Caroline lay next to her husband too eaten up with desire to sleep. Even after 6 months of marriage it was still a rare treat to share the same bed as Darcy.
Their marriage had been a quiet affair. The service, attended only by immediate family on her side and virtually nobody on his, took place in Pemberley's private chapel. The wedding breakfast had been subdued and the wedding night a non-event. Pressing estate matters had apparently kept Darcy from being able to take his wife on honeymoon.
Caroline realised now that Darcy shared her bed on their wedding night purely as a formality. It was a stratagem to stop tongues wagging and awkward questions being asked in the morning, most especially by her brother. After her family, including Bingley, left the next day Darcy never again shared her bedroom while at Pemberley.
But tonight they were staying at her brother's London home. If Bingley knew of the strains and unhappiness's within his sister's marriage he gave no sign and always made up a single double room when she and her husband came to stay.
This night, like her wedding night, was proving a torture of unrequited lust. She listened to her husband's breath, it was not yet slow and rhythmic. He was not asleep. So far, in an attempt to keep what was left of her dignity, she had managed to resist making a direct physical overture. She dreaded the night that she broke and came to her husband begging him to take her and make her a proper wife to him.
Tonight had been particularly painful because Bingley's wife had invited her sister, Elizabeth who was staying with the Gardiners, over for dinner. It was like a dagger being plunged into her heart every time she glanced over and saw her husband looking longingly at that frightful upstart, Elizabeth.
What was she thinking coming to dinner, anyway? Didn't she realise that she's lost the battle? Caroline had won. Darcy was hers. Divorce was not an option. Elizabeth should know when to back off and admit defeat. But even so, it was time to make her husband truly hers, for all time. Caroline swallowed and screwed up her courage to speak.
"Darcy, my love..."
There was a pause before he reluctantly replied with a curt, "What?"
"What of heirs, my precious? Pemberley must have heirs, must she not?"
A heavy silence followed. Caroline chose to take this as a promising sign. She stretched out a tentative hand and touched her husband's taunt stomach fleetingly before he roughly brushed it away. Caroline felt sick after such an undisguised rejection. She buried her face in her pillow and bit back bitter tears.
The next morning at breakfast, after an almost sleepless night, Caroline did her best to look fresh, composed and happy but her brother was not deceived.
"Dearest sister, are you quite well?" Bingley's usually happy countenance frowned with concern. "You look a trifle puffy around the eyes."
Jane flashed a warning look at her husband. "Caroline, do not concern yourself. I think you look perfectly lovely as always. Bingley darling, it is not just illness and upset that cause puffy, tired eyes. Sometimes they can herald a happy event."
Upon seeing Caroline and Darcy's look of confusion Jane realised too late that her attempt to sooth over troubled waters had made matters worse.
"Jane's darling Aunt Gardiner has invited us all over to Gracechurch Street for dinner this evening," said Bingley brightly in an attempt to defuse the crunchy atmosphere. "I must say I always enjoy their table and if Elizabeth can be persuaded to once more play and sing it will have all the makings of a topping evening."
"It is hard to resist the charms of Elizabeth's song," said Darcy wistfully.
"Dearest brother," cut in Caroline, "you observed correctly, I am indeed not feeling well today."
"Then you must be bled immediately, dear sister," said a concerned Jane, "I will send the hall boy for the doctor at once."
"No, dearest sister! I pray, do not trouble yourself," Caroline detested being bled above all things. "I am sure that I just need some rest but I'm afraid I will not be able to attend dinner tonight." Caroline fleered at her husband. Propriety meant that he must stay at home with her this evening.
Darcy looked annoyed. Jane once more tried to alleviate the situation by appealing to Caroline's vanity, "Why Caroline, what an exquisite ring! I don't think I've ever seen it before. What an unusual setting."
A sly smile momentarily lifted Caroline's sad features, "Yes, it is lovely, isn't it. It was given to me by an Italian governess I used to have."
"Oh, I remember her," said Bingley with a shiver. "She gave me the creeps, I don't mind telling you."
"Well, I liked her. She made me feel strong. So I wear her ring when I want to feel strong and in control." Caroline addressed her reply to Darcy.
After breakfast, anxious to escape the uncomfortable atmosphere between the Darcys, the Bingley's excused themselves from table with alacrity. Caroline got up to follow but Darcy stayed put, stirring his coffee thoughtfully. His rudeness at not getting up did not escape her.
"Caroline, I've been thinking," began Darcy.
Caroline's heart sunk. She had no idea of what was to follow but when her husband spoke to her it usually heralded something she did not want to hear.
"I married you, as honour dictated that I should. I subsequently tried to view you as my wife and applied myself to being a dutiful husband as much as one could when our marriage followed from such an improper and unhappy beginning. However, six months on, I find myself quite unable to love you or think of you as my wife. Caroline, I you are sad and I will never be able to make you happy. My feelings, as always, lie firmly with Elizabeth Bennet. I am now wholly convinced that she is the only woman on earth who can make me happy and I am growing confident that her feelings towards me equal mine."
His words hit her with the force of a punch. Her chest started to heave. She gripped the back of her chair until her knuckles showed white, "Of what are you talking? She'll never have you. She is too arrogant to ever consent to be your mistress."
Darcy leapt up, "Don't ever talk of Elizabeth Bennet in such terms. If you were a man I would challenge you to a duel for attempting to besmirch her honour. I intend to marry Elizabeth."
"How?" cried Caroline, "Divorce is impossible, unheard of. Divorce is the sport of kings."
"Yes, but annulment is for everyman."
"Annulment?" Caroline backed away. A deeply buried horror was starting to crawl up her back.
"Yes, annulment. We've never consummated our marriage Caroline. An annulment will be granted as a matter of course."
Caroline wanted to scream "No! No! No!" but her gutter cunning told her to remain quiet as her mind raced through possible ways out of this fast approaching nightmare. She decided playing it weak was probably her best card to play at the moment. She sank back into her chair. Darcy rushed to her and placed his hand on her shoulder.
"I'm so sorry Caroline. I have tried so hard. This is the only way forward. I will give you a very generous allowance. You will be looked after and when the dust has settled you will be free to find a husband who loves you."
"Yes, yes of course," said Caroline faintly.
"Why don't you lie down and try to get well. I will tell your brother what has been decided."
"No!" cried Caroline in alarm, "I mean, please just give me today to assimilate what you have told me. I need a day to myself before having to deal with pitying looks and inquiries of concern."
Having finally made his decision Darcy was anxious to start implementing it but Caroline's request was not unreasonable.
"Of course," he turned to leave.
"And Darcy," he stopped and faced her, "please don't go to the Gardiner's tonight." His answer was a silent bow.
That evening, after a silent, joyless supper a deux, Darcy sojourned to the library to find solace in a brandy and a good book. Moments later he was joined by his wife. Darcy stiffened at this unwanted intrusion. But he had to admit that he had been rudely quiet over supper so he gritted his teeth and forced himself to play the role of dutiful husband for a few hours longer. The talk with Bingley first thing in the morning could not come soon enough. Straight afterwards he would head to Gracechurch Street and propose to his dearest Elizabeth.
He looked up at his wife with a half smile, "I thought you would want to retire straight after supper. I did not want to tire you with conversation but you are feeling better, I pray."
"Yes, quite better, thank you," she closed the heavy oak door behind her.
"Then I am glad. You'll join me for a brandy?"
"I would like that," she smiled slowly.
"I'll call for a footman," Darcy reached for the bell pull.
"No!" cried Caroline, "I mean to say, the decanter and glasses are just here. Let me pour for myself and replenish your glass."
She swooped up his balloon glass before he could reply. Darcy shrugged and reluctantly closed his book. More brandy would ease the situation. Moments later she came back from the drinks tray and handed him back his glass.
"What larks! Just imagine, if we were poor there would be no footmen and I would be serving you your brandy every night."
Darcy couldn't be bothered to observe that if they were poor they would not be drinking brandy at all. He did not want to risk dampening her unexpectedly chipper mood so instead he took a deep swig of brandy and replied, "You are in good spirits."
"Yes, I went to visit an old friend this afternoon."
He swirled his drink and took another swig. Her jaw clenched. She wanted his to ask who she had been visiting, to show some small sign of jealousy. It was too late now, of course, but it would have been a comfort to remember."
"I went to see my old Italian governess. We're still in touch you see."
"How nice. It seems it was a pleasant visit. One that revived you."
"Oh yes, it did. It was a productive visit also."
"Productive?" Darcy's brow furrowed as he took another sip, "how so?" Darcy's furrow deepened, this brandy was strong, suddenly he didn't feel good and was having trouble focusing on his wife. He shook his head to try and clear his vision. He couldn't be sure but instead of looking concerned she looked as though she was smiling.
"Oh, it's always productive when I visit dear Isabella de Medici. Her family used to be terribly grand, you know. But over the generations they lost their money and so she was reduced to becoming a governess."
"I visited her earlier in the year. That was a productive visit also. She gave me something, a powder to put inside this special ring which opens like so, which I then tipped into your drink and what do you know? You, seemingly drunk, are found by my brother lying on top of me in the library at Pemberley. Yes, that's right, I hunted you down, spiked your drink and then, when you fell on the floor I pulled you on top of me and dragged my skirts up to my waist. By the time the drug had worn off your sense of honour saw to it that we were engaged as soon as possible."
Darcy's brandy glass smashed to the floor. He went to speak but only a strangled gurgle came out. In a rush of concern Caroline went to his side, dropped to her knees and held his limp, sweaty hand.
"Don't worry, it will soon all be over my darling. You see, a lady can only take so much. But I insisted upon something swift and relatively painless. Isabella is naughty. When I told her about the things you'd said, about the humiliations and rejections she wanted to give you something slow and agonising but you see, the truth is, I love you. I don't want you to suffer. I just want you dead."
As the poison worked towards its final conclusion Darcy's body trembled, his eyes screamed out in pain.
"It's belladonna, its tastes sweet and it's quick, my darling love. It's hard to detect. Everybody will think you had a heart attack. So much better to die, my precious, than to go through the humiliation of an annulment. This way you die with your social position in tact and I...well I inherit Pemberley. I won't remarry. You are the only person I have ever loved and I will not risk another man having dominion over me. Rest easy, my love, Pemberley will go to my brother's children and I will of course take good care of your beloved sister."
Darcy gave a final spasm before departing this life. His wife calmly closed his eyes and lingeringly kissed him on the forehead before taking herself off to bed.