Chapter 8: Thaw

Even after a day full of meetings with his Aunt Catherine and Mr. Collins — two of the most trying people to converse with — Darcy was happy. Sunday night's talk with Lizzie had gone far better than expected. It had taken all of his willpower not to just declare that he loved her when she'd asked why he googled her. But he was aware that she didn't share his feelings and didn't want to offend her again, or frighten her away. He had skirted around his emotions in their conversations. He'd come close enough that he was certain Lizzie understood the depth of his feelings, but he hadn't put her in the position of having to respond to a declaration.

His heartbeat raced when she'd offered a clean slate. Obviously he couldn't forget his early behavior or how horribly he'd treated Lizzie, but she hadn't sent him away. Had she wished it, he would have left and never imposed his company on her again, but she hadn't. Instead of isolating himself in his hotel room analyzing all of his failures, he'd spent the evening sitting across from Lizzie, soaking in her presence. Fitz and Brandon were witty and fun and Lizzie had laughed and smiled. He'd said little, content just to watch the woman he loved converse with his friends. Dinner the following evening had been even livelier with the noted absence of Mr. Collins.

He'd always thought her engaging, but he hadn't realized before watching her videos how much she'd held back in their interactions. He'd seen wit and vivacity, but apparently not ease. These last few days she'd grown more comfortable than she'd ever been in his presence, and he felt himself relaxing in return. It was nearly perfect and yet it made him long for more.

Now he was back in his hotel room dressing for dinner at his aunt's. Typically he dreaded this kind of event. His aunt expected certain archaic customs to be upheld. Unfortunately, these customs did not prevent her from dishing out advice and criticism to all around her. She often invited business associates or wealthy donors to these functions and expected Darcy to participate in inane small talk. It was exactly the type of social event he abhorred. But Fitz and Brandon would be there — they always put him at ease — and even Charlotte had a soothing way of incorporating him into the conversation. But most important was Lizzie, he hadn't had the indulgence of spending three evenings together in her presence since she'd stayed at Netherfield and now they were friends — his heart rebelled at the term, but it was still an improvement over her previous hatred.

He entered his aunt's foyer with far more optimism for a pleasant evening than he'd ever done in the past. That is, at least, until Caroline Lee emerged from the coat room and attached herself to his arm. "Darcy! I saw that you were in town and decided to take up your aunt's open invitation to visit! And of course Fitz and Brandon are always delightful. It's a shame that Lizzie Bennet is here to spoil our evening. I mean, she was out of place at Netherfield, but here at Rosings? Catherine tells me she sticks out like a sore thumb." All of Darcy's hard-won calm slipped away as he strove to be polite to Bing's sister.

Catherine was her usual condescending self. She made a point of juxtaposing her compliments to Caroline with her criticisms of Lizzie. She monopolized his attention, and every time he even attempted to talk to Lizzie she interrupted and demanded her share of the conversation. She refused to call Lizzie by her actual name and insisted on calling her Liz or Elizabeth. She made frequent oblique and overt comments on his and Caroline's compatibility. Caroline herself took every opportunity to send passive aggressive jabs at Lizzie, completing the evening's torture. By the end of the second course he'd nearly reached his breaking point.

"How's your sister Georgiana getting on?"

"Quite well, she's now nationally ranked in tennis," He replied tersely.

"Oh, splendid, splendid! It was so unfortunate when she gave up swimming."

Darcy hadn't shared the real reason for Georgiana's newfound dislike of swimming with Aunt Catherine and the question skirted on dangerous topics. He glanced at Lizzie and she gave him a sympathetic look. Drawing courage from her silent sympathy, he replied: "It's for the best, she wished to focus her accomplishments." He tried to remain calm, reminding himself that nobody at the table but Lizzie and Fitz knew about Georgiana's past with Wickham, but getting this close to the topic unnerved him.

"Umm, such a work ethic! Elizabeth, you should take note, you girls are much to prone to time wasting!"

And that was the last straw, Darcy'd had enough. "Lizzie certainly doesn't engage in time wasting activities! She's finishing up her graduate degree, writing her thesis, and completing four independent study projects."

"Well, if she'd been more shrewd in her decisions she could have been gainfully employed at Collins and Collins by now and helping shape the company rather than merely shadowing it and sleeping on her friend's couch. Ms. Lu certainly made the better choice."

The whole table was silent for a moment, even Mr. Collins realized that it was uncouth to mention such a thing with both women present. Darcy glared at his aunt. "Lizzie Bennet is brilliant and will be an asset to the field when she goes on the job market. If Mr. Collins had made her the offer after she'd finished her degree perhaps she would have taken it, but you've always been vocal about the benefits of an advanced college degree for getting ahead in business, particularly for women who have to work twice as hard to succeed. Charlotte is thriving and happy at Collins and Collins and I would not dream of criticizing her decision, but Lizzie would not have been content to abandon her studies so close to graduation. Certainly you wouldn't want Gigi to make such a choice."

"Certainly not! But that is not at all the same. In our circle, a graduate degree is essential, but people of Elizabeth's class have more pressing concerns." Aunt Catherine said, glaring imperiously over her glasses at Lizzie.

"And of course, we all know about the Bennet family's crippling debt problem," Caroline added with a barely concealed glee.

Darcy threw down his napkin and stood. "I'm ashamed of you both. Those are the kind of classist sentiments that alienate you from those around you and make you sound like nothing more than elitist snobs." He took a breath and glanced at Lizzie, who was now looking at him with something close to pride.

"William Darcy, sit back down. do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this! If you weren't my nephew, I would throw you out of this house."

"No need to throw me out, I find I've lost my appetite. Lizzie, would you care for a ride home?" His only thought was to get her out of there and away from the vicious barbs of Caroline and his aunt.

"Don't be rediculous! They haven't even brought out the port yet!" His aunt was berating him, but he was intent on a pair of sparkling eyes down the table. She nodded and took his offered hand as they silently walked out of the house.

When they got to the car, he opened her door for her before getting in the car and trying to contain his anger. He gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles went white from the tension. He looked over in surprise when Lizzie started laughing. "What could you possibly find amusing about that scene?" He asked incredulously.

"You! That was the most I've ever heard you speak at once!" She broke down into another fit of laughter, "if anyone had told me a month ago that William Darcy, who called me tolerable on the first night we met, would defend my accomplishments against the rude comments of his aunt with a rant about not being an elitist snob I would have told them they were crazy!"

Darcy chuckled a bit himself. "I believe I may have borrowed from your repertoire for that monologue. Was I really as bad as that?"

"In hindsight, no. But I hadn't met Catherine DeBurgh yet," Lizzie gave him a devastating smile and his heart flipped. She leaned closer and asked "will you help me costume theater that scene for the diaries?"

"I'd do just about anything you asked, Lizzie Bennet," he gravitated towards her, drawn in by her laughing eyes.

"I'm beginning to believe that," she said as she closed the gap and kissed him. It was soft and warm and a nearly perfect first kiss except that it was over far too soon for Darcy's liking. She smiled up at him, "you did just slay a dragon for me, another appearance on the videos to chronicle your chivalry shouldn't be too terrible." She paused for him to respond, but he found he couldn't command his lips to do anything other than smile back at her. Her eyes twinkled a little as she continued, "besides, I've never had as many views on a video than when you appeared on yesterday's."

Darcy's smile widened, he knew full well that there was a video that prominently featured Wickham's abs and yet he had been a bigger draw. Catching her playful mood and fueled by the euphoria of having her in his arms, he grinned and said: "Well, if you're using me for your ratings, I know what your viewers really want to see," he pulled her closer and kissed her deeper, longer, with all of the emotions he'd repressed for so long. He ended the kiss but rested his forhead on hers, unwilling to break the connection. "Lizzie Bennet, I am in love with you," he breathed.

She sighed, "I know," she toyed with his tie as she continued, "that's the only problem."

Even with his arms still around her he stiffened, "I'm sorry if you weren't ready to hear that yet, but I couldn't hide it from you any more."

Lizzie laughed, "you haven't done a very good job of hiding it since you sat down to write that letter. The problem is that I'm not in love with you... yet. But I could be. I just need time."

"Time," he sighed. His arms fell from around her and he began to pull back, "I can respect that."

"No!" Lizzie said and pulled him back to her, kissing him again. When she pulled back, she looked him directly in the eye and said: "Let me make things as clear as possible. William Darcy, I don't wanna be just friends and I don't wanna be with you because I'm grateful — though I am grateful for your defense in there — I wanna be with you because of you. But I didn't really start to know the real you until a few days ago, so I need time to get to where you are, ok?"

"I can live with that," he said and leaned in to kiss her again.

She leaned out of his reach and playfully said, "as much as I'm enjoying making out with you in the car, I'd rather not still be out here when Caroline leaves."

Dreading that outcome as much as Lizzie, Darcy cleared his throat and replied, "of course, where to?" He asked as he fastened his seatbelt.

"My camera's at Charlotte's if you feel up to shooting tonight?"

"If it means spending more time in your presence, I'd be happy to shoot tonight." He smiled as he shifted the car into reverse and left the whole unpleasant dinner behind them.