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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

Chapter 6

By the time Elizabeth arrived at Longbourn, there was little evidence of the uproar that had attended the early arrival of her clergyman cousin Mr. Collins. Although Mrs. Bennet's feathers had been ruffled at his unexpected appearance, they had been soothed by his quick and profuse apologies, but most particularly by the news he had whispered to her within ten minutes of his coming, that it was his intention in visiting Hertfordshire to choose a wife from among Mr. Bennet's lovely daughters. Mrs. Bennet happily settled him on pursuing Elizabeth, her second eldest - for she suspected Jane was soon to be engaged - and, though she did not mention it, her least favourite. The fact of her guest having arrived three days early was explained somewhat less satisfactorily as having to do with the mood of his esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, about whom apparently he could not say enough. Nevertheless, Mrs. Bennet had no doubt that, given enough time, she would be able to discern more completely the reason for his premature imposition.

At Netherfield, there was much conversation about this turn of events, as in such a limited neighbourhood, a newcomer always provided a refreshing change of subject. But while Miss Bingley was eaten up with curiosity over Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy was consumed by a different sentiment altogether. He was, in fact, jealous, but, being unaccustomed to the emotion, he was ignorant of what could be plaguing him. He pondered endlessly what Mr. Collins might look like, might wear, might say. Was he tall? Well favoured? Did he have a pleasing manner? Would Elizabeth find him interesting? Attractive? Would he be more adept than Darcy at making pretty speeches to win her affections? Would this Mr. Collins, perhaps, accidentally meet her in an upstairs hallway at Longbourn (a possibility given the comparatively small size of the house), and be as overwhelmed as Darcy had been by the enticing sight of her prepared for bed? What agony!

Darcy need not have concerned himself, for Elizabeth thought even less of Mr. Collins than she did of Mr. Darcy. When she met the cleric, she was struck not only by his complete lack of physical appeal - for he was a heavy-looking man with a poor set of teeth - but also by his unctuous personality, which was manifest in the endless stream of compliments, apologies and long-winded paeans of admiration with which he filled their time together. And there was much time spent together throughout the day, as her mother and sisters would frequently disappear, leaving the two of them alone as much as could be deemed proper. Elizabeth at first found this behaviour curious, but then reasoned that her relations had entertained the gentleman without her when he had first arrived, and were no doubt already tired of his long-winded speeches. She vowed to be polite, and to smile. This she found easy to do, as Mr. Collins was so ridiculous as to make it difficult to hold any other expression on her countenance.

The party from Netherfield arrived the following day, and with them came Jane. Elizabeth was profoundly glad to see her sister restored to health, and to home, and likewise to see the attentiveness with which Mr. Bingley always regarded her. But Jane seemed ill at ease, and appeared to be looking for an opportunity to address her sister privately, which was impossible with a parlour full of visitors.

Mr. Darcy had approached the visit with great trepidation, but nearly laughed when he finally espied Mr. Collins. Why, he is quite ill favoured, indeed! Upon being introduced, Darcy was even less impressed with the man, for the moment he discovered that he was addressing Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, Mr. Collins immediately betrayed his foolish and sycophantic nature.

"Why, then, sir, it would seem I have the pleasure, indeed, the honour, of addressing the nephew of my esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh!" Mr. Collins exclaimed. "I have heard much of you, my dear sir, and all to your benefit, I assure you! Well, I am delighted to be able to tell you that your aunt was quite in the bloom of health when last I saw her. What an extraordinary lady! I can only say that she is the epitome of graciousness, the height of condescension..."

"Yes, yes," said Mr. Darcy, rather irritated. He was familiar enough with Lady Catherine's personality, and Mr. Collins's enthusiastic effusions told him much about the man. Darcy disliked him immediately, quite apart from his intentions toward Elizabeth.

While Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley amused themselves by questioning Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy was at liberty to watch the two eldest Bennet sisters out of the corner of his eye. He saw Jane seat herself next to Elizabeth, take her hand, and, while giving the appearance of attending to her guests' conversation, say something in a low voice to her sister. At first, Elizabeth listened with a contented smile upon her face, for here was her sister come to keep her company, but ere long the smile faded and she grew distressed. Darcy watched as Elizabeth paled, and her eyes widened in horror. She stared first at Jane, then at Mr. Collins, then back at her sister, who nodded in affirmation.

She did not know! Mr. Darcy was aghast. My G-d, she is the last to know, she has just learned, that her mother intends for her to marry this absurd cleric! The poor girl! His heart ached for her, burdened with a family that would put her in such a spot, with such a man. He was angry on her behalf, but could do nothing to comfort her.

After about a quarter-hour, the visit was over, and the Netherfield guests returned to their home. Elizabeth did not immediately have the opportunity she desired to absorb the intelligence Jane had just given her, as their cousin burst forth,

"And so that is the famous Mr. Darcy of Pemberley! My word, I would not have expected to meet him in Hertfordshire of all places, though I fully expected to see him when he visited his dear aunt at Rosings Park. I understand he visits at least once a year, although," he added in a confidential tone, "their relationship has recently been, shall we say, less than cordial."

"That can be no concern of mine. Pray, you will excuse me, Mr. Collins." Elizabeth was no gossip, and Mr. Darcy's personal life held no interest for her. Moreover, she was more anxious than ever to be rid of her cousin, now that she knew his intent. She fled the room, and went directly to her bedroom accompanied by Jane.

"Oh, Jane, is it true? Mr. Collins intends to marry me? Why would Mama say such a thing?"

"You know that Longbourn is entailed away to him, Lizzy. Apparently he has come to Hertfordshire to look for a wife, and he thought to keep the estate within the family. It is not such a very bad idea; you can see that it would appeal to Mama."

"But why me?"

"Because you are the second eldest, and Mama believes" - and at this she coloured deeply - "that I will soon be engaged to Mr. Bingley."

"That is an idea more to my liking, Jane. But cannot she see that we will simply not suit? I cannot marry that ridiculous man!"

"Fear not, dear Lizzy. You must trust our parents; I am sure that once they see how different you are, no one will make you marry him."

At Netherfield, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst were filled with glee.

"Well, this is quite a fine match for our Miss Eliza!" Miss Bingley began. "A man with such wit, such superior connections..."

"And such an enchanting smile!" Mrs. Hurst added. At this the two laughed in a very unladylike manner.

"I am quite sure they will be very happy together. And what lovely children they will produce, with their father's looks and intellect, and their mother's manners! No doubt she will have at least a half-dozen - you know, these country girls breed like rabbits."

"Caroline, that is quite enough!" Mr. Bingley interrupted, reddening. "What an unseemly thing to say! Look - you have embarrassed Mr. Darcy."

"No, not at all," the gentleman answered. In truth, Mr. Darcy was not in the least embarrassed. He had turned away from the group because the image Miss Bingley conjured of Elizabeth surrounded by six children was so compelling. No, he thought, not six, but three: a tall, serious boy with wavy dark hair and regal bearing; a lively auburn-haired girl with intelligent eyes and a dimpled smile; and a precious, chubby-cheeked babe trying in vain to situate his fist into his toothless mouth. This game, once started, now beckoned him to look into a somewhat less distant future, and he imagined Elizabeth, great with child, smiling as serenely as a Madonna whilst she embroidered a tiny garment for the babe to come. Finally, he drew closer yet to the present, and pictured himself and Elizabeth blissfully entwined in his bed at Pemberley, crying out in shared pleasure as he filled her with his seed.

"Darcy? What do you say? Darcy!"

Retreating from such a delightful daydream was difficult, but Darcy forced himself to attend to his friend. "My apologies, Bingley, what was that you were asking?"

"I said, I am thinking of hosting a ball here at Netherfield. Say, Tuesday week? What do you think?"

Not much caring for anything beyond his current fixation on Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy feigned interest for his friend's sake. "I am sure it will be charming."

"Then that is what we shall do. We will send the invitations out straightaway."

Hard on the heels on the invitation from Netherfield Park, Elizabeth was the recipient of a strange visit from Mr. Darcy. Surprisingly, he had asked specifically to see her, frowning at the inevitable company of Mr. Collins until the latter thought better of his presence and, bowing a bit too reverently, made his exit. But once he was shown into the parlour, Mr. Darcy appeared to have little to say. Elizabeth attempted to make conversation to ease the situation, but would not forget how he had rudely dismissed her and her neighbours.

"And are you finding your stay in Hertfordshire more to your liking now, Mr. Darcy?"

There was a pause. He suddenly realized that, with her implication that he had previously found Hertfordshire wanting, he had better take care in his reply.

"Indeed, madam," he said sincerely, "I find Hertfordshire rather more enjoyable with each passing day."

This astounded Elizabeth, who fully expected a comment of more arrogance from him.

More silence followed, though Mr. Darcy seemed to be attempting to formulate a sentence. Finally, he succeeded.

"Miss Bennet, if you are not otherwise engaged, I would like to request the honour of your hand for the first two dances at the Netherfield ball."

If Elizabeth thought her astonishment great before, she found it increased ten-fold. She would have not been more surprised had Mr. Darcy abruptly sprouted wings and flown about the room. When he first came to Hertfordshire, he had insulted her within her hearing, had alienated the entire neighbourhood, and yet here he was, making an unannounced visit the particular object of which was to request her hand for a dance that was still days away. She knew not what to make of it. She considered that perhaps he was jesting, but she rejected that notion; it was clear that he simply did not know how. Her first impulse was to refuse him, to let him taste rejection, but she quickly reconsidered. Rather than resign herself to an evening of sitting out the dancing - and she dearly loved to dance - it behooved her to accept and hope to find a more amiable partner later on.

"I thank you, yes."

"Good, good. Well, then." It was evident that, having accomplished his object, Mr. Darcy was once again left without anything to say, and, after some moments passed uncomfortably, during which time he did naught but stare at her keenly, he wished her good day, bowed and headed out the door.

At Mr. Darcy's departure, Mr. Collins once again thought it safe to return to his place by Elizabeth's side, but she remained bemused. Determined to claim her attention once again, he said,

"And to what, if may I be so bold as to enquire, do we owe the honour of a visit by the illustrious Mr. Darcy?"

Still staring at the door though which Mr. Darcy had made his exit, Elizabeth replied, quite without thinking,

"He had come to ask for my hand for the first two dances at the Netherfield ball."

Mr. Collins was vexed. Elizabeth was to be his conquest, if a clergyman were permitted to employ such a concept. So he gathered his mouth into what he hoped would be his most ingratiating smile and said,

"Fair cousin! It would appear, then, that I have been too slow in making my wishes known! Will you therefore grant me the pleasure of the next two?"

Here was a fine situation! Elizabeth could have stamped her foot in frustration. She now found herself committed to dancing with the two men she admired least in the entire town! Well, there was no help for it, if she wanted to enjoy the rest of the evening. So she gave Mr. Collins her consent, though it gave her little pleasure. It seemed to satisfy him, for now, and she was able to escape to the gardens.

On his ride back to Netherfield, Mr. Darcy was reflecting upon the circumstances with a great deal more contentment. She had accepted his invitation to dance. It would be his first step in courting her. For Mr. Darcy had decided that Miss Elizabeth Bennet would be his bride, and would bear his heir, ensuring that the Darcy line would continue uninterrupted at Pemberley for yet another generation. He was a very fortunate man, to have solved his most urgent problem with so little effort, and indeed with such promise of future delight. He smiled broadly and relaxed in the saddle. It never occurred to him that the lady might have other ideas.

Chapter 7

As he straightened the snowy white cravat for the last time, Mr. Darcy's valet could not help but be pleased. He had never seen his master look so handsome. While he would have liked to be able to claim credit, he had to admit that he had done nothing differently than he had done hundreds of times before, save to heed Mr. Darcy's instruction to take extraordinary care in his preparations this evening. Instead, he conjectured that his master's exceptional good looks tonight had more to do with his cheerful mood than any ministrations his valet might have performed. In fact, he could not remember the last time Mr. Darcy had smiled so much, but whatever the reason, he was glad of it.

Indeed, Darcy - though not a particularly vain man when it came to his appearance - was delighted with the image staring back from the mirror. At this ball, he was determined to make the best possible impression upon Elizabeth, and here was an excellent beginning. He thanked his valet, giving the man an uncharacteristic grin, which set the normally stone-faced servant smiling as well, and quit his room.

Darcy's brilliant smile was in evidence even, unfortunately, in the presence of Miss Bingley. She was exceedingly impressed with his improved humour, and, seeing no reason that she might not be the source of it, was not shy about expressing her admiration.

"Why, Mr. Darcy, 'twould appear that one can improve upon perfection after all!"

"I am sorry, madam, I have not the pleasure of understanding you."

"Do not be such a tease, Mr. Darcy. You know it is yourself of which I speak! You look very well, indeed, tonight. But what a pity that such a handsome visage will be wasted upon the savages of Hertfordshire!"

"Surely not all in attendance this evening will be savages, Miss Bingley," he replied good-naturedly. Even Miss Bingley's obvious fawning could not dampen his mood. "Do you not think that there will be at least some at the ball not so undeserving?"

Were Miss Bingley still capable of blushing, she might have done so then. Without doubt he is speaking of me, for certainly there are none in Meryton who could catch his eye! she thought, and cast down her eyes in an imitation of modesty. "You are quite right, Mr. Darcy. I am certain this will be a most enjoyable evening."

"Of that I am assured, Miss Bingley."

With that he walked away, leaving her a bit confused as to why he had not taken this opportunity to claim the first two dances. Well, she reasoned, there was still time before the ball began.

At Longbourn, the ladies were all clamouring for the servants for help in dressing. Elizabeth, already attired in an ivory gown enhanced by a rather daring décolletage, was helping Jane with the final touches on her hair.

"You are looking exceptionally well, tonight, Lizzy. Is it because you have already been claimed for the first four dances?"

"Do be serious, Jane! You well know that I loathe the very thought of standing up with Mr. Collins, and Mr. Darcy..."

"Yes, my dear, what of Mr. Darcy? Do you not think it unusual he has gone to such lengths to secure your hand for the first set?"

"I hardly know what to think; I cannot account for his having asked me at all. Do you suppose he is trying to make Miss Bingley jealous?"

Jane laughed aloud at this theory. "Perhaps he simply has decided that you are handsome enough to tempt him after all. If not, surely after seeing you thus attired tonight, he will be convinced!"

The Bennet family, due to the time required to get so many young ladies ready and out of the house, arrived somewhat late to the ball. It was not long before Elizabeth found a glass of wine pressed into her hand by her mother, who insisted, "You are far too pale. This will put the roses in your cheeks." Elizabeth hardly thought her cheeks needed roses for the ordeal of dancing with two disagreeable partners, but as she soon expected Mr. Darcy to arrive and claim his dances, she placated Mrs. Bennet by swallowing the entire contents at once.

Elizabeth promptly realized her mistake. Drinking a full glass of wine so quickly, and without having eaten since luncheon, had made her excessively light-headed. She had wanted to have her wits about her this evening, especially when encountering Mr. Darcy, but she found instead that she was slightly, though not unpleasantly, giddy. Well, there was no help for it now, for she saw the gentleman look her way and catch her eye.

He smiled at her, and to her surprise, she smiled back. He is a fine figure of a man; why have I never noticed it before? she mused as he made his way across the room. Perhaps it will not be so very bad to dance with him. She noticed how he drew the interest of all the ladies in the room, even those who professed to dislike him, and was suddenly pleased to be the object of his attentions.

Darcy, for his part, was dazzled. Elizabeth was so very lovely, her hair artfully arranged, her figure beautifully flaunted by her gown. He briefly wished he had spent more time at Netherfield investigating secluded corners into which he could coax her, for were he at Pemberley, he could think of several. The thought made him smile, and when she unexpectedly smiled back, it was all he could do not to dash heatedly across the room and carry her away in his arms to the closest bedchamber. Instead, he walked deliberately slowly across the ballroom, ignoring the stares and sighs which emanated from other women, including a dreadfully vexed Miss Bingley, for he was entirely focused upon Elizabeth.

"Miss Bennet," he said upon reaching her, "you outshine the very stars tonight." For once Darcy was not at a loss for something to say to her, and this time he was not displeased that his voice had gone deeper, for the timbre seemed to suit his mood. He took her hand and kissed it gallantly, reminding himself as he straightened to keep his eyes fixed upon her face and not her unbearably tantalizing décolletage.

The wine, the heat of the room, the press of the crowd, the warmth of Mr. Darcy's gaze, and the brush of his lips upon her hand all conspired to make Elizabeth feel dizzy and weak. She could not reply to his compliment in her usual arch manner, but could only offer a feeble "Thank you" as he led her to the dance floor. Once there, a familiar melody as well as a talented partner supported her as she made her way through the dance.

The neighbourhood was all agog to see Mr. Darcy - the disagreeable, the arrogant - partnered with one of their own. They were astonished equally that he would deign to dance with a Hertfordshire girl, and that Elizabeth would accept, given his widely known slight of her. Thus, while the opinion of the residents of Meryton and its environs did not change with regard to Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth was now thought to be very charitable indeed.

Elizabeth was surprised that she was able to carry on a conversation with Mr. Darcy while she was dancing, despite her impaired state. Nevertheless, she was certain that whatever she said lacked her usual wit, and she was disappointed in her own performance. Not so Mr. Darcy, who was enchanted with whatever Elizabeth had to say. He did not think her dull at all; on the contrary, she was so fascinating he could not take his eyes off her. When his dances ended, it was far too soon for his liking, and he led her off the floor in discontent. Once again he kissed her hand, lingering longer this time, and Elizabeth felt almost faint.

"Thank you, Miss Bennet. You are a delightful partner, and it has been a great pleasure to dance with you."

"The pleasure has been all mine, sir," she said breathlessly, strangely disappointed when he bowed and turned away. To her chagrin, his handsome form was soon replaced by the less attractive one of Mr. Collins.

"I am here at last to claim our dances, fair cousin Elizabeth," he said with entirely too much eagerness for her clouded mind.

When the music started, Elizabeth found her lovely mood dashed. Mr. Collins, awkward and solemn, apologizing instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. In her current muddled condition, it was all Elizabeth could do to merely continue on her way through the dance and hope that Mr. Collins could correct his errors on his own.

Mr. Darcy watched them on the floor for a few minutes, harbouring a violent dislike of Mr. Collins. Soon, however, it was clear that the cleric was not a favourite of Elizabeth's, and was in fact a source of mortification rather than pleasure to her. He was pleased. It was easy then for him to turn his attention to the other dancers, and in this he was less pleased. Darcy watched as Mr. Bingley danced his third with Miss Bennet, who seemed tranquil and unaffected in the face of his enthusiasm and ardour. His ebullient mood fading, Darcy considered that perhaps it was time to talk to his friend about the dangers of an unrequited affection. His hackles were further raised when he chanced to hear Mrs. Bennet speak to Lady Lucas, freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would be soon married to Mr. Bingley. It was an animating subject, and Mrs. Bennet seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match. His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-congratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a promising thing for her younger daughters, as Jane's marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men.

This was not to be borne! How dare the lady speak of his friend in such a manner! It had now become clear to Darcy that Miss Bennet was, at her mother's whim, leading Bingley astray for purely mercenary reasons. He was incensed, and determined to speak to Bingley about his intentions at the very earliest opportunity.

A commotion on the other end of the dance floor soon captured his attention, however, more so because it appeared to involve Elizabeth. Darcy quickly discerned that, owing to Mr. Collins's clumsiness on the dance floor, the lady's heel had come in direct and painful contact with her partner's instep, on a foot which had just recently begun to heal from an unfortunate encounter with a gardening implement. The unlucky parson was wailing in pain which Darcy was sure was trifling in comparison to the embarrassment of the lady with whom he had been dancing. While some amused gentlemen helped Mr. Collins off the dance floor, Mr. Darcy took advantage of the general confusion to move swiftly to Elizabeth's side and lead her gently in the opposite direction.

"Miss Bennet, may I offer you my assistance? Can I get you something? A glass of wine, perhaps?"

"I thank you, no, sir. I am feeling a trifle poorly, and I fear that more wine would do me rather more ill than good."

"Some fresh air, then. It is a fair evening; let us walk out into the garden for a moment."

Elizabeth agreed that this was a worthy notion, and Mr. Darcy placed her hand upon his arm and accompanied her out into the night.

Mr. Darcy was correct: it was a fair night, and she hardly felt the chill at all. Instead, she felt the warmth of his body as he walked close beside her on the path. A few more steps and they had turned the corner, and were already secluded from the noise and tumult of the ballroom. Elizabeth inhaled deeply. She thought the cool air would help steady her thoughts, but instead Mr. Darcy's close presence, his clean, masculine scent, and his hand now caressing her fingers, only served to make her head swim.

She turned to tell him - she knew not what; perhaps that she was glad not to finish her dance with Mr. Collins, or that it was best that they go back to the ball, or...something - but found him standing agonizingly close. He leaned down and whispered close to her ear, "Are you feeling better, Miss Bennet?"

"No, not at all," she replied honestly, and found her mouth covered with his.

In truth, Darcy had not meant to kiss her at that moment. But now that he had begun, he was not inclined to stop. Testing her response, he commenced with a gentle press of his lips upon hers, but it was so intensely pleasurable, that when she did not refuse him, when he sensed that she appeared to welcome it, he deepened the kiss, coaxing her mouth open, sliding his tongue against hers.

This was Elizabeth's first kiss from a man, and whatever she had been expecting, it was completely overthrown. She felt burning hot, yet she shivered - she was reminded of a high fever she had had three years past that had been accompanied by chills - but somehow it was not unpleasant. She felt bold, aware of how her body seemed to awaken to his touch, and yet she was frightened of her own reactions. At first shocked with the touch of his tongue, she quickly recovered and responded in kind, surprising herself with her ardour.

Elizabeth was unsure of how she came to be firmly in Mr. Darcy's embrace, or how her arms came to be about his neck. As their lips and tongues played more and more ardently against each other, she was vaguely aware of a hardness pressed against her belly, but was not disturbed by it; she was more conscious of an ache and a dampness that were growing between her legs, and wondered at them. It was not until his lips began to travel down her throat, and his hands began to glide up her sides, and he murmured in a seductive voice, "Elizabeth..." that she thought to stop him.

"Mr. Darcy - no, we should not," she managed to gasp, but even then she was not entirely sure that she wanted him to stop; she had an idea that she knew where he was headed, and a part of her was eager to discover what additional delights lay there. But the part of her that governed her sense of propriety would not allow it, was astonished that she had permitted such liberties at all - beginning with his kisses and ending with his use of her Christian name - and she knew that it could go no further.

Elizabeth's protests, weak though they were, were sufficient to halt Mr. Darcy's progress. He had no intention of compromising her, and certainly would never force her. Still, as he dropped his hands to his sides, he glanced longingly at her exquisite bosom and gave a silent sigh of anguish. "Pray, forgive me, Miss Bennet," he said in a voice choked with yearning. He wanted to say he was sorry, very sorry, but he was not. All that he lamented was not yet being able to demonstrate to Elizabeth all the ways in which he could bring her pleasure. It must wait, he thought with some frustration, It must wait until we are married. That thought at least cheered him, and it gave him a goal: that once they were married, she should have a proper initiation into the rites of love, and it should be at Pemberley, for that was the rightful place to conceive his heir.

Having regained his senses, Darcy suggested gently that they take a moment to compose themselves before going back to the ballroom. For though he knew how much he needed a moment, indeed, perhaps somewhat more than a moment, he also knew that Elizabeth would be unaware of the alteration in her own appearance. To Darcy, her heightened colour, passion-swollen lips and laboured breathing made her lovelier than ever, but among their friends and relations it would surely create a stir. After a few minutes apart, he smiled at her, she smiled tentatively back, and they headed toward the ballroom.

They strolled into the room as if nothing were amiss, and garnered little interest, which was their object. Mr. Darcy led Elizabeth to the refreshment table and said in quite an ordinary tone of voice, "If the fresh air failed to make you feel better, Miss Bennet, perhaps I can get you something to drink?"

Appreciating his efforts to return them both to normalcy, she replied, "I thank you, no, Mr. Darcy. I am grateful for your concern, but I believe all I need is to sit down for a time. I think I will take a seat near my sister Mary until I feel ready to dance again."

"A wise decision," he said, bowing. "Your servant, Miss Bennet." And, because he could not resist, he kissed her hand one last time before walking away.

Elizabeth did not care to dance for the rest of the night. Her head was too full of Mr. Darcy and his kisses. And besides, she would much rather remain inconspicuous while the rest of her family mortified them all before the entire town. She could hear Lydia and Kitty's boisterous giggles, as they danced with a succession of soldiers, no matter how loud the rest of the company, and Mrs. Bennet was being her usual vulgar self, though perhaps at greater volume. To make matters worse, Mary's attempt to sing a challenging new aria, whilst accompanying herself on the pianoforte, met with general derision, and her father embarrassed them further by stepping in ungraciously to end it. Elizabeth's dizziness soon became a headache, and she was very glad when it was time to go home.

Mr. Darcy did dance with Miss Bingley somewhat later, though it was more out of a sense of duty than out of any real pleasure. She flirted with him shamelessly, batting her eyelashes at him and brushing close against him whenever the dance permitted, but he remained impassive. His mind was busy working on something else. When finally he smiled, it was not for Miss Bingley, though she could be forgiven for thinking so. Rather, it was because he had come up with a plan, which he hoped would kill two birds with one stone.

Chapter 8

"London! Why ever would I want to go to London now? I am perfectly content right here!"

Mr. Bingley stared uncomprehendingly at his sister and Mr. Darcy, as the two sat down beside him in the study at Netherfield.

"Bingley, I realize we have not been residing at Netherfield very long, but I have become convinced it would be appropriate for you to have a change of scenery."

"I agree with Mr. Darcy, Charles," Miss Bingley said. "For my taste, there is not nearly enough variety in this neighbourhood; it is quite lacking in entertainment."

"How can you say that, Caroline? Why, I have never been so admirably entertained in my life!"

"Yes, Charles, we know what has been entertaining you. Mr. Darcy and I have decided that perhaps it would be best that you...broaden your experience in that regard."

"What on earth is she speaking of, Darcy?"

"She is speaking of Miss Bennet, Bingley."

"Ah, Miss Bennet. You know, Darcy, she is..."

"Yes, yes, I know. 'She is an angel.' Tell me: are you in love with her?"

"Can you not tell? Of course I am! Who would not be!"

Darcy sighed. "She is a great beauty, Bingley, but... well, do you not think it is possible that you have been somewhat too obvious in your affections?"

"I do not catch your meaning."

"He means," Miss Bingley said impatiently, "that by dancing nearly every dance with Miss Bennet, by escorting her in to dinner, by seating her beside you, you might as well declare your intentions to the whole of Hertfordshire."

"What exactly are your intentions, Bingley?"

"I had not thought that far. I do believe I might ask her to marry me."

Miss Bingley let out an exasperated groan. To Mr. Darcy she said, "Do you see?"

Darcy ignored her. "Bingley, do you know how the lady feels about you?"

"Why, I would think she cares for me as well."

"Are you quite sure?"

"Darcy, what are you driving at?"

"Bingley, you are a wealthy man. A fine catch for any lady, but particularly for one with low connections and so small a dowry."

"That may be true, Darcy, but it does not change..."

"Yes it does, and you will listen," Darcy insisted. "Perhaps you could excuse her comparative poverty, her lack of connections..."

"...her very vulgar relations...." Miss Bingley added, coughing delicately.

"But I have observed Miss Bennet with you on several occasions," Darcy continued, as if Miss Bingley had not spoken, "and have seen no symptoms of a genuine affection. Oh, she will smile and blush, but she is far too tranquil and unmoved; I see in her none of the high spirits and passion present when a lady is deeply in love."

"But perhaps it is because she is naturally unassuming. What would make you suppose she likes me only for my money? Is it so unbelievable to you that she might actually be in love with me?"

"Not at all, Bingley. Of course not. But I myself have heard - indeed, I would be surprised if all of Hertfordshire had not heard - her mother speak at length about your fortune and your connections, and the advantages they will bring to the entire Bennet family! The whole town is now expecting the match. They assume too much, Bingley, and in this regard, it is imperative that you act in your own best interest! I would strongly suggest that you put some distance between yourself and Miss Bennet for a while. I have business in London; let us, all of us, away without delay. We will establish ourselves in Town before the start of the Season. If, after, say, three months in Town, you are still of the same mind, return and declare yourself formally."

"But I cannot write to her," he argued. "How will I know she will wait for me?"

"If she truly cares for you, she will wait. If not..." Darcy shrugged. "Then, there is always the chance you will meet someone else, a woman of your own circle, someone who will love you for yourself alone and not for the benefits you can offer her family."

"Truly, Charles," Miss Bingley added, as sympathetically as she was capable, "it is for the best."

"I suppose," Mr. Bingley said unhappily. "Can I not even say good-bye?"

"Your sister will manage the good-byes, is that not right, Miss Bingley?"

"Indeed, Mr. Darcy," Caroline replied, "I shall write a charming letter to Miss Bennet straightaway and tell her that we have decided to depart early for London. You will see, I will handle it beautifully." She rose and placed a kiss atop her brother's head. It was an uncharacteristic gesture, and he flinched.

"Thank you, Miss Bingley. Now, there is another matter of which I would speak with your brother privately, if you will excuse us?"

"Of course, Mr. Darcy," she said fawningly as she curtsied. "After all, I have a letter to write." She then left the two alone.

"I cannot see what more you could have to say to me right now, Darcy," Bingley sighed dramatically. "Can you not leave me to my sorrow?"

"I am afraid not. You see, there is one more aspect to our visit here that must be concluded. Do you remember when I agreed to accompany you to Hertfordshire?"

"Yes, I recall you had not wanted to come, but changed your mind after Georgiana eloped."

Darcy winced. "That is true. What I did not tell you was my motive. You see, for reasons that I cannot at this time elaborate upon, it had suddenly become imperative for me marry and to sire an heir."

"Darcy! How can that be?"

"As I said, I cannot discuss the cause, but please accept what I am saying as the truth." Darcy then said, very carefully, for he must reveal just so much and no more, "I decided that I would therefore take whatever opportunity was presented to me to make new acquaintances, and since London would have been rather thin through hunting season, it seemed perfectly reasonable for me to come with you to Netherfield."

Bingley was now intrigued enough to put aside his own melancholy. "And what is your conclusion?"

"Bingley, I have found someone suitable. I did not think I would, here in Hertfordshire. But I have. Although she has no fortune of her own, she has all the qualities I could desire in a wife, and the mother of my heirs. She is intelligent, well-read, witty, kind, perceptive..."


Darcy smiled. "My friend, if she were any more alluring I would have embarrassed myself on several occasions."

Laughing despite himself, Bingley could only ask, "And who is this paragon of womanhood, Darcy? You must tell me; I must know who has met the outrageously rigorous Darcy standards."

"Prepare yourself for something very shocking: it is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Bingley's laughter abruptly ended, and his jaw dropped. "Miss Elizabeth? I had no idea!" Then he grew angry, very angry indeed. "But...but if Miss Bennet is not an appropriate wife for me, why should you, how could you..."

Darcy was prepared for this objection. He remained firm and calm. "Bingley, our situations could not be more different. Your family has only recently risen to its current position in society, and you must take care, for your sister's sake as well as your own, to maintain your status among the ton. Society will forgive an ancient family like my own a great deal more. Even the scandal of Georgiana's elopement will not spell the end of our stature, though it might cause some to turn away from us in the short term.

"Furthermore," he continued, "my wealth is such that I have no need to add to it with a bride's dowry. I am sure that you are aware that the reports circulating in Hertfordshire, of my having ten thousand a year, have vastly understated my income. If I had to - Lord help me - I could support Miss Elizabeth's entire family. Which family - to my advantage - will be several days' travel distant from Derbyshire, not a mere three miles away, waiting to impose on one's hospitality. Besides," Darcy said, more gently, "you are younger than me, Bingley, with no constraints on your future. Whether I like it or not, I must marry, and soon."

"If expediency is your requirement, Darcy, then why do you not just marry your cousin Anne, as your aunt wishes?"

"Anne is very dear to me, as a relation. But - it is difficult for me to put this delicately - she has always been sickly, and I do not believe she has the constitution required to bear me an heir. At the present, the most important qualification I have, even above all the others I mentioned, is good health, robust enough for the rigours of childbearing. And Miss Elizabeth," he sighed, imagining her lush curves, "will suit admirably."

"So you have been courting her all this time? How is that possible?"

"I realize that it may appear sudden. In fact, I had intended to devote much more time to wooing her." Thinking of Elizabeth's unexpectedly passionate reaction to his kisses, he allowed a sly smile to appear on his face. "But I have reason to think that such a formality is now quite unnecessary."

"And the lady?" Bingley could not keep the sour note from his voice. "I hope she returns your affections?"

"Indeed," Darcy replied confidently, his mind - and much of his body - still focused on Elizabeth's heady response in the garden, "I believe she has made her feelings quite clear on the subject."

Bingley said, more hopefully, "Then in London, I will be seeing her...and perhaps her family...?"

"No, I will go with you to London only to obtain the license and to meet with my solicitor. Then I will return to Hertfordshire. We will have a small ceremony here, and proceed directly to Derbyshire. I will not be bringing her to stay in Town at all; I wanted to, that is to say, I wish to be at Pemberley to...ahem, to..." Darcy grew crimson, then grew silent. There was no need to share his very private plans for Elizabeth with Bingley! He cleared his throat. "I anticipate that we will stay at Pemberley through the winter, as, having accomplished my object, I have no need to go to Town for the Season."

"What of Mr. Collins?"

"What of him? Did you not see him dancing with Miss Elizabeth at the ball? There is no question of her preference, and I daresay that her parents cannot disapprove of the match."

"Are you certain? You do know there is no love for you among the people of Hertfordshire?"

Darcy was surprised, but it did not unsettle him. "Indeed? Well, I care little for their opinion. The only one that matters is that of Mr. Bennet, and if he is willing to marry his daughter off to the first foolish clergyman that happens to ask, then he can have no quarrel with my suit."

"So you have thought of everything, have you not?" Bingley said sullenly. "Well, I wish you joy. It is more than I will be able to claim for myself."

"Nonsense, Bingley. Chin up! You will see - it will all turn out well. Now, come - shake my hand! That is more like it, old man. I am going to be married; this is a happy occasion!"

Perhaps that would have been true, had Miss Bingley actually gone to write her letter as she promised, instead of listening, enthralled, at the study door. When she finally did depart to commence her task, it was in an entirely different frame of mind, with an entirely different purpose.

~ * ~

Elizabeth awoke that same day with a violent headache. She was grateful that everyone else in the household had slept late as well, for she did not feel well enough to encounter anyone just yet, even Jane.

There was something nagging at her, something that would not give her peace, something that had happened the day before. What was it? She recalled the glass of wine her mother had given her - it seemed to be responsible for this beastly headache. But there was something else. She closed her eyes and allowed her mind to roam, and it answered with vague memories of a strong, masculine body pressed intimately against hers, powerful arms wound tightly around her, an earth-shaking kiss that left her breathless. She smiled. It was bliss, it was paradise. It was...

"Mr. Darcy!"

Of a sudden, Elizabeth recalled walking out with Mr. Darcy in the garden, and she pulled the covers over her head with a groan. I let him kiss me! I allowed him such liberties...Oh, no! Every detail was now returning with a clarity that shocked her. I let him, and he took advantage - hateful man! It was not just a kiss; it was a seduction! His lips, his tongue, his hands... He was enjoying himself immensely, while I...I...

She stopped, and taking a deep breath, pulled the covers back down. No matter which way she considered it, Elizabeth had to admit that she had been a willing participant. No, not merely willing, she chided herself, eager. She groaned again, this time in mortification at her own wantonness. Their kiss, she acknowledged reluctantly, had been every bit as pleasurable for her as it had been for him, and when she sought to stop him, he did not impose upon her further. But that alone does not make him a gentleman! she thought with some ire.

What to do now? Elizabeth's head pounded. Trying to think rationally, she wondered if anyone else perhaps had espied them in the garden, but thought it unlikely. A promising idea. If in fact her humiliation was indeed confined to the intelligence held only by herself and Mr. Darcy, then it would be simple enough to avoid the man until she could determine a way to express her chagrin over the whole episode, and encourage him as discreetly as possible to put it behind them. She refused to think of the other possibility, that someone had seen them. Hah! Were that the case, surely by now Mama would be pounding down my door, demanding that I marry him! But she heard nothing in the household save the normal stirrings of the family.

Elizabeth slowly rose and began her toilette. Once washed and dressed, she headed downstairs to greet her family, determined to act in a manner corresponding to her preferred theory, yet trembling internally lest it prove wrong.

One at a time, the Bennets had drifted downstairs for a late breakfast. To Elizabeth's infinite relief, they all were yawning in their coffee, and barely looked up at her entrance. She eschewed coffee this morning, in favor of some water, hoping to clear her head. Perhaps the situation is not as dire as I supposed, she thought, glancing surreptitiously around her. As long as no one knows... But the verdict on the day would have to wait, for perhaps another Meryton household might choose to weigh in with some shocking rumour passed on by a guest or servant. She sighed and committed herself to a day spent in anxiety.

Yet, while Elizabeth's day had barely begun, there was already one who had been awake for hours, anticipating her arrival downstairs. Though Mr. Collins had all morning thought of little but Elizabeth, in fact Elizabeth had quite forgotten about Mr. Collins. And so when she had finally relaxed into her seat enough to have a bite to eat, she was startled by his appearance at her elbow, requesting a private audience.

To her horror, her entire family rose from the table as one to quit the room. Despite her entreaties, even Jane would not stay, shaking her head regretfully as she motioned with her eyes toward their mother, who would brook no argument.

Mr. Collins watched them file out. He had spent a painful night awake nursing his injured foot, and had at some time between 2 and 3 o'clock come to the conclusion that he had best put forth his suit as soon as may be, lest someone else turn the lady's head. As soon as the family had departed, he began,

"You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life."

"Oh, no, Mr. Collins, please, I cannot..."

"I see that you are overwhelmed, fair cousin, by the thought of the honour which I am poised to bestow upon you. Do not fear, dear lady. I had anticipated your fears, and I will attempt to help allay them. Perhaps it is the thought of accompanying me to Hunsford, where our lives will be blessed with the attentions and condescension of my esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for she is a most attentive neighbor, and there is no detail too small to escape her interest. Allow me to put your mind at ease, my dear. You will find her manners beyond any thing I can describe; and your wit and vivacity I think must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite."

My wit tempered with silence? Surely he cannot be serious! "Mr. Collins, I must say that I am very flattered by your offer, but..."

"Had I truly wished to flatter you, cousin Elizabeth, there would be no end to the compliments I could conjure on your behalf. But there is no need! The offer I am making - and you will forgive me if I congratulate myself - will make you the envy of many a young lady in Meryton, and indeed in all of Hertfordshire, if in fact the news spreads so far afield. For in marrying me, you will have a comfortable parsonage, a lovely garden to tend, the benevolence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the affections of a most willing and loving husband."

This last claim made an already ill Elizabeth feel close to retching. The idea of performing her marital duties - though she had only a vague idea what they would entail -with Mr. Collins was an anathema to her. Even kissing him, having now experienced that particular pleasure with Mr. Darcy and knowing what was possible, was unthinkable. She must stop this lunacy at once.

"Mr. Collins, I thank you most sincerely, but I must decline. I would not suit you, and I would not please Lady Catherine, of that I am certain. I am quite incapable of tempering my wit, and am sure to say something inappropriate at an inconvenient moment."

"Nonsense, dear cousin. I have the greatest faith in your ability to restrain yourself."

Would this nightmare never end? "No, Mr. Collins, I am afraid not. I am sure we could not be happy together."

Mr. Collins tried a different tack. "Cousin Elizabeth, have you not considered your family's situation? You are aware, are you not, that Longbourn will fall to me after the demise of your father? It was my object in coming here to marry into the Bennet family in order to lessen the grief of that unfortunate event when it finally occurs. When you marry me, you ensure the comfort of your mother and sisters as well as yourself!"

"I am sure that is all true, Mr. Collins," Elizabeth sighed. "But it changes nothing. I will not marry you. I am sorry to cause you any pain."

An unpleasant look crossed Mr. Collins's face. It was clear that he had not expected her staunch refusal. In his mind only one thing could have stood in the way of Elizabeth's acceptance of his suit.

"Perhaps you think another gentleman plans to offer for you, dear cousin? Perhaps you are even now expecting that gentleman to arrive at any moment and ask you to be his bride? Do you have expectations that, because he condescended to dance with you, and kissed your hand, he will now rush to be your suitor?" Mr. Collins laughed, and the sound was as ugly as his smile. "Please allow me to disabuse you of this notion."

Drawing away from her, Mr. Collins continued, "Do you know why I arrived at Longbourn early, cousin Elizabeth?"

She shook her head slowly. What on earth was he about?

"I left the comfort of my cozy parsonage in Hunsford, I left my congregation, because my usually compassionate patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, had become, shall we say, alarmingly vexed over a communication she had just received from Mr. Darcy's sister Georgiana. You know all about Georgiana, of course? No? Well, allow me to enlighten you: Mr. Darcy's sister, all of fifteen years old, this summer eloped with a Mr. Wickham, the son of the late Mr. Darcy's steward. Is that not shocking?"

Though she said nothing, Elizabeth privately agreed. But she did not yet see his point.

"The scandal in Town was great. Lady Catherine blamed Mr. Darcy for failing in his duties as his sister's guardian, and Mr. Darcy was so exceedingly angry about the marriage (and, no doubt, the pain it caused his revered aunt), he forbade his sister and her husband from returning to their ancestral home, Pemberley. Lady Catherine thought all communication with Georgiana at an end, but shortly before my planned trip to Hertfordshire, she received a letter from the girl. Can you imagine her displeasure? That this Mrs. Wickham, as she calls herself, disowned by her own brother, would dare to carry on a correspondence with the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh? You can easily comprehend why Lady Catherine's ire was raised to such an extent that I found it prudent to begin my visit to Longbourn early than planned."

Elizabeth had garnered something entirely different from Mr. Collins's story, for she cared not a whit for Lady Catherine's displeasure. What made an impression upon her was the callousness of a brother who would reject his young sister, still a child in many ways - the very age of her own sister, Lydia! - in shame. This was a side of Mr. Darcy she had never considered. How could a man capable of such fervour, such passion also be capable of such cold, heartless behaviour?

"Do you not see, cousin Elizabeth?" Mr. Collins was ready with his parting shot. "A man who would turn against his own sister for marrying beneath her would never offer for the likes of you, an undistinguished country girl with a pittance for a dowry. Expect no proposal from Mr. Darcy, madam; you are not good enough for him."

And with what he hoped would be a dramatic flourish - the effect of which was unfortunately ruined by his pronounced limp - Mr. Collins turned and left a bewildered Elizabeth alone in the breakfast room.

Shaking with emotions she could not begin to put in order, Elizabeth went up to her room. She lay down on her bed for what seemed to be a very long time, thinking about Mr. Darcy: his arrogance in Hertfordshire society, his exhilarating kisses at the ball, his cruelty toward his sister. Was she expecting an offer from him? Mr. Collins seemed to think so. Clearly, he had not seen them in the garden, but he had seen something...

Finally, Jane knocked upon her door. Elizabeth was determined to reveal only what had occurred with Mr. Collins, with no mention of Mr. Darcy. And so she told Jane about Mr. Collins's proposal, dwelling on its ridiculous aspects, but remaining serious enough that Jane knew her sister was affected, though she knew not in what way. They passed much time together talking, until luncheon, when Elizabeth knew she must face their mother, who by then would know what had transpired between her and her cousin.

Mrs. Bennet's reaction to her daughter's refusal was everything Elizabeth feared it would be: loud, fierce and unceasing. She first attempted to cajole, then bully, Elizabeth into accepting Mr. Collins. When that did not suffice, she berated Elizabeth for turning down "the only offer she was likely ever to receive," and all but called her a villain for not ensuring the future wellbeing of her family. The entire household was aware of this disgrace, but Elizabeth endured it gladly, knowing it meant not only that she would never have to marry Mr. Collins, but also that another, more mortifying experience, had not been revealed.

Mr. Collins, though in a foul temper, was easily enough distracted by the arrival of Charlotte Lucas, who had come to visit Elizabeth, but, upon finding the house in an uproar, volunteered to bring the angry parson to her house until the storm blew over. Everyone was grateful, not least of all Elizabeth, who had hoped never to see the gentleman again.

With Mr. Collins's departure, Elizabeth's world seemed poised to recover, until the letter arrived from Netherfield. At first, she was nervous lest the note be in a masculine hand, but seeing it was from Caroline Bingley, she relaxed somewhat, and brought the letter into her bedroom so she could read it undisturbed.

Dear Miss Eliza,

By the time you receive this letter, our entire party will have departed Hertfordshire for London. We are not of a mind to return; our belongings will follow us shortly, and the house will be closed.

This was astounding intelligence, indeed! Elizabeth was profoundly glad that Jane had been called away to tend to their mother's nerves and would therefore not be waiting to hear what news had arrived from Netherfield. But what followed was more shocking still.

Perhaps you will wonder at our sudden departure. It is simple: Mr. Darcy has decided that my brother must be removed at once from the influence of your sister Jane. He feels, as do I, that Charles should not connect himself with a lady of so little consequence, who would benefit greatly from his fortune and bring nothing to the relationship but a collection of exceedingly common relations.

How dare he! Who is Mr. Darcy to decide in what manner his friend is to be made happy? "Oh, Jane," Elizabeth said aloud, tears filling her eyes. "I am so sorry."

I hope you will be able to reconcile your sister to her loss, though I daresay that she will soon find some other rich man upon whom to impose herself and her family.

Heartless female! What a remark to make! Elizabeth, who had never held Miss Bingley in much esteem, had now lost all respect for her.

I have more to say, dear, dear Eliza. For you see, to my great astonishment, Mr. Darcy has apparently taken an interest in you, although his reasoning quite escapes me. There is even a chance, unlikely as it sounds, that he will propose marriage to you.

This shock, coming upon the heels of Miss Bingley's other intelligence, was almost too much for Elizabeth's already strained composure to bear. She held her breath as she read on:

Should you be of a romantic sensibility, you may now be labouring under the misconception that he loves you. My dear girl, nothing could be farther from the truth! Please allow me to clarify his position, on the chance that he might fail to do so himself. As a lady unaccustomed to indelicacies, this is difficult for me to write; but you, who were raised in the country and are therefore more comfortable with coarse discussions of horses and cows, will no doubt understand: Mr. Darcy wishes to breed with you.

Elizabeth let out her breath, and her eyes grew wide.

I heard him myself, telling my brother that he needed an heir, and right away, though I do not know his reasons. But apparently he has chosen you, dear Eliza, an ill-mannered country nobody with no connections, from among the dozens of women who would be gratified to be Mistress of Pemberley, to be his wife. All because he is certain you are of hardy breeding stock! Is it not amusing? Quite like choosing a mare for his stud! In his entire conversation with Charles, and I heard the whole of it, he mentioned 'love' not once. Not once, my dear! His only concern for this sham of a marriage was that you would be robust enough to produce an heir.

So if you do choose to accept his suit - and I would not blame you; there are many women who would accept Mr. Darcy even under such offensive circumstances - at least you will have no illusions. And I will wish you all the best in this procreative venture.

Yours &c, Caroline Bingley

The letter now crumpled in her hands, Elizabeth sat stunned by the window. A young girl's birthright, denied. Her sister's hopes for happiness, destroyed. Her own potential, insulted. "You need not worry, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth said with conviction to the empty room, "I can safely say that Mr. Darcy is the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

Chapter 9

The following month gave pleasure to no one, save Miss Bingley, who was delighted to be back on Grosvenor Street, where she felt she belonged, and Mr. Collins, who returned to his cozy parsonage in Hunsford the happiest of men, with his new bride, the former Miss Charlotte Lucas, no longer doomed to be a spinster.

In Hertfordshire, melancholy reined. Elizabeth acquainted Jane with the news of Mr. Bingley's removal as gently as she could, without revealing Mr. Darcy's involvement in it or his motivations. She said simply that the entire party had returned to Town with no intention of coming back to Netherfield. True to her disposition, Jane took the intelligence with admirable fortitude; she admitted only to favouring Mr. Bingley over any other young man she had ever met, but Elizabeth knew that her sister was in love with the gentleman and would free her sorrow only in the privacy of her bedchamber when there was no one else about.

Mrs. Bennet also suffered during that month - and, indeed, who could know how she suffered! - for she saw her hopes dashed on two occasions. If it was bad enough that Elizabeth ("selfish girl!") had refused Mr. Collins, it was absolutely tragic that the wealthy Mr. Bingley had left the neighbourhood without marrying Jane. The entire family endured the matriarch's complaints and rantings, but the most abusive of her grievances fell upon the shoulders of the two eldest sisters. Elizabeth was angry on her sister's behalf, for how could their mother blame Jane for Mr. Bingley's departure? But it was Mrs. Bennet's opinion that Jane should have "secured" him while she had had the chance, and now it was too late for anything but regrets.

As for Elizabeth, she continued to be outraged by Mr. Darcy's offenses, but as the gentleman did not make the appearance anticipated by Miss Bingley, she had no means of relieving her disquiet. Furthermore, as Charlotte was now married to one of the stupidest men in England, she could no longer trust her best friend's judgment and would therefore not confide in her. She could certainly not further burden her dear Jane, so her own concerns stayed within her and festered. She passed many an hour walking alone in the fields surrounding Longbourn, in good weather and bad. On occasion she allowed herself to approach Netherfield, and stood looking at the estate a long while. And once or twice, Elizabeth permitted her mind to roam back to the kiss she had shared with Mr. Darcy. No matter how many days had passed, the memory of that kiss still had the power to make her knees weak; without thinking, she would touch her fingers to her lips, as if to relive that intoxicating experience. In those brief moments, she could almost forgive him anything, would almost promise him everything, simply to know that she could have a life filled with such remarkable sensations. But then, she would remember that he could be cruel and calculating; she would remember that he did not love her, but only needed her, only wanted to use her for his own selfish ends. And she would walk back to Longbourn, resolute in her indignation.

At the same time, there was little joy at Mr. Darcy's London townhouse. Although Miss Bingley was happily established at the Hursts', Darcy had invited Mr. Bingley to be his guest. What he saw dismayed him. Bingley did not appear to be forgetting Miss Bennet at all. On the contrary, he seemed to grow more morose by the day. Darcy was unaccustomed to having his decisions prove faulty, and continued to press Bingley to socialize, but to no avail. Bingley sighed and moped and played the heartbroken lover so expertly, he began to lower Darcy's spirits as well.

In this Darcy needed no assistance, as the time he was passing in London was proving not to his liking. True, he had already obtained the special license for his marriage to Elizabeth. But his enthusiasm for an immediate departure to Town had quickly faded once they were on the road and he realized it might be several weeks before he saw Elizabeth again. He was vexed that he had not gone to say goodbye to her; that was a mistake, as he could not write to explain his disappearance, and she might wonder at his absence. It also meant that he had missed an ideal opportunity to give her a more physical expression of his regret at leaving her, a passionate embrace the memory of which might serve to warm her in the cold weeks until his return. It was his intention to fill her life with many such moments. Their kiss in the garden replayed itself constantly in his mind, a frequent source of much carnal frustration. And, to his surprise, he missed her. Not just her beautiful body and its promises of great pleasure, but her joy in life, her wit and her humanity. Yes, he should have said goodbye. He hoped that Miss Bingley's letter had sufficed.

More than that, however, he was distressed at the disturbing letter he had lately received from Georgiana:

Dearest Brother,

I was indeed surprised when your last letter indicated that you were still in London. From your previous correspondence, I had surmised that your stay in Town would be a short one. How is dear Mr. Bingley?

The cheerful tone of your letter was important to me, as of late I have had little reason to smile. Do not be concerned; I am well. But I have been seeing less and less of my George in recent weeks, and I have reason to fear that his acquaintance with Lord M_______ is not a healthy one. Twice this week he has returned late and inebriated from his Lordship's estate and fallen straight to sleep without greeting me in his usual merry fashion. Moreover, he does not appear to care for the business of the estate, and I have not observed the preparations for winter that are familiar at Pemberley.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I am just accustomed to you and your meticulous habits, dear Fitzwilliam, and have not yet grown used to the different humours of my husband. It is such a comfort to me to know that you are always there for me, especially because you always respond to my letters with such alacrity. Do you know, I have not heard a word from Aunt Catherine or Anne, though I wrote them each a lengthy letter when I first settled in _____shire, and I know from your correspondence that they are well. Can it be that they have got my address wrong, and their letters have been misdirected?

I will close for now, brother, as I am expecting the piano-master for my lesson. I have grown quite proficient on the pianoforte, and I know you would be proud of me. Dare I hope we might see each other some time soon so I might play for you? It would be a great comfort to me.

Your sister, Georgiana Wickham

Darcy had known this day would come: Georgiana was starting to see Wickham's true colors. He re-read the latest missive from Mr. Stanton, which related that Mr. Wickham's luck at the gaming table had taken a turn for the worse, no doubt the source of his increased drinking. More astute than his former friend, Darcy suspected that Lord M_______ had kept Wickham winning enough to lull him into a false sense of security before working him over in earnest. Now, Darcy knew, it was time: time to call in favors from his bankers, find a ruse to freeze Georgiana's assets. In fact, it was his meetings with bankers and solicitors that had delayed his trip to Hertfordshire by at least a week. For the time being, he was satisfied. Perhaps he could also find a way to lure her from Alston Hall, away from Wickham, at least until he could find a solution to this predicament. He would not allow her to suffer.

Darcy also knew full well the reason Georgiana had heard nothing from Rosings. Lady Catherine's ire had been great at her niece's hasty marriage to the son of a steward, and she had announced that Georgiana was dead to her. That Darcy would not do the same was a source of vexation to Lady Catherine, but he cared naught for her opinion.

Darcy's return to Hertfordshire finally came at the end of November. He was filled with anticipation, thoughts of an amorous reunion with Elizabeth uppermost in his mind. It had been damned awkward asking Bingley to have Netherfield opened for him, but he soon concluded that should the Season not provide solace to his friend, he would acknowledge his mistake and encourage Bingley to renew his acquaintance with Miss Bennet. Darcy hoped, though, that it would not be necessary, as his concerns had not changed.

At dusk, upon the road leading to Netherfield, Darcy espied a lone figure standing unmoving some distance away from the estate. The posture and demeanour of the individual seemed familiar, and the closer he drew to the house, the more certain he became: it was Elizabeth! His excitement was so great, his desire to see her so intense, he nearly had the coach halted. But he quickly thought better of it, as the dust of the road was thick upon him, and it would hardly be to his advantage to appear before her tired and dirty. No, he would call upon her properly in the morning, rested and bathed, and ready to offer his hand. He sat back in the carriage seat smiling to himself. She did not even know he was expected, yet she was waiting there for him! Did she perhaps come every day, holding her silent vigil in the hopes he might soon return to her? Darcy could not help but be pleased. Elizabeth was as anxious for this match as he was! This was indeed promising!

Elizabeth was startled by the sight of a carriage on the road to Netherfield. Could it be that Mr. Bingley had returned? She could discern nothing about the vehicle, save that it was not sized to accommodate a large party, but she watched as long as she could, as it rounded the curve that would take it to the entrance to the estate. Hastening back to Longbourn, she wondered what, if anything, to reveal to Jane. Surely it was too soon to make any assumptions about Mr. Bingley's presence in Hertfordshire. He might have come back purely for business reasons, as the house was still not let to anyone else. But it mattered not at all - if he was back at Netherfield, he could not help but have social contact with Jane. This was indeed promising!

That night, as Darcy prepared for bed, his thoughts were upon Elizabeth. If he went to her tomorrow, and spoke to Mr. Bennet immediately thereafter, they could be married within a week, as he was already in possession of the special license. Sensibly, though, he knew she might need more time to obtain a proper wedding dress, but surmised they could at least be married before Christmas. It would take them three days to reach Pemberley by carriage; they would have to stop at inns along the way. He frowned; this part was not entirely agreeable to him. He had grand plans for his wedding night, and they did not involve some meagre inn along the road to Derbyshire, nor did they involve his friend's estate but three miles from Longbourn.

No, they involved nothing less than the very best he could offer her: the master's chambers at Pemberley. Once the newlyweds had bathed, Darcy would dismiss the servants; Elizabeth would require them this night, as he would see to her every need. She would wear a nightdress of silk and lace, the finest and sheerest the seamstresses of London could concoct (warmth was not an issue, despite the chill of the Derbyshire night, for he would ensure she would not lack for warmth!), something that would cling to her curves, and present her magnificent breasts to advantage. He would carry her to his bed, and divest her of this lovely garment; he would prefer to tear it from her, but he would not want to frighten her, so he would merely remove it slowly, so his hands could linger on her heated skin. Then he would kiss and stroke every inch of her alluring body, starting with her lips, her ears, her throat, then - at last! - her bosom, those beautiful breasts which had been driving him mad since he first met her. As his hands caressed their fullness, his mouth would engulf their buds, drawing first one into his mouth, then the other, listening for the moaning deep within her that would tell him of her growing excitement. And he would continue down her body, letting his hands and lips and tongue build her desire until she was groaning and begging him for a relief she could know nothing about. And when she was finally wet and welcoming and beyond reason, he would spread her legs and enter her, pushing gently at first until he pierced her maidenhead, giving her time to recover from the pain that was sure to follow, before he began to move inside her, whispering his encouragement (would she need encouragement? - her kisses seemed to indicate she would not!), reveling in the feel of her legs locked around his hips, grasping the softness of her rounded bottom, driving deeply into her until he finally spilled his seed within her... Ah, Elizabeth!

Darcy was in agony. He had never conjured such a detailed fancy of Elizabeth before, and he had certainly let it go on too long. He stripped off his nightclothes and returned to the now-frigid bathwater: a disagreeable culmination, to be sure, but a necessary one in this case. His blood now cooled, he could think rationally on such a consummation, and at least he could smile at its consequences: perhaps he could get her with child by Twelfth Night, and if not, imagine the pleasure of continued attempts!

The following day dawned clear and unseasonably warm, and Elizabeth, filled with nervous anticipation, rose early. She wondered if Mr. Bingley might pay a call; she dared not remain indoors where Jane might question her agitation. So she walked out, intending to spend a couple of hours in vigorous walking to quell her anxiety. As she approached a grove of trees, she recalled that this is where she had once, during an unguarded moment, unexpectedly encountered Mr. Darcy, and her cheeks burned. She shuffled half-heartedly among what remained of the fallen leaves, but did not have the carefree frame of mind that had carried her along so wildly that day. Still, she felt peculiar, not quite alone, and turning slowly, was startled to see that very gentleman sitting atop his horse, in much the same attitude as he had on that day.

This time, however, he did not ride away, but with a brilliant smile, dismounted and advanced toward her.

"Miss Bennet!" Darcy declared happily, carefully schooling himself not to call her by her Christian name, as she had not yet given him leave to do so. It was still early in the day, and he had thought he might meet her at this spot. He was profoundly glad to see her.

"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth was perplexed. What ever was he doing here, and why was he smiling like that? Despite her displeasure with him, she had to admit that he was still the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes upon. The thought irritated her.

Before she could say another word, he strode up to her and, grasping her hand, placed a warm kiss upon her knuckles. "I have been riding in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you," he said, still smiling. "Will you not walk a while with me?" He did not give her much of a chance to refuse, as he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and covered it with his own.

Her curiosity stronger than her annoyance, Elizabeth agreed, and the two strolled along together, the horse following obediently behind. When will he explain himself? Elizabeth wondered with rising vexation, for Mr. Darcy seemed content to walk silently beside her. Finally, she said in her usual arch fashion,

"To what do we owe the pleasure of your return to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy? The entire Netherfield party quit the neighbourhood rather suddenly."

"It was indeed quite sudden, Miss Bennet, and I must confess that I made a dreadful mistake."

This was not the reply Elizabeth had anticipated. She had fully expected him to attempt some sort of weak justification, but instead, he was admitting he had erred. Her hopes for Jane rose. "A mistake, Mr. Darcy?"

He continued, "Yes, it vexed me greatly that I had not called on you personally, for I had something I wished to give you."

Elizabeth stopped beside him amidst the trees, exceedingly puzzled. "And what was that, sir?"

"This," he said softly, and pulled her into his embrace, his mouth swiftly descending upon hers. He kissed her hungrily, his passion fed by his absence, by his lonely fantasies of her, by her curvaceous body held tightly against him, by her surprised but not unwilling response.

Conflicting emotions warred within Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy had been the cause of so much misery, and yet he was capable of giving so much pleasure. She was shocked and angry...but she was also undeniably aroused. She wanted to push him away - wanted to slap his face, really - but she could not summon the will to do so. Instead, she gave in, let her tongue meet his and locked her arms about his neck, entwining her fingers in his hair. She was every bit as intoxicated by his caresses as she had been that night at Netherfield, but there was no wine to excuse her this time, just her own need, her own pleasure at his touch.

A trembling moan escaped her lips, and it added fuel to the already raging desire consuming Darcy. His hands slid to her shapely bottom and lingered there, pressing her closer to him so she could feel his arousal. Dear G-d, she is every bit as lovely to touch as I had imagined. His lips finally left hers and began pressing hot kisses down the length of her neck.

"Ah, Elizabeth," he said thickly between kisses, his words coming rapidly and without thought. "I thought I could fight my longing for you, convince myself you were all wrong for me, not of my class - how my family will disapprove! - but in vain have I struggled. It will not do! I care nothing for your inferior station, your common relations; I care not how low - nothing at all, no, nothing! It is all the same to me. Marry me, Elizabeth - you must! Come with me to Pemberley and be my wife, bear my children! Come, I must have you say you will!"

"Bear your children?" Awareness slowly dawned on Elizabeth.

"Yes, of course."

"You are in need of an heir."

"Yes, yes, naturally."

"Then Miss Bingley spoke the truth." Reason finally intruded into Elizabeth's world, and it was an unpleasant contrast to the distracting kisses still falling upon her throat and lips. "Release me, Mr. Darcy," she managed to gasp out. When he did not at once respond, she repeated her demand. He reacted immediately then, if with great confusion at her sudden change of mood. She pushed away from him and said bitterly, "If I had thought Mr. Collins's proposal the most offensive a man could make me, I was greatly mistaken."

Darcy's head was still hazy with desire, and he was quite unable to fathom her rejection. And what was that about Mr. Collins? But, first he must know: "Elizabeth, what have I said to offend you?"

"It is both what you have said, and what you have not said, Mr. Darcy. And I am Miss Bennet to you."

"Pray, tell me what..."

Elizabeth was so angry now, she could scarce complete a sentence. "Miss Bingley - in her letter - she told me you might propose. She said you wanted me to - oh! It is too disgusting! - She said you did not love me, only wanted me breed with you, like some farm animal, so that you might have an heir. And it is true! You have said as much yourself. And naught of your own sentiments, or of mine. What of love, sir? Did that ever enter the equation?

"Yes, love, Mr. Darcy! That which is the best foundation for a marriage. That which was blossoming between my sister and your friend Mr. Bingley before you saw fit to interfere and tear them apart! Marry you! Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister? Can you deny that you have done it?"

With assumed tranquility he then replied, "I have no wish of denying that I did every thing in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success." Darcy added, almost in a whisper, "Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."

"And you dare speak of my relations!" Elizabeth continued, her ire unabated. "What of your own, sir? Have you not disowned your sister, a girl of just 15? For shame!"

Darcy gaped at her. "Georgiana? What do you know of her?"

"I know enough to be thoroughly disgusted by a man who would turn his back on his own sister for marrying beneath her. You have left her alone in the world because you disapproved of her choice: the son of your father's steward. No wonder you believe you can insult me with impunity," she spat, "for my family's connections are as low as your sister's!"

"And this," cried Darcy, pacing away from her, "is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps," added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, "these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I with greater policy concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination - by reason, by reflection, by every thing. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said,

"You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner."

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued,

"Did you know that Mr. Collins offered for me as well? I refused him, of course; he is a stupid man, and the thought of a life with him was revolting to me. But now I look upon his proposal with new eyes. At least he feigned some affection for me. At least his proposal, clumsy and self-serving as it was, had some basis in concern for my family rather than disdain for it. Although I do not for one moment regret my refusal, I feel sorry for him now; he could not know that I am determined that only the deepest affection will induce me into matrimony. I hope he will be happy with my friend Charlotte.

"But you, Mr. Darcy! Your life in Hertfordshire has always been about your wishes, your needs, has it not? From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike - you could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it."

"You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness." His face pale, Darcy bowed curtly, turned away from her, and, wasting no time, mounted his horse and rode away.

Elizabeth thought then she would sense some triumph, but she did not. She was still shaken by his caresses, and their absence left only felt emptiness and a dull ache in her chest. Only then did it occur to her that the carriage she had seen yesterday carried Mr. Darcy alone, not Mr. Bingley, and her eyes filled with tears as her hopes for Jane were left in ashes once again. She headed slowly back to Longbourn, with only the prospect of a joyless winter stretching ahead of her.

Chapter 10

"Good lord, Darcy!" exclaimed Mr. Bingley, "What on earth has happened to you? It has not been four days since you left for Hertfordshire, and here you are, returned to Town, looking as if you have not slept in a week!"

"Two days, Bingley, two days," the gentleman replied, dropping into a chair.

"Well, then, how went your visit? You do not seem happy."

"That is an understatement, my friend. I could not have made a bigger mess of things had I set out purposely to do so."

"But your proposal - Miss Elizabeth - surely that went well. Am I now to wish you joy?"

Darcy laughed mirthlessly. "Hardly. That was chief among the errors I made. Apparently I misinterpreted her. . .amiability toward me for a willingness to marry."

"She did not refuse you!" To Darcy's glare, Bingley could only respond, "She did? She refused you? How could that be? Did you not tell her how beautiful she is, how witty, how accomplished?"

"I did not."

"Darcy! But you did tell her you loved her, did you not?"

Darcy's silence told Bingley all he needed to know. He was astounded.

"You proposed marriage to Miss Elizabeth, yet you did not say you loved her?"

"No," said Darcy bitterly, "I said none of those things a lady would be eager to hear. In fact, my proposal merely gushed out like so much spilt wine. I insulted her, I insulted her family, Bingley - I cannot tell you the whole of it, but suffice to say that she was greatly offended. She does not look upon me with favour."

Bingley thought for a moment. Tentatively, he asked, "Do you love the lady, Darcy?"

"I did not know I did," his friend replied, "until she refused me."

"And now?"

"And now I would give anything to take back that ill-conceived proposal and make her a proper one, beginning with the words 'You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,' progressing through every compliment she deserves, and ending with the same sentiment expressed in such a heartfelt manner that she would at least look past my other follies and perhaps consent to allow me the privilege of courting her."

"So you do love her!"

"More than I ever imagined I could, Bingley. I had convinced myself that I but desired her, that she was a convenient and agreeable choice for a bride. It was not until she threw my proposal back in my face that I realized how wrong-headed I had been - I believed she was expecting, even welcoming my attentions, merely because of who I am, and how she reacted. . ." Fearful of saying too much, Darcy paused there, then continued in a different vein,

"I do love her, I know that now, but she thinks me a fiend! And in order to be worthy of her, I must now begin to undo the wrongs that led her to think so ill of me."

"How do you mean?"

Darcy sighed heavily. "Looming large among my transgressions was my effort to separate you from her sister, Miss Bennet. You are a fortunate man, indeed, Bingley, for I was greatly mistaken: it is your lady who returns your affections."

Bingley's mouth fell open. "Miss Bennet. . .she cares for me?"

"According to her sister, yes. I was misguided in attempting to keep you apart. I must admit, I was motivated partly by my distaste for her relations, but at the time I truly believed she was merely a pawn in her mother's hunt for a wealthy son-in-law. And now. . . well, Miss Elizabeth tells me otherwise. I am very sorry to have meddled, Bingley. I hope you will forgive me."

Bingley's smile was brilliant. "Miss Bennet cares for me! I am concerned with nothing else!" His face fell for a moment, the delight replaced with uncertainty. "What should I do now?"

Darcy managed a smile as well. "Go back to Hertfordshire, my friend. Make your intentions known. Be happy."

The grin returned to Bingley's face. "I certainly shall, at once! But what of you? Will you not come with me and attempt to win your Miss Elizabeth?"

"Perhaps. There are other matters to which I must attend first."

~ * ~

Miss Bingley was all aflutter. She had never before had a private call from Mr. Darcy, one which did not involve her brother or the Hursts. And here he was, in the Hursts' parlour, greeting her warmly!

She had thought of him frequently, of course, since their return from that horrid little backwater in Hertfordshire, as she calculated the odds of her becoming Mistress of Pemberley had increased with every day of his separation from Miss Elizabeth. She had seen him at parties in Town, observing how he interacted with his peers, and how they reacted to him; during those times she was gauging the effect Georgiana's elopement may have had on his social position, and she was delighted to conclude that it had produced very little stir among the ton. To be sure, there were some whispers, and a few snickers, and some in his circle actually turned away when he approached. But his poise and natural hauteur helped immeasurably, making him a less appealing target; had the society matrons and their spouses sensed weakness, well, Miss Bingley did not care to think on the result. As it stood, though, there were only isolated incidents, mostly among the more elderly members of the ton, and she was quick to disregard them. In all, she was more than satisfied. If Mr. Darcy could still command such respect and regard after Georgiana's scandalous behaviour, there was no limit to the social level she herself could achieve as his wife.

He sat not five feet from her, impeccably groomed, smelling absolutely delicious, and sporting a most devastating smile. That she had last seen that smile bestowed upon Miss Elizabeth Bennet was easily forgotten. He was here, now, and leaning toward her in a most intimate manner. Miss Bingley was grateful for her good fortune, and gave him her full attention, less that small part of her brain which had begun to compose a guest list for their wedding.

"I thought of you the entire length of my trip back from Hertfordshire, Miss Bingley."

Caroline flushed becomingly. "You do me great honour, sir."

"Yes, you were uppermost in my mind," he added, lowering the timbre of his voice in a seductive manner that made her head spin. "And now there is something I must ask of you."

"Oh, Mr. Darcy," she sighed, "ask, and if it is within my power to give, you shall have it."

In response, Mr. Darcy rose and sat beside Miss Bingley on the settee. He took her hand and examined her slender fingers. Miss Bingley could scarcely breathe from excitement.

"I have long admired," said he, "your skill at letter-writing."

Miss Bingley was perplexed. "Indeed, sir?"

"Oh, yes, you possess a fine hand, and express yourself most eloquently. I have often marveled at the letters you have sent to Georgiana. Surely you do not mind that she shared them with me?"

She was quick to set him at ease. "Oh, no, of course not," she said, smiling. At last he was beginning to recognize her accomplishments! "You are most kind."

"And now I must ask you," he said in a sensual whisper, still clutching her hand, and she leaned toward him in giddy anticipation, "would you do me the honour. . .of writing a letter for me?"

How disappointed was Miss Bingley! But she dared not reveal it. Instead, she said, "Of course, Mr. Darcy, it would be my pleasure."

Suddenly, with her acquiescence, he was all business. "Splendid," he said, pulling her to her feet and leading her to the writing-table. "Let us begin."

"Certainly, sir," said Miss Bingley, seating herself at the table and attempting to conceal her chagrin. She pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen. "To whom are we writing?"

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," Mr. Darcy announced, and watched with satisfaction as Miss Bingley paled. "You will write precisely as I tell you, I will read it before you seal it, and I will see it posted myself, lest there be any confusion as to its meaning."

Caroline forced a laugh. "Why, Mr. Darcy, surely there is no need. . ."

"I think there is, Miss Bingley, as you well know. Come, I am anxious to start. Ah, I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

"Thank you," she said coldly, "but I always mend my own. Besides, I hardly think I care to involve myself in your little game."

"You are already involved, Miss Bingley," said Mr. Darcy, his smile now gone. "Your brother already knows the depths to which you are prepared to stoop in your petty machinations. Unless you would care for all the ton to know the same, you will cooperate. You will write this letter, and set to rights what was naught of your business to corrupt. Now, here is what you will say: "Dear Miss Elizabeth. . ."

~ * ~

Dear Miss Elizabeth,

How odd, thought Elizabeth. She could not recall a time when Miss Bingley did not refer to her as "Miss Eliza," a hated appellation.

I am conscious that you may not care to give credence to what I write to you, but I pray you will permit me to have my say, for I do not write on my own behalf, but on Mr. Darcy's.

Elizabeth was startled. What would Miss Bingley know of her association with Mr. Darcy? She coloured to think on it.

He is most distressed over the circumstances under which he parted Hertfordshire, for he feels that your last conversation left you with false and scurrilous impressions of him. Mr. Darcy wishes only to be able to correct the misapprehensions you may have about his actions and his character.

This was indeed a wonder! It was now obvious to Elizabeth why she had been addressed as "Miss Elizabeth" in this letter: the hand might be Miss Bingley's, but the voice was most assuredly not! Her face burned as she read on,

To begin, he wants you to know the whole of the story of his sister Georgiana and her husband, Mr. George Wickham. Mr. Darcy did not object to Mr. Wickham's marrying Georgiana simply because he was the son of the family steward - though Mr. Darcy readily admits that Mr. Wickham would not have been his first choice. The man had been a favourite of Mr. Darcy's father, who supported him at school and afterwards at Cambridge. But Mr. Darcy himself early on began to see very different things in Mr. Wickham that his father could not: the vicious propensities, the gaming, the drinking -- the want of principle, which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his benefactor, could not escape the observation of a young man of nearly the same age with himself. That is to say, despite the advantages of an affectionate patron and a comfortable upbringing, Mr. Wickham has turned out very wild, indeed - he is, Miss Elizabeth, a rake, a knave and a gamester! He encouraged Miss Darcy to elope with him though she was but 15 years old, knowing full well that had he waited for her to reach a more appropriate age, she would have learned of his reputation and refused to have anything to do with him. By marrying her, he gained control of her fortune of 30,000 pounds, and has already begun to squander it.

While Mr. Darcy has refused to allow Mr. Wickham to set foot on Pemberley soil, he has never disowned his sister, nor would he. Mr. Darcy wishes to assure you that, despite what you might have heard from other parties, Georgiana continues to be very dear to him, and he monitors her well-being through a proxy near her estate in ________shire.

Oh, no! The poor girl! Elizabeth was mortified that she had taken Mr. Collins at his word with regard to Georgiana, and had cast the accusation of mistreatment in Mr. Darcy's face without being cognizant of the facts of the story. She wondered in how many other aspects she had been in the wrong.

As to the other charge you leveled at Mr. Darcy, that he separated your sister and my brother, two young people in love, he does not deny having done it. But he begs you to understand that, after observing the couple on many occasions, he had seen no sign of particular warmth from Miss Bennet. Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and he remained convinced from his frequent scrutiny, that though she received my brother's attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. While the match may have been anticipated within your family and the neighbourhood at large, Mr. Darcy sought to save his friend from what he perceived as a marriage of unequal affection. He had, in fact, recommended to Charles that he come to Town to test his sentiments in the matter, and after a time, should he persist in his feelings for your sister, he should then return to Hertfordshire and pursue the acquaintance. However well intentioned he was, Mr. Darcy now acknowledges that he was officious in his interference, and wishes to advise you that my brother will be returning to Netherfield in a matter of days. He asks that you inform Miss Bennet that she should expect a call from Mr. Bingley soon upon his arrival, and hopes that your sister might thereafter forgive him his intrusion into her affairs.

Elizabeth's heart swelled with joy, and her eyes filled with tears. Perhaps there would be happiness for Jane after all! While she was still offended at his intervention, Elizabeth could see how a comparative stranger might mistake Jane's natural modesty for indifference. Mr. Darcy had risen greatly in her esteem by this admission of guilt and his attempt at correcting his error.

There is one more matter in which Mr. Darcy feels you have been left with a mistaken notion, but he says that such things are best discussed solely between the people involved.

At this Elizabeth grew warm, and blushed violently, knowing there could be only one other topic which required such private discussion, and that was Mr. Darcy's motives in asking for her hand. What did this mean? Was he acknowledging how offensive his proposal was? Or was he perhaps indicating that she was wrong about his not having other, less base feelings for her? It was impossible not to wonder, but she was to get no satisfaction from Miss Bingley's letter, for it thus concluded:

I will end now with sincere salutations to your family, and the hopes that all is well with everyone at Longbourn.

Yours &c, Caroline Bingley

Elizabeth was thrown into a great confusion of spirits upon finishing the letter. She was elated at the expectation of joy for her sister, and ashamed of having believed the worst of Mr. Darcy. Her other sentiments were more difficult to quantify. Knowing that she had been mistaken about many aspects of Mr. Darcy's character, did she now regret her refusal of his hand? Did she in fact wish a renewal of his attentions? Would she reconsider her answer if he should ask her once again to marry him? The thought of becoming his wife took on a new appeal. If he were indeed the more righteous person that this letter indicated, it would make his other charms that much more appealing. She trembled, thinking of those many attractions. For his money and position she cared not a whit. However, his tall, muscular person, his handsome countenance, his powerful arms, his talented mouth. . . yes, these were enticements, indeed! She could not honestly say that she loved him, but at least she was no longer a slave to her misconceptions, and she could not deny that if he approached her again, her response was likely to be. . . welcoming.

But what if Mr. Darcy did not come back? What if he had been sufficiently driven away by her rejection, and chose to bestow his attentions on a lady more easily pleased, and less opinionated? Elizabeth frowned. He did not specify that he would be returning to Hertfordshire with Mr. Bingley, nor did he indicate any intention of renewing his addresses. Perhaps she might never see him again! The thought dismayed her, far more than she would have believed. But she could not think only of herself now. She must tell Jane the good news!

True to the letter's promise, Mr. Bingley arrived at Longbourn not two days later. The entire Bennet household was mad with glee, and contrived to leave Jane and her suitor alone perhaps a little more than was strictly proper. From a discreet distance, Elizabeth watched their daily interaction with glowing eyes. It would not be long, she thought, before Jane would be engaged. While the idea gladdened her, she was troubled by a nagging thought that she, too, could have been engaged by now, and to a man several times Mr. Bingley's consequence. She wondered under what circumstance she might encounter Mr. Darcy, and conjectured that he might stand up for Mr. Bingley at Jane's wedding. Elizabeth thus resigned herself to waiting, and not knowing. She found the idea very disagreeable.

Within a se'ennight, the much wished-for event took place: Mr. Bingley asked for Jane's hand, and was accepted. The rejoicing was great at Longbourn, and in the entire Meryton neighbourhood, which enjoyed a good love story almost as much as a good scandal. Elizabeth was warm in her congratulations to her future brother, and Mr. Bingley was equally glad to claim her for a sister.

"May I now call you Elizabeth? In but two months we shall be kin! And you must call me 'Charles.'"

"Of course, Charles, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our family. But are entirely certain you are up to the task of being brother to a whole household of women?"

"I am quite experienced in being a brother, as you well know. And my sisters have their own challenges, I assure you!"

At the mention of Miss Bingley, Elizabeth coloured, and grew quiet. Then, having come to a decision, she bit her lip and said hesitantly, "And how is your friend Mr. Darcy? I trust he is well, and enjoying Town?"

Mr. Bingley smiled kindly at her, and said in a low voice, "I have been instructed to tell you - but only if you enquired - that Mr. Darcy is well, but suffering dreadfully from his solitude in London. He attends balls and assemblies but does not dance, for he cannot find himself a partner who can persuade him to venture onto the floor. Indeed, he has told me that there is no lady among the ton handsome enough to tempt him." At this, he peered at her, in order to discern her sentiments, for his friend had instructed him to pay careful heed to the lady's reaction. He was rewarded, for Elizabeth lowered her eyes, and she blushed lightly, her lips curved into a charming and modest smile. It was therefore incumbent upon him to proceed thus,

"Why, I just recalled, Elizabeth! Do you not have relations in London? And did you not once mention that you might in fact visit them this winter? Well, in another fortnight it will be winter, will it not? How very amusing it would be to have you visit Town! Perhaps my stuffy old friend would then be induced to dance, for he could surely not resist a lady he himself has described to me as. . .what were his exact words? Ah, yes: intelligent, well-read, witty, kind, and perceptive, as well as beautiful."

Elizabeth's eyes flew to Mr. Bingley's, for confirmation of this astounding piece of intelligence. He nodded, quite seriously, and added,

"I hope you will consider it, Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy wishes to demonstrate to you that he can be sensible and amiable as well as foolish and arrogant. Do you not think you can find it within you give him another chance?"

Elizabeth nodded slowly. "I shall write to my aunt and uncle straightaway. They had planned to visit for Christmas; perhaps I can return to Town with them."

"Excellent! Well, I have ignored my fiancée long enough. I plan to stay at Netherfield for the next ten days at least, and I hope you will keep me apprised of your relations' response. Thank you, dear Elizabeth!

With that, Bingley dashed off to reclaim Jane from the embrace of her mother and sisters, leaving a bemused Elizabeth in his wake. She went to write her letter to the Gardiners, her heart beating madly, wondering how she could ever wait for their reply.

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