This is the prologue and first chapter to a full length published novel. You can find more information on my profile if you are interested.


Unequal Affections

Prologue

November 1811

"Darcy, if you try to tell me that Miss Bennet is unworthy of me, I'll—I'll—!" Mr. Bingley's hand clinched. "I'll do something!"

They were in London, three days after the Netherfield ball. Mr. Bingley had been surprised to discover that the guests he had left behind on his country estate had followed him to town, and upon being now told the reason, he was anything but pleased.

"She's not unworthy of you, but her family is," Darcy replied evenly. "And unfortunately, she cannot be separated from her family." Bingley was not to know how he felt the force of that statement himself. "Think, Bingley! It is not only that Mrs. Bennet's family connections would diminish the status your family has worked so hard to attain; beyond that, can you really imagine introducing thatwoman—those sisters—to your acquaintance with pride? Do you think you can bear with complacency their vulgarities and intrusiveness, for the rest of your life? What marriage could survive that? And you may be sure that the very amiableness of Miss Bennet's temper will prevent her from ever setting them at a distance. Not only will you have to bear with them, but the whole of your acquaintance will have to bear with them too. Consider your friends for a moment—consider your sisters! You may be willing to mortify your own consequence, but what of theirs? Miss Bingley is not yet married; you cannot think it will recommend her to any future husband, that he must take on himself such connections as Mrs. Bennet and the younger Bennet girls!"

Mr. Bingley had grown a little pale, and was clearly struggling. "But they are all very good natured—" he protested weakly. "They are not so bad as you say, I am sure."

"Yes, they are," returned his friend sternly. "You did not observe them as I did, for you saw no one but Miss Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is a vulgar, shallow, scheming woman who had no compunction in boasting of your wealth, even before you made an offer. Miss Mary Bennet lacks sense and taste, and as for the two younger girls—mark my words, Bingley, one day one of them will disgrace her family by her foolish behavior. They are spoiled, vain and silly, with no sense of propriety, and hardly even of common decency. Their mother positively encourages them, while their father has the sense to know better, yet chooses to mock them rather than make any attempt to restrain them."

Bingley quailed under this merciless description of the Bennet family and turned away in utmost agitation. Darcy saw him grasp the mantelpiece until his knuckles turned white. The moment his friend ceased speaking, he burst out, "But I love her, Darcy!"

"I know," replied Darcy quietly.

"And I daresay you may say I have been in love before, but never like this!" He began to pace the room. "There's no woman in England like her! She's an angel! I don't—I don't think I could ever be happy without her!"

"You were happy before her."

"But that was before I knew her—that I knew such a creature existed." He paused, and Darcy waited. "No," he said finally. "No, you cannot ask it of me."

Darcy frowned. "But—"

"I'm a man of honor, Darcy!" he cried. "So are you! Would you have me behave so infamously—to pay her such attentions, raise such expectations and feelings, and then desert her? You would never behave so yourself, surely!"

"Do you believe she loves you, then?"

"Yes! Well—" he flushed, "not as much as I love her, perhaps, but sincerely, I am convinced of it. She does return my regard."

"I disagree," said Darcy coolly.

Bingley turned a shade paler. "What?"

This task was turning out to be even more unpleasant than he had anticipated, but he steeled himself to continue without flinching. "I took the opportunity to observe her carefully on the night of the ball. Her countenance was ever serene and smiling, indicating a general complaisance, but no discernible depth of feeling. She received your attentions with pleasure, it's true, but no differently than she received any other young man's attentions." He waited a moment while this information sank into his unhappy friend's mind. "She likes you, Bingley, but I do not think she loves you. I acquit her of scheming—that is her mother's part—but if you proposed she would certainly accept you; how could she do otherwise, in her situation? You will give her no other choice. Family duty, prudence, will all compel her to accept you regardless of her feelings. If you do not propose, you will certainly disappoint Mrs. Bennet's hopes, but not necessarily Miss Bennet's. She will not be heartbroken. In fact, she may even be slightly relieved."

During this whole speech Bingley had sat with his head in his hands. When Darcy finished there was a long silence before he finally looked up, his face haggard. "I—I was sure she cared about me," he whispered.

"I'm sure that she does, as a friend. I simply do not believe she is in love with you."

"Do not believe?" He searched his friend's face almost desperately. "But are you sure, Darcy?"

"I'm not omniscient, if that's what you're asking. But based upon my own observation, I am completely convinced within myself that her heart has not been touched."

That Darcy's conviction weighed heavily on the other was clear. He passed a shaky hand through his hair, and unshed tears shone in his eyes. "There's no reason she should love me," he said huskily. "There is nothing outstanding about me. I'm not especially handsome or especially clever or especially good. I did think, but…" he jumped up and walked around the room in a disjointed fashion. Darcy simply waited in silence. "You're right, you know," he said at last in a low voice. "I've been trying to think of any particular look or word—any-thing that might have indicated a clear preference on her part; anything that would prove she loves me. But there was none. It was just her general sweetness, her kindness." He sighed deeply.

"Charles," Mr. Darcy spoke gently, "I know this is painful for you, but you must consider before you truly have gone too far to draw back. Is it really worth the humiliation of such a family, such low con-nections, to acquire a wife who, however sweet and kind, cannot even return your affection? Can you really rate your own happiness above your obligation to your sister? Would you even be happy in such a marriage? You love her, but is just having her enough? Is having her, but not having her heart—giving up so much, putting up with so much without even an equal return of regard, sufficient? Could it be sufficient for any man?"

Another long silence, then Charles said, "No. No, it is not sufficient. I could not be content to love but not be loved in return. If she had loved me, Darcy…" he sighed brokenly. "If she had loved me then I would have given anything for her. But I can't make her love me, can I?" He looked over at his friend.

"No," Darcy agreed. "No, you cannot."

Chapter One

April 1812

By the end, she only felt curiously detached. It was a shock—there was no denying it was a shock, and the agitated young man with the glowing eyes and impassioned tones seemed like a stranger. He was a stranger, she realized all at once. She did not really know him at all. And she found she could not hate him; he had been so… so very frank, so very ardent, so very unlike the man she thought she knew. In a moment, all her prejudices, all her notions of his attitudes and behavior, seemed overthrown.

She had been proposed to by a stranger. A very rich, very handsome stranger who was very in love with her. She could not possibly accept him—but, suddenly, she could not possibly refuse him either, not now. This was, she knew clearly, a chance unlike any other she would ever receive. She could not turn him down for the satisfaction of it. She had to think.

When Darcy at last ceased talking, leaned his broad shoulders on the mantle, and fixed his eyes on Elizabeth's face, she did not bear the expression of a woman overjoyed at a brilliant offer. She looked merely… thoughtful, with a slight frown as if there were some puzzle she was trying to solve. He waited impatiently until she raised her eyes to his. "I thank you for the honor of your proposal," she said slowly, "but I cannot answer you. I need time to consider."

Darcy clearly had not expected such a reply. "I don't—for what reason?"

She looked at him seriously. "I had no expectation of receiving addresses from you. Until you began to speak, I had never considered the possibility."

He turned away uncomfortably. "I had thought my interest in you was rather obvious."

She smiled slightly at that. "Not to me."

He frowned. "Did you really believe I would pay you so much attention if I had no intentions?"

Now it was her turn to look surprised. "You must forgive me, sir, but I had not realized you were paying me attention. It is true we met often, but we spoke little."

Darcy opened his mouth, closed it again, and said, "Just because it is unexpected does not mean that it is unwelcome."

"No-o," she replied pensively.

"I am not sure I understand your reasons for hesitating."

She raised one eyebrow. "You would suggest I decide my entire future without reflection? You have certainly considered at length—have I no similar right?

He was silent for a moment at that. "How much time do you require?"

"You are to depart the morning after next, are you not?"

"Yes, but that may be postponed. I had not thought to leave Kent without an understanding between us."

Elizabeth blushed a little. "If—may I be permitted to ask—how long it has been that you have been intending to address me?"

He regarded her with an enigmatic expression. "I have been in contemplation of it since Easter Sunday when you took tea at Rosings."

"That was not very long ago, sir."

"Yes, but my feelings are of much longer duration, as I have already told you. When I saw you again that night I knew I could no longer deny the nature of my desires. I…" he sighed. "I cannot say exactly when I determined to offer for you. The decision came upon me gradually, I believe, and every hour in your company made it more firm. I have been waiting since yesterday for an opportunity to speak to you."

As uncomfortable as this conversation was, Elizabeth also found it fascinating. She had been so mistaken in her understanding of his thoughts and motives! He seemed resigned to answering any question she asked, so she ventured a little further. "What was your plan, upon my acceptance?"

"I had hoped to call on you when you reached London, then to accompany you to Hertfordshire to seek your father's blessing. I would like—" he paused and looked at her directly, "I would like to be married soon."

She colored under his gaze. "And Mr. Bingley?"

His brows drew together. "Mr. Bingley?"

"Netherfield is shut up, Mr. Darcy." She looked at him archly. "Where shall you live, without your friend?"

He relaxed and smiled a little. "I daresay he would allow me the use of the house if I desired it. If not, I will find other accommodations."

"I would not rate the quality of Meryton inns too highly, sir. I am sure you are accustomed to far better."

He seemed a little confused as to the purpose of this line of questioning. "I am not concerned about that."

"But you may be after a week of inferior meals and poorly aired sheets."

"Madam, this is hardly the point," he said a bit impatiently. "I will not be able to go to Hertfordshire until you give me your acceptance." He paused, and said in a more restrained voice, "How long do you believe you will need to consider?"

Now it was her turn to sigh. "I do not honestly know. But if you wish to seek me in the grove tomorrow morning, I believe I will have a better understanding of my sentiments then."

He bowed his acquiescence, then, with a softened expression, came across the room to her. She stood up, and he took her hand. "I am sorry I made my feelings so little known to you. You must understand that until I had determined to my own complete satisfaction what my intentions were, I did not want to behave in such a way—that is, I did not wish to give rise to expectations which—" he bit his lip.

"I understand," she replied. "And you," her voice took on a faintly satirical edge, "are too well acquainted with the difference in our stations to doubt why I did not presume you to be forming an attachment just because you chose to walk with me on occasion."

He looked at her for a moment, then pressed the hand he still held. "I hope to leave you in no doubt of my attachment in the future." She colored and he stepped back with a sigh. "Until the morning then, Miss Bennet. I bid you a good evening."

Elizabeth sat up late that night. She was highly keyed up and still felt so strangely dispassionate. She did not love him, but neither did she feel her past determined dislike. She could not forget the things she had against him, but they no longer seemed so terrible. Bad manners might be improved. His original insult of her could certainly be forgiven him now, though she deplored his having said such a thing about any woman within her hearing. The Wickham matter was far more serious, but for the first time Elizabeth was able to look at it without prejudice, and for the first time she acknowledged that she might not know the full truth of what happened those years ago. Wickham had been believable, but time and emotion could have colored his account. As Mr. Darcy's wife, furthermore, she would be in a position to possibly right whatever wrong had been done. What was certain was that she would be in a position to help Jane. It was all very well, she decided in a very Charlotte-like burst of common sense, to rail against him for what he had done, but it would do Jane far more good to use her unexpected influence to change his mind. After all, he could hardly continue to object to his own sister-in-law as a suitable choice for his friend.

And he was a clever man, and a sensible one. He was rich enough to help her entire family, and he was in love with her. It was a lot. Elizabeth had never had a man in love with her before, and it was difficult not to think of the power she evidently had over him. What would it be like… to have such influence over the happiness of a man like that?

Mr. Darcy also sat up late that night. It was not the first time. Just the night before he had paced his room, wild with passion and wracked with misgivings. He was determined—he had made up his mind—but pride would not be silent. It whispered that he was embarrassing himself, embarrassing his family, embarrassing his connections.

His humiliation this night was of a different sort, a more intimate, personal humiliation. But Darcy was too just a man not to accede to the fairness of her position. And he'd never really believed that she was as violently in love with him as he was with her—had he?

The next morning was fresh and cool. Elizabeth had not gone far on her way before she found him waiting for her. He bowed quickly and they fell into step together.

They walked a little in silence until Mr. Darcy burst out, "Miss Bennet, I cannot stand this suspense! Please tell me if you have reached a conclusion."

"Mr. Darcy, I have not," she replied. "However, I believe my thoughts are rather more ordered than they were last night. Please do not be offended, but I have many things I must say and questions I must ask before I can make a decision. Though you have made me a flattering offer, I am constitutionally incapable of deciding the rest of my life without thorough consideration."

"I would not respect you as I do, Miss Bennet," said Mr. Darcy slowly, "if you did not have a lively mind and independent spirit. I had not intended, last night, to catch you so completely by surprise. I do not like the delay, but I cannot say I blame you for it."

"Thank you. I am afraid I must begin with that which must pain you, but it would be unjust for me to be less frank than you have been, and it should be said at once."

"What do you mean?"

"Sir, I think it only right to tell you that I cannot, at this time, return your affections. If you wish to withdraw your offer in light of this information, then I would understand completely and not hold it against you."

There was no immediate answer to this statement. Stealing a look up at him, Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy staring straight up ahead, a muscle in his jaw working. She quailed slightly.

It was hardly surprising information to Darcy by now, but still it hurt to hear her say it so plainly. She had not even attached any words regarding the warmth of her regard or respect. Still, he knew his answer. "I do not wish it, Miss Bennet," he said quietly.

Seeing that he was not inclined to say anything more at present,
she gathered her courage in both hands and forged ahead. "I must tell you," she began haltingly, a deep blush staining her cheek, "that I and my sister have always said that we would never marry without both respect and affection. I have seen what a marriage without either looks like, Mr. Darcy, and I do not wish for one like it—which is why I must ask you to examine the nature of your own feelings for me."

Darcy halted abruptly, turning towards her. "Do you doubt my affections?" he demanded. "Do you believe I spoke lightly of love? I assure you I did not!"

Elizabeth took a steadying breath, unable to look at his face. "I do not doubt their warmth, sir. What I doubt—what I question," she began to walk slowly on, "is their durability."

"You question my faithfulness?" She could hear from his voice that he was insulted.

"No-o." She faced him. "I question whether your regard will ultimately survive the disapproval of the world, and the degradation," she could not keep all the bitterness out of her voice, "of my family connections." This was unexpected. Darcy stood still, watching her warily. "I am sure, Mr. Darcy, that everything you said last night regarding my unsuitability to be your wife is true, and perhaps even natural on your part, but the language that you used—the warmth of your expressions—if you feel so strongly now, sir, when you are in the first flush of passion, how will you feel once that passion fades—once you have me as your own and my charms are no longer as fresh as they once were—and once the evils you fear come upon you because of me? I could not bear to be married to a man who resented and regretted me."

Darcy was absolutely confounded. She stood before him, trim and tense, her chin lifted proudly even while she flushed at her own admissions. He felt the rebuke of her words uncomfortably; not that she had rebuked him directly, but the very fact of how sensible a question it was appalled him. She turned to continue up the path, and he hurried to catch her. They paced in further silence for a time.

"Your question is a reasonable one," he said at last, "as much as it pains me to admit it. I am sorry that my words to you yesterday should have given rise to doubts concerning the permanence of my affections. I did not consider how they might be received. I hope you know, though, that my reservations all concerned your situation, not your character or person. If I thought you inferior, I would not have offered for you."

"I thank you, sir, but unfortunately I cannot be divorced from my situation."

"Of that I am all too aware. There are two things I would say in reply. First, you misspoke when you described me as in the first flush of passion. I believe I left that behind me some time ago. If I had acted then, you would have done well to caution me, but I was as doubtful as you as to whether my feelings would survive the dis-advantages of the match. It was my inability to relinquish any of the tender sentiments I held for you that eventually began to convince me of their permanence. When I found you here in Kent, I could not resist seeing you again to test whether I had simply embellished your charms in my mind, but I found quite the opposite. You held me more in your thrall than ever. I will admit that I avoided you then because I was not yet ready to confess myself lost. As I explained last night, it was after seeing you in my aunt's house that I decided I could no longer deny what I felt. What I have long felt, and continue to feel. I do not expect it to change over time."

They were walking down the path side by side now; he looked straight forward with an earnest expression, his hands clasped behind his back. He continued, "My second point is that you should be glad that I considered the evils of your situation so seriously. It would be naïve of me to suppose that no ill could result to me or my family from connecting them with yours." Lizzy winced. He saw and softened his tone. "I only wish to convey that I am prepared. I know what I have chosen. I do not think it possible that I could resent you for any consequence of our marriage because I have already taken into account every possible consequence. If I had fooled myself into thinking it would all be easy, then you would have cause for worry. But I have done nothing if not anticipate the difficulties and determine that you are worth enduring them."

Elizabeth didn't know whether to be infuriated or touched. "You honor me, Mr. Darcy," she said slowly, ironically, "but did you not yourself admit that you proposed out of passion, not reason? That your better judgment argued against it? I know people who married out of passion, and it was not enough to make them happy. And did you not once label your own disposition resentful?"

"Miss Bennet." He halted their progress again, taking her hand. "Do you really believe that I would be no than better that?" he demanded. "That I would place the blame for my error on you—if indeed error it proves? But I am not so inconstant as you think me. My affections are not so variable. You are the only woman I have ever loved and the only one I believe I ever shall." His gaze grew dark. "Why do you demand so much more from me than you are able yourself to give? I have said I am willing to accept you even without your love, but you would question my feelings repeatedly?"

He was looking his fiercest and proudest now, but Elizabeth refused to be cowed. "You sought me, sir!" she flashed at him. "I have told you that you may withdraw your offer at any time." He dropped her hand as if burned. "If we were to marry, I would be almost entirely in your power. That is the lot of women." She looked away. "To be controlled and subjected, to rely on their fathers or husbands for every comfort, every kindness, every freedom. I have every reason to question you."

"But I don't wish to control or subject you," he protested, rather forcibly. "Do you think I would wish for a woman who was easily subjugated—or that I would ever voluntarily do anything to damage that spirit in you that so attracts me? Upon my word, Elizabeth, if I disliked my wife I would still attempt to treat her kindly, and I tell you again that I love you!"

Despite herself, Elizabeth softened at his earnestness. "It is not your feelings that concern me. I do not worry if I have your love, but if I have your respect."

"Yes!" he said emphatically.

"Then we will leave the matter alone," she conceded, judging it best to depart the topic before passions rose higher. Already his eyes were gleaming with an uncomfortable light. "But I urge you to be sure this is really what you desire, for it seemed to me yesterday that you were not yet easy in your mind."

Darcy's only response was to frown at her and stalk away to a tree, where he leaned his shoulders on the trunk and crossed his arms. "You are obliged to be satisfied. I have given my word, and that must be enough. Now I have a question for you." He eyed her broodingly.

"Sir?"

"You have essentially told me this morning that you wish to marry for love, and also that you do not love me. Why then are you considering marrying me?"

She wondered if he wanted her to admit that she was motivated by mercenary concerns, and what it would mean to him if she did. "I'm not certain," she answered honestly. "If I had known you were to propose, I would have attempted to… oh, dissuade you, I suppose. But somehow when you spoke, I found myself unable to do it. Perhaps I am merely learning prudence," her mouth twisted in a half-smile, "or perhaps it is because you love me. A day ago I could not imagine having this conversation with you, Mr. Darcy." She raised her eyes. "You say you have loved me for months, but for me it is all very sudden." He did not know what to say to that. "Truly, I do not think I know or understand you at all."

"Do you doubt my character?" he asked. "You need not!"

It would have been the perfect opportunity to ask him about Wickham, but somehow Elizabeth could not bring herself to do it. Perhaps she did not feel prepared to hear his answer, whatever it might be. So she simply shook her head. "I must ask you another question."

He sighed. "Very well."

"If I marry you, what relationship will I have with my family?"

He frowned. "We will live primarily at Pemberley—I have long wished to spend more of my year there—but I would have no objections to your visiting Longbourn on occasion. I would never wish for you to do less than your duty to them." Or more, she silently added. Then he smiled unexpectedly. "Where money is not lacking, distance is no evil. Did you not say so yourself?"

"Oh!" Elizabeth's eyes widened as the memory of that particular conversation came back. "Did you—were you thinking of me, then?"

"Of course." He seemed surprised at the question.

She blushed. "I was not."

"No? Yet you blushed then, too."

"I did?" She was beginning to feel foolish.

"Indeed. We disagreed on the relative nearness of Kent to Hertfordshire, I questioned you about your own opinions, and you blushed and said that a woman could indeed be settled too close to her family. How was I to take so significant a consciousness?"

"I did not blush by design, sir," she protested. "Do you always have such an excellent memory for conversations, Mr. Darcy?"

"I remember every conversation we have ever had," he said deliberately.

Elizabeth's eyes widened again, but, in an attempt to cast off the heaviness of the morning's exchange, she lifted her chin, arched an eyebrow, and said playfully, "You had best be cautious in how you use my words against me, sir, for I, too, have an excellent memory and may return fire with some quotations of my own."

This return to her usual manner was, unknown to her, greeted by Darcy with considerable relief. He smiled and retorted, "I'm not afraid of you."

That made her laugh, a most welcome sound, and with an arch look she continued on her walk, forcing him once again to follow after her. Unwilling to let this lighter line of conversation go, he urged her on by saying, "I would like to hear which of my words you think to use against me."

"Oh, no, Mr. Darcy, I am determined to act in self-defense only."

"I do not believe you have any such ammunition. I cannot recall any comment I have made to you which I would now regret."

"Yet you recall some of mine which I may wish unsaid?"

"On the contrary, your speeches must be as charming the second time as they were the first. I have often had occasion to recall comments of yours, and always with pleasure. I seek to use your words only to benefit my cause, not to injure yours."

She looked at him in some surprise. "That was a very pretty speech, sir."

He raised his eyebrows. "Did you think me so incapable of making one, Miss Bennet?"

Yes. "I have never heard you do so before. In fact," she looked at him again rather pointedly, "I believe this is the most conversation I have ever exchanged with you on any subject."

He reddened slightly but pressed his point doggedly, thinking he saw an advantage in it. "You still have not answered my question."

"Which one?"

"What I might have said to you in the past that you think I would be ashamed of now."

He was hoping to show her that there had been no such speech, but she only smiled rather slyly and replied, "Very well, if you wish I will concede that there is no comment you have ever made to me which I would expect you to regret."

This speech seemed to be filled with subtle double meanings, and he frowned. "I do not take your point."

"Well, sir, to be quite truthful, there is only one quotation currently in my arsenal, and it was not strictly spoken to me."

"What is it?"

She shook her head mischievously, rather enjoying her ability to bait him. "I must reserve it for a special occasion in which I feel the need to gain advantage over you."

He stilled her with a hand on her wrist. "Does that mean you anticipate there being many occasions to come?" At her discomposed look he knew she had simply been carried away by her teasing and let her go. "I think you hold a very great advantage over me already, Miss Bennet. You shall not need your quote."

She eyed him thoughtfully. "Do you really wish to hear it?"

"By all means. I cannot imagine I said anything I cannot defend."

He spoke with such ineffable superiority that Elizabeth couldn't resist. Drawing a little nearer with the most openly flirtatious gesture she had ever made toward him, she looked upwards through her eyelashes and lowered her voice, murmuring, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me," then added, as his eyes widened, "and I am in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." Then with a last, laughing glance over her shoulder, for the third time that morning, she walked away from him.

Equal parts mortified by her words and electrified by her eyes, Darcy took longer than usual to hasten after her. He genuinely did not know what to say, especially as her reminder brought to mind other unflattering comments about her which he had early on made—none of which he would wish to come to Elizabeth's ears.

They walked a little further, until it became necessary to turn back. Elizabeth had seemed content to let him stew in his embarrassment. Catching her casting him an amused and rather mocking glance, he sighed. "I had nearly forgotten I said that," he confessed. "I am sorry you heard it."

"Only sorry I heard it?"

"I am sorry I said it," he amended. "It was a hasty and ill-judged remark."

"True. But you need not worry. I have no great opinion of my own beauty, so I did not suffer unduly over it."

"I have a great opinion of your beauty," he said in a low voice, looking determinedly ahead of him. "It has been many months now since I could look at you without admiration."

Such a confession could not but please its hearer, but Elizabeth decided it would be safer to return to more practical subjects. "I am afraid I must bring the conversation back to my family. I have, as you know, an uncle who resides in London. He is a merchant, and his house is in a rather unfashionable area of town. But he and his wife are truly excellent people, and I love them dearly. Not for the world would I wish to lose that connection."

He frowned. "I wish you would not persist in imagining that I wish for you to cut any of your connections. That would be both improper and wrong. The civilities should always be observed."

"But only the civilities, sir?" She questioned him. "Would I be allowed to suffer my relations, or be encouraged to embrace them?"

That question gave him pause. It was true that he had imagined she would withdraw from her circle into his, maintaining nominal contact with her two uncles, and seeing the family at Longbourn only as often as propriety required. But she had spoken of love for her aunt and uncle, and, loving her, he could not resist such an appeal. "You shall have my blessing to spend as much time with them as you deem necessary for your happiness," he said warmly. "Your common sense and good taste will provide all the regulation necessary." He was rewarded by a dazzling smile, which moved him to say further, "I intend that for all of your acquaintance. I would not restrict whom you visit. As my wife you will have the freedom to choose your friends."

This endorsement was more than Elizabeth had hoped for, especially after his comments of yesterday. He seemed truly determined to take on the trappings of her situation.

Seeing he had gained an advantage, Darcy chose to press it. "I could not be happy if you were unhappy, Miss Bennet. You must know that. I take great pleasure in caring for those I love."

"I am glad to hear it."

"You must also know that…" he knit his brows and looked down, then at her. "You will not have to worry about your mother and sisters when your father dies. I will ensure they are provided for."

"You are very generous, sir," she murmured. It was a question she had wished, but been hesitant, to ask.

"Whatever my past reservations may have been, once you are mine, you are mine, and I will protect you and defend you and provide for you the same as I would do for any woman who was my wife… and I will love you more." He stopped then, as did she, and stood looking down into her eyes with his own dark, searching, compelling ones. "I will give you everything, Elizabeth," he said softly. "My respect, my loyalty, my trust, my love…." He reached out a sudden finger and touched her cheek in a fleeting caress. "My love, Elizabeth," he repeated, "all the warmest and tenderest feelings I have. You will need fear nothing as my wife, neither poverty nor loneliness, dishonor nor disloyalty, unkindness, neglect… you will be the most cherished wife in all of England." She felt she was drowning under the intensity of his gaze and his soft, fervent words. "But," and now his look changed, became fiercer, more demanding, "in return I shall expect all you have to give. I can accept, though unhappily, that you cannot yet give me your heart, but you must be willing to give me everything else: your trust, your respect, your loyalty, your devotion, in its fullest measure. And what you can give of your heart you will give only to me. Do you understand?" She nodded, her eyes wide. Again his hand, resting ever so lightly under her chin. "If you marry me, I will not accept being second in your life to anyone but God. I want it all: your time, your attention," his touch changed subtly to a caress, "your favors." She blushed and dropped her eyes, but he refused to draw back. "I am not interested in a celibate marriage, Elizabeth—not with you, anyway. I am not offering an arrangement of convenience. You may not love me now, but if you are not willing to try to love me, or to be loved by me, then we may have nothing to do with each other." He paused and drew a deep, uneven breath. "Is that clear?" Again she nodded. "Good." He dropped her chin and stepped away. "Now we understand each other."

Indeed, thought Elizabeth rather faintly. Indeed, and what an understanding to have!

They were already heading back; the rest of the distance was traversed in silence, both walkers lost in thought. When they came to the lane that divided Rosings Park from the parsonage grounds, Mr. Darcy halted. "Did you have any other questions for me, Miss Bennet?"

"Not as of now."

"Do you then anticipate having more in the future?"

"Perhaps. How can I say? I have more than enough to consider as it is."

He rubbed his forehead. "I have been thinking about your desire for time. It seems to me that it might be best if I were to leave as scheduled tomorrow, so that you will have the next week to consider without disturbance. You are to depart Saturday next, are you not?"

"Yes. We will spend a week or so in London at my uncle's house before returning."

"How will you travel?"

"By post. My uncle is sending a servant to accompany us."

He frowned but only said, "If I call on you in London, that Monday, do you think you will have an answer for me?"

"I will try."

"Where does your uncle live?"

"In Gracechurch Street. His name is Gardiner."

"I will come to see you then. I hope—" he bit his lip and looked away, and then back again, "I pray that you will be able to answer me as I wish."

Elizabeth had no reply to that. Instead she said, "I am grateful for your patience, Mr. Darcy."

He gave her a twisted smile. "I do not have much choice, do I? If I am willing to brave indignant relatives to have you, I should certainly be willing to wait a few days." Seeing her look away, he touched her arm. "I commend you for your care. Not many women would behave so."

A tart answer was rising on her tongue; she thought it best to leave before she said something which could destroy their fragile understanding. "I must return to the parsonage now, Mr. Darcy, or my friend will begin to worry."

"Of course. The colonel and I will come by later, to make our formal goodbyes. But now—" he possessed himself of her hand and kissed it quickly. "Until next week, Miss Bennet."

She gave him a hasty curtsy. "Goodbye, Mr. Darcy." He watched her walk away until she disappeared from view through the parsonage gate.

True to his word, both of the gentlemen from Rosings made an appearance at the parsonage not too much later that morning. Mr. Darcy stayed only for a few minutes, and if there was any change in his demeanor, only Elizabeth was conscious of it. Colonel Fitzwilliam stayed much longer, obviously sorry to bid the pretty Miss Bennet goodbye. Elizabeth did her best by him, but all her thoughts were on his taciturn cousin. The colonel was forgotten almost before he shut the door behind him; she could think only of Mr. Darcy.