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Happenstance

Chapter 23

The announcement concerning the approach of the Gardiner's carriage was met with pleasure by almost everyone at Pemberley. Darcy could not help noticing that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst offered no favourable reaction when they heard reports of their imminent arrival. They merely smiled stiffly and glanced at one another with eyebrows raised. Mr. Hurst, as Darcy expected, expressed no opinion whatsoever other than to fill his glass with still more port, drink it down in two gulps and reach for yet another slice of buttered bread.

When the Gardiner party finally did appear, they were greeted personally by Mr. Darcy who led them into the downstairs sitting room where his already existing guests awaited them.

Immediately, Mr. Bingley rose and moved toward the group, eager to greet them. Darcy watched carefully as Bingley's eyes fell on Miss Bennet first, and then, almost as an afterthought, moved on to her aunt and uncle. As Darcy reintroduced Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to his other guests, he perceived some awkwardness between his friend and his sister-in-law. Miss Bennet smiled civilly at his sisters, but she made very little attempt to meet Bingley's gaze. Only her nervous toying with her reticule gave any impression of the vexation she felt upon seeing him again. Bingley, on the other hand, could not keep his eyes away from her. Upon his face, distress was evident. Darcy looked upon the entire scene with sympathy and, yet again, he was forced to regret his role in ever encouraging his friend's affections away from Miss Bennet.

After the usual polite inquiries were made regarding their trip and where they had stopped along the way, the topic of Elizabeth's absence was raised. Previously, Darcy had noticed her uncle glancing about the room questioningly, although the elder gentleman had refrained initially from asking after his niece's whereabouts. In fact, Darcy had wondered how he would tell them of her illness without upsetting them after such a long journey. Finally, however, the moment of truth arrived and her aunt asked outright why Elizabeth was not there to greet them.

"Elizabeth fell ill a few days ago, but she is much better now. I hope she can join us downstairs this evening after dinner, but I thought it wise she rest in her room for the time being."

"Mr. Darcy, I cannot help but ask: what precisely is it that ails Mrs. Darcy?" asked Miss Bingley in what could never be mistaken as sincere concern. "I have heard various reports, but nothing definite."

"According to the doctor, my wife has caught a cold." He fought to keep the resentment from his voice. He had never mentioned what ailed Elizabeth to Miss Bingley and her sister largely because they had never asked. "She is now almost fully recovered. For a time, however, I suspected it was something much worse. Thankfully, I was wrong."

"A cold! Indeed, I imagine you must be relieved! Louisa and I feared much worse as well. We actually thought...Ah, never mind. Suffice it to say, we believed she was confined for a far different purpose."

Only the presence of the Gardiners and Elizabeth's sister prevented Darcy from uttering the frustrated response that he was beyond tempted to give her.

"Yes. I believe I understand what it is you thought, Miss Bingley. However, had the reason for Elizabeth's confinement been what you supposed, in my eyes that would have been cause for celebration and not apprehension." He made sure he was smiling, although inwardly he was seething. "My response to news of that sort from Doctor Staynes would have been far more favourable, I should think."

After uttering this retort, Darcy had the distinct pleasure of watching as the strained, deceitful smile upon Miss Bingley's mouth transformed into a surprised "O". If Miss Bingley intended to try his patience by implying she had feared that Elizabeth was with child, he would make certain that he left her in no doubt as to how eagerly he would welcome that prospect.

"Pardon me, Mr. Darcy. Could you take us to Elizabeth? We should very much like to see her," asked Miss Bennet.

"Certainly. It would be my pleasure. Please follow me."

After they excused themselves, Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet joined Darcy as he led them to Elizabeth's room without delay. He was quite aware that his wife was equally desirous of reuniting with her relations and would embrace seeing them as soon as possible.

"Aunt! Jane! How good it is to see you! You, dear Jane, I have especially missed as I have not seen you since mid-December!" cried his wife upon their entrance.

"Lizzy!" Darcy and Mrs. Gardiner watched as Jane ran to the bed and hugged her sister tightly. "I have missed you dreadfully! Are you truly feeling better?"

"Indeed I am," Elizabeth said cheekily. "I assure you, I have been well taken care of - in spite of my difficult, stubborn nature which has remained very much intact throughout this entire episode. Is that not right, Mr. Darcy?"

"You, Lizzy? Creating difficulties for your poor husband?" asked Mrs. Gardiner as she smiled tenderly. "I can hardly believe it!"

"Well, you have not always been an agreeable patient. I will certainly grant you that," Darcy replied easily. "Yet, thankfully, you appear to be behaving much better as of recent."

This caused everyone in the room to laugh. Darcy was particularly interested in noting his wife's reaction to his teasing. Generally, he was not of a nature to enter into mockery with a natural ease, yet lately he had been partial to laughter and banter. This he knew stemmed from his wife's influence; Elizabeth was always ready to see and appreciate the more ridiculous aspects of life. It was yet another reason for him to admire and love her. Risking a glance in her direction, he was pleased to find her laughing and that her eyes were shining brightly. He was forced to curb his inclination to sigh in relief. For too long, the liveliness of Elizabeth's spirit had been missing. Now, here was definite proof of its continued existence.

"Yes, well it has been a struggle as well you know." She turned and surveyed her aunt and sister. "Shall we move to the seating area by the fire? There we can all be more comfortable."

After Elizabeth got out of bed, Darcy led her over to the settee. As he did so, he was aware of Miss Bennet's and Mrs. Gardiner's questioning eyes following their progress. What could they be thinking? He hoped they could detect the improvement in their marriage, but he could not be sure. Were they wondering about the ease with which they now spoke to one another? He wondered how Elizabeth would respond to their questions should they ask her to account for their changed circumstances. While he expected she would be fairly open with them, he hoped she would not focus too heavily on the early days of their marriage when she was so obviously discontented. Suddenly, her relations' opinions of him as a husband to their much-loved niece and sister mattered to him. It was odd how these people, whom he would normally have never considered important, now were persons he did not wish to disappoint.

Again, this was due to Elizabeth. Seeing her enjoying their company without reservation helped him to realize that if they were dear to her, he must work to earn their respect so that they would consider him worthy of being her husband.

~ * ~

After ensuring his wife and her guests were settled comfortably, Darcy asked them to excuse him and he exited the room. On his way downstairs, his thoughts wandered back to the kiss he and Elizabeth had shared the previous afternoon. In fact, his mind often returned to that moment. He had not intended to initiate the kiss, but one look at her flushed reaction to his caress was all it had taken to entice him to move toward her. After that, he was powerless to resist her. And her response had been so...well it had been everything he had hoped it would be and more. Her lips were soft and inviting, her manner was both hesitant and curious; the look she bestowed upon him afterwards - shy and yet tender at the same time - had only served to lift his spirits further. After he had left her, he had to will himself not to run back to her and kiss her again - if only as a means of confirming for himself that it had actually happened. When he told her that he had meant to kiss her again, he had not been exaggerating. Following the kiss, he was a man who longed for only more contact with her. A floodgate of affection had been opened and now he seemed absolutely insatiable.

Last night, he had planned to try it again. This time, he told himself, he would prolong the kiss and weigh her response to it. Yet, he had been unable to execute his plan and his modus operandi had had to be set aside. For a greater part of the evening, his sister had chosen to remain with Elizabeth and together they had read and worked on their samplers while chatting amicably. Whenever he checked on them, he found Georgiana peppering her with questions about her sister, Jane, and Elizabeth was only too willing to prolong this conversation. Darcy, meanwhile, had been forced to remain in the music room with his guests and listen to Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst take turns at the pianoforte or relaying useless gossip about illustrious personages in London. All the while, his mind had been elsewhere. His carefully planned attempt to once again kiss his wife appeared to be less and less of a possibility as the evening wore on. By the time he ventured upstairs, he found both his wife and his sister had drifted off to sleep. After gently shaking his sister awake, he had taken her chair by Elizabeth's bedside but she had remained very much asleep.

Ultimately, Darcy himself had fallen asleep and awoke before sunrise and began his preparations for the day. When he checked with Mrs. Reynolds to ensure that all was ready for their new visitors, she informed him that all the arrangements had been discussed with Mrs. Darcy and that everything was ready for the imminent arrival of his guests. The marvel he felt at Elizabeth's ability to tend to every last detail - even when she was ill - caused him to yet again realize how perfectly his wife fit into his life.

Later, he had ventured into Elizabeth's room again and discovered she was in the bath. From outside the door, he asked her if all was well. She assured him that it was and suggested that she felt recovered enough to join their guests downstairs after dinner. Although, he was reluctant and fearful that she was rushing her recuperation, he agreed and had left her. The entire rest of the day, he had been occupied, trying to complete as much as he could so that by the time his guests had arrived, he might be spared some time to entertain them.

Thus, in the end, he had had absolutely no time alone with his wife and, now that Pemberley was filled with even more guests, he wondered when he would next be able to meet with her privately. The fact that she was well on the road to restored good health was certainly good news, but he could not deny that he would miss the opportunities spent with only her in her bedchamber.

He simply would have to invent new ways to see her alone.

~ * ~

Meanwhile, once Mr. Darcy was safely out of hearing range, Jane lost no time in questioning her sister.

"Mr. Darcy seems much more open than I ever remember him before, Lizzy. Surely, not even you can criticize him now."

Elizabeth laughed softly, but she felt a tiny stab of inner guilt. Her sister was right: in the past she had been too willing to look at the man who was her husband with eyes that were ready to find fault. Now, she was very much changed. Presently, there was little about the man that she did not like. He had not changed - he was very much as he always was - but that there had been a shift in her opinion of him could no longer be denied.

"Jane is absolutely right, Lizzy," added her aunt. "Your husband seems quite amenable and inviting. And you, my dear, appear quite content. Dare I hope that some understanding has been reached between the two of you?"

"Well, we have made tremendous strides and he has demonstrated over and over again that he is a man who is charitable and good," Elizabeth said carefully. "Yes, I believe there is a definite improvement since you both saw us last."

"It is what we all wished for, my dear. Nothing you could have told me today could have made me happier," replied Mrs. Gardiner warmly.

"Jane, I simply must know: did you meet with Mr. Bingley yet? I believe you must have." Her sister looked away uncomfortably. To reassure her, Elizabeth took hold of her hands and smiled into her eyes. "You know, he was very moved to hear you would be coming. I believe he was very much looking forward to seeing you again."

"I think you are wrong, Lizzy. Mr. Bingley is kind and welcoming to everyone. There is no singular attention paid to me."

"Jane, you cannot mean it. Do you continue to believe Mr. Bingley is not partial to you?"

"Yes. He is no more partial to me than he is to anyone else. I am quite sure of this."

Elizabeth's dilemma stemmed from the fact that she longed to tell her sister what she knew regarding why Mr. Bingley left Netherfield - after believing her to be indifferent to him - yet, she could not betray a confidence her husband had not given her license to share.

"And his departure from Netherfield? Why do you suppose he left?" "I cannot speak for him. But, what I can tell you is that a few weeks after your wedding, I heard from Aunt Phillips that his plans to depart for London had been re-established. Not a day later, he came to Longbourn himself and confirmed it for us."

Elizabeth released her sister's hands and sank back against the settee cushion. Her frustration was mounting. Why could her sister and Mr. Bingley not see what was so plain to everyone else? She looked to her aunt for assistance and found her lips were pursed and her eyebrows raised. Elizabeth took this to mean that this was a conversation she had already had with her sister.

"Before news of his removal reached you, did he not spend time with you at Longbourn?"

"Well, he visited all of us and did not call upon me specifically. It is as I suspected, Lizzy. Mr. Bingley is a friend to everyone he meets." Elizabeth could not ignore the pained look her sister gave her. "Please ask me no more questions. I am afraid I do not have the answers you are looking for."

"If it pains you, dearest Jane, of course I will probe no further. Yet allow me to say only this: I hope that while you are here you take time to consider Mr. Bingley may still be every bit in love with you as he always was. Truly, you do not see it, but I have observed you both together and I cannot believe his feelings for you are now so different."

"If what you say is true, then you are correct in one regard: I do not see evidence of his partiality. Yet, neither did you ever recognize Mr. Darcy's growing interest in you, so you cannot fault me for it."

"The material difference is that while I was in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy demonstrated no explicit signs of fondness for me. In your case, however, Mr. Bingley was undeniably courting you. Everyone saw it."

"Perhaps not everyone saw Mr. Darcy openly courting you, yet I always wondered why he was so inclined to be near you or engage you in dialogue - as did Charlotte and Sir William."

"Sir William?" Elizabeth was shocked to hear his name. What could he know of Mr. Darcy's feelings for her while she was at Longbourn? "Whyever would you mention his name in connection to this?"

"I do not know all the particulars, but before she married, Charlotte told me her father always suspected Mr. Darcy held a tendre for you."

"Perhaps both of you have not always been capable of recognizing the feelings of your young men," suggested Mrs. Gardiner delicately. "Jane has promised me she will not discourage Mr. Bingley should he single her out. I believe that is all we can expect for now."

"Of course, I will not spurn him. Yet, it would be pointless for me to expect him to resume his addresses to me, so I will not. I will, first and foremost, delight in visiting with you, dear Lizzy, for truly I have missed you so very much."

Elizabeth smiled, but her spirits remained overwrought. She very much wanted her sister to be happy and she still maintained that Mr. Bingley was the very man who could lead her to that happiness. Yet, she would not spend precious time with her sister plaguing her with questions which only made their time together awkward or in any way strained. Hopefully, Jane would discover for herself that she was still very much in Mr. Bingley's thoughts.

Jane rose, as if signalling the conversation was over. "Now, I should like to go to my room and change out of these traveling clothes. I will ask a footman to direct me and then I shall visit with you again. Do you truly feel well enough to join us downstairs this evening?"

"Absolutely! I look forward to it. I have been in this bedchamber for almost five days! I long to escape and your company is an added inspiration."

Following Jane's exit, Elizabeth asked her aunt if she too would like an opportunity to refresh herself after her long journey. Mrs. Gardiner assured her that she was fine and much preferred to spend some additional time with her niece. Of course, this was news Elizabeth welcomed; in her brief time at Pemberley, she had enjoyed her time with Georgiana, but she missed her own family terribly and longed to spend as much time with them as possible on this visit.

"Tell me, how is Uncle? I very much look forward to seeing him again."

"He is well enough I assure you. Despite the common conception of a lady's delicate nature, I believe men do not bear traveling quite so well as do most ladies. At least your uncle does not. We should have been here earlier had it not been for his desire to stop and stretch his weary limbs. Jane and I were quite content, but nothing else would satisfy him."

"Dear Uncle! How I have missed him - and you. You both were such an enormous comfort to me while I was lately in London."

"I will not lie to you, Elizabeth. We were both quite anxious on your behalf when we last saw you. You appeared to us to be so sorrowful and despondent. It plagued us terribly. I believe that is why I am so happy to see you more content and settled in your marriage."

"I hope you will forgive me for troubling you. I did not mean to. I was not happy in London, yet I am considerably more content now. Mr. Darcy and I have reached an understanding and it has made our time together less uneasy."

"Then everything between you is settled, Lizzy?"

"Well...not everything. But we have made significant progress and we are less willing to disregard one another. I have come to understand that my husband is a good man and one who deserves my consideration."

"It is what I have always told you. You could not hope to find favour in a man you were so willing to fault. He, too, seems attentive and more at ease than he was in London. Pemberley has been good for you both."

"The estate is beautiful, Aunt. I look forward to showing it to you when I am well enough. But the place - as magical as it appears - could not have made us happy on its own. That came only once Mr. Darcy and I both made the effort to improve our situation."

"Of course! It is not altogether uncommon for a newly married husband and wife to have to accustom themselves to one another before they can call their marriage a good one. Granted, you and Mr. Darcy had considerably more to resolve than most other couples. That only makes the fact that you have done so all the more worthwhile."

Elizabeth smiled. How good it was to once again be the beneficiary of her aunt's wisdom!

"Lizzy, I remained behind because I wanted to ensure that you were enjoying all aspects of being a married woman. Jane may be the eldest Bennet sister, but she is not yet married. It would embarrass her to no end to hear us discuss what may be considered the more intimate aspects of marriage." Here, Mrs. Gardiner paused as though she were searching for the right words to say. "I am not quite certain how much your mother has told you about the pleasures that a woman can have while married. Perhaps I should have spoken to you of this long ago, but in London it just did not seem appropriate given your feelings toward your husband. I imagine you have discovered it for yourself by now, yet I am here should you need to talk about this further."

During her aunt's speech, Elizabeth began toying with the sash of her robe mindlessly. She knew she had turned a deep crimson and kept her eyes cast downward.

"I realize this may be difficult for you to discuss. Truly, I do not mean to pry. Still, I promised myself I would attempt to have this talk with you. If you prefer, I shall not mention it again."

"Oh, Aunt, it is not that I do not wish to speak with you regarding this. In fact, I imagine you would shed more useful light on this topic than did my mother."

"Yet, you appear rather discomfited. Perhaps you are tired. We can postpone this discussion for another time - when you are stronger. We will be here for three weeks at least."

A sense of shame enveloped Elizabeth. How could she tell her aunt that her current unease arose from having not allowed her husband to share her bed when he asked her to over a month ago? What would she think of her? In all likelihood, she would consider her a selfish, ridiculous girl who did not deserve such a considerate husband. Yet, when the topic had been raised by Mr. Darcy, she could then not even imagine allowing her husband to take such liberties with her. Now... Well, now she did not know what she wanted; at times, she felt the only remaining block between them was caused by their lack of physical intimacy and, at others, she was fearful of what would happen if she did give him what he no doubt still desired. What if, when it was all over, the gulf between them remained very much intact or even widened further? What if she could not please him?

"Actually, I am already feeling quite recovered. We need not postpone this conversation. I may not have much to add to it, but I assure you, I will be a great listener." Elizabeth could not keep the reluctance out of her voice.

"Well, you are newly married still. You may feel less modest when you are as old a married woman as I am. Of course, I realize this is not discussed between proper ladies as a matter of course, but I feel I would have benefited greatly from some sound advice concerning the marital bed and my role in it."

"I see."

"Elizabeth, are you quite sure you wish to talk about this now? You seem more than a little uneasy."

"Oh Aunt, please know it is not you who are making me uncomfortable. You have the very best of intentions and I very much appreciate your desire to educate me in this regard."

"Well then, what is it? Truly, Elizabeth, you are not yourself. I have never known you to shy away from conversation before. As I said earlier, I understand this may be somewhat embarrassing and if you would rather not probe it further, I will gladly refrain and never bring it up again."

"There is nothing I would not discuss with you. With you, in particular, I feel able to be open and not embarrassed. Yet...we...Aunt, Mr. Darcy and I have not shared any form of the intimacy you discuss."

"Not at all? He has never...?"

Elizabeth shook her head and placed her hands before her eyes. Her aunt was right; it was not like her to shy away from conversation, but this particular topic... How could she converse about that which she did not know?

"Well, then your husband is a very patient and kind man and one who must love you a great deal. You are very fortunate, my dear."

"Aunt?"

Mrs. Gardiner smiled warmly. "Lizzy, most men would not be so understanding nor would they be willing to forego what is commonly thought of as a natural consequence of marriage. Your Mr. Darcy is demonstrating tremendous selflessness."

"What you forget is that our marriage was not always so tranquil. In the early days, neither of us truly wanted much to do with the other. Ours was not a love match."

"Perhaps that is true. Nevertheless, it does not signify that because there is no love, men would disregard their own need for satisfaction. Even amongst our friends, there are those who do not marry based on affection, yet I know of no cases where the man, two months into the marriage, has not quenched his physical desires." Here, she paused and waited for the full implications of her words to be understood by her niece. "I will not lie to you, Elizabeth. You are far too intelligent for me to be coy or indirect. After your marriage, when you were in London, I thought that perhaps you were not sharing a bed with your husband. Still, I hoped that in time, a growing intimacy and some familiarity would allow you both to understand that your union need not be miserable. That two such strong-minded, rational creatures would come to see that continuing to live mired in animosity would not do. When I saw you both today, I believed my greatest wishes were fulfilled. After all, you are very dear to me and I want nothing but to see you happy."

"But even if we had engaged in...in...even then, our marriage would not have been easy. There was too much we did not understand about one another."

"That definitely would have caused problems and insecurity. Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not chastising you. I am merely pointing out that your husband has been very willing to forego what most men would consider they were entitled to in marriage."

"Mr. Darcy has demonstrated compassion, yet he was not always so considerate. In fact, one of our most heated arguments concerned this very subject. It became very ugly and we said hurtful things to one another as a result. Is it any wonder that we would be less than willing to pursue the subject again?"

"I did not realize you had argued over the issue, Lizzy. Tell me, was it this argument that led you so quickly to quit London? Your uncle and I did not wish to interfere, but we imagined some heated row was responsible for having your husband leave his home first and then you following him later."

"That was the very disagreement which caused our initial parting. Yet, I cannot be sorry for it even if some horrible accusations were bandied about by both of us as a consequence. Before he left, we were able to deliberate some particulars that were previously unknown to us. Realizing we were not in possession of the complete truth regarding one another was quite necessary."

"Then, indirectly, discussing whether you would be willing to become intimate with your husband has led to some greater degree of felicity in your marriage?"

"I...suppose that is a fair conclusion. But...," Elizabeth stammered. "Aunt, I do not know what it led to, but I do know we were both less than kind to one another. I, in particular, held a great deal of animosity based on what I discovered later to be nothing but erroneous assumption."

"And what are your feelings toward the man now? I can see they have undergone a significant change."

"Thankfully, yes. They are currently quite different." Elizabeth felt a dreamy smile come upon her face and delighted in the fact that now she had no reason to hide her regard for her husband.

"Could you be in love with him, do you think?"

The question jolted Elizabeth out of her wistfulness. Love Mr. Darcy? Could it be possible that she could come to feel such tender affection for a man whom she had previously thought the most despicable being on the planet?

"Frankly, I am not certain. I know I like him a great deal...and find him handsome and good. Beyond that, it is all so unclear."

Mrs. Gardiner moved closer and put her arm around Elizabeth.

"Well, that is a very good beginning, my dear! A very good start indeed! I hope Mr. Darcy is aware of your altered feelings. Given how much he appears to think of you, I believe he needs to know your feelings for him have shifted."

"I trust he does know that. We have - lately - spent a great deal of time together and I have not sought to banish him nor have I been my typically rude self. Actually, I have been quite well-behaved. You ought to be proud of me."

The older lady smiled warmly and tightened her embrace. "I am always proud of you, Elizabeth. Even when you were at your most stubborn, I knew there was in you the potential to be more amiable and charitable toward your husband."

"Why, thank you! I believe that to be high praise indeed! Now, if I mean to join you downstairs later, I should plan my wardrobe with Candace. We may each be of a nature to celebrate one another's good fortune, but I assure you, Miss Bingley will only be too ready to criticize me."

"Then I will leave you now, Lizzy, and follow Jane's example," said Mrs. Gardiner as she stood. "However, before I do, allow me to remind you that you may believe your husband knows what you are feeling and thinking about him, but he is no mind reader. It would not hurt for you to be more open with him - in the end that may help you a great deal."

Elizabeth also rose and comforted herself with how much steadier the world seemed to her now than it did the last time she attempted to get up without any assistance. Unconsciously, her mind drifted back to the time when she had got out of bed and attempted to rouse her sleeping husband. That picture of him so dishevelled, so natural, was one that had remained with her. The mere recollection of how handsome she had found him that morning caused her to crimson.

"I realize you may find it difficult to express yourself to your husband initially, but I assure you, you will be glad to lose this barrier once it is overcome."

Mrs. Gardiner allowed Elizabeth to take her arm as they began to make their way back to the bed.

"Thank you. I will remember."

"Remember this as well; the marriage bed, once both parties learn to overlook that neither of them are quite perfect, can be as satisfying for the female as it is for the male. It need not be something which must be merely endured or even dreaded. I hope you soon will discover that for yourself, my dear." The remainder of their conversation was cut short once Candace arrived. Her aunt exited the room soon afterwards, leaving Elizabeth with a great deal to ponder regarding how best to communicate to her husband the feelings she had not yet worked through herself.

~ * ~

To Darcy, dinner seemed far too long.

First, Miss Bingley was yet again late to arrive. Without Elizabeth there to remind him to be tolerant, Darcy was quite tempted to actually commence the meal before she presented herself. Yet, he maintained his composure and waited - but it had required tremendous effort and self-restraint.

Then, each successive course seemed endless! Soup followed by roasted pork and lamb with vegetables and then, finally, a variety of fruit tarts and puddings. It was no more than what Darcy was accustomed to, but tonight it appeared to take his guests forever to consume their food. Mrs. Hurst, in particular, was more verbose than usual and complimented each savoury morsel. Her husband, who was always a great eater, took several helpings of both the pork and then the lamb and then paused before selecting no less than three fruit tarts.

Finally, when it was all over, Darcy excused himself from the group. He encouraged the men to partake of his brandy and cigars in his absence. Recognizing Darcy's desire to fetch his wife, Bingley led the men to his study while his host almost ran up the stairs. When he reached the second floor, he took a moment to catch his breath and adjust his waistcoat and cravat. It certainly would appear odd if he were to present himself before Elizabeth panting like a man who had recently escaped from Bedlam.

When he was certain he had regained his composure, he knocked gingerly at the door to her bedchamber. Her maid answered and invited him in. He found Elizabeth already dressed and awaiting his arrival. Once again, he cursed his delay, but the vision she presented dressed in a modest pale yellow gown soon made him quite forget any resentment he had felt before. Her colour was good and she appeared to be almost fully restored.

"I apologize for my late arrival. Dinner appeared to be endless tonight. I hope you have not been waiting long."

"A less patient woman may have suspected you had forgotten her," Elizabeth said cheekily. "But I have grown to be much more tolerant in the last days. I knew you would come eventually."

"Rest assured, Madam. I would never forget. You look positively radiant tonight." She blushed becomingly upon hearing his compliment. "Shall we go down? I will take you to the green sitting room where I believe the ladies have assembled."

"Yes, please. I do so long to join the others! Lately, I have missed all forms of lively conversation."

She walked toward him and linked her arm within his. The feel of her fingers as they lightly touched his jacket was gratifying and immensely pleasurable. As they began to walk, he looked down at her and found that her colour was still high. For a moment, he allowed himself to imagine she was every bit as affected as he was.

"I imagine you have missed being entertained. Unfortunately, I am a poor substitute when it comes to lively conversation."

"Oh, that is not what I meant at all!" cried Elizabeth. "Your company has been rewarding enough, I assure you. I just do not believe I could continue up here knowing that my family is below."

"Of course, I understand you completely." As he spoke, he placed his other hand atop Elizabeth's to reassure her. He felt her fingers dig deeper into his arm and saw her turn away breathlessly. He could not be certain, but perhaps she was not as immune to him as he had previously believed. He very much hoped that was the case.

When they reached the top of the stairs, a quandary presented itself to him yet again. Elizabeth appeared quite ready to descend on her own, but he was uncertain if the attempt would prove too much for her. Should he just carry her down? Elizabeth may find this unnecessary. If so, was she correct? Was his desire to hold her again completely selfless or was it self-serving? Of course, he was worried about her overly taxing herself, but he could not deny that carrying her downstairs was not an unpleasant notion by far.

As if she were able to read his mind, she took a step down and grabbed hold of the banister. Turning to him and smiling, she gently tugged on his arm and encouraged him to also descend. Their progress was much slower than it normally would have been, but when they reached the bottom, he was rewarded with a brilliant smile from his wife. Evidently, she was quite pleased at having made the descent on her own and, after witnessing her triumph, he gloried in her improvement just as much as did she.

When they entered the sitting room, he found Georgiana and the other female guests already assembled there. Upon Elizabeth's arrival, all of them arose and instantly greeted her. He watched as Elizabeth generously deflected the attention away from herself and onto everyone else.

When he was certain that she was settled comfortably near the fire, he reluctantly joined the men in the study. While he was with them, his mind returned constantly to Elizabeth's presence downstairs. As much as he enjoyed being able to spend time alone with her, he knew her well enough to realize he must share her. Seeing her interact with everyone so effortlessly reminded him that it was her lively and jovial nature which had first attracted him to her back in Hertfordshire. He would not deny her the need to be with others even though it meant that he would have less of her to himself.

When the gentlemen rejoined the ladies, he found Elizabeth surrounded by her sister and Georgiana. The three of them appeared to be immersed in an animated discussion and Darcy took a moment to reflect on how Elizabeth's eyes danced as she relayed a story regarding one of her former neighbours in Hertfordshire. When she noticed his arrival, she smiled warmly at him and then turned her attention back to her sister who was narrating a tale of some sort.

Darcy proceeded to join the Gardiners who were anxious to know more about the history of his home. Being somewhat familiar with Pemberley's reputation, Darcy found Elizabeth's aunt to be insightful and complaisant. Mr. Gardiner also proved to be a witty conversationalist as he listened and commented upon Darcy's and his wife's fond memories of the area.

Every now and again, Darcy's eyes would be drawn toward the fireplace. He was not surprised to see that Bingley had joined the group. He watched as his friend made every attempt to engage Miss Bennet in discussion. At first, the young lady proffered his friend only the briefest of smiles and glances, but soon Bingley had managed to gain her full attention. When he next looked over at them, he discovered Miss Bennet was almost facing her hopeful suitor and that they appeared to be chatting amicably on their own. Darcy could not hold back a smirk. He admired his friend's perseverance when it came to Miss Bennet. Clearly, Bingley was prepared to stop at nothing until he got what he desired most.

His eyes moved over to Elizabeth who was also examining their progress in a furtive manner. As though she felt his eyes upon her, she looked across to him smilingly and nodded her approval. Darcy knew enough to realize that his wife's fondest desire was for her sister to reunite with his friend and, now, he was determined to do nothing to deter the realization of her wish. Following his recent discussions with his friend, he knew that Bingley was just as anxious, if not more, to re-establish his connection with Miss Bennet. If they were so fortunate as to come to an understanding here, at his home, Darcy found that prospect to be beyond satisfying. After all, if it had been his persuasion which had caused his friend to doubt his sister-in-law's regard, it was only fitting that he be the means of somehow reuniting them.

After a few hours of pleasant conversation, many of the party began to suggest that it was growing late. The Gardiners and Miss Bennet appeared especially fatigued following their long journey. When Darcy noticed Bingley accompany the Gardiners and Miss Bennet upstairs, he was not at all surprised. The Hursts, Miss Bingley and Georgiana suggested that they too would go to bed immediately after finishing their tea. They gave leave for Elizabeth and Darcy to depart as well. He was actually quite willing to leave the sitting room and ensure that Elizabeth was afforded her rest.

Once again, Elizabeth insisted on climbing the stairs on her own. This time, Darcy did nothing to discourage her desire to accomplish this feat on her own. He remained close to her and placed his arm around her as she mounted the steps independently. When they reached the top, Elizabeth breathed a grateful sigh of relief and turned once more toward him.

"You see! I am quite fully recovered!"

"Thankfully, yes. But you must remember to be careful in the coming days. You would not wish to risk a reoccurrence."

She shook her head and said nothing, but the contentment on her face was marked. For Darcy, seeing such satisfaction in his wife was reward enough.

Outside her bedroom door, they paused. Darcy was quite unsure what it was he should do. Although he longed to accompany her inside, he could never be so presumptuous as to suggest it.

"Good night, Mr. Darcy. Thank you for your kind attention to me this evening," she said as she opened the door. "I think that tomorrow, I shall be well enough to come downstairs for breakfast. I promise I will not overtire myself and will take every opportunity to rest."

"If you are certain you can manage and that you feel well enough, I should like to have you join us. Shall I call on you before going down myself?"

"That would be splendid," Elizabeth replied. "Until tomorrow then."

Before she entered, he leaned down and gave her a lingering kiss on her forehead. He very much would have liked to have kissed her lips again, but the efficient and resourceful Candace had made her way over to Elizabeth immediately upon hearing their voices.

Once again, he would have to wait to satisfy his desire to kiss her properly until he was sure that they were quite alone.

As he turned and walked to his own room, his mind was still full of her.

~ * ~

After Candace left her for the night, Elizabeth found she could not sleep. While in the sitting room, she had felt rather tired, but now her senses were fully awake and she felt sleep to be a very long way off.

Finding herself unable to think of anything other than her husband, she got out of bed and walked over to the looking glass. Circumspectly, she attempted to see herself as did Mr. Darcy. It was clear that he found her appealing, but what was it precisely that he found attractive?

Her study of herself began at her hair. Loose and tumbling about her shoulders as it was now, Elizabeth had always considered it to be an unruly mess of curls. Even when Candace managed to expertly style it, it never behaved as she hoped it would. Two or more stray curls would always rebel against being confined and escape the steady attempt to hold them back. Long ago, Elizabeth had realized it was pointless to expect her hair would ever remain as neat and finely maintained as her sister's Jane's always was. Seemingly, her hair had a defiant life of its own.

Next, she examined her face. It was not a bad face, but neither was it in anyway spectacular. Although Kitty had often complimented the green flecks of her eyes, to Elizabeth they were a dull brown. There certainly was nothing exciting about them. Her nose, she felt, was truly her best feature. It was finely proportioned and seemed to match the shape of her face quite well. Yet, no one had ever paid her nose a compliment. She shook her head in frustration. It was silly to think that anyone else had spent the time she did admiring her nose. When her eyes moved to her lips, she found they too were quite ordinary. In fact, her mouth was far from fashionable. Ladies such as Miss Bingley and Miss Harlow had fine, delicate lips, but her own were rather full and almost too pronounced.

She very much doubted Mr. Darcy found anything at all appealing about her face.

The study of the remainder of her body was more hasty. Never before had Elizabeth been tempted to truly consider her parts. Her neck, she discovered, was quite long and lean. She fancied some may even refer to it as willowy. Her breasts, however, afforded her no pleasure at all. Over and over, her mother had laughed at her less than ample cleavage and had lamented how no corset or stay would ever help endow her with breasts which would make men notice her. However, as she examined them now, she did not find them all that small. Annoyed, Elizabeth recalled how Mrs. Bennet would suggest that Charlotte's figure was lost on her because she herself was not handsome enough to ever catch a man's eye. Elizabeth shuddered in recollection of her mother's less than generous and tactful nature.

She pulled her shift tightly around her and examined her narrow waist and flat stomach. Although she knew that modistes much preferred to work with ladies who were more voluptuous, Elizabeth did not lament her figure. Her father had twice compared her build to his own mother's and, ever since, she had not criticized herself too much in this regard. After all, as she understood it, her paternal grandmother was considered a clever woman of great beauty by all who met her. What better compliment could she expect, therefore, than to be compared to such a woman?

As her eyes travelled downward, they stopped upon her legs. She discovered they were still finely toned even though she had not walked much in the period since her marriage. This part of her body mattered little, however. After all, they were always covered and Mr. Darcy would have had no occasion to see them much less admire or criticize them.

All in all, the picture she presented was not strikingly beautiful, but neither was it deplorable. Still, she could not imagine why Mr. Darcy would find her at all handsome. Her thoughts traveled back to the time when he had called her tolerable on the evening of the Meryton assembly. Oh, how those words had stung her vanity! It had been several months since she had heard those words, but the recollection of them still managed to distress her. She imagined they would not have affected her so much had she not secretly thought the same thing herself. Yet, to have a man she did not know, refer to her in that manner cut to the quick. Now, she knew he must consider her at least slightly beyond tolerable, but she as yet had no idea what he saw when he looked at her.

Nevertheless, the looks he bestowed upon her were not the glances a man gives to a woman he does not find attractive. In fact, so many of his looks communicated an almost intense yearning which caused her to stumble if she were speaking or blush madly if she were not.

She turned and glanced at the door which separated them. He would no doubt be sleeping...but what if he were not?

She had long since stopped denying how attractive she found him. Everything about his physical presence she regarded with approval and pleasure. Now that she knew him to be more than just a haughty and arrogant man, even his sometimes aloof nature did not earn him her censure. Her conversation with her aunt today had only served to remind her that they could not carry on in this passionless marriage. For some time now, she had not been sure she wanted to forego this intimate experience with her husband. After all, he was her husband and now that so many barriers between them had been lifted, what was to stop them from making their marriage a real one?

There was nothing she could think of except one germane point: he had not again asked for more intimacy. Beyond the two kisses he had given her, there had never been any hint that he wished for anything else. Perhaps then, he was content to let things remain as they were between them. Elizabeth could not imagine this was the case, but it was possible. Conceivably, a man who had been so horribly rejected would never submit to the possibility of being turned down again.

The thought that he may never wish to extend their relationship further caused her to experience a wave of longing and sadness. How very cruel it seemed to her that now that she had decided she wanted more from her husband, he had opted to content himself with so little. She was by no means wanton and actually was fearful about the entire process of uniting with him in that way. Yet, she had recently learned that her husband was, in all the ways that mattered, the ideal man for her. In spite of the lamentable manner in which they had been thrust together in this marriage, she no longer regretted becoming his wife at all.

Her feelings for him were too confusing to sort through. That she regarded him above any man in her acquaintance was obvious. She also believed him to be caring and kind. In all things, he had proven himself capable of great benevolence and, toward her especially, he had been particularly caring and tolerant. Quite by accident, she learned from Georgiana that in recent weeks several letters from Lady Catherine had arrived. Elizabeth knew very well that she was the subject of those letters - and that in them Lady Catherine had in all likelihood been quite critical of her. Apparently, Mr. Darcy initially responded to her, but had of late opted to ignore her next letters. The significance of his decision to reject his aunt in favour of her was not lost on Elizabeth. Moreover, she knew her own aunt was correct; not many men would be willing to remain married to a woman who had so fiercely expressed her desire not to share a marriage bed with them and who had accused them of such horribly false allegations.

Tiptoeing, she made her way over to the adjoining door to his chamber. She noticed immediately that there was no lock. That meant that if she wanted to, she could turn the handle and enter it immediately. How she wished she had that courage and that their relationship afforded her that right. Instead, all she could do was press her ear upon the door and attempt to fathom what it was he was doing. How silly! Yet, she could not help herself.

At first, she heard nothing at all. Clearly, he is asleep as should you be. She continued to listen, willing him to move or signal to her in some way that he was still awake.

Finally, she heard a light thud. When she looked at the crack at the bottom of the door, she noticed his room did not appear to be dark. Surely, if he was asleep, he would have seen to it that the candles were extinguished.

Without pausing to think, she knocked lightly. After she did it, she wondered what she was about. What would he think to find her standing at the other side of the door? She turned away hurriedly and hoped he had not heard her. Almost running, she made her way to her bed all the while chastising herself for her thoughtlessness.

Yet, when the door opened and he stepped into her room, she was far from surprised. Of course, he would respond to a knock regardless of whether it came from his silly wife in the middle of the night or not. She cringed in mortification. How would she explain to him her harebrained behaviour?

"Elizabeth! Are you well? What is it?"

He approached the bed with a worried expression on his face. Immediately, she regretted her imprudence even further. How could she forgive herself for causing him to think, even momentarily, that she was ill again when all she wanted was more of his company?

"No. I am well. I...just heard...saw...the light in your room and thought you might be awake as well."

She felt very much like a reckless child.

"I was reading. I was about to go to bed myself and then I heard your knock. Are you quite certain that you are all right?"

He watched as she quickly attempted to cover herself with the various sheets and comforter on her bed. Sympathetically, he walked over and assisted her.

"Please, do not let me keep you. I myself was awake, but I shall go to bed directly." "But you knocked...I am certain I heard it."

"Yes," she said in what she hoped would be interpreted as a light-hearted tone. "I foolishly believed you too could not sleep, but I see now that I was wrong. Perhaps we should both attempt to get some rest."

"Elizabeth, if you would like company, I would be quite willing to remain here with you. If, on the other hand, you would rather sleep, I shall leave."

"No...that is...I would like you to stay."

Elizabeth could not be sure, but she thought she detected a slight pause before he responded.

"How provident, for I would very much like to stay here with you."

Just as he was preparing to sit upon her bed, her words came rushing out all at once, "May I see your room? I have never seen it."

"Of course. I shall be happy to give you a guided tour."

His room was very much as she imagined it to be. In the candlelight, it appeared to be painted a dark golden colour. There were two identical armchairs situated by the fireplace and small sofa tables were placed next to each chair. On the far left, there appeared to be a door leading to what must be a dressing room. Next to it, there was a heavy armoire which matched a writing desk located adjacent to one of the two windows in the room. When she turned and spotted his bed, she again felt ridiculous and far too presumptuous.

"And this room was your father's. Have you changed much since you assumed it?"

"Nothing at all. I intend to, one day, but for now, it is quite comfortable."

Aimlessly, she walked over to a sofa table and picked up a book. She leafed through it without purpose, paying attention to nothing that she read. She knew he was watching her and perhaps wondering what had come over her.

"I must tell you how happy I am that you knocked, Elizabeth." When she turned around, she noticed he was standing closer to her, but in the dim light, she could not read the expression upon his face.

"I daresay I am happy as well. I have enjoyed seeing your room immensely."

"Well, if you have it is not because of me. I have been a very negligent guide." His voice sounded huskier and lower than its usual pitch. Fascinated, she watched as he approached her and placed his arms around her. "I must admit, I have been admiring the image you present. I like the fact that you are in here very much."

She breathed quickly. "Only in here do you like me? Mr. Darcy, we are in trouble indeed if you can only come to like me while I am prying about your room."

Her attempt at humour did nothing to deter her husband. Instead, he held her tighter still and she did nothing to stop him. On impulse, she allowed her head to rest upon his chest and she placed her arms around him as well.

"Elizabeth, you should know very well that I like you anywhere. But, to be frank, I will never forget the picture you present to me tonight in this very room - my bedchamber."

"Oh!"

She felt his lips touch the top of her head and shivered. As he continued to kiss her cheek, her ear and then the area behind it, her response doubled and soon she looked up and sought his lips with her own. He was only too willing to accommodate her.

This time when their lips met, they were neither tentative nor unsure. Although he had kissed her before, this intimacy was vastly different. While he was in no way forceful, his longing for her was palpable and her own fervour was equally as strong. Because she was not surprised this time to feel his lips upon her own, she made every attempt to encourage him.

They continued to kiss for an indeterminate amount of time. Every so often, they would break away and his lips would travel to her eyes, her cheeks, that maddening place behind her ear or her neck, but ultimately, he would always return back to her lips and there he would tarry. Little by little, he would tease her with soft pecks before placing slower and deeper kisses upon her mouth. Her mind became alternately filled with either a rush of thoughts or it was completely blank. After a while, she was sure she could formulate no coherent thought at all, so she permitted herself to think nothing and instead feel everything.

When he broke apart from her and moved an arms length away from her, she felt bereft.

"Elizabeth, we must stop. I cannot...I must not...continue."

"Whyever not?"

He looked at her strangely and then shook his head slightly. He turned away from her.

"Surely, you know that if we carry on ... I beg of you not to begin what you do not mean for us to finish."

Later, she would wonder at her nerve. Yet, when she saw him turn away from her, she was crestfallen and felt all she could do was move and place her arms around him again.

"But what if we should finish?" she said softly.

She felt him straighten his back before he turned to face her again. He placed his finger beneath her chin so that she looked up at him.

"Are you quite certain you know what you are suggesting, Elizabeth? I want there to be no misunderstanding here. Although I desire you very much, if we proceed in this vein, I do not want there to be any regrets."

"I hope you will have no reason to regret it. I am confident I will not."

Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted off feet.

"You should know that I am a man who has very little time for regrets of any kind."

Once he laid her upon the bed, he hesitated at first and only looked at her. Elizabeth felt every inch of herself reddening. The manner in which he scrutinized her - albeit he was examining her in her very modest flannel nightdress - made her feel almost entirely exposed. She forced herself to swallow her modesty and focus instead on what pleasures she could offer to her husband and those that he could give to her.

After joining her, he lay beside her, propped on one elbow, and resumed kissing her face. His other hand stroked her neck provocatively causing each part of her to tingle. As she relaxed and returned his kisses, her own hands moved to his broad shoulders and then down his arms. Once he began kissing her neck, she had an impulse to explore his chest. His shirt was open and, tentatively, she moved to feel his bare skin. When her hand made contact with his skin, he stopped and she felt him shiver.

Yet, his next move was even more bold. Slowly, never taking his eyes from hers, he unbuttoned his shirt and removed it entirely. When he was done, he lightly took hold of her hands and once again encouraged her to feel his bare flesh. While she was taken aback at the sight of his naked chest, she was also curious. She marvelled at the beauty of him as he lay back and allowed her to touch him. She was surprised at how warm and smooth he felt beneath her hands. Daringly, she kissed his chest. He responded with a sharp intake of breath. Instantly, she looked up and saw that his eyes were closed and his lips were parted. She somehow sensed that he appeared to be enjoying her touch. It amazed her to see how affected he was by her. She continued her exploration with her hands and lips while he unhurriedly stroked her back. Soon, the lines of his well-developed body grew to be familiar and her touch lost any apprehensiveness.

When her lips reached his, he responded hungrily. To her surprise, in the midst of the kiss, he buried his hands in her hair and his tongue lightly brushed against her lips which parted in response. When his tongue began playfully interacting with her own, she very nearly gasped in surprise. This was a form of kissing she had only read about, but she allowed him to proceed and thrilled in this new discovery.

Soon, he rolled her onto her back and he began to liberate each button of her shift, one by one. As he did so, his eyes never wavered from hers, carefully searching for her reaction as he exposed more of her. When he had finished, his glance traveled to her chest unhurriedly. Only one breast lay fully exposed and she writhed in discomfort as he wordlessly gazed upon it. Now that he had come this far, she was almost eager for him to touch her, but she knew not how to convey that to him.

Apparently, she need not have worried. Slowly, Darcy used the backs of his fingertips to follow the line from her collarbone, halting only when he arrived at the middle of her chest. Fascinated, she watched as he pushed the fabric away and allowed his gaze to trace its way over her breasts. A jolt of pleasure shot through her. When he finally touched her, she better understood why he had reacted so strongly when she had dared to explore his chest. Reaching out, he gently touched her and almost shuddered. The feel of his fingers, light but pervasively curious, caused her to moan in delight. Embarrassed, she moved her hands to her face, afraid that he would think her licentious and immodest. Tenderly, he removed her hands and placed them lightly by her side.

"You are so beautiful, Elizabeth. More beautiful than I even imagined. You have no reason to wish to hide yourself from me."

"On the contrary. I am not beautiful at all. Mamma has often told me that particular part of my body would never lure a man to me," she replied breathily.

"Obviously your mother knows nothing about men. I find you - all of you - quite perfect."

And then, as if to demonstrate his admiration, he began to caress her breasts gently. Despite the relative darkness of the room, his eyes remained locked with hers. His tender exploration grew more daring, gradually causing her heart to race. When he cupped her breasts and his thumb brushed against her nipple, she trembled and every other sensation left her. Her reaction caused him to pause, but he did not withdraw his hands.

Her mind registered pure amazement. That this man could cause her to experience a mixture of such sheer bliss and embarrassment at the same time astounded her to no end. Her thoughts were scattered between wanting him to never stop and yet longing for him to move on to other areas which were prickling with the anticipation of his touch. She wished for once that she could be mindless and just allow herself to be carried away by the emotions which were threatening to overwhelm her. Yet, the fact that this was the first time she had ever engaged in such activities made her painfully aware of his every move and her every reaction.

Suddenly, she needed to kiss him again. It hardly seemed logical, yet there was this burning desire to reconnect with him in this precise way. She placed her hands on the sides of his head and attempted to redirect him upwards. He looked up at her in surprise, but he did not stop her. It seemed as though there was nothing he would not do to please her on that night.

Her lips met his with an inexplicable urgency. In this kiss, she felt his own insistent need. For a while, they continued in this manner, their breathing becoming heavy and at the same time sporadic.

Suddenly, she seemed to take hold of her senses and irrationally became quite shy. She knew mortification at this point seemed futile; after all, he had seen nearly all of her. Yet, she could not account for the need to somehow preserve some part of herself amidst this.

"William," she panted once she was able to release her lips from his, "would you mind if we...I am rather cold. Could we possibly get beneath the covers?"

"Of course. Shameful of me not to realize it."

He helped her to pull back the covers and watched as she scurried into bed and covered herself completely. Frowning, he joined her, but he did not resume any amorous activity for a period and instead lay on his back, with his hands clasped behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.

"Is something wrong? Will you not tell me if I have done something to displease you?"

Not reacting, he continued to avoid her gaze. She watched him take a number of deep breaths. Unsure, she contemplated asking her question again, almost convinced that he had not heard her.

"Elizabeth, before we began, I asked you if you were certain. You assured me you were, yet now, you shield yourself and thereby make it quite obvious that you are uncomfortable with what has transpired between us tonight. I wanted there to be no regrets after...this."

"There are no regrets. Truly, I feel none - although I...I am not yet comfortable. Please understand."

He turned and again leaned upon his elbow. "You are not at ease showing yourself to me? Is that what you are trying to tell me?"

She turned away from the penetrating look upon his face. Even though the room was sheathed in minimal light, she felt him scrutinizing her closely and, once again, she was nearly conquered by awkwardness and uncertainty. All this talk of exposing herself to him did nothing to allay her discomfiture. In truth, she wanted him to do nothing else, but continue to kiss her...and proceed.

He reached out and turned her face so that she was again facing him. "So you do not regret what we have done thus far?" She shook her head, wordless and shy. "Elizabeth, there is nothing improper about a man coming to know his wife's body thoroughly. But, I will not push you. The very last thing I should wish to do is cause you embarrassment."

She smiled and, once again, the sultry tone of his voice and his words to her caused her to feel what she imagined were the stirrings of passion.

When he kissed her again, she knew true appeasement. It was almost as though she had grown to need his kiss as a reassurance that all was still well between them. Without thinking, her arms snaked around his neck and she pulled him closer to her.

For a while, he did nothing beyond kissing her. In her mind, her thoughts were explosive. Unconsciously, she arched toward him - not being able to find the words or knowing which words to use to tell him she longed for more. It became almost a compulsion to touch him and so her hands again roamed across his back. Adeptly, he read her desire and when his hands once again moved to her breasts, his touch was firm and provocative. In response, her own hands sought him and, in a frenetic pace, she roamed the planes of his chest and the strength of his arms.

Suddenly, she noticed his hands had moved lower. When she felt him attempting to raise the hem of her nightdress, her eyes opened and she stilled. Sensing her discomfort, he hesitated temporarily before beginning to caress her legs. For a time, he went no further, but his strong hands as they stroked her calves sent her reeling. Just as she was about to once again be overwhelmed by the newness of his touch, he again began to move his hands upwards until it was quite clear that his ultimate destination was her core, that forbidden place no proper young woman admitted knowing about.

Fighting the need to stop him, she waited - and he waited. Her eyes locked with his and she imagined that he was every bit as hesitant and uncertain as she herself felt. His hands rested gently upon her thigh as he allowed her to accustom herself to its place there. Again, his touch was not demanding - just present and firm. When he parted her legs, in a trance, she let him and almost held her breath as she waited to see what he meant to do next.

His first touch was fleeting. After it, he looked at her and smiled. Finding no resistance, he once more touched her. This time, he stroked her again and again and she watched as he closed his eyes in what she hoped was fulfillment. Soon, the sensations he was inciting were unlike any that she had felt before and his own reaction was lost on her. Her entire body jerked in response. Never, had she experienced anything like the feelings that were stirring deep within her heated body. She heard him groan and only then noticed that she too was moaning and could not be still.

When he pushed himself back up to her, she saw he was attempting to remove his trousers. Modestly, she looked away - fearful yet at the same time curious about what it would be like to have him unclothed beside her.

After he had shed his last item of clothing, he was curiously idle for a moment. As he moved again toward her, the touch of his naked leg against her own caused a jolt within her. When he climbed atop her, careful not to crush her, she felt his hardness and shuddered. Of course, she had seen pictures of a man's body, but now that she was actually experiencing the feel of a man's nakedness, the images seemed inconsequential and negligible.

"You do know that this first time will be painful? I wish I could spare you that ..."

She had no response. Tenderly, she touched his cheek and watched as he leaned into her touch.

When he entered her, he did so slowly and not fully. She watched as he closed his eyes and sighed in relief the moment they connected. Yet, somehow, he managed to stop. Unconsciously, she felt her body stiffen.

"Please, my darling, relax. It will be much worse for you if you do not." He was almost pleading with her.

Slowly, he continued to push. Opening his eyes, his hand moved to her face and he caressed her gently.

"So beautiful," he murmured dreamily. Softly, he ran his index finger along her jaw line.

The next thrust was harder and she groaned as she felt him fully enter her. What she experienced was not pain - actually, she had no word to describe the physical sensation. She felt trapped between a stinging which was both exquisite and foreign.

She was surprised to again feel him pause. Carefully, he halted all movement. While she did not know precisely what to expect, she knew there was more to it than simplythat. Immediately, she felt herself squirming.

"Lie still. I do not wish to hurt you any more than need be. Your body must become accustomed to mine. Please, Elizabeth."

He sounded as if he were in agony and Elizabeth could not help but wonder why, if it was so painful to him, did he not do something.

Finally, he did move. In and out. His pace was slow, yet it was enough to cause her to tighten her hold on him and pull him down for a desperate kiss. In between her own moans, she heard him speak, but his words sounded as though they were far off and she could make nothing out clearly. In truth, she cared not what he said. As he filled her like this, everything else vanished and all that remained was this headiness and desire for...everything. After he shuddered and a look of pure bliss came upon his face, she somehow sensed the end was near. Instinctively, her hands moved to his back and she pulled him down toward her wanting nothing so much as to experience this fulfillment with him close to her.

When it was over and he pulled away, he flopped onto his back next to her. He reached out for her hand and she allowed her fingers to intertwine with his. For a time, they lay there panting, hands joined in silence.

Elizabeth sensed herself slowly recovering from an array of emotions. Her body still tingled and if she focussed very hard, she could still recall the feeling of his hands upon her. Unexpectedly, she was struck by a wave of self-consciousness and she attempted once more to readjust her shift. Strangely, now that the act was over, her modesty was restored. Sympathetically, he released her hand and allowed her to cover herself. In the meantime, he too covered himself with the blanket, but made no attempt to put on his clothes. When they were both finished, almost at the same time, they wordlessly reached for one another's hand again.

"Elizabeth, that was beautiful - perhaps, more so for me than it was for you. I promise you it will be better for you the next time."

Next time...

Silently, Elizabeth mulled over the idea that he would anticipate doing this again. Of course, she expected as much, but what she did not suppose was her own curiosity to see if he was right. Her mother had suggested that this would be a part of marriage that a woman submitted to, but did not enjoy. This afternoon, her aunt had informed her that uniting with her husband could be more. At the moment, Elizabeth was much more inclined to agree with her aunt. While the entire experience had not left her feeling wholly comfortable, neither had she felt utterly repulsed.

"Tell me, did I hurt you very much?"

"No. The pain was fleeting."

He leaned upon his elbow and turned toward her.

"Good." He paused. "I hope this aspect of our marriage will serve to bring us closer."

"I do not suppose it could keep us farther apart. The very nature of it entails..."

"Tremendous intimacy," he concluded.

"Yes. Intimacy."

Again, they fell silent.

Elizabeth was uncertain of what to say next. She sensed that whatever it was that she said or did not say would be important. For a moment, she allowed herself to imagine what it must be like for most other couples at this time - how easy it would have been to hold one another or to whisper tender words of love or longing. Perhaps there would be even more caresses until they drifted off to sleep. Unfortunately, she and Mr. Darcy could not share these open displays of affection; yet, she could not help but yearn for them.

She wondered if he were thinking these same thoughts. Conceivably, he could be very much like the men her mother described to her. A man who needed nothing at all once the act itself was over.

Yet, she hoped - she very much wished - he were different.

"Elizabeth, I should like for us to remain together tonight. If you prefer, we can move to your own bed."

He had rolled onto his back once again and kept his gaze away from her. She had not anticipated his wish for her to stay with him. As she understood it, couples rarely slept together afterwards. Yet, if she were truthful, she did not want to leave him either. Alone, she knew she would do nothing but think of him and what had happened between them.

"I am fine here, but will it not look odd for us to be here together...in your bed...should we be discovered?"

"Generally, no one enters other than my man - and he is quite discreet. The servants here are all accustomed to the master and mistress sleeping together. My own parents rarely spent nights apart. If you prefer, we need not follow their example, but I would like for you to feel comfortable here and stay."

"Then I shall stay."

There was nothing more. She could not help wishing that he would go on and explain to her why he wanted her to remain, but he did not and she could not question him further. It was clear to her that he had said all that he meant to on the subject. For her part, she had no true desire to leave either.

As she felt herself drifting off to sleep, she felt his arm drape around her. The feel of his embrace was comforting. For now, she would have to satisfy herself with that.

~ * ~

In the middle of the night, he heard a loud knocking on the door.

He opened his eyes and noticed Elizabeth was curled up alongside him and had not moved. Hurriedly, he took a moment for his eyes to become used to the darkness but it was to no avail. He wished he could see her face. He longed to see if her sleep was accompanied by that same restful smile he had observed a few days before.

The knocking persisted. Loud and insistent. His attention was drawn to a set of voices outside the door. As he hurried off the bed and began buttoning his breeches, he noticed Elizabeth moving. By the time he pulled on his shirt, she was almost fully awake and asked him what was wrong.

"It may be nothing more than an incident at one of the tenant's homes - a brawl or a fire. Please try to sleep again."

Yet, when he opened the door, he was surprised to find his steward and Mr. Gardiner standing on the other side. Both men wore worried and anxious looks. Quickly, he stepped outside and noticed that down the hallway stood Mrs Gardiner and her niece. Miss Bennet appeared quite upset and her aunt was making every attempt to placate her using a soothing tone and embracing her.

"What is it? Has something happened?"

"Mr. Darcy, the very worst thing has happened. Twenty minutes ago, I received an express containing the most horrible news. My youngest niece, Lydia, has eloped."

"Eloped? But how can that be? Is she not still at Longbourn?"

"She was - before she left. Take a moment to read this letter. It will explain to you what I cannot at this time."

As he was scanning the letter, the door opened to reveal Elizabeth. Seeing her sister and her aunt, she ran barefoot to them. Suddenly, nothing he read made much sense to him. All he could make out was that Lydia Bennet had eloped...with Wickham!

By the time he had finished reading, Elizabeth had already discovered the truth. He could do nothing but watch as both her uncle and aunt tried to appease her. He knew he should comfort her, but his feet remained rooted to the spot and he was unable to move or speak.

Chapter 24

After a few minutes of watching on the periphery, Darcy recovered enough sense to realize that the very public hallway was no place to discuss the matter of the youngest Miss Bennet's improbable elopement any further.

In a veritable daze, he heard himself make the suggestion that they move to the upstairs sitting room. He watched, flabbergasted, as an overwrought Elizabeth was led by her uncle into the room and settled onto a settee. The entire scene enfolded before him while he felt himself to be nothing more than a befuddled spectator in his own home.

"How could this have happened? Why was Lydia not stopped? She is ruined forever!"

Elizabeth's distress could not be contained. Upon her face was a look of fierce desperation and torment. Beside her, her eldest sister sobbed quietly while her aunt stood next to her murmuring what must have been words of consolation.

"Unfortunately, no one appears to know for certain how this all came about," Mr. Gardiner said bleakly. "All that is clear is that she traveled with Kitty to Meryton three days ago. There, Kitty met up with Maria Lucas and Catherine Long while Lydia remained speaking to Mr. Wickham and some officers. A local man last saw her hurriedly boarding a post-chaise in the company of Mr. Wickham."

"But what was she thinking? Why did no one think to prevent her from boarding the carriage? Everyone in Meryton is familiar enough with Lydia to know she should not have been alone with any man, much less Mr. Wickham!"

"If someone had attempted to stop her, do you truly believe your sister would have listened?" asked Mrs. Gardiner steadily. "Elizabeth, do be reasonable. You know Lydia would not be gainsaid if she was determined to escape."

"But how do we know she was determined? We have no idea! It is very likely that Mr. Wickham coerced her. I would put nothing past that man!"

"It appears she was a very willing participant, actually. Your father writes that she left a letter nestled amongst her embroidery threads. In it, your sister wrote that she meant to elope and that she believed she would soon bear the name Mrs. Wickham."

"Then perhaps he will marry her," said Jane with a hopeful look at her uncle. "Conceivably, she may be already married. That would not entirely rid the situation of its scandal, but it would not be so very bad."

"Your father, who is already in Town, has learned that they have been traced only as far as London, but not beyond. He seems convinced they have not traveled to Scotland."

"Then she is lost forever. Lydia can offer no other temptation to him. She has no money."

Immediately, Elizabeth buried her face in her hands. Darcy watched helplessly as her body was racked with deep, mournful sobs. Again, he felt compelled to go to her, but his disgust at Wickham and his choler over the fact that the reprobate had once again invaded his life rendered him immobile. Slowly, a mounting fury was unleashing itself within him. His anger was mingled with the agony of knowing his wife was overcome by a torment that he had not been able to protect her from any more than he could now obliterate it.

"Elizabeth, that is not necessarily true," comforted Mrs. Gardiner. "Mr. Wickham would be acquainted with the fact that Lydia is not friendless or unprotected. He knows that you are married to Mr. Darcy and, from what I understand, the Darcys were friends to him in his youth. Furthermore, I cannot believe he would be so foolish as to risk losing his place in Colonel Forster's regiment. It may not be as hopeless as it appears."

"I wish I shared your optimism, Aunt. If his intentions were honourable, they would have traveled as soon as possible to Gretna Green - or he would have courted her properly. The fact that they are now believed to be in London and are still not married confirms for me that his motives are unscrupulous. This predicament is in every way horrible!"

"Knowing Wickham as I do, I doubt that he means to marry her." Darcy could not keep the disgust from his voice. When he saw the additional pain his words provoked in his wife, he was sorry he spoke at all. Perhaps it was best that he said nothing; after all, he could have nothing encouraging to add to this already dismal situation.

"But was Mr. Wickham not engaged to Mary King? It was Lydia herself who wrote me and told me that he was!"

"He was indeed, but Miss King's uncle broke the engagement for reasons that are not known. She has since gone to live with her mother's family away from Hertfordshire," said Miss Bennet.

"Then her inheritance, at least, is safe. How lucky she is to have such a wise uncle!"

"Pardon me, Elizabeth, but your sentiments for Mr. Wickham have undergone a material change," noted her aunt placidly. "Was he not always a friend to you? You would do well to remember the kindness he bestowed upon you at this time. Those memories may lead you to not consider this in the very worst light."

Darcy watched Elizabeth pause and take a deep breath. He waited for her to look at him, but she kept her gaze directly in front of her.

"I have reason to believe Mr. Wickham may not have been the friend to me that he appeared to be. In any case, I would never look favourably on a man intent on causing shame to my family."

For a few moments, nothing else was said. Darcy moved to the window and thrust the curtain aside with such force he would not have been surprised had it come hurtling down upon him. He looked out and saw nothing but blackness. Anxiously, he attempted to make out the lake he and Elizabeth had skated upon a week earlier, but it remained lost to him. He could not help but wonder if he and Elizabeth would ever again know such happy times again. Would they ever be able to rid themselves of the bleakness that seemed to circumvent their every chance at happiness?

Why had Mr. Bennet not heeded his advice regarding Wickham? His conversation with his father-in-law had been cut short by Elizabeth's arrival just prior to their departure to London after their wedding, but he had said enough to forewarn him that Wickham was a man not to be trusted. Why, then, was his youngest daughter - why not were all his remaining daughters - not watched more closely? Of course, Darcy had not delved into his true reasons for warning Mr. Bennet against the scoundrel, but surely the man should have known he would never have spoken in such a manner had he not been given ample cause!

"I cannot tarry here much longer, I am afraid. My brother writes for my immediate assistance and I will not disappoint him. I wonder at how much help I can provide, but I do not mean for him to be alone in this."

"Yes! Please Uncle! My father is not familiar with London. He will not know where to look," cried Miss Bennet.

"I am not altogether sure that I will know much more about where Wickham is likely to have taken her, but I will not let that prevent me from trying." Mr. Gardiner turned quickly to address Mr. Darcy. "Sir, I am afraid my team will not be ready to withstand such a long journey again. May I depend upon the loan of some of your horses? I give you my word that I will rest them when it is necessary and try not to overtax them in spite of my haste to reach London."

Once he heard that he was being spoken to, Darcy turned to face Mr. Gardiner. He had been lost in the truth of Mr. Gardiner's earlier comment regarding the need for alacrity. He was right; Wickham must be found as soon as possible, before he tired of whatever gratification it was he felt he could get from Miss Lydia and went off on his merry way.

"Of course. I will see to it that a team is made available to you immediately." He paused briefly, considering his next words only fleetingly. "In fact, I will accompany you on your journey. I cannot claim to know for certain where Wickham is hiding your niece, but perhaps my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, can assist you. I shall re-introduce you to him. Hopefully, he can assist you in your search."

"Thank you, Mr. Darcy! The thought of making such a journey on my own under these circumstances was not at all agreeable."

"Gilmore and I will make the necessary arrangements. Could you be ready to set forth in an hour, do you think?"

"I will be prepared to depart even sooner than that. This is an instance where I believe time is of the essence," replied Mr. Gardiner grimly.

After planning to meet in his study when they were both ready, Mr. Gardiner and Darcy left the ladies and made their way to their chambers. After pausing briefly to instruct Gilmore regarding his specific needs, he rang for Hyatt hastily. Alone, he could do nothing but frantically pace the length of his room. Minutes later, a dishevelled Hyatt arrived and listened quietly as Mr. Darcy explained that he needed a bag packed posthaste. Darcy watched mutely as his man collected enough clothes for him to change into throughout his journey.

~ * ~

Following the gentlemen's exit, Elizabeth, her sister and their aunt remained cloistered in the sitting room. Now that they were alone, Jane felt better able to air her heartache over Lydia's dilemma. Her grief took the form of loud sobs and endless lamentations.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, had grown abruptly silent and her crying stopped. What remained was a gripping anger at the complete lack of judgment her sister had shown. Elizabeth was no stranger to her youngest sister's silly romantic notions, but she always wished Lydia would gradually mature into a more reasonable young woman. Now, all hope of that was lost!

Furious, Elizabeth began pacing about the room with her fists clenched. How could her sister have blindly fallen prey to Wickham's machinations? Surely, she could not be so stupid! But the fact that she was with him instead of choosing to remain safely with her family and friends revealed that Lydia had abandoned whatever paltry sense she may have possessed. Thoughtless, selfish girl! Even if Mr. Wickham had managed to convince her that he meant to marry her, she should have considered her family before exposing herself - and them - to the scandal associated with her conduct!

She looked at Jane and her aunt huddled closely together and, rather than being moved to compassion at witnessing how grieved her most beloved sister was, Elizabeth's fury mounted. She could never forgive Lydia for this! She hoped her father and her uncle were successful in recovering her as quickly as possible and that somehow some good could still come of this, but she would never be able to pardon how easily Lydia had been able to put herself and all those who loved her at risk.

Elizabeth's thoughts turned to her husband. How irate and frustrated he must be! After all, he had agreed to marry her solely to rid his reputation of any hint of scandal or a lack of honour. Yet now, Lydia's lack of prudence had caused disgrace to follow him even beyond their hurried marriage. He had agreed to accompany her uncle on his trip to London and had even offered to assist him by contacting Colonel Fitzwilliam, but she knew how loathsome the endeavour would be for him. It was very likely that he was already regretting his offer, but how could he tactfully withdraw it now?

And, as much as she appreciated his decision to join her uncle, why would he not speak to her first? In fact, why did he not speak to her at all? Was his offer to go to London nothing more than an attempt to be rid of her? Naturally, he must be regretting his choice to marry her. Even if his own sister had been tempted by Wickham's particular brand of charm, he had carefully intercepted them before any true damage had been done. How he must shudder to think that he is in any way connected to a family who would allow their daughter to plan an elopement under their very noses!

How did he now view what happened between them last night? Amidst this scandal, she had almost forgotten that she had lately become his wife in earnest. Together, they had shared an intimacy which, although awkward and hesitant for her, had the potential to cause their relationship to transcend the barriers they had built around themselves. Was every step they had taken now for naught? While she did not imagine he would regret their activities of the night before, it would be far worse if he regretted her.

Suddenly, the need to see him nearly overwhelmed her. Murmuring a hasty apology, she excused herself from her aunt and sister's presence and walked deliberately toward his bedchamber.

When she arrived at his door, she rapped on it resolutely. Recalling the tentative knock she had made last night on the door which separated them, the colour rose to her cheeks swiftly. Doggedly, she pushed her embarrassment aside. It would do no good for her to face her husband with lingering thoughts regarding the boldness she demonstrated last night when she had asked to see his bedchamber. She did not know what mood she now would find him in, but she understood that she would need a steady head to face him.

The door opened to reveal Hyatt. Quickly, the servant moved aside and retreated back into Mr. Darcy's dressing room. Methodically, she entered and scanned the room in an effort to find her husband. In the dimming light, she could make out nothing at all. She walked forward slowly, making every attempt to ignore the massive bed they had lain upon so very recently. Again, she willed her mind away from the memory of his caresses and his tender words and back to their present reality.

In the middle of the room, she halted. Mr. Darcy appeared to be nowhere in sight. Perhaps it was just as well that she did not come across him. Whatever could she say to begin to repair his obvious disappointment and rid him of his anger?

The sound of a heavy sigh caused her to turn toward the fireplace. There! He must be there!

Treading lightly, she walked toward her husband. She discovered him holding his head in his hands and not moving. Slowly, she reached to touch his hair and he all but jumped to find he was not alone.

"Elizabeth! I did not hear you enter."

"I knocked," she said gently. "Hyatt let me in. Are you quite all right?"

He rose and walked over to the fireplace. By this time, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness and she was able to follow his progress as he moved.

"Fine, I am fine - but I am shocked to think Wickham would attempt this again. And you? Your sister? You both appear very grieved."

Elizabeth sat down heavily upon the armchair he had just abandoned. She felt the rise of tears once more and knew she could not repress them.

"My sister is a foolish, ridiculous girl, but I have always known that about her. I have been so caught up in my own situation that I neglected to send warning of what I knew Mr. Wickham to be. In every way that matters, I am equally at fault here. Because of my own selfish concerns, my entire family is facing ruination!"

"Elizabeth, that is madness! I myself spoke to your father briefly and told him that Wickham was not to be trusted. You cannot fault yourself for this. I will not allow it."

She prickled at his irritated tone. In his words, the resentment he felt toward her father was clear.

"Mr. Darcy, you say you spoke to him but briefly. You and I spoke much more at length concerning the issue and yet I still feel stunned that he would attempt to do this again - and with Lydia who has nothing to offer him besides the obvious." As she spoke, her voice rose. "I beg of you not to blame my father for this breech of honour. Apart from keeping my sister under lock and key, he could not have prevented it nor could he have known this would happen."

To this, he made no response other than to sigh heavily. Within the room, all that could be heard were the movements of Hyatt - all else was still.

"I would like to come to London as well. I may not be able to physically help in the search, but I imagine my father needs me."

"You cannot travel with us now. Your uncle wishes to leave immediately. He is right, you know. We cannot afford to waste any time." He crouched down and took her hand. "Believe me it would do no good to have you in London."

"I disagree. It would do my father a great deal of good. I am sorry that you feel differently, but I am quite determined," Elizabeth said resolutely while meeting his gaze. "You may journey without me for now, but I do mean to come."

"Then I will not stop you. Bingley and your aunt and sister may come as well - or I can have Gilmore accompany you." He spoke in a resigned tone which conveyed his overall disapproval with her choice. "I will make the arrangements now."

"Thank you."

They remained in silence until Hyatt approached with the news that the bag was packed. In a hushed tone, her husband thanked the man who very soon afterwards left them alone.

"I shall go down and meet your uncle. Will you be joining us?"

"Mr. Darcy, before you leave, I must ask: what shall I tell Georgiana? She will no doubt have many questions for me."

He tilted his head backward and breathed audibly.

"I believe you should tell her the truth - or as much of the truth as you are willing to divulge. Would you prefer I leave her a letter explaining the reason for my absence? I realize, it may be difficult for you to speak of this."

"No...no. I shall speak to her. You have quite enough to consider already," she said breathlessly. "But are you quite certain she should hear the truth? Will it not upset her?"

"Possibly it may, but that is no reason to spare her. Elizabeth, my sister is no longer a child. Perhaps there is no longer a need to protect her from what may cause her some pain. Had I not always been so careful, she may have known how to counter Wickham last summer. As it was, she was too trusting - and far too naïve."

Elizabeth wondered if what her husband was relaying regarding Georgiana's naiveté was true for her own sister as well. Lydia's brash and forward behaviour always caused people to consider her silly and harebrained, but conceivably she also was simply unaware of altogether too much. As often as she and Jane had attempted to correct her, their youngest sister remained utterly oblivious of the consequences of her behaviour. Without question, her ignorance may have now cost her her good name and hope for a happy future.

When he left her alone in his bedchamber, once more she was racked with tears of humiliation and regret.

~ * ~

It took Darcy all of fifteen minutes to tend to the final preparations before their journey. He spoke to Gilmore and Mr. Gardiner and, together, they had agreed that if the women were to travel to London, it was best that they do so in four days time. That would give them plenty of time to start their search and it would allow the ladies to arrive when they hopefully had some news to bestow upon them.

Surprisingly, Mr. Gardiner approved of Elizabeth's choice to come to London. He believed that her presence would in some way bring comfort to Mr. Bennet and that Elizabeth would not be content to merely stay behind in Derbyshire where so much would remain unknown to her. On a more practical level, he knew that he would not have the time to return to Pemberley to fetch his wife, thus if she could arrive safely and be well attended, it would be one less thing for him to worry about.

Darcy was not quite as certain. While he appreciated his wife's desire to be in London as her family searched for her wayward sister, he was concerned that the stress of the trip would prove to be too much for her. He knew that she was recovered from her recent bout of illness, but Elizabeth's moods seemed to vary too drastically between fits of weeping and reserved silence. He worried that if they were not successful in locating her sister, the melancholy she felt now would only intensify.

On a more selfish note, he was concerned about what this latest scandal would mean for their marriage. Last night, when Elizabeth had come to him, he had received her with more than simply pleasure. The satisfaction he had experienced after finally being able to make love to the woman he loved more than anyone else, had thrilled him. To have her agree to remain with him afterwards had only augmented his love for her. As she had drifted off to sleep, he remained very much awake, hopeful that this was the first step to their being completely open with one another. In his eyes, their time together had involved so much more than simply making her his wife in more than just name; he had attempted to reveal to her, through his caresses and through their coming together, his complete adoration for her. He knew she did not love him - yet - but he loved her so very much that he was willing to wait for her to realize that they were in every way perfectly suited.

This morning, he had heard her blame herself for the situation with her sister. He recognized her words as being reactionary. In time, she would come to realize that she could have done nothing at all to prevent the youngest Miss Bennet from so carelessly abandoning her morals.

Sooner or later, she was bound to comprehend that he was the one at fault. After all, no one in Hertfordshire knew what Wickham truly was better than he. Again, his blasted pride had intercepted and now another young girl - Elizabeth's sister no less - must bear the brunt of Wickham's recklessness! Although he had made a last-minute attempt to warn Mr. Bennet against him, he realized now his effort was half-hearted at best. Deep within, he had been unwilling to bring to light how closely the blackguard had threatened his own family. He had felt an obligation - a compulsion almost - to inform Mr. Bennet that Wickham was duplicitous, but he had not felt it necessary to expose the extent of his own troubled history with the rogue. That was why he had chosen such an inopportune time to inform his father-in-law of what should have been discussed more closely. In retrospect, he could not blame Mr. Bennet too much for not knowing of the danger a man such as Wickham could pose to his family. He himself had faced the very same risk, but unlike Elizabeth's father, he understood all too well that Wickham was a man who would consider no one in the pursuit of his own selfish pleasures.

Or - perhaps - Wickham was not merely interested in his own gratification. It was quite possible that he was still seeking revenge on him; he may have thought his best means of striking back at Darcy was to lead his impressionable sister-in-law to her ruin. Wickham would be very much aware of how the scandal involving the youngest Miss Bennet would also touch Darcy now that he had married into the family. If by chance this was Wickham's motivation in luring Miss Lydia away from her family, Darcy still shouldered the burden of responsibility and his conscience would not allow him to sit idly by while Elizabeth's family name was sullied any further.

When he made his way out to the foyer, he noticed that almost the entire household had assembled to see Mr. Gardiner and him off. All that were missing was Miss Bingley, his sister and the Hursts. Evidently, someone had awoken Bingley or he himself had heard the initial ruckus in the hallway and had arisen to investigate the cause. Given the blanched look he gave him as he stood by Miss Bennet, it was clear that by now Bingley was in possession of all the facts regarding why his host was leaving them.

Mr. Gardiner walked out ahead of him, closely attended by his wife. As a servant helped him into his coat, Darcy hazarded a glance at Elizabeth. She stood alone, leaning against the banister and clutching a shawl around her shoulders. His gaze locked with hers.

After a hurried goodbye from Bingley and Miss Bennet, Darcy moved to stand before Elizabeth. He took hold of her hands, but he was at a loss as to what to say to her before he left.

"Has everything been arranged? When shall I be able to come?"

"I have not had occasion to speak to Bingley, but I am certain he will not refuse to escort you, your sister and your aunt to London. Should he be unwilling for whatever reason, Gilmore will travel with you. You shall take your uncle's team of horses. All is ready for you to depart in four days."

"Four days? I had hoped to come sooner."

"Yes, but your uncle feels his team must be well rested before they attempt the journey. This period will also allow you to settle things here. It is very likely that our remaining guests will stay here after you leave."

"I see."

She quickly adjusted her shawl and took his arm. Wordlessly they walked toward the carriage together. Only the sound of Mrs. Gardiner wishing him a safe journey as she re-entered the house was heard.

Before boarding, he turned and gave his wife one last lingering look. More than anything, he wished to take her in his arms, kiss the top of her head and tell her of how much he would miss her. Yet, he could do nothing of the sort. Her uncle was already settled and appeared to be eager to be on his way. The driver and footmen were in position ready to depart as soon as Darcy signalled they should leave. Everything seemed to suggest he needed to be off as quickly as possible.

"Elizabeth, I shall see you soon. Please know I very much wish this had not happened."

She looked away abruptly. "Thank you, sir. Godspeed."

Desperately longing to establish some form of contact with her, he grasped her hand, savouring her touch and the memory of her flesh as he raised her open palm to his lips. As he did so, he saw her look at him with something akin to amazement in her expression. He allowed his hold of her hand to linger until finally, with an almost imperceptible tug, he let her go and boarded the carriage.

Moments later, as the carriage took off he looked outside the back window only to discover that she was gone.

~ * ~

An hour into the journey found both occupants of the carriage already feeling quite weary and restless. They had attempted to read, but both gentlemen had abandoned their books in frustration. Had they not been in such a rush to get to London, Darcy would have suggested they stop, but if they meant to make it to London in less than three days, they would have to plod onwards and resolutely suffer their boredom and the weariness that came with travel.

"Mr. Darcy, you say your cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, may be more cognizant of some areas in London where Mr. Wickham may be able to hide. I have lived in London for almost fifteen years, but I know of few places where he could remain undetected."

"Yes, but my cousin has friends in nearly every corner of London and he spends a great deal of his time there when he is not on active duty. If he does not know himself, he will be able to enlist the aid of someone who does. Given what we both know of Wickham's habits and his...preferences, someone is bound to know the best areas to look for him."

"Thus, if Mr. Wickham and my niece are still in London, we should find them."

"Yes. It will not be easy, but they cannot remain in hiding forever. As you say, it all hinges on if they have not ventured beyond London, of course."

Another brief period of silence followed wherein the gentlemen considered the difficulties which awaited them if Wickham had managed to escape from London undetected. They were both fully aware that if he had done so, finding him would be next to impossible.

"Yet, even if we do find him, how can my brother ever hope to pay the dastardly amount required to tempt Wickham to do his duty to Lydia? Mr. Darcy, you know the man in question much better than do I; do you honestly believe he will not demand a hefty amount before he will even consider marrying my niece?"

Darcy leaned back and sighed heavily before responding. "Knowing him as I do, I do not imagine he will be willing to settle for less than ten thousands pounds - at the very least."

"Ten thousand pounds!" Mr. Gardiner whistled after hearing such a sum. "Then I am afraid Elizabeth is right. Lydia may likely be ruined forever. Even if I were to assist my brother, we could never dole out such a sum."

"You shall not need to. Whatever the cost, I will pay it."

"Mr. Darcy! Surely, you cannot expect my brother to allow you - even though you are a family member - to take on so much! He will not permit you to assume this responsibility, nor should you feel the need to do so."

"I am afraid he will not be in a position to either allow or forbid me to do it. If we are fortunate enough to discover them, I do not mean for him to ever know the particulars."

"Then you intend to help in the search?" He watched as Darcy nodded his head and looked away. "Pardon me, sir, but I must ask: why?"

"Do you ask why I mean to help in the discovery or why I wish to pay off the blackguard when we locate him?"

"I ask both questions actually. Forgive me, but I do not understand you."

Darcy turned and looked at the elder gentleman directly. Mr. Gardiner met his gaze head on.

"In fact, both questions have the same answer: what has happened to my youngest sister-in-law is, in large part, my own fault. I possess some valuable information concerning Mr. Wickham and his past. Had I seen fit to share it, all of Meryton would have been spared his malice - especially the youngest Miss Bennet, who will suffer most because of my silence."

"Even so, it was Lydia's own thoughtlessness combined with her being raised with too free a hand which caused this situation. I remain at a loss as to how you could have prevented this."

"Perhaps you are partially right, yet had I revealed to anyone who cared to listen the truth behind who Wickham really was, she may have been safe. If I do not do all I can to remedy my mistake, then I shall never again rest comfortably." Realizing he could no longer avoid the truth, he sighed heavily. "What you do not know is that my own sister came perilously close to falling prey to Mr. Wickham's seductive schemes. It was sheer coincidence that led me to recover her in time. Afterwards, I selfishly sought to spare my own family and, in the process, exposed others to his underhandedness. Perhaps now you understand why I must do what I can to resolve this matter."

"Well, Mr. Darcy, if I ever had reason to question your character in the past, I see now that I do not. Clearly, you are a man who feels the weight of your responsibility heavily, although I cannot find the blame which you are so eager to claim as your own. I cannot believe Elizabeth would ever expect you to shoulder the entire cost of this alone."

Darcy sank back against his seat, but did not break his gaze with the gentleman before him. "Elizabeth must never know the extent of my involvement. I absolutely demand that the finer points of my participation be kept from all members of the Bennet family."

"But how can we manage that? My brother will never accept that Wickham agreed to marry Lydia and asked for nothing for in return! He will demand to be part of the settlement process. Surely, you understand that!"

"Yes, that does present a problem. The only solution rests in having Mr. Bennet return to Longbourn on some pretence and then we can settle the details amongst us - should we be so lucky as to find them."

"Offhand, I cannot think of a pretence which would provoke my brother to leave the search, but I shall assist you in whatever manner I can. The ultimate goal here is to recover my niece and I sense that you would be more able to help in that regard than would the girl's father." Now, Mr. Gardiner rested against the seat and shook his head in amazement. "I will agree to your scheme, sir, but I must say you have surprised me greatly."

Darcy regarded the man with a grim smile.

"I believe I can safely say that no one is more surprised than myself. I swore never to lay out another pound for that man and now I am prepared to pay whatever it takes to resolve this. This has taught me that my resolutions - though created with sincerity and for good purpose - are every bit as variable and changeable as am I."

To this, Mr. Gardiner offered no response other than a tight smile.

~ * ~

Several hours after her husband's and uncle's departure, Elizabeth found herself far from resigned to her situation.

She could not believe that, in a matter of hours, her life had once again been thrown into disarray. That the reason for this latest tumult sprang from her youngest sister's foolishness only served to infuriate her further. Lydia and Elizabeth had never particularly shared a close bond. So different were they in temperament and character, they truly had little to say to one another. Essentially, when she had been at Longbourn, Elizabeth tolerated her sister and attempted to do what she could to guide Lydia away from her frequent displays of flirtatious and obnoxious behaviour. In so many ways, her sister was so much her mother's child, Elizabeth had felt her efforts were wasted. Regardless of however she tried to influence her to be more circumspect, Lydia insisted on being affected by nothing other than her own whims and fancies.

Since learning of her presumed elopement, Elizabeth's emotions had varied. At times, she pitied the fact that Lydia could be naïve enough to believe that Mr. Wickham would ever seriously consider marrying her. Still, as thoughtless as her sister was, she knew that Lydia would never have agreed to leave Meryton with him unless she thought he meant to do his duty by her. Other times, she was gripped by a mixture of anger and disappointment caused by the fact that Lydia was foolish enough to even consider that such a man was capable of being a good husband to her. Most often however, Elizabeth was seized by despondency over the fact that yet again her family's reputation would be called into question. Not so long ago, she and Mr. Darcy had been the cause of their honour being doubted and now, once more, her father would have to work to restore their good name. This time promised to be even more difficult. By now, Elizabeth knew that Mr. Wickham would never willingly submit to marrying her sister.

Perhaps what was even more disheartening was the sense of alienation she felt amidst this crisis. Her aunt's sage advice was always a comfort, but Jane appeared to be much more in need of it now than she was. Although Mr. Bingley was offering her sister his own brand of assistance and had rarely left her side, Jane seemed to be most easily reassured by their Aunt Gardiner.

Vainly, Elizabeth found herself longing for her husband. She did not know how much consolation he would be able to provide given his strong aversion toward Mr. Wickham and possibly even toward her empty-headed sister. Nevertheless, the thought of being able to share this with him - with the man who had bestowed so much tenderness, so much consideration upon her in recent weeks- caused her to yearn for him. Had he remained at Pemberley, Elizabeth knew she would have requested his presence in her bed tonight. She rarely had needed anyone with the desperation she now needed him. In fact, she was unsure if the truer sense of her melancholy stemmed from her sister's indiscretion or her husband's absence because of it.

Reluctantly, her thoughts traveled to Georgiana. Elizabeth had not yet had an opportunity to meet alone with her. At the moment, her sister-in-law was immersed in her French lessons with Mrs. Annesley and she had not wanted to disrupt her schedule too much for fear of causing the young girl even more apprehension. Elizabeth knew she would have to speak to Georgiana eventually and that she would have to do as her brother advised before he left - tell her the truth in as gentle and as honest a manner as possible - but she was not looking forward to that particular prospect.

Fortunately, Elizabeth had deliberately avoided both Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. She had purposefully remained ensconced in the downstairs library, realizing that the likelihood of the Superior Sisters finding her there was slight. By now, she assumed they were acquainted with all the nasty details and had thoroughly dissected them with glee. Elizabeth knew that she would be unable to react charitably toward any veiled insults they saw fit to throw her way this morning and so she purposefully kept away from them until she herself could find some way to accept this latest scandal.

Half an hour later she found herself unable to amuse herself in the library any longer. Her mind simply could not focus on any of the books on hand. She thought perhaps her sampler would provide her with an outlet to concentrate on something other than the fact that her sister was surely lost to them and her husband was once again away from her. While she knew that a servant would be well able to fetch it for her, she thought the walk to her room would do her some good.

When she opened the doorway, she breathed a sigh of relief at the discovery that the hallway seemed vacant. Generally, she was accustomed to seeing a footman or a servant wandering about, but today, the place seemed virtually empty.

She made her way to the stairs and began mounting them hurriedly, delighting in her stealthy progress. Just as she was reaching the first landing however, she halted at the sound of Mrs. Hurst's voice trilling out to her.

"Mrs. Darcy! There you are! We have been quite concerned for you! We all - your aunt, your sister, Caroline and I - did not know what had become of you!"

While her back was still to her, Elizabeth's posture slumped in disappointment at being discovered. Had she moved just a bit faster, she would have managed to escape their notice altogether.

"Forgive me," said Elizabeth in a voice which shook. "I was tending to some household matters and was not aware that I was being sought."

"But Mrs. Reynolds suggested she had not seen you all morning! Is that not right, Caroline?"

Seconds later, Miss Bingley appeared in the doorway and looked up at Elizabeth suspiciously. "Absolutely right, Louisa. Were you working alone, Mrs. Darcy?"

Feeling her frustration steadily mounting, Elizabeth nonetheless managed to force a smile upon her face as she turned to face them.

"Indeed I was, Miss Bingley. You cannot imagine how industrious I can be when I am given the benefit of no distractions."

Watching Miss Bingley's nostrils flare as she inhaled a long breath offered Elizabeth some minor relief, but she was still very much outraged that Miss Bingley would dare to question her whereabouts at all, much less that she would do so on a day already riddled with trouble.

"Elizabeth, are you all right?"

Her aunt's genuine concern stood in stark contrast against the false worry of the two Bingley sisters. Suddenly, Elizabeth was gripped with regret; truly, she should have paid closer mind to the fact that her own family may have needed her at this time rather than seek her own selfish comfort away from everyone else.

"I am fine, Aunt. Is Jane with you?"

"Yes, she is," she said, eyeing her warily. "Will you not join us?"

Steering her eyes away from the less than friendly looks of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, Elizabeth descended the stairs. When she entered the sitting room, she immediately noticed her sister's red eyes were turned to her askance.

"I am sorry, Jane. I should not have left you." Elizabeth apologized earnestly.

"No. I am quite fine - only I was concerned for you. Now that I know you are well, I can rest easier."

"Mrs. Darcy, we were all attempting to comfort Jane as best we could, but in the end we were poor substitutes for you, I am afraid," said Mrs. Hurst in a cooing tone.

"Jane, I realize this all seems quite dismal, but I have full confidence in our father's and uncle's refusal to stop until they have discovered her." Elizabeth's voice was almost a whisper.

"Of course they will not let a town as big as London prevent them from doing everything they can to recover your misguided sister," remarked Miss Bingley. "They will be only too happy to do their duty to her even if the gentleman she fled with will not."

At that moment, Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley entered the sitting room. Elizabeth's position facing the doorway allowed her to see her sister in law's presence immediately, but the Bingley sisters, who had their backs turned to her, remained unaware of her arrival. Desperately, Elizabeth attempted to give the sisters a long, pointed stare alerting them to the fact that they should be more cautious in their speech, but both Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst remained oblivious as to their hostess' meaning. Hesitantly, Georgiana greeted the group and received nothing more than a brief nod of acknowledgement from the Bingley sisters.

"Caroline, we cannot know how Mr. Wickham will react. We only know that he must be found first," Mrs. Hurst said raising her eyebrow in doubt.

"Quite right, Louisa. But surely you know Mr. Wickham does not have the sense of honour that did Mr. Darcy after he agreed to marry Miss Elizabeth following their little imbroglio."

Immediately, Elizabeth looked at Georgiana. Instantly, an expression of agony crossed the young girl's delicate features. She let out a cry and ran from the room. Close behind her was her companion, Mrs. Annesley.

Abruptly, Elizabeth rose and turned to a bewildered Caroline.

"Miss Bingley! How could you?"

"Caroline, over and over I have told you to mind your tongue! Selfishly and stupidly you have carried on, with no care for anyone but yourself!" Mr. Bingley shook with anger.

"Charles, I do not deserve such censure! I was merely pointing out a fact well known to everyone. It is not likely that Mr. Wickham can be convinced to marry Miss Lydia."

"You would do best to keep your opinions to yourself! You know nothing, but profess to understand everything!" Mr. Bingley accompanied his words to his sister with a look of complete disgust. Grunting, he sat down and thereafter refused to meet her gaze, but upon his face his anger was quite pronounced.

"Miss Bingley, even if what you say is true, how can that thought offer any comfort at this most trying time?" asked Mrs. Gardiner levelly.

"And perhaps even more to the point, how could you allude to a matter that would be painful for a young girl such as Miss Darcy - who you profess to be among your dearest friends?"

Shaking with rage, Elizabeth did not withdraw her eyes from Miss Bingley. For too long, she had been forced to bear witness to the young woman's coy remarks and loosely veiled attacks herself; knowing that she had now hurt Georgiana was more than she could withstand.

"Well, I am under no obligation to stand here and be openly insulted for speaking the truth. I will, however, speak to Miss Darcy - who is my dearest friend and who knows me well enough to realize I meant no harm to her."

With that, Miss Bingley turned and began to stride purposefully toward the door. Before she could walk out, however, she was waylaid by Elizabeth who prevented her from exiting.

"Miss Bingley, I will thank you to postpone your talk with my sister until I have met with her first." Elizabeth's tone was cold and her fists were clenched at her sides. "I believe she is currently in need of a different sort of friendship other than the one you can offer to her."

Without waiting for a reply, Elizabeth turned and left the room.

For several minutes, Miss Bingley remained with her mouth agape and could not move. When she turned to the others still present in the room, she was met with a series of cold stares and absolutely no sympathy at all.

~ * ~

Even from outside the young girl's room, Elizabeth could hear Georgiana sobbing miserably. In her haste to get to her, Miss Annesley had left the door slightly ajar.

Tentatively, Elizabeth entered and met the eye of the elder woman holding her sister-in-law as she sobbed.

"Mrs. Annesley, may I speak to Georgiana privately?"

"Of course."

Once they were alone, Elizabeth assumed the spot Mrs. Annesley had vacated on the bed and took the weeping girl in her arms.

"Georgiana, I am so sorry! I had intended to speak with you earlier today, but I did not feel well enough to come down to breakfast and then, when I did descend, I learned you were with Mrs. Annesley."

"Elizabeth, what has happened? All this talk of ... Mr. Wickham...and my brother. Do tell me. Please!"

Elizabeth paused. She had promised her husband she would speak to his sister candidly regarding what had happened, but she had meant for the circumstances surrounding their discussion to be very different. How could she tell her what she must when the young girl was so obviously upset?

"Please Elizabeth!"

Elizabeth took a deep breath before beginning to speak. "Just this morning, we learned that my youngest sister has left our family...with the intent to elope...with Mr. Wickham."

Georgiana pulled away from Elizabeth abruptly. The colour had left her face and she seemed to be robbed of the ability to speak.

"Your brother and my uncle have gone to London. My father awaits my uncle there. They mean to search until they recover her."

Elizabeth longed to once again hold the young girl close to her, but when she moved toward her, Georgiana put out a hand to stop her.

"Do you believe he will marry her, Elizabeth?" asked Georgiana in a cold, distant timbre.

"I do not think it likely, but I know that my uncle and my father mean to try to convince him if it is at all possible he can be convinced."

"He has done this before, Elizabeth. Mr Wickham has... He seems to prey on young, unsuspecting girls who are too stupid to see him for what he truly is." She turned toward Elizabeth sympathetically. "I do not intend to pain you...but his intentions are not honourable."

"I know."

"How much do you truly know?"

"I know he is not principled and, yes, I know he has attempted this previously. I know quite a lot, actually."

"Do you...do you know he attempted it with me as recently as last summer? Did you know that I came very close to suffering the same fate as your sister?"

"Yes, I do."

"So my brother has told you," Elizabeth watched the young girl's posture become lax. "I suspected as much."

"Are you angry?"

"No. As long as you do not think less of me, I am relieved."

"Georgiana, why would I think less of you? My own sister has made the same mistake - only worse. She was not prevented as were you."

"Yes, I was fortunate - she was not."

For a period neither young woman spoke. Both of them seemed unsure of what else there remained to say.

"And this talk of honour regarding my brother? Why would Miss Bingley even compare my brother to Mr. Wickham?"

Elizabeth paused once again. Although Mr. Darcy had encouraged her to be open with his sister, she was not quite sure he wanted her to expose their own sordid history to her. She did not welcome the opportunity to tell Georgiana that she and the brother she believed was quite faultless had been touched by scandal themselves.

"This is not an easy tale to relay to you, Georgiana. I am afraid you are sure to be disappointed."

"Elizabeth, will you not tell me what she meant? I believe I have already guessed, but I should like to hear it all the same."

"Your brother and I...our marriage has not been without its difficulties."

"Yes. I know."

Elizabeth regarded her sister-in-law carefully. Just how much had she perceived about the nature of her relationship with Mr. Darcy? Both of them had worked so diligently to appear like any other married couple in public and before Georgiana. To learn that they may have fooled less people than they previously believed was quite shocking.

"Your brother and I were forced to marry because we were caught alone in a secluded forest on my father's property. There was nothing untoward about our meeting, I assure you. Nevertheless, gossip ensued...and well...you can imagine the rest."

"But did my brother resist marrying you? I can hardly believe he did. He admired you already. After reading his letters from Netherfield, I suspected he held you in high regard. It surprised me not at all to learn he had made you an offer."

"Believe me Georgiana, your brother did not intend to make me an offer. He was forced to do so and I was forced to accept him. It made our initial time after marriage quite uneasy."

"I suspected nothing until I saw first you together after your marriage. But lately... He loves you now. In my heart, I believe he has always loved you."

"Georgiana, I do not think..."

"And you love him. I can see that you do. I am young, but I am not blind. Everyone can see that you both care for one another a great deal. If your sister is so fortunate...but then, I do not imagine she will be. As Miss Bingley mentioned, Mr. Wickham is not at all like my brother."

Throughout this conversation and the brief one that followed it, Elizabeth often forgot Georgiana was so young and that she was presumed to be naïve and innocent by everyone who met her. In fact, this discussion proved to her that she was a young woman whose perceptiveness far outweighed many women Elizabeth had met who were a good deal older than she was.

When she left her later, the events of the day finally took hold of Elizabeth. Walking back to her room, she felt spent and bewildered. More than anything else, she wanted solitude and rest away from everyone and everything. Upon entering her room, she was happy to see that Candace was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, finally, she could have some peace.

And you love him. I can see that you do. I am young, but I am not blind,.

Georgiana's words reverberated in her head and, try as she might, Elizabeth could not forget them.

She laughed bitterly to herself. How odd that someone else was able to see what had only become clear to her now. Somehow, in the aftermath of the anger and the resentment, an admiration and affection for her husband had been borne. It had been so subtle, so unlike the burning passion she had read which gripped heroines and made them unable to think or even breathe when they were away from their lovers. In fact, it had come upon her so gradually, she had almost missed it.

But she knew now - now that she had shared a bed with her husband, now that he had come to know her body, now that he had left her.

She loved her husband with a love that was as strong as it was true.

Chapter 25

In the end, finding George Wickham had been almost preposterously easy.

After discerning that Mrs. Younge may somehow be embroiled in Wickham's latest fiasco, discovering his whereabouts had been simple indeed. Of course, Mrs. Younge's past resentments toward Darcy, who had dismissed her and offered her not even the most rudimentary of letter of introduction, had presented a bit of a problem. But the harridan proved quite able to overlook her past hurts once Darcy had begun speaking the monetary language she had always understood best. It surprised him not at all to discover his sister's past companion had a price. In fact, he had expected to have to use a good deal more bribery and coercion, but amidst negotiations the very first time Darcy had threatened to leave, she had instantly become more amenable.

His meeting with Mrs. Younge produced an address in Southwark - an area in London known for its disrepute and indigence. There, he and Colonel Fitzwilliam encountered a rather discreditable looking group of men and women assembled outside. Initially, they had demonstrated a strong allegiance to Wickham. Almost fiercely, they had insisted they knew no one bearing the name of Wickham and that they alone were the patrons of the inn. Again, Darcy had been forced to proffer money and, yet again, memory had been jogged. It turned out a few of them recollected suddenly that there was another couple staying at the inn. Would the good gentlemen care to be led to the upper rooms?

Once Darcy and his cousin had been shown to Wickham's rooms, it was there where their actual work began. True to form, Wickham was living in near squalor. On his way up, Darcy had stepped over at least three persons loitering in the stairwell amidst a considerable mass of strewn refuse. The putrid stench of foul living about the place had almost sent the gentlemen reeling. Wisely, Colonel Fitzwilliam had untied his cravat and held it to his nose until he could become accustomed to the fetid odour.

Apparently, Miss Bennet had spotted their arrival from their window and announced to her paramour that they had visitors. A smug Wickham stood waiting for them at the top of the stairs, lording dominion over the refuse and disarray. Immediately, Darcy had insisted upon seeing his sister-in-law. Once he caught a glimpse of her, clad in nothing but a dressing gown and grinning like a satisfied chit, Darcy's heart sank. The mere sight of her was enough to move Darcy from feeling shocked dismay to outright repulsion. His disgust intensified after no amount of pleading or urging had been enough to convince her to leave her dear, dear Wickham.

Desperately, Darcy again had to resort to money. Of necessity, Darcy left a baffled and horror-struck Colonel Fitzwilliam in the room with Miss Bennet while he privately began working on Wickham in the antechamber. Far from being embarrassed at being caught in the midst of his dishonourable scheme, Wickham revelled in his presumed position of power. Grinning craftily, the scoundrel stated plainly that he had no desire or plan to actually marry Miss Bennet, whom he carelessly regarded as having more hair than wit. Obviously, she had been a very willing participant in the entire scenario, a fact which was confirmed by Miss Bennet's repeated ventures into the hallway to ascertain if her dear Wickham was faring well.

Throughout the negotiations, Darcy attempted to maintain a cavalier attitude, but his sly opponent discerned all too well his adversary's need for resolution. Tauntingly, he reminded Darcy of his vested interest in this manner and how his own good name would once again be called into question. After nearly half an hour of bargaining, Wickham believed himself the victor. He was promised a new commission, three thousand pounds to begin his new life and the payment of his many debts. Unbeknownst to Wickham, however, Darcy had managed all this with considerably less personal expense than he had originally believed it would take to coerce Wickham. Thus, as disgusted as Darcy was after his strained dealings with a man he hated above anyone else, he looked at the outcome as almost a bargain. If he managed to restore some semblance of respectability to the family and rid Elizabeth of her dejection in the process, the price he would be forced to pay was a meagre one indeed.

Ten minutes later, following a brief meeting with Wickham, Lydia Bennet presented herself before Darcy and his cousin, suddenly prepared to be removed to her uncle's house. Darcy knew all too well that neither her uncle nor her father would have much occasion to rejoice at her discovery, but he realized that he could not allow that to prevent him from doing his duty to the family. Thus, after witnessing an obscenely amorous farewell between the two illicit lovers, the two silent gentlemen loaded the carriage with the capricious girl in tow.

The second most troublesome part of the affair commenced once Miss Bennet arrived at the home of her uncle. Immediately, she was shown to her room while a tense Colonel Fitzwilliam and Darcy were directed to the sitting room. There, they remained to await the return of Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet.

As it turned out, Mr. Gardiner had predicted his brother's reluctance to depart London in the midst of the search for his daughter much more accurately than had Darcy. Despite repeated attempts to induce Mr. Bennet to return to Hertfordshire, the gentleman had adamantly resisted all pleas for him to leave. Suggestions that he appeared haggard and tired or that he was needed at Longbourn proved futile. There was nothing to be done for it; Mr. Bennet would go nowhere until their pursuit ended with the unearthing of his youngest daughter. Consequently, Darcy was forced to face the reality that his desire to be an anonymous benefactor in this situation would have to be disregarded.

Gratefully, his father-in-law had accepted his and Colonel Fitzwilliam's assistance and, each day, the gentlemen had searched throughout London in teams of two. Later, they would reassemble either at Darcy's townhouse or in Mr. Gardiner's home to discuss their findings.

As Darcy expected, when his father-in-law eventually did return, the news that Miss Bennet had been found offered him little satisfaction. Instantly, he sent for his daughter. When she appeared before him, her unwavering inability to realize that she had in anyway done anything wrong, galled her father and uncle considerably. Often, throughout the heated exchange between father and daughter, Darcy expected the older gentleman to throw up his hands in despair and simply renounce all ties to the wayward girl. But while Mr. Bennet's patience was tried sorely, never did he lose sight of how much shoddier it would appear if he were to simply leave his daughter to her own devices at this still-perilous time.

Much later, after the girl had been dismissed, talk of how this situation could be resolved was the order of business. Upon hearing of Wickham's outlandish demands, both Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner had been left aghast. Unknowing as they were of the full extent of the rogue's previous acts of duplicity, they appeared to have no true idea as to how he could demand such an exorbitant sum. While they recognized that Wickham's bargaining power was based on the knowledge that he had no legal obligation to marry Miss Bennet, they had hoped to find him more reasonable and more willing to amend his demands to meet what they could afford.

In a level timbre, Darcy explained his need to assume all costs related to this matter. Of course, Mr. Bennet balked at this idea. Seemingly, he appreciated his son-in-law's assistance, but to have him take on such a vast expense simply because of his silly daughter was beyond excessive. Yet, try as he might, Darcy would brook no opposition and methodically laid out his reasons - leaving out nothing - as to why he felt the burden fell to him and him alone. He was bound to this particular responsibility both as a member of the family and as a man who very much bore the responsibility of not exposing Wickham's true character when the information could have prevented the scandal from happening at all. Reluctantly, Mr. Bennet agreed, provided he could in some way contribute to the resolution in however small a way.

After much talk, it was decided that Mr. Bennet would assume the expenses Wickham had incurred in Meryton and agree to pay out a settlement of a hundred pounds per annum. The remainder would fall to Darcy. The only stipulation Darcy had insisted upon was that his wife not be told of the full extent of his involvement. Hearing this, Mr. Bennet was taken aback and insisted that his daughter should not remain unaware of her husband's benevolence forever. After being made to understand that Darcy wanted anything but Elizabeth's mere gratitude, Mr. Bennet finally acquiesced.

This very morning, Darcy had once again met with the Bishop and applied for a special marriage license. The mortification he felt over the indignity of having to ask for one again had not left him still. Although he had provided scant details as to why the license was required, the truth weighed heavily upon him. Darcy knew this was by far not a favourable solution, but he understood that if Miss Bennet and Wickham could be made to marry as early as possible, her escape would appear less scandalous. Although her running off with Wickham would always remain suspect, a hasty marriage would lessen the dishonour considerably. Fortunately, he had managed to arrange for the marriage to take place as soon as the settlement had been worked out.

Tomorrow, Darcy would meet with his attorneys. Wickham would be brought to him, escorted by a friend of Colonel Fitzwilliam who had kept close watch over the man's comings and goings. Although Darcy did not for a moment believe that Wickham would be foolish to escape from a marriage which would offer him a very convenient resolution to many of his financial woes, Darcy could not afford to be at all lax in this situation. Thus, until they were married, he wisely prepared himself for any manner of surprise Wickham would see fit to send their way.

As he now relaxed behind his desk, Darcy's mind immediately turned to Elizabeth. It was unlikely that her sister would be married by the time she arrived in London. That meant that she would expect to attend the wedding. In the end, Elizabeth's and her family's presence might help to lend credibility to the union. If her eldest sister, her relations in Town and her family from Pemberley were present, perhaps the taint of scandal would appear somewhat less noticeable. Yet, although Darcy would not prevent Elizabeth from attending, he wished he could somehow spare her the humiliation of having to witness her youngest sister marrying a man she now knew for certain was the worst sort of degenerate.

As he took his tea, Darcy began pondering his own marriage. Before this, he had been certain that he and Elizabeth were moving toward finding their happiness. Apart from simply sharing a marriage bed, they could now spend several hours together with none of the bitter rancour which had characterized so much of their early marriage. After she had come to him and had not rejected his need for her, his love for her had only grown. He had hoped to show her, over time, how much he cherished her, how their marriage and her place in his life had come to be the very thing he needed and desired above everything else. Now... Well, now, his plans for them would have to wait.

More and more, his decision not to reveal to Elizabeth the full extent of his contribution in the matter involving her youngest sister and Wickham seemed sensible. Although he had long since admitted his love for his wife, Elizabeth had never yet given him any true indication that she returned his affection. Certainly, she had been more amenable to him and their situation, but could he live with nothing more than her good-natured acceptance? He knew himself well enough to recognize that he needed more than that from her. How much happier could they be if they shared the same level of love, of commitment. Any other marriage would never bring either of them true joy.

As much as he loved her, never would he be willing to accept Elizabeth's tenderness and her affection if she felt beholden to him. Perhaps in time he would have to reveal the truth to her, but to have her come to him and feel thankful that he was able to use his money to bring about a happier ending for her sister, would never satisfy him.

Now that he recognized the full extent of his love, her gratefulness would never be enough for him. Like an avaricious child, he needed more - much more.

He needed her to burn for him just as he burned for her.

And, thought Darcy suddenly, if she felt more compelled to continue to find the good of their union merely because he had been in a position to offer assistance at this time, what satisfaction could that bring either of them? Absolutely none. To reduce the fate of their marriage to money and what he could buy with it was far too crass an idea for him to accept. How much more meaningful would their relationship be if they continued to discover how fulfilling it was without having money come between them?

Darcy stood and began to make his way to his bedchamber. It had grown late and if he was expected to face Wickham tomorrow and be able to withstand the meeting, he would need his rest. How he wished the ordeal were over already!

As he made his way down the upper hallway and neared Elizabeth's room, he intentionally slackened his brisk pace. Uncaring about how it would look for the master of the house to stare at the entrance to his wife's room when his wife was not even in residence, he paused.

Tomorrow! Tomorrow she would come.

~ * ~

As the carriage wove its way throughout the active streets of London, Elizabeth was struck by how much busier the city seemed than it was when she had left it over a month before. Slowly, the havoc of the Town was resuming. On streets which had previously looked nearly deserted, there were now small crowds assembled. It was by no means what it would become in April or May, but already signs of the oncoming Season were clearly visible. Of course, the unseasonably mild weather was at least partially responsible for so many people being out, but Elizabeth could not help but marvel at how different London appeared at this time.

They had arrived in London and made a brief stop before Mr. Darcy's townhouse to allow Georgiana and Mr. Gilmore to be let off before they continued on to the Gardiner townhouse. Elizabeth hoped her husband would not be too disappointed to see his sister return amidst such a crisis, but the young girl had insisted she did not wish to remain at Pemberley without them. Given that if Georgiana remained it was very likely that the Bingley sisters would remain as well, Elizabeth felt she had no option but to agree to the young girl's request. Thus, the Bingley and Hurst party had departed one day ahead of Elizabeth, Mr. Gilmore and Georgiana.

Looking across at her sister seated on the bench opposite her, Elizabeth was struck by how serene and composed Jane currently appeared. It was a direct contrast to the melancholic despondency which had seized her immediately after learning of Lydia's escape. Then, she had been prone to fits of crying and hopelessness, yet here she was now, wearing a hint of an almost dreamy smile upon her lips. There had certainly not been any news sent to them lately which would account for such an alteration in her mood. There could, therefore, be only one reason for her sister's happiness. Elizabeth suspected that reason lay with Mr. Bingley.

In the days prior to their departure, it was by no means unusual to find Jane and Mr. Bingley in a corner chatting quietly for extended periods of time. Although Jane claimed they were speaking primarily of the loss of Lydia, if her deep red cheeks and shy smiles were any indication, their private conversations touched upon other areas as well. In many ways, they were exactly as they were months before, when Mr. Bingley had first come to Netherfield. Curious, Elizabeth and their aunt had slyly questioned Jane, but she evidently preferred to keep the information to herself and thus they did not press her further. If Elizabeth's suspicions proved true and Jane and Mr. Bingley were in the midst of reaching an understanding, she would respect Jane's desire for privacy.

Elizabeth was jolted out of her reverie by the sudden halting of the carriage. She glanced outside and noticed they had arrived at her uncle's townhouse. Here, she would meet her father and here, she would learn if the search for Lydia had proven fruitful. As she was helped out of the carriage, she attempted to ease her ruffled spirits. It would do her father no good whatsoever for her to appear before him discomposed.

Upon entering the residence, they were met by Mr. Gardiner. As it happened, he had some good news to impart; Lydia had been recovered and Mr. Wickham had agreed to marry her. Mr. Bennet, tired to the point of exhaustion after having met with attorneys to resolve the particulars of Lydia's settlement, was now resting upstairs. Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth learned, had left the Gardiner home only three quarters of an hour before to return to the Darcy townhouse and await Elizabeth's arrival.

Elizabeth scanned her uncle's face closely as he spoke to them. Rather than appearing relieved, upon his face were heavy lines of worry and disappointment. Intuitively, she realized that although the situation seemed to be close to some manner of resolution, there were still aspects that were troubling. And what worried her uncle seemed to be more than simply the lingering scandal which would forever follow Lydia in her marriage. Clearly, there was more to tell, but Mr. Gardiner was reticent to share his troubles and no amount of prodding could persuade him to share anything else.

After confirming that their father was tired but otherwise well, Jane reacted to the news of Lydia's discovery and upcoming marriage with jubilance. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was wary. Apart from her uncle's obvious unease, she could never regard her youngest sister's marriage to a man such as Mr. Wickham as having the potential to make either one of them happy. Their future was bound to be burdened with dissatisfaction and regret. Hence, at best, their marriage offered nothing but a temporary and dubious resolution to their present circumstances. It truly was only the lesser of two very ghastly evils in Elizabeth's estimation.

Understandably, Mrs. Gardiner felt an immediate need to reunite with her children. Thus, Elizabeth and Jane moved to the sitting room to await Lydia. Prudently, Elizabeth chose to keep her misgivings regarding the resolution private rather than risk upsetting her sister. Perhaps after the wedding took place, she too would come to feel some level of mollification, but for now an overriding feeling of doom enveloped her.

Minutes later, a jubilant Lydia burst through the doors of the sitting room and ran toward them with her arms outstretched.

"Lizzy! Jane! How wonderful it is to have you come all this way to attend my wedding!"

"In fact, we have come because we believed there may be no wedding at all," said Elizabeth guardedly.

"No wedding? Whyever would you think that?"

"Merely because there was nothing else to think! You left Meryton without a word and then were nowhere to be found!" Elizabeth felt her temper rising. "Lydia, had you no concern for how this would appear? Better yet, did you spare Mamma and Papa no thought at all?"

"Oh pooh! I did leave word! I left a very detailed note and Papa has already told me that it was found almost immediately after I left. There was never any doubt in my mind that we were going to marry."

Lydia's entire manner was flippant. Elizabeth and Jane both stared at her with open shock. How could she not realize how imprudent her conduct had been?

"Lydia! If in fact there was no question that Mr. Wickham would marry you, why did you both not go about it properly?" asked Jane, more than a little dazed. "Why not follow the proper courting rituals? Rather than fleeing without word, why not have your banns read in church after he had obtained Papa's permission for you to marry him? I cannot believe you can so carelessly overlook the impropriety of your behaviour!"

"I do not for a moment expect either of you to appreciate or understand the urgency of the love my dear Mr. Wickham feels for me. He simply could not wait! Waiting was sheer agony to him - and to me!"

"So why did you not travel to Gretna Green?"

"Because we wished to be married in London. It's so much more romantic than being wed in boring, old Hertfordshire."

"And so much more improper, but you have obviously no concern about that!" Elizabeth burst out.

"You are a fine one to talk, Mrs. Darcy! Let us not forget the true reason for your own hasty marriage!"

"Do not dare to stand before me and compare the reasons for my marriage to yours! Mr. Darcy and I may have been negligent, but neither my husband nor I scurried away and provoked the scandal to grow larger! Once we realized that we made a mistake and that our family's reputation had been jeopardized, we admitted to it openly and made every attempt to remedy - and not intensify - the situation!"

"Lizzy is right, Lydia," said Jane. "It was because of their ready sense of responsibility and respect for our family that they married and thereby managed to quell any gossip."

"Not to mention," Elizabeth felt compelled to add, "we fell into our situation purely out of chance, while you appear to have intentionally thrown caution to the wind and behaved in the most stupid and the most selfish manner possible!"

"Well, I am sure I don't care what you think. I am to be married - before most of my elder sisters - and I will live a happy, satisfied life with a man who brings me joy the two of you can never imagine. I only wish my remaining unwed sisters could be as fortunate."

"Thank you very much, but I do not care for your brand of fortune," Jane said simply.

"I will wager that Jane would prefer to remain unmarried rather than bring shame to our family as you have done."

"Whatever it is you both say about it, I am happy to know I shall be Mrs. Wickham tomorrow! Then, I will form a new family and little of this will matter."

Elizabeth and Jane both looked to one another in frustration. Obviously, there was no point attempting to talk any sense to Lydia. She stood before them, defiantly proud and at ease, content in the knowledge that she was to be wed. The matter concerning how reckless and irresponsible her behaviour had been was clearly lost upon her.

"What a shame you could not be here to help me pick out my wedding trousseau!" lamented an petulant Lydia. "As it was, our father and my uncle accompanied me - but, of course, they could not help me choose a thing! Instead, they remained in front of the store for over a full hour awaiting me. But, in the end, it mattered little. I chose all the nicest things! I was told to purchase whatever it was I needed and, wisely, I considered that a married woman would need a great deal more than an unmarried one. Such lovely undergarments and night clothes!"

"Lydia, I must say I am surprised Papa would allow you to shop for anything at all. He must have been quite heartbroken."

"Oh, he went on and on about it, but I did not allow myself to dwell on it. How could I? But I must confess I am not pleased about my wedding dress," Lydia pouted. "Because I am to be married so soon, I had to settle for a rather plain one. Fortunately, my dear Wickham has told me he does not mind. He said he would marry me even if I were to wear a sack! Yet, I cannot help but wish for a long, flowing gown embroidered with gold or silver thread! Oh well, it cannot be helped so no matter! I do hope, however, you both will wear your very best frocks tomorrow!"

Lydia turned to her sisters and flashed her most brilliant smile. Watching her, Elizabeth marvelled at her ability to paint this entirely horrendous scenario using such pretty colours. She could not believe her youngest sister would be so quick to disregard the sense of disgrace that permeated this wedding. Could Lydia truly suppose her marriage to Mr. Wickham was cause for celebration and delight? Irritated, Elizabeth was tempted to shake her thoughtless sister, but she refrained because she realized nothing could provoke Lydia to feel any remorse over her shameful circumstances.

Feeling the need to escape the benign wedding talk, Elizabeth excused herself from her sisters and informed them that she wanted nothing more than to return to her own home. After bidding her aunt and uncle a quick farewell and leaving a short note for her father advising him of her arrival, she quickly left the Gardiner home, anxious to be removed from the fray her sister had created.

Alone in the carriage, Elizabeth began to once again probe the matter over fully. Sympathetically, she considered her father's reaction to the news that Lydia was to be married. She knew he would be grateful to know she was safe and that Mr. Wickham was willing to marry her, but she realized her father would never come to regard this situation with satisfaction. She could very well imagine how angry he would have been to see Lydia rejoicing over her situation. And she knew her sister well enough to realize she would have never been wise enough to temper her enthusiasm. Elizabeth herself was several times tempted to throttle her; in fact, the palms of her hands were almost raw from clenching her fists so fiercely throughout their exchange. Her father's response would have been even more vehement. Yet, her sister appeared not at all daunted by what had transpired in the slightest bit.

Insofar as the marriage was concerned, her uncle had suggested that Mr. Wickham's finances were nowhere near as paltry as they had originally imagined. While she had not had the time to learn all the particulars regarding the settlement, Elizabeth was given to understand that he had agreed to marry Lydia and had been satisfied to accept a mere one hundred pounds per annum. The entire situation was beyond comprehension! Not for a moment did Elizabeth believe Mr. Wickham loved her sister nor that he would be willing to settle for so little. Yet, as much as she longed to know more, her fatigue and disgruntlement simply would not allow her to think upon the resolution too much. The mere thought of Mr. Wickham and Lydia caused her head to ache.

As they neared the Darcy townhouse, Elizabeth considered her husband's reaction to her sister's predicament. Having left her uncle's home shortly before she herself arrived, Mr. Darcy would be well aware that Lydia was set to marry Wickham. She knew that this information would not cause her husband to rejoice. How was he to react to the idea that Wickham, a man who had so horrendously hurt his sister in the not so distant past, now was to be his brother? Elizabeth knew all too well that her husband had made a firm resolution never to deal with the scoundrel again. Of course, she did not expect Mr. Darcy to attend Lydia's wedding tomorrow. How could she presume to think he would willingly suffer such mortification? An excuse would have to be given to explain his absence, although she realized that her sister for one would be too immersed in the delight of her wedding to much notice her guests at all.

Since coming to realize that she loved her husband back at Pemberley, a curious serenity had descended over Elizabeth. Try as she might, she could not account for its source; after all, she and Mr. Darcy were by no means at the point wherein they could guarantee their future happiness. Yet, in spite of this and in spite of the mayhem which had been thrust upon them after Lydia had fled, the knowledge that she had fallen in love with Mr. Darcy had soothed her. She had come to rely upon its comfort whenever she at all felt herself giving way to the feelings of missing him or her disappointment over her sister's predicament.

Now however, as she rode closer to her reunion with him, her love for her husband offered her only uncertainty. How could she behave toward him knowing how angry he must be that her sister was to marry his greatest enemy? More to the point, how was she expected to react to a man whom she had come to love, but whom thus far had told her only that he desired her and nothing else? Yes, he had been kind to her and had shared with her his wish that they could come to live together peacefully, but he had never suggested that he loved her. Moreover, now that she did love him, gone was the security she felt in the knowledge that he may be a source of anger to her, but never would she let him hurt her. Feeling as she did for him currently, she for the first time in her life felt incredibly vulnerable. The fact that someone now held such immense power over her emotions and her person was not something that Elizabeth was accustomed to.

Throughout their time apart, Elizabeth had often considered their last night together. At times, the memory of his caresses and him telling her that he found her beautiful, elicited in her a yearning that was so intense that she could feel herself redden and burn with passion. Other times, recalling how he had looked upon her so intently, caused her to burn in shame. How wanton he must have thought her to be, to willingly enter into his room and tell him that she was prepared not to regret becoming his wife in earnest! And the truth was that she did not regret it still. She may be uncertain about the prospect of her marriage, but she did not regret joining her husband in his bed. He had proven himself to be equally as kind and considerate in their lovemaking as he had been to her in the recent past. Consequently, she could not look at their coming together with any sort of remorse at all.

But she could not help but worry about his feelings. How would he regard her and their marriage now? She knew she could bear anything but his apathy again.

She settled back against the seat heavily. Very soon she would know.

~ * ~

When Darcy had first arrived back at his townhouse earlier that afternoon, he knew that his wife would not be there. In fact, he had planned to return home and prepare himself for her eventual coming. All day, while meeting with his attorneys, Mr. Bennet and Wickham, he had longed for her. Now that she was due to arrive within hours, however, he would need some time to himself to pacify the frustration he had experienced throughout that meeting.

After being forced to withstand not only Wickham's presence but also his constant smiling reminders of what else he would require before consenting to marry Miss Bennet, Darcy felt exhausted and every bone in his body ached. It was only after he returned to the tranquility of his home that he realized how tightly clenched he had kept his body throughout the day. Slowly, as he made his way to his study, he felt himself relaxing. Away from the source of his anxiety and aggravation, he began to feel more like himself. Yet, there persisted in him a weariness that he could not shake.

When he heard the arrival of Mr. Gilmore and Georgiana, he hastily moved away from his desk and made his way out to the foyer. Upon realizing that Elizabeth was not with them, his heart sank. When his sister and his steward explained that his wife had opted to travel to her aunt's residence, however, he realized how natural it would be that she would wish to meet with Mr. Bennet. Of course, she would be concerned about her father. Perhaps she had decided to go to her uncle's and expected him to be there awaiting her. Yet, after returning to the Gardiners' and realizing there was nothing more that he could do, he had felt compelled to leave.

He expected Elizabeth's return to be delayed even further once she discovered that her sister had been retrieved. Suddenly, his fatigue threatened to overwhelm him. After he accompanied his sister to her room, he continued on to his own bedchamber. He should rest. Elizabeth would surely return in a matter of hours and he wanted to greet her and remain with her after she arrived. Although they had only been apart for a week, he had felt her absence keenly. Resolutely, he had promised himself that he would never again face another such trying time without Elizabeth by his side. While he had always before been able to meet the challenges involved in difficult situations, now that Elizabeth was in his life he found himself depending upon her strength and her support. Each day, returning home after searching for her sister and not finding Elizabeth there to greet him, had caused him to miss her fiercely. From this point forth, he would attempt to ensure there were no additional lengthy separations from her.

As he walked absent-mindedly over to the east-facing window of his room, he began to reflect on the other changes which Elizabeth had wrought within him. Without even being conscious of it, Elizabeth had taught him humility and equanimity. He hoped that Elizabeth realized that he had come to respect her and that he had learned that his own selfish desires must not always be met. After the Twelfth Night ball, he had been forced to acknowledge some glaring deficiencies in his character and he had sought to adjust them. After all, his love for her would mean nothing if it was not coupled with his complete respect for her.

Suddenly struck with a need to connect with her in however paltry a manner as possible, Darcy walked over to the door which adjoined his bedchamber to hers. Throughout his time in London, he had not ventured into her room, but now he felt an overriding yearning to feel her presence.

Within the room, everything was just as he remembered it was the last time he had been in there. Even the placement of the chairs that he had helped her to move on the evening of the Twelfth Night ball had not been shifted. Now, remembering that night brought both a sense of chagrin and humour to him. That he had believed he could march into his wife's room and tell her that he desired her and wanted to bed her, was astounding. How could he have dared to be so presumptuous? Yet, the image of her, frantically pushing the heavy furniture when he had come upon her, now caused him to smile. Wilfully, she had been determined to do for herself what he would have been only too happy to do for her. Her stubborn work had caused her to appear before him flushed and bothered - and in her shift - and yet he had found her more than merely beautiful. The recollection of her on that night, with her arms crossed protectively in front of her and her eyes flashing hot sparks of enraged passion, no longer provoked within him a self-righteous annoyance. After so long, he could not help but marvel at how absurdly stubborn they had been as they each had sought to maintain their own ground and not give way to one another. Then, self-preservation had been their ultimate objective, but now he hoped they had realized that in order to live happily, they would both need to look beyond themselves.

Spotting a pile of books upon a table next to her bed, he moved toward them languorously. Nothing would serve to best remind him of his wife better than would her love of literature. Sitting down upon her bed, he felt almost as an intruder. These were her things and he was in her room, yet he could not resist the urge to leaf through the volumes she had either read or had meant to read. She was still not with him and, for the moment, these books were the only link to her that could be found.

Marmion, Tales of a Fashionable Life, The Scottish Chiefs, Sir Charles Grandison, Othello. Darcy had long since appreciated his wife's varied taste in reading material. Adventure, classics, romances, poetry and historical works all were devoured eagerly by his studious and clever wife. It appeared there was nothing she would not read.

Removing his boots and settling himself more comfortably on the bed, he selected Jane Porter's The Scottish Porter and began to read the descriptive account of Sir William Wallace's struggle with the mighty English tyranny. Despite the gripping tale, he felt his eyelids growing heavy. Soon, he was unable to keep them open at all.

A quarter of an hour's worth of rest was all he needed. Perhaps it was best if he gave way to his weariness rather than fight against it. When he woke he would be in a much better position to meet Elizabeth and answer the myriad questions she was sure to have regarding her sister.

~ * ~

When Elizabeth arrived back at the townhouse shortly thereafter, she found no sign of either her husband or Georgiana. When she asked after them she was told by Mrs. Graham that Mr. Darcy and Miss Darcy had both gone to their rooms.

Disappointed, Elizabeth climbed the stairs. As much as she was uncertain about her meeting with her husband, she had hoped to find him waiting for her when she returned. That he was not did not bode well for them. Obviously, he was in no way as eager to see her as she was to meet with him. Again, the thought of his regret over their marriage washed over her. If Lydia's foolishness had in any way jeopardized the tenuous equilibrium she and her husband had recently established, she would never forgive her.

After offering a small smile to a footman who passed her just outside her room, she entered her bedchamber. Immediately, the sight of her husband sprawled across her bed arrested her progress. It was twilight and the light in her room was not good, but she was indeed able to discern that her husband had somehow fallen asleep - and upon her bed of all things! What could have possessed him to come into her room and then decide to rest there? Could he have been awaiting her? Certainly, it appears as though he were doing just that, but why would he choose her bed upon which to sleep? It hardly seemed feasible and yet there he was - sound asleep.

Tiptoeing, she circumspectly approached the bed. As she moved closer, the steady rise of his chest alerted her to the fact that he was in the midst of a deep slumber. Still shocked, she circled the bed wondering what she should do next. She knew very well that she did not wish to leave him, but precisely what action would be fitting to the circumstances at hand remained a mystery to her.

Carefully, she removed the book that was lying open across her husband's chest. In response, he shifted slightly and turned his head in the opposite direction. Moving closer to her window in order to take advantage of the dimming natural light, she read the book's title and smiled thinly. Ah, The Scottish Chiefs. Mr. Darcy must have been tired indeed if this daring tale of momentous skirmishes and adventure had lulled him to sleep. Poor man!

After several moments of deliberation, Elizabeth ultimately decided to lie down. Watching her husband's slumbering form had called to mind her own fatigue. In truth, she had spent many of the past nights awake or sleeping fitfully. Now, the combination of the dark room, her husband's steady breathing and the day's events caused her to want nothing more than to sleep. Even if she managed to get an hour's rest, it would make her much more ready to meet with her husband later on.

Not wishing to disturb Mr. Darcy any further, she moved quietly to the other side of the bed, removed a few of the hair pins peppered throughout her hair and cautiously lay down. Carefully, she settled onto her side and closed her eyes. Suddenly, she felt Mr. Darcy stirring and she grabbed hold of the edge of the bed so as not to roll against him. Consequently, when he moved toward her and placed his arm around her drowsily fitting himself against her back, she was jolted out of her sleepy state.

"Mmmm...Elizabeth. You are home."

He had moved his head onto her pillow and his face was buried dreamily in her hair.

"Yes..." she managed to say, "I... arrived a short time ago."

His only response was to tighten his hold of her and nestle closer to her. Despite the both of them being fully clothed, she could feel the heat of his skin making its way onto her back. When he slowly placed a lingering kiss on her neck, Elizabeth felt her breath catch.

"My sister has been recovered...The wedding will be tomorrow, but I imagine you already know that."

"Mmm...yes. I know it all. Go to sleep...Tomorrow, we will talk."

As he spoke, his voice became lower and lower. Desperately, Elizabeth longed to turn her head to look at him, but she realized that if she did so, he would awaken and, as badly as she wanted to see him, she did not wish to disturb his rest any further.

Minutes later, the sound of his even breathing alerted her to the fact that he had again fallen asleep. He continued to hold her, his breath along her neck causing her skin to tingle. She wondered how she would manage to get any sleep at all with him so perfectly moulded against her. His hand rested protectively just beneath the swell of her breast. She wondered if at some time during the night she rolled in just the slightest way, would he then...

As thoughts of how right it felt for her to be in his arms warred with the sensation of his nearness, Elizabeth once again felt herself being lulled to sleep.

In the dark, while listening for the sound of his deep, rhythmic breathing and attempting to match it, breath for breath, Elizabeth herself drifted off into a contented sleep.

Hours later, when she awoke and stretched lazily as she was wont to do every morning, the fact that she was alone in the bed struck her. Sleepily, she rubbed her eyes and scanned her room, hoping that he had left it temporarily and meant to return. Despite the thick wall which separated her room from her husband's, she listened closely and heard the sound of muffled murmurs emanating from his room.

So, he had risen before her and left...just like that - with not even a word to her.

Quickly she walked over to her mirror and examined herself. Naturally, she looked a fright. The dress she had slept in was wrinkled and her hair had assumed its wild unruliness. Dreamily, she recalled her husband's sleepy nuzzling and felt herself turning crimson. How wonderful would it be to fall asleep in that manner each and every night! To feel the security of her husband's arms wrapped around her. That Mr. Darcy had been sleeping and thus potentially not even conscious of the fact that he had nestled up against her meant nothing to her. All that truly mattered this morning was that he had been waiting for her when she returned and that he had offered her the security of his embrace.

Making a half hearted attempt to tame her unruly hair and smooth the creases in her dress, Elizabeth crossed the room and knocked upon the adjoining door. She chose to do so without giving it much thought, fearing that if she contemplated it too closely she would lose her nerve to confront him this morning.

When he bid her to enter, Elizabeth opened the door and found her husband seated and his man, Hyatt, shaving him. He quickly met her gaze and offered her a tense smile.

"Good morning, Elizabeth. I was about to enter and awaken you. We do not have much time this morning."

"Time...?"

"Yes, the wedding is to take place at ten o'clock. It is well past eight - we have but two hours."

"Oh...so you mean to attend? I thought..."

"Did you imagine I would have you attend alone?"

Elizabeth's toe traced tiny circles upon the carpet.

"Well, given who my sister is to marry, I would hardly expect you to want to be there. In truth, I do not mind going on my own. I could use any matter of excuse to..."

Nodding quickly at Hyatt and rising, her husband walked over to her, using a white towel to remove any trace of soap still remaining upon his face.

"Elizabeth, would you prefer I do not accompany you? If that is your wish, I will do as you ask, but you must tell me plainly."

Taking the towel from him, she removed the last remnants of soap from his shave.

"Of course, I would prefer you to come. My suggestion that you do not sprang only from my desire to spare you the..."

He reached up and stilled her hand. He kept it frozen beneath his own and met her gaze head on.

"You wish to spare me the humiliation? Is that right?" He watched as she nodded slowly. "You are never to fear that my disregard for Wickham would take precedence over my desire to be with you."

Slowly, he bent down and touched his lips to hers. The kiss, light and almost playful, removed from her memory all misgivings about his reaction to her return.

Aware of Hyatt's continued presence in the room, they broke off the kiss quickly, but he remained holding her hand and smiling.

"I have been asked to relay a message to you, Mrs. Darcy."

"A message? From whom?"

"Your sister, the bride, has asked me to remind you to wear nothing but your very best frock to her wedding today. She believes it would help lend an air of formality to the occasion."

Seeing the humour in her husband's eyes caused her to suppress the annoyance those words from Lydia would have normally given her. Nevertheless, she rolled her eyes in irritation.

"Thank you, but she passed on that message to me herself - yesterday."

"Well, I imagined that she would have, but I mentioned it nevertheless. After all, I did not wish to be thought of as unmindful."

Smirking, she exited the room and threw her husband a last, enduring look. He remained looking after her with one of his eyebrows raised.

In her room, she was restless. She rang for Candace and, rather than wait for her to arrive, walked into her dressing room and rifled through the dresses that hung there.

Resolutely and contrary to Lydia's wishes, she pulled out her least favourite dress - a grey muslin with no adornment whatsoever. In Elizabeth's mind, this dress was particularly fitting for her sister's ill-fated wedding.

Chapter 26

Elizabeth watched open mouthed as Lydia twirled and tittered before Mr. Bingley and Jane as though she were indeed the most fortunate and happiest bride the world over.

Back at the Gardiner townhouse, after the wedding, Elizabeth had been sure to keep her distance from her illogical sister and her errant husband. Thus, wherever it was Lydia went, Elizabeth moved in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, her efforts to remove herself from her sister's tedious company made little difference. Amidst this sombre wedding breakfast, her sister's elevated timbre and giggles carried and still served to annoy.

Ultimately, Lydia would brook no determined attempt to ignore her. Thus, while Elizabeth was refilling her coffee cup, both she and her new husband made their way to her.

"Lizzy, I do not believe you have yet congratulated me," Lydia said, merrily squeezing Mr. Wickham's arm affectionately. "Have I not managed to land the most handsome husband?"

Caught, Elizabeth could do nothing but smile half-heartedly. She was careful to shift her gaze away from her frivolous sister and onto her groom who appeared rather disconcerted by his wife's rapt attentions.

"Mrs. Darcy, we have always been such good friends," he said in an effort to deflect the conversation. "Now, we are family as well."

"Yes, Mr. Wickham, we are indeed."

Lydia released her husband's arm, placed her hands on her hips and unexpectedly her mouth formed an obvious pout. "Why, this cannot be my aunt's best china! I am sure I saw pieces with a hand painted floral design upon them when I visited last. Why would she not request that they be used this morning?"

When Lydia turned toward her askance, Elizabeth stifled the groan she felt rising in her throat. "Perhaps Lydia, our aunt did not have time to ensure that her finest china be prepared for this occasion." Casting a discerning eye toward Mr. Wickham, she continued, "I would imagine the urgency of your wedding created little time for such considerations."

"And only tea and coffee to drink! I am absolutely certain Mamma would have ensured that drinking chocolate was served to mark the occasion of my wedding! After all, she even served it at your wedding breakfast!" Lydia walked to the end of the table with a critical eye. "Lizzy, do you see any rout cakes*? Aunt Gardiner did promise she would have her cook make them especially for me! All I see are rolls and a few biscuits! Where is my aunt? I absolutely must ask her about them!"

With that, Lydia stormed off in search of their aunt leaving Elizabeth alone with Mr. Wickham, the one person next to Lydia whom she had been intent upon avoiding this morning. Sighing heavily, she turned to him and curtsied, hoping he would acknowledge the cue to depart from her company.

"And how did you enjoy Pemberley, Mrs. Darcy?" Mr. Wickham asked, wilfully ignoring Elizabeth's desire to be rid of him. "I am quite certain no other place will ever inspire such fond memories for me."

"Really, sir? Then I am sorry for you. After all, are you not departing for Newcastle immediately after this breakfast? What a pity that you have determined already you will likely not be as happy in your own home as you were in someone else's."

Elizabeth had the pleasure of watching her new brother writhe awkwardly as he regarded her. While she had taken great pains to ensure that her voice was a mixture of sweetness and concern as she spoke to him, there was no mistaking her unmitigated contempt for the man standing before her.

"In response to your question, sir, I find Pemberley quite perfect."

"There! Did I not always tell you that you would?" Mr. Wickham asked unevenly. "I recall quite clearly in Hertfordshire telling you that marriage to Mr. Darcy need not be all bad."

"Oddly, your previous words regarding my husband's avaricious and unforgiving character come to mind more vividly. Imagine my surprise, if you will, upon learning how much more there was to the man I married."

"But I have always maintained that Mr. Darcy could be amiable enough to those he considered worthy of his esteem. As his wife, he is sure to bestow upon you his tremendous generosity. The rest of us however...."

"Forgive me, sir, but as I understand it my husband has demonstrated enormous benevolence to even his most unworthy foes."

To this, Mr. Wickham offered only a wide-eyed response. Espying Lydia in the distance making her way back to them, Elizabeth curtailed the conversation although there was a good deal more she felt the need to say.

Smiling sweetly, she continued quickly, "I believe it is a very good thing for everyone that my husband possesses so kind and tolerant a nature. Had I been in his place, I do not imagine I would have been so generous. I am afraid I do not own a character which is so willing to overlook past injuries to those I love."

"Lizzy," said Lydia when she reached them moments later, "has my dear Wickham told you yet of the home he means to purchase for us in Newcastle? He absolutely insists it must be in the most fashionable area. The only stipulation I have is that the dining room sit twelve comfortably for I intend to host scads of elegant dinner parties. Of course, you and Mr. Darcy must come to visit. Be sure to write with your plans well in advance, for we will no doubt be very busy."

Elizabeth regarded her sister for a moment before turning to Mr. Wickham. The gentleman had turned a most unbecoming shade of red.

"I am afraid that my husband and I will be unable to visit for quite some time. Mr. Darcy's business and management of the estate keep him quite occupied and my duties as mistress must be considered as well."

"Oh Lizzy, that sounds so very tedious! I am beyond happy that my dear George and I will live a very different sort of life. My husband tells me there are bound to be balls and assemblies at least twice a week! We both possess such sociable natures we will surely be asked to attend them all once we make ourselves known."

"Yes, but Lydia, you will also find running a house will consume a good portion of your time."

"Stuff and nonsense! We shall have servants to do all of that! Lizzy, what good is it to have money if you still must tend to every little thing yourself?"

"Not all the money in the world will ever cause Mr. Darcy or me to forget our obligations."

"Best they fall to you then rather than to me. I do not mean to worry about that which does not interest me. I will be happy to be able to purchase a new gown each month and be in a position to entertain our friends and be entertained as often as I like."

"You appear to have planned a most extravagant life. As the wife of an officer, you may find that you will not be able to live as freely as you would have liked."

"Certainly my paltry settlement will add nothing to our riches. It is a very good thing my clever husband has seen to it that we have money enough to live well. And he has some business prospects that he means to explore more fully upon our arrival. Is that not right, George?" In response, Mr. Wickham merely nodded, clearly discomfited. "So, you see Lizzy, we shall not have altogether too much to worry us. My generous Wickham has also procured a very grand carriage for us to travel in. Imagine how impressed Mamma will be to see it pull up before Longbourn! You do know that we are stopping in Hertfordshire before traveling on to Newcastle?"

"I was not aware that your plans were in any way fixed."

"What a fine picture we will make driving into Meryton in such style and comfort! Everyone is sure to notice us."

"Lydia, the carriage is by no means new, my dear. Actually, it is several years used," said Mr. Wickham, clearing his throat. "I am quite sure Mrs. Darcy rides in a far better one herself."

"And so what if she does? If this carriage was once grand enough for Lady Wandsworth I am quite sure it will be fine enough for me."

Amazed, Elizabeth listened to her sister's fanciful discourse regarding the opulent life she would live as a married woman. She was realistic enough to know that most of what Mr. Wickham had promised Lydia would never materialize once they reached Newcastle, but she was still surprised to hear of the immoderate nature of his assurances. The lifestyle Lydia spoke of would require a good deal of money - money she was almost certain her brother-in-law did not possess. In fact, Elizabeth had fully expected them to face many hardships as they attempted to settle into an area away from their friends and family. Yet, there must be some money or how would Mr. Wickham have been able to purchase a carriage once belonging to a titled family? How can he even hope to acquire a home so soon after arriving in Newcastle? The purchase of his commission alone must have cost him some money. Where on earth could this flow of ready cash have come from?

Elizabeth knew enough of her father's finances to realize that he could not have issued more than the agreed upon settlement. Yet, she was increasingly convinced that Mr. Wickham had demanded much more than the one hundred pounds per annum that Mr. Bennet could afford to pay. Had the rest of the money then come from her Uncle Gardiner? She considered that possibility for a while as her sister continued to wax poetic about the scores of servants and gowns she would need as a young and attractive wife of a military officer. It could not be possible that her uncle would have been able to mete out the sums required. Mr. Gardiner, although in a better financial position than her own father, still had a young family to support and a home to maintain in London. He could not have extended so much to lure Mr. Wickham to marry her sister. Wherever could the money then have come from? Elizabeth recalled her husband alluding to the young groom's tendency to gamble. Could Mr. Wickham have scored a win as large as this? It appeared unlikely given how poorly he had fared in the past. The conundrum as to what it had taken to tempt Mr. Wickham to marry her sister and how his demands had been met, took hold of Elizabeth's thoughts. She knew she would not rest easy until the mystery had been solved.

Elizabeth waited until her sister finished her latest round of boasts before excusing herself. Smiling, she made her way over to her father who stood alone with a pinched look upon his face.

"Papa, you look positively repulsed."

"Repulsed? Not at all. This has all turned out rather better than I initially suspected. I am now rid of two daughters and I have reason to believe I will soon lose a third. Mr. Bingley, you see, has requested a private audience with me later this afternoon. If your eldest sister's smiles and blushes are any indication, I have a fair mind of what he means to discuss."

"Oh Papa! What glorious news! I suspected as much, but I dared not even mention it for fear of disappointing Jane."

"To be sure, all of this happiness has only increased my reluctance to return to Longbourn. However will I manage your mother's effusions of joy? My recent sojourn in London, while tense and gruelling, has left me almost painlessly free of any such absurdity."

Elizabeth laughed softly. "I must say I am surprised. You generally despise life in Town. If you are to stay, we shall simply have to make the most of your remaining time with us and provide you with every opportunity to avail yourself of some good sense and company."

"I already have your husband to thank for that. He has invited me to be your dinner guest tomorrow. I look forward to the diversion."

"How long do you mean to remain in London?"

Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin as he contemplated his reply. "Well, Wickham assures me that he can stay no longer than three days at Longbourn. Naturally, I mean to avoid them at all costs. After all, I believe it is high time your dear mother be given an opportunity to partake of their elation. I find that I have had more than my share."

"I quite agree. My sister's mirth must be shared. We have all had our fill of it recently."

Both Elizabeth and her father turned toward Lydia. As she stood talking animatedly to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, her squeals of delight could be heard clearly. Once or twice, the onlookers saw her make a comment and then look up at her husband and smile brilliantly. Mr. Wickham's fleeting smiles in response were in stark contrast to his wife's continued jubilance. He appeared as though he would prefer to be anywhere but where he was while Lydia delighted in nothing other than her present circumstances. That two such contradictory minds were united in marriage did nothing to ease the disquiet raging in the minds of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth.

Both Elizabeth and her father sighed and shook their heads in disappointment as they looked upon her.

"Ah, now there is a marriage which will try the patience of even the most tolerant. However will they manage, Elizabeth? Two more smug and nonsensical persons I have never met."

"According to Lydia, they will manage quite nicely in fact. She has planned quite the lavish life for herself and her new husband."

"Yes. I overheard her raptures. She is no doubt the silliest girl in all of England."

"Papa, how can Mr. Wickham afford to purchase a home and a carriage for them? I cannot believe he was prudent enough to save for marriage. His salary as an officer will not make him rich."

"I do not believe he will purchase a lavish home, Elizabeth, but he shall have money to find some manner of lodgings for them in Newcastle. And he does have some friends - even if those who have any sense at all have managed to abandon the nefarious lout."

"But where will this money come from? The only thing that makes sense is that he was given this money recently, but from whom?"

Mr. Bennet looked away from the scrutiny of Elizabeth's gaze.

"Did you provide him with money beyond Lydia's settlement? Did Uncle Gardiner lend you a great sum to tempt him to do his duty to Lydia?"

Again, Mr. Bennet initially offered no response other than a heavy sigh.

"Elizabeth, Mr. Wickham fulfilled his obligation to our family," the gentleman said, after noticing his daughter's insistent gaze. "Ask me nothing more for it is not my story to tell."

"But why, Papa? Why can you not discuss this with me?" Elizabeth pleaded. "I assure you, I will not judge you. I understand all too well why you would have agreed to any price in order to have him marry Lydia, but the thought of you having to repay even half such a sum is worrisome."

"Then you should be happy to know I do not have to repay any of it. Please, Elizabeth, ask me no more."

Her father's tone, drained and unyielding, forced Elizabeth to acknowledge that this conversation was only adding to the mounting frustrations of this already tiresome day. More and more, an idea was germinating in her mind as to who precisely was responsible for providing her new brother-in-law with the means for establishing this new life in Newcastle. If she was right, her sister and Mr. Wickham had someone other than her uncle or father to thank for their newfound fortune.

"My dear child, let us not spend unnecessary time arguing over what has already been resolved. The truth is I have spent more than enough time considering Lydia and her silly predicament. I would much rather discuss you. I confess I worried about you tremendously since you left Hertfordshire."

Elizabeth turned to her father and smiled.

"I am sorry to hear I gave you reason to be concerned for me, Papa. I assure you I have been well."

"You certainly look well, albeit the fact that you are donning the very best mourning attire I have ever beheld." Mr. Bennet looked at her grey muslin gown and smiled.

"Well, I was not feeling particularly festive this morning, I am afraid." Elizabeth felt herself break into a wide grin. "I wore what I felt best suited my mood."

"But you are not generally unhappy, are you Lizzy?"

"No. I was for a time, but no longer."

"You do realize that your husband is a very good sort of man?"

"I have come to appreciate that he is the very best of men, in fact. He is everything that is good and kind. A better man I could not have hoped to marry."

As she spoke, her eyes searched the room for Mr. Darcy. Upon finding him at the opposite end of the room immersed in conversation with Mr. Bingley and Jane, she felt her heart swell. How could she have ever looked upon him with disfavour? The very idea seemed unimaginable to her at this point given the enormity of her love for him now.

"By saying so, you have made me very happy," her father said, following the progress of her eyes. "After your marriage, I feared for you. Even in your letters, I sensed a false levity which I thought masked a colossal sadness. I believe I would have suffered any torture rather than knowing my dearest child was unhappy."

Elizabeth grabbed hold of her father's hands and squeezed them. "You have nothing more to fear. I am more than content; at times, I am quite giddy over my good fortune."

Her father smiled warmly for the first time that day. "So I take it you have come to like your husband."

"I more than like him. I quite love him."

Her words, now that they had been exposed publicly, were strangely liberating. Although she had admitted her feelings for her husband to herself back at Pemberley, speaking of them now removed a heavy burden she had been carrying since before her marriage. If not for the spectacle such a demonstration would create, she almost felt compelled to join Lydia in her unmitigated glee over her future.

Mr. Bennet placed his arms around his daughter and she was rewarded with a tender kiss on her forehead. "Neither you or your husband deserve anything less, my child."

~ * ~

Mr. Darcy moved about the Gardiner sitting room in barely suppressed irritation. Regardless of wherever he placed himself, somewhere in his line of vision, he could spot Wickham. That the reprobate did everything in his power not to meet his eye offered Darcy no comfort. The very fact that he was forced to remain in the same area as the nefarious rake caused him to be swept by wave after wave of repulsion.

The man may be married to his sister-in-law, but he would never consider him a family member.

The irony of his connection by marriage to him was not lost upon Darcy. Less than a year ago, he had worked diligently to ensure that Wickham was erased from his and Georgiana's life for good, yet recently he had been in a position to persuade the same man to be tied to him for the rest of his life. Had he succeeded in marrying Georgiana, he would have been his brother already. Sheer providence had saved Darcy from that horrible end last summer, but fate had somehow worked against him now. To everyone but Darcy, Wickham would be thought of as his brother, his relation. There was at this point nothing he could do to fight against it.

As he had done several times throughout the course of the morning whenever his disgust was provoked, he scanned the room for Elizabeth. Upon locating her, in the middle of her room laughing with her father and the Gardiners, he felt himself relax and be calmed. For her alone would he suffer the horrendous fate of being irrevocably tied to the scoundrel. For her alone had he worked tirelessly to ensure Wickham would not shame her family anymore than he already had. And, as much as he maligned the man's continued existence, for her alone would he do it all again.

A quarter of an hour before, while he had been enjoying the most pleasant conversation a morning such as this was likely to inspire, he had watched Wickham and his new bride approach Elizabeth. Instantly, he had been seized by an inexplicable white hot choler like nothing he had ever known. Sensing his impassioned response, Bingley and Miss Bennet had sought to appease him, reassuring him that his wife would be quite capable of meeting with her sister and her groom and that no real damage could come of their idle conversation. Reluctantly, he had been forced to watch the man he despised like no other smile and simper before Elizabeth. The only relief he was afforded stemmed from her rather stoic and disapproving demeanour towards them. That his wife was not pleased to have to acknowledge the blackguard at all was evident moments later as she spoke to Wickham alone with her arms crossed before her and her eyebrow raised in unveiled scepticism.

Darcy's mind traveled back to the time when she had told him once, in the midst of their most bitter argument, that he had married no fool. Since that time, over and over again, he had been all too happy to acknowledge just how right she was. She truly was remarkably clever in her powers of discernment - his wife.

Earlier, throughout the wedding ceremony, he had been worried for her. Standing beside him as her sister recited her vows, her hands had gripped the pew in front of her so tightly that her knuckles had turned white and he had felt her body trembling. Removing his gloves, he had covered her hands with his own and she had looked up at him and offered a faltering smile. Discreetly, he had used his thumb to stroke her fingers and, slowly, he had sensed her restored equilibrium. The satisfaction he experienced at the knowledge that he had managed to soothe her made his personal frustration diminish almost entirely. His only purpose in attending the ceremony was to ease her; that he had been able to provide some comfort to her at this time, was all he could ask for.

Now, lost in the world of his musings, he failed to notice Mr. Wickham standing directly in front of him until the man cleared his throat. Abruptly, he shook his head in an effort to clear it and regarded the man warily.

"Mr. Darcy, may I have a few moments of your time?"

Annoyed, Darcy crossed his arms impatiently and waited.

"What I have to say to you, sir, should be said in private."

He looked across the room and found Elizabeth looking at him questioningly. If he refused to speak to the man, as he was beyond tempted to do, it would serve no good purpose. If he walked away from him and Wickham followed him, he would create a scene which would cause even more discomfort on this already tense occasion.

Nodding circumspectly, he allowed Wickham to lead him out of the room and into the empty hallway.

"Darcy, I asked to speak to you alone for the sole purpose of reminding you that we are now family. Peace between us must be restored. Whatever resentments existed between us in the past must therefore be forgotten. Of necessity, there will be times when we shall be forced to be in one another's company; it will appear quite odd to everyone if not a word is spoken between us. For my part, I am quite willing to overlook the wrongs I have been dealt at your hands."

Darcy took a deep breath and fought the urge to rail against the man's words. Inwardly, he seethed at the scoundrel's presumption. That the man considered - even for a moment - that he would be willing to forget years of his trickery and malice was incredible! Hearing the muffled din of conversation emanating from the next room, Darcy recalled the reason why they were there in the first place. Although he was by no means a man who resorted to physical violence, he had been tempted to soundly throttle the man who stood before him. Only the fact that he was in the home of respectable people and that these people were his wife's dearest relations prevented him from thoroughly pummelling Wickham.

"How very solicitous of you to extend your mercy to me," Darcy blazed, angered at his pretence. "Your prodigious ability to be so forgiving will no doubt give you solace when I tell you that I cannot claim to possess so generous a nature. You independently represent everything I abhor most: you are avaricious, licentious, envious and slothful. It is a very good thing that you hold so high an opinion of yourself for I am quite certain that I am not alone in my absolute disgust of you. Make no mistake, Wickham, I loathe you with a greater ferocity today than I did last summer."

As he had spoken, the satisfied smile Wickham wore faded. In its place, Darcy saw Wickham grow pale and shaken. Well-skilled in the art of deception, however, he recovered quickly and his face soon wore a look of smug contempt.

"Very well, Darcy. I shall let it be known far and wide how I offered you the proverbial olive branch only to have you spurn it most decidedly." Wickham turned and began to move away. Suddenly, he stopped and when he turned to face him again, his countenance revealed his bitter hatred. "It is a very good thing that your dear father is not alive today to know the hard man you have become. He would no doubt be quite ashamed of you."

Incensed, Darcy walked and stood in such close proximity to him that Wickham was forced to step back until he encountered the wall behind him. "On the contrary; my father's only shame would stem from knowing how greatly he misjudged you." Darcy's voice was a full octave lower than its usual pitch. "A man such as you is not worthy to even speak his name! You were not deserving of my father's good opinion or his benevolence when he was alive and you are even less worthy of it now."

Intent on escaping, Wickham slid along the wall and away from Darcy's intimidating influence.

"Run away like the coward you are, Wickham. You need know only this: you have benefited from my generosity for the last time. Be sure to use my money wisely for you shall never see another farthing come from me!"

After he left him, Darcy grabbed hold of the banister to his right and took several deep breaths. Slowly, he felt himself recovering. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, he re-entered the Gardiner sitting room with only one goal in mind: to find his wife and determine if she too had had enough of the morning's contrived festivities.

~ * ~

Back at the Darcy townhouse later that afternoon, the mood continued to be sombre. After having tried to restore her spirits by practising a duet with Georgiana, Elizabeth had given up and chosen to retreat to her sitting room. There, she attempted to sift through the flood of correspondence which had amassed in the past week. Dinner invitations and requests for the Darcys to donate money to various charities abounded.

Currently, Elizabeth was of no mind to accept the many requests for her and her husband to dine with several prominent families already in London for the Season. Perhaps, however, in the days that followed, it would do them both a great deal of good to be out in company. Perhaps she would even host her own formal dinner. She would speak to her husband and attempt to gauge his thoughts on the matter. After all, according to Lydia, the very essence of life rested in entertaining and being entertained. Recalling her sister's hasty proclamations of her future marital felicity merely served to exasperate her further. As difficult as it would be, Elizabeth vowed to henceforth give Lydia as little thought as possible. By impetuously running away with such a rogue and then having to marry him in order to save her reputation, her sister had sealed her own fate. Elizabeth absolutely refused to spare her any consideration now that she would be forced to live up to her mistake.

Placing the dinner invitations aside, Elizabeth turned to the task of sifting through the many requests for charitable donations. Shortly after her marriage, Mr. Darcy had asked her to assume the management of the family's offerings to charity. Upon first being presented with the long list of the many organizations and families which had been the beneficiaries of the Darcy fortune in the past, Elizabeth had been quite stunned. While it was true that her husband had more than enough money to spare, it was a mark of his kindness that he was good enough to bestow a portion of his wealth upon those who were less fortunate. Beyond giving money, blankets, clothing and baskets of food were regularly provided to the needy. Her husband had explained that his mother and father looked upon these donations as more than merely their obligation or duty because they were large landowners. His parents had passed on the belief that all of their wealth could never lead them to happiness unless they were willing to share it. Thus, Charter House, Harrow School, Magdalen, Greenwich Hospital and Westminster Benevolent Society all continued to receive generous sums from the Darcy family. After Elizabeth tallied the amounts that she deemed appropriate, the final sum caused her to gasp. Her father would use slightly more than what they were donating to the several charities to manage Longbourn for a year! Yet, although she had been married just short of three months, Elizabeth had come to appreciate the satisfaction her husband derived from being able to assist those who were truly in need.

Leaning back in her chair, Elizabeth contemplated the carriage ride back to the townhouse. Precious little had been said between them as they journeyed home. Fatigued and seemingly annoyed, her husband had rested his head back against the carriage seat and shut his eyes, opening them only twice to offer her a brief, fleeting smile. Intuitively, Elizabeth guessed his current irritation sprang from his private conversation with Mr. Wickham. Their exchange had been short, but both men had returned to the Gardiner sitting room noticeably different than they were before they had left it minutes before. Mr. Wickham had stormed past Lydia, sparing her not even a passing glance, and walked over to pour himself a tumbler filled with brandy which he had relished in one gulp. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, had immediately sought her out and inquired quietly if she was ready to depart. Tired of the whole sham behind presumably celebrating a marriage that was certain to render both parties miserable, Elizabeth had been only too willing to accede to her husband's request.

In the carriage, the mood had been tense. Earlier in her marriage, Elizabeth may have interpreted her husband's reticence to talk as some signal of his dissatisfaction with her. Now, understanding him better, his sullen and silent presence did not overly distress her. While she wished Mr. Darcy would share with her what troubled him, she knew better than to push him to relive what he most sought to escape.

But now Elizabeth could not resist speculating upon what could have been the nature of the conversation between her husband and Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth had observed Mr. Wickham walk up to Mr. Darcy and request a private meeting with him. Inwardly, she wished she had been able to prevent her husband the humiliation of ever having to consider Mr. Wickham again. Still, there had been nothing she could have done to stop the two men from speaking. It was possible, she supposed, that Mr. Wickham was attempting to apologize for years of malicious treatment, but she doubted it. Men like her new brother were not known to suddenly alter their heinous and covetous ways. Yet, if what she suspected was proven to be true, Mr. Wickham and her sister - nay, her entire family - should feel forever indebted to Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth stood and began pacing the room. Although she had attempted to occupy her thoughts with things beyond Mr. Wickham's newly discovered financial prospects, her efforts proved futile. In Hertfordshire, Mr. Wickham had told her that he lived a very meagre existence and blamed his poverty on Mr. Darcy's miserly treatment of him. While she now knew that little of what he had relayed to her regarding his dealings with the Darcy family was true, nothing about his lifestyle when she first met him led her to think he was a man of means. Yet, now he was behaving as though he was indeed worthy and capable of providing her sister with the lavish lifestyle she dreamed of. It was all beyond comprehension!

More and more, the only thing that appeared at all logical was the fact that it had been her husband's money that had been used to lure Mr. Wickham to marry her penniless sister. Her uncle - and certainly not her father - would never have been able to amass enough money to bribe the duplicitous man to do his duty to her sister. The crafty rogue had no doubt demanded a tremendous sum. Try as she might she could not even begin to imagine just how great an amount it had taken.

Having solved the mystery as to how Mr. Wickham had landed his money did nothing to ease Elizabeth's mind. The question of why her husband had agreed to pay such a hefty sum to a man he clearly despised would not leave her. Did he feel compelled to act out of a sense of duty? After all, his marriage to Elizabeth meant he was now aligned with her family. Perhaps, it was an overriding sense of obligation which compelled him to act in this matter. Still, knowing her husband as he did, she surmised that there was something else behind his desire to assist her family at this time.

Could his eagerness to provide the funds which Mr. Wickham demanded in exchange for marrying Lydia come from Mr. Darcy's prevailing desire to protect his family's reputation? As she recalled her husband's words to her prior to their marriage she stopped pacing. Then, he had made it perfectly clear that he meant to uphold his family's honour at all costs. He had implored her to work intensely to demonstrate to everyone that their union be not called into question in order to ensure the taint of scandal did not touch him. Was his decision to assume responsibility over his sister's plight little more than a chance to further protect his family's good name?

As she resumed pacing the length of the room, she looked up to find Mr. Darcy himself looking upon her questioningly. Feeling herself crimson, she attempted to offer him a tentative smile.

"Mr. Darcy! I did not expect to see you so soon. Have you finished meeting with your attorney?"

The lines of worry on his brow did not vanish as he walked over to her.

"I have," he said sceptically. "Elizabeth, I have been watching you for quite some time. You appeared quite lost amidst some rather troubling thoughts."

She drew in a deep breath. "In fact, I was meditating upon my sister's plans upon reaching Newcastle. Are you aware that they intend to purchase a home immediately?"

"I was not certain what their plans are, but that is not so surprising. They will, after all, require a place to live."

He moved to occupy a chaise before her desk.

"Yes, but the home my sister described to me is quite impressive. However shall they afford it?"

"I have every reason to believe that your sister's expectations are grander than what they will be able to purchase. She will no doubt be disappointed."

"Then you believe they will likely settle for a more modest home, perhaps in an area where other officers live?"

"I am not familiar enough with Newcastle to know anything about the neighbourhoods of the area, Elizabeth."

"I cannot help but wonder why Mr. Wickham would choose to settle in Newcastle. It is so very far from all of their friends and family."

Mr. Darcy rose and walked over to pour himself a glass of water. "Perhaps that is what best suited him. Mayhap distance is the very thing that is needed in this instance."

His words were spoken quickly and Elizabeth could sense the struggle behind him. Although she realized she was needling her husband, she could not prevent herself from continuing in the same vein. If she and her husband were to continue to live in peace, there could be no secrecy between them.

"And she intends to have several servants. Again, those must be her flights of fancy. How would a poor officer such as Mr. Wickham be in a position to have the funds for anything more than one or two servants at best?"

To this, her husband offered no reply. Rather abruptly, he drank the water in his glass and moved to the window.

"William, are you familiar with Lady Wandsworth?"

He turned and regarded her closely. "I am. The Wandsworth family has a rather large estate in Berkshire, but since Lord Wandsworth's death six years ago, I understand they hardly ever visit it. I believe Lady Wandsworth resides almost exclusively in London presently. Why do you ask?"

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and attempted a nonchalance she did not possess. "Apparently, Mr. Wickham recently purchased a carriage belonging to her." She saw her husband turn his back to her and resume staring out the window. "How could he afford the carriage once belonging to such a genteel family? I cannot help but think...."

"Suffice it to say, Mr. Wickham is rather well-acquainted with Lady Wandsworth. If he did purchase a carriage belonging to the lady, I am certain he obtained it for a very reasonable price." Mr. Darcy's tone was laced with scorn. "Do not ask any more unless you are prepared to be shocked and disgusted further."

For a moment, Elizabeth was rendered speechless. She had no need for her husband to elaborate upon the nature of Mr. Wickham's connection to the Wandsworth family - to Lady Wandsworth in particular. Involuntarily, she shuddered in repulsion.

With a look of frustrated penitence, Mr. Darcy approached Elizabeth and placed his hands on her shoulders.

"Elizabeth, must we truly engage in such hopeless speculation regarding the Wickhams' financial prospects? Can we not simply be satisfied that the matter is resolved and that they will soon be far away from us? I cannot imagine that your relationship with your youngest sister is so close that you will feel her absence. In the time that we have been married, you have barely spoken of her at all."

Tired of skirting the true motive behind her conversation, Elizabeth met his gaze head on.

"I am afraid I cannot so easily forget my brother-in-law's newfound wealth. I believe my willingness to ponder it at all stems not from any concern I have for my sister - I have already determined not to think of her unless I absolutely must." Her husband regarded her quizzically. "Yet, I can go no longer without thanking you for your role in her recovery. You no doubt have paid a hefty price."

Shaken, her husband immediately dropped his arms and ran his hands through his hair. His inability to meet her gaze confirmed for her the veracity of what she had thus far only suspected.

"Truly, Elizabeth, I do wish we could forego this matter! There is absolutely no need to probe any of this further."

"On the contrary! There is every need for me to thank you - on behalf of all my family - for your generosity toward Mr. Wickham. You forget I know how much you hate him."

"I had hoped your father would not be so eager to betray a confidence I asked him to keep. I see now that my own wishes were not worthy of being considered in the slightest!" He turned and walked away from her. "I suppose I should not be surprised, but I cannot stand before you and be pleased that you have learned of my involvement."

Listening to him, Elizabeth's amazement reached new heights. As the implication of his words reached her, her mood changed from shock to anger. Why had he so desperately wished to keep this information to himself? Why was it that he still could not be direct with her? Why, when she had hoped their marriage was on the road to being more open, were there still these obvious hurdles between them?

"You are wrong, Mr. Darcy! My father did not reveal your secret." Frustrated, Elizabeth could not prevent the tears from flowing. "It was I who was able to unravel this rather intricate ploy to keep me ignorant regarding that which I had every right to know! I alone did it! Unassisted and utterly disappointed!"

"Disappointed? What reason have you to be disappointed? I was able to use my money to help your family when they required it most! While I expected you to feel a variety of emotions should you ever learn of my role in this affair, I never imagined you would come to feel disappointment!"

"You misunderstand me completely, sir! My displeasure stems not from knowing that you helped. For that, I am eternally grateful! The regret I feel comes from something entirely different!" Elizabeth balled her fists in anger. "Why was it so important to you that I remain unaware that it was you who paid off Mr. Wickham? Why must there continue to be these unremitting secrets between us? Foolishly, I believed we had moved past that. I see now how very wrong I was! We are no better off than we were in the early days of our marriage."

Mr Darcy eyed her with wide-open shock. She observed him flinch at the truth behind her words. Each sentence had seemed to deal him a serious blow. Feeling more than slightly repentant, Elizabeth instantly regretted her harsh words to him. The very last thing she had wanted was to engage in yet another verbal battle with her husband.

"Surely you can see that I do not want your thanks." His voice now was almost a whisper. "Please do not stand before me and thank me for doing what I should have. It is the very reason why I did not wish inform you of my role in this sordid episode. Unleash upon me your severest criticism, but in the name of all that is holy, do not give me your gratitude."

"Why? Why can I not thank you? Why, when you have done everything to help my family, can I not be grateful? Why must your persistent pride continue to colour the canvas of our marriage the dullest grey imaginable?"

"My pride has nothing at all to do with it! Or, at very least, it is not wholly responsible for my wish for you not to know that it was I who provided your sister's husband with his newfound wealth." His tone was earnest and it was clearly painful for him to speak on this. "It was however my pride which prevented me from exposing Wickham for the degenerate that he is. Can you blame me for feeling culpable when my voice could have stopped him from ingratiating himself amongst the people of Meryton? It is quite likely that had I seen fit to reveal his true nature to everyone, your sister would be safe from him now. Do not for a minute imagine that I do not feel the responsibility of this severely."

"I could easily then say that I too share the guilt of this situation: many months ago, I learned of Mr. Wickham's character and I chose to say nothing. Had I spoken - at least to my father - perhaps my sister would not have fallen victim to his machinations. I am equally to blame."

Her husband appeared ready to interject, but she prevented him.

"Yet, by blaming ourselves we are diminishing the foolish tenacity of my youngest sister. I have no doubt that even if his character had been known, if Lydia had made up her mind to chase Mr. Wickham, nothing would have stopped her. You see, Mr. Darcy, as I have said to you before, short of keeping my sister under lock and key, there is very little that could have been done to alter the course of my sister's regrettable fate. I know all too well that she is not one who is easily gainsaid."

"At any rate, I did feel culpable and it was not a feeling I wished to live with. Nor did I particularly wish for you to live with the disappointment which would have followed had he not married her. I had little choice in the matter."

"But you have not answered my initial question to you. Why are you so reluctant to accept my gratitude? I have every reason in the world to feel grateful and yet you will have none of it. Can you not see how your spurning of my thanks is offensive to me? Indeed it is almost as hurtful as your wish that I know nothing at all of your involvement in this affair!"

"Elizabeth, believe me when I say my entire interest in this matter was not merely a means to diminish my guilt. I also thought of you - of us. Your words to me regarding how we have not moved past the initial days of our marriage could not have been more wrong - nor could they have been more cutting. I stand before you today as a man who has attempted to show you again and again that you are worthy of my respect, my consideration - and most especially of my love."

"You...your...love?"

"Somehow, amidst the bitter arguments, the time we have spent apart and most particularly amidst the recent time we have spent together, I fell in love with you, Elizabeth. For a time, I believed my altered feelings sprang from a desire to live peacefully, amicably, without so much hostility and bitterness, but then I realized it was a great deal more that led me to view you differently. I adore you, Elizabeth."

She breathed a heavy sigh and moved toward him quickly. Her tears began again, but this time they stemmed from her relief.

"We are a very foolish pair, William. Both of us have come so far and yet we had not, up until today, come nearly far enough. I never for a moment believed you could love me. Trust me, if I had, it would have made the hardship of thinking myself in love with a man who could never return my affection less onerous."

The look he gave her was quizzical, sceptical. "And this is what I feared most! I may cherish you beyond anything else, but I am not willing to accept your declarations of love if they merely spring from the gratefulness you feel as a consequence of what I did for your sister. Do not attempt to humour me, Elizabeth."

With that, he turned and walked away. Elizabeth was left, utterly unfulfilled and completely bereft.

~ * ~

Disheartened, Darcy walked without purpose. Intuitively, he knew his ultimate goal was to reach the privacy of his room, but within him there existed an equally compelling desire to return to Elizabeth and explain to her why her attempt to placate him was the very last thing he wanted.

He had not meant to reveal to her the full extent of his feelings for her, but now that they were exposed, he could not altogether regret them. For too long, he had harboured them to himself. Nevertheless, once he had begun defending why he had not wished her to know that it had been he who had paid Wickham in order to tempt him to marry her sister, he had been unable to stop speaking. The words, hidden and cloistered away from her, had demanded a voice and he had felt all too ready to justify his need to keep his involvement from her. When she had responded to him with a claim that she too loved him, her words - words that he had waited so long to hear from her - had left him feeling uncertain and frustrated.

Before opening the door to his room, he paused. It would not do to leave things as they were. He must speak to her! For too long they had been reticent and insecure. There was no place for those feelings in their marriage any longer. He was beyond tired of these half-truths, these intermittent stops and starts in their marriage. Elizabeth must be made to understand that he did not expect her to return his expression of love with one of her own. He would make it clear to her that while he wanted nothing so much as to have her affection, he would not take it merely out of a sense of obligation or thanks.

As he strode back in the direction of her sitting room, he saw her exit and regard him warily.

"Elizabeth, I believe we should talk." Looking around, he saw that he stood outside his sister's bedchamber and that they had caught the eye of a footman who was doing poor job of pretending not to observe their exchange with interest. He saw her walk toward him tentatively. "Perhaps we can meet in your bedchamber."

He waited for her to reach him and together they crossed the distance to her bedchamber. Once they got there, he entered first and she followed, closing the door softly behind her.

"Forgive me, I should not have left you before explaining myself."

"No indeed, you should not have."

"Elizabeth, you must understand that the admission of my feelings today were in no way intended to compel you to say you returned them. I believe the time has come for us to be honest. I could not have you thinking I wished to keep you unaware of the truth for my own selfish reasons. As I said before, I acted thinking not only of myself, but most especially of us. I cannot bear to know you feel beholden enough to me to profess to feelings which you do not own."

"Why can you not accept that I spoke with candour and an honesty that matches your own? Even before I came to London, I knew I loved you. I believe I have known it for quite some time, but I was of the opinion that you did not return my affection. If you prefer to think me nothing more than someone who confesses to feelings which suit the occasion but do not match my heart, then by all means, I cannot stop you. But, I assure you, you are wrong - completely and utterly wrong."

Darcy crossed the distance between them swiftly. His thoughts were incomprehensible and so he gave up the pretence of attempting to work through them. All he could give attention to was the woman who stood before him and confessed to love him. She had spoken with conviction and a sincerity that he could not ignore. To question and doubt her honesty was beneath her - and definitely beneath him as well. It was this woman - one who had driven him to the depths of anger, despair, turmoil, and lately, love - who mattered.

"I am a fool," he said softly, reaching out and touching her hair gently.

"You are indeed, but I cannot fault you. I have been every bit as much a fool as you."

"But my errors have been more grievous for they prevented me from realizing from the very beginning that the near-scandal which forced us to marry turned out to be precisely what I needed. I have grown immensely indebted to your father's meddlesome and brash forester. Had I not married you, I would have likely continued unabated. After all, no one but you would have ever given me a reason to even consider that my proud and self-seeking character was in need of reformation." Here, Darcy's breath caught and the magnitude of his words caused him to pause and contemplate them fully.

"Do not compel me to consider my own less than perceptive view of our marriage - and most especially, my inattentiveness in regard to your merit. The mere thought of what I said to you on the evening of the Twelfth Night ball has caused me such remorse! How you saw fit to even speak to me after that amazes me still."

"But you said nothing that I did not deserve. I have relived that time in my mind often and my conduct and my manners were evidence of my selfish arrogance, although I did not recognize it then. Perhaps you were not wholly correct concerning some of your charges, but nothing you knew of me then would have been enough to cause you to consider the circumstances in any other light. Nevertheless, I am not sorry for what occurred between us that night, Elizabeth, for it encouraged me to strive to become a man you could first come to like and then hopefully come to love."

She moved closer to him and, without thinking, his arms encircled her. He heard her sigh as he rested his head atop hers and smiled as she leaned into him. When her arms snaked around him, he felt his own sigh escape his lips. He had certainly held her before, but feeling her in his arms now felt different and provoked an intimacy which seemed more vibrant and more alive than ever before.

"I do love you - I am quite devoted to you in fact," Elizabeth whispered. "That I have earned your affection in return merely adds to my good fortune."

She glanced up and held his gaze. Slowly, their lips met in a soft and restrained kiss, as though they were both still testing one another and attempting to determine the pace that would best suit the other. Their hands, which moved almost frenetically across one another's back, appeared to be citing an underlying urgency that was not present in their kiss. Moments later, Darcy felt the kiss grow more forceful; it bespoke their longing, their happiness and their regret. With a fervour that matched his own, Elizabeth responded and leaned into him. Once their kiss became more insistent, the movement of their hands in turn became gentle.

Soon, however, Elizabeth's hands moved to his shoulders and Darcy felt her grip tighten through his jacket and his shirt. He began kissing other parts of her face - her cheeks, her chin, her eyes, her forehead, the area behind her ear - and her breathing became heavy and her hold on the fabric of his jacket led her to bunch it up firmly in her hands. Seeking to remove this impediment, he slipped his jacket off his shoulders quickly and was rewarded with the return of her hands on him. As they traveled up and down the length of his arms, her touch left a heated trail and he stopped kissing her for a moment to savour it further.

Fervently, she worked to untie his cravat. He felt her fingers tremble as they sought to liberate the rather intricate knot. When he looked down, he found her brows knitted together in concentration and he could not help but smile.

"Shall I do that for you?" His voice, husky and guttural, sounded strange even to his own ears.

"By all means, help me at least."

Once the cravat was successfully removed, Elizabeth reached up and kissed his neck. Her lips lingered and Darcy made no attempt to smother the sigh he felt rising in his throat. Bending down, his lips pressed against hers and the immediacy of their connection was once again restored. They kissed fervently, while Elizabeth's hands explored the contours of his bare neck. Shuddering, he released her mouth long enough to pull the shirt over his head.

For a moment, his wife merely looked at him. In the full light of the afternoon sun, she now had a complete view of his bare skin and, as her eyes searched the planes of his chest and arms, Darcy was pleased to see she was not tentative or shy in her observation. Her gaze roamed over him with an almost territorial delight. When she moved to touch him, her fingers gently stroking his burning skin, he was left almost breathless. As her hands wandered over the expanse of his chest and arms, he closed his eyes and threw his head back slightly. All the while he wondered how it was that something so simple - the heat of her fingers upon his skin - could feel so immensely pleasurable. He had been touched in a similar manner by women before and never had it incited in him the same degree of sheer enchantment. Only Elizabeth's hands were able to inflame in him this heady abandonment, this utter joy. Until now, this brand of intemperate rapture had lain dormant within him.

Slowly, his lips traveled to the uncovered skin between her neck and shoulders. He was rewarded by a gasp and Elizabeth's hands flew to undo the row of buttons at the front of her dress. Darcy was sure to savour as much as she was willing to give him as his mouth discovered the newly exposed flesh in between her breasts. In spite of the dizzying state of his thoughts, he recalled her reluctance to reveal herself to him back at Pemberley. He willed himself not to lose sight of her past hesitation and vowed to accept as much of herself that she deemed fit to bestow. He would not rush - he would revel instead.

Despite himself, his hands cupped her breasts over the material of her dress. Tenderly, he caressed them, marvelling in how perfectly they filled his hand and how moved she was by his attentions. He watched as she threw her head back and moaned. Again, he was thrilled to witness how simple a touch from him was able to produce such pleasure for her.

Indeed, how foolish they had been to deny themselves of this unadulterated bliss for so long! How fortunate it was that they would have their remaining lifetime to glory in one another.

Suddenly shy once more, she took his hand and led him over to the edge of her bed. Darcy met her hesitancy with a lingering kiss, although he himself was unsure of what to do next. Again, he was reminded not to force them to move more rapidly than she was ready for. When she reached behind and began unbuttoning the back of her dress, he was struck with an unbearable ache. Wordlessly, he turned her around and, somehow, his nervous fingers managed to loosen the row of buttons. When he was done, he pushed the fabric aside and kissed her bare back longingly. She leaned into his kiss slowly before turning to him with a look of fierce longing.

More quickly than he ever thought possible, the remainder of their useless garments were discarded. In fact, when they were done and standing naked before one another, he was surprised at how swiftly they had been able to move from the shy hesitancy they had both felt to the wanton yearning that appeared to have seized both of them now. Lost, he had little time to consider the fact that Elizabeth did not seem to be nervous under his intense scrutiny. Admittedly, it had taken them far too long, but there appeared no more barriers between them now. His eyes traveled the defined curves of her body and found all of her more exquisite than he had even imagined. She was, in every way, perfect and he intended to make her, in every way, his own.

Once again, he began to caress and kiss her. Little by little, he ran his lips and tongue over her shoulders, down to her arms and then across her breasts. In response, her breath came quickly and was mingled with long gasps of pleasure. When he felt her body swaying, he paused long enough to urge them both to lie on her bed. He reached for her immediately and rolled her atop of him, entwining his legs with hers. This renewed skin to skin contact caused them both to moan and, as he kissed her neck and shoulders, he sensed her trembling response and tightened his grip on her.

Their previous lovemaking made Elizabeth's body appear familiar to him, but their past failure to communicate their true feelings to one another had made their only other foray into intimacy awkward and tense. Gone now was the hesitation and tentative nature of their former connection. As Darcy liberally traced the curves of her hips, he delighted in being permitted to discover her without impediment and without discomfort. Having her give of herself liberally, showing in her willing response her love for him, caused thrill upon thrill to course through his body until he feared he would not be able to withstand the sheer magnitude of the moment.

Amidst the frenzied thoughts coursing through his brain, Darcy took time to notice how much freer Elizabeth appeared in her reaction to his lovemaking. As he rolled her onto her back and allowed his lips and tongue to wander over the planes of her chest and abdomen while he made lazy circles around her nipples with his fingers, he felt the urgency of her response as she grasped his hair in her hands and her body convulsed beneath him. He was learning, as he proceeded to love his wife, just what pleased her most.

When they had first made love, it had been difficult for Elizabeth to learn how to receive pleasure. She had struggled to simply enjoy it without offering anything back, which appeared to be her more natural instinct. Darcy understood her struggle. As he continued to stroke and discover more and more of her body, he revelled in the exploration she currently allowed him to make. With other women in the past, their pleasure was an afterthought. While he had never been a purely selfish lover, never had he been so insistent upon his partner's reaching her satisfaction before him. Now, however, he felt only a need to demonstrate to his wife his devotion, to be the one giving pleasure and making her understand in the process how much he cherished her.

When the time came for them to reach the pinnacle of their pleasure, he entered her with one long satisfied thrust. Slowly, he moved deep within her and held her hair in his fists. Little by little, she adjusted to his rhythm and when Darcy heard the same satisfied moans emanating from him as those she made it sent him into further rapture. In perfect accord, their flesh pressed together as their bodies joined again and again. Beneath him, Elizabeth bit her lip and bucked against him, matching his stride, absorbing each of his thrusts willingly and tightening around him. Quickly, the pace of their movements hastened and he felt her spasm and suddenly relax as he emptied himself into her, crying her name just once before shuddering and falling atop of her.

Moments later, grasping his head in her hands, she forced him to look at her. "Do you now believe how very much I love you, William?"

Cheekily, he rolled off her and laid beside her on his side with his head held up by his hand, "I do indeed, but depend upon my need to be convinced of it time and time again." He continued to trace random, lazy patterns upon her stomach, delighting once more in the simple gesture of touching her so intimately.

"I see that in this, as in everything else, you are quite incorrigible." She attempted to sound stern, but she could not suppress the smile which formed upon her lips as she revelled languorously beneath his touch.

"Ah yes! I confess, I am rather relentless. No sense attempting to cure me of such long-formed habits."

She sat bolt upright and turned to him in mock amazement. "So, now the truth is exposed at last! You make a habit of having women in your bed solely for the purpose of convincing you how dear you are to them? Really, William, I would have never considered you so licentious."

Playfully, he kissed her bare back. "I am afraid I owe this recent abandoning of discipline to you alone, my love. As you know, I am generally much more restrained. I believe some have even referred to me as proud and far too restrained."

Unable to maintain the pretence any further, she leaned back and laughed outright. Darcy joined her and together they discovered yet another pleasure which was new to them: the joy of being able to laugh freely together.

Meanwhile, out in the hallway as she made her way out of her room, Georgiana Darcy heard the hilarity emanating from Elizabeth's room and smiled.

Later that evening, she was not surprised or disappointed to learn that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would not be joining her for dinner.

~ * ~

Two evenings later, upon returning from dinner from the Gardiner residence, Darcy and Elizabeth escaped to the music room. There, Elizabeth played for her husband and for the first time he was able to watch her as much as he liked, and even reward her performance with a most satisfying kiss.

When she was finished, she crossed the room and settled herself comfortably upon his lap.

"Had anyone told me a week ago that everything in the world would be so very right now, I would have never believed it."

He smiled as she tucked her head beneath his chin and snuggled closer to him. "Nor would I."

"Jane and Mr. Bingley have found their happiness and Lydia is married and moved far enough away that neither she nor her husband can ever bother us." She looked up and met his eye. "Most importantly, I have discovered the great joy of loving and being loved by my husband."

"Indeed the world is quite perfect."

"William, I must ask you to satisfy my curiosity in this regard: when is it that you knew for certain that you loved me?"

Tilting his head aside and attempting to suppress the grin he felt forming, he raised his eyebrows in askance.

"Truly, I must know," Elizabeth went on. "Deny me if you will, but I mean to continue asking you until you submit to a response."

"Are you requesting a specific date? An event which occurred to help me know my own mind and my own heart?"

To this, Elizabeth merely shrugged her shoulders. "Whenever it was, I should like to know."

"Then deny you I shall have to for, truly, I have no idea. If pressed, I would have to say I knew for certain that I loved you when we skated together at Pemberley."

"That, my dear, is a complete fabrication! Pray tell me it must be! I would think you quite daft if you came to love a tripping, unskilled young woman who could barely move on the ice."

Tightening his hold on her, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "Do you think it was daft of me to love a woman who performed so hopelessly that I had to hold her tightly to ensure that she remain upright? Truly, I think I was quite clever in my suggestion that we attempt that particular nocturnal adventure. Now that we have reached an even better understanding, I mean for us to spend several evenings in a similar manner. In turn, I hope you will not be foolish enough to learn the art of skating for that would wreak considerable havoc on my strategy."

Elizabeth smiled and shook her head in mock disapproval. "I can see now that I was no match for your adept planning!"

"But, in the end, you must admit it has all turned out rather well."

She once more moved closer to him and gloried in the comfort of his solid embrace and how utterly right it felt for her to be held by him.

"It has indeed."

~ THE END ~

~ * ~

Notes:
*rout cakes - The word "rout", generally associated with large unruly gatherings, came to mean fashionable assembly in Jane Austen's day. Rout cakes, therefore, are a rich kind of sweet biscuits (very similar to shortbread) and they were often flavoured with fruit and served at elegant parties. (For this bit of research, I must thank Sue's Regency Encyclopedia which I came to rely upon quite heavily in the latter part of this story.)


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