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Happenstance

Chapter Nine

The next morning after a breakfast she had to force herself to eat, Elizabeth was finally afforded the luxury of some time to herself outdoors. She walked to the tiny garden behind the estate and not even the crisp and biting morning air deterred her from appreciating the sight that lay before her.

The fact that winter was fast approaching was unmistakable in everything she beheld on the estate. The late autumn flowers had long been pulled and the trees were bare, having long ago lost their colourful foliage. Frost had fallen overnight and the ground at her feet showed signs of it; her boot prints were easily discernible upon the dried grass.

Before she had exited Longbourn, her father stopped her to once more remind her that Mr. Darcy had promised to call upon them sometime this morning. He was not very subtle in his recommendation that she curtail her favourite activity and not be absent from the house for longer than was necessary. Elizabeth let out a heavy sigh of repressed disappointment.

How was she expected to behave today toward this man who was soon to become her husband? She knew she should perhaps be the tiniest bit grateful to him that he had not left her to face this shame alone, but found she could not muster one favourable sentiment toward him. Yet, he could have easily scuttled off to London and thereby escaped marrying her. Of course, this would have tainted his reputation as well, but the degree to which it would have done so was nothing to the censure she and her family would have faced forever.

Still, she could not feel overly indebted to him because, by doing so, she would be almost condoning the fact that he alone was blameworthy for causing this slanderous defamation. She had done nothing for which she should now feel guilty. Of course, she could have flatly refused to walk with him or she could have attempted to flee from him after she had first met him in the forest. Yet, he had refused to leave her and she was not entirely convinced that she could have in any way changed the outcome of this horrible affair. Perhaps confronting him in anger had not been wise, but she had no regrets there either. She had told him distinctly that she preferred to be alone and he, in his arrogance, flagrantly ignored her plea for privacy. She was perfectly within her rights to be affronted and could not be sorry that she had not hidden this from him.

No, the mess they now found themselves in was entirely his fault and she did not intend to soon pardon him for it.

She continued to walk but her pace suddenly quickened and the landscape that surrounded her became a meaningless blur. How could she ever come to accept this? Late yesterday afternoon, when her father returned from Netherfield with the news that Mr. Darcy had agreed to marry her, she felt lost. She had desperately clung to the notion that he would never consent to the nefarious scheme and, thus, her first reaction to her father's news had been to feel a wave of nausea envelop her which had almost rendered her senseless. How she wished she had been one of those females prone to fainting spells for then she would have been able to drift away from the harsh reality that her father's words presented. Unfortunately, her disposition did not allow her to fall unconscious and so she merely stood, mouth agape, as her mother danced merrily about her and her younger sisters giggled ridiculously. Jane merely glanced at her sympathetically before embracing her compassionately. Mary simply looked at her, her steady disappointment evident. Elizabeth had fought the urge to cry and maintained her resolve until later that evening when, alone in her bedchamber she threw herself upon her bed and pummelled her pillows furiously. Later, she had felt slightly better, but her torment had been far from allayed completely.

Walking the grounds of the estate that morning, she resented not being permitted to marry a man of her own choosing, one who undoubtedly would have suited her better and could have made her happy. Suddenly, Mr. Wickham's image floated into her consciousness. Although she had not seen him since well before the Netherfield ball, she thought of him intermittently in the past days and had heard from Lydia and Kitty that he had returned to Meryton. Even though he could not promise her a financially secure future, in every sense, he personified the essence of the man she knew she could respect and perhaps one day even love. She never cared much to be a rich man's wife and knew that his lack of fortune would have been no barrier to her. She realized she did not love him yet, but believed that if they had continued in the manner that they had, she could have quite easily have found herself susceptible to his charm and handsome mien.

She looked to the front of the estate and noticed Mr. Bingley's fine carriage stationed there. And so, he had arrived. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she could not avoid the meeting any longer.

Once inside, she was immediately waylaid by her anxious mother who thoroughly reprimanded her for staying away so long and ushered her bodily into her father's study.

"Miss Bennet." Mr. Darcy's greeting was perfunctory and, not surprisingly, betrayed no warmth at all toward her.

"Good day, Mr. Darcy. Have you come alone? I had thought Mr. Bingley would accompany you today." Elizabeth took a seat located next to Mr. Darcy's and across from the oak desk her father occupied.

"In fact, he is here. He is in the study with your sisters and your mother."

Elizabeth noticed her father silently observing their interaction warily.

"Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy comes to us today so that we can determine a date for the wedding ceremony. Have you any suggestions to make?"

Elizabeth knew her mortification would not go unnoticed by Mr. Darcy. "No father. I have no date to suggest."

"But you do understand Miss Bennet, that ours cannot be a long engagement? As your father has suggested to me repeatedly, we have already been far too lax in this. Do you not agree?"

Elizabeth mused in acrimony at the thought that Mr. Darcy would now appear to champion this horrendous travesty of a marriage. "As it happens, I do agree, but I still do not have any idea as to what date would satisfy. Perhaps you should fix upon an appropriate date and I will do my best to remember to be present at the chapel on that day."

"Miss Bennet, I had hoped you would have accustomed yourself to our joint destiny by now and that we would be able to converse rationally this morning. Clearly, I was wrong on that score. I am trying to be patient, but we can settle upon nothing constructive if you do not accept our fate."

"Pardon me, sir but it is obvious that is not the only score you have misjudged. In fact, your poor sense of intuition is the very cause of our fates being joined in the first place. Forgive me for not enthusiastically accepting my lot."

"Elizabeth, my dear child, you must see that if you continue in this contentious manner, this circumstance will only serve to make you more miserable." Mr. Bennet felt compelled to speak. "Mr. Darcy is attempting to find resolution and your indignation is making the entire process more gruelling for us all. Would you, perchance, prefer not to assist us in selecting a date? For, if that is the case, I will gladly excuse you and inform you later of the particulars of our meeting?"

"No Papa. I do wish to be present during your discussion," she risked a glance at Mr. Darcy who sat ramrod straight beside her. "I am sorry, Mr. Darcy. I will attempt to curtail my sarcasm for the duration of our meeting."

Mr. Darcy smiled thinly. "Thank you, Miss Bennet. That will help immeasurably."

"Well then, Mr. Darcy is to leave for London tomorrow. There, he will iron out the particulars of the settlement with his attorneys and the assistance of your uncle Gardiner. He has yet to reply to the express I sent him but I do not imagine for a moment that he will not consent to meet with Mr. Darcy in my stead." He paused briefly and turned to address Mr. Darcy, "I understand, Mr. Darcy that you will also see to it that the marriage is announced properly in the London papers. Is that correct?" To this, Mr. Darcy nodded his assent. "Mr. Darcy has also mentioned a need to procure a special license while he is in London. That will alleviate the requisite to cry banns announcing the engagement. How long do you imagine that will take, sir?"

"I believe I will be away for at least a week tending to all these matters, as well as spending some time informing my family of my upcoming marriage. I do not imagine, however, that they will be able to join me in Hertfordshire to attend the ceremony, unfortunately." Elizabeth did not miss the anxiety in his voice at the mention of his family.

Good. Inform your blasted family of our marriage and may they plague you mercilessly because of it. I should think they will not be attending our wedding ceremony! Likely, they will be mourning your predicament.

"Well then, it appears you shall be quite occupied while in London at any rate. After your return, Mrs. Bennet has insisted upon hosting at least one engagement party."

"Papa really! Given the circumstances, we should strive to keep this as quiet and private an affair as possible!"

"Elizabeth, it is of no use to us at all to attempt to deter your mother in this. In her mind, she believes your wedding is cause for celebration and I, for one, cannot fight her."

"No doubt," Mr. Darcy said levelly. Elizabeth shot him an icy look.

"Thus," Mr. Bennet continued, "we should set the wedding date for, say, a week after your return."

"That would bring us to December seventeenth."

"Yes. December the seventeenth. As good a day for a wedding as any, I imagine. What say you, Elizabeth? Mr. Darcy?"

"That does not give us much time. It is a mere fortnight away! I had hoped I would have a longer period to prepare myself for... for this, Papa."

"And you, Mr. Darcy? Have you any misgivings about the date?"

"While I tend to agree with Miss Bennet's concerns about the fast approaching date, I understand why it must be so and, thus, can offer no true resistance to the idea."

"Very well, then. Elizabeth, a fortnight will have to suffice. You can begin preparing without hesitation and then perhaps the employment will not seem so onerous. I am glad that this, at least, is settled."

"Yes, Papa."

"Good! Now, let us join the others in the sitting room. I am certain your mother is beside herself with curiosity. Come now."

Mr. Bennet walked to the door and held it open for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth to pass through. "Now, Mr. Darcy, you would do well to prepare yourself for expressions of effusion flowing from my wife. However fierce they are, I can assure you they will multiply tenfold once you are out of earshot. You cannot say you have not been warned."

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

Elizabeth could not help but detect the look of alarm that spread over Mr. Darcy's countenance upon hearing Mr. Bennet's words. Her father, she knew, had intended to inject some levity into this otherwise tense situation but, regrettably, Mr. Darcy had missed it.

In the sitting room, Mrs. Bennet rose immediately upon their arrival. "Well, Mr. Bennet? Has it all been worked out to everyone's approval? Has a wedding date been set? Tell me this moment for, if you do not, I fear I shall burst!"

"Mrs. Bennet, you will be happy to learn that Mr. Darcy has agreed to marry our daughter, Elizabeth, on December the seventeenth. He departs for London tomorrow where he will no doubt see to all the tedious details associated with the marriage." Mr. Bennet announced unequivocally. "I can leave you all now, satisfied in the knowledge that I have prevented you, my dear wife, from bursting yet again." Having said this, he made an attempt to quit the room but was prevented at the sound of his wife's shriek.

"The seventeenth? Why that gives me no time at all to prepare for the parties we shall need to host, much less for the wedding breakfast itself. Surely, I need at least a month."

Mr. Bennet chose to interrupt her rant. "And yet, Mrs. Bennet, a fortnight is all the time you have. Remarkably, we have decided in favor of a short engagement rather than allow for time to plan a series of senseless gatherings."

"Yes Mama. Truly, you need not go to any unnecessary trouble?" Elizabeth attempted to interject.

"Unnecessary trouble? What in the world are you about, Lizzy? You are entering into a marriage with one of the richest men in England! Unnecessary trouble indeed!"

Mr. Darcy had thus far borne it all with far more leniency than Elizabeth had imagined he would ever demonstrate in the face of her mother's euphoric outbursts. However, she saw clearly the contempt he held for her mother and, for all her dislike of the man, she truly could not blame him for it.

"Mrs. Bennet, while I understand your fervour to celebrate our marriage, Miss Bennet and I must stand by our decision to wed on December the seventeenth. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the short time allows for only one, preferably intimate, social gathering before our wedding. I trust you will see the wisdom of our determination in this matter."

While Mr. Darcy had never been a favourite of hers, he had never been her future son-in-law before either. The prospect was daunting - even for Mrs. Bennet - and she wisely refrained from voicing her disapproval before him. Elizabeth knew that there would be time enough for her to express her dismay after he had taken his leave of them. In his presence, however, she feigned cautious acceptance of his wishes.

"Mary, please ring for some tea. I am certain the gentlemen will join us."

"But I, on the other hand, will quit your delightful company and return to my quiet study." Mr. Bennet turned to the gentlemen graciously, "Thank you once again for your cooperation, Mr. Darcy. I expect to see you again as soon as it is convenient for you to call upon us after you return from London. And now I bid you and Mr. Bingley good day."

"Good day, sir," both gentlemen returned in unison.

While awaiting their tea, Elizabeth hazarded a glance at Mr. Darcy. He was seated upon a velvet-covered maroon chair, concentrating steadily on the swirls that were visible in the wallpaper that covered the room. He was clearly ill at ease and Elizabeth could detect he longed to leave the confines of Longbourn as quickly as politeness would allow him to do so. She stifled a laugh and took pleasure in his apprehension although she knew it was uncharitable of her to do so and, thus, attempted to restrain her mirth.

"Will you be accompanying Mr. Darcy to London, Mr. Bingley?" Lydia was the first to break the hushed silence.

"Why, we have not even discussed the matter, have we, Darcy?" Mr. Bingley turned to Mr. Darcy, his voice full of surprise. "Would you prefer I come along?"

Mr. Darcy immediately realized that his plan to separate his friend from Miss Bennet was now rendered futile in the face of his future connection to the Bennet family. Yet, he did believe that Bingley's company on the journey to London and in the midst of the complex legal wrangling could serve as a much-needed distraction for him. He imagined he would have time enough after his own marriage to save his friend from having to join this family as he himself was now being forced to do. At that very moment, he could not imagine facing the rigors of the upcoming days in London without Bingley's easy companionship.

"Bingley, both your company and your counsel would be appreciated if you could at all spare the time to join me."

"Of course. We had intended to journey there together tomorrow at any rate." He was clearly uncomfortable discussing this in the Bennets' company yet he truly had no choice given the direction of the conversation. "It will be no great sacrifice to leave now that we will only be gone a week." Mr. Bingley met Jane's eye and she graced him with a small smile.

Well, I can at least be happy knowing that my upcoming marriage has prevented Mr. Bingley's permanent departure from Netherfield for the time being. Pity it affords me no greater comfort than that!

As Elizabeth predicted, the gentlemen took their tea in a hurried manner and departed soon after that. Mrs. Bennet tried desperately to have them extend their visit but it was to no avail. The gentlemen would leave and she would have to face her disappointment.

"See Mr. Darcy to his carriage, Lizzy."

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy both looked at Mrs. Bennet in shocked dismay and recoiled uncomfortably at her presumption. Elizabeth, in particular, felt the unease sweep over her but she followed meekly behind her fianc鼏nce outside, after bidding Elizabeth a brief farewell, Mr. Bingley quickly made his way into the carriage leaving Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth very much alone for the first time since the grievous incident had occurred in the forest.

"Yes, well ...I shall return in a week. In the meantime, I trust everything will proceed quite smoothly."

"I am certain it will, Mr. Darcy. My father and mother shall see to it, I imagine."

"Should your father need to contact me, I will leave my address with Doyle, Mr. Bingley's steward. Will that be acceptable?"

Elizabeth could hardly credit her eyes. There before her stood anything but the proud, confident man she had previously known. Although she was standing directly before him, he was unable to meet her gaze. Why, he had seemingly developed an awkwardness which appeared to almost exceed her own acute embarrassment. She watched tentatively as he shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other and raked his hand across his hair. For a moment, Elizabeth almost forgot her previous aversion to him.

"I am sure that will suffice, Mr. Darcy." She replied in a voice that was clearly less cutting than she had used in past conversations with him.

"Well, then... Goodbye, Miss Bennet."

"Goodbye, Mr. Darcy. May you have a safe journey."

"Thank you." Yet, rather than enter the carriage then as she imagined he would, he seemed unwilling to move and continued to look at her as if in contemplation. Tired of the entire ordeal, Elizabeth turned and prepared to re-enter Longbourn.

When she cautiously looked behind her as she closed the door, she noted he was gone. She exhaled a sigh of relief.

Chapter Ten

Just as Sir William Lucas had predicted, the roads were in very good condition the next morning when Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley journeyed to London.

He looked thoughtfully over at his friend who was sleeping soundly across from him and envied him his quietude. For the past two nights Darcy had been so consumed by his wearisome thoughts that each time he lay down to sleep, it evaded him. He spent these nights mulling over his fate and pondering how it had suddenly become so irrevocably and shamefully connected to Elizabeth Bennet. Still, he did not feel tired though he knew he should be exhausted. He was restless and wished, not for the first time, that he had ridden his horse to London rather than let himself be persuaded by his drowsy friend, to join him in the confines of the carriage.

As his friend dozed, Darcy's thoughts were drawn back to the realization that his life was shifting permanently and he could do nothing to prevent it from continuing to change once he was married. Since his father's death, he had largely been able to do as he liked. The fact that he now had so little command over what was to happen disturbed him, yet he knew he must accept his circumstances as they were now or he would certainly go mad.

He could not help but reflect upon how this journey to London was originally intended to be so different. When he first suggested the trip to Bingley, he had believed he would be spending a large part of the voyage, consoling his friend over the loss of Miss Jane Bennet. It was pathetic how wrong he had been. Yet, how he could have possibly foreseen his present circumstances, he did not know.

Hoping to improve his spirits, his mind turned to Miss Bingley's absurd reaction upon hearing of his engagement. Naturally, he had anticipated her shock, but he could never have imagined the fervor of her insistent petitions that he reconsider marrying Elizabeth. During breakfast that morning, when the true reason for their trip was explained to Miss Bingley and the Hursts, he had feared that she would stop at nothing to change his mind. In fact, he suspected she was seriously contemplating standing before the door as a means of preventing their departure! Repeatedly, she referred to his impending marriage as an 'atrocious mistake' and vowed that he would lament his choice. It had taken all of his resolve not to agree with her. Yet, he could not help but take a small amount of secret pleasure in having confirmed to her finally that he would never be available to marry her and, thus, her deliberate efforts to gain his favor in the past had all been wasted.

He considered what the Matlocks would make of his marriage. He had learned, in a letter from his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, that they were in town. He understood they would be shocked. They knew nothing of Elizabeth or her family and would never freely accept her as his wife if they did. When they learned about how low her connections were, they would be astonished and surely question his sanity. He realized he would have to be honest with them about the whole sordid business if he hoped to garner their understanding - if not their approval - of his choice. In his mind, he already envisioned his uncle's angry demeanor and heard his aunt's cries of shocked dismay. Yet again, there was simply nothing he could do to prevent any of it from occurring. Consequently, it was pointless for him to worry about their reaction now when so much else demanded his attention.

Even more overwhelming than meeting with his own family, was the prospect of having to make the acquaintance of Elizabeth's uncle. Instinctively, Mr. Darcy's hand moved to his pocket and he pulled out the address of Elizabeth's relations sent to him by Mr. Bennet that very morning. Actually, he knew very little about them other than the fact that Elizabeth's uncle was a tradesman and that the family lived on Gracechurch Street, which was by far, a most inauspicious part of London. He wondered if this relation of Elizabeth's stemmed from her father's or her mother's side of the family. If the man was a member of Mr. Bennet's family, then perhaps the legal issues involving the settlement could be resolved swiftly and relatively painlessly. If, on the other hand, he was in any way related to Mrs. Bennet, conferring with him would be indeed... taxing. Having to meet with a man such as Mr. Gardiner was by no means new to him, as he had in the past convened with tradespeople to discuss his many business endeavors. Yet, to have to now consult with such a person and look to him as a future relation was beyond belief. How his friends would laugh at him if they knew he, the esteemed Master of Pemberley, was in a position to seek the favor and sanction of a man like Mr. Gardiner! He shuddered in resentment. He simply would not permit himself to think of the degradation any further.

He attempted to clear his mind of this entire calamity and picked up his copy of Roxana* hoping Defoe's apathy for his subject matter would distract him as it usually did when he read this text. He leafed through the text, unable to determine where his reading had left off. Even after he selected a passage to begin with, he found his concentration waned and he could do no justice to the dark novel. He wondered why he had selected this book at all given his already somber disposition. He knew then he should have picked something more uncomplicated to divert him earlier that morning from his friend's limited collection at Netherfield. He threw the book on the seat next to him in irritation.

Pushing the heavy velvet curtain aside, he took in the passing scenery. He knew there was still some time before they reached London. He hoped its bustle would rouse him out of this bleak temper which would not leave him no matter how hard he tried to overcome it. Conveniently, the view outside the carriage was gloomy and uninspiring on that early December afternoon. Darcy could not help but be satisfied that the climate corresponded so perfectly with his mood.

He allowed the curtain to fall and sank back into the plush seat of the carriage. Elizabeth... Looking over towards Bingley and noticing he was still buried in the depths of sleep, he allowed himself to think of her.

Since learning of the scandal stemming from their ill-fated meeting in the forest, he truly had not given her that much consideration. Selfishly, he was too angry at his own lack of prudence and what it had cost him to ponder her at length. Without a doubt, he knew she disliked their current predicament as much as he did. Still, he could not rid himself of the notion that her circumstances would improve after their marriage, while his future was, at best, tenuous.

Before this, he had no doubt found her beguiling - with her quick wit and lively spirit. He had also been attracted to her enticing eyes and pleasing figure. He had tried to dispense with the manner in which she intrigued him, knowing that he could never act on his desire for her; but he remained hopelessly captivated by her when she was in his presence.

Now that she was destined to become his wife, he wondered how he felt about her. Would his desire for her be enough to eventually assist him to regard her as he should his wife? Doubtful ... given the reality that Elizabeth would be unlikely to want their relationship to evolve on a physical level. Yet, evolve it eventually must as he knew unquestioningly that one day he would need to produce an heir to his estate. But would she ever consent to allow him in her bed? He could not imagine her doing so... willingly... and he was too much of a gentleman to force her, even if she was his wife. Still, Elizabeth was a rational woman and must understand that they could not perpetually live together chastely. Undoubtedly, she would want children herself one day and, he presumed, she was intelligent enough to realize that there was only one way to produce them.

The vision of sharing a marriage bed with her was not at all objectionable. Based on what little he knew of her, he imagined she would be every bit as passionate in her lovemaking as she was in her arguments with him. His thoughts turned wayward as he indulged himself and momentarily fantasized about making love to her. But the illusion ceased the moment he realized that she was unlikely to allow him to do so given her current aversion to him.

He sighed in frustration. He was looking beyond the scope of what their current reality was and knew it was futile. Continuing in this manner would surely not relax his spirits.

He breathed deeply and again wished for his friend's peaceful slumber. He shut his eyes and attempted to force Elizabeth's image out of his mind... without success.

~ * ~

The next morning, Mr. Darcy thankfully set down his pen and relaxed in the chair behind his desk. His competent steward, Gilmore, had left him very little to do upon his return, other than to decline a few invitations, consider some interesting business prospects and put a brief notice in the paper announcing his engagement to Elizabeth. He advised the editor to have the announcement appear no sooner than four days hence. He had also written the vicar at his church and asked that he begin the process involved in procuring a special marriage license from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Additionally, almost immediately upon his arrival, he had written to his Aunt and Uncle Matlock, advising them that he was in Town and that he would call upon them as soon as he was settled. He purposely avoided mentioning to them the actual reason behind his early appearance, as he felt it was best that he tell them of it in person. Overall, Mr. Darcy felt proud of his industriousness.

The staff at his London townhouse had met with the news that he was to be wed in less than a fortnight with an equanimity he did not anticipate. Mrs. Graham, his housekeeper, had politely extended her congratulations, while Gilmore had efficiently notified his attorneys that Darcy needed to see them without delay upon the next day. Darcy had even conferred with Mrs. Graham about hiring a well-recommended personal maid for Elizabeth and discussed some changes that would need to be made to the Mistress, chambers in preparation for her arrival.

After his housekeeper had left him alone in the room Elizabeth was soon to occupy, he compelled himself to examine it critically, willing himself to see it as Elizabeth would. This had been his mother's room and it had not been in use since her death. It was definitely in need of some work and a proper airing out in order to rid it of its stifling, musty aura. Since the loss of his mother, he had only visited the room once and that had been on the first anniversary of her death several years ago. Still, he was shocked by how lifeless it now seemed. He knew that he could not expect Elizabeth to occupy it as it now was and feel wholly at ease. He made a mental note to ask Mrs. Graham to purchase new bed linens and to do what she thought would help to make the room appear more inviting. He himself did not know how to begin to do it, but he trusted his housekeeper's good judgment in this regard and, thus, it was one less thing that he needed to tend to himself.

Mr. Bingley's arrival at his townhouse signaled that it was time for them to depart. He quickly penned a brief note to Elizabeth's uncle, informing him that he was going to first meet with his attorney alone to discuss the settlement before asking that he join them.

He had hoped that their early arrival in Town meant that the likelihood they would run into persons he knew would be significantly reduced. Thus, he was surprised when they were prevented from entering his carriage by his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had learned from his parents that he was in London.

"Darcy! Bingley! I must say I am surprised. In your last letter to us, you suggested you were to remain in Hertfordshire at least until next month."

"What a surprise. How good it is to see you again, Colonel." Mr. Bingley greeted Darcy's cousin with pleasure.

"Yes. Given your warm welcome, it is a wonder we did not come earlier," Darcy returned, his voice laced with sarcasm.

"No, no! You mistake me completely! Of course, I am happy to see you. Yet, I must confess, I am curious as to what led you to depart your estate quite this early, Bingley. Netherfield - did you call it?  As it happens, this surprise is a good one as I am certain you both mean to assist me in awakening this sleepy town before the Season."

Mr. Darcy concealed the moan he felt rising from his throat upon hearing his cousin's words. How excellent it would be if they were free to do as his cousin had just suggested - gallivant aimlessly with him and enjoy their time there. Instead, the many details he must consider before his marriage were certain to prevent him the luxury of much free time. He wondered how he and Mr. Bingley could leave his cousin tactfully, while raising no questions about where they were going or what they intended to do there.

"Fitzwilliam, I am afraid this particular early jaunt into London will not leave me much time for revelry. I cannot, however, speak for my friend, Bingley. Nonetheless, I intend to call upon your parents later today. If you are there, we will be able to perhaps conspire a way to inject a little vitality in this town - in my limited opportunity to do so. Now, however, I must be off. I am already quite late for an appointment."

His cousin looked to him askance. "Darcy, do you mean to tell me that you intend to leave me here, stranded, while you go scuttling about town? I tell you, I will not have it. I am quite at leisure today and thus free to accompany you both." With that, his cousin smiled blithely and opened the door to Darcy's carriage. He gestured for them to enter by bowing in an exaggerated, humble manner.

Mr. Bingley looked at his friend in alarm. It appeared he had been rendered quite mute.

"Normally, Fitzwilliam, I would not hesitate to accept your offer to accompany us but, you see, our business today is of a delicate and tedious nature." Darcy attempted to stall his cousin but could see that it was to no avail. "Surely, you would be bored to distraction."

"Perhaps. But accompanied boredom is infinitely better than a solitary one," his cousin returned cheerfully. He threw his arm around a stunned Mr. Bingley companionably. "I believe I shall join you and risk it."

Darcy was left with little to do but watch anxiously as his cousin and friend mounted the carriage. After letting out the moan he previously had suppressed, he instructed his driver to take them to his attorney's office. When he entered the carriage, he met with a probing look from his cousin.

"Buck up, Darcy! You look positively green! I hope your unease has not been caused by me joining you today. After all, am I not your most favorite relation?"

"Truly, Colonel, Darcy insists that you have earned that coveted position." Mr. Bingley returned with a small smile.

Darcy could not help but grimace wryly. "Yes, but correct me if I am wrong. Given the monotony of some of our relations, I do not have many other viable alternatives, have I?"

"There you go! I knew I could rouse your spirits! Why, look what good a few mere moments with me has done for you already!" As if they were engaged in a conspiracy, Fitzwilliam leaned over to him. "Now, tell me, what exactly is the reason for your hasty return? Apparently, Hertfordshire was nowhere near alluring enough for you. Still, remember cousin, "Society is no comfort to one not sociable."**

"I assure you, I was sociable enough. In fact, the place was constantly abuzz with a veritable whirlwind of social activity."

"Indeed it was, Colonel. I even hosted a ball at Netherfield. It was really quite delightful!"

"But, of course, you did not partake of any of it, eh Darcy?"

"Fitzwilliam, it would shock you, I am sure, to learn just how companionable I was," Mr. Darcy replied wryly and looked over at Bingley, who turned away from him uneasily.

"Now you are mistaken, Darcy. You forget, I know you quite well and am well aware of how pleasant your company can be, when the society pleases you. I take it then, you found some manner of diversion there?"

The longer the conversation continued in this vein, the more Darcy was certain that he would have to tell his cousin the horrible truth sooner than he had intended. His blasted cousin simply would not let him be!

"Yes. In fact, the society was so diverting, I could not help but become engaged."

Fitzwilliam looked at first at his cousin and then at Mr. Bingley in shock. He mockingly placed his hand upon his heart. "Excuse me? Engaged? You? You can hardly expect me to believe that, Darcy!"

"Believe it if you will. It is nevertheless true," Darcy returned evenly.

"Bingley, he is joking, surely." The Colonel looked at Bingley pleadingly. "I trust you not to partake in this - I grant you - horrendously delicious joke."

Bingley glanced at Mr. Darcy nervously. "It is no joke, I assure you, Colonel."

His cousin recovered from his shock, laughing as he patted him on the back heartily. "Why then, please let me the first among your relations to wish you joy! I suppose I always suspected you would beat me to the marriage altar. Well done!"

"Fitzwilliam, I wish I could accept your felicitation with pleasure. Alas, I cannot. I am afraid my upcoming marriage is not necessarily reason to celebrate."

"Not reason to celebrate? Whatever do you mean?" Colonel Fitzwilliam's countenance had once more regained its earlier skepticism. "Darcy, I must ask you to stop speaking such nonsense! I tell you, I do not have the head for it this morning."

"As I expected, you will not stop until I tell you all. It will, thankfully, have to be a brief tale as we will be arriving at my attorney's office in a matter of minutes." Darcy paused and breathed deeply. "I am engaged to a young lady named Elizabeth Bennet. I was forced to enter into this engagement because I, your foolish cousin, apparently abandoned all reason and was caught in a secluded wooded area alone with her." The Colonel looked as though he were about to interrupt him. As a means of circumventing him, he carried on his summary in a louder tone. "And, before you ask, the lady I am to marry is not well connected... or, rather, she was not before this incident."

"So then you are telling me she trapped you into this marriage! Shameful!"

"If it were as benign as that, I would have no reason to feel any shame as a result of the maliciously fabricated gossip that ensued because of our meeting." Darcy looked at his cousin carefully. "You see, my inquisitive cousin, I am entirely at fault here. The young lady asked me repeatedly to leave her, but I did not. There. You are now in possession of almost the entire repertoire of sordid details behind my sudden marriage."

"Darcy, surely you are joking! You must be - for I cannot fathom how you would have allowed yourself to behave so unspeakably!"

"Believe me, Fitzwilliam, nothing you say can possibly lead me to feel any more embarrassment than I do already. I am doing an excellent job of chastising myself over this situation. Bingley can confirm this for you, as he has had to contend with my mood for a few days now."

Fitzwilliam sat in stunned silence. Moments later, the carriage jerked and halted. Darcy peered outside and noticed they had reached their destination. Suddenly, the driver opened the door to allow the gentlemen to exit.

Outside, he turned to his bewildered cousin and noticed he had not mounted the steps leading to the door to his attorney's offices. "Fitzwilliam, will you not join us? You can now, you know. There is little left to hide, I assure you."

"Thank you, Darcy, but I believe I must refuse your generous offer. My shock and dismay may prove too much for your attorney. I will, however, await your arrival at my parents? townhouse later. You know me too well not to know I love a good show and this one promises to be spectacular! Good day, gentlemen!"

With that, his cousin departed, leaving him with a fierce desire to join him. Realizing again that fleeing from what awaited him was no longer an option, he resolutely entered the building after Bingley.

~ * ~

Two mornings later, Mr. Darcy deliberated the steady progress he had made. Yesterday, he met with Mr. Gardiner and, together, they worked out a fair settlement for Elizabeth. He even wrote to his sister, Georgiana, to inform her about his upcoming nuptials. But, he had yet to visit his aunt and uncle as he promised. He realized he must confront them soon, or they would read about his engagement in the Society pages and be deservedly angry.

As he sat in quiet reflection in his study, he considered Mr. Gardiner carefully. Darcy had been pleasantly surprised by the gentleman, to say the least. He had expected to meet with either a dry-humoured, older gentleman - much like Elizabeth's father - or a witless, silly man similar to his sister, Mrs. Bennet. Instead, the gentleman he met yesterday at his attorney's office was genial, clever and interested only in insuring Elizabeth receive a reasonable settlement. Darcy wondered if Mr. Gardiner had observed his surprise upon learning that he was, in fact, Mrs. Bennet's younger brother. He hoped he was able to hide his amazement successfully while in the gentleman's presence, but he doubted it nonetheless.

He responded to the knock on the door with an impatient, "Come in." He had explicitly told both Gilmore and Mrs. Graham that he was not to be disturbed this morning. Thus, this interruption was far from welcome.

"Excuse me, Mr. Darcy. Lord and Lady Matlock are here to see you. Colonel Fitzwilliam is accompanying them as well. I attempted to dissuade them from disturbing you, but they would not be swayed. I am sorry, sir," said Mr. Gilmore somewhat anxiously.

Trust my demmed relations to ignore the upturned door knocker announcing to all and sundry that I am not at home to visitors!

"I see. Show them in, Gilmore. Thank you."

Darcy had done everything in his power to avoid this meeting with his relations. He knew he had employed stall tactics and that, eventually, he would have to call upon them and reveal the shocking news about his imminent marriage. He hoped his cousin had not told his parents about the scandal. He had intended to delay the meeting for at least a day.

He heard his aunt's lament even before she entered the room. "Darcy! You absolutely must speak to your man, Gilmore! He had the audacity to request we wait in the foyer while he asked you if you would see us! Imagine! I simply will not tolerate such treatment at the hands of one of my nephew's servants."

"Good day to you all. Actually, Aunt, he was following my instructions. I did not anticipate your call and told him not to admit visitors. I am absolutely inundated with estate matters."

"Well, Darcy, for two days we have been awaiting your call to no avail. And, as they say, "If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain...,*** and so here we are." Lord Matlock's voice boomed his greeting.

Do they know? Has Fitzwilliam informed them about my scandalous marriage? Truly, I cannot gauge their reactions. He stole a glance at his cousin who returned it nonchalantly.

"Allow me to ring Mrs. Graham for some tea and refreshments."

"Well done, young man. I am quite famished, in fact." His uncle offered, patting his stomach.

"Tell me, Darcy, whatever are you doing in Town quite so early? Your uncle and I had assumed we would be quite alone here at this time of year. Yet, we are constantly surprised at the number of callers we have. It is all rather surprising."

"Quite. I myself was shocked to receive your letter. The tedium of the country held no charm for you, eh Darcy?" His uncle inquired blithely. His cousin attempted unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. His father turned to him questioningly. "Whatever is the matter, Fitzwilliam? Honestly, at moments such as this, I believe you are quite daft."

Darcy stopped glaring at his cousin and realized that it would do him no good at all to keep the entire truth from his relations any longer. His cousin's unrestrained glee as he looked at him in anticipation infuriated him. If he continued in this manner, his aunt and uncle's suspicions would reach desperate proportions.

"Actually, Uncle, Hertfordshire was rather tedious. I am glad to be home." He recognized he was being cowardly and knew he had to face the situation with conviction - perhaps even a feigned conviction would do in this instance. He turned to his cousin for inspiration. "Yet, this visit will end in a matter of days when I depart once more to return back to Hertfordshire?I am going to be married in a fortnight." Suddenly, the words tumbled out of his mouth before he could prevent them.

Mrs. Graham chose that moment to enter with tea and refreshments. She efficiently laid out the tray of cold meats, breads and fruits neatly. Yet, Darcy was more satisfied at the timely reprieve her entrance provided him, rather than at the delectable food she brought them. He scrutinized his relations briefly who sat in stunned silence.

After his housekeeper departed the room, his aunt was the first to recover. Even Fitzwilliam, who knew about the scandalous marriage, appeared shocked at his cousin's perfunctory announcement. "Married? Do I hear you correctly, nephew? You are to be married?"

"I am, Aunt."

"To whom? Am I to understand that you have been surreptitiously courting a young lady from Hertfordshire? And you never saw fit to inform us of your intentions? Us? Your nearest relations?" Lady Matlock fired her questions in quick succession. She sank into one of Mr. Darcy's armchairs with a huff. "Pardon me, Darcy, but this cannot please me!" She turned to her son suspiciously, "Did you know of this Fitzwilliam?"

"I learned of it only the day before yesterday, Mama, and did not wish to spoil Darcy's secret by revealing it. Darcy has obviously kept us all in the dark." Fitzwilliam could not keep the mirth out of his voice.

Mr. Darcy scowled at his cousin. Oh, that the man would learn to keep his badly timed sense of humour to himself!

"The lady I am engaged to is Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She is the daughter of a gentleman who owns a modest estate, Longbourn, which neighbours the manor that my friend, Mr. Bingley, recently leased in Hertfordshire."

Thus far, his uncle had remained perplexingly quiet upon hearing the news of his nephew's upcoming marriage. Darcy realized this was but a temporary reprieve that he would not maintain. Thus, he was fully expecting Lord Matlock's shocked irritation when it was finally unleashed a moment later.

"Good G-d, Darcy! Have you gone mad? What can you impart to me about the young lady?s family? Has she any relations here in London with whom I may be acquainted?"

Darcy's thoughts turned to Elizabeth's uncle. Although he was an intelligent and respectable gentleman, he had no doubt that his uncle would not know him.

"She has an uncle ... a Mr. Gardiner, who lives in Town. I would not imagine, however, that you have had occasion to make his acquaintance."

"Perhaps we do know him after all," his aunt replied. "We do spend a large amount of our time here and do not exactly live as cloistered hermits."

"My dear, I do not recall ever meeting a Mr. Gardiner. Do you?"

He interrupted their private t괥-୴괥, burning with humiliation. "Pardon me. You could not possibly know this particular gentleman. I understand he travels in vastly different circles than do we."

His uncle's expression assumed a look of sudden understanding. "And just how has this Mr. Gardiner come into his money, if you please?"

Fitzwilliam sat up suddenly, desperate not to miss a minute detail concerning his cousin's predicament. Darcy stared at him pointedly, beseeching him to relieve him of his parents' curiosity.

"He is in trade, Uncle."

"Excuse me? In trade? And this gentleman is to be your uncle? Have you lost your mind?" His aunt's litany of questions began once more.

Darcy was surprised to hear his cousin speak at last. Hopefully, he could circumvent his parents' anger with some appropriately selected humour.

"Darcy, this is too ridiculous! You? Engaged to the niece of a tradesman?" He sat back in his chair, grinning broadly. "Why, this just becomes curioser and curioser!"

Lord Matlock scowled with distaste. "Darcy, whatever has gotten into you? Why in the world would you offer matrimony to a young lady such as this Elizabeth Bennet? Has she charmed you into distraction?"

Painfully unable to conceal all of the horrible circumstances of the scandal any longer, Mr. Darcy spoke in as unaffected a manner as he possibly could. He did not stop until he had revealed the entire bitter episode to his aunt, uncle and, a now humourless, Fitzwilliam. He was sure to omit nothing, praying the truth would lead his relations to know he had behaved as honourably as possible despite the unfortunate events.

"Darcy, you cannot possibly marry this woman! You cannot! Think of the gossip that will nevertheless ensue once the world learns of the reason behind this union!" Lady Matlock uttered.

Yes, but the prattle will be so much more harmful if he does not, Mother." Mr. Darcy was relieved his cousin had come to his assistance at long last. "He truly has no other choice. Thus, marry her he must."

"Yes! Yes! Of course, he must marry her!" roared Lord Matlock. "But the marriage will appear ridiculous right from its start." He turned to his nephew menacingly. "If you were younger, Darcy, I cannot be sure that I would not take you over my knee and give you the spanking you so desperately warrant!"

Thank heavens I am older then, Uncle."

"Do not dare stand before us after imparting this... this... despicable news and mock us!" He raised his hand to silence his nephew who obviously meant to protest. "I would have thought you were wiser, Darcy, and far less vulnerable. Regrettably, I was horribly wrong in my assessment of your character. I expect you to see to it that our good name does not suffer as a result of your mistake, young man - or I shall never see you again!"

Uncle, please! Miss Bennet and I do not intend to defile either the Darcy nor the Fitzwilliam reputations with this marriage! Quite the opposite, in fact."

"As I said before, I expect no less from you, young man!" He stood up suddenly and looked directly at his wife. "Excuse me. I simply must leave now. I am afraid I have had quite my full of this social visit. I expect to see you upon your return to Town and to make the acquaintance of your wife, of course. In the meantime, we will reveal to no one the particulars you have relayed to me today." His uncle's voice was scathing.

"Must you leave filled with this much bitterness? Uncle, you can see I had little choice in the matter."

"Actually, Darcy, you had a great deal of choices," his aunt returned levelly before exiting his study. "You merely chose to overlook them. Good day, Darcy. Please call upon us when you are next in Town."

Fitzwilliam whistled in awe once his parents were no longer within hearing range. "Well, that went much better than I expected!"

"Pray, just what more did you expect? Did you think, perchance, that they would hurl blunt objects directly at my head? Perhaps you even imagined that pewter paperweight upon my desk would be their weapon of choice?"

"Actually, I did consider it but then I fathomed they would reach for the silver milk pitcher instead. After all, it was clearly in their reach." He responded with a serious face before breaking out into a laugh. Colonel Fitzwilliam's humour did nothing to coax his cousin out of his brooding annoyance. "Come now, Darcy. If they had truly decided not to accept your impending marriage, they would never have invited you and your future wife to call on them. Surely, despite your scepticism, you must know that. I believe they intend to show all who care to notice, that yours is a viable marriage, worthy of respect and merit regardless of the circumstances that led to it."

"It will indeed be a viable marriage, Fitzwilliam. I can assure you of that. Miss Bennet and I do not intend to cast aspersions upon ourselves or anyone associated with us."

"Good! Then there will be no problems that cannot be surmounted - until, of course, Lady Catherine learns of your engagement," Colonel Fitzwilliam replied slyly, paying no heed to his younger cousin's desperate moan that followed his words. Fitzwilliam scowled at his half-empty tea cup. "Darcy, enough of this tea! I, for one, would benefit immensely from some of your finest brandy in spite of the early hour of the day. After all, we have a forthcoming wedding to toast! Do we not?"

~ * ~

The days that followed in London did not afford him much time to consider his family's reaction to the news much further. For that - at least - he was grateful. Throughout this time, Bingley had consistently been an immense help and distraction to him and, not for the first time, he was glad he had asked him to accompany him on this journey.

Soon, he found himself back in the carriage. His return to Hertfordshire sprang fierce images of Elizabeth back into his mind. Throughout his time in London, whenever he was alone, he thought of her constantly. Somehow, and he did not know when or how it had happened, he no longer continually bemoaned his marriage to her. After all, if she would be willing to at least be subtle in her dislike of him while they were in public, theirs would appear a union much like that of his friends. On the surface, they would seem united and, thus, would likely earn the respect they deserved. He meant to see to it that they did. In private, they could tend to their own affairs and possibly avoid the incipient disagreements that were certain to spring between them by spending very little time together, other than at mealtimes.

It was possible... Still, he realized a workable relationship between them would require a great deal of effort on both their parts. He, for one, was not against the idea.

~ * ~

*Roxana is a novel by Daniel Defoe written in 1724 focusing on a young woman's moral decay and one who is ultimately destroyed by her avarice.

**This line comes from Shakespeare's Cymbelline IV, ii

***Surprisingly, I was unable to unearth the exact source of this popular proverb, but I know the story behind it well. Apparently, after three days of attempting to prove to his people that he was God's true messenger by moving a mountain using the power of his faith alone, Mohammed gave up and the mountain remained unmoved.

****This is, of course, a self-serving reference to Alice in Wonderland, one of the first books I recall ever reading on my own.

Chapter Eleven

While Mr. Darcy was in London, Elizabeth endured a very difficult week.

Her mother was incorrigible with her perpetual planning for their engagement fete and wedding breakfast. To the best of her recollection, never before had her mother demonstrated the stamina nor the desire to rise so early or go to bed so late. She approached this task with a determination Elizabeth would have been compelled to admire in her mother, had it not left her so terribly exasperated instead. Mrs. Bennet was clearly a woman on a tireless mission to host the most elaborate celebration Meryton had ever known. After Mr. Darcy's departure, Mrs. Bennet had initially sought Elizabeth's advice for each minute detail concerning the wedding parties. Upon sensing her daughter's reluctance to match her enthusiasm, Mrs. Bennet had pronounced her an ungrateful, disobedient girl and had largely seen to the remainder of the pre-wedding preparations on her own.

Elizabeth's visit to the Meryton dressmaker had done much to augment the prevailing tension that existed between her and Mrs. Bennet. Her mother insisted she purchase at least four fine dresses and fiercely debated with her regarding how exceptional her new garments should be. According to Mrs. Bennet, the future wife of the Master of Pemberley could not haphazardly cover herself in modest dresses made of cotton or other simple fabrics. No, her mother maintained her clothing should be elaborate, heavily beaded creations made of luxurious silks and accented with French lace. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was persistent in her refusal to concede to her mother's wishes and several heated debates amongst them ensued. Ultimately, the dressmaker helped them to come to a delicate compromise: Elizabeth selected two dresses which were unpretentious yet elegant and her mother chose two gowns for her which she believed were only slightly ornamental but would suffice.

Elizabeth did, however, carry her point when it came to the selection of her wedding dress. Once more, Mrs. Bennet could not fathom how her gown for the occasion could be anything other than extraordinary, but Elizabeth had been firm in her denial to heed her mother's wishes in this case. Instead, the gown she chose was a short-bodied, Empire dress, made of fine, cream colored muslin. Its bodice was reasonably fitted and a subtle, tambour diamond pattern graced the front and back of the gown. The sleeves of the dress were altered to fit her arms securely, while the gown's underskirt flared becomingly and was topped by a sheer, cream organza that shimmered pleasingly. Hoping to appease her mother, she selected a soft, white silk shawl with a handsome fringe to wear upon her shoulders. Nevertheless, Mrs. Bennet had cried in distressed mortification upon noticing that there was not a single bead anywhere to be found on the wedding dress and that the gown itself was not made of the finest Italian silk. As a means of soothing her mother's deprivation, Elizabeth permitted her to select her new undergarments and night clothes with more liberty than she otherwise would have been wont to give her. Afterwards, both ladies left the dressmaker not wholly satisfied, but not entirely displeased either.

Meanwhile, Jane and her father dispensed some useful protection to her and Elizabeth was thankful for their efforts. Mr. Bennet had granted her permission to join him in the sanctity of his study and even locked the door to ensure they were not disturbed. There, she lost herself in her father's collection of books or she merely sat in the luxury of quiet, solitary contemplation. On the other hand, Jane joined her in many long rambles, even though Elizabeth knew she did not wholly acquire gratification from the enterprise. During these jaunts, Jane did her best to help her sister see the necessity and the advantages of her forthcoming marriage, but Elizabeth remained rooted in her stubborn hesitation to see her fate as anything but favorable.

One day, she walked over to Lucas Lodge, expecting to find in Charlotte a collaborator for support in her misery. Yet, her friend, awash in preparations for her wedding the next month, offered her little encouragement. In Charlotte's practical opinion, Elizabeth had done very well by connecting herself to Mr. Darcy and she would not criticize the man regardless of what Elizabeth said to entice her. Elizabeth fumed wordlessly as she listened to Charlotte and Mrs. Lucas tell her that she should welcome her secure future with a grace she could never envision herself feeling. In the end, she left Lucas Lodge feeling even more stymied than she had upon first visiting there.

~ * ~

On the day Mr. Darcy was scheduled to return to Hertfordshire, Elizabeth suffered from a well-worn anxiety. He had written to her father to inform him that he had procured the special license and seen to the additional wedding preparations with relative ease. The finality of their situation appeared inevitable to her. Nevertheless, Elizabeth's disquiet regarding their future persisted. She could not credit that she would be married to the gentleman in a week or that she would leave Longbourn and possibly not return for an extended and indefinite period.

Fortunately, her frequent trips to London on her past visits to her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, had given her a limited awareness regarding what it would be like to reside there. However, the notion of living in Derbyshire at Pemberley offered her no security whatsoever. Elizabeth could not forget the tremendous responsibilities she would face as mistress of such a fine house. She wondered fearfully if she could ever be expected to successfully manage so many servants and the necessary obligations which would befall her when she became mistress. Additionally, she knew precious little about the region and her ignorance added to her list of growing worries.

From the sitting room, Elizabeth heard the sound of horse's hooves outside and looked alarmingly at Jane.

"Elizabeth, he is here. Are you well?"

"Jane, I do not believe I am prepared to see Mr. Darcy at this time. Perhaps you could inform him that I have taken to my room, hoping to recover from a headache and that I will meet with him tomorrow?"

"But, Lizzy, he is certain to know I am being duplicitous. Please do not ask me to do it!" Jane responded in a voice that was as anxious as her sister's. "Also, do you think that Mama will allow you to not see him? She will think it incredibly discourteous of you, as will he. I believe you must see him."

However, when Hill entered the sitting room, it was to inform the ladies that it was Mr. Wickham who had come to call upon them. Elizabeth felt herself almost collapse in deliverance. She looked at her sister and gave her a relieved smile. She had been saved - for the moment at least - from what she had been dreading since the day dawned. Jane instructed Hill to show Mr. Wickham in and returned Elizabeth's grin with a brief nod of her head.

"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth - how good it is to see you again!"

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him as he entered the room. "Good day, Mr. Wickham. It is a pleasure to have you visit us today."

"The pleasure is all mine, I believe." Mr. Wickham returned politely, glancing casually from one sister to the other. "In fact, I do not believe we have met since prior to the Netherfield ball which, regrettably, I was unable to attend. Last-minute business called me to London and, thus, I missed what my fellow officers refer to as an 'incredible evening filled with merriment aplenty'."

Elizabeth glanced at her sister guardedly. As she expected, the mention of the Netherfield ball had conspicuously reminded Jane of its host and she turned away from them to mask her vexation.

"Yes. The evening was indeed laced with many merry moments. But, it is also long past." Elizabeth attempted to deflect the conversation in an effort to relieve her sister's suffering. "Tell me, was your visit to London fruitful? Were you able to manage your business there successfully?"

Mr. Wickham settled himself into an armchair near Elizabeth. His response was accompanied by an open smile. "Yes... I suppose it was somewhat fruitful - but it too is also long past."

Elizabeth laughed. "And so it is. Touche."

"Do you expect to remain stationed in Meryton for much longer, Mr. Wickham?" Jane asked.

"That, Miss Bennet, is the very question I asked Colonel Forster this morning. Unfortunately, he was not able to give me a definite answer so, for the time being, Meryton will remain my home. Still, I cannot say I am wholly disappointed at the prospect of remaining here. It certainly is lovely country, filled with plenty of hospitable people."

"Thank you. We are pleased you are enjoying your time here." Jane smiled.

"Although," Mr. Wickham continued casting a sidelong glance at Elizabeth, "It is not without its problems, of course. Meddlesome gossips, I understand, reside here just as much as they do elsewhere."

Jane looked alarmingly at her sister but Elizabeth recovered herself quickly. "You are quite right, sir. And, I imagine, the gossip they disseminate is just as undisciplined here as it is anywhere."

"Indeed it is, Miss Elizabeth." Mr. Wickham hesitated only a moment before proceeding. "I do believe I have forgotten to offer my congratulations to you, madam."

Elizabeth burned with humiliation. It was not surprising that he had heard reports of the scandal and learned of her upcoming marriage. Yet, she had been encouraged by how the news of her marriage seemed to virtually stifle the disparaging innuendos that initially followed the report.

"Thank you, Mr. Wickham."

"Come, Miss Elizabeth! I offer my congratulations sincerely. You need not be discomfited by your forthcoming marriage." He said in a consoling tone. "My personal history with Mr. Darcy in no way detracts from you successfully securing your own future."

Elizabeth eyed him warily. "Please consider, however, that I did not intentionally set out to acquire for myself a secure future." After all, I would have much preferred a happy one.

"Of course - but is it not advantageous for you to have been granted one nevertheless?" Mr. Wickham's ready smile prevented Elizabeth from becoming offended at his words. She gave him a fleeting smile.

Following a few minutes of more agreeable conversation, Hill entered with the news that Mr. Darcy as well as Mr. Bingley had arrived and were requesting to see them. Elizabeth glanced at Mr. Wickham worriedly. His easiness was abruptly replaced with a detectable air of discomfort. Jane's sudden "Oh" upon hearing of the gentlemen's presence at Longbourn, only added to Elizabeth's anxiety. How would Mr. Darcy react upon discovering Mr. Wickham - man he clearly detested - had called upon them?

Fortunately perhaps, she did not have time to consider his possible response at length as Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley chose that second to enter the sitting room. They each greeted the ladies politely and seemingly did not at the outset recognize Mr. Wickham who was seated with his back to them. Yet, when Mr. Wickham rose from his seat and turned towards them uncertainly, Mr. Darcy's demeanor changed completely. His mouth formed a thin line of disgust and his back stiffened noticeably.

"Good day, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley." Mr. Wickham's voice caught and its modulation was flat as he addressed the gentlemen.

Mr. Bingley recovered from his shock much more speedily than did his friend and he was able to formulate a polite response to the man's greeting. Mr. Darcy, however, hesitated. His countenance assumed a blanched look and his mouth produced an unyielding, hard line. For a moment, Elizabeth feared he would not return Mr. Wickham's salutation and her apprehension was instantly replaced by a rising bitterness toward him. However, in the end, Mr. Darcy acknowledged him brusquely with a "Good morning".

Mr. Bingley chose to take a seat next to Jane while Mr. Darcy strode over to the window. Mr. Wickham's conversation became instantly deficient and Elizabeth wished she could in fact flee to the sanctuary of her room as she had originally suggested to Jane. She now truly felt the arrival of a headache of mammoth proportions, but her situation was such that she could not effortlessly escape from it.

After several minutes of awkward conversation, it became clear Mr. Wickham was attempting to formulate a polite means to depart from the uncomfortable predicament. He began shifting in his seat and Elizabeth noticed his eyes would often be drawn to Mr. Darcy's back. Then, as if struck by sudden inspiration, he hastily claimed he had an appointment to meet with Lieutenant Denny which had slipped his earlier notice. He excused himself and left without delay.

Once he was gone, Elizabeth remained oblivious as to what she should do next. To leave when Mr. Darcy had clearly come to see her was tempting, but she knew she could not be quite so abrupt and uncivil. She stole a glance over to Jane and Mr. Bingley who were carrying an awkward, but private, conversation across from her. She noticed her sister cast her eyes down to her hands folded in her lap and was responding to Mr. Bingley sketchily, yet she was not encouraging him in conversation. Mr. Bingley, meanwhile, was attempting to capture her attention, but his own unease was evidenced by the high colour in his cheeks.

Therefore, only one option remained open to Elizabeth and that was to engage Mr. Darcy in some manner of conversation. She looked toward him helplessly. Evidently, he was displeased. He continued to stand with his back to her, but he was clearly restless as he paced to and fro before the window. She could not, however, empathize with his discomfort for long. She had never pretended not to be a friend to Mr. Wickham and, although she was engaged to Mr. Darcy, she was not yet his wife, so he had no right to sternly forbid her to see him. Moreover, she could not simply refuse to admit him when he had been gracious enough to call on them. As she rationalized this further, she walked over to him unhurriedly.

"Mr. Darcy, welcome back." She noticed the immediate return of his unyielding back and his relentless pacing ceased the moment she reached his side. "My father relayed to me the news that you were able to accomplish all you set out to do in London."

He turned to regard her briefly before turning away from her again. "I was indeed. Thank you." His response was uninspired and dry.

"Good. Shall I ring for tea? Perhaps you and Mr. Bingley are hungry."

"No, thank you. I am fine."

His voice suddenly took on a bitter timbre. "Imagine, if you will, my surprise at finding Mr. Wickham here... no doubt entertaining my fiancee with exhilarating tales of his soldierly existence."

Elizabeth seethed at his gall to mock her but she managed to remain composed.

"Actually Mr. Darcy, we were quite surprised to see Mr. Wickham when he first called today. We have not seen him in quite some time." She hoped to pacify his obvious anger and move past this tenuous topic.

"Excuse me, madam, but I cannot help wishing he would have stayed away longer... His permanent absence would have been a blessing, I should think."

"For you, it is very likely it would have been," Her determination to be pleasant was evaporating quickly. "I, however, quite enjoy his society and was not disappointed to see him."

"Then I am sorry for you. I had wished you were better able to judge him for all that he is." He turned to her finally. "Happily, you likely will not be subjected to his presence once we leave here."

Elizabeth seethed. She made no further attempt to disguise her annoyance. "And just what is he, Mr. Darcy? Pray enlighten me for I am sure I do not know."

"I have no wish to recount my history with Mr. Wickham now, Miss Bennet. I only ask you to trust me in this." Mr. Darcy's countenance regained its austerity.

"Forgive me, when shall you be prepared to chat about it, sir? Someone once suggested to me that not discussing something that is distressing would surely consume me. Do you not think the advice is relevant in this case?"

Mr. Darcy sighed and chose not to respond. Elizabeth knew he recalled all too well his words to her on that fateful day in the forest when he was attempting to persuade her to discuss her worries. She realized she was being impertinent and was devastatingly close to bordering on rudeness, but she could not restrain herself.

Thankfully, Mr. Bennet's arrival in the room put a definitive end to their conversation.

"Gentlemen, Hill informed me that you had arrived. Welcome." Mr. Bennet greeted them cordially. "I believe we need to examine all that we have accomplished while you were away and plan for what still needs to be looked to. Will you not join me in my study?"

"Certainly, sir." Mr. Darcy appeared as eager to be gone as Elizabeth was to be rid of him. Without so much as a glance in her direction, he moved to exit the room.

"Elizabeth, I imagine you will want to accompany us. Come along."

"If you do not mind, Father, I will take this opportunity to continue packing." She managed a weak smile. "I am afraid I have not quite been as industrious as you and Mr. Darcy have in my efforts to prepare for the wedding."

She could not miss her father's scepticism as he gazed at her. She looked away, ashamed at being caught in a lie before her father. He paused briefly and opened his mouth as though he meant to speak, but then apparently decided against it. He shook his head while departing the room.

~ * ~

Elizabeth spent most of the remainder of the day determining what she should bring with her when she left Longbourn. She was thankful her mother had suggested Sarah, a servant, help her in this task. While she packed, Kitty and Lydia cyclically entered her room, pleading with her to leave a certain bonnet or reticule behind for them to keep. Generally, Elizabeth agreed to renounce them, aware that she would be soon receiving the new items that she had ordered. The entire experience remained surreal to her. She was cognizant of the fact that she was preparing to leave the only home she had ever known, but in the deep recesses of her mind she could not entirely believe it.

When the dinner bell sounded, she rushed downstairs in anticipation. She had not eaten a good breakfast and found she was quite famished. However, when she arrived in the dining room and espied Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley awaiting the ladies' arrival before sitting down, her hunger all but vanished. She had mistakenly believed Mr. Darcy had left Longbourn some time ago. She then realized now how unlikely it was that Mrs. Bennet would allow him to depart before sharing a meal with them. Clearly, he too was not pleased with the arrangement and looked at her almost apologetically.

As usual, dinner at the Bennet home was a noisy affair. From across the table, she detected Mr. Darcy's repeated alarm over some silly comment made by Lydia or Kitty. When Mary began to enumerate all the wisdom of Charlotte's decision to marry the respectable Mr. Collins, Elizabeth feared he would lose his composure. He exhaled loudly and otherwise feigned not to hear her, but she knew he was unenthusiastically attending to her every word and chastising her privately. Stubbornly, she willed herself to placate the shame she felt at her sisters' inability to quell their tongues.

After dinner, the gentlemen joined Mr. Bennet to partake of some whiskey Mr. Darcy had evidently brought from London as a gift for his future father-in-law. The ladies moved to the drawing room and either chose to read or embroider. When the gentlemen returned, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley claimed they could not stay for tea as they were still quite tired from their journey. Mrs. Bennet reluctantly excused them. Fortunately, her mother did not insist she once again escort Mr. Darcy to his carriage. Given their heated exchange earlier, she could not fathom how either she or Mr. Darcy would face the episode with any degree of civility.

That night alone in her room, Elizabeth considered Mr. Darcy's palpable dislike of Mr. Wickham. She thought it was further proof of his meanness to despise the man he had knowingly almost reduced to poverty. She did not fault Mr. Wickham at all for his unease in Mr. Darcy's presence. In fact, she wondered at his ability to withstand the injury he had done him with such fortitude. Had she been in Mr. Wickham's place, she would have never been able to face him with such equanimity.

At long last, she fell into a fitful sleep. The notion of a successful marriage to a man such as Mr. Darcy seemed more and more unlikely the closer her wedding date approached.

~ * ~

Two afternoons later saw the arrival of the Gardiner family to Longbourn. Elizabeth was beyond pleased to see them and especially looked forward to the time when she and her aunt would be afforded the opportunity to confer privately. Her Aunt Gardiner had always been a trusted friend to her and she knew that she could offer her practical guidance concerning her future marriage to Mr. Darcy.

Regrettably, her mother seemed every bit as eager to monopolize her aunt's time as did Elizabeth. In fact, immediately following a brief repast after their journey from London, Mrs. Bennet had announced she required her sister's counsel regarding some momentous wedding details and instantly squired her away possessively. Grudgingly, Elizabeth decided she best bide her time until her aunt could give her the attention and consideration she needed.

Fortunately, her aunt was liberated from Mrs. Bennet sooner than Elizabeth expected. While she was alone and diligently preparing rosewater to bring with her after her marriage, Elizabeth was pleased to find Mrs. Gardiner had come in search of her.

"Why Aunt - however did you escape? I imagined copious scenarios wherein I would have to seize you as a hostage before my mother would give you up."

Mrs. Gardiner smiled warmly at her niece. "Your mother is quite anxious about tending to every last detail regarding your wedding. I would imagine myself to be every bit as apprehensive as she is, were I in her place, so I cannot fault her."

"You Aunt? I cannot imagine you ever being quite so demanding." Elizabeth considered briefly as she filled the final bottle with rosewater. "Yet, she means well, Aunt. I must remember to never overlook that, regardless of how often she entices me to do just that." She rolled her eyes and laughed softly.

Her aunt weighed her niece's appearance closely as Elizabeth began to tighten the lids to the bottles she had filled. She had not seen her in nearly three months and was concerned about the image she presented to her today. Clearly, she had lost weight and the smiles she cast in her direction were lacklustre at best. Without even asking her, she knew the entire fiasco with Mr. Darcy was at the crux of what had been troubling her niece for some time now. Mrs. Gardiner and her husband were both surprised when Elizabeth herself did not write to them to express her sentiments regarding her forthcoming marriage. Yet, her father's letter did more than hint that this marriage had not been Elizabeth's choice and had arisen in an effort to divert the horrible gossip that burst upon Meryton upon hearing of her and Mr. Darcy's secluded meeting. She knew her niece too well not to know that she would be far from thrilled about her fate, but she had not been prepared to see her quite so unanimated.

"Allow me to help you, Elizabeth." Her aunt began to assist her by repositioning the tray of unused flowers onto a nearby wooden shelf.

"Thank you." Elizabeth stood and took stock of her work. "I suppose I shall have to content myself with only four bottles of scented water for I do not think Lydia or Kitty will forgive me should I make use of all the dried rose petals."

Mrs. Gardiner espied an opportunity to discuss the matter she most wanted with her niece and seized it instantly.

"Yes, but I suppose that in the near future you will consider rose-scented water quite plain after you have become accustomed to the provocatively fragrant lilac and lavender bushes in addition to the lush citrus fruits found at Pemberley."

"Perhaps, although rosewater will forever remind me of Longbourn. Thus, I do not presume I will ever abandon it completely." Elizabeth remarked tenderly as she wiped her hands on her apron and sat upon a stool.

"And are you very excited about the prospect of seeing Pemberley for yourself in the near future, my dear?"

"A little." Elizabeth admitted. "Miss Bingley has referred to it at length as a model of beauty and nobility. There is little wonder, then, that I am curious to see it for myself."

"Has Mr. Darcy not told you anything about it at all? Or about his home in London?"

"He has not." She did not meet her aunt's questioning gaze. "Of course, we have lately both been quite occupied and have not had much occasion to discuss much of anything. No matter. I will see it all for myself soon."

"Nonetheless, you do not appear to be excited about the chance to do so." Mrs. Gardiner hesitated momentarily. She moved to occupy the stool across the table from Elizabeth and fixed a loving gaze upon her. "Please allow me to speak to you frankly, Elizabeth. My affection for you will permit me to do no less. What is it you are truly feeling about the sudden marriage you will enter in little more than three days? No doubt, you are anxious and conceivably a bit daunted by the entire notion."

"Given the wealth and position of the man I am about to marry, who would not be nervous?"

"But I am not referring to the prestige of the man who will be your husband. Your apprehension, I believe, stems from significantly more than that, Elizabeth." Her niece did not respond but instead fixed her with a look that was inscrutable. "Forgive me, but I have learned of the reason leading to your marriage from your mother and I cannot be pleased. Still, I was encouraged by the fact that you are as judicious as you are spirited and I had hoped that you would soon come to accept your fate."

"I have accepted it, Aunt. Truly, I am not fighting against it any longer."

"Yes, but how do you feel about it, dear? I would hate to think your reaction to your imminent marriage would be only unfettered acquiescence. If that is all you feel, you will - neither of you ever be truly happy.

Elizabeth was by no means immune to the compassion her aunt was showing her. Mrs. Gardiner's words spoke of a genuine concern and, thus far, only her father and Jane had attempted to truly ease her disquietude. She felt the pressing sting of tears in her eyes and, suddenly, she could not control them. Her aunt moved to her side immediately and embraced her warmly.

"Cry, my dear. Cry. Do not be afraid to reveal your emotions to me, for I believe this is just what you need."

"I feel horribly stuck in my misery. You must think me a cheerless wretch."

"Not at all." Her aunt responded with a kind smile. "I much prefer to think you a terribly afflicted one."

Elizabeth offered her aunt a tentative smile amidst her tears. "For that, I thank you."

"Have you and Mr. Darcy at all spoken of what your life will be like after you are wed?"

"No. We do precious little other than argue when we are together - which is not often. I have not seen him in almost two days."

"Two days? Your mother has informed me that he is at Netherfield. Has he not come to call upon you?"

"He did... when he first arrived from London. He arrived to find Mr. Wickham here and was consequently struck by such a black mood, we could do little but quarrel. We have not spoken since. I understand, however, he has written to my father that he and the Netherfield party mean to visit today."

"Are you surprised by his distressed reaction to Mr. Wickham's presence? You alluded briefly in your letters to me that theirs has been a troubled history."

Elizabeth wiped her eyes and faced her aunt with an evident petulance. "If it is troubled, it has become so only because of Mr. Darcy's malevolence. I am sorry, Aunt, but I cannot find fault with the other gentleman."

"Yet, you experience no difficulty amassing blame upon Mr. Darcy, who is to be your spouse?" Her aunt shook her head in a disapproving manner. "I believe I cannot sanction your willingness to favor Mr. Wickham at the expense of your fiance. Mr. Darcy deserves much more from you, I should think."

"I do not favor Mr. Wickham, but I cannot easily overlook the injustice he has suffered at Mr. Darcy's hands. Moreover, he has been steadfastly arrogant in the presence of everyone here in Hertfordshire."

"You must learn to overlook it, Elizabeth. Your future happiness depends upon it. Mr. Wickham and his misfortunes must be forgotten and you must come to see your future husband in a more forgiving manner."

"Aunt, I shall have no trouble forgetting Mr. Wickham. Trust me on that score. And I promise you - I shall struggle daily to detect goodness in Mr. Darcy, for your sake alone." Elizabeth smiled thinly.

"Do it for your own sake, Elizabeth, and I shall be all the more happy."

The sound of a carriage arriving alerted the ladies to the fact that the Netherfield party had arrived. Miss Bingley's muffled cries outside Longbourn as she lamented her creased coat and dress were detectable to both Elizabeth and her aunt although they were well within the confines of the small Longbourn hothouse. The ladies looked to one another and smiled companionably.

"Shall I introduce you to the esteemed personages from Netherfield now, Aunt? Although, I would not blame you if you would rather bolt away hurriedly."

Mrs. Gardiner laughed delicately. "Not at all. I look forward to knowing them. Let me look at you, Elizabeth." She turned Elizabeth toward her so she was facing her. She used her cloth to gently wipe away any trace of tears on Elizabeth's face. "There now! I defy anyone to note you have been crying. After all, we cannot allow your fianc頴o think your aunt's presence has reduced you to tears. He may never permit you to see me again once you are in London and I look forward to many visits from you."

Elizabeth sighed in relief. She had been right - her aunt's presence had done much to make her situation appear less wearisome and bleak. "Take care, Aunt," Elizabeth responded cheekily, linking arms with her. "When I am in London, I am certain to plague you mercilessly and then you will be sorry you wished for my presence in the first place."

~ * ~

By the time Elizabeth and her aunt arrived in the sitting room, the Netherfield party had been welcomed and were already scattered in various locations throughout the small room. The gentlemen appeared to be chatting amicably in armchairs located near the fireplace, while Mrs. Bennet was seated on the loveseat, struggling to find any means of appeasing the already-bored ladies from Netherfield. Elizabeth scanned the room speedily and discovered that Mr. Hurst was customarily sitting alone, but he had no doubt arranged that his privacy afforded him easy access to the tea things that had been laid out just prior to his arrival.

After introducing her aunt to Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst briefly, Elizabeth gently led her aunt over to where the gentlemen were sitting. She appreciated her aunt's desire to make Mr. Darcy's acquaintance and sought to initiate the overture. When they reached their destination, the gentlemen immediately arose and bowed slightly in acknowledgement of their presence.

"Good afternoon. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, my aunt wishes to meet you both."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Bingley was the first to respond. He flashed an eager smile at both Elizabeth and her aunt. "It would be a pleasure."

"Aunt, allow me to introduce to you Mr. Bingley. He is the gentlemen currently leasing Netherfield. Mr. Bingley, this is my Aunt Gardiner who has just arrived from London." Mr. Bingley lost no time in expressing his pleasure over the introduction. Elizabeth waited patiently for their mutual delight to subside before turning towards Mr. Darcy.

"Mr. Darcy, this is Mrs. Madeline Gardiner, who is married to my Uncle Gardiner. I understand you recently met him while you were in London." Mr. Darcy's gaze shifted from Elizabeth to her aunt. She was pleased to detect a small smile forming upon his visage. "Aunt, this is Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, my future... husband." The word felt strange upon her tongue as she really had not yet allowed herself to think of him as such. She wondered if it would come easier for her now that she had uttered it. Husband.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, madam. I did indeed meet Mr. Gardiner while I was in London. He has just informed me that you originally hail from Lambton."

Warmth immediately sprang into her aunt's eyes upon hearing mention of her beloved childhood home. She laughed softly. "I do indeed, sir. As you know, that tiny village is situated quite near to Pemberley. Thus, I am familiar with your home as well. Do you miss Derbyshire as much as I do when you are away from it?"

"Certainly. Who could know of the beauties of the region and not miss it?"

Elizabeth watched this pleasant exchange in awe. Never before had she observed this easy mode of conversation coming from Mr. Darcy. She continued to behold the scene in silence while marveling at her aunt's capacity to turn even the most reluctant talker into an almost eloquent conversationalist.

"And is your family still at Pemberley?"

"My immediate family consists only of a sister. To answer your question, my sister was at Pemberley but, upon learning of my pending marriage, she has traveled to London with her companion, Mrs. Annesley. There, they will meet my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and then they will journey here together to attend the wedding."

"Delightful!" Mrs. Gardiner returned. "I shall look forward to making her acquaintance as well."

To suggest Elizabeth felt shock at the news that members of Mr. Darcy's family would be attending their wedding would be to do an injustice to the tumult she experienced upon learning of it. She had never imagined any of his relations would come to see them marry. In fact, he had suggested they would not be present before he departed for London. Elizabeth noted Mr. Darcy's observance of her and attempted to withhold her surprise from his critical gaze.

"Please excuse us, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth paused while her aunt politely took her leave of the gentleman and then led her to a chaise in the area where the other ladies had gathered. She waited for her aunt to join their conversation, determined to privately mull over the news that Mr. Darcy had just imparted to her. However, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley appeared intent to have her enter into their discourse.

"Miss Elizabeth, I neglected to offer my congratulations to you earlier on your forthcoming marriage. Please excuse me." The words from Mrs. Hurst were kind, yet her face held a wry, doubtful look.

"Of course you are quite right, Louisa. I am afraid I also have not yet extended to you my hope for a felicitous future for both you and Mr. Darcy." Miss Bingley's face did not wear a smile as she spoke and Elizabeth found herself slightly grateful she did not attempt to entirely disguise her true sentiments. "I presume you are quite excited about assuming your new position as Mr. Darcy's wife."

Although not being of a mind to continue this false exhibit of social niceties, Elizabeth nevertheless felt the need to respond. She summoned her resolve and steeled herself to brave the Bingley sisters' curiosity and personal criticism of her. She knew that she could do little to alter the low opinion they both had already formed of her, but she was determined to provide them with as little fuel as possible to sustain it.

"In fact, I am. I am quite anxious to take my place at Pemberley, a place you have both described so compellingly." She took a small degree of pleasure in the fact that she, thus far, had not equivocated.

"I imagine you are indeed excited! After all, who would not be willing to move onto something greater? Longbourn is... charming, of course, but you will soon find nothing will compare to the natural magnificence of Mr. Darcy's ancestral home."

Elizabeth was surprised to find she could feel no true umbrage at Miss Bingley's words and instead accepted them as truth. While she was certain she would forever regard Longbourn with the same affection as she did currently, she was not naﶥ enough to believe it could ever compare to the splendor of Mr. Darcy's estate.

Before she could respond to Miss Bingley, she sensed Mr. Darcy's appearance at her side. She looked up to him guardedly.

"Excuse me, Miss Bennet. Your father has graciously allowed me the use of his library for a few moments. Would you be so kind as to join me so we can further our plans for the journey to London?"

"Of course." Elizabeth was shocked yet again by Mr. Darcy. That he would request a private audience with her was quite incredible. She turned to the ladies politely. "Excuse me, please."

Mr. Darcy allowed her to lead him to the small library, but he proceeded to leave the door ajar for propriety's sake once they were ensconced within. Walking past her, he stopped before Mr. Bennet's collection of poetry and began examining them.

"Is there something you wish to discuss with me, sir?"

"No. Nothing in particular." He bent down to monitor the texts more closely. "I observed your discussion with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, and even from a distance, I could tell it was not a wholly satisfying experience. I imagined you required a way out of it, so I devised this plan to assist you. I hope you are not angry at my presumption."

"I am not angry, but I am surprised. I had not noticed you observing us." She could not deny her astonishment to him. That he would deliberately attempt to remove her from a situation that was unpleasant, she would never have considered possible in the past. Of course, that may be because he was always before the primary reason for my discomfiture whenever he was present.

"I was actually surveying the room when I noticed you."

"I see." Elizabeth looked away, feeling suddenly foolish for suggesting he would be looking at her in particular. "Tell me, Mr. Darcy, why did you not inform me your relations would be attending the wedding when you last called upon us?"

He made his way over to an armchair and sat down. "I am afraid it quite escaped my notice once we began discussing other matters that were not germane to it."

Wanting desperately to avoid another argument between them, she chose not to encourage his anger regarding finding Mr. Wickham at Longbourn when he returned from Town.

"In spite of that, there were opportunities for you to mention it later - at dinner perhaps. I would have liked to have known and not merely learned of it by means of a conversation you had with my aunt." Elizabeth did not mean to appear resentful, yet she had previously been denied the opportunity to privately consider the news of his relations' imminent coming. Regardless of their troubled relationship, she felt the sting of his intentional attempt to keep their arrival from her.

For the first time since they had entered the library, Mr. Darcy turned to behold her. "Really? Actually, I did not imagine you minded one way or another."

"Mr. Darcy, please! It is not altogether unusual to wonder about one's wedding guests. It really is not so bizarre a concept." Slowly, as it always did whenever they were together, Elizabeth's ire began to rise.

"No. It is not a bizarre concept at all. Nevertheless, you have barely had two words to say to me since this incident has arisen that have not been laced with anger or resentment." Elizabeth looked away from him quickly. "You will pardon me then, for misjudging the level of your interest by considering it in the most negative vein."

It was pointless. They were absolutely unable to remain together without further acrimony arising between them.

"Mr. Darcy, I believe I can securely return to the sitting room at this point. Thank you once again for providing me with an escape from your friend's sisters, but I imagine I am quite safe now." Elizabeth crossed the short distance to the door of the library.

"Miss Bennet, please wait." Mr. Darcy stood and walked toward her. "Now that you are here and we are in private, I should like to relay to you some critical information, after all. I do not imagine there will be time for us to gather privately in the coming days."

"Sir?"

He placed a hand upon her elbow and ushered her toward a chair. Once she was seated, he took the chair opposite her. "Madam, we have not had the opportunity to discuss our marriage in private. You are far too wise, I think, not to ascertain that our lives will change permanently following our union."

"My life has already changed, Mr. Darcy."

"And so has my own. Yet, there are certain expectations... for both you and I, which we will need to meet if we desire to keep prying eyes from questioning the integrity of our marriage."

"What are you suggesting, sir? I am afraid I do not understand you."

"Surely, you appreciate that a man in my position unfortunately is often a target of public interest. You may expect the same attention once you are my wife." Elizabeth looked at him questioningly as he regarded her with unmasked frustration. "Miss Bennet, it would not do for anyone to speculate on the nature of our marriage. It would do neither of us credit."

"Mr. Darcy, do you imagine that I will air our private grievances in public?" She was stunned that he would believe she would willingly subject them to open ridicule.

"I am merely suggesting that we must appear to others very much united and not rouse any further speculation. Madam, please understand my family will not stand for any degradation of our reputation. I join them in this. We must, at all costs, not cause shame to come to my family."

"And my family, Mr. Darcy? Does my family's good name not deserve the same consideration? Is that not why I am required to marry you in the first place?"

Mr. Darcy sank back against the cushions of the chair. "Of course. If we maintain the semblance of a respectable union, both of our families will not suffer."

"Pardon me, but does that mean that in private we can argue as much as we see fit?"

"Miss Bennet, I would hope that once we are married, our arguments would be kept to a minimum. I assure you, I do not intend to provoke your choler - either publicly or while we are alone."

"Come now, Mr. Darcy. Do you suppose for a minute two contrasting characters such as our own can ever live harmoniously?" She watched in secret pleasure as he shifted slightly in his seat. She was satisfied that she had managed to assume control of a conversation that had previously rendered her powerless. "Earlier, you called me wise and now I find myself in a position to return the compliment. You, sir, are far too wise to expect a congenial equanimity to be a natural consequence of our wedded state."

Mr. Darcy rose from his seat and stood before her. "Madam, I am merely attempting to clarify for you the need for us to keep up appearances and not allow our private quarrels to enter the public realm." He paused briefly, waiting for her to respond.

She rose and faced him as a means of signalling to him she was not in any way unsettled by him. "Thank you for the warning, sir. But, truly, it was not necessary. I will be ever the dutiful wife in company of your friends and family, but please do not attempt to instruct me while we are in private. You would do well to remember that I do not take kindly to orders and commands, sir."

Elizabeth walked to the door of the library and, this time, Mr. Darcy did not attempt to stop her.

When he rejoined the company in the sitting room, Elizabeth purposely avoided meeting his gaze although she regularly sensed his pointed stare turned in her direction. Throughout the evening, whenever attention was called to them or to their wedding, she made every attempt to ignore it or casually amended the conversation.

Nonetheless, it was now a mere three days before their wedding - a fact neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Darcy could ignore.

~ * ~

As she settled in to sleep on the eve of her wedding, Elizabeth wondered at how quickly the last few days had passed. She had anticipated this period would appear interminable - and in many ways she had been correct... yet, in retrospect, it now all seemed a hopeless whirlwind of activity and preoccupation.

Over the past three days she had spent very little time with Mr. Darcy. Although he had visited Longbourn daily, the bustle that pervaded the house did not allow them to meet privately or to sustain any meaningful conversations. Any dialogue they had shared was based on rudimentary arrangements regarding the wedding and had been in the presence of others.

Yesterday, his cousin and sister had accompanied him and Elizabeth was pleased to make their acquaintance. Colonel Fitzwilliam was everything delightful and Elizabeth was well inclined to like him immediately. He made several deliberate attempts to engage her in conversation and soon they struck up an easy acquaintance. Mr. Darcy's sister, Georgiana, had been rather more difficult for Elizabeth to read initially. Miss Darcy was clearly overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the Bennet household, which had been rendered even more boisterous by the coming wedding. In spite of her hesitation, Elizabeth was able to finally discern that Georgiana's indecision and her apparent reluctance to join in conversation stemmed from her unremitting timidity. Accordingly, in an attempt to relieve her future sister's anxiety, Elizabeth suggested that Georgiana accompany her to her bedchamber as the servants began to load her belongings onto the Darcy carriage. Once they were alone, Miss Darcy was by no means overly loquacious, but she made an effort to describe what Elizabeth might expect from their London townhouse and at Pemberley. Try as she might, she was not able to detect any of the proud vanity Mr. Wickham had charged her with. She was pleased to learn that Georgiana's shyness was perhaps an obstacle that she could overcome as they grew to know one another better.

The engagement gathering Mrs. Bennet had hosted that evening had been well attended. Far from intimate, as Mr. Darcy had suggested, it drew virtually all of Meryton. The regiment had come as well, but Mr. Wickham had opted to remain conspicuously absent. Elizabeth found herself the object of much attention and she smiled and charmed her way through the evening. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, provoked even more curiosity than did his future wife, but he remained rather aloof and, accordingly, the majority of their guests had kept their distance. Still, he had made an attempt to be more open than was his custom and she was not unaware of the unpleasantness that must have caused him. Elizabeth watched secretly as he spoke to Sir William and braved Mrs. Kane's wry congratulations with an expression that revealed nothing of the contempt he held for her. However, the remainder of the evening he spent with his relations.

There had been one time, however, while Elizabeth was talking to Lady Lucas that she noticed his unexpected presence at her side. When she looked up to him, she was surprised to see his mouth held a slight smile and that he appeared to be attempting to follow their conversation. After Lady Lucas departed from them and moved to speak to another neighbour, he remained next to her - unsmiling - for a few moments before he left to join the rest of the Netherfield party. Elizabeth was tempted to follow him and imitate his recent behaviour, but she resisted the impulse to do so and moved instead towards her mother who was speaking to Charlotte.

Now in her bedroom and feeling suddenly warm, Elizabeth kicked off her bed sheets and rolled over onto her back. Her wedding was tomorrow and yet she was no closer to feeling any degree of ease over this transition in her life. She sat up and attempted to study her bedchamber in spite of the pervading darkness. She noted her dressing table was now bereft of the mounds of the combs, pins and brushes that were generally heaped upon it. She knew the only remaining items on the table were the things Sarah would need to fix her hair tomorrow. Her closet was shut, but she knew the clothes that had hung there previously had been taken to Mr. Darcy's home in London. She fell back against her pillows in distress: could any other bedchamber - regardless of how grand it was - ever lead her to the sense of security and comfort this one inspired in her? She very much doubted it.

She was not of a mind to sleep in spite of her mother's explicit hints that she would need her rest for the day - and night - which followed this one. She had been tempted to laugh out loud as her mother had furtively suggested she and Mr. Darcy would share a bed together on the night of their wedding. Once again, her mother's inadequate powers of perception had stunned her. Thankfully, Mr. Darcy had been well out of earshot and, thus, had not overheard her mother during this conversation. He would have no doubt mocked Mrs. Bennet mercilessly later if he had.

Suddenly, Elizabeth observed her wedding dress hanging on one of the wall hooks. She could not make it out clearly in the moonlight, yet she felt a shiver of pleasure overcome her at the fact that she had held fast to her decision to select the gown she wanted to wear for her wedding. She knew it was beautiful in its simplicity and that it did much for her figure. The relief she felt at having had the opportunity to control what she wore to her wedding in no way delighted her to the extent it would have if she had been able to have some influence in who she was marrying. Still, she had exercised some power and, thus, could not be absolutely displeased.

She tried desperately to rid her mind of these annoying thoughts and resolved to lie still and rest. The next day would be progressively more insufferable if she met it feeling weary and agitated. She shut her eyes tightly and forced herself to consider anything other than what awaited her in the future.

Chapter Twelve

To Mr. Darcy, the Longbourn chapel seemed entirely too full.

He understood that his engagement had created an uproar in Hertfordshire, but he could not credit that quite so many curious onlookers would attend to watch as he and Miss Elizabeth Bennet were joined in matrimony. He groaned. They had come to witness the spectacle and no doubt his boastful future mother-in-law had encouraged their participation in it.

Mr. Darcy adjusted his new waistcoat uncomfortably. While he had been in London, his cousin, Fitzwilliam, had accompanied him to his tailor's where he had been fitted for his wedding clothes. In the past, he had always been a man who prided himself on looking well and generally found he quite enjoyed selecting new garments. Yet, on that particular occasion, he was inundated by such profound unease he had not much benefited from the experience. When the tailor suggested he wear a white pique waistcoat with a blue, double breasted coat and matching trousers to his wedding, Mr. Darcy had agreed with him readily, desperate to be away from the tailor's shop.

Now, as he waited for the arrival of his soon-to-be bride, he realized how improvident his former perpetual angst concerning the wedding had been. As soon as he learned of the manner in which the scandal regarding he and Elizabeth was disseminated, he had known he would end up here - in a chapel awaiting her arrival. Darcy had tried to fight against it, railing against the possibility. He had spent countless hours praying that there could have been some other means rather than to marry this woman who gallingly intrigued him and yet regarded him with such a flagrant hostility. In the end, all his worries had been senseless. He himself had sealed his own destiny when he deliberately threw prudence aside and pursued Elizabeth into the wooded area just over a fortnight ago.

A sudden bustle called his attention to the back of the church. Through the now open doors, he noticed the carriage had arrived and that Mr. Bennet was tentatively stepping outside of it.

The time had come. The ceremony was to begin.

He braved one last glance in the direction of his sister who smiled at him in anticipation and turned to face the altar. He said one last silent prayer asking for the fortitude he knew he would need.

~ * ~

The very first thing Elizabeth noticed upon entering the chapel that morning was the myriad of ladies' hats that were peppered throughout the crowded pews.

Everywhere, there seemed to be headdresses bedecked with lace, dried flowers or feathers. For a moment, the striking array of coloured hats captivated Elizabeth, and she lost herself in the vibrancy of the image they presented. Then, her father's arm taking her elbow transported her back to the moment. She noticed her neighbours and friends anxiously peering at her with impatience. She saw Jane turn to her slowly and smile hopefully before she began her walk slowly down the aisle to a beaming Mr. Bingley and then, inevitably, she saw Mr. Darcy's back.

He was facing the altar.

Mr. Bennet looked at his daughter cautiously and tilted his head forward to suggest she best begin walking. Almost as if it were happening to someone else, Elizabeth felt her feet propel her forward and she began the walk toward her groom. Mr. Darcy remained with his back turned away until she reached half way down the aisle. At that point, he looked over his shoulder and caught her eye. His look told her nothing of the apprehension he felt that morning - all she read in his eye was a disinclination of what was soon to come.

Upon reaching the altar, Elizabeth felt her father release her arm and indicate to her that she should move closer to her fiancé. She managed to do this without meeting Mr. Darcy's gaze. In her heart, she believed time would stop then and was therefore surprised to hear Reverend White begin to speak. Even now, she could not fathom how she and Mr. Darcy had agreed to let their predicament come to that moment.

"...and the first miracle that He wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of St. Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God..."*

Elizabeth sensed Mr. Darcy's posture stiffen. She knew him well enough to discern that he was affected by the Minister's words regarding the solemnity of marriage. She briefly wondered if he was feeling guilty, marrying her only because he must and not for the reasons "for which Marriage was ordained." She herself felt virtually awash with remorse.

She speculated if the people witnessing the marriage ceremony were surreptitiously contemplating what a profane picture they presented. Rather than two people who were preparing to pledge their devotion before God, here were two people who had no love for one another whatsoever and were marrying simply to protect their good names. Elizabeth would have dearly loved to turn around and weigh their reactions, but, alas, she could not do so without it appearing peculiar. The image which sprang in her head of the Reverend being forced to abruptly halt the ceremony as she turned to scrutinize the congregation, caused her to stifle a barely-audible giggle. Mr. Darcy heard the mirth escape her lips and subtly turned to her with raised eyebrows. At the sight of his quizzical expression, Elizabeth's smile vanished. He inhaled noticeably before turning his attention back to the ceremony.

Suddenly - altogether too soon it seemed - it was time to cite the wedding vows. Elizabeth sensed the anticipation in the audience and in Mr. Darcy, who appeared to be impatiently tugging at his waistcoat. The Minister instructed them to face one another. Once again, Elizabeth felt herself move instinctively.

"Fitzwilliam Darcy, wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Wife, to live together after God's holy ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?"

Mr. Darcy turned to Elizabeth and responded with an even, "I will."

Reverend White then turned to Elizabeth and graced her with a benevolent smile.

"Elizabeth Anne Bennet, wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?"

For a fleeting moment, Elizabeth was tempted to simply not reply. She allowed herself the brief moment it took to envision Mr. Darcy's chagrin if she gave into the impulse. She could not deny that the very notion of not agreeing to accept him as her husband provided her with a modicum of pleasure. Yet, even as she was picturing his reaction, she sensed Georgiana's inquiring gaze upon her. When she looked over to her quickly, Elizabeth saw she was awaiting her reply edgily. She wondered just how much she knew of the shameful circumstances that had led them to this sudden marriage.

"I do," she managed weakly. She looked away, refusing to meet Mr. Darcy's piercing stare.

Surprisingly, the pledges to honour and cherish one another which followed were relatively easy for them both. Mr. Darcy's oath was given in a deep timbre that revealed no emotion, but she noticed he blinked more often than was his wont as he repeated the words Reverend White provided for him. On the other hand, Elizabeth had expected her voice to catch several times as she uttered her vows, yet her tone remained remarkably steady throughout. When they were over, each of them regarded one another with something akin to fascination.

When the time came for Mr. Darcy to place a ring upon her finger, Elizabeth experienced a momentary panic. He had never mentioned procuring a wedding band for her. Surely, he had not done so while he was in London tending to the many other matters regarding their marriage. He had forgotten and, thus, their marriage would be exposed for the artificial sham that it was. She cast her eyes down to her satin slippers, hoping the minister would interpret this as a sign that they were not in possession of the necessary wedding band. Elizabeth vaguely recalled reading of a time when a church key had been used in lieu of a wedding ring and thought she would die of mortification if she were faced with that alternative.**

Thus, when she noticed Mr. Bingley stepping forward to give him a ring, she was truly astonished. She watched as Mr. Darcy placed the band upon the Bible and then waited for Reverend White to return the ring to him and instruct him to place it on the fourth finger of her left hand. She was further taken aback by Mr. Darcy's passing smile as he placed it on her finger.

No doubt he is enjoying my unmistakable surprise! He deliberately chose not to inform me of the fact that he had procured a ring merely to delight in my evident distress. Clearly, the audacity of this man knows no bounds!

She instantly knew she was thinking vengefully and attempted to circumvent her temper and attend to the rest of the ceremony with due diligence. When Reverend White joined their hands, and later pronounced them Man and Wife before the congregation, Elizabeth felt Mr. Darcy's intense gaze and met his look with an indifference she did not feel. In response, he gently released his hold of her hands, but his eyes looked as if they burned.

The remainder of the ceremony left a vague impression on Elizabeth. She certainly heard the reverend's blessings and his feeling recital of the Beati Omnes Psalm 128. When the time came to recite the Lord's Prayer, she did so unthinkingly. In spite of the haze that seemed to saturate the church, Elizabeth overheard the words of St. Paul instructing husbands to love and treasure their wives as they did themselves and to mysteriously become one flesh with them. She also listened to the minister speak of the blessed apostle's belief that wives should faithfully revere their husbands. Self-consciously, the bride and the groom averted meeting one another's eyes during this portion of the ceremony.

As they later wrote their names in the vestry, Elizabeth felt not a little sad as she signed her given name for the last time. They did not look at each other again until after Reverend White announced the ceremony was over and then the gazes they directed toward the other were laden with a mixture of resignation and uncertainty.

"You may now make your way outside, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy." The curate's voice was kind, but Elizabeth could not help but startle at the appellation. Mrs. Darcy, indeed. She did not know if she should laugh hysterically or weep miserably.

"Thank you, Reverend." Mr. Darcy responded benignly, extending his elbow for Elizabeth to take. She felt herself mindlessly place her hand in the crook of his arm and once again was propelled to move.

~ * ~

As he marched up the aisle, a curious serenity settled over Mr. Darcy. It was over - he was now married and, in the end, he felt rather proud of his ability to withstand the ordeal. As they walked up the aisle, he noticed Elizabeth nodding and smiling graciously to her friends and neighbours. He appreciated the tremendous effort it took to appear as if she were a real blushing bride. Almost instinctively, he slightly shifted the position of his arm over her hand and watched her; with a small sigh she was brought back to face their true circumstances.

Outside in the open air, Mr. Darcy looked at Elizabeth casually.

"And so - it is done." His voice was wooden even to his own ears.

"Yes." She responded to him in a tone that was just as stilted as his own.

Almost instantly, they were besieged by well wishers who crowded them and loudly proclaimed their congratulations exuberantly.

Hastily, he ushered Elizabeth into the fashionable Landau carriage*** that awaited them. The hoods were extended to cover them, yet he lost no time grasping the woollen blanket on the opposite seat and instructing her to cover her legs if she felt chilled. He spotted Elizabeth admiring the fine equipage with a wonder she was not entirely successful in hiding from his watchful eyes. Judging from the shocked expressions upon the faces of their wedding guests, she was not alone in her wonderment. He allowed himself to be pleased that he had thought to ride in it for this momentous occasion after all.

The short ride to Longbourn for the wedding breakfast was a silent one as well. He did not speak and instead spent his time taking in the passing scenery. Elizabeth, meanwhile, sat ramrod straight upon her seat, as though she were rendered mute by the enormity of what had just happened to her.

Invariably, his mind wandered to the wedding ceremony. Surprisingly, in the end, it had all been so...unremarkable. The events were nothing to the monumental proportions they had assumed when he allowed himself to imagine what the service would be like. He knew that neither of them would have chosen to marry one another given all that had transpired between them, but as a man of pride who always sought elusive perfection, he really could not ask for more from either he or Elizabeth. Of course, he had noticed the varying emotions which at times seemed to threaten Elizabeth's composure during the ceremony - mirth at one point, then resignation and then a feigned pleasure at the end - yet he really could not blame her. He may have been better at concealing his torment, but he was certainly nowhere near immune to the entire incident himself.

When they reached the Bennet residence, they waited while the driver opened the door to the carriage and allowed Mr. Darcy to descend first. Once he was well out of the carriage, he turned to Elizabeth somewhat rigidly and extended his hand. His recalcitrant bride hesitated slightly, and he believed she was meditating upon whether she should attempt to alight from the carriage without his help. In the end, she cautiously took hold of his hand and proceeded to dismount.

Mr. Darcy followed Elizabeth into Longbourn with a hesitation he could not conceal. He remained conspicuously behind her and appeared to be quite unable to move beyond the sanctity of the space afforded to him once the doors shut behind him. He saw Elizabeth watch mindfully as she beheld the servants bustle in and out of the dining room with trays laden with all of the delicacies Mrs. Bennett had no doubt insisted bestowing upon her guests. He knew enough of his new mother-in-law to realize she meant to impress the local populace with this wedding breakfast. He wondered how he would withstand the torment of being forced to watch all of Hertfordshire fawn over this celebration. Surely, to do so was beyond his level of tolerance.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth made an effort to move cautiously towards the flurry of activity. However, as she reached the entrance, she seemed to notice Mr. Darcy was still not following her lead. Her face conveyed clear vexation.

"Mr. Darcy, you may join me, you know. In fact, you are quite safe for the time being. Our guests have yet to arrive."

He startled upon hearing her address him. "Pardon me. I am afraid I was lost in my own thoughts. Of course, I intend to join you."

"Then you were wool gathering, I see." Elizabeth said as she waited for him to reach her. "I must say, it is a pity that celebrations such as this do not afford you the opportunity to leave behind those very thoughts that seem to so monopolize your attention."

"A veritable pity indeed, Mrs. Darcy." He could not keep the sarcasm from his voice, but he immediately regretted his tone. Hoping to evade her reprimand, he chose to move past her rather than wait for her to enter the dining room.

He knew that Mrs. Bennet had taken great pains to ensure that the wedding breakfast was worthy of the notoriety associated with her second daughter's wedding to someone she considered one of the most moneyed gentleman in all of England. Nonetheless, he was quite pleasantly surprised at the sights - not to mention the inviting aroma - that he beheld upon entering the dining room. Even though she was well known to always keep a fine table, everything in the room pointed to how Mrs. Bennet had clearly outdone herself on this occasion. The table was loaded with an array of breads, ham and egg dishes and fruits such as oranges, melons and apples. The scent of drinking chocolate, tea and freshly brewed coffee wafted throughout the room and caused his mouth to water in anticipation. At the centre of the table lay the traditional wedding fruitcake. Darcy noticed his mother-in-law had gone to great lengths to have the room decorated as well. He witnessed his wife smile in appreciation upon noticing the potted plants and flower arrangements that graced the mantle and tiny side tables.

Upon hearing the guests' arrival, Elizabeth turned to her new husband and smiled brilliantly. Clearly, she could not help but be proud of her mother's attention to detail in this instance. He knew she would take a great deal of satisfaction in noting his astonishment at the extravagance of their wedding breakfast. Before he could temper it properly, he forced an expression of indifference to rest upon his face.

"Ready, Mr. Darcy?"

"Yes, of course." He replied with conviction.

"Good. You would do well to assume a happier disposition, however." She advised with what he recognized as feigned concern. "As it is, you do not quite meet the requirements of a groom bursting with pleasure."

"If that is indeed true, I shall only have to follow your excellent example of blushing bridehood all the more closely, then." Instinctively, he knew his disdain would not go unchallenged.

"Mr. Darcy, you did instruct me to demonstrate a united front in public, did you not? In my behaviour today, you shall begin to see my adherence to your admonition."

"I shall look forward to your performance then, Mrs. Darcy."

He vowed then to withstand whatever temptation came his way that morning. He would prove to her that he was every bit as prepared to model complaisance as was she.

~ * ~

In fact, to a nervous Mrs. Bennet and an inquisitive Lady Lucas, the picture that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy presented to them as they entered the room, seemed very fitting to their circumstances. They appeared lost in private conversation and did not even gaze toward the door as the ladies entered the room. While the looks the couple exchanged could not be viewed as either loving or affectionate, they were intense and teeming with emotion.

"Oh, Lizzy! Has it all been prepared? We shall have no less than a hundred people here at least! Your father, stubborn as he is, insists the number will be closer to fifty, but I am certain he is wrong." Mrs. Bennet looked about her helplessly. "And the flowers! I expressly instructed Hill to place them away from the fire where they will not wilt! Heavens! Shall I have to tend to it all myself? Hill! Hill!"

Elizabeth smiled feebly at Lady Lucas as her mother rushed frantically out of the room.

"Mr. and Mrs. Darcy - please allow me the privilege of being among the first of your guests to formally wish you well."

"Thank you, Lady Lucas," Elizabeth was surprised to hear Mr. Darcy return. "In fact, we are quite delighted. Is that not right, Mrs. Darcy?"

She met his stare with an affected smile. "But of course we are, sir. Who indeed would not be delighted?"

The room began to gradually fill with people, all of whom regarded the newly wedded Elizabeth with a measure of awe. While her dress was by no means as elaborate as was befitting the wife of such a fine gentleman, it was exquisite in its modesty. In fact, they all agreed later that she had never looked better and pronounced Mr. Darcy lucky to have her. Insofar as he was concerned, they all decided Mr. Darcy was no doubt the most handsome groom to ever grace Hertfordshire - in spite of his haughty exterior. Moreover, some reluctant credit was given to his detection of one of their own local girl's true merit. He was still by no means liked throughout the country, but he was now seen as being a man clearly in possession of good taste.

Oddly enough, the scandal that had precipitated their wedding was all but forgotten on that fine morning.

Elizabeth watched as Colonel Fitzwilliam and Georgiana made their way over to them. Georgiana's tentative countenance signalled to her that her new sister-in-law was overwhelmed. She determined to do all that she could to make Georgiana feel more at ease and decided to put aside her own nervous apprehension as she did so.

"Miss Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam - you have come at last." Elizabeth's tone was welcoming.

Just as she had anticipated, the Colonel was the first to respond. "Mrs. Darcy, I can now officially welcome you to our family."

"Thank you. By me joining it, we have become cousins. I am beyond pleased." Elizabeth moved toward the young girl and gently took hold of her hands. "And Miss Darcy, we are now sisters."

"Please, will you not call me 'Georgiana'?"

"I will - provided you call me 'Elizabeth' from this time forth." Georgiana smiled her concurrence.

Elizabeth turned to see Mr. Darcy bestow a warm gaze upon his sister. His expression clearly demonstrated the profound care and affection he felt for her. She had always expected that he loved his sister, but to see him communicate it so openly astonished her. Her notion of the man had always included his cold, apathetic disposition. Over and over again, she rendered him to be unfeeling. Yet the love he was showing for his sister now provided her with a rare glimpse of a dimension of his character she did not recognize. Privately, she acknowledged that his indifference may in reality extend only toward those in Hertfordshire and was most especially directed toward her.

"Lizzy! Come join us, please."

Elizabeth's attention was drawn to a group of ladies who were speaking to her mother. She excused herself politely and joined them reluctantly.

"Lizzy, your aunt Philips is desperate to see your wedding band."

Suddenly, the ring upon her finger felt incredibly burdensome. Amidst all her anxiety, she had forgotten to examine the ring herself. To do so now, in public, seemed crass and rather mercenary. Elizabeth turned cautiously in the direction of Mr. Darcy. To her chagrin, he was looking directly at her.

"Mama, 'tis merely a usual wedding ring. I am certain my aunt Philips has seen dozens like it."

"Stuff and nonsense! Indeed I have not seen any like it! Of that, I am absolutely certain."

Elizabeth demurred in as genteel a manner as possible, but neither her mother nor her aunt would be gainsaid. They insisted they would see the ring and would brook no opposition on the issue. Almost apologetically, Elizabeth lifted her hand and prepared herself for their gasps of rapture.

"Goodness! Pray, look at the meticulous workmanship."

"It is indeed splendid! I am certain it is quite costly."

"Why, it is worth well over eight hundred pounds at least!"

"Eight hundred! Did you say 'eight hundred pounds'? Such a ring would cost no less than a thousand pounds at least!"

Elizabeth's aunt bent down to examine the ring more critically. "Are those sapphires? Good heavens, I believe they are - and there are six of them at least! Oh Elizabeth, you must be very good to your new husband after he has gone to the trouble and expense to acquire for you such a ring!"

"Why, procuring such a wedding band for my Lizzy is nothing at all for a man of Mr. Darcy's means!" Mrs. Bennet cried immodestly. "In fact, I have heard recently that his estimated ten thousand pounds is an understatement. He is perhaps the richest man in all of England - aside from the extravagant Prince Regent, of course. But we cannot consider him really since he is quite eccentric. Nevertheless, if what I hear is true, my Lizzy will be adorned with the very finest jewels." Mrs. Bennet was all but jumping with delight. "Ladies, has my daughter not done well, securing for herself such a generous husband? And - have I not secured a most excellent son-in-law?"

The ladies all agreed she had indeed done well and praised Mrs. Bennet upon landing such a worthy son-in-law. Elizabeth's mother accepted all congratulations with excited giggles and Elizabeth thought she detected in her mother's eyes tears of utter joy.

Elizabeth suffered this conversation with little patience. She espied her Aunt Gardiner and Jane talking pleasantly to Mr. Bingley and longed to escape the gaggle of women and join them in what appeared to be some light conversation. However, before she could form a means of departure, Mr. Darcy appeared at her side. Elizabeth noted wryly how the manner of the ladies' conversation immediately shifted once he was present. With as much aplomb as they could muster, the ladies expressed their much more subdued congratulations to her husband who, in turn, accepted them with as much cordiality as he could under the trying circumstances.

"Mr. Darcy, you may have noticed us admiring Elizabeth's wedding ring," interjected Mrs. Philips. "It is truly exquisite."

"Thank you. Actually, the ring was originally my grandmother's. I have heard mention of it originating in France, but I cannot say for certain if this is true."

"No doubt it is indeed from France for only the French would produce such magnificent elegance!" Mrs. Bennet replied knowingly.

While Mr. Darcy continued to shed light on the ring's history, Elizabeth allowed herself to examine it in as surreptitious a manner as she could. She first noted its recessed sapphires - her aunt had been correct, there were six of them and they shone brilliantly. The ring's surface was dazzlingly polished to a smooth finish. Because the ring was somewhat large for her finger, she was able to turn it easily and immediately noticed the gold scroll motifs which elegantly tapered and followed the curvature of the band. Elizabeth could not deny the ring's beauty. She was surprised that Mr. Darcy had ventured to offer her a piece of jewellery that was in his family for several generations. However, she recalled his desire to ensure their marriage was free of suspicion and, thus, she realized that her wearing this family heirloom was designed to deflect from the pretence of their union.

Mr. Darcy excused himself from their company and Elizabeth watched in envy as he moved towards Jane, Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. Bingley. Regardless of how haughty he was, she felt compelled to admire his ability to simply walk away from a conversation without giving offence. She knew that Mrs. Bennet and her cronies would by no means afford her the easy escape they gave to him.

"Oh Elizabeth, he is so handsome - so refined," marvelled Mrs. Kane.

"Is he not the handsomest man to ever come to Meryton, ladies?" Mrs. Bennet chimed in. "I have heard him described as such by scores of people - even those who may have been foolish enough to consider him little more than arrogant and proud."

Elizabeth glanced over to where Mr. Darcy was standing. Without question, she admitted objectively, Mr. Darcy was handsome. Yet, there was so much more to him than his pleasant exterior. She fancied that she alone was able to impartially discern Mr. Darcy's true vanity today, for everyone else appeared very much of a mind to extol him relentlessly.

"He is very handsome, Mama."

Mrs. Kane leaned over to Elizabeth conspiratorially but she made no effort to lower her voice. "Elizabeth, at least you shall not have to brave the burdens so many others before you have in fulfilling all their duties to some much less attractive husbands."

All but Elizabeth responded to Mrs. Kane's comment with shocked appreciation. She immediately looked over to where Mr. Darcy was standing. Thankfully, he did not appear to have heard, but Elizabeth felt herself turning crimson just the same.

"Elizabeth, there is no need to blush at the mention of your impending intimacy with the man," Lady Lucas said benignly. "You are a married woman now."

"Fanny, surely you have spoken to Lizzy about her obligations to her husband, have you not?" Mrs. Philips remarked inquisitively.

"Oh Sister, I have tried, but she would have none of my advice - impudent, bigheaded girl that she is."

"Never you mind, Elizabeth," comforted Lady Lucas as she placed an arm around her shoulders. "You, too, shall learn how to behave in the marriage bed."

Elizabeth smouldered with embarrassment. She pressed a heavy hand to her cheek and felt it burn immediately. They remained woefully oblivious to the impropriety of the conversation. She attempted to interject and plead with the ladies to stop, but they clearly had no intention of bringing to an end their current topic of conversation.

"Of course she will, Lady Lucas!" cried her mother. "After all, have we not had to learn how to behave when faced with our husband's attentions toward us?" She turned to her daughter directly, "Take comfort, Lizzy, that while the frequency of his evening visits with you may seem interminable at first, they will soon wane to nothing more than once or twice a fortnight. Is that not right, ladies?"

"Indeed it is, Fanny. We speak from experience, my dear Elizabeth. Take heart, for at least your husband is undeniably very handsome."

Elizabeth realized Lady Lucas meant to be kind, and that she could not know the degree of Elizabeth's private humiliation. Nevertheless, the blush that spread across her face did not grow fainter with the compassionate lady's attention to her.

Elizabeth espied Charlotte standing alone by the coffee things and seized her opportunity to escape. She politely excused herself before walking over to her friend.

"Charlotte, I had begun to despair that I would not be allowed to talk to you at all today. It is so good to see you."

"As it is to see you, Lizzy. I will miss you terribly when I am at Hunsford and you are at Pemberley."

"Yes, our prospective homes are miles apart, unfortunately. Nevertheless, I am sure Mr. Darcy will find occasion to visit his magnificent aunt and then I will be able to see the grandeur of Rosings myself." Elizabeth responded archly.

"I am sure it is impressive. Mr. Collins has described for me both its natural and manmade beauty. He is ever grateful for the benevolence of his patroness." Charlotte paused. "I realize, Lizzy, that my future husband may be regarded by some as silly and unintelligent, yet he is foremost a good man and I cannot fault him."

Elizabeth had the decency to feel shame at her friend's apt description of her own interpretation of Mr. Collins. She realized now she truly had no right to continue to judge him so meanly.

"He is indeed, Charlotte. Upon further reflection, I see so much more to him than my previous petty opinion. Will you forgive me, dear Charlotte?"

"I have already forgotten, Elizabeth." Her friend smiled at her warmly and looked over at Mr. Darcy. "Your own husband is also a man of fine character. I would hope that you have come to see that yourself."

Elizabeth considered her friend's words briefly before responding. Mr. Darcy - a good man? Would she ever be able to view him in so gracious a light? She knew he was a honourable one - his willingness to marry her was testament to that. But, a good man? If it was true, she clearly had much to learn about the man who was now her spouse.

"I have come to appreciate him slightly more than I did before and hope to continue to do so as we become better acquainted." Elizabeth answered as truthfully as she could. She circumvented the conversation before Charlotte asked for clarification. "How are your wedding plans? Your own marriage is a mere fortnight away. You must be overwhelmed with preparations."

"In fact, I am practically done. I have packed whatever I will not require again and all that remains are a few items to see me through the next fortnight."

"Steady, industrious girl! How I do envy you, Charlotte! Still, I am certain you did not have to brave a mother like mine incessantly claiming your opinion over which linens to use for the engagement party or whether to serve bread and rolls at the wedding breakfast."

"Indeed I have not. I must confess, I have planned our wedding breakfast largely on my own. I consulted my mother as well, of course. She has been very helpful."

"Then you are doubly worthy of the envy I cast your way." Elizabeth felt herself relax in her friend's company. She had so missed the light hearted banter that characterized their friendship.

However, soon Jane and Mr. Darcy joined them and Elizabeth felt her ease dissipate the instant she sensed her husband's presence. She viewed him warily as he bowed slightly to Charlotte.

"Mr. Darcy, congratulations on your marriage. Mrs. Darcy and I were just discussing my own wedding. Of course, it will be nowhere near as splendid as this, yet I do hope it will be enjoyed by our guests."

"I am certain Mrs. Darcy is quite sorry that she will not be present at your wedding." Mr. Darcy returned.

"Oh yes! Charlotte, I would dearly love to see you married! Please know that my thoughts will be very much with you and Mr. Collins on that day."

"Thank you, Elizabeth. You are a true friend to us, I am sure." Charlotte returned appreciatively.

Mr. Darcy turned to Elizabeth unexpectedly. "Please excuse me, Mrs. Darcy. I am afraid the time is approaching for us to depart for London. We do not wish to journey in darkness for longer than is absolutely necessary."

"Oh, then, I must see myself out of this gown and into my traveling frock. Excuse me, please."

"Wait, Lizzy, I will join you and perhaps you will be able to depart earlier with my assistance." Jane suggested. "Excuse me, Mr. Darcy. Charlotte."

In her bedchamber, Elizabeth found Sarah had packed her remaining belongings and was awaiting her arrival. Immediately, upon entering the room, Sarah instructed her to turn and proceeded to unfasten the row of tiny buttons along the back of her wedding gown. In the meantime, Jane placed the dress Elizabeth meant to change into upon her bed and was prepared to help Sarah fold her wedding gown so it could be packed and sent to London. Once she was changed into her traveling clothes, Elizabeth sat at her dressing table and removed the spray of dried flowers Sarah had placed in her hair before the wedding ceremony. Her movements were quick and almost seemed to be instinctive. When she had finished making minor adjustments to her hair, she noticed Sarah had already quit the room, leaving them in privacy.

"Lizzy, I see that you are ready. Are you well?" Jane remarked upon seeing her sister's pale demeanour.

"I am well but I confess I am more than a little anxious. Perhaps my discomfort is not helped by the notion of leaving a home I love so well."

"But Lizzy, you are moving to a home you will surely come to love. Apart from its luxuries, which I am sure are tastefully done, it is a house that has been in Mr. Darcy's family for ages. It will certainly be marked with its own warmth and charm."

"Oh Jane! Would that I possessed your goodness and wisdom." Elizabeth returned wistfully.

"But you are good...and ever so much wiser than I am. If you would like confirmation of that, you need only ask Papa," Jane laughed knowingly.

"Dear Papa! How I shall miss him. How I shall miss you all! You, I shall long for most."

"I will write faithfully, Lizzy. Surely, you must know that. Moreover, our aunt has invited me to visit them in February. If you are still in London, we shall see each other sooner than we think."

"Unless a certain gentleman's continuing presence in Hertfordshire makes the thought of visiting me less appealing, of course." Elizabeth returned slyly.

"Oh, Lizzy, do stop. Mr. Bingley is a very dear friend - that is all."

"A friend? Jane, you cannot be so blind. He is every bit as in love with you that he always was! Surely, you are not still remembering Miss Bingley's claim regarding his interest in Miss Darcy? We have now met the girl herself and seen them together. I see no particular attention Mr. Bingley pays to her."

"He is as friendly to her as he is to everyone, Lizzy. You cannot say he is not." Jane replied calmly. "Still, I am not foolish enough to realize that he would not be so uncharitable as to court her openly in my presence."

Elizabeth feigned exasperation to her sister. "Jane, I am of a mind to shake you senseless except that I am certain Mr. Darcy is waiting impatiently below. Before I leave, you must promise me you will not deter him from paying you the same level of consideration he has thus far. Clearly, he means to remain at Netherfield and I am certain you are a large reason as to why that is so."

Jane paused for a moment. "You have my promise that I will not shun him should he visit us, but I do not intend to solicit his favour openly either. We will carry on in the same benign manner we always have." She grabbed Elizabeth's reticule hastily. "Now, Elizabeth, do hurry. I am certain Mr. Darcy will regard your delay as a means of stalling or he may blame me for provoking you to linger in this manner."

Elizabeth turned to her sister with a grim smile. "If he did view my dawdling as an attempt to prolong the inevitable, he would not be altogether wrong. However, a long carriage ride awaits us and, thus, I imagine I should not encourage his ire."

As she descended the staircase, Elizabeth noticed Mr. Darcy speaking intently with her father. Upon her arrival, he acknowledged her briefly before leaving to bid his sister and cousin farewell.

"Lizzy, my dear. What a cruel fate awaits me without your good sense to keep me adrift."

Elizabeth walked toward her father and took her hands in his. "Papa, I shall miss you dreadfully. Please be a more regular correspondent than you have been in the past."

"Ah, but in the past I always knew my dearest daughter would return to me. Now, I remain unsure as to when I will see you again, so expect monthly missives from me at least."

She smiled despite the tears she felt were prepared to fall.

The remaining farewells were quick. Mrs. Bennet made a show of lamenting her daughter's departure, but Elizabeth imagined everyone present saw the pretentiousness of her reaction. She had made no secret of the overriding joy she felt at knowing that her second daughter had married well. Her sister, Mary, had hugged her and promised to write, while Kitty and Lydia both claimed that they probably would not be regular writers, but they hoped to be invited to stay with her in London during the Season. Jane offered her a silent hug and, although she tried to hide it, Elizabeth knew she was on the verge of tears. Georgiana hugged her tightly and promised to return home to them the moment she learned her brother and she were desirous of her company. Colonel Fitzwilliam, on the other hand, smiled brightly and promised to call upon them in a few days. Elizabeth parted from her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in a more easy manner as she was certain she would see them soon in London. The rest of her friends and neighbours bid her a merry goodbye and wished them well once again.

Elizabeth braced herself as Mr. Darcy escorted her into the carriage. When he joined her and took the seat opposite to hers, she quickly escaped meeting his eye by looking out the carriage window. The last image she saw before departing Netherfield was a buoyant Lydia throwing a pair of shoes after them for good luck.****

~ * ~

*The passages I've included regarding the wedding ceremony come from The Common Book of Prayer

**A true story by the way. Apparently, it is reported that two paupers once arrived at a church in England and suggested they wanted to marry. They could not afford a wedding ring and so they believed a church key would suffice in the pinch they were in. A reverent clerk, however, felt using the key was not appropriate and procured an old iron curtain ring for them to use instead.

***My research suggests that the Landau carriage was considered the Lincoln Continental of all carriages in its time. It could hold two to four passengers and was pulled by four large horses. It possessed two folding hoods to protect passengers from the elements. I gather this was a carriage intended to show off your finery and, since Darcy could afford it, I presumed he would go with the best.

****This tradition apparently dates back to the Tudor period where pairs of shoes were thrown after the newly wedded couple. It was considered lucky if the couple or the carriage were hit with the shoes. Apparently, research indicates this was still done during the Regency period. Today, we often see shoes tied to the bumper of a vehicle. Nevertheless, the intent is the same.

Chapter Thirteen

For the past fortnight, Mr. Darcy frequently envisioned the journey back to his London townhouse with Elizabeth as his bride.

When he was of a mind to visualize the very worst, he feared this time alone together would raise further opportunities for dissension. If that happened, he knew he would not have the head for it after having endured what he supposed would be an impious wedding ceremony followed by a tedious wedding breakfast at Longbourn. However, when he allowed himself to look beyond his negative thoughts, he instead fancied this trip could amount to a convenient escape for them both. Darcy realized this sojourn would never afford Elizabeth and him a completely pleasant experience given the fragile nature of their relationship, but he believed his new bride may perhaps be all too willing to escape the havoc and disquiet which had plagued her since the scandal was propagated in Meryton.

In spite of the many scenarios he had imagined regarding this trip, the reality which transpired that early afternoon on the way to Town was never considered by him at all. Elizabeth and he had travelled almost half an hour seated across from one another in awkward and utter silence. In fact, Darcy very much doubted she even remembered he was in the carriage at all.

Elizabeth spent the first minutes after leaving Longbourn completely absorbed by the passing scenery as though she were seeing it for the very first time. Yet, despite their rather brief acquaintance, Darcy knew she was familiar enough with the landscape and could skilfully navigate her way through every tree, rock and path they passed with the ease of the finest excursionist. When she grew weary of looking out of the carriage window, she proceeded to lean back against her seat and shut her eyes. Soon, she began to play with the buttons on her coat, turning and twisting them with such anxiety he believed they would be torn off by the time they reached London if she did not stop. Even when he discovered himself categorically trying to secure her attention by sighing loudly and shifting in his seat noisily, she steadily avoided meeting his eye. She seemingly remained oblivious to him.

Clearly, she was intent upon avoiding him at all costs and Darcy was not in the habit of being shunned in so obvious a manner.

He would speak to her - but about what? What could they discuss which would not be considered objectionable to her? He hardly knew. Even so, he simply could not continue to watch her be so miserable and, he admitted to himself frankly, his pride would not let him be so explicitly ignored. He convinced himself that if he allowed her to so effortlessly disregard him he would do the start of their union no favour.

"Forgive my interruption, Mrs. Darcy, but are you cold? My drivers have left us several blankets and the warming blocks alone will soon not suffice."

She opened her eyes reluctantly and appeared somewhat startled when she observed him regarding her intently. "Thank you. I am fine." She closed her eyes once more but he noticed their movement beneath her eyelids and knew she was not restful.

Darcy's patience was wearing thin. Allowing her to dismiss him so callously simply would not do. Still, he was not of a mind to argue with her if at all possible as they still had a considerable journey ahead of them. If he could prevent it, he did not wish to inspire any additional rancour between them, but he felt vividly compelled to speak to her.

"I beg your pardon, but I noticed you did not eat anything at all at the wedding breakfast. Perhaps you would like to choose something your mother sent with us to have now? Or I could ask my driver to stop and we can partake of something more substantial at a nearby inn?"

"Mr.Darcy, I appreciate your efforts but I am well - merely tired. It has been a tremendously long day already. And, as you mentioned before we left Longbourn, we should not attempt to delay our journey and thereby travel in the dark, correct?"

"Yet, you seem a long way from any sort of relaxation. You are clearly uneasy." Mr. Darcy said as he persevered.

"Sir, lest you forget, you are not always able to best - or most prudently - interpret my mood."

"Perhaps you are right," He conceded casually. "Nevertheless, I cannot believe that the torture you are inflicting upon the buttons of your coat suggest you are tranquil. I could, of course, be wrong."

Even before he observed her face begin to crimson, he knew he had said the wrong thing. She immediately ceased toying with the buttons on her coat and faced him squarely. She first moved her hands to her sides on the carriage seat, but Darcy noted how she soon agitatedly grasped the edge of the covered bench. She flashed him a heated stare.

"All right, Mr. Darcy. I will be candid and we will have this discussion which I have so patently been trying to avoid." Elizabeth said with what he took to be a false confidence. "I am not tranquil, sir. Pray, how can I be? We have been unable to discuss this openly, but I imagine I am not alone in this...this feeling of complete wretchedness. Can you deny that I am right?"

Darcy shrugged his shoulders and feigned a cavalier attitude he did not possess. "In fact, I can deny it. Quite easily. Unlike you, I am not struggling over this any longer. After all, what purpose would it serve?"

"So, I see you are resigned. You are content to merely tolerate marriage to a person you do not care for simply because you must? Forgive me, but I prefer my resentment to your indifference for it at least indicates I am capable of feeling some degree of emotion."

Before responding he wondered briefly what it was about her that was so effortlessly able to alter his mood. Earlier, he had been intent on simply engaging her in some meaningless chatter so that she would not ignore him. Now, his ire was stirred, the desire to be somewhat affable unexpectedly gone.

"Do you imagine for a minute that I have felt no emotion, madam? If that is true, then your own powers of discernment are sorely deficient."

"But you have said yourself that you see no purpose in struggling against our circumstances and feel no misery! You audaciously sit before me, attempting to engage in idle chit-chat in as unmoved a matter as possible."

"What would it take, Mrs. Darcy," he said leaning toward her, "to convince you that this marriage of ours has inspired a multitude of emotions within me as well? Perchance we can journey back to Netherfield where you can ask the servants to tell you tales of how poor my eating habits have become in the past weeks? Or my man, Hyatt, can describe for you the state of my bed sheets when he enters my room early in the morning after a night I have spent tortured and awake?"

Darcy watched as Elizabeth cast her eyes down in shame, but he would not give up his rage nor did he feel any satisfaction upon seeing her unsettled. Could she truly believe she was alone in the torment that she felt? He had imagined she was more astute. Yet, perhaps like he was, she was far too over-involved in her own pathetic state to consider his own agony.

"Oh, Mr. Darcy, what is the point of attempting to discuss anything at all? Evidently, we can say nothing to one another without provoking a disagreement." She folded her arms across her chest in a manner which indicated her hopelessness.

"The point, my dear wife, is that we must overcome this...this acrimony between us or our union will cause us only more dissatisfaction, more grief. I, for one, am not willing to live the remainder of my life being angry at you."

"Yes. I recall you mentioning the belief that we could live in some degree of tranquility. However, I cannot fathom how that can ever be. Our reactions to this marriage seem unlikely to ever be reconciled. Surely you can see we are too far apart."

"And so we will remain until you give up this steady resentment." He paused to look away, feeling overwhelmed by this dialogue already. "Perhaps you were right in choosing not to speak earlier. We are both tired from the strains of the day. I will allow you now to get back to your rest."

With that, he himself leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. This time, he heard a loud sigh escape from her and heard the rustle of her dress indicating her unease, but he would not make any more attempts to engage her in conversation if he could at all prevent it. In the end, it was far better to have her take no notice of him than it was to quarrel.

While he attempted to rest, he comforted himself with the belief that the events of the day and the fatigue that they inspired were not conducive to their being civil. Hence, he vowed to no longer plague her -- or himself -- with efforts to establish a tenuous balance in their relationship today. This was a day they simply needed to live through. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin working out some equilibrium to their current predicament.

The remainder of their journey passed slowly and, to his surprise, he soon felt himself ready to submit to his fatigue. However, before he did so, he cocked one eye open and glanced over at Elizabeth. She was once more peering outside the window. He positioned himself comfortably on his seat and prepared to sleep.

~ * ~

When the carriage jerked to its stop and the door swung open, Elizabeth shuddered. She was unaware of whether her sudden trembling stemmed from the chill she felt as a blast of cold, December wind enveloped the interior of the carriage or relief at having finally arrived and amazement at the impressive size of his home that was discernible even in the near darkness that surrounded it. Perhaps, it was a mixture of all these factors which caused her discomfiture. Her mind was such a whirl of emotions, she hardly knew herself at this point.

After he descended from the carriage, Mr. Darcy turned and extended his hand to allow her to exit the carriage. Around them, the servants and the drivers were busily removing the few trunks containing the last of their belongings. She gave him a wry smile as she grasped his hand.

As he lightly took her elbow and began to usher her up the steps of his townhouse, she realized the pretence of their marriage had already begun. No doubt, Mr. Darcy believed the servants were a crucial part of the plan he had fabricated aimed at maintaining a false front to all who looked at them. He was thereby interested in ensuring they appeared very much like any other newly wedded couple right from the start. She wondered fleetingly how long he expected to be able to maintain such posturing before the staff.

Before entering the townhouse, Elizabeth was introduced to two servants who were braving the cold as they waited to meet her. Mrs. Graham, who she learned was the housekeeper, greeted her with a kind-hearted smile and welcoming words. Mr. Gilmore, his steward, was a bit more reserved in his reception of her, but Elizabeth felt comforted by his passing smile just the same. Their combined solicitude did Elizabeth's unsteady nerves a world of good. Her disposition immediately brightened and she greeted their eagerness to receive her as their new mistress with genuine consideration and relief. She noticed Mr. Darcy's questioning eyes upon her, but she did not care to meet them. Even before she had come here, she decided that she best establish some source of goodwill and believed the servants would offer it to her much more readily than would her new husband. He would be surprised perhaps to learn that she had absolutely no intention of revealing to them her wretchedness. Thus, she acknowledged that she, like Mr. Darcy, was every bit as intent to begin the charade of their marriage even if her reasons for doing so were quite opposite to his own. She believed her pretence would perhaps ultimately lead her to some personal form of acceptance and comfort within the household, while he valued maintaining the more public respect and rank he had always known outside of his home as well as within it.

Immediately upon entering the townhouse, Elizabeth was promptly introduced to the remainder of the household staff. They had lined up to receive her in the foyer and she smiled as she struggled to commit their names to memory. When she admitted to one of the footmen that he had best be prepared to expect her to forget his name, the sound of his soft laughter made her relax instantly and for a moment she almost forgot Mr. Darcy's presence behind her and his arm steering her to move onwards. Still, when she looked up to him, she was surprised to see him smiling as well. In fact, he appeared more notably relaxed than she had ever before seen him and she sensed it was not merely because he was smiling at the servants. Towards her, he was demonstrating more tolerance than he had ever shown before as he patiently introduced each member of his extensive staff of domestics. Likely, his changed disposition coincided with his relief at being liberated from the tedious pressures of Hertfordshire. She understood that London afforded him a comfort that she could not share and she attempted to not begrudge him of it too much.

When they reached the library, Elizabeth began to realize all of Miss Bingley's praises concerning Mr. Darcy's collection of books had not been exaggerated. Even from the doorway, she was able to discern that this was a room she would come to love. The paneled walls were decorated with tapestries of rich burgundy, sage green and blue grey, while the floors were covered with thick, lush rugs. The massive stone fireplace may have easily become the focal point of the room had it not been for the rows upon rows of shelves covered in heavy volumes of books which immediately drew her attention.

Slowly, she walked over to his collection of leather-bound tomes of poetry and noticed the assortment centered on works by William Blake, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and John Keats. She stooped to examine each one carefully and felt Mr. Darcy's eyes burning into her back. When she rose to face him, he appeared embarrassed at being caught looking at her and immediately his eyes moved past her.

"Do you own every volume, sir?"

"Not quite," he returned, "I am missing Byron's Poems on Various Occasions. I have tried to secure it, but have yet been unable to locate the book. Are you a lover of Byron's poetry, madam?"

She laughed softly. "A lover? No. I have heard my Uncle and Aunt Gardiner discuss him briefly, but, I confess, I do not know his work."

"That is not altogether surprising really. I believe he has yet to make his mark. I do hope that in time you will read his poems and we can perhaps discuss your impression of him."

She glanced at him warily, "Thank you. I shall."

Mrs. Graham entered the library with tea and small pastries for them to enjoy before dinner was served. Upon espying them, Elizabeth felt pangs of hunger threaten to overwhelm her. Mr. Darcy had been right. She had not enjoyed any of her mother's carefully selected delicacies at the wedding breakfast and now was quite famished. She chose a sweet and bit into it hesitantly, feeling his steady gaze upon her. Willing herself to overlook him, she continued to enjoy her tea in silence. When she was done, she had no desire other than to change her clothes.

"Pardon me, Mr. Darcy, but I would like some time to change out of these traveling clothes. Would you please summon Mrs. Graham to show me to my room?"

"Mrs. Graham is no doubt occupied with some other manner." He paused briefly. "I could, however, take you there myself."

What on earth was the man about? While they had managed to spend almost half an hour together without arguing, surely Mr. Darcy could not believe she would now expect and welcome his continued company? To suppose they could continue in this refrained manner without a likely argument of some sort arising between them was just tempting fate given all that had passed between them. Elizabeth was realistic enough to know that even if they were to ever reach some form of peaceful co-existence, it could hardly be expected to be quite so immediate.

"Thank you, but I am certain I will be able to locate it if you would be so kind as to tell me where it is. That would allow you the opportunity to finish taking your tea."

He opened his mouth to respond but then hesitated slightly. A curious look - one that Elizabeth could not quite read - passed over his features before he spoke again.

"It is no trouble for me to show you to your room, Mrs. Darcy. I have quite finished my tea and would benefit myself from changing out of these rather dusty clothes."

"Yes, but..."

"Madam, I insist. 'Tis no trouble, really." He began walking towards the door and stopped to allow her to exit before him. Elizabeth had little choice other than to permit him to show her to her room. He evidently was quite determined.

By the time they reached the second floor, Elizabeth could no longer ignore Mr. Darcy's insistent gaze upon her. She looked up at him blankly and tried to appear as though she were not curious about her new home. There would be plenty of time for her to examine her surroundings later, when he was not with her. She fancied he was expecting her to comment on his home and, for the time being, she resolved not to reveal to him her awe and interest.

Near the end of the long hallway, he stopped and turned to signal to her that they had arrived. When he pushed the door open and proceeded to walk in ahead of her, a momentary panic seized her. Surely, he was not expecting to share this room with her! The ladies' advice to her regarding her marital duties suddenly appeared more relevant that she had ever supposed.

"This will be your room, Mrs. Darcy. It belonged to my mother." He hesitated suddenly. "We have had it updated and aired thoroughly. I hope it meets with your approval."

Upon ascertaining that he did not mean to share it with her, she breathed a concealed sigh of relief. In fact, she felt her entire demeanour affected by a marked transformation upon gaining access to her bed chamber. Suddenly, a nervous restlessness moved her and she no longer cared that he watched as she paced about the space lightly and allowed her curious eyes to travel the width and length of the room.

The rich smell of the wildflowers in a vase by her dressing table pervaded the area and several lit candles cast a warm glow in the room. There was ample furniture, but it was hardly noticeable since it was placed so pleasingly in the rather large bedchamber. Her gaze shifted to the large oak bed and she observed the deep blue bed linens with satisfaction. The bed appeared comfortable and quite inviting after such a long and arduous day. She turned to him and smiled her appreciation.

"It is lovely, thank you."

"Yes." He appeared to be struggling somewhat. Had he expected her not to appreciate her room? "I will have one of the servants send for your maid. She should have been here already."

"No matter. I shall wait for her. There is no rush, I imagine."

"No. No rush. Dinner will be served in an hour or so unless you feel the need to rest after our journey."

"An hour is all I need, sir."

"Very well. I shall see to it that Mrs. Graham is advised of it." He paused. "Shall I call for you in an hour then?"

For not the first time that day, shock overwhelmed her. This insistence that he chaperone her around his home was really more than she could tolerate at that point. She attempted to mask her frustration by forcing a more benign look upon her face.

"No, thank you. I shall meet you downstairs. A servant will be able to direct me to the dining room."

Although he showed some reluctance yet again, he ultimately acknowledged her wishes before excusing himself from her room.

Alone at last, Elizabeth resolved to ponder his behaviour further. Why did he insist so upon attending to her personally? Was he completely forgetting that they would likely be unable to maintain this fragile balance between them at this early start of their marriage? Too much remained unsaid at this point, but how could they truly discuss anything substantial without rancour arising? He had never before gone out of his way to be so attentive to her before. Why must he do so now when they both were very much discomposed and unsettled in their new roles?

While Elizabeth fancied she was every bit as realistic as she was compassionate, she hoped he did not expect her to keep up the appearance of their "happily ever after" even when they were alone. If she were truthful, she did long to regard her husband more generously as her aunt had suggested she must. In fact, when he had feelingly admitted to her earlier today that he himself had been plagued by doubts and uncertainties regarding their marriage, she had been struck with unexpected compassion for him. Having herself suffered so many misgivings about her future, she could not help but appreciate his own.

Yet, she knew that it would require tremendous effort and time for her to begin to view him with any modicum of broad-mindedness and hoped he would be patient with her as she learned.

Unable to resist the lure of the bed any longer, she lay down and felt the softness of the mattress envelop her as she sank into it. Any rest she could get before her maid arrived, and especially before a private dinner with Mr. Darcy, was certain to do her a measure of good.

~ * ~

In the hallway, just prior to entering his own bedchamber, Mr. Darcy sent a footman to alert Elizabeth's new maid that her mistress was awaiting her assistance. He decisively let the man know that he was in no way pleased that the girl was not ready when Elizabeth reached the room. He hoped that this young girl Mrs. Graham had hired would not be a disappointment. Regardless of their unsettled marriage, it would not do for Elizabeth to have an unreliable maid. He told himself he owed her that much at least.

Alone at last in his own room, he allowed himself to feel the stress of the day. He slung his coat onto the chair and loosened his cravat. When his man, Hyatt, appeared to assist him, Mr. Darcy instructed him to prepare his clothes and leave him to dress himself. He wanted no assistance this evening and desired his privacy above all things. When Hyatt left, he forced himself to consider it all - the wedding, the carriage ride and Elizabeth.

To his amazement, the wedding ceremony itself - now that it was over - did not cause him much discomfort. There had been moments, of course, when he was overcome with guilt as he stood before God and made vows he intended to keep out of obligation and not because he had chosen to of his own volition. Elizabeth's reactions remained a mystery to him. He knew she was far from self-possessed; he had watched her waver between suppressed laughter and obvious anxiety throughout the ceremony. He wondered if she felt anymore tranquil now that the entire ordeal was finished. Or, in fact, had it merely just begun? Unprepared to ponder that notion yet, he forced it out of his mind.

The extravagant wedding breakfast itself turned out to be far more than he expected. Mrs. Bennet had clearly outdone herself. Even though he was accustomed to celebrations that were considerably more elaborate, he could not truly criticize her attempts to make it as refined as she possibly could. In the end, it was tasteful and her guests had been suitably impressed which he knew had been her primary goal when planning the fete.

He mused over his brief conversation with Mr. Bennet before he left Longbourn. Ever since his return from London when he discovered Wickham visiting the two elder Miss Bennets, he had been compelled to warn them of the scoundrel's true nature. While Elizabeth would presumably be safe from the rake's charms after their marriage, Miss Jane Bennet and the other, sillier sisters would still be very much exposed to him. He had warred over how best to reveal what he knew without divulging too much of his own tormented history to the Bennet family. In the end, he had only been afforded that opportunity just prior to their departure to London and, then, only to Mr. Bennet. Elizabeth's sudden arrival had thankfully prevented him from having to venture too deeply into the matter. Nonetheless, he felt satisfied that he had responsibly and adequately warned the gentleman to be wary of Wickham's duplicity.

Thus, he left Longbourn feeling quite pleased before their journey began.

Yet, once again, he was hit with an array of emotions shortly after they entered the carriage. At first, Elizabeth's reticence had perturbed him, but after arguing with her, he was elated at the opportunity to ride again in silence and thus, not entice further opposition from her. Throughout the remainder of the journey, while he pretended to sleep, he feared privately that she was right - they would never be able to peacefully co-exist at this rate. The thought had plagued him more than she knew.

Yet, when they arrived at his townhouse, she had been so different from the riled woman he had come to know in the past fortnight. He had previously imagined that she would be more curious about his home and was thereby shocked she appeared to be taking no notice of her surroundings at all. Instead, a curious calm seemed to suffuse her; he noticed it immediately as she smiled at him when she exited the carriage. If she had been any other young lady, he would have been tempted to ascribe her changed reaction to some mercenary motives which sprang after seeing his expansive house. However, he knew this was not the cause of the transformation in her. In the past fortnight, he had learned all too well that her father was right when he suggested that his daughter did not view matrimony as many other marriageable females did. She had made it clear to him over and over that his riches and his elevated status meant little to her. Even when she had entered the house, which he understood was considered somewhat imposing and grand, she had not regarded it with awe as so many others did upon first visiting it.

Nevertheless, if he were truthful, he was almost desperate in his desire to please her. Now that they were married, it all seemed such a colossal waste to remain mired in the apathy surrounding their union. Thus, he was beyond pleased when he saw her try to gain the acceptance of his household staff. Her desire to do so showed good judgment and he appreciated her efforts. Elizabeth was wise enough to discern that her management of their homes would be much easier if she earned the respect of her staff. Furthermore, if she garnered their trust and esteem, he would no longer be in a position to oversee it all himself. His decision to take her to the library as opposed to the sitting room was a direct result of his gratitude to her. He knew she would be impressed and interested in what awaited her there.

He moved toward the window which looked over the frosted garden and allowed himself the opportunity to consider again that equilibrium between them was perchance not altogether impossible. Had they not just had the most agreeable conversation ever regarding their mutual love of poetry? Perhaps then, provided they kept to topics that did not directly involve them or their marriage, all hope for a more tranquil future was not lost.

He permitted himself to consider this for a short time as he examined the softly falling snow that was certain not to last, but was presently creating a momentary white enchanted kingdom for his pleasure.

Of course, he could not disregard her evident discomfort following his suggestion that he escort her to her room and then later to dinner. Only a complete fool would be able to overlook the fact that she did not relish his company and was attempting to find a means to dismiss him, yet he had felt compelled to direct her to her bedchamber regardless. After they had managed to spend some minutes together free of argument, he had no desire for her to call into question his own manners nor did he particularly long to be free of her. And, if she chose to see herself to dinner, he would accept it, of course. After all, it was reasonable and better that they not reverse the fragile balance they had established with his consistent need to assure himself that she was well.

He placed a heavy hand upon the back of his neck. Impetuously wanting to please her was not wise - not yet. He was bound to be disappointed when their steady discord eventually erupted and he knew that - at one point or another - it would erupt. Neither of them were able to simply allow matters to settle comfortably. He knew that while they were both sensible, they were both also too easily roused to merely sink into a happy oblivion.

Still, he had not been able to deny himself the opportunity to judge for himself Elizabeth's reaction to her bedchamber. While he had seen some of the changes Mrs. Graham had wrought upon the room before leaving to return to Hertfordshire, he had merely heard about some others that she intended to make. When he reached her room and had entered into it ahead of her, it was only to see for himself the extent of his trusted housekeeper's work. Sadly, he suspected that if he allowed Elizabeth to enter first as propriety dictated, she would have devised a scheme to not allow him to come in.

Looking back, he was glad he had been so insistent. If he allowed her to keep him from the room, he would have missed observing her initial satisfaction for himself. As he now propped his legs upon the ottoman before him, he recalled how he had struggled to maintain his composure and stared at her wordlessly upon seeing her pleased reaction. Never in the past had he permitted himself to consider how important it was to him that she appreciate her new home. Thus, when she had turned to him and smiled slightly, he almost feared he would be conquered by her appreciation.

He heard the low murmur of voices coming from her room and was thankful that Elizabeth's new maid had come to her at last. Did she know that his was the room that was directly next to hers? Did she realize that he could gain access to her room via the connecting door? He suspected she did not. He sank back against the cushions of the armchair and closed his eyes. Even though her voice came to him only as a distant and muffled purr through the walls, as he heard it he could no longer imagine it ever being bitter and hostile as it was during far too many of their past conversations.

His eyes opened suddenly as he heard her laugh. Had she ever laughed with him? Never as far as he could recall. If she had laughed while with him, he now knew it was a mocking, chastising amusement and not at all sincere and open. Yet, her mirth seemed genuine enough now, even though he did not have the benefit of viewing her as she laughed. He felt his impatience rise again. That she could delight with a maid she had just met and not with him stung and his vulnerability to her again disturbed him.

He rose and began to undress and prepare for dinner. As he did so, he could not help but question when it was that he had become so utterly affected by her. Even after the scandal first erupted, when he had been seized by resentment over her patent aversion to him which had led them to this marriage, he knew he was far from immune to her. Yet, now that she was here and in his house, that anger was tinged with something else and he did not quite know what it was. He did, however, realize that perhaps assuming a steady indifference toward her was best if he meant to keep his wits about him. He was certain she liked him no more than she did before and he wondered if what he was feeling about her was little more than the tolerance she had accused him of earlier in the carriage.

He was certain of only one thing; he would not rest easy until he had reached some form of finality insofar as their relationship was concerned.

~ * ~

As Elizabeth ventured downstairs she wondered if she could ever come to regard the palatial townhouse as a home. It certainly seemed doubtful at this point. The panelled walls and marble and wood floors were unlike anything she had ever lived with at Longbourn. The multitude of servants, while smiling deferentially at her as she walked by them, must know that she was obviously in an environment entirely foreign to her. What did they think of her? she mused.

When she reached the bottom of the steps, she rounded a corner. She was relieved and not a little surprised to find not a single servant lingering about the area. Intending to find the dining room on her own, she began exploring. As she travelled down a long hallway, cooking smells wafted tantalizingly in the air alerting her to the fact that she must be nearing the stairs which led down to the kitchen and, thus, she was probably not close to the dining room after all. She did an about turn and decided to begin opening doors in the hopes of discovering the dining room unassisted. The first heavy oak door opened what she perceived to be Mr. Darcy's study. The minimal candlelight in the empty room revealed a massive wooden desk, some armchairs scattered about and a fireplace. Shutting the door hastily for fear of being caught snooping, she continued walking lightly.

Just as she was about to open another door, a voice arrested her movements.

"Dinner will be served in a quarter of an hour, madam. Will that be acceptable?"

Elizabeth turned swiftly, feeling as if she had just been caught in the midst of a forbidden activity. A stout, ruddy faced servant regarded her curiously.

"Perfectly so, thank you....Mr...."

"Wilson, ma'am. My name is Wilson. I have worked for the Darcys for eighteen years. A better family never lived." He remarked loyally.

"I am certain they value your constancy, Mr. Wilson, and feel quite lucky to have you as a trusted employee." As she spoke, she met his eye briefly and then looked past him. She needed to find that dining room - preferably before Mr. Darcy arrived there so she could prove to him that she did not need his guidance and could find her way around with ease.

"Thank you, Mrs. Darcy." He returned. "May I assist you in some way?"

She smiled circumspectly. "Thank you, but I believe I shall venture through this labyrinth on my own."

"Your servant, madam."

Wilson moved to allow her to pass him, but before she moved more than a few steps, she noticed Mr. Darcy had appeared and was watching her steadily. Thankfully, she had precious little time to feel embarrassed. She knew he had overheard her tell his servant that she meant to find her own way. No doubt he thought her stubborn and not grateful for refusing his earlier offer of assistance.

"Mrs. Darcy."

"Good evening." She walked toward him and took his arm. He casually led her to the dining room located near the front of the house. His expression appeared empty as she scanned his face although her own mortification was very real to her.

"Would you care for some wine before dinner?"

"No, thank you." She found she could not meet his eye.

The servants began placing various dishes upon the table. Mr. Darcy moved to a chair at one end of the table and pulled it out for her. She thanked him once again and took her place, watching as he moved toward his own chair which had been pulled out by a man she presumed was the butler.

"I expect your maid found her way to you, after all." His timbre was bland and uninterested.

"Ah, yes. Candace is her name. She is quite efficient."

He watched her as the table slowly began to fill with foods that evoked her hunger provocatively.

"I suspect she realizes now that she must be available to assist you without delay."

She eyed the bustling servants cautiously. As much as she did not wish to argue with him in their presence, he was trying her every resolve. Elizabeth gave him a hesitant smile in response.

"I understand that this particular young lady comes very highly recommended." He continued as he began to butter his bread. "Mrs. Graham did several checks and worked quite industriously to secure her."

So, he was determined not to forget the matter.

"Well then, I must remember to thank Mrs. Graham, for I find myself quite pleased with Candace."

He appeared to hesitate only slightly. "You did impress upon her the fact that you need her to be at the ready whenever you require her assistance. Truly, madam, we cannot have servants who dawdle when they should be prepared to meet our needs."

She sighed heavily. He was not to be gainsaid and her frustration began to overwhelm her. Would that he left the matter alone!

"Pardon me," she directed to the butler and the other servant laying a roasted duckling on the table, "Would you please excuse us for a moment?"

They initially looked at one another askance before bowing and exiting the room.

"Mr. Darcy, I believe you have communicated your point quite well. In fact, I understood you clearly earlier when we were in my room and you first mentioned it. I commend you on your explicability." She took a deep breath before continuing. "Please trust me, however, to understand how to manage my own maid. While we certainly did not possess quite so large a staff at Longbourn, we did have some servants in our employ. I have learned to manage them quite nicely, in fact."

She saw him place his utensils down and regard her closely. In response, she took a small bite of her buttered bread and chewed it almost as an act of defiance. This time, she had no reluctance as she met his gaze.

"Forgive me. I believe I wanted to guarantee she was serving you well. I certainly did not intend to challenge your expertise on this matter." He paused momentarily. "Still, you cannot deny that the expectations we must ask of our staff here are somewhat different from what was accepted in Hertfordshire."

There it was again - a direct undermining. Never being able to see herself at any form of a disadvantage, she was compelled to respond defensively.

"Ah, so now we come to it." She knew her eyes were flaring as she spoke. "What you mean to tell me is that in Hertfordshire, it was perfectly acceptable for us to manage our household staff with a laissez-faire attitude. Here in Town, we must be more diligent. Is that right, sir?"

"Definitely I did not intend to suggest you were formerly lax in your management. Yet, I do believe that because I am very selective in terms of whom I hire to work for me and can afford to pay each of them well, I am perfectly within my rights to expect them to be conscientious."

She had resumed eating while he was speaking to her. Although she understood his point perfectly, there remained a steady desire for her not to allow him to coerce her.

"I see." She returned carelessly.

"And, I make no apologies for my concerns, madam."

"Yes, Mr. Darcy. Once more, I understand."

The remainder of the meal passed in near silence. The servants had ventured to return to the room upon hearing them speak no more and only their voices occasionally were heard as they supplied them the remainder of the meal. Elizabeth, for one, could not be at all unhappy with the mantle of quiet that presently encased them. She had been quite famished and her near-heated debate with her new husband had initially threatened to eradicate her hunger. When the fruit was served, Elizabeth eyed the luscious oranges and apples with a tempted eye, but she was too satiated from eating the previous courses to enjoy them.

"Would you like to revisit the library before retiring?" Mr. Darcy asked as he rose from his seat.

In truth, she longed for nothing but the comfort that the soft bed in her room promised. Yet, she knew that if she denied him yet again, she would look like little more than a petulant child. Thus, she nodded her agreement to his suggestion and allowed him to escort her to the library.

Once there, she immediately ventured back to the poetry collection and selected a volume of Blake's poems. Elizabeth knew he was possibly questioning why she did not opt for Byron's work as he suggested, but at this point of the evening, she did not really care. She was tired and restless and believed she had done enough to please him for the day. She walked over to a loveseat and settled herself comfortably.

Mr. Darcy, meanwhile, did choose a tome of Byron's work and selected an armchair situated directly across from her. Whenever she furtively hazarded a glance over to him, he appeared deeply absorbed in his book.

She longed for his concentration. Blake's The Tyger, her favourite, did nothing to capture her attention that evening. Even his striking allusions to God's artistry which generally delighted her beyond measure did nothing to alleviate her growing exhaustion. She believed that perhaps one of his shorter poems may serve her well and scanned To The Evening Star and To Winter, but it was still to no avail. Her mind raced in a million directions, but her weary body begged for sleep.

"I beg your pardon, sir, but I find I cannot do justice to Blake's work tonight. Perhaps I am just tired." “I will see you to your room and retire myself." He rose and offered her his arm. He left her no choice but to take his arm. As they ascended the stairs, Elizabeth felt her fatigue replaced by apprehension. He had suggested he was going to sleep, but what if he insisted once again on entering her room? Surely, he knew theirs could not be a regular wedding night! Yet, she realized he was now her husband and their marital vows sanctioned him the right to make such demands upon her.

Hurredly, she again tried to recall the ridiculous words and advice given to her earlier by her mother and her friends. So little came to mind, her uneasiness only grew. She became so anxious that she nearly tripped on the edge of one of the Oriental rugs on the second floor. It was only Mr. Darcy's quick rescue which saved her. He looked at her cautiously and she in vain tried to meet his gaze with a look that did not reveal her embarrassment. Just before reaching her bedchamber, she quickly decided her only recourse was to feign a throbbing headache should he decide he did indeed want to visit with her.

He opened the door to her room and waited patiently for her to enter. Immediately after crossing the threshold, she turned suddenly to face him. She knew she was acting as a physical barrier to prevent him from entering, but she also knew that if he insisted upon following her within, she could do little to stop him. She heard Candace's soft footsteps in the room and hoped he would see her presence as another reason not to pursue her further.

"Good night, Mrs. Darcy. I hope you will sleep well. Your renowned early morning jaunts about Hertfordshire lead me to presume you are every bit as early a riser as am I."

She tried not to appear dumbstruck. "Yes...I have been known to rise early but given the long..."

"No matter," he interrupted her, but his voice was kind, "I will await you before sitting down to breakfast. Once more, good night."

She fought the urge to clasp her hands in delighted relief.

"Good night, sir." She was now smiling and she knew he had noticed.

Just as he turned to walk away, she closed the door. Once it was shut, she sank back against it gratefully and almost laughed her relief.

"Will this nightdress be acceptable, ma'am?" She turned and saw Candace regarding her curiously as she held up a silky white sleeveless creation her mother had selected for her. She could no longer stifle her giggle upon espying the nightshift's plunging neckline. Her mother clearly had a very different wedding night in mind when she picked out this nightgown for her. She looked over to the bed and saw the sheer and flimsy robe intended to cover the dress.

"Well Candace, my mother has never been a practical sort, I am afraid." She laughed softly. "I believe I have packed a few more modest shifts. Did you happen to find them?"

"I did come across a few cotton nightdresses, Mrs. Darcy. Would you prefer to wear those this evening?"

"Those would do nicely, thank you."

While Candace searched among her things, Elizabeth allowed herself to again release the peal of laughter that had been threatening to spill for several minutes. She realized Candace may very well believe her to be rather mad, but she could not help herself.

This morning, as she had prepared to leave Longbourn and travel to the church before her wedding, she had never believed it possible that she would end the day laughing. Then, it had all seemed so bleak, so unyielding.

Perhaps, if she tried very hard, there was still some laughter to be found in her future after all.

Chapter Fourteen

Mr. Darcy groaned as the morning sun gleamed through his bedroom window, waking him out of a deep slumber.

He was surprised that he had slept at all; he had gone to bed decidedly uneasy after spending a rather tense evening with Elizabeth. When he left her last night and entered his own bedchamber, he was so restless and annoyed he was certain Hyatt had believed him quite mad as he huffed his way out of his jacket and groaned as he removed his shirt. Sighing, he had carelessly thrown his trousers to the ground.

As he now rang the bell for Hyatt, he mused over the evening again. What had she been about, treading about his home before dinner looking through rooms? He had graciously offered to help her, yet she had wanted none of his assistance and was clearly trying to declare her autonomy.

Then, during dinner, when he merely suggested she be firm in the management of her maid who had already proven herself to be somewhat wayward, she had balked against his advice once more. Was there nothing he could say to her that would not culminate in a heated row?

As they walked up the stairs at the end of the evening, he noticed Elizabeth's discomfort. It was palpable - even to a fool who was not looking for it. He was not quite certain as to what caused her alarm and could only speculate. Did she suppose for a moment that he meant to bed her last night? He shook off that notion. Elizabeth was far too wise to believe that. He hoped that she was also somewhat more charitable in terms of her opinion of him. If she believed, even fleetingly, that he would force himself upon her then they truly were destined to be miserable.

Yet, he thought warily as he took a seat upon an armchair, he had perhaps been too solicitous toward her. Was that it? Did she long for a husband who did not advise her, did not care about easing her lot, who did not wish to spend even the briefest of time with her? Or, was he perhaps too adamant in his offers to help her? Had that been it?

Clearly, this Gordian knot* was far from unravelling.

Hyatt entered the room quietly, greeting him in a perfunctory manner before he set about preparing his clothes. Darcy stood and walked towards the dressing room while shrugging off his nightshirt. Through the walls, he once more heard the muffled voice of Elizabeth and the girl who must be her maid. Without quite knowing why, he was pleased that she too was awake. Perhaps sitting down to breakfast together may offer them an opportunity to start anew.

Hyatt helped him to dress before his shave. He felt his posture slump and forced himself to sit upright as he sat in his shaving chair. It certainly would not do for Hyatt or anyone else on his staff to gauge his dissatisfaction so early in his marriage. As Hyatt held the washcloth soaked in warm water to his face, Darcy tried to think of other things - inconsequential things such as purchasing another set of sheet music for Georgiana or declining the many invitations his steward informed him had arrived.

Anything other than Elizabeth.

Hyatt began the ritual of lathering his face before running the razor downward using long, even strokes. Darcy lost himself in his man's technique and found himself concentrating far too much on the entire process.

Thus, when the door adjoining his room to Elizabeth's bedchamber sprang open, it was the temperate Hyatt and not Darcy, who reacted first.

"Ah, Mrs. Darcy. Good morning to you. We shall be finished in no time, madam."

Darcy was immediately jolted out of his trance. He had absolutely no time to school the look of surprise from his face. He noticed Elizabeth was faring no better. Her mouth was agape and she appeared unable to move. He knew that if she could, she would have bolted directly from his room.

"Th-thank you, Mr. Hyatt," she managed. Somehow, she managed to back her way out of his room, little by little, without ever making eye contact with him.

"You will need to be quick, Hyatt," Darcy suddenly heard himself saying, "I must see to Mrs. Darcy immediately."

He barely heard his man's response, so mired was he in his own thoughts. What had possessed her to enter his room? He fancied that if he could hear her, she very well could possibly hear him through the walls.

Perhaps not.

Yet, he could no more deny himself the opportunity to speak with her than he could refuse to breathe. Pushing himself out of his chair, he hastily pulled off the towel which had been placed upon his chest. With it, he wiped off the scarce remnants of soap. He turned and shoved it into a bewildered Hyatt's hands and marched steadily towards the adjoining door.

Once he got there, he glanced back before twisting the handle open. Hyatt remained standing in the middle of the room, towel in hand, looking after him with a face etched in bewilderment.

"Er...pardon me, Hyatt. Clearly, Mrs. Darcy requires some assistance."

He offered the man a diffident smile which he, in turn, chose not to respond to.

To his great relief the door was unlocked. He had believed she would lock it and bar him from the room forevermore after discovering he was on the other side of it. As he entered, he realized that, in her haste to get away, it was very likely Elizabeth had forgotten to bolt the adjoining door.

He saw Elizabeth look up to him circumspectly as she heard him enter. Evidently, she and her maid were still sorting through Elizabeth's clothing. Her maid appeared significantly less surprised to see him entering her bedchamber than did his wife.

"Um...Good morning." He turned to Candace, "I believe Mrs. Darcy informed me that your name is Candace. Is that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"I trust you have settled in well?" He inquired, looking over to Elizabeth briefly.

"Yes, sir. Very well."

"Fine. Now, please excuse us, Candace. There are a few things I need to discuss with my wife."

The young girl curtseyed and left the room quickly. As she moved, Darcy's eyes remained upon her. He was not quite certain what he would find once he gazed again at Elizabeth and thus, looking at Candace seemed the safer alternative to him.

Yet, when he was alone with his wife, he was not able to avoid her for long. The sound of Elizabeth's voice addressing him compelled him to turn to her sooner than he was prepared to.

"Mr. Darcy, you must pardon me for charging into your room earlier. Truly, I was unaware that was the door to your bedchamber. You must believe I would never have entered if had I known."

He opened his mouth to speak, but Elizabeth was not quite finished with him yet. She continued, her voice unstable.

"Since we are discussing it now, Mr. Darcy, I should let you know that I find it rather upsetting that you did not see fit to inform me that we have adjoining bedchambers. Did you not think it something I should know?

He paused, uncertain of whether she intended to carry on. When he ascertained that she was finished, he began.

"Yes, we do appear to be discussing it presently - but we did not have much time to probe the geography of the townhouse in much depth yesterday." He walked over to the window and looked out briefly before turning to face her again. "We arrived quite late and did not talk about much of anything after our dinner. I do, however, hope to acquaint you with your new home today and perhaps even take you on a brief tour of sorts."

Her expression during his speech was a peculiar one of mixed emotions. He, in contrast, was trying very diligently to appear casual and not provoke another argument.

"I see." She looked down to her slippers. "I would very much like to see your home, Mr. Darcy."

"Good because I would like for you to see it. And, it is now your home too and no longer just my own."

He had meant to be kind and he saw her struggle to come up with a response. Rather than having her do so, he stepped toward her.

"Are you prepared to come down for breakfast or shall you need to meet with Candace yet again?" Even to his own ears, his voice sounded indifferent and he congratulated himself for appearing so unmoved.

"No. I will join you for breakfast - as we discussed last night."

Rather than reply, he simply held out his arm in invitation. She took it - again uncertainly. He stifled the sigh he felt rising within him. They proceeded downstairs silently.

However, when they were seated at the breakfast table, once more he was stunned to hear her initiate conversation with him.

"Do you have much family and friends here in London, sir?"

"Not a great deal of family - many friends though."

"They are in town now? Before the start of the Season?"

"No. They remain in the country - a great many of them do anyway." He relaxed back into his chair. "Though I do have some family here at the moment. The Matlocks - Colonel Fitzwilliam's family - are here early. 'Tis unusual for them to be here at this time of year, yet they had some work done to their home and wanted to be sure it met with their approval before the Season began in earnest."

"I see."

Her movements as she cut her ham were quick and steady. He thought he detected some anxiety, but knowing his past lack of ability to assess her with any degree of accuracy, he chose to overlook it.

"We will visit them soon. Georgiana is staying with them now. She and my cousin also intended to journey back to London yesterday. No doubt she is longing to see you."

Her momentary smile simply lit up her features in a manner Darcy had not beheld in some time.

"Wonderful! I must say I am pleased that Georgiana is so near for I do so wish to know her better." She paused briefly and her smile vanished as swiftly as it had appeared, "And to make the acquaintance of your other relations too, of course."

"Come now, Mrs. Darcy," he could not keep from laughing, "They will not be so bad. You may even come to like them."

"Pray, I do not believe I suggested I would not. Whatever do you mean, sir?"

"Why only that you appear rather uneasy and - before you interject and tell me that you are not - I noticed your face fall when you mentioned them. Fear not, however; they are rather daunting but only so at first."

Darcy silently wished he could be as certain of this as he sounded to her. In truth, he was quite concerned about how his aunt and uncle would look upon Elizabeth as his wife. He allowed himself to recall the humorous words between Fitzwilliam and himself, when they had joked about how Fitzwilliam's parents wanted to throw things at him after learning he was going to marry her. He found that memory made it easier for him to be nonchalant about the eventual meeting between Elizabeth and his family.

She smiled wryly, "Is that your only family, Mr. Darcy? Apart from Lady Catherine and her daughter, of course."

He detected a look of vibrant curiosity upon her countenance and wondered about it briefly. Was she truly so eager to know about his relations? If she was, her interest may bode well for her when she did meet them.

"Yes. I have no other living relations. My aunt, Lady Catherine, is, as you know, in Hunsford."

He watched her as she completed her breakfast. In the end, she had eaten little, but he did not find that altogether surprising. He knew she was still apprehensive and looked at the fact that she was attempting to engage him in dialogue as a definite improvement.

If they could manage to live through the day without brooking further argument, he would have every reason to be pleased.

"If you have finished your breakfast, perhaps we can begin our tour of the house. I would also like for you to meet with my steward and me so we can discuss your allowance and other such matters. I imagine Mrs. Graham would also like to meet with you briefly."

"I see you have quite a bit planned for me, sir. Not surprising - but rather portentous all the same." He was surprised to once again observe her nervous smile.

He knew then that she was right: he should not expect her to be quite so industrious on the first day after her marriage. Yet again, he had managed to misread what was appropriate in circumstances such as theirs. He could not truly fault himself, however. After all, he was every bit as new to the experience as was she.

"Pardon me. I did not intend to overload you with duties on your first day here."

He wanted to somehow expand and clarify his own confusion, but curiously felt unable to do so. He chose instead to remain silent and looked away from her.

"Sir, you misunderstand me. I welcome the distraction of keeping myself occupied, but I hope you do not expect me not to feel slightly overwhelmed - that is all."

"I appreciate that, madam. I hope that you realize that my staff will do everything they can to assist you as you learn your role." He hesitated and, suddenly, it felt natural to continue, "I also mean to make this...transition a less onerous one for you." Her eyes shifted to his immediately. "Understand, however, that this is an adjustment for me as well...and I may disappoint."

Elizabeth began to play with her napkin and did not immediately respond. He wondered if he had yet again offended her and began to feel slightly incensed at the fact that they so often managed to misread one another. It all began to feel like such a hopeless business.

"I appreciate that, sir. Thank you."

Her voice was small, but he had heard it. For the moment, it was enough.

~ * ~

In the early afternoon of that same day, Elizabeth sat in the downstairs sitting room nearly swept away with wonder.

Once breakfast was over, Mr. Darcy personally took her on a tour of the house. She believed she had seen everything but, given the expansiveness of it, she could not be quite sure.

He had shown her the small office which was at her disposal and instructed her to change anything at all that she liked. Not surprisingly, she was quite content with it as it was. Last night, she had found it all so daunting; today her perspective was so radically different. In fact, the entire house was so tastefully done, she had no complaints whatsoever.

In the past, when she was in town staying with her aunt and uncle, she had visited a few grand houses. While none of them in any way compared to the Darcy townhouse, they were well situated and expensively furnished. Yet, in them, Elizabeth had felt so noticeably out of place. She knew she could have never lived in such palatial homes with any degree of readiness or gratification.

However, she had to admit that, in spite of her discomfort at being here and her unease regarding what had led her here in the first place, she felt Mr. Darcy's magnificent home was somewhat different. The rooms were well proportioned and the furnishings were considerably better than what she was accustomed to at Longbourn or even at her relations' home in London. Yet, the home in no way reeked of ostentation or showy materialism.

Actually, if her circumstances had been different, she imagined she could very well come to see this home with as much pride and pleasure as Mr. Darcy himself had demonstrated while he showed her about the place.

She moved to the window and looked outside with delight. The snow topped trees and rooftops of the homes across the road were actually quite pretty and captivating. While she was accustomed to the occasional snowy drifts at Longbourn, the geography there was so vastly different. Here in London, the snow that appeared to cling to everything outside the townhouse seemed to stubbornly assert its will over the crowded landscape. In Hertfordshire, the more open spaces of the countryside seemed to somehow give the snow freer reign to liberally blanket the rural area. Of course, she had been in London before during the winter, but then it had been in later months when the snow had been nothing more than large residual puddles or dull, grey slush.

This proudly determined snow she now viewed was very much like her new husband. Yet, unlike the city's branches, streets and buildings burdened beneath the glistening sheet of frost that now covered them, she would not bow under his influence. She was convinced that the only way to survive her circumstances and not view them as quite so insufferable was to not allow anyone - Mr. Darcy in particular - to assert his or her will over her. She would not - she must not - permit anyone to blanket her.

Still, Mr. Darcy had recently been more civil than he had ever been in the past. She could not deny that. He was by no means entirely affable and she knew that without question he would have preferred a different type of wife, but he seemed conscious of not wanting to disturb her unnecessarily or needle her into an argument. She could not help feeling relieved. Even a brief respite from their acrimony was a welcome one.

As she continued to observe the snowy vista outside, her mind turned suddenly as she considered exactly what type of wife Mr. Darcy would have selected had he been given the choice. She recalled that when she had first met Mr. Wickham, he had suggested that Mr. Darcy would very likely one day marry Lady Catherine's daughter and thereby unite their two grand estates. In truth, she knew precious little about Anne De Bourgh other than what her sycophantic cousin, Mr. Collins, had relayed to her and she hardly trusted his heavily biased perception of the young woman's character. In her heart, however, she believed a wealthy female heir such as Miss De Bourgh must definitely be formidable in some manner and therefore very likely to be a much more suitable match for Mr. Darcy than was she.

She walked over to the small chaise and picked up her needlework. If her husband had formerly sought to increase his personal fortune through marriage, then he must now feel decidedly disappointed. His union with her provided him with more or less nothing. In fact, her meagre one-hundred a year settlement must seem utterly ridiculous to him. She sighed resignedly.

How often he must lament the loss of Anne De Bourgh!

Elizabeth examined her work critically. Well, she thought with a wry grin, he had married a wife who was somewhat competent in her needlework anyway. The floral and leaf pattern actually was discernible and not merely a mass of jumbled threads and knots as her work had sometimes been in the past. She was producing her very best of work and under the most trying circumstances of her life. Perhaps, in the end, her forced concentration on it was truly the secret behind what she had previously considered an impossible feminine pastime.

Rather than continue working, however, she found her mind wandering to her discussion a few hours earlier with Mr. Darcy and his steward, Mr. Gilmore. The gentlemen had quite shocked her. Of course, her parents had implied her husband would bestow upon her a generous settlement, but she was completely unprepared for it when she learned the exact sum. In fact, her mother had needled her father mercilessly to discover the precise figure, but Mr. Bennet had remained committed to his silence. She imagined he would have shared the information with her - had she asked - but, at the time, her head was too full of her unfortunate future to really care about her prospective financial status.

Yet, such a settlement! How she could ever spend even half of it seemed impossible for her to fathom. Mr. Darcy had assured her that he was not being any more generous than was necessary and that his moneyed friends had given their wives similarly munificent amounts to work with, but she still could not credit that he was being entirely truthful.

As she recalled his suggestion that she purchase an entirely new wardrobe, she began to inwardly fume. Did he think the dresses she had just bought in Meryton were not good enough? Obviously, he did not! Of course, he had not seen them all, but she was wearing one today - a lovely pale pink creation - but she did not imagine he had even noticed it.

Well, if he expected her to spend his money then she would. But she flatly refused to ever spend it all - she would never allow herself to lavishly take advantage of her new position and thereby become so avaricious.

Nevertheless, as much as she wished to deny it, he was quite right about her requiring considerably more than what she had brought with her from Longbourn. Mr. Gilmore himself had gone through several invitations which had been sent to Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. She was surprised at how strangely busy London was during what she had always believed was a rather dull time. Clearly, the few rich who were in Town could apparently afford to throw copious parties for no reason at all! Still, Mr. Darcy had instructed his steward to decline all of the engagements after glibly suggesting that the rush of parties were little more than veiled attempts for his friends to curb their curiosity about their marriage. Nevertheless, she imagined there would be future occasions where they would have to attend and she had no desire to appear inferior before his well-heeled, affluent friends.

Mr. Darcy had also educated her briefly on the harsh winters that were very much the reality at Pemberley. She had no clear notion of when he intended to travel back to his ancestral home, but she knew they could not remain in London forever. Thus, she would purchase a new warm cloak and a pelisse in addition to more gloves and possibly even a muff - even though she believed them to be unnecessary and had always vowed never to wear one. It may prove to be just the thing she would need if ever they ventured out in the bitter cold. She would ask her Aunt Gardiner to suggest some shops for her to visit and to accompany her.

She was not surprised that this new life of hers was one that was already riddled with perplexing aspects that were so inconceivably different from what she had been accustomed to in Hertfordshire. Once more, she wondered if she would be able to effectively meet the demands of her new position. She certainly did not want to provide Mr. Darcy with additional reasons to feel the condescending need to instruct her.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Darcy, the Matlocks and Miss Georgiana have arrived. Shall I show them to the upstairs sitting room?"

Elizabeth had been too preoccupied with her thoughts to notice Mrs. Graham's entrance into the room and thus, she was slightly stunned at the sound of her voice. The news she relayed to her only added to her astonishment. This morning at breakfast, Mr. Darcy had informed her that they would be visiting them - yet now here they were! It was all rather shocking! She had no time to prepare for this visit or to probe her husband more extensively about what she might expect from meeting them. Yet, she could no more deny them entrance than she could flee from the room in apprehension - particularly when Georgiana herself was there as well. She appreciated the young girl's patience to wait to be admitted to her own house. Miss Darcy evidently did not intend to intrude in what she believed to be a honeymoon of sorts. Elizabeth almost laughed scornfully at how wrong she was.

"Tell me - does Mr. Darcy habitually entertain upstairs?" Elizabeth asked nervously.

"Oftentimes he does, but he has welcomed his relations in this room as well." Mrs. Graham paused. "I could ask for his opinion on the matter, but I am afraid your visitors are quite anxious to be admitted and will not look kindly upon being asked to wait for a more extended period."

"Then show them in here please, Mrs. Graham." She felt her fingers instinctively ball into fists; she stilled her hands in what she hoped would appear to be a casual manner. "But inform Mr. Darcy that his family has come to call. I am certain he would like to meet with them."

"Very well, ma'am."

Once alone, Elizabeth did all she could to prevent her disquiet from overwhelming her.

Madam, please understand my family will not stand for any degradation of our reputation. I join them in this. We must, at all costs, not cause shame to come to my family.

So Mr. Darcy had instructed her. Had these instructions come from his relations or were they entirely his own? She hardly knew and, in the end, it hardly mattered: she understood what was expected - they needed to appear very much a typical newly wedded couple.

Yet, how did a typical wealthy couple in Mr. Darcy's sphere generally behave? She had no way of knowing. Really, how could she be expected to know?

The noise outside the door grew louder and, suddenly, a joyful Colonel Fitzwilliam entered followed by a considerably more reticent, yet smiling, Georgiana.

"Mrs. Darcy - or shall I call you 'Cousin Elizabeth' - welcome to London and to your new home."

Elizabeth felt herself begin to relax.

"Colonel Fitzwilliam, call me what you must, but I should warn you - one of my least favourite relations calls me 'Cousin Elizabeth'. Even so, thank you for calling upon us. I am pleased you have both journeyed here safely." She turned to her sister-in-law, "Georgiana - welcome home!"

"Oh no! I have not come to stay - not yet, Elizabeth. You and Fitzwilliam require...more time. I shall return, but not yet." The young girl greeted her with an enthusiastic hug which Elizabeth welcomed readily.

"Quickly, Mrs. Darcy, we have not much time. My overbearing parents have accompanied us on this call. They can be quite horrible, although I believe if anyone can temper them, it will be you. They would have been in here already, but they are busy chastising my cousin's entire household staff."

Elizabeth and her new cousin began to laugh conspiratorially, but they were almost instantly interrupted by the booming voice of an elder gentleman who had entered the sitting room.

"Ah, Mrs. Darcy, I presume. Allow me to introduce myself since my thoughtless nephew seems to be otherwise occupied - I am Lord Edward Matlock and this is my wife, Lady Gwendolyn. I see you already know my son, Richard."

His words were friendly enough, but Elizabeth detected his countenance was free of any smile and his eyes were rather cool. Lady Matlock's visage registered no emotion whatsoever. As she observed them, she felt an awkwardness and worry seize her anew, but she bowed politely to her husband's aunt and uncle and vowed to remain more civil than they were.

"Lord and Lady Matlock, it is indeed a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for calling upon us."

"Of course you already know Georgiana. She has done nothing but rave about you to anyone who would listen. She is quite obsessed with you already," said a wary Lady Matlock.

"Georgiana is everything I could wish for in another sister. I have four others who are quite dear to me, but I already like my new fifth sister every bit as much." Elizabeth smiled warmly at the young girl who had turned quite red. In an attempt to shift the attention away from the discomfited girl, Elizabeth said, "Will you not sit down? I have sent for Mr. Darcy and I am sure Mrs. Graham will soon return with some tea for us to enjoy."

The Matlocks moved to occupy the loveseat directly opposite her, while Colonel Fitzwilliam sat in the armchair next to her own. Georgiana sat dutifully in a chair beside her relations, but she smiled nervously at Elizabeth.

Never having been at a loss for words in the past, Elizabeth wondered at her inability to think of anything worthwhile to discuss now. She was far from comfortable, of course, but she had been in tense situations before and somehow had been able to talk her way through them. This scene was so different - she was rendered almost speechless. Yet, what did one say to new relations who viewed her with doubt or, at very least, considered her beneath them?

She chose to smile at them kindly. Thankfully, Colonel Fitzwilliam broke the silence.

"Well, Mrs. Darcy? What do you think of your new home? It is quite...large and imposing, is it not?"

"It is indeed large. Yet, it is so well proportioned and comfortably furnished, I find it quite satisfactory and only slightly imposing."

She immediately regretted her droll response. Would the Matlocks view her opinions of the house as callous and mercenary? She hoped not for she had not considered the opulence of the house when she initially replied about her contentment and she was too distressed to be purposefully witty.

Where was Mr. Darcy? She grew increasingly irate as the length of his absence grew. Surely, by now, he had been informed that his relations had arrived. His study down the hall was not so far from the sitting room they occupied. Was he purposely avoiding the meeting? Could he expect her to manage this on her own? If he did, he was indeed hard-hearted.

Thankfully, she soon heard his rapid footsteps tapping on the marble floor and all but sighed aloud in relief. She hoped his presence would mean that he intended to assist her in this first meeting with his nearest relations.

"I am terribly sorry everyone. I was upstairs on the second floor considering whether it would serve us well to renovate our guest chambers." He turned to Elizabeth abruptly. "Actually, I was about to solicit your advice on the matter when I learned that we had company. I apologize for not being here, but I trust the introductions have been made."

"Yes, yes, Darcy. We have already met your new wife - even though you were too occupied to make the overture yourself."

Lord Matlock's voice ringed with disapproval, yet Elizabeth was surprised to see her husband patently disregard it and instead turn to greet his sister who had stood to receive his embrace. She knew Mr. Darcy would never overlook such a tone coming from her and would have challenged her immediately upon hearing it. Evidently, he was considerably more patient with his family than he was with her. His cousin, she noticed, received a less affectionate greeting, but the fact that these two men admired and respected one another was obvious even to her who did not know either of them well. Her own nervousness over this meeting was quickly replaced by a genuine curiosity to see how her husband behaved among those he considered his equals or even his betters.

"Georgiana, are you being a good girl during your stay with our relations? Have you managed to think up ways in which to avoid spending too much time with Fitzwilliam? We all know what a horrendous influence he is."

His cousin appeared ready to interject, but he was waylaid by his impatient father.

"Do stop being so ridiculous, Darcy! Of course, Georgiana is a lovely guest and my merry son will soon be too busy to bother with us at all," cried Lord Matlock. "We are here to become further acquainted with your wife and not to discuss such inconsequential nonsense."

"Actually Uncle, we were intending to call upon you one day soon, but your surprise visit today has prevented us from having to make a call of introduction."

"Pardon us, Nephew, but you almost snubbed us last time you were in Town," interjected Lady Matlock, "You can hardly expect us to await your call. We may end up waiting forever and none of us have time for that."

Elizabeth smiled at this exchange. Even if the Matlocks were not openly welcoming her into their family, she appreciated their humorous dismissal of Mr. Darcy and found she could not really disapprove of them.

"Well, I am glad you have called today. I shall be sure to return the visit - with or without my husband," Elizabeth affirmed.

"My nephew informed us that you have an uncle - a Mr. Gardiner, I believe - who lives in London. He is a tradesman, is that correct?" asked Lady Matlock.

"He is. My uncle lives in Cheapside," she hesitated to weigh their reactions and was pleased to see they had none. Obviously, they were well aware of where her relations resided and were not shocked by her words, "He deals in the exporting and importing of goods and has made a very generous living for his family who are almost as dear to me as my own family."

Now it was Lord Matlock's turn to question her. "I see. And your immediate family - your mother and father and sisters - live in Hertfordshire?"

"Yes," she returned levelly.

"In fact, they live in a very charming estate situated very close to Meryton. Is it not lovely, Georgiana?" Asked a merry Colonel Fitzwilliam.

"Very lovely indeed, Fitzwilliam." Georgiana returned with a shy smile at Elizabeth.

When Mrs. Graham entered with tea and a light repast, the group grew suddenly silent as they observed the housekeeper's steady preparation of the food items. When she left immediately after completing her work, they all looked to one another in askance.

Why, this is all quite ridiculous actually! What do we do now? I wonder if I am at all scoring well on this examination of my background. Alas, I am in all likelihood performing quite miserably! Elizabeth's ruminations caused her to relinquish the smile that she had previously been suppressing.

"Er...Have you seen any more of your friends in London since we last met, Uncle?"

"Hardly any at all, Darcy. It has been pleasantly quiet in these parts. We find we quite like it almost as much as we enjoy the frenetic bustle of April in Town."

"Yes indeed, my dear," said Lady Matlock, "We do not normally visit Town at this time of year, but we have resolved to do so much more frequently after this visit. It is so peaceful - exactly what we needed following a rather tiring hunting season upon our estate."

"Well, I find London rather empty and dull, Darce. But, then again, I do not have my favourite cousin any longer to help me make this dreary town more enjoyable."

Elizabeth turned to watch Colonel Fitzwilliam with not a little surprise. Was he implying that her husband was normally responsible for assisting him to make London livelier? She could hardly credit that; certainly, he was being facetious. She smiled brilliantly at him as a signal to him that she appreciated his joke.

"While we are on the topic of 'livening' up London, have you received the Smith's invitation to the musicale soiree they are hosting in two days?"

"I have, Aunt. I have declined it." Elizabeth watched Mr. Darcy move from standing beside her to sitting in the chair to his cousin's right.

"You have? And the ice-skating party the Boyces are hosting on Wednesday? Surely you will attend that! They have been decorating their garden in preparation for over a month! It will be quite splendid."

Lady Matlock appeared quite determined in her appeal to her nephew, who in return gave the impression of nonchalance.

"In all likelihood, it will be quite amazing, but Mrs. Darcy and I have nevertheless decided not to attend."

"Not attend!" Lord Matlock cried suddenly, "Not attend that party either? Well, I suppose you will then have no desire to accept our own meagre request that you both dine with us on Christmas night - though we come to you in person to deliver the invitation."

"Calm yourself, sir! Of course our nephew and his new wife will not deny us the pleasure of their company on the holiest of all evenings!" His aunt regarded him closely as though she almost expected to be able to read his response in his features. "It will be an intimate gathering, Darcy. Only yourselves and four other families will be in attendance - all of whom you are acquainted with and who would like nothing better than to meet your lovely wife."

"Do say you will come, Cousin. It will be dreadfully boring without you and Mrs. Darcy."

"It will be the farthest thing from being 'dreadfully boring', Fitzwilliam," boomed his father. "It will be a delightful evening filled with good company, pleasant conversation and delicious food! Your cousin cannot possibly refuse our company with any hope of retaining his reputation for possessing good manners and superior taste!"

Elizabeth had been attending the conversation between father and son so carefully she had not noticed that Mr. Darcy was looking at her intently. Thus, when she turned to him and found him openly staring at her, she was quite surprised. She raised her eyebrow at him questioningly. Did he expect her to settle his relations ruffled feathers? He would be sorely disappointed if he did as she had no intention of interjecting on his behalf. After all, they were his family and not her own!

"Well, Mrs. Darcy? It appears we have little choice in the matter. Would you like to attend my aunt and uncle's Christmas fete?"

Had they been alone, she would have been able to unleash the resentment she felt as he directed the responsibility for accepting or declining the invitation upon her shoulders. As it was now, she could hardly tell him of her pique and umbrage before his relations. She stewed privately; if he meant for her to decline their request as he had refused all other invitations, he was about to be sorely disappointed.

"Well, I cannot imagine rejecting such a tempting invitation, Mr. Darcy. Can you? I look forward to it already and yet I must wait almost a full week for it to occur." Elizabeth was careful to maintain eye contact with her husband during her response. He shifted a bit in his seat, but otherwise he appeared unmoved and she could not deny she was a tiny bit disappointed that he did not demonstrate more obvious discomfort.

"Mrs. Darcy, I am happy to see that you at least have the good sense that my nephew seems to lack these days." His uncle turned to face his nephew, "Really Darcy, do you imagine that cloistering yourself in this mammoth townhouse will do anything to call attention away from your hasty marriage? I would have thought you possessed a bit more experience and natural wisdom than that."

"In truth, I did not mean to intentionally avoid public exposure, although I do understand that my reticence may be perceived as such."

Elizabeth looked over at her sister-in-law hurriedly. She was worried about this turn of conversation and the effect it would have on her. If they continued, she would no doubt soon possess enough information to know exactly the reason why they had married so quickly. In fact, Georgiana already looked quite alarmed. The young girl was looking away from her brother helplessly and appeared as though she longed to be anywhere other than in their company.

"Georgiana, will you not accompany me to my room? I have been told that your brother and Mrs. Graham have changed it significantly since you saw it last. I would like to have your opinion on the transformation. Perhaps you can even suggest some additional items I can add to it?"

"I would like that very much, Elizabeth."

They both rose to quit the room in mutually suppressed relief, but were prevented from doing so at the sound of Lord Matlock's loud voice.

"A moment please, Georgiana. You can certainly examine the room on your own, my dear. You do not require Mrs. Darcy's company as I am quite sure you know the room's location." The older gentleman turned to his nephew questioningly, "She has been given your late mother's former room, has she not?"

"She has." Her husband voice was level, but Elizabeth knew him well enough to realize he was far from composed.

"Well then, she will find it with no great difficulty. After all, we much prefer a few additional moments of your wife's amenable company," said Lady Matlock with a small smile.

Georgiana looked at her brother and then at his new wife anxiously. Elizabeth tried to offer the nervous girl a reassuring smile even though her own insides were churning with apprehension. For a moment, Georgiana looked unsure of whether she should depart their company, but given that she was half out of the room already, she seemed to decide she had no choice and exited hastily.

When Elizabeth turned and took her seat once more, she directed her gaze to Mr. Darcy who appeared to have gone white with repressed anger. She decided she would never be able to maintain her composure if she focussed too much on his reaction. Instead, she fixed her gaze upon Colonel Fitzwilliam who threw her an apologetic smile.

"Mrs. Darcy, no doubt you find us quite rude in our insistence to have a private audience with you." Elizabeth was about to demur politely, but she was prevented from doing so by Lady Matlock's continuation, "However, there are things that need to be discussed openly amongst us without fear of offending your new sister's sensibilities."

"My wife is quite right, my dear. Please allow us to be frank and then we need never broach this topic at all in the future."

Colonel Fitzwilliam interrupted before either Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy could reply.

"My dear Mother and Father, I fail to see what you believe warrants this private conversation. Mrs. Darcy is now a member of our family and I daresay she will do us all a great deal of good. I already know her to be a natural wit and she has agreed to connect herself to my sometime-proud cousin so I personally approve of her immensely!"

Elizabeth smiled at her new cousin warmly, but she noticed her husband afforded him no such warmth. He remained so overcome with anger, he was literally wordless. She supposed it was too much to think he would defend her, yet his own cousin and friend had spoken defensively on her behalf.

"Fitzwilliam, you often remind me of an oblivious reprobate. Careful not to perpetuate that image too heedlessly for I assure you it will do us all considerable harm!" His father warned.

"Please do not be wary of discussing your feelings openly before me," Elizabeth interjected. "I appreciate your son's desire to spare me, but I will listen to you. Especially, of course, if you permit me to be equally as honest in my conversation with you."

Elizabeth wondered where her confidence had come from. If she were a third party listening to her address the elevated personages gathered there, she would likely think her not at all distressed. If she was honest, however, she was far from complacent about this presumably candid dialogue with persons she barely knew.

"Of course, Mrs. Darcy. We expect you to be as frank as we will be. In fact, nothing we have to say to you is at all bad really." Lord Matlock paused slightly and drew a large breath. "You must know that we have discovered the true circumstances that led to your marriage. While we are not pleased and cannot help but wish the situation were different, we mean our visit today to signal to you and to everyone that we accept you into our family. We intend to do everything within our power to see to it that your admission into this family is as undemanding as possible."

"Thank you. I am honoured to be accepted by you so readily. I must admit, I had hoped we would come to regard one another favourably and your latest words to me this afternoon give me every reason to expect the progression of a continued good relationship between us."

Mr. Darcy exhaled audibly and his posture relaxed slightly. Elizabeth had no doubt that he shared her relief in this instance.

"Thank you, Aunt and Uncle. I expected no less from you."

"Well, Mrs. Darcy, you have dealt quite well with my parents' officious interference. Bravo!"

"Fitzwilliam, really!" cried his mother. "Officious we most certainly are not! Thank heavens we have met in private. Anyone hearing you would consider us little more than meddlesome busybodies and, that, we most assuredly are not! We hope our new niece now realizes we intend to be charitable and not interfering."

"Indeed I do, Lady Matlock. Please know I can accept my new cousin's good humour with charity as well."

For almost the first time that afternoon, the smile that graced her face was genuine. She noticed Mr. Darcy regarding her furtively and then casually looking away when she met his eye.

Elizabeth poured another cup of tea for all their guests and the conversation became suddenly less strained. She listened as they discussed the limited theatre productions being performed at this time of year and even offered her opinion once or twice when they mentioned a play she had seen or read before. Her husband, she noticed, was visibly more relaxed as well. She heard him laugh softly and attempt to discipline the teasing Colonel several times. By the time Georgiana returned to join them, they were a rather more friendly group than the one she had left. Elizabeth saw her look to her brother doubtfully and observed the reassuring grin he offered her in return.

After almost an hour, the visitors were prepared to depart their company. Naturally, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy joined them in the foyer as the servants assisted the party with their coats. When Mr. Darcy came to stand beside her and offered her his arm, she was surprised, but she took it quickly as she noted Lady Matlock's shrewd look upon them both. Here again, was the pretence they had to assume. She wished their openness during this visit had allowed them all to eliminate this false scene of domestic tranquility on behalf of the servants and Georgiana, but she realized this was still a futile hope on her part.

Just before they departed, Elizabeth released her husband's arm and moved to join her sister-in-law.

"Georgiana, remember this is your home. You are quite welcome to return to it anytime you wish to. I hope that you know that."

"Oh please, Mrs. Darcy, do not remove the only element of pleasure I have! I do so love to tease my young cousin and it would be such an inconvenience if I had to travel here each and every time the urge struck me to do it." Colonel Fitzwilliam replied with a mixture of petulance and laughter.

They all laughed merrily and, for a while, all of their earlier discomfort was forgotten once again. Elizabeth hugged Miss Darcy and watched as her brother whispered a few words to her as he embraced her himself. She could not hear what he said, but she was pleased to see Georgiana smile up at him when he released her. Their greeting to the rest of the party was notably warmer than it was when they first arrived and Elizabeth fancied their next meeting would go a long way to lessen any residual tension between the Darcys and the Matlocks.

When the door closed behind them and the servants left to continue doing whatever it was they did throughout the household, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy remained looking at it for some time. She knew she should feel proud that she had stood her ground against her husband's relations, and she believed them when they said they had not intended to be so harsh with her after all. Their visit had personal and social significance and she knew she should be thankful it had all gone considerably better than what she had feared when they first arrived. Yet, she felt something...she was just uncertain as to what it was or what to call it which had left her so...so out of sorts.

"Congratulations, Mrs. Darcy. You have charmed them remarkably, but then, I suppose I always knew you would."

She turned to see her husband beaming at her and, suddenly, she recalled what prevented her from accepting his family's welcome wholeheartedly. It was none other than Mr. Darcy himself!

"If I did charm them, sir, I believe I did it on my own. You were little help to me at all." She turned and walked away from him back into the drawing room.

He followed her, of course, and instructed a busy Mrs. Graham and another servant to leave the tea things for the time being. Once they left, he shut the door so they were afforded more privacy.

"Madam, tell me what has inspired your current ire against me. I am afraid I am once more at a loss when it comes to understanding you."

"Really? I will be plainer in my speech then. Why did you feel it was solely my responsibility to defend myself in the presence of your relations? Remember, sir, these are people who I do not know at all. I believe that in the end the entire meeting went quite well, but it could have easily erupted into an unpleasant situation for all of us and, if it had, your reserve would not have served me at all well."

"Actually, Mrs. Darcy, I almost felt compelled to interject several times, but I admit I was unsure that I would be able to temper my reaction as well as you did." He moved over to the mantle and leaned cavalierly upon it. "You see, my new wife, when I congratulated you just now, I was being utterly sincere. I commend you on your delivery today, and - up until the time when you hesitated before taking my arm, I would have thought you every bit the dutiful wife and niece you pretended to be."

"Pardon me, I thought I did remarkably well considering I was being asked to take the arm of a man who did not regard me as worthy enough to defend against his inquisitive relations."

"And so you did. Remarkably well - and I will do better in the future under your fine tutelage." He returned evenly. "I hope you excuse me for increasing your sense of unease this afternoon. It was not a conscious effort on my part."

"Again, just so you remember, it was you, sir, who instructed me to assume a false front when we were in public. You were right then to commend me for I have done a better job of it than you have yourself."

"Most assuredly you have, Mrs. Darcy." He walked toward her calmly. "And I have already commended you three times for it. Do you need to hear it again? Did you not tell me yesterday that you were perfectly able to understand me and, thus, I had no need to repeat myself? If we continue to discuss this, another row is sure to happen."

She turned her head away from him and looked for a means of escape. Elizabeth did not quite know what she expected him to do now, but she did know that if he continued trying to be so agreeable, she could not very well hold on to her anger with any degree of entitlement.

"Actually, I do not require constant repetition. You are right and I can accept your commendation more easily now."

The look on his face as she spoke was hard to read. On the one hand, he appeared resigned or at least relieved, but on the other hand, he seemed as if he were tired of their exchange. If it was the latter he was feeling, she could hardly blame him; she was tired herself and longed to be free of him for at least a short time.

"I believe I will visit my sitting room and begin a letter to Jane and my father. No doubt they are anxious to hear from me."

"Very well - and I will attempt to read. I should meet with my steward, Mr.Gilmore, again, but I fear I will be unable to give him the attention he deserves. Should you need to speak with me, I will be here."

Thus, when Elizabeth left her husband, she could not help but breathe a sigh of relief. She very much doubted her restlessness would allow her to pen a cheery letter to her family and she could not send them a missive wherein they could detect her unease. Her father and Jane knew her too well and they would quickly be able to see she was not content. Elizabeth did not want to trouble them any further. She was married now and would not gripe about her circumstances any longer if she could at all help it.

On the way to her upstairs, she stopped by the library and selected a volume of Byron's poetry. Of course, she would not tell her husband she was reading the man's poetry - she was not quite prepared to admit he had influenced her in her choice of reading material.

She, however, thought it would do no harm to see what all the fuss was about this man's work.

She was curious - nothing more, nothing less.

Chapter Fifteen

As Mr. Darcy sat behind the enormous mahogany desk in his study, he could hardly believe five days had passed so uneventfully since his wedding.

Upon first arriving in London, a definite routine had been established which he and Elizabeth appeared to follow instinctively. This orderly existence may have been a good thing as it assisted them in deflecting any more tension that could have arisen in their new life together. Yet, he was ever mindful that this same predictability could be little more than a tenuous façade that could shatter at any moment.

For, although he had been afforded some relative peace in the last few days, Darcy was not naive enough to think things were unconditionally settled between his new wife and himself. Nevertheless, his life as a married man was significantly better than he ever thought it would be before their nuptials.

The rhythm of their day began when they met in the breakfast room. At times, they would chat idly as they ate, at others they would eat in silence or he would read the paper. Following breakfast, they would each tend to their independent duties and responsibilities. It was not until dinner when they would meet again and, once more, there was either some nonchalant conversation or none at all. Their circumstances certainly did not appear to be uncomfortable to him. Not really. After dinner, they would read or visit the music room and sometimes Elizabeth would play the pianoforte.

In fact, he had little cause for complaint. He was able to tend to whatever it was that required his attention and Elizabeth had demonstrated early signs of a natural competence in her new role.

Darcy wondered about the copious letters she wrote and what she included in them. Did she complain about her life now? Had she ever alluded to the fact that they had established some balance of sorts? Did she even notice they had done so? He could not be sure. Once or twice during a meal or after dinner when they were alone, he had been tempted to ask her - but he had abstained from doing so. Perhaps it was better he did not know. Conceivably, she was on her way to realizing that her life had improved and was thereby attempting to make the best of their situation. Yet, she may not be willing to admit that to him quite so soon in their marriage and he had no desire to open up any further opportunities for discord. He had come to realize that when it came to Elizabeth, perhaps some things were best left unsaid.

He shuffled the papers on his desk for the last time and placed them into a neat pile. Now that he had begun to think of her, he knew he could no longer be productive. The remainder of his work would have to wait for the next day.

Mr. Darcy's mind turned to the two evenings when they had visited the music room after dinner. If he could, he would have chosen to spend every evening with her in that place for it was there that she played music. He knew she did not play for him - her apparent escape into music was likely for her benefit alone. The fact that he gleaned so much from it was sheer happenstance. Yet, he watched as she seemed to lose herself in the rhythm of the notes that she played. She was by no means a flawless pianist nor did she pay attention to the technical nuances of the songs as a more skilled musician may have, yet her manner was expressive, her reaction to the music so sincere, it would have been impossible for him not to have been moved by it.

Thus, while showing her to the library had been his gift to her after arriving in London, his casual, but nonetheless insistent, suggestions they visit the music room, were his gifts to himself. He had no true notion of why he reacted so intensely to the image she presented to him as she sat at the piano bench and began to play, but he could not imagine ever seeing her there or hearing her play with indifference.

A sudden yearning to move compelled him to exit his study. He traveled to the foyer where an anxious footman rose suddenly from his chair. Darcy barely noticed the man, however. Today marked the first time she had gone out without him since their arrival in Town.

Actually, they had only been out together once and that was on Sunday when they attended church. Overall, he was pleased at her ability to withstand the public scrutiny directed her way. There were several far from innocuous looks cast in their direction before, after and even during services and she had braved them all with considerably more aplomb than did he. He had frowned and attempted to stare down such inquisitive glances; she, on the other hand, smiled gently and accepted them almost as her due. When the religious observations were over, he had attempted to squire her out of the church and into the carriage as furtively as possible, but he was not successful. While London was presumably in the midst of its least popular season, the few families who were there and were attending church that day all had clamoured for an opportunity to meet his new wife. His first introduction was done warily, yet when he observed Elizabeth's amicable reception of her new acquaintances, he gave himself permission to relax. The remaining introductions were done with a measure of less personal strain for him. Clearly, his wife was lacking none of the social graces which were oftentimes trying for him - and for that he was grateful.

Now, she was out, independent of him, and, try as he might, he could not take his mind off her. Two days ago, she had a letter from her Aunt Gardiner informing her of their return to London and together she and her aunt had planned today's shopping excursion. She informed him that she hoped to purchase some more practical outer wear which would allow her to be well stocked in terms of her winter attire. While he applauded the good sense that she showed by realizing that she needed the new items, he suspected the real cause for this trip to the mantua maker's or to many clothing shops was to procure a new gown for the Christmas dinner they would be attending at his relations' home. He knew she was nervous about it, even if she had told him nothing of her feelings. In fact, he was anxious about it as well. Apart from church, it would be their first public outing. His aunt and uncle's friends would be expecting them to be every inch the happily married couple and would scrutinize them with more curiosity than did their fellow church-goers. They would need to spend several hours with these people and, if he knew his aunt's and uncle's friends as well as he thought he did, their observation of the newlyweds would be closer and much more critical. In the end, it would be a test - an analysis into their lives and he hoped they were prepared for it.

Realizing it would not do to be found standing in the entrance of his home, simply waiting for his wife's return, he walked back to his study. His movements were considerably less hasty and, now, he stopped to acknowledge the footman in passing. When he reached his destination, he took a seat on one of the armchairs rather than behind his desk. His desk and all that lay piled upon it was a menace now and he wanted to be as far from it as possible.

Perhaps he should have gone out. His cousin, Richard, had invited him to White's and he had been tempted to accept the offer, but when the time came to proffer him a response, he declined. Now, he wished he had gone to the gentlemen's club if only so that his mind could have been occupied by something other than Elizabeth's absence. He was not worried about her really; he knew her aunt to be respectable and her experience of living in London for several years would serve them both well. Darcy could not even say he missed Elizabeth for they often spent hours apart during the course of the day. All he knew was that he possessed a desire to know that she was well and on her way back home. He wondered if she had met anyone else and if she had been able to make that acquaintance with as much grace and poise as she had shown on Sunday.

He was merely curious, he told himself. That was all. But, he was not in the habit of being powerless to satisfy his curiosity and so this feeling seemed odd and made him feel somehow ineffectual.

A quarter of an hour passed and finally he heard the front door open and the sound of muffled female voices and laughter. A sense of relief washed over him as he realized he had been quite close to being caught waiting for his wife's return.

He lingered in his study until the voices faded to almost nothingness. As interested as he was, he knew he could not simply charge about the house looking for Elizabeth and then demanding she outline her day for him. He realized that in all likelihood, Mrs. Gardiner would still be with her and they would be chatting over the events of their joint shopping experience.

No, he must wait and do so with patience. Over and over again, he told himself his intolerance was natural and that any gentleman in his position would feel the same way when his new wife had just returned after having left him for an extended period. This served to calm him and make his waiting period slightly less onerous.

After another quarter of an hour, he felt certain enough time had passed for him to join his wife, while still appearing circumspect and natural. He walked toward the foyer and was soon able to discern that Elizabeth and her aunt were in the downstairs drawing room. The doors to the room were closed, but he could make out the faint sounds of laughter coming from Elizabeth and softer, more subdued chuckles possibly emanating from her aunt.

He stood outside the door for a moment, wondering if he would be intruding. Then, feeling like a fool for being wary of his reception in his own home, he resolutely opened the door and entered.

"Good afternoon, ladies. I trust today's venture was a successful one for you both."

"Ah, Mr. Darcy!" Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed, "Good day to you as well. I am afraid my niece has spent nearly all of her money today and has returned home quite penniless."

He hardly heard her however, for he was too busy noting Elizabeth's surprise when he first entered the room. She soon had a benign look on her face after he greeted them, but it was only after her aunt's joke at her expense that she really smiled.

"Yes, Sir. I am guilty...of becoming a spendthrift. I must not be allowed out again - particularly not in the company of my most liberal aunt."

Her words were open and full of mirth, but he knew she addressed him in such a manner only because of her aunt's presence. As a means of self-preservation, he assumed a more diffident attitude himself.

"I am glad to hear you were able to purchase the items you were seeking. I find it fortunate that I am in the practise of hoarding some money myself, otherwise this marriage may leave me quite bankrupt."

The ladies laughed - Mrs. Gardiner in a more unguarded manner than did his wife - and it served to calm him. He walked over to a settee near to where his wife was seated and kept his eyes away from her.

"I understand your sister is staying with your relations in London, Mr. Darcy. Will she be returning home anytime soon?"

"My aunt and uncle insist she remain with them for another fortnight at least. She did visit a few days ago and we will see her again at Christmas when we dine with the Matlocks."

Elizabeth turned to him hastily, "Another fortnight without Georgiana? I must say I am disappointed. Surely there is no need for her to remain away from us so long."

"I happen to agree with you, but my aunt is quite set on keeping her with them." He turned toward her with a small smile. "You may, however, be able to convince them to let her return to us when you next see them. You can use any excuse you like in the hopes of being triumphant. Perhaps you can be successful where I was not."

"I shall indeed fabricate a great excuse although I may not need one. They may take pity on me once I tell them honestly of how often I wish for her company throughout the day." She smiled hesitantly. "After all, they know I come from a house with five sisters and may appreciate how the stillness of this home may be odd and slightly uncomfortable for me."

Suddenly, the talk once more turned to their outing and what had been purchased. Darcy used the opportunity to escape into his own private reflections.

So, Elizabeth was somewhat isolated and ill at ease in his home? He was not altogether surprised to learn that she was, but he wished she had informed him of her feelings sooner. He had presumed that she was settling in nicely and that she did not have any immediate desire for society. Being of a rather unsociable nature himself, he did not consider her own needs would be so very different. He knew now that he should have.

Still, she should have let on in a manner that would have alerted him to her unease. He would have gladly taken her for a stroll about London - past any of the sights which are still beautiful at this time of year. If the weather permitted, they could have walked in Hyde Park or even visited the British Museum. He imagined she would enjoy examining the newly constructed Vauxhall Bridge and perhaps even touring its nearby gardens. He could think of those shared pastimes now - and only because she had coincidentally alerted him of her loneliness. Had she asked, he would have even accompanied her on her shopping trip today. Yet, she had not - she instead preferred her aunt's company to his which, again, did not surprise him. But it did not please him either.

He was called to attention at the sound of his name.

"...Mr. Darcy. It was a pleasure to see you again."

Elizabeth noticed he was not following the conversation and interjected on his behalf. "Yes, Aunt. I shall visit you next week after Christmas and tell you all about the Matlock dinner over tea."

Without thinking, he chimed in.

"Is this a tea for ladies only? Shall my company be unwelcome?" He felt foolish and wished he had thought his words over more carefully.

"A ladies tea? Perhaps it may have been, had you not offered to come. My husband would no doubt appreciate your company and see to it that he is there to greet you." Mrs. Gardiner looked rather shocked, but she was successful in her attempt to mask it. "Shall you come then, sir?"

"I would like to - particularly if Mr. Gardiner is available to join us. Without him, I am afraid I would be woefully out of place."

Mrs. Gardiner regarded him with a thoughtful smile.

"Will you not then join us then for dinner? That would offer us more opportunity in one another's company and my husband would most certainly be home at that hour. Elizabeth can tell you, my Edward has never been known to miss a meal."

Elizabeth and her aunt laughed softly in an affectionate manner. He remembered his wife's words to his relations the other day regarding how dear these people were to her. Looking at them now, sharing in mutual delight over a beloved family member, he had no doubt of the veracity of what she had said.

"Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner. We shall await your instructions as to when it would be most convenient for you to host us."

"Splendid!" She rose from the loveseat hastily. "Dear me, I must be off! Why - I have been gone almost the entire day!"

"I shall see you out, Aunt."

"Good day, Mrs. Gardiner. Thank you for accompanying Mrs. Darcy out on her shopping expedition and for encouraging her to spend my money. She had formerly demonstrated a strong resistance to the idea, I assure you."

"Well, you will be happy to know she seems to have warmed to the idea now, Mr. Darcy. Good day, sir."

He watched the ladies depart the drawing room and slumped down in his chair after they were gone. Being married was beginning to appear more and more work.

In mere minutes, Elizabeth returned. She was still smiling, but she was not necessarily directing her smile at him. No doubt she and her aunt had shared some private joke just before Mrs. Gardiner had left and its resonance was still playing about in her mind. She moved to the window and his eyes followed her movements overtly.

He rose and walked over to stand behind her.

"Mrs. Darcy, why did you not tell me you were lately feeling ill at ease and rather isolated?"

Her posture had become rigid the moment she heard his approach.

"I was not - not really. I suppose my time today with my aunt and our jaunting about the rather busy streets of London served to remind me that my life was not always so quiet, so still."

He pondered her response for a moment while turning his signet ring carefully. He could not help but notice that she had not turned to look at him when she spoke.

"Perhaps we can make some time to see the many sights of London. I know you have previously visited Town, but I would be happy to escort you to some of the more prominent places now that they are less crowded but every bit as enjoyable."

She now regarded him in obvious shock and turned to face him. Evidently, she had not been prepared for the offer of his time and company. Rather than being sorry he suggested the outing, he took comfort in the fact that she did not know him too well. It helped him to know that she was not aware of how disturbed he was at the possibility that she could be unhappy.

"Sir, thank you but you need not concern yourself. I am fine and quite...content overall." She paused before continuing, "However, I would like to know London better. Perhaps after Christmas, when you are not so busy, we can venture out together."

He turned and sighed. She was partially right. He did have plenty to do since so much had gone unattended to while he was sorting out the details of his marriage. Gilmore had done all he could, but there were things which needed only his attention and he could not expect his steward to resolve everything. Still, he would have temporarily abandoned it all - had she wished for him to do so. As it was, he was content that she at least did not absolutely refuse his offer.

"You are right, of course. We shall have an opportunity to see whatever it is we wish to in good time and I do have a great amount of work to consider for the time being."

He thought he detected an expression of regret cross over her features. Perhaps he was being too hasty, looking too hard to find some favourable sentiment coming from her; instead he pushed the notion out of his mind.

"Please excuse me, sir. There are some parcels that have been delivered to my room and I should like to look them over before dinner."

She turned to leave him, but was prevented from getting very far as he took hold of her arm. This time, there was no mistaking the dissatisfaction in her expression. Yet, he felt compelled to speak with her one last time before she left him abruptly.

"A moment please, madam." He cleared his throat slightly, "As you know, we have been married almost a week. I believe it is rather strange for us to never call one another by our Christian names."

"Strange?" Her expression became tinged with suppressed mild humour. "I do not find it so strange. Plenty of married persons I know do not address one another so informally."

"Yet, most of the married people I know do. Your aunt, I noticed, used your uncle's given name today while discussing our future dinner engagement. Did you miss it?"

"I am afraid I did, but I do not disbelieve you. My aunt often refers to my uncle as Edward when she is in familiar company." Elizabeth replied casually, "However, their situation is quite different from our own and they have been married a good while now."

"Indeed they have, but I think I would not be wrong if I guessed that they began calling one another by their first names almost immediately after being married - perhaps even before they were wed."

His voice was indifferent, but his mind was far from settled. The fact that even the smallest request turned into a battle of wills served to frustrate him beyond measure. Why could she just not agree with him for once?

"Very well, sir. I give you leave to call me Elizabeth. Would you like for me to call you Fitzwilliam?"

He exhaled loudly in relief and then regretted it.

"If you like. Georgiana calls me William. You may do so as well. No one actually calls me Fitzwilliam."

"Then, by all means, I shall soon learn to call you William as well." She turned away and continued toward the door. When she reached the door, however, she turned to him abruptly. "Shall I call you by your first name sometimes when we are in public or when we are alone? Do you have a preference, Sir?"

He hesitated before answering. What answer was she looking for? What was she about? It truly was a simple request he had made of her.

"I would hope that you would come to feel comfortable enough to use it both when we are alone and, when appropriate, when we are in familiar company."

"I see."

"Elizabeth," strangely, her name flew off his lips with relative ease, "Why have you asked? Do you have a preference?"

"No, not at all. I just wondered if this was merely a continuation of our false facade?"

"Not entirely - although my friends will expect us to not always refer to one another so formally." He felt his frustration rise again. "If you prefer we carry on as we have done thus far, I understand. I have no wish to argue this with you, madam."

"There shall be no arguments, sir. You shall have to give me some time - to become accustomed to the idea, but it is not a wholly unreasonable request."

And, with that, she exited the room. She gave him no time to respond, no time to think.

In the end, perhaps that was the best thing after all.

~ * ~

On the evening of the Matlock dinner, Elizabeth sat before her dressing mirror and tried to look for vestiges of the young woman she used to be a little over a week before.

The woman who looked back at her now was so infinitely different.

Candace had seemingly worked for hours on her hair and begun when it was still rather damp in order to tame her sometimes unruly curls. Elizabeth initially counted the number of hairpins she used, but ultimately she gave the enterprise up when the number reached well over twenty. The mass of brown curls were now skilfully arranged into a rather artistic looking pile atop of her head. A pale green ribbon the exact same hue as her gown was expertly woven throughout her hair. She had to admit the end result was rather extraordinary.

During Candace's work, Elizabeth looked on in awe. Even when her hair had been awkwardly pulled and twisted, she barely reacted. Candace's apologetic pleas had gone from being frequent and to slowly subsiding into nothingness. Elizabeth was too caught up in her transformation to feel any modicum of pain; in fact, she had barely breathed throughout the process.

Elizabeth stood and examined the gown her aunt had encouraged her to purchase for this evening. Prior to her shopping expedition with her aunt, she had decided to once more wear her wedding gown to this evening's Christmas dinner, but her aunt was rather insistent upon her purchasing a new dress altogether. Had she married a local gentleman from Meryton, the idea of wearing her wedding dress again would have been readily accepted and even expected. Here in London, apparently, it was just not done by the young married ladies in Mr. Darcy's social circle - or so her aunt had delicately suggested.

After hearing of Elizabeth's own anxiety regarding meeting with these people whom she suspected were wont to regard her severely, her aunt was rather intent on providing them with as little ammunition as possible. Accordingly, Elizabeth examined virtually every evening gown in the many modiste shops on Bond Street and finally selected this one. It was rather more ornate than Elizabeth would have normally chosen; it possessed a luxuriously embroidered train and was trimmed with the same ribbon as the one Candace had woven throughout her hair. She had initially thought the dress was beautiful, yet tonight as she looked at the complete picture she presented, she believed it may perhaps be magical as well.

Even to her own critical eye, Elizabeth felt herself to be beyond pretty on this particular evening. It was a feeling that was foreign to her, for she had never considered herself as anything beyond reasonably attractive. It had been relatively easy to feel that way when standing near Jane who was always beautiful, even when she was in the greenhouse preparing scented waters and her hair was somewhat tousled and less than perfectly arranged.

Yet tonight, even if Jane had been there to be breathtakingly beautiful next to her, Elizabeth's own handsomeness would have been noteworthy as well. She had never begrudged her sister the attention and admiration she received, yet she felt somewhat vindicated knowing that people would look upon her this evening and not refer to Mr. Darcy's new wife as plain. It was a small comfort, but one which she clung to fervently.

Her mood suddenly became giddy and she twirled in excitement. While she was spinning about the room, her eyes landed upon her bed where the neatly bound package lay in wait. Viewing it caused her to stop suddenly and pick it up.

When her aunt had first informed her that they had returned to London, Elizabeth had immediately written to her uncle asking if he could procure the volume of Byron's poetry that Mr. Darcy said he lacked. She knew Mr. Gardiner was somewhat well connected with various booksellers and thought he would offer her the best means of finding the mysterious text. Even then, however, she held little hope for his success. Mr. Darcy informed her that the collection was virtually impossible to locate and she did not imagine her uncle would fare any better on his quest for it. Yet, two days ago, her uncle had written to inform her that he discovered it in a most unlikely place and that the book's condition was quite good. It cost her a considerable sum, but she was determined that she would have it.

When the volume arrived yesterday, bound and neatly wrapped, she wondered what she would do with it. Truly, she had not even considered the possibility that her uncle would find it, thus, now that he had, she did not know how she would give it to her husband. Bestowing it as a Christmas gift seemed the most likely option, but they had not discussed whether it would be acceptable to exchange presents. At Longbourn, they always exchanged small tokens of remembrance on this day, but here she was uncertain of how the religious holiday was celebrated.

Yesterday, the house was decorated with evergreen boughs, holly, rosemary and Christmas rose and, of course, the Christmas fire was lit. Afterwards, she asked Mr. Darcy's permission to purchase a few small items for each member of the household staff. Rather than have her do it, Mr. Gilmore and Mrs. Graham had seen to this and her husband appeared happy that she had reminded him of the task. Still, no mention of a personal gift exchange had been discussed between them and she wondered how he would react if she were suddenly to thrust a gift at him unexpectedly.

She herself did not anticipate that he would give her a present, and she did not wish to embarrass him by providing him with a gift when he had not thought to do the same for her. Yet, she decided, there was no other occasion for her to offer it to him. She did not know when his birthday was and, if it was an extended period from now, she did not want to risk the possibility that he would obtain another copy. Thus, she would give it to him this evening - before they left when they met in the downstairs drawing room - and think no further of possible uncomfortable scenarios that may arise from her decision.

Once she made up her mind to present it to him that very evening, her unease over the affair slowly dissipated. It was the right thing to do after all and she would look to it as a mere token of the delicate sense of peace that had characterized their time since their wedding. Both she and Mr. Darcy were working hard to maintain their composures and thus had earned the privilege of some recognition of their efforts. A few times, they had come close to losing the fragile hold of their patience, but they had persevered and a dubious harmony had been maintained. She knew not how long they would be able to continue in this vein, but for the time being she did not want to challenge it too much.

In the end, it was so much more preferable to arguing bitterly.

She wondered what time it was and how long she had before she was due to meet Mr. Darcy downstairs. She tried to keep her mind from thinking too much of how the other guests at the Matlocks' would be ready to judge her; most likely they would be prepared to find any fault in her appearance or her manners. She was thankful they could not at least, be too harsh about her appearance. She looked every inch a fine lady although the role was a strangely perverse one for her to assume. Her manners had always been above reproach, but she feared that her nerves would cause her to make some unpardonable faux pas that would brand her as not good enough - not genteel enough - to wear the Darcy family name.

Never before had Elizabeth been overly punctilious in social situations. She fancied she was capable of integrating relatively well into most public settings. Yet, these were a decidedly different sort of people and her position was very dissimilar to what it was when she was merely Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire. Now, there would be expectations for her to meet - for Mr. Darcy and herself to both meet - if they were to pass muster as a happily married couple.

In the not so distant past, she had balked openly and privately at his mention of how he intended to keep up the simulation of their being very much like any other newly married couple. Nevertheless, she understood now how important it was for the world not to be constantly reminded of how theirs had been a forced marriage intended primarily to save both their reputations. In all the ways that mattered, their good names were even more valuable now that they were married and facing a public that was often unforgiving by nature.

She had met some members of his social sphere although she very much doubted whether the people she encountered at church last Sunday and again today at Christmas services, would be present at the Matlocks' for dinner. Tonight's crowd would be a distinct set of people who could observe her more carefully than did the church crowd with whom she had just spent a few passing moments. While she was no longer quite as afraid of the Matlocks, she had no notion of what to expect from their friends who, henceforth, truly did not have to accept her. These people, she knew, could be ruthless in their assessment of her.

She heard what must have been the door to Mr. Darcy's bedchamber shut and the sound of heavy footsteps making their way towards the steps. Ah, so he is on his way downstairs! She knew she could not keep him waiting for much longer, she could not prolong the inevitable after all.

Perhaps Mr. Darcy would even offer her some measure of encouragement should the evening prove difficult.

Remembering that she still held the gift she intended to give him in her hand, she made her resolution to defy her fears and speedily exited the room.

~ * ~

"Mr. Darcy," he heard her say tentatively, "Are we running quite late?"

He turned immediately at the sound of her voice. "No...not...late at all."

She was beautiful.

He was awestruck.

It would have been far too easy to say that her appeal stemmed from the magnificent gown she was wearing. Yet, that would be completely inaccurate and unfair to his wife. He had always known she was beautiful. Yet, the woman who stood before him this evening was more than just enticing because of the clothing that adorned her. She radiated an aura of perfection and it was too difficult for him to credit the exact source. All he knew for certain was that he was enchanted.

He was shaken out of his reverie after noticing the puzzled expression that crossed over Elizabeth's features as she regarded him. With great effort, he forced his eyes away from her in as cavalier a manner as he could. It would not do to let her know how greatly he was affected by her; he could not permit her to read him so plainly. She was not as easily touched by him; in fact, he suspected she still harboured some ill will in his direction. He needed to safeguard his own dignity and pride, but that was becoming increasingly difficult the more he grew accustomed to her presence in his life.

"Would you like a glass of wine before we leave? I have ordered the carriage to come 'round. It should be here presently." His voice was level and he marvelled at his deception before her.

"A glass of wine would be lovely. Thank you."

When the time came to pour the wine, his hands were unsteady and again he worried about whether she noticed his discomfort. He paused between filling the two glasses for he feared he would be unable to complete the task without spilling the contents of the bottle. Thankfully, Elizabeth seemed to be preoccupied and did not appear to discern his apprehension. When he walked toward her to give her the wine, he perceived that she was closely examining a package in her hands and was not looking in his direction at all.

"Madam," he said, placing the glass upon the table before her, "Have you received a gift from your family? A Christmas present?"

She looked up at him and now he realized she had been too focused upon her own concerns to notice his.

"Not a Christmas present for me, sir." She said, uncertainly, as though each word required tremendous effort. "This is my gift...to you."

It took every ounce of will not to stagger backward upon hearing she bought him a present. He did not think she would have done so - regardless of their lately established peace. He was almost giddy to learn she had thought of him at all.

"For me? You have purchased a gift for me? Well, that is generous of you...very generous." He hesitated, wondering what to do next. So far, she had mentioned that the package was for him, but she had not yet offered it to him. "Please wait while I fetch my gift to you."

"Mr. Darcy, it was not necessary that you purchase a present for me. We had not discussed..."

"On the contrary. I believe it was quite necessary. I will return in a moment." He replied as he was walking toward the door. He found the opportunity to move instantly gratifying as it soothed his fear of appearing restlessly nervous in her presence.

His steps to his study were quick and purposeful. He had asked Gilmore to procure this gift for Elizabeth, but he never truly believed he would be in a position to give it to her quite so soon.

Yet, there she sat in all her loveliness, prepared to offer him a Christmas gift. Her benevolence was quite surprising! He would have never believed her capable of such a strong show of acceptance of her circumstances. Perhaps the progress he believed they were making was not as illusory as he supposed.

He seized the gift from out of his desk drawer and grabbed it as though it were a life-sustaining force. Would she value his present? He believed that she would for he had never known a woman to not respond approvingly when offered a gift. Georgiana, even in her most withdrawn state following the Ramsgate incident, had very nearly blossomed before his very eyes each and every time he gave her the smallest token. Surely, Elizabeth would be no different.

He began his walk back to her, pleased that his wife had been intelligent enough to realize that a gift exchange was precisely what was needed so that they could begin to surmount the remaining hurdles that lay between them.

She was a remarkably clever woman, his wife.

When he re-entered the drawing room, Elizabeth was standing before the fireplace, still holding the package she intended for him. She looked up at him warily and for a moment any earlier thoughts he had that she intended to accept of their marriage suddenly vanished. However, he was soon pleased to see her eyes were drawn to the gift he was holding for her and, as he had suspected, curiosity replaced the suspicion in her expression.

As he walked toward her he confidently extended the present out to her. Still, she had not made any move to proffer her offering to him. Abruptly, she seemed to come to her senses and gave him his gift.

"Elizabeth, this is for you. Please do me the honour of opening it first - before I have opened your gift."

She accepted the wrapped scroll and removed the green ribbon carefully. The brown paper fell away effortlessly revealing the musical scores to her eyes.

"I was unable to discern which composer would most please you, so I instructed Gilmore to purchase what he could. Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart appear to be what he discovered most readily yesterday."

He could barely keep from smiling. She was clearly moved and quite speechless.

"And Schobert...Mr. Gilmore was also able to add Schobert's "Andante" to the collection. He was really quite thorough. You must thank him for me."

Her voice became barely audible and he had to strain to hear her. Undoubtedly, she was stirred by his gift. She offered him a shy smile of appreciation.

In truth, he was hardly untouched himself. Seeing the sheets filled with musical notes in her hands made him long for the time when she would sit at the pianoforte and play. Had they not been in somewhat of a hurry to depart, he believed he would have tried to get her to play for him that very instant.

"And now I shall open my gift." He began to untie the string wrapped around the package. "Elizabeth, again I must tell you, this is quite unexpected."

"I do not believe it is altogether too surprising to procure gifts for people at Christmastime. We have always done so at Longbourn and I asked Mrs. Graham who assured me that you and Georgiana have similar customs."

Before looking down at what was now exposed and free of wrapping, he regarded her closely. Was there some slight reluctance in her timbre or had he imagined it? He thought their time together had allowed him to become quite familiar with her voice modulation, but he could not be sure.

But, whatever would provoke her to be indecisive now - when they were in the midst of a gift exchange?

Rather than dwell on this further, he chose to overlook it. In the end, he fancied he imagined it and would do himself no favour by trying to interpret her every mood.

Not surprisingly, the sight of the leather-bound Byron collection that he so coveted produced a vast array of emotions in him. He was enthusiastic to finally be in possession of what had previously eluded him. The shock he felt once he lifted the volume from its wrapping was also palpable. In order to obtain this book, Elizabeth must have gone to considerable trouble! He felt awash with gratitude that she had worked so hard - had been so thoughtful - on his behalf.

"Elizabeth...where? Where did you find this? I have looked everywhere...and yet you...?"

"My uncle was able to discover it." She responded lightly, perhaps even too lightly. "Once I informed him that you had looked everywhere for it, he was quite determined to locate it for you."

"I have...I have looked everywhere for it. It truly is what I most desired. Thank you - to both you and your uncle."

She smiled thinly once more. He searched her eyes for hints of her mood, her feelings, but they were empty and unreadable.

"I am pleased that you like it. I shall inform him of your pleasure."

He was about to respond - to tell her of just how pleased he was. He longed to tell her how he knew that his gift of sheet music to her seemed suddenly impersonal and so very inappropriate in comparison. But he was interrupted by the arrival of a footman who informed them that the carriage was now waiting for them and ready to depart.

They moved to the foyer where two servants awaited them with their coats and other necessary outer wear. Darcy felt himself helped into his coat. He was hardly a willing participant in readying himself at this point, so mired was he in his concern over inadvertently offending Elizabeth. His gift should have been more personal. He knew that now. He should have considered her desires rather than his own. He knew by her immediate reaction when she opened his gift, sheet music was not a gift she would have chosen for herself. Yet, she had demonstrated such consideration when choosing his gift!

He was a fool.

Outside, he helped her into the carriage. Rather than climb in immediately after she was settled, he remained on the snowy pavement for a moment. He exhaled slowly. Should he venture an apology of sorts? Should he admit he never expected her to offer him a gift? Should he speak at all?

There seemed to be an embargo on every possible means of conversation. Still, if he said nothing at all, how heartless he would seem!

He climbed into the equipage and waited for it to depart. Again, she was staring out the window - lost in the scenery.

"Elizabeth, I realize sheet music is perhaps not the ideal gift, but I was at a loss as to what to purchase."

She did not respond immediately and did not even turn her head. He thought he would die if she reverted back to her silence.

"I imagine you are disappointed. I shall purchase another gift - a more suitable one."

She turned suddenly and he wondered briefly if she had even heard all of what he had to say to her.

"Sir, I am not disappointed. And you need not purchase for me something different." She paused again. "Your gift of music is lovely. It serves to remind me that I need to practise more and so it is quite suitable." Rather kind words, but he was compelled to examine her voice again. What was its tone relaying to him?

"You are actually quite proficient at the pianoforte, madam. My gift was not intended to be any such reminder. I was perhaps being rather selfish - selecting what I desired rather than allowing for your own wishes."

"Thank you," she said simply.

He waited, unsure of what to do or say next. Again, his own uncertainty overwhelmed him, but this time it was tinged with a hint of his own resentment. Why could she just not accept his apology? Why was she not more open with him?

"Elizabeth, why do you still not refer to me by my Christian name?"

Her face assumed a surprised expression.

"Pardon me - I did tell you it may take some time for me to feel comfortable calling you by your given name. I was not aware that you were impatient for me to do so."

Rather than respond, he chose to be silent.

He was in no mood to appear a disgruntled husband in the presence of his relations.

Chapter Fifteen, II

After arriving at the Matlock townhouse and having their coats taken by the servants, Mr. Darcy ushered Elizabeth into one of the less crowded rooms.

Although Lady Matlock had assured them this was to be an intimate dinner party to celebrate Christmas, Elizabeth instantly knew that she had a vastly different notion of what the word "intimate" implied. There appeared to be no less than twenty guests scattered in various locations throughout the first floor.

"I believe we should look for our hosts before meeting any of their guests." Her husband suggested calmly.

They moved through the rooms rather hurriedly. Elizabeth wondered if her husband noticed the interested looks cast in their direction as they wound their way through the first floor, in search of their host and hostess. She imagined he was used to such attention and barely seemed to notice it; she, on the other hand, tried to will herself to offer each onlooker a brief smile as they passed them.

Finally, in a far corner of a rather large drawing room, they found Lord and Lady Matlock. They were surrounded by a number of friends, but most of these people had the presence of mind to move away as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth approached them.

"Mr and Mrs Darcy - how lovely to see you again," welcomed Lady Matlock.

"I must say, Darcy, you are uncharacteristically late. Perhaps marriage has made you a bit wayward already. Ah well, happens to us all and you have a most lovely reason for your tardiness."

Around them, Elizabeth heard soft chuckles at Lord Matlock's words. She wished she could join in their merriment, but she was suddenly seized by a burst of embarrassment.

"Excuse us. We did not expect to be quite so late. We hope dinner has not been postponed because of us."

Elizabeth was never more thankful for her husband's ability to circumvent attention away from his uncle's suggestive comments.

"Not at all. It is too early for dinner yet," Lady Matlock chimed. "Everyone has arrived, but they appear to be in the midst of some rather pleasant conversations. Dinner will be half an hour at least. Elizabeth," Lady Matlock turned to her and regarded her closely. "You look absolutely enchanting, my dear."

"Indeed she does," boomed Lord Matlock. "She will no doubt have many eyes turned her way this evening! My nephew shall have to fight off his wife's admirers."

"Thank you both." Elizabeth felt herself turn crimson, "Your home is lovely. We are so pleased that you thought to include us this evening."

Even to her critical perspective, she was surprised to note that her voice held no significant discomfort. She willed herself to become slightly less anxious.

"Please permit me to introduce you to some of our friends: Lady Whitby and Mrs. Relsworth, this is Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy. She and my nephew have been married for just over a week. Elizabeth, these are my dearest friends, Lady Juliet Whitby and Mrs. Catherine Relsworth."

What followed was some rather paltry, but not unexpected talk, concerning her previous home in Hertfordshire and her impressions of living in London. Elizabeth was pleased to note that she was capable of handling herself with relative ease and that the ladies had thus far not been too obtrusive in their questioning. Had it not been for Mr. Darcy's steady presence at her side and his constant scrutiny of her, Elizabeth imagined she would have met the situation with hardly any unease at all.

The sound of roaring laughter followed by the sensation of her husband being pulled away from her side called her attention away from Lady Matlock and her somewhat prying friends.

"Well, well. At last you have both arrived! Georgiana and I were beginning to feel quite desperate!" Colonel Fitzwilliam grin was infectious and Elizabeth could not help but return it as she watched him embrace his cousin in a show of mock relief. "In fact, I had to convince the poor girl not to send for the authorities and to instead follow my example of steady fortitude and patience."

Suddenly, a burst of laughter seized the entire group. Georgiana stood behind him, quite red, but even she could not resist the merriment of her cousin.

"I am quite thankful to you, sir." Elizabeth laughed joyously. She assumed a stern tone as she turned to address her new sister, but Elizabeth knew she could not keep the laughter from her eyes, "Georgiana, in the future you must adhere more faithfully to the model set by your wise and prudent cousin. After all, where would we be if you had followed your first instinct and set the authorities upon us?"

Again, laughter ensued and, for a moment, the tense circumstances seemed to evaporate. Only the sound of her husband's voice and his returning hand upon her arm called attention back to their reality. When she turned to him, he was smiling, but his expression revealed a delicate petition asking that she not challenge his familiarity.

"My wife is quite right, Georgiana. Fitzwilliam is a paragon of restraint and common sense."

Again, cheerful laughter followed, but Elizabeth's mirth was somewhat more subdued as the reminder of their need to perform to this public became more immediate to her.

When the laughter died down, she casually pulled her husband's aunt aside to speak with her privately.

"Lady Matlock, I understand you mean to keep Georgiana from us for almost another fortnight. If she is willing to do so, we would very much love to have her return home to us."

"I believe, Elizabeth, that is for Georgiana to decide. I did think you would want some time on your own with your husband before her return. Are you quite certain that your honeymoon is over?"

Elizabeth turned to regard her husband closely. Their honeymoon. It was a rather odd notion considering the truth of their marriage, but she understood Lady Matlock's euphemism perfectly.

"I am perfectly certain. Shall I ask Georgiana for her opinion on the matter later?"

"If you like. However, I do believe you and Fitzwilliam would benefit from a bit more time alone." The woman's perceptive tone was hard to miss and it was not lost on Elizabeth either. "Can we agree to permit her to remain with us here for another week at least? I believe that, in the long run, it will be for the best."

"Of course. Thank you."

She understood her new aunt's meaning absolutely: as fine a performance as Mr. Darcy and herself were exhibiting, the Matlocks believed they needed more practice and that having Georgiana with them would somehow infringe upon them at this stage of their marriage. While she did not necessarily agree with her, Elizabeth could not deny that there was some wisdom to be found in Lady Matlock's suggestion. By the time Georgiana returned, this impasse between them had to be over.

Elizabeth spent the remaining time before dinner meeting more people and answering more questions. One lady in particular, a Mrs. Blythe, levelled a series of rather pointed inquiries at her regarding how she came to meet such an illustrious person as her husband and how long they had been engaged. She was tempted to respond archly, but somehow withstood the interrogation with diplomacy.

Her husband remained nearby, although his attention and opinion was often sought by members outside of his aunt's immediate circle. Even if he would leave her temporarily, he was always sure to return occasionally and make some contact with her. Be it asking a servant to fill her wine glass or just simply standing near her while she chatted, he was ever present, ever dutiful. However, rather than make her tense, his attentiveness this evening in a room crowded with people was surprisingly comforting and kept her from feeling quite so exposed to everyone.

When the dinner bell eventually rang, Elizabeth was in the midst of a rather lively discussion with Colonel Fitzwilliam concerning the merits of an evening spent playing cards as opposed to one filled with music and dance. Colonel Fitzwilliam argued in favour of the quiet peace of a card game, where one could brandish his or her cards as a shield. He proceeded to demonstrate his skill with a set of cards he found hidden on the mantle. Soon, she and Georgiana were laughing so hard they had to wipe away tears of glee. Not even the rather austere look Mr. Darcy cast in her direction served to curb her laughter.

"Elizabeth, the dinner bell has sounded," said the Colonel. Earlier, they had agreed to call one another by their first names. While she was still rather uncomfortable referring to the Colonel as 'Richard', he showed no such reticence when using her name. "My mother will be in absolute misery if we do not heed its call. Allow me to escort you to your seat. I believe we have been placed rather near to one another and can continue this lively debate over dinner." Colonel Fitzwilliam held out his arm for her to grasp.

"I have no doubt we will carry forward with this discussion over dinner, but you will never convince me, Sir."

Elizabeth looked around to find her husband staring intently at her once again from across the room. She knew that he expected her to decline his cousin's generous offer to escort her into the dining room, but why was he not making a greater show of intercepting on her behalf? It would have been perfectly natural for him to do so - a husband routinely walked his wife into dinner.

"Thank you, Richard, but I believe I will wait for my husband to show me to the dining room. I expect he will come for me soon."

"Why of course he will! Georgiana, come along then. I am afraid you will not be soon rid of me."

Elizabeth looked after them and smiled. She sensed Georgiana's hesitant delight in her cousin's antics. It was easy to see why so many of the guests made a point of talking to the amiable younger Matlock son. Not only was he charmingly entertaining, but he was clever and witty as well. She was pleased that Georgiana could rely on him for some form of amusement while she was away from home.

"Madam," her husband appeared at her side with a bland look upon his countenance.

"Thank you," she made sure her own expression was equally as unreadable.

When they reached the dining room, Elizabeth was pleased to see that the Colonel had been right; she was seated directly opposite him and Georgiana was next to him. Mr. Darcy was several places away from her, but on the same side. Overall, she was well pleased with the seating arrangements.

Of course, the food was plentiful. In no time at all, the table was filled with delicacies such as venison or roasted pheasant for those who preferred a less hardy meat and potatoes, squash, carrots and stuffing for the fowl. There was also a selection of baked breads and rolls to suit every palate. A generous portion of Christmas pie was served to all guests, although few were able to actually eat it and claimed they were quite full.

Elizabeth took in all the sights, privately comparing them to the much less extravagant meals at Longbourn. While her family had never been deprived of food, they had never had occasion to serve such copious amounts to their guests. To Elizabeth, it appeared the object of this meal was to demonstrate that the Matlocks were a family who could afford to let good food go to waste. As kind as they had been to her, Elizabeth felt herself shudder at such squandering wastefulness.

Fortunately, conversation during dinner was free-flowing. The fact that Elizabeth could not make eye contact with her husband was somewhat liberating as she was certain that if she did, he would find some fault with her as he had earlier before dinner. Soon, she was engaging in several small conversations with the people around her. The topics were light and, on the one occasion when an older woman attempted to instruct her on the fine art of selecting an appropriately elegant bonnet, Elizabeth looked across the table and noted the look of bored derision Colonel Fitzwilliam cast in her direction. She stifled a giggle, but both Georgiana and her cousin had detected it and cast their eyes downward as they too fought their laughter.

From time to time, Elizabeth heard her husband's deep voice although she could not make out any of his conversation clearly. At one point, she leaned forward in her chair so that she was afforded a better view of him. He was looking away from her and turned toward the companion seated to his right - a Miss David, Elizabeth believed. He seemed quite immersed in discussion with her and had lowered his head to better hear what the attractive lady had to say.

She sat back with an audible breath. It appeared as though his instructions to her that they put forth a united front were relevant only when they were next to one another! He was certainly able to flirt with an unattached young lady if he chose, but she was surprised he would risk it when he had been so intent on appearing a besotted husband earlier.

Not for the first time, she wished she had accepted Colonel Fitzwilliam's offer to be escorted into the dining room by him. Yet, she could not fault the lady's taste - her husband was a very handsome man and she was not surprised to find that women were not oblivious to him.

Once the Christmas pudding had been served and sampled, dinner was well on its way to being officially over. Gradually, the guests rose from their seats and instinctively the ladies made their way back to the drawing room where they would be served coffee, while the gentlemen accompanied Lord Matlock to his study.

Elizabeth noted Mr. Darcy's hesitation. He remained seated and looked directly at her when she rose to join Georgiana. She smiled brilliantly at him, aware of Miss David's close inspection of their exchange, and then moved out of the dining room after taking Georgiana's arm.

In the ladies' company, she simmered with a steadily rising annoyance. With the removal of the gentleman, the ladies' questions became more pointed, more curious. Once or twice, Lady Matlock met her gaze and nodded pithily, but she did nothing to deter her friends' queries regarding how long she and Mr. Darcy intended to remain in London or why they had not been more actively accepting callers at their London townhouse. Georgiana was clearly too overwhelmed to speak much in the older ladies' company and, as a show of support, Elizabeth grabbed her hand and squeezed it lightly.

When Lady Whitby suggested they move to the music room and even offered to play some Christmas music, Elizabeth was eager to depart her present company. In groups of twos and threes, some of the ladies made their way to a lavish music room where the grandest pianoforte Elizabeth ever beheld graced the middle of the room. Thick, Persian rugs covered the marble floor and couches and loveseats were arranged episodically throughout the large room. Despite every attempt to have the room appear comfortable, Elizabeth found it terribly ostentatious and the wall coverings too garishly bright. Nevertheless, she and Georgiana took their places upon a loveseat and there they remained in much pleasanter - and much less daunting - conversation.

When the gentlemen returned, Elizabeth was uncertain of how to respond to her husband's eventual arrival. On one hand, she was curious to see if he would seek out their company or move toward another group before joining them, yet she almost feared having him return and easily assume the role of a loving husband again while every eye was turned in their direction. She looked over and noted Miss David was seated in a corner well away from where she and Georgiana were located. She began to wonder if he would find some excuse to make his way over to her, but then she forced herself to cease her mean presumptions.

When Mr. Darcy did enter the room, she saw him scan it thoughtfully. Upon espying her and Georgiana, he purposefully made his way to them.

"William, you have returned! Did you enjoy your gentlemanly conversation?" his sister asked quietly, but her eyes were glinting with merriment.

"Enjoy it, Georgie? Ah, not really. Not at all in fact."

Elizabeth again watched the exchange between the two siblings with interest. Once more, she could not help but notice the tremendous affection between them. She felt quite the interloper observing them so silently.

"Mrs. Darcy...Elizabeth," Lady Matlock called out to her, "Will you not play a Christmas hymn for us? You do play the pianoforte, do you not?"

"I do a little, Lady Matlock, but I do not do so with any degree of proficiency. I believe there are assuredly several more worthy musicians in our midst this evening."

"Come now, Mrs. Darcy! While he was in Town planning for your wedding, my cousin extolled your expertise at the instrument on several occasions," Colonel Fitzwilliam said kindly. "You must play or he will be considered quite the horrible liar."

At his cousin's sarcastic reference to him, Elizabeth looked up at her husband. His face was decidedly more coloured than it was usually and the smile on his face was wry and uncertain. She turned to look at Georgiana whose face was lit in anticipation.

"Please play for us, Elizabeth. It need not be anything terribly intricate, but I would so love to hear you play."

Elizabeth felt unsure of what to do next. She saw no easy means of escape. Lady Matlock and her son's comments about her playing had captured the attention of a good many guests who were turned to face her and awaited her decision.

"I will agree to play only one song at which point I will readily pass the instrument over to someone with more skilled fingers than my own." She got up to rise and suddenly noticed her husband had moved closer to her and was offering to escort her to the pianoforte. She turned to him and smiled, aware of how all eyes were upon them and that the room had grown eerily silent. "Thank you, sir."

When they reached the instrument, Elizabeth sat and leafed through the available sheet music. Mr. Darcy moved to one side but did not venture far. She realized he meant to turn the pages for her and almost laughed at how successful they were in fooling these people into thinking they were quite like any other newly married couple.

In the end, she chose to play Handel's interpretation of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night. Her husband, as she performed, leaned over her gently and turned the pages at the appropriate times. She did not know why she was surprised at his ability to read music, but she was indeed shocked at how carefully he followed her progress through the hymn. At the end, her performance was greeted with polite applause and murmurs of appreciation. She knew her rendition was by no means flawless, but she had done the hymn credit and thus, she was quite proud of her efforts.

Colonel Fitzwilliam rose when she returned to her place near Georgiana. When she sat, she noticed her husband had a satisfied smile on his face. While he did remain with them briefly after she was seated, he soon moved off to join his uncle who was talking to a few gentlemen. After a few moments, Georgiana excused herself and moved toward her aunt who asked her niece to join her.

"Bravo, Mrs. Darcy! Tonight, you have managed to charm even your harshest critics," Colonel Fitzwilliam said with a smile.

"Thank you. London is very different from Hertfordshire - a fact of which I am sure you are aware. Yet, even there I had experience of having to fend off persons who were not always prepared to be kind or like me. Thus, I have had some experience in having to defend myself and it has served me well tonight."

Colonel Fitzwilliam had the decency to appear shocked to learn not everyone was predisposed to like her.

"Colonel, I appreciate your disbelief, but we have all experienced some degree of meanness or have been the victims of petty jealousies. In the end, it forms our character and builds fortitude, so I cannot regret it."

"I must say I am shocked. To me and to everyone here tonight you have proven yourself to be nothing but amiable."

"Thank you again, but I assure you not everyone sees me so. Even my marriage to your cousin provoked some criticism and envy, but I am happy to report I have braved it all and am no worse because of it." Elizabeth's tone was light. In fact, she was surprised to discover that she no longer felt any lingering resentment at the petty reactions of one particular person upon learning of her nuptials.

"Envy regarding your marriage? In London, I can easily see such a sentiment, but in Hertfordshire?" He paused for a moment before becoming overcome by realization. "Ah yes. I now understand you perfectly, dear cousin. You speak of none other than Mr. Bingley's youngest sister."

Elizabeth had not meant for him to so easily read her and she coloured at the fact that her meaning had been discovered by the clever young man.

"Yes, of course! Miss Bingley!" He chuckled gleefully. "Never fear, Elizabeth. 'Tis no secret. She is a young woman who has been quite open about her intentions insofar as my handsome and moneyed cousin is concerned. I can well imagine her reaction upon hearing the news of your marriage. Do tell me all about it so we can laugh about it together."

Of course, Elizabeth objected politely and sought to deflect the conversation. Regardless of her opinion concerning the disappointed young lady, she would never be so crass as to openly ridicule her in public. Soon, Colonel Fitzwilliam's teasing laughter imparted to her that he expected her to do no such thing which, again, caused them both to laugh merrily.

"Why, Colonel Fitzwilliam, you are teasing me mercilessly! Poor Miss Bingley!" Elizabeth said laughing.

"I rather think it is Mr. Bingley we should be pitying and not his sister at all! What a splendid fellow he is. Darcy has just informed me this evening that he is returning to London."

"Mr. Bingley? Returning to London?" The smile on her face was replaced with a look of worry which she could not contain. "I must say I am surprised. I had thought he meant to remain in Hertfordshire for a longer period."

"Well, I do believe he did intend to settle there and possibly even purchase in the vicinity, but your husband has learned just this week that he has changed his mind."

"Really? And did he say why? What caused him to reconsider?" Elizabeth attempted to be casual in her questioning, but her concern for her beloved Jane made her far from unbiased.

"Actually, I do not know all of the particulars. Darcy did not have time to tell me all that much amidst our brief exchange with the gentlemen, but I have learned that he is most anxious to escape the influence of a particular lady. Do you know her?"

Elizabeth feared she would lose her composure. How long had Mr. Darcy known that Mr. Bingley was leaving Hertfordshire? Why had he not shared this information with her? What, in the end, was his reason for hiding it all?

"I do not believe I do know her. When I was there he did not appear to be overly attached to anyone. Did Mr. Darcy mention her name?"

"Alas, he did not. Yet, I did not expect he would as her name would have meant nothing to me. My cousin is quite protective of his friend, Bingley. Moreover, we truly could not delve into the situation very deeply."

"I see." Elizabeth suddenly wished for nothing more other than to leave the confines of his parents' home.

"I do know your husband is quite happy that Mr. Bingley has severed his connection with the young lady. Apparently, he does not feel the connection would be a beneficial one for his friend. I understand he had tried to convince his friend to give her up even before he left Hertfordshire."

"Did my husband explain why he felt this was the case?" She worked hard not to sputter.

"Not in any degree of depth. He simply suggested the woman and her family were somehow inappropriate."

Elizabeth's raged threatened to consume her.

"Pardon me, I am stunned! I must ask my husband what he feels gave him the right to interfere in so officious a manner."

"Mrs. Darcy, I believe he is merely concerned for his friend. I know my cousin well. Truly, you would be hard pressed to find a better man or a truer friend."

She almost laughed aloud upon hearing her husband described so graciously. She alone knew the truth of her husband's conceit. She always suspected her husband's prior involvement in trying to separate Mr. Bingley and Jane. Now his secret and hidden glee at Mr. Bingley's prospective desertion of Jane in addition to the fact that he admitted to his cousin that he had already tried to persuade his friend of Jane's unsuitability, was proof that she had been right to doubt him.

In the presence of his cousin, she smiled and forced a benign look upon her face.

The return of Georgiana abruptly halted the conversation. While Elizabeth longed to continue to probe the issue in more depth with the Colonel, she realized she could not do so in the presence of her husband's sister. Soon, the talk turned to lighter and more amusing topics and Elizabeth feigned an interest, but inside the rage she felt toward her husband burned brightly.

When Mr. Darcy joined them a quarter of an hour later and suggested they depart, Elizabeth had to resist the urge to leap from her chair enthusiastically. She longed to confront him about his duplicity and expose him as an intruder to her sister's happiness. Her anger was so intense she could not meet his eye even though he was overly gracious and showed her every consideration as they bid their goodbyes.

As they were being helped into their coats, she heard the rapid approach of Colonel Fitzwilliam.

"Darce, may I join you on your ride back home? Even if I do little else other than make the journey with you, the time away from here would do me well."

"Fitzwilliam, you appeared quite content a moment ago," Mr. Darcy suggested wryly. "Why this sudden urge to leave?"

"Actually, in the brief moments since you left, the room has become stifling. Even Georgiana has abandoned me and has joined a group of young women who appear to be more intriguing to her than do I. Imagine that!"

Suddenly Elizabeth could not imagine facing the carriage ride back to their townhouse alone with Mr. Darcy. How would she ever manage to spend any time alone with him again after having learned what he thought of Jane? He no doubt thought the same of her - his own wife - for if he viewed her sister with disdain he could hold no admiration whatsoever for her either.

"Of course you may join us, Colonel. We would welcome the company."

She felt her husband's eyes turn to her sharply as she spoke, but she continued to avoid him and even allowed his cousin to help her into the carriage. She was tired of the façade, tired of the little games they played to a public who in the end meant so little to her.

She listened carelessly as the Colonel's exuberance filled the luxurious carriage. She noticed both she and Mr. Darcy had relatively little to say in response. A few times she forced a smile upon her face, but it was not genuine and she soon gave up this pretence too.

When they reached the townhouse, Mr. Darcy did what she expected and invited his cousin in for a nightcap. The Colonel readily consented and mounted the steps ahead of them with a cheerful spring in his step. Elizabeth and her husband followed, not a little less happy and considerably more troubled.

Once they were inside, rather than join the gentlemen, Elizabeth pleaded fatigue and excused herself from their company. Actually, the mere thought of spending any more time with her husband was far too daunting a prospect from her. She wanted to be rid of him and escape to the privacy of her bedroom, but she knew she would not sleep tonight. Her need to rest was suddenly much less intense than was her need to rage against her husband.

As she began to mount the stairs, she heard Mr. Darcy call her name.

"Elizabeth, may I have a moment, please?" He walked toward her purposefully. "I cannot help but notice you are suddenly withdrawn and uncharacteristically quiet. Are you well?"

Again, she was seized by a desire to laugh at his false show of concern for her. She repressed the urge and instead feigned an indifference she did not feel.

"Perfectly well. Just tired. Good night, sir."

"Er...should you need anything throughout the night, please feel free to knock upon the adjoining door and ask for my assistance. It may prove rather difficult to have the servants tend to you at such a late hour."

She turned to regard him with open shock. That he could calmly suggest that she would ever be in a position to require his assistance given what he really felt about her - how he truly regarded her - how he had blatantly celebrated her sister's loss while she was in the very next room! What answer could he expect from her?

"I shall be fine, sir. I require nothing. Once more, good night."

She continued making her way up the staircase and sensed that he remained looking after her. She quickened her pace, desiring nothing so much as to be as far from him as possible.

In her room, she allowed Candace to help her out of her dress and prepare her for bed. She refused, however, her maid's offer that she help her remove her hairpins. She suddenly found she wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

Alone, she sat at her dressing table and began the process of unravelling Candace's intricate work. Had it really been a little more than six hours ago when she had sat upon this chair and marvelled at her transformation? She smiled wryly. In the end, her altered appearance had little impact upon her husband.

Even his gift to her tonight revealed how little he truly knew her, but in the end she could not honestly fault him for it. She had never related to him that she did not always enjoy the music she played; she was certain he was listening and comparing it unfavourably to his sister's superior skill at the instrument. When she had played the piano in the evening after dinner, the interlude was intended to provide them both with an alternative to the awkward silence. She had told him repeatedly that she was by no means proficient. Did he intend the sheet music as a suggestion that she needed to practise more? She had no way of knowing. In fact, so very much between them remained unspoken, unknown.

Truly, she had no right to expect anything different. What really had changed between them? Very little, in fact. Perhaps they were somewhat kinder to each other, but not much else had altered. She still believed he was arrogant and proud, although she now knew him to be capable of great kindness to those he considered worthy of his consideration. Clearly, he still viewed her as a lowly country girl who he had the misfortune of having to marry, although perhaps he had made significant efforts to make the situation less unpleasant for them both.

Yet, she could not look upon him with favour. How dare he callously ruin Jane's chances of happiness? Who was he to think himself so much superior in the knowledge of what was beneficial for his friend?

Had his cousin not joined them this evening she would have surely confronted him and, ultimately, their battle would have done her no good. Even now, when she was seething in anger over his role in encouraging Mr. Bingley to leave Hertfordshire, she knew she was in no position to challenge him. The situation was too raw; she was too angry to be able to do her sister any justice. All that would occur between them would be yet another heated row. In fact, this argument would likely make their previous altercations appear paltry - for now he had dared to not only affect her life, but her beloved Jane's as well.

Yet, she knew she could not overlook his responsibility in the matter forever. Sooner or later, she would be more than able to tell him how officious, how wrong he was - but she could not do so while mired in the depths of such heated fury.

After all, they were married and such anger, once exposed, would be difficult to forget.

Chapter sixteen

Three days following the gathering at the Matlocks', Mr. Darcy was nowhere closer to understanding the rather unusual behaviour of his wife.

In many ways, Elizabeth was every bit as she always had been since their arrival in London, but now she was quieter and certainly not as disposed to initiating conversations with him as she once was. Yet, he could discern no proper reason for her conduct. She was not angry - not at all - and for that he was thankful. He rather liked the serenity that now characterized their relationship. Still, she spent increasingly long periods of time alone - either in her sitting room that served as an office or tending to her responsibilities as mistress. He even learned from the staff that she had a propensity to read alone in her bedchamber when she was unoccupied with other things.

Unusual behaviour indeed!

He could not, however, question her about it incessantly. He attempted to do that before and his perseverance was a large reason as to why they found themselves in their present circumstances.

But, overall, he no longer felt his marriage was such a dreadful thing after all.

In fact, Mr. Darcy thought as he skimmed the pages of the volume of poetry Elizabeth had given him, he was rather satisfied in his marriage. She demonstrated a remarkable aptitude in her management of their London house and, thus, he had every reason to think she would continue to do so once they removed to Pemberley. That Georgiana greatly admired her new sister was obvious. While Mrs. Annesley was a suitable companion to his sister, Georgiana would benefit greatly from Elizabeth's additional attention. Their servants respected her greatly and almost welcomed doing anything they could to help the new mistress. Moreover, in public, she had been everything a dutiful wife in her position should be. She was pleasant when meeting new people, tolerant when confronted with their many questions and his relations seemingly approved of her.

Yes, she had done very well so far. In truth, he expected much worse.

Hence, he had little cause for complaint. She was silent at times, but gone was the hostile, bitter Elizabeth that he had known in the weeks leading up to their marriage. The current Elizabeth was, for the most part, thoughtful and, apparently, was gradually accepting of their union.

He placed the volume of poetry down and leaned heavily against the sofa's cushion. In fact, if she were not so erratic in her behaviour, he would be tempted to believe their marriage could lead to great contentment for them both. He hoped she was in the midst of arriving at a similar discovery.

He was quite past denying how much he wanted their marriage to be more than what it was presently. Every bit of her intrigued him: her behaviour, her wit, her liveliness, her countenance which was never free from some manner of expression and feeling ... her person. She was beautiful and each day he found something new that was lovely in her.

Listening for her soft movements through the wall of his bedchamber had increasingly become his pastime of choice. Once or twice he caught himself walking very close to the wall just so that he could hear her. He could not prevent himself from wondering what it was she was doing. He knew it was pathetic - secretly listening for signs of her presence through a wall - but his desire seemed to overrule his reason and so he continued.

Ah, but this was frustrating! Knowing that he did not wish to live so nonchalantly with his wife while she seemed to be perfectly happy continuing to do so, was irksome. He wished she too could know how much more they could offer each other. That knowledge could go a long way towards ridding her of any perplexing thoughts regarding their future.

And then there were the sly comments made in his presence by people like his uncle and some of his friends. He had noticed the appreciative glances they had cast in her direction and he did not particularly care for their admiration. He never before believed himself to be a possessive man or a jealous one, but he knew the notion of men looking at his wife so favourably did not please him. Nor did he particularly feel easy when furtive suggestions were made among males in his presence about how they understood why he had been less attentive to them since his marriage. It was all so tasteless. Did these men have no sense of propriety?

Feeling the need to move and do something, he rose to stoke the logs in the fireplace.

He, of course, knew himself well enough to gauge the true root of his problem. He enjoyed his wife's company at mealtimes and after dinner. He delighted in hearing her practise the music from the sheets he purchased for her. Yet, what he truly wanted was her company at night and in his bed. Her bed would do nicely too.

Surely, he could not be expected to simply continue living this chaste existence when so bewitching a woman was his wife. And he must have an heir - there was that as well! He needed to secure his estate; it was unfair to lay that responsibility completely upon Georgiana's shoulders. Moreover, he knew of no reason as to why he should not want to be intimate with Elizabeth. After all, she was his wife and, even if he did not intend to force her to submit to her marital duties, he knew she was wise enough to know what they entailed.

He had certainly tried not to submit to his susceptibility to her - even before their marriage when every encounter with her left him stunned and dizzy with longing. Now, she was his wife. Why must he renounce what may ultimately lead to an increased understanding of one another?

Deep within, he knew the answer. He could not broach the topic of sharing a marriage bed with her because he did not know how to do it with any degree of finesse. He did not know what language to use to communicate to her his wishes in this regard. He was almost certain she would be uneasy when she learned of the depth of his desire for her, as well. He hoped her mother had prepared her for all the responsibilities that came with being a married woman, but given what he knew about her mother, he could not be certain. Even if she had spoken to her daughter, Mrs. Bennet's overstated rendition of what to expect from the marriage bed was in all probability not what he wanted his wife to know about the experience.

Thus, he decided to continue waiting for a time when the issue would be less burdensome. Whatever it was that was causing Elizabeth's hesitancy lately would only be multiplied if she had added pressures to consider. If, in the end all she was experiencing was a natural sense of loss after being separated from her family and she felt he was pressing the issue, it may only lead to more misery for her.

Darcy sighed. Discovering what lay beneath Elizabeth's unhappiness, as difficult as that unhappiness was for him to bear, would surely mean an end to their peaceful co-existence. He simply could not allow that. What if she levelled her anger against him once again? He had surely withstood enough of her censure in the last month and needed a reprieve from her wrath for his own sake.

Moreover, he had discovered ways to make his life easier. In the past few days, he had begun to go out and spend time away from her. After finding himself almost desperate when she had gone shopping with her aunt, he determined that he too needed to escape her presence from time to time. His recent outings afforded him less time spent wondering where she was in the house and what she was doing. Thus, he had gone fencing with Fitzwilliam and, this morning, he intended to visit this club. These distractions did him a great deal of good. Tomorrow, he and Gilmore were meeting with his attorney to discuss whether a new business venture was as lucrative as it appeared.

Tomorrow night, however, they were dining at the Gardiners. He hoped the evening would restore Elizabeth's spirits somewhat. These were people she loved and who loved her; in their company she was sure to feel more relaxed and at ease.

He found himself looking forward to the evening with anticipation. In the end, it may offer them both some solace.

~ * ~

Later that afternoon, Elizabeth sat in her small office reading. This comfortable room had become Elizabeth's second favourite one in the townhouse. Her first favourite - the library - was a room she shrewdly avoided lately, although she never passed it without casting a longing glance in its direction. Her husband was often in that room himself and she had decided that she was not yet ready to spend any more time alone in his company than what was absolutely necessary.

Since having learned that her husband was responsible for influencing Mr. Bingley to leave Hertfordshire before they were married, and that he was also privately delighted that the gentleman had decided to come to London now, Elizabeth's had gone from feeling an intense fury to harbouring a calmer, more steady resentment toward her husband. According to Colonel Fitzwilliam who ought to know, Mr. Darcy found his friend's connection to Jane to be unfavourable and for that Elizabeth could never forgive him. Her offence sprang not only because of what her husband's disfavour said about his feelings for her sister, but also because of what they revealed about his opinion of her, his wife.

Her rage against this injustice had threatened to spill the very same evening of the Matlock dinner. In fact, had Colonel Fitzwilliam not accompanied them home on that evening, she was certain the full measure of her vitriol would have been let loose. Yet, the fact that she was not alone with her husband prevented her from making, what she now knew, would have been an imprudent mistake. While she wanted nothing better than to rebuke his friendly overtures toward her and expose him for the duplicitous upstart that he is, Elizabeth had to consider her own circumstances.

He was her husband. Regardless of how much she did not like the idea, that one fact was unchangeable. Because she was tied to him through marriage, he would remain a part of her life and thus it would be unwise for her to alienate him completely. As much as she loved Jane and as much as she longed to vindicate her indignation against him, she had no other options. She was destined to remain with him and, unless she longed for a bitter life as an alienated wife, she had best learn to temper her anger. Moreover, Georgiana was due home in just over four days and she simply could not allow her to return to a house that was mired in rage and hostility. To place the young girl in that position was truly unfair and Elizabeth would do all she could to prevent it. Lastly, Mr. Darcy's low opinion of Elizabeth and her family were in truth not so great a surprise: she had always known that he regarded them as inferior. Had he not always looked upon them with an expression of distaste etched clearly on his face?

Thus, given everything, where would her exposed outrage have led her? All that was certain was that his own distemper would have grown to mammoth proportions and perhaps even superseded hers. After being the victim of a particular rash reaction in the not so distant past, Elizabeth was determined to not succumb to that particular torture again and definitely not quite so soon.

The fact that he had, in the past two days, sought to relieve her of her temptation to confront him and spent a considerable part of the day out on his own, was not unappreciated by her. Having him not so near - not so ever present - had been a balm to her perturbed spirit. Mealtimes spent together were relatively easy to live through; they were mostly silent and, when they did speak, it was of inconsequential, petty matters that touched neither of them. It had been rather more difficult when, after dinner, they had been forced to spend an hour or so alone together. Then, talk was more necessary and so he had proceeded to share with her the contents of his day and was satisfied to see her listening and making only the most truncated of replies. He rarely, if ever, asked about how she had spent her day, preferring instead to detail his own concerns and dilemmas. However, in the end, she had no true reason for feeling affronted by his lack of interest; she feared anything too personal could somewhat lessen her resolve to remain detached and composed in his presence.

Then there was her escape in music which, in the end, offered them both respite from their tension. He seemed to enjoy her playing from the musical sheets he had given to her, although he never did more than smile and look utterly preoccupied. She wondered to where his thoughts tended while she was playing. In fact, her attempts to measure why he was so distracted often caused her to lose her place or stumble through the music more than she would have normally. However, so lost was he in his own thoughts he never made mention of her musical blunders and, at times, he did not even realize she had finished her piece. When he did note that she was done, he smiled at her wistfully. Thus, if ultimately his gift to her offered her little more than an opportunity not to argue with him, she was well satisfied with it.

Tomorrow evening, she and her husband were invited to her aunt and uncle's home. She was enthusiastic about the notion of being able to dine in good company and then later partake in some diverting conversation. Elizabeth was not one to enjoy periods of solitude and she was not formed to brood, thus the evening promised her a pleasant release from the strains of her new situation. She and Candace had this morning chosen what dress, shoes and hat she meant to wear for the occasion. Preparing for the outing had been a source of joy she could not deny herself.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Darcy," said a fretful Mrs. Graham. "Lady Catherine De Bourgh has arrived and is insisting she meet with you or the Master. I have shown her to the upstairs sitting room. Shall you join her there?"

Elizabeth's could not conceal her surprise. "Indeed! Did Mr. Darcy inform you that she would visit?"

"He didn't, madam. We are all quite surprised to see her. I believe you best meet with her now. She seems rather eager."

"I will see to her immediately. Please prepare some tea for us in the meantime." Elizabeth rushed out of the door in advance of the servant and then turned to smile at her. "Thank you, Mrs. Graham. Wish me luck." On her way to the sitting room, Elizabeth found she was not quite as nervous as she had been when she first met the Matlocks. That visit had been equally as much of a surprise but, ultimately, it had all worked out well for her. She had no reason to believe meeting Mr. Darcy's aunt today would be any different, although she did wish his relations would not happen upon her without prior notice - especially when she was meeting them for the first time. Alas, she imagined there was nothing she could do to prevent them from continuing in this vein.

When she entered the sitting room, however, Elizabeth noticed there was not just one person waiting to meet her, but two. Next to the rather formidable looking woman sat a young woman, looking rather frail and weak by comparison.

Lady Catherine rose immediately out of her chair the moment she espied Elizabeth.

"So you are the young woman who has married my nephew, Elizabeth Bennet. I have heard mention of you from your cousin, who, of course you know, is my parson," intoned the grand lady. "I am Lady Catherine De Bourgh and this is my daughter, Anne."

For a moment, Elizabeth was too stunned to speak. This colourless being was the young woman whom she heard her cousin exalt and who Mr. Wickham had said Mr. Darcy may one day have married? She could hardly credit it.

"Whatever is the matter? Why are you not responding to my introduction?"

"Pardon me, Lady Catherine, Miss De Bourgh. I seem to have lost hold of my manners for a moment." Elizabeth struggled to recover her composure. "You are correct. I am the woman who is now married to your nephew. I am delighted to finally make both of your acquaintances at last. I, too, have heard a great deal in regard to you from both my cousin and my husband."

Every ounce of Elizabeth's resolve was directed at keeping her focus on Lady Catherine rather than continuing in her perusal of Miss De Bourgh. The picture that young woman presented was vastly different from the one Elizabeth had created in her own mind.

"I understand you hail from Hertfordshire and that your father's estate has been entailed away from the female line. Is that correct?"

Elizabeth found the lady's manner of address rather odd and almost rude, but said nothing and only nodded.

"A pity your father's family held to the tradition of entailing estates to men only. My daughter, Anne, will inherit all once I am gone - and I am glad of it. She will make some fortunate gentleman a very fine wife."

After saying this, Lady Catherine turned to her daughter and smiled thinly. Miss De Bourgh had no response at all. She merely looked at Elizabeth curiously and occasionally wiped her brow with her napkin.

"I beg your pardon, Miss De Bourgh, is the room too hot for you?" Again, there was no answer from the young woman who merely turned to her mother questioningly. "I must say, I find the house quite warm with nearly all the fireplaces lit. I shall send for a servant to see if he can work the fire a bit so that it does not render the area quite so warm. Excuse me."

As Elizabeth turned to leave, Lady Catherine's voice rang out to her.

"I am certain that in your previous home, perhaps having so many fires lit at once was not possible. How fortunate to find yourself in so much better circumstances subsequent to your marriage."

When she turned to look at her, Elizabeth saw the words were spoken unsmilingly. Suddenly, she realized her meeting with these relations would be very different than what she had experienced before when meeting the Matlocks.

"I daresay it is fortunate, although like your daughter, the extra heat does not always suit me."

"I see. But there are other advantages for you, I imagine."

"Yes." Elizabeth stifled an urge to sigh audibly. "One generally marries in the hopes of improvement. There would otherwise be few persons who would enter into wedlock, I think."

"And my nephew? What compensation has he gained through your marriage?"

Again, there was no question as to where Lady Catherine's conversation tended. She was purposefully being offensive. Much to Elizabeth's surprise, she found herself at once wishing her husband was at home today to govern this meeting.

"I suppose you will have to ask him that." Elizabeth attempted to curl her lips into a hesitant smile. "I am afraid I cannot speak on his behalf in this instance."

"Miss Bennet - and so I shall continue to call you for you will never be considered a Darcy to me - your rude, sarcastic wit will not so soon charm me as it may have charmed my nephew!" Lady Catherine rose from her chair in a huff. "Believe me when I tell you, I did not come here today to be imposed upon in this manner!"

"Forgive me, Lady Catherine. Why did you come today? I am sure I do not know of the reason behind your visit."

"No idea? Why, did you merely expect me to remain at Hunsford and not address this breach in my own daughter's future? Are you aware of the fact that Mr. Darcy was engaged to Anne?"

"If in fact he was betrothed to your daughter, then he would never have married me." Elizabeth's rage was boiling. "I hope you view my husband as being more honourable than that."

"My nephew is honourable enough, I grant you. You, above anyone else, should know how principled a man he is!" She walked toward Elizabeth angrily, leaning heavily on her cane as she did so. Elizabeth would have been tempted to feel sorry for the older woman had she not been so insulted by her insinuations.

"As does everyone else, I recognize the goodness in Mr. Darcy. I believe it was one of the reasons why I chose to marry him."

"And I imagine his wealth and fine connections only added to his allure. Am I right, Miss Bennet?" parried Lady Catherine as her eyes narrowed into tiny slits. "Young lady, do you imagine for a moment that I do not know why my nephew had to marry you? Are you foolish enough to believe I am ignorant to the rampant gossip which ensued before you trapped him into marrying you?"

"Madam, I did no such thing. You are in possession of half truths and what you are charging me with today is completely unjustified! You have offended me most horribly!"

"Offended you? What of the offences that have been levelled against my daughter following your dalliances with my nephew? What of those? Who am I to blame for them?"

Elizabeth again glanced at Miss De Bourgh. Amidst her bitter defence of her own character, she had temporarily forgotten the young woman was even present. In spite of her anger, she felt her pain and embarrassment.

"Miss De Bourgh, I am sorry if my marriage to your cousin has caused you any personal sorrow. Please believe that was not my intention."

Without even looking at her mother, she responded with a tiny, "Thank you."

"Well, I certainly shall not forgive the transgression so readily, even if my daughter is kind enough not to make you aware of her own loss! Miss Bennet, do you realize my daughter was prepared to take her rightful position as Darcy's wife? Do you realize it was the hope of his dead mother as well as my own?"

"Lady Catherine, I know of no such particular information. Truly, this is a conversation you should be having with Mr. Darcy and not me."

"Impudent girl! I am ashamed of you! To stand before me and prevaricate to such an impossible degree is surely beneath even you. It certainly is below the level of respect you should be showing to me! To stand before Anne and me and consistently refuse to admit to the arts and allurements you have practiced so that my nephew would fall victim to them is reprehensible!"

"I assure you, madam, I used no such practices and, even if I had, I would never admit to them."

Lady Catherine stared at her with her mouth agape.

"Young lady, do you realize who it is you are speaking to? Your husband is someone who I take a particular interest in and, of course, there is my daughter whose disappointments are no less grave to me. I stand before you today, aghast at your character and lack of shame. Your inferior birth, your lowly connections are nothing to your absolute lack of common decency."

"Pardon me, but if these concerns do not trouble your nephew, I fail to see why they should cause you any hardship at all."

"My nephew is evidently unaware of his own mind and his responsibilities to his family. I will take it upon myself to show him the errors of his ways. You shall not stop me."

"Nor would I attempt to do so. However, he is not here at the moment. Your lamentations against me will therefore have to wait for a more opportune time."

"You have proven yourself to be little more than a wilful, ill-mannered girl today, Miss Bennet. Do not imagine I am at all finished with you. I shall make it known just how paltry a character you possess. My voice shall be heard!"

"Your comments to me today have been as callous as they are unwarranted. I find it unfortunate that, by maligning me, you also besmirch your nephew, but that is something you alone shall have to live with."

"His marriage to you has already besmirched him," spat Lady Catherine.

"Madam, we have nothing more to discuss. You have made your feelings quite clear and you cannot expect me to sanction such insults to me or to Mr. Darcy. I beg of you to leave."

Elizabeth turned and walked to the stairs. Behind her, Lady Catherine followed crying still more insults at her. Elizabeth remained silent as she descended the stairs and tried to offer the shocked servants who stood and watched a small smile in spite of the mortification which threatened to overcome her. When they reached the door, she turned and watched mutely as a servant attempted to help Lady Catherine with her coat and whose assistance was later snubbed by the indignant lady. Her daughter remained noticeably behind her mother and offered Elizabeth only the slightest of unreadable glances.

"Madam, I take no leave of you today for you merit no such consideration following your horrendous disrespect to me today. I pity my vulnerable nephew more now than I did when I first came here."

Elizabeth remained quiet and simply turned away and walked slowly up to her bedchamber.

Once inside the room, she threw herself upon the bed with great force. Bitter, angry tears came now and she did nothing to stop their flow. That she had been forced to listen to such bitter abuse from a mean-spirited woman who did not even know her was beyond humiliating! But even that was nothing to the fact that she had suffered through it alone and without protection. Regardless of their tense marriage, she knew Mr. Darcy would have never allowed his aunt to speak to her so insultingly.

She flipped onto her back and her mind wandered to Miss De Bourgh. The young woman had barely spoken throughout the entire exchange. Elizabeth could not help but feel pity for her, to be burdened with such a selfish mother who did not even care that her obviously weak and unhealthy daughter was sweltering. Moreover, despite her own resentment toward that same mother, she empathized with the pain the daughter must have felt today; Miss De Bourgh had been forced to meet with the woman who had presumably usurped her future position.

How foolish Elizabeth suddenly felt: she had previously hoped that with her marriage, the great scandal attached to Mr. Darcy and herself would eventually subside. If Lady Catherine was any indication of what truly existed beyond the walls of her new home, she and her husband would be facing unmitigated scorn for many years to come.

~ * ~

A few hours later, Mr. Darcy strode up the stairs hurriedly. He was beyond angry.

When he returned from his club, he discovered his house in an uproar. Elizabeth was nowhere to be found and the servants scuttled about in nervous anxiety, never quite making eye contact with him. When he encountered Mrs. Graham and charily asked about the events of the day, his suspicions were proven correct; something had happened to disturb the balance of his home - or rather someone had been responsible for it.

Outside Elizabeth's door, he hesitated. He could not flippantly press his ear to the door without appearing quite ridiculous to the servant positioned nearby, but he yearned to know what it was Elizabeth was doing in her bedchamber before he entered. He fancied it would prepare him for her reception and help him to weigh her disposition. All Mrs. Graham had been able to tell him about the meeting between his wife and his relations was that it had been brief - lasting only a quarter of an hour or so - and that his aunt had left approximately an hour earlier, noticeably agitated. He knew nothing else, but the fact that Elizabeth was now cloistered in her room, told him their first meeting had not gone well.

At last he rapped tentatively at the door. It appeared an eternity before he heard Elizabeth's light steps which prefaced her opening the door.

When he saw her swollen eyes and tousled hair, he knew. He felt his anger slowly dissipate.

"Elizabeth," said he, entering her room and closing the door, "You are upset - that much is clear. Will you not tell me what happened between you and my aunt?"

She walked back to the sofa and sat down tiredly. Like everyone else in his home, she would not look upon him directly. He was beginning to feel quite frustrated that no one would inform him of what had occurred to cause these unusual reactions.

"Very little happened actually, sir." She replied to his surprise before hesitating briefly, "Your aunt and cousin called upon me and your aunt proceeded to detail the myriad reasons as to why our marriage is a travesty and why she would never approve of it. All in all, it was a rather empty day."

"I perfectly comprehend your irritation, madam, but I beg you not to mock me. I had no knowledge of the fact that my aunt intended to visit you this afternoon. Had I known, I would have most assuredly not gone out."

She regarded him closely and a look of resignation soon appeared on her face. "Of course, you could not have known. I do not mean to be derisive, yet I do wish you had been here to temper her words. They were not pleasant, I assure you."

"I do not imagine they would have been. She can be quite opinionated - to a fault - but in the end, she is my aunt and I must respect her. I hope you will one day be able to overlook what happened between you today."

"I do not imagine I ever will be able to forgive her. Such a mean, conceited woman I have never met!" Her tone became suddenly heated. "Mr. Darcy, you were not here. You cannot know the horrible things she accused me of! Thus, excuse me, but I must overlook your request that I forget them."

"Will you not tell me what she said? What horrible things? Even if you do not, she will no doubt inform me of them herself and, as it is, I would much prefer to hear them from you."

"Then please sit down, sir, and be prepared to listen for a long while, for she spoke of a great many things." After he sat, Elizabeth suddenly began pacing the floor before him. "To begin, she insulted my family - not overtly, but make no mistake about it, she intended to offend and her words hit their mark quite nicely. Next, she suggested that my marriage to you was little more than a concerted effort on my part to improve my circumstances. But that is not all! She believes I have used some method of alluring bewitchery to entice you into forgetting your duty to your family and to her daughter...to whom you were presumably engaged." Elizabeth paused and lowered her voice, "Is this true, sir? Were you ever expected to marry Miss De Bourgh?"

He felt himself flinch. He knew she was speaking the truth, but he had previously believed that his aunt was in possession of a bit more diplomacy and tact. Nothing Elizabeth had told him had surprised him - he knew his aunt to be capable of extreme bluntness - but that did not mean he would allow anyone to speak to his wife in so callous a manner.

"Of course it is not true! My aunt speaks of her own flights of fancy. She always wished for us to join our estates, but I have never wanted it and I do not believe my cousin did either."

"I am not altogether sure of what your cousin wishes, silent and uncommunicative as she was. And what of your mother? Lady Catherine informed me that your own mother wished for you to marry your cousin."

"If she did, my mother never spoke of such wishes to me and so I never considered them. My cousin, Anne, is not well and has not been healthy for a long while. I cannot fault my aunt for wanting to secure her future: my aunt is getting older and the prospect of leaving her daughter unprotected is one that is justifiably upsetting to her."

Darcy noticed the softening of Elizabeth's countenance. As angry as she was, she seemed to understand his aunt's motivations even if she was unprepared to forgive her.

"Sir, I am sorry to be the source of disappointment to either your aunt or your cousin, but as I told your aunt myself, she should have levelled her anger against you and not me. I had no knowledge of any of it, yet your aunt appears to think I should shoulder this burden alone."

He knew she was correct; his aunt had overstepped her role considerably and apparently exaggerated his connection to her daughter as well. Elizabeth should not have had to bear the force of his officious aunt's resentment. Yet, he was every inch as faultless as she for he had no knowledge that his aunt intended to visit today for the sole purpose of castigating his wife.

"I am equally as blameless in what occurred today, Elizabeth. I wish your first meeting with my aunt had been different, but, alas, I cannot erase the experience no more than you can pretend it did not happen." He walked away, overwhelmed with frustration due to the entire conversation. "In the end, I suppose the words my aunt spoke to you today are what some others may feel, but at least they show some restraint and refrain from criticizing us directly. Can we really be expected to be openly accepted by everyone? Lest we forget, our marriage was a hurried affair."

He truly had no idea how Elizabeth would respond to his words, so when she proffered no immediate response, he was not altogether surprised. When at last she did speak a few moments later, he knew she had carefully mulled over her choice of words.

"Yes, our marriage was a hurried affair. On that score you are right. But, rather than reminding us of why the need for such haste and such action was required, I will only say that I hope the people who accept us far outweigh those who are willing to be insufferably rude in our presence." It was only here that Elizabeth managed to pause for breath. He, meanwhile, was speechless, "Excuse me, sir. I have to meet with Mrs. Graham concerning a household matter. I shall see you again at dinner."

With that, she walked away and made no attempt to look back.

~ * ~

Mrs. Gardiner's dinner invitation proved to be a bona fide source of comfort for both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in more ways than one. It was the very thing they both needed - or so Elizabeth thought as they sat in her relations' upstairs sitting room before dinner.

To begin, it gave them an opportunity to spend an evening in delightful company filled with interesting conversation. It also provided them an escape from the townhouse which truly offered neither of them sufficient means to escape one another for very long. Lastly, it afforded them the opportunity to avoid having to think up safe topics to discuss when they were alone. Not surprisingly, conversation had been even more scarce after the incident involving Lady Catherine.

When her aunt left the room to tend to some final touches before dinner was served, Elizabeth had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Darcy and her uncle trade business-related stories. She was pleased to see her husband be a somewhat willing participant in the discussion and even once or twice ask her uncle to relate a particular work concern. She could tell her husband was not entirely easy as he often twisted the signet ring he wore or he would pause longer than he should have in the midst of the conversation. However, on the whole, she could not fault him; as genteel and courteous as the Gardiners were, they were a vastly different sort than the people he generally associated with prior to their marriage.

When dinner was announced, Mr. Darcy accompanied her into the dining room. Immediately, she noticed this was to be an intimate dinner and that the Gardiner children were not joining them. Elizabeth felt a surge of relief at her aunt's consideration; the youngsters were polite enough, yet they were children and dinner at her relations' home tended to become noisy. She did not know how her husband would have reacted to their presence.

During dinner, conversation was plentiful. Mr. Darcy spoke infrequently but never so much as to be considered contrary or arrogant. Seated across the table from her, she often found him looking at her fixedly while she was speaking and, once or twice, the intensity of his stare had made her lose her train of thought. When he stared at her this way, she never quite knew what he was thinking; was he looking at her critically or was he merely following her discussion? Try as she might to dissemble the puzzle that was her husband, she could not make him out. Yet, Colonel Fitzwilliam's words of her husband's disapproval would often come to mind at such times and they would cause her to crimson with repressed anger.

When Mr. Gardiner suggested Mr. Darcy accompany him to his library so that he could show him his own collection of poetry of which he was quite proud, Elizabeth and her aunt remained behind. As soon as they were alone, Mrs. Gardiner led her niece through the ante-room into a smaller parlour where they would be served their tea.

"So, Elizabeth, your evening at the Matlocks went well then? You were able to charm their criticisms away. Good girl!"

Elizabeth smiled widely, "Yes, Aunt. You would be quite pleased to see how I smoothly eased myself into their social stratum that night. Even my husband, I think, was surprised to observe my success."

"Actually, I had no reason to doubt you. Everyone who truly knows you appreciates your ability to integrate into any type of society."

"I wish I had your confidence in my ability, Aunt," laughed Elizabeth softly. "What you do not know is that not everyone is so quick to fall under the spell of my charms. I have recently learned that my husband's aunt, Lady Catherine, is my most relentless critic."

"A critic of yours? Why, Elizabeth, you have never mentioned this. Whatever would cause the woman to condemn you?"

Elizabeth inhaled slowly, "Actually, it seems that there is not much to like about me, according to Lady Catherine: I am not rich enough and thus I have not brought anything to this marriage and, of course, I presumably charmed Mr. Darcy into matrimony."

"Elizabeth! None of that is at all true. You will recall that your mother and father both relayed to us the true reason as to why you had to marry. Lady Catherine is grossly mistaken! Did you inform her of what honestly transpired?"

"I did not." Elizabeth hesitated briefly, "In the end, I believed it was pointless to do so. She had clearly made up her mind about me and I did not think it fair to malign Mr. Darcy to his aunt who loves him. I told her she was operating on the basis of half-truths, but I did not expand beyond that."

"Your reluctance to expose your husband's evident vulnerability to you does you credit, my dear. I am quite proud of you."

"His vulnerability to me, Aunt?" Again Elizabeth laughed merrily but her words that followed held an obvious bitterness, "You are very easily fooled, my overly romantic friend. Believe me when I tell you, Mr. Darcy is not vulnerable to anyone other than to himself and his own opinions."

Mrs. Gardiner hesitated and appeared to be considering Elizabeth's words carefully. When at last she spoke, her tone was confident.

"Pardon me, Elizabeth, but I think it is you who are wrong. Your husband is every bit as sensitive to you now as he was when he chose to disregard the dictates of propriety nearly a month ago. I wager he is even more susceptible to you in fact. Evidently, you cannot see it, but he is far from unaffected insofar as you are concerned."

Elizabeth shook her head firmly, "I cannot believe it. I have been married almost a fortnight and have seen little evidence of any preference for me. My husband would never permit himself to become swayed by anyone. He is very much his own person. He can be kinder than I originally believed him to be, but he is far from vulnerable to me. His feelings for me are vastly different - believe me, of this I have solid proof."

"I do not intend to argue this with you, Elizabeth. You obviously seem to have made up your mind. Yet, I would have hoped your time together would have given you an opportunity to understand one another more. Listening to you this evening, I am every bit as worried for your marriage now as I was a fortnight ago at Longbourn."

Elizabeth was prevented from responding at the sound of her husband and Mr. Gardiner returning. She offered her aunt, who had seized her hand in a show of support, a slight smile of appreciation.

"Well, Elizabeth, I am happy to report your new husband has a fine appreciation for books. I almost had to drag him away from the library."

The remnants of her recent conversation with her aunt left Elizabeth too embarrassed to glance at her husband, so she focussed her attention on her uncle instead, "Yes, books are a mutual pleasure we share. The library at our townhouse offer me hours of reading entertainment."

"Our collection at Pemberley is even better. You will no doubt appreciate it that much more. It demonstrates the work of several generations. I try to add to it when I can; I am quite proud of it."

"Have you set any definite plans as to when you will return to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy?" asked her uncle.

"We have not discussed it. Georgiana returns home in a few days. After that, we are prepared to travel at any time."

"So you may not be in Town for New Year? Or Twelfth Night?" queried Mrs. Gardiner.

"No, we shall have to leave after that. I have accepted an invitation for us to attend a masquerade ball given by friends of Lord and Lady Matlock on the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany. The Whitbys are hosting it. Do you know them?"

"No, I cannot claim their acquaintance. Yet, any ball given on Twelfth Night promises to be great fun! I am pleased to learn you mean to attend," cried her aunt enthusiastically. "Elizabeth, you must remember to tell me all about it afterwards!"

"I shall - on that, you have my word. I have never attended such an event and will likely bore you with all the details."

After a little more small talk, Mr. Darcy rose and suggested the time had come for them to leave. Their goodbyes were warm and rather hasty but they included a return invitation to dine at the Darcy townhouse sometime during the next week. Thus, immediately after they left, Elizabeth was filled with glee after having spent such a delightful evening in such pleasant company.

Yet, on the carriage ride home, she recollected her aunt's words regarding Mr. Darcy's partiality to her. She was confounded by them, particularly because the notion contrasted so mightily with Colonel Fitzwilliam's assertion that Mr. Darcy regarded her family as beneath the notice of Mr. Bingley. What now seemed an aeon ago, Charlotte Lucas had once implied Mr. Darcy could be partial to her, but even then she had known it to be nonsensical. Prior to their scandalous meeting in the forest, Mr. Darcy had only looked at her with scorn.

Moreover, if Mr. Bingley was worthy of someone better than Jane, then Mr. Darcy, who was a good deal wealthier and more influential, must feel he was entitled to even more in terms of a wife.

Thus, between the two accounts, she was much more likely to credit the Colonel's as being indicative of her husband's true feelings. After all, her aunt was basing her opinions on her own interpretations of a gentleman she knew not at all well. Meanwhile, the Colonel was in Mr. Darcy's confidence and was privy to information her aunt did not possess.

She was resolved: her husband was by no means vulnerable to her and, in the end that was acceptable. In time, she hoped they would come to at least respect one another.

That would be more than enough to sustain them - or so she hoped.

continue Happenstance here

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