restful sleep which had previously eluded him.

Chapter Three

Sunday morning dawned brightly over Hertfordshire and, in spite of himself, Darcy could find little fault with the day that presented itself to him.

He had awakened earlier than the rest of the house, as was his custom, and had been able with the help of his valet to have a warm bath. His clothes had been neatly laid out the previous evening and, in spite of having been accustomed to only the finest articles for all of his life, he experienced a small pleasure this morning at the feel of the rich fabric of his trousers and coat. Once he was fully dressed, he left his bedchamber and ventured downstairs hoping to have his first cup of freshly brewed coffee in solitude.

When he arrived at the breakfast parlor, he was not surprised to see that none of the members of the Bingley family were there before him. He was becoming increasingly comfortable with having this time to himself and in fact found that he quite enjoyed it.

He strode over to the large picture window and admired the landscape before him. Although the fire had already been lit in anticipation of his early arrival in the room, the window panes still bore signs of the ice that had accumulated overnight. He continued to examine the view afforded him by this window and noted that over the expanse of it, in the distance, lay Longbourn and its inhabitant, Elizabeth Bennet.

Thoughts of her flooded his conscience once more. Try as he might, he was not immune to her. He knew that thinking of her would tender him no serenity, no peace.

Yesterday, after his meeting with her, he had been incensed but, even then, he knew that she had been correct when she had lashed out against him, angry at his presumption. [i]Blast![/i] He should have granted her her wish to be left alone but, susceptible to all things where she was concerned, he had been loathe to heed her and, as a consequence, he learned of her colossal dislike of him. Shaken to the core, he immediately realized that, while she had always in the past been unable to be direct in her dealings with him, she had by no means subtly sought his favor as he had initially suspected. Had her true feelings for him not caused him such personal tumult they would have been laughable.

Then there was the matter of the forester who had happened upon them just as he demanded Elizabeth justify her reasons for disliking him so intensely. Unsure of how much he had heard or how long he had witnessed them, Darcy knew that this man's intelligence concerning their unseemly, though benign, seclusion in the forest as well the fact that he had stumbled upon them just as he was firmly grasping her arm, could potentially hurt them both. In the light of day, he recognized what he had overlooked last night; they were now both at the mercy of this man if they were to keep their reputations intact.

"Darcy, up and at it before the rest of us again, I see." Bingley's jovial disposition seemed to fill the entire room instantly.

"Yes, though I should take this opportunity to inform you that I did rise at least a full quarter hour later than I have done for the past week or so."

"Ah, then a life of idleness and dissipation is sure to be your lot, my friend." Abruptly, the smile faded from Bingley's countenance and his voice became hushed, "Seriously Darcy, it turns out I am more than pleased to find you alone on this particular morning because there is something I would discuss with you that I am not prepared to speak of in front of even my closest relations."

Darcy understood his friend immediately. "I imagine the issue you wish to discuss concerns the eldest Miss Bennet. Charles, you cannot possibly be reconsidering your earlier resolve to cease courting her openly. Truly, the situation can have no happy results for you if you continue in such an unrestrained manner in your dealings with the lady."

"Darcy, I must be honest, my relationship with Miss Bennet has occupied my every thought. While I recognize there are objections concerning her family and comprehend how tying myself to it may perhaps hinder me, I cannot believe her to be indifferent to me."

"Yes, but can you vouchsafe for the authenticity of her admiration for you?" Bingley looked away, evidently troubled by Darcy's words. "Bingley, I do not mean to pain you but can you truly afford to neglect Mrs. Bennet's desires to marry her daughters off to any rich man who offers for them? Her mission in this regard is well known as she is not the least bit ashamed of publicly airing her ambitions for her daughters. Given this, were I in your place, I would question the sincerity of the young lady's feelings for me - particularly if my own heart was as deeply touched as yours seems to be in this instance."

"Every moment I have shared with Jane confirms she does possess feelings for me. As a gentle, well bred female she cannot be overt in revealing the depth of her affection, yet I remain certain that what she feels for me extends beyond friendship or mere politeness."

"Ah, but what if you are interjecting into these moments what you long to see rather than what truly is?" Darcy's words bespoke none of the unease he felt. He had hoped that their past conversations regarding this matter had been enough to influence his friend about the unsuitability of Miss Bennet. "I am merely suggesting you need to distance yourself from the situation - from the lady - so that you may regain some valuable perspective. While we are here and while we are destined to encounter Miss Bennet regularly, you cannot possibly ponder this dispassionately. A little distance and a little time will help remedy the muddle you find yourself in at this time."

Instantly, Darcy realized his advice to Bingley was relevant to him as well. He needed to remove himself from Hertfordshire and from the uncertainty that arose within him insofar as Elizabeth Bennet was concerned. In spite of any residual anger he still felt following yesterday's battle with her and despite the fact that she seemingly detested the very sight of him, he had long stopped denying she aroused him in a manner that left him reeling. Always a man of sense and practicality, his every encounter with her left him questioning his unpredictable behavior and his sentiments.

Darcy warmed to the idea. Yes, both he and Bingley would unequivocally benefit from time spent away from the temptation that the Bennet girls embodied.

"So then, you believe that time will allow me to demystify Miss Bennet's true feelings for me? How long, do you suppose, will I need to be absent from her? For how long will I need to leave her before I know for certain whether she feels for me what she ought to?"

Darcy shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and then proceeded to sip his coffee casually. "Charles, surely whatever amount of time it takes can be no monumental sacrifice if your future happiness depends on it."

At that moment, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst entered the breakfast room and the exchange between the two gentlemen abruptly halted as they realized they could no longer deliberate this unreservedly. Nevertheless, Miss Bingley's intuition appeared to give her a clever notion of the nature of their conversation and thus, she sidled up to Darcy and smiled stealthily. He fought the urge to shudder in revulsion at the mere thought of being part of her scheme and wished that somehow he had an alternative other than to be her ally in this.

Breakfast became a hurried affair as the family sought to attend Sunday worship at the chapel near Longbourn. While Mr. Darcy made it a rule to never miss Sunday services, he was anxious at the prospect of encountering Elizabeth again. He wondered if she had given any further thought to their argument in the woods and if her melancholy and annoyance toward him had dissipated.

While they waited for the ladies to descend back down the stairs after having gone to their rooms where the servants would assist them with their final toilette, Mr. Darcy glanced sidelong at his friend Bingley who appeared very much lost in thought. He experienced a wave of commiseration tinged with remorse. Empathizing with his plight, he understood the pain in addition to the necessity of having to leave behind a woman who had bewitched him.

Not surprisingly, delight radiated from the females of the house at the fact that they were attending their very final Sunday services in a county that they had long deemed beneath their notice. Their pleasure was far from infectious as they made their way to church.

Chapter Four

Reverently, the Bennet family entered into the tiny chapel near their estate and immediately espied several of their neighbors whom they acknowledged with a brief nod of their head or a small smile.

Normally, Elizabeth took pleasure in attending Sunday services for they provided her an opportunity to worship and appreciate the biblical verse read feelingly by Reverend White. Often, she looked forward to the prospect of spending some quiet time in reflection with her family and friends. Today, however, she entered the chapel and could not rid herself of a powerful sense of foreboding.

Once seated in their customary family pew, Elizabeth glanced unceremoniously at the congregation members. She met the eye of her cousin, Mr. Collins, who was presumably departing for Hunsford in the very near future. He extended to her a superior smirk and then slyly glanced tenderly at Charlotte who initially returned his smile with a quizzical gaze in his direction before looking to Elizabeth with a repentant smile of her own. Elizabeth shuddered at the scene they presented and, once again, felt a swell of compassion for her friend. While Charlotte did not appear to be in the least bit unhappy about her situation, Elizabeth could not believe that it would ever lead her to true future satisfaction.

Next, Elizabeth measured the Lucas family and found that Charlotte's change in status from spinster to a woman soon to be mistress of a small parsonage, had created an air of noticeable contentment in them and had transformed them into objects of interest amongst the local people attending worship. Sir William proudly displayed the mark of a man who had managed to secure for his eldest daughter an advantageous future while Lady Lucas all but beamed her joy and delight. Maria, Charlotte's younger sister, appeared unable to prevent herself from giggling nervously as she looked eagerly from her prayer book to the engaged couple who sat beside her. It was doubtful that Maria would be able to follow today's sermon, so riveted and giddy was she about her sister's impending prospects.

Suddenly Elizabeth's attention was drawn to the chapel's entrance and she watched carefully as the Netherfield party made their way down the aisle, halting at their pew. Determined not to meet the eye of Mr. Darcy, she looked away quickly, only to feel her eyes drawn squarely back to the Bingley party. Mr. Bingley was very much as he always was, smiling brightly and readily as he waited patiently for his fastidious sisters to settle themselves into their pew. Elizabeth was pleased to see him summarily glance over to Jane who offered him a reserved smile in return. She thought she detected a note of longing in his gaze but it was fleeting and all but vanished as Mr. Darcy brushed past him and sat down.

Even though she had expected Mr. Darcy's presence this morning, Elizabeth fumed instinctively upon first seeing him again. Although she attempted to ease her spirits by recalling that they were in the presence of their Maker, she could not forget the manner in which he had seized her arm and tried to lord his dominion over her. She realized that his influence and wealth caused many to look to him in awe and with a measure of trepidation, but she hoped he understood he could never expect to wield any such power over her. She imagined she had proven that to him during their last encounter.

As Reverend White began to make his way to the altar from the back of the chapel, Elizabeth turned to look at him. Once he had passed their pew, she followed his progress with her eyes and noted that Mr. Darcy's gaze did not rest upon the minister at all but was instead, unmistakably directed at her. She returned his look with a mask of indifference and was pleased to see him discomfited by her response to him. She willed herself not to glance his way again throughout the remainder of the service.

However, during the minister's reading of Matthew's verse, her vow to not look to Mr. Darcy was regrettably tested in a manner that was stronger than was her resolve.

"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you."**

The sermon which followed appeared to affect no one to the extent it did Elizabeth. Reverend White's powerful characterization of forgiveness being the purging of all desire for retribution and personal ill will against those who had wronged others seemed to be directly aimed at her and her enduring anger toward Mr. Darcy. She twisted slightly in her seat feeling the mark of the minister's words upon her conscience. She, once more, glimpsed over at Mr. Darcy for the shame that had seized her was overwhelming. In harboring such heinous malice against him, Elizabeth knew she had been anything but Christian, yet she wondered if she would ever be able to absolutely exonerate him. Suddenly, she recalled that this was very likely the last time she would ever encounter him and sighed in relief upon realizing that her soul would not be blackened by her steady resentment of him for very much longer.

When the service ended, Elizabeth and her family joined the throng of worshippers preparing to leave the chapel. Before exiting his pew, Mr. Darcy again looked at her, but this time he nodded briefly as well. Feeling more charitable than she had ever felt before and believing she could at least demonstrate an equal amount of civility toward him as he had shown to her, she acknowledged his gesture with a passing smile.

Outside in the crisp late November air, the churchgoers congregated and exchanged pleasantries. From a short distance away, Elizabeth registered the surprise in Jane's visage as Mr. Bingley approached her.

"Miss Bennet, it is good to see you once more. I hope you have been well."

"Very well, thank you. And you? You are well too, I suppose."

"Yes, thank you."

The stilted and awkward conversation between them was painful to behold. Elizabeth rushed to her sister's side to offer her a measure of support.

"Ah, Miss Elizabeth. It is a pleasure to see you as well." Mr. Bingley seemed altogether too willing to have her join them and Elizabeth thought to herself that he possibly anticipated she could alleviate the tension that had punctuated his meeting with Jane. He was smiling but she noted that his unease marred the sincerity of his smile.

"Thank you. Miss Bingley has informed us of your imminent journey to London. I imagine you have been quite busy preparing to depart."

"Well...yes in fact I have been rather occupied lately, Miss Elizabeth." Mr. Bingley shifted his weight between his two feet uncomfortably. "It turns out, it is quite an endeavour closing up a place for an undetermined length of time. I have come to appreciate that perhaps owning my own estate is not as attractive a prospect as I originally believed it to be."

Elizabeth smiled warmly, "Yes, I imagine it must all be rather demanding. Tell me, are you much looking forward to returning to London?"

"Yes, well, London has its own charms of course?" He was spared the trouble of formulating a more comprehensive response with the arrival of Mr. Darcy at his side. His relief upon having his friend join them was not lost to Elizabeth. "Darcy, I am happy you have joined us at last."

"Good day Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy greeted them perfunctorily before turning back to his friend. "I was actually having a conversation with Sir William Lucas concerning the state of the roads in the vicinity. If it does not snow until well after we leave, he maintains they should be quite passable on our journey to London."

"Yes, the conditions of the roads at this time of year are generally quite favorable." Jane ventured quietly.

"Mr. Bingley! How good it is to see you again!" Mrs. Bennet greeted the young man gleefully. To his friend, she meted out a much more restrained welcome. "Good day to you too, Mr. Darcy."

Her arrival restored Mr. Bingley's good humor once more. "Mrs. Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again. I hope that you are well?"

"I am indeed well if a little displeased at the report that you are giving up Netherfield. I must admit I was shocked to learn you were departing and was almost tempted to believe it a horrible fabrication. But then it came to me by Jane and she is forever honest and would never play such a cruel joke on her mother. Am I not right Jane?"

"Mama!" Jane's mortification was evident to all those who looked upon her.

"I am sorry the news took you by surprise. I had intended to visit Longbourn to relay the message myself but I have been quite occupied lately and have not had the opportunity to visit."

"Yes, but surely you do not intend to be away long? Remember, we are very much a dinner in your debt and do not mean to let you forget it. Perhaps you can arrange to come to supper one day before you leave." Mrs. Bennet looked at him searchingly before turning briefly to Mr. Darcy with a slight huff. "Oh, and your guests are welcome as well, of course."

"Unfortunately Mrs. Bennet, our remaining days will be quite full. I am afraid I will not be able to join you. I am sorry for I dearly would have loved to have shared an evening with your family." As he said this, he looked to Jane. She met his glance briefly before looking away in the distance. Elizabeth's heart broke for her.

"Oh, I am sorry to hear that. I had so hoped to see you again and have you all at Longbourn one last time to partake in a meal with us. Mr. Bennet too would have valued your company."

Mr. Darcy had noted his friend's anxiety and spoke before he could respond to Mrs. Bennet's pleading. "Pardon me, Mrs. Bennet." He turned to Bingley, conveniently circumventing the awkward situation. "Bingley, your sisters are awaiting us in the carriage. I believe the time has come for us to return home."

"Oh dear and so they are." Bingley politely bid the three ladies farewell. "Good day Mrs. Bennet." He turned to address Jane and Elizabeth, "Good day Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth."

He left them quickly but ventured a glance back at Jane who still could not meet his eyes. Elizabeth noted a sense of hopelessness in her sister's demeanor and doubted she could ever forget the loss of so amiable a gentleman who suited her so well. Her sister's reaction to Mr. Bingley's imminent departure surprised her as it contradicted the distinctive composure and poise which she generally maintained even under the most trying of circumstances. While Jane was certainly not demonstrating her sadness in a barefaced manner, Elizabeth knew her too well to know she was untouched, although a stranger would never be able to measure the full extent of her feelings of loss.

"Ah well, Jane and so it ends." Mrs. Bennet was the first to speak. She hooked arms with her eldest daughter as they commenced the walk back to their estate. "Never mind, darling. You tried your best. Soon enough, another fine gentleman will fall wildly in love with you and then Mr. Bingley will rue what he himself has lost."

Knowing her mother meant to be consoling did nothing to allay the anguish her words produced in Jane who, at that moment, appeared to be on the verge of tears. For not the first time nor did she imagine it would be the last, Elizabeth wished her mother had been blessed with a bit more discretion and tact. She wondered how it was that her mother was incapable of perceiving how her own lamenting over the loss of Mr. Bingley's suit would impact Jane.

Sighing, she knew that nothing would cause her mother to gain the introspection and wisdom she so desperately lacked.

**The Bible passage Reverend White read to the congregation was [i]Matthew 6:14-15[/i]

Chapter Five

The following afternoon, Mr. Bingley paced the drawing room at Netherfield in agony. He had sent his butler, Leeson, to search for Mr. Darcy immediately after a neighbour from a small estate nearby, Mrs. Kane, left. He understood only too well the matter they needed to deliberate was urgent and could not be delayed. Leeson would not be long in finding him, but he wondered what he would actually say to his friend when he appeared.

Over the years Darcy had gifted him with a companionship that was as generous as it was serviceable. Frequently, Darcy had ensured that Bingley's name be added to every guest list for any event that was socially significant. Moreover, he had joined him in his quest to find the perfect estate so he could begin settling into the life of a wealthy gentleman. His friend had also guided him in all matters that concerned him and offered his sapience and his experience. Lately, Mr. Darcy had suffered the senseless fawning over him of his sister, Caroline, who appeared disinclined to cease her pursuit of him and his fortune. In spite of all of this, he continued to offer Mr. Bingley his friendship with forbearance and graciousness.

Consequently, how could he even begin to unleash upon him the indignation that had seized him upon hearing Mrs. Kane's news...

"Bingley, your man Leeson has informed me you wish to see me? Can I assist you in any way?"

Now that the time had come, Mr. Bingley was at a loss as to how to begin to relay to his friend his neighbors... troublesome whispering campaign of gossip.

"Darcy, I'm afraid a rumour of the most malicious kind is making its way through the village. It is so heinous, so monstrous, so vile that?"

Mr. Darcy had the presence of mind to stifle the mirth that was threatening to spill across his countenance. Mr. Bingley's reaction to mere gossip reminded him of his friend's youth and inexperience. Patiently, he walked over to an armchair and prepared to brave his friend's peevish chagrin over the entire report.

"Charles, really you cannot allow gossip such as this to conquer you as it has - particularly if you mean to eventually purchase a country estate. Persons who reside in villages such as this routinely engage in simple-minded gossip. I suppose it helps to while away their time. There truly is no need to distress yourself in this manner over some benign tittle-tattle."

"Darcy, you misunderstand completely! This mere [i]tittle-tattle[/i] you refer to concerns you and a respectable young lady of our acquaintance." Instantly, Mr. Darcy's interest had been roused and he felt the color drain from his cheeks. "Surely, knowing this, you can no longer shrug it off as idle chitchat amongst country folk."

"Well, out with it Bingley! What is the nature of this report relating to me that has been called to your attention? I demand to know the particulars post-haste!"

Mr. Bingley hesitated before beginning his tale cautiously, hoping to mollify his friend's certain displeasure for as long as possible. He strode over to the mantle piece and threw another log in a fire that was already roaring fiercely.

"Mrs. Kane has learned of a scandalous encounter that took place between you and Miss Elizabeth Bennet in the woods surrounding her father's estate two days ago. Apparently her cook, Rebecca, discovered it from her brother who works as a stable hand at Longbourn - a Mr. Moore. He evidently heard of the meeting from a woodsman who saw it all transpire firsthand." Intuitively, Mr. Darcy knew his friend was sparing him the iniquitous speculations that had ensued. "Darcy, tell me this is little more than a gross misunderstanding and that you did not arrange to meet with Miss Bennet without a chaperone in such a secluded place."

"I most certainly did not arrange to have a private meeting with Miss Bennet in the woods! Charles, your opinion of me and my honour is low indeed if you think me capable of that!"

"Thank heavens! Then we shall collectively think of a way to squelch this catastrophic rumour before it wreaks anymore havoc. But how do we begin to go about it?" Mr. Bingley looked to his friend searchingly and was struck by the sudden self-reproach he detected in him. "Darcy, you did not arrange to meet with any of the [i]other[/i] young ladies of Longbourn did you?"

"No Bingley, I assure you there were no arranged meetings between myself and any of the females of Longbourn. I did, however, meet and accompany Miss Elizabeth into the woods... We argued.. bitterly... and, yes, a forester caught us in what appeared to be more than it actually was." He registered the shock in Mr. Bingley's eyes. Mr. Darcy knew that he was generally presumed to be a confident and proud man yet, in the face of his friend's news, he could not help but stand before him, clearly ill at ease and more than a little humiliated.

"Darcy - what were you thinking? Did you give no thought whatsoever to Miss Bennet's reputation or to your own?"

Mr. Darcy did not respond to his friend's questions, mired in his own private thoughts as he was. Not for the first time, he wished he had simply turned away rather than ride toward Miss Bennet that day. Yet, he did not know then how miserable she had been. His mission had been to relieve her of any notion she possessed in connection with Wickham being an honourable man. Then, when he had seen her evident distress ... ah, well, then he had been lost. Instantly, all he desired was to ease her suffering and to learn the reason behind it.

Again, Mr. Darcy lamented his powerful attraction to Elizabeth Bennet with intensity. Lord, why could I not just be as impervious to her as she is to me? That would serve to make my circumstances so much less pathetic.

"As it happens," Mr. Darcy continued fluently, "At the time, I did not give any serious thought to the dangers of being alone with her in such a secluded place... I see now that I should have."

"Darcy, your behaviour is shocking and troubling indeed! How could the scheme to meet secretly with a lady ... any lady, but particularly a young unmarried one  have caused you to overlook the bonds of propriety? Pardon me, but were you seized by a temporary lunacy that resulted in you abandoning all good sense and decorum?"

"As I said before Bingley, I did not intend to meet in secret with her as you suggest. I merely came upon her while riding and sought to continue a conversation we had begun while dancing at your ball."

"And, somehow, you believed the best place to conduct that conversation was in the remote seclusion of the woods, alone with her? Darcy, really, this is all too much!"

"Bingley, please understand that I did not mean to have this discussion in the forest. We actually encountered one another on the outskirts of the woods primarily and then it was Miss Bennet who chose to follow a path which led us into the wooded area." Darcy hastily moved from the armchair to the window pane, effectively turning his back to his friend so that he could not read the culpability blazing from his eyes. Surely Bingley should know how humiliating this was for him. Oh, that he would stop and just let him alone to determine the appropriate course of action.

"Miss Bennet chose? Well, then I know the world has gone mad! Surely, she should have recognized how precarious it was for the two of you to be alone in so isolated an area. How could she not have thought to ask you to leave her so that you could continue your discussion in a more appropriate venue under the protection of a watchful chaperone ... or ten?"

Mr. Darcy rolled his eyes in irritation. "Actually, she did ask me to leave her. I chose to disregard it...and, before you rail upon me for not heeding her wishes, consider that she was visibly overwrought and that I did not feel that, under the circumstances, I could leave her alone to her sorrow."

"She was crying then?" Mr. Bingley seemed incredulous.

"No... she was not by the time I reached her but she had been and I noticed it." Mr. Bingley's look of disbelief was now tinged with disappointment. "Trust me to know when a lady is upset, Bingley. Give me at least that much, I beg of you."

"Of course, I do not question your motives and, of course, I believe you. Nevertheless, your decision to so recklessly abandon the dictates of proper behavior has exposed you to a great deal of censure. Do you know - rumor has it that you were both locked in an amorous embrace which you broke off suddenly upon realizing that you had been spotted?"

"An amorous embrace?" Darcy shuddered in bitter revulsion. "That is simply preposterous hyperbole! Of course, nothing of the kind occurred!"

Mr. Bingley regarded him sceptically, "Then you deny you... you laid your hands... upon her? Blast! This is too vile to even speak of!"

"I deny the amorous embrace, yes." Mr. Darcy returned levelly.

"But you cannot deny you touched her then?" Mr. Bingley watched as his friend steadily refused to meet his gaze. "Darcy, upon my word! What manner of atrocious demon possessed you to do it? I am deeply mortified!"

"Charles, you fail to understand me! I grabbed hold of Miss Elizabeth's arm... and there was nothing amorous about it... only to prevent her from fleeing from me."

Mr. Bingley stared at him, mouth agape. "Why, this tale becomes more and more outrageous! I cannot believe it, and I certainly would never have believed it of you."

"I grant you that my behaviour was contemptible but that is nothing to the outlandish gossip that has resulted from it if what you say is true."

"It is indeed true. Mrs. Kane confirmed it to me herself and she would have no reason to equivocate." Mr. Darcy huffed in disdain. "I realize this is vexing to you, Darcy but I can only imagine how the news will affect Miss Bennet. She undoubtedly has learned of this gossip herself by now as Mrs. Kane informed me she was heading over to Longbourn summarily after departing from here."

Mr. Darcy let out a groan of annoyance. He had always prided himself on being a man of principle but he did not know how far he could allow his principles to lead him in this particular situation. He certainly would not allow himself to be persuaded to marry Miss Bennet, a woman who so manifestly detested him. He would never willingly submit to that peculiar brand of torture.

"I believe we should head to Longbourn directly. Sooner or later, you will need to explain yourself. Prepare yourself to face Mr. Bennet's disapprobation, for I am sure he will be prepared to dole it out to you in large measure."

Mr. Darcy was caught and he knew it. He understood that this was gossip which could determinedly injure both he and Elizabeth and, thus, he could not merely seek refuge hoping that it would fade with the passing of time.

"You realize that this puts a veritable kink in our plans to depart for London in three days?"

Mr. Darcy stared at his friend in shock. "Charles, you are being far too hasty. This is a matter which, once confronted and clarified, will not impinge upon our arrangements. We will leave Hertfordshire as planned. Once the true details of the story are out, no one will find anything circumspect about them and then we can all go on about our business."

"Darcy, you are entirely overlooking the consequences of rumours such as these. Miss Bennet's honour as well as your own has been compromised. Surely, you cannot be immune to this!"

To this, Mr. Darcy gave no reply. He deemed it pointless to try to press upon his friend his wish that all would be right after he confronted these reports directly and without hesitation. His decided action had always worked in his favor in the past. Certainly, this situation called for no less from him. Despite the degradation and humiliation he would be forced to sustain in the face of Mr. Bennet's wrath, he was confident it would all work out in the end... or so he fervently hoped.

Chapter Six

The entire Bennet family was assembled in the sitting room when Hill entered with the news that Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy had arrived to call on them. Elizabeth, nearly conquered by the shame that enveloped her, hoped very much that her father would refuse to admit the gentlemen.

"Show them in Hill, and, after you have admitted them, please shut the door behind you."

As she backed away, Hill looked sympathetically at Elizabeth; the anxiety she felt on her behalf was revealed plainly on her face. Hill's reaction to her confirmed just how far the gossip concerning her and Mr. Darcy had already reached.

"You see, Mr. Bennet!" Mrs. Bennet wiped her tears quickly and sat up excitedly. "There will be a favourable resolution to this calamitous situation just as I predicted. Of course, he means to marry her."

"Mama! Quiet please. They will hear you." Elizabeth whispered.

Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley chose that moment to enter the room. The apprehension they both felt was obvious in spite of Mr. Bingley's warm greeting. Mr. Darcy spoke not at all and retained his habitual reserved and imperious exterior.

"Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, we came to call on you as soon as the scandalous news came to our notice. Please allow us to apologize sincerely for this unfortunate turn of events." Elizabeth saw Mr. Bingley look helplessly toward Mr. Darcy who clearly did not mean to continue the conversation his friend had started. "We hope to gather here to unearth some solution before this inflicts any more harm upon both the Darcy and the Bennet families."

"I thank you Mr. Bingley, but truly, Mr. Darcy and I have done nothing to shame our families. This is all a horrible misunderstanding which can and must be righted." Elizabeth was appalled to hear the quiver in her voice. She had intended to meet the situation with equanimity, particularly when in the presence of Mr. Darcy.

"Elizabeth, I appreciate your desire to see this horrible matter resolved favourably but I fear this transgression will not be soon be forgotten by our friends and neighbours." Mr. Bennet said, rubbing his forehead tiredly. "Please join your mother and sisters and leave now so that I may speak to the gentlemen in private."

"But Papa, this predicament concerns me and so I must have some say in its conclusion."

"Elizabeth, I beg of you, please leave. This situation necessitates that I meet with these gentlemen alone at this time. After they have left, I vow to share with you every aspect of our discussion but, for the present time, you must trust me when I tell you I need to conduct this meeting without you."

She noted the fatigue in her father's voice and promptly realized she could not go against his wishes. Mr. Darcy had looked at her not at all and she viewed that as a favourable sign that he would not consent readily to marry her should that be considered as a possible solution to the problem they found themselves in.

Before she left the room, Elizabeth stopped to gaze piercingly at Mr. Darcy, willing him to detect the blame and censure in her eyes. Instantly, he returned her gaze with an icy, diffident stare.

At that point, Elizabeth proceeded to leave the room, slightly less disappointed that she could not remain and conspire with the gentlemen as they attempted to formulate a resolution. She was now secure in the knowledge that Mr. Darcy detested her with the same degree of rancour that she did him.

~ * ~

Once the ladies had left them, Mr. Bennet waited patiently for Mr. Darcy to speak or attempt to vindicate himself. When no explanation or defence from the gentleman appeared, Mr. Bennet began to grow increasingly irate.

Mrs. Kane's recent visit to Longbourn had both stunned and incensed him. His surprise stemmed from learning that his most clever - his most beloved - Elizabeth had been foolish enough to become enmeshed in a situation such as this one. His fury, on the other hand, was rooted in the obvious exultation Mrs. Kane felt at being the bearer of such a scandalous report. The woman had positively twitched with excitement which she, of necessity, attempted to hide behind a veneer of outrage and disbelief.

Elizabeth's reaction upon hearing of the rumour had been indeed peculiar. Although she was not of a nature prone to crying fits or dead faints, Mr. Bennet had nonetheless expected her to sob quietly or to vehemently deny the gossip. He had anticipated she would put up more of a fight in the defense of her own honor but, alas, she had not. At first, she was not even able to meet his gaze and, instead, had stared fixedly at the rug at her feet. When she finally did speak, it was only after he had demanded that she do so. She had merely confirmed that a large part of the story was in fact true, while quietly maintaining in a weak voice that it was all based on nothing and that she truly had done little wrong. In all, her reaction lacked the conviction - in fact it lacked the very essence - of the independent spirit that she was. It was this that scared Mr. Bennet most of all in regard to this entire horrid business.

And now he was forced to meet with the gentleman whom he knew had been primarily responsible for compromising his daughter's reputation. Yet, the man himself seemed perfectly willing to sit in his home in a cavalier and superior manner with nothing to say for himself or to the father of the young woman he was responsible for discrediting! It was beyond compare! Just how much was he expected to withstand in the span of one afternoon?

"Pardon me, Mr. Darcy, but you have been strangely silent throughout all of this. I believe your perspective should, at the very least, add some further intrigue to this debacle." Try as he might, he could not suspend the sarcasm from his voice.

"Sir, you must excuse me but I appear to have been left with a badly timed loss for words. You must understand, however, that I had no intention of dishonouring either Miss Bennet or myself when I decided to follow her into the woods."

"Excuse me sir... You are experiencing a badly timed loss for words?" He placed his hands on top of his heavy mahogany desk and leaned towards the young man angrily. "That is unfortunate indeed for I must insist you discover the words to explain why you would wittingly pursue my daughter into an area so sheltered when she was clearly unaccompanied and when no one was present to prevent you from disgracing her in the manner that you have - in spite of your intentions?"

Mr. Bennet had the tiny pleasure of seeing Mr. Darcy struggle slightly before him. Ah, so perhaps he is not as impervious as he shows himself to be. Conceivably, there may be reason to hope after all.

"Mr. Bennet, I realize I have given you little reason to trust in my principles or in my integrity, but you surely cannot believe that I, by design, meant to defile your daughter's reputation or my own. This incident has done me no good whatsoever!"

Mr. Bingley listened to the heated exchange between the two gentlemen intently. He dearly wanted his friend to find some method of appeasing Miss Bennet's enraged father but feared that if he continued in the same manner, the two men could very well come to blows. He rose and placed himself squarely between the two opponents.

"Gentlemen, please! Your emotions are naturally overrun but I must implore you to consider that this skirmishing between you will do absolutely nothing to help find the solution you together so frantically crave."

Both Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy looked at Mr. Bingley unexpectedly. Amidst their heated exchange, they seemed to have forgotten that he was even present in the room. Sullenly, their gazes moved from Mr. Bingley back to one another.

"Mr. Bennet, it turns out that my friend is as wise as he is amiable. We should perhaps heed his advice and attempt to mend this horrible circumstance as best we can rather than waste precious time, stalled by our resentment."

"Very well then, Mr. Darcy. How do you suggest we begin to fix this breach in my daughter's character?"

"I myself believe our best course of action would be to tackle this directly in as insistent a manner as possible. Once the truth is exposed, any malicious gossip will eventually wane and we will all be spared any further embarrassment."

"Ah yes, the truth?I had not considered that." He paused briefly, "But tell me, Mr. Darcy, is the truth not that you were in fact with my daughter unsupervised in an isolated forest which can be thought of as a perfect place for an illicit rendezvous? And does your version of the truth not include the fact that you were presumably gripping my daughter's arm in, what she claims to be a possessive and forceful manner, but which has been reported to be much more?"

"Yes... Yes... That is all true, but there were mitigating circumstances."

Mr. Bennet looked steadily at Mr. Darcy, unbelieving that he could possibly be that obtuse. "Excuse me, sir, mitigating circumstances notwithstanding, I am afraid your inspiration to reveal the truth will by no means be the antidote to remedy this situation. In fact, it will make it very much shoddier than it is presently."

"All right Mr. Bennet. What do you propose we do instead?"

"Mr. Darcy, you are a gentleman. I do not suppose I need to impart to you what your responsibility is in this instance."

"Surely you are not suggesting that we be made to marry! Sir, that is outrageous! I will not even consider it. Miss Elizabeth and I, we do not get on... nor do I believe we possess the dispositions that can ever unite harmoniously."

"And yet you chose to disregard your shared contempt for one another not two days ago and now find yourselves in a scandalous predicament as a result," he said evenly. "Excuse me, but I do not believe either of us is in any position to consider any other option."

"Darcy, I realize the idea of marriage to Miss Bennet now appears difficult and perhaps even rather insensible, but I find I must agree with her father in this. If you do not comply, you will both suffer. Miss Bennet's reputation will be tarnished immeasurably and you will not escape unscathed from this either. You will be viewed by all as a dishonourable man of dubious character."

"But Bingley, do you truly wish to see me married? Tied for life? To a woman who loathes me? Because, I assure you my friend, Miss Bennet quite despises me! Of this I am as certain as I am that I am standing here."

"I imagine it is true that my daughter does not feel what she ought to upon entering the married state but tell me, Mr. Darcy, have you done anything at all to perhaps merit or even provoke her dislike of you?"

Feelingly, Mr. Darcy replied, "I assure you I have not. I have been ever the gentleman in Miss Bennet's presence."

"Then I must say I am surprised. My daughter is known to be an amiable enough girl with a proclivity to make a large number of friends wherever she goes. Many people can confirm this for you if you at all doubt it."

"Actually, I do not doubt it. Still, I have extended my friendship to her on several occasions only to have her rebuke it most definitively. At one time, I imagined otherwise but our latest conversations have educated me soundly in this regard. She detests me and will undeniably never agree to become my wife."

"My Elizabeth is a good girl, Mr. Darcy, and an obedient daughter. While I envision that she will not be joyful about this union, I do know that, ultimately, she will obey me and defer to my wishes."

Mr. Darcy could not respond immediately. He was trapped and, unless he could fabricate a way to rid himself of this horrendous circumstance while maintaining both his and Elizabeth's good name, he would have to agree to marry her. The dictates of honour demanded he do no less.

"Excuse me, Mr. Bennet, but I cannot submit to this straight away. As I alluded to earlier in our conversation, this entire situation has left me appalled and I fear I cannot commit to this solution at this moment. I ask that you give me some time... to accustom myself to this notion and to deliberate it fully. You can, I am sure, appreciate how onerous an undertaking you are asking me to assume?"

Mr. Bennet's eyes narrowed shrewdly. The gall of this man apparently had no end. Oh, how he wished there were some other way to mend this other than by having his dearest daughter marry this arrogant specimen. Regrettably, however, there was not.

"By all means, think on this for as long as you deem fit, but remember Mr. Darcy, I mean to champion my daughter's virtue at any cost. Please consider that as you contemplate your next action."

After bidding him a curt goodbye, the gentlemen left him. Mr. Bennet believed that Mr. Darcy would ultimately do right by his daughter but he was uncertain about whether that would be a favourable outcome for them in the end.

He poured himself a large tumbler of brandy, convinced that he would need its warmth and the temporary feeling of fortitude it would produce in him prior to meeting with Elizabeth.

Chapter Seven

Elizabeth waited edgily for her father to summon her.

Lord, but this meeting - this summit - was taking far longer than I formerly had believed it would. Surely, three educated, clever gentleman could collectively settle on a way out of this staggering jumble!

She would not allow herself to think of the worst case scenario if she could at all help it. Perhaps, in fact, the extended period of time the men were spending together signaled that they were in the midst of reaching a favourable outcome. Perhaps they were even enjoying a celebratory glass of Mr. Bennet's fine brandy while smoking one of her father's excellent cigars. Yes, feasibly a promising consensus may be attainable after all.

"Lizzy, this is all very exciting! Just imagine - all this fuss is over you and Mr. Darcy! Do you think he will marry you?" Kitty voiced enthusiastically.

Elizabeth gave her sister a hard stare. "Kitty, you forget yourself."

"Well, I do not think he will ever agree to marry her, poor as she is," Lydia pronounced with conviction. "And he will never debase himself and agree to become united with our family, proud and haughty as he is."

"Girls, of course he will marry her!" Mrs. Bennet protested. "While we have not in the past found much to like about the man, he is no doubt honourable and will not stand by and allow us to suffer this shame."

Hearing her future being debated in such a manner incensed Elizabeth beyond reason. She looked to Jane, hoping she could rely upon her assistance in this, but Jane was preoccupied with her embroidery and, disappointingly, did not even meet her helpless gaze.

"But Mama, honour aside, Mr. Darcy would never agree to enter into marriage with me! To marry me would be considered extraordinarily insufficient. We are poor; marriage to me could offer him nothing in return."

"Pish posh Lizzy! Trust me when I say he will do right by us. Your father will most certainly see to that!?" She sighed her frustration. This conversation was sorely testing her tenacity to remain positive about the resolution of this scandal. Elizabeth looked wistfully out the window wishing mightily that she could transport herself from the tedious presence of her family. She felt lamentably stuck ... stuck in the tiny and stifling upstairs drawing room, stuck with her family who refused to listen to reason and stuck with the now waning hope that Mr. Darcy would stand his ground against her father's plea that he marry her.

"Even if he does miraculously agree to it, I most assuredly will not ever consent to marry him. The very idea of it is dreadful."

Nearing hysteria, Mrs. Bennet cried, "Young lady, consent to it you most assuredly will if your father manages to talk this man into accepting his duty! Lord, would you have us all ruined merely because you do not wish to wed the man who has compromised you in this manner?"

However, before she could reply vengefully that she would sooner die than marry Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet entered the room and looked reproachfully over to Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, please join me in my study. We need to discuss this matter thoroughly." He turned suddenly to Mrs. Bennet who had begun to rise from the chaise lounge she occupied. "Mrs. Bennet, I would appreciate a private audience with Elizabeth at this time. There will be time enough later to inform you of our decision."

"But Mr. Bennet, you cannot mean to exclude me from the settling of my daughter's future! I have already had a few words with this obstinate girl concerning the matter and, believe me, you will need my support in this." said Mrs. Bennet peevishly.

"Mrs. Bennet, should I require your assistance, you can be sure I will call upon you immediately." To this, Mrs. Bennet sniffed her disapproval which Mr. Bennet pointedly ignored. "Come, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth walked meekly after her father. When he first entered the room after meeting with the gentlemen, she had eagerly scanned his face hoping to find some hint of encouragement there. Ultimately, however, she had detected nothing but resignation. Intuitively, she already knew what her father meant to tell her in his study.

~ * ~

Once the door to his study was shut, Elizabeth's fury was unleashed. "Father, I will not marry him! Surely, you cannot force me to do it! I will never consent to become the wife of such an odious - such a proud - man as Mr. Darcy."

Mr. Bennet studied her patiently. Here at least, was the spirited daughter he had raised. This was the reaction he had originally expected from her. He had been worried that the aftermath of the scandal had robbed her of her instinctive vitality and liveliness. He stifled a sigh of relief.

"Elizabeth, please! I perfectly understand your annoyance but there truly is no other way to resolve this." Mr. Bennet was seized by a wave of profound affection for his daughter. He softened his tone. "The gentlemen and I mulled over this at length only to come up with nothing apart from the fact that you both must marry."

"And Mr. Darcy agreed to this? Impossible!"

Mr. Bennet regarded her closely. "Actually, he has merely agreed to think upon it and has given me no guarantee at all that he will ultimately acquiesce to the notion."

"Well then, we conceivably may be arguing over this needlessly?"

"Not necessarily, Elizabeth," said Mr. Bennet "Regardless of what Mr. Darcy said prior to leaving Longbourn today, I am confident that he will do his duty. As much as he dislikes the idea, he will come to see that he fundamentally has no choice other than to marry you."

"Papa, I implore you. Consider another means - any other means -  rather than ask me to submit me to this fate! You see for yourself how disagreeable he is. We shall never make one another happy."

"Yet, there are no other alternatives before us." Mr. Bennet recognized his daughter's brooding disquietude and knew he would do anything to make this burden a less painful one for her. "Elizabeth, you will not be the first couple to enter the married state without love or affection nor, do I imagine, will you be the last. In fact, in the circles that Mr. Darcy travels amongst, marriages are generally never more than business transactions. In your case, the marriage would not proffer monetary rewards, but your integrity and your good name will reap the benefits of the union. Tell me, is that not an even better reason to marry? In my opinion, it very much is."

"Yes, but we are sure to be miserable! I do not like him and I know for certain he holds me in contempt. Papa, you must see that our mutual lack of respect for one another is sure to cause us great hardship."

"Elizabeth, I am not altogether certain if Mr. Darcy does in fact hold you in contempt. I do know, however, that he does not feel for you all that he should." Mr. Bennet's voice was full of regret. "I would have wished differently for you, my dear child, but unfortunately that cannot be."

"But Father, I want the opportunity to marry for love, the deepest, most provoking love. What chance will our marriage have rooted in bitterness as it must be?"

"Ah, but love is not always enough either, Elizabeth. Through the years, through the hardships that inevitably will come your way, even the deepest love will be tested. Believe me in this for I know what I am about."

Elizabeth's sombre countenance conveyed the truth of her father's words which spoke of his own experience and remorse. She had heard often enough about the great love he had held for her mother in the early years of their marriage, yet now it was an effort for him to spend any length of time with her. Still, Elizabeth stubbornly refused to accept the same might be true for her should she be given the opportunity to marry a man she admired and esteemed.

As they sat silently mired in their own private thoughts, there was a knock on the door to her father's study. Behind Hill, stood an anxious Mr. Collins who appeared not to be able to wait to be announced properly. Upon gaining admission to the study, he glanced pointedly at Elizabeth with a look of disdain but did not proffer her a greeting.

"Ah, Mr. Collins. Good day, sir. Tell me, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit? I had supposed you would be quite occupied preparing for your sojourn back to Hunsford."

"Indeed I am Mr. Bennet, but I put all my personal responsibilities aside upon hearing the grievous - the most dreadful - news of this abominable outrage. I cannot begin to tell you how very sorry I was to hear of it."

Mr. Bennet looked at the silly man mockingly. "I see. And, I imagine, you intended your visit be a balm to ease our suffering." To this, Mr. Collins nodded smugly. "How very kind of you, Mr. Collins - to put our need of comfort selflessly before your own need to pack and be gone."

"I make it a point to never be self-seeking if I can possibly avoid it no matter how distasteful the endeavour is." To be sure he carried his point, he once more looked sidelong at Elizabeth. "My noble patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, has often said, "Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race."**

"Yes, she is very good indeed," Mr. Bennet's patience was being sorely tested. "I beg your pardon Mr. Collins, but your mere presence here has been a salve in itself. Please consider your purpose fulfilled and know that you can now return to your tasks in good conscience."

"And so I will but, before I depart you must know that I would never judge you harshly for the missteps of your careless... humm... Perhaps, I have said too much. I am certain, however, that once my patroness, Lady Catherine, learns of your noble character she will permit me to continue to correspond with you in writing as that can do none of us any real harm."

"Thank you, Mr. Collins."

"I offer you my sympathy and so I told Mrs. Long today in the parlour at Lucas Lodge. Of course, Mrs. Miller was naturally shocked about the entire affair but, in the end, I managed to allay their grievances and reminded them of your own artlessness in this horrendous affair."

"Sir, thank you again, and good day."

Mr. Collins looked as though he was far from finished, but he was rendered speechless by the angry glare of Mr. Bennet. With a curt, "Good day!" and a bow he exited the room without so much as a glance at Elizabeth.

"Oh Father, this is all too horrible! How could Mr. Collins, the Lucases, Mrs. Long and Mrs. Morris all have learned of our troubles so quickly? It is all too much!" Elizabeth cried in agony.

"Yes Elizabeth. I imagine Mrs. Kane stopped at Lucas Lodge prior to continuing home. News such as this, you see, is far too precious to keep to oneself."

"At this rate, it will be all over Meryton by now. This gossip is traveling at lightning speed. Can we not do anything to prevent it from reaching any further?"

"That is precisely why I am going to visit Netherfield this instant, my child." Elizabeth looked at her father askance as he made his way out of the study. "I had promised to give Mr. Darcy the time he needed to accustom himself to the idea of marrying you, but I see now that I can no longer wait for him to bide his time. If he still means to travel to London in three days and this news continues to spread in this frenzied manner, word of it will reach there long before he does. He must be forewarned and he must be made to accept his responsibility so that the malice stemming from this gossip can be tempered."

Elizabeth helped her father with his coat and resisted the melodramatic urge to throw herself at his feet and beg for a merciful alternative to this conundrum.

"Papa, you simply cannot go to Netherfield and demand that Mr. Darcy marry me. He will not have it, you know."

"I'm afraid he has little choice other than to have it."

Just as Mr. Bennet made to depart Longbourn, the main door to the estate swung open to admit Mrs. Philips, Elizabeth's aunt. Looking warily at Mr. Bennet before turning to look at Elizabeth with a huff, she proceeded to inform Hill that she would see her sister, Mrs. Bennet, post-haste.

Clearly, Elizabeth had been right ... word had found its way to Meryton, for it was from there which Mrs. Philips hailed.

"Let us not consider it all lost, Elizabeth." Mr. Bennet whispered to her as her aunt walked away. "If, in fact, you are right and Mr. Darcy does refuse to marry you, well then I shall surely have to challenge him to a duel wherein I may, perhaps, be fortunate enough to kill him."

After gracing her with a sly smile and enfolding her in a warm embrace, Mr. Bennet began on his journey to Netherfield.

~ * ~

**This bit of wisdom concerning the evils of selfishness was not, as you know, spoken by Lady Catherine at all (though I can imagine her saying it in that uppity voice of hers.) The words actually hail from William E. Gladstone who was an eminent British statesman and Prime Minister in the late 1860s and remained an influential political figure until his death. So the words don't really fit with the historical period of the story, but they do work so I exercised some creative license here... and lifted them for my own purposes.

Chapter Eight

Mr. Darcy was a firm believer in the benefit of exercise. In London or at Pemberley, whenever he was in need of distraction or whenever he needed to muddle through a problem which vexed him, he made it a point to expend himself physically and, when he re-emerged after the exertion was over, he generally felt transformed and liberated.

Thus, it was with a dizzying need to exercise that Mr. Darcy mounted his steed and kicked its sides much harder than he ever remembered doing so in the past. Obviously startled, the horse set off at a frenzied pace and he felt a momentary wave of relief wash over him as he quickly began to bridge the passing distance between Longbourn and Netherfield. Mr. Bingley, unable or unwilling to punish his horse in quite the same manner, remained far behind him.

For just a moment, he contemplated solemnly the impulse to continue his journey to London. His horse had been fed and watered and he could stop briefly along the way to give it a rest. The notion was indeed compelling! Oh, that he could simply will himself to get away and be done with this entire sordid business. That would have been remarkable.

Yet, he was as much a man of principle as he was a rational one and he knew that he could not escape this. Difficult as it was, he knew he could not run no matter how sorely he was tempted. He would have to accept his fate in spite of the misgivings that reminded him of the most heinous form of agony he was inflicting upon himself.

When he arrived back at Netherfield, Mr. Darcy handed his horse to a groundskeeper who assured him he would lead it back to the stables. Without awaiting Bingley's return, he entered the estate and ran quickly past the butler who was ready to take his coat. He mounted the stairs speedily and did not relax his pace until he arrived in his room. His man, Hyatt, appeared from his dressing room, ready to assist him, but Mr. Darcy had already removed his coat and pitched it carelessly upon his bed. Without delay, Hyatt picked up the coat and asked if he could be of any more assistance to him. Mr. Darcy dismissed him offhandedly, longing for the quiet of his own company.

Once alone, he meditated upon his fate assiduously. Evidently, this scandal had spiraled into a calamity that demanded action but he could not escape the impression that the very action it called for would serve to make both he and Elizabeth miserable in the long run. Would that he could come up with another way to resolve this! Alas, there was truly no other means. The babble had been disseminated prodigiously and soon he and Elizabeth both would be rendered quite unscrupulous if they did not marry.

But, marriage to a woman such as Elizabeth Bennet? While he always accepted that in due course he would have to resign his bachelor status, he always envisioned himself uniting with a woman of rank who could do no damage to the superior Darcy legacy and who he could admire and respect because of it. Marrying Elizabeth, a poor young lady with naught to recommend her? He had never even considered it a possibility. Even before this, when he had been forced to acknowledge his vulnerability to her and admire her for her fine mind and dynamic essence, he had known that she was beneath him in every way that mattered to those he respected and called his friends.

Then, there was the inescapable matter of her startling aversion to him. Her words that fateful morning in the woods had left him with no question as to how she regarded him. While he had once believed that she meant to bewitch him by coyly flirting and verbally sparring with him, he realized at that instant how horribly wrong he had been in assessing her motives. His reaction to her bitter words in the forest had been immediate and provoked, in large part, by the gnawing wretchedness that her dislike of him had caused him the second she had spoken of it. At that moment, when he had forcefully seized her arm and then proceeded to coerce her to turn and look at him, he had been angry at himself for his lack of judgment as much as he was at her for her stinging castigation.

And, it was at that doomed instant, when he had grabbed Elizabeth's arm to prevent her from escaping, that the woodsman had come upon them and, mistakenly, assumed they were secret lovers. The irony of how far off the mark he had been caused Mr. Darcy to grimace wryly. Truly, the man could not have found two people in all of England who had so little fondness for one another at that exact moment.

He walked languidly over to the fireplace and stared at the riveting blaze. He willed himself to clear his head of all this marriage business, but he did so to no avail. He could not forget, he could not think past it.

What would marriage to Elizabeth be like? Would her father need to drag her to the altar pummeling upon his chest and thrashing about in opposition to her fate? Once they were married, would she be able to return with him to London and later to Pemberley and continue to manage both households effectively? Could she be expected to stand by his side and be a companion to him before his friends and family? Would they, in turn, ever accept her, a penniless, country nobody, as his wife or would they seemingly pretend while in his presence only to scorn him decisively when he was not there? The fact that she was a gentleman's daughter would do her or him no true credit in their eyes. If they were ever to be respected amongst his social circle, Elizabeth would need to reveal to them all, that there was so much more to her than simply her humble origins.

He patently refused to be made a laughingstock amongst his peers all because he had abandoned his habitual caution and had thus been caught alone in a forest with a young lady, in what appeared to the unknowing eye, to be a compromising position. No, if he agreed to her father's marriage scheme, she would certainly have to consent to be a dutiful and worthy partner in this union. She had to be made to understand that marriage to him may save her tainted character but it would come with its own price for her to pay.

Georgiana. He moaned as he thought of her. Whatever would she think of the entire ordeal, this sudden marriage of his? He had always hoped to model the epitome of what she should look for in her own future husband and, in his opinion, he had done an adequate job of it given her admiration of his integrity and his generosity toward others. However, would she believe that he had fallen hopelessly in love with a poor gentleman's daughter and had thus been tempted to overlook the social and financial expectations his future wife should meet? Would she even like Elizabeth? Of this, he had little doubt as he knew that Elizabeth was capable of charming nearly everyone she met. He had witnessed firsthand her uncanny ability to use her wit and liveliness in a manner that was beyond pleasing and he knew his sister did not possess a propensity to be critical. Perhaps then, in the long run, if Georgiana did not wonder extensively about why he chose her for his wife, Elizabeth would be a welcome addition to his sister's life. And conceivably, if she continued to employ her magnetism publicly, then his acquaintances who may have had a wont to be critical, could be persuaded to see in her some merit as well.

Mr. Darcy's thoughts were interrupted by a tentative knock on the door of his room. Expecting to find Bingley on the other side, he reacted with obvious frustration once he opened the door to Leeson, Bingley's butler, who informed him that Mr. Bingley and Mr. Bennet were awaiting his arrival in the library.

Immediately upon leaving his room, Mr. Darcy encountered Miss Bingley who almost appeared to have been waiting for him to join her. Brushing past her with a brief nod of acknowledgement, he moved to the top of the stairs, dreading what awaited him below.

"Mr. Darcy, it is absolutely imperative that I speak with you this instant."

"Miss Bingley, I am afraid that I must ask you to delay our conversation as Leeson has just informed me that your brother requires my presence in the library this instant."

Miss Bingley walked toward him hurriedly and lowered her voice. "Actually, that is the very thing I wish to speak to you about. I know all too well the matter Charles intends to discuss with you."

"You do?" Mr. Darcy could scarce believe his ears. He realized the gossip was spreading at an unmerciful rate, but this was unimaginable even to him. His patience wearing thin, he absolutely refused to argue this with the simpering Caroline Bingley and proceeded to descend downstairs.

Before he could get very far, however, Miss Bingley seized his arm insistently. ?Mr. Darcy, please! A moment."

Disgustedly, he shook off her hold of him. Grabbing Miss Bennet's arm two days ago in a similar manner had marked the beginning of his undoing. He was damned if he was going to find himself in a comparable situation again even if this time it was a lady who had grabbed hold of his person.

"Quickly then, Miss Bingley for I do not wish to keep your brother waiting unnecessarily." He mentally prepared himself for her outrage at the scandal and her certain avowal to assist him in overcoming the malice of it, provided doing so did not necessitate him marrying Elizabeth Bennet.

"Charles has informed Louisa and me that it seems likely we will not be departing Netherfield as we initially planned. Are you aware of this?"

"Yes, well, your brother had made mention to me of that possibility but, then, it was not decided upon definitively."

"Well it appears he has very firmly decided in favor of the idea now, Mr. Darcy. We are all in agony over it... Mr. Hurst, especially, is beside himself with frustration and is vowing to leave with or without my brother's company."

"Then the matter is settled. Hurst should undoubtedly depart if his mind is set on it. Now, if you will excuse me, Miss Bingley." Mr. Darcy moved to resume descending the staircase but, not surprisingly, Miss Bingley was not prepared to dismiss him yet.

"But Mr. Darcy, Charles' decision to remain here is a testament to his desire to continue courting Miss Bennet. Surely you can see that it is every bit as abhorrent to us as it was less than a week ago. You absolutely must work to reverse this temporary madness that has seized my brother or calamity will ultimately prevail."

Mr. Darcy turned then to look at Miss Bingley squarely. There before him stood a young lady who was obviously anxious and overwrought, yet the sight of her in her current state did not elicit anything near to what he had felt when he had seen Elizabeth distressed two days ago. Now, all he experienced upon seeing Miss Bingley's irritation was impatience mingled with an immense sense of relief. He had incorrectly assumed that she had wished to talk to him and gently upbraid him for his carelessness that had resulted in the scandal, when all the time she had intended to plead for assistance in getting Charles to remove himself to London and away from Miss Jane Bennet. Yet again, he was reminded that his previously-believed accurate power of discernment was hardly reliable in all matters.

"Miss Bingley, I shall attempt to do what I can but I can offer you no guarantee that Charles will let himself be persuaded in this. And now, I truly must ask that you release me."

"Very well. I feel much better knowing you join me in this worry. Thank you, Mr. Darcy." The coquettish young woman, so eager to ingratiate herself to him, had returned and the image of her compelled Darcy to run down the steps in more hurriedly a manner than he otherwise would have.

Despite being eager to be free of Miss Bingley, Mr. Darcy reached the door to the library with a heavy heart. There could be no doubt as to why Mr. Bennet wished to see him but knowing why he was there did nothing to alleviate his turmoil.

"Ah, Darcy, there you are at last. Mr. Bennet and I had begun to think you would shun us and refuse to see us altogether. Will you join us in a glass of brandy?"

"It is tempting Charles, but I believe I would do better to keep a level head at this time. Thank you nonetheless."

Mr. Bennet lost no time in getting to his point. "Mr. Darcy, I realize I had promised to give you some time to consider the necessity of marriage to my daughter but, regrettably, I now have to go back on that agreement with you. Word of this misstep has already spread far wider than I thought it had when we last met. For instance, this afternoon, while speaking to Elizabeth after our meeting, we were graced by a visit by none other than your Aunt?s parson."

Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy both had the decency to shudder at the thought of Mr. Collins coming to Longbourn with the sole purpose of sermonizing regarding the perils of lost virtue.

Mr. Bennet continued his discourse upon noting their combined reactions. "Yes, well, then you can imagine my urgency and why I was prompted to meet with you sooner than I anticipated. I told you earlier, Mr. Darcy, that I would be willing to champion my daughter's character at any cost. I hope you realize that I meant it."

"I do, sir."

"Then you will understand that, until we publish the banns announcing your engagement to my daughter, her name will be hopelessly muddied as will your own honor and virtue if we allow this to continue in the free-spirited manner that it has."

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Bennet rose and placed himself directly in the path of Mr. Darcy. "Mr. Darcy, please! I need much more from you than mere 'I do, sirs' or 'Yes, sirs' at this time! It is necessary that you agree to this marriage once and for all so we can embark upon tackling the damage our hesitation has already cost us."

"I understand you, sir! Do not for a minute suppose I do not comprehend what you require of me. Yes, I am willing to do my duty and marry your daughter but this situation affords me no comfort nor happiness so you will, I hope, excuse my reticence."

Mr. Darcy noted the brief look of sympathy Elizabeth's father cast in his direction. He could see that he regretted his outburst and was as cheerless in this as he himself was. The fact that they were aligned in their unease as they settled upon his and Elizabeth's future was an irony they both could not overlook.

"Good, then I trust you will see to the legal matters while the wedding itself will fall upon us to plan - unless, of course, there is anything specific you desire insofar as the ceremony is concerned." Mr. Bennet's tone had calmed significantly and he appeared more than a little relieved.

"The only matter relating to the ceremony itself that I believe I need to trouble myself with involves the attainment of a special license that I can, no doubt, secure while I am in London drawing up the settlement. For a man in my position to marry without it would appear? odd and would further call question to the marriage itself."

"Then I will gladly leave that to you," Mr. Bennet said.

"Will you be joining me in London to discuss the settlement?" Mr. Darcy asked the older gentleman.

"No. I am afraid the mere thought of London with all its bustle and activity is far too daunting a task for me. I will write to my brother Gardiner who himself lives in London. He will no doubt be willing to meet with you to probe this further. I will, of course, suggest some aspects which must be included in the settlement. I do not imagine there will be any trouble."

"No. No trouble. Miss Elizabeth will receive a fair settlement. Of that, you can be certain."

"Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, you misunderstand me. When I suggested to you that there would be no trouble, I was referring to the likelihood that there would be no problem at all for my brother to meet with you in London. I was not referring to the particulars of the legal documents. I ask only that you treat my daughter with the respect she deserves." Mr. Bennet's tone abruptly softened, "You see, young man, she truly is the jewel of my heart."

Mr. Darcy looked to the man with not a little bit of awe. Clearly, before him stood a man who loved his daughter tremendously more so than did a father who was attempting to secure for her a hefty settlement. And yet, he could have demanded from him a very generous sum if solely to avenge his wrath at placing his daughter's reputation at stake in the first place.

"Well then, the only thing you have left to resolve is the date. Is that right?" Bingley's cheerful demeanor appeared wholly foreign in the melancholic air that had infected the library.

"Yes, the date. Have you and Miss Bennet discussed a possible date for the ceremony?"

"Actually, we have not. Do you have a preference in this matter? I would think that we cannot wait too long given the circumstances." Mr. Bennet's reply was grim.

"No, I should think not."

"Perhaps then you can come to Longbourn tomorrow and we can settle upon a date with Elizabeth present as well."

"Tell me, Mr. Bennet, what says Miss Elizabeth to the prospect of marrying me? I cannot see her accepting it meekly."

"Mr. Darcy, my Elizabeth rarely accepts anything meekly. She is a girl who feels deeply and cannot help but be disappointed concerning this entire ordeal. She had hoped that, when the time came for her to marry, the circumstances surrounding that marriage would be very different from the ones she finds herself in at present. You should know, Mr. Darcy, that she too is a person whose dreams for a felicitous future with a person she loves and who loves her have been shattered."

"I see. Of course, I respect that neither Miss Bennet nor myself would have wanted to marry for reasons such as these. Nevertheless, I will be a fair husband to her and she will live a comfortable life as my wife."

"Yes, your money will indeed ensure that she will live a life of privilege but, unfortunately, I believe Elizabeth desires considerably more from marriage. You would do well to remember that, Mr. Darcy."

And, with that, Mr. Bennet bid the gentlemen farewell and left Netherfield.

That evening, long after the dinner bell had sounded, Mr. Darcy remained cloistered in the library mulling over Mr. Bennet's words.

continue Happenstance here

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