Darcy was awake. It was only two hours ago that Elizabeth had fallen asleep against him in his library, and Darcy, too, had slept for a time. He had woken a few minutes earlier when Elizabeth had spoken in her sleep and then moved against him.
Elizabeth's head rested against his abdomen, a cushion separating him from the feel of her soft skin and luxurious hair. Darcy was thankful that he had rearranged her onto the pillow, because he was not sure he could have endured the sensation of her against his thin shirt without taking liberties that he should not.
As it was, he was more than content to gaze down at her. In sleep, Elizabeth was exquisite – and he cherished the time that he could spend just observing her in a way he had never had the opportunity to do so before. Usually, when studying Elizabeth, he had been forced to look away whenever she caught his eye – interrupting his unswerving admiration of her graceful movements, her light figure and her beautiful features.
This night, as her hand was wrapped securely in his own and her trust of him so absolute that she slept against him, Darcy took his fill. Her shapely legs were tucked up beneath her simple muslin dress that could do nothing to disguise her narrow waist and womanly curves. Her neck was pale, long and elegant, her lips red and slightly parted to show a glimpse of perfect white teeth. Dark eyelashes feathered down over cheeks pinked with sleep, and if Darcy closed his eyes, he could perfectly envision her sparkling chocolate brown eyes dancing up at him or full of deep emotion, brimming with tears. She had a high forehead, covered at this moment with tendrils of curling brown hair, so soft and perfect. Darcy had long imagined his Elizabeth with her hair unbound, and tonight when he had finally seen it in reality, he had almost come undone. Darcy let the fingers of his unoccupied hand move to Elizabeth's forehead, and he gently smoothed the hair from her face, letting the silken strands run through his fingers. How he loved her.
Elizabeth stirred, a soft sigh emerging as her eyelashes fluttered open. In her state of sleepiness, surrounded by a delightful warmth, she felt safer than she had ever felt before. For long seconds she knew not where she was, imagining her bed at Longbourn and a morning walk awaiting her. Her eyes blinked open, a blissful smile on her face as she stretched against the warmth that held her.
Elizabeth realised where she was in a heart-stopping moment. Immediately she leapt into a sitting position, horrified that she had fallen asleep on Mr Darcy. He must think her so shameful, Elizabeth cried to herself, as a deep blush came into her cheeks and spread onto her neck. Indeed, Elizabeth felt that her whole body must be blushing with embarrassment.
"Mr Darcy," she exclaimed, when the gentleman moved in response to her frantic attempts to separate herself from him. "I cannot begin to apologise for imposing on you in such a manner. I should not have fallen asleep. Oh, what must you think of me?" Elizabeth stared determinedly down at the floor, her sensibilities causing her no small amount of discomfort at the situation in which she found herself, however innocently. She attempted to withdraw her hand from within his, but Darcy merely smiled playfully and tightened his grasp.
"Elizabeth," he spoke, unwilling to return to his earlier formality of calling her "Miss Bennet" after all they had shared this night. "Please do not distress yourself. I did nothing to stop you from resting against me. Indeed, I thought it best that you get some sleep, and I did not wish to be parted from you. I admit that perhaps I was selfish – for in almost losing you yesterday, I did not wish to let you away from my watchful sight."
Elizabeth gazed up at him and saw reflected in his eyes the earnest truth with which he spoke. He placed a kiss upon her hand. "Bingley is escorting your sister to London this day. I believe that they shall arrive very early, and as such, you should get some more sleep. But first, Elizabeth, I think that we must discuss your future..."
Elizabeth withdrew her hand from Darcy's hold and stood, trembling at the reminder that her future was uncertain, her reputation damaged, and her options limited. She walked over to the window, gazed at the moon, and closed her eyes in the hope that she would gain some strength for the conversation to follow.
Darcy moved behind Elizabeth, trying desperately not to become distracted by the enticing picture that she made, pale skin glowing in the moonlight, swan-like neck on display as she turned her closed eyes up to the sky. "Elizabeth, if you do not wish to speak of it, then we shall not." He wanted to reach out and touch her, but he did not.
"No, we must speak of it. I know this. I just wish that it was not necessary." She smiled wanly at him.
"I know. I wish the same, for your sake."
"I cannot go back to Longbourn. I do not think that I could ever face my mother again – nor could I imagine being able to forgive her for what she has done." Elizabeth shuddered. "I am afraid for Pappa, though. How can I leave him to her care? How can I be so selfish as to not return for him?" She wrapped her arms around herself, miserable in the decision that she would make. "But if Mamma finds out that I am not married, she would... I mean, she could not try again... could she?" The last words were but a whisper, and her eyes gazed up at him in a childlike appeal.
"Elizabeth, you cannot return to Longbourn – at least, you cannot return there alone. Your mother deserves none of your forgiveness nor your love. She has betrayed you in the worst possible way. Think not of Mr Bennet for a moment, for we can discuss the best way for you to see him later."
Elizabeth nodded and thought for a moment, her brow furrowing in concentration. "I suppose that Jane and Mr Bingley would welcome me into their home once they are married. I had thought that I might live with them... but I am afraid that I would have to see my mother. I could not hide away every time she came calling."
"Bingley is very angry with Mrs Bennet – I do not believe that she will be made welcome at his home for a long time. If that is your choice, you could stay with them quite safely, independent of your mother. But, I beg you to consider the other options," Darcy spoke.
"What other options have I?" Elizabeth asked, sighing as she realised that she would forever be a burden to her sister.
"You could live with your Aunt and Uncle Gardiner – I know that they would welcome you and keep you away from the reaches of your mother."
"Yes, I dare say they would take me in."
"The third option, the only other that I can see, is..." Darcy paused, clasping his hands behind his back to stop their trembling, "you could consent to be my wife, and I would ensure that you were happy and safe, and that your mother could not reach you without your explicit agreement." He stared at her, as Elizabeth's eyes widened in shock.
Had she heard right? Elizabeth wondered. Had Mr Darcy actually asked her to marry him? Her heart pounded in her chest, and her breathing quickened. She knew not what to say. Her heart urged her to say yes, to throw caution to the wind and take his offer before it could be withdrawn, thus securing her happiness for the remainder of her life. Her mind, the sensible part of her, could not help but stop her impulsive acceptance. For perhaps Darcy had proposed only out of guilt – perhaps because she had spent the better part of a night with him, he felt that he should make it right – or perhaps he was being kind, and knowing that she could not return home, was offering her a new home. She had to know before she could answer.
"I have three options then," she whispered, so softly that Darcy had to strain to hear her. "Which do you think I should take?"
She watched him and noticed that his eyes became guarded for a moment, his voice stiff as he replied, "I do not wish to influence you." Did she not want to marry him then? Darcy wondered. He looked away, unable to bear a rejection yet again from the woman he loved. Only this time, he knew that his heartbreak would be worse. This time he loved her a thousand times more than he had in Kent – so much that he knew not how he would live without her.
Elizabeth reached out and took one of Darcy's hands that hung limply at his side. "Please," she pleaded, "I must know which option you wish me to take."
Darcy gazed deeply into her eyes trying to read the emotion that he could see brimming below the surface. In the end, he knew that to have any hope of winning her and getting what he wanted above anything, he would have to fight for her – and if that meant laying himself bare to her, then he would do it.
His hand closed around hers, and he stepped closer to her, his gaze intensifying until Elizabeth felt completely under his spell. She could not look away. She could hardly breathe. "Then marry me, Elizabeth?" Darcy begged. Elizabeth felt the bottom drop out of her stomach, and then fill slowly with fluttering sensations that threatened to overwhelm her. "Be my wife, my mistress, my partner in all things. Let me love you the way you deserve to be loved. Let me give you everything that I own and teach you everything that I know, and you can teach me in return. I can make you happy, Elizabeth; I know that I can."
"I..." Elizabeth knew not what to say. She was speechless. Bubbles of pure happiness rose up within her, an unexpected bliss that she had never before felt and did not think that she could ever feel again.
"Elizabeth, if you care for me even a little, please say yes. But pray, do not, I beg you, consent to marry me if you feel only gratitude or obligation. I do not think I could bear to love you as I do and not have some tender feelings from you in return. Say you care for me, Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth smiled, tears of exhilaration filling her eyes. "I do not merely care for you, Mr Darcy. My feelings go so far beyond caring that I believe they rival yours."
"What are you saying?" Darcy asked, breathlessness suddenly oppressing him.
"I am saying, sir, that I have loved you for a very long time – first hinted at when I realised how wrong I had been about you and your involvement with Wickham, then developing further when I saw you again at Pemberley, and fully grown by the time you returned to Longbourn. I knew then that I would love you for the rest of my life, and without you, I should never marry."
"Elizabeth," Darcy exclaimed. "You truly love me?" His eyes shone, his happiness now complete.
Elizabeth nodded and brought his hand to her lips, pressing a warm kiss against it. Darcy closed his eyes and let the back of his knuckles caress her soft, warm lips. "My sweet, warm, lovely Elizabeth. You have made me happier than I ever thought possible."
His hands moved up to frame her face, and Elizabeth allowed her eyes to close, revelling in the sensations that he was provoking with his touch. She tilted her head up and felt the moonlight on her skin, a small smile adorning her face, and a soft sound of contentment on her lips, as Darcy's thumbs smoothed back her hair. His lips came down upon her forehead and then upon her temple, upon first one eyelid and then the other, each of her soft cheeks, and then ever so slowly lingered over her waiting lips, before pressing down on them in a kiss of love, adoration and sensual promise.
Bingley watched his beautiful Jane worrying the entire way to London.
They had left Netherfield at a very early hour, just as the darkness had started to lift. Jane was anxious to get to her sister, and Bingley was almost as eager to reach London as she, feeling responsible for the Bennet sisters as the man of the family.
He spent the entire journey praying that Elizabeth would be safe with Darcy and that they would find everything as it should be. Bingley knew that Jane would never recover if her most beloved sister had been grievously injured in some way – whether it be emotional or physical.
Bingley spoke to Jane but little on the journey – both lost in their own reflections – but as always, he was ever conscious of her, paying attention to her emotions lest he be required to be of greater support to her.
Elizabeth awoke again to find herself in almost the exact same position as she had been those few hours previously, but this time, her heart full, knowing that she was to be Darcy's wife, she did not move immediately, instead allowing herself to revel in the feeling of his muscular body beneath her. Darcy's hand absently stroked her thick curls, and Elizabeth found herself wanting to purr like a kitten under his ministrations.
She opened her eyes slowly and gazed up into the dark eyes which smiled down on her. "Good morning, my dearest girl," he spoke.
Elizabeth smiled. "Good morning, Mr Darcy."
"Shall you not address me as Fitzwilliam, or William?" he asked, running a hand over Elizabeth's cheek.
"When we are married, I shall," she laughed. "Until then, you shall be Darcy."
Darcy made a show of grumbling. "So long as you cease with the infernal Mr..." he growled, and then broke into a wide smile.
"Elizabeth, I have something for you." Elizabeth sat up, content when Darcy pulled her close to his side so that their bodies pressed against one another. It seemed that he did not wish to break contact with her, a feeling she agreed with wholeheartedly, as lacking in propriety as it was.
"What is it?" she asked excitedly as Darcy pulled something from his shirt pocket.
He took her left hand and placed a ring on her finger. Elizabeth could only gasp as she stared down at the ruby and diamond creation, simple, yet so elegant and beautiful. It was exactly the ring she would have imagined selecting had she a choice. "It is exquisite," she said, eyes sparkling with tears as she thanked him.
"As are you." Darcy placed a warm kiss on the finger where his ring now rested. "So now it is official, Elizabeth. We are to be married."
"Yes," Elizabeth replied, nuzzling her cheek against his chest.
"I intend to speak to Bingley about this as soon as he arrives, but I wanted to be sure that you are happy with the arrangement first. Elizabeth, I think it best that we do not wait to marry. With everything that has occurred, it is important that we do not delay. I took care of Charlton, but if any hint of your not being married to him reaches your mother's ears, I fear that she will try to plot to rectify the situation."
"Yes, I believe that you are right; it would be best," Elizabeth replied. "After spending the night together, as innocent as it was, I fear that we have flouted propriety, another reason not to delay." She paused. "There is also the question of Pappa. He is very ill, and the doctor believes that he will die very soon. If we delay, I do not know how we could get married until my official mourning period was over. I would wish that we could marry and then travel to Longbourn so that I can show him how happy I am. I spoke to him of you, Darcy – he seemed content to know that I loved so worthy a man. If he is to die, he should know..." her voice trailed away.
"He should know, Elizabeth. We shall travel directly to Longbourn the day following our marriage. I shall see about securing a special license today, my dear, and if it is possible, we could marry this afternoon?"
"So soon?" Elizabeth's heart skipped a beat, but excitement curled in her belly. She smiled and nodded her agreement.
Darcy placed his fingers under her chin and tilted her lips towards him. He leaned down and inch by inch lowered his lips above hers, smiling as he saw Elizabeth's mouth quivering in anticipation. His lips covered hers, and they shared a loving kiss – one and then another. Just as Darcy was coaxing Elizabeth to open her lips for him to enable him to deepen the kiss and show her what pleasure was to be had, he heard a shocked feminine gasp.
Elizabeth pulled away quickly. She, too, had heard the sound, and immediately recognised it to be her sister Jane. Darcy and Elizabeth looked over to the door, and blushed furiously when they saw Jane staring at them in astonishment, Bingley one step behind with a smile of wry amusement on his face.
"Jane," Elizabeth exclaimed, getting quickly to her feet.
"Oh Lizzie, thank heaven that you are safe!" Tears came to Jane's eyes and she stepped forwards and threw her arms around her sister.
Elizabeth returned the embrace, truly happy that Jane was before her. Darcy, knowing that his presence was superfluous, bowed and with a glance at Bingley announced his intention to quit the room to leave the ladies to their reunion. He placed a gentle touch on Elizabeth's hand on his way out, and she gazed at him in adoration, smiling as he closed the door behind himself and Bingley.
"Jane, how is Pappa?" Elizabeth asked in concerned tones, drawing her sister to sit beside her on the chaise.
"He is very unwell, Lizzie. I only wish I had better news to tell you. I saw him last night, and he looked to be clinging onto life by a mere thread, dearest."
"Oh, he must be wondering where I am. I only pray that he does not think I abandoned him," Elizabeth cried, her grief mounting as she came to the full realisation that Mr Bennet would not be with them for much longer.
"Lizzie, do not distress yourself. Pappa has not awakened since yesterday afternoon. The doctor says that he has slipped into a coma that he is unlikely to wake from. He told us all to prepare ourselves," Jane whispered and held out her arms to offer Elizabeth comfort.
Elizabeth cried for her father and for all that she had been through, all the while her hair stroked by Jane's loving fingers. "Oh, Jane, how shall we bear it when he leaves us?" she sobbed.
"We shall all of us find a way – you, me, Mary and Kitty – together. We shall never forget our dearest Pappa..." Jane's voice trailed off, her own emotions overwhelming her.
"Oh, yes, Jane. He will always be in our hearts. And you and I will have our husbands to stand beside us," Elizabeth spoke passionately. She pulled back and the sisters gazed at one another.
"Lizzie, you mean... you and Mr Darcy?"
Elizabeth nodded, a smile breaking through her sadness. She held her be-ringed finger up for Jane's inspection. "He proposed to me last night after he had rescued me from Mr Charlton. Had he arrived just a few minutes later, it would have been too late, Jane. Mr Charlton was forcing me to marry him – we were in the middle of the ceremony... and then, Darcy came, and he took me away, and though I assumed that he would never want to see me again after my reputation had been so thoroughly compromised, he told me that he loved me more than ever. It was so romantic, Jane. We shall both of us be so happy."
Jane sighed, gasped and exclaimed by turn as she listened to her sister's story. Her eyes shone, and she was relieved beyond belief to see that Elizabeth had finally fallen in love – completely, passionately and irrevocably in love – with a man who truly deserved her.
"Lizzie, I can hardly believe the intensity of the love that you have for each other. Charles told me of how Mr Darcy was beside himself when he told him of your peril – he said that Mr Darcy vowed to find you. And find you he did, Lizzie. I am only glad that I realised in time that Mamma had lied to me."
Shadows filled Elizabeth's eyes as she thought of her mother. All that she had done could never be forgiven. "You found my necklace then?" Elizabeth asked.
"Yes, I did, but I was suspicious long before I found it that Mamma's explanation of your absence did not ring true. I knew that you would not have planned to visit our aunt and uncle with Pappa so ill, and you would not have kept it from me. Until I found the necklace though, Lizzie, I could not piece it all together." Jane reached into her bag and withdrew Elizabeth's beloved cross necklace and handed it to her.
"Jane – it was you who saved me then. Darcy would have had no idea if you had not discovered our mother's betrayal. Thank you." Elizabeth kissed Jane's cheek. "You realise, Jane, that I can never forgive Mamma for what she has done? That I shall not be able to return to Longbourn?"
"Oh, Lizzie, I had not thought of that. When Charles found out what Mamma had done, he removed Kitty and Mary and myself from Longbourn. He planned to have Pappa moved also, but he was a great deal too ill to be moved. He employed one of his footmen to accompany us if we travelled to Longbourn to tend to Pappa – he did not trust Mamma with any of us for fear of what she might do."
"It is only I that Mamma seems to hate," Elizabeth spoke bitterly. "I believe that at least Kitty would be safe with her, though if she had an opportunity to offload poor Mary, I believe she would take the chance. Darcy and I are to be married as soon as a special licence can be obtained, Jane, and then he has promised to take me to Longbourn to see Pappa. I dread the thought of having to see Mamma, but I cannot be so selfish as to let that keep me from Pappa in his hour of need."
"Lizzie, you are anything but selfish, and you have always said that I was the good sister. I believe that I will struggle to forgive Mamma for what she has done, and I do not know if I could bear to be in her company for even a second, but you talk of going to Longbourn with such calm. I know that Kitty and Mary are both terribly upset with her also, and Charles is determined to keep them away from her." Jane gazed at Elizabeth with concern.
"I could not bear it if Darcy were not at my side. With him, I feel that I can face anything. And though Mamma tried her utmost to sell me to Charlton, it did not come to pass, and while I find myself beyond happiness at the love that Darcy brings to my life, I cannot dwell on what almost happened. I shall endeavour to forget it, Jane, but I shall never willingly place myself in Mamma's path again."
A knock at the door heralded the entrance of the two gentlemen, and Elizabeth and Jane rose to greet them. They each stepped towards their fiancés.
Darcy took Elizabeth's hand and pressed a reverent kiss to the palm. "I have spoken to Bingley of our marriage, my courageous girl, and he has requested that I try to obtain a special licence for him and Miss Bennet also. He is speaking to your sister now to gain her approval of the plan. I have sent urgent notes to my two most influential friends, in the hopes that they will assist me in acquiring the licences. I shall call on them directly and then attend the Archbishop to plead my case. You should be prepared, dearest, to be married this afternoon if all goes well."
"I shall be your wife," Elizabeth exclaimed as if suddenly coming to the realisation that her dreams were coming true. She smiled.
"Yes, you shall – at last!" Darcy smiled at her in return, and Elizabeth could not help but reach out her hand to touch the deep dimple that creased his cheek. "My housekeeper is seeing to all the arrangements, and she informed me that a seamstress will be attending shortly to outfit you and your sister for your weddings."
"Thank you, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth whispered. "You did not need to do that."
"On the contrary, my dear. I want you to feel that this is indeed your wedding day, instead of a hushed affair to be ashamed of. If I could give you the wedding day of your dreams I would, Elizabeth, but instead you have little time to prepare yourself and no family to attend. Please, let me perform this small service for you – at least you can feel like a bride."
"I love you, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth whispered, and watched as he bowed, and with Bingley by his side, removed himself from the room.