Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
(We've just had another few big earthquakes in my town today.
To anyone in Christchurch, I hope you and your family are well, and you're not feeling too rattled.
If you pray, ask for a peaceful, quake-free Christmas. It'd be such a treat! xx)
"Remind me again why we're doing this." Fitzwilliam Darcy entered his wife's room and then stopped, a smile creeping onto his face.
Elizabeth sat at her dressing table and watched him in the mirror. "For Georgiana."
"Nonsense. She's as reluctant as I am."
"Not quite." She stood and turned to him.
He gaped, eyes dilating, mouth dry at the sight of her. The soft fabric fell gracefully from her figure, taunting and teasing him with numerous memories of what lay beneath.
She smiled at his reaction. "Well, a ball is also an excellent excuse to dress up." She lifted out the skirt as if to curtsy.
"There is that." He stepped closer then seemed to stop himself with some force. "But at this moment," he shook his head, "I wonder if you'd best save that dress for a more private occasion."
She laughed. "It's a ball gown, my love."
"Perhaps I'd just rather keep you, entirely, more privately, no matter the occasion."
She stepped up to him and took his hand. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Because we've had this exact conversation before." He dipped his head to kiss her.
"Just once or twice." She murmured between kisses.
He slipped one hand around her waist.
She held tight to the other hand, a last ditch attempt to keep him from getting carried away.
With only one hand at his disposal, he used it well. He pressed his open hand against her lower back, forcing her body flush against his.
"Fitzwilliam," she warned.
He wrenched his lips from her neck, sighed. "Can we leave early?"
She reached up and touched his cheek, smiled, "We are hosting."
He turned away. "Right. Remind me again, why are we doing this?"
Elizabeth laughed and led the way downstairs.
Halfway down the stairs, he caught up to her. Taking her hand, he placed it on his arm. "How do you do it?"
"This," he indicated the way forward, "With such confidence. Your London début as Mrs Darcy, and you're the only Darcy not hiding in their dressing room."
"Now I feel so much better." She held tighter to his arm.
He looked at her, then realised he'd made her nervous. "Sorry."
She continued ahead, boldly looking around the entranceway, checking that everything was in order.
Darcy spied the clock in the hall. "Elizabeth, a minute?" He led her through to the library, closed the door behind them, and in one fluid movement pressed her up against the back of the door. Then he stopped, his lips tauntingly close to hers, looked into her eyes and eventually spoke, his voice rough and breathy. "This will get me through the evening."
He was wrong, of course. A few minutes alone in the library only left them both desperate to steal another few minutes given the first opportunity.
Opportunities did not, however, present themselves. They went from the receiving line to the dance, then circulated, rarely in the same conversation, and always obliged to move on. When all was in full swing, immediate obligations met, Elizabeth looked around, in search of her husband.
She was surprised to find him standing on the edge of the room, consternation clouding his eyes, wrinkling his brow.
"My compliments," Lady Fitzwilliam joined her.
Elizabeth abandoned her intentions to go to her husband and instead turned to his aunt.
"Delightfully," she smiled, "understated. Perfect."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"Aunt." She corrected, "It's time, I think. And my compliments were not limited to this evening, my dear. I'm spoilt for elegant parties, but smiles from my nephew? Quite another thing."
Elizabeth laughed. "I was so surprised the first time I saw him smile. He is transformed."
"Excuse me," Darcy stepped up behind his wife. "Forgive me aunt."
"No, no. The earl is no doubt longing for a dance." She bit back a smile (a laugh?) and left them.
After a moment's hesitation Darcy tugged her arm and led her out of the ballroom.
"Supper is not far way." Elizabeth spoke laughingly. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I'm not stealing you away to ravish you in the library, tempting though that sounds." He led her though to his private study.
She watched him quizzically. "Is something wrong?"
"I think you should know."
"Mrs Covent-Shaw is... was Mrs Raleigh."
She still smiled, confused, waiting for further explanation. Then it hit her – Mrs Raleigh was the widow – THE widow. "Oh." She whispered.
He stepped closer, trying to read her expression.
"We invited...?" She didn't need to speak the rest of the question.
"Mr Covent-Shaw and his bride."
Elizabeth looked up at him, nodded. "You couldn't have told me after everyone had gone home?"
He took a slow deep breath. "I thought about waiting, I did. But then I thought maybe it would be better to face her, to put it behind you. I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything."
She watched his tortured expression and reached out, pressing her palm to his cheek. "For a minute, just imagine, I'd had some brief, passionate, betrothal, long before I met you."
She felt his jaw tense as his eyes bore into hers, warningly.
She bit back a smile. "You'd run him through."
"It's not the same."
"All I'm saying, is that putting it behind me, behind us, might be overstating it a little."
He finally smiled.
"But tonight," she continued, "when it's all over, I'll probably thank you for telling me."
He sighed. "God, I want you."
"I'm all yours, my love."
Her resolve melted and she kissed him, taking hold of his shoulders.
His restraint evaporated and he wrapped his arms around her.
She ran her hands up into his hair, relaxing her body against his. All their guests, the ball, everything was forgotten. The sensation of his hands moving against her back, her thigh, replaced all other reality.
"If you don't suddenly throw me across the room," Fitzwilliam began, then fogot what he was about to say.
"Even if I had the strength," she mumbled, then he kissed her again.
Elizabeth chanced to catch sight of the clock on the mantle and, unable to pull away, she pressed her face into his chest. "Supper will be called any moment – or it should be. If only the hostess was in a decent state."
He reluctantly loosened his grip on her thigh. "You'd think, after six months of having you almost entirely to myself..." He stopped speaking, trying desperately to pull himself together.
"That one or other of us might have discovered a little self-control?"
"Something like that."
"I suspect we're getting worse."
He pulled away, finally breaking contact entirely. "Or we're getting better, depending on your perspective."
"We'd better return." She tried to restrain her smile, an irrepressible grin."I love you."
"And I you." He considered her, marvelling (again) at his good fortune. "You go ahead. I need a minute."
He very nearly grabbed her again.
"I'd better go." She straightened her skirt and let herself out into the hall. Then she remembered why he'd dragged her in there in the first place. The widow. Who was now a bride. Why had she come? Surely, in that situation, you would avoid a man with whom you had...
Elizabeth sighed and returned to the ballroom, immediately clamping eyes with Mrs Covent-Shaw. She forced a smile and had a little epiphany of empathy. The woman wouldn't have told her new husband about her past relationship with Fitzwilliam. Of course. No one refused an invitation to a Darcy ball, rare and noteworthy occasion that it was, without a very good reason, and this particular very good reason was more than just difficult to talk about.
The moment she'd been dreading arrived as the guests were leaving. Summoning every good grace, Elizabeth thanked the Covent-Shaws for attending, wished them a lovely evening, and smiled with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.
"Thank you very much Darcy," Mr Covent-Shaw bowed, "Mrs Darcy, delightful to meet you at last."
Mrs Covent-Shaw curtsied and Elizabeth followed suit. "Good evening." She said, putting her all into one final smile.
As they walked out to their carriage Elizabeth turned, ready to bid goodnight to the next departing guests, who were still donning their coats.
Darcy took her hand and placed it on his arm, covering it with his own.
She looked up at him.
He grinned, proud and adoring.
The last guests to leave were, no surprise, Jane and Bingley. Georgiana walked out with them, leaving Elizabeth and Darcy alone.
"Well, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Elizabeth teased.
He watched her and sighed. "Tell me right now, when is the next one?"
She laughed. "Probably for Christmas."
"Good lord, that's not two weeks from now."
"But we won't be hosting."
"Excellent. We can leave early."
She smiled in agreement, "But we can't sneak off to the library."
"Oh, I don't know."
She watched him, deciphering his expression. "You've got plans for your uncle's library, don't you?"
"I'm giving you ideas."
"Please, keep them coming."
She shook her head in wonder. She would never have believed that the sullen, reserved Mr Darcy she'd met only two years previous would turn out to be such a passionate, good-humoured, and generous man.
Georgiana returned, smiling. "Well that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Elizabeth laughed. Darcy looked from one to the other, incredulous. Every now and then, rather regularly in fact, it took him by surprise – just how utterly transformed his life had been by this bewitching woman from Hertfordshire. And not only his life, but Georgiana's as well.
His sister continued, "Good thing we got all that practise in Derbyshire."
"What were you afraid might happen?" Elizabeth took Georgiana's hand and gave it a squeeze.
"Oh, the usual. Fitzwilliam scowling and staring out a window. Myself too terrified to speak to anyone. I only saw you scowl once, brother. Congratulations."
He sighed. "I take it you felt quite at ease then, my dear, speaking to near-strangers for most of the evening."
"Not at ease perhaps, and they weren't all strangers. The Bingleys and Fitzwilliams, the Gardiners. And fortunately for all of us, you married Elizabeth and I didn't have to play hostess; perfectly, impossibly, balancing my conversation so as never to favour or slight anyone with too much or too little attention."
"Oh, that's what I was meant to be doing."
Georgiana laughed. "Well, I'm exhausted."
"All that dancing." Fitzwilliam near-scolded.
"That is rather the point of a ball, brother."
"Yes, well, feel free to refuse your cousins, any time you like. They both would benefit from the dressing down."
Georgiana laughed. "I'll leave that to you." She started up the stairs, "Anyway, it's much easier to talk to Richard during a dance, without tripping over my feet, than nearly anybody else." She continued to ascend. "Good night Elizabeth, brother."
Elizabeth watched Fitzwilliam's brow furrow. Taking his hand, she led him back to his private study.
"Returning to the scene of the crime?" He asked, expression lightening as she closed the door behind them.
She shrugged. "You're worried about Georgiana." She watched him, "Why?"
He sighed, clearly with no intent to explain.
"You suspect the colonel of..." She didn't feel the completion of the sentence was really necessary.
He looked into her eyes, giving himself away. That was exactly what he suspected.
"He's older, to be sure, but interference would only – well, it would be a great risk."
"I have no intention of interfering."
He gritted his teeth.
"I don't think either of them intend anything."
"Yet." He finished.
"This is beyond your control, my love."
"I am her guardian."
"So is he, if you-"
He interrupted her, slamming his hand down on the desk.
She waited a moment then spoke again, "I really don't think you have anything to worry about."
"He's a loose tongue when he's had too much port. Believe me, Georgiana deserves better."
"You would say that of any man, I'd venture, the difference being that with Colonel Fitzwilliam you know exactly why."
He looked into her eyes.
"Look," She stepped forward to comfort him, taking a loose hold of his hands then running her fingers up his arms, "If, and it is by no means certain, or even likely, but if something were to develop between them, it is a ways off yet, and you will have plenty of time to warn, or not; plenty of time to adjust."
"Plenty of time to challenge the lousy beggar to a -"
She stopped him with a kiss. "You'll do no such thing."
"Is that right?" He looked down at her. She stood on tip-toes, her body pressed to his, her eyes sparkling, knowingly. Perhaps she was right – as if he could truly deny her anything.
"It is. Now let me see if I can distract you." She kissed him.
"Elizabeth..." He warned, not wishing to be distracted.
She slipped her hands up under his waistcoat, pulling him closer. "Let your mind wander back to just a few hours ago, my dear."
"All evening I've struggled to keep my mind from doing just that." He pulled a comb from her hair and toyed with the loosened curl. Wrapping her tightly in his arms, he spoke into her hair. "Do you have any idea how glad I am to have you here, to share this... to not carry it alone."
She squeezed him tightly, "I know."
"I never expected – even imagined – that a wife might be such a friend – an ally and confidante."
"A tease and opponent."
"Exactly." He grinned.
"You bear it well."
"Learning to listen – to truly hear you – was a hard lesson learned." He sighed, "Come, we should to bed."
She stepped back, against the door, and felt behind her to turn the key, gratified to see his eyebrows lift.
He grinned, then closed the gap between them in a single stride.
"Good God this is complicated." He fumbled with the fastenings of her corset.
She laughed and lifted her arms.
"This is why it's best to reserve particular intimacies for our quarters."
"I didn't hear you objecting before."
"Yes, well." He sighed. "Could you simply wear the dress without it? I'll hide this ridiculous contraption under my coat and we'll rely on the discretion of our staff."
"As always." She helped to remove the corset. "Why not?"
He helped her put the dress on, then fumbled with the buttons on the back. "I'll just hold it in place." He kissed the back of her neck. "You can walk right in front of me."
"Only a few of them need to be fastened." She reached her arms around behind her and awkwardly, but effectively, closed some of the back of her dress.
He lifted her half-dissembled hair from her shoulder and kissed the smooth, warm skin there.
"You're being very helpful." She turned, still adjusting the fit around her breasts. "What do you think?"
"Not fit for the public." He smirked. "Which is just the way I like it."
"Yes, well." She straightened the skirt and turned to unlock the door. "To bed."
He slipped his arm around her waist before she opened the door, pressing his body against the back of hers, ensuring there was no doubt in her mind exactly what he wanted once they were safely ensconced in their chamber.