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The newly married gentleman was, in fact, thinking of his wife's fortune of 30,000 pounds...

His Brother's Keeper

PROLOGUE

Gretna Green, August 20

"Is this not romantic?" the handsome young man asked his demure bride as they approached the local vicar arm in arm. She nodded silently, suddenly too shy to speak. The vicar was pleased to have such a finely turned-out couple request his services.

A fee was quoted and discreetly paid. All seemed to be in order. A respectable-looking widow, a friend of the pair, was to serve as witness. True, the bride did look full young to be wed, but as she seemed to be genuinely enamoured of her groom, and as no one arrived to object, the vicar started the service without delay. This was, after all, Gretna Green, and one did not ask many questions of those desirous of marrying.

The service wore on, and the young people responded at the proper moments. The widow dabbed at her eyes, smiling benignly. Finally, the vicar proclaimed in his thick brogue, "I pronounce that they be Man and Wife together, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." The couple exchanged a chaste kiss. Then, thanking the clergyman and directing some murmured words of gratitude to their witness, they headed out the door.

The bride had eyes for no one but her handsome spouse, resplendent in his blue coat. He glanced at her fondly, and she turned away, blushing. The vicar, however, had he chosen that moment to look at the groom, might have thought something amiss, for the young man's expression seemed less one of affection than of triumph.

The newly married gentleman was, in fact, thinking of his wife's fortune of 30,000 pounds.

~ * ~

Derbyshire, September 8

It was a beautiful morning, and the prospect from the study was exquisite, but though he faced the window, Mr. Darcy saw none of it. He was listening to his solicitor, Mr. Jennings, and the news was not good. His countenance grim, Darcy asked, "Are you absolutely certain?"

"I am afraid it is all too clear, sir," Mr. Jennings said. "Shortly before his death, in his effort to provide for your sister in the event of your untimely demise, your esteemed father was persuaded by your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to think on the actions of her late husband Sir Lewis, and decline to entail the estate away from the female line. What this means to you, Mr. Darcy, is that should you die without an heir, your sister, and whatever heirs she may produce, will inherit all of Pemberley."

"Does she know?" Darcy asked slowly.

"It is unlikely, sir. Miss Darcy was but ten years old when your father passed. If he did not see fit to advise you, it would be highly doubtful that he would inform her."

"What of Lady Catherine? Is she aware of the situation?" Darcy sincerely hoped not. It would mean that the pressure she already exerted upon him to wed his cousin would increase a hundred-fold. And he found the thought of marrying pale, sickly Anne - and especially the thought of conceiving a child with her! - revolting.

Mr. Jennings frowned. "I do not know."

"But what is to be done? Surely there is something that I can do to ensure that the estate will not fall to my sister and her accursed husband."

"Is it not obvious, Mr. Darcy? 'Twould appear that you must marry posthaste, and, if you will forgive the indelicacy, endeavour to produce an heir without delay. So long as your heirs survive, Pemberley will remain in the Darcy name. If not..." Mr. Jennings could only shake his head.

"I assume I can rely on your discretion, Mr. Jennings?"

"You need not concern yourself, Mr. Darcy. In this matter, as in all things, you have my word as a gentleman that your circumstances will be made known to no one."

Darcy thanked the man, and with a bow, Mr. Jennings left the room. Alone now, Darcy sighed heavily. It is of my own doing, he thought gravely as he paced the study. I should have kept closer watch upon Georgiana, I should not have trusted Mrs. Younge... And now it is too late!. His face darkened. Brother to Wickham! That knave! So - he has finally succeeded in his object; he has Georgiana's 30,000 pounds, and he has his revenge upon me. Well, he will not cross the threshold of Pemberley while I still live. And I will do everything in my power to ensure that neither he nor his offspring will have it after I am dead.

Pausing to look at a miniature of his sister atop his desk, he sighed again. Dear Georgiana, you know not what you have done! His sister, so vulnerable, so naïve, could not begin to conceive of the life that lay ahead of her. Darcy had no illusions that her 30,000 pounds would be wisely invested or her marriage vows respected. Upon his desk sat the letter he had just penned to Georgiana, informing her that her new husband would never be welcome at Pemberley. It was the most difficult piece of correspondence he had ever composed. She would never understand his rejection of Wickham, he was certain, and Darcy anticipated being completely abandoned by his sister as a result. This knowledge made him wretched indeed.

Then there was the matter of his relations. There would be much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing at Rosings, to be sure! Even if unaware of the precarious status of Pemberley, Lady Catherine would still lambaste Darcy for the failure of his guardianship of his sister. Likewise, his uncle the Earl would no doubt be loudly rebuking his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam for his own lack of attention to his role as Georgiana's protector. But as Darcy saw it, the fault was entirely his own, and he fully expected soon to be the recipient of some highly unpleasant communications.

Darcy strode to face the window again, the melancholy that had plagued him since he was informed of his sister's marriage weighing even more heavily upon him. He considered his own sorry situation once again. So it had come to this: marriage, for purely practical reasons! In truth, he had always rejoiced that there had never been a necessity for him to marry. It assured him that he could afford to avoid the scheming mamas, the flirtatious young ladies, all the arts and artifices he so abhorred. But now there was no help for it. He must find a bride, and soon, lest some accident or illness prove to be the undoing of an estate that had endured for generations.

When first he had heard of his sister's disastrous elopement, his initial inclination had been to avoid all social engagements, knowing that the humiliation would follow him wherever he went. The lack of society would not be a great evil to him, he had reasoned, as he was not of a gregarious temperament and cared little for balls and assemblies. His true friends would stand by him regardless. The idea of retiring completely to Pemberley distressed him not one whit - he could easily wait a year or two, or more if necessary, until the scandal passed. Instead, he found himself forced into society in a most mortifying fashion.

And yet - where was he to go? There was no one in Town this time of year, and for that he was grateful; the very thought of the stares, the whispers - the outright cuts! - while his shame was still so fresh, was disgusting to him. He grimaced. Better to begin this unpleasant and unfamiliar endeavour in a less taxing environment. Perhaps he would take up his friend Bingley's invitation to accompany him to Hertfordshire.

Darcy had no illusions that he would find a worthy bride in the country. Was it even worth the trouble? He considered for a moment. Yes, it was as good a place as any to establish how far afield the gossip had traveled, and whether it would adversely affect the willingness of potential brides...and their families. Additionally, he would be able to determine precisely what he was willing to tolerate in a female, while he waited to return to London to choose the woman who would become Mistress of Pemberley. And if indeed the scandal had reached beyond his own circle, and if it did in fact taint him, reducing his alternatives, then he must marry where he could, and hope to find a sensible and agreeable young woman of class and an even temper.

There was, he reflected with reluctance, always Miss Bingley. She was stylish, wealthy in her own right, not unhandsome, and had seemed inclined toward him in the past. Perhaps too much! But, she did have a cutting wit, and Darcy had passed enough time with her to know that her nature tended toward the shrewish. She was not particularly clever, either, and did not feel the necessity of exerting herself to improve her mind. Although he knew her to be willing enough, Darcy doubted that he cared to spend the rest of his life with such a woman. Still, he must not be hasty; that possibility must be considered.

He turned his thoughts back to Hertfordshire. It was bound to be a great bore - for what interest could country society hold for him? - but entertainment was far from his mind at this time. Perhaps the shooting would at least provide a sufficient distraction from his misery. No one would know of his urgent need to marry, not even Bingley. He would say only that he needed a change of scenery after the shock of Georgiana's elopement.

He was decided, then; he would write to Bingley straightaway, and plan his departure at his friend's pleasure.

Chapter 1

Hertfordshire, October 16

The assembly at Meryton was well attended, for the entire neighbourhood was a-buzz in expectation of the addition of newcomers who had lately settled at long-vacant Netherfield Park: a Mr. Bingley, and his party from London. They were bound to be elegant of manner and dressed in the latest fashions. Chief among their considerable attributes, however, at least in the eyes of Mrs. Bennet, was that at least one of them was an unmarried male with a substantial income. She was determined that he make the acquaintance of her five daughters and, if all went according to plan, marry one of them. As for whatever ladies might be in the group, she cared not a jot, so long as none of them eclipsed the beauty of her eldest, Jane.

When Mr. Bingley and his party finally arrived, the room went quiet with admiration. Indeed, the gentleman and his relations were quite richly attired and had much of an air of superior breeding about them. Even more interesting, to Mrs. Bennet and all the other matrons who had available daughters, there was another single gentleman with Mr. Bingley, and they soon discovered to their delight that this tall and handsome personage, a Mr. Darcy, possessed not only a vast estate in Derbyshire, but also ten thousand a year.

The newcomers made their rounds of the room, and to Mrs. Bennet's everlasting joy, Mr. Bingley immediately asked for Jane's hand for the next two dances. That fine gentleman soon earned the admiration of the entire company for his agreeable manners and his willingness to dance every set. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, seemed out of spirits, distracted, and almost embarrassed to be in company. He spoke little to anyone, and, most disappointing of all, he danced only with Mr. Bingley's two sisters, and in such a desultory and careless manner that he did not earn himself praise for being at the very least a talented dance partner. Moreover, his constant scowl dissuaded even the most stout-hearted of gentlemen who might have otherwise approached to engage him in conversation. The neighbourhood in general, misapprehending the reason for his behaviour, judged him to be proud, and above his company, and they thought on him with distaste thereafter.

In times past the good people of Meryton might have been lamentably correct in their assessment of Mr. Darcy, who did not as a rule associate with minor landholders and tradesmen. The source of Mr. Darcy's aloofness on this particular occasion, however, was in fact an unease he felt almost always when surrounded by strangers, compounded by the expectation of his dancing, a pastime which he did not enjoy in the best of circumstances. Even this he might have tolerated, though, had his mood not been so darkened with gloomy thoughts of his sister's recent marriage, and his own currently dismal state of affairs. Had he himself not been the individual involved, Mr. Darcy might have even appreciated the irony of the situation: that the collective disapprobation he had dreaded upon leaving the safety of Pemberley for Hertfordshire had indeed come to fruition, but rather than being born of gossip and scandal, it had been entirely of his own creation. Of this, alas, he was as yet unaware.

Mr. Bingley, seeing that his friend's reception into Hertfordshire society was not progressing well, paused long enough in his admiration of Miss Bennet to press Mr. Darcy to be more sociable.

"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."

"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty."

"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."

"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."

Requiring no further encouragement, Mr. Bingley departed to seek out Miss Bennet. Darcy, left to himself, immediately regretted his remarks. After all, had not his particular object in coming to Hertfordshire been to go out more in company, to become more at ease addressing marriageable young ladies? Yet here, among people who had apparently either heard none of the gossip or had not allowed it to influence them, he had at the first opportunity withdrawn into taciturnity. Blast! This was a poor beginning indeed.

Furthermore, upon closer examination he saw that the young lady in question was a great deal more attractive than he had first surmised. Her figure was light and pleasing - made more so, he noted appreciatively, by some singularly enticing curves - and her eyes, which were uncommonly fine, seemed to be alight with intelligence. She certainly seemed of a lively disposition, and perhaps could have been someone with whom he would have enjoyed conversing, had he been in better spirits. But Darcy realized that it was, at least for now, not to be; he suspected with horror that she had heard his unseemly remark to his friend, for after Bingley's departure she rose at once to approach Miss Charlotte Lucas with an amused smile gracing her countenance. Although he was loath to acknowledge himself the object of her amusement, he had to admit that her merriment gave her eyes a most alluring sparkle. Yes, he was quite captivated with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

Darcy did not dance the remainder of the evening, despite Miss Bingley's best efforts. He did not know whether to be relieved or chagrined that the recent stain upon his name apparently had not ended that lady's eager pursuit of his estate and wealth, but merely dampened it. He could not guess whether she sought to claim his attention this evening because she was still hopeful of becoming his wife, or merely because she felt the rest of the gentlemen in the room beneath her notice. Nevertheless, he politely insisted on his independence, and after a time, she grew weary of her efforts to engage him and made herself available to other partners.

Finally free of Miss Bingley, Darcy circled the room, his eyes keen upon Miss Elizabeth. He observed that she was a charming dancer, appeared to have many friends, and left men of all ages smiling in her wake. Since Georgiana's elopement, nothing had served to lift his spirits the way Miss Elizabeth's easy manner and joie de vivre had in so short a time, and, chastising himself for his hasty dismissal of her, he vowed that he would ask for an introduction at the next social engagement and endeavour to become acquainted with her.

As it happened, Darcy did not have to wait for another occasion, as his interest in Miss Bennet had not gone unnoticed by Sir William Lucas. Whether from an overflow of good will or simply from a lack of good sense, that worthy gentleman did not shy away from the formidable Mr. Darcy, but, as the evening waned, he approached with a smile.

"Well, then, Mr. Darcy, I see that one of our local treasures has caught your eye."

"I do not know what you mean, sir," Darcy said without expression.

"Why, Miss Elizabeth Bennet," Sir William continued fearlessly. "She is indeed a delightful young lady. Ah, look, she is headed this way; come, I will introduce you at once."

"I assure you, sir, that will not be necessary..."

"Nonsense, Mr. Darcy. It is no bother at all. Dear Miss Elizabeth...!"

Attracting Elizabeth's attention, Sir William encouraged her to join him, and she could not refuse, though she was little inclined to meet the gentleman who had insulted her so bluntly just hours before. As for Darcy, he was mortified, and endeavoured at once to compose himself.

"Mr. Darcy, may I present to you Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire." Darcy bowed, Elizabeth curtsied, and the two of them stared uncomfortably at each other, quite at a loss for anything at all to say.

"Capital! Capital!" Having in his mind accomplished his mission, Sir William bowed and ebulliently went off in search of his wife.

And still Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth stood, each hoping the other might speak first. Those eyes! thought Darcy, quite overcome. He coloured, and cleared his throat. Mistaking the reason for his discomfiture, Elizabeth smiled slightly.

"Do forgive Sir William, Mr. Darcy" said she. "He means no impertinence. I believe he only sought to make you more comfortable amongst strangers, not to force upon you an acquaintance you might find less than agreeable."

At this Darcy started. Here indeed was confirmation that she had overheard his remark to Bingley! He must make amends immediately.

"Miss Bennet," he said, very seriously, "allow me to assure you that I can think of nothing more agreeable at this moment than making your acquaintance."

He had hoped to be rewarded with a pretty blush, but instead, she retorted with an arch look, "True, at an assembly such as this, there can be little enough to entertain, and as a result one may occasionally find oneself obliged to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men."

Her gaze challenged him, and Darcy drew breath to contradict her. But at that very moment Mrs. Bennet beckoned to Elizabeth, and with a curtsey, she excused herself to join her family as they prepared to go home. For the second time that evening, he was left standing alone, feeling like a great fool, and what little improvement his mood had enjoyed vanished along with the beguiling Miss Elizabeth.

Darcy had little time to consider what had just transpired, however, as Mr. Bingley soon approached; clearly, with Miss Bennet leaving, there was nothing to tempt his friend to stay a moment longer. As for Miss Bingley and the Hursts, they had been ready to leave since the moment of their arrival.

There was no shortage of conversation on the brief ride back to Netherfield, but Darcy was too cross to participate, though in the past he might have been willing enough to join Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst in their scorn over the lack of taste and sophistication of the locals. He said nothing at all in the carriage and excused himself immediately upon their return to the house.

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley was in fact so completely vexed by the behaviour of Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn that he swore to think no more on her, and as a consequence could think of nothing else for the remainder of an exceedingly long and sleepless night.

Chapter 2

The following day Mr. Darcy quitted his room at his accustomed early hour - his chambers holding no comfort for him despite his exhaustion - and breakfasted alone, his hosts still abed. He ordered his horse saddled and a short time later rode out to enjoy the brisk autumn day.

What could it matter if a simple Hertfordshire miss does not hold me in high esteem? This thought, like its many kinfolk the night before, came unbidden and unwelcome. As his horse carried him aimlessly across an open field, Darcy mused, Perhaps she has good reason - I was not particularly amiable last night, and refused to stand up with her. I said things I ought not... He grimaced and urged his horse to a faster pace. What nonsense; he would not brood over Miss Elizabeth! Indeed, he was determined to use the early morning air to clear his head of that particular young lady before he returned to Netherfield for another tedious day of forced sociability.

He might have succeeded, had not the fates had a different plan for Mr. Darcy, for after about a half-hour of riding he espied a solitary figure walking past a grove of trees. As he approached, he discerned the figure to be that one of a young woman, and upon closer examination he was astonished to find that she was in fact the self-same lady whose image this ride had been intended to purge. Darcy meant to turn back at once, feeling all the impropriety of furtively observing the actions of a young lady who thought herself quite alone, but he simply could not. Instead he halted his mount and watched from some distance behind her as Miss Elizabeth pursued a thoughtful path through the leaves.

As he watched, she stopped, unpinned her hair, and shook her shining russet curls to flow intimately about her shoulders, running her fingers through the locks until they were completely untamed. Darcy felt his throat close and his mouth go dry; was this not how she would look in the privacy of her bedchamber? Then, unexpectedly, Elizabeth grabbed her skirts and made a dash through a heap of leaves, laughing gaily. She kicked about in the leaves like a child, the colours swirling about her, and he thought longingly, What I would not give to be so light-hearted! To recall a day before life had so over-burdened me! He imagined joining her in her play, laughing with her as he joyfully swung her about in his arms amidst the fallen leaves.

Before long, however, his imagination turned, and darkened, and he was claiming Elizabeth's lips with a hunger he had not known he possessed, lowering her down upon the soft ground - her glorious hair tangled with the musky leaves - raising the hem of her skirt with a hand that caressed the length of a shapely calf...and knee...and thigh, insinuating himself between her legs...

Good Lord! Whatever am I thinking?! Recollecting himself, Darcy found that he was damp with perspiration and breathing as if he had been at fencing for an hour, his heart pounding riotously. As he struggled to compose himself, to his great misfortune, Elizabeth chose that moment to turn his way, and, mortified, brought her hands to her flushed face. His face equally crimson, Darcy just managed to touch the brim of his hat in acknowledgment. She turned away and hurriedly pinned up her hair, while he took the opportunity to turn his horse and urge it in the opposite direction.

Once out of her sight, he galloped blindly away from the grove, cursing himself for having remained to watch her in spite of his better judgment. Fool! How much lower will you sink in her estimation now! he thought bitterly, utterly forgetting that he had sworn not to allow her to hold sway over his feelings. He desperately wished to return to the dull security of Netherfield, but was in dire need of cooling his heated blood, and as a result stayed afield much longer than he had intended this morning, traveling as far as he could without losing his way. He had not in his adult life had such inappropriate thoughts about a proper lady, much less one with whom he was barely acquainted, and he was greatly disconcerted. It would be a while before he could present himself with a suitable degree of equanimity amongst his friends.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, had gone directly home to Longbourn, with no cordial feelings toward Mr. Darcy, who, she felt, had behaved yet again in a most ungentlemanlike manner. What does he mean, spying upon me in that way? Horrible man! Briefly she considered in what contempt he must now hold her, acting the hoyden, her hair down about her most unbecomingly...and her ankles revealed! She blushed again, violently. She comforted herself, however, by recalling that she never sought his good opinion, and that the disdain of such a proud and unpleasant fellow could mean nothing to her. Permitting herself to laugh at the memory of his discomfited look, Elizabeth decided that she would not allow the encounter to ruin her enjoyment of an otherwise lovely day.

When he finally did return to Netherfield, Mr. Darcy was relieved to discover that the Bingleys and Hursts were just then breakfasting, and he was able to excuse himself without much conversation. His man was accustomed to the master requiring a bath after a ride, and though Darcy requested to be left to himself to bathe, the servant could perceive nothing amiss.

By the time Mr. Darcy had bathed and dressed - and collected himself to his satisfaction, the post had arrived. As he descended the stairs, Miss Bingley glided over to him and, in an intimate manner which Darcy found most objectionable, she took his arm and said, "There you are, sir! We had quite despaired of your company this morning!" She indicated the salver. "There are two letters come for you today, Mr. Darcy; one appears to be from our dear Georgiana. The other is quite a mystery to us, for the writing is very untidy and ungentlemanly; indeed, I believe it is a good deal worse than Charles's. Why, look! Netherfield Park is misspelled!"

As he picked up Georgiana's letter from the salver, Darcy struggled to maintain his equanimity for the second time already that morning. A brief glimpse told him that the other letter was from his man in ______shire, a discreet and loyal relation of one of Pemberley's most devoted servants, to whom he had given the office of keeping watch on the newlyweds.

"Oh, do not keep us in suspense, Mr. Darcy!" Miss Bingley said with an ingratiating smile and an overly cheerful demeanour, claiming the missive a bare moment before he could grasp it. "What manner of mean laborer would dare to write to the great Mr. Darcy of Derbyshire?"

The nerve of this woman, questioning me about my correspondence! Does she think herself already my wife? Mr. Darcy, who valued his privacy above all else, was quite cross, but he did not wish to engage in an argument with his hostess, and aloud he said, "You can imagine, Miss Bingley, that much transpires at Pemberley which requires my attention, and not all of it originates from my steward or my solicitor." Taking the letter abruptly from her hand, he added, "Now if you will excuse me, I must attend to this correspondence immediately."

"But Mr. Darcy!" Miss Bingley objected with a pout. "You have only just now joined us. Can not your letters wait until we have passed some agreeable time together? Why, you have been most neglectful of Charles. "

Glancing at Mr. Bingley, who merely smiled indulgently and inclined his head, Darcy responded, "I do not wish to disappoint you, Miss Bingley, but I am afraid it cannot wait. Pray, you will excuse me." And with a bow, he left the room.

"Really, Caroline," said Bingley, "you should be more understanding of poor Darcy. You know how he frets about Georgiana, especially of late."

"Charles, he has been the most inconsiderate guest! Moping about all the time, barely speaking unless addressed... Why, this morning he must have left Netherfield at dawn to ride, and could not even be troubled to join us for breakfast!"

"I agree, he has been in ill spirits lately, but..."

"Do you know that he danced but four dances last evening? Four! Heaven knows I tried to persuade him to be more affable..."

"As did I."

"...but he would hear none of it! And are you aware of what those miserable wretches in Meryton are saying of him? That is he is the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and that they hope he does not visit again. Can you imagine? Our Mr. Darcy, disagreeable?"

Mr. Bingley frowned. He knew that Darcy's behaviour did not sit well with the local populace, but he could not explain away his friend's sour disposition without touching on a matter of a very personal nature. Thus he had told whoever had enquired that Mr. Darcy had lately suffered a grievous loss in his family, hoping he would then be excused for his lack of cheer, but it was not sufficient to turn the tide of sentiment which had formed against him. Not for the first time, Bingley worried for his friend.

Alone in the library, Darcy sat pensively and gazed at the two letters on the table before him. They would, no doubt, be merely two different sides of the same dreadful story. He anticipated each with an equal amount of trepidation, and spent several minutes deciding which to open first. Well, there was no help for it. He sighed, and reached for one, hoping for the best, but preparing himself for the worst.

Chapter 3

Darcy broke the seal on Georgiana's letter and gave it a fleeting look. His relief was great. It was long enough not to be a single-line condemnation of him for rejecting her spouse. Further, there were no tear stains, no angry blotches; he knew enough of his sister's correspondence to be aware of its tendency to report its writer's mood in its very appearance. This letter contained only his sister's customarily careful, even script, and for that small reprieve alone he was immensely grateful.

Dear Fitzwilliam,

I do hope you will forgive me, brother, for the lengthy delay in responding to your letter of September 8th. We were long in search of appropriate living quarters, and just before Michaelmas we took possession of our estate, Alston Hall, whence comes this letter.

It wounds me deeply, Fitzwilliam, that you will not consider welcoming George back to Pemberley. He confesses himself cut to the quick, poor soul. Could you be so hurt that he has taken your "baby" sister from you? Does it pain you so to think of me of a woman full grown? I can think of no other reason for your cutting George - my husband! - so completely. And you and he were such cherished friends in childhood! It is not too late, my dear. I know George will forgive the slight; he is so good. And it is his fondest wish that you will someday call him "brother."

"Not in this lifetime!" Darcy declared hotly to the empty library.

Please reconsider, dearest. It would mean so much to me.

I know you are concerned for my welfare, but, pray, do not fret. I have an excellent staff here at Alston, and George is very solicitous of my well-being and frequently asks after my health. Dare I say it? - I do believe that he is most desirous of beginning a family of our own!

"Of course he is, that knave," said Darcy with disgust. He chose not to dwell on the particular behaviour required to bring that about. Then he stopped, for all at once he felt as if he had been dealt a blow. Surely....surely Wickham could not know of the provision for Georgiana in the will! Darcy scoured his memory for times when his father might have met with Wickham toward the end of his life. Did they perhaps speak of the elder Darcy's concern for his daughter? Could he have been so ill that he had revealed something he ought not? Would he have given information to his godson that he had denied to his own blood? No, no, that is impossible! It must simply be that Wickham is now anxious to seal his possession of Georgiana's fortune with an heir. Perhaps that goal would keep him faithful, at least for the time being. Still, to Darcy this was a potent reminder of the threat which hung over him like the Sword of Damocles. For the sake of Pemberley, he must not forget that his chief occupation must be to find a wife.

He laid the letter upon the table and rested his head back against his chair. A wife. Over a month had passed since he had been told he must marry, and could he even now begin to consider what kind of woman would meet his requirements? What exactly did he require? Accomplishment, refinement, connections...? He could have all these at once by choosing Miss Bingley. It would be so simple to yield now, it would solve so many problems; she desired the union, and Charles would be a fine brother-in-law.

And yet...

Darcy longed for something more. Companionship, conversation...passion. An image flickered in his mind, of unbound auburn hair and fiery, intelligent eyes. He irritably pushed it aside and took up Georgiana's letter once again.

Alston Hall is a good-sized estate, much smaller than Pemberley, of course, but it will make a fine home. I must say that being the mistress of a great house is a daunting task. There are so many issues that claim my attention: dinner menus to plan, petty squabbles among the servants to resolve, rooms to furnish. I confess myself quite overwhelmed! These are tasks with which I had never been burdened at Pemberley. It has quite increased my admiration for Mrs. Reynolds and the skill with which she runs the household.

I do not see as much of George perhaps as I would wish - he passes much of his day away from the house. But, after all, I am constantly engaged with affairs of the home, and I suppose that a gentleman must have his entertainments, such as riding and fencing and the like.

Entertainments? Darcy was troubled. Georgiana could have no idea of what entertainments George Wickham was fond. He hoped fervently for her sake that Wickham was curtailing his usual "entertainments" while still a newlywed. Perhaps the other letter received today would shed more light.

And how do you enjoy the countryside of Hertfordshire? Do you find the company pleasing? I must confess that I could not pass any length of time in the company of Miss Bingley, but perhaps you find her more agreeable than I do. Please do send my regards to Miss Bingley, Mr. Bingley, and the Hursts.

Perchance you will be surprised to know that I miss you terribly, even though we have not passed much time together in the last year, and I now have a home of my own. Surely you are aware that you have always been foremost in my heart. Of course George has supplanted you in that position, but you must know how very greatly I love you!

Precious Georgiana! His heart broke with her words. Indeed, dear sister, we have not passed much time together, and it is this very lack of my oversight that allowed this fate to befall you! It was some time before he could ease the ache in his chest and compose himself sufficiently to proceed.

I close now, beloved brother, with the hopes that you are well, and happy, and that you will always think fondly of me - though I be a married woman now! I remain,

Your loving sister, Georgiana Wickham

While he flinched at the signature, and his heart was still heavy, Darcy had to admit to himself that the current situation appeared far better than he had any cause to expect. Nevertheless, a leopard could not change its spots, and there was no mistaking Wickham's intentions. Georgiana imagined herself too much in love to see the marriage for what it was, and though Darcy was grateful she did not yet feel used in any way, it could not be long before Wickham showed himself for the mercenary cad he truly was. Darcy's only hope was that he could avert a conclusion in which his sister was hurt in any manner, or her fortune completely squandered. How he was to bring this about, he knew not.

With resignation but somewhat less unease than before, Darcy reached for the second letter and broke the seal. The writing was unschooled and inelegant, the spelling appalling. Yet the intelligence contained therein was of the utmost importance, and he read the note with care.

Mr. Stanton, Darcy's emissary, wrote that Wickham had made the acquaintance of Lord M_____, a notorious rake and gamester, and as Darcy had suspected, his brother-in-law had been spending the time Georgiana thought him in wholesome pursuits at the gaming tables with his Lordship. Much money had also been expended on lavish dining and luxurious attire. But Wickham's luck at the tables ebbed and flowed, and Mr. Stanton estimated that, in that regard at least, his fortune was running about even. He was, however, beginning to grow concerned that Wickham displayed little interest in the running of the estate, preferring to defer to the steward who had served the previous family.

Having developed a friendly relationship with his Lordship's footman (indeed, it was astounding what a few pints of ale could buy), Stanton pledged that he would keep his eye close upon Wickham and notify his master by express if the man's spending became excessive...or if other, even more unsavory, activities were introduced.

Satisfied that his sister was in no immediate danger, Darcy folded the letters and put them into his waistcoat pocket. He could think of nothing more to do for her at this moment. So much of his energy lately was consumed with attempting to find solutions to this dilemma; he felt drained. And it was not yet noon! There was still a full day ahead of him before he could seek the solitude of his chambers, and he must endeavour to be better company, at least for Bingley's sake.

Upon emerging from the library, Mr. Darcy was informed that Mr. Bingley had gone out, and Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were entertaining visitors: the ladies of Longbourn. Counting himself fortunate to have avoided meeting with Miss Elizabeth so soon after their unexpected early morning encounter, Darcy decided that it would be best to absent himself from the vicinity of the ladies altogether, and take the opportunity to prepare his weapon for the morrow's pheasant hunting.

Once the guests were safely gone, Darcy joined his hostesses in the drawing room, where - without providing much in the way of details - he assured them that all was well with Georgiana, and joined them in small talk about the neighbourhood. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were expounding on the deficiencies of the community, most especially the vulgarities of the Bennet family. But they pronounced Miss Bennet a sweet girl on her own merits, and stated their intention of inviting her to dine with them the following day, when Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy were to dine out with the officers of the local militia.

Giving no indication that his attention had been piqued by the mention of the Bennets, Darcy was nevertheless relieved that the second eldest was not to be invited, and he would not have to be in company with Miss Elizabeth for the foreseeable future. Their unfortunate meeting earlier had reminded him of how awkward he felt in her presence. Though he hardly knew her, she attracted him more than he liked, and had a most peculiar effect upon him, which went much against his usually unruffled demeanour.

Alas, his respite was short-lived, for Miss Bingley announced that that very evening they were invited to Lucas Lodge, where the residents of Netherfield would find themselves once again thrown in with their ridiculous neighbours. Mr. Darcy vowed to be impassive in the face of yet another encounter with Miss Elizabeth but wondered if that, too, was to be an expenditure of his efforts that would come to naught.

Chapter 4

The gathering at Lucas Lodge was, in Mr. Darcy's mind, a necessary evil. He was far too weary and anxious this evening to make an amiable companion, yet felt he could not once again insult Bingley's hospitality by begging to be excused. It seemed to him that few enough people were interested in greeting him, and while it did not concern him much, it did puzzle him exceedingly; he knew not that he had already made himself unpleasant in the eyes of the neighbourhood.

He found a corner in which he thought he might not be disturbed, and stood in what he hoped would appear an indifferent, yet - in deference to his friend - not unfriendly, posture. Ere long, however, the sound of Miss Bingley playing a sonata upon the pianoforte softened, the conversation around him became a dull hum, and his eyes began to droop. Finally, he could restrain himself no longer. He yawned. His long fingers covering his mouth afforded him a measure of dignity, but not enough.

"Is Hertfordshire society truly so tiresome to you, Mr. Darcy?" a sweet voice enquired.

Darcy's eyes flew open, and before him stood Miss Elizabeth Bennet, an impish smile upon her rosy lips. Once again she has me at a disadvantage, and with so little effort! His dismay was great, but, he hoped, not evident.

"I sincerely beg your pardon, Miss Bennet," he said, suddenly feeling much more alert; perhaps it was the effect of the blood that had abruptly begun surging through his veins. "It is certainly not the company which thus affects me. 'Twould appear that I had too little rest the night prior."

"Truly? Then perchance you would be better served by rising somewhat later in the day, Mr. Darcy, for not everyone is entirely at their best at a very early hour. I find, in fact, that when deprived of their rest, some persons upon occasion do things which they later have cause to regret. Do you not agree?"

At this pointed reference to his spying upon her, Darcy - not in the most agile mental state - was at a loss to produce an appropriate response. He struggled between amusement and vexation, between desiring to earn Miss Elizabeth's good favour and wanting to shake himself free of the spell this country lass had cast upon him. Inevitably, his pride intervened, and vexation won out.

"Indeed, Miss Bennet. Undoubtedly the behaviour of many individuals is questionable at an early hour. Why, I have even known some young ladies to display a most shocking lack of propriety under such circumstances, but as a gentleman I would never mention specifics."

This time he was successful in making her blush, and he thought the colour became her rather well, but instead of turning angry and flouncing away in an ostentatious show of offense, as many ladies in his social circle would, she simply tilted her head to the side and smiled puckishly. His reserve and irritation melted away, and his muddled mind sought to find a way to undo the additional damage he had just inflicted. But Elizabeth, encumbered by neither a dearth of sleep nor a surfeit of desire, had the presence of mind that Darcy lacked, and thus the advantage.

"Why, you are quite right, Mr. Darcy. It would do me well in the future to remember that you are above such things."

When she curtseyed and moved away to seek out Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth had all the satisfaction of knowing her initial assessment had been correct: that Mr. Darcy was an unpleasant, proud sort of fellow that she need not bother making an effort to please. Darcy was less satisfied with his own performance and railed against the tangled thoughts that had caused him once again to lose to Miss Elizabeth in a battle of wits.

Deciding that this defeat was evidence enough that he had best stay out of harm's way, Darcy found a chair in a far corner that seemed to be bypassed by the other guests. He gratefully sank down, crossed his legs and folded his arms across his chest. Thus seated, he finally permitted himself some ease, and after a time his eyes grew heavy once more. Someone else was playing the pianoforte now, and a lady was singing. She had an appealing voice. Darcy sighed. He was content; he was tranquil...

He was in the music room at Pemberley, and he could not have been happier. His lovely wife was singing an aria, accompanying herself upon the pianoforte he had purchased as a gift for her birthday. Her performance was by no means capital; it lacked the technical expertise that made Georgiana's presentation so exceptional. Yet her voice was a delight, full of genuine sentiment and lilting with joy, and to listen as she sang was one of his greatest pleasures. (To watch her exquisite bosom, so generously displayed in her new gown, as it rose and fell in song was another!) This was his favourite kind of evening, spent alone in the company of his beloved, just the two of them sequestered away from the cold Derbyshire night. As he looked at her, she smiled coyly at him, her eyes twinkling, and he smiled broadly back. That, my dearest, was an unmistakable invitation! He was already overcome with hunger for her. He would allow her to finish her piece - just that one - and then he would sweep her up and, to the silent amusement of the servants, carry her to his bedchamber. Yes, this was his favourite kind of evening, indeed!

The crowd applauded, and Darcy's reverie was broken. He opened his eyes, disoriented. There was his wife, still seated modestly at the pianoforte, but who were all these people? What were they doing at Pemberley? Suddenly Darcy came to full consciousness, and his mortification was great. For it was Miss Elizabeth Bennet seated at the pianoforte; it was her performance which had so entranced him! He looked around furtively and was relieved that no one had appeared to notice either his nodding off or his subsequent bewilderment. Darcy was appalled. Elizabeth Bennet, his wife! What a thought! If this be your wife, sir, Darcy thought to himself with mounting discomfort, then that lady there, Mrs. Bennet, the one laughing aloud with her mouth full of cream tart, is your dear mother-in-law. And those two impertinent young ladies, Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia, the ones who shriek and chase the lieutenants, are your cherished sisters-in-law. Bah! To think that the great Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley would have a poor Hertfordshire girl - a girl with no connections, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath his own - as wife! I have not yet grown so desperate!

But the seed had been thus formed. And although this particular seed was at this time no more than an irritant, in the manner of a thistle burr clinging to the leg of one's breeches, it awaited only the proper conditions and fertile soil in which to grow.

Rising from the seat that had unexpectedly lost all its comfort, Darcy began to pace the room in an agitated manner. He looked about for something else to distract him. Thus he noticed, for the first time, the attentions Mr. Bingley was paying to the eldest Miss Bennet. Darcy was not well pleased with what he saw, for while Bingley approached every interaction with the open enthusiasm of a child, Miss Bennet appeared sedate. Smiling, yes, but unmoved. Mr. Darcy feared that his friend was well on his way to becoming the victim of an unequal affection, an unrequited love, and consequently a broken heart. Further, as his own recent observations had advised him, the lady's relations were relentlessly vulgar, and it would be an unfortunate match for someone whose family had so lately risen in stature. He must speak to Bingley about the situation before the man had time to develop a serious attachment.

What more could he do to occupy his mind? Everywhere he turned this evening, there was a source of uneasiness. Darcy desperately wished that he could leave the gathering. He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and determined that there was yet another half-hour until he could properly make his apologies and take his leave. He sighed, which did not go unnoticed.

"It is quite dull here, is it not, Mr. Darcy?" queried Miss Bingley. "Faith, I could not find a single individual at this dreadful gathering with whom I would care to converse." She paused, and smiled at him in what he supposed was meant to be an encouraging manner. "Other than yourself, of course."

"Of course," muttered Mr. Darcy, wondering how the evening could possibly get any worse.

"Oh! Will you not look at Miss Eliza Bennet? How very undignified of her to be seated upon the floor! Whatever was she thinking?"

Darcy turned to observe Elizabeth. Indeed, she was seated upon the floor, but it was in the entertainment of a very young neighbor who had just been trod upon and was quite near tears. Privately, Darcy thought it charming, but to Miss Bingley he said nothing. Instead, he permitted her to fill his ears with cruel nonsense about Miss Elizabeth, her family, and the neighbourhood in general. It was unpleasant, but at least it was safe, and in this manner Mr. Darcy passed the rest of a truly painful evening.

The following morning, Darcy wisely allowed his exhaustion to dictate the hour at which he rose, which was much later than was generally his habit, and joined his friends for breakfast in a mood that was much improved. The day then passed most pleasurably, in his opinion, for he was in the company of gentlemen only, first shooting with Mr. Bingley and Mr. Hurst, and then dining with the colonel of the militia and his officers.

It was only when they returned to Netherfield that the gentlemen received some shocking news: that Miss Bennet had taken ill while dining with the ladies. She had apparently been afflicted with terrible cold and sore throat which arose from riding to Netherfield in that afternoon's rather frightful weather, and was even now established in one of the guest bedrooms. Mr. Bingley was most distressed, and passed the remainder of the evening giving orders to the servants to ensure her every comfort. Mr. Darcy was distressed as well, but for different reasons. He was most concerned about the effect upon his friend having the object of his attentions under the same roof for an extended period of time. He was also, however, much worried about the possibility that the young lady might be visited on the morrow by one or more of her kin. He judged that it would most likely be Mrs. Bennet, who, he felt, would not fail to pass up an opportunity to scrutinize the living quarters of a potential son-in-law. This distasteful conjecture left him completely unprepared for the vision that stood at the breakfast-parlour door the next day.

Chapter 5

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," the butler announced, and Elizabeth walked into the room, to the shock of all and the dismay of some. They soon established that she had, in fact, come on foot to see her sister, crossing field after field, jumping over stiles and - not entirely successfully - springing over puddles.

That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness.

To Darcy, Miss Elizabeth was, against his will, an object of great interest, and while she was occupied by speaking to his hosts, he allowed his eyes to linger on her much longer than was proper. She had arrived at Netherfield most disheveled. Her hair refused to stay within the confines of its pins, her face was flushed a most flattering shade of pink, her eyes were brilliant, and the whole of her was glowing with a healthy sheen from her exertion, causing her dress to cling to her most becomingly. Her skirt, it was also true, was mud-spattered from the walk. But the entire picture of her, instead of being repulsive to him for its untidiness and lack of decorum, was irresistible. Miss Elizabeth looked, he thought with growing warmth, as if she were just now recovering from a particularly energetic and satisfying amorous encounter. With him. It perfectly completed the fancy of her that had engulfed him as he had watched her near the grove the other morning. As such, it occasioned in him a very physical reaction, and, alarmed, he moved as casually as possible to stand behind the chair from which he had risen at her entrance. He would have to remain in that attitude until his blood cooled. He hoped it would not be long.

Elizabeth took no notice of Mr. Darcy, as her mind was entirely upon her sister. After enquiring after Jane's health and finding her queries not very favourably answered, Elizabeth immediately asked to be taken to her. This accomplished, the rest of the party fell to discussing the newcomer, with predictable results.

"Oh, my, Caroline, what an entrance!" giggled Mrs. Hurst. "Miss Elizabeth really looked almost wild, did she not?"

Wild, untamed... thought Darcy, who silently agreed, wondering if he would be best served by standing behind the chair for the duration of this conversation.

"She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair so untidy, so blowsy!"

So natural, so unfettered...

"Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office."

"Your picture may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well just now."

Her petticoat, her gown, her face. Yes, she - all of her - looked most remarkably well. Too well.

"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley, startling the gentleman, who had not expected to be addressed, "and I am inclined to think that it did not suit your idea of a proper young lady."

"Certainly not," was all the reply he could give. What more could he say? That he found her unbearably attractive? That her lack of affectation was the very thing which made her so utterly alluring? That he was standing behind this damned chair because he wanted her most desperately?

Miss Bingley continued, thankfully unaware of his discomfort, "To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."

"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.

You would find pleasing any affection shown toward her sister, Darcy thought with renewed unease at Bingley's all-too-obvious fondness for Miss Bennet.

"I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it."

"I think I have heard you say, that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton."

"Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside."

"That is capital," added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.

"If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside," cried Bingley, "it would not make them one jot less agreeable."

"But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world," replied Darcy, hoping that his friend might take the hint. The Misses Bennet, for all their beauty and charm, were unworthy of consideration. Darcy felt he, too, would do well to remember this.

Here finally was a remark of which Miss Bingley could approve, for she had likewise been vexed at her brother's evident preference for Miss Bennet. She had seen nothing in Mr. Darcy's demeanour which would give her similar cause for concern, though had she been privy to the reason for his extended stay behind the breakfast-parlour chair, she would have swooned from the shock of it.

Nothing of Elizabeth was seen below stairs for several hours as she tended to her sister. She was offered luncheon, which she asked to take in Jane's rooms. The ladies of the house joined her for a short time, and offered their best wishes and even a small helping of their wit, but Elizabeth was just as content to have them gone and be alone with Jane, who had a fever and was feeling quite poorly.

By late afternoon, Jane was no better, and Miss Bingley found herself in the unenviable position of having to offer her hospitality to Elizabeth, who gratefully accepted. Caroline did not care to have such an uncivilized, undisciplined female under her roof, for while she did not see Elizabeth as a rival for Mr. Darcy's attentions, she did see her as a distraction - and in this regard she was, without knowing it, quite right. She was, however, forced to be civil, so Elizabeth's clothing was sent for, and a room across from her sister's arranged for her.

Dinner was an uncomfortable affair, for the Netherfield ladies saw this as an opportunity to tease their guest, albeit under the guise of affectionate jesting. Mr. Hurst cared for naught but his food and wine, and Mr. Darcy was more severe than his hosts had yet seen him. The cause for this severity, both Miss Bingley and Elizabeth conjectured, was his disapproval of Elizabeth's sudden intrusion into their midst. The reality, of course, was quite the opposite. Mr. Darcy's stony silence was, in fact, his attempt to exercise control over the thoughts and feelings which always seemed to run riot when Miss Elizabeth was about.

Elizabeth excused herself as soon as was proper, and Mr. Darcy hoped he would be at his ease for the remainder of the evening. To his infinite relief, she did not reappear for cards later, and the Bingleys and Hursts were once again able to enjoy the company of their friend, who was suddenly much more amiable.

Retiring to his chambers, however, brought Mr. Darcy no peace. He much feared it would be repetition of his earlier sleepless night. For he had discovered that Miss Elizabeth's rooms were but two doors down from his own, and it was necessary for him to pass that portal on his way to retire. As there was no one else about, he permitted himself to pause before her door. Without thinking, he ran his fingers lightly down the carved wood, as if he were caressing the skin of a lover.

Suddenly the door opened from within, he stepped quickly back, and Elizabeth stood before him, in her nightclothes and with a shawl about her shoulders. She was clearly startled by his presence.

"Mr. Darcy!"

"Miss Bennet," he acknowledged as calmly as he could, cursing his voice, which appeared to have grown deeper. Feeling the need to explain himself, he said, "I was just on my way to my rooms. I hope I have not disturbed you."

"Oh, no," she exclaimed at once, discomfited, "I was only about to look in on Jane. I could not sleep knowing that she was not settled comfortably."

"You are a most attentive sister," he said. Darcy could feel himself staring, and knew it was highly improper, but it could not be helped. He recalled thinking, when he had watched her near the grove, that witnessing her hair loosed about her shoulders was an intimate display akin to seeing her prepared for bed. He was now proved right. For here she was before him, attired for sleep, and the sight that greeted him was one and the same. He felt the warning signs of an increase in his pulse and a hot flush beginning to creep up his face.

"I wish you good night, then, Miss Bennet, and a speedy recovery to your sister," Darcy said with a curt bow, and he turned on his heel toward his chambers. Once inside, he struggled to regulate his breathing. He hoped that Elizabeth would consider his abrupt departure an attempt to preserve her modesty in an uncomfortable situation. Truth be told, however, it was his own modesty that he had striven to protect; for in the upstairs hallway, there was no chair to stand behind.

Why did she have such an immediate and mortifying effect on him? He had known her but a few days, did not even think her handsome enough to dance with when first they encountered each other, and yet at every turn he could only think of taking her to his bed. Pacing his quarters, Darcy wondered what the lady in question was thinking with regard to him. Did she feel any attraction? And what was he to do about his own?

Elizabeth, for her part, felt that Mr. Darcy's sudden leave-taking was merely a reasonable consequence of the awkwardness of their encounter, and she thought no more on him as she went into Jane's room to ascertain her sister's state. Finding Jane at last asleep and breathing normally, though still feverish, she returned to her rooms, knowing for this night at least she could rest easy.

Resting easy was out of the question for Mr. Darcy. He had allowed his valet to prepare him for sleep, but sleep itself did not come for several hours. The awareness that Elizabeth was passing the night at Netherfield would have been trial enough, but once he had seen her in her nightclothes, with her hair flowing like some exotic silk around her, slumber was well-nigh impossible.

Darcy did eventually achieve some measure of repose, but on its heels came a disconcertingly erotic dream in which Elizabeth had welcomed him into her bedchamber. They had disported themselves wantonly, and quite thoroughly, to their mutual delight and satisfaction, until they were interrupted by the arrival of the Bingleys, the Hursts, Georgiana, and a half-dozen servants, who complained as one that they had all been disturbed by a frightful amount of noise. Near dawn, Darcy was relieved to awaken alone in his own rooms. Relieved, but also undeniably disappointed.

The gentlemen were to shoot for the greater part of the next day, which was precisely what Mr. Darcy required. It liberated him of the anxiety of meeting Elizabeth with his dream so fresh in his mind, and forced him to focus on something altogether different. In fact, he did not see her at all until dinner, after a fine day of sport and a glass of wine had relaxed him sufficiently. Only Miss Bingley was uncooperative, attempting to tease Elizabeth about her Cheapside relations.

"But Miss Eliza," Caroline cried, "it must be dreadfully tedious to spend your precious few days in Town in the company of noisy young children. How you must miss the finer things London has to offer!"

"On the contrary, I assure you, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth replied calmly. "My nephews and niece are at all times well-behaved and polite, and possess a most entertaining sense of humour; their mother and their governess have done an exceptional job ensuring that they are a true joy to be around. And, we miss nothing of London's gifts, for my uncle Gardiner takes us so frequently to the opera, the theatre, and to concerts and museums, I barely have time to catch my breath. I dearly hope, in fact, to be their guest in Town at some point this winter."

At this Miss Bingley was forced into silence. Darcy felt the barb was well parried, but more importantly, it was a credit to Elizabeth that she was such a staunch defender of her relations, inferior though they may be. Even her attitude toward the children was refreshing, for the ladies of his circle most often found the presence of small children an annoyance that must simply be tolerated.

Once dinner was concluded and the party retired to the drawing room, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley perused a fashion publication together, and Elizabeth returned to a book she had apparently started the day before. Mr. Darcy, though wisely attempting to keep his distance from her, strained to ascertain the title of her book, convinced that it would be one of the unsophisticated novels of which young ladies seemed so fond, or at the very least a poetical work by some minor writer. He was surprised, then, to discover that she was deep into a rather profound volume of philosophy, one with which he had wrestled on more than one occasion. It gave him a new respect for her mind, quite apart from his already over-developed appreciation for her person. Under the guise of reading his own book, he watched her furtively for nearly an hour as she read and considered each page. He thought for a moment about debating the contents of the book with her, knowing that he would enjoy the conversation greatly, but declined to disturb her, aware that his recent lack of mental acuity would put him in danger of yet another embarrassing exchange.

Elizabeth retired early, intent upon seeing her sister well-established for the night, and Darcy purposely stayed downstairs later even than his hosts, lest he accidentally meet Elizabeth in the hallway once again. One more encounter, he was sure, would be enough to ruin his strained composure completely, and he was uncertain that in such a situation he could still act in a manner befitting a gentleman.

The next day brought rain, and any sport was therefore out of the question. The party, feeling all the dullness of the weather, entertained itself with several rounds of cards, though Elizabeth declined, preferring to read instead. This time she chose a volume of Shakespeare, and from the smile that from time to time dimpled her cheeks, Darcy surmised it was a comedy. But as he played, he was safely engaged in a superficial conversation with Bingley about the prospects for the morrow's shooting, and withheld himself from a far more interesting exchange with her.

He did, however, out of courtesy, ask after her sister:

"Might I enquire, how does your sister do today, Miss Bennet?"

"Thank you, sir, she slept well last night, and I do believe that she is much better. Although she still does have a fever, it has abated, and is almost gone. In fact, I have sent a note to Longbourn this morning to convey my hopes that we will not be trespassing on Mr. Bingley's hospitality much longer."

"Trespassing on my hospitality!" Mr. Bingley exclaimed with feeling. "What nonsense! Miss Elizabeth, you and your sister are welcome to remain here for as long as it takes for her to make a full recovery. And it is our pleasure to have you, is it not, Caroline?"

"Indeed," Miss Bingley replied, though with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Just then the butler came to announce, "Miss Kitty Bennet."

Elizabeth was exceptionally bewildered. What on earth was Kitty doing here?

Kitty was ushered into the room, and it was clear she was enjoying the grand surroundings of Netherfield. Despite her sister's frustrated entreaties, it took Kitty a full two minutes of exclaiming upon the furnishings, the rugs, the fabrics and the mirrors, to reveal her reason for coming.

"I am come to bring you home, Lizzy. Mama said you are needed at Longbourn, and since Jane is not in any danger, you are to return at once in the carriage with me."

"Of course I will come. But what is this about, Kitty?"

"We have a guest - our cousin, Mr. Collins. Do you recall that Papa said he would be visiting? Well, he arrived three full days early, and Mama is all nerves. She insists that you come straightaway."

"If you will excuse me, then," Elizabeth said, curtseying to her hosts, "I will go tell Jane that I must away." And with that she left the room.

Miss Bingley gave orders to the servants to have Miss Elizabeth's bags packed, then turned to smile insincerely at Kitty. There must be something more to this urgent summons than meets the eye! "Why, Miss Kitty, does your mother not have enough daughters at home to entertain this Mr. Collins? One would think three girls enough company for any man."

"Oh, I suppose," Kitty replied absentmindedly as she examined the statuary on the mantelpiece. "But Longbourn is entailed away to Mr. Collins, and Mama is determined that he marry Lizzy, you know, to keep the estate in the family."

"How perfectly delightful!" Caroline cried. "Charles, you must call upon Mr. Collins tomorrow! We must meet the man who is to carry off our dear Miss Eliza."

Though this should have been welcome intelligence to Mr. Darcy, somehow it was not. He turned to stare out the window, his brow furrowed. While not too long before he had been absolutely certain that Elizabeth was wholly undeserving of his attentions - her relations offensive, her connections non-existent - he was now not so sure. He had seen enough of her to know that she was refined where her family was crude, witty without being cruel, well-read without being a pedant, solicitous of her loved ones, kind to children... and undeniably, inescapably attractive. Her lack of fortune meant nothing to him, a man of great wealth. He thought about Georgiana's letter, tucked away in his bureau drawer, a constant reminder of his pressing need to marry. He required an heir, and the thought briefly crossed his mind that it would be a pleasure rather than a duty to conceive one with Elizabeth. Darcy was just beginning to sort out his feelings for her, and to hear that she might soon be engaged was most disagreeable. No, not merely disagreeable. Disquieting, upsetting. But the question remained: what was he willing to do about it?

Continue His Brother's Keeper here


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