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Happenstance

Chapter 20

Cautiously, Darcy greeted Pemberley's new arrivals with as much approbation as he could manage under such nerve-racking circumstances.

Twenty minutes was all the time he had been afforded to prepare himself for Elizabeth's actual approach. A servant, who had been instructed to keep vigilant watch for the carriage's emergence, had breathlessly delivered the news after racing on horseback to relay the message.

Darcy had tried diverse methods of calming himself once the footman left him. He breathed deeply - several times in and out, stretching his limbs which were weary from being seated in his library while attempting to read. As well, he adjusted and readjusted his coat and cravat, hopeful that turning his mind to something more mundane would bolster his morale. In the end, it had done him little good. To confront her again would not be easy, but if he appeared overwrought and restless, he would know a self-condemnation which would later be difficult to conquer. As he had done repeatedly throughout their separation, he reminded himself he had no choice but to overcome his angst and do what he could to repair his marriage. But this thought, now that she was so near, did little to soothe his troubled head.

Yet, once he was outside and he caught sight of the carriage making its way up the snowy path leading to his front door, a veritable and curious peace settled over him. Somehow, the image of Elizabeth arriving at Pemberley, the place he loved best in the world, was fitting. Had he been asked to justify his sudden feeling of contentment, Darcy would have likely been unable to describe his altered mood. Nevertheless, he welcomed his changed disposition and hoped it would serve him well.

His first glimpse of her exiting the carriage very nearly sent him reeling at the remembrance of the evening in her bedchamber when he asked her to allow him into her bed. Although her attire and their location were quite different, her eyes and heightened colour, which bespoke her hesitation, were very much as they were that night. He steeled himself against the intruding recollection and attempted to receive her as benignly as he could.

Almost timidly, she took hold of his hand and waited patiently while he assisted Georgiana down the carriage steps. When he turned to her again and offered her his arm, he saw her look up to him briefly, but she did not show any conspicuous reluctance.

Slowly, they mounted the stairway leading to the entrance. Earlier, Darcy had asked the footmen to be certain the steps were cleared, but the softly falling snow and the icy patches beneath it, had made it difficult for them to completely remove it. Parts of their ascent, therefore, could be unsafe. Darcy was not willing to chance Elizabeth taking a fall within minutes of arriving at Pemberley. Thus, he placed his hand over hers securely and ventured up the stairs while Gilmore and Georgiana followed.

As he had done when they first arrived at their London townhouse more than a month prior, he watched as his wife greeted the staff warmly, amazed at her continued ability to be congenial at all times. He knew that she was no doubt even more troubled than he was, but she hid her discomfort with a composure and grace which moved him. She managed to smile pleasantly and even offered several of the domestics a few words of thanks. When he turned to regard Mrs. Reynolds, she was smiling and nodding her approval. Obviously, Elizabeth had already begun to work her magic on the servants.

Once their coats and hats had been shed, Darcy led the group into the drawing room before dinner. He watched as Elizabeth walked over to the fireplace and stretched her hands before the blazing fire.

"While on occasion I found our home in London rather too warm, I cannot imagine ever regarding a roaring blaze as unwelcome at this moment," she said as she turned to them and smiled.

"I am sorry to hear you are chilled," he offered tentatively. "Generally, I attempt to ensure that there are heating blocks and blankets enough to combat the cold when I travel during winter. Given the length of your journey, however, I imagine even the warmest blankets would not have kept you warm."

"Oh, there were several blankets and the heating bricks did help initially, but they could not defy the cold of winter... And, yes, our trip was a long one."

When he turned toward her, she quickly looked away. He felt himself flinch as the fear that their time apart had not been helpful all but overcame him. She still could not easily meet his gaze nor did she seem particularly willing to engage him in any extended form of conversation.

"Mrs. Darcy insisted we only stop briefly in Cannock," ventured Mr. Gilmore. "The horses were watered and checked and then we were on our way. Fortunately, the driver did not feel the short rest would harm the animals, but I expect they are quite tired now."

"In fact, Mr. Gilmore is right, Brother. Elizabeth was surely anxious to arrive. While the journey was lengthy, Elizabeth's company helped us pass the time quite agreeably with tales of her sisters and growing up in Hertfordshire." Georgiana smiled affectionately at Elizabeth and then her brother. "After hearing her, I too shared some memories of Pemberley and relayed to her some of the mischievous stories I have learned about you in your younger days."

"Well you certainly could not have had much to tell. By all accounts I was a model child, rarely posing any trouble at all."

Following this exchange, amusement ensued. Elizabeth's laughter drew Darcy's particular attention. When he turned to look at her, he saw her regarding him smilingly before slowly looking away.

Given that dinner would be served shortly, they drank only the warm tea that was served to them while continuing their conversation. Excitedly, Georgiana began explaining to Elizabeth some of the many places of interest within the house.

"It truly is a pity we have come in the dead of winter after all. William has worked very closely with the gardeners and there are several lovely parks which you will enjoy in the spring, Elizabeth. Now, they are all covered with snow."

"Yes, the gardens at Pemberley are celebrated for their natural beauty as well as for their careful maintenance," said Mr. Gilmore, rising. "And now, I must ask you all to please excuse me. I should like to change out of these clothes prior to having my own dinner. Good evening to you all."

After bidding the steward farewell, their conversation relating to the grounds continued.

"Well, I should like to see as much of the estate as possible, regardless of the snow. You are forgetting, Georgiana, that I was raised in the country. A bit of snow has never before prevented me from enjoying a good, long walk."

"Nor has it ever stopped me from venturing out. Georgiana, I am afraid we do not all share your dislike of snowy paths." He turned to Elizabeth, his colour still high. "Perhaps, after you are settled, we can all go out together. There is still much to see - in spite of the snow and cold weather."

He saw Elizabeth hesitate only briefly before responding.

"I should like that very much."

As Georgiana and his wife continued to chat, Darcy took the opportunity to lose himself in the thoughts which were forming at a rapid rate. While any conversation or looks between he and Elizabeth had been fleeting, there appeared - at the moment - to be little of the nervous tension he feared would come with meeting her again. He truly did not know whether to be happy to have his fears unfounded or be worried that he was being too optimistic in his assessment of their interaction. Nothing thus far had been easy or simple in regard to his relationship with Elizabeth. He imagined this latest meeting was truly not so different.

He returned his attention back to the conversation before him.

"...And do you generally have many visitors at this time of year?"

"Not so many, I am afraid. You have seen for yourself that the trip here is not undemanding. Consequently, you shall have only William's and my own company to look forward to until the roads improve in the spring, I am afraid."

He watched as Elizabeth demurely shifted her gaze back to the fire and avoided meeting his eyes.

"Ah, but this winter promises to be rather different. I have reason to hope, Elizabeth, that your relations, the Gardiners, in addition to your sister will be joining us at some point. Is that not correct?"

"In fact, my uncle did say he would come, but he did not specify when they would make the journey. Regrettably, business is his first priority. That is understandable, but disappointing as well. I hope you will enjoy meeting them, Georgiana."

"Additionally, we will have other guests quite soon." He raised his head and paused as he turned to Elizabeth, "I have invited Mr. Bingley and his sisters to join us as soon as they can arrange to travel. It is quite possible they will all be here together for a time."

"Well, then we shall be a merry party after all!" exclaimed Georgiana.

While his sister continued to extol the delights of a winter gathering at Pemberley, oblivious to anything significant having passed between her listeners, Darcy unconsciously glanced at Elizabeth and found her staring at him inquisitively. Her colour was a deep crimson and he watched her place a hand on her chest while taking a deep breath. Soon, she proffered him a grateful smile and her entire being was suffused with a contentment that only he could understand. He looked away as he felt his breath begin to quicken, exasperated with himself for reacting so noticeably to her every look and smile.

Upon hearing the bell for dinner, all three rose and made their way to the dining room. Due to the limited number of persons being seated for the meal, Mrs. Reynolds had prudently set a shorter table, thereby increasing the intimacy of discussion and company.

Throughout dinner, Darcy listened as Elizabeth and Georgiana outlined their journey to him. Seeing his sister and his wife so comfortable with one another and so effortlessly engage in conversation soothed him considerably. He could sense that Elizabeth was not merely feigning interest; her eyes were laughing and she leaned slightly forward as a means of not missing any of what his sister relayed. Meanwhile, Georgiana's animated enjoyment was evident as well. Clearly, in his wife's company she seemed to shed many of the reservations which threatened to cause her to withdraw into herself when in public.

Regardless of their own troubles, obviously he and Elizabeth were of the same mind regarding Georgiana. Not only were they reluctant to have her realize the problems that existed between them, they were also interested in setting the young girl at ease and relieving her of her timidity. A sudden rush of gratefulness swept over Darcy at the thought that Elizabeth would be so willing to do what she could to safeguard his sister. Immediately following it, however, was a feeling of chagrin that swept over him at the thought that he had once been so careless regarding her own sister's happiness.

Once the meal had ended, Georgiana rose and immediately expressed a wish to remove to her rooms.

"I am afraid I am feeling the effects of our long journey. Elizabeth, perhaps you would like to see your apartments as well? Will you join me?"

"Actually, I can think of nothing I would like better," said Elizabeth as she pushed her chair from the table and stood. "I ought to change out of my traveling clothes and, I must admit, I am a bit curious to see my room."

"She will be occupying our mother's former room, is that right, William?"

Forcibly, Darcy gulped down his wine before responding.

"Yes. Mrs. Reynolds has readied the room in preparation for your arrival, Elizabeth." He paused abruptly, intending to stop there. Yet, almost as if he could not check himself, he continued with, "She has slightly rearranged the furnishings, but you may wish to change a few things yourself."

Immediately he regretted his words, but remorse was futile now that he had voiced his thoughts aloud. Elizabeth looked at him indiscriminately before turning away. He could not be sure, but he thought he saw the beginnings of a smile as she turned her head.

"Oh! I should like to see the modifications she has made. Come, Elizabeth!" said Georgiana enthusiastically before turning to regard Darcy questioningly. "Brother, will you not join us?"

"I will...in a few moments. Allow me to finish my wine...and then I will come," he replied to his doubtful sister. "Indeed. I shall be with you presently."

Georgiana smiled at him and linked arms with her sister amicably. Before exiting the room, Elizabeth turned to her husband and extended him a probing look.

After they left, Darcy remained seated although he wanted nothing so much as to move and exorcise the troubling thoughts which came flooding back into his head. He had resolved not to be present when Elizabeth first viewed her new bedchamber. In fact, all week he had planned what else he could do at this particular time. And, he had come up with a rather good scheme in the end - one that made sense and would not cause anyone to question his motives. He would spend the time after Elizabeth left him meeting with Gilmore and discussing some niggling matters concerning the estate. That would consume both his time and his thoughts and, later, he would go to bed tired which would prevent him from thinking too deeply upon the fact that Elizabeth was asleep in the very next room.

Yet, his sister's request that he join them upstairs in Elizabeth's apartments had made his prior plans impossible. If he did not attend them, it would appear as though he was reluctant to welcome or spend anytime with Elizabeth. Nevertheless, perhaps it would be best if he stayed away after all. In London, when he had entered her room in an attempt to witness her first reaction to it, calamity had ensued. He did not want to live through a similar experience again if he could prevent it.

Still, Georgiana would now be there. Her presence was sure to be a barrier to any misunderstanding that may arise between them.

No, ultimately, he must go. Anything else was inconceivable.

He found the door to her bedchamber slightly ajar and stood for a moment to listen to his sister relay to Elizabeth some of the changes which had been wrought. Actually, he listened in rapt attention. Wanting to forget the notion that she would be sleeping next to him, he had purposely avoided entering the bedchamber before today. Now, he was almost obliged to go into it and he was wary of what awaited him...yet he was curious as well.

Forcing a smile, he joined his sister and his wife. Instantly, they both turned to regard him. Elizabeth's mouth was smiling, but even in the dimming light, he could see that her eyes wore a diffident look.

"William, Mrs. Reynolds has done a fine job in Elizabeth's room. She had the bed moved and the chairs have been repositioned." At this, Darcy and Elizabeth exchanged a knowing glance. "I do not recall this one ever being here in the past. Is it new?"

"In fact, that chair was taken from one of our guest chambers. I thought it would be more useful here, so I recommended that Mrs. Reynolds have it moved."

While Georgiana began looking at some books arranged on a sofa-table, he and Elizabeth seemed to do all they could not to look at one another. Elizabeth examined a pair of rosewood stools and Darcy glanced about the room as though he were almost seeing it for the first time himself.

"Mrs. Reynolds evidently has tastes which match my own. I like this room even better than the one I occupied in London, though that one was quite lovely as well. I am certain I shall feel quite comfortable here. I must remember to thank her."

Georgiana, perhaps suspecting that he may want a moment alone with his wife after spending a week apart from her, tactfully decided to make her exit.

"And now, I ask you both to excuse me." Georgiana smilingly watched the glances exchanged between them. "I am quite tired and would like nothing more than to rest. Good night."

After bidding her good night, they stood and looked after her. Suddenly, the awkwardness of their predicament seemed all too real. This was the first time they were alone in many days; the last time they had been together was not a pleasant memory for either of them. Georgiana's exit, which Darcy had not anticipated, meant that she would not be able to act as a conciliator between them.

"...Thank you as well, Mr. Darcy. This room, as I imagine the rest of the house, is very accommodating."

Her timbre was hesitant and he did not quite know how to respond. He knew he could not remain there for much longer. As it was, he was already planning a means to exit with as much self-possession as was possible.

"I am pleased that you like it. I hope you will enjoy living at Pemberley, Elizabeth."

And, yet again, he realized how true that was. He longed for her to appreciate this particular home with the devotion that he did, but he imagined that to her it was merely just another grand estate.

"I am certain that I will love it," she said somewhat uneasily. "After all, who could see all of this and not love it?"

"Yes, but I know how fondly you think of Longbourn. I...would hope that one day you could come to view our home here...in a similar fashion."

She paused and looked at him closely.

"I imagine I shall. I am a creature who tends to associate each place I live in with delight. Pemberley will be no different, I assure you."

To this, Darcy only smiled. He forced himself not to reveal how immensely pleased he felt upon hearing her words of praise.

"In fact," she continued, "I intend to begin discovering as much of Pemberley as I can tomorrow. Do not be too alarmed, therefore, to find me poking my head in doors and making small notes regarding the room's function and mapping its location. I fear I shall never remember them if I do not."

"There are several of us who can assist you in your discovery. Georgiana will be eager to direct you, and Mrs. Reynolds will show you around as well. If you like, I can take you on a brief tour of the lower level tomorrow after we have had our breakfast."

Again, the words had come rushing out of his mouth before he had a chance to consider them fully. He attempted to resist the urge to grimace at his hurried response. Surprisingly, however, Elizabeth did not appear to be displeased by his invitation to explore the house with her. She merely smiled tentatively.

"I shall leave you now to your rest and see to it that Candace is sent for immediately." He began walking toward the door, and then halted suddenly. "Er...I should tell you, Elizabeth, that my own chamber once again adjoins yours." He indicated the connecting door in an offhanded manner.

Elizabeth's eyes followed the direction of his hand to the adjoining door.

"Thank you for informing me."

"Good night. Sleep well."

And with that, he left her.

As he descended the stairs, he was seized by an almost giddy relief. Inhaling and exhaling deeply, he took what felt like the most natural breaths he had taken since Elizabeth's arrival.

In the end, their time alone had not been unpleasant. It had been somewhat awkward and fleeting to be sure, but that was not surprising given their last meeting. Perhaps their time apart had done them some good after all. He feared building too much hope on that one idea, but he was powerless to stop his buoyant thoughts.

Alone in his study, his excitement persisted. He tried to calm his ruffled spirits, but he was too greatly affected by her presence to be able to think rationally. While much of their exchanges that evening had been diffident and awkward, they had not been hostile or aloof to one another.

As a matter of fact, Elizabeth had demonstrated a willingness to look upon her current situation as not entirely unfavourable. She had agreed to walk out with him one day and had not rejected his offer to accompany her as she tried to familiarize herself with his home. All in all, this was much better than their arrival in London following their wedding, when everything between them had been so strained and nonnegotiable.

He could not help commending himself. In spite of his own discomfort and nervousness, he had managed to keep calm and not provoke any arguments with her either. He had wanted her to know how much he welcomed her presence, but he did not want to appear openly enthusiastic for fear of once again presuming too much about their relationship.

The entire evening had been pleasant - in fact, it was the most pleasurable evening they had spent together since first being married. Whether or not this night marked a definite shift between them, he could not ascertain. Yet, he somehow sensed that for now at least, things were significantly better than they were in London.

As he sat behind his desk and opened his ledger, Elizabeth's words regarding their need to respect one another came flooding back to him. In the end, she had been right. For too long, they had been buried in the depths of their own singular opinions and perspectives. If their marriage was to continue and ever hope to be a happy one, they would have to make concessions such as the ones they had tentatively made this evening. It truly was the only way.

For the first time since arriving at Pemberley, Darcy felt compelled to do nothing. Each nerve in his body tingled, but he could not possibly use his newly discovered energy to do anything productive.

His meeting with Gilmore could definitely wait.

He put away his papers and his accounts and made his way to his own chambers with a satisfied and faraway look upon his face.

In the days which followed, he needed to seek further opportunities for him to know her mind. This evening, as relatively magnificent as it had been, was simply not enough.

~ * ~

Two days later found Elizabeth hurrying to ready herself for a walk about the grounds with Mr. Darcy.

Since arriving at Pemberley, her entire existence appeared almost surreal. The house was splendid and luxurious; every aspect bore a true grace and elegance that was engaging. Despite its rich history, every inch of the estate seemed to point towards the current master's refined taste and discernment. In fact, Mrs. Reynolds had informed her that once her husband had assumed his position, he had immediately ensured that some subtle changes were wrought. Curious to see more, Elizabeth had already toured a great deal of the house, yet there was much she had yet to discover. In her opinion, none of it bore the characteristic of meaningless luxury or pretence. Her husband and Georgiana had patiently walked her through the generously proportioned rooms, telling her bits and pieces of family history.

Their pride in this house was infectious. Gradually, with an appreciative comfort, Elizabeth found herself walking and admiring the art collections, the fine furniture and the painted hallways - all objects of wonder and delight. It truly was a most magnificent and glorious house, unrivalled in every way. She still could not credit that she was its mistress. All of it seemed so beyond her. Yet, for the first time since her marriage, Elizabeth felt a satisfaction and ease which she had previously imagined impossible. She ascribed her new mood to the beautiful Pemberley for she could not suppose anything else could cause such a drastic change.

The servants, of course, were very accommodating and as efficient as she and Miss Harlow had imagined they would be when they had discussed them in London. In the benevolent Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth had found a strong ally and she was eternally grateful to her. The housekeeper had taken great pains to acquaint her with the duties the former Mrs. Darcy had seen to, and the rest of the domestics were equally as solicitous. Mrs. Reynolds had even regaled her with story after story of the Darcys growing up and included a round of praise for her husband's goodness, civility and his handsome exterior which had, in her estimation, only improved as he matured. He was, according to her, the very best of men and the most admirable master she could ever hope to work for. There was no doubt that Mrs. Reynolds felt a sincere tenderness for her employer that was uncommonly pleasing in a servant. However, the housekeeper's affection also served to remind Elizabeth that there were many dimensions of her husband's character which she may have judged too hastily.

Yesterday, Mrs. Reynolds had led Elizabeth to the family's collection of miniatures which were framed over the mantelpiece. To her surprise, Mr. Wickham's likeness was included in the display. Feeling nearly overcome with inquisitiveness, Elizabeth questioned the older lady who proceeded to give her a brief history of how the man, the son of a now deceased and beloved servant, had recently gone into the army and had, in spite of the family's assistance, turned quite unruly. Elizabeth's shock must have been evident for Mrs. Reynold's proceeded to relay a few examples of his poor conduct and of Mr. Darcy's unsuccessful attempts to correct the undisciplined man's behaviour. She spoke authoritatively, as though the information she imparted was common knowledge. Although Elizabeth was anxious to know more, she curtailed her curiosity. Yet, that the housekeeper's words confirmed the legitimacy of what Mr. Darcy had told her regarding Mr. Wickham did not escape her. Once again, Elizabeth was riddled with self-doubt and regret.

Perhaps most surprising was Mr. Darcy himself. Before arriving, Elizabeth had imagined that they would not spend a great deal of time together after reuniting. She believed that a house as large as Pemberley would conveniently afford the two of them plenty of opportunities to escape one another's society. Instead, her husband had made a marked attempt to remain with Georgiana and herself as often as he was able. In spite of his busy schedule and the fact that he proved himself to be a diligent master, he appeared at every meal, remained with them after supper and even joined her and Georgiana for tea yesterday. If he at all resented her bitter accusations against him, he was quite adept at hiding it whenever they met. The thought that he still desired her after all that had passed between them seemed unfathomable. Yet, he had been surprisingly considerate and did not seem to find her presence at Pemberley inconvenient whatsoever. It was all quite surprising!

And, truly, his own company had not been too terribly unwelcome. In fact, if she were honest with herself, Mr. Darcy's entire manner was much improved. He spoke more, appeared to be quite at ease and even smiled more often than he had ever before in her presence. She attributed this change to him being at Pemberley, a place he loved more dearly than anywhere else. After all, she could not imagine that he would alter so vastly on her account alone. Nevertheless, this different Mr. Darcy was not one whom she could dislike too intensely.

Yet, she remained wary. It was far too early to attribute to him a complete metamorphosis. Clearly, both of them were making every attempt to be civil and far removed from the people they had been while in London prior to their last argument. For her part, Elizabeth could not help but be pleased. Even if this was but a temporary alteration, Elizabeth meant to enjoy it nevertheless. It certainly helped make the transition to Pemberley an easier one and, thus, it would not help for her to question it too much.

As she descended the stairs hurriedly, she viewed Mr. Darcy standing with his back to her. He was already dressed in his warm greatcoat and beaver hat. Elizabeth slowed her progress a little and took some time to secretly examine her husband's figure. Even from this particular angle, his noble disposition was evident. He carried himself with poise and a surety which was becoming. In the past, Elizabeth had always supposed this confidence was a showy indication of his haughtiness, but she could see now, as he stood waiting for her, that it was not deliberate nor was it in any way a sign of the superiority she assumed he felt in comparison to others. After all, he stood alone - who, then, was he viewing condescendingly? No. Clearly, Mr. Darcy's assured manner came from within and was not simply an indication of his conceit.

When she reached the bottom of the stairs and a servant came to her with her jacket and gloves, Mr. Darcy turned to her and observed as she buttoned her coat. He had been the one to suggest that they venture outdoors today. Georgiana, claiming to dislike the cold more than anything else, had decided to remain behind. Today's outing would be the longest time they had ever spent alone together since she had come to Pemberley. The thought of being alone with him this afternoon left her mind terribly confused. She wondered if they would be able to maintain the delicate equilibrium that had now sprung between them - and worried what she would do if they could not.

As she pulled on her gloves and placed the hat upon her head, Mr. Darcy waited patiently. When they were done, she joined him and they exited the house.

As they walked, her husband pointed out the many gardens which immediately surrounded the estate. Although Elizabeth had repeatedly viewed the exterior of the house from several different windows, being outside was something else entirely. Mr. Darcy told her of the many streams and ponds located on the premises and spoke of one which his parents picnicked at often. Throughout their walk, Elizabeth again had a chance to ponder his enthusiasm and his changed behaviour. He was no means boasting as he spoke of the gardens and his pride did nothing to render him self-important or haughty. Escorting her today was a man who appeared to realize his good fortune in inheriting such a magnificent estate.

"In total there are approximately ten miles of parks for you to discover in the spring. Then, you will be able to better appreciate the meticulous work of our landscapers." He turned to regard her closely. "Perhaps Georgiana was right. There is not much for you to appreciate in the winter after all."

"Quite the contrary! There is a great deal for me to look at approvingly regardless of the snow! I may not be able to see the lush gardens in all of their splendour at this very moment, but your descriptions make it very easy for me to picture them in my mind nonetheless. And, over in the distance, I see trees aplenty. I can never be sad or uninterested in a place where there are so many large and old trees."

They smiled uncertainly at one another.

"I am of a mind to agree with you there. There are a multitude of trees and several of them are quite old. One of our foresters has informed me that many of them should be cut down, but somehow I cannot bring myself to have it done."

"Good! While there is still some life in them, I believe you should continue to champion their existence. I wholeheartedly agree with your decision!"

Silently, they continued their walk. Elizabeth imagined each of them were lost in their own thoughts and too uncertain of what to say next. She wondered if he too was questioning their apparent ease with one another.

Their time together that afternoon had afforded her the opportunity to continue to see him as a man who was worthy of her esteem. As he spoke, his voice was gentle and he obligingly lowered his head so she could hear him better. None of the superior indifference she saw before was evident now. By no means was Elizabeth completely at ease, but gone was the extreme angst and underlying hostility which had threatened all the previous times they had spent alone together. On this occasion, all that seemingly remained were she and her generous husband taking a leisurely stroll amidst their beautiful snow-covered grounds of Pemberley. It was a change for which Elizabeth could not help but be grateful.

"Elizabeth, I had a letter from Bingley this morning. Apparently, he and his sisters will begin their journey tomorrow which means that they shall soon be here."

She looked away momentarily.

"Do you know how long he means to stay?"

"He did not say, but he generally remains for about a month depending on his schedule."

"Then there is a possibility that he will still be here when my relations come to visit. This morning, I received a letter from my aunt which informed me they mean to depart for Pemberley in just over two weeks."

He looked at her serenely. "Yes...and your sister will accompany them as well, will she not?"

"She will indeed."

Neither of them spoke again after that. Now, Elizabeth was absolutely certain they were each engrossed in their own thoughts concerning their future guests.

How did her husband truly feel about the notion that Mr. Bingley and Jane may be reunited? She hoped he would not be so heartless as to persuade his friend to ignore any residual feelings he may still have concerning Jane. Still, if he meant to keep them apart, why had he invited Mr. Bingley knowing that her sister may possibly be there at the same time? And, after learning that the Gardiners and Jane meant to visit in the near future, had he been inclined to not have Mr. Bingley and her sister meet, he could have used any pretence to delay his friend's visit. It was all rather strange! Could she have caused her husband to rethink his earlier intervention? She knew she could not ponder this issue with the concentration it warranted while he was in her presence, yet, she knew she would definitely need to consider this further.

Elizabeth had responded to her aunt's letter with alacrity. In it, she had alluded to the Bingley visit and that there was a chance that Jane and Mr. Bingley would be there at the same time. She felt her sister deserved fair warning of her previous suitor's presence and hoped that it would make her less anxious if she happened to find him there when she arrived. Now that Elizabeth knew for certain that he would be there, she was pleased that she had thought to tell her. Anything which would put her sister at ease was something she meant to do at all costs.

Following a brief interval, Mr. Darcy suggested they return to the house. The wind was picking up and, in spite of her gloves, her hands felt quite chilled. As they quickened their pace, Elizabeth found herself struggling to keep up with her husband whose long legs afforded him the opportunity to take giant steps in comparison to her more diminutive ones. When he realized he had been walking too fast, he slowed down and looked at her uncomfortably.

"Pardon me, Elizabeth. I see now that I was walking far too quickly. I am afraid I was so preoccupied thinking of the warmth that awaits us inside the house, I overlooked the fact that you cannot be expected to keep up with my frenetic pace."

She laughed. "Yes. It was quite a struggle. I am sorry to delay you."

They relaxed their pace slightly and suddenly Elizabeth felt her husband's anxious gaze upon her.

"I can see by the redness in your face that you are cold. Perhaps our walk would have been better left for a warmer day. As much as it pains me to admit it, my younger sister is often more judicious than am I."

As she raised her eyes to meet his, she detected a glint of humour radiating from them and noticed his lips were smiling as well. The effect of such an expression made her look away briefly in surprise. So rarely had she seen him expressing any pleasure at all when he was with her. Yet, as he looked at her now, she was reminded of how handsome a man he was and how, when he smiled at her in such an open manner, he was far removed from the stern and sombre person she had married less than two months ago.

"Not at all," Elizabeth interjected abruptly with a smile. "In spite of the cold and my red visage, I am not at all sorry that we ventured out today. Our walk has been quite... gratifying and you have managed to increase my desire to know all of Pemberley and not merely just its interior."

He drew in a deep breath and stared directly ahead of him. Once more, Elizabeth had no notion of what he could be thinking, but she hoped he had not found anything wanting in her reply.

How much easier it would be if they understood one another more!

~ * ~

The Bingleys' arrival on Sunday afternoon met with all the pomp and circumstance Miss Bingley demanded whenever she traveled.

After consulting with Mrs. Reynolds about a particular guest's tastes, Elizabeth had requested that dinner consist of a light carrot and coriander consommé, followed by breasts of duck cooked in a fine white wine with a petite tartlet of ham and cheese. Accompanying the entrée would be an assortment of fresh seasonal vegetables and parsley potatoes ending with an array of cheeses and grapes rather than a sweet pastry or torte. Since her marriage, this was Elizabeth's first dinner as hostess. She had an idea that if she meant to demonstrate to Miss Bingley that she was not faltering in her role as mistress of such a fine estate, she had to leave her with an impression that belied her opinion of her competence and flair.

Upon arriving, Mrs. Hurst and her sister decided they would like to refresh themselves after such a long journey. Consequently, while her husband showed Mr. Bingley and Mr. Hurst to the sitting room, Elizabeth volunteered to immediately escort them to their rooms herself. Thankfully, Georgiana offered to accompany them as well and Elizabeth was instantly filled with an enormous sense of deliverance. She hoped - rather than knew for certain - that regardless of how tempted Miss Bingley was to disparage her, Georgiana's presence would compel her to demonstrate some restraint.

If Elizabeth ever doubted it before, she now knew for certain that Miss Bingley regarded her with a steady jealousy that she made little attempt to hide. As they traversed down the hallway leading to the guest chambers, Elizabeth tried to make conversation and questioned the sisters about their journey. Mrs. Hurst replied sparingly, but Miss Bingley gave her no answer whatsoever. Yet, when Georgiana later asked her a similar question concerning her trip however, Miss Bingley appeared quite eager to lament the tedious journey and the uncomfortable surroundings they had been forced to submit to along the way. All of it was further proof that regardless of what Elizabeth did to please her, Miss Bingley was a lady who would remain deliberately unpleased with her.

After leaving the ladies in their prospective rooms - bedchambers which Elizabeth had ensured were meticulously arranged and prepared for her guests - she and Georgiana ventured downstairs to join the gentlemen. When they arrived in the sitting room, the men rose immediately to greet them and waited while Georgiana and Elizabeth claimed an empty loveseat.

"Mrs. Darcy, you have recently arrived yourself. How was your journey to Pemberley?"

"It was quite protracted due to the icy roads we encountered along the way, but as satisfactory as a journey at this time of year can be, I assume."

"Indeed, winter makes travel quite difficult. Were it not for the prospect of spending more time with you and Miss Darcy, I would not have even considered it. Darcy's company alone would never have lured me to Pemberley otherwise - in spite of its comforts and beauty."

They laughed companionably and Elizabeth turned in time to see her husband's almost sheepish reaction upon hearing his friend tease him. Again, she marvelled at the change in her husband's demeanour and attitude. At Netherfield, such a remark would have drawn a long, protracted and severe answer from Mr. Darcy and, in the end Elizabeth would not have looked upon such a response with favour. Yet, here, in his own home and in the company of people he considered his dearest friends he was almost boyish and accepting of his friend's taunt.

"Mr. Hurst, no doubt you also found the journey quite overwhelming?"

"Yes. No surprise. No one likes to travel in winter," was the only response the gentleman felt the need to give her.

Light talk between Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley followed. From time to time, Mr. Darcy gave an opinion regarding residence in London at this time of year and of his own journey. Generally, he was typically reticent, yet he did not appear uncomfortable or withdrawn. In fact, when Mr. Bingley began relaying his enjoyment of Rossini's first opera La Cambiale di Matrimonio, a comedic piece he had viewed recently at The Haymarket Theatre, Mr. Darcy laughed aloud and paid close attention. His smiling reaction to the aging, silly father's desire to sell his daughter to a rich suitor stunned Elizabeth and caused her again to wonder at how different he now appeared from the man she had believed him to be before.

Yet, later, with the return of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst downstairs, the room's ambience was noticeably altered. Elizabeth for one could not help but regret their presence. Immediately, the cheerful discussion that had been so enjoyable previously had ceased and was now replaced by the sisters' raptures over their perfectly glorious accommodations and the general magnificence of Pemberley. Although Elizabeth was pleased to hear they were satisfied, she could not help but wonder if all of their praise was aimed at pleasing Mr. Darcy more than it was an honest reaction to his home. Once again, she was stunned at how Miss Bingley could ever have thought that such mindless, sycophantic displays offered to a man like her husband would have served her well. Surely, she could not have a very high opinion of him if she believed him to be senseless enough not to see through her ridiculous and overt machinations to garner his favour.

Elizabeth's ruminations were interrupted by the sound of her name.

"Mrs. Darcy," said Miss Bingley in a cloying tone, "How are you enjoying Pemberley? Is it not everything Louisa and I told you it would be...and more?"

Miss Bingley turned to her sister and offered her a knowing smirk which reeked of a shared secret between the two.

"Indeed, it is quite beautiful. I thank you for your previous descriptions, but in fact Pemberley is indeed even more beautiful than I imagined after hearing you," Elizabeth's tone was casual, but her eyes betrayed her wariness. "Yet, how can anyone - regardless of how familiar he or she claims to be with the place - ever hope to do it justice? I feel one must actually live here to get a true sense of its beauty."

Not for a moment did Elizabeth truly regret her trivial and taunting response. But, to be sure she had not offended Georgiana or her husband, she turned quickly toward them to assess their responses. Her sister instantly assumed a quizzical look; clearly, she had detected the contempt in her reply and was uncertain as to Elizabeth's intentions. As a means of reassuring her, Elizabeth grasped her hand and gave it a light squeeze. When Georgiana met her eyes, she winked at her furtively. Mr. Darcy's reaction, however, was rather different than what she expected it to be. Upon his face, she detected a hint of a smile and nothing about his look was at all censorious.

"Certainly, it must be a great help to you to have so many competent servants at your disposal," said Mrs. Hurst, thereby assuming the critical stance of her sister, who at the moment seemed unable to reply.

"The servants here and at our London townhouse are efficient, to be sure."

"Vastly different than what you are accustomed to at Longbourn, is it not?" persisted a falsely eager Miss Bingley. "There, I believe you had no more than six servants to tend to your entire family! What a comfort it must be for you to have so many now to assist you."

Elizabeth listened and made a conscious effort to avoid demonstrating her mounting frustration. Undoubtedly, if Miss Bingley was attempting to instigate a verbal duel, Elizabeth would not disappoint her. In Hertfordshire, she had withstood the young lady's coy insults tolerably well - for Jane and Mr. Bingley's sake. Yet, the audacity Miss Bingley showed by coming into her own house and openly mocking her was insupportable! The fact that she suspected that Miss Bingley's behaviour stemmed from her envy over her marriage to Mr. Darcy did nothing to deter her from launching into a heady retort.

Thus, as she continued to hold Georgiana's hand, she smiled at her husband before returning her gaze to Miss Bingley.

"In fact, we had only four servants at Longbourn. I daresay, that is not much, but we managed quite well in spite of our deficiency. I believe it was our appreciation for having any servants at all which sustained us. Many houses in our neighbourhood had considerably less, thus we were not so unfortunate."

"Four servants! Well, then, Caroline is quite right. A significant change for you indeed, Mrs. Darcy!" returned an insincerely shocked Mrs. Hurst.

Just as Elizabeth was about to answer, she was prevented by the sound of her husband's reply.

"I believe it is quite obvious that we have a good many more servants than did the residents of Longbourn when Elizabeth lived there. Yet, our homes are far larger and, thus, more duties await our staff. You were not, I hope, suggesting we have such a large number of servants simply because we are in a position to afford them?" To this, the Bingley sisters shook their heads in stunned unison. "Thank you." Darcy said in response to their approbation, "I would hate to think you consider us so wasteful."

"Indeed we do not, Mr. Darcy! You misunderstand us. Louisa and I were merely suggesting that Mrs. Darcy now has the benefit of many servants to assist her as she assumes her place as mistress of your homes."

"Yes, I understood your point, Miss Bingley," Mr. Darcy said in a bored timbre. "Yet, Elizabeth has proven herself to not require much assistance at all. In fact, just this morning Mrs. Reynolds relayed to me how exceedingly pleased she was with Pemberley's new mistress. I believed she credited her with a natural instinct for the job, did she not, Georgiana?"

"She did...Elizabeth has proven herself...again and again to us all. We are quite in her debt."

So shocked were the Bingley sisters at this information that neither of them proffered any response at all. Meanwhile, Elizabeth herself was quite speechless as well. If she had not been present to hear it, she would have never believed that Mr. Darcy would come to her aid as directly as he had. What stunned her even more was what happened after that. When her husband shifted his body in the direction of where she and Georgiana sat, she thought she detected a conspiratorial wink and had to prevent herself from looking at him in amazement.

Following this prickly exchange, the conversation and mood in the room was strained. For her part, Elizabeth attempted to engage the ever amiable Mr. Bingley in some casual talk, but it was to no avail. He remained unmoved and offered her only the briefest of polite replies despite her efforts. Evidently displeased by his sisters, he directed several piercing looks at them which they conveniently chose to ignore. Perhaps, however, they themselves were too mired in their own disgruntlement to truly notice anyone else's; they sat stiffly with noticeably pinched looks upon their faces. Georgiana, the poor girl, clearly did not know what to think or say. After directing her surprised eyes between them, she then proceeded to sit with her hands folded on her lap and her eyes cast downward. Conversely, Mr. Darcy's reaction was harder to measure. He paced back and forth too often for Elizabeth to truly see his response. She could not help but feel liable for the current discomfort in the room. She knew that if it were not for her presence there and her marriage to Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley would never have so industriously attempted to provoke an argument which left them all unsettled.

Thus, when the dinner bell finally sounded, Elizabeth breathed a heavy sigh of relief. As she stood to lead the way to the dining room, she felt her husband's presence beside her. His sombre expression revealed feelings similar to her own regarding the behaviour of some of their guests thus far. Feeling more brave than she had ever in the past, Elizabeth lightly grabbed hold of his arm and smiled at him tentatively. His returning smile did not come immediately, but when it did, Elizabeth was quite taken aback by the sense of solidarity that had suddenly sprung between her and her husband.

One thing she knew for certain: if Mr. Darcy was right and their latest guests intended to stay a month, it would be a very difficult month indeed.

Chapter 21 - part I

Three days later, Darcy sat in his study after having dismissed his land steward, Croyden. Already, his reliable employee had prepared a very solid plan regarding crop rotations for the approaching spring. Croyden explained in a methodical manner his reasons for dividing the vegetable gardens using a system which he believed would yield the best return. Darcy was satisfied; the man's expertise had never before failed him and he could not imagine it doing so now.

However, not much about his current guests left Darcy feeling even remotely satisfied. All, with the exception of Bingley, served to annoy him more than on any of their previous visits.

The lion's share of his frustration was directed toward none other than Miss Bingley. Her behaviour had proven to be close to intolerable. Toward Georgiana and himself - and to her own party, of course - she had been unremittingly attentive and cordial. Her conduct toward Elizabeth, however, could not have been any more lamentable.

Last night, after he suggested they have a quiet evening of reading interspersed with brief periods of conversation, she had openly questioned Elizabeth's taste in poetry. According to her, William Wordsworth's verse was deficient largely because it seldom made any effort at all to engage the reader. When his wife patiently asked her to consider The Solitary Reaper and note how Wordsworth attempted to ask his reader to remain observant to the beauty found in even the most mundane of tasks, Miss Bingley shunned this notion completely. She could not be persuaded to consider anything else - until her brother had pointed out his admiration of Wordsworth's work and asked her to provide a solid example of when the poet had been anything other than brilliant. Shamefacedly, Miss Bingley claimed not to be able to recollect any specific instances, but vowed that she would consider the issue in the future. Perhaps they would be able to discuss it later, after she had done some further reading?

Moreover, there was her consistent disregard for others which he found quite ill-mannered. Truly, as their guest, he could not impose too many expectations upon her. He did, however, make it known that the sound of the bell signalled that a meal was being served and that he expected his guests to make their way to the dining room upon hearing it. Yet, time and again, Miss Bingley arrived infuriatingly late at mealtimes. Her disrespectful behaviour upset more than just Darcy. Her brother, Mr. Hurst, was quite put out and, on one occasion, he insisted they begin their breakfast ahead of her. For his part, Darcy was tempted to agree with him. Yet, Elizabeth suggested they should make allowances for her and, thus, a good ten minutes later, Miss Bingley breezed into the room to find them all waiting. Boldly, she offered them a brilliant smile and no apology whatsoever.

Darcy spared only slightly less frustration toward the Hursts. While he had certainly not ever considered the gentleman's company particularly entertaining, never did he imagine he would add so tediously little to a gathering. The only time Mr. Hurst seemed remotely content was when he was surrounded by nothing other than a brandy decanter or some savoury morsels which he enjoyed in a secluded corner where no one would disturb him. His wife was no better. She was, of course, a much livelier companion, yet she did little to make herself congenial in Darcy's eyes. Her only true enjoyment arose from a game of Gleek* or vingt-un*. If pressed, she would perform on the pianoforte, but Darcy found her playing far too affected and the sway of her body as she performed was bothersome and distracting. Thankfully, however, she had seen the wisdom of desisting in her criticism of Elizabeth. For that much at least, he was grateful. Although she was considered the less clever sister of the two, Mrs. Hurst recognized Elizabeth's keen ability to withstand her mockery and had consequently opted to remain silent while her younger sister continued to question and discount his wife at least twice a day.

Toward Bingley, he felt only sympathy. He could sense his friend's disappointment and the mortification he felt at his family's conduct, wishing he had never asked Darcy to extend them an invitation. Yet, there was nothing that could be done to alter it now - they were here and here they would remain until the entire party decided to leave.

However, Elizabeth's reaction to their guests was Darcy's first priority. Never had she even hinted at the anxiety Miss Bingley's snide remarks cost her, nor did she lament the nuisance of repeatedly being forced to join in a game of cards when she would have much preferred to sit out. Yet, Darcy fancied he knew her well enough to realize these factors caused her a great deal of tribulation and regret. And, while Mr. Hurst never again ridiculed her tastes insofar as meals were concerned, he knew Elizabeth probably found the gentleman as much a colossal bore as he himself did.

In fact, Darcy mused, Elizabeth's tolerance toward their guests was much greater than his own. Even at the most awkward of times, she tried to engage everyone in conversation and smile pleasantly regardless of where that conversation led to. He had watched her listen to Mr. Hurst's tedious accounts of game-hunting and how he managed to overcome the smoke and soot of firing by purchasing a new cylindrical barrelled rifle. Moreover, she withstood the Bingley sister's fastidious demands with a degree of patience which caused Darcy to marvel at her grace and fortitude. Overall, her manner toward their guests and their foibles were far superior to his own.

Still, there was another - more significant - reason as to why Darcy lamented the unrelenting presence of his guests. The plethora of people in the house had made it nearly impossible for him and his wife to share any time alone. Yet, Darcy was almost desperate to be with her and far from the nuisance of the Bingley party. He longed to see if they could meet and extend their civility beyond a crowded drawing room or dinner table, but he knew not how to easily accomplish this. The truth was one or more of the Bingleys were always about somewhere. As vast as the confines of Pemberley were, someone was always lurking nearby and, thus, he could not speak to her privately. Her bedchamber remained a forbidden domain although he had escorted her there twice since the Bingleys' arrival. Even then, they were afforded only a brief moment or two before someone else interrupted them. He could not very well request the pleasure of escorting Elizabeth alone to her room without appearing the most besotted and uncouth fool in all of England. As well, Elizabeth's own shocked reaction to such a request was bound to affect her even if he did manage to have some time with her following it.

Nevertheless, his desire to be with her unaccompanied was too great for him to ignore. He would need to devise a means to see her alone. How and when to do it he had yet to work out.

A hardy rapping noise on the door caused him to look up. How easy it would be if it were Elizabeth coming to see him, yet he knew that her knock would be lighter and more tentative, than what he had just heard.

"Come in."

The door opened to reveal none other than Bingley who proceeded to walk toward him hurriedly with a mixed expression of merriment and horror.

"Shall I be quite safe here do you think?" he said, gripping the edge of Darcy's desk.

Darcy sat back in his chair and smiled.

"I believe you may be secure here for a brief while, but be wary, we may be discovered at any moment."

His friend took a seat in one of the chairs before his enormous desk. Although he was smiling, Darcy recognized there was something rather troubled in his demeanour.

"Actually, Darcy, I have wanted to speak with you privately for some time now. Do you have a moment or is the Master of Pemberley forever too occupied to speak to his dearest friend?"

"No. Not at all. For you alone, I will gladly relinquish my worry over the smallest estate concerns. What is it?"

Bingley hesitated, obviously struggling over what he had come to say.

"Whatever it is, Bingley, you can trust me to give you my honest opinion. I can see that this is a matter which is causing you some distress. Best to be out with it and then we can ponder it together."

His friend gave him a one last wary look before beginning to speak.

"Mrs. Darcy has informed me that her relations will likely be arriving in a week's time."

Darcy breathed in deeply. Knowing that the time would come when they would be forced to discuss this, he nevertheless found himself quite unprepared to do it at this moment. However, Bingley was before him now and he deserved Darcy's full consideration regardless of however uncomfortable it made him feel to do it.

"That is true. I believe they will be departing on the third of February."

"And Miss Bennet will be joining them? Miss Jane Bennet?"

"Yes, she will accompany her aunt and uncle. I believe Elizabeth is particularly looking forward to reuniting with her sister."

"Well, you must know how uncomfortable the prospect of meeting Miss Bennet again is to me. When we last parted...things were...strained. She will not be happy to find me here at Pemberley. That much I know."

Darcy removed the pile of papers in front of him and avoided meeting his friend's eyes.

"I do not know for certain, but my wife may have informed her relations of your visit. If Miss Bennet does know and she is coming in spite of your presence, I do not see how it would lead to any great discomfort. Perhaps the initial..."

"Darcy! I beg of you not to be so obtuse in this instance! If she does know - and you do not know for certain that she does - she is coming to see her sister and not me. Surely, you can appreciate how trying it would be for the both of us! If she is unaware of my presence and finds me here...well, that would be infinitely worse! I honestly do not know what to do."

Darcy looked upon his friend with sympathy.

"But, what would you have me do to alleviate your trouble? Clearly, I cannot write the Gardiners and ask them to delay their visit until after you have left. That would be beyond rude and I will not do it - even if you are my closest friend."

"I would not ask it of you. Of course, you cannot curtail their visit...but perhaps I should leave. That would make the situation less distressing for everyone...for me especially." Bingley rose and began pacing the small area before his desk. When he stopped to turn to his friend, the pained look on his face was evident. "Pardon me, Darcy, but I must ask. Why would you have me travel to Pemberley knowing Miss Bennet was due to arrive? Had you no sense of how this would affect me?"

Suddenly, Darcy knew that he could not prolong the conversation any further. His friend's hurt and vexation demanded that he immediately tell him the truth concerning Miss Bennet's true feelings and admit to how misguided he was in suggesting he should stop courting her.

"When I invited you to join us, I did not know when the Gardiners would visit. I only discovered they would be here soon after Elizabeth arrived. I could have, I suppose, written and informed you of their imminent arrival and you could have chosen not to come. Perhaps that would have been wiser. But, by then, you were set to depart yourself; I believe I had the Gardiners arrival confirmed a day or two prior to your own removal. How then could I have prevented you?"

To this, Bingley offered no immediate reply. In the span of silence, Darcy thought perhaps a brandy would assist to relax them. Although he did not as a rule turn to drink as a means of escape, he felt they both needed something to distract them at this moment. As he walked to the decanter, he felt his friend's penetrating stare following his progress. Frustrated, he poured the drink rapidly, spilling the golden liquid carelessly on the sofa table.

"I see your point, of course." said Bingley taking the glass from his friend. "However, I cannot help wishing the circumstances were different. I will arrange to leave in the next two days. My sisters will not be pleased by my decision, but I cannot worry about them when so many others stand to suffer if I do not make my exit."

"I will make no attempt to influence your decision if you truly feel that this is the best avenue for you to take. Yet, I have reason to believe that your presence here may not be unwelcome to Miss Bennet after all."

Bingley looked upon him with open shock.

"How can you suggest such a thing, Darcy? You, more than anyone, know that Miss Bennet does not return my affection! How can you expect me to stay here knowing the grief it will cause us both?"

"I do not expect it, but I hope you will be persuaded to believe Miss Bennet is not as untouched by you as I originally supposed her to be in Hertfordshire." He saw Bingley roll his eyes and look away in aggravation. "You may not believe it, but I have it on good authority that Miss Bennet does in fact return your affection - sigh for sigh."

"Your only good authority can be her sister. Has Mrs. Darcy told you that her sister was partial to me while we were at Netherfield?"

"She has - and she has heartily condemned my interference in your courtship. At first, I doubted her and considered her far from unbiased, but I have since decided that she alone would know the heart of her sister - better than I ... or perhaps even you."

Bingley drank down the remainder of his drink in one gulp and proceeded to refill his glass. When he finished, he raised the decanter in question toward Darcy who shook his head in response. He had never known his friend to be so liberal with his drink; surely he must be overwrought if he was even considering a second glass. Darcy looked down at his own still-full glass. In an act of companionship, he took a small sip of his own brandy.

Rather than join him, Bingley chose to take a seat away from him. That was Darcy's first clue that his friend was not altogether willing to engage in any more talk. The next was his steadfast refusal to look or speak to him at all.

"Bingley, you must know that I did not seek to cause you or Miss Bennet any undue trouble. At the time, you agreed that she was far from obvious concerning the nature of her feelings. Rather than risk further disappointment, you agreed to halt your attentions toward the lady... And I supported you in this. We were both wrong. For my part in this whole affair, I apologize. I am afraid I let my desire not to see you connected to a woman whom I mistakenly believed would only accept you because of your fortune rule me. I have since come to see that my perception is far from always accurate - and, as a result, I have met with my own disappointment and pain."

Bingley continued to stare directly ahead.

"And Mrs. Darcy assures you that Miss Bennet does have some regard for me. Is she absolutely sure?"

His voice was low and, for a moment, Darcy almost believed he was talking to himself.

"I believe my wife would prefer anything than to see her most beloved sister end up with a man she did not love or who did not love her. She has told me that her sister is not always best able to demonstrate the depth of her feelings, but she does possess those deep feelings regardless."

"But you were so sure..." At this, Bingley finally turned to him. "Over and over you provided me with examples of how Miss Bennet felt nothing more than polite friendship toward me."

"Yes," Darcy said levelly, "and I was most assuredly wrong in my estimation. I see that now. Consequently, I have determined to never immerse myself in affairs of the heart again. As you see, I am quite bad at them."

"Not so very bad, my friend. At least not in regard to your own. You and Mrs. Darcy have undergone a tremendous improvement in your relationship."

His friend's words were warm, but his tone was rigid and resentful. Darcy did not know what reply to give him, so he offered none. It certainly would not help his friend to know how unsettled his relationship with Elizabeth truly was.

"Still, even after you left Hertfordshire, when I visited Longbourn, Jane looked for any excuse not to remain with me. Then, she was decidedly aloof and distant. I continued to visit, but my hope was gone. I had no choice but to leave and try to forget her."

"I cannot comment on the lady's behaviour since I was not there to observe it, but I do believe she may have been previously affected by your decision to leave before my marriage. She may have seen that as proof of your own lack of affection. Again, I may be wrong. However, if you still love her - and I believe you do - you ought to remain here and try once more to determine the level of her affection. Even if she does not love you now, she evidently did once. Do you truly not wish to try and win her regard again, if indeed you have lost it? She may still love you, you know."

"At this point, Darcy, I do not know what I wish. I do know that if she arrives and demonstrates no regard for me, I will be even more disappointed after knowing that she did have some tenderness for me before and that I have now lost it."

"But how much worse will it be if you never discover whether you can regain her affection? In my mind, that is a far more distressing fate for you to have to live with."

The gentlemen remained in contemplative silence for a long period. Neither of them knew quite what else to say. Darcy wondered if his friend would ever forgive him for causing him to doubt Miss Bennet's regard. Regardless of their many differences in terms of character and interests, Bingley's friendship was a comfort to him and Darcy was not prepared to lose it if he could avoid doing so.

"Bingley, I do hope you pardon my interference. I should never have caused you to doubt yourself or Miss Bennet. Rest assured, for no reason will I ever again meddle in your affairs."

"Not even if I ask you to? As my friend, I hope you will never stop advising me. I, for one, will never stop counselling you."

Darcy looked to him askance.

"Darcy, I do not believe you purposefully set out to cause me or Miss Bennet any undue pain. I do wish you would have kept your opinions to yourself in this instance, but that does not mean I would always wish for you not to direct me if I am making a mistake. I am not entirely pleased with you now, but in time I hope to better understand your reasons."

"I see. Thus, I take it, you mean to forgive me."

"Ours would be a very sorry friendship if neither of us could offer forgiveness."

"Since we are being truthful, I should tell you that you are quite wrong about the vast improvement in my marriage. Although Elizabeth and I do not snarl at one another quite so much as we once did, our marriage has not been an easy one."

"I never imagined for a minute it would be. Yet, by marrying her, you did the right and honourable thing. I hope you are not regretting your choice."

"No...I am not regretting it. Truly, once I made the decision to marry her, I have not regretted it. She is, in every way, an excellent wife. I could not have asked for a better one."

"Forgive me, but if that is true, why do you appear so reticent about the nature of your marriage? By all accounts, you should be happy to have found such a lively, attractive wife who will never bore you or have nothing to say to you or your guests."

"Those are benefits to be sure, but our problems extend well beyond that. Elizabeth does not particularly like me, you see. At least she did not before coming here to Pemberley. We are making an attempt to overcome our mutual suspicion of each other, but I have not been able to measure our success. We are, at the moment, at a definite impasse."

"But you would like to surpass this impasse, correct?"

"Yes...I would...I do not know what she feels however."

"Well then, you must do as you advised me and attempt to figure her out. In my eyes, the answer is clear, but you seem to need added assurance."

"Bingley, you cannot always expect to see the truth in what you see before you. That has been my greatest mistake for far too long. Long before we were married, I asked Elizabeth to never demonstrate our troubles in public. Whenever you are present, it is a public forum, thus, she behaves in a manner that does not indicate her hesitation."

"Then she is the finest actress I have ever seen. To me, she is satisfied and does not regret your marriage...but you know more. I confess, I feared for the both of you before you left Hertfordshire. You were equally stubborn and apathetic. I seriously thought you would never discover the happiness you could give to each other while you were both so angry. At the very least, you have made some progress there. Neither of you appear unhappy."

"No...but we are not happy either and, lately, our time together has been..."

"Allow me to finish. Your time together has been scarce in a house crowded with people."

Darcy looked away almost ashamed. He had not meant to imply he regretted his friend's presence, but neither did he wish to negate the truth of Bingley's words now that he had uttered them.

"Well, I can resolve to assist you and keep my difficult relations away for as extended a period as possible. It means that I shall have to see to them myself, of course, which is a prospect that I do not jump at. Yet, I shall brave their fastidiousness in the name of friendship while you do all you can to woo your wife."

"Thank you."

"I believe she is in the music room now, although I did overhear her say she was going to trim one of her new gowns."

"Is she alone in the music room?"

"No," Bingley said, sheepishly. "But if she is in her bedchamber, you can see her there."

"No...I cannot enter her bedchamber. Trust me in this, Bingley."

His friend did not question him further and for that Darcy was eternally grateful.

"Well, whatever it is you can do, you must do it soon, before her relations come and there are even more people about."

"Yes, I know."

The two of them remained seated and nothing more was said between them. Each of them was engrossed in their own thoughts concerning their perspective ladies.

~ * ~

The afternoon light was fading fast. Elizabeth's letter to her mother would have to be short - a prospect which did not entirely displease her. She knew little how to best satisfy her mother in her missives without disconcerting herself. Mrs. Bennet's last letters were filled with questions regarding the number of new gowns she had acquired in London, the quantity of servants the family had to wait on them and just how ornate the furnishings were at Pemberley.

Perhaps her mother's most rancorous letter had been the one she had written immediately after learning that a native English woman had been hired as her personal maid. Elizabeth was sure her mother had been disposed to a fit of nerves upon learning that Mrs. Darcy did not have a French maid to help her in her new role. She let it be understood that nothing other than a Parisian would know the latest fashions and how to set her hair in the most elegant styles possible. Accordingly, Mrs. Philips and Lady Lucas were presumably shocked that Elizabeth had so easily settled for less than the best maid available. Her mother pleaded with her to speak to Mr. Darcy and, when Elizabeth refused, her very next correspondence had her threatening to contact Mr. Darcy directly to suggest the pressing need for a French maid for his wife. Finally, quite close to succumbing to a fit of nerves herself, Elizabeth had written an express to her father begging for his assistance to stop her mother from writing such a letter. While Elizabeth did not mean to intercept Mr. Darcy's letters, she had made a pointed effort to rise early and be the very first person to sift through the mail in the days that followed. When a letter finally did arrive from Longbourn, it was addressed to her and from her mother who was quite obviously feeling slighted at having to refrain from writing her own son-in-law and offering him a most useful suggestion.

As she waved her most recent letter in the air to dry the ink, she looked up and found Mr. Darcy leaning against the door frame intently looking at her. His sudden appearance was unanticipated. He was the last person she expected to come find her today. Generally, it was Georgiana who would come for her, requesting her assistance in entertaining Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst.

"Mr. Darcy! Forgive me. I did not know you were waiting to see me. I have just finished a letter to Longbourn."

"In fact, I expected as much. You have not had much time lately to correspond with your family. I learned from Mrs. Reynolds that you were here...and thought you might be alone...for a few moments at least."

He had expressly been looking for her? This was extraordinary news indeed.

"Yes. Our guests have kept us both quite busy, but I suppose I should not complain too much as my own family will be descending upon us very soon."

"Oh, but I do not imagine that will be nearly as much of a hardship for you."

She laughed softly.

"No...it will not be for me. You, however, may derive considerably less pleasure in their arrival than will I."

"Quite the contrary. As a matter of fact, I am looking forward to meeting with the Gardiners again; I did like them and, yet, I was not able to speak to them much before..."

"Before our wedding, you mean," she said, raising her eyebrows slightly. "Yes, that was a busy time for both of us."

A brief silence followed. During those moments, Elizabeth tried to forget the angst of the days preceding her marriage. She needed to rid herself of those memories now when the object of her turmoil stood before her so obviously attempting to reform.

"And, I know how much you have missed your sister. Her company will be a comfort for you, I imagine."

He was right. The fact that she was soon to be reunited with Jane was all that sustained her during those times when her annoyance with Miss Bingley threatened to overwhelm her. Yet, at the back of her mind remained her worry about how Jane would respond to Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth imagined there was a slight possibility that the two primary parties involved in the misunderstood affair had a greater desire to correct the rupture in their relationship, but she knew her own yearning to see her sister happy was almost as strong.

"Elizabeth, do you know how to ice-skate?"

The abruptness of the question startled her. She shook her head in surprise as though she had misheard it. She saw her husband flinch slightly, as if in response to her surprised reaction. He shut the door before walking over to her.

"I should like the opportunity to take you ice skating. There is a pond not too far from the house which would be perfect for the venture. Will you come?"

"William, are you quite certain Georgiana or Miss Bingley would enjoy ice skating? I have not skated in ten years at least, but I will come and attempt to assist you to entertain them. Yet, I cannot see Miss Bingley on skates. Can you?"

Mr. Darcy took a deep breath before walking to the window which looked over the north garden.

"Actually, my sister loves to skate; we have gone frequently throughout our long winters here. But, I do not mean to invite her to this particular skating party. As for Miss Bingley, I cannot imagine she would enjoy the experience, but she too will not be asked."

"And Mr. Bingley? The Hursts...?"

He walked toward her and stopped only when he was directly in front of her desk.

"They too are uninvited. If you agree to this, Elizabeth, it will be only you and I skating. I do not want to mislead you in this."

She looked away from the intensity of his stare. This invitation was quite unforeseen!

"If you prefer, we can go for another walk. I merely thought it would be pleasant to engage in something more in accordance to the season...Or we can forego the undertaking altogether."

"No...Please. You...Your suggestion has merely taken me by surprise. I am not wholly reluctant, although I have not skated in a very long time. I am afraid I am not very good at it."

As she spoke, her husband released a bright smile. Oh, but he was handsome! Too handsome. She hardly knew where to look. Of course, she was sure she was the most unbecoming shade of scarlet imaginable! What a quandary!

"You need not be overly adept. Somehow, I think it would benefit both of us to escape our guests for a time."

"Steal away from our guests? It sounds very much like you have been plotting a bit of a surreptitious adventure for us, Mr. Darcy."

"Oh yes. I have masterminded quite the subterfuge. I believe I have every possible angle covered - including having four of our footmen dig an adequately sized tunnel for us to crawl through should we require a desperate means for escape."

They smiled at one another openly.

"Oh, but I do not own ice skates! Even when I skated last, I used Jane's."

"Actually, that is no problem at all. We have several pairs. One of them will surely adjust to your boots quite firmly."

"And when do you propose we engage in this secret escapade, sir?"

"Well, that is a bit more problematic, I am afraid. We could attempt to go this evening after the rest of our guests retire. If not, tomorrow evening will have to do... That is, if you are willing..."

"Fortunately, you have given me some time to prepare for such an enterprise. Perhaps I should rest and try to restore my energy should we need to avail ourselves of that tunnel after all."

She smiled widely, but Mr. Darcy's look remained solemn.

"Then you will come?" his voice was soft and unsure.

"Yes. I will come."

He gave her one last tentative smile before bowing and exiting abruptly.

When he was gone, she sank back against the cushion of her chair and let out a heavy breath.

What in the world was her husband about? His request to her clearly was something he had been considering for some time now. Could he actually be desirous of spending time alone with her after all they had been through? It seemed almost impossible. Yet, he had purposely come looking for her to make the request. His manner was hesitant and uncertain ...just as he always was whenever they were alone. Yet, he had looked upon her so longingly; she had no doubt he wanted her to accept his invitation.

He must still hope they could overcome their previous hardships. But, was it possible? Could they ever move forward when their entire marriage had begun so horribly?

Since arriving at Pemberley, both of them had tread softly around each other. A careful observer would be able to see how tentative even their briefest exchanges were. Moreover, they had not been alone since their walk about the grounds many days ago.

Yet, not a single look Mr. Darcy had cast upon her had been resentful or critical. He accompanied her to the dining room and had watched her interact with their guests and, when he was across the room, she often turned to find his warm eyes upon her and he would meet her gaze with a small smile. She still could not totally read his thoughts, but he did not appear to be disappointed with her.

Perhaps this secret outing was a way for him to thank her for not exposing their troubles before their guests. It was quite possible. After all, if they both avoided each other and never sought to be together, it would confirm to their visitors that their marriage was even more unsettled than it was when they had entered into it. Mr. Darcy would never want anyone to know the nature of their most recent troubles. She knew he would rather die than have anyone know they had not shared a marriage bed or that she had refused his request that they do so.

Perhaps, however, Mr. Darcy was not merely expressing his appreciation to her. There was a slight possibility that he continued to want her as a man wanted his wife. Was that it? If it was, what could she do about it?

More to the point, what did she wish to do about it? Did she want him? She shook her head. She could not allow herself to even imagine consummating her marriage. As natural as the experience was amongst married couples, she could not envision herself engaging in such an act herself.

But, if he asked her again - which, she admitted seemed unlikely for no man would risk being rejected twice - how would she answer him? In London, it had been easy to refuse him. Now, when she knew that so much of why she disliked him had been built on her own misconceptions, could she say no?

Did she even want to say no?

In recent days, she had seen much more than simply evidence of her husband's good character. She had discovered his appeal...all the physical factors which made him a man who was sure to call a lady's attention to him. There was his hair - curly and always looking somewhat windswept. If Elizabeth were honest with herself, she would admit his hair had always held a particular fascination for her. Its unruly appearance so greatly contrasted with the rest of his polished exterior that she could not help but notice it. As well, his dark eyes held so many contrasting emotions. Each day she seemed to find another expression in them. His smile...ah well, his smile was infectious. The fact that he so rarely bestowed it only made the times that he did deign to offer it more noteworthy. And his body...Elizabeth blushed to even consider him so intimately. But she could not lie to herself. She had noticed his broad shoulders and the physical strength of his legs which was evident in spite of his trousers.

There was no doubt about it: her husband was a very handsome man. Perhaps the most handsome man she had ever beheld.

Elizabeth sighed in repressed frustration. Somehow, it was so much easier when she could overlook his attractiveness. Likewise, when she had been first and foremost buried in resentment toward him, she could dismiss his feelings for her - whatever it was that they were. Now, however, she could find less and less to fault him with. While he was still uncertain and somewhat distant, he had made great strides in showing her that he forgave her hasty judgments against him. What protection, therefore, did she have against her feelings for a man who seemingly felt so much for her?

The fact that he did not love her was the only thing which would save her from herself and him. If he loved her, she would be lost. She did not love him...at least she did not think she did, but she did feel for her husband sentiments she had not felt for any other man of her acquaintance.

She simply could not think upon this any longer. If she did, she would go mad with confusion and that definitely would not assist her when meeting him alone. She never wanted to appear as a woman who was afraid and unsure.

Her guard would have to remain very much intact until she knew more... She hoped it would not falter and leave her adrift in a maze of even more awkwardness and bewilderment.


*Gleek - Classic card game involving bluffing where the objective is to have the longest suit. Generally played by 3 players.

*vingt-un - Blackjack or 21.

Chapter 21 - part II

That night, as he always did, he bid his guests good night and escorted Elizabeth to her bedchamber.

Having everyone believe they were tired after a day spent doing very little had required some delicacy on his part. Consequently, as early as ten o'clock, he began yawning. He attempted to hide his yawn behind his hand, but his overall manner was much more obvious than it ever had been in the past. The result was a series of sympathetic looks from Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley and a rather more surprised one from his sister. By ten-thirty, he began rubbing his temples and remarking at how late it was growing. That had resulted in a very odd glance from Bingley and a stifled smile from Elizabeth. Finally, by eleven o'clock, he had convinced his guests that he simply could not keep his eyes open a minute longer. They, in turn, had encouraged him to go to sleep, but he had patently demurred, suggesting he would be a poor host indeed if he left to seek the refuge of his bed.

Ultimately, Bingley had been his saviour. Not ten minutes later, he too began to yawn and announced that he believed it best if they all went to sleep. Hurst agreed with him most promptly, but his sisters had required some further convincing. For his part, Mr. Darcy rose and attempted to stretch his legs which were not at all weary or cramped. Seeing him, Miss Bingley had delicately raised her eyes in the direction of her sister, who by now, had decided it was perhaps best they retire after all. Mrs. Hurst rose and sought her husband's arm and together they exited. Clearly frustrated, Miss Bingley accompanied her brother; they were followed by the Darcys.

After the last of them were safely ensconced in their chambers, Darcy lingered outside his wife's door. Elizabeth waited patiently, raising her eyebrows slightly as though she wondered what she should do next.

"I thought they should never leave," he whispered relieved.

"Yes, they appeared quite resistant to even your most overt signals. Mr. Darcy, you must never behave in such a manner again when I am present. I feared I would soon burst from laughter."

"Yes, well...desperate times..."

"...require desperate measures. Yes. I know."

Now that they were alone, he was not quite sure what he could do to have her join him in what suddenly seemed an almost ridiculous adventure. In his mind, he had only planned their outing - the finer details of his scheme remained unprepared. Thus, he stood before her and shifted his feet awkwardly hoping some inspiration would seize him.

"Shall we go skating then, Mr. Darcy?"

He looked down and beamed.

"Yes! Nearly everything has been prepared. You shall have to give me a few moments to see to some last details. Perhaps we can meet again in...a quarter of an hour or so...in the foyer."

Smiling, she entered her room, leaving an enthralled Darcy behind. He was virtually unable to move. While he had planned and anticipated their time alone, now that it was here, he seemed momentarily unable to fathom what to do next.

Propelling himself forward, he made his way down the stairs and to his study, where a footman had left a torch for him to light. They would require its illumination if they were to make their way safely to the pond outside.

After taking a few minutes to calm his spirits, he left his study and discovered Elizabeth was already waiting for him. She had come well before he expected her! Was he to construe her early arrival as an indication of her eagerness to be with him?

No. He was not going to spend this time with her presuming anything. Struggling to recall his need to preserve a level head in his dealings with his wife, he pushed aside the notion that she was anywhere near as anxious and enthusiastic as he was.

As he bundled his coat, he first noticed her eyes. They were alive with curiosity and delight. Looking at her, he was immediately seized by an happiness he could not repress.

Finally, after so much plotting, he would have her all to himself.

As they walked out, the blackness of the night sky shrouded them in darkness. The setting, he noticed, was perfect for their game of intrigue. Only the stars and his lit torch offered them any light along the way. Holding hands and treading carefully and silently across the snow, he saw the pond in the distance.

"I see you have thought of everything, Sir. Light and the most secluded pond on the estate."

Was her tone nervous or had he imagined it? He was not quite sure. He fought the urge to question her reaction too much. This night would quickly turn dismal if he began to doubt their every exchange. He struggled to keep his timbre light in his response.

"Ah, but you have forgotten the snow, Madam. I have arranged to have it snow especially for this occasion." He looked down to find her grinning. "Do not for a moment believe that it was an easy task to orchestrate. The snow had to descend just in this particular manner - a blizzard, as you can no doubt appreciate, would have been in every respect unsuitable."

In fact, the large flakes that were cascading gently appeared tailor-made to match their winter outing. As they reached the edge of the pond, they stopped to admire the frozen surface, illuminated by the torch he still carried. He was thrilled to find she continued to hold his hand. When he glanced at her, he saw her staring directly ahead.

"Shall I assist you in putting on your skates, Elizabeth?"

"Yes, please." He led her to a tree stump and brushed the snow off its surface. "Remember, I am no proficient, William," she said before she sat down. "You may find this quite frustrating."

He smiled. She did not use his first name often, but the fact that she did so intermittently - after refusing to do so at all, had to signal a positive shift among them.

"I may...but I am almost certain I will not."

He turned and stuck the lower end of the torch securely in a large bank of snow before returning to her.

As he kneeled down and began lacing her skates to her boots, a small thrill came over him as she was forced to slightly hike up her skirt in order to allow him to finish the task. Trying to overlook the delight, he focused on strapping the other skate to her boot in as speedy a manner as possible.

When he was done lacing his own skates, he helped her to stand and gain her balance. Naturally, she was not steady and for a while she grasped onto his sleeves tightly as a means of remaining upright. Throughout this process, she laughed - and he laughed to see her laughing.

After a while, she was able to stand unassisted. As he watched her he saw her look down at the old stump which had served as a stool in a questioning manner.

"I see this tree was not fortunate enough to escape your forester's overzealous axe."

"Ah yes. I argued over its continued existence forcibly; in the end, I had to surrender. By the time it was cut, this particular tree was quite dead."

They beamed at one another.

"Perhaps you can take the first skate. I will watch and study your movements before attempting to imitate them."

"A wise idea, Madam."

As he skated onto the ice, the feeling of liberty and escape was palpable. He glided a few times around the pond, and for a moment, he forgot she was there watching him and simply delighted in an activity he had enjoyed since childhood. When he noticed her again, initially, he was discomfited at the lack of restraint he had shown. Yet, she was smiling and appeared to take pleasure in watching him.

"Are you ready to attempt it, Elizabeth? I am not a teacher, but I will do all I can to ensure that you remain upright. I make no guarantees, however; I fully expect to take a tumble myself."

She hesitated and finally grasped his outstretched hand. The small, careful steps she took before she reached the ice endeared him to her. He knew then that he wanted to safeguard her forever and that if he had to spend the entire evening - nay, his entire life - making certain she never faltered, he would do it gladly.

Of course, she could not skate. He immediately noticed her lack of balance and held her firmly. She was trembling and he was not quite certain if it was fear or the cold which caused her to shake. Instinctively, he pulled her closer telling himself that he was protecting her and ignoring how perfectly she fit within his arms and how long he had waited for her to lean against him and need him.

She was laughing, but his face mirrored the confusion racing through his mind. Emotions - too many to detail separately - overwhelmed him and left him raw and exposed before her.

"Mr. Darcy," she said gleefully, "You cannot for a moment accuse me of not warning you. I am the poorest skater in all of England. You could not have asked a more unskilled woman to accompany you on this winter adventure."

He stopped skating and looked down at her.

"And yet, I want no other woman to accompany me on this adventure."

The sound of his voice was huskier than he ever remembered it. He saw her look at him doubtfully and then the smile faded from her face slowly. Had she realized his longing for her? Did it scare her? Was she embarrassed? He could not be sure - yet more than anything else he wished for her not to find his reaction abhorrent. He could tolerate anything but a rejection of him on this night.

Somehow, and he could not truly specify what it was which made him so sure, he knew she was not regarding him with disgust. For now, it sustained him.

Tentatively, they pushed out upon the icy surface, awkwardly at first, until he was certain she had grown accustomed to the feeling of the ice beneath her. Soon, she began lifting her skates and gliding of her own volition. Together, they circled the pond and managed a few turns, and Elizabeth remained in his firm and protective embrace. While they moved more cautiously and unsteadily than he otherwise would have, he minded the slackened pace not at all. In fact, he gloried in their deliberate movement as it gave him some time to think about their mutual progression instead of the fact that she remained safely tucked in his arms.

Some time later, he asked her if she had had enough.

"I believe so. Yet, I do not wish to curtail you. If you would kindly lead me back to my trusty seat, I would be content to wait for you."

"Actually, I, too, find myself longing for terra firma. It is growing both late and colder. We should return to the house."

He assisted her in leaving the ice and removed her skates carefully. Nervously, he avoided meeting her gaze or speaking, too afraid of how easily she would be able to detect his vulnerability to her. Quickly, in an almost frenetic way, he removed his own skates and felt her watching him as he once more grabbed the torch which would help illuminate their way back to the house.

As they walked, the snow fell gently. Suddenly, without warning, he felt he absolutely had to reassure himself of their progress. In his eyes, they had come a long way, but he yearned to know her thoughts, her opinions, concerning their marriage.

"Forgive me, Elizabeth," His abrupt stop forced her to turn to him questioningly. "I do not wish to make this situation any more uncomfortable, but I simply must ask: ...Are you ...happier now than you were in London?

She breathed a heavy sigh and was overcome by a palpable nervousness. She clutched at his arm tightly and looked down at her boot. Instantly, he regretted his question, but it was too late to withdraw it.

"Definitely. How could I not be happy here? Pemberley is beautiful. I love it completely. Our guests can be rather trying, but that they are enjoying their time here is evident." She looked up at him earnestly, "Yes indeed, William. I am much happier now."

He was tempted to end the conversation there, but a stronger force compelled him to ask her one last question. He was powerless to resist its lure.

"And ... insofar as we are concerned..." He struggled mightily to find the right words to say. "Does our marriage make...are you more satisfied...about our marriage?"

She paused briefly as though she too were attempting to use words she would not come to regret later. She looked away into the snowy distance and the look on her face was difficult for him to interpret.

"There have been many improvements, I think. We both have been misguided in so many things. But I have been given time to think and realize some important lessons which must be learnt. I mean to learn them, William. Truly I do."

He looked up to the sky and smiled. It was the only practical response which came to mind. He wanted to tell her so many other things - his hopes, his wishes and how he too had lessons to learn - but, for now, he must be satisfied with whatever she gave him. Knowing for certain that she was not abandoning the possibility that there could be happiness in their marriage was enough - for now.

As they continued to proceed toward the front door, neither of them spoke. Words between them seemed almost unnecessary now. They had, each of them, said enough to sustain them.

Just prior to entering, he stopped and waited for her to turn to him. Seeing several flakes of snow on her face, he reached out and gently brushed them away. He wanted to kiss her then, it was yet another irresistible force and he found himself almost bending down to kiss her lips, but then another force - almost as potent - warned him to proceed slowly. The look on her brow was unreadable. It would do neither of them any good if he were to rush her as he had attempted to do before.

After all, he reasoned, they had time - all the time in the world to be truly happy.

"Before we enter, I must tell you how content you have made me tonight. It was more than simply delighting in skating; being with you alone has brought me...immense pleasure."

She smiled shyly and the redness which overcame her could not be attributed to the cold weather. The glow from the torch caused him to notice the alluring sparkle in her eyes. Instantly, he was rendered speechless by their mysterious depth.

"Thank you...I have enjoyed our time together as well."

When they entered, there was a flurry of quiet activity as the servants helped them to remove their winter apparel. As the staff fussed over them, he hazarded a glance over to her and found that she was smiling at him. In many ways, the magic of their evening outside was gone, but in some ways it was present still.

As they ascended the stairs together, both of them seemed lost in a world that was their own. Now and again they would recall the other's presence and offer a small smile of acknowledgement. Darcy found their silence no longer perplexed him as it once did. In fact, he feared that if he began talking his verbosity would know no bounds. There was still so much he had to realize about his feelings for her; he could not risk exposing himself until he understood his own emotions completely. Yet, he knew enough to apprehend that something had changed for him.

Outside her door, she stopped and faced him.

"Good night, Mr. Darcy."

"Good night, Mrs. Darcy. Sleep well."

She entered the bedchamber, but before closing the door, she turned to face him, bestowing upon him a small smile.

"Good night," she repeated softly, not taking her eyes away from his as she slowly closed the door, leaving him alone in the corridor.

For a few moments Darcy stood rooted to the spot outside her door. It was then that he knew.

Somehow, amidst the fighting and the understanding, he had fallen in love with his wife. As beautiful and intriguing as he found everything about her, he more than just desired her.

He loved her. And while the knowledge left him feeling nearly overcome with a heady recklessness, he knew he longed for more.

He wanted her to love him too.

~ * ~

Alone in her room, Elizabeth leaned against the door lightly. Somehow she sensed he was still out there and did not want him to know how overwhelmed and confused she was. Yet, she needed the heavy door's support to sustain her following such a bewildering evening spent with her husband.

Hearing her, Candace emerged from the closet, ready to help her mistress prepare for bed. Elizabeth, however, dismissed her swiftly, wanting nothing so much as to be alone with her thoughts.

When had Mr. Darcy transformed into the gentle, compassionate man who had accompanied her that night? When had he become so amiable? Had she been altogether wrong in her previous estimation of him? She dismissed the idea after some thought. No. She had had reason for believing him to be haughty and indifferent. Yet now...

Now her husband was everything charming and civil. It was not solely his attempt to ensure she was happy, although she appreciated his concern for her. It was more - significantly more - which caused her to look at Mr. Darcy almost as she would a stranger she had just met.

His looks were now tender and he did everything to make his presence enjoyable and pleasing. He sought her opinion on all things and engaged her in conversation. All of this he did not merely when they were alone - actually they had been alone but seldom since her arrival; he was equally as benevolent when they were in company. Still, neither she did think he was performing for a public crowd either.

What was he about? She could not figure him out and the uncertainty regarding him affected her too much to simply overlook.

An unwelcome thought entered her mind suddenly. She recalled how, on the evening of the Twelfth Night ball, he had suggested he perhaps should have been less direct regarding his desire for her. Was his changed behaviour, therefore, nothing more than a wooing pretence so that she would allow him into her bed? Was there a layer of self-serving deception in his pleasant conduct?

And yet, somehow, she could not believe that of him. She now knew for certain that he would still welcome the idea of becoming man and wife in more than name only; however she could not imagine this was his entire motive. There must be more to it - and to him.

Was she responsible for this transformation? Without a doubt, she knew she was. It was for her that he had changed, for to everyone else he was exactly as he always was. Toward her alone was his altered manner displayed.

She walked over to her dressing table and sat down. Immediately, her hand began mindlessly tracing the swirls and indentations carved into the wooden table.

How did she now view her husband? He had asked her nervously and she had been hard pressed to formulate an answer which was both truthful and did not reveal too much of what she was unprepared to give him at this point. She had long since stopped denying his physical appeal. Truly, he was indeed the most handsome and well built man of her acquaintance. His smiles often left her reeling and caused her to blush far too easily. As well, her eyes were frequently drawn to him - at first in a questioning, doubtful manner, but recently in a way which stemmed from her appreciation of his general appearance.

His physical attraction coupled with his generally changed behaviour compelled her to view him as a source of wonder. In his presence, she was often riddled with self-doubt and insecurity, but now it came from not truly understanding her own feelings for her husband.

Was she happy? Her thoughts went back to their conversation that night before re-entering Pemberley. She had told him that she was content and that she was willing to do what she could to maintain their happiness. She hoped he understood her, but with so much uncertainty still between them, she could not be sure.

Yet, she did know she had not lied to him. She meant to be happy and never again wanted to feel the painful misery she had known in the early days of their marriage.

And, she wanted to be happy with him. That was yet another thing she now discovered. If it was possible for them to overlook their prior unhappiness and trouble, she intended to do it.

Stifling a yawn, she began to undo the pins in her hair and attempted to push thoughts of her marriage out of her head. If she meant to get any sleep at all tonight, she must try not to think too hard about what was to come.

Perhaps that had been her trouble all this time. For too long she had let her thoughts and meditations rule her. Perhaps now she should simply accept her changed circumstances and try not to question too much.

It would be a hard lesson, but she had no choice. From this point forward, she would accept her husband's benevolence and continue to bestow upon him her own.

Chapter 22

For several days, Elizabeth had the distinct feeling that something was not quite right.

It all began three days prior with a persistent chill which caused her to shiver. At first, it was barely noticeable, but lately, the cool sensation would not leave her and she trembled in spite of her best efforts to resist. She certainly did not feel feverish, but it was obvious that something was amiss. Yesterday, the shaking was accompanied by a dull ache in her head. It was not enough to cause her to take to her bed, but it was annoying and it served to make Miss Bingley's cloying attentions toward her husband even more difficult to tolerate. By that same afternoon, she was overcome by a weariness which she hoped rest would alleviate. However, when she awoke nearly two hours later, she was still fatigued.

It was at that point that she began to grow frightened - and angry.

Elizabeth was known for her robust health and strong constitution. Even as a child, she was rarely sick or indisposed. While her sisters, and especially her mother, were often taken ill, she generally remained hardy enough to help tend to them or at the very least, to keep them company. Thus, this present feeling of malady did not sit well with Elizabeth at all.

It had also come at a most inconvenient time! Not only were they hosting Mr. Bingley and his bothersome family, her own relations were due to arrive in a little more than two days! It would not do for her to allow poor health to lead her to bed. That would be unfair to her guests and to Georgiana and Mr. Darcy, who would be left with the burden of entertaining them on their own.

No. She must fight against whatever it was that was causing her to feel so out of sorts. Surely, it would pass. After all, it always had before.

As she readied herself for breakfast, Candace regarded her with a worried expression.

"Madam, are you feeling quite well?"

"Not especially, Candace. But I can little afford to loll about in bed while the house becomes more and more filled with guests." Elizabeth responded curtly. Her throat still felt raw and parched although she had just drank some water to soothe it. When she turned toward her maid and saw an even more anxious look upon her face, she smiled in what she hoped would be a reassuring manner. "Do not worry on my behalf, Candace. I am well enough, believe me. I may have the beginnings of a trifling cold that is all. It shall pass and I will try to rest throughout the day. I do not wish to worry Mr. Darcy or Georgiana, so please do not mention this to anyone."

"But Mrs. Darcy, you cannot hope to rid yourself of a cold if you do nothing to cure it. Perhaps Mrs. Reynolds can offer some advice as to how you can be made to feel better... or suggest some strong tea or broth."

"No, no. I shall be fine. Truly."

Yet minutes later, as Elizabeth was descending the stairs, her head began to pound in earnest and she was forced to halt her progress and grab hold of the banister for support. An inopportune ache in her chest only added to her general discomfort. She knew she would have to work very hard to hide her symptoms from her husband's perceptive eyes, yet she had no idea how she would manage to feign all was well.

When she entered the dining room she discovered the entire group - including Miss Bingley - were awaiting her.

"Forgive my tardiness. Everything seemed to conspire against me this morning and made me unable to attend you sooner. I hope you have not been waiting long."

"Not at all, Mrs. Darcy. Caroline has only just arrived herself," said Mr. Bingley giving his sister a knowing, sidelong glance. "But I must say, it is rather unusual for you to be late. Generally, you are forced to wait upon us."

She smiled. "I am terribly sorry. It could not be helped."

"I would hope, Mrs. Darcy that your delay was not caused by some irresponsibility from your maid." said Miss Bingley in a falsely concerned timbre. "We must remember to have our servants always honour our schedules. After all, our priorities must come before everything else."

Had Elizabeth been feeling well, she would have archly suggested that her lateness was no more due to Candace's irresponsibility than Miss Bingley's habitual tardiness was caused by her own maid. Yet, she did not possess the ability or the desire to rebuff or spar verbally with her implacable and reproachful guest this morning.

"No. The fault lies solely with me. Candace is - as always - quite diligent."

Miss Bingley's duplicitous, small smile did nothing to soothe Elizabeth's spirits.

As the servants busied themselves serving the breakfast meal, she hazarded a glance in her husband's direction. She found his penetrating gaze upon her and, when she looked away briefly and then back at him again moments later, he was still studying her quite closely.

"Mrs. Darcy, I hope you are well this morning," Mr. Darcy asked levelly.

"Very well, thank you."

Suddenly, she felt all eyes were upon her. Attempting to ignore them by continuing to butter her bread in a nonchalant manner seemed impossible, especially when the very idea of consuming it made her stomach churn. She looked up and smiled tautly and all but her husband and Georgiana looked away. Inwardly, she was cringing in discomfort. While she appreciated Mr. Darcy's concern for her well-being, she wished that he would not be quite so attentive on this particular morning. Elizabeth would never be able to hide her poor health if he continued to stare at her so unremittingly.

The remainder of the meal passed without incident. She steadily avoided meeting her husband's gaze and, rather than eat, she forced herself to attend each conversation and proffer smiles at the appropriate times. By the end of breakfast, she was quite pleased with herself. In her eyes, she had done a remarkable job of hiding her private discomfort and pain.

Their guests began to exit the dining room in order to pursue their own interests, but Elizabeth remained at the table listening to Georgiana discuss a musical piece by Joseph Haydn that she was attempting to learn. Mr. Darcy stayed back as well and, for a brief period, he followed their conversation but did not participate.

"Pardon me, Elizabeth. I should like to obtain your opinion regarding an item mentioned in a recent correspondence. Will you have some time to see me this morning?"

She looked worriedly over to Georgiana who did not appear at all discomfited at being excluded.

"Of course. I will meet with you as soon as Georgiana and I have finished our conversation."

"Oh, but we are finished now," said the young girl. "You need not delay on my account. I can speak to you later. Perhaps you can join me afterwards in the music room and I can show you what I meant concerning that one specific movement?"

Elizabeth smiled her agreement.

"Mrs. Darcy, if you are at liberty now, I would like to meet with you. It will not take long," said her husband as he stood and moved toward her.

She rose and felt Georgiana's eyes upon them as they exited the room together. She accompanied her husband silently as he walked in the direction of his study. Periodically, his gaze would be on her and she attempted to look up at him in an unconcerned manner. In her private thoughts, however, Elizabeth was questioning her husband's decision to meet with her and wished she had instead been afforded the opportunity to return to her room and rest. Her head was aching and her limbs felt stiff and sore.

After they entered his study, he shut the door behind them and led her to a loveseat and encouraged her to sit down. He took a seat beside her and, for a few moments, he said nothing at all, but his look was now even more intense and apprehensive.

"Elizabeth, I asked to meet with you unaccompanied because I sense that something is not well with you. I hope you do not consider me overly suspicious or meddling, but I could no longer blatantly ignore the fact that something is distracting you."

She looked away from the scrutiny of his gaze and felt a pang of disappointment strike her. She thought she had done well at concealing her unease and yet her ever observant husband had noticed it regardless of her attempts.

"I...am well. I have a slight headache is all."

He turned and leaned toward her.

"Pardon me, but I believe it is more than a minor headache which is affecting you. You are pale and have been very quiet. I could not help but notice you have not eaten much of anything in the past two days. Can I do nothing to persuade you to share with me what is troubling you?"

The look of concern in his eyes was unmistakeable. Seeing his worry displayed so blatantly before her left her unable and unwilling to maintain the pretence of good health.

"Mr. Darcy, I confess, I have not felt well physically for some days now." Elizabeth said earnestly. "I cannot account for why I am ill, but I am certain it shall pass quickly."

"Elizabeth, if you are unwell, you must take to...er...rest. You should not be hiding your poor health or you will feel worse far sooner than you will get better."

"Perhaps you are correct. Candace said very much the same thing to me this morning," Elizabeth responded in a sullen tone. She began rubbing her temples to ease the throbbing in her head. "Yet, this sickness comes at a most inauspicious time! The Bingleys and the Hursts are here and my own family will arrive in a few days."

"We have more than enough staff to cater to all of our visitors. Your health, however, cannot be compromised. Will you not listen to what your body is trying to tell you? You must rest; do not be worried about our guests who are well able to tend to themselves."

"I will. Thank you for your concern. I am not quite sure I merit your thoughtfulness."

He grasped her hand gently and began stroking her palm with his thumb.

"Elizabeth, you are my wife. You deserve all of my benevolence - and more."

Elizabeth, already prone to being overcome by any small gesture of kindness from her husband, was virtually swooning in response. She could not measure if her present light-headedness stemmed from her feeling unwell or if it was the tender caresses he was bestowing upon her which caused her muddled thoughts. All she knew was that she had little idea what to do or where to look next.

"Thank you," she stammered hurriedly.

She attempted to rise quickly, but as soon as she stood, she realized her mistake. Her legs were weak and suddenly felt useless to her. Immediately, she was forced to take a step back and grab hold of the sofa's armrest. Instantly, her husband was before her helping her to sit down once again.

"Elizabeth! Whatever it is that is ailing you is much more than what you previously believed. You absolutely must get to bed...And I must fetch a doctor to see to you."

"A doctor? I am sure that is not necessary. I merely need to rest."

"Allow me to send for a doctor if only to ease my own troubled thoughts. Clearly, you are very ill."

Suddenly, she felt unable to fight him. While she did not relish the idea of causing her husband such undue trouble, she realized she could no longer hide her poor health from anyone - much less from herself.

For a few moments they sat in relative silence. Mr. Darcy's eyes never left her, but Elizabeth was too overcome by her own discomfort to be affected by his gaze.

"I believe I am well enough to return to my chambers now. Thank you for your time and consideration."

But before she could stand, Mr. Darcy was up and helping her to her feet slowly.

"Rather than risk you tumbling down the stairs, Elizabeth, I shall see you to your room and wait for Candace to attend to you."

He placed his arm around her waist and, slowly, they made their way to the foot of the stairs. They paused and Elizabeth looked up at what suddenly appeared a tremendously long and steep flight of steps to her bedchamber.

"We shall proceed slowly, Elizabeth. Remember, I am here at your side and will not allow you to falter."

Cautiously, they began their ascent. By the fourth step, Elizabeth felt her head spinning madly and she was forced to grasp the banister with both hands. Before she had time to recover, she felt herself being lifted off her feet and found herself in Mr. Darcy's strong arms. Although she knew she should feel mortified and demand he put her down before they were viewed by their servants or guests, she had no strength to resist him. He quickly began climbing the steps.

"We are almost there, Elizabeth."

His voice against her ear appeared to be distant and almost dreamlike. Unconsciously, she closed her eyes and rested her head against his powerful chest. Amongst the haze she was feeling, she thought she heard her husband ask someone to summon her maid and Mrs. Reynolds immediately, but she could not be sure. Everything suddenly appeared to be happening far removed from her and she felt as though she were a detached observer.

The last thing she remembered was seeing the dark wooden door to her bedchamber. For some unknown reason, the fine wood grain in the door panelling was crystal clear to her on that morning when little else remained intact in her memory.

~ * ~

As he waited for the arrival of Doctor Staynes from Lambton, Darcy paced frantically in Elizabeth's room.

Surely, he should be here already! After all, he had sent his footman with a message relaying the urgent need of his services. For the doctor to tarry so, when his family had done so much to benefit the local doctor, seemed impossible to fathom! Where in the devil was the man? He should have done as he first considered - he should have summoned the doctor from Matlock who tended to considerably more people than did the village physician from Lambton - but Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds had assured him that Elizabeth would do better to be looked at sooner, rather than wait an additional amount of time for the other.

Next to him, Elizabeth lay in her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Each time she fell into a faint, Darcy was besieged by waves of apprehension and penitence. Why had he not spoken to her before this morning? He had noticed something was not quite right with her yesterday and he had meant to ask her about it, but at the last moment, he had refrained. His worry was mixed with his need not to appear worried. He wanted Elizabeth to know he was not overly anxious even though her relative listlessness caused him serious discomfort. They had made such great strides in the past few days and he wanted nothing to disrupt their new-found accord. He knew his wife well enough to understand she would not welcome his suspicious questioning.

But if he had risked her disapproval and asked her if all was well perhaps she would not be lying before him now so ill and indisposed. The shameful regret would not leave him.

There was a light knock at the door followed by the entrance of Mrs. Reynolds and Doctor Staynes. Darcy fought the urge to rail against the man's delay, believing it would do them no good to make the elder man uneasy prior to examining Elizabeth. Elizabeth's abigail was summoned and together they briefly listed the symptoms they had observed in Elizabeth in the past few days. The doctor listened without commenting. His face was guarded and Darcy was almost tempted to shake the man into telling him what was wrong with his wife. Only Elizabeth's small moans and tossing about forced him to maintain his perspective: above anything else, his wife's needs must be tended to. She must be made well - and he must learn to be patient.

As the doctor began the examination of Elizabeth, Darcy turned toward the window. Frustrated by his inability to help, he forcefully pushed the heavy curtains aside. Outside it was raining steadily - how had Darcy missed that? That must explain the doctor's lateness, but he could not bring himself to feel much comfort in the probable explanation of the man's delay. It helped him not that the weather matched his troubled spirits - the grayness of the landscape only served to increase his melancholy. Perhaps if the day had been sunny, he could see hope. Now, all he looked upon was depressing and dismal.

"She shall be well, Sir," said Mrs. Reynolds comfortingly. He turned, unable to conceal the shock from his face. For a moment, he had been so lost in his thoughts he had forgotten that he was not alone. "Doctor Staynes has just asked a question, Sir - and I was unable to answer it. Candace does not believe it to be likely, but could Mrs. Darcy be with child?"

He looked away feeling nearly overcome by humiliation and regret.

"No. It is not likely. In fact, it would be quite impossible." His voice sounded wooden and hollow.

"I see," said the older woman kindly. "I shall inform him."

He heard Elizabeth's voice, weak and languid, and breathed a sigh of relief. She was awake and no longer unconscious! Surely, that had to account for something favourable! He was almost afraid to turn and look at her, fearful that if he did, he would discover he had imagined it. Without knowing why, he walked speedily through the adjoining door to his room and sat down heavily in an armchair facing the fireplace. The fire had long died out - all that remained were the gray ashes and charred logs. All of it was so uninteresting and done with - so lifeless. Everything surrounding him seemed to match his despondency. It was almost too much for him to bear.

He could not say how long he sat - slumped and unmoving - in the chair. His thoughts became empty and he too began to feel drained as an irresistible lethargy crept over him. When he heard Mrs. Reynolds softly calling his name, he almost did not open his eyes in response until the remembrance of what was happening - of his Elizabeth's illness - came flooding back to him.

"Mr. Darcy, Doctor Staynes has completed his examination. Would you like to see him now?"

Suddenly, the idea of entering into Elizabeth's room and seeing her ill seemed impossible.

"Can you ask him to see me here, Mrs. Reynolds? Please show him to me."

His housekeeper curtsied quickly and turned away, but before she did so, Darcy saw the worried expression on her face. Did her worry stem from news of Elizabeth's poor condition or was she anxious on his behalf?

Moments later, the doctor was shown in and Darcy instructed him to take a seat opposite him on the settee. He knew he should rise to greet him - and actually Darcy longed to hear the good man's prognosis - but he could not will himself to stand in case the doctor had naught to say but what Darcy feared most, which was that his wife was gravely ill.

"Well, Sir, I have examined your wife and I have had a brief opportunity to speak with her before she drifted into unconsciousness again. It appears to me that your wife has a cold which is accompanied by muscle aches and spasms. Her fever is low at the moment - nothing to cause any undue worry - but I have asked the servants to keep a steady eye on her should it become worse. They are to summon me at any hour if that is the case."

Darcy regarded the doctor with open shock. Could the man be telling him the truth? Was that all that was ailing Elizabeth - a cold and nothing else? It hardly seemed feasible.

"Doctor Staynes, my wife is quite ill. She collapsed in my arms and is languishing in her bed. She has no appetite and cannot stand on her own. To the best of my recollection, I have not heard her sneezing or coughing. How then can she have nothing but a cold?"

"Well, those symptoms you mention are ones that coincide with the beginnings of a bad cold and suggest Mrs. Darcy is overcome by fatigue and exhaustion as well. It matters not that she has not coughed yet; she is quite congested already. Of course, the fact that she has not eaten has not helped. She informed me that she last remembers eating a full meal two days ago and she has surely slept fitfully, so she is not well rested either. All of these factors combined with her cold have left her feeling rather spent." The doctor stood and Darcy followed his lead. "I suggest complete bed rest. She is not to attempt to move until she is feeling stronger. You should see a marked improvement in four or five days. If not, send for me again. I shall come post-haste. In the meantime, I have suggested she drink a strong medicinal tea and that a poultice* be applied three times daily for the next two days to prevent infection and congestion."

"Thank you, Doctor. Naturally, I am worried for my wife or I would not question your expertise."

The doctor smiled compassionately. "Mr. Darcy, I have treated your family for some years now and recall all too well your father's worry when your own dear mother took sick. You need not explain to me your worries. They are quite justified. I assure you, however, barring any infection - which is always possible in cases such as these - your wife will be quite well again very soon."

Darcy offered the man a small smile. He spoke confidently and he had no cause to doubt him. In fact, when his parents had been ill, the good doctor had been instrumental in procuring for the family the best physicians in London. Surely, if Elizabeth were truly unwell and unlikely to recover, he would suggest the same thing in this instance.

"Thank you again, Doctor Staynes."

"Good day, Mr. Darcy. Do not hesitate to notify me should you notice any changes for the worse. Please do all that you can to ensure that your wife follow the healing regime."

After watching the doctor exit the room, Darcy turned and walked to the door adjoining his bedchamber to Elizabeth's. Would she be willing to see him now? Would she even be alert enough to notice he had joined her? Probably not. The doctor had more or less suggested that it was doubtful whether Elizabeth would be able to remain conscious until after she had rested fully.

Still, he could not stay away. Although he knew Elizabeth likely preferred him to leave her alone while she was indisposed, he had to see her for himself and measure whether the doctor was right in suggesting a bad cold was all that ailed her. He certainly was not a doctor, but he had always been able to keep a level head in the face of illness before. Even during the period of his own parents' death, he had remained rational before Georgiana and in public, grieving only in private.

He knocked lightly on the door. There was no response. He ventured inside the bedchamber. Immediately, the stillness of the room struck him. Recently, whenever he had been in this room, the atmosphere had been charged with Elizabeth's presence. Even when he was in here earlier, before escaping to his own bedchamber, Elizabeth's spirit was very much with him as he paced the floor while the doctor examined her. Now, everything seemed too unmoving and dull.

He looked in the direction of the bed and noticed Elizabeth appeared to be asleep. The dim light of the room made it impossible to see if she was uncomfortable. He noticed her maid, Candace, was sitting quietly in a chair located to the right of the bed.

"Candace, you may leave. I will sit with my wife now."

"Sir, I can remain here with you in case Mrs. Darcy awakes and..."

"Candace, rest assured that I shall call you if my wife requires your assistance. For now, I suggest you take the opportunity to escape. This may be a long night for all of us."

The young woman curtsied and immediately left the room. Darcy let out a heavy sigh of frustration. He had not meant to intimidate the servant - after all Elizabeth thought so highly of her. Yet, he wanted nothing so much as to be alone with his wife as she slept what appeared to be a peaceful slumber.

He approached the bed and was careful to make as little noise as possible. If the doctor was correct and Elizabeth needed rest, he would make sure that she would get as much of it as possible. Wordlessly, he looked down at her as she slept. She appeared to be resting comfortably and he took a moment to study her at her most vulnerable.

There were no lines of concern to be found on her brow and her delicate almond-shaped eyes were closed restfully. Already, her colour had been somewhat restored and upon her cheeks was a faint blush. Her lips were parted slightly, but they showed no discomfort or unease. His eyes traveled downward and he saw that she had been changed into a night-dress. Although he had seen and admired her long, sultry neck previously, viewing it now - as she lay in bed - gave him tremendous pleasure. Involuntarily, his eyes roamed lower and he saw the top buttons of her shift were opened.

He turned away abruptly, feeling himself become aroused at the sight of her. This would not do at all! He should not look at his wife as she lay ill and desire her as he did. He was disgusted in his visceral response to her. He was no degenerate and yet, the sight of Elizabeth in her bed wearing very little and not being able to stop him from looking affected him more than it should. Nothing he was viewing now was anything he had never seen before! Her everyday attire afforded him the opportunity to view her neck and her décolletage. Why then was he such a base fool at the sight of her now?

The only thing that made any sense at all was the fact that, because she was sleeping, he could observe her for as long as he liked and not worry about his gaze causing her any untoward apprehension. The liberty of simply being able to look at her - at his wife who he had recently realized he loved above everyone else - was thrilling. Yet, he could not rid himself of the feeling that he was taking advantage of her illness and so he paced to the far corner of the room. With his back to her, he took a series of long, deep breaths as a means of restoring himself.

A cold! Could Elizabeth's illness have been caused by her exposure to the frosty weather on the night of their skating escapade? He was swept by a wave of guilt and ran his hand distractedly through his hair. If this was the case, her illness was very much his fault! After all, it had been his desire to spend time with her alone which may have been to blame for her catching cold. Had he been able to withstand the idea of sharing his wife with a houseful of guests, she would have been healthy and vibrant still. Yet, their time together - so fascinating and tranquil at the same time - had caused them to share an intimacy that was previously unknown to them. He was torn between regret and longing. He would never wish his wife to be ill, but neither could he lament sharing with her that time alone.

He walked over to the fireplace and quietly repositioned one of the chairs so that it was facing her. From this distance, he could still maintain his vigil over her and he would be less susceptible to how incredibly beautiful she was. Perspective! He desperately needed perspective!

He looked over at one of the nearby sofa tables. There were several books piled on this table. Elizabeth must read these by the fire before she retires or when she is alone in her room. The thought that he would now be given an opportunity to read what she did when she was away from him was beyond satisfying and incredibly profound. He opened a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets and noticed Elizabeth had bookmarked Sonnet XIV. He read through it slowly:

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck; And yet methinks I have astronomy, But not to tell of good or evil luck, Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality; Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell, Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind, Or say with princes if it shall go well, By oft predict that I in heaven find: But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive, And, constant stars, in them I read such art As truth and beauty shall together thrive, If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert; Or else of thee this I prognosticate: Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

Was this the final sonnet Elizabeth had read? Was her bookmark a reminder of where she was to continue reading or was it that this particular sonnet had especially moved her? Leafing through the book aimlessly, he noticed that she had marked several other passages that followed this one. Thus, she must have especially empathized with Shakespeare's words in this specific poem. He examined the lines from this early Shakespearian sonnet again, attempting to find distinctive meaning in them.

Obviously, this poem relayed Shakespeare's ability to find meaning and solutions to life's riddles not in his own judgment or science, but in his lover. In particular, his beloved's eyes held special meaning to him. Darcy sighed quietly in understanding: Elizabeth's bewitching eyes had always fascinated him. Even before he had admitted to himself that he found everything about her lovely, her eyes had enslaved and mystified him completely. Those orbs had held for him several answers as well. In them, he saw her ready expressions of pleasure, anger and warmth. In addition, this morning, he had seen pain. Her eyes were magnificent mirrors. Thus, he easily related to Shakespeare's enthralment with the eyes of his inamorata. The remainder of the poem seemed to be a plea for his lover to create a child so that everything that is beautiful about her would continue to exist even when she no longer did.

He reflected on the poem still more, wanting to know why Elizabeth found this precise passage consequential. Although he had certainly read this sonnet before, never had it inspired in him the will to examine each line - each word - as methodically as it did now - now that he knew his wife was interested in it enough to wish to reread it herself. The language, fraught with images of nature and wonder, was no doubt inspiring, but did Elizabeth relate to more than just the language? Had she given any more thought to having children herself? Did she - wondrously - anticipate having children with him now that things were improved between them?

He could not know, but the hope that this poem inspired in him caused him to read and reread it until he had virtually committed it to memory.

"William."

He looked up and saw that Elizabeth was struggling to sit up. Immediately, he let the book fall to the floor and rushed to her side to assist her.

"Elizabeth, please don't get up. Doctor Staynes said you must rest."

"No. No! I must get up. I am feeling much better already."

"Nevertheless, I must insist that you do as the doctor suggests until you are fully recovered. I insist on this, Elizabeth. You shall not move from this spot - even if I have to..."

"What, Mr. Darcy? Even if you have to physically tussle with me to the bed to keep me here?"

He looked and saw her wry smile. It was enough to restore his own hope that she was not as ill as he had initially feared.

"Well, yes. But I beg of you not to have me resort to such drastic measures. What would the servants think?"

She laughed softly and then suddenly was seized by a fit of coughing. Darcy looked on helplessly. When her coughing was over, she leaned back against the mahogany headboard and looked up to him almost apologetically.

"Mr. Darcy, I do not think you should be here. It would not do for you to become ill as well. I am fine on my own and, should I need something, Candace will assist me." She scanned the room questioningly. "Where is Candace?"

"I dismissed her."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to sit with you. There was no need for us both to be here while you slept. Now that you are awake, if you need her, I will summon her."

"No...I am fine. Truly, there is no need for you to put everything aside and tend to me."

"Yet, if the need rests in my desire to be only here, what then?"

She looked away uncomfortably.

"Elizabeth, if you prefer for me to leave, I shall do so in order to give you comfort. For my own part, I can think of nowhere else I would rather be."

She smiled tremulously.

"You are too kind to me, Sir."

"Not at all. By remaining here, I am being kind to myself. I fear I would be quite useless anywhere else."

She grinned. "Very well, then. How do you mean to make yourself useful to me here?"

"Well, I suppose I could tell you how grateful I was to learn that what is ailing you is a nothing more than a cold and sheer fatigue. Or, I could perhaps tell you how I mean to insist that you rest until you are well. Ah! But I have already told you that! Well, then I could read to you."

"Read to me?" she said delightedly. "What a lovely idea! What shall you read?"

"Do you have a preference, my lady? Or shall I select something?"

"I have no preference - only please do not read to me from the London papers for that generally amuses me not at all."

He smiled and walked over to where the volume of Shakespeare's sonnets had fallen. He picked it up swiftly and returned to occupy the vacant chair by her bedside. He showed her the book and she nodded in appreciation.

"So you have no particular favourite then? I can begin anywhere?"

"Oh, I have several particular favourites. You may read any one of them. They are all masterfully written."

Randomly, he leafed through the book and began reading. He attempted to modulate his voice in order to do justice to The Bard's words. He was rewarded by seeing Elizabeth close her eyes and once again rest her head back against the headboard of her bed. Fighting to ignore the lovely image she presented, he concentrated solely on the poet's words. Wisely, he chose not to read the Sonnet XIV, fearful of making it appear as though he had stumbled on her own private yearnings. In spite of her illness, everything between them seemed restored and peaceful; he had no wish to threaten it in any way.

The sound of knocking caused them both to look toward the door. Elizabeth bid the visitor to enter and in walked a worried and anxious Georgiana.

"Oh, Elizabeth! Are you well? I have been so frightened for you. Mrs. Reynolds told us that you had fainted. We were all so worried for you. Even Mr. Bingley is quite anxious. You should go downstairs, William, and let him know that Elizabeth is much better now."

Darcy closed the book and stood.

"Yes, I suppose you are right. Bingley deserves at least that. Is he with his sisters?"

"No, I last saw him in the library. His sisters are in the music room. Mrs. Hurst is painting the loveliest screen. She said she will leave it to us when she departs. Miss Bingley is playing the pianoforte and invited me to join her in a duet, but I simply could not sing or play while I imagined Elizabeth to be so very ill." Georgiana turned to Elizabeth comfortingly. "They must be looking for a way to divert their attention since they must be worried for you as well, Elizabeth, but I could not join them."

Darcy looked over to Elizabeth and found her smiling.

"Yes. I imagine the two of them are quite fraught with worry. Best I go down and relieve them of their relative angst. You will remain here until my return, Georgiana?"

She agreed readily to this proposal.

He turned and exited. More than ever before, he resented the Bingley sisters. How dare they engage in such cavalier activities when his wife was ill! For all they knew Elizabeth could have been quite sick and yet they saw nothing wrong in pursuing their own selfish pleasures in the face of her poor health. As it turned out, his wife was not as ill as he had originally believed her to be, but they did not know that - nor did they care apparently.

As he walked, he shook his head in irritation. He could not trouble himself with their petty attitude. Yet, his friend deserved his attention. If he knew Bingley at all, Darcy knew he would be quite worried about his wife's health. He took pleasure in the realization that at least one Bingley was capable of compassion and sensitivity.

~ * ~

The next morning, Elizabeth awoke and found herself feeling significantly better. Her head ached much less than it did the day before and, although her muscles still felt slightly sore, she was in considerably less pain.

Sounds from her dressing room alerted her to Candace's presence. Her maid must be in the process of selecting another shift for her to wear this morning.

A slight creaking noise called her attention to the fact that someone else was in the room with her. She looked over toward the loveseat by the fireplace and saw only her husband's stockinged feet extended over one of the arm rests. How long had he been sleeping there? Did he stay all night? Whyever would he subject himself to such uncomfortable accommodations when there was a perfectly comfortable bed for him in the next room?

She smiled furtively and felt the colour rise to her face. Obviously, he had stayed because he did not want to leave her. She shook her head in wonder. Could this be the same man whom had caused her so much turmoil and whom she had sworn she could not like not two months ago? It hardly seemed credible to her now. Yet, she knew very well that those could only be her husband's feet for no other man would venture into her bedchamber and dare to sleep.

She remembered little of how and when she had fallen asleep. She only knew that in between her being forced to swallow the bitter concoction of sassafras, horehound, wild cherry bark and pennyroyal** and the many poultices applied to her head and chest area, her husband was always with her. He would quietly leave the room while she was being administered the various foul treatments and, once they were completed, he would swiftly return and resume his watch over her. His time away was seldom; in fact, he left her only to join their guests at mealtimes. While she could not help but wonder what their visitors were thinking of her, she did not lament his constant presence at all. Their recent conversations were not strained - although she did find herself wondering at some of his more kind-hearted comments - even when they were silent, the mood was neither tense nor as awkward as it had been in the past.

In fact, had it not been for the imminent arrival of her relations, this illness would have been quite convenient. It provided her with a ready excuse not to deal with the superior sisters - Miss Bingley in particular - who looked for any opportunity to critique or demean her. After tending to Jane while she was ill at Netherfield, she fancied she knew them well enough to discern that they would never willingly venture anywhere near a sick room. More importantly, her sickness gave her further occasions to see that her husband's reformed character was not just a temporary alteration. In his every dealing with her he had been caring and solicitous.

Actually, after growing so accustomed to his presence, if he were to suddenly leave her, she was certain she would feel quite lonely and bereft.

She saw her husband's feet rise up in the air and heard a groan accompany what appeared an effort to stretch his weary limbs. She paused and held her breath. Was he awakening?

She waited a few moments and again heard a creaking sound signalling an attempt for him to find a more convenient resting angle or arrangement. Truly, he could not remain lying in what must be an incredibly cramped and incommodious position. He was almost twice as long as the loveseat. She simply could not sit idly by while he lay there uncomfortably. Certainly, there must be a limit to his thoughtfulness and chivalry!

She threw off her covers and, although the fire was still going, she was hit by an immediate gust of cool air. Tentatively, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and slowly placed her feet on the floor. She took a moment to accustom herself to standing before walking over to him. Her head was spinning slightly, but it was nothing to the great befuddlement which had gripped her before she had lost consciousness yesterday. When she felt strong enough, she padded over to the loveseat, careful not to make a sound or call Candace's attention to the fact that she was out of bed. She wanted no one to persuade her to stop until after she had seen to her husband's removal from the incommodious loveseat.

When she reached him, she looked down to discover that he was lying on his back and that his arm was bent and his hand was resting upon his forehead. How young he looked as he slept - and how handsome! Never before had she seen him when he was so far removed from the reserved man she knew him to be. She could not stop looking at him. In spite of the restricted confines of the loveseat, he appeared to be in a very deep slumber. She almost rethought her decision to wake him and then she looked at his legs which were now hanging idly over the side of the armrest once again. He could not be comfortable. It was silly for him to remain in this position when he needed his rest. No doubt he would ache all over when he woke up. To allow him to continue sleeping in such an uncomfortable arrangement would be most cruel.

"Mr. Darcy!" she hissed. "Mr. Darcy, wake up."

There was absolutely no response. Evidently, he was a sound sleeper and had not heard her. She moved closer to his ear and leaned down slightly.

"Mr. Darcy! William!" she turned and looked toward the dressing room. There was no sign that Candace had heard her.

Unfortunately, her latest attempt to rouse her husband had produced nothing other than a slight shift in his position. Otherwise he still remained very much asleep.

"William!" she leaned down and shook him slightly and he responded by moaning softly. "Mr. Darcy, you cannot remain asleep in this loveseat. It is simply not practical. Please wake up!"

He appeared to hear her then. He opened one eye and then the other and stared at her in open shock. Only then did she notice that upon his chin was the hint of what could be a rather full beard. She had never before seen her husband unshaven and the sight of him now reminded her that he had likely spent the entire night in her room.

Suddenly, the intimacy of their situation became quite real to her. In her haste to get to him and rouse him, she had forgotten to put on her robe; thus, she stood before him only in her flannel shift and nothing else. She looked down and noticed the top four buttons of her nightgown were undone and one of her shoulders was quite exposed. Her hair was also loose, tumbling almost wildly about her shoulders. Only then was she struck by how improper this entire scenario was. She straightened up suddenly and clutched the neckline of her shift, aware only of the need to preserve as much of her modesty as she possibly could in this instance. Even if this man was her husband, she was sure he should not see her thus uncovered and dishevelled. What must he think of her?

"Elizabeth! What, in the name of all that is heavenly, are you doing out of bed?" He immediately and rather awkwardly got up and she noticed his countenance twist in momentary discomfort. "You know you are not to attempt to move - particularly not without assistance! What were you thinking?"

Immediately she was caught between feeling humiliated and angry. Perhaps he had not changed quite so much as she had thought! The man leading her back to her bed was every bit the stubborn and egotistical man she had always believed her husband to be. How dare he order her about when all she was doing was looking out for his own interests? The nerve of him!

"Mr. Darcy, unhand me this instant!" She struggled to wrench herself away from his hold, but her illness combined with his superior strength made her efforts an exercise in futility.

The altercation and raised voices alerted Candace to the fact that something was amiss. She came scurrying out of the dressing room and rushed over to her side.

"Mrs. Darcy, whatever are you doing out of bed? You will undo all the good your rest has done you!"

Her maid assisted her husband in putting her back to bed, pulling the covers up and around her form. Her husband stood back and allowed Candace to do her work. When she looked at him, he was running his hands through his hair anxiously.

"Thank you, Candace. I would like a moment with my wife please."

Candace looked back at her with wide opened eyes.

"Certainly, Sir."

And, with that, she left them hurriedly without sparing her so much as a backwards glance. Coward! she wanted to scream after her.

All of these demands served only to add to her already mounting irritation. How dare he? She crossed her arms in front of her and fought the urge to cough. The end result was a guttural sputtering she could not control and which, in her estimation, was much worse than the cough she had suppressed. Her traitorous body's response to the episode only infuriated her still more.

"Elizabeth, I see that you are angry with me, but can you honestly expect me to applaud your traipsing about out of the bed for no particular reason?"

"My reason, Sir, was to ask that you remove yourself from that most uncomfortable loveseat and get to your own bed. I was trying to prevent you suffering even more aches and pains from sleeping in such a contorted position. I see now that I should not have bothered!"

"Mrs. Darcy, your kind thoughts on my behalf are admirable, but unnecessary. I was not at all uncomfortable."

"Oh, I see. Then, you are accustomed to regularly slumbering upon narrow and confined loveseats that cannot accommodate a man half your size? Pardon me, I should have known."

As she spoke, his countenance was overcome by a wide smile. She looked away in a huff.

"Let us not argue over this, Elizabeth. It is pointless. Perhaps I should have removed to my own bedchamber, but I did not intend to fall asleep. I suppose fatigue overcame me and the warm fire..." His voice was gentle and kindly. "Nevertheless, you definitely should not have gotten out of bed unassisted. If I was foolish enough to fall asleep upon such a narrow and confined loveseat that cannot accommodate a man half my size, you should have let me suffer for it."

"I was attempting to do you a service."

"Yes - but how much of a service would you have done me if you had fallen and hurt yourself in the process?" She looked away in frustration. In response, he sat down upon the edge of her bed and slowly turned her head so that she was facing him. The sensation of his hand upon her chin caused her to shudder and she hoped he could not measure how much his touch affected her. "We are - both of us - quite stubborn. I appreciate your worry for me, but please do not jeopardize yourself on my behalf ever again. You presented for me a very fetching picture which I do not imagine I shall forget anytime soon, but I would much rather remember you waking me in such a manner when you are well."

When he spoke to her so tenderly, she could do nothing to resist him. She would have agreed to anything had he asked her of it then. His fingers began caressing her jaw and the look in his eyes was evocative and tender - far too tender. Without even knowing it, she was holding her breath.

Suddenly, much to her surprise, he leaned over to her, bringing his face precariously close to hers. Hesitating slightly, his eyes moved to her lips and in that time every sensation around her was heightened. She felt his heavy, slow breathing caressing her cheeks warmly. Her every nerve seemed to tingle during those moments and she hoped Mr. Darcy would not be able to sense how affected she was by his nearness.

When he moved even closer and his lips touched hers, she was spellbound. The myriad of thoughts and her confusion left her and all she felt was his gentle kiss, his hands cupping her face and his thumbs gently brushing against her cheek. His kiss was soft and unhurried as though he was savouring this intimate contact with her. She began to wish it would never end.

But, of course, it did end and when it did, her breath came to her in a rush. Her husband's colour had increased and she herself felt quite flushed.

"I have wanted to do that for a very long time," he said in a low timbre as he slowly pulled away from her.

"You have?" Her own voice was raspy and she did not at all sound like herself.

"I have - very much. And I should like to do it again very soon - so please recover quickly?"

His smile revealed two, equally-matched, small dimples in his cheeks. How had she never noticed them before?

"I shall do my best, Sir."

She wanted to smile, she longed to tell him she wanted him to kiss her again, but she could do nothing but look at him wonderingly as her thoughts raced. There was so much she wanted to convey to him, but she did not know how to begin.

The door opened then and Mrs. Reynolds entered with her breakfast tray. Bad timing indeed! Elizabeth sighed heavily and Mr. Darcy rose and greeted their housekeeper briefly.

Mrs. Reynolds set the tray on the unoccupied side of the bed.

"The Bingleys have begun their breakfast, Sir. I thought it best since it was growing late."

"Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds. I will join them after I make myself presentable." He turned toward Elizabeth and the warmth of his gaze once more sent her reeling. "I will return to you after I have had my breakfast, Elizabeth."

"I will be here, of course - and I will not attempt to get up again. You need not worry."

"Good girl. I shall not be long."

As he turned and left her, she could not help staring after him. Unconsciously, she felt herself grinning.

When she turned back to Mrs. Reynolds, the older woman was smiling.

"I trust you will eat all of your breakfast today, Mrs. Darcy. You must regain your strength if you wish to be better when your family arrives."

"I am sure I will have no trouble eating this morning, Mrs. Reynolds. In fact, I am feeling quite famished."

But when she was alone, she found she could not eat until she relived over and over again the kiss she had shared with Mr. Darcy. She had not expected it and that made its charm even more provoking. And he said he wanted to do it again! She felt herself blushing all over and allowed herself to revel in the memory.

Well, if he meant to do it again, she certainly would not stop him. Such overwhelmingly wonderful sensations could not be denied - nor, she realized suddenly, did she particularly want to deny them.

*poultices - (horrible, nasty) mustard plasters or poultices were highly regarded and believed to cure migraines and break congestion.

** sassafras, horehound, wild cherry bark and pennyroyal - These were all brewed as teas and used to treat coughs and colds in the Regency era or they were inhaled to reduce congestion. It almost appears that the more distasteful or repugnant a concoction was, the more effective it was believed to be. Apparently, wild cherry bark is still used today in some cough medicines.

Continue Happenstance here

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