First Act Prologue
The wedding day –

Longbourn chapel had never looked more inviting. Despite the season, the sun shone bright, seeming to bless the upcoming union, bathing the small church in warm merry tones, and drawing the eye to the explosions of flowers situated at the end of each pew. Roses, gardenias, violets and even a few delicate orchids, no fashionable blossom was absent. Where Mrs. Bennet had procured such a profusion of blooms, at this time of year and upon such short notice, was anyone's guess.

Yet, when your daughter marries a man of £10,000 a year, one must pull out all the stops, lest she feel slighted; even if she is your least favorite child and a headstrong willful girl, all told. But if Mr. Bennet were called to meet his Maker, it would not do for the new Mrs. Darcy to remember the strained state of the mother daughter relationship in recent years. No indeed, better to give her a lavish wedding, so that she carries all the attendant affection of such a triumphant send off into her new state of matrimony.

Mrs. Bennet had neither the sense to see that her relationship with her second eldest daughter was beyond repair - and perhaps had been irretrievable before the girl had even reached adulthood - nor the insight into Elizabeth's character to recognize that fripperies and trim meant less than nothing to her.

As was generally expected, Kitty and Lydia were making a spectacle of themselves. Could anyone remember an event where they had not stirred themselves to make a spectacle of some sort? They sat alternately giggling behind their gloved hands and then shoving each other in disagreement over who had rights to their dear departing sister's fine yellow armchair, while a stern Mary looked on in consternation, emitting indelicate huffs.

Mrs. Hurst sat absently playing with her pearl bracelet, her perpetually bored husband on one side and a much subdued Miss Bingley on the other. In fact Miss Bingley looked quite ill. Her normally clear catlike eyes were red rimmed and her complexion was a mottled mixture of shades, none of them becoming. And yet how could she be otherwise, when the man whom she had held such high hopes for stood at the altar waiting for another? More to the point, he was not waiting for the paragon of society, the princess of the ton, with connections as handsome as her fortune – the type of lady he was expected to marry. Bitter though it would have been, Miss Bingley could have conceded defeat to such a match. But her Mr. Darcy was marrying a nobody, a country miss with no fortune, no connections and no beauty. With a family uncouth in the extreme thrown into the bargain.

To be supplanted by the likes of a Bennet was galling. Why, just look at those two hoydens, to think that they would be welcomed to Pemberley as family! thought an otherwise still Caroline, clenching and unclenching her fists, without a care for her elegant kid skin gloves. Well there was nothing to be done, the wedding could not be halted at this late stage but she hardened her resolve. Her impressionable brother would not also succumb to the schemes of the Bennet family; devil take her if she was going to call that artful chit Elizabeth 'sister'.

The various other players in the little county drama were much as anticipated.

Seated just behind the Bennets, a jovial Sir William Lucas could be heard explaining to a young breathless Maria Lucas that upon her marriage, her good friend and neighbour would soon be presented at court. Further along the pew an enigmatic Miss Charlotte Lucas solemnly watched yet another girl, many years her junior, precede her into matrimony.

Bingley standing up for his long-time friend was wearing an eager smile, oblivious the emotional undertones of those around him. Of course his attention was consumed entirely by Jane Bennet, angel like, framed in a beam of sunshine on the far side of the altar. She blushed faintly under his admiring gaze, only adding more to her beauty. Last it was an ashen Mr. Bennet, who led his favorite daughter slowly up the aisle and handed her over to the waiting groom with a palpable air of resignation and sadness.

However what was not expected would be Elizabeth Bennet shuffling toward her future husband with her gaze stubbornly trained upon the tiled floor, her lovely dark eyes filled with unshed tears. Indeed with her pale complexion and stooped little shoulders she was as far removed from the notion of the customary blushing bride as could be.

All things considered, it may have been just as well not to look at her marriage partner. For Mr. Darcy likewise could in no way be described as the customary eager groom, his expression, far from showing warmth and love, was a study of barely restrained fury.

Yes, the overriding emotion Fitzwilliam Lawrence Darcy felt on this day, the day of his wedding, was anger. Anger at the parson who was about to tie him indelibly to this little adventuress; anger at her vulgar fortune hunting mother who had no doubt engineered the whole situation; anger for the strictures of society that left him no other option but to take such an unsuitable bride and elevate her to mistress of Pemberley; anger at himself for being careless enough to allow this business to pass. But the lion's share of his anger was directed at the feminine figure standing across from him - her traitorous eyes downcast even at her moment of triumph.

Even as these thoughts roiled around his confused mind Darcy made a conscious effort to mask his expression, to school it into indifference, if he could not counterfeit happiness. He relaxed his jaw, imperceptibly rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath. To stem the tide of gossip and prevent scandal from reaching London, inscrutability was the order of the day.

Think of Georgiana, he reminded himself. Naïve she may be, but a sweet girl at heart, Georgiana deserved the opportunity to discover felicity in marriage. He would not do anything to jeopardize her happiness; he would not even denounce this upstart fortune hunter. His grim ruminations almost made him miss the parson's cue, at a gentle prompting cough from Bingley, he choked out the words: 'I will,' with unmistakable tang of bitterness. So much for concealing his emotions.

A brief flash of dark eyes filled with surprise did nothing to quell his temper. Did she fear that I would not go through with it? No, she should know that she had chosen her prey with impeccable precision - his sense of honor irrevocably engaged; he could not back out now and still hope to call himself a gentleman.

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

'I will,' she quietly acknowledged, looking not at him, but shooting a gaze filled with sadness at her nearby elder sister.

An involuntary hiss escaped through his teeth. She would stand there blithely playing the victim! It was she who in her despicable greed had ruined all his plans and dashed his hopes of making a match of affection. Most of society would have scoffed at the thought. But beneath his stern exterior the Master of Pemberley harboured an unfashionably romanticized view of matrimony. It was not spoken of, particularly with his Fitzwilliam relations, but he had long hoped, nay expected, to emulate his parents' close relationship.

Unlike his peers, Fitzwilliam Darcy had grown up in a warm and loving household. The young master was not confined to the nursery, relegated to the care of servants and only trotted out for the customary viewing of the 'heir' at formal gatherings. On the contrary, from the time he could walk he was included in family life.

Defying convention, the Darcy's shared meals with their toddler son in Pemberley's private dining room, after which the family would eschew formality to settle down in front of a warm fire and discuss their day, play board games, read stories or simply do whatever took their fancy. Often the young master would fall asleep listening to the low rumble of his father's voice and the answering tittering laugh of his mother, basking in the gentle glow of familial affection. Thereon George Darcy himself, never a servant, would carry his son above stairs and tuck him into his bed. It was an unorthodox upbringing to be sure, but part of the legacy of the Darcy family. Love in marriage seemed as natural as breathing to young Darcy.

He spent the first season on the Marriage Mart anticipating the fairytale; he would see an elegant lady from across the room, procure a dance and be dazzled by her kindness, intelligence and gentle beauty. A whirlwind courtship would follow, for who would refuse such a well favoured and well connected suitor? He would quickly make her his wife and fill Pemberley with dark haired, handsome children. Gain a helpmeet to ease his many duties and a companion to fill his lonely hours. It was not so much a dream as the simple plan for his future days.

Despite his aversion to large gatherings he remained steady to his purpose, making a point of accepting a wide range of invitations to dinners, house parties, musicales and even dreaded balls. And his efforts were, on the face of it, rewarded: he received introductions to a great many beautiful and eligible young debutantes. They had the right family, the proper connections, the requisite accomplishments and handsome dowries. Most were pretty enough and a few were uncommonly beautiful but, once introduced, they all followed the same tedious pattern.

Each conversation held a decidedly rehearsed air. Topics introduced by the lady at hand eventually lead to what made her uniquely qualified to be the mistress of Pemberley. Accomplishments couched as interests, connections casually dropped into conversation upwards of a dozen times, and if she could obliquely allude to her sizable dowry all the better. Although delivered in the practiced London ennui, he could sense their feverish excitement; their eyes glittered with predatory zeal.

As he stood in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of London, a thousand covetous eyes crawled over him: rival debutantes, eager fathers, cautious brothers and of course matchmaking mothers; all waiting in the wings, keenly searching for any sign of interest, ready to pounce. And yet they saw only the future master of Pemberley and the accompanying wealth and status, not the man, the young man ready to love and be loved.

Even when Darcy valiantly attempted to bridge the gap, to share some of his more private passions and interests in order to break through the drawing room dance of polite nothings and forge a deeper connection, the ladies gave nothing of themselves. When he deliberately strayed from the well trodden paths of exchange to ask the deeply personal questions truly pertinent to the selection of a life partner, blank stares and nervous titters were his only reward. And of his own disclosures, they were listened to with only half an ear; as though his character was nothing more than a high stakes game, as if they could take the cards of his soul, play them shrewdly and dupe him into matrimony.

After his first complete season no one lady stood out from the crowd, indeed he would have struggled to tell one lady from the next: they were just so appallingly uniform. It was as if they had a formula for catching a rich husband, he mused, laugh at everything he says, tilt your face up to look at him, pout as often as you can, sweetly, yes very sweetly, criticise every unattached female within a one mile radius, agree with everything he says, no matter how nonsensical, oh and for heaven's sake never reveal anything personal: if he knows nothing about you he cannot conceive a disgust of you.

On the few occasions the veil did fall, it was far from pretty. In unguarded moments, when one could glimpse through the sweet docility, he would catch a mercenary glint, the smiles would take on an edge of pitiless calculation.

At first their affectations could be viewed with a measure of amusement. They were full young after all, like gambolling little kittens. Disappointing? Yes. But dangerous? No. He could even feel sorry for them: taught to play these games, pruned from a young age like hedges into these patterns of high society, so very eager to please but constitutionally unable to engage him.
However as time marched on, the sameness of it all began to grate. Near to the close of his first season he experienced his first near compromise. It was clumsily done and easily foiled, Darcy could even find it within himself to be grateful for the ham-fisted lady and her ill-conceived plan as it had put him on his guard, ready to frustrate much more elaborate traps in his future, set by some he had even thought to trust.

As the years passed without finding a suitable candidate, a sense of unease grew. Was he asking too much? Surely there must be some lady in the Ton who possessed the qualities he required for the benefit of his estate, family name and own yearnings. Or was the Haut Ton a stagnant pool where he would find nothing but these manicured, artificial specimens of womanhood?

He began to seek the warmth of affection he had expected to garner from a wife in the seductive half-light of the demi-monde. Never willing to suffer the ignominy inherent in patronising a brothel, like a common sailor, he indulged in a few discreet dalliances and eventually took a more permanent mistress. It was undeniably wrong, immoral and yet completely intoxicating. Colour seeped back into his days and his nights became a haze of sensual pleasure.

His courtesan of choice, Celeste Toussaint, was a vision of loveliness: luscious auburn curls against porcelain skin, a sultry build with the strange combination of impossibly long elegant limbs yet with an ample pert bosom. Her large grey eyes dominated her heart shaped face, which was finished with a perfectly bow shaped pair of dusky pink lips. Bedding her was certainly no hardship, but what had attracted Darcy were those grey eyes: they held a guileless quality at odds with her profession as a Cyprian of the highest order. When he was alone with her, limbs entangled after their lovemaking, he could lower his guard.

An excellent conversationalist, Celeste was as clever as she was beautiful. Darcy found her to be well informed on the arts and some literature; although for a woman born in a Country that had long been at war with England, she cultivated a shocking ignorance of politics: "Wars! Those already wealthy wish to be obscenely wealthy, so they stir up trouble, then a few years later a new batch takes their wealth by force. It is all the same and all so very tedious," she would complain, turning her head coquettishly.

Darcy's social exploits, on the other hand, were a constant source of amusement, and thus a frequent theme in their post-coital chatter. Celeste delighted in the ridiculous and would often request, nay demand, he recount the antics of his trail of hungry debutantes. "Oh my poor Fitzwilliam, harried on all fronts by petticoat mercenaries! If only they knew you prefer an argument to agreement, lively debate over submissive adoration, you would be caught inside a month, but I will keep your secrets if you keep me in your heart," she would purr, nuzzling his neck.

Away from her company Darcy could not help but feel some guilt over the arrangement; he knew it flew in the face of all that he had been taught, that his father, a man of sterling character and strong morals, would never have approved. But the relationship was his sanctuary, where he could indulge in his romantic sensibilities and exercise his sensual nature.

Regular interludes with Celeste allowed Darcy to approach society events calmer and more detached, buffered against the punishing circus known as the London Marriage Market.

It was at this time that the tone of pursuit altered in an altogether alarming fashion. The legend of the elusive Fitzwilliam Darcy had been escalating along with the desperation of the ladies who had foolishly refused other eligible offers to hold out for the prize of Pemberley. Perchance rumours of his taking a mistress had also played no small part.

When the established wisdom was that Darcy was on the hunt for a wife and would elevate one lady or another, a certain level of restraint was exercised; lest an over eager manoeuvre push him into the path of a rival. But a man with a mistress may have no need of a wife for years to come, may regard as a wife as a nuisance even. Thus the accepted mode of eager mothers introducing their hopeful daughters to him and stepping back to allow nature take its course was past.

The increasingly aggressive possessiveness of the most disingenuous young ladies, their mothers and occasionally their marriage minded fathers turned expectation to suspicion and vexation to resentment.

Games, arts and allurements became an unceasing menace. At balls and parties he found himself surrounded by flinty eyed misses, many of whom stood much too close and used any excuse to brush against his person. Of the more genteel ladies who tried to pierce his group of circling vultures were cruelly put in their place by his coterie of harpies.

Moreover any statement that resembled praise (even remotely) set families to crowing of their daughter's attachment to the great Fitzwilliam Darcy, making the normally quiet gentleman increasingly tight-lipped. And if he happened to stand up with a lady more than once in a month he could be sure half of London was speculating on a wedding date.

In a cruel stroke, the haven he believed he had found in the demi-monde, proved to be nothing more than another trap, another pattern card for a female: a femme-fatal.

It wanted but a month, and he would be celebrating the one year anniversary of his relationship with Celeste. On a short visit to tend his northern estates Darcy found an antique rose gold bracelet, perfect to mark the occasion. Eager to see Celeste, he deferred his requisite trip to Rosings and returned to town to present the gift, albeit a month early.

When he arrived at the small but luxurious house he had let for her in Chelsea, he expected to be welcomed with open arms. He was instead treated to a cold dose of reality.

The front door stood wide open, and a number of strange men were loading trunks onto a strange carriage. Darcy sauntered into the hall, though a sinking feeling in his gut made it hard to feign insouciance. At the bottom of the stairs he found Celeste tugging gloves over her long elegant fingers. She looked at him with a carefree smile, temporarily allaying his fears. "Going somewhere?" He said leaning in for a casual kiss, she placed her hands on his arms and leaned away with a flick of her hair, deftly avoiding contact with his eager lips. At his questioning glance she gave a little shrug and without a hint of shame, or indeed any emotion, went on to explain that their arrangement had come to an end; she had received another offer, a better offer, and that she wished him the best.

When he said that he thought she loved him, her blithe reply was: "Of course I loved you, I was paid to love you, now I will be paid more to love someone else. Adieu."

It was a blow, to be sure, and the staff at Darcy house spent the next week treading carefully around their unusually moody master.

The spell was broken by a visit from the ever affable yet shrewd Captain Fitzwilliam. He propped his boots out in front of him in Darcy's generous study, after dining at his cousin's equally generous table, "So do you want to talk about it?"

"I'd rather not," was his cousin's terse reply. Richard Fitzwilliam slowly swirled the brandy around his glass, surveying the deep amber colour. He took a sip, a gentle sigh signalling his approval of the fine vintage. "You will feel better once you do," he said taking a larger draft of the smooth liquid, now looking casually into the fire.

With a grudging nod Darcy admitted "You are no doubt right, but I will need a few more brandies first". And talk he did: at first it was just the bald unadorned facts, but as the liquor disappeared so did his reserve.

"The betrayal was the hardest to stomach. If she had been honest in her dealings, if any of the woman I have to deal with had but an ounce of honesty…." Opening his long arms in supplication Darcy gave a dejected shrug.

Rather than sympathy, Richard Fitzwilliam gave a hollow laugh that gathered strength and volume the longer he considered his cousin's naiveté. "The fantasy of true love is what you paid for; you cannot expect the affection of a bought woman to be enduring and deep." He sauntered over to refill his glass, holding it up to the light again before regarding his cousin, "You have come out of this remarkably unscathed: your reputation unharmed, your coffers full and your hide in one piece!"

Darcy raised a dark brow in query; his cousin shrugged "Some of my fellow officers have learnt the hard way to beware patriotic French lightskirts. Why don't you take a break, old man?" he queried, resting an elbow on his chair. "Not just from London, but from this damnable search of yours. Go take in some sport. And if you come across another chit, simply enjoy a lady for the sheer pleasure of her company, nothing more."

The next morning Fitzwilliam Darcy had a ringing monster of a headache but he had also gained some perspective on the affair. He had come very close to losing his head: maybe he had even unwittingly crossed the line between gratification and true love. From this point he would have to be more guarded when it came to the undeserving of the opposite sex. It was a painful lesson and more were to follow.

The pain inflicted by those long standing friends he esteemed, and had thought esteemed him in return; for his person rather than his wealth or status as a sought after Bachelor proved to be an ever greater disappointment.

After the rather curt dismissal at the hands of his mistress Darcy did not have the heart to see out the season, preferring to lick his wounds ensconced in the safety of Pemberley. But before he could depart London he received an invite to a small hunting party on his friend's estate: as it turned out he was not to be the hunter but the prey.

Arthur Frederick Osbourne had two 'eligible' sisters eager to become the next Mrs. Darcy and a new wife equally eager to see them settled; and the responsibility of someone other than herself.

Eloise Osbourne, a veteran of four London seasons at nearly two and twenty, was not disposed to let such a worthy suitor pass her by. When all her ladylike attempts to gain the attention of her brother's illustrious guest failed, she resolved to stage a compromise. Luckily Darcy had the loyalty of a most discreet, if somewhat protective, valet. Upon discovering the scantily clad Miss lying in wait for his master, in his own bedchamber no less, the man gave her a tongue lashing that sent her fleeing back to her own rooms with a face bathed in crimson.

When confronted with his sister's indiscretion the next morning Arthur's response was as unexpected as it was not to his liking.

"Why not marry the girl, Darcy?" Arthur responded airily, "I daresay you could do much worse, Eloise comes with a handy portion of fifteen thousand and you could get your nursery started. An heir and a spare and all that." Meeting with Darcy's forbidding expression the master of Blake Hall gave a short bark of laughter.

"That is unless you have an eye for little Anne," he continued with a wink. "I'd give them both to you if I could, save me the trouble and expense of another season. But as we live in Mother England, not under the reign of good old King Solomon, you'll have to content yourself with just the one."

"You mean to tell me you would permit, nay encourage me to marry a girl barely 16? You'd deny her a season and wed her to a man 10 years her senior? Have you taken leave of your senses?"

'So take Eliose then, if your scruples demand it, let's drink to matrimony!' He declared, wandering with casual abandon to the brandy decanter, making Darcy suspect his friend was already in his cups notwithstanding of the early hour. "I will not, nor will I impose upon your hospitality another night, since it comes at such a cost. Give my regards to your wife."

Eloise Osbourne was not the last damsel to try to secure Darcy as a husband though underhanded means. Yet forewarned was forearmed: the few men Darcy could still trust became a vanguard when necessity drove him into society. What a sad state of affairs it was, that a man in the prime of life could not safely take the air on a balcony alone or retreat to the quiet sanctuary of a library without some eager female lurking in the shadows, ready to spring the parson's mousetrap.

The attempts were universally thwarted, but the experience made him most guarded in his interactions and attentions. His manners, although well-bred, became increasingly uninviting. Mercenary debutantes, scheming matrons, heartless courtesans and ambitious patriarchs had all taken their toll. His naturally serious demeanour turned haughty and prideful, he found himself frequently looking upon women only to find fault. And his dream of a marriage built upon affection rather than convenience seemed ever out of reach.

But even a marriage of convenience would have been welcome in exchange for this farce! No connections, no dowry and what kind of breeding could she boast? Who is this country nobody to be mistress of the greatest estate in Derbyshire, to represent my family in the Ton and devil take her if she thinks to have her vile relations make free with my hospitality either at Pemberley or Darcy House. Had he known, he perhaps would have been horrified to have his thoughts so closely in step with Caroline Bingley's, but at this very moment his bitterness reigned supreme.

When the parson took her hand and put it in his own it took all of his resolve not to squeeze her fingers, crush them, and make her feel even a hundredth of the pain he was suffering. A long held Darcy legacy and personal dreams disappearing as his lips formed the hated words.

"I Fitzwilliam Lawrence Darcy take thee Elizabeth Grace Bennet to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for POORER, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth."

Darcy somehow infused the vows with a hint of disdain. Emphasising the 'poor' section and almost scoffing at the 'love and cherish' as they came from his mouth.

As the Parson rearranged their hands, Darcy's right with Elizabeth's right on top of his own he lowered his brows and directed at Darcy a firm look of consternation and warning.

At the Parson's prompting Miss Elizabeth Bennet lifted her eyes to contemplate her reluctant groom; with a steady gaze, eyes sparkling with defiance, she recited her vows. Slowly and deliberately enunciating the 'for better or worse' section.

After which she dropped his hand as if she had been burnt. But the Parson equally as disinclined to accept nonsense from the Bride, snatched her hand, bringing it back to join with Darcy's own, causing her to narrow her eyes and lift her chin stubbornly. Although the circumstances didn't warrant mirth, his lips twitched, he could not help but be amused at the plight of the beleaguered Parson, forced to contend with a couple determined to behave no better than spiteful children.

In a further childish display, Elizabeth sought to pull back her hand, but like the Parson, Darcy had had enough of antics. Keen to get the whole sorry business over with, he tightened his grip, as his mouth once more formed into a haughty line of displeasure.

He looked directly into his bride's eyes, slipping the plain gold ring over her second finger, somewhat roughly.

"WITH this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

She did not flinch from his burning gaze; in fact her countenance said that if there had not been so many witnesses she would have bitten him. Ah well, hopefully the little baggage could maintain her display of bravado, thought Darcy. In even the face of her earlier aura of grief, he cared not a whit for her happiness: why should he? The whole sorry affair was her own doing. Whatever her regrets, let her conceal them; he had no desire to journey to London confined to the carriage with a watering pot.

As they kneeled to receive their blessing she looked as if she might like to bite the parson as well, so fierce was her expression. But as feared, when they were declared man and wife her shoulders slumped even as she turned her tear filled eyes up towards the ceiling, or perhaps the heavens.
Darcy watched her take three deep breaths before following the parson over to the pulpit and the open wedding register.

She hesitated, running her thumb across the edge of the page while she held the quill poised, immobile, in her other hand. She looked up at him and Darcy felt suddenly impaled by those dark eyes. Her searching gaze seemed to be reaching right into his very soul, ransacking his hoard of secrets. Irrespective of the searing quality of her regard, he could not look away, for just as she examined his soul the window to her own opened through that earnest look. To think that he had met her but thrice and each occasion he had passed no more than a few minutes in her company, and now he was bound to this stranger till death do they part. In the inky depths of her eyes he could perceive uncertainty, fear and even a hint of curiosity. She tilted her head. The sunlight caught the hint of moisture remaining on her lashes and then abruptly the expression on her face closed like a slamming door, shutting him out, ending that brief moment of connection. She lowered her head with the grace of a striking falcon and swiftly signed her maiden name; 'Elizabeth Grace Bennet' for the final time; reluctantly accepting her future as Mrs Darcy.