AN: Thank you so much again to those of you who provided such great, detailed feedback on the prologue. Your comments made me think, and some even prompted me to already make some little adjustments downstream.

There may be chapters where I ask for feedback on specific things, but generally what I want are your reactions as a reader. What did you dislike or enjoy? What didn't ring true to you because it seemed out of character, or wrong for the Regency? What are you wondering about at this point in the story? These things are all enormously helpful to me, so thank you in advance. :-)

Chapter 1

June 20, 1815

Elizabeth had not been in society, aside from church and meeting with her tenants, for the better part of a year, and she felt both eager anticipation and a little trepidation as the carriage took her and the remaining Bennets to dinner at Netherfield. The remaining Bennets were her mother, of course, and Mary and Kitty; Lydia had married Lieutenant Denny, the natural affections she had felt greatly magnified by the promise of moving out from under Mr. Collins's roof.

The curbing of her younger sisters's indulgences had perhaps been the only beneficial change at Longbourn that Mr. Collins had instituted. Allowances had been required to be strictly adhered to, boarding school had been threatened, and in the end Catherine had become far more reasonable, and Lydia had at least left in a respectable manner. For a time, Mary had, unfortunately, become even more severe under Mr. Collins's influence, but even she had eventually seemed to understand what a poison he had been upon the household, and most particularly on his wife.

Both Catherine and Mary had seemed happier, with Mr. Collins removed from the house, but they could not be described as fully happy. Elizabeth hoped that with herself now out of mourning, she might provide both of them with more chances for happiness: more opportunities to exhibit, for Mary, and more society and perhaps a beaux or two for Kitty, for Elizabeth was a bit surprised that her younger sister had shown no eagerness about following Lydia in to matrimony, but thought perhaps the right man had not yet come along.

Tonight, however, she would focus upon her own happiness; she would give herself over to the enjoyment of being in society again, for even if Mr. Darcy was to be among the guests, surely there would be others who were amiable and good company. The introductions were made in the drawing-room, a rather long string of them, for what had begun as a small house party had become Charles Bingley thoroughly filling Netherfield with his guests. It was only after the introductions were complete that Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy, standing at the edge of the room much as he had used to do. He looked older; she supposed she did, too, but Mr. Darcy seemed to have aged much more than the time that had passed should have allowed. His complexion was more tanned than when she had known him last, as well, although it was nothing extraordinary for a man who spent a good amount of time out of doors. What surprised her more was his expression, which she had remembered as being aloof and proud. Now it seemed to her more aloof and sad, but then he surprised her still more by smiling at her, and making his way over to where she stood.

"Mrs. Collins," he said, giving her a bow so deep she wondered if he was mocking her.

"Mr. Darcy." She gave him a curtsey in equal proportion; if he was mocking her, she would mock him in return. "Thank you again for your condolences on the death of my husband. It was good of you to write."

He acknowledged this statement, and inquired most civilly about her health, and that of her family. These she gave a favourable answer to, and then asked after his own health, and that of his sister. To this he replied that they were both well, and he had just been visiting his sister, in Gibraltar.

"Gibraltar!" exclaimed Elizabeth, before she could help herself. That Mr. Darcy's sister had somehow come to live in such a place was so incongruous she could scarcely believe it. She made to begin apologising for such an outburst, but he spoke first, saying:

"You are surprised, of course. She married a naval captain, and he was posted to the Mediterranean, so she chose to take a house there, to be nearer to him."

Elizabeth was even more astonished to hear this, for marrying a naval captain did not seem the sort of thing the proud young lady that had once been described to her would have done, nor something her proud brother would have condoned.

"My congratulations to her. I hope she is pleased with the married state?"

"Yes, very pleased. She – she had been disappointed once in love, so I am glad to see her so happy, now. I do wish she did not live so far away, however. Pemberley is not the same without her."

Here his countenance once again took on something of sadness, and Elizabeth wondered if it was loneliness, that gave him such an expression. Having volunteered this information about his sister, and yet mentioned nothing of a wife, Elizabeth presumed he had not married. She recalled something about a betrothal to his cousin, Anne de Bourgh, and knew that young lady had lost her life to a lengthy illness, having been informed of it by Collins some months before his death. It had seemed an arranged marriage, to Elizabeth, but perhaps there had been true affection; it was the only thing she could think of that should cause his present expression, beyond the absence of his sibling.

"Was it not dangerous, with war once again broken out?" she asked, seeking to divert the subject.

"I had sailed there before Napoleon escaped, thankfully, but it did mean my stay was of longer duration than was expected. After Waterloo, it seemed sufficiently safe to make my return."

"I would like to hear more about Gibraltar, sometime," Elizabeth said, seeing that everyone was beginning to line up to go in to dinner. "I have travelled so little in the past few years, so I must take my voyages vicariously."

"Of course. I would be happy to oblige you."

Only as she walked away did Elizabeth realise that she had voluntarily engaged herself for another conversation with Mr. Darcy at some point in the future. Yet he had not been so disagreeable as he was in the past – in truth, he had conversed so pleasantly she could hardly believe he was the same man she had known before. But then, people could change in the course of several years; she most certainly had.

Although Mrs. Bingley had provided an excellent meal, Darcy could hardly eat, in his present state of excitement. Elizabeth – glorious Elizabeth! – was just up the table from his seat amongst the unmarried ladies and gentlemen. She was there and looked as lovely as ever, in the palest lavender dress, laughing and conversing with those beside her. He had wondered, upon learning she was once again a possibility due to Mr. Collins's untimely demise, if he had spent the past few years making her more wonderful in his mind than she truly was, maintaining a love for an imagined Elizabeth rather than the real one. But she was every bit as he had remembered her, and he believed he loved the real Elizabeth even more, for there were details and nuances to her that he had forgotten.

Oh, those torturous early days, after reading of Mr. Collins's decease. How he had longed to go to her, to declare himself. It had been Georgiana who had counselled patience, after he had opened up his heart to her. Georgiana, who had regained her confidence and her happiness, who was mature enough to be giving him advice, now. Nothing should be done while Mrs. Collins was in mourning, except to send a letter of condolence. He had hoped, perhaps, that his letter might become the beginning of a correspondence between them, but her response, while polite, had left him no opening; there was nothing within that could be responded to.

So he had waited, and tried to determine some natural way in which he could be returned to her acquaintance. In that, his encountering Charles at White's, and making his apology and the first overtures of renewing their friendship, had been the deepest blessing. Their friendship was not what it once had been; it had been renewed with caution, and still felt a delicate, awkward thing. Yet it had been renewed, and Darcy was grateful for it, even beyond its providing the opportunity for him to be here. How impatient he had been in Gibraltar, upon receiving Charles's invitation to the house party at Netherfield. Of all things, to be kept from his second chance by war!

But he was there, now, and he would seize this second chance, although he would keep Georgiana's counsel and go about things patiently. If Elizabeth had received his proposal and rejected it, she could not have spoken to him tonight in the manner she had, without any degree of awkwardness. He had to presume, then, that she was unaware of his affections, for he had done nothing to indicate them during his previous acquaintance with her. He would do so now, gradually, and seek to understand her own. She was a widow, and he could not yet know what the state of her heart was; perhaps she had come to love Mr. Collins. Elizabeth glanced down the table at him, and he smiled. She returned the smile, and even this simple thing gave him hope.

Darcy made an attempt to apply himself to the food, so as not to be caught looking at her too often. When next he did look in her direction, he found her frowning, and wondered at what could have caused this. She did not look at him, this time, and eventually he returned his attention to his neighbours at the table, and to his food.

Too soon, the ladies made their exit for the drawing-room, although at least this gave him a better look at her figure as she left, and he found it every bit as pleasing as it ever was. He was not the only man there who found Mrs. Collins pleasing, however; he soon learned Mr. Althorpe was most vocal in his praise of the young widow's looks, but with much agreement from the other single gentlemen, and for the first time Darcy realised he might well have competition for her hand, a thought that filled him momentarily with paralysing fear.

"She ought to marry soon," Mr. Althorpe was saying. "A woman, trying to manage that estate on her own – she'll run it down in no time. It wants a man's management."

"She seems to have done well enough with it in the last year," Darcy said, with his heart pounding, for he detested confrontation, particularly with new acquaintances.

"I am sure that is only because she kept with whatever procedures her husband implemented. It will be once she starts getting womanish ideas in her head, and acting upon them. That will be when she destroys her own income. Unless, of course, she marries me."

This prompted laughter from all the men around him, save Darcy, and he wished Charles was seated closer to him, for surely Bingley would have assisted in the defence of his sister, if he had overheard Althorpe.

"And where is your estate, Mr. Althorpe?" Darcy asked, knowing it was not likely Mr. Althorpe, the younger son of a viscount, would have one, and it was very possible he never would.

"Haven't inherited it yet," Mr. Althorpe said, pouring himself more brandy. "Fine little property, from my mother's side of the family, but it would be preferable to have Longbourn while I wait, particularly when it comes with such a fine-looking wife to warm my bed."

"Might it not be said, then, that Mrs. Collins has more experience in running an estate than you?"

The men laughed again at this, one of them saying that Darcy had Althorpe there, and thankfully the subject moved away from Mrs. Collins following this. From the occasional glares Darcy received from Mr. Althorpe, however, he felt certain he had just made himself an enemy. Yet he was glad he had done it, even if he had been discomfited by it; he did not like the thought of Elizabeth being spoken of in such a manner.

It was a relief, when the butler came to tell them that tea was ready in the drawing-room, but Mr. Althorpe, being nearer the door than Darcy, made his way thither more quickly, and Mrs. Collins was his object. Darcy watched, fuming, at the man's making every effort to render himself agreeable to the woman he had demeaned earlier. To his surprise, however, Darcy was rewarded not five minutes later, when he watched Elizabeth disengage herself from the conversation, and make her way over to where he stood.

"If you are at leisure, Mr. Darcy, I wonder if I might hear from you about Gibraltar now," she said, quietly.

"Of course," he said, trying to quell his feelings of delight and triumph, so they would not reach his countenance. He led her over to an open sofa, and then proceeded to provide her with any details of the town he could remember, and stories of the voyages there and back. His delight continued as she showed herself fully engaged in all he spoke of, nodding at his descriptions and asking questions to glean further details.

"Oh, I have entirely monopolised your time!" she exclaimed, when it became clear that some of those who were not staying at the house were calling for their carriages.

You may monopolise my time forever, Elizabeth! he wanted to say, but did not.

"Not at all, Mrs. Collins. In fact, I thought to provide more of my time, if you wish it, to come and look at Longbourn's books – to offer my advice on the estate." He did not know if she would take this offer, or even if she thought of herself as needing advice, but he did wish to give his assistance, and this was the thing he was best suited to assisting her in.

"Oh, yes, because a woman cannot run an estate! Surely I must require your advice," she said, furiously.

A sharp, stabbing pain in his chest. Were his chances already ruined?

"Of course not. Someone so clever as you should have no difficulty in running an estate," he said, softly. "I – I know what it is to be given such a responsibility at a young age, and at least in my own case, I did not have anyone to turn to, that I could ask for advice. I had always relied on my father for guidance, and when he was gone, I found I had his responsibilities, and no longer the benefit of his counsel. I only meant that if you desired my advice, or simply wished for someone to talk over matters with, I would be pleased to give any assistance that I may. I apologise – I never meant to demean you."

"It is I who should apologise," said she. "Your offer was very kindly meant, and I am sorry that I spoke so sharply to you. Mr. Althorpe said something to me during dinner, and I suppose I am still a little sensitive over it."

He found himself relieved, both that they were returned to understanding each other, and that Mr. Althorpe had already revealed his true self to her.

"Pray do not worry yourself over it, Mrs. Collins. It cannot be easy, to be in your position."

She nodded. "I would like your advice, Mr. Darcy, if you are still willing to give it."

"Of course."

"Would tomorrow be convenient for you to call?"

He replied that it was, now very well pleased that he had offered his advice, and then she took her leave to go and see to her carriage's being called.

Elizabeth was still changed for bed by one of the maids; she had lasted less than a week under Hill's services in the mornings and evenings before the exclamations of her mother over how far she had come down in the world as a poor widow had achieved their desired effect. Elizabeth was not overparticular about such things, and anything that won back a little of her mother's goodwill was a useful thing. Mrs. Bennet had been relieved, at first, at Elizabeth's accepting Mr. Collins's hand in marriage – it had been the only thing to put a stop to the hysterics that had ensued following Mr. Bennet's death. Yet Mrs. Bennet had not entirely thought through that this meant her least-favourite daughter was to supplant her as mistress of the house, and even now, she continued to find new and inventive ways to chafe over this.

Mrs. Bennet should have had little to complain over; she had been allowed to move back into her old room, following Mr. Collins's death, her daughter taking the master's bedchamber. This was a greater sacrifice than Elizabeth had let on, for it was a room that held many unpleasant memories for her. She had ordered the furniture rearranged, primarily to move the bed, and had redecorated it in as appropriate a manner as she could while in mourning. The servants at Longbourn had accepted their mistress's sewing of new bed hangings and linens in black fabric as an activity of her mourning. Elizabeth's only care had been to make the bed look different, and if black was required to do so, she would do it. Now, she thought, she might choose something new, something bright and cheerful. Now, she was allowed to be cheerful, instead of keeping her smiles and good cheer hidden.

It was wrong, to be so pleased that a man was gone from this world, and yet Elizabeth could not help it. When it had happened, when one of the men from the local hunt had come galloping back to Longbourn to say that Mr. Collins had been unhorsed, and died there beside the fence he had fallen upon, her knees had given out, and it had rapidly become common knowledge in the neighbourhood that the widow Collins had fainted, upon learning of his death at such a young age. Yet Elizabeth had collapsed in relief, not grief, and it had been difficult, in the following weeks and months, to play the part of a mourning widow. She had mourned the man in her actions, but could not mourn him in her heart, or her mind. Not the man who had ordered her about, with no respect for her thoughts or wishes, who reminded her mother and sisters regularly of his largesse, in allowing them to stay there at Longbourn, a man who treated his servants and tenants so poorly.

Elizabeth shook her head. She tried not to think about those days. She desired only to remember the past as it gave her pleasure, and there was very little pleasure to be remembered from her married life. She would much rather think of Mr. Darcy, and what an agreeable turn he had taken, conversing with her for so long and so easily, and forgiving her with every politeness when she had spoken so harshly to him. He seemed completely altered, and for the better.

He was still the man who had wronged Mr. Wickham so severely in the past, however, and Elizabeth was not sure that a man who could commit such a wrong could wholly recover from his inherent character. Yet Mr. Wickham had also given a poor account of Mr. Darcy's sister, and Elizabeth would have thought such a proud creature as he had described, and one with so many accomplishments, would be pleased only by marrying a nobleman of some sort, not a man in service to his country. And certainly she would not then have moved to a provincial outpost, to be nearer to him, and to be described in great detail by Mr. Darcy as a sweet, kind, loving young lady. If Mr. Wickham had been untrue in one part of his account, was it possible he had been untrue in others?

Elizabeth considered these things as she went about the room, extinguishing the candles, the last done carelessly, so that it smoked a little as she climbed into bed. This was the place where she made the most effort to forget about her married life, and had the least success. Mr. Collins had not been a considerate man anywhere, and the bedchamber had been no exception.

Sometimes when she closed her eyes, Elizabeth thought for a moment she could still feel the ghost of him touching her. A stout man on his wedding day, Mr. Collins had bade his wife to keep a good table, and had availed himself of it thoroughly, growing more and more corpulent, his fat, sweating belly slapping against that of his wife as he pumped in and out of her. This Elizabeth remembered most vividly, despite her every attempt to forget it. She remembered the foul odours emanating from his body, the horrid taste of his mouth when he kissed her, and most of all, the pain, not just the first time, as she had been promised, but every night. A pain substantial enough that when Mr. Collins had made her go to town to see an accoucheur, to explain why she had yet to conceive his heir, she had set aside her embarrassment and told the physician of it. He prescribed sweet oil. She lied to her husband, and said it was meant to help with the production of a child.

The oil had lessened the pain a great deal, but a child had never come, and there were no other male heirs to Longbourn. So when Mr. Collins had bequeathed all of his worldly possessions to the fruits of his wife's womb, or failing this, his wife, those possessions had included Longbourn. Elizabeth had freedom, now, as well as security, and never again needed to endure what she had in this place.

She shuddered, and turned so she was facing the empty half of the bed. This was how she preferred to sleep, so that if she dreamt of her married life – and she did, often – she would wake and recall that it was over, reassured by the emptiness of her bed.

Online beta for this story is now over, and the story is available at Amazon, now titled Mistress.