Elizabeth Bennet was incensed.

Not one, but two, men she detested had asked for her hand in marriage on the very same day! No sooner had the obsequious Mr. Collins left than the equally offensive Mr. Darcy had walked in. Mr. Darcy's insulting proposal was even more irksome than that of Mr. Collins! Mr. Darcy's words, she could not help but think, were calculated to offend and remind her of her own inferiority. He stood before her now, eyes dark with desire, awaiting her response.

"I would be lying to you, Mr. Darcy, if I told you the feelings you have expressed were equalled by my own. You might be interested to know that scarcely an hour before you arrived, my cousin the Rev. Collins asked for my hand in marriage, an offer which I refused.

"Yet, Mr. Darcy, I am not inclined to reject your proposals out of hand. You have much more to offer me than Mr. Collins does. You insult me, Sir, with your appraisal of my family and connections, so if my response insults you, then so be it.

"So yes, I will marry you, Mr. Darcy. I will be a good and dutiful wife to you and a devoted mother to your children. But I do not love you and I never will, and I want you to know that now so that you may withdraw your offer if you so choose."

Mr. Darcy's response was a curious one.

"Mr. Collins? Mr. Collins had the temerity to think you would consider an offer of marriage?"

How conveniently he had ignored the words that had followed Elizabeth's disclosure of Mr. Collins' proposal!

"Temerity, Mr. Darcy? As you have as much as said yourself, Mr. Collins is more my equal in rank than you are, Sir. A connection with him would not be as...what was the word you used...'reprehensible' as one with you!"

Mr. Darcy colored. "Perhaps that was an unfortunate choice of words on my part, Miss Bennet."

"Not at all, Mr. Darcy. I appreciate your honesty and only want to reciprocate it with my own."

"So you are saying you will marry me, Miss Bennet, although you do not share my affection?"

Elizabeth was almost ashamed of what she was about to say, measuring her words to deliberately wound him as he had wounded her.

"I do not even like you, Mr. Darcy. But as both you and Mr. Collins have so aptly pointed out, the inferiority of my connections makes it unlikely so superior a match will ever come my way again."
"You will marry a man you do not even like, Miss Bennet? For what reasons?"

"Your rank. Your wealth. The security such a marriage will bring to my family."

There, she thought defiantly. Surely her words would be enough to send the man directly out the door, never to return again.

But she was wrong. Darcy looked away for a moment, then back at her again, his face expressionless.

"Very well, Miss Bennet. When may I speak to your father?"

Elizabeth was shocked.

"Mr. Darcy, in light of what I have told you, you are still desirous of this marriage?"

"Miss Bennet," he said wearily. "I am accustomed to being courted for my wealth and position. Many women have...but that is of no consequence now. You are the woman I want, and if the material benefits I bring to marriage are what have won you, then so be it. I would have wished..." His voice trailed off.

He reached inside his vest and withdrew a small blue velvet box and handed it to her.

"Here, Miss Bennet. You may consider this a down payment of sorts. I assure you, there is much more to be had if you fulfill your half of this bargain," he said, a trace of bitterness creeping into his voice.

She opened the lid of the box to reveal an exquisite ring of rubies and diamonds.

"Who can find a virtuous woman," he quoted sarcastically, "for her price is far above rubies."

Elizabeth stared at him. "Mr. Darcy, I cannot..."

"Of course you can, Miss Bennet. I had planned to place that ring on your finger myself, but I find I am anxious to speak to your father before you have the opportunity to change your mind. You will excuse me," he said, and strode purposefully out of the drawing room in the direction of Mr. Bennet's study.

Only when his back was turned and she could not observe his face did he allow his impassive expression to crumple into one of grief and desolation.

After just fifteen minutes, Mr. Darcy, looking quite grim, returned to Elizabeth.

"Your father would like to see you immediately," he said.

Mr. Bennet barely waited until Elizabeth closed the library door behind her to exclaim, "Are you out of your senses accepting this man, Lizzy? Have you not always hated him?"
"I can not lie to you, Father. I am not in love with Mr. Darcy, nor had I ever seriously considered marrying him until today. I realize he can be proud and disagreeable, but he has surprised me with how strongly he professed his affection for me."

"Please, my child. Do not marry without affection! No good will come of it."

"I must tell you, Father, that Mr. Darcy's was not the only proposal that was made to me today. Mr. Collins also requested my hand in marriage, and I promptly refused him. He informed me that I should be aware that another offer of marriage, because of my lack of dowry and connections, might never come my way, and I must admit his remarks gave me pause. So whan Mr. Darcy made his addresses a short time later, I found myself giving him greater consideration than I might have previously.

"I am not certain that I will ever find a suitable man to love. And perhaps my betrothal to Mr. Darcy will make it more likely that Jane and Mr. Bingley will marry as well."

"But did you not tell me, Elizabeth, that Mr. Darcy discouraged Mr. Bingley in his attachment to Jane?"

"Yes, but do you not see how ludicrous it would seem for Mr. Darcy to disparage the Bennet family to Mr. Bingley now that he is making the undesirable connection himself?"

"Oh Lizzy, Lizzy," Mr. Bennet said, taking her hands in his. "Undesirable connection? Please do not continue in this manner. How do you justify marrying a man whom you rightly hold in such disdain?"

"You know full well that I must marry, Father, and all the better if I am able to marry well. Mr. Darcy says he loves me, and although I rather doubt he understands the emotion, I do not think he will be unkind to me. I can bear being married to him as well as I could any other, and the future of my family will be secured."

Mr. Bennet hung his head. "You shame me, Lizzy. Securing my family's future is my own responsibility, and I have failed you all miserably. And now I must watch you marry a man you neither love nor respect."

Elizabeth blinked back tears.

"All will be well, Father," she said, bending to kiss his forehead. "I promise you."

Darcy was waiting for her in the drawing room, and he was dismayed at the sadness of her expression. This evening was so different from how he had envisioned it. Yes, he had assumed she would be surprised at his declaration, shy at his ardour, reticent at expressing her own feelings. He had been confident she would be overjoyed at his proposals, not that he flattered himself she was as ardently in love with him as he was with her, but that she at least found him appealing and worthy of her admiration.
What a fool he had been. But he wanted her so badly that he would take her as his wife on any terms, and he knew she was an honourable woman who would live up to her marriage vows.

But she did not love him, and it hurt. And not only did she not love him, she had emphatically declared that she never would. Could he live with her for the rest of his life, sleep in her bed and look upon her with love and longing, knowing she was indifferent to him? Could he bear to look into her beautiful eyes and never see his love returned?

These were his thoughts as she came back to him, as she sat opposite him next to the fire.

"Elizabeth..." he said haltingly. "Will you allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you?"

His voice was so soft, his words so sincere, that she felt compelled to look at him, really look at him this time

"I believe you spoke of love earlier, Mr. Darcy," she said shortly, willing herself to push aside any tender feelingss his words evoked. The inferiority of my connections. The impropriety of my family. Those were the words she forced herself to remember!

"Yes, I spoke of love, but perhaps I spoke of other things that would have been better left unsaid. I wish I might retract those words, Elizabeth."

"But you cannot, Sir, and even if you had expressed yourself in a more gentlemanlike manner, your sentiments would remain."

Darcy felt as though he had been slapped.

"Elizabeth," he said finally. "Have you ever been in love?"

"No," she said honestly. "I have not."

"Good," he said, with a little smile. "Then I at least have a chance of being the first, and the only. May I kiss your hand?"

"You may," she replied, knowing she would feel foolish if she refused.

He took her hand in his, raised it to his lips and kissed the inside of her palm. He then took it and held it against his heart, which was beating rapidly.

"I will leave you now. Thank you, Elizabeth. You have made me very happy tonight."

She merely nodded in response, and after one long look, he was gone.

Chapter 2

Ironically, for Elizabeth, informing her mother of her engagement to Mr. Darcy was a pleasure compared to informing the other members of her family. Jane, although more quiet in her disapproval than Mr. Bennet, looked at Elizabeth with so much disappointment in her eyes that Elizabeth had to look away. Mrs. Bennet, as might have been anticipated, was embarrassing in her rapture at the news.

"Oh, Lizzy, how great and fine you will be! What jewels! What carriages! Pray tell me what dishes Mr. Darcy favors, that I may order them for tonight's dinner."

How typical of her mother, thought Lizzy, that she was thinking of jewels and carriages when Lizzy herself was thinking of her mother and sisters having a place to live upon her father's death. With the Longbourn estate entailed away from the female line, her concern was pressing and legitimate.

Mr. Collins had not been seen since the previous afternoon, when Elizabeth had refused his proposal of marriage. Unbeknownst to the Bennets, he had spent the previous evening at Lucas Lodge, ingratiating himself with Charlotte Lucas, to whom he had hastily transferred his affections. They were shocked when Charlotte appeared at Longbourn to announce their engagement. Elizabeth, in particular, was astounded that Charlotte could ally herself to such an idiot of a man! Charlotte was equally astounded to learn of Elizabeth's engagement to Mr. Darcy, as she had been privy to Elizabeth's intense dislike of the man.

The two friends knew that with each other, at least, they could be totally honest. So they hastened to find the opportunity to walk together outside where they could discuss the changes in their respective situations in privacy.

"Lizzy! You are marrying Mr. Darcy? Did you not say you detested the man?"

"Yes, I know, Charlotte. Not only because of his rudeness in terming me 'not handsome enough' to tempt him, but because of his interference with Bingley and Jane."

"What interference, Lizzy? Do you know this for fact?"

"I overheard him, Charlotte, when I was at Netherfield. He and Bingley's oh-so-superior sisters were discussing Jane's slim chances...both our chances, really...of making good marriages in view of our undesirable Cheapside connections! Bingley, to his credit, said he wouldn't find us a jot less agreeable had we uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside, but I know how much stock he puts in Mr. Darcy's opinions. And at the Netherfield Ball, I saw Mr. Darcy assessing Jane and Bingley with such...such...alarm on his face!"

"And what makes you so certain your marrying him will change his opinion of Jane's marrying Bingley?"
"I care not whether he changes his opinion. But I will not marry him unless he curtails his actions!"

"Ah, Lizzy, I see! You think yourself to have much power over Mr. Darcy, do you not?" Charlotte said teasingly.

Lizzy rolled her eyes. "Apparently so, Charlotte, if he is willing to overlook all my family's shortcomings and marry me in spite of them!"

"I hope you are right, Lizzy! I, for one, think Mr. Darcy will be rather more difficult to control than you may hope!"

Elizabeth took Charlotte's hands. "And you, Charlotte? What of your marrying Mr. Collins?"

"I am 27, Lizzy, and I am no romantic. I have no delusions about my beauty or prospects. Apparently I cannot command as high a 'price' in the marriage market as you can!"

Lizzy could think of no appropriate response to such a remark.

"And then, Charlotte, there is the business with Mr. Wickham."

"Lizzy, you know my opinion on that subject! You have no confirmation of Mr. Wickham's accusations. You know only what Mr. Wickham has told you himself!"

"But he had every indication of sincerity in his words and manner, Charlotte."

"I am surprised at your credulousness, Lizzy, it is so unlike you! He is far too 'sincere' and forthcoming for my liking. I always found his candor in such matters quite improper. And did he not indicate that Mr. Darcy's being at Netherfield would not interfere with his presence at the ball? Why, then, was he not in attendance? And, more pointedly, where has he been since then?"

As though in answer to her question, the man himself arrived on horseback just as the two ladies turned in the lane toward Meryton. He dismounted and kissed both their gloved hands.

"Miss Bennet! Miss Lucas! Always a pleasure!"

"How good to see you again, Mr. Wickham," Elizabeth answered, her heart fluttering a bit in spite of herself. He was so very amiable and handsome.

"Good morning, Mr. Wickham," Charlotte said with far less enthusiasm than her friend.

"I wanted to apologize, Miss Bennet, for my failing to attend the ball at Netherfield. Important business required my immediate attention, I am afraid."
Elizabeth smiled, but Charlotte looked at her meaningfully. Elizabeth knew the intent of her glance. At the Netherfield ball, Mr. Denny had communicated his belief that Mr. Wickham's absence was due not to business, but to his reluctance to encounter Mr. Darcy, and Charlotte hoped Elizabeth remembered this.

"Your presence was missed, I assure you, Mr. Wickham," Elizabeth said.

"I am gratified to hear it, Miss Bennet," he responded.

"Missed by whom, Miss Bennet?" boomed an angry voice, and the threesome turned to see a red-faced Mr. Darcy approaching them on foot.

"How dare you?" Elizabeth whispered.

He ignored her question and looked directly at Mr. Wickham.

"I would ask you to stay away from my fiancee, Mr. Wickham. In fact, I do not ask it, I demand it."

Wickham visibly stiffened and stared at Elizabeth, Darcy close behind her, towering over her. Charlotte, mortified, did not quite know where to look!

"Your fiancee! I am all astonishment," Wickham leered. "Apparently you are more practical than I gave you credit for, Miss Bennet. May I offer my felicitations."

Something in Darcy's expression made Elizabeth fear for Wickham's safety, and she restrained him with a hand on his arm.

Wickham bowed sardonically, mounted his horse, and rode away.

Darcy, seething with anger, was breathing hard and fast. He looked directly at Elizabeth and said, "I forbid you to speak to that man ever again, Miss Bennet. Do you understand?"

"You forbid me, Mr. Darcy?" she repeated incredulously.

Oh dear, Mr. Darcy, thought Charlotte! Very unfortunate choice of words. Apparently Mr. Darcy had a lot to learn about Elizabeth Bennet!

"Mr. Wickham is my friend, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said, barely controlling her anger.

"And he is a highly unsuitable friend for you. For any young lady!"

"Apparently he has been so unfortunate as to lose your friendship, Mr. Darcy, in a manner he will feel for the rest of his life."
As if he had noticed Charlotte for the first time, Darcy said "This is neither the time nor the place, Miss Bennet. We will discuss this when it is appropriate."

Charlotte coughed. "I believe I will be getting along now, Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Collins is awaiting me at Lucas Lodge."

Darcy bowed.

"Good day, Miss Lucas."

After her departure, he turned to Elizabeth.

"Mr. Collins?"

"Yes, Mr. Collins. Apparently he wasted no time in finding a suitable replacement when he failed in securing my hand. I am sure you can easily do likewise if need be."

"Look at me, Elizabeth," Darcy said dangerously.

"I am no Mr. Collins. There could be no replacement, Elizabeth. If I do not marry you, I marry no one. Can I make it any plainer how I feel about you?"

"I am flattered, Sir. And what of Mr. Bingley?"

"Of what are you speaking, Elizabeth?"

"Mr. Bingley. If you will not allow him to marry Jane, whom will you condescend to allow him to marry?"

"Bingley is an adult. He may marry whom he pleases. Do I encourage him in his affections toward your sister? No, I do not."

"Why not, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth shouted. "Because of our unsuitable family? Because of our lack of fortune? Such considerations were not enough to prevent you from making your addresses to me!"

"No, Elizabeth, they were not. I chose to ignore them. But they weren't the only reasons I discouraged Bingley in his attentions to your sister."

"What other reasons might you have, Sir? Pray, enlighten me."

"I watched them together, most carefully," he replied. "I have often seen Bingley in love, he is fickle in his attentions. I thought nothing of his attachment until the night of the Netherfield Ball, when I suspected he was falling in love with her. But on your sister's countenance, I saw no sign of particular regard. I want better for my friend, Miss Bennet, than I require for myself."
"Better in what respect, Mr. Darcy?" she demanded.

"A wife who loves and esteems him, Miss Bennet," he said simply.

Elizabeth laughed bitterly, seeing the irony in the situation.

"But she does love him, Mr. Darcy, of that I can assure you. I ask not that you foster his regard, just that you do nothing to prevent it. Do you agree?"

"Alright, Miss Bennet. I assume that is one of the requirements I must meet in order to secure your hand. May I ask what the others might be?"

"There is only one other, Mr. Darcy. As you may know, there is an entailment on my father's estate, and he has no male heir. Simply put, upon my father's death, my mother, my sisters, and I will be at the mercy of Mr. Collins. So all I ask is that you guarantee a suitable home for my mother and sisters when that unhappy event occurs."

"Ah, but Miss Bennet, if I, as you put it, do not prevent Mr. Bingley from marrying your sister, I have no doubt Bingley would take in the lot of you. What inducement, then, would there be for your marrying me?"

Elizabeth, shocked, looked up, and saw the smile on his lips. Was Mr. Darcy joking with her?

"None whatsoever, Mr. Darcy. I am afraid you will have to take me at my word."

"And this is truly all you require, Elizabeth?"


For some reason, Darcy rejoiced at her simple affirmation. Elizabeth, he was sure, was no fortune hunter. Everything she wanted, she wanted not for herself, but for the people she loved - loved so much, in fact, that she was willing to forego her own happiness to secure theirs. How blissful it would be to be loved so devotedly by Elizabeth Bennet. Would he ever know such a love? He was also most thankful that Elizabeth had not specified that her mother and sisters must abide at Pemberley, only that he must secure them a suitable home! Perhaps such close proximity to her mother would be no more to Elizabeth's liking than it would be to his own.

His thoughts were interrupted by her soft voice.

"And now, Mr. Darcy, you must fulfill your earlier promise to enlighten me about Mr. Wickham."

Darcy nodded, gravely.
"I know enough of you, Miss Bennet, to be assured this conversation will go no further. What I am about to tell you is painful to relate, and even more painful to remember, and I hope when I am finished you will understand why I forbid...why I strongly request that you have nothing further to do with Mr. Wickham."

Chapter 3

As Darcy spoke, with mounting emotion, of the circumstances relating to Mr. Wickham's connection to his family, Elizabeth could not help but note how Mr. Wickham had given his version of the tale enough resemblance to truth to make it believable. Much of the history was similar.

He was, indeed, the son of Darcy's father's steward, raised alongside Darcy when the elder Mr. Wickham died. All the advantages of being the scion of an old and noble family were his, save the Darcy name itself: a life of privilege at Pemberley, a Cambridge education. And if the younger Darcy observed flaws in Mr. Wickham's character as they came of age, he kept them to himself to spare his father's sensibilities.

But upon reaching adulthood, Wickham would have to make his own way in the world, armed with a gentleman's education and the Darcy family connection. Upon the elder Darcy's death, Mr. Wickham was bequeathed a respectable living in the Church, at the parsonage at Kympton. Wickham had told Elizabeth that Darcy had flatly refused to honor his father's bequest.

And here was where Darcy's version of the events differed from Wickham's. Wickham refused the living, Darcy said, and demanded payment in its stead. Knowing by now that Wickham's character was not suitable for a career in the Church, Darcy agreed, settling a generous sum upon Wickham.

At this point in the story, Darcy hesitated and looked at Elizabeth.

"Not only had I lost both my parents, Miss Bennet, at this juncture I felt I had lost a brother as well. An errant brother, but a brother nonetheless."

Elizabeth was stunned. There was such pain in Mr. Darcy's eyes as he made this disclosure. From this moment, any doubt she may have felt about the veracity of Mr. Darcy's story was dispelled.

He composed himself to continue.

"And now, Miss Bennet, I must bring myself to tell you of events which are far more painful than those I have already related.

"As I told you, Mr. Wickham accepted a payment of 3000 pounds in lieu of the living bequeathed him by my father. He indicated that he wished to study the law. I had doubts as to his true intentions, but I hoped he was being sincere.

"I lost all contact with him for an extended period. Our paths crossed again this summer, in a manner I would wish to forget. Save for the deaths of my parents, I do not think I have ever experienced more trying times than these.
"My sister, Georgiana, who is but fifteen years old, was on holiday at Ramsgate. Unbeknownst to myself, Wickham was there as well, undoubtedly by design, and ingratiated himself with her, convincing her that she was in love with him, and inducing her to agree to an elopement. Of course, his object was my sister's fortune of 30,000 pounds. That, and taking revenge on me, Miss Bennet! If he could not be a Darcy, he would marry one! With no female guidance and a brother who was derelict in his duty as guardian, Georgiana was persuaded of his love and agreed to his reprehensible plan.

"By divine Providence, I am convinced, I had the notion to visit my sister at Ramsgate on the day before she was to elope with the scoundrel. Unable to bear the thought of grieving an elder brother who was almost a father to her, Georgiana disclosed the plan to me at once. You can imagine how I felt, and how I acted. Mr. Wickham was sent away at once, and Georgiana returned with me to Pemberley. She has not been herself since, Elizabeth, consumed with grief over Wickham's easy desertion and guilt over the pain she perceives herself as having inflicted on me, no matter how fervently I assure her that the guilt should be mine in having neglected my duty as her guardian. When I came to Netherfield at Bingley's insistence, it was the first occasion I had left Georgiana since we returned from Ramsgate. Imagine my shock and dismay upon discovering Wickham here as a member of the militia, and made welcome by unsuspecting young women such as yourself.

"And so, Miss Bennet, if I was perhaps overstepping myself in forbidding you to associate with Mr. Wickham, please try to understand that my demand was made because of my esteem and concern for you. If only I had been as explicit with my sister.."

Any success Elizabeth had had up until this point in suppressing her emotions was lost. The tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she spoke.

"Mr. Darcy, please do not blame yourself for Wickham's wrongdoing. Your sister's sheltered life and her trust of a man who was almost a brother to her explains her easy acceptance of his assurances."

"So you believe me, then, Miss Bennet?"

"Yes, Mr. Darcy."

Searching her face for signs of any emotion except compassion and understanding and finding none, he nodded and said gruffly, "Good." He handed her his handkerchief so that she could wipe the tears from her face.

"Mr. Darcy, shall I inform our general acquaintance of Mr. Wickham's true character?"

"I would rather you did not, Elizabeth. I do not see how it would be possible to be explicit enough for the information to be of any value without revealing my sister's situation."
"You are right, Mr. Darcy. It is my understanding that Mr. Wickham's regiment will be leaving soon after Christmas in any event."


"Yes, Mr. Darcy?"

"I would ask, that is, I would prefer, that you call me by my Christian name. We are still betrothed, are we not?"

The uncertainty that had crept into his voice surprised Elizabeth. Even more surprising to her was her sudden, unexpected desire to reassure him.

"Yes, we are, Fitzwilliam," she responded.

"When I called at Longbourn, not knowing that you were out walking with Charlotte, your mother asked that I join your family for dinner tomorrow evening. I take it such an invitation is acceptable to you as well, Elizabeth?"

"Of course it is, if you think you can bear the company of all my family assembled in the same small room at one time!"

"May I ask Mr. Bingley to accompany me? I know he is quite eager to see your sister again."

Elizabeth's smile in response to his question was warm and genuine.

"Yes, you may, Mr. Dar...Fitzwilliam."

Darcy looked down at the ground.

"On another matter, Elizabeth, I will be consulting with my attorney in London early next week concerning the financial arrangements to be made in anticipation of our marriage. I will be settling a considerable sum on you, in addition to a suitable property for your mother and sisters."

Elizabeth had the good grace to blush.

"Really, Sir, it is not necessary so early in our engagement..."

"Yes, Elizabeth, it is. I gave you my word that matters would be arranged to your satisfaction, and I intend to keep it."

Elizabeth, suddenly ashamed, could not meet his eyes. He reached down to take her chin into his hands and gently tilted it up so that she was forced to look at him.
"Elizabeth. I have no hesitation in doing what you request. I still believe I am getting the better of this bargain, my dear."

Her expression was so troubled that he wanted nothing more than to bend down to kiss her lips. But he resisted the impulse, sure that the gesture would be an unwelcome one.

He offered her his arm instead, and after a moment's hesitation, she took it. He unconsciously brought his arm tightly to his body, so that her forearm was effectively secured against the side of his chest. With Darcy intentionally slowing his pace so that he might prolong the moments he could feel Elizabeth's touch, they began to walk back to the house.

On the following evening, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley called upon the Bennets at Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet was quite in awe of her future son-in-law, while Mr. Bennet eyed him with near belligerence. To his mind, had he done his duty as a father, his dearest daughter Lizzy would not feel forced to marry this man, whom she clearly did not love.

At dinner, everyone talked at once, Lydia and Kitty bickering over some trifle, her father sardonically commenting on her mother's silliness. Mr. Darcy said not a word, and Elizabeth suffered in silence. It was obvious he found her family intolerable, and Elizabeth bitterly resented his haughty demeanor. Had she realized how difficult he found it to converse, especially when among so many talkative people he did not know intimately, she might have been more understanding.

After dinner, she was once again made painfully aware of the contrast between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy sat stiffly on the sofa, staring at her with an unreadable expression on his countenance; had he not declared his love for her, she would have been hard pressed to imagine what he was thinking. Never would she have thought him in love with her had he not verbalized his sentiments so explicitly. Sometimes she wondered whether he even loved her at all, or if he merely coveted her for some other, ignoble reason.

He was repulsed by her family's behavior, she thought. This much was clear. Elizabeth herself was more often than not scandalized by the impropriety of her younger sisters, but seeing the distaste so evident on Mr. Darcy's face angered her. It was one thing for her to disapprove of her family, quite another for him!

Mr. Bingley, on the other hand, was clearly more tolerant and forgiving of the Bennets' shortcomings. And his love for Jane was more and more evident; the young man was quite besotted with her! Seeing her sister's happiness made her accept her own situation with resignation; she told herself that Darcy would no doubt have impeded the progress of Bingley's courtship of Jane had Elizabeth not agreed to marry him.

Darcy watched Elizabeth as she gazed at Jane and Bingley together. She glowed with happiness, her deep love for her sister written clearly on her face. What he would not give to have her look at him like that!

When he made ready to leave, she walked with him to the door.

"I hope it has not been too trying an evening for you, Fitzwilliam," she said.

"Not at all," he said, puzzled. Just yesterday he had been so hopeful that her opinion of him was softening. And today, it was almost as though she wanted to think the worst of him again!

"Elizabeth, I would very much like it if you would come to Pemberley for Christmas. I want you to meet my sister Georgiana."

"Might Jane accompany me? She and I will be at our Aunt and Uncle Gardiner's house in London the week before Christmas" she said, hoping it would be another opportunity for Jane and Bingley to become better acquainted, for surely the Bingleys would be at Pemberley at Christmas as well.

Of course, Darcy thought. She could not bear to be alone with me and my sister.

"Your family will always be welcome at Pemberley, Elizabeth."

"Oh yes," she said airily. "I am sure you would like nothing better than to have the lot of them descend upon Pemberley! My uncles are in trade, you know!"

Darcy was painfully silent, her rebuke cutting him deeply.

After a few moments, he forced himself to respond.

"Elizabeth, as I believe I have already told you, I fully considered the reality of your family's situation and chose to ask you to marry me despite my misgivings. I find my love for you overpowers any and all objections."

Elizabeth could hold her tongue no longer.

"But why me, Sir? My beauty you early withstood, and I certainly have not been pleasant in my manner towards you."

"Your beauty? Ah, I imagine you refer to that ill-timed remark I made at the Assembly the night we first met. Elizabeth, I was in the most foul of moods that evening, and Bingley forced me into company. It was not long, I can assure you, before I was utterly bewitched by not only the beauty of your countenance, but by the beauty of your character.

"And as to the unpleasantness of your manner, perhaps it is somewhat deserved. I only hope that by the time of our marriage, you may look upon me if not with love, at least with some esteem."
He hesitated, fearing he had already exposed himself too much, but felt compelled to continue.

"Elizabeth, it has been a very long time since I had anyone with whom I could share both the burdens and joys of my situation in life. My father was very dear to me, and after he died, I was so consumed with the responsibilities of raising my sister and being master of Pemberley that I had little time to think of how lonely I was. I knew within a very short time of making your acquaintance that you were the companion I was seeking. I believe I would have wanted to have you as my wife and my helpmate even if I had not fallen in love with you, but fall in love with you I did."

Elizabeth stared at this complex man who was to be her husband. It was maddening to her that her opinion of him was vacillating not only from day to day, but from hour to hour! She reminded herself that she had been proven wrong in her assumptions about his treatment of Wickham, and Darcy, after simply stating the facts, had not once gloated or reminded her of her stupidity - yes, stupidity! - in so easily believing Wickam's tale of woe.

She made a conscious decision at that moment not to attribute motivations to Darcy's actions or manner without at least attempting to validate her opinions first! He had been so brutally honest with both her and himself, that she felt she owed him at least that.

"Thank you for being so explicit, Sir," she said, allowing him to take her hand and raise it to his lips as he prepared to depart.

They were alone in the hall, and how Darcy longed to properly kiss her! But no, he would not attempt it only to be rejected. He would wait until he had inspired some feelings of affection in the lady before he risked his heart in such a manner.

Chapter 4

It was unseasonably warm for early December, and Lydia and Kitty Bennet took advantage of the sunshine to walk into Meryton often. Their stated purpose for their jaunts was shopping for bonnets and ribbons, but their true object was the pursuit of redcoats!

One redcoat, in particular, had caught Lydia Bennet's eye: Mr. George Wickham. He was dashing and handsome in his regimental uniform, and he listened to her every word, as if her pronouncements were not simply the silliest he had ever heard!

At one time Lydia had been convinced that her elder sister Elizabeth was in love with Wickham, but Lizzy had noticeably cooled toward the man since her engagement to Mr. Darcy. Deep thinking was not her forte, so it never occurred to Lydia to question Elizabeth as to why she no longer spoke to or sought out George Wickham. Mr. Darcy was so boring and quiet in contrast to Lizzy's liveliness, it was hardly likely, Lydia thought, that he would exert any influence on her regarding her association with Mr. Wickham or anyone else.

All the better for me, thought Lydia! She flirted openly with Wickham, and his attentions in return were most flattering, indeed. If his pointed questions about Lizzy's engagement to Darcy disturbed her in any way, she did not show it. In fact, she took it as an indication that he was bringing up the subject as a way to engage her in conversation.

"What soulful eyes you have, Miss Lydia," he said, thinking "like those of a calf being led to the slaughter" to himself!

Elizabeth and Jane left for the Gardiners' in London ten days before Christmas, just as the weather turned cold and snowy. Mr. Wickham was curiously reluctant to call upon Lydia at Longbourn, but made it a point to come to the Phillips' house in Meryton on evenings he knew Lydia would be present. He was attentive to her to the exclusion of all others.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, thought Wickham!

The Gardiners' home, though modest and located in an unfashionable section of London, was so welcoming and full of warmth that Elizabeth and Jane loved being there, particularly during the holiday season. It was tastefully and beautifully decorated for Christmas, the air redolent of evergreen. The four little Gardiners adored their two pretty, grown-up cousins, and Jane, in particular, delighted in playing with them.

Elizabeth, dubious as to his intent, had questioned Darcy before he left for Pemberley as to whether he would truly welcome the Gardiners and their children to his home for Christmas. Receiving an affirmative answer which seemed sincere, she extended the invitation to her aunt and uncle, who were flattered and delighted to be included.
It was twilight as their carriage approached Pemberley on the 23rd of December. Snow was falling lightly, and there was a stillness in the air, broken only by the sound of their horses' trotting.

Elizabeth was spellbound at her first sight of the place. Pemberley was beautiful in all seasons of the year, but tonight, dusted with snow, it was a fairyland. Her aunt Gardiner had grown up in Derbyshire, and while she knew of the Darcy family, she had never travelled in such high circles. Her niece Elizabeth was indeed fortunate to be marrying such a prominent man, she thought, so she had been surprised some days earlier when Elizabeth came to her in private, looking pensive and wanting to talk.

"Aunt,"she had begun, biting her lip. "I am coming to you because I find my mother is not to be relied upon to be objective in matters such as these."

"Matters such as what, Elizabeth?"

"My upcoming marriage to Mr. Darcy. I find I like him better than I did when I first knew him, but I do not love him. Is it wrong to marry a man who is good and kind and who will provide security to my family when I do not love him?"

"Well, I am gratified you mentioned his goodness and kindness, before you mentioned what he could provide your family! Does he love you, Elizabeth?"

"He says he does, Aunt."

"And do you have reason to disbelieve him? Has he ever lied to you about other matters?"

"No. No, he has not. In fact," she said, almost as if she were talking to herself, "he has been truthful, even when it clearly pained him to be so."

"Then why do you say that 'he says' he loves you?"

Elizabeth nodded, understanding.

"All right, Aunt. He loves me."

"But you would prefer to think he does not."

Elizabeth smiled. "You are wise, Aunt. You make me see myself. I would prefer to think he does not, so that we would enter the married state with more equal sentiments."

"Elizabeth, you may be surprised at what I am about to say. Your uncle and I both came from modest backgrounds, but we have always loved each other, and our love has grown throughout the years. We take much pride in our children and in our home, and whatever we have acquired in life has been through your uncle's hard work. Our modest dwelling may not be Pemberley, but no one could love their home more than I do!

"While it is certainly preferable for a man and a woman to be equal in their sentiments upon marriage, I do not believe it is absolutely essential for your union to be a happy one. The respect and esteem you seem to have for Mr. Darcy is the foundation upon which your marriage might grow. Romantic love often originates from infatuation or a mere physical attraction, and is by no means a guarantee of a satisfying marriage, nor is the lack of it is a sure predictor of an unhappy one."

"There is another matter I have not told you of, Aunt. I know that Mr. Darcy disapproves of my family, particularly when he witnesses Kitty and Lydia's behaviour."

"But do you not often disapprove of their behaviour yourself, Elizabeth? I know that I do!"

"Yes, yes, of course! But they are my sisters, and I love them, and I have the right to disapprove, while Mr. Darcy does not! When Mr. Darcy proposed marriage to me, he only did so after informing me of my family's shortcomings which, as he said, had at first prevented him from considering an attachment to me!"

Her aunt winced. "Oh my, Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy has much to learn about how to address a lady! But I think even you must realize that for a man in his position to consider marriage to someone who...well, who comes attached to what he perceives as a rather unsuitable family, he must be deeply in love with the lady in question. In view of this, how can you ever have expressed the sentiment, as you just did a few moments ago, that you 'think' he loves you? What other motivations could he have?"

Elizabeth blushed. "Sometimes he looks at me so intensely. I know that gentlemen have desires, Aunt, and I wondered if he merely desired me in that way and perceived his desires as love."

"Elizabeth! You are not so naive that you do not realize that a gentleman such as Mr. Darcy has avenues open to him to fulfill such desires without benefit of marriage. And I dare say that even if his principles or religious beliefs forbade him that sort of liaison, he would have no difficulty in attaching himself to just about any woman in England! Marriages in his circle are often unions of dynasties, not unions of people who love each other.

"No, Elizabeth, I must give you the unhappy news that Mr. Darcy loves you, to the exclusion of all others! For whatever reason, he finds you unique and essential to his happiness, and I must say he has excellent taste. You see! I have come to this conclusion without the benefit of ever meeting the man."

Elizabeth was contemplating that conversation with her aunt as their carriage stopped in front of Pemberley.

"You and my uncle will meet Mr. Darcy this evening. Please tell me what you think of him, with all honesty. There are times I know I am being unreasonable in my censure of him, but I find I am resentful of the difference in our stations, as I know he is keenly aware of the inferiority of our family in comparison to his."

"As you wish, Elizabeth. I will be totally candid with you. Ah...we are here! Oh, Lizzy, to be mistress of this beautiful place! You are a very fortunate young woman!"

"Yes," Elizabeth answered softly, her eyes taking in the grandeur of Pemberley house as they alighted from the carriage. "I dare say I am."

Mr. Darcy was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Elizabeth and her family, determined to be liberal in his judgments of them and gracious in his behaviour. Elizabeth and her sister Jane he knew to be decorous in company and amiable in manner (although he wished that Elizabeth might be a bit more amiable in her attitude toward him!), but he had never met the Gardiners and their children. As Mr. Gardiner was the brother of Elizabeth's mother, he would not have been surprised if the man lacked good manners and good sense!

Flanking Mr. Darcy were his sister Georgiana and his cousin Col. Fitzwilliam, both of whom would be meeting Elizabeth for the first time. Within a few moments of their greeting, Darcy was aware that his apprehensions about the Gardiners were totally unfounded. They were sensible, articulate people, and Elizabeth was inwardly triumphant at noting Darcy's surprise at finding them thus. Elizabeth made a special effort to speak to Georgiana, as she soon realized that she was painfully shy and spoke little, usually deferring to her brother. When Elizabeth took Georgiana's arm and engaged her in quiet conversation, Darcy beamed with pleasure. He had always known that Elizabeth would be an ideal sister to Georgiana, providing just the right degree of liveliness to draw Georgiana out of herself.

Elizabeth and Georgiana sat at the pianoforte, Elizabeth exclaiming at the beauty of the instrument. Darcy watched them for a few moments, not wanting to interrupt the flow of their conversation, as they were obviously getting on exceedingly well.

Mrs. Gardiner exclaimed at a particularly beautiful landscape hanging on the wall, and Darcy offered to show her some of the other art work displayed throughout the house. She and Mr. Gardiner readily agreed, Jane declining as she was in a corner of the room settling the children. Darcy approached the pianoforte, and bent down to whisper in Elizabeth's ear, "I would like to give you a more private tour later, Elizabeth," and when she looked up at him quizzically, he flashed her a rare, cheeky grin.

After he left the room with the Gardiners, Col. Fitzwilliam stood beside Elizabeth as she and Georgiana played the instrument together.

"My cousin is a lucky man, Miss Bennet! And so secretive! It was quite a shock that the first news we had of you was of your engagement."
"But such happy news, Miss Bennet," Georgiana said shyly. "I have never seen my brother so animated!"

Mr. Darcy, animated? Elizabeth thought. She had always found him forbidding and taciturn. True, he had been making some attempt to be more amiable since their engagement, but his reputation in Hertfordshire remained one of being disagreeable and haughty.

Col. Fitzwilliam, in contrast, was lively and outgoing. His face was not as handsome as Darcy's was, but his smile was friendly and genuine. Elizabeth found it far easier to converse with him than she did with Darcy, and by the time Darcy returned with the Gardiners, Elizabeth and the Colonel were laughing and talking together like old friends.

Darcy stood in the doorway for a moment, watching them. Those who envied him his wealth and prominence would have been surprised to learn that he himself was envious of men such as Col. Fitzwilliam, who could converse so easily with a woman he had just met. His cousin, Darcy thought morosely, could win a desirable woman's love through his good humour. He would not need to buy her affections.

Fitzwilliam caught Darcy's eye, then turned to Elizabeth and teasingly asked "Miss Bennet, how did my cousin behave in Hertfordshire?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Prepare yourself to hear something terrible, Col. Fitzwilliam! The first time I met your cousin was at a ball, where he danced but four dances, even though many ladies were without partners."

Col. Fitzwilliam laughed, and Darcy glared at him. "I fear I cannot converse easily with strangers."

"I do not play this instrument as well as I might, Mr. Darcy, but I assume that is my own fault, as I do not trouble myself to practice."

"Of course you are right, Elizabeth," Darcy tersely answered. "I believe I have been practicing of late, although you seem unwilling to credit me for it."

Before she could respond, he excused himself, so that he could speak to Jane. He relayed the happy news that Mr. Bingley and his sisters would arrive at Pemberley the following day, Christmas Eve. The truth was that he was hurt at Elizabeth's jest at his expense, particularly as it had been witnessed by his sister and cousin. And while he was a gracious host for the rest of the evening, he said little to Elizabeth.

Before she was ready to retire, Elizabeth approached Darcy and said, "I believe, Sir, that you owe me a private tour of the house?" She smiled expectantly.

"Perhaps tomorrow would be better, Miss Bennet," he said. "I find I am too fatigued to do it justice at the moment."
Oh, so I am Miss Bennet again, am I? she thought. His attempts at good humour have barely lasted one evening!

"I see. Good night then, Mr. Darcy."

She reserved her biggest smile of the evening for Col. Fitzwilliam and Georgiana.

"It has been a delight to make your acquaintance," she said to them. "I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow. Perhaps we could continue our conversation then, Col. Fitzwilliam, and you might sway my opinion on the sonnets of Mr. Shakespeare!"

The Colonel smiled broadly and wished her good night. When Elizabeth turned to look at Darcy, what she got was a view of his back as he strode out of the room.

Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner were the last to proceed upstairs, and her aunt placed a restraining hand on Elizabeth's arm before they left the room. She did not look pleased!

"Elizabeth, I want to have a word with you before we retire for the evening."

Her expression was similar to that she had had when Lizzy and Jane were little girls and were caught playing with their aunt's good china. Elizabeth had no doubt that she was in for a dressing down.

"You asked me to observe Mr. Darcy and give you my impressions. I might have waited until tomorrow if I did not feel it very important that we discuss your behaviour this evening.

"Mr. Darcy is a serious young man, certainly in comparison to others you may know, but you must realize he has far more responsibilities, one might even say burdens, than most young men his age. He lost his mother when he was but a boy, and his father when he was only 22 and is not only responsible for running this large estate, but for overseeing the education of his sister!

"His manner this evening has been that of the gracious host. Nothing that might have contributed to our comfort was neglected. So might I ask why you felt compelled to humiliate him by remarking on his manners in Hertfordshire?"

"Oh, Aunt! Mr. Darcy needs to learn to laugh at himself!"

"Perhaps, but that is a lesson you might want to conduct in private, my dear. He is very much in love with you, Elizabeth, and I believe he was hurt not only by your unkind words, but your lively attentions to his cousin."

"But Aunt, it is only natural to enjoy conversing with one so friendly and easy in company."

"That is true, Lizzy, but my advice for you is that tomorrow you might want to smile a bit more at Mr. Darcy and a bit less at Col. Fitzwilliam! You would not want to cause a rift between them, would you?"

"Really, Aunt, you are taking all of this too much to heart."

"It is Mr. Darcy who is taking it to heart, Elizabeth. You asked me to observe him, and I have. The man adores you, Lizzy. Please try to be kinder to him tomorrow."

Lizzy sighed. "Yes, Aunt."

"And that is all I have to say on the subject! Let us go to bed now, Lizzy. It has been a long day, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve."

Chapter 5

Despite her disturbance of mind because of her conversation with her aunt, Elizabeth slept well that night. She awakened soon after dawn, bathed and dressed, and went downstairs to breakfast. It was quite early, and although the Gardiner children had already arisen, their parents had not. The housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and, to Elizabeth's surprise, Mr. Darcy, were seeing to the children's breakfast.

Mr. Darcy, in fact, was so agreeably engaged in assisting the children, that he did not even notice Elizabeth's entrance. She watched for a few moments, enchanted by his easy manner and amiability with the children, who, in turn, seemed quite taken with him. Finally the eldest, a girl of 10, looked up and said, "Look, it's Cousin Lizzy!" and Darcy immediately got to his feet to greet her.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said gently.

Elizabeth smiled.

"Good morning," she answered. "It is Christmas Eve, Mr. Darcy. Will you be playing Father Christmas this evening?" she asked.

"I think not," he said, "I fear I do not excel at playacting. Will you not join us for breakfast?"

Mr. Darcy sat at the head of the table; Elizabeth seated herself directly to his right. She was happy to observe that the children were on their best behaviour, and Darcy remarked how much he was enjoying their company.

"Someday..." he began, a bit shyly, and Elizabeth knew he was thinking of the day their own children might be sitting at this very table with them. She looked into his dark eyes, which were glowing with love for her, and for the first time, her mind wandered in the direction of what would happen between them to produce those children, and she blushed furiously.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, then Jane and Georgiana, soon arrived to breakfast, Mrs. Gardiner all apologies for having arisen so much later than her children.

"It is all right, Mama," said seven-year-old Amelia. "Mr. Darcy told us stories and gave us muffins and chocolate."

"Mr. Darcy is a very kind man, Amelia, and I hope you were properly grateful," she said, but she looked at Elizabeth when she said it.

"I do hope the Bingleys arrive soon," said Jane, "before the snow gets any deeper," looking with a worried glance toward the window.

"I believe they will arrive very soon, Miss Bennet," said Darcy. "I know Mr. Bingley is particularly eager to see you." He stopped himself, not wishing to embarrass her. "That is, all of you, of course."

Col. Fitzwilliam was apparently a late riser, because by the time he made his entrance, Elizabeth and Darcy had already finished eating.

Elizabeth greeted him with a wide smile.

"Good morning, Col. Fitzwilliam."

"Good morning, Miss Bennet," he replied, seating himself in the chair to her right, which had just been vacated by little Peter Gardiner. "You are looking very lovely this morning."

"We will leave you to your breakfast, Fitzwilliam," said Darcy, rising. "I was just about to take Elizabeth on a tour of the house."

He extended his hand to Elizabeth to help her to her feet.

"I see you intend to monopolize Miss Bennet's attentions today, Darcy," the Colonel said with a grin.

"Yes, I do, Fitzwilliam," he answered shortly.

Elizabeth thought Mr. Darcy rather rude in forcing her to leave the table so abruptly, but saw her aunt ducking her head to hide her smile. Good for you, Mr. Darcy, thought Mrs. Gardiner.

"Come, Lizzy," Darcy said, offering her his arm. She took it, and he escorted her across the hall into the drawing room, where a fire had already been lit on this chilly Christmas Eve morning.

"What a beautiful place this is, Sir," she said, her eyes sweeping the breadth of the room, taking in the richly appointed furnishings, Oriental carpets, and exquisite artwork hanging on its walls.

"My mother had wonderful taste, Elizabeth. You will appreciate it even more fully when you see my...our...private rooms."

He looked at her intently, and she was somewhat disturbed at the implication that they would be sharing chambers. But of course, she thought, he would want her at his disposal in all ways. Mr. Darcy was a man who was accustomed to people doing his bidding.

"I did not mean," he corrected himself hastily upon seeing her expression, "that you would not have your own apartments, Elizabeth, if you desired them, that is, if you did not want..." And now it was Darcy's turn to blush. Damn it all, he thought, what did the woman want?
"And of course you could arrange and decorate your rooms in any manner you desire, Elizabeth," he finished weakly.

"I am sure anything you might choose will be perfectly suitable," she answered primly.

She disengaged herself from his arm and walked toward the large window, which overlooked the front of the house. The panoramic view of the snow-frosted landscape and the ice-covered lake beyond was breathtaking.

"How beautiful this is, Fitzwilliam," she said. "It must be heavenly to stroll through the grounds when the weather is suitable."

"Yes," he said. "I know how fond you are of walking, and the circuit around the lake is quite attractive. I look forward to showing it to you in the spring, Elizabeth. There are some spots in the grove that are ideal for picnics, and the lake is well stocked with fish, should your father or uncle enjoy the sport."

Elizabeth smiled at his boyish enthusiasm. How different he seemed when he discussed Pemberley; it seemed the one subject that softened his manner most effectively.

Darcy's heart melted at that smile. He moved closer to her and took her hands in his.

"So you approve of Pemberley, Elizabeth?" he asked.

"Yes. I cannot imagine who would not approve."

She was so near him, he could feel the warmth of her body. He bent down, meaning to kiss her, but when she saw his intention, she panicked and turned her head toward the door.

"Will you show me the library?" she asked. "I have heard your collection is the most extensive in the country."

"Of course," he said, trying to keep the disappointment from his voice.

She does not love me, he reminded himself. What was I thinking?.

She may not have loved him, but he would have been gratified to know that Elizabeth was far from indifferent to him. Her heart was beating like a frightened rabbit, and if she wanted to distance herself from him, it was not from disinterest, but from apprehension and confusion at the new feelings he was evoking in her.

The library at Pemberley was truly impressive. Three of its four walls were completely stocked with thousands of volumes. The room was well lit, its chairs and sofas comfortable and inviting. Darcy showed her how the various books were arranged, while imagining many evenings when they would sit together companionably, reading and drinking a glass of sherry or, on cold days such as these, a cup of hot chocolate before bed.

Before bed. There he was again, imagining her in his bed. They had not yet engaged in even the slight intimacy of a kiss, and he could think of little else besides making love to her.

"I should like to show you the family portraits in the gallery, Elizabeth," he said, and they proceeded up the main staircase in the front hall. The portraits which hung on the wall were of the Darcy family, going back several generations. Elizabeth lingered at three portraits of Darcy's mother, the first depicting her as a young bride, the second with her son, who appeared to be four or five years old, and the third with both Fitzwilliam, who appeared to be 11 or 12 years old, and Georgiana as an infant. The deterioration in his mother's physical condition was heartbreaking when comparing the second portrait to the third. In the third and final portrait, she was richly dressed, in a sumptuous gown of deepest blue velvet, and had a choker of sapphires and diamonds at her neck. Despite the painter's skill, her expression was wan and pained, her complexion pale.

But what struck Elizabeth most was the grief-stricken look on the little boy's face. He clearly knew his mother was going to die very soon.

That little boy, all grown up, was standing next to her.

"She had that painting commissioned because she knew Georgiana would not remember her. I, of course, will never forget her," he said.

Elizabeth slipped her arm through his. If she truly thought she loved him, she would have said the words to him at that moment to offer him comfort.

But she still was not sure those words would be true.

"She would love you, Elizabeth, as much as I do," he said.

The last painting hanging at the end of the gallery was the newest one, done of Mr. Darcy himself just a few months ago.

"And who is this handsome gentleman?" she asked, trying to lighten the mood.

"I am gratified you find him handsome, Elizabeth," he said with a smile. "Might I hope you find the original as handsome as his painting?"

"I am unsure, Sir," she said teasingly, looking from his face to the portrait several times. "There is something very appealing about seeing you suspended on the wall."

Darcy was delighting in her banter and attempting to fashion a witty response when they heard voices downstairs.
Mr. Bingley and his sisters had arrived.

Chapter 6

During the course of her very long life, Elizabeth would often look back on the events of Christmas 1811 and contemplate whether it was the best, or the worst, Christmas of her life, because in many ways, it was both.

When Caroline Bingley learned the news of Elizabeth and Darcy's engagement, she was appalled. It seemed that one day Mr. Darcy was saying that he would as soon call Elizabeth a beauty as he would call her mother a wit, and the next day he was mooning over her like a lovesick schoolboy. At the Netherfield Ball, the man made a spectacle of himself, following her with his eyes in the rare moments when he was not physically stalking her. It was sickening to witness! After he finally danced with Eliza Bennet (who, Caroline thought, had not seemed nearly as thrilled to be singled out by him as she should have been), Caroline had been triumphant to see Mr. Darcy's disgust at the Bennet family's spectacularly improper behaviour, certain that it would put out the light in those "fine eyes" for him forever.

But no! Just a few days later, he was engaged to her. The woman was surely a witch.

It was one thing for someone like Mr. Darcy to amuse himself in the country with a nobody like Elizabeth Bennet, but to expect society to accept her as the mistress of Pemberley was ludicrous. Because Mr. Darcy had left for Pemberley soon after his engagement was made public (could one blame the man, wanting to distance himself from that horror of a family as soon as possible?), Christmas Eve was the first opportunity for Caroline to observe the two of them together as an affianced couple. Her intention was to observe them very closely, indeed.

And what an unhappy surprise it was to her to find that the Cheapside relations had somehow gotten themselves invited to Pemberley as well! Two little Gardiner people, along with a pack of noisy children, on whom Darcy curiously seemed to dote. Caroline thought it was in the worst of taste to have more than three children, and one certainly did not want to be in their presence a moment more than necessary. Where was their governess?

Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, Caroline thought to herself, wishing she could say it aloud, if only to impress Mr. Darcy with her wit. The specifics of what Gardiner did for a living mattered not, the man was in trade! The earning of the Bingley money had been done by someone else, far enough in the past that Caroline did not have to think about just how it was earned. Thank the Lord those relations, whoever they were, had had the good grace to be dead long enough so that when Caroline was introduced into society, they were present in neither reality nor memory to impede her progress.

Louisa and Alfred (or was it Albert? Caroline was never quite sure) Hurst, Bingley's other sister and brother-in-law, were also members of the party at Christmas, Louisa because it was Christmas and one had to be somewhere, and her husband because the food and drink at Pemberley were superior to anywhere else in England. While Louisa, if she gave it much thought, would have disapproved of Mr. Darcy's choice of bride, the truth of the matter was that she did not give it much thought, except when Caroline chose to bring it to her attention.

Charles Bingley, the youngest of the three siblings, was delighted to be at Pemberley, delighted at Elizabeth and Darcy's engagement, and most of all, delighted to see Jane Bennet again. It was a prominent feature of Bingley's general character to be delighted with most everything and everyone he met, which had been disparagingly noted to him by Darcy on more than one occasion, but which made him particularly suited to Jane Bennet. Caroline was not happy at their being thrown together again, after all her hard work at trying to keep them apart.

Charles wished a happy Christmas to Miss Jane Bennet first, then returned to her after he had offered his holiday greetings to everyone else in the party. He took her off to the side for a private conversation as soon as possible, so that she might be out of his sister's line of fire. On this occasion, however, Charles and Jane being together was the lesser of two evils to Caroline; her first object was to observe Darcy and Elizabeth together.

Her first, very astute, observation was that Eliza Bennet seemed to take a great deal more enjoyment in looking at her sister with Charles Bingley than she did in looking at Mr. Darcy. Truth be told, she rarely looked at Mr. Darcy at all, except when he directly addressed her. Mr. Darcy, as he had in Hertfordshire, followed Elizabeth Bennet with his eyes constantly, usually with pleasure, except (and Caroline filed this exception away for later use) when she was conversing with Col. Fitzwilliam, Darcy's cousin. On those occasions, he adopted his old stalking posture, circling his cousin and Elizabeth like a hawk.

Georgiana Darcy, too, was thoroughly taken in by Elizabeth, Caroline noted. Georgiana, though, was a mere child who rarely expressed an opinion of her own, so of course she would think whatever her brother told her to think, which was precisely why Caroline had tried so industriously to convince Mr. Darcy of the desirability of a match between his sister and Charles. All for nought, it seemed, because Jane Bennet and Charles had not separated for one moment since the Bingleys' arrival at Pemberley.

At luncheon, Caroline made the supreme sacrifice of sitting next to one of the Gardiner children, because most of the party was already seated, and her decision made it necessary for Elizabeth Bennet to sit next to Col. Fitzwilliam. Dinner, she hoped, would be a later, more formal affair, and the children would be elsewhere.

Elizabeth and the Colonel were laughing and talking as they ate, Darcy watching them out of the corner of his eye as he conversed with Mr. Gardiner. Mrs. Gardiner was watching Elizabeth as well, with obvious disapproval. Jane and Charles were deep in conversation, to the exclusion of all others. Georgiana, seated on the other side of Caroline Bingley, was looking at her brother, then at Elizabeth, with concern. Apparently, Caroline thought, Georgiana was a bit more astute than she gave her credit for!

Col. Fitzwilliam finally noticed Darcy's glare and said, "Darcy, I was amusing Miss Bennet with stories of Aunt Catherine. It seems she has some secondhand knowledge of our aunt through her cousin, the Rev. Collins, whose opinions of her are far more favourable than my own! I sincerely hope Lady Catherine is not to be a guest here for Christmas, or Miss Bennet will surely run from Pemberley in horror!"

"No, Fitzwilliam, she will not be here tomorrow."

"Ah, then, Miss Bennet, you will have to wait until Easter for the pleasure of meeting Lady Catherine. I assume Miss Bennet will be accompanying you, Darcy, for our annual visit?"

"She will be Mrs. Darcy by then, Fitzwilliam," Darcy replied, "and I would assume that Lady Catherine will attend our wedding."

"How efficient of you, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said brightly, "to set a wedding date without notifying the bride!"

Caroline Bingley thoroughly enjoyed the tense silence that greeted Elizabeth's remark.

Georgiana, bless her sweet soul, intervened.

"Miss Elizabeth, we promised the children that we would trim the Christmas tree after lunch. You must help me choose the ornaments, as we have a vast selection, some of which are rarely used. My late mother took pleasure in collecting them during her trips to the Continent, and I am told she loved them as much for their being mementoes of her travels as for their beauty."

She turned to Darcy.

"Brother, you will help us, will you not?"

He nodded, but his eyes were on Elizabeth. "Certainly, if you and Miss Bennet desire it."

Elizabeth was torn between anger at him for assuming their marriage would take place so quickly, and regret at having once again chastised him publicly. But wisely, she met his gaze and responded, "Of course we do, Sir."

After lunch, she helped her aunt with the children, as the younger ones would require a nap before the excitement of Christmas Eve. They were upstairs together, and it was Elizabeth who broached the subject of her unfortunate remark at lunch.

"Before you say it, Aunt, I know I spoke out of turn at lunch! But sometimes he makes me so angry. He can be so high-handed!"

Her aunt laughed. "And you, my dear, cannot? Elizabeth, I sincerely doubt that Mr. Darcy has set a date for your wedding without consulting you! He was staking his claim, dear, men are very proprietary. I rather like him the better for it; sometimes you need a bit of reining in, my love! And as for Col. Fitzwilliam, I've no doubt that as much as he takes pleasure in your company, he takes as much if not more in baiting his cousin. They are near in age, but far apart in wealth and rank, so the Colonel bests his cousin in the only manner he can!"

"I promise you, Aunt, I will have eyes for Mr. Darcy and Mr. Darcy only tonight!"

"That should be easy, Elizabeth, as even you must admit that, among his many attributes, Mr. Darcy is very pleasant to look at!"

"Yes, he is exceedingly handsome," Elizabeth sighed.

"And just one word of warning, Lizzy. Mr. Darcy loves you very much, and I believe you are beginning to appreciate his many good qualities, but I think you should carefully consider how you act and what you say to him. There is a tiger lurking within, and you do not want to rouse that tiger!"

Although, she thought to herself, it might be exceedingly amusing to watch!

When the Gardiner children were settled, their mother decided to rest for a few hours before dinner as well. Elizabeth went back downstairs, where Darcy and Georgiana were setting out the boxes of delicate Christmas ornaments to trim the 12-foot evergreen that had just been cut the day before.

Georgiana whispered to Elizabeth, "It has been a long time since my brother has taken such an interest in preparing for Christmas, Miss Elizabeth, and I believe it is because of you."

The housemaid brought in a tray of sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and the three of them sat down to eat. Dinner would be served very late that evening, after the children were in bed, and Darcy eagerly anticipated being with Elizabeth and presenting her with a very special Christmas gift.

"I have never seen such a tall, beautiful Christmas tree, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth said. "Should we wait for the children, or shall we begin trimming it now?"

"Oh, let us wait for the children, Miss Elizabeth," Georgiana said. "I cannot remember the last time we had little ones at Pemberley for Christmas, please let us have the pleasure of watching them!"

"As you wish," Elizabeth replied. She liked Georgiana's gentle spirit very well indeed.

When the children awakened from their naps and came down into the drawing room, their excitement at seeing the majestic tree awaiting them was contagious, and Elizabeth and Darcy helped them hang the ornaments, Georgiana giving a critical eye as to their placement. Hearing their excited voices, the others drifted in, and even Caroline Bingley had to admit the tree looked beautiful.

When the tree was decked to everyone's satisfaction, Darcy lifted the littlest Gardiner, 3-year-old Emma, into his arms, so that she could place a cut glass star atop the highest branch.

"I love you, Uncle Darcy!" she said with a big smile, and planted a big kiss on his cheek. Darcy beamed, and Elizabeth was touched to see his genuine pleasure at the little girl's gesture. She caught his eye and smiled so lovingly at him, that he was tempted to take her into his arms and kiss her soundly in front of all assembled.

The children were given their tea and sweets, and Elizabeth and Georgiana sat down at the pianoforte to play and sing Christmas carols. Together, they sang "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," Darcy standing behind them, brimming over with love for the two women in his life.

As twilight faded into evening, Darcy observed to himself that he could not remember such a happy Christmas Eve since those he had as a child, when both his parents were alive. And Elizabeth was growing to care for him, of this he was certain.

The children were put to bed at 7:30, so that they might dream of what Father Christmas would bring them while they slept. The ladies went upstairs to dress for dinner, Elizabeth donning the deep blue moire dress she had bought while in London.

She came down to dinner on her uncle's arm, and Darcy, waiting at the bottom of the stairs, was spellbound at the sight of her.

"Elizabeth, you look absolutely breathtaking tonight," he said. "And what good luck that you chose to wear blue."

"Come with me," he said, taking her by the hand and leading her over to the tree. "Close your eyes!"

She did as he asked, and he reached around her neck from behind, fumbling with a clasp. He ducked his head, nestling his face in her hair, so that he might inhale her intoxicating scent.

"Happy Christmas, my love," he said.

She reached up to touch the sapphire and diamond choker that he had placed around her neck.

"Fitzwilliam!" she exclaimed. "Your mother's necklace, the one she was wearing in the portrait. "It is so beautiful, I do not know what to say!"

"Do not say anything," he said. Kiss me, Elizabeth, he thought. Kiss me, and tell me you love me. There could be no greater gift.

Elizabeth reached up and stroked his cheek.

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam. It is the most beautiful gift I have ever received.

"Oh my, Georgiana," came a shrill voice, shattering the moment. "I would think you would have first claim on your mother's necklace! It is a family heirloom, is it not?"

Caroline and Georgiana had entered the room, just when Darcy determined he was going to kiss her, damn the consequences.

"Yes it is, Caroline," Georgiana answered with dignity. "And Elizabeth is going to be family, very soon. That necklace has always been destined for my brother's wife, and a more deserving woman could not wear it!"

Caroline could not suppress a sneer. Elizabeth Bennet, deserving of a Darcy family heirloom? She could not imagine anyone less deserving.

"Where are the rest of your family, Eliza? I hear the regiment will be leaving Meryton very soon, I imagine your sisters are having a jolly Christmas with them while they still can."

"They are celebrating Christmas with my aunt and uncle Phillips, Miss Bingley. Now if you will excuse me, I will go into dinner."

Elizabeth's eyes burned with tears. Why was Darcy silent? He had stood by and let that damnable woman insult her, without saying a single word in her defense. Deep down, she wondered if Darcy agreed with Caroline Bingley's assessment of her family. She was wearing a priceless Darcy family heirloom around her neck, but it was a mere ornament if her family did not have his respect.

What Elizabeth did not realize was that Darcy did not want to call attention to Caroline's spitefulness and her own subsequent humiliation by repudiating Caroline's words publicly. He chose, instead, to corner Bingley before joining the rest of the party for dinner, to ask him to speak to his sister about her rudeness.

"You are like a brother to me, Charles, but I cannot allow Caroline to insult Elizabeth in that manner ever again."

"I understand completely, Darcy. She has made a few pointed remarks to me about the Bennet family in the past as well, although, if I recall correctly, Darcy, you might have agreed with her at one time! Caroline has entirely too much to say about matters that are none of her affair. I will caution her most strenuously this evening."

Darcy nodded. Before joining Elizabeth for dinner, he contemplated Bingley's words about his own disapproval of the Bennet family. A sudden realization caused him to stop mid-stride as he made his way to the dining room.

Good God! Did Elizabeth think he agreed with Caroline because of what he had done and said in the past, as recently as when he proposed marriage to her? Even after all his attempts to be the most gentle and attentive of lovers, did she still feel slighted and resentful?

These contemplations allowed him to look at Elizabeth's reticence in returning his affections in a new light. Tonight he would assure her that no matter what her family said or did, his love for her would never diminish.

Elizabeth was unusually silent at dinner, no doubt because of Caroline's remarks about the necklace. Darcy was aching to talk to her alone; he could not bear to see the pain etched on her beautiful face. He could not even look at Caroline Bingley, as he feared he would explode in anger if she dared say another word. She had ruined all Elizabeth's pleasure in the gift of the necklace, and his own pleasure in giving it.

The grand dining hall was lit by the flames of dozens of candles, the scent of evergreen mingled with the spicy smells of the Christmas pudding and gingerbread that all assembled enjoyed with coffee and after-dinner brandy.

Georgiana was prevailed upon to play. When she began a lovely arrangement of the old English ballad, "Greensleeves," Darcy immediately got to his feet to stand next to Elizabeth. At last he would have the opportunity to talk to her, to touch her.

He took her hand in his and asked, "May I have the honour of this dance, Miss Bennet?" in much the same formal manner he had at the Netherfield Ball.

She assented, and the two of them moved to the center of the floor to dance, and soon Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley followed. Darcy held Elizabeth as close as was proper in company; how he wished they could dispense with all the niceties of society and steal away somewhere, where he could have her to himself. He wanted to hold her, lie with her, confide in her all his deepest thoughts and fears.

His biggest fear was of losing her.

When the dance ended, he clasped her to him for a moment, whispering "Lizzy...Lizzy...I must speak to you."

She linked her arm through his. Why was she trembling?

He led her into the hall outside the dining room, where they could sit alone. He sat close to her, took both her hands in his and looked at her earnestly.

"Lizzy, surely you know that I feel nothing but disgust at Caroline's vicious remarks. She has long been jealous of you and resentful of her brother's attentions to your sister."

Elizabeth looked at him defiantly. There were tears in her eyes.

"You shared in her opinions of my sister, Sir, and you aided her in keeping her brother away, did you not?"

"Elizabeth, when can we put this in the past? Have I not attempted to remedy my errors? I have done everything in my power to bring my friend and your sister together!"

"Then why did you allow Caroline Bingley to speak of me as she did?"

"What would you have me do, Elizabeth? Eject the sister of my dearest friend in the world from my home on Christmas Eve? I have spoken to Bingley; I assure you that he will speak to his sister to ensure such an incident never occurs again."

"William...please...make my excuses to everyone. My head is aching. I must go lie down."

"Elizabeth, my dearest, are you ill? Shall I call your aunt to accompany you?"

"No, please, William, I am not ill. I need to be alone."

Darcy hung his head. "You need to be alone, because you cannot bear to be with me, can you?"

She shook her head vigorously.

"No, no, that is not it, William! You have been good and kind and I want...oh, William I do not know what I want! Let me go to my room, I beg you, and all will be well in the morning."

"Promise me, Lizzy, that tomorrow we will talk. I want to know your deepest thoughts. Please do not keep yourself from me."

"I promise, William. Truly."

After one long, plaintive look, Elizabeth arose and went upstairs, while Darcy stood at the bottom, watching after her until she was out of sight.

But Elizabeth did not go directly to her bedchamber. She felt drawn to the portrait gallery, where she stood for some time under the final portrait of Lady Anne Darcy with her two children. She fingered the sapphire choker around her neck, the same one depicted in the portrait.
She contemplated the doomed woman's face, wondering what was going through her mind as she sat for her portrait, holding her baby girl in her arms. Did she agonize over who would take care of her children, whom she loved so much? Did she grieve for her little boy, who would have to grow up so quickly? He looked so somber, his hand resting protectively on his mother's shoulder.

And what haunted Elizabeth most was wondering if Lady Anne, wherever she was, knew that what was hurting her boy now was his inability to win the love the of the young woman wearing her own necklace, who stood before her with tears streaming down her face.

Sleep did not come easily to Elizabeth. She was consumed with feelings of guilt and unworthiness. Had she made a terrible mistake in agreeing to marry Mr. Darcy, who, she now knew with certainty, would never be satisfied with a passionless marriage? Fleetingly, after he had wounded her with the disparaging words that prefaced his proposal, she had wanted to hurt him, and hurt him she had. But now, she felt, she was inflicting pain on him disproportionate to that she had felt, and she wanted to stop herself before it was too late.

Too late for what? she asked herself. Too late to disentangle herself from him? Or too late to preserve his love?

Darcy, in great turmoil of mind, paced the downstairs corridor. His guests had long since gone to bed; after Elizabeth went upstairs, he had forced himself to rejoin them in the dining room, where he explained she was feeling fatigued and decided to retire early. He could barely control his anger at the sight of Miss Bingley's satisfied smirk. She knew her cutting words about Elizabeth's wearing his mother's necklace had hit their intended mark.

He sat in the drawing room, unable to relax sufficiently to go to bed. He finally fell asleep in a chair just a few hours before dawn, still dressed in evening clothes.

He awakened to the sound of pounding on the front door. A servant answered it, and he realized as he came to full consciousness, that it was an express messenger who stood behind the door. An express, he thought, on Christmas Day? It must be urgent, indeed. He feared grave illness or death of a near relation of his own family or the Bennets.

The message, he was told, was for Mr. Gardiner, who was summoned immediately. The noise had awakened Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, who streamed down the stairs behind their uncle. Darcy immediately went to Elizabeth's side, fearing the worst, so that he could be near her to support her.

Thankfully, the message did not bring news of death or illness. But what it did bring was news nearly as shocking:

Lydia Bennet had eloped with George Wickham.

Chapter 7

"This is grave. Grave, indeed," Darcy said, shaking his head in disgust, and Elizabeth perceived, in his expression, a distinct withdrawal from her.

He walked away from her and looked out the window, deep in thought. Normally, watching the sun rise at Pemberley brought him inner peace; this morning, he was in such distress, he barely noticed the beautiful sight.

Mr. Gardiner spoke in hushed tones.

"Elizabeth, your father writes that he needs my assistance in London at once. He is on his way there now even as we speak."

"Is it known that Wickham and Lydia went to London, Uncle?"

"Yes, your father seems certain. Apparently Kitty was in Lydia's confidence."

Darcy turned.

"What has been done to find them?"

"Nothing as yet, Mr. Darcy. They did not go to Gretna Green, that much has been determined."

Darcy nodded, frowning. Not once did his gaze meet Elizabeth's.

"Oh, it is hopeless! Hopeless!" Lizzy said. "How is such a man to be worked on? She is without dowry, without connections...nothing to tempt him to marry her!"

"He is counting on his anticipated Darcy connections to make his fortune, no doubt."

Caroline Bingley had come down the stairs along with her brother, and had overheard most of the conversation between Elizabeth and her uncle.

"Caroline," Bingley hissed. "Into the library. Now!"

Unaccustomed to being spoken to in such a commanding tone by her genial brother, Caroline stared at him open-mouthed.

"I beg your pardon, Charles?"

"I will not repeat myself, Caroline. And since you would not like me to say what I must to you in company, I suggest that you do as I ask immediately."

Caroline began to speak, but her brother's steely expression made her think better of it, and summoning what little of her dignity was left, she left the room, her brother close behind her.

Elizabeth was too distressed to take any satisfaction at Caroline's mortification; her own mortification was far greater. Apparently Darcy's was as well, because he still had not said one word to her directly. Her uncle approached him, and the two men spoke for some time in low tones. Her uncle nodded at Darcy and went to Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, your aunt and I are going to leave for London immediately. Your father asks that you accompany us, he is most anxious to see you."

"Uncle, what of the children? It is Christmas Day!"

"Mr. Darcy has kindly offered to allow them to remain here along with Jane. I will send a carriage for them as soon as it is possible. How little Lydia must think of us all, to do such a thing at Christmas! It grieves us to leave the children, but it cannot be helped. Mr. Darcy, of course, will keep Christmas at home with his sister."

"Oh, yes," Elizabeth said. "I quite understand Mr. Darcy's wanting to remain at home."

I understand perfectly, she thought. He wants nothing more than to distance himself from my family's disgrace. And in all honesty, I cannot say that I blame him. Even in the best of all outcomes, he will be brother to Wickham. Apparently his love is not strong enough to countenance such a connection.

Elizabeth went upstairs to change into travelling clothes and pack her belongings. She held the Darcy sapphire choker in her hand for some minutes, finally leaving it on top of the dressing table. She had never really felt that it belonged to an imposter such as herself. She hesitated a moment, looking at the engagement ring on her finger, but finally decided she would continue to wear it, certain that if she removed it now, Mr. Darcy would notice its absence from her hand when she left this morning, and she did not want to have to offer any explanations.

She would leave it to Mr. Darcy to break their engagement, as she was certain he would.

The three travellers were ready to leave in minutes. Darcy saw them to their carriage, unable to find the words to comfort Elizabeth in her distress. She seemed particularly anxious to leave, and as her aunt and uncle were on either side of her, he could not bring himself to offer her the words of love that were in his heart.

Instead he took her hand and said, "Elizabeth, believe me, all will be well. I will be in contact with you as soon as matters are resolved."

"I understand," she said, looking into his eyes, then down at the floor.

"Thank you, Mr. Darcy," her uncle said, grasping his hand firmly.
"Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth. I wish you a safe and speedy journey."

"Thank you, Sir," Mrs. Gardiner answered.

"Goodbye, William," Elizabeth said softly.

Darcy gave Elizabeth one long, last look, before they departed. Elizabeth waited until the carriage was well down the road before she broke down in bitter tears.

Caroline Bingley would not give her brother the satisfaction of seeing her cry! He, her younger brother, daring to chastise her in front of the lowly Elizabeth Bennet and her Cheapside relations!

She said as much to him when they were finally behind closed doors, in the library.

"I assure you, Caroline, Elizabeth Bennet was far too distressed at her family's troubles to take notice of anything that was said to you."

"Charles, surely you must know that Mr. Darcy could not possibly marry that woman, especially now! Thank the Lord this all happened before Jane Bennet snared you in a similar manner, brother!"

"I have no doubt that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet will do whatever is best for their own happiness. And I intend to do the same, Caroline. You had better learn to hold your tongue, or not only will you no longer be welcome at Pemberley, you will not be welcome at my home after, God willing, I make Jane Bennet my wife!"

"Charles, have you lost your senses? Their entire family, not a single person worth knowing among them! Their uncles, all in trade!"

"And Caroline, have you lost your memory? Our own family's fortune was made in trade, and how the money was earned does not seem to make you in the least bit hesitant to spend it! And if you want to continue to spend it, I suggest you extend every courtesy to Jane Bennet and her family!"

Caroline was livid with anger. But if the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, the way to this woman's heart was through the pursestrings. She forced herself to appear suitably contrite as Charles lectured her, but she had already stopped listening to him as he droned on and on.

"...you fail to realize, Caroline, in what an unfavourable light you appear when your jealousy and spite..."

She decided that, for the moment at least, she would remain silent, but her mind was working feverishly. She still nurtured the hope that once Darcy realized that a connection with the Bennet family, especially in view of Lydia's disgrace, would be harmful to his family's prestige, he might look at her own desirability in a new light.

"...painful it is to myself as your brother to hear the remarks you direct at others, even here, as a guest..."

If only there were some way his own family could sway him. Not Georgiana; she was hopelessly taken in by Elizabeth Bennet.

"...and on Christmas, the holiest of all days, to allow your spite to manifest itself so cruelly..."

And then, suddenly, she seized upon the beginnings of a plan.

"...the shock on that poor child, Georgiana Darcy's face, at the words you uttered to Miss Bennet..."

Lady Catherine de Bourgh! Someone had to let the woman know about the danger to her nephew's good name and her niece's prospects that was presented by the fortune-hunting Miss Bennet and her undesirable relations. Really, when one thought of it, she would be doing Mr. Darcy a service!

"...and to insult not only Miss Bennet, but my dearest friend, Mr. Darcy, who has always been hospitable and paid us every attention..."

She could write a letter, expressing her concern as a friend of the Darcy family and as Georgiana's confidante. But not to Lady Catherine herself; no, that would be too forward, even for her. She would have to write it to...

"...at Netherfield, you did all but laugh directly at Miss Bennet's cousin, who I agree can at times be ridiculous, but..."

That was it! Elizabeth Bennet's cousin, the Rev. Mr. Collins! If anyone could be counted on to report to Lady Catherine promptly, it was he. Col. Fitzwilliam would be returning to Kent in a day's time, and she would ask him to take the letter with him.

Of course, she would have to tell just one little white lie. She would have to tell the Colonel that the letter was from Elizabeth Bennet.

"Have you comprehended all that I have said to you, Caroline?"

Charles had finally stopped talking.

Caroline smiled sweetly.
"You are right, Charles. I know I have been unforgivably rude. I promise you it will not happen again."

She hung her head, as if ashamed.

"I think I will retire to my room now, Charles. I want to think about all you have told me."

He looked at her suspiciously. Caroline was being entirely too compliant.

However, he chose, as usual, to believe the best, and accepted her apology, making certain to warn her seriously one last time that such behaviour would not be tolerated in the future.

Not only was Caroline's stated intention to retire to her room to contemplate her wrongdoing met with approbation by her brother, it presented a perfect opportunity for her to compose her letter to the Rev. Mr. Collins uninterrupted.

After an hour's labour, she read it through with some satisfaction:

25 December 1811

Dear Mr. Collins:

After much hesitation, I am writing to you to apprise you of a serious situation that has arisen, which I am sure will be of keen interest not only to you, but to your patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as it intimately concerns her nephew, Mr. Darcy, and your cousin, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Please pardon my subterfuge in representing to Col. Fitzwilliam that this letter originated with your cousin, but I am sure you will soon understand why I felt compelled to do so.

As you are aware, Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet recently became engaged after a very brief acquaintance, and I have no doubt that as a man of sense and rectitude, you will concur in my opinion that Lady Catherine is no doubt opposed to the match.

Miss Bennet, along with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, today received the distressing news that her younger sister, your cousin Miss Lydia Bennet, has eloped with Mr. George Wickham, the son of Mr. Darcy's former steward. My concern is great as well, as my own brother, Charles, has become closely acquainted with Miss Jane Bennet, and as you can well understand, I am concerned about his making a connection with a family that has been so disgraced. I am sure Lady Catherine will be equally concerned not only for Mr. Darcy, but for his sister, Georgiana, whose own reputation might well be tainted by her brother's entering into such an undesirable marriage.

I fear that Miss Elizabeth Bennet's motives in marrying Mr. Darcy may be of a pecuniary nature. You, of all men, understand what might motivate her to make such a favourable match, in that you are the beneficiary of the entailment of her father's estate. I fear Mr. Darcy has been drawn in by the arts and allurements such a young woman does not hesitate to employ in furthering her mercenary objects!

Forgive me for being so forward, Sir, but I felt it my Christian duty to inform you of this situation and trust that the Lord will guide you in using this information.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Bingley

The house was in such an uproar, what with the news of Lydia's elopement, and Elizabeth's leaving so suddenly with the Gardiners, that it was remarkably easy for Caroline to hand the letter to Col Fitzwilliam unobserved before he left for Kent.

"Please, Sir," she whispered, just moments before he entered his carriage. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet asked that you deliver this letter to her cousin, your aunt's parson the Rev. Mr. Collins. No doubt she is beseeching that he pray for her sister's redemption."

Having met Mr Collins on more than one occasion, Col. Fitzwilliam rather doubted he would pray for any such thing, but he was most accommodating and agreed to deliver the letter as soon as he arrived in Kent.

Elizabeth's aunt and uncle assumed that the copious tears she shed during their journey south to London were inspired by Lydia's disgraceful situation and its resultant effect on her family.

Their assumption was only partially correct.

Elizabeth was certain that what she perceived as Mr. Darcy's withdrawal of his affections, and his distancing of himself from her after he learned of Lydia and Wickham's elopement, were caused by his unwillingness to be connected to a family thus disgraced. His love for her was of such short duration, she thought, that it was easily suppressed by such an unfavourably momentous event.

She was not surprised. In truth, she would have been more surprised had Mr. Darcy reacted to the unhappy news with a solemn and fervent reassurance of his sentiments. She knew enough of Mr. Darcy's sensibilities that she was convinced that, even after their engagement, he found it difficult to put aside his repugnance at the everyday improprieties of her family. How much more difficult it would be for him to disregard an event of this magnitude.

She was angry more with herself than with him. Angry that, just as she was softening in her attitude toward Mr. Darcy, she was presented with this confirmation of how quickly his love for her could be threatened. She had allowed herself to begin to believe that his love for her was more than a simple infatuation or a desire to possess her, and had been lowering her own defenses against being more receptive to that love. She recalled the touch of his fingers as he fastened his mother's choker around her neck, and the way he had momentarily nestled his face in her hair. She had not been impervious to his appeal then; she would have to learn to be so again!

How lucky it was, she told herself, that she had not allowed herself to foolishly fall in love with him. She was crying for what might have been, rather than for the loss of what was.

It was mid-afternoon of Christmas Day when they arrived at Gracechurch Street. Mr. Bennet had already arrived and was anxiously awaiting them in the drawing room. It seemed pointless to wish her father a happy Christmas; how happy a Christmas, after all, could it be? Elizabeth settled for embracing him tightly as he greeted her.

"I have been longing to see you, Lizzy. Has Mr. Darcy accompanied you?"

"No, Papa," she answered shortly, making it clear she did not want to discuss the matter further.

"Mr. Darcy remains at Pemberley, brother," Mr. Gardiner said. "Let us have tea, and then we will retire to my study to discuss what must next be done."

"How does my mother do, Sir?" Elizabeth asked her father as they drank their tea.

"Not well, as you can imagine, Lizzy. She took to her bed the moment she received the unhappy news, and we have seen nothing of her since. Now and then her impassioned cries ring through the house and your aunt Phillips comes to commiserate with her, but they say little of sense. Nothing has changed on that score."

"Is our general acquaintance aware of Lydia's situation?"

"Thankfully, no, Lizzy, at least not yet. The cold and snow have precluded much socializing, and only your aunt and uncle Phillips were present when we received the news. Are you certain we may count on Mr. Darcy's secrecy as well?"

Elizabeth stiffened at the mention of Mr. Darcy's name, and her uncle responded.

"I am positive, brother, that Mr. Darcy is to be relied upon for his discretion."

Mr. Bennet, more in tune to his daughter's attitude than her uncle, looked at Lizzy thoughtfully, and wondered if all was well between his daughter and her fiancé.

After tea, Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet excused themselves to confer in the study, while Elizabeth was left with her aunt to contemplate her misery. She detested the reality that as a female, she was powerless to take an active role in finding Lydia and Wickham, and prayed that her father would not only be up to the rigours of such a task, but able to provide the financial incentive she was sure Wickham would require in order to be persuaded to marry Lydia.

She would have been shocked to learn that this would not be a consideration, as Mr. Gardiner was at that very moment relaying to Mr. Bennet his knowledge of Mr. Darcy's intentions to assume any and all financial obligations relating to Lydia and Wickham's marriage, once they were found.

"I cannot stress it too strongly: Elizabeth is not to be told. Mr. Darcy was most strenuous in making this point!"

"But why? Is he not to be her husband?" Mr. Bennet asked.

"It is an unusual situation that exists between them,. I am sure my wife knows more of it than I do, but even I can easily see that Mr. Darcy's love for your daughter is more fervent than what he receives in return. He claims it is his obligation to pay Wickham's expenses and Lydia's dowry, because he had personal knowledge of Wickham's unworthiness and never publicized it because of his own pride and reticence to expose his actions and history to the world. He was no more specific than that."

"This is a moot point unless we find them. And I have no idea where to begin."

Mr. Gardiner nodded.

"That is another matter in which Mr. Darcy wishes to assist. He told me he would only wait an hour after our carriage departed to leave for London himself. He has a home at Grosvenor Square and might well be there already. Again, he does not want Lizzy to know of this. He intends to call on her here at Gracechurch Street after the matter has been satisfactorily concluded, with Lizzy none the wiser as to his role in the affair.

"He has intimate knowledge, apparently, of Wickham's friends and the places they frequent, and wishes to accompany us in our search. For obvious reasons, Mr. Darcy will not come to Gracechurch Street; rather, he wishes us to assemble at his house tonight to share information and discuss what next we might do."

"Hmmph. Mr. Darcy must have it bad for my Lizzy! I would have wagered he would turn tail and run at something like this. But he has proven me wrong, and I am glad of it. I am afraid I may have misjudged the man."

Mr. Bennet's opinion of Mr. Darcy rose even more precipitously after their consultations that evening. What Mr. Bennet had considered haughtiness was now termed, in his mind, as reserve, his taciturnity as seriousness of manner. While Darcy's willing assumption of the financial burdens which should, by rights, have been his own, certainly contributed to Mr. Darcy's rise in his estimation, even more important was his dawning knowledge of just how much he valued his favourite daughter. Oddly enough, Elizabeth's name was barely mentioned, but it was as though she was the silent partner in these proceedings, and perhaps the most important one.

In Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet saw the ideal complement to his daughter. Her liveliness might inspire higher spirits in Darcy, while his gravity and sense might be the rock on which Elizabeth would find her support and stability. Their joint purpose now was to restore whatever semblance of respectability they could to Lydia, who little deserved such consideration, because his beloved daughter, Mr. Darcy's beloved future wife, deserved to enter the married state without the spectre of family disgrace hanging over her.

Even so, after spending just a half hour with his intended son-in-law, Mr. Bennet was as certain of this as he ever was of anything: in no way would Mr. Darcy be thwarted from marrying Elizabeth, even if the affair was not brought to its hoped-for conclusion. He had no way of knowing that Elizabeth did not share in this certainty.

It was agreed that Mr. Darcy would begin the search for the couple on the following day, on his own. Messrs. Bennet and Gardiner were to investigate what debts Wickham had incurred, which would have to be satisfied. They would meet again the following evening to compare their findings.

Chapter 8

By the 27th of December, no definitive news was had as to Lydia and Wickham's whereabouts. Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet left Gracechurch Street early that morning, as they had the day before, and did not return until dark. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner, they had spent much of the day with Mr. Darcy.

Elizabeth was in low spirits that evening, owing to a visit she had received that afternoon from Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The woman had descended upon Gracechurch Street, casting a disparaging eye on that comfortable, modest establishment and on its mistress. She demanded to see Miss Elizabeth Bennet for a private audience. Mrs. Gardiner summoned Elizabeth to inform her of her guest's identity and allowed them the use of the drawing room.

"Should you require assistance, Lizzy, I will be glad to return," she said, ensuring that Lady Catherine heard her.

"Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine began, "surely you know who I am and why I have come."

"Never having made your acquaintance, I know who you are only because you have announced yourself, and I am at a loss as to why I have received the honour of this visit, Madam," Elizabeth replied.

"Impudent girl! I have received the alarming news that you are engaged to my nephew, Mr. Darcy! What say you to this report?"

"Yes, it is true, I am engaged to him, as I am sure he has informed you."

"And did he neglect to inform you that he has been intended since birth to marry my daughter Anne?"

"It would be odd, indeed, Lady Catherine, if he would impart such information upon making me an offer of marriage!"

"I am not ignorant of your family's situation, Miss Bennet. Your father's estate is entailed, and in desperation, you have used your female wiles to ensnare my nephew, a man of wealth and distinction. Do you think he does not know that you seek to marry him for mercenary reasons? I can only assume that he is so taken in by your...your...attractions," she sneered, "that he has forgotten what he owes to himself and his family.

"And now the disgraceful affair of your sister! I know it all, Miss Bennet, her elopement is common knowledge as far as Derbyshire! Do you expect that anything you might offer my nephew could tempt him to marry you now?"

Elizabeth could find no words to repudiate Lady Catherine's words, because no matter how disagreeably the woman spoke, she spoke the truth.

"Lady Catherine, you have insulted me in every possible manner, and I must ask you to leave."

"Very well, I will take my leave. But be warned, Miss Bennet. My nephew may be temporarily enchanted by you, but he is not foolish enough to believe he inspires any sentiment in you beyond a desire to partake in all his wealth can offer! The marriage to which you aspire will never take place!"

Elizabeth sat and cried for a full half hour after the woman left, Mrs. Gardiner trying in vain to comfort her.

She was convinced, despite all her aunt's efforts to persuade her to think otherwise, that Mr. Darcy had told his aunt of their circumstances, for who else would have such intimate knowledge of his affairs?

And if he had, it was obvious that he intended to end their engagement. Why else would he not have been in contact with her these two days?

The next day, as they were all sitting down to breakfast, a letter arrived for Mr. Gardiner. He quickly scanned its contents.

"Excellent news, brother! They have been found!"

"Are they married?" asked Elizabeth anxiously.

"No...no...not yet. But negotiations are taking place, and your father and I must leave at once. There is certainly cause for hope," he said.

"Negotiations with whom, Uncle?"

Mr. Bennet shot his brother-in-law a warning glance.

"We have others acting on our behalf, Lizzy," he said, satisfied that strictly speaking, he was telling her the truth.

It was with high hopes that the two gentlemen left for Mr. Darcy's house at Grosvenor Square that morning.

It was a long day for Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner, remaining at home with little else to occupy their minds but Lydia's situation. Elizabeth, in particular, was in the lowest of spirits, as she replayed in her mind the scene with Lady Catherine the previous day.

"Lizzy, you are not yourself today, my love. May I hope you are pining for your Mr. Darcy?"

"I rather doubt he remains my Mr. Darcy, Aunt. Lady Catherine made that abundantly clear." She had relayed the essence of Lady Catherine's accusations to her aunt, who found much of it difficult to believe.

"Let us examine all this more closely, Lizzy. Putting aside all her defamatory remarks about your family, she also accused you of seeking to marry Mr. Darcy for his fortune, am I correct?"

"Yes, undoubtedly she received her information from Mr. Darcy himself."

"It must be comforting, Lizzy, to have no doubt about something that is little more than conjecture on your part!"

"I can find no other explanation for it, Aunt. I believe he is so repelled by Lydia's situation that he will seek to end our engagement. Why else has he not called upon me as yet?"

"He is at Pemberley, Elizabeth, unless, as you seem to believe, he deserted his guests and headed to Kent to confer with his aunt, which I find highly unlikely! I dare say he knows we are all occupied here and will come to London with Jane and the children, after this is all settled."

"You are beginning to sound like Jane, Aunt! You think entirely too well of the man."

"And you, my dear, think entirely too ill of him."

"No, Aunt, you are wrong. I saw his face when he heard of Lydia's elopement. And Wickham as his brother-in-law? Nothing could be more repugnant to him."

Ironically, it was at that very moment that Mr. Darcy was completing the negotiations that would, in two days' time, bring about the ceremony that would tie Wickham to the Bennets, and hence to himself, forever.

Wickham, thought Darcy, was being far too well rewarded for his scurrilous behaviour, but it could not be helped. There could be no other solution. All his attempts to dissuade Lydia from marrying him were in vain. Her regard for Wickham was such that she would have married him penniless; his for her was so slight that he would not marry her except with strong financial incentives. It did not bode well, thought Darcy, for an agreeable marriage. If there were similarities in his own and their situation vis a vis differing opinions among those betrothed as to what was compelling inducement for entering into marriage, he sought not to think about it. It was far too painful to contemplate. He would think about it all later, after he was finished with this distasteful business, and he could see Elizabeth once again. It had been just three days since he'd seen her last, but his longing for her was so palpable, it seemed an eternity.

It had been a long, hard process, thought Mr. Bennet, and Mr. Darcy had been a tireless presence throughout. He shook the young man's hand with warmth.

"Mr. Darcy, it is impossible to express my thanks sufficiently. You must allow me to inform Lizzy of your involvement in the affair, now that it has all been resolved."

"No, Mr. Bennet. I promise you I will tell her myself when the time is right."

"But why the delay, Mr. Darcy? I do not understand."

"I do not want her gratitude, Sir."

Mr. Bennet thought back on that day in early December when Elizabeth had told him of her betrothal, and had made it clear that she did not love Mr. Darcy. Apparently her sentiments for him had still not progressed to the point where Mr. Darcy thought he would ever inspire any feeling in her other than gratitude. His compassion for Mr. Darcy at that moment was very strong, indeed.

"Might I offer a word of advice, Mr. Darcy? Elizabeth can be very opinionated; she shares that in common with myself, I dare say. There are few of whom she fully approves; fewer still whom she truly loves. But I think you will find that if you are so fortunate as to win her good opinion, she will be unswerving in her devotion.

"And one more thing, son. You might want to be a bit more forceful in your dealings with her! She is a very strong young woman, as no doubt you have already learned!"

Darcy merely nodded, unwilling to discuss this very personal subject with his future father-in-law.

"I intend to remain close to Wickham to be certain he does not attempt to elude his responsibility, although I do not think that is his intent. I doubt he will find better prospects elsewhere. You will understand that it is impossible for me to attend the wedding, as undoubtedly Elizabeth will be present, and it would not do for her to see me there."

"As you wish, Sir," Mr. Bennet said with a sigh, although he could still not for the life of him understand why Darcy was so adamant on this point.

"I am most grateful, Edward," he said to his brother-in-law as they headed home, "that I am not young anymore!"

The morning of December 30 dawned cold, but there was sunshine in abundance.

Mr. Darcy, as promised, had kept close watch on the bridgroom until just a few hours before the wedding, at which point he left and Mr. Bennet arrived to take over. Mr. Bennet noted that his youngest daughter showed not a bit of regret at the havoc she had wreaked on her family; her smile was so beguiling and her gown so white and pristine that one would have thought she was the most innocent of brides!

And while he understood that no other outcome but this was possible if his family's reputation was to be upheld, he could not help but be sad and anxious on his daughter's behalf. He had little hope for her ultimate happiness.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth were the only others present at church, which Lydia found most disappointing. She had always dreamed of a large wedding, with organ music and bridesmaids and many more flowers than the small bouquet she carried.

After a simple wedding luncheon, she and Wickham left for modest accommodations at a local inn, where Lydia was distressed to discover that Wickham had far less interest in accommodating her connubial desires than he had before they were married. In that sense, their wedding day was distinctly anti-climactic.

Her family returned to Gracechurch Street, where tired and emotionally spent from the week's events, they spent the afternoon in quiet activities.

Elizabeth was the last to retire that evening. She had blocked it from her mind as long as she could, but now all she could think of was this: Where was Mr. Darcy?

As though in answer to her mental question, the doorbell chimed and she arose to answer it, to discover the caller was none other than the gentleman in question. Remembering her last visitor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, renewed her ire toward her fiance, and her reception of him reflected this.

"So. You have come," Elizabeth said coolly, with no other words of greeting.

"Did you think I would not, Elizabeth?"

By way of response, she said, "Your Aunt was here three days ago, Sir. Apparently she has intimate knowledge of the details of our engagement and of my family's situation. I did not think you were so little to be trusted."

"What? My Aunt was here? What on earth are you speaking of, Elizabeth?"

"Your aunt is of the opinion that I am marrying you for your fortune."
He stared at her, his expression hardening.

"Which you are, are you not?"

She began to cry. "That is not fair, Mr. Darcy!"

"What is not fair? To be accused of doing something which you are, in fact, doing? Your shame lies, Elizabeth, in not what you are doing, but in it being known."

"So you did tell her. For what purpose, Sir? So that you could further impugn my character? So that you might gracefully disentangle yourself from the disgrace that has befallen my family and let it be thought that your motivation for so doing was my being a fortune hunter?"

He shook his head angrily.

"Listen to yourself, Elizabeth. You are always so eager to think the worst of me, I believe you do it to justify yourself. What you say is not even sensible."

His mouth set in an angry line, he reached inside his coat and took out the sapphire necklace, which he put into her hand, forcing her to close her fingers around it.

"I do not want it, Sir! I left it behind deliberately, as I knew this is how you would react!"

"How I would react? You know nothing of me, Elizabeth, nothing at all."

She stared at him, her breath coming in hard gasps.

"And what of your aunt's assertion that you are engaged to your cousin?""

Darcy shook his head in frustration.

"That again! My aunt deludes herself; she believes what it pleases her to believe. A family trait, perhaps," he said with no small amount of bitterness.

"Along with arrogance and conceit!"

Darcy's face whitened. He could no longer trust himself to remain in her presence.

"You have said enough, Madam. I can bear this no longer. I am going to leave you now, unless you can give me some good reason why I should not."

She wept, but she remained silent.

"I see," he said quietly. "I had planned on remaining in London with my sister until after the New Year, but I find now that I prefer to return to Pemberley. Please offer my apologies to your father for taking my leave so suddenly."

"Mr. Darcy, I..." Elizabeth was confused by the feelings that were overtaking her.

"No," he said. "Do not trouble yourself. Good evening, Elizabeth."

He put on his hat and strode out the door. Elizabeth watched from the window as he entered his carriage.

He never looked back.

Chapter 9

Mrs. Gardiner waited anxiously by the window. Her four children and her niece Jane would be returning from Pemberley this afternoon along with Georgiana Darcy who, most anxious to see her brother, would be brought to his London house before the carriage proceeded to Gracechurch Street.

Finally, the carriage approached. She gathered her children into her arms, hugging and kissing them as if she hadn't seen them in 6 months, rather than 6 days!

"Did you have a good time at Pemberley, my darlings? I hope you were on your best behaviour for your cousin Jane!"

"They certainly were, Aunt. They were absolute angels. I am so sorry, though, that we missed Lydia's wedding! On such short notice, it was impossible to get here in time."

"Worry not, Jane," Elizabeth said. "Even for someone as serene as yourself, it was an occasion from which little pleasure could be taken."

"And how do things proceed with Mr. Bingley, Jane?" her aunt asked slyly.

Jane smiled.

"Very well, indeed, Aunt. I believe he may be returning to Netherfield after the New Year, this time without his sisters!"

"That is good news, indeed, Jane. Dare I ask if he will be calling upon you at Longbourn?"

"Yes, Aunt, I believe he shall. I think you might safely assume that now that this business with Lydia has been settled, Mr. Bingley and I will soon be making an announcement of our own!"

Only news as pleasing as this could make Elizabeth forget her own unhappiness. She embraced her sister and said, "Apparently Caroline is not as influential as she hoped, Jane!"

"Now, Lizzy, Caroline is not all that bad!"

"Oh yes, she is bad!" announced 5-year-old Peter Gardiner. "She told me I eat too many sweets, and she took one away."

Mrs. Gardiner smiled at that. "Now, Peter, perhaps Miss Bingley was right about that."
"She has an ugly hat," he said.

Lizzy laughed. "That she does."

"But she did give Colonel Fizzy William your letter, cousin Lizzy."

"That's Fitzwilliam, dear," corrected Mrs. Gardiner.

"Fizzy Lizzy!" Peter exclaimed, dissolving in giggles at his own joke.

"What letter?" Elizabeth asked.

"The white one," he said. "To give to your cousin," he added emphatically, wondering if Cousin Lizzy wrote so many letters she could not remember to whom she wrote them!

"Don't be silly, Peter," said ten-year-old Margaret. "We are her cousins, and Colonel Fitzwilliam did not give any of us a letter! You are fibbing!"

"Am not," Peter said defiantly. "I saw her! I was hiding behind the chair!"

"Hiding?" Jane asked. "Why were you hiding?"

"Didn't want her to take my biscuit away," he replied indignantly.

"Jane..." Elizabeth said slowly. "Where was Colonel Fitzwilliam going after he left Pemberley?"

"Kent, I believe," Jane responded. "Why do you ask?"

Elizabeth's eyes met her aunt's.

"Oh, no," she said. "What have I done?"

Jane looked at her quizzically. "Whatever are you speaking of, Lizzy?"

"Mr. Darcy arrived in London last evening. I ...I was angry with him because he had been so long in coming, Jane, and I made some accusations of him that may have been unfounded. The letter that Caroline gave to Colonel Fitzwilliam...oh, it is too complicated to explain! I am not sure I understand it all myself."

"Lizzy? What are you saying? Mr. Darcy left for London soon after you did, on Christmas Day. Why did you not see him until last evening?"

With sudden, perfect clarity, Elizabeth remembered Darcy's words of the previous evening, which, due to her emotional state, had passed unheeded at the time:

Please offer my apologies to your father for taking my leave so suddenly.
She immediately turned to her father.

"Papa, have you seen Mr. Darcy since you arrived in London?"

"Elizabeth, please, I cannot..."

"Edward, what is this about?" Mrs. Gardiner asked her husband sternly. "Surely if the two of you saw Mr. Darcy, there could be no reason for you to withhold this information from Elizabeth and myself!"

Mr. Gardiner turned to Mr. Bennet and said thoughtfully, "Brother, I never promised not to tell my wife, did I?"

"No Edward," Mr. Bennet answered with a grin. "You must assuredly did not!"

The children having been sent into the nursery for tea, the entire history of Mr. Darcy's role in arranging Lydia's marriage was told to the ladies.

After the important communication was made, Elizabeth sat spellbound at the magnitude of what Mr. Darcy had done for her sister.

"So you are telling me now that, not only has Mr. Darcy been in London since Christmas, but he has been assisting you in arranging Lydia's marriage?"

"'Assisting' is rather a large understatement, Lizzy," Mr. Gardiner said. "Nothing was done that he did not do himself. He arranged the marriage, discharged Wickham's debts and purchased a commission for him in the North."

"And for what reason," Lizzy asked, "did he insist that I not be told?"

"He did not want your gratitude, Lizzy," Mr. Bennet answered.

She sighed. "He is very angry with me, Father."

"He loves you very much, my dear" he answered simply. "He is a very good, good man. Not that goodness has ever been sufficient enough to inspire romantic love, my dear, any more than the lack of it has prevented it. Your sister being a case in point!"

She nodded.

"So," she said brightly. "Are there any other secrets anyone wishes to reveal while we are gathered here? Any other letters I am purported to have written, or mysterious gentlemen who do not want their presence known?"

Her father saw the tears in her eyes, belying her feeble attempt at humour.

He patted her hand. "You have a lot of thinking to do, my child. I will repeat what I told you a month ago: Do not marry without love. But if your opinions of that fine young man have changed, do not be too proud to admit it!"

"Lizzy," her aunt said. "You look so exhausted, dear, I fear this has all been too much for you to comprehend in one day. Why do you not lie down until dinner?"

Elizabeth nodded. "I think I must, Aunt. Perhaps when I awaken I can think more clearly."

Elizabeth was so fatigued, she slept through dinner, and did not awaken until after eight. Although her body was rested, her mind was still in turmoil.

She tidied herself and went downstairs.

"Lizzy," her aunt said, "while you were asleep a letter arrived for you. I believe it is from Mr. Darcy."

Elizabeth paled. No doubt this was the communication she had been anticipating, breaking their engagement.

"Would you mind very much if I read it alone, Aunt?"

"Of course not, dear," she said, leaning closer to kiss her cheek. She handed her the letter, squeezing her hand before she left the room, and closed the door behind her.

Elizabeth took a deep breath before she sat down and opened the envelope. There was a two-page letter within, and another sealed document which she put aside.

My dearest Elizabeth,

I write this missive with the heaviest of hearts.

Despite my angry manner last evening, I in no way hold you accountable for the estrangement which has occurred between us. You have always been frank, sometimes painfully so, in your dealings with me, and when you agreed to become my wife, your candour in admitting the inducements which convinced you to respond affirmatively to my proposals was no more offensive than my own admissions as to what made me hesitant to make them.

I love you, and you do not love me; this is fact, and you never attempted any subterfuge in this regard. I have endeavoured these few months to improve your opinion of me, and I flattered myself that I was having some success. When the grave news of your sister's elopement with Mr. Wickham reached us, I will admit that my first, visceral reaction was one of repugnance, and I fear that you perceived this not as revulsion at the man's total lack of conscience, but as a reluctance on my part to be connected with your family. I assure you this was not the case, but in view of some of the opinions I have expressed in the past, your assumption was not entirely without logic.

However, I must tell you now, Elizabeth, how deeply hurt and disappointed I was at your assumption that it was I who told my Aunt Catherine of your motivation in agreeing to be my wife. It was painful enough that I knew you were marrying me without love, but I always clung to the hope that my passionate attachment to you would be so overpowering that you would succumb to it and grow to love me as well. I could not bear to speak of it to any other person, least of all my aunt! Lady Catherine tends to think the worst of everyone, particularly young women whom she perceives as pursuing me for my wealth. You must believe me when I tell you she might have made the same accusation of any lady who had captured my interest.

Lady Catherine has always steadfastly insisted that I was bound by both honour and obligation to marry my cousin Anne, despite my constant repudiation of her demands. Neither Anne nor I have the slightest interest in marriage to each other; and I rather doubt Lady Catherine's assertion that it was my late mother's hope as well. My mother certainly never indicated any such desire to me; her only wish was that I find a wife whom I might love and cherish, and who would love me in return. I believe the only reason she even spoke of such matters to a boy of 12 was because she knew she was not destined for a long life and would not be here to offer her loving guidance, although there are times, I must admit, when I look into your eyes, Elizabeth, and see her reflected there. But perhaps I am being fanciful!

For all of these reasons, and because I know you desire it, I am releasing you from our engagement, Elizabeth. I am quite certain that Jane and Charles will soon come to an understanding, and I am pleased to have played a small part in this joyful event, if only for the happiness it will give you.

As to the other request you made of me as a condition of our engagement, that I provide your mother and sisters with a suitable place to live upon your father's death, I intend to fulfill this promise as well. Before you nominate me for sainthood, please be assured that my motive is a selfish one. I could not bear to see you sell yourself to some undeserving rake merely to secure your family's future. If I must see you married to another, Elizabeth, I wish you to marry for love. You deserve no less. I have harboured the suspicion since Christmas that you find Col. Fitzwilliam a more agreeable suitor than myself, but I know my cousin would not dare attempt more than a platonic friendship with you unless he is positive that our engagement has been irretrievably broken. I leave it to you to decide when and whether to communicate this to him.

Enclosed are the documents transferring a suitable property in Hertfordshire to you outright, for you to dispose of as you wish.
I wish you every happiness, and may God bless and keep you and your family.


Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Chapter 10

After she read the letter, Elizabeth briefly glanced at the papers granting her ownership of the Hertfordshire estate, but they held little interest for her. The two sentences from Darcy's letter that leaped out at her, again and again, were:

I love you


Because I know you desire it, I am releasing you from our engagement

"No!" she said aloud. "I do not desire it."

As if in a trance, Elizabeth went to the table in the hall and opened the drawer, where she had laid the sapphire necklace the previous evening. She fastened it around her neck, not caring that it looked incongruous worn with the simple frock she was wearing.

She went in search of her aunt, and upon finding her pleaded, "I know it is most irregular, Aunt, and it is quite late, but I must see Mr. Darcy immediately. I beg you to plead on my behalf with my father to allow it."

"And if your father will not permit it, Elizabeth?"

"I shall go in any case, Aunt."

Her aunt chuckled. "I thought so."

Over the course of the past week, Mr. Bennet had come to trust Mr. Darcy implicitly. And as he was aware that Miss Darcy was at Grosvenor Street with her brother, and he truly wanted to see Elizabeth come to a satisfactory arrangement with Mr. Darcy, he gave the requested approval and Elizabeth was sent in the carriage with a manservant to the Darcy residence. She lost her courage for a moment as she stood at the front door.

What if he sent her away?

A servant answered the door, one eyebrow raised at the late hour, but he conveyed to Miss Darcy that a Miss Elizabeth Bennet was there to call on her.

"Miss Georgiana," Elizabeth said, "I know how unusual this must seem, and I apologize for the intrusion, but I must beg to see Mr. Darcy."

"My brother is in his study, Miss Elizabeth," said Georgiana. "He has not been very communicative today, I am afraid."

"I understand, Georgiana. May I go in?"
"Of course," Georgiana replied, hoping the two of them could resolve whatever misunderstanding had alienated them from each other.

Darcy was sitting in a chair near the fire, his back to the door. Elizabeth entered the study, closing the door behind her, and approached him silently.

His head was tilted to one side, and he was snoring softly. He wore no coat nor cravat, just a white cotton shirt open at the neck. A day's growth of whiskers covered his face. Even in sleep, he looked weary and haggard, as though he had not rested well in some time.

Elizabeth stared at his face, finally sitting on the floor at his feet, wrapping her arms around his knees and resting her face atop his thigh. Overcome with remorse at her treatment of him, she began to weep softly. It was not the sound of her crying, but her trembling, that finally roused him, and he looked down at her, still groggy and unsure if he was dreaming.

He began to stroke her hair.

"My Elizabeth, my dearest heart, why do you weep?"

"Because...because I think I love you," she blurted out.

"And why is it that even the possibility of loving me is so awful a thought as to make you weep?"

"I cannot answer that, William. I have struggled with myself for so long, not wanting to love you, and I do not know why."

"Come here," he said, lifting her up into his lap.

"I swore I would not do this until those sweet words, 'I love you,' fell from your lips, Lizzy. I find now that 'I think I love you' will do very well, indeed," he said, clutching her tightly to him and kissing her mouth with all the pent-up love and devotion he had held inside for so long.

"William, I am so sorry! How might you ever forgive me? You have been so good and kind, and I have repaid you with bitter accusations and suspicions. I..."

"Shhhhh," he said, kissing her again.

Elizabeth put her arms around his neck and melted into his embrace, overcome by the heat of his mouth upon hers. His tongue nudged her lips open and darted between them, and she moaned with a passion she had not known she was capable of experiencing. She had expended so much energy resisting the man, and it was a welcome relief to finally surrender to him.
"William, William," she finally cried when he let her come up for air, "I do not wish to be released from our engagement."

"Tell me why, Elizabeth," he said, raising his eyebrows.

"You have been so generous, so kind..."

"No, Elizabeth. Not good enough," he answered shortly. "Pray, continue."

She began to weep again.

"It was you who compelled Wickham to marry Lydia, and I thought...I thought..."

"No!" he said emphatically, almost to the point of shouting. "I would rather not have you at all than have you marry me out of gratitude for my kindness and generosity."

"No, Sir, it is more than that!"

"What, then?" he demanded. "Tell me!"

Elizabeth's lower lip trembled. "It is more than your kindness and generosity, William. Everything you did, you did in secret! Were it not for my father's disclosing your actions, I would not have known. Even in your letter, you did not mention it! I realize now that what you do for me, you do out of love, with no desire of thanks."

"Better, Elizabeth. Why do you not return now to 'I think I love you' and proceed from there? Because of all you have said, I still find I like those words best."

"Insufferable man!"

"I, insufferable? If that is not the pot calling the kettle black, Miss! You are most fortunate I do not take you across my knee and spank you for your impudent behaviour and unjust accusations!

"Admit you love me, though," he whispered in her ear, "and I will consider postponing your punishment until we are married, when I may ensure there are no witnesses and I may do it properly. I am afraid the sound of your protests may alarm Georgiana, and I will have brutishness added to the list of my many undesirable qualities."

Instead of speaking, Elizabeth rested her face against his chest, softly kissing his throat and the side of his neck, then nibbled on his ear before she placed her lips against his for another prolonged kiss. Finally she drew back, looked directly into his eyes and softly said, "I love you, William. I will always love you."

His face lit up with the delight of a man whose fondest wish had been realized.
"And I you, Lizzy. I believe I loved you the moment I laid eyes upon you."

"Well, I wish I might say the same, William. However, as you well know...," Elizabeth began, with an impish gleam in her eyes.

He shook his head ruefully. "I warned you about being so impertinent, Lizzy," he said, " so over you go," easily flipping her over so that she was positioned face down across his lap. He wrapped his left arm tightly around her body so that she could not escape, and lifted her skirt to her waist.

She yelped and kicked as he spanked her bottom through the thin fabric of her chemise, her cries more for dramatic effect than from any real pain, as the swats he administered were more teasingly stinging than punishing. Still, she created such a ruckus that Georgiana poked her head into the room and took a quick glance at what was transpiring. Darcy was far more embarrassed than Elizabeth, who caught Georgiana's eye and began to laugh.

"Oh my!" Georgiana exclaimed. "Do excuse me for intruding!" And with a nervous giggle, she rapidly closed the door and retreated.

Darcy threw his hands in the air. "I give up!" he said, shaking his head and laughing, and Elizabeth took advantage of his no longer holding her to roll off his lap and onto the floor.

"Oh no," he said. "You will not get away from me as easily as that," and he promptly rose from his chair and lowered himself onto the floor and lay atop her.

"There now," he said. "I have you exactly where I want you."

The considerable weight of his body was pressed against her. Her bottom felt warm from the spanking he had administered, and the warmth was radiating to other parts of her body in a manner that was not at all unpleasant. For the first time, she felt the physical evidence of a man's arousal, and it was a most stimulating sensation. He plastered his mouth against hers and kissed her roughly, his whiskers chafing her tender skin. Elizabeth felt sure her lips would be bruised after such treatment.

"Mr. Darcy! You are most ungentlemanlike this evening," she said demurely.

"Oh no, Lizzy, I will have no more of that," he countered, and he kissed her again, finally having discovered the most efficient way of silencing her.

Darcy began to slowly grind his hips, his erection straining against the front of his breeches, and Elizabeth responded by pressing her palms against his bottom and arching her body upwards.
"Lizzy, you are making me wild," he growled, slipping his hand down the front of her bodice to expose her breast. He immediately took her nipple into his mouth, sucking lustily until she cried out.

"No resistance, Lizzy," he demanded. "We will marry as soon as possible, or I cannot be responsible for what I might do! Before Easter, as I told you, and I will brook no opposition!"

Elizabeth pressed her lips to the top of his head and kissed his dark curls.

"I have resisted you for far too long, Sir. I promise you I will be the most compliant of wives. If you insist we marry before Easter, so be it," she replied, "although I rather doubt we will be visiting Rosings!"

Darcy raised his head to smile at her.

"Surely you know I neither believe nor desire that you will be compliant all the time, Elizabeth!"

"You must be sure to tell me then, William, when you prefer submission and when you prefer resistance."

"You make a very good point, Lizzy. Perhaps I might prefer a bit of resistance on those occasions when I desire to spank you into submission."

He put his mouth close to her ear to whisper, "You have a very lovely bottom, Lizzy!"

"Mr. Darcy! How shocking!"

"And another thing, Elizabeth. You are never to call me 'Mr. Darcy' in private again! Are we in agreement?"

"Yes, Mr. Dar..."

Having decided that his object this evening would be to kiss his fiancee at least five times for each time he had refrained from doing so in the past, Darcy stifled her response in a mutually agreeable manner.

In the hallway outside her brother's study, Georgiana Darcy observed that after the raucuous episode she had witnessed, it seemed to have gotten very quiet behind those

closed doors, indeed!

Chapter 11

Darcy and Elizabeth were so content in their newfound understanding that time passed more quickly than they had realized. It was well past eleven when Darcy glanced at the clock and said, "In less than an hour it will be time to put this year behind us, Elizabeth, the new year is fast approaching."

"I, for one, will be happy indeed to leave the old year behind, William. I am afraid this business with Lydia has taken its toll on my father. Although I must say, he seems quite taken with you, my love! He has never before taken such a liking to a suitor of mine as he has to you, going so far as to recommend your suit most heartily."

Darcy was so exultant at being called "my love" by his Elizabeth that he barely heard the rest of the statement that had followed.

"It has been a difficult year in many ways, Elizabeth, but I will always look back on 1811 with much fondness. It is the year I found you..." and here he paused to softly kiss her lips "...and alienated you so thoroughly...," and he stopped to kiss her again, "...and finally won you, all before the year was out." He had said his piece, and the third kiss was one that may well have lasted into the new year, had not Elizabeth finally broken away from him!

"Sir, if we do not show our faces outside this room soon, I am afraid your sister will imagine the worst of all possible outcomes, considering what she witnessed when she last looked in on us!"

"I rather doubt that, Lizzy, as the two of you seemed quite mirthful at that moment! At my expense, it seemed. I suppose I am going to have to become accustomed to being laughed at."

"Not at all, William," Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling. "You may rest assured that upon taking on the august title of Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, I will become all that is proper and serious."

"If I had desired a proper and serious wife, Elizabeth, I would have married my cousin Anne."

"Oh, I see! You are saying that you admire me for my impertinence, then?"

"For your liveliness of mind, yes, I do."

"You had an interesting way of expressing your approval of my impertinence just an hour ago, Sir!" she said mischieviously. "But tell me, William, when did you first begin to love me?"

"I believe it was the first evening I saw you."

"And I believe not! I was 'not handsome enough' to tempt you, as I recall."
"I see I shall never live that particular remark down! I assure you, you were far too tempting for my liking, quite soon after. At Netherfield, when you were attending Jane during her illness, I lay awake at night because of my desire for you. And when finally I slept, I dreamed of you, in intimate detail. You drove me to distraction, Lizzy."

"Did I?" Lizzy asked, delighted. "I must say, William, you concealed your desires most thoroughly. I thought your frequent stares were those of disapproval."

"Quite the opposite, Elizabeth."

He kissed her again as though to confirm that statement.

"Lizzy?" he asked, a bit shyly. "Might I ask you when you began to love me?"

"I...I cannot say for certain. I was very put off by your haughtiness, William, and by your seeming disapproval of everyone and everything you encountered. I was thoroughly surprised by your declaration of love, and certainly did not return your sentiments then."

"And that was just a month ago, Elizabeth. What has altered your sentiments so thoroughly in so short a period of time?"

"You have, William! Do you recall lifting my little cousin Emma into your arms on Christmas Eve to place the star atop the tree? When the little one said 'I love you, Uncle Darcy,' I recall thinking, "Oh I do, as well,' and immediately felt disturbed at making such an admission, even to myself. I was quite determined to dislike you!

"It took me some time, I must admit, to relinquish my resentment and forgive your assaults on my pride. I was wrong about your character, and as you may have noticed, I sometimes find it difficult to admit it when I am wrong."

"Indeed?" he said, with a teasing smile. "I did not notice."

"At Pemberley, it grew more and more difficult not to love you. You were so kind and gentle and solicitous to myself and my family."

"I thought...I thought you preferred my cousin Fitzwilliam to me."

"No...no, I did not, although I admit I find his company delightful and his manners engaging."

"Lizzy, I know some of my words to you were offensive, even as I told you I loved you and asked for your hand. As a child, I was given good principles, but allowed to think meanly of others in comparison to myself. I will never have my cousin's ease in conversing with others, but I have truly attempted to attend to your reproofs."

"And with much success, Sir," she replied gently, putting her arms around his neck and tilting her face up to him to be kissed.

"Tell me the truth, Lizzy. Were you deliberately provocative in your familiarity with my cousin?"

"No! Well...perhaps a little," she admitted.

"Might I request that you desist in such behaviour, Lizzy? I am afraid that my possessiveness is one weakness I will be unable to vanquish."

"I suppose I can learn to live with it," she said with a smile. "Your cousin Fitzwilliam has fallen from grace, I might add. You might be surprised to learn that he was the unwitting agent of Caroline Bingley!"

"Of Caroline Bingley?" Darcy asked. "Of what are you speaking, Elizabeth?"

Lizzy sighed.

"Miss Bingley, it seems, saw fit to inform Mr. Collins of Lydia's elopement and my mercenary designs on you, and communicated this information in a letter conveyed by your cousin Fitzwilliam! She told him the letter was written by me and made the error of giving it to your cousin in the presence of little Peter Gardiner, who reported the incident upon his return from Pemberley this morning."

"Ah," Darcy said. "I see! After you accused me of informing Lady Catherine of these events myself."

"Yes," Elizabeth said simply.

"I must remember to present that young man with a box of sweets when next I see him! You do realize that Charles shall have to be told, Elizabeth. He is far too tolerant of Caroline's character deficiencies!"

"I shall leave it to you to handle, William."

"Just two minutes to midnight, Elizabeth. Come closer, my dearest. I want to hold you to my heart as the year begins."

And so it happened. As the clock above the mantel struck midnight, Darcy clasped Elizabeth to him, his lips meeting hers in a passionate kiss that began in one year and ended in the next.

"I love you, Elizabeth," he said, his eyes misting. "It is a new year, a new start. Forgive me my errors of the past, and let us look forward to the day we will become one."

"I love you too, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I ask the same of you: forgiveness for my foolishness, and your love for as long as we live."
The two lovers embraced one more time, then hand in hand, they left the room they would always fondly recall as the one where they had truly betrothed themselves to each other and went in search of Georgiana to share a toast to the new year.

Chapter 12

It was a joyous New Year's Day celebration at Gracechurch Street, Mr. Darcy and his sister having joined Elizabeth and her family for the day's festivities. Mr. Bennet was overjoyed at the change he saw in his daughter. There was a softness about her eyes now when she looked at Mr. Darcy that he had never seen there before. And as for Mr. Darcy himself - Mr. Bennet could never recall seeing the man smile so much! He and Elizabeth sat next to each other at lunch, stared deeply into each other's eyes and held hands surreptitiously under the table.

Jane, while occupied amusing her little cousins, did seem a bit wistful whenever she looked at Elizabeth with Darcy, and Elizabeth knew she was thinking of Mr. Bingley. Even though Jane knew he would be at Netherfield within a few days and would call upon her at Longbourn when she returned home, the sight of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy so content together made her long for Mr. Bingley's presence.

She was blissfully surprised then when a servant announced Mr. Bingley's arrival. She stood to receive him, and smiled shyly at his characteristically enthusiastic greeting.

"Happy New Year, Miss Bennet! I simply could not go directly to Netherfield knowing I could easily stop here in London to see you and your family today. Miss Elizabeth, Darcy, the two of you are looking well, indeed!"

Bingley's jovial manner was a pleasure to behold. Elizabeth remembered a time in the recent past when she compared Darcy's manner to Bingley's most unfavourably. Now, however, she was more appreciative of the intensity of feeling that lay behind his outwardly retiring exterior. She blushed just thinking about how that intensity had manifested itself the previous evening!

Miss Darcy was called upon to play the pianoforte. The children were playing happily, Mr. Bennet and the Gardiners were engaged in greeting Mr. Bingley, and all enjoyed Georgiana's superior playing. Darcy took advantage of the other members of the party being so agreeably occupied by taking Lizzy by the hand and pulling her into the hall outside the drawing room for a stolen embrace.

"I haven't kissed you properly all day, Lizzy," he whispered, quickly drawing her into his arms to make up for lost time.

His kisses make me dizzy, Elizabeth thought, so overcome that she let her body go limp in his arms and let him support her weight. He kissed first her mouth, then every part of her upper body that was exposed. Her head rolled back, his arm supporting her, as his mouth explored the hollow of her neck and the soft flesh below. His tongue darted into the cleft between her breasts, and she let out a soft moan.

"Good Lord, William, you must stop, we are not alone in this house...my father...my aunt and uncle..."

He pulled back then. "I am sorry, Lizzy, you are right, what was I thinking," he said, his breath coming in short gasps. "I cannot seem to control myself! We must go back inside."

Elizabeth's eyes drifted downwards, to the prominent bulge in the front of his breeches.

"Perhaps not just yet, William," she said with a little smile.

His face reddened, and he sat down on the upholstered bench against the wall.

"Come, Lizzy, sit down next to me until things...let us say, subside!"

He smiled at her as he played with the sapphire choker around her neck.

"I used to love to touch this when my mother wore it, too," he said. "One of my earliest memories is of sitting on her lap...I imagine I was 4 or 5 years old, and she was so beautiful. I would run my fingers over the colored stones, and she would kiss my fingers."

Elizabeth, with sudden tears in her eyes, spontaneously took his hand in hers and lovingly kissed each finger.

"I have not taken it off since I put it around my neck last evening, William. Even more so than the ring I wear, it makes me feel I belong to you."

His head tilted to one side, he asked, "Why is that, Lizzy?"

"I do not rightly know. Just a feeling I had when I saw your mother wearing it in her portrait."

She struggled to find the words.

"It is as though...as though your mother, in giving me stewardship of her necklace, entrusts me with her son's heart as well. I believe that is why I could not bring myself to put it on until last night, when I realized I loved you, and why I now find it difficult to take it off!"

Darcy bent forward to kiss her again, this time softly and reverently, without his recent urgency.

"How I love you, Lizzy. Come, dearest, I am ready to behave myself now. Let us go back inside."

As they stood, Mr. Bennet came out the door and gave them a suspicious glance.

"Have we considered a wedding date yet?" he asked, noticing Elizabeth's flush.

"I thought a week before Easter, Sir," Darcy answered nervously, then turned to Elizabeth, remembering her objection on Christmas Eve to his assumption that they would marry so quickly.

"If that is agreeable to you, of course, Elizabeth."

"No, I think not," she said with a teasing smile at his crestfallen expression. She paused dramatically.

"Perhaps St. Valentine's Day might be more agreeable."

Darcy's face broke into a broad grin.

"Most agreeable, Elizabeth!"

"Most advisable!" Mr. Bennet said drolly, his raised eyebrows giving no doubt of his meaning.

He turned to go back into the drawing room, Elizabeth following with Darcy next to her. She giggled as Darcy gave her bottom a brisk pat and whispered in her ear, "You are incorrigible, Lizzy!"

She gave him a hard smack on his posterior in return. "No less incorrigible than you, Sir!"

Darcy tried not to think of where all their teasing and touching would lead once they were wed. Having so recently recovered his composure sufficiently to rejoin the family party, he did not want to regress to the point where he would have to absent himself once again!

Just six weeks, he thought, until St. Valentine's Day.

"Lizzy," he said, as they entered the drawing room. "As much as I detest speaking of such an unpleasant subject, I must address his sister's behaviour with Charles Bingley."

"Be kind, Fitzwilliam. She is his sister, and it will be difficult for him to believe she is capable of such deception! Bingley himself is all that is good, and to have such a sister must be distressing, indeed."

Darcy nodded. Elizabeth joined her sister Jane, who sat playing cards with the Gardiner children, and Darcy made his way to Charles. The two young men spoke for some time, as Elizabeth watched guardedly. Darcy, as ever, was tactful and restrained, both in words and facial expressions, while his friend, always more demonstrative, gestured and spoke rapidly, his countenance displaying a range of emotions.

At one point, he was so shocked at what Darcy was telling him that Elizabeth clearly heard him exclaim "She did what?" glancing at Elizabeth as he said it. Darcy reached out to pat his friend's shoulder in commiseration, said a few more words, and Bingley nodded.

Bingley immediately approached Elizabeth, Darcy at his side.

"Miss Elizabeth, words cannot express my distress at my sister's actions. Be assured that something of this nature will never occur again! I am both gratified and relieved that her scheme did not in any way interfere in yours and Darcy's happiness. She would not have attempted such a plan when my father was alive!"

"It is all right, Mr. Bingley," Elizabeth said. "No lasting harm was done."

"We cannot receive her at Pemberley," Darcy said. "I hope you understand, Charles."

Elizabeth put a restraining hand on Darcy's arms. "Now, Fitzwilliam, do not be so harsh. Where would we be, where would any of us be, really, without forgiveness?"

Darcy nodded and covered her hand with his.

"Where would we be, indeed, Elizabeth," he said softly, marvelling at his good fortune in winning the love of such a woman.

"I suppose if your sister is willing to make amends, Charles, I will concur with Elizabeth."

Bingley shook his hand. "You are a good friend, Darcy!"

Chapter 13

Caroline Bingley, as it happened, was not in the least bit inclined to make amends to Elizabeth Bennet.

When her brother approached her with Darcy and Elizabeth's generous gesture of offering her forgiveness for her shameful meddling, she erupted in a fit of spiteful rage so vocal and dramatic that Charles, had he not been such a peaceful man, might have been tempted to physically throttle her!

"Apologize? You want me to apologize to that lowly creature, Charles? I should as soon spend the season in the wilds of the North as offer one word of apology to Darcy's little country piece! And as for Darcy, he should be grateful for my concern!"

"Caroline! How dare you?" Bingley exclaimed. "A season in the wilds of the North, eh? I shall do better than that, my dear.

"Cousin James and his wife Catherine have recently welcomed their ninth child and they write me that they require assistance in caring for the other children. Cousin James, as you know, has not fared well in the recent past and does not have adequate resources to retain a governess. The two-year-old triplets are quite a handful, I hear.

"I shall respond that you, Caroline, will be delighted to come to their assistance. I could easily provide them with hired help, but during these first difficult months, I do believe having a family member with them will be most comforting. How long you remain with them will depend on how long it takes you to write a sincere letter of apology to Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, for they will be married the middle of next month. The operative word here is 'grovel,' Caroline, am I understood?"

"You cannot be serious, Charles!"

"I have never been more serious in my life. A few months in the Scottish highlands will make Hertfordshire look like the London season in full swing."

Caroline began to stammer an insincere apology, but Charles stood his ground. Caroline was bundled off to Scotland by the end of January, after Charles indicated he would accept her first attempt at a letter of apology after a month had passed.

"You have proven your considerable skill in writing letters, Caroline. I suggest you give this one your best efforts!"

And so it was that on the morning of February 14, as Elizabeth Bennet dressed for her wedding to Fitzwilliam Darcy, Caroline Bingley was ducking Scottish oat gruel flying through the air at her from three directions.

Despite their tender age, the triplets had exceptional aim.

The six weeks leading up to Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage were joyous and eventful, if somewhat frustrating for the happy couple. Mrs. Bennet protested loudly at being forced to put on what she saw as England's wedding of the year on such short notice. Darcy turned a deaf ear to all her entreaties that they reconsider, that a June wedding would be preferable, that one could never predict the weather in February. In an uncharacteristic outburst after one such conversation, Darcy stood, looked directly at Mrs. Bennet, and in a voice that allowed no opposition said, "Madam, one more word, and I will take Elizabeth this very night to Gretna Green and there will be no wedding to plan at all!"

He might have been surprised to know that such a course of action would have been most agreeable to his future bride. She had little patience herself for all the talk of weddings, and wedding finery, and the wedding breakfast. What was on her mind, and what she anticipated with far more pleasure than the wedding, was the wedding night! Darcy had unleashed feelings and longings in her that she had never before considered. At night, as she lay in bed, she would recall the events of New Year's Eve. She closed her eyes, remembering his warm mouth covering hers, and the moment when he had taken her by surprise by turning her over his knee and spanking her. The negligible amount of pain she had experienced was all but forgotten; what remained was the memory of his hands - one holding her firmly around her waist, the other spanking her bottom - the warmth in her loins, and his teasing, provocative manner. She had felt the beginnings of his arousal as, draped across his lap, her body pressed against him, his condition becoming even more pronounced when he lay atop her on the floor. I wonder with what manner of sauciness I might entice him to spank me again, she thought.

From these musings, she let her mind wander to New Year's Day, how he had held her outside the drawing room, and put his mouth to her breast.

As her mind was so agreeably engaged, her hands wandered under her nightdress, and she pleasured herself, imagining Darcy's hands were touching her. She thought about how enticing he had looked on New Year's Eve, in just his shirt and his form-fitting breeches and wondered what his body looked like unclothed. She was a bit ashamed of these new feelings, but not so much so that she could refrain from touching herself until she reached a shuddering climax, biting her lips so that she would not cry out and awaken Jane.

The evening before their wedding, Darcy called upon the Bennets at Longbourn. Mr. Bennet had seen to it that Darcy and Elizabeth had had little opportunity to be alone and unchaperoned in the preceding weeks, but as the wedding was the following morning, he took pity on them and allowed them to sit together in the library undisturbed for over a half hour.

Darcy wasted no time in pulling Lizzy down onto his lap, smothering her face and chest with kisses.

"Finally, finally..." he murmured.

"Sir, are you trying to compromise me?" Elizabeth teased.

"Most definitely," he replied.

"In just twenty-four hours, William, we will be alone together."

"Less than that, Lizzy. Why do you think I insisted on a wedding breakfast? Once we are married, we are leaving for London as soon as may be. The house and staff is in ready for us, we will be alone, and quiet and undisturbed until we leave for Pemberley in a few days' time."

"What shall we find to occupy ourselves in London in the dead of winter, Sir?" she asked.

"The same activities that would occupy us wherever we might be these first few days, Lizzy. I do not intend to let you out of our bedchamber until we depart for Derbyshire!"

Becoming more daring, Darcy slid his hand up her leg, under her dress. He nudged her thighs apart, and stroked her soft skin.

"William...ohhhhh...if someone discovers us..."

"Mmmm," he said. "We shall be forced to marry this very night instead of tomorrow morning. Where is Mr. Collins when we need him? If only we could have him witness our scandalous behaviour, he might perform the ceremony and we could be on our way to London tonight! I should gladly leave it to everyone else to partake of our wedding breakfast tomorrow, Lizzy, if I could have breakfast in our bedchamber, alone with you!"

Elizabeth laughed aloud at his ridiculous notions, draping her arms around his neck to kiss him.

"William, how you delight me with your silliness!"

He whispered throatily, "I hope to delight you even more tomorrow night, Lizzy. Dream of me tonight, love, for I will surely be dreaming of you."

Chapter 14

Darcy awakened at dawn on the morning of his wedding. Bingley had invited him to stay at Netherfield for its close proximity to Longbourn. By Darcy's estimation, he would see Elizabeth in three hours' time, and soon after, she would be his wife.

"My wife," he whispered reverently, smiling to himself.

Elizabeth, likewise, was the first to awaken at Longbourn.

"Today is the last day I will awaken in this room," she thought with some sadness, gazing at Jane, who was still asleep. Jane had recently become engaged to Mr. Bingley, and she would be married in the spring. How many confidences had been shared in this room, how many whispered girlish longings and secrets!

As a logical progression, Elizabeth thought that tomorrow morning would be the first one upon which she would awaken as a married woman. Mr. Darcy had made it clear that he expected they would share a bed every night, and they would awaken together each morning.

"I have been alone for so long, Elizabeth," he had said. "I need you beside me."

"You will never be alone again, Fitzwilliam," she said softly. "I shall cling to you so persistently that you will soon tire of me."

"Always teasing, Lizzy! Tire of you? I could no sooner tire of you than I could tire of breathing."

His response was so heartfelt, she was ashamed of her flippancy. "No more teasing," she said, her voice catching, and she wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head against his chest. "I love you so much."

Tonight, she thought, she would show him exactly how much.

When Jane awakened, she embraced her sister. "Oh, Lizzy, how much I shall miss you!"

"Now, Jane, do not go on in that manner, you will make me weep on my wedding day, and it will alarm Mr. Darcy! You are to come to Pemberley at Easter, and soon after you will yourself be married."

"Yes, Lizzy, and Caroline Bingley is to be married in Scotland as well! Charles had a letter from his cousin James, who relates that Caroline will be marrying a Mr. Angus MacDonald, a wealthy widower with a large estate and two children. Mr. MacDonald, I am told, is a redheaded giant of a man, with a soft heart, but who has apparently had much success in taming Caroline's temper! I understand she is quite smitten."

"Oh, yes, 'smitten,' " Elizabeth responded, "with his large estate, I am sure!"

"Now, Lizzy, be kind! I am sure Caroline appreciates all of Mr. MacDonald's fine qualities!"

In some ways, both Jane and Elizabeth were correct. Caroline was indeed impressed with Mr. MacDonald's wealth. But Lizzy would have been surprised to know that Caroline had been even more impressed upon satisfying her curiosity as to what her handsome Scottish suitor wore (or one might say, did not wear!) under his kilt!

"Charles received a letter from Caroline just yesterday, Lizzy, and he said she has never seemed happier! She wrote that she was sincerely remorseful for all her mischief at Christmas, and will apologize to you and Mr. Darcy personally when she arrives from Scotland with her husband."

"Well then, Jane, I wish her every happiness. It is impossible for me to be resentful when I am so blissfully in love myself."

"Oh, Lizzy, I am so gratified to hear you say that, after all that poor Mr. Darcy suffered at your hands."

"Jane, you amaze me! 'Poor Mr. Darcy' was not entirely blameless, you know!"

"I know, Lizzy, that his manners were sometimes lacking, but I do not doubt that he has been in love with you almost since the moment he met you."

Elizabeth took her sister's hands. "Jane, you will be happy to know that while my love for Mr. Darcy has not been as long in duration, its intensity grows every day. Sometimes I love him so much it frightens me."

"Lizzy, you astound me. Why should loving Mr. Darcy frighten you?"

"I have never felt so out of control before, Jane!"

"My advice to you, Lizzy, is to enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of feeling out of control!"

Elizabeth looked wide-eyed at her sister, and they both burst into giggles.

"Enough of this, Lizzy. I must help you prepare yourself for your Mr. Darcy. It will not do to be late for your own wedding."

The sisters spent an intimate hour before Elizabeth's wedding. Jane carefully styled Lizzy's hair, piling her curls on top of her head, and studding her chestnut locks with tiny flowers and pearls. Elizabeth's gown was simple in fabric and elegant in design, and she carried a bouquet of pink and ivory roses, specially grown in Pemberley's hothouses in honor of Valentine's Day.

At fifteen minutes before the appointed time of the ceremony, Mr. Bennet knocked on the bedroom door. "Lizzy, Jane, please hasten! If we tarry any longer, Lady Catherine may spirit Mr. Darcy away before the wedding, and then where shall we all be?"

Lizzy opened the door.

"We are ready, Papa."

He looked at his glowing daughter and kissed her cheek. "Lizzy you are so lovely. I hope Mr. Darcy realizes what a treasure I am giving him this morning."

Their carriage arrived at Longbourn church five minutes late, and Mr. Darcy was anxiously pacing at the altar. "Where is she, Bingley?"

"Calm yourself, Darcy, I am sure...ah, here they are!"

All eyes turned to the back of the church as Elizabeth Bennet proceeded up the aisle on the arm of her proud father. Jane took her place as witness beside her, she and Bingley exchanging fond looks, thinking of the day when they, too, would be wed.

Mr. Darcy could not keep his eyes off his bride. After they had recited their vows, he had to restrain himself from sweeping her into his arms in the presence of God and all assembled, and settled for a chaste kiss. "I will kiss you properly later, Lizzy," he whispered.

"I dare say you had better do more than kiss me, Mr. Darcy," she replied.

"Do not tempt me, Lizzy, or the bride and groom will be noticeably absent from their own wedding breakfast!" he threatened.

Of course, Mr. Darcy always being one to observe the social conventions, the bride and groom did in fact make an appearance at breakfast. But the appearance was much briefer than the mother of the bride had hoped, and she expressed her displeasure when, after a little more than an hour, the impatient bridegroom informed his wife that she should prepare to leave.

Mrs. Bennet began to protest, but her intimidating new son-in-law solemnly informed her that Elizabeth had promised to love, honour and obey and he intended to make sure she did so. His expression was serious, but Mr. Bennet had to refrain from a smirk, as he was beginning to understand and appreciate Mr. Darcy's droll sense of humour.

"Fitzwilliam," Lizzy scolded as their carriage departed, "do you want my mother to think you an ogre?"

"Frankly, yes, Elizabeth, if it means she will fear me enough to leave us in peace for at least a few weeks. I intend to have you to myself. If, of course, that is agreeable to you?"

Despite the chill in the air, Elizabeth felt a warm flush spread throughout her body.

"Yes, William, very agreeable indeed!"

They huddled close in the carriage, wrapped in blankets for warmth, and they were most happy to arrive in London before dusk. The staff were in formation to greet them, Darcy nodding and making perfunctory introductions, but he was clearly anxious to take his new wife upstairs, and he was not particularly concerned with concealing his intentions. He had left explicit instructions that a pot of hot tea was to be brought to their bedchamber upon their arrival, with dinner to be served privately as well. The tea was most welcome, and Elizabeth warmed her hands with the cup as she drank it. A servant laid out a simple dinner on the table in front of the fire, but Elizabeth had little appetite.

Darcy sat across from her, worshipping her with his eyes. Finally he simply said, "Lizzy, won't you come to bed?"

She stood and extended her arms to him, and when he came to her, she held him close.

He buried his lips in her neck, then began to undress her. "My wife," he said simply, removing the pins from her hair so that her curly tresses tumbled to her shoulders. They had become so familiar with each other since the New Year, that Lizzy had no trepidation and little embarrassment as she was exposed to him. When she was wearing only her chemise, he began to untie his cravat, and she said, "No, William, let me do it, please?"

And so she did. Beginning from his cravat, then proceeding downward. His coat came off, followed by his shirt. She knelt at his feet to remove his boots, then reached up to unbutton his breeches and pulled them down. She stood then and pulled her chemise up and over her head, until she stood naked before him. She gazed unabashedly at his own naked form, touching and exploring him, until finally she took his manhood wonderingly into her hand, caressing and stroking it until he thought he would go mad with desire.

He took her by the hand and led her to his bed. He had been dreaming of this moment since November, when he first saw her in Hertfordshire, and now that it had arrived, it felt as though every wish and hope he had ever had in his life had all been gathered into one wish fulfilled.

There was no shyness in his Lizzy; she touched him and kissed him and tasted him, and he did likewise to her. She looked at him as though memorizing his body.

"You are so incredibly beautiful, William," she finally said, lying back on the pillow. "Please, William?" she said, and he knew she was ready to receive him.

She gave one brief gasp of pain as he entered her for the first time, but from that point forward, it was all pleasure and delight. He began to thrust in and out, lost in the sweet sensation of being swallowed up by her welcoming warmth and softness. Instinctively, she wrapped her legs up and around his waist to pull him closer, and he told her all she meant to him, that she was his hope, and his happiness, and his life, and that he could not live without her. Each word he said implanted him more firmly in her heart, and she knew with certainty that it had been her destiny to attend an assembly ball in Hertfordshire so that she might find this man and take him as her wedded husband.

"William, William. so sweet, I never knew..." she said, unable to complete her thought, because she could not longer think, only give herself over to the waves that were sweeping her away.

Darcy felt her beginning to crest, her insides contracting around him. "Together with me, Lizzy," he cried out, as he felt his own climax building and he erupted inside her.

The intimacy of it all, his body literally connected to hers, united them forever.

Chapter 15

One Sunday evening, about a week after their marriage, Elizabeth approached her husband in the library, where he sat in front of the fire reading. She stood quietly before him until he looked up and acknowledged her with a questioning smile.

"William," she began, "as you know, I came to you virtually dowryless."

"Elizabeth, surely you know by now how insignificant that is."

"Oh, yes, I know your wealth is vast (ten thousand a year, as my mother never fails to remind anyone who will listen!), and any dowry I might bring to our marriage would matter not. I love you so very much, and I know there are few gifts I could give you that you could not easily buy yourself."

"You have given me yourself, Lizzy, and given me your love. I ask nothing else."

"I would not blame you, Fitzwilliam, if you distrusted my love and devotion, in view of how long I withheld it. That is why I am giving this to you today."

She held out a parcel of papers, which Darcy recognized as those he had enclosed in the letter he wrote her on New Year's Eve, after their bitter argument.

He looked at her, puzzled.

"The papers giving you ownership of the property in Hertfordshire?"

"Yes, Fitzwilliam, I no longer want it."

He smiled. "But it is yours, my love, to provide for the security of your mother and sisters."

She looked at his dear face, then at the papers in her hand, which she cast into the fire.

"I love you, William. And I trust you with my life. When the sad day comes when my family will need shelter, I know you will provide for them. I want to forget that I ever offered myself to you in return for material considerations. I shudder to remember what it felt like to be that woman! All I want, from this day forward, is you."

He was so touched by this admission that he immediately pulled his wife down onto his lap, and encircled her tightly in his arms.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "Everything I have is yours. I am yours! I never believed I would ever know such happiness."

Much later, they lay entwined in bed, Darcy toying absently with Elizabeth's hair, his hand straying to touch the sapphire choker she wore.

"So beautiful against your white skin, Lizzy. Especially when you wear nothing else."

She smiled sleepily and yawned. She was becoming quite accustomed to his frank admiration of her body, and was learning to be as forthcoming in admiring him in return. Rather than speaking, at this particular moment she chose to express her admiration more demonstratively, depositing soft kisses down the length of his body. He responded as a virile young man of 28 might be expected to, pulling her down on top of him and entrapping her with his long legs. It took but a moment for her to position herself for their mutual pleasure, Darcy's hands spanning her waist so that he could lift, then impale her on his erect member. Elizabeth kept her eyes on his face, using his reactions to judge just how to control the tempo of her movements as they made love. Darcy reached between her legs to touch her with the lightest of strokes as she rode him. Her control slipping away as her arousal peaked, she threw her head back, mouth open. Darcy began to arch his hips, lifting her with each upward thrust, and Lizzy, quite lost to everything except the exquisite sensations inside her, cupped her own breasts, her fingers teasing her nipples to dusky peaks. Watching her behaving so wantonly was all Darcy needed to take him over the edge, and with a mighty groan, he erupted into her just as she reached completion.

She collapsed atop him, her body molded to his, kissing his warm, damp flesh and murmuring the sweetest of endearments. He ran his hands up and down the curve of her torso, his fingers kneading her supple bottom.

After less than two weeks of marriage, he was becoming well acquainted with the contours and rhythms of his wife's body, and he used this knowledge to bring her to completion seemingly effortlessly. He was justifiably proud of the effect he had on her, and loved to hear her speak of it, which she often did, even in company, if she was able to do so furtively. She well knew that his seeming disapproval would be forgotten later in their bedchamber, when he would have her stand naked before him and repeat the scandalous words she had whispered in his ear and make her "pay for them," as he put it. The payment he exacted might be a teasing little spanking that left her warm and receptive, or a lashing with his tongue between her legs, his powerful hands firmly holding her thighs down and apart as he licked her.

His prowess was such that she was quite shocked on the following evening to learn that her husband had had as little practical experience in these matters as she had before marriage. After another breathtakingly pleasurable lovemaking session, Elizabeth could not resist asking him, in a coy manner, about his previous lovers. His frank response, that there had not been any, was met with a look of astonishment on her part.

"As you have repeatedly pointed out, Elizabeth, I lack the simple social skills required to engage those unfamiliar to me in conversation. Why would it surprise you, then, that I lack the ability to approach a woman in such a way that I might induce her to engage in a form of socialization far more intimate than conversation?"

Elizabeth eyed him suspiciously.

"Are you teasing me, Sir?"

"Not at all," he said, pursing his lips to suppress a smile.

"While I have little knowledge of these matters," Elizabeth said, "I believe that men of your standing have access to women who will provide such socialization at a price."

"My dearest Elizabeth, have you learned nothing about me these past months? What I want and need in a woman, which I have found in you and only you, can be neither bought nor sold," he responded. "I believe we have learned that firsthand, have we not?

"Now hold your tongue and come here so that I may demonstrate what I want and need, before I find it necessary to spank you again."

Elizabeth, exhibiting a greater degree of prudence than she had been wont to do in the recent past, immediately obeyed. She surprised him, though, by seductively settling herself across his knees and saying "I believe, Fitzwilliam, that what I want and need at this moment is a spanking, and perhaps then we might attend to what you want and need!"

"Vixen!" he exclaimed, as he obligingly raised her skirts and massaged her beautiful round bottom. He spanked her lustily, as she wiggled on his lap, deliberately rubbing herself against him.

He soon found that the sight of her blushing bottom and the sensation of her pressing against his erection was more than he could bear without gaining relief. He stood her in front of him between his knees and reached down to unfasten his breeches and release his stiff manhood. Lizzy needed no further direction; she straddled his lap, facing him, and slowly lowered herself onto him.

Darcy let out a contented sigh, and slid his hands under her bottom so that he could support her as she moved up and down on his lap. His wife, he thought with much satisfaction, was insatiable! As though to confirm his thoughts, she put her arms around his neck and whispered, "I cannot seem to get enough of you William. Does that make me a wicked girl, my love?"

"No, no, Lizzy," he said. "You are perfect, and I always knew it, 'tis why I pursued you so ardently.. Oh, Lizzy, my God, how I love you," he cried out, as he felt her beginning to climax.

She continued to move, more slowly now, until she heard the deep, guttural moan that signaled her husband's orgasm. Holding her close, he kissed her. "I love you so much, Lizzy, so much," he murmured

"I adore you, William. I thank God every day that I did not lose you! A lesser man might have been discouraged by my cool demeanour!"

"Never, Lizzy. I always knew you were meant to be mine. You just took a little more convincing than I estimated!"

As she lay in his arms, glowing with love and satisfaction, she smiled and said "Some rather strenuous convincing! Perhaps my aunt Gardiner was right, William. She warned me that I just might be rousing a 'sleeping tiger.'"

He pulled her closer so that he might put his mouth to her ear.

"Grrrrrrrrr," he said.

"More like a pussycat!" she said. "Worry not, William, your secret is safe with me!"