Hello again lovely readers! I don't need to tell you that this chapter has been a long-time coming. And on posting day my computer is playing up! The idea is to get back to monthly updates however there may be stops (8 weeks, 6 weeks) along the way. Big, huge, heart-felt overwhelming thanks to my Subscribers and a deluge of beta love to Lenniee, Badb, PhryneFisher, Myshl, Putitbriefly, Primprenella and Skydreamer.

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Chapter 15

Ghosts of An Arrangement

Elizabeth tucked a limp curl back under the brim of her bonnet as she paused at the top of the small hill. Though the perfectly manicured gardens of the park were devoid of blooms, the vista was still stunning. She took a deep breath of the chill air and felt the load of anxiety that had plagued her lighten a degree, even if she could not claim it completely banished.

A wheezing sound stole her attention. Turning to look over her shoulder she spotted her maid, half bent over and red faced, struggling to make it up the hill.

"Oh Margaret, I am so sorry!" Elizabeth exclaimed.

"Tis' alright… Ma'am… I—" Margaret tried to say, but her bellows-like puffing seemed to have robbed her of her voice.

"Never mind," said Elizabeth. "We shall turn back at once."

The young woman flapped her hands frantically as Elizabeth walked towards her, her eyes going wide in her very flushed face. Elizabeth paused, her guilt reaching new heights as the girl struggled again to find breath. "The shortest route to the carriage…" said Margaret, pointing her finger toward the summit of the climb.

Elizabeth nodded, more to herself than to her companion, and grabbed the girl by the elbow, pulling her the final five steps to reach the top. She did not release the imprisoned arm, steering her a few more paces towards an obliging park bench and forcing her to sit down. Margaret gave a sigh of relief as Elizabeth took a seat next to her. Elizabeth looked ahead, hands clasped in her lap, waiting, but with the stillness—and her maid's returning composure—so resumed Elizabeth's thoughts.

Three days ago Elizabeth Darcy had invited her husband to her bed, and to her reluctantly voiced offer her husband had frozen like a doe that has scented the hunter. The memory still made her purse her lips.

Loath as she had been to look directly at him, she had still watched him place down his quill, with deliberate movements, through her lowered lashes.

A standoff had followed.

She had felt the intensity of his scrutiny as one feels the hot summer sun even through closed eyelids. The sensation and the acceleration of his suddenly audible breaths had made a tingling warmth spread through her. She had pressed her legs together, all the way from ankle to thigh, taut like a bow with tension.

Some interminable seconds had passed before she realised she held her own exhalation. She had let the air out with a huff and found her courage.

Her long overdue perusal had found her husband staring at her. His chest had expanded and contracted rapidly in a manner that made her heart flutter. His expression—as she so often found—had been unreadable, but she had nevertheless felt seared by the burning intensity of his eyes.

The single nod to her previously indomitable courage had been her decision to look to the side instead of down once again. It had been to the side of her face that he spoke, "But it is Sunday…"

"If you wish to… that is… I feel up to continuing if it pleases you Mam," said Margaret haltingly. This time it was hesitance that stopped her maid's speech, but nevertheless the interruption cut across Elizabeth's introspection.

"Thank you. And Margaret, in the future I will choose one of the other girls to accompany me on walks, I am most sorry for abusing your stamina so."

"Oh no Mam!" the girl cried with feeling, "I was getting so much better. It is just that you have not been walking as often as before… I enjoy the exercise."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow but let the comment pass, gesturing instead to the path. As they began their descent, so her thoughts sunk into what could most aptly be labelled as brooding.

Her husband had been withdrawn at the dinner that had immediately followed her bold invitation. He had made little conversation, and the few comments he had ventured were mostly directed toward Georgiana. Elizabeth had gone to bed uneasy but also slightly incredulous.

When the new day had dawned a message had been delivered via the servants that Mr. Darcy had broken his fast early and would not be joining the ladies for the morning repast. He had been similarly absent at luncheon. Though it was actually a common occurrence, Elizabeth's nerves had begun to compound, lending his withdrawal a significance it did not truly merit. Only the memory of her mother's fits had allowed her to stave off a full blown fit of hysteria.

In the evening that followed, White had commented on her state of agitation, roundly castigating her mistress for her inability to remain still while she prepared her appearance for that evening's entertainments. Anger at her disagreeable maid—and the man who had forced the servant upon her—had carried Elizabeth through her toilette and allowed her to meet her husband with some semblance of decorum.

Their night abroad had been a test of her grace under pressure. Aside from the bare minimum required for the sake of appearances, Mr Darcy had not touched her. The hovering hand behind her back as she conversed, the occasional brush of his arm against hers, the sharing of warmth in the carriage home: all had been absent.

She could only conclude that he was disgusted by her.

Claiming the privilege of a married woman, she had taken a tray in her room the next morning. And, pleading a headache, she had continued her avoidance through the whole day.

The headache had not been a complete fabrication, but that it stemmed from anxiety rather than an ailment she did not share with anyone, though her new sister had made frequent forays to look in on her and attempt to raise her spirits.

If they thought it strange, neither Mr. Darcy nor Miss Darcy had seen fit to comment on her near miraculous recovery which had neatly coincided with getting ready for that evening's engagement.

Their destination on that night had been a concert. Though the music had been exemplary, Elizabeth had found the company lacking. The family they had accompanied boasted only one female. Diplomatically, Elizabeth would call the young wife of the eldest son 'quiet', but in truth she was both reticent and dull. The reason why had not been difficult to discern, as in the few breaks that made conversation possible, the men repeatedly formed their own cabal, not only excluding their feminine guests, but seeming to forget they were present altogether.

Strangely nostalgic for Mr. Darcy's previous solicitude, Elizabeth had been relieved when the evening ended.

Contrary to expectations, her husband had taken the seat next to her on their return trip. His quiet words upon reaching the Darcy residence had been equally surprising. He had apologised for his lack of attentiveness, explaining his contact with that family was more of a business nature than strictly social. He had emphasised his apologies with a kiss upon the knuckles of both hands, an act that had felt all the more intimate in light of the lack of contact in the days—and nights—immediately preceding.

Elizabeth's surprise had changed to confusion when he had gone on to explain that her offer had not been forgotten, but that he would not impose upon her this night. He had then cited a lack of adequate time, seeing as it was late and he knew she must be eager to find her bed.

What his basis had been for such a conclusion had been beyond her, and she was still equally baffled by the searching look he had given her before he had bidden her goodnight.

When another message had been delivered earlier this morning, again pleading her husband's need to focus on his work, Elizabeth had not been inclined to wait around the townhouse; insistently tapping toes and fidgeting fingers had made the idea of staying at home utterly intolerable. So she had left Georgiana to her lessons and set out to return calls rather than receive them; she also had had entertained high hopes of stealing a walk in the park before returning home.

Hopes that had now been realised, Elizabeth thought as she glanced at her maid to determine if the pace she now set was not too punishing to the girl. Margaret's assertion that this was the quicker route to the carriage were proven right. Their feet carried them around the bend, revealing the gates along with the clear outline of the waiting Darcy carriage. Which was just as well since, in her meandering, Elizabeth had grossly underestimated the lateness of the hour.

Luckily the route to the townhouse was not heavily populated, and Margaret's happy chatter—now that she was finally seated—prevented Elizabeth from slipping back into her maudlin reflections on the short journey.

Once at home, bureau mirror Elizabeth pondered her husband's words again.

"But it is Sunday."

She now fancied that the tone had been cold, whereas yesterday she had imagined it to be an utterance of shock. And when feeling especially low, she had attached tones mockery and disgust to the mere four word rejection.

Had he thought her wanton for suggesting congress on the Lord's day? Or some sort of heathen? Though she had noted he followed all the dictates of religion in form, he had never struck her as an especially pious man.

Resting her chin on her hand, she thought it must all come to a head, and soon, for tonight they were to dine as a family, with none but herself, husband and sister. In keeping with the younger girl's schedule, they would eat at an hour more suited to the country than to town, leaving some time for discussion after the meal which would be followed by a timely retirement; to facilitate Georgiana's early lessons.

An interrupted stretch of hours would follow; there could be no more obfuscation. To which bed would her husband first venture? She did not wish him to come to her, and yet his seeming refusal made her anxious. Any excuses—should he make them—could appear as nothing but untruths to disguise his antipathy for her.

She had long neglected her duty and now was reaping what she had sown. A yank on her hair painfully pulled her from her bleak ruminations. She gave White, and the hair arrangement she'd created, a scowl through the mirror and promised herself—once again—to think of it no more.

Elizabeth paused on the stairs on her way down to dinner, clearly hearing a second masculine voice. She had not been informed of intended company, quite the opposite, the last she and Mr Darcy had spoken of it.

When the owner of the mysterious voice was revealed to be none other than Lord Carbeck, despite his penchant for aggravating her, Elizabeth let out a minuscule sigh of relief. Lord Carbeck flashed a cheeky grin at her, rather at odds with Georgiana's bewildered countenance and her husband's decidedly stiff stance and expression.

"Why cousin, to what do we owe the pleasure?" she enquired, giving a deep curtsey.

"I am glad to see at least one member of my dear family recalls good manners. And I'm not at all surprised that it should be the relation by marriage, who carries none of the Darcy—"

"Couched though it was in polite terms, I am specifically wondering what brings you here Lord Carbeck," she rapidly intoned, halting his words—but permitting the kiss he seemed determined to place on the back of her hand.

"Did you have plans?" he said, blinking like an owl.

"A quiet night with the family" said Darcy gruffly, his folded arms hinting at how welcome—or rather unwelcome—his cousin's intrusion was.

"How perfectly fortuitous, I cannot think anything I should enjoy more than a quiet evening with my family." replied Lord Carbeck.

Though the line of her husband's mouth was noticeably thin, Elizabeth experienced a small lightening of her heart. She knew his reputation left something to be desired, but compared to Mrs. Bennet or her own cousin Mr. Collins, she saw no great evil in him; He was more impish than diabolical. He was also… a distraction… and she was in dire need of a distraction.

"That you are," she said. Not to be entirely selfish, her course of action was also influenced by the shining hopefulness in her sister's eyes.

Elizabeth therefore made the invitation for Lord Carbeck to join their meal official, mere seconds before the call to dinner, and she bore his escort with an added dose of grace, in direct contrast to her husband's continuing display of hostility.

"What, pray tell, is going on with your hair? Did your lady's maid have her eyes closed whilst completing the arrangement?" inquired Lord Carbeck irreverently, as he pulled a curl free to bounce against the back of her neck.

She batted his hand away. "White has very definite opinions about how hair should be arranged and is not inclined to listen to someone who has 'the devil's own curls'. If you wish to take it up with her, be my guest."

Stepping out of his reach, Elizabeth turned to share a look with her husband, but instead of sharing her exasperated amusement, she found his brows were lowered in a furious frown. Elizabeth had to fight down a juvenile desire to poke her tongue out at the vexing man, without a doubt the compound effect of his mercurial behaviour all week.

To her relief, once they were seated, Mr. Darcy retreated into a more opaque expression. Elizabeth chewed her lip even as Lord Carbeck led the conversation at the table in light topics. A considered glance suggested the lord's unprecedented tact may have improved her husband's temper, if the flickering around the corner of his mouth was a reliable indicator, and the lord's recital of the latest on dits certainly had Georgiana smiling and even breaking into occasional bouts of giggling.

With such an intimate party, composed exclusively of family, there was no separation of sexes following the meal, but it did not follow that the post dinner coffee and conversation was in any way comfortable.

Elizabeth's first grievance was her cousin's choice of seat, namely right next to her and indecently close. She fidgeted and edged away, but it was not an especially large sofa, and his legs seemed to be endlessly long. It did not take a genius to discern her husband's thoughts on the seating arrangements.

His lordship's choice of topic made for her second hardship. Gone were the light anecdotes… in their place, Lord Carbeck began heckling her over her popularity and excess of callers.

Blinking at the shift that bordered on a tirade Elizabeth replied: "I enjoy good conversation and have moved sufficiently in society of late to meet those who share my interests." She followed with a dismissive shrug, but Lord Carbeck did not desist. Instead, with an uncharacteristically serious expression, he began to interrogate Elizabeth on her past guests.

"I can assure you my drawing room is not some den of iniquity. Yes, many of the guests cannot claim backgrounds of privilege, but it does not diminish their worth as human beings or my interest in their discourse." Elizabeth gingerly placed her tea cup down and crossed her arms over her chest.

"And you welcome these characters into your home?" he said, turning his attention to Darcy.

Her husband had barely parted his lips when Georgiana interjected. "They are indeed the most clever and interesting people I ever met," she cried. "They talk of things that matter!"

Elizabeth's eyebrows climbed almost to her hairline; Mr. Darcy seemed equally surprised by his sister's outburst. When Elizabeth looked at Lord Carbeck, however, his face bore an expression as if there was a noxious insect in want of squashing, and said look was directed at Georgiana.

Understandably, like a tortoise shrinking back into its shell, her sister's courage retreated in the face of such an ill-intentioned grimace.

"Have you learnt nothing, Georgie?" said Lord Carbeck, his tone a combination of scorn and exasperation. "I begin to think this blindness to class distinctions some sort of wilful rebellion. You have graduated from professional rogues at least. But although you may fancy the life of an artist's or poet's wife to be a romantic one, I can assure the well of affection will run dry neatly in tandem with your dwindling funds!"

Elizabeth's eyes darted between her three companions. She expected Mr Darcy to interject at any moment—indeed he looked ready to jump from his chair—and yet he remained seated and silent.

"And given your history I would have every expectation of you picking a scoundrel to boot. It will grieve your brother—it will grieve your entire family—but the lion's share of the grief will fall on you if you persist in this folly."

"That's enough," said Darcy. Georgiana's head was bowed and her shoulders shook lightly.

"Nothing to say?" prodded Lord Carbeck, despite Darcy's rebuke.

"James! Your mother and Mrs. Darcy have been with her the entire time," said Mr. Darcy. "I am confident no impropriety has occurred."

"Are you?" replied Lord Carbeck, his words accompanied by a raised brow.

"I wonder then at the provenance of the betting pool that has sprung up around your little sister's marriage prospects." His lordship paused for effect before hissing: "Four men, nary a crown between the lot of them—and even poorer in morals than they are in cash—these are the men that punters speculate will soon be joining our merry little family."

Elizabeth looked sharply at the still fuming man. "What history?"

But it was Mr Darcy who spoke, "If you had concerns you ought to have sought me out in private."

Lord Carbeck's gaze remained on Elizabeth despite his cousin's newest admonition. "You never thought to inform the watchdog of your little lamb's fascination with wolves? Shame on you, Cousin," he tutted.

Elizabeth stood up and squared her shoulders. "You will have to forgive my rudeness, but I think it is time I retired, and I suggest ought to Georgiana follow my lead."

Her husband shook his head; placing a hand on his sister's knee, he gestured for Elizabeth to reclaim her seat with his spare hand. Elizabeth pouted but did as directed, her curiosity outstripping her annoyance at being talked over. But Mr. Darcy seemed more inclined to clear his throat than speak. Lord Carbeck, in a discordant display of delicacy, made a point of closing the door.


Elizabeth was quiet, and just as she did not venture any comments to hint at the pattern of her thoughts, her countenance was similarly closed. Not so with Georgiana. While Lord Carbeck's earlier reprimands had moved his sister to desperate tears, Darcy's bland recounting of her time in Ramsgate had prompted a murderous expression to take up occupancy on the young girl's face.

Darcy was not the sole recipient of her dark looks; Lord Carbeck had seen fit to elaborate on Georgiana's prospective suitors and their respective financial woes and thus earned a measure of her ire. Whether it was because he discredited a particular favourite, or if it was merely a result of her general humiliation, Darcy could not be sure. However, he would make it his business to find out.

In the silence that reigned afterwards, Darcy could just make out the clock ticking in the entrance hall. When said clock began to strike the hour, Lord Carbeck slapped his hands on his thighs before declaring that he was off.

His cousin placed a kiss on a limp hand when he bid his farewells to Elizabeth, and received a hiss for his troubles when he ventured the same on Georgiana.

"I will walk you out," said Darcy.

The door to the drawing room had barely clicked shut when Darcy said in a low voice, "I am far from appreciating the way you have interfered in my household tonight." A nod at the footman sent him on his way.

Lord Carbeck's eyes seemed to look through Darcy, though he noted that a small muscle flexed in his cousin's jaw. "Was humiliating my sister in such a way necessary?" Darcy pressed.

"I think so," replied his cousin. "If she has recognised the error of her ways, I see no evidence of it. You have treated her softly and she has begun to believe you soft… She needed to squirm on the hook. But give me credit for showing some restraint, I mentioned nothing of Howell's muses; sisters whom he beds, sometimes together if rumour is to be believed." He winked.

"Previous acquaintances of yours?" said Darcy.

Lord Carbeck looked theatrically aghast. "May I never lay with a whore so cheap!"

"But you seem to know a great deal of their 'arrangement'," pressed Darcy.

Rarely had a trip across the vestibule taken so long. "I took care gathering information. Your sister she may be, but Georgiana is also my cousin and a foolish girl; I would do that which is within my power to prevent her from selling herself into a life of misery."

"You ought to have come to me," Darcy argued, rubbing the back of his stiff neck. "And you will apologise to my wife, or you shall be admitted to my home no more."

"A strong show of defence for a man who did not bother to confide in his wife the pertinent information about her charge."

Darcy growled. "I had my reasons—you may guess at them—but you will not interfere in my marriage."

Lord Carbeck merely licked his lips, glancing in the general direction from whence they had come. "Had expectations of your 'quiet family' evening, did you? And I thwarted your half laid plans?"

There was a dropping sensation in the vicinity of his stomach and Darcy's hands fisted at his sides.

"I shan't apologise," said Lord Carbeck airily. "Duty before pleasure and all that." And with a wave, he was through the door.

Darcy strode into an adjacent room, surefooted even in the low light. Lifting a curtain aside with a fingertip he watched his cousin, all the time wondering at the alteration in his bearing after a mere handful of steps. Lord Carbeck's nod to his attendants was perfunctory at best, and when he mounted the steps to his equipage stiffly he did not immediately enter, but instead regarded the house with a stony expression for a span of moments.

Darcy harboured no fear of discovery. None at all, for his cousin was looking in another direction entirely, gazing intently, as if he could see through walls, or perhaps mere draperies, into the room that contained Darcy's wife and sister.

Likewise, Darcy hesitated before returning to the women of his household. Duty before pleasure… duty before pleasure… duty before pleasure… The ambiguous, yet laden phrase continued to ring like an overzealous bell, the refrain rebounding off the walls of Darcy's skull.

He had tasted his wife's duty and her pleasure, and had no doubt of which he preferred. But in step with his certainty was his blasted confusion about the motives and motivations behind her offer. Pessimistic notions of her intentionally manipulating him were easily discarded, but just as easily, any hopes of her welcoming his touch of affection or desire were effortlessly laid to rest. It was war between what he rightly suspected and what he fervently wished for.

He strode over to his desk, leaning heavily on the mahogany. He desired his wife, he admired his wife, he thought he might be on the way to falling in love with his wife. It should have been a joyful revelation, and it might have been if not for the looming shadow of his conduct in the earliest days of their union.

Darcy's fingers curled around the edges of the roll top timber, his knuckles turning white with the strain. He had made a rod for his own back with his anger and callous cruelty toward Elizabeth, starting from the moment they stood at the altar together. Would that he could go back and do things over.

What rights did he have as far as his wife was concerned? A right to obedience… when he had not been the master of his own emotions? The right to respect… when he had accorded her precious little? The right to affection… When he had shown her none?

A small light in the dark was his surety that he had been making some progress, their light flirtation and her increasing comfort with his touch were all developments showing some promise. And yet, for each two steps forward he seemed to be taking another back.

A previously undiscovered talent of saying all the wrong things played a large part, but Darcy also knew he was ill at ease.

While he could now admit that his early perceptions of his wife were significantly distorted by his bias, there still remained too many unexplained inconsistencies in how their marriage had come about. His early beliefs might be wrong, but it did not follow that he had any idea of what was right. Elizabeth was far from forthcoming, perhaps justifiably so, but he was still loath to place his cards on the table, so to speak.

Whatever the cause, no matter who was to blame, it was too soon to return to her bed. For all that he was half mad with the thought of laying with her again, his every instinct told him that it was too soon.

In most things Darcy was not inclined to dither or practice cowardly avoidance, but in this instance he did both. Perhaps Lord Carbeck's unwelcome intrusion provided an excuse to delay further.

He may not have had the knowledge of how to proceed, but his perception stretched just far enough to recognise he spent half of his time getting in his own way, and how little he knew of pleasing a woman worthy of being pleased.

His return found Elizabeth sitting in much the same attitude. Georgiana had made her escape. There was a vague sense of disorientation in his wife's bearing that made Darcy's chest tighten, though he could not determine the precise source of the impression. She was mostly still and thoughtful.

"I must beg your forgiveness for my cousin's appalling behaviour this evening. I have taken him to task—little good that it will do—but until he tenders you an apology you may consider him banished from this house," said Darcy, causing Elizabeth to startle slightly. She recovered quickly, his last statement triggering a rueful smile.

"You will force an apology from your cousin?" she clarified.

"It is owing, and I will see the debt of courtesy paid."

Elizabeth shook her head lightly, setting her curls bouncing. Her hairstyle was a bit uneven, and he would have to probe her feelings regarding her maid at some future date. The torpid quality to her movements strongly indicated this was not the time. Nor was it an appropriate evening for other pursuits.

"I think that Lord Carbeck means well. I would not violate his confidence, but having suffered an unhappy marriage he seems determined to rescue others from a similar fate… It was an eventful dinner, you should retire, tomorrow is soon enough to…" he trailed off.

She ventured into the gap, enquiring "I should retire you say. What of yourself, Sir?"

Darcy did not know what to make of her expression. Her dark eyes regarded him with a deep sadness.

In the past he had been often struck with the sense that her eyes could look directly into his soul, but in rare instances the opposite was true, and they provided an intimate glimpse of her deeper self. In her inky depths swirled trepidation and disappointment. The picture would have been naught but bleak were it not for the light sheen of hopefulness that sat as oil on water.

Seeking to fulfil her hope, Darcy explained that after such a tumult he would not be seeking her bed, and witnessed her eyes cloud with despair.

"Elizabeth… I know that our marriage has not been as it should…" he sighed running a hand through his hair, "I am merely trying to be considerate… We spoke of a truce at Christmas, would you object to my adding an additional term to it?"

At her soft nod he felt compelled—if not comfortable—to continue.

"Might I suggest we add honesty and a certain degree of openness to our interactions? I would like to do more to please you, but it is a rather tall order if I have little indication of your wishes."

Her fingers came up to fiddle with the simple chain she wore around her neck, and her eyes lowered as she pondered his request. The wait was not long, but her mere nod of assent did not meet the spirit of his request.

Nevertheless, Darcy put a cork in his irritation, keeping his tone level as he addressed his wife once again. "I would like you to answer me truthfully…" he paused until her eyes met his own. "Do you want me to visit your bed this evening?"

Small teeth came down upon her full lower lip and a shimmering edge to her eyes suggested suppressed tears, but her response was: "I would be disappointed if you did not."

Through the sudden tightness of his throat, Darcy croaked, "So it shall be."

He assisted her from her chair. Her hand was cold and lifeless in his. He may have been unable to contain his wince as he enquired, "How long do you require to… prepare?"

Her eyebrows came together in a mild scowl. "A half hour should be ample, come sooner if you wish."

And with that proclamation her spirit seemed to be in assent again, even though he had not the faintest idea why. Her no nonsense strides took her up the many stairs and behind her closed door. While, like a parasite, her earlier leaden temperament seemed to have fastened itself to him. Darcy completed his ablutions with a sense of impending doom.

Would that he could go back and do it all again. He considered a lonely nightcap, but aside from not wishing to smell of drink, Darcy was not inclined to trust his churning stomach not to cast up its accounts.

Yes, there was trepidation aplenty, but what sickened him was the measure of anticipation that he could not suppress. It already had his traitorous member at half-mast though, he was positive her welcome was not genuine.

He knocked lightly on his wife's door, leaning his head against the heavy wood while he waited for her response. He was on the cusp of walking away when he heard her voice, barely above a murmur and unintelligible. He still took it as assent and eased the latch.

Elizabeth wore a nightgown, buttoned up to the neck and voluminous in the extreme. It conveyed her sentiments clearly. Likewise her hair was bound into a serviceable braid.

In principle it was far from seductive. But messy curls had sprung out here and there; one to soften her brow, another curl under her chin. He longed to push the former from her delicate forehead. Would it obey his commands or merely spring back into place? Giving him the excuse to caress her again? And the latter he could twine around his finger while he kissed the exact spot where the corner of her chin met her porcelain neck. Of course her neck was covered by the nightgown. But even that garment, sure to be dowdy on most, seemed to hold some sort of magic: the crisp white set off her colouring perfectly and floated around her slim figure. The effect was once again unintentionally lovely.

She stood her ground, her chin lifted in defiance. She did not acknowledge his entrance into her private domain verbally, but sparred with him by her expression alone. A flick of her head preceded her practically stomping over to the bed. She laid down, shifting side to side to move further up the mattress until she could place her feet flat on the bed, her knees pointing up in the air. Well, almost in the air, as she inched the nightgown up her shins until it rested atop her knees.

Her movements were modest—hesitant even—hardly a seductress, and yet in the low light of a few candles and the fire he could just discern the outline of her curls guarding her most intimate of places. His mouth went dry and his staff impossibly rigid.

Without knowing how he got there, Darcy found himself looming over his beautiful wife, his desire upon him like a fever. He traced circles on her knee caps with the tips of his fingers, tickled the inside of her thighs, edging his way toward her centre.

She watched him at first, her eyes fixated on his hands rather than his face. But ere long she turned her face away to the side, at the same time she began to shiver. Darcy hooked his hands behind her knees to pull her mound flush against his warm body. She whimpered but it was not a sound born of desire, even this he could tell through his own haze.

He offered no resistance when she pulled her legs back, locking them tightly together before rolling to her side, away from him. Taking a few deep breaths to calm his own tumult Darcy sat beside her form on the bed, waiting for her to speak.

She was neither breathing heavily or showing any outward signs of distress, just laying very still. Were it not for the rigidity to her frame he would have thought her fallen into slumber.

He raised a hand to stroke her back, but thought the better of it; it hung suspended for a moment before he placed it on the bed. He cleared his throat, twice… perhaps three times.

"I had a mistress."

That certainly captured her attention. She rolled over quickly and shuffled up the bed to sit pressed firmly against the headboard. Her wide eyes, open mouth and slightly curled lip further reinforced the impression that she believed him to have either lost his mind or was carrying some sort of contagion. Admittedly, it was an ill-chosen phrase.

"It was long before we were married… before I had even ventured to Hertfordshire…" Darcy assured her. She remained blatantly incredulous.

Finding it easier to speak when he was not confronted by her aghast expression, he looked down at his hands and allowed the disclosures to flow.

"I will not sport with your intelligence by claiming I was an innocent when I began my arrangement with Celeste, though when measured against my contemporaries I was very green when it came to dealings with the fairer sex… Celeste was… beautiful obviously… but also very witty." Darcy took a deep breath.

"I found her irreverence irresistible, she appeared to care little for my wealth or standing. She put me at ease with her teasing. Ere long my visits to her became the centre of my world; a little oasis I could retreat to when family expectations and the general marriage market became too much. I confided in her, perhaps too much. Anything she asked for I gave her without thought. Looking back—as foolish as it was—I was well on the way to being in love with her."

"Why was it foolish to love her?" Elizabeth had spoken the question quietly, almost as if she had not intended him to hear, but he answered her anyway.

"Because she never cared for me at all. Had I not paid her a surprise visit, I am quite sure she would have decamped from the home I had provided her without a farewell. She'd received a better offer, you see, and thus had no more need of my attentions and affections." Darcy knew that the last had been uttered with bitterness, but felt compelled to add, "I had even been contemplating marriage, so yes, I felt quite the fool."

Dropping his head into his left hand, Darcy pondered whether it was fair to ask Elizabeth to be more forthcoming when he found the experience to be so painful.

He startled slightly when he felt a small dainty hand grip his free one. Darcy remained still while she brushed soothing circles on his back with her other palm. "I am sorry," she said huskily, close enough to his ear that when he turned to regard her they were almost lip to lip.

Throwing caution to the wind Darcy kissed her. Exhausted with words, he tried to communicate all his growing admiration and repressed passion in the melding of his lips with hers. She responded at first, going boneless in his arms and opening her mouth to his questing tongue, but as he deepened the kiss he felt her begin to stiffen once more. He released her promptly but reluctantly. And he sighed when she stepped down from the edge of the bed and away from him.

As she stood in front of him, her head down, still except for the twitching of her fingers and suspected chewing of her lip, he searched for something to say. Conspicuously absent her usual grace she reached forward, with hands that shook rather than twitched, and lifted his nightshirt, exposing the incontrovertible evidence that he had enjoyed their kissing very much indeed.

Placing a knee next to his outer thigh she rapidly hiked the hem of her own nightwear. Breathing heavily Darcy tried to say that she need not… not what? But she placed a finger upon his lips.

"Could you move back?" she asked huskily.

She followed him up on the bed. Everything was happening rapidly. Still seated, he eyed the top of her head as she reached between them to guide him to her entrance. He hissed as her fingers gripped his length and moaned when they were replaced with her moist warmth.

Lifting up uncertainly on her knees she eased down upon him again, making his breath catch. His arms made to encircle her but she shrugged her shoulders—almost to her ears—and he could feel that awful stiffness permeating her body once more.

Sensitive to her cue, no matter how little he cared for it, he dropped his hands to his side. Nor did he complain when she draped her arms over his shoulders for leverage. How could he? She was finding her rhythm, moving up and down, grinding upon him also.

Unable to help himself Darcy lifted his hips, pushing up against her on the down stroke, making her whimper with pleasure. She began to move faster.

Though the urge to pull her tight against him, plunder her mouth or even flip her onto the bed was blindingly strong, he merely lowered his head. Resting it just below her shoulder, he panted and growled into the fabric of her gown.

She quickened her pace again and he pushed harder.

Her whimpers turned into cries, until she dropped one final time, shuddering and shaking. The intimate feeling of her pulsing climax broke all of his restraint. He pulled her tightly to him and pressed into her, spilling his seed deep inside with a grunt.

In the span of minutes it took for their breathing to normalise she did not fight his embrace, but when he made to recline and pull her down to the bed with him she pulled away. Removing first one arm, and then the other, before scuttling backwards to bring her to standing.

She gave him a shy smile without meeting his eyes and pleaded that she needed to refresh herself. Darcy felt foolish for the sense of abandonment that immediately flooded him, and did his utmost to conceal it. "Of course," he replied, his voice still gravelly.

She nodded and then on light feet flew to her dressing room.

Darcy laid back on the bed, carelessly throwing his arms up over his head to stretch, before letting them fall naturally. Idly cupping his spent member and scrotum, he wondered what had prompted her rather dominant behaviour, and then decided it didn't greatly matter if he could be treated to an encore.

Lifting up onto his elbows he looked in the direction whence she had gone and contemplated the closed door. As more time passed he sat up. He absently rubbed his hand over the wrinkled comforter, his jaw working with agitation.

Elizabeth was not coming back. Had he erred? Should he have refused? He became weighed down with melancholy once more.

He would have liked to spend the night with her; holding her, talking to her and making love to her again. Much like they had on that first night together. Instead he snatched up his robe, roughly tugging it over his arms and tying to sash aggressively. But he completed his exit in near silence, softly opening the door and shooting the dressing room a final look of sadness before quietly closing the hall door behind him.

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