This is only a preview of the book One Kiss by Lorraine Hetschel. It is now available for purchase on Amazon. Later, print copies will be available on Amazon, and I will get this book published through Nook as well. Thank you to all my loyal readers who were with me while I was writing/posting each chapter. I could not have done this without you.

Introduction

This story begins immediately after the proposal scene at Hunsford. There have been no other plot changes to this story, other than what must arise from the changing futures.

1: The Kiss

Elizabeth could not remember how she passed the evening. She stood in the parlor for a very long time, staring at the door Mr. Darcy had exited through. It was too shocking. He had actually proposed marriage to her. Mr. Darcy had really loved her all this time. But this was not all she had learned. He had also rejoiced in separating Mr. Bingley from Jane and refused to talk about the history between Mr. Wickham and himself. Well, the last part was not too shocking; she had had her suspicions in that regard. Despicable man!

Eventually, she became sensible of the hour and knew that the Collinses would return soon. She did not feel capable of feigning indifference. Finding her room, she attempted to lie in her bed, but her mind refused to cooperate in sleep, so she paced around the room. She was not interrupted until Charlotte came to inquire about her health. She stated that her headache had eased but was not gone, hoping to calm Charlotte's mind without needing to converse more. Charlotte, feeling satisfied, retired for the night, leaving Elizabeth to her thoughts. Hours later, her room felt too confining, so she crept into the parlor when the others were safely asleep. Light from a corner startled her and made her turn, but she relaxed upon recognizing it was only her reflection in a small mirror, illuminated by the moonlight.

She moved towards the mirror, gazing at her appearance. Time passed while she stood still, barely blinking. Instead of reflecting on Mr. Darcy and his proposal, she thought about what she had said to him. Truly, she had said some terrible things. She had declared he was no gentleman. She had said she hated him and that he was the last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry. He had declared his heart, and she had trampled it to pieces. With such feelings of self-disdain, she could not like her reflection. Despite his actions and words, she had had no excuse not to be kind. Feeling haggard, she finally took a seat and shut her eyes. Next thing she knew, it was morning, only a few hours later. A noise from upstairs alerted her to the hour. Still not wishing to disturb the others or feeling ready for conversation, she quietly slipped outside with only a shawl covering the day dress she had worn yesterday.

The sun was warm enough that she could walk with ease, and the ground was dry enough she need not fear that her indoor shoes would become soiled. She started down a path, not really knowing where she wandered. She was halfway to her favorite grove when she remembered that Mr. Darcy would often meet her there. He was the last person she wished to see right now, so she steered away. An hour later, she was no nearer a resolution to her dilemma, but she needed to return home before Charlotte became too worried. She still hated herself for having been so cruel to him. She had nearly entered the gate when she heard a noise behind her. Since she was close to the house, she hoped it would only be Mr. Collins. She froze, hoping the steps would move away from her.

Her hopes were not to be. The person began walking towards her. The fact that he had not spoken and the gait of the footsteps made her realize it must be Mr. Darcy! She waited for him to speak but remained facing away from him.

Mr. Darcy stood irresolutely, hoping to see her face one last time. The thick letter firmly ensconced in his hand was burning with his desire for her to read it. He knew he would never see her again. Deducing she had no desire to see him from her lack of response, he placed the letter on the gate beside her and attempted to turn and leave. Every muscle inside him warred with his resolution. When she did not respond, he stopped. Was she well? Did she regret her decision? His heart raced as he thought through the possible scenarios. He wanted to speak, but he could not find any words. Instead, he placed his arm on her shoulder very gently. "I came to leave you this letter." His voice cracked with emotion.

Elizabeth finally turned and looked up into his eyes. Her pulse quickened as she noticed the hurt expression spread over his face. He looked miserable. She wanted to think serves him right, but it was impossible for her to be so unfeeling. She could see his love for her and how hurt he felt, and she stood mesmerized by the depth of feeling. For a moment, she even thought a knife wound must be less painful. Her stomach churned as she remembered she had thought him an unfeeling cad not twenty-four hours ago. Tears came to her eyes as she filled with shame and she leaned slightly forward subconsciously.

Mr. Darcy fared worse than she. As he watched her expressions change, he almost broke down and begged her to reconsider, but his pride rescued him. She had made it clear. She wanted nothing from him, and he had to remember that. However, when she reacted to his pain and leaned forward slightly as though to comfort him, he gave into his urges and leaned forward to kiss the lips that had haunted him for so long, lips that he knew he would never taste again.

Her lips were softer than he had expected. He knew he should step away, but he could not move, his mind warring between what was right and what felt so wonderful. When she did not resist, he moved his lips over hers and placed a hand on each of her cheeks. For some reason, it did not bother him that she was standing still and not responding to his advances. He continued tasting her sweet lips. He did not move again until the door of the cottage opened and a loud gasp reminded him of where they were. He broke contact with Elizabeth and looked up to see Mr. Collins standing in the doorway gaping at them.

He made certain Elizabeth was steady, for she had swayed at first. Then, he turned and blocked Mr. Collins' view of her. His muddled mind was grasping at every thought it could muster in an attempt to save her, as well as himself, from the inevitable embarrassment.

Mr. Collins could not comprehend what he had seen at first, so he relied on his duty to the nephew of his ladyship. "Mr. Darcy, I hope Miss Elizabeth has been entertaining you well. We were having breakfast and did not know you had come. You have my sincerest apologies for such a breach in decorum. Would you like to come inside? I am certain we have provisions aplenty for you."

At the word decorum, Elizabeth finally regained her senses enough to recognize what danger she was in. After refusing his suit, Mr. Darcy had kissed her, and she had done nothing to stop him. To make matters worse, her infuriating cousin had seen them. How could Mr. Darcy do this to her? She looked down in a desperate attempt to find an escape. The letter, still sitting on the gate, caught her eye, even though she had only a vague memory of him placing it there. Unable to stand still any longer, she took a deep breath and picked up the heavy letter. The next moment, she darted past Mr. Darcy and her cousin and into the house. She did not even glance at either of the gentlemen, although they both stared at her. How would she ever recover from such shame?

Mr. Darcy took courage when she disappeared and remembered the only way out of their predicament. He could not abandon her now, despite her previous words and what he had written in his letter. His suit must be renewed. He turned his attention to Mr. Collins, who had not yet stopped talking despite no one listening. Mrs. Collins stood beside him quietly. "Mr. Collins, my betrothed is somewhat overcome by her good fortune and is going inside to rest. Please, do not disturb her. When she returns to your company, please tell her that I have ridden to Hertfordshire to speak with Mr. Bennet. Until I return, I would appreciate it if this could remain as discreet as possible." As an afterthought, he added, "My aunt will not look favorably on anyone who brings her this news. I wish to tell her myself. Am I clear?"

Mr. Collins tripped over himself in his assurances, and Mr. Darcy felt he could safely leave. This was the only possible course of action now. He must speak with Mr. Bennet and marry her before Mr. Collins let loose his tongue. Such a simple mind could not be relied upon to hold a secret, even if he were to involve the wrath of Lady Catherine. His only consolation was that Elizabeth had his letter. Perhaps she would read it while he was gone. If she gave any credit to its contents, it might be possible that she could think better of him when he returned. If not, perhaps someday she would find a way to forgive him.

2: Charlotte Reacts

Mr. Collins stood in silence for some minutes after Mr. Darcy left. Although he had been a little slow on the uptake, he now realized he must have caught the lovers in an intimate embrace. He barely knew what to think, although Lady Catherine's potential reaction remained at the forefront of his thoughts. He knew Mr. Darcy was engaged to Miss de Bourgh. Would Elizabeth threaten Lady Catherine's plans? Would Lady Catherine blame him for this?

Mrs. Collins fared better, as she had had an inkling of Mr. Darcy's admiration for Elizabeth. She had been standing behind her husband since the beginning, although she had not been seen by either Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth. She had heard the conversation between Mr. Darcy and her husband, however, and her mind was quickly working to help Elizabeth, despite not knowing any of the particulars. Mr. Darcy's explanation did not make sense, given Elizabeth's reaction. She knew Elizabeth disliked him.

Charlotte Collins was very observant by nature. In fact, she had realized Mr. Darcy had been in love with Elizabeth ever since nearly the first time she had seen them together in Hertfordshire. The couple had rarely spent much time in each other's company, but even then, he had always seemed to gravitate towards her, especially at the Netherfield ball. She had kept quiet because of Elizabeth's protests to the contrary and because she had no reason to unduly raise Elizabeth's expectations.

Here in Kent, his growing attraction had been obvious every time she had seen the two of them together, which was more frequently than it would have been elsewhere. He walked with her almost every morning and sought her attention frequently in the afternoons at the parsonage and at Rosings Park every time they dined there. She thought back to when she had mentioned her observations to Elizabeth the other day. Elizabeth had denied his attraction to her. She had been so insistent on the matter that Charlotte had not dared broach the subject again.

Charlotte reckoned something must have happened between Mr. Darcy and her friend the previous evening while she had been at Rosings. She remembered that Mr. Darcy had disappeared for a few hours during the course of the evening. She had not thought about where he went, for it had meant nothing to her at the time. But it was possible, and now seemed very likely, that he had come to propose. He must have been successful in his endeavor since they met again this morning. He even called her his betrothed when he was speaking to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth is engaged to Mr. Darcy!

The only thing that did not make sense was Elizabeth's reaction to the engagement. She had stormed past without even noticing anyone else. Indeed, she had been acting differently ever since she had returned from her morning walk the day before. Perhaps that was the occasion of the proposal. If that were the case, it had been very improper for them to meet in her home that evening. Every fiber of her being wanted to go ask Elizabeth what was troubling her, but she knew her friend well. She would not confide in anyone until she was ready, and she clearly was not ready yet. She turned her thoughts to Mr. Darcy. To offer for a woman with no fortune, he truly must be in love. His looks had always spoken of his attraction, but now he seemed more defeated and distressed than overjoyed as he should be at having secured her. Something was definitely not as it should be, but she could find out nothing more at the moment.

Charlotte smiled as she thought of her friend's current fortune. It would be a marvelous match. Mr. Darcy had called her his betrothed. It must be so. Elizabeth would never want for anything again. But why, then, was she so dejected and upset? Something was amiss, and Charlotte desperately wanted to help her friend.

While Charlotte thought all this, only one truth finally came forth in Mr. Collins' mind. Charlotte was brought out of her reverie by her husband's shaking voice. "Lady Catherine will be displeased!" He sounded terrified.

Charlotte almost laughed at the understatement before quickly turning her energy towards calming his nerves. This was the only way she could currently help her friend. It would not do for the servants to hear if they had not already. In order to remain discreet, it was important that her husband calm down. "Yes, if she finds out. So we must do as Mr. Darcy says and not speak a word of it to anyone until he tells us to. Surely he will sort everything out with his aunt."

"She will never approve. What will she say when she hears we kept Elizabeth in our home in light of her scheming to take Miss de Bourgh's place as his wife?"

Thankfully for Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Collins knew perfectly well how to manage her husband. "Elizabeth is a guest in our house, and she has done nothing wrong or improper, assuming we know nothing of this incident today. Mr. Darcy is leaving for Hertfordshire, so they will no longer meet under our roof. All will be well. Lady Catherine need never know that we saw what happened today. In a week or whenever Mr. Darcy returns, we can feign surprise. I will go and speak to Elizabeth now. The rain looks like it might resume. You should check on your garden before it is too late."

With only a mumbled agreement, he strode out of the house, his legs shaking uncontrollably. One difficulty averted, Mrs. Collins looked up the stairs and hesitated. Perhaps giving her a few moments alone would be preferable. Despite her own lingering curiosity, the first few minutes of Elizabeth's anger or joy would not be the best to bear witness to. Determined, she walked around the house to ensure the maids had all been either too busy or too far away to hear the commotion. No one seemed to have any inkling of the situation. Maria had been in her room refolding her dresses, so she was also out of earshot. The maids had been managing the laundry in the back room. Thankfully, it appeared that Charlotte and her husband were the only witnesses. The betrothal could remain secret, at least for now. She doubted she could keep her husband silent forever.

She turned to the door of Elizabeth's room. It was not completely shut. Walking softly closer, she could see Elizabeth sitting on her bed, staring at a sealed envelope. A letter from him secured her belief that they must have come to an understanding. Elizabeth must be simply overcome, although that was not in her character. Charlotte smiled. All would be well in the end. Her worry for Elizabeth had almost abated until she heard her utter under her breath, "Oh, what have I done?" in a nearly terrified voice.

Curious, Charlotte fought with herself. She wanted to talk with Elizabeth and know all there was to know, but she also knew Elizabeth needed space. In the end, she walked away. Elizabeth did not come downstairs again that day. Charlotte was forced to spread a small falsehood to avoid gossip by informing the household that Elizabeth was ill and needed rest. In an effort to help, she carried trays to her room that remained untouched. The next day, Elizabeth walked out early in the morning before the others had risen. When she returned, everyone was sitting down to breakfast. Maria immediately asked if she was feeling better.

"I kept to my room too long yesterday. The fresh air has revived me." She did not look revived, but only Charlotte observed this.

"Then will you feel up to dinner at Rosings this evening?" Maria felt that Elizabeth's presence there made her own more bearable. Lady Catherine had a way of looking for faults in her and Elizabeth, but the great lady was always more interested in Elizabeth than in her. But with Elizabeth's absence, she would have neither guide nor support except for her own sister.

Mr. Collins intervened. "No, she looks too ill for that. She should stay at home and rest. Lady Catherine is aware of the delicate sensibilities of young ladies and will understand when I explain to her what you are feeling, Cousin Elizabeth. Have no fear on that accord."

Charlotte was proud to see that Elizabeth did not back down or appear ashamed. Instead, she ate quietly and excused herself when finished. She hoped that this change in Elizabeth was for the better and that they would talk about what had happened very soon. A thousand questions were bubbling inside her.

The day passed quietly. Elizabeth read a book in her room, according to Charlotte, who kept a close eye on her. Elizabeth did not confide anything in her friend that day.

Before it was time to leave for Rosings, an express rider came with a letter for Elizabeth. Charlotte could not recognize the handwriting and therefore assumed it must be from Mr. Darcy. She walked up the steps to Elizabeth's room, hoping to finally speak with Elizabeth. Knocking upon the door, she heard Elizabeth mutter a small, "Enter."

Charlotte looked around the room. The bed was made, and the pages of a letter were scattered across it, shifting as the breeze from the open window blew around them. She looked at Elizabeth, who did not appear at peace with herself. "I came to give you this express which has just arrived. We must leave soon, but we will return as soon as I can manage."

Elizabeth took the letter and blushingly set it aside, although she could not tear her eyes from it. Charlotte could not understand what was plaguing her friend but did not dare press the point. "All will be well. You must see that."

Elizabeth finally looked away from the letter and smiled reassuringly at Charlotte, who was not convinced at her sincerity. The bags under her eyes were heavy. Elizabeth added, "I hope you are right. Do not worry about me. I shall be well tomorrow."

"That is good to hear, Eliza. I wish to be brought into your confidences tomorrow as well. I have been a patient friend for long enough. Now I wish to be satisfied."

"Yes, Charlotte. I do not mean to keep secrets from you. You have been a dear friend and excellent host. I shall be myself again tomorrow." Elizabeth turned away from Charlotte, who had no other option than to leave. Mr. Collins was already downstairs, exclaiming at the tardiness of the hour.

3: Mr. Darcy Has Some Explaining to Do

Mr. Darcy paced the Rosings' garden for almost half an hour as he regained his composure. His heart raced as he thought of what he had done. In one act of self-indulgence, he had risked ruining the reputation of the love of his life. She had refused him outright, and now she must marry him. The last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry. It was unpardonable. She would be well within her right to hate him forever. But he would be good to her and give her everything she ever asked for. He had already planned to leave for London with his cousin on the morrow. Now, he must hurry and leave within the hour, so that he could continue on to Hertfordshire once he arrived in London.

With his resolution in place, he strode as calmly as possible towards the entrance to Rosings. He moved quietly upstairs. Once in the privacy of his own chamber, he sank into a chair. His valet, Mr. Williams, entered quickly thereafter, and Mr. Darcy was able to relate the necessities about his travels in a few short sentences. He knew he could trust Mr. Williams. He would see to all the particulars.

Mr. Williams departed with his instructions, leaving Mr. Darcy alone again to think dire thoughts. How could I have done this to the woman I love? How could I ever win her heart now? It was, most certainly, the most difficult task he had undertaken so far. The trouble with Wickham and his sister last summer paled in comparison to what he had done to Elizabeth. Then, he had been able to rescue his sister without a scandal or forcing marriage upon his dear sister. Now, the only way to save Elizabeth was to marry her, even though she despises me.

He continued in this hateful manner towards himself until his cousin barged into his room and demanded an explanation. "Why must I pack so quickly? My commander does not expect me to return until tomorrow."

"I have business that cannot be delayed, Richard. See to it that you are not late."

"No business could have reached you today, for the post has not yet come. Do not lie to me, Darcy. Why must we go now? We have not even taken leave of our friends at the parsonage." To add to his demand, he stood as imposingly as his shorter stature could allow.

"We must go now because I must ride to Hertfordshire to ask Mr. Bennet for his daughter's hand in marriage. Are you satisfied?" He stood and stared down his cousin. Being almost a foot taller made his demeanor palpably more imposing. He hoped that he could hide his true feelings of misery.

Colonel Fitzwilliam relaxed immediately, completely ignoring the melancholy written all over Darcy's face. "Congratulations, my friend. May you have many years to savor her charms! I am certain you will never regret your choice. She is a magnificent creature." He paused to clap Darcy on the shoulder. "But if that is the case, then why must we leave so early? Surely, you wish to see her again before we ride off, if only to steal a kiss to remember her by."

The pain of Darcy's memories was too much. He turned sharply and, with no warning, replied in a less than calm manner, "Get out and be ready to go in one hour."

The colonel was too wise to remain in the room. Mr. Darcy fell back into his chair the moment the door was shut. His cousin had said the worst thing possible. The thought of Elizabeth's lips brought a torment of mixed emotions. While their taste had been ecstasy, the reminder of the kiss also brought the memory of how much he had damaged her. One kiss between them and her reputation was ruined unless she married a man she despised. She would surely hate him for it for a very long time, if she ever forgave him. Would he ever be allowed to kiss her again? Would he live with her cold disdain forever? Always close to him, and yet always so far. It would take a miracle to overcome. He thought of his letter, and he despised himself for writing it. How could he have been so presumptuous? Lines from the letter came to his mind, and he dreaded her reading it. He should have been more temperate in his description of her family.

Much sooner than would normally have been possible, Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam found themselves sitting opposite each other in the carriage. The former looked stern and foreboding. The latter took the hint and remained quiet, although he was very curious about the circumstances of their departure and his cousin's mood. Something was off, for a betrothal should be a happy event. The carriage moved very slowly for both gentlemen. One was disturbed while the other was mostly bored. Unfulfilled curiosity could only feed a person for so long. He itched to learn more.

Mr. Darcy climbed onto his horse within half an hour of returning to his London town-home. For the first time that day, he felt in control of his situation. Thankfully, his horse had not joined him on his trip to Rosings, so he was well rested. He knew not to tire the horse over much, so the twenty mile stretch was mostly completed at a walking pace with trots every couple of miles to keep time. He challenged his horse farther than he should, but the animal rode to Longbourn with no injuries. Mr. Darcy was thankful that it was only four o'clock, which meant he could speak with Mr. Bennet and have time to find a room at an inn before dark.

After seeing that his horse was well looked after, he knocked on the front door. His wait was not long. Mrs. Hill opened the door and asked how she could help. "Here is my card. I wish to speak with Mr. Bennet as soon as he is available."

Mrs. Hill looked curiously at the visitor. She could not remember seeing him before, and by the way he dressed, she could tell he was not from Hertfordshire. Thinking this must be important, she invited him to sit in the front parlor. It was warm, but the ladies of the house would not be bothered by his presence there. She then excused herself and went to find Mr. Bennet. He was not hard to find since he was always in his library during the day. She knocked lightly, knowing he hated to be disturbed. After hearing his muttered "enter," she opened the door cautiously and stepped inside.

"Pardon me, sir, but there is a man here to see you. He gave me this card." She walked the rest of the way to her master's desk and handed it to him.

Mr. Bennet looked at the card for only a moment before laughing. "What can he be doing here? Show Mr. Darcy in, Mrs. Hill. It would not do to leave him waiting." He sat up and moved his books aside, pulling out the letter from his favorite daughter that had arrived that very morning. While Mr. Darcy had been mentioned, the letter contained nothing that could forewarn his coming to Hertfordshire.

Mr. Darcy was not faring very well in the parlor. The room was clean and well decorated, and it made him realize he had never entered the house previously. He had never come with the Bingleys before. Indeed, he had only rarely entered the village on his latest visit to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth's admonishments about his behavior rang in his ears as though she had just spoken them. He had done absolutely nothing to forward his suit, and his only defense was that he thought he was avoiding her at the time. No wonder she hates me. How could he have been so stupid as to think he could offer for her and have her accept him without his ever having attempted to woo her.

Within another minute, Mr. Darcy stood before Mr. Bennet. He appeared more in control of himself than he felt as he said, "Good afternoon, sir. I was hoping for a moment of your time. I have a very important request to make of you."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy. Please, take a seat. My neck hurts from looking up at you." He chuckled slightly at his own joke but stopped when he noticed Mr. Darcy was not amused. Indeed, he looked very grave, which worried Mr. Bennet more than he would admit.

Mr. Darcy accepted the seat quickly, but he could not bring himself to speak with the same speed and self-assurance. A silence threatened to consume the room, and Mr. Bennet wondered how long it would last. He had decided not to force the gentleman to speak. Eventually, Mr. Darcy spoke. "I am here to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage."

Mr. Bennet blanched. He glanced back at Elizabeth's letter. It had given no hint or warning. Other than her ridiculing a pretense of an engagement to his frail cousin, she had not mentioned him. He began to grasp at straws. "You wish to marry Jane?" He asked.

"No. As much as I respect Miss Bennet, I wish to marry Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

It was another four minutes before Mr. Bennet could speak again. He expected that response, but it was not what he wished to hear. The only thing he could utter was a very small, "Why?"

Mr. Darcy smiled slightly as he thought over why he had wanted to marry Elizabeth in the beginning. Most of his thoughts were unsuitable for the ears of her father. "I admire the strength of her character. I am convinced she will be an excellent mistress of Pemberley and sister to my young sister. She has much to bring to the marriage."

Mr. Bennet could not argue these points, although he knew very little of Pemberley and nothing about Mr. Darcy's sister. "You know she has no dowry to speak of."

"I assumed as much." Mr. Darcy nodded.

"She accepted you?" This was Mr. Bennet's last bid for more time before he had to give his answer. He was not certain he could refuse anything Mr. Darcy condescended to ask of him. But could he give away his favorite child? He thought back to Elizabeth's letter. She had not spoken well of Mr. Darcy. On the contrary, she had laughed at him and his family.

Unfortunately, this was the question Mr. Darcy dreaded the most, since he abhorred deceit of any kind. He closed his eyes as he deflated and said, "She had no choice."

The blood that had left Mr. Bennet's face now returned three-fold. "What have you done to her?" He feared the response he might hear. He had seen women after an attack lose all their spark and life. Elizabeth was too precious to him. He could not imagine such a fate for her. Marrying such a scoundrel would only make matters worse.

Mr. Darcy looked away, uncomfortable. He wondered how he would feel if someone were to come to him with a similar statement about Georgiana. There was no doubt. He would be ready to kill whoever it was. He returned a softer face to Mr. Bennet. "I have done nothing that you are imagining. In a moment of weakness, I kissed her. We were observed."

Mr. Bennet only slightly relaxed. "Get out of my sight. Return in a week with the settlement papers." He paused as he considered Elizabeth's future with a man she detested. "If they are acceptable to me, I will accept your offer. If not, I trust you will do all in your power to quell any rumors." Mr. Darcy rose and bowed as if to leave, but Mr. Bennet continued. "I have one more thing to say, if you please. If I accept your offer, you are not to touch her again until you take her hand at the altar. The title of gentleman must be earned. It is not freely given in this house."

"Yes, sir. I will return a week from today. Thank you." He turned and walked out of the room. Mr. Bennet did not stop him again.

He walked directly to the front door, threw it open, and stepped out before Mrs. Hill could reach the door to open it for him. His shame was such that he could not stand another minute in the house. He had disgraced his name, and now he needed more than Elizabeth's forgiveness to recover. He returned to the stable and found his horse was still recovering, though he was doing very well. "Give him to me. We will walk to Meryton to find an inn. Thank you for your care of him."

The stable man pocketed his coins, bowed, and handed the reins to Mr. Darcy, who walked beside his horse as he attempted to control his emotions. Passing the gates, he climbed onto the horse's back and slowly rode into the village, wishing he could race through the fields to release his energy. When he found the inn, he directed his horse to the stable yard out back. Paying three shillings for the stable boy to take care of him, he returned to the front of the inn. After paying for a room and refreshing himself, he returned to the dining room and sat at a table to contemplate all that had occurred in fewer than two days.

Unbidden, Elizabeth's words from her rejection came to his mind, and he felt their sting once again. When the bartender came to ask for his order, he requested bread and ale along with a pen and paper. He thought of Elizabeth's declaration of his ungentlemanly behavior in Meryton. He must begin to change the village's view of him. Now was the time. When a lady returned with the writing supplies, he kindly asked her to fetch an express rider.

The letter was quick and to the point, and he finished long before the express rider arrived. While he waited, Colonel Forster entered with a few men who recognized Mr. Darcy. After some whispered conversations, the colonel approached him. "Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy."

Mr. Darcy had watched the colonel's approach with mixed feelings. He harbored no ill-will towards the good colonel, but he also did not care to have his thoughts interrupted. However, he knew he needed to repair his reputation in Hertfordshire, and this was the best beginning he would be given. "Good afternoon." He motioned for the colonel to take the seat next to him.

The colonel eyed him for a moment before continuing. "I had not thought I would see you again in Hertfordshire. Is your party with you?"

"They are not. I had business today and came alone."

"You will forgive me if I am asking this, but are you here to see one of my men?"

Mr. Darcy eyed the colonel cautiously, immediately and rightly thinking of Wickham. "No. I would rather have nothing to do with him."

"He says the same of you, sir."

"And you trust him?" Loathing laced Darcy's voice.

"I do. Trust is essential to allow us to work together."

"Then I suggest you do your own research instead of relying on his ability to charm as you have done. Ask the owner of this establishment how long his bill is. You would also do well to do the same for the other shops in town. You might also inquire as to whether or not he has dallied with any of their daughters. If you want to keep your regiment's honor intact, it is your duty to know the state of his affairs. Most of his fellow officers are undoubtedly waiting for large sums in gambling debts from him as well. You would do well to increase your caution of him, and you need not take my word for it."

The colonel once again considered the man before him. He had told no truth or falsehood, and his essence as a gentleman commanded respect. He nodded and took his leave to rejoin his men. Before quitting the inn, he spoke a few words to the owner, and he did not like what he discovered.

Mr. Darcy left as soon as the express messenger was paid to be on his way. He was glad to return to his room, although he was by no means calm enough to rest on the lumpy bed. Not surprisingly, Mr. Darcy slept very little. His dreams consisted of his long-desired Elizabeth Darcy yelling at him and refusing him entrance to her rooms repeatedly. It was an exquisite torture.

In the morning, he ordered his horse to be ready after breakfast, and he was glad to see his home in London before noon. As soon as he entered the house, he was welcomed by his sister. Although he was not equal to the task of confiding in her, he did hint that their lives were about to change forever. Miss Darcy was too shy of her brother to inquire further.

4: Elizabeth's Fate

The day passed without any change in Elizabeth's stance. She sat on her bed, the letter sitting untouched. Part of her wanted to read what he had written. The other part told her to burn his words, for he had just proven he had no honor. The shift from one extreme to the other was the only constant that swirled around her mind. What was in the letter? His apparent pain showed her that he did not intend to renew his proposal. Then why did he kiss her? She cursed herself for her wantonness. A true lady would have pushed him away or slapped him. She had done nothing to prevent it.

Then came the worst part; her cousin had seen them. She was very acutely aware of how perilous her situation was. What will everyone think of her? She knew better than to think her cousin would keep silent. It was so terrible, she decided that she could not force her company upon her hosts. She had nothing to do but think about all that had happened and what lay ahead in her future.

She knew Mr. Darcy would leave the next day, assuming he had not already disappeared. He had nothing to worry about. Society would applaud his recklessness, but now she was ruined. She would never marry respectably, not that the chance of marrying someone she loved was ever very high. Now, it was non-existent. In anger, she took the letter and moved to the fireplace. It was empty since the weather had been so warm, and she did not have the energy to light a fire. It would have to wait until morning. She set the letter in the grate and quickly changed her dress. The water in her nightstand was cold and refreshing. She shivered as she washed her arms and face.

Before she climbed into bed, she glanced at the small mirror hanging on the wall. Only one candle was lit, and she could barely see the outline of her face. She imagined she could see the result of their kiss. She might as well have a mark on her forehead displaying her ruin, although no such mark existed. Her cousin's slanderous words would forever haunt her, whenever they began. No gentleman would offer for her now. She would never marry, especially not for love.

The morning arrived after little sleep for Elizabeth. When she did sleep, her many dreams shifted around a very angry Mr. Darcy having his way with her and then walking away. She was helpless to stop him every time. Opening her eyes, she very nearly started crying. But she pushed her tears away and rose from the bed.

She quietly donned her walking dress and was about to leave when she noticed the letter in the grate. Hastily, she picked it up and took it with her. It felt like lead in her hands. Her curiosity overcame her modesty. Determined to read the letter while on her walk, she quietly made her way through the house, only stopping to quickly grab a small roll from the previous evening in the kitchen to stave off hunger.

She did not pause again until she was out of sight of the parsonage. Immediately after turning around a bend, she leaned against a tree and took a few deep breaths. The fresh air felt exhilarating after sitting so long indoors. She closed her eyes to savor the morning. The letter and her troubles were nearly forgotten as she took in the beauty around her, but its weight slowly garnered her attention.

She turned the letter to face the direction. He had written her name very eloquently. Fleetingly, she remembered Miss Bingley's praise of his writing back at Netherfield. She had been so determined to win his affections that she was blind to how she had annoyed him. She laughed slightly. He had never desired to be courted for his attentions. Miss Bingley had always been fighting a lost battle. Her mind wandered back to remember the depth of emotions she could see on his face in the moments before he kissed her. Previously, she would never have thought it possible for him to feel so much. How could she have assumed him to be so unfeeling?

She opened the letter and read the first sentence. His intention was not to renew his proposal, and she could almost feel the anger seeping from his words. He wrote as though she deserved his ire for rejecting him. She sighed. It was as she suspected: he had ruined her and left her. Her eyes filled with unshed tears, but she pushed them back. Needing the distraction, she continued reading. He demanded justice in the form of being allowed to describe his side of their argument. It is just like him, she thought.

The letter then returned to the circumstances surrounding Jane and Mr. Bingley. He had seen their attachment, but he thought it less on Jane's side. He actually believed Jane had been incapable of enough heart to really love his friend. At least the very long paragraphs took the time to state that he might be in error in this, although he never mentioned fixing said error. Her tears were forgotten as a surge of anger rushed through her veins, and she had to fight her arms to avoid tearing the letter. She hastily put it into her pocket and began to run. She did not know exactly where, but she worried she would harm herself if left with the energy boiling inside her.

Minutes later, her energy was spent, and she fell to the ground and leaned against another tree as she remembered the words of her sister's last letter. Jane would never admit to melancholy, but Elizabeth was well versed in her sister's mannerisms. What Jane did not say was more telling than anything else. Jane, even after six months' separation, was still heartbroken. And it was all Mr. Darcy's fault! The man had ruined the happiness of her dearest sister, and now he had ruined her life, the woman whom he had claimed to love only two days earlier.

Eager to find more to hate about Mr. Darcy, she reopened the letter and found her place. The letter quickly turned to the affairs between himself and Mr. Wickham. In this, she was certain he could not justify himself. She read on, but nothing was as she imagined. Mr. Wickham could not be so vile as Mr. Darcy painted him to be. But each sentence painted a poorer and poorer picture of Mr. Wickham. From spending and gambling away four thousand pounds in a year, Mr. Darcy also explained how his own sister had been drawn in by Mr. Wickham's schemes.

She put the letter down once more, not wanting to believe it. How could he lie about his own sister? His pride would not allow such a falsehood. It must be true. Her ability to read character sat in tatters around her. She slowly put the pieces together. Her energy spent, she could not release her anger through any means but more tears. She cried for a quarter of an hour before finally picking up the letter and reading the adieu. He stated a desire to redeem himself in her eyes and even offered Colonel Fitzwilliam's testimony as proof, should she not have believed himself. For a moment, she fingered his signature. She could not disagree with Miss Bingley. His handwriting was very fine.

In this moment, she felt truly sorry for him. He had fallen in love against his wishes to a woman who cared not if he lived or died. In all of human history, how many men and women had done the same? And she had treated him with contempt. Now, she understood the depth of agony he displayed when he met her again. But that still did not excuse him for ruining her reputation. She could not forgive him that. In desperation to think ill of him, she reread the part of the letter that explained his behavior toward her family and toward Jane, in particular. He could not redeem himself there. He had been wrong.

But her second perusal of that part did not bring her the dislike she had hoped for. Unbidden, recollections of Charlotte's statement, spoken so long ago at Lucas Lodge, came to her mind: Jane did not show her affections openly. And Charlotte was right. An outsider could not see the affection that Elizabeth saw clearly. Acting as a friend, he was justified to that extent. She could not even condemn him for his words against her family. His words were true, as much as it pained her to admit it.

Realizing how much time had passed and how much her stomach was rumbling, she rose and walked back to the parsonage. The roll had not served its office. Her future still seemed bleak, but the spring air helped to put an air of indifference into her thoughts. Elizabeth had always found it hard to remain melancholy when so much beauty was about her. She also knew well not to worry about what she could not change. Everyone would be around the breakfast table. At least they were used to her morning walks and would not find her appearance too strange.

The house loomed closer. How will they receive me? she thought, slightly anxiously. This would be her first test. Mr. Collins' reaction would seal her fate. With a deep breath, she entered the house. As expected, they were all sitting down to breakfast. Maria and Charlotte were the only ones pleased to see her. Maria began immediately.

"Are you feeling better? I was so worried about you yesterday."

Elizabeth laughed slightly. It was good to know someone still worried about her, and she dearly hoped it would continue once everyone learned her situation. She responded lightly that she only needed the fresh air. Feeling better, she took the seat beside Maria and began helping herself to toast and preserves.

Meanwhile, Maria looked fit to burst. As soon as Elizabeth could respond to her, she asked, "Then will you feel up to dinner at Rosings this evening?"

Mr. Collins intervened before Elizabeth could say a word. It was clear from his words that she would not be allowed in Lady Catherine's presence again. Elizabeth understood his motives perfectly. She did not blame him for his desire to care for his patroness' sensibilities. For almost the first time, she agreed with him. She had no desire to sit with Lady Catherine at present. She finished eating and removed to her room. She held a book in one hand, but her attention was caught by the letter, and she read it through many times with varying emotions each time. Most of the time, her anger boiled. Sometimes her anger was directed at the writer of the letter, other times, at herself for misjudging so terribly. Other times, she felt a loss of something she could not describe.

She regretted many of her actions toward Mr. Darcy, but she knew she could not change the past. When she tried to distract herself with a book or piece of embroidery, she found she could not concentrate for more than a few minutes. She thought about going downstairs and sitting with Charlotte, but she did not wish to force her company or cause an awkward scene between Charlotte and her husband.

In this manner, the day passed. Elizabeth spent time either in her room or out of doors. She walked long and hard, hoping to banish her anger. It would not do to let her anger fester. When she was not out walking, she kept to her room. The letter she now knew by heart, although it offered little comfort to her.

That evening, Charlotte entered Elizabeth's room to offer her an express which had just come. She could not stay because her husband was already calling for her to hurry.

Elizabeth accepted it warily and immediately recognized the handwriting, having just reread a letter from the same hand. She felt incredulous that he would disregard propriety once again and send her another letter. What could he possibly have to say? This time, there was a witness to her receiving the letter in the express rider and any servant who had opened the door for him. Her heart sank, but she muttered a small thank you to her kind friend.

Charlotte's curiosity was palpable, and Elizabeth grieved that she did not feel up to confiding in her. Charlotte had been everything generous towards her on this visit, and she deserved better. Thankfully, Charlotte only replied. "All will be well. You must see that."

Though she would rather have cried, she smiled reassuringly at Charlotte. She hardly knew what she said in response as her attention was renewed on the letter. She waited impatiently for Charlotte to leave her alone. Almost as soon as the thought entered her mind, it crushed her. She despised herself for her callous thoughts. She would bring Charlotte into her confidences soon.

As soon as the door shut, Elizabeth dug into the letter. Her curiosity could not be sated, although she knew it was improper. The letter was short and to the purpose.

Dear Miss Elizabeth Bennet,

I have just come from Longbourn after speaking with your father. He gave me his consent to marry you, although he was unwelcoming of my suit. I cannot blame him for his unwillingness to give you up to a perceived scoundrel. I understand that this was not your wish, but I could not abandon you after you were compromised. You have my sincerest apologies for that action, although I cannot bring myself to regret it. As is the custom, you may set the wedding date, and I will do as much as possible to accommodate your preference whether the date is soon or far away.

If you wish for me to return to Kent, simply send a letter to the address on the front of this letter. If not, I will respect your need for space, although I hope to call on you when you arrive in London. I pray that we can be happy together despite our differences. I will always strive to please you.

Your servant,

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Elizabeth was shaking by the time she finished the letter, although she could not say if it was from fear, relief, or anger. Perhaps it was from a mixture of the three. Of all the things she thought he might say, this was not one of them. He had more honor than she had given him credit for. She suddenly realized that her future was not so bleak as she had assumed. While she would marry him, she could retain respectability. After all, it was proper to be kissed by your betrothed in private. Her betrothed. It sounded so strange.

Once she becomes his wife, she would need to accept even more attention from him. She shuddered as she thought of kissing him again. A heat began to stir inside her again, although it was not out of anger this time. She looked toward the window, hoping to be able to go for a walk. The sun was fading behind the hills, but Elizabeth still donned her walking shoes and stepped outside. The cool evening air was a balm to her spirits.

After fifteen minutes of forcing her mind to observe the trees around her, she brought her thoughts back to the contents of the letter. So far, she had only thought about what the words meant for her. Now she thought of what they meant for Mr. Darcy. He was a proud man, but none of his letter displayed that pride. He was wounded. He sounded more like he had lost control. Indeed, he had granted her control over setting the date of the wedding.

She thought back to the walk where she had met Colonel Fitzwilliam in the grove. He had come to Rosings at Mr. Darcy's pleasure and would stay until Mr. Darcy was ready to leave. Elizabeth had laughed and said that Mr. Darcy should marry to retain a lasting convenience of that kind. She would be that lasting convenience now. Colonel Fitzwilliam had replied that any woman would be happy to marry his cousin. Hopefully, he would be proven correct.

That brought the memory of Mr. Darcy's walk with her a few days before that walk. Mr. Darcy had implied that the next time she visited Kent, she would stay at Rosings. Had he then been planning to propose? She had laughed off his words at the time, but perhaps she should have taking it as a warning.

The clouds shifted, allowing the moon to suddenly shine down on Elizabeth. The brightness reminded her that she should return to the house. If the moon were to disappear, it would now be too dark to find the house. How much time had passed? A few turns in the path brought the house within view, and she could see a light shining from a downstairs window. Perhaps Charlotte had left a light on for Elizabeth's use, should Elizabeth leave her room. Elizabeth sighed. Charlotte was too good. Now was the time for Elizabeth to confide in her friend. At least, now she knew what the future held for her.

Elizabeth was not in the house for fifteen minutes before Charlotte and the others returned. She had reread the note, and she could easily notice another character trait she had thought Mr. Darcy completely lacked: humility. He had humbled himself before her. She sat in the parlor until the others retired, and Charlotte descended the stairs for one last check of the house.

"I did not think you would be here. Are you hungry?"

"No. I wanted to apologize for my elusiveness. My only excuse is that I thought myself unworthy of your attention."

Charlotte eyed Elizabeth carefully before responding. "You only flame my curiosity more with speeches like that. You must be plain. What has happened? Start at the beginning as soon as I have prepared some tea." She left the room and returned shortly after with a well-laden tea tray, knowing Elizabeth had barely eaten. "There now, you may begin."

Elizabeth thought for a moment. Where was the beginning? "I suppose it all started a few days ago. Remember that you had hinted to me that Mr. Darcy might be interested in me. I am sorry to say I did not give you credit. On one of our walks, he met me, and he hinted that one day I would visit Rosings as a guest of his aunt's, but I did not believe him to be in earnest. I should have paid more attention. I cannot recall how I responded, such was my distaste for the company." She scoffed, but only for a moment did her story pause. She thought about describing what she knew about Jane and Mr. Bingley, but decided against it. It would not do to speak disparagingly of her future husband. She briefly wondered if she would need such censoring for the rest of her life. "He visited in the evening after you had departed for Rosings two days ago."

Having begun, Elizabeth's mouth dried, and she felt she could not speak. Sipping the tea did not quench the dryness. How could she describe his emotions and her terrible words? Thankfully, Charlotte rescued her. "He asked you to marry him." She stated plainly.

"Yes, he did. It was the most I had ever heard him speak at one time. He was very eloquent, at first."

"You do not sound elated. Did you argue with him?"

Elizabeth turned away slightly. "He continued after his eloquence had worn off. He detailed his reasons for not wanting to marry me. I did more than argue with him. I said I hated him. I blamed him for many things. I left feeling miserable for allowing my behavior to run away with me so. That is why I was so dejected."

"I could tell you were unhappy. But then what happened the next morning, when he came again? You had a change of heart, did you not?"

"No, I did not, although I regretted my words. He had come to give me a letter explaining what he had been unable to say before. He was in so much pain it only made me hate myself more for how harsh my words had been, but I could not take back my words. I do not know what made him kiss me, but it was very short. I was too startled to react. And then you came and saw me. I thought I was ruined. I fled in disgrace, certain I would never have your company again, nor the company of any respectable friend."

"Then you were unaware of what he said to my husband. That explains why you were so upset these past days."

"I never thought he would speak to you. What did he say?" Elizabeth suddenly became eager for this intelligence.

Charlotte smiled kindly. "He knew he had ruined you. He called you his betrothed and asked that we not disturb you." Elizabeth gasped, but Charlotte continued. "He also insisted that my husband and I remain silent about the event. He threatened Lady Catherine's wrath should William tell her himself what had happened. He also said he would return after he had obtained Mr. Bennet's consent."

"No, he will not return. His letter that came today said that he would only return if I write to him to ask him to. He sounded humble."

Charlotte laughed, relieved to find some levity in their talk. "That is the first time anyone has ever described him so, Eliza. I believe you will be the making of him."

"I doubt that, Charlotte. It seems so strange to think I will be marrying him. I hardly believe it will actually come to pass. I cannot imagine life married to him."

"It is not that strange to me. As you said, I noticed his behavior many times before. I think he has loved you since you were together in Hertfordshire. Besides, I thought all these two days that you were engaged, although I did not know why you would be so upset about accepting a proposal from so great a man. It did not occur to me that he might have fabricated your acceptance to save your reputation."

"You were certain I would accept him!" Elizabeth exclaimed as she stared at Charlotte as if seeing her for the first time.

"Of course, I thought so. He would be an excellent match for you. He is intelligent, rich, handsome, well-bred, and most of all, completely besotted with you. I know you do not love him yet, and you were determined to marry for love, but I thought those traits would put him on your good side soon enough. I am amazed at how wrong I was."

"He was amazed, too."

"You must have hurt him very much, then."

"That was not my intent. I felt I could not be happy with him. I had no wish to marry a man I have no feelings towards."

"And what do you feel now, my dear?" Charlotte probed.

"I do not know how I feel towards him. I am only just realizing from his letters that I barely know him. I am determined, however, not to make myself miserable for the rest of my life. I cannot refuse him now, so I must make the most of it. But I cannot allow my uncertain future to ruin my present. I shall cherish the next few days with you and your sister. I do not know how soon we may meet again."

Charlotte heartily agreed before announcing that it was well past time to retire. The two friends who had been close for as long as either could remember embraced tightly before retiring to their own chambers. Elizabeth slept much better that night. The next morning, Elizabeth made good on her promise to be cheerful. She spent the entire day with Maria and Charlotte. They talked and embroidered and took walks in the garden. Mr. Collins avoided the group, but Mrs. Collins included Elizabeth in everything. The next four days passed similarly. Once, they went to Rosings, and Elizabeth remained at Maria's side and helped her through the evening. Finally, the day came for her and Maria to return to London.

AN: The rest of this story has been removed for publication. As I get more details about publication, I will post them on my profile page. For those of you who will rant, leaving part of this story available here is not against the story guidelines. I finished the story in its entirety, and my readers were able to read it free. I am not making anyone buy anything. I am now keeping this preview up as proof of copyright. I am the only one who has the rights to publish this story. If you see it elsewhere, please let me know.