Lizzy's breath came in broken gasps after her heated declaration, she would never marry this arrogant, this … overbearing, this … gorgeous man.
Even in her anger she couldn't deny that he was very handsome, she had thought him so right from the first but then he had shown himself to be so disagreeable that she had quickly buried that fact deep in her subconscious. After all, what woman wants to be attracted to a man who finds her barely tolerable?
She could now shamefully admit to herself that her vanity had been wounded. A vanity that she hadn't even realized she possessed.
For how could anyone be vain with the beautiful Jane for a sister and Fanny Bennet for a mother?
Well … maybe Lydia, but then she was an entity unto herself.
But here and now, his clothes plastered to his imposing physique and his intense dark eyes almost black with … with what? Anger … yes, indignation … yes, hurt? … yes, even she could see that, and as much as she didn't want to acknowledge it, that did bother her. She had no desire to cause him pain … well maybe a little.
It was the other thing she saw in his eyes that scared her for she had no name for it but it caused her heart to beat faster, her breath to catch in her chest, and a tightening somewhere deep in her abdomen. It was that same look he always wore when she caught his stare, the look she had always assumed meant he despised her and was continually cataloging her faults.
Only now she knew differently.
That look, up close, took on an entirely different meaning, especially in light of his recent astonishing revelation. She found herself trapped in his gaze and unconsciously stepped closer, as if pulled by an invisible thread until the very air seemed to spark between them.
She could see he was breathing hard as well and she found her gaze suddenly locked on to his full lips, watching as his breath moved in and out and she found herself inexplicably wondering what they would feel like against hers. She knew the thought was unfathomable in light of her vow to loathe him for all eternity. … yet she couldn't seem to curtail her wayward thoughts.
Was this what desire felt like?
What desire looked like?
For she knew now, without a doubt, that it was not contempt she saw in his eyes, but desire.
Desire … for her.
That startling realization caused her stomach to clench tightly as the heat rushed to color her face; she couldn't take her eyes away from his lips which seemed to get closer by the moment.
She dragged her eyes up and back into his compelling stare which seemed to pierce her very soul, and for a moment she forgot everything. Then she was filled with his scent; his very presence, and she struggled to catch her breath as a wave of longing swept through her. A longing so intense her legs could scarcely hold her and she stumbled forward, only to be caught up in his strong arms and held tightly against his chest.
She knew she should step away from him; they were already flaunting every rule of propriety just by being here alone together. If anyone were to see them like this her reputation would be ruined.
But for just this single moment she couldn't bring herself to care.
It felt so good.
She had never felt anything like it, and she intuitively knew that she would be safe and protected in his arms.
But it was the fire she felt along every part of her body that touched his that stole her reason, made her forget all her arguments against him, and she was reluctantly forced to admit to herself that she was passionately attracted to this man.
They say that love and hate are close bedfellows, and although she couldn't even think the word love, she knew that her intense reactions to Mr. Darcy from the beginning should have enlightened her to the passionate feelings he could evoke inside her.
For she had never had such strong feelings for anyone, not even the toady Mr. Collins.
In desperation, she tried to recall to the forefront of her mind all the reasons she had, just moments before, spurned his proposal, but the feel of his hard body pressed so tightly against hers made rational thought almost impossible.
Her hands seemed to have a life of their own as they worked their way under his waistcoat and around to caress his strong back through the fine linen of his shirt. She could feel the contours of his muscles and felt his sharply in drawn breath at her forwardness.
"Elizabeth?" he whispered almost too softly for her to hear, his voice reluctantly hopeful.
She suddenly felt powerful and energized by his reaction to her. No man had ever chosen her first, desired her above all else, and the feeling was almost overwhelming. That this proud, arrogant, virile and highly sought after man could be brought to his knees by her … a country girl with no connections, no dowry, and, she grudgingly admitted to herself, a family that was an embarrassment at times, made her heart jump.
She struggled to put her feelings into words. "What … what are you doing to me?" she asked haltingly.
"I want very much to hate you, but I can't … I find that I … I …" she rarely had difficulty articulating her thoughts and feelings, a fact Mr. Darcy was very well aware, but right at that moment she couldn't seem to find the right words … or any words it seemed.
"Shh," he was so close that she could feel the word as it left his mouth rather than hear it, and before she could even attempt a response, their lips touched.
His kiss was gentle and soft; a tentative question, a shy request, and she felt her insides flip over at the contact. In response, she pulled him even closer.
She both heard and felt his groan as his arms pulled her tightly into his body as he deepened the kiss. Her lips were on fire where they touched his and she shuddered when she felt his tongue glide slowly across her bottom lip; instinctively opening her lips at the exquisite sensation.
The feel of his tongue touching hers sent another thrill of pleasure down her spine. She reached up with both hands to pull him closer; her hands lost in his thick hair.
As their tongues moved together in a sensual dance she felt her nipples harden against his chest and a moist heat pool in her nether regions. She had never felt anything like this before; did not think it was possible to feel anything even close to this.
It suddenly put a new perspective on marriage, one, that if she were honest, erased her previously held distaste and fear for the marriage bed.
She had once overheard her mother and Aunt Phillips discussing their 'wifely duties' with evident distaste. They had made coupling between a man and woman sound barbaric and painful; something that was to be endured as the cost of being a wife and having to provide an heir.
What she was feeling now was the exact opposite of barbaric and distasteful.
It was electric.
It was wonderful!
If this was what it felt like to be intimate with another person, she now understood the need for maintaining propriety. Otherwise things could quickly get out of hand if more people experienced this feeling prior to marriage.
She had just enough coherent thought left to wonder if what they were sharing was rare; this passionate connection that she and Mr. Darcy seemed to have. She doubted even Mr. Wickham would have elicited anywhere near the same response Mr. Darcy stirred in her. If it was the norm, why would her mother and aunt call this a 'dreaded chore;' something to be endured?
She very much thought she would relish this aspect of marriage if it always felt this way.
Her lips suddenly felt cold and bereft, but before she could protest she felt his hot mouth grazing the pulse point just below her ear and she groaned in pleasure, her hips unconsciously grinding against his hardness in search of … something.
She had lived on a farm long enough to know that the male appendage hardened before mating, but feeling the hardness against her stomach caused her insides to clench even tighter.
"So beautiful … so soft," he murmured as his lips seared a path down her neck towards her open bodice. She strained to get closer to him, her lips searching out any available piece of skin to press against, finally settling on the taut lines of his neck above his cravat.
She kissed and licked him, tasting the rain and sweat mingled with his own unique masculine scent. She couldn't seem to get enough of him and soon found herself sucking his neck to absorb more of his delicious flavor. He groaned loudly and turning, he pressed her up against the pillar and ground himself harder into her heat.
She knew they shouldn't be here; shouldn't be doing this out in the open where anyone could discover them, especially since she had just refused his proposal of marriage. She knew she was behaving wantonly, but was having a hard time caring right at that moment.
Her reasons for hating him seemed very inconsequential just then, and she briefly wondered how valid they honestly were if she were able to so easily disregard them when faced with his scorching kisses.
Was she so sure of her own judgment?
Could she have misjudged him and his intentions?
She was struggling to distinguish between the passionate and loving man she was currently entwined with, and the proud, arrogant man she had stubbornly believed him to be.
Had she been so very wrong?
Had her judgment been so erroneous that she had misread the situation? If so, what else had she been wrong about?
Could she be wrong about Wickham?
About Jane and Charles?
She knew they needed to talk, but all rational thought left her as his fingers grazed her taut nipple and she cried out in pleasure.
"Elizabeth," he moaned in her ear, his breathing hot and heavy against her skin sending tingles along her spine.
"I love you so much … I have dreamed of holding you like this for so long," his teeth nipped her earlobe and she shuddered, unable to respond to the words that were filling her with as much warmth as his hands and lips were.
"But my dreams … didn't even come close … to the reality … of touching you … and holding you … and kissing you."
Each word was punctuated by another hot kiss to the sensitive skin on her neck and chest. She felt him loosen the back of her dress and felt his hands easing the sleeve of her dress down her shoulder so his lips could have better access to the skin displayed there.
"Please," he begged quietly, earnestly. "Please forgive my blundering from before and say you'll be mine … say you'll let me love you and care for you," he raised his head and met her eyes once more, his voice pleading. "Say you will be my partner in life … my equal … my one … my only … my wife."
She saw the storm of feeling behind his eyes and felt locked in that turbulence once more. She could no longer deny that she was very, very tempted to accept this man. Her body was crying out for him and she yearned for his lips to resume their exquisite torture. Her very skin seemed to ache for him.
Was this love?
Could she find this with another?
Somehow she knew that although she may feel pleasure with another it would never be like this … never be this intense and heated. Her entire history with Mr. Darcy had been heated and intense.
Was love really so close to hate?
Could she trust him; let herself go and just feel?
"What about …" she cleared her throat after the first words came out as a squeak, "what about Jane?"
She wouldn't … she couldn't be happy with Jane in so much pain. She couldn't even contemplate marrying him with that hanging over them like an ax waiting to fall.
"I was wrong," he said heatedly, his hands coming up to caress her face, his eyes begging her to forgive; to understand, "I thought I was looking out for a friend … someone who is like a brother to me … I was wrong. I will confess my interference as soon as we leave here and tell him of your sister's true feelings towards him. I swear I will make it right!" His heated proclamation touched her heart and she knew he meant every word.
She suddenly knew that further discussion could wait. They needed to talk about Wickham and her family, but they would have that discussion at another time, now that the issue with Jane was sorted out she knew they could eventually work out the rest.
"Please Elizabeth … I love you," he cried desperately, misreading her silence.
"I will do everything in my power to make you happy if you just let me. I know you don't love me yet, but I hope in time you will come to. Let me prove to you I can be a better man … with you by my side I will endeavor every day to deserve you. Please," he whispered, a tear trailing down his cheek.
She felt her heart crack at the sight of it. That this proud, quiet man possessed such a heart … and he was offering all of it, all of his heart and all he owned … to her, broke through her doubt and fears and touched her deeply.
Should she take a chance on this man who made her feel things so intensely?
Before she could answer, he lifted her up against him and pushed her back against the pillar where he proceeded to drive all doubt and reason from her with a mind-blowing kiss that shook her to her very core. His tongue plunged and pillaged her mouth as if searching out every inch of uncharted territory and claiming it as his own. His hands reached down and gripped her backside, grinding his ever-present hardness into her as if to sear her heat on its very surface.
She couldn't breathe, she could barely form a coherent thought let alone answer him … which she suspected was his goal all along, but she couldn't fault him for it, not when her every nerve ending was alive with pleasure and her body burned to be possessed by this man.
Panting heavily he pulled away and rested his forehead against hers, both struggling to catch their breath.
"Please Elizabeth, I can't bear to lose you. I can barely breathe without you," the desperation and longing in his voice shook her almost as much as his kiss had, and she knew that whatever her future held, she wanted it to include this man.
"Yes," she whispered as she forced him to face her again and lightly kissed his forehead, "Yes," then each of his cheeks, "Yes," then his chin, "Yes," and finally his lips.
He pulled her into a tight hug and she suddenly felt herself being whirled around as he shouted happily.
She had never seen the stoic Mr. Darcy laugh before, nor seen such a large and beautiful smile grace his features, if she had she may have fallen for him long ago. Regardless, she found herself laughing along with him and he kissed her heartily once more before finally putting her down, although he didn't release her from his embrace.
"Oh my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth," he began breathlessly, "You have made me the happiest of men. Please say we will have a very short engagement, because I'm not sure how long I can survive without you in my arms … and in my bed," he growled hotly in her ear, eliciting another delicious shudder down her body.
"Well then," she responded just as breathlessly, "I suggest we make our way back to the parsonage so that you can carry a letter to my father for me when you go to ask his permission to marry,"
She pulled back and looked at him sternly, "Of course, I expect you to make a stop on your way through London to make things right between Jane and Mr. Bingley. I cannot be happy while my sister is still in so much pain."
He sighed heavily before responding, "I will do as you ask, my love. I only hope Charles can forgive me for interfering. I fear this may put a strain on our friendship, but it is the right thing to do … I have been the cause of too much misunderstanding and pain and have much to atone for."
She kissed him once more; slowly and softly, before pulling away and speaking more forcefully, "I'm very glad you are willing to confess your part in the affair, but you were simply the catalyst," she explained.
"Mr. Bingley is a grown man and able to make his own decisions and supposedly know his own heart and mind. He could have ignored you and his interfering sisters and followed his heart, but he didn't. Ultimately, this is still his responsibility to make right and I hope Jane makes him grovel sufficiently before accepting him back."
He looked at her doubtfully and was opening his mouth to speak when she cut him off.
"I find it hard to believe you would be led so easily once you had you're mind settled on something. Will you allow anyone to convince you out of marrying me? What if your aunt threatens to disavow all family connection with you? What of your uncle? What if Mr. Bingley threatens to abandon your friendship? What if society shuns your choice? Or Georgiana?"
She knew she was forcing him into a corner with her question that began as a simple point but soon developed a life of its own, but she was trying to make a point … and if she were honest, they were valid concerns and fears and she held her breath as she awaited his answer.
She could tell he was giving serious thought to her questions and she wondered if he had fully considered the ramifications of marrying her before making his proposal. He had said he fought against his desire, against his better judgment, against his duty … would he now reconsider? She knew he was too honorable to retract a proposal once offered, but she would release him from his promise if he asked … as much as it pained her to even consider it.
That her feelings had altered so drastically from just an hour ago still amazed and frightened her.
Could one traverse the divide between love and hate so easily, or had she only been desperately holding onto her resentments as protection against just such an outcome as this?
Having had a taste of the most delicious nectar imaginable, she now knew what she would be missing out on if she lost him, and that wasn't a happy thought at all.
Would any other man ever measure up to him? Would she lose him before she was able to complete what they had started here today?
Her body protested that thought as she pushed back the craving to feel his arms around her and his lips all over her. This had to be his decision. They would never be happy if he came to resent her for forcing him into an untenable position. She had never before wanted money or position in society, but she couldn't help wishing, for just a moment, that she had been born into a different situation so that their social differences wouldn't be an issue.
She sighed heavily and banished the thought as soon as it entered her head. She was who she was and she was happy with that. She was a gentleman's daughter regardless of the lack of dowry or connections. If that wasn't enough for him then he didn't deserve her.
She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin in self defense. She was who and what she was and she would not make excuses for that.
The silence stretched along with her nerves as she awaited his response. She knew he was a man who made careful decisions and if the outcome hadn't had such a vital impact on her future happiness she would respect his diligence and consideration, but the strain of waiting was starting to wear on her and she finally had enough.
If this was so difficult than obviously he wasn't ready to commit himself to her and it would be better if she walked away now before she let herself be hurt any more.
She pushed away from him and fought down the feeling of loss as they were separated.
She turned and looked at him once more before departing. Her legs felt shaky but she was determined to walk away with her head held high and she would not falter. Her voice, when she spoke, came out harsher than intended but that couldn't be helped. It was far preferable to sound haughty than for him to know what this was costing her.
"Well then, I see your choice is clear. I release you from any obligation to me," her voice caught on the last word and she took a deep breath and quickly began to walk away, struggling to fix her dress as she did so. She would not let him see her cry, she did, after all, have some pride left.
"Elizabeth? NO! WAIT!" she heard his startled cry just moments before she felt his strong hand close around her arm and turn her to face him. She saw the anguish on his face and the fear in his eyes and felt the first glimmer of hope in her chest.
"NO! I'm sorry if I made you think I had changed my mind, I was simply trying to look at the situation from all angles as you suggested. I didn't want you to think I wasn't taking this seriously," his voice pleaded for understanding.
"I don't want there to be any doubt in your mind that I mean what I say when I tell you that none of that matters," he grabbed both of her hands in his and pulled her close.
"Nothing matters but you! It would pain me if I lost the friendship of Charles, but I don't think that will happen. My sister is the only other opinion that really matters to me and I'm sure she will adore you as I do," he tenderly enclosed her face in his hands, "and if she doesn't, it won't matter, I would still choose you over all of them. I need you … no one else."
He pulled her close and kissed her; a sweet, intense kiss that left no doubt of the depth of his love and longing for her. She felt her heart soar at both his words and his kiss, and she knew that with him by her side they could weather anything.
She stepped away and grabbed his hand, her 'fine eyes' alight with love and hope, and raising one eyebrow in that impertinent way he adored so much, she saucily replied.
"Come then Mr. Darcy, let us go face the dragons so we can get back to flaunting propriety."
He smiled widely before taking a deep breath and following her.
"Might I suggest we fasten your dress first then, my dearest Elizabeth?"